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An Imaginary Friend

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

               When I was a child, we lived in a village on the edge of the forest. I suppose it is more accurate to say we lived in the woods outside the village, though. My father was a woodsman and my mother a fletcher, so it was only natural for them to be out in the wilds, and they took us with them. I enjoyed my time in the wild if I am honest. It was quiet and calm, and if you knew and respected the natural, it was even rather safe. Nothing was outstanding or special about those years, to my memory – though at the time, I did not write everything down as I do now, so I may have missed something.

               This story, though, is not about my life there. As much as I would like to discuss that, you asked of my experience with monsters, and the mundane details of the life of a woodsman’s children aren’t what you sought. What is necessary is an understanding of who we were, though. We were not educated folk, at least at the time. My skill for memory and aptitude for learning eventually allowed my parents to secure me a spot as a scribe’s apprentice, but it was nothing less than exceptional that they were able to do so. It was, in all descriptions, a changing of stars for me. This did lead to some unwelcome changes.

               I had been blessed to have a younger sibling, a sister. She was a few seasons younger than me, and well and proper followed in our parents’ footsteps. From an early age, she enjoyed exploring the woodlands. She learned bow craft while working as a fletcher, and she learned to hunt while following my father in the woods. Even though she was young, she was skilled – and she enjoyed the wilds. She loved nothing more than run in the wilds.

               It was a lonely life for her, I imagine. There were few children her age, and I was almost always busy with my studies and the constant need to practice script. She played alone for much of her life, as did I, I suppose. But I always had my studies on which to focus my attention. I believed then that loneliness engaged her imagination. She found a way to deal with that on her own. She began telling us stories of Eremurus.

From her descriptions, he was a young boy about her age. The other details, as they so often do with children, tended to change. His appearance or his demeanor often seemed to change based on her whims for that evening when telling the story. At first, it was harmless fun. It was just a girl who needed a friend creating one for her own. She told stories and tales of their adventures out in the wilderness. These were stories of fun, of jumping creeks and running through briars. These were things that friends did in this village, silly and pointless fun. It was healthy for children to play, and so my parents and I wrote it off. It was the same as anyone would have done.

But it became odder. Her descriptions over time became clearer, and they became less friendly. It was clear that her friend had an unhealthy streak. At first, it was only small things. Items were misplaced, things moved to strange locations in the night. Whenever my sister was confronted, she would deny it, and say that it was Eremurus. She was adamant, regardless of the minor punishments that were doled out to her. She never hesitated to claim her innocence and fought our parents’ accusations in earnest.

Things did grow worse and worse. More things disappeared, and anytime my sister would be blamed, it seemed that she would act out. She would fight back, crying, and wailing that she hadn’t done anything. It eventually became unbearable. Finally, one evening, a fire was set in the house – and again, my parents blamed my sister, though I believed her when she said it wasn’t her. Her blaming Eremurus was almost with a tone of defeat in her voice. She was sad, almost betrayed in a way. After a few weeks, the events stopped.

Then, if I am telling the truth, I don’t remember her speaking of Eremurus much. I believe she mentioned him from time to time, but for the most part, his name was no longer mentioned as far as I remember. We grew up, and while the occasional misplacement remained, the stories of the boy in the woods faded to memory.

Things were not good, though. It was in those years that the war came to our little village. Conscripts were sought out, and the men of the village were called to service. I was lucky. I was a scribe. I was given the role of a messenger, given a horse, and spent much of the war riding back and forth with messages for commanders. It allowed me to send letters home rather often. I spoke to my sister and mother often enough in this way. The letters were short and often abrupt.

A year into the war, these letters stopped. I would hear soon after that our village had fallen to you and your kind. I often wondered what happened to my father, and when. At least with my mother and sister, I know when something happened to them. When I returned here, I found many people had been killed, including my mother and sister. Such is war, unfortunately. So many of us ended up orphans.

I supposed when your forces dragged me here that it was for something military-related. I would never have expected you to want me here for more superstitious reasons. I was even more curious when your men wouldn’t follow me. They walked me to the edge of town and told me to walk to the home in the forest – my home. And so, I did. I had every intention of fleeing when I arrived there. But I saw my house burned down, and I felt a grief I’ve never felt before. You had taken everything from me, and there was a moment, a few moments, really, of overwhelming vulnerability and loss. I was alone, for the first time in my life, truly alone.

But I had been listening to the troops you brought with you. I listened to the superstitions. I heard them worrying about the pranks, the misplaced and missing items, and I suddenly remembered his name. Eremurus. Was that what you had found? Was that what was causing you trouble? I asked him. It was a foolish thing. There was no one in the woods, so asking an imaginary friend to come out was nonsensical. A foolish prayer from a lonely spirit to another.

Imagine my surprise when he answered. He looked like my sister described. He was constantly shifting his form, not sure which to be. He was an animal, a boy, something in between – all at once. He was so excited to see me. So happy one of the family came. And he excitedly asked if I would play with him if I had brought my sister. It took me some time to explain to him what had happened, to explain the concept of death and war.

He struggled to understand, at least at first. I had to find a way to explain to a nature spirit the concept of pointless violence, inflicted upon the less fortunate by the selfish. It took me time to find the words, but once I had succeeded, I returned to your guards to tell you what I had discovered. The thing that has been haunting you was a playful spirit, looking for his friend. But listen closely. You’ve only heard my words for the past few minutes. Aside from my speaking, there has only been silence. Do you hear it now?

That’s what happens when you anger a nature spirit. The forest itself has turned on you – but, I could only explain war to it one way. It was simpler than I expected, once I found the word.

Wildfire.

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A Young Fisherman

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiary

               From time to time, there comes a story of lost ships being found just out of sight of the shore. The stories were all similar; lost ships devoid of its crew but otherwise no signs of distress to be found. Stories varied on what had happened. Most were ships found long after they had left port, and madness offered as the most common explanation, but those of piracy, starvation, and storm sometimes arose as well. The dangers of the sea were many, and any long journey would prove to be a perilous one even for experienced sailors.

               One such ship, though, was found on a calm afternoon by a local fishing vessel. The ship had left the harbor only the day before. There had been no foul weather and no sign of danger. Fishing vessels had been out in the region that day, and there had been no reports recently of things such as raiders or privateers. And yet, the ship was found adrift.

               When the fishermen drew their boat up against the ship, they were able to climb aboard. The ship’s hull was undamaged. Its deck was undisturbed, with all the ropes, sails, and tools each in their proper locations. Further exploration by the fisherman revealed much the same across all sections of the ship. There were tables set with meals, half-drunk mugs of ale, and games of card and chance left unfinished. Throughout the ship, nothing was distressed. Most things were still as if members of this ship’s crew had vanished.

               Despite this, under the bright sun and calm winds, the ship felt peaceful. There was no feeling of ill will or danger. It seemed that everyone had just vanished. The exploration was slow but thorough. They sought every possible hiding place and looked for any given clue. When they found only the ship’s stock, they gathered back on the deck of the ship and discussed what could have happened. It was as if every member of the ship’s crew had just disappeared. But they left behind riches. There was a hold full of goods; steel, fur, and silver for trade. It was a wealth unseen before by any of them. Now it was theirs.

               There was a discussion on what to do. The crew sat around the deck and spoke to one another for a time. The youngest of the fisherman, who was still a new member of the team, was less comfortable than the others. He didn’t know them well, and as they talked about what to do, he merely watched. He could not put names to the suggestions being made, nor could he keep up with the variety of ideas put forward. The fishermen believed that they had found an abandoned ship, one that could easily lead them to more wealth than a life of fishing would bring them. There was some disagreement between them, though. Return to the harbor, collect the reward for the ship, take what they wanted; all came to the deck as a possibility.

               Then a man from their crew spoke up – despite all that he could, the young man could not remember his name or place his face, but he was familiar. He was one of them. Why not take the ship? It lay abandoned, but it was stocked well for a long journey. They could sail to a nearby port as traders, and there they would find their wealth. There, they could start anew.  

               They discussed their options for a time. They debated. The debate never grew genuinely heated, though, at times, voices did become louder. It was all on minutia, though. How would the wealth be split? How would they chose and treat new lives? Would they stay a crew or go their separate ways? After all, this was piracy in a way. They were considering taking the ship of the dead for their benefit. There was no sign of a crew though, not even notes or logs from the captain and crew remained. It was a blessing adrift.

               There was some debate on taking the ship just back to the harbor from which they had left. Each time it came up, the truth came that the ship would be confiscated if discovered. The fishermen would be without their prize. So, they made their choice. They would take the ship to a nearby port, sell the goods, and start over.

               Despite his youth and relatively new position with this crew, the young man did speak up. But he did not do so boldly. He meekly disguised his question as one about what would happen to the old fishing boat. The question seemed to perturb them. Why did it matter? But he pressed the matter, again and again. They relented. He would take the fishing boat back, let the harbor know that they were trying to salvage a ship. When they did not return, he could come looking for them to get his part of the treasure.

               The young man left the ship, took the fishing boat, and returned to port. His conscience got the better of him, though, and he reported the situation to the authorities. With the information, he was taken into custody and brought aboard another ship. That ship would take him to the Capital, eventually. First, it stopped by the planned destination of the fishermen. And he waited.

               No ship had come to port.

               When the navy searched nearby ports, no ship matching that description was found.

               The young man served several short conscription terms for his dealings. He lived a life of little substance, struggling to make ends meet. He always listened to the rumors, but the ship and the fishermen were never heard from again.

               That was, at least, until he was very old. A stranger came to town, seeking the young man who spoke of a lonely ship – only to find a wizened old man ravaged by the passing of ages. The visitor asked him about the ship he had seen of the story from that day. He asked if anyone had believed him. The old man, of course, said no. No one had, despite the story remaining the same throughout his life. The visitor was enthralled by the story and thanked the old man for sharing it. He asked the man if he had gotten what he wanted in life.

