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The Old Mother

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

Author’s Notes: Hello all. This story is my first unfinished part of the Bestiaries that I am posting up. I’ve had trouble with writing lately, partially due to all the things going on in the world at current – partially due to general struggles with this story. The idea is about half written, and I intend on finishing it. I think it will end up being about two thousand words, so consider this a preview. I couldn’t let myself continue to struggle on this piece and hold up my writing, so I’m going to take a break from this story.

               The nightmares that had plagued her had been near endless. Every night her dreams were invaded by a whisper. She could never make out the voice, but each night it seemed to find her. The whispers woke her up in a cold sweat. It wasn’t a small uncomfortable sweat, but rather one indicative of someone coming down from a run. She lay covered in a small layer of sweat that had cooled as she rose out of her dozing state. Her legs ached as if some travel had occurred, but her bed showed no sign of her having left during the night. Still, each time she heard the whispers, she felt as if a chase had only just ended, and awaking was the escape.

               On this night, nothing was different. She sat panting as she woke, moments going by ever so slowly as she regained her breath. Her hands rested lightly on the feather stuffed mattress; her gaze fixed on her knees as she waited for the calm to return to her. She hoped that it would be swift, but it wasn’t. There was slight nausea as adrenaline calmed throughout her system. Her throat burned as she breathed, cold midnight air on rough flesh within.

               For nearly an hour, she sat in the dark, alone and trying to determine what the whispers had said or meant. She could never understand them, or at least when she awoke, she never understood them. She finally gave up and pushed her covers off her form. Her head fell to rest in her hands, and she gave a long, sad sigh as a sense of failure pushed into her mind, replacing much of the earlier fear that had overwhelmed her.

               She eventually swung heavy legs over the edge of her bed and felt the cold dirt floor of her family roundhouse. Nothing was moving in the house, not her parents or the rest of her siblings in the room. She could hear no animals braying out in the fields and no bugs chirping in the fresh night air. It was all silent. She carefully stepped away from the bed. Even her light movements made one of her sisters stir somewhat, but no one awoke.

               She took careful steps away from each. Her footfalls were soft, nearly silent, and it was a common enough occurrence that few would wake even if she made an errant step. Still, she did not want to wake anyone. Her mind was still reeling. The whispers had felt intensely alien to her. They were something that in and of themselves sent a cold shiver down her spine, but she could not place a finger on why. There was no tone to the whispers, nor were their words or inclinations. There were no growls or other sounds, but she could feel a sort of anger and pressure building each time the dream came to her. Every time it had gotten worse, and it had been so frequent lately, she felt a sort of unease when thinking of going to sleep.

               The young lady found her way outside. There she stepped into the nearly frozen mud of their farm and walked in the dark out to her favorite spot. She had found a secluded line of trees, just a few minutes’ walk from her home. It had been this grove that she always found herself going to when she needed some time to think. It was something she had learned from her mother, a place they shared as a spot where they could find calm. So, it was here that she decided to calm down from the nightmares.

               There was a pleasant silence to the early, crisp morning air. The dew settling on the trees gave a familiar and pleasant scent. What little wind there was this time of day was distant and gentle, rustling leaves and moving on without a care. For what short time she had alone in a family like hers, these moments of respite came too few but lasted a good while once they did. Mornings were a time of solitude, a time when she could feel alone – like dreams should have been. This morning was different though.

               She realized after some time that the wind had stopped. She felt no more bristling of the cold morning breeze, the leaves no longer waved in the distance, and there was no more dripping of disturbed dew from overhead within her grove. Instead, the was stillness – but the sound of the wind remained. The realization caused her a moment of pause and confusion. She didn’t know why that had happened until she listened close. The wind must have dissipated some time ago, instead replaced by the whispers that haunted her dreams each night.

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Dragonslayer

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

               For whatever reason, he had agreed to this particular job. He had a reputation to uphold, he supposed, but each one of these was trying his luck. He had found his way to a cave system were reports of a dragon sighting had originated. They told stories of fire bathing the farms outside of town, great wings blackening the sky, and a roar that could throw men off their feet. All of it sounded rather harrowing when you heard them say it. All of it seemed as if the town was at the edge of its rope. They desperately sought a hero. Of all the towns he had to wander into – theirs happened upon him at the wrong time.

               His spelunking into a cave gave him ample time to think and put together what he had heard from the townsfolk. It was mostly outlying farms that were attacked. Very little was killed in the attacks, primarily beasts and often only single beasts. This dragon in the wilds had been picking off livestock one at a time.  None of the townsfolk could give him a good description of the dragon himself, but he could see the damage. Outbuildings burned, fields turned to ash, and livestock lay slain. But only a few people were killed. Only three or four townsfolk died overall.

               When he found the lair, his suspicions were confirmed. Townsfolk were superstitious folks and people that didn’t have the experience needed to identify monsters. Peasants knew only a hand full. All undead were zombies or skeletons, all apparitions were ghosts, all otherworldly beings were demons – and all great lizards were dragons. Of course, how they had mistaken this thing for a great lizard was beyond him. He had spotted what it was from the cave entrance. Well, that was a bit braggartly. It had been evident to him as he walked through the caves. There were burn marks along the wall, from where this thing had brushed up against them. All along the walls and floors and ceilings. It was something else entirely – something that dripped fire.

               The thoughts lifted when he arrived in a large chamber. His hooded lantern had cast just a dim light around the corner as he entered, but as soon as it breached the chamber, there was a flickering glimmer that rose from the ground. Then the color became clear. Silver and gold lay strewn about, piled next to a thick wooden chest marred and eaten away by the supposed fire of the beast within the caves. With that realization, he felt a smile cross his face. He was not disappointed. Foolish common folk thought a gift of coin would sate a great serpent like a dragon.

