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I hid in the darkest shadows that the forest trees would provide me. Snickering with mischief, as I attempted to sneak up on my father without making any sound.
He was outside, chopping wood...hoping to replenish the materials that he used to build the fire beside him. My father is large in stature. Perhaps a significant fright to those who look upon him from a distance. But my father is no brute. No barbarian. It is his intellect that others should be most afraid of...not his muscle.
I creep ever closer, hoping that the task at hand will further distract him as I attempt to put my best efforts into remaining a ghost to him. Although, as I smile, I find it hard to keep from snickering aloud. My boyish antics always brought me such joy.
The late night fire popped and crackled, sparks illuminating the sky as the owls basked in their brilliance from afar. A fire bright enough to keep the wolves away, or any other creature looking to make a meal of us that night. I can, honestly, say that such creatures would regret the hunger pains that would cause their threatening sneer to cross my father’s vision.
He may no longer be a knight for the king...but his axe is strong. His sword, even more so. And while my father does not often entertain me with stories of his time in service to the kingdom...I have heard countless tales from villages on all sides of our hidden forest home. My father marched with great armies, and has felled many a foe. I only wish I could have been around to see it. Armor glistening in the rising sun...sword held high in battle. It must have been a majestic vision indeed.
As I said, my father does not speak of his adventures much, but the pride I held for him remained in tact. He will always be a hero to me. And to the many lives he’s saved thus far.
I measured my steps, increasing my stealth as I steadily approached him from behind...I softened my intake of breath. Careful not to break any twigs, or crush any leaves, underfoot. He was entirely unaware, causing my smile to widen. However, when he bent over to pick up a few columns of firewood off of the ground, I was quick to dash behind another nearby tree for fear that I would be caught. His strong arms picked up, two, three, six, chunks of chopped wood, and began to carry them to the shed. He still hadn’t caught sight of me, neither turning his head to the left nor right. The game is still on.
I followed behind him, but not too closely. I saw him disappear behind the shed and pressed my back against the adjoining wall. I held in my laughter as I awaited his return. I would jump out with a fearsome cry and scare the daylights out of him. I could hardly wait to see the look on his face.
Don’t giggle. Hold. The game has almost been won.
A few long moments pass, and I didn’t see him walk back around the corner. I thought it an odd thing, but help my position. Then...when the silence was almost too much for me to bear...I inched closer to the corner of the shed, and slowly peeked my head around to see what had happened. Only a little at first, but when I saw the blocks of firewood piled up on the ground before me, I stepped out to see where my father had suddenly gone. It was almost as if he had vanished into the night.
Then, without any sound at all, I felt a long twig being pressed against my throat from behind, a hand on my forehead as my head was tilted back to leave me exposed. I gasped with fright before recognizing the sound of my father’s deep, baritone, chuckle over my shoulder.
“Overconfidence always leads to folly, boy. How many times have I told you this?” He said.
Struggling in his arms as he lifted me off of my feet with a laugh, I pouted, “Ugh!!! Father! You cheated me!”
“Hahaha! You cheated yourself, thinking you could sneak up on me. Devilish boy.”
“I almost had you! You know it’s true!” I grinned playfully.
Father put me down, and rubbed the top of my light brown hair before leaning down a bit to see me, eye to eye. “You are certainly getting better, Celwyn. If she was still with us...your dear mother would be proud of your efforts. One day, you may just be able to make a fool of me, after all.”
I smiled. “I could never make a fool of you, Father. Nor could anyone else, I’ll bet.”
“If only that were true, boy. If only that were true.” He said. “You are not playing with your friend, Maddox, this evening? That’s telling. Should I suggest that he’s gotten himself into trouble again?”
I looked away from him for a moment, saying, “In trouble, he is. He was caught swilling from his grandfather’s bottle. So his father is making him stay put until he figures out what to do with him as punishment.”
Father looked at me, even as I was turning my attention away from him and out into the darkness of the forest. “And you?” He asked.
“Me? I had nothing to do with his misbehavior. Maddox got himself in trouble with own misdeeds.” I protested...but Father looked closer.
“You were with him at the time, were you not?” He asked. Again, I looked away. “And you did not partake of his grandfather’s stash. Is this what I am to believe?” I attempted to nod convincingly, but as soon as he raised his brow with doubt, I knew that my falsehood would never work on him. “Am I to believe that you were the righteous, non-participant, in your best friend’s deviltry?”
