"It's an honor to have you here, your grace." The captain of the King's Guard barracks said with some anxiety. "Although, I was led to believe you would not be here until tomorrow." The afternoon sky was overcast with the dark clouds that had brought the morning rain, and with it a muddy practice yard.
"I come when I arrive, and I go when I leave." The wizened old prophet answered cryptically, stroking his long white and silver beard. He wore robes which at one time might have been white, but were now stained brown and gray from his travels. Here and there were the odd splotches of green, blue or red on his robes, from what, the guard captain couldn't say. The old man's eyes were not focused on the captain, but on the muddy yard and the wooden practice dummy, marked with notches and splintered edges from much uses, which had been set up towards the center.
The barracks were built to resemble the outline of a walled stone square with the open practice yard in the center. The quarters for the men, the storehouses, the residence for the guard captain and his family, and the servants' quarters were all situated together along the perimeter of the square.
"Of course, your grace." The guard captain replied. "I'll have your rooms made up for you immediately."
The guard captain had met the man at the entry to the barracks in haste after hearing of his arrival. He had sworn upon hearing of it too. The barracks had yet to be prepared for his arrival, the men were still on their leave and off whoring or drunk from the tavern the night before, and the only one who appeared to be doing anything knightly was the young, misshapen idiot hitting the practice dummy repeatedly with the hardened wooden practice sword.
"And who is the young man in the center of the yard?" The prophet asked, stroking his beard.
"Oh," the guard captain tried to respond quickly, "that's no one your grace. I mean, his name's Jordan. His mother was a whore in the village who drank herself to death and left him all alone just after he was born. The priest in the village took him in until he was old enough to be a man, and my family and I agreed to let him come and stay here. He's a good lad, but still has the mind of a child I'm afraid, and has some trouble with his speech. He helps out by cleaning things, carrying weapons and helping the men with their armor. When he has no chores I give him some leave to play with the wood. It makes him feel like one of the men, and no one has objected much."
"No. I don't imagine that they should." The prophet responded, his eyes transfixed by the sight of the young man. "Does he often watch the men as they train?"
"Uh... Yes, every day." He responded, not certain of why the prophet was so interested in the young man. "He cheers them on in their sparring matches no matter who the victor might be."
The air of the otherwise quiet barracks was split with the consistent "thwack!" of the young man's steady hits back and forth, mesmerizing the old man as he watched.
"And where are your other men?" He asked the captain.
"My 'other' men? The men are on a two day leave and are to report back here again tomorrow morning, your grace. They will all be here for the choosing of the Maker's champion, have no fear." The captain responded.
"I never do. I am in the Maker's hands. There is no fear to be found there." The prophet replied.
Then a great cry went up from the center of the yard, and the guard captain cringed. "Reginald!" Came a slightly slurred voice calling to the guard captain. "I'm doing good, huh?!" Jordan shouted excitedly.
"Yes, Jordan!" Captain Reginald shouted back. "You're doing very well, but I'm trying to talk with someone very important right now."
Jordan stopped, and looked at the two of them. He stared at them for a couple of minutes, and then a chastised look spread over his face. "Oh." He finally said. "Sorry, Reginald." He then went back to hitting the dummy, turning his back to the two men trying to hide his face.
"I apologize for that, your grace. The boy has very little understanding of etiquette or manners." Reginald told the old man.
"This is true of many men, but not so many have half as good of an excuse." The prophet replied.
The prophet finally took his eyes off of the young man, and began to walk in the direction of the servants' quarters. Captain Reginald attempted to stop him. "No your grace, I intended to have a spare room set up for you in my own residence with my family. I'm sure you'll be much more comfortable there with us. It won't take much time to get it ready."
"Are there spare rooms this way?" The old man asked innocently.
"Well, yes." Reginald responded, a little flustered.
"And are they already prepared for someone to rest in?" He asked again.
"Yes, they should be." He answered. The servants' quarters were always prepared in the event of messengers from other guard posts.
"Then I will rest in one of those rooms tonight." The prophet told him.
"Of... Of course, your grace. But I must warn you, that is also where Jordan sleeps and he often yells at night. I really think you would be more comfortable in my own residence away from the noise." Reginald told him.