               The old man shook his head. He had not. He avoided the fate of his crew, but another fate had followed him.

               The visitor needed to return to his ship, and he asked the old man if he would walk with him and share stories of his life. The old man agreed. That was all he wanted – for someone to believe him. The stranger was happy with that and admitted he believed every word.

               After all, the old man was the only one to get away from him that day.

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Palatine – Chapter 02

Recovery

Reynfrey spent the next couple weeks awake and aware of his surroundings. For those first few days, there was little more than the thatch homestead that he was able to explore. The constant watchful eye of the seemingly perpetually perturbed Elyenora was at first disconcerting, but soon enough, it was clear that she did not know how to appear otherwise. He felt a burden to these people, kind folk just trying to make their way in the world now taking care of a crippled palatine. He would repay them, one way or the next – but unfortunately, his recovery would take time.

After a few days, he ventured outside for one of the first times. It was an experience he hadn’t expected to be as challenging as it was. Even walking out of the small homestead and into the surrounding field required him to dig deep for energy. He was winded before he found himself much farther than a couple of arms lengths from the entryway. Had it not been for Elyenora following a short way behind him to keep an eye on his progress, he may not have made it that far. He was too proud not to push himself.

Every day after was much the same. He’d press himself until he was winded and needed to rest. But each day, he pushed a little further, a little deeper into the fields. On the eighth day, he found himself walking around to the back of the home, a path he hadn’t taken yet since the gently rising hill behind the home might as well have been a mountain for much of his recovery. Each step quaked as he first traveled up the hill, beyond the small roundhouse that the family was kind enough to share with him. The hill served as protection from the elements, kept them a bit warmer in the winter and cooler in the spring, but its loose rocky outcroppings made it a slight challenge for him to climb. His legs were weak, unused for so long, and only just now returning to strength worth mentioning.

The trek had been worth it, though. Cresting that small hill, out of breath and panting more than he would have cared to admit, gave him a warm feeling of accomplishment, one that soon was washed over by a simple and beautiful vista. The top of the hill gave a wonderful view of the village, and the farmlands tucked safely in a large clearing within a dense, old evergreen forest. The forest gave a flash of a memory.

He remembered entering it on some old forgotten path with the rest of his traveling companions. He could remember the trail, the sound of the horses dragging the carriage. The chatter of the souls that walked with him, but then it went silent. The memory faded, and he once again hid it away. He knew he was unprepared to think about those memories, at least not yet.

He took a breath and exhaled slowly. His eyes drifted back to the village, and he scanned as he felt a hand rest on the center of his back. Despite her cold exterior, Elyenora was an ever-present and watchful eye and always willing to offer a hand in support. It was comforting, as comforting as the view of the small village felt to him. These were simple folk, farming the land and making their way in the world. They were willing to help one another and to help strangers. He had come from a different world, a world of stone and stricture, but here there was something more.

That first view would need to end there. He didn’t have the energy to venture into the village. Day after day, he grew stronger, though. The journey from their small home to the village became easier. As harvest came in full, he began helping Elyenora, and her daughter collect baskets of crops, eventually carrying them to the village with them. There came a day when he went with them to visit the smith as well.

Beynard’s smithy was a quaint one, like everything in this town. It was little more than a stone shack with an attached forge covered enough to be worked in the rain. Stacks of supplies sat near the forge, and within the small building were stacks of finished projects – horseshoes, picks, and hoes mostly. When they arrived, the quiet Athelis brought her father a hand-packed meal, his wife gave him a subdued kiss, and he called for Girart to join them. Reynfrey was pleasantly surprised to be invited, but he had energy and a bit of recovery, so he declined. He would let them eat as a family. Instead, he would tend the forge so they could enjoy the meal without the burden of their guest or of checking the forge.

So, there he sat, watching the flames dance as his foot pressed the billows to keep the forge warm and the current batch of iron for horseshoes glowing. It was a slow and boring task to him, though he admired the smith for being able to do it day in and day out, seemingly with little complaint. He found himself losing track of time, though, staring into that forge.

“Entranced by the fire, ser Palatine?” Beynard laughed, and that broke him from the reverie under which he had fallen.

Reynfrey blinked and shook his head, “I suppose so.”

“Fire does that,” The smith gave him a fine smack on the back. “It purifies through destruction, whether your iron or your mind.” He sighed a bit, “I’ll admit, I rarely think clearer than when working with the forge.” He gave a waving motion back towards the shack. “Come now. You’ve made it this far, and I might as well show you around.”

“Show me around?”

“Yes. You came all this way. And Girart can take over the forge. He needs the practice anyway,”

The boy seemed to hear his name from a distance, and he came around a corner expectantly. Reynfrey stood up and stretched just a bit, before stepping away from the forge, and the boy took his spot quickly – taking over exactly where he had left off, without skipping a step.

The smith didn’t wait for a real answer and began to move towards the shack. He explained a couple of things along the way, pointed out sights that Reynfrey had already seen, obvious items. It confused the Palatine slightly. Once they were back into the shack, though, the man took him to a far corner, where a small shelf sat on the floor and held thick ingots of iron. “Help me move this?” Beynard asked as he put his hands on one edge of the shelf.

Reynfrey nodded and sought a grip. For a moment, he instinctively raised both arms, only to be greeted again by the stump on his strong arm. He sighed and readjusted, putting his hand on the inside of the shelf. With a grunt, he and the smith pushed the shelf a few feet to one side, revealing a trap door beneath. “Just a smith and his veela wife?”

“Name a self-respecting smith that doesn’t have a hidden basement,” The man laughed as he pulled up the door. “Can you climb a ladder?”

“I suppose so,” The Palatine said with a nod, waving his lost arm lightly. “I can at least use this for balance.”

“Good. Follow me.”

The smith descended the ladder quickly. The Palatine struggled more than he would have liked to admit. He had to carefully grip and move, watching every step with a focus that would normally only found in treacherous conditions, but to him, this was a new experience. It wasn’t slick, but one wrong move, and he knew he would tumble down. Soon enough, though, he had reached the bottom of the rungs and stepped on a soft dirt floor. He was surprised, though, to find it dimly lit. He turned, expecting a torch, but there was none that he could see. The light came from a hole in the ceiling. He couldn’t make out anything, but the sunlight shone rather brightly for such a small hole. It was curious to him. When he stopped being amazed by that, he found himself staring at a small armory, broken weapons and armor scattered about the floor.

There, in the center of the far wall sat the shattered remains of his shield. His sword lay next to it. It caused the Palatine to stop in his tracks. For a moment, he couldn’t find a breath. He heard that awful sound that shattering of wood and steel as an enemy’s mace splintered the shield. He swallowed and shook his head as if to shake away the ghosts of the path physically. He finally just asked, “What is this?”

“I kept my own treasures down here,” Beynard said quietly, looking around the room. “I hope you won’t be too offended,” He said with a soft, somehow saddened smile. “I gave your compatriots a decent burial but salvaged what I could. A single fine sword,” The smith paused, if only for a moment, “I can reforge and make a lot of useful tools for the village.”

There was a moment of instinctive anger at that concept, but it quickly faded. Pragmatism, it seemed, was something that Reynfrey felt more important now than he would have when all of this started. “It’s fine,” He heard himself say, “They won’t be needing them any longer.” The term was a bit colder than it needed to be. There was a fit of bubbling anger there.

“Good… I only left one body with all its accouterments,” The smith replied, “The young woman.”

The term turned the Palatine’s skin pale. The blood drained from his face. He could see her in an instant. The warmest of smiles, a boisterous laugh that embarrassed her, a soft voice otherwise. “Then…”

“I know, yes – at least the basics,”

“We failed, then. Not just me, but everyone,” Reynfrey said softly without moving from his spot at the foot of the latter. “It would have been better you left me to die with them.”

The statement made the smith nod, “Failure isn’t the end of a story. It’s tempering. A point of growth. I don’t believe it would have been better for you,”

Reynfrey raised his hand and interrupted, “No, I agree on failure, but,” He shook his head. “The young woman was Saint Adelysia.”

“Oh,” The smith now too became pale, “Then it may have been best if we all had joined you.”

 

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Nanowrimo 2017 – Chapter 01

Author’s Notes: So, I saw people revisiting old works this week, and it inspired me to look back. The first Nanowrimo I officially joined was in 2017, and it was the first one I completed. That year, I wrote a contemporary fantasy about a teacher at a demi-human school and the dangers that came with that. It was my least favorite writing to date. By the end, the story didn’t work. I hated it. And I buried it. I didn’t even let my partner read it. I really never wanted to look at it again. I still don’t, if I’m honest – but it is important to do for growth. If I’m going to, I might as well share it with the world, right? Feel free to let me know what you think.

A New Home

 

               Aching legs, a sore back, a bit of nausea, but it was all worth it. These had been long hours sitting in this tiny little economy seat, with old faded blue cushions giving only the slightest of support. The point where cushion met plastic seemed to have been designed to find the most uncomfortable place on his neck. The cabin was stuffy, and the smell of the hundreds of people who shared the form of travel with him had grown unbearable for a time. The seat next to him filled with someone who barely made an effort to roll himself into the plane that morning, an all too thin pair of pajama bottoms, and an old ragged shirt seemed too little to wear out on a long haul like this. But none of that mattered. Not today. Today, he got a glimpse – his first glimpse – of his new home. All the waiting, all the discomfort faded away. Now, they were making a final descent, and Jonas couldn’t help but feel that well of excitement in his chest.

               His eyes were glued to the cloud line as the plane began its descent. The announcements of the pilot were just noise in his ears, and there was nothing more than that view. The plane hit the cloud, mists rippling past the fuselage, and along the craft before it entered that ethereal fog. Light turbulence rocked the flight slightly, but barely enough to alarm even the most anxious of fliers. A few seconds more and the cloud began to thin. The excitement built, he felt himself take a breath and hold – just waiting.

