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Posted: Thu Dec 25, 2008 1:24 am
((Since Jak has rejoined the ranks of the living, except for 15 seconds at at ime when he needs survivability buffs, I thought I'd repost backstory stuff from two years ago. It could probably stand some editing; in fact, I may well do that over the weekend to nod to certain developments in Balthasar family life. In the meantime, enjoy!))
Dawn was just touching the fields when Jakob came awake, even before the three roosters could start trying to outdo each other. In the dim gray light, everything around him looked ethereal and ghostly, an intangible necropolis. His slumbering brothers looked like corpses. They are all dead, he thought, and I am the only living man, in this half-world of ghosts and cadavers.
The flight of fancy passed quickly when chubby Leo rolled over in his sleep, grumbling restlessly and nearly knocking into young Ebrim on the pallet next to him. The four boys in the room (five, counting little Simeon in his cradle) were as alive as any, and all the color and life would return to the world within the hour. Still, it was difficult to escape the sensation that everything on the estate was dying, trapped in a house of ghosts and memories, and of all the Balthasars, he was the only one that would escape to the world of the living.
Chilled, Jakob dressed quickly and quietly, and padded out of the room, carefully stepping over Isreic, who had shifted closer to the door in his sleep as usual. Jak was rarely the first to rise, but this morning his nerves would not let him sleep more than a bare few hours. He walked quietly through the overlarge hallway, his eyes fixed on nothing in particular, mind awhirl with possibilities; by the time he made it to the porch door, he had been knighted three times over, and amassed an impressive collection of dragon heads.
Judah was already awake and outside, splashing water on his face at the trough outside. He turned at the rusty creak of the door and grinned. "Oh, good, you're up. I was afraid we were going to have to get Great-Grandfather's spear and pry you out from under your bed."
Jakob snorted. "I sleep on a pallet, Jude. There is no under." He walked over to join his oldest brother in washing up, and was met with a companionable poke.
"Ah, you'd probably fit, skinny as you are. Look at you, they'll probably mistake you for a new shipment of lances; some knight'll pick you up underarm and you'll lead the charge headfirst."
Jakob flicked water at his brother. "Need a harder head for that. You're well suited." Judah snickered and smoothed back his hair before walking over towards the henhouse. Jakob made an attempt to tame his own lank hair, frowned at his reflection in the pool of water, and followed. "Has that hen been hanging long enough to eat?"
"If it hasn't, I'll just put up a damn gibbet," snorted Judah. He stopped at the door. "Jak, go on inside, I'll take care of the morning. Well, me and the young ones, any rate." An odd smile flickered across his foxlike face. "Shouldn't be doing chores on your last day, 'specially not with all the work ahead. Go on."
It was absurdly touching, in one of those small, commonplace ways. Jak felt an overwhelming surge of love for his brother, and smiled sincerely before saying "Sure you'll be alright? Fierce hens we keep, Jude, maybe I can protect you from 'em."
The tall young man slapped him on the back of the head, grinning. "Get the hell inside so Mother can cling to you some more. I'll face the chickens bravely, as a man." He entered the henhouse, and Jak turned to head back into the crumbling manor. Behind him, he heard one of the roosters begin to crow, soon followed by the other two, escalating in volume–and almost as loud as the dueling birds, his brother's irritated cursing. It happened every morning, but this time it nearly brought him to tears.
The others were waking up, now, the c0ck-crow rousting them out of sleep. Big cousin Piotr walked around a corner, shaking sleep from his eyes, and nearly bowled Jak over. He put one enormous mitt of a hand on his cousin's shoulder to steady him, and rumbled "The hell you doing up and about? It was me going off today, I'd have you and Judah take a hammer to my legs." Despite his size and fierce appearance - at seventeen, he already had a bristling black beard - Piotr was an amiable coward, who had wanted nothing to do with sword or spell since the death of his Gilnean father.
"Maybe I will, if you don't watch where you're going," growled Jakob, his eyes twinkling. Piotr raised one meaty fist, grimacing through his whiskers, then clapped the smaller youth on the shoulder and staggered on towards the trough. Jak slipped around the corner, evading his grumbling brothers, and made his way up the creaking stairs to the second floor. At the top, he managed to duck into a doorway to dodge Leah, as plump as her twin brother but far more pleasant. Even so, he didn't fancy any tearful "good mornings" yet.
Jak evaded his family successfully all the way to the great double doors at the end of the hall. Unlike the doors in the rest of the house, these were polished, finely sanded, and free of common wear and tear. Uncle Eloim repaired them on each and every monthly visit, with the help (willing or unwilling) of his nephews and nieces. Most of the Balthasars regarded it as an irritating but necessary chore, and some (Piotr in particular) disavowed it entirely as hoary old foolishness. But Jakob loved the Family Room.
He carefully pushed open the doors, which made no noise, and entered the enormous vault. There was comparatively little dust - another result of the ministrations of Eloim, who could be fiendishly productive for a one-legged man - and no cobwebs but for the very corners of the ceiling. The paintings, the wood-etchings, the statues and busts and books, all gleamed free of dust or damage, bearing proud, mute testament to the glory of ancient days.
Jak knew them all, as he wandered around the room, visiting with ancestors long dead. In the center of the room was the ancient black statue of Balthasar of Tol Barad, knighted in the days of old Arathor, first of their line; a heavy axe, a rudimentary horse, a crude suggestion of a face, but all the same the man's power and majesty were apparently. On the wall behind him was the battered armor of Quineas Balthasar, a spear-hole punched in the front and extending all the way out the back, but Jak knew he had lived long enough to kill the prince of Stromgarde who held the spear.
He turned about. Here was the painting of Red Yasreic, the Bastard of Balthasar, supporting his half-brother Matthias Wenderwyl with one arm while his other held the sword that fended off a dozen forest trolls. The tall, slim woman immortalized in bronze and stone was Eberrah Balthasar, her tall spear in one hand and her infant son clutched in the other, protected from his treacherous bastard uncle. And next to her was that son, Jakob's namesake, his face righteous in its wrath as he sentenced his uncle to death and reclaimed the holdings of his murdered parents. Jakob the Just, they called him.
And there were so many more–Simeon Goldenblade, Sarai who killed a dragon, Markus the Young, Asreic the King's Hammer, Rachele the Maiden, and countless others. Those who Jak did not have memorized, he could look up in the Ledger–the Balthasar Book, as they half-jokingly called it, the tome of ancestors and great deeds that every noble house kept. Theirs dated all the way back to Arathor, but as of the past century or two, it was woefully thin. Nobody had been immortalized in the Family Room since Iron Ebrim Balthasar, seventy-four years ago, and his efforts rooting out bandits in the hills of Alterac had earned him nothing more than a small, indifferently carved marble bust that made him look something like a frog.
He remembered when Uncle Eloim had come to stay at the old home several years ago, after the Second War was over, having traded his good left leg for memories and a medal. He had suggested with a child's innocent slyness, trying to cheer the new-made cripple out of his gloom, that they might soon see a new addition to the Family Room. Eloim had been horrified. Fool boy, that room's for heroes! Knights and lords, masters of men, the likes of Red Yasreic and Helena o' Ravenholdt! I didn't do no more'n get my leg cut off by some greenskin ape, afore the war was even over.
Jakob had argued heatedly, horrified to see his fiercest relative in this state, half-drunk and seething with self-hatred. You killed three orcs an' blew up a catapult, the medal says so! Jakob the Just never killed nobody, Uncle, at least not in battle! He just talked up an army and sat back in his tent commandin' 'em, not up front like you was!
Eloim had nearly struck him. He was a hero, damn fool, a knight. That's why your da' named you for him. Don't you ever speak ill of him again, nor any in that room. They're all we got now–we're nothing no more. I'm nothing no more. Those were the last words Jak heard from his uncle for a month; his father Levin had come in then, led him from the room, and closed the door in grim-faced silence. Eloim had recovered his humor and some of his fierceness eventually, but all the same he was never the man Jak remembered from his boyhood. He came alive most when he was among the dead, with the statues and paintings and ghosts of the Family Room.
