Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Lantern Guard by Jeff Pfaller

After thirty years of peaceful rule, King Imes disarms his Lantern Guard, leaving Arbalest with an uncertain future; by Jeff Pfaller.

The sword glowed, too late for Arbalest to snatch it back from the fire. The blade he'd sweat and bled and lived with, as much a part of his arm as flesh and bone.

Twenty-two years with this blade, and it hadn't failed him once.

And now all he could do was watch it burn.

Seven score of his weapon's brethren throbbed in the flames, burnishing the faces of seven score warriors in copper. Training dictated they show no emotion. Training compelled them to await the next order from King Imes, standing atop a pedestal. When they erect this King's statue, it will stand just so. A perfect copy of this moment.

The only armed men remaining in the square were the king's personal honor guard. The army's rank and file, mailed shoulders scraping as they shifted on their feet, had formed up without their weapons. They had filed in after King Imes ordered every member of his elite Lantern Guard lay down their weapons for inspection.

At the time, it didn't feel wrong to obey. A Lantern's sole purpose was to serve his King.

Even if that meant laying down his life.

"My final command is a gift. You men who have given everything to the violet and gold standard of your country," King Imes had addressed them after the last broadsword clanked onto the pile, looming tall, but still only to the towering king's shoulder. "Be free. Live your lives. Do not let me or any other man make choices for you any longer. War has not touched this land since our grandfathers turned back the Black Cavalry and broke them on the teeth of the Indus Mountains. Be at peace. Grow old, my friends."

With that, he'd stepped to the pedestal, the mass of weaponry doused with kerosene and pitch, and torches touched to the base.

"You men are free to go," King Imes rumbled when the fires had died, his earthy timbre rustling hairs on the back of Arbalest's neck. The King pursed his lips and rested a hand, unmarred by callous or weather or battle, upon his sword pommel. He knows it is not that simple. He wishes it, but it is not.

No one moved.

Arbalest wanted to smile, but could not. An order we cannot obey.

Several hundred infantry lined the edge of the square, their oiled mail trimmed in indigo, forming an unbroken invitation to the castle doors, flung to the world outside. Arbalest recognized one by the door, Timm. He bore a tangled beard spreading over his shoulders like a cape. Eyes a mottled, overcast sky. He shook his head and spat into the dust.

They are not men, Arbalest saw Timm mouth to the soldier next to him, who frowned in pity.

Shouting.

Arbalest spun. Culverin and a handful of others surged forward, pressing their bulk against the unarmed men between them and the King. The yelling escalated, and Imes stepped down, confusion written on his face. The Lantern Guard died for the rulers before him. Done what none of the other soldiers or people throughout the country had the courage to do. Been the best fighting force any land had ever seen. King Imes shouted louder than anyone else, booming for peace. The cries for reason echoed in every corner of the square, but no ears heard them.

Culverin and another, Sheye, the only man in the Lantern nimble enough to go to war with daggers, slipped through the jostling wall of soldiers. They stood within an arm's breadth of King Imes. Jerking back, he threw a golden gauntleted arm across his chest.

A blur flashed past Arbalest, and a man pinned himself to Sheye. Through the rioting crowd, Arbalest had difficulty, but there was no mistaking the glistening point of a sword sprouting from Sheye's chest, pointed directly at the king. Timm stepped back, chest heaving, a stolen sword taut and crimson at his side.

Imes darkened, eyes overcast. The king swelled and turned on Timm, unconcerned at being unarmed, unafraid to match one still hot with blood. Arbalest took a pace back - his whole life predicated on rushing into battle when no other man would. The king didn't desire or command his aid - who was he to give it unbidden?

Arbalest froze his retreat when Culverin's corded arm encircled Imes neck and dragged him roughly away.

The square erupted.

Half of the disbanded Lantern Shield flung themselves against the walls of the castle. The ones who remained fell on each other in a fierce tangle of fists, limbs and rough curses. Some fought the soldiers. Some fought with the soldiers against their old brothers in arms. The honor guard, the only men in the square with steel, were quickly overwhelmed in the crush and lost sight of the king.

Arbalest, from his vantage point, followed Culverin and Imes struggling through the melee. Culverin kept low, impossible to see, keeping the king's arms pinned to his sides and dragging him swiftly to prevent his feet from gaining purchase. Arbalest pressed against the wall, weaving between men, men who not ten minutes ago would have thrown themselves onto the fire for their king, but now stood idly by. Arbalest panicked, soon Culverin and Imes would escape the square and disappear into the night. Everyone would be called to arms to hunt for the king, but would it be too late.

King Imes had brought the kingdom peace. He'd cemented an end to the fighting with their bitter rival to the north, the Paddle Men of Arisa, who controlled the only water passage connecting their land to the rest of the world. It had cost his sister's hand and a dozen garrison of his own men, but there hadn't been a skirmish on the border in thirty years. The only fighting that occurred afield was between the soldiers and the Lantern Guard, over petty squabbles. The itch to fight had been beaten into every man in the kingdom since the kings of old carved the southern lands out for themselves. This was a country born on the battlefield and raised by warriors. Peace did not suit it. If it couldn't cross steel with a bitter enemy, it grew restless.

