The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Fifteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

Tharol heard the scream ringing from the barracks and stood up with a start. After a moment he realized what it was and he looked down somberly.

“Well maybe you couldn’t do anything about all these plots, but I did,” he told Master Palthio defiantly. “That’s the sound of Reis’s schemes being snuffed out. I did it myself because no one else was going to lift a finger to stop him!”

Master Palthio smiled sadly. “I applaud your initiative, Tharol, but you haven’t stopped anything. Reis was but the tip of an iceberg.”

*

Inol frantically backed away from Reis’s twitching form, spun around, and leaned for support against the rampart railing.

“ATTACK! ATTACK!” he shouted in the direction of the barracks. “THERE’S AN ARMY OUTSIDE THE GATES!”

Beesk came racing up the staircase and onto the ramparts.

“What do you think you’re doing? Do you want everyone to–” he stopped speaking as he came into view of the army approaching below. They were near enough now to see them in detail. They were a strangely cobbled force, a mixture of elite soldiers in armor, peasants bearing wooden clubs, and a third class that was…made of stone! Some had only a rocky or head, while others were entirely composed of rock except for a single patch of flesh. They hobbled forward awkwardly on their heavy joints, shaking the ramparts with the collective force of their boulder feet.

“Seventeenth Gate!” the woman at the forefront of the army called. “Why are your doors not open?”

“It’s her,” Beesk mumbled to Inol, stepping back from the ramparts’ edge in fear. “It’s the statue lady…. This was all a trap!”

“I know!”

“Seventeenth Gate!” the statue lady called again. “Is anyone there? Answer me or face the consequences!”

Reis turned on his side and retched violently. The chills washed over his body in waves and he fell back to the rampart trembling uncontrollably. Even though he didn’t have the strength to even raise himself his eyes were steeling with anger and resolve. He knew what had happened to him and he knew who had done it. He wasn’t sure how, but Tharol had known more than he had let on, and he had poisoned Reis with a lethal dose. But Reis hadn’t been killed. Not yet. And now Tharol would have to deal with the consequences of that fact!

*

“What do you mean you did your part to resist what’s coming?” Tharol demanded of Master Palthio. “You say you couldn’t put a stop to Beesk, or Inol, or Reis, or any of the things they represent, so what were you doing? What was the point?!”

“What I was doing was teaching,” Master Palthio said simply. “I’ve been training the lot of you, hoping to instill some sense of duty and principle in you all. Preparing your minds and bodies for the coming fight. Teaching you how to operate as individuals and as a group. Yes I knew we had corruptors in our bunch, but the rest of you I tried to keep apart from all that.”

Teaching?!

“Yes, and Tharol you were the brightest of them all, and the most capable. I saw that if there was going to be any hope for these boys it would be through you. And that’s why I have been pushing you so hard of late.”

“Felt more like you were trying to get rid of me!”

“Well, in a sense, yes, but for your own good. I was trying to take away the order as your crutch. Trying to wean you off of this sick, decaying body. There’s no future for you here. Your destiny needs to be apart from the city, the order, and Gate Seventeen.”

“A destiny for what? To hear you go on there isn’t anything left for us to save!”

“Just each other.”

Tharol blinked.

“Avro, Janeao, Bovik, Golu, and others like them,” Master Palthio continued. “Maybe those like Beesk and Inol after their schemes have fallen to pieces and they’re humbled. But don’t waste any time trying to save our order or nation. Just take care of the individuals who still have their spark of duty. Do it by your own means. Take your own counsel. Don’t rely on any part of our dead system, not even on me.”

Tharol paused to take it in. He had just had his whole world disrupted and he felt like he needed to sit down and think it over for a long while. But, of course, there was no time for that.

“I really do need to go,” he said softly, stepping towards the door.

“Yes, you do,” Master Palthio waved his hand and the door was unfastened. “And I have my final work to do as well.”

*

All the other boys had rushed out into the courtyard now and were halfway up the stairs to the ramparts.

“What’s going on?” Avro demanded.

“We’re doomed!” Inol came down to meet them, face ashen. Beesk followed behind, trembling like a leaf. “Reis betrayed us. They’re going to kill us!”

