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 Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Seven: The Quest

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Join date : 2010-09-17

PostSubject: Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Seven: The Quest   Sun Nov 29, 2015 12:01 am

“In which plans are changed, and a threat recognized.”


Being a foreigner—living all your life one way, then traveling far away and witnessing how others lived—one had to get used to instances of culture-shock. It wasn’t a simple thing to do, even when accustomed to traveling. But what really troubled the young traveler wasn’t the lack of colors and richness, or the ever-present chill in the air. No, it was the disrespect that most unsettled him.

“Out of the way!” the youth had yelled as he raced towards him. “Move!” And away he had gotten, but not before shoving him roughly against a wall as he rushed past.

In all fairness, lack of courtesy was probably a global ill, but it was one he hadn’t encountered much in the Cross.

Slightly shaken by this, the young man looked back, trying to trail the impudent boy, but he was already gone, lost among the veins of the Stellacian city. From the looks of it, he had been pretty desperate to get away. Maybe a thief? He hadn’t seen any form of loot on him, but he hadn’t been granted much time to look. Either way, the boy was gone, and nobody followed, so luck was in his favor.

Making certain the hood of his cloak properly concealed his face, the foreigner resumed his walk. It was best to avoid conflict for now, and for that, the main street was probably the best route—even if taking it left him even more exposed. Not many Crucian men journeyed to the Star, and the few who did rarely made it to the castle town. Regardless of how far their travels took them, his countrymen all claimed the same: foreigners were not welcome. It was with this warning in mind that he held so tightly onto his mantle, the thickest he could find, and his sword, hidden from view. Dangerous or not, his business was with the Star, and the only way for him to go was forward.

It was a funny thing. Upon leaving that alley, what first caught his eye was not the view of the castle cliffs in the distance, nor the ruins seated upon them—but the sight of an old man with a dog, seated just aside the street, and the creature swiveling on the stool before him. Without realizing, he froze.

It was an odd picture to come upon: a conspicuous old man—a fortune-teller, perhaps. A beautiful maiden of long midnight hair and clear, white skin. And upon them, a man more similar to a giant, delivering the girl from the old man. Was that her father? Was she in trouble? She seemed upset, but no one around paid her any mind. Maybe it really was her father, coming to retrieve his too-pretty daughter.

A pity someone so fair had to look so troubled. But, he couldn’t get himself involved—not even for a pretty girl.

Only when the couple disappeared into the shifting crowd did the young traveler recognize how easily he had been stopped in his search. Fortunately, this mistake was easily redeemed. Turning his gaze back to the road leading up to the cliffs, he stared at the imperial castle, long-since abandoned and fallen into disrepair. There, everything had begun…and by the powers, his search would end there. Fixed once again on his goal, the young man melded into the walking crowds on the street, heading up the inclined road.

As he proceeded, shops were replaced by modest homes, the paved ground with moist and rocky soil, and the waves of busy townspeople with but a few wandering souls. Once again, he found himself passing through a ghost town, for all the life remained in and about the square. Here, people were fewer and farther between, all silent, standing in the shade of their houses, and peering at him as he passed. Every person he passed, it seemed, was watching him.

Every one. And the closer he came to the edge of the town, to the path leading up the towering cliffs and to the relic perched on their shoulders, the darker the looks sent after him became. They were tangible against his skin, and the farther he went, the less people seemed to be concealing them. Every gaze was an ugly one, and they only got uglier with every step he took.

A cold sweat trickled down his nape as he realized that he was the only figure still heading in this direction. Before, he had dreaded exposing himself in a crowd—but now he almost longed for it, for it was here that he was truly exposed, as the only man on the road…the only one on that particular path. Bringing his hood further down to shield his face, he pressed on, feeling the many sets of eyes piercing him, following and dragging him down as he walked. He felt heavy now—like a burdened, slow-moving target, with a dozen arrows notched to fire at his back.

The end of the pebbled road loomed close, the buildings thinning at last to a few remaining homes. Here, no children played, and no commerce took place—here, people only stared, as if to stop him with their eyes. Once he passed the edge of the town, once he was clear of it, it would be a simple walk up the cliffs to the palace ruins, and to the answers he sought. If only he could make it past the lingering townsfolk, and their accusing stares.

Suddenly, a narrow hand closed around his wrist, stopping him just a pace away from the dirt path leading from the town. A single, scrawny boy had broken from the safety of the others lurking at the edges of his vision, preventing him from proceeding with his grasp. “Mister,” he said, in a dire voice, “You’d better turn around now. You can’t go up there.”

“Excuse me?” He stared down at the boy, as confused as he had been upon his previous encounters with the locals. He took a breath, concealing his surprise. “Why is that, boy? Do you know something?”

