The Quarrels of Mages and Men

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Chapter Two - Battle Wounds

When the dishes were taken away, Alida fled to the bedrooms. She sat on Kasall’s bed waiting for him to come down for the night. She was rocking nervously back and forth, perturbed by what she had seen upstairs. She couldn’t take her eyes off the man’s twisted face – the violent, dark blue veins protruding from his cheeks were burned into her memory, and were all she could see when she closed her eyes.

She stared around Kasall’s room. Alida had never understood how, after so many years at the inn, he hadn’t filled the room with any trinkets or memories. Even Sim and Lor had put some mementos of past guests in their rooms – rings, daggers, gold coins from foreign lands, and yet Kasall’s walls were more barren than the kitchen after a night of Lor’s cooking.

The only distinct feature the room held was where she had begun to carve her name above his bed. It only read “Ali” as he entered the room as she was doing it and she was too embarrassed to continue.

After a few long minutes, Kasall burst through the door.

“Hey Ali,” Kasall began. “You left dinner pretty fast.”

“I couldn’t keep staring at that wicked face.”

“Sim doesn’t look that bad” Kasall joked. She couldn’t understand why he would joke when she was so serious.

He’d always been that way. Alida remembered when she and Kasall were growing up, how whenever she would fall and hurt her knee or scrape an elbow he would joke about it, calling it a “battle wound”. She wondered if they would ever have to face a real battle and see how the wounds compared. She had been certain, however, that the face of the man upstairs was too strange for even Kasall to make light of and was generally appalled at his non-chalant reaction.

“The man’s brother. His face had those hideous veins. After they arrived I could barely eat, seeing what was sitting across from me.”

“What do you mean? His face was essentially the same as his brother – Inge was nearly identical to Eirik, Ali.”

Alida knew what she saw, though, and refused to accept what Kasall was telling her.

“Who were they? I was too distracted to listen to the conversation.”

“They seem to be marching north. I saw the army set up outside, there must’ve been thousands of them. They didn’t mention why, though.”

“Probably to kill someone.”

“Well, that goes without saying, really.” Kasall smirked and looked into her eyes. Alida returned a similar glance. “Sim wants to go with them.”

Alida was surprised. She’d known Sim for most of her life and he never seemed like the type to want to do anything. He was always nice enough, but he was much older than her and she never found herself able to connect with him.

“Is he going to? Father must be concerned about losing a worker.”

“Yeah, apparently. Your father negotiated for Sim to go with Eirik.”

It always bothered Alida when Kasall referred to her father that way. She wished he would be willing to include himself in the statement, calling him “our father”. She wanted him to be her brother instead of some paid worker. They’d grown up together, and she didn’t understand why he couldn’t accept his true family.

“He seemed to want him to go, really. He traded him for a few swords.”

“Why would we need swords at the inn?”

“He was worried about protection.”

She grew more and more concerned, wondering if her father had seen the gnarled face of Inge. Though consciously she knew it would be best if he had noticed, and was doing these things as a protective measure, but at the same time she hoped he hadn’t, to prevent him from having more stress.

“I guess I should tell Sim goodbye in the morning, then.”

Alida rushed out of Kasall’s room and burst back into her own without saying goodbye. When she got back to her room she looked at the prizes she had accumulated throughout her life, piled on her dresser. There was a number of sword sheaths and some scraps of fine paper, with the crest of the king embossed on it. She was looking for something in specific, though. A ring she remembered so vividly.

It had a gold band. Sim had given it to her when she was little more than a child. The ring was one of her few memories of Sim, something she’d somehow managed not to lose in that time. It had a bright green gemstone on the top of it.

Sim brought her the ring when he returned from gathering berries and a few rabbits after the battle. He’d told her that the ring fell from the beak of a crow and landed in his hand. He’d told her “The gem’s the colour of your eyes” and rustled her hair when he gave it to her. Thinking of it now, Alida felt guilty for having felt uncomfortable when Sim rustled her hair.

As she grew older, she realized that it was more likely he’d found the ring on the body of some dead man, since he’d come home that day with a few helmets and shields as well which he’d stored in his room, but she held onto that lie because it sounded nicer and more like the truth to her.

After a few minutes of searching and filtering through cups and helmets, she found the ring. She slipped it on her finger and, for the first time in her life, it fit her. She hadn’t tried it on for years. She hadn’t thought of it for that much time, but thinking of Sim provoked her to remember. She looked at the luminescent gemstone and smiled at the cloudy green seemingly shifting within.

She slept shortly after, now excited for Sim’s future. Partially, she was jealous of him. Alida had trouble understanding how she could shift from indifference toward a person to true jealousy in such a short time.

The following morning, the sound of a horn woke her. It wasn’t the usual sound of Jere knocking on her door and kindly calling in her name, but the brutish sound of a horn. She didn’t like this difference – her father’s voice had a far more soothing tone to it.

She gradually woke up and dressed herself, springing forth from her room at the same time as Kasall who smiled at her and walked upstairs into the inn. She looked down the hall and saw the door to Sim’s room ajar.

Walking over to it, she saw Sim sitting at the foot of his bed. He was tapping his fingers frantically on his wolf pelt bedspread and rocking slightly.

“Sim.”

She caught him off-guard. He jumped up from the bed, seemingly frightened before realizing who it was.

“Oh, Alida. Hello. The horn woke you?”

She nodded at him.

Laughing, he told her, “Yeah, the horn wasn’t necessary to wake me. Didn’t sleep at all last night – I couldn’t. Must’ve gone up into the inn for a sip of mead twelve times, nothing helped me to sleep.”

