15 February, 2007

Servants' Duel

Back in December, I entered a short story contest. I didn't win, but I console myself with the fact that thousands (actually, I think it was just hundreds, but I like hyperbole) of other people didn't win either, and there were some good stories in the running. So, I'm in good company. Anyway, what follows is the story I submitted. I hope you like it.

Aaron breathed a deep and disconsolate sigh. One of his alarms had been tripped. Again. He wondered who it would be this time. A deep depression came over him as he considered the dwindling possibilities.

“Mr. Erikson!” he shouted towards the back room, “I have to go! Family emergency!” It was not a complete untruth.

Mr. Erikson emerged from the back. “Everything ok?” he asked with genuine concern.

“I’m sure it will be, but they need me right now,” Aaron said, already donning his coat.

“Alright, nothing’s more important than family. I’ll go ahead and close up tonight, and open again in the morning. Call me when you can. Go take care of your family.” He was a good man, Mr. Erikson. He had picked up on the haziness of the explanation, but did not push the issue.

“Thanks,” said Aaron as he opened the door and stepped out towards the city lights…

…and stepped onto the wind swept plain. The air was very thin this far above the treeline, but the wind was still strong enough to keep the field free of any large piles of snow. Aaron’s work clothes had disappeared, to be replaced by the gray robes of a Servant. Soft, light, and thick, they remained unmoved by the fierce wind that howled around Aaron. He looked around as he always did to make sure everything was as he had left it. The peaks that surrounded this field gave the place the look of a stadium of enormous proportions, which in a way it was. The field itself was about twice the length and width of a football field, but not quite as flat. It rounded gently towards the middle, and was pocked with small stones and clumps of winter burned grass. Aaron stood at the southern end of the field surrounded by about three dozen granite stones, too regularly shaped and positioned to be natural. Each a two foot tall rectangle, they stood on end about seven or eight feet apart from each other, forming an irregular grid. Aaron knelt down in their center. He had a few minutes before his visitor arrived and he used them to meditate, to order his thoughts and feelings and to prepare for the ordeal ahead.

The second alarm sounded. Aaron stood and looked out across the field. A bolt of lightening, impossibly straight, struck the ground, at the dead center of the field. As the afterimage faded from his eyes, Aaron saw who had come.

“Malchus,” he spoke the name. The man whirled around to face him. He wore robes identical to Aaron’s, identical except for the black band of cloth worn above the elbow of his left arm. It was a badge that marked a mission that was seldom given among the Servants, and yet one that Aaron had seen so often of late.

“Aaron!” The man’s voice was loud enough to precipitate several small avalanches on the surrounding peaks. Anger and hatred were raw in that voice. “Traitorous dog! I bring your doom!”

From across the more than two hundred feet, Aaron replied in a calmer voice, one filled with weariness, “I can hear you just fine. There is no need for theatrics.”

Malchus roared in response. He reached up into the empty air and drew out a magnificent sword. The blade flashed with internal flames bright enough to make the sun appear dim. He strode towards Aaron, brandishing this blade. Aaron had not moved, and remained still as Malchus approached. Malchus’ intent was clear, but Aaron stood his ground, still as a statue, a melancholy sorrow etched on his face. Malchus’ progress was checked, as Aaron knew it would be, when he encountered the first of the stones that surrounded Aaron.

Glancing down at the first stone, then around at the others, Malchus asked with a look of suspicion, “What are these?”

Aaron did not answer. Malchus, keeping an eye on Aaron, bent to study the nearest stone, then suddenly straightened and stared at Aaron with a look of horror.

“Were you not already guilty of blasphemy, this one alone would make you worthy of death,” Malchus whispered, his eyes wide, then, “Are they all…?” he gestured at the rest of the stones, unable to finish his question, knowing the answer but not believing it.

“See for yourself,” Aaron invited, “I will not stop you as you renew old kinships.” Harsh words, Aaron knew, but Malchus was in shock at his discovery, and did not react beyond moving from stone to stone. Every few stones he would stop and breathe a name.

“Raphael,” he said kneeling at one.

“A good friend to us both, always had the answers when we were in school,” Aaron said in response.

“Abdeel,” at another.

“Gracious in victory, gracious in defeat, our old master,” was the reply.

“Keren.”

“A fierce believer, and a fiercer warrior.”

So it went, Malchus recognizing the final resting place of an old friend and Aaron giving a short epitaph. Malchus slowly toured the stones in a circular pattern, starting with those farthest from Aaron and working slowly towards the middle. When he was only a few stones away from Aaron, Malchus did not so much as kneel at one stone as fell before it. He did not speak the name of this one, but Aaron gave his epitaph. “Your father.” Then after a moment, “I’m sorry.”

Still making no reply, Malchus stood and moved to the next stone and knelt again. “My father,” were Aaron’s words. His voice, where it had been filled with sorrow, was now overflowing with pain.

The next stone. “Our mother.”

The next stone. “Our sister.” Aaron’s voice now could only croak the words.

