Chapter 3: Family
Ulmaby was an average sized village on one of the main roads of the southern region, which led to the capital. Its inhabitants, most of them farmers, were doing reasonably well for two reasons. Firstly, the lands were not tied to the name of any noble family, which meant that, by law, they belonged to the King. That was the same as saying they belonged to the kingdom and its people. So long as they obeyed the law and paid their taxes, people were free to live as they saw fit. Secondly, the road was fairly travelled and anyone coming from the east and heading to Ardaena, or the other way, would have to stop for one night at the Blue Firefly—so named because in the past the woods behind the village were full of them in summer, or so the stories said.
There was another road coming through the southern fields and where the two met people had set up a market. Travellers who lodged at the Blue Firefly refilled their supplies there and every first Sunday of the month was a local market day, when people from the neighbouring villages came to trade goods and share news—which is to say they drank and gossiped.
Val—short for Valan—was born in Ulmaby to a skilled carpenter and a seamstress with a little knowledge of herbs. His childhood had not been particularly hard, but he had shown more interest in wandering the woods than in carpentering, and his father’s endeavours to teach him the craft had failed. While the son acknowledged the beauty and usefulness of the trade, he found the process tedious and could never muster the patience to sit through it.
The early death of his mother and a strained relationship with his father had driven him to the big city, but the truth was he had always wanted to study and see the world beyond their village. It seemed as though he had forsaken that place and his friends, but, more than a decade later, the illness and subsequent passing of his father, which all his efforts had been unable to prevent, had brought him back indefinitely. After spending many years in the crowded capital, he had come to realize that a peaceful home in the country was more to his taste. Ulmaby was only two days away, a mere trifle for a person as fond of travelling as he was, and he did not have to give up his intellectual pursuits. The woods of his childhood, which he had missed dearly in the city, provided him with sources of study and means for a living.
He still travelled a great deal, to be sure, but the cold months always found him in his quiet library, reading or writing down that which he learned or discovered, or in his workroom sorting herbs and making experiments. And every time he returned from his journeys, he found the tranquillity of the countryside and simple society of his friends soothing.
This independent living suffered little change after Kiran entered his life, and he thought himself fortunate for it. The child had a quick mind and was just as curious as he was. From the very beginning Val took the boy with him on his journeys, teaching him everything he knew and encouraging a critical thinking.
They were a bit of an odd pair in the eyes of the villagers, though, in truth, Val had always been regarded as an eccentric character. Most people lived their lives without leaving those places, bound to their families and land. When they did, it was seldom farther than the next village. Too few travelled as far as the capital. He had always been different, what with all his faring and unwillingness to settle down like any normal man. They could not understand him even as a child, much less as an adult. But he was an agreeable sort of person, friendly and good humoured, not to mention learned. He often came to their aid with all manner of clever ideas, so they liked him and, most times, overlooked his peculiarities. Of course they still had to pay whenever they fell sick and needed his assistance, but he never refused to help and found ways to settle the matter to everyone’s convenience.
When Val had brought home the quiet, fourteen years old child, he had raised a lot of eyebrows. No one had heard of him ever getting married, or being interested in it for that matter, and they could not imagine him as a parent. He was too independent, travelled too much and showed no inclination towards a regular, domestic life. To their questions he had answered that Kiran was the orphaned son of some dear friends from the city and that he had taken upon himself to raise him, but had given no other details.
Praiseworthy as it were, the story did not satisfy the villagers. No one knew much about his life in the city, but it must have been more exciting than that in their village. Val’s simple explanation did not fit that image, so they came up with their own stories, each more remarkable than the other. One said he had been involved with a woman of questionable trade and she had disposed of a cumbersome child, who was probably not even his—not only there was no likeness, but the boy was slow-witted, poor soul, he could not even speak properly. Another said the child was plainly his—why, he was just as peculiar—but looked like the mother, most likely a high born daughter, judging by how pretty he was, who had given him away because she feared being found out by her family. Which was a load of rubbish, according to the sensible people, since that would have only made sense if Val had brought home a baby. But there was no denying that the boy was strange, so, whatever the case, the general consensus was that there was more to the story than he had declared.
“What’s it to you what he did and with whom?” grumbled Drest, the village smith and Val’s closest friend, whenever someone pestered him with questions. “Mind your own business and leave the man alone.”
Drest was not the prying sort, unlike his wife, Ansa, who was always curious about everyone. But even she knew nothing more, and not for lack of trying. Val was clever and discreet and all her efforts to trick him into talking had failed. So, like her husband, she took his side.
“He already told you, people, what more do you want? It was very kind of him to take the poor child in, if you ask me. Very generous. How many of you would’ve done the same?”