               The clouds broke under his flight, and the city came into view. Or, mostly did. There were shimmers of lights in the distance, blocked by the shadows of the rainstorm they were descending through. Towers of business, mixed architecture, and monuments were visible, but only as blurry silhouettes and faded shapes. There was nothing grand or spectacular from this angle. There was a tinge of disappointment in him, a sort of stab at his heart as his expectations slumped over. He sighed a bit. But the lights. The lights were still beautiful. And the view of the rain from the ground would be spectacular. The disappointment faded as the plane approached a runway.

               Then there was the sudden jolt of the plane, the sound of rubber screeching against asphalt. The backdrop of lights behind the airport fascinated him. The world was so new to him, so expansive, even if he couldn’t quite see it through the rain. The plane rolled into its taxi-way, and then to a full stop next to a walkway. The crew gave the usual exit speeches, and people began to stand and gather their things. Back quite a way, it took a while for his turn to get there. He didn’t mind. When there was space, he stood and opened his overhead. He noticed the other bag in the hold. He hesitated a minute, before his fingers wrapped around the soft cloth handle of his bag, and then the hard plastic of the other. He pulled them both down, setting the hard plastic travel case in his seat. He leaned over to the man in his pajamas and gave him a little shake.

               “Sorry to wake you,” He said, voice a bit dry from not having said anything in a few hours. “We landed. I got your bag down for you.”

               “Huh?” The pajama-man coughed a bit and looked drowsily around. He finally found the window, his head lulling over to the glass as he looked. “Oh, thank god… ground.” He spoke through a yawn, and as he moved, there was a little rattle. He stretched and gave a nod and a quick, “Thanks, man.”

               Jonas felt a smile start to creep up his lips and he gave a nod back to the man. “My pleasure,” He said softly, before joining the flow of people off the plane. He, like everyone else, moved like a stream – down the aisle and past the flight attendants who gave their cheery, if canned, responses. Then through the pedway and out a gate. Then a hard right down another corridor to a tunnelway. It was dimly lit, except for the incredibly bright direction signs. They were almost hard to look at this time of day, but the occasional point towards the baggage claim gave him some hope that he would soon be out of his travel portion, and to his new home.

               He finally broke with the stream of others that flooded through the tunnels. He sidestepped out of the stream as many people stepped onto one of the automatic conveyor belts. He just kept walking alongside them. It wasn’t faster or more efficient, but it felt good to walk after the long flight. He adjusted, swing his cloth bag from one side and trading it from one hand to another. His eyes trailed along with people. And then he stopped dead in his tracks. His sudden stop caused the person behind him to brush against him as he passed. It warranted a quick, “Sorry,” from Jonas, but his eyes never moved from his target.

               He saw her — a beautiful woman dressed in soft, airy clothes. Her deep black hair was tied back in a ponytail. His eyes trailed down her form though, pausing at her waist, where shirt gave way to the sash, which gave way to a shimmer of scales and a long tail. She weaved through the crowd slowly, yawning. That tail slipped between people as she moved along with the stream. He could tell many people were used to it, the way they stepped away and around the serpentine movements. How many naga were in the city? How many had to be for people to be used to moving around them in crowds?

               The thought made him excited. His heart raced a little bit. Back home, the only demi-human who lived anywhere near them was a literal old bog hag. Of course, she was nothing like the stories of hags. She was friendly and outgoing and ran an herb shop. One of those places you could find whatever rare spice you wanted, and with a room in the back labeled 21 and Over Only but only blocked by hanging strings of beads. The stories had always fascinated him. Now, he was watching a Naga move past him. It was brilliant, at least until she spoke.

               “Enjoying the view, asshole?” She barked at him as she passed by.

               He felt a blush fill his cheeks as she slipped by. He was embarrassed for a second, and then called out to her, “Sorry! New here – never met a Naga,”

               “Still haven’t,” She said as she slipped away into the crowd, though he did catch her add a “Fucking tourists…” As she moved out of earshot.

               There was some laughter – but Jonas couldn’t help but smile. He gave an embarrassed little nod to those laughing and began to move back on his way. The excitement was still there though, he had a bit of a pep in his step now, and moved a bit faster towards the baggage claim. This was it, his chance, and it felt amazing.

               When he reached baggage, he quickly found his bag. He was in a bit of a rush, it seemed, pushing past other groups with quick apologies every time. “Sorry,” He’d say and lean past a group to check to see if a bag was his. “Excuse me,” While reaching through another. Finally, he found his bag; a large, hard leather suitcase, likely older than him. He gripped the bag and pulled it free from the conveyor belt, and quickly moved out of the way of others. He found a chair and lifted his bag with a little bit of a heave. It was heavy, but not too bad. He sat it down and unzipped one of the smaller pouches. As he routed around, he saw a man holding a sign nearby.

               Lindstrom. The sign read.

               “Oh, hey!” Jonas called over, waving the hand that wasn’t rooting around in a pouch in his bag a bit frantically. “Hey, with the sign,” He called a bit louder. The man finally looked over to him, pointing at himself. “Yes, you.” He waved him over, “I’m Jonas.”

               “Oh.” The man said softly, a bit deadpan, “Good.” He spoke and walked over. “I’m Mr. Harmand. I am here to give you a lift to your apartment.”

               “Mr. Harmand. That’s an odd coincidence. One of my coworkers is named Harmand,” Jonas said before letting out a quick, “Finally,” And pulling a small silver charmed necklace from the bag.

               “Not a coincidence. I drew the short straw…” Harmand all but signed. “And you may not start yet, but I have class in the morning, so…”

               “Oh, right, sorry!” Jonas spoke quickly, pulling the necklace on and tucking the rune charm into his undershirt. “Sorry, sorry,” He repeated before taking a moment to zip up the bag. He lifted it up and then nodded to Harmand. “Ready when you are.”

               “You weren’t, but… whatever. Come on.” Harmand said with a bit of a groan. “Let’s see if we can’t get you home, and then I can finally go back home.”

               “I appreciate it, by the way,” Jonas added.

               “Don’t mention it,” Harmand spoke as they headed out of the baggage claim and to the exits. Then they were on the street.

               Jonas took a deep breath and cast his eyes around the airport as they walked. In the distance, he could see the buildings, the twinkling lights of the city. The rain cascaded down on him and Harmand as they walked out into the parking lot towards Harmand’s car. Each step they picked up the pace a little bit. It was pouring the rain, and he soaked through in seconds. The chill hit him hard and fast. When they got to Harmand’s car, the lights flashed on and off, and the doors unlocked. The two opened their doors and slid in, with Jonas pulling his cloth bag and suitcase into his lap and settling in. He shut the door softly and glanced over to Harmond for a moment, who just stared at him.

               “What?”

               “Nothing,” Harmond said, then he sighed. “Welcome to Gray Harbor, Jonas.”

               Jonas couldn’t help but smile. “Thanks, Harmond. Happy to be here.”

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Palatine – Chapter 01

Author’s Notes: So, this was the second chapter of a story project I started sometime last year. It was one of those stories that came to me almost fully formed, and I think it could be a lot of fun to revisit this year. I chose Day Shift over this idea because Coeur is a bit darker and more violent, and I did not want to write that through the holiday season. Now, though, I think it could be an interesting piece to go back to. This is technically the second Chapter, but I think it might work better as the introduction.  The first chapter needed much more in the way of rewrites, though, so I wanted to share this one instead. If you enjoy it, let me know.

The Stranger Awakes

He took a deep breath. His chest expanding swiftly as the cold air took to his lungs and seemed to stick to them like oil. He felt himself cough, and it caused him to sit up swiftly. He coughed hard, dry throat scratched by the force of the sudden strangling breaths in his throat. As he cleared them, his eyes blinked open. The light burned, and his focus struggled to find anything at first. But as color returned to him, and he began to see shapes, he found himself staring down at a rough woolen quilt on a bed of woven cloth over something soft — hay, by the sounds of it.

His eyes drifted around, and he found himself in an unfamiliar place. He could see the small room was all but barren. A small table near the bed, on the other side, a small wooden chair. A pile of wood carvings sat discarded near it. A wooden plate of bread, and a tin cup filled with something. He swallowed and found himself sitting for a moment – just staring at the bread. He was hungry, but not starving, though he couldn’t explain why.

The sudden sound of a chicken’s crowing outside the window caught him off guard. His head snapped to the window, and he found small wooden shutters there, half-open and giving a decent view out into the world. He could see a forest in the distance, but there was a great stretch of farmland between him and it. He was sure that was the forest he had been in, though. The forest where he had died. Or, where he thought he had died. It didn’t look familiar from here, though.

He had pondered on the view for a moment or two before he heard a door pushed open. His eyes started to twist over to the door, but he found he had barely begun to look that direction before he saw the child. It was a young woman. Perhaps nearing adulthood, but not quite there yet. She seemed startled to see him, and she dropped what she was doing and ran as soon as he had turned.

Instinctively, he reached out his hand to stop her – but when he did, he saw only a bandaged nub where his arm had once been. From halfway down his forearm, there was nothing. His arm ended at the bandages. His right arm. His sword arm. He tried to move his hand, his fingers, and he could feel them there still. He thought. But there was nothing. But if there was nothing, why did it hurt? He felt a bit of panic begin to take him as he realized the injury was as real as any he had ever had. More real, even. Something else was wrong and felt off. He felt something on his head. He moved his off-hand to investigate, quickly finding bindings around his left eye.

He had barely thought about it, but his sight was odd. There was pain there. Something had happened to his face, around his left eye. He couldn’t see the bandage at all, and only felt it. There was a grim realization that he had lost part of his face – and likely his eye during the battle. He ran a hand back across his skull, finding what remained of his ear wrapped up in the bandages. It was barely half what it should have been, cleaved off near its middle.

