Anecdotes of The Necklace: Jothan River-reed
A/N: I thought Jothan deserved a bit of backstory; besides, I like his character, and he really didn't deserve the headache Cheyenne gave him. So, how did our noble bandit get his marauding streak?
"Jothan Riverreed! You better get your hide in this kitchen, sharp now!" Reed shuffled in, trying and failing to hide a gleeful grin. His ma glared at the nine-year old delinquent in front of her, as though hoping to incinerate him on the spot. "Well, I never! A son of mine, getting up to such foolery! You're in for it this time, sir, make no mistake!" A nervous giggle escaped his lips.
"It was just a joke, ma…" He trailed off, his devious delight ebbing at his mother's fury.
"A joke! A mean-spirited trick, I call it! Did I raise you to prank honest, hard-working old women? You march yourself right back to Matron Valerian and apologize this instant! I'll be asking after you, so don't you even consider skipping off to the market place. Do I make myself clear?" Reed brightened up. He knew Matron Valerian wasn't really angry, and would tell his ma that he had apologized, even if he hadn't. The Matron was a hard-working old woman, but even so, she was nice.
"As new glass, ma'am!" he said smartly. She pointed wordlessly towards the rickety wooden door, the only entrance or exit to their squashed home. He bolted out, into the sunshine of a glorious Harries summer day. Unable to hold it back any longer, with the sun beating down on his skin, warming him straight to his toes, he let out a yelp of joy. It was a summer, the most summeriest-summer day imaginable, and he was going to the market place! He ran towards Matron's house, then changed direction as soon as he was out of sight from his home, heading towards Sadrach's house.
Sadrach's house was a carbon copy of Reed's own house, and every house in the city, but he knew this was the right one; there was Sad's pa's tired-looking pony hitched outside of it. Sadrach popped his head out at the sound of Reed's approach, looking anxious underneath his tow-head of dirty blond hair.
"Ain't in trouble, are you, mate?" he asked. Sad was forever worrying about anything and everything! Reed might have found it tiresome, but Sad was a good friend, regardless. Sad didn't ever get caught, though; perhaps it was something to think about. Later, though!
"Nah, ma just wants me to apologize to the Matron, but she'll tell my ma I grovelled at her feet. Come on, I want to look at the market!" Sad readily agreed to this idea.
"Good! Jessa's dancing today!" Reed pulled a face at his friend's infatuation with the cherubic-faced Jessa Spring, but the two friends jogged through the broad residential streets, dodging around laden carts pulled by annoyed-looking donkeys and lone riders on horseback, ignoring the cries of the skittish horses and their riders, laughing and laughing.
The market was bustling in fine form that day; it seemed like all of Harries had turned out to do their daily shopping, or to buy a chicken for tonight's dinner. Sad and Reed knew every hidey-hole of the market place: where to snitch an apple, which stalls they might coax a handful of nuts from the peddler, the best places to hide and spit seeds on unsuspecting passers-by. It was all great fun to two boys on a bright summer day. Sad searched every street corner for the flashing golden hair of little Jessa, but she was seemingly nowhere to be found. Sad began to grow increasingly worried; Reed was too used to his friend's dithering to care.
"But she said…I know I got the day right…time right…maybe it got too hot and she went home…but where is she, Reed? Why isn't she here?"
"I should know?" asked Reed indifferently, frowning intently at a particularly stubborn pecan that refused to crack properly. Sad shifted his weight from foot to foot.
"Well…do you think maybe we should…go to her house? See if she's there, I mean." Reed shuddered.
"I shan't! Her pa is right frightening, he is." Sad conceded the point and didn't bring up that suggestion again, for which Reed was duly grateful. Jessa's pa was a huge man, so large that he couldn't fit through most conventional doorways; Jessa's house was easily identified by the abnormally tall and wide door. How he could be the father of such a small, delicate child like Jessa was the source of much debate…none of which ever reached his ears, for fear of disembowelment. Reed gave up in frustration.
"Bah! Here, Sad, your shoes are newer than mine; stamp on that, see if you can't open it…" Sad, with automatic obedience that all of Reed's friends learned after awhile, threw the nut on the ground and struck it with his boot heel as hard as he could. There was a small crack, but not enough for even Reed's small, quick fingers. "Again, again! Almost got it…" The boot heel slammed down once more, a clean crunch. Reed pried the nut from its shell and stuffed the treat in his mouth. "Thanks," he said cheerfully. "That sure did the trick."
"Sure did," agreed Sad, pulling open his own, much easier nut. "That was a tough 'un, though." Reed truly hated seeing his friend so distracted by Jessa's absence.
"I'll say. Look, maybe Jessa's dancing up ahead, eh? There's a whole group of people, bet they're watching her." Sad perked up, squinting ahead at the large crowd several blocks away.
"Say, maybe they are! Is that…thunder?" Reed was about to ask Sad what sort of joke he thought that was—there wasn't a cloud to be seen—but then stopped. He heard it too, a low, rumbly sound.
"Thunder? What the dickens? It's not raining…" he trailed off. Sad's face was completely white, and he pointed a shaking finger towards the crowd of people. Not people, Reed realized, with a growing sense of horror. Soldiers. And they were advancing at an alarming pace.