The pronouncement was immediately followed by the sound of death shouts off in the distance. Inol and Beesk cowered even lower behind the wall, but Avro poked his head up high enough to see where the noises were coming from. He looked to Gate Eighteen to the right and Gate Sixteen to the left. There the great doors had been opened from within and the army was filing through uncontested. And no sooner had the army been admitted into the keep than they had apparently begun murdering the gatekeepers there!

“Never mind,” the statue lady scoffed in disgust down on the plains. It was clear to her that their accomplice wouldn’t be opening the gate for them. “Break this door down!”

Her stone soldiers had only been waiting for the order! Like dogs freed from the leash they gave a shout and charged forward at full speed, built up their momentum, then flung their bodies against the gate like a hundred different battering rams! The entire keep shook from the impact, the wood of the doors splintered, and the iron lattice bent inwards. Meanwhile the peasant soldiers picked up their ladders, sprinted to place them against the walls, and began their ascent. Several of the armored soldiers lifted crossbows and fired them along the ramparts in case any guards were concealed in the dark.

The boys inside flung themselves to the ground, faces looking to one another in horror. For a moment they were paralyzed into inaction, but then Golu broke the silence with a sudden thought.

“The breaching charges!” he said, then rose to his feet and began crawling back up the stairs to the ramparts, careful to keep his head beneath the bolts sailing overhead. Avro and Janeao followed behind, while the other boys dashed to the weapon rack and grabbed their swords and bows and arrows. The three boys up top crawled across the ramparts, lighting the fuses that ran along the top of the wall as they went.

What they were lighting was a series of explosives that had been mixed into the rock all along the top of the wall. No sooner did the first of the peasants reach the top of the wall than the explosives went off, spraying fire and rocky shrapnel, slaying the first of the offenders and blasting their ladders backwards off the wall!

Of course Golu, Avro, and Janeao had not been able to reach all the sections of the wall, and so in other places the peasant soldiers mounted the ramparts unscathed. But these were met by the arrows of the other boys down below. Bovik, Beesk, and Inol fired with practiced skill, cutting the infiltrators down easily, due to their lack of proper armor.

“We’ve got to fall back!” Inol roared as the stone warriors flung themselves once again the at the gate, buckling it to the point that wide gaps were starting to appear. One more dash and they would have the whole thing down.

“They’ll just chase us down,” Bovik shook his head sadly.

“No, they’ve got bigger matters to attend to,” Inol offered hopefully. “They probably don’t even care about us.”

“Up above!” Beesk pointed to a wave of armored soldiers that had just mounted the ladders. The boys fired a fresh volley, but only half of the arrows were able to find weak parts in the armor, such as around the joints, while the rest clattered harmlessly off the plate. The surviving men charged undeterred towards Golu, Avro, and Janeao, while yet another wave of armored soldiers mounted the ladders behind them.

“We’ve got to go!” Inol repeated, then turned and ran, not waiting to see if the others followed him.

“We can’t just leave the other boys!” Bovik protested. But also Beesk turned and ran, proving that he most certainly could!

“Let’s go get them, Bovik.”

Bovik turned back and saw Tharol quickly approaching.

“But–” Bovik’s misgivings towards Tharol were clear on his face.

“I just want to help you,” Tharol said earnestly, pulling sword and shield from the weapon rack then coming back to his ally. “Let’s go get them.”

Bovik exhaled deeply, gave a nod, and the two boys began sprinting for the staircase. Along the way they passed by the gate, just as it shook from a third battering by the stone warriors. The hinges ripped out of the stone and the entire door fell inwards! The boys instinctively lifted their arms to protect themselves from the crashing rubble…but it never hit them.

Master Palthio stepped forward, hands outstretched to the broken door, magically keeping it pinned to its proper place. His eyes shone brightly and he sent out a great shockwave. It coursed through the wide gaps that had been broken in the door, breaking into the stone soldiers on the other side, and bursting them into pebbles! The remaining stone warriors pulled back in surprise.

