Burning Sky Prelude – Chapter 5
Baldrik the Unstoppable is a legendary hero among the Templars. But why was he in that position to begin with?
Adeline’s tavern stands at the heart of Aimsbrusch – a small logging town in Etrium. It’s the go-to place for the people to get together and socialize after a hard day’s work at the mills. Weary travelers can rest their heads and find a fresh meal, come sunrise. But this morning the rooms are empty and the only people inside are Adeline and Baldrik, both sitting at the bar.
Baldrik holds his mug on the table in front of him, staring into the steaming black surface of the coffee inside. To his side, Adeline insistently carries on. “Baldrik, we’ve talked about this,” the young woman says, turning towards him with one elbow upon the countertop. “This… ‘knight errant’ business. It doesn’t make any sense.” She picks up her own mug, stirring her coffee with a spoon and facing away from the counter, leaning back against it. “You gave the Templars some of the best years of your life. You’re a hero. But those times are over.” Her free hand finds its way to her old mentor’s shoulder. “The war’s been over for years. You don’t have to fight anymore.”
Adeline talks. And talks. But her voice may as well be white noise. Baldrik continues to stare into his coffee as she goes on, asking him why he’d want to throw himself into the life of a knight again, after all this time. And suddenly… it’s like he’s back there.
A young Baldrik leans against a tree near the campfire of his Templar Outpost among several other knights, holding a tankard, nearly overflowing with ale. Everyone laughs and carries on, taking shots at one another and swapping stories. Baldrik rolls his eyes as he listens to the knights even newer than himself, spinning tales of their exploits. “Ah,” he says, downing his entire mug of ale in one go and tossing it aside with a hearty chuckle. “These are all adorable bedtime stories. But you haven’t seen anything yet.”
Several of the newer knights among the squadron give him sideways looks, one of them folding his arms. “Right. And I don’t suppose you have any stories of your own to share.”
Baldrik laughs again. “You’re joking, yes?”
One of the recruits elbows his buddy. “Don’t believe a word of it. I hear it’s all flukes. Every single one of ‘em.”
But no sooner is that said than Baldrik’s boot plants itself on the log beside where the young knight sits and the man, himself, leans down to meet the boy at eye level. “Is that so? Then I suppose we’ll see for ourselves on the battlefield, won’t we?” He stands, towering well over even most of his own comrades with his hands on his hips. “Just try not to slow me down.”
“We can’t slow you down any more than this stop is.”
“Aye…” Baldrik casts his gaze over the forest in the distance. “One wonders what the holdup is.”
From the tent at the front of the camp, emblazoned with the Nemesian Seal, an authoritative voice travels over the area. “The ‘holdup’ is that we’re waiting for pertinent information, Baldrik.” Out steps a man, just as tall as Baldrik, outfitted in more ornate armor than his subordinates, complete with blue tassels at the shoulder. He pats Baldrik’s arm as he passes by. “Glad to see you’re eager to show the recruits how it’s done. But we can’t have you flying off the handle.”
Baldrik gives a dismissive roll of the eyes and crosses his arms. “Of course, Gregor.”
“The Djinn are an elusive enemy. Word has it that this cluster has a connection to the organizers of the whole bloody Uprising. A victory here could win us the war.”
“Provided we’re ever able to fight,” Baldrik says under his breath to one of his nearby comrades, a hand raised to his mouth to cover his words. Gregor stands before Baldrik, giving him a stern look. But the hotheaded young knight waves it off. “Ah, you know I’m only joking, my friend. So. Where is this intel we need so badly?”
Gregor nods toward a tent at the back of the camp. “With any luck.”
Baldrik makes his way over to the tent. But a faint sound like muffled screams from the other side gives him pause as he nears the entrance. Quiet sobs soon follow. If fear had a voice… Just then, the tent opens and a man in light armor and a hood that obscures his upper face emerges. He bumps into the knight on his way out, dropping whatever was in his hands. Baldrik reacts without thinking. “Ah. Pardon me, friend.” He bends down to pick up the trinket, but his hand just… stops. Upon getting a closer look, the item is a horn. Dripping red and jagged at the base. Like it was broken from its source, rather than cleanly cut.
“Sir Jaeger?” the man says.
Baldrik snaps out of it and picks up the bone piece. Yet, for all his strength, it seems to weigh a ton. Even so, he returns it to his comrade as he brings himself back to his feet. “Ah, yes. My apologies,” he says. He catches himself staring, noting the ease with which the man takes the horn from him. With gloves that are stained red in several places. “I… just wanted to know what you’ve managed to learn.”
