Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 27

Talarin Needlemaker stood mopping up yet another spilled drink from the floor of the Rusted Drake. The tiny halfling was holding a mop twice her height, braced in her armpit for leverage, her head barely coming over the tabletops. The nighttime rush had just begun- all of the farmers and day laborers were ready to turn in for the night, but all of them wanted one last drink.

She had been working at the tavern for almost a month now since she was rescued from a jail cell by some knights from a city she’d never heard of. She had no way of knowing exactly how long she had been held captive, but she’d be willing to bet the better part of a year. All she saw were orcs, filthy hags demanding that she mend their garments, and her family… but one by one her family members were taken away, never to return. It would have only been a matter of time for her, if those knights hadn’t intervened.

And of course she had been fed, but just barely. She recalled having quite a pleasing, round figure when her family’s caravan was attacked… and now she was just skin and bones. Those hags called that slop “food”, but it tasted more like “death on a plate” if she knew any better. Now that she was able to get a job here at the Dragon, she was able to get something that didn’t make you want to cut your own tongue out, roast it up, and eat it because you hadn’t had a decent meal in a year. After carrying trays and drinks for the first week, she was even able to show the human barkeep that she knew a thing or two about cooking as well- it wasn’t long before the special of the day was changed to spiced beef, thanks to her Needlemaker knowhow. Not that the eel was bad, of course.

Tonight the tavern quickly filled with raucous men and a few loose women, the air got filled with smoke from a pipe or two, and the sound of glasses clinking and songs being sung off-key rang back and forth like they did every night. The atmosphere was never bad here, but Talarin knew she couldn’t be here forever.

After the main rush died down, she took off her apron (normally sized for human children) and walked around the bar into the back. Primm was standing by the pantry, checking on the stock of elven ale.

“Hey, Primm,” she said, a bit louder than she meant to, after being in the loud tavern hall. “Do you have a moment?”

He didn’t even turn around- he just kept marking some tics off on a slate within arm’s reach. “Of course, Talarin. What do you need?”

She sighed. She had been dreading this for some time now. “I need some time off.”

The barkeep turned around, swiveling on his wooden leg. “Sorry?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. I can’t stay here any longer. I’ve gotta go. Back home.”

He hobbled over to her, his leg making its signature “clunk” on the floor. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I have to leave,” she said, looking him up in the eye. “I can’t work here anymore. I’ve gotta leave town. Split.”

He cocked his head. “But you’re one of the best wenches I’ve ever had. The town seems to love your food. And you’re leaving? For good?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Maybe for good, maybe not. I won’t know until I get there. But I know I have to go.”

He sat down on an empty cask, stretching out his bad leg. “Well, I understand if you have to do what you have to do,” he said, rubbing his newly-shaven head. “But I hope you understand that I’ll miss having you here. You’re always welcome back. You know that.”

She nodded. “I’ll finish up until all of the stragglers are gone. Then I’ve got to head out. I’ve got a cart and everything. If I can, I’ll send word as soon as I get everything in order.”

Primm stood back up, and held a hand down to her. She shook it, and the two smiled. Then she headed back out, grabbed her apron, and listened to the patrons spinning yarns until the sun was almost up.
By morning, she had gotten all of her things- which wasn’t much- packed up. She hadn’t been in town long, but she had managed to save almost every copper coin she had earned since she arrived. She had eaten scraps leftover from drunk townsfolk’s plates, she had slept in the shed of an abandoned house on the outskirts of town, and she wasn’t one to give in to many vices, so her days consisted of work and sleep. She had done a few tailoring jobs for some extra coin since she was saved, but after being forced to do it for so long she had grown a strong distaste for it, regardless her advanced skill.

After consulting some of the local maps, she was fairly certain she knew where she was going. She would travel back to her home, see what she could salvage, and decide what to do from there. It was going to be difficult seeing her home without any of her family around, but she was a proud Needlemaker. She would manage.

As she got her cart loaded up and her light horse (the two things she had spent her hard-earned money on, though not without a great deal of haggling) she was ready to go. She turned around to survey the town for possibly the last time, when she was startled by the boy staring at her eye-to-eye.

He was blonde haired and blue-eyed, and for a human he looked fairly normal. He had a pack slung over his shoulder, and the look on his face was one of quiet sadness. She felt like she knew the feeling well.

She stared at him for a brief moment before speaking. “Can I… help you with something?”

The boy chewed on his lip nervously. “You… you’re leaving town, right?”

She nodded, raising an eyebrow.

“Well,” continued the boy, “I want to go too. I can pay you.”

The boy held out a handful of coins- mostly copper, a few silver, and one gold sitting squarely on top.

