Sylf's head was hurting like hell.
Sitting on the edge of his bed in the quarters he shared with two other guards, he could feel the faint rays of sunlight streaming through the narrow window like spears piercing his skull. Lyta needs to find a wine that is not so bad. His head was buried in his hands. If not she loses all the customers in that tavern.
The memories of the night before were a little messed up. He was able to remember not much more than a singer and his obscene songs, two kissing prostitutes and a dwarf who was half his size and drank three times more wine. And the vague image of a strange man pissing into the city's water reservoir. He was not sure if he had dreamed that last part, but some blood marks stained the tip of his sword lying on the floor beside the bed. I think I had to wield my sword to send the idiot away. He shook his head and stood, washed his face with the water from a basin, and felt slightly more human. The place was strangely quiet, the beds of his companions made, and but the odor out of his own intoxication, the environment did not stink.
He changed his tunic and put on a steel breastplate, buckled the sword belt, and went after something to break the fast. He left the old, filthy wooden door behind and took the long corridor that led to the common room of the men of the Force. Behind the other doors that lined the length of the way, all kinds of noises were heard, plagues, groans, whispers, and conspiracies.
Sylf strode, but not in a hurry. He took a deep breath and let the cool breeze of morning caress his face as if it were the swift fingers of the girl he had slept with the night before. By now the sun had set on the horizon and life had fully awakened to a new day.
The headquarters of the Force stood exactly in the heart of the city, at the foot of the royal palace; and so all the sound and odors of the city could be felt there. The bread being baked floated among the less desirable ones that came from the stables. The street vendors shouted, made offerings, and offended each other; whinnies and improprieties in the alleys; iron being chipped in forges; and so many others that were already part of the life of those men and women.
Hearing the noises of the city, Sylf knew the city was alive.
Silence scared him. He was born and raised there, with that noise accompanying him from day one. The memory of the times he was going to the country with his family, visiting some distant relative, made him nervous. The almost imperturbable silence of the meadows and pastures had been an agonizing torment. Sometimes he felt that his mission as a guard was to keep that life noisy by causing shouts and protests in the rounds by taverns and brothels, by arresting figures of noble blood, making them boisterous, and causing a fussy murmur among the common people because of this, and praises when they could defend the city from an attack.
He entered the common room without being noticed. It was not full, by that time most of the men were already in their rounds. Only two dozen other Citadines sat on the tables, talking as they ate boiled eggs and old black bread, swallowing it with something watery that some people called beer. Times of lean cows.
He walked over to a table and picked up a wooden plate and a tin cup, poured himself some eggs and bread, filled the mug. As he did so, he could not help but hear what two older guards were saying a few steps away:
“Times will change now. Old Celsius has a foot in the grave and it will not be long before that stupid son of his takes the throne.”
"The long-awaited defeat of the golden kingdom of Swandia," the other said in a tone of debauchery, his face already wrinkled still more tightly, staring into the bottom of his cup as he swallowed a long swallow of beer.
"Now those foppish swandis are going to bow their high noses." The other man's voice sounded bitter and stinking of rancor. "The Celsius brat will lose his throne in the first little rebellion some lord will set up, and then Swandia will know war again. No one has ever had the heart to face the kings there until now, but if the prince does not arouse not even pity how he will achieve respect? It's already a head shorter before wearing the crown.”
Swandia... Sylf thought, chewing his eggs and the tasteless bread of nothing, trying to imagine that this was the fresh bread he had just smelled. The Rose of the West, prosperous and rich sentinel of the Sundown. He recited the words he had heard as a child and had never forgotten. Swandia was almost like a glittering myth, a magical paradise that no one could ever reach. Even being a few hundred miles away.
For most of Krennix's men, the wealth and peace of the neighboring kingdom was a source of painful envy. Everything was difficult here: each year the crops were worse and the ghost of hunger began to haunt ordinary people; there was little work, and the beggars multiplied like flies; increasingly bloody skirmishes took place with other kingdoms as miserable as that, destroying families and reaping innocent lives; pests spread in uncontrollable outbreaks and it was impossible to predict when they would return; the children were uneducated, and more and more of them went into bands of robbers, and sometimes, if fate was cruel enough, they would plunder their own villages and kill their fathers and mothers and siblings.
