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A Hero's Life PDF Print
Tuesday, 15 November 2011

 Winner of the Gold for the 2011 Anniversary Literature Competition 


A thick spray of crimson blood splattered across Payen’s helm and tabard, staining the already unrecognizable coat of arms.  


 Quickly reversing his swing, he brought his heavy sword back towards the bloodied orc’s growling head. He felt a dull shock travel along his arm as the blade lodged itself in the dense vertebrae of its neck.


Payen’s muscles burned as he ferociously yanked on the gilded hilt, now slippery with gore.  The sword refused to budge, and his efforts grew more frantic as another hulking monster charged toward him, grinning maliciously at its defenseless prey. 


The knight’s snarl of desperation echoed inside of his helmet as he tried one final time to free his weapon.  It did not move an inch, seeming to mock the owner whose life it was now endangering. 


As the advancing orc raised its jagged choppa, Payen leapt backwards into yet another bitter struggle. He heard a clang and felt a strong jolt as his armor struck that of the knight behind him, knocking his comrade to the ground. 


Payen paused for a moment as he reached for his dagger, contemplating whether he should turn to assist the man. 


After less than a second of thought, he drew the weapon from its sheath, holding it reversed in his gauntlet for a lethal blow.  


He sidestepped to avoid the orc’s brutal swing, but his weary legs were just a fraction of a second too slow. Pain raced up his left side as the impact dented his rerebrace, shattering his arm just below the shoulder. 


With a deafening howl, he spun to his left and drove the dagger into the back of the orc’s head up to its hilt.  He sighed in relief as he withdrew the blade without difficulty, leaving the lifeless corpse to slump to the muddy field. 


He was now in utter agony, but there was nothing he could do. He was in the midst of the melee and must endure until the end.  Remembering the knight he had left unaided, he turned finally to face the man’s attacker.


To his surprise, an unknown knight wearing the crest of a white swan already stood there, fiercely holding off two mighty orcs. His heart sank as he noticed a motionless figure lying at his feet. Despite the layers of grime, he could still make out the heraldry of his half-brother Renauld. He was not certain, yet he felt in his heart that Renauld had been the knight, who he left defenseless on the ground before his assailant.  


He panted inside his heavy helmet. The heat was stifling, and his rage at his brother’s apparent death blurred his already limited vision.  Sweat was pouring off of him, and he could hear only his blood pounding in his ears. None of that mattered.  Even his broken arm was driven from his mind.  He knew that nothing mattered, rather, nothing existed now besides hatred and death. 


Raising his eyes to the nearer of the two orcs, he uttered a vicious cry, allowing his thirst for blood to fill his entire being. He charged forward, knocking the stunned beast off balance before slashing and stabbing savagely with his dagger. 


It was a reckless and foolish attack, and he soon paid for it with a thunderous blow to his head. His mangled helmet reverberated with the force of the strike and the world began to swim before his eyes, but he no longer cared. His entire will was bent towards watching this orc die, killing it with his own hands.  


Now he drove forward yet again to the utter astonishment of his attacker and all who saw it.  There he saw a chance, just a small opening in the monster’s heavy armor. Mustering all of his strength, he sprang forward and plunged his dagger upward under its chin.  His tremendous momentum crashing into the orc’s body was too much, and they both fell to the ground.  He could feel himself shaking. Somebody was calling his name. As if in the distance, he heard it calling, “Sir Payen. Sir Payen. Sir Payen....” 


Light flooded his eyes as he blinked. “Sir Payen. Sir, you must get up.” As his vision focused, he saw the concerned face of his servant, Kial, leaning over him. 


“Huh?” he responded groggily. “What is it?”


“You were asleep sir, but Lord Thurnaulf has requested your presence at the feast tonight. We cannot be late sir.”


Sitting up, Payen nodded slowly. “Yes, thank you Kial. Would you be so kind as to retrieve my evening attire from the wardrobe?”


“Of course sir,” Kial bowed and walked off to the corner. The knight sat and watched him, trying to recall what had happened. He must have fallen asleep sometime earlier that afternoon. He sighed, quietly. How nice it felt to sleep, if only for a few hours.