The door yawned - Culverin needed only break free of a handful of men locked in hand-to-hand combat before he'd vanish into the city. Arbalest hesitated, and let instinct take over. His heart calmed, his feet grew light and fleet. The hitching post, seven stairs and standard pole became tools in his hands. Arbalest flowed over them and alighted atop a pedestal, arm circled around the stone stag crowning it for balance.

Culverin and the king emerged from the seething mass, Imes' face red and pained, Culverin glancing over his shoulder at a pursuit that might never come. Arbalest steeled himself and leapt, air rushing through his hair and salty beard, heart swelling in the moment before impact.

Tackling Culverin was like tackling a coat of armor. Every muscle stone, every joint a spur digging into him. Culverin moved impossibly fast, but so did Arbalest. Twisting his shoulder, Culverin sought to drive an elbow into the bridge of his nose. Arbalest turned the advantage back upon his old training partner, knowing his tendencies, knowing the man made mistakes when his blood ran hot. Ducking, Arbalest smashed his forehead into Culverin's eye socket.

Warm liquid gushed down his face. Culverin tightened and thrashed, but Arbalest pinched his eyes shut, locked his arms and used his weight to drag the smaller man to the ground. Shouting rang out around them, but Arbalest refused to let go. Culverin went limp and many pairs of hands shook Arbalest's shoulder.

It wasn't until he heard the voice of his king rumble, "Let go, warrior," before he allowed himself to exhale and the soldiers to pry he and Culverin apart.



Arbalest circled the building once more. He'd lost count of how long he'd watched the windows belching steam, or how often he'd paused at the mouth of the side alley, hunkering in the smell of rot while rats scurried around him.

With sunset threatening, the opportunity would soon be lost. And what then? You betray no one. Arbalest passed the windows again, moist air pungent with the smells of flowers and ochre, the aroma alone choking his lungs. Somewhere inside, past vats of boiling water and stores of pigment, the old captains of the disbanded Lantern Guard debated the future. Arbalest needed to be there. He needed to help his brothers-in-arms find a new way.

And then he needed to tell his king exactly what they decided.

"I only seek to avoid more bloodshed," Imes had said after he'd returned from locking Culverin away in the little used dungeons. The king still wore his armor, disheveled and dirty after the scuffle. One of the decorative pins fastening cloak to shoulder guard had been ripped away, leaving its conspicuous brass mate alone on the opposing side. "If the Lantern Guard wants peace, that was my intention. I will do everything in my power to give it to them," the king clapped a mailed hand on Arbalest's shoulder, sending a shudder through his bones. "But if they want violence, I cannot have any more battles in my streets. We need to do what's best for the realm. You understand?"

Arbalest nodded, and the king smiled wearily. "Hard roads are always worth walking, Arbalest. If only to look in the mirror when you reach their end."

So Arbalest had waited, until his old mentor, Munga, sent a boy to fit him for new breeches and a tunic. "You've no use for battle gear anymore, ser," the straw-haired boy stuttered before padding off, not waiting to see if Arbalest followed.

Now the boy was gone, and the king supped in the stark towers on the hill, leaving Arbalest staring at the ashen door of the dyer's shop. For all the will he had to push against it, it may as well have been made of stone.

Arbalest searched the crowd milling to and fro. Amidst the sea of sullen faces, blind to the all the goings on, he caught a pair of eyes trained on his. His stomach cinched into his rib cage, and the face belonging to those eyes disappeared.

Moments later, Joyal popped up at his elbow. The man smelled of leather and oil, his skin a weathered saddlebag. He was one of two-dozen in the Lantern Guard who trained ahorse, leading every charge and driving a wedge into the enemy line so the rest of the foot could shatter it.

"I'd worried they'd shut me out," Joyal said under his breath. "Every soldier and his first born patrol the streets. They say we're free, so long as five of the king's men move about with us."

Arbalest had no such pursuers. He was one of the king's men.

"Do they still shadow you?"

"No, though I slipped through every dark alley in the city to lose them. I wish I'd found you sooner," Joyal said. "They'll have to let me in with you at my side."

"Why?" Arbalest demanded, but Joyal already tugged him through the square. He tried to dig in his heels, but the ground sloped towards the door, rendering his approach inevitable.

Joyal shouldered through the entrance. Arbalest's breath caught in his throat, the odors inside choked everything else. Humidity smothered him. How the women toiled all day in this escaped him. Joyal seemed unaffected, and he forged deeper into the dyer's shop. Some of the women raised their eyes slowly at their passage, sweaty bags hanging under their eyelids.

A door nestled inconspicuously behind vats of alder bark and dogwood, their robust oranges and blues swirling with murk under the froth clinging to barrel edges. Joyal and Arbalest squeezed between, the wood outside surprisingly cool to the touch.

Joyal knocked and whispered something into the crack that formed at his bidding. The gap yawned wider, what lay beyond even darker than the stuffy dyer's shop, if that was possible. Door clattering shut behind, utter blackness swallowed Arbalest.

Arbalest heard breathing, but no one spoke. "One of you strike a light!" Joyal gasped, telling Arbalest the tension filling the room wasn't just imagined.