“He didn’t have so many mouths to feed!” someone had protested.
“Well, now he has, are you happy?” she had retorted, with her hands on the hips, like a mother scolding her children.
Val had seemed quite diverted by the whole fuss, but his lips had remained as tight as ever. Eventually the story had died and people had moved on, for each had problems of his own. In time Kiran grew from the reserved, hardly speaking boy into a pleasant, friendly young man, and so alike Val in manners and thinking, that everyone grew used to him, as if he had always been there.
The house in which they lived was comfortable and well sized—too large for just the two of them, in some opinions. Val’s father had built it at the edge of the village, towards the forest, where he had found his raw materials. As soon as the winter passed and the first leaves opened in the canopy, the two went in the woods on long walks, often coming back after dark, and later, when the weather became more suitable for travelling, their friends saw even less of them.
They were gone for weeks at a time, sometimes more than a month, but when they returned they spent another few weeks at home, helping the sick, sorting things and preparing medicine. They made stocks of pain powders, cold syrups and tonics for the villagers, particularly for the people close to them, in exchange for looking after their place while they were away. They could have sold those in the city and made a decent profit, for they were the good sort, but giving them away was a small price for their peace of mind. And since medicine was fairly expensive, the arrangement seemed to please everybody. In fact it had been going on ever since Val had moved back from Ardaena, but, now he had somebody to help him, things were easier and even more enjoyable.
Kiran was an excellent pupil, quick to learn and hard working. He also possessed an innate affinity with living things, be it birds, beasts or any other creature. They seemed to respond to him, in a way that amazed and disquieted people at first, but Val had told them it was a talent which, however strange, was not unheard of.
It was the middle of summer and they had returned from a longer trip, which had taken them west first, then north, all the way to the mountains. On their way home Val’s horse had grown an abscess in one of the hooves. They had found a farrier to help them treat it, but the poor animal had still had to walk the rest of the way back. Once home they had decided to defer other plans and let it heal properly. Their horses were their most precious companions and they spent as much time with them as with people, if not more.
There was also another reason for a longer break. Rumours had started to spread that the army was gathering at the eastern border. The pessimists feared war was brewing, though the lands had not seen any major conflict during the rule of the last Royal House—King Evand Tighal was the third generation. And people had always had a habit of embellishing news. But on the way back they had met a company riding eastwards, a rare sight, and that concurred with the rumours. It made them wish to stay home for a while. Fortunately Ulmaby was roughly ten days away from the eastern border, in good weather. They hoped whatever might happen there will not reach them too soon. However, neither would the news or warnings and, if things went awry, their village lay between the border and the capital.
Kiran watched Drest as he carefully trimmed Sylph’s hooves, Val’s grey gelding. The bad one was healing well, but he was still favouring it. Drest was incredibly gentle for such a tough looking, grumpy man. In fact he often seemed to get along better with horses than with people.
“Horses are intelligent and honest creatures,” he had once told him. “You can trust them, unlike some people. They feel your heart… And they don’t pester you with stupid questions.”
Kiran had laughed at that.
Drest was the only person in Ulmaby who had not been taken aback by the way animals responded to him. Quite the opposite: he believed that was proof of a pure heart.
The first time Val had taken him to the smithy, Drest was trying to shoe a beautiful, bay filly. For whatever reason the animal was skittish and the smith could not persuade her to relax. Yet when Kiran had held his hand out to touch, the horse had not shied. Instead she had lowered her head and had let out a fluttering breath. She had leaned into the touch with deep sighs, as the boy was walking his hand up and down the long forehead in a gentle caress, then further on the neck and shoulder, brushing the mane. It had left Drest agape.
“It’s a gift of his,” had excused him Val, knowing people were uneasy about it.
“It’s his heart,” had replied the taciturn smith, with unexpected warmness. “I’ve been struggling with her since morning. And I thought I was good with horses.”
He had managed to do his work with their help, but at the end of it he was looking at the boy with different eyes. ‘A horse feels your heart.’ That meant to the gruff man more than Kiran would have imagined.
“Send him here more often. I’ll teach him a few things, build his body a little. He’s too scraggy.”
“I will,” had agreed Val.
Kiran smiled fondly at the memory. Drest had kept his word. He had taught him to defend himself, bare handed and with a knife. Despite his bulky built, the man was very agile. He had also taught him about metalwork and horses. Drest had two smaller children of his own, and the three of them often watched him work and helped him with various tasks that were suitable for their size. Nothing impressive, but it still made them feel strong and important. And when they grew bored, they played until Ansa called them inside for a juicy pie. That went on for several years, yet with all his efforts, Kiran remained too scraggy for a real man, if not equally weak.
“It’s healing well,” said Drest.