“Well…” the statue lady mused from behind, “that’s interesting. While the last of the retreating stone soldiers passed by her she strode forward confidently, closing on the door with her own arms stretched out wide. “I don’t know who you are,” she panted as she felt the full force of Palthio’s powers bearing down. “But these walls are mine.” She matched the words my placing her outstretched hands on the stone barrier that framed the door, closed her eyes, and imbued her powers into the lifeless rock.

Meanwhile, Tharol and Bovik mounted the staircase up above and bowled into the front-most ranks of the armored soldiers, flinging them right over the ramparts and off the wall! Then the two boys spun on the spot and met the next line of enemies with swords flashing. They lunged at the foes with an aggressiveness that belied their inferior numbers.

There were too many of the soldiers to keep them permanently at bay, but the two boys made a controlled retreat backwards until Golu, Avro, and Janeao were able to join the fray. Then the retreat slowed and came to a standstill. Though they were still fewer than their foes, and not nearly so well armored, the boys had far greater synergy as a team. Each armored soldier was trained only as an individual, occasionally stumbling over each other as they all sought their own best line forward. The boys, however, naturally fell into a shared rhythm.

To begin with Janeao took the front, using his greater size to shield the other boys and swinging his sword like a windmill, clearing enough room for the others to operate within. Golu was to Janeao’s side and slightly behind, watching for the openings that Janeao’s blustering opened up and then used his superior techniques to administer one finishing blow after another. He was the surgical precision behind Janeao’s thundering hammer. Avro and Bovik meanwhile filled in all the gaps. As efficient as Janeao and Golu were, they couldn’t cover everything at once. So Avro and Bovik drove their swords like spears through the openings, sometimes to counter a missed attack, sometimes to increase their own side’s aggression.

Tharol helped Avro and Bovik in that work as well, but his primary contribution was at the back, directing their troupe in its lethal dance.

“Bovik, on the right!” he shouted. “Six more behind this set, boys, pace yourselves. Perhaps Mora-Long? Was that a cut on you, Janeao?”

“I’m fine!”

“Avro, two steps to the right, I need to move that body!” He pulled the corpse back and flung it over the edge, clearing up the ground for Golu’s footing.

“Watch that sword, Avro, don’t tangle it in Janeao’s swings. Golu, watch the ground, he’s getting back up!”

Every now and then Tharol swept his eyes around the area, making sure that he was ever aware of their surroundings. They had managed to hold their ground thus far, and on occasion had even advanced a foot or two forward. But they were still twelve feet back from the top of the stairs, which was the nearest exit out of this place.

There was a sound of clattering behind them and Tharol turned to see an extra-long ladder being placed against the Northern Tower. The peasants had bound two of their shorter ladders together in order to reach the lowest window of that tower, and were now ascending to enter it. They were going to come into the tower on its second floor, race down its staircase, onto the ramparts from behind, and hit the boys from the rear!

“Alright, we’ve got trouble!” Tharol announced.

This was an exciting, fun piece to write! But even amidst all the action I’ve tried to imbue a sense of character development. Consider the moment here at the end where the boys fight the attacking horde together. Throughout the story there have been scenes of them dueling against one another, jockeying for rank, and carving divisions between them. This moment here is the first time that we’ve really seen them work together, the payoff for all that Master Palthio has been trying to instill in them.

Compare how I portray them here to their performance in the first of their competitions, the one where Janeao was trying to hold up the wooden tower as the opposing side broke it down. That was at the very beginning of the story, and the boys were trying to operate as a team, but were largely ineffective. Their focus was on trying to beat the other team, not protect their own. They were flushed in conquest and competition, all at the expense of collaboration and contribution.

It’s been a long and difficult journey for them to this all-important night, full of drama and shifting loyalties, but through it all they have broken down the old relationships that weren’t working, and learned how to genuinely rely on one another instead.

The story is almost done, just one more post to wrap it up. Before we get to that, though, I am going to finish reviewing all the lessons that I have learned in my next post on Monday. Come back then to read about that, and then again on Thursday to see the final words in The Favored Son: Alternate!

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Fourteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen

Tharol tried vainly to communicate to the other boys.

