Earth Chapter 9: Tempering
Find the rest at https://tinyurl.com/EarthFisk
That night Earth was given a small tent not far from the King, and left to rest. Men of rank did not take their meals with the common men, and likewise Earth was brought his food privately. It was meager but fresh - boiled eggs, a slice of meat, hot bread. He ate, seated at the entrance on a patch of grass in the twilight.
It was odd to not have the evenings duties, to sit and wait while night descended, watching the new moon strengthen in the sunset. Most nights, he would have crossed the camp three times over, hectic with a myriad of orders and maintenance. An hour of perimeter patrol. The occasional assignment to horse-care or cooks’ cleanup. Tonight he was left tend to his gladius alone. Even his clothes were being worn for the last time. A newly cut suit of black leathers hung waiting behind him, fit with countless small pockets and dark iron rings. Assassin’s garb, a simpler version of the uniform worn by Acis and those under his direct command. It looked heavier than his infantry uniform, but it was supple and smooth to the touch, clearly meant to both cling tight and allow for free flowing movements.
He sat chewed the crust and remembered the countless coincidences. How could he ignore it any longer?
But just as he thought it, he saw the priest making his way up the active path that marked the demanding heart of the war camp. An awkward little man, he appeared both determined and flustered. The edge of his flowing robe was carried draped over an arm, like a towel, so that it never came close to touching the moist earth beneath his sandaled feet. He looked not once at the eyes of any he passed, shuffling this way and that through the bustle in an uncomfortable admixture of assertion and retreat, yet ever doggedly making headway toward Earth.
He arrived, fidgeting a moment, peering at Earth down a long, thin nose, and attempting to affect something that he probably thought was a smile. The sides of his mouth twitched, striving to turn upward, as if willing it, but finding that it caused such considerable pain that the final effect was one of his gums receding into his face.
“Greetings, Omen of the Forgotten!” he shouted overmuch, lips peeling back to display his teeth. “It is not every day that I, even I, Arch-Eucharion of the great Temple of the Forgotten, Reverence Highest of Ambra, City of Dark Walls, am so fortunate as to meet such a miracle and mystery as you, sir. A child from Elusa herself, grown in the shadow of the holy mountain! And now, here, in our hour of need. Our Order does not trust in the Forgotten as author of everything and nothing, all-watching and all-ignoring, for naught. He is the finest of original mechanics, the most distant of pure artists, immortal and immutable. Though rare, indeed, are his meddling in the designs of perishable men, it appears you are the solution to many doubts, don’t you think?”
The twitching the man’s lip was such a terrible distraction that Earth had trouble focusing on anything that he said. His words were not hard, exactly, but they were big. Extraneous. And massive in an oblong sort of way.
What is more, Earth never heard such things. The worship of the Forgotten in Elusa? That was, well, forgotten. He had always assumed that was the point.
The priest went on, “Is it not strange, then, don’t you think, as much as we might hope our young King owns the gift of prophecy, and insight to rightly read the signs, that the Forgotten would break his aeon of monumental silence, and omnisciently grant such profound signs and gifts at times of such dire and obvious need to one so meek and incompetent as yourself?”
Earth had trouble maintain his smile in response to that. “I don’t know about all you say,” he said. “I am in no position to debate our King. I may be young, but I know my duty. I serve, for our land, for the peoples, for my family. Whatever gifts you see, they are as much a mystery to me as to you. Yet surely, if the Forgotten is as you say, than he means us follow the integrity of good order and duty whether we hear his voice at the moment or no.”
“Indeed,” the priest mused. It seemed the half-ways and strained smile was beginning to give him trouble breathing as well. “Well it is, then, as you say. In fact, duty is precisely why I hastened to speak with you this evening, before any others of the council could bend your innocent ears and sway you toward a course of folly.
“I have solemn words for you,” he continued. “Words of warning and jeopardy.” He leaned close to Earth, dropping his voice to whisper as his eyes darted about the camp. “There is treachery on the King’s Council.”
