He sat on the edge of his seat, as if ready to rise at a moment's notice; his legs not even under the table, but pointed out to the side with his body twisted to face the table. The farmer studied him uneasily, but didn't speak as the man shoveled food into his mouth as modestly as possible. It was evident this was the first decent meal he had eaten for some time; the bones in his face stood out and his body was gaunt from lack of nutrition. He seemed embarrassed by the scrutiny of the farmer's eyes and had his shoulders hunched defensively as he swallowed spoonful after spoonful of the rich beef stew in front of him.
Where are you headed to?" The farmer's wife, a steady, bold woman, finally asked as she poured more of the steaming tea from her kettle into the man's cup, implying that it was too quiet around the table between the menfolk. He lifted his head and hesitated a moment before answering, staring at the wooden table's grain as he finished chewing, then met her inquiring gaze as he swallowed the stew.
"To Ei-Cadeen." He said, not unpleasantly, with an expression of one who is unused to kindness and is eager to please. His voice was quiet, as if he couldn't muster up the strength to speak louder. It was not a deep voice, but it purred like a great cat, and the woman found herself shuddering ever so slightly despite the man's gentle demeanor. The farmer, seeing her discomfort, coughed as he sucked in another lungful of smoke from the bowl of his pipe, drawing the stranger's attention away from his wife.
He let out the blue smoke in a ring. The man watched it in silent awe as it floated to the ceiling and dissipated. Had he never seen a smoke ring before? When the last wisps were gone, the stranger turned his attention back to the stew as the farmer regarded him in surprise.
"Where are you from?" He inquired. The man had taken another mouthful of food and he again took a moment before answering, once again in the same polite tone.
"I grew up in Ei-Maefen." He said, his hand brushing back a strand of his dark hair that had fallen into his eyes. The farmer couldn't keep from starting in surprise.
"Ei-Maefen?" He burst out, and then tried to disguise his shock by clamping his teeth back down on the stem of his pipe. The man shrugged, chewing again.
"Yes. Why?" His face twisted to one of confusion; as if afraid he had displeased the couple with his answer. The farmer fumbled under the intensity of the man's pitiful gaze and tried to make him look away.
"Oh… uh, nothing, nothing at all… It just seemed like a long way to travel… Uh, between Maefen and Cadeen, that is…"
There was a moment of silence as the farmer ceased his mumbling and the man began to stir his stew absently. The liquid began to crawl up the sides of the deep bowl as his spoon shoved against it. The farmer's wife asked him if he would like a piece of bread, but he didn't seem to hear her. His face was twisted in deep concentration, as if he were listening to something only he could hear. The farmer cleared his throat, not unkindly, trying to attract the stranger's attention back from wherever it had wandered.
Ithle stared into his bowl as his stew sloshed smoothly around and around the sides of the container.
…why are you eating…
I am hungry.
…for that… pasty, stinking human filth… they call that food…
I like it. Ithle was becoming aware of a weight on his shoulder and he tried to shrug it off uncomfortably.
…no… you do not like that… you do not need food at all…
You do not need food. Ithle tried to lift another spoonful of stew up to his mouth, but he found that he could not move his arm. The weight was heavier now and it was spreading to his other shoulder as well.
…you… me… it is all the same…
No! Now go away!
…go away… go away… i cannot go away… you know that… we are one… you promised to help me…
The weight seemed to be soaking into Ithle's body, like water into a sponge. His limbs were growing heavier. To lift his eyelids was a burden.
I did. I will. But I am tired.
…in me there is strength…
These are nice people. They are trying to talk to me. Be quiet so that I may listen.
…nnnnot a chancccccce…
Suddenly he was lead. His muscles locked and then relaxed. Unable to support the weight that was his body, he slumped completely forward without restraint.
The farmer half-stood abruptly as the stranger collapsed on the table, his bowl of stew rocking back and forth for a moment before falling to the floor with a dull thud of wood on earth. The farmer's wife gasped sharply as her husband gently shook the man and his limp body merely slid off the table to fall heavily on the bench.
…come now… give in to me… i am strong…
You made me spill the food. They welcomed me and gave me food and you have made me waste it.
…you care not for food…
Ithle's hand began to twitch as it hung down limply from his shoulder. His arm was hooked by the crook of his elbow to the bench's leg and his fingers nearly brushed the splatters of stew on the floor.
...you do not need to eat…
That was meat. Good meat. It made me strong.
…i make you strong…
They worked hard to give it to me. They were generous.
…they wasted their time…
His hand was beginning to curl into a fist now, despite his efforts to stop it. He felt so heavy that it was difficult to draw breath.
I can't breathe.
…you don't need to breathe…
I… I don't need to breathe…
The farmer lay on the ground, his eyes wide and staring and his limbs frozen in a position of defense. His wide lay next to him; her head on his chest and her best dress spotted with rust-colored stains.
The hall rang with the cry, echoes bouncing off the cool marble walls and up into the high vaulted ceiling.
