Father was very old when I was still very young. Although older than the withered village elder, he was still stout and made up of hard angles as though chiseled by stone – but like stone, he was often inert. And so it fell to my eldest siblings to stir him from his bed, to clothe and clean him, to make sure that he ate, and most importantly it would seem, while my siblings tended to the small farm, he was to be seated in his bench by the door of the house. My siblings would joke that this was the highlight of Father’s day, although to me, his empty expression betrayed no such joy behind his dull, gray eyes.
To be honest, I believe Father preferred his sweeties. Very rarely, when a peddler made their way through the area, the oldest of us would send the rest into the village to purchase such a treat. Father did not eat much, but he stirred a little when given something sweet – anything made from spun sugars and honey seemed to create the best results. Although I loved Father and was pleased by his happiness, I admit that the errand was also an excellent opportunity to gather news, what little there was, and of course to hear stories from the travelers.
My childhood was often highlighted by the telling of such stories. For a long period, the peddler who traveled to the village near our farm was a beautiful young man with golden hair and eyes of similar color. Although he made his trade by selling the various oddities from the back of his little wagon, he seemed to more enjoy telling stories – and he was quite skilled at making a show of it. The Witch of the Sky and the Knight Felix was always enjoyable, no matter how many times you heard, while The Shepherd and the Fox got a hearty chuckle from child and adult alike. But for me and my siblings, hearing about any of the stories about the Order of the Gray was the most exciting of all – after all, Father was once a warrior of the Order.
As the peddler would tell it, long ago, when time still flowed in single direction and the lands were dominions of great authorities, the warriors of the Order of the Gray were tasked with the unenviable task of defending humanity. They would travel all the world, armed with holy weapons and supported by stalwart companions to seek out terrible danger and eradicate that which would threaten the prosperity and peace of the people. The peddler would sweep his hand through his golden curls and cry out at this point, saying that even after the Fall, these noble warriors would journey through the remnant kingdoms, and put to the sword the unspeakable things that crawl out of the shadows at the corner of our eyes.
How excited we would be when he talked about those heroes, how grand their battles, how tense their unending quests, and how heart-wrenching their ultimate and inevitable demise – whether it be their death in glorious combat by a terrible beast too mighty for even their powers, or even more tragically, at the hands of their comrades who were forced to turn on them as they lost their last shred of humanity in humanity’s defense.
Before too long, we would return with treats in hand, often bartered for the few misshapen vegetables that could still grow in our little plot. If I asked nicely, I was allowed to have a sweetie as well, and I’d feed Father his, pushing the small treat between his cold lips until he accepted it. His sunken eyes would continue to stare out, his gaze settling on a place further than any of us could see, but his ashen cheeks would take some color again as his mouth worked, the treat clacking against his teeth as his thick tongue worked it around his mouth. When I was a child, such moments were both delightful and sad. Father certainly did not seem like those heroes that the peddler spoke of.
It would not be long for me to change my thoughts about that.
One day, a scream pealed out in the afternoon’s quiet, before suddenly all went silent. As one, my siblings and I who were tending the field stood up in curiosity. In the following silence, a foreboding sense of dread came over the homestead, until finally, the eldest among us called out in a tone that would not carry, urging us to hurry back inside. All but I hurriedly dashed to the house, familiar in some degree of the dangers of lingering. But I was young, I did not understand the danger so well, and was slow in retreating. As I walked back, I did not recognize the meaning of the expressions of stark terror on my siblings’ faces as they turned their heads to look back in my direction. I suppose I simply did not know that the speed of some horrors could close the distance between the village and our little home in a matter of seconds.
My siblings screamed. I turned my head, innocent curiosity driving me as much as dread. In the brief heartbeats that it was standing still, lurked a horror. To describe it, I suppose it resembled a crude sketch of a man who was stretched out beyond their natural proportions. It was hunched over on its many-jointed limbs in mimicry of a spider, and would have appeared wiry if not for the fact that its arms were as thick my body. It paused at the gate, as though lost, swaying and moving very slightly – less by extending its limbs and more by skittering along with its too-many fingers – until it seemed to notice that I was staring at it. At once, the dumb expression on its almost-human face turned into a terrible, primal malevolence. I took a breath. The fence exploded. I didn’t realize that I was screaming until it was almost on top of me.
I had fallen down with my eyes closed in childish shock, because it was all I could do. But the only thing that hit me was a gust of sweet-smelling wind. When I opened my eyes the dread and horror wracking my body was replaced by shock and awe, and the creature’s miasma of terror seemed itself to dissipate in the air. Father was now standing before the creature, still as stone. With his broad back facing me, arms at his side, legs slightly astride – for the first time, I realized how tall he was.
A low moan escaped the horror, the unbidden sound of confusion. For a moment, I thought that maybe it would flee Father as we had fled it’s arrival, but it lashed forward instead, so quick that my mind had to to piece together its movements later. The air seemed to crack, followed by a terrible, bone-crunching sound. Father, in that same instant, simply turned his body, reached out, and shattered one of its limbs with the side of his hand. I had stopped screaming, but the creature did not.
The peddler often described heroic combat in beautiful ways, describing the colors and movements of titanic struggles in order to better paint the image in our minds. I could close my eyes and see the Hero Cullen deliver each majestic thrust of his magical spear into the hordes of hungering dead, his battle-chant rising to a crescendo as divine light burst from within his foes and showered his topaz armor with sparks of gold. But Father’s movements were economical – they were elegant, but only in the way that the peddler traded us candy: with ease and the slightest condescension.
The creature shivered before throwing itself at Father once more, a desperate full-bodied tackle that would have crushed a grown man, but Father absorbed the tackle in a bear-hug, and bent his body backwards, pulverizing the creature against the ground. The thing’s many legs attempted to right itself as Father rolled to his knees, but only managed to vainly shield its body as his fists rained blows upon it.
It was over. In the time it took for me to stand up, Father had become still again, and the horror was reduced to an ugly pink mush.
The eldest of us made a fire in order to dispose of the remains of the creature while a few rushed to the village to survey the damage. I was asked to help Father back to inside, and to prepare a bath. My hands were shaking when I took his arm to lead him back to the house, but touching him helped – he was as a rock, steady and strong.