“Stop,” he mumbled, still half-dazed. “It’s a trap– it’s all a trap…. You have to stop Reis–I don’t know what he’s doing…but you have to stop him–“

Either they couldn’t understand his fragmented speech or they just didn’t care. They didn’t respond to him the whole way to Master Palthio’s quarters, and Tharol was nearly back to his full senses when they knocked on the Master’s door.

The door opened and Master Palthio’s voice came out weakly from the darkness. “Yes?”

“Sorry, Master,” Bovik said. “We know you need your rest, but we found out who poisoned you. We thought you’d want to know.”

“Oh…of course. Come in.”

They shuffled into the room as Master Palthio lit his lamps.

“What is this?” Master Palthio said in surprise as they placed Tharol in the middle of the room, wrists still firmly tied together.

“It was Tharol,” Bovik declared. “Tharol poisoned your dinner.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well for one thing he cooked dinner,” Golu spoke up. “He demanded to do it. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it gave him the perfect opportunity to poison your plate.”

“I see.”

Tharol kicked himself inwardly. Once again he was his own worst enemy, making himself look suspicious to the boys that should have been his friends. Why did he keep doing that?

“But that’s not all,” Avro added. “Yesterday Tharol came to dinner late, said he had to patch a hole in his tunic or something. But Golu and I passed him rushing toward the cellar right before.”

Of course, Tharol thought, right after I saw the note about the wine being sabotaged. Avro wasn’t finished laying out evidence though.

“And last week when we did the combat practice Tharol was last to come to dinner again. Bovik, Reis, and I had just left the barracks and I looked back and saw him still inside, standing on a chest and looking at something over the door.”

This one took Tharol a moment to recollect. Then he realized Avro was talking about when he had investigated how Reis beat Golu in their duel. “I was just looking at the shield over the doorway,” he explained.

“That’s right,” Bovik said. “And guess where we found the wine?”

Ah, Tharol thought, so that was where Reis had planted it. He assumed Avro must have said something to Bovik and Reis on that day about seeing Tharol mess around with the shield, so Reis had known that hiding the bottle there would get Avro to connect it with him.

“And last time we brought in wine was when Tharol went to market,” Janeao chimed in.

“Hmm,” Master Palthio nodded thoughtfully. “Well that’s certainly quite the array of evidence. In fact it seems to me that you’ve all been keeping an unusually close eye on Tharol these past few weeks…”

“Yeah, Reis told us he thought something was up,” Janeao answered. “Told us we should keep tabs on him whenever we could. And clearly he was right.”

“Clearly,” Master Palthio repeated. “And where is young Reis now?”

“He took over the evening watch so the rest of us could bring Tharol to you,” Bovik explained.

“Yes, very sensible. Well alright, you all run along. I’ll take things from here.”

“What? Leave you alone with him?” Avro said in bewilderment.

“Yes.”

“But he’s dangerous!”

“And I am a Master of the Order. Don’t fret yourselves, I really am feeling much better now. Our district needs you out there. Go now.”

There was a finality to his tone that quelled the unspoken protests in the boys’ eyes. Reluctantly they all shuffled out of the room and Master Palthio closed the door behind them.

“Master I know this doesn’t look good, but you’ve got to believe me!” Tharol blurted out. He still didn’t know whether Palthio was to be trusted, but frankly he didn’t have any other choice but to take his chances. “Reis is a traitor and he’s planning something very dangerous!”

Tharol braced himself for one of two reactions. Would Master Palthio be completely shocked, aghast that Tharol could make such a claim against his best student? Or would he round on Tharol in a rage, furious with him for having figured out his and Reis’s scheme?

The one reaction Tharol did not expect from Master Palthio, though, was annoyed indifference.

“Yes, yes, of course he is,” Palthio waved his hand dismissively, turning to his desk and rummaging through its drawers. “He has been since the first day he joined our order.”

Tharol’s mouth dropped. Was Master Palthio making fun of him?

“I’m serious!” he said hotly.

“So am I,” Master Palthio looked sharply up and Tharol could see that he meant it. “And I was serious when I told you to stop playing other peoples’ games, too. But you’ve gone and got yourself really mixed up in it now.”

He drew a long dagger from the drawers and came towards Tharol.

