by: Lewis H. Montaug
Presenting part 2, of a 3 part journey, which takes us on a hunt through dangerous terrain for that which is pure…..
Part Two: Duty
The Custodian, lumbering away from the confrontation with De Bolbec and his henchmen, was accosted by thoughts and feelings he wasn’t prepared for. For years he had not a doubt in his mind that a showdown with his brother was imminent, and he knew on that day blood would be shed. Their life’s paths had divulged long ago, and De Bolbec could not be saved as he had waded too far into the dark. But even if logic attempted to console him with the fact that this was the only way possible, the reality remained that De Bolbec suffocated on blood that flowed through both their veins. Shaking off a burgeoning feeling of guilt and remorse The Custodian refocused; if De Bolbec was in this region then she must be in close proximity.
As he walked, The Custodian mopped the blood from his flail with the an over-sized leaf of a Colocasia. He studied his surroundings for clues, for any indication of The Countess. What brought De Bolbec to this ravine?, he wondered. Suddenly, he felt a chill creep intrusively up his spine, and then sensed a surging wind build around him, an unnatural influx of cold air that encompassed his body like a blanket. He attempted to reach for his weapon by habit, yet his arms were bound to his side by the force of the current. Slowly the surge of cool air began to abate in temperature until he was surrounded by a warm and settling pocket of air; an easing presence that made him feel perfectly calm.
The Custodian had heard stories of the forest as a child. Fairy tales from his youth were saturated with chronicles of a wondrous woods that were essentially alive. One that could communicate with those it desired to, and even extinguish those that threatened it. He expeditiously rifled through a catalog of magical narratives from a lifetime ago, when the shelter of his mother’s arms deceivingly brought him to the belief that the world he lived in was a pleasant one, one filled with happiness. In a moment of abrupt clairvoyance The Custodian understood what was happening. The Whispering Winds he spoke aloud.
Sensing The Custodian’s acknowledgement, the whirlwind that had encompassed his body, and paralyzed his movement, instantly freed him. Then a gust of wind hurled at him with such ferocity that it swept him off his feet. That sudden gust instantly dissipated allowing The Custodian to regain his footing, yet now he faced the opposite direction from before. A gentle waft of air swept lightly, yet persistently, against the small of his back, driving him steadily forward. The Whispering Winds were communicating with The Custodian the only way they knew how. They were shepherding him onward, leading him somewhere. The Custodian thought it best to lay his trust in the hands of such a supernatural event, and he considered the notion that he most likely did not have a choice.
A waft of air against his left shoulder led The Custodian to the right, as one against his right shoulder ushered him to the left. And all the while a steady stream of air upon his back directed him forward. He ascended from the ravine into a thick brush, a brush that had recently been traversed, as snapped twigs and footprints were easily observed by The Custodians competent eye. Soon he entered a clearing and the breeze upon his back fell mute. The Whispering Winds had led him the majority of the way, the sound of her tears carried him the rest.
The Countess sat sulking on a lone rock in the middle of the vast clearing, towering vegetation surrounding her on all sides. Her head lay in her hands, her clothes tarnished with feculence and blood. His approach was hardly audible, yet she sensed his presence for some time.
“I knew you were coming. I knew you would find me. It was only a matter of time” she spat through her tears without looking up.
The Custodian neared The Countess, but then thought better of it, maintaining a respectful distance, and announcing himself.
“Countess Karabekian. My name is Matias Ruhl. I am The Custodian to the King. I am here to help you.”
“You,” she managed amongst her sobs “you are here to take me back to King Xerxes, when this is not what I desire.”
“He means for you to be his Queen my lady…..”
“He means for me to be his slave!”
“He means to take care of you.” The Custodian replied stoically.
“And why? Why is it that I am so important? Because I am pure, unsullied by man? I have heard far too much of that nonsense, and will hear no more from you. There is no purity, I scoff at the word. I scoff at the idea. I have seen enough death, torture, rape, and abuse to fill a thousand lifetimes and I can no longer bear witness to it…nor shall I stand by a King who commands such horrors.”
“My lady, the King only wishes that you return to him, he wishes no mischief upon you. The King – he will protect you. You will be safe. Regardless of why he covets you, he does so and will go to any length to keep you free from harm.”