Someone coughed, and Jakob whirled around instantly, startling his sister Mara. She took a step back out of the doorway reflexively, then grinned. "I'd be dead now if I was an enemy, right, Jak?"
"Light's own truth." Jak returned the grin, proud of his sharp reflexes. He'd been getting faster for months now.
"Of course, I was standing here for five minutes watching you stare at the dead people." She winked, and Jak's pride sagged slightly. He opted to frown at her flippant dismissal, attempting to convey with a single look her insufficiency of honor offered to those who had fought and died through the centuries to bring honor to the name they shared. Mara did not look as if the message had gotten through.
"Wait, five minutes?" blurted out Jakob. "How long have I been here?"
"Near half an hour," she said, amused. "Breakfast is near ready. Mother wanted to collar you long ago, but I told them you were probably up in the Family Room, and Judah convinced her to let you have your time. You've taken it and then some."
Jakob smiled ruefully. It was hard to be nettled by his favorite sister. Everyone liked Mara Balthasar, and not just because she was, frankly, beautiful. "You know how it is, Mara. I wind up here and just...get lost."
"Oh, I know. And I think I understand." She entered the room, crossing swiftly to the statue of Eberrah and her child. "It's not just the statues and pictures. It's the stories. I can just stand here and look at her, and..." She reached out a hand and wrapped it around Eberrah's stone spear, which was minor sacrilege that only someone like Mara could get away with. "...and imagine what it was like to be her, losing almost everything and still fighting, to protect my child and get what belongs to him. To be any of them. Is that what you do, Jak?"
He nodded slowly. "That's...aye, that's pretty much it exactly. Standing in here I can put myself in their shoes, or boots, or...or sabatons. And I can try to imagine the way Sir Simeon felt when the Barovs shattered his sword, or Quineas when the spear went through him and he knew that Prince Thorin would take his castle and all his people. So if something like that ever happens to me–I can be ready."
Mara put a hand on his arm. She was two years older than Jakob, and tall for a girl, so that they were nearly of a height. "Poor Jak. You were born for an age of knights and heroes. You should have been a Balthasar three hundred years ago. Maybe if we'd had someone like you we wouldn't have lost everything, and be digging in pig shit." She spoke the words with a slight current of mockery, but Jakob could sense she believed them. He put his hand over hers and squeezed it.
"Who knows, Mara? Maybe I'll be a war hero. Maybe I'll find the Warsong orcs and defeat them, and King Terenas will knight me and give Father back our lands." He tried to sound jesting. "And then maybe I'll fly us all to the Dark Portal on the back of a dragon, and we'll offer Sir Danath and Alleria the elf maiden eggs and bacon."
The girl smiled. "I don't think elves eat bacon, Jak." They stood there for a while, looking at Eberrah Balthasar and her son Jakob, as a babe in arms and as a man, his face justifiably angry but also curiously grieved, mourning that he must sentence his own blood, no matter how horrible the crime. Then Mara sighed. "Quit ogling your dead great-great-many-greats-grandmother. Mother's going to think something terrible happened to both of us."
"Something terrible did happen," grunted Jak, "You showed up. And I'm not ogling her. That's just vile, Mara. She's my ancestor and a hero. And a statue."
Mara's smiled only broadened. "I don't blame you, Jak. She's very pretty. She's a little tall for you, though."
"Oh, shut up."
"And her son was named Jakob too. Don't you think that would be a little weird? It would be like me marrying someone named Levin or Judah."
Jak poked his sister right below the ribs, where she was most ticklish, and she shrieked and backed towards the door. One finger held out in front of him in malicious promise, he advanced on her, and she fled down the stairs. Together they made their way out of the room of ghosts, into the world of light and life below.
Re: Soldier Boy
Posted: Thu Dec 25, 2008 1:24 am
Breakfast was magnificent, the closest to a true feast that the Balthasar manor had seen in years, perhaps since the funeral of Levin and Mariah's second son, four years past. There were fresh eggs, mixed with the diced remains of the hen Judah had plucked, fried potatoes, a platter of ham that had been one of their dozen pigs, small tart apples from the single bearing tree, and scones baked the night before and hurriedly warmed back up. There was dripping, melting butter, sharp cider and black ale, and even a small dish of honey. "You should've joined the army every day," suggested Leo Balthasar to his older brother, drawing laughter.
Jakob laughed with the rest, but there was something sly in Leo's eyes that he didn't like. He had never gotten on with the middle son, even before he had turned plump and unpleasant-looking; there was something galling and deceptive about Leo, a ring to his voice that made it hard for Jak to turn his back on him. But he was family. They all were. Besides his parents, five brothers, and four sisters, there was cousin Piotr and his widowed mother Elsa, who had lived with them since her husband Vend had died in the Second War; there was Judah's wife Gwaenei, five months pregnant with their first child; there was his grandfather Orreic, half-asleep at the table; and there was Jayenne, the grandmother, the iron-hearted woman who could rule them all when she so chose.
When he glanced around the table at them all, Jakob again had that curious sensation of sitting at a table with the dead. They carried the name of ancient heroes but had no riches or deeds of glory; they lived in a grand, three-story manor where five boys shared a single room because an entire floor was too decrepit to sleep in; they knew the tales of a hundred ancestral knights, but wrote no tales of their own. Even Jak's beloved Family Room was, in full truth, a glorious crypt, a great masoleum where the only heroes were a thousand years dead. And over the mantle, dominating the surprinsingly accurate portraits that Uncle Eloim had drawn of each and every one in the house, even baby Simeon, hung the only portrait of Young Levin, drawn at fourteen, the year before his death.
He looked at his family and he knew he loved them, even devious Leo and his scatter-brained sister Jezia and his half-mad grandfather, loved them with the same simple and devoted honesty he had for the past sixteen years. But he also knew that he had to leave, that he had no second thoughts about his choice, because to stay here would be to join the ghosts and he would never submit to walk with the restless dead.
Mariah refused to even hear of her beloved second son (third son, really they all thought) helping to clear the remains of the meal on this last day; instead, old Orreic shuffled him out to the porch, where it was growing warm and sunny, while his brothers and sisters grumbled good-naturedly and dealt with the debris. Jakob sat down next to Orreic, a bit uncomfortably; he had young memories of pleasant conversations with his portly grandfather, but now it was difficult to remain on the same track for more than half a minute - unless that track was horses. Orreic had been a passionate horseman in his youth, and even when he grew too old to race had bred a fine stable. If he had been lucky, or simply not unlucky, he might have restored something of the fortunes of the Balthasars - or at least, he might not be living out his last days in a mansion as decrepit as he was. But sickness and accident had halved his herd, and a scheming Stratholme grifter had halved what was left.
But Orreic was having a good day. "Ye look like y'r uncle, lad, ye know." Jakob smiled, pleased by the comparison, even if he really looked nothing like hawk-faced, muscular Eloim. Then Orreic surprised. "Not El, mind ye! T'other, ne'er ye met him. Asreic were his name." Jak sorted through the thick Darrowshire accent and quavering voice, and nodded slowly. He knew he had an Uncle Asreic, who had died young, but his parents were always strangely evasive about it, and Eloim had told him point-blank never to ask. The only clue was from Elsa, who had said Asreic was her favorite brother because he reminded her of the old stories.
So Jak asked "Do I really, Grandfather?" in his polite, clear voice. Unlike his grandfather, raised in Darrowshire for most of his life, he had little enough northern lilt to his voice to begin with; he also prided himself on his precise speaking, and had gone out of his way to practice it. Being mannerly was one of a knight's lesser duties, but it was a duty.
