Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 18: Festival
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The Key is a fan fiction piece by Tamrend, originally posted in the Diii.net Fan Fiction Forum. The fiction series has been going since February 2004, and still see the occasional update with more chapters or parts of chapters. You can find more information on The Key article.
Chapter 18: Festival
Marius and Kelsia began their trip at daybreak on a wide, cobbled street that took them on a shallow curve across the southern face of the city’s great hill. They walked, leading Cloud behind them, saving her strength for the long ride ahead. Along some stretches, buildings rose up along either side, but where the hillside grew steep, the ground to the right fell away and Kelsia could see the roads and rooftops marching down and outward to the wall far in the distance. To the left, the domes and minarets of the palace gleamed ruddy orange with the sunrise. The four highest of the towers glistened all down their lengths, giving the illusion of water falling down their sides, and reached so high that they seemed to touch the heavens. Indeed, Kelsia could remember one rainy day where the bulbous tops had disappeared into the bottoms of the clouds.
They halted their journey to water Cloud and enjoy a meal of bread and cheese at a fountain outside of the house of what must be either a minor noble or a very wealthy merchant. Marius was eager to press on, so Kelsia ate quickly. Soon enough, they came to a wide intersection where a road, even larger than the one they were on, neatly bisected the city, driving steadily upwards to the west towards the palace and falling away in a gentle slope to the east. Marius led them east, falling in with the moving mass of people and carts that carried goods towards the outer city.
It was well into midmorning when they arrived at the massive archway that tunneled through the city’s wall. Marius pulled Cloud to the side to check her hooves for stones once more and then rifle through the packs to ensure that he hadn’t forgotten anything. His frown did not disappear when he had finished, but it had softened enough to tell Kelsia that he was satisfied.
“It will take two weeks to reach Horadrim Keep,” he reminded her, “but it might be a month or more before I bring help back for you, so keep a close eye on your money.”
“We will,” Kelsia promised.
“And don’t be out after dark, but if you have to, stay to the main roads.”
“Don’t let Seith go wandering from his room for any reason.”
“And stay out of the burrows.”
“Marius, we’ll be fine.”
His frown deepened for a moment, but then he nodded. “I will worry for you nonetheless. Well, this is goodbye, then.” He held out his hand.
Kelsia clasped his hand in hers. “At times like these, my people say, ‘good journey’. Also…” She threw her arms around him and squeezed tightly. Her voice was muffled slightly by his tunic when she spoke. “Come back safely, Marius.”
Marius encircled her with an arm and patted her back. “I’ll miss you both, and I promise I’ll be back soon.”
Kelsia blinked away tears as Marius turned, mounted, and passed under the wall at a stately walk. He paused for a moment to have a word with the guards outside the gate, turned to wave, and then was off, Cloud’s hooves kicking up puffs of dust as he let her break into a brisk canter.
Kelsia crossed the road to join the sparse traffic heading upwards towards the city center. Looking up, she sighed at the upward slope that greeted her, knowing that the journey back would take much longer than the one that had gotten her there. Retracing her steps was not difficult, as Marius had made her memorize the intersection of the east-west and north-south roads.
The sun warmed the back of her neck as she finally arrived once more at the inn. She ducked into the stable and found Copper munching oats contentedly. “How ya doing, old boy?” she said, reaching into his paddock to scratch him on the withers. The gelding nickered appreciatively and swung his head around to her. Kelsia snorted a laugh as he nuzzled her hand and dropped his muzzle for a scratch between the ears. “I sure would like to get you out of here,” she told him. “But it’s going to be a bit of a wait yet, I’m afraid.” Copper gave a blow and dipped his head at her as if to say that he would be patient.
Kelsia dipped her hands in a rain barrel at the corner of the inn and shook away the freezing water. She darted through the nearly empty common room and entered the kitchen. Damali, the youngest daughter in the family that owned the inn, was scrubbing pots when Kelsia came in, but she dropped her work and wiped her hands on her apron when she saw her enter. “Kelsia-mati!” Whatever she said next was lost on Kelsia as a torrent of words came out in Ronish.
“Damali, wait, slow down,” Kelsia pleaded in the foreign tongue.
“Ai, I am sorry,” Damali said, speaking much more slowly this time, and choosing simple words and phrases. “Did all go well?”
“Marius is fine,” Kelsia answered, grasping for words to express what she wanted. “He left the city.”
“Good,” Damali replied in Kelsia’s Kehjistani tongue. “You have hunger?”
“Yes, much, please,” she answered in Ronish, knowing she had botched her phrasing badly, but Damali nodded her understanding.
She had known Damali for just over a week, but the two had already become fast friends, despite being unable to communicate without an interpreter when they had first met. Though she stood nearly a head taller, Damali was just a few months older than Kelsia. She had light brown skin, like her mother, but had her father's dark blue eyes. She wore her hair in a loose braided fashion that was currently popular with the city folk, and had promised to do the same for Kelsia.
It had been Damali’s idea for each of them to learn to speak the other’s native language. Now they tried, whenever possible, to speak to each other in this fashion. Kelsia was surprised by how much she had learned already, and Damali seemd to be picking up her language faster than she learned Ronish. When Kelsia had expressed frustration at feeling she was falling behind, Seith explained that Damali already knew how to speak yet another language, so it was easier for her..
“I keep soup,” Damali said, bringing out a bowl from where she had hidden it in a cupboard. She frowned at it. “Cold.”
Kelsia smiled to show that she didn’t mind and took the food from her. “Thank you.” She took a seat in the corner as Damali returned to her work. After a few bites of the tepid soup, she pointed at the ceiling. “Seith?”
“He eat. I bring some him. He ask…” she paused, frowning again. “He ask if you…”
“If I come back?”
“Yes, he worried. My guess, he like you.”
Kelsia blushed at the word Damali used, which actually implied considerably more attachment than simple friendship. If not for the emphasis that the other girl put on it and the giggle just after, Kelsia might have thought that she had picked the wrong word by accident. “Stop,” she protested, unable to think of a better response in either language.
