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Skeptic Tank!

DDDDD ZZZZZZ // D D AAAA RRR GGGG OOOO NN N Z I NN N EEEE || D D A A R R G O O N N N Z I N N N E || Volume 8 -=========================================================+|) D D AAAA RRR G GG O O N N N Z I N N N E || Number 1 DDDDD A A R R GGGG OOOO N NN ZZZZZZ I N NN EEEE || \\ \ ======================================================================== DargonZine Distributed: 04/01/1995 Volume 8, Number 1 Circulation: 623 ======================================================================== Contents Editorial Ornoth D.A. Liscomb The Evening After ... Bill Erdley Yule 22, 1014 Storm Dancer Jon Evans Seber 11-12, 1014 The Scent of Balsam Bill Erdley Late Seber, 1014 ======================================================================== DargonZine is the publication vehicle of the Dargon Project, a collaborative group of aspiring fantasy writers on the Internet. We welcome new readers and writers interested in joining the project. Please address all correspondance to . Back issues are available from ftp.etext.org in pub/Zines/DargonZine. Issues and public discussion are posted to newsgroup rec.mag.dargon. DargonZine 8-1, ISSN 1080-9910, (C) Copyright April, 1995 by the Dargon Project. Editor: Ornoth D.A. Liscomb . All rights reserved. All rights are reassigned to the individual contributors. Stories may not be reproduced or redistributed without the explicit permission of the author(s) involved, except in the case of freely reproducing entire issues for further distribution. Reproduction of issues or any portions thereof for profit is forbidden. ======================================================================== Editorial by Ornoth D.A. Liscomb I hope you all enjoyed the special two-issue "Best of DargonZine" reprints. I can tell you that our veteran writers definitely enjoyed the respite from my constant appeals for submissions! And the writers who recently joined us have used the time to get up to speed and prepare their first submissions. But now it's time to get back to work! The biggest news since our last editorial (early December), is that you will now notice an ISSN number in our banner page. The primary benefit of this is the legitimization of DargonZine as an internationally recognized periodical. Major thanks to "Grim" Jon Evans for singlehandedly making that happen. The only other news is that DargonZine 8-2 will follow reasonably closely on the heels of this issue, and will include the first stories from the bumper crop of new writers who joined the project at the end of 1994. We have nearly 20 stories that are currently in the peer review process, so we should have plenty of reading material for you very shortly! Thanks for your continuing interest, and keep spreading the word! This issue features stories by two of our veteran writers. In contrast to his previous works (particularly his "Sons of Gateway" series), Jon Evans' "Storm Dancer" is a light, humorous, well-written, and delightful story that introduces us to a new protagonist -- a young man named Thedos. We're all anxious to see followup stories. "The Evening After" and "the Scent of Balsam" continue Bill Erdley's exploration of Derrio, the deaf squire of Luthias Connall, the Knight Captain of the Northern Marches. As the Beinison army continues to pillage cities and countryside that once owed fealty to the kingdom of Baranur, the Baranurian troops begin to realize that war isn't anything like the songs the bards once sung ... ======================================================================== The Evening After ... by Bill Erdley Yule 22, 1014 Three times today I should have died. I owe my life to three different men. Well, actually two, since the third is dead. Tired. I'm tired and I want to sleep. I can't. There's no real memory of the battle. There are pictures in my head, but they all run together like the blood in the rain. I killed my first opponent today. He screamed as he fell to the ground. There he sobbed once, gasped, and died. There is no honor in killing. There is no honor in dying. Honor exists for its own sake. I try to roll over, but my body refuses. I got my first wounds today. Bruises on my legs and sides, a nasty gash across my shoulder, and a lump on my head. I hurt. Three times today I should have died. Apart from those who stood, and fell, before me, I remember Sir Luthias and Michiya. Like two demonic reapers in the devil's own field, they swung and chopped and cut, harvesting a macabre crop of souls to be sent back to wherever those souls came from. Why can't I fall asleep? Sir Luthias saved me by knocking me to the ground while simultaneously parrying the swing that would have separated my head from my shoulders. The mud was already salty with blood. It splashed into my face as I fell, and when I cleared it from my eyes and spat it from my mouth, my assailant was dead on the ground and Sir Luthias was already on to his next combat. My shoulder hurts; the deep, throbbing pain of a joint begging for rest. I fought beside Sir Luthias. They didn't seem to know how to counter one of the tricks that Sir Luthias taught me. Again and again I used it. Swing, counter, swing, twist, thrust; and my sword would bite a shoulder or a neck. Once, my sword caught as a man went down. As I reached for it, another man stepped in and swung. I dodged, but I was open for his next strike. Michiya, without changing his rhythm, caught my opponent with a backhand slash to the head, then continued to fight his own battle. The dead man almost landed on me as he fell... Never have I heard so much pain. Screaming. Moaning. Sobbing. There was a constant sound. It was the sound of the dying. I never knew death had a voice. During a lull, Sir Luthias complimented my ability and "tenacity", a word which I had him explain. I didn't tell him that I was afraid; that I fought for my life. He already knew. I just want to sleep. I try to roll over again. It is the eyes, most of all, that I see when I close my own. The sightless, fixed stare of the dead. My mistake was to look into those eyes. Just once. I saw death's face. There is no honor in killing. I was struck in the shoulder by a man that I didn't see. I fell, my sword falling from my fingers as my arm screamed out in pain. I tried to crawl back from the fighting, but he came at me, a terrible smile spreading across his face. A man from the company that I had traveled with stepped between us and swung. I rose from the mud and tried once again take up my sword. My arm screamed again, so I switched hands. The man who saved me fell. His killer moved on to another fight, perhaps forgetting me. I looked at my shoulder, and saw the blood pouring forth. I turned from the fighting to find a healer. My head throbs to a slower rhythm now, but it still throbs. It throbs with every beat of my heart. It throbs because I still live. For that, I am grateful. Still, I wish I could sleep. There is no honor in dying. I tripped over a body while running back to the line. The Beinison man lived, but his pain... "Kill me." he cried. "Please, I beg you." I shook my head. I showed him the sign for healer, then turned to run and find one. He cursed me. "I am defeated!" he cried. "To live with defeat is worse than death. I will NOT live in dishonor!" I fetched the healers, but he was dead when we returned. The eyes. Those cursed eyes. How can I sleep when every time I close my eyes I see theirs. Honor exists for its own sake. The tent flap moved and Sir Luthias entered, followed by Michiya and a man in dirty white robes who I thought was a healer. Luthias looked at me and asked "How are you doing?" *I* *Live* I manage to keep my injured arm quiet. He nodded. "You will fight again." *Fight* *Yes* *Sleep* *No.* Again, he nodded. I think that he understood. The healer moved to me and handed me a small bottle. "Drink this." I did, and almost instantly felt my eyes begin to close, as if they were too heavy to hold open. *Question* *I* *Dream.