Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Starting this week, on the first Wednesday of each month, I am planning to post an excerpt from the novel that I am writing. Please bear in mind that this is, as the title suggests, a work in progress. It may be somewhat raw in places, but I feel like by sharing bits and pieces of it here, someone might read my work and give me some feedback that might help make the novel better. At the very least, publishing a short section every month should motivate me to keep writing.
The Paling of the Gray
A clamor arose in the distance, beyond the looming Gray. It reminded the soldier of cackling sea birds eagerly taunting fishermen at their nets. As children would grasp a warm, gusseted quilt, certain of its capacity to defend against the unseen bugaboos beneath their beds, so, too, did the soldier clung to the faint reprieve of a childhood memory. He recalled fondly the noisome birds whose chatter charmed him so as he sat pier-side with his father and his brother.
His father, who had served as a boatswain in Margrave Gastille’s naval flotilla, often roused his sons from their sleep long before the waking of the sun. They would venture to an ill-used pier a short walk from their humble home, eager to cast their lines in the waters of the Brackish Bay, hopeful that they might settle the question of that night's supper.
The soldier recalled that his brother hated fishing, but loved the ritual, regardless. He was eager to earn the respect of their father, a stern man who survived a lifetime of hardship before either of his sons were born. He had little use for idle chatter, so many an early morning was spent in relative silence as the three of them dropped their hooks. Though his brother disliked fishing, the soldier enjoyed the art of the catch, seeking each morning the exhilaration he felt when his line tightened and tugged him side to side. He was, then as now, the most successful fisher in the family.
A row of seaborne birds, blue-gray gulls with bright, white chests and black faces, would perch themselves upon the mooring lines of docked ships across from them, a few dozen yards away. They stared toward the boys and their pa, waiting for the right moment to burst into fits of glee whenever one of them lost their hook and bait. Of course, it was just the way the sea gulls’ voices sounded naturally, but every time his father or brother would pull up an empty hook, the birds seemed to laugh uproariously at them.
It seemed to him, and to his brother, that the birds were an audience, the pier was a stage, and his family was a trio of humorists. His father was unmoved by their uproar, and his brother was often offended by it. The soldier, though… he found himself joining in.
Perhaps, he thought, the birds knew better.
A smile had grown beneath the folds of tea-stained linen he had quickly fashioned to fit across his nose and mouth. He had not, as early as three mornings ago, known that he was going to be part of an expedition to Fen Elgan, a journey that would bring them through the notorious Tangle. He was familiar with it only through the telling of ghost stories and the multitude of warnings he had heard to avoid the frightful place at all costs.
The Gray, an ever-present, impermeable fog that clung to every inch of the Tangle, was thought to be a curse of the mind, not of the lungs. However, the soldier hurriedly fashioned a mask for himself out of an abundance of caution. That was his mother’s voice in his mind, cautioning him to wrap up warm and get home safely.
As he readjusted his makeshift mask, the grim truth of the present chased away whatever momentary respite of memory he had. His first impression of this sound that reached out to him through the Gray was flawed by the mistake of hope. He knew, now, that it was a sound issued by something unearthly, an audible malice announcing his fatal folly in stepping foot in this horrid place.
The soldier’s hand, wrapped in a leathern gage with overlapping steel plates across the knuckles, cinched tightly into a palm-biting fist. The bugaboos he feared were never beneath his bed as a child. He knew, somehow, that they had been here all along, awaiting him.
He was that child again; every juvenile fear revisited him, forming shapes within the Gray. His heart and mind raced, and his eyes lost their ability to focus, darting about left and right and left, again. He shuddered and his head shot up to look for the sky, yearning that it might tether him back to his hopes once more.
For all the tales he had heard of the Tangle, none sufficed to prepare him for this moment. The air was deathly still, yet the branches and twigs of the forest beyond the Gray clattered and scratched at one another.
'What moved them, if not the wind,' the soldier wondered, both desperate for an answer and terrified of what that answer might be. He swallowed deeply, a soreness spreading through his throat as it tightened. He became transfixed and catatonic. He forgot his purpose for being there. He forgot his own name. He forgot to breathe.
The Gray had taken him.
Dread filled every empty space within him, expanding, like water into ice. So, too, did his blood run cold. He was numb, but he felt the Gray oozing and seeping around him... within him. He imagined being swallowed whole by it, his sanity itself slaking the thirst of the Gray.
Just then, as the last of his senses began to sink beneath the growing gloom invading his mind, a faint glimmer of hope pierced through to the heart of him. The soldier felt something, a gentle touch, and clarity of thought flooded into him once more. There was a hand placed comfortingly against his cloak between the armored plates guarding his shoulder blades.
He knew not the source of his newfound fortitude against the Gray, but he wept in silence in awe of its grace. His dread drained away with its presence, and he gasped for air, only then realizing that his breath had bated for so long.
His courage and resolve had been sapped by that first step upon the hoarfrost, upon the cackle of unseen things, upon the barest glance he dared make of the Gray. It took but a simple, reassuring touch to find the steel within himself once more.