               Then his heart sank. It even skipped a beat. There, tethered to the chest by manacle, was a young woman. She was unconscious it seemed, and it was clear that she had been left down here as part of the sacrifice to sate the dragon and stop the terror that had been rocking their township. He moved closer to her and watched her in the silent and dimly lit cave. Her chest rose and fell. She was breathing, at least. That gave him some hope that he wasn’t too late. His relieved sigh fell on her face, though, causing her to stir just slightly.

               Her eyes crept open and met his for a split second. She was tired, frightened, broken by her experience of being cast aside until she saw his face. He saw the light of life flash in her eyes. He knew the realization that she had just made before she said it, but he could not react quickly enough to stop her from saying something.

               “They sent a hero to save me?” She spoke; the woman’s voice a whisper at first, but the excitement of being saved grew. As it did, so too did the volume of her voice. “You, noble dragonslayer,” The adventurer shook his head, mouthing the words ‘no’ and ‘quiet’ to her as she continued, she either ignored him or couldn’t see them. “have my eternal thanks.”

               “Be quiet,” The adventurer whispered harshly, pressing a gloved finger against her lips, “Don’t say anything.”

               “But you are a dragonslayer, sent to rescue me. Surely you do not fear,” The woman spoke slightly muffled through his finger.

               “Shut. Up.” He cut her off by putting his palm on her mouth as she spoke. It warranted a little squeal from her, surprised, and suddenly unsure what was happening. There was a hint of an echo of the noise that reverberated in the room. He kept his palm pressed hard on her mouth. He could feel his palms beginning to sweat under the leather and cloth, and his mind drifted from her to listen for any sound he could.

               Aside, of course, from her mumbling under his palm. He listened close for a minute before he heard nothing that alarmed him, and then he gave a slight nod to her. He raised his other hand, still holding the lantern, to his mouth and shushed her again. Then he slowly moved his hand from her mouth.

“Did you not kill the dragon?” She seemed to realize something was wrong, but at least she wasn’t talking loudly now. She was whispering at least to the best of her abilities.

“There is no dragon,”

“Then why are we being quiet?”

“Because there is a monster. So. Shush,” He said before setting the lantern next to her. He moved over to where the manacles met the chest and set the lamp down next to them. He paused and took a breath before a hand reached one of the many pouches on his belt, and he pulled a small thin, and well-worn lockpick from the pack. He fidgeted, working the lock as a seasoned professional, and it seemed as if he had barely started before he finished, and the lock popped open.

“If it is not a dragon, what is it?”

“What part of shush don’t you understand?” He all but hissed back at her. He pulled the lock pick slowly back and released the manacles from the chest they had been attached to and turned back to face her. Of course, as soon as he had released the lock, she moved forward, dragging the iron manacles across the cold stone cave floor with a loud clanking sound. “Fucking really?” He hissed at her action. She stopped as soon as she realized what was happening.

“Sorry,”

“Just shut…” He paused midway through the statement. Something had caught his ear. It sounded almost like a struggling breath, a quick hiss of air. Then there was a crack. Creaking claws against the stone of the cave. The woman backed slowly away from the sounds, while the adventurer cursed repetitively under his breath. The sound was still distant, but it was growing closer, and while she might not have realized it, it was clear to him that they were caught in its lair now. He finally snapped into action, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Look at me,”

She did what he said and turned to face him. “I…”

“Just listen. In a few seconds, one or two giant beetles are going to come through the entrance. Whatever happens, don’t get close to them. Don’t touch them, don’t be near them. Even if one attacks you directly, keep moving,”

“What?”

“Trust me. Tearing your own skin off to get away from it is better than getting the fire on you,”

“Fire?”

“More like burning oil. Doesn’t come off,” The adventurer reached to his back and pulled the crossbow from between his back and backpack. “Have you ever used one of these?”

“No,”

“It’s idiot-proof. Perfect for you,” He grabbed the charging handle and pulled back the bow, yanking a bolt from its quiver on his belt and balancing it against the string. “Take it. Keep it flat. When you see the monster, press in this lever,” He tapped the lever at the bottom of the bow lightly. “Aim for the big ass of the thing. Not it’s head. Just the bulbous ass. Got it?”

She nodded quickly.

“Okay. Wait until I say loose. You’ve got one shot,” The adventurer said before bounding over towards the cave entrance. The sounds were getting closer, a deep rumbling hum growing ever louder, echoing through the cave – like a growling and rising roar. He worked diligently, while the woman stood frozen in place, shivering in fear.

He poured out pouches of something on the floor – sand or dust in a long repeating line between the sounds and the lair. He tossed the bag in the middle of the lines and twisted his arms to let his backpack fall to the ground behind him. He pulled a handaxe off the side of the bag and leaned his lantern against it, facing the hole where the monster would be appearing. Then he took a breath and steadied himself. He pulled back and stretched, preparing to throw the ax.

It took a few seconds before the lantern’s light revealed the oncoming beast. It was massive, with an ashen chitinous hide. It stood twice the size of a horse, with rapid beating wings rising from its back and beating like a hummingbird – giving the nature of the sound of the roar. From its form, slick oils dripped to the ground with sizzling hisses as each hit the ground. Short moments of light would appear as the oils melted the rock, for split seconds, the heating rock glowing from the sudden hits.

“Now?” The girl sputtered with the panic in her voice rising. The beast turned its head towards her. Its massive mandibles clicked and dripped bile to the ground below, ready to launch after this newest threat.

“No, beasty,” The adventurer barked at it, and let the ax fly. His entire body moved. Every ounce of strength he had pivoted on his hip, his arm arching wide to let loose the shaft. It spun across the cave room and stuck hard into the beast’s side. It pierced the hide, chitin crumbling away from the impact point, and thick oily blood oozing from the wound. As the blood covered the blade, it began to glow, to warm. The handle burst into flame, and the beast itself had a new target. It turned away from the woman and rushed towards the adventurer instead. He cursed under his breath and twisted to one side, running away from the thing but watching its position closely. Once it hovered over the dust he had laid, he called out to the woman. “Now! Loose!”