“Here you are sir. Is there anything else that I can do for you?” Kial asked respectfully, handing him a green tunic with simple yellow embroidery. 


“No, that will be all, thank you Kial. You can wait outside if you wish.”


He bowed once again and left the room as Payen began to change his clothes. He winced as he pulled the shirt over his head. Looking down, he saw the scarred and misshapen arm that had failed to heal properly after the battle. “Even with all of those bloody damsels here, they still couldn’t manage to mend it. Then again, when have they ever actually done anything truly helpful?” he grumbled to himself. 


Tightening his belt around his waist, he stared at the sword leaning against the wall beside his bed. The hilt gleamed, as if leering at him, challenging him to grasp the weapon. It was his sword, an integral part of him, yet he could not force himself to retrieve it. After a few more moments of deliberation, he finally accepted that he would once again face the disdainful stares and muttered remarks of his fellow diners, only thinly veiling the fact that they considered him a coward. Even then, it was not worth the pain and weight of bearing that accursed weapon once again. 


As he exited his room, he caught Kial’s glance towards the empty space where his sword should have hung. Quickly averting his gaze, Kial moved forward, “All ready sir?” 


“Yes Kial, let’s go.” He nodded and the pair set off silently toward the great hall, each lost in his own thoughts.  


Payen considered the man walking beside him. “He is one of the few that really understands, truly comprehends my anguish.” He could not be certain, yet he felt sure that Kial had sat patiently outside his master’s room while he slept, preventing anyone from disturbing his brief and rare sleep. And each night he was there as well, accompanying Payen on his nocturnal wanderings. Through it all- all the sleepless nights- he said nothing. He never once complained, although he must certainly be near to dying from exhaustion. More importantly, he had never attempted to advise the knight as so many others had. Many other men had attempted to return him to his normal self through words, yet Kial understood that it was not so simple. He understood that the knight needed time and space for his wounds to heal- if they healed. 


They were confronted by a wall of sound as they entered through the hall’s massive wood doors. Nearly a hundred nobles were gathered around tables, talking loudly with one another. Their merriment was enhanced by the copious amounts of wine and mead that had already been distributed among the guests. He saw Baron Thurnaulf seated at the head table and nodded in greeting before moving off to find a place near the corner. 


He found a perfect table tucked away by a pillar. There was a group of old men already there bickering about some old battle in which they had fought years ago. Even if they recognized him, they would be too preoccupied with their own conversation to bother him. 


As he settled into his seat, Payen finally took the opportunity to survey his surroundings. He never ceased to be amazed at the scale of the baron’s feasts. The resources required were astounding, yet as he looked at Thurnaulf, he saw no trace of concern, no signs that he might be living beyond his means. Instead he sat at the head table, conversing merrily with his guests, a large banner emblazoned with a white swan hanging on the wall behind him. 


Here too was a man to whom he was eternally grateful. Having heard of Payen’s wanderings and hardships following the Battle of Triar, the baron had graciously extended an offer for the young man to join his court with all the privileges that position entailed. He understood that the battle had been too much for the knight, and that he would soon waste away were he not provided for. For nearly a month he had lived as a humble recipient of the lord’s hospitality, living in his castle in exchange for the guarantee that he would bear arms in defense of his lord if called upon. 


There was a commotion followed by a respectful hush as Thurnaulf rose from his seat. He cleared his throat, “Friends, it is with sincerest joy that I look out upon all of your faces this night. Young and old, you have all served our kingdom in some way, and through the Lady’s will have survived to enjoy our company this night.” He raised his goblet, “A toast. To King Louen Leoncoeur, the protector of our kingdom; all those others who work so tireless in its defense; and those no longer among us who sacrificed all, that we may live in peace.” 


A wave of affirmation rippled through the room as guests drank to those honored, many downing their entire draught at once. Within moments, the hall returned to its festive mood with minstrels singing and guests intent upon their boisterous conversations. Payen was content to sit silently and eat, brooding upon the baron’s speech.