The old man looked back at the boy hitting the practice dummy as though it were the devil himself trying to take him. "If it is good enough for the boy, then it is good enough for me." He responded.
"Of course, your grace." Reginald surrendered.
The young, dark haired woman hurried across the yard in her bare feet and long night clothes. She carried an oil fueled lantern in her hand to light her way where the moon would not. There was a full moon overhead casting a soft silvery light as she walked so fast, she nearly broke into a run. The yelling had started late that night. She wouldn't have been surprised if those on the other side of the nearby village could hear Jordan's panicked cries. It wasn't the first time either, and she knew it probably wouldn't be the last.
"Rosella!" He cried out loudly, drawing out her name. She quickened her pace, reaching the servants' quarters and nearly throwing the door open to rush in and reach his cramped little cell of a room.
"I'm here, Jordan!" She called out before she opened the door to his room. "Rosella's here!" The wooden door swung open with a great creak on its hinges. "Rosella's here." She said again, more soothingly.
"Rosella?" Jordan asked, tears in his eyes. The young man was sitting cross legged on his straw mattress. His humble woolen shirt and trousers had not been changed from earlier in the day and he stank with the sweat of his exertions and the night sweats. It was entirely possible that it was the sweat of yesterday's as well.
"Yes, Jordan, it's me." She said again. She set the oil lamp down on an open stone window sill, and came to sit down next to him on his mattress. She took his thick, muscled hand and held it as gently as though it was a newborn babe's. "It's okay. I'm right here." She said again.
"Rosella?" He asked again, calmer.
"Yes, Jordan." She responded gently.
"I had a bad dream again." He said in his slightly slurred speech.
"It's okay, my friend." She said calmly and smoothly, holding his hand. "It was just a dream." She tried to reassure him. "Nothing bad has happened."
"Bad." He repeated. "No. Something bad happened." He said to her, turning his tear stained face to meet her eyes. "A bad man came." He said to her.
"And did the bad man hurt you?" She asked. It was a frequent theme in his dreams, and one that was the usual topic of their late night conversations. He had been close to her almost as soon as he came to stay with her family here in the barracks. She was one of the few people who could calm him down when he became upset or angry. Her mother and father, the guard captain and his wife, were the other two.
She came to view him as a little brother, even though he was a couple of years older than she, and twice as heavy. He still carried a lot of the baby fat which should have disappeared in someone his age, but when she held his hand, she could feel the muscles which the fat hid so well. She knew that if he merely wanted to, all he had to do was squeeze and her hand would be shattered. But she never had any reason to be afraid of that happening. She always felt absolutely safe around him. He was the one who needed her protection, she felt, not she his, and it made her feel needed and useful in the insular masculine world which was the barracks.
"No." He said again, the fear rising in his voice. "The bad man hurt you!" His eyes became panicked and filled with tears as he said it, remembering the images. Small streams ran down his cheeks. "He hurt you." He said, weeping.
"No." She said soothingly. "I'm fine. No bad man hurt me, Jordan. Look at me, see? I'm fine."
"I saw it!" Jordan protested. "I saw him hurt you!"
"No, Jordan. It was just a dream." She gestured to herself, sleepy but otherwise healthy and whole. "I'm fine, just tired." She yawned.
"You're okay?" He said after a minute, trying to wrap his mind around it. "No bad man?" He asked.
"No. No bad man. Just a dream." She told him again.
"Okay." He finally said. "Rosella?" he asked.
"Yes?" She answered.
"I'm tired too." He told her.
"Then it's time to sleep, my friend." She said.
"Time to sleep." He repeated with a yawn. "Rosella?" He asked again.
"Yes, Jordan?" She responded again, patiently.
"I'm glad you're my friend." He told her. "I'm glad there was no bad man."
"I'm glad you're my friend, too." She responded, and she was. He was as good of a friend to her as anyone had ever been, and treated her better than most men who met her. She was not the most attractive of girls who were of marriageable age, and she knew it. She would have known it even of some of the newer recruits hadn't mentioned it when they thought she couldn't hear them. No one had every called her ugly, by any means, but there were few who had called her pretty. And there had only been one who had called her beautiful, and he sat beside her now, his eyes drooping from weariness.