Then these hard men, marked by the ills of life, turned their eyes to the west and came upon the Swandi bounty. Where almost no one went hungry, the war was but a faint reminder of a very distant past, and misery was the doom of a few. So it was difficult for these people not to harbor a sour grudge from Swandia, even the neighboring kingdom having not raided Krennix for more than six hundred years. And the crazy dream of taking that prosperous land in a war like old times was forgotten for centuries, for even if it doing not war, a Swandi army would crush any troop of those insignificant kingdoms.
Envy was what was left.
Sylf came back from his reveries as a Force mate sat down beside him.
"Hearing for the old men's talk," he said. "You've used to be better than that, Sylf.”
"True," agreed Sylf. "But in times like this all we have left is to listen to something useful from the old men and try not to do the same stupid things they did.”
“Bad night?” Asked the other after a long sip of beer. "Whenever I see you like this, it's because of a bad night. A too bad one, usually.”
"Wanda's caresses did not make up for the disgusting wine in Lyta's tavern," Sylf said sadly. "Life is too difficult in this part of the world. No decent food, no decent drink, more trouble than pleasures... Our good molls unfortunately cannot seem to make breathing worthwhile.”
The other man had reddened eyes and a tired expression on his face. Vigil on the wall Sylf supposed. His dark brown hair was ruffled, and on the broad shoulders covered with a dark green cape had a thin layer of dirt. The wind carries a lot of dust at this time of year...
"My compulsory service time will soon be over, and I imagine yours too Aleff. Have you decided if you want to continue in the Force?”
"I've been thinking about it." The upturned nose twitched at the sniff he gave before answering. "It's a difficult decision. What are the chances that we could have if we leave this life behind? Can you do anything other than wield a sword or run the streets and walls?”
“My father was a shoemaker all his life”, Sylf answered vaguely. "His father too. And the grandfather. And so on e and so on. Family thing, do you understand? I would have followed the tradition, grew up with leathery smell and glue from the shoe store back in the Slaughterhouse, and had little interest in other things. This of being a Force man was to my older brother, Sami. He liked stories about the honor and glory of battles, said it was his true call in life, and that his biggest dream was to make a career. Move from Citadine to Royal, and one day be the King's Shield. The old man was all excited, thinking that at least one offspring of that lineage would do better than mend nobleman's shoes that did not deign to look down; that would be someone in life.”
"I've never seen anyone who has the same ugly face as you around here," Aleff commented after a moment of silence. "What happened to him?"
“You even ask? The Lotus Plague.”
"Oh, yes, I lost an uncle at the time. Although probably the culprit for all this was him, who brought the first flowers here and...”
"I think Sami died without even knowing what knocked him down," Sylf continued, not paying any attention to Aleff. "He had just begun the training. I do not remember ever seeing the old man so proud. And then, from day to night, he dies and the family joy runs down the gutters of the sewer. You have no idea how bad I felt seeing my father so sad, I seriously thought he was going to jump into the Dirty.”
"What a depressing end it would be. So you saved the day then?”
"And ruined my life for good. It was kind on the pulse, you know? When I realized I was signing a paper in front of a brick-faced guy and the next moment I had a sword in my hand, and getting beaten up like never before.”
And for nothing, Sylf thought after he had stopped talking. The ungrateful old man never said a word about it. The sight of his father's lifeless face etched into his retina never to be erased again. His eyes were watery and distant, his crooked mouth half open, his gray hair dirty and unkempt. He was dead, though he breathed. He died together with his favorite son.
"It did not last much longer," Sylf said again after a few sips and bites. "He did not saw me entering the Force. But I think he was alive and would not have appeared at the ceremony anyway. It would not be right if it were not for Sami.” Another silence. Sylf grates these memories bitterly, but without hatred or remorse. “I have spent ten years of my life in this corporation. But I never felt part of it. My place is not here.”
"What will you do then?”
"Buy a horse with the coin I saved up with in those years and get out into the world." I think some good lord may need a man who had the sword in the service of the Krennix King's Force. Despite the hard times, the good reputation of the corporation continues.”
"Oh, there goes the bravest of the soldiers / Who fear nothing and devote their swords to the king / For the bloody glory march side by side / I in my life, the men of Krennix will never forget!" Sung Aleff, like the mothers who nursed their children in the uncertain nights of the war. “These times are long past, the glory no longer exists. Maybe it never even existed. But as you said, the name has weight. I think it would go with you.”
"I heard the old men talking about Swandia when you arrived. They imagine that the glory of their kingdom will crumble with the new king who is soon to ascend the throne in Freya. I do not think this is going to happen. Do you?”
"So, what do you think about going there? It is said that in Talanas the border patrol willingly accepts anyone willing to work, even desperate krennixes.” Laughter came out easier than he imagined, and with that he felt bit less miserable.