She pressed the crossbow lever quickly, aiming to the best of her ability. Her eyes locked on the bulbous backside of that creature, where the glowing ax-head still rested. It gave her something to concentrate on – somewhere to focus her shot. The crossbow let off a resounding twang. The bolt flew from the crossbow. There was a sickening thud, and the creature let out an agonized hiss, and it crashed to the ground where he had laid his trap. Then it twitched, its wings falling silent, and its hissing stopped.

The adventurer stopped running. He turned back towards her and barked, “What the hell? I told you don’t aim at the head! If you had…”

“I was aiming at the backside.”

“Oh,” He said, his tone calming from the earlier anger, “Good deal. Good miss. You are lucky as they come,” He said with a deep breath. He stepped over towards the beast, just a pace or two. He held a hand out towards her, motioning for her to stay still. “Let’s make sure it’s…” As he spoke, a drip of the creature’s fiery oil hit the dust. There was a flash of fire and light, and a loud thunderous noise before the dust erupted into a burst of fire around it and engulfed the creature. Parts were torn away from its body by the force of the blast. The oil-like blood and viscera rained across the cave floor. “Dead. Good. That went way better than planned.” He clapped.

She lowered the crossbow and looked over to him. He gathered up his bag and lantern and moved over towards the chest. “What now?”

“Well,” He spoke as he pressed up against the chest and opened it. There was a shimmer of gold and silver from within. “Normally, I’d worry about a second one. But they didn’t hunt enough for two, so this was a young one still looking for a mate.”

“That was a young one?” She squealed. “It’s enormous,”

“I said young, not small. They grow fast.” He put gold and silver into his bag without looking at her – as much as he could fit.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking payment?”

“From the town’s offering? Not satisfied with what they offered you?”

               He paused and shook his head, “No, not really. They did not pay well.”

               “Then… you came to?”

               “No. I didn’t know you were here.”

               “Then, why did you come?” She asked.

               “Because they admitted they gave an offering to the dragon,” He said with a sigh.

               “So, you’re going to steal it?”

               “Yes.”

               “How could you even?”

               “Look, before you get all high and mighty,” He said, turning around towards her, “There are monsters out here. And they sacrificed you to try to appease them, so,” He shrugged, “You can go back there and always know that they left you out here to die. Or,” He pointed to the gold and silver,” You can stuff your pockets full of coin and make your way in life. Find somewhere safe and away from idiots. Your choice,” He said with a wave towards the coinage before he moved back to collecting some for himself.

               That realization sank in swiftly. The woman didn’t know what they had thought that would accomplish now that she was thinking about the idea. She had felt that she was protecting the town. Even if it had been a dragon, how would leaving her have done anything but give it a snack? She swallowed and steeled herself a bit. Maybe he was right.

               “And where will I go?”

               “I don’t know. What can you do?”

               “Nothing. Cook. Clean.”

               “Well, there is a tavern in every town. I’m sure you can find work,”

               She paused, “What about following you?”

               “No. Not an option.”

               “Just to the next town.”

               He sighed, “No. I don’t do charity,”

               She paused for a moment, and then gave an option, “I can carry more gold for you if you take me.”

               He perked up at that thought – and so began their partnership.

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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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The Baker and the Widow

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiary

               There was a Baker who owned a small shop in a small village on the edge of a small gray creek that fed into a small, slow-moving river. There was nothing special about this Baker or his shop. Nor was there anything special about the village or the creek, nor the river that it fed. The village was a simple place, off the beaten path, but large enough to have built a community of families. It was a small friendly place, not known for danger or excitement – and there was little that happened that would throw off the routine of the place.

               That was until the Smith got sick. A healthy man who supplied the town with all its iron needs, the Smith came down with an illness rather suddenly. He had recently married, and his new wife tended to him dutifully. Being that she wasn’t from the town originally, though, rumors were quick to spread as they do in small communities. She was a stranger, and as she wasn’t one of them, she couldn’t be trusted.

               As the Smith grew weaker, the rumors only grew more vicious. The Baker heard rumors of her in his shop; she was a poisoner, her goal was to take his wealth, or she only came here to spread illness. None of this was true, he knew. No one else grew sick, despite the Smith’s Apprentice and family visiting to assist her in taking care of the ailing man. The Smith was no rich man, and frankly, the Baker had seen her coin from the city more often than the Smith’s trade since they wed. As for poisoning her husband, that just felt like a stretch made up by frightened minds.

               Eventually, at the edge of winter, the Smith passed away. Like so many in the village, the Smith would find his final resting place in the town cemetery. The once strong man had withered away, and his family wept. His Widow was inconsolable, though. While she tried to appear strong, she could not do it. She wept at his graveside for days and nights, only coaxed into leaving his side when tiredness overtook her, and the Smith’s family was able to carry her back home. Then she disappeared into their home. The Smith’s family left for their own homes to prepare for the depth of winter.

               The Widow rarely left their home, but the rumors stopped for a time. She gave the Smithy’s shops and all its contents over to the Apprentice, keeping only their home for herself. There she stayed alone for the season, only ever venturing out to purchase much-needed food and drink. She was a broken woman in those days. Her once beautiful smile and bright eyes had faded to a distant and unmoving stare. There was a nothingness that had taken her husband from her, and her eyes had locked onto it. She barely spoke, whispers only answering questions pressed to her, and once she had what she needed, she would return to her home.

               For that first winter, the Baker believed that she would die of heartbreak. She could not have taken care of herself in a way that any would survive. The chimney of her home rarely smoked despite the cold, the food she bought was a bare minimum, and she abandoned all hope of socializing. He couldn’t let that happen. He took it upon himself to visit from time to time, to bring her fresh bread, and to check on her. She rarely spoke to him for more than a moment. She would greet him at the door and pay him for the bread. When he asked if she was okay, if she needed anything, she would shake her head and go back into the building.

