By Yonatan Schlager
Part I: A Father in the Grass
The shining sun spread its splendor, gracing the countryside with its brilliant rays. Aven bathed in it atop the treeless hill, his green eyes alight. The wind rustled the rolling grass, brushing against Aven’s bare ankles as he whisked around the hill. He had always liked that feeling. His father walked on ahead, silhouetted by the ever still sun. Below sprawled the Great Wharf, where his city’s warships swayed. Their brilliant satin blue and gold banners billowed with every gust. The wood, though strong, creaked and groaned as the waves arrived and fled. Behind them sprawled the city of Whitney, the ancient heart of civilization. Its spires glistened, and its sounds were muted in the wind.
Aven’s father stood at the edge and looked out over the sparkling sea. His golden robes whipped and swayed as he stood, as straight and permanent as a stump of oak. He turned, and his sharp golden eyes beheld his son. The world held its breath in that moment, the gusts swaying no more.
The sigils on his father’s golden cloak began to shimmer in the light. One a crown and the other the etched face of the Guardian. He held out one hand to his son and with the other, pointed at an old ship at the end of the docks. “Meet me there my son. Board the ship and make your way down to the large cabin at the back of the corridor. Open it, only when you hear my knock. You know my knock my son?” Aven nodded. He knew the pattern. His father’s eyes eased. “Good. Go.”
Aven rushed down the hill excited. He always liked the Great Wharf. Thick redwood lampposts lined the gravel roadway along the docks. Aven whisked around them, tumbling toward his favorite shops and stalls. His boots pressed into the stones of the road, squeezing the small pockets of moss that clung between them. Up ahead, the stalls were ablaze with life, the aroma of smoked pinecones and fresh berries and herbs were thick and heavy in the air. Sounds of sailors and merchants haggling over wares made their way to Aven, and he smiled. This was his home.
The ship at the end of the docks loomed before him before he knew it. It towered over the other ships. It stood, a dour emblem in the otherwise tranquil spring morning air. Its woods were not the bright and strong colors of the other ships. It was dark and foreboding, ancient and seemingly sentient. As if it held some great power Aven couldn’t understand.
He made his way to the ladder along the dock and climbed aboard the hull. Aven looked to the jack staff, but no flag hung over the bow. He lowered his eyes to the few men aboard, sailors and servants of the as of yet unseen captain. They all kept their eyes about their business, barely sparing Aven a glance. Aven, a little unsettled, urged open a large oaken door and made his way down a long corridor. The cabin at the end was spacious, but bare. There was only a small bed of furs and some miscellaneous items inside. Aven locked the door and lay down to rest on the bed. His eyes gazed at the ceiling of interwoven wood. He tracked the patterns until his eyes drooped lazily, and after what felt like an eternity, began to close.
Aven rose startled. It took him a second to realize where he was, and when he finally got his wits about him, he heard his father’s knock at the door. He ran excitedly toward it almost slipping on the floorboards and tumbling face first into the bronze handle. Aven composed himself and yanked open the door to find the man standing before him to be decidedly not his father. And Aven was terrified.
Part II: A Whistle in the Waste
The snowbanks drifted and shifted in the harsh winter wind. Flurries wavered in the air, falling to cover the wildflowers of a long-lost spring. White blended with white, and the world became a haze of obscurity. In the midst of the white there was a speck of something else, of man. He was stumbling, rushing up the snowbanks, cold wind whipping at his cheeks. He grew numb, but not numb enough to dull the pain of his open wound. His hands clutched at his stomach, holding himself together, blood wet and sticky running through his fingers. His cloak and furs were stained with it, as was the white behind him. He clawed his way forward, panting and gasping for the thin air. Mucus had already frozen and cracked on his face, and the snow seared his wound. As he reached the top of a bank, he heard them. The wind carried their howls and their barks, and they grew ever louder. Fear gripped the man, and he stumbled into the snow again, releasing a puff of powder into the air. His bloodshot eyes stared into the vast open sky, snow clinging to his chin, and as he lowered them he caught a glimpse of shadow in the gloom. He exhaled, hugged his stomach tight, and struggled toward the dark shape.
The man’s shivering hands reached into his furs and grasped his rawhide flask. The touch of it against his cracked lips pained him, even as he felt relief spread through his limbs. His left hand returned to his wound and his right brushed his wavy hair out of his eyes. He exhaled and trained his eyes on the shape once more. It was a structure of some kind. Upon reaching it the man urged himself through a cracked wooden door. The structure was a small cabin of sorts, rotting away in the cold winter gloom. A three-legged table was turned over in the far corner with no chairs to accompany it. A couple of unlit sconces adorned the walls, and some furs lay on the floor, which seemed to double as a rug and a makeshift bed. The man pulled out his silver sparker and lit the sconces, as well as the small hearth at the far end of the cabin. He lay there hoping the dogs had lost his scent in the nothingness.