“Oh, you no like him? You want I tell him? Maybe he choose he like Damali now?”
“Stop that,” Kelsia said, turning an even deeper shade of red.
“I think he pretty,” Damali said.
Kelsia burst out laughing and got an indignant look from Damali for spoiling her teasing. When Kelsia was finally able to breathe again, it took her several tries to make it clear to Damali that “pretty” was a word that was normally only used to describe females, and that the proper word was “handsome”. Now it was Damali’s turn to look embarrassed.
Kelsia was relieved when their conversation turned to less awkward subjects. Damali had questions about the translation of a few words, then related in broken Kehjistani the events of the morning. “Hundreds more demons dead with the latest Ganting ambush,” she said, after Kelsia helped to correct her first, incorrect phrasing. “Father say that soon the country folk be free of them and go back to their homes. Good, no?”
“Is good,” Kelsia agreed in Ronish, and she began to describe her trip to the eastern gate, with Damali patiently helping her when she stumbled over her words or mixed up the order. When she had finished, Kelsia drank down the last of the broth, suddenly conscious of how much time had passed. “I need talk Seith I back.”
“Tell him,” Damali corrected. “You need to tell him you are back.”
“Right. I see you tonight.”
The stairs creaked under her as Kelsia ascended to the third floor of the inn. When they had first come to the city, the thought of so much space between her and the ground made her feel unsteady on her feet, as though the building were swaying beneath her, but she knew now that it was her imagination and that the inn was built quite solidly. She knocked on Seith’s door. “It’s me.”
Seith opened the door and closed it quickly behind her. “Did everything go alright?” he asked earnestly, as he dropped into a chair.
Kelsia sat on the edge of his bed, curling and uncurling her toes inside her boots to try to relieve some of the sting from her feet. “Marius left by the eastern gate and no one tried to stop us.”
Seith let his breath go and nodded. “We will just have to be careful until he gets back. The Horadrim will have no trouble getting in here and bringing us out.”
“Damali said she brought you food.” Kelsia wasn’t sure why she said it until it was out of her mouth. Light-hearted as her banter had been, as much as she liked the other girl, the thought of her trying to catch Seith’s eye didn’t sit well with Kelsia.
“Yes, she has a good heart to think of me. I just hope that she and her parents are true to their word.”
Kelsia suddenly felt childish for feeling jealous when they had much bigger problems. When she and Marius had first seen the Ganting soldiers, they assumed that they were here to look for Seith, but after a few days of hiding and listening, the truth had come out. Rona had been under siege from a demon horde for weeks, its army taking heavy losses each time they tried to repel them from the gates. The soldiers from Ganting had arrived shortly before Kelsia, Seith, and Marius, and had made some sort of deal with the king to help deal with the demons. Somehow, the relatively small force had succeeded where the Ronish army had failed, and had killed or driven out most of the hellspawn from the immediate vicinity.
Still, even if they had not come here to find Seith, it was foolish to think that they would not be on the lookout for him, considering how much effort they had put into trying to find him in Dalmers Ferry. Seith had gotten the innkeeper’s word that he and his family would not reveal his presence there to anyone, and would not accept when Seith tried to offer him a few extra gold pieces from their meager money supply. “You are a Horadrim,” he said, and apparently that was reason enough to help.
With their hiding place secure, it had taken several days to discuss and plan their next move. Marius and Kelsia had located the portal stone that Seith had hoped to use, but it had been built over long ago and was useless to them. Consulting maps and speaking with the locals, they had quickly come to the conclusion that to continue overland towards Horadrim Keep was far too risky. In good weather, it would take weeks, a fortnight at least, if they could get access to a portal stone that lay near the road to the east, and with the remnants of the horde that had attacked Rona out there, Seith was not confident in their chances to get through to the east undetected. Marius’ suggestion to go alone and bring back help had been met, at first, with skepticism from Kelsia and Seith, but he had persisted. Eventually, they were forced to admit that his plan was their best chance.
Kelsia’s thoughts came back to the present, and to more immediate problems. Seith was holding the staff across his knees, studying it intently. Just a few weeks ago, he would have been unable to do that without causing her extreme discomfort, if had been even been able to allow him to pick it up in the first place. Now, she felt nothing at all.
“I’ve been thinking about this script,” he said. “I thought I had seen wording like this before, so I looked at it more closely. And then it came to me. Back at the keep, there is a corridor on the main floor that has a mural painting along one wall with several panels. It depicts the War of the Mages, what some call the Great Schism. I told you once, some time ago, about the brothers, Bartuc and Horazon. The mural depicts how Horazon and Bartuc began to learn some of the most protected secrets of magic, and they were even able to study the mysteries of divine and fel magic. Horazon began to rise to fame among the Viz’jerei as he performed amazing feats of wizardry and demonstrated great power over the creatures of Hell, but Bartuc became obsessed with the new powers he had tapped, and rather than use them to tame and destroy hellspawn, he thought that he could attain even greater power by drawing directly upon demonic powers, and eventually, by actually allying himself with the powers of Hell. In time, he lost his humanity and became known as Bartuc the Bloody for the hideous and terrible acts he performed.”
“Horazon was able to kill his murderous, demon-corrupted brother, but then fled to a sanctuary of his own making to hide. Most think that he, too, was becoming corrupted, and sought to hide his fall from those who would destroy him. His disaffected followers, who were no longer welcome by the mage clans for their leader’s supposed corruption, went on to found the Horadrim under the direction and tutelage of the archangel Tyrael.”
“Each panel of the mural has a script written below it, presumably describing the events that occurred, but I was told that no one living understands that language now. I think that the writing on this staff is the same language.”
It seemed like an interesting clue, but Kelsia was unsure how it could help them. “Is there anything more that you remember about that mural?”
Seith shrugged. “Only that it is very old. It must have looked exquisite when it was new, but the paint has since cracked and faded over the centuries. One whole section of the last panel is destroyed.”
