By Lady Aliena
"Hardin, what think you of the new recruits?" Franklin asked the young man as they walked towards the group of young idealists, ready to make a difference.
"They certainly look..." he paused, "Like I remember looking two years ago," John smiled.
"That they do," Franklin agreed, stepping forward to examine the recruits. He frowned slightly as the young men attempted to stiffen up and look official. These were not men. They were mere children! But the Peaceguard was a prestigious organization and most young men aspired to join it as soon as their secondary education was complete. He watched with hidden amusement as a blonde haired man was clearly trying to suppress the urge to itch his nose. "Gentlemen," his voice boomed. "Today your life will change. Today, the focus of your hearts' desires will shift from selfish wants to the good of the land." John watched him as he paced in front of the men. "Your blades will be the law and so you must always uphold the law, holding it sacred. Let the law be your guide and your priority. Do you so swear?"
"We swear!" The young men shouted, drawing their swords and holding them upright.
"Good," Franklin smiled and looked over to where John was standing. "This is John Hardin. If you have any questions or concerns, find him and he'll do whatever is needed. That is all." He turned and walked towards John who watched the young blonde man sigh with relief and scratch his nose. "Well? What think you of your new brothers?"
"They will fit the mold well."
Franklin clasped his hands on Hardin's shoulders. "Lead them, John. They need strong guidance." He suddenly looked weary, older than his sixty-four years. "They need someone who will not be swayed by sensationalism and foolery. I trust you. Lead them..."
"Yes sir," John responded softly. Franklin turned on his heel and walked away.
"Johnny!" Edward Hardin squealed as his older brother walked through the door. John affectionately rumpled Edward's hair and took off his coat, laying his sword on top of it. Edward giggled, but his laughter soon turned into wracking coughs that shook his whole body. "Edward, you need to rest," his mother walked into the room, taking the little boy's hand and guiding him back to his bed. She walked out a few minutes later, a worried expression on her face.
"How is he?" John asked.
She shook her head. "He's getting worse. I tried letting him out of bed awhile to see if maybe a little activity could help him, but you heard him. All we can do is maintain faith that he'll fare well in the end."
"Yes...faith..." John muttered. He didn't believe in faith. He only believed in what he could see, in what he could experience. "Did faith keep him from growing ill? No. Is faith making him better? No!" he said, bitterly.
His mother sighed and brushed from her eyes, a long strand of greying hair that had escaped her clip. "John, faith is all we have. It's all I have, at least. If I live like you, believing in nothing, then how could I cope? How could I open my eyes each day?" Her voice grew weaker until it dissolved into sobs.
John immediately ran and knelt by his mother's side. "Forgive me," he said. "I should not have said anything."
"I already know where you stand. Just please do not take away the one thing I have left. Someday you'll find something to believe in and you will finally understand. It's all I have..."
"You have me," he said softly as he wrapped his arms around his mother, cradling her as if she were the child and he were the parent. Edward's illness had taken so much out of her. Her husband, their father, had been killed in battle during the civil conflicts of the kingdom of Viosaille. Edward had developed a slight cough not long after. At first, they figured it was nothing but a cold, but after 3 months, the cough was still there, only harsher and deeper in his chest. The doctors couldn't do a thing for him. They gave the same answer over and over: There was no cure for his illness. All they could do was wait and hope for a turn for the better. John joined the Peaceguard to ease the financial strain that had resulted from the loss of his father and the illness of his brother.
"You're a good man, John," his mother said. "You are very much like your father. Always wanting to do what's right." She started to stand. "No. Let me fix dinner tonight. You've had a long day."
"I haven't done much. I've just been watching Edward and laundering the clothes."
"Nonsense. Sit," he instructed, pushing her back down in the chair. "Tonight, let me serve you."
"You wanted to see me, sir?" John bowed slightly to Franklin as he stepped into his office.
"Yes, yes. Hardin, sit. You know about the conflicts in Viosaille?"
"Yes sir. The fighting has persisted for years," John replied, taking his seat.