The teenager paused to look back at the wary gazes of his neighbors, who continued to watch them from their posts. “No one goes there,” he said, more quietly, turning his dark eyes again to look up at the foreigner. His face said everything he could not, his expression tense and deeply concerned. “It’s cursed. You can’t set foot on the grounds, or else…” His gaze floated up to the misty castle in the distance, and he shook his head, lightly tugging his arm as if to further dissuade him. “Bad things’ll happen. You don’t want trouble, you’ll go back where you came.”

Not one to be deterred from a goal, the traveler met the boy’s eyes, then peered about his surroundings as well. He sighed. He had no intentions of giving up his quest, but he was no fool; he could see in the townspeople’s faces that this boy told no lie. “Thank you. I’ll take my leave, then.” He nodded to him, grasping his hand in thanks. He pressed a silver token of his gratitude into his palm. “Sorry for troubling you.” And, defeated, he departed silently under the many watchful eyes.

As the foreigner made his way back to the town proper, the boy stared at the coin in his hand, and frowned. “He’s gonna get killed.”

Barred from his intended destination, the young man could only wander. Attention had finally fallen on him, despite all his efforts. Even as he stepped back on the paved road, leaving behind the worn old buildings, he could still feel it: their eyes fixed on him, probably wondering who he was, and where it was that he came from. That wouldn’t do, he thought, his hand lingering beneath his cloak, on the hilt of his sword. He needed to keep a low profile in order to continue his quest—and to leave empty handed, right when he could feel his goal within his reach? No, he would not give up.

Returning to the neighborhood beyond the town square, the cloaked traveler stopped to consider his options. ‘Cursed’ is what the boy had said. Foolish as it was, the townspeople clearly believed in it enough to trouble anyone who dared approach it. Faith and superstition were powerful tools—or in this case, troublesome obstacles. If he was going to get anywhere near that palace, he was going to need to find some type of shelter in which to wait. But already a target of suspicion, was there such a place for him?

He would just have to look. With a new objective in mind, instead of returning to the shadows of the hidden alleyways, the cloaked man proceeded down the main street, keeping his eyes open for an inn. He was ready, if necessary, to meet his horse outside of town and maybe set up a camp in the woods, or even venture into an abandoned building. It was risky, but it could be done. This, however, would not be enough if the chance to breech the castle grounds didn’t arise soon. The weather alone was threat enough, being so different from what he was used to, let alone the threat of discovery. He would need to find a real shelter either way, but having spotted none on his way there, he felt he was clearly lost.

Then, as he traveled aimlessly down the main road, something caught his eye. There, still sitting behind a cloth-draped table, was the same old man from before. He thought of the girl that had been sitting before him and, if only for the fraction of a second, he wondered: Could that family have a spare shed or corner they could rent me for the night? Such foolishness! As much as he wished to gaze upon her once again, he instead approached the old man. It was wisdom and advice that he required, not beauty and a warm embrace.

“Excuse me…” he addressed him, circling the table. Then, as he got a better look at him, he paused.

Lying on the ground beside the old man’s stand, the same dog from earlier roused from its nap to stare at him, ears perked up in curiosity. Its tail gave a cautious little swish on the stones. Above, the man lifted his head from its place resting against his ornate staff, his bandaged face visible beneath the shadow of his cloak. The tongues of several jagged scars showed along their edges. “May I help you, young master?” His voice was soft and somewhat coarse, but gentle in a manner that spoke of great patience.

Taken aback by the man’s appearance, he gave a nervous cough. “I…I'm not—” He paused, sighing, and corrected himself. “Y-yes, if you could please aid me.” The old man didn’t look as old as he first thought; rather than age, his appearance told of experience. Painful experience, true, but experience nonetheless, and with such things, knowledge always came. “My stay here has been extended, I’m afraid, and I’m in need of lodging for a couple of days...”

“Hm…” Instead of answering, he nodded across the table, indicating the unoccupied stool on its other side. His leather-adorned fingers drummed lightly on the neck of his staff. “Sit with me a moment. I think perhaps you could use the rest.”

“Ah—thank you…” The young man smiled at the invitation, not having expected that answer. With so much on his mind—so much to do, so little done—the traveler hesitated briefly before finally accepting the offered seat.

For a moment, the old man was silent, his fingers tapping silently on the pole of his staff while the youth caught his breath. Then, “I suppose,” he said at last, “Where you will end up depends on where you are going.” Another pause. “You’re searching for something, perhaps.”

“Yes, that’s right.” He nodded, somewhat warily. As a fortune-teller of sorts, it was his job to sound as imprecise as possible, he thought. He played along. “I’m searching for an inn.”

“For this moment,” the old man agreed. “And we often find what we search for—if in fact, we are truly looking. The question is…” Shifting his staff at his shoulder, he sat forward on his stool, lifting his head as if to orient on the boy before him. “What are you really looking for?”

Uncomfortable with this performance, he frowned, peering tensely back. He could ask someone else, but he would find questions everywhere else he looked. This, unfortunately, was the better option. “Look…” he sighed, relenting, “Yes—I’m looking for someone.” Maybe by keeping up the charade, he would earn a straight answer.