He started to stand, to try to find where he was. But swinging around to put his feet on the floor, he realized he had no strength. He felt the weight of his form on his feet as he tried to stand, and his legs shook under the stress of the atrophy. He stopped trying shortly after and heard in the distance the girl – or a girl, perhaps – calling out for her father. It was merely a moment later that a woman appeared in the door. This one was older. Or she was his age, at least. Her hair was disheveled but pulled back in a small ponytail – one that she had cut herself. She wore simple clothes, a hand-sewn and undyed dress, cinched at the waist with a simple cord. Her skin was rough, much darker than that of the folk he had become accustomed to seeing. She was from another land and working in the sun on the land had kept her tanned for her kind. She was quick to try to stop him from standing up.

“Ser, you should not stand,” Her voice came to his ear. It was a pleasant sound and brought a smile to his lips. He thought, likely, he would have thought that of any voice.

He tried to speak, but at first only breath escaped his throat. It took a moment and some exertion, but he finally made a sound. “I tried,” He said quietly. The phrase brought memories back to his mind. He needed to be away from those thoughts. So, he pushed the conversation forward. “Where am I?” His voice was barely a whisper at the time.

“A small stead – no name for the village,” She spoke as she stepped over to him. She took the cup from the table and moved it over to his mouth, “Here, drink.”

He couldn’t rightly say no, as she was already tipping the cup to his lips. He obliged and drank the water as it hit his lips. She was talented. He could only drink a bit, but as soon as he started to falter, she had pulled the cup away. He noticed as she turned to set the drink on the table though that she wasn’t human. Her ears raised and tapered like leaves.  “You’re a veela?” He swallowed a second time, feeling as all the water hadn’t drained from his throat.

She paused a moment and let out a small sigh. “Yes. For a dead man, that seems an odd second question.”

He adjusted. The woman was right. If she had saved him, it shouldn’t have mattered what race she was. He swallowed again. The water on his throat gave him a bit more ability to speak, though still at just a whisper. “Apologies.” He spoke with a soft breath, adjusting to lean back against the bed. “Thank you for helping me.”

She made an unhappy noise and turned to face him. Her slender features and angular face made her scowl all the more obvious as she stared at him. “Thank my children. They found you and brought you back to the village. My husband and I could scarcely believe they had dragged your near corpse that far.” She shook her head. “Think no more of it, though. We are happy you live. And it is good you are finally able to at least able to sit up.”

“Finally?”

“You’ve been here… a full season. It nears harvest.” She answered. The information surprised him, and it must have looked as if it did as well as she read it on his face. “You would awake every couple of days for a short time. Enough to eat a bit, drink. Let us clean you up.” She listed the information as if it wasn’t the first time she had explained it. He had to think about that and glanced outside again. The trees in the distance were still green; the winds still warm.

“How many weeks?” He asked.

“Of your calendar, nearly fourteen,” She spoke softly.

He nodded and just stared out the window for a moment, looking to the forest. “And any others?”

She didn’t answer – at least not visibly. The wounded man’s eyes never looked to her. The silence was enough. He was the only survivor, but he knew that on the floor of the forest. Still, he had a moment of hope. If he had not died when he should have, perhaps another lived. Perhaps she lived. But he knew that was little more than false hope. He nodded. “Thank you again,”

“I’ll fetch you some soup,” She said, and she moved away from him. He could hear her walking through the house. He didn’t look away from that window, though. He just listened, and then looked down at his hand. Or his lack of hand. He took a moment and glanced around the room again. He heard a door open somewhere else in the house. Then there was talking. This time it was a male voice and the woman from before. He couldn’t hope to make out what they were saying, but soon footsteps were coming towards him.

These were heavy, with thick boots hitting the wooden floor before a figure appeared in the doorway. This man was wearing a smith’s apron, marred with soot from ash in the forge no doubt. The man himself had a build like a mountain. Though, he did have a bit of weight to him from living a seemingly comfortable life. He wore a warm smile, much warmer than that of the woman before him. His cheeks were covered in a thin and scraggly beard, partially burnt from cinders of his work. His hair was long, and like the woman tied back away from his face. His ears marked him as human. From behind him, the young woman from earlier peeked into the room. Not willing to come in as he did.

“Well,” His voice carried like an orator as he entered the room and grabbed the chair. He pulled it around the table and to the bedside with a long, warm smile and sigh. “It seems you’re finally awake. I’m glad you live. I would not have believed you could have, were you a lesser man.”

“I’m no great man,”

“I’ve only just met you. But you are not a lesser man to be sure.” The smith gave a bit of a nod as he spoke, leaning back in the chair. He smelled of coal and iron.

The iron smell brought up the thought of blood in his mind. It made his stomach turn almost instantly and put images of death in the forefront of his thoughts. He turned away from the smith and shook his head. “I am sure you are giving me too much credit,” He said quickly, the fast whisper stressing his throat.

“I suppose we’ll learn as you recover… you still have quite the ways to go,” The smith spoke with a nod. “Introductions are in order, I think.”

“Introductions?”

“Yes. You deserve to know us, and we deserve to know you,” The smith nodded.

“Ah. Yes,” There was no reason to be shy, “My name is Reynfrey,” The man spoke and turned back to the smith, starting to offer a hand. He withdrew when he realized the futility of such a motion.

“Reynfrey? Just Reynfrey?”

“Reynfrey Couer,” He responded with his surname as well, finally twisting to shake his head, “Reyn is enough.”

“And are you a ser or lordship?”

“Does it matter?”

“Only proper to address a man by title,” The smith said quietly.

Reynfrey shook his head. “What title is earned a deadman?”

“By your dress, Palatine.”

The smith seemed to be more learned than he had expected. “And what gave it away?”

“A blue cloak, white and gold embellishments on your sword,”

Reynfrey smiled softly, “Fair enough. And as a Palatine, what is the name of those who find me in such straits?”

The smith leaned back and cracked his knuckles. “I am Beynard. You’ve already met my wife Elyenora. And I gather you’ve seen my daughter, Athelis. I have a son as well, Girart.” He smiled a wide smile, “No surnames or titles to remember. Our small village needed a smith, so here I am.”

Reynfrey took a moment to take in that information. A simple village smith knowing what a Palatine is and looked like, or how his sword was any different than that of any man-at-arms raised a few questions. And with a Veela wife, he recognized that there was more to Beynard’s story immediately – but he was in no place to ask or question it at the moment. “I owe you and your family a great deal of thanks.”

“Yes, you do,” Elyenora spoke coldly from the doorway. “And likely more by the time you are fully healed. Come, soup is ready.” She spoke simply before turning back to another room in the home. “Husband, help him to the table.”

“Of course, Elye,” Beynard spoke as he stood. He clapped his hands against his knees and moved over to the bedside and offered over his hands. “She’ll warm up to you, Ser Reynfrey. She’s cold but as happy you are awake as any of us.”

“I’m sure,” Reynfrey struggled to stand, falling almost immediately, only to feel the smith’s powerful palm smack against his back and push him back up. “I’m only a toll at the moment, so I understand her fatigue with me.” His voice was stronger already but still kept to a very quiet tone. It was beginning to hurt to speak.

“An investment,” The smith spoke as he wrapped his arm about the man. “Come, we’ll take it slow. You could use the walk. Your legs haven’t worked much in the past weeks.”

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Short Story – The Answer

Author’s Notes: This is something a little different for me. I’ve wanted to try to write more short stories, so I’m giving myself a challenge to write one short story a week. This is a weird one, and came from a weird idea I had. I wanted to keep it under 2500 words, so I felt a bit rushed. I’ll get over that as I improve, and hopefully these will get better. Either way, I hope you enjoy my first Short Story in this very random series.

The Answer

The only way to explain the experience of deep space hibernation was to imagine hitting the snooze button on one’s alarm over and over, except instead of buying oneself a few more minutes, one was buying a few more centuries to fade back into the virtual dream they had lived within for so long. Of course, that was the original technology. A person would be put in hibernation, with micro-adjustments allowing them to experience a virtual world in lieu of dreaming. Over the years, the mind was allowed a few scant thoughts. To the person in hibernation, it was a short dreaming sensation, a fun diversion to pass the time. It was impossible to realize that the service was designed to reboot the brain over and over, moments before it faded away entirely.

The body was placed in a sort of coma for as long as possible. The thoughts were given as brain activity drifted dangerously low, and for short moments one was woken up before the body faded – but never brought from the hibernation fully. To the passenger, it was a short nap, but great distances and times had passed. It was the only way to exist in the great vast distances between stars. Connected pods would allow one to have some socialization.

This had not been one of those trips. A lonely night on the edge of a hill watching the stars was the entirety of the virtual experience, interspersed with strange drifting off only to confuse the dream and real life for a moment as the body rebooted. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it also wasn’t designed to be pleasant. It was solemn. It was a view that wouldn’t be seen again.

One dream, a word appeared in the sky. It was a simple digital text that read nonsense. The program had lasted as long as it could. As the garbled words spread across the skyscape, the vision faded to darkness. There was an instinctive deep breath sometime later, and opening of eyes and the slow realization that the dream was over. The real world was all that remained. The voyage, as it was, had come to its end. Waking was always the hard part. Drowsy, heavy eyes begged to stay asleep. Limbs struggled to move. But after a time, after a few long moments, there was movement. There was breath.

The Dreamer woke to the world of their starship. It was a cold place, both figuratively and literally. The temperature was well below comfortable, only enough to keep the life that it held from freezing. The lights were dim, barely illuminating the plain metal bulkheads and accessories of the room. Wires and straps held the dreamer to a bed, where their body had lain for the duration of travel. As they woke, they slowly removed the straps and tubes one by one, and eventually sat up. It was strange to see their body again.

They were younger than they felt, aging slowed by the unnatural coma that guided them safely here. In the dream, the Dreamer had aged as they would have expected. Their body grew and grayed on that hill under the stars, but here, they had remained frozen at the moment they had gone to sleep – give or take a few years from the short restarts. After a few short, unbalanced breaths, they turned to twist. Their hips wobbled on the bed, their hands catching the edge and keeping them from falling but only just. Their legs swung weakly off the side, and with a small push, they tried to lift off.

