There is a page missing from the text of my life, though scraps of the words written thereon still come to me unbidden from time to time. I know that this page deals with dissolution, an unraveling of self from semi-formed tapestry of youth to a mess of filament lying disheveled on the tavern floor. More bruises were added to my collection, though I was not sure who the assailant - or, more likely, assailants - were. What I do know is that I awoke to a splash of water on my face that smelt of ancient piss on the morning of my birthday, with a pain in my head like I had been stabbed, groggily blinking my eyes awake to Rolf the Tavernkeeper’s ugly face. He was holding a bucket in his hand and a furrow on his brow.
“You may be a Lord’s son, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you sleep on my floor any longer.”
I rolled over, away from the prickly bastard, towards the front of the tavern. I settled in for a moment, hearing the Tavernkeeper make a displeased grunt and walk away on creaky floorboards. Once it could not be helped anymore, I opened my eyes. Shafts of sunlight were penetrating the front windows, catching motes of dust in the air and striking the worn wooden slats near the first row of tables.
“Fuck, what hour is it?” I said, turning back to the unpleasant lowborn man. He had returned to his position behind the bar and was wiping the wood with a cloth that was fittingly maggoty for an establishment like his.
“I haven’t been out to check the sundial since the cock crowed at about quarter after six, but I dare say three hours have run down since then.” He let glee break out on his face, smiling a mouthful full of broken brown teeth. He waited for some reaction from me before pressing on. I gave him none.
“I heard you telling young Carla that you were to be inducted into your father’s Order this morning.” His smile grew wider.
“That is, before you puked ale up on yourself and collapsed from the bar. And before you woke up to tell the Miller brothers that their sister Theresa may as well trade in her shite singing voice and her poorly plucked harp for a harlot’s tights so’s she could sell her goods to the sailors down on the docks. ‘Course, you were already black and blue before your face made mates of their boot heels.” His grin looked as if it were going to stretch his face apart.
“Best check your trousers, lad,” he continued. “There’s a stink upon you that is better suited to a privy than the confines of this fine establishment.” He laughed then, a hideous braying sound that reminded me of the donkeys the Serfs kept on the Estate.
“Even less so to the halls of the Blue Cathedral.” He barely managed to choke the words out between guffaws.
I inhaled deeply, seeing red and willing it away. The trumped-up whoremaster was right. If I had not shite myself, someone must have shite upon me. I looked down and noticed the crust of vomit on the lapel of my jerkin. The last jerkin that my mother had made for me, still beautiful after years of hard use, soiled with filth. Disgust ran through me. I shifted to get to my knees, the vice of hangover’s grip crushing my skull. A mucky feeling in the seat of my pants was matched by a cold wetness on the front. I staggered in a final effort to stand.
“Bugger the Christ-man, I’ve got to get to the Cathedral,” I breathed to myself.
If you had told me that I, a lay-about Squire with no ambition beyond draining tankards and laying on the hay with paid tavern wench after paid tavern wench, was to be called into the nave of the Blue Cathedral on the morning of my twenty-fifth birthday for initiation into the King’s elite Yellow Order, well... I probably would have believed you. After all, my father was Sir Peter Cardiff, one of the most respected generals in the whole of the Kingdom. And Sir Peter Cardiff commanded the Yellow Order.
On the night before I found myself lying in the Green Dragon, I recall stumbling home after a day of training with the rest of the Squires, bloodied and bruised and wondering whether or not a change to another vocational discipline was in order. I would say that Eric Wellan, the Squire with whom I was training that day, got it as good as he gave, but that would be a lie. I took a severe beating and barely managed to touch his shield with my training sword, let alone land a blow.
As I trudged along the muddy brown dirt of the path near the homestead, I contemplated talking to my father about laying down the sword and taking up the Priest’s robe. Not that I had a great thirst for sermonizing and benedictions. But something - anything - would be better than this.
Ha! The thought of it! To ask the great Sir Peter Cardiff if he would allow his son to abandon his military training and deal in scrolls and censers instead. I would have been more likely to receive a series of lashes in the yard and weeks of thin gruel on the table than anything that even smacked in the slightest of support.