He stood back a step, looking to either side as if concerned someone might hear them. The feint was evident and awkward.
“Not all men serve their King,” he whispered. “Still fewer still do so under the sovereign rule of the Forgotten. Some seek profit. Others seek pleasure. But some yet still seek to undo us from within. Believe me, my son, for mine own eyes have seen it. Hence my fear for both Crown and King, and my subtle reason to hope even in you now.”
The barb at the end went unnoticed by the speaker, but Earth was not concerned with insults.
“You spoke in favor of the plan?”
“I still do,” he said, “But there is sabotage afoot, and I believe that sabotage is you.”
The words struck Earth to the heart.
“I would never… I…? I only desire my duty.”
“I did not a once imply otherwise,” the priest said. Though now his feinted mile had altogether vanished, all his face nothing but stern and serious shadows. “Desire for duty and true folly may appear strange bedfellows to youth, but vanity and hope have more than once before been called upon in the name of expediency to the powerful.”
“I see,” Earth asked. How often was it that a man warned another about himself with such evident ignorance. “Who, then, do you suspect?”
He leaned forward to whisper, “Poison? Tricks? These are the tools of an assassin, my son.”
“Then you warn me against Acis?” Earth said, evidently too loud. The priest stood bolt upright, then shook as he turned about in three jerky movements, earnestly in search of eavesdroppers. Once satisfied none had stirred, he put his finger to his lips as he lowered his voice with sternness.
“It may seem antithetical for the Chief Assassin to sabotage his own plans. It is his zeal that pursues this mission. But it matters not where treachery is involved.
“I know no more,” the priest concluded. “But I see this: the King trusts you. It is his childish fancy. He is barely a man himself. He feels his bitter childhood dying, and, even in that, sees you through nostalgia of his murdered naiveté. Bitter youth is so vain as to envy its own loss. Next comes the seeking of miracles and fairies to restore it. Mark me, dreams and gambits are of Renai.
“But when the King draws you close again tomorrow, remember that for such a time as this you were brought into this world. You can save us all by your simple sacrifice. It is easy, only ask that you may stay close to him. If you believe this is the will of the Forgotten, he, too, will believe it.”
Earth started to speak but the priest hushed him.
“The realm depends on us. Our grace will argue the point. I know the man well. He will not command you when he sees your earnestness.”
“I will pray on it,” Earth, at this point no longer willing to give the man one wit of unearned words.
“Do,” the priest said. It wasn’t exactly a sneer as his harsh smile trembled. “If you are some new breed of Forgottenstouched, as certain as you yourself are uncertain, then you are no true omen of blessing. For the sake of all that is good and right, you must remain here. A faithful son can only see that my counsel is clarity. He shall lead you in the way you must go. I am sure you will see reason in the end.”
Earth finished what was left of his meal in silence, rose and dressed, changing his dirty gear for the fine leathers. They were tailored. He felt smooth and agile, like the wind. Strange how mere clothing could have such an effect on the mind. Still, he was the same as he ever was on the inside.
The Omen of the Forgotten? How could it not be far fetched? But the King himself believed it, or said that he did. Earth had often wondered, staring up at that lonely mountain looming over Elusa, and he had concluded that the Forgotten, having such a name, surely held some foresight, if only as a tale.
But now the events of the last day brooded around him, a storm he did not conjure, nor that was he sure he could maintain. Laying on the cot, staring at the canopy as dusk faded under growing dark, he could only assume that no matter how he felt about the situation, the crux of the matter was in his hands now.
He was just drifting off when a shallow voice came from outside.
“A simple question I come to ask you, Master Earth. May I enter?”
The man’s scent preceded him as, not bothering to wait for an answer, he stooped through the tent flap. The hermit’s pungent odor clung to the air, swelling the presence in the enclosed space as he hobbled to sit cross-legged on the ground across from Earth. His feet were bare, and he stepped prudently. His gangly beard, matted and torn, to match his balding pate and scraggly long white wisps draping down his back were enough marvel to make one forget the smell of him.
