Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 21

"Have a wonderful day, and thank you for your business!"

The first customer of the day had just left the building, and the diminutive shopkeep stood atop a freshly-painted overturned bucket as he counted the coins in his hand. It was late summer, and his general store had barely been open a week and already business was booming. His jet-black moustache turned up in a smile as he rolled the coins over in his hand- most of the coins he traded were the simple copper and silver discs dutifully printed with Kellonville's symbol, a tree beside a fork in the river, but every so often a handful of copper showed up with something different- something bartered from the rare traveler, or possibly found in the dirt from ages past. He always enjoyed that rare occasion; he even kept a small collection of interesting coins under his bed. At times when money was short, his wife Opal always tried to convince him to spend them instead of keeping them hidden away, but Oliver's family always had their little quirks, and collecting things was his.

True, Opal's family wasn't very far separated from his. Her great-uncle Forsythe was Oliver's grandfather's nephew on his wife's side, but of course every family links together if you go back far enough. The halfling community around Kellonville was as tight-knit as any other.

Dropping the coins into the till, Oliver hopped down off his bucket and walked around to the front. People would be bustling by on their ways soon, and why not try and drum up a bit of business while it was there, fresh for the taking? His father had always said that business was in their blood. If there's a coin to be made, there's two coins to be made. And always, always, always make the customer feel respected.

As he stepped out onto the stoop, he waved to the folk as they passed. There goes Hael, off to sneak a drink before the midday worship service. Oliver grinned as he and the priest caught eyes. And there goes Mother Klirent, with a gaggle of mismatched kids following her around, the obedient ones listening to her talk while the disobedient ones are forced to carry lumber and grain back to their homestead. "Be sure to stop back here if you need any shears or fishing hooks," the halfling called. "We've got plenty!"

A few more townsfolk stopped by, bought some supplies. He shared gossip with the Gretts as they came to buy some shears, Opal came by with some bread fresh from the baker as well as some horseshoes the blacksmith Grames had finished, and altogether he had a very profitable day. He was sweeping up behind the counter, getting ready to close up at sunset when he heard the shop door slam open.

He looked up with a start, and saw a tall human woman standing there, her stringy hair almost as pale as the skin of her face. Her arms, legs, and neck were gaunt and ashen, but her stomach, swollen with child, stretched her dirty garment almost to the breaking point. She was barefoot, and she stumbled into the building, breathing heavily. Fearing she was going to collapse, he called for Opal and grabbed a nearby blanket. Tossing it up around her shoulders, he took her hand and guided her behind the counter into the Oakensprings' sitting room. They guided her into one of their larger chairs, kept in case non-halfling guests came calling, and Opal came out with a cup of hot tea and some of the remaining bread.

Her breathing remained fast and heavy after sitting down, and the shopkeep could see that her hair and forehead were damp, meaning she was possibly feverish. Her eyes were half-open, and she would periodically close them tightly then open them partway again. She wrapped the blanket around herself tightly, shivering in spite of it.

"I know you," Oliver said after a few moments. "At least… I think I do. Your name is… Sibyla, right? I remember when you were a child. Years ago. Didn't you live with the Palmer family? Down the river?"

Her jaw was slightly slack, and she stared off into the distance, but after a short while she blinked and nodded. She made a sound like she was trying to speak, but her throat was too dry to make more than a rasp. Opal put the tea to her lips, and she drank, but did not try to speak again afterwards.

Oliver ran a hand through his black hair, exchanging glanced with his wife. She shrugged, as unsure of what to do as he was. He cleared his throat, watched as Sibyla took a piece of the bread and slowly ate it, looking as if each movement was painful to attempt.

"Listen, Sibyla… Let me see if I can get someone to fetch the Palmers. Their home isn't too far from here, especially if you walked here from there just now. If there's anything that you need, I'm sure they can-"

He was cut off, however, by a deep scream from Sibyla, who clutched at her very pregnant stomach and leaned forward, doubling over as much as she could. She clenched her teeth, her scream sounding more like a growl, and one hand balled into a fist and struck the table, knocking over her glass of tea.

Oliver hurried to grab a towel, but Opal thrust out a hand to stop him.

"Go get Hael. She's about to have this baby, here, in the back of our shop!"

Oliver's tiny feet thudded against the quickly-darkening town square towards the temple of Azimuth, where the priest's daughter was shaking out the rugs. She was smiling, but the smile faltered when she saw the hurry that the halfling was in.

"Jael, I need your father. Now. Is he in?"

