This page holds my rough draft of 2018’s NaNoWriMo project, much editing to be done, as always.
Two lands with a contentious border. Humans are the dominant race in this part of the world. In the far North East, there roam tribes of Goliaths, over-large humanoids, who aren’t quite big enough to be Giants or Ogres, but stand taller and broader than humans and orcs. To the far west, there are rumors of elven forests and dwarven mountains, but most say they live beyond the sea, driven there by the riotous human need for war and domination. On the outskirts of all these societies, roam dangerous beasts and the more beastial humanoids. Giants, ogres, orcs, and goblins live in the rough places: the mountains, the swamps, and the desolate places where battle and magic have ruined the land.
The border between the two human nations have many such destroyed places, and with each major conflict, more appear. It is not just blood that is spilt in battle, but dark magical energies, and huge fiery explosions. The lands are slow to recover, and the orcs and goblins move in, or are sometimes created by these destructive energies. Men left for dead are mutated by the crackling energy left behind, corrupted by the blood and power in the wake of battle.
Our story begins in the northern human nation of (Andelan). This nation is ruled by King Andreas Delfan III. The Delfan family has ruled here for 10 generations, which may seem like a long time, but most rulers only lasted until their first born child’s 21st birthday, though a few, more well-loved rulers were able to stave off assassination attempts for much longer. King Delfan III has ruled for 30 years, having sent most of his children off to one war or another, and now only having one living daughter remaining. She is approaching her 20th year, and Andreas knows he’ll have to give up the crown soon. The nobles around him love his daughter dearly, and are beginning to doubt his sanity.
Princess Adelade Delfan, for her part, is not eager for the crown, but knows it will come to her head in due time. She has learned politicking and backstabbing and diplomacy from the best of them: her father. She excelled in martial training and battle tactics, though she guessed they took it easy on her, being the last in the Delfan line. Her academic study was not quite as successful. She found poetry boring, history tedious, and calculations arduous. What did it matter if she could recite the epics, or remember all the kings and queens and battles – there were several good bards around the palace that did that already. As for calculating taxes and provisioning, the chancellor and master of the house already had that in hand.
They ruled (Andelan) from a magnificent castle in the city of (Parcept). The city was in the center of (Andelan), and all trade routes and roads ended here. A river split the city in half, with the castle, the noble houses, and the merchant homes in the north half, and the artisans, craftsmen, warehouses, and Market in the south. Most of the taverns, inns, theaters, and other such low entertainment were also in the southern district of the city, and the houses grew smaller and poorer the further south one went. The river was a very clear demarcation, with the southern bank crammed with wharves and taverns, while the northern bank was a beautiful run or parkland lined with trees and manicured lawns, and a row of bushes blocking off the sight of the southern half of the city.
King Delfan III is just wrapping up his latest war against the southern nation of (Sindaria) and his forces are slowly making their way home. This latest conflict was started over (Sindarian) settlers trying to reclaim an area where the desolation was starting to heal. King Delfan believed the land belonged to him and sent armies to remove the settlers. Sindaria responded in kind and off to war both nations went. Andreas has noticed, however, that a few of his Generals have not given up the fight, and are disobeying his orders to return home to their border posts. News trickles in that they are trying to push the border below the desolation, and have grown hungry for lands of their own.
But this story isn’t about kings and armies, this story is about the people who live in this land, and their struggles with everyday life in a war-hungry nation. This story is about a life-loving cleric raised with death. A soldier sent home for lack of blood-thirst. A sorcerer whose powers aren’t just draining the land, but his health, as well. Twin goliaths sent out into the world on their Journey. A young thief who just wants to find a path. A paladin looking for the goodness in humanity. And a bard, who yearns for inspiration.
Mort is a young man, just come to his 20th naming day. His parents invited all of their friends and his friends to a big dinner to celebrate. It was still a rather small group, most people avoiding the death chapel and its residents except for services. But it was a happy group, sharing wine and fine food. Happy, that is, until Mort stood and began to speak.
“Thank you, everyone, for coming to celebrate with us. I love you all. Thank you Ma and Da, you have taught me well and given me almost everything I asked. I…” he faltered, and then rushed on, “I am leaving tomorrow, I love you, but I have to go. I can’t live my life surrounded by death, I want to see life. I’m sorry.” He stopped at the wide eyes and mouths of everyone around him.
“Mort, how could you?”
“Now, just a minute young man!”
“Oh, Mort! On your naming day? In front of everyone?”
“Don’t be silly, you aren’t going anywhere!”
Mort sat down and the voices washed over him. His heart was pounding in his ears and he couldn’t decipher who was shouting what. I just stared at the wine cup in his hand, wondering why it was empty.
The shouting died down when he didn’t respond to any of them. One at a time, they sat back down, some surprised they were standing in the first place. Conversation was attempted several times, but no one could keep it going. After a few attempts, the guests began to leave, in pairs and families.
“Sorry, Adeline, we should get home, it’s late.”
“Good night, Batrim, don’t worry, he’ll sober up tomorrow.”
“Good night, Mort, sleep it off.”
Mort sat still until even his parents had left the table. He had done it. He had finally told them he was leaving. Okay, maybe he could have done it better. He could have said something before they invited everyone over. He should have waited until tomorrow. Why were they all so surprised, they knew he was unhappy here? He had certainly complained often enough. He had thought they’d be happy he was going to leave.
He got up and went up to his room, shucked off his fancy robes and curled up in bed, staring at the ceiling. The shouting voices he had ignored earlier playing through his head. His mother’s tears and his father’s red face looming in his imagination. He lay there awake for hours before exhaustion took him, but his dreams were no respite.
His mother sobbing over his dead body. His father shouting that he deserved his fate for leaving the temple. His mother clinging to him begging him not to leave. His father chaining him to the preparation table. Their friends laughing at his attempts to leave, with his parents shouting behind him.
He woke with a start from the worst of the dreams: his parents cutting him open alive as though preparing a corpse. Shaking and sweating he threw off his blanket and jumped to his feet, grasping the bedside table for support. Breathing deeply to settle his pounding heart, Mort stepped over to his wash basin and splashed water on his face. Running his fingers through his black wavy hair, he peered into the small looking glass. His blue eyes were bloodshot, and sweat glistened on his pale skin. He scrubbed his face and neck clean and then dressed, not in his robes, but in traveling clothes, though still put on his medallion of (Koth)’s symbol.
The sky was pale grey outside his window. Dawn was nearly here. Mort slipped quietly down the hall and stairs to the kitchen. It was empty, thank (Koth), and he quickly filled a small sack with bread, cheese, and fruit. Then, before his resolve could falter, he grabbed his staff and slipped out the back door and down the street, away from the only home he had ever know.
Melanie downed another pint of ale. She had lost count an hour ago, but she could still lift the mug, so it must not be enough, yet. She raised the empty cup and waved it at the bartender.
“Keep ‘er comin, Sssham. I can sshtill see yer ugly facsh.”
“Now Mel, maybe you should slow down…”
“Duncha, Now Mel, me Sssham. I ain’ta schlow down til I fall down. Gimme a-other.”
Sam sighed heavily, and snagged the mug from her wavering hand. He pulled it down below the bar and sloshed it half full of water before bringing it up to the spigot to fill the rest with ale. He wiped the bar clean in front of her with one hand and set the mug down with the other, as she slid him another sliver piece.
“Thankee Sham. Yer a goo fend.” She lifted the mug to her lips and downed it in one long draw. “I show down now.” She tried to stand up and stumbled to the floor. “Hey! Who tipped? What…” She sat confused, leaning against her stool.
“Sera? If you would?” Sam called to one of the wait staff.
They came over and slipped an arm around Melanie’s waist and pulled her to her feet. “Come on, Mel, let me take you to your room.”
“Yer sho nicsh, Shera. How you get downs here?”
“Don’t you worry, Mel, it’s bedtime now.”
“You gon tuck me in?”
“Of course, Mel.” Sera smirked over at Sam.
“Sham…” Mel groggily turned to the bartender, “Sera’s a good’n, give ‘em a raish, you shoold.”
Sam just smiled and waved Sera onward. They are a good one indeed, earning the most tips of any of the wait staff in the Winking Bear.
Cyrus hated his tutors. Memorizing these complicated rituals and indecipherable words never helped him. He never remembered them and even when he did, either nothing happened, or it all went horribly wrong. Several tutors had run screaming from the house, one hadn’t been able to run. That one was still in a room at the top of the house, gibbering and barely able to eat.
He hated his teachers almost as he hated the sanctimonious healers his parents plagued him with on a weekly basis. They all failed to improve his pain wracked body, and often they made him feel worse for days on end. He wasn’t going to get better, and he wished they would stop trying.
His 18th naming day was in seven days and then he could leave his parents’ house for good. He could escape the tutors, the priests, the healers, and the suspicious eyes of everyone who knew him. Just because they could not prove the damage was his fault, didn’t mean anyone trusted him.
“Father, you cannot keep me here. When I turn 18, you are no longer responsible for me. You won’t be able to protect me anymore. I have to leave. I won’t stay.”
“Cyrus don’t be ridiculous, I’ll always protect you. You are my son.”
“No, Father. I’ll be an adult, and I have to stand on my own. No one you have brought has helped me.”
“Oh come now, you were doing better with Trystan.”
“Master Trystan went screaming into the night without his left arm, Father. It’s no use, I have to leave, I can’t keep putting you and Mother in so much danger. My powers are getting strong as my body gets weaker. I have to go. No one here can help me, you’ve bought all the help you could find. It’s my turn to go looking.”
“You’ll break your mother’s heart.”
“Better her heart than her mind or her body. Master Frethen is still in the attic, isn’t he? Maybe if I leave, he’ll come down and go home.”
Craffen dropped his hands, shoulders slumping. He turned away from his frail son, whose white hair and stretched skin made him look more like the elder of the pair. Cyrus laid a withered hand on his father’s shoulder, squeezing weakly, before walking away.
Ash watched the mark wind through the market, a distracted young noble out for a day of shopping. He was alone, slightly tipsy, and far more interested in the young lady he was following than in minding his purse. Too easy. His golden pendant with the large sapphire was dazzling, however.
Ash slipped closer, eyeing the regular young cutpurses also closing in. They would be good distractions. Trailing the target by a mere five feet, waiting for the children to close in. They ran in, tumbling against each other directly in front of the man, and he stumbled to a halt with their hands in his pockets, and Ash’s hand on his shoulder.
“Careful, sir, watch your step. Those kids’ll rob you blind,” and stepped quickly back into the crowd.
“What? Oh… Hey!” The nobleman patted his pockets and his waist and shouted at the retreating children. “Thieves!”