"Aye, sure as t'sun is hot an' t'king's a bastid!" Orreic cackled. An' all kings be bastids, lad, was the seecond half of his old favorite saying, but Jakob suspected he had forgotten it. "He were taller'n ye but, e'en when were y'r age, an' wore hair long. Like ol' Asreic t'Hammer. T'Real Asreic, were callin' him. Y'r father'n El laughed somethin' fierce o'er that!" He slapped his knee, sending crumbs of scone flying.
Jakob took a careful look around. His siblings and Piotr were still cleaning up the vast mess, under the direction of grandmother Rachele; the other adults were at the table, Elsa doing her best to console Jakob's mother, who had been teary-eyed for weeks. She certainly knew enough of grief to do it well. Jak decided to take the shot. "I never knew that, Grandfather. Did he like the tales of Sir Asreic the King's Hammer, as I do?"
"Like 'em? Hells, lad woulda lived 'em if he could! Might he could've - strong an' fast he were, strong as Potter-" after a moment, Jak decided his grandfather was talking about Piotr - "an' quicker'n ye. An ye do be quick, lad, though there be snails look quick t'me days like these." He cackled again, and Jakob felt a queer flush of pride at the old man's alertness. "Were somethin' special, aright - such a rider, too...mastered damn Flick-ear, now there were a hell-horse..."
Jakob cursed quietly. Damn all horses everywhere! Before Orreic could get too far off-track, he took the plunge. "How did Uncle Asreic die, Grandfather? Nobody's ever told me, but I'm to be a man now, it's my right to know!" He looked at Orreic, imploringly and defiantly all at once, and the old man fell silent. The young man watched sunlight glance off his bald, spotted head. "Please, Grandfather?"
Orreic stayed silent, his lips twitching slightly, watching his grandson with odd canniness. Then something went foggy, and he shook his head, an old man indulgent by nature forced to deny a favored grandchild some shiny trinket. "Nay, nay, young Levin, y'r young yet, tis nay for ye, needin' y'r sleep - give ye night terrors, will!"
"Levin's dead!" snapped Jakob. "I'm Jakob, and-" he stopped abruptly, frozen as much by his own shame at the ashen grief in his grandfather's eyes as the sound he heard. Hooves, coming up the path. He rose from his seat suddenly, a smile lighting his face as a familiar narrow head appeared over the slight rise before their front gate. It was Eloim Balthasar, here as promised, as hale and hearty as a one-legged man ever could be.
He trotted his horse up front and dismounted with surprising nimbleness, catching himself on a solid wooden cane and turning to greet his nephew with a forceful one-armed hug. "Menethil's blood, boy, the hell you meetin' me here for? I expected you ta be a few fields over, sayin' your goodbyes to the local daughters!" Eloim cuffed Jak affectionately and winked before turning to offer his father a gentler embrace. As ever, Orreic greeted his youngest son with coolness. There was love there, but there was something else, and Jakob had never been able to figure out what. It was one of those things that wasn't talked about. Ghosts have their secrets. Ghosts are secrets, that died untold and so still wander.
Eloim turned back to Jakob. "Well, I'd best say my hellos to the Little Horde here, so there's still time for ya to slip out an' get some quick farewells in. Not too quick, mind, girls don't like that much." He tossed back his handsome head and laughed before striding awkwardly inside, leaving Jak with a vaguely nodding Orreic. Even if there was time for Jakob to slip away with one of the local girls, he wouldn't have wanted to; he had begun noticing them late, only a couple years past, and none of the farmer's daughters or vacationing nobles' wives in the area lived up to the soft-skinned, steel-hearted maidens he dreamed up.
So he bid farewell to Orreic, who barely noticed, and slipped inside to finish his packing. Everything seemed attended to - two saddlebags full of servicable, utilitarian clothes and one "fancy-dress" outfit (which was basically the same thing in brighter colors, with a vest to be worn over it), and a third for what Eloim had told him were called "personal effects." There was a keepsake from each member of his family, and a book from the Family Room detailing the story of Red Yasreic. Yasreic was perhaps Jak's favorite of the Balthasars, paradoxically because he was not a real Balthasar, but the spawn of a clandestine and tragic affair between Yasmira Balthasar and Ferghus Wenderwyl, when the powerful Wenderwyls of Andorhal were at war with the Balthasars. He never had to be a Balthasar. He was a bastard, he never had to be either, but he chose to support his mother's house - and then in the end, he saved his half-brother and made peace between them, though it killed him. Jakob supposed he liked stories that ended with peace better. As long as there was some good swordplay leading up to it.
All things considered, he thought critically once he had packed away The Annals of the Red Bastard, his personal effects looked rather light. Maybe he should have spent some time wooing the local girls after all, just to get some trophies to take with him. Mara assured him that they found him "cute." Jakob wasn't sure how he felt about this, considering that people also called little Simeon, toddling sister Rachele, and the litter of kittens born on the second floor "cute."
The hell with it. Jak pulled his third bag shut and tied it closed, leaving it sitting forlornly between its two larger brothers. Maybe that meant he would get to pick up more interesting keepsakes during his service. He hefted the three bags with strain but little pain; he was a lean youth, but it was a strong kind of lean, hardened by labor on the farm. He made his way out to the porch, this time attracting the notice of the family, gathered around Eloim. His good-sister Gwaenei stuck a finger in her mouth and wolf-whistled, drawing laughter and a cry of "Stay the hell away from my wife, Jakob!" from a grinning Judah.
"Sure that's your kid she's carryin'?" asked Eloim roughly, and he heard the slightly uneasy laughter from the sitting room. Eloim had never really known where the line was, or if he did, he simply didn't care. It was probably on account of this that the whole clan, one by one, followed Jakob out to the porch. He deposited his bags on the stoop and stood, trying to figure out what to do next. His eyes caught his father handing something to Eloim - two something, a long thin bundle and a small square one, both wrapped in mageweave cloth, a costly purchase for their family. His mind automatically identified them as a sword and a book.
Eloim tucked the bundles under his free arm and limped his way to his horse, drinking from the same trough where the family washed in the morning (though the water had been changed by now). Another horse was standing there, a young pinto mare who either hadn't been named yet or had one that Jak couldn't remember. Jakob realized that this was a signal that it was time to leave. Was it past nine o'clock already? Where had the time gone?
He turned to his family. "Well. I guess...I guess this is it." He hated making speeches, but that was more or less what this was. "I'm finally going on an adventure. Thanks...thanks for putting up with me. I'll be back in six months to visit, so don't celebrate, you haven't gotten rid of me yet." Forced chuckles. "I...well, I don't have the words. It's going to be wonderful. Hard, but wonderful. I love you all."
That was all Jakob had, but it was enough; right on cue, his mother practically rushed fowards and embraced him fiercely, tears leaking from her eyes despite her best efforts. "Oh, Jak," she murmured, "You're going to make us so proud. I can't imagine being any prouder, but I know you'll manage it." Jakob felt his own eyes watering, thought about dashing the tears away before they fell, then decided against it. Matthias Wenderwyl had wept when they told him his half-brother had died saving him; when Ruven Two-Blades made his last stand on Gavin's Naze, he cried when he bid his wife and children farewell, and the men who killed him swore he had died with tears on his cheeks and swords in his hands. There was no shame in it.
They all lined up to offer him their farewells, and some words of congratulation, even little Rachele, who said he looked like Markus the Young, her favorite of the Family Room paintings (probably because he was pictured with the lion he had tamed; Rachele loved cats.) Piotr nearly crushed him with a hug, and told him roughly not to be a damn fool if that was possible. Isreic grinned and said "Don't worry, big brother, I'll comfort all the women weeping over you. If I'm lucky, when you come back you'll be fast enough kill me before I even notice, and then I'll die happy." Elsa told him he was a handsome young man, and she knew he'd grow to be a handsome old man too. Judah simply hugged him and growled "See you this winter, brat," in a voice that brooked no argument.