"It's tempting," Aleff agreed, smiling with the corner of his mouth. "The lords of Talanas are usually generous to loyal men. There's more food. And good brothels, because brothels exist everywhere.”
"And decent wine, I hope."
This made Aleff laugh out loud, which Sylf imagined had been heard even in Lyta's awful cellar. He swallowed a few more pieces of bread and said good-bye to his friend, for it was time for his rounds.
He went through another door and into a long, dark corridor that came out of the training yard. There some recruits were massacred by the same brick-faced man who had received him there ten years earlier. He struck with the blunt sword so violently against the old, chipped oaken shields that those poor boys could not bear to stand and fall to the ground with each new thrust. Their night will be hard for the pain in their arms. Sylf smiled a sad smile, sometimes he found himself imagining that the pain in his arms was still the same as his months of training.
But the pain was not the problem, he remembered. The trainer's screams and offenses were the real problem. Sylf never collapsed in front of him, the few times he'd actually cried were in his bed under the blankets, away from the mocking, always alert eyes of his companions. But some did not have the same strength, and fell into a copious and depressing cry in the early days. Those who did not run away in the same minute went through the worst days of their lives. The cruelty of the instructor only increased, and the merciless mockery of the other boys killed them a little bit each time.
The memory of that name made Sylf’s throat to get tight. The poor boy, the most miserable who had ever entered those gates. Too frazzled, too weak, too fearful. If he remembered it right, he was only there because her parents had perished during the Lotus Plague. Some plagues taken to people's lives, but they also destroy those of those who survive them.
That dark day, with a dull drizzle that insisted on falling from dawn until dusk, would never be forgotten by the men of the Force who practiced in the courtyard or circulated in the comings and goings of the rounds. The ancient tower of the command, which ran up one of the walls of the king's palace, remained there, serene and placid, to this day. On that wet day and chills that ran through the spines, Sander, somehow never discovered, climbed the tower to the top. It was said that he had stayed several minutes up there, wind and the drizzle wetting his face, as if washing the tears and relieving the pain of the wounds.
And then he threw himself. Without a sign, no shout or last words. It flew for a few moments, until the stone floor of the base of the tower put an end to its torment. For some strange kind of irony the wind stopped at the same moment, and so the too weak drizzle could not wipe the blood that sneezed on Sylf's face, which was a few steps from where Sander had died.
Those warm fillets trickled slowly down his face, as if they were small tongues licking at him as he watched, unrepeated, what was left of the boy with whom he had shared a room.
Even so many years later, looking at that tower was still difficult. But as his duty to fulfill was there, there was no avoiding.
He walked across the courtyard with wide strides that made the dust from the floor rise in clouds that whirled through the air. He greeted some of the other guards and stepped over the massive stone threshold of the open door that led into the tower. Inside, in a not-quite-large, soberly decorated hall, with not much more than a few pictures of old commanders and a table peeled by the time where a man of exhausted appearance, with gaunt skin and eyes darkened by dark circles, worked over a paperwork that seemed to have no end.
"Guill, you're going to die sitting at this table," Sylf said, standing in front of the man with his arms crossed and staring at him.
"That's my hope," Guill answered, his voice hard and dry, without looking up from what he was doing.
"If you say…" Sylf said with a shrug. Grab some papers from the table, read them quickly, and then ask, "What do you have for me today?"
"Let me see." Guill let out the quill he had between his fingers and began to rummage through the paperwork before him. After a few moments he finds the sheet of the day's scale and speaks: "Until noon you stay in the market round, and until the night in the central guardhouse of the west wall. And a free night again. Aren’t you lucky about that?”
"I get a few days in a row from an extra shift at night, to have more time off later.”
"And that free time you attend at Lyta’s has a name?" Guill asks, with a wry smile on his stinking face.
"It's none of your business, you impotent bastard."
"Then I hope you fall off the wall and die." The smile was gone as fast as a flash of lightning, giving way to a face tied and dark. "Go to work and let me take care of my business. And preach this crap on the wall before another unhappy idiot comes to bother me.”
"At your service, my lord," Sylf says with a mockery of derision.
He grabs the paper and fixes it on the mural near the entrance with a rusty pin that smudges his hand. He was about to leave when the unpleasant voice sounded again and even more grumpy:
"Wait, I forgot to tell you the commander wants to talk to you.”
"And what does he want?" Sylf asks, regretting it the next moment the words escaped him.
