and everywhere you go
Times is harder than ever been befo'
And the people are driftin'
from door to door
Can't find no heaven,
I don't care where they go
Fardo listened to the bittersweet lamentations of a long dead blues-singer on his old phonograph. The quality of the record wasn’t very good. Over the years, it had gone through plenty of wear and tear. Static sometimes drowned out the lower notes.
He was lying in bed but he wasn’t sleeping - in fact, he hadn’t slept the whole night. He had a great deal on his mind. He needed some time to clear his thoughts, or at least straighten them out. The music helped. His old records always helped ease the pain, especially when alcohol just wasn’t doing the trick.
It was early in the morning. Fresh sunlight poured through the open window of his room. A warm breeze made the pale curtains ripple.
His wife had bought those curtains in the market, twelve years ago. He had disliked them at the time. The color was a pale yellow and there was lacework on the bottom. But now, his wife long in her grave, they were ghosts to him, a reminder of a time that once was and shall never be again.
Through the window, he could hear the layered sounds of the Old Quarter: a smithies hammer banging against an anvil; pigs squealing in Marlowe’s pen, waiting to be fed their slop; horses busily pulling carriages and wagons, their hooves going clop-clop-clop against the cobbled streets.
The song came to an end. Fardo swung his legs off the bed and sat for a while, holding his head in his hands. He was still dressed in the clothes he was wearing last evening. His gun-belts were slung over the back of a chair in the corner.
Rising, he moved across the room in the same bow-legged swagger that his son - while not very prominent in his young age - would eventually develop. After shutting down the phonograph (all that was playing now was empty scratching), he paused in front of a greasy mirror on the wall. His own ugly reflection stared back at him. He had no illusions about being pretty. The whores never complained.
His face was craggy and scarred and blotched by alcohol, but the thing that made him rueful was that he looked like an old man. A tired old man.
He plodded across the lime-green linoleum floor of his kitchen and slumped down at the table, the chair creaking noisily under his weight. His plan was to make breakfast but he found that he wasn’t very hungry.
He had the house to himself. Cort had been gone since yesterday afternoon, out celebrating with his friends. Today would be the day they would all ride to Delain and return the grael to Gilead. Normally, he would be proud of his son - even envious, for his days of glory were all behind him now - but, after what Castor had told him, he wasn’t sure that he wanted Cort to go.
He looked at the clock hanging on the wall. It was a gaudy thing: shaped like a black cat, its curled tail swung underneath its bulbous body as a pendulum. Its eyes, in matching motion, shifted suspiciously back and forth. It seemed to be mocking him now, even speaking to him.
Tee hee. I know something you don’t know.
It had been midnight when Castor had come. The two had sat at this very table, a bottle of gin between them, and they had argued for a long time. In a way, Fardo was glad Cort wasn’t there to hear the conversation. It had turned bad at the end, both men losing their patience and their temper. Castor had stormed out just as Old Star’s glimmer began to fade in the virgin light of dawn. Fardo didn’t try to stop him. His mind was made up.
At least that’s what he told himself. The idea of simply going up to Henry and telling him about everything seemed easy enough, but Fardo knew better. There were so many complications, so many things that pained his heart just to think of them.
He had forgotten the face of his father.
He glared at the clock again.
The cat’s eyes shifted back and forth.
Tee hee. I know something you don’t know.
"What?" he spoke aloud, sneering, "What do you know, you bastard?"
Guess who’s time is running out?
It grinned at him.
Tick, tock, tick, tock.
Fardo stood up, ready to smash the clock apart with his fist. Instead, ka came knocking on his door for the second time. Instead of the soft rapping that Castor had done, the person behind the door was pounding angrily.
A voice called: "I summon you, bondsman!"
Fardo recognized the voice right away. It belonged to Aidan Royce. He was a dull-faced maggot who had a lot to learn about being a gunslinger - it was only because of his idiot father, the mayor of Paran, that Royce ever got accepted for apprenticeship in Gilead.
It wasn’t that the boy didn’t know how to study or shoot - in fact, he pressed harder than most of the other students. That was also the problem. Royce thought he knew everything, and it was because of this that he took a good share of beatings from Fardo. Even when the fool was on the ground, battered and bloodied, he would still convince himself that he was right all along.
Now the time would come when he would break him for the last time and send the stupid maggot to the west, far from the safety of his family name, where, hopefully, he would learn more about the ways of life than he ever would here in Gilead.
However, this could not have come at a worse time. Maybe ka was teaching him a lesson of his own.