The man started to run forward, but the children had disappeared just as easily and quickly as Ash. A nearby guard stepped forward, listening to the man’s spluttering anger, and waved a few more over to begin searching the area for the pickpockets. A foolish job in this busy square.
Ash bounced the pendant in her hand, admiring the sparkle of the blue gem, before slipping it into her purse and ducking out of the square, wondering how long it would take him to miss the necklace. Sim and Mica were waiting at the end of the alley, dividing up their gains.
“Twenty gold, five silvers.” Mica piped up.
“Good job, my friends. Quickly in and almost as quickly out, and he could barely describe you to the guard. You need to work on your disengage, though. If I hadn’t stopped his stumble, he might have grabbed you out of reflex.”
“Aww Ash, he didn’t though, we was outta there right fast.”
“Even got his extra bag out his jacket.” Mica held up a belt purse and a smaller bag.
“Yeah, but if he had tripped, he woulda crushed one of ya. You gotta run into the mark, not each other. Make sure he don’t fall.”
“Yer just mad we got all ‘is money.”
“There are better things than coins, lads. You give me five gold for my help and be on your ways. Leaves you plenty to split between ya, and enough to pay your master.”
“Five, Ash? Come on…How about four. Four for you, four for each of us, and four for Master Sencha. And the silver for ale.” Sim argued.
“Deal. Give me the silver and I’ll bring you ale out back the Winking Bear in fifteen minutes.”
“Deal.” They both nodded and Sim handed over the coins, all three heading away from the market to have a celebratory drink.
WIlliam was deep in his cups, staring at the blank papers before him. He had a thought, he swore it was there, maybe it was in his wine glass. He lifted it up to check, but there wasn’t even wine left. He hurriedly filled it up, somehow not spilling a drop on his fresh parchment. Now, where was he? Oh yes, looking for his thought. He took a long drink of wine and closed his eyes, for just a moment.
The sun streamed in his office window and right through his eyelids, stabbing his brain with large spikes. Morning. Dammit, the thought must have escaped. Again. He sat up slowly, noting a half-filled wine glass still clutched in his right hand. He drank the rest of the glass down and set it aside, looking down at the empty parchment on his desk.
“Damn it. I thought for sure the thought would come.”
He looked at the stack of finished pages, full of the history of the war. Full of the not-nearly-so-epic-as-he’d-hoped battles and skirmishes he had witnessed. The old ballads had always made war sound grand and beautiful. The stories he wrote were full of blood, pain, mud, and grime. The war he had seen was awful and disgusting and pointless. Yes, they had won battles, defeated their southern neighbors, secured the borders once more. The toll, however, had been horrific, on both sides. When he went to sleep at night, if he was not blindingly drunk, his dreams were full of blood and gore. Severed limbs crawling across the ground toward him. Headless bodies stumbling through a field. Battalions exploding all around him, body parts flying through the air.
He wanted to take a break from all of that. He wanted to write a love song, a drinking song, a silly little limerick. Anything that did not involved blood and death. He wanted to write about life and happiness, love and family, joy and peace. But his mind was full of violence and fighting, and the alcohol only gave him small respite in short dreamless sleep.
“The war is over. The soldiers are home. They don’t need the reminders, I don’t need the reminders. We need to move on, live life. Remember how to be happy and safe again.”
“Will, who you talking to?” Kristof called from their bedroom.
“No one, just talking.”
“Why don’t you come lie down. You been in there all night.”
“I.. I’m sorry Kris, I… I was so tired. I must have drifted off.”
“Passed out, more like, come on, get off your chair and come to bed.” Kristof appeared in the door, drawstring pants barely tied, his shirt over one shoulder, holding his hand out.
Will looked at his half-dressed lover, appreciating the soft downy chest hair, and the soft outline of muscular shoulders.
“Stop gawking and get to bed.” Kristof stepped forward and pulled him to his feet. “You may have slept, but you haven’t rested.” He led him out of the office and back to their bedroom, pulling him down onto the bed, cradling WIlliam against his chest. “Close your eyes, you’re safe, I’m here.” Kissing the top of his head and kept up the soft words, waiting for him to relax.
“I love you, Kris, I want to write songs for you.”
“Shhh, you will when you’re ready. Rest now, everything will be alright.”
Patricia sat in a small room in her god’s temple. Upon returning to (Parcept), she had appealed to the High Priest for help. He had spoken on her behalf to the commanders, and had her released into his custody. Her duty, after all, was to (Tryd), not to mortal laws, and the king was not happy with those who had her arrested in the first place. She sat on the floor before her small bed, and prayed.
How had it come to this? A prisoner in her own temple. Discharged from the army for conduct unbecoming. Charged with treason for her compassion for ‘the enemy.’ She did not have compassion for those who attacked her people and her lands, only for the farmers, craftsmen, and merchants who only wanted to live their lives.The only orders she had disobeyed were those against civilians.
She refused, after their victory was secured and the border was restored, to continue raiding the countryside. She refused to set fire to villages and farms. She refused to murder innocents simply because they lived in a different land. For that, she was arrested and transported back to the capital city.
It was only upon returning home that she learned the King did not support the general’s actions. The King was angry that they had kept going and not returned to their posts. It turned out that she had unknowingly been following King Delfan’s orders, but that did not excuse her insubordination. She was released to the temple, but she would still face charges when the rest of her (battalion) returned home. They would all face charges. It was going to be messy.
Dalt and Devera
Winter had already come to the Northlands when Dalt and Devera set out on their journey to the realm of (Andelan). The winds blew sharp and crisp, and a light frost covered the ground. True snow had not yet come, but it would before they were able to return home. Dalton had put off their journey until the fll hunt was complete, insisting on leading the final hunt before the snows.
“The human troubles can wait,” he told his twin sister.
“But the land is crying,” she insisted.
“The land always waits,” he stared at her, unmoved. “The tribe must be supplied before we go. My Sendrea is with child, I will not leave until I know she has enough for the coming winter”
“We leave as soon as you get back, Dalt, no more delays.”
“Of course, Devey.” She glared at the use of her childhood nickname, but he gave her a quick hug and jogged off to gather the hunters.
The days grew warmer as they headed out of the mountains and down to the forests of northern (Andelan). The elders had shown them the old maps they had of the lands to the south east, and suggested they observe the border between the realms, to see where it now stood. If necessary, they could travel on to the capital(Parcept) for specific news, but they should not go south into (Sindaria). The tribes had never been welcome there, even to trade, and the elders did not want them to cause trouble after a war had just ended.
“Have you ever hunted this far south, Dalt?”
“A few times, in early spring. When the herds are still thin on the mountains.”
“Have you ever seen a human village?”
“No, but I’ve met traders on the road. They had traded with the tribes before, so they weren’t too scared.” Dalt hefted a javelin, eyes scouring the woods around them. “Met bandits one time, too. They had wandered a little too far north, trying to escape the kingsguard.”
“What did you do?” Devera suspected she knew.
“They tried to rob us. We stopped them.” His voice was a whisper as his body tensed, and then he released the javelin in one swift, powerful movement.
“What?” Devera spun in the direction of his throw, just in time to see a deer fall to the ground mid-stride.
“We stopped them,” he repeated. “It only took killing one of them for the rest to break and run.” He stepped off the trail to retrieve their dinner.
Sighing, she followed her brother into the woods the help skin and gut the deer. Once the work was done, they set up camp a little way off the trail in the opposite direction. She set to work scraping the hide. They didn’t have time to prepare it properly, but she would do her best along the road. Dalt got the fire going and started cooking the meat, and cleaning his javelin.
“What’s wrong, Devey?”
“You killed a man, Dalt, and you act like it’s normal.”
“They drew weapons on us, Dev. When we refused to give them money, they attacked Gorg. We gave them a chance, we told them to leave. But they attacked, so we defended ourselves. When one of them fell, the cowards all ran, and we let them. I don’t feel bad about it. A man attacks you, you defend yourself.”
“Devera,” Dalt put his hand on his twin’s shoulder and turned her to face him, softening his voice, “a man attacks you, you defend yourself. Life and death. You know that’s the way of things.” He pointed a the cooking deer and the skin she tended. “Man or beast, there is always life and death.”
She looked into his eyes, nodded, and turned back to the skin. She had just never thought of her brother as a killer of men. The tribes had been at peace their entire life, and while she knew the men of the south killed each other all the time, she never thought of her brother doing that. There is always life and death. The cycle of all things. She kept scraping the skin, reminding herself that they were about to walk into the middle of a warzone. Even if the war was over, their destination was the lands the humans warred over.
The Winking Bear
Ash walked into the Winking Bear and up to Sam and the bar, plopping down a couple silver.
“A pitcher of ale and three cups, Sam, if you please.”
“Sure, Ash.” He glanced around, as though looking for the other two drinkers, before pulling a pitcher.
“You don’t mind if I take lunch on the back steps, right?” Setting down another silver. “A small plate of whatever you’ve got cooking.”
“Who’s joining you, Ash? Couple of rats?”
“You know how it is, they’re the only ones that enjoy my company.”
“Of course.” He set a pitcher of ale, three cups, and a plate of meat, bread, and cheese on a small platter. “Just don’t let them get drunk, last thing we need is drunk rats stumbling into my common room. I’ve got William coming in to sing tonight.”
“Will, eh? He sober enough for that?”
“Since when has a bard got to be sober?” Sam grinned.
“Think he’ll sing anything happy tonight, he’s been right depressing since he got home.”
“I hope so, Kristof begged me to give him another chance, says he’s been working on some new songs.”
“Well, if anyone can inspire cheerful songs, it’d be Kristof.” Ash picked up the platter and headed to the back stoop to meet Mica and Sim.
Melanie’s head was throbbing as she made her way down the tavern stairs. Her knee hurt, too, though she was less sure of why that was. She remembered Sera putting her to bed. She remembered asking them to stay. She remembered the sad smile on their face as they refused and slipped out to finish their shift. She had been a fool, no one wanted her anymore.
“Afternoon, Mel.” Sam put a plate of fried eggs and meat down on the bar for her.
“Not so loud,” she complained, pulling the food towards her as she sat. “Ale?”
“Tea.” He insisted, pouring boiling water into a cup. “You can have more ale with dinner.”
“Okay, Dad,” she grumbled, “… sorry. Thanks.” She took the tea.
“Melanie, I won’t let you kill yourself. No matter how much you insult me.” He caught her eye with a good-natured wink.
“Thanks. Hey Sam… do you know why my knee hurts?” She sipped the hot tea, surprised that it tasted good.
“You tripped off your stool last night, Mel.”
“Oh.” Mel lowered her head and dug into lunch with embarrassed gusto.
