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.
"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.)