She wanted to refuse- she had no idea who he was, after all- but the gold reflected the morning’s rays so beautifully…

“Wait a moment,” she said. “What about your parents? I think they might realize you’re gone.”

The boy’s eyes began to water for a moment, but he took a deep breath, and said stoically, “My parents are dead. They were killed by orcs.”

She blinked- and suddenly felt terrible about what she had said. That’s why she knew the look in the kid’s eyes- he had been through exactly what she had.

She looked towards the cart- there wasn’t much room, but both of them were small. Maybe with someone else coming along, she could sleep while he was driving, instead of stopping and hoping she didn’t get eaten by monsters.

“You’re not going anywhere in particular,” she asked, “are you?”

He shook his head. “Anywhere but here.”

She gestured to the cart. “Come on. Let’s get going. You got a name, kid?”

“Kefir,” he said, throwing his satchel into the back.
The horse didn’t seem to mind the extra weight, which was a relief. They rode on out of town to the north, and after some time, they reached the point where the road diverged from its path of following the river. She shuddered, looking off into the distance- ahead, where the river cuts through the hills, was where she was held captive for so long. She wanted nothing more to pass it and never return.

As if he could sense her unease, Kefir spoke, for what seemed like the first time since they left town.

“You don’t like that place, do you?”

Her head whipped to the side to snap back at him in response, but she held her tongue and took a breath. “No,” she said evenly. “I don’t. Something very bad happened there.”

“I know,” he said. “I… I can tell.”

She looked at him incredulously, and shook it off, taking her gaze back to the road. “However that may be, you don’t know the half of it. My family… we were attacked on the road, somewhere north of here. Orcs came out of the woods around us and killed our horses, grabbed each of us, tied us up. The men- my brothers- were killed before my very eyes. My sisters, my mother, my… my dear grandmother, and I… we were all…”

She felt tears welling up in her eyes. She wouldn’t let herself relive it again. It had been far too cruel the first time, and every time she relived it in her head.

“…It doesn’t matter. We were beaten, and tortured, and… worse. And all of them were killed but me. I would have been killed too if it weren’t for those knights. Those… Horselords, they were called.”

Kefir had that ashen-faced look again. “The same happened to me,” he replied. “My family made ceramics. We left looking for a safe place to live and sell our wares. Our caravan was attacked. I hid, and they were all killed. The Horselords saved me too.”

Talarin wiped a tear from her eye, and smiled at him. “Well, it looks like we’re in the same position, then.” Then she added sarcastically, “We sure make a great team, don’t we?”

He nodded silently. After they had passed the hill where the lair was located, he spoke again.

“What did you do? Before you were attacked, I mean.”

She took a deep breath, feeling so much better to have that behind her. “My family and I were tailors by trade, and occasionally we’d go on big tours going to whatever towns we came across. We began to notice over the last few years that more and more towns were being abandoned across the countryside, so we had to go further and further to find work. I guess that’s why we venturing into unknown territory when we were attacked.”

“And your home,” asked Kefir, “Is that where we’re going?”

She nodded proudly. “I had a big family, and we owned a big home- bought from a down-on-his-luck noble a couple centuries ago, or so the story goes. We’d never been away this long, so I’m afraid it may have fallen apart, or some squatters may have moved in… but it’s my home. I have to go back, and see what I can do with it. But since the rest of my family is gone, I doubt I’ll end up living there by myself. Maybe I’ll sell it, maybe I’ll salvage it and sell pieces for scrap. I guess I won’t know until I get there. At least it might help me bring some closure to everything that’s happened to me.”

They rode along, once again in silence, save for the clip-clopping of hooves and the squeaking of an axle.

“What will you do,” asked Talarin after some time, “once we get there?”

Kefir shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess go on, on foot. Maybe see if you need any help doing whatever it is you’re doing. Maybe I’ll get off before that if you don’t mind.”

Talarin didn’t know what this kid expected to find before they reached her home, but she had enough on her own plate to feel responsible for that. Who knows- maybe she would need his help once they got there.
So they rode on. They’d stop occasionally, to answer nature’s call or to give the horse a rest, but they seemed to be making good time. By the end of the first day, Talarin felt her eyes drooping, having not slept a wink since the previous morning.

“Hey, Kefir,” she said, stifling a yawn. “Are you tired at all?”

He sat on the seat next to her, as still as when he first sat down. He shook his head, staring on ahead past the lantern hung in front of the cart. Talarin wondered when this kid was going to sleep- but then again, she knew that she had trouble sleeping for a while after she was rescued. And when she did sleep, it was full of night terrors.

