Henry was locked in a titanic battle, engaging not only his physical prowess, but every ounce of his willpower as well. It was the stuff of legends, truly.
“Henry,” Petalwynd said.
He ignored her. He had to ignore her! He could not afford a moments distraction. Even the slightest error now and all would be lost. It was that titanic.
“Um, Henry,” Petalwynd said again.
Sweat poured from his body in rivers, and he felt his muscles scream in defiance. He strained, his face a mask of desperation and agony, though his eyes glittered with the will to emerge victorious.
“Henry,” Petalwynd sighed.
He shook his head, dug deep, and pulled upon his very last reserves of strength. He gave all he had in a final, heroic burst of epic will. For these efforts, though he was spent, and collapsed, he saw the victory he desired as his opponent yielded.
The donkey took a step forward.
Petalwynd stared down at Henry as he panted in the dirt. He stared back at her, smiling.
“I win!” he declared in exhaustion.
Petalwynd nodded slowly. “Yes, so I see.”
He lay there a bit longer, gasping for air, before asking her, “Can you help me up?”
She smiled, that same tired smile she always gave him when he’d just done something she found monumentally absurd, and held out a hand. He grasped it, and was surprised all over again at how strong something so small could be.
“Are you done?” she asked as he bent over, still trying to catch his breath.
“No, no,” he told her. “That was just round one.”
“Perhaps there is a better way?” she inquired.
Henry looked at the donkey. It gave him a dirty look, he was certain.
“Petalwynd, I know this is strange to you, but sometimes a man must force nature to bend to his will,” he told her. “Even when it refuses.”
She nodded again, looking very unconvinced. “I suppose, though I would think a man would seek the fastest means to accomplish this.”
“Bah!” Henry scoffed. “There is nothing the hard earned sweat of the brow can be defeated by. It is what separates us, from them.”
He pointed at the donkey, which she looked at for a moment, then shook her head. The donkey brayed and backed up a step. Henry’s face fell.
“Sometimes,” she told him as she dug through the pack animals burden and produced a carrot. “The victory is in not using your physical prowess, but in using your mental prowess.”
Henry frowned. “That will never work. Trust me on this, it’s been tried. Strength of arms is the way here.”
“It’s not for him,” she said as she took a bite of the carrot and walked away.
The donkey followed her.
Henry stared in shock.
“Sometimes enjoying that which another wants compels them to reach for it as well,” she called as she headed down the road.
Henry glared and followed.
In the month since Henry had followed Petalwynd from Rivershire, he had learned two things about the halfling monk. The first was that she was bald under her wide straw hat. Not so much bald, as she shaved her head. It was a monk thing, he presumed.
The second thing was that she had an annoying habit of being right. Not sometimes, but all the time. It reminded him of every relationship he’d ever had with a woman, and infuriated him as often as not.
She did not gloat over it, for which he was thankful. She did, however, keep doing it, for which he wasn’t grateful. Still, he had to accept that where he often failed, she succeeded, and he admired her for it more than a little.
As they approached the outer fringes of the city of Hastius, Henry acknowledged one other thing. It was difficult for him, but he knew he needed to do it. He admitted, to himself, that there was much he could learn from the tiny monk.
Henry didn’t usually like learning. It almost always involved physical, or mental, pain. He’d had enough of both to last a lifetime. Regardless, he followed Petalwynd, and even though he balked, each lesson she delivered, he kept in mind.
As for Petalwynd, whatever her thoughts were on Henry, she kept them to herself, though he occasionally glimpsed her watching him with a sly smile. He didn’t know what it meant, but was certain that in time, he would learn.
After all, there was nothing Petalwynd enjoyed more than watching him learn, it seemed.
Hastius was a sprawling city, straddling the wide, deep river of Eine in the Kroin Valley, nestled between two low mountain ranges. Famed for its ports that delivered goods up and down the river, it was one of the major trade cities in the region.
It was famous for more than its ports, though. Home to world famous inventors, the city was a showcase of engineering accomplishments, from the Great Clock Tower, to the draw bridges that spanned the river, to the multi tiered fountains that dotted the city landscape.
At the sight of each one, Petalwynd all but swooned, stricken with awe by these creations. Henry had to remind himself that the halfling had never been out of the monastery she had called home until recently, and as such, was unprepared in many ways for the world around her.
At each new discovery, he would smile patiently and acknowledge how incredible they were. Her enthusiasm was infectious, however, and he found himself admiring these things with fresh eyes, seeing them for the marvels they were.
They wandered the city for the better part of the morning, the halfling monk soaking in the sights, sounds and smells as they wove through the bustling streets. Though Henry had been to Hastius before, with his father when he had been young, he found he was enjoying himself as they reached Gorten Park.