The Countess began to pull herself together. She wiped her tears, and blew her nose faintly upon her ragged dress.
“And if I choose to not oblige?”
“I apologize my lady, but you do not have a choice in this matter.”
“When I was young,” The Countess began after a brief interval of thought, looking down at the soil beneath her feet, “I snuck out of my quarters one day without my parents knowing. As quietly as I could I made my way to the town center to see the market, as my parents forbade me from places such as this. I crept behind curtains to avoid The Royal Guard, crawled under tables…whatever it took to get out. While walking through the market, inhaling the bouquet of the freshly cooked breads, as well as the stench of raw and rotting meat, I saw people, the likes of which I had never seen before. People with frayed wear and knotty hair. People with missing limbs and skin rife with disease. But they went on, regardless of their lot in life, their struggles, they lived on. They provided for themselves and their family as best as they could, given that they had nearly nothing. They, those people….they were more alive than I have ever been.”
“It did not take long for my father to find me. When he did I was talking to a little boy who was selling fruit with his father. I remember his face as if he was standing before me this very moment. He had cracked open the thorny shell of a rambutan, and allowed me to suck the sweet juices from its cavity. This was exactly when my father found me, standing before the boy and his father. I was as happy as could be. My father, to scare me from the market – to teach me a lesson and prove a point that I would be sure as hell to never forget – he walked up from behind the boy’s father and slit his throat with one quick SNAP of his blade. The man fell to the ground and died in a pool of blood, before his son, and before me. This is the world I yearn to run from, where the life of a man, a father, is taken to simply scare a little girl.”
The Custodian stood in silence. He yearned to comfort her, to hold her even, but he would never dare indulge his clandestine desires.
“You don’t have to do this you know.” The Countess simply stated, looking up at him at last.
“No, but I gave my word. I made an oath.”
“I am bound to his service. I am sure I do not need to explain to you the importance of an oath made to The King.”
“I am familiar with the oaths made all too often within the castle’s confines. But I do require an explanation as to their importance. If a man were to make an oath to the heavens above, to live his life for the good of others, that I would understand. If a man were to make an oath to a woman he loves to protect her and love her for his whole life through, this makes sense to me. But when a man makes an oath to a King unbefitting to his people, a man reprehensible in nature and lacking in values, to serve him blindly regardless of his bidding…..this is surely something I do need to be explained to me. Too many people have died unrighteously in the name of these….oaths.”
“It is not that simple my lady, I assure you.”
“Oh, but I believe it is.” The Countess said, her tone growing with ire. “I believe you, and men like you, forget what is right and what is wrong as it is easier to live life under the justifications allowed by the vile excuse that you were just following orders.”
“I fear you do not know me at all my lady.”
“I do not.” Countess Karabekian began to saunter towards The Custodian with a wry smile and a flirtatious tone. “But what if we were were to….get to know each other? The King wouldn’t want me then, now would he?”
The Custodian took a strong step backwards. “Do not mock me my lady. I am only here to help you, and to be true to my word. I am simply doing my job, and we both know that there are two ways I accomplish what has been asked of me, one much more amicable than the other.”
The Countess, pleased with The Custodian’s reaction, his sudden zest, retreated in her advances.
“So, I do not have a choice as to whether I go with you, only as to how I shall go. You will take me kicking and screaming, pulling me by the roots of my hair, or I can simply travel as a companion, returning home under my own free will, hat in hand, right back to my….King.
The Custodian dropped to one knee and bowed his head to The Countess.
“I can promise you very little, loyal servant to The King that I am. But what I can promise you is that I will see to your safety personally, from this day until your last. Just as the King wishes to see you safe, as do I. I am obligated to The King and thus to you. I am your humble servant.”
“Oh get up, will you? There is enough of that business awaiting us upon our return.”
Countess Karabekian, deciding to oblige The Custodian’s wishes, turned to the vast wilderness awaiting them. She began towards the woods succumbing to the long journey ahead, and he followed suit, prepared to engage any threat that may await them. The Custodian remained in awe that the future Queen did not know the depths of her importance to The Kingdom, and to him. As they entered the great unknown he reached over and activated the homing beacon on his left wrist, its intricate mechanics coming to life with an authoritative CLICK.
