Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 8

It was just another day in the quiet village. The sun was high in the sky, and barely a cloud was visible through the endless blue expanse above. As a faint breeze carried across the dirt thoroughfare, a young woman named Sibyla held a covered basket in one hand and a cloth satchel in the other. As she stood on one side of the road, staring up at the bright sky, she could tell that the days were already getting shorter- she could feel it like the sands of an hourglass were shifting, counting down. To what, she wasn't quite sure.

Behind her, Sibyla's home sat nestled amongst the trees at the center of town. The wooden building was so small, so unassuming, that one could walk by it a hundred times and never notice it. In fact, as she stood there for perhaps several minutes, more than four people did walk by- and not a single one even acknowledged she was there. But she was no stranger to this sort of behavior. All her life, people knew that she was different. Her slender frame hidden now under several layers of cloaks and robes despite the warm weather, her long hair almost as white as her pale skin, the hauntingly intense look in her eyes- but her appearance was only half of it.

She broke her stillness and walked along the opposite side of the road, casting barely a shadow as she neared the edge of the nearby stream. She knelt down at the water, the soft grass yielding easily underfoot, the only sound that of the local mill's waterwheel lazily lapping along further up the stream. Producing a large bottle from her satchel, she lowered it below the water's mutable surface, watching the crystal-clear fluid fill the vessel. She stoppered the bottle and placed it back into her pack, setting her basket down onto the warm ground as she did so.

Glancing over one shoulder, she noticed two people walking along the road towards the town square- heading towards the bar for an early drink, no doubt- and she feigned interest in a passing butterfly for a few moments as they passed, talking about something or other. She checked over each shoulder again once they had gone, and then placed her hands into the water, closing her eyes. The clear water felt cold at first touch, but as she held her hands beneath their surface it began to feel warm. She opened her eyes again, and her hands beneath the water were glowing- bright enough to be visible in the midday sun- beginning beneath the skin of her palms, and expanding to fill each of her fingers, sending rays reflecting off the tiny waves in the surface of the stream, rippling reflections dancing across her face. After barely a moment of holding her shining hands under the water, she suddenly pulled them back as a fish- slightly larger than a man's hand- swam straight between them, as if lured by an irresistible siren's song. As soon as she pulled the fish from the water, the light in her hands vanished, and the creature began thrashing around- awoken from its dream and brought into the hard world beyond the water's edge. She spoke a soft prayer to the gods that be, and, after taking the fish's life, placed it into her basket.

Standing, she grabbed her satchel and basket, breathing in deeply of the warm fresh air. She began to walk upstream, following the small strip of grass between the stream and the dirt path. As she reached the square, she watched where the stream originated, branching off from the river ahead and passing under the bridge that led to the mill and beyond. Around the plaza, a handful of people walked to and fro, all minding their own business and none of them paying any attention to her. To her left, the tavern stood, its owner casually sweeping the dust from the entryway. One leg, replaced by a wooden peg, clunked loudly on the threshold with each step. From inside the tavern, the sound of glasses clinking and chairs scratching against the floor preceded the odor of alcohol that continually wafted from the building, even during the business' slow hours.

Once the bartender had finished his chore and gone back inside, and the square had mostly cleared of citizens milling about, Sibyla began hurrying across the dusty space ahead of her. She kept her head down, her arms tense at her sides, her feet making tiny strides as fast as she could without drawing attention. She reached her destination- a cozy-looking building with a sign above the door labeled, "Oliver's Provisions". With her head down, she could easily see that the ground in front of the door was well-traveled.

Once inside the store, she flattened herself against the wall next to the door and stood very still. She became aware that she was breathing very quickly, and she lifted an arm- still holding a basket with a fish beneath the cover- and pressed her forearm to her lips to quiet her breathing.

It's alright, she told herself. You're just an ordinary person going about your ordinary business.

Once her breathing had reached a normal level, she heard a noise, and jerked her head to the side to see what it was. A short man, barely taller than her waist, had come around the corner from the back room, and was now tidying up behind the store's counter. He was humming a tune lightly to himself, his black mustache buzzing slightly as he breathed the tune through his nose.

