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 Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Six: The Village

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Xandra



Posts : 169
Join date : 2010-09-17

PostSubject: Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Six: The Village   Sat Nov 28, 2015 11:58 pm


“In which both a journey and a chance is taken.”

****


Golden reflections, dancing like firelight along a soft, pale surface, and the distant sound of tiny chimes ringing in his ears. A song with words he couldn’t remember, sung softly in the dark. Voices speaking gently to him, with hands and fingers offered for his comfort. Colors, and warmth, and safety all so very close at hand. These were the things he saw some nights, buried deep within his mind. And every morning he woke up, wondering why it felt so far away.

Reluctantly, his eyes slid open, focusing lazily on the light-dappled ceiling of his room. He almost thought he could still hear that chiming, but it was different now. Nearby, a number of tiny crystals swayed languidly in the warm morning breeze, suspended from twine and ringing delicately as they collided. The iridescent patterns cast across the walls from his self-made mobile always made him smile…but it wasn’t what he saw in his dreams. No matter how many crystals he collected, the sound—the look—was never quite right.

As he drifted between states, he wondered if he would ever find that sound. That sparkle.

Then, as if to prevent him from going back to sleep, a knock came at the door, followed by a familiar low voice. “Awake yet?” Dema peeked in, entering all the same without waiting for a reply. The bed gave slightly under his weight as he lay down next to the boy. It was an important day for him, but he wouldn’t mind sharing a bed with him for a few hours more.

Kolya smiled at the very commonplace intrusion, sitting up in bed. He folded his arms around his drawn-up legs. “Couldn’t even let me answer, could you?” Not that he wasn’t used to it. He had only had his own room for a few years now, and none of them had ever really picked up the concept of ‘personal space’—Dema least of all. He sighed, resting his chin on his knees. “I had the dream again.”

“Dream?” He sat up as well, stealing another groaning complaint from the bed. “Lights and chimes?” Of course it was. Ever since he was little, it was always the same. “Must mean its gonna be a good day.” He petted his messed hair, flattening it with each caress.

The boy tolerated the show of affection, if only because it did make him feel better. He blew a few loose strands of hair from his face. “I hope that’s what it means,” he said, wiggling his toes in thought. “It has to mean something.” And he was tired of wondering. He spared another distracted glance at his mobile, chiming softly away as the breeze whistled in through the window. But that was right! Today was the day he got to go to town. That was as good a reason as any to be cheerful. A little bit of the excitement from the prior day snuck up on him, and he smiled. Maybe it would be a good day.

Noticing that smile, the invader couldn’t help but smile as well, sighing in defeat. “You remember now, don’t ya? Told y’ it meant a good day.”

“I hope so,” the boy said again, and leaned to rest against the larger man’s shoulder. “I really do.”

“Dema!” came the frustrated shout from downstairs. The voice was undeniably Aleksei’s, and by the sound of it, he was in a poor mood. “I told you to wake that boy, not cuddle up with him! Get your useless hide back down here!”

Kolya smirked, glancing up at his so-called brother figure. Nothing quite like the sound of blustering rage in the morning! “He’s in top form today,” he snickered, amused. He gave the giant at his side a gentle shove, throwing a thumb towards the door. “Better not keep him waiting. You know how he hates that.”

“Da, da…he’s only mad ’cause he’s jealous” Lazily, he stood up, turning to pat Kolya’s head once more. “Dun take too long, or I’ll come fetch ya’,” he warned, walking to the door. “That will really make Mum snap.” And with a wink, he was gone, a loving yes dear echoing down the stairs.

He shook his head with a smile and climbed out of bed, throwing his colorful bedding back into place. He had approximately five minutes before one of them would be at the door again; he couldn’t keep them waiting.

Navigating around the many piles of books and papers decorating his floor, he finished tugging on his pants, then snatched his favorite shirt from its place hanging in the window, slipping it over his head and pulling his hair free with his other hand. The wide collar settled comfortably shy of his shoulders as he listened for the general state of the house. Downstairs, he could make out the sounds of talking and clattering, Aleksei shouting at one or the other of his companions, and doors opening and closing in rapid succession. He stooped to pick up a stack or two of books from the floor, piling them on his reading table and clearing a path to the door, and with it, his morning. Then, he took a deep breath. He wasn’t really sure what to expect—but he hoped that Dema was right, and that it was a good day.

He descended the stairs into the hallway, leading between his uncles’ communal bedroom (something he just didn’t question), the kitchen, and the house proper. Already, he was seeing signs that the others had been up for hours. He wondered if they were as nervous about this trip as he was.

Boz didn’t seem nervous. He was singing cheerfully to himself, twirling from place to place as he gathered his things. As he watched, he swept past the rather aggravated Aleksei—busily cutting fruit at the table—and kissed his cheek, only to duck an elbow aimed directly at his head. “Good morning, sunshine~♪” he sang.

“Go and die,” Aleksei hissed right back, as if the affection were some form of attack. Knowing the two of them, it probably was. But Boz merely blew him another kiss on his way into the kitchen. No sooner had Kolya stepped from the hall than those unnaturally blue eyes darted to him, pinning him with an accusing stare. At once, his tense expression he wore fell away, replaced with one of apparent exasperation. “And you—you’re a mess! You think you’re going into public like that?”