She nodded, seeing the urgency, and ran inside to fetch him. Within moments, the aging priest was rushing out the door, pulling on his cloak and clutching a symbol of his deity. Without needing an explanation, the two of them ran, Oliver taking two or three steps for each of Hael's, and soon they reached Sibyla, who was now sitting with her back against a wall, surrounded by whatever cushions and blankets Opal could find. The woman's chest was heaving and covered in sweat, and whatever color she almost had earlier that day was gone.

Hael asked Opal for some things- some water, some clean cloths, a sharp knife- and asked Oliver to fetch the strongest, purest alcohol the Rusted Drake could find. Without question, the shopkeeper excused himself from the building and returned a few moments later with two bottles- one for Hael, and one for himself. He then stepped outside, closing the door behind him and letting the priest do whatever it was he needed to do. Having a baby born in his shop certainly wasn't on his itinerary for the day, but things could always get worse.

Screams could be heard even from outside the building- mostly Sibyla's, but occasionally Hael could be heard telling her to push, or stop pushing, or do whatever it is women are supposed to do during childbirth. Oliver and Opal had chosen to not have children, and every scream coming from the back of the shop was another reminder of that decision. After what seemed like half the night, Sibyla's scream reached a crescendo- and then stopped suddenly. Oliver stood up and froze in place, listening intently. After a few moments of silence, he opened the door to the shop, and walked cautiously towards the back where Sibyla, Opal, and Hael were.

At first, he saw Opal holding a baby in her arms, wrapped in cloths, its tiny newborn eyes darting to and fro. At first, he felt a smile cross his face as the relief of everyone's safety washed over him. But when he caught Opal's eyes, his smile vanished and he realized what was wrong. First, the baby wasn't crying, which certainly wasn't the sign of a healthy baby. And then Opal stepped out of the way, and he saw Hael, his hands still covered in Sibyla's blood, praying over her lifeless body.

Oliver walked closer to Opal, whose eyes were red and it was clear that she was trying not to cry. Even to Oliver, who had little experience with children of his own race let alone another, the baby looked sick. Its skin was almost as pale as its mother's, and it looked frail and skinny, not the pink pudgy appearance that most babies seemed to have. And, again, the silence of the newborn was unnerving.

Then, Oliver looked into its eyes.

When their eyes met, Oliver felt a dagger pierce directly into his soul. He felt a radiance coming from the baby's pupils- something unnatural was looking at him. He forced himself to look away, unsure if he had imagined it but unwilling to look again to find out.

Hael finished his prayer, washed his hands, and covered the dead mother's body with a blanket. He stood up and turned to the halflings, disappointment in his eyes.

"Thank you for your help," he said to them, wiping sweat from his brow. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to save the mother. What did you say her name was?"

"Sibyla," replied Opal.

"Sibyla…" repeated Hael. His eyes squinted, and he stared off for a moment. "You mean-"

He paused. His eyes widened slowly, and he glanced back at the covered mother's body, and then at the baby in the halfling woman's arms.

"…Well," he began, "That certainly is unfortunate. She was an orphan herself, taken in by one of the town's families years ago until she left on her own. Then that means this daughter of hers is now orphaned as well."

He met eyes with Oliver, and then Opal. The two halflings looked at him, then at each other, and then back at him. Oliver was the first to speak after the pause.

"…No. You can't mean-"

"Oliver, please," said the aging priest. "She's going to need care. Care that would be best given by a well-off mother and father. After all, you don't have any children of your own…"

Opal interrupted. "That is by choice, Hael. We are not prepared for a child of our own, let alone someone else's. How are we supposed to raise a human?"

Hael sighed, his eyes pleading for reasons Oliver didn't understand. "Look, I'll talk to the town elders and see if something else can be arranged. But, for tonight at least, please consider it. Sibyla came to you for a reason."

The Oakensprings looked at each other, and then the sickly-looking baby who still had not uttered a sound, but was sleeping fitfully in Opal's arms. They were not happy with this turn of events, but after all, this was a life, albeit a human life, not just something that could be easily discarded. Would the two of them be able to raise a child?

Oliver looked to his wife, looking deep into her eyes. "What do you think, Mare?"

She looked down at the child, and then back at him. Her expression was one of sad resolution.
"I think we have to do what's right."

She turned back to Hael, whose weathered face was still covered in sweat. "Is there any chance of another solution? Any chance of the father turning up or any distant family members?"

He shrugged slightly. "If so, you will be the first ones to know."