It was with these dark thoughts of defeat that I walked along the evening fields of the Cardiff Estate, ignoring the Serfs as I wound my way through the path that crisscrossed the waves of maturing grain stalks. They were no doubt smiling at me solely in light of my position as the Lord’s son, not for any great love of the rake that ambled before them. After what seemed like ages of plodding, I crossed the threshold of my father’s unremarkable cottage.
I could never understand how a man with my father’s wealth, accumulated over decades of successful border campaigns on behalf of the King and indentured servitude from the peasants who tilled his fields, would choose to live in such a small and boring hovel. I heard my mother, when she was alive, henpeck my father to no end about building a bigger residence near some of the fallow land close to the forest. My father would just respond with a hostile silence or change the subject, usually to some mind-numbingly boring monologue about the ever-present threat from neighbouring Liseria. I had been bent over, unlacing my boots, when he started at me.
“I see you have had another lesson from the greatest teacher: pain.”
I ignored him and finished the labour of undress. I winced from the stinging of the bruises, but I refused to cry out, to give the bastard any satisfaction. Unfortunately, that kind self-denial only generated pride in the twisted old man. Not that he ever had much call to be proud of me. I felt rage burn in my cheeks. After what seemed like an eternity of discomfort, both from the aftermath of the beating and from the piercing gaze of my father as he stood there, immobile in his judgment, I finished and rose to face the man.
“You received this missive from the Rectory this afternoon.”
He handed me a piece of folded parchment. A relief of the Blue Cathedral of Isha had been pressed into the ultramarine glob of wax that formed the seal.
A seal that had been broken.
Rather than engage in useless indignation with my father, I bit my tongue, unfolded the paper, and read the words on the page. I was to ascend to Knighthood. Tomorrow, no less.
“You have been given a great honour, my son. I am proud of you.”
It was the most emotion I had seen out of the man for the entirety of my life. I would have reacted with some measure of surprise and wonder, if not for the wrath taking hold in me.
“Proud of me? Me? I just received a humiliating beating from the most useless of all the Squires in training on the grounds today. Most useless, of course, next to me. My sword did not once touch the man. And he’s seven years my junior!”
I didn’t pause for long enough for my father to interject. Instead, I began to pace.
“You want me, your cowardly son, the oldest Squire in training, the failure who gets passed over year after year, to finally come be with you on the fields of battle? To perhaps join you in a border skirmish against Liseria, so what? That I might make you proud? I will only disappoint you, and you know it! I hoped you had realized this and were preparing to give me a position as provisioner or to tend to the sheep or something more in line with my ‘talents.’”
Burning needles had materialized upon my chest, stabbing me with hot fear, but I pressed on.
“But maybe that is not it. Maybe you know that I am a useless shite and you are counting on it. It would be perfect for you if I had my head caved in by a Liserian mace or my chest peppered with their poisoned arrows. With mother gone, and me to join her, you will be free to remain alone in this place, hoarding your gold and telling your terrible stories. Only whose ear will you bend, with me gone? Will you wear out your Serfs? Yes, perfect, that will give you opportunity to discipline them if they make the mistake of letting their boredom be known. Or maybe you will preach your drivel to the sheep and cattle. Beasts cannot demonstrate any dissatisfaction with the braying of a tired old widower.”
When I came back to reality, I realized my left fist was clenched at my side and my right finger was pointing at the man who stood across from me on the wood of the cottage floor. Behind him, I noticed the eyes of my mother staring out from a portrait on the wall. The anger dissipated. I let my arm drop. Shame now crept in to burn my face.
My father, characteristically silent, stared at me. Where I expected my rage to be returned in kind, or at least a fuming passive aggression as answer to my display, there was only sadness in his eyes. After a short while, he spoke.
“I have always been proud of you, my son. It may be difficult for you to see that at times, but it is truth. I know that life has been... different, since your mother passed. It has been hard for me, too. I would give away all of my wealth and fortune to have her back again.”
My skin was aflame again. I had decided that I would be needing some ale, and soon.
“If you truly feel this way, I will speak to the Bishop. We will cancel the ascension ceremony and I shall make you a member of the supply train. You are right: you have always have been a good hand at tending to the cattle. Perhaps you can find your peace there so doing in the rear guard.”
