Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 29.1 - The End of Lán-Mara

Sig and Bromm returned to their seats. Sig had a satisfied smile on his face.

"Remember when I said we should own what we've done?" I turned to Bromm with the question, "I think I'm ready to take those words back."

"Too late for that," He said, shaking his head. "We're a poorly kept secret, especially to ourselves."

I clenched my teeth.

"You can't be that obvious and expect to keep your secrets close." Silah said with a sarcastically placating tone, "Plus, I doubt you'll be hurting from the attention you'll get from it."

She turned to me and pulled in close again, looking me in the eyes with a loving smile.

"Even you, my beastman." She said it, then leaned her head on my bicep.

I shook my head.

"Now that needs to stop." I said with some frustration.

"I think you should own it." Sig said with a smug grin.

"Yeah, you would think that." I gave him a sneer and sipped again at my mug.

We sat lazily around the table. I was feeling perpetually exhausted with each late night, I hoped for some peace from the bustle of humanity that lined the streets. It would be nice to get Hlofreden back to ourselves after the festival ended.

At least, that was what I hoped would happen.

It was the final day of the festival. Floki mentioned that at sundown they would be burning the effigy in the harbor. A woman would be selected from the festivities and declared the Niamh, or Daughter of the Sea. She would be the one who carried the hopes of the town for the coming year. The fate of Hlofreden would be bound to both her successes and her failures. I had silently wished the one selected luck in the coming days. Whoever she was would most definitely need it.

We left early, setting up a meeting place along the harbor near the apartments. Silah and I wandered the streets for a time, looking on the festivities. Some of the decorations had suffered from the amount of drunken attention. Streamers of white and blue debris were spread through the streets as we moved along. The booths were just getting set up for the final throes of the festival by bleary eyed merchants who had spent their nights participating. Hundreds of latecomers had lined up to stuff more parchments into the effigy. More tables were spread with the expectation and acolytes took the folded papers from the patrons and stuffed them where they could find space. Pieces of parchment bulged from the effigy, bowing the sticks themselves.

Elaena was among them, greeting those who lined up as she looked anxiously at the descending sun. She saw me and immediately looked concerned, her lips pressing into a fine line. I waved to her with an easy grin, which broke her out of her consternation. She smiled freely and did a small wave, ducking her head in a quick, grateful bow.

We moved into our apartment and I gazed out the window before settling on the bed, feeling exhaustion sink into me. The descending sun reddened the sky to the West, but the noise and bustle still pressed against the windows as the fervor began to increase.

"There it goes." Silah said absently as a rough flat barge was dropped into the water. Great care was taken to balance the grand effigy without spilling the craft. The monument itself was near bursting with the sins, sleights, and travails of the citizenry.

"And you didn't have anything to add?" Silah looked on me, her expression wistful.

"Nothing I care to let go of. Nothing I need with help with."

She nodded slowly.

"The time may come when that isn't the case." She said, sounding distant, "When that time comes, would you be willing to ask for help?"

I took a deep breath and thought about it. I never felt the need to rely on the gods, but perhaps, sometime in the future, that would change. As of right now, I didn't feel I could trust them to have my best interests at heart. I sat up and watched along with her, holding her close as we looked out at the harbor together.

"You're the only divine influence I need in my life." I gazed at her, smiling, "I'm content with that for now."

"You're sweet." A grin parted her lips, showing her glittering teeth, "But foolish. You'll need allies in high places when the time comes. I'm much like you. We're the boots on the ground in a war fought by Generals in high places."

"The gave above our heads." I said, feeling annoyed. "Well, I feel better about my place in life."

"As long as it is by me, I'm fine with that." She said softly, running her hand over my chest.

The effigy was now bobbing in the harbor, waiting for the sun to go down.

"We should go and join the others." I said, feeling the exhaustion still clinging to me as I moved from the bed.

We exited the apartment and moved toward the meeting place as twilight turned to dusk. We crossed through a series of standing torches that lit a path from the temple to the docks. We moved up behind the others, sitting just to the left of the dock, getting a good view from Beidrick's slip. Nida was talking with a non-descript woman wearing a wide brimmed hat. Her long legs dangled over the bow of the boat. A long tendril of blonde hair spilled from the back, sending the woman to tucking it back in.

It was Stella, catching up with Nida. Perhaps she had come to see reason with Beidrick's advice and adopted a more low-key approach to life since she was on the run from the Dowry authorities. The two seemed to be laughing as they caught up. I nodded and smiled to myself, feeling a touch of joy from their reunion.

The temple doors opened and all heads turned to the torchlit path descending to the docks. Elaena's voice rose over the crowd, as it did before the regatta.

"Hail Amalia Tham. The maiden of Niamh. The Daughter of the Sea." Elaena's voice rolled over the crowd.

Applause erupted. Tagaern whooped loudly and whistled. I was stunned and gave a wide smile, cheering heartily along with him.

If anyone deserves this honor, it was her. I thought.

I watched as Amalia—looking stunning in a long, flowing white and blue gown—walked purposefully, head held high, through the standing torches. She grasped the last torch, pulling it free, and strode forward stepping into a ramp that led down into the water, the gown billowing in the water around her. She took hold of the edge of the barge and carefully brought it with her further out into the water.

At about chest high, she held the torch to the effigy, setting it alight. The flames caught quickly, rushing over the outside of the stuffed papers and taking hold on the wicker itself. She gave it another push, sending it slowly into the harbor. The crowd grew silent as the fire roared, I could see heads bent or raised in prayer. Yet others had their hands skywards as the crackling light illuminated the entire harbor. Amalia remained in place, holding the torch now as a walking stick.

The glowing red sticks began to burst, flinging ashes and sparks as they grew weak and popped out of shape. The fire continued to rage, as the effigy began to collapse. The smoke of all these offerings rose skyward, reddening the rising moon and obscuring the the starlight.

There was a quiet hesitation, people waiting and watching in anticipation. Tagaern and I were among those that were confused.

There was a murmur of voices as people saw a wave rush into the harbor. I began to panic seeing that Amalia was in danger.

"Just watch." Bromm whispered to us with a quiet nod.

The wave burst over the barge with a great hissing sound and, as the wave approached Amalia, she buoyed up, standing on the water. It rose up under her, lifting her toward the pier. The wave broke, setting her gently on the pier, then dissipating as quickly as it came.

Amalia turned toward the crowd and thrust the torch into the air, sending the crowd into fits of hollering and cheering. My heart had stopped in my chest as I watched. Tears were streaming down her face as she turned toward all sides of the harbor, presenting the torch. A number of Acionna Acolytes moved down to the pier to assist her, holding her dress up in a train as she moved down the pier and toward the temple.

"Acionna has accepted your offerings!" Elaena's voice cried out, more shrill than before, barely audible over the seething crowd. "The Ritual of Lán-Mara is now concluded, but the festival continues tonight!"

I pushed past the others on the pier, moved to meet Amalia as she was escorted. The acolytes gave me a wary look and tried to wave me off as I moved forward to meet her. I embraced Amalia readily as the acolytes looked wide eyed at each other, unsure of what to do.

"I can't think of anyone more deserving of this honor than you." I said, bending close.

She looked up at me, her face ran with tears of gratitude and she gave me a wide smile. Tagaern was right behind me. He pushed me aside and embraced Amalia as well.

"We'll talk. There's much to be done." She said over the tumult toward Tagaern and I.

The acolytes urged her along, looking a little terrified at the delay.

The remaining night was a blur of vivid whites and blues from Acionna's colors as the town square burst into music, drinking, and dancing. My usual discomfort of crowds slipped away while Silah and I danced late into the night. The sky had begun to lighten as Faolin and another musician began to fade out with exhaustion. Many people had settled quietly to the pavement, sleeping soundly on the dew laden ground.

Quietly, acolytes of Acionna moved among them, waking some of them up and helping them to their homes while yet others dressed in Acionna's colors tugged at the decorations, bringing them down quietly and sweeping the debris from the streets.

I was bleary eyed, but sober. Silah smiled up at me, looking content as we made our way back to the apartment. I hung the coase blanket over the window, keeping the light of the rising sun at bay, while I collapsed from exhaustion.

The coming days came and went. While the crowds had subsided, the population remained high in Hlofreden. More boats were moored and the Inns were continually booked. The apartments along the harbor began to fill with a mixture of merchants and those who wished to make Hlofreden their home.

It wasn't long into the week that Amalia met with Tagaern and I at The Sea Witch. The others had excused themselves to follow up on their own business, so it was just him and I. Around the afternoon, we began swapping tales of the Ten-years War, which had escalated more quickly than expected. Silah looked with an incredulous expression between the two of us, but it was Amalia that disarmed the heated conversation when she moved through the door.

She settled at the table and looked between us with occasional glances to Silah.

"I've decided to side with Hlofreden. The Regent has helped me make a plan for Lyon." She said, looking a little overcome, her eyes glossed slightly as she spoke. "Avorra has made every effort to coordinate the goings on."

She her eyes reddened and she put her hand to her face, "I am overwhelmed by the support from so so many."

"Then, where can we help?" Tagaern said, "It's about time I lend my own hand."

She smiled while tears of happiness rolled from her eyes, then nodded, rubbing them away.

"Yes. I came to ask for your help on what I should do next." She said, looking at her hands laid flat on the rough table, "I have the resources and the support. Now I need to take action and I would like your help in determining what the future of Lyon will be. And who else but you two? I trust both of you completely."

I nodded and smiled. Tagaern pawed at his face, his eyes tearing up as she spoke.

"Whatever we can do, my dear Amalia." Tagaern said gruffly, his voice was also choked with emotion. "For as long as I can."

"The Regent has offered a contingent of soldiers while we fix the walls of old Kellas House. The Temple, at Avorra's behest, is sending a man, Lars, who recently returned from service in the West, handling border disputes. He's been tasked with setting up a mission in Lyon."

"Workers will be provided for, too, the Regent saw to that." She looked like she was about to burst into tears again, "The Regent showed me a plan to allow us to still be self-governed. If we keep the population below one hundred souls, a noble will not be assigned to govern the territory. I never thought of the Regent as more than an accountant and a babysitter to the prince, but these efforts of his have proved that I was greatly mistaken."

