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Chapter 14: Home is where they take you in

Home—my true home—was an oakwood far from Ankur, in a small half-timbered one-room shack that was damp and moldy in the spring and summer, and cold and worse in fall, when the winds that foretold of winter penetrated the halfhearted defenses afforded by the walls. It was where my father and I lived most of the year, and where I learned my woodland skills while I recovered from the deep wounds inflicted by my childhood. Home was also a largeish manor house, maintained in far better shape, that my father and I shared with the King’s other foresters and their families during the winter. That building, poorly but lovingly furnished, was proof against the worst that winter could offer. It was hung with so much male paraphernalia there was scarce room enough for the wind to penetrate—hunting trophies, wood carvings of game, fishing rods, dart boards, kits for cleaning and maintaining weapons, and old, musty wineskins of dubious origin. That place never grew truly cold, for our collective efforts stocked enough firewood each summer to keep a large fire burning throughout the winter, and the warmth of all those bodies added to our comfort. It was also full of the unpleasant scents of many unwashed people packed together, gamy meat hung to ripen or to cure over the hearth, and furs and skins being prepared for subsequent use. Though most who lived there never fully accepted me, it was nonetheless my home and offered another warmth: that of companionship.

Ankur had been my residence now for the past few years, but had never become such a home. Yet despite that, walking the streets with a beautiful woman and watching with her as the sun set over the far west where I’d seen Elvish magic and the slaughter of Goblins, a comfortable feeling stole upon me. I’d walked these streets often enough they’d become familiar, and the welcoming light of Bram and Alison’s house ahead in the distance promised a comparable warmth in my heart, uncomfortable as that promise felt for one so unused to the feeling. The door opened before we had a chance to knock, and James stood there, a sword prominent on his hip and his eyes roving past us to scan the street even as he welcomed his lady home.

“Milady, Morley, welcome home.” Relief was plain in his voice as he shut and bolted the door.

“Thank you, James. Is Milord Husband home yet?”

Young eyes lit on hers, concern evident. “No. Should he be?”

Alison’s laugh warmed us both, easing James’ tension. “Lad, you’re worse than he is. No, I have no idea when he’ll be home. He may even spend the night at the palace if the King is as concerned as our absent Lord claimed. Relax. If it’s sorcery we’re up against, that sword of yours will do us little good.”

James, nonplussed, appeared uncertain how to take those words, and struggled for a safe reply and an appropriate expression. In the end, embarrassment won out. “Nay, Milady, ’tis just that the streets are no place for a woman at this time of day.”

“I was hardly unescorted, James.” She laughed again, and though James cast me a dubious look, the sound warmed me.

The door closed behind me with a reassuring thump, and James shot the bolt. We left him behind at the door, peering outward one last time through a masked viewing slit, and I trailed behind my hostess, examining the details this time. The rooms, sparsely furnished, held a few homely decorations, various bits of antique bric-a-brac, and a dry, musty smell. The floor was stone, covered with thick woolen rugs, and we walked in muffled silence. Alison led me to a small kitchen and began rummaging through the pantry.

“You must be half starved.”

As she said it, I realized I was; I’d eaten little as I recovered from my ordeal, but I’d not asked how long I’d been asleep. “Yes, Milady, I find that I am.”

“It’s Alison, Morley. This is not the Court, and we don’t stand on formality here.”

“Thank you. Please forgive me if it takes some time; I’ve never been so familiar with anyone of the Court, and there are years of habits to overcome... Alison.”

She cast a warm smile over her shoulder, then returned to her rummaging. I climbed onto the stool she’d used to reach the higher shelves so I could watch. During our brief conversation, she had turned up several ceramic plates, a heavy ceramic bowl with a close-fitting wooden cover, a loaf of bread, pewter mugs, a bowl of nuts and dried fruit, a heavy wheel of cheese, several covered crocks, a surprising variety of fresh vegetables, and a pitcher. She smiled again and set about preparations. Slices of bread appeared as if by magic upon one plate, then a large, partially eaten roast chicken emerged as if by its own volition from the covered earthenware bowl; slices of the chicken joined the bread upon one plate, followed by piled tomato, onion, cucumber, horseradish, bell pepper, and carrot slices. Her slim, graceful hands were swift and sure, and it was a pleasure to watch them.

So I watched, bemused and feeling the saliva spring up in my mouth, until she broke the silence. “You can earn your keep by putting together sandwiches. Four of them, if you would.”

