The Quarrels of Mages and Men

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Chapter Nine - Sleepless Nights

Unable to find sleep, Alida sat outside the steps of the inn. There were no guests that night, no one to see her alone except Jade. The cat was unsure of Alida, far more timid and afraid than it’d been with Kasall. She had taken to thinking cats were stupid creatures, but the way that other animals now flocked to her caused her great wonder about the cat

“Why won’t you sit with me?” she said to it. It was perched a few feet passed the steps and seemed to be stalking her, prowling about, trying to find a way to sneak by her and into the inn’s warmth. It was a brisk night, the sky was riddled with all the stars she wished she knew anything about. They hung above her with the chaotic beauty of an artist’s brushstroke, seemingly planted against the deep colour of the space surrounding them, bursts of vibrant purple and maroon coursing through the sky around them. She moved into the grass, feeling the plants around her begin to form around her shape, caressing her as she sat. She lay back into the wildlife around her, staring up at the sky, its stars and lights spreading above her.

Her life at the inn didn’t lead her to being outside much, and she wondered if laying in the grass would be something she would come to get used to in the coming weeks. She doubted greatly they would be staying at any inns, considering the mystery surrounding her powers. Alida knew Kasall wasn’t overly knowledgeable about preparing camps or catching food, so she was trusting her mother for the most part.

Her mother and a cat that wouldn’t let her touch him. Dammit, Jade! She thought. Why won’t you listen to me? That was all she really wanted: something to tell her ideas to without fear of judgment, to help her figure out for herself what was troubling her.

“Jade,” she said, hoping the cat would come. “Jade come here.” Of course, it didn’t. They never do, stupid animals, she thought. Alida decided it’d be best to just speak to it from a distance.

“Jade, I’m worried.” She began, opening her heart to the cat. “I don’t know what my magic means for me, Jade. I don’t know what powers I have and I know my mother knows not either. I don’t want to leave my father, I didn’t want Sim to leave, I don’t want to leave Kasall – I know I’m not, but I know he’s not pleased about the magic either. It’s difficult, Jade. Being a human…” she hesitated, thinking for the first time since she began to speak about how she might finish this sentence. “…It’s not something I’d recommend – stick with being a cat.”

She leaned forward, positioning herself on her elbows. She looked forward, and a bear stood before her. Jade was gone – likely had been for minutes – and Alida hadn’t noticed, lost in her rant and her hypnotic stargazing. She wasn’t afraid, though. Again, Sir Bear? She thought. Quickly, her tirade of words was forgotten. She again found herself focused on the situation at hand, and felt a strange confidence in her own ability.

“Hello,” she said, dumbly. She wondered if the bear would be able to communicate with her in some form. She’d never known bears to come this close to the inn, and she deduced that it had to be the same bear from the clearing – it looked black, but the faint illumination of starlight on its back revealed its dark grey colour. It was a beautiful animal, really. Intimidating, but beautiful. The bear walked beside her and lay down.

She raised her hand slowly to its head, now sitting up fully. “How are you, sir bear? Were you successful in the thicket? Was there a bountiful feast of rabbits and cranes or was it only worms and mushrooms you found to eat?” the bear let out a sigh, and Alida wondered if she’d received an answer. She filled in the gaps of their communication with ideas that filled her mind seemingly unprovoked. It’s hungry, she thought, realizing that was likely a constant truth with bears - otherwise why would they eat people. She deduced that there’d been little to eat in the thicket that day and she felt bad for the bear.

It began to lick her hand as she stroked it. How can it be so kind? A predator will love me while a cat can’t stand near me? What curse is this, she thought. She stood up and began to walk inside. The bear stayed where it was, undisturbed by her movements. Alida walked into the still inn, soundless in the night, through the dining hall and into the kitchen. She found a rabbit that had been skinned and prepared already. It’s small, she worried, but I hope it’ll be enough for him.

When she got back outside, the bear was standing at the door waiting. She threw the rabbit into the air for him, its skinless body spraying bits of blood and sinew over the steps. The bear caught it in its mouth and quickly shredded and ate it. Alida walked toward it again, more cautious now. Her hands coated in a thick layer of blood.

“Sir Bear, are we now friends?” she asked it. “Will you still be kind?” As she asked this, she noticed the bear sit down and act in a submissive manner. Bravely she walked over and returned to sitting beside it. It licked at the palms of her hand, removing the blood, replacing them with a grimy slobber. I suppose that is better.

“I’m leaving here tomorrow, you know.” She told it. “If you want to repay me for the rabbit, you can follow us.” She told it, greatly doubting that the bear understood what a debt was, but trusting it may follow her and her group – hoping most of all that it would be doing so benevolently. “And try to keep us safe from whatever’s out there.”