“Yes,” agreed Kiran, stroking the gelding’s neck with affection. “Don’t worry, you have plenty of time to rest.”
“So you’re not leaving again?”
“Not for a while.”
His own horse snorted loudly, eager for attention, and Kiran obliged, walking his hands on the dark coat and kneading him in places he knew his friend liked. “Be patient, your turn will come,” he said, rubbing his forehead. “And then I’ll take you out for a walk.” Danan snorted again, excited.
“Is it because of the rumours? About a possible war?” asked Drest, while his hands kept working. They were rough and calloused and the skin on his thick fingers was cracked, but their touch was delicate.
“You heard those?”
“The inn’s been having all sorts of folk, lately. People are talking… You think it’s true?”
“I hope not. But it’s true the army is moving.”
The smith wiped his brow with the sleeve. “They say King Arne is a strange man. Mad, some say.”
“I wouldn’t know about that… You know people always exaggerate. It’s what makes stories entertaining.”
“I thought you knew more, since you two travel so much.” When the pause grew too long, Drest raised his eyes to him.
Kiran shrugged. “Our business has not taken us that far east.”
“Oh.” The big man sighed. “That’s why I prefer the horses. People can’t seem to be happy minding their business.” He let go of the animal’s leg and stood up. “There, boy, you’re done. Let’s take care of your mate.”
“Are you up for a drink, later?”
“Can’t say for sure. I must fix the hinges on the pantry door. Ansa’s been nagging me about it for a while, but I was too busy and they gave. If I don’t fix them, there won’t be peace with her.”
“Then you’d better,” said Kiran with amusement. “Ansa can be terrifying.”
“You’ve no idea,” grumbled his big friend.
The summer months were generally hot and dry. Sometimes water level in the wells dropped and the shallow streams dried, only to fill again in autumn, with the coming of rains. There was no stream in Ulmaby, but there were many wells and people had captured an underground spring. The woods shaded the ground, preserving its moisture, and there was always water.
Every now and then, after extremely hot days, there would be violent, roaring thunderstorms. Val and Kiran loved them and spent hours on the porch, watching the lightning that seemed to split the sky open and listening to the deafening thunders and the soothing patter of rain on the roofs. They seldom lasted more than a day, then the sky cleared, but this time the storm was followed by more rain.
It was three days already since it kept pouring, incessantly, as if the whole sky were slowly falling to the ground. The roads had melted into fast rivulets and the mud was way above the ankle. It was impossible to go into the woods or in the fields and nobody travelled in such miserable weather, so, with little else to do, the villagers gathered at the Blue Firefly or the Ales & Tales to drink and tell stories. During these days Val spent most of the time in the library, writing. Kiran left him to his book, while he took care of the house or read on the porch, where he could hear and smell the rain.
The house was silent and the monotonous pitter-patter had sent him asleep. There was a deep, low rumble in the distance, growing larger and closer, until it burst with a sharp crack that startled him awake.
It was dark and quiet. A darkness so deep he could not see his hands, and so quiet he heard his own, shallow breathing. And cold. Cold as though he were dead. It was so frightening he wanted to run, but he could not feel his limbs. He tried to scream, but he had no voice. And it was so dark he knew not whether he still had eyes. He felt nothing. He was just a thought, drifting in… in what? Where was he? What was that place?
A faint golden light flickered ahead. Or was it behind? He could not say. It seemed to float closer, but he realized far and near had lost meaning, he could not tell them apart. Another one flickered, and then another. They were all around him, tiny golden beads, fine as raindrops, but not falling. They were drifting with him. What were they?
As if understanding him, one stopped. It was beautiful beyond words and its glow was throbbing almost like a heartbeat. He felt warmth. He wanted to touch it, but he had no hands. Suddenly, he understood why: he was one too, a drop of warm, throbbing light. And there were hundreds, no, thousands like him. There was an entire swarm, moving like a slow river, golden and so bright it was blinding. It flowed with a low, drumming sound, as if thousands of hearts were beating in unison. The river was alive. The hearts became one and he saw that the river was a giant, golden serpent. He turned his head and looked at him. There was so much wisdom and power in those eyes, the likes of which Kiran had never felt before. Yet they were loving and so familiar, as though he had always known them.
He heard his breath and saw he had limbs, and opened his mouth. A drop of light came out of him and grew into a serpent. He looked at Kiran with fondness and told him something—what was it? And they left, two graceful, undulating creatures, a trail of thousands of glowing drops behind them.
It was pitch black again and a sharp crack startled him awake. The light was dull and the rain poured incessantly, as if the whole sky were slowly falling to the ground.
A loud thud, followed by clatter, came from the library. Then a low grunt.
“Val?” he asked, still in a daze, trying to collect his thoughts.
