Hephaestus

-Or-

The One Made Strong by the Fires of the Forge

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Twenty years, said I, twenty years ago. I remember the pledge I made. Twenty years ago I said I could serve twenty years in the service of my liege, the Marquess of Pherae.

Twenty years ago I said in Roland's name I'll drive this lance into the ground at my feet and I'll pull it out as I always have. After the battle was won, I pledged twenty years of undying service to the lord of Pherae. Now, twenty years later, here I stand.

I am needed. I've lived longer than a man should ever hope to, but I am needed still. The Saints have cast a spell on me so that I might live an extraordinarily long life to serve my liege. I still bear my blessed iron and steel: The sword, the shield, and the lance. Those are my sacred implements, the things I carry to affirm my role; they are my arms, my legs, and my heart. I would die before I would retire my arms. They would have to pry my lance from my cold, dying fingers. This all in service of my liege.

Mine is a story of an old man who must have drunk long from the fountain of youth when he was a child. My memories start at the beginning of my knighthood, bypassing my first romances, which only distracted me from my service to the armours. I still remember my first lance I took when pledging my knighthood, from the moment I stood captivated, watching the smith work the iron on his anvil at the forge, flames dancing like young lovers. Many times I crept to the edge of the forge and tried to smith a weapon myself. In secret, I tried and failed so many times I singed every tip of every finger many times over. Still, I kept on until I forged something that resembled a blade proper, and only then was I satisfied.

That was my time. I remember Lord Elbert and his strong image. He stood in front of his knights, the marquess of Pherae did, and they pledged their loyalty to him as he stood there before us, kind but strong. My lord was a statue, a statue carved of solid rock, unflinching and proud. He had dignity you could not knock down with a pickaxe or a sledge or the passing of time. All the strength and all the courage he draped around himself, and left all the spiritless young men to find that strength on their own. By the Saint did he have a powerful image! A statue he was, because he never blew over in the wind and because he was a symbol of a strong Pherae and a united Lycia. He would never be broken. I remember watching him as a foolish young man and hoping I would become like him in my older years.

I remember my first real sword. I remember watching the smith work the iron on his anvil, watching the metal cool into the shape of a sharp blade, watching the fire roll about in its cage. I remember sitting anxiously there, waiting, until I could finally lay hands on something I could rightfully call my own. I remember my first sword. I think I fought and fought with that sword, training until my arms ached and the blade had began to dull from overuse. I remember wanting to keep onto that sword forever, iron piece of rubbish though it was. I don't think I have that sword any longer. I haven't seen a sword like that in ages.

I remember my first commander—but dear God, if I could only remember his name!—from when I was a young lad, a fresh recruit, a bloody wretch standing on the steps of glory. I remember his whistling black hair with tinges of gray edging out over his face like a weathered crag, a face immobile and powerful, with eyes ever looking off into the distance. When I was given the honor of sparring with him he beat me down, and struck me so hard with the flat of his blade that I thought my body was going to shatter to pieces. Then he picked me up by the hair and told me that a true warrior stands and endures, and were he not strong enough, he was to train until the blood trickling down his chin dried and he could endure any blow. He said that were he an enemy the thrashing would'been three-fold, and told me he thrashed me this hard because he was my friend. As a young man I remember training and training and training with my fellow knights until the blood froze around my knuckles and it became so difficult to stand and endure that I nearly cried in pain before rising to my knees again. I remember judging the worth of an ally by how much he could beat a man down before giving in. I remember approaching my commander a beaten, battered man, blood trickling down my chin and my face and I remember the first compliment he ever paid me: "Maybe you will survive". He taught me how to hold a sword properly, how to thrust a lance correctly, how to overcome insurmountable odds, and explained to me what it meant to be a knight. He told me to lift large stones and large steel weapons to strengthen my arms, he taught me to stand in the wind to strengthen my endurance, he taught me to fight in overly-weighted armours so I wouldn't feel the burden when I rode into battle wearing mail. I could never forget those things.

The first ride into the wind, I remember—hah! and bless Roland, what a feeling!—shooting off on my sorrel horse without even a decent saddle, one of worn and weathered leather with patches and holes. I remember how I felt that day, riding through, a buckler in one hand, my new lance sharp and glimmering in the sun's light—in Roland's name I must have polished that thing a hundred times!—jubilant, riding free, burning with the passion of youth, the morning gales pounding against me with their knuckles, and I loved it. Then, my first true mission as a knight of Pherae: To charge the rolling hills and save a mountainside town from a bandit raid. We were a score strong, and they no greater than ten, and I blazed in alongside my fellow cavaliers—and! I remember striking the foes first with a great thrust of my lance and running one of them through. I felt so alive then; it was as though a spell had been cast over me, surging power through my body. I remember charging in to fight another, daring them all to try to knock me down, not seeing one of them come from my left, smiting me in my side, throwing me from my horse and I felt pain. Then, after my comrades routed them, after my wounds had been bandaged, I was scolded by my commander for my recklessness, and when I awoke upon my hard bedding in the infirmary, my hands groped instinctively for my lance before I realized it was never there.

