“…and this night the watch over the gate will be assigned to…” Master Palthio paused and squinted at his gathered disciples, “me.” At his last word all the youth gave a collective groan of disappointment.
Watching over the gate at night was the single most important responsibility in their small order. The most important responsibility that any boy from the inner fields could ever aspire to. Watching over the seventeenth gate was, of course, the shared responsibility of them all, but to be the solitary watchman over the most dangerous hours was something special.
To hold that watch meant that you had been elected by the Order, and the Order was elected by the District, and the District was elected by the City Core.
But tonight, as with every other night, it was old Master Palthio who was elected, not one of his acolytes.
“Do not be so dismayed,” Master Palthio shook his head at their reaction. “Yes, the night watch is considered a great honor…but you are acolytes, you are expected to have to learn and grow. Your time will come.”
“It’s just means you don’t trust us,” impetuous Bovik could not withhold his frustration.
Master Palthio cocked an eyebrow. “That is one way you could view it, I suppose: as a shameful punishment. Or you could believe what I have just said, that growth is part of every journey. Does a child carry his father’s sword until he is strong enough to bear it? No. But that is not because he is being punished, it is simply because he must strengthen over the years.”
“So…you would entrust it to any of us now?” Bovik asked. “But you’re just waiting for us to grow a little more first?”
“Well…except for you, Bovik. You I just don’t trust.”
All the boys laughed, even Bovik after he realized it was only a joke.
Of course, the significance of the night watch was mostly symbolic. All of them defended the keep together, no matter who was standing watch. That was the entire duty of their order, after all. The night guardsman was simply to raise the alarm.
And it wasn’t as if there was only the one night guardsman in all their district, either. There was only one for their gate and for their order, but every mile along the perimeter wall was another gate, another order, and another watchman. Seven in all for their district. Neither was theirs the only district. There were fifteen fringe-districts in all, which were collectively responsible for guarding the many different passageways to the City Core. Though the boys liked to pretend that the night guardsman was the solitary protector of the entire realm, it simply wasn’t true.
And it didn’t seem that the realm needed much protecting either. Yes, there had been the ancient wars, but then King Eidoron had driven the barbarian hordes back to their caves many generations ago. So soundly had the victory been, that even after the barbarians spread back out over the Waving Plains, they did not dare muster another attack against the City. They instead contented themselves with warring amongst themselves, fighting for scraps of land instead of kingdoms. So it had been for three hundred years. So it would surely be forever.
And so the boys shrugged off their disappointment when they left Master Palthio that evening. They would have their turn in the evening watch someday, and when that day came they would crow for finally being trusted as real men…but also when that day came they would know that the responsibility didn’t really matter.
“Swords ready?” Reis asked, marching back-and-forth in front of the other boys like a general on inspection.
“Uh, yeah,” Inol shrugged, looking to his side to be sure that his scabbard wasn’t empty.
“Oh?” Reis sneered, not at all appreciative of the indifference in Inol’s tone. “So if I ordered you to pull it out for inspection I would find it sharpened and rust free? Polished so that my face shines in it, as per Standard Regulation?”
“If you ordered me?” Inol furrowed his brow. “Just who do you think you are?”
Reis stammered in confounded rage. “I’m Marshall!” He exclaimed. “Today is the Fourth Drop? I am Marshall!”
“Sure, it’s your turn to play Marshall,” Inol rolled his eyes. “But you don’t see the rest of us becoming so serious when it’s our turn for it.”
“Tharol does,” Golu corrected from the side.
“Well yeah, Tharol does take everything seriously, too,” Inol agreed. “But he doesn’t become a self-adore about it all.”
“Fifteen hauls!” Reis spat.
“Fif-teen hauls,” Reis emphasized every syllable while pointing to a round boulder against the far wall. He looked Inol firmly in the eye, daring him to defy Standard Regulation once more. “Tell me I don’t have the right,” he whispered.
