flASH fiction: Volume 3: A Perfect Skeptic (13)

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A Perfect Skeptic
Jason Pere

Errow tried to think of the last time he had passed words directly with Frostdale’s Master of Arms. He knew that he had spoken with Mater Hannz on more than one occasion, though the incidents were usually nothing more than fleeting formalities and smaller pleasantries. Errow reached into the farthest corners of his memory and tried to recall any time form the past where he and Master Hannz had encountered each other by some means other than chance. The junior Amurai warrior could not grasp any instance that his commanding officer had called upon him with purpose. The newness of being formally summoned to an audience was yet another frustration piled onto Errow in a boundless forest of angst.

The echo of a battle cry came to find Errow’s ears. The Amurai looked out one of the nearby windows that lined the hallway and saw the source of the commotion in the courtyard below. Nearly a score of his brothers-and-sisters-at-arms were gathered around Rin Northfell as he demonstrated magnificent magical flourishes of ice and hail in martial exhibition. Errow rolled his eyes as her saw his brethren shower the boy with choruses of applause and praise while he thoroughly trounced challenger after challenger in mock combat. Errow was not so vain as to denounce Rin’s formidable power but the instant adoration that the boy won from the rest of the Amurai made Errow’s belly churn and bubble with disgust. Errow frowned as he saw veteran men and women shamelessly throw away hard earned pride in the face of a boy who knew nothing of war. Errow huffed and turned away from the window before he saw any more of his compatriots embarrass themselves.

The cursed chill of the great northern city found the Rustwatch born Amurai, even in the confines of the officer’s quarters of the barracks. Errow battled to remain at the ready outside of the grand doors of the Master-of-Arms chambers. He was able to keep his back and shoulders as straight as a lance but the man admitted a partial defeat to the cold by continually rubbing his hands together. The friction of his chapped and red palms was not enough to fully assuage the bite of cold that constantly attacked Errow but he would not allow his unseen assailant the victory of any further display of discomfort. The physical sting of the cold, the shift in atmosphere brought on by the arrival of the new commander and the mystery of his summons to Master Hannz’s chambers all blended into a trinity of misery for Errow Cutwick.

The freezing Amurai warrior sensed movement on the other side of the doors he stood in front of. Errow gave a hard breath out and renewed his already impressive posture and bearing. He mentally tried to envision the image that he would present to Master Hannz when the doors were opened. Errow went down a mental list of uniform protocol and military etiquette. He quickly completed the mental inventory of his being and tried to think of anything he might have missed that would leave him out of uniform. His armor was polished, his boots were buffed and shined like knew and all his gear and equipment was accounted for but Errow persisted to consider what possibilities for embarrassment existed. The large doors with the hound’s sigil embossed upon them creaked open and abruptly ended Errow’s reflection.

“Errow Cutwick?” came the sound of Master Hannz’z voice from inside the room. His infection held the sound of a question but beneath the shape of his words there was an evident measure of certainty and command.

“Yes, Master,” responded Errow swiftly and with equal parts strength and deference in his speech. The intensity of the moment made Errow feel a heat in his blood that he had not expected. The feeling was something akin to the rush of combat but without the looming fear of death. In a moment the merciless cold of Frostdale abated and left Errow. He would have reveled in his release from the oppressive chill were it not for the squall of uncertainty that roared within him.

“Enter, if you would,” said Master Hannz with a stern pitch.

Errow stepped inside the Master-of-Arms room and stood at full attention while his peripheral vision drank in the details of his superior’s chambers. The room was large but not excessively so. It could not be said that the man was surrounded by luxury though his accommodations were certainly more enjoyable than the communal living quarters of the rank and file Amurai. All the expected trappings of a ranking military officer were present inside the room, an armor tree, small weapons rack, writing desk with standard accompanying amenities, a modest wardrobe and bed that was little more than a glorified cot occupied the far end of the room. The only traces of something that served no utilitarian function was an easel and painters pallet tucked into the far corner of the room. The easel had a canvas with the makings of a surprisingly skilled summer’s landscape taking form upon it.

“Do you like it?” asked Master Hannz with a baited quality in his voice. He nodded in the direction of the half finished work of art sitting in the corner. Despite the predatorily playful element in the man’s voice his face and aged eyes were a display of emotional absence.

Errow felt a nervous heat sweep over his brow as he realized he had been staring at the painting. The junior Amurai lifted his chin and made himself the picture of readiness as he spoke with honed militant curtness in his words. “I am a soldier and not a painter. My opinion of the painting is of no worth, Sir.”

“That may be so,” said Master Hannz with a measured and carefully executed gaze at the other man. “But do you like it?” pressed the Frostdale Master of Arms.

Errow longed to break from his ridged upright position and wipe away a few rouge beads of nervous sweat before they careened down his brow and into his eyes. The Amurai stood fast and unmoving save for his eyes that returned to the image of detailed verdant green fields spread out in the shadow of what looked like it was going to become a mountain once it got a few brushstrokes of color. At first Errow was an inarticulate void as he regarded the foreign thing. The most that he knew of art were the exquisitely crafted arms and armor to come from the hot forges of his homeland or the boisterous drinking songs that filled the shanties in the Iron Lord’s city. After a few dreadfully silent heartbeats Errow was able to push aside the haze that clouded his mind and take stock of his inner disposition as he looked on the layers of paint upon the canvas.