Unable to hide my blush, I replied, “I merely took a sip or two, Father. Honest.” His brow was raised again. Even higher than before. “Neither of us were drunk! I swear! We passed it back and forth between us. Maddox became too silly-footed to run when we heard footsteps approaching. It’s his fault that he got caught. It was merely meant to be a bit of fun. Now, I may not see him for days until he pays for is misconduct.”
My father said, “And your misconduct?” I hadn’t quite thought of that. I was fearful of bearing a similar punishment for my deeds. But a crooked smile appeared on his face, and he told me, “Luckily for you, Celwyn...Maddox has taken the sword for you this time. I expect that you have learned from his mistake and won’t follow him towards making another.”
“So...I’m not in trouble, then?”
He put a hand on my shoulder, and he said, “You go out into the woods and find me a good collection of kindling to start the fire tomorrow night, and perhaps I will allow you to run free for a bit longer.” I couldn’t help but to smile, but he made sure to tell me, “Don’t consider this a dismissal of misconduct, boy. If you are going to misbehave...you had better have the wisdom to get away with it. Understood?” I nodded, and with a sigh, he added, “I suppose life has to be lived to be learned. But learn quickly. And without harsh consequence. Heed my words on this.”
“I will, Father. You have my word.” I said.
“Hold onto your word. It is your actions that I will be watching closely.” He said. “Always remember...words are mere illusions if they don’t match your actions. But...if both word and deed are aligned...the words become ‘magic’. And the deeds...become legend. You’d do well to remember that.” Something about his treatment of the situation made me feel good. I was struck still until he told me, “Go, now. Fetch me the materials I seek before the darkness swallows us both.”
“Yes, Father!” I said, and I hurried out into the forest...prepared to complete my task in less time than he expected. I will make him proud of me. Oh, so proud.
It was dark, but I didn’t stray too far from Father’s fire to not be able to see what I was doing. I walked to the top of a nearby hill, and took a moment to look down upon the valley before me. A distant view of the villages that surrounded these areas, but never strayed far enough to come bother us where we were. Only my best friend, Maddox, dared to venture this far into the woods unaccompanied. But we were both richer for the experience of meeting one another. Mischief and all.
However...it pains me to say that I care for him more than I care to admit openly.
While Maddox is like most others...a boy finding the curious comforts of being lured in by the charms of women...the blessing seems to have skipped me over. As my only allure in life is him. I look upon his face and find myself drawn to him. Tempted to hold him close. Encouraged to kiss his lips. If I thought he would allow me the chance to be the object of his affections...my joy would be endless.
Alas...his beauty wasn’t made for my consumption. He is only attracted to those who cannot care for him the way I do. With the intensity that I do. It is a bewildering feeling, but one that I thank the stars above for whenever his presence makes my smile broaden with the glory of his boyish smile. Compelling me to wonder if my personal grace in his eyes was comparable to his grace in mine.
If I could be wed to anyone that I have ever met...I would like for it to be Maddox. Confusing, I assure you...but an intriguing passion, nonetheless. He could easily be the bride that I choose above all others...
...If only his heart would have me...
I picked up all the kindling and good burning wood that I could find, filling my arms swiftly as I wished to hurry back to my father’s side. Some here. Some there. I felt I was getting a good handle on things...but my ears picked up the sound of horses approaching our homestead from the West. Looking over the hilltop, I noticed torches, carriages, and what looked like an army of at least twenty men traveling along the road leading to our cabin. I could tell by their stride that they were approaching ith some level of urgency. And when I peered through the darkness, I could see the symbols of King Gareth being displayed proudly on their flags and banners. Some even bearing the kingdom’s crest upon their shields.
They were coming fast, and with no previous invite. I don’t believe that my father is any patriot of the new king, and I dropped my firewood immediately to see if I could charge back through these dark woods and warn him of the approaching threat. My father brought us out into these woods for good cause. To protect us. King Gareth’s men have no right to trespass upon these peaceful grounds.
I ran. Dashing around trees and jumping over stones in the hopes of reaching my Father before they did. But when I arrived, he had already been alerted to their presence. “Celwyn...you remember what we spoke of, yes?” He asked me. I nodded. “Good. I want you to go behind the wood pile, just outside of the shed, and I want you to remain hidden until I tell you it is safe. Do you understand?”
“NO ARGUMENTS, boy! Go! Do as I say!” He growled, and I ran to duck down in the shadow of the building wood, hoping to not be discovered. Apparently, I was just quick enough to conceal myself, as the small army of knights approached shortly after.