“A ‘straight’ answer, young master,” the old man said suddenly, “requires a proper question.” He smiled. “For someone in search of answers, you are quite vague in your inquiry.”

Silenced in action and thought, the young man stared at the old one. Had he read his mind? The sane man in him wanted to believe his expression had somehow given away his thoughts—but a much more innocent side of him restrained him from denial. And so, for a full minute, he uttered not a word, merely gawking across that table. “Who are you?” he managed at last.

“A much more direct question,” the mysterious man chuckled. “Very good. But my name is not what you came for, unless you care to give me yours—and I suspect you’d rather not.” Again, that strange little smile crossed his lips. “No amount of knowledge cannot access a closed mind, young master. If it is enlightenment you seek, and truth, then you must be truthful in your pursuit. Ask your question, honestly, and I will answer in kind.”

“I’m looking for someone,” he admitted bluntly. If talking were a mistake, then he would face the consequences of it; but as it was now, he didn’t feel like lying to him. “I don’t know this person, but I believe the imperial castle is where I need to go for answers.” Maybe he just couldn’t lie to him.

At this, the man’s expression remained unchanged, though his low voice dropped to a cautious whisper. “I would not speak those words so freely. There are those who would condemn a soul seeking to trample on hallowed ground.”

“How do I get to those grounds?” he asked softly, his gaze never shifting from him.

The old man sighed, sitting back at last in his seat. He let out a reluctant chuckle, lowering his head in thought. “I suppose you sought casually to lay foot on that road, and found yourself opposed…” Leaving his staff to rest at his shoulder, he lifted his gloved right hand to his hood, tapping a single finger to his temple. “Haste is the handicap of youth; better is he who is clever than he who is quick. That place is no more an attraction than a battlefield, or a burial ground…but if you insist on accessing it, you must be cunning in your approach. Every action has its opportunity.”

“The issue with patience is having to afford it,” he lamented, thinking back of his initial inquiry about lodging. “Would that opportunity come at night?” People didn’t stand watch on a road at night for a superstition.

“It may,” the old man agreed, “but take caution: you have made yourself suspect by seeking to trespass so openly, being not from this land. Your voice gives you away,” he added, before he could be questioned. “Haste is most always succeeded by folly; learn to be patient, let suspicion fade, and watch for an opportunity.”

Slightly defeated, the traveler sighed. “This will require some time.” Somehow, he'd suspected that, but hearing it out loud made it no less bitter a pill. “I suppose I need a new focus for the time being.” He would need safe lodging, and a shelter for his horse. It was best to start securing that right away—and yet, he looked back at his adviser. “Thank you, old man…what should I call you?”

“I am merely a diviner,” the man said simply, bowing his head. “That, to me, is title enough.”

Satisfied with that, the traveler nodded, drawing something from his pouch. “Diviner, you have my gratitude.” He drew a coin from the bag, and tucked it into the blind man’s left hand, still resting on the table. Then, he finally stood—and at that moment, with the midday sun directly overhead, the triangular figure on the old man’s staff ignited in a dazzling white light. It reflected the brilliant rays back to him, and with them, his reflection.

But what he saw in the glass was not what he remembered seeing last. He saw himself clad in maroon brocade with golden embroidery, instead of the plain tunic he had borrowed. The old cloak was gone as well, exposing the foreigner for all to see: auburn hair, tanned skin, and eyes as dark and wide as those of a fawn before a hunter’s bow. Afraid, he reached to his shoulders, feeling the thick, rough fabric of his cloak. It was still there. But then, why did he see that heavy red stone at his throat, encaged in its golden cross frame?

Feeling the familiar weight on his chest, he finally managed to avert his eyes from the reflection, looking down at the garments he wore beneath his cloak. It had to be a mistake; so told his eyes as they peered at the unfamiliar, colorless clothes. He had suffered no more than a delusion. That was what he told himself as he lifted his eyes to stare again at the mysterious man, taking a step back from his staff.

The dog resting at the Diviner’s side let out a sudden bark, startling the poor traveler. At that, the old man merely smiled, as if sensing his disquiet. “Are you troubled, young master?”

“I…” What to answer? Not even he was sure of what he’d just seen, or whether it had even been real. “No… I’m just tired.” It had to be his weary mind.

“Ah, yes,” the Diviner said, nodding slowly. “The question of your lodging…” Here, he paused, lowering his head in apparent contemplation. Whether he was drawing from his memory or on some mystical source, it was hard to tell. (What a silly thing to wonder!) Then: “The answer you seek lies upon this road—” he gestured to the street, “and beyond it, in due course. Follow it to your task; when your business is done, return here, and you will find your method of biding time.”