Ensign Hollander had just dozed off at his station when the alarm went off. It was a hollow, mournful sounding alarm and it shook him to his core.
“Hua? Wha–?” Hollander mouthed, the sounding of the alarm increasing in frequency. His eyes were barely open and he flailed his hands in front of him, searching blindly for the alarms mute switch. Making contact with it he let out a sigh, cupping his head in his hands and trying to dull the ringing in his ears.
He had pulled sentry duty again–the sixth night in a row–and this time on account of his mouthing off to Commander Crusher. So far the job had proven to be about as thrilling as watching mud bricks dry in the midday sun. Running his fingers through his close cropped hair, Hollander’s thoughts drifted back to the reason for this intrusion. Bringing himself into focus he stared at the glowing red orb before him. It was a magical thing, a device borne of sorcery that he did not fully comprehend, but it had a very specific purpose. And as it glowed rhythmically, cycling through vibrant hues of orche, crimson and burgundy, a series of geographical coordinates scrolled repeatedly about its face. After a moment those coordinates morphed into a topographical map of a forested highland, with a steadily blinking orb of gold moving across its contours.
“Oh, Gods!” Hollander spat, realizing the magnitude of the data before him. Grabbing hold of the brass speaking tube to his left, he placed his face into the speaking cone and yelled with all his might.
“Commander!” He yelled “Commander Crusher! This is Ensign Hollander of the Night Watch! The Custodian has activated his homing beacon! I repeat! The Custodian has activated his homing beacon!”
Commander Crusher awoke with a start. He had been having the loveliest of dreams and as he lay in the darkness of his quarters he contemplated terrible demises for whoever had disturbed him. He was a very busy man and he valued his sleep.
The filaments of his dream still existed, trapped in that that period between wakefulness and sleep and he smiled as their tendrils danced warmly around him. He felt at peace, like he was lying in a field of the greenest grass, the warm summer rains of Faradon, his childhood home, falling over him, washing his troubles away.
“Commander!” A metallic voice boomed loudly, intruding sharply on his musings.
There it was again. “Oh, bloody hell! Alright! Alright! I’m coming!” Commander Crusher yelled to no one, rising half up from his bed and flicking on his bedside lamp. He stood fully and hastily threw on his uniform, always the picture of ceremony, and approached the entrance to his quarters. Opening the door angrily he leaned out. “Guards.” He said in a gravely voice “Find me the source of that awful racket and bring him here to me immediately. I will not be awakened from a hard-earned slumber to speak with an underling through a tube. No, I believe this individual and I will come to more of an understanding if we meet face-to-face.”
“Yes, sir!” Crusher’s guardsmen snapped. “Right away, sir!”
“And bring me a coffee with a side of brandy. I’m in no mood for foolishness today.” Stepping back into his quarters, Commander Crusher walked over to the full-length mirror and took himself in. “It used to be you didn’t need to start the day with a drink, Commander.” His reflection said to him.
“Oh shut-up you!” Commander Crusher hawked right back. “The moment I start taking advice from you is the moment I’ll see myself put out the airlock by King Xerxes himself. No one gets into a position like mine, a position of power, without having to bash a few innocent skulls every now and then. The drinking just helps make all of this bearable. And plus, I’m in too deep now to simply walk away, hang up my cap and be the man I used to be. I’m the King’s man now, through and through, and he decides when I’m done, not me.”
Commander Crusher was just about to go on with his daily pep talk when the door opened and in walked his guards. Between them was pressed a scared-looking, fresh-faced cadet.
“Ensign Hollander!” The Commander roared, grabbing his brandy laden coffee from his guardsman’s hand. Taking a deep drink of the steaming liquid he continued “I should have known it was you who dare disturb me! What business do you have interrupting the slumber of the Commanding Officer of His Royal Majesty’s Beloved Space Station? Huh, boy? You better have a grand excuse for your bumbling ineptitude because it’s out the airlock for you if I’m not impressed.”
“If-if-if-if it pleases the Commander,” Hollander stammered. “If it p-p-p-pleases the Commander…”
“If it pleases the Commander, SIR!” Commander Crusher interrupted, looking menacingly over the rim of his half drunk coffee.
