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Wednesday, 14 January 2009
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My Brother, My Killer
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Chapter Two: Prologue to Destiny

A strong wind swept through the high grasses, the blades of green and flowers rustling in the quiet noon sun. The air was warm and smelled as spring ought to be: holding strongly unto that promise of summer with reborn youthful lands and soothing the threat of winter for its denizens. The sun had almost finished its descent, now doubting at the threshold of the horizon, colouring the sky and scarce clouds in every kind of orange. A tranquil and serene landscape only disturbed by the passing presence of a single knight and his retinue. Astride his strong and proud warhorse, Simon Gastinois, kin to the ducal family of Gisoreux, had temporary abandoned his ancestral forests in search for that which all knights who come of age, coveted but only a select few gained. Here in the flat and devoid of human life lands of Quenelles, Nicolas Pinsson had built his home out of wood and stone. A motte and bailey erected against the horizon, dominating the landscape from afar. Though he was barely nearing his thirtieth spring, Nicolas had chosen a hermit’s life for reasons unknown to all safe himself. Though the tongues of the envious credited his self-imposed solitude to a disfiguring wound which thereby hindered his skill, most agreed that he had become tired of the hundreds  -maybe thousands- requests of every lord, high and low, to train his son in the noble arts of swordplay. Indeed most called the young swordmaster to be the reborn Landuin, that impressive was his skill with the blade, some even whispered that the noble and still untainted blood of Mousillon ran through his veins, descended directly of the fairest of the companions, claiming him to be the rightful heir of duchy. Whatever his reasons, Nicolas had fled the crowded halls of kings and dukes to this remote land of peace and seclusion.  

Simon was more than an average fair lad, bright green eyes that shone as two perfect emeralds and long soft auburn hair which playfully whirled in the wind. Leanly built, his body hid his true strength. As a true chivalrous knight his mind was as pure as his physique, spiked with haughty grandeur -as befitted a youth-, and which had brought him here. However the epitome of the knightly ideal he was, his skill with the blade was decent at best and not up to the standard the young knight’s mind was fixed on. Though he passed his errand with flying colours, he would not take pride in the accomplishment and immediately left the keep of his beloved father in search for a mentor which could guide his hand to perfection. True legends carve their own words in the stone of time. Simon had ever lived and trained by these words of wisdom of his father. A true hero isn’t born but is a sacrifice: he must be ready to abandon his family and loved ones for the greater good, be prepared to lose them by the hand of the wicked and survive all which could be thrown at him in his path. In his mind Simon was more than ready than to take up that banner and become the paragon the land so dearly wished for but if he were too vanquish his relentless foe his skill with the blade needed to be invincible.

Only a few hundred yards to cross and he would finally meet the fabled knight which had perfected the king’s hand, exercised with the great heroes of his youth and became the youngest guardian to be honoured to sip from the grail since Louis the Rash. His legacy was vast in spite of his young years: indeed it was widely known he looked no more than twenty cycles young and his vigour remained still at its peak. Simon was excited to take the next step: there was no doubt in that youthful head that Nicolas would be inflamed by his desire, struck as it were by his bright destiny and would agree where others had failed. Surely the Lady would inspire the weapon master to recognise his potential. 


Finally the small company crossed the wooden gate of the makeshift wall of tree trunks about seven feet high. Fleetly it crossed Simon’s mind to pause and wonder about this provisional defences at best. Surely a legend can afford better? If not the king than some great lord of the land would support this great warrior? Or has She forbidden him luxury so not to poison his mind with trivial and earthly matter? Inside the gate a second surprise made the young knight wonder: it was indeed an odd sight to see not serfs but the refined hands of a noble take the reins of the horses. Silently these sons of other lords took their horses and led them to the stable to be groomed. Baffled Simon saw these knights do other simple tasks and maintenance around the small fort which he never before had seen handled by blood of a lord. They weren’t even mere knights of low stature: indeed the young knight recognised several of liveries as renowned warriors of every corner of Bretonnia. Why are these men wasting time and breath on meaningless chores? Doesn’t Nicolas have any commoners in employ? Or don’t these fine examples of chivalry have some servants to chop wood, clean the stables or even cook? Dismayed Simon saw a knight stirring a bowl of stew, made from small game. By the descending darkness he could distinguish several other buildings as makeshift as the walls where other important camp business was concluded. A small wall of stacked stones lined a deep well with their fresh water supply.