"We have decided to lend aid to the rebels by delivering weapons - made from the finest steel. The Stronghold has tried to crush the rebellion by cutting off their supplies. We already have a team delivering food rations and now we just need to send another team in with the blades."
"Sir, isn't it dangerous to risk a conflict with Viosaille. The last time we sent forces over there..." John's voice trailed off and his face hardened with the memory of the messenger telling his family that his father had perished in the war.
"I remember," Franklin replied gruffly. "It was a massacre. That's why we're aiding the movement with supplies rather than fighting directly. If your men can sneak in and deliver without being noticed, I can assure you, you will make a big difference in the war effort." He walked around his desk to a large crate, pulling out one of the blades. The brand new steel gleamed. "Isn't it a fine sword? The finest craftmanship I've seen..."
John sat back to think. He hated to leave his mother alone with Edward, but he knew if somehow they could turn the tide of the war, then perhaps, the people responsible for the death of his Father would be brought to justice. And he would only be gone for a few days...
"Well?" Franklin turned to him.
"I accept," he nodded. "What do I do?"
Franklin clapped his hands together and placed the sword back in the crate. "Good, good! You'll meet with the rest of the team and discuss the strategy."
"I'm leaving everything in your hands. You decide how to work it and proceed at will."
"We've already established a contact in the rebel group in Viosaille. His name is 'Talon.' That is all you need to know. Once we meet him, he will direct us where to go next. We will be masquerading as peasants when we go and we will depart from..." Martine Blais leaned over the map that he had spread on the table in the middle of the room. The men on each side of the table leaned in for a better look.
"I've heard the women in Viosaille are really beautiful," Alex Godin whispered to John. "I wonder if we will come into contact with any of them." He grinned.
"For this mission, I think not," John replied. "We simply deliver and return. We should be gone no more than three days."
"If everything goes smoothly," Alex commented.
"Yes. If everything goes smoothly," John agreed.
"Hardin. Godin. Do you have anything to share with the rest of us or are you ready to act with responsibility and pay attention? There is no room for errors!" Martine chastised the two men.
"Sorry, Martine. It was my fault," Alex apologized good-naturedly.
"I don't care whose fault it was. I need your ears, please." He hissed on the last word.
"Forgive us, Martine," John said humbly, turning his attention back to the map.
"We'll make camp here," Martine announced to the men. He dismounted his horse and secured the beast to a nearby tree. Sauntering over to the wagons that held the goods, he said, "We'll venture into town tonight to meet with Talon. There will be a festival so we want to make sure we blend in to avoid suspicion. Try to split up if you can. Of course, make sure you're not alone, but feel free to wander about. See what you can learn about the Kingdom. We may be merely delivering goods, but we can still pick up intelligence. You all know your duties. Let's set up camp."
The men began the process of securing horses and setting up tents. Alex leaned down while John wound a rope around a stake. "So, when we head into town tonight..."
"Let me guess," John stood. "You'll find the prettiest maid there and you want me to cover for you should you go off alone with her."
"You know me too well," Alex laughed, the setting sun reflecting off his red hair. "I've no doubt I'll find a pretty maid. So you will cover for me?"
John smiled. "Only as long as you're not gone long and that I know where you'll be."
"Oh, it shouldn't take me long at all," Alex winked. "Thank you, Hardin. You're a good man! Especially compared to a scoundrel like me!" He slapped him on the back and jogged away to help hide the blades.
That night when the sun had set and the stars had begun to peek out in the sky, the members of the Peaceguard Special Team headed to the nearby town of Lars Bolyn. "I will make contact with Talon in approximately half an hour," Martine said. "Spread out and see what you can learn. Enjoy yourselves for tomorrow, things may or may not be easy."
Alex, John, and a few of the other men walked around, taking in the music and festivities in Lars Bolyn. A beautiful woman with tempting eyes danced past them, brushing her hand through Alex's red hair, smiling coyly at him.
"Did you see that?" Alex grinned. "This is indeed going to be a very promising night."