Mort wandered around (Parcept) in the early morning. He didn’t know where to go, or what to do, just that he couldn’t go home. Before long, he found himself in the market, and bought a sweet bun for breakfast. His eyes roamed over the people as he leaned against a building. He had been out of the temple a few times in his life, usually to come here, but never for very long. His robes of the order of (Koth) tended to cause people to avoid him. Now, in his traveling clothes, people just ignored him.
He watched people buying food, supplies, and tools. He listened to a few merchants making deals. He saw a young nobleman wandering about, following a beautiful lady. He smiled at children running around like wild animals. Two of them ran into the nobleman and then off again.
“Did that…” He could have sworn he saw a person behind the man slip something off his neck as the children ran. “I think…”
“Stop thieves!” The noble shouted at the children who had run off who knows where.
Mort looked around for the figure that had been behind him, but could not spot them. Why was he shouting at the kids when that one had stolen his necklace? Maybe the three had been working together? Mort walked towards the man, but now he was talking to city guardsmen, so he did not stop. He left the market and headed further away from the temple. He didn’t know where to go; away from home was his only plan. Glancing up, he saw a sign with a picture of a bear on it. The bear had one eye closed. Mort stared at it for a moment, then, shrugging, went inside.
A disheveled young woman sat at the bar eating. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a messy braid, and a long scar framed the left side of her face. She looked like a member of the army, chainmail showing through a rumpled (Andelan) tabard, and a sword at her hip. She didn’t have an insignia of the kingsguard that he could see.
“Whatcha looking at?”
Mort jumped, not realizing he had been staring at her. “Sorry, I… sorry.” He turned to go, then turned again and walked over to a table, sitting with his back to her, covering his red face with his hands.
“What can I get you?” A jovial voice called to him from the other end of the bar from the woman.
“Ale, and some lunch?” Mort’s voice almost squeaked as he jumped again. He coughed, “Please?”
“Of course, son, don’t mind Mel, she’s always grumpy.”
“Shut up, Sam.” The woman laughed quietly. “And stop shouting.”
“Drink your tea, Mel.” Sam brought Mort a plate and a mug. “Eat up, son.”
“Mort,” he offered. “Thanks…”
“Thank you, Sam.” Mort held out a gold piece. “You have a room I can stay in tonight?”
“Of course, welcome to the Winking Bear, Mort. We’ll even have a bard in tonight. Now, tuck in, you look like you could use it.” Sam took the gold piece and returned with a key. “Room’s the fourth from the top of the back stair. Don’t go in the third by accident, that’s Mel’s.” He winked at the startled boy.
“Thanks.” Mort tucked the key in his pocket and took a long drink of ale and turned to his lunch. “I’ll remember.”
Cyrus’s 18th naming day arrived on a bright, crisp morning. His mother brought him breakfast in bed. Toasted bread, marmalade, eggs sunny-side-up, and thick cuts of bacon with apple cider. Her eyes were red-rimmed and watery, she must know he was leaving, but she only wished him a happy day.
He ate and dressed and went to his study to clear it up and pack what few books he found useful, one a study of wild magic and one a history of war between the two realms. He sat at his small desk, staring around at the papers filled with notes that led only to disaster. He thumbed through the books his tutors insisted his parents buy him. He put them all back on the bookcase, ordered as best he could. He shuffled all the papers in a pile, barely resisting the urge to set them aflame. Then he just sat, tired again already.
After a while, he heard the house coming alive with guests and preparations for his naming day celebration. It would be the biggest one of his life, and he was dreading it more than ever. The door opened and he lifted his head to see his only remaining tutor hovering uncertainly.
“What is it, Petrian?”
“Well, I… Happy Naming Day, sir.” He hesitated and then stepped into the room.
“Thank you, Petrian.” Cyrus was too tired to be rude to him.
“Sir, I just wanted… your father said you were leaving soon.”
“Yes.” Cyrus sighed, Petrian was the youngest tutor he had ever had, and the only one who didn’t treat him like a child. Instead, he treated him like a dangerous animal.
“I wanted to thank you, sir.”
“Thank me?” Cyrus sat up in surprise.
“I’m young… and no one else would hire me… even though… well, but you did, and you listened to me.”
“I didn’t hire you, my father did. And I only pretended to listen to you so you wouldn’t keep repeating yourself.” Cyrus chuckled at the young man’s wide eyes.
“Oh Petrian, you do take yourself too seriously. You’re welcome, if that’s what you wanted to hear. You weren’t as sanctimonious as my other tutors, so I didn’t hate you quite as much. Does that make you feel better?” Maybe he wasn’t too tired, after all.
“I…” Petrian frowned. “You hated me?”
“Not as much as the others,” Cyrus reassured him. “And only because you’re wrong. I can’t control it, no matter what I do. But hey, at least you brought me an interesting book.” He lifted the wild magic study from his desk. “I’m even taking it with me.”
“Oh. Okay. I hope it helps.” Petrian stepped back towards the door. “Sorry, good luck.” He turned and walked out and down the hall.
Cyrus stood up, that had given him some energy, at least. He honestly hoped Petrian got a better job after ‘surviving’ the crazy mage boy, as people called him when they thought he wasn’t listening. He needed a spine, but he wasn’t a bad tutor, for a wizard. He headed downstairs to the kitchen to see if he could get lunch without being wrangled into meeting with the arriving guests. He should have known better.
“There you are, Cyrus. Come say hello to your grandparents, they are just sitting down for lunch. Your Uncle Geoffery and Aunt Georgianna are already here, too.” His mother grabbed his arm as soon as he got the to bottom of the stairs.
“Mother, I just…”
“And your cousins will be here soon, and everyone is excited to celebrate your naming day. Come along, and don’t you dare complain, they are all here for you, darling.” She went right on, pretending he hadn’t spoken.
“Your father is at the vineyard, making sure we have just the right wine for dinner tonight. I have to go to the bakers, cook is too busy will all the preparations, so I need you to hold things together for a little while. Here we are.” She led him to the head of the table where the early arrivals had already gathered. “Now you just sit down and have lunch while we get everything ready for tonight.”
“Yes, Mother.” Cyrus sat, knowing he was stuck with them for just one more day. “Hello (Grandmother, Grandfather, Grandmother, Grandfather), Uncle Geoffery, Aunt Georgianna. I hope the trip wasn’t too taxing?”
They all smiled and offered greetings. No, the roads were fine. They left early and had no trouble. The carriage was brand new, so the ride was the smoothest they had ever had. Cyrus smiled back and nodded at their various answers, and scooped up his wine glass as soon as it was filled. His mother gave him a sharp look, but then hurried away, intent on her shopping. They soon turned to asking how he was, and if he was excited to be turning 18.
Oh fine, I am doing fine. Yes, the priests were helping, and he was sure they had helped him get this far. He was grateful for all their prayers. He was glad to be turning 18, the tutors were all glad, too. One had even come to say goodbye this morning. Cyrus kept up the insipid pleasantries through the meal, finding the lies easier and easier as he drank more wine and weaved a tale of a happy young man for his relatives who would not want to know the truth.
After they were all done eating and began excusing themselves to go freshen up, or unpack, or rest before the big event, Cyrus was able to escape to his own room. He packed his satchel with the two books, and some ink and paper. He gathered some of his more sturdy clothes together into a pile, and folded up a blanket to go with them. He wanted to be ready to leave first thing in the morning. At some point today, he’d have to decide where he was going, but first, he wanted a nap. He lay down, and slept the rest of the afternoon.
“I can’t do it, Kris. I’m not ready.” William protested as Kristof helped him dress for the evening’s performance.
“You’ll be fine, Will, it’s a tavern. Sing drinking songs if you must, but I won’t let you spend another night drunk at your desk. At least go out and get drunk with other people.” He brushed the shoulders of William’s jacket, setting them more smoothly over the slight man’s shoulders.
“I… drinking songs?” He raised an eyebrow at his lover’s grin. “You wait, that’s all they’ll want, and I’ll make you come up and lead the round.”
“As long as you’re up there, too.” Kristof kissed him quickly, and dragged him out the door by the hand. “Let’s go get drunk with the Bear.”
“Kristof, you’re impossible!” But will followed him a bit more cheerfully than he expected.
Ash sent Mica and Sim on their way after they had all polished off the pitcher of ale. The boys having a bit more than they should have, but hoped it would keep them out of trouble for a few hours, at least. Ash brought the tray, plate, cups, and pitcher back in to Sam and joined Melanie at the bar.
“Hey, Melanie, how’s your head?”
“Better now that everyone’s stopped shouting.” She smiled over at Ash. “You ste… I mean, find anything interesting lately?”
“Just teaching some new kids some old tricks.” Ash rolled a gold coin thumb to pinky and back again.
“They might live past 10 with both hands intact. Pretty quick on their feet and one’s got a good head.”
“Four hands and one head, sounds promising.” Mel grinned widely.
“You sticking around for Will’s show?”
“At least a couple rounds.” Ash flipped the gold coin to Sam, who was eyeing them both.
“You two’ll be drunk before he even gets here.”
“All the better, we won’t care if he’s morose.” Mel held out her teacup to him.
He gathered their lunch dishes and cleared them away, returning a few minutes later with mugs of ale. Then Sam stepped away to clear up after the handful of other lunch customers, and help Sera get the stage set for the evening.
“Find a job yet?” Ash asked.
“Nah, still have coin left for room and ale. War at least paid well, even if it ruined everyone and everything.” Melanie drank deeply.
“Don’t you get bored? The Bear’s nice for a tavern, but… do you even go outside?”
“When I drink too much and Sera shoves me out the back door. I’ve slept in the stable a few times,” she admitted.
Ash frowned and sipped her ale. Mel wasn’t a friend, exactly, just someone to get drunk with now and again. It was beyond Ash’s comprehension, however, how someone could sit in the same building day in and day out, never leaving but to relieve themself of excess ale. Ash couldn’t even drink in the same tavern two nights in a row.
“Harvest Festival starts tomorrow, you should come out, it’ll be fun.” Ash tried.
“Maybe.” Mel downed the rest of her pint and held the cup out towards Sam. “Another round on Ash.”
“Sure.” Ash answered Sam’s questioning glance. “I’ll come by at lunch and we can go together, Mel.”
Melanie lifted her cup in toast. “Harvest Festival and lost friends.”
“Harvest Festival and found friends.” Ash tapped cups.
The music woke him. It was nearly dark outside his window, as Cyrus sat up. Minstrels, really? He shook his head and got up, Mother would be hammering down his door if he didn’t make an appearance soon. There must be a lot of musicians in town for the festival tomorrow, likely that’s why they were here. Father would never have paid the regular rates for something so frivolous, even if it was for his only child.
