Authors: Aaron Pogue
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy
Shadows flitted over the land. I felt them, to the north and south. And as I made my way east the hills behind me cut off the sun, throwing me into darkness while the sun still stained the sky. I had little hope that darkness would hamper a dragon's hunt, but it made my flight more fearsome. I heard another cry, halfway up the third or fourth hill, and it froze me like a hawk can freeze a rabbit on the ground. I fell into my second sight again, desperately searching the sky, and I saw nothing. Then another cry set me running again, and I made my way to the top of a hill just before the sun set in earnest behind me.
The final red rays spilled down before me, showing a smaller hill yet to scale, and beyond that nothing worthy of the name. Rolling grasslands. Tended fields. In the middle distance I saw the glow of a town like a smudge of brown against the violet night. I felt a flash of hope, shoulders trembling, and threw myself down this slope, too. I ran the sun from the sky. I bloodied my hands and tore my clothes and burned my fear for sustenance.
It was well and truly dark when I finally stumbled into the town. I hadn't a penny to my name, but cold and wet and tired as I was, and shaken by the monsters in the marshland, I felt the need for some company. So I trotted on past dark farmhouses and quiet shapes that reminded me of the green in Sachaerrich. I passed the blacksmith's cold forge and a stable sealed up tight. At the stable, I used stale water from a trough to wash the worst of the blood and mud from my face and arms.
And then I found the inn. It was a small place, one floor with maybe half a dozen rooms to let, but from two blocks away I could see the light spilling out onto the street and hear the rattle of voices in good cheer.
As soon as I stepped through the door that cheer faded, the conversations dwindled, and two dozen gazes swept to me. I saw apprehension in most of their eyes and open hostility in some. A little panic flared up in my chest, but I pushed it aside, remembering the shadows passing without. I forced myself to take another step into the room, hands out at my side and open, empty.
A burly man with a bald head and sharp, pale eyes heaved himself out of a booth on one wall. I saw the motion, but he had two rows of tables to pass, and I had a clear path to the bar. I kept my pace, kept my eyes locked ahead, but I heard the scrape of chairs moving to let him pass off my right shoulder. A handful of men who had been leaning casually against the bar pushed away and moved forward to block my path.
I didn't have much choice but to stop. A moment later the big bald man stepped up, exchanged a grateful look with one of them, and then positioned himself right in front of me. He came too close, towering tall over me, and gave a rumbling growl.
"Who're you then?"
"I'm Daven Carrickson," I said. "From the Academy at Pollix."
He snorted at that, big and dramatic, and rolled his eyes for the rest of the crowd. He raised a meaty hand to finger the tattered collar of my shirt, old rags that Joseph had handed down to me. "A wizard, huh? You don't look much like a gentleman's son to me."
I felt my lip curl. "I'm no gentleman at all," I said.
He chuckled at that, then rolled his gaze around the room again. Some of them joined in his ridicule, offering up throaty chuckles or jeering catcalls. Most of them still looked afraid.
I was a little afraid myself. I could tell what this guy was up to. He saw me as a threat—everyone did—and he was trying to protect his townsfolk. Trying to drive me away before I started begging on the streets. Or robbing. Or worse.
I sighed. I nodded. "The rebels," I said. "The war." Times being what they were, he probably wouldn't let me go with a warning. He'd want to teach me a lesson. I glanced over my shoulder and found it a long way back to the outer door. I met his eyes again. "You've had soldiers passing through here?"
"You're no soldier either," the bully said. "We've had plenty of cutthroats and thieves through here, though, and we know how to deal with them." He glanced over his shoulder to the handful of men still gathered between him and the bar. "Don't we, fellas?"
I had to swallow against a lump of fear. I ducked my head. "I assure you, I'm neither cutthroat nor thief," I said. "Just a weary traveler." I turned my shoulder toward him, trying to break the confrontation, and gestured across the room. "Just grant me an hour by your fire—"
He slammed a palm hard against the front of my shoulder, spinning me back to face him, and the patrons nearest us scraped away. Behind the bully, his fellas took a step closer, ready to help.
