Ultimately, it was the Kingsmen who ferried their marriage to its grave. What happened was this: there was a dragon menacing the townsfolk of a village fifty-seven miles to the south, and the siege lasted long enough for the usual rumors to reach Carrion’s Clutch. Livestock were being slaughtered and maidens were being undone.
With every passing second, Adam Porter became more and more convinced that only he could save the day. Once upon a time, his wife might have found his valor charming. But because Araceli had no great love for bloodshed, and hadn’t envisioned humoring these inclinations ten years into their marriage, she listened to his showboating with a festering sickness that grew in the pit of her stomach.
“The Kingsmen have already been summoned,” she told him. “The people of Gorge Verdant have lit the torches. We can see them burning from here, and we’re further away than the capital is.”
“The Kingsmen,” said Adam, with a disdain that made Araceli despair. “Believe me, the Kingsmen don’t care about a place like this. They’ll probably send some feckless cadets who’ll get lost in the mountains, and by the time they finally reach Gorge Verdant the place will lie in ashes.”
It was a little thing, and probably shouldn’t have bothered her as much as it did, but nevertheless: “What do you mean, ‘a place like this’?”
All she meant was that Carrion’s Clutch and Gorge Verdant shouldn’t be conflated. After all, Gorge Verdant was a mining town of seven thousand, home to six thousand more residents than Carrion’s Clutch. But the comment had an afterlife she hadn’t anticipated. It prompted a cycle through their usual arguments with unprecedented vehemence. First, there were the five years Adam had spent as a Kingsman, which might have been enough to make him an authority upon the organization; this was countered with his decision to retire to a mountain town, which should have been a promise to leave violence behind him; and then there was his urge to slay that dragon, which just as easily could’ve been selfless as it was self-aggrandizing. They knew they’d reached the end of something once they realized they no longer cared to find the answers to these questions.
When everything was said and done, Araceli was left blaming herself. If it hadn’t been for her selfishness, no one would’ve been hurt. She called it ‘selfishness’ because she’d known that Adam had no business in a place as peaceful and placid as Carrion’s Clutch from the moment she first laid eyes upon him. He was too loud, too busy, too reaching: indeed, ‘too-’ everything. But because of his earnest eyes and broad shoulders, she’d convinced herself that such a thing might be possible.
As was the custom of the mountain folk, their boy was sent to live with Adam, while their girl remained with her. Because she saw no point in it, she didn’t allow herself to dwell upon her losses. Instead, she immediately began the process of proving to her neighbors that she remained one of them. Her efforts were assiduous, but her return to the fold was halting. The mountain folk had long memories, and wouldn’t soon forget her choice of husband. Her only comfort was that her daughter faced no such difficulties.
Despite her parentage, the girl was well-liked, complimented equally for her generosity as her gregariousness. At first, there were whispers, because in a town of one thousand, Araceli’s failed marriage to a knight errant was the only thing to whisper about. The mothers of her classmates would pick at the girl’s clothing and, immediately after burdening her with a question like, “Did your father send this particular garment back from the capital? Because I’ve never seen a cut like this anywhere in the mountains,” they would turn to one another and begin recounting the Noisy, Showboating Chronicles of Adam Porter. But if this fazed her, the girl never betrayed her frustration. Somehow, she managed to find humor in the situation. She became adept at impersonating the most self-righteous among them, spitting the word ‘capital’ out with a fearlessness that won the hearts of the village’s young women. If she’d asked her mother, Araceli would’ve told her to keep her head bent, and her energies focused on getting through the day; but it never occurred to the girl to do such a thing. Her faith in her own capacities was unflinching.
For his part, Adam believed that the problem was that he’d ventured into the hinterlands looking for something. Because he’d grown weary of injury, indigence, and other hallmarks of the heroic life, he’d told himself a story about the virtuosity of small towns and country maidens. Because he thought that ‘complex’ was synonymous with ‘blood-soaked,’ he’d managed to convince himself that Araceli and Carrion’s Clutch were simple.
With a firm belief that he was unsuited for any sort of domesticity, Adam went east with his son, and resumed the errant lifestyle. Things didn’t go as badly as they could’ve. As it turned out, the boy had a knack for knightliness. Together, the two managed to dispatch a bog-witch that was tormenting the residents of a seaside town. The night before the battle, Adam found himself wondering if there was some way he could persuade his son to remain behind that wouldn’t qualify as humiliating. He knew the boy was skilled with a blade; that much, he’d seen to himself. But he had trouble imagining his shy, silent son emerging triumphant from the trial of a witch’s lair.
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. The boy was unshaken by the witch’s cackling, and remained unenchanted by the golden light that seeped from her eyes. Nothing about his bearing suggested that he was a novice from a backwater province. In fact, he spent the entirety of the victory feast negotiating a contract with the elders of a neighboring village who were looking for righteous men to dispose of a golem.
Unlike his father, the boy would prove to have no love for victory feasts. Whenever they toppled a troll-lord or persuaded a sorceress to abandon her quest for world domination, he would hover awkwardly on the outskirts of the subsequent celebration, waiting for the moment when he could finally persuade Adam to leave. It never occurred to Adam that these qualities stemmed from Araceli. There would be moments when, after another display of reticence, he would feel an inexplicable urge to pull the boy close to him: but he didn’t examine its origins. He knew just enough to realize that there would be no benefit in this.
If Adam and Araceli had known what they’d given their children—these qualities that enabled them to roam freely throughout lands where they themselves had no business treading—well, that probably wouldn’t have changed anything. In their minds, the story had already been written. The knight errant and the village maid had tried their best, but were ultimately obliged to part ways. The idea of loving one another, regardless of whatever sacrifices that would entail, certainly sounded romantic. But when everything else was stripped away, what would keep Adam and Araceli whole? Certainly not the Kingsmen.