I nodded, feeling that things were coming together for her. I wondered if Avorra had planned this all along? Her efforts to stand Amalia up meshed well with her being chosen as the Daughter of the Sea. Those who wished to strengthen Hlofreden would go out of their way to support her. I smiled at the cunningness of the plan. She was one of the good ones.

"We could go now. Your needs are foremost in my mind." Tagaern said, I nodded along with him.

It was good to be moving again. Taking the road out of town toward Dowry brought back memories both good and bad. The skies were clear, though, with only traces of wispy clouds speeding quickly overhead. Before long, we were at the turnoff approaching Kellas House. Foremen were marking out locations for the tent city that would be the workers quarters and the barracks themselves.

On approach, a man clad in gleaming heavy armor approached us, a banner showing Acionna's colors hung from clasps on his shoulders. The banner of blue and white narrowed from the shoulders and widened again around the backs of his knees. He bowed graciously to Amalia as he approached and introduced himself to us as Lars, a paladin of Acionna. Introductions went around and he smiled kindly as he recognized our names and our stations. He snapped a bow fluidly and offered an outstretched hand that both Tagaern and I shook firmly. The exchange was brief as others seemed to be waiting on him, but he departed with a broad smile and a brief salute, returning to his duties.

I left Tagaern's side, excusing myself as we approached and revisited the spot where I had built the pyre of giant and orc corpses. There was a great blackened patch of ground that had been cleared by the workers. I kicked at the dirt and found fleshless scorched bones, cracked from the heat. I sighed at the memory. Then, before stepping foot inside of old Kellas House, I turned toward the training yard where we had buried Duncan. Amalia caught up to me while I stood there. Silah was strapped to my back, turned in her sheath to maintain contact.

"We're going to put a memorial stone here for him. He will be the first citizen of Lyon, in memoriam." She said with a long tattered breath.

"It is fitting, using Lyon. You do his memory proud." I said, looking on her with a smile. "He's wherever the gods have seen fit to take him, looking down on you and smiling. Watching you build up something that he was content to keep as a simple roadside inn."

I heard her sniff, wiping at her face. I put my arm around her shoulder, looking down on Duncan's grave.

"Never forget him, but don't let his memory be about our loss. Let his memory be that of a great man who adored and protected everything he loved. He had such a big heart. Big enough to somehow fit me in there." I smiled, feeling a lump form in my own throat, "And that's saying something."

She turned into me and I held her for a time, looking over her head back to his grave.

We'll keep watch, Duncan. I thought, looking skyward. We'll make this world safe for her.

Tagaern set to work at formalizing plans while I lingered back, watching and learning from his experience. Silah was also involved, drawing on her now vast memories, interceding as necessary. My military training began to come back to me, and I had seen the way that Duncan had handled his men, knowing their individual strengths and weaknesses and matching them up with those who would help fill in each other's gaps. I began to interview the workers and guards, then offer my recommendations to those who had been put in charge.

During the nights, we would stay in our individual rooms in the now quiet Kellas House inn. It was unfortunate how something that had felt so right had come to feel so wrong. Silah's presence tempered my superstitions as she wrapped me in her comforting reality and allowed me drift off to sleep.

A few days later, Tagaern looked unsettled at breakfast. Silah had moved off, watching the goings on in the kitchen and keeping Amalia company as she moved about the rooms.

"I think I'm going to stay here. Keep an eye on things." He lifted his eyes, his face concerned, "I feel more at home here than I do in Hlofreden."

I nodded then scrutinized him.

"You do realize that she's safe, right?" I said, trying to see where his thoughts were going. "Are you thinking of staying here permanently?"

He avoided the question, looking out the window. His lips pinched into a hard line.

"Travel back with me. Let's see what matters need attending to back in Hlofreden and we can head back this way again to make sure everything is settled." I said, seeing his heart slowly breaking. "While noble, this is not the way to make up for something that was beyond your control."

"I could have stayed. I knew it was dangerous out here." His frustration was becoming more apparent.

"And you may have been one of the bodies alongside him. You maybe had helped him push through to victory." I shrugged feeling my heart ache while I said it, "The past is set. It cannot be changed. Duncan would rather that you find your future than to dwell on an obligation he would never have wished on you."

Tagaern narrowed his eyes at me. There was a deep set fury that sparked in there, smoldering with an unquenched vengeance.

"And you are content, boy?" He growled the words at me, "Content to squirrel your time away with these businessmen?"

I looked out the window, seeing the sunlight glaze over the hard packed earth of Kellas House proper. Thinking briefly on that. It had been something I had thought a lot about, but I knew my answer.

"Do you think it's as simple as that? I know you don't. Would you heard Qinnah's voice or seen those Seven Shield Maidens if you hadn't prodded us along?" I said, regaining my balance as my thoughts unrolled into words, "I have heard of no others that are pressing back the tides of the dark gods as we have. While there are fits and starts with these others, this… this purpose of ours will save more lives than guarding a woman surrounded by a dozens of able bodied men. She would constantly feel that she's doing you a disservice.

"If you weren't pushing us forward, do you think we would have been able to take the Bulwark?" I asked sternly, looking him in the eye.

He shrugged then shook his head.

"We would have frozen at the entrance, afraid to push forward." I said levelling a piercing gaze at him, "You cut through and your stalwart presence even brought Qinnah forward in support. Bold action is rewarded. And we need more bold action. We need someone who can challenge those things that are a frivolous waste of time.

"Instead of looking at what you've lost. Look at what you have gained." I knocked on the table sharply. "We are much less without you. Please think on that."

He nodded.

"I will think on that." He said, pushing the half finished plate away from him, "I still plan to make this my home."

"As you should." I said, nodding, "But know that you can do more to protect Amalia out there, than you can in here. I know. I have felt the same pull to stay and help, but it is also possible that we will bring more danger here than we can avoid."

I looked over to Silah who had an eyebrow raised while looking at me. I gave her a pained grimace to which she shrugged and continued with her business.

"We'll be leaving soon. Come and find me if you intend to leave with us." I said to Tagaern and stood.

Silah and I left for Hlofreden without Tagaern as the sun beat down on us.

(Get to know Akeron.)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 28.7 - Storyteller

I was immediately taken in by his charm and warmth. He pulled a chair from a neighboring table and everyone at the table shifted to make room as the entire tavern seemed to pull in closer, collapsing in on his presence.

Durid looked on us with a wise smile, noting the amount of attention his entry had garnered. With a nod, he settled in.

"Gentleman. Ladies. I was wondering if I could cover a few of the finer points of your tale?" His eyes moved to engage each one of us at the table. "It's not often I get to see those that I tell tales of. I can say that it has been near decades since I've garnered such a tale where those heroes have live to tell it."

Bromm's mouth pulled into a straight line as he saw the faces hovering over the table. I looked on recognizing at least half of those faces, these others would likely spread the tale readily which brought me to the same point of consideration. After this, there would be no hiding from what we'd done.

"I take it I'm not all that far off from what I've told?" He said, looking at us quizzically likely due to our silence. "Although, on some of the finer points, I saw that some things didn't quite line up. I appreciate an opportunity to set the record straight?"

There were nods around. He focused in on Danin.

"You held the banner of Kols, yet you are a Cleric of Derrum Ebbar?"

Danin nodded.

"How did you come to be in possession of such an artifact?"

"Our man, Bromm, here." Danin nodded to him, "It was a gift to him."

"Heh, a gift." Bromm muttered. "A dwarf delivered it to me with a cryptic message. ‘Take my banner to the Bulwark.' and placed a token at our table. Then, just as quickly, he was gone."

Though it wasn't exactly how I remembered things, I believe that Bromm wanted to protect the dwarf who had been possessed by the spirit of Kols.

Durid nodded at Bromm's explanation.

"And you're the one who has single handedly restored the faith of Kols. Was this why you were bestowed with this honor to begin with?"

Bromm paused, looking uncomfortable, then said, "You could say that."

Durid noted his expression and his words. He nodded, seeming to empathize with whatever mixed emotions Bromm had let seep through. The bard turned toward Sig.

"And you. You're the businessman. You're the namesake for Richter Holdings, if I'm not mistaken."

"Yes. Sig Richter. I'm partnered with this man here," He pointed to Bromm, who nodded in response.

Durid listened to the response then waited a moment for the silence to fill in behind Sig's words.

"You're not exactly a wizard, are you?" Durid said, leading the question.

"Not exactly. No." Sig said, with a dangerous smirk. "I do what I can to help out with what skills I've developed."

Sig's standoffishness was also noted by the bard. Durid nodded at him and seemed to want to ask another question, but then thought better of it.

"Tagaern. You're a war hero? Ten-years War from what I hear?" Durid leaned on the table, shifting his focus to the next in line.

"Yes. Hakaar and I fought in the same battle that finished the Mad King." He said heartily but his tone went somber as he continued, "Duncan Tham, our mutual friend, had fallen in Kellas. They had taken his head and we went to reclaim it."

Durid nodded at the connection.

"So, this Duncan, was also from the Ten-years War? I had heard he was a good man. He will be missed." He spoke reverently bringing a nod from both Tagaern and I.

"You're a disciple of Qinnah." The bard pointed to symbol that Tagaern was wearing, "Were you the one who called on the Shield Maidens?"

"If only I had the power to will a vision like that into being!" He said with a wide grin, his eyes sparkled, glossing slightly as he recalled the experience.

"I saw them, clear as I see you, standing between a dozen archers and the great tree. I heard Qinnah's voice saying that they would protect our approach. Once I had that vision, I had no doubts." He smiled, " And, sure enough, just as I heard it, the Shield Maidens did protect us. As is Qinnah's way, turning the tide of battle in our favor."

Durid smiled at Tagaern's passion.

"So, you two fought together in the Ten-years War?" Durid motioned between us.

I nodded.

"Then you knew each other?" He continued.

"We were in different companies, but they held the line while the Grasslions, led by Duncan, stormed the palace and put an end to the Mad King." I said, stirring memories from the haze, "I was there when his madness was silenced."

"The Red Shields stayed back to finish the fight." Tagaern presented his shield from where it hung on his chair and knocked on its red painted face. "Not a glamorous job, by any means, but we saved a lot of lives."