Inol shot him a dark look, but then walked over to the stone and pulled the leather straps that wrapped around it onto his shoulders. The other boys sighed and fell into more relaxed poses, idly waiting for Inol to finish running fifteen laps around the wall, the heavy boulder slung to his back. After he took his place back in line they fastened their swords back on and were ready for their patrol.
The patrols, like all of the rituals they performed at the keep, were mostly symbolic. Yes, it was obviously an important duty to sweep the surrounding area and identify any nearby threats. How could they hope to protect the City Core if they didn’t have a basic awareness of what they might be have to protect it against?
But the outcome of every patrol was always the same: nothing. Again, it had been generations since the barbarian hordes had mounted an attack, and so it had also been generations since there was evidence of an upcoming attack. So now each patrol simply served the purpose of reaffirming that the current status was still the status quo.
Thus the boys were known to be quite lax about it, idly strolling up and down the fields and lazily poking through the cave networks, looking for some entertaining diversion more than for signs of a threat.
Except when they went with Reis. Whenever it was his turn as Marshall he divided the boys into proper squads and ordered them to march in formation. He expected them to round each corner with swords drawn, to sweep every corner of an enclosed space, to dive for cover at any unexpected sound.
And it just so happened that there was one of those unexpected sounds on this day, right as the boys came to the cove of trees that graced the Western Slopes. It was only a rustle of leaves and a cracking of a twig, but it suggested that something was moving on the other side of the tree-line.
“Front line down!” Reis shouted and dove for the dirt. Inol and Golu slowly followed.
“Bolts up!” Reis ordered next and Bovik and Janeao lazily lifted their crossbows to their shoulders from behind.
“Who goes there?!” Reis demanded, though the other boys figured it was probably just a fox.
Much to the other boys’ surprise, though, it wasn’t. There was an actual person there, and that person spoke to them!
“I come in peace! I come in peace!” the raspy voice called out from behind the largest of the trees. Two hands emerged from either side of the trunk, hands open to show that they wielded no weapon. “If I had meant you any harm I would have already had you shot.”
“Had us–shot?” Reis asked slowly.
The left hand pointed to the boys’ right. They turned that way and saw a large, fifteen-foot boulder resting in the soft grass. Seated at the top of it was a soldier in dark armor, silently aiming his spread-fire crossbow at all the youth!
“Cover him!” Reis shrieked to Bovik and Janeao at the exact same moment that the two of them dropped their crossbows on the ground and raised their hands in surrender.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please,” the voice behind the tree placated. “As I said, I have come in peace…so long as you are willing to not be so hasty!”
“Why are you hiding yourself back there?” Reis shot back. “It’s hard to believe a man’s words when you cannot see his eyes!”
“I am not a man,” the voice said, and for the first time the boys noticed that the hands and arms had a more feminine quality to them. The voice had simply been too raspy to tell its gender. “And I am deprived a peaceful face. However…”
The hands dropped to the woman’s sides and slowly she stepped out from behind the tree. The boys frowned in confusion, unable to make sense of what it was that they saw. She slowly strode towards them, and only gradually did they come to realize that her face was stone! It appeared like a gray sculpture, etched many years ago, rubbed smooth by years of erosion, with deep cracks running from crown to neck.
That neck was where the stone finally transformed back to ordinary flesh, and as she spoke the throat bulged, vocal cords standing out, red and swollen from the strain of trying to resonate words through such stiff housing. Her face was permanently held in an expression of having just seen something alarming, with her eyes wide open, lips curled back, and teeth bared in a snarl.
“What?!” Golu exclaimed before Reis could hush him.
“Yes,” the woman sighed heavily, and it sounded like wind rushing through a canyon. “I am a person trapped betwixt.”
“Have you…always been like this?”
“I don’t know that I can recall.”
“How can you not–“
At the exact same moment Reis held up his hand and the woman spoke, both of them to cut Golu off.