I was close enough to listen, but my ears had to strain themselves.
They had better not be here to hurt my father. I don’t know what I’ll do...but I’ll make them PAY if they harm him! I swear!
The other men on horseback approached first...one of them drawing along a covered carriage with them. My father put down his axe and stepped forward to see what would be the need for this invasion upon his home. I could only peek around the pieces of wood to catch a glimpse of another strong soldier in King Gareth’s army riding up to make himself known.
“Elyan...” The man said. “...One of our majesty’s finest.”
My father, unflinching, stepped forward without hesitation. “Terras...” He called out to the other knight. “...It’s awfully late for you and your men to be riding around like this. Especially out here in these lands.”
“I wouldn’t do so without purpose, Elyan.” He answered.
“Purpose, eh?” He said. “I don’t suppose you’re willing to tell me the meaning of this unannounced call. It has been at least two Winters since any of you have found purpose in darkening my doorstep. Forgive me if I seem led to confusion over your visit.”
That being said, Terras removed his helmet, and dismounted his horse to step forward and address my father directly. What was all this about? And why so late at night?
“I apologize for the intrusion. I realize that you have departed from the King’s order, and that you have suffered great losses since. But it is of dire importance that I have come here to seek you out. I meant no disrespect.”
My father hesitated for a moment, but put his axe down to hear one of his former generals out, as the look on his face didn’t seem to bring with it any malicious intent. “Who was it that told you to seek me out, Terras?” He asked.
“Twas King Gareth, himself.” Terras said. “There was no time to send advanced word through a messenger. We had to come to you now, without haste...and pray that we found you in time to ask for your service.”
My father looked at the shrouded carriage over Terras’ shoulder, and asked, “My service? My service for what, exactly? I am no longer in service to the King. I will honor his place, but I am no longer a knight in King Gareth’s army. That is your position now, Terras.”
He bowed his head, and said, “This is not a matter of leading an army, Sir Elyar. No attacks. No defense. My king asks, merely, for the task of protection for that which means most to him. A task that he seems to think that only a soldier of your caliber can achieve...if willing.”
My father looked down at the ground, attempting not to scoff at their request. I remained hidden, afraid to peek out from behind the wood pile...but still curious to watch what was taking place.
My father said, “Protection? From what enemy?”
Terras said, “Many. Enemies that we have never encountered before in our service. A manner of sorcery that goes against all we know, and, perhaps against the will of God Himself.” He stepped forward, and continued with, “The King has an enemy that looks to destroy his legacy. His sole heir to the throne. They do this as a matter of revenge, and we fear that we do not have the might to defend his only son, outright. Not with all the knights at his command, can he claim to be prepared for foes with the strength and speed that this black sorcery provides to the armies that are coming to crash against our gates and wipe out Gareth’s bloodline forever.”
My father looked at the shrouded carriage again, and I couldn’t help but to look at it too. He said, “Have I not shed enough blood for our king in days past? All on his behalf? The agreement was for me to serve my people...and then be done with it all. That is where I am now, Terras. I am done with it.”
“The king needs his strongest soldier for a request of this magnitude. This is his only son. There can be no loss of life when it comes to the future of his rule.”
Frustrated, my father said, “One fact that King Gareth has never understood is the philosophy that you cannot TAKE life in order to SAVE life. A lesson that it took many thankless battles to learn myself. But I gain knowledge from my experiences in war. And I have come to realize that trying to take lives to save lives is no different than trying to save a drowning man in the lake by replacing the water with blood. It simply isn’t the answer that I once thought it would be. And when I meet my ancestors in the afterlife...I would want them to be proud of the decisions I made against the savage deeds that I’ve taken part in before I found the light.”
“Unfortunately, Elyan...this tale is one of darkness. Not light.” Terras told him. “Think me insane...but there are demons among us. I know, because I have seen them. We have fought, valiantly, against them, but to no avail. They overpower us, even in small numbers. I beg of you...listen to reason. The heir to throne cannot be protected by King Gareth’s armies alone. We our outmatched at every turn. And spilling the blood of the prince will leave every neighboring village in the wake of madness and murder. Your secluded homestead, here, included.” My father found Terras’ humility a strange contrast to everything that he had ever known of him before. “Don’t be a fool, Elyan. Our kingdom faces a threat that will spread to all connected territories if we are not careful. We need a solution.” He said. “We need a protector for that which matters most.”