“If it pleases the Commander, sir.” Hollander offered, going slightly weak in the knees with fear. “I was calling to inform you that the homing beacon you spoke of. The one that you demanded all the cadets of the Night Watch to be paying attention for.”
“Yesssss.” Commander Crusher inquired, taking a refill of his coffee from the guardsman before him.
“Well sir, the beacon has been activated, sir. An alarm went off a few moments ago and that red tracker-orb thingy came to life, scared the Gods right out of me and I did the first thing that came to my mind….I called you.”
Crusher’s eyes went wide with the news from Hollander. He’s done it! He thought, fighting powerfully to contain any hint of a smile. The Custodian has The Countess! By the beauty of Venus he has her!
“Well done lad.” Commander Crusher spoke, his icy disposition melting, motioning for his guardsmen to release their hold on the boy. “Well done indeed. I may have underestimated your potential, Ensign Hollander,” he said, smiling as he placed a reassuring hand on the trembling boy’s shoulder.
“Guards, send word for my personal shuttle to be readied. I have news for King Xerxes to be delivered in person.”
“And what of this lad, my Lord?” Einhom, his most trusted of Guardsmen inquired.
“Him?” Commander Crusher replied, looking uncertainly at Ensign Hollander, his icy disposition again returning to his face. “Put him out the airlock. I have no need for insubordination upon this station. This fool obviously does not comprehend the chain of command. That all things do not need to be told directly to me. That is all.” And saying this Commander Crusher pushed deeper into his quarters, he had a trip to pack for and his ceremonial uniform to find, for one had to be dressed appropriately for an audience with the King.
As he crossed the threshold of his bedroom, on the way to his wardrobe, he could still hear the frantic cries of Ensign Hollander down the hall as he pleaded fervently for his life. Commander Crusher paused, listening to the lads impassioned cries. He took another sip of his brandied coffee, letting the warmth of the strong drink wash over him, each fiery sip chasing away any feelings he had towards the boy. After a moment he set his cup down and continued readying himself for his trip, moving about his quarters and humming softly a melody from his youth.
As Commander Crusher’s shuttle pulled away from the landing bay, the true grandeur of the station drifted steadily into view. It was an enormous structure, a colossal assembly of metal and glass drifting soundlessly above the planet. King Xerxes had commanded the station resemble three intersecting rings, an ancient symbol of strength through unity that had been adopted by his family, House Carrano, generations ago. Each individual ring represented a portion of their family motto–power, ferocity, and valor–three words which the members of House Carrano lived ardently and died passionately by.
Commander Crusher brought his hand to his brow, shielding his eyes from the golden light reflecting off the stations hull. The unfiltered glow of the blazing sun was blinding if one was not careful and without proper protection it could cause a person great harm. Many a cadet, still wet behind the ears, had made the eager mistake upon first visit to the station of looking upon its vastness too soon, before the ports of the shuttlecraft could polarize the incoming light. There was always one or two in the group, impatient youngsters that they sometimes were, who found themselves spending their first few weeks in the stations sick bay, nursing their injured eyes.
Taking in the magnificence of the glowing structure one last time before landfall, The Commander smiled weakly, remembering his first trip to the station, his eagerness to do well and he wondered how he had become so lost, become this man that he no longer recognized. He wished silently to himself, as the shuttle began its descent, that the King would be receptive to his news.
Prince Caledon was the first to meet Commander Crusher as he exited from his craft. A curious and eager lad, he was just seventeen, second in line to the throne, and thirty years younger than his brother, King Xerxes.
“Greetings Commander Crusher.” Prince Caledon spoke, offering his hand to help steady the man as he stepped off the wing of his ship. “How goes life up amongst the planets and stars? Have you had the good fortune of encountering any angels during your travels?”
“Prince Caledon, my Lord.” Commander Crusher said, bowing deeply, his eyes cast downward on the polished marble floor.
“Rise, friend.” Caledon spoke, laughing lightly. “There is no need for pageantry here. You may speak and act freely in my presence.”
“Yes my Lord. Thank you kind sir. To answer your question I have seen many strange and beautiful things during my years of service among the stars but I have not encountered these angels that you speak of. But that is neither a denial or a confirmation of their existence, merely an old man’s opinion.”