From the steep dug stairs, made from hardened ground, leading to the top of the hill where the young knight presumed the keep would be, he nimbly emerged. Nicolas was a rugged man with sharp and bright eyes peering underneath his bushy brows. His long, dark and unkempt hair covered his neck to his shoulders. Completely covering his chin and surrounding his mouth, a wild beard had grown since a couple of months. His muscular body betrayed to be capable of great feats of strength and endurance. In spite of his legendary skill with the sword, he didn’t look as nimble and agile the stories had made him look. A man built as a mountain takes a lot of time to turn.


While the living saint was still overlooking the scene, Simon addressed his hero in the words which he had been rehearsing in his mind for the entire journey. “Lord Pinsson, I humbly beg an audience with you. My name is Simon Gastinois, cousin to the ducal family of Gisoreux, blooded at the Battle of Ypres, satisfactorily fulfilling my errant in valour and glory in said field. Your renown has me riding this far to search for the fabled knight who single-handedly slew the Wyrm of Winternight and is called Landuin reborn by all. “ Anxiously and his heart thumping wild, Simon awaited his reply. His hand felt clammy in his gauntlets.
Those discerning eyes of the chivalrous incarnated had fixed on the young knight from the moment he addressed him, stern but with certain patience towards the youth. As soon as he had finished, his practised reply rolled of his tongue. It were the exact words he used every time: for indeed there had been no doubt to the why of the sudden visit of Simon. “Gisoreux is a long way for tale and hope, young one, even longer will your return be. I am sorry but I do not accept students anymore. I know what brought you here, hopes held high, just like the five others I receive every fortnight. Whether they were born high or low nobility, it makes no difference to me: every single one thinks they are chosen to be tutored by me. Return home, young warrior, fulfil your duty to your land and kin and leave the tales of legends to those who are damned to perform them.” Nicolas turned and walked once again up the stairs, his shoulders tense, his hands clasped behind his back.
Somewhere hidden in his eager mind Simon had taken in account to be refused but the sudden and abruptness of the answer stunned him. Irritation born out of his young years took over as he sped up the stairs. The slowly mounting legend did not even turn around but kept his solemn pace. Nor did he challenge his burden with words but remained silent until Simon spoke to him, flushed and ireful.
“That’s all you have to say? You, sir, have barely laid your eyes on me for a heartbeat and you judged me already?”
“As I tried to explain before, there is no difference between those that bother me in my solitude.” Nicolas made eye contact for a second before returning his attention to the stairs. In that small second Simon saw no arrogance and disrespect but gentle and somewhat tired eyes. They were certainly not the eyes of a man who had faced a demon of the abyss and lived to tell the tale. “Every time they arrive with the same haughty manner, heart stoned with their own greatness and virtue. Every time they get angered at my response, trying to challenge my experience and wisdom. Every time they haste their way from here not a bell later. Forgive me then that I lack the patience to answer each and every one of you at length.”
“Even so, sir, it is custom to at least offer a fellow knight a warm bed and hot food for the evening at this hour.” It was a cheap shot to question the man’s chivalry. Cheap and unworthy but by now disillusion and anger had become his ill advisors.
Nicolas merely flinched a sad smile as he replied. “All of you also seem to think a man of my position should be holed up in a keep, dispensing wisdom  to travellers. Once again I apologise, my young friend, but this is no fort but a chapel which I once built myself with nothing but my own hands and wit. I can offer you refuge for the night but nothing more.” Simon stopped in his tracks as Nicolas pushed the two heavy doors open. Beyond stood no more than several wooden benches, facing the altar in the middle. In a far corner there lay the armour and shield Bretonnia had come to revere just as the ducal and royal ones: indeed the grail supported by a red rose on a black and white divide was a celebrated sight in every city and battlefield across the land. It was mind numbing to see that proud red rose so weathered and worn on his badly-kempt armour, dented as it was by misuse and partially as the paint chipped off his shield. Pinsson’s eyes followed his younger peer’s to the corner and his sad half-smile returned. “Let it never be said that a life of devotion and piety is an unrewarding one.” One last stern look before he closed the doors fixed the youth’s eyes. “But it certainly takes its toll.” 