“Not that he knows any better,” Boz called from the kitchen. He seemed to be looking for something. “He lives in the woods!”

“Like you don’t,” Kolya sneered as he approached the flustered ‘matron’ of the house. Already, Aleksei had abandoned his chore; now he was busily riffling through the nearby chest of drawers, searching for something himself. He stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, and kissed his cheek as well, with much less sarcasm than Boz had done so. “Good morning, ‘Mom,’” he said with a smile.

The smaller man gave a dismissive wave of his hand, excusing the trespass. “Shut up, and eat this.” He stuck a piece of ripe fruit in his mouth. “And sit down, your hair is a travesty.” He produced an ivory comb from one of the drawers, shoving him into a chair as he raked his hand back through the boy’s unruly mane. “You aren’t going anywhere looking like a willow tree.”

While Aleksei worked at untangling his hair, his so-called father swung back into the room, flashing a ‘peace’ sign on his way by before the other could brandish the comb against him. “Morning, princess~” Boz greeted as he passed, and planted a kiss on Kolya’s cheek as well. He was already dressed, boots and all, his gray-streaked hair handsomely styled, and just enough of his chest showing to indicate that he was going somewhere. His necklace flickered in the early morning light, igniting his shirt and vest in shades of impressive ruby-red.

“You’re awfully cheerful,” Kolya commented around a piece of sweet melon. He winced briefly as the comb tore through a particularly stubborn knot. “That happy to get me out of the house?”

“Oh, quite the contrary! I’m completely heart-broken, as you can see.” Boz picked an apple from the basket on the table, polishing it on his shirt. “It just so happens, I have work to do in the village.”

“Oh, really?” Aleksei snorted, arranging Kolya’s hair. “What’s her name?”

“Don’t be jealous, buttercup. I only have eyes for you.”

“You won’t have eyes for long if you keep that up.”

“Means yer comin’ along?” Dema inquired with a raised brow as he emerged from their room; his slightly more groomed appearance indicating he had suffered Aleksei’s care moments before. Now he was fully dressed, the torn sleeves of his tunic concealed beneath his cloak.

But Boz merely shook his head, looking around. “Nah. You kids will just have to get on without me. I’d thought to escort you, but turns out, I’m headed in the other direction.” He paused, setting his hands on his hips. “That is, if I can find my goddamn knife…”

Setting the comb aside, Aleksei drew a hair-tie from the drawer, sweeping his captive’s dark hair back and tying it neatly at his nape. “If you wouldn’t leave your things everywhere…”

“Yeah, yeah…I thought I put it away. Damn pixies probably took it.”

Kolya smirked, but didn’t comment, curling his bangs back behind his ears as Alek moved to clean up. “It’ll turn up,” he assured him, rising from his seat. “It always does.”

After a brief argument over the location of Kolya’s rarely-worn shoes, and a very scary near-miss in which Boz nearly sat on his carving knife—which, curiously, turned up sticking out of his chair cushion—it seemed they were ready to go. Aleksei appeared from the bedroom, carrying a folded, gray cloth in his hands. This, it turns out, was a cloak; long and delicate, but with a certain weight, it bore a long hood and a well-stitched hem. It was nothing like the cloaks his guardians wore. “Come here,” he said, as he folded the weighted mantle around his body. He fastened it at his throat, smoothing the material carefully over his shoulders. “Don’t take this off,” he instructed. “We can’t afford to replace it.”

“Why haven’t I seen this one before?” Kolya asked, inspecting the intricate embroidery.

Suddenly, the hood on the cloak came up over his head, momentarily obstructing his vision. “We’ve been saving it for you,” said Boz, smoothing the hood down over his hair. “Keep this up when you’re in town. And stay with Dema, he knows where to go.”

“And don’t talk to anyone,” Aleksei added, tugging the hood further down over his eyes. “You’re there to observe, not to draw attention.”

“All right, all right,” Kolya laughed, shooing them both away. He folded the edge of the hood back, just far enough to reveal his face and bangs. “I’m just going to look, I won’t get kidnapped or run away…” Or, at least, he didn’t plan to.

Judging from the look Aleksei gave him, the thought was likely clear on his face—and it wasn’t as humorous to Alek as it was to him. “See that you don’t,” he said, and adjusted his hood to cover his face once more. “And don’t get any bright ideas—we’re trusting you. Don’t make us regret it.”

Ah, guilt! Reluctantly, he nodded his head. He really couldn’t afford to mess this one up.

And he wasn’t the only one. Aleksei moved to fuss over Dema’s cloak, while Boz complained about his knife to an attentive Kolya. He adjusted the collar for him, and the hood, then took his hands to check that his gauntlets were secure. The emerald gems imbedded in their wrists flashed briefly as they came to light. ‘Keep an eye on him,’ he instructed, wordlessly. ‘Be discrete. And don’t let him out of your sight.’

‘Won’t,’ was the simple answer. Then, aloud: “Better get goin’.” He looked at their charge, smiling faintly at how he looked. Dema was about as thrilled by this little adventure as the other two, but he had to admit the look suited their boy. Already, just with a new cloak and a smile, he stood out better then all of them. ‘Gonna’ be hard to tone that down…’ he projected, looking down at the mother of the group with a comforting (albeit ineffective) smile. “It’ll be all right,” he reassured, smoothing Aleksei’s hair under his hand. “I’ll take good care of im’.” And leaning down, he planted a childish peck on the smaller man’s lips, then snatched the boy immediately towards the door.

