CHAPTER ELEVEN: WHISPERS IN THE BREEZE
Moark ducked, parried, swung, jumped, until his muscles ached with heat, but still the blows rained on him merciless and heavy as stones. His skin was covered in dark bruises from the day before – and the day before, and the day before – that ached and pulled with every movement. He had realised long ago that no matter how many times he was hit, how many times he fell face-first on the ground, he would never be any good with a sword, but still he practiced. The problem was that his hands were too slow, his arms too long, and his feet too far away from his head. He was, also, pitifully weak. He'd been eating a share twice as large as the knight's for a long month now, but he didn't seem to put on any muscle.
"Quicker feet, boy," Sir Jonas reprimanded. "I've told you many times not to put your weight behind the blows! Are you stupid?" To prove his point, he dodged his lunge and slammed his wooden stick so hard on his back that it cracked in two, and Moark sprawled on the ground in a tangle of limbs.
He took a deep, shuddering breath before picking himself up. Sir Jonas looked at him once and sighed. "That's enough for today." The knight wiped the sweat on his brow with his sleeve and went to sit on the fountain at the centre of the courtyard.
Moark also knew that Sir Jonas was regretting it, that he was regretting taking him as his squire. From the first spar he'd seen the disappointment in his eyes, and from the first spar he'd pondered freeing him from the responsibility he'd taken up. Now that he was outside the castle, there was nothing stopping him from leaving – it would do both of them a favour – save for money. At fourteen, he was too old to start an apprenticeship, but too young to be trusted with serious work.
The only skill he had was tending after horses. He knew Apleata better than anyone, even her own master, and he loved her like he had never loved any other animal. And perhaps horses were indeed meant to be his life, instead of swords and lances, but he couldn't help feeling that he wanted to do something greater, something that would leave his mark on the world. So there he was, suffering day after day in a hellish training that he knew would be fruitless.
The knight kept gulping down water, Moark presumed, as an excuse not to talk. His mouth became a thin line and he left the courtyard, to the inn's first floor.
Although Sir Jonas was a noble – and apparently an important one, from what little information Moark had managed to gather about him – for some reason he sometimes steered away from castles, and they had to find other places to stay at. "A ruler has to be close to his people," the knight often said. "And know of what goes on in the world if he wants to shape it properly." Thus they had rarely set foot in a palace or a keep, save for when he had some sort of diplomatic issue to tend to. In those days Moark was given a guest room decorated with fancy, expensive things that he didn't really feel comfortable with.
The knight wasn't so bad, actually, not like the arrogant aristocrats Moark was used to. At first he had seemed cold, keeping their relationship strictly professional, only addressing the boy when he had a task for him; but he was, above all, fair. Sir Jonas held justice high up on his list of values, and as such he never made a precipitated judgement, and only expected of others what he also expected of himself.
There was still no trace of Natalie. They had traveled across the whole continent, and not a whisper from her. As soon as Sir Jonas had learnt of Moark's relationship to her, he had put him through intensive questioning, insisting he told him all he knew about her, what her last words to him were, how she had acted the last time he saw her. At first, the boy was confused by the knight's sudden interest - after all, why would a noble care what happened to a humble servant? But it soon became apparent that it wasn't her he was worrying about; he was pecking for clues as to William's location.
Moark had to squint when he went inside the inn to make his eyes accustomed to the absence of brilliant sunlight. "He beats hard on you, doesn't he?" the innkeeper said, setting down on the bar the bottle he'd been wiping. He was a tall man with limp red hair and kind features; a respectful and amicable chap who kept the inn clean and the embers in the chimney glowing, who knew how to disappear when his clients wanted privacy… He didn't have a single flaw.
And Moark couldn't bring himself to trust him. The man's act was too perfect to be real. He played the role of an innkeeper as if written from a book or a play – and that was exactly what Moark believed. He was playing a role.
So his answer was vague and ambiguous. "I guess." He sat down on a stool and grabbed the mug the man put in front of him, gulping it down in one long swallow. To his disappointment, it was just water.
"It will come in time," the innkeeper reassured. "I've seen many boys like you. You just need to grow into your body." Moark grimaced. He didn't want the man's advice; after all, what would a seemingly common innkeeper know about swordfighting? Nothing.