Durid looked at Tagaern with a smile and then furrowed his brow slightly.

"There's a scorpion on your shield. What's that for?"

Tagaern pointed to Sig.

"Just a little advertising for Richter Holdings." Sig gave a slight smirk.

Durid looked briefly disquieted, but then his expression smoothed back to placid. He sipped at a Shatterhammer ale that had been placed in front of him.

"This is good. A local brew?" Durid licked his lips as the mug clunked to the table.

"One of our own." Bromm said, "Out of our family brewery."

He flashed a smart smile, "That you run as well, I take it?"

Bromm smirked, but looked just a little sheepish.

"You men are surprisingly enterprising for as young as you are. Not many your age are taking on giants, politics, and trade. All in one go." He sipped at the ale again and looked to me.

I felt my mouth go dry.

"You're the … man with the sword?"

Silah was still leaning into me, but now she was sitting there watching from my eyes, standing on the shoreline of the beach, the scene painted across the ocean and sky in front of me.

"Calmly, my beast. Don't worry about your words. He's a master of them, which means that you don't have to be." Her voice echoed in my mind, as her horned visage looked on me from glowing yellow eyes.

Her face was attempting to mask some mirth. Finding my sudden panic amusing.

"Hakaar?" Durid's voice floated over the misty waters.

You're not helping. I grumbled to her quietly, pulling my focus back to reality.

"Sorry. It's a lot to think about." I said, attempting to recover.

"So it seems." His eyes looked on me quizzically, seeming to suddenly be more intrigued by my lapse.

"What was your question?"

"Your sword? With a prized possession like that, I'd expect you to wear it at all times."

"It's always close." I said, attempting mask my expression. "I can call on it when I need it."

Durid nodded.

"It sounds like an impressive artifact." He said with an appreciative nod, "How did you manage to come across this?"

"Oh, the benefits of traveling with men like these." I said, realizing that I was playing a dangerous game with someone who had much more information about local lore than he let on. "In our travels."

"You're pretty bad at this." Silah's voice echoed silkily in my head.

A little help, then? I pleaded internally.

"Oh, you're doing just fine. I promise." She said with a slight edge to her voice.

"You've been traveling together for some time, then?" He continued to press.

"Long enough to manage that sword?" I said as a question, hoping to keep him at bay.

"I see." Durid nodded slowly, grinning briefly as he tipped the mug to his lips again..

"And you, the Ranger, you have a wolf of incredible size?" He said, breaking off our conversation and continuing on to Floki.

"Yes. He's very large. You described him perfectly." Floki said with a smile.

"Was he a gift from Yollari?" Durid asked quickly.

"Yeah. Yeah, he was. I was out tracking orcs. He just floated down and, ya know, that was that. A gift from Yollari." Floki said nonchalantly, shrugging absently.

Durid nodded, again, seeming to take note. Honestly, no one was there when Floki found the wolf. When I first saw them together, it was a dirty, scrappy creature. It had grown formidable under Floki's care, which had said a lot about Floki's own ability.

"You could learn something from him." Silah echoed with a giggle. "A grander version of the truth is always acceptable."

"You, m'lady, you were there, too, correct?" Durid looked directly at Silah, looking a little suspicious. "But I wasn't sure of the part you played?"

Silah regarded him placidly while she tilted her head.

"Oh, I think you know, storyteller." She said with a grin. "Yet, it may be best that your story remains just as it was last night. As you know, there are some things best left to the imagination."

He looked concerned, glancing around the table, then looked at her again and nodded, wetting his lips.

I glanced at Silah who had still locked her eyes with Durid, trying to determine what their exchange was. A moment of silence passed, ended by the squeal of Durid's chair as he pushed away from the table. He took a sip of the ale, then drained the remainder from his mug.

"It is rare, as I said, to have a moment from those who experienced such a memorable tale. I thank you for your time and hospitality." Durid said, having shaken off the concern and smiling handsomely around the table, his tousled grey and brown hair hung around his face as he bent to stand.

"One thing before you go." Sig said, narrowing his eyes. "Where did you get this information?"

"Ah, I don't reveal my sources, my friend." He said, as he tipped his head to the side.

"Oh, I insist." Sig said with a grimace, "This happened no more than two days ago. You speak like you were there and I know for a fact that you weren't."

He stood, looking much less grand as he weighed his options.

"Was it the wizard?" I asked.

He put a finger to his lips and looked around the tavern, then nodded toward the door. I followed Sig and Bromm out the door. Silah nodded and smiled as I stood.

"I'll stay here. Don't get into any trouble." She said with a glittering smile.

She was definitely hiding something.

We moved outside, stepping some ways away from the door of The Sea Witch when Durid, looking intimidated, looked to us, his voice low.

"Yes, the wizard Sobek, in part, but I am connected to those who watch him. Sobek is mixed heavily into the politics of Dowry. The Princess, herself, has put a detail of observers to keep track of his movements believing that he's not to be trusted." Durid said, looking on the late afternoon bustle as he spoke. "I'm a broker of information. That's my trade. However, my true love is to preserve and tell these stories of heroism."

I moved up behind Bromm as he nodded at Durid's words, crossing my arms imposingly. Durid looked up to me, wanting to say something, but after a long, concerned grimace he turned back to Sig.

"Well, that explains that." Sig nodded. "Perhaps there is some information we could have you keep an eye out for?"

"Oh? What is that?" Durid seemed nonplussed by the request.

"There's an alehouse in Dowry that holds a special recipe."

Durid twisted his head and furrowed his brow briefly, still looking at Sig.

"Chantry? The three brothers?" Durid drew his lips into a tight line.

"That's the one." Sig said with a nod.

"And, I take it, you want this recipe." He said flatly.

"Information. That's what we're looking for."

I gave a contemptful chuckle and looked between Sig and Bromm.

"I see this doesn't concern me. I'll be inside." I said as I turned on my heel and moved toward the tavern.

"Wait. There's something you should know." Durid called out toward me, making me freeze in my tracks.

"There's a man, a skilled Samurai, from the West. He challenged a nobleman and took his sword because of its … special properties." The words spilled out of him quickly. "I've heard of such properties, but only in distant tales."

I turned slowly and came back, standing close to Durid again, forcing him to crane his neck to make eye contact with me.

"I wouldn't have guessed if I hadn't seen her with my own eyes." He glanced anxiously between Bromm and Sig, then back to me. "Your story is much like his story. I intend to seek him out, but I believe you and him have something in common."

I scrutinized him silently, nodded, then moved back to the tavern. My head swam with the implications. I moved back to where Silah was and sat heavily next to her.

"You knew, then?" I said aloud, looking forward at the rough table surface.

"Oh, my dear. I sure am glad I'm here." She said, her voice cooing to me like a child while she leaned into me, sliding her arm along the inside of mine. "You are not very good at this."

(Get to know Akeron.)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 28.6 - Grief

The night was restless. The memories had been stirred, bringing the horror and pain back to the surface. It had settled away quietly, waiting patiently for a moment just like this.

Now, these memories pounced with an animal-like fervor. A constant, unrelenting stream of visions. My heart hurt, as I replayed the each moment, including the memories I had forgotten during the battle. Duncan's sunken face being at the forefront of those painful memories.

I tossed and turned, feeling feverish, only vaguely aware of Silah moving within the range of our bond, bringing fresh water and pressing cool rags to my forehead and arms. I could feel a her distant worry each time she touched my flesh.

I eventually awoke, dry and parched.

"Here, drink this." I blinked my eyes open as I heard Silah's soft voice whispering worriedly.

She had been in contact with me, watching me rise through the layers of sleep until I had become aware. It was light out, likely mid-morning by the way the light filled the room. She looked angelic in her white dress with the sun through the window, setting her aglow. I moved to rise, but she put a firm hand to my chest, keeping me down. After a moment, she removed her hand, turned away, and lifted another moistened rag to my forehead, shaking her head with annoyance.

Silah seemed to want to speak, but she simply continued shaking her head, unable to find the words.

"I'll be fine." I said, my voice gravely. I cleared my throat and sipped at the water she had brought me. "But thank you."

I gazed up at her, admiring her again. Her expression was a strange mix of frustration and sympathy. Her mouth was pinched into a furious pout, that was both adorable and worrisome.

I could feel the aches starting to subside, the visions had played themselves out and, with them, had come a palpable acceptance. Each haunting image brought with it a sort of resolution: Duncan was dead, Kellas House was no more, and, while still ultimately successful, I had nearly died, again.

I had come to accept my mortality in a way that I had not been able to before, staring death in the face with so many things left undone. Even with the frantic pace of my dreams, the acceptance of these responsibilities brought a strange sort of peace. It rose within me, releasing me from always wanting things to have played out differently, a chance to duck the mantle of responsibility and be free to live out our lives.

What had happened seemed to be unavoidable, but that, in itself, was just fine. The moment for us to change direction had passed. Wanting something different was no longer an option. And, while we were now saddled with it, there didn't seem to be anyone who could or would step up to do the tasks that we had accepted.

My purpose, the one that I had chosen and the one that I intended to follow to its conclusion, was mine to own and accept. Duncan's words about feeling constant guilt for the people I could not save had finally sunk in. He was still giving me insightful, even from beyond the grave. I nodded at his memory and smiled.

Silah looked at me, her brow furrowed matching her angry pout.

"So you are just giving up? Is that it?" She looked at me, sounding angry and hurt.

"Why would you think that?"

"Accepting your fate? As you mortals do? You'll just find a place to curl up and die?" She said, backing away from pressing the cloth to my head.

I shook my head.

"Far from it, my love." I said, wanting to express more, but unable to.

I softened my expression and smiled up at her lovely face.

I wondered if these jumbled thoughts in my head were too difficult for her to follow. I had barely made sense of them myself. And the thought was too complex to put into simple words. While I had thought for so long that I had lived without any choice or free will of my own, every decision I had made to this point had told me otherwise. It showed me that I was in control.

It went further than that, too. Regardless of the impact I left on this world before I would leave it, whether by sword or by age, I would own that. Even if the gods saw fit to let me dissolve into the Ether and never to return, I would still do what I intended to do. With this acceptance, there came the strange comfort of living life on my own terms—a freedom I'd had all along, but had never recognized it for what it truly was.