“How shall I know? I have more to do than to be a scrapbook boy, damn it!” His voice seemed like an intense spray of vinegar going directly to Sylf's throat. "Now go, the ancient one does not like to wait.”
Sylf knew that well. Without further ado he takes the circular staircase that led to the top of the tower and into the office of General Commander of the Royal Kenndrixe Force. Several laps later he reached the top, passing in front of the closed door of the common room of the Royal, the elite of the Force, the men who were closest to the king and were responsible for their safety. Among them, the most important of them all, and personal bodyguard of the Majesty, the King's Shield. That today could be Sami, ah, and the bastard would have, ah would have. There was laughter in the room, and the jingling of cups that were probably silver, which had real wine inside. And there was decent food, they said. Honor of the Royals, which the humble Citadines could only envy in that hard times.
He walked a few more meters and found himself outside the door of the commander's office, the man who had been leading the Force for almost forty years. He seemed to hear conversations there too, but much more tenuous and discreet. He pondered for a moment if he should interrupt the commander's conversation with whoever was inside with him.
He decided to knock on the door. He made three short and strong enough strokes. The commander's calm voice sounded from within:
“Come in, please.”
"Sir" Sylf saluted as he closed the door behind him. "I hope I have not interrupted any important business. I was told that you wanted to talk to me.”
"That's right Sylf, sit down, please. Would you like a cup of wine? This is humanly drinkable; I know the poisons you give for you to take down there. I've had my Citadine years too.”
He was a decidedly late-life man whom Sylf saw sitting behind an austere black mahogany table. The skin on his face was wrinkled, deep as canyons, his hands on the table were punished by battles and rheumatism, with crooked fingers that once held swords and led him to glorious victories and bitter defeats. Most of them all already forgotten.
"It would be my pleasure, Commander Rudson," says Sylf, sitting down in one of the large cushioned chairs that were there; soon after picking up the cup offered by the other man who was there before him.
"I believe you know counselor Garpaf," said the commander.
Sylf nodded. Garpaf was one of the advisers of King Belear, the son of an ancient and influential house. A very thin and tall man, slender in a strange way. His face was drawn in angular and serious features, which often cast shadows that gave him a frightening look. His hair, which fell to his shoulders, was smooth and grayish, which, along with his dark face, added even more to his sense of strangeness.
While Commander Rudson was speaking a few more random things, Sylf was tasting the wine. And he knew something about it, having learned from a peasant from other land when he was passing through town, and had spent a memorable night of drinking in Lyta's tavern. For his taste he imagined it to be from Rontah, a kingdom a little further east from Krennix, with not very high mountains and perfect climate for planting grapes. It was no wonder, but much better than Lyta's dark alcoholic juice.
"So, Sylf, I do not want to take up much of your time, I know you have a job to do," said the old commander. "Tell me, do you intend to stay in the Force now that your compulsory service is coming to an end?"
The question caught him by surprise. In addition to Aleff, he had spoken on the subject with several of his companions who were also close to finishing compulsory service, but he never imagined being questioned by the man who was not more important than the king himself.
"I've been thinking about it, my lord," he replied, trying to sound as normal as possible and disguise his nervousness. "But I still have not figured out what to do.”
"Right" The man looked tired; He closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair, fingertips clasped around his waist. He had little hair, which had ceased to be white, and had become a strange gray and dirty color, and stubborn to be rebellious, becoming messy and stuck up, giving the worn soldier an air of complete senility. He opened his eyes, and in a heavy, drawn voice she said, "I'm going straight to the point: I want you to succeed me in the Force."
For a moment Sylf thought the wine he had drunk had something strange inside that made him hallucinate. He had been unresponsive, perplexed, just staring at Commander Rudson without knowing what to say. This is impossible, this man completely lost his sense of reality, he thought, almost shocked.
"Sir," Sylf said hesitantly, after some time without knowing what to say. "I'm definitely not the right person for this job. I'm just a mere Citadine.”
"All the men who sat down in this very same chair over the centuries began exactly like this.”
“But... I am not noble... I never stood out in battles... not even I applied for a place in the Royals and...”
"Do not tell me about that bunch of stupid men who only boast of their post and prestige and set aside their true mission: to protect the king and the royal family at all costs." Rudson paused and reflected, breathing deeply, until he continued: "I'll be eighty-seven in a few weeks. Of these, almost seventy serving the Force. I feel that my days are coming to an end. And you know what I see? Uncertainty about the future of this corporation and kingdom. I am of the time that our men were heroes, today we are nothing but guards who separated fights in the street and that separate the king of his subjects. I see this institution so old crumble, and I can do nothing but choose a successor. And why would I choose any of those stupid Royals?”