At that, Aleksei paled, far more than his usual hue. The look that crossed his face was no less than mortified. Beside him, Boz visibly stifled a laugh—and was promptly elbowed in his ribs. It took every ounce of Kolya’s strength not to burst out laughing as he was carted from the cottage, aiding in Dema’s timely escape. Instead, he merely waved to them as he was guided away. “He’s gonna kill you,” he snickered to his guard.

“Nah. Would miss me too much,” Dema retorted with a smirk, glancing back at the hut from behind the safety of their son. “Just doesn’t know it.”

As the duo disappeared into the safety of the forest, the expressions of the remaining two changed almost immediately. Aleksei’s frustration faded away, and with it, so did Boz’s cheer. The two of them exchanged a tense look as they lingered in the open door, watching their shadows vanish into the green.

The healer was the first to break the silence, tucking his arms securely across his narrow chest. “…I’m worried.”

“I know,” the other immortal agreed. “So am I.” He shifted to lean in the doorway, staring after the two even after they’d gone. This was a risky decision—but necessary, all the same. Their defense would protect him, of that he had no doubt; it was his duty, and his gift, and it made him the best suited for this task. But there was something about watching them both walk away that left an uneasy feeling in his stomach.

He hoped that it was just a feeling.

****

Making their way out of the woods was a most conflictive task. Ever so helpful, the forest seemed intent on pleasing both travelers: one eager to reach their destination, the other much less enthused about it. The result of this clash was a fair trek before reaching the edge of the forest—the barrier Kolya had sought to bypass for so long.

Dozens of eyes seemed to follow them from between the bushes and among the leaves. The whole forest was attentive to the young one’s departure from its protection—or perhaps that was only his own nerves and excitement, leading him to imagine movement and gazes hidden all around. Either way, his guardian simply held him closer and closer as vegetation thinned and changed colors, marking the magical forest’s end.

“Not as fancy as you think,” Dema warned him, letting the boy take his first—and hopefully last—steps into the outside world, with its rocky roads, growing bluegrass and uneven muddy paths. And down the slope, in the distance, stood the gray frozen empire…or what was left of it.

Though the year was almost half gone, the thaw had only just come to this place, and the proof of it remained in the ground, where the wayward straps of grass were a smothered straw-brown, the stones still slick from melted ice. Yet, that day, the sky above was crisp and blue, the usual blankets of gray clouds thinned to playful wisps. In spite of the clear weather, however, all the light that fell here appeared to be gray, as if the sun were hiding carefully behind the wayward clouds, in fear of falling and warming the chilly air.

Just beyond the barrier of a towering steel wall, its gates long-since rusted open from disuse, the remaining life of the Star’s central village continued to creak and clatter through another uneasy day. The streets beyond were worn from many years of use, but they were paved, like the roads the boy had seen from his place on the cliffs, and oil-fed lamps stood high on poles along the edges of the wide main road. The buildings here were largely stone, a sharp contrast to the thatch and wood he had seen of lesser villages, and boasted several floors on each. But, in spite of the size of the town, it seemed that the outer edges were largely uninhabited, some buildings standing empty, with no windows and only boards as doors. Remnants of the once-mechanized city remained in every corner; massive mortar cannons sat rusting beside unfired shot, part of an apparent display that had not seen use in many years; large, iron carts lie discarded against the barrier walls, their steam-powered engines long-since grown cold. Once, it would seem, this had been a wondrous place—its stone and iron bright and brilliant on the horizon—but now, like an old grandfather clock wound down from years without a caring hand, only the most basic parts continued to move on their own. The heart of the Empire had stopped beating…and left the rest of its body to die.

But, it seemed, not all life had been chased away from this place. Though the gates of the village fed into a monument of silence and disrepair, it was in the village square that life quite clearly remained. The houses and buildings here were brighter, no doubt built before the industrialization, and their doors and windows were all thrown open to take advantage of the clear day. Clothing lines had been slung up between the upper windows of some buildings, showcasing a faded variety of personal items, all out to dry in the somewhat warmer weather. Here, there were merchants and tradesmen, all working at their arts, some selling breads and vegetables, others tools, books, and even toys. For lack of money, many of the people traded instead, services for supplies, and food for textiles. Though all the villagers were clad in desaturated colors, their tired faces were cautiously cheered as they bustled between their work and chores.

The first thing Kolya noticed here was that everything was loud. The people talking to one another couldn’t merely talk; they had to shout, to get their voices up over the din of work being done. Pots and pans and tools and cutlery clattered and banged as they were dragged by on wagons, from which bystanders purchased or traded for other items. Some of the people frequenting the greater buildings appeared to be workmen, comparing diagrams and materials with charts, as steam- and oil-powered machines growled and hummed from horse-drawn carts in the alleys. Perhaps, he thought, the village wasn’t as dead as it had appeared, and it seemed the people here were just as stubborn up close as they had seemed far off. For whatever reason, their determination made him smile.

