Heart of Time

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Chapter 1

Fifth War, the

Even though the Fifth War undoubtedly complies with the definition of war - ‘a state of armed conflict between different nations or states or different groups within a nation or state’ - some scholars argue that it cannot be called a war, as the term ‘war’ implies that both sides have an equal chance of winning. In the case of this so called Fifth War, the invaders from the Western Counties that took over the former -> Elasia, now the -> Kingdom of Fer, conquered and wiped out the unprepared Elasian people in such a way, that some scholars prefer to call the Fifth War the ‘First Obliteration’ instead. However, this term is unheard of in the present-day Kingdom of Fer as it is seen as treason against the current King Gynt of Fer.

The creaking and groaning of the vardo was my lullaby. It carried me forth from the endless journey atop the wagon, soothing my mind and caressing my senses. From time to time, the vardo shivered when it reached yet another pothole, but old mare Lily dragged it along without pause. Her musky smell tingled my nose, then the soft wind carried it off again. Birds warned each other of our passing through their territory, their song loud, but beautiful.

The sun warmed my entire body, and its strong rays sank through my eyelids. I squinted them shut further. There was a light breeze that tousled my hair, but I didn’t mind. All I wanted was for this moment to last forever.

I rarely got peace and quiet like this. There was always something to do, or someone to talk to. But today, I had the warm roof of the vardo for myself, and Mara had taken over the reigns. I was so relaxed that my mind lingered in that fuzzy place between sleep and consciousness. When had been the last time that I had some time for myself? Usually, even if there was no work to do, there was always someone who would disturb my thoughts. Cino was so full of questions that I rarely had the time to answer one before he came up with the next. Mara always fussed about me, asking how I felt or what I planned to do that day. Sometimes, I liked how she cared, but on other days, her mothering felt crushing. But still, better to be around people than to be alone all the time. I had lived in the darkness of loneliness for a long time, so I shouldn’t complain about being among caring and happy people now. Still, I enjoyed this moment of peace and quiet.

Suddenly, someone knocked against the wagon roof, pulling me back into the presence. “Eee, come down”, Cino shouted from below. Not again. Ever since he had seen Mara use a broomstick to knock at the ceiling, he had been doing the same thing. I was tempted to just continue lying here, but I knew that he wouldn’t leave me in peace any longer. I rolled over, opening my eyes to the beautiful day. We were traversing the high plains that would lead us to the town of Hawkfair, where we would meet with other travelling families for the autumn equinox celebrations, before making our way to our winter quarters in the Free Cities.

There were no trees in this area, only windswept bushes and heather fields, divided into large islands by small streams. Still, the landscape radiated a strange beauty. In the distance, low hills formed a natural end to the plains. On their other side, the Eternal River flowed, never ending in either direction, cutting through the fertile land around it. I couldn’t see the river yet, but in my mind I pictured it, the water dark blue with a hint of green, a short stretch of sand where the river meets the land, then lush green vegetation on the side. In the middle of the stream, the water flowed wild and fast, with droplets of white steam shimmering in the sunshine. River gulls sang to each other, and in the evening, once the birds had retreated to their nests, small crickets chirped in the brush.

As children, we would walk along the river banks, looking for treasure such as river glass or smooth skipping stones, or build castles out of the thick sand. Even though I was older now, I was still looking forward to sunbathing and relaxing to the soothing sounds oft the water.

Sometimes, there were small rainbows over the river, spanning it in a way that bridges could not. There is only one bridge over the Eternal River, at the place where the river is narrowest, near the village of Ashenfields. In the spring, when the river swells and takes over the flat lands around it, not even this bridge is traversable. Then, the only safe way to cross it is the Old Ferry, hundreds of miles to the north. But in all the time I had travelled with the Ghorres family, we had never crossed the river. We never had a reason to do so, as the people on the other side were not as welcoming to travelling folk as they are on the Plains and the Free Cities. Old Mara said she once crossed the river long ago, to seek out new audiences and new tunes, but left after only a few days, having been turned away from inns and threatened by people in the villages. And anyway, there were enough places to visit on our side of the river.

“EEE!“, Cino shouted again. “Come down!”

I sighed when I heared Mara’s chuckle. I liked the boy, the youngest member of the Ghorres family, but sometimes he was grinding on my patience. I sat up and climbed down through the open window. It was warm inside the vardo, even hotter than outside. The air clung to the small room. All four windows were wide open, their red curtains were gently swinging in the breeze. There was a fresh cake sitting on the shelf next to the kitchenette, baked with cherries that we had plucked from a tree by the road earlier that day. I was temped to cut myself a piece, but I knew that Mara wanted to keep it for dinner. Instead, I slid onto the bench next to Cino, stretching my legs under the table.

He had cleaned his slate and set it out in front of him, next to a selection of chalk and charcoal pieces, carefully sorted by size. Not many travelling people would spend money on such items, but Luca had always been a little different from his kin. Back when I was Cino’s age, he had taught me to read and write, and now I was passing that knowledge on to his son. Even though right now I would have preferred to lie in the sun and do nothing, I still felt honoured that Luca had the confidence in me to teach Cino what he needs to know.

My student was looking at me expectantly. For a moment, I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to teach him today. My mind was still half asleep. Well, there was always a solution to that problem. I cleared my throat, and asked him, “Let’s see if you have done your homework. Which letter did we learn last time?”

Cino smiled and started to draw a large, shaky M onto the slate. The chalk made a rasping noise; he was still pressing it down too hard. Once he had finished the writing, he took his chalk-covered hand and wiped his blond hair out of his face. His pale eyes were looking straight at me; his stern glance reminded me of his father’s. One day, Cino would surely look like Luca does now, and like his father, he would be besieged by girls and women of all ages. At the moment, his face was caught up somewhere between childhood and adolescence. Over the last few months, his cheekbones had become more pronounced, but his lips still had a childish look to them.

“Try it again, and see that the last line is a little straighter.”

Again, he drew the letter M, this time a little quicker and with less pressure on the piece of chalk. He turned the slate towards me, proudly presenting his work. I envied his enthusiasm. Cino could rejoice over anything, even if it was nothing but repeating the same letter over and over again.

“Can you give me five words that start with M?“, I asked him, and watched him crinkling his brow as he pondered the task.

“My. Meat. Music. Mood. And ... mother.” The last word he spoke under his breath. Then he looked at me, his firm glance holding a challenge. I smiled at him, ignoring his expression.

“Well done. Let’s see if you can write down any of those words. You should be able to spell at least two of them.”

While he turned to his task, I pondered over his whispered “mother”. It’s pretty simple: Neither of us has one. I never had, at least I don’t remember having one. My grandmother was my mum, she looked after me, she is the one I mourn. I never knew my mother, so why should I mourn her. But Cino, he knew his ma, he was loved by her, in a way I never was. He used to be a mummy’s darling, always showing off when she was looking at him, always snuggling to her breast when they were sitting at the campfire at night. She spoiled him a little, but as the youngest member of the Ghorres family, everyone looked at them with both joy and pride. It should have been his mother teaching him his letters, not me, a stray they picked up on the road. But his mother was here for him no longer, having been bitten by a wild dog last winter, and succumbing to her writhing madness weeks later.

I wondered what was better, never having known your own mother, or being loved by one but then losing her. From the outside, Cino seemed to be doing fine, but sometimes, when he thought no one was looking at him, I could see the sadness in his eyes. By hiding his grief he tried to be older than he really was. I wondered if I was not doing the same.

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