* Sir Luthias' voice sounded distant and vaguely sorrowful. "I hope not." ======================================================================== Storm Dancer by Jon Evans Seber 11-12, 1014 The brisk ocean breeze drifted off the water and worked its way into the woods surrounding the bay. Slowed by the trees and scrub of a northern wood, it traveled inland, becoming less than a draft, and turned a warm Seber day into a comfortable day to work. Picking up his ax, he looked about the woods for previously felled trees. This day, he cut wood for his mother, the blacksmith, who insisted on old, dry wood. Walking through the light forests east of his home town, he enjoyed the soft chill in the air. The leaves were turning, their reds and oranges mingling with patches of blue sky now visible through the trees. The smell of the ocean carried through the air, and Thedos' blood raced. Images of ships lurching forward in the water, waves and wind carrying their precious cargos from lands south and west of Baranur. The sea was where he wanted to be, not chopping wood for his mother, or farming vegetables with his father. His father had spent two years on a merchant ship, trading with Beinison port cities, before marrying Thedos' mother. He was more his father's son than his mother's. He would be seventeen years old, this Nober. And while he had no ambition to become a blacksmith, he resented his mother's refusal to teach him the trade. His mother's ancestors had always passed the trade to their daughters, and she was not about to break tradition. He wandered through the brush, following animal trails which he knew would lead him toward his invariable destination. "It's too nice a morning to spend chopping wood," he thought. "Besides, the storm which had raged three nights past would just as likely have felled trees at the water's edge as in the woods." Thedos could hear the surf in the distance as he stepped through the woodland brush. As he neared a thorny bush, he removed his shirt. The last time he went home with a torn shirt, his mother had nearly skinned him. And, when she found where he had spent his morning, rather than chopping, farming, or trapping, he had been punished for a week. Passing through the thicket, he topped a small, sandy hill and saw his destination: the cove. It was only thirty five of his paces across, and between twenty and forty paces from brush to shore, depending on the tide. No one, as far as he was able to tell, knew of this cove. Occasionally, he'd seen animals or birds around the water. Once he even glimpsed a small sea animal on the beach, but it hobbled back into the water as soon as it noticed him. Someone, however, had found it now. Beached inside the bay was a small, single-masted sailing ship. It appeared to be grounded against a sand bar about fifty feet from the shore. Approaching it cautiously, he noticed that no one was visibly on board. "Halloooo," he called. "Ahoy the ship!" No answer. As he neared the water's edge, he could see that the mast had been cracked, and there was a hole about two feet above the water line. Instantly, tales of ghost ships and pirates came to mind. He had listened to Captain Kent tell of dangerous adventures on the open sea, and far-away lands. He looked about the beach to be certain no one was around, then slipped his feet out of his sandals and removed the rest of his clothing. He again checked the cove for people. He knew no one was ever in the area, but still he imagined the embarrassment he would feel if someone saw him standing completely naked by the water's edge. The cold northern waters chilled his feet and legs as he waded out to waist deep waters. He swam here often in mid summer, when the cool waters offered refreshing contrast to the hot days. But now that it was getting late in the season, he had less desire for the water's cool comfort. When he dove into the water and began swimming toward the ship, the cold water splashing against his body had an almost numbing affect. As he reached the ship, he easily pulled himself up to the hole in its side. With his eyes unaccustomed to the darkness, all he could see was a few odd shapes and the shimmer of water on the floor. "The boat may have been here for several days," he thought, "probably beached during the recent storm." As Thedos' eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he pulled himself through the hole. It was just big enough for him to lift his body through, being careful not to scrape his groin across the splintered wood. The interior of the boat was cramped and low, and he had to hunch over to stand on his feet. He had seen fishing boats like this, the insides of which were used to store nets, rope, food, and materials to mend sails. This one, however, was bare but for a small box and the water at his knees. The box was on the third step of a ladder leading up to a hatch. Thedos walked to the ladder and reached for the box. Pain stabbed through his left ankle, and he knocked the box off the step. It splashed into the water and floated while Thedos examined his ankle: a small sword had been left below the water line, which Thedos had not seen in the darkness. A trickle of blood mingled with the water at his feet -- it was only a small cut. He lifted the sword from the floor, being careful not to cut himself. Its previous owner had taken excellent care to keep it oiled and sharpened because its edge was keen and its surface was not rusted, even after being in the salt water. Its weight was unfamiliar in his hands, balanced more toward the grip than the head. He was used to the heaviness of an ax, which constantly tried to pull its head to the ground. He gripped the sword in his left hand and reached up with his right, groping along the almost unseen ceiling for a latch above the ladder. When he found it, he slid the latch open and pushed the hatch upward. Sunshine spilled in from the outside. He grabbed the box and brought it and the sword on deck. When he stepped out into the sunshine, he could see the entire ship before him. The boat was about 25 feet from fore to aft, and 10 feet port to starboard, with one mast in the center. It was a well designed ship. The railings had been damaged, somewhat, but the wood was sturdy and nicely carved. The deck, for the most part, was undamaged. There were no signs of inhabitants, but someone must have manned her before she arrived: there was the remains of a make-shift scorpion on her foredeck. "Well, it doesn't matter," he thought. "For the moment, she's mine!" Placing the box and sword on the deck, he stood at the opening for the gangplank and looked down. Only a few feet to the water. Stepping back a pace, he steadied himself, then leapt forward. He seemed to float in the air for a moment, then landed in the water with a resounding splash. When he surfaced, he had a smile as wide as the cove. "This is going to be a good morning," he thought. He immediately swam back to the hole, crawled into the ship, and worked his way back up to the deck. Half a bell later, he was lying on the deck, sunning himself. It had been a beautiful morning, and the sun was high overhead. Midday meal would be served in one or two bells. "Wouldn't it be nice," he thought, "if I could just sail into Dargon arbor, sign on a crew, and ship off to Bichu, or the Caldo, or somewhere exotic. My own ship," he thought, and looked around at the wreck. "But it's not such a wreck," he mused. "It's in fair shape, aside from the mast, the hole in the side, and some damage to the railing. The sail could use some patching, and a good mast would need to be found, but it could be repaired." If only he had the money. If only he had the time. If only ... He looked around again, contemplating the whole of the ship. Why couldn't he? His mother and sister were blacksmiths in the duchy of Dargon. Between the war and rebuilding the city, they always had plenty of work. Duke Dargon had decreed that any wrecked ships found along the coast of Dargon could be claimed by the finder. While most of the ships either had been destroyed or carried into Dargon proper by the winds and tide, this one was still unclaimed. He thought for a moment. It was midday, now. If he skipped his meal, he could make it to Dargon around second bell. If