In a low gravity situation, this was easy. It was lucky, though. The strength in their legs likely wouldn’t have held up their form. They had one goal for now. Every long sleep required a wake-up period. Though they didn’t know how long they had laid there struggling to wake from the dream, they knew what to do after.

On a counter near the bed where they had slept was a small box. It was not labeled and showed no signs of movement for a long time. There in the room, it had been kept in the same brutal stasis they had been.  They opened the box and glanced across the items with a small sigh. It was a series of small tubes and a small syringe to use them. This was the cocktail that would eventually bring them back to the land of the living. The feeling of the vials in their hands, the needle against their skin, the slow sting of something entering their body, all were part of sensation that had been left behind so long ago. Now, suddenly it was back. Their body responded slowly. There was a bit of warmth, a bit of energy, an illusion of health returning. It would be a long time before that strength returned.

Then, they reached out to the counter. They pulled themselves along the counter, floating through the small room towards a sealed door. The console at its side lit up as they approached. The dim blue light was almost brighter than any of the others that had been illuminating the place before. It made a weak chime and with a resounding hiss, the door cracked open. The atmosphere spilled out of the small room and into the others within the ship beyond that door. A loud, droning hum vibrated along the bulkhead walls as the ship lumbered back to life. Faded lights flickered a bit brighter, and for a moment. They were waking up.

They reached out and grabbed one of the many small handholds near the now opened door. This was no massive ship; it seemed to be little more than these two rooms, at least that was accessible. The room they pulled themselves into was the control room, with powered down control panels lining each side, and most importantly the large transparent viewport that looked out into the space around them. In all their years, all their experiences, they had never experienced a view like this, though.

There was nothing. No stars lit the sky beyond. There was no glowing dust lit by dim stars in a distant sky. For the first time, they felt a strange sensation. It was a growing excitement. For a second, the realization that there had been a success with the plan was there. They had made it.

But the realization of success was followed by a growing dread. There was a small red light on the cockpit controls. Their fingers ran across the light, and the machine chimed at the touch. The sound was calm, uncaring. It made the light chime and blink, checking for signals beyond the small room they inhabited.

The waiting for a return signal and despite every technological advance they had, could take some time. For days, they hovered around the room, waiting for a response, hoping for a response. There was nothing to do but wait. There was no science to be done, no tests to be run. The outside, everything beyond the ship was gone. There was hope that they were not the only ones to reach the End.

Time had lost much of its meaning. The grim realization set in that they might have been alone. There was no response. No signal from the others driven to explore this far. There was no sign of life or much of energy out beyond this place. They had reached the end, and for a moment, recorded what had happened.

As time wore on, there were creaks and sounds within the ship. The ancient creation had been running out of time for many thousands of years. Now, beyond the edge of eternity, it felt that the final stage of existence. Even the forces of nature which held it together had begun to decay. They too weakened, the energy of life slowly fading from existence with them. One by one, the systems of the ship shut down. They always strove to keep that single red light on the console powered, a signal beaming out to the world around them that there was still life. There was always hope that someone out there faired better, that they would know others survived and be able to learn from them.

The truth, they had long ago realized, was that they were the last.

When that light in the ship faded away, and the console grew dim, they knew it was over. With a silent resolve, their eyes closed, and they waited to fade away with the rest of the universe.

Then for a time, there was only silence. They let themselves drift away.

Until there was a voice.

“Hello?” The voice was familiar but foreign. They could not place it. Perhaps it was a memory or an amalgam of them. Or so they thought – until it continued. “I let myself in, I hope you don’t mind. Oh,” The voice was paired with a tap on the bulkhead nearby, “Dozing off. Did I get here too late?”

Their eyes drifted open. They were heavy, barely able to move. Seeing the source of the voice would be impossible. There was no light. Though, when they opened their eyes, there it stood holding a flickering light.

The source was an old man. He wore a warm smile, with cheeks rosy from the cold of the ship as its power failed. He had a long, white beard and a head full of white hair. His face was plump, with the rest of his body large. There was nothing about him that looked as if he should have been there. He didn’t wear a spacesuit, instead wearing an old-fashioned fur-lined jacket over stereotypical winter clothes. He leaned against the bulkhead, with his free hand holding an old gas lantern that bathed him in dull light. They could see his breath.

“Not a talkative one, I see,” The man laughed and leaned down. “Mind if I sit with you?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, he sat down next to them, leaning against the bulkhead. They could hear the lantern as it was placed on the deck plating. They heard the man sigh and felt him turn towards them.

They hadn’t spoken in so long, and they struggled to do so. Their voice was weak, barely above a whisper. “You aren’t real…”

“That’s an odd thing to say,” He responded.

“It is impossible for you to be here…”

“I could say the same to you,” The man responded. “You sought and found the end of time, in a machine designed to reconstitute itself over and over, with little more than debris caught falling into the last black holes, and the hawking radiation from their deaths…” He laughed a bit, “It seems we’re both impossible.”

They didn’t say anything for a moment. That was impossible for him to have known, and with no entrance or exit to this craft, it was impossible for him to have entered. Yet, they indulged their delusions, “You’re a figment of my imagination.”

“I hope a comforting one, at least.” The man said as he rested a hand on their shoulder. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t respond. There was no reason to do so. After a few moments of silence, the man opted to continue. “Well, either way… I was surprised to see you made it this far. There shouldn’t have been anything left, but here you were. Your people were always explorers. That’s what I liked about them.”

“You liked that about them?”

“Yes. Think of it… from the moment they began, they sought to explore. First out of the ocean and onto land. Into the trees. Beyond their forests, and into the fields. Across their seas, beyond the livable places in the world. When they couldn’t explore their world, they explored themselves. Eventually, they explored their solar system, then beyond. Their galaxy. The next. They always sought the next exploration. And that drove them to keep exploring. Beyond everything. To the end of everything.”

They heard the voice and shook their head. “You say that like you knew them.”

“I did. Say you are right, and I am a figment of your imagination…” The man spoke. His hands rose and fell with his words, brushing and tapping against them as he looked out into the nothing. “Then, I – like you, I suppose – am of them. I have the memory of everything that came before for your people. I know them because I was born from them. From their explorations, their explorer.”

“Why are you here?” They asked, changing the subject away from the bigger picture.

“I saw there was still a spark where their shouldn’t have been, so I came to investigate.”

“You saw?”

The man nodded, and a smile crept across his face. “Yes. I was shutting everything down. Turning off the last of the lights on this universe, and saw you.”

“Of course,”

“You don’t believe me. That’s fine,” He said with a smirk, “I could be the last neurons in your mind firing as you fade away.”

“That, I believe,” They said quietly.

“What did you hope to accomplish out here?” The man asked quietly.

They turned to face him and paused. Their eyes were weak, and their head shook lightly. “We didn’t know… what happened next. Someone needed to see it.” They put a hand on the bulkhead and tried to push themselves up a bit, but there was no movement. “Someone needed to see what happened.”

“Why?”

“Just…” They paused. The question lingered unanswered in the air. There was no real answer to it, not that they could find at first. Then, it came to them. “Just in case we were wrong…”

The old man smiled. They had never seen such a wide smile. “That’s the perfect answer. And, it sums up why I do it too…” He patted them on the shoulder. “I’ll leave you be for now. You might want to wake up, just for a minute, though. Or you’ll miss the end.”

They no longer felt him there. After a single blink, there was only darkness and silence again. They were alone at the end of time. There was no light, no lantern, no old man. But their view was drawn to the outside world, or where that should have been. They watched for some time but felt themselves struggling to stay awake.

Then, they saw it. They saw the end. It was a single moment that made a warm smile cross their lips, and as that smile crested their eyes closed.

And the world ended.

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Day Shift – Chapter 19

Eve

For the next week, work was hellish. Then came that fateful day. The one that every countdown had been working towards. All around the nation people sat and prepared to spend one of the most revered days of the year with their families. For the most part, after a week of relentless calls, it made the day relatively straight forward. It was no less busy than any other, but it was much less painful. Most of the questions and comments moved from trouble to happy people just wanting to make sure something got set up correctly to make the holiday go off without a hitch. It was much more doable. No less busy, but a much more pleasant sort of busy.

Still, by the time lunch finally rolled around to give him a break, Mattias was in a state. His throat hurt and he didn’t want to talk anymore. He just wanted to walk off the conversations for a while and be out of the office. So, he went out into the halls, outside his company’s office, and he walked in circles. He tried drinking his bottle as he walked. He was going slow though. Between the daylight from random windows he passed by, and general nausea from dealing with people all day, it was slow going. He made sure to finish the bottle before he finished his walking in circles. He couldn’t risk losing control again. And he wouldn’t.

From time to time, he’d stand in the hall and just concentrate on sucking the blood out of the bottle for a few seconds. At least on one occasion he awkwardly locked eyes with some worker from another company and gave him a friendly single nod. He was kind of curious if the man knew what he was doing. It wasn’t a common thing, and the bottle was just red-colored with minimal branding, so it wasn’t like he was out in the open drinking blood. Still, it was an odd thing to do, he thought. It must have been at least a little morbid for those around him too, but he really wasn’t sure what he could do about it. The only real alternative was to lose control and drain people, and that would be much worse. So, really, he wasn’t sure why in the world he felt like it was awkward to choose this option.

Either way, his break came to an end. His pocket vibrated as the alarm on his phone went off, giving him the two-minute warning on his time, and he let out a defeated sigh. He began to schlep his way back to his office. He was in no hurry and had no desire to return to work. So, he took his time. A minute or two late wouldn’t hurt anyone.

When he came back through there was a woman at the counter talking to Ava. He thought about passing on by, but a burst of familiarity with the brunette and the look on the receptionists face both made him linger for a second. The lady turned towards him with a sort of scowl. She was annoyed about something.