"Forgive me the insolence, sir." Sylf tried to control the tension and measure the words at the same time. "But I believe anyone who came to the Royal post was to have qualities that would make him worthy of the position.”
"Great qualities, like the gold of his father. Which did not fall in my hand, by the way, but of our beloved king. Listen to me, my son: these two eyes I have are very tired by the time, true, but they still see. They see the exercises on the yard, see the rounds in the streets and the more aggressive actions. You say you never stood out. You are wrong, more than once I saw you leading an incursion against mountaineers in the outskirts of the city, controlling great confusions, in the common room the other guards hear and esteem you, and in the war I have seen you killing more men than any decorated knight aof pure blood. Do not fool yourself; this body is reaching the end of the line, but I can still walk, and see and hear. And I have felt, for some time, that you are the right man to replace me in this position, and to maintain the honor of our corporation. What do you say?”
So, dad, what do you think of that? Sylf had a hole in his stomach and he felt lost. After all, I can get as far as Sami would go. He did not know where the dead went when the final hour came, much less if the dead could hear it, but still he thought that his late father might perhaps feel a touch of pride. But the conviction to say yes failed him.
He felt that this was not his life, that it was not his place, that he was robbing a place of privilege of someone who would truly deserve it. A thin, distant voice whispered in his ear that he was only taking Sami's place in the world, wanting to be what he would surely be: far more than a decaying shoemaker. It seemed that under his hair bubbled a Sami, disguised as Sylf.
But at the same time it was a tempting proposition. Suddenly everything might have made sense, and in the end he would not have just thrown away ten years of his life.
His head was starting to ache again.
"Commander, I honestly do not know what to answer.”
“It's all right. I'll give you time to respond. Reflect well, sleep on the subject. I guarantee you will make the right choice.”
"I hope so, sir," agreed Sylf hesitantly.
"I've noticed you too, boy," Garpaf said, finally making a sound from the moment Sylf entered the room. "And let me just say Commander Rudson's choice is more than right.”
"I am honored, Counselor.
“No formalities. Call me juts Garpaf, please. I prefer to be less formal with who I serve when we are far from the center of power.”
“All right, Garpaf.”
“Garpaf... Garpaf...” Said the commander, again closing his eyes and leaning back in the chair, and now also wiggling his fingers in the air as if telling something that only he could see. “This boy is the right man which will overthrow Swandia when the new and weak king rises to the throne. Ah, my dream so old...”
Sylf imagined that behind those closed eyelids the old and senile man remembered his days of glory. With wandering fingers in the air he sought in a weak despair reaching them again. For a moment Sylf saw himself that way, many, many years later, and he was afraid. What good are glories if time and old age take away everything without mercy? He felt her guts wrap.
"My lord commander," he said, trying to sound calm and sensible, "Swandia has not fought a war for centuries, but the art of war is still alive. And even a foolish and weak king would get a powerful army with as many resources as Swandia has.”
"Here's a new reason to be a commander: wit and discretion." Garpaf opened a narrow, strange smile. "The folly of many men before us has ruined this kingdom.”
Before he could say anything else, the commander fell asleep, and sat there, breathing rhythmically, and swaying gently from side to side. Garpaf laughed and said to Sylf:
"Yes, he is too old, and gradually he is leaving his life of sanity behind. But what he said is serious, he wants you to succeed him. It was just what we were talking about when you knocked on the door. And at that moment he was very lucid, much more than I've gotten used to seeing him in the last few months. My opinion of you also told him a little bit to make up his mind.”
"And how do you know so much about me? If I remember correctly, I almost never see him circling the city. At least not in my shifts.”
"Well," said Garpaf with a feline smile. "The towers of this city are tall, and there is always a discreet window for those who enjoy observing life following its natural course. And ears can always have extensions.”
"I think I understand, then.”
"Of course, you're a capable man.”
Sylf could not take his eyes off the sad figure of what looked like a ghost sitting before him. A memory in the shape of a man, perhaps.
A memory that had taken possession of that decaying, dying body, and refused to leave. He caught himself thinking what memory would be that would take his body and haunt him in old age, perhaps sitting in that same upholstered chair behind the same austere table. The figure of his brother? The disappointment and agony of the end of his father's life? The face of the mother whom he had hardly known and remembered only fragments of? The terrified eyes of the men from whom you took your life in the war? Wanda and her soft fingers?
