Most of the slave quarters on the Agalon plantation looked very similar, but none of them looked exactly the same. They had all been built the same way, but by different people. All the people were on tight schedules, and all used reclaimed materials, but as they were all built with human strength, ingenuity, and love, they all had variations, because those things varied from person to person.
Xaxac’s house was almost a box, but the crooked roof made it not exactly a box, and though some of the houses were taller than they were wide, Xac’s house was a squat thing, close to the ground. Abe told him that it made more sense to build a house that way, because it was easier to heat.
Abe worked from sunup to sundown in the fields, yet still, in the evening when the cool spring breezes broke through the heat, he would work by the light of the fire Abigale used to cook, patching the holes Xac had made in the wooden walls, repairing the furniture he had destroyed, until it was, once again, a cozy home.
The entire inside was one room, and it wasn’t very big, but Xac liked it there. He didn’t remember anything else. They didn’t have glass windows, but they had curtains to keep out the weather that Abby had made herself, and a big bed stuffed with straw that needed to be cleaned out and restuffed once a month that the family slept on, curled up together. Xac didn’t understand that he was lucky to have parents to cuddle, to hold him when he had bad dreams and lul him back to sleep. He was too young to know that there were children without families, or that his family had chosen him. He had not yet learned how cruel the world could be to some children.
He also did not know that some children lived in manor houses with rooms of their own larger than his house, or that they went to school instead of work. He didn’t know that he was unlucky in many ways, because he was too young to know the difference. He only knew what people told him.
But he was lucky because his mother, Abby, worked in the manor house, which made her special. She would be gone all day most of the time, but she always brought back something amazing from the kitchen in the big house, the kind of food that most people on the plantation never got to taste, leftovers that ‘would have gone to waste’.
If night came and she still had not returned, as sometimes happened, they would go to bed without her, but she was always there again, in the morning, sleeping next to them.
It is the amazing condition of children, that no matter what their circumstances are, they will consider them normal. For Xaxac OfAgalon, it was normal to work the fields from the time the sun came up to the time it went down with his family, then to gather for dinner and listen to his father tell stories by the dying firelight with his sister Alice as they sat at his feet and listened attentively, while his mother spun fiber into yarn with a hand spinner, sitting a little ways away from them at the little wooden table Abe had built. Xac liked to watch her turn the big clumps of fluff into string, and then the string into real things, like winter clothes, with two sticks that made a comforting ‘clack clack clack’ sound.
Tonight he sat, warm and feeling cuddly, with Alice by the hearth, while Abe rolled out clumps of tobacco on brown strips of paper, licked them closed, and set them aside in a little paper box.
“You younguns ever hear tell of the Emerald Knight?” He asked.
“I have!” Alice said, and Xac laid his little head in her lap. He always got sleepy after he ate, and he was sleepy now.
“I dunno what that is,” Xac admitted, and in confusion he asked, “And I dunno how you know if I don’t. I dunno how you know stuff.”
“It’s a monster!” Alice explained.
“I don’t like monsters,” Xac said.
“Cause you’re scared?” Alice asked.
“No,” Xac yawned, thought very seriously about pushing himself off of her lap in an effort to stay awake, and decided against it, “I just don’t like um.”
“Well I do!” She said, and began to pet his hair as if he was a puppy. “You’re so soft.”
“Thanks,” Xac said, because he didn’t know what else to say.
“Once upon a time,” Abe said, tapping down the cigarettes he had just rolled, “There lived a beautiful princess. In the capital of the empire, there’s a huge castle- and in that castle, there used to live a king and queen. But one day, something awful happened. The castle was attacked, and everyone thought the princess would die.”
Xaxac didn’t really care much about princesses, and found that the story didn’t hold his attention, but Alice seemed to very much enjoy the story.
“In the temple,” Abe went on as he selected a cigarette and lit it on the open fire, “In the capital, there was a magic sword in a magic stone. The legends said that only the Chosen Child of Thesis could get the sword out of the stone. But it had sat there for centuries, and nobody was able to get it out.”
