Needle Ash – Chapter 8 “In Search of Twilight’s Memory” part 1

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Chapter 8: In Search of Twilight’s Memory

 

Michael rode Calot close behind Sharona, who was working a slow path through the thick brush on Rabble-Rouser, her eyes forward, but focused on nothing in particular. To the left of them Guissali ambled on his own horse, the black banner on his lance standing proud in the strong wind. Far off to either side, some fifty yards away, were escorts made of dragoons bearing crossbows and proper armored cavalry. At the request of Johan, Michael had allowed an elite guard to assist him in case the assassins might return. Angelico, who commanded one of the two mixed-unit echelons, was more of a comfort to him than the presence of the rest, who had failed to protect General Butler and King Edward, and even fired upon Michael in error.

“What are we looking for, exactly?” Guissali said.

“Remnants,” Sharona said.

“Of what?” Guissali said. “Ought I to be looking for horse dung, or what?”

“Remnants of what our progenitors dreamt when they were here,” Sharona said. “There will be some piece of it left behind in the mundane world.”

“That didn’t quite answer my question,” Guissali said.

“What do you mean by them dreaming?” Michael asked. “You say these things often.”

“The world is as the dreamers have made it,” Sharona said, her eyes wandering over the brush. “The dark elves, which were our forebears, created for themselves the world that is, but it has become very different from how it was, for the dreamers that followed remade it according to their own wishes. Our world is has become mundane, you see. Set and difficult to change. Many of the dark elves made for themselves schisms in the world that is, remnants of how the world once was There must be one nearby for the assassins to go back to it.”

“Quite an interesting myth,” Guissali said. “But what exactly should I be looking for?”

“You ought to feel more than look,” Sharona said. “But if you must look, look for things that don’t belong here. There may be ruins, foundations of buildings long gone. Their land is clearly wooded, unlike this plain. An out of place tree, or rock.”

They crested a hill and looked down into a small valley of dry grass and sandstone.

“Just looks the same,” Guissali said. “I believe there is a village over yonder though, beyond those hills. Perhaps we could get something to eat there.”

“Good idea,” Sharona said. “We could ask them.”

“Would they tell us?” Michael said. “If they have returned from the city, that is.”

“They’ll tell us ghost stories, which besides being entertaining are often a memory themselves.” Sharona chuckled softly.

“What’s that there?” Michael said. He waived to the cluster of horsemen led by Angelico, and they paused.

“What do you see?” Sharona said, her eyes searching the ground.

Michael rode up beside her and leaned toward her in the saddle. “That, over there.” He pointed downhill toward a large cluster of green thistle, but just visible within it was what looked like square stone.

They rode down together, followed by Guissali, to the thistle grove. Sharona dismounted and got close to the thistle, trying to see the stone below it.

“You,” she said to Guissali. “Please assist me by moving these thorny bushes aside.”

“What?”

“You’re wearing armor,” Sharona said. “If it stops swords, it ought to stop a few thorns.”

“Assist the lady,” Michael said. “Or are you not a nobleman?”

Guissali groaned and dismounted, his armor clinking. With a grumble, he grabbed the bushes and uprooted two of them, struggling against the hard-packed earth and the long roots that refused to give up their purchase.

“These thorns are still bitey, madam,” he huffed. “Why didn’t you just burn them all up? I thought you were a mage.”

“Because that might burn what is below,” Sharona said. She approached and put a hand on Guissali, who paused what he was doing. “It is cut stone. The remnants of a pillar. I don’t feel any magic here, though. Can we look around for more?”

After a few minutes hard search, they located another pillar foundation, but Sharona was convinced there was not enough to them to indicate a way into the “schism” of the assassins realm.

“That was a proper sight, though,” Sharona said. “So don’t feel too bad about it.”

“I didn’t feel anything about it except prickly thorns,” Guissali said as he struggled back onto his horse.

“Perhaps you need armor of a higher quality or better fit,” Sharona said.

 

The village was either further away than Guissali had figured, or else they were going painfully slow, for they only reached it once the sun was far into the west, stretching their shadows long out to their sides. They rippled on the waving grass like it was water. Guissali had grown hungry enough to eat in the saddle, but was far from refusing a second meal when they caught sight of it.

It was a large cluster of houses of a mixture of styles. Some were stone, set in the rolling hills with turf roofs. Others were tall two-story buildings of wood and plaster and shake roofs. Many of these were empty, as not all the residents who had fled to the city in advance of the Artalland army had yet returned. All around the town were fields of crops and groves of fruit trees, growing steadily toward harvest and unmolested. Amid the irrigated fields and surrounding the houses were nut trees, shading most of the commons.

Being a small village, there was no inn, but there was a homely house that agreed to feed and house them in exchange for pay, though there were not enough cooks (or food) to serve both sets of Angelico’s retinue. They plied their own suppers from other families or set about (outside of town) to making a meal for themselves.

Angelico, Sharona, and Guissali sat with Michael in the large living room of the homely house, watching the fire crackle in the large hearth set into the wall, waiting for a kettle over the fire to boil over for tea. The goodwife, a portly woman named Mura with graying hair, entered with a stack of simple cups. She placed them on an occasional table and picked up the kettle just as it started to whistle.

As she strained the tea she said casually, “What brings such finely arrayed men to Havara?”

“And women,” Sharona said.

Mura smiled. “Of course. My apologies.”

Angelico caught Michael’s eye, as if questioning whether they should tell the woman, but Guissali spoke straight away. “We’re in pursuit of assassins.”

“There be none here,” the goodwife said, and handed Guissali a cup of tea.