I was only a lad then, but that night, after my chest and my ribs had been bandaged, my commander led me to a small ditch where a body had been half-buried in a shallow grave until the bishops could say their rites. When I saw the face of my fallen comrade, his entire body save for his face and his fingers buried in the holy mother Saint's hallowed earth, I understood what my commander meant when he said caution is the savior of men. I never forgot the lesson I learned that moment. The fallen soldiers didn't turn to smoke or blink and fade away when they died. Their blood did not vanish or return to God on plumes of mist. I wondered, was this truly what is meant by the noble sacrifice? Having to bury a friend, someone's father, someone's brother? I had said so much to my knights-in-arms, so many meaningless things about honor and courage and strength that meant less than nothing. It did no good to writhe and scream and yell and spit in the face of the storm, that would not change a damned thing, that would not bring back a dead man. I didn't understand what it meant to be a soldier, and neither did they.

That was the moment I turned in upon myself and became quiet. As I aged, when I saw all the young cavalier knights, fresh from the streets, without any knowledge of what fighting is, I felt pity, sadness, and then anger, that they would someday see the sight of a dead friend glistening with blood and shout "Why me?", without realizing that it was their damned fault all along. They needed to know that if they did not take their duty seriously enough they would pay a terrible price, and t'would be best to learn that lesson sooner and not later. I became quiet then.

Of the many things I so desperately wish to remember, I can only most vividly remember the rainy day when I watched a sword run through my commander's heart. My squad and I were on a routine mission, down in one of the valleys where the local bandits liked to hide away. That day we set out without our armours to prevent the plating from rusting under the rain. The commander let us swiftly into one of the caves where a group of brigands sat. It was dark and damp but there were several bright orange oil lamps lighting the unshaven sneers on their faces. We charged in, weapons held high, promising them no quarter. My commander charged in with his sword and smote two of them, and then from behind a stack of crates sprang one of the them and without warning ran him through until the tip of the sword almost protruded from the blade, then he twisted it. Shortly after, our squad routed the rest of them, and the worthless bastard who had killed my commander died with a smile on his face so human it terrified me. This could have been any battle, this could have been any damned lout worth less than a pile of dirt, this could have been any day of any year. One of my best companions, known for his calm and composure, burst out, grabbed the dead knave by the collar and began beating him in the face with his fist, and it took three of us to pull him away.

A knight serves his lord until the moment he ceases to breathe, my second commander told me when he took his place among our squad. A knight serves, he told me, until the moment he dies. It was under his command that I became cold, necessarily cold. My second commander beat back any lingering desire I had to consort with the lasses, he beat back any regret I had about pledging my life to the battlefield, he beat back any tears I might have cried upon hearing of a friend's death. I became cold. I didn't stop to think who might have known my foe before I cut him down, I never stopped to even acknowledge that he had fallen. The battlefield had become a part of me, and I knew that I had become the object of the other knights' admiration when I could watch another man die and think nothing of it. When my second commander was killed, I turned away, knowing only that he had died in service of his lord.

I was a stern veteran in command of a squad of my own when Marquess Pherae, my lord Elbert, disappeared. The night I learned of my lord's disappearance, I wept alone, bit my lip, and wiped my face dry so that no one would be aware. That was the last time I ever wept openly.

Before the first armies led to search for the marquess, I sat at the edge of the smith's forge one silent night and stared into the flame. The blacksmith sat to forge a new lance of steel for me, and without thinking I reached over and pried the unshaped piece of metal from his hand, looked him in the eye, and told him I would do it myself. From that moment on, I forged all my weaponry myself, painstakingly, sometimes staying up into the tired hours of the night to finish my work while the undisciplined knights of the order were fast asleep. I had to teach myself how to endure my life when most of my allies got themselves killed in battle or stricken by illness and were replaced, just as swiftly as they had come. How to accept the burden of loss, how to be a man—these were things I learned on my own, and just the same I taught myself how to make a weapon. To swing a sword or ride a horse, these were things my commanders left for me, these were the teachings that my liege the Lord of Pherae ingrained in me, but there were things I was obliged to learn on my own.