“Can I help you?” Mattias spoke up softly, turning on his customer’s voice and adding a little smile.

“I’m looking for Ashley Tran. I need to talk to her.” The woman said. He couldn’t quite put a finger on where he knew her from. Her voice wasn’t familiar to him.

His eyes turned to Ava, who just shook her head and shrugged. There was something else there though. “It is Christmas Eve so she…”

“I know she’s here. And I want to talk to her. I’ll go back there myself to get her if I have to.”

“Sorry, ma’am. I’ll check for you,” He replied. The tone the woman had didn’t instill him with any trust, though. “Anything I can pass along to her about who was asking to speak to her?”

“I just need to talk to her,” The woman turned and stared straight into the vampire’s eyes. She bore a hole in him with her look, anger virtually dripping out of the air around her.

“Okay, fair. Business or personal?” He continued, though there was enough snark in his voice to be picked up. Enough that her eyes narrowed deeper on him. A shame that he lacked the empathy most humans enjoyed. He was tired, and with his human parts still recovering, he couldn’t quite find the courage to give in to the worry he knew he should have felt.

“Personal.” She spat the word at him.

“Okay, I’ll see what I can do. Ms. Mays, would you be kind enough to treat the lady to some coffee or cookies or anything she needs,” Mattias said as he walked off and through the doors.

“I don’t want any treats,” The woman howled after him.

He didn’t see poor Ava’s response. It wasn’t the first irate customer she had to deal with. Or team member. Or whoever this lady was. He didn’t care. He walked back to his desk and paused at the edge of the cubicle. Every one of his agents was sitting and talking to a guest or team member and going just as hard as they could go. He walked over and set his bottle on Ashley’s desk, which caused her to look up at him. She never flinched or changed her tone of voice with the guest. She was on a roll, and she just kept going.

He took a pad of paper and jotted down a quick message. Someone up front to see you. Seems pissed.

He didn’t need to write anymore. She just nodded and went back to the phone call. That was good enough for him. He stretched and moved towards his desk, but then the curiosity got the better of him. He tried to remember where he had seen the woman before. He couldn’t put a finger on it. He thought about it for a moment and decided to walk back up to the front and talk to her.

He was surprised when he saw Hal there talking to her already. He wasn’t against it. A couple of managers was better than one, after all. Especially at calming down an irate guest. He hustled a bit to get to the door quicker and pushed it open in time to hear some words.

“You aren’t welcome here,” Hal didn’t pull out a stern voice often, but with a confident point to the exit. “Now, leave.”

Mattias started to say something, but then he noticed the blurred reflection on the brass of the receptionist’s desk, with Hal’s reflection being fine. His heart sank a bit. She looked taller than when he left too, but surely that was just in his mind or the way she was standing.

“I want to talk to her now, and I won’t take no from some random jack off,”

“Whoa, that escalated. What the hell is going on here?” Mattias held up his hands.

“Fine, Ava, call security,” Hal ordered the receptionist, who was nervous.

“This fat ass won’t let me talk to my girlfriend,”

“Girlfriend?” Mattias said quietly. Suddenly he saw it all come back together in his mind. She was the woman he spotted on the texts. He had seen her here before. And, then there was Thanksgiving. “Hal’s right, you need to leave. Now.”

She gritted her teeth. There was a visible vein on her neck for a moment, and her face twisted to an angry red. Hal gave a nod of his head, “We know all about your anger problems, so why don’t you,”

He never finished the sentence. The woman raised a hand and backhanded Hal. There was a sickening slap and it knocked him off his feet. Then another sickening snap as the woman’s leg twisted and shattered, growing and reforming. Then it got worse. Her face twisted, her nose tore and twisted, a maw growing out of her face and fur beginning to sprout from every visible point of skin. This wasn’t some movie like transformation where she stood still though. She stomped forward on mismatched legs. One hand, half transformed to a claw reached out and caught Mattias by the throat and she lifted him off the ground with no trouble what-so-ever. He might as well have been a doll. Then the transforming lycan threw him.

Not just tossed him aside. Threw him. She launched him back and hard, and he slammed into and through the glass doors that separated the foyer from the cubicle farm. He rolled limply up against one of the nearby cubicles in a shower of shattered glass shards.

“Mattias!” He heard Ava’s voice. By the time he looked up to see where she was, Hal was back on his feet. He was bravely if stupidly doing his best.

The heavyset man charged the werewolf with all his might and heft, catching her in a tackle rather low. With only one leg transformed she was easy to bring down in that first second. She kicked him off of her and tossed him up and onto a nearby chair like a ragdoll.

Ava had taken the opportunity to run out of the foyer and over to the vampire’s side, “Are you okay?”

“I just got thrown through a glass door, Ava…” He muttered as he pushed himself up. “Get out of here, get to Ashley. Call the damn cops while you’re at it.” He said quickly.

“Right, what… you’re going to fight?”

“Gotta save Hal.” He said quickly, before standing up. She stood too, and then an idea crossed his mind. This fight wouldn’t be fun. “I hate to ask, but do you mind if I get a boost?”

“A boost…?” She asked before she saw him bear his teeth. Even in this situation, the sudden realization excited her more than he would have liked. “Oh, fuck yes,” She said as she pulled her hair away from her neck.

He didn’t wait for further permission. He just leaned forward and latched onto her neck. She let out a noise that was too close to euphoric for him, or this situation, as his venom began to slip into her veins and he pulled forth some of her life force.

Now frozen donated blood was sustaining for him. He didn’t need to worry about that. But fresh blood. Fresh blood was an entirely different thing. And from a neck, there was so much. He felt a warmth in his veins he hadn’t felt in years, a flow of energy stolen from a willing victim. It was invigorating. Dangerous. But invigorating. He released her neck and watched the woman slumped over for a second, taking a moment to catch her breath and let herself restore a bit of energy. Looking down at her, he could not help but want to drink more, even if the woman and her obsession bothered him to no end. He gave her a light smack on her shoulder.

“Do me a favor and call the cops,” He spoke as he sat up and cracked his knuckles.

She gave a nod but didn’t say anything. He didn’t look back. He just trusted she would do what he asked. In the meantime, he turned his attention back towards the danger that awaited him. There before him was a pissed off woman, half-way transformed into her lycanthropic form. Her body was still twisting. Bones and ligaments tore and twisted, snaps and disgusting tearing sounds were light on the air. He stepped forward back into the room and dusted himself off.

“Sorry I gendered you,” He asked coldly, his eyes twisting up to the massive beast. “I just assumed Ashley’s loser with a temper was a guy.”

She snarled down at him and it seemed the fight was on.

Now, it was important to remember that there was no glory in fighting. That this had devolved into hand to hand combat was a great failure on his part, and he knew it. Then again, he knew what she had done to Ashley and personally he thought she deserved a beating. He had a good line in mind too. His celerity would be perfect to slip in and out of her blows, to bob and weave, and launch small attacks of his own when he had an opening. Then he’d coolly ask if she was done yet once she was visibly winded. A solid line, a good plan, he was ready.

Of course, no he wasn’t. No one was ever ready for a fight. No plan ever survived being introduced to someone else. He was reminded of that when she pounced him, and once again caught him in one great paw. She tackled him to the ground without hesitation and dragged his head up in preparation to slam it back down.

After his head was put through one of the floorboards he realized he should have done something smarter. Turn to mist maybe. That would have been good. Luckily for him, she assumed he was dead. She was right, but off on her timing. She bounded forward, towards the cubicles – but that was something he couldn’t have. He closed his eyes and his body rose from the ground without a movement, carried by the solemn winds of the grave back to his feet.

He pushed off from the floor with one foot, and he was on her within a second. He didn’t have a catchy phrase to give to her right then. He just grabbed her by the back paw, and with a moment of undead strength, he yanked her back and threw her with all of his might.

She did not go as far as he had hoped. He was hoping for a heroic throw where she flew back across the foyer and through the glass doors. But no. She just toppled a few feet and scrambled onto all fours, charging him once again with her teeth bared. That was enough to let his instinct take over and when she reached him he was just a cloud of mist. She tried to snap at him, but traveled right through him, tumbling against the pathetic cloth and board wall of the nearest cubicle – which startled a few people beyond.

“Hah, missed me,” Mattias spoke as he reformed in the lobby. “Ah, damn. Mist. Mist me. Shit.” She turned with a howl and rushed back towards him. That warranted another move from him, and with his unnatural speed, he slipped away from that charge. He didn’t realize how quickly she could pivot, though, and she very quickly caught him in the side as he tried to turn to face her. Her momentum, even staggered by the change in direction, was more than enough to slam him hard into the receptionist’s desk. That snarling maw snapped at him and caught him in the cheek, tearing flesh from bone.

He had plenty of blood in him at the moment though. The pain wasn’t there, just a feeling of anger. He slashed at her with his claws, fingers across her arm. A small spray of blood and a howl from her was all he needed to get a little wiggle room. She wasn’t holding as tight with the wound, and that let him send a swift kick to her knee. His enhanced strength was more than enough to add another sickening snap to the series that had been filling the room. He did not enjoy the feeling or the sound, or her angry howl afterward.

She snapped at him again, and he tried to dodge and pull away from her. Her teeth sank into his upper arm, and he didn’t have time to change his mind on pulling away. Instead, he pulled his arm out of her teeth, causing his flesh and cloth to be ripped away like it was nothing. It left only a bloody bone and some hanging flesh on his arm, and the wolf spit out the flesh, her maw twisted into a look he could only describe as ravenous.

He raised the now partially skeletal arm and pointed at her. “We can stop this anytime, you just need to calm down.”

He should’ve left that last part off. She roared and charged at him, and he bolted towards the foyer door in response, with the werewolf right on his heels. At least she was concentrating on him for now. He pushed through the doors and into the hall, not glancing back as he heard shattering glass. He wasn’t sure what he was doing exactly. Leading her away, he thought. So he headed down the hall towards the stairs. When he reached the fire exit he kicked open the door and vaulted over the side and down the stairs.