His father offered him some strange words. "Don't be a hero, Jak," he said quietly. "The world has plenty of heroes; it only has one of you. You're worth more alive than a pretty painting and a memory." It was dark advice, but his warm, altogether heartfelt tone saved it from dampening anyone's mood. Jakob nodded silently and looked between his father and his uncle; for the first time, he was struck by how similar and how different they looked at the same time. Levin and Eloim Balthasar shared the same narrow features, the same promiment nose, the same lank auburn hair; they were even of a height. But Eloim stood straight where his older brother slouched, despite his infirmity, and his muscles bunched beneath pale skin, where rangy Levin sported a moderate tan. They look like the same person. though Jakob, only if he split into two, and one became a farmer, and the other a soldier.
Then there was only Mara left, his favorite sister, tall willowy Mara with her red-brown hair and eyes so brown they were almost black. She took his hands and smiled, blinking back tears. "This is your chance, isn't it? This is what you really wanted, to get away from...all this." He opened his mouth, but she shook her head. "No. No, I know, it's alright. I want to too. This is no place for people to live. It's a house to grow up in, and a house to die in, but nothing in between."
Jak stared at her, dumbfounded. "You're...exactly right." How could he sum up that that was precisely what he'd been trying to say for years, that her words captured everything he'd felt about this crumbling mansion of ghosts and legends?
He didn't have to, though, because she already knew - Mara had always been able to read him. "Oh, Jak," she sighed, "What are we going to do without you? Who's going to keep Isreic and Leo in line? Who's going to protect my virtue from the Hillsbrad Fields boys?" Again, her voice was light and slightly teasing, but there was truth to it. So Jakob replied in kind.
"Why, you will." He grinned. "You've known me for sixteen years. Surely you've picked up some of my tricks, right?" She blinked a moment and then laughed, a bright peal that echoed as she flung her arms around his neck.
"Don't you dare get hurt, Jak. I know it's a waste of time to tell you not to do anything stupid, so just...come home in one piece. You get leave in half a year and we'll see you then, same as you are now, just bigger and handsomer and with some better stories. Your stories." She hugged him again, tightly, then stepped away. "Go. Before I change my mind about letting you leave."
The family, laughing as best they could, echoed that sentiment. Eloim had already hoisted his saddlebags onto the mare, and Jak mounted her adroitly, drawing some mumbled praise from Orreic. He looked at the assembled Balthasars and was swept by a wave of regret so painful he thought he would fall from the saddle. But it was too late, and even if he'd had the choice, he wouldn't turn back now. "I love you," he said again. But I don't want to be you. "I'll see you in the winter."
Jakob turned to his uncle, who smiled, offered a casual salute to the family, and snapped the reins theatrically. His horse broke into a trot, and Jakob followed suit, letting the nameless pinto mare carry him up the road to his new life.
Re: Soldier Boy
Posted: Thu Dec 25, 2008 1:25 am
Eloim did not approach his nephew at first, jogging his horse out a bit ahead and allowing Jakob some time to collect himself. The young man was grateful for this; it occured to him that Eloim had done the same thing fifteen years before and probably remembered it all too well. Jak couldn't imagine ever forgetting this day - everything stood out sharper, colors were brighter, as if he had rode into a world of bold crystal or one of the paintings in the Family Room. His loneliness cut sharply already, but it was little compared to the exultation of walking into the world of the living.
He spurred his horse abruptly, catching up with Eloim, who glanced over at him solemnly. "Doin' alright, boy?"
"Aye. I think so." Jakob looked around for a moment, not entirely trusting himself to speak. "I mean...not really. No. I'm far from 'all right,' in both directions. Does that make sense?"
"Wouldn't make a lick o' sense if I hadn't seen the same afore, an' felt it too." Eloim grinned kindly. "Like your heart'll burst one second an' break the next, not sure whether you're wantin' to laugh or cry or both at once. I know the feelin'."
Jakob nodded. "I shouldn't surprised that you, of all people, know precisely what I mean. Better than anyone else, I'd wager."
"Speak fine, don't you, Jak?" The grin on Eloim's hawk face was slightly feral. "Sure's hell don't sound like your granddad. Hell, even Levin never spoke pretty as you do, and your da' was always the one with a book in his hand." His grin faded. "Gotta warn you but, boy, won't be makin' many friends talkin' like that. Like that story I read your sisters every time I vist, buncha ducks an' one swan - doesn't do to sound like nobleman's son in the midst o' a buncha farmboys."
This was a little puzzling to Jak. "I'm not noble-born, not really. I've gotten kicked by cows. And aren't we al going to be a little busy for infighting? You've said yourself, nothing builds a bond like risking your life together."
"Aye, well, that's as may be, but think this way, Jak." He pointed directly at his nephew, a couple inches from poking him in the chest. "Yourself, here, you've an uncommon thirst for adventure, you're of age, and swording's in your blood - and still, you're scared as all hell. No shame in admittin' that, boy." Jak nodded sheepishly. "Now think o' a few dozen boys like yourself, but less brave, younger, the children o' a hundred generations o' farmers an' trappers an' the like. Not bred for battle like your ancestors were. They're gonna be rightly pissin' themselves."
They turned east onto the main road to Southshore, the horses still cantering easily. Eloim went on. "An' nobody likes bein' scared, or admittin' to it. So it's much easier to deal with fears when you can look brave, by makin' someone else afraid. Anyone looks different, anyone acts different, anyone talks different-" and now he did poke Jak in the ribs - "gonna be eatin' kettles o' sh|t from those other boys. They're not evil, mind, nor does it mean they really mislike you. It's just the way it is."
Jak drew himself up a little stiffly. "This isn't an...an affectation, Uncle," he said, pronouncing the word as precisely as he could, perhaps with a bit of spite. "This is how I talk. This is how I learned to talk. I'm not going to hide behind Grandda's accent, or pretend I can't speak the language right, just to avoid a few bruises. If others don't like it, they'll just learn to live with it."
Eloim studied him for a long moment then, and Jak felt like he was being weighed, and measured. He softened the defiance in his returning stare, but did not drop his gaze. At last his Uncle crooked another grin. "You know how to stand. Good. But pick your fights, boy, don't go out your way to make 'em. Light knows there'll be enough fights you don't want as is." He laughed. "Hell, I should know; time was I got in a fistfight every damn day, and wasn't a bar in Southshore didn't know me as trouble. Somewhere 'twixt me and your father, is where you oughta be."
"Is that where Uncle Asreic was?" Jakob asked suddenly. He was a little surprised by the reaction of his uncle, who turned away for a moment, then looked back with a slightly bitter smile.
"Wondering when you were gonna get to that. Heard you talkin' to the old man, an' when you went to pack up your da' told me was due time. 'Course, he couldn't do it himself!" The sneer that appeared on Eloim's face made him ugly and beastial for a moment. "If there's an ugly job gotta be done, that's my lot, always has been. Guess I'm best suited for it, at that!" He turned to his nephew, whose face was red with confusion, shame, and a growing anger. "Ah, look, Jak, don't take that to heart. Levin's a good man, done well by you. But your da's a farmer in his bones. He's a different sort of man than I. Different sort of man than you, too, I think."
"He's my father," Jak said quietly, trying to push down his fury. To Eloim, it might be brother speaking ill of brother, but Levin Balthasar was his father and to hear him called a coward didn't sit well with a young man whose world had this day begun its quick rotation towards completely topside-down. Blood was blood, and that was that.
"So he is," agreed Eloim, "and yet you strike me as the son Yasreic might've had, if he'd lived. I thought Levin, that'd be your brother Levin, was the one - thought it even moreso when he died, Light rest." He bowed his head a moment. "Yet here you are, ridin' side by side with your own blood, and I see you ready to draw steel on me for what I said - hells, what I implied o' your father."
Jakob felt his anger drain out, and flushed even darker. "I'm sorry, Uncle. Truly. I didn't mean to grow angry, it's just...when people speak ill of my family, I get angry. Even if you're family too. I get angry when Leo whispers about Judah's wife, or Grandmother makes her snide remarks about Piotr. It's kind of silly."