He was at a crossroads, and not sure which way to go. And either way would lead him straight into the unknown. And he feared the unknown as much as he feared silence. To be a mere Citadine, to do war at one time or another, once a shoemaker’s son and Krennix's man above all else was the most he knew about life. Knowing the world beyond the borders of the home or moving up the chain of power made him tense in equal ways. He felt well in his heart that the freedom he so much dreamed of might never really exist, whatever path he would take at the crossroads.
At that moment he realized that the one who had guided his life forever was precisely this fear of the unknown. Maybe that's how it is for all men, after all.
He thought he heard Garpaf say something, but he did not understand.
"I'm sorry, I distracted myself and..." When she looked away he saw the other chair empty, and on a table nearby, the empty cup that had been in Garpaf's hands.
The old commander was still in his deep sleep, snoring softly and moving from time to time.
Sylf, somewhat confused, decides to leave. He placed the cup he still held next to Garpaf's after taking another generous sip. He walked with calm steps to the door, and tried to close it with as little noise as he could. He went down the dark circular staircase, passed the hall without paying any attention to Guill and his grumpy grunts.
The cool patio air flooded Sylf's lungs as he took a deep breath while reaching the outside. His head still ached, now a little less, but it continued. His thoughts were like a faceless tornado, mixed, and would not calm down anytime soon. The recruits continued their training, other men continued their routine exercises, the guards came and went from their rounds and duties. Everything seemed normal. Everything in its place. Life followed meekly, after all, its normal course. But it seemed to Sylf that the world had been turned upside down and shaken until everything was out of place. He mumbled this feeling throughout the rest of the morning he had been doing the round the Market.
The Market was a huge open-air square right in the center of the city. The traders were in spaces carved in rough stone, almost conical rocks that emerged from the ground and raised up to five or six meters high, and which lined around the square forming a large circle that left the place looking like an arena of fights. These stones had been there forever as the official records of the sages of the kingdom reported. They were already the landscape of the village that had been there long before Krennix blossomed. The ancient legends said that in the past they were the horns of terrible beasts that ravaged the place, destroying crops, killing cattle and devouring people. But then a very powerful wizard, whom no one knew or knew where he came from, arrived and fought alone against the terrible band and defeated them, burying them only with their horns outside so that their deed could never be forgotten.
If the story is real, he managed to do so, Sylf wondered as he caught himself staring at the big stones, letting go of his worries. It was one of the earliest legends he'd heard when he was little, and throughout his life he had heard it so many times that it had become impossible not to think about it again and again. Even more so after having entered the Force and having to spend almost every day to make the round.
And he liked to do the round there. The Market was never too quiet, at any hour of the day there were merchants from every corner of the kingdom, selling some wine, cheeses, vegetables and fruits, meat and various types of smoked goods. Small animals such as strange birds from stranger lands, dogs and cats, snakes and lizards. Even in difficult times like these there was always movement there, with shouts, curses, sung offerings and a chatter that would leave little accustomed ears almost crazy. The products were very bad, in small quantity and with absurd prices, but nevertheless the heart of the city continued to pulsar intensely, without never stopping. Without ever silencing.
He walk around the square. Another lap. One more. It was a quiet day, beyond the noise, nothing out of the ordinary happened. He walked once to the center of the square, past a few tents selling old books, candles and gleaming knives, many people walking back and forth and some Force mates as well.
From the sad eyes of the bronze woman poured clear water that fell into a large square and shallow pool, with a background of colorful tiles. She was holding a small lamb in her arms while lying on a rock, her head reclining down, as if looking at the animal. The statue gleamed faintly under the weakening sun; the sky had been covered by long fluted clouds.
There, sitting on the edge of the pool, was another guard, staring at the floor and a melancholy expression on his face. A simple, common-faced fellow, brown hair as well as his eyes, and in a crowd would be no more than just another undetected. Sylf sat beside him, briefly listening to the churning of children playing in the water on the other side of the fountain. Enjoy this innocence as long as it lasts.
"One of the boring days," the other guard said, sitting there.
"How much could happen? A man opening the stomach of a fishmonger because he thinks he's stealing it in the price of herring?”
"It happens all the time. And you know this.”
"True," Sylf admits, looking up at the horizon. "It seems like I want to close my eyes to these difficult times we live in."