“No one seems to remember, but the stone is gouged and pitted. Perhaps a spell went awry, or some vandal defaced it.”
Kelsia resolved to have a look at the mural once they arrived at the keep, if only to see the story’s illustration for herself.
“Are you ready for your lesson?” Seith asked, setting the staff aside. She easily ignored the impulse to reach for it.
“Of course. I’ve been looking forward to it.” She had progressed from single letters and phonetics to words, and now was learning how to read and write complex sentences. “I’ll be right back,” she promised, and went to her room down the hall. Seith had loaned one of his books to her, A Treatise of Fire. It was hard going, but she was making progress. She retrieved the book from under her bed, along with some notes that she had scrawled on a scrap of parchment.
Kelsia laid out the book and the notes on the floor and questioned him about a number of words that she had written down. Many were just difficult pronunciations that she was delighted to recognize, but others were words she had never heard before. “What is this word, Ral?” she asked, turning to the page that she had written down and pointing at it.
“Oh, pay that no mind,” Seith said dismissively. “You’ve read much faster than I would have guessed. There are some words and concepts there that you have no need to learn.”
“Tell me, please. I’ve tried saying it out loud, but I don’t think I quite have the sound right. I get the strangest feeling even just reading it, though, as if something is about to happen.”
Seith looked down once more at the word. He scratched at the stubble on his chin and sighed. “Alright, I’ll be honest with you. Had I remembered that this book contained that word, I would never have given it to you to read. What you see is a simple word of power that focuses upon the element of fire.” He turned his palm up and looked at it. “Rahl.” The word seemed to tingle up her spine as a fist-sized flame flared to life above his palm, then snuffed out instantly. “As you can see, it isn’t much use on its own, but mages over the centuries have devised uses of this word in combination with others to summon up much more powerful magic.”
Kelsia thought for a moment. Turning her palm up, she said the word, which had a longer, softer "a" then she had thought, and visualized what she wanted. “Rahl.” She gave a cry of shock when a flame flashed into existence and disappeared with a tiny pop. “By the Light,” she breathed. “Did I just…?”
“Yes, it appears that you did." Seith leaned back slowly. "It was not my intention to teach you to use this magic, but I suppose you would have eventually discovered the word’s usage on your own. It is a novice’s first spell, one that I was able to master under Garron's tutelage before I arrived at Horadrim Keep. The word itself is only a small part of it. One must know how to will the flame into being. It is quite rare for someone to succeed on their first try.”
“Rahl.” Kelsia repeated, focusing this time on a candle across the room. The flame appeared on the wick, shrank back down, but after a moment grew and burned steadily.
“Be careful, Kelsia,” Seith warned. “A misstep could catch the table or even the building itself on fire. And I can’t stress enough to you how nervous this whole business makes me. A few weeks ago, I would never have believed that a woman could work magic.”
“The staff,” she reminded him.
“I’m not so sure that it is such an easy explanation as that, but it is the best one we have, for the moment. And it doesn't make me worry any less. I want you to promise me again that you will not try to use magic. I don’t have the experience to teach you properly and I am afraid for your safety if something should go wrong.”
Kelsia pressed her lips together. She remembered the energy she had summoned when the mage had attacked them in the wilderness, and how she wanted to feel that again. But even this simple spell had been a thrill to use. It seemed to her to be far easier to learn than Seith implied that it should be, and she wanted to see what else she could do with it. But she also Seith had her best interest at heart, and he would know the dangers of using magic much better than she would. "Alright, I promise."
"Thank you, Kelsy," he said, looking genuinely relieved.
The light was failing when Seith called an end to the lesson, complimenting Kelsia once more on her progress. "Are you going to the festival with Damali tonight?" he asked, as they put away her parchment and writing implements.
She nodded, considerably less excited about the prospect than she had been for the last few days. "I've never been to the royal garden. Damali said that it is only open to the smallfolk on festivals and feast days. And there will be singing and dancing."
"It sounds wonderful."
Kelsia turned to look at him and realized that he had been staring at her face. "What is it?"
Seith shrugged and shook his head. "I'm sorry, I was just thinking."
"Well, I need to get ready, then," she said, feeling strangely light-headed as she turned away. She stoppered the inkbottle and put it on a shelf with the quills and unused parchments pieces. "Damali didn't say how late we would stay."
"That's alright," Seith assured her. "You and your friend have fun. You deserve it after what you've had to endure."
Seith's words had the opposite effect than what he probably intended. "Oh, I wish you could go," she said miserably, stooping to gather the sheets of her writing practice.
Seith knelt in front of her to help. "I know. I wish I could too. But it also makes me happy to know that you will get to see and do something that you will always remember."
Her heart beat faster as she felt the warmth of his face next to hers and felt an urge to lean closer. Before she could move, he leaned back, got to his feet and offered her his hand. She stood, murmured her thanks, and turned for the door before he could see the sudden heat in her cheeks.
Kelsia's room was just down the hall from Seith, and she ducked inside, trusting that he wouldn't follow. She closed the door and flopped onto the straw bed, wondering just what Seith thought of her sudden departure. "He'll think I'm a halfwit," she scolded herself, but there really hadn't been much alternative but to escape. Better that than for him to know what she had been thinking about doing.
Once her heart had settled down to a more manageable pace, she got up and went downstairs to the kitchen. Damali was gone, but her mother, Farah Ganas, was preparing the evening meal. "Ganas-sota, water, clean?" Kelsia asked, pantomiming the action of scrubbing herself. She didn't know the word for bathtub, or if there even was such a word in Ronish.
"I don't understand what you want," the woman said in Ronish. She pointed. "The bathhouse is down the street." She went back to chopping vegetables immediately.
Kelsia knew about the public baths, but tried not to think too much about them. Damali had enjoyed her shocked reaction when she had first told her that crowds of strangers actually bathed together in public. She tried again. "Hot water, Ganas-sota?"
