Timeline: Sixth Age, 45th Year, Mid-Autumn
After leaving the Brandonale, Alfranco Azop and his grandson Emcorae strolled through the breezy airs of another peaceful autumn evening, with a crescent moon overhead, and a multitude of stars shining brightly over the quiet, country landscape of Monthaven. As his grandfather shuffled along, Emcorae’s mind wandered, noting the changing of the season.
The leaves are falling. He thought. The nights are getting longer. We’ll have snow in a day or two. No more playing outside all day. No more waking with grandpop like this.
The boy remembered all too well that last winter was so cold his mother barely let him outside during the day. Yet the nights were no better – for Emcorae could never seem to get enough covers to keep himself warm in the drafty cottage. (Now truth be told, there were enough blankets to go around for everyone in the Azop household – most of them hand-knitted by Emcorae’s grandmother Pallina – but Emcorae had the bad habit of building himself a “little rats’ nest” of so many blankets that he inevitably got overheated and kicked his covers off while he slept – with the result that he wake up freezing). This nightly ritual would usually end up being the cause of the boy catching his yearly case of The Winter ‘Choo’s — a week of head-pounding, non-stop nose-dripping, coughing, aching, exhausting sickness — of which the only bright side was that his mother and grandmother would wait on him hand and foot until he got better.
It should be noted that, because the boy was all too happy to lap up the service of his matrons, he would reason to himself that he unfortunately hadn’t been able to fully appreciate their care while he was really sick, so, for the benefit of all involved, within a moon of that first bout, Emcorae would secretly make himself “sick” again, so that he could experience that tender loving care once more. For their part, Beckali and Paulina were none the wiser, and since they both loved the boy with all their hearts, the women delighted in seeing to his every need all over again.
Even still, I’d much rather be playing outside. Emcorae drug his feet along the path beside his grandsire. Who wants to be stuck in the h–“
“Whoa! Grandpop, are you ok?” The boy’s thoughts were broken when Alfranco stumbled, and began to lean on Emcorae.
These ‘almost-trips’ were just the normal fare for his granddad, who despite the fact that he could tell a flawless tale no matter how many lagers he’d put down, even his tolerance wasn’t enough to overcome the effects of all those drinks upon his equilibrium. And though Emcorae was used to Alfranco’s sometimes haphazard gait, still it made the boy nervous.
“Ho, ho, don’t you worry none about your old granddad now, Em.” Alfranco laughed, before taking another pull on his smoke stick. “Sleepy Monthaven don’t hold no fear for me. Spend your worries on you da – I’m glad he stayed home tonight — Alboris needs to get those cabinets finished or your ma will never let him hear the end of it. Mind you, Em – I go to the Brandon ‘cause I like to drink, have a smoke or two, and maybe get to talkin’ with some of the other ol’ farts there, but your da, well he goes there to get away from his…troubles. But, boy, don’t you go ending up like neither of us, you hear?”
“Don’t worry about me, grandpop,” Emcorae laughed, “I’ve spent enough time in bars to last me a lifetime. Hey look, there’s gram!”
As they strolled up the walkway Alfranco could see his wife Pallina waiting for them on the porch. “Uh oh, General Pallina,” The oldster muttered, as he took one last puff on his smoke, then tried to straighten himself up to remove the traces of his over-indulgence.
It didn’t work.
Emcorae’s grandmother rose up as her husband and grandson approached. To Emcorae she smiled; to Alfranco she shook her head in disappointment. Those unspoken messages delivered, she went inside the house to complete her nightly ritual — offering a multitude of prayers to Yahway and Meree, praying that one day her husband would reform his ways…and that tonight he’d pass out on the front porch so she could avoid that awful smell of smoke and stale ale that was forever glued to him.
For his part, Emcorae had no clue about his grandparent’s marital strife; instead he only saw Pallina’s smile and it made him feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I wonder what she’ll make me to eat tom–
“Grandpop!”Emcorae cried out when he saw that Alfranco had fallen and cracked his head against the bottom step! “Are you ok?!?”
“Hey, hey, I’m ok, just fine, mighty fine,” Alfranco held a hand to his head to steady himself on the ground.
Emcorae could see a trickles of blood coming from a small gash on his grandfather’s forehead. “You’re bleeding! Let me go get gram!”
Yet before the boy could get up the steps, Alfranco grabbed him — his grip surprisingly strong! “Ho now, Em. It’s only a little bump on the head, no need to go sounding the alarm to General Pallina. Lord knows I’ve had much worse than this lil’ nick before, but if you go telling your gram, I’ll suffer more than just this small cut!…..Here now, help me up.” Emcorae assisted him to his feet, then Alfranco went on, “C’mon, let’s go sit on the porch bench.” And stifling a groan, he took a seat and put his around around his grandson, “Now listen to me, boy – I’m drunk. Ain’t no two ways about that. But ya know what? I love you very much. You are everything to me.”