“Sir, it makes me feel solemn but I like the painting,” Errow said in earnest.

“Solemn?” inquired Master Hannz with an arch of one of his greying eyebrows.

“It is lifelike enough to remind me of the warmth I left in Rustwatch before I was stationed in this land of unending winter. I will take grass over snow any day, Master,” continued the younger Amurai with a bitter edge in his words.

Master Hannz kept his face as hard as stone for only a moment longer before his mouth turned into a wide smile that was everything one would expect form a Frostdale born. “The cold is not to your liking? I can not fault you for that. The secret to our people’s comfort with freezing wind and snow day after day is the fact that most have never known anything else. I would venture to say that anyone native to Frostdale would be reluctant to return were they to enjoy the harvest season in Lighthouse Bay or summer along the rivers of Silverwood,” Laughed the Master-of-Arms with gusto.

Errow stood fast and used all his reserves of propriety to keep his face blank and unexpressive. The ranking Amurai’s outburst of laughter lasted for a disturbingly long measure. When the Master-of-Arms mirth subsided to a degree that Errow could get a word in he spoke quickly so his courage would not disappear before he could pass the sentiment that had been gnawing at his insides. “Sir, with no dishonor intended, I do not think you summoned me here to speak about art and the weather.”

Master Hannz returned to the model of authority with hideous speed. “To the point. I appreciate your candor and direct approach. It is precisely why you are here,” started the Master of Arms as he leisurely sat behind his writing desk and poured a frosty drink of water into a simple tin cup. “Tell me what you think of our new commander,” said the ranking Amurai before raising the icy water to his lips.

Errow felt like he had been gutted by a cavalryman’s lance. He longed for a returned to discussion about paint and canvas. Errow inhaled deeply and prepared his words with meticulous forethought. “I acknowledge Commander Northfell’s power. He is unquestionably possessed of great strength, Master,” said the junior Amurai with slow measured words.

“And?” responded the Master of Arms with a knowing quality.

Errow thought about playing dumb for a fleeting moment but he knew that Mater Hannz was wily enough to see through such an attempt. Errow quickly came to realize that despite his lack of interaction with the other man during his tenure in Frostdale, Master Hannz was clearly well informed about the attitude and feelings of all who served under him. “Rin Nortfell is a boy. He may have the strength to battle the chimera but he lacks the wisdom and experience to be a proper military leader. It vexes me that he is to wrest command from proven warriors, yourself included. I fear that he will be the cause of many good Amurai’s deaths. With respect, sir,” Errow said while exhibiting flawless elocution and militant poise.

The only sound that filled the room after Errow’s confession was the song of the howling Frostdale wind outside of the windows as it whipped through the stone of the Amurai barracks. Errow searched the face of Master Hannz for some clue as to what was going on in the mind of the senior Amurai. Errow wondered if he should have lied and sang the praises of Rin like all the other men and women in the barracks. The Rustwatch man felt the heavy weight of his breastplate and the hound’s sigil upon it. He wondered if he was about to be stripped of his station for his honesty. The silence of Master Hannz was as brutal as any chimera attack.

“I agree and that is precisely why I am assigning you to be Commander Northfell’s personal guard and field advisor,” said Master Hannz with a smile returning to his face.

Errow felt like he needed to pick his slack jaw up off of the floor. The shock of the other man’s statement made it impossible for Errow to stand at attention. “Beg your pardon sir but I do not understand? There are many of my brethren who are more experienced and wiser. Surely they would be better suited,” protested Errow.

“Please, you are as brave as any who wear this crest,” said Master Hannz as he rapped the armored hound on his breastplate with a gauntleted knuckle. “You may not be the most experienced or skilled warrior in Frostdale but you are one of the precious few who are not awestruck and seduced by the power and allure of the magic that Rin holds. Whatever else is true there is about to be an immense war with the chimera and Rin will be a major diving force for the great cities of Argaia. He may yet be the leader that we need but as of this moment, he is not that leader,” continued Master Hannz as he stood from his desk and met Errow eye to eye with a worldly piercing stare.

“Master, I think that you have placed far too much faith in my abilities. I am no great leader either. I do not know what I could do to aid the Commander,” pressed Errow with humility in his voice.

“You will need not do anything more than guide Rin down a path you have already walked. He has yet to lead men into battle…or have them die under his watch. You know the battlefield as intimately as one could hope and you will not shirk from it harsh realities,” Said the Frostdale Master-of-Arms as he moved to within arms reach of Errow. “Let me ask you this, do you plan to coddle the boy or hide from him some of the grim truths of warcraft?”

“No Sir, that would be a dereliction of duty and of service to no one,” Errow responded swiftly as his heart put the words out of his mouth before his mind had a chance to reflect.

“I knew you were perfect for this task,” said Master Hannz and he placed a paternal hand on Errow’s shoulder. “The Great Cleansing of Argaia is about to begin. You and Commander Northfell will be taking a patrol force beyond the seal wall the day after tomorrow. You best prepare yourself. You are dismissed.”

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