I put my hand up to her face gently. She took pressed into my hand and a single tear rolled down her cheek.

"I don't know what to do when you're like this. I can't save you from yourself." She said, her voice edging on panic. "You pushed me away in your dreams, fighting your own monsters, and hissing at me every time I approached. I don't think you even recognized me. I …"

"I'm fine. Really. Everything is right where it is supposed to be. I've made my peace with the past, with Duncan's memory. It still hurts, but I can move on, now." As I said the words, I knew it was true.

Perhaps this grand wicker figure outside had given me a lesson after all. But I couldn't give it to someone else, I had to accept it and let it be a part of who I was.

I began to sit forward. This time Silah relented. I embraced her, consuming her with my arms and stayed there for a moment. I pulled back and looked at her.

"We should go see the others, see what they're up to. It's the final night of the festival and I hear they're going to set that wicker thing out there in the harbor and set it afire." I grinned at her still worried expression. "It sounds like it will be fun."

"You're not tired?" She said, still sitting at the edge of the bed as I moved to the washbasin and splashed water on my face and looked in the mirror.

"A little? Nothing a glass of wine from the temple and a walk to The Sea Witch won't fix." I toweled my face and looked at her with a toothy grin.

Her brow pulled up in a pleading expression, but, beyond looking confused, she said nothing.

"Come. They'll leave us if we don't make an appearance soon." I held my hand out to her, beckoning, and opened the door.

I wrapped my arm around her waist as she moved tentatively through the door. I shut the door and lifted her into my arms, carrying her down to the exit. She'd made a strangled noise as I did it, which widened the smile that was already well in place.

It's good to know that I can still surprise you. I thought while looking at her.

Her eyes glistened as she looked at me her expression softening. She laid her head on my shoulder, snuggling close to my neck, as we emerged from the apartment.

The table was nearly full, as usual. Rana had her spot close to Danin, dressed down with her usual, more comfortable thin leathers. Sig and Nida were sharing a plate of sweetbread they managed to get from the street vendors. Bromm and Floki had empty plates in front of them and they were talking business around the brewery. There was some heated discussion with Macaulay who was in his usual place behind the bar.

"Why? Why did you have to name it that? Can't it be something simple and not based on some outlandish story that you clearly made up?"

"Macaulay, lad, calm down. You're scaring the customers." Bromm said smoothly.

Macaulay's face went white with rage, but he held his tongue at his younger brother's dismissiveness. He furiously scrubbed at the spotless bar with a dry rag.

I tipped my head to Macaulay.

"I'll take the stout." I said.

"At least I can count on you to be respectful." He said, nodding to me, as he put the mug under a cask of Giant's Head, filled it, waited for the froth to die down, then filled it again. "It takes forever to get these out on the table. I spent most of my time waiting."

"What's the name of that stout again?" Floki shouted over my back.

"Your boys here are doin' a number on me with this." His eyes were still impassioned from the shouted conversation just moments ago. "If I could convince me da' that this is bad for business, I'd do it in a heartbeat."

Sabella moved through, her swagger was replaced by a stiff gait as she stormed up from the back and moved directly to Bromm.

"If I get propositioned for giant head one more time…" She lifted a hand to strike him.

He ducked back and pointed emphatically to Danin.

"It wasn't me!" He said quickly, but the mirth in his voice was apparent.

"Danin. I thought better of you." Sabella's furious tone was unintentionally diffused by the lilt in her voice. "Ya didn't think twice about the implications, eh? I'll make Rana serve some and she'll let ya know."

Rana looked wide eyed.

"See? I told ya!" Sabella tromped back to the bar.

Faolin was in the background, plucking absently at his instrument.

"This is truly deserving of a drinking song." He said, mostly to himself. "I think I better work on that."

"Don't do it. Faolin. I've already had to disown one brother today!" Sabella called out to him as she reached the bar.

"Ah, c'mon, sis!" Bromm said incredulously.

There were a pair of mugs with the thick stout and another pair of Shatterhammer. It had been resting on the counter as Macaulay slowly filled each of the stouts. She sighed heavily and lifted it expertly with one hand, her face trying on a pained smile as she moved toward the back of the tavern.

I looked sidelong at Silah and chuckled silently as I turned from the bar with my stout.

"Hakaar, you're looking well." Bromm said, looking at me with some apprehension. "You didn't look so good last night?"

"Just something that didn't agree with me. I feel great this morning."

He nodded, apprehension still on his face. His eyes fluttered between Silah and I, pausing on her long enough for me to need to look back at whatever unspoken communication passed between them.

"Really. Everything is fine." I said a bit more forcefully, feeling my frustration rise.

He nodded again and shrugged.

"Boys!" A gruff voice called from the door.

It took a moment to recognize the man as he moved across to the table. I waited for the others to recognize him to see what they said. Sig stood and shook his hand and Bromm nodded to the man from his seat. It was the old pirate captain we'd rescued from capture. It seemed ages away even if it had been a little over a week ago.

"I was hoping to see you here, Gar. I'm glad you found us!" Sig said with a nod.

"Well, with the bard telling your stories up on stage, I figured I'd better say something or you'd hunt me down!"  He said giving a grin showing gaps from a few missing teeth.

"What do you mean our stories?" I asked.

"What do you mean? He described each one of you. Not the usual sort of fellows that hang ‘round each other. I'm no fool, boys. I know when I'm among heroic sorts. You saved my life, after all." He said bobbing his head quickly.

I could see that Macaulay was listening with interest, his brow furrowed, while pouring rounds and tending to the bar.

"No trouble on the way back?" Floki asked.

"Both yes and no? I saw plenty of trouble, but managed to avoid it. Lots of smoke and fire out on the plains as I moved toward that mine that you boys pointed out to me." He nodded. "Your operation? Strange materials you're working with, there."

Sig smiled and nodded.

"I caught a ride with a loudmouthed captain that makes runs back here. There was a bunch of kids there, too, refugees or something. Shook up something fierce. The boys were silent, but the girl said she was from Kellas House." He shrugged. "Apparently, bad things happened there."

"We're aware." Danin said, nodding grimly.

"That captain had something to prove, though. Talks an awful lot. If you need a replacement, I'd be happy to oblige…" His voice trailed as he looked at the faces at the table.

"Beidrick is an old friend of ours." Bromm said before Gar thought to continue. "If you'd work for us, you'd be doing a different route, but you may still report to him."

Gar's face dropped a bit.

"Well, if you say he's a good man. I can't help but take your word for it." He said, drawing out his words more and more slowly.

"I didn't say good. But he is a friend of ours." Bromm said again, this time with a slight smile.

This comment prompted another gapped toothed grin from Gar, and he nodded slowly.

"Don't worry, you'll be on different routes. Since you know your way down South, I expect we'll be looking to you to help us down that way." Sig said. "You won't have to talk with Beidrick much."

"Aye. So, does getting on the payroll give me any benefits in town?" Gar eyes meandered over the faces looking at him from the table.

"We'll still have to work that out. Do you have a boat, yet?" Sig cut straight to the point.

"C'mon, boy!" He said looking incredulous. "I'm no miracle worker. See, I'm looking to commission one local, but it's going to take time."

"There's a newly sunk boat or two in the harbor here, perhaps it'd be easier to reclaim one?" Floki said.

Gar looked a little disturbed by the thought.

"I'll… think about it?" He offered then started looking toward the door, suddenly uncomfortable.

Bromm nodded.

"We'll talk later." Sig said, also nodding to him.

"Aye." He walked awkwardly through the tables and sped out the door.

"I think you scared him off. Perhaps all those expectations of being legitimate made him reconsider." I said, pulling a chair for Silah then settling in myself.

"Oh, he'll be back." Sig said with a confident expression.

I caught Sabella's attention, she gave me a look that was flat and deadly.

"Just food, is all. A plateful for her of whatever's cooking."

She looked between us, maintaining her venomous gaze. While she may not have understood it, she seemed to have gotten used to Silah's bottomless appetite.

"Yes, sorry. Two plates." I found myself placating, attempting to avoid being associated with whatever history she had with the others.

Even while we were late, the rest of the group didn't seem interested in finding something else to do. It was odd to see Nida outside of dowry. The two boys that had followed her in before the bonfire had been sent on their way after having it explained to them that she'd both keep it quiet, but also that she would not tolerate being babysat. The boys had likely paired off with the other girls of Nida's entourage as she adopted us in their place.

The only one who seemed restless was Rana. She seemed to itch with the lack of activity. Her station from working on the Ranch had her used to working full days and rarely sitting still, but I could see that she grounded herself from all of her fidgeting most effectively when she was by Danin's side.

I caught Silah watching me, studying my face, still concerned as I smiled and laughed with the others.

"I'm fine, Silah." I said, finally, while the conversation at the table continued on. "Really, I am."

She gave a small huff, feeling like I was shutting her out.

I put my hand on hers.

Take a look for yourself. I thought, giving her a slight shrug.

She tilted her head and watched me, but the sensation of her pawing around in my mind didn't come. She sat, unmoving, watching closely. The concern in her eyes was apparent. I smiled at her, unfazed and unconcerned.

"Do you mind if I join you gentleman?" A familiar male voice said.

While the voice was not as artfully dressed as I'd heard it before, it was immediately recognizable. The lanky man stood to his full stature, rising a couple hands higher than me while I sat. This man was the bard from the night before.

"I was told I might find you here." The seasoned man said, even in these simple close-quarters, his voice rang out with a certain majesty.

Recognition fired around the table rapidly. Faolin, who had been lazily plucking away looked starstruck, sitting up, immediately attentively.

The bard who told our story the night before, Durid Rhymkeeper, had slipped in and stood close wearing a knowing smile.

(Get to know Akeron.)

Hakaar - Chronicle 28.5 - Barbarians

I slumped on the edge of the platform and squeezed my eyes shut while fumbling for the water Beidrick had put beside me. Others had joined the regatta celebration and were drinking the Shatterhammer ale from the spare barrels that Bromm and Sig had negotiated. Even some of the new Giant's Head stout was also making its rounds. I could hear from announcing that there would be "Giant Head" at The Sea Witch, which brought on fits of raucous laughter.

