The Apostate Saint: Chapter 15 – A Dark Place

The world outside the City was far different than Fridok had imagined it would be. Rather than the demonic badlands he expected, he found the wilds to be something of considerable beauty. He had lived his whole life contained within the white walls, and none but the rich and the guards were permitted to view over the walls. Now he could see for himself what the ruling class had selfishly kept from him for all these years, and it made Fridok hate them even more than he already had up until this point. The fact that the Senate consul had pulled such a stunt right after the Son had spoken his benediction made Fridok all the more certain that change must come at any cost. To Fridok, the Son was destined to be the bringer of change that the City, and he, so desperately needed.

As far as the eye could see, Fridok saw life had not only survived the Fall of Man, but it was seemingly thriving in their absence. Trees and tall grasses and all kinds of wild flowers sprouted up everywhere in patches, particularly surrounding small oases dotting the otherwise semi-desert landscape in the arid southern Caelish climate. He had always been told that the land outside the great City was nothing more than sand and dry cracked dirt, a place unfit for all for living things to roam or settle. They were wrong – all of them – and that made Fridok wonder what other lies he had been told through the years that he accepted willingly.

Fridok felt the urge to say something to the Son, perhaps words of encouragement or support, but that kind of thing was simply not something Fridok felt he could do confidently. The harsh reality of Solumian life in the City was that encouragement indebted them with hope, a wage that life could seldom pay off. They were better to accept their fate and do their work without complaint, for that at least kept their bellies filled and a roof over their heads. Happiness was a resource that was owned and shared only by the rich.

Along with the reserved silence of the Son after Consul Kaius’ maneuver to undermine his celebration, things had gotten more awkward between Geilamir and the rest of the party than they already were. Geilamir’s father being at odds with the Son put Geilamir in a strange place. Fridok understood the feeling of being an outcast, something he immediately recognized in Geilamir’s body language since their departure from the City. If Geilamir hadn’t already proven himself to be such a twit, Fridok may have sympathized with his predicament. Alaric, ever the dutiful friend, chose to give Geilamir company and conversation.

While they marched forth, all of the others rode horses except for the two wards and Fridok. Alaric rode side by side with Geilamir, talking with him at a low volume so Fridok couldn’t discern any bits of conversation as he walked behind. Undoubtedly, they were addressing in some way the consul’s speech and Geilamir’s father’s role in it. If there was one thing Fridok understood about Alaric at this point, it was that he was forever the optimist, a comfort for those in whom he took pity. Fridok hated to admit it, but he definitely preferred when Alaric shared his company with him and not the jackass who deserved another few punches to the face.

He supposed it was fitting to bring himself into the best graces of the men, woman and boys traveling with him, even though it was against Fridok’s learned nature. He typically stuck to himself for a reason, and that had a lot to do with his general lack of trust for people, in particular the rich folk in whom he was now so thoroughly entrenched. It came as a surprise to him, then, when one of the trainees started talking to him.

Calix Sibylla, ward to Isidore Maritium, approached Fridok. “I saw your fight,” he said. The boy, whose confidence betrayed his disfigurement, was the son of a consul from years prior and therefore was well above Fridok’s station. Despite the fact that the boy’s family likely owned many horses, he was forced to walk along with the other neophyte, Xanthus Serapio, at the urging of their trainers. This was the way the nobles liked to handle young aspirants. The first thing that they had to withstand in their journey to manhood was a clipped ego.

“Yeah?” Fridok said, in return. “So you saw me lose, then.”

“Only after a whole lot of winning,” Calix said with sincerity. Fridok decided to give the boy an honest look – up until this point he hadn’t regarded him for more than a few brief glimpses. He wanted to believe it was because of his own reserved personality and not because of his visceral reaction to the boy’s appearance. Now that he had taken the time to really look at him, Fridok got a better sense of what the boy’s features were.