he brought the fee of fifteen rounds, he could take a scribe out to the boat, file the claim, and be the proud owner of a ship. Albeit a slightly used one. But he would never get the money. His mother had been saving all the silver for his older sister, Cara, who was practicing to be a silversmith. She would not give up the money to invest in a ship, particularly one which would cost more money to repair. He sighed. The least he could do is ask. Perhaps his father could say something ... anything. He got home just as the vegetables and bread were lain on the table. His father, Braewen, looked up and smiled, "Hi, Thedos. How'd the wood hunting go?" Thedos smiled back, creating a near-perfect image of his father's face. Only his hair was different, being longer than that of his father's, and his father's shoulders were broader. Both had hazel eyes, light complexions reddened by the past summer, and a strong jaw. "Actually, I found a lot of wood. But I didn't cut any." He could not wait any longer. "Could I skip midday meal?" Braewen looked at the boy. His brown hair was a little damp around the neck, and his skin looked slightly burned. He noticed the sand sticking to the boy's feet. Braewen smiled. "Gave up the wood cutting to go swimming, and now you want to skip the meal? Don't worry, Thedos -- and don't tell your mother I said this -- but there's enough wood stacked up at the smithy to last us through tomorrow. Cut some after midday, and stack it here. You can bring it to the smithy tomorrow." "Well, I wasn't going to cut any wood, this even'." Thedos began cautiously. Braewen's eyes squinted as he sized up his son, trying to determine what he was up to. "What, exactly, *were* you thinking of doing, then, Thedos?" "I need fifteen rounds, and I have to go into Dargon." "No." "But--" "You know your mother's saving silver. And we don't have that much copper, and we sure as Stevene's Word don't have any gold. And you can't just ask for money to go into Dargon with. What are you thinking?" Braewen frowned. Thedos gulped. It was going to be harder than he thought. "I- I found ... a boat." "So, you were out on your boat all morning? Were you at least fishing? This was a beautiful day to work, and what were you doing? Hmnn?" Suddenly, his father looked more imposing than Thedos had remembered. And if his father was against it, his mother would never allow it. "I was swimming, like you said. But I found this boat -- it's more of a ship, really -- and I want to claim it in Dargon. We could sell it, or fix it, or ..." "It needs fixing? Do you know how much that costs? *And* you need the fifteen rounds--" "But it's not that bad!" Thedos looked like a hurt puppy. He gave up trying to convince his father, and sat down on a stool. Picking up some fresh beans, he began eating his midday meal. After a short time, his mother entered, covered in soot and dirt, and sweating from the heat of the kiln. Her leather smock was black, with small burn marks in it, and her thick shirt stretched across a large back. Her sleeves were rolled up, revealing unusually large arms. Her blond hair was cropped short, like her husband's, revealing bright blue eyes. But her face was soft, if determined. "Good day, Brae ... how's this side running?", she asked. She took a seat next to her son and noticed his melancholy expression. "What's wrong with you, Ted?" "Thedos spent the morning swimming, instead of cutting wood." Braewen offered. "Ah ..." she nodded, looking at her son. "And?" she asked Thedos. "I need fifteen rounds to claim a ship I found." "Fifteen rounds! You know Cara needs the silver to apprentice, and we don't have that much money to throw around! A ship! Where is this ship? What's it look like?" "In ..." he hesitated. He didn't want anyone to know where his cove was, not even his parents. But if he did not tell them, they would never give him the money. "Never mind." "I'll find some other way of getting fifteen rounds," he thought as he walked back into the forest. There had to be something he could do. "How much did wood sell for, at the market? Not enough," he wagered. And he had no other skills to sell, thanks to his mother's refusal to teach him to smith. He had no savings of his own. His mother and father had simply given him money when he needed it. But never for an expense like this. Slowly, as all avenues to his desire seemed to close, a small thought bubbled in his brain: "I could steal it." No. He clamped that thought down immediately. He was not a thief. And he did not know anyone who could afford to lose any money, let alone fifteen rounds. His was the wealthiest family in the small village, and only because the war had placed so much demand on smiths. But he could go into Dargon, where gold and silver were as common as the people walking the streets. No! He was not going into Dargon to steal gold or silver. He wasn't going anywhere. He was going to chop wood, and stack it at his house. He was going to work away his thoughts of stealing and gold and Dargon. But not the ship. Somehow, he'd find a way to get fifteen rounds. He came across a tree that had been felled during the storm, three days before. And, while the wood was still slightly damp, the branches were not so dense as to hinder his swing. This would be fine work for the afternoon. He planted his feet firmly in the ground, about shoulder- length apart, and faced his target squarely. With his right hand at the base of the head and his left hand on the bottom of the handle, he lifted the ax. As he swung the ax down, his right hand glided across the wooden handle, meeting his left hand just as the ax head bit into the wood. "A good swing," he thought. Braewen sat at his kitchen table, cleaning vegetables and fruit. "The fruit will be rotten, soon," he thought. "I'll make up some juice, add some nuts and berries, and heat it with some wine over the fire. If I store it in a barrel for a month, it should take the bite out of a cold night." He thought, then, about Thedos. The boy wanted to own a ship. He remembered his own days on the _Sea_Cutter_, with dreams of travelling to far away lands and great adventures on the open sea. Well, the only far away land he'd ever been to was Beinison, which did not require much travel on the open sea. Most of the time, the ship had been within sight of the continent. After a year of returning to the same, dirty, port towns time and time again, he had regretted signing on. "Perhaps," he thought, "if I'd owned his own ship. Maybe that would have made the difference. Sailing to Bichu or the Fire Sea might have been exciting, and the open sea would certainly have been less boring -- and more dangerous -- than staying along the coastline. The rewards would have been better, too," he mused. He stood up, leaving the vegetables and fruit on the kitchen table, and walked to his room. "There were rewards," he thought. Such as being able to establish his wife in her own smithy. She was skilled, when he met her, and the way she commanded herself and others sparked his interest. Certainly, she was not everyone's idea of a classic beauty. But there was a way she held herself. She did not require his presence, the way a common village woman might. She *wanted* his presence. He smiled. But Thedos probably felt less than wanted, with two sisters in the house. Both were apprenticing smiths, receiving most of the attention from their mother. The girls were being given more opportunities for their future than he. Lianna's family apprenticed trades through their daughters so the girls would not have to depend on others for their livelihood. Aside from farming a small field for seasonal vegetables and chopping wood, Braewen had no skills to pass on to his son. He lifted the straw mattress he and his wife shared and slid it to the side. Beneath the floorboards of the room was a steel box, unlocked. He and his wife kept the family's savings there. He opened the box and removed a leather pouch, which contained seventeen rounds. It was the last of the "rewards" which he'd gathered in his sailing endeavors. The other money -- silver and copper -- amounted to about 35 rounds. It