The threat of war had always loomed over Marion. Through its brutal history, the soil had soaked up the blood of many, and so it is with this story. In 795 RE, an empire from the far west invaded Golgotha, a land encompassing Marion’s north-eastern half. For 45 bloody years, the two empires fought each other, resulting in the capture of Golgotha by the western empire known as Azure. Peace was about to reign again… but poison can be swift and futile to expose once infused.
~ A Rider At Sunset ~
~ 845 RE ~ Golgotha’s Capitol: Elitus, at Dusk ~
Along the old country road, dusty soil erupted as thunderous hooves barreled over bittersweet pastures. Riding at the front is a brave warrior clad in armor. His name was Guildred, a Lord Knight of the Azure Empire and proud leader of the griffon knights. From what I knew of him, he was an absolute terror on the battlefield. Renowned for being the first in the vanguard and never leaving until he slew his enemy.
As he advanced, an army of cavalrymen on horseback, armed with rifles and spears, followed him. They rode past the heart of death, a field littered with rusted weapons buried in the dirt that marked the graves of the fallen. It filled his mind with images of the dead stacked like walls and their fetid odor as he remembered the blood and mayhem of the battle. Horror pierced his heart as he heard the irons bearing down on each other and the echoes of their screams clashing together. Despite the terrors of war, Guildred sat tall with his chest outstretched, a picture of strength. The flowing white cape of his robe gleamed in the dying red sun’s rays.
They rode forward toward a castle that was obscured by a rusty haze. In his veins, the panic was pumping like the beat of a war drum. He could hear the creaking of his horse’s reins as he wrapped the cords in his hand. With his saber raised, he points towards the war-torn city gates of Elitus.
They already stationed several guards in blue uniforms at the gates. As Guildred’s hand rose in the air, the soldiers prepared their spears. The Lord Knight felt his heart crawl into his neck as his horse came to a halt. Two guards point their long polearms at the naked neck of the gallant knight within seconds. Snowy whiskers and deep chasmic wrinkles adorn the face of the elder guard. The other guard was much younger. Despite his youthful sense of invisibility, the guard tightened up, giving him away.
There was an unsettling silence in the air. Regardless, the result would be the same. In his mind, it was simply a matter of whether he would wet his blade. As the guard’s face lit up with wide eyes, the old man appeared to recognize him, much to the Lord Knight’s relief. Though he couldn’t tell if it was fear or respect. “Lord Knight Guildred, what was this about?” asked the elder.
“I’m here under the orders of High King Grandor to protect the prince! I have no time for pleasantries,” Guildred said firmly, brushing the spear’s tip away with his sword. “Let me through,” they met his commanding reply with a nod from the guards, who parted to let the cavalry pass. Guildred directed his band of soldiers to cross the threshold like a rushing river of bestial hooves.
It had been so long since he last saw Elitus without its fortifications. During the war, ramparts constructed from metal plates and wood surrounded every street. They armed even the littlest children to defend the city. Now everything was quiet, and it appeared peaceful, although that was soon replaced by hallowed silence and prayers. Guildred’s armor-clad warriors stormed the streets, shaking the earth.
The Lord Knight glanced down to his side and saw a man, wide-eyed and mouth agape, dressed in a well-worn cloak. Lifting his stance over the man and pointing forward, he sent the retrenched cavalry to their positions. They do this as a coordinated force, trained and adept at what they do. Two men secured each junction, clearing the way for the horses. Guildred remained composed, with men guarding doors to their shops, locking the windows, and fleeing the knights despite the widespread panic. Guardsmen approached to ask about the situation as the riders explained it.
He grumbled to a younger man beside him, “Traveling as a group will hold us back with this much panic.” He watched the alarm spiral into hysteria. A growing sense of urgency pierced his body. “Hm,” he growled. He thought to himself, “the time is running out.”
Snatching the reins, Guildred rode into the crowd while the young soldier yelled, “My Lord, wait!”
As people dive to get out of the way, Guildred steered his horse through the crowded city streets by instinct. In battle, riding a horse is one thing Guildred considered. The men knew when to step aside, and when they did not, the Lord Knight would cut them down. This is a game of avoidance; this was a game he had never played before. The feeling of imminent collision shook him to the core. Despite the tension they shared, his horse continued diving, weaving, and avoiding obstacles, both living and inanimate.
~ A Legacy Remains ~
Children’s giggles reverberated from the cool marble chapel. On a red blanket sprawled over the floor, an infant girl and boy play. In their midst was a group of dressed men in expensive attire. They cover their faces with carved wooden masks of animals. These masks depict a bear, a boar, a bird, a deer, a fish, a fox, and a wolf. The bird adjusted his cufflinks with obvious restlessness. Their swords rested on their laps. Candles flickered and danced, hungry for a feast, waiting for their sacrifice as phantom winds moved into the room. Almost no sound escaped their lips as their whispers dragged.