Hael performed a final prayer over the dead mother's body, and left her covered for the time being, making arrangements to have her taken and buried the following day. He thanked the hapless shopkeepers once again for their hospitality, and bid them good night.

After the whirlwind of the day, the two halflings retired to their bedroom. Yesterday, they were two ordinary people, going about a life that they had chosen for themselves. Today, there was a dead girl in their sitting room and their lives were going to be dictated by a child that they had no desire or need for.

As they sat on their bed, an unnaturally silent baby in tow, and sat and wept together.

The following few days flew by in a flurry. The two of them were constantly running back and forth, trying to find the right food for this baby, asking other families nearby for advice on taking care of a child, and coping with the fact that another life was now completely dependent on them. They had hoped that Hael would return with news of a responsible father coming to take his daughter, or another childless family coming to adopt the newborn instead, but with each passing day no such news came.

The baby, whom the Oakensprings had come to call Mirlena (after Opal's grandmother), was much easier to take care of than the couple had expected, but she was still a great deal of work. Her sickly appearance had warmed up a bit over the first few days, and at times her pale skin seemed to have a faint warm glow when the light hit her just right. Although she was quiet, and cried rarely, the town square was full of the sound of her wailing when she was hungry or needed cleaning. If there was one thing that made all of the other families jealous, however, it was the fact that from the first day Mirlena never had trouble sleeping through the night.

A few days after the child's unfortunate arrival, Oliver closed the shop early and took a walk down the road south of town. After some time, he reached the Palmer homestead, and he could smell the aroma of beef stew being cooked over the hearth. As he got close to the building, though, he noticed off towards one side of the building a freshly-turned mound of packed dirt with a stone marker at the head.

Two short knocks on the tall door, and after a few moments the homeowner, a middle-aged human farmer, opened it. His tired expression lifted slightly when he saw the small man at his door, and after exchanging pleasantries he invited Oliver in for supper.

After the meal, Oliver tried to bring up the topic he had come to discuss. "So, Michael" he began. "I noticed the fresh grave out front. Was that her? Sibyla?"

Michael sat back in his chair, his face a mask of years of fatigue. "That's her," he said shortly.
"I'm sure you heard that she had a baby," said Oliver, trying to gauge the human's attitude. "A girl."

Michael nodded. "I heard. I heard you're keeping her. You're a good man to do such a thing. If Amanda and I knew what we were getting ourselves into eighteen years ago, I can't say I'd have agreed to take her in. And not just having another child around- we'd already had two of our own- but the rest of it. The strange things."

Oliver raised an eyebrow. "Pardon me? The 'strange things'? What sort of things?"

Michael stood up and walked out to the window. "Ah, I don't even know how to describe it. That girl always had something… strange about her. Everyone could tell. When she left on her own, a few years back, well, to be perfectly honest, I was glad to be rid of her. I know that might make me sound like a terrible father, but I can't deny what I felt."

The halfling followed the farmer to the window. Even from his short viewpoint, he could see Sibyla's grave from where he stood.

"You said she left," Oliver began. "Do you know where she went? Did she live with someone else from town?"

Michael shook his head, letting out a sigh. "No, I don't. She said something about living 'where her mother lived' and I didn't bother to ask. I saw her around town every now and then, but every time I did, it was like I had forgotten who she was, and by the time I remembered her she was gone."

Oliver stared out at the dusk sky, wondering, like the Palmers, just what he had gotten himself into.

The following years passed by surprisingly smooth, with a few interesting events. Mirlena grew up quickly, walking and doing things for herself much faster than the local families forecast. She didn't speak, however, until she was three years old, despite the Oakensprings' best efforts to teach her- one morning, Opal was trying to get her to go outside and play with some of the other children, but the child just pursed her lips and shook her head. Using what she reserved for dire circumstances, Opal spoke the girl's full name- Mirlena Welcome Oakenspring- and told her to do as she was told, when the girl spoke for the first time in her life.

"My name," she shouted, "is Sibyla!"

Opal stood, stunned, mouth agape, and watched as her adopted daughter stormed off into their bedroom and crouched down in the corner, out of view. The Oakensprings had a talk later that evening, and tried getting Sibyla to talk further, but the only thing that could get her to speak was calling her by her given name, which prompted her to repeat that her name was, in fact, Sibyla.