There it was, a kindness offered up by my father. A mercy that I had neither expected nor for which I had hoped. I wanted so badly to agree to the proposition. And yet, now that escape from the Hell of military life was before me, I couldn’t bring myself to welcome it.
“No, Father,” I said, my head hanging in shame. “I will take the Knighthood. I will redouble my efforts in training so that I am prepared for combat, whatever may come.”
I had pulled on my cloak and beat a hasty retreat from the cottage, down the path and into the city. The sun had been setting and I was hurrying to avoid having to deal with any of the lantern-lighters on the main road. I paused before pushing open the great oak door of the Green Dragon, long enough to make sure that the hot tears were off my cheeks and I had composed myself.
They would take my money and give me service, I had reasoned, but the wenches were never happy to see sadness upon a man.
In fact, it had turned out that not a person had been happy to see sadness upon me on the eve of my entrance into the ranks of those who had seen twenty-five years on Clovir.
I allowed myself to come back from my ruminations, back to the shameful reality of that morning. The ceremony was scheduled for ten o’clock. And I was a mess. I looked up at Rolf and sized the peasant up. He had the same dimensions as me, a fat bastard, though he looked a bit shorter. Still, I could not show up in the rotten clothes that clung to me. I would not be spared the whip this time.
“Go into your rooms and get me some trousers, a fresh shirt and a jerkin.” I placed my hand on my hip. Mercifully, and inexplicably, given my state, my coin purse was still attached to my belt. It had yet some heft to it.
“You know that I will pay you handsomely for your rags, Rolf. Just get me some damn clothing.”
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
I half-walked, half-ran down the road leading into the city. I did not want to sprint, which would have seen me arrive at the Cathedral quicker. I was, after all, still a pudgy oaf. I knew my limitations, not the least of all when it came to my physical abilities. Appearing a sweaty wreck in front of the mocking gaze of the citizenry as I took the Yellow would be bad enough, but moistening the flesh around my groin with overexertion would only bring the odour back. I had not had time for a bath and I was already late. Besides, Rolf’s breeches bound the meat of my legs tight. I could no more run than I could land a decent blow with my sword.
As I passed through the main gate and the dirt of the outskirts turned to the cobblestones of Isha proper, I thought about my father. He would not be amused to see his second-born clad in the ill-fitting dress of a tavernkeep at this pomp-laden ceremony, even more furious to learn that it was because I had made a filthy mess of my own garb. I vowed to keep that detail hidden from the man, if I could. Thankfully, this was also a day of pride for him, something that might blind him further to the truth of his wastrel son. I would almost certainly escape his lashes, even though he was doubtless to have comments about my appearance. Rolf’s shirt and jerkin did not fit down my torso, leaving a stretch of belly poking out like a thin roll of unbaked bread.
Thoughts of bread reminded me that my stomach was churning with bile. I needed to eat. Fortunately, a portly Baker had just set up his table along the cobbles of the eastern market, just minutes away from the Cathedral. Stopping a few feet short to retch into the gutter, I snatched up a couple of sizable brioches, flipped the man payment, and asked for some butter.
“Butter?” came the incredulous reply. “You knows we don’t have that ‘ere, sirrah. P’rhaps you can attend to Mr. Ivory’s shop, just over there.”
The Baker pointed down the street to the wood of the Dairy Farmer’s market stall. I snorted, threw a couple of gold pieces to the Baker, and walked over to Ivory’s.
“Butter,” I said, slamming a coin onto the wood of the stall.
Moments later, I was slathering the brioches with the contents of a small crock. I mashed the bread into my face, the din of my heavy breaths echoing in my skull. I stopped just outside the heavy doors of the church and struggled to get the second loaf down my gullet. Damnation, I thought, I should have asked Ivory if he had any milk as well.
“Andrew?” asked a voice resonant with incredulity.
I turned to face my older brother, Gerard. He was, of course, immaculately dressed in his leathers and chain mail, with the tabard of the Yellow Order flowing down over his chest and groin.
