Stones Become Mountains
Pre-game, Lexaeus. Spoilers for the original apprentices. Related to Magpies.
Elaeus's father is a traditionalist. By this, it means that his father enjoys large families, warm homes, and enough money stored behind the loose brick in the kitchen hearth to supply all his children with treacle sweets come the holidays. His father has bones as big as bulls; his father is strong and flat across the shoulders, with a laugh that rumbles up gradually from his stomach and spreads through his ribs and lungs. Their family has only recently moved into the city, as recent is considered in their lineage -- they have been there for four generations.
Elaeus's mother is a traditionalist. She handles the finances, which is not uncommon in the Bastion; she is the decision-maker, the one who determines what is tolerated in their home and what is not. Despite all her children's hopes, she is always capable of keeping track of who has skipped which chore on which day, and has a knack of finding mischief before it begins. Small stones like to become mountains, she chides them continually, using the same phrase for praise and punishment alike. You let something start to grow, you'll be stuck with how it turns out.
Elaeus is a middle child. This suits him well. Older children are destined to inherit the business, while younger are for delighting the family before engaging in various apprenticeships with craftsmen and merchants. Elaeus is a middle child, well-adjusted to his role in life, which is why he is so surprised when his mother sits him down one evening and tells him he is going up the hill to the Castle.
They pack him a fresh lunch the day of his departure. His younger sister laughs and swings on his arm. His older brothers are arguing in the stables about how to shoe a particularly troublesome horse, so Elaeus does not disturb them when he leaves.
The King of Radiant Garden is an eccentric -- or so Elaeus has heard, more than once from both his parents along with one of his brothers -- so when Ansem the Wise asks if Elaeus wishes to stay and participate in a learning program with other students, other apprentices, Elaeus only accepts this new direction in his life with a shrug.
One family switches itself for another. Elaeus is a middle child here as well; there are three older students, one younger, and none of them seem to have anything universally in common. Braig is a fisherboy. He grins broadly around a puckered pink scar on his face and brags about the fifteen different ways to tie a net across the Falls. Dilan is reluctant to hold company, and dislikes being the focus of it even more; he shrugs off introductions and scowls black stormclouds when an oil-grimed man stops through with a note -- he says -- from Dilan's mother.
Even says little, only sniffing with his nose in the air and attempting a few limpid insults in Elaeus's direction about horse manure trekked in on the floor. Elaeus bears the words easily. His brothers have all been more creative with their jibes, and he's given them a sting in revenge on more than one occasion. This sort of greeting is a polite formality, with no invested malice, and Elaeus lets it roll away as easily as water.
The youngest student is a boy named Ienzo -- a scrawny, underweight thing whose clothes are patched on both knees and one elbow. Despite the fresh clothes that are provided to all the apprentices, Ienzo prefers to keep his old rags, tatters and all. He spends half his time smuggling food into his pockets during lunch, and the rest of the time rattling off answers to all the problems in the books.
Elaeus recognizes one habit and appreciates the other. He waits until a free afternoon to confront both.
That day, they've all been given time off to study a particularly tricky problem from their biology lessons. Braig and Dilan, predictably, have decided to test one another aloud, while Even scowls and squirrels himself into a corner of the library, occasionally calling back snippy answers through the shelves whenever Dilan gets a theory wrong.
Ienzo is on the top floor of the main library, up the winding staircase and near the back shelves which connect to the extra storage chambers. Elaeus walks past the hiding place twice before he manages to even notice the other boy. The weight under his arm gives him courage. Earlier, he wheedled out a fresh loaf of nutbread from the kitchens, wrapping it in a napkin to keep it warm; once he discovers where Ienzo has concealed himself, Elaeus approaches with slow steps, until he's only an arm's length away, and Ienzo is staring at him over the cover of a history book.
Wordlessly, Elaeus crouches and offers the bread, using the same fearless tact as if he were tending to a stray dog in his family's yard.
Ienzo eyes the gift suspiciously for several heartbeats. Then, when the meal is not yanked away, he snatches it up and gives it a wary taste. After the second mouthful, a satisfied nod comes. "The answer," he announces quietly, "is one-hundred and twenty two, point fifty-six portions in a solution of aqua fortis."
Elaeus only shrugs. "I knew that already."
Ienzo stuffs another bite of the bread into his mouth, chewing with a rudimentary hunger, the kind that stores fat in preparation for a starvation it expects will come. "What are you here for, then?"
Truth makes itself awkward in Elaeus's throat; he tries to wiggle it free, and fails. It's overly confrontational to point out that he knows what it's like to parcel out limited food around a dinner table, and of his own picking at scraps. No, this is earth-work; this is taking care of the little things without a big fuss or a fight.