“Well, I’m going to go to sleep, then,” she continued. “If you get tired, or you need to stop or anything, wake me up, okay?”

“Okay,” he said, emotionless.

She climbed into the back, laid down with her head against one of her bags, and was asleep before her eyes could close.

When she awoke, the sun was peeking over the horizon. Taking a look around her, though- she realized that the surroundings looked familiar. In fact, it looked very familiar- like she was almost home. Kefir sat on the front of the cart, holding the reins, looking more tired than ever, but still alert.

“Kefir,” she said groggily, “how long was I asleep? It looks like we’ve traveled for days.”

He shrugged. “Just the one night. Is something wrong?”

She scratched her head, confused. She didn’t know how it was possible she could have traveled so far- Kellonville, wherever it was, couldn’t have been only a day’s travel from her home, or else she would have known about it… right? Was it possible that her time in captivity confused her, and that it was closer than she thought? Could there have been some other reason she didn’t know about a convenient town located only a day’s travel away?

“…No,” she replied, “I… I guess not…”

She didn’t understand, but the more she looked out over the countryside, the more she saw landmarks from near her home. By her estimate, they’d be there by nightfall- or sooner, if her distances were off in her head. She climbed back into the driver’s seat, and told Kefir to go ahead and rest- he looked exhausted, after all.

The horse looked exhausted as well, but she had to push it just a bit farther. If she could get home by the end of the day, she would be so relieved.

On the other hand, though, she was a bit disappointed. She wanted to stop where her family’s caravan had been attacked, to see if any of it remained. If there was anything she could remember her family by, or any supplies that may not have spoiled, then she would have liked that… but the boy didn’t know, and she hadn’t told him. So she shrugged, figuring it was better to have put another bad memory behind her.

Kefir joined her up front again after he had a short rest, and by the time the sun began to set again, she could see her family’s property up ahead. She was so excited- and yet deep down, she was scared of what her home would be like without her family. The horse’s mouth was foaming from exhaustion, and its pace had been gradually slowing, but she had to get just a little further. Just a little further. When they came around another bend and she saw her family’s mansion, even in its current state of disrepair, she felt her heart jump with bittersweet joy. She patted the horse’s mane. Just a few more steps, please. Just a few more steps.

When they reached the manse’s gate, she pulled the horse to a stop, and walked up to open the rusty gate. As she pulled, it practically fell off the hinges, but at least there was enough room for them to get through. She grabbed the reins and tried to pull it in.

The horse resisted, puffs of fatigued breath coming from its nostrils.

Talarin cocked her head at it, pulling once again. Even though this creature looked ready to pass out from exhaustion, it used every bit of strength it could muster to stay on the other side of the gate.

“Fine,” she said, giving up. “We have shelter for you up in there, but if you’re too tired, you can stay here for the night.”

She took the reins and tied them loosely around the slackly-hanging gate, shaking her head at the beast. Sighing, however, she took her last apple and handed it to the horse. The horse took the apple, and tried to back away a couple steps, but after hitting resistance from the reins, stayed where it was and swallowed the fruit in one bite.

Kefir hopped down, and with his help they carried Talarin’s few bags up to the building. The structure was tall, two stories plus an attic, and extended far in either direction- the east wing looked like part of the roof had fallen in, but the west wing looked fine, save for a few broken windows. The front doors, massive even for the humans that originally owned the home, stood slightly ajar, and from outside Talarin could see that months’ worth of wind and rain had taken its toll on the foyer.

Stepping inside, the setting sun meant that the only light they would have between now and morning was whatever light they brought with them. Talarin walked to a cabinet near the door that usually held candles- opening it, she found nothing. She cursed under her breath- that was a sign that someone may have come through and looted the building at some point. She took a flask of lamp oil from one of her packs, and added it to the lantern that had been hanging on front of the front of the cart. At least they would have some light.

With Kefir close behind, she walked around and just did a brief survey of the house’s condition. The dining room was ruined since a tree branch had fallen through the picture windows, letting rain warp the wooden floor and tables. What few dishes and silverware they had left so long ago was gone, likely from looters. There was some hard tack still preserved in the larder, but everything else had either been taken or had rotten, leaving the entire kitchen smelling foul. The hallway leading to the east wing was almost impassable, so Talarin decided to leave it until the next day. The west wing was in fairly good condition, but all of the rooms were empty. At this point she couldn’t even remember what her family had taken and what they had left.