Farah looked up, as though surprised to still see her there. She sighed and then spoke so quickly that Kelsia was hard pressed to keep up. "I don't have time to help you, Kelsia-mati. Get a bucket, get water from the well, and put it into a kettle. Put the kettle over a fire until it boils."
"Thank you, Ganas-sota." Kelsia said, with a respectful bow. It had been weeks since she had seen a proper bathtub or bath barrel, and even the washbasin in her room had been a welcome change from the road, but tonight she wanted to actually feel clean. She did as the woman instructed, and soon had a large kettle of boiling water that she didn't know what to do with. She wondered if she might be able to wet a cloth and at least scrub some of the grime away, when she noticed a large, empty barrel sitting in a corner. "Ganas-sota?" she asked, risking the woman's further irritation.
Farah sighed. "Yes, what is it, Kelsia-mati?"
"The-ah, that." She pointed at the barrel. "I use? My room?"
The girl appeared in moments. "Yes, mother?"
"Help Kelsia carry that pocreda up to her room."
The barrel was heavier than Kelsia expected, but the two of them were able to roll, bump and drag it up the two flights of stairs to her room. Kelsia hurried down to put on another kettle of water, and she and Damali brought the first kettle, plus buckets of water from the well, up to her room. It took a several trips to the well to fill it sufficiently, and the two boiling kettles were only able to slightly raise the temperature of the chilly well water, but it would have to suffice.
Damali left her to return to her duties downstairs. Kelsia stripped and carefully climbed into the barrel, sucking in her breath when the water touched her skin. She lowered herself in quickly, thinking it best to get it over with, and was able to sit at the bottom, with her legs folded and the water just below her neck. After a minute or so, the water's chill wasn't so harsh, and as she scrubbed her skin with a scrap of cloth and felt the weeks of sweat, mud and road dust sloughing off her. The only thing missing was soap, which she resolved to find at the first opportunity.
She reluctantly climbed, shivering, out of the barrel, dried herself, and retrieved the green wool dress that Damali had given her a few days earlier. It was too small now for the taller girl, but when Kelsia first put it on, she thought that her friend must have grossly misjudged her height. The hem of the dress barely fell below her knees, leaving her ankles and a fair bit of leg exposed for anyone to see. But no, she was thinking of the petticoats and dresses back home. What she had on was the style that the local people wore.
Kelsia donned the shoes and went down to the common room, resisting the urge to pull at the dress to cover the parts it left bare. Damali was waiting with her father, Athan, at the bottom of the stairs. The other girl wore a blue dress that was very similar to Kelsia's, but her hair had been braided into an elaborate ponytail with long blue ribbons, and her face appeared to have touches of color around her eyes and lips that seemed to accentuate her best features. Damali fussed over Kelsia's hair and dress for a moment, tugging and straightening her into place.
"You look lovely, Kelsia-mata," Athan said, speaking in Kehjistani for her. Damali had said that, in his younger years, his father had traveled far and wide across the eastern continent, but that he had been born in Kehjistan. When he was not busy, Kelsia and Damali often quizzed him on the details of each other’s languages.
"Thank you, soti," Kelsia responded in Ronish, with a respectful bow.
Athan beamed at Damali and spoke now in Ronish. "And you, my daughter, you shine as brightly as the sun." He leaved close to Kelsia and mock-whispered. "Our eldest, Kalila, met her husband at the harvest festival four years ago. I have a feeling that we just might find young men for both of you tonight. What do you think, mata?"
Kelsia smiled uncertainly, wondering if Athan was making a joke. Damali, though, rolled her eyes at Kelsia behind her father’s back. They said their farewells, leaving Farah behind to tend to the few travelers who preferred to stay indoors.
On the street outside, Kelsia could see that many of the shops had already closed down, but many people sat or stood on front stoops, talking and drinking together. Turning west, they soon came to the north-south thoroughfare, which was lined edge to edge with people. The three of them fell in with the crowd, Athan holding the hands of each girl firmly in his own to keep them from being jostled away from him. The sun sank into the west, lengthening the shadows until they covered the street and then crept upward towards the height of the buildings on the western side. The stars had begun to twinkle in a violet sky when, at last, they reached the gates of the royal estate at the top of the hill.
Finally, the press of people began to diminish as the crowd dispersed into the grass-covered slope to either side of the road, while the strains of music and the delectable scent of food beckoned them onward. The weariness of Kelsia's long hike upward quickly gave way to excitement as she caught sight of the tents and booths erected all around the courtyard that fronted the palace and lit with hundreds of lanterns and torches. Athan stopped at a booth to buy them all bowls of hot candied fruit, an exotic confection that Kelsia found delicious but that was almost shocking in its sweetness.
"What you like, mata?" Damali asked.
Kelsia pointed to a stage that she had been watching for some time, where people seemed to be acting out a story. They drew closer and watched the show to its conclusion, and Kelsia broke into laughter and applause with those around her, even though she didn't understand all that was said by the performers.
They wandered for a time, watching jugglers, musicians, street-mages, and other performers ply their trades. “I want to go dancing, father,” Damali said, pointing to the square up ahead of them.
“Well, go on then,” he said. “And you, if you wish, Kelsia-mata.”
Kelsia watched the dancers for a moment and shook her head. “I don’t know how.” The truth was that she did very much enjoy dancing back home, but that was nothing like what she saw here. Damali gave her a look that was almost pitying. “I teach you,” she promised.
Kelsia and Athan found a spot on the grass to sit and watch as Damali looked for a partner among the line of people waiting for the next dance. A lanky young man who had been watching Damali the whole time as she approached hurried up to her, gave a bow and asked for the honor of a dance.
“Ah, Nielos,” Athan said approvingly. “I know his father. He’s a bright, hardworking lad. He has had his eye on Damali for some time, I hear. And a soldier in the king’s army, I hear tell. Aha!” Here he slapped Kelsia on the back. “She accepted. She has an eye for quality, my Damali, ah?”