“Forgive me, but my extremities don’t have all their feeling back. I wouldn’t be able to untie that knot.” So saying he gripped Tharol’s wrists and quickly sawed through the rope. It fell to the ground and Tharol was free.

“You know?!” Tharol could still hardly believe it. “You’ve always known? Well come on then, we’ve got to go stop him.” He bounded for the door, but Master Palthio raised his hand behind Tharol and the door locked itself fast.

“Tharol…there is no stopping him,” Master Palthio said sadly. “Don’t you think that I would have already done something about it if there was?”

Tharol turned around, confusion etched all across his face. “You’ve got to let me out, Master. I have a plan. Reis isn’t going to get his way tonight.”

“Reis is the least of your problems, Tharol. Please take a seat,” Master Palthio gestured to the seat behind his desk. Tharol didn’t budge. “Tharol, I am going to let you out of here…but not until you hear what I have to tell you. Take. A. Seat.”

It was the last thing Tharol felt like doing, but there wasn’t any other choice. He marched over to the chair and perched on the corner of it, foot tapping impatiently.

“Thank you,” Master Palthio said, lowering himself into a seated position on his bed. “I’ll try to be brief.”

*

The sun had seemed to set extra quickly that evening, what with all the commotion that had occurred.

“Maybe we should stay up with you,” Avro offered Reis when it was time for the Night Watch to begin. “None of us are going to get much sleep anyway.”

“No, no,” Reis said. “We’ve had a ruffle, but we’ll carry on as we had intended, business as usual. Best way forward is to stick to our duties.”

Reluctantly the other boys retired to their barracks, leaving Reis alone on the wall. With hands on the ramparts he eagerly watched the sun fading behind the rolling hills, waiting for his moment of triumph. Already the first stars were appearing up above, and soon the moon would take over the realm. How fitting a symbol, Reis thought, for the power changes that were about to take place.

*

“Tharol, this district has been dying for a long while now,” Master Palthio began his explanation. “There was still the shadow of honor when Lord Oraliah–that’s Lord Amathur’s father–reigned over the district. There was still a great deal of corruption all around him, but he was mighty enough to keep it at bay. Then, once he died, he left a vacuum that was immediately filled by all those opportunistic, unprincipled vultures! The only reason we didn’t have a civil war was because his own son was the worst of the lot, willing to make every concession to keep the dukes and senators happy. I won’t go into all of the politics of it, but I believe even you have seen the effects of it. Order and decorum are a joke, scheming and underhanded deals are the norm, and no one has any sense of duty. All they care about is their own agenda.”

Tharol stopped tapping his foot so impatiently. He nodded sadly, but then added, “Well not all of us have lost our sense of duty.”

Master Palthio smiled. “No, you are correct. Forgive my cynicism. That, of course, is the other sickness that has pervaded our streets. A sense of hopelessness, a belief that we are beyond repair. That cynicism has been my own vice, and I have not fought against it as well as I ought to have. It has compromised me as much as if I had been another of the selfish opportunists. That cynicism has paved the way for even more dangerous enemies to the city.”

*

Reis heard a noise behind him and turned to see Inol mounting the stairs, large cup in hand.

“What’s this?” he asked in pretend surprise.

“Master Palthio’s orders,” Inol smiled. “The Night Watchman is to have a chalice of wine to keep him company through the night!”

Reis met the smile and took the cup. “Well that’s very thoughtful! Thank you, Inol.”

Inol nodded and stepped backwards, but his face fell slightly as Reis placed the cup down on the wall.

“You’re not going to take a drink from it?” he asked.

“No, not yet. I’ll save it.”

“Well…at the very least I had thought we should toast your commission.”

“Thank you, Inol, that’s very thoughtful. Wait here a moment and I will.”

*

“Reis is cynical, isn’t he?” Tharol asked.

“Yes. Extremely so. He hates the opportunists, the Beesks and Inols of this city. He wants to burn them to the ground and build a stronger, stricter order on top of it all. And he is not the only one that does. There has been a growing tide both within our walls and without that want to destroy this city for its weakness. And these revolutionaries know that they can manipulate the opportunistic fools into opening the doors for them. Offer them something that they value and they’ll let you get close enough to drive a dagger through their hearts.”