Alas! The question that had bought him here in the first place, and with such good timing! “Thank you,” he said again with a nod. Then, he departed, truly grateful to the genial old fortune-teller—for it was now that his mind was lost when he needed direction the most. Exhausted, the young man headed back down the main road, leaving the cliffs, the old man, and his plans behind.

Around him, people kept about their business undisturbed. For them, things were not quite how they used to be, but exactly as they had become accustomed to for the past eighteen years. But him? Now he had a new route to find in order to reach his goal. He was walking in a foreign land, completely deprived of the only plan he had; just the strain of finding this course had left him tired and thoughtful enough, but now…

Who was that old man? A diviner, he had said. The reasonable man in him wanted to depart, and not to take such a questionable figure’s advice. But how could he not listen when the man had spoken with such wisdom? Until he managed to banish suspicion, he was not to act, lest he expose himself and suffer the consequences. He would have to stay, he realized, as he lifted his eyes to look at the townsfolk around him. For days.

Dozens of times, he had walked among these people—he had talked to them, drank with them, even slept under the same roofs as them…but now, he would have to live among them, for heaven knew how long, until a path revealed itself to him. It would be hard; already, he felt lost again.

Not knowing how to act like anything but what he was—an outsider—he traveled back, through the square, all the way to the outer reaches of the fallen city. He glanced sidelong from beneath his hood at the rundown buildings that made up the area, and the people living inside some of them. These people didn’t seem to mind his presence. Or perhaps it was his low spirits that made him look like one of them from afar. It was a pity he couldn’t just settle inside one of those cold rooms and wait. On past journeys, he had done so—but never for more than a night, always as a desperate act against the elements, and always with a hungry fire to keep his horse and himself warm.

His horse. Speaking of his sturdy steed, the young man realized where his steps were carrying him. Be it due to concern or the Diviner’s words, while lost in thought, he had wandered all the way out of town and back into the open plains beyond. Even this was the complete opposite of the Cross, where the surrounding meadows were rich and alive. Here, the ground was all mud, and rocks, and withered grass. The weather in these lands was much tougher, forcing every living being to fight for its survival.

How unfair of him, he thought as he traveled the muddy path, to leave his horse hidden out here. He had tethered him in a copse of dead trees, to graze on what little vegetation the place had to offer while he explored. There was no help for it though, as the horse could not come to town with him, and he could not risk losing his only mount by leaving him in the gray open fields. Hiding him was the only way to be certain he would be safe.

Delving into his pack, he drew out an apple, a token brought from the Cross to appease the impatient horse. Looking down at it, at his crimson reflection in the fruit, his stress diminished. He remained lost and in a trying predicament, but at least there was some familiarity to be had. “Pietro.” He smiled as the dark horse came into sight, waiting right where he left him. Recognizing the approaching presence, the animal looked up at the cloaked traveler, nickering anxiously as it scuffed its hooves. He was probably chastening him for taking so long to return.

The familiarity of his horse and the promise of companionship were such that he dropped his guard—but then, his nose picked up a particular scent, and he froze, dropping the apple. He had hidden the creature here amongst the trees to protect it from bandits or wolves that might prey upon it…and yet, the smell of blood was heavy in the air.

Alarmed, he quietly hurried to the impatient Pietro, weaving his way about the leafless trees. He drew out his sword, the sound of sliding metal further distressing the nervous horse. The thicket was deadly still as he advanced, his back flat against the trunk of each tree that he passed. Pietro recognized his presence and calmed down, though he continued to scuff and to shift, as if urging him to fetch and flee with him. Save for the animal’s tense pleas, not a whisper sounded as he reached out and took hold of the reins with his free hand, glancing sidelong from behind the tree. The horse was uninjured, and the copse was still.

With no living response, the young man finally yielded to his horse’s request, circling the tree to face whatever had so upset him. There was no one, and nothing to be seen.

Nothing, but puddles of blood mingled with the mud.

He stared, sheathing his sword once more. Wolves? Another beast? What had occurred here for something to leave such a gruesome trail, and spare such vulnerable prey? The man wondered, approaching the puddle of blood, much to his horse’s vocal dismay. Maybe another quarry, being chased and hunted down? No. It made no sense! The soil was moist, soft and disturbed. He got the impression of seeing footprints in the mud—human footprints. But that made even less sense. “Just what happened here?” he thought aloud.


Silence gave way to his answer.


Feeling his heart rise in his throat, the traveler stared down at the dark puddle, and the ripples forming over its surface. He extended his hand.


Another drop, this time on his palm. It was blood.


Hesitantly, he looked up.

Drip. Drip.

“What in heaven’s name…?”

Nothing. In the face of such an unsettling sight, his mind had taunted him with horrors, the kind the oldest of men never stopped fearing. An unknown hunter—man or beast—waiting to lunge upon its prey. At the very least, he had expected a macabre image to peer back at him: the maimed corpse of an unrecognizable creature, with its mangled limbs pointing morbidly down at him. Instead, all he found were torn, gray branches, splattered with vivid crimson.