“Wham!” The burst echoed down the hall. As the clopping of hooves draws nearer, the men bound from their chairs. Huddling around the children, the men grabbed their brands for protection. The fox pointed at the door. The bear and the boar, the two more burly of the men, rushed out of the sanctuary and into the hall with their sabers drawn.
Guildred rode down the marble halls toward the strange masked men. The bear and the boar struck combative stances with their swords in hand. “Royals,” Guildred said to himself. He had always considered the lesser houses to be idle and cowardly. “This pair must find power in their authority,” the trained warrior mused. Their stature and attire clarified they were countrymen and betrayers.
Grandor’s fears of usurpers were realized. Guildred choked the shaft of the spear. As the boar rushed towards Guildred, he hollered with a sense of authority, “Halt.” If the situation were different, Guildred might have laughed; instead, it provokes anger. Responding with an unadulterated charge, he narrowed his eyes. A pulpy red burst of blood shot from his spear as it pierced the man’s chest. The thrust ripped from his face the wooden boar mask, showing a toothy, open-jawed scream.
Guildred stared deeply into the man’s blue eyes, filled with tears. The nobleman, who once stood proudly, gags for air as a strand of saliva escapes his mouth. The nobleman grasped at the spear’s tip as Guildred lifted the struggling man. In utter horror, the second man in a bear mask stared, his body still and yet trembling.
The Lord Knight released a subtle growl as he rode several feet with the impaled man roaring in agony. A thrust sends the boar’s body soaring from the spear. As he flew, he crashed into a wall, sending a tapestry tumbling behind him.
As the bear jerked at his knees and turned tail, he ran away from Guildred, who now appeared like a giant brute dressed in his silver armor. For a moment, Guildred considered pursuing the man, a feeling of almost animal thrill for the chase overtaking him. In the end, he decided it was wise to aim through the open chapel doors where the men came from. Guildred examined the bloody spear’s tip that once found itself buried in the man. His “royal” meat hung from its bent end, useless to Guildred now. In any case, he did not desperately need range. He threw the spear to the ground, and it rolled, leaving behind a bloody trail. As he rode into the open doors of the sanctuary, the rest of the men shrank back in fear. In the blink of an eye, Guildred lept off his horse, drew his saber, and rose to his feet. The men greeted him by pointing their ceremony blades in his direction.
His polished blade aimed at the three, shouting “Drop your swords in the name of Lord King Grandor!” He huffed, twisting his body at an angle. With his mouth down-turned, and his gaze focused on the children, Guildred released a deliberate exhale.
Yelping, the bird raised his hands and yelled, “Sir Guildred, you must understand.”
Guildred thought to himself. “They’re pleading their cases already?” He shook his head and spotted to his left the wolf, charging forward, hollering “Quick, kill the child!” with a gruff voice.
When Guildred noticed the fox standing over the young boy, he reached for his throwing dagger. As the fox raised his sword over the baby boy, he yelled, “It must be finished.” Guildred sweeps the small dagger across the room in one fluid motion. The blade struck the fox in the throat. Knife in his neck, the man tumbled backward, squelching, blood gushing onto the floor. The fox rolled on the ground as he reached for the hem of his co-conspirator’s cloak and let out a loud squeak.
Guildred’s eyes dart up just in time to see a dramatic swing aimed at his head. “Clang!“ Guildred blocks the wolf’s attack, their two blades groping, slipping, and ending their flash dance with a poke to the ribs. As the wolf released his sword, the man reached for the edge stuck in his lung. His shirt, wet with blood, is painted in broad, wet strokes. In the same manner, in which Guildred had plunged his weapon into the man, he expelled it effortlessly. In the process, the colored saber drips onto the ground, creating a small puddle at his feet. The wound became a fountain. The wolf feels his heartbeat betraying him. Among the children’s shrieks are tears and squeals of discomfort, besides the wailing of the remaining masked men.
When the deer and fish jittered, they drop their brands. The bird is too startled to do much. Behind Guildred, a procession of soldiers swarmed the room, pointing their spears. Suddenly, the bird cried, “Mercy!“ Guildred turned his sapphire gaze at him. He could tell from his voice that he was a relatively young man. The bird’s hands shot into the air. Suddenly, the sword rolled out of his grasp. The blade landed on the floor with a clunk, revealing a face flushed with a shade of pink Guildred had never seen before. His eyes, puffy and sullen, filled with streaming tears, he exclaimed, “I had nothing to do with this.”
Except for the crying children, the only sound was Guildred’s first step. There was an audible metallic clank. With the chapel’s ringing, its weightiness became clearer. Slowly and deliberately, Guildred marched toward the men, who cowered at his approach. Guildred stands over them. After loosening his right hand’s leather strap, he drew a quiver from the men. A similar reaction followed when he did the same with the left. With a bang, the gauntlets fall to the ground, fingers spreading, palms open.