His little bit of levitation let him snake his way between floors, hitting the ground on the first floor after falling a few stories, while the wolf was bounding down levels of stairs one at a time. He ran through the door into the foyer and waved off the nearest work. “Go, leave,” He yelled before he turned to see a couple of police officers, “Oh, thank god, she,”

He felt an odd sensation. Two small pricks, then searing pain and his body locking up hard. He twitched and collapsed to the ground, convulsing as one of the police officers loosed every ounce of juice into him from his taser. Luckily, they seemed prepared, because as soon as that werewolf ran through that door, she met the exact same fate.

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Marches – Chapter 05

Author’s Notes – I am reluctant to post this chapter. I hate how this chapter turned out in its first draft. I would have preferred it lay forgotten. But, there is an importance in showing mistakes. Or, I guess more importantly for me, I need to be willing to show those mistakes. This chapter is very important though. Romi becomes Mirabelle’s closest friend in her new home, and gives her a bit of a sense of normalcy. Despite the fact that Romi is not a Noble in the eyes of many. She becomes her confidant, and appears again throughout many of the future stories.

For this chapter, I did a lot of removing. The fight in this chapter was confusing and unnessecary, so in my first rewrite of this chapter removed it. It changed it to a simpler style where our Fox hunts down the Licorn off screen, and meets Mirabelle after finding them. In addition, I decided against killing both off. They were never mentioned again after this chapter in the first draft, and that felt like a waste. So, I’ve changed that. Other changes include pulling characters a little closer to their later characterizations, since I have a better grip on them, and detailing some sections to fit better with the story’s thematics.

I may add the second version of this chapter to the website, but I haven’t decided yet. For now, I am just posting this version. I do not like this version, and I am not proud of it. But, it was a first draft. And that is the building block of any part of a story. I hope you enjoy some elements of this part of Marches.

Fair Winds,

Museless Bard

The Fox’s Bastard

Mirabelle had found herself at home in the village faster than she had expected. The people of Milae were incredibly cordial to her, with an excitement to have her that she never saw in any of the people who visited her old home. She never knew the people of the villages outside of Towers at the Temple, but here – she was already getting to know people. Only a few weeks had passed before she had found a few she could genuinely rely on to help her with a great deal of her required tasks in this new life. Ervig, specifically, had been essential in helping bring her information about the region.

She had been lucky that the Astier owned two manors, as well. They had a fortified home atop a nearby hill, which was built across a river tributary and was where the family actively lived. But Chateau Ronic, where she currently lived, was the home of one of the middle Astier ancestors. From what she gathered, the eponymous Ronic was a leader of the village but otherwise detached from the family affairs. However, while the others were off at war, she was able to defend the village from an opportunistic attack. The villagers held it up as one of the pillars of their relationship with the family.  It seemed the family mostly used the manor as a place to stay when visiting the village now, but for the time being, it was hers to do with as she pleased.

She kept herself busy learning about the region and its people but made time for meals with Tienette. While she did not connect much further with Valamir, she did spend quite some time with Sarus’ younger sister, Cynewise – though she always went by Cyne. The two did not enough together for Mirabelle to consider her a close friend, of course, but she could easily see her becoming one in the future. Still, this isolation made her feel rather lonely. One day, that feeling began to gnaw at her more than usual, and she decided that she needed to leave the residence and go about in town, in hopes of clearing that fog from her mind.

So, with Coralie and Bastien behind her, she ventured out into the village once again. It was a day like any other in the town. A few traders had come into town that morning, as they did every few weeks. It was a time when she could get a few items she didn’t normally have access to – mostly dried goods from the coast, in this case. Still, she enjoyed looking. Every once in a while she would find something from home that helped her feel a bit more grounded. It was a challenge for her to avoid simply buying up more than she needed too, but luckily Coralie was always nearby with a reminder about her stipend.

Today was not unlike any other. The sun peeked through the leaves of the trees scattered throughout the village giving a little bit of warmth on an otherwise blustery day, as the summer season faded into autumn. The people were happy though, the sun and early stages of harvest beginning keeping spirits high, despite the colder day. She spent some time chatting with some local villagers as she passed through, still impressed that she was greeted well nearly every time. Of course, there were outliers. A few villagers had let it slip that they’d prefer an outsider not be joining their ruling family – but she had expected that sentiment to be the most common.

Instead, even only a few months in. She found herself walking the streets of the village with the same confidence she might have strolled the temple. While speaking to the baker, though, her ear caught a warning.

“Look out!” A villager’s voice pierced the otherwise peaceful day. There was a distinct, sharp screech of someone in trouble, then the sound of a scared or wounded horse.

Mirabelle felt a heavy hand on her back, the gauntlet edges pressing into her spine and forcing her back. Bastien may have said something, but it was impossible to tell. There was the distinct sound of steel leaving scabbard. On her other side, Coralie and falling back against her as well, both pushing her back and into the merchant’s stall. She barely had a chance to look to see the trouble. A pair of large draft horses had been startled, or maybe injured. She couldn’t tell. Their drivers tried desperately to get them back under control. Then there was a distinctive snap, the leather of their reins giving way under the stress. One of the drivers fell back at the change in force, losing his footing and smashing to the ground with a scream. His partner was startled, and the second horse’s reins were lost. Both horses tore forward. The cracking of wood followed as they stripped free of the cart.

Then the animals rushed forward down the street, panicked. Little was more dangerous than a frightened animal, and a massive draft horse on a busy street was a genuine threat. When they rushed down the street, people scattered. Mirabelle saw the creatures rush at a villager, one raring up and striking out with its front hooves. Luckily, the villager had been able to dart out of the way, but they moved fast towards the other villagers. One villager fell near one of the horses, who kicked back. “Bastien!” Mirabelle’s voice broke through the noise.

The old templar didn’t hesitate. When her voice called, he pushed off from her and rushed towards the villager. He raised his sword, both hands firmly gripping the hilt of the old weathered blade and raising it as a spear. With a yell, he met his mark – the blade sinking into the draft horse as it raised up with a sickening sound. The templar followed through, pushing his entire weight into the beast. He was not a small man, but the beast was enormous. He pushed with everything he had and tilted the thing just enough to knock it back and away from the villager crawling to their feet. The villager let out a scream as the horse hit the ground next to it, with the templar now atop it.

That was all the opening that Mirabelle needed. She pushed past Coralie and rushed out to the villager on the ground. She gripped the villager’s hand and helped him up. Her handmaiden was right behind her, though. As soon as the villager had started to climb to his feet, she felt Coralie hit her in the back – hard. She and the villager stumbled forward, and she turned to see the handmaiden rolling out of the way of the other angered horse.

“Coralie!” Mirabelle yelled back to her as her eyes caught a glimpse of Bastien pulling his sword out of the creature and stepping away. Then she realized her mistake. One of the draft horses, the one still standing, had rounded back around to face down the small foreign handmaiden armed with nothing but a dagger. And the other rolled back to its feet, despite the blood pumping out of the sword wound in its chest.

She saw it then, the bright white bone at the center of each horse’s skull.

“They’re licorn.” Mirabelle almost laughed with a mix of excitement and fear. They were not just frightened and scared animals. They were unicorns, their horns carved off their skulls and forced into service as draft animals. They were bred for war, fighters from the day they stood to their deaths. She felt a hand on her shoulder, then another, the villagers pulling her back and off the street and to a nearby building.

Bastien steadied himself and took a few steps back. His stance changed, his center set and ready for the oncoming charge. “Coralie, can you get to safety?”

“I’ll try.”

“Go left.” He ordered as the two unicorns charged at them. Both dodged to the left. Bastien’s blade swung up as he was passed by the creature. Coralie had rolled away, taking a swipe but her blade didn’t seem enough to cut through the creatures hide without getting closer, and her goal now was to run and protect her lady. As soon as she was clear, she did just that. Leaving the Templar alone.

The Licorne did not hesitate to rush at him, recognizing he was the only threat against them at the moment. The templar swung at the first to rush him, ducked away from the second, and resettled just before they rushed again. It was the only strategy that would work here, but these creatures were smart. After only the second rush, the one he dodged past stopped short and kicked with its hind legs. The powerful hooves hit the man’s armored back and sent him crashing forward. The wind was clearly knocked out of him, and the second creature turned about to make another run. Then there was a whistle and another. Two arrows struck the creature in its wound, sinking deep, and causing it to stagger.

An archer at the end of the street stood, another arrow knocked into the simple bow. A man stood a few steps ahead of the archer, with a wooden spear readied and waiting. The archer didn’t slow down for a second. As soon as that arrow was knocked, it loosed and a whistle followed. The target had changed, striking the uninjured licorn square in the flank. It let out a pained noise and then turned to the new target, rushing down the street towards its new threat.

Bastien was able to pull himself to his knees as it started its charge and brought his sword around with everything he had left in him. The blade found its mark, cleaving the back leg off the creature. The severed limb toppled harmlessly to the ground, and the Licorn itself lost is balance and stumble, crashing to the ground. Another arrow struck it as it fell, this time square in the head. The spearman rushed for and quickly finished the job with a powerful thrust into the creature’s chest. The other unicorn fell to the ground and struggled to keep itself up. After another minute it gave up and collapsed, its breathing slowing and fading.

Mirabelle rushed out to Bastien, who was climbing to his feet slowly but surely. Coralie stayed close but kept her blade drawn and her body between the archer and her lady.

“Bastien, are you alright?” Mirabelle asked as she helped him steady himself.

“I’ll live to fight another day.” He said with a bit of a panting breath, “You stay put next time.”

“Announce yourself,” Coralie’s usually soft voice barked out at the archer as she approached.

“This is Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane.” The spearman barked back. “I am her guardsman, Alain.”