was enough to last most of the families in this village for several years. He could afford to give fifteen of his last seventeen rounds to his son, to register the ship. The rounds had been in the pouch for six years, since he had last spent twelve rounds on a dress for his wife. She had traded it for a leather smock and hammer for Cara's apprenticeship. He sighed. But what guarantee had he that Thedos would be able to repair the ship? Continue with his boyhood desire? If it was just a phase Thedos was going through, it would be a waste of money. And without seeing the ship, Braewen had no way of telling if his money would be put to any good use. "Brae!" The door to his house was nearly ripped off its hinges as his wife burst in. "Brae! Come quick!" she called, looking about the kitchen, the fruits and vegetables still sitting on the table. "Where are you?" Braewen entered from the hall that led towards their room. "What is it?" "It's Cara," Lianna said. There was a gleam of pride in her eyes, and a smile beamed from her face. "Mr. Gordon, a silversmith in Dargon, agreed to apprentice her for the next year! And only twenty-five rounds! Quick -- run and get the money. I'll meet you back at the smithy." As his wife bolted back through the doorway, heading to the smithy, Braewen ran to the bedroom. Leaving the box and his pouch on their mattress, he gathered twenty-five rounds from the larger pile and ran back out the door. Two bells after midday, Thedos entered the wood shed behind his family's house, carrying an armload of logs. He had forgotten the rope he used to tie bundles together and to his back, and had to leave his ax by the tree. "As soon as I get the rope," he thought, "I'll run back to the tree." "Father," he called as he walked into the house. No answer. There was fresh food sitting on the kitchen table, in various stages of preparation, but his father was nowhere to be found. He knew the rope was in the closet by his parents' room, and he went to fetch it. As he passed by his parents' room, he stopped. On their mattress was a pile of silver and copper coins. He hesitated. Mentally, he counted the money from where he stood. His pulse quickened as his mind refused to believe what he was contemplating. If there was one family in the village that could afford to have fifteen rounds stolen, it was his. His breathing was heavy and his throat dry. He glanced around the room and down the hall. No one was in the house. Again, his eyes found the silver. It looked as if the fifteen rounds on the right side of the pile had been separated from the rest. How easy it would be to grab the coins and run. He could be in Dargon by the fourth bell, and home in time for the evening meal. No one was home, the money was left on the bed. Anyone could have stumbled into their home and taken it. And he'd have his ship. Braewen, Lianna, and their eldest daughter, Cara, entered the house. A trunk would need to be packed, with sufficient clothes and equipment to last her the year. She would only be a few hours away; but she would be apprenticing six days a week, and there wouldn't be much time to transport her belongings between towns. Braewen went down the hall while Lianna and Cara went directly to the room where Cara and Lysande slept. It was much smaller than the room in which Braewen and his wife slept, but there was less need for space. There was no mirror, for one, and fewer clothes hung on pegs in the wall. On the trunk at the foot of the bed sat a wooden doll and a book. The wooden doll had been given to Cara when she was seven, and the book, _Fretheod_Romances_, belonged to Lysande. Inside the trunk were the clothes Cara and Lysande would wear to church, one day a week. Braewen appeared at the entrance to the room. "Leah," he softly called. Lianna looked at her husband's anguished expression and the sadness in his eyes. She stepped out in the hall to talk with him. It was just fourth bell when Thedos had arrived at the edge of Dargon, slightly sweaty but still breathing well. He'd removed his shirt to wrap the silver, not wanting passing strangers to see him with a handful of coins. By the time he'd made it to the Ducal Buildings, it was half way to fifth bell, and the sun was low in the sky. He didn't have much time. "Excuse me," he said as he entered the building. It was a large room, with three desks separating it into smaller areas. The man in the office wore a dark brown robe with a silvery sash across his waist, and leather sandals. There were two women, also in robes, at the other desks, carefully applying quill to paper. A city guard in chain mail and holding a spear stood at the edge of the doorway. "Is this the building where official records are kept?" The robed man looked up. His face was grey and wrinkled, and his eyebrows reminded Thedos of thick bushes found at the edge of ponds. "What does it say on the door, son?" His gravely voice was harsh and tired. Thedos paused, and looked at the door. "I don't know ... I can't read." The man nodded and approached Thedos. "My name is Galwyn. What can I do for you?" "I found a ship. I want to claim it." "Did you?" Galwyn eyed Thedos. "And where is this ship?" "It's ... I can't tell you." "Then I can't help you." "I'm not sure the name of the place. It's in a cove, east of here." "What kind of ship is it?" "I think it's a small bireme. I'm not sure." "What's its name?" "It doesn't have one. I think it was Beinisonian, but I couldn't find a name plate." "And you can't read." "I read a little!" Thedos protested. "Just not very well." "There is not a great deal you *do* know about this ship, is there?" "No, sir." Galwyn spoke slowly, "Do you know there's a fee to register a craft?" "Yes," Thedos stepped forward. "I have it here." He lifted the bundle in his hands and shook it lightly. The silver clinked softly. "And where did *you* get fifteen rounds?" the guardsman asked, taking a close look at Thedos. Thedos' voice cracked. "My father gave it to me ..." His lie was unconvincing. He looked at himself. His pants were dirty from the road, mud was caked on his feet, and the dust of the city clung to his sweaty chest. His hair was unkempt, having gone swimming that morning, and his face was covered with a light fuzz of which, until now, he had been proud. Entering the building with the coins rolled up in his shirt, he looked like a common street rat who had stumbled across an unlucky citizen. "My mother is a blacksmith in-" "Your *mother*?" the guard interrupted. Galwyn snickered. The guard guffawed. Thedos turned and sprinted out the door. When Thedos returned home, it was past seven bells. Once he had left Dargon city, he had slowed his sprint to a walk. Now, shirtless, dirty, and without either his ax or wood in the shed, he would have to explain his whereabouts for the past two hours. Of course, there was also the silver. About a hundred feet from his doorstep, he stopped and looked at the bundle in his hands. He couldn't claim to have lost it, or used it already. He had stolen from his parents; he didn't want to avoid it by lying to them. But, he did not think they had been fair to him. They had not seriously considered his asking for the money. They had brushed it off as if it were some foolish notion of a young boy living a wild dream. He supposed it was possible they were right. Perhaps he did not wish to be a sailor. But to be *something* ... Something other than the wood-cutting, vegetable-farming son of a woman blacksmith. His father had mentioned how easy life had been, sailing between ports. Fighting the ocean storms, and the occasional skirmish with pirates ... it all sounded like such fun. And he had enjoyed spending the time with his shipmates, a group comprised entirely of men. Growing up with two sisters, Thedos thought the idea of being part of a crew made entirely of men sounded appealing. It would be nice just to get away from his sisters for a little while. And some day, if he was rich enough, he could pull his ship back into the cove, drop anchor, and just lay in the sun -- no crew, no sisters, no one. When he got closer to his house, the door opened. Instantly, his