The first things that stuck out, literally, were the boy’s eyeballs. They were very wide-set, slightly cross-eyed and bulged outward tremendously. His lower jaw protruded greatly and his teeth were overly-crowded in his mouth. He had a nose that was large and curved downward, somewhat resembling the beak of a bird. Had it not been for these features, the boy would have been considered in good physical health by anybody with eyes. Fridok had to stop himself from staring, but also tried not to look away, as he felt like that could also hurt the boy’s feelings.

“It’s not going to hurt my feelings if you don’t look me in the eye,” the boy said. Clearly, he had to have tough skin to look the way he did and still try to make a name for himself. “I’d rather have you look away in disgust than to pretend like there’s nothing wrong with me at all, like the rest of the nobility does. They act like it’s entirely normal for me to be so malformed, and always make sure to say something about how handsome I’m getting while in the presence of my father. ‘See how his features are improving as he ages,‘ or ‘he is really starting to bear a resemblance to Publius Veneratus. Look at me in the eyes and tell me you think I’m going to one day be as beautiful as my name suggests.”

Fridok indeed looked at the boy in the eye. It was shameful to think of that act taking bravery on his part, when the boy was the one trying to survive in a social class so consumed with vanity and perfection. He immediately felt regret at his prior judgment of the boy and was inspired by his boldness.

“You’re never going to be Publius Veneratus, kid,” Fridok said. “You might pass for one of his goats, though.” He had gone too far with that comment, and he knew it. The boy stared at him, mouth agape for a good, solid five seconds. Here Fridok needed to start making some allies among the party and he was pushing away the very first one aside from Alaric who gave him the time of day.

“I like you,” said Calix, to Fridok’s complete surprise. “You don’t beat around the bush, do you?”

“No,” Fridok responded, with his typical stern brevity he showed to strangers. He pulled back a little from that tone of voice and said, “Never really saw any point in trying to pretty up words. Say what you mean, speak only when you need to. Everything else is just people listening to the sound of their own voice because they get off on it.”

“I can’t argue with that.” Calix continued to walk alongside Fridok for a time. Fridok could tell that the boy was trying to come up with something to say, but didn’t want to get on Fridok’s bad side. Especially after his condemnation of idle chatter. Fridok felt an ounce of pity for the boy and decided to be the one who broke the silence.

“So, you wanted to prove something to everyone by coming along, is that right?” The boy walked in momentary silence, thinking about Fridok’s question. “Figured that you might as well gain some honor of your own so people talk about your skills and bravery rather than that face of yours?”

“And what about you?” Calix countered. “Nobody talks about you at all, do they? You’re invisible to anyone that matters, so aren’t you just doing the same thing in hopes that they do talk about you one day?”

The boy had hit a nerve, but Fridok knew better than to show it. He thought of how best to reply, but then he realized he was still dealing with a young boy and boys were bound to do things intentionally to get a rise out of you. He slapped the boy on the back, impressed that he had been so quick witted.

“I think we will do just fine, you and I,” Fridok said amicably. “They’ll write all about us in the tomes of history. ‘And then the ten fools were torn to pieces by demons, but damn it, they were very brave, and at least they got to die honorable deaths.’ It’ll be nice to be something other than invisible for once, to be sure.”

Calix wore an uneasy smile, obviously bothered by Fridok’s casual premonition of their impending doom.

“Nobody’s going to die,” said a voice from behind. It was Xanthus Serapio, the other ward in their company. He must have been listening to the whole conversation, but the boy was so petitely framed that he moved about very quietly.

“We’ve got the power of God on our side,” Xanthus said with confidence. “You saw what happened in the arena. We can’t die as long as we’ve got the Son.”

“We can still die,” said Calix. “Even if he brings us back, we still feel it. We still go through it. I don’t know if I’d be as cavalier about it as you are. Seems like you’re forgetting a key bit of information in your assessment.”

“I am not afraid of death,” Xanthus again boasted. “I’ve seen the other side, you know.”

“No you haven’t,” said Calix.

“I sure have. I know for a fact we’ve got nothing to fear, and that there’s a better place awaiting us when we die. But that’s beyond the point I’m trying to make. We will not die. Not in the truest sense as long as we have Gifts on our side. That counts for something.”