Cyrus looked in the mirror. He ran his hands through his thin, pale hair. He had thick blonde hair before the accident, now it was white and wispy, as though he was his grandfather’s age. He looked much like his mother’s father, he had to admit, though without the age spots and fewer wrinkles. No, his skin was pulled taut over his bones, too taut for wrinkles. His eyes were brown, though ringed in dark circles and often bloodshot from exhaustion. Pulling his eyes away from the glass, he changed into his best clothes, including a doublet with his family crest, and a dashing blue cape.
Once dressed, he headed downstairs, the noise level rising with every step. When he could see the crowd gathered below, he almost turned around. The front room was crowded with family and his parents’ friends. Unfortunately, his mother saw him on the stairs and headed straight for his side.
“Cyrus, come on down, I was just about to send Petrian for you. Everyone has been waiting to see you.” She clamped a hand on his elbow and pushed him down the stairs ahead of her. “Look everyone,” her voice cut through the chatter, “Cyrus has joined the party.”
Cheers and clapping rose from the crowd, as well as a few shouts of Happy Naming Day. Cyrus waved as he descended and was soon enveloped by mass of people. Everyone wanted to shake his hand, or pretended they wanted to, anyway. Cyrus’ face hurt from the false smile he plastered there, and his hand was starting to hurt from the overzealous grip of his uncles and cousins. The musicians added to the chaos, and Cyrus was regretting not leaving this morning.
“Dinner is served.” His father’s voice boomed over the gathering. “Please join us in the dining hall.”
Everyone surged through the door that his father had appeared in and shuffled around the tables to sit, vying for their preferred position and dining companions. Cyrus’ mother ushered him to sit at the head of the table, in his father’s usual spot. He sat, too overwhelmed to argue. Once everyone was settled, dishes were uncovered, wine was poured, and the musicians took up a softer tone. Conversation took a break as everyone tucked in to the first course, but the lull didn’t last for long.
“Well, Cyrus, now that you are an adult, what you going to do with yourself?”
“Yes, Cyrus, tell us, are you going to take over the vineyards?”
“Have you given up this foolish magic, yet?”
Cyrus pretended to be interested in his food and wine, as the questions continued.
“Now, now, he’s only just turned 18,” his mother cut in. “He doesn’t have to make any of those decisions, yet.”
“Cyrus isn’t interested in the vineyards,” his father added. “He has more academic pursuits in mind. Maybe he’ll even go on to the Academy.”
Cyrus rolled his eyes, but did not contradict his father. If he hated his tutors, there was no way he was going somewhere to be surrounded by their ilk. More food came out of the kitchens and the talk settled down again while everyone tried the exquisite pastries his mother had ordered special for the celebration. After a few bites, Cyrus stood up.
“Thank you, everyone, for coming. As several of you have noted, this is my 18th Naming Day. Tomorrow, I will be setting out into the world, so I bid you a good night. Enjoy the wine, enjoy the musicians, enjoy the company.” Before his parents could stop him, Cyrus turned and strode away from the table, getting out the door before the objections burst forth.
War and Love Songs
The crowd gathered, tables and barstools filling. Melanie and Ash sat together at the bar, enjoying dinner to stave off total drunkenness. Mort sat at a table nearby with a few men who had come in together. The gathering hummed with conversation and shouts for ale. William and Kristof stood together by the stage, foreheads together, whispering.
“You’ll be brilliant, Will. Just relax.”
“Of course I’ll be brilliant, but will they like it?” Will’s hands shook as he tuned his lute.
“They will, and if they don’t, I will.” Kris kissed WIll’s forehead. “They just want to have a fun night. Tomorrow’s the festival.”
“Oh gods, why did you remind me, I haven’t finished my piece!” Will barely controlled his a panicked squeal.
“Shhhh… Will, no. William von Trelles, you listen to me.” He lifted Will’s chin to look him in the eyes. “Stop. You are here, at the Winking Bear, with your friends, half of whom are already drunk off their asses. You are going to sing drinking songs, and bawdy songs, and you’re going to get just as drunk as they are.”
“Right, right. Ale and wine, drink and fun!” Will closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then kissed Kristof soundly and stepped onto the stage to clapping and hoots from the audience members nearby. “Harvest Festival Eve, my friends! Let’s all get drunk and take each other home!” He winked at his partner and started to play.
Will led the crowd in drinking songs, rowdy and raunchy, and absolutely ridiculous. He hardly had to sing himself. He just started them going, and played the lute to keep them on track. Half the tavern took up the beat on tabletops, or with their boots. Rounds were bought between every song. Sam and Sera kept the taps flowing, and the rest of the staff rotated mugs around the room. Mel and Ash downed pint after pint, toasting everyone who raised a mug within their reach. Mort leaned against the wall behind him, enjoying the pure life of the evening.
As the evening wore on, the crowd settled in for some serious drinking, and were less able to keep the songs going. When chaos reigned more than music, Will took a break to have his own ale.
“Marvelous, Will, I told you it wouldn’t take much with this crowd.” Kris brought him a mug. “They love you almost as much as I do.”
“No one loves me that much.” Will laughed.
“Hey Will, have a drink with us!” Ash called from the bar. “It’s good to see you laughing.”
“Hey Ash, isn’t it though.” Kris called back, pulling Will over.
“Will, Kris, this is Melanie. Mel, these are William and Kristof.” Ash put an arm around a weaving Melanie and turned her to face the men.
“How do. Ya shing pretty, Will.” Mel held out a hand, but it had her mug in it.
“He does, indeed.” Kris laughed, and tapped her mug with his.
“Sham, fill ‘er up fer da shinger!” She weaved back towards the bar.
“Of course, ale, William?” Sam held out a pint.
“Thanks, Sam.” Will took the mug and toasted Mel’s mug as well, which she still held out uncertainly. “Thanks, Mel.”
“How’re the kids, Ash? Teaching them any bad habits?” Kris asked.
“Only the best for the rats, but Sam doesn’t like me inviting them in.” Ash pulled Mel back to her seat. “Sit, dear, you’ll trip again, and Will’s not done yet.”
“Yer a goo one, Asssh. Will! Will you shing for me? I likesh yer shinging. You shing at fesh…fesh… you shing tomorrow?”
“Um…” Will blinked at her.
“You’ll have to come and find out, Melanie.” Kris teased. “No spoilers.”
“I will!” Mel declared. “Asssh’ll bing me. Sed so.”
“Yes, Mel, once you sober up and before you get drunk tomorrow, I’ll drag you out of bed and take you to the Festival. Here, have some water so you don’t pass out before he’s done tonight.”
“Yer the besht.” Mel downed the entire cup of water.
“Time to finish.” Kris pulled Will back to the stage. “Maybe a ballad, Will? Something to get them settled down?”
Will finished his ale and nodded. He handed the mug back to Kris and stepped up on the stage. Walking to the center, he closed his eyes once more, and took a few long, deep breaths. The crowds quieted, turning to look at Will, who stood absolutely still with his lute against his chest. He raised his head by inches, eyes opening just as slowly. He looked out at the audience, but did not see them. He looked past them, beyond the walls. Fingers starting to move, soft notes floated into the air. Strumming now, the chords filling, the soft music wrapping them all warmly.
The image of two people, a man and a woman appeared at the front of the stage, facing away from each other with about three feet between them. They both had black hair and blue eyes, but that’s where the similarities ended. The man wore the ragged clothes of a farmer, and the woman a simple, but lovely dress.
Will’s voice now rose into the music, wind through the chords, wordless to start. The man turned a little and noticed the woman. Words began to spill forth, telling of a young man who saw a beautiful woman riding hard down the road while he worked in the fields. The man worked hard all his life, and he had never seen such beauty. The figure of the man turned away, head lowering as the song told of how she did not even look his way.
The woman turned forward towards the audience. Will sang of her riding away from a terrible father, who had locked her in a tower, alone for weeks at a time. She had escaped one night, when he was away. The figure turned about, hands outstretched, searching, as Will sang of her becoming lost in the woods. The figure threw up her arms, beseeching the sky, as the words told of wild animals taking her horse. The figure fell to her knees and the man turned towards her.
Will sang of the young man riding through the woods on his way to go to market, when he found the woman kneeling beneath a tree. He went to her, but she was so weak, she could not stand. He lifted her to his horse, and held her there. He took her the rest of the way to town. He would save her, he would make sure she was safe. But her father had sent men looking for her.
The figures clung to each other, as Will sang of men surrounding them, and pulling her from his arm. She begged him to save her, but they knocked him to the ground, and no one stopped them. The male figure fell, and the female figure disappeared. The man stood, tears running down his face. Will sang of beauty, of pain, of loss.
The figure stopped crying, and grew, became stronger. Will sang of determination, of action, of growing and becoming strong. He sang of the farmer training to fight, and learning who the woman had been. Learning where she had been taken. The farmer went to find her, went to rescue her. The female figure appeared again, her back to the audience.
Will sang of the farmer reaching the keep, of fighting his way in and up to the woman’s chamber. The woman turned to face the audience, and she was with child. The farmer was too late, she had been given to another man, and tears now ran down her cheeks. The farmer fell to his knees, as the song spoke of how he stopped fighting. Will sang again, of beauty, pain, and loss, as both the figures faded away. The words stop, the strumming slows, a few notes linger in the air, and then they, too, fade.
Tears fill many eyes, some trickle down cheeks. Silence fills the room for just a moment. Then William bows, and the silence breaks. Clapping fills the tavern, cheers and huzzahs! Many mugs are lifted in toast and tips rain down into the basket on the front corner of the stage. Kris rushes up to Will and wraps him in a tight hug.
“Bravo, my darling, bravo.” He took the lute from Will and handed him another ale. “You were wonderful.”
“Let’s go home, Kris. Can we?”
“Finish your ale while I collect the tips.” Will picked up the basket and made a quick round of the audience, gathering any coin they would part with.
“Sera! Take Mel to bed.” Sam called over the roar of the crowd now clamoring for drinks.
“Sure thing, Sam.” Sera picked Mel up off the floor before she could get run over, and heaved her up the stairs.
“I’ll get her out tomorrow, Sam, I promise.” Ash told him. “She can’t keep on like this.”
“You’re a good friend, Ash. Thank you.”
“Good night, Sam. Hey Kris, you take care of that man, he’s a treasure.” Ash dropped a gold into the basket as Kris headed back to the stage.
“Oh, I will, always.” Kris called back, then dumped the tips into a purse. “Come along, Will, our friend says I must take good care of you.”
“Let’s go, then.” Will turned once more to the crowd. “Good night, Happy Harvest Festival!”