A tentative match was struck, illuminating the stern, chiseled face of Arbalest's old mentor, Munga. Shadows flickered around the other dozen men, masking their identities while the burst of acrid sulfur dissipated. A few leaned on the hewn oaken table, pressing their crackling, calcium filled knuckles against the immovable wood. "We thought you Honor Guard."

Joyal dismissed Munga's glowering with the wave of a hand. Munga's eyes bored into Arbalest, judging his quality.

Arbalest shifted nervously, clenching and unclenching his fingers behind his back. Munga grunted and nodded to the head of the table where Urnn sat, the eldest of them all. Legend said most of the guard didn't live past their thirtieth birthday, and that may have been true in times of war. Now, forced retirement was usually how a man left. Back to his family and what little life he'd managed to cobble together from stolen nights at the saloon or sparse days on leave in the capitol. Many had found wife and children, peacetime left them idle with little to do, and a sword could only be sharpened so much.

By the time a man was thirty, the annual tempering became a trial. It was a tourney of sorts, put on for the public's entertainment. Anyone unable to spar twenty times without collapsing from exhaustion was made to leave the Lantern Guard. In past years, it was considered a grave disgrace. But as less and less died, men lived well into their later years. Succumbing became an honor, the arena was never louder than when a man who'd given his life in service of his country knelt at the feet of his king with nothing left to give.

Urnn was well into his sixties, and had never knelt.

Arbalest never saw him without twin sword handles poking up behind, strapped to his leathery skin with crisscrossing bear-hide bucklers. He waited for their familiar sight, when Urnn sat and the room followed suit. But like the rest of them, he'd been amputated.

"Let's continue," Urnn growled, running his fingers nervously along the table edge.

"Procuring weapons inside the capitol is folly," one of the younger men said, a warrior Arbalest didn't recognize. He must have joined the order within the past year, or been with the outer patrols. He doesn't feel the void where his weapon should be. He wasn't even wearing any of his old gear, just a simple tunic, breeches and a pair of bracers. He doesn't know what it means yet.

"We've no need for weapons," Munga ground his teeth, but all rolled their eyes at Arbalest's old mentor.

"We will soon," Riddek piped. The only one still standing, he leaned against the wall with thumbs looped into a belt, one in an empty iron ring that once held an axe. "Manny has a wise head on his shoulders." At his words, the young man beamed, but Riddek quickly added, "For a pup."

"Are we going back to war?" Joyal said, overeager. He almost fell forward in his chair. At the word, everyone in the room shifted, became more dangerous.

"We are done with war," Urnn sighed, shoulders slumping. "Any violence we cause will only hurt the country we swore to protect."

"And what have they done for us!" Naples said, his frame dwarfed next to Munga. "Cast aside and left us to fend for ourselves."

"Our oaths still hold, whether we are armed, or not," Urnn pounded the table, eyes gleaming in the lantern light. "We will not bring a fight to any nation, not when our own country has no quarrel. And who here will turn a blade on his own countryman?" Urnn glared, daring anyone to speak. "The only reason we have ever existed is to pay for peace with our lives and our blades. Now that peace is here, to shatter it would be treason."

"So..." Joyal said, body stiff and eyes wide, taking in the men ready to leap over the table and strangle each other. "...why do we need weapons?"

The men glanced at each other, waiting for someone else to speak. Even Urnn, the boldest of all of them, stumbled over the words as they came to his lips. "We are leaving the capital."

"We are?" Joyal asked, shocked.

"Those who wish," Urnn nodded. "The king has no use for us anymore, and we have no use for the king. We have decided the best course of action is to transplant ourselves to the farthest corner of the country, where we may be forgotten."

Joyal blinked, mouth working up and down in disbelief.



"You lot should return to your families," Munga shook his head and slammed his flagon on to the table. "You'll only provoke things."

"Provoke who? You saw what happened in the square. As long as we are near soldiers, they will start fights we cannot finish. And the guard will bear the brunt of the punishment!" Naples cried. "King Imes was the only honorable man in that square." Dark glowers settled on him, and he withered underneath them.

"Those who wish to stay, can, Munga," Urnn said. "No one is forcing anyone to uproot their families. But do so at your peril. The soldiers have grown bolder with our women and our daughters, and will not stop just because we have no more duty to call us away from home."

"Why not tell the King?" Arbalest said, face flushed with heat. A dozen pairs of eyes glimmered at him. "If he knew what was happening..."

"The king cannot control the will of men. The soldiers will take, with no real fear of repercussion. They are the peace. Who remains to keep them in check?"

"The Lantern Guard," Munga said proudly.

"The Lantern Guard is gone," Urnn snapped. "The king made his choice."

"And it was unwise," Munga pleaded. "We need to stay. When he sees the folly of his ways he'll reinstate us."

"We can't afford to think like that," Urnn dropped his head sadly. "Else we will wither from the waiting."

"It will make it worse for those who stay behind. We have strength in numbers!"

"Then move with the numbers," Urnn said. "Or stay under the thumb of the capitol."

Munga shook his head, "I will not. I will honor my brothers and do whatever it takes to hasten your departure, if that is what you wish. But I stay."

