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Tales of Aranea: Of Frost and Ash | Part I

By Amily Cabelaris All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Drama

Blurb

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

The Blossoming Bud

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 to the lower level of the hall. The stupid thing tumbled down the stairs and cracked in half on the last few steps. Grogar yelled at me for a full fifteen minutes before the countess herself noticed and came to my rescue. She reprimanded her bodyguard and gently 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. I think it was the new kitchen maid. I can’t remember her name, but I saw her watching me when I started polishing them. Grogar had yet another reason to yell at me in the hall. The countess, out for her afternoon visit to the chapel, could 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. I also have the bruise on my cheek to prove his punishments aren’t always verbal. He doesn’t beat me, but he does give the occasional strike to show that he means what he says, as if his booming voice and harsh demeanour don’t prove that already.

The rest of the day was mostly uneventful, except for meeting the new general of our armies. He was looking for the count and countess, but they were already at the chapel. He came back later and met with Count Hadrian. It’s exciting to see them get ready to begin recruiting. We’ll finally tackle this war with Esterden.

When the count and countess returned, Count Hadrian requested that I beat their bedchamber 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, and by the end of Tabeo, the sun was shining consistently, melting the ice away. Spring really has come; 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 is 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. Lovingly, she places the journal inside the top drawer and locks it securely.

She might only have this windowless room, this small bed, end table, and desk, these thin coverlets and straw mattress. She might only receive a few pieces of silver a week for her extensive services, which she spends mostly on writing utensils. However, she is content.

She receives food and water three times a day from the kitchen, and is treated fairly by the countess. Although there are a few obstacles, she knows she has a good life. She doesn’t mind cleaning the castle, and she gets to see Countess Ilvara every day. Though to others she may appear as a practical slave in a rich household, she is fed, clothed, and has a warm bed to sleep in each night. With these things, why shouldn't she be content?

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

When she was a little girl, Evelyn’s village was raided by bandits. She and her twin sister, Jacklyn, were captured, the rest of their family slain. They were taken somewhere closer to the mountains to their camp, and were held there, among other places, in bondage.

One day, nearly six months into the nightmarish stay, Evelyn, who had been sore from a beating she’d received from a very demanding, impatient bandit the day before, was sluggish to clean. The bandit in charge of her for the day was a man new to the camp, who watched her struggle from the comfort of his chair by the fire. While Evelyn was clearing his table, her elbow bumped against the chair and she dropped her stack of plates. Jacklyn, who had been stoking the fire, ran over to help her clean up the dishes. The bandit threw up his hands, fed up.

“Instead of helping the slug, why don’t you beat some sense into her?” he’d demanded of 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. “Well? I told you to do something, so do it. Her face is marked enough that another blow won’t make any difference. Go on.”

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 and stood slowly. “Isn’t that a bad word?” he asked, his voice low.

“I won’t--I won’t hit--”

“I’m giving you an order, girl. Hit her, or I will.”

Jacklyn knew if he hit her, it’d be worse. She turned to Evelyn, who met her eyes with solemn acceptance, and raised her hand. Evelyn closed her eyes and waited, but the blow didn’t come. Just hit me, Jacklyn! she wanted to shout, yet she didn’t move or blink.

The bandit growled with frustration and Evelyn just opened her eyes in time to see his hand coming at her face. The blow threw her off balance and she fell. Then the bandit grabbed Jacklyn around her throat.

“When I give an order, obey it,” he seethed.

Jacklyn’s eyes filled with tears, then she said, “I will never hit my sister.”

With a cry of anger, the bandit flung Jacklyn against the table. She crumbled, whimpering, and he seized her hair and pulled her upright again. Shoving her against his bedpost, he held her wrists up with one hand, and with the other, took out his knife.

Evelyn’s heart pounded with fear for her. She reached out. “No, stop! Please!”

“You intervene, girl, and you’re the one that will have it worse, I swear it,” the bandit raged.

As Jacklyn trembled and cried, the bandit dragged the tip of his knife down her forehead, nose, lips, chin, and neck. Blood oozed from the crooked line, but he wasn’t finished. He took it straight down her dress, severing it from top to bottom. Evelyn could stand it no longer. She stood and, for the first time ever, tried to pull the bandit off her sister. Mad with fury, the brute released Jacklyn and picked up Evelyn by her shoulders. Then, he threw her out of the tent with so much force that the wind was knocked out of her when she landed on the cold ground outside.

As she tried to get up and get back to the tent, other men grabbed her. With tears in her eyes, she heard her sister scream, crying out for mercy. It seemed to go on for hours.

Then, suddenly, it stopped. Bandits took Evelyn back to a post where they tied her for the nights they traveled. She was awake until morning, waiting for Jacklyn to come, but she never did.

The next morning she saw them toss a bloody heap into the bushes and announced they’d be moving to a different location. That's when her nightmare had been confirmed:

Jacklyn was dead.

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. Honestly, she's glad that she doesn’t feel the pain of it, or the pain of anything. She can’t even imagine what life would be like if she could. It might hurt too much to live.

One blow across the flame sends her room into darkness. Once Evelyn is situated beneath the covers, she shifts onto her side. Thinking about the past exhausts her, so she doesn’t make a habit of 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.


Earlier that day…

General Asher Xerxes sits astride his horse near the entrance of the city. He can’t slow the excited beat of his heart. 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 a decade ago. 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 had taken its toll on it, 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 once again. The rumours of war between Esterden and Lockmire have been confirmed already, so it’s high time.

A little while back, Lockmire quietly 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, the mother of Lockmire and grandparent to its three holds. It’s called home by its many hundreds of occupants and its dozens of regime leaders. And out of all of them, the Captain of the Guard chose Asher.

He remains mounted as he 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 as 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 enters through the doors. Inside the 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. A charming kind of design.

And then his eyes find her.

She is a thin, delicately curved thing with long, braided hair the colour of the summer sun, almost unnaturally golden. 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 even so, he has seen very few with such interesting hair. She walks in a straight-line path from the well in the far-right corner of the courtyard toward a door probably just meant for servants, tucked into a nook also on the right side of the castle wall.

Surely, she cannot be a maid, Asher thinks. How could anyone so lovely be employed as a simple servant? In Tarreth, she might be a bard or even a concubine, 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 bucket sloshing with water that she grips in one hand. The porcelain skin of one cheek is smeared with something that must be dirt or coal. She does not see him. Only when she has disappeared into the door 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 dismounts and leaves his horse with the stable boy running up to him. Clearing his mind of her, he enters the castle. It’s a simple place compared to Chancellor Meeves' Gallery in Tarreth, but, like the rest of the town, it possesses an inviting warmth, a strange sensation for a great hall. The long room is decorated with shelves of silver items and desks of lovely green planters. Thick woollen 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 is close in here, unlike the massive, chilly rooms in Chancellor Meeves' Gallery, but it’s also fresh with the scents of spring.

Two empty thrones at the end of the hall indicate the absence of the count and countess. Asher’s mouth slants, and he walks hesitantly toward them, unsure of who he can ask for their whereabouts. He is halfway to the thrones when he sees the woman again. She enters through a doorway to his left, briefly glances at him, and sets down her water bucket. Upon approaching her, he realizes why she must not be 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 long-healed 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.

As she kneels down to polish the planters, Asher clears his throat to get her attention again. She 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 him in a voice soft and even.

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. How could they damage such a beautiful face?

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 and will return in little more than an hour.”

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

And all at once, he is gone from the great hall and 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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