The horn disappears into a pouch on the man’s belt. “Hm. Well, not much. This imp is astonishingly tight-lipped, I’m afraid. I’ve tried several methods to get information out of him. But to no avail. At this rate, I’m not certain how much more I can try before he’s of no more use to anyone. But at least that will mean one less resource for the Djinn to use against us.”
A heavy “Aye…” bellows its way from Baldrik, his tone drained of all bravado.
“Not to worry,” Gregor says as he approaches the tent, himself. “We also sent a scout, in the event of this method’s failure. He just returned with news for us. Put the prisoner back in the cage. We’ll ship him off to a labor camp in the nearby town once we’re back. Baldrik, with me.”
Baldrik takes a moment, his head clearly elsewhere. But he follows upon further commands from his superior. On the far end of the outpost stands a young scout, saluting when Gregor and Baldrik appear before him. “Knight Lieutenant Gregor. Sir Baldrik.”
“At ease,” Gregor says, leading Baldrik and the scout into the command post. The lot of them gather around a makeshift war table at the back. In minutes, the scout his the others up to speed. “Here. The camp has a south-facing barricade, guarded by two men. As far as I could see, there were fifteen, maybe twenty Djinn in all.”
Skeptical, Baldrik folds his arms. “That few?”
Gregor strokes his beard. “Less than half the number that was initially reported to us. There were supposed to be over fifty.” It doesn’t add up. One doesn’t send the Lion Squadron – the most decorated outfit in all the Templar military – for… this. “Hm. If the barricade’s facing the south, then they may be expecting forces from the nearby castle town. Which would mean they have no idea we’re here. The east flank is completely exposed? No defenses at all?”
The scout nods. “Yes, sir.”
Gregor isn’t convinced. He stares at the map, likely in danger of boring a hole through it. The Djinn are many things. But careless isn’t generally one of them. “Hm…”
Baldrik pats his superior on the back. “Well, if they’re going to make it that easy for us, we may as well take them up on their offer, yes?”
Gregor stands from the table, ready to speak, when the rapid chime of a bell, just outside, cuts him off. “What in Gaea’s name?” He and the others exit the tent to a dreary scene. A frantic crier in the middle of the outpost, hunched over for lack of breath. He’s badly bruised, covered in soot, and his clothing is in tatters, revealing several burns all over his body. Serious ones. The overpowering odor of brimstone surrounds him. “Gods.” Gregor rushes to the poor man, just before he can fall over, another young knight supporting him. “Bring the medics!”
A breathless and terrified “Help,” wheezes out from the crier’s lungs. “Attack. Castle town, nearby. Valiant. Under attack.” His erratic breathing punctuates each word as he strains to convey his message.
“Your burns,” Gregor says. “The Djinn?”
“No.” The man’s breath trembles at the thought of the truth. “It’s the Akuma.” A deathly, foreboding silence falls over the camp, the knights all looking around, exchanging uneasy glances. “We have our own Templars. Guards, all of them. Not soldiers, like you lot. They’re defending the people as best they can, but…” The man’s eye finds Baldrik at the back of the crowd. “They’re dying. They can’t fight those devils. And… we think there’s more of ‘em, coming from the north.”
Gregor says nothing, his face displaying the utmost stoicism. Eventually, he turns to his men behind him. “Men, we have a mission on our hands.” Taking up his sword, he points it towards the forest, issuing his next command with a booming voice. “We’re marching on the Djinn encampment in the forest.”
Baldrik does a double-take and shoves his way through the other knights to reach his commanding officer, grabbing Gregor by the shoulder and turning him around. “What? After hearing that? How can you still be thinking about the mission?”
“It’s as I said, Baldrik. A victory here could win us the war. Save countless more lives that one town. If we let the Djinn go now, then who’s to say we’ll get another chance like this?”
“And if we leave the Akuma, who’s to say the horde won’t spread and endanger more lives, themselves? You know what those monsters do to people, Gregor.”
“Baldrik. The Templars are the Sword of the Goddess. We have our target.”
“We are also the Shield of the People. And right now there are people who need us. We need to go to help-”
“Knight Jaeger.” Oh. So now the last names come out. Gregor walks around Baldrik and towards the horses. “We’re going after the Djinn. That’s final. Men, saddle up!”
The crier, overcome with dread, flings himself in the path of Gregor’s steed before the Knight Lieutenant can leave. “Wait! You… you can’t just abandon the town!”
“We’ll send a scout for reinforcements,” Gregor says.
Baldrik watches from the sidelines, this desperate townsperson pleading with Gregor for aid. The rest of his comrades fall into formation around him. But he stands in the middle of the camp, a living statue. Finally, he approaches the weapon rack, taking up his ax. “I’m sorry, my friend,” he says. A knot forms in the crier’s stomach at those grim words. But then… he turns around. He turns around and that knot undoes itself instantly upon seeing who the knight’s gaze is actually fixed on – Gregor. “But I can’t leave behind the people who need us.”