"You had a large family," he ventures at last, "didn't you."
Ienzo makes an attempt at a nonchalant roll of his eyes. "Didn't everyone?"
Half the loaf is already gone. "We do now, since we're all students together. I guess," Elaeus continues, choosing each word with the same care that he would lay down pathway bricks, "that makes me into your brother while we're here, right? I'd better make sure you stay fed."
The younger boy blinks.
Elaeus gets to his feet with methodical care, going through the motions of dusting himself off even though he knows his clothes are tidy enough. "Keep the rest of the bread if you want," he adds, knowing that Ienzo will do precisely that whether or not permission is given. "I'll see you back in class."
- - - - -
Their King is their teacher and guardian both: a strange relative, like an uncle who just happens to be the leader of the entire nation despite a tendency to misplace his shoes. He is not their only tutor, but he is the most important one. A handful of additional scholars are kept on retainer to help supply other sciences, though the lesson plans are always looked over by Ansem and all of them teach curriculum that he approves.
Their afternoons are normally reserved for personal time. It's expected that they use some of it for study. Homework is a task which is performed anywhere between the end of classes and the next morning, or in Braig's case, five minutes before it's due.
Elaeus prefers to finish his research in the evenings, after dinner is settling in his stomach and he's burned off any restless energy over the course of the day. The other apprentices occupy themselves at their own pace. Braig usually goes off causing trouble somewhere and making Dilan help him, while Even and Ienzo prefer to read. Even clutches his overlarge books in his arms; Ienzo is more at ease, flipping through pages at random, reading volumes out of order and out of series.
But Elaeus goes down to the practice yards because it's what his parents have always told him to do: to work hard, to look for tasks which need to be done before they're brought to his attention. It is patient work, and humble, to keep one's eyes on the earth. It may not always be recognized, but fame is not for everyone, and what matters is that the job gets done.
The floor of the central practice yard is not built from stone, but dirt. It turns into mud with every rain no matter how many feet pack it hard; each time the skies turn grey and murky, soldiers haul out haybales from the sheds. They scatter fat wads of straw across the ground, letting the fibers soak up the extra moisture, and turning the entire yard into one giant mess. Elaeus's boots squash into soft, stinking ground as he gathers hay into his arms, as much as he can carry; he endures what feels like an eternity of cold drops down the back of his neck as he helps the soldiers with their work.
The sun always comes out soon enough, though, baking the rains away.
Elaeus helps restore the ground then too, cleaning up the rows of pebbles that are set into the dirt along the yard's perimeter, mixing stones with potter's dust. He helps flatten down the soil, packing it with heavy, metal wheels. His hands turn scraped and muddy, and they sting when he rinses them clean.
Afterwards, once everything's back in place, the soldiers always let him watch their sparring exercises. They're familiar with his presence on the fences and benches of the yards, silently observing while the afternoon rolls on and the tower bells strike out the hour. Dilan is sometimes there, passing through the main field off to the side yards for his own practice; he nods occasionally to Elaeus, and that is the extent of the communication necessary between them.
The local guards vary. Their assignments range from patrols that are dedicated to travel -- taking long, trailing arcs across the territories near the Bastion -- to those stationed in town. The Bastion's security is not strict; there are a few gruff commanders, but an equal amount of soldiers who are content with the easy job of peace. Each of the patrols wear their sigils and ribbons with easy informality. Elaeus has met several of them on occasion, enough to recognize their marks on sight.
Captains Loire, Seagill and Zabac are the easiest to pick out. The three of them are always together, and Elaeus wonders if it'll be like that for him and his friends too: Dilan, Braig, himself, all growing older and stronger and more tanned underneath the warm Bastion sun. Even and Ienzo are apprentices too but they like reading instead of sports if they can help it, which means that it's impossible to get a game going that requires more than three people.
One afternoon -- as clouds are rolling in and the temperatures are already dropping, whispering promises of storm on the cool, Falls-touched breeze -- Captain Zabac suddenly takes a step back in midswing, lowering the heavy trident he prefers to spar with. He turns away from Captain Seagill, ignoring the blades pointed at his throat, as if he knows with perfect confidence that the other man will not take advantage of the opportunity for attack.
When a question is thrown in his direction, Captain Zabac only lifts his head towards the sky and grunts.
The signal seems to mean something, for the leaner man sighs. "Ward's right," he calls out to the sidelines, where Captain Loire is busy trying to whittle a miniature boat out of a malformed twig. "We should get dinner before it's too wet on the streets."