"Let's see what this festival has to offer," one of the men suggested, so they continued to walk, until they noticed a crowd gathering around small booth. Stepping closer, they saw a woman, old but noticeably beautiful, telling fortunes. Alex pushed his way through the crowd and sat down at her table.
"You wish to have your fortune told?"
"Yes Ma'am," Alex said enthusiastically, dropping a few coins in her hand.
"Very well, let me see what I can tell you..." She held his hand in her own and said, "Your spirit is as fiery as your hair. You have been caught in mischief in the past and no doubt, will be caught plenty more times in the future. However, one day, you will be ensnared by someone so enchanting and life as you know it will end."
"What do you mean? Am I going to die?"
"Child, everyone dies! But no. I did not mean that. It looks like you will become a father. You will dote on your eight children."
"Eight children??" Alex cried in dismay.
"All girls..." the fortune-teller grinned, causing the audience to roar with laughter. "And you will be faced with protecting them from young men who remind you of...you."
Alex broke out into laughter and stood up, taking the good natured slaps on the back in stride. "Would serve me right, eh? Why don't you tell John's fortune?" He pointed at John, who was leaning against a wooden post, his arms folded.
"Oh, no. I don't really believe in that kind of..." John held up his hands.
"Oh come on! It's all in good fun!" Alex insisted, rushing towards him and pulling him to the table. "I'll even pay!" John reluctantly took the chair.
The fortune-teller smiled benevolently at him. "Don't be shy, child," she said softly. Her eyes widened when she took John's hand. Her mouth rounded and she let out a tiny breath. "You're a unique man. You have a noble heart, though nobility runs not through your veins. You are loyal to the people you care for most. I see family as being important to you. You have experienced heartache and have stopped believing in what you cannot see. However, that will all change..." She stopped, gasping slightly and raising her eyes to meet John's own.
"Oh, don't stop now!" a voice in the crowd called.
"I...It's not my call. I can continue if you wish or I can stop," she said to John, almost pleading.
"You might as well continue," he replied, growing more and more perplexed. How could she know his heart?
She took a deep breath. "It pains me to tell you that your heartache will only grow until you are driven to wander. However, you will be drawn into something that feeds your soul and gives you new meaning. Yet when you finally turn over your whole self willingly to this faith, your life...will be...cut...tragically...short..." She sat back, her face troubled and her eyes filling with tears.
"What?" John whispered.
"I...it must be a mistake...excuse me..." The fortune-teller pushed her seat back and walked briskly into her nearby tent, pulling the flap closed. The audience that had gathered stood around in stunned silence, gaping at the young man sitting at the table, now alone.
John stood slowly, shocked by what he had just heard, but his cynicism pervaded and he forced a laugh. Turning to the crowd, he said, "You don't believe this, do you?" No one said a word. His own friends stared down at the ground, uncomfortably. "Well I, for one, don't. I don't believe your path is chosen for you. You choose your own destiny." He took a deep breath and took a step towards the crowd. They parted to allow him to pass and he kept walking...
John had been silent the whole way back to the camp. Alex had even foregone a rendezvous with his beautiful maid out of concern for his friend. "John?"
"You are so silent. About the fortune...forgive me. I should not have pushed..."
John waved his arm. "Oh, worry not. I don't believe in such folley. You should know that. It was all in fun. Performers like that woman need to tell bad fortunes every once in a while to maintain the excitement of the crowd."
"You believe that?"
"With all my heart," John replied.
"Good news!" Martine announced, silencing the men. "Talon has given us further instructions on where to deliver the blades. So, on the morrow, we'll journey down to Milarre, which is slightly to the East, and we'll make our delivery. So sleep well, for tomorrow, everything may crash around us. Hopefully not, though." The man yawned and stepped inside his tent. The rest of the men did the same.
That night, however, John couldn't sleep. He rose and pulled on a lightweight shirt to ward off the chill of the night air and stepped outside. He heard a noise coming from where the blades were being kept. He assumed it was whoever was keeping watch, but knew he shouldn't assume anything. He drew his sword and stealthily stepped towards the sound realizing that he heard two men talking. He took one step closer and accidentally stepped on a twig, snapping it in two.
