Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 18

"Well, someone's in a hurry to leave work early, I see."

The dark-haired young man wiped a matte of sweat from his brow with his sleeve before grasping hold of another large container of grain. The ceramic cask slipped ever-so-slightly in his grip as he hefted it, but his knee quickly rose to meet the cask's bottom. After a momentary adjustment of balance, he carried the container to the other side of the mill.

Once dropping off the last cask, the man bent over slightly to catch his breath, crooking his lips to one side to blow a few strands of his long hair out of his face. Unsure of what to say in response, he simply nodded, and in an awkward jolt he started hurrying across the floor to grab the broom. Old and worn, it leaned against the wall, where a long black burn mark stained one side of the large wooden building. Without a word, the young man began sweeping the chaff and sawdust from the floor, making sure to get under the tables and in the corners.

"You sure are being quiet today. Let me guess- you're going to visit Marie, aren't you? Don't worry, I won't tell her father."

A grin spread across the speaker's face, a face aging and worn not unlike the broom. She wore comfortable clothes that had seen their share of sunny days and storms, and her hair was held back with a faded purple headband. She patted the young man on the shoulder, and then strode across the room to her office near the front door.

"Just make sure you're back before sunrise. Henry is going to be out sick again," she said, closing the door behind her.

"Will do, Tyffina," he yelled back, pulling off his apron as he swept the last of the sawdust into a basket set low in the floor. He grabbed his cloak and glanced out the window, where the sun shone bright, leaving cascading beams crossing the room. The sun wasn't yet at its highest, and that meant he was right on schedule.

Bounding out the door, he slipped one hand gingerly into a hidden pocket inside the cloak, and, feeling around for a moment, let a look of relief spread across his face. His feet didn't stop moving, however, and he practically ran across town square towards the Rusted Drake. A few people waved as he passed, and although he waved back, his mind was inside the tavern.

He burst through the door a bit more forcefully than he meant to, and once his eyes had adjusted to the light, he straightened his stature, and casually took a seat, glancing around the room nervously. One free hand hovered over the pocket of his cloak, as if protecting whatever was inside. As he shifted in his seat, he pretended that he was staring at a cobweb in the corner, but his attention was on one thing- one person- in particular.

Seated at the far end of the room was and old man, by himself, a large plate of braised eel set before him, and a long staff leaning against his chair. He wore a shabby brown cloak with a dull red gem set in the clasp, and his short grey beard was visible poking out from under his hood. He took his time eating the eel, savoring every bite as if he had been waiting for it his entire life.

The young man sat, watching him with a sort of reverence and awe. Glancing around the room, nobody seemed to be paying the old figure much attention, aside from the barkeep occasionally hobbling by with another flagon of ale or some more food to refill his plate. In fact, whether it was intentional or not, nobody had taken a seat anywhere near the old man.

Taking a deep breath, the young man stood, his hand unconsciously sliding into his pocket and holding its contents securely, and approached the old figure's table. He sat down awkwardly, and, after one more glance around the room, he spoke in a hushed tone.

"Excuse me, sir… You are… Frual, correct?"

The old man looked at him with stern eyes that reflected years of unimaginable sorrow. He slowly finished chewing a bite of eel, swallowed, and then reached for his flagon. He took a long, deep drink, and set the mug down firmly on the weathered wooden surface.

"Indeed I am. Although it's pronounced 'Froo-all'. But I suppose you were close enough. And who might you be, my good man?"

The young man jerked his hand toward the elder, who met it with a firm shake. "My name is Edward, sir. Edward Klirent. I… work up at the mill."

Fru’al nodded, a slight look of recognition on his face. "Ah, yes. You were the one who stopped the fire just a few days ago. Good job, son. I sure hope you got a pay raise for that." He rose his flagon with a grin, and took another long drink.

Edward blushed slightly, shrugging, knowing that he didn't get a pay raise. But that wasn't what he came here to talk about. He scooted his chair closer to the table ever-so-slightly, and once again lowered his voice, as if afraid of listening ears.

"Sir, I had a question… something I wanted to talk to you about. I'm incredibly sorry if I offend you by this, but I don't mean to accuse anything, I just wanted to- I mean, I heard some people talking about…" He glanced around the room once more, and leaned in close. "…I heard people say that you use… Magic."

Fru’al, who had leaned in to hear the whispered words, let out a hearty laugh and followed it up with another savored bite of food. After taking his time chewing, he nodded.