He realized too late that there was a group of three squires approaching him, and he groaned slightly, knowing what was to come. 


“Greetings, Sir Payen! I hope that you are enjoying yourself!” shouted the leader, clearly having already consumed far too much alcohol.  The knight nodded in response, hoping to avoid the conversation, but to no avail.


All three were able to find seats across from him, trapping him. “Sir, we have asked you several times before, yet you have always shunned our company with some excuse; will you tell us the tale of your fight at Triar? How you slew the great warboss threatening our lord?” The three sat in awe, awaiting his response with hopeful anticipation.


Payen sighed, understanding that he was trapped. “Why do you wish to hear my story? Do you believe that it is full of valor and chivalry, detailing some profound example of the knightly ideal? You thirst for war as so many youth do, yet you have no comprehension of it. You see the wounded, the empty places at tables and say ‘He lost his arm at such and such a battle,’ or ‘It was there that he gave his life.’  You do not dwell upon the agony and the horror of their experience. You cannot conceive of war as it truly is, yet long so strongly for it that you seek out knights such as myself to recount our deeds. Most will paint a similar picture as that which you expect, but I would not. I would tell you with no reservation of the crushing pain of wounds, the despair and rage at seeing a brother’s mangled and bloodied corpse lying lifeless in the mud.”


“You wished to hear of my heroic act? It was in that hatred and loathing that I killed that monster. It was no act of honor or courage, it was an act of unbridled vengence, a feeling stronger than fear of death. In such a time, you do not think of death, because it no longer holds meaning. In time though you will come to see death for what it is: peace.  There will always be more enemies: orcs, vampires, chaos. They will march upon our lands until we fall or the old ones return at the end of time. You will ride to war, full of pride in your bright banners, prepared to fight gloriously in service to your lord, yet in time, you too will come to realize the futility of it all. I see you looking amongst yourselves, unsure of what to say, whether you truly desire to hear my story. I can tell you, that you do not. It is a tale of emptiness and despair, because it is the truth. Go now and enjoy your banquet while you can, for the time will come soon enough when you too lie dead on a field or live to despise the fact that you do not.” 


The young men sat uncomfortably and looked to one another. Silently, they rose from their seats and walked away from the knight, who had become lost in thought once more. 


After waiting a few moments, he too rose from his seat, but turned away from the feast and toward the corridor instead. He moved quickly, not wanting to attract attention to himself, but nobody noticed him anyway. They were all consumed by their conversations and revelry. 


Once he had distanced himself sufficiently from other guests, he allowed himself to assume a more natural pace. He began searching for a stairwell, anywhere that could get him to some fresh air. It was not long before he located one and began to climb, no longer heeding his route as he circled ever higher. 


A chill breeze greeted him as he emerged onto a tower overlooking the baron’s lands. The hour was far later than he had imagined, and the sky was now illuminated only by the moons and stars. A quick glance informed him that he was alone, the guards having abandoned their post. 


He gradually crossed the space to the battlements and gazed out at the river flowing nearby- a shining line of silver snaking through the hills. Up on the tower, there was no sound except the wind blowing softly.


Resting his elbows on a crenel, he allowed himself to lean out over the wall and closed his eyes. The air was so peaceful, the emptiness interrupted only by the steady drone of the wind. Payen allowed the feeling to fill his body. “How easy it would be to join the air, resting in the emptiness as I fell to the earth...” he pondered. 


A man cleared his throat behind him. “Those boys had no place asking you that, sir,” he heard Kial say quietly. 


There was silence as Payen opened his eyes and continued to gaze out over the motionless landscape.


“Is there anything that you need sir? Anything that I can do for you?” Kial asked anxiously, though his voice conveyed only his loving concern. 


Payen blinked, returning from his thoughts to the cold, stone tower. He turned, facing his world. He shook his head- no, there would be no easy and final rest. There would be no escape tonight, just Kial’s gentle nudging forcing him to endure life, constantly preserving what was left of him to face the trials once again tomorrow. 


Last Updated ( Tuesday, 03 January 2012 )
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