I was distant from the scene, feeling unwell, to say the least. A belly full of ale and a sleepless night behind me. I was holding Silah in my hands, running my fingers along the flat of her glittering blade and traced the etched runes as I ran over them.

Can I trust her? Avorra? I thought absently.

Even while asking the question I realized that I wasn't feeling well enough to be all that interested in the answer.

"She knows much more than she lets on." Silah echoed with an uncharacteristic reverence. "I believe she's one of the good ones."

I nodded, still only partially aware. My head was starting to right itself, but being shirtless in the sun was sapping me of energy each moment. I looked over at the others, the large albino man had engaged them, glowing brightly in the sun. I thought briefly how he managed in the bright sunlight, but it slipped away as quickly as it came.

The others had been offering him some of the new stout and he kept waving it off, putting a hand to his belly. After enough egging on, though, he put a hand up and turned to the side and let loose a foamy spout of vomit splashing to the street. I cringed at the sight, seeing the others look at each other with some horror.

See, you could have had it worse. There was a quiet tremble of revulsion coming from the blade, but she said nothing.

The man took the mug from Floki's outstretched hand and sipped first, then drained the mug. Apparently, the man had two drinking strategies. He nodded vigorously and I could hear the word "Good" through a thick guttural accent.

I strapped on the sheath, feeling Silah secure against my back again. She settled easily into my mind effortlessly. Her presence moved forward, resting gently on my shoulders as she seemed to look at the unfolding scene along with me.

I stood and approached the table where he and the others were now realizing that Nida was still accompanying Sig. I gave her a nod and she smiled widely, raising a mug, while tucking into his shoulder. Danin nodded smugly in my direction, sitting close to Rana, and I bowed slightly with a salute. The large gleaming white man stood and looked at me. He was perhaps a hand taller than I and looked me over and nodded with a wary respect.

"Name's Hakaar." I offered a hand and he regarded it with some apprehension for a split second.

"Aegliffe." He took my hand and did a single firm shake.

Just his grip said a lot, the grasp itself was a little unpracticed. He didn't try to smash my hand, though. It was as if he didn't have anything to prove, but there was just enough tension to determine my own strength. It was something I had gotten used to, myself, using physical contact to weigh an opponent.

"Where do you hail from?" I asked.

"Small village, North and West of here." He said with his thick accent through his pale lips.

"Are all people your size there?" I said with a smile.

"Ah, a few." He grunted, sounding a little like a challenge.

I nodded. He was a man of few words.

"I saw you manning the oars by yourself. Do you sail much?"

"Oars are easy. I let others steer." He said, letting out a low gruff laugh.

Sig was eyeing the two of us.

"Care for a wager? How about you two arm wrestle and I'll give ten gold to the winner?" Sig finally said.

I looked on Sig with disdain.

"Put it on the table and I'll concede so he can just take your gold." I grumbled.

"Why would you do that?" Floki said, sounding incredulous. "C'mon. What's the harm?"

I sighed and shook my head. This sort of thing was happening all too often. There were moments where I had felt like a trained animal performing tricks.

"No. Is a good bet." The large tattooed man said with a nod, putting down the empty mug. "You know arm wrestle, yes?"

I nodded with a grimace.

"Heh. Good." He settled in on the table and looked up at me.

"Nothing good came come of this." I mumbled toward Sig.

Aegliffe patted the table and nodded to me with a good natured smirk.

I settled in and gripped his hand. His muscled jumped to attention as we locked hands.

"Do well, my love." Silah whispered as she grinned behind my tired eyes.

"Everyone ready?" Sig looked between us and the began to slap the table. "One, two, three!"

I pressed into him, seeing red, gritting my teeth. I was giving him the last of my effort. The tension in his face told a similar story. He looked impressed, although I felt fortune begin to reverse as I started leaning toward his side.

He took a tremendous breath and bellowed. His muscles hardened and his veins begin to pop as he called on his inner strength. I grunted as he moved my hand over the zenith and pressed it quickly to the table.

We let go and I pulled back, feeling my anger getting the better of me. I took a moment to calm myself with deep breaths. He seemed to go through a similar process, the throbbing vein in his temple slowing its pulse and he gave a satisfied smile.

"Very strong. Not as strong as me, but very strong." He stood up, sweeping the gold from the table.

He moved over to the side of one of the closeby buildings, lifted his kilt, and being to empty his bladder against wall. I was aghast and Silah rattled a laugh echoing through my skull. The rest of the table looked back to their mugs with wide eyes. Rana was the only one who openly shook her head at him.

"What do they feed him where he lives?" Rana said, looking away as the blood drained from her face.

"No idea, but they should probably stop." I said, rubbing my already tired arms. "He's impressive. I don't think I've seen any man—human or half-orc—quite as solid as that.

"What?" I asked as their eyes turned to me.

"You are pretty comparable in size." Bromm said, looking between us.

I gave him a look of disdain.

"Try being on the other side of that arm." I said, now working on my shoulder.

Aegliffe came back and joined us and picked up his mug and went back to the barrel of Shatterhammer ale. The conversation went more gracefully as he settled in. The captain he sailed in with had gone on to see what he could do about the boat lingering just below the water. There were crews with lines attempting to retrieve what they could.

He seemed happy to be here, even if not particularly interested in the actual reason for the festival. We asked him about home, and while his words were short, we understood that he was just to the North and West of Dowry in a town or village called Glaf-raa, just beyond near the Osterman Flats.

The brute had a fairly simple, but ornate, weapon. It was a large sword, like my own, and it was clear that it had seen considerable use. I began to pull Silah and, as he saw the runes that line the flat of the blade, he drew a sharp breath and shook his head at it, looking at it sideways. I returned Silah to the sheath and nodded.

I understood his reaction. While I had grown somewhat accustomed to the use of magic for war, I still didn't quite understand it. With Silah that had changed to a sort of acceptance. Although, I had seen the damage it had done, putting her in this eternal state.

The next event was announced to be starting soon. It was Danin that wanted to go, but I thought to run with Aegliffe to see how our luck would fare. Danin was disgruntled by my change and enlisted Bromm as his partner.

Aegliffe, who was more than willing, laughed heartily and I was immediately wary.

The wheelbarrows rattled around the streets, rushing up stairs, turning corners, and hitting ramps at full speed. We were neck and neck with the others for most of the time, but on the way down, my skill and exhaustion got the better of me.

The large tattooed man jumped from the wheelbarrow as soon as we stopped and laughed heartily, clapping me on the shoulder. He then walked away as if it was a fun ride and nothing more. I stayed and congratulated Bromm and Danin as they took the first place prize.

"Looks like I've got two on you." Danin said with a wink.

I smiled, but felt more than a little sour about the whole thing.

Even with the sun heading to early evening, I knew I wasn't going to last much longer. I bid the others well and wend my way back to the apartment. I sighed heavily as I pushed into the single room and began to shed my breeches.

I drew Silah from the sheath and had her stand with me. She was wearing her purple dress with gold trim. It had been the most suited for the festivities. Seeing her reminded me again of how stunning she was in it.

"Ah, dear. You shouldn't feel slighted. You could blame me if you'd rather?" She said with a smirk as she moved up to me.

"I know better than to do that." I said with a chuckle. "But, tonight? I sleep."

"How about I draw you a bath." She said, tilting her head as she looked at me. "I bet that would work some of that tension out."

I looked at her sidelong, realizing that she had more in store for me.

The next day slipped away as the festival continued. Silah and I checked into The Sea Witch in the morning to see what was next, but, increasingly, we found ourselves finding our own entertainment. Though, tonight, there was a famous bard who was visiting from a distant land with tales and stories of heroic adventures. I found myself interested in the tales to take my own mind off of the wreckage the lay in my own recent past. Perhaps others had had a better time at it?

Silah had become insatiable. She showed restraint at first, when we first arrived in town, but now she would grumble loudly the first pangs she felt. Her being drained of all the life energy she had absorbed in previous battles had left her achingly deficient. And, unlike before, because of her newfound power, it seemed that her capacity had also increased, leading to a mystifying mixture of manic giddiness, unfathomable longing, and wide-eyed lust. I often felt the need to bloody the blade just to bring her right so I could find some peace. Yet, at the same time, I revelled in the attention it brought me, being the one who could fully grasp what she was going through.

It was a little humorous to know that, when she shared the experience with me, it was little more than that stretch of discomfort between meals. I caught a glare from her as I expressed the thought, but this was a being whose eternal nature was not used to such feelings. And here they were, constantly picking at her in ways that should couldn't sate for herself.

We met  up with the others and attended the concert. It was in a wide area set up for the sole purpose of this event, consuming a massive part of the most open and central part of town. As it grew dark, the man crested the stage and bowed with a flourish, sending cheers up from the crowd. He didn't introduce himself, but his name was whispered on the lips of all of those around us, Durid Rhymkeeper.

Hlodreden was almost too small for such a thing, but they managed by creating a stage in the round that the man could wander and speak to the crowd. His ability to project himself in all directions, even behind him, was a bit befuddling, but it made some of his stories all the more poignant.

While some of the tales were from overseas, and some from my homelands in Southern Pallidorn, he launched into a tale that happened closeby. It wasn't long before Sig, Floki, and Danin started elbowing each other ahead of us as Nida gave Sig a confused look as she asked questions. Rana was listening, knowing that something had happened, but intent on learning more.

Bromm, Robyn, and Tagaern were sitting behind them. And it was Bromm who looked back to me jerking his head toward the stage with a sly smile and a wink.

"Brave men, standing at the foot of a great rise, watching the two great and loathsome giants look down on them. They steeled themselves against the coming tides." He raised his hand, sweeping across his vision capturing the imagination of those he looked on. "‘I'll take the banner', the dwarf, a holyman of Derrum Ebbar spoke, showing his faith and his steel by doing so. The others looked on, nobly forward, charging against the tide that was sure to break over them."

Danin was grinning at the mention of him and the Bard continued.

