Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Boneguard: Homecoming (Part I)

by Adam Gottfried
© August 2012

         Rain fell in torrential sheets from the iron gray sky. Boneguard Seven arrived at the top of the hill and looked down, the large droplets tinking off the bands and plates of solid metal that covered every inch of his body. He was aware that the rain was frigid, but with the same passing recognition that one might give to the feel of one’s heart beating. Not that Seven knew anything about that.
         He raised a hand against the rain, shielding his eyes to scan the long decline before him. This was a holistically human gesture, and completely unnecessary as the glowing embers that burned within the twin holes of his faceplate were unaffected by either precipitation or saturation. The motion was purely habit, borne of years of training and rehearsal all in an effort to make his flesh-bound counterparts feel more comfortable around something that was so very different from themselves. All of them, from Boneguard One all the way up to Seven himself had received this treatment. The others, the ones that came after, well… they never needed it.
         His metal-bound feet crunched on the frost-kissed ground beneath him as he began the slow descent to the ravine below. The Tomb was not far away now, but he did not rush. The journey had been long, the wait had been longer, and time was against him, but still Seven kept a steady gait. He imagined this walk as it used to be centuries ago, before the cold and constant rain drowned the once verdant slope, stripped the leaves from the trees, and blotted the sun from the sky. It had been fall then…

1000 years previous…
         The brilliant colors of the maple, birch, and oak in full autumn dressing framed the cobblestone path that ended at the Tome of Lost Heroes. A procession of thirteen pipers, seven Gnarhilt chanters, and a single drummer were followed by a full honor guard in military dress as ordered by the Empress herself. In their midst, the Boneguards One through Six carried the sarcophagus of Svalbaird, Chieftain of the Gnarhilt Clan, Herald and Harbinger of the Empress, and the last of the great heroes of the age.
         Svailbaird, warrior, slayer of thousands, feared by millions, had died in his sleep, toothless and ancient.
         It was a beautiful day. The sky was blue and dotted with huge white clouds. The sun shone brightly, the grass was still lush and green despite the crisp weather, and the leaves on the threes were red and yellow and orange….
         Hidden in the tall grass along the top of the hill, the youngest and newest additions to the Boneguard, Eight through Twelve, watched with the reverent sincerity of youth. Consciously each one knew they would never see something like this again, but unconsciously they would never truly appreciate it.
         Seven stood away from them. He watched over his charges but was apart from them. Each of the Boneguard was unique of course. Seven was the most heavily armored by far, and the metal casing around the delicately woven fibrous membranes (made up of wood, stone, metal, and magic) nearly covered him entirely. At first glance, he resembled a large man in full plate armor, before the realization that the armor was as much a part of him as mortal skin.
         Boneguard Six bore minimal armor plating as it inhibited his movement and ability to spin his magic spells.
         Boneguard Five was somewhere between the two, though the plating was of fine elf-make, and therefore lighter and more maneuverable than Seven’s, which suited Five, an accomplished hunter and tracker, just fine.
         The list went on. But Seven was the last of the Boneguard to be created by the Scholar Queen Isravaela before her death six years prior. These five were created (somewhat hastily) by Isravaela’s counterpart and sometimes rival, the sorceress Charris.
         While Charris and the Scholar Queen were evenly matched for magical prowess, Charris lacked the skill Isravaela picked up as a blacksmith’s slave in her youth. These five were built quickly and not given the same considerations as their older brethren. It fell to Seven to train them, a job he did not take lightly.
         With Charris dead a year hence, Svalbaird had been the last. Now it was all over but the waiting.
         “Seven,” a soft feminine voice spoke from behind him. “It’s time.”
         Almost all over. Almost.

The Present…
         Eleven stood at the cavern mouth watching the sky and reading a book in equal measure, patiently waiting for a break in the rain. Beside her was a small pile of charcoal, a large stack of books, a huge longbow and a quiver containing twenty-seven arrows. There was room for fifty.
         She could remember the exact time and circumstances surrounding each spent arrow (including the twelve she had salvaged), the same as she could reckon that the last time the rain ceased was two months, three weeks, four days, seventeen hours and roughly thirty minutes ago. It had stopped for all of nineteen minutes. In that time, Eleven had drawn a formation of dragons in flight at sunset with her meager supply of charcoal on the flat slab of granite pitched to the sky just outside the cavern entrance.
         The other Boneguard, those who remained at any rate, came silently, watched wordlessly, and mourned quietly as the rain returned and wiped the granite clean. This had once been a daily ritual; now it was once every few months as the breaks in weather grew further and further distant.
         Once the rock was clean, and the other Boneguard had returned to their duties, Eleven had collected wood and built a small fire to create her next supply. Once the fire had burned out, she had collected the charcoal and returned to her station. Boneguard Twelve kept her in books to read, returning every two days with a fresh stack and carrying away the discards.
         It had been this way for six hundred and fifty-seven years, eight months, three weeks…
         A flicker of motion caught her eye almost instantly,. Other than the constant rainfall, nothing had moved beyond the mouth of the cavern in forty years. No animals, birds, insects, nothing. Eleven put her book on the pile and took up her bow, moving deliberately if not quickly. She drew an arrow from her quiver and nocked it, but she did not take aim or draw her bow. Not yet. She simply waited.
         A figure emerged from the tree line, following the old road now long destroyed by time and weather and neglect. It was cloaked in gray, but Eleven recognized Seven instantly. Nine hundred and fifty years in close proximity will do that. She did not, however, remove the arrow from its string. She watched as he drew near, taking note of his condition. He seemed fully functional, though his armor was more worn than she remembered. He must have seen a great deal of action for his armor to show that much wear: Isravaela had crafted it from the Inexorable Metal: A substance said to be unbreakable. This was untrue, of course, but it was the strongest, hardest metal available.
         She noticed other things as well. The longsword and shield he had left with had been replaced with a large two-handed sword strapped to his back. Across his broad chest was a baldric of daggers (she also noted there were nine possible places for said daggers, but only six present), and a bulging pouch swung from his belt.
         He continued forward until he stood about forty feet away, stopping to look at her. She knew he chose this distance deliberately: He was well within the range of her bow, but as she had not shot him already, he assumed she was not going to. At least until he got within the area of full effectiveness of her bow, which was roughly thirty feet. He was close enough that she could see that the number 7 that had been emblazoned on his forehead, written in the language of the sages, had been shorn completely off. To see him without it after knowing him a thousand years with it was similar to if he had lost an eye.
         They stared at each other for a long moment before Eleven broke the silence.
         “You have returned.” It was the first time she had spoken in nearly fifty years. Her voice sounded strange… foreign. Like someone else was speaking.
         “I have,” he replied. His voice was deep and rich and resonant. They considered each other for another moment.
         “Did you find what you were looking for?” she inquired flatly. She rather hoped he had not.
         He nodded and then said unnecessarily, “I did.”
         She removed the arrow from its string and looked away. “Better find her then.”
         She did not look at him as he passed, but turned and called into the cavern before he entered.
         “Boneguard Seven has returned.”

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