A Game of Moments

The Royal Guard outpost John approached, the subject of a recent attack by the mysterious entity known as “The Garjana,” the Queen of Snakes and Spiders, was nestled in a mountain pass south of Yew, considerably off of the road. It was after Noon, but John didn’t know the exact time. Though he frequently carried his father’s old pocket watch, a clockwork marvel if ever there was one, today he wasn’t. It was colder than it should’ve been for early Spring but not outrageously so. At present the wind was light. Without the wind to blow it away, John could feel the warmth of even the slight sunlight coming through the tree branches.

When John entered the mountain pass, the treeline abruptly ended and the sun was very, very bright. The wind picked up though, channeled by the mountains on either side, and despite the warmth of the sun, the air felt colder. John, favoring a back scabbard for his longsword instead of a traveling cloak, relied on the padded aketon underneath his armor to maintain his body heat. Something about the material the aketon was made from also kept him cool on the warm days, and rain just didn’t seem to bother him much. John was aware however, and Duncan repeatedly reminded him, that eventually he would need to start wearing a cloak, that older bodies couldn’t maintain their temperature as well.

For now, though, John was alright.

As John approached the outpost, he was prepared to see the petrified bodies of the Guardsmen, the victims of the recent attack, frozen in place by The Garjana. Or, at least, he thought he was prepared until he actually saw them. The effect was not as much like superficially similar effects he had seen before. The fact that they were still experiencing pain and fear, even in their petrified state, was obvious. Their expressions were natural. It was more like they were wrapped in stone, had been forced to wear it like a hideous second skin, then they were turned into it. The facade of their petrification was thin, but not thin enough to escape. It was a hideous effect, like it was mocking their very status as living, breathing beings.

Amidst all the various horrors John had seen, while it could not be termed the worst, it still would stand out. And, suddenly, the slight chill of the mountain pass was not so slight.

John saw a figure moving within the base, a man wearing a feathered cap, a cloak wrapped around him, a puff of tobacco smoke rising into the air. This, of course, was Duncan, for whom John had been searching. John approached.

“I thought I might find you here.”

“Well you was right. Well done.” Duncan’s accent and manner of speech, as ever, were subject to frequent, sudden, and seemingly random alterations. John was never sure if Duncan was doing it on purpose or not. Duncan gestured, inviting John to come closer, and John accepted the invitation. Even at his most-difficult and most-brooding, Duncan rarely if ever was dismissive of or needlessly cruel to his friends, never pushed them away, though sometimes he would nudge. The contrast with John’s father, the infamously-difficult Galen Knighthawke, was marked, despite their many similarities. “And what brings you ‘ere, to this unholy ground,” asked Duncan.

“I wanted to check on you. I had heard what happened.”

“They deserved better.” Duncan meant the petrified Guardsmen around them, and John understood.

“Aye, they did. But evil neither recognizes that nor cares. It….Does what it does.”

“We should’ve been faster. Gotten here a few moments sooner.”

“You did not even know the lute was here. As I recall you last left it in the custody of Minister Gray, for placement in the Vault of Secrets.” John’s needlessly-dramatic name for the vault of ancient, usually dangerous artifacts in the Royal Spy base under the City of Britain. “It was a good idea. Such things usually are safe there. You cannot run, fast or slow, to a location you know not of.”

“Aye, I know. Don’t help much but I know. Helps a little, I guess. You heard?”

“Heard what?”

“That they’re aware. That they can feel this. That their minds are intact, they’re just trapped.”

“Aye, I have hard.”

“See that one?” Duncan gestured to one of the petrified Guardsmen. “Got a wedding ring. He was married.”

“IS married, my friend. It is entirely plausible that this will be fixed.”

“True, but t’aint not something we can count on.”

“No, it is not.”

“And we gotta assume the absolute worst. Only way we’ll try’ta walk away from it instead of marching to it heedlessly.”

“Aye, we do.”

“You’re younger than me, John. Not by as much as you think, but younger.” Duncan always was elusive about his real age and John oft-wondered if even Destinie knew for sure. “But I’ll wager you’ve seen ‘bout as much as I have. Well, almost. I’ll always remember how we met, when you saved me from those demons. When you just charged in and shield bashed the biggest one, slashed the back of its legs, and its fellows had to watch their biggest one just crumble on itself, crushed by its own weight.”

“I remember that too. But, as I recall, after it crumbled, it was you who beheaded it in a single swing before it could heal itself.”

“I was a little too slow to save Clara. Aye, I know she was hurt and we couldn’t go any faster than we were going, and I know despite that she went down fighting and free, not cowering and ensnared, and that’s how she would’a wanted it. But still. It wouldn’t’ve taken much. Just a little faster. We could’ve gotten to you and the other knights you were with a few moments earlier and that would’ve made all the difference. She would’ve lived. Same thing here. Just a little faster and it might’ve mattered. We might’ve saved at least one of ‘em or, failing that, we might’ve caught up to The Garjana and at least gotten a look at it. Seen if we can make it bleed or not. Even if we didn’t save anyone we at least might’ve made their attacker bleed. Even just a little.”

John just let Duncan talk.

“It’s game of moments and inches, John. Or less than moments and shorter than inches. Single sword swing, single trip on root in the forest during chase. Cut, few inches higher or lower. Oh, I know I couldn’t’ve done a thing different, I know there was too much I didn’t know and couldn’t’ve known. As bad as the Fellowship’s voice is we know it’s coming and we can at least try’n prepare. Not like this though, not like this ‘Garjana.’ Sorry, sorry, ‘THE Garjana.’ This thing we ain’t never heard of before that just came up out of nowhere and started hitting us, like drunken thug in tavern. I know all this, everything you’re thinkin’ of saying,” John nodded at this, his face bearing a slight smile, “and, Hell, it’s all the same stuff I’ve told you more than once when our spots were reversed. I know all of it. And I know we’re both right. We don’t gotta like it though. Neither of us do.”

“No, we do not.”

It was late afternoon now – sunset was a couple of hours away but it seemed closer. The Spring wind blew through the valley but it was one of those Spring winds that feels more like Autumn. Cold, biting, with a hint of Winter to come. Duncan felt glad for his cloak, and, for neither the first time nor the last time, John envied it.

“We are close by to Yew. Some wine?” John asked.

Duncan smirked. “I thought you’d never ask.”

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