The two men left, arm in arm, into the night. On a normal night, Sam would have run out of ale, but this was Harvest Festival eve, and he had bought many extra barrels for the week. He did make last call an hour later, so that everyone would still be able to walk home. He and Sera cleaned up the tavern and poured a few more customers into bed.
Mort managed to make it on his own, just barely. He was looking forward to the Festival, if Will would be there, he wanted to be sober enough to hear him again. That woman Mel would be there too, and she looked familiar somehow. Her friend Ash was a bit of a mystery. Mort had only a side view, but Ash seemed of no gender. Not clearly one anyway. He made a mental note to ask Ash’s preferences, should they speak together, he knew Sera preferred neither and used they.
Devera was on a tundra, far to the north of her village. She was alone, standing in nothing but her deerskin dress. Her feet were bare and she had no cloak, but she was not cold. The sun was not in the sky, but there was light showing a pale, clear blue sky. She turned north and started walking.
The frozen ground crunched beneath her feet. Closing her eyes, she listened. A brisk wind blew up here, and she heard no sounds other than her own steps and clothes rustling. She lifted her head to scan the horizon. There was a figure there, far away, standing still. She walked toward it at a steady pace.
She walked for a long time, it seemed to her, drawing no nearer the figure. She did not hurry, visions were not to be hurried. It would come to her when it was time. Taking her eyes off the figure, she looked around, but the tundra had not changed. She could not even tell if she had moved at all. It looked the same as when she started. Looking behind her, though, she could see where her footfalls broke the crust of the frosty ground.
Looking back to the figure, she found it ten feet in front of her. She stopped abruptly. The figure was herself, but male. Like her twin brother, but not. It was clearly not Dalt, but Devera. The two Deveras stared at each other in silence for a moment and then both stepped forward, to stand only a foot apart.
“What are y… am I.. what is… hello?” The dreamer asked.
“I am lost,” said the figure. “Why did you leave me here?”
“I… when? I… in my vision? How could I take you with me?” The dreamer, squeezed her eyes closed and rubbed her forehead.
“How could you not? I am part of you.”
“I don’t understand. I don’t know how.” She looked back at him, meeting his eyes. “Who are you?”
“I am you. You are me. We are one.” He reached up and put his hands on either side of her face, looking her straight in the eyes. “We. Are. One.”
She reached her hands up to his face as well, and they held each other’s faces, noses a bare inch apart, staring into each other’s eyes for a very long time.
Cyrus slept restlessly. Tossing and turning. Guilt, fear, pain. He never had a pleasant night unless he took drugs to sleep. But tonight was worse by far. He didn’t take anything because he wanted to leave as soon as daylight woke him. The dreams would come and he would have to take them.
He was in his house. There were voices, but he couldn’t make them out. In the kitchen, so he went that way. Whispers. No one was there. Maybe the dining room. Whispers. No one there, either. His father’s office? Whispers. The words started to come through, he must be closer.
“He’ll kill us all.”
“We have to do something.”
Cyrus walked quietly up the stairs and saw them outside his bedroom.
“We have to kill him while he’s weak.”
“He killed that boy, drained the life right out of him.”
It was his parents, whispering together, peering in his cracked bedroom door.
“This is our chance, before he wakes up.”
Cyrus walked right up to them, but they did not see him. He reached out, but he could not touch them.
“He’s just a boy, but what will he become as a man?”
“The guards say it wasn’t him, but we know the truth.”
A dagger flashed in his father’s hand, as they opened the door. Cyrus saw himself, as a young boy. Younger than when the Incident happened. So young and full of life. They didn’t go to him, though, they went to another bed on the far side of the room. An older boy slept there, withered like himself. And his father raised the knife.
Cyrus screamed, but he was in the vineyard, alone. He spun around and around. No one was there. The vines around him were dead and black. He watched as death spread from him. Vine after vine withering, dying, and rotting. He ran, but death followed in his wake. He ran and ran, but there was no end, no fence, no wall or gate.
He tripped over dead vines in a panic, and fell to a stone floor. He stayed there, panting for a moment before looking around. A small stone cell, no windows, a thin wooden door. Only big enough to let a man slip sideways through. A small square hole in it, the size of his fist, letting in flickering torchlight just above his eyeline.
He tried the door, but it did not budge. He shoved harder, throwing his small frame against it, but nothing. He pushed up onto tiptoes to peer through the hole. He saw the torch on the wall across from him, and nothing else but stone.
“Hello?!” He called, and heard it echo slightly. “Anyone there?”
Silence answered his calls. The scrabbling from the back of the cell. He turned to see movement low to the ground. The flickering light reflected off tiny eyes near the ground. Two. Then four. Then eight. Rats scurried toward him.
“No, no, no! Not you!” He turned his head to the door again. “Anyone! Hello! Let me out!”
He turned back and the floor was covered with rats rushing towards him. Crawling over his feet and up his legs. Biting him, squeaking, and flowing up and over him. He screamed, becoming a ball of fur and pain. Screamed and screamed and screamed.
“Cyrus! Cyrus stop! Cyrus, NO!”
He opened his eyes to see flames all around him. Surrounding his bed. His father stood in the door, shouting at him. He looked down and saw the flame in his hands, burning his bed. But it didn’t hurt, he didn’t feel the heat.
“Cyrus, what have you done?”
“Run, Father, I know what you’ve done!” Cyrus shouted over the flames.
“Cyrus, wake up!” His mother’s voice cut through everything.
And he was in bed, in the dark, laughing and crying and screaming with pain. No, he wasn’t screaming. His mother was. He looked down, and she was on her knees, screaming as fire raced around her body, burning her alive.
Cyrus was in the dining room with his family, but apart. They were all sitting at the table. His father, mother, brother, and himself, as a very young boy. He watched from a corner as they ate and talked and laughed together.
The door slammed open and a city guard rushed in and straight to his brother. He was yanked from his seat and clapped in irons before Father even made it to his feet.
“What is the meaning of this?” Father demanded.
“This boy stands accused of murder. He will be taken to await trial.”
“That’s ridiculous! He’s been here with us all evening.”
“He killed a boy at school this morning and then ran away. He’s coming with me.” The guard dragged him towards the door, and Cyrus noted that he didn’t look surprised or confused, just angry.
“That is ridiculous.” Father strode after them, while Mother picked up little Cyrus and held him close.
“Don’t you worry, Cyrus, Dada will take care of this, he takes care of all of us.”
Cyrus stood alone in the entry hall. Whispers all around him.
“Dangerous…Kill him…Killed a boy…”
William crouched in the woods at the edge of the battle. The clashing metal, raging fires, and screams of dying men surrounding him, crushing him. He could not move. He had to move. The General was down there somewhere. He had to find him, had to deliver his message. The orders were in his satchel and he had to get them to the General. But he could not move, could not get closer to that chaos of blood and pain.
“You there! Stand slowly.”
William nearly fell forward, his muscles spasmed so hard at the shout. He was sure a small scream escaped his throat, but he could not hear it. A sharp point poked at his back, as a rough hand grabbed his shoulder.
“Slowly now, boy.”
He was hauled to his feet, unable to resist, and shaking.
“Who are you, now, and why are you out here? Spying on our forces?”
Will could barely tell one army from another in the battle before him. He didn’t know how anyone could learn anything useful from watching two armies clash. He shook his head mutely.
“No? Then what’s this, then?” The bag was yanked off his shoulder.
He tried to turn, tried to protest, but he could not move.
“Sealed by the King himself. Yer a messenger then, boy? Too bad these won’t be delivered.”
A pain blossomed in his head. Blackness.
He was chained to a pole in the middle of a large tent. Men surrounded him, faces leering. One held a whip that was dripping with blood, his blood. His body was on fire with pain.
“Tell us!” The torturer raised the whip again.
“I don’t know!” he screamed as the whip fell again.
An explosion outside, and the faces around him looked alarmed. Another and they began to run out of the tent. The torturer merely looked annoyed. Glaring at Will he brought the whip down again, harder.
Pain exploded through his body. Blackness.
Will woke in a tent filled with the the odor of blood and death. The air was heavy and cloying. He turned his head to the side and retched on the ground. Pain seared his body and his throat. He looked up to see the man beside him, eyes open and staring, but glazed in death. Will scrambled up to sit on his small cot. Looking around, all he saw were the dead. Lanterns burned low all around him, and no one else moved.
Bandages wrapped his own chest, arms, and legs. Everything hurt, but he knew that meant he was alive. He hurried to stand, finding he wore nothing but the bandages, and wrapped the blanket that had been laying over him around his shoulders. He stumbled out of the tent, and all around him the camp was ablaze. He heard the roar of fighting the the left, and he ran right.
Ran through a burning encampment, where bodies lay strewn across the ground. His feet were bare, and glowing embers burned them as he ran. There seemed no end to the burning tents, and the sounds of battle chased him. He whipped his head around, looking for someone, anyone, but saw only fire.
William ran and ran, and then tripped over a body he had not seen. He was falling, falling through fire, and then a splash and cold. Water, a river. He was surrounded by water and he could not breathe. He kicked and swam, but everything was darkness and he could not find air. He thrashed and kicked as his lungs burned. He was cold, so cold. Blackness as he could struggle no more. At least there was no screaming.
Melanie stood outside the window of her house, peering through foggy glass. She saw her husband and her daughter there, sitting at the table, eating. They both looked sad, the girl just picking at her food, she was barely three years old.
“When’s Mama coming home?”
The man just shook his head and did not answer.
Melanie tried to move, tried to go to them, but the glass fogged over completely and they weren’t there anymore.
“Mama!” she heard her daughter cry and whirled around to see.
The little girl was six now and she threw herself into another woman’s arms. Melanie’s husband stood beside them, smiling.
“Mama, look what I brought you.” The little girl handed the woman a handful of wildflowers. “Papa said they’re your favorite!”
Tears fell down Melanie’s cheeks, blurring her vision.
“I couldn’t wait for you. You were gone so long, and they told me your regiment had all been killed in a surprise attack. You were dead.” Her husband stood in front of her now. “You were dead and we could not wait for a ghost.” There was no sadness, only anger in his voice.
“No one wanted you to join the army. How could you abandon your family like that?” She spun to see her mother beside her. “You left them, of course they left you.”
“You did this to yourself. We told you not to go. Why couldn’t you just do your duty to your husband and daughter, and to us!” Her father scolded from the other side.
“Why did you even come back here, why couldn’t you just stay dead?” He husband looked disgusted now.
“Who is she, Papa?” their daughter asked from behind him.
“No one, baby, she’s no one.” He turned away, picked up the little girl and walked away.
Melanie fell to her knees, sobbing until it all went black.