stomach seemed to drop to his knees, and his chest felt very heavy. His father's silhouette framed the doorway. Thedos hoped his father understood why he did it. Perhaps if he could explain it to him ... After all, his father also had to live in the house with three women. But then his mother seemed to appear. Thedos heard her speak, and his father retreated, taking Thedos' hopes with him. His mother would never understand his need to get away. One sentence was all she needed. Four simple words spoke volumes to Thedos. They meant there was no hiding. She knew exactly who had taken the silver, and why. She knew he was going to be punished. She had probably already determined what the punishment was going to be. "Give me the silver," she said. Thedos offered her his rolled up shirt containing the fifteen rounds. She did not take it. She only looked at him. There was no humor in her face. Her lips had not the slightest curve of a smile. Her eyebrows were heavy and closely knit, overshadowing her eyes. Thedos unrolled his shirt, carefully removing and counting each of the fifteen pieces of silver, before handing her the coins. This time, she took them. Thedos felt very tired. He wanted to sleep. He did not want to be in his cove, diving off his ship, and swimming in his water. He did not want to be here, now, in front of his mother. He wanted nothingness; blackness; isolation from everything. She was willing to give him that much. "There'll be no evening meal for you, tonight." "Yes, ma'am." Thedos could not even lift his eyes to hers. He slouched where he stood, not daring to look up. "Your clothes are a mess, and your father is not going to wash them." "No, ma'am." "There's barely any wood in the shed, and less at the smithy." "Yes, ma'am." "You'd best get some sleep. You can be up early in the morning, if you like." It was not a matter of his liking. In sixteen years, it had never been a matter of his liking. It was a matter of preferring one form of punishment over another. And it was she who was given preference. It was more effective. She would say little or nothing to him over the next few days until he could not stand it any longer. Then, crying, he would apologize profusely, embarrassing himself in front of his family. She would accept it, pat him on the head and patronize him. And make him perform some rigorous task to placate her. He hated her for it, but he loved her too much not to seek forgiveness. "Yes, ma'am." Thedos retired to his room. It was very early in the morning when Thedos awoke. He had little love for that time of day. It was brisk, with a cold breeze, and no sun to warm the body. Still, he stepped out of his bed, walked to where his clothes hung on pegs in the wall, and quickly dressed. Thedos ate his breakfast while walking through the woods almost a full bell before sunrise. He had to find the tree where he had been cutting wood, the previous day, and hope his ax was still there. There weren't too many people who would steal a woodsman's ax, in these parts, but there were all sorts of curious critters that believed anything they could move was rightfully theirs. Apparently, one of them had decided it was too much trouble. After searching about the broken and chopped portions of the tree, he spotted his ax a few feet from where he remembered leaving it. This early in the morning, the woods were too dark to see what type of creature had tried to take it, but Thedos could see the small tracks around the ax. He lifted the ax and took his stance in front of the felled tree. Swing. Chop. Swing. Chop. Swing. Crack! "STEVENE'S BLOODY NECK!" he screamed. "Can anything else *possibly* go wrong?" He looked down at the ax. The handle had split at the base of the head. Now he would have to get the head fixed to another handle. He thought for a moment. He knew his mother did not have any handles at her smithy -- she dealt exclusively in iron and brass. And there wasn't a woodsmith this side of Dargon, anyway. He looked at the handle again. Could he carve a new handle in less time than it would take him to go back and forth to Dargon? Not likely. And he would still have to attach the head and pound some nails in to keep it from slipping off. "Of course," he said to no one in particular, "this is going to cost money. And OBVIOUSLY it's MY fault!" His father was not pleased to give Thedos the money to repair the ax. However, Thedos had shown him the tool, and it should only cost a round. Thedos had been given two, just in case. Braewen had nothing else to say to Thedos. As he waited for the ax to be repaired, however, Thedos had an idea. Simon Salamugundi, the soup seller, knew a lot of shipwrights. Perhaps Thedos could convince one to look at his ship, and estimate the damage and cost of repairs. Simon had given him several names, with various recommendations. Thedos ultimately decided on the cheapest. "Hello," Thedos greeted a woman as he knocked on a door. "I'm looking for Skar Jansen." "You've found her," the woman replied. Her voice nearly cackled with age. Simon had said Skar would give Thedos the best price in town. Thedos, not realizing "Skar" was the woman's given name, had expected to see a gruesomely deformed man whose face had been ravaged in some heroic sea battle. Instead, he was greeted by an unattractive woman who looked to be in her early forties. She was dressed as Thedos had seen many ships' mates: a loose, warm shirt which could be tucked in and tied up tight for a cold day covered her torso; long pants made for working ran down to the top of functional leather boots; and her greying brown hair was kept out of her eyes with a brown leather thong tied behind her head. "Oh, I- I'm sorry," he stammered. "It's just ... I ... uh ..." Her expression became less cheerful. "You were expecting a man." "Yes." "Sorry to disappoint you." "No! No disappointment. I just ... I'm looking for someone to take a look at my ship. It needs repair, and I'm not certain how much." "*Your* ship?" She looked doubtful. She knew there were young captains who had made their name during the war, fighting for Baranur in the navy or in mercenary fleets, but this one did not have the look of a captain. He looked like a page. "Yes, sort of. I'm claiming it. I haven't given it a name, yet, but I know where it is. It's slightly damaged, and needs repairs. I was wondering ... I don't know how much work it needs, or how much it will cost." "How did you come to me?" she inquired. This boy seemed to fairly intelligent to her. "He must be less than 20 years old," she thought, "yet he's already out to get his own ship. I wonder if he knows what he's doing?" "Simon Salamagundi said you were cheap. I mean," he quickly added, slightly embarrassed, "that your prices are cheap. That you won't charge a lot. I don't have a lot of money ... I'm sort of just looking for a price." His voice trailed off with his last sentence. He did not know if she would take the time to close up her shop and look at the ship. "The reason *my prices* are cheap," she said, "is that I often invest in what I'm repairing. Would that be a problem?" "I'm not certain what you mean." "I mean, if I repair your ship for a small price, I'll want a percentage of your profits on every trip you make with the vessel. Or, if you sell the vessel and I haven't realized a certain level of income, a portion of the final sale will be allocated for myself, up to one hundred percent of the ship's full value, depending on the sale price of the ship and the extent of the repairs necessary." Thedos looked quizzically at her. "I'm not sure ..." "Forget it. Let's just take a look at the ship, shall we?" "Okay. It's a bit of a walk from here." "How far is 'a bit'?" she asked. "Two bells?" "Why don't we take my horse." Riding back from Dargon saved Thedos almost two bells' time in getting the ax finished. The ride, however, made him uncomfortable. Skar sat in the saddle with Thedos behind her on the horse's rump. Each step jarred him to the left or right, and he had no stirrups to balance himself. Furthermore, he had to use one hand to hold onto the ax, keeping it away from the horse's