Em had heard this “tale” many times before. His granddad was forever telling him how special he was when the older Azop was sober, but when he was liquored up it happened even more. “Sure, grandpop. You know I love you too.”
“Oh, I know that, I know that. But, Em, your gram and I, we love you with all our hearts. You are our favorite. Just ask your grammy, she’ll tell you too; you’re our Number One. Now you know that don’tcha?”
“Of course I do; you always tell me.”
“I just don’t want ya to forget it! You are a special. Your grammy and I love you even more than our own kids. Now your gram, she don’t none love me much anymore; can’t say that I blame her, but I still love her. She knows that, yup, she knows that. But you, YOU are her favorite. She loves you more than anything in this world. You make her very proud. Me, too. We both know that some day you’re gonna do something amazing. You are a blessed – don’t ya forget that ok?”
“I won’t, grandpop.”
“And don’t you go ending up like me or your da! We two are nothin’ but a pair a boozers and that life ain’t for you. Tomorrow I’ll go waking up, and my head will hurt from all those ales, I won’t be able to breath cause my windbags will be so clogged from all that smoke, and I’ll feel miserable, but you know what?”
“I’ll be right back sittin’ on my stool at the Brandon tomorrow night too,‘cause I ain’t got nothin’ better to do. You need a better life, boy, and trust me, my bones are tellin’ me you will have one!”
Emcorae had heard this praise countless times before – he didn’t didn’t believe his grandsire’s predictions of greatness and doubted he’d ever have the life experiences to match Alfrancos. And yet, even though it was embarrassing to hear his grandfather talk about him so, still it was nice for the boy to know that Alfranco believed in him so much.
Meanwhile, Alfranco prattled on, “You need to get out of this boring town, Em, go see the world. Where do you want your gram and I to take you on our next trip?”
Each year since he was three years old Emcorae’s grandparents had taken him on little trips around Pennal to visit relatives and such; never too far away but enough to know that there was more to the world than just what his home village had to offer. “I don’t care where we go, I’m sure it will be fun.”
“Alrighty then, you just go tell your gram where you want to go and come springtime that’s what we three will do, ok? Now I’d say it’s about time for bed, wouldn’t you?”
“Sounds good to me.” Emcorae replied, but then remembered something else, “Hey, grandpop, when you was telling that tale about the Morati, you forgot to talk about your dagger.” Then, after a pause, he added, “And…I was wondering…are…are there really such things as Gar-gargoyles?!”
Despite all the alcohol, Alfranco’s eyes lit up as he smiled slyly, “Ah, ah, ah, boy, I didn’t forget nothin’! Don’t you none worry much about Gargoyles. Stories about them are naught but old wives’ tales.” But then, with a sudden pain in his eyes that Emcorae had never seen before, Alfranco leaned in close and whispered, “The Gargoyles are MY burden, Em, not yours.”
Emcorae was confused by his grandsire’s explanation, and not sure how to respond. Like other boys his age, he’d eagerly exchanged his shared of weird-but-true stories with his friends about gargoyles – those green-scaled, reptilian-like man-beasts that flew around via giant leathery wings to terrorize unwary villagers who got lost in the countryside at night – but Emcorae never believed them himself (or at least he didn’t want to believe them).
Yet what the confused boy did not – could not – have known was that his grandfather had, in fact, been battling demons in his dreams for decades – ever since his war time days. Then it was that Alfranco had witnessed horrible things that had irrevocably scarred his psyche – images of atrocities forever burned into his mind that had continually (but silently) tormented him ever since.
This was the reason why the old man got drunk off his rocker at the Brandonale – it was his way of self-medicating against the pain. For half a century Alfranco’s plan had worked — by sloshing his mind into oblivion, he’d warded off those demons. However, about a year ago, things changed — for then it was that the old man began to see his demons in the flesh – or more specifically one demon, a gargoyle!
Like is grandson, Alfranco well knew the legends about what a gargoyle was supposed to look like – the ever-cliche flying man-beast with giant wings and green skin – yet the oldster was horrified to see that the demon that taunted him was even scarier than the stories told.
Alfranco’s gargoyle was very bit the flying green specter of his boyhood nightmares, yet the in-the-flesh version that stalked him was somehow far more real. The creature that terrorized the gaffer’s mind was a green-scaled, reptilian-like man-beast whose glowing red eyes oozed evil from beneath a heavy brow. Whenever it stalked Alfranco it seem to take pleasure in menacing the man with its talons – footlong pincers that were affixed to the ends of its humongous leathery wings upon which engorged veins appeared to showcased visibly pulsing blood. Add to that a constant gurgling the gargoyle made as it breathed and the ever present smell of brimstone wherever the creature walked, and its easy to see why the old man feared the demon that haunted him.