As the sun at last ventured to peer from behind the clouds, its brilliant rays spilled over the worn but busy people as they labored, glinting off the aging iron and bronze that made up their aging machines. He had never seen such things, not even in his books: mechanical monsters that cut wood, sharpened tools, and helped the lean and overtaxed horses and mules to carry their loads. As they made their way through the busy streets, he even glimpsed a machine that put images on paper, like in his books. “This place is amazing,” Kolya said to his guard, clutching his arm to keep from being swept away. The smile on his face would not be denied. There was so much to see, and to hear—there was life here, and it was fighting for the right to keep on moving. Something in that was miraculous, and, he felt, very brave.

Da, da…its great…” The less-impressed man picked up his pace, making sure he remained close. For a crumbling city, it was certainly lively. And crowded. Surrounded like this, having Kolya clinging to his arm, he felt like each brush and each stare was a potential threat towards the boy. Some defense he was, being so paranoid. “Come on…” He tugged him, smiling as he noticed him gazing at the printed books. “Wanted to see it all, right? Dun get lost in the details.” He brought the boy closer still, making certain his face remained hidden from sight, and kept walking.

Their destination was the butcher’s shop—the one Aleksei liked. The place was close enough to the square, where Kolya would get to watch and stare until his heart was content, without the danger of the busy crowd. Or so the green-eyed giant hoped, for it didn’t seem like the boy would get enough from one or ten thousand visits. The look in his eyes said it all.

With a deep sigh, Dema led the young one past workmen, vendors and children, brushing past them as they ran down the street back to the village square. Instinctively, he made sure the pouch at his belt remained in place, and repeating the action with Kolya.

Not far beyond the square, the boy’s guardian slowed down, spotting their destination in the distance. Here, the wide street thinned considerably, as it moved away from the busy center of the village to become a more inviting business district. The buildings here were older, weathered and faded, and far less imposing than those out by the gates; not a single one of them rose above two floors. Ahead, the butcher’s shop was clearly marked by a sign slung from its posts, and the line of people waiting. The few wayward people wandering the street here seemed to be neighbors, exchanging familiar—if not somewhat distracted—greetings as they passed along their way. Between the square and the butcher, across the narrowing road, there stood a smithy of some sort, its door thrown open to better welcome the traffic of its wayward patrons. Of all the shops, it seemed the busiest—but then again, in a place where everything was iron, no doubt a smith would be popular. Kolya resisted the urge to peek in that door, or any of the others they passed. There was a bakery as well, and the smell of fresh bread and tarts made him hungry.

A sudden baying drew the boy’s attention from the shops, and he looked up in search of the source. Farther up the street, a number of children were playing a game of chase, running from a rather large creature that looked deceptively like—“…A wolf?” At that, Kolya could no more cling from Dema’s arm like an obedient child. Disengaging himself from the larger man, he moved in closer for a better look.

The creature certainly looked like a wolf, in build and shape both. The unmistakable long snout, sharp ears and jagged teeth were instantly recognizable, as was its long coat, mostly black, with white around its chest, legs and muzzle. But no wolf he had seen played with its prey. The beast chased after the gray-clad children, barking and nipping at their heels, but never quite overtaking them. As he stood watching, intrigued by the game, the wolf-like creature suddenly paused, taking notice of him with striking blue eyes—and promptly headed right for him at a full run.

Before he could even consider moving out of the way, he was on his back on the ground, the black and white beast sticking its nose in his face. Kolya laughed, pushing the friendly monster’s muzzle away with his arm. “Hey!” he chuckled, capturing its head with his hands. In reply, the monster licked his face, tail wagging furiously at this apparent conquest. He laughed again. “Some wolf…you’re rather friendly, aren’t you?”

Way too friendly, the boy’s caretaker thought, rubbing his temples at the sight. Of all the thinks for Kolya could run to, he had chosen this creature. Lucky for him, an actual wolf wouldn’t roam the busy streets so freely, otherwise it would have been more than his rear on the pavement. Still, Dema couldn’t help but smile at the sight of Kolya laughing on the ground with the dog. His smile was beautiful, and so befitting of his youthful visage. It was no wonder they all lived for his happiness. If only his happiness didn’t depend on a big dog licking his face on the street…

…His face?

Before the giant could react, a flash of green ran past him from his right, heading straight to the scene with his charge. “Volk!” a tiny woman scolded, holding a gray scarf over her hair, “Let that poor boy go!” Chastened, the beast withdrew as told, though its tail continued to wag as its mistress leaned down to offer Kolya a hand.

His shoulders still shaking with laughter, the boy accepted the help, wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt as he got to his feet. “Thank you,” he snickered, smiling. At his side, the less than threatening monster circled him, sniffing curiously at his fingertips and hip. He turned to pet its head, and suffered himself to be licked again. “So his name is Volk?” he asked. “He looks like a wolf.”

“Looks like a wolf, but acts like a fool…that’s Volk for you,” the woman sighed, brushing the dirt off the boy’s clothes and straightening them for him. “Are you well, son?” She met his eyes with a soft smile, raising the hood of his cloak over his head again.

Kolya smiled cheerfully back with a nod. He hadn’t even noticed his hood had come down. He was too distracted by the happy creature licking his fingers, and the kind woman tending to his distressed clothing. It was odd; this was his first conversation with anyone new, let alone a lady. He had never even seen one up close until now! “Yes, ma’am,” he said, remembering his manners. “No harm done.” He patted the apparently tame wolf’s head. “Sorry to have distracted him. He seemed very busy.” He glanced at the children playing up the street, their game uninterrupted by the loss of the beast.

