Warrior of Marzenmot
Winstor may have triumphed in the battle of Cinqbodge, but he began to lose spectacularly in the game of life. With Stan's graduation from school, Winstor conceded that his elder brother had very little to do with it... this time.
Come end of every summer, at the beginning of school year, the whole of Nordstrum was possessed by a peculiar demon: that savage one-eyed demon of patriotism and national spirit. Fysch's flag would be hoisted high on a pole and the school would commence extracurricular development of its young impressionable souls… which is why Winstor found himself standing on the school grounds, pegged to a platoon amidst the roar of a megaphone and fanfare of the drums. Winstor Quinn was twelve years old.
He outgrew his uniform over the summer and although he liked his lessons to a fair degree, he hated extracurricular activities as much as he loathed being a young, impressionable soul. Fysch was the military and scientific prowess of the Kayes kingdom; thus, drills were an essential facet to grooming the citizen soldiers. While others may enjoy stomping and sloshing through sludge, Winstor held his reservations.
For one, he was tall compared to his peers and was made to stand between the girls and boys of senior form, who were clearly unhappy with having lanky, awkward Winstor as their vanguard. Twice, the proponents of physical education had told him to correct his posture, align his head eight degrees to the east and told him what a perpetual clumsy oaf he was. Thrice, he had been made to stay back and do three laps around the school field.
When the drum would begin rolling its lazy beat, the mock troops would stomp down the grounds, limbs swinging in alignment, left-right-left, stampeding through mud and bellowing in cheers for their good State. All platoon members were perfectly in sync...well, all except for Winstor. There was a reason why he'd earned the nickname of 'clumsy oaf'. Winstor would accidentally graze the shins of his compatriots or do the wrong left turn and end up hitting the man behind. Winstor Quinn, black hole of knowledge and esoteric wisdom, was a walking tragedy of errors.
"Watch it!" a girl shrieked.
"Look where you're going, you little dweeb," remarked another, elbowing him in the ribs.
Winstor bumbled along, grimacing.
Before long, he'd hear the halt in the staccato drums and he would be weeded out of his squad and thrown into the middle of school grounds. He knew what was coming and from the fuming expression on the P. E. Master's face, he wasn't far off. Following a barrage of crude insults, Mr Dossard, the war veteran would berate him for a. being a dunderhead and b. a complete slacker, all while the senior members of the platoon snickered behind them.
It was a nasty affair.
"An oaf! A clumsy dungity oaf, that's what you are!" Mr Dossard thundered, circling him in fits. Towering at more than six feet, Dossard was rumoured to have spent time in Terinese forests of Guntaw, skinning beasts and going off his rocker. "You wouldn't have lasted a day in the brigade, no siree!"
Winstor bit his tongue and kept resolutely quiet.
"A disgrace to Fysch! Never in my twenty years have I seen such poor display—" the man paused abruptly, overwhelmed by emotion. "Are you making fun of me, boy? Are you making fun of the State? WHICH IS IT?" He stooped to level his gaze with Winstor's, accusation in his red obsidian stare. "If you think you're being funny, lad... you ain't, you hear me? YOU AIN'T!"
Winstor turned sideways to look at their audience, aware of the giggles and the murmurs breaking out. Mr. Dossard's disgruntlement grew worse and grabbing Winstor's collar, he snapped. "Stop gawking around and pay attention here."
Winstor graced the man with a brittle smile.
"No, sir," he mimed chivalrously. "I am not making fun of anyone, sir," the twelve-year-old admitted.
"Then why aren't you marching in sync? Why are you flailing your arms like a dungity baboon?"
Winstor didn't know what he meant.
"Because I can't?" he suggested wanly. This conversation was beginning to tax him.
The P.E. Master did not look amused.
"Oh no, it isn't because you can't. It's because you won't try."
At this exciting juncture, to add to the public flogging of Winstor, a wail shattered the silence of the recess.