I gave her a guilty smile she pretended not to notice, and turned to the work. One of the crocks held thick mayonnaise, and the other held strong mustard. “Does anyone have a particular preference?”

“Mustard for me; mayonnaise for the men.” Thick slabs of cheese had appeared beside the vegetables. “We all eat a good selection of vegetables, but James takes no cheese on his sandwich.”

I spread the mustard and mayonnaise as directed, taking care to follow the directions, then heaped the various ingredients upon the bread to finish the sandwiches. They were thick and hearty. By the time I was done, Alison had poured drinks, and the aroma of cider permeated the small room. My stomach growled.

Alison laughed. “I thought you’d be hungry. Go fetch James.” I was spared that necessity by the arrival of another servant, one I’d not met before.

“Milady, our Lord sends his regrets; he’ll be spending the night in the palace with the King, for they have much planning remaining. He sent this.”

Alison took the folded parchment, which had been closed with sealing wax, and broke the seal. Ignoring the two of us, she read it, and her face softened. A touch of color rose in her cheeks, and she turned away from us to hide it. James and I exchanged envious grins that turned into broad smiles as we recognized our shared thoughts, and I found myself liking the young man. Nonetheless, we composed ourselves, and managed to display suitably neutral expressions by the time Alison turned back to us, a large wooden tray in her hands.

“James, fetch the blanket; Morley, load the tray and take it to the garden. I’ll get the door.” She removed Bram’s sandwich and placed it in the covered bowl, in case he should return.

She brushed past me, a faint aroma of rosewater and clean sweat touching my nose, and it was a moment before I could comply. James, more inured to her presence, had already set about his task. I composed myself once again, and set about loading the tray. I followed in the direction Alison had taken, watching where I placed my feet lest I trip. The tray was heavy and awkward now, and I found myself regretting the lost strength of my giant frame, though I proved capable of managing the task. I followed the faint scent of rosewater that preceded me, and found myself at the back door, where Alison and James awaited me. James made a hesitant motion towards me, then stopped as Alison’s hand fell upon his arm. I pretended not to notice, and strode past them and into the garden.

The sun had finished setting, and there was a faint orange and aquamarine cast to the western sky. We made our way by that uncertain light and the dim illumination cast by oil lamps in the house to the patch where we’d sat when first I’d visited. The sky had darkened enough overhead that the first faint stars could be seen, and the air was filled with the scent of night-blooming flowers that came close to concealing the stench of the city beyond those walls. We ate in silence, enjoying the air and the sharp stars. There was no moon, and the garden walls rose high enough to block out much of the city light, so the stars were about as bright as they could be in a city.

When the last crusts had been devoured, the last crumbs swept to the ground, and the last drop of cider swallowed, we sat upon the blanket, side by side, and watched the stars.

An old song, one of the few I’d written myself, came to me as I lay there. I mourned my lost lute, but the song suited my voice, and it felt right enough that I began singing it quietly, so as not to disturb the mood.

“Every twilight is a special time, as daylight slowly fades
The setting sun’s a painting done in swirling pastel shades.
But the magic of the twilight’s in the softness of the light
For the harshest outlines soften, every shape awaits the night...”

The rest of the song spoke of the beauty of the fading sun, of the children playing, and other homely things.

Alison rose up on one elbow. “That’s a beautiful song, Morley.”

“I call it Twilight. I wrote it many years ago for my father. The real one, the one who raised me.”

Sensing what lay behind those words, Alison changed topics. “Don’t you ever wonder by what magic those lights have been placed in the sky?” Her hushed voice came from just the other side of James, who had sat between us without having given it any thought. I smiled. From the corner of my eyes, I could see him scanning around us every now and then; I wondered if he remained on guard even while he slept.

“It’s no magic known to man, of that at least I’m sure,” I replied. “But I’ll wager the Elves know of it.”

“The Elves? Bram told me you’d spent time with them, that they were real.” I could see Alison resting on an elbow now, past the quiet bulk of James, who’d continued his surveillance as if we were talking of things no more extraordinary than the dinner we’d just consumed.

“I did, though there is little to tell; they’re hostile to all of our race, and for good reason. I have my own notions of the stars, though, if you would hear them.”

“I would.”

“I spent considerable time learning of the days before and after the Exodus when I was a youth, for in winter, there was little to do in the woods but read and share stories, and those who lived with us spent much time memorizing and retelling the old tales. One of the oldest tales from before the Exodus tells of a wizard with a thousand magical eyes who spied on everyone; when he made the mistake of spying on a young warrior and his lover, the tale says, the enraged warrior hacked each of those eyes from the wizard’s skull and cast them high in the air, where the wizard would never use them again to spy on his fellow men.”