But not for long.
“When the King summoned me from my reclusion,” the hermit began. “I had sat alone in my cave beside the delta of the Khozitcys river for over twenty years. My food was a paste I made from the weeds and algae that grew on the waters’ many stones. My clothing, as you see it now, was the skin of a deer which I found sheltering in the cave the day I entered it. I slew it in its sleep, and drank of its life’s blood as I spoke the last words I would say until the King’s men came for me.”
This, at least, was not what Earth expected.
The hermit went on. “‘Be still in the embrace of the Forgotten,’ I said to its peaceful, sighing form. ‘Rest in oblivion. Find your solace.’
“From that day forward I uttered no voice. Not a word. I served the cosmos in fervent thought alone, in ardent yet silent prayer.
“After a time, they began to come to me. Mothers with sick children. Nobles who aspired to something more. Men who failed in their duties. They came and sat in my cave and spoke to me. I never answered. Not a word. I only made my pastes, drank my waters, buried my reliquae and prayed the great song of silence. But the more who left with not an answer spoken, the more who still came to seek me.
“Do you see?” he asked. But he did not wait for Earth to answer. “It was the silence! That is how the Forgotten gives. It is the silence itself that speaks. To some, despair. To the chosen, hope! Above all, surreal enlightenment, futility and peace, are only found in the True voice of the Forgotten. Silence grants to each his antidote, but only by long discipline do the learned discover how to listen.”
Earth took the opportunity of a moment’s pause to consider all that was said, but before he could open his mouth to speak…
“Out came the Shadowsun’s summons!” the hermit shouted, thrusting his finger to the sky. “Do you see? Long before futility and peace came to me, long before the Forgotten taught me, I was High Steward to the House of Ambra, a most trusted advisor to that man we now call the Madking. After his reckless destiny rode out an its vain quest against my best counsel, I renounced my place, my name, my family - my wives and my children, yes, all! I could not have imagined how much it all would become worth it.”
“Then why did you return?” Earth jammed in when the hermit finally took a breath, then dratted himself for so hastily encouraging the aging man to go on.
The hermit, indeed, smirked, and in silence gazed down on Earth for a drawn moment. “You are a perceptive one, Master Earth, for you already know that it was his Grace’s summons that stirred me, yet you also assume that it was not enough to move me from my vows. And you are correct!”
It was hard not to smile at himself. Earth hadn’t quite realized he knew such a thing. But, now that it was out in the open, it seemed obviously behind his question.
“Our King is wiser than you know,” the hermit continued. “His missive bore no proud demand, nor cowardly plea. Just three clear words, spoken by his apostle, and not a jot more. Do you think you can name them?”
“Futility and peace,” Earth answered.
“You do see.” The hermit did not smile. Rather, he stood up tall and peered down at Earth like an old crow.
“You are more than you seem,” he went on. “Would you believe me if I told you that I’d not once spoken those words to anyone? Yet, that bastard infant, left toddling in the heart of Ambra those many years prior? He found them? He knew my creed?”
“How?” Earth asked in earnest.
“I do not know!”
The whites of his wide eyes glinted in the last light, his bolt upright frame electrified with energy. “And so,” he came close to Earth again, “for the first time in my twenty years, futility and peace were lost to me. As never before my futility and peace were shattered. Since I’d not remembered in I can’t say how long, I knew fear.”
“So you came right away?” Earth asked.
“Not at all. At first, I elected not to go. I remained in spiritual transcendence, confident in the capacity of time and silence to put a cold end to my doubts.
“But I could not forget. I could neither sleep nor rest. My food clung to my mouth like dust. My drink became stale and dry.
“It is insanity! It is a game! The mind, you see. It is the one and greatest power of mortal man, and our great tyrant’s breed planted a seed in mine that grew no matter how much I rooted and dug.
“How could he know? Who but infinitude could know? How could such a whelp, such a bit of tripe, spit out by accident and darkness so insidiously disturb my sweet retreat?”