That was no answer—it didn’t solve anything, the foreigner thought, retreating to stand with his horse. So much blood, in the eeriest of places, but no bodies and no signs of a struggle. Instead, it was the promise of a faceless threat lurking somewhere out there…waiting for them.

Disturbed by this, the young man made his way back to the field, directionless, but unwilling to remain there. Horse in tow, he wandered as he struggled for what to do next. Whatever had taken place in the copse, it had left him completely disarmed, in spite of the hand tensely clasping his sheath. Not knowing whether to fear man or beast, he couldn’t just choose a path.

Inside the city, his horse would stand out. Its sturdy, well-fed frame would give away his origin and class. People just couldn’t afford to own a horse with a belly fuller than their own; a mount like his blue dun was a rare sight. But where to hide him? Again, the shapeless predator flashed through his head. At similar crossroads in the past, he had looked for a cave, a clearing or a gathering of trees, tie the animal there and even brave the night next to him. Now, he had been stripped of that possibility for good. The horse had been spared this time, but would it survive a second assault? He couldn’t risk his only way back to the Cross, and his only companion besides.

Already he was contemplating smuggling the horse into the old city when the animal, oblivious to its fate, gave a tug against its reins, summoning him back from the depths of his thoughts. Worn out and weary, the horse suddenly recovered its spirit as it gazed upon some rich greenery on a nearby hilltop. Appetite unaffected by the previous fright, it pulled on the reins again, forcing its rider to come along.

“Glad to see you’re hungry,” the traveler observed with a sigh, giving in to the animal’s urging and heading that way. Considering all the poor beast had gone through, some green grass seemed a fair reward. —Green? he wondered, peering at the foliage upon that hill, then back at the plains from which they came. Despite existing in the same land, the grass here was green and abundant, while in the fields it was scarce, brown and dead. Why was this?

Curious (and with no option), the foreigner trekked up the hill with his horse. As they climbed, the grass only grew thicker and greener, even more so than in his own fields at home. But they were no longer in the Star, nor in the Cross, he realized as he sighted the trees. They had stumbled upon the entrance to a place he only knew from tales. Could it be? “The Forest of the Fae…” The name escaped his lips as he trespassed between the trees and brush, guided by his horse and his own awe. He could only stare dazedly about as the lush forest canopy closed in overhead, filtering the daylight in shades of emerald and gold.

Home to all magical life, the forest was known as a green sanctuary, where only those at peace with the spirits of nature could dwell. Humans were not meant to be there, or so the elderly in his travels had told him. Would such fairytales be more than that in a region so superstitious as this? The foreigner could only wonder as he walked the forest with his insistent horse. “It doesn’t feel like much…” he whispered to himself. The place was indeed special in that it was alive, rich and green; a completely separate world from the fields past the bushes, at the foot of the hills. But it also felt still, as if not a single other creature existed in that space with them. Perhaps the old sayings were true, and he truly wasn’t welcome here? “Why am I so popular, Pietro?” he mused, wryly.

The animal stared blandly back, simply tugging its reins to make him walk.

He acquiesced, following. “I guess you like it here…” The woods, still as they were, felt at peace with the rest of existence. Instead of tense and frightful, he felt serene and comfortable with the lack of noise and presences. It didn’t seem like anything would ambush or hunt him here. “Maybe…”

The townsfolk all referred to the forest as a forbidden place. Barred from human presence, it was said to make them lost if they defied its rules and trespassed. He halted then, staring at his mount. The rumors didn’t have to be real, he considered; if people still believed in and respected the myth, didn’t that make it the perfect shelter?

Having found his answer, the traveler proceeded further into the woods, searching for a clearing, or some other open place. But, as the rumors had warned, it did not feel like he would find his way, no matter how he searched…and with the clock ticking, he had no other choice but to relent. He gave a defeated sigh. “I guess this will be for the best, then…” he said as he turned to the horse. He leaned his forehead on the animal’s nose. “I can’t ask you to wait for me here, but…” Reaching up to his head, he removed his halter and bridle, petting him as he tucked them into his things. “At the very least, be safe, and certainly I’ll come back to find you.”


Parting ways with his mount solved only half of the traveler’s problems. A second issue required his attention, and thus he found himself once again standing at the gates of the Star’s castle village.

The unsettling scene at the circle of trees was gone, left behind far away from both the mystical forest and the town. And yet, he felt just as tense as he had felt while looking up at the bloodstained tree. He still had to find refuge for himself, but rather than looking out for one, his eyes seemed to scan every dark corner of the old city, searching for a threat.

As he walked those lonesome streets, it was just him, the hidden sword under his cloak, and a voice in his head, whispering against everyone—man or woman—who crossed his path. He was probably losing his mind, he knew, but there were still the Diviner’s words: his only hope. And so, he walked up the street towards the town square. He had nowhere else to go.