Feeling fairly exhausted by the experience, Talarin wanted nothing more than to go to sleep. There was still the second floor to explore, but she was afraid that seeing more of the building would trigger painful memories of her family. So when they got back to the front hall, she dragged two of her family’s wooden benches- too big and difficult to maneuver to be easily stolen, she guessed- and took a couple blankets out of her bags. She tossed one to Kefir, and laid down to sleep, suggesting he try and do the same. Once again, she was asleep before she could think about how tired she was.
In the middle of the night, she was awoken by a scream. A scream? No, it couldn’t have been a scream. Over her pounding heart, she heard the pitter-patter of rain, both hitting the walls of the mansion, and hitting the floor in the dining room just a room over. It must have been thunder, that’s all.

She tried to lay her head down again, when it happened again: Another blood-curdling scream: that of a woman. Talarin sat bolt upright, looking upwards. Whatever it was, it had come from upstairs. She reached for the lantern, but the light was out, and when she picked it up, she could tell by its weight that it was out of oil.

“Kefir,” she called out in a loud whisper. “Kefir! Are you awake?”

There was no answer. A small amount of moonlight was showing through the open door leading into the hallway, and she was able to find the other bench where she had assumed the boy was sleeping. But when she got there, it was empty, and undisturbed.

She tried looking around in the dark, looking for the boy. Where could he have gotten off to? And what was that noise?

She reached for her bags, found her lamp oil, and lit the lantern. It illuminated the room well, but provided no clue as to where Kefir had gone. She had no idea how long she had been asleep- he could be anywhere in the house by now.

Reaching once again into her bag, she fished out another item- a crossbow, taken from one of the orcs the Horselords had killed. She set the lantern down, loaded a bolt into it, pulled back the lever, grabbed a few extra for later, and picked the lantern back up in her free hand. She had gotten quite good with the weapon in the past month, and she wanted some protection in case the manor wasn’t as empty as she had expected.

Walking towards the stairs, she gingerly took each step, unsure of their structural strength, and continued, crossbow at the ready, until she reached the top. She heard another noise- another female voice, this time moaning in pain- coming from the rear of the home.

She pushed open another large set of double doors leading into a long music room, the tall windows on either side still miraculously intact, where she and her family had spent many hours talking, and dancing, and enjoying each other’s company. She lowered the crossbow and choked back a tear, feeling overcome by a wave of grief, feeling herself wishing beyond hope that she would turn around and her family would be there, waiting for her, ready to tell her it was all a bad dream.

She crossed the room slowly, but before she reached the other end, she heard a sound- a musical note, like a harp. The hair rose on the back of her neck, and she spun around. There, in the middle of the room, was a tall harp, taller than Talarin herself, sitting where there was not a harp moments again. It sat, motionless, as Talarin stared at it, her eyes wide like saucers.

Then, she saw one string twitch, as if an invisible hand were plucking it, and another note struck. And another. Before her eyes, this harp began playing a song on itself- a sad song, one she knew deep in her heart was one of regret and lost love.

Listening to the song, she felt tears rolling down her cheeks, and before she knew it, the lantern was sitting on the floor, and she was dancing a waltz, back and forth in front of his phantom harp, feeling nothing but grief filling her heart.

And suddenly, the harp stopped. She stopped dancing, feeling like she was in a daze, and she heard a crash as the harp was thrown down onto the ground, its strings snapping.

And a human man, in nobles’ attire, a look of pure malice in his eyes, was staring straight at her.

“I know where you’ve been,” he spoke, a slight accent Talarin couldn’t place.

She stared at him, her mouth agape. “I… I don’t-“

He began to walk towards her, each step more firm and deliberate than the one before.

“I know you’ve been with… with him,” he said, saying the last word like it was poison in his mouth.

“Sir, I think you have me mistaken,” she began, frozen in her tracks.

His steps planted him directly in front of her, his words biting. “You think I don’t know? You think I haven’t seen you two, in the servants’ quarters? Do you think I don’t have eyes and ears all over these grounds?”

He reached down and grabbed her by the throat, lifting her up into the air with both hands. In the light of the lantern, she realized she could see straight through this man, as if he weren’t there. He gripped her throat, choking the life out of her, and began carrying her to one of the tall, perfect windows.

She tried kicking and screaming, but her legs were too short and she couldn’t get a single breath under the vice grip of his hands. She felt her back press against the cold glass of the window, and she knew what he was about to do.

Calling on strength she didn’t know she had, she grabbed at his fingers, and pried them apart, wriggling herself free of her grip. She fell to the floor, gasping for air, and looked up- the man still stood, his hands outstretched, holding onto the neck of a human woman, her feet dangling just above the floor, her face one of terror and sorrow. The woman tried to gasp out an apology, a proclamation of love, a single word, but she couldn’t.

The man let out a scream a fury, and slammed the woman against the window. It shattered- all of the windows in the room shattered- and she fell to her death below.