Kelsia nodded as she watched Damali and her partner begin to march into the square in time to the music and Athan told her about how strong and handsome his grandsons would be. She murmured agreement when Athan added that, of course, Nielos would quit his trade to help Damali with the inn and keep the grandchildren close to the family.
The dance soon came to an end and Damali had a few words with Nielos before she waved goodbye. “Hmph,” Athan said. “I had hoped that she might bring the lad over to introduce him to us. Ah, but she is a clever girl. Best to whet his appetite, and keep him pining after her a bit longer.”
Damali was breathless when she reached them. “Oh, father, did you see me? It was wonderful, to be up in front of all those people.”
Athan slipped easily into Ronish to converse with his daughter. “Yes, but what about Nielos? Did he say anything flattering to you?”
“Who is Nielos?” Damali said innocently. At Athan’s astonished look, she added, “I’m joking, father. He’s a sweet man.”
That hardly seemed to mollify Damali’s father, who muttered quite loudly under his breath that he might well be dead before he ever got to see any grandchildren. It was made all the more amusing when Damali whispered to her that her sister Kalila already had two boys, with another baby on the way.
Kelsia was yawning and blinking her eyes to keep them open when Athan finally called for them to head for home. She could not hazard any guess as to the hour, but it seemed to be already long into the night, and the celebration showed no signs of ending. She knew that the festival would go on for a fortnight of revelry in the streets, taverns, and inns of the city.
This year’s celebration was all the more precious since the harvest had almost been loss to the demons’ siege, but the king had assured everyone that there was more than enough grain to see them through the winter, even with the losses they had taken in the outlying farms. Ale and wine would sell at a premium, and Athan only worried that the small cache that they had stockpiled in the weeks prior would be gone before the festival was over.
Kelsia climbed the steps to the third floor on aching legs and blistering feet, but she felt happy nonetheless. She could see candlelight leaking underneath and through the cracks in his door, so she knocked quietly and announced herself. Seith’s face lit up on seeing her. “Did you enjoy the festival?” he asked.
“Yes, very much so,” and she proceeded to tell him about all of the wonderful foods she had eaten and the things she had seen. She could not remember later, but she must have dozed off somewhere in the telling, because she woke to moonlight streaming in through the window and realized that she was not in her own bed. She still wore her clothes, but Seith had piled blankets over her. She looked around, and when she spotted him, she sighed in self-reproach. He had gone to sleep at his writing-desk, slumped over a book in what looked to be a very uncomfortable posture. She covered him with one of the blankets and then let herself quietly out.
The days that followed were largely uneventful. Kelsia helped Damali and Farah in the kitchen much of the time, working at their languages while gossiping about whatever Damali found interesting. Kelsia would sometimes talk about the people back home in her village, but sometimes she would start to tell some story about Shael and the terrible pain would threaten to take her in its grip once more, so she mostly let Damali do the talking. Her lessons with Seith continued, and though he would not loan her A Treatise of Fire or the other two books he carried with him to read, he now had her keeping a journal of loose parchments. He showed her how to measure out and draw it into sections for writing in that that would later be folded, cut, and bound into a book. When she asked if he kept his own journal, he answered only that yes, he did, and would not tell her more.
It was on the fifth day of the harvest festival when Athan took it upon himself to invite Nielos to dinner. All that day, Damali’s moods swung from anger, at her father’s presumption, to excitement at the prospect of seeing Nielos again, to nervousness that she might make a fool of herself, then back to taciturn anger once more any time she caught sight of her father. Kelsia thought that it was all a bit overwrought, but she pretended to sympathize and to be cheerful or comforting at each turn.
The preparation of the evening meal soon consumed all of their attention, and even Athan, who normally saw to the cleaning of the rooms and comfort of the guests, came to give the women a hand with the soup, which would be served to the guests of the inn, and with a special meal of roast pork for the family and for Nielos. Kelsia was invited for dinner, and Farah promised to set aside a plate for Seith as well.
While the family went, in turns, to the public bath to get clean, Kelsia made the laborious preparations for her own bath in her room, which was just as cold as her previous bath, but this time she had managed to acquire some soap and had the time to properly comb out her hair.
They ate dinner in a small room at the back of the inn that seemed to be furnished for that purpose, while the two hired hands saw to greeting and serving guests. It was as fine a meal as Kelsia could ever remember having, with fine cheeses and breads, a perfectly cooked and seasoned roast, steamed vegetables, and red wine. Kelsia drank hers sparingly, expecting to only have the one cup, but was pleasantly surprisd when Farah leaned over and refilled her goblet when it was only half gone. Nielos was soft-spoken, but had an earnest way of telling a story that made people want to lean in to listen intently, even though it was Athan’s translation that she actually heard and understood. Kelsia liked him almost immediately.
Though Nielos had only been a soldier for a little over a year, he had already seen more battles than some of the veterans prior to his joining. “It was a close thing before these Ganting men came down from the north. The king was close to raising levies to try to fight off these demons, but I have my doubts that it would have done us good. Even if he got ten-thousand conscripts, there is only so much that can be drilled into them in a few days or weeks. Fighting demons is not like fighting men. They can stand back up from a blow that would fell the strongest men, and they fight with a cruelty that can frighten even the most stout-hearted. Conscripts would have turned and run from them at the first sign of blood. My battalion suffered heavy losses in our sorties against the demons, but half of those were deserters, most like.”
“Why are these Gantings so successful where the king’s army failed?” Kelsia asked, and Athan translated.
“They have a special attachment within their ranks, who call themselves Iron Wolves. They do not claim to be wizards, but they use magic, both directly against the demons, and to add strength to the blades and armor of the regular soldiers. The two fight as a single unit, each part protecting the other. I have seen them fight off and scatter a force of demons more than three times their size.”
Kelsia wanted to ask more, but Athan turned the conversation around to Nielos’ own accomplishments, which he spoke of modestly and not at great length. “I’ll make sergeant if I can stay alive for another year,” he said with a shrug. “I was thinking that I might try to join the watch, or go into my own business, perhaps.”