The man woke to barking. Snarls and ragged breathing bore through the cracks in the boards, ravaging the man’s ears. He sat up, paler than before. He couldn’t see much as all the fires had gone out. The man unfurled the furs, and he found himself to be in a cold sweat. Fever was coming on. He crawled to the hearth and lit another fire, the dry wood cackling as he lay before it, shivering. He tossed and turned as the embers dropped on his cheeks, leaving soot and ash where they burned ominously. Tears formed at his eyes, dropping to the flames. The demons outside continued their dance, as the fire inside waxed and waned once more, and the man sat propped against the wall, only the decrepit wood between him and the monsters beyond. And so, the man at his wits’ end closed his eyes, waiting, listening. He listened to the cries of the hounds. He listened to the patter of the snow. He listened to the faint whistle, and then the crunch of bone.
His eyes shot open. The howls turned to cries in the night. Boots were crunching snow, men were shouting, and beasts were dying, gurgling out their last breaths as they choked on their own blood. The man fixed his eyes to the door, unable to move any other part of his decaying body. “Hey, help me move this one. No, not there, right here,” some unseen man said. The man wanted to cry out and tell them he was here, but no sound escaped his mouth. He struggled against his weakness, pushing against the ever-tall wall of his hopeless agony. “This cabin ere’ ain’t charted on our maps, Bev. Should I peek in?” He heard a slight grunt. “Ya can, but nothings in there a’ guarantee ya.” The man prayed. He would have cried if he could form tears. He would have scraped through the dead wood if he had the strength. Instead he prayed to everything he knew, to all things out there, that these men would open the door.
He listened to his belly labor up and down against some unseen weight. He listened to long away trees, brace and speak against the world. And he heard rusty hinges creak in the frigid air as the door swung open.
“Hey get in here!” The newcomer struggled to get the man onto his broad shoulders. Two others rushed in and joined the effort, carrying him past a pile of dog carcasses riddled with snow white feathered arrows. They lay him down in the snow and loomed before him. They each bore shining steel plate armor with a white sash strung from the left shoulder to the waist and covered with furs weighed down by snow. The armor was peppered with leather belts and buckles, holding up various viles and blades. They each looked to the broad-shouldered one, who removed his helmet to reveal his fierce green eyes. He lowered them to the man in the snow, and the man in the snow gaped at him for he had found what he sought. Before him stood his long-lost king to be, Aven, unhurt, strong and fierce, gleaming beautifully in the sunlight as its rays shimmered off his plate. The true son of Whitney was still alive. The man in the snow opened his mouth, gasped and tumbled back, deep into blackness.
Part III: A Specter in the Tower
Aven planted his plated boots firmly onto the stones and swung his steel sword upward with all his might, cleaving his foe in two. Droplets of blood splattered on his armor as he used his momentum to spin and carry a downward stroke through the shoulder of his next opponent. Aven halted and surveyed the ramparts. His soldiers had overtaken the platform as blood pooled on the white stones. Aven removed his helm and brushed his hair with his left hand. Flecks of white were beginning to overtake the deep black, as if white clouds had overtaken a still dark night. He raised his green eyes to the peaks of the spires above, silhouetted by the cloudy skies surrounding them. Wind whistled through the cavernous halls between them, and Aven and his men had to brace themselves against its force.
More men thundered toward them. Aven raised his sword to block a falling axe blow, but a slash from the side opened Aven at the armpit. He spun away, feigning a slash at the chin, and swinging with all his might at the outer thigh. The man doubled back, and Aven finished the other with a quick blow to the neck with his gauntlet. He felt the blood pooling in his plate, and parts of those he defeated in the stitching of his leathers. He shrugged forward and struggled on.
Aven adjusted his golden sash, displaying the sigils of his father. Both the Crown and the Guardian were stitched with silken lace, emanating a power missing from Whitney for so very long. He heard the cries of men dying, and smelled flesh burning. He wiped at his eyes as they watered from the smoke, and they returned to those of his men. “Soldiers, take the towers and Whitney is ours. Be swift, ride the wind, and avenge the lost. Go.”
The men rushed forward, bellowing and swearing oaths into the thick, smoky air. Aven rode the wind toward the citadel and glided up the spiral staircase, towards the heart of civilization, the seat of his fathers and forefathers. With every step he took his pain and fury grew.
When he reached the cavernous room, he found a rounded redwood table where three men resided in their armchairs. He towered before them, the wind from the window billowing his cloak about, behind him. Aven removed his helmet once more and whisked his hair away from his eyes, his plate shimmering in the light of the sconces. His sword reflected the flashing and flickering of their fires. His steel gauntlet clenched at its hilt, and his other urged the strong wooden door closed. He grimaced, and his green eyes met theirs, and they looked to the ravaged king. And they were terrified.
Aven lowered his wet sword, blood falling from its point, and stepped passed the crumpled bodies and the overturned redwood table. Blood was beginning to stain the silken sash, and his plate armor dripped with red. Day had turned to night as Aven had stood over his deed. He rested his hands on the cool white stone and leaned his head into the thick night air.
The clouds had departed, and the moon loomed large before Aven, its crevices and caves spotting its milky surface. It hung over the Great Wharf, where his satin blue and gold banners were being fastened. They swayed in the wind over the strong wooden ships, and Aven eased, letting his face bathe in the brilliant moonlit rays. They spread their splendor, gracing a countryside torn by the clash of their king. He leaned in pain on the windowsill and sighed long and deep into the cold wayward wind, as the men below hailed the returned and mourned the lost.