"The queen and I commend you for your service, Sir Gindol. You have endured more than could be expected of any man. Given however, that those months in captivity have robbed you of so many faculties - chief among them, your sight - I must hereby discharge you from your duties as a knight.
"You shall forever be received in my hall as an honored guest, and though you may never again raise sword or banner, you shall remain, in name, a brother of the Order of the Peony."
It hadn't sunken in until then. Until the king, ordained by the gods, and whose word was law, decried me a broken man. Throughout all my despair I had held onto the childish hope that I might be healed, and that my life might suddenly revert to how it had been before the war. Before my capture.
A pair of iron pokers, made red hot by the fire of a hearth, had been the last thing I saw. From then on I was unable to see my dank, stone cell, though I could still smell the mold and moss growing in all about me.
Everyday had been some new torment. Needles pressed slowly through my arms and legs. Stones rapping against my head and hands. The meticulous removal of my tongue and teeth. O' the blood I swallowed. Bitter and thick, coursing into the back of my throat like so much water through a mill.
Brutal, but entirely conventional.
The worst of it had been the unnatural crafts done upon my body. At times I was made to feel as though I was being consumed by fire, or drowned in a river. At other times I was made to feel as though I was falling from a great height. None of these sensations left marks in the flesh, but they reduced me to a sobbing wretch, begging for the end. I learned to anticipate these particular tortures by the smell of burning of paper. The telltale sign of a spell being worked
Through all of it I had blindly hoped. Hoped that magics, or priests, or something might return my strength and sight to me. But I had been a fool, and the true weight of the torture I had suffered hit me full on at the words, "Never again raise sword or banner...".
That had been four weeks ago, during the kingdom's celebration of its hard-won peace. I say celebration because there were in fact many lords and knights receiving special honors and awards for their valor and service in the campaign. The only envy I felt was for those knights and brave soldiers being lauded posthumously.
It was during the feast that I made my decision. I had spilled three cups of wine, trying proudly each time to pour it myself. By the fourth attempt I learned that if I put my finger over the lip of the cup I could gauge how full it had become. But by then it was too late. The laughter had already begun, and while I am sure it was meant with no hard feelings, it forced a vision of myself as a doddering, blind cripple stumbling about the castle to the amusement and pity of all.
That was no way for a knight to live out the rest of his life. That was no way for a knight to live.
I found myself now in the company of twelve soldiers, riding south to the town Redbury. They were on a mission to deliver some such relic to a temple in the city of Baylock near the coast, but were acting as my escort for the time being.
At my request, the king had arranged for me to be received at the monastery in Redbury where I might go about simple chores and duties for the community. The king no doubt thought it a kind and merciful gesture. He had no idea that the mercy I sought was one I intended to gain by my own hand, away from everyone who once knew me. Away from anyone who might find me and say, "How pitiful... he used to be such a handsome and valiant knight...".
I had to ride doubled-up with the most junior soldier. The only strength I had was concentrated in maintaining my hold around his waist. Otherwise, I had no choice but to let my legs be jostled up and down on the horse's flanks. To keep my head from wagging back and forth on my weary neck, I placed the side of my face against the soldier's back. At first all I could hear was the clopping of hooves, but over time I discerned the beating of the young man's heart through his armor. How healthy and vital he was. Not yet worn down by the cruelty of this world.
I found riding to be much less enjoyable than it had once been. With no scenery to entice me or enchant my imagination, it was nothing more than a tedious, uncomfortable journey . My only distraction was the occasional conversation my soldier struck up with his compatriots. Typical greenhorn fare.
"...put a curse on him to make it shrink..."
" - all the way to the hilt but he still made it across the line..."
"yeah, but maybe for a fortnight with his daughter!"
"doesn't think there are goblins up there anymore, so..."
I wanted to tell them to cherish their women, and to be good to their fathers and lords. I wanted to tell tales of battles I had fought, blood I had spilled, and the glory I had been part of. Most of all I wanted to warn them. All the nursery rhymes and fables about monsters and witches and dire beasts, all the rumors about night stalkers and murderers that float around taverns... they were all true. Those things were all real, and despite our best efforts, an age of unnatural horrors was still upon us.
The air quickly became cool and my suspicion that it would soon be nightfall was confirmed when the company came to a halt and began discussing camp.
Two soldiers helped me dismount, and guided to the tree line along the road to have a seat against what smelled like an oak. Hearing an unceremonious thud beside me, I realized they had set my pack down as well. I'm sure they assumed it contained all those items that an invalid like myself might have use for. It contained only a rope.
I sat peacefully for an hour, listening to the men set up tents and get a fire started. The sound of pots and cups clacking together elicited a sharp hunger that I felt in the depths of my stomach. I had been loath to eat or drink much lately, aware of how pathetic I must look, blindly swallowing mush and porridge like a feeble old man.
I felt the warmth of a fire begin to kindle near me, and soon heard it crackle as it grew stronger and hotter. Familiar aromas of smoked meats, pasties, and beer soon filled the night air around me.
A hand grabbed my wrist and shoved a wooden bowl into my palm. "Oatmeal, sir, with brandy". I nodded dumbly to show that I had understood. I quaffed the slurry as cleanly as I could manage, spilling only a bit from the corners of my mouth when I took more ambitious gulps. I discerned a few chuckles coming from the men whenever I did this, but they at least had the courtesy to muffle their mouths under their hands.
A few bowls later and the alcohol took effect. My head began to feel heavy and light all at once, and my muscles weighed down on my bones. I eased carefully onto my back and allowed my thoughts to wander. Sleep took me quietly.
I awoke some hours later to raised voices in the camp.
"Give us the sacred bones of Allac Ar, you stupid farm boy!" It wasn't a voice that I recognized as any of the soliders'. But the second one was.
"We are bound by the king to bring this most holy of relics to Baylock. Stand down if you value your lives!"
I then heard the clear ringing of swords being drawn in the night, perhaps a dozen, all near the fire. The soldiers.
"Get back, all of you!" I heard my riding companion yell.
All of you? How many were upon us? Were we surrounded? I could hear no movement or disturbances nearby, just the rustling of the ground from where the foreign voice had issued its demand. Only two foot steps though.
Then all at once, "An ogre!", "To the right!", "They're everywhere, get 'em off me! Spiders!", "Dragons!"