His commanding officer balking at this, Baldrik turns due south, marching off towards the imperiled castle town of Valiant. But Gregor catches up on horseback, cutting him off just outside of the camp. “Baldrik, you can’t go out there alone. What difference do you think one knight can make against that?”
Baldrik tips his head up to his officer, quite literally looking down on him from atop a high horse. But he meets the man, locking eyes with a dead serious gaze. “More than none.”
“You’re going to get yourself killed.”
Baldrik shrugs and continues walking. “If I die, then I die. But I will die protecting people. As should be expected of the Templars, or so an old friend once told me.”
Then a blunt noise. A thud along with the clanking of metal. Steel boots hitting the dirt. Baldrik glances back to find Gregor hopped down from his horse, approaching him. When the two meet, Gregor grabs Baldrik by the arm and turns him fully around. “Listen. I don’t like this. We’re sent out here on a report of over fifty Djinn hostiles and suddenly there’s less than half that number? It doesn’t feel right.”
So that’s how it is, then. “The Djinn came in from the North. The same direction as the Akuma. It’s likely they ran into the horde and lost people so they’re licking their wounds in the forest. It’s what we’d do.”
“And if that’s not the case? Then what? Then we’re probably walking into an ambush. You’re our best warrior. You know that.”
“You have Westcott. He’s more than capable of taking my place.”
“We need you, Baldrik.”
With a sigh, Baldrik takes his “old friend” by the wrist, slowly removing the man’s hand from his arm. Then, not taking his eyes away from Gregor’s for a second, he speaks the only words he can in such a moment. Words that doubtless fill the lieutenant with dread. Not for the fear of what’s to come, but for how true they are. “They need me more.” With Gregor stunned, the young knight continues on his way.
Once Baldrik is a fair distance away, Gregor shakes it off. “Knight Jaeger, get back here! That’s an order!” he barks.
No answer. Baldrik doesn’t even pause. A quiet “I am sorry, Lieutenant,” whispers out beneath his breath. “I’m afraid I cannot comply.” With nothing left to say, the two knights part ways, Baldrik continuing towards Valiant, Gregor sneering and climbing back onto his horse to rejoin his men at the outpost for their assault on the enemy camp.
In the present, Baldrik sits at the bar in Adeline’s tavern, still staring into his mug with a solemn air about him. Adeline sits at his side, her own face wrought with… shock. Confusion. “Baldrik… was that-?”
“Aye.” Huh. Such a small word. Confirmation of a simple question. And yet so difficult to say. “There you have it. The story of how I earned the title of ‘Baldrik the Unstoppable’… the whole story.”
Adeline looks into her own drink. The steam that once rose from it is long gone, yet she hadn’t even touched it. How much time had passed? “And… what happened to the knights?”
“My instincts were correct.” Baldrik turns in his seat, leaning back against the bar and looking into the ether with his mug still in his hands. “The Djinn had run into the Akuma already. Their numbers weren’t great enough for an ambush. But… Gregor was not completely wrong. The Djinn set a trap. They knew we were onto them and that they were out of options. So they did something… desperate. And it wouldn’t be the last time.” Flames. That day, so many flames. Their roar, their unholy red light, it all floods the Great Old Knight’s memory. “Fighting in the Uprising, there was one thing we Templars learned quickly. For all the strength they have – all the power that we feared – the Djinn are at their most dangerous when they’re cornered.”
“What did they do?”
Baldrik brings his head down, looking to his young protege with somber eyes. “They set the forest ablaze.”
Adeline feels her eyes welcoming the cold air as she recoils with disbelief. “The… the entire forest? All of it?”
“The Lion Squadron – my squadron, the best in the Templar ranks – went in, some thirty strong. But only just over ten of them emerged at the end of that day. Gregor got his battle. Most of the Djinn escaped but he captured the leader. He won.”
So enthralled is Adeline in a tale she’d never heard before that she swivels in her seat, leaning into Baldrik’s space. Ten years. Ten years with this man, since she was a tyke, and still he had stories. But this one is so… different. “Then… what happened after? This Lieutenant Gregor. He got his, right?” Surely it ends the way they all do. Some triumphant hurrah or… no. That look in his eyes. The same one he’d been sinking into his coffee. It gives her a completely different vibe.
“Not… in so many words, no. Not long after those events and my recovery, there was a court martial hearing.”
“For the Lieutenant?”
Baldrik shakes his head. “No. For me.” Even looking straight ahead, peering off into nothing in particular, Baldrik can sense the dropping of the girl’s jaw. The indignation. It’s… sweet. Getting so insensed on his part. But he sits himself upright and continues, nonetheless. “Gregor was none too pleased with losing two thirds of his men. He tried to use that against me.”