Ah, the tabard. When I was younger, I would catch myself constantly admiring the great yellow Dragon on white field, chest puffed up in profile and bearing monstrous open jaws. It was called the Dragon of Thrairn, and it was the symbol painted on all of the Coloured Orders’ tabards. It was quite obvious on my father’s chest and back as I watched him from the window in the living room of our cottage. He would alternately be coming home for much too short weeks or going off on campaigns that tended to last months at a time when this view of him presented itself, before the man had time to change into the fine but boring woolen garb of the nobility. I used to love to see him coming and hate to see him leave.
Now I wished I never had to see him again.
And here before me was Gerard, my brother. A golden boy in the truest sense of the word. The close-cropped blond hair, blue eyes, and beautiful aquiline face stood in stark contrast to my mess of mousy brown, matching chestnut eyes, and evident corpulence. He was father’s first born, and to call him his favourite was among the least necessary statements in the small piece of the world we lived in. How could he not be? When he spoke, his voice never faltered. He was well loved by both the men of the Order and the women of the city. He never had to pay tavern wenches for sex - he got it for free from unmarried girls. And to top it all off, the bastard was a brown-noser, always pretending to one kindness or another.
“Are you alright?”
There was feigned concern in my brother’s voice as we stood before the doors of the Blue Cathedral, with a matching expression on his face. Gods-damn him, I thought, searching for the lie. I decided that it might not be a feint. Was the great Gerard Cardiff actually concerned for his failure of a brother? Had I really fallen that far?
My mind recoiled as if it had been burned. Fuck him and his concern, true or false.
“I am fine,” I snapped, placing my hand on the great ring of the Cathedral door. Before I had a chance to yank the blasted thing open, my brother placed his hand over mine.
“Please come with me,” he said. “I will get you some clothes that fit. You cannot go in there looking like that.”
There was no scorn in his voice, only sadness. How I wished for scorn. I recall thinking that disgust from him would have been preferable to the pity that this son of a bitch offered up to me, like table leavings for a crippled hound. Nonetheless, a change of clothing would reduce the risk of my father whipping me in spite of the auspiciousness of the occasion. I was never in the mood for corporal punishment. I followed my brother away from the doors of the Cathedral.
Thankfully, the barracks of the Order were only a short traipse through the streets of the Hightown district away. I tried to spend those few minutes in silence, but Gerard was not having it, even in light of my clipped responses to his questions.
“Rough night last night?” he asked, grinning at me.
“Eh, yeah, you could say that,” I responded. I never liked interacting with my brother. This comrade routine was not new. In fact, it had become tiresome. When we were younger and training together, the bastard used to strike me with his practice sword when I was not looking and make light of my fatness with the Smith’s sons. Not for long, though. He ascended to Knighthood within a year and left me rolling in the wind like the disappointing shite that I was. Soon after he became a Knight, though, he changed his attitude toward me entirely. The shift was seismic enough that I was not buying his wares. This was some put-on for the benefit of those watching our interactions. But I had to admit that did not explain his continued kindly demeanour in our private conversations.
“Today’s the big day, brother!” Gerard said, slapping my back in an entirely unwelcome way.
It was at times like these that I thought of my mother. How I missed her! She always had a patient ear for me, ever since I was a little boy. I would return home to the hearth every night to tell her about my life, all the pleasant times out in the meadows alone, away from the insults delivered by my peers for the state of my physical body, a body which deteriorated further into rotundity as the years passed and I exited childhood. The pleasant times grew fewer and the storm clouds multiplied with the advance of time, and yet at the end of my day, my mother always had for me two things: a smile and a sweet pastry freshly baked in the stone of the hearth.
She had been my sanctuary, and she was gone! I had been left to pick up the pieces with a cold father and a brother whose mere existence rubbed my nose in the fact that I was a letdown.
“Big day for what?” I barked. “This is no honour, this grant of Knighthood. I did not earn it. I still have yet to pass any of the tests, yet here I am, being Knighted.”
“Details! If you are really concerned about your combat abilities, I can help teach you. I want that distance that has grown between us to come to an end. So would Mother, were she here. Think about it.” Still my brother smiled at me, his arm on my back. “What fun we will have together!”