Harvest Festival Morning
Light streamed through the window onto Cyrus’ face. He woke blinking and groaning, sure he was still stuck in a dream. Gods, why was it so bright in here? Oh, Harvest Festival, and the day he was to leave. He remembered now, he had opened the curtains so he would wake early and get out of the house before his parents could stop him. He hoped it was early enough.
Sliding out of bed, he dressed in plain clothing, packing his bag with the things he had laid out the day before. He put his books on top, and hefted the pack onto his shoulder. Putting his dagger and purse on his belt, he headed downstairs. The house was still quiet after the late party the night before. He guessed that despite his early departure, they guests had stayed up late into the night. In the kitchen, the cook and a scullery boy were up, but they paid him no mind as he picked out a fresh roll and headed outside.
It was just after dawn, but the city was already awakening to the first festival day. Cyrus pulled up his hood to shadow his white hair and weathered face, and headed out to wander a city he had avoided since the incident. He hoped no one would recognize him, as those who knew him best still slumbered in his home.
Patricia stood at the small window of her room, looking out over the city at dawn. It was Harvest Festival, and she could see the people preparing for the celebration. Ribbons were being wound around lantern poles. Extra stalls were setting up in the marketplace. Stages were being erected throughout the city. She even saw archery ranges and fighting squares being set up by the river. There were tents along there, too, that she knew would be filled with the best each farmer could bring to the city for judging. The festival would last three days, though the main focus was on the first day. The second and third day were mostly just focused on the harvest itself, and selling off the final harvests, or buying, in preparation for the winter to come. A knock on her door interrupted Patricia’s thoughts and she turned away from the window.
The door opened, revealing High Priest Absha. He was accompanied by a King’s Guard who looked embarrassed to be there.
“Sister Patricia, this man has come to escort you to the King’s Court.” Absha motioned to the Guard.
“On Harvest Festival Day?” she asked, stepping toward them.
“Well, yes. I’m sorry, The King is tired of waiting for the General to return, and wants to settle your case, in honor of the Day.” The Guard stepped back from the door to allow her room to pass through.
Patricia exchanged looks with Absha. That sounded promising, but also dangerous. Harvest judgements often ended in execution – harvest the wheat and cutting the chaff.
“I’ll go with you, Sister.” Absha offered his hand.
“Thank you,” she took his hand, “but I’m sure you have more important things to do.”
“There is nothing more important than Justice for a chosen of (Tryd).”
“Yes, well…” the Guard looked even more uncomfortable, “I’m sure King Delfan would not mind at all. He… um… respects you greatly, your holiness.”
“Then let us go.” Absha and Patricia followed the young guard out of the temple and toward the King’s palace.
Ash woke just after dawn, light creeping through the cracks in the boarded up window across from the pallet. Just drunk enough last night, that the dreams had stayed away. Getting up and stretching, checking purse and daggers. All was where it belonged. The backpack at the foot of the pallet holding all Ash’s worldly possessions remained undisturbed. Ash picked it up and put it on one shoulder. Heading out to go get Mel and make sure she had a good day in the sun and away from the Winking Bear.
The city was well awake by the time Ash walked the streets. Vendors shouting their wares. Children running with streamers and ribbons. Criers announcing competitions for later in the day. Stages and tents being erected. The festival mood was palpable one every street. Even the sounds of the city were different. No clanging of smith hammers. No banging of hammers. The criers didn’t shout of battle, raids, or politics. Even the haggling had a cheerier note this morning. Ash smiled and didn’t even look for marks on this bright sunny morning. Only the cooks, bakers, and food vendors worked on Festival Days.
It didn’t take long to get to the Winking Bear. Sam and Sera were already up and busy making breakfast, serving the few patrons who had made it downstairs so soon, or hadn’t made it upstairs last night. Ash slid onto a stool and ordered a plate, as well.
“Good morning, Sam. Happy Harvest Festival.”
“Happy Harvest Day, Ash.” Sam slid her a plate of fried pork and potatoes.
“Don’t suppose you’ve seen Mel yet?”
“No, no, don’t expect to this early, either.” Sam laughed.
“She might be up near noon.” Sera put in. “You could try to wake her early. I don’t usually bother, anymore.”
“Anymore?” Ash raised an eyebrow.
“She tried punch me last time.” Sera offered.
“And she likes you.” Ash laughed.
“Exactly. So, I let her sleep it off, now.”
“Guess I’ll wait then.” Ash dug into her breakfast, as Mort came down the stairs.
Mort’s head ached, but he was happy as he rose. Harvest Festival Day had always been one of the days he had looked forward to all year. The day when a year of work paid off and everyone celebrated the life they had created and cared for all through the hot summer. The joy in the air during Harvest Festival was palpable. Even the temple of (Koth) took the day off and went out into the city to celebrate.
He made his way downstairs and saw Ash already arrived and tucking into breakfast. Mort sat down a few stools away and asked Sam for a breakfast of his own. He nodded to Ash, who acknowledged him with another nod. Mort had never been good at talking to people, so he turned away when his food arrived instead of asking his questions.
“You’re Mort, right? Son of the temple of Koth?” Ash’s voice broke the silence, and Mort nearly dropped his fork.
“Um… yeah?” He looked up at Ash, confused that he was known.
“There’s talk.” Ash said simply. “You left the temple when everyone thought you’d be the next high priest.”
“Yeah…” Mort felt his ears starting to burn.
“Right in front of (Koth) and everyone at your Naming Day party.” The corners of Ash’s lips curled up in a smirk. “Downright ballsy of you, Mort. The whole temple district is gossiping.”
“I… Oh… I didn’t mean for… Oh…” His mind reeled, what must his parents be going through, what had he done? “I didn’t realize anyone cared.” He finished, looking back at his plate, suddenly not hungry.
“If you’d just left, maybe, quietly. But you did it publicly, man, in front of everyone your parents know. Sure, it wasn’t a lot of people, but they all know a lot more people. I doubt your parents will leave the temple, even today, until the talk dies down.” Ash laughed.
“I should go… I should talk to them…” Mort mumbled.
“Only if you want to go back,” Ash cautioned. “You stood up for yourself, Mort, and if you go back to apologize, you might stay and never be yourself again.”
“My parents kicked me out, and I could go back, if I apologized, if I changed who I am. But I’m not going to do that, and neither should you.” Ash leaned over and clapped him on a shoulder. “They’ll get over it, and you’ll be your true self, Mort, don’t give up now. I just thought you should know, so you’d be prepared for it. You can’t let it send you running back.”
“Thanks. I guess you’re right. I don’t want to go back, but I feel bad for them. I didn’t want to cause them problems, I just wanted out.” Mort looked up at Ash.
“Of course not, but actions have consequences, and you have to accept that and move on.” Ash’s eyes flitted up to the stairs behind him. “Speaking of… Hey, Mel, come eat with us. Mort here’s learning about consequences.”
“Keep your voice down, Ash, no need to shout, It’s not even noon, yet.” Mel stomped over to a stool between them. “Sam, how ‘bout a breakfast ale to wash the cobwebs out?”
“Just one, Mel, we’re going to the festival as soon as you’re done.” Ash wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
“Yeah, yeah, let me eat first, would ya?” Mel drained half the pint as soon as Sam set it down. “You alright, boy? Ya look like Ash just stole your puppy.”
“I’m okay. Just my ego, but then gave half of it back.”
“Lucky day for you, then.” Mel accepted the plate from Sam. “Thanks, Sam.”
“Hey, Ash, um… Can I ask you a question?” Mort pushed his empty plate across the bar before looking over at Ash.
“That depends on the question.” Ash smiled at him over Mel’s hunched back.
“Um… well… I don’t know you very well, so maybe I shouldn’t, but I don’t want to offend you, either. So, um… how do you like to be referred to?” Mort felt his cheeks burning, but Ash’s expression didn’t change.
“I’m Ash. I like to be referred to as Ash. I’m not she or he or they. I’m just Ash. I appreciate you asking instead of deciding for yourself.” Ash lifted a glass in toast to Mort.
“Alright, thanks.” Mort lifted his glass to return the toast.
Mel raised her glass between them, clinked both, and drained the other half of her pint.
“Well, Ash, Mort, shall we go to the Festival?”
“We shall.” Ash replied, standing and holding a hand out to each of them.
“Let’s go then.” Mel slid off her stool and pulled Mort along, too, out of the tavern for the first time in the month since she had stepped inside.
William woke in a cold sweat, wrapped tightly in his blankets, gasping for breath. Kristof was not beside him, and light streamed in through the window. It was morning, he was safe in bed, he was at home in Parcept. Everything was fine. Will untangled himself from his sheets and glanced down at the scars dotting his arms and chest. It was just a dream, they were just memories. The war was over and he was safe.
“Will, are you awake yet?” Kris called from the other room. “Breakfast is ready.” He popped his head around the door, and stopped at the sight of William soaked in sweat and taking deep breaths. “Oh, Will, I’m sorry. I thought it had stopped.” Kris rushed to his side and wrapped him in his arms.
“I’m… I’m okay, Kris.” He leaned against him. “It was just a dream. I’m okay.”
“It was a lot of dreams, Will. I couldn’t wake you up, so I just held you. You were screaming and thrashing, I was afraid you’d hurt yourself. But you stopped as the sun rose, and seemed to settle. So I got up to make breakfast. I’m sorry, I should have waited until you woke up.”
“No, no, Kris, it’s fine. I’m fine. Thank you, thank you for holding me and making me breakfast. You’re too good to me.” Will kissed Kris on the forehead and the rose, pulling Kris up as well. “Let’s go eat, then go out to the festival.”
The two men headed out to the kitchen, arm in arm, to start the day, and put the dark night behind them.
King Andreas Delfan III sat on his throne at the end of a grandiose hall. A red carpet, ten feet wide, started at the door and ran all the way down the to the foot of the raised dias. To either side, pillars stood at regular intervals, towering over the nobles standing between them. The crowd was restless, voices buzzed low throughout the room. It was Harvest Festival, and this was not where they expected to be.
“What is going on?”
“I heard they’re bringing in a traitor.”
“I heard she’s a hero.”
“I heard he defied the generals.”
“Why today, why not wait until after the festival?”
“Is the general even home?”
“They are still burning (Sindarian), I heard.”
“The war’s over, don’t be silly.”
“I heard that’s why we’re here. He didn’t come home.”
The doors at the far end of the hall swung wide open and all the murmuring stopped as two new arrivals were announced by the hall crier.
“High Priest Ashba and Knight of (Tryd) Patricia (de Rigulous).”
