THE PARAGON AND THE MUTE
The sails flapped erratically in the wind, but Tromo’s mind wasn’t on them. Instead, it was out on the sea, skipping on the waves that split the bright day as they exploded against the ship. It was leaping and gallivanting over the exquisite liquid canvas, skirting the borders of the beyond, skimming all around the vessel. Up here he was free, free from the chastisements and occasional beatings of the crew, free from preparing food at the shouted commands of the cook, free from scrubbing the enduringly filthy decks. He cherished these hours spent lingering in the crow’s nest on lookout duty while his mind played over the ocean. Nothing ever happened for him to look out for, and it wasn’t as if he’d be able to alert anyone to anything very quickly anyway. That was why he was up here—to get him out of the way; even he, young as he was, could work that out. But he did not resent this fact as much as relish it.
He sailed his eyes closer and closer to that place in the distance where the sea collided with some imperceptible edge and came hurtling back towards the ship along the sky. The sky! Hours could be wasted on that alone, sketching different shapes and stories in the clouds, imagining vast warring kingdoms, their borders marked off by sunbeams or thunderstorms. In Tromo’s mind, the pillars of white were the castles of valiant kings. Their smaller counterparts were the servants of these kings, bold knights charging in swathes over the air. And the darker clouds, these were the evil intruding forces laying siege to the white castles, threatening to corrupt the rest of the sky with their darkness. There weren’t any of these around at the moment, but this did not stop the armies of light from mustering and displaying their strength all the same. They were on patrol, ready for the event of another attack. His imagination started to trace out their ranks now, but presently something stopped it. For a second he thought he had seen the smallest hint of blackness poised against part of the magnificent blue and white. An invader! An enemy scout! He looked again—there it was. A speck of dirt in the firmament, the tiniest of blemishes in the blue. It was getting bigger. Tromo stood up in the crow’s nest.
Something was falling out of the sky. It was falling very fast. Soon it would hit the ocean or, worse, the ship. He scampered over the rail and began climbing down the rigging, but he would not make it in time. He shut his eyes and felt the falling object rush past him, missing him by inches and colliding with the mainsail. Tromo felt the mast creak underneath him as the sail was pulled taught and for a moment it was unclear whether it would rip under the strain or take it. But then it sagged back into its original position, and the object, which had lost most of its momentum, was catapulted backwards. As it span almost gracefully through the air Tromo got a glimpse of it. It was a person, a man, wearing a something metallic he had never seen before but guessed was armour. He flinched as the man’s head caught the edge of the ship’s rail with a clang and his flight was ended with an almighty splash as he crashed into the sea.
“What in Mashal was that?” came the instant question from the deck. As Tromo reached the floor, Hudor shouted “I saw it, captain! It was a person!” Before Tromo knew what was going on he was throwing Hudor a length of rope and watching him dive into the sea to rescue the fallen man.
Zantheus came round slowly. Now, rather than hot, he was cold. And wet. And swaying, for some reason. But these sensations were relegated to a much lower level of importance in his mind by the enormous, throbbing pain that coursed through his whole body, especially his head. He heard himself moaning and realised that a large part of the right side of his face was swollen.
Opening his eyes confirmed this. Though his vision did not return at once, when pictures did begin to materialise they were partly obscured by something ugly and black in the corner of his right eye. He was sitting on the deck of a ship—that explained the swaying at least—with his hands tied behind him. He must have lost his helmet, because his blonde hair was being blown about by the wind. He was dimly aware that he was surrounded by a circle of people, a little way away from him, chattering and whispering. In addition to these, three more figures stood nearer, in front of him. Definitely two were men, the other one was much smaller, so it was harder to tell. He tried to concentrate on them but the pain and the swaying kept dragging their faces out of focus. He felt as if he might be sick.
“He’s awake, Thalassa.” A deep voice.
The background chatter died down. Zantheus moaned again.
“Here, drink this.”
A bottle was pressed to his lips and something stung the back of his throat, but he gulped it down thirstily all the same. The pain quietened for a moment. He came up for breath.
“Ahh... What is—?”