When night falls in those lands, it quickly drains the last warmth to return to its hibernation. Huddled around the campfire, Simon drew his blanket close. He was welcome to rest safely and warm in the chapel but his proud mind forbade his tired body. His two squires remained his two silent guardians with their dull eyes. Didn’t they care their master had been refused so quickly and definitely? If so their hearts are a closed book to my mind. The young knight sighed out of weariness, because of the cold and because of his sense of helplessness. Simon buried his face in his crossed arms as the starry sky wheeled overhead. In the depths of nowhere they seem ever more radiant, countless in an endless dance, too complicated for man’s mind. Long fiery tears scarred that sky as the world of the gods looked down on their progeny. He had travelled many a mile to become that legend he had made himself believe in. In his best dreams he had imagined the long and heartening ballads the bard and minstrels of every court would have composed and sung. In fact the past month he seemed ready to face everything and anything as his confidence roared as a mighty lion.  Roar it might but when challenged it was but a mouse. His heart was heavy now as his anger subsided by more powerful and lingering emotions: shame and sadness. Challenge his honour? What in Lady’s name had he been thinking? This was a man who had stood alone in the face of every peril man has ever faced in his young life and every single time he emerged victorious, his bravery and sword having cleared the path to the legends.
“Don’t worry, son, the worst has passed.” The sudden voice startled the train of thought of Simon as he turned his head to look upon the one who addressed him. The night obscured the stranger’s features but the knight’s heraldry betrayed him to be family to the castellan of Mont Vernoux but his specific heraldry rang no bell. “Mind if I join you?” The unknown knight sat down near the fire, not waiting for a reply from Simon. A silence ensued as the man warmed his hands by the fireplace. By the flickering light of flame Simon could now discern a man of middle age, no distinct features, a knight as any other. From the corner of his eye he noticed Simon was looking at him. “The name is Jean de Garlande. It be a surprise if you’ve heard of me.” Indeed, the name of the knight brought no  memory forth. Simon  awaited patiently for Jean to continue. “Been here ever since my sixteenth winter when the world was still bright and adventurous. Lured here by the promise to be taught by the world’s greatest living knight. Just like you. I heard him say nay and be done with it. Trust me, lad, the rejection is the worst part. When you are on your way home, you’ll see your bright future and the adventure ahead once more.”
“Did you, sir?”
The question seemed to pain him as his face darkened. “That’s a keen question, lad. As sharp as a sword’s blade and just as potent. A fair warning: keep it to yourself. Most of us here are sensitive to it.” The knight sighed and continued. “Slighted honour and all that. To answer: no, I didn’t. But I don’t blame Nicolas for it: he has ever treated each and one of us as equals, a pleasant man if you get to know him instead that of the distant knight that he has to wear as a second skin. Our society raises us to be paragons of virtue and masters of war, stressing the part for heroics and noble deeds. They force us to look to the sky and the men that reside there. But, lad, they hold no obligations towards us for anything. That’s why we linger here, I guess. If we can’t become that warrior, we reside in his company, trying to bask in his glory. One day Nicolas -willingly or not- shall lead us to our destiny or death in a battle that will shake the ages. And we will have a part to play in it. At the moment our lives might not be worth much but we cling to that promise now.” The knight sighed as his eyes dissected the layers of the fireplace. “Best be on your way, lad...”
“Simon. Call me Simon, please.”
“Simon. Leave this place on the morrow and lead a good life back home. It’s the best any of us can do.” Jean rose to his feet, brushing off the dirt from his tabard. “You know, Simon, it might not be much but it is my home and duty here.”
The knight left the youth to his thoughts. Silence once again returned to the campfire, his two guardians already lying beneath their blankets. A guardian. The man has his own personal guard, devoted and loyal to him even when he had rejected them. A man bereft of his purpose searches a new one, a consolation. Being here gives them that in a world that would otherwise mock them for their foolishness and naive beliefs. Riding alongside a legend makes them feel part of it. This conclusion amazed Simon: knights who willingly subsided their pride and ego to follow a man to which they had no real tie or bond. A man who they deem more worthy to follow then their own father or liege. Nicolas inspires these men to a greatness which is the hardest of all: laying aside any personal glory in favour for another which erases their own name in history. His thoughts wandered and reflected on what lay home for him: a father with no real interest in his second son and a stepmother which revered her own clutch more. To sum up: a lifetime in service of his older brother. His sibling was dear to him but in some way the two never really had connected. Martin had ever reached for that which lay within his grasp, satisfied by his promised bounty while Simon was left to reach for higher goals. So I reached out to the sky, only to surrender. 