“It’s fine.” She shook her head, looking back at the children. “You just caught his attention as someone new.” She glanced up at him curiously, concealing a smile. “Once he’s over you, he will chase after another child. This dog has the brain of a bird sometimes.” She petted the beast, earning a lick herself, her eyes fixed on the boy.

So it was a dog! He’d read about them, though in pictures, they never looked so much like wolves. Perhaps this dog was a special one. “He seems very sweet.” He gave the big monster another pet as well, pleased with this discovery. Placated, Volk planted his backend on the ground and sat, tail swishing contently behind him.

“He can be a brute, too—but you’re safe,” the woman reassured him. And then, her expression changed completely as the boy’s guardian approached.

“Excu—” Meeting the glare from the woman, Dema hesitated, clearing his throat as he drew near. “Thank you, ma’am. That’s mine.” He pointed down at the kid, trying to avoid staring directly into her gaze. Had he done her some wrong?

“You ought to be more careful with this child!” she snapped, throwing the confused giant a nasty look before turning her attention to the young man. Her expression changed instantly to a more gentle one. “You need to be more careful, my boy,” she advised, gently. “Cover well that handsome face, and don’t catch a cold. Some people can’t be trusted. Have you eaten? Take this as along.” Drawing from a basket at her hip, she handed Kolya a sugared bread bun.

Almost afraid to decline after seeing her so easily scold his protector, the boy accepted, adjusting his hood as instructed with a smile. He bowed, as he had seen Boz do in jest. “I will. Thank you,” he said again. Giving the dog one last pat on its head, he returned to Dema’s side, bringing the bread quickly out of the creature’s reach before it could try to snag it. And it looked ready to.

Rattled enough, Dema led the boy straight and across the street to the butcher’s shop. At last their little adventure seemed near to an end. Except for their previous encounter, and the dog quietly trailing their steps, the trip seemed favorable enough.

Kolya, however, was already beginning to dread the end of the road. What little he had seen had been different than he had imagined, but no less wonderful for the fact. Yet, most of the so-called trip had been spent making it this far, and as soon as the purchase was made, Dema was going to be ready to cart him back home again. None of his questions had been answered, and he’d only spoken to one person. It was a shame. He chewed thoughtfully on the bread he’d been gifted, surprised by how good it was. If they had their way, this would be his first and last visit to this town, and it hadn’t been much of a visit. But, he thought, he might as well be grateful. Beggars couldn’t be choosers.

Speaking of beggars—a sudden tug startled him from his thoughts, and he looked back to find that the woman’s dog had caught him by his cloak. The beast had been following them! “Again?” he sighed, amused. “You must really want this bread.”

As if to deny this assumption, Volk released his cloak, only to hurry up to him, nuzzling his unoccupied hand. He let out a startling bark, and promptly hunkered down low to the ground, bushy tail wagging challengingly. Perhaps it wasn’t the bread he wanted after all.

At this, Kolya smiled, somehow flattered by the attention. “Dema,” he said over his shoulder. “Can I stay outside and play with the dog?”

“But we almost done ‘ere…” the man objected, looking back—to find two pleading sets of eyes staring back at him. How unfair to engage him alone against that! “Fine,” he relented, looking down at the dog, then back down the street. The animal seemed docile enough, and its owner was nowhere in sight. “Dun wander off on your own though,” he warned both the boy and the dog.

He nodded instantly. “I won’t—I promise.” He lifted a hand (complete with bread) to show his sincerity.

Pleased with his word, the tall guardian gave the boy a pet on his hood, turning for inside the building. “Be good,” he addressed him one last time before entering the shop, and facing the line of women bargaining for some meat. Already he found himself looking at the door, trying to see the boy he’d just left.

Kolya let out a sigh of relief, turning his attention back to the less than intimidating beast at his heels. He knelt down, tearing his roll in half and offering it to him in gratitude. “Thanks,” he said, rubbing the friendly dog’s nose affectionately. “Wouldn’t want to spend my only visit standing in line, right?”

Volk gave another cheerful bark in agreement, snatching up the offering gratefully. With that done, he tore into motion, racing around the stationary boy and snapping playfully at his cloak. Then, with another resounding ‘bark!’, he set off up the street. He stopped several buildings up, getting low to the ground and barking again. Chase me, he seemed to be saying.

“So, it’s tag you want to play…” Glancing cautiously into the busy shop, he decided it was all right to follow. After all, he’d promised not to wander off on his own. He was wandering off with the dog, and just to the top of the street. Volk’s owner had to be somewhere in the area, he decided, so he couldn’t afford to go far. That much decided, he finished his bread and headed after the cheeky beast.

Seeing that his ploy had worked, the dog set off again, darting nimbly up the road. He dodged around several oncoming people, forcing Kolya to do the same with limited success. Every time he stopped, Volk paused to bark and wag his tail at him, and then he was off again, running in the opposite direction, racing around small children and tripping somewhat less amused adults on his way by. Before he knew it, he was panting, half tangled in his cloak, the hood just barely managing to remain up over his face and bangs with the force of the wind and his running tearing mercilessly at it. But it was the most fun he’d had in a long time.

The game, however, did not last for long, as Kolya’s energy began to wane and Volk took notice of something more interesting. As he stopped at last to catch his breath, he watched as the black and white canine trotted several paces up the street, fluffy tail perked in curiosity. He took a few good breaths before attempting to follow, settling to walk, as the dog was no longer fleeing. “Found somebody else already?” he panted humorously as he approached.