"Anyone else?" Urnn asked the men around the table. None nodded, including Arbalest. I didn't shake my head, either. "Then it is settled. There are many preparations we need to make. Manny had the right of it, procuring weapons within the capitol is folly. If we wander around armed, the soldiers will take notice. We'll visit a smith in Stapleton, ten leagues to the north." Manny smiled, but Munga only glared at the tops of his hands.

"Naples and Riddek, go to the rest of the guard and find who will stay and who will go. Once we know, we'll need to find a way to get them all out of the city without the guards noticing."

"What can they do?" Joyal scoffed.

"Follow us." Urnn turned to the rest of the group. "There is also the matter of Culverin, and the others who fought in the square."

"Let them rot," Manny spat.

"They were your brothers-in-arms!" Munga rose.

"Any man who attacks the king is no brother of mine!"

The two had to be held back. Even though neither bore arms, Arbalest was certain blood would have been spilled somehow.

"Enough!" Urnn shouted. "I stand with Munga. Any man should be able to leave of his own free will." Manny grunted, but Urnn continued over him. "No matter what his deeds, no matter how recent. When we reach our destination, we will give them fair justice, more than they would have received in the lower military courts."

"But the king -" Arbalest protested.

"Cannot be everywhere," Urnn said. "He is a good man, but he is not aware of the corruption festering underneath him. If he presided over their trial, I've no doubt they'd go free. But they will receive a judge and jury of soldiers, and we know how they will weigh them, no matter what their character."

"Who's going to do that thankless task?" Joyal piped, looking around. None volunteered.

"Cowards, the lot of you," Munga spat. "I'll do it."

"I'll go too," Arbalest blurted, regretting it as soon as he opened his mouth. I'll help them leave, then tell the king. I don't know where they are going. I won't lie to him. "They are honoring me for saving the king. They are expecting me in the castle, and I can help Munga enter unnoticed."

Urnn nodded, unquestioning. This was what destroyed the guard. We put too much trust in those around us. "Then it is settled. We need to move as soon as possible."

Munga glared at Arbalest, and stalked out of the room. All the other eyes turned on Arbalest, no one moving until he stepped back into the sweltering dyer's shop.



Arbalest and Munga didn't exchange words as they worked through the crowded streets of the capital. The air smelled of hay, animal dung and oil - it was slaughter season, and farmers from the surrounding lands filed in with their animals. Soon, the entire city would be consumed by the annual feasting to celebrate the turning of the seasons, one last chance to indulge before the belt-tightening and rationing of winter came.

The buildings in this quarter of the city hunkered low but packed in tight, leaving barely enough space between for a child to squeeze. That left the near overflowing streets as the only way to traverse the neighborhoods. When gaps in the stone briefly appeared, Arbalest caught a glimpse of the capitol's keep, keeping watch over everything from its perch on the stepped cliff at the base of a rusty mesa encircling the fertile crescent below. Geographically, the most defensible place in the entire realm, which is why the ancient kings chose to dwell there.

But after each of those glimpses the fortress moved farther and farther away. "Where are we going?" Arbalest drew up to his old mentor's shoulder. The man's jaw remained clamped shut, tight and knotty.

Arbalest did not have to wait long for his answer. They moved away from the thoroughfares lined with markets and vendors and into the less crowded dwellings of stone and thatched roofs. A veil of dust lingered above the hardpan road, dirtying their ankles and the bottoms of their cloaks.

Munga is taking me to his home. Scanning ahead, Arbalest tried to spot it. He'd only visited once, when his mentor had need of a spare riding cloak. That was back when Arbalest's captain noted his deadly ability with a sword and offered him to the Guard.

All the structures blended together, but he spotted Munga's wife, Harlona, standing outside a door. While he remembered nothing of the home, he remembered Harlona. Ten years ago, she'd intimidated him, throwing open the sash and catching it in the palm of her hand with a slap before it slammed against the wall.

Harlona looked every bit as infuriated now as then. The skin around her eyes wasn't merely shadowed, but darkened permanently by years of fatigue. Thin hair lay limp against her scalp and shoulders, but framed the sound jaw of a proud woman. Broom jerking as she swept life's leavings from their home into the street, even her sturdy dress hitched and bounced around her.

Just past Harlona, a child drew glyphs in the dirt. Munga touched the boy's shoulder, causing him to jump, dash into the house and let his stick fall to the dirt. A small girl, towheaded and garbed in a dress more burlap than canvas, raised her chin at her brother's flight.

"Father is home," she said quietly to Harlona, who jerked up. A tight smile touched her face, one of exhaustion and relief. Then her eyes fell to Arbalest, and they hardened again. The smile fled.

"Annia, inside." Harlona snipped. The girl had already vanished inside the home, not waiting for her mother's words. Munga paused at the door, regarding his wife without touching her.

"The children can stay outside. We are fetching something, and then we will be gone."

"They'll stay in their rooms until you leave," she said. "And they certainly won't be allowed outside while he is here," Harlona made no attempt to mask who she spoke of. Arbalest shifted uneasily.

"They should not be afraid to look on their father."

