“Okay, I give up,” Henry sighed. “What the hell are you doing?”
Petalwynd grinned up at him. “I am preparing.”
“Right. Okay. Got that. Preparing for what?”
“Our victorious entrance!”
“Victorious? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Have we not braved the long roads? Have we not overcome adversity? Have we not journeyed to the very edge of the Kingdom?”
“Not exactly, no.”
“But, you said…”
“I said, Luddin is at the edge of the Thertin Hills, after which we’ll not see much of the King’s Patrols guarding the roads.”
“Does that not mean the edge of the Kingdom?”
“It really doesn’t. Across the Hills, is just more of the Kingdom. It’s kind of a big Kingdom, you know.”
“You sound disappointed.”
“I thought we were about to enter uncharted territory.”
“Yeah, no. Forget that, though. What adversity?”
“The time you fell in the river.”
“Do you have to keep bringing that up?”
“It was adverse, was it not?”
“Can we just go now, please?”
“Yes! Let us enter the this new city with pride in our step, for we have endured!”
“This whole optimist thing, it’s kind of annoying. Have I told you that before?”
“Not since yesterday.”
“Henry, a new adventure awaits us! Let us face it, with the strength of our convictions, and find the destiny we seek!”
“Yeah, you know, there are days, like today, where I really don’t like you very much.”
“Then tomorrow will be a day where you like me a great deal!”
“Just, walk already.”
Petalwynd, pride in her step, marched towards the gates of Luddin. Henry trailed after her, weariness in his step. The donkey just plain followed.
Luddin was as different from Hastius as night was from day. Where the streets of the port city were wide, these were narrow. Where there, bright colors and laughter were easy to find, here it was dark, and the people were bitter. No marvels of engineering adorned the city of Luddin, only the reminders of assaults by barbarian raiders and mercenary warlords.
Petalwynd looked at the scars of the city, the burned out and crumbling buildings, with sadness, and Henry could tell she did not understand what she saw. To her, the world was a place of wonder and joy. Learning of the horrors people committed against each other was going to be difficult for her, he had long known.
Resting at the mouth of a narrow area of the kingdom of Rannis, the city had long endured assaults from various factions that roamed the treacherous lands of the Thertin Hills. Raiders from the aggressive nation of Drisk to the south, which the Hills bordered on, made things worse. Despite all attempts by the King’s Guard, the Hills remained virtually lawless, and nothing less than a full scale war with the barbarians was likely to end that.
Across the length and breadth of the Kingdom, few people cared for the idea, leaving the denizens of Luddin to face the threat on their own. Only the garrison of the King’s Guardsmen kept the city from being over run entirely, but that was little comfort to those who suffered from the perpetual state of nigh on war that existed.
As they walked the cramped, dark streets, the homeless and hungry were easy to find. They were everywhere, impossible to miss. Henry understood all too well what the lawlessness really meant, though he doubted Petalwynd did.
Rogue officers, or worse, those with black marks on their record, were sent to Luddin. The last stop for those whose careers in the military had ended. The place you sent trouble makers when you wanted to forget about them.
Between them, and the raiders wandering the wild lands outside the walls, there was no hope to be found for those who lost everything. Corruption and vice were the coin of this realm, and as much as it sickened him, Henry knew there was nothing to be done for it.
He and Petalwynd would journey through the Thertin Hills soon enough themselves, and from the tales Henry had heard his entire life, the trip was likely to be treacherous. Bandits would be the least of their concerns, with the battle hungry barbarians looming ever near, and worse threats than that never far away.
In her eyes, though, Henry saw the despair magnified. With each glance of a hungry street waif, her heart broke a little more. With each side long glance from a parent pushed to the edge, the flames of her anger were fanned a bit more.
For Petalwynd, there was no room in the world for corruption and petty would be tyrants oppressing the weak. Henry knew it without her saying a word. It was the way she carried herself, the way she believed in others, like him, that told that tale.
He could only hope, for her sake, that she learned to keep putting one foot in front of the other. There was nothing they could do for these people, no matter how much they wanted to. Tear down one oppressor, and another waited in the wings to take their place. It was the way of the world in places like this, where hope had died a painful back ally death, and dreams were of nothing but living to see the next day.
Henry lowered his eyes, not meeting the gaze of those they passed. In his heart, he remembered his own self pity from not so long ago, and felt shame.
“So, where are we going?” Petalwynd asked as night began to fall.