Oliver was flabbergasted. How could she have even known that name? Of course it was possible that she had overheard someone in town saying it, but what did this mean that she was calling herself by her mother's name? It was true that, by this point, she certainly resembled her mother- white skin from barely going out in the sun, pale hair, rail-thin form, and grey eyes that pierced directly to the soul- but that was just family resemblance. She was just a normal human child, going through a strange phase.

But then, the "strange things" began to happen.

First, it was in the dead of winter. One of the townsfolk, a woman named Tannia, became very ill. Nobody- not Hael, not the town apothecary, not anyone- could figure out what to do. But one morning, Mirlena- or, rather, Sibyla, and she insisted on being called- woke up Oliver early in the morning, before dawn, and told him, "Tannia needs me. Please take me to her."

Oliver, humoring the girl, threw on his warmest clothing, helped the girl to do the same, and led her down the road to the temple of Azimuth. On the way there, something caught his eye- he wasn't quite sure what- but he couldn't help glancing back over his shoulder into the trees across from the river as they passed the mill. Once in the temple, Sibyla walked through to the infirmary, without so much as a word to Hael or his daughter Jael, and crossed straight to the bed where Tannia, a half-elven woman looking a day away from death's doorstep, lay covered in blankets. Sibyla, barely tall enough to reach the edge of the bed, took the half-elf's hand in hers. She whispered something close to Tannia's side, and Oliver could have sworn he saw a flash of light, and suddenly Tannia fell into a fit of coughing so severe Hael ushered the little girl away, asking Jael to fetch some water.

Oliver scolded Sibyla quietly as they walked away from the temple, telling her not to waste everyone's time with her silly games, especially a sick person. But he had barely gotten through the first sentence when he heard a woman calling after him- he stopped in his tracks and turned around to see none other than Tannia, barefoot and wrapped in a blanket, standing outside on the frozen ground, her expression one of complete wonder. She walked up to Sibyla, fell down to her knees, and thanked her.

"You cured me, young girl. How in all the world did you do that?"

Sibyla simply buried her face in the shoulder of Oliver's tiny coat and hid behind him, embarrassed. She peeked out every moment or two as Tannia looked at her.

Word spread quickly that Sibyla had some sort of strange power. Suddenly, everyone everywhere was trying to catch a glimpse of her. Oliver certainly didn't mind, as it led to plenty of business at the shop, but Opal- who had previously tried her hardest to get Sibyla to go out and get some sun and make some friends- now had to keep her in the house as much as possible. The few times she was outside for more than a short while, townsfolk- even grown men and women- would try their best to yank out a lock of her hair or, on one occasion, try to "accidentally" scratch her in hopes of catching a drop of her blood. Oliver heard someone at the Rusted Drake talk about how the word on the street was that swallowing one of her fingernails could cure a fever, among other, less savory superstitions.

Other children were possibly worse. The Oakensprings had considered sending her to school, but most of the children that she had encountered teased her, at best, or threw rocks at her, at worst. Some called her a witch, some called her a monster, but most just ran away from her. In the end, Opal had to devote her time to teaching the girl whenever she could. Any hope for a normal childhood for the girl was lost.

As the years passed, more strange things happened, some beneficial, some harmful, but as she got older, the rest of the town seemed to lose interest in her. By the time she was ten, she was taller than the Oakensprings, and she was more distant than ever. One day, Oliver woke up early to get the shop ready, and she was gone. He looked all around their home, at some of the businesses around town, and she was nowhere. Ever since the town took such a morbid interest in her as a child, she had never spent more than a morning away from her parents, but the entire day passed by without any sign of her. Out of options, he and Opal began going from door to door- her on the south side of town and he on the north side- asking everyone if they had seen her. After a dozen houses with no luck, Oliver passed by an old dilapidated farmhouse quite a distance from town. He had seen it before over the years, but he had just assumed it was abandoned and never thought anything of it. On a whim, he walked closer to it, hoping that she hadn't somehow wandered away and gotten lost or hurt in the old structure, when he nearly tripped over a rock lying in a row, covered in weeds and overgrown plants. Kicking gently at the rock, he noticed it was a row of gravestones, dating back years, if not decades. It wasn't uncommon for people to have family cemeteries on their property, but for some reason he felt the urge to glance at the stones. The third one in the row had a name that caught Oliver's eye. After scraping off a layer of dirt and some dried weeds, he saw the name.


It couldn't be. Judging by the dates, this gravestone was almost thirty years old! He looked at the rest of the stones- they were for the Telenar family. Oliver thought about it, and the last of the Telenars, an only son named Jared who had never wed, died at least fifteen years ago. To confirm this, Oliver found Jared's gravestone, the last on the line.