As his captor put the bottle back to his lips and the liquid filled Zantheus’s mouth again the reply came, “Rum.” Zantheus spat out the liquid instantly. Now a face as soaking as his own formed in front of him. It belonged to a hulk of a man even bigger than himself, though not as muscular, and it looked unimpressed.
“I apologise,” said Zantheus with dignity and unapologetically. “It is forbidden by the Order.”
The face contorted into a frown.
“Come, Hudor,” said the second man, who stepped in front of the first, moving him aside. This one was shorter and stouter, not elderly but certainly not young, having a sort of weathered look about him. When he spoke it was gruffly, through a thick tangled beard, but before he had a chance to do so again, Zantheus interrupted. “Where am I?”
“All in good time, my friend,” said the second man, smiling, but not in a very friendly way either. Everything that he said seemed to have a tinge of mockery to it. “We’ve not been properly introduced yet. May I ask your name?”
“I am Zantheus, First Paragon of the Aythian Order,” recited Zantheus with pride. He thought for a moment, then added “Champion of Awmeer.” He tried to extend his arm by way of greeting but remembered that his hands were bound by cords. In his weakened state, he could not break them.
“Oh?” said his interrogator. “And what, pray tell, is a ‘Paragon’?”
Zantheus was shocked at the man’s ignorance and at his mocking tone. “We are knights of the utmost discipline and strictest virtue.”
Tromo’s heart jumped. One of his cloud-warriors had fallen to earth.
“A knight!” the bearded man positively scoffed, and the crew laughed along with him. Zantheus’s shock turned to anger. “Well, in that case, I am Thalassa of Shul, seafarer of little discipline and no virtue, captain of this, my ship, the Raging Heart. And these are my crew.”
The captain waved his hand casually at the circle of men. Zantheus could just make out a series of faces staring at him with a mixture of apprehension and aggression.
“How did I get here?” he said. He could not remember ever hearing about a place called ‘Shul’ before.
“We were going to ask you the same question,” said Thalassa. But Zantheus did not respond to it. He had realised something else.
“Where is my sword?”
“There is no cause for alarm,” said Thalassa, “we have stowed it, or rather what is left of it, in our hold, along with your helmet. I am sorry for the precaution. You see, it’s not every day that we entertain Paragons that fall out of the sky.”
The pain screamed in Zantheus’s mind. A memory was starting to come back to him. “Wh...what are you talking about?” he said.
“Yes, you fell out of the sky. Well, at least that’s what we think Tromo here is trying to tell us.” Thalassa gestured towards the third nearby figure, whom Zantheus had forgotten about. He turned out to be a small boy, not older than six or seven, with mousey brown hair and the widest, most terrified, curious eyes in the world. He was staring intently at Zantheus for some reason.
“What do you mean, you ‘think’?” said Zantheus.
“We only heard the splash. Hudor here” –he pointed to the humongous man who had given Zantheus the rum– “dived in and rescued you...” He waited. It became clear to Zantheus that he was expected to say something.
“Oh...my thanks to you, Hudor.”
“...and our cabin boy here was on look-out at the time. Thing is, see, he’s a mute. He doesn’t talk. But what we think he’s been trying to tell us is—well, see for yourself. Tromo, where did this man come from?”
The little boy, who had been fixated on Zantheus, looked up at Thalassa all of a sudden. His right arm shot to attention, pointing into the sky.
“And how did he get here, pray tell?” said Thalassa with more pretend courtesy.
Tromo looked apprehensive, as if he were about to do something foolish that would be met with disapproval. But from the way his eyes returned to Zantheus and his hand dropped slowly back to his side it was clear that he was trying to represent a falling motion.
“This is, of course, completely ridiculous,” said Thalassa. “People do not fall out of the sky. Even Paragons. The strange thing is, we’ve been sailing for too long for you to be a stowaway, and we’ve never known Tromo to lie. Though of course, we’ve never known him to tell the truth, either!” Thalassa laughed briefly at his own poor joke, then all of a sudden his voice became very grave. “So, ‘Paragon’,” he said in low, menacing tones, “the question remains: Where did you come from?”
Zantheus grimaced as another spasm of pain lanced through his head.
“I was climbing Awmeer...” he thought aloud.