flanks. With only one arm to secure himself, he had to hold on to Skar's ample waist for dear life. He had the feeling she enjoyed the ride more than he did. He could almost picture her like some ghoul from Hell, cackling wildly in the wind as she galloped down the road, her few remaining teeth dotting her mouth like a group of islands lost in a vast ocean. By the time they came within walking distance to his cove, he was glad to remove himself from the horse's back. "That's her," he said, pointing to the ship. It had been only a day since he'd seen her, but he felt as though he missed her already. The ship did not seem to have changed position at all, and was not lying any deeper in the water, save for the tide's change. The water was now lapping at the hole in her forecastle, and little bits of debris could be seen floating just inside the ship. "Hmmnn ... interesting. Beinison, I'd say." Skar began. She pulled an eyeglass from a pouch at her side and slid it open. Studying the ship through the glass, she began her assessment. "Main mast is broken ... secondary mast seems missing. See the iron rings on her foredeck where it would be tied down?" She pointed while she looked through the glass, but Thedos could not see what she meant. "Main beam seems right enough, above the water. She's taking it in through the forecastle, though. Won't stand the open sea. I can patch that up before moving her into dock. Rails need repairs, flooring inside is going to be useless wherever there's leaking." She pulled the glass away from her eye and slid it shut. "That's the best I can give you from here," she said, "and it may be worse. My hope is that she didn't damage the main beam when she bellied into that sand bar. If there were any rocks, she might have cracked it a bit. And you can just about kiss her goodbye, if that's the case." "So ... How much are we talking?" "If it's not that bad ... a few marks for the hole in her side. Rounds for the railing. Marks if you want to keep to the style. Masts will run you standard pricing, you can't go through me for that. Plus floor boards, drying her out, coating her. Pre-launch bath. Time in the dock. Anyone else would cost you seven to ten marks, plus masts, which will run you another two or three marks." "Stevene's Word!" Thedos muttered. Skar smiled. "It's not that bad, really. I could charge you five marks, plus a percentage. If you plan on using her." "Yes!" Thedos added, quickly. "I want to take her to Bichu and Duparyn and the Valenfaer Ocean, and trade clothes and spices and things. My father used to sail with a crew, and he still knows a lot of men. I can have her manned in less than a bell, if I can repair her." Thedos was not entirely certain how much of what he had said was true. He knew his father still had friends who sailed and traded, but whether or not they would sail with him ... It seemed to work. "Another option, Thedos," Skar almost whispered. There was a hint of conspiracy in her voice, and she leaned over as if she were telling him a secret. "Is to sell *me* the ship. I can repair her for less than I'd charge you, and you could be her captain." She put her right arm around his shoulders and drew him into a huddle while she spoke, as if anyone might overhear what she was suggesting. "What would you say to an offer of ..." She seemed to be gauging the ship's worth. "... nine marks!" The gold was very tempting. With the nine marks, he could ... why, he could do anything! Of course he had not yet registered the ship. But, he was sure he could sell her the ship just as soon as he registered it. It was only fair. He had found it, and it was in his cove. "Uh ..." he stammered. "It's not really registered, yet. I don't know ..." "You haven't registered it, yet?" she asked. This time, her voice was less louder, less conspiratorial. "No. I'm in the process. I have to raise the fifteen rounds ..." "Oh," she replied. Her smile was perfectly even as she pulled away from him, but something seemed to be missing. "Well, I tell you what. As soon as you register the ship, come see me." She winked. "We'll talk about it." With that, she stepped back through the brush. In a moment, Thedos heard her horse neigh, and she galloped off. That was odd, he thought, but he dismissed it. While he was in the cove, he decided to swim out to the boat one more time. He wanted to take the box and the sword back home with him. Seeing as he was still about a bell ahead of schedule getting back from repairing his ax, he had the time to dry off before bringing them home. Maybe he'd even take a jump or two off the side ... The large fireplace in the kitchen was double-sided and, therefore, served two purposes. It afforded his father a means of cooking food in the kitchen, and provided warmth and light for the main room during the evening, when the steel doors were opened. The doors were Lianna's construction and idea. She wanted neither the house to burn down nor grease to be splattered on the rug in the main room. Regardless, from the occasional times Thedos and his sisters were allowed to eat or drink in the main room, the rug was less than spotless. While sitting in his chair, Braewen thought about his son, and the fact that he had stolen the silver. True, he rationalized, he was going to give it to Thedos, anyway. That did not remove the fact that Thedos had committed a crime and, worse yet, a sin in the eyes of Stevene. "Well," he thought lightly, "I don't know how much I hold onto the ideas of the Stevene. God knows I've done some rotten things in my days. Being a sailor, you learn to curse, and fight, and drink, and even go whoring. But it also teaches you to respect other people's belongings." Thedos wanted the ship, that much was certain. And while it would cost quite a lot to have it repaired, Thedos could at least own it. Maybe sign on as a hand for another ship, and use his earnings to pay for the repairs. Maybe just sell it, if he could find a buyer interested in it. Thedos entered the room with a box in his hand. His father looked at him. Braewen did not smile, but he was not frowning, either. Thedos approached him. "Do we have a file or something I can force this lock with?" Braewen instantly looked scornfully at his son. Had he stolen something else? This was beginning to be a habit! "Where'd you get the box?" he asked, tentatively. "It was on the ship." "When did you have time to get it?" Braewen prodded further. If there was a lie, Thedos probably would slip up. "On the other hand," he thought, "I'm already suspecting my son of having stolen it." "Today. When I was in town, I convinced a shipwright to come out to the ship and look at it with me. We took her horse, so I saved almost a bell's time and was still able to have her look at it." "Ah," Braewen smiled. "That's how you still got all that wood chopped, even though the ax had broken. For a moment there, I thought you had learned to fly!" "Not yet," Thedos smiled, thinking of the second jump he had taken off the ship's bow. "But I figure if I can open this box, maybe there's something in it that will help me pay for the registration fee. It's heavy enough, and I can hear something in there." "What did he say?" "Who?" "The shipwright you had look at the ship." "Oh. That was kind of funny, but then, she's a woman." "You had a female shipwright look at it?" his father asked. He seemed concerned. "Yes. Skar Jansen." Thedos' eyebrows knitted thoughtfully. "Very odd woman." "Yes, right, go on." "Oh, well, she said it would cost me around ten marks to repair, unless I sold her the ship and settled for being the captain." "But you can't sell the ship until you register it." Braewen offered. "Right, that's what I told her. Then she said goodbye. She wants me to talk to her after I register the ship." "What time was this?" Braewen asked. "Just before midday." Braewen sighed. His son had been taken. Probably. Skar Jansen, according to friends of his, was a ruthless business person who made opportunities for herself in shipping. She preyed on less fortunate owners of ships, repairing them for half the cost and collecting percentages of the profits for years. A