"Who's there?" a familiar voice called.
John stepped forward. "It is I. John Hardin. Alex, what are you doing? Who is this man?"
Alex shifted uncomfortably. "I didn't want to tell you, Hardin. You're not a scoundrel like me...like most of us."
"I don't understand."
"There are so many swords here. No one would miss a few. Franklin has more deliveries lined up anyhow."
"Alex, tell me," John said tensely.
"We figured, they don't pay us much for being in the Peaceguard and we devote our whole lives to it. Here's a chance for us to put a few more coppers in our pockets and the little bit we're sacrificing won't affect the outcome of the Viosaille conflict."
"Oh you really think so?" John said, growing angry. "The Rebellion needs all the help they can get against the Stronghold. They're tyrants, Alex! I cannot condone such an action." He turned to walk away.
"So you'll tell Franklin? It's not just me. It's practically the whole team."
"Running off with a maid for a few minutes is one thing. Stealing goods and selling them on the black market is another! Good night, Alex," he said harshly, walking swiftly away.
"What about Edward?" Alex cried desparately.
John stopped. He turned slowly around. "What did you say?"
"What about Edward? Don't you think a few extra coppers would help him? Perhaps get him medicine you and your mother could not otherwise afford?"
"My brother is beyond the help of medication."
"You've been convincing yourself of that simply because you cannot afford it. John, please. You're the most noble of all of us, it's true. But one crooked action would not ruin your life. Don't you want to give Edward that chance? Even if it's a chance in a million, would you hold it from him?"
John's face softened as he thought of his little brother. He loved his family very much. Maybe Alex was right. A few extra coins in his pocket could give Edward the boost he needed to fight his illness. 'Faith is all I have,' his mother had said. He whispered decisively to her, "Let me give you something more..." He looked up and met Alex's panicked stare. "Fine. Count me in." He sighed, "My soul is now damned..."
Alex relaxed. "Considering you don't believe in souls, I wouldn't worry too much. I knew I could count on you, John. And don't worry. This happens all the time. We make do. We get by the only way we're able."
"Let the law be your guide and your priority," John quipped ironically, quoting what Franklin had told the new recruits. He turned on his heel and slowly made his way back to his tent, cursing himself the entire way.
Martine narrowed his eyes as he silently watched John from his own shelter.
"Johnny!!" Edward said, excitedly, when John opened to door to his room. He began to cough again. John stared at his little brother, worriedly. He had grown paler and thinner in the few days that John had been gone. His clothes hung on his small frame and his cheeks were gaunt. "I'm so tired of coughing!" the boy exclaimed.
"I know. It's ok. You'll get better soon. I know you will. I just wanted to let you know I'm home. I better get back out before Mother realizes I'm disturbing you."
"I'm supposed to be sleeping. I'm so tired of sleeping!"
John laughed. "I know you are. Don't worry. Soon, you'll be better. I have a good feeling about it." He pulled the covers up to his little brother's neck and stepped back out of the room, gently closing the door behind him.
"He's worse," his mother said. She had heard him come in and walked into the hallway, wearing a lightweight shift.
"We'll get him medicine," John promised.
"With what money? We barely have enough for food and lodging! And I can't work. I can't leave him here alone."
"Money will come. It'll come soon."
"I can't answer that. I can only tell you it'll come soon."
A knock sounded at the door and they both looked up, startled. Who would be calling on them at this time of night? John's mother ran back to put on a robe while John answered the door. He recognized a couple of men from the security division of the Peaceguard.
"Gentlemen..." he said.
"Please come with us."
"What is this about?" John asked, a lump growing in his throat. Could they have found out about the blades?
"We're not at liberty to say at this moment. We need you to come with us."
John nodded heavily. "Alright."
