Char I - The Chaos and The Calm
morning was hot and clear with a scent in the air that spoke of summer arriving.
Char hurried in the wake of her father and brother through the twisting
pathways of the town market. As early as it was, the streets were packed with
folk out to trade, buy and sell or just to take advantage of the rare good
weather. Not as tall as her brother Keiro – and five years younger to boot – Char had to
constantly dodge her way past the free flowing tide of human traffic, lest she
be trampled underfoot by people oblivious to her presence. It was hard enough,
even if she wasn’t so distracted. The market was one of her favourite places
and she relished the days when the family would come to sell and trade. Keiro
and Father would be looking to get the very best prices they could for their
wares, yet Char was mostly interested in the sights and sounds all around her.
Caravans from as far north as Frostfall and Snowpoint had made the long journey bringing Icewine, furs, spices, iron, steel and much more. The northern folk themselves were passing strange to her eyes and just as worthy of attention. Despite the heat, many were dressed in boiled leather and ring mail with huge fur cloaks hanging heavily from broad shoulders. Char gaped open mouthed at this fierce, warlike people. She herself was wearing a loose cotton tunic with soft leather sandals, yet she still felt far too hot and flushed. She brushed a sweaty strand of bright copper hair out of her eyes and turned her attention to the rest of the plaza they had just entered.
This was the central market square and the hub of the trading town of Forster. Voices rose and fell in an endless cacophony of noise as traders, farmers, merchants and casual buyers competed with each other to get the best deals. Char saw a blue robed priest of Ikean walking idly by talking to a tall, elderly man with long brown hair that was just beginning to turn white at the temples. Not even a priest of the Lady enjoyed the usual reverence afforded to the faith on a day like today. Religion held very little appeal to her so she allowed her eyes to slide past, taking in the rest of the plaza. The permanent shop buildings surrounded the perimeter of the square, whilst the stands and stalls of infrequent traders all spiralled inwards towards the centre. The square itself was huge and could rightly be held as a town within a town. Here, the walkways and paths were all paved with smooth marble that glittered brightly in the morning sun. At each of the four entrances an arch was set leading off to markets dedicated to specialist goods, along with the town guards that were there to keep the peace. Mirror bright helms and burnished breastplates could be seen all around – Forster took security seriously when it came to business.
Char always enjoyed looking at the arches. The craftsmanship was wonderful and wrought in many different likenesses. Steel was for the military district, where traders dealt in weapons, iron, tools, staves for bows and fletchers hawked their arrows. The gleaming metal had been shaped as if two spears were crossing blades, their tips crowned with the standard of Forster – white chequers on a black field. On another section, two oak trees had been planted, their branches entwining to signal the entrance to the farming markets. Granite heralded the street leading off to the construction and crafts district, the grey stone carved simply with the history and years of the town’s landmarks. Char couldn’t read them from this far away, but she always enjoyed looking at the carvings.
Lastly, the twin figures of Torra and Ikean – the Lord and Lady of Dekar – led to the faith and spiritual markets, where it was said that occasionally even traders from the mystical city of Rakatan would at times appear. Serenely, the Lady stood braced and ready, a slender staff raised high above her head to catch the downward swing of a battle-axe from the Lord. Her face was calm and resolute, her long hair artfully flowing down her back as she looked straight into the eyes of the bearded, sneering face of Torra. Keiro often said that the statues said more about the lands religion than many priests could ever hope to put into words. She didn’t really understand what he meant by that, but she had always wanted to take a wander around those stalls – all the specialist markets constantly changed as traders from new lands arrived and departed - but her father had expressly forbidden it. Tero Groves did not hold with “that spiritual nonsense” as he called it, and trusted the followers of Torra and Ikean even less. Yet maybe if he didn’t see her sneaking away…
A sudden shout from her brother made her start guiltily. Suppressing a sigh, she turned away from the twin statues in the distance, to find Keiro waving at her and smiling knowingly from ten feet away. Her father was deep in discussion with a wine merchant behind a nearby stall, oblivious to all else around him. Keiro, however, more than made up for that lack of observation.
Grumpily, Char stalked over to her brother. The scent of peach, apple and plum brandies assaulted her senses as she drew closer, making her feel a little light headed. The heat certainly wasn’t helping either, with sweat beginning to pour down her forehead. A dull ache had already begun to slowly build just behind her eyes. Strangely, her brother showed no signs of discomfort as he dropped an arm around her shoulders, giving her a brief hug.
“Trying to sneak off were you little C?” He joked.