               This habit became a routine through even the spring, until one day she seemed in better spirits. She met him at the door, and for the first time, he saw a small smile on her lips. She spoke to him and told him that the Amarant was blooming. It had been her husband’s favorite flower, she explained. The Baker just returned the smile, knowing for the first time she might recover.

               As the summer continued, she tended to her Amarant around the house. She began to act more like she once had. He still chose to drop by and see her from time to time to check up on her. As fall approached, she even ventured out into the village and brought him much of her harvested grain from her gardens. They traded amicably, and he then watched from afar as she turned the fields behind the old house into a small farm. She tended it with a couple of the other widows of the town. She worked with diligence and purpose that he hadn’t seen of her since before her husband had died, and it warmed his heart to see.

               Through winter, he baked bread and took it to her as he had the previous year, though it was a bit rarer an event. She would greet him with some excitement. They would speak for a short time, most often about the bread and how he was finding ways to use the grain of the Amarant to extend the wheat supplies he had. By spring, it was clear the two had become friends.

               In the summer, when the Amarant bloomed, she would come to the Baker with fresh stocks. Now with hectares of the plant growing in her home, she had more than just seeds to share. The two began to dream up new recipes and treats with the plant. It made his shop a rather popular stop in the village, almost overnight. While the new bread became rapidly popular in the village, it came with rumors of the Widow and Baker. 

               Others had noticed their friendship. Others noticed them working together at odd times. Others noticed the way the Widow smiled more when the Baker was around. Rumors swirled of an affair, an affair that did not exist and that the Baker had never sought. Though as the rumors reached him, as people asked how long he and she had been falling for one another, he realized something. The rumors had found a truth that he hadn’t been able to admit.

               For nearly two years, he had visited her often. She had become one of his closest friends. Her smile filled him with warmth, and he felt more comfortable and calmer around her. The rumors, he realized, were true. He had been falling for her in the past years. There was a pang of guilt that came along with that realization. It was a sort of sense of betrayal to the memory of the Smith. It was a feeling that at first he could not shake off.

               One night near harvest, the two had met to exchange one last batch of the Amarant seeds before winter. When she arrived, they set to work in roasting them in his shop and chatted about the harvests and upcoming festivals. Small things, those that require no deep conversation, they were those that could fill the air and keep him from admitting anything deeper.

               Still, he found himself glancing at her. He found himself watching her when she wasn’t looking. She was beautiful. She always had been. These past years, though, as they grew closer and closer, he knew he noticed more and more. The way her smiles wrinkled the edge of lips, and seemed to even to reach to her eyes, the way she constantly readjusted her hair to keep it in place, the warmth of color in her skin from working with her plants, she never seemed to appear to him different than she had the first time they spoke as beautiful as ever – all of it must have entered his mind many times before. Now, it was stuck there, gnawing at him. But that night, she caught him staring.

               She asked why he stared, and her nerves caused her to brush her hair away from her face.  

               The Baker paused. He hesitated a moment. The flickering light of the fires of his kilns baking away filled the room with the smell of soon to be fresh flour, and in that moment of seeing her in the light of a fire, he could not stop himself. He admitted that she was beautiful, that he found himself falling for her.

               She now hesitated and gave a weak smile. Her voice whispered a short thanks, but there was a quaking there, a palpable unease. Then she said the words the Baker feared she would. She admitted she was not ready for a new lover, and with the sentiment, she ended the night. She stood up to leave. But, in a moment of weakness, he reached out and caught her hand. Her hand was warm, much as his was. Both were nervous. The Baker admitted that he needed her to know his feelings, but he had no desire to betray her feelings for her husband.

               The Widow waited a moment before answering. Her hand gave a squeeze before she pulled away. She spoke that now she knew his feelings. With that, she left.

               Winter fell, and the Baker felt that he had ruined something great. Each evening, it ate away at him. He would sit and watch the fires of his bakery, and he regretted ever saying anything to her. Then, he would wonder if it was anything but lust that had driven him. Midwinter, he decided to apologize again.

               From time to time, he would visit her home and drop off some fresh bread. She would greet him at the door and accept kindly. When the topic began to fall from his lips, though, she would end it and reenter the home. She shut him out night after night, time after time.

               Finally, one night the snow fell hard, and he stood at her door. He offered her bread when she greeted him, as always. She accepted, and he asked her if she would let him say his piece one last time.

               She protested, she refused, but she slipped up in her refusal. For a split second, a single word slipped out and revealed her truth to the Baker. She felt the same way. She could not, though. She would not let herself fall in love with him.

               There the two stood silently as the snow fell, watching one another quietly. Neither spoke a word. Finally, the Widow apologized. She asked the Baker not to return, and she closed the door.

               The Baker took a long walk back to his shop. There, crestfallen, he threw himself into his work. The snowstorm continued to build up around the village, but with his heartbroken, he paid little attention to that. Travel in the village stopped for a time. He gave in to despair, and one night the snow piled high on his home and ice packed against the chimney. When the warmth of the kilns melted just enough, there was a small collapse. Thatch fell from the ceiling to the fires. The villagers were not able to react quickly. The night was dark, the village covered with high snow, and no one noticed the building slowly catch aflame.

               No one except the Widow.

               The Baker awoke in the night to the flames, cutting him off from any escape. On the second story, above the source of the fires, he felt himself burning. The fires reached him in his bedroom, the heat of the fires lighting the walls and raising from the stairwell. He coughed, unable to breathe. He knew this was the end, and he was afraid.

               Then, in the fires, he saw her – the Widow.

               She stood at the top of the stairs, flame jumping around her form. The fire had burned away her clothes, and the Baker saw her truly for the first time. She stepped toward him. Her form was untouched by the fire. Time then was slow. Despite the fire, he felt cold. He could barely keep his eyes open as she approached, his life force dwindling as his lungs desperately sought a breath in the smoke-filled room. When she reached him, she leaned in, placed her lips against his. He felt nothing else. A moment of bliss and then silence.