Covering several acres, it was a reserve of nature in the middle of the urban sprawl. Trees were left to grow amidst a wash of green grass, where children played, and adults strolled hand in hand.
“So peaceful,” Petalwynd sighed as they walked through the park.
Henry smiled, but didn’t say anything. When they left Hastius, they would enter unfamiliar territory for him, as much as this was unknown to her. While she marveled at the beauty, he wondered about the future.
Petalwynd believed their meeting was fated, and their friendship destined. Henry doubted that, but rarely bothered to argue it. For a moment, listening to the laughter of children at play, and the sigh of the wind through the trees, he wondered if perhaps she was right again.
“Oh, what’s that?” she asked suddenly
“Hmm?” Henry followed her gaze, but saw only a street vendor selling treats.
“It smells delicious,” she said, drifting in that direction.
He sighed and followed, watching as the vendor sold his wares. It wasn’t anything spectacular, he felt. Just doughnuts. Then he realized it was likely Petalwynd had never had one.
“You want one?” he asked.
“They smell divine,” she sighed.
He chuckled and dug out his coin bag, only to find it rather light. The cost of putting the donkey up in the stable had been higher than he’d liked, and they still hadn’t secured lodgings for the night.
“Seems I’m a bit short,” he told her.
She looked to her own bag, but after a month on the road, it was equally empty. “Such a shame. I really wanted to sample these treats.”
“We need to think of where we’re going to sleep tonight,” Henry reminded her.
She nodded, eyeing the fluffy bread and its many toppings sadly. The vendor made a show of handing them out, as well, which he doubted was helping.
Henry sighed as he stared at the sky. “I suppose I could find some odd jobs to do around town so we could have rooms for the night, and a doughnut,” he told her at last.
Her face lit up at that. “You’d do that for me, Henry? Really?”
“It’s a mans place after all,” he replied with a grin.
“You are a good man, Henry Blake,” she told him, though he saw that sly smile creep across her face, and briefly wondered what she’d just done that he’d missed.
No matter, he knew. They needed the extra coin anyway. How hard could it be to find a few odd jobs to do in a city this size anyway?
“What do you mean, you don’t have any work?” Henry asked in disbelief. “It’s a tavern! There’s always something to do!”
The burly tavern owner shrugged. “What can I tell you, buddy? We got all the help we need. Now either buy something, or shove off.”
“If I had the coin to buy something, I wouldn’t be asking for work,” he muttered as he pushed away from the bar.
He’d left Petalwynd in the park over an hour ago and had yet to secure anything remotely like work. Everywhere he turned, the answer had been no, even in the places where they always need an extra pair of hands.
It seemed Hastius was going through something of a boom recently, and much of the city’s resident population was firmly employed. Still, he knew, there had to be something.
“Pardon me, son,” an old man said, his voice wavering and thin. “Did I hear you say you needed to earn a little money?”
“Indeed,” Henry admitted. “Do you know someplace I could find it?”
“Well, no,” the elderly man said as he leaned heavily on his cane, stooped body trembling. “Though, if you could help an old man get home, he’d likely reward you with a few coins.”
Henry pondered that a moment. Not exactly a mans work, but he wasn’t having much luck with that. “Very well, grandpa, show me the way, and I’ll get you there as quick as I can.”
“Why thank you, lad,” the old man sighed in relief.
An hour later Henry deposited the old man on his doorstep, gasping and wheezing as he did. He’d just climbed a mountain with the old timer on his back after all.
“There you go,” Henry managed, all of Hastius sprawled out below him. “Home.”
“This isn’t my house,” the old man said thoughtfully. “Oh my, I sent you up the wrong peak! Mine’s over there!”
Two hours later, and Henry deposited the old man in front of his house, gasping and wheezing as he did. It occurred to him he wasn’t in as good of shape as he’d thought.
“Ah, yes, this is my house,” the old timer nodded gleefully. “What a strong and determined lad you are. Here’s your reward.”
Henry felt the old man put a copper coin in his hand. He gaped at that.
The old timer backflipped onto his porch, then somersaulted through the door and disappeared inside, leaving Henry awe struck.
“What the hell?”
A few hours later, he found himself being drug down the street by a pack of large dogs. He was certain they had come from some sort of hellish plane of existence.
He returned to the park, to find Petalwynd standing on her head, and gave her the few coins he’d gathered, receiving a smile for his efforts.
After that, he discovered what the phrase ‘tackling dummy’ meant. A group of children were learning self defense, and he was their target.
He returned to the park, to find Petalwynd balancing on a single toe, and gave her the few coins he’d gathered, receiving a smile for his efforts.
After that, he carried bags for a sweet group of old ladies. The bags were all filled with cast iron cookware, and weighed three times what Henry did, he thought.
He returned to the park, to find Petalwynd balanced on the back of a bench by two fingers, and gave her the few coins he’d gathered, receiving a smile for his efforts.