"Young man- Edward. The people you heard from are correct. I am many things, not the least of which is a practitioner of arcane magic."

He took another draw from his flagon, which, from the sound of it hitting the table, was nearly empty. Edward sat there, staring at the old man, staring at the table, staring at the ground. The silence held for a few moments, during which Fru’al stared back, as if expecting his visitor to follow up with additional questions. Not hearing any, he continued to enjoy more of the braised eel.

Edward was at a loss. He wasn't quite sure where he expected the conversation to go. He had intended to ask the man about magic, and, assuming he confirmed the rumors, then he would proceed to… what, exactly? The young man's mind had gone blank. He should have planned this out better.

After quite a long silence, Fru’al broke the ice by moving his near-empty plate away, and fiddled with something at his side. He then pulled a book, not much larger than a man's hand but full of more pages than any book Edward had ever seen, and set it down on the table. It was bound in stiff leather, with golden supports at each corner, and it had a simple latch holding it shut. The front of the tome had a large symbol- possibly a crest- burned into the leather.

After setting the book on the table, however, Fru’al folded his hands over it.

"Tell me a little about yourself, Edward."

Edward sat, his eyes fixed on the book. His eyes traced every edge of it; every wrinkle in the binding; every one of the numerous pieces of paper, feather, or cloth keeping a place in the uncountable pages of its contents. With great force he managed to look up at the old man, who stared straight at him, genuinely interested in what he had to say.

"Me? You want to know about me?"

Fru’al nodded.

"Well," he began, "I don't really know what there is to tell. Like I said, my name is Edward… and I work at the mill…" He watched Fru’al smile and nod patiently. "I grew up here in town, of course. I came from a big family- well, I guess you could call it a family. Back around when I was little, about twenty or so years ago, there was a disease that came through here. A lot of people died, including my parents, and I was taken in by a woman we all called Mother Klirent. I wasn't the only one- she had adopted a bunch of kids like me. Gave us all a home, gave us food, shelter- taught us how to be good people, you know? Well, anyway, she died a little while back. By that point, though, I was already working at the mill, and so I was able to support myself. Since then, I guess I just… work. I go to work, I come home… That's… basically it."

Fru’al stroked his beard, nodding as he listened. "Is there anything else," he said with a grin, "or is that all there is to Edward Klirent?"

Edward chuckled, shrugging awkwardly. "I don't know. I guess not. It's not exactly a secret around here, but… I'm in love with Marie Grett. She and I have been friends since we were kids, but… she still lives with her parents, who're all business and serious and everything. I'm hoping to some day save up enough money to… I don't know, buy a farm or something. I just want something stable so I can feel proud of myself, and so her father will be proud of me. Did that come out sounding as pathetic as I feel like it did?"

Fru’al clapped him on the shoulder, letting out another hearty laugh. "Don't worry. That sounds perfectly sensible to me. I am assuming that's why you've decided that you want to learn magic."

Edward's eyes went wide. He jerked his head around, his eyes darting around the room. Nobody seemed to react, or even be paying attention. Although he didn't mean to, his voice came out in a hiss.

"Keep your voice down! I can't let anyone know that I… I-I mean, not that there's anything wrong with… It's just…"

The old man's grin didn't go away. "Relax. I apologize- I may be bringing too much levity to the situation. I understand that many of the people here still view magic as a sort of dark, evil force. The land I come from was that way, long ago. But it seems that you do not share that view. Am I correct in my previous assumption?"

The young man took a couple deep breaths, and spoke in a normal tone, although still quiet. "Yes, sir. You're right. To be honest, I… I don't really know what I want to do with my life. But one thing I do know for sure- I want to learn. Mother Klirent had some old religious texts, and once I could read, I read them front to back over and over. They talked about chosen disciples healing the sick, raining heavenly fire down on their enemies, and changing the world itself… for the better, and for the worse. I've always been fascinated by the idea of it, but all anyone has ever said about it was that it was evil, or it didn't exist. When all of this stuff started happening with Ben, everyone- well, you saw how they reacted. I've talked to people who still think we should burn him on a stake."

Fru’al nodded, his grin having faded away. "Yes, I know. For all of time people have feared what they don't understand, and magic is certainly something few people understand. Even I am still discovering mysteries in my own discipline… but I want you to understand something. Learning magic is not easy. Learning magic is not fast. Learning magic is not something that you can pick up overnight, nor is it something that is easy to walk away from. Some people have the talent for it, and some people do not. I want you to take some time and be certain this is something you want."