I threw a look around the room, hoping to find an innkeeper to come to my aid. The closest I could find was a bartender, and he met my gaze with one as level and hateful as any in the room. No one in the whole common room met my eye with anything other than defiance. I found myself falling onto other habits, scanning the room now as terrain, noting the obstacles I'd have to fight around.
As soon as I caught myself doing that I took a long step back and raised my hands, open, palms out. I had no strength for a fight, and I didn't want to hurt any of these people. I didn't much want to get hurt, either, and that was the more likely outcome. "I'll go," I said. "I'm sorry. I was only looking for some warmth and light. There are dark things out in the night."
"That there are," the bully said, stalking after me even as I withdrew. His fellas fell in behind him. "And we've seen enough of them."
One of his fellas slapped him on the shoulder and pointed at my still-raised arm. "What's that there?" he asked.
The bully peered closer, and I realized he was staring at the pale white scars upon my left wrist, peeking out the end of my tattered sleeve. "You branded?" the bully demanded. "You a renegade from the king's justice?"
That struck too close to home. I stopped suddenly and he stepped too close again. I met his gaze and shoved back my sleeve to reveal more of the wicked scar that snaked all the way to my shoulder. I heard someone gasp in the watching crowd and saw the confusion pass over the bully's eyes.
"That's no brand," I growled at him. "That's the mark of a living dragon. I faced it, and I survived."
A flash of memory took hold of me then—of the black dragon that had nearly destroyed me, and of the dark shapes passing in the night outside—and fear held me in place. Fear gave me courage. There were worse things out there than this bully and his half-drunk friends.
He opened his mouth to sneer more contempt at me, but I shook my head once. "I brought no threat," I said. "I gave no offense." The words came out low, almost shaking with a quiet fury. "All I ever hoped was an hour at your fire."
As I said it I fell into my second sight. The fire flickered and flared on a broad stone hearth. I saw it as a dozen dancing flames, and in my mind's eye I reached a hand across the room and plunged it painlessly into the fire. I knotted that invisible hand in the twisting flames, gripped them tight, then pulled them back to me.
The susurrus of fear that had held the room since my arrival burst into a many-throated scream of true terror. Chairs clattered and tables crashed as the inn's patrons scrambled away from me. To their eyes the fire itself stretched out in a long streamer, flowing like a jet of water from its bed of embers to my outstretched left hand.
I transferred my gaze to the bully, still standing above me. He was frozen in perfect terror, and I felt no pity. I held the hearthfire in a ball between my hands, close to his belly. The living fire struggled to escape, fighting to be free, but I bound it with my will. Every errant flame I bent back into the fire's core, until it blazed like an inferno between us.
"I never hurt you," I said, resuming my rant, "and yet you greeted me with hostility. I—"
I saw him tremble then. I saw tears in the big man's eyes. His fellas had fled him, cowering with everyone else in the room against the cold stone walls. I could taste their fear, thick in the air, and it sapped my strength. It sapped my anger. I lowered my gaze, extended one hand, and sent the fire flowing back into its bed. I saw the bully catch a breath, and it escaped him almost instantly in a shrill little sob. I turned my back on him and left the inn.
Outside, the wind howled. The darkness felt deeper after holding a hearthfire between my hands. It was cold and thick and empty. I squeezed my eyes tight shut for a moment, heard someone in the room behind me burst into tears, and shook my head once. I turned south.
I'd gained a road, at least. And I had places to be. I took a deep breath and let it out. Probably for the best, really. I hadn't time to spare or coin to spend. A stay at the inn had been an idle dream. I set my shoulders, turned my face toward Tirah, and started down the road.
I went perhaps a hundred paces before a tremor seized me. I made it another step and then I shook again, like a doll in the jaws of a furious hound. I fell to my knees and gasped a single sob. Shame burned cold behind my chest. I'd come here hoping to escape that kind of darkness, and instead I had shared it with all these innocent people. I could still see their fear, could smell it in my memory, and it turned my stomach.