The red-haired man shrugged, then turned around and started cleaning another bottle. Moark looked at his long, thin fingers work with the glass, and perhaps it was because he had swords in his mind, but his eyebrows raised when he saw scars there. "Why do you have scars?"
The man glanced down at his hands, rubbing them unconsciously. "Kitchen knives can be tricky things." Kitchen knives. Right. His mind flashed back to the kitchen knife he'd seen embedded on the floor of His Lordling's room, back on the morning after Natalie's disappearance. It had always bugged him – to see that one thing out of place in the otherwise undisturbed room – although he'd finally admitted that it could have just fallen there by accident. Now he glanced up sharply at the innkeeper's face, and in that one instant he found it surprisingly young, though it was a flash, and when the innkeeper lowered his eyes the feeling left him.
The boy straightened up on his stool, resolving not to take his eyes off him. There was definitely something odd about the man.
Right then someone opened the door, letting in a gust of warm air, and stepped inside. Mercenary, Moark thought immediately, then, upon a closer look at his rusty weapons and dirty clothes, he amended. Poor mercenary. His eyes followed him warily. The only difference between a penniless warrior and a bandit were principles, and principles tended to wear out as hunger grew. "Food," the man requested, sitting down heavily next to him.
The innkeeper was so efficient that before the last letter left his mouth there was a bowl of warm stew in front of him. The man gulped it down as if it were the fountain of life, then straightened up. "Wine." His voice was hoarse, as if he hadn't drunk for days. Once again, there was a bottle in front of him before he'd even said it. He drank it avidly, tilting his head back all the way, and then set it down and wiped the droplets in his beard. "Gold."
"You don't have to worry," the innkeeper reassured. "You can pay later. Help yourself to however much you want."
"That's not what I mean," the mercenary said. He reached down to his belt, grabbing one of his rusty knives, and set it down on the bar next to the empty bowl and the bottle. "Gold."
Moark looked around. There was no one – the travellers who'd spent the night had already left, and it was too early in the afternoon for others to be coming in yet. Sir Jonas must still be in the courtyard. He pursed his lips and started getting down from his stool, but a gesture from the mercenary stopped him. "You stay there, boy, unless you want the knife between your shoulder blades."
The innkeeper was staring at it blankly. "Your money, red-head. Either you give it to me or I'll take it from your corpse. Is that it around your neck?" He had a strange, northern accent, one Moark couldn't quite place.
The innkeeper blinked, as if waking up, and finally his fingers reached up and he took off a piece of rope from around his neck; tied to it there was a small leather sack which tinkled slightly as he set it down, next to the knife. The mercenary's attention was fixed on it, and Moark saw his chance. He hooked his foot on one of the legs of the stool that was supporting him and swept it. The man fell to the floor in a clatter. "Sir Jonas!" Moark cried as he jumped away, running to the door.
But when he turned back his breath froze on his lips. The innkeeper was standing over the fallen mercenary, a dark look in his eyes, with a hand hovering above the man's head. How he had jumped over the bar so fast, Moark didn't know. "He's unconscious."
"How did you do it?"
"Huh?" the innkeeper looked up, and his face assumed a bland expression again, like an actor putting on a mask. "I didn't do anything. He must have knocked his head." Of course you didn't, Moark thought, narrowing his eyes in suspicion. The innkeeper pried the purse from the mercenary's fingers and put it around his neck again. "Well, what should we do with him?"
"How would I know?"
He shook his head. "Right. Let's…" he cut himself off and thought about it for a moment.
"Is there no agent of the law nearby?"
"Your master would be an agent of the law, wouldn't he?"
Moark nodded, and went out to fetch Sir Jonas, who was still seated at the fountain, having seemingly not heard the commotion. "There's been an issue, Sir," the boy informed. He told him the whole story as they headed inside, though he didn't mention anything about the innkeeper. The knight took in the scene for a moment, before he sentenced, "cut off his left hand."
The innkeeper blanched. "Don't you think that's a bit too harsh, Sir?" Moark thought so too. Technically, it was the proper punishment for robbery in the Silverspring Kingdom, but only applied to the worst, most violent cases, and the mercenary, no matter how contradictory it seemed, had been civilised enough.
