Friday, November 2, 2012
He was swilling his mead when the dragons came. Orica hadn’t seen a sword in days, not since losing that game of cards, not since kissing the famed Statesman goodbye. He nodded, just in case anyone thought he wouldn’t acknowledge the panic.
For the past few nights, Orica had been in a constant state of intoxication, the main reason he hadn’t seen even a hint of daylight, the reason why he’d lost Statesman, the reason why he hadn’t been the first to spot the dragons. He convinced himself all over again each night that everyone was better off with him like that, or that at least he was better off like that, ever since the death of his brother. That was something he would never get over, or at least that’s what he believed, and what he would continue believing as long as he remained below the fuzz of that perpetual hangover.
It was the troll, the one he had failed to kill a week earlier, that had done it. How else to blame himself for everything but remember in mind-numbing detail the exact moments of that accursed day? Even as the bartender tried to rouse him, producing sword after inferior sword, Orica shrugged off any thought but the evening on the road, the last evening he could remember clearly, when he had come across the troll, and actually sheathed Statesman. What had been his thoughts? He still couldn’t answer that burning question. That was the one element he couldn’t remember.
He’d come from a banquet held in his honor, the great hero of the realm, the slayer of monsters and the conqueror of fiends, who had fought back invasions of barbarian horde, wrestled fierce creatures to the ground, spat in the face of death a thousand times in the last year alone. He had nothing to prove that night. The troll didn’t even dare approach him. That was why he had put Statesman away. The troll had gone out of its way to avoid him. Even demons feared him now!
He simply kept walking. The night was young and the breeze was cool across his face, and the moon was full and bright. He could hear minstrels in the distance, unrelated to the banquet and coming like sirens from the direction he was now headed. The lumbering steps of the troll reverberated on the ground, but Orica ignored them as best he could. His fingers flexed, but he calmed them, told them they’d grip Statesman again soon enough, perhaps to sever the head of an elephant, should one come stomping his way. That was his mood that evening, entertaining the absurd rather than reality. Those who had that very evening toasted his bravery would have scoffed to know his thoughts. Did he know them himself? That was what Orica struggled to reconcile with mead.
The troll was reported by a passing villager as having ravaged a local tavern, and Orica only thought to himself, a fine night for a drink. A fine night for a drink! That was all he could think! It was at another tavern where the troll committed his sin, took the life of Orica’s brother. Orica did not learn of it until the next evening, but in fact it happened that very night, not an hour removed from their crossing. He was embarrassed to admit later that he had gotten lost in the woods, looking for a spot to relieve himself, when the first indication of what had occurred came to him. It was another villager, perhaps the same one, running in panic, screaming at the top of his lungs, stumbling into the indecent Orica, knocking them both over. At this, Orica reached for Statesman, at this he was willing to defend himself, against someone so small and insignificant that if he had seen the man in the clear light of day, Orica would only have spat on him, a habit he was mindful to keep away from anyone who might have mattered. Instead he kicked the man away and in the glare of Statesman recognized his mistake, and would have claimed the man’s head just as he would have the elephant’s if the man hadn’t uttered the name of Orica’s brother, the sole casualty of the troll that night, despite a rampage it seems only interrupted by his crossing with Orica. Only then did the beast become civil, only then did the beast conduct itself with any modicum of restraint, as if it had sensed Orica, sensed what would happen, and instead of respecting the great warrior, mocking him, as no living soul ever had before, on the night of his greatest failure.
Orica didn’t know, at first, what the simpleton meant, why he would dare utter his brother’s name. “Speak, man,” he demanded, not bothering to explain what exactly he wanted, because it soon became clear that it was unnecessary. The poor wretch finally recognized Orica, and wept on the spot, as if he were a baby, as if the whole world had come to an end and his last sight was the dimming eyes of the one champion who could have prevented it.
The bartender knew better than to say anything. Orica lifted his head in an almost comical manner, using both his hands, as if all his strength were needed to perform the act. When he opened his eyes, the bartender disappeared, knowing the wiser act without having to think about it. The wings were heavy on the wind, beating against it as Orica had failed to, against the backside of the troll. That was as much as he could have done, if he had simply given his inaction a second thought, if he hadn’t been so enamored of his own glory, if he had still been the man who had earned all that praise. He was a drunken charlatan now. That was all he deserved to be. He’d thrown the game, just as he’d thrown his brother’s life away, thrown away his reputation, thrown away Statesman, the bringer of death. Now all Orica considered himself was a harbinger. He might as well have whistled for the dragons. In all of creation, he had never been able to handle dragons. His mead was a beacon, reflected on the surface of the moon, calling on doom and despair, the only things Orica still believed in.
Slowly, he stood, his legs more sturdy than he would’ve anticipated. He looked around the tavern and saw that it was completely empty, perhaps exactly as the one his brother had died in when news of the troll had reached it. His brother had stayed, and all Orica had heard of what remained was the club the troll had used, probably the remnants of a barstool, to kill him. Orica now picked up the stool he’d been slouched on, and flung it at the bar, shattered the glass that had until a few moments ago held his precious mead, and picked up the splintered leg he sought. “For my brother,” he whispered to no one, and stumbled to the door, beckoning with his free hand to the dragons he could see even now with blood dripping from their teeth.
He had always been petrified of them. He didn’t abide flying things, never ate bird, thought they were unnatural, and dragons most of all, reminders of an age when the earth was covered by reptiles and not by men. He nearly tripped over his own feet, felt himself lightheaded, thought that maybe if he fell just right, he would never land, and the club would sink itself into the eye of a dragon, without any effort on his part, just blind misfortune intervening with fate once again.
Orica arched his back, flexed his muscles, and felt for the familiar blade, but it wasn’t there, and he no longer believed in himself, and doubted very much that anyone else did, even though it had only been a week since all the world loved him. Many things had changed since then. There was not another living soul within sight. There were minstrels, absurdly playing in the distance. It felt right. The flames reached him long before he felt them. In fact, he never felt anything ever again. He died without having to face reality even one more time.