Henry scratched his head absently. “Anyplace with a warm bed, I guess. The pickings here seem slim, I admit, but now and then, it’s nice to sleep some place other than the ground.”
“Yes,” she replied absently, gaze turning back to the way they had come, and the lost souls that drifted there. “I guess it is.”
Henry started to say something, though he wasn’t sure what. Something to lift her spirits, to let her know that it was alright. He never got the chance.
On the heels of the bellowed words, a very large man hit the street in front of them. Not just large, Henry realized after a moment, but enormous, in both height, and girth. A veritable monster of a man really.
“I think we found the tavern,” Petalwynd told him, waving a hand in front of her face.
“Yeah,” Henry agreed, the overwhelming stench of booze coming from the man in the street making him reel a little.
Slowly, the huge man pushed himself up, weaving as he gained his knees, looking around in a half drunken daze. In that position, he was almost eye level with Henry himself, who found himself stepping back from the drunk a little.
Bald and carrying the stubble of many days without shaving, the drunkard’s chins had chins of their own, and his belly threatened escape the stained tunic he wore. He belched at them, and the fumes went from overwhelming to nauseating.
“Geeze,” Henry muttered.
“Poor guy,” Petalwynd sighed.
“Hello, little one,” the drunk slurred, giving the monk a crooked smile. “You wouldn’t happen to have a few coins to spare, would you?”
“Don’t,” Henry said sharply.
“I’m not going to,” she told him, holding up a hand to stop her friend from advancing. “You would only waste them on drink, wouldn’t you?”
The drunk seemed offended by that. “What’s it to you if I do?”
“They would be my coins, spent to drag you further down,” the Halfling said in a pained tone. “I won’t help in that. I’m sorry.”
He sagged in the street for a moment, then snarled at her in rage, “You’re sorry? Damn you for it, then! If you won’t give them, I’ll just take them from you!”
“What? Why?” Petalwynd exclaimed, recoiling from the stench of him as he reached out to grasp at her.
“I think he means to rob you,” Henry told her, watching as the large and very inebriated bully groped at one of the monks only he could see.
Petalwynd brightened immediately, saying with a smile, “How wonderful!”
“Wonderful?” Henry cried. “What do you mean, wonderful?”
“Well, that is how you and I first met, isn’t it?” she asked with a wink.
Henry sighed. “Must you keep bringing that up?”
“Look at what fast friends we have become! Surely, this will be no different.”
“You’re really not that stupid, are you?” Henry groaned.
The drunkard shook his head, and smiled darkly as his fragmented vision settled. “Now, little one, you’ll be sorry you refused Jarl!”
As he reached for her, Henry’s hand dropped to his sword. He had no desire to hurt the man, but he realized even as he heard the sound of the blade coming free of its sheath, that he wouldn’t stand by and do nothing while Petalwynd was in danger.
He only got the sword half drawn when Petalwynd stopped moving, having delivered close to a dozen blows to the drunks body in rapid succession. Henry gaped as she folded her hands behind her back, her smile spreading even wider. The drunkard, Jarl, tried desperately to move, only to find he couldn’t.
“Sometimes, I forget how fast you are,” Henry told her, sliding his sword back.
“Am I, really?” she asked. “I was always one of the slowest students at the monastery.”
Henry frowned. “Never mind that, cause I really don’t want to think about it too much. Now, what did you do to him?”
Petalwynd gave him her sly smile, the one Henry now knew meant she was being clever in ways he didn’t enjoy. “Nothing much. I’ve only paralyzed him.”
Henry hung his head. “Great. Thanks for letting me know you can do that. Next question is, what do we do with him?”
Petalwynd cocked her head to the side, studying the frozen, obese drunk carefully. “We help him.”
“Seriously?” Henry sighed.
“Yes,” she said. “Like you, this man has lost his way, and needs our help. To do anything less wouldn’t be to walk the path of virtue, after all.”
“There’s a path for that?” Henry asked in desolation.
Petalwynd looked back at him, grinning. “There’s a path for everything, my friend.”
“Right, good, great.” Henry shook his head. Why did none of this actually surprise him?
“Now, Jarl, wasn’t it?” Petalwynd asked.
The big man simply knelt there, hands outstretched, eyes panicked. Very slowly, he blinked.