And yet, for whatever reason, the beast had always done its dirty work on the periphery of Alfranco’s awareness – just out of his line of sight and always disappearing as soon as the old man thought he spotted it. Because of this, Alfranco was certain his visions were merely figments of his own tortured mind. Wanting nothing more than to cloud these nightmares out of his consciousness, for years now Alfranco had been trying to drink himself into oblivion – for, in his opinion, there wasn’t much need for him in this world any longer, and if the ale helped him to reach the grave sooner, then all the better.
Why, even now, as Alfranco sat there on the porch with his grandson, the oldster began to imagine that he was seeing one of his demons roaming among the trees, in the woods behind the main road.
Damn you! Alfranco screamed at the apparition in his mind. If you’re going to visit me, come when I am alone!
“Grandpop? Are you all right?” Emcorae asked, concerned by look in Alfranco’s eyes.
At the sound of the boy’s voice the old gaffer snapped out of his stupor – and the demon disappeared!
His spirits lifted, Alfranco winked at his grandson, “You’re a smart lad, Em; Ha, those old coots at the Brandonale have no idea about this little beauty.” And in answer to his grandson’s earlier question, Alfranco now pulled out the small dagger that was ever sheathed on his right hip.
Despite the elder Azop’s praise, the weapon he held up could hardly be described as awe-inspiring. By all accounts, the old man’s prized weapon appeared to be little more than an out-dated stone dagger whose smallish black blade, beaten bronze hilt, and black-capped pommel were all crudely fashioned. Strangely enough, although Emcorae had seen other daggers with black blades, the boy had always felt as if his grandsire’s weapon was somehow the blackest of all — for the blade appeared to suck the surrounding light into itself, making it seem to be eternally wrapped in the shadows. However other than the uniqueness of its blackness, even the boy had to admit that the dagger otherwise appeared to be quite useless from a practical standpoint — more of a relic than an actual weapon. Yet the boy knew that, to his grandfather at least, this dagger was worth far more than any amount of gold, therefore Emcore relished the chance to get Alfranco to talk about the blade.
“C’mon, Grandpop, tell me how you found your knife. You never seem to get to that part of the story when you talk with your friends.”
Alfranco smiled approvingly. Then with a strange look in his eyes, the old man stared at Emcorae, his green eyes penetrating the boy (and suddenly clear despite his inebriation). At first, it seemed to the youngster that his grandfather was trying to stare into his soul, but after a time the older Azop’s peering lasted so long that Emcorae believed the old man had fallen asleep with his eyes open. And just as the boy reached up –
“Emcorae,” The patriarch advised, “ I’m going to let you in on a little secret.”
“What’s that, grandpop?”
“This little dagger might not look like much, and since I never actually used it in combat, I can’t say how strong it is, but none of that matters, boy, because this blade is magical.” Then holding up his hand to quell Em’s question. “No, no. I ain’t never seen it really DO anything out of the ordinary, but I just know it’s got a power inside. Oh, I know other people laugh at me and say it’s nothing more than an oldtimer’s dirk, but that don’t matter. Let them make fun of ol’ Franki, what do I care? And besides the hidden magic, what they don’t know is that I keep it for sentimental reasons too.”
“What’s that?” asked Emcorae.
“It reminds me of a friend.”
“But I thought you said you found it on a failed rescue mission? You said everybody was already dead when you got there. Or was this the time you saved that Amorosi king’s life?”
“You were right the first time, Em. Saving Aslan happened later. On this occasion, my scouts and I were on our way to try to warn King Ortwin of Akka about a Derkka trap he and his Drokka were about to run into. We raced to catch Ortwin and his men before they fell into an ambush – but we were too late. Guess this failure just proves that not everything in life works out like you want it too.
“Anyway,” the elder continued in his best story-telling voice, “as you know, by the time we arrived, everybody was kill’t – Drokka and goblins and even a myz – all dead and gone. Bloody shame, war is, when you have to witness all that tangled, mangled mess of flesh and bones. But, hey, YOU don’t have to worry none about that stuff, Em. You an’ me is safe here in Monthaven, and that’s just fine by me.”
“But wait, grandpop, you just said that you found a myz body among the warriors. Now I always thought you said that the myz never did any fightin’ during the Last Great War?”
With a twinkle in his eye, Alfranco replied, “Em, you never cease to amaze me! That’s what I always said. And I do believe that’s true, but for this one occasion. Now I can’t says for sure because I wasn’t there, but if my tracker skills are worth a damn, I can tell you that in this fight that myz sure as hel fought along with the rest of his crew. Why this one did and none of the others didn’t, I don’t know, but I do know that this gray bastard was right there in the thick of things when he died because he lay right next to King Ortwin himself!”
“So, King Ortwin was the friend that you are reminded of by your knife? I didn’t know you knew him?”
“Not quite,” chuckled Alfranco. “You’re right, I never did know Ortwin. Heck he was the Kon-Herr Drokka of the Akka Mountains and I was just some third class human scout. We weren’t the type of guys that would mix around the campfire, you know? No, Em, the friend I am reminded of is another. You see, I would have never found this dagger were it not for her.”
At that the boy’s mouth dropped agape.