"Yet they are. If you want to go inside, I cannot stop you. But he doesn't take another step." Munga gritted his teeth even harder, looking up to the heavens, clenching and unclenching his fists. "None of them sets foot inside our home."

"I am not part of the guard anymore, m'lady," Arbalest offered. Both snapped their necks and glared - Arbalest couldn't tell if Munga or Harlona was more enraged.

"Then what are you, ser?" she seethed. Arbalest opened his mouth, and realized he had no answer.

"Arbalest comes inside."

"No."

"You'd have me ill-equipped for battle, woman?" Munga bristled. "Come."

Munga brushed past his fuming wife, refusing to budge from where she stood. Arbalest squeezed against the doorjamb, apologizing over and over to Harlona, who may as well have been carved from stone. Her glare shot icy spikes into his back as he padded after Munga.

Rounding the corner, he came upon Munga and his son staring at each other. The boy regarded his father quizzically, while Munga froze, as if faced by a viper. Neither acknowledged Arbalest.

After a few moments, Munga took a tentative step forward. The boy shrank at the movement, but popped his head back into the passage. They continued this dance, father advancing and son holding his ground despite his instincts, like approaching a feral cat.

Soon enough, Munga knelt in front of his son, but neither reached out to touch the other.

"Is your father truly terrifying?" Munga whispered.

The boy furrowed his forehead, and then shook his shaggy brown locks back and forth.

"Why do you act so? What has your mother told you about me?"

The lad shrugged, and bit his lip. "You never play with us."

Now, it was Munga's turn to look confused. "You take my armor every night when I return."

The boy's face fell then, the look of a child incredibly disappointed in how little a grown up understands of their world.

Munga stared at the boy, and gently touched his shoulders. "Whatever I was before, I am done with him after tonight."

The boy turned his placid, brown eyes up to his father's and let a smile touch the corners of his cheeks. Munga drew the boy in for a hug, gentle at first, but then growing in intensity until Arbalest thought he might crush the lad.

A sharp intake of breath at his side startled Arbalest, and there was Harlona, quivering hand held to her mouth. Face, body and garb still bleak as stone, but the edge of anger nowhere to be found.

Munga realized they had an audience. Rising and striding to his wife, he still didn't care that Arbalest stood in their company.

"After tonight, no business from the Lantern Guard will grace this house again. Nor will it touch my life."

Fresh tears sprung to Harlona's cheeks, and she pinched her eyes shut, shaking her face from side to side.

"I swear it," he said. She turned up to meet his stare again, and the anger was back in her expression. "I have never lied to you. Have I?"

Harlona refused to break, or to answer.

"Have I?" Munga demanded, and all the fight drained out of her. She collapsed into his arms, weary. Munga's eyes squeezed moist tears. His old mentor whispered things for Harlona's ears only, but Arbalest was able to catch one phrase. "Do you remember why you first fell in love with me?"

Harlona didn't answer.

They broke apart, and Munga turned to Arbalest, as if he hadn't just seen the man's most intimate moment, meant only for those bound by blood. "Come," his voice was cold and calculating.

The two men left Harlona to sweep up the boy into her arms. A few quick turns, and Munga thrust open a door tucked into a forgotten corner of the house. Dust motes swirled from inside, the must catching in Arbalest's throat. Misshapen piles draped with bolts of cloth laid inside.

Munga snapped one of the sheets away, revealing a war hammer inscribed with runes, a short sword and a handful of throwing daggers. Rubies and garnets inlaid all the hilts, next to golden depictions of a murder of crows, the animal from Munga's family crest. Arbalest remembered seeing it among all the glyphs and deeds Munga had carved on his old sword handle - but these bore no markings.

"I thought we had no need of weapons," Arbalest said.

"We don't. I hope to never bare naked steel again," Munga picked up the short sword, hilt bound in simple black leather, thrusting it into Arbalest's hand. "But I will not die defenseless on this fool's errand."

"Why not leave him? He attacked the king."

Munga dropped his head, running his fingers over the stout handle of the war hammer. "Honor will not allow it."

Weapons and blades tucked away under heavy cloaks, a casual observer would never know they bore arms. A trained soldier might stop to look twice, but unless he recognized them as members of the now defunct Lantern Guard, he'd pass them by.

Harlona stood at the doorjamb, arms across her chest. Munga's massive size dwarfed even her, and Harlona was not a small woman. "Leave one," she commanded. "For protection." Munga nodded and pressed a long handled sword into her hands. Even though she a woman and garbed to work about the house, Arbalest would not choose to cross blades with her, even over many foes he'd faced in his travails.

Munga nodded back to Arbalest and they ventured out into the streets, clinging to the dead spaces and attempting to hide in plain sight.

With every step, the castle drew closer.



The castle felt like a familiar, warm embrace. The immovable stones under his feet. The smell of grit and mold mingled with lye at the servant's tireless work to keep the flagstones clean. The echoing murmurs of speech - the fortress was a living, breathing thing.

Everything was much as it was only days ago. Except he and Munga were not welcome.