James laughed and swept his arm across the sky. “It would seem his strategy was ill-considered.”

Alison and I shared in his laughter. “Worse than that, for I’ve heard a sage claim there are thousands of thousands of stars in the sky, all looking down upon us, which would suggest those original eyes have settled down and raised families. But I don’t much like that tale. There’s another one that’s more interesting.”

“Do tell,” said James, amusement still in his voice.

“This one is a newer story, and involves a human thief and the Dwarves who live in Stormhold. Back when men were new to these lands, and had not yet alienated the Dwarves and the Elves, it is said that a thief penetrated to the very heart of Stormhold, where the Dwarves keep the magnificent treasures they hew from the depths of the world. There, the thief filled the largest sack he could carry with rubies, diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, topazes, amethysts, and many more hues of crystal and gem than I can name. With that sack on his back, he slipped from Stormhold and fled into the night. But when the Dwarves discovered what he’d done, they set out in pursuit, bearing razor-keen, double-headed axes as wide as the Dwarves were tall. Over the mountains they raced, drawing ever closer to the fleeing thief, until at last they cornered him upon the tallest mountain peak that lies south of Ankur.”

“And what happened next?” Alison exclaimed.

“Standing at the edge of the precipice, the thief threatened the Dwarves that unless they swore to grant him his life, he would cast their treasures down into the abyss, where they would never again be found. The Dwarves agreed to his terms, but imposed their own terms on the thief by means of a terrible spell. Having regained their gems, they chose to impress upon our race that such simple, replaceable things had far less importance to the Dwarves than the message that none might so offend the mountain folk and escape unscathed. The strongest of the Dwarves seized the sack of gems, and whirling it about his head, flung it high into the night sky. The sack struck the crescent moon and tore open, spilling the gems across the length and breadth of the sky. Then, with the rough humor they are famed for, they told the thief he could have his life, but only if he could recover all the gems. The same Dwarf who’d cast the gems into the sky seized the thief and flung him upwards too, where he seeks until this day, striving to gather all the scattered gems and return them to the Dwarves.”

James laughed again. “A fitting fate. But you sound skeptical, friend Morley.”

I smiled in the dark. “Those are old tales, and pleasant to tell, but they’re just tales.”

Alison spoke. “And you have your own notions.”

“Yes.” I thought back to what I’d read in the library before Orgrim had sent me to the Elves, and the silence stretched for a long moment as I gathered my thoughts. “All I’ve read of the Exodus tells me there was an unimaginable magical cataclysm, and that our race sacrificed something important in exchange for surviving that disaster.” I licked my lips, which had gone dry. “I sometimes think that the stars are the reflections of fires that still burn in the land that gave birth to our race, and that we see them every night as a memory of what once happened, that we might never forget.”

“Yet as is our wont, we have forgotten, and see in them only beauty,” Alison whispered. Then she changed her tone. “This is far too dark for my tastes, Morley. Sing to us again, this time something lighter.”

My last tale had cast a pall upon me, for it had erased the calm I’d known; that same ancient magic lay waiting for me, and playing at domestic games was fooling myself. But I did my best, seeking songs I’d long practiced for the ladies of the Court and trying to do justice to them without my lute. It took time, but the discipline I imposed on my voice and the concentration it required freed me to accept the calm that always came when I lost myself in music. Alison and James joined in where they knew the words, and we passed a pleasant time until my voice roughened from fatigue and Alison, sensing I was fading, faked a loud yawn and retired to her bed, leaving James and me to clean up.

“Sleep, Morley. Your room is nearest this door, beside the painting of the stag. I’ll clean up.”

“Let me help,” I protested.

“No, friend, for you are a guest here, and have already done your share of the work. Moreover, I heard some of what happened to you, and know that you need your rest. There will be time to work here later. For now, rest.”

I reached out and clasped his hand. “Thanks.” His grip was tentative at first, then strengthened when he realized that despite my childish stature, I possessed much of a man’s strength. “You’re a good man, James, and they’re lucky to have you.”

His smile was obvious in the reflected light of the oil lamps. “No, Morley, it’s I who am lucky.”

Upon reflection, I recognized the justice in his remark, and that I now shared in his fortune. I bade him a good night and headed to my room. There was a lush bed, of a comfort I’d rarely experienced, and enough blankets to bury a much larger man. I used the chamber pot, set it beside my door, and paused only long enough to undress. When I hit the bed, I sank into those blankets like a stone into a lake. My consciousness sank as fast, despite the foreboding that lurked at the edge of my thoughts.