Again that calculating look came. "Tell me, boy, what did your sister - Mara, that is - what'd she mean when she spoke o' you defendin' her virtue? Was that the little scrap over in town that your mother was so damn up in arms about?" Jakob nodded and tried not to look as he pleased as he was at his uncle bringing that up; he wasn't sure if Eloim had ever heard the story, but it was poor form to tell it himself. "Tell me the story. You an' six town boys, wasn't it? Took 'em all?"
"Not exactly," Jak admitted. "They were whistling at Mara, and saying some...some very rude things. I told them politely to stop. One of them said something very rude, so I -" he grinned and tossed modesty aside for a moment. "I beat the piss out of him, actually. It wasn't much. He was very slow."
Eloim returned his grin, and any onlookers would have noted that the two did. indeed, look very similar at the moment. "And the other five?"
"Six, actually. There were seven," Jak coughed. "Well, they didn't take well to that, and a couple grabbed hold of me, bloodied my nose. I knocked one down and got free long enough to call for Piotr, who was in the bait shop with the twins." He grinned at the memory of his huge, amiable cousin, with a man's beard, looming ominously out of the doorway over the seven grubby Southshore youths, chubby Leo and Leah peeking out around his bulk and Mara smirking victoriously at her would-be suitors. "He's not worth a bucket of pig slop in a fight, of course, but they didn't know that. So I told him to grab the first one that moved and break his arm, and they all kind of went away after that." He shrugged. "Not such a grand melée after all. I don't see why Mother was so furious, I've had worse than bloody noses just working at home."
Eloim smiled heavily, something aching in his voice. "I recall. Your sister called you her 'knight in shining armor,' boy. Terrified the hell out your mother - she's not a Balthasar by birth, but she knows the family history. An' she knows what I'm gonna tell you know, what I hoped you might never hafta know after your brother passed away." He tugged on the reins, slowing his horse to a walk, letting this sink in.
Jakob, for his part, was confused. He knew family history almost as well as his uncle - the acknowledged expert - and read the more unpleasant details in the dry, dusty books on the back shelves. He knew that Rachele the Maiden, who had died unmarried, had lain with dozens of men, sometimes two or three at once; he knew that Markus the Young had died raving of the pox, and Simeon Goldenblade's famous sword, once he had finished his battles, had been sold to House Primus of Lordaeron to pay gambling debts. Does that make them any less heroes? he'd thought to himself. Does being human and flawed mean their great deeds did not happen? But this had the ring of something darker and more frightening. His uncle's next words took him completely off-guard.
"Magic's a real thing, Jak, you know that, aye?" He smiled faintly. "I don't mean your brother Isreic's stupid parlor tricks, or even the healin' that wanderin' friar worked to ease Simeon's birth, but magic the likes o' which I saw in the wars."
Jakob simply nodded. Like most of the peasantry of Hillsbrad, his family held magic in a certain sort of frightened awe; he also added a slight spicing of contempt. Throwing fireballs to roast brave men alive from a thousand feet away, summoning Lightless beasts and daemons to do your bidding, that was no way for a man to fight.
"Good, then you won't have any trouble swallowin' this." Eloim hesistated, then turned his horse off the side of the road. Jak followed curiously. "We got near two hours before you gotta be in Southshore for muster, so there's time enough for this. You'll probably want to be sittin' down, any rate." They dismounted by a broad oak tree, letting the horses graze. Off to the northeast, Jak could see the crown of the crossroads tower, and beyond that a faint blur of buildings that could only be Tarren Mill. It was a prettier town than Southshore, but much smaller and more boring. Nothing exciting ever really happened in Tarren Mill.
Eloim limped over to the tree, carrying the two mageweave-wrapped bundles. He lay the long one down in the grass behind him with careful reverence, and unwrapped the small square one. Jak was right - it was a book, not as old as some of the tomes in the Family Room but by no means new, though it did not bear the marks of frequent reading. It was leather-bound, thick, and thoroughly unremarkable expect for the title scribed on the front in silver-leaf lettering.
The Black Fate of Elios Balthasar, it read. Jakob peered at it curiously, and tried to remember where he had seen the name - there were only a few Elios's in the archives, and only one notable, who had died six hundred years ago at the age of sixty-seven, in bed with his mistress. He looked up at his grim-faced uncle and remembered, suddenly, an afternoon in the Family Room several years ago. "Elios Balthasar was...the last Balthasar to be knighted!" he almost shouted.
"Last one knighted alive," corrected Eloim sadly. "There's a cruel tale in that book, Jak, and a long one. What's important is that you believe in it, in the truth o' the curse put on Elios Balthasar and all his line, for three hundred years Not since Elios have the Balthasars birthed a hero; not in three centuries has one o' our family lived to be knighted. In every generation since his fall there's been a son who strove to be a hero, who strove to do some great deed, an' every one has died before his time." He sighed heavily, looking at his nephew, seeing very well that he believed every word. "Your great-uncle Ruven, would would've inherited the manor, was one; so was my brother Asreic, whose story I'll tell you now. And so, we thought, was your brother Levin."
His heavy hand reached out and enclosed Jakob's shoulder. "But now I'm not so sure, Jak. 'Tis only that Levin is dead as sure as any dead boy ever was that gives me pause. Cause I've never seen any as born to strive for glory as you. And for the sons o' our line, glory is death."
Jakob's face was pale and bloodless, his eyes wide. At last he licked his lips and managed to say "Levin didn't really drown in a boating accident, did he? And Uncle Asreic, Light only knows how he met his end!"
"I pray the Light knows, and welcomes him," said Eloim sadly. "Cause I know, nephew, and it was dark. Both of theirs was." He pointed to the book. "That damned tome tells the reasons behind our fall, but what we've fallen to, you ought know that too. I never held with keepin' these damn things secret! Never!" The crippled man shook his head fiercely, practically snarling.
Jakob removed his uncle's hand from his shoulder, and walked over to sit down with his back against the oak tree. He kept his gaze on his uncle's tormented face. "Tell me," he said, and Eloim lowered himself to the grass and began to speak.
Re: Soldier Boy
Posted: Thu Dec 25, 2008 1:25 am
The story o' Elios Balthasar, Eloim began, is in that book, an' all you need to know for the purpose o' my story is that he fell, deeper an' darker than any Balthasar, even more than Bastard Danreic who was slain by Eberrah. An' this fall brought a curse on his line, the price he paid for power, the price we've been payin' for three hundred years. Those years past, in the time o' Elios's father, the Balthasars were as great as ever they were - what but black arts could make us fall this fast? Your sister Mara, girl as smart an' good-lookin' as that you know damn well she's born to be wife to a lord, runnin' his keep, as great a power as he; Judah's got a head for gadgets, he oughta be down with the gnomes makin'' new mechanical horrors that'll either save the world or blow it to hell. Born to greatness and brought low, that's us.
My brother, he went on, was the perfect example. Not your da', though he oughta be makin' a damn sight more money, as good with animals as he is. But Asreic, he was somethin' more. Somethin' incredible. Somethin' outta the Family Room.
Asreic Balthasar was the second son of Orreic and Jayenne, who had three sons in rapid succession. Levin, their oldest, was a mild-mannered boy with a gift for calming animals, perhaps because he seemed chronically incapable of losing his temper; the youngest, Eloim, was the very opposite, raffish and rude and liable to start a brawl over the slightest provocation. He had a good heart, but you had to sober him up to find it. Asreic had Eloim's fierce temper, but he kept it tightly leashed until it was needed, and this gave him the force that Levin had always lacked. Consequently, respect came with it.
When Asreic was eleven, a man had come from Tarren Mill to buy a horse from Orreic, who at that time still kept a fine stable. The next day, when Orreic was away on business in Stratholme (the business that would one day ruin him), the man returned, claiming that the horse had taken ill and accusing the Balthasars of selling it to him on ill faith. Jayenne looked it up and down; it looked like the horse her husband had sold, and it certainly looked ill. Just to be sure, she had Levin examine the horse.