All heads turned to see the two arrive. The high priest wore voluminous robes of white, with a golden sun emblazoned across his chest. The knight wore a similar tabard, over plain white clothes, and sturdy boots. They both held their heads high, and strode up the carpet without hesitation. The murmuring started up again when they were halfway to the throne.
“A priest and a knight? Surely not?”
“Ashba hasn’t left the city, why is he here?”
“Who is this knight?”
“What is going on?”
Both figures walked all the way up the carpet to the dias, and then bowed low to King Delfan. They stayed bowed until he spoke.
“Do stand, and thank you for coming Father Ashba, it was not necessary. Lady Patricia, I appreciate your patience in this matter. I have been weighing your case since you returned home, sending runners to the general, and speaking with my other commanders.” He stood and raised his voice to be heard throughout the hall.
“My noble friends, thank you for joining me here this morning. I know we would all rather be enjoying this Festival Day. Lady Patricia, Knight of (Tryd), has been accused of Treason against the crown, and Insubordination against her commanding officer, General Tazern.” He paused for the gasps and mutterings, and then held up a hand for silence.
“As many of you know, General Tazern did not return to his post after the war, he continued to lead his armies in the south, continued to rampage through the lands of (Sindarian), and continued to ignore my commands to stop and return home.” There were many nods from the assembled nobles, and only a few wide eyes.
“As such, Lady Patricia was acting under my orders, though unknowingly, and is therefore innocent of all charges of Treason, and pardoned for any insubordination.” There were a few cheers from the assembled crowd, from those that knew her personally. “I wanted to proclaim this to her, in front of all of you, so that there would be no doubt. Lady Patricia, I thank you for your loyalty and your honorable actions in a time of war and strife, and I wish you a free and happy Harvest Festival Day.”
“Thank you, Majesty, I am truly humbled, and grateful.” Patricia bowed again.
“And thank you all, my friends, for come here to witness this today. Go now, and enjoy Harvest Festival Day. May (Tryd) shine bright upon us.” With that, King Delfan turned and left the chamber.
Voices buzzed in Patricia’s ears, as people came up to congratulate her. She smiled, nodded, and shook hands with many people as Father Ashba guided her out of the room, but she had no idea what they were saying. Her heart had been hammering the entire walk here, and had almost stopped while King Delfan spoke. Now, it was hammering twice as hard, and she felt sick with relief.
Father Ashba led her all the way back to the temple, and back to her room. She was sitting on the bed before she found her voice again.
“Thank you, Father. I… Oh, I’m so relieved. I didn’t know, I didn’t believe. Oh, thank (Tryd, Father.” She stammered, slumping back against the wall.
“Thank (Tryd), indeed child. He has smiled upon you this day. Rest now, eat something, and when you’re ready, I think you really should go out and enjoy the festival, you’ve been cooped up in here far too long.” Ashba smiled down at her fondly. “Go out and have fun, you need it.”
“Thank you, Father,” she repeated. “I think I will.”
The sun shone down on a crisp autumn day in the city of Parcept. People filled the streets, and children ran everywhere. Banners flew from market stands and topped stages and temporary pavilions. Ribbons wrapped around lamp posts and decorated doorways. Tables filled every open square, and tavern owners vied for customers with big signs at each one. Each stage had a small sign listing that day’s entertainment. A few listed competitions: pie-eating contest at noon, best war story mid-afternoon, ale drinking contest at dusk, best ghost story late evening. Farmers with small carts shuffled through the crowds, heading for the pavillions hosting growing competitions. Minstrels and bards sauntered, calling out the times of their official shows. Jugglers, acrobats, and street magicians set up on corners to entertain for tips. Many businesses were closed, but the market boasted the most vendors of any day of the year, shouting their wares, and offering food samples too small to satisfy even the youngest child.
Cyrus wandered through all this bustle aimlessly. He had no plan, and he wanted to enjoy at least one day before heading out on the road. Such a happy and celebratory day should put him in no danger. The wildness seemed to only come out in anger, so long as he could avoid confrontations, today would be a good start to his journey. He glanced around at this thought for some wood to knock on, sure he had just doomed himself, then shook his head. Control. That was one thing his tutors had managed to teach him, at least of himself, if not the magic.
Two small children colliding in front of him broke him out of his revery. Cyrus stopped short, hand going to his purse, but the children just giggled and ran off again. He chided himself for being so suspicious, even as he followed them with his eyes. Just kids celebrating a festival day, he told himself, but he kept one hand resting on his belt near his purse. The pie-eating contest was about to begin, and Cyrus quickly left that square, looking for a good place to have lunch.
“Really, Ash, a pie-eating contest?” Mel complained.
“You don’t have to participate, but we’re going to watch. You need to see people enjoying life, and what better way to enjoy life than with unlimited pie?” Ash laughed and clapped Mel on the back. “Right, Mort?”
“Um… sure, Ash, sure. Here, let me go buy a pie to share while we watch.” Mort headed to the nearest vendor and returned a moment later with a pumpkin pie and three forks. “Lunch?”
“There you are, Mel, just one pie for us while we watch the competition.”
Ash dragged Mel and Mort to a table where they could eat their pie. The tavern in charge of the table they chose sent a server over to take drink orders, and the three new friends settled in for ale and pie. Ash and Mort dug in with gusto, while Mel nibbled at her slice.
Three men and one woman mounted the stage and sat at the long table. A fourth man climbed the steps and took in front of them all.
“Happy Harvest Festival! Welcome my friends, to the annual Pie Eating Contest!” He waved to the contestants at the table behind him. “The returning champion, Eldera!” The woman waved to the cheering crowd. “Returning contestants, Thompson and Elrick!” The two men raised fists. “And a new competitor, Jimisin!” The youngest of the men, raised a hand, smiling nervously. “Today’s contest will be apple, pumpkin, and rhubarb pies, provided by Chellan’s Pie Emporium. Whoever finishes the most pies without sicking up wins a year’s supply of pie from Chellan’s!”
The crowd cheered and pies were stacked up on the table beside each competitor.
“Ready? Three, Two, One, Eat!” The host and the audience cried together, and the four dug in.
Patricia left the temple just after lunch and headed out into the celebration. After so many days in her room alone, the crowds were a bit overwhelming. She stood for a few minutes in the square, watching the children running, the people roving in groups, occasionally singing, but all joyful. Today was a day to let go of the long year, and look forward to the plenty provided by the harvest. Patricia sighed for all the farmers in the south who would not be having a harvest, let alone a festival.
“Go out and have fun,” the high priest had told her.
Patricia shook herself and stepped out into the street, letting herself be washed along by the nearest group of revelers. She would take a day for herself, to let go of the war and the horrors she had witnessed. She would go out and have fun, and celebrate the bounty of her realm. (Tryd) had given them so much, and it was time to celebrate that. The group was heading for a stage where a group of minstrels was just wrapping up. They sat down at a table and ordered a round of ale, and Patricia joined them.
“William’s up next.” A woman with red hair told Patricia. “He’s brilliant.”
“I heard he’s been rather melancholy since the war, they drafted him as a messenger, you know.” A young girl in a worn cotton dress whispered.
“Oh, he’ll be alright, just needs to relax, the festival will help him see life again.” The first woman replied.
“I bet his boyfriend has helped him see life alright.” A young boy with a scar over his right eye grinned.
“Don’t be vulgar, Tommy. Kristof is adorable.” The girl scolded.
“I heard they’re getting married soon.” A young man with golden curls confided to her as he joined the table.
“Oh, I hope so!”
“Hush, Kimma, here he is.” Tommy elbowed her.
Patricia looked up to see a young man with short black hair and clear blue eyes striding forward on the stage. He carried a lute and was dressed in a blue silken shirt, black leather pants, and a short blue-lined, black cloak. He smiled at the crowd, but Patricia could see the circles under his eyes, and a slight limp in his gait.
“Good afternoon, my friends, I hope you are all having a splendid Harvest Festival. My name is William, and I hope you enjoy the songs I bring to you today.” He paused as applause rose from the gathered crowd, and grinned at a few shouts of encouragement and suggestions. “Let me start with a song to the Great Mother, who brings us the harvest every year.” With that, he strummed the lute and began to sing in celebration of the land, the fields, and the Great Mother of them all.
Mort stared at the body. It was a young red haired man, barely twenty years old. His face was relaxed, as though sleeping. His arms were placed across his chest, though Mort could see hints of red beneath them. The body was partially covered, but the cuts were still there, long lines across his chest. Mort turned away.
Another body, this one a young woman. Bruises marred her face and arms, and she lay in the same position as the man. She was even younger, barely eighteen. Her dress was tattered and her feet were bare. Mort closed his eyes and took a few steps away.
Another body. An older man whose crossed arms did not shield the large cut across his abdomen. Mort turned. A child, limbs and torso crushed. Mort covered his face, but they were all around him. He walked faster, but everywhere he looked, dead bodies surrounded him. He ran.
“No, No, No, No, No!” Mort screamed into his hands as he ran, daring only to peek through fingers to keep himself on the path. “NOooooo!”
Hand grabbed him, and he fought, terrified that the dead had stood up to claim him. Shoving away, he spun, and nearly tripped over a body, but the hands grabbed his shoulders again, and a voice shouted in his ear.
“No, no, no, no, no.” Mort mumbled to himself, but he stopped running, the voice was familiar.
“Mort, look at me!” A hand under his chin tried to lift and turn his face.
“No, no, no, no, no.” Mort closed his eyes, afraid of what he would see.
“Mort,” the voice softened, “open your eyes and look at me.”
Mort blinked, and looked into Ash’s eyes.
“There, that’s better. Take a breath. You’re okay. I’m okay.” Ash turned his face to the left. “Mel’s okay. We are all okay.”
His eyes started to wander down to the ground again, but Ash shook his chin a little.
“I…” Mort looked into Ash’s face. “I’m okay. We’re okay.”
“Good. Keep your eyes on me, we’re going to get out of here.” Ash kept a hand on his chin, and started stepping backwards, maintaining eye contact. “Mel, take my hand, get us out of here.”
Mel slipped around behind Ash, and gripping hands, led the two of them out of the triage tent and out into the ruined street. Mort’s eyes started to flick around in the sunlight, but Ash shook him again, hissing.
“Eyes on me.”
The three wound their awkward way through the streets until they reached an undamaged area of the city, and Mel found an inn they could slip into. Ash did not let go of Mort until all three of them were safely ensconced in a private room. All three sat down on the two beds. Then Mort jumped back up.
“Wait, we have to… Where’s Will? What happened? What are we doing? We can’t…”
Ash shoved him back down onto the bed.
“NO! Mort sit down and shut up, we aren’t going anywhere. You need to calm down. You’ve been hurt, and if you go rushing back out there, you’ll only get yourself killed.”