“I do not want your fucking help, do you not understand that?” I fumed. “Ever since Mother died, I have been glad. Glad that Father has given up on me. Glad I do not have to hear him tell me every night that I should be spending less time shut up in my room or at the tavern and more time with you here at the Gods-damned barracks or practicing on the field. I am not a Knight, I have never been a Knight, and now our dear father has used no small measure of guilt to goad me into accepting this terrible joke of a position in the ranks.”
“I will die out there, do you not understand that, brother?” I asked, the fire dimming in my voice as some long-standing defence within me inexplicably weakened. “I cannot fight. I am fat, useless, and a failure. I have spent seven horrendous years in training to your single one that saw you breeze through every test put before you. You were better than me in a month than I remain to this day. I just wish I was like you. Worthwhile, not worthless.” A tear started to well up in the corner of my eye. I willed it back into my head.
“You have such worth already!” my brother said, his voice becoming grave. “Such worth. That said, of course I understand you, brother! Of course, of course I do! But let me tell you: it is not drinking and whoring and showing up a complete mess that will get you through this. You need to practice. The practice is rough, brutal stuff. I went through it - do you think it was easy for me? The hardest things always look easy from the outside. You have no idea what went on in here throughout the process,” he said, pointing at the side of his skull. “The only difference between us is that I did not dally between childhood and becoming a man. The things I had to drop! To let go of the world... You do not know the price of what you seek. But the debt will be paid before you are through.”
The last few words my brother uttered were choked with emotion. Was the chosen one about to cry about succeeding as a Knight? The stones on the bastard. I felt myself slip back into the embrace of my comfortable cynicism.
We arrived at the barracks, having each shut up during the last steps of our short journey. We crossed the red dirt of the sparring grounds, into the pavilion that housed the men. Mercifully, the place was deserted. Everyone must have been at the Cathedral.
“Now,” he said, “You need a proper set of clothes. Come this way.”
There was a warm expression on my brother’s face again, and I hated him for it.
The living quarters were made with wood so dark it never failed to draw the eye. One morning when I was a child, my father had told me all about it, boring me to the point of tears in the toast that lay before me on the breakfast table. Apparently, the black-grained wood was called bear ash, imported from the far-off country of Kashya. It was incredibly strong. What is more, it could withstand the heat of a Dragon’s breath. The barracks were made of it, our longbows were made of it, and the gates of Isha were made of it. I did not believe a word of it - neither the Dragon nor the idea that something that we use to keep our hearths warm could be invulnerable to flame.
Dragons. Imagine if were true!
I would be lying if I said the idea did not tug at some part of me. After all, I grew up reading stories of Knights and Dragons. But I felt certain it had just been my father lying to me for a reaction, a perverse action on his part to make me appear as a fool when the rug was pulled from beneath me, all in the name of building character. I had not taken his bait. Standing there that morning, I examined a wooden slat running across the wall. It did not look much different than the wood that father had chopped on our Estate to build our miserable little cottage, simply a bit darker. Maybe…
No! What rubbish his stories always were! A practiced liar was my father, nothing more.
“Here,” said my brother, thrusting a stack of folded clothing into my arms. “These were supposed to be a gift for after you were inducted into the Order, but I guess you need them now. Matthew had your measurements in his file from the last time you were here.”
I looked down. An ornate green leather jerkin sat atop a brown shirt and brown leather pants. The cloth of the jerkin was stitched with silver and brown thread, a sword pointing down and a Dragon encircling the blade and running all the way up to the top of the hilt. Matthew, the tailor, had not measured me for clothing for months. My gaze rested upon the belly that protruded. I was drinking freely of the ale. But I had also been training. Had I become fatter since then?
“Thank you,” I said, looking up at my brother. “This is a kindness I was not expecting.”
“Ah, do not get all weepy on me,” Gerard said, his brow crinkled with a smile. “Go get changed. I will be waiting out in the yard.”