***

In the morning, I woke early, feeling better than I’d felt for many days despite a few remaining twinges in my muscles. I used the new chamber pot that had appeared by the door, then dressed quickly. During the night, whatever I’d dreamt and forgotten, my mind had seized upon what I must do, and the longer I delayed, the harder the doing would be. Taking the chamber pot with me, I made my way to the back of the house, where I’d seen the telltale signs of a honey hole. After emptying the pot, I rinsed it with water from the rain barrel provided for that purpose, and returned it to my room. My stomach was now awake, and I made for the kitchen. I’d planned to make a light snack to keep life in my body until the rest of the household arose, but James had risen before me and was already there. There was also a large covered bundle on the floor beside the hearth.

James’ attention was on a large black frypan in which eggs and a thick slab of ham were just beginning to sizzle. Without taking his eyes off his cooking, he cast a greeting back over his shoulder. “Good morning.”

“And to you, James.” I crossed over behind him to stand by the bundle on the floor. “Is there aught I can do to help you?”

He laughed and turned to smile at me. “Nay, not a thing; if Milady or Milord found out you’d helped me, I’d never hear the end of it. As you know, my master was once a knight of Amelior, and though he no longer lives that life, he still retains certain unfortunate notions about the discipline that goes into the making of a squire.”

I returned his smile, for once letting myself enjoy comradeship without questioning it. Leaving James to his work, I squatted by the bundle, a large oilcloth, and opened it to reveal a cloak, a shoulder pack, a hatchet, a dagger, a water skin, and a floppy-brimmed hat. The half-open pack revealed several bundles from which various savory scents emerged. Someone was going on a journey?

“Milord sent us a message last night, after you were already abed,” James commented without looking back. The smells of eggs and ham had begun to permeate the kitchen.

I replaced the oilcloth. “Oh?”

“He warned us you’d be wanting to leave, and that we should ready certain supplies for you.”

I stood dumbfounded for a moment. Until this morning, I hadn’t thought of leaving, not since Alison had commanded me to join her small family at the town house. But leaving had indeed been on my mind from the moment I’d regained consciousness in the infirmary, and I’d only admitted it this morning. Bram had been perceptive, and had foreseen that no matter how much I’d enjoy my stay here, I would have to leave, and soon. “Your master sees more than he lets on.”

“He does indeed.” James rose from the hearth and moved to the counter. With a practiced flip, he transferred the ham and eggs to a plate, and poured me a mug of skimmed milk; fresh butter lay upon a small, covered earthenware plate, and bread soon made its appearance from the pantry. “Toast?”

I nodded, and James sliced bread and set it to warm in bacon grease. “Eat, Morley.”

I climbed back atop the tall stool that had been my perch last night. “Will you not join me?”

He laughed again, a broad smile growing. “Nay, I’ve already eaten enough to hold me till Milady rises.”

“That doesn’t sound imminent.”

“No, that it is not. She was a lady in waiting for many a year, and is accustomed to the life. She never rises with the sun, as we poor men must do.”

We exchanged smiles at his irreverence, and I needed no more urging. I set about my meal. As I ate, James elaborated on Bram’s message. “He said you would want to leave, and that I should tell you we had no plans to stop you, but that you were welcome should you choose to stay. He told me to expect you to leave anyway.”

I licked egg yolk from my lips. “He was right. I should not be here even now, and I do you all a disservice by endangering you. I was weak and easily overborne by your Lady, else I’d never have come here.”

James laughed again, a sound I was growing to enjoy. “There’s no weakness in that, friend. Milady is not one you’ll gainsay once she’s made up her mind; even Milord has been known to yield the field rather than trying to defeat her in open combat. But you must understand, Morley, that our lives are yours should it come to that; my master and mistress would expect no less from me than from themselves.”

“And that’s why I cannot stay. Such loyalty deserves better.”

James was still holding the frypan, and the muscles on his forearm bunched and knotted. “Would that I could come with you and offer my sword in your defense.”

I put a hand on his shoulder. “Should it become necessary to defend me, a sword will be of no use. It’s magic I flee, not mortal man. I’ve given it some thought, and I feel sure I would be safest in the woods for a time, as Bram has guessed. You’re a townsman, and you’d be little help there anyway.”