The shrill cry froze everyone in their steps and all heads turned to the Redwoods, seeking out the sequoia from whence it had come. Over the last year, the cry of the haunted woods had become an urban legend of sorts. It would begin like a cursed reprise, breaking the humdrum of life in Eripios and leave as suddenly as it came. There had been speculation of a local investigation, but no one knew of the outcome.
The perverse shriek lasted a minute before subsiding into silence again.
The young impressionable souls of Nordstrum stood silent, waiting for someone to make the first move. Even Mr Dossard looked a little disconcerted.
The P E master clenched his fingers into a ball of fist and cleared his throat. "That's enough sightseeing! BACK TO ATTENTION! FACE FORWARD!"
Just when Winstor was hoping he was all forgotten, Dossard's sullied gaze returned to him.
"As for you," the master said, folding his thick arms. "I have just the right punishment for you. Give me a hundred frog jumps around the ground."
Winstor looked at the man in disbelief.
"A hundred?" he repeated and raised his suede pointedly. The mud clung to it like slime. "In all this mud, sir?"
Dossard looked pleased to see Winstor unsettled.
"Too less, Your Highness?" taunted the P E master. "Alright, make it two hundred leaps since you insist."
Winstor pursed his lips into a thin line, looking affronted. He caught sight of Melvin in Platoon 5. The redhaired boy was shaking his head vigorously, urging Winstor to keep his mouth shut. "On what charge, am I being punished–"
Dossard turned up his nose and snorted.
"What charge, you ask? For the sacrilege of insulting Lord Fysch and our war heroes. For attempting to defy authority… I asked for those frog jumps, trooper. And I want to see you doing them." He turned to Melvin who was slapping a fist to his forehead, wondering why his good friend was an uncompromising idiot. "As for you, Schneider, since you're such a kindred spirit of Quinn's, I'm sure you won't mind staying back and keeping score."
Both Melvin and Winstor launched into protests, but the P. E. Master would hear none of it. Dossard pointed to the end of tracks.
"Get on with it…" he said to the two.
Before the discerning stare of five hundred of his peers, a rankled Winstor hobbled over to the end of tracks and crouched down on his feet. The hazel haired boy folded his knees and began the frog jumps.
By the end of drill hour, the boy lay supine on the ground, famished, legs sore and his clothes sullied from head to toe. Not one bit of his uniform had escaped being painted in mud. His schoolmates heckled him as they shuffled off to their classrooms. Winstor Quinn remained in his spot and looked at the clouds painted across the sky, watching them move hypnotically.
His friend Melvin peered over him, the boy's red hair like a blazing sun across the peaceful imagery.
"Hullo, mud monster. How are you holding?" the redhead asked, offering him a hand up.
Winstor returned a pained smile as he took it.
"My legs have died and passed to heaven. How many more?" he asked.
Melvin grinned. "For an icicle treat, I'd knock off a hundred. What say?"
Winstor grunted an earnest 'yes'.
Wincing, Winstor stood up and rubbed his sore elbows while glancing towards the Redwoods thoughtfully. During his gruelling leaps around the grounds of Nordstrum, Winstor had ample time to think. About the beast which could be trapped inside.
He didn't tell Melvin right away.
That evening, Amelia tended to the bruises on his feet. The boy hissed as his mother dabbed medicated cotton on the cracked skin.
"Stay still now," she said, a mixture of annoyance and worry in her tone.
She pressed along the blisters and when she was done, took out a roll of gauze. While she worked, his mother was watching him carefully.
"So," she began, trying to sound nonchalant. "Besides cheeking your masters, what else have you been up to?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked.
"How are your lessons?" Amelia said.
"How are your friends doing?"
"Are you sleeping well?"
Winstor looked up at her, startled.
His mother eyed him wordlessly. The warning came soon enough.
"You are not to leave the house again in the middle of the night. Do you understand me, young man?" she said crisply, winding the gauze tighter around his foot. "I will not have my sons sneaking out like a rebel. Your father is a councillor, Winstor. And Stanley is on his way to becoming one. Pray, why can't you be more like them?"
Why couldn't he?
Life would have been easier, wouldn't it?