Nodding his head, Terras signaled for some of his knights to open the carriage door...and a boy stepped out of it. My age, for certain. Dressed in the finest of robes, and with dark hair that had been groomed and cared for to great extent. Exactly what would be expected from the son of a king.
Perhaps...the first boy that I had ever laid eyes upon that could inspire the sort of unbridled fear and infinite joy that I had once found only in the radiance of Maddox’s bright eyes during one of my infatuated spells. He was a beauty that I had only thought was created for paintings, or perhaps statues, created to appease the gods. To look upon him was a privilege and a blessing, even if he only stood there in quiet silence.
My father looked at the boy prince, and then back at Terras. Asking, “The king’s request is that I look after his heir, while he prepares for war with a hostile army? Some, created by the arcane methods of the black arts, unbeknownst to any of us? After my years of loyalty...this is his favor?”
Terras stood back up on his feet again, and asserted, “It is not a request, or a favor, Elyan. It is his ORDER.”
My father took a moment, and stared at the small army existing on our property. He asked, “And...if choose to reject the kings order?”
Terras’ face hardened, and after a short break in his speech, he uttered the words...
“Then, I’m afraid...we have ‘orders’ of our own.” And with that said, the others knights in his company drew their swords and held them at the ready. “Don’t let it come to this, Elyan. You are one of the greatest warriors that have ever been listed in this king’s service. He would consider himself negligant to trust his cherished offspring with anyone else.”
My father was no coward. Nor was I. And if I had to jump out of the shadows myself and blindly swing a sword to protect him...I would. Without hesitation.
But...my father’s steady demeanor ruled the night. He said, “I suppose I have no other course of action than to hear out your plan of action, then. Since you persist.”
Terras and his crew didn’t want to let it show, but I could tell that they were relieved. Even with the bravest of soldiers, my father would not be sent into the dirt without taking half of his small army with him. That was for certain.
Terras said, “I plead with you to consider giving your life and duty to the king one last time. After this...he gives his word...no more bloodshed will be brought upon you or the land you own. He simply wants his blooodline to be protected from harm. You may not have to draw your sword at all in defense of him. The boy is young. And not much of a handful...”
Father said, “Please don’t waste your time or my own trying to sell me on the illusion of choice. Tell me what you need of me, and be done with it.”
He nodded, replying with, “We will leave the boy here with you...for now. Out of harm’s way. In three days time, we will return to see if other options are available to us. And once the demons have been slayed, we will collect him once again. You will be rewarded handsomely for your service, and will forever remain in King Gareth’s favor.” He said. “The king speaks well of you. And he sends his condolences for what you have lost. He understands your need for removal from service. And for your life, built anew.” My father frowned his face up at the sound of it, and so did I...even in hiding. “I, too, understand loss, Elyan. My sympathies are with you as well. The dark sickness that swept through this land...it took many of our beloved to an early grave. I grieve for the loss of your beloved wife. And ever more so for the loss of your first born son. Perhaps, it is this loss that will help you to see why the king has made this most desperate request.” Finally...Terras added, “We will find these demonic creatures, hunt them down one by one, and execute them until not another one draws breath within the reach of our kingdom. We shall leave not a single one of them alive. Then...we will return to take the boy home, and leave you in peace. For now, and forever.” I leaned back against the wood pile, a soreness in my heart for my lost mother as I heard him continue. “Please, Elyan. Draw your sword in service to our king...one last time. If not for his son, then for yours. It is a duty that young Celwyn would be proud of.”
My father didn’t answer, but I could already feel the weight of his reply bearing down on my shoulders. These men had no idea why my father left the order. Why he came out here to the isolation of the woods. Or why he would be chopping wood in the middle of the night as opposed to the brightness of normal daylight.
I missed my mother. I surely despised the spreading sickness from taking her from us. But before it consumed me...my father found a way to keep me with him. A way that thrust him into conflict...but saved me nonetheless.
As I tried to cover the bright golden glow of my vampiric eyes, I thought about Terras’ statement...
”We will find these demonic creatures, hunt them down one by one, and execute them until not another one draws breath within the reach of our kingdom. We shall leave not a single one of them alive.”
Am I to be one of their victims? Am I to be included in their massive agenda of heartless executions? Or will my father and I do this one good deed...out here...hidden in the woods from the rest of the world...and go back to living in secret? In peace.
The predatory game has been set in motion. Where will it take us from here?