“So you came,” Eater said, sitting forward. “To your Master.”
“I’d only met him as a babe. Now, here in these haggard lands, pressed into service with the likes of yours and others, I question whether he even sent me the words. Was it just the wind? Or a manifestation of my own self-destructive hopes?
“What did he say when you came?”
“Nothing at all?”
“He welcomed me to his council and spoke of the high recommendations I received from my former colleagues. Then he warned me to speak my mind openly at peril of my life. Beyond this, he has never mentioned the words to me once.”
“You haven’t ask him?” Earth was surprised.
“You would be surprised how long it took to learn how to speak again after twenty years. By the time I became able to give voice at council, we were embroiled in this war. I may be a recluse, but I am not heartless. I desire the good of the realm.”
“You do well, then,” Earth said.
“You are no doubt correct,” the hermit sighed. “Worse, still. I am still not skilled at speaking in the moment. It is one thing, here with you, and another entirely at the table. So I do what years of futility and peace have taught me to do.”
“Listen,” Earth said.
“You understand me.”
The hermit stood erect, eyes washing over Earth with a deep summary. There was fire there. Heart.
“You show yourself more than you appear, yet again,” he said. Then he promptly sat cross-legged upon the dirt.
“This is, I somehow believe, is why I was summoned. Omen of the Forgotten, God help us, if that’s what you are supposed to be, then am I your friend or foe in this dark night at the border of chaos and evil? Or, maybe, I wonder, are you my friend or foe?”
From his seat, the hermit leaned forward. Earth had become so accustomed to the man’s odor as to almost forget it. But now, it returned, stronger, if possible.
“How shall I answer you?” Earth asked. “What test need I pass?”
“There is treachery in the King’s council,” the unkempt little man replied, then pulled back.
Earth’s look betrayed no more than his voice.
“So it would seem. Tell me more.”
“I know little, yet I suspect much,” the hermit went on. “But of this I am convinced: you are the proof.”
This time, Earth was not surprised. But the implications still bothered him.
“I see,” he said.
“Do you?,” the hermit asked. “It is obvious. You bring neither futility nor peace. You are Disorder. You are Chance and Complexity. The council was already set against itself before you appeared. Then? Lightning in a powder keg! You have catalyzed the divisions that specters into outright malicious brinksmanship.
“Of course, you saw how Gaoltea reacted. He is a general who knows no peer. Your very existence is a liability beyond measure. Then, he speaks up for your placement? It is only to spite Acis. It is his pride.
“Worse,” and at this the hermit lowered his voice. “What if he means poorly by it? Do you see? He ensures the mission’s failure. There is bitterness here. There is an enemy at work.”
Earth saw well enough the implications. If Gaoltea were a traitor, that would indeed spell certain disaster.
“What do you bid me do?” he asked. “Confront the King? Remove my name? Against his clear command?”
“The Shadowsun is a good man, if ill begotten. He sees the hand of the Forgotten on you. That is what matters. Whether it is true or no that you are a sign of ancient divine love for us, he believes so. He will listen to you. He will heed your convictions. More so, while he will readily send his friends to their deaths for the sake of our land, I have seen how he struggles over the lives of our common soldiers. I have watched him grieve our losses, even weep for the people of the farmsteads and towns that are culled. Show him your doubt. Let him hear your weaknesses from your own mouth. Mark me. He will not command you to go.”
Earth’s face grew tight with frustration. He tried to hide it in the shadows, but he was sure the hermit could see right through him now.
“I will pray on what you say,” Earth answered after a long moment. You ask much of me. I have not the craft for deception.”
“I did not imply that -”
“futility and peace, master guru. Do not play my conscience like a gas lantern. I have heard your wisdom.
“The Madgyi will not spare you for your youth, nor honor you for your integrity,” he said, rising to drift out the door into the night. “Over the Foer Drihm Wall lies only death and greater doom.”
There was no malice is his voice. Only resignation.
Neither his odor nor his words left so quickly as the man.
The story of Earth continues…