And mixed within the shame I felt my own fear. It was the fear that had chased me across the hills, the fear of mighty things unseen. But there was more. I had as much to fear from men as monsters. The bully in the bar had reminded me of sins I'd long forgotten. I
a fugitive of the king's justice. I had enemies at court and at the Academy. I had enemies among the king's garrison and in the rebels' highest ranks. The world of man was bent against me. The only peace I'd truly known had been at Joseph's cabin. And I had walked away.
A shiver wracked me and another sob escaped. I missed that rotting cabin. I missed the man who hadn't challenged me, had never sneered. He had shown me only kindness that brought me from the edge of death and brought me into my power.
My power. I ground my teeth. My power that had torn his boat to tinder. My power that had filled these hearts with fear. My power that I could not quite control. Better if I only had the sword.
But even as I thought it, I remembered the king's soldier I'd spitted on my blade. I shook my head and clenched my fists. I was a threat, a danger, a monster as terrible as the beasts that roamed the night.
This town's bully had known it. Archus had known it, and Seriphenes, too. Cooper, mocking me on the hills outside Sachaerrich, and everyone who'd ever heard my father's name and shunned me in the streets. They'd known and sought to chase me out.
Everyone but Joseph. I pushed myself up to sit on my heels and dragged my ragged sleeve across my eyes. He'd given me a home. He'd given me respect. He'd taught me a new trade, and shared his wealth, and perhaps I could have stayed there all my life. Let rebellion wrack the land. Let Claighan's nightmare dragonswarm roll across the earth. They wouldn't touch some fisher's hut forgotten on the shore.
I took a breath. I dried my eyes and thought of my friend Joseph. I thought that I'd go home—
And then I heard a sound upon the road. It was the crunch of stone beneath a boot and less than half a dozen paces behind me. Fear and fury flashed through me, and I flung myself to my feet. I sprang backward, opening distance between me and this intruder. And as I jumped my eyes darted to take in every detail. My hand flew to a sword that wasn't there.
It was no attacker, though, no mob come to chase me from the town. It was one man, barely older than me, with work-worn hands and friendly fat cheeks. His eyes were wide, startling white within the night, and he threw his hands up and flung himself to the ground. He screamed, "Don't hurt me!"
The shame bit deep into my gut again, and my shoulders fell. After another heartbeat I stepped over and helped the young man to his feet. He wore a wedding band upon his hand and met my grip with easy strength.
"I'm sorry to have frightened you," I said. He laughed, nervous, and I winced at that. "I will not hurt you. Just go."
He stood before me. He adjusted his shoulders, then took a breath. "I'd rather not," he said. "I'd rather hear your story."
"You'd never believe it," I said.
"That interesting, is it?" he said. A smile peeked out at the corners of his mouth, then came out for real. "I could hardly complain at that."
I shook my head, then nodded down the road. "I'm needed in Tirah." It made a better excuse than Joseph's cabin. "I should go."
"Not at night," he said. "That's foolishness. Even for a wizard." His face went pale at that and he gulped, but he recovered in a beat. "I have a room. And a warm fire. And my Becky can make you a supper to warm the soul. Stay with me a night and I will carry you halfway to Tirah tomorrow."
"Carry me?" I said. The rest...it sounded too good to even think about. "Why would you—"
"I've business down in Ammerton," he said. "And a team too fine to haul a cart, but you'll be glad of them tomorrow."
I looked more closely at his eyes. I shook my head. "That's no answer." I glanced back at the door of the inn. "Why would you offer me this?"
He paled again, just a touch around the eyes, but I saw it. He didn't look back at the inn. "It wasn't right to treat you that way," he said. "And I could use a dangerous man on my side, if I'm to take the road to Ammerton. And because...." He trailed off. He finally broke eye contact, looked away, and gulped again. "Because I am afraid of darker things than you."