“I did not mean to infer so, my good woman,” Guissali replied. “I was merely stating our eventual aim. This stop is…” He turned to look at Michael’s face, saw in it a careful frown and said, “Just a stop, madam.”

“Do you have any children?” Sharona asked, accepting her teacup.

“Seven. Why?”

“Just curious, since you have such a large house.”

“Well, the oldest four have their own houses now. An empty house gets a little quiet, but my youngest are still here, and boisterous as their brothers and sisters.”

“I don’t hear them,” Michael said.

“Oh, they’re out with their father at the moment, doing some necessary things that we had to neglect when we feared a real siege.”

“Would it be permissible to give them gifts?” Michael said. “In our country it is considered proper etiquette to give the children of a homely place a small gift as means of returning the hospitality, but I don’t know your own customs.”

“Oh, you’re welcome to,” Mura said with a laugh. “But it’s not our custom.”

Angelico spoke up, “Then perhaps it would do well to engender some sense of understanding, given that we are now at peace.”

“At peace, and soon to have unity of houses,” Guissali said, grinning at Michael.

“Oh, I heard rumor of that. It is true, then?” Mara said, taking an empty seat by the fire. “Do you know the prince? Is he as handsome as they say?”

“Know him!” Guissali said. “Why, my lady, you are-” Guissali cut off as he was kicked by Angelico. “You are missing the point,” he continued. “He is… a most virtuous man. Honest. Fierce. Brave. Kind to the weak. Uh…” Guissali saw Michael’s look and quickly sipped his tea. “His character is good, my lady.”

“Good. The queen is a fine women, very kind when she passes through.”

“You’ve seen her, then?” Michael said.

Mura nodded. “She comes and goes often to the country. She was here just a few days ago, too, getting the last bit of outdoor time before the siege, which thankfully didn’t end up happening.”

“I see,” Michael said. “I’m glad she has rapport with the common man.”

They sat and discussed idle things for some minutes, until the door opened and some children entered along with a tall, lanky man with a black beard. He startled as he entered, especially at Guissali (who had not removed most of his armor), but set about to the kitchen once we was introduced. The children were indeed boisterous, ranging in age from eleven (their youngest daughter) to sixteen (a son).

Michael excused himself and went outside. He retrieved from his saddlebag a few silver coins. While he was closing the bag back up, Sharona approached.

“What do you think?” he asked, pocketing the coins and standing up.

“I think they’re honest. I find it odd that a queen was here.”

“Me too, but I don’t know her well, yet. I suppose I will know her,” he said with a forced laugh.

Sharona turned and looked to the west, and the growing dusk. “So you do intend to marry her.”

“It has already been decided.”

“I thought you were your own person,” Sharona said. Before Michael could say anything she started walking back to the house. “We might as well give those gifts.”

Michael frowned, but followed. Inside the house, the children were sitting at the big kitchen table enjoying a supper of hare, apparently caught while they were out patrolling the fields and the sparse wood that ran north of the town.

“Here, I have something for you three, for the furtherment of your house,” Michael said, sitting down with the children. He handed each of them two silver coins.

“Two aurals each?” the little girl said. “You don’t need all this money?”

“It’s a nominal sum for a man like me. Keep it safe and spend it wisely,” Michael said.

“You must be very rich,” the girl said.

“In a way, but my life is a little plain. Nothing interesting happens to me, it seems. What about you, is life here interesting?”

“No,” said the middle boy. “It’s just farming and hunting.”

“I heard the queen visited recently,” Sharona said. “Is that true?”

“Yeah,” the oldest said. “She’s a real pretty one, too. But she didn’t stay long.”

“Nobody does,” the middle boy said again. “Nothing ever changes around here. Just the same old stuff, day in and day out.”

“That’s not true,” the girl said. “There’s birds. They migrate, and then there’s the wandering water.”

“Well I’m going to move to the city.”

“The city is fine,” Michael said. “But I prefer the fresh air of the country, and of course all the exploration.”

“Wait,” Sharona said, turning to the girl. “What is the wandering water?”

“It’s a stream. It changes its course all the time,” the girl said.

“That’s just an old wives’ tale,” the older boy said. “People just can’t remember the river well enough, and think it changes. They’re just looking at a different spot and thinking it changes.”

“No, it really does change. I’ve seen it.”

“Oh yeah? When?”

“This spring! It used to go around a tree in a certain way. To the… north. That’s right. This spring I went to the tree and it was curling around the other side!”

The older boy rolled his eyes. “You just aren’t remembering right. Waterways only change courses when you dig them out, or over many years.”

“I’m telling you, it changed,” the girl said emphatically. “I carved my name in it, and now the name is facing the water.”

The middle boy laughed. “You’re so stubborn. The wandering water is just a name. Just a dumb story kids tell each other. You probably couldn’t remember where you carved your name.”

The girl crossed her arms in frustration.

“I believe you,” Sharona said. “Perhaps you could show me your tree sometime?”

The girl tilted her head, still pouting. “I could. Not tonight, though.”

“Why is that?”

“The Glowers,” the middle boy said. “Now those are real.”

“No they’re not,” the eldest said.

“Yes they are,” the girl said.

“What are they?” Michael asked.

“Nobody knows,” said the middle boy. “They’re like… spirits, maybe. You can’t touch them, but you can see them, but they look like a walking pile of blurry mist, like your eyes are unfocused.”

“You’re just seeing fireflies and swamp lights,” the oldest boy said. “Really, you spinning yarns for a noblewoman. You’re all lucky her bodyguard there doesn’t slap you for trying to scare her. Really, madam, there is nothing of special interest here, except maybe my mum’s cooking.”

Michael laughed as he caught Sharona’s eye. “The cooking was excellent.”

This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening.

 

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