Edward smiled, his hand once again idly thumbing his pocket. "Trust me. I've thought this over long and hard. I want to learn." He paused, then looked up at Fru’al. "I do have one question about it, though. If you don't mind."

The old man nodded patiently.

"I was wondering," he began, "if you could tell me about… Familiars."

Fru’al took a breath, gazing off into the distance for a moment. "Well," he said, "a familiar is an animal to which a mage has a deep, personal, magical connection. Often one of the first rituals a spellcaster learns to perform, bonding one's self to a familiar grants various magical benefits as you progress in ability, but- if you ask me- the most important part of bonding to a familiar is the bond itself. It creates a link between you that can only be broken by death. It gives you a friend, one that has a part of your own soul (and it in you), that will always be there for you to provide you support. Although it may be limited in intelligence, your familiar is a companion that will always understand how you feel."

Edward smiled as Fru’al spoke, listening to him, fascinated. The way he used words like "mage" and "ritual" and "spellcaster"- and when he began referring to the spellcaster as "you" made him feel like this was something that he could really do. The more he thought about it, the more right this all felt.

He reached into his inner pocket gently, and, after a moment, pulled out a small brown creature. He placed it onto the table, and the creature- a rat- quickly began trying to scurry back into his hands, onto his sleeve, looking for somewhere dark it could hide. After fidgeting with the rodent to get it to stop squirming, Edward held up the brown rat, which had a splotch of white fur on the top of its head. It sat, breathing nervously, waiting for an opportunity to hide in its owner's pocket once more.

"This is Starbrow," he said, massaging the rat's neck and back softly. "I've had her for a couple years now. When I first heard about what a familiar was, she was the first thing that sprang to mind. I… I don't know what I'm really getting at, but I just wanted to show her to you, and see… what you think, I guess?"

Fru’al held out a hand to the rat, who stayed perfectly motionless, aside from her breathing, in Edward's grip. Seeing no change in behavior, Fru’al caressed the white splotch on her head, and smiled.

"Well, of course it will depend on whether you have the talent for it or not… but if you do, I think she would make a suitable familiar," said the old man.

Edward, pleased, gave in and put Starbrow back in his pocket, where she curled up and settled down. Afterwards, he looked back to Fru’al. "Sir, do you… have a familiar?"

Fru’al shook his head, placing a hand on his staff. "As you will need to learn, there are many different disciplines when it comes to magic. Many different schools, many different varieties. Many different opinions. Many different rules. Some magic is the same as others but with a different appearance, some spells may look identical and act identical, but at their core are wholly different and incompatible. During my magical training, I learned to form a bond with a magical object rather than a magical creature. This staff was given to me by my church upon induction into the priesthood of the Ebony Raven, and it is with this staff that I have formed my bond. It is different than the bond with a familiar, but similar. Do not worry," he began, seeing a change in Edward's expression. "I am still versed in the familiar bonding ritual. When the time comes, I will have no difficulty teaching it to you. When the time comes."

Fru’al winked at him. He smiled back, once again taking great pleasure in the way Fru’al spoke. When the time comes, he had said. Edward felt like this was truly something that could happen.

The old man glanced at his plate, where a few bites of eel still sat, now getting cold. "We will need," he began, "to figure out when we will begin. For the time being, allow me and my companions to continue to become acclimated to the area, and then you and I can decide when we have time. I trust you are not difficult to find?"

Edward smiled widely, feeling a great sense of excitement. He was about to speak when the door to the Rusted Drake opened, and in walked the trystborn- Fru’al's companion.

"Speak of the devil," said the old man, gesturing for his friend to join him. The trystborn did not join them, however. He approached the table, nodded an informal greeting to Edward, and looked at Fru’al with a serious glance.

"Fru’al, if you may, we need your help. Someone in town has a job for us, and I think you're going to want to hear about this."

He nodded, grabbed the last few bites of eel with his hands, and shoved them into his mouth. His mouth full, he spoke something unintelligible to Edward, grinned, shook his hand once more (with greasy fingers, no less) and walked off.

Edward sat in the tavern for a little while longer, by himself, imagining all that the future could have in store for him. He didn't know what was going to happen, but he knew it would be something he could be proud of.

"Come on, Starbrow," he said, patting his pocket gently. "Let's go see if Marie's done with her chores."

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