Then it hit him. When Sibyla- that is, the Sibyla who had given birth and died in Oliver's shop- was adopted by the Palmers, she was an orphan. What were the odds that her mother's name was Sibyla, and she had died giving birth as well?

The halfling shopkeep ran as fast as his short legs would take him. He ran straight through town, his destination being the temple of Azimuth, and if no answers could be found there, the Palmers after that. When the temple came into view, however, something caught his eye and he skidded to a halt. There, down the road from the temple, visible even from the very shop he had owned for ten years now, was a short, squat building. It was remarkable only in the fact that it looked so plan that Oliver was certain he had never actually noticed it in his life. He had probably walked past this building a thousand times, if not more, and never given it a second glance. Who lived there? Why did he notice it now and never before? He had his suspicions, of course, each wilder than the one before it.

"Only one way to find out," he muttered to himself.

He knocked on the door, not quite sure who he was expecting to answer. A few breaths after knocking, he felt like he should just turn around and go home and forget whatever it was that he came for. But he waited.

Then the door opened. Behind it was Sibyla- Mirlena Welcome Oakenspring- exactly as she had appeared the day before she went missing. She looked at Oliver, who stood a great deal shorter than her by now, and blinked.

"Sibyla," he began, unsure exactly of what to say. "We've been worried sick about you."

She nodded. "I know," she said quietly. "I'm sorry. But I'm home now."

Oliver sputtered a bit, furrowing his bushy black brow. "Nonsense. Your home is with Opal and me."

She shook her head. "This is my home. It was my mother's and now it's my home."

He couldn't believe what he was hearing. This little girl, whom he had looked after for years, was telling him that she was ready to live on her own? In a house that she… that she found?

But what was perhaps even more unbelievable was his reaction. He felt himself nodding. He felt himself understanding. This was how it was meant to be. She was home, and she was safe. He'd have to explain it to Opal, but she would understand. He held out his arms. She embraced him, and then he let go.

"We will see you around, then," he heard himself say. "You always have a home with us."

She nodded, and closed the door. He turned around, and walked leisurely back to his shop. Once there, he began cleaning up, and before long Opal returned. She looked tired, and she looked like she had been crying, but she looked into Oliver's eyes and the two of them knew.

"She's safe," the shopkeeper's wife said. "She's safe, right?"

The shopkeep nodded. They embraced, and they wept together.

Now, several years later, Oliver sat in his halfling-sized chair with a cup of tea for himself and for his guest. The trystborn sipped it sweetly, listening intently and hanging on every word.

"And to be perfectly honest, Mr. Sharn, today was the first time since that day that I've even thought of Sibyla in quite a long time. About two years ago, she stopped by to purchase something. I can't remember what, though I doubt it matters. It's as if I, along with the rest of the town, forgot about her."

The red-skinned man nodded, taking another long drink from his mug. "And you say you thought of her today," he said. "Is there anything that might have reminded you of her?"

Mr. Oakenspring shook his head, squinting his eyes slightly. "I don't think so. Just the matter of what's happened over the last few days… I had the thought, 'I wonder if Sibyla is safe,' and then it all came flooding back to me."

"And," said Tarrow, "what exactly is it that you want me to do? Is there any reason to suspect anything is wrong with her?"

"Well, that's just it," said the halfling. "I haven't seen her in a very long time. And… that's not all."

The knight raised his eyebrows, not wanting to interrupt.

"You see," he continued, "as far as I can tell, the last woman named Sibyla became pregnant and then died during childbirth when she was eighteen years old. The previous mother, also named Sibyla, died giving birth when she was aged eighteen years old as well."

Tarrow gave an understanding nod. "And let me guess… she's eighteen years old."

Oliver nodded.

"Well," said the trystborn, "what makes you think that something is wrong? It seems the last time she became pregnant, she went off on her own and found a new family. If this is indeed part of some sort of cycle, then why should this be any different?"

The halfling looked Tarrow in the eyes, and Tarrow could see how deep his worry ran.

"Please, sir. Trust me. I have a bad feeling about this. I think something has happened to her."

"Thank you for sharing this with me, sir," said Tarrow after Oliver had finished. "Allow me to gather my companions and return tonight. They may have questions of their own."

They shook hands, and the trystborn went off on his way towards the Rusted Drake. The shopkeep watched him go, fighting off the worries that plagued him. He didn't just think something was wrong. He knew it.

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