She made her contract with the bear, hoping it would abide by it. After what seemed to be a nod from the beast, it walked back into the woods. Alida decided it would be a good idea to try once again to use her bed.

“This may be the last time I have this luxury,” she mumbled to herself.

She descended into her bedroom, passing two rooms resonating with the sound of loud snores - one her father’s, the other Lor’s. Passing the room of the boy she was finally coming to understand, and finally arriving at her own. She collapsed into her bed, and sleep finally came to her. Her dream was vivid for once, rarely was that the case. She found herself at the edge of the thicket, looking into the void beyond it. The bear stood beside her, staring at her and nodding toward it as if to beckon her in.

She had no control over her body, it propelled her into the uncertain darkness and she found herself deep in the unknown. The bear grabbed Alida’s shirt with its teeth to guide her. She followed it deeper and deeper into the thicket until she fell. She could feel herself falling for what seemed like hours, until she gradually slowed down and reached ground again. Though the hole she’d found was in the dark, she landed in a well-lit area.

There were three people in the pit with her, one standing at each corner. Two glared at one another, the third glared at her. One corner held a woman with untamed hair, red like Alida’s, but far longer. She was old, somewhat frail looking, but determined in her glare. The man across from her was young. His hair looked greasy enough to be mistaken for wet. He was tall, nearly twice Alida’s height, and looked strong. There were no weapons in the pit, only the visible animosity of the people. The man glaring at Alida was short, and his hair was white

Alida backed against the wall of her corner and could feel the wall behind her grabbing at her. Roots like hands ensnared her against the wall and were coiling around her violently. They didn’t move to caress, as the grasses outside did. She grasped at them, trying to rip them away from her, but they were too strong. As more covered her, they began to flower and plants grew from them. Her corner of the pit was quickly made - terrifyingly - beautiful. The corner behind her adversary was a black void, much like the hellish trove she’d walked through. They held her in place, a root filling her mouth began to suffocate her. She bit down on it, trying to find some sort of relief but nothing came about. She could feel herself dying in the pit, and she felt powerless in that moment. The faces of the others in the pits didn’t change their focus - the two continued to glare, and the white haired man across from her never stopped looking into her eyes.

Suddenly, her dream switched, presenting memories of the people she’s loved. Her parents were all she could see for nearly a minute, Kasall and Sim and even Lor appeared before her for some time as her body was emptying of air. She screamed and the roots came off of her, she was quickly transported to a new void of pure whiteness, where before her stood two people – a man and a boy. Inge, she thought. Inge was his name. His veins were vibrant as he glared at her. No words were spoken by anyone. Beside him stood a boy, young like herself. No words were spoken, but she could hear someone talking.

It’s not always as easy to see. It filled Alida, and as it entered her mind, she felt herself fall. She woke from the sleep, covered in sweat. She could feel something watching her inside her bedroom. The dark room made her unable to see what it could be.

“Kasall?” she cried out, hoping it was something as innocent as that. She sat in her bed scanning the darkness. Nothing’s here, she thought. It’s not always as easy to see. The words floated through her head as she sat staring, wondering if she was being warned about this very minute. She felt as though she could see the words hanging in the air, bolded and forced to the front of her mind. Quickly she became aware of the fact that there was a space beneath her bed where something could be waiting and watching her. At the same moment, she became strictly aware of the fact that she couldn’t see the small area beside her dresser. She couldn’t truly see anything, but those two places were always uncertainties.

She decided to leave her room again, to go sit outside. At least the moon gives light. At least it’s supposed to be ominous outside. Planning how to escape from what haunted her room, she dropped her shoes onto the floor before stepping off her bed. Nothing moved beneath it. A trap, Alida Jere thought, a trap to lure me in. Quickly her paranoia nullified her desire to leave the room. She sat on her bed holding her knees to her chest for what must have been hours. Occasionally she would rock back and forth, but mostly she just sat and waited for day to come.

As always, day did come. Her door swung open after a terrifying time had passed,and Kasall stood before her.

“Ali,” he called out. “Did you sleep much? I know I didn’t.” She wasn’t sure what to tell the boy that stood before her. He’s always the same. How can he be so unchanging? She didn’t know what he would make of her dream or her encounter with the bear. She still had anxiety over stepping off the bed, and asked Kasall to look under it for her.