“In here,” came a gasped reply.
Kiran rushed into the library to find his father on the floor, a large stack of books crumbled on top of him and scattered about the room.
“What happened?” he cried, hurrying to take off the books and help him stand.
“I was looking for something and these just fell.” The fine dust which filled the air made Val cough and he went to open the window.
“And I keep telling you we have too many,” started Kiran in a frustrated tone.
“Oh, shush! You sound like Ansa sometimes—but don’t tell her I said so. I’ll talk to Alden later.” Alden was a carpenter, who had learned the craft from Val’s father, and another one of their close friends. Val dusted off his clothes and looked around pensively, “Clearly I must,” then turned to his son, who was watching him with silent disapproval, and smiled as though nothing had happened. “You remind me of your mother… Except for that scowl, I don’t know whom you took that from.”
“Don’t try to change the subject.”
“I’m not. But I cannot help noticing how very similar to her you are.”
“Mother was beautiful,” said Kiran, wondering about Val’s true intent. It was not a subject they avoided, but bringing it up out of the blue was strange.
“And you have her countenance. Same cheeks, same smile, same expressions.”
“Her eyes were like the forest in spring.” Kiran’s frown slowly melted into a tender expression.
“Yours are the colour of autumn, like your father’s. Isn’t it interesting, how two opposite seasons finally met in their eyes?” Val’s eyes grew distant, watching an old memory. “They were kind and lovely people, and had such a delightful child… What ever happened to him?” He shook his head with a resigned air, moving into the kitchen as if he had just remembered having important things to do there.
“He grew up with you,” Kiran cried after him, his mood brighter. You sly, manipulative old man, he laughed, following his father. “Why do you always do that?”
“I would not if you didn’t criticize so much. Let us have a cup of tea.”
“You taught me to be critical.”
“Absolutely. Just not with me,” said Val, smiling mischievously.
“I just had another dream,” said Kiran, when they were comfortably seated on the little porch, their favourite place for conversation. Two cups were steaming on a small table—nothing more than an old, weathered stump—between them.
“Do tell me!” Val was always interested to hear those dreams. They fascinated him, despite—or perhaps because of—their incoherence and the fact that, similar though they were, they still could not decide about their meaning. Nonetheless Kiran recounted them in great detail, and they both marvelled at the beauty and strangeness of what he saw. “Heh, a serpent…”
Other times it was a fish, or a tree. Or just the river.
“It’s interesting,” said Kiran, “that I remember seeing this before when I’m awake, but not while inside the dream. Every time it feels as if I were there for the first time. It’s overwhelming and frightening in the beginning, then it becomes strangely familiar, but not as if I were the one remembering. Those are not my feelings.”
“Because they are not your dreams. You are just an observer. A guest.”
“Hmm… it feels more arbitrary than that. As though… I strayed into someone else’s memories by accident.”
“That’s it, memories! Yes. That is what they must be. And you’re not there by accident.”
“I suppose. But I still don’t understand their purpose.”
“Perhaps it’s too early. When the time is right, you will.”
“I hope so.”
They were silent for a while, drinking tea and listening to the low drumming of raindrops. Daylight was gradually fading, as the day moved into the evening. The air was infused with the musty smell of wet soil, soaked grass and a sour tang of leaves, bringing distant memories to Kiran’s mind.
“Do you see any out there?” asked Val, absently staring into the rain.
“It’s been raining for too long.”
“With all the thunder, I was thinking—”
“The day of the storm was quite a feast,” said Kiran. “But they hate so much water.”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Oh! I didn’t know that.”
“Kalari,” said Kiran after a while.
“Thunderstorms attract neri and kalari.”
“…The lightnings, of course. Mhm…” Val sipped from the tea, thoughtful. “I cannot tell them apart.”
“If thunder doesn’t follow, it’s kalari.”
“Easy for you to say. With all that rumble…”
Kiran chuckled softly. “We might still see them tonight.”
“I have often wondered why the inn was named the Blue Firefly,” said Val, continuing a thought that was only in his mind. “They say these woods used to be full of fireflies in summer. I never saw any.”
“You are thinking about fuuri?”
“It’s just a thought, though. I found no traces of a former stream or other body of water in the area, besides that underground spring… It could be that the fellow who came up with the name was drunk,” added Val, chuckling. He emptied his cup.
“Speaking of which, I would love a pint. Well, I would love a bit of liveliness, to be honest. You have been very quiet these past three days.”
“Mm, good idea. Too much rain can get to you.”