Sir Jonas reconsidered. "Maybe so. Two fingers, then. I'll do it myself."
The man was still unconscious, so he didn't feel anything, which Moark was glad for. The innkeeper cleaned the man's hand, then tied a string tightly over the two bloody mounds and covered them with a strange cream. Then he wrapped the hand in bandages, brought the limp body over his shoulders and threw it out, on the road, all with a surprising ease.
When they were finished Sir Jonas went up to his room to write a letter. Moark and the red-haired man were left alone. An uncomfortable silence settled.
"Ah!" The innkeeper said, slapping his forehead. "I have a pie in the oven. Would you like some?"
"Yes," Moark replied. "Thank you." He sat on his stool and a few minutes later the innkeeper came back from the kitchen with a warm apple pie in his hands. He cut him a big slice before going back to cleaning the bottles.
"So, where are you coming from, boy?" He asked, just to fill the silence.
He looked mildly surprised. "That's nearly at the other end of the continent, isn't it?"
"Yes. It was a long journey." The man nodded distractedly, his mind seemingly wandering off to somewhere else. "Have you been on a long journey before?"
He laughed, the twinkle in his eyes making him seem awfully young again. Too young. "Oh, I have. Lots of times." He didn't elaborate, so Moark risked pressing him a bit more.
"Really? How come?"
The innkeeper dismissed the question with his hand. "Oh, you know. Follies of youth. Like you, I guess." Moark was sure now that this man was hiding something – he acted well the part of a middle-aged, sedentary man, but it was just that, acting. Time to put an end to the farce.
"You're not really an innkeeper, are you?"
He paused momentarily. "Of course I am. What's gotten into your head, boy?"
Without previous warning, Moark grabbed his arm and yanked up his sleeve, revealing not just the fine scars in his hands but longer, sharper ones running up along his forearm, over clearly defined muscles, taut as ropes. "I'm not an idiot. These aren't from kitchen knives. They're sword-scars."
The man pulled his hand away; at the same time, his mask broke down completely. Like a wave unfurling from the sea, he stood taller, prouder, his jaw sharper. His hair, though it had looked dull and dead before, was fiery red now. His eyes were clear as they fixed on him, and an amused half-grin adorned his face. "I had a feeling I wouldn't be able to fool you," he confessed. Moark was still amazed by the sudden transformation. "You're exactly like him. But it's partly true, at least. I am an innkeeper." He looked – fearsome, noble, even more knightly than Sir Jonas. When before it melded in the background, his presence now filled the entire room.
He shrugged, setting down the bottle on the bar. His hands had calluses; they definitely looked more fit to hold a weapon than a mop. "A month ago."
"And how did it happen?" Moark shot on mercilessly. "What did you do before that?"
His grin widened, perhaps at the prospect of undergoing an interrogation by a boy of fourteen, but he answered anyway. "I was part of a mercenary company, and a famous one at that. Have you heard of…?" he shook his head. "No, you won't have. About six years ago our group was annihilated. I was one of the few who survived..." Now that explained everything. "…And without a company, I didn't quite know what to do. You see, all my skills were related to the art of war," he made a grandiloquent gesture with his hands, "but a single person is not much use in a war."
Moark looked down at the water in his mug thoughtfully. A soldier. Someone who'd been in an actual battleground, not mere flowery duels between nobles.
"So you joined another company?" He asked after a pause to drink.
The man grimaced. "No. They weren't… Well, what I was looking for, not exactly. I took odd jobs, like protecting rich merchants during their journeys – but soon I got tired of it." Moark took another swallow, but he urged him to continue with his other hand. "Yeah, well, I ended up wanting to settle down, one thing led to another, and now all this is mine." He flashed a charming smile, as if he were proud of his accomplishments.
Moark sighed, trying to avoid letting his disappointment show on his face. A soldier was alright, even if he did seem a bit crooked (one thing led to another? He didn't want to imagine what those things were). But he'd hoped for a legendary hero, hiding his identity to avoid capture, or something of the sort, not a ruffian. "Huh," was all he said.