The next stone. “Your son.” Aaron had loved every one that lay here beneath the ground.

The final stone. Malchus looked up, puzzlement showing through the shock and grief. They now stood only a few feet apart, within striking distance of each other. Malchus’ sword rested at his side with its point in the ground, but Aaron had yet to produce a weapon.

“That one is empty. I hope to keep it that way, but it is yours if you want it.” Steel reentered Aaron’s voice without eclipsing the sincerity. Every grave here had been filled with a part of him and he did not want to fill another.

Anger blossomed in the face of his brother, and the sword that had grown dim at his side flared up again as he raised it to point at Aaron. “I would promise it to you,” Malchus hissed, “were it not in sacred ground. Today you will answer for the evils you have done.”

“I struck down each of these only because they struck at me. I felt no joy in any death here.”

“You have no right to live!” was the furious reply. “You have been sentenced to death!” Spittle flew from his lips as he again caused a few small avalanches.

“An unjust sentence, and though I have exiled myself,” this was no small self immolation, and amounted to death by itself, “these have all sought for me, as have you, to carry it out. I did not want to slay them, but my mission is greater than theirs.”

“Blasphemy!” shouted Malchus and he lunged at Aaron, swinging his sword with a blow that should have split Aaron from head to groin. In the moment before the sword made contact, Aaron finally moved from the spot he had been rooted to since he had arrived. It was only a simple side step, but it was far faster than Malchus could react. The sword hit the ground with enough force to birth a small crater a couple of feet in diameter. Malchus lifted his sword again, intent on striking Aaron, but Aaron forestalled him by raising his hand and saying, “If you wish to shed blood, let’s not do it here, on ground you rightly named as sacred.”

Malchus lowered his sword. “Agreed, dog,” he said, then strode out of the cemetery of immortals towards the center of the field again. Malchus had never been terribly creative with his insults. Aaron followed, still producing no weapon. Aaron had hoped that bringing Malchus face to face with the mortality of the immortals he would be more open to reason. Aaron had hoped in vain. Malchus whirled about to face Aaron again once he had gained the center of the field. Aaron stopped a dozen feet away.

“You can not defeat me, Brother,” Aaron said as Malchus raised his sword to an attack position. “Not so long as I serve the True Power.”

“You do not serve the True Power, and I shall triumph over you in righteousness!” Malchus roared and rushed to the attack. Again, Aaron stepped out of the way of the blow. This time, however, Malchus was ready for the dodge and changed the direction of his swing to match it. Aaron ducked and the sword whistled harmlessly above him. Malchus swung again, and Aaron stayed out of the arc of the blade once more. Still, Aaron produced no weapon.

They both halted, Malchus staring malevolently but cautiously, calculating, Aaron staring calmly and sadly back. “You can not defeat me, for I serve the True Power,” Aaron said once more, trying to convince Malchus to abort this futile mission. Aaron did not want to kill another brother.

“Blasphemy! You say you serve the True Power, yet you slay Servants!”

“I slay Servants who would stop me from serving!” Aaron was growing desperate. Malchus was determined. “Please! I have touched the True Power and It has made me Its own. Let me touch you with the Power, and you will know as I do!”

Malchus only roared again as he aimed another blow at Aaron. At last, Aaron drew his own sword. The fires of Malchus’ sword made the sun dim, but Aaron’s sword was as much again brighter than Malchus’. The glory of that sword was more than anyone less than an immortal could bear. The two swords met, and Malchus stumbled backward from the force of that meeting. Aaron remained unmoved.

“How is that possible?” whispered Malchus.

“It is possible only with the Power that I serve. Join me, and we will serve righteousness together!”

“The Power you serve is evil! The True Power is with the Servants, with me, and I shall still triumph over your lies!” Malchus snarled, and again leapt to attack. Aaron began to weep, for he knew that Malchus was beyond reason, and that he had already lost his brother, as he had lost so many others who were dear to him. For a time Aaron only parried and blocked, hoping against hope that Malchus would see the futility of the fight and would give up, but each thwarted attack only enraged him further.

At last the battle ended, and the mountains ceased to echo the fearsome ringing of the swords. Aaron reverently replaced the stone over the freshly turned earth and knelt by it for a long time in silent mourning. He had known the price of his choice long before he had made it, but the pain was more than he had ever imagined. In spite of the anguish in his heart, or perhaps because of it, his resolve remained unshaken. He would serve as he had promised, and he would accomplish the mission given him.

“Good morning, Mr. Erickson.”

“Aaron! Is everything alright with the family?”

“That’s actually why I’m calling. Some things have come up, and, well, it looks like I won’t be coming back to work. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I understand. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, but thanks for asking. I know you would if there was anything you could do. That makes me feel better.”

“Will we see you around?”

“No, actually, I’m leaving town tonight, and it’s going to be a long time before I come back.”

“Well, look us up when you do.”

“Thanks for everything, Mr. Erikson.”

“Good luck, Aaron.”

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