Soon, the racket from the ongoing commerce drew the young man from his thoughts. The sound of people busily moving around drowned the distrustful murmur in his head, but the harm was already done; he walked in between the crowds, fearful and suspicious of everyone who so much as brushed against him. Maybe trading goods wasn’t enough for the desperate folk; a horse so plump and healthy ought to be worth more than pale vegetables—and that without counting its meat! But no… the horse had been left alone. Maybe someone among them knew?

The thought alone was enough to make him freeze. He looked around him, at the merchants, the bakers, the grocers, even at the people talking and laughing as they went about their business. What if, among them, someone knew—and was following him? Looking back over his shoulder, he secured the hood of his cloak before quickly resuming his walk. It wasn’t such a ridiculous notion, to think that someone could recognize the horse, make a scene and then hunt down whichever fool showed up for him. But no one had followed them at any time. Back in the copse, in the fields, and even inside the woods, it had been deadly still; only he and his horse.

Wanting to escape the noise and the chatter from the market square, the apprehensive foreigner hastened in his pace, abandoning the crowded plaza in favor of the more narrow road leading up to the back streets. Fewer distractions from a possible knife to his back, he thought, looking up the road. The fortune-teller from before was nowhere to be seen, and yet his answer was supposed to be on this path. Could the old man have known what happened? He slowed to a stop, another distressing thought occurring to him. If anyone had a clue of his origins, it was that old man. Could the Diviner be—

A sudden bark startled him out of his thoughts, drawing his attention back to the road before him. The hand pulling on the hilt of his sword froze. There, standing in the dwindling light, was a rather wolf-like dog, black and white and very big. Recognizing his alarm, the beast hunkered down on its paws, bushy tail held high and wagging as if to challenge him, and it barked again.

“What?” he demanded from the dog, tension weighting down on his shoulders. When it failed to respond—of course it did!—he sighed, relaxing. “You’re the one from before, aren’t you?”

As if in answer, the dog barked again, skipping a pace or two closer and retaking its challenging position. It was clear that the creature meant no harm—it was merely seeking a game.

“You want to play, eh?” he observed, distraught by the sudden cheerfulness in the midst of his ordeal. Despite his own paranoia, he recognized that the rather large canine hadn’t an ounce of malice in him. “Well I’m sorry,” he apologized, “but I cannot play with you.” And he stepped around him.

This, however, was not an answer the creature was going to accept. Turning slowly as he passed, the dog suddenly lunged, chomping down on the passing hem of his cloak. Then, it hauled back, giving a surprisingly powerful jerk on the material—and tugging the cloak’s owner back with it.

“Hey—!” the man argued, forced to turn to maintain his balance. Careful to not draw attention—or anymore than he already had—he secured the hood over his face once more, looking down at the dog. It wagged its tail, tugging again. He sputtered, taking a firm hold of his cloak. He pulled, and the dog pulled stubbornly back, growling playfully with every gesture. He didn’t have time for this! “You—need—to—let—go!”

“Hey, stupid!”

Turning towards the voice, he found a very short and angry woman glaring up at him. “Pardon?” was all he could manage.

“Don’t you be talking to my dog,” she scolded, gloved hands resting on her waist. “You hit your head or you just stupid? People are staring at you.”

This, he realized, was true. Around them, passersby and neighbors all looked their way, some with very visible amusement. The spectacle he had been trying to avoid—triggered by a dog! He yanked at his cloak, retrieving it from the creature at last, and turned to leave.

“Oh, no you don’t.”

A far stronger yank on his mantle forced him to stop, and as he turned, there was still the old woman, holding onto his cloak. He frowned. “Ma’am, I-I’m sorry, but I need to—”

Pia!” came a shattering roar from the nearest doorway. The sign slung from its post indicated that it was a blacksmith’s shop. Several of the onlookers started. Though the owner of the frightful voice was nowhere in sight, it was clear that he was aggravated by the commotion. “Woman, stop fucking with the bystanders! Some people are trying to work!”

“Oh, shut up!” she shouted back, whirling to address the door and soundly frightening the poor traveler whom she still held captive. “Mind your own business!”

Pia? That was an unusual name to have in the Star, the captured man thought, staring in curious disbelief at the screaming woman. As she turned, the scarf on her head slipped down, giving way to wild, dark hair, barely tamed back into a bun. Looking at her, she seemed familiar. Even the color of her skin, though paler than his, was still darker than anyone he had encountered in this land. Could she be—?

“What now? You’re spacing out?” the woman named Pia addressed him with a frown. “You heard the man, let’s go in; you’re bothering everyone.” And then, she dragged him along towards the shop. The dog followed gleefully after. And even more strangely, he simply discarded all distrust and obediently went along.