“Ah yes, this ‘Awmeer’ you are a ‘Champion’ of. What is it? A tree?”
Zantheus restrained his anger. This ignorance was most shocking of all.
“Mount Awmeer,” he said to the ignorant captain, “is the tallest mountain in all Mashal. It is so tall that no man has ever been able to climb it. At its foot lies the great city of Qereth, and at its summit, it is said, is found–”
He stopped. At the mention of the word ‘Qereth’ Thalassa’s eyebrows had raised. When the captain spoke again it was more carefully, and where before he had given the impression that he was only humouring Zantheus, now he seemed genuinely interested in what he had to say.
“Qereth? You know of Qereth?”
“Yes. My Order live just outside the East Wall.” Zantheus felt some sort of tension in the atmosphere. He could feel the eyes of the crew on him. The captain appeared to have forgotten his earlier question altogether.
“Tell us of it,” said Thalassa.
“Qereth, jewel of Dahma, is the oldest and greatest city in Mashal. At dawn, she is cloaked in Awmeer’s shadow; at dusk, the setting sun illuminates her magnificent Western Gate. She is home to a million citizens, and she is the only city in Dahma to be ruled by a democracy, the Government of Memshalah.” Zantheus said all of this automatically, without feeling, as though he had learned it by rote, which he had. Thalassa bent down, so that he was face to face with Zantheus, which made him feel uncomfortable.
“Yes, but what is it like?” He said this more quietly, so that those around could not hear.
Zantheus was confused. He had described the city in the way that he had been taught to do. It was a perfectly clear description, what more was there to add?
Seeing the look of puzzlement on his face, Thalassa stood up and turned his back on Zantheus. Now he spoke so that his crew could hear again.
“Alright, ‘Sky-Man’,” he nicknamed Zantheus, “I have a bargain to make with you. It just so happens that my vessel is currently bound for Dahma.” Zantheus breathed a quiet sigh of relief; at least he was heading towards the right continent, even if he had no idea how he had got here. “We are Shulite refugees looking to travel to Qereth in Dahma. But this is our first visit and we do not know the country. We do not even know how long it will take us to get there. So when we do get there, you will guide us to Qereth. In exchange, I will grant you board and passage on this ship. But you must work. No man in my crew avoids doing his share of work. We may not know how you got here, but we will put you to work all the same. Do you accept my generous offer?”
Zantheus considered telling Thalassa that his Dahman geography was extremely scanty and that he did not really know the world beyond the Aythian Sanctuary, but he did not want to ruin this chance of getting back to Qereth.
“I accept,” he said. A ripple of murmurs went throughout the crew.
“Good,” said Thalassa. “You are far too battered to be of any use to us just yet, so we will give you time to recover. Cut his cords, Hudor. You start work in a couple of days, you need time to rest.”
“Nonsense, I can begin now,” said Zantheus, standing up and rubbing his wrists. It was only when he fainted that he discovered how right Thalassa was.
The cabin in which Zantheus spent his time recovering was a cramped, dusty affair stuffed with hammocks and illuminated only by a little lantern that hung from the ceiling and swung with the motion of the ship. Its light winked in and out of existence as he passed in and out of sleep, a sleep troubled by nightmares of enormous mirrors and constricting arms that coiled themselves around him. And falling sensations. Occasionally he would open his eyes, think that he was falling, leap up out of his hammock in confusion and then all of a sudden remember where he was. Without fail the memory of his predicament would send him back down into sleep and back into his nightmares. At other times his slumber would be interrupted by visits from a short, crotchety man who came in to give him some foul-tasting gruel and collect his bucket, though after this had happened a few times for some reason the man was replaced by the boy with the curious eyes. Looked after in this way, bit by bit Zantheus’s condition improved and the swelling around his head started to go down, though he was still sick a number of times. On occasion he would venture outside of the cabin, but one of the crew would usher him back in, and the renewed pain in his head would force him to comply. However, the pain diminished with each attempt, and on his fourth or fifth excursion onto the deck Thalassa shouted a welcome to him.
“Zantheus!” he said. “Good to see you up and about!” Apparently he was now deemed fit enough not to be banished back to the cabin.