Elaeus's stomach squeaks in sympathy. He puts his hand over his belly and presses down hard in hopes of ignoring the growl.
"And disappoint our captive audience?" Captain Loire flicks a wood shaving off his pocketknife and points it towards Elaeus. "No way."
But Captain Zabac sets down his trident and starts to wrap the protective leathers around the blades, and Captain Seagill lowers his own guard after a moment, unbuckling the support braces from around his wrists. With a sigh of resignation, the third member of their trio snaps his pocketknife closed. The half-carved twig is tossed aside, forgotten.
But Captain Loire doesn't wander away with his friends just yet. Instead, the man slides off his perch and heads further along the benches, towards Elaeus. He squats down so that both their eyes are on an equal level; the rifle that's slung over his shoulder bumps against Elaeus's knee.
"You remind me of my own kid," the man grins. "Thinking about becoming a knight too?"
A scrape of bootheels on gravel, and Captain Seagill is there, the beads in his hair jangling. "Are you corrupting the local youth again with dreams, Laguna?"
"Wait, wait, wait, Kiros," Captain Loire protests. He switches his attention between them both, wavering between options until he finally settles back on Elaeus. "Hey, how old are you? I see you with the rest of the King's boys, but you don't look as old as Dilan."
Elaeus shifts his weight from foot to foot, but it doesn't seem as if he'll be reprimanded just yet. "Fourteen," he answers at last. "I'm fourteen years old."
Captain Loire's face breaks into a merry grin. "Well," he replies with mock solemnity, "fourteen's a great age to become a knight, in my opinion."
"Laguna," Captain Seagill drawls in sharp-tongued warning.
The gunner only laughs, ushering Elaeus over to the supply racks that are kept in one of the shallow towers near the barracks. The spare weapons are stored beneath a thick, oiled tarp to keep out the damp; Elaeus finds his nose wrinkling automatically at the smell as Captain Loire whisks the covering back. Blades in all shapes and sizes wink sleepily in the afternoon light as they are revealed. Some them are normal enough -- chipped longswords, battered daggers -- while others are curved in ways he's not sure how to use.
Finally, after Captain Loire continues to wave his hands in vague circles of encouragement, Elaeus reaches out and taps the haft of one weapon, gravitating towards it among all the other unfamiliar tools.
His choice earns a thoughtful hrm from Captain Loire, who unlatches the safety straps and pulls the weapon out with a clatter. "Okay. This axe --"
"It's a tomahawk." There's another ripple of canvas, and Captain Seagill has arrived, having easily vaulted over one of the wooden practice trawls with a flexing of his long, brown legs. "Comes from the east. Far, far east."
"It's in the shape of an axe."
"So's your head. It's a tomahawk," Captain Seagill repeats again, this time firmly in Elaeus's direction, as if he expects the boy to have memorized only one word forever. "If you're going to teach, at least get the name right, Laguna."
Captain Loire heaves a pursed-lipped sigh that puffs out his cheeks like a frog and flutters his hair away from his eyes. "Okay. Hold out the tommy-hawk like this, in both hands." He ignores the snort from Captain Seagill's direction, carefully straightening Elaeus's arms until they form perfect parallels in the air, the axe balanced upon them. "Tell me why you picked this one out of all the others."
Elaeus hesitates. He doesn't want to admit that he also thought the weapon was just an axe -- a familiar instrument for chopping wood, for splitting rope knots off cargo bales and hewing apart rotting barrels. "It looks like it could be useful for more than just fighting," he manages after a while, and the words feel right in his mouth.
Captain Loire digests this reason and then nods. "As good a reason as any." Stepping back, he gestures for Elaeus to keep his arms extended; higher, higher his fingers beckon, until the tomahawk is even with Elaeus's eyes. "There," he judges at last. "Now. Recite these vows after me."
"Oh, for pity's sake, Laguna," Captain Seagill grouses, but is silenced by a flap of the man's hand.
"You will recite your vows," Captain Loire repeats. Suddenly, he looks less foolish than normal, less bumbling; his gaze is still frank, but filled with a seriousness that Elaeus has not seen on him before. "'I will defend the weak.'"
"I will defend the weak," Elaeus repeats back dutifully.
"'I will remain loyal to my king and country.'"
"I will remain," Elaeus recites, his arms beginning to ache, as he fixes his attention fast upon the ceremony, "loyal."
"I will remain true to my heart in all things."
"Good." Clapping a hand briskly on Elaeus's shoulder -- a motion which almost dislodges the axe off the boy's palms -- Captain Loire straightens up. He slings the rifle strap back over an arm, letting the gun jostle against his hip. "Now, stand here until we come back, and keep that weapon up and your feet stuck in that spot you're in right now. If you falter," he adds in warning, shaking a finger cheerfully for emphasis, "then we'll know your vows will also fail."