"You know," the red-haired man started on a more serious note, "you remind me of a friend back in the company. Same eyes, though his were grey." He yawned, stretching out. He really looked young when he dropped the act, Moark thought. Probably not even thirty yet. Not even close to thirty.
"What happened to him? Your friend."
"After the… incident, he disappeared. I haven't heard from him since. I know he's not dead, though. Part of the reason why I've been wandering up until now is because I was hoping I'd find him again." His long, thin fingers started scratching at the wood. He didn't seem to be able to keep his hands still for one minute.
"That's funny. I'm looking for a friend too. She disappeared last year, without a word."
"Oh, really?" The man's eyebrows shot up in curiosity. "What does she look like?"
"She's…" Moark searched for the right words to describe Natalie, picturing her face in his mind, but in the end could only state the obvious. "Beautiful."
"Aaaaaah," he replied; now his ginger eyebrows were wriggling knowingly. "That kind of friend, huh?"
Moark paid him no mind, as something he'd said earlier caught up to him, and a scene from his memories rose up to the surface. Grey eyes. It couldn't be… It was just a coincidence, right? But, maybe… Nah, no way. But still… "What about yours?" he asked slowly. "Does he have black hair?"
The man frowned. "Yes."
No way. "Also likes to wear black?" he continued, his mouth dry. "Uses a one-handed sword?"
Now the former mercenary stared at him seriously. "Yes. How did you…?"
Moark's mind started to race. It was… What was his name? He'd only seen him once, so he couldn't remember… Scorpio! That was it! Scorpio had known where Natalie was, and apparently he'd disappeared too, six years ago. How strange. He could only think that maybe he was keeping her locked away – but, as details of the conversation came back to him, he decided it wasn't probable. What had he said? A common friend asked me to look after you… No, it wasn't that. Something he hadn't paid attention to.
Fighting for the good of the world. That was it, though it didn't make any sense. "What do you think 'the good of the-"
A noise coming from behind startled him. The man's eyes darted to the stairs, and almost immediately he became a mild, middle-aged innkeeper again. In one instant, his shoulders hunched, his eyes dulled, he leaned on the wood as if he were tired. Even his hair seemed to lose some of its colour. If Moark hadn't seen the change happening before his eyes, he wouldn't have believed it.
Sir Jonas came treading noisily down the stairs, a paper in hand. "I would be grateful if you lent me some sealing wax," he said.
"Certainly. One moment." The innkeeper disappeared into the kitchen.
The next morning they were preparing to leave. Moark hadn't had the occasion to talk to him again, save for a few hushed words behind the knight's back. Now, as the innkeeper helped him load up the saddles of the horses, he could feel his gaze on him.
"Listen," he started. "If my friend and yours really have something to do with each other, you need to be careful."
"I will," Moark promised.
"No, you don't understand." He dropped his hands. "I don't remember much of what happened that night six years ago, but…" He paused. "Oh, to hell with it. It wasn't an army, the thing that annihilated our best warriors, the best warriors in the whole continent. It was just a single… Monster."
A pause. Then, a significant "Right."
It surprised Moark. He'd never have thought that this guy was the superstitious or the lying type. The man saw what he was thinking, because he frowned in frustration. "Do you think I'd make it up? It nearly killed me too!"
"Right." The boy threw one leg over the saddle and clicked his tongue, urging the animal to follow Sir Jonas's graceful Apleata, which had already put a wide distance between them.
"Don't believe me?" He leaned down and rolled up the end of his trousers, revealing an angry red scar on the side of his calf, but the boy didn't even look back.
Kote stared at him sombrely, letting go of the fabric, which only fell halfway, before finally turning around and heading inside.
The knight and the boy trotted silently for a few hours.
So a liar, huh, Moark thought. The innkeeper had just destroyed any shred of trust or respect he might have had for him.
And then he saw it.
He also saw the wind sweeping over it in powerful strokes, lifting waves to crash into the sand and carrying the steam across the grassy plain to his face. "Are we going across?" he asked, barely able to keep the excitement out of his voice. As if to answer, the wind changed directions, turning around him to push him towards the water.
"Yes," Sir Jonas answered. "I have business in Sumger."