The sun woke the young knight as it slowly crawled over the wooden palisade. The fresh morning air was loaded by the spring’s dew. The smell of baked bread still lingered over the encampment even as most had disappeared into the hungry mouths of the early birds. It couldn’t be later then the seventh bell of the morrow but still there was already a lot of activity. The knights of yesterday had already resumed their self-imposed duties to gather food and make small repairs to the compound. The rhythmic drum of steel against steel even betrayed the presence of a fort smithy. After he had refreshed himself with the cool water from the well, one of his silent squires handed him his breakfast: the bread, alas, had cooled off already in the morrow cold but the salted beef and lard more than made up for it. His father had always stressed the need for decent food before attempting a long journey and indeed the simple but refilling grub heartened Simon for his decisions to come. His two companions had already readied their gear and horses, acting on their impression that their business was concluded here. After wiping off the last lard of his plate Simon addressed them. “Jacques, Clement, you’ll be alone homebound. I have decided to remain here.”
If there was any consternation or surprise in the hearts of the two, they clearly hid them well as they silently looked towards their young master. Finally Clement, ever the smarter one, pushed his disinterest enough away to ask the logical question. “What shall we tell your father, young sir? He won’t be pleased that we be leaving you here.”
“Tell my honourable father that I may have found a purpose here between this group of knights. He’ll understand and won’t be aggrieved. If you see my brother, tell him I’ll be fine and if there ever arises the need for my sword that he can still count on him. I’m not abandoning my family nor duty, I’m just rendering my services to those in greater need for an extra hand. Now leave here and return my words home.”
His two companions didn’t utter any  objections but returned to their apathy. Not even a flicker of sadness over my refusal to return home. Have I been that bad to the lowborn? Apparently they can’t even spare feigned loyalty for me. I have been a fool and not just to those two. With a weary mind Simon looked up to the chapel. 

The bitter night had left a lingering cold in the chapel. By the morning’s light, shining through the stained glass, Simon could now better see the room. The foundation was made by a pattern of natural stones, the walls and roof were no more  than crudely-cut trunks of pine safe for the eastern wall  -with the stained glass window- which functioned as a support for the entire building. That part of the wall seemed much older, its age betrayed by the crumbling edges. The upper part had been restored more recently with fresh stone but no master hand had a part in that. Fairly new tapestries tried in vain to cover the impermanent nature of the building. The benches only strengthened that belief, being no more than a board nailed to tree trunks as legs. The stained glass of the eastern wall depicted a kneeling figure in armour before a king of old though the colours had faded through years of being ignoring for Simon to recognise. In a whole the chapel looked as provisionary as  the rest of the encampment yet Nicolas has dwelt here for more years then at the courts of dukes and the king. The only striking feature was the altar, though simplistic in nature and equally weathered as the stone wall. It was made of marble, the colour worn and stained with dark earth, every support was a turned away knight in prayer, carrying a mourning bed on their most inner shoulder. The bed was lined with lilies and banners announcing the deeds of the knight all revolving one particular battle. Try as he might, the young knight could not recognise which battle was displayed. On top of the altar lay one single piece of armour, a piece of a battered breastplate, rust settling in its grooves.

Of course Nicolas himself was in deep prayer, kneeling before one of the benches, eyes to the ground. If he noticed the entry of Simon, he did not show. As silent as possible Simon moved over to the closest bench and kneeled as well. He had ever been raised to be a devoted man to the Lady as both his father and stepmother are fiercely religious, bordering the edge of fanaticism. Before he could hail Her Nicolas’s monotone voice interrupted. “Don’t waste your breath on empty promises. Feigning adherence won’t make me favour you. Please, don’t sully this place of worship with your own selfish interests.”
Though the unmindful words cut a path deep in his honour, this time he remained calm and replied gracefully. “Then my place is here for I wish nothing else but to honour Her with my naked devotion and simple virtue. We might not have started off the right foot but trust me when I say I’m here with nothing but religious reasons. Furthermore, I owe you an apology for any slight I might have caused yesterday. It was foolish off me to question your integrity and it was a wrong born from anger. Forgive the foolish words of an ever more foolish youth.”
His dignified reply surprised the older knight who nodded slightly and returned the gesture. “Then it seems I owe you the same: for no reason I questioned your reasons for being here and for that I am sorry. It seems these days you can’t predict any-one.” A light smile brightened his otherwise so stern face.
A serene silence returned to the chapel as the two knights returned to their worship. In his mind Simon felt relieved that Nicolas held no grudge and was even a bit proud to have turned the argument against him by acting chivalrous. Even so it seemed as if Nicolas didn’t mind his presence here. Who knows? Maybe someday he’ll even give me a full smile. Maybe one blessed day he’ll give me a few remarks about my skill. And maybe, maybe he’ll allow me to fight alongside him one beautiful day. As he caught himself not being pious, he returned to his prayer. Humbly he asked the deity for wisdom and her blessing for this new path he was about to walk.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 31 January 2009 )
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