“Hello, Jarl, my name is Petalwynd, and this is Henry. We are travelers, searching for our destiny, and in you, I sense a kindred spirit. You’ve lost your way, and I’d like to help you find it again.” Petalwynd smiled brightly the entire time as Henry waved despondently when he knew she would expect it.
“I don’t know what brought you to this,” she said sadly. “But I will be happy to rent you a room at the inn, where you may bath. I’ll even buy you a hot meal, though I won’t allow you to drink alcohol. All I ask in return is that you tell me your story. Do you agree?”
Again, Jarl blinked very slowly. It was likely the only movement he could make, Henry realized. On the heels of that realization, he remembered being kicked in the back of the head by the tiny monk, and had to wonder why she hadn’t just paralyzed him as well.
“Excellent,” she cried. “I’m going to undo what I’ve done, but if you break our bargain, I won’t show you any mercy. Do you understand?”
He blinked once more, still very slowly. Somehow, Henry felt Jarl was getting better treatment from the Halfling than he had.
Petalwynd nodded, and flashed her hands across his body, tapping him in several places. A moment later, he collapsed to the ground, gasping. When he looked up at her, it was in a mixture of fear and awe.
“Hey, so, how come you just kicked me in the head?” Henry asked her.
“You needed it,” she answered as she held out a hand to Jarl.
“Gee, thanks,” Henry growled.
“You are very welcome, Henry,” Petalwynd replied with a smile as Jarl took his feet, towering over them both.
“Sarcasm is lost on you,” Henry sighed. “So, Jarl, which way to the inn?”
“Huh? Oh, um, this way,” the mountain said. “I’ll take you there, just please, don’t hurt me.”
Petalwynd seemed about to burst with glee. Henry kind of wanted her to go ahead. Jarl just flinched every time she moved.
It was a long walk to the inn.
Once upon a time, Jarl had been a powerful barbarian warlord, commanding a horde that struck terror into the hearts of all who heard of them. He had swept across the lands, crushing all before him without mercy. No one dared stand against him, for his fury in battle was legendary.
Then, he had met her. Mia, a simple peasant girl, her beauty so profound it had stilled the raging inferno in his chest. With but a look from her kind eyes, he had felt small, unworthy, and weak. The touch of her hand had wiped away all the blood that stained him, and for the first time in his life, he knew what it was to be at peace.
They had known six years in each others arms, and she had bore him a son, Tolly. He laid aside the sword, and took up the plow, and in that simple life, had found meaning all the battles and violence had never given him. In her arms, he knew what true power was, and in his sons eyes, he finally grasped what it was to be respected.
Six years. A lifetime to a man such as he, who had spent so long living in seconds. It had been beyond beautiful, beyond anything he even had the words to describe. He had known true pride in that time, not the hollow and empty thing that flitted away so easily before.
Then, it had ended, in fire and screams. His former comrades, now turned to thievery, had discovered him, and punished him for abandoning them. They had made her death last for hours, and his sons even longer. He had tried to fight, but they had been too many, and he no longer knew the fire that once drove him so fiercely.
When it was done, they had left him for dead, a broken shell. Jarl had searched for them, but the echoes of sorrow that now rang in his heart had driven him down, bringing him lower than he had ever known possible. There was nothing left to him now, no vengeance, no justice, no peace.
That had been two years past, and the man he was now was the sad remains of a once powerful warrior, and proud father. The laughing stock of even the worst of places, for no one in Luddin would grant him the mercy of death. He wandered, a shadow in the world, lost and forgotten.
His tale told, Jarl stared at the table, weeping softly. Henry stared away into the distance, lost in his own thoughts. Beside him, Petalwynd watched the massive barbarian, eyes dark.
“I am sorry for your loss,” she finally said. “I do not know any way to ease the pain you carry. Forgive me.”
“Hmph,” Henry grunted.
Petalwynd shot him a dark look. “Henry?”
His head low, eyes hidden behind the fall of his hair, Henry spoke not with pity, but with anger. “You coward.”
Jarl looked at him in shock even as Petalwynd gasped. When her friend turned to face the barbarian, she pulled away from him, unable to handle the rage that burned in his eyes.
“This is how you honor their memory? By becoming this? You damn coward!” Henry roared, hand swinging, fist driving into Jarl’s face.
The barbarian rocked in his chair, but he did not react otherwise. Eyes wide, he simply stared at nothing, Henry’s words hitting him harder still.