After the door guards allowed him to pass, he considered going to King Imes and telling him everything. As he stood just inside the foyer, the people of the castle bustled about him, paying him no mind. He was invisible. Of any of the doors leading into the depths of the castle, all were open to Arbalest. Taking a deep breath, he drank it in.

Before anyone noticed the oddity of a single man motionless in the castle entrance, Arbalest marched through one of the doors with purpose.

The smooth leather under his calloused fingers did little to ease the tension settling over him the moment Arbalest dropped a rope through an unwatched window for Munga. There's no going back now.

No one noticed two deadly warriors, armed to the teeth, knifing their way into the bowels of the castle.

We are at peace. Why would they expect anyone to breach the castle?

"It will make escaping easier," Arbalest whispered as they lurked behind a cracked door in a little used pantry, watching the patrols and patterns of foot traffic to gauge when best to emerge. "There are many holes in the defense, all we need to do is wait for them to open."

"Escaping will be infinitely more perilous. Culverin will want to hack and slash his way out," Munga said. "The fool is cursed with a lack of subtlety."

Arbalest swallowed his words and regripped his sword. Munga and he had agreed to avoid drawing arms at all costs - even if it meant Culverin's life. Which begged the question, Why did we bring weapons? Munga's hands hadn't left the warhammer at his side - and since strapping it in, Arbalest noticed a distinct change in his mentor. He stood taller, puffed his chest farther - moved with a decisiveness he'd lacked since the night in the square. Even Arbalest found fear replaced with the nervous edge that came on the brink of battle.

"Now," Munga commanded. They slipped from the pantry into the shadows, clinging to walls and gliding over the stones. An alcove lay ahead, where torch and sun refused to touch and two men could lurk unnoticed while they planned their next move.

Arbalest reached the darkness alone, and spun to look back. Munga had paused in front of a blank wall, the stones discolored. His fingers trailed across the empty space, eyes roving over it, wanting to see something that wasn't there.

Two scribes, heads buried in an unrolled parchment, walked straight for their hallway. If they continued, they'd walk right into Munga and raise the alarm.

Arbalest tugged and pulled at his mentor until he grudgingly gave way and stumbled into the darkness, not moments before the scribes walked through the very spot he'd been standing.

"They took it all down," Munga said, more to himself than Arbalest.

"Took what?"

"Our history," Munga lifted his chin, disbelief written on his face. "All the tapestries and banners. All the accounts of the wars and battles won. Gone."

Arbalest risked another glance with this new perspective. Munga was right. The castle walls, which had been decorated with brave deeds of the Lantern Guard and soldiers alike, lay barren, as if the castle was nothing but stone and sand.

"But who..." Arbalest started.

"King Imes," Munga shook his head. "He doesn't just want us disbanded. He wants us forgotten."

For a while, the two men stayed silent in their alcove, surveying the goings-on of the castle. Not only to find a moment to slip closer to Culverin, but also to see if anyone in the castle noticed what they had.

People laughed, jesting with another as they went about the work of the castle. Arms were always full, food carts always overflowing. The product of the peace the Guard had fought so hard to win over the years. He wondered what Munga saw.

"Now," Munga whispered quietly, and they vanished down the hallway. Arbalest cast one more glance backward, at the bright sunny common area they left behind. From now until the dungeon, they'd walk by torchlight in deep shadow.

They met few other souls in the bowels of the castle, passing snuffed out torches, cold to touch. They'd been out for hours, as if they'd lay dark for a fortnight. The few guards they did see were easy enough to avoid, all walked with purpose in the cellars, rather than on patrol.

Munga loosened the war hammer as they reached the dungeon. He nodded at Arbalest to do the same. If any blood was to be spilled on this rescue mission, it would be now. There would be only one door to Culverin's cell, and in front of it, two guards. No amount of subterfuge or slinking through shadows would get them past. The best they could hope for was a pair of quick knockout blows that would keep them down long enough to escape with the prisoner before an alarm was raised.

Arbalest's sword came out of its scabbard with barely a whisper, and he nodded to Munga. The cold sweat and calm of battle came over him, and he hardened. The Lantern Guard was trained to be swift and sure. Unless something went wrong, they'd be upon the two guards before they knew what came for them.

The two warriors sprang around the corner, bounding toward the cells, blunt ends of their weapons held high and ready to strike a helmet or unguarded temple. Both slowed their advance and stopped, dumbfounded, when the small foyer leading to the half circle of cells lay empty. A pair of chairs lay shoved into a corner, one toppled over as if the owner had stood up suddenly.

"What is this?" Munga growled, spinning on his heel. The passageway from which they came lay quiet and empty. Stretching back upwards to the castle, the torchlight illuminated flickering orbs of stone until the space was swallowed in darkness. None waited here for them, and none pursued. "A man who threatened our very king. Left unguarded."

Munga shook his head and spat in disgust. Now is not the time to point out it makes our task of freeing that man easier. Arbalest turned to the cells, the interiors of each yawning black. He fetched a torch from the wall and held it aloft, casting flickering, striped shadows into the recesses of the dungeon.

"Culverin!" Munga hissed as Arbalest went from empty cell to empty cell. The only sounds that met their ears were the rustling of vermin within the concourses of stone and the far off drip drip of an unseen water source.

