The Heartless Dead: Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-six
The Last al-Harad

“How is she?” Elder Parkeen asked gently.

Santon grimaced. “Fine.”

“That is good, is it not?”

“It’s the problem!” Santon exclaimed. “She’s perfectly fine. The healers and clerics have been working non-stop for weeks and they’ve run out of wounds to heal. She’s alive and healthy, but she’s still not waking up.”

Elder Parkeen nodded. “She will return.”

Santon scowled. “What if she doesn’t want to?”

Elder Parkeen raised a craggy old eyebrow and Santon continued.

“She’s a woman of faith, right? Devoted to her god and all that. Doesn’t that mean she’s hanging out in some kind of drunken afterlife with a bunch of other holy dead guys? What if she’s up there, partying without me, and has decided to let this place – let us – go? Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen when the pious die? They have such a great time that all their troubles and their lives just… fall away?”

“Calm yourself, Sheriff. You are correct, in part. In death we are judged by Pharasma and sent to where we will spend eternity. The pious go to the home of their gods, the good to a place of their liking and the evil to a foul one. I have no doubt that Bree’s afterlife will be a place of joy and… freely flowing libations, but you have forgotten that she is not, in fact, dead.”

“But what if she did die, for a moment?”

“Even if her soul has found it’s way to Cayden’s Hall, if her body still lives, her Lord will ensure she returns to us.”

“Don’t treat me like a child, old man. I know there are people who don’t wake up from comas.”

Elder Parkeen smiled. “And you think her god would allow her to abandon her tasks upon this plane? You think she would allow it?”

For the first time in weeks, Santon smiled. “No, I don’t.”

“Neither do I,” Elder Parkeen chuckled. After a moment he paused. His breathing sped up and sweat formed on his brow.

“Out with it, old man. I’m not in the mood for foreplay.”

Elder Parkeen smiled. “I hear you are returning home, Sheriff.”

“You heard right. We’re bringing Bree along. Kelestair has some tests he wants to run on her back at the hospital.”

“Then I am glad I caught you before you left. I have something I want to show you, but I have been waiting for a more… opportune time.”

Santon cocked an eyebrow. “I’m listening.”

“Walk with me.”

Santon followed Elder Parkeen out of Thrice Hills and downhill to a long, open ridge. A row of thin, spiny trees grew atop it in a long line. The first few trees were nearly a fifty feet tall, but they grew progressively shorter further along the ridge. Beneath each of the trees was a large stone marker covered with writing, dates and names.

“Is this a graveyard?” Santon asked.

“Of a sort. The graveyard is at the bottom of the ridge. This is a memorial for the greatest amongst us. Our founders, great leaders and heroes are honoured here. We plant a tree for each of them, and raise a stone monument upon which their stories are recorded.”

A boyish grin spread across Santon’s face. “It’s a little early for you to offer me a stone. I’m not dead yet.”

Elder Parkeen smiled gently. “Let me tell you a story that I believe you will find enlightening.”

Santon smirked. “Is it boring?”
Elder Parkeen’s smile did not waver. He spoke in an even, warm tone. “Eleven years ago Thrice Hills was a dangerous place. Kelmarane had fallen to its own corruption nearly a decade beforehand and had become a meeting place for unaffiliated gnolls. None of our other neighbours remained in the area. All that was left in the Brazen Peaks was our tiny village and gnoll territory.”

“Tell me you didn’t drag me out here for a history lesson.”

Elder Parkeen continued as if Santon had not spoken. “There were far more gnoll tribes in those days, but they were smaller and fought amongst themselves often. Our warriors did their best to protect ourselves and keep our village a safe place, but we were always the target of one tribe or another. Casualties and captives were common.”

Santon suppressed a frown. He wasn’t in the mood to hear another sob story before they asked him for more protection and more aid. Hadn’t he given them enough?

“We had a Sheriff back then,” Elder Parkeen said. “His name was Lakar ak-Harad. He had a beautiful wife, but she was wild and often joined him in arms in order to protect our people. Her name was Aisha. They had a child together – a boy – but that didn’t slow her down. Lakar and Aisha could always be counted on to defend us. And they did. Until their dying breath.”

“In the late fall of that year we received word that an ambitious flind known as Ur-Kul had banded the gnolls together in order to take Thrice Hills.”

Santon suppressed a shudder. The name evoked an ominous feeling in the pit of his stomache. Elder Parkeen either didn’t notice his discomfort or didn’t care.

“Ur-kul hoped that this would be the largest successful slave raid in his lifetime, and it would earn him enough prestige to found his own tribe large enough to rival the one he had been cast out of. Lakar and Aisha got to work immediately, preparing the town’s defenses and escape routes. They fought on the front lines alongside our warriors and archers. Under their command our warriors took down all but three of the gnolls, though we suffered the heaviest casualties in our history.” Elder Parkeen paused and cleared his throat. “In the end, Lakar and Aisha faced off against Ur-kul and his most dangerous fighters. Despite their best efforts, Ur-kul killed them. They were the last of our warriors to fall. We were defenseless.”