“I thought I’d had it bad, that my life was a miserable mess. My wife left me for another man, a richer man, and took all I had when she went. I was left to sleep under a rock and scrounge for food just to survive, and I thought myself weak. Now I see I was wrong. I wasn’t weak. At least I still stood up and kept moving, which is more than I can say for you!”
“Henry, stop,” Petalwynd called to him, reaching for him, only to be brushed away.
“You’re a liar as well as a coward! You lose yourself in drink, claiming you want to forget the pain of their deaths, but that’s not true at all, is it? What you’re really trying to forget, is them!”
Jarl gasped for air, his heart screaming at that. Gripping the table, he tried not to fall in the floor, the weight of Henry’s words like a boulder on his back.
“Six years,” Henry seethed. “Six years you had with a woman who loved you more than anything! With a son who admired and respected you! Six years of the life I always wanted!”
“Please, Henry, don’t,” Petalwynd whispered.
“Now, look at you, running away from it! You make me sick! This is how you cherish them? How you honor them? How you hold the memory of those times close to your heart? Do you think she would look at you with love now, seeing the man you’ve become? Or that your son would respect you? Do you?”
Jarl sagged, a trembling hand covering his face as he wept. He wanted to beg Henry to stop, but each and every word was true, and no matter how hard he wanted to turn a deaf ear, he found he couldn’t.
Petalwynd lowered her head, unable to look at Henry, his rage blinding him to the tears in his own eyes. Such pain, she had never imagined how deeply it ran in her friend. She had never guessed how much hurt he hide from her.
Henry stood, fists clenched at his side. “You want to honor those you loved after they are gone, you do it by getting up, and moving forward. You do it by living a life they would be proud of. You don’t run from it, or them. All you’ve done, Jarl, is tarnish their memory, and for that, you want pity? I’ve got none for you, and even if I did, you don’t deserve it.”
Henry stalked away, leaving the common room of the inn, heading for the street outside. Petalwynd watched him go with sorrow, finally seeing her friend’s true heart, and ashamed she had never realized it before.
“He’s…” Jarl sobbed. “He’s right.”
Petalwynd said nothing, looking to the broken man across from her as he levered himself up, eyes so filled with pain, she couldn’t grasp it all. It was more than she could understand.
“He’s right,” Jarl said again, as he gripped the table so tightly his fingers went white. “What have I done?”
“Nothing you cannot undo,” she said softly.
Jarl looked to her in surprise. “Do you… really think that?”
She nodded. “I do, but you must want it. You must chose to walk the hard road now. I’m sorry.”
Slowly, he released the table, eyes lost in memories. “As am I.”
“Will you be alright for a bit, if I leave you alone?” Petalwynd asked after a few moments. “I should check on Henry. I’ve never seen him like that, and it worries me.”
Jarl nodded slowly. “I will be, yes. Thank him for me.”
“I will,” she said as she stood, pausing long enough to rest a small hand on his giant one. “I will for both of us.”
Henry sat outside on the curb, face buried in his hands. He hadn’t meant to yell at the man, it had just happened. Seeing him run away from such beautiful memories had filled him anger like he’d never known.
He felt small arms wrap around him, holding him close as Petalwynd rested her cheek on his head. Hesitantly, Henry took one of her hands in his own and squeezed it, wanting her to know he was okay.
“I am so sorry, Henry,” she said at last.
“For not realizing sooner how much pain you are in,” she told him, tears rolling into his hair. “It was always right there in front of me, and I didn’t see it. Forgive me.”
“Nothing to forgive, Petalwynd,” he told her, reaching out with his other hand to cradle her head. “I guess, I never really saw it myself. Maybe I just didn’t want to.”
“You will find it one day,” she whispered to him. “Your happiness. I believe that now. Maybe, it’s even what we are really looking for.”
He smiled sadly at that. “Who knows? Maybe it isn’t even out there. Maybe, I’m just one of those people that doesn’t get to be happy. What’s it even matter, in the end?”
“It does matter,” she said. “It matters to me. I know you’ll find it. You have to find it.”
He felt her tighten her hold on him. “How can you say that so easily? Look around us, Petalwynd. The world is full of misery and sorrow. Why would I be different?”
“You will be. I know it. I believe in you, Henry.” She cried as she spoke, holding him as close as she could. “I believe in you.”
“Believe hard, then,” he said softly. “Enough for us both.”
“I will. I promise.”
To Be Continued Next Month In:
The Whisper Of Hope
©-2016 Cain S. Latrani