She gently helped him lay down again on the mattress, covering him over with his thick woolen blanket to protect him from the chill night air. "Good night, my friend." She said quietly, as she slipped out of the room, and began to make her way back to her own chambers across the yard.
There would be some nights when Jordan's cries had woken up all but the heaviest sleepers in the barracks. Those were the nights when her visits had been awkward at best as more than a few of her father's men had witnessed her slip into the servants' quarters to calm him down. She was thankful they were all gone tonight.
The men who had been serving and training there for some time all knew their relationship was more like a sister to a brother and said nothing hateful about it, but the newer recruits, especially those from outside of the village, made comments that traveled around and eventually back to her which were less than honorable, though they never dared voice those comments in her presence or especially the presence of her father. One such man had the audacity to say that Jordan was the only man who would have a girl like her, and though she never found out who had said it, she would have liked to have told him she would gladly take Jordan's companionship over his any day.
The whole village was in attendance to see the proceedings that sunny spring day. The clouds from the previous day's rains had parted and now the sun resumed its proper place as shining, warm, benevolent monarch of the late morning sky. The sun's rays reflected off the brightly shining, polished golden and silver dress armor of the King's Guard as they lined up in formation in the village square, waiting to see which of their number would be chosen as the Maker's champion. It was an honor which the Church had not bestowed on anyone for a hundred years. Only the wizened old prophet knew which of them would return to the Citadel of the Holy with him the following morning, and all were filled with anticipation that it might be them.
That same prophet now stood on a hastily built stage, gazing out at all the soldiers lined up in between the short wood and brick, straw thatched buildings of the village. His own robes remained the same as they had been the previous day. He had no others, and felt no need to change them to impress anyone. In his hand he carried a wooden walking staff, the top of which had been carved with the sacred symbol of the Church, one of the only outward signs of his high clerical rank, the other being the silver and gold seal of the faith which he carried on a chain around his neck.
He searched the crowd of assembled villagers for another, unmistakable face, one he had only seen briefly the day before. He searched this way and that, and then his gaze came to rest on the young man standing next to a young, plain, dark haired woman in a plain brown tunic and riding breaches and boots. He was smiling excitedly at all the men in their armor and waving at all the faces of the men he knew well. As the prophet's eyes turned back to those men, he could see them doing their utmost to ignore him.
Behind him, he could hear two men whispering a conversation which he wasn't certain they intended for him to hear, "...I wish he would have gone to Dalentown instead of here. It's only a day's march. All this shining armor is bound to attract that dragon they say has been raiding the sheep nearby. It was a foolish thing to do."
"It wasn't my decision, Horus, and you know it." The man's companion, the mayor of the village, whispered furiously. "Do you think I've got a choice as to which town the old cleric comes to choose from? He comes and goes wherever he bloody well feels like, and to bugger with what I think."
The old prophet closed his eyes in prayer, whispering words of his own as all eyes in the crowd were upon him. It was the moment of decision, and he would have to choose. "Maker, guide me to the one you would see as your champion. Guide me, not to the wisest or the strongest or the most cunning, but to the purest of heart, the deepest of faith, and the most fearless in courage."
He opened his eyes again, and turned them again towards the men who stood before him. The choice was not to be made lightly or without consequence. It was through the council of the prophets that the Maker first revealed to them the great time of trial which was to come. The man who would be the Maker's champion would be the guiding beacon of light who would battle the darkness, and lead them all safely through it, even if it would be at the cost of his own life. Which of these men, some of whom still seemed a little off balance from the previous night's carousing, could be trusted with such a responsibility?
"The Maker calls one of you standing here today to be the light in the darkness, the beacon in the blackest night!" He called out to them. He was certain that this was the place. The man the Maker would choose was standing here among them, but which one was it? "He will be a man of fearless courage, the deepest commitment and faith, and the purest heart." He repeated what he had been thinking. He looked at each man's eyes, all with the appearance of a great paladin, but none of them seemed right. Why?
A shadow passed overhead, and the beating of great wings could be heard. The people were disturbed and looked around for the cause of the great gust of wind which blew through the village square. Then the terrible shriek came. The sound none of them wanted to hear as the shriek became a roar, and then a jet of flame struck the ground in front of the assembled men.