Her oldest boy gave the horse a thorough check before muttering "This isn't the horse we sold you, sir."
"Are you calling me a liar, boy?" snapped the man, a balding, sweating townsman.
"No, sir," quaked Levin. "Only...this isn't the same horse. Maybe someone switched it on you?"
"Oh, so now you're implying I don't know how to run my stable?!" the man raged. Jayenne kept quiet; she knew little about horses, and in her heart of hearts she believed that any boy of twelve who spoke up to a grown man probably deserved to be shouted at. To a point.
Levin looked ready to retreat, and then Asreic walked down the steps. Eloim, nine years old and build like a small brown-haired rock, was right behind him. "How d'you know this isn't Corey, Lev?" he asked calmly.
The older boy derived a certain courage from his brother's presence. "Corey was least five years younger, and s'mane was natural short. This horse had s'mane trimmed like this." He looked at the ground. "Also he was a stud. This is a mare."
Asreic looked to the man. "I'm sorry, sir, but you're mistaken. This horse is very sick, and we'd be glad to see to him. Our father isn't here, but I promise you Levin is just as good with sick horses as he is." Behind him, Eloim began scuffing in the dirt, poking at interesting rocks.
The balding man was nearly purple with rage. "Listen up, you sh|tface little brat-"
"That's very rude, sir. We'd prefer it if you didn't use that sort of language. This is a Light-fearing household." If Asreic knew how incredibly irritating he was being, which he of course did, he didn't let it show. The man snarled and took a step forward, and then his way was blocked by a broom handle, wielded by the thin, fearsome figure of Jayenne Balthasar, née Crendworth, who had just watched this stranger step over the line to actually bein a threat to her children.
"My son is very good with horses. If he says it's not the horse my husband sold you, then it's not the horse my husband sold you. Remove yourself from my property immediately, or we will be forced to take steps."
"Take steps?" the man said incredulously. He would have gone on about what a ridiculous threat this was from a woman and three children, but at this point Asreic sighed and patted little Eloim on the shoulder. Eloim had by now amassed quite the collection of interesting rocks, interesting being a synonym for aerodynamic, and he began applying them immediately. The first one hit the man in the shoulder, the second, more painful, in the knee. The man cursed and tried to step forward, but at that point Eloim had found his range, and his next clipped the man along the left ear.
There were rocks whizzing around and into him and a vengeful gorgon, fearsome broom in hand, in front of him, but it was the solemn boy's eyes that really frightened the man into flight. We can keep doing this until you leave, the boy's eyes said, or you can keep being stubborn, and then we can get serious.
He mounted his skittish horse, bleeding from the ear, and rode away leaving the sick mare behind. Levin saw to her, and as the man from Tarren Mill never returned to claim her, she was named Stones and wound up bearing several fine colts to the Balthasar stables before passing away years later.
That was the first time Asreic Balthasar showed himself a hero.
Asreic grew to manhood quickly, taller than either of his brothers, not as bulky as Eloim but muscular enough. When he wasn't doing chores, he was practicing swordplay ("stickmanship," as Levin dubbed it) with Eloim, Wil the stablehand, or boys from the Rafford farm, or taking long rides around the property. Curiously enough, he did not much enjoy spending time in the Family Room, which was largely the province of young Eloim. He liked the tales, he fairly worshipped his namesake - the young knight they'd named The King's Hammer, famed for crushing a revolt in Darrowshire in the name of King Tarion the Brave - but he never much liked the vault of history.
"You can spend your time with the dead, El," he told his brother once; "I'd rather be here with the living. You know. Girls. Besides, Markus and Quineus's stories are over. Why read theirs when I can write my own?" It was the only time the two ever seriously came to blows, and Eloim gave as good as he got in his anger. The two had reconciled by that night, and Asreic apologized for disrespecting the family heroes, when what he really meant was that he aimed to join the ranks of the Family Room one day, not simply polish their faces. This awed Eloim, but neither of them thought to tell their parents - particularly Orreic, who watched his astonishing second son with face that grew more worried every day. But Orreic, despite his misgivings - for he of course knew of Elios Balthasar, and the curse that had haunted them for centuries - he did nothing. Sadly, it was his love for his son, his terror of Asreic's sure fate, that led him to keep the secret longer than he should have, and so perhaps led to his doom.
But then, perhaps Asreic would have been doomed no matter what. After all, Orreic's own brother had known of the curse, and yet he rode forth laughing to meet his death. It would scarcely have been kind to tell Asreic that the very things to which he was born would be his end.
I'll keep this story fair brief, Eloim told his nephew here with plain, painful honesty. Both cause we've only got so much time, and cause it hurts to speak of it.
It was the fall of Asreic's eighteenth year, and he was courting Ariane Rafford, whose brothers he had fenced with since childhood. Her father owned a farm that was rather more substantial than Orreic's, and while Halwin Rafford disapproved of Orreic's foolishness - to let half his stables be swindled from him by some two-bit Stratholme grifter, when anyone who had looked at the grinning young man could see he was not to be trusted! - he thought well of his second son. Everyone did. Levin, who had grown into a likeable and polite if somewhere diffuse young man, would inherit the farm, and brawny Eloim was already eyeing the military, when he wasn't eyeing old books or young women. So why shouldn't Asreic marry well, get a piece of his own farm, and doubtless spin it into a fortune? He would do great things one day. Everyone knew that.
His closest companion, apart from Eloim and Morec Rafford, oldest of the boys, was Wil Mordwender, who worked in his father's stables. The Mordwenders were a well-off merchanting family in Southshore, but they believed that hard work was necessary to instill character into their children, so they packed off each of their sons at the age of twelve to serve an apprenticeship. Wil had come straight to the then-famed Balthasar stables, and done well to care for the dwindling horses, while striking up a close friendship with Asreic in particular. He was tall and good-looking, if a little disreputable and more than a touch lazy, but he worked hard when the mood was on him and charmed people and animals alike. He'd had a youthful crush on Ariane Rafford, but he wasn't the only one, and he accepted his friend's courtship with good humor and went back to making passes at tavern wenches whose names he couldn't remember.
For Asreic's eighteenth birthday, Mordwender and Ariane's five brothers had pooled their money to buy him a real sword. It wasn't particularly fancy, it was miles from magical, but it was sturdy and well-made, and long enough to suit tall Asreic. The young man thanked them profusely and treated it like Ash'kandi itself, the famed magical sword of Anduin Lothar; he polished and sharpened it every day, he exercised for an hour each morning, he kept it out of extreme temperatures and oiled the belt and scabbard. It was eccentric, endearing and a little silly. "Maybe now't he's got a sword," Jared Rafford joked, "he won't be needin' our sister no more."
But the Rafford boys could laugh, because they knew one of Asreic's favorite sayings, one of the few things he had memorized from the books Family Room. "A sword must be as good as the knight who wields it," he would quote when they were young and his partners had begun to weary of their stick-fighting, "and a knight must be as good as his sword."
It was a very good sword.
On a warm night, the harvest nearly done with, both families rode to Southshore to have a few drinks and celebrate a successful season. The large town was packed to bursting with other farmers doing the same, merchants spending the profits they had made off these same farmers, locals simply caught up in the celebratory air. All the Balthasar sons were there, the Raffords as well, and Wil Mordwender. Ale flowed freely in the tavern they had picked, and the air seemed alive with possibilities - possibilities that only opened wider when Asreic made an announcement.
He had met secretly with a royal recruiter, from Lordaeron City, who had been making his rounds in Hillsbrad looking for couriers. Asreic had proved his wits, his skill with a sword, and his horsemanship, and most of all his loyalty. He was going to be a royal courier, and all knew that could only be the beginning. The assembly toasted him, and toasted the king, and soon lost track of who they were toasting.