Zantheus was still adjusting to his new surroundings. “How long have I been in that cabin?” he asked the captain groggily.
“Oh, just a few days.”
“A few days?” That was a shock. “I had not realised it had been such a long time...” was all he could manage to say.
“You’d better start work,” said Thalassa. “I’ll have no slackers on my ship. You can help Tromo with his chores. He seems to have taken a liking to you. He insisted on bringing you your food. It’s his turn up in the crow’s nest on lookout duty at the moment. You can join him.”
Zantheus made no comment. His mind was still bleary. Instead he said “What is look-out duty?”
“It’s sort of self-explanatory, isn’t it?” said Thalassa. “Look-out duty... You look. Out.”
“Oh, anything. A ship, a drifting wreckage, paragons falling out of the sky...you know, the usual sort of thing.” Thalassa chuckled. “One day...land.” He looked out onto the ocean. The day was clear and the sea stretched out in every direction as far as could be seen, waves chopping and jostling on all sides but never arriving anywhere. Thalassa walked off and left Zantheus to mount and scale the rigging himself.
There was not a lot of room up in the crow’s nest. It was really just a circle of wood with the mast running through and a rail running round it supported by four protrusions. Tromo, the young mute boy, was able to sit with his back to the mast without his feet even reaching the edge of the circle. Zantheus, on the other hand, found on entering the nest and nodding a greeting to the boy that the only way for him to be comfortable was to sit with his legs dangling over the edge of the circle, his chest pressed up against the rail. When he had eventually settled in this position, his mind became free to wander, and his thoughts finally caught up with him. This was not a good thing.
The question that had been hanging over him for a long time now dropped down into his mind again. How in the world had he got here? What was he doing on this ship? It simply did not make sense. He could not tear his mind away from the question of how he had arrived in his present predicament. He was totally perplexed. He thought back. Not so long ago he had been climbing Awmeer, about to fulfil his destiny, about to do the thing he had been born to do. Now here he was, the great Zantheus, playing look-out in a crow’s nest for some sailors! This was not right! This was no fit treatment for a knight! What had happened to him? From climbing a mountain, to being on board a ship. And what in between? It had all happened so fast. He did not know what to think. All the drama of that expedition up the mountain, all the preparation, the departure ceremony, and now……look-out duty?
He tried to remember back to what had happened to him on the mountain. He thought he could recall a vague sensation of flying, or falling, though he was not sure which. Further back…he had been climbing Awmeer for a very long time. That much he knew. He could even remember reaching its peak. And then he had found...a mirror? That did not make sense. He had been terribly tired and it had been terribly bright, so bright, but...a mirror? Yes, he had found a mirror. That was what he remembered. What would the others say to that? Zantheus panicked that he might be accused of lying when he returned to the Sanctuary, if he ever returned at all. But then, he thought to himself, why should the others say anything to him? Only he had reached the summit of Awmeer. Nobody else had. Everyone else had perished in the attempt, according to his teaching. Nobody else had seen the mirror. Only he had been strong enough. Only he. But then...what had happened to him now that he had done it? Had he changed? He did not really feel any different from how he usually felt…
Arms. That was it! He had felt two arms wrap around him on the mountaintop. Whom had they belonged to? Someone else had been with him on the peak of Awmeer. Yes, someone had said to him “I’ll show you.” And then they had thrown him into the sky. Someone with impossible strength had hurled him upwards, to...to...this. He just could not make sense of it… Nevertheless, however his mind attacked it, one thing stayed the same: He was brought back again and again to the moment when he had knelt before that mirror and those two arms had taken hold of him and thrown him into the sky. That was the last thing that he was sure he could remember clearly. Someone had done this to him; someone with impossible strength had followed him up Awmeer and done something to him to put him where he was now. So he resolved now that, whoever they were, wherever they were, he would find them and demand to know why they had done this to him. They had prevented him from fulfilling his destiny. All he had to do was get back to Dahma, back to Qereth, back to Awmeer, and then everything would be alright, then he could sort everything out. That was what he was needed to cling to. He just needed patience.