Back to facing the bar, Adeline stares ahead, the gears turning in her skull. “But… but if you’d been court martialed-”
“They didn’t go through with it. The Judge threw it out. No, they saw to it that Gregor got his slap on the wrist. Meanwhile, I was given a promotion and a title. I became ‘Baldrik the Unstoppable’. Greatest of the Great Knights.”
Adeline hunches over it, staring into her drink as Baldrik had been. “Right, then. I get it,” the girl says, her body tense with a halfhearted smile across her face. “You don’t know how not to be a hero.”
A deep chuckle bounces around the walls of the tavern. “That isn’t it.”
But at that claim, Adeline squeezes her tankard, the metal warping in her grip. The creaking wail the cup draws the old knight’s gaze toward her. “Then why?” She snaps to her mentor, popping up from her seat with a look one could only expect from a confused mother, absolutely baffled by some strange decision of her child’s. “For pity’s sake, Baldrik, you’re retired. With honors. You don’t have anything to prove. You don’t owe anyone anything. Why throw yourself back into this?”
A sobering quiet befalls the pair. A silence louder than any argument as Baldrik sits there, his mind clearly off on a magical tour of a bygone era. He heaves with a sigh fit to empty his lungs and looks squarely into his pupils eyes. “If not me, Adeline… then who?” Suddenly Adeline has the wind taken from her sails. Her posture loosens and Baldrik continues, turning his head to the window that looks into the streets, watching as people pass by, carrying about their morning routines. Not one of them wears armor or carries a blade. Farmers, merchants, mill workers, the lot of them. “I don’t see any Templars here. They’ve not sent so much as a single guard to this town since long before I arrived. If these people have been forgotten by those who swore to protect them, then how many other towns have the Templars abandoned?”
Still, Adeline grits her teeth with a violent sneer and an indignant “That’s why we need you here!” thundering out on that powerful voice of hers. “Before you showed up, this place was hit by bandits every other moon. And Papa…” That last statement. She’d killed it before it could get any further. Indeed. Ten years is a long time. In all of it, Baldrik recalls only a handful of times he’d seen her like this. Angry to the point of shaking, looking like she’s trying to use every muscle in her body to pin down and trap a side of herself she doesn’t want shown. “If you leave, it could start all over again. Then what?”
Baldrik blinks. Without a second thought, he shrugs. “Then you’ll take care of it.”
Needless to say, Adeline is floored. Had he really just said that? And so matter-of-fact, too. As if it was the simplest thing in the world. “W-what?”
The Great Old Knight rises from his seat, just as much of a mountain now as in his youth, dwarfing even Adeline, who’s certainly no dainty little doll of a girl, herself. A firm hand pats down on her head. “Did you think I trained you because you were weak?” Baldrik grins as Adeline stares at him, caught so off-guard that she just has no response to give. “Of course not! It was because you were strong! Strong enough to protect this place and its people.”
Adeline can’t do anything but gawk. That and struggle to find the words. But at that moment, the tavern doors swing open. In wobbles Seamus, completely plastered, first thing in the morning, and fumbling all over himself. Adeline takes a deep breath to gather herself and pulls Baldrik’s hand from her head, walking around him with a quick glance through the corner of her eye. “We’re not done talking.” Thus she leaves him there, attending to her drunken guest. “Oi, Seamus. Mornin’. Get kicked out again?”
“Ah, that ol’ hag,” the drunkard slurs. “Doesn’t know how to do nothin’ but complain. I’m tellin’ ya, I married one o’ them Akuma devils.”
“Whatever you say, Seamus. Come on, then. Fresh air awaits.”
Baldrik watches as Adeline helps Seamus up from the floor and guides him outside. Then he sits back at the bar and takes a sip, only to then hold the mug away from his face. “And now you’re cold…”
That evening, Baldrik returns to his residence at the far end of town – a spacious cottage at the end of a short trail just a bit into the woods, a forge on the deck to the left. Hanging on the door is a sign that reads “closed.” As the door shuts behind him, he stands in the foyer, a dysphoric atmosphere filling the tiny room.
He makes his way to a door at the back of the main living area and looks over the walls of the long, back room, all of them lined with medals. But he passes by cases of trophies from enemies he’d defeated. Scraps of armor, beaten up weapons, he skips over all of it, stopping only upon reaching the glass case at the far end of the room. Resting inside is a long battle-ax. The very same as the one from all the stories. Etched into its handle is the name “Arick.”
Baldrik touches a hand to the case and bows his head. As if the weight of the room itself was upon him. “It isn’t too late, is it, old friend?” So… so very heavy. But even so, he raises his head. “There is still work to be done.”