“Ever consider innkeeping?” Athan asked, and gave a grunt at what must have been Damali’s elbow hitting his side.
“I’ve thought of it,” Nielos said, looking directly at Damali, who did her best to appear shy, “Though I would have much to learn about the trade.”
“I would teach you,” Athan said, brandishing a hunk of bread towards Nielos.
Kelsia was feeling pleasantly warm and full from the food and the wine. In fact, her face felt as though it were warmed by a roaring fire. She could tell that Damali liked Nielos at least as much as she did and smiled to herself about what a great deal they would have to talk about the next day in the kitchen. She drained the rest of her cup and set it down, realizing belatedly that Farah had just called for her. She and Athan were standing at the door, carrying used dishes and platters, and had asked for her help getting them to the kitchen. Kelsia stood, wobbling a bit as the room spun suddenly. She remembered, now, why it wasn’t a good idea to drink too much wine or ale. She managed, with concentration, to carefully gather her dishes and carry them out and across the common room to the kitchen.
Athan and Farah were talking in hushed voices when she got there. Kelsia realized that they had probably brought all of them out of the room so that Damali and Nielos could have some time to talk alone. “Would you please take Seith’s food up to him?” Athan asked her as soon as she entered, and she knew that it was a reasonable pretext for the two of them to go on talking about their daughter’s potential new husband once she was gone.
“You’re drunk,” Seith said, as soon as he saw her.
“I am not,” she protested, and the flush flowing to her face and neck made it feel even hotter than before. “I brought you dinner.” And she pushed the tray at him, which he caught before it could tilt and spill the contents on the floor.
“You are drunk, Kelsia,” he repeated. “And you’re going to wake up with a terrible headache if we don’t do something. Here, sit down. You need to drink some water.” He filled a cup from the pitcher he kept on the desk.
“Thank you, kind sir,” she said, laughing, though she knew that it really shouldn’t have been funny. She felt a warm glow of affection as he sat next to her, and not the nervous twitter that normally settled into her stomach when he was close to her. He kept his hands on the cup to steady it as she lifted it to drink.
“Have you never had wine before?” Seith asked, in a less combative tone than he had used up to now.
“Only a few times, and never this much,” she admitted. “Farah just kept filling up my cup.”
“Even a modest amount can be potent for someone not used to it. I am sorry for being angry with you.”
“Seith?” Suddenly the nervousness was back. She felt like she had been building up for weeks for this moment, though she had never quite planned it out.
“What is it, Kelsy?” he asked, when she didn’t say more.
“I want….” She had thought that she had a perfectly fine sentence prepared, but now the words seemed all jumbled up and wrong. She tried again, “I want to tell you….” Again, words failed her, so she simply gave in to impulse, and did the one thing she never thought she could do. She leaned over and kissed him.
He didn’t react at first, and Kelsia had the horrifying thought that she had done it completely wrong. She had kissed her parents and her brother before, but never on the lips. Then, for just an instant, she thought she felt him kissing her back, pressing fiercely against her lips with his own, but in the next moment, he had drawn back from her.
Her head felt lighter than ever and her skin tingled all over. She could feel her pulse racing in her neck, as if she had just run for leagues. She opened her eyes, only having just realized that she had closed them. Seith was staring at her with an unreadable expression. “Let’s get you back to your room,” he said in a shaking voice.
Kelsia let herself be led, the good feelings dissolving into numbness. She looked around, suddenly aware that Seith was out of his room. It wasn’t likely that he would be recognized should a guest happen to climb the stairs at that moment, but it was unlike him to take even that small risk. He turned down her bed and started for the door, keeping his eyes averted from hers. Finally, the numbness began to give way to something else. “Seith, what did I do wrong?” she said, her voice little more than a whimper.
“You did nothing. It was the wine,” he said, reaching for the door.
“Please. I need to know why.”
She saw his shoulders slump and his head droop, but he did not turn to face her. “I never told you. Horadrim are not permitted to marry. It would be better if we both just try to forget that this…ever happened.” He opened the door and closed it behind him before she could say anything more.
Something hot and wet tickled the side of Kelsia’s face. She wiped it away with the back of her hand and forced long, deep breaths, but couldn’t hold back the sobbing or the tears. The thought of marriage had never crossed her mind until he had said it, but what else could there be? He was right that there could never be anything between them, but it did nothing to lessen the pain. Here, though, the wine helped her. Once she finally lay down, she was asleep in moments.
The next morning, Kelsia went straight down to the kitchen, nursing an aching head and an upset stomach, but determined to bury herself in work to try to forget what had happened. Damali chattered on and on about Nielos and what a nice time they had together, which was fine with Kelsia, because she didn’t have anything that she wanted to think about, let alone put voice to. She almost skipped her writing lesson altogether, but then Damali reminded her, remarking there really wasn’t anything else to do before dinner, and she had no excuse to stay away.
Seith looked surprised to see her, but welcomed her in all the same. She sat on the floor next to his desk and brought out her journal entry for him to read. He looked it over, not speaking for a time, and Kelsia wondered whether he thought anything at all of the fact that she left out her visit to his room, the kiss, and everything that was said between them, when she always recorded the day in such detail.
“This is very good,” he said, absently. “Your hand is steadier and you’re doing much better at speaking in past tense.” He was staring, not at the parchment, but through it.
Kelsia stood up and took the parchment from him. She was angry with him, but it was a cold, bitter feeling. She knew that he didn’t deserve it, and she hated her words even as she said them. “I don’t think I will be needing any more lessons.”
He nodded at her, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for her to say. Kelsia wanted to scream at him for how easily he let her break that tie. Had he felt nothing for her all this time? Had she only imagined the warmth that she saw in his face? It certainly seemed to have fled, if it had ever been there.