Xac yawned again, and snuggled down in his sister’s lap. His eyelids were drooping, and he wasn’t very interested in swords either. He had never seen one and had no context for the story. If he had been more awake, he would have asked so that he could visualize the story better, but in his current mood it didn’t seem very important.
“But that all changed the day the castle was attacked,” Abe said. “The king and queen were both murdered, right in their own house! The entire countryside was on fire! And the princess fled, on foot, just ran out into the night! She was being hunted, but the assassins who had killed her parents!”
“Daddy, what’s an assassin?” Alice asked.
“Somebody what kills for a living, for a job,” Abe explained, “Worst kinda folks you can meet. Don’t care nothing about nobody. Them kinds of folks would kill you as soon as to look at you.”
“Anyway,” he went on, “They were right on her tail- but the princess ran for her life, all through the night, until,” he paused for dramatic effect, “They found her. But then, just when all hope looked lost, she saw a bright, shining light, and the Emerald Knight appeared with the magic sword. He saved the princess that night. They say he wiped out the whole band of attackers himself.”
“That’s a great story, daddy!” Alice said, “Did he marry the princess and live happily ever after?”
“That ain’t the end of the story,” Abe said, “That’s the start. See… the thing about power is, it goes to your head. Too much power eats away at a body like a disease. The Emerald Knight didn’t stay a savior for long. Not too long after that, he musta thought, ‘That fight was good, but I want more’. So he set out for a bigger fight. He sought out the strongest bad guy he could find, and killed him. Then the next strongest. But it was never enough. Every time he wanted something bigger and stronger. So he went to the Mysterious Forest up by the Sage Lake Province.”
“See, nowadays,” Abe told them, “That place is dangerous. Nobody goes in there and comes back out. Folks who go near it say they hear whispers. Younguns who get to close don’t know not to listen, and they follow the voices into the woods, and then they never come out.”
He let this information sink in, then continued, “But now legend has it that once upon a time that place was a sacred wood. There’s supposed to be a whole town in the middle of it, with another big temple like the one in the capital. People say that there used to be a spirit in that temple, a god who could talk right to Thesis, draw power from the God above, and relay those messages to the people.”
“There’s a reason them woods are evil now.”
Xaxac’s eyes were open now. He had said he hadn’t liked monsters, but one does not need to like something to have an interest in it.
“The Emerald Knight was itching for a bigger fight,” Abe said, “So he went right through them woods, right into that temple- and he decided to take on the voice of a god. He picked a fight with the Great Forest Spirit.”
Abe looked down at the faces of his children, hanging on to his every word.
“And he beat it. The Emerald Knight killed the Great Forest Spirit- and the Forest never forgave him. They say there was a huge earthquake that destroyed the town there, and the woods swallowed up ever’ trace of it, swallowed up any path in or out.”
“Now you might think- but surely the Emerald Knight died too? He must have got trapped in them woods after what a horrible thing he just done.”
“But you’d be wrong.”
“Folks say they still seem him, ten feet tall and bright green, glowing like the sun and wielding that sword he pulled out of that rock centuries ago. But now? Now he ain’t no savior. Now he’s the monster what killed a god. And now that he’s got a taste for blood? He wants more. He wants more, and more, and more- and it’s never enough. So younguns that wander off, who don’t listen at their parents and try to sneak out after dark, to places they ain’t supposed to be? They run the risk of seeing that light, blinding and green, coming out of the darkness. By the time you see it, it’s too late. He moves like a lightning flash, and he’ll slice you clean,” Abe leaned forward quickly and raised his voice, “IN HALF!”
Alice shrieked and Xaxac covered his ears.
“Ow!” He complained.
“I gotcha good, baby,” Abe laughed.
“But that’s not real, right?” Xaxac asked as he sat up and glared at Alice.
“Oh, he’s real, baby,” Abby said, “Emerald Knight is as real as you or me. But he don’t go after folks who do what they’re supposed to. You stay right here and be good and you won’t never have to worry about it. Now you younguns get to bed. We got us a long day tomorrow.”