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Earth Chapter 6: Reality
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The gravel crunched as Earth stepped onto the path. The pale blue path of the moon hung overhead. He shivered in the brisk air. It would not be far to the camp. The sun would rise before long. But before he left, there was one more thing to do.
For five minutes he stood alone at the stone beside the wall in the yard.
Lyf did not come.
“Forgotten One, will it,” Earth spoke with a sigh as he looked out onto the horizon along the road he followed meandering between the fields on the outskirts Elusa’s northeast. His temples throbbed with anticipation. Ahead of him lay war. Both a living nightmare and a daring King called his name. Behind him was everything else, and that meant that everything else may as well be gone.
His sack held cheese, dried meat, and nuts. In a pouch around his neck, he carried unmarked silvers. In his heart were the memories. A lifetime’s worth of memories condensed to a few fleeting moments beside the fire, the cold eyes of hard love and the cherished talk of sisters who laughed less today and cried more.
The moment the latch clicked behind them the previous night, she had demanded, “Has your destiny called?”
She was regal, despite the patched and fading chair beside the simple hearth. The gleaming flames reflected in her eyes, and she did not look away.
“It has,” Synu stepped forward, touching Earth’s shoulder to pass him and move further into the room.
Then silence covered them.
The fire crackled, and they set about unpacking their goods. Synu brought a filled kettle and set it to boil for tea. But Earth remained by the door, locked in some contest of unspoken minds. Frozen. That’s what he was.
Why was that?
He forced a deep breath, then let it go. Not as slow as he would like. But he felt himself in the iron claws now. He loved her. She loved him. Was this not what she wanted?
He stepped to the fire and sat at her feet.
“I am afraid,” he said. “This morning I felt the weight of the world ending, and it vexed me to my soul because I did not know why. Now, news arrives as if prophesied to call me on my Eve of Aging into the ranks of the Shadowsun! This ought to be what worries me. But it does not. There is more. Something I do not know. Something you do.”
“That is the very reason I hope,” she said to him.
“That doesn’t explain anything,” he said.
“Do you wish to be afraid as other men?” she asked. “Is not there strength in you now, as you realize that neither your glorious king nor his grand enemy are the source of your heart. You will not cower before them. You will not hesitate in the arena. Most men are dead while they live. Your hand will not stay but be spurred, change and embrace that which lesser men shy away from.”
She continued with a somber tone. “Earth, at first I helped you without reason. When your sisters found me, my whole world was darkness and confusion. I lost more than I was willing to admit. Worse, I catalyzed far more than I could imagine. In these years I came to understand the events that brought me to your door. It is more than a simple story about a boy and a girl and lost love.”
“Something in our world changed,” she added, her voice heavy with meaning. “The age that was has ceased to be and an age to come is now ushered in. But how few can smell it on the wind? And what will it mean? Will it bode for well or for ill? This rifting instant, this hinge in time, it is like a tear in fabric, which may either be ripped entirely in two, or may be hemmed and mended again. From this new line, one path enters a world where men will do more and more of what ought never to be done, so creating an age that ought never to be. But the other line leads to an age where means hearts grow vital, where their minds are enlightened, to a world reborn.
She smiled, a rare sight that touched his heart. She reached out a hand to touch his face, just like she used to when he was still a small boy.“Earth, you are my hope. You are my unlooked for chance, my oracle prayed. I cannot promise you victory and I cannot promise you surety, but I can say this and know it sure: in you is redemption, and therein lies the only true seed of possibility.”
Silence settled over them again as tea was served and Talitha played her reed pipe. Analia never sat at all, but busied her hands with every conceivable chore of preparation for Earth’s travel, as if by some perfecting of readiness she might keep the moment from coming. Synu sat by Earth, leaning against him until she drowsed, then quietly left to rest.
As the others retired to bed, he rose, lifted his sack and prepared to leave. As he reached the door, she spoke again, a final time, staring into the space between herself and the fire.
“I am no prophetess,” she said. “I am many things, but the future I cannot tell. I do not know what will become of you, or of this realm, mankind or the very world. But I have given you the gift of every art I have known. When your destiny calls, you will find yourself among the great men of this age. Do not be foxed. You are not a god. But neither be cowed. In that alone, you will rise to match even the greatest of men.”
“Stop! Who goes there?”
The words echoed through the crisp morning air, emanating from a gargantuan, ancient tree that loomed twenty yards ahead. Emerging from the shadows was a vigilant guardsman, his figure silhouetted against the dappled light filtering through the canopy.
“I am Earth,” he called back, rising up to his full height.
“Enlisting?” The soldier's bow was taut, arrow notched as he scrutinized Earth head to toe.
“Northeast, five hundred paces,” the guardsman gestured with a nod, “beyond that hill, you'll find the quartermaster's tent. Register with him.”
“Don’t thank me, boy,” he grunted, already turning away to resume his hidden post. “This is no charity. We all go to die.”
“Next? Name?” The sergeant's gruff voice boomed as he barked out. Earth stepped forward, heart pounding with anticipation.
“Earth,” he said, steady.
“War skills and training?”
“None, sir,” he admitted.
He was curt. “There is no pay for the untrained. You fight for the lives of your loved ones. Food and basic outfitting will be supplied.”
He handed Earth a mark. “Go to the third and fourth stalls, then to the yellow penant.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Next? Name? What? A woman? This is war. Go exercise your vote in the town council and...”
After acquiring a dented helm, a light-mail jerkin, some leather gloves, a heavy cloak, and a canteen, Earth made his way to the yellow pennant on the far side of the marshaling field, the sergeant's voice trailing off into a distant buzz. His two weapons were basic but serviceable - a short infantryman's gladius without a sheath and a decent dagger. Yet he couldn't help but notice that his cloak, woven from rugged black wool, was not nearly as impressive as those worn by the Shadowsun Guard.
The procession pushed him forward, one hundred or so men arriving with him. Each face he saw looked confused and alone. Most were strangers, though he caught a glimpse of someone resembling Barbus, the butcher, disappearing into the shuffle. Most of these men were not locals, but rather visitors drawn to the Festival, merchants and travelers, and perhaps even nobles.
A goldenrod pennant hung listless against the windless sky. Beyond it, the sun crept timid on the horizon, revealing the Shadowsun’s camp. The sheer number of men gathered here was staggering. In the midst of it all, their new captain rushed about, barking orders and manhandling them till they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in some semblance of a line.
“Stand straight! Be firm! Hold your weapon like so. Thrust, don’t slash, unless you want to maim yourself for a fool. If you die you die. The Forgotten knows your time. So at least die proud. Strength is in the arm beside you. You there! Don’t be a lazy hide! Scratching crotches is for a dog's snout. Let it itch. Look to your betters or you’ll feel the wrath. Feet planted now. Chin center. Talk when you sleep. Rest when you're dead. Listen up while you still have the chance. We march today, and there will be no picnic. This is war.”
The story of Earth continues…