Indeed, the dog had found someone else—but not for the reason he had expected. Farther up the street, a man sat down on one knee, a makeshift table overturned into the road before him, several objects scattered from it. Several paces away stood a far younger man, his posture and expression clearly showing his poor intent.

Slowly, the smile fell from Kolya’s face. “That doesn’t look good,” he said, more to himself than the dog. He sent a cautious look back over his shoulder, recognizing just how far he’d run from the butcher’s shop, and how few people frequented this particular stretch of the road. Part of him thought to turn around and walk back, and let Volk do as he would. It wasn’t his business, and his uncles would be cross if he got into trouble. But a much bigger part of him said that if he walked away, he would regret it. He stayed.

“You don’t need to do this…” the kneeling man was saying, his head hung low as he grasped for something lost on the ground. He too wore a cloak drawn up over his head, a tawny one, with several tendrils of pale-colored hair snaking out from beneath his hood. In spite of the hostile situation, his voice was calm, even gentle, as he appealed to his apparent aggressor. “I’ve done you no harm…I’ll ask you to do me the same…”

“You type have done enough for this town!” the youth boasted, kicking the table further aside. “We don’t need your business; magic isn’t welcome here.” He spat at the papers scattered on the ground.

The old man failed to respond to this show of hostility. He merely tilted his head back, just enough to look at the boy so proudly talking down to him. The boy started back in surprise. “Whom are you repeating, I wonder?” he mused, still in that calm, quiet tone. “Whose words are those, that you feel so compelled to echo?” He shook his head, as if he pitied him. For his disadvantage, he didn’t seem threatened at all. “You must be very frightened.”

Stepping back, the young man hesitated. “I—no!” Was it his words or his appearance that wounded him? Whatever it was that he saw under that hood seemed to have shaken him, perhaps even deeper than the accusation of his fear. “Everyone knows it! That it was magic what ruined us!”

“It is easier to lay blame than to seek truth,” the old man answered, cryptically. “Easier to accuse the unknown than to accept the unthinkable: it was man, and not magic, that led us to this.”

“What the hell do you know about that?!” the youth yelled, throwing another kick, this time to the old man’s side. It struck his left arm, and he collapsed again to the pavement. Panting, the boy stared down at the man on the ground, realizing what he had done. “—It’s your own fault!” he exclaimed, trying to justify himself. “Only thing you’re seeking is your death!”

Oh, good, Kolya thought, vexed, I’m going to get into my first fight. Won’t Aleksei be pleased… But he’d seen about as much of this as he was going to. “Hey!” he shouted, startled by his own fury. The danger of the situation crossed his mind, but only for a moment. “Don’t you have anything better to do? Why don’t you go pick on someone else, you creep?”

“Fuck off!” the youth dismissed him, barely turning to eye the offended other boy. “This is none of your business.” Refusing to recognize him, he turned back to the old man.

The downed figure, however, turned his head in the direction of his voice, taking note of the new presence. The hood of his cloak cast a shadow over the upper orbit of his face. “It’s all right…” he started to say.

But Kolya shook his head, advancing a step. “No, sir,” he said, “It’s not.” He approached another pace, orienting on the other’s turned back. “Leave him alone,” he demanded, “unless you want to fight someone who can hit you back.”

“Oh?” It was at this challenge that the youth turned, sizing him up at last. He was a scrawny thing, hardly older than Kolya himself, all pointed limbs and beady eyes. His mouth stretched into a condescending smirk. “A pretty boy, threatening to ‘hit back’?” he mocked him. “You’re obviously not from around here. Get lost. This old man deserves no help, and this doesn’t concern you.”

“A coward who harasses an old man has no right to decide anything,” Kolya snapped, “let alone who deserves what—leave him, or you’ll be the one needing help.”

A frightful growl crested suddenly from his side then, and looking, he was surprised to see that the harmless Volk had transformed at once into the beast he so resembled. Head held low, hackles raised and teeth bared in a snarl, the dog stood tensely beside him, that terrible sound issuing loudly from his throat. It seemed that he wasn’t the only one angered by this behavior.

Empowered by the unexpected support, Kolya turned his gaze again to the other boy. “Still want a fight?”

The youth withdrew a step. “The tinkerer’s dog?” It was clear that he was intimidated by the angered creature, though he struggled to hide it from the younger boy. “A-and you call me a coward? You’re the one hiding behind a fucking mutt!”

“Says the one picking on an old man!” the foreign boy shouted back. He advanced further, and Volk let out a snarling bark. “You ‘get lost’, or I’ll show you who’s a coward!”

Eyes darting between the boy and the dog’s bared jaws, the youth shrank back another pace. “Careful, kid,” he warned, in spite of his defeat. “Dog’s not always gonna have your back. When you’re on your own…” He drew a finger across his neck to finish the point, then turned back to the fallen man. “This isn't over. This town doesn’t want your business!” He kicked the already trashed table towards his rescuers, then sprinted away between the buildings, bumping into and pushing aside all passersby.

Kolya snarled himself at that, resisting the urge to chase after him. He had half a mind to do it anyway, and to make him pay. “That’s right—run away, you coward!”