Johanna… Johanna… Johann… Jo…
A single figure made its way down the passage. A man, dwarfed by the huge pillars of stone, with long dark hair gathered into a horse tail at the back of his neck before dividing into the seven braids of a high noble. However, instead of the stately walk generally associated with one of his status, the man barreled down the hall like a racer; his braids beating against his back like a lash.
"Johanna?" Johanna… Johanna…
The man skidded to a halt before a double set of oaken doors commanding the far end of the hallway, his robes billowing like sails as he stumbled about to catch his balance.
"Kayli?" Kayli… Kayli…Kay…
He pounded at the doors with a fist, beating against the golden wood braced with silver bolts. The breath rattled in his throat from his run and sweat beaded against his red face.
"Mark?" Mark… Mark… Mar… "Johanna!" Johanna… Jo…
Sunlight streamed in through the large windows set high in the walls of the hallway, casting a long shadow of the man that stretched the length of the hall. He pounded at the door desperately before resting his forehead on the wood for a moment, catching his breath. When nothing happened, he beat both fists against the oak, screaming in his frustration.
"Let me in! Oh Orrin, let me in!"
Suddenly, at the opposite end of the hallway, there was a shout and the sounds of feet slapping the marble and the clinking of swords and armor could be heard echoing down the long passage.
"Johanna!" Johanna… Johanna… Johann…
Slowly, painfully slowly, the right door began to open with a soft groaning of hinges. The man shoved at it with both hands, buckling in with his head down and back bent, but his effort did not increase the door's speed. The room beyond was dark, so much so that as sunlight spills in through a cracked door to the outside, it almost seemed to cast a shadow on the bright floors. The armor and shouting grew louder as the man slipped in through the crack in the door and slammed it behind him. It closed like a trap, contrasting its unwillingness to open.
Now the cry was muted, as if stifled by the blackness. The man extended a hand, his shoulders hunched defensively as he began to set one foot gingerly before the other.
The pipe had gone out. A small circle of ashes had spilt from the bowl. Now the pile of dust was cold and the soot had blackened the surface of the table. The stem was dimpled where the farmer had clenched it between his teeth and the sides of the bowl were polished smooth from the rubbing of his fingers. However, the delicate swirls that had been carved along the rim were still visible; curling like wisps of smoke.
"Kayli! Kayli, it's Pada. Kayli, wake up. Oh please wake up."
The man sat in the darkness, cradling the body of a child, a girl, her hair braided with tiny beads, the labor of love that had taken over six hours and a few temper tantrums from both parent and child. He rubbed the strands of beads between his fingers, hugging the child to his chest, feeling her coldness suck the warmth from him. Tears began to run down his face.
"Kayli. Kayli. Kayli."
He rocked back and forth gently, his cheek against the girl's head. She did not respond as he embraced her and stroked his hand across her beaded hair. She lay stiff and silent in his arms as he wept over her.
Ithle studied the pipe in the red firelight. It was a small object, not much longer than his hand and the bend of the stem was at an odd angle, fitted to its master's wants. The bowl was deep and the carvings around it somehow filled Ithle with a longing. This was a unique object; well-loved and well-used. He wished the farmer would wake and blow more rings from it. He had always loved to watch people do that; it was as if they were dragons with hot fires in their bellies so that smoke billowed from their mouths and nostrils.
The man carried the girl's body with him, his arms cradling her shoulders and hooked beneath her knees. He continued through the darkness hesitantly, fearing what else might lie within.
Ahead was a glow, orange-yellow, that did not penetrate the darkness as sunlight would, but instead, seemed to be as dark as the blackness around him, only colored. The man stumbled towards it. The sounds of pounding at the door somewhere behind him could be heard, mingled with shouting and the clanking of weapons.
The pipe lay alongside several others, a small rustic object among many of finery. But the man rubbed the small pipe fondly, running his fingers along the stem and bowl as if stroking a cat. He gazed at the assortment for a moment, and then carefully began to separately wrap each in an oiled cloth.
"Johanna!" Johanna! Johanna… Johanna…
The scream echoed through the blackness, the sheer desperation penetrating the suffocating silence. The man stood frozen before a pillar of glowing yellow, a containment hex, which held his wife.
She was motionless, her body erect as if standing, as it hung in the center of the pillar. Her bare toes were delicately pointed and her arms opened wide, her head pulled back to face the sky and her back arched as if she had received a blow to the back. The man sank to the ground and began to weep.
Another cry was heard, but it was again stifled by the darkness. The man lifted his head ever so slightly when he was handed his son by a mage that had broken away from the group surrounding the hex.
But the boy did not awake, his young face, barely out of childhood, frozen in an expression of surprise and urgency, as if he were trying to tell his father something in spite of his death. The man hugged the boy to his chest and began to wail, rocking back and forth violently.
"Who had done this?"
The man's tearstained eyes turned towards the figure floating in the pillar.
"No! No, she couldn't have. You lie! You did this! You and your masters have killed my children!"
The man rose, still clutching the body to him.
"Why? Why would you do that?"