Mort sat very still for a moment, digesting Ash’s words. Hurt? Killed? Oh (Koth), all those people! Wait, I’m hurt? Mort blinked slowly and looked down at himself. Dried blood coated the right side of his pants, and there was a wrapped bandage around his forearm. His eyes roved over the rest of his body, but that seemed to be the only injury. He cradled his head in his hands, only it felt odd. He tapped his forehead gently, and found a bandage wrapped there, too.
“Stop poking it.” Ash scolded.
“Lie down, Mort, yer in shock.” Mel stepped forward and pressed him gently back toward the bed. “Please, just lie down.”
Mort did as he was told, mind still spinning, trying to piece together what had happened. Will was singing, the square was crowded, and then noise and light. Fire? Screaming. Blackness. Waking up in the tent full of bodies.
“Mort. Breathe, Mort, you’re shaking, just breathe.” Ash sat on the bed beside him.
“We don’t know. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are safe right now. Mel, could you head back down to the bar and bring us up something?”
“Sure, Ash.” Mel headed back out of the room.
“Mort, we just have to sit tight. There was an explosion in the square. The King’s Guard will sort it out. I saw Will running around the square after, he’s fine, too.”
Mel returned with three cups and handed them around.
“Thanks, Mel. Drink up, Mort.” Ash helped him sit up and handed him an ale.
Patricia leaned against a wall, looking out over the square. Small fires burned where there used to be tables. The stage was gone, just gone. She ran her hand through her hair, dislodging bits of wood and ash. Her eyes tracked to a pavillion where King’s Guard were carrying bodies. There, she could help there. Patricia made her way over to the tent and had to dodge out of the way of three people making their way out holding hands. The one being led by the chin looked familiar, but relatively unscathed.
Patricia pushed inside and looked for someone in charge. One man seemed to be applying bandages to people still on their feet, while the guards layed bodies down in rows. She strode over to him, to ask what she could do to help.
“Sir, (Tryd) be with you, please, allow me to assist.”
“Those over there,” he waved to a few who were moaning softly on the ground a few feet away. “See what you can do for them.”
Patricia moved over to the corner and knelt down. Laying her hands on one, she prayed to Tryd and they settled, wounds closing. She prayed over another, and they too settled into a more peaceful rest. Feeling a little dizzy, Patricia, checked the third, but he had already slipped beyond. She gave a short prayer for his soul and then stood.
Looking around, she saw the stream of bodies being carried in had stopped. The medic finished a bandage on one guard and then turned to her. He picked up another roll of cloth and approached.
“Are you alright?”
“I think so.” Patricia glanced down at her tunic, covered in black smears and flecks of ale and blood. “I am unhurt, (Tryd) be praised.”
“Do you know what happened?” he asked, setting the bandages aside.
“No. I was just watching a young man sing. It was a beautiful old ballad.” She closed her eyes, picturing it. “He was just coming to the edge of the stage, and then everything behind him exploded. It threw him right toward us. Then everyone was running and screaming. I think I hit my head, it took me a few minutes to get up, and I wasn’t at the table anymore.”
“You should go, but if you remember anything, you let us know.”
“Yes, of course, please let the temple of (Tryd) know if we can be of assistance.”
“I think this is job for (Koth) now, but perhaps if we find those responsible.”
“Thank you.” Patricia gave a nod and headed back out into the square to see if anyone else needed hep.
William staggered around the square looking for Kristof. What happened? Where was he? Why was there fire? Will’s ears were still ringing and his whole body hurt, but he couldn’t find Kris. The stage was gone, how could the stage be gone? He was just standing on it. He was just singing, not even using magic. Had his singing been that bad? What had… no, where’s Kris? Kris had been by the stage. Where’s the stage gone?
A King’s Guard grabbed him by the shoulders and shouted at him, but he couldn’t make out the words.
“Where’s Kris!” He hollered back. “Where is he?”
The guard looked confused, and his mouth moved some more, but Will still couldn’t hear him. Couldn’t really hear himself that well either. Will clapped his hands over his own ears.
“What? What? I can’t hear you!” he shouted at the man, who shoved him away in frustration.
Across the way, WIll saw Lady Patricia emerge from a tent, and he ran to her. She had been watching, Will had seen her in the crowd. He had delivered messages to her in the… no. He had seen her at court at celebrations before. She had always been kind to him. She was a hero, he had heard. She had defied the evil general, everyone was talking about it. She would help him.
“Lady Patricia!” he yelled, running to her, and nearly falling into a burning table. “Lady Patricia, where’s Kris? Did you see him, is he in there?”
The tall woman caught him by the shoulders, holding him still for a moment, and mumbled words. Suddenly, sound rushed back to Will and he hurt a little less. Crackling fires, shouts from King’s Guard, and she was speaking to him.
“William. William, are you okay? William can you hear me?”
“Yes, oh yes, thank you, Lady. Oh, have you seen my Kristof? He was by the stage, but it’s gone now. Did you see him in there?” He tried to push past her, but she held him firm.
“William, take it easy. William, look at me.” Her voice softened, and she brushed his hair out of his face. “Tell me what Kristof looks like.”
“He… Kris! Kris are you there?” He shouted past her, but she wouldn’t let him go. “He has hair the color of a sunset just a little taller than me, and the most beautiful emerald eyes.”
“William, I’m sorry. Yes, I think he might be inside. I’m sorry.”
“What, why, let me go! Kris!” Will wrenched free of her grip and ran into the tent.
The smell of blood and death, more concentrated under the pavillion, nearly stopped him in his tracks, but then he saw Kristof laying still on the ground. He threw himself down to the ground beside him with a wail of pain that stopped the medic from grabbing his shoulder. He wrapped Kristof in a tight hug, rocking and sobbing.
“No! Kristof! No! You said it was safe here! You promised! You promised we were safe! No! Don’t leave, you can’t leave, you can’t leave me.”
Patricia followed him inside, standing helplessly above him while he continued to rock the dead body of his lover and sob his name over and over.
Cyrus was halfway between the pie-eating stage and the main minstrel stage when the ground shook. The air filled with noise and heat, to be followed by screaming, smoke, and the roar of fire from several directions. Cyrus crouched down and checked himself. He hadn’t done that, he hadn’t done anything. He ran his hands through his hair and down his chest. No injury, he was fine. Standing carefully, he looked around to see what he could. There was smoke billowing up from the stage areas he could see, and a few others he had passed earlier in the day. Someone had attacked the festival stages, knowing that they would be crowded with people.
The King’s Guard was rushing toward the fires, so Cyrus stayed where he was. No use getting in their way, they’d only accuse him of mischief. He glanced around, trying to decide what to do, when he saw something very odd. Three people moving together, but in a very unusual way. One had a bandaged head, and was being led by the chin. The one doing the leading was walking backward, hand being held by a third. This third was the only one looking where they were going. And somehow, they were moving quite quickly. Curious, Cyrus followed them all the way to an inn, and watched them disappear upstairs just as fast. It was quieter here, so Cyrus decided to stay and find out what they knew, if he could.
A few moments later, the one who had been leading them all came back down, but she simply ordered three ales and went back up. Sighing impatiently, Cyrus moved over to the bar from the table he had chosen, so he might intercept her if she came back down for more. He ordered an ale for himself while he waited. The bartender looked curiously at him, but served him the ale with no questions.
“Something’s happened.” Cyrus told him anyway. “Explosions at the festival. Those three were near one of them.”
“You think they did it?” The man asked.
“No, no, but I think they saw it, and maybe they saw who did it. Or what it even was.” Cyrus didn’t take his eyes off the stairwell while he mused. “They sure left quickly, at any rate.”
“You know ‘em?”
“No, I don’t know anyone.” Cyrus admitted. “Not anymore.”
“New in town?”
“Lived here my whole life. Don’t get out much.” Cyrus sipped his drink. “Out now, though, bad timing, maybe. Not my fault though, not this time.” Cyrus shook himself and coughed, then returned to his cup, falling silent.
Dalt and Devera reached the desolation after a few weeks of travel. The brown lands and skeletal trees were worse than she had thought. Nothing lived here, and the dead trees stood only because there was nothing here to knock them down. It was not the same as land ravaged by fire. This land had been poisoned. Tainted by magic and death that could not be turned to life again. Sickness filled the land here, and nothing could take root unless it was healed.
They walked for days, looking for any signs of life, but there was nothing. No living plants, animals, or even people walking nearby. Devera was silent as they trudged through the arid land. Dalt left her to her own musings, keeping an eye out for any threats to unwary travelers, but even he saw nothing.
“We have to find people. This is terrible, but it’s not what we are here for. We are supposed to find out how the war turned out.” Dalt broke the silence after three days of walking through nothing.
“The maps showed towers another day away, we can ask there.” She waved him off.
“We can’t stay here, it’s hurting you.” He had watched her grow more distracted and listless with every day.
“I’m fine, Dalt. It’s upsetting, not harmful to me.” She looked up at him, shaking her head to clear her thoughts. “Just one more day, and if we don’t find anyone, we can turn toward Parcept.”
“One more day,” he agreed, knowing it was useless to argue with his twin, once she had decided something.
They turned in for the night, taking turns watching for threats.
“Hey, excuse me.” Cyrus reached out towards the woman who had finally returned to the bar. “Can I ask you something?”
“What?” Melanie asked, eyeing the shriveled man.
“Were you near one of the explosions? Do you know what happened?”
“Yes. No.” She turned to the bar. “Can you fill these up again?” She handed over the three mugs and some coin.
“No? But you were there?” Cyrus “I was just on a bridge and everything shook, you must have seen something?”
“Yeah, I saw the stage explode and my friends bleeding. Then I saw a bunch of dead people.” She collected the refilled mugs and turned away.
“No one attacked?” He reached out and snagged her arm.
“No.” She glared down at his hand on her arm. “No one attacked, just an explosion, death, and silence. Let go or lose the hand.”
Cyrus’ tensed in reflexive anger at the threat, but closed his eyes and released his grip.
“Thank you,” he forced out through gritted teeth.
The woman went back upstairs with her mugs. Cyrus polished his off then headed back out, he wanted to see what happened. Heading back the way he had come, he made his way towards the minstrel stage.
Cyrus approaches the square, filled with debris, remnants of smoke, and a few guards. The stage has been destroyed, and several tables overturned. Benches are tipped over and broken. The last few bodies are being carried into a large tent. He approaches the stage where a couple guards are examining what is left and listens to their conversation.
“Don’t know, sir. Young man was singing, and then the whole thing blew up. Sent him flying through the air. Seemed to come from the back, as it kicked him towards us.”