Val was right about Kiran’s resemblance to his mother, only he was one of those examples where the likeness between mother and son exceeded the usual degree. He was slender and had remarkable gracefulness. His bones were thin, his face long and narrow, his skin smooth and unblemished. And with the way those dark locks framed him—even when he pulled them back in a loose tail, in his usual manner—there was something soft, almost feminine in his air, especially when he laughed. As far as he was concerned, whether he was handsome or not was of no importance, since that did not make him who he was. Nonetheless he was aware his looks were not common for a man his age. If he did not attract the scorn of other members of his gender, it was because his confident bearing and fearless eyes compensated for the misleading physique. He was neither weak, nor shy.
His friends sometimes teased him, though, knowing them, he did not take their jokes to heart. But every once in a while there would be a fellow whose feelings would become confused upon meeting him and things would turn awkward.
The Ales & Tales was full, as was probably the inn. Half of the men were already drunk and there was a lot of chatter and laughter, but still the picture did not come close to what they occasionally saw in Ardaena. It was far more civilized. Not because people were better mannered, but everybody knew everybody else and they were accustomed to work together, not against each other. Of course things heated up from time to time, but brawls were not that often and fights were even less common. Folk usually gathered to enjoy a few drinks after labouring all day, or pass the time with stories and jokes, when they could do nothing else. Tam, the owner, went from table to table, carrying pints and plates, talking to his customers and making sure everyone was happy. He barely managed, with the help of his children. Those days had been a blessing for his business.
All their close friends were already warmed up when they arrived. Ansa was there, too. Her children were gone to visit some friends, there was no reason she should not have enjoyed herself.
Alden, a talented man with a quick mind and a strange sense of humour, was there with his son, Noll, who was a few years younger than Kiran. He was a widower and his friends had helped him cope with the death of his wife and raise his son, more than his own family. Noll had not turned out bad.
’There’s still hope for you,’ Belesni often joked, but the young man did not mind it.
She was not from those parts, but had settled in Ulmaby with her husband, only to be widowed a few years later, with no children. Still young—less than forty—strong and healthy, not beautiful, but pleasant enough, she could have remarried had she wished that, but she claimed she was still mourning. Kiran thought the reason was different: she had her own place—where she made the best pastries in the whole area—and was too nonconformist and outspoken for a woman. He liked her very much for that. In the last year she and Alden had spent more time together than before.
They were an interesting gang, with all their peculiarities which set them apart from the rest of the village folk, loyal and trustworthy. He and his father cared deeply for them.
Like all folk in the tavern, they were high-spirited despite the dreadful weather, no less thanks to Tam’s excellent ale. When it was just the two of them, Val and Kiran favoured the tea, but they took pleasure in having a few drinks with their friends and that particular brew was remarkable.
“We lost all hope of seeing you these days,” said Alden.
“My fault,” admitted Val. “Since we could not go out, I took the opportunity to finish some work.”
“He closed himself in the library for almost three days,” said Kiran, giving his father away.
“Are you planning to become a hermit?” asked Ansa with mild alarm.
Val laughed, waving a denying hand.
“What did you do, all by yourself?” she asked his son.
“Plenty. The weather was perfect for a thorough house cleaning, I tried some new recipes and did a bit of reading.”
“Poor boy,” the woman said affectionately.
Kiran smiled. “I don’t mind it.”
“I wish my children were so responsible.”
“They are still young, give them some time,” said Val in their defence.
“Oh, who’s talking! Kiran is more mature than you. Pray Grian that he marries in our village.”
Kiran almost choked on his drink. Where did that come from?
“I hope you will not stay single, like Val. It would be such a pity.”
“I haven’t thought about that,” he admitted, glancing at his father, who was trying to keep a straight face. Ansa’s forward manner always amused him.
“Well, you should. It’s about time you think of your future.”
“Leave him alone, woman,” grumbled Drest.
“Why? He would make such a fine husband. I would have him as a son anytime.”
“He would make a fine wife, too” Belesni threw in casually. “If he were a woman, that is.”
Six pairs of eyes turned to her in surprise.
“Oh, don’t give me those looks! I was just saying. It can’t be I’m the only one who’s ever thought so.”
The eyes went back to the drinks and Kiran had a sudden, bad feeling. “Have I done something to upset you?” he asked her, leaning closer. She pretended to not understand, but he knew that look all too well.
Drest snorted. “I never thought that.”
“You wouldn’t, dear,” said Ansa, poking him fondly. “Only you can come up with such ideas,” she turned to her friend, “though, in this case, I can’t disagree.”
Belesni smiled mischievously. She was not serious, of course, she just enjoyed friendly banters.
“I have,” said Noll suddenly, looking up from his mug. Kiran opened his mouth, but his friend raised a hand. “I mean, look at him! Fair as a lass and not a hint of beard, though he’s older than me.” His candid nature often incited friendly jests.