Char bristled. She hated it when he called her that! She was fourteen and basically an adult – in her eyes at least. It wasn’t her fault that her stupid brother had grown like a weed in the last few years. Keiro was nineteen with the same shaggy copper hair, yet with blue eyes rather than Char’s own grey. He had an easy smile and a ready laugh that made it hard for her – or anyone for that matter – to stay mad at him for long. His good nature had won him many friends out on their farm – especially with the women. Father often said that Keiro would make a more than adequate replacement for the head of the family business.
“Stop calling me that!” She spat back at him. “You know I don’t like it. Anyway, everyone is small to you, even father. Is he buying or selling here?”
“Selling” Keiro replied quietly. “I don’t think he is looking to buy today. Maybe tomorrow, if all goes well with what we’ve brought with us. Those barrels of oranges, apples, pears, grapes and plums are as good as any we’ve ever brought to market. Better than some of what I’ve seen for sale here today, anyway”
Thoughtfully, Char glanced over to where her father was still talking to the merchant. Two of her assistants were going over the samples her father had brought with them and struggling to hide how impressed they were. Char felt a little swell of pride. Groves’ farm and orchards were not relatively well known here in the bigger towns, but Tero Groves always seemed able to find willing buyers.
She opened her mouth to ask her brother about the plans for the rest of the day, when her father suddenly announced crisply “Done, I shall have the merchandise brought to you by the end of the day’s trading. Good day madam.” The pair sealed the deal with a firm handshake and a parchment for the collection of funds. Nodding politely, her father turned swiftly on his heel, and purposefully walked off in the direction they had arrived, his children hurrying along in his wake. Char had to almost run to catch up, yet she still noticed the small smile of satisfaction on her father’s face.
“It went well then, father?” Keiro enquired.
Father gave a hearty laugh and clapped his son on the back – no mean feat considering their difference in size. Char he ignored. Tero Groves was a small man with brown hair, brown eyes and a very serious face. He rarely laughed, which meant he must have managed to get a very good price indeed for him to be in such a good mood.
“Very well, Keiro. Excellent in fact. I had planned on spreading out the goods between maybe three or four reputable merchants throughout the day, but Trader Lavess just bought our entire stock for a very reasonable price. I think we might stay overnight to buy on the morrow after all. Remind me to tell your mother to increase the coin she gives to the workers when we return, won’t you? They deserve it.”
Char saw her brother nod in agreement, before focusing her attention back on the stalls to either side. They were nearing the entrance to the Farmer’s Market and Char was starting to daydream about maybe snatching some time to herself in the afternoon, when suddenly the ache behind her eyes pulsed painfully, making her cry out in alarm. Her vision wavered and she stumbled drunkenly into a crowd of passers-by, tripping her up and sending her sprawling to the ground. She cracked the side of her head on the marble surface, sending another jolt of pain down her neck. She could feel blood trickling from a cut just above her right ear as the pain grew worse and intensified. Dismayed, she tried to cry out, but all she could manage was a weak croak. Her mouth was suddenly as parched as if she had never before tasted water. Weakly, she struggled to her knees and felt hands try to lift her back to her feet. She caught a brief flash of a dusty brown robe before pain blinded her once more. Voices all around were shouting and she heard her father arguing loudly with someone off to her left. The pain was so intense that she vomited all over the white paving stones that were slipping in and out of focus. She heard Keiro exclaim in disgust and shout for someone to let go of her before the hands gave another heave and she blacked out completely.
She woke to the feel of a wet cloth on her forehead and the soothing voice of her Mother. The light was dim and the swaying motion told her that she was in the back of one of the wagons and they were on the move. Dazed and confused, she wondered how she had got there. When the memory crashed home, she bolted upright making her mother cry out in surprise. Wearily, Char shook her head to try and loose some of the grogginess she was feeling. Blinking slowly, she looked around the wagon. Tana Groves was knelt barely a pace away holding a red scrap of cloth that was dripping onto the resin soaked wood. Char noticed the uncertain look she cast in her direction and felt a little guilty for startling her. Unsteadily, she tried to lift herself to her knees before a wave of dizziness swam through her and sent her crashing backwards with a groan.
“Char!” Her mother exclaimed with a bite of command in her tone. “You need to rest and try to take it easy. How do you feel? Can you remember what happened?”
She moaned pathetically and lifted herself so her head slightly rested on a bundled sheet of canvas behind her. The dizziness didn’t seem to take her too badly if she stayed lying down. Her vision steadied and she looked over at her mother and tried out a weak smile of reassurance, which looked more like a grimace of pain.
“I feel a bit…strange, mama. I don’t know what happened, but I do remember falling. My head hurt something awful. Where are we going? What time is it?”
“Home and it is mid-afternoon.” Her mother replied slowly, as if unsure whether her daughter would understand her. “Your father, Keiro and some of the workers delivered the stock to Trader Lavess after your brother came running back to the wagons carrying you in his arms. I’ll admit, I’ve been quite worried…you’ve hardly moved for hours and once the sale was made, we hitched the horses and set off straight away. I doubt we’ll come back tomorrow now. You seem to have made quite the scene, according to Keiro.”
Hours? Char thought wonderingly. She didn’t feel like she had been out cold for hours at all. Bruised, battered and more than a little weary maybe, yet the incident in the market could have happened minutes ago. She felt a sinking feeling that she wouldn’t be able to see the rest of Forster tomorrow and wander round the town with her brother, but once father made up his made, he rarely changed it. Sighing regretfully, she started as her mother moved closer and pressed the damp cloth to her head once more, gently forcing her deeper into the canvas sheet.
“Whatever happened, you scared your brother witless” She said with a small smile. “I’ve never seen him so flustered. We’re only an hour outside of town and there’s still a long way to go, so try and get some sleep. Later on you can join your father at the front of the wagon. The fresh air will do you good. Here, drink this” She reached behind her and picked up a glass bottle filled to the brim with green liquid. Char could smell mint and cloves as she accepted the bottle and took a long pull. The taste was awful and she coughed and gagged on the acrid brew. Laughing, her mother reached over and took the bottle back before she spilt it everywhere.
“It’s Bittersleep” She announced archly. “If that doesn’t knock you out, nothing will. Sweet dreams, dear”
Coughing hoarsely, Char already felt drowsiness begin to settle on her. “Bittersleep? That tastes worse than your cooking!”
She had just enough time to smile at her mother’s outraged expression before sleep rolled over her and she drifted off completely.
When next she woke, sunlight streamed in through a gap in the canvas curtain ahead. She stretched, surprised – yet happy – to feel no pain or dizziness. Hesitantly, she tried to sit up, the make shift blanket her mother had covered her with fell to one side as she shook her head slowly. To her relief, there was no discomfort. It must have just been a reaction to the heat she thought happily. She never had been able to stand hot weather, yet still…she should probably take it easy for a while, at least. There was a bandage wrapped tight around her head. Idly, she traced the soft linen with her fingers, wincing as she remembered hitting the paving stones hard. It’s a wonder I’m still in one piece. Clumsy fool.
The swaying of the wagon had stopped, meaning that father had called a halt – probably to water and feed the horses. Father always believed in treating their beasts well. “Treat as you would want to be treated” he would say. Well, Char could certainly do with being fed and watered right about now. Her stomach rumbled loudly, reminding her that she had only had a bowl of porridge and chopped apricots earlier that morning. Yawning so her jaw cracked she climbed to her feet and threaded her way past the now empty barrels and crates towards the chink of light a few paces ahead. Sticking her head through the gap in the canvas, she looked out onto a dusty road that stretched far back towards Forster, which was now out of sight. Rolling hills, tree’s and ploughed fields covered the earth to either side of the deserted road. Hopping down off the wagon, her sandals kicked up clouds of dust as she walked unsteadily off the side of the road. All four of the wagons had been drawn up near a small stream that ran parallel to the highway. Glancing upwards, she noted that the sun was more than halfway down towards the horizon. Early evening, then. They would probably reach home just after dark.
Just ahead father and Keiro were unhitching the horses from the leading wagons and coaxing them towards the stream, whilst Jack and Tom – her father’s workmen – were filling feed bags with oats. A slight breeze stirred the grass as she walked towards where her mother had just climbed down from the driver’s seat of one of the wagons. Tana Groves turned at the rustle of grass, a smile breaking out on her lined face. She opened her arms, giving Char a quick hug before studying her face with a serious expression.
“You’re looking a lot better. Do you feel okay?” Char nodded
She placed a cool hand on her brow “Hmm… No signs of fever…good. You can sit with your father when we set off. There’s bread and cheese in the back of Keiro’s wagon. Off you go.” Char didn’t need telling twice. With another brief hug, she raced off.
Less than an hour later, she was sat on the driver’s seat with her father, holding the reigns firmly but gently, as the two draft horses plodded along the highway. Tero Groves had a sheet of parchment resting on his knees and was making small adjustments with a silver chased pen and muttering in frustration. Father had an awful head for numbers. She knew that no matter how hard he tried, mother would take one look at his figures and totals before firmly taking the sheet away and redoing them. Char didn’t know why he didn’t just give up. She would have, if it were her.
With a final growl of irritation, father rolled up the parchment and stuffed it roughly into the leather script at his side. Char hid a smile and busied herself taking in the scenery. This late in the evening, they had the road to themselves. Keiro’s wagon was just ahead and Jack and Toms were to either side of hers. The last light from the sun was slanting in from the west and had turned the wheat fields a lovely shade of gold. Dust motes kicked up by the wheels of the wagons sparkled and drifted in the gentle breeze. The air was cool, clear and the first stars were just beginning to appear in the sky. Char took a deep breath and started to truly feel like the incident from the morning was nothing more than a dream. She may have missed the rest of the market and denied herself a trip on the morrow, but home was just as good right now, she felt.
Her father clearing his throat made her turn her head to see him studying her with a thoughtful expression. She never did like being scrutinised by him. He might be awful at numbers, but father more than made up for that lack with his eye for detail when it came to people. She often felt as if her every thought and movement was being weighed and judged, with the outcome one of constant disapproval. She self-consciously shifted in her seat and tried to focus on the road and keeping in line with the lead wagon. A flush slowly crept up her neck when her father suddenly spoke.
“Tomorrow, I want you out in the fields at first light with the workmen. Go over the apple trees and check the yields. Then, make a trip over to the vineyard and review the grape quality. I want to be able to take raw stock to trading in the coming weeks. Your brother and I are going back to market tomorrow. You rested enough today and I don’t have the time to pander to you. I even said as much to that strange old man that gave your mother that sleeping draught and insisted you rest for at least the next two days. Two days! Hmpph. Foolishness. You’ll work your share, like everyone else. Are we clear?”
His tone never changed. To Char he could have been reciting the figures from his tally. Four hundred plums had been sold. You are a disappointment. She felt her face redden and she nodded mutely, tears beginning to sting her eyes. It was unfair. It wasn’t her fault she’d collapsed. Did he think she’d done it on purpose? All she’d wanted to do that day was to explore Forster and maybe spend some of her meagre savings on a gift for Keiro or mother. Now, she would have to be up before the rest of the family for a long day trekking through fields for work that could easily wait a day or two. The tears fell steadily as she gazed straight ahead, her vision turning watery. To her right, father sighed in disgust, before digging out his battered parchment of numbers and continuing with his fruitless tallying.
Char’s contentment in the scenery had vanished as soon as it had arrived, leaving her feeling wretched and miserable. Tears were still making tracks down her face, but she refused to move her hands from the reigns to scrub them away. Tero Groves could smell weakness like a fox could smell a rabbit and she’d be damned if she would give him more reason to upset her. Slowly, she started to feel angry. Her skin felt flushed and hot as she sat there staring straight ahead and brooding. Get up early, Char. Walk the fields, Char. All while Keiro and I enjoy ourselves in Forster. Steadily, a strange pressure started to build inside her. Her breathing quickened and her vision grew sharper, till she could make out each individual shaggy hair on the horses mane and pick out the splinters in the wood of the wagon in front. She felt her anger building, the pressure making her head throb badly. It was so loud that she was sure father must hear, yet she could see him out of the corner of her eye, sat there quietly, pen in mouth, still muttering. It was becoming unbearable and she felt the first stirrings of panic and alarm as she realised this wasn’t just her anger at being unfairly treated, it was something else, something…strange. She needed to let go, release it somehow. Her breath started to come in faster gasps and finally, father lifted his head to stare at his daughter, frowning slightly. Just as she thought she could stand it no more, someone seemed to whisper to her what she must do.
With a cry, she threw down the reigns and cast her arms wide, screaming in rage. In her anger, the air ignited and heat poured from her like sweat. There was an almighty rush, as if a dam had burst and a frenzied torrent was surging forth. She felt as if she was literally hurling the strange force away from her. A white flash almost blinded her and she heard a horrible tearing sound and a strange thump of wood connecting with something soft and wet. Half blinded and deafened by the madness, she felt rather than saw or heard the staccato beat of something thudding into the earth all around. Her hair stood on end and goose bumps dotted her flesh. Suddenly she was falling and the earth kicked her hard in the gut, air wooshing out of her lungs. Pain and light and pain and screams all around, and all she could do was gasp weakly. She felt the earth underneath tremor, heard horses shrieking and her brother calling her name before being heart wrenchingly cut off. Again, the strange force thumped out of her, leaving her wheezing in agony. Pain shot up her legs, but it was the noises all around her that hurt the most.
The last thing she heard before she blacked out was her mother screaming.