“Hello Martin, it’s been a long time.”
“W – what?”
“One month, three weeks, and two days to be exact.” The voice replied, “We were worried you wouldn’t come back.”
“What do you – ” Martin cleared his throat and swallowed spit, suddenly aware of the viscous dryness in his mouth. “What do you mean? Where am I? Who are you?” He tried pushing himself up to a sitting position but his arms gave out at the effort.
“Slowly,” The voice began with experienced patience, “you lost consciousness after fighting a fire, and you’ve just woken up for the first time. You are in the infirmary of the Knights Suspended. I am Harold, the nurse that’s been assigned to treat you. Alright? Here, drink this.” He handed him a wooden cup.
“What is it?”
“Water.” Harold answered as he helped Martin sit up. “And let me note how nice it is to not have to coax it down your throat anymore.”
Martin took a tentative sip, then nearly swallowed the cup in his parched haste as the rejuvenation hit him. He finished drinking and released the mutant offspring of a gasp, a sigh, and a burp, then reached his hand out for more.
After a few rounds of water accompanied by a crass respiratory symphony, Martin sat with his legs over the side of his bed, panting lightly. He noticed that the only thing he was wearing was a long white gown. He rubbed at his eyes and felt a pang in his stomach.
“How are you feeling?” Harold asked, “Can I get you anything?”
“Yes,” Martin replied and placed a hand on his abdomen, “It appears I’m hungry.”
“As you should be. Here, let me help you out of your be-”
“Wait,” Martin interrupted, “I’ll need my jeans.”
Martin and Harold walked towards the kitchens, taking the long path through the gardens to let Martin stretch his legs. There were several hedges trimmed to resemble knights, but not in the valorous poses Martin had come to expect from the cities he had visited.
These figures showed a more honest side of the profession: a knight bent over with his arms and legs flung outwards, seemingly flying back from a hit to the chest. Another hedge was in the form of a knight with her head in the ground and her wrists bound behind her back by an ivy vine, which Martin took to represent a rope.
When he asked about the decidedly unheroic scenes in the hedges, Harold explained that they were in the Garden of True Knights, and that the figures served as a reminder.
“As you know, the Order of the Knights Suspended aims to restore the honor and ranks of its members.” He looked to Martin for understanding and continued. “But before that, we reflect. Perhaps we were outcast because being a knight was not our true calling. Perhaps we were not fulfilling our own personal legend, as the former head of our Order would say.
And so we create these hedges to remind us that being a knight is not all chivalry and glamor. It’s also,” he gestured to a figure of a knight hanging upside-down, dangling from the branch of a tree, “this.”
“Wait,” Martin said and looked him over, “you were a knight?”
“Yes,” he paused, “once. I was exiled by the Baron Shepp when I returned from one too many skirmishes with more healed allies than slain enemies. The Baron said he had no use for knights who used their bandages more than their swords.
“When I joined the Knights Suspended, Coelho – the head of the Order at the time – helped me realize I wasn’t saddened because I was outcast, but because of the reason I was outcast and what it spoke of our world.
Times have changed since then – the Order is not what it was since Coelho left, but I’ve been healing people to this day.” His eyes swept over the garden and he smirked, “I don’t mind telling you, there’s no shortage of work here.”
“Ha, right. I can imagi- hey! That’s Sil!” Martin pointed and began the halfhearted run of the recently comatose. “They made a hedge of her hanging in midair by her sword?”
“Ah, yes.” Harold nodded as he caught up to Martin. “There was some debate about that. It was truly an excellent moment, and I thank you on behalf of the Order for your participation, but some claimed the pose could be misleading, as if she were leaping into a strike rather than grasping not to fall down.”
“What made them agree, then?”
“The plaque.” Harold gestured to the base of the figure, where a small bronze plaque hung, its black letters etched out neatly:
“Ba-ha,” Martin chuckled, “poor thing. Maybe I was too hard on her.”
“She speaks fondly of you.” Harold smiled and turned back towards the kitchens, “Come, let’s get on. She’ll be wanting to see you.”