“There’s a monster, you say? All I’m seeing is an old gown you must’ve lost.” He pulled the garment out for her. It was a maroon piece that she’d almost forgotten about. She’d warn it often when she was younger. When the colour suited her, she thought. One day while wearing it, Kasall had mentioned how it conflicted with Alida’s hair colour and she must’ve thrown it under there to forget about it.

“Thanks Kas,” she told him simply. “The night was long, you know? I had a bit of trouble sleeping and things just, well, worsened from there.” She mumbled out the words uncaringly. She was still exhausted, on the brink of tears. She wished they could stay at the inn another day just so she could sleep, but knew that her mother wouldn’t see that as a good reason.

“It’s okay. I didn’t sleep much either. I heard some wildlife roaring outside. It frightened me a bit.” He told her. “Did you hear it? It sounded like a pack of bears tearing into some fresh prey. I ran upstairs first thing this morning to make sure Jade was okay.”

“I didn’t hear it,” she told him. It was only half a lie, after all. That hadn’t been what Alida had heard or witnessed.

“Heh,” he laughed. “I guess if you’d been up there you would’ve just tamed the animals.” He smiled at her, and she felt a bit more relaxed about her sleeplessness.

“Don’t be so sure. That damn cat won’t warm up to me, no matter what I do.”

Jade was now standing in between Kasall’s legs, making figure eights around him, coiling its tail around him as it walked. “Shall we go upstairs? You mother and father are waiting.” The words still cut Alida but she nodded and got out of bed, walking upstairs with him.

One last time, Kasall and Alida sat at the table together. They could hear Lor muddling away in the kitchen, preparing what she hoped would be a massive sendoff feast. She was looking forward to eating eggs with meat. Maybe some fresh rabbit, she thought before remembering that she had eliminated the chances of that the night before. Or bacon. She could hear her parents outside talking loudly. The topic was a mystery to her, so she walked over to the door to see what was happening on the other side.

She listened to her parents talking about what seemed to be very unimportant. She opened the door to join them, and saw a trail of what she quickly figured was blood in front of the inn. It looked as if something had been dragged down the roadway, toward the thicket. The trail began where Alida had lay beside the bear. Did this come from the rabbit? She wondered, knowing it couldn’t have. The bloody path looked to be the size of a person, but Alida had seen no one else outside that night.

“Alida.” Her mother said. “What are you doing out here?”

“What’s that blood?” she asked, ignoring her mother’s words.

“We aren’t sure. Go inside, we’ll be in shortly.”

“Why don’t you come in to talk? I want to spend some time with father before we leave.”

A sad look spread on her mother’s face, a look of understanding, and she and Jere came inside. They all sat at the table, the four of them in a little square at one end, waiting for Lor to finish brewing up his breakfast concoction.

“Which way will we go?” Alida asked to no one in particular. Her question was unmet by an answer for a few minutes.

“West. We’ll move through the forests,” her mother said, eventually. She was staring at Alida uncomfortably. “Alida, what happened to your face?”

She wasn’t sure if her mother was becoming forgetful or asking an honest question.

“Do you not remember the tea?”

“No, not that. Why does it look like you have new wounds around your mouth, and there on your neck?”

Alida ran into the kitchen and looked at herself in a water bucket. Sure enough, there was an imprint around her mouth and on her neck. She began to put a lot more weight into her dreams, noticing these scars had formed where the roots had covered her the night before. She wanted to take off her clothes to see if she was covered with these scars but feared what Lor may do if that happened.

“I don’t know, mother. Can we talk?” she told her when she got back into the room. She rambled out her whole story to her family. She told them about the first encounter at the thicket alone, and of the bear the night before and went into great detail about the events of her dream. Her mother looked at her, unsure what to make of it. Jere looked dumbfounded, and Kasall looked concerned. Jade didn’t care, and decided to look at her own crotch.

“Alida, we need to investigate this. We go west today, we can follow the trail of blood.” As ominous as this suggestion sounded, Alida felt the most comfort in it.

“The bear that made the trail,” she told her mother and father. “I know it is kind, I’ve been close to it and spoken with it. He and I have a contract of sorts - I gave him a rabbit so that he’ll protect us while we travel.”

Her mother was suspiciously accepting of what she was saying. She believes all of this but she wouldn’t let me even leave the inn when I was younger?

“Alida, whatever power you possess now hasn’t been in this world for hundreds of years. We must go and find out whatever we possibly can about what’s happening to you if we want to do anything with it. We’ll follow the trail and if we find your bear along the way, it’ll help us, I suppose. The magic you have has always been referred to as “Life magic,” and there’s far more life in the forests to the west than in the dead lands of the east. As we walk, hopefully too, we will learn.”