fairly nice means of doing business, it seemed, but she was known to lock captains into deals that lasted longer than the ships they had repaired. She was also the full owner of at least three ships that he knew of, and she had never sailed a day in her life. He didn't like her. "Did you give her the name of the ship?" "It doesn't have one. None that I could find, anyway." Braewen smiled. "Then she can't register the ship, either," he said. "Unless she has friends in the Ducal offices," he added. "Why would *she* register the ship?" Thedos asked. "Because, Ted ... she's really not a nice person. She's a good craftsman, but what her craft *is* ..." "She seemed pretty nice to me." Braewen laughed. "Yes, I'm certain she did! But listen to me on this one, Ted. Don't go to her for anything. She can't be trusted." "So what am I supposed to do?" "Get up early, tomorrow morning. Very early. There should be pitch somewhere in the ship's cargo hold-" "There were no cargo holds, just a lot of hammocks. I think it was used to transport men before the attack on Dargon." "Well, there should be pitch, there, somewhere. No ship travels without it. Find a stick or something and write a name on the side of the ship. Did she see the whole ship?" "No, we just stood on the shore." "Good. Write it on the side that she didn't see." "Father ... I'm not real good with words. Writing and reading, and all that." His father sighed. Something else he didn't know about his own son. He really should have spent more time with him. His daughters had always gotten Leah's attention. "I'll go with you." "What should I name it?" Braewen thought about it. "I don't know. She's yours. Or she will be. You think of one. It doesn't matter. Just give her a name, then get to Dargon as quick as you can. As soon as the Ducal offices open -- that'll be about a bell past sunrise -- register the ship. If she's already pulled something, maybe we can contest it." Thedos hesitated. "I'll need fifteen rounds." Braewen noticed that his son's entire spirit depleted with that statement. It was partly his fault, Braewen thought. "What am I going to do, crucify you for fifteen pieces of silver?" He smiled a half-hearted smile. "You'll have it. I'll talk to your mother tonight. In fact," he added. "I'd better start getting the evening meal ready. Your mother will be back, soon. She took Cara to a village on the other side of Dargon, today. Cara begins her apprenticeship as a silversmith tomorrow morning." Thedos was dumbstruck. "I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye," Thedos said. "Well, worry about it tomorrow. Maybe after your visit to Dargon, you'll have some good news for her." ======================================================================== The Scent of Balsam by Bill Erdley Late Seber, 1014 A breeze, and with it the scent of balsam, caressed him as he stood in the doorway of the ballroom. The large chamber was decorated like a hall of the harvest, sprinkled with festive trappings and garlands of fall flowers. To the left, several musicians prepared for the night's revelry, arranging their chairs and tuning their instruments; playing lively little tunes to the empty hall and the flowers. A group of tables stood clustered to the right; empty now, but the evening would find them overflowing with food and drink. At the far end of the hall, a fountain murmured. Water flowed from the pitchers of three maidens, each as lovely of face and figure as had ever been captured by artist's brush or sculptor's chisel. And within its basin, more flowers floated. The flowers of the harvest. The flowers of life. Life; that was what would be celebrated here tonight. Life in all of its glory, all of its wonder, all of its beauty. Music would play, dancers would whirl, people would laugh and love and live. It was what these decorations were all about. Life. The man turned from the doorway, misty eyes cast downward. "'Life," he thought, "a celebration of beauty and joy; a gift given us by the gods.'" He remembered the words that he had been taught as a child, not so many years ago. And the memory made him sad. Later, as the musicians played and the dancers spun, the man stood alone, expressionless, in his small room. From there he could hear the music drifting on the evening breeze. In his mind's eye he could see the dancers in their graceful movements. He could hear them and he could see them, but he could not feel with them. The celebration of life was lost to him; as though life itself had been lost to him. In one of his hands he held a small piece of parchment, badly creased and tattered; in the other, a small circlet of braided hair. These two pieces of his past were more precious to him than any other possession, yet at this moment, his aching heart wished that these gifts, and the accompanying memories, would vanish. He brought the circlet to his face, and with it he caressed his cheek. Through the smell of leather and smoke and sweat, he could still smell a hint of balsam, her favorite scent. Or did he just imagine it? He closed his eyes and a tear fell onto the ring of memories. His mind drifted to his experience with, in the opinion of several of the stable boys, the wisest man in Magnus. He had gone to ask if there were any way to forget the past. Instead of an answer, the sage made several strange requests. One was that he was to visit often with slate and chalk. It was obvious that the sage wished to teach, though the subject was a mystery. Also, the sage requested that the youth attend the victory celebration tonight. That was one request that would have to go unfulfilled. He thought back to the day when the army had ridden into the city. He felt grand, proud and dignified. He rode just behind his knight, Sir Luthias, but in his mind he imagined that the cheers were for him alone. The people cheered for the return of the men, and for the ending of the war as well. It had been bitter and costly affair, and many of the men who had ridden from the gates of this city in the past months would never return. He looked into the faces of the people in the crowd. Those drawn and haggard faces belonged to people who had been starved and beaten and besieged. Yet he saw only their looks of appreciation and awe. To him, this was a glorious time; to them, a time of relief, of weary thanksgiving for the end to the madness. Looking back on it now, he remembered what he hadn't noticed before; and he understood. He drifted back even further. He thought of the battles, the death, the pain that he had seen. He had witnessed the best and the worst of mankind; the honor and courage on one side, and the cruelty and the savagery on the other. He remembered with sickening vividness his first melee, seeing his enemy fall before him with a cry. He remembered his first wounds; the pain, the fear, the bitter disappointment with himself. It seemed that he could remember much about the war, but very little of it was pleasant. Except for the letter and the braid. He carefully unfolded the parchment, creased and worn from many months of handling. He had taught himself to read all of the words, so he wouldn't need someone else to read it for him. Now, he re-read the words that he could have spoken from memory. 'Please forgive my mother for saying those terrible things. We have spoken long about this, and I understand her fear. My father was a member of the militia. He died at Oron's Crossroads.' "Yes. The battle at Oron's Crossroads was a bloody rout from which very few of the Baranurian soldiers escaped with their lives. It was one of the worst defeats of the war -- and one which would not soon be forgotten by the many wives and children who lost husbands and fathers in that massacre." 'My mother didn't want me to know the same pain that she had known.' "How well I can understand her sentiments. My father also died in this war; as did my sister. Yes, I think I know something of the pain that she spoke of." 