Over the following days, she threw herself into her work. When she wasn’t in the kitchen, she was practicing her writing alone, or working with Damali on their languages. She even consented to allowing her friend to teach her two Ronish dances, which they practiced in the alley behind the inn. Kelsia didn’t think it likely she would actually have the courage to try them in front of other people at the festival, but it did take her mind off of brooding. An entire week went by without her stopping in even once at Seith’s room to see him.
They were in the alley, practicing, when Nielos came running up to them. Damali called a warm greeting and threw her arms around him, but he cut short the embrace and waved them to silence.
“I’m glad I found you here,” he said hoarsely, out of breath. “I don’t have much time. Someone might notice at any minute that I’m not at my post.” He pointed at Kelsia. “They are looking for you. You and some other person, a man named Seith.”
Damali looked at her with a frown. “Looking for her? Who is? What is going on?”
“Soliders,” he gasped. “Ganting and Ronish. They are making a sweep through the city tonight, starting with all the inns. She is to be arrested. I don’t know what kind of trouble she is in, but I didn’t want you or your family to be caught up in it.”
Kelsia had been slowly backing towards the rear door of the inn. “We have to go,” she said. “Damali, I can’t stay here. Tell your parents that we are leaving.”
Kelsia took the steps two at a time and pounded against Seith's door much louder than she intended. "It's me, Kelsia," she called.
The door flew open and Seith stood there, watching her with a guarded expression. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"We have to leave," Kelsia gasped. "Soldiers are searching through all of the inns in the city tonight. Nielos came to warn us."
Seith swallowed and fear clouded his face, but only for a moment. He gripped her shoulders, hard, and looked into her eyes. "Go to your room. Pack your things and meet me back here. If it's not important, leave it behind." Before she could nod her acceptance, she found herself in a fierce embrace that was over just as quickly. "Now go. Hurry."
Kelsia ran to her room in a daze, in part out of disbelief that they were really leaving this place, the closest she had come to feeling at home since her journey began. The other part was the confused and conflicted feelings that she felt for Seith, brought to the fore once more after nearly a week of trying to bury them.
Kelsia changed into her traveling clothes, the same old tunic, boots, and breeches that she had worn the night she had left her village behind, now cleaned and mended, but still as familiar to her as a second skin. She brought out the thiefshroud from where she had hidden it under her mattress and clasped it at her throat, then tucked her coin purse out of sight beneath it. The fur coat and blankets she stuffed into a pack. She took one lingering, longing look at the dress Damali had given her, and decided to leave it where it hung.
As she started down the hall to Seith's room, something nagged at her thoughts. In a moment, she had it: it was too quiet. On any normal afternoon, the sounds of talking and laughter from the common room carried easily up to the top of the stairs. Now, she could hear but a single voice speaking softly and, she thought, authoritatively, and quieter still, the sound of footsteps trundling over the wooden floor.
Stepping carefully to avoid the boards that would creak, Kelsia returned to Seith's door. He was still in the process of packing his belongings, but abandoned that immediately when she told him what she had heard. He rushed to the window and peered out, then worked at the latch until the pane suddenly released and swung outward on creaking hinges.
"We go out this way," he said, motioning for her to hand him her pack and the staff, which he had left propped against his desk. He leaned down and let the packs go. There was a pair of faint thumps as they landed. He dropped the staff next, which clattered against the roof below. "The door!" he hissed suddenly.
Kelsia's heart leapt into her throat at the sound of booted feet coming up the stairs and realizing that she had left the door unbolted. Her hands shook as she slid the bar home into its socket. "Okay, it's locked," she said, turning back, but Seith had disappeared. No, she saw his hands, gripping white-knuckled to the windowsill. In the next moment, they released and the tinkle of something breaking came through the open window.
A pounding on the door nearly caused Kelsia to scream, but she clapped her hand to her mouth. With her heart pounding in her ears, she ran to the window. Seith was below, standing on the sloping roof of the shop that shared a wall with the inn. It looked like a long drop, but Seith waved her on frantically. Another pounding of a mailed fist against the door, this time followed by a shout, was enough to get her moving. She put her feet out of the window, turned and gripped the sill as Seith must have done, lowered herself down, then dropped for a gut-wrenching instant before her feet struck the tiles of the roof. Pain lanced through one of her ankles as it twisted on landing. She gritted her teeth to keep from crying out and managed to keep the sound to a whimper as she fell onto her back, pieces of shattered roof tile sliding away below her.
Seith appeared over her, both packs slung over his back and the staff in one hand. "We have to move," he said. "Do you think you can stand?"
Kelsia took his hand tested her weight against the foot and found that the throbbing pain increased to a keen but bearable sting. "Let me have the staff," she said, and he handed it over at once. Using it like a cane, she could move at a lope along the roof. Traveling along the back slope, they were concealed from anyone who might look up from the street out front, but easily visible to anyone who stood in the alley that ran behind the buildings. And of course, they would be seen at once from the window of the room they had just left.
Seith stopped suddenly, peering over the edge of the roof. It was only a single story drop, but he had to be worried about what the fall might do to aggravate her injury. "This will have to do," he said. "There is a pile of refuse below us. I'll try to catch you as you fall, but you must not land on that ankle."
He dropped to the ground, staggering a bit under the weight of the packs, but unharmed. Those, he put down and then lifted his arms to catch her.
"There, I see them!" came a shout from Kelsia's right. She looked and saw, leaning out through the window of Seith's room, a helmet and hauberk stained crimson by the sun sinking into the west.
Kelsia looked down at Seith, held her breath, and hopped off the roof with her good foot. Seith's hands caught at her waist but couldn't slow her fall completely, and they tumbled into the midden heap, which sent up a swarm of flies and a choking stench. Kelsia dragged herself off of him and up to her feet, relieved that neither of them appeared to be hurt.
"Come on," Seith urged, pulling at Kelsia's arm.
She stole a look back toward the inn. Copper was there, in the stable on the other side. Silently, she prayed that Damali and her family would take good care of him, or at least find him a good home.