The tiny man stood stooped over behind the counter, consolidating two boxes of nails into one larger box, his tune reaching a slightly higher cadence. He raised his head slowly as he placed the box onto an unseen shelf, and in the corner of his eye he saw the tall, heavily-clothed pale human girl before him. He jumped, startled, and ceased humming immediately, attempting to casually ignore that it had happened at all. He adjusted the spectacles on the bridge of his nose, clearing his throat as he stepped onto his footstool, giving him a slightly better angle for dealing with larger customers.

"Pardon me, Sibyla. I, er, didn't see you there. What can I do for you?"

Sibyla stood, a blank look in her eyes as usual, and said nothing. The halfling stared at her, a friendly smile on his face, as if expecting her to speak, and then realized after a few moments that she had placed a bundle of thread and a sewing needle on the counter before she made her presence known. The man looked it over, calculating the cost, then looked back up to her.

"That'll be two c-"

She interrupted him, not by speaking, but by holding out the basket which now held a freshly-caught fish. He looked it over, then back to the thread, then back to her. He sighed silently, then smiled at her once more.

"Tell you what… this one's on the house. I insist."

His smile was genuine, and Sibyla wasted no time in setting down the basket, grabbing the thread & needle, placing it in her satchel, and picking up the basket again. She turned around without a word, and walked out through the open doorway into the dusty square once again.

After leaving the store, she followed the edge of the town square, occasionally glancing to either side of her. To her right, just beyond Oliver's Provisions, was the edge of the river that crooked ever-so-slightly past town, and just further down the water's edge gave way to a gravelly beach where several small boats were currently moored. She followed the path to the next intersection, at the edge of the village proper, where the road continued on towards the west. She could see, off in the distance, an old farm just off the road. A work-weary man guided a plow yoked to two oxen, sweat dripping down his face under the bright sun, his young daughter carrying a bucket of water from the river.

Turning left at this intersection, she followed the road around the village proper. She passed by another farm, where several farm animals stood around in the yard. At the edge of the property, a young brown-haired boy and a young girl in a white sundress stood at the farmhouse's fence, talking and smiling and laughing. In the boy's hands he held a small rat, its head dark brown and a stripe leading down the back of its otherwise white coat. The boy smiled as he held the rat to the girl's shoulder, where it quickly scurried and nestled itself in her long flowing brown hair. Sibyla could see the happiness in both of their eyes, and she found herself crossing to the other side of the road to put more distance between herself and them.

She passed by another farm, this one larger than the others, where almost a dozen people were out in the field plowing and carrying bushels of grains past. As she neared, she could hear the sound of a rhythmic clanging of metal against metal, and the sound guided her eyes to the building next to the farm, where an open doorway showed the town smithy hard at work. His forge was glowing red-hot, undoubtedly elevating the temperature in the building even higher. As she watched him, the blacksmith inside caught Sibyla's eye, and gestured a greeting towards her and went back to his work.

She hurried along, eager not to draw more attention to herself. People rarely noticed her as it was, and she didn't mind. It was never easy being different. As a child, meeting other children was never a cause for happiness- the other children were never anything but mean or cruel to her. She always had a sort of unearthly beauty to her, and children rarely knew how to react to that. But if the children were bad, the adults were worse- it was not uncommon for an adult to run up unseen and steal a lock of her hair, ripping it out violently if necessary, in the hopes that it could be made into a tea that cured fever or strung into a necklace that would bring good luck. She never had parents- her mother died during childbirth, and nobody ever spoke of her father- and she had been passed around from family to family until she was old enough to live on her own. Then she was given the tiny, unassuming house in the center of town, which had belonged to her mother. Only then did people leave her alone.

Even if people left her alone, however, Sibyla was never comfortable outside of her home. She always had a feeling of impending doom, likely something bad was just waiting to happen: to her, or to her town- she wasn't sure. At times she wished she had someone to talk to, someone she could trust, someone that had answers- but she had no one.

After walking most of the way around the small village, she reached the road that led east out of town. Next to the road, nailed to a young tree, a wooden sign read, "Welcome to Kellonville." Sibyla looked down the road, towards the forests in the distance, and let out a deep sigh. Some people longed to see the world, but not her. This small town was all she needed.

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