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Tales of Aranea: Of Frost and Ash | Part I

By Amily Cabelaris All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Fantasy


"They survived the frost. What will they do when everything turns to ash?"

The Blossoming Bud

Part I

Sidie, 17th of Imber, 278 AN

It’s been an impossibly long day. The broom slipped from my hands this morning as I was sweeping the landing above the stairwell in the main hall. The stupid thing tumbled down the stairs and cracked in half on the last few steps. Countess Ilvara’s assistant and bodyguard, Grogar— the massive, ugly brute of an Orc—yelled at me for a full fifteen minutes before the countess herself noticed and came to my rescue. She gently reprimanded her assistant, and sent me back to my duties. Sadly, for the rest of the day, I swept by crawling around on my knees with the brush half of the broken broom. Visitors of the hall failed in hiding their snickers.

After the broken broom incident, my next duties were to polish the planters around the main hall. Someone, however, slipped charcoal dust into my polishing wax, and it didn’t show up on the planter ceramic until I’d finished half of the hall. Grogar had yet another reason to yell at me in the hall. The countess, out for her mid-afternoon visit to the chapel, did not come to my rescue. So, not only did I spend three hours cleaning and re-polishing the planters, but I also faced the humiliating and tiresome scolding of a frustrated Orc. And I have the bruise on my cheek to prove his punishments aren’t always verbal. He doesn’t beat me, but he gives the occasional strike to show that he means what he says, as if his booming voice and harsh demeanor doesn’t prove that already.

The rest of the day was mostly uneventful, except for meeting the new general of our armies. I’m sure it was nothing special to him. I just told him where the count and countess were, and he left. I noticed him cringe at my scars, like everyone does. Anyway, I’m sure he was glad to be out of my presence when he left.

When she returned, Countess Ilvara requested that I beat the kitchen rugs outside, and that occupied a lot of time. Thankfully, Grogar was tied up with other things inside with the countess. The sunshine was lovely. We’ve overcome the nasty winter snow. The month of Tabeo came and went, taking the snow and cold with it. Spring has really come, and I could see the first buds in the garden. I’m so excited for the rains of Imber. How lovely everything will be once it’s moistened!

Even though rug-beating is more difficult than most of my indoor tasks, I’d much rather spend my time outside, away from Grogar, away from the stuffiness of the castle, where the air is fresh and smells like spring just bubbling up beneath our feet, ready to break forth at any time. I even saw a swallow nesting above in the naked trees of the garden. Finally, the leaves are re-growing. Oh, how I love the springtime! But I do not wish to fill this entry with ramblings of my love for spring. The night is growing, and my eyes are tired. Until the morrow.

Evelyn sets down her quill and waits for the ink to dry before softly closing her journal and latching the side. She takes it in one hand and the candle next to it in the other, bringing them to her bedside table. She places the journal inside the top drawer and locks it securely. She might only have this room— this small, windowless room—and she might only have this single bed, end table, and desk. She might only have the thin coverlets set on a straw mattress, and yes, she might only receive five pieces of gold a week for her extensive services. And yes, she spends her meager earnings completely on writing utensils and not in new clothes or finer furnishings. But she is content. She receives food and water three times a day from the kitchen, and is treated fairly by the countess. Although Grogar is an obstacle, she is happy he is the only obstacle. She has a good life. She doesn’t mind cleaning the castle, and Countess Ilvara allows her to write freely in her journals at night. Every day, she reminds herself of all the blessings she has in this life. Though in reality she is a practical slave in a rich and lavish household, she is fed, clothed, and has a warm bed to sleep in each night. With these things, Evelyn is completely content.

Any life is better than the one she’s left behind her.

It has been nearly thirteen years since her village burned down, and eleven since her sister died. But Evelyn feels no remorse or sadness connected to the events. She knows she should, but she is glad she doesn’t, even if it’s like a piece of her is missing.

Evelyn remembers the day her sister died, months after they’d been captured by the bandits. Evelyn, who had been sore from a beating she’d received from a very demanding, impatient bandit the day before, was sluggish to clean. One of the bandits had thrown up his hands at the end of the day, fed up.

“Beat some sense into your sister,” he’d ordered Jacklyn.

Jacklyn looked up at him, wide-eyed. Never had they been told to harm each other. Her lip quivered. She knew that if she didn’t do what she was told, the punishment would fall to her.

The bandit grew impatient. “I told you to do something, so do it!”

But still she hesitated. She looked at Evelyn, who nodded solemnly next to her, and shook her golden braid. “No,” she said, with more confidence than she felt.

The bandit raised a bushy eyebrow, stepping closer to Jacklyn. He threw his hand across her cheek, shoving her off balance slightly. She yelped in pain, but unquenchable fire burned in his eyes. “Say that again,” he said firmly.

Evelyn’s heart pounded with fear for her sister. She stood still, however, for she had intervened once on a beating and that was a huge mistake. Just hit me, Jacklyn! she wanted to shout, yet she didn’t move or blink.

Jacklyn, tears trailing her cheeks, turned back to the bandit. “I said no. I will not beat my sister.”

The bandit unleashed his rage on Jacklyn’s defiance. Only afterward, when her sister lay in a motionless, bloody heap on the ground, did Evelyn realize what had taken place.

Jacklyn was dead.

She had watched her sister die for her. And she’d done nothing about it. Yes, Evelyn is glad she doesn’t feel the pain of it. She can’t even imagine what life would be like if she could.