No one else seemed to notice anything amiss until a blood-curdling screech rang through the marketplace, so loud it caused a lull in even the busiest of transactions. Following that lull, chaos ensued. Screams echoed in Reed's ears as he watched, rooted to the spot, as women tried to flee the oncoming storm of cavalry, but were hindered by their skirts. He couldn't look away as they were cut down on the spot, men, women, and children alike, trampled beneath the hooves of the largest, meanest horses Reed had ever seen. They came closer and closer, smashing stalls, killing the owners, setting fire.
Fire. The acrid stench of smoke returned Reed to his senses. Fire spelled death in a magnitude that even the raiders probably didn't realize; half of Harries was wooden! He threw himself out of the street and rolled under the cart of the local rug-maker, hidden by the man's wares draping over the side.
Sad. Where's Sad? Reed didn't recall seeing his friend after looking where he was pointing. Did he run away? Surely he did. Sad always was the one who got out of trouble. Why didn't he take me with him? The soldiers thundered by, laughing as they slashed at the rugs that comprised Reed's not-so-concealing hiding place. He trembled as he saw feet coming towards him. Why were they dismounting? Did they see him? Did they come to finish off little boys because they couldn't fight back?
No; as it turned out, they merely thought that carpets would be great fun to set alight, but only after hacking the cart into kindling. Reed was petrified as he was showered with splinters, trying to avoid the edge of sword blades as they came through the thin wood. The soldiers were talking amongst themselves, but Reed's hearing was oddly muted; he could hear screams, the crackling of flames, the chop of a keen blade against wood, but he could not hear any conversation between these brutes.
But they aren't brutes, he realized. Well, they weren't merely hill bandits. Those horses were rare beasts, and those swords (he was blessed enough to see this first hand) were expertly wrought, expensive steel. They were real soldiers, but they weren't dressed in the livery of the Royal Legion. It was nothing Reed recognized; burnt orange and olive green. He huddled in his corner of the underside of the cart, squeezing his eyes shut, trying to block out the scenes of terror, watching people he'd known all his life cut down by these raiders.
They were leaving, he realized. They had lost interest in the cart, and were moving on to others…but they set it on fire, first. Reed's eyes widened at the discovery that he was trapped. The flames rapidly consumed the dry wood, chopped into smaller pieces and aided by the remaining rugs, threatening to dump a raging bonfire right on Reed's head…but if he ran out, he ran right into the soldiers!
The collapsing cart bottom made up his mind for him. It began to belly inward, searing his face with the nearness of the heat, driving him into the open, though fortune smiled on him: the soldiers were moving on, leaving him facing only the stragglers. One of the men saw him and his horse reared, pawing the air, aiming for Reed's skull. Reed dodged easily. He was small, hard for a horse to hit, but he was slow, easy for a horse to run down. He bolted towards the nearest alley, ducking low, running for all he was worth, not daring to look behind to check for pursuit. He ran through the areas that the soldiers either didn't bother with or already finished destroying. Only when he was out of earshot did he finally face the remnants of his home.
Half of Harries was up in flames, including the district he lived in. Did Ma and Pa get away? Where was Jessa? What about Sad? Would he ever find them again? Could he ever go home? Things would surely never be the same. When was the last time Harries ever suffered an attack?
"You! Boy!" He didn't wait to see who it was. He took off in the opposite direction, utilizing alleyways and ways only known to mischievous little boys, this time not daring to stop until he collapsed near the city limits, sobbing for breath.
"Ma…Pa…Sad…" he gasped, his vision wavering.
"Yes, it's very sad. Come on, boy, up you get! If you lay around waiting for trouble, it's no one's fault but your own when it finds you." The gentle command in the tone and the whimsical saying immediately identified the voice in his mind as Matron Valerian, though his vision had almost completely blacked out. He made a half-hearted attempt to rise, but his muscles had turned to ooze, betraying him.
"Oh, goat feathers, you rip, flour is the least of your concerns now! Land's sakes, I haven't tried carrying you since you were three, at least." He felt himself being lifted slowly. "Oof! Well, you've grown into a proper boy, no mistake. A little boy only weighs as much as his stomach of lead, his lungs of leather, and his stubbornness, you know, and it surely doesn't make it easier on your poor old Matron!" He only half-listened to the Matron's ramblings and lectures. "Seems like half the city, those that aren't dead, are hiding out in the woods. And it's little Matron Valerian who's brave enough to find survivors! Silly great men, can't even patrol the outskirts to pick up a little boy!" It all seemed to be fading, now, in his exhaustion, fading adrenaline, and fear mixed with relief at the familiarity of his Matron.
"I don't know, honey. I just don't know. Matron can fix almost anything, but I can't stitch together a broken life. Time's the only Matron that can do that, love. Come the morrow, we'll all find the Duke, and we'll try to piece things together. Tragedy has touched us all, and the only thing we can do is add grovelling into the mix to appease the high and mighty. Aye, grovel and gnash our teeth for a pittance I couldn't keep a dog alive on. What are we to them, Reed? What are we, that the higher-ups should deign to notice? Grown-ups, that's what they are, grown-ups who were never children. It's in the cobblestones of a child that we pave the road for old age."
Reed didn't remember hearing the bitter end of that, at the time; for years, all he could remember, before drifting into nothingness, was the end of the word 'love'. Years later, the bit about tragedy occurred to him when he saw the injustice in the streets, heightened by famine and fear, fuelled by noble indolence. But he only recalled the last little proverb when a small, red-headed girl-woman he kidnapped ended up spending the night in his tent.