Thirty-two years since my last adventure. Time had unwound with fatal alacrity and opportunity had escaped my ever reaching grasp because of it. An aged knight is about as useful as a soiled loincloth.
It is not my identity to be 71 years old, nor is it my disposition to be taken care of. More than once in my youth I had jumped off the battlements of this great castle into an unsuspecting hay carriage. Never did I ever consider the purpose. Never did I worry about the darkness. Now all I think about is the purpose, and all I consider is the darkness.
Seymour is dead, Henry a cripple. Arryn retired up-country to a farm with his wife two years ago, and now I’m the last bastion of this fortress of solitude. It really is quite hard to protect a castle that wants not to be protected. Twelve inches of stone as old as time itself only protects against the wilds to a degree. A swift ram could put an end to the whole charade.
I decided to take a stroll in the wood, one day. A swarm of angry elves or hags or bandits would surely not storm the castle whilst a take a stroll. That would be impolite, after all. Storm the castle when it’s convenient for me. Siege down my walls at an appropriate time in which I can prepare my cane to fight back.
As I made my way down the forest, I marvelled at shrubs and trees and fauna. I hadn’t been here in decades, and all the trees that me and my father had planted had all aged to be great oaks. Those trees in which I was once able to hug completely, had now sprouted into a spire so grand it fully obscured my view of the sun. I stopped to pick some flowers, and mushrooms, and take a peak at a majestic bird. Such beauty so close to home yet all these years I stood and stared at plates and broken pottery and the old women, once maidens, to whom I used to stare and lust at in youth.
After a little while I came upon a perplexing tree, perhaps I considered it unsettling, but at its core it was a standard tree. It stood alone on its own hill, in its own clearing, the cause of this was most likely it’s monopoly on shade, but nevertheless I found it ominous. Up it’s shadowy trunk I found no holes in which animals call home, and in the swaying branches, large tree-nuts that from an eagle-eye’s view could be described as the dark eyes of an unwanted spectator.
I found solace and rested a while under this gloomy tree. I felt a calling, a youthful urge to scale the side of this hardwood, to conquer this summit of darkness. More than an urge, I determined; a thirst to restore, if only for a moment, a precedence of a better time, a time in which I am able and willing to ascend any tree.
They always say everything is smaller at the top and at the moment I agreed. Small revines led to small hills and small mountains led to smaller villages. Even the castle seemed miniscule from my lookout point. But something else had become small, something not material, yet just as real. I had journeyed and surveyed this entire land in my younger years, yet the experiences seemed as if they’d happened in a previous life. I would wake at the break of dawn to slash my sword into the unknown, barreling forward into the inconceivable. But now I sit at the verge of dusk, contemplating the ethereal.
I was near collapsing into a nap of exhaustion when the tree spoke to me, beaconing me to enter a dialogue with a mouthless shrub. Although the speech did startle me, I welcomed the surprise with open ears, as his voice was deep and welcoming and I am an old man with a fleeting brain.
“I am the oldest tree in the all the lands; I know everything there is to know and more. Why are you here, young man?”
Although I was pleasantly surprised with the title he gave me, I worried when he told me he knew more than there was to know. That’s as if you are saying you own more land than there is to own. A false promise, and therefore I proceeded with caution. I told the tree I seeked sanctuary from the hot sun under it’s large branches.
“The sun is not hot at dusk, nor did you stay under my branches. Who are you trying to deceive? An old tree? I spend my entire day looking into the sun, and I find the portrait of dusk invigorating. I’ll ask you another question. Why did you climb my branches?”
I could have told him about my youthful urge, but I figured I’d give him an easy answer. I told the old tree that I wanted a good view of the area, to plot out a new farm for my people.
“You’re answer is partially true, I will give you that. You do desire a better view, although if you wanted to start a new farm you should have started twenty years ago. You won’t live to see the first full harvest. You climbed up this tree to prove that you could. That was honorable.”
I began to climb down the tree because, chiefly, I did not like what I was hearing. I reasoned that this voice was solely in my head, but the voice seemed as real as the bark I was groping.
“You stumble upon an all-knowing tree, and yet you ask no questions. You climb my trunk for a better view, yet you close your eyes at the wide open horizon. There is something you wish not to see, yet the truth will make you whole. They say age makes you wiser, yet you will never be wise enough.”
I now know the truth the tree speaks about, and although I may be wiser, he is correct in saying I will never be wise enough.
On a large branch of the tree, pride broken, I asked the first question. Is there any being on this land I have never seen before?
“There are many people, places and things that you will never see, just as there are people, places and things that a newborn will never see. You can never conquer the infinite, only come to peace with it. Yet I imagine you are seeking specifics. Here I deliver a diabolical truth. On these lands, not far off from your keep, there lay a dragon. A slayer of men, he is destroying villages and fortresses as we speak. If you look deep enough into the landscape you can see him, as long as you want to look.”
I look back at this moment now and I see myself closing my eyes. I had looked at the land and found no dragon, so in substitution I entered my imagination. I envisioned a man with a great sword, and the demeanor of a hero slaying the flighted reptile. Everyone cheered and he was exalted as a legend. This gave me a moment of hope. I asked another question. What had I done to deserve such a twisted fate? A knight who cannot wield a sword?
“You had a good run. Your adventuring career was longer than most anyone’s. You were at peace then, just as you wish to be at peace now. That is why you are here. You cannot accept the new peace as long as the old peace is still on your mind. You cannot obtain the old peace.”
At that point I was getting pretty sick of his riddles and climbed a greater portion of the tree down. But the dark aura of the tree was both homely and repulsive. I thought about the questions I have and whether I wanted answers. Some questions I suppose are best left unanswered. But I kept asking. I asked him what happened to my wife after she died.
“Your attempts at questions are noble, at best. There is only one question that you have left to ask, and it’s not about the fate of your wife. You have yet to ask about the dragon. Your mind is infinitely stuck on the subject, yet you lack the will to question it.”
“There will come a hero,” I responded. “A hero that will slay the dragon. There is always a hero for every quest.”
“There is no hero this time. Your castle will burn down, your granaries torched. No man can fight a dragon. Your whole life you have tried to fight dragons, but you have only deterred them. I’ll ask you this: Have you ever killed a dragon?”
“No, I have never slayed a dragon. Even if what you say is true, that there are no heroes to save the day, I will fight the dragon, and I will slay it with my bare hands if I have to.”
“Your adventuring days are over! How can you not accept the new truth? You have never killed the dragon, nor will you ever! In every man’s life there is a dragon that he cannot slay, just like there will eventually be an axe that I cannot avoid. There is peace to be found everywhere, and you must find it in your incessant dusk.”
I climbed down the bark onto the hill. I journeyed back home, every hundred meters or so trailing my eyes back to the cursed tree, checking to see whether the plant had sprouted wings and whether it had assumed the form of a demon, as I knew that was its true form. Yet the words it spoke to me resonated like a wispful tune. The truths that it laid out, as sharp as weaponized glass, and as harsh as a icy blizzard, were all things that I knew, deep inside.
I remembered what my mother once said. The most important questions you already have the answer to, and to cuddle up before the dusk breaks, for darkness is cold and unforgiving, and I journeyed back home.
So now I sit in my dining hall, with distant relatives all around me, with memories at my belt, and a new found peace, and wait as the dusk drags on and a fiery sunset falls upon me.