Sunday, October 16, 2011

Story Time: A Paladin's Tale (Chapter 7: Pathway)

Tally-mark the moon: Full. Waxing. Taxing. New. Waning. Gaining. The sun always knocks on the front door, wiping its feet politely before entering the moon’s house.  It is never taken to the back, dark room.
In the great hall of his parents’ manor, a small castle really, is a gathering of large portraits of the male lineage of his noble ancestry, the last acquisition being one of Gaenlon. The commissioned artist chosen was a technical genius with materials: paint, lacquer, varnishes, and mediums were at his symphonic command. Sable-tipped brushes in a range of widths and girths were like extensions of his hands and fingers when equipped. With composition, he intuitively understood balance, weight, and structure. On the topic of figurative, anatomical knowledge, he was as skilled as a physician, and his subjects felt three-dimensional and animated on canvas. What he lacked in artistic insight was the ability to capture the nature of a being, of a soul: if there was any sort of complexity to the subject’s personality, this artist often failed to capture these intricacies. The viewer of his portraits were often so awed by his technical ability they failed to realize that once having seen one of his masterpieces, they had no further insight into the person in the painting. He failed to capture heartache, joy, or tragedy: ultimately, he failed to capture complex consciousness. However, the exception was Gaenlon’s portrait. The artist painted the youth just after his vows to the Knights of the Silver Hand. To be fair, there was only ego in the portrait, and not capturing Gaenlon’s pride would have been as remiss as not capturing that the light came from the eastern window, or craftsmanship of his cloak pin. Gaenlon’s smug expression, with an edge of both entitlement and innocence, had a presence equal to the pigments and varnished layers. Every brush stroke displayed Gaenlon’s self-involvedness, even as a young man.
Gaenlon had been bred to believe in his unconstrained role as protector, hero, and that he was uniquely qualified and chosen. From the tales of the first paladin, Lord Uther the Lightbringer, all paladins hence carried this light with demigod-like powers.  Paladins were both holy men who could both enlighten and smite with gods-like judgment. Gaenlon’s vows were taken long after Uther and his trusted friend, Terenas, had turned to ash and were boxed away in masonry sarcophagi. Nowadays, those who were a paladin by choice, birth, or happenstance, would find themselves in a precarious profession. Paladins, though loyal, true, and powerful, were also a divided, diminished, and conquered lot. Only their egos remained, flying banners of self-preservation, barely one step up from swords-for-hire, taking others through the treacherous and perilous, scarcely hanging onto disparate groups of both heroes and villains, fighters and monsters. It was difficult to tell who was on what side, for light and shadow fell on everyone alike, so that all were shades of grey. Once the light and cause of righteousness were extinguished, squabbling and self-interests became the rule of law. He had turned to mercenary acts to earn gold, his training being solely as a protector. He had no other skills or trades. A well-educated door hinge was how he felt now. Keeping out the wolves while keeping in the pigs, in and out on the threshold, depending who had the better offer.
Not all paladins were aware of what had been truly lost by Arthas’ deeds and betrayals. The forsaken would never forgive nor forget, and somewhere two proud Ladies, as different as the sun and moon, pragmatically, without sentiment, continued to fight their enemies, but they had each paid too high of a cost. By the time Daci had taken her own vows, she was oblivious to this history of the order. Rather, she was oblivious to the ramifications. She knew what the history tomes read, and she knew the stories. Ask her a factual question, she would answer by rote. Ask her to consider what it meant, however, Daci would feel tricked. What she lacked was the ability to see how the past directs the future. Daci lived in present tense. She looked down on Gaenlon from the top of her elekk: she would stable the beast at the next resting point, and retrieve a shorter mount so they could ride more as equals.
The pathway, ensnared by weeds, brambles, and thorny vines was in a neglected, forsaken area of the kingdom. The breeze smelled stale and slightly sulfurous. These were old, old lands. Daci seemed in no hurry to be anywhere else but next to him, patiently waiting for him to tell his tale, ask for her help, or tell her to get lost. He made pleasant side-chatter, but even her honest nature was suspicious.  Obviously, he was in sorry shape. He looked haunted, just there…see? The specter stayed behind his eyes, behind his muggy smile. All he would allow about his current state was that he had been asked to help a rogue—just another dangerous call, nothing out of the ordinary. And, would she be so kind to help? Was she up for an adventure, for old time’s sake? He imagined the mission, a rescue mission he told Daci, would be fairly routine. She guessed he would get around to the details at some point. She heard a human say once, “The devil is in the details.” What a silly thing to say. “What did that even mean, anyway?” Daci mused to herself.