Tee hee. I know something you don’t know, maggot.
"Fuck you." he grumbled at the clock. He would deal with Royce and then he would speak to Henry, no matter how hard it might be. Deep down inside, he was facing himself in a test of his soul, blocked in with only two ways to go.
To redemption, or to death… or something worse.
The knocking came again, hard this time.
"Fardo!" Royce cried, "Come at once!"
He accepted the challenge.
Steven cracked his eyes open. The first thing he was able to focus on was a small puddle of graf. In his sleepy daze, he found it momentarily fascinating. The swirl of foam seemed full of wonder, like it was a microscopic piece of the cosmos. But then, rather suddenly, it lost all of its charm and, as his wits came back to him, so did the recollection of what happened last night.
His stomach churned and he groaned, moving his head, feeling the hard wooden surface of the table under his numbed cheek.
All of them had gone to Charlie-O’s (one of the rowdier taverns to be found in the Old Quarter) in high spirits. Since they were expecting to ride northward to Delain the following day - a long journey of at least three months, if they traveled fast and slept little - so the plan was to only have a few drinks to flavor the night and enjoy the glittery entertainment provided. And there was plenty of that. Unfortunately, after the third round of Jeb’s Famous Brew, the limit they had set for themselves disappeared completely and all inhibitions were lost in what was to become a wild scene.
For Steven, much of it was all a blur. He could only recall certain parts of the night.
One memory was Robert, drunk and doped up on opium (a curious fellow with a squinting left eye and a red fez had provided the goods), jumping up on stage with the dancers while they tossed up their frilly skirts to the beat of a loud honky-tonk and squealed with unabashed delight. They had all cheered him on while Robert kicked his legs to the music with all the grace of a stuck donkey, grinning like a fool the whole time. Eventually, he stumbled into the folds of a curtain and passed out there.
He could remember Cort being led upstairs by one of the whores. Though tempted, he and Christopher had stayed behind. Christopher was married and already had a baby boy named Alain. Robert was married too, but, he wasn’t beyond letting his eyes and hands wander sometimes.
No harm in admiring a lovely flower, right? was his reasoning.
Besides, his young wife - a real spark of a woman - did her own share of flirtations. However, despite their rather casual relationship, Steven was sure they loved each other.
As for him, he wasn’t married yet, though he imagined he soon would be.
She was the most beautiful maiden of In-world - and All-world, for that matter - and ka had brought them together. He loved her and she loved him. It was as simple as that.
They had spent much of the week together (and how sweet that time had been) though he regretted not spending his last night in Gilead with her. She had been summoned by her father - a stern man who seemed more interested in gaining a dowry than the happiness of his daughter - to accompany her family on a trip to Paran. He missed her and he supposed that was one of the reasons why he had drank so heavily.
The last scraps of memory he was able to recover from last night was playing a game of Watch Me with Christopher while the room spun around. At some point, he went outside to throw up in the alley, then came back and fell asleep on the table. He was grateful they all left their guns back at their homes. Despite their strong discipline, there was still a chance something bad could’ve happened. Fortunately, the only damage done was to their prides, but he was certain the commoners would make no criticism. Some gossip, maybe, but nothing like the reaction they would’ve gotten back at the castle if such a vulgar display had been made. The scolding he would get from his father for such a thing was incentive enough to leave the grounds for the night. Even Fardo, who was the biggest drinker that any of them had ever known, would have been very displeased.
Steven’s head throbbed as he sat upright. He coughed and winced at the raw feeling of his throat. Christopher was across from him, face-down in a pile of cards.
"Chris? Are you awake?"
A mumbled response.
"Get up. We need to leave."
Christopher raised his head. He looked sour. His blonde hair was tossed about in all directions and his eyes were puffed shut. The Ten of Spades was stuck to his left cheek. It peeled off when he yawned. Groggily, the both of them studied their surroundings.
The tavern was quiet and sober, a stark contrast from the madness that had erupted just a few hours ago. Aside from an old geezer, face obscured in long silver hair and right leg replaced with a wooden leg, drinking a cup of coffee at the counter, they were the only remaining customers. Steven imagined that when the clock rung five tolls, there was a rush to get home before dawn, a good lot of them husbands hoping to wash off the perfume and rinse out the alcohol on their breath before climbing into bed with their wives.
"What time is it?" Christopher asked him in a voice that sounded like he had swallowed grind-paper. Considering the state they were in, that could’ve been likely.