"Dragon!" Someone in the crowd yelled, and the chaos erupted as people ran in all directions. Someone from among the guardsmen began shouting orders, but no one could hear them between the demon's shrieks and the panicked screams of the villagers.
Then the beast landed hard with a great shaking of the ground in the middle of the assembled soldiers, driving several of them into the cobblestones of the square with its clawed talons. The remaining men shook with fear as they came face to face with the beast. The braver among them had the courage to at least draw their swords before the creature swept them away with its taloned claws or it's fanged jaws. The more sensible dropped their swords and ran before they themselves fell before it as their comrades had, red blood caking on the once brightly polished metal.
The prophet observed all of this from his place on the stage. There was nothing he himself could do except pray, and this he was doing. He knew any movement of his own would only attract the beast to himself, and it would likely save no one in the process. He watched helplessly as the beast tore apart the men for the metal they wore, and their red blood flowed among the channels between the cobblestones.
They he heard that familiar voice, the one he had first encountered the other day, and had heard crying out for his friend last night. "Hey, stupid dragon! Leave my friends alone!" And then a rock flew at the dragon. And then another, larger one made contact with the dragon's scaled, armored head and it turned its attention in the direction the rocks had come, hissing violently and enraged.
"Jordan, no! Stop! Don't move!" Came a panicked young woman's cry from across the square, waving her arms and yelling at the young man fiercely. The prophet didn't know how the two had become separated, but now he feared for them both as the dragon turned it's attention first to the annoying source of the rocks, and then to the young woman who made so much movement that it couldn't fail to notice her. "That's right. Over here!" She yelled at the beast. "Leave him alone!"
The dragon forgot about Jordan and stalked towards the young woman, hissing and shrieking as it came. It snapped its fanged jaws at her, waiting to make her its next victim.
Then the prophet heard another panicked cry... from the young man. "Rosella, NOOO!" He yelled. Jordan didn't think twice about it. He didn't hesitate. He alone of anyone in the square didn't shake with the penetrating dragon fear which was palpable in the very air. He charged the dragon, grabbing a heavy, two handed sword which had fallen on the ground as he did.
Wrapping both heavy, thick muscled hands around the sword he ran at the beast screaming the girl's name with angry tears in his eyes, "ROSELLA!" He shouted. "STUPID DRAGON! YOU WON'T HURT MY FRIEND!"
He flew at the dragon, jumping with the sword and striking it hard against the beast's flank, shattering black scales with the force of his blow and drawing blood which sprayed Jordan's clothes. He took no notice of it, but spun and struck at it again aiming for the creature's unarmored wing. The bones which framed the leathery appendage shattered with his strike and the dragon shrieked in pain as it turned its attention away from the girl and towards the source of its injuries.
"No, No, No, NO!" Jordan yelled at it, not stopping his rain of hard, powerful blows, each one of which would have easily decapitated any mortal man with one strike. One of them came up under the beast's unarmored chest and a deep gash was opened, spraying the young, misshapen man further with its life's blood. The dragon screamed under the assault, and began trying to get away from the strange sharp creature which was causing it so much pain. But Jordan wouldn't relent.
With tears streaming down his face, he swung with all his might at the creature's neck and the more delicate, flexible scales gave way under the force as a torrent of the creature's blood rushed out. "Stupid, dirty, black dragon!" Jordan continued to curse the monster as he swung the sword again and again, hacking at the same cut he had made.
The dragon wobbled on it's unsteady legs, and then its great weight dropped to the pavement as Jordan's strikes cut clean through the animal's neck, and the head fell away from the body. But Jordan wasn't done. He didn't seem to realize that the dragon was dead as he kept cutting into the beast, his clothes now completely red and soaked with a bloody baptism.
"JORDAN, STOP!" Came the young woman's cry. And to the prophet's utter amazement, the young man heard her voice when it seemed he couldn't hear or see anything else. He stopped in mid strike, holding the great sword with both hands over his head, about to carve into the carcass again like a maniacal butcher.
The young man blinked several times, and then looked at the dragon. After a few minutes, he turned his head and looked around, finally fixing his gaze on the young woman, the sword still raised over his head, ready to strike. "Rosella?" He asked.