“It’s so easy to feel like everything is going to be alright when you’re born rich and pretty, isn’t it?” Calix added. Fridok was really starting to like that kid.

“You’re pretty rich, at least,” Xanthus quipped. “So I think you can get off your high horse, now.” “What horse?” Calix just had to add. It was about this time that Fridok realized that he would rather be walking by himself than stuck in the middle of a war of bickering. He turned his attention forward in the caravan in the hopes that he could perhaps walk alongside Alaric, who was at least more pleasant to talk to. Unfortunately for Fridok, Alaric was still in the midst of private conversation with Geilamir. He felt entirely stupid now that his pride had stopped Alaric from letting him borrow one of his family’s many horses.

Not only was Alaric paired up with Geilamir, everyone else in the party was paired up together. Isidore and Ervig were side-by-side, Euric and Bulgar were of course together, and Gailavira had taken to the side of the Son as they rode forward. Fridok immediately regretted leaving Art behind in the City. At least with Art he had established some kind of fraternity in the time he had known him. A Solumian had no place among a party of Primisians – no hard-fought battle would change that.

So Fridok walked at a small distance behind the rest of the caravan. He convinced himself he was guarding the rear, and would stick to that explanation if anyone bothered to ask him why he trailed so far behind. They walked like this for the greater part of the day, northwest from the City which was settled on the southern coastline. The lands around the City were somewhat bordered by a large mountain range that spanned from the north and northeast, so there really was only one way to go that wasn’t southeast into the wastelands that the Son said would be worthless to venture to.

As they continued their march, Fridok began to feel rather crestfallen about the whole trip. Not only was he an outsider, the dreams of glory of fighting evil seemed to slip away with every uneventful mile. He had thought that their journey would consist of mowing through waves upon waves of monsters as they gleefully fulfilled their quest for glory. He hadn’t expected it to be so uneventful and full of mindless walking. Furthermore, he was spending too much time in his own head – a dark place that Fridok tried to avoid whenever possible, yet found himself slipping into unwittingly as he raced through the days.

The caravan finally settled in the evening hours alongside a ridge that would offer some protection and cover. It was a good spot, and from the looks of the rubble, it might have been the location of an estate prior to the Fall of Man. There was no structure left standing, just the hints of habitation from millennia before, dragged down to the earth either by force of arms or force of nature.

As they laid out their bedrolls and hitched their horses together against a lonely tree, the group got to enjoy their first meal together that day. The entire landscape, though teeming with plant life and birds, was rather devoid of anything they might have been able to hunt – much to the chagrin of Euric and Bulgar who really wanted to shoot something. Everyone settled for the still-fresh breads and dried meats they had stashed in their saddlebags. Alaric shared his with Fridok, who didn’t have as much capacity in his packs as any of the horsemen, so only carried perish-resistant hard bread he had gotten from his quarter’s local baker.

“I really wish you would have let me lend you one of our horses,” Alaric said to Fridok at last. It was the first real attempt at conversation that Alaric had made with Fridok on the entire trip, and Fridok wasn’t ready to let Alaric get away with that. “How am I supposed to keep in good shape if I sit on my ass all day?” he said, half-sarcastically, half-accusatory and wholly jealous. “Fair enough,” Alaric said. “But maybe we should have a race to settle the matter of whose legs are in better shape?”

Fridok snorted. He knew Alaric was just feeding him back the same line of snark that Fridok had dished out, but something in him leapt at the opportunity to challenge Alaric again, even if it was a simple race. “Yes, I think I do,” Fridok insisted. Alaric, on his way to sitting down and making himself comfortable, was taken aback by the response. However, he seemed rather delighted at the prospect that Fridok was willing to race him.

“Geil, come adjudicate.”

Fridok wasn’t thrilled that Alaric had invited Geilamir into their private event. If Fridok lost, he could live with Alaric feeling like he was superior because he had already lost to Alaric once, and Alaric was a graceful winner. Geilamir, on the other hand, really didn’t need any more ammunition against Fridok.