The shop was of a respectable size, its walls lined by black stone work-benches, with matching counters dividing the room, strewn with daggers, ornaments, horse shoes, ingots and several sections of pipe in various states of disrepair. A massive hearth consumed much of the back wall, beside an archway leading into an adjacent room. To the right, a second door opened up in the wall, curtained to prevent prying eyes from peeking in. All around, the walls were mounted with wooden racks, bearing pots and pans, chains, gardening implements, cogs, shields, and all manner of tools, many of them made of iron. The air was stifling, in sharp contrast to the chill of the street outside, and a handful of patrons seemed to be taking advantage of this, waiting before the counters with various broken wares to be appraised by the craftsman.

Clad in a leather apron, the proprietor was hard at work on some task, tonelessly reassuring a patron at the counter that his work would be done in a number of hours, and accepting a basket from him as payment. He was a tall man, thin and lanky, towering well over the rest of the room, his face narrow and streaked with black from his craft. His eyes were pale brown—or green?—and deeply shadowed from work, half concealed beneath heavy eyelids in a disinterested expression. A stark white scar marked his brow, partly concealed beneath his gray-streaked hair, half tied back at his nape. His prominent nose and pale complexion made his ethnicity clear.

The friendly dog darted beneath the hinged counter, rushing to the occupied man as the woman and captive traveler entered. His tail wagged contentedly as he perched beside his master, awaiting his attention.

“Back,” the woman announced, pulling her prey along through the gathered crowd of customers. She guided him behind the counter and into the adjacent room, disregarding the curious looks she received for carting along the bewildered young man by his cloak.

As he passed, the youth couldn’t help to glance at the man standing behind the counter. Far from the threatening image he had envisioned, he looked pretty ordinary, for a blacksmith. Or perhaps this wasn’t him? Certainly, he couldn’t link the shout he had heard from the street to this worn-looking man.

The chamber beyond the front room was most certainly the workshop proper. Twice the size of the one before, there was a staircase leading up to the second story, half-concealed behind another wall, and across from the archway, a door leading out to the opposite street. This door was barred, perhaps to keep the curious or lost from using it. The first thing that caught the eye was the enormous second hearth at the foot of the room, easily bigger than the first he’d seen, an anvil and barrel seated before it. No doubt, that was the forge from which the blacksmith did his heavier work. Beyond that, it was very much like the front of the shop, all the surfaces laden with a great many projects awaiting attention. A carriage wheel sat discarded in one corner, and several pieces of impressive armor lie scattered amongst more common objects, like grates and axes. There was a sawhorse propped up beside the stairwell, mounted with a worn-out saddle, a stool sitting pushed up close beside it. In spite of the poor state of things, it seemed the blacksmith had no shortage of work.

The walls in here, however, were adorned not with housewares, as in the other room, but with a vast selection of ornamented weapons. Axes, crossbows, spears and a range of beautifully crafted swords hung crossed and propped up across every vertical surface, the pattern of deadly implements broken here and there by a respectable shield or two. A rack of unpolished weapons and armors lie discarded beneath one of the windows, a drape thrown halfheartedly over it to conceal it from the average passerby. It seemed that, once, that had been his focus—and judging by his trophies, he was accomplished in it. It was no wonder people brought their work to him.

Short of Pia and the traveler himself, there was no one else around; it seemed they were the only ones present. “Now be a good boy a wait here,” the woman instructed, finally releasing him before turning towards the crowded front room. It seemed she intended to leave him there.

“Wait.” Before she could depart, the young man reached out for her. “Miss Pia, was it?” Hesitation was steadily waning inside him, despite the intimidating décor looming overhead. His curiosity was much too great. “Why…why have you brought me here?”

The stern-looking woman defied his beseeching gaze for a full minute as he struggled for questions. Then, she heaved a long-suffering sigh. “And to think you look so much smarter than this…” she lamented with annoyance, approaching him again. There was a strange look in her eyes, and for a moment, it seemed that she had something more to say—but then, the dog darted into the room, interrupting before she could even begin.

The tired-looking man lumbered in after him, a scarred sledgehammer slung effortlessly over one narrow shoulder. “Volk,” he deadpanned to the beast, nodding back towards the archway, “Keep watch.” The shop beyond was empty now; it seemed he’d cleared the room, and closed the door.

The dog took a moment to nuzzle the brash woman’s hip, sending the foreigner a curious glance, then trotted back out to guard the storefront as instructed.

The rather jaded-looking Stellacian trudged past them to a nearby workbench, swinging the weighted hammer from his shoulder; it cracked down against the stony surface with a deafening ‘bang!’. He took up a rag from the bench, wiping his hands and face as he turned at last to regard them. “What’s this, then,” he said more than asked, gesturing to the uncertain traveler. It seemed he had been wrong; this was certainly the blacksmith.