After a while, Ariane began to feel faint, the thick ale going to her head. Asreic volunteered immediately to take her home, and was seconded by brother Eloim, who immediately fell off his stool, face-down in the rushes. To general laughter, Asreic recruited an only-slightly-tipsy Wil Mordwender to help him bring his bride-to-be and little brother back to their respective homes; they left both sets of parents, Levin and the Rafford brothers there, continuing their carouse. Nobody worried about Ariane's virtue or safety - any fool could see how truly Asreic loved and honored her, and if they couple wanted to sneak more than a kiss or two before the wedding, well, they'd be married soon enough, what different did it make? Hillsbrad was full of miraculous seven-month babies.
I don't remember this part rightly, Eloim told his wide-eyed nephew, who'd listened to the narrative with silent intensity, never interrupting, an' thank the Light for that. But I know I was piss-drunk, so drunk that Asreic had to carry me up the stairs. I was too heavy for Wil, so Asreic told him to bring Ariane home, and he'd catch up - wanted to get me inside afore I full passed out. Would that I had, so Mordwender'd had to help. Damn the sly bastard. Damn him a thousand times over.
I remember Asreic helpin' me up the stairs, an' all is a blur after that - but the next thing is clear as day, an' I'll never forget it, long as I live. I woke to see Asreic standin' afore me, covered all in blood, sword in his hand, the saddest man on earth, half a corpse himself. "Wil is dead," he said to me, "and Ariane too. I killed them both, El." His voice sounded like a dead man's - there was nothin', no passion, no rage, no grief. Hollow. "I killed them. May the Light scourge me till the end of time." An' then he wept.
Asreic's broken narrative was that he had left his brother in bed, with a rough wooden bowl to catch his vomit, and went to see how Ariane was doing. As he entered the Rafford house - he had a key - he heard shrieks and grunts coming from upstairs. He'd bolted up there immediately to find them in Ariane's bed - and here his voice broke down, every time he told the story, no matter what.
Wil had rolled off and to his feet immediately, and Ariane, tears running down her cheeks, had screamed wordlessly and run to Asreic, sobbing, forcing out incoherent words. Asreic caught the words "made me" in there and immediately drawn his sword and handed it hilt-first to Wil, who took it and stood, naked and dumbfounded. Then Asreic pulled his belt knife and told Wil to kill him, or die first.
As best as Asreic could tell, they had fought, desperation and drunkeness giving Wil a wild strength, but even with a sword he could not match Asreic's fury. Somewhere in the battle, Asreic had stumbled, and lost sight of Wil. Someone had clutched his arm, and thinking it was his foe, he spun and struck. It was Ariane, and his knife took her between the ribs. She died holding him.
From there, he said, it was a blur, but he remembered standing over Wil's body, watching the light leave his eyes, his chest and stomach a mass of wounds. From there he closed both their eyes and went home to tell Eloim; after that he waited outside until Levin and his parents returned home from Southshore, upon which he went to turn himself in.
To the Balthasars, it seemed clear; no magistrate would convict a man for killing a r@pist, and if an innocent girl had died in the battle, that was fortune's cruel hand and no work of their son. But the wealthy Mordwenders did not see it that way. The very next day, the Southshore magistrate browbeated every man and woman tangentially involved in the murder - particularly Eloim. Hung over and terrified, the youth could not long stand the magistrate's sly and forceful questioning. After an hour, he admitted that Ariane had flirted with Wil when they were both young, and that it could well have been consensual, and that Asreic had been known to have a terrible temper when aroused.
From there it was short work to turning the facts around - from a righteous, vengeful man on the path to knighthood executing a rapist, his beloved tragically caught up in the fighting, Asreic was turned to a murderer maddened by jealousy, killing his closest friend and his wife-to-be for no more crime then succumbing to love. "And is love an act of evil?" asked the magistrate rhetorically. "Can loving each other, as they loved him, be as black a sin as to deserve this...this butchery?"
Asreic Balthasar was executed by hanging a week later, at the age of eighteen. Wil Mordwender and Ariane Rafford were buried together, and a song was written about them dying for love. Eloim Balthasar would later break a harper's lute, nose, and three fingers for singing it. The Rafford family sold their farm and moved south to the Arathi Highlands, where it was said that all five sons joined the army. The Balthasars never heard from them again.
Eloim joined the army to escape his father as much as a life of farm drudgery. Orreic Balthasar, who would never believe his son a murderer, could not forgive Eloim for what he saw as a betrayal of his brother - and in a way, neither could Eloim himself, not even twenty-five years later.
Re: Soldier Boy
Posted: Thu Dec 25, 2008 1:26 am
"For that's the curse o' the Balthasars," finished Eloim, his face hard and stony, eyes dry. "Every generation, there's one son who aspires to heroism, to be one o' the old legends - an' every one has died young, brought low by one o' his family. It's not malice that undoes us, Jakob, but failure - as I failed to stand that bastard magistrate's questioning. I know the Mordwenders paid him off, the whoreson! If I'd been stronger, not drank so much the previous night, I could of held up the truth, an' Asreic might've been cleared, an' Wil buried in a pauper's grave as the black-souled raper he was."
It wasn't your fault, Uncle, Jakob wanted to say, but he knew that Eloim must have heard these words a thousand times before, and never once believed them. The idea of his betrayal by weakness was hammered into his soul, by himself as much as his unforgiving father, and in the world of Eloim Balthasar it had become fact. Jak finally understood why his uncle was so at home with the ghosts of the Family Room - he was one of them, trapped in the past, never moving past a single incident, never escaping.
So he asked, "How did Levin die? My brother? Father always said he fell off the boat and drowned while they were fishing." Eloim looked at him as if he was speaking another language, then shook his head slightly. At first Jakob was confused - hadn't his uncle told him that the tale of Levin was part of this, too? - then he realized that Eloim was just clearing his head of old thoughts, clearing his soul of old guilt.
"'Tis a much shorter tale, Levin's," he said, trying to sound offhand and failing. "He was an adventurous boy, much like yourself, though a bit more...wild. He wanted to be an explorer and a huntsman, like Markus the Young. He used to go out boating all the time, whenever his chores were finished; wanted to sail the Great Sea, I think. When he was fifteen, he took the boat out along the river."
"I remember that boat," Jakob said musingly. "I forgot we had it."
"We don't," said his uncle flatly. "No' anymore. Your da' was with him; they were fishing when young Judah came running to tell that Mariah was having her labor pains. This was when Rachele was bein' born, you might guess. Your da' left Young Levin with the boat, tellin' him to take it to shore an' do naught but watch it, make sure nobody made off with it till he could send for it to be put away in the shed; he went off to the home with Judah to fetch the midwife." Eloim sighed. "But that boy was wild, an' a bit a fool. Light preserve him," he added quickly, and made the sign of the Hammer to chasten himself for speaking ill of the dead.
"He took the boat back out, and drowned," guessed Jakob.
"That's the short o' it," Eloim replied. "Rachele was a long time comin, and your da' sent Judah out eventually to help get the boat put away. When he got there, the boat was gone; they found it crashed in the rocks upstream, near all to splinters. Never found the body. Your da' buried a mannakin wrapped in a shroud to spare you all the truth."
Jakob felt a slight chill; he remembered the shrouded body being buried, and had thought then that it must be too terrible to look on. He'd been no more than ten at the time, and his memories of his brother were of a rangy boy who looked much like a miniature copy of their father, with an easy laugh and a dashing fool's grin. He imagined Levin sitting out on the boat, growing more and more impatient by the moment, at last deciding to take it back to the boathouse himself and get home to greet his new baby brother or sister, and surprise his namesake. With a sinking feeling, he realized how much that would have appealed to Levin, who idolized their father and lived to impress him.
Eloim was watching him again, a sad smile on his lips. He would be thinking of Asreic's tragic end again, Jak knew. "So who failed him?" Jakob asked. "How did the curse fit?"