“Can’t argue with that,” agreed Alden, as if nothing were wrong with his son’s thoughts.
“Noll, dear, I was thinking about his housekeeping skills and how he looks after Val—”
“Or how he nags him,” mumbled Drest in his drink, so his wife would not hear him.
“—Rather than his looks, but you are quite right,” said Belesni. She was clearly thinking about Kiran’s looks.
Val said nothing.
“You should stop drinking,” said Kiran, pointing a finger towards Noll—in fairness the man’s eyes were glossier than usual. “I know you are a crazy lot, but don’t encourage him, too.”
Drest bristled. “Who’s crazy?”
“I’m not encouraging anybody,” said Alden with a straight face.
“You’re not checking him either.”
“He’s old enough to think for himself.”
“I wonder.” Drest looked at Noll with pity. “You have a lot to learn, boy. A fine woman must have the proper curves in the proper places.”—Noll’s eyes sparkled, bright with youthful lust and alcohol—“Fleshy is what a woman should be, so you can feel her when you take her in your arms.” Usually Drest was not so eloquent on this subject.
His wife giggled. Her generous curves matched the burliness of her husband.
“Well said, thank you,” agreed Kiran.
“Not a pretty face on a twig,” added the man with a mocking upturn of lips.
A protest sparkled in Kiran’s eyes, spread to the cheeks and stopped behind the lips, soundless. “Forget it,” he dismissed it.
“And yet you are blushing,” said Belesni. The woman was a fiend sometimes.
“Because this conversation is ridiculous!”
“Tell that to the chap at the bar.” Alden smirked, showing his true colours. He and Belesni made a right pair.
“Young lad in the left corner? He’s been staring at you for some time now. Wonder why…”
All the eyes turned in the pointed direction, where a young man in his early twenties quickly looked away. Kiran could not suppress a smile, the poor man was red up to his ears. Another fool, he sighed to himself. He looked like a town boy from the middle class, probably a merchant’s son, he supposed. Well dressed, but not ostentatious. Pleasant looking, but not remarkable.
“I think he fancies you.”
Alden’s voice brought him back. Knowing they were just teasing him did not make it feel any less awkward. The young man was looking their way again and this time he boldly met his eyes.
“I think—” But he could not say what, because the subject of their talk was now heading towards their table.
“Good evening, sirs. Forgive my intrusion, but I was wondering if you could help us. My father and I are coming from Longdam and we are new to these parts. Could you tell us how far to Ardaena?” He was addressing all of them, but his eyes were looking at him.
Lame, thought Kiran, very busy with the seams of his left sleeve. But well mannered. Val nudged him, so he complied, but not before shooting his father a quick, warning look.
“Two days in fair weather, sir. Just keep to the main road.” Short and to the point.
When it was clear Kiran would not say anything else, Val stepped in. “You should delay your departure until the rain stops, the roads are miry and troublesome.”
“We know, we just arrived yesterday,” said the young man. Then he just stood there in silence, not knowing what else to say. The others were throwing glances at each other. At last, he made up his mind. “Much obliged for your help, sirs.”
“Not at all.”
The man bowed and went back to the bar. They waited for him to sit before speaking, but the silly smiles on their faces were not a good sign.
“You were saying?“ asked Alden with a smug look.
“That you will have to excuse me.” Kiran stood up. “I need some air.”
“In this rain?” asked Val.
“I smell too much perversity.” The answer was accompanied by a playful grin.
“Chicken!” threw him Alden. But Kiran was already on his way out.
It was getting dark faster than usual. Heavy clouds hanged from the sky, so thick and grey that light barely permeated them. They had not seen the sun in three days and it looked like the rain was not going to let up very soon. Water was pouring from the eaves in shredded curtains and the road was running like a river. Along the walls people had placed wooden barrels to collect the rainwater, but they were spilling already. That’s not good for the crops, thought Kiran.
A long, waterproof cloth was hanging on one side of the tavern, propped with wood poles to make a shelter. Tam had put it there for a bit of shade and its colours had long since faded. Now it sagged under the weight of water and the poles were slanting. He took cover under it, leaning against the wall.
The doorbell chimed, but he did not turn to look. A throat cleared.
“Am I disturbing you?”
He stiffened, recognizing the voice of the young man from earlier. It would have been rude to say yes. “No.” He moved a little to make space for him.
“My name is Ceren.”
“That is an uncommon name. Well met, Kiran.”
Kiran nodded, but made no comment. There was a long pause.
“It does not look like it will stop very soon, does it?” said Ceren, watching the rain. “We were hoping to leave tomorrow,” he went on, when the other made no reply.
“Perhaps it will. It has been going like this for three days.”
“Is it normal?”