The mage, a young man robed in purple that now appeared a mottled yellow in the glow, began to back away.
"No, my lord, I swear! We have not touched your children but to protect them."
"Johanna!" Johanna… Jo…
Ithle walked along the edge of the dirt road leading away from the farmer's house, his head bent in the moonlight to watch the silver-colored puffs of dirt that scattered beneath his feet. The pipe was tucked away in the tattered back at his back; the farmer had no need for it.
In the quiet, he could hear wafts of music, wild and eerie, drifting through the night. He lifted his head to scan the landscape, all silver and black in the shadows cast by the moon. Ahead was a tree, dead but still standing; its limbs twisting like tortured fingers to the stars, bare of leaves. And beneath it was a man, reclined against the rotting trunk with a violin tucked beneath his chin and bow in hand. Ithle's head tilted in spite of himself, curious as to why the man played so late.
"She sought to increase her power."
"By killing my children?"
"Her children as well! Nothing gives a demon more power than the blood of its body's relations."
"But she loved them!"
"No! You lie to me, Jurdain. It is not true!"
The man still held the boy and girl, holding them to himself like a small child with a blanket, as if trying to ward off fear with the solidity of their bodies.
"I love her!"
He looked towards the figure still suspended in the hex. She wore a simple white shift, stained and rumpled as if she had been in a struggle, but her face was blank and peaceful; her mouth relaxed and her eyes closed.
"My lord, she is beyond us now. We do not know yet the nature of her demon. Perhaps in a few days…"
Tears streamed down his face, forming rivulets of eyewater that trickled down to soak into his collar.
"No, I don't believe it!"
He set the children's bodies gently on the ground, kissing their foreheads and straightening their clothing before standing erect.
"I don't believe it."
He began to run towards the glow, ignoring the cries of the young mage behind him and the others as they maintained the hex.
As he drew close to the pillar, he reached his hand out towards it, his fingers dark with his children's blood.
The woman's eyes suddenly opened. Her head snapped down to meet the man's gaze, her eyes flashing a brilliant, clear blue.
"My lord, no! Stay away from her! She is not Johanna!"
They hurt you?
…yes… very much… will you help me…
The man continued to play as Ithle approached. The moonlight danced about his unruly hair, reflecting off it to cast a halo around his head. He smiled to the other as he sawed the bow across the strings and pulled trilling notes from it that whined through the air in an unkempt melody. The tree itself seemed to hum with music.
When it ended, the man regarded Ithle for a moment.
"Good morning, stranger." He said in a cheerful voice. Ithle smiled in spite of himself.
"It is still dark, sir."
"Ah yes, but the midnight hour has passed. It is a new day already! I sit here to bid farewell to the moon when she retreats to her bed of stars and to greet the sun before even the birds. Would you care to sit with me?"
"I fear not. I must continue to travel."
"What? Where are you headed that demands such discipline? Does some unseen driver crack a whip at your heels? It is still only after midnight, an hour for rest and rejoicing."
…sssss… do not answer him…
Ithle froze for a moment. The man cocked his head like a bird and pulled the violin from beneath his jaw.
"Come, speak up man! Have you suddenly lost your tongue?"
…do not speak… he will hurt you…
I do not speak.
"I see that you have run out of conversation. Well, be about your merry way and a good day to you! I sit and play."
Ithle still stood frozen, feeling the uncomfortable weight settle over him. The man glanced at him out of the corner of one eye as he turned away.
"I say good day, but you do not go. I ask you to sit and you still stand. If I ask you to stand there, will you lie down on the turf?"
Abruptly the man's brow furrowed and his violin nearly cracked as his grip tightened on the neck.
"Good morning, Kirthez." He said quietly.
Suddenly a near score of men with purple clothing, gleaming silver in the moon, sprang into sight as if from thin air.
The man watched as the other fell to the ground heavily and glanced at his right hand, which still glowed with a dull yellow orange. With his left, he picked up his violin to examine it. The strings had popped and one of the turn keys had shattered, but that could be fixed. He gently packed it into his leather pack and poured water from his flask over his hand. The liquid popped and fizzled as it touched his skin and the glow faded slowly.
"Thank you, sirs."
Suddenly the man on the ground stirred and began to pick himself up shakily.
"Where am I?"
"Nearly to Ei-Turbin, my lord."
The mage nodded, combing a weary hand through his dark blonde hair.
"What am I doing here?"
The man grasped at the mage's shoulder.
"You have aged, my friend."
"You have too, my lord."
"Where are Mark and Kayli?"
"At the churchyard, my lord."
"What has happened?"
The mage sighed as he looked about, searching for the right words.
A/N: Again, my apologies to everyone who was hoping for a novel and special thanks to
and Aurora Walker
for their reviews of the last version of this thing.
Please review, giving me your critique on whatever: story, characters and even nitpicky things. (spelling, grammer, etc.)
If you have any questions, ask away and I'll answer them somehow, whether in my bio or e-mailed to you personally. This is quite a big thing in my head and while it didn't make it into a novel, there is a lot in this little story.