She looked at her mother. She noticed her mother’s veins now more than she ever had. She wondered what made them fade away. They weren’t as scarred as the Inge’s had been, but clearly they were removed by something. She wondered if she’d find a time to ask.

Lor brought breakfast out to the family. There were eggs and a meat she didn’t recognize, as well as some sort of bread. It was probably the best meal she’d seen Lor prepare, the meat looked succulent, and the eggs weren’t burnt. Even the bread looked fresh. She was surprised that the man she’d dismissed as a drunken idiot her whole life seemed to care about her. Alida felt guilty for her former attitude.

“Thank you, Lor,” she said, making eye contact with him and smiling. She’d never noticed how green his eyes were. The pudgy man smiled back at her. “Sit with us, Lor. Eat.”

He did, looking happy as he feasted with the family. She didn’t want to ask what the meat was, it looked like rabbit, but she knew that the last one was gone. Perhaps bacon, or crane, or even rat. She didn’t care, really, because it tasted fantastic.

The family sat and ate together, no one spoke much but everyone seemed to get closure from it. When they were finished, Jere handed Alida and Kasall one woven bag each.

“I made these for you two last night. You should be able to fit most of your things in them if you pack wisely. Just remember, you’ll be carrying them so you don’t want to bring things you’ll regret later.” He smiled at them, but his eyes were bloodshot and clearly straining to hold back tears. Alida hugged him for longer than she’d ever thought she would. Kasall did so as well, muttering his thanks and crying a bit into his shirt.

Alida walked over to Lor and gave him a similar hug. The pudgy drunk man was sobbing uncontrollably.

“Alida, Kasall, go downstairs and pack while I say goodbye to your father.” Catherine said.

The two ran back downstairs and went to their separate rooms. With such an empty room, she thought, It won’t take him long to pack. She expected Kasall to be at her door to help her pack after five minutes.

She looked at the dresser covered in mementos. She wore the green ring and never intended to take it off. The swirling mists within it captivating her the more she looked at them. She hastily filled the bag with some clothing, mostly undergarments. She wondered how she would wash herself during their adventure, much less her clothing. She looked through the things cluttering her dresser, though there was little she’d want to bring with her. There was an intimidating hood that’d been given to her by Sim or Kasall years earlier. She liked the way it felt on her head, making her feel mysterious. She decided that it was the only main thing that needed to be brought with her. The sword hilts and littered armaments that filled her room didn’t have a place in her woven bag.

She gathered everything and went to Kasall’s room to see his progress. She wondered how he couldn’t have finished by now. She looked in on him, he had the bottom drawer of his dresser open. He was filtering through a world of things she never knew existed – things she’d given him when they were younger, drawings and pressed leaves as well as two broom handles. She was thrilled to see those again, she’d wondered where they had gone off to. When they were children, often the two of them would pretend to be warriors and spar with the broom handles. Eventually Jere noticed what they were doing and tried to put an end to it.

She made her presence known. Kasall looked surprised and quickly closed the drawer. Alida snuck behind him and rubbed his shoulders, she knelt and kissed him on the cheek.

“What are you doing?” Kasall asked.

“I don’t know,” she told him. “I never expected you to have a drawer like that.” She held him from behind, and guided him as he packed his bag. He grabbed from the bottom drawer one of the pressed leaves and slipped it into the bag full of clothing.

“Shall we go back upstairs?” he asked. He was blushing and Alida decided to run off before him and go upstairs. He came up a few minutes after with his packed bag.

“We’re ready now,” Kasall proclaimed when their parents reentered the room.

“Just wait, Kasall, there’s one last thing.” Jere said. He walked over to the mantelpiece where the shield hung, and where the swords from Eirik had been placed. He pulled one off the wall and handed it to Kasall. “Kasall, I made a promise to your mother that I would keep you safe, and I’m no longer in a position to do so. I now delegate the same task to you, to keep my daughter safe. I hope you take as much honour in the job as I have.”

Alida had never seen her father speak so nobly, she wondered if this is what he’d been like while he was a guard.

“Thank you, sir,” Kasall stated clearly. “I won’t disappoint you, and I thank you for the love you’ve shown me.” They hugged once again and Alida’s party stood by the door ready to walk. Jade followed Kasall closely, while Catherine looked out onto the world with a look of concern and dread on her face. She was staring intently at the trail of blood, and Alida wondered what she was seeing in it.

After a few more elongated farewells, they followed the trail of blood toward the thicket in the woods. As they started walking, their audience was Lor and Jere, waving as they left, but after a short time walking, the only eyes on them were those of chipmunks. Chipmunks, and two predatory eyes Alida could sense in the distance, watching them.

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