It had been three months since his brother joined the junior ranks of the ministry and to quote their father, Stanley had taken to the apprenticeship like a moth to a flame. Winstor had vainly hoped his brother would be too overworked to pick on him. Sometimes prayers always went unheard.
"You know what you are?" asked Stan, as he flopped down on the couch.
Winstor ignored him out of habit.
Stan did not mind continuing without his audience's attention. He dropped his satchel bag and began kicking his shoes off. If there was anyone who could make a show out of pulling their shoes off, it was Stan. He shook them off with a clatter and turned to Winstor.
"A snail. That's what you are, boogerhead," Stan informed him. "I read all about them in school. Little buggers which take forever to move. I'm surprised, they even breathe. And that's what you are going to become, little brother, if you don't get exercise," he said, jabbing Winstor in the stomach with the dull end of his shoe.
Winstor sat up.
"I'm surprised," he muttered, rising on his feet.
Stan's eyebrows furrowed.
"Surprised that I know stuff?"
"Surprised that you could even read," Winstor finished with a vain smile.
Stanley was none too happy to hear it. He scowled.
"You realise whom you're talking to, smartass? I am part of the ministry now and if you go mouthing off–"
Perhaps, this was where Stanley had touched upon a sore subject.
"And it's a bigger mystery how you even got into the ministry," Winstor remarked, sizing him up in silence. "Did you get someone to write the test for you or did Stanny charm his interviewers with his dirty white lies?"
"Say that one more time!" his elder brother challenged, grabbing the front of his shirt.
Winstor said nothing.
Stanley ground his teeth, his tight lipped mouth giving nothing away. He released Winstor with reluctance. "At least I don't keep my head buried in books the way you do."
Winstor smiled peevishly.
"I bet your head is far too thick to fit anyway. You'll be a valuable addition to the ministry's moose heads I suppose. And speaking of exercise, your memory might be slipping, Stan, but I beat you at Cinqbodge last year."
Stan swirled to jab a finger in his chest.
"And you're still a sore loser, Stan… Yes, I notice."
Stan met Winstor's gaze coolly. Winstor noticed the odd expression on his elder brother's face and when he spoke, it was in hushed tones. "You weasel out of everything you hate," Stan snarled. "Everything… You know it. What about the march drill? You haven't been to it this whole week."
Winstor felt his stomach knot queasily.
Ever since Dossard's punishment, he had been skipping on drill practice. He'd been dreading the school to complain too. But oddly, there had been no angry calls to his home yet.
"What about it?" Winstor asked defiantly.
"Don't think I haven't heard about it, little bro. You've been weaselling out of it somehow. I heard that nutter Dossard broke his leg."
"Heard the marching band lost all its instruments too in a freak ferry accident."
"What are you trying to imply?" Winstor prompted impatiently. "That I am sneaking off and causing trouble to everyone?" the younger found the prospect all too funny. "Do you know how ridiculous you are? You sound like Uncle Boris and his conspiracy theories!"
Stan didn't share his sense of humour.
"Yes. You run away from everything you don't like. And when you can't, you jinx it–"
Winstor frowned at Stanley, looking incredulous.
"I thought you were pig headed, didn't know you were insane too."
Stanley shrugged and turned his back.
"You think so?" he challenged. "Let's wait and watch what happens on Monday."
That night when Winstor lay in bed, watching the shadows under the crack of the door, he waited for his mother to put out all the lights. And Mrs. Quinn did, pausing before his room for a brief moment, with her shadow of uncertainty and doubt cast into the lighted slit under the door. There had been a row about it at dinner. A row about him with everyone choosing his mother's side. Well, except for Angus who was busy savouring the last chocolate truffle.
You're not to leave the house after dinner. Do you hear me, Winstor? If you want to be treated like an adult, start behaving like one, he remembered his mother saying.
No doubt she was checking on him again.
Winstor watched his mother debate with herself. Whether it was an act of faith or something else, he did not know, but Mrs. Quinn put out the last light that hung above his door. The landing of the Quinn home was thrown into pitch darkness.