               He awoke in her home, days later. The fire had taken from him much of his strength. His strength would never return, and slowly but surely, the Baker faded away. Still, the two had one more year together. For that last year of his life, he lived with the Widow. The rumors swirled once again; the two were lovers, the Widow had set the fire, the Widow had walked through fire to save him, she stood unburned – some were true, no doubt. Yet, the two were happy, for those short seasons, and when the Baker finally died, the Widow was inconsolable. She lived there for another year or two before she left the village.

               The Amarant still grows there as an ever-present reminder of the Widow’s love, renewed each season. All through the lands, the same story still is whispered by superstitious townsfolk. Many villages have a small home with Amarant growing in its garden – and with some there lie a single lonely grave, tear-stained by the cursed Widow that like her favorite plant, is made new with each fallen love.

 

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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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Marches – Chapter 08

Author’s Notes: So, this chapter builds up to the wedding. It introduces more family who may or may not become important later on. It feels a bit sudden and abrupt to me now, but I think part of that is good. Weddings often have people showing up in big numbers, and it is overwhelming. I should concentrate on that a bit more, I think. On that note, I’m re-writing the whole story, so it is hard to see exactly what will stick around. I plan on concentrating on the wedding much more, and parts of this will likely survive. Most likely, I’ll expand on aspects and cut others. Overall, I’d like the wedding to take up more of the story in the next iteration, and parts of this deserve to live on in that version.

Arrivals

When she came in from the snow, that night she found herself more welcomed than expected. She had barely made it back into the manor before she was surrounded by the people she had just left. From a quick embrace from Romi and Cyne to a lecture from Bastien to Ervig showing up a few minutes late with a small search party, everyone had been worried. So, she asked to have paper and ink brought to her, and that night she penned letters to her family. Tienette had only watched for a time, and as the letters were written, the two talked about the decision. She assured the woman that it wasn’t the knife that sealed her decision. She had decided she would go through with it long before – but his actions had made her realize that she felt safer in Milae than she ever had on the Coast. It was decided while working on those letters that the wedding would be on the first full moon of Spring, as was common for the followers of Lune.

She hadn’t been able to pen the letter to her father, though. So, Tienette wrote a letter for him, and the basilisk was as cruel in the letter as her reputation suggested, though she didn’t let Mirabelle read the crueler rebukes of his behavior. She even decided that it would be the messenger that carried his gift who would return her letter to him.

The next morning, the date was announced to the villagers by Ervig and his men, and just like that the village was a buzz. This was something that astonished Mirabelle. In her home, weddings were small affairs, with family and priests. The Astier had invited every single member of their hold, and riders rode out on that first day to all nearby holds as well. The event was a celebration, not just for the nobles, but for the entire hold. It gave the people of the village something to work towards through the winter, and it made it even more challenging for Mirabelle to travel the town – as she often spent time getting well wishes from the townsfolk, and that would inevitably lead to a small crowd of others joining in.

Work in earnest began during the darkest part of winter after the Solstice festivals ended. Tienette and Cyne brought in tailors and got to work on a formal wedding dress for her, and jewelers followed getting her feeling on countless styles of jewels to adorn her. It was overwhelming in a lot of ways and took much more time than she would have expected but it passed the winter quickly. Before she had realized it, the weather began to warm, and the days began to feel longer again.

As spring seemed to be in reach, a messenger arrived with a letter from her sister Roheis. She had happily agreed to come to the village and spend the weeks leading up to the marriage with her sister. She had sent the messenger ahead of her, but it was only a day or two later that a militiaman showed up at the door of the manor, explaining that banners and a small cadre of mounted soldiers had been seen coming down the road.

He described the banner as a blue shield with a gold bend, with a centered white alerion above three crossed spearheads. It was one she recognized immediately.

“Alerion?” Cyne asked as an excited Mirabelle waved for Coralie to bring her a coat and boots.

“It’s a beakless bird, footless bird.” Tienette explained with a slight smile, “Forever cursed to fly, with no hope of rest.”

“Oh,” Cyne spoke with a little bit of disappointment in her voice.

“It isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s a symbol of the Girardine family, a sign of their eternal vigil over the walls of the Tirmont.” Mirabelle spoke from nearby as Coralie helped her wrap a coat around her form and worked to prepare her boots for her.

“Tirmont being the fortress on the border of Ava proper and the Banner lords territories.” Tienette added quietly, “And the sight of a hundred battles. A few fought against Vouivre.”

“So, they were our enemy.”

“Yes, but that was a long time ago. The last skirmish between us was before you were born.” Tienette corrected her daughter thoughtfully.

“Before Sarus was born?” Cyne asked quickly.

“No. We clashed swords against them about fifteen years ago, but it was not a pitched battle. Only a few hundred men.” Tienette admitted with a sigh.

“Any of ours?”

“No, your father wouldn’t commit troops if he didn’t know he could win.”

Mirabelle shook her head and moved finally finished lacing up her boots. Coralie through a quick cloak around her shoulders and stepped up behind her mistress. Bastien busied himself attaching his sword to his belt, but seemed ready to join them as they left. The Lady d’Argent gave a little nod. “I’m going out to meet them.”

“I’d like to come.” Tienette admitted, “But I need to find my face.” She gave a little smile and shook her head. “You go ahead.”

“May I?” Cyne asked. The girl was still young and hadn’t yet received her mask for the masquerade, but in truth, she was only a few years younger than Mirabelle.

Her mother nodded towards Mirabelle, who gave a quick nod without speaking. So, Cyne fell in line with them.

“I’ll watch over her, my lady,” Bastien added quickly. “No need to call in extra guards. I’m sure the Marquis de Tirmont will have more than enough men to keep her safe.”

“Very well,” Tienette spoke softly. “I will meet with you all soon. Enjoy the reunion.”

The small group headed out of the manor and to the streets. Aside from lingering snow in a few shady spots, it did look as if it would soon be spring. Mirabelle almost jogged towards the edge of the village, with the others just trying to keep up with her. When they arrived at those Willow Gates, she found that Ervig and his men had already arrived.