There, to the west, a ghoulish banshee screamed. Daci’s pet worg pup chased after it, but it left no trail. They decided to set up a small camp for what remained of the night. She was just happy to be next to him, even if she didn’t know what to do with her hands and arms suddenly, or scuffed her hooves in the dirt, digging grooves where she dismounted, taking care of her horse and gear. Daci began to feel something, a nagging something. Like she had done something wrong. She searched through their history. She knew it by heart, and took stock: he was the boy she followed. He followed the older girl. She worshipped the older girl, too. He couldn’t have been anything more to the older girl than a friend, because she was a few years older and probably interested in older boys. He hadn’t asked about the other girl, either, so maybe he had forgotten about her, or didn’t care. Daci shrugged. He had just been through a lot, she supposed. His omission of details were more dangerous than what he did tell her.
He had committed one act for which he could not find forgiveness. When the rogue found him, he had almost bleached out the memory of what he had done.
He loved her with all that his heart had room for. He told her one night, just her and the stars, all his fears, that he had been promised that he would be a king in the world, and now his status was reduced to existing as a shield with legs. He told her he was afraid of never being enough for his parents, his king, or her. She listened, and soothed him. Her Draenei gifts were too much for his human body to take. She was too much. He realized with jealousy, that for all of his consecrated and hallowed light, gifts of gold, and power, there were other gods more powerful than his. Hers were the other. And he was suddenly afraid of her gods, and her. And his fear weakened to cowardice, and that made him angry. And his anger made him hurt her. He confused fear with cowardice. He could no more control her than control a storm. And he didn’t want to try, didn’t want to understand her, and didn’t want her. When he hurt her, she left, braver than he would ever be. But all he felt was betrayed at her final act of self-preservation.
He remembered the turn, the night of her betrayal, and his.
The rogue’s rough blade sliced her, surgically, imperceptive, along the rib’s thread, near her heart. And for one who hated to show weakness, this sting caused the rims of her eyes to burn with tears. He was merciless, menacing in his attack, even her wolves could not protect her…. dying, reborn, but diminished. To heal, she would have to bathe in a pool of Elune, sacred and holy to the Night Elves, and fiercely guarded. But if she did not tend to this wound, wickedness would bleed her. Scarlet, thin, poisonous.
Deeply muscled thighs clutched the curve of the saddle, her tail painfully marking every jolt on the cantle. She pushed her stomach into the swell of the seat, the motion making her feel more in control, as if she could somehow will her mount to fly faster. The hour was past late, the time when changelings are exchanged and mothers are indifferent. Only the moon shrugged at her presence. The late-layered spring air, warmth and frost, was undecided. The drake circled in on a pool, flowing waters bubbling silently, lit by its own bioluminescent forces. Elvin guards stood at their posts, never resting, but subdued this evening. Perhaps the crinkling and balmy spring night fogged their keen intellect. Even with those magnificent ears, they did not hear her dismount. Elune forgive her…she had to be healed. She couldn’t summon the power of the Na’aru on her own. Her iridescent lavender skin turned grey. One hand holding her wound, the other unbuckling armor, the chain mail falling like scraped fish scales, the armored boon she had fought for and earned. Cursing her carelessness and pain, her warrior’s training made it possible to finish undressing and slip in the pool, unnoticed. The water…the water of the pool is not of this world. It is a life force of its own, magic and dark matter. The water sinks into her skin, like an emollient, deeper, holding her; she lay on the bottom using her water breathing spell to stay under as long as she could. Elune was kind to the girl. Water sought out her architecture, her curves, her inner places, she became the water’s home.
Regaining strength, she composed herself on bended knees. The wound and its toxins dissipated like mage smoke. No amount of elfish healing could erase the thin silver scar though, her memento of impulsive battle mistakes. The stars, being outmatched by incoming clouds, angrily protest that they will not be able to witness her beauty for much longer. The moon nods away, the crepuscular light matching her skin color, returning to her soft shades of indigo horns, periwinkle cheeks and moon-spun hair. Body and light mix as lenticular imagery.
The new, and perhaps more dangerous dilemma than dying by a rogue’s blade: How to exit unnoticed, and find some safe place to sleep?
He’s been tracking her since the battle. He could not get to her in time when the troll attacked. His rage, his frustration felt nearly unforgivable. But his forgiveness is not his salvation; finding her is, just as she had found him.
But he could not protect her tonight. She makes too many miscalculations. Believes she is more redoubtable than she is, or in contrast, underestimates her powers, not using them to full capacity. He would like to shake her sometimes; she is so bloody infuriating! His human pragmatism is indeed strength, but also fogs his ability to see how complex she is; this is one fight he can’t win. But King and country help him, he knows her as much as anyone can.
Here she is. Curse her…in a pool of Elune! Those night elf guards will surely catch her, and although allies, have none of their druidic patience for this trespass. He grabs the saddle blanket off of his horse, and anticipating the guards’ moves and looks, gets to the edge of the pool, whispering her name – amazingly, she doesn’t make a sound…stepping out onto the ground, he wraps the blanket around her body, rubbing her dry as best as he can. She is shivering, and her own body can’t decide between the frost and heat. How does he always find her, exactly when she needs him?

He did find her that night, and cared for her and protected her. That was the last time he felt more than a man. But after she had left him, he fell.  And when Fandral found him a season or an eternity later, for he had lost track of his days, and questioned him about the blood in the sacred pool, he confessed. Not quickly, and not without complete loss of honor. Gaenlon tried to stay strong in the face of fire and heat. Gaenlon knew Fandral had lost all that mattered to him, a son, and a granddaughter, so maybe Fandral would show him mercy if he were forthright. Fire is cold comfort for the love of a son, a child, but Gaenlon had no concept of this level of pain. And the fires were coming fast.

Chapter 6 and other chapters

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