Mirabelle glanced up, but what she saw was not what she expected.

Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane carried a simple bow, ashen in color with a frayed bowstring. She wore clothes more suited to a hunter than a noble. She had a simple hide and fur cloak and worn and somewhat ragged clothes. The only mark of nobility on her was the pendant necklace she wore. Moreover, the woman was unimpressive, and if she was honest, a bit odd. Her face was round, with puffy cheeks and a small chin. In a way, it looked as if the bottom half of her face ended a little bit earlier than it should have. With thick, bright lips and large eyes, it just made that even more the case. Her form otherwise was thin, more so than it needed to be, and she was not particularly tall, and would not have been tall enough to draw back a longbow well.

“Thank you for your assistance, Lady Cedolin,” Bastien said with a bow of his head. “I fear it might not have gone well without you.”

“I’m just happy I was able to help.” She spoke with a mousey voice, high pitched and quiet, but quickly spoken. She gave a little bow of her own as she handed her bow over to Alain. “And you are?”

“I am Sir Avent Bastien, templar of Lune and protector of Lady Mirabelle d’Argent.” He said motioning to her. “And our protective handmaiden here is Coralie.”

“d’Argent?” Romi’s eyes went wide, much wider than normal. She visibly swallowed and then quickly knelt before them, her voice barely a whisper. “My lady, my sincerest apologies. I did not recognize the Fille de Lune.”

“No, no, no,” Mirabelle said pushing past Bastien and Coralie to put a hand on the archer’s shoulder. “You saved my guard and helped protect Milae. You don’t need to bow or apologize for anything.” She gave a smile and a shake of her head. “I should be apologizing to you. I do not recognize your name. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with all of the noble houses in the region yet.” She didn’t wait for any sort of answer though, “But, I insist you and your man dine with us tonight, and if you need a place to stay, the Manor has more than enough visitor space.”

“I wouldn’t dare intrude.”

“I insist. It isn’t an intrusion. It is our honor, and I’d like to repay you, even in a small way such as this.”

While Romi was very reluctant to accept at first, she finally relented saying that she would be honored to share a meal that evening, but that they had already arranged for a stay at the local inn in the village. They thanked her again and allowed her to head off to finish her business in the village, and they stayed behind to deal with the aftermath. Soon enough, Ervig arrived with militiamen to handle the cleanup.

As his men began the cleanup in earnest, he had the story relayed to him by a few different people. He clearly took Bastien’s version as gospel, only adding the others’ details as he needed too. A few villagers had given him wildly exaggerated claims, but he was glad to find out it was little more than scared beasts. He was clearly concerned that they were Licorns, but he was more curious about another fact.

“She was introduced as Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane?” Ervig spoke up softly with a slight shake of his head. “Romi, le batard de Renard?”

“What exactly are you implying, Ervig?” Bastien spoke quickly, a bit defensively.

“The Fox’s Bastard.”

“She’s the daughter of Luc Cedolin du Rane. He was a marquis, across the border from Milae.” Ervig explained. “He was called le Renard, the Fox. Not because he was particularly cunning or quick, but rather because he had orange and red hair.” The militiaman pointed towards his own head or the hair on it – which bore no resemblance of similar colors. “He never married. His lover died in childbirth, and he raised Romi alone.”

“So, her father never granted her status as a full member of his family?” Mirabelle asked calmly, but quietly as they still stood in the village streets. She didn’t want to be too loud, to speak to openly and say something uncouth about the archer who had saved them.

“Unsure. When her father died,” The captain took a breath and crossed his arms. “She was only fourteen. Her cousin took regency of his estate, she has officially declared a bastard by the Duc du Rane.” He glanced down to the path below him. “There are rumors that her cousin orchestrated it. But, in the end, she is illegitimate. By law, she is just Romi. Her cousin did grant her a small piece of land on the edge of our territory. But she mostly subsists by hunting and has a small contingent of loyal servants.”

“How many?”

“Less than you brought to the village, my lady,” Ervig said quickly. “She is a kind girl, but of little concern.”

Mirabelle made a noise, somewhere between a huff and growl. It made the others around her step back and away for a moment. She took a deep breath and then gave a little bit of a shake of her head. “I’d like to know more about what happened to her and her family.” She ordered after a moment. “Coralie, have the servants find what they can from the village over the next few days.”

“Of course, my lady.” The handmaiden gave a quiet bow. “We’ll find what information we can.”

“And I still want to have a meal with her.” Mirabelle clarified. “Bastard or not, she is of noble blood.” She spoke with a quick nod. “And I look forward to it.” She seemed to have decided as she dusted off her clothes and looked to Ervig. “Make sure the people are safe and this is cleaned up. Please bring me a report after you’ve sent one to the Astier.”

“Yes, my lady,” Ervig said after a moment. His head twitched to one side for a second and he gave a smile, “My lady, you do recall you are just a guest here, correct? There is no need for you to worry about the day-to-day.” He gave a smirk, poking at the young girl, “Or are you considering staying?”

Mirabelle frowned at him. “You forget yourself.”

“My apologies, my lady,” He replied with his hands raised for a moment. “I meant it mostly in jest.” He admitted with a smile to her, and then a gave her a bow. “By your leave, ma’am.”

She gave him a dismissive wave, and then looked over to the others. “I’d like to return to the manor now.”

She took her time returning to the manor, lingering on the streets for a time and working slowly but surely to return. Once back, she set it upon her servants to prepare a traditional Cote d’Argent meal – light fish, sweet fruits and vegetables, and a stout bread. She gave them their orders and went back to her quarters to bathe and clean herself up. Then, once she had dressed in a nice enough dinner dress, she set about waiting for her guest to arrive. As the night began to fall, clouds began to fill the sky blotting out the stars.

It made for a dark night, and as the dinner hour passed her servants began to mill about and see if she would decide to eat without her guest. She did not. Instead, she simply sat and waited. After an hour or two, she relented and allowed her servants to eat – but she waited. Night fell darker, and the deeper the time went the more she listened to her servants speak about how she was wasting time. That the girl wasn’t coming.

With the darkness engulfing the home, she had her servants light a lantern outside, and one for her to read by, and she continued to wait. As she read, she listened. Bastien’s snores from his place nearby her were perhaps the loudest of the sounds, but Coralie’s insistence on busying herself around the lady came in a close second. It was not as late as everyone seemed to feel it was that night. Only an hour or two had passed since darkness fell, but they were impatient.

When there was a knock at the door, Mirabelle stood and moved over to see who it was. Coralie rushed to stop her and to open the door herself, but the lady would not have it. She opened the door to greet the archer and her guard with a smile.

“I apologize for the late hour, my lady,” Romi spoke with a deep bow. “Please forgive,”

“Not at all,” Mirabelle replied swiftly, cutting her off. “Hunter’s rarely come home until the end of the day, Lady Cedolin.”

Romi smiled and lowered her head. “Thank you,” She said quietly.

“Come in and have a meal with me. Your man is welcome to rest and eat as well, of course.”

“You are too kind.”

The two walked into the manor and found themselves in the dining room. The sat to eat and for the next few minutes, they found themselves merely exchanging more pleasantries, which irked Mirabelle – though her face never showed anything but kindness. As the conversation seemed to go nowhere, she opted to push the archer, to see what she could discover about her. After a drink of wine, she spoke plainly.

“Ervig says you are the daughter of Marquis Luc Cedolin – but a bastard.” Lady d’Argent put a hint of emphasis on the last word. “He is wary of you.”

“Ervig is…” Romi’s grip tightened on her cup and she sighed, “Cautious, but correct. They call me…”

“I know,” Mirabelle spoke softly. “You don’t have to say it.”

Romi nodded and continued. “I live in a small home in the forests on the Rane border with Nid de Vouivre. It is a meager hunting lodge my father built. Something my cousin didn’t care enough to take.”

“You don’t seem to harbor much ill will…”

“My cousin is a fox. He is cunning and always a few steps ahead of anyone who faces him in a political arena. He doesn’t join conflicts he will lose. His case against my inheritance is ironclad in regards to the law. He has contacts at every level of the court of Rane and he can bend them with a few choice words.” She spoke with a clear bit of sadness. “Had he put his skill to something great, he would likely be one of the best of us – but he is driven by power and wealth.”

“Perhaps one day you can secure your lands again,” Mirabelle spoke with a succinct nod.

“No. My father’s lands are rightfully his. As long as he leaves the lodge and forests to me, I have no reason to test him.” The archer shrugged. “One day I hope to be able to sway him back to something more important than power and wealth. His potential as a courtier and leader is astonishing. His mastery of debate and the sincerity to which he puts his mind to the research behind arguments is inspiring – if currently misplaced.”

Mirabelle didn’t say anything. She was a little surprised. That was rather high praise for a thief and con-artist, but moreover, she was astonished at her sizing up of the man. “Tell me, what do you think of Ervig’s abilities.”

“Hm?” Romi raised a brow and paused between a bite of her dinner. “I…” She thought a moment. “As a military leader he is talented, but his domestic abilities leave much to be desired. He tends to want to handle things himself and lacks the education required to properly adjuvate village projects. It drags him down as a domestic steward, but his skill with a spear is quite good. His understanding of bandit tactics and small conflicts makes him very skilled at defending a village such as this. He also has a knack for connecting with his subordinates.”

Lady d’Argent gave a little nod. She thought that maybe there was more to the archer than she let on, but this all but proved it. “Do you know this much about every noble in the region?”

“What?” She shook her head for a moment, and then gave a sigh, “Well, yes. I had too to keep my holdings.”

“So you know about the Astier?”

“Yes, of course. As the regional power, and the nobles of the closest town to me, I have too.” Romi spoke softly.

“What can you tell me about Valamir?” Mirabelle asked, before shaking her head. “Actually, no. I know the Marquis and Marquise…” She pondered for a moment, “Romi, what can you tell me about Sarus?”

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