"I don’t know. Where’s Robert?"
Christopher mumbled something that Steven assumed was ‘I don’t know’. After some searching, they spotted Robert’s boots - snakeskin with steel tips - sticking out from the bottom of one of the adjacent tables.
Christopher snorted. "Think he’s dead?"
Steven leaned over and could see the rest of Robert underneath, one hand on his chest and a loose grip on a bottle with the other. His hat was over his face and he was snoring like a saw going through wood.
He smiled. "I’m afraid not."
Steven turned and looked towards the stairs that led up to the whore’s rooms. Cort must still be up there, he mused. If they were to be any in shape to ride to Delain, they’d need to hurry back home and get cleaned up.
"You take care of him," Steven said, gesturing to the unconscious form of Robert, then hooked his thumb towards the upper level, "and I’ll get Cort."
"Swell." Christopher muttered.
When they both moved to rise, the door suddenly swung open, sunlight bursting into the tavern and temporarily blinding them both.
Steven froze when he was able to perceive the shape of the person standing at the door. It wasn’t just the shape of the guns at the man’s side but it was the way he was standing. It gave him away.
Its my father, he thought in a moment of panic, and we all just lost our chance to go to Delain.
Henry walked inside. His spurs made quiet jangling sounds as he strode across the dank floorboards. The old geezer, stopping just as he was about to take a sip from his coffee, stared at the gunslinger with awe.
Feeling his face flush with guilt, Steven began to say, "I know, it was stupid of us, but we…"
He trailed off and dread swelled up in him once he saw the grief on his father’s face.
A thought leapt up in Steven’s mind:
And he was sure it was his mother.
"What’s wrong?" he asked, sounding like he was ten years younger.
Instead of answering, Henry searched the tavern, then asked, "Where’s Cort?" "Um. Upstairs, I think."
Henry nodded and began moving that way. "I’ll get him."
Steven and Christopher exchanged concerned looks - if they weren’t awake before, they certainly were now - and, once again, Steven pressed, "Dad, what’s happened?"
Henry stopped, sighed, and began telling them a story that would be told through all of Gilead for weeks to come.
Blood and memories are deep in its soil.
This is what Fardo had once said about the yard behind the Great Hall.
Henry had been among the witnesses of the challenge. Castor and Randolph were there, standing by his side. They had all been solemn as they watched the scene, though the courtiers that had gathered at the balconies and under the shade of parasols were watching with shallow amusement, like it was some kind of sport.
Aidan Royce had stood at the west end of the yard, holding his chosen weapon - an ironwood quarterstaff - in both hands. He was gripping it so hard that Henry could hear the creaking of the wood under the pressure. The young man’s eyes were blazing in a way that Henry hadn’t seen since…
Yes, Jonas, who had only been a few years older than him. Jonas, who had skipped his lessons and smirked in the faces of those who challenged him. Jonas, who glared at him with a combination of envy and distaste for being the son of Glen Deschain, then lord of Gilead, the greatest gunslinger of his day. And Jonas, who screamed in pain when his leg was broken like a twig under Fardo’s club, was cast out of Gilead and into the wastelands.
Henry wondered what ever came of Jonas. He assumed he was dead. Mayhap he took his own life. He couldn’t have blamed him if he had. The prospect of coming so close to being a gunslinger, and then losing it all in a single bone-snapping moment, must be enough to drive one mad for the rest of their days.
However, just before Fardo broke him, when Jonas had been standing there, his long hair catching in the wind and his slender body casting a tall shadow on the grass in front of him, Henry remembered his eyes. They burned like two hot coals, brimming with a kind of murderous determination. He desired victory at all costs, even if that meant killing his teacher.
It must have been a sobering moment when Jonas felt that last crippling blow, for all that was left in his eyes then was agony.
It would be years later when Henry would see that same look again, this time on the stern, freckled face of Aidan Royce. It was so identical, in fact, that it had sent a shiver down Henry’s spine. He was sure Royce was going to lose. The boy wasn’t ready, that was plain to see, but he refused any offers to renege. A shame, really. Royce had his faults but he had seemed a promising student. In these troubled times, the world could have used another gunslinger.
Fardo came and there was an excited murmur from the crowd. Though Fardo was about fifty pounds heavier than he was when he met Jonas on his grounds, he was by no means slower or weaker. He was old but Henry guessed Fardo had a few more years left in him before he passed over his guns to his son. Henry knew Cort would do well in replacing his father.
A good stock, those Oxbloods.