What he also needed a way of distracting himself, a way of passing the time until he was back on dry land. His thoughts turned to the boy next to him. What did he do to occupy himself? What activity lay inside that child’s head? How did he distract himself from the boredom of look-out duty? The boy was sat quite still. His eyes wandered out beyond the ship and over the sea. Zantheus tried concentrating on the sea too, but he found that a hard thing to do. As he gazed out over its vast expanse he was overwhelmed. There was no visible landmass in any direction. The horizon simply stretched out on all sides, glittering away indifferently. He felt more bewildered and frustrated than ever. He tried following the courses of the waves, but this only made things worse. On and on they drifted, on immeasurably long journeys that never seemed to come to an end. It was enough to make him almost want to shout out with frustration. He was alone in this unknown corner of the world, and an infinity seemed to lie between himself and his home. He needed to get back. Back to Dahma, back to Qereth, back to Awmeer. But he was surrounded by cruel, empty nature, barring his path.
He lifted his eyes up to the sky in an attempt to alleviate his despair. He must find a way of distracting himself from thinking about everything that had happened to him. Otherwise he would go mad, sat up here in silence, brooding on his misfortune and the mystery of it all. He grew more and more anxious. Awmeer. That was the thing to focus on. He must get back to Awmeer. He held a picture of the mountain in his mind to try to focus and comfort himself, one of the visualisation exercises that had been a part of his training. But Awmeer was not enough. Calling it to mind gave him a brief boost of determination, but when that faded it only served to intensify his longing. The anxiety thickened, and it felt as though a kind of heavy, sapping despair was creeping into Zantheus’s bones. At last, he broke the silence.
“How long have you been on this voyage?” he said to the boy.
Tromo gave a little start. He had clearly been lost in his imagination. He turned his wide, curious eyes on Zantheus and slowly held up two fingers.
It struck Zantheus how long it could be before they reached land. It seemed as if Thalassa really did have no idea. This did not help his state of mind. He spoke again.
“Were you born in Shul, Tromo?” His voice was stripped of the condescension it would usually carry when he was speaking with a child.
To his surprise, instead of nodding, the boy shook his head again.
“You were born in Dahma then?”
Zantheus became briefly excited. “Are your parents aboard this vessel?”
The excitement dissipated. Zantheus thought a moment. Then he said “Are your parents alive?”
This took Zantheus by surprise too. He wondered what had happened to the boys’ parents, how he had ended up on a ship bound for his homeland full of people who had never seen it before. It would be difficult to figure this out using only questions that could be answered with nods and shakes, or numbers. But at least this would help him to pass the time. Anything to keep his attention off the wide open sea, or the sky.
“Can you remember coming to Shul?”
“Did you come with your family then?”
“So……your parents must have died in Shul?”
With total insensitivity to the boy’s grief, Zantheus simply continued asking questions.
“How did you come to be a part of this crew then?”
Tromo had gone back to gazing at the sea while answering Zantheus, but he now looked straight at the knight for a second time, with helplessness or anger, Zantheus could not be sure of which, as if to say “How am I supposed to answer that?” He seemed remarkably thoughtful for a boy of only six or seven.
Zantheus must stick to ‘yes or no’ questions. He thought of something. “Did Thalassa take you in?”
Tromo looked out onto the sea again. He nodded, but not in the same way as before, more slowly this time. Even Zantheus could see now that there was sadness in that nod. He tried to think of another question. It was hard to keep coming up with questions that required only a positive or negative response, but at least it kept him occupied. He sat in the presence of the waves and the sky, and each time he felt as if he was about to crumble under an attack of panic, a question would pop into his head and he would put it to the boy, distracting him temporarily from his anxiety and reminding him that he was not entirely on his own. This mute orphan boy was here with him also.
“Do you know of any other members of your family who are still alive?”
“Might you have other family alive in Qereth, though?”
“Did you have any brothers?”
“Did you have any sisters?”
“Were you fond of her?”
“So...is she dead too?”
“I see. Do you know if any other of your family are alive.”
Longer pause. Shake.
Eventually their shift ended and another sailor came to relieve them. Zantheus was glad to be out of the crow’s nest. Tromo was glad to be away from the man’s pestering questions. His cloud-warrior had turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. He was beginning to doubt whether Zantheus had really come from the armies of sky-knights at all…