James snorted. “Perhaps, and perhaps not. I learn fast. But more to the point, I cannot leave Milady here alone, even with Bram in town. That makes my decision for me.”

“Nonetheless, I thank you. When this is over, I would take you with me and teach you what I know of woodcraft.” I finished my meal, and knelt to remove the oilcloth from the equipment Bram had prepared for me. There was no reason to delay my departure any more than necessary, so I gathered the gear about me without delay, folded the oilcloth and tied it about my waist, my pack rubbing against it, then rose, fully but not uncomfortably laden. James showed me to the back door, gripped my free hand with a concerned look, then let me go.

I took no more than a few steps before turning back to find him waiting. “Tell Alison and Bram—”

“They know. Return soon, Morley.”

I turned without another word, glad to hide the dampness in my eyes.

At that early hour, the streets were deserted. I made my way without incident to the south gate, nearest the direction I was headed, and found it already open. It was a time of peace, and the King’s soldiers kept bandits and brigands far from these walls, so sealing the gates at night was a rare thing these days. I tipped my new hat to the guards as I passed, and they nodded in return. Then I was out on the open road once again.

Walking was a very different thing from what it had been. It had not taken me long to grow accustomed to my giant’s legs, and I was disappointed by how little progress I now made. Still, I’d walked far enough these past weeks that my muscles were firm, and the aches soon faded as my muscles warmed. I distanced myself from the city, and as I walked, I let my mind turn to the one thing that was uppermost in my thoughts: what would I do about Orgrim? It was clear that running to the woods to hide offered no permanent solution, for he’d find me there as he’d done once before. Yet staying in town offered little benefit, for it was doubtful anyone there could aid me, with the possible exception of Raphael—and he was not yet ready to risk his life for me, though that would change once Orgrim became aware of this new foe and set about remedying the situation. No, I would have to return to the city at some point, find a place to summon Orgrim and try, once and for all, to free myself of him.

I’d been walking along a road that passed through lush farm fields as I thought this through, and I was enjoying the mist rising from the grass and the freshness of growing things. Ankur’s walls fell farther behind me, and after a time, as I turned to glance back at the city, I spotted a covered wagon catching up with me. I’d been walking long enough that it had grown warm, and with the dew now risen from the road and the grass, it would soon begin to grow dusty too. If the cart was traveling far enough, perhaps I could ease my journey. I found myself a patch of rock by the side of the road, dropped my sack, sat myself down, and washed the dust from my throat while I waited for the cart to reach me.

As the cart drew closer, its contents became obvious despite the heavy canvas frame sheltering them from the sun: barrels, lashed down with thick ropes. I smiled; the brewery was shipping its produce to the estates that lay a good distance the south, where the King’s hunting preserve lay. Perhaps I’d have an easier trip than I’d expected after all. When I could see the driver’s eyes, I called out to attract his attention.

“Ho, the cart!”

“Ho, yourself, and a good day to you,” the teamster replied, cheerful enough to belie the suspicion in his eyes and the way they swept the fields around him.

“Would I be right in assuming you’re making a delivery to the forest estates?”

The cart drew to a stop, the four horses watchful from behind the shade of their blinders. Their driver’s suspicion vanished, swept away by a broad grin. “Yes, that’d be the place. And you’d be the King’s fool, unless I miss my guess.”

I swept a deep bow, brushing my hat through the dust. “Morley, Court Jester at your service. And as I’m heading for the same destination, I’d sorely appreciate a ride.”

The teamster smiled. “Aye, with those bandy little legs, I imagine you would.” He pondered a moment. “Climb aboard, Morley. You’ll pay for your passage with those fine songs I’ve heard it said that you sing, and I’ll pay for those songs with a mug or two of my cargo. Have we a deal?”

I was already moving as he spoke, and I slung my pack up onto the seat beside him before hauling myself up. The wagon was moving before I’d even settled myself on the hard wooden bench. We shook hands; his was dry and callused from moving barrels and gripping reins. “We have a deal. And you are?”

“Karl, teamster by trade and glad of it. Welcome to my workplace, Morley. And what lures you out from the comforts of the palace on this fine summer day, off to the rough life of the woods?”

A wicked impulse urged me to tell him the truth and watch his look of shock, but I repressed it. It was uncomfortable being reminded of the less pleasant parts of me that remained even in the demon’s absence. “Not so rough as all that,” I replied instead. “I spent my youth with my adoptive father, one of our King’s foresters. So in many ways, I find the woodlands more comfortable than Ankur itself, for all its luxuries.”