The Captain of the Guard turned towards her and gave a nod, “I see my man found you, my lady.” Ervig added with a quick bow to her. “Oh,” He stammered as he saw Cyne with her, “And I did not expect to see you as well my lady Astier.”

“He did,” Mirabelle answered back, as Cyne gave a soft bow towards the man. D’Argent stepped through the militia to the forefront, crossing to the very front of the village. Cyne joined her, but Bastien and Coralie stood with the militia.

Ervig stepped forward. “Scouts caught their banner about an hour ago. They’re in no rush, but I don’t believe Marquis de Tirmont spared much expense on this trip. It makes my men feel a bit underequipped.”

“Perhaps once I’m your Marquise officially, I can open up trade with them.” She glanced back at the militia, who were dressed in ramshackle chain mail and boiled leather plates, and armed with simple iron spears, daggers, and hunting bows in some cases. They were not professional soldiers, but rather the conscripted or volunteer peasants of the village. She wondered if they were an efficient fighting force in the least, knowing they had none of the training of someone like Bastien. They didn’t speak much more for a time though, just watching the banners grow closer.

Finally, when they were well in view, it took Mirabelle’s breath away. She saw her sister for the first time in nearly a year. Roheis and her Husband were both in ceremonial armor. Shining plates of steel atop blue lamellar. On their hips, long swords and daggers of exquisite craftsmanship stored it well-maintained leather scabbards. His steel spear rose above them both, a personal banderol attached just below the blade and fluttering in the wind. On her horse, she also had a new, fine longbow attached to the saddle – but it was her guard that carried her banderol, the white stag replacing the alerion in the Tirmont arms.

Behind them were arrayed, forty knights or servants. The knights wore fine, shining plate. Each was armed with fine blades and wore long blue capes. Their horses likewise were all masterfully outfitted, with each wearing banded plates of mail over soft leather barding. Even the servants wore armor, though it was mostly shined chain atop leather. It was a display to be sure.

As they got close enough to see Mirabelle, Roheis lost her patience and spurred her horse forward.  It was only a minute before she reached the line, and she quickly swung her leg over her horse’s saddle and dismounted, and then she rushed around to her sister. She locked her in a tight embrace, which while Mirabelle returned, it was clearly one-sided. “You look well, little Belle,”

“Roheis, you look…” Mirabelle finally broke the embrace and pushed away just a bit. “Knightly.”

“I am knightly. It turns out the people of Tirmont need a Marquise who can stand by her husband in a fight. And I always wanted to learn the bow.” She glanced to the side and smiled. “Sir Bastien, Dame Coralie.”

Both gave small bows to her, and to her husband as he caught up to her.

“It is good to see you again, Lady Mirabelle,” Ghislain spoke loudly, his voice carrying over the militia as he sat atop his horse a moment. He let the horse settle. “And to all of you, I am Ghislain Girardine, Marquis de Tirmont.” He announced before he dismounted as well and walked towards the sisters d’Argent.

“And you, Marquis.”

“Please, my lady. To you, I am just Ghislain.” He spoke with a smile.

“Belle, you’re being rude.” Roheis pressed her, physically pushing on her shoulder as she nodded back to the others. “Introduce us.”

“Oh,” Mirabelle turned and found Cyne first. She motioned to her, “This is Lady Cynewise Astier, daughter of Marquis Valamir Astier and Marquise Tienette Astier. Du Nid de Vouivre.” She added.

“Ah, I had heard Lord Sarus had a sister,” Ghislain spoke with a low bow to her. “It is an honor to meet you my lady Cynewise.”

“Cyne is fine.” The young girl added nervously but returned the bow.

“And this,” She motioned to Ervig, “Is Captain Ervig de Milae, who was steward of the village until my arrival, and still acts as Captain of her Guard and leader of the military forces of the city. He also still acts as Steward but likes to claim I am in charge.”

“Belle – don’t editorialize.” Roheis corrected. “You know this is a Wyvern wedding. You will have to introduce every family member and every guest that has not met when they approach you.”

Ghislain shook his head and gave his wife a pat on the back. “Forgive her, Captain Ervig. She is worried her little sister is not prepared for the ceremony.”

“No forgiveness needed, my Lord Tirmont. We hope we have helped prepare her as well.” Ervig spoke with a bow. “To that point, the people of Milae have been blessed to have Lady d’Argent with use. It is an honor to get to greet her family.”

From there, the sisters and their entourage would enter the village. They chatted on all sorts of the minutia of their day to day lives, catching up on mostly small events. IT was nice to catch up. For the past year, both had been settling into new lifestyles, so they had more than enough to talk about for weeks. Tienette greeted them when they returned, speaking on behalf of the family from behind her basilisk mask. She promised that her husband would return soon after but was away collecting his brothers.

Of course, once they were back to the manor they rested for a couple of days, and then again began work on the wedding. Most importantly, perhaps, she had a supportive family member there – but she wished more would come. A few days after they arrived, Romi had ventured into town and was introduced to them, though she had trouble even speaking to Ghislain without turning into a stuttering mess of a girl, with cheeks as red as any flower. But she was an important piece of the puzzle in preparing Mirabelle for the ceremony.

Vouivre weddings were complex. They were parties, with every noble far and wide invited alongside many of the villagers under the care of the families being joined. It was expected that during the wedding, the guests would be greeted by both the Bride and Groom, as their first act as a married couple. Knowing the men and women that were in attendance was paramount, and generally, each offered a gift. So, poor Mirabelle had to learn the names and banners of any that might attend, as well as anything that could help her remember.

“This is impossible.” Mirabelle lamented after she.

“Each guest is going to be wearing their masks. As it is considered a court event, the masquerade must be upheld. But, the Vouivre believes that the bride and groom must prove they can see beyond that. Correctly addressing each guest in attendance will show that you are a true Vouivre bride and can hold your own in their courts.” Roheis rattled off the words as if she had said them more than enough over the past few days. “Every bride does it here.”