After that, he acted as a mule team for a merchants wagon. The fellow could have laid off the whip, though, Henry was certain.
He returned to the park, to find Petalwynd with her feet behind her neck, and gave her the few coins he’d gathered, receiving a smile for his efforts.
After that, he helped the city scrub slime off the walls of the sewer. They might have mentioned, at some point, that the slime was alive and hungry.
He returned to the park, to find Petalwynd bent over backwards, touching her heels, and gave her the few coins he’d gathered, receiving a smile for his efforts.
After that, Henry stopped trying. The day had grown long, and he had earned some small amount of coin, enough to rent a room at some tiny inn, he was sure, though the thought of Petalwynd receiving the treat she craved was probably beyond his meager earnings.
He drug himself back to the park, to find Petalwynd reclining on a bench, looking as peaceful as he felt exhausted. He was dirty, tired, hungry, and if his math was right, had managed to accrue less than a silver coin for his toils
He fell onto the bench at her side and groaned. She looked at him, sly smile drifting across her face. He didn’t care what it meant at this point.
“Sorry, Petalwynd,” he finally said. “I don’t think I earned enough to buy a doughnut. I’m not sure I earned enough to get us a room to sleep in, unless we want to be put up with the donkey.”
“It’s okay, Henry,” she told him, patting his shoulder. “You tried your best, and that’s what counts.”
“What counts is doing something with your life,” he told her. “Seems all I can do is fall short.”
“Not so,” she grinned, producing two doughnuts and offering him one.
He stared at that for a bit. “Petalwynd! We needed that money for a room, not to mention supplies for the journey ahead! What were you thinking?”
She blinked. “I was thinking that you worked hard and deserved a reward, Henry.”
“That’s very sweet of you, but really, what are we going to do now?” he asked her.
She shrugged, pulling her coin bag out and dropping it with a heavy thud on the bench between them. Gold coins rolled from the top, the small bag unable to contain them all. Henry gaped.
“Where did you get that?” he exclaimed.
“People gave them to me,” she said with a shrug.
“I was doing my exercises while you were gone, and people kept tossing them to me. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they were just being generous.”
Henry stared at her in open mouthed shock. Each time he’d returned to give her his earning, she had, in fact, been doing the very exercises he’d seen her do for a month. It hit him then, that people had thought her a street performer, and obviously been impressed.
“I rented us some rooms at an inn not far from here,” she told him. “It didn’t take as many coins as I thought.”
“I.. you.. we… but…” Henry gibbered.
She smiled and patted his shoulder again. “Eat your treat, Henry. They are quite delicious. I’ve had ten so far.”
Henry took the doughnut and ate it.
The inn was luxurious by any stretch of the word. One of the finest in all Hastius, in truth, with heated baths and meals delivered to the rooms on request. Never had Henry known such opulence.
They ate a fine meal in the dining hall, though he wasn’t sure where the halfling put it all after devouring so many sweet treats. They bought a change of clothes as well from a shop in the inn. She a fine red silk robe, Henry a sturdy outfit that would wear well.
As they retired, climbing the stairs to their rooms, Henry felt a bit put out all the same. He had gone to great effort, and was now living off another. It didn’t sit well with him.
“Petalwynd,” he said as they stood in the hall, his room to the left, hers to right. “I don’t like accepting charity from another. From now on, you have to let me stand on my own two feet.”
She paused at the door. “Henry, is that the lesson you learned today?”
“It isn’t a lesson,” he replied. “It’s how I am. It’s who I am. Not everything in life is a lesson.”
“Everything in life is a lesson, Henry,” she replied, her eyes seeming sad as she spoke. “Whether you learn it, or even see it, is for you to decide.”
“Then all I learned today is that I failed, again, to live up to my expectations for myself,” he sighed, leaning on the door frame.
“I’m sorry,” she told him softly. “That was not the lesson I had hoped you would learn. It wasn’t the lesson I saw life teaching you.”
“And what lesson would that have been?” he asked, weary now of lessons.
She opened the door and stepped into the room, giving him that sly smile. “The simple joy of effort undertaken, for the reward of seeing another smile. But then again, perhaps that is not a lesson you need to learn, as you did it without hesitation, and for that, I am proud of you, Henry Blake.”
Petalwynd closed the door, leaving Henry alone in the hall. He stood there for a time, hand on the knob to his room, and stared at that closed door in shock. His mind simply felt numb at her words.
Finally, he bowed his head and smiled. “Perhaps there is more I can learn than I knew, even about myself, and who I am. Thank you, Petalwynd, for reminding me of that.”
He stepped into the room, closing the door, leaving the hall empty. Across from it, beyond the door she had exited through, Petalwynd leaned against it and smiled.
“You are welcome, Henry.”
©-2016 Cain S. Latrani