Here it is!
If this chapter is not the most important chapter in The Kingdom: The Quest, it’s in the Top 5. It’s one of the first chapters I wrote at the beginning of this project, 4 long years ago. It’s one of the few chapters that survived all of my edits, from the rough draft to now, without being re-written. It might also be my favorite.
I won’t spoil much for you, but I’ll spoil this. It comes early in the book. Just as Arman thinks his life’s problems have been solved, they suddenly become worse. Much, much worse.
FROM THE KINGDOM: THE QUEST. DO NOT REPRODUCE WITHOUT CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR, SEAN MATTHEW MCGUIRE.
The Academy closed early one day.
Arman sat in the washing-room with six or seven other boys. More poured in every moment. The stone hall filled with naked bodies, like a barrel of fish. Everyone was putting on fighting tunics, quickly as they could, and talking excitedly. Final tests were in two weeks, followed by the happy two-week break. They only got two in a year. The anticipation was like a fever.
Arman splashed his face in the marble water basin. He drew it out and breathed. Lukewarm drops clung to his face. A smile spread of its own accord. Three days earlier Arman had snuck out. No one else knew he had done so. Sordrin had kept his word. Arman had taken his risk, and it had paid off. In those three days, there had been no sign of the crow, no word of the old man, and not one instance of staring eyes.
But as Arman stepped away from the basin, all his thought fixed on something else.
“You seem cheerful today, Arman,” said Darral.
“You have no idea, my friend.”
“She’s coming today, isn’t she?”
“She is. We got a note this morning. She’ll be back in the evening. Just in time for sunset.”
“You lucky stallion,” said Darral, slapping Arman’s back. “Have you told the boys yet?”
“No! I should have done that already; thanks for reminding me-“
“Oh, just tell them already before sparring begins!”
Arman smiled, and turned to the other boys. He gathered the right words to tell them that Lelana, daughter of Aallen, was coming back, and that when he walked back into the village he would ask her to take his courtship. The room lit up in Arman’s eyes. For once, he was going to be the king of the hour.
The door banged, and a man walked into the room. The look on the man’s face quieted Arman and everyone else. So did his attire. He wore plates of iron on his chest and on his shoulders, and a simple oval helmet with the eagle and two swords etched on it. A sword hung at his side. On his right arm was a shield. A soldier of Gyrden had just entered the room.
“Where are your teachers?” barked the soldier, taking off his helmet. His eyes were wide.
Darral stood, and without a word the soldier followed him out of the armory. The rest of the boys sat on the stone benches, soberly, like men at council.
“I’ve never seen anyone look so alarmed in my life,” said Trotar. “Did you see his eyes?”
A few minutes they sat and discussed it quietly. Arman never remembered what exactly they said. What he remembered well was the suspense. As a child, he had stood at the edge of a sharp drop into a river. His knees had trembled, and his heart had shrunk. Now it was happening all over again. Arman withdrew into his thoughts, and terror whispered in his ear. Was this the day that he had so long foreboded?
Without warning, the sparring instructor smashed open the doors.
His students all stood instantly. The teacher had his sword- an actual steel weapon made for combat- slung over his back. Armored shapes ran behind him. His eyes glinted like fire over his first-years, his second-years, and longest on his third-years.
“Orcs have snuck inside Gyrden. No one knows how or when. Get yourselves home faster than you’ve ever gotten there before, and do precisely what your elders tell you. There’s already been a skirmish. The enemy is too far away to come here, and the Wall is buzzing with soldiers, but there is a distinct possibility a straggler or two might appear in Meledil. If they do, and if they attack, I expect you to stand your ground and protect your mothers and children! Am I understood?”
The third-years nodded, the second-years nodded, and the first-years nodded.
“Good lads. Now run! Get back to the village with all haste!”
He led them in a charge out of the armory, and out of the Academy. Not until they broke outside did Arman see one hundred horsemen, with spears pointed high. He stared, still jogging. It was a perfect square of shining warriors, mounted on beasts that could knock a grown man to the ground. The spearpoints rose proudly like towers. Arman was awed.
But the moment the others started sprinting his head snapped around, and his feet bounced into motion. The cavalry rode in the other direction a minute later. Another minute and they were a black line in the distance. Arman and his friends didn’t look back as they ran for the village.
The teachers soon took up the rear. Arman ran at the head, with the other third-years. They ran as one; three years had taught them to feed off each other. In no time, they were leading the other students into the woods. They practically bounded into the town square, by which time every man and woman in the streets either stared or pulled other people out to stare with them.
“A fine race!” called Vorth. “You lads get in trouble or something?”
“We’ve been sent back,” said Trotar. “Orcs are in Gyrden. Soldiers are running everywhere trying to find them.”
Arman knew most of the men and women were staring at Trotar. When they started shouting and screaming, the only thing that kept him quiet was his training.
“Will you grown men and women stop carrying on like sucklings?” bellowed Iriot.
The crowd silenced.
“Don’t you see?” continued the blacksmith. “This is exactly what they want. Panic! They knew we’d be shocked if they got in, and they want to take full advantage of it. I, for one, don’t plan on letting them. Men! Arm yourselves and ring the village. Send out some scouts, even; make sure none of them sneak through the trees. Third-years from the Academy will fight, too.”