“True. So very true. But onward to more pressing matters, Commander. What news have you from above that you found it necessary to leave your beloved space station?”
“My Lord, if I may be so forward as to say that I bring news for King Xerxes that is of a sensitive and delicate nature. I would like to tell him of it firsthand before I share its contents with you. I mean you no disrespect in this matter. I am merely following my orders, kind sir.”
“I applaud your loyalty, Commander. My brother was right to put you in command of our station. I take no umbrage with your words. Come, let us go see my brother and deliver this news to him without haste! I am sure he is anxious to hear your voice!”
Prince Caledon and Commander Crusher strode quickly down the castle’s halls, Caledon’s honor guard and Crusher’s military detail following close behind. The footfalls of their party echoed loudly about the jeweled and marbled extravagance of the structures walls. When they approached the towering doors of the King’s private residence, Prince Caledon put his hand on Commander Crushers arm, halting him momentarily before he entered. Leaning in he whispered softly into the old man’s ear. “A word of warning dear friend. The King has changed much since you were last here. He is no longer the man that you once knew. Time has been hard on him, aging him well beyond his 47 years, and many are fearful that he soon may pass.”
Commander Crusher’s eyes went wide upon hearing these words and he had no time to digest them before Prince Caledon ushered him into the Kings chambers, and what he saw upon entering shocked him.
King Xerxes was there, sitting behind his massive carved desk, but he looked nothing like the man Commander Crusher had encountered in the past. He looked weathered and worn for his age, like he had been left outside to the elements too long and his skin hung upon him loose and pale.
“Ah, Crusher, old friend.” King Xerxes said weakly, motioning for Commander Crusher to come sit closer to his side. “I was wondering if you’d ever come down from that station and visit me again. Come, sit here beside me and tell me what news you bring from the stars.”
“My King.” Commander Crusher spoke, his voice slightly wavering. “I bring good news from up North. Your Custodian, Matias Ruhl, has succeeded in his quest. He has activated his homing beacon and he travels with Countess Karabekian as we speak, journeying Southward to you.”
The King looked into Crusher’s eyes, searching for any sign of deceit in his words. “What you say is true, Commander?” The King questioned. “I may be in a weakened state, but I assure you that my mind is still powerful. And my patience for lies and half-truths as you well know, has never been very strong. You have verified this information? Show it to me.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Commander Crusher replied and pulling forth from his pocket a miniaturized version of the glowing red orb he handed it to the King. “All the information is here.”
Before he could hand it to King Xerxes the orb was snatched from his grip by the Kings wizened old Mager, Thelonious. He placed the orb into a receptacle on the King’s desk and stared intently as the data within scrolled forth across its face. As the Mager digested its contents the King stared intently at Commander Crusher, his deep blue distrustful eyes weighing the loyalty of the Commander with every passing second.
The King had always been distrustful, had always been suspicious to the point of cruelty but this was a new level of scrutiny Commander Crusher thought as he sat beside King Xerxes. He was becoming uneasy with the King’s new demeanor and with each passing moment he wished more and more that he was back on his station.
After what felt like hours Thelonious raised himself from the orb and spoke softly in the King’s ear. Commander Crusher leaned in, hoping to discern the old man’s words but was met by the Kings hardened stare. After a moment the Mager rose and drifted off to the King’s side. Putting his hand on the Commanders shoulder and giving him a reassuring squeeze, the King raised his head and spoke to the crowd assembled before him.
“Countess Karabekian is the key!” King Xerxes bellowed, pounding his bony fist upon his desk. “Her purity is her power and I must have it above all else! It will make me well once more, restore my withered might and allow me to make our Kingdom whole. We must make haste on this matter. I must have her without delay.”
“Dear brother.” The King called out. “Dear Caledon, you are to handle this matter personally, do you hear? Assemble a recovery team, your most trusted men only and follow this beacon, bringing Countess Karabekian back to me. On this you must not delay!” And saying this the King broke into a fit of coughing, his ensemble of doctors, healers and mystics drifting in like a fog to treat him, surrounding his form until he was completely hidden from view.
To Be Concluded……..