Ever step sent another stab of pain up Kelsia's leg, but she hobbled along as fast as she could. She could see up ahead where the alley intersected with another, but they were closing the distance far too slowly. Indeed, they had gone only a few dozen steps when shouts of pursuit rose up behind them. A dozen or more Ronish soldiers dashed into the alley, coming towards them.
Seith snatched his wand from his belt, turned and muttered a string of words, Ral spoken plainly among them. With a roar, flames licked up out of the ground, nearly filling the alley from one side to the other. The heat struck the side of Kelsia's face and sent pinpricks down her arm and her neck where her hair was singed. The soldiers, much closer to the flames, leapt back with cries of alarm.
"The spell will not last," Seith said hoarsely. "Keep moving."
Seith and Kelsia ducked into the intersecting alley, barely wide enough for them to walk side by side. They followed the alley uphill to the next street over. Seith turned right on the sparsely trafficked street, towards the east, but then they stopped dead and hurried to backtrack. A squad of Ganting soldiers marched briskly up the street toward them from that direction, but fortunately they were not yet close enough to recognize faces. They had gone barely a block when Kelsia heard shouting and realized that the soldiers following them from the inn must have met the other group coming up the street.
They turned into another alley, but instead of opening out into a street, this one led into a narrow dirt lane running to left and right. Seith chose left and Kelsia hobbled after him. The road soon cut sharply right and led into a pile of bricks. A few bricks still clung to the walls on either side, marking where a wall used to be. Seith stopped, casting a furtive glance behind them.
"What is this?" Kelsia whispered.
"We must be at the edge of the burrows," Seith said quietly. "A terrible plague broke out in this section of the city almost two centuries ago, and most people believe it to be cursed. The soldiers might even be reluctant to look for us here. Come on." He helped her climb over the bricks an she winced as they quickened their pace once more.
Kelsia looked upward as they took one branch of two angling streets. The tiles were collapsed along most of the eaves, and moss grew in great swathes along the sides of the building. Seith stooped to peer into a hole in one of the walls, then motioned her to follow as he dropped to his knees and crawled inside. The clay floor inside was damp and the room stank of mold. A few small, high windows let in a dim light. There was little left of the plaster on the walls and ceiling, letting the rotting supports show through. A few bits of soft, wet debris might have been the remains of furniture.
Seith sighed at the dismal surroundings and sat down on a spot of dry floor. Kelsia hobbled over to him and he jumped up again to help her lower herself down and then knelt to look at her ankle. She gasped and bit off a cry as he pressed against the sides of her boot. "It's swollen," he said. "Probably a sprain. I think we better leave it alone for now. Just try to keep your weight off of it."
Seith settled back to the ground and they sat together in silence for a time. Kelsia kept thinking about what he had said about this place and finally decided to broach the subject again. "The people who lived here, they all died from the plague?" she asked.
"Some," Seith answered. "The king was so desperate to stop its spread, he ordered every exit sealed off. Anyone attempting to leave was killed. A few weeks passed, and people stopped trying to climb over the walls to get out. Still, the king waited for the plague to run its course. When a wall was finally torn down and men ventured inside, months had gone by, and everyone had died. The plague killed many of them, but the rest starved to death. Some stayed alive by eating from the dead, but they, too, died off, one by one." Kelsia swallowed back the urge to be sick so that she could hear the rest of the story. "Some years after the first wall came down, a few people began to come back in, to knock down the rest of the walls, but only because no one else wanted them. Thieves, lepers, and the only very poorest and most desperate live here. Even so, there is a lot of space in which to hide."
Almost as soon as his voice died away, Kelsia heard a new sound, footsteps in the street outside. Seith put a finger to his lips and drew his wand from his belt. They waited in anxious silence until the booted feet had passed, continuing unhurriedly down the street.
"What do we do next?" Kelsia whispered.
Seith didn't answer at first, and she thought that he must still be working at the problem. "We will wait until night," he said at last. "The longer we stay here, the more likely they will come in here to find us, so we need to get out while we still can. From there, we'll try to find a way out of the city."
Kelsia didn't much like the thought of going out into the wilderness again, but she nodded her agreement all the same. "Seith, there's something that's been bothering me. When we were out in the wild, we had demons chasing after us. Here, in the city, it's soldiers. What is the connection between them?"
He looked down and shook his head. "I wish I knew. That wizard who attacked us, perhaps, though I find it hard to believe that he would have anything to do with these Ganting men when he seems to be the one leading the demons that they came here to fight."
They waited until well after dark to venture out of their hiding place. Kelsia's ankle had grown stiff and any weight on it was an agony, so Seith put one arm behind her back to support her. There were a few people about in the streets now, but they mostly kept to themselves or watched from a distance. One blind old woman shook a cup at them as they passed, but Seith hurried quickly past as if she were brandishing a knife.
The echoing sound of horses clopping over cobbles was the first indication that they were getting close to the edge of the burrows. They followed it through the maze of angled streets and dead ends, finally catching sight of the ragged edge of a demolished brick wall and a wide avenue beyond. Seith approached the opening warily, motioning for Kelsia to get behind him. Almost the instant he stepped out, someone shouted, "He's there! I see him!"
Seith stepped back quickly, far too late. Kelsia knew immediately what had happened. The soldiers must have posted sentries to watch every exit from the burrows. Seith turned to her, the look of abject fear on his face hardening as she watched. "Go back, find a hole to hide in," he hissed.
Before she could protest, he had his wand drawn and was running into the street. He disappeared from sight, but the next moment a flare of light sizzled past going the opposite direction and exploded with a whump, followed by cries of pain and alarm. A trio of answering fireballs sped past, detonating somewhere down the street. At least a dozen soldiers ran past, trailed by three men dressed in polished armor and bright red cloaks.
Kelsia's limbs felt leaden as she backed away from the scene. He left me, was the thought that kept running through her head. She turned a corner and forced herself to move faster, ignoring the roiling in her stomach. The first thing she had to do was find a place to hide. "He'll get away," she whispered. "He'll come and find me." But the words were no less convincing when she said them aloud.
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