'She said "I will not have my daughter marry a warrior", but I asked her if she would keep her daughter from marrying a knight!' "Oh young and innocent child! There is only one difference between the two. The knight must fight bound by rules and codes as well as armor and shield, while the warrior has only his weapon and his courage. They both fight with anger and fury and terror and pain. They both hear the sounds and smell the smells and taste the tastes of fear and horror. They both bleed. And they both die." 'You will be a knight someday, Derrio. This I know in my heart. When you return, I will marry you, with or without my mother's blessing!' "Would you still wish to marry me now, dear girl? I have changed. I have become sad and cold. I have become a killer of men whose only fault was to be born on the wrong side of some imaginary line which divides two nations. They fought because they were told to fight, and they died because I knew that, if they did not, I would. Sometimes, when I think about it, I loathe myself." 'I wait for thee, my knight to be. Be safe and be well.' "But you didn't wait. I did as you asked -- I stayed as safe as I could, although there were many days when I faced the wrong end of a sword. I stayed as well as I was able, although I was sickened by the sights and sounds and smells of death and battle. But you didn't wait. I came back to you, for you, but you didn't wait for me. Why!? WHY DIDN'T YOU WAIT FOR ME!? WHY DID YOU HAVE TO DIE BEFORE I GOT BACK?!! The sounds of his wracking sobs carried to the window, where they mingled with the music from the banquet hall. Tired and weak from crying, he staggered from the room and into the street. He ran from the happy music, which haunted him like a spectre. He fled blindly, not knowing or caring where he went. He slowed as he approached the docks. Few ships were docked there, for most of the piers were charred or smashed. One ship which was docked there, the GANNESS PRIDE, was missing an entire mast and a spar. Its railing was missing in places, and, near the back, a gaping hole was torn in her side. The war had touched the docks. He walked on. He came to a section of the city which had been the scene of intense fighting. Men had fought from house to house. Alleys were won and held and lost again. Buildings became objectives to reach, prizes to be won, goals to be paid for in blood. Here, a broken shield lay discarded in an alleyway; there, part of a mail shirt colored by the brown stain of dried blood. He stopped before a building which was familiar. Once upon a time, children had met here at night and told dark stories by candlelight. Now the door had been torn from its hinges, and in several places, sword nicks and blood patches marked the passing of recent events. The war had touched here, too. He moved on. Suddenly, he knew where his feet were taking him. Turning the corner, he saw the doorway from which a woman had once called to him, telling him not to be afraid. Within the walls of that house, he had eaten a meal, spoken of himself to a stranger, and proposed marriage to the woman that he loved. Now the doorway, the walls, all of it was charred and blackened. For blocks, from here to the edge of the city, a great fire had swept. It was said that magic had moved the fire along; and that the Benisonians had hoped to use the fire, and the chaos that it caused, to sweep deeper into the city. The city had been miraculously spared total destruction by a freakish rain squall, but not until an entire quarter of the city had been ravaged. Not many people were in their houses, they had fled to the keep for safety; but many more were lost to the inferno. And she was one of them. He walked slowly toward the doorway, its blackened frame beckoning to him like a succubus. His heart rebelled, screaming in terror to flee, to stop, to do anything but walk through that portal. His mind, however, had to see, had to know for certain that his eyes saw the truth. He hesitated at the threshold, then stepped inside. A hole in the roof allowed moonlight to enter, casting strange shadows in the gloom. The destruction was complete. The walls were shattered and broken, the furniture was ashes. With his foot, he toyed with a pile of ash in a room where meals had once been served. A small cloud of dust rose, then settled quickly, or disappeared into the unlit corners of the room. Another room, and more piles of ash and broken memories. He walked to the back of the small house. Here the entire roof had collapsed, leaving ghostly half-walls pointing jagged fingers at the moon. It was impossible to tell what this room had held. Perhaps it had been a bedroom. What dreams had been dreamt here? What plans had been made, then remade, then discarded. Had this been her room? Had she slept here? Did she die here? He sat down and leaned his tired body against an unsteady wall. He had been angry, but that had passed. He had cried the bitter tears of mourning, but they, too, had dried and disappeared. He looked with sadness at the moon, shining its light on the desolate scene. He found that he was holding her braid of hair in his hands, caressing it. He held it to his face, trying to once again smell the smell that reminded him of her. Was it there? After their entrance into the city, he had found her mother among the throngs. He looked at her face, into her eyes, and at once knew that his love was gone. For what he saw in that sad woman's eyes was the same vile emptiness that he felt when he held his sister's broken body in his arms. "She is missing." she had said, "I haven't seen her since the fire. I've looked and looked, but she just isn't here." He didn't believe her then, and had searched for her himself, for days on end. He neglected his duties as a squire, but Luthias didn't need him much these days, busy as he was with other things. Finally, Luthias had confronted him and made him face the truth. "Death is a part of life that we cannot avoid." Luthias was obviously speaking from experience, since deep within his voice was a compassion and a sympathy born only of intense, consuming sorrow. "You must face it now as you faced it in battle, with courage and strength." His courage had lasted until he had reached his room, then he fell upon his bed and wept in agony. That had been days ago. He rose and wiped the ash from his trousers. "It is time to walk from the past into the future. I must let you go, my love. I must accept the truth and walk on." He turned and walked from the house, a final tear wetting his cheek. He gently placed the braided circlet back in the pouch where he had carried it for so many months. And he walked; past the house where they had listened to stories, past the streets where they had walked in the moonlight, past the docks where they had met. Again he could hear faint strains of music, the celebration was still going on. He entered the keep and strode quickly to his room. He changed his clothes, brushed his hair, and pulled on his good boots. Then he turned and left again, only this time he walked toward the music. He entered the hall and was almost overwhelmed by the crush of people. He could see that the dancers were occupying most of the floor, and what was left was taken up by people eating and drinking and talking and laughing. He searched carefully, and finally found Sir Luthias standing near the fountain. He worked his way onto the dance floor, which was only slightly less crowded than the rest of the hall. Sir Luthias saw him coming, and smiled. "I am pleased that you decided to join us." The knight's voice was soft and gentle, and in his eyes was the light of understanding. He said nothing, but walked instead to the fountain, whose quiet mutterings were barely audible above the music and revelry behind him. He gazed into the water, breathing deeply of the mingled scents of the flowers that floated within. Behind the fountain hung boughs of balsam. He breathed, and for the first time in days, felt a peace which had eluded him. He turned back to Luthias and bowed slightly. He gently drew the circlet from his pouch and showed it to Luthias. *I* *Say* *Goodbye* ========================================================================

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E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank