In the Shadow of the Mask

The Golden Oaks

The salty sea air tickled her nose as the calling of gulls woke Sparrow from her heavy slumber. The past few nights had been rough. The waves would roll and peak, throwing the ship about like a child’s toy. The sea had since settled, but Sparrow could still feel the waves in her legs as she tried to stand up. She fell back into the lumpy mattress; almost wishing that the floor would have broken her fall.

“Feels like I’ve been sleeping on broken glass,” she grumbled, “I think I should have slept on the floor with you boy… Boy?” she looked around, “Boy!?”

He had been there every morning that she woke up. He had been there, sleeping on a blanket that she laid down for him. He stayed by her side even through the roughest of nights.

“Where are you boy?” Sparrow quickly pulled up her boots.

She noticed that the door to her cabin was slightly open; he could have gone out sometime during the night. Throwing on her vest, Sparrow headed to the deck.

The sea was like glass. No waves broke the surface. A pleasant breeze twirled her hair about. Except for her, there was no one on the deck.

“I suppose I’m the first one up,” she looked around, “Where are you boy? This isn’t funny.”

It was strange that he would have left her side. He would start to whine if she had to leave him behind and bark with joy when they finally would reunite, even if it was only for a few minutes. Now she was the one who was whining from being separated from him.

“C’mon boy,” she walked around the main deck, “Where are you?”

She was starting to have a horrible feeling her stomach. Though he acted so strong, he was starting to slow down. He was much older than when they first started on their extraordinary journey. That day when she and Rose first saw him… He was so scared, so thin and shaggy… His eyes were so dull and ready to give up his soul to the Void.

“He was the first person I saw when I woke up in Theresa’s caravan,” she smiled, “He’s always been there… no matter what…”

“You’re talking like he’s dead,” a voice came from behind her.

Sparrow quickly turned around, “Aja, you scared me,” she held her hand to her chest.

“The Hero of Bowerstone is a little jumpy,” Aja released long white wisps of smoke from her nostrils.

“There you are,” Sparrow noticed that her friend was lying at Aja’s feet.

He sat up and stretched towards her. Letting out a loud sigh, he happily trotted up to Sparrow and rubbed his head underneath her hand. It was almost like he was trying to say, ‘I’m sorry for not being there when you woke up.’

“It’s okay boy. I was just worried about you,” she understood what he meant.

“You a very rare thing there,” Aja commented.

“What do you mean?” Sparrow asked as she rubbed her dog’s head.

Aja gave a small chuckle, “Your dog there. You don’t see many these days. They use to be a status symbol amongst the rich, but then they were let loose to run in the streets, until they dwindled in numbers… Truly a sad thing,” she sighed, “They are by far the most faithful creature you could ever have.”

Sparrow smiled down at her friend, “I know. I don’t think I could have gotten this far without him.”

“Indeed,” Aja stood up slowly, “We often get through life because of good friends.”

She couldn’t agree more. Though there were other children in the Gypsy camp when she was growing up, Sparrow never really felt like she was one of them. She often went out into the woods that surrounded the camp with her faithful companion. They would hunt for beetles, eat their fill of wild berries, swim in Bower Lake and lay on a grassy knolls and watch the clouds go by. He was her first true friend… after Rose…

Sparrow didn’t have many people she could call a true friend. It was true that most of Albion knew her name, but they were just faces that passed through her life. They were never there for more than a second and then they were gone. Few people entered her life and stayed. Hannah… the last thing that Hannah had said to Sparrow before she went north was that she was the best friend she ever had. Hannah, too, was the best friend Sparrow ever had.

What was she doing now? Was she safe? Was the man in the mask already there? So many questions flooded her mind.

“Oh stop it!” Aja tapped Sparrow on the forehead with the end of her pipe.

“Huh? What?” she snapped out of it.

“You were lost,” Aja snorted, “You need to keep your mind clear and your feet on the ground. I’m surprised that you’ve lived this long,” she chided, “Whatever it is that you have to do or worry about, you have to focus on the now. If your mind is too far in the past, you won’t see that bump in the road. If your mind is too far ahead to things that might or might not be, you’ll miss out on what is right in front of you. Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” Sparrow lowered eyes.

Aja sighed, “I didn’t mean to scold you. I’m just concerned for you.”

“Really?” she was somewhat surprised.

“You’ve been walking across the deck for the last two days like a hollow man,” Aja leaned up against the rails and puffed on her pipe, “As I said, your head is not where it should be.”

“I just keep thinking about Hannah and if she’s alright,” Sparrow sighed as she leaned her forearms on the rail, “The man in the mask said that he would be there waiting at the temple for me… with Hannah.”

“You have more immediate things to worry about it,” Aja reminded her, “Like getting through the wild area of Rookridge, getting to a Cullis Gate that can get you north and the gull poo you’ve just placed your arm in.”

“Huh?” Sparrow lifted up her arms, “Yuck!” there was a large white glop of seagull dropping that started to run down her arm.

“Here,” Aja chuckled as she handed her a handkerchief.

She had seen hordes of undead, the torn remains of Hobbe victims, smelled the putrid breath of a White Balverine and walked the streets of Bloodstone without a word of disgust. Seagull poo was still gross.

“You missed… right there,” Aja pointed down Sparrow’s arm.

“Oh,” she quickly wiped it away, “Thanks,” she handed Aja back her handkerchief.

Aja raised her eyebrow as her took one of the clean corners, “No problem,” she tossed it overboard.

Sparrow giggled.

“Well that’s one less thing to worry about,” Aja half smiled as she placed her pipe to her lips.

“Yes,” she smiled, “One down so many more to go.”

“Don’t start that again,” Aja warned her.

“Sorry,” Sparrow sighed, “I just thought things would have gotten better after Lucien’s fall. It just seems to be one thing after another.”

Aja started to laugh; smoke trail followed her every laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Sparrow was insulted by her response.

“You,” Aja smirked at her, “For one that’s seen so much, I would have expected someone that would understand that life goes on. Just because you get rid of one evil man, doesn’t mean that there won’t be more. You kill one bandit and ten more pop up,” she explained.

“Bandits aren’t the same,” Sparrow snorted, “Lucien caused suffering and death wherever he went. He revived those horrible machines of the Old Kingdom. He killed…,” she stopped short.

“Who? Who did he kill?” Aja probed.

“My sister,” tears flooded her eyes.

“I see,” Aja sighed, “So you’re afraid of losing someone else… how childish.”

Sparrow shot up and yelled, “Childish!? Childish!? How dare you say that I’m childish! I lost my sister… Lucien shot her right in front of me and then… he shot me,” she pulled back her vest to reveal the telltale scar, “The metal in my chest is nothing in comparison to the weight of her death. Just like it though,” she turned away, “it will always be with me.”

Footsteps stopped right behind her, “Bullets do hurt and sting when they tear through your body,” Sparrow felt pressure on her back where the bullet was lodged, “but they are easily removed,” Aja brought a knife in front of her face as she hung over Sparrow’s shoulders, “However… a lost family member is like a knife wound,” she quickly turned her around and put the knife away, “When twisted and driven deeper… possibly it is the worse pain that a person can experience. All wounds heal with time… most of the time,” she pulled away, “You’re one of those people who keeps opening a wound that wants to heal. If you do, it will fester and you’ll end up regretting life… wishing for things that cannot be changed… Look,” Aja pulled Sparrow over to the rail, “tell me what you see.”

Sparrow, still in shock from the harshness of Aja’s words, stared into the distance. She could make out a sand shoreline. Rocky cliffs rose sharply and turned green as they hit their peaks. Tall trees lined the cliffs, almost like they were sentries watching over the seas. Just barely, but Sparrow could see the leaves were the most beautiful golden brown and silvery red she had ever seen.

“The Golden Oaks of Oakfield,” she recognized them.

“Indeed,” Aja came to her ear, “Those oaks represent the bondage between life and death.”

“How?” Sparrow stared, still mesmerized by the scene.

“Ever few decades, the Golden Oak produces an acorn and begins to whiter away,” Aja explained, “But from the death of that tree comes one to replace it. The Acorn is nurtured and cared for and grows into a marvelous tree. Then when it’s time comes, it too will die and give life to another acorn. Life is death. Death is life. It is a cycle that must continue. That very cycle keeps Oakfield alive and thriving,” Aja started to walk away, “You reap what you sow. Keep ripping open the wounds of the past and you’ll end up like the man that killed your sister or accept her death and live not only for yourself, but for her. Do so,” she added, “and you’ll truly earn the title of Hero.”

She walked away. No more words were exchanged. What she said seemed so harsh, but there were so many truths laced within. Could she truly turn into someone like Lucien? Was reliving that tragic night slowly twisting her into the thing she hated most? Were all her actions for not? Was there still time to heal old wounds that still felt so fresh?

“Good morning Aja,” Garth greeted her.

She didn’t return the pleasantries.

“How rude,” Reaver commented.

“Good morning Sparrow,” Garth saw that she was staring off into the distance, “Is everything alright?”

She turned to them; tears flowing from her eyes.

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