He heard her leave, her steps muffled on the carpeted stairs.
Winstor rolled over in his bed, waiting for Stanley's snores (who, of course, slept in the larger bedroom) to subside into a murmur. There were few folks in the world who were equally annoying when both conscious and unconscious. Stan, unfortunately, was one of them.
On the bitter subject of the March practice, Stanley's words had not been very far from the truth. Dossard broke his leg? The drums drowned with the ferry? Was that why no one from school had written an angry letter home?
The next Monday was tomorrow.
Of course, miracles never occurred a third time.
Winstor closed his eyes, cursing whoever it was who began the ridiculous notion of marches.
Later that night, Winstor woke up to the familiar noises of the crickets in Gulwalker Abbey. Realising the hour, he slipped from under the covers and groped for his socks and shoes. No sooner was he done wearing them; he opened his window, scrambled out of its frame and used the nearest pipe for his descent.
It was a laborious task for Winstor had to keep his bag's strap clutched between his teeth and he had to make sure that he didn't scrape the metal pipe and wake up his parents. Worse yet, wake up Stan, who'd sooner hand a thief over to the sentinel police at the cost of a brother… all in hope of earning himself a shiny badge to go along with his apprentice brooch.
Winstor was halfway down when a shadow fell upon him.
"Psst," the shadow said.
Winstor looked up and found his little brother Angus, peering out of the window.
Angus rubbed his red, droopy eyes.
"Where're you going? It's a quarter past one," his younger brother hissed.
Winstor spat the strap out of his mouth and gestured for Angus to keep quiet.
"I'm going to the Redwoods."
"Are you mad? What for?"
"Go back to sleep, Angus."
"Oh, don't tell me to go to sleep, you kibitzer. Mother is going to kill you if she finds out. She knows all about your sneaking out, Winstor!"
"It's alright," Winstor said, heaving. "I'm sure that I won't be missed," he added with a smile and skidded down the pipe. With a final wave of his hand, he left sleepy Angus gaping at the window.
The dim lit road left the familiarity of Gulwalker Abbey and joined Forangale Street at the left turn, which further down would eventually lead to the town square. If Winstor had taken his bike, he would have no doubt chosen the safe familiarity of Forangale Street. But the boy did not take the left turn.
Instead he kept to the right, walking hunched over Mail Road till he reached the edge of Nordstrum grounds, a vast barren expanse where a roller lay idle amidst patches of grass and weed. He was reminded of Dossard, the marching band and his heart sank a little.
Not now, he vowed to himself.
Winstor climbed over the thin fence and hurried for the cover of the Redwoods. The tall sequoia trees stood towering and damp in the misty chill. When he entered the forest, a pungent odour hit him— the smell of old bark and marsh mingled together. His feet trampled the soft floor of the forest and he was glad for his socks and sneakers, which kept his feet warm against the insipid cold.
The dark shapes of the trees loomed all around him, the susurrus of the branches speaking of him as a familiar visitor. Though it was the mystery of the haunting, which drew him out, it was the allure of sneaking through the Redwoods in the dead middle of the night, which made the journey worth it. Of course, he never dared to enter the deeper realms of the forest, keeping himself to its outer comb. Aunt Friedja, in their childhood days, had told enough stories of bogies, hobgoblins, imps and undead knights to unnerve him. And though Stanley had called them old nanny tales, it was Winstor's honest belief that stories had to have begun somewhere.
An owl hooted somewhere in the tall branches of the sequoia, making him pause. Owls hooting were not odd phenomena at this time of the night. But what was odd indeed was the metal clunking he heard from within the redwoods. It rang thrice, each time closer than the previous. When the noise ceased, Winstor placed a hand near his mouth to still his breathing.
It's near, he told himself. Don't make a sound.
The thing or creature had stopped moving.
What happened, he wondered.
Maybe he should have stayed put in his room.