I walked into one of the rooms of the barracks. It was as spartan as you would expect for a Knight’s quarters. There was a small bed with one of the thinnest mattresses I had ever seen, covered with a white sheet tucked under a yellow blanket. Next to the head was a small night table. Under the bed, a chest built from the same wood as the rest of the structure was only partly hidden from view. The Knights could not have what meagre bits of wealth they accrued from years of wage slavery in service to the King destroyed by Dragon fire, I mused wanly. I realized that I was to sleep in one of these bunks, this very night. With the other warriors.
A warrior? Me? The pounding in my head returned and I thought I was going to retch. Why was I doing this? It was suicide!
Thankfully, the moment passed. I slipped on the clothing. I was surprised to find that there was no struggle. It slid over my bulk without any effort at all. I had assumed I had gained weight since last the tailor had measured me. My tits certainly looked bigger than they had been. Yet here I was, dressed in what can only be described as finely fitted new clothing, nothing stretching to accept me. I exited the room to find my brother waiting for me out in the yard again.
“From tavern wretch to Squire on the threshold of greatness, I bow to you,” Gerard grinned and made a mockery of the gesture.
That arse! Every time, when I let myself get carried away and think some form of kindness of spirit has attached itself to his being, he proved the lie of it. I shot him a glare and spit out words of thanks for the clothing.
We passed the sundial on the way to the Cathedral. The morning’s service would soon be finished. Picking up the pace, Gerard shot out ahead of me, breaking into a half run. My headache pounded in the morning sun. Sighing, I kept up the pace and felt the sweat start to form on my skin and my breath leave me.
“Damn it all, Gerard, slow down!”
He turned around to smile at me, then picked up the pace. He started to trot, then broke into a run. I tried to follow, wheezing my way on for a while. I stopped, screamed, and gave him a vulgar gesture meant to signify a wanton tart’s sex.
“Go then, you son of a bitch,” I said to him. “You are no brother of mine. You think you can buy me off with gifts of new clothing? That you can give me a few scraps and then kick me like a dog when I am down?”
“Andrew, you live life too seriously,” he said, laughing. “I was only trying to make sure that you get to your own ceremony on time.”
“Yes, I will arrive a sweaty mess, eliciting pity and scorn from the congregation. Meanwhile, you, my brother who runs miles every day, will shine as brightly as the morning sun. All the women there will want to fuck you as you stride up to the pews reserved for members of the Order. What few dutiful ladies will be in attendance for my consecration, anyway.” My words grew vicious again. “Too bad for them that you will cast them aside for buggery at the barracks with your brothers-in-arms.”
Gerard began to laugh again.
“Why would I not laugh when what you say is funny?” Still, my brother smiled at me.
We walked the rest of the way in silence to the Cathedral. Mercifully, I had remembered despite the hangover haze to give my arse a proper wiping while I was at the barracks and no stink wafted up as I felt the sweat slide down my legs.
I gazed at the Blue Cathedral as we approached. It was on the corner of two streets in the core of Hightown, that part of the City reserved for the wealth and nobility. The building seemed to emanate out of the cobbles, the steeple stretching far above the large noble mansions that were erected next to it. The face of the building was made with a light blue marble, blue marble that housed stained glass images in the windows. Stained glass that depicted images of brutality: Knights running swords through Demons, blood spurting out onto their mail, men savaging each other in a similar fashion, a man nailed to a cross and bleeding to death. Above the glass, I could just barely make out a crow taking flight from the cross at the top of the spire.
Why did a place holding itself out as a house of peace project such vicious images onto the city? The Church of the Christ-man, my parents’ Faith, seemed horrible, especially compared to what little I knew of the other holy traditions with adherents in Isha. But I had passed through their places of worship from time to time and had sometimes listened to them speak or watched them in prayer. Some men from the east, who paid homage to a fat and jolly god, seemed content to just burn incense and sit down with eyes closed. Others imbibed potions to give them visions of Demons, a practice that sounded completely horrific and without any merit at all. Still others simply sat in huts with crackling fires until they reached the point of passing out. And they all proclaimed to know the truth of existence, claiming the superiority of one god or another, some idol with salvation up its sleeve. It was all shite, of that I was certain. The only world that was real was right in front of me, even if that world heaped insult after insult upon me.
Grinning his perfect grin, my brother pushed open the doors of the Cathedral, and ushered me in to the darkness.