He was watching me in puzzlement. “Aye, I’d heard of that. Yet I think though you call yourself Jester, fool is the better word for anyone who’d live beneath the trees without being outlawed first. But don’t be taking that amiss, friend. I speak as a townsman, and one who prefers the comforts of stone walls to those of an open wood roof.”

I smiled back at him to show I’d taken no offense, for indeed I’d not; Karl’s open and honest callousness was a refreshing change from the calculated cruelties I’d grown accustomed to at Court. “Let me begin to pay my way, Karl. You’ll have to excuse me, for I’ve my voice alone to entertain you today.”

He nodded. “Aye. I imagine you’d not want to haul one of those great lutes upon your back over the distance you’ll be going. Sing on, Fool, something that a simple man like me can appreciate.”

I paused a moment in thought. Neither a love song nor a song of war would be right for this man, and those were most of my stock in trade. Then I had a notion of what might do.

“There’s a different kind of feel outside the city
In the country when you leave the stone behind
With the tallest things in sight the ancient oak trees
That gently nourish cleaner states of mind...”

I sang of the things that had touched my heart, and the sense I’d had long ago after my initiation into the mysteries of the foresters, a sense of becoming part of something larger.

“A tad overdelicate,” he observed, “but pretty enough. Still, I’ll take Ankur any day. Though I’ll grant you, when the summer’s heat hits the city and gets to cooking the stink from out of the sewers, I’m happier out here than in there. Give me another one, if you’re up to it.”

I pondered a moment, then found a song appropriate to what I’d spent my morning doing.

“There’s a rhythm when I’m walking
All alone, by day or night
With no settled destination
And a mood that’s always light...”

I sang of the joy of walking, of putting miles behind me, and my recent excursions made the words heartfelt and strong.

“Hmph,” he snorted. “You’ve got a good voice in you, all right, but that song’s too fancy and the words too tricksy by far for my taste. Can you find one fitter for a simple man?”

I smiled, and tried him on a few drinking songs I thought he might know. After a time, he joined in with me. He had a strong, clear voice, but didn’t much know how to use it. That didn’t matter, because the exercise was more important than the art. We paused for a drink now and then, and after time and practice had put a few more miles behind us, his skill had grown remarkably until he seemed the finest singer I’d known. We passed the hours in a companionable manner, singing every now and then or just appreciating the scenery in silence. By late afternoon, we were already within sight of the forest, and the cart was turning into the yard of one of the estates I’d visited with the King in days past.

My companion sighed. “Morley, if size were all, then I’d never have thought to enjoy my time with such a small man, but you’ve been a companion all out of proportion to your size.” He took my hand and shook it hard. “If you’re ever in need of a ride to and from the town, I’d be honored to share a bench with you.”

I smiled right back at him. “And I you, Karl. Enjoy your stay here tonight.”

He frowned. “Won’t you be spending a last night indoors before you enter the forest? With a voice like yours, you’d be welcome here.”

I’d spent a night here before, and knew he spoke the truth, but I’d not come this distance to sing for my keep. There was much I needed to think about, and the distractions of human company would prevent that. “Thank you, Karl, but I cannot. I still have many miles to go before I sleep.”

He shook his head, uncomprehending, but he let me go. My legs had stiffened from sitting for so long, but that soon faded as I left the road and set out across a field for a place I knew of from previous visits. Though a heavy burden still lay upon me, I felt my spirits lifting and my stride lengthening as I found myself in familiar surrounds. Long before the redness in the sky had faded, I found the sheltered spot by a small spring where I’d planned to spend the night.

There were sufficient downed branches that I soon had a fire burning, and I opened my pack to see what Bram had prepared. It was a small measure of my distraction that I’d let a townsman pack for me, and it was with considerable trepidation that I began the task of sorting through the packages. My fears proved groundless, though, for Bram knew his business. When I returned—if I returned—I’d have to ask where he’d learned those skills. Or perhaps not—remembering my stay with the Goblins and their foes, it was all too clear where Bram had learned to pack for the road.

I shook off those memories and set about selecting various ingredients and preparing my meal. I don’t recall what I ate, but it was filling and tasty, for my thoughts were pulled hither and yon by memories of the past few weeks and fears of what lay ahead. Afterwards, as the fire burned down and I lay wrapped in my bedroll, I stared up at the night sky, full of stars that had been invisible through the city’s funk.