Hard times. For a moment he paused to think of the number of times he'd used those words on that day that he was not halfway yet. And they really were. The commotion of the children nearby was no more than a mean of forgetting hunger, putting aside the anguish of their parents without work at home. To pretend life was still good. Could the spoils of an invasion in Swandia change the future of these children? The gold and silver of the rich and fat swandi lords might bring the times of plenty back to the miserable people. If he was a commander, he could make it happen.
But he also was not sure if a full tummy would make these children forget about their parents and siblings who they could lose in this war. And this war could easily turn out as a huge failure, in that case the children would have lost their relatives and still walk around with nothing to eat.
He looked at his companion at a glance and noticed that he was drinking from the spring water with a small brass mug.
"Clye," he began, "If I were you, I would not do that. I scared off a man pissing into the water tank last night, and you know the water from that fountain is exchanged with the water there every morning.”
Clye glared at Sylf as he finished swallowing what he could no longer spit. After that he laughed and threw the empty mug at his companion's head. He got up and took a few small turns in circles as he stretched his arms.
"You know, Sylf, I think I'm going to become a mercenary two years from now when my compulsory service is over."
“Yes. It's the closest I understand to freedom.”
"What about the oath? You, like everyone else, swore that even leaving the Force you would honor your sword only for noble purposes. If any Krennixe knight crossed your path and knew of the broken vow he would have the right to kill you.”
"And is there a nobler end that the personal satisfaction of a man?"
"Some would say yes."
"And they can stick their nobility up in their assholes," Clye said, with a hard tone, sitting again beside Sylf. "I'm tired. Tired of oaths. Of being stuck with the king and his stupid wills. A mercenary fulfills a contract, receives his payment and that was it. No other bonds of honor and loyalty.”
"And you plan to go where to be a free man?"
"The world is big, and there will always be some lord in need of dirty service that his knights full of honor cannot do.”
Somewhat of a commotion begins around a tent farther away. Where the guards were sitting, it seemed that two men were fighting each other's wrists for some triviality. Sylf was standing up when Clye said, "Leave it to me, it's a small thing, and it's my area of it. See you later Sylf.”
“See if you do not kill anybody this time.”
“I do not promise anything.”
Clye soon disappeared from Sylf's eyes, mingling in the mass of people gathered around the two brawlers. He had little interest in it, after years separating fights thus had lost grace to him. He turned his attention back to the water of the fountain again and thought of the strange figure he had seen relieving himself in the reservoir, which stood on a hill a little way from the center of town, and halfway to Lyta's tavern. Krennix was all cut down by subterranean ducts that carried that water to every corner, propelled by a contraption made by oxen invented by the old masters of the Royal School long before. He did not know if it was still pulled by oxen or if the masters invented something else over the years, but the fact was it still worked.
The ducts must be filthy after so many years of work, but they are under the earth and no one sees them; yet the image of a fat man perhaps more drunk than I pissing in the water that everyone uses is more complicated to get out of the head.
He had this image more or less clear in his memory, but even so, he was not entirely convinced if this was true or just a dream filled with the wine-like poison he'd taken by the liters. The blood marks on the sword could be from some other bum who crossed his path and he did not remember.
The morning followed without any further incident. When the great castle tower clock struck the noon, Sylf returned to the Force headquarters for lunch. He swallowed cold salted meat and some beans, accompanied by some hard-to-identify pickled vegetables. The lunch beer was a little better; it was a dark and thick one that gave some pleasure to being drunk. A lucky day.
He finished eating and headed for his turn on the wall. At that time the sky was already completely covered, the sun had gone, but the air was still considerably hot. A weak, yet steady, wheezing wind blew and made Sylf's cloak sway as he walked.
He crossed a few alleys and narrow streets until he reached the north wall. On the way he saw some of his childhood friends, who took other paths in life. He crossed with Jord, who had become a remarkable leather craftsman, but who remained as humble as his father had lived before him. He also saw Thar, who was now a respected family man who forged shovels and hoes. Ken had made out well, opened a brothel for an audience of exotic and enriching taste, but refused to leave the alley where he was born and raised. Or maybe he thought it was a good place to hide if the king happened to find out what that exotic taste of his audience was. Only Pater had not changed at all, still the greatest and most notorious drunkard Krennix had ever known. Sylf could not remember him being sober at any moment after the age of twelve.
When they were little they flocked around the streets and promised never to grow. But life does not take into account the promises of children.
He stood leaning against the wall waiting for the other guard to descend down the ladder that came from above. He greeted him when he arrived and soon began the long ascent of more than twenty meters. Before reaching the middle of the way, he could already feel that the wind was blowing very hard and began to cool down.