Cort was already taking on pupils of his own, using the gruff methods of the old ways, ones which Henry knew was tough but very effective. And with his son and the others readying to take their senior ranking in the eld-tet, Henry was relieved that at least in Gilead there was some hope for the future.
Fardo wore a leather band around his head to keep the sweat from his eyes. The huge muscles in his right arm flexed as he raised his club, a blunt column of oak that tapered at the cord-wrapped handle. A lesser man would require both hands to wield the massive weapon.
There was a long period of silence as the two measured each other up. Then, Royce, with a piercing yell, charged forward, sliding both of his hands down to one end of his staff. Using his momentum, he swung his weapon at Fardo like a sword. A bad move, considering the cost of balance if he missed.
And missed he did. Fardo simply ducked and side-stepped. He also avoided several more clumsy swings by Royce, who was using up his stamina in those quick bursts. Fardo was toying with him, like a cat would a mouse. This brought some amusement to the crowd. By Henry, a pair of nobles made a wager about who would emerge the victor. He detested them both.
The two broke close-quarters, settled on a distance, and then began moving together again. Royce spun the staff around in a showy sort of way that would’ve gotten him scolded by Fardo under different circumstances.
Use it, maggot, don’t dance with the bloody thing.
Royce, with renewed confidence, charged again and made a poor attempt to trip Fardo, jabbing one end downward by his opponent’s legs. As the staff went vertical, Fardo pivoted and swung the club around. It smashed straight through the center of the staff, breaking it in half with a
snapping sound. Royce, blinking stupidly at the two broken pieces in his hands, just stood there when Fardo back-handed him across the face. Royce flew backward, hitting the ground but rolling back onto his feet before he was subjected to the hard heel of Fardo’s boot.
Royce stumbled, regained his senses, and then spat a wad of blood onto the grass. He stared at the red gob with blank confusion - his self-made image of invincibility crumbling rapidly - before looking at Fardo again, sneering, baring his blood-smeared teeth. He tossed one splintered end of the staff away and gripped the other like a baton. It may as well have been a toothpick he was trying to defend himself with, compared to the size of Fardo’s own weapon.
But Fardo, who had been sure of victory, ended up dropping the club on the ground and faced Royce with only his bare hands. Calmly, he waited until Royce came at him again. He blocked the downward swing and hit Royce in the face again. And again. And again, following one fist with the other.
Royce, his face smashed and leaking blood, swaggered like a drunk, awaiting more punishment. Instead, Fardo lowered his clenched fist and shoved Royce to the ground, disgusted.
"Yield, boy. It’s over."
Royce was down on one knee, breathing hard, his head lowered. He looked as if he waiting to be coronated. The whisper of the wind filled the rapt silence of the crowd.
"Do you hear me, maggot?"
What happened next occurred in the span of a few seconds, but, looking back, the moment was surreal, seeming to be mired in time, every small detail able to be replayed in Henry’s mind with terrible clarity.
The knife glinted as it was pulled from Royce’s boot. His face was twisted with rage, looking almost demonic with the splattered blood.
Henry watched in horror as Royce leapt up and stabbed Fardo three times in the chest.
Somewhere in the crowd, a woman screamed. Blood swelled on Fardo’s clothing like blooming roses. Fardo, who seemed oblivious to the wounds, grabbed Royce’s wrist before he was able to stab a fourth time and twisted until he heard it break. The knife fell and so did Royce. This time, Royce stayed down, groaning as he cradled his broken wrist.
Henry started to run. He had felt Castor’s hand on his arm, to hold him back, but he shoved it away, leaving both him and Randolph behind. He heard somebody calling for a surgeon.
Fardo stood there while his life’s blood ran out of him, watching as his lord and friend rushed to him.
"Henry…", he gurgled, and then collapsed.
Henry knelt down by his side and tried to put pressure on the wounds, but to his dismay he saw there was nothing he could do.
Fardo coughed and choked up a stream of dark blood. In delirium, he moved his hands around like he was trying to get up, one last chance to escape from Death. Then, suddenly, he grabbed Henry by the collar and pulled him close.
"Henry," he struggled, "can you hear me?"
"Yes, I can."
"Not too late. Our sons…"
Tears stung Henry’s eyes, though he held them back. "I don’t understand. Fardo, please…"
With his dying breath, he whispered, "Save them."
And that was all.
Fardo Oxblood, son of Emrys and father of Cort, died that day by the hand of one of his own students. He would be long remembered. He would be legend.
Blood and memories.