“But…you knew all about this and haven’t done anything?!”

Master Palthio sighed and looked downward heavily. “Tharol…I have tried. In quiet ways, I admit, but I really have tried. Maybe I could have done more, I don’t know, but I have tried. You have no idea how outnumbered we honest folk are. Every gate has been compromised. Every district. The very city core! Speaking up for principle has become a dangerous vocation. Sounding alarms that no one wants to hear gets you stifled. I know what Reis was came to our order for. I know what Beesk and Inol are doing behind our backs. But if I removed any of them there would just be more cynics and opportunists to take their place. If I kept weeding out the likes of Beesk and Inol Lord Amathur would have had me removed for cutting into his side ventures. If I kept weeding out the likes of Reis I would be assassinated! You can try to fight the inevitable but it will happen anyway. There is no stopping the coming tide.”

*

Inol shifted uncomfortably next to Reis. The statue lady was supposed to show up any moment now and the boy still hadn’t taken his drink. Inol would have to think of something fast or Reis would see her approaching!

“Well…I should really be getting to bed,” he said. “Why don’t we do that toast now and then I’ll get my rest.”

“Very soon, Inol. Very soon.” The last of the daylight had faded, leaving the sky a murky, navy blue. Reis kept his eyes fixated on the horizon, trying to still make out the line of hills in the dark. Suddenly he became aware of a thousand pinpricks of fire lining the most distant ridge. “Oh,” he breathed excitedly. “Come over here, Inol, I think the time for that toast has come!”

Reis’s back and arms were tensed in excitement. He didn’t turn a single degree as Inol stepped beside him and followed his gaze out to the rolling hills beyond. At first Inol couldn’t make out anything in the moonlight. The only movement was the tall grass waving in the wind upon the distant hills. But then, with a shock, Inol remembered that grass didn’t even grow on those rocky crests. And there was no wind. What he actually saw was a mass of people, an entire army silently marching towards the city wall. With a gasp he looked left and right, and he saw that the line continued as far as he could see in each direction. Thousands upon thousands quickly approaching, billowing out to meet each of the district’s gates!

And in all that empty air there was not a single sound of warning. No alerting bugle. No clash of swords. All the other gates must be seeing the approaching horde just as he did…but none of them were doing anything to stop it!

“Drink with me, Inol,” Reis smiled broadly. He lifted the goblet and looked over its rim in a salute to the coming masses. “My triumph has arrived!” Then he raised the cup to lips and took a long and deep draught. He was so flushed with success he didn’t even notice the unusual warmth of the liquid, the bitterness that was mingled with its rich flavor. “What’s the matter, Inol?” he said with a laugh at his comrade’s wide stare. “Aren’t you feeling well?”

Then, without warning, Reis’s whole body trembled violently. His eyes expanded in shock and he flung the goblet to the ground, clutching to the nearest brazier for support. He convulsed again, and fell the rest of the way to the ground, fingers scrabbling madly against the wood. He opened his mouth in agony and let out a single, long scream!

Part Fifteen

On Monday I compared my current version of The Favored Son to my first attempt at writing the story and I considered the elements that were stronger in each. From my freshman effort I specifically called out the greater creativity and heightened drama, and I stated that I would attempt to incorporate some of those elements here at the climax of my second version.

We got the first example of that in this highly dramatic scene of the army approaching and Reis being poisoned. The tension of that moment was built up more than any other scene in the story. It felt more on the level of that dramatic moment in the first story when the teachers suddenly assaulted their own students.

Here at the climax of this story it feels particularly fitting to cut loose in a loud moment of catharsis. Reis has been smugly pulling the strings on all the other boys for the entirety of the story. Now we finally get to see his mastery of the situation burst into pieces, and it works well for it to be a highly dramatic moment. With the next chapter of the story we will also see more magic coming to bear.

It’s certainly been a long time getting to this finale. There’s still two more chapters left to go, making this the longest tale I’ve published by a significant margin. We are finally coming to the end, though, and that means it’s time to take a step back and review all the lessons we’ve been learning along the way. Come back on Monday as we look back at it all, and then come on Thursday to see how the story continues.