“Isn’t it obvious?” the woman asked, stepping back away from the boy to gather a jar from the counter next to the hearth. She poured its contents into a tin mug before walking past the young man, straight to the blacksmith. The disparity between them was a pronounced one, made clearer by her proximity; she was maybe two-thirds his height, and full and curved where he was oddly thin. “Rejoice.” She offered him the mug. “We had a son.”

The traveler blinked.

But the towering man accepted the cup without so much as a flinch. “He’s awful big. Where you been hiding him?”

“A trunk? The pantry? Volk’s bed? Who knows?” She shrugged. “We’re keeping him.” There was a stunning certainty in those words—one that would not be questioned.

What? the foreigner thought, taken aback. “N-no,” he objected, his nervous stare fixed on the strangely contrasting couple before him. “Sir, I assure you, it wasn’t my intention to intrude—”

The woman merely glanced up at her husband.

For a moment, the blacksmith said nothing, merely emptying his cup, then setting it aside to peer closely at the awkward boy. It was hard to judge precisely what he was thinking. Then, at last, he spoke. “I’d believe nephew,” he said at last to his wife, and to the traveler, “It’s not intruding if you’re family. That is, assuming you got nowhere better to be.”

He did not, he recalled. Between odd encounters and surprises, he had forgotten all about that particular problem. It was only then that the words of the Diviner rang through his head, not as those coming from a questionable man, but from a man who had known too much. His answer, he had said, was on this street—and here they were, offering him shelter without question. Strange though the circumstances, it seemed this was his answer after all. Relieved, the young man offered his hand, the weight lifted from his shoulders. “I would be most grateful to you, for welcoming me into your home.”

The blacksmith quirked an eyebrow at him, eyeing the polite gesture of thanks, then his amused wife. “…Riiight.” It was with due humor that he accepted, all but crushing the boy’s hand in his own. He was far stronger than he appeared. “Gotta work on those manners of yours. They’re gonna earn looks.” He released him, sparing further pain. “Speaking of manners, suppose introductions are in order. I’m Dakmar.” He tilted his head towards the tiny woman at his side. “You’ve met Pia—and Volk, judging from your cloak.”

Out in the shop, the dog perked up an ear.

“It’s nice to meet you,” the youth was quick to answer and retrieve his hand, surprised by the man’s display. He was hardly typical of a blacksmith, but a blacksmith nonetheless. A formidable figure if there ever was one. “Dakmar…madam,” he nodded anyway, excusing the remark on his manners. “Thank you for welcoming me.” He resisted the urge to frown, realizing once more the situation he had put himself in. “I am in your debt.”

The man looked sidelong at his wife, a strange little smirk tugging at the corner of his lips. It only affected that half of his face. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. We’ll feed you, and we won’t kick you out, but we’re not an inn. Don’t expect a free ride—you’ll have to work and earn your keep.”

“Of course,” he agreed immediately. He had, after all, been told to bide his time. While he couldn’t imagine what he’d be good for to working people such as these, it was better than aimless wandering and drawing more attention. Perhaps helping with some chores would make the time go faster—because he certainly seemed to have that. Time.

“Then it’s settled.” Dakmar glanced archly Pia, who merely smirked back, clearly pleased with the arrangement. He quirked a broad shoulder in reply, in answer to some unspoken question, turning his attention back to the young man. “So, ‘nephew’—do we need to name you, or did you come with one?”

For a moment, he hesitated. His given name had no place here, and would only complicate his position—something he hardly needed to do, now that he’d found allies in the native couple. But of course, he had to be called something. “It’s…Credo,” he decided at last. And that, as before, would suffice. “My name is Credo.”

To Be Continued



The Outsider
-Credo: a young Crucian traveler with a secret. He has come to the Star seeking answers to questions only he knows, but his dark complexion and apparent wealth mark him clearly as an outsider in the impoverished nation. He is not superstitious—or at least, that’s what he tells himself.
-Pietro: Credo’s purebred blue dun. Credo was forced to abandon him in the Western Forest, as horses of his quality are rare in the Star, and clear status symbols. He is perhaps his master’s only friend.

The Townsfolk:
-The Diviner: a wise old fortune-teller—who might actually be a seer. He has a way of speaking that is both persuasive and disarming, and he offers cryptic advise that is eerily accurate. There is something strange about the staff he carries.
-Dakmar: the town blacksmith. Tall, willowy and dry-humored, Dakmar is supremely tolerant, but deceptively strong, with an imposing voice that does not fit his worn exterior. He was once an accomplished weaponsmith, but it seems those days are done.
-Pia: Dakmar’s wife, and Credo’s savior. Small and dark, she is a sharp contrast to her husband, and most everyone else in the Star. Pia openly speaks her mind, and her blunt and forceful manner disguises her apparent good nature.
-Volk: A wolf-like dog with a friendly disposition. Volk has a penchant for engaging unfamiliar people in games, whether or not they want to play. His persistence no doubt makes him a good guard-dog.  

Story and Characters Copyright © Xandra and Countess-D 2010-201X
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