Sil leapt from her chair and ran over to hug him. “Heavens, you’re back!” She released the hug but kept her hands on his arms. Her smile expanded and she let out a loud ha! “Black Wizard or no, you’re back from the dead and I’m glad for it.” A few heads turned at the mention of a Black Wizard, and the general din of the room became noticeably quieter.
“Haha, I haven’t quite died yet, Sil. But I’m glad to see you too. What in the stones happe-” His eyes went wide, “wait, where’s Rin?”
“Rin! The boy, Flinch!”
“Oh, he’s buried-”
“- in his books.”
“What? Oh. He’s alright?”
“Yes, Martin, the boy is fine. You don’t remember?”
“The last thing I recall is seeing our camp and a dozen pines on fi-”
“Martin,” Harold cut in, “you should sit. I’ll get you some food. Hello Sil.” He smiled curtly and escorted Martin to a nearby table with a bread basket and some butter. Sil greeted Harold, then joined Martin and sat down.
“So what happened?” Martin asked as he took a piece of bread and coated it in butter. “Sweet rivers but this smells good.”
“Ah, what happened – indeed!” Sil stood and said loud enough for everyone within several tables to hear. “Come, gather ye hungry eaters, and I will tell you the tale of how Martin the Black Wizard vanquished the Pine Fire of Cauldine Forest.” Heads turned, chairs made scraping sounds as they shifted, Martin’s left eyebrow went up, and Sil began:
There stood Martin, Black and bold against the roaring flames of ten dozen massive pines. The heat of it alone would have burned the flesh off of a normal man, but not off Martin. At first he gazed at the fire, willing it to cease – but even his wizardry prowess was no match for the awesome red energy.
So he ordered the trees to bend, and one by one they bent over; moaning as their trunks strained and their bark bent, helpless against Martin’s demands. With this feat accomplished, all of the burning trees were huddled inwards, and so Martin had cleverly quelled the spread of the flames.
Yet the fire still raged and its smoke alone could have devastated several villages for horizons over, and Martin knew the wind would soon pick up and set the fire flaring again. So he bent down, right on his knees – right in front of the roaring inferno – and he performed his magics on the earth itself!
He pounded his fist on the ground and roared “RISE, EARTH, AND DEVOUR THESE TREES,” and it did. Wave after wave of earth climbed atop the trunks and branches of the trees like a thick winter blanket engulfing a fiery demon. With each wave of earth Martin spoke in twenty mystic tongues, commanding the ground to be ceaseless in its enterprise.
For an eternal hour, Martin cast his magics on the ground. He cast until he began to sweat, until his whole body shook, until blood gushed from his nose, and still he would not stop. When the earth covered the trees Martin spat blood and beat his chest, challenging the fire to rise again – but nothing more than a few heaps of dying embers answered his call.
But Martin knew that fires such as these had a deeper power within them, so he chased the fire into the Den of the Dead and left his corporeal body in our care. For fifty days and fifty nights he did battle with the fire, until he cast it into oblivion for eternity.
“And so, after a three day journey back from the Den, Martin is among us, victorious!” Sil finished with such a flourish of tone and body language that everyone in the kitchen burst unanimously into awed applause.
Everyone, of course, except Martin, who by the end was sitting slack-jawed with a spoonful of soup hanging idly half way to his mouth.
“I didn’t journey to the Den of the Dead, Sil,” Martin said when they left the kitchen, “the Den is a children’s story – I was in a coma!”
“Yes I know, hush hush, don’t speak of this now.” She picked up her pace as they got out of sight from the kitchens.
“And I don’t speak in mystic tongues to do magic, and fire has no deeper power, it’s just heat and light!” He looked sideways and saw her stoic countenance. “What in ten stones is going on, Sil?!”
Sil turned a corner and grabbed Martin to a sudden stop. “I know, Martin. But we needed to make sure no one thought you were weak.”
“There’s no time now.” She spoke in short bursts, eyes darting to every direction and back at Martin. “You must trust me, Martin. Go back to the infirmary. The head of the Order will come to you. She will want a hearing. Say you require the night to make sure nothing followed you from the Den of the Dead. Go to bed, but do not sleep. Harold will come in the night, Flinch will be with him. Keep your wits fastened.”
And without another word, she left.
If you gotta know what happens next, head over here.