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."
"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.)