"Down from the incline stormed a slick black beast that stole the light from the night and cast shadows over the hearts of the men below. The stolid old soldier faced the beast, armed with the faith in Qinnah and she backed his strength with the visage of her Seven Shield Maidens. They were not there to take from the field of battle, but to lend strength and turn the tide in the favor of men."

The bard's eyes glimmered as he paused, the gravity of his words setting in with each silent moment.

"The beastman, a half-orc of uncanny strength looked on, his prize lie dangling from the belt of the most fearsome giant, the head of his friend that he swore would find rest in death. His great stride lengthened and he made his way, his large, uncanny blade held high, plunging forward to almost certain death."

I squinted at Silah, who gave me a warm look. She touched my hand.

"It appears we need to get a new look for you, beastman." She whispered, her voice breathless in my ear.

He missed the part where I panicked and nearly ran off, leaving my friends to die. I thought with some misery.

She pinched my hand painfully. I pulled back with a grunt. She tsked and put her finger to her lips to silence me.

"The bold young ranger flanked by his gigantic wolf sought higher ground and sped away to engage on his own terms, from the silence of the darkness. His wolf followed close, a gift from Yollari, guarding his every step with its great glowing red eyes."

Floki nodded, feeling suddenly better about what had actually happened.

"The clever wizard sped towards the sky, his magic lifting him weightlessly to gain advantage, while his friend, the skilled gunmaster, let loose volleys of fire and metal at any monstrosity that he could lay his eyes on.

I could see Sig's brow furrow as he looked to Bromm and shook his head. But the words played out on stage, and the story waxed greater and greater, while spinning us as heroes with little concern for our lives, the only thing missing beyond that, between the fits of truth that somehow managed to find their way into the retelling, was the fear of the experience. The intimate understanding of knowing that this could very well be each and everyone's last breath. As he spoke, I heard him talk of the half-orc falling and I remembered seeing the plains again with Silah calling out to me while my childhood self stood to see his entire world on fire.

I shuddered and felt instantly cold. An ache raging away in me that seemed to be timeless and infinite. Was it fear that drove me on? Simple, primal fear? I felt my eyes wet as I remembered that fear as I stood there, finally in control of myself again, hearing Silah's face whispering her sorrowed apologies while I watched death descend on me in the form of a giant's great sword.

Then there was Duncan's face, not his healthy vibrant self, but the sunken and dead face, his eyes gouged with ropes strung through in the place and it haunted me, staring back at me from the giant's belt. I must have seen it, recognized it, stared at it from the ground. Perhaps my mind had willed against it, forcing me to forget each time I laid eyes on it. It was only until Danin pointed it out to me that I had to accept it for what it was. Strangely, I didn't recognize that memory. Until now.

"The rush of troops from the giant's village began to storm forward in defense of their new gateway, but the men felled the other brutish protectors. The dwarf called on the name of Derrum Ebbar and Kols while driving the banner in place. The Shield Maidens of Qinnah saluted and the mythical blade of the half-orc Beastman danced as the magical barrier returned. And, with the heroes triumphant, the lands of men were safe once more."

The crowd began to cheer and clap, some standing and whooping loudly. I could only hear a distant roar as my head bent circles around everything I had chosen to forget up to this point. The experience had been washed out of me, but its residue remained. It would never disappear. It would come back to me in those weaker moments when I least expected it. This was the haunted memory of a simple soldier. Far from the grand and impervious countenance of a hero. And yet it was the first words on the lips of that Bard. I couldn't accept it until I, myself, felt worthy of it. If there hadn't been so much avoidable lives lost, perhaps I could?

Silah had been clapping, but looked on me and moved close, holding me as my eyes blurred while looking toward the chanted lights that rounded the stage. I shook my head at the thoughts, trying to clear them again as the others patted each other on the back and smiled at their story now immortalized.

In the distance, I could see the bard leaving the stage, and a woman, dressed in Acionna's garb moved to meet him. It was Elena. She pointed in our direction, and he shielded his eyes against the light while leaning in to her words.

I wiped the moisture from my face and looked on, aching and fevered.

So much for keeping our secret. I thought, pining for a simple past that no longer existed.

(Get to know Akeron.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 28.4 - Mermaid Rock

"It's morning." Silah said sweetly as I emerged from the darkness.

The world around me was suddenly excessively normal. The veil she had thrown over my mind had lifted as the first moments of sunlight lit the room around us. She lifted herself from me, and moved to the window that overlooked the harbor.

I sat forward and could see from the bed that the sun had touched the very top of the lighthouse. I fell backwards hitting my head on the wooden frame. I grunted with the impact and felt a sudden nauseousness. The thin mattress and lumpiness of the bed made my body ache in ways it shouldn't even after a good night's rest. In this state, I wondered if I would be able to stand at all with the aches and pains I had accumulated over the recent days. I rolled my eyes, feeling grit behind them and, just beyond that, a headache that was getting ready to pounce.

There was a fast rapping at the door.

"By the gods." I muttered, then croaked loudly, "Coming!"

"What good are you both if neither of you listened to a word I said." Beidrick's insistent voice rattled through the door.

Both. Danin must have also stayed out much later. At least I'm not alone in this. I pulled the door open with the thought.

"Gods, man! Get decent! Hell, you're making me feel inadequate." He pressed a hand to his forehead covering his eyes.

I glared at him.

"I'm awake. I'll catch up with you down at the boat." The words ground roughly out of my throat.

He unmasked his face and took a tentative glance past me into the room. He froze for a moment as he saw Silah. I looked back and saw her looking through the window, the pale light splashed across her naked form. She turned toward the door with a smirk.

"Hey… Silah." He said faintly and raised his hand with a shy gesture.

I shut the door hard with a grimace.

"Hey!" Beidrick shouted then spoke more softly, "I'll just wait for you down here."

"All night?" I gave Silah an incredulous look.

"You told me to get you up at first light." She said with a sly grin.

"I think you misinterpreted what I said. Intentionally, I'm sure." I squeezed the sleep from my eyes and pinched the top of my nose, "Did we even sleep?"

"I caught you dozing once or twice, but I quickly took care of that." She moved over to the water pitcher and poured it out in the basin.

She caught some of the water with her hands and ran them over my shoulders. She wet my face and eyes, wiping the sleep away. She smiled absently while grooming me, then looped her thin arms around my waist while looking awkwardly up at me. It was hard to imagine that this was the same woman who lingered in my head all night. My breath caught in my throat with the memory. She grinned up at me and squeezed lightly.

"Yes. It was … beyond expectation." They were my thoughts, but her words. "And, yes. You're right, we should take these moments where we can."

I gave her a tired, satisfied smile and nodded.

"I'm not dressing for this event. Shirtless and breeches is all. Perhaps we can sleep properly after we get done with all of this?"

"We'll see. I'm not sure it's within my capacity to leave you alone." She said, eyeing me hungrily.

I chuckled, pulling on breeches and binding the twin sheaths to my back. I pulled her close and gave her a quick kiss on the lips and willed her to her greatsword form without warning.

"No fair." Her voice echoed in my head with mock disappointment.

I sheathed her, feeling the blade in contact with my bare skin. This sheath was exposed, protecting the edges, but not the flat of the blade along my back. It allowed me to maintain contact without twisting the blade.

I made my way out the door and down the inner stairs leading to the external door. The flimsy lock nearly burst as I grabbed the door's handle. Beidrick was outside, his face flushed.

"You'll have to tell Silah I'm sorry." He looked mortified, looking back at the apartment. "I'm not sure what got into me. If you had been there on time, I wouldn't have had to come here! On second thought, tell her I blame you for that."

"Well, she is…" I began to gesture over my shoulder.

"Don't tell him!" She pressed into my head quickly, interrupting my thought. "I want to hear this for myself."

I dropped my hands and shrugged.

"I remember flirting with her, but…" his eyes widened and he lifted his hands suggestively, "How would it be to wake up to that every morning? You're a lucky man, even if a bit brutish and terrifying."

I raised an eyebrow and looked at him, but he was spinning off in his own words. Silah was revelling in the attention from his words as Beidrick's mouth sped on. I could feel a little envy start to creep in as he doted on her without realizing she was listening in on all of it.

"No need for that, love." She clucked reproachfully in my mind at the thought and I could feel her shake her head.

We moved quickly through the streets to the docks where the boats had been since the sky had started to lighten up. Unfortunately, as Beidrick had explained it, we were simply going to do drills to prepare for what was to come. Danin was moving across the docks as we approached. Beidrick ran ahead and caught up with the dwarf.

I was already exhausted and I could see that Danin was not much better off, but his sharp eyes were ever watchful as he picked up on each task and order that Beidrick explained. The current crew hailed from all walks of life. I had even heard one of them talk like someone from Six Crates in Dowry. While I was worried about who I was working with, we all meshed well under the dedicated eye of Beidrick. He barked out orders and we drilled until every action was almost automatic.

"We haven't even raced yet, Beidrick. Give us a break." I yawned and stretched feeling hungry gnawing readily at my insides.

He shook his head with a disdainful glare.

"Your own fault. First you said you committed be here. Then you said you'd get a proper night's rest." He jabbed his hand at me, "Be accountable for your actions, man! You've got to realize that if I win this, er, if we win this. Those other captains can't say anything bad about me for a whole year."

Shortly after that, he called for a break anyway and we gathered around the water barrel, draining it quickly. We watched as citizens started to line the docks, some had flags with Acionna's colors, others were sitting along the wall, their legs dangling high over the harbor waters. It was some time before we started to see familiar faces. Rana appeared first. She was dressed in her more usual rustic garb of thin leathers and straps.

"I don't think your girl is going to make it." Beidrick said, shaking his head at my misfortune, "That's not encouraging."

I chuckled knowingly while shaking my head. This prompted him to look at me, trying to understand my reaction, then he shrugged absently. Silah's laughter echoed through my head, nearly vibrating my skin.

High Priestess DuLak appeared, striding confidently by a wagon full of barrels. Elena was close by, too, tending to whatever the High Priestess needed. The barrels showed the markings of the go Brach brewery with the Shatterhammer symbol on them. They were put at the head of the docks where each ship was moored. There were seven ships total that had lined up for the event.