One blow across the flame sends her room into darkness. Evelyn situates herself beneath the covers and shifts onto her side. Thinking about the past exhausts her, so she doesn’t like to think about it. She curls the covers in her fist and snuggles deep beneath them, emptying her mind of such thoughts. Instead, she thinks of the clear blue sky and the twittering of the birds in the treetops and the gentle breeze light with the smell of green things.

General Asher Xerxes sits astride his horse near the entrance of the city. He’s excited. It’s his first day here in the city of Lockmire, where he has been reassigned to be the new leader of the city’s defensive and offensive forces. He came here a few times as a boy with his father, who trained the armies’ soldiers. The outside doesn’t look much different than it did when he first came here. He’s heard much about this city since then. The war took its toll on it a number of years back, but it has sprung onto its feet again with hardly the scars to show. And now, it’s ready to begin really building its armies again. There are mutterings of a brewing war between Lockmire and her aggressive neighbor, Esterden.

A little while back, Lockmire secretly asked for recommendations from other cities for a new general, since the former one had died during the time of peace. Asher had been among the list of highly recommended officers from Tarreth, his previous station. He couldn’t believe it when he found out, since he only commanded a group of guards for one wall of the massive city. The Municipality of Tarreth is the largest city in Ardellon, home to thousands of occupants, hundreds of holds, and dozens of commanders for different sections of the city. And out of all of them, the Captain of the Guard chose Asher.

He dismounts his horse and enters the city, telling the guards at the front gate of his business. He feels a blush beneath his skin when they recognize him —not as an ambitious six-year-old miscreant but a general— and welcome him in with reverence. The wide gates groan as they open. Before him lays the main street, dotted with houses and buildings on either side and clustered between. He takes the directions told him by the guards to the castle where he is to promptly speak with Count Hadrian. The path leads him over a small bridge that spans the width of a skinny brook below. Flowers beside the cobblestone walk are just beginning to show their buds. This town is unassuming and simple, but has a cozy charm that Tarreth lacks. Where Tarreth supplies cold stone columns and ornate fountains, Lockmire seems to offer the beauties of nature and the warmth of friendliness, since strangers smile at him in passing. He isn’t accustomed to that. He missed it since he was a boy. Nothing has changed.

After rounding a bend and ascending a few steps, he finds another pair of wide doors which are also guarded. These guards don’t question him. Asher, however, can’t help but notice their slight smiles of anticipation as he nods to both of them and pushes through the doors. He is now inside the castle courtyard. There are walks on the walls above and guards posted at the doorway to the castle. Asher smiles at the two identical gardens on either side of the doors, in a kind of stretched semi-circle pattern against the outer wall. And then his eyes find her.

She is a thin, delicately curved thing with long, braided hair the colour of the summer sun. Golden. Godlike. It is a colour he has rarely seen on hair before. Since Tarreth is a knot where many threads meet, he has seen many people from many different places, but still, there have been few with such lovely hair. She walks in a straight-line path from the well in the far-right corner of the rectangular courtyard to a door probably just meant for servants, tucked into a nook on the left side of the courtyard. But she cannot be a maid. She is too fair and lovely to be a maid. He would think she was a bard or even the count’s concubine or something of that sort, though her clothes do not give that impression in the least. Nevertheless, he watches as her graceful body is strained with the weight of a large wooden bucket sloshing with water that she holds in one hand. The porcelain skin of one cheek is smeared with dirt or coal. She does not see him. Only when she has disappeared into the door on the left side of the courtyard does Asher realize how embarrassing it would have been if she had seen him. He was blatantly staring at her.

Asher shakes his head and laughs to himself as he enters the castle. He walks toward the two thrones far at the end of the massive hall, decorated with shelves of silver and desks of lovely green planters. Thick woolen drapes sag along the walls, streaked with gold and silver thread that shimmers in the light of the torches equidistant from each other between the desks of decorations. The vaulted ceiling is also lit with candle chandeliers. The air isn’t close in here, as it is in many places in the big city of Tarreth. It is much like the outdoors. It is cool and fresh and bears the same hints of springtime that the outside air is developing.

He is halfway to the thrones when he sees her again. Her bucket of water sitting beside her, she is quietly rubbing a planter with a cloth. He now knows why she is not the count’s concubine. The skin of her cheeks, forehead, jawline, neck, arms, and what little he can see of her legs are streaked with scars— cuts, irregular shaped marks, some that look like burn wounds. Places on her arms and legs where her tiny light hairs will never grow. Patches of gnarled gashes peaking out of the neckline of her dress. And the streak of what he thought was dirt on her cheek is actually a darkening bruise.

She has not only been beaten. She’s been tortured.

The woman then looks up at him, and in her sapphire blue eyes that he can only describe as completely enchanting, Asher falls, and falls deep.

“Can I help you?” she asks suddenly.

He wants to ask about her scars. He wants to ask where she got them and who he must kill to avenge them. He wants to ask if the count or countess have been cruel to her. He wants to kill them if they have.

But he doesn’t. Instead, he asks, “Where may I find the count or countess?”

She tells him as if she’s reciting a verse by heart. “They are at the chapel from noon and will return in little more than an hour.”

He bobs his head. “Thank you,” he says.

And all at once, he is standing outside the chapel, wondering if he should go in and find the count and countess, or return to the castle to wait for them.

Next to the girl with the golden hair.

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