"Put the sword down, Jordan." She told him in a firm, but calm voice. "The dragon's dead now."
Jordan looked back at the corpse. "It's dead?" He asked, waiting to hear her tell him again.
"Yes, Jordan. You killed it. Put the sword down." She told him again, her voice taking on more a tone of motherly command.
Jordan lowered the sword, stared at the blood stained blade as though trying to comprehend what he was doing with it in the first place, and then he opened his fingers and dropped it to the ground. "Okay, Rosella." He told her. "You're okay?" He asked.
"Yes, Jordan." She said, tears of relief coming to her eyes. She began to laugh. "Yes, Jordan. I'm okay." She said, moving to stand next to him. She wrapped her arms around him and held him. "I'm okay. You're okay. We're all okay. Thanks to you."
He gently wrapped his own arms around her, returning her embrace. "I was scared, Rosella." He told her. "I was scared it was going to hurt you like it hurt my friends. I don't want anything to hurt you."
"I know, my dear friend. I know." She replied, rubbing and patting his back as though he was a babe, her own tears flowing freely. "I was scared too. I was scared it was going to hurt you." She then asked. "Did it hurt you?"
"No." He replied. "But it hurt my friends." He pointed with his hand to the soldier's corpses, strewn around the square, their useless armor dented and stained.
"I know it did. I saw." She replied.
The prophet tore his gaze from the two long enough to see the other villagers, the ones who could not escape from the square staring in utter amazement at the two figures. Not a one of them made a sound or said a word.
"What more sign do I need than this?" The prophet asked himself silently. He then unfroze himself and stepped down from the stage to approach the two friends, still holding one another, trying to reassure one another that they were still standing unharmed.
He came and gently placed his weathered hand on the young man's shoulder. Jordan's head sprung up, and the prophet could see the streaks along his face where his tears had run through the splatters of dragon blood.
"Jordan." The prophet said his name gently and calmly, so as not to alarm him.
"Yes?" The man asked.
"The Maker could give no clearer sign to me than this, Jordan Dragonslayer. I bless you in his name, and proclaim you the Maker's Champion." The old prophet told him gently, but solemnly.
The wizened old man turned to the crowd of villagers which began to form again to see what had happened, and then he raised his arms to the heavens and cried out in a loud voice, "The Maker has chosen his champion! All hail Jordan Dragonslayer!"
His words were met with stunned, silent disbelief. And then a voice said from somewhere, "The idiot who lives at the barracks? The old man's chosen the village idiot?"
The prophet was stunned as well. He couldn't believe what he had heard. He cried out even louder, "You all ran! Every man, woman, and child here ran! And with good reason! What thinking man in his right mind would dare challenge a dragon?! And without armor to boot! You all ran from it!" He challenged them. "But this man! This man, this 'village idiot', this man ran at it! He charged it, and challenged it, and killed it because it was hurting his friends!" He wanted his words to burn in their minds and hearts. "You stand here alive because of this man alone, and for no other reason!" He called out to them. "This man alone of all here present today has proven himself worthy of the Citadel of the Holy! If he is the village idiot, then know that the Maker has deemed the village idiot more worthy of being his champion than every man and gilded King's Guardsman here combined!" After a moment's pause, he called out again, "All hail Jordan Dragonslayer!"
Then another voice rang out clear and strong, "All hail Jordan Dragonslayer!" And the prophet turned to see where the voice had come from, and he caught the visage of a visibly shaken, but proud Captain of the King's Guard. "All hail the man who delivered us all, and saved my daughter from the dragon's jaws!" He cried, drawing his sword in sincere salute to the man still holding his daughter in his arms from fear.
After that came another, the girl's mother standing next to the captain. And the others in the crowd began to call it out until Jordan was surrounded with the acclaim he had earned. Behind him, the prophet could hear the quiet voice of Rosella repeating the words to Jordan slowly, "All hail Jordan Dragonslayer." She said. "They're shouting for you, my friend." She told him as she let him go.
"They are?" He asked innocently, and then he looked around at all the people. "That's for me?" He asked. "Did I do something good?"
The old prophet smiled, and a tear came to his own eye. "No purer heart could be found in all the world." He said.
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