“But not every bride is a d’Argent. People are coming from all over the Kingdom.” Mirabelle groaned and laid her head on the table around which they sat.

Roheis sighed and nodded. “We have to keep going. The Vouivre and Ava you have down, and it won’t be a problem.”

“And you’re doing okay with Rane,” Romi said with a little smile.

“You are not doing well with the Banner Lords or Danelan though,” Cynewise added from nearby, flipping through a large tome that listed the banners of the kingdoms.

“Not helping.” Romi scolded quickly.

“We need to know where to concentrate.”

“Girls.” Mirabelle shook her head. “All of you are helping, and none of you are helping so let’s just do the next one.” She said as she sat up and stretched.

“Okay.” Roheis waved at Cyne, who raised the book up and pointed to one of the banners. Her eyes narrowed. “Green shield, black bars.  With a slain manticore in the top right-hand corner. Steel colored manticore, red blade stabbed into it.” She sat back. “That’s a little violent.”

“Wait, manticore. That’s Dunelan. So,” Mirabelle took a breath, “The sword means they kill Danelans. Black bars, green shield…” She shook her head for a moment, “Marquise,” Her face distorted a bit, as she closed one eye and seemed to think, “Marquise Maccul de Rigani?”

“You can’t just guess an entire province for a Marquise, Belle.” Roheis sighed.

“I don’t know where Maccul is from, Ile de Morr?”

“Yes! Ile de Morr…”

“Marquise Maccul de l’ile de Morr a Rigani,” Mirabelle raised an eye as if she was done, but held on to the last vowel since she wasn’t sure.

Romi leaned over towards her after a minute and pushed, “The…”

“The…” Mirabelle softly waved a hand, “Hint?”

“No hint. You know this.”

“My lady, they did visit the temple once when you were young.” Bastien spoke up, “You were smitten with their mounts.”

“Bastien!” Roheis raised her hands and barked at him, “How is that not a hint?”

“Marquise de l’Ile de Morr a Rigani, chevalier commandant de l’ordre du pegase!” Mirabelle said with a clap of her hands.

“You are pushing her hard, she needed a hint.” Bastien defended himself, from Roheis who was giving him a disappointed look.

“She could have gotten there,” Roheis spoke softly.

“Wait, you got to see a Pegasus?” Cyne asked quickly.

“Pegasi,” Mirabelle clapped and squirmed happily at the answer and question. “She rode in with twenty knights of the order after some battle, seeking healing and,”

“My lady, just skip to the best part,” Bastien said quickly with a wave of his hand.

“One bit Roheis.”

“You brat!” Roheis kicked at her sister under the table.

“No.” Bastien shook his head and ran a hand across his forehead.

“They let them ride the creatures,” Coralie added from nearby. “When I was brought on, it was all lady Mirabelle would talk about.”

She hadn’t quite finished the sentence when the manor door was pushed open quickly and Ghislain rushed in, warranting a small startled noise from Romi. The group turned to look at him, as he seemed in a bit of a rush. “My ladies, pardon the intrusion.” He gave a bow, “Lady Mirabelle. There are other arrivals. Lady Tienette asks…”

“What banner, Ghis?” Roheis asked.

He looked confused, “It’s the banner…”

“No, describe it.” She interrupted her husband

That only seemed to deepen the confusion on the man’s face. “A gray shield with red orle and a black wyvern holding a knot of willow branches.”

“I know that one,” Mirabelle spoke with a large smirk.

“Me too.” Cynewise teased closing the book and standing up. She seemed a little excited to see her family again.

“Is Sarus with them?” Mirabelle asked quietly.

“No, my Lady. He was sent on to their home, with a couple of the younger children. The rest of the family has come to meet you.” Ghislain nodded. “They should be here in a few minutes.”

“Then we should get ready. We’ll continue this later.” Roheis said softly.

The girls all stood and moved to change into more courtly attire. Then Mirabelle’s eyes turned towards Romi, who stood nervously in her hunter’s cloak. She knew she didn’t have anything more to wear. She glanced at her friend. “Romi, would you like to join us?” She asked quietly.

“I’m unprepared, my lady. I can just take my leave.” She responded quietly, with her head held low.

“Nonsense.” Lady d’Argent said with a smile. “You can borrow one of my dresses if you like.”

It only took a few minutes to change into their attire, with Mirabelle and Roheis in more exquisite wear than the others thanks to their father’s station – and Romi awkwardly pulling at the fancy clothes draped on her, clearly out of her comfort area. Cyne’s dark-colored dress was a stark contrast against the royal blues in the other two women’s choices. Cyne gave a little bow to the others, and she took her leave to join her family before they were formally introduced.

More importantly, given it was a court event, in a way, they all donned their masks. Mirabelle had not worn her mask around the Astier ever, but this was a sort of official event. Coralie handed it over to her – a simple silver cloth mask with steel wire hardening it to hold its most important aspect, the two small stag antlers that rose from the sides. She took a breath and slipped the mask on. She glanced over to her sister, who wore an almost identical mask. Then she glanced at Romi, who had a full-face mask styled after the face of a fox.

After a moment, the door opened again in the main room where they waited, and Ghislain joined them. His mask was more militaristic, befitting his role, with a horsehair flare rolling back across his natural hair, dyed white now in honor of his wife. He gave a smile, “Ladies, are you ready to receive guests?” He asked quickly.

“Yes,” Roheis stated bluntly, pushing Mirabelle to the forefront. She gave her a nudge. “You can do this, consider it a dry run.”

Ghislain stepped back out, and his muffled speech followed. Then the doors opened again, with Marquise Tienette stepping through first, followed by her husband, then three men she didn’t recognize, and another woman. Cyne stepped back in with her family, sticking close to her mother and father.