I took it upon myself to protect my Lord Elbert's son Lord Eliwood when he set out in search of his father. The young Lord Eliwood was a thunderbolt. Like his father, Eliwood burned with such inner fire to as to light the passions of his troops, a fire strong enough to forge the steel of my blades. He was the hope of Pherae after his father died. After the specter of Bern had risen, he became the hope of Pherae and slung the dreams and glories of his people on his back and it was his hope, his courage, his unwillingness to surrender that sustained me through those years. When the war was won and the fog of war had risen away, I knelt at the feet of my lord, thrust my lance into the ground, and pledged to serve twenty years in his service.

I never had a family. The throne of Pherae was my home, the hot fire of the forge my hearth. The blood of the royal family was my blood, and the bone of my allies my bone. I watched as the young thunderbolt grew into a man, bore a child, and grew older. I watched his child grow into a young man, taught him the ways of the sword, taught him to fight as though he was the last torch of good in the world, as though his every enemy was a bastard cutthroat who would trade a life for a life. I understood him, young Roy. He was a good young man, for he never said a word of complaint when he marched miles across a rainy field, never once regretted the weight of burden he bore as the leader of an army defying the strongest nation in the land, and whenever he ate he savored every bite and never left a scrap behind, even when he was down to the bone of a leg of meat, scraping for more. I understood why he put faith in his army, in his friends, in even his faintest allies, even when I saw them, undisciplined, untrained, unworthy to even stand in my lord Roy's shadow. And I understood what he meant when he said that it no longer pained him to kill.

The war was won, and Lord Roy was wed. At the end of the battle, old as I was, even hearing the cries of the young bastard pups with nary a scar yelling for me to abdicate my sword, I knelt before my lord and pledged twenty years. From then on, through peace and through war, I would serve him until the end.

A knight fights and dies for what he believes. Honor is not a word. Honor is fighting when you know you have not a chance. Honor is clenching the hilt of your blade and knowing you might have to thrust it through the heart of an old friend, a lover, or your own kin. Honor is never feeling sorry for your own damned self. And when the perverse thrill of bravado and the naivete of a childhood beaten and bloodied has gone, honor is what remains.

Now after twenty years, my lord Roy tries to pry my fingers from the hilt of my lance, its end jutted against the floor. He is a man now of many years, the same man his father was, and his father before, fashioning himself in the image of a statue, in the image of a thunderbolt. If I must drive this lance into the ground just to help me rise from my shaking knees and look my lord in the eye, then in the name of valorous Roland I will. A knight serves his lord until the moment he ceases to breathe. I can still breathe. I can still hold my spear as I always have, I can still grip the sword I forged myself with my blackened fingers. He will see my hands and he'll see the ashen skin on the tips of my fingers, the scars and the blackened marks running along my arms, I know, and he will wonder how and why, because he never knew, because he never had to know. And that was because these are the marks of my beautiful suffering, the thousand wounds I gladly took to spare my lords the single strike of a sword. There is no other task on this fair Elibe so glorious and so terrible. I might have been born and reached for the plough and not the sword, I could have grown up not feeling the pain of battle, I could have left the world of war alone and lived in the fields or in the townes, blissfully ignorant. I wouldn't. I couldn't.

This is what they've for me. They've a congregation of mournful, sorrowful people all blurred and trembling. They've gathered here, so many close friends and hired hands whose names I've forgotten encircling me in the cold hallway, their eyes full of sorrow, and they are all saying goodbye, looking into my eyes and through me as though I was never even there, pleading me to leave this world quietly, but I will not—I will not! They don't understand what it means to die. They don't understand what it means to live. They cry so freely and so openly without knowing what it feels like to be unable to cry.

Twenty years. That was the oath I swore, the oath that I felt rattling through my bones every time I stood in the face of the wind, the oath I remembered every time I felt the reverberations of steel against my palm or the taste of blood on my tongue. I stood and I remembered twenty years, twenty years then, and twenty years forever until my body has turned to dust, as that was the oath I swore. I will rise again, Lord Roy. I'll stand against the knuckles of the wind and fight for you. The red-upon-red fire in your eyes only reminds me of the forge where I sat and forged the sword I ran through the heart of our foes, forged the lance I used to bar their way when they charged forth, forged the shield that was the emblem of your great land.

"Twenty years." So many things I want to say, but those are the only words my damned voice can speak, so softly that not even I can hear them. And my Lord Roy, he is saying something to me gently, something important, but I cannot hear. I want to reach out and grip his hand tightly so that he knows the extent of my dedication, but I cannot even reach him. The world feels faint, and the only thing that feels real anymore is the grip of my hands around my lance. Just let him hear me, please—that is all I ask, that is my last selfish desire. Let him know that I would gladly serve twenty years more in the service of my liege.