While the other crewmembers looked as cobbled together as Beidrick's own, a captain with a wide red beard had an unusual crewmember. He was a massive, brilliantly white man who stood out from among all of the others. Thick black tattoo's lined his body aggressively accenting a plentitude of scars. His arms were impossibly large for a human. There had to be something more than natural about him?

"You're about his size, right?" Beidrick said to me at me as I looked out at him.

I shook my head, then shrugged. I hadn't seen a human who was as big as I was and this man was as intimidating as they came.

"We are getting underway!" A shout came from the harbor wall.

The voice was Elena's, bellowing instructions as she read them from a parchment. The High Priestess likely would find it unbecoming to raise her voice, even though this was Acionna's event.

"When the bell rings, each captain will move to the barrel, pick it up, and take it aboard the ship. Then each boat will shove off and move toward Mermaid Rock, round it, and return as quickly as possible. You will then dock, and bring the barrel to these tables here." She flagged down in front of the raised platform she was calling from. "You will then need to empty the barrel by filling the provided mugs and drinking the contents until the barrel can no longer be emptied. The winner will be the first to have all crewmembers on the stage and ring the bell."

Elena took a deep breath, coughing slightly before continuing.

"Do you understand the rules?"

An echoing roar of "Aye!" rang from each boat. There were no strangers to this event, besides the scant few of us. The gleaming white, tattooed man seemed to be just as lost as I was.

Have you seen anyone like that? I questioned Silah silently.

"White skin and white hair is what some call an albino, it's a condition that happens in nature." Silah stated in the darkness. "It has even happened among my own kin. Usually they would be sickly and surrender themselves to death early."

I was startled by the amount of information.

This memory of yours. It is going to take some getting used to. I thought with a chuckle.

"Believe me, if anyone understands, I do." Her voice echoed with some trepidation.

"Ready?" Elena shouted, then rang the bell vigorously.

Each captain ran quickly down their dock and retrieved a barrel. We were cheering Beidrick on, but he seemed to have difficulty grappling the unwieldy container. Two of the other Captains beat Beidrick to the boat and were already giving orders to get underway.

"C'mon, Beidrick!" I shouted and Danin whistled.

"It's not helping, gents." He grunted, breathing heavily as he put the barrel on the floor of the boat a little harder than he should. "Push off! Go go go!"

There was a splash as some of the other captains let their loads get away from them and splashed into the water sputtering.

I heard panic as one sputtered and yelled, "I can't swim!"

I sat, manning a set of oars opposite Danin.

Beidrick was tapping out a rhythm for the strokes.

"Nice and even, gentlemen." He called down to Danin and I manning the oars. "Raynard, use the wind where we can. We're on course and looking good."

Beidrick issued a constant stream of updates. His words were welcome as something to focus on as sweat began to stand out on my arms. Whatever poison I had poured into me last night was quickly finding it's way out again. I felt weary and weak as fatigue began to set in, but I continued to pull my weight.

Ahead of us, I saw the red bearded captain's boat rounding the rock, the large albino man was sitting easily between two sets of oars, powering through them with an uncanny amount of force. I looked on him in wonder as they sped along.

"They're going to be tough to beat, but we can do this." Beidrick called out.

"Taking this corner right can keep our momentum and get us ahead. We just have to time it right." He pointed to the sail with an eye on Raynard, the man from Six Crates. "Watch your heads, boys."

He pulled on the rudder to ease in and then flagged to Raynard to let the sails shift and catch hold. The boat jerked forward.

"Oars up! Oars up!" He called to us.

We rocketed past second place and began gaining on the red bearded captain.

"If you can keep up, you can put the oars in again, but quickly, gentlemen. We're almost to the harbor." He called out, leaning on the rudder again.

I looked to Danin and he nodded, we dropped our oars to test how fast we were going and began to churn the water for the second straight away. We crept closer to the first place ship and I saw Danin reach his hand out and held it toward the boat.

Suddenly, there were shouts coming from the other boat.

"Captain! We're taking on water!" A shrill voice called out, probably a very young shipmate.

"Plug the leak!" He barked.

"I can't see one. It's just filling up, Captain!"

The captain looked at the sky then around the sides of the boat, now looking toward our boat. I glanced at Danin whose hand was still outstretched. The boat was getting heavier in the water and the drag was slowing them down considerably.

"I see you, cheat!" The captain's face twisted into a nasty scowl as he jabbed a finger toward Danin.

Danin shrugged and stretched his hand out in the opposite direction, as if to work the strain from his muscles. I looked at him with some consternation and he winked slyly.

We sped forward into first, gliding easily into the harbor while Raynard tacked expertly in tandem with Beidrick's handling of the rudder to line up at the dock. There was a clunk as the boat settled into place and shipmates immediately bounded off, tying down the mooring lines.

I was on my feet and took the barrel in hand easily, running it out to the tables.

The boat that had taken on water was passed by third and fourth place. Whatever Danin had done triggered other trouble as the boat bumped against the dock, it began to list as it took on more water. The large albino had bounded from the boat with the barrel, but the captain looked on in horror as his boat lingered just below the surface.

We had set up the barrel and bashed it in. Filling wooden mugs with the Shatterhammer ale that Bromm and Sig had donated to the races. Danin and I were faced off, hearing Sig and Bromm loudly making bets on who would be carrying whom. Bromm bet on me, but Sig was intent that it would be Danin who carried me.

I grimaced through the chugging. Each mug drained, I felt it swirl in my empty stomach. Between the exhaustion and my empty stomach, I could sense my doom. My vision began to dance after the fourth mug settled in.

"You are almost there." Silah whispered distantly, darkness edging in on my vision.

Bleary eyed, I pressed on, feeling the full weight of everything that had happened over the last two days. I felt the ale spill around my mouth as I leaned back. Suddenly, there were arms and hands everywhere and I blinked slowly, attempting to pull everything into focus again.

"Where… where are we going?" I said, trying to form the words.

I was being jerked around and felt the rough ground on my legs, distant shouts, and blurry faces. Then a ringing clatter accompanied by whooping and cheering. My head wagged as I attempted to look around, I laid back down hoping that it would keep the world from spinning and being so noisy.

Someone tipped up my head and was making me drink some horrible tasting ale.

"What is this?" I spat it out and exclaimed.

I could hear Beidrick's voice through the haze.

"It's water, you fool. Didn't you eat anything?" His voice had a certain mirth to it.

I blinked at him, bringing his bearded face into focus and gave him a sour look.

I gripped the mug and began to drain it. He pushed a crusty bread into my hand and I slowly started to recognize the celebration that was going on around us.

"Did we win?"

"Yes. There's a first time for everything. Although, someone said there was funny business going on." He glanced away, too far for me to focus, "But it didn't change anything."

Danin sat nearby, he had taken up another ale and was sitting on the bench, enjoying Rana's attention.

That dwarf is made of iron. I thought as my vision wavered.

A grimacing Bromm and a smug Sig walked up with mugs in their hands.

"You two…" I flopped my head with a shake, then leaned back and took a deep breath.

I raise my arms and gave them both obscene hand gestures. This elicited a chuckle from Sig, but Bromm leaned forward and patted my leg.

"You did well. But, perhaps, sailing isn't for you?" He said, his voice lilting characteristically as he smiled.

"Don't listen to them, lad. We won, didn't we?" Beidrick said as he pushed away and melted from my vision with a whooping and hollering.

I blinked at them and took a bite of the crusty bread, almost choking on the flecks of crumbs that rained from it. I sat up, coughing which sent my head spinning even more. Silah must have been lingering in the back of my mind, but she may have also been subdued by the amount of alcohol?

I continued to crunch on the bread and drink water, I reached back to grip Silah and grabbed air. I immediately sobered, looking wide eyed around the raised stage that I was leaning against. My vision, while still a wavering double vision, snapped into focus as I began to panic.

"You are Hakaar, correct?"

It was the voice of the High Priestess speaking with infinite calm. I followed her voice and saw her sitting quietly. She had been watching the festival's tumult at a safe distance. My greatsword, still sheathed, was on her lap. Her hands were resting gently on Silah.

"Forgive me if I ordered the removal of your weapon. You never know if you're dealing with the same person when they're drunk." She nodded. "Thankfully, while you look a sort, you are far different. There is more to the eye than one would suppose."

I stood, and mounted the stand, wavering on my feet slightly.

"I… that is precious to me." I said, stumbling slightly, my hand stretched out.

"It is yours. No doubt. Please, just let me hold on to her a moment longer." She said with a genuine smile, she patted to a chair next to her, "Please take a seat."

Her. The word rung out in my mind.

I looked at the small chair and balked, then slumped back to sitting on the floor, leaning against the podium.

"Destiny lines this blade." She said, running her fingers along the sword, tracing the runes that ran along its spine. "It's power, it's purpose, seems strangely suited for one such as you."

She turned her head toward me, her green eyes looking on me curiously.

"How did you come to possess her?"

I looked at her warily.

"Come now, Hakaar." Her face held some amusement. "There are people who wish to help. You can count me as one of them."

"In the Poulterhaud Mines. A knight died fighting a dragon." I said simply.

She nodded, seeming to recognize what I was saying.

"And, now, you're embroiled in the battle between planes." She stated, a sadness lining her voice.

"I'm defending my friends and their people. Where that leads is where I go."

She smiled and stood, holding the sheathed blade out in a firm grip.

"That purpose will have to be good enough." Her words were kind. "If you find yourself in need of help or guidance. Please, come. We are here to support men like you in whatever quest you find yourself on."

I pushed up from the podium shakily and took Silah from her hand, and bowed slightly.

"Thank you for watching over her." I said quietly.

"I could say the same." She gave a wide smile and returned to her seat.

"Oh, and, tell your friends that cheating will not be tolerated." Her voice was stern, "A sunken boat is a bad precedent to set at these events. We'll have to lay down new rules because of that."

"I wish I had that much control over them." I said, smiling. "You might want to work on those rules sooner rather than later."

(Get to know Akeron.)

Hakaar - Chronicle 28.3 - Bonfires

I followed the others to the go Brach Brewery. The door to the warehouse was slightly ajar and there was crashing and cursing coming from within. Bromm looked quizzically at the door. He leaned against the opening, straining to hear what was going on as we hung back. He pulled his pepperbox from its holster and pushed through the door.