Beside him, Volk let out another nasty-sounding growl, and moved as if to follow him—but then, the old man on the ground lifted his hand, and the dog fell suddenly still. Instead of pursuing the would-be attacker, the beast went to the offered hand, transforming once again into the harmless dog he had met before. He walked under his fingers, as if to help him up.

Frustrated though he was, Kolya watched, and he realized that Volk was right. It was a waste of time chasing after someone like that boy. That time was better spent attending to his victim. He jogged after the dog, failing to notice as the wind again knocked his hood from his face, and knelt to offer a hand to the man, as Volk’s owner had done for him. “I’m sorry about that,” he said, feeling somehow responsible. Perhaps if he had intervened sooner, some that nonsense could have been avoided. “Are you hurt?”

For a moment, the man was silent, and Kolya wondered if he had heard him. Then, the corners of his lips quirked up from beneath the shadow of his hood. “No,” he said, his voice remaining peaceful. Slowly, he reached out with his right arm, finding the boy’s proffered hand. The gesture was less deliberate than he expected, wandering before grasping it at last. “Thank you.”

Straightening up, he helped the man to his feet, though in truth he didn’t need much help. Although he accepted his hand, he stood under his own power, coming to tower well over his rescuer. It was then—staring up at him from below—that he saw what had frightened that boy. He wasn’t as old as he had looked on the ground, though still far older than anyone he had seen. His hair and beard were long and snowy gray, though not like his uncles’ hair—there were no streaks, just the color itself, in place of whatever had been there before. But it was the condition of the face beneath the hood that most impressed him. It was marked not only by age, but suffering, heavily scarred across his eyes; one was entirely lost beneath claw-marks trailing from his brow to his nose, the other unnaturally pale, almost white in its socket. It was no wonder he hadn’t fought back…he was blind. He probably couldn’t.

More than startling him, it made him angrier. That idiot boy had attacked a crippled man. He hoped the guilt of it haunted him. “You shouldn’t have to be treated like that,” he said, crossly.

But the man merely shook his head, and reclaimed his hand to bring it to his face. His arms, Kolya saw, were wrapped in banded leather gloves that ascended into the depths of his cloak and robes. He wondered if they were as scarred as his face was. A length of pale linen bandages lie draped around his neck, apparently having slipped out of place during the struggle. “He was just frightened,” he sighed, “and in this age, people respond to fear with violence…” He shook his head again, and knelt slowly to grasp an overturned stool. Volk moved suddenly to sit beside it, as if to be certain he would be able to find it. “It can be terrifying, facing something you don’t understand.”

Much though he wanted to argue, Kolya decided against it. If the victim could forgive his attacker, then so could he—undeserving as he was. Instead, he fetched the overturned table, setting it on the ground before him, then stooped to gather his scattered things. He scowled at the papers that the cowardly boy had spit on. They appeared to be blank, so it was no great loss, but the disrespect alone was enough to frustrate him anew. Perhaps things weren’t very nice here after all. He plucked a patterned violet cloth from the ground and spread it over the table, then gathered up the unscathed papers, a jar and an upended ink-bottle, placing them all on top of it. “I hope that’s right,” he said, adjusting the jar and its few coins.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” the man assured him, reaching out to pat his hand as he shuffled the items about. Then, he reached up to draw the bandages from around his neck, and lowered his hood to reapply them, baring his face momentarily to the air. The scars were even more frightful in the light, stark and intertwining. “If you wouldn’t mind,” he said suddenly, “my staff—” He gestured with one gloved hand to the street.

Kolya blinked, then turned at once to search for it. Sure enough, there on the ground lay a long, wooden rod, whittled to a point at the end and mounted with a triangular configuration. He knelt to pick it up, peering through the glass stretched between the mounting’s angles. The sunlight glinted beautifully off the silvery metal of the figure, reflecting through the clear, pristine pane. It was intact. He sighed, relieved, and rose to return it to its owner. “Here. I don’t think it’s broken.”

Now with the bandages secured about his eyes and brow, the old man raised his hood again, concealing them in shadows once more. “Thank you,” he said, bringing the staff up to rest against his shoulder. The configuration caught the light in such a way that it glowed, casting a dazzling white light across the table and the boy standing before it. Now comfortably seated, the old man reached out with a gloved hand to pat the waiting dog’s head, affectionately ruffling his ears. It seemed like a familiar gesture. “That was a dangerous thing you did,” he said, softly. It took him a moment to realize he was addressing him. “You could have been hurt.”

“But I wasn’t,” Kolya replied, frowning. “I’m not afraid of people like him—and I couldn’t just stand by and watch. I had to do something.” But that reminded him of what that terrible urchin had prattled on about, and he found himself sinking to sit on a stool he hadn’t even noticed was there. “That boy…he said that magic wasn’t welcome here. Is that true?”

Instead of answering, the old man merely smiled, lifting his left arm carefully up to rest it on the tabletop. There was something awkward about the gesture, and Kolya wondered if that punk had injured it when he kicked him. Before he could ask, the man spoke again. “You are very special, aren’t you?” He smiled, and somehow, the expression was comforting in spite of his appearance. “Will you tell me your name?”

He knew very well that he shouldn’t. His uncles would be furious as it was. And yet, something about his voice and the way that he spoke made him want to listen. “Kolya,” he heard himself say. The man smiled again, and he found himself leaning closer over the table. “Are you a sorcerer?”