His commander, an elder knight, was utterly unmoved by the terrors of the Tangle. This was no mere man, however. The commander of the expedition into the heart of Fen Elgan, was a living, breathing embodiment of divine justice. He was a Diocene Knight, a member of the Divine Order of Hyral. He was, in fact, its champion, the highest ranked member of their palatine order. This veteran soul was recognized throughout the knowable world as the Emerald Knight.
He strode beside the soldier. Again, the shrill laughter of an imperceptible menace arose, but the old knight was dauntless, and his valiant energy was infectious.
The soldier’s upper lip twitched as he grew bolder, a furnace of righteous fury igniting within him. He might have felt shame for having been such easy prey to the fearsome machinations of the Tangle's curse, but the resolve endowed by the old knight’s touch served as a bulwark, defying his doubt, and restoring his faith.
The commander clapped his hand around the soldier’s arm, leaning forward to look him in his eyes. He gave a nod over the gleam of his silvery gauntlet, a smile barely perceptible through his thick, white beard. The soldier nodded, but try as he might, he could not return the old knight’s smile. His determination had been restored, and his brief brush with crippling terror had subsided, but the soldier knew well that some fears were worth clinging to.
The Emerald Knight strode ahead a few paces and held his hand high, signaling an order to the expedition to halt and hold fast. The soldier regarded the old man differently now that he had experienced a small taste of his power firsthand. The Emerald Knight’s legend rivaled that of the Gray itself, and as if in response to his mere presence the japing of the unseeable malice hushed abruptly. The nauseating cacophony was replaced with a startling stillness. He watched as the elder knight removed his helmet and tucked it beneath his left arm. He stared into the Gray, his eyes afire with silvern luminance that had not been there just moments before.
The soldier became extraordinarily aware of the sound of his own breathing and the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears. Then, after looking long into the Gray abyss, the Diocene Knight strode forward a pace, daring as any man the soldier had ever encountered. What happened next sent the soldier’s jaw agape.
The Gray feared the old knight! It seemingly recoiled from him. It trembled in his presence, just as terrified of him as the soldier had been of the Gray moments earlier. The knight redonned his helmet and turned to glance back at him. He nodded again, as he had moments earlier, and the soldier found his smile, after all, nodding back.
'So, this,' the soldier thought, 'is the power of a Diocene Knight.'
Ordained by the Deus Hyral to mete justice and strike down the wicked things of the world, the Diocene Knights were the stuff of legends, and exceptionally rare in these trying times. This old man, the Emerald Knight, was the greatest of them. Still, the soldier had underestimated the man due to his advanced age. When he first laid eyes upon the Emerald Knight, he assumed that he was a figurehead only meant to serve the Divine Order of Hyral in a symbolic role.
The man was at least seventy years old, and some guessed closer to eighty. However, there was something impressive to the way he strode about, commanding attention and respect from nearly every man and woman he encountered. Only the Margrave’s eldest son, Elreg de Gastiel, seemed unimpressed with the old knight. Elreg was a strange one, though, his motives suspect, his words callous, and his deeds unpredictable. It was no surprise a young man such as he would be unmotivated to tender respect to an elder knight of such high caliber.
Besides, it seemed that the Emerald Knight was already familiar with the Gastillian aristocracy. It was the rank-and-file within the Margrave’s March, like the soldier, who found themselves captivated by the man when he arrived at the palace gates a tenday ago. However, despite his notable spryness and charisma, the soldier hadn’t believed the Emerald Knight to be capable of taking an active role in an expedition such as this, much less leading it.
All of the soldier’s doubts were offset at that moment, when but a touch from the elder knight restored the soldier’s faith, and but a stare sent the Gray into its own fits of fear. The paling of the Gray was breached by the presence of something greater than itself lent fuel to the fire rekindled within the soldier.
“Let it try,” the old knight said, just ahead of his breath so the soldier could hear the words. They were meant for both him and the looming dangers that lie ahead. The soldier nodded, repeating his commander's words, wondering if the Gray would accept his challenge.
The Emerald Knight then touched the index and ring-fingers of his left hand to his throat, a pattern of searing, silvery light pulsing forth from the sliver of space between his fingers. The divine glow wafted like smoke into the air as he called back to the rest of the expedition, “Onward.”
His voice rolled across the expedition like thunder. The soldier was spurned to breathe deeply, his chest rising and falling as he retook his place at the head of the line. He was the edge of the sword, cutting a path through the Gray and across the Tangle. Three-score of men and women were at his back, and Hyral’s greatest living champion was mere paces behind him. He would not see them falter in the Emerald Knight’s presence. It was no mere order the Champion gave.
It was purpose.
As he moved, despite the eerie stillness within the Tangle, there was a rushing sensation that pressed itself into him, planting a sensation of chill across his cheek that seemed to pour itself in through his ear. It wasn’t precisely a sound, but it created words within his mind. It was an answer to the commander's challenge.
"...no gods here..."
"Let it try," the soldier repeated, even as the Gray pressed against him with every step.