There was a yelp, but no gunshots. We moved in quickly behind him to see what had happened.

"This batch went sour. These barrels are useless. We've tested this whole batch, now. Every one of them is bad. We've been breaking the barrels down so we don't use them again." Erland sighed at the loss and the look of disappointment on Bromm's face.

"I guess we'll have to take you out back and shoot ya." Bromm said, his expression deadpan.

"Sir?" Erland said, a slight tremor in his voice.

Bromm waited a moment and smiled.

"You can't do that, sir. I still don't really know where we stand." Erland said, a bead of sweat slipping down his forehead.

"Ah, you're a hard worker. You've done very well with managing this place. You deserve a raise, but you'll have to talk to Sig about that." Bromm said poking through the broken barrels.

"Sir?" Erland's tone was the same question as it was before, only this time, there was no trepidation.

"I was serious that time." Bromm followed on.

Erland smiled and nodded appreciatively.

"To the bad news. This batch means we are set back by weeks. Our current supplies should run well enough, but we'll be reduced for a time while we get the next batch underway." Erland nodded.

"There… won't be shipments to Kellas House." I said with a grimace.

"Aye, that. I heard there's been trouble. I've been keeping my head down on this so I haven't really heard much in the way of news." Erland nodded at my expression, "It does mean our situation may not be all that dire, but we will still be receiving less from our wares."

"We need to put aside an even ten barrels for the regatta race. We're donating them." Bromm said with a nod.

"Well, yes, that can be done." Erland grimaced, "Things will be tight, but sometimes scarcity increases demand, yes?"

Bromm nodded, he seemed less interested in the flow of supplies at this point.

"You've been working on another recipe, haven't you?" Sig said. "We've been interested in putting a stout out."

"Yes! The stout! I think we have a good recipe in place. Our first batch is a small testing batch, but we have some in the tasting area. Follow me." He flagged us on toward the front of the business area away from the warehouse and the towering containers where most of the brewing was done.

I hadn't seen the entirety of the go Brach Brewery and, it appeared, that I wasn't the only one. Floki was eyeing the shadows of the corners of the warehouse as we moved through.

He brought us to the front counter and tapped the small keg and pulled out a round of wooden mugs. The liquid came out a rich dark brown and a frothy head rose quickly on each pour. I sipped around the head, nodding as I savored the taste. It was considerably better than the stout I had been sampling at The Sea Witch.

"We'll take a few of these sample barrels to my da's place and another couple for a booth at the regatta."

"How much you going to charge?" Erland put pen to paper.

"Oh, this is premium. I expect two silver per mug." Bromm shrugged, "We have limited quantities anyway, might as well make the most of it."

"Do you have a name for it?"

"Giant's Head Stout." Danin spoke up from behind.

Sig raised an eyebrow and Bromm nodded.

"Giant's Head it is." Erland wrote it down.

"If you could stencil a brand for the barrels?" Bromm said, "Giant's severed head and a hand holding it by the hair. Burn those on the barrels before you deliver them. We want some brand recognition out there."

Erland pursed his lips and scratched away at his pad for a moment.

"How's this?" He said, holding up the parchment he'd scribbled on.

While quick, it was a well done sketch. Bromm nodded appreciatively.

"That will do!" He clapped a hand to Erland's back. "Get the men to deliver those barrels as soon as possible and we'll call it a day's work! Go out and enjoy the festival!"

The headiness of the stout and the wine before that made me feel like I was floating gently across the stones as we moved back toward The Sea Witch.

Another stop at the wine cart brought me to a new level of bliss. While I didn't appreciate fine wines like some, it seemed to have a much more profound effect on me than other beverages. Silah was also enjoying herself, floating in the eddies of what I was feeling. She would often look up at me with a blissful expression and smile warmly while enjoying the early evening air.

There was to be a bonfire out near the Monument to the Lost Mariner out under the lighthouse. The Sea Witch was bustling in anticipation of the event. We had settled into the only remaining available table that was closer to the second bar. Within a moment rounds were being poured and a light meal was on its way. Rana had returned to meet Danin and moved to a table away from us. She seemed to have forgotten her discomfort with the dress and laughed easily by Danin's side.

New faces emerged through the door and I was bewildered by the sight of Nida backed by two other girls with two uncomfortable looking boys who were eyeing the crowd with uncertainty. She was wearing a striking, but modest, dress.

Sig immediately stood and moved to her through the bustle of activity. We pushed the limits of the large round table with the new members. I had seen the girls that backed Nida before. The obvious gap was that Stella was not there to stand by her friend.

Nida was starry eyed and Sig was the softest I'd seen him. He held her hand and the talked close as the gazed at each other. I grinned to myself and looked at the other faces at the table.

Such good friends to have. I thought.

I felt Silah's hand squeeze from along the inside of my forearm in response.

Torches began streaming by the tavern's windows and a call went out with a cheer as the bonfire event began to take shape. The barrel of wine had trundled by, hauled by the hands of many men in the stead of horses.

The two boys that had followed Nida would not leave her side and she was clearly annoyed by it. However much she tried to shoo them away, there was a look of panic and fear that took hold making them more resolute.

Bromm saw his father walk in, shaking his head at the mess that had been left behind.

"Hey da'? these boys come from Rusty Pete, our business partner in Dowry." He nodded toward the boys hovering over Nida. "I was hoping you could, ya know, show them around and give them some insight into the business?"

The boys looked anxiously at each other as Hagan gave Bromm a disgruntled look. He looked at the boys, who seemed to get more anxious with his attention. Their reaction elicited a sort of hardened mischievousness that settled over the man.

"Let me show you boys how business is done." He moved in close and put an arm around each one's neck and began to walk them toward the back where the stairs to his office were.

I felt a twinge of fear for them, but just a twinge.

We moved out into the night amidst the fleets of torches. The procession moved along the edge of the harbor passing the auction house and the last of the outlying piers. The bonfire was set near the monument closer to the wall of the bluff. The moon was illuminating the lighthouse while the beacon spun soundlessly in the night.

Silah began to mingle, enjoying the bluster and energy of the gathering crowds. She would eavesdrop and then join in conversations as she saw fit. I couldn't help but smile as her old sparkling self emerged.

Just a month ago, Silah and I had spent days reading the Book of Planes at this very spot. We had explored much of Hlofreden in that time, but we often ended up here, bringing a basket of food, studying, and looking out at the sea. And, at this moment, I could almost convince myself that nothing had changed.

There were whoops and shouts as torches were thrown at the bonfire. Music began to play as the fire took hold. Faolin and others had brought instruments and began to cobble together some music between them.

Sig was looking up at the lighthouse, looking thoughtfully at the dark shape in the moonlight. Nida was close, holding his hand while bobbing gently with the music.

"Remember my pop-pop said that something was going on up there." He looked to me, "We need to look into that place."

I nodded, but shook the concern away.

There will be time to address it. Just … not now. I thought.

Coming in from town, there were a series of weary faces followed by the brightly colored Robyn. Bromm moved apart from the crowd and walked her way. The men had doffed their uniforms and were finding their ways to the various beverages being served around the bonfire. Robyn walked confidently to the edge of the crowd. She smiled wickedly when she saw Bromm and moved to meet him.

Tagaern had shown up, too. Looking like he had found the right fit for his clothes, looking both regal and rugged. He eyed the crowd for a time before he saw us.

"Gentlemen! Why are you all standing around? There's dancing to be done!" He looked out at the crowd and seemed to hesitate. "Selections a bit sparse compared to Dowry. Either too young, too homely, or too taken."

"Everything softens with a bit of wine." I said, straining my voice over the rising roar.

"There is that!" He shouted, nodding and smiling as he wend his way toward the large barrel.

Bromm and Robyn strode into the chaos with an incredibly formal dance. I looked on, bewildered, as they moved impeccably through the crowd maintaining their majestic visage. The thrashing, dancing tumult around them seemed to pause and take notice. Some of the more inebriated of the others began to follow along with much less formality and grace.

Nida took Sig by the hands, pulling him forward with a gleam in her dark brown eyes. They were followed shortly by Danin and Rana.

Silah had moved quickly back to my side and looked on expectantly.

"Let's do that!" She pointed at the others excitedly and rushed forward.

I grinned at her and offered my hand.

"This is entirely up to you." I said with a chuckle, "I'll follow your lead."

"Just follow them. It's not that complicated." Her voice was tinged with impatience as she pulled me along.

People bowed and gestured as if they were nobles, impersonating them with their faces screwed up as an imitation of being proper. Slowly, the formality of the dance began to fade as the music changed and more logs were added to the waning fire.

I looked up at the lighthouse again, watching as the beacon swung around the night sky. I swore I could see a dark shape lingering on the narrow balcony surrounding the light, looking down on us.

Silah's exuberance dragged me long into the night. While preparing to leave, I saw Danin and Rana, among others, still going strong.  I had thought better of disappointing Beidrick by showing up late.

We moved into the apartment, and I removed my formal clothes and tossed them over the chair. Silah moved to me with a wry smile. Her eyes shown her hungered desire as she rested a hand on my chest. She blinked coyly as the warmth from her touch seemed to press into me.

"How about we do this differently tonight." She said quietly.

The hackles rose on the back of my neck as she spoke. She pulled at my small clothes, sending them to the ground.

"Oh, I think you'll be just fine. You're not always up for new experiences, but I think you won't mind so much this time." As she spoke, the room began to darken around me.

"Come with me." Her voice filled my mind and I was lulled over to the bed as she removed her dress, revealing her naked form while the world was slowly consumed by darkness.

I opened my eyes to a familiar place. We lay in a luxurious bed under the wooden canopy of the circular stone structure. The sky beyond was filled with lights that looked quite unlike the skies I was familiar with. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but they refused to do so.

Silah appeared as flesh and blood, in her true form with her wider features and horns, yet her golden yellow eyes still seemed to glow in the near darkness. She straddled me, moving gently with a slow rhythm as her face was bent close to mine.

"This place, my love—my beast. Here we can truly share each other." She leaned in close, her horns brushing gently against my head, whispering my ear as my heart began to thump soundly with impassioned ecstasy.

(Get to know Akeron.)