Mirabelle felt her mind race. She didn’t know who these people were, but they came under the Astier banner. She took a breath and gave a bow, “Marquis and Marquise Astier, welcome back.” She said with a long low bow. She raised back up slowly, giving herself time to look across the other men and women in attendance. Then she smiled. “It is an honor to get to meet more of your family finally. If you will, allow me to introduce my sister,” She waved a hand to her, “Marquise Roheis Girardine de Tirmont.” Her hand then moved over to Romi, “And my closest friend, Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane.”

Romi blushed at the words.

“Lady Cedolin?” One of the men’s voices broke the silence. Mirabelle had expected Valamir to speak, but he hadn’t. Instead, this man spoke. He was an overweight man, a rolling double chin, and the look of sweat on his marred skin. He stood a few inches shorter than Valamir but stepped forward as he spoke. His mask was red wyvern feathers but laced with gold threads. “There is no Lady Cedolin, only Romi Batard.”

“With all due respect,” Mirabelle spoke harshly, raising up and standing defiant, “Lord Vithimiris Astier. I recognize her rightful parentage. You will do the same in my presence.”

There was an uncomfortable pause for a moment in the room. The man stared at her for a moment, a scowl of anger on his lips as he watched her eyes. She didn’t turn away from him, staring. The pause was long enough that she thought to demand an answer, but before she could his scowl disappeared, and his mouth opened to release a belly laugh. “Well done!” He reached up and pulled off his mask and tossed it aside. He opened his arms wide and stepped away from his family and towards her. His demeanor completely changed. Without his mask, his eyes were bright, wide. His smile was as big as any she’d ever seen. The laugh-lines on his eyes and with flushed cheeks were simply disarming. “I am sorry, Lady Romi,” He said walking towards the girl and clapping his hands together. “I want you to know that I believe your claim, and always have. Your cousin should be ashamed. And he is a fool to cast aside such a talented woman.”

Romi didn’t know how to respond. She was bright red, a nervous fire in her cheeks. She may have mouthed something quickly, but her voice simply did not fall on anyone’s ears.

“Vithimir, you couldn’t last even until at least one more?” Valamir shook his head. “Why do I let you stay in Ereleiva?”

“Hush, brother. You knew to let me go first was a poor plan.” Vithimiris laughed and looked towards Mirabelle, who was a bit confused. Her eyes showed it. It was much less so than Roheis’, though. She turned to Vithimir who opened his arms to her again. “Welcome to the family. Come come. Give your uncle Vithimir a hug.” He motioned to her.

Though confused, Mirabelle relented and offered an embrace. Before she knew it, she was in a crushing hug.

“We are excited to have you.” He finally released her and slipped around her with one last pat on her shoulders. “Now, Marquise Roheis, the lady who tamed Ghislain.” He spoke as he moved on to his next prey.

Mirabelle had hardly gotten her breath back when the next two approached her. She gave a smile, still sort of collecting herself.

“Forgive him, my lady.” This man was more like Valamir. He was tall, a bit scruffy, with long unkempt hair held back by a ceramic and carved marked mask, sealed with red and stylized to match the others’ feathers.

She nodded at him and responded. “Lord Arimir…” She said with a smile, “There is nothing to forgive.”

“Damn right there isn’t.” Vithimiris broke from his conversation to interject, before falling back into a conversation with Roheis and Ghislain.

“And that would mean that you,” She nodded back to one of the women, also in a ceramic mask, “Are Lady Sunilda.”

“Correct,” The lady said quietly, stepping out from the crowd. She was a petite woman, with short-cropped black hair, and at that moment was clearly pregnant. “You’ll forgive me for not being more involved.”

“Have you enjoyed your stay in Milae so far?” Arimir asked her with a slight bow. “I hope we were able to get the manor to your liking before your arrival.”

“Everything has been wonderful, thank you.” Mirabelle nodded.

“Sunilda and I will be at the top of the hill mostly until the wedding. I hope you understand.”

“I do.”

“After your wedding, we want to get to know you better, though.” He smiled and pulled a small trinket from his jacket. “For you. We were in Cote d’Argent about six months ago. I wanted to make sure to get you something from home.” He offered it over to her.

She smiled and took the small box when offered, bringing it to her. “I’m honored. You didn’t need to.”

“I like to bring my nieces and nephews things from my travels.” He gave a smile and stepped back.

Then the final person stepped forward. He didn’t say anything, though. Mirabelle knew she was out of easy marks. There were only three Astier brothers now. He was an older man, wrinkled skin on the back of his hands and neck giving that away – but he wore a blank mask, just a thin gray cloth. The cloak he wore was as noble as any in attendance but was clearly just a traveling cloak. He was being careful to not show anything under the cloak either. She wasn’t sure who this was. Then she saw it though. Beads peaked out from his cloak, a necklace. She recognized them. Her father wore the same things. “I’m sorry, your reverence. I’ll admit I can’t see your face…”

“Ah, yes…” He said softly, raising a hand to pull off the mask. The voice, though, she recognized, and before he could even reach to the mask the young woman had broken any semblance of courtly ideas and rushed over to him with a tight hug. Roheis likewise had dropped what she had done and rushed over.

“Pepere! I didn’t expect you.” Mirabelle said quickly

“Lady Tienette invited me,” The old man laughed a bit, before wrapping his arms around her for a second, and then offering one over to Roheis, “It is good to see you both well.”

“It is a long trip, you didn’t need to come all of this way for me.” The Lady d’Argent protested with a tighter hug.

“It was a hard trip, yes. But you are worth a thousand.” He was a small man, and age had stolen much of his form and replaced it with a thin wrinkled man, and yet he commanded the room when he spoke. Perhaps it was just the scene, but all eyes were on him. He gave a small nod to his granddaughters and sighed. He gave a quick kiss to the woman’s forehead. “I hear you might need someone to walk with you that day as well. And nothing would make me happier.”

“Of course.” She gave a quick nod, before finally pulling back a bit, and waving to Romi. “Romi, this is Duc Leufroy d’Argent.”

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