The three captains depart -- Captain Seagill uttering short, skeptical complaints in Captain Loire's direction -- and then Elaeus is alone.
At first, he tries indifference as a means of ignoring the pain. It's hard. His body wants to move, twitching by fractions in sulky rebellion against his efforts at self-discipline. As a compromise, he rolls his shoulders in order to ease the weight in his hands, the pressure off his bones. When that effort only works for a few minutes, he flexes his elbows next, rotating his arms in small degrees to keep them from locking into place. Bowing his arms outwards helps for a while, but slowly the tomahawk begins to droop, his hands gradually lowering down to his waist. The ache burns and pulls at his muscles. Gravity trebles.
He thinks desperately of the strength of mountains then, of earth, of impenetrable stone that lasts for centuries untouched.
In the distance, far beyond the practice yards, the sun meets the horizon and is swallowed.
His stomach has started to whine and wheedle and burp again. Hunger crawls up his chest and throat to meet the molten lava seeping along his arms. Against his will, his muscles begin to spasm, the tomahawk jerking against his hands as he fights to keep it under control.
His pain has a voice now: it sounds like broken glass and bell jar wires, whispering to him through each layer of his skin, vibrating in his bones. You've stood here long enough, it coaxes him. Put down the weapon. Use magic to make it easier. There's no need to keep waiting here like this. No one will see.
Elaeus starts to shake his head, doggedly. The motion only brings a fresh wave of agony through his nerves, and he stifles any protest behind gritted teeth. He doesn't trust himself to speak aloud, so instead his response comes assembled in tiny fragments of will: there are reasons why he should force himself to endure.
Then tell me, the pain sniggers. Tell me what these things are.
So he does.
He thinks about the envelopes his mother folds from plain brown paper every time she sends a letter to the Castle, about his father's awkward pride over a fresh batch of cinnamon rolls that managed not to burn. He thinks about his family at home and then his family at school, the stern lectures of Ansem the Wise mixing with endless test papers and reports. He thinks about Ienzo, scavenging bread from the table because he's not sure if the next meal will come or not; he thinks about Even's jealousy and bile, and the brief flickers of fear he sees in the other boy's eyes whenever someone else gets a problem right first.
He thinks about the silent strength of pebbles, clustered together in rows around the practice field to keep the earth from eroding during the rains. His brain fills itself up with trees rooting themselves in the soil, with the cycles of the seasons turning from winter to spring. Muscles are replaced by memory. Nerves are replaced by dreams. The arteries of his body are flooded with past arguments and difficulties and Even screaming at them all over the library table, Dilan running away for a weekend without telling anyone where he was going; Ienzo losing the keys to the laboratory closet and hitting the door again and again with his palm, tight-lipped, white-faced, terrified of an absolute he could not outwit.
Every atom of Elaeus's body hurts, so every fraction becomes rebuilt, rewritten in his mind like a book whose sentences have been jumbled into parts and forced to make sense anyway. Pain and life and death and strength -- again and again he thinks about them, about earth-work that continues forever and can only be endured. Small things. Pebble strength. Twigs off trees and morsels of bread, wheat-stalks and hay and rain and voices and conversations and people, all knitting themselves together to build an interconnected whole that requires constant maintenance: tiny balancing acts that must go on every day, unnoticed, until mountains and castles and worlds are built from miniscule grains of dirt. He is no longer a human being. He is made of stone, of stone and sweat and strength.
When the captains finally return, laughing, they all fall silent to see the boy standing there, feet still planted, arms outstretched. Unwavering.
Captain Loire is the first to step forward and congratulate him.
- - - - -
Years later, Elaeus has forgotten most of the words to his vows, just as he has relinquished much of his name. One of his families is gone; his heart is no longer his to own. He has left the Bastion behind, traveling to a world where there is no earth, no soil to pack underneath his boots or fruit to harvest or crop-patterns to study. The natural balance is out of order. He is partially to blame.
But he picks up his 'hawk without hesitation. The weight is light to him now; its shape has changed over the years, taking on additional curves and length though it still yields readily to his grip. He is no longer the little boy who stood in trembling vigil in the Bastion practice yard, but a Nobody called Lexaeus, full-grown along with the other apprentices. He has seen wonders. He has destroyed miracles. He has shaped the earth like water and felt its pulse in his hand.
Despite all this, he does not forget how to endure, how to remain calm and wait for that which must be attended to. His promises remain strong. Some work never ends.