All the colors of the rainbow danced there, and the light was bright enough to cast faint shadows, even in the absence of the moon. You could lose yourself in that sight, as I’d done on many previous nights, but tonight I was reminded of the last of my explanations for their presence in the sky. As a child, I’d always preferred the tale of the thief that explained their origin, but this night, I couldn’t chase the darker explanation from my mind. After all, I now had clear evidence that explanation might well be the correct one. At some point while I gazed up at the sky, marveling at the sight yet chilled by its implications, I fell asleep.

This time, though, I dreamed. In the dream, I found myself again in the woods on that night when I’d first made my decision to leave for Ankur and seek employment at Court. I’d camped beneath the stars, then, and held debate with myself on whether to cling to the safety of the woods and spend my days shunning the company of men other than the foresters we shared our winter quarters with. There was safety there, and comfort, but also the fear that my acceptance would only endure as long as my father. On top of that lay a fear that this safety and comfort came at the expense of an end to my progress and ever more restricted horizons. In the end, it was the fear of that stagnation and the sure knowledge that the growth I’d attained thus far had come from risking my security that made up my mind and led me to Ankur. My father had acquiesced, grudgingly, but ever after, there’d been a certain distance between us.

I awoke with the memory of that dream clear in my head, and the rarity of remembering what I’d dreamed was what convinced me. I’d half believed I was fleeing to the woods for their safety and to gain time to think, but now I knew why I’d come. There was someone I had to see before I made any decisions about where I’d go and what I’d do in the days ahead and the events that would shape the rest of my life, however short a span that might be. I had a cold breakfast, ensured that the fire was drowned, and set off along familiar trails that led me deep into the woods.

Towards the end of the day, I came within sight of the sturdy log manorhouse in which I’d spent the winters of my youth. Though each of the King’s foresters had his own part of the forest to tend, and had a small shack from which to do it, the winters in this part of the country were harsh enough that those huts proved inadequate; as well, a wound sustained in winter, when travel was next to impossible, could prove fatal with no other man around to help. So at the first snows, each forester packed up his gear and returned to this place to spend the winter with his fellows, sharing new tales and old songs, honing skills with the aid of others more experienced, and enjoying that brief season of camaraderie before we resumed our solitary existence. I paused at the foot of the small rise that led to the manor, feeling the urge to leave again warring with the need to seek what awaited me within. The urge to leave was winning.

As I followed those thoughts to their end, delaying that decision, a sharp blow between my shoulders propelled me face down into the leaf mould, and a heavy boot pinned me to the ground. Then all at once that pressure eased, and strong hands pulled me to my feet.

“You’ve grown soft in your city, Morley.”

I smiled up at the familiar face and voice, dark eyes smiling out from amidst a mane of equally dark hair and reflecting the even brighter smile nestling within his thick beard. Mixed memories surfaced. “Not so soft I didn’t hear your oafish footsteps long ago, Teren. I figured I owed you at least one victory.”

Teren had been an opponent of my youth, and later, as I’d matured, an occasional companion. Like all the foresters, he’d grown to respect my ability and accept my presence, but never easily, nor without having to work at it constantly; he’d been raised with the prejudices of the country folk towards changelings and had feared me enough to withhold any true measure of friendship until we were both much older. Had it not been for my father, I doubt that he and the others would have let me stay long enough to earn his trust.

The smile broadened. “So you say, and I thank you. Still... it was a rare pleasure to make you eat muck.” He brushed a few leaves from my chest.

I brushed at the leaves in my hair, and asked the question that had brought me here. “Is he here?”

Teren’s smile vanished, and a deep sadness replaced it in his eyes. “Yes, Morley, he is. He’s grown frail these past months, but he’s still a vigorous man and a wonder to us all. You know I’d have sent word had there been any fear of us losing him.”

I felt the tightness that had grown, unnoticed, in my chest relax. “Thank you.” I meant it, and the look in his eyes told me he knew how deeply I meant it.

Having lost the opportunity to leave, I turned without another word and made my way to the manor. I swung the heavy door open, the renewed leather wind barrier dragging across the smooth wooden floor as I did, and I stepped onto the floor, feeling the apprehension rising in me again. At the far side of the room, in front of a stone fireplace, a large man lay slumped in an armchair, asleep before the fire. Though I’d said this place was for the winter, it was also a refuge for those too old to continue on their own through the summer, and the other foresters took turns tending to the needs of their failing fellows. I made my way to the sleeping man and knelt at his side, putting my hand on his arm and squeezing.

“Georges?”