He turned to face his mother, who had come into the entryroom. "It's ok, Mother. I'll only be gone a bit." Her brow creased with worry. He gently reached out to her. "Everything is fine. You have enough to worry about right now. You need not worry about me as well." He smiled reassuringly, but the words of the fortune-teller echoed through his mind. Your heartache will only grow until you are driven to wander. Could this be part of it? He shook his head, immediately dismissing it as foolishness.
"You were SEEN, Hardin! Martine Blais saw you returning to your tent after negotiating. Do you deny involvement?"
"No," he replied quietly.
"What was that?"
"No! I do not deny involvement! I have never denied involvement!"
"Then tell us who else was involved," the inspector leaned forward.
"I cannot tell you that."
"Do you want to be locked up the rest of your life? This was an act of treachery!" the inspector roared. The delivery of the blades to the rebel group in Viosaille had seemed to progress as planned until the leader, Talon, contacted Franklin for verification of how many supplies were supposed to be sent. Franklin sent for Martine and questioned him about what had happened. Martine told how he had seen John out of his tent in the middle of the night before delivery. All the blades had been there prior, but several crates were missing afterwards. John hadn't realized how many blades the black market trader had bought.
"I cannot tell you," he repeated.
"Then you will be in prison the rest of your life," he slammed his fist down on the table to emphasize his point. John closed his eyes, wincing, thinking of his mother and his little brother. There was chance of the money going to them now. It seemed a harsh punishment. "Unless..." the inspector raised one finger. "You work with us. You tell us who was involved and we'll set you free. We can even probably compensate you for your cooperation. You must not realize the gravity of what you've done. It's as if you've been sabotaging the war effort and working for the Stronghold."
"You know that is not true!" Several images floated through John's mind: his mother, Edward, Alex...He could NOT betray his closest friend. Yet, by keeping silent, he was betraying his own family. He tightened his lips and looked up at the inspector, his eyes filled with a cold anger.
"Perhaps a night in the darkest of prisons will change your mind." He looked up and nodded to the two guards standing by the door. They snatched John up, harshly pulling his hands behind his back and pushing him roughly through the door. "Noble John Hardin...loyal to your friends almost to a fault. Look where it's gotten you now. A harsh punishment this is, yes, but we need to make an example out of someone..."
John curled up in agony. His hands were chained together and his face felt like it was on fire. He had been beaten and scorned, yet he remained silent. He heard footsteps outside the hall and a key in the door. It swung open on rusty hinges and the inspector stepped inside.
"Have you decided?"
John kept silent.
"Very well. I've done a little research and I know something that might convince you." He knelt down by the young man and said, "Your little brother is gravely ill. This I know. You'd spend your life locked away, while he withers to nothing? You could mean the difference between life or death to him. It's your call."
John sat up, wincing as he did. His throat was feeling raw. "You said you'd release me and provide compensation if I cooperate."
"I did," the inspector confirmed. "Give me names."
'Forgive me,' John thought. "Alex Godin. Mischa Shepherd. Claro Valnet. William Hastings. Isaac Van Horn." He gave the names slowly, his anger with himself growing.
When he was finished, the inspector smiled, "Thank you for your cooperation." He turned to leave the cell.
"Wait! You said you'd release me!"
He cliked his tongue. "A lesson, young Hardin. Always get things in writing. You betrayed the Peaceguard and you betrayed your friends. A dangerous man, you are. It's my duty to make sure..."
"...that a man like you...
"...is not on the streets again...Good day." The door slammed shut and the footsteps grew softer and softer. All that could be heard was the anguished cry of a man whose heart had broken.
At that instance, John Hardin realized he had a soul for he felt it falling into darkness.
3 years later...
"It's time," he whispered to his cellmate, a murderer named Lysander Rhodes.
"I hear him," Rhodes replied gruffly. The footsteps grew louder and louder. He closed his eyes and began to shake, saliva spilling out from his mouth.
The foodslot opened and the tray passed through, but John cried out, "Help! He's convulsing! Get help! A doctor!"
The guard hesitated and peeked through the slot, wide-eyed. He was a young lad, barely eighteen. "I...uh..."