“I am a diviner,” he corrected him gently. Before Kolya could even consider asking, he chuckled. “I perceive time, where others perceive images…I foresee the future, and show it to those who wish to see.” He flexed his fingers on the neck of his staff. “Are you frightened of magic as well, Kolya?”

“Not at all!” he denied immediately. “I…” And then, he thought better of it. He couldn’t exactly go about telling people that he came from the forest, could he? “…I like magic. I’m very open-minded.”

“I can tell.” The Diviner smiled, smoothing the bandages over his eyes with his fingertips. “I feel indebted to you, for your chivalry—no matter how misguided. Perhaps someday my gifts will come of use to you.”

A fascinating offer! At last, he thought—a source of answers, and one willing to give them! Clerics were great sources of wisdom, or so he had read in his books. A thousand questions bubbled to the surface of his mind—about the town and its history, about the forest and its unusual nature, about the apparent rift between the Cross and Star—but there were too many for him to ask all at once. Instead, he settled for what he felt was a simpler inquiry. He was curious about these ‘gifts’ the man spoke of. Perhaps a demonstration was in order? “Can you tell me something about my future?” he asked.

For a moment, the old man was silent, quietly petting the dog at his side. Then, he brought his hand up to the neck of his staff, turning it gently between his fingers. The configuration flared impressively in the gray light. A strange little smile crossed his lips beneath the shadow of his hood. “I can say one thing,” he said. Leaving the pole to rest against his shoulder, he gestured towards the street at Kolya’s back. “Someone very unhappy is thinking of you right now.”

Oh, hell.

Kolya whirled around so fast, he nearly upended his stool. Sure enough, Dema was headed his way—and he certainly looked unhappy. “Of all the things to predict!”

The Diviner chuckled again. “I get that a lot.”

Unhappy was a very limiting word. Frustrated, angry, scared, worried, and resentful might have all been definitions for what the upset giant was feeling at that moment, judging by his hasty approach from down the street, a package tightly squeezed beneath his arm. It was certainly a sign of trouble to come, and yet, Dema uttered not a word, for even his unhappiness translated itself into silence. “Kolya…” was all he said as he looked down at the misbehaving child.

The boy could only stare helplessly up at his returning guardian, his mind racing with a myriad of explanations—and not a one of them could he bring to his mouth while sitting in that shadow. It was then that he realized that his hood was down, and he was much farther up the road than he’d thought. A nervous smile spread across his face as he struggled for words. “This is not as bad as it looks,” Kolya started. “I can explain—”

“—We’re leaving,” the giant snapped, reaching for the boy and tugging him up. Upset as he was, he covered Kolya’s head once again, briefly looking back at the man with whom he had been talking. The cloaked man merely lowered his head in a humble bow. He frowned.

“Wait a second!” Kolya exclaimed. “Would you just listen to me?”

Hurrying him along, Dema spoke the words he dreaded: “At home.”

Oh, but the boy knew better than that. The second they got to the cottage, he would tell the others everything, and then there would be no room for discussion. It wouldn’t matter to them what had happened—they wouldn’t care about the truth—the only thing that mattered was the fact that had he disobeyed them. His intentions, good as they had been, would never be known. “I’m sorry,” he called, fighting Dema’s grasp to look back at the old mystic. “I would’ve liked to talk to you.”

But the Diviner merely shook his head, fingering the staff at his shoulder. Volk remained obediently at his side, his head held down, ears lowered in shame. “Next time, I’m sure.”

“Sure,” Dema answered for him, tugging the hood of Kolya’s cloak down further and keeping his grip on him. As if running after a dog wasn’t bad enough, the kid had to go talk to the most suspicious-looking man he could find! Was he insane? “Yer gonna be my end.” And the one to carry out the sentence was going to be Aleksei.

Oddly, the boy couldn’t find it in himself to pity the older man as he was dragged unceremoniously back through the city, intent on the forest and his own inevitable fate. There was no point in trying to explain himself now, and later there would be no option of doing so. He would just have to grit his teeth and deal with the trouble awaiting him at home. He wondered, briefly, if Dema would have reacted differently had he arrived five minutes earlier. It seemed he would never know.

But he did know one this for certain, as he was bumped and jostled by the passing crowd: this would not be his last visit here. Not if he had anything to do with it.


To Be Continued

****

Recap:

The Forest-Dwellers
-Kolya: an adventurous boy with a stubborn streak, a love of books, and a desire to learn. After spending his life in the forest, he went to town for the first time—and his curiosity and sense of justice abruptly got him in trouble. Odds are, he’s grounded for life. Again.
-Dema: one of Kolya’s uncles, a gentle giant with a soft spot for his charge, and well-founded concern for his presence among others. He doesn’t like the Star castle town. Turns out he can be a bit of a pushover, but he fears Aleksei a bit more than he favors Kolya.

The Townfolk
-Volk: a large dog that greatly resembles a black-and-white wolf. Though very friendly, he can quickly become quite frightening. His owner appears to be a tiny, fierce woman who likes children, but apparently doesn’t like Dema.
-The Diviner: an old man with a badly scarred face, who claims to be a fortune-teller. He has a calm demeanor and a strangely persuasive way of speaking. His occupation as a mystic has made him unpopular with the superstitious locals.


Story and Characters Copyright © Xandra and Countess-D 2010-2012
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