There was a flicker above the clouds, but no thunder. Val would have liked to see this, thought Kiran. “Not really,” he answered absently. “Summer storms are short around here.”
“Are you from these parts?”
He finally looked at Ceren, surprised. The light was weak, but he thought the man’s face was flushed and his eyes a little too bright. It could have been from the drinks, though. “Of course, why would you ask that?”
“Forgive me,” mumbled Ceren, feeling foolish. “You look a little different, that is all. I meant no offence.”
“No offence taken.”
The man shifted his weight, hesitating. “It would please me to have a drink together, if that were fine with you… I know your friends are inside, but maybe later?”
“...Maybe later.” It was a harmless question, yet the situation felt improper and he was growing uncomfortable with it. It’s their damn fault I’m suddenly so self-conscious. But Ceren seemed satisfied with his answer. Kiran straightened. “I should go back to them, I was out for too long.”
“Of course, I’m sorry.”
Stop apologizing, it’s absurd!
Back at the table his friends were joking about them. They met him with insinuating smirks.
“I just spotted a wagging tail,” said Alden.
“A happy pup,” agreed Belesni.
“Oh, stop it!”
“We were just saying,” said the woman, pouting. “Whatever happened, he seems pleased.”
“Nothing happened,” replied Kiran, taking his seat. “I don’t understand, do you find it acceptable that a man might fancy another man?”
“Acceptable?” Drest snorted. “That’s ridiculous!”
“Nonsense, dear, they’re just teasing you,” said Ansa, giving Belesni that look reserved for her children, when they refused to behave.
Belesni brushed it off with a guiltless smile. “He is taking this too seriously.”
“You started it,” said Kiran. “And I find the idea disturbing.”
“Because you haven’t drunk enough,” said Alden, pointing to his mug. He waved Tam for another round.
“That suggestion is even worse.”
“Acceptable or not, it happens,” said Val. “Perhaps not here, but think of Ardaena, or any other large city. Such diversity of people and circumstances gives rise to all sorts of behaviours. Nobles can be quite liberal in their morals, and that is just one example out of many.”
“You are not helping me, Val.”
“And let’s not forget the capricious human heart, which seldom obeys reason,” went on his father.
“Damn right about that,” agreed Drest.
“The heart has its own reasons,” mused Alden.
“You cannot tell it whom to fancy and whom not to,” played along Belesni.
“You can’t…” echoed Noll, already tipsy.
Kiran rolled his eyes. “Brilliant, now you are all philosophists. I’ll remember never to trust your advice on propriety.”
“I’m offended,” said Belesni. “Are you suggesting we are indecent?”
“You enjoy pretending that. It’s just as bad.”
“We did not invite that man to our table. That was just coincidence.”
“But you have to admire his boldness,” said Alden.
Belesni nodded. “Faint heart never won fair lady.”
“Tsk! Very brave of him to ask for directions, indeed,” scoffed Kiran.
“Directions? Pfft! Why’d he have to follow you outside?”
“Why, Noll, I had no idea you have such an eye for subtleties,” praised him Belesni. “You’ve earned a drink for that.”
Noll’s mouth widened into a silly grin.
“Stop teasing them, you wicked people!” admonished them Ansa. “You’re not ones to talk about matters of the heart.”
“This is not about the heart,” said Kiran, losing his patience. “It’s about them being drunk and ignoring the obvious. Which is I’m a man.”
“Ha!” burst Drest, heated by the drink. “A man. Look at you! All the work I’ve done and you’re still thin as a stick. No wonder that fellow was confused. I bet your folks wanted a gir—” He stopped abruptly, realising his blunder. He sank under his wife’s menacing look. “I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant.”
Silence fell at their table, as the comment seemed to have momentarily woken up everyone from their inebriation. Kiran’s parents were a sensitive topic. All Val had ever told them was that they had been dear friends of his, but they were deceased. They had not been ordinary people, that much was clear from their son’s traits, but beyond that, they were a mystery. Neither Kiran, nor Val would speak about them and their friends had always respected their wish to keep it private. And apart from occasional slips of the tongue or indirect remarks, most of them unintended, they never brought up the subject.
“I know,” said Kiran, looking into his friend’s apologetic eyes. “I know you care for me and you took the time to train me, though I have not turned out as you were hoping.”—Drest denied that with a firm head shake—“And I would gladly prove your effort was not wasted,” the gentle tone changed, “were it not for the fact I’m much younger and I fear you might strain yourself trying to keep up.”
Drest’s eyes widened. “You… insolent brat! I could snap you like a twig. Show some respect,” he growled, straightening.
“Now, now,” his wife pacified him, “he was not serious.”