“At the sight of his parents dying, Lakar and Aisha’s son ran to their side. Ur-kul dragged him off of the bodies of his parents and clamped him in irons. He was just a young boy. Four years old.”

Santon frowned. This story was starting to sound familiar. Had Bree told it to him once before? He didn’t recall it having a happy ending.

“Ur-kul’s surviving followers moved into town and began to collect the most frightened among our number. With our warriors gone there was no one to protect us. We surrendered, so as not to die. We all did. All but the child. He fought. He bit and kicked and clawed. Ur-kul hit the child again and again, but he would not surrender. A child proved to be the bravest amongst us.” Elder Parkeen shook his head.

Santon’s palms grew clammy. His shoulders tensed.

“At the sight of the child fighting back despite his pain and grief the people of Thrice Hills changed. Though we were weak and knew many of us would die, we fought against the gnolls. We managed to free ourselves and kill our captors, but Ur-kul fled with the child. We tried to follow him, but all of our trackers had died. The gnoll lost us easily.”

“We buried Lakar and Aisha in the cemetery and left an empty plot beside them, for their son. We hoped that if he died it would draw him home. We planted a tree for Lakar and Aisha, and named our most treasured hill after them. They were the bravest and brightest amongst us. We promised the position of Sheriff to the next one of us who could carry on Lakar and Aisha’s legacy, but the position has remained empty this past decade.”

“The child received his own monument. A tree and stone next to his parents. He taught us the most valuable lesson in out history. No matter our size, or strength, or training, anyone can fight. Anyone can stand up for themselves. Anyone can make a difference. And everyone should.” Elder Parkeen paused, and then sighed. “We failed that child. Failed him so completely that it has haunted our dreams for years. I still have nightmares of his screams. The torments he must have been put through. All because we found our courage too late.”

Santon’s throat tightened. He shifted uncomfortably. “Why are you telling me this?”

“The child’s name was Santon.”

Santon froze. He tried to force his face into a casual smirk, but his jaw wouldn’t loosen. “There’s a lot of Santon’s in the world, old man.”

“He had golden-brown eyes, just like yours, and black hair.”

“Congratulations. You’ve just described the entire populace of Katapesh.”

“He had a boyish, lopsided smile and perfect white teeth. His nose was…” Elder Parkeen faltered. His chin shuddered and his lip quivered. He fought to hold his emotions in, but failed. “By Sarenrae’s Light, you look just like your father!”

“I… I have a father,” Santon managed to stutter. “Back home in Katapesh.”

Elder Parkeen smiled through his tears. “Yes, yes. I’ve heard he’s a wealthy merchant.”

Santon’s composure broke. “I have never been a slave!”

“A fact to which I’m sure your lovely sister can attest. You don’t look much alike.”

“I’m not – “

Elder Parkeen waved his hand in the air. “I just wanted you to know how much you and your parents meant to us. I wanted you to hear their story. Your story. I owe your parents that much, at least. And mostly, I…” Elder Parkeen’s voice cracked. “I wanted to let you know how sorry I am. How sorry we all are. We should have saved you. No matter the cost.”

Santon took a deep breath. If word that the Sheriff of Kelmarane was an ex-slave got out, the Pactmaster’s of Katapesh would have ample reason to take control of the town from him. Parkeen’s story was dangerous. “The boy, you mean. You should have saved the boy.”

Elder Parkeen sniffed deeply and rubbed his eyes. He smiled. “No one here will say a thing. We take care of our own.”

“It’s a little late for that,” Santon spat.

“A fact I would change if I could, my boy.”

Santon grit his teeth, but nodded.

“I’ll leave you now, to be alone with your thoughts,” Elder Parkeen whispered. He turned and walked away.

Santon watched him go.

Elder Parkeen stopped at the edge of the ridge, but did not look back. “If you ever want to come home, we’d be honoured to have you take over as Sheriff.”

“Santon al-Harad is dead, old man. He died in dirt alongside his parents, feeling angry and alone.”

“I understand.”

Santon sighed. “But, if he were alive today, I think he would forgive you.”

Elder Parkeen looked up at Santon with hopeful, red-rimmed eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it. He smiled. “Your parents would be proud of you. I know we are.”

A lump formed in Santon’s throat. Elder Parkeen had no idea what Santon had done in his short life. He had no idea what he was capable of. If he knew… If they knew, would they still be proud?

Elder Parkeen turned and walked back up the hill to Thrice Hills.

Santon relaxed his shoulders and let the tension leave him. He placed his hands upon the monument stones for the al-Harad’s. He traced his fingers over their names. He read about their lives and achievements. He studied their stories until the sun set and he could no longer see the letters engraved upon the stone’s surface.

It was the closest he could remember being to his parents.

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