“He’s right!” yelled Vorth.
The men cheered, and followed Iriot to the smithy.
“Take this,” said Tulnir, walking up to Arman. “Good luck.”
He handed Arman a sword. It was a simple, well-forged blade; a hand and a half sword with a white rock in the pommel. Arman nodded, vaguely aware of the weight in his hand. He joined the men already armed. They were a righteous mob, holding swords, clubs, and farmer’s tools. They spoke in dark murmurs, and spat the harshest curses they knew on anything that threatened their wives and children. Arman felt like a boy among them.
Arman turned and Mother kissed him on his cheek fiercely, and handed him a dagger.
“Stay safe,” said she. “Fight well.”
“I’ll try,” said Arman, and then walked away, trying to avoid the look in her eyes. It couldn’t be the day. The orcs were far away. What did Arman have to worry about but a childish fantasy that the world was going to end?
“The third-years are to help guard the women and children,” said Father, tapping Arman’s shoulder. “Be ready to take out them out, if necessary.”
“Alright. Let’s hope it stays that way.”
“Yes. Let’s hope indeed. Not that you needed help, but Trotar and the others are at the statue.”
Wordlessly, father and son parted.
“Your mother kept you, too, I see,” observed Trotar, as Arman joined him and the others by the statue. “Normally I’d poke your ribs for something like that, but for now I’ll just ask you and Darral to keep watch at the south end of the square.”
“Where’s Darral?” asked Arman, looking around.
“Still trapped with his mommy,” said Carron. “This whole thing already looks like a farce to me.”
“For once, I want you to be right,” said Arman, walking to the south end of the square.
He leaned against one of the buildings and watched the men herd dozens of women and children out of the square. Dogs ran this way and that, agitated. Trotar, Carron and the others stood in the middle of the crowds like an island in a storm. Arman hoped Darral would come soon. He needed someone to talk to. Maybe he would talk about that foreboding feeling he had always had. Now seemed like the best time he would ever have to share it.
Something tapped behind him. Arman raised his sword and dagger, and turned slowly to the building he had been leaning on. It was Aaalen’s home. Was someone hiding behind it? He stared- and stared even deeper when he heard the knocking again, this time in a rhythm. One hard knock, followed a series of quick little taps, and then two hard knocks.
Quietly Arman slipped around Aallen’s house.
“Lelana… you weren’t coming back ‘till evening… haven’t you heard what’s going on? There’s orcs loose in the country; they got past the Wall somehow-“
Lelana smiled, and Arman stopped talking.
“I know,” she said. “But I wanted to talk to you first.”
The moment he heard those words, Arman knew there could be no more waiting. His heartbeat rose, and he straightened his back. Before Lelana could say a thing more, Arman recited the ancient words.
“Lelana, daughter of Aallen, I wish to declare to the world my courtship of you; my quest for your hand; my wish that one day we might be married and united forever.”
Lelana stopped talking. The world stopped talking. Her face was blank with surprise. Arman worried a moment. Had he said it too quickly? No. Oh no, he hadn’t. Something caught flame in Lelana’s eyes, deep in those misty depths. Her teeth won through, and she smiled more beautifully than she ever had. Her hands opened, and Arman clasped them, trying not to tremble.
“I accept your courtship,” she said, making the ancient reply. “I welcome your quest. I honor your wish. I shall ask my proud father and my loving mother to give their blessing upon all three.”
Screams rang out. Animals started grunting. Heart blaring, Arman looked around the corner of the building. Several dark forms massed, past the buildings on the other side of the square. Were the guards fighting? Why were they yelling about the women and children?
“Arman, are those-“
Orcs! He saw the tanner fall, and blood spill, and one of the dark forms leap into the square.
“Arman,” whispered Lelana. Arman whirled. Out of the trees, more dark forms came on, grunting and howling. He held Lelana, still like a cornered deer.
And then the first arrow fell.
“The woods,” he said, grabbing her hand and sprinting down the alley, parallel to the orcs.
Fear dug his brains out and replaced them with cogs that turned so fast not even a stone could stop them. When Lelana lagged behind, he scooped her up and doubled his speed. Before he knew what he was doing, he dashed into the woods. Without a second to plan, he bounced over logs and spied a little hollow. Bushes and a log smothered it. He lowered Lelana, lifted the log, and let her squeeze in.
“Take this,” said Arman, giving her his dagger. “Don’t show yourself, no matter what happens.”
“Don’t leave me, Arman.”
Her stare cut like a knife. Arman paused until he heard foliage snapping. Arman lowered the log and ran.
“Here I am!” yelled Arman at the top of his lungs. “Come and take me!”
Orcs followed him. Arman heard their footsteps smash the ground, and their blades hack at the branches in their way. He darted around a thick clump of trees and squeezed among them. He watched the tall oak which stood over the hollow. Nothing was there. No sound was there. They hadn’t found Lelana!