Leo stood in the middle of his armoury with his eyes closed. He knew he needed a weapon; the run-in with the Greater Shadows had made him see that, no matter how powerful he had become, he needed the whiteglass. He'd been putting off choosing a new sword until now, because he knew that nothing could replace Venisat, not even remotely. The connection he used to have with it was on a whole other level than the pitiful vibrations he could feel from any other blade. Now that he thought about it, Natalie had lost her weapons too, hadn't she? What would she do without Argelemnis and Chryseale?
He shook his head and forced himself to concentrate on his own problem. He could feel the feeble pulsing of the metal around him like a huge, warm beating heart. Without realising it he went towards the door of the room; there, hanging next to it, was a wooden staff just like Virgo's. Intrigued, Leo grabbed it with one hand and held it in front of him. It was burning hot. Good. He poured some of his Light into it, and suddenly the wood on either side of his hand became a curved blade, sharper than a sheet of paper, engulfed in a fiery column of flames.
He let them warm him for a few seconds. Not this, he decided. This was something the old Leo would have used, a fickle fire that could scorch anything on a whim. But now he needed… His eyes glanced around the room again. Perhaps he would find the answer somewhere, or rather sometime, else. He closed his eyes and eased himself into the Initial's skin.
He watched Scorpio and Capricorn in front of the Gate, their faces close together, framed by the wispy white of his hair and the long shiny silver of hers. For some reason, no jealousy took hold of his heart, not like when she'd left him hanging to run after him. No; towards this Scorpio he felt no animosity at all. He even respected him and acknowledged his leadership as any other Star. It was strange, he thought. At first he had assumed that his hate for the First was an inheritance from earlier generations, because he'd never been able to explain it. But now he understood that it came from somewhere else entirely. None of the other Leos had hated Scorpio. Well, the fifth generation's did have some qualms with him, but that was it.
His problem, Leo concluded, was something from his own time, and it had to do with himself only. And the real Scorpio only.
Initial Scorpio leaned down and kissed Capricorn on the lips. Leo really didn't feel any jealousy at all – in fact, he smiled and took a step forwards. "And you mean us to believe that you're fair and equal, Scorpio?" They separated like children caught doing something they shouldn't, but Leo waved his hand, amused. "No, I didn't want to interrupt. Do continue." He crossed his arms and leaned on the wall, grinning.
Scorpio cleared his throat, but Capricorn smiled timidly. "How are you doing?"
Leo pushed off the wall and walked up to them, his tone acquiring a serious note. "We need to do something about the weapons," he stated. "This world's metal doesn't work."
Capricorn nodded thoughtfully and turned to look at the Gate. "As it is, only us Elementals can inflict damage." She pressed one light finger on the glass and started tracing the minuscule patterns distractedly. "Besides, we can only kill them."
For a moment he was confused. Of course it killed them. Wasn't that the point? Killing the Shadows?
He glanced sideways at Scorpio, but the First was too busy watching her every move to answer, still hung on her presence. Poor guy, Leo thought sympathetically. He drank from her like she was his air or his wine or something. If being in love would make him look like that, Leo would rather remain single his whole life.
He seemed to wake up when she suddenly turned around and fixed her brown eyes on him. "We need whiteglass, Scorpio. We need to go back and bring some."
"Don't say that." He walked to another section of the Gate and placed his palm on it, before glancing up to take in the entirety of it. "We all knew it would close after we crossed it. We can't go back now." His voice hid a hint of bitterness, but it was quickly gone.
Leo lowered his head and frowned. "Maybe they will send us some," he suggested.
"They can't," he repeated levelly. "It's closed from their end, too."
"Then what are we going to do?" asked Capricorn. "Shadows will be getting stronger soon. We can't continue the way we are now."
Scorpio turned back to look at the two of them. "There's one more way to reach Beyond."
Leo and Capricorn looked at each other, their faces paling. "You don't mean…" But at the same time, Leo could see the logic behind it. The Gate was closed, and it would remain closed for eternity, only letting Light through and nothing else.
If they wanted whiteglass, they would need another passageway.
And there was only one other passageway to Beyond. Ironically, it was also the one they were supposed to seal.
A.N: So yeah. Maybe some of you will have noticed that I just love The Name of the Wind. I had to put Kote in somewhere, even if he's completely unrelated to my story. Don't hate me.