He got up there and walked a few yards along the broad edge of the wall, the wind fluttering in his cloak and cluttering his hair. He entered the guardhouse and sat down on the bench. He glanced around and saw that nothing was missing, the flags for travelers were there, as well as the gaudy and the crossbow beside the quiver of arrows for eventual needs. In some corner he knew that a scrawny book had been left to gather dust, which he had never finished reading. He searched for it until he found it, and so he had a companion during the tedious hours that awaited him.
Usually nothing happened there. Although this was the wall with the main entrance to the city. At most some caravan passed by, traders entered and exited through the gate, or an envoy or entourage of another kingdom arrived for some diplomatic mission. Besides that, the unlucky man taking this turn just stared at the vastness of pastures and plantations scattered to the horizon, with some small villages painting the landscape in the distance. A little farther south were the brown, restless waters of the Dirty, a river that ran through countless kingdoms from the northern reaches of the continent to the Elderian Bay in Swandia. If he looked farther north, he could see the thin, slender silhouette of a mountain range, which in reality was immense, with peaks so high that they were in an endless winter. Sylf had once read, when he was younger and spent more time in the library than there in the brothels, that these mountains separated two of the provinces of Swandia; Talanas, the eastern arm of the kingdom, from Barn, the rough land of charcoal. Then these mountains diminished greatly and dotted the border between Freya, the capital's province and Ikker, the other northern province. It was pretty much his only pride to know that he was one of the few men of the force who could read and write, even with the origin he had.
He repeatedly alternated the look between the book and the bucolic landscape where time seemed to pass much more slowly. Sometimes he would look longer into the west, where the sun was marching toward Swandia. The perfect and unreachable realm. The land that the king and his generals longed to conquer with blood and death, but who were not so foolish to try. He could become one of those who would head this suicidal journey if it happened. I would die with glory at least, he considered, and they would all remember the mad commander who led his troops to death in the west.
A little pain in the head kept coming up from time to time that afternoon, and the strong wind that carried dust did not help at all. But it was nothing to bother him too much, and so the afternoon passed without anything worthy to remember. Only the sky that darkened more and more, with clouds that were towering up in the horizon and advanced with intensity, pushed by the wind that blew more and more fiercely.
Sylf, shortly before leaving the post at the end of his shift, felt the most sincere pity of the next unfortunate fellow who would have to sit there perched in the approaching storm. If I'm stupid enough to accept old Rudson's proposal, I'll change a few things about these absurd shifts, he thought as he left the guardhouse, and the first thunder exploded with frightening violence, making the thick stones of the wall tremble. Sylf thought it was best to hurry before Guill's ominous words turned truth. I need the warmth of Wanda's arms, maybe she'll help me decide what...
As he took the first step over the edge of the wall toward the stairs, he felt a brutal pain in his left shoulder. For a second he did not know what to do, just standing there staring up at the sky that had begun to crumble into cruel lashes of rain and hail. That was when he felt another punch, this time in the middle of the chest, and he returned to reality and realized what was happening. The thickest arrow he had ever seen had pierced his steel breastplate as if it were made of paper, and the blood flowed down his belly and reached his waist and legs. One more arrow hit him on the leg, and yet another on his right thigh.
Everything happened so fast that he had no reaction. An attack... but... but... how? From where? This is impossible... I need to do something...
He went back inside the dark guardhouse and groped blindly for the gaudy. He needed to warn the troops of what was happening. When he found it, he went back outside. He drew a long breath, begging for the memory of his father and brother to make the instrument sound louder than the storm.
And he blew with all his might, until his throat almost bleed. He blew desperately. It blew, it blew and it blew... until it stopped.
The air simply stopped passing as a ruthless arrow was shot through Sylf's throat. The gaudy fell from his fingers, struck the edge of the wall, and plunged into the gray, misshapen space that was below, the rain falling so thick it looked like clouds. Amidst the wind, the rain and the thunder, he heard screams, the sound of swords clashing, arrows whizzing through the air and desperate people.
He lost count of how many arrows he had on his body, just felt that it did not hurt any more. His strength left him, his legs gave way and he collapsed.
As he fell it seemed to his eyes that strange figures jumped on the wall, floating as if they had no weight. But the image was fading, just like all the sounds of before. He plunged directly into everything he was most afraid of, the unknown and the silence.
Before the end, he thought he saw Sami's face.
+Oct. 19, 2018, 1:53 p.m. 0 Report Embed 1
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