Guildred squatted down and lifted the kids off the ground. “How do I stop their cries?” He wondered to himself. Then he recalled what his maid mother would do with his siblings. While humming a song he knew from the bards, the noble warrior gently bounces, cradling the pair. Russet infantile hands gripped his silver breastplate firmly. It wasn’t long before they stopped crying. Guildred doesn’t even bother to glance at the others as he rises to his feet. His soldiers parted as he walked across the sanctuary’s purple carpet. He paused his humming to add, “Arrest them.” He then resumed his croon, continuing out of the room.
“Please! Mercy!” a shout echoed. Mercy is the last thing he deserved, Guildred judged.
The young girl’s rosy sepia face is kissed by a pink digit that wags against it. Violet jewels looked up at Guildred’s sharp diamond features, crystal blues framed by sandy blonde locks. Her body is flattened against Guildred’s forearm. A smile spread across the brace knight’s face. “Rest well, Princess Talumn.” Guildred said.
Following Guildred are six marching soldiers. The young baby of a boy kicks in his other arm, struggling, curling, and winding in the knight’s arms, beating his hands and feet against the metal plate. “Papa!” he shouts, arousing Talumn from her slumber.
As a lump formed in his throat, Guildred muttered, “Silly kid.” He fought to contain his tears as he said, “Don’t worry, your father is coming.” The truth was, his father was dead, poisoned at a dinner a few hours earlier. Guildred approached a large silver door that is embossed with the image of a winged man reaching into the clouds. This door opened in the middle, revealing a circular room with transparent walls and a view of the village. Squirming, the boy tugged at Guildred’s white cloak, trying to get free. There are four more soldiers in the room with them. As the silver doors close, the room rises, expanding the view of the city as they climb higher. Guildred pointed at the window. “Look, Illian.” The boy’s blues become luminous with fascination. The boy turned his head slowly and smiled up at the Lord Knight. “I thought that might make you smile,” he said. “It’s your kingdom. Don’t forget it.” Guildred warned. “You get to leave this madness tonight.”
The climb took less than a minute, but it felt like it was for hours. After the silver doors open, a black sky and a red moon are visible in the distance. All four soldiers sprint across the castle’s reach. The warm summer breeze blows Guildred’s way. One soldier calls out, “All clear.”
In the distance, Guildred saw a massive airship en route. “We will get you out of here,” he said. In Guildred’s eyes, the goliath looked like a flying stronghold. However, it is much smaller, but anything that flies that size deserves a title. Its blue-white landing lights blinded the group as it drew closer. The large ship anchors itself to the castle wall; Guildred’s cape cracks in the winds generated by the large ship. Dropping loudly from the airship’s deck, a metal board landed with a clang.
Guildred squinted, turning ajar and shielding the children from the blinding spotlight. Two gigantic guards clothed in cloaks of blue cast shadows. Guildred compared their helmets to pointed metal hoods, similar to bishop’s caps, except they covered their faces. With large lances like cannons, the soldiers stood at least nine feet tall, crossing the metal bridge; their mere presence was unintentionally menacing.
As another man crossed, the light darkens for a moment. As before, he wore royal robes and was much shorter and unarmored. A hearty greeting awaits him from the fresh-faced man, “Lord Ashnod, it’s a pleasure to see you again.”
When he recognized the man, Guildred’s face lit up with delight. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lord Gallion Gravios.” He trusted him as a child, at least at one point in his life. “The circumstances are far too grim to respect,” Guildred said, while Illian cried loudly.
Gallion reached out and took the children from him. “They will have a better life than they could ever wish for.” He narrowed his eyes, turning Guildred’s stomach. “Were the nobles trying to kill the royal family? Was it true?”
Guildred replied to Gallion, “It seems so.”
Gallion looked over to the ship and said, “I see. In that case,” He turned away from Guildred with a grimace. He muttered, “Kill them all.”
General Gallion paused when Guildred said, “I have three of them captured; should we not at least question them? So we can understand the situation.” Gallon stood still. Guildred swallowed uncomfortably, not wanting to undermine the nobleman’s authority.
“Kill every one of them. We would have had lasting peace between our two kingdoms if it weren’t for King Bridehan. The balance now rests in the hands of a crying child. Leave Bridehan, though… we will neuter him after this.” Guildred bit the inside of his cheek. An odd feeling came over him that there was something more going on than what appeared on the surface. As he watched Talumn sleep in Gallion’s arms, doubt entered his mind. Hopefully, Grandor will shelter them appropriately and they will prove him wrong.
Gallion turned back to Guildred while standing on the bridge. “I trust you will handle it for us. In the morning, we might require new nobles. Take control of Elitus and Guildred after the ride north. The bastards in Tidus need to see the true cost of what they’ve done. Leave the public out of it. Such things shouldn’t bother them.”
As Guildred watched Gallion turn away and board the airship, he said, “Yes, sir.” His guards followed and redrawn the bridge onto the ship. While the vessel ascended back to the skies, he stood wide-eyed. As he grips his saber, he turns to the guard standing next to him. “You heard him,” he says. “We have work to be done.”
23 Years Later
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