The dark forms sped past, confirming it. Arman forced himself not to yell, waited two seconds, and burst from the trees, sword at the ready. He looked around, not sure what to do. Should he return and guard Lelana? The orcs had run past the hollow; they hadn’t seen her, but did that mean she was safe? Where had the orcs gone?
Banging metal echoed in his ears. So did pained cries. So did the sound of fire! Arman sprinted for the village. He stood slack at the end of the trees. Meledil burned. The Green Knight, The Stallion, the stables, the houses- almost everything was on fire. The village had become a wreath of flames. Orcs were everywhere; men were everywhere, killing and being killed. He saw Iriot and his sons, surrounded by a knot of orcs; black blood flew all over the place. His breath stopped as a farmer screamed under an orc’s axe. Dogs snarled; pigs ran. Arrows looped through the smoke.
Arman had to go in. The three closest buildings were all balls of fire. How could he run down and avoid the archers? Oh, there was nothing for it! Slowly, and then faster, and faster, in a trance of terror, Arman ran to the fire, running in a nightmare.
“Arman!” roared Father. Arman saw the archers, and dove between the burning homes. Heat and smoke mauled his face. Arman scurried back out, flames snapping at him.
Father had killed the archers. He wearily beheaded the last.
“Get to the houses on the other side of town!” he yelled. “The men are trying to regroup there! I’m coming with you!”
He stumbled, and fell to his knees.
“I’m helping you first-“ started Arman, and went still.
Father did not get up from his knees. His face contorted. Something was wrong. Arman stepped forward, and then saw his father turn slightly, no more than fifteen degrees. Two long, dark arrows were attached to his back.
Before Arman could take another step, an orc bowled Father over, raised a club, and whacked the back of his head. Slowly, and unstoppably, little puffs of breath pushed past Arman’s lips. They kept coming faster, and harder, and hotter until they came together and formed a single, aching cry.
The orc had barely pulled its club from his victim when a sudden force knocked it to the ground. Arman hacked the orc blindly with his sword. An orc with a bow appeared in the corner of Arman’s eye. He rushed the brute and cut open its belly.
Arman saw a few others lope over, and he charged them too. Two had spears, and that would have been the end for Arman if dogs hadn’t suddenly attacked them. Only one was left, and Arman parried its blow and slashed its throat. Iriot’s bulldogs ripped the others to death. Iriot suddenly appeared, along with a dozen men and boys.
“Arman!” he snarled. “Where have you-“
Arman knocked him aside and smashed off an orc’s hand. He drove his sword deep in its belly, and whirled to see more coming.
“Arman, your sword is broken-“
More than a dozen such cries went out, but Arman threw them aside and kept fighting. More orcs loomed everywhere, and he threw himself at them all, dancing, prancing, and lopping off their limbs. With every kill, he crowed, and the surrounding inferno threw him in bright, savage relief.
He paused to breathe, and looked around. Bodies and burning things lay everywhere. Where were the orcs?
A second later, he was aware again. And he shuddered. The orcs all lay on the ground, cut and torn. But they were not the only ones. The tanner lay on the ground, dead. One of the traders lay dead. Vorth was pinned to his burning inn with a spear. Leatherhide lay close by, trying to get up, and slipping in his own blood; someone ran to him.
Who else had fallen? Men on horseback were everywhere; he noticed them for the first time. Men on foot gathered round the fires with buckets. The last orc squealed as someone stuck a pitchfork in its belly. Dogs snarled somewhere, and horses whinnied shrilly.
“Arman?” said Trotar, drawing near. “Arman, we’re safe. The cavalry is here. We killed them all; they’re all gone; they’re not going to trouble us anymore- are you alright?”
Arman shook, dropped the sword, and ran to his father’s corpse. He slowed as he neared. The orc had brought twenty pounds of wood and rock on the back of Father’s head. His stomach twisted, and he collapsed, puking.
“Arman!” yelled someone. “Stay where you are; don’t go any closer!”
Arman wiped vomit off his lips, and crawled to Father. His corpse lay still as a rock. Arman turned him on his side, and held him on his side. Father’s face was an eternal cry. He had died in pain. His son stared in sorrow. Arman’s throat filled with a thousand sharp rocks, forcing his breath out in a thousand mournful gasps.
He shook his father’s body, frantically. He had to be alive! His face was just a little dirty. It had moved, it had breathed- he had seen it move, he had seen it breathe- it had to move, it had to breathe! Please, let it move! Let it breathe! He wasn’t gone! He could never be gone!
Arman cried hard, cut off from all the world except himself and the cold unmoving thing in his arms. His throat nearly burst. He had lost him. He had lost what no son should ever have to lose. Arman slammed his ear to his father’s heart. No heartbeat! No heartbeat!
Hard, flint-like hands pulled him away from the body. Arman howled with the wounded and the bleeding, splattered on the red ground. Other mourners joined the branded chorus, shrill with hopelessness. All the living moved to help whoever they could. Horses hurtled through the square, and the flames from The Green Knight flailed in pain at the heavens.
FROM THE KINGDOM: THE QUEST. DO NOT REPRODUCE WITHOUT CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR, SEAN MATTHEW MCGUIRE.
If you hate this, by the way, please comment. I have time to tweak this chapter before October 25th.