The one-legged man pursed his lips. "See, there's the trick o' it, Jak. Your parents both blamed themselves, o' course, as did Judah. Myself, I always thought blame might fall on Rachele, for comin' late an' leavin' her brother to his own devices." He saw his nephew's mouth open. "Aye, aye, I know, she was just a babe, not even born. 'Tis how the curse works, you must know - there's naught of malice to it. Almost every one o' the traitors has been tryin' to help their brother when...when the deed was done. It's a thing of failure, not treachery," he finished roughly.
Jak nodded slowly. "It could be any of them," he said, and then remembered what Eloim had said. "But...but you don't think Levin was the one.
"Not anymore," his uncle agreed. "He was a wild boy, but he might o' calmed with age, like Judah did. You - you were born to glory, Jak. An' in this family, that means you were born to die." His words fell like stones. "Every damn generation, every damn hero we could of had."
Jakob stared at the ground numbly for a moment, then looked up, eyes brimming with angry tears. "So is this the big talk? Congratulations, you were born to be a knight, one day someone you love is going to fail you and you'll die?! Why the bloody hell did you tell me this, Uncle?! What earthly good can it do?!" He rose to his feet, and Eloim rose with him, oddly quick as always, and reached out to put one hand hand on his arm.
"'Cause it can help. Listen, Jak, you ever heard o' a curse that can't be broken? In all the stories, all the tales, there's some way to halt any work o' darkness." His voice rose in pitch and volume, growing fevered with hope. "I read a book once, by Antonidas, the Archmage. He wrote that every magic, arcane or holy or black as the nether, has got a counter - there's no such thing as a spell that can't be broken, otherwise wizards would rule the world!" He clutched Jak's shoulders with both hands now, using the youth to steady himself, cane falling to the side. "Our damn fool forefathers never held with tellin' the curse; they thought it was better to spare their children, pray that none would be fool enough to be a hero, but those prayers always went unanswered. But you, Jakob, you know what you face, you know what awaits you - Light willing, you can be the one to break it!"
His words rang around them, and only the knowledge that he was keeping his crippled uncle standing kept Jak from reeling. A few hours ago fancies of restoring the honor and glory of his family had passed through his head, but he had focused on the simplicity of it - he was going to be a soldier, to see the world, to fight for king and country; it would be hard work and dangerous but he was up to it. Now those same fancies were espoused by a man he had always known as hard-headed and practical, and set against them, three centuries of tragedy and a black curse drawn by an ancestor he knew nothing about. He looked down at the book lying on its square of mageweave, then back at Eloim. It was startling to realize that he was nearly as tall as his uncle.
"What should I do?" he asked, and felt something clench within him. This was even better than earning knighthood as hundreds of others did each year - he would battle fate and fel arts and history itself, and gladly. He set his features in an expression of determination, to let his uncle know he would accept this dream, mad as it sounded.
Eloim grinned fiercely. "Do as you are, boy. Join the king's army, fight well, don't risk yourself overmuch. Somethin' will come to you, some opportunity to prove yourself, but be careful 'til you're sure that's it. You might wait six months, you might wait sixteen years. Don't be a fool - be ready." He drew a shuddering breath. "And don't trust your family. Love 'em, but never depend on 'em when your life's on the line. Your mother ought be alright, she's not blood - but not your da', or Judah, or Mara, or even Simeon." His gaze lit squarely on his nephew's. "Not even me. Especially not me."
Jakob tried to think of something to say, but nodded squarely instead. Eloim went on. "Read the book - might be there's some clues in there. I think I found a few, but I'll leave 'em to you; you can't trust what I read in there. May lead you astray. Might be as simple as killin' the author o' the curse - though that's hardly simple!" He laughed harshly.
"It's been three hundred years, Uncle," Jak pointed out; "he'd be dead by now, wouldn't he?"
Eloim simply looked at him, furrowing his brow, then shook his head once. "Who knows? Read the book, Jak, an' answer that question yourself. An' here - one more thing." He leaned down carefully to pick up his cane, then transfered his weight to it and bent around backwards to heft the other bundle. Up close, the long mageweave package looked much larger than it had, if it was a sword, then it was...it was a greatsword, Jakob saw as his Uncle deftly pulled the bindings away one-handed, or at least a sword hilt that presumably had a blade attached to it. He felt a moment of disappointment when he saw how plain the hilt was, with a simple steel crossguard with a slight flare, and a leather-wrapped handle leading to a plain circular pommel. "Go on, draw it," said Eloim, his eyes bright. "Big blade, but slim, an' you look a strong boy. You don't need great strength to wield a sword o' this - just balance."
Jakob gripped the handle and pulled the sword free. Any complaints he had about the plain hilt were erased by the blade that slowly revealed itself. It was, as his uncle has said, not particularly wide - only two channels instead of the three that might be found on some greatswords of this length - and completely free of other decoration or bladework, stylish or effective. It ran in a straight line from hilt to near the tip, where it rounded slightly before coming to a wicked point. It was double-edged, finely balanced, and altogether one of the most beautiful weapons that Jakob had ever seen - even compared to the paintings in the Family Room. In fact, he realized, this bore a certain resemblance to -
"Aye," said Eloim, seeing the question in Jakob's widening eyes, "'Tis the sword o' Red Yasreic, a thousand years old, blooded a hundred times over by man an' troll alike. Elios's grandson Ferreic took it from the Family Room, afraid it'd tempt one o' his sons to glory. Didn't save the boy, though - but it may save you." He ran the back of his hand lightly along the edge, and then showed Jak the thin cut that made. "Sharp as memory. Keep it that way. They let you bring one weapon to the muster as part o' your personal effects; make it this one. Be some time afore they offer to train you with greatsword or war axe, but when they do, you'll have this ready. An' when you learn to wield it as well as you wield those stick swords I've seen you at play with -" he smiled, again with that slightly feral edge. "You'll be a terror, boy. A holy terror."
Jakob was overwhelmed. He slid the sword of Red Yasreic back into the scabbard with reverence, and took the bundle and wrapped the hilt back up, leaning it point-up against the tree. He then surprised them both by flinging his arms around his uncle, hugging him fiercely, feeling the great strength and great tension in the muscles of Eloim's back. "Thank you, Uncle. For the sword, and for the truth."
"Hell, wasn't just me," said Eloim, a little bashfully; he had always been roughly affectionate in a comradely sort of way, at best. "We talked 'bout it, been talkin' since you showed signs in the past couple years. Me an' Levin, an' Mariah - an' your grandda' when his brain's workin'. We decided it was time, cause no matter whether you knew truth or no, you were headed for the life o' the sword an' early grave." He held Jak at arm's length and looked at him. "They know what this means, boy. They're desperate afraid for you - but also so damn proud you'd never believe it."
The tears finally came, then, and Jak turned away, ashamed though he knew he didn't really need to be. He spied The Black Fate of Elios Balthasar lying on the ground and took the time to wrap it back up and place it in the bag that held his personal effects; he then turned to Yasreic's sword and strapped that to his saddle, lengthwise. By then he had mastered himself, and turned back to Eloim. "We'd best move, Uncle. It's still a bit of a ride, and we've spent over an hour here."
"Light damn, you're right!" Eloim winced. "Hells. If you're late, boy, I'll take all the blame. Tell 'em I stopped for a drink along the way. Sure as hell they'll believe that, 'specially if it's someone I know." He laughed. "Let's ride on." They both mounted up and moved their horses down the road at a brisk trot, and it seemed to Jakob that his mare moved slower than before - burdened, perhaps, by the awful weight of history, and the task her rider had accepted.
Re: Soldier Boy
Posted: Sun Jun 21, 2009 1:48 pm
I never read this before Roobz and all I have to say is that if you don't write a fucking fantasy series eventually, I'll be very upset with you.
Re: Soldier Boy
Posted: Mon Jun 22, 2009 12:19 pm
If I'm ever going to write a fantasy series, I need to ban Wikipedia from my computer. I tried to find some good names to use for nobles in a Gaelic culture and ended up spending an hour and a half reading about the royal houses of Scotland and the historical Macbeth.
Re: Soldier Boy
Posted: Thu Oct 06, 2011 6:23 pm