Talarin blinked, and the man was gone. The harp was gone. The windows were all broken, and the entire room’s floor was already ruined from countless rainy days. She sat, staring at the middle of the room, terrified and bewildered at what had just transpired.

Once she had a moment to catch her breath, her throat still aching from the mystery man’s grip, she scrambled to her feet and ran to the lantern, holding it close to her. She had to get out of this room.

She exited the door opposite where the entered, where a pair of halls led to her family’s bedrooms, and a ladder up against the wall led up to the attic. She whispered Kefir’s name again loudly, not really expecting him to respond, but hoping for at least something. She slowly crept along towards what was once her bedroom. She didn’t know what she wanted to be waiting for her there.

She reached her room, and knocked on the door, gently, once again not really expecting any response. But, to her shock, the knock elicited an identical knock, from the other side. After hearing the response, her hand hovered, shaking, not knowing what that was supposed to signify. So she tried knocking again, this time in a specific rhythm, once again getting an identical response. Her breathing rapid and her heart pounding in her chest, she pushed the door open.

In the middle of the room was a halfling body, hanging from a noose, a sheet wrapped around its head. Talarin stared up at it, her mouth open in terror, and dropped to her knees, her lantern clanging on the floor. She wanted to scream, she wanted to cry, she wanted to beg for someone to save her, but she just couldn’t find the words. When she was able to gather the strength to move, she grabbed a bed frame from against the wall, dragged it to the middle of the room, and climbed onto it, intent on trying to get the body down from its place. But against her better judgment, she first pulled the sheet off its face, and felt a sudden relief- as morbid as that may be- in realizing that it was not a halfling’s body, but rather a human child’s body. That relief was short lived, however, when she turned around towards the door, and saw a man- the human noble from earlier- standing in the doorway, his hands covered in blood, his shirt torn and disheveled, holding a knife in one bloody hand.

“I’m sorry,” he said, choking back tears. “I’m sorry I did this to you all… but it had to be done.”

He began to walk forward, looking straight at Talarin, a wild look in his eyes. He raised the knife, his own hand shaking.

“It has to be finished… I have to finish it…”

He rushed at Talarin, who dove out of the way onto the floor. The man lunged for her, but she was out of reach. He squeezed his eyes shut tight, tears flowing, and fell to his knees. He raised the knife, not towards her but to his own throat, and slashed a wide arc across his neck.

Talarin huddled in the corner, crying and screaming into her sleeve, as blood poured from the man’s self-inflicted wound. His body slumped to one side and fell over, a pool of red forming on the floor.

And then, it was gone. He was gone, the body was gone- all that was left was the few bed frames up against the walls, and the one Talarin moved into the center.

She could barely move, she was so terrified. But she couldn’t stay where she was, out of fear that whatever just happened would happen again. The storm outside raged, and a clap of thunder spurred her to motion, so she jumped to her feet and grabbed her lantern.

Creeping back to the junction that led to the music room and the other bedroom, she noticed that the trapdoor leading to the attic, up above, was slightly ajar. She didn’t know why she was willing to even think about investigating, but before she could object to her own actions she hung the lantern from her belt and began climbing the ladder.

When she got to the top, she noticed first that there was a small amount of light coming from the attic- possibly candlelight, but definitely not moonlight. She pushed the trapdoor open slowly so as not to make a sound, and she heard voices.

“-Wouldn’t have been an issue if the circle had been finished sooner,” said the first, a deep, cold voice.

The second, a dry, high-pitched voice, responded. “Yes, master, I humbly apologize. The servants you have provided me with have performed poorly despite my best guidance-“


Talarin could hear the second voice sputtering an apology. She slowly raised the door again ever so slightly, peering into the dimly lit attic.

To her surprise, the attic to be in perfect repair- and stocked with all sorts of books, bottles, scrolls, and charts. On one end of the room, in front of a gem that gave off light like a torch, floated a tiny, orange winged creature. Talarin could see the profile of another figure, tall like a Human, with a long black cloak wrapped around him. The winged creature held its hands in front of its face, averting its eyes from the cloaked figure, apologizing profusely in its high-pitched tone.

“Now,” said the deep-voiced cloaked figure, “the real question is what to do about the halfling who is listening in on us as we speak.”

Talarin’s eyes shot open, and in her surprise, her hands slipped from the ladder. She fell to the floor, feeling something in her leg snap as she hit the hard surface.

She tried to get up, but the pain in her leg overcame all of her senses. She looked around, and began to see more transparent figures, from every direction, advancing on her slowly. They had their arms outstretched, their expressions hungry.

Talarin’s screams filled the manor, and then they were silenced.

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