After checking a half dozen cells, the light fell upon a man laying on his side. The shadows cast behind him were harsh and angular, and he did not stir. Munga nodded, and Arbalest recognized the green and gold colors on his tunic, the colors of his house. An empty bowl with a half-eaten loaf of bread lay forgotten within arms reach.

Arbalest thrust his arm through the cell, bathing the inside with orange light. "Culverin!" Munga said, more insistent. "Get up!" Arbalest's brow furrowed. Something is wrong.

Culverin's shoulders hunched after Munga raised his voice as loud as he dared, the man's name bouncing off the walls and echoing down the hallway. If anyone happened to be approaching at that moment, they'd be sure to hear them talking to the prisoner.

Culverin rolled over to face the door of the cell, and Arbalest drew back in horror. Munga cursed. The collar of his tunic was stained the ugly color of blood, and a pool shimmered underneath the man. His eyes were dark and hollow, clouded over in anticipation of death.

Culverin blinked slowly and rested his head on the stone. A dagger still clutched in his hands, gotten from somewhere, the edge of the blade dark with his life's blood.

Munga threw himself against the cell door, trying to batter it down. Time and time again he lowered his shoulder, only stopping to curse at Culverin and relaunch himself at the hinges, the lock, anything that might give. Arbalest hunted frantically for a key or a sliver of metal to pick the lock.

A long clang rang out behind him, Munga hammered at the door with his weapon. The horrifying sound echoed and shook the castle itself. The door would never give to force. Culverin watched their fruitless efforts in apathy, a pained smile creeping across his face.

The gongs of war hammer on iron took on the timbre of death knells, and Arbalest calmed. He's gone. Culverin's eyes stared blankly into nothing, and the dagger clattered out of his hands onto the floor.

"Munga," Arbalest said softly. Munga kept on with his onslaught, refusing to be defeated by a mere door. Stepping between between his mentor and the door, Arbalest put both his hands on his shoulders. "He is gone." Munga blinked back tears, staring past his shoulder at Culverin's corpse.

The sound of voices from the hallway startled both of them and brought them out of their grief. Arbalest's heart leapt into motion again, but the voices were not raised in alarm, they had the easy cantor of two old friends jesting with each other. Despite all their raucous noise, none in the castle knew of their mission.

Arbalest and Munga's eyes shot to the barred window, left unboarded so the the guards might have fresh air and not be suffocated by the smoke of the torches. The iron was crusted with orange patina, and had seen better days.

Munga didn't hesitate, throwing his hefty war hammer with both hands at the window. The head rang true, and the sound of it splashing into the moat below marked the second time in as many days that Munga said goodbye to a weapon.



"I've doomed my entire family."

"They have no proof you tried to free him," Arbalest said.

"No. But after everyone leaves, there will be none else left to accuse," Munga replied.

"You have the word of your family and your neighbors to vouch for you. I will help you get rid of your weapons. And you were one of the Lantern Guard's most honored members. Certainly that amounts to something."

"Something..." Munga trailed off, shaking his head. "We will see. I will not lie to my king. The rest of them..."

Dawn broke over the eastern city walls, bathing everything in a pinkish hue. The capitol would fully awaken in an hour, and the Lantern Guard would begin to trickle out among the rest of the vendors, farmers and travelers leaving from the annual festival. Once outside, they'd come together a few leagues up the northern road, where they'd continue en masse to their new homes. Precious few, like Munga, had elected to stay behind.

The door opened, and his boy trotted out, struggling under the weight of a sword. The blade would be a matchstick in Munga's hand, but to his son it weighed as heavily as a great sword. Harlona followed, standing in the doorway with a tense but pleased expression on her face.

Arbalest instinctively looked over his shoulder, to make sure none of the city's peacekeepers lurked nearby.

"Back in the house, boy! Why are you bringing that outside?" Munga shielded his son from view of the street. The boy hesitated, looking back to his mother. She gave a tight nod, and a look that turned Munga to stone. The boy held up the weapon, handle first, to his father. Munga took it reluctantly. "And?"

The child stood on his toes and pointed to the handle, settling back on his feet with a bounce. Munga's eyes widened, and the boy scampered back to his mother, hiding an expectant smile. Harlona's eyes moistened despite all her toughness.

Munga ran his hands over the carvings Harlona and his son had made in the hilt, the legacy of his service in the guard. His old mentor clutched the sword in both fists. Arbalest met Munga's eyes, nodded, and turned to leave the city. He was certain Munga would not want his old pupil to hear his voice break.

The morning wore on, streets thickening with people. The further Arbalest walked from the city center, the busier it became. With the festival over, many in the city had no reason to linger. The Lantern Guard would mingle among the crushing exodus, and none would be the wiser until it was too late.

His heart quickened, spying the gate ahead. The only time he'd walked under that archway was to march to war. And he'd never left the city without knowing his destination. Arbalest wanted to dig in his heels, but the push of the crowd carried him forward, and soon he stopped fighting.

A hand gripped his shoulder, pulling him out of the river of people. Timm's grizzled face sneered at him.