Winstor hesitated and resumed walking… though his pace was a few notches brisker than before. He tried to distract himself by guessing the ending of Rasphalt's 'The Case of the Murderous Sleepwalker'. Was it the ever smiling scull who'd committed the crime or the chamber maid with the mysterious past? That was when he bumped hard into something solid.
In fact, metallic.
Winstor's knock against it made him stumble backwards, tripping over a gnarled root protruding out of the soil. He braced himself for the fall and yet landed rather painfully in a mesh of slimy overgrown mushrooms.
'Gross,' he muttered under his breath as he raised himself by his elbows.
He looked up to see the wretched post he had bumped against.
And that's when he saw it in its entirety. Winstor's face grew pale and his heart skipped a beat or two.
For there stood before him, an armoured dark figure with iron bearings and a sinister looking horned helmet upon its head. It did not stir nor move and its long arms held a sheathed weapon.
Winstor felt its masked face tilt just a little to embellish upon him a cold, observant glance.
For the first time Winstor wondered if Aunt Friedja had been telling the truth about undead knights walking amidst the living. When it spoke, he heard the voice of a woman. Her voice was hollow and even… much unlike the one screaming inside him.
"State your name and business."
Winstor hesitated, swallowing hard.
"STATE YOUR NAME AND BUSINESS," the dark figure repeated its demand in a raised voice, almost screeching into the silence of the woods.
"M-Melvin," he lied.
There was a long, pensive silence while the warrior gauged his reply.
"You lie, Winstor Corbin Quinn," the armor deemed its judgment.
The colour fled from Winstor's face and he gulped.
Before he could endeavour to ask how the stranger knew his name, it spoke.
"I'm the guardian of Eripios, eleventh post. You should never lie to the order of Marzenmot."
There was a silence as Winstor tried to assimilate what he'd just heard.
Winstor stood up, dusting his hands and khaki trousers without taking his eyes off the armoured stranger. He had not come this far to be thwarted by a madman (or woman). It struck him suddenly that the guardian was not taller than him, a fact which considerably appeased his nerves though the weapon wielding arm did not.
He suddenly felt a whole lot braver than before.
Winstor scratched his chin, breaking into a smile.
"You're awfully short for the order of the whatsitsname? Were your ancestors the same?"
Poor judgement on hindsight. The stranger went on the offensive and a hatchet flew out so quick, halting mere inches from his nose. Winstor stumbled back a few steps, swallowing hard as he stared at the serrated blade wedged into the tree beside him.
The horned helm regarded him in distaste.
"Why are you out at this hour?" she asked.
Winstor decided it was best not to jest with the guardian, undead spirit or not, especially with a hatchet threatening him.
"I was looking for the… haunting… err… haunted…" he pulled a face. "Haunter?"
There was a silence.
The horned helm tilted, the guardian looking puzzled by his words.
Winstor realised his reason didn't sound so sane either.
"I think there's a beast here. Some sort of a wounded animal. I came looking for it."
The stranger dropped the hatchet and there was a marked change in their demeanour.
"Don't go looking for trouble."
"Hey now… Some guardian you are! Don't go looking for trouble?" he mimicked. "What's that supposed to mean?"
But the armoured stranger had already turned and was walking towards the shadows of the trees, strangely soundless in her steps.
"It means Go Home," the stranger said.
The next morning, Winstor was rudely woken by a kick on his door. He lay half sprawled in bed, hair tussled and his limbs disjointed and numb. He studied the ceiling, wondering when he made it back, how and if he made it back at all. There was another kick on the door and he heard Stanley's voice call out.
"Rise and shine, snotface. You may want to draw your curtains while you're at it."
Winstor stared at his door in puzzlement. He pulled away the covers and staggered to the window. He could hear a familiar pitter-patter on the tiled roof.
Drawing the maroon curtains, Winstor realised what Stanley was talking about.
A sheet of dark grey hovered over the entirety of Eripios. Silhouettes of birds passed in flocks under them, whether seeking or escaping the storm he couldn't say. There was a slow rumble of thunder and water trickled down the window glass in small rivulets.
It was raining and it was a Monday.