“My dear man, it’s not your fault,” said Val. “Our traits come from our families. We can always improve them, but there are things we cannot change.”
“Oh, he needs not change anything,” said Ansa. “You raised him well, dear, you should be proud.”
“Aye,” agreed Alden. “But perhaps you gave him too much tea, that’s why he’s so willowy.”
“Willows bend, but don’t break easily,” replied Kiran.
Drest snorted. “If only you’d done something about that mouth of his.”
“I did my best,” apologized Val with a humble face.
“Would you leave the boy alone? He’s young. Like you were any different at his age.” Ansa looked at Kiran with motherly affection. “Don’t you listen to them, Kiran, you’re just fine. Some have more strength, other have more wits. Sometimes I wonder which is better.”
Drest gaped at his wife incredulous—did she just call him stupid?—and everybody burst into laughter. Alden comforted him with friendly pats and he grumbled something in his mug, but his shoulders relaxed and a tiny smile crept to the corners of his mouth. And, after Tam brought another round of ale, they finally changed the subject.
Halfway into that round a woman came to the tavern, looking for the doctor. Her daughter was feeling unwell. Val and his son excused themselves and asked their friends not to wait for them. It turned out to be just a mild fever, for she had played in the rain despite her mother’s warnings, but the girl was small and they kept an eye on her for a while longer. By the time they were convinced all was well it was too late to go back. Kiran felt relieved for being able to escape a certain engagement and a bit of regret for disappointing the man waiting for him. Regret? No, it was rather pity. It could not be helped and I’m not sorry. It would have been awkward.
Back home he reproached Val for not putting an end to their friends’ joke.
“You are not a child anymore,” replied Val. “It’s time you learned to deal with these situations without my help.”
“You practically encouraged them.”
“I did no such thing. It was your reaction which added fuel to the fire.” He sighed. He hated to see that unhappy look on his son’s face. “I know you felt uncomfortable, but take it as a lesson. You cannot change who you are, so you must keep your head when someone provokes you. Or makes a pass at you, as it happened before. Control your emotions. It would be unfortunate and dangerous if your secret came out.”
Kiran remembered the last time he had lost control, almost a year before, in Ardaena. The situation had been both dangerous and disgusting. At least he had dealt well with the guards, but that was because sarcasm directed at him made him defiant, but he could not handle embarrassment.
“Don’t worry about our friends, they were not serious. You know they have a fondness for making sport of people… Well, it could have been the ale, but they meant no harm.”
“I know and I’m not angry with them.”
“Good,” said Val, satisfied. “If a bit of teasing gets to you that easily, you are too weak. You need to get stronger.” He squeezed Kiran’s arm with fondness. Then, as if remembering, “Try not to stir Noll, though, he seemed genuine about it.” He disappeared in his workroom, leaving his son to wonder what that meant.
During the night the rain had finally stopped. The wind had blown the clouds away and the sky was the most amazing blue. Much of the water had drained, but the roads were full of puddles and the mud was soft and slippery. Kiran was running some errands when, in front of the inn, he noticed Ceren and his father—he assumed—preparing to leave. He turned around to avoid a meeting, but stopped when the young man called his name. He seemed a little disheartened and that made Kiran feel bad about his ungraciousness.
“I apologize for leaving last night without notice,” he said when Ceren approached. He meant that, even though he did not regret. “A girl was sick and needed our help.”
“You are a doctor?”
“My father is. I’m just helping.”
“There is no need to apologize, a person’s health is more important. Besides…” Ceren looked at his boots, then raised his eyes back to Kiran. “I was not really expecting much. I realized my behaviour must have seemed improper to you.”
“Not at all,” lied Kiran. Though, if not for his friends’ jokes, perhaps he would not have found that invitation out of place. “I would have joined you for a drink if I could.” Now that the man was leaving, the least he could do was spare his feelings.
Ceren’s face brightened. “Really?”
Kiran nodded. A pup indeed.
“I regret we have to leave today, but our business cannot wait any longer. At least the rain stopped,” said Ceren with a pleased smile, looking at the splendid sky. “Do you ever go to the capital?”
“My father’s business will not take long, but I shall live there for a while. I hope we have the chance to meet again for those drinks.”—Kiran nodded again—“If you ever come to Ardaena, you will find me at the Deep Waters Inn. Our family owns it. You and your father will be most welcome.”
Deep Waters Inn? He did not remember that one, which was good. It meant he and Val had no business in the area. “Thank you, I shall keep that in mind.”
“I must go. May the Fates keep you safe!”
“And you,” replied Kiran.
As Ceren returned to his father, Kiran noticed the man’s gait was more confident, his shoulders square, his head higher. That’s absurd, he thought to himself, turning around. He went about his business, hoping to never have to face that man again.