"GET HELP NOW!" John roared as Rhodes started gagging. A key turned in the door and it opened tentatively. Fast as a leopard, John leapt upon the guard, bringing his hand down on the back of the young man's head, silencing him. As the body fell to the floor, Rhodes stood up and wiped the spittle that had dribbled down his chin.
"Let's make haste!" John exclaimed.
"We won't get far looking like this," Rhodes commented. The two men had long scraggly beards and were filthy.
"We'll get far enough," John replied, taking the young guard's sword. A second guard had turned the corner and shouted in surprise. He pulled out a broadsword and charged towards the prisoners. John hesitated for a second and Rhodes pulled the sword out of his hand, and pierced the guard's armor. He cried out in pain and fell to the ground. Rhodes pulled the sword from the young man's hand and tossed it towards John.
"This way!" he hissed and ran through the halls of the old prison. "You want to live? You fight for your life," he warned. They snaked their way through the prison, slaying the guards as they went, until they reached the door that would lead to freedom. "Let's go!" John yanked the door open and the two men burst out, squinting their eyes as they saw the sky for the first time in what seemed like eternity. The rain poured from the Heavens and John opened his mouth, catching the drops on his tongue. "Come! We're not safe yet!" Rhodes grabbed his arm and led him through the streets into an alleyway.
"I grabbed a dagger off one of the guards. It's not the cleanest razor, but it will do," he tossed the dagger to John. "Don't know what to tell you about your clothes. You'll need to find some. You run around looking like you do now, and they'll have you back in prison before you can even breathe. Blend in and fall away. Lose your identity." John nodded, trying to catch his breath. "And I never want to see you again. If I ever run into you, I don't know you. And you don't know me! Got that?"
"Sure..." John wheezed.
"Good luck," Rhodes slapped him on the back and ran off, vanishing into the shadows. John turned the dagger over in his hand, raising his head to the sky, letting the cold rain wash over him. There was someone he needed to see...
He burst through the door. "Mother? Edward?" A woman in the kitchen screamed and dropped the ladel the had been carrying. She tried to run away, but John caught her in his arms, making her scream more. "No! Calm down! I'm not going to harm you!"
"What's the meaning of this?" An angry large man ran into the room, holding a dagger. The woman screamed once more and kicked John in the shin, running behind her husband.
John raised his arms and winced in pain. "Please, this is...or was my...I need to know. There was a woman and child who lived here..."
The man regarded him cautiously but his frown softened. "Old Mrs. Hardin..."
"Yes! What happened to them?" John said desparately, taking a step forward. The man thrust the dagger out, forcing John to retrace his step back.
"The little boy died about two years ago. He was very sick. And Mrs. Hardin...well, she fell into destitution."
John felt nauseous when he heard this. He fell to his knees, and held his stomach, feeling sick. "He died?"
"I'm sorry. I take it you knew them. Some say Mrs. Hardin went to live with relatives. I forget where. But the boy..." he shook his head with pity.
John pulled himself to his feet and stumbled out the door with an inhuman cry, startling the woman once more. He ran out into the rain and fell to his knees. "I AM DAMNED!" he wailed and then sobbed softly, "I am damned..." He needed something to believe in, but had nothing. He would have to live outside the law the rest of his life and live with the pain of knowing that he had brought disaster to everyone around him. His mother probably thought he was dead. It was best that way. He wept unashamedly and the rain mingled with his tears.
A young man with blonde hair brushing his shoulders regarded the scene before him with pity. He turned to his companion. "It is time."
The man hesitated, "I don't know. John Hardin has always had the reputation of only believing what he sees with his eyes. He has always dismissed Mullenkamp as well as the church as superstition."
"His spirit is broken and must be healed. He's looking for something to believe in. And once he finds that something, there'll be no swaying him. He has a noble heart and a special gift. He will be one of us..."
With that thought, Sydney Losstarot stepped forward and walked towards John Hardin...
Author's note - so there you go. That's how I see the series of events concerning John's joining Mullenkamp. In the darkest point of his life, he needed to believe...
Lady Aliena's Fanfiction