“This isn’t how I imagined it would happen, you know.” The Knight said. He was sweating badly beneath his armor, but he would never have admitted it. He had wanted to go out in a blaze of metal if he was going to go, not giving a thought to what swamp travel would require. Now, the slow, creeping mud would engulf him before he had an actual battle. He had only used his sword to hack through undergrowth and impress barmaids up until this point, but he was not thinking of this. Moss was already waxing his feet, as though he’d been cemented to that spot for decades. The swamp had a strange way of messing with time, but he was not thinking of this either. “It’s quite tragic though, and that’s fitting.”
The Guide and the Fool stood with their hands at their sides, there was nothing to be done but wait. The Fool shifted his weight gingerly to his good leg. The Knight considered telling them again about his journey to becoming a Knight Errant, starting with his boyhood days in the House of Adeline in the great City-State of Carlotta. As he felt his chest tighten with the drying ooze, he thought he should pick a shorter set of last words. “Once you take my body back to Carlotta, Fool, I am entrusting you to sing an appropriate ballad of my grand exploits. I want to be remembered with panache.”
“You imbecile,” said the Fool.
“Derek, please, now isn’t the time,” said the Guide.
“No. I can’t believe it,” the Fool continued, hobbling a few inches closer to the Knight, but well away from the cannibalizing mud, “After all the shit that we’ve seen, you honestly haven’t learned anything?”
“If the heartfelt goodbye is too much for you, I understand, but don’t embarrass yourself by pretending to be too proud,” said the Knight. He gave his best sympathy smile, which looked a great deal like his arrogant smile. The Knight, unable to move his arms, blew a fly away from his face. The Fool reddened.
“No one is going to remember you Steve. None of us will be remembered—real adventurers never are—but more importantly, we won’t be remembered because we are all going to die here in this grotesque swamp. You should have stayed in your court and lived the life real people would sell their families for, surrounded by wealth and people who at least pretend to like you. You mock me, the Guide, and everyone else who lived a hard life by being here, trying to live out some childhood fantasy. You’re worse than an idiot, you’re insane, and I hate you.” The Fool leaned back a little as he finished and stared hard at the Knight’s face. The Guide looked at her feet. Steve, the Knight Errant, formerly known as the Viscount of Adeline merely smiled and said,
“I understand. It must be hard to see me go. It’s been—”
The Guide looked up to find a murky, clay mask staring back at her. The Fool sat down, clutched his right leg, and closed his eyes. The Guide joined him. She took out a half-full water-skin out of her pack and handed it to him. He shook his head.
“I’m almost done,” he said, “Whatever’s poisoned me is moving fast. The Healer, poor guy, bought me a little time with that salve before he ran off, but you better save the water for yourself.” The Guide sank into herself, thinking that if her soul screamed the sound would echo infinitely inside her.
“I can’t do this alone, Derek. We are all that’s left.”
“If it were up to me, I would have deserted you ages ago, and felt good about it,” said the Fool. The Guide managed a chuckle.
“We both know you had the opportunity but didn’t. Now you are, and it isn’t fair.”
“You’ll be fine. You really are the best of us all. But don’t go telling people I said that. I don’t want you using this heart-rending moment to get laid at whatever sleazy tavern Guides congregate at.”
“Don’t worry, I will keep your reputation as an ass-hat in tact.”
The Fool smiled, “That’s all I ever wanted.” Despite her best efforts, the Guide fell asleep as the shadows fell, the mists came, and the swamp rearranged itself. She awoke a few hours later to find the fossilized Knight vanished into the darkness. The Fool’s face was ashen in the starlight that peaked between the canopy and contorted with pain.
“Fuck,” he whispered, ” I didn’t want you to see this.” He groaned and clawed at his thigh. “My blood’s on fire!” The Guide cradled his head in her lap, hoping he wouldn’t notice her pulse pounding .
“What can I do?” she said. Her hand wandered to the dagger tucked just inside the top of her boot.
“Cut your losses. Don’t go back,” said the Fool. He breathed in jagged gasps, and in one final breath yelled, “Goat-Fuckers!” The Guide made the moment count and plunged the dagger between his ribs up to the hilt. He held her hand against his chest as the light leaked out of his eyes. The swamp claimed him a few moments later, like she had seen with the others in the group, but she couldn’t bring herself to watch it again.
Amir remembered the dark, the guilt, and cold of his childhood. There was the sour face of his grandmother, and her unsteady, wrinkled hand on his back as she sang harsh, foreign lullabies to him in a language he could not claim as his own. He remembered the scars on her wrists—savage ghosts from old bonds. She spoke to him in short, aggravated bursts, but with as much kindness left in her as a former slave could have. Some nights, when his father was busy in the tavern downstairs and his grandmother had warmed her lips around her faded, red pipe, she told him stories about his mother.
He knew, for the most part, that these stories weren’t true. Dreams of a soft, brave, beautiful woman with magic in her fingertips contrasted rudely with his hungry, menial existence. The dissonance between the fragrant, impossible idea of his mother and the every day life of running through back alleys and hiding from curfew watchmen so he could earn extra money unloading smuggled goods at the docks, caused him to reject the idea of having a mother at all. It was much easier to say he had never had a mother than it was to admit that his mother had been a heavenly, beneficent spirit who, despite being virtuous and powerful, left him to a dirty life hundreds of miles away from the native land his grandmother would cry for in her sleep. The old woman would kick at the blankets and clutch her pillow with claw-like fingers, begging unseen men to let her go, let her go home. At first it frightened him, as he lie next to her watching her struggle with the past, but eventually he learned to roll over to the farthest side of the mat that they shared and recite the lessons the monks taught him until he fell asleep.
His father did not like him going to the monks, neither did his grandmother, but she hated his father more than the elusive, strange knowledge her grandson was obsessed with, so she would lie for him. Only a few times did his father catch him reciting, and Amir made sure to never let it happen again. He felt nothing of his father except the half-conscious rage that lashed out at him from the shadows of the narrow tenement they all shared. After much trepidation and years of loathing, he made peace with the fact that his father meant nothing to him. He would make it so that the idea of his father made him feel nothing, not even pity. He would tell the monastic fathers that he had forgiven him. He had not, and deep within him he longed to forget his father had ever existed at all.