“What are we measuring?” Geilamir said, almost too excited. “How long until Slummy goes bald? I might make a terrible judge on that, on account of the fact that I sometimes blink, you know.”

Fridok, fueled with hot anger he did his best to conceal, stretched his legs and shed his coat. He was determined to win at any cost. That drew the attention of the trainees, who quickly gathered nearby to watch what competition was about to unfold.

“He can’t be serious,” said Xanthus to Calix, who was presently giving his own legs a rubdown, clearly worn out from the long day of walking. “There is no way he isn’t exhausted.” Calix laughed excitedly, still trying to keep their conversation to themselves. Fridok could hear everything. “You didn’t see this guy fight,” Calix said. “If anyone can win a race after walking for the entire day, I bet he can. He can.”

Fridok’s morale was boosted by the disfigured boy’s vote of confidence. He had never had a fan before, so this was an entirely new feeling for him. It felt like a trick, even though he detected no ill will from the boy. That wasn’t to say that Xanthus was wrong, however. It was true that Fridok’s job of transporting masonry gave him thick, lean muscles on his thighs and calves, but he could not deny that they weren’t used to long distance travel. The odds were against him, and just then his spectacle was starting to gather quite a crowd.

Euric and Bulgar, the cousins Alcamora, had taken notice of Fridok and Alaric preparing to race, and stood nearby to watch the feat. Fridok suddenly felt like quite the fool, destined to fail spectacularly if he went through with the race.

“We don’t need to do this,” Alaric said under his breath to Fridok. It was an extention of mercy, which meant that Alaric saw no victory possible for Fridok.

“Would you like to yield?” Fridok said, smugly. He was over-playing his confidence and they both knew it. “If you put it like that, then, no. I’m pretty happy to be on my feet right now, if I’m being honest. I just don’t know about your feet. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Don’t you worry about me, young man.”

Alaric grimaced. He must have felt very confident in his ability. Fridok was ready to put everything on the line to win, and nothing was going to stand in his way of winning this competition.

“I love it,” said Geilamir, overjoyed in what he must have detected as an overplayed hand on the part of Fridok. “Well, shall we get this demonstration started?”

Fridok nodded, eyebrows furrowed, at Alaric, who clearly regretted suggesting the challenge.

“Alright, men,” Geilamir announced so that the whole camp could hear. “Ready yourselves. The goal is that shrub directly ahead. Whosoever touches the bush first shall be proclaimed the victor. Five. Four. Three. Two. One…

The two men were off, much to the excitement of the onlookers. Fridok committed himself fully to the endeavor despite having to push through the day’s exhaustion. Even still, Alaric was younger and better rested, so he pulled ahead. Knowing what shame awaited him if he lost, Fridok pressed his legs forward with wild instability – a kind of run that could quickly end in horror if he stepped wrong only once. But he didn’t misstep, and he soon caught up to Alaric and even momentarily surpassed him in the race. He was so excited to have his efforts pay off, that he threw all caution to the wind in an all-in attempt to crash headlong into the destination.

Except it wasn’t the bush that Fridok would crash into that day. Just out of their sight, about ten paces from the bush, was a crack in the ground that was completely hidden to all except the two runners. Fridok simply had no chance to react fast enough to stop himself from the inevitable blunder. So, instead, he did his best to turn his body so that his back would hit the side of the crevasse rather than his ribs, which would have likely cracked with the momentum of the sudden stop.

The last thing Fridok saw before he bounced off the rock and into the dark place below was Alaric, watching in horror as Fridok plummeted uncontrollably to an uncertain depth. Fridok did what he could to brace for impact, but his head bounced hard against the rock wall and that was goodnight for Fridok.

1 thought on “The Apostate Saint: Chapter 15 – A Dark Place”

  1. Ouch! Bet that hurt.
    On another note, I love the touches of humor in your stories. The goat comment made me laugh out loud!

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