"Where are you going?" he insisted. Arbalest fought the urge to reach for Timm's weapon and take off his hand at the wrist. Remembering the rusty smell of blood from the square, he thought better of it. "Coming from the dungeon, are you?"

Arbalest's blood turned to ice. He can't know. There's no way he can know. He met Timm's azure stare and shook his head. His eyes narrowed, but Arbalest saw the uncertainty. Still, he doubted that would be enough for Timm to release him.

"Timm! What have you got there?" Another guard shouted deep within the shadows of the gate. The new man pushed against the grain of the crowd, craning to see Arbalest. His uniform bore no stripes, unlike Timm, which meant he was of lower rank.

"One of our old friends in the Lantern Guard," Timm did not break his gaze. Trying to escape."

"Escape what?" the other man scoffed, and shrank back when Timm turned his glare on him.

"You two!" another deep voice shouted from on high. A captain poked his head over the battlements, shielding his eyes against the early morning sun. "What's this?"

"An old member of the Lantern Guard!" the young soldier piped eagerly, before Timm cuffed him on the arm.

"And?" the captain said impatiently.

"He was causing trouble," Timm shouted back up.

"Send him on his way. We've no time to deal with squabbling." The captain turned to bark and order at someone else.

"I only want to pass," Arbalest said calmly, careful not to look Timm directly in the eye. One man. Make it past this one man, and you're free.

Timm's hand clenched harder around Arbalests tunic.

"Come on, captain will have our hides if we don't go back to our posts. He's not hurting anything," the younger soldier whined. Timm grunted and shoved Arbalest back into the crowd. As Arbalest moved, Timm walked with him on an elevated pathway to the side of the main thoroughfare, eyes locked on his.

Arbalest was almost three hundred paces outside the city before Timm turned from his post outside the walls and disappeared inside.

Arbalest walked alone through the day and into the next. The crowds dispersed, until none shared the road with him. The lands around the capitol swallowed its people, nestling them back among the evergreen forests and murmuring meadows. The next evening, Arbalest crested a hill, almost drawing his weapon at the sight before him. The Lantern Guard had sped to their rallying point. Tents, men and horse blanketed the rolling hills. A quiet river ambled amid the camp, oblivious to the occupation. Likely winding through this landscape for centuries, watching birds, animals and trees grow and wither next to its banks.

The Guard will survive, even without a purpose.

Men jested on the edge of camp, children ran after their fathers and the entire place buzzed with the activity of old comrades coming back together. The throng was overwhelmingly filled with men, but many women mingled among them as well. All busied with the mundane tasks of striking and setting up camp, building cook fires, tending to horses and staking out tents.

"Arbalest!" a voice shouted, and a stout, barrel-chested giant of a man drew up next to him. Naples slapped his horse's neck vigorously. "It feels different to be outside the city, yes? It's good that you came - I'd heard Munga stayed behind and feared you'd do the same."

"Munga listened to his heart," Arbalest said.

"So did we all," Naples drew a deep breath through his nostrils. "Look at us. This is something that can last, Arbalest. The hardest part of our lives is behind us. All we need to do is find the way forward."

A man on the edge of camp hailed them. Naples raised his arm in return, shifting in his saddle.

"We should join up," he reached under his cloak and drew out a simple dagger, black hilt with a single emerald in the pommel. He held it out to Arbalest. "Here. We'll need this sooner than we like. The more who are able to defend themselves, the better. Keep it tucked away, though."

Arbalest smiled, but shook his head. "I'll take my chances."

Naples expression darkened, but he cheered quickly and laughed. "Fair enough, lad." Spurring his horse without checking if Arbalest followed, hooves kicked up flecks of sod behind him.

The safety of the group called. Naples rode through the borders and vanished, one man amid the living mass of humanity carving out a new identity. With them, he'd be part of the Lantern Guard forever. Like the carvings on Munga's sword, that legacy could only be erased by fire and blood.

Stomach churning, Arbalest clicked his tongue and spurred his horse in the other direction. The nausea abated as the sounds and cries of camp faded, until the noise was replaced with silence, and the sickening feeling in his gut gave way to nervous excitement. Arbalest straightened in his saddle and galloped, enjoying the feeling of the wind coursing through his hair.

There was no road, no path. Not until sundown, when he came upon a thoroughfare for merchants, and a peddler with a cart full of grain drew up at the sight of Arbalest emerging from the grasses. Hand shooting to his sword, his horses whickered nervously.

"Who are you?" he called out, voice tight with fear.

Arbalest reigned in his own horse and spun it, so the man could see he carried no arms. Not anymore.

"My own man."

5 comments:

  1. Many, many thanks for featuring my story on your site!

    Jeff Pfaller is a co-founder and fiction editor for Midwestern Gothic, a quarterly literary journal focused on celebrating Midwestern writing and authors. His first fantasy novel, Valley of the Titans, is forthcoming from Deepwood Publishing. He can be found online at http://jeffpfaller.com

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  2. Taken to a world beyond. Beautifully written. Could not stop reading.

    Orie Hegre

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  3. Great story. Thanks for sharing it. Really talented writing.

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  4. It's all about narrative pull, and you have crafted a story that has it.

    Well done.

    Keep writing,

    A.

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