My father woke with a start, comprehension growing slowly in still-piercing green eyes above a nose that had grown more aquiline with time. Those eyes were all that remained of youth about him. Though still the giant he’d been as a young man, age lay heavily upon him. My father had not been young even when he took me in, and far too many years had passed since then. Now that he could no longer fend for himself, the others kept him here at the winter quarters, where they could take their turns keeping an eye on him throughout the year, and could bring him food and other supplies. I felt tears growing in my eyes, and forced them back, not wanting to impose that burden upon him.

“Morley! It’s good to see you again, son.”

“Father!” And despite my resolve, I laid my head upon his knee and wept quietly, enjoying the comfort of his strong fingers caressing my hair and his deep voice telling me all would be well, as he’d done so many times in my youth. After a time, my tears ceased and I dabbed at my eyes.

“You look well,” he added, a hand still caressing my hair.

“Father, looks can be deceiving.” I poured out my story, for the third time in as many days, and once again, it eased my burden. When I’d done, he cleared his throat and spat into the fire.

“So you’ve come to share your fate with me, have you? Though I’m not yet ready to occupy that bed beneath the forest floor our friends have prepared for me, I nonetheless thank you—I think.” His smile was gentle as always, but his eyes had narrowed.

“Father, that was the least of my intentions. The one thing you’ve taught me above all else is to stand on my own against my troubles, and it’s served me well.”

I saw pride grow in his eyes, and it warmed me and reinvigorated me. “Then if not for protection, why have you come?”

I saw he’d already answered that question, and felt the same answer growing in me. “For advice, Father, not protection. I feel sure that if I flee far enough from the city, Orgrim might not seek me; he has little need for me and his work lies in those cities, not here, far from anything of importance in the larger scheme of things. All the main players now know of his presence, so perhaps my work is done. Yet I fear he’s not the kind to leave ends dangling for others to tangle up.”

“And flight sits poorly with you.”

“It does. Not because he might still seek me out, mind, for that too would resolve matters; I will not serve him again.”

“It was not well you did so in the first place.” The words stung, but there was honesty in his voice, not condemnation. “If you no longer fear him, then what’s your dilemma?”

I paused, unsure. “Could it be simply that I fear bringing his wrath upon my new friends?”

He was silent a moment. “Put another log on the fire.” I complied, then returned to his side and took his cold, callused hand in mine. “That strikes me as improbable. Though I always taught you to stand alone, I also taught you to know your limits and to accept help from those who offer it freely should you find yourself beyond those limits. Even here, we’ve heard of this Bram and his deeds during the war, and he strikes me as a good man to have at your side. And if you’re not just spinning tales to entertain an old man,” his hand clenched on my shoulder, “this Raphael represents your best hope.”

“What, then?”

The smile left him. “You fear that once in the presence of Orgrim, you would accept his gift again, despite the consequences.”

I nodded, though reluctantly. “Perhaps that’s indeed what troubles me.”

“There’s no ‘perhaps’, and you knew that before you came. You just wanted someone to confirm it.” He squeezed my shoulder again.

“Father...”

“There’s no need. Morley, I’m pleased you came. My time’s not yet upon me, but it must come, and sooner rather than later.”

“I should stay the night...”

“Why? Has your stay in the city made you fear the forests? Staying would only be delaying what you must do, and I never taught my son to hesitate over the inevitable. Go do what you must, then return once again before my ending.”

“More than once, Father. I swear it!”

His smile was gentle, and I threw my arms about him as best I could and hugged him close. His answering hug was firm enough to squeeze the breath from me, and again, I marveled at the man’s vitality. We’d communicated all that needed to be said, and I left him gazing into the fire without looking back, vowing that whatever chanced, I would return at least that one last time. When the door closed behind me, Teren rose from where he’d been squatting, back against the wall.

“He’s a good man, your father. We’ll all miss him when he’s gone.”

I turned to him, and his eyes were sober and for the first time since I’d known him, I saw not so much as a flicker of mistrust there. Sheepish, I wondered how long it had been absent, unnoticed.

“He’s all that you say, and more. But thank you.” I turned and made to go, but his heavy hand fell on my shoulder.

“Morley... It speaks well of you that he accepted you and brought you among us. Never forget that; I shall not.”

I clasped his arm, then turned and strode back into the forest. My stay at the longhouse had lasted little longer than it takes to recount it, yet in that brief time, my resolve had solidified within me, and I had something in my spirit which made me unvanquishable. If that strength lasted until I reached the city, and was no more a delusion than the strength I’d taken from the headstrong, I’d live to honor my vow to my father.

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Continue reading: Chapter 15

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