“I don’t believe this is pertinent,” she scolded.
“Well what are you here for?” Reis asked. And he spoke he rose to his feet, sword still held in a defensive position. “You are very near to guarded realms, you know.”
“Very near to guarded realms,” she repeated with a shake of the head. “This is the attitude behind every conquest. Make your walls, define your boundaries, but then protect the outside of them until you feel you own those fringes as well. And so on and so on…. I care little for your petty border disputes.”
“Then what are you here for?” Reis repeated irritably.
“I have business within your walls. My companion and I have come to meet with a man who resides in your district.”
“You would not know him. He is an outsider.”
“There are no outsiders within the walls.”
“Oh really?” and though her mouth could not curl into a smile, there was an unmistakable amusement to her tone. “And here I thought I heard the accent of a Waylan in your voice.”
“The Waylans are officially recognized as a satellite contingent of the City Core!” Reis said defensively. “I’m as much a part of the communal as any of these others, it doesn’t matter where I was raised!”
“I truly meant no insult,” she placated, seeing she had struck a nerve. “My point is that you know full well that there are thousands of citizens living outside the walls, which enter and exit from the city every year. So do not pretend it is impossible for a pretender to have slipped in among the masses.”
“But we have a system. Precautions and–“
“And many other imperfect systems which can be broken or corrupted. I can see that you are too close-minded to hold a rational conversation with. Never mind. I will have to reserve my petition for someone that is more enlightened.”
And with that she turned to walk away. Without a word her bodyguard dropped down from his perch and started to recede into the trees with her.
“Should we…go after her?” Bovik asked Reis.
Reis frowned, then slowly sheathed his sword. “I shouldn’t have interrupted her. She had not yet requested anything illegal. If she had, yes, we ought to have taken her in.”
“Well even then ought we?” Janeao queried. “It seems that that was exactly what she wanted.”
“Hmm…” Reis nodded. “Who’s on patrol next?”
“We are,” Bovik pointed to himself and Inol. “Along with Tharol, Beesk, and Avro.”
“Good, good. You two did not say anything to upset her like Golu and I did. You should watch for her then and find out more of what she intends. We’ll wait to report the matter to Master Palthio until we get to the bottom of this.”
“Shouldn’t he be informed about it now? Wouldn’t that be Standard Regulation?” Inol sneered.
“No…” Reis shook his head. “What is the injunction of the daily patrol? ‘To assess and handle,’ and we still have some assessing left to do.”
“Remember what Master Palthio said this morning? It’s time for us to grow up. It’s time we show him that we’re worthy of the night watch by taking the responsibility that’s been given us. This is what he’s waiting for. For us to prove that we’re men. We’ll take care of this one on our own.”
On Monday I spoke of stories where the characters are tampering with forces that are beyond themselves, bringing down all manner of unintended consequences on their heads.
There is only the beginning of this in today’s post. Reis is overly-eager to be in charge, to play the part of the ruler before he is ready for that responsibility. That arrogance manifests again at the end, where he chooses to take the matter of the strange woman under his own jurisdiction, rather than properly report it to his elder.
But as we’ll see later on, this is just the beginning of characters overstepping their bounds and dealing with matters that they do not understand. There is yet a much larger Pandora’s Box to be opened.
Before we get to that, though, I want to address an interesting experience I had while writing this piece. I tend to let my imagination run freely while writing these pieces, taking ideas that happen in the moment, and seeing where they take me. One of those was having the strange woman’s face be made of stone. That was something that I had no intention of until the very moment of typing it in. And part of the reason why it came about was because I was feeling uninspired in the material I was writing before that moment. I was becoming bored, and then that interesting novelty popped into my mind to entertain me.
With my next post I would like to consider the role of boredom in creative works, both as a catharsis for invention, but also as an early indicator for when your story is straying into a rut. Come back on Monday as I explore this topic in detail, and then we’ll have the following section of The Favored Son: Alternate next Thursday.