“Are you excited or nervous?”

“Both, really. I haven’t left here in years. Hell, I can hardly remember the last time I went so far as Shalonsbury for supplies.

Alida knew how infrequently Jere sent for supplies. Jere was often unwilling to spend the money the inn makes, and would almost always prefer to serve rabbits Catherine or Sim hunted than to send one of them to Shalonsbury to replenish the larders with beef or goat.

“I wish I could’ve gone with you to Shalonsbury,” Alida said. “I wish you could’ve had another chance to run errands for us like that and you could’ve taken me or Kasall with you.”

She saw a smile spread across his face. Before she knew what was happening, Sim was spryly bursting over to her and engulfing her in a hug. She’d never thought him to be the sentimental type.

“Sim,” she said after the hug ended.

“Sim, I want you to have this.” She stretched her hand out and pushed the ring into his. She took one final look deep into the maelstrom swirling within the gemstone with bewilderment.

Sim smiled at her – a sad smile. “I couldn’t take this from you, Alida.”

“You must, Sim. You have to remember me somehow.”

“Alida, that ring might be the only thing I’ve ever given you. Your whole life I’ve paid so little attention to you, you’ve been a distant option for my affection. If you feel you must give me something to remember you by, let it be something you give meaning to. This ring will forever hold the memory of me giving it to you, and were I to take it, it would only remind me of the fact that you’ll slowly forget me when I’m gone.”

Alida understood his logic. She was very flexible on the matter, though. After seeing the ring shine on her finger the night before, she’d been conflicted over whether or not to mention it again to Sim. Though he didn’t want to keep it, she was pleased that she could remind him of the memory of it.

She rushed back to her room and filtered through her prizes. She found an unchipped cup. She couldn’t remember where it came from, but she knew it didn’t belong to the inn originally.

Racing back to his room, she called out his name. “Sim, remember me with this cup! Let it hold your water. I have no memories of it, so you can fill it with memories of me as you move with the army.”

He looked happy, and the two of them went upstairs.

Sitting at the inn dining table was Inge. He was alone, drinking from a chalice. His veins startled her, but Sim approached him and sat across from him. Wanting to be with him, she sat next to him and listened to him talking.

“Where’re we headed, then?” Sim inquired.

“Dawnsend.” Inge choked out. “Dawnsend eventually, I suppose. I’m sure we’ll stop off in Shalonsbury for some supplies. Probably up to Skyhull from there, and then into Dawnsend.” Alida had never heard of Skyhull, but from the look on Sim’s face, she figured it must be somewhere important.

“Skyhull?” He shouted in amazement. “We’re going to see mages in the flesh?”

Alida had only heard old tales about mages. She didn’t know much about them, only that they weren’t overly prevalent in Olander. Perhaps in Skyhull, she thought, the mages are the kings. The thought made her smile. She recalled in the stories told by travelers, mages were always happy people. Often entertainers and fools who would do practical jokes and dance on stages. It had been a long time since she’d heard mages discussed.

“I’d doubt it. They’re not that common these days, sadly.” Inge said. She was still concerned about the man’s face, but was reassured by how naturally Sim spoke to him.

“Alida!” A voice called out to her from the backroom.

She ran to its call walking into the room where her mother stood. When she opened the door, she saw her mother’s eyes dash up to the dining table and back down to her.

“So you’ve heard that Sim is leaving?”

“Yes”

“Did you give him a gift?”

“Yes”

“Good. What do you think about the guests?”

“They’re alright. I hope they’ll be good to Sim, the man’s face scares me, though.”

Her mother looked surprised at this answer, but quickly swallowed and told her that it is probably just a battle wound. It was always a battle wound with her mother. She assumed that’s where Kasall got the saying.

“Could you carry in some food for me?”

“Yes.”

Alida and her mother carried in some eggs and bread for the guests and her family. By the time they entered, Kasall had sat down at the table, as well as Eirik. Eirik was dressed in leather armour from head to toe. He was intimidating in it, dauntingly tall and she noticed that the armour was very snug to his body. It was slightly frayed in some parts, but for the most part was impeccable. She imagined what kind of real battle wounds would’ve shaped those blemishes and got lost in thought.

Her concentration broke when Eirik’s booming voice spoke.

“We will be gone within the hour. Sorry for inconveniencing you all.” He wasn’t looking at anyone in specific, and seemed to always be speaking to the room. “Lena and my son are already waiting with the army, eating with them. Boy, will you be ready? I’ve given your innkeeper the swords he requested.”

It took Sim a moment to realize he was being addressed, but after swallowing some food he let out a quick “Yes, sir”.

“Good. We’ll be marching for a few days, so I’m hoping you’re well rested.”

He lied and told him that he was.

Alida had her gaze fixed on Inge’s face, glancing occasionally at the other people around the table. Once to her father, who was looking at whoever was speaking, once to her mother, who was also transfixed by Inge.

“Sir,” Sim began. “Sir do you think we’ll see mages? Inge said we may be going to Skyhull on our way.”

“Perhaps we will. Maybe we can take a few with us, it’d help our chances in Dawnsend.” For the first time, Alida saw Eirik smiling. He seemed to enjoy the look of wonderment and excitement in Sim.

“What are we marching for?” He asked.

“A good cause, as far as I’m concerned. I’m sure you’ll hear about it from our men when we’re on the road. I wouldn’t want to bore everyone with it now.”

It wouldn’t have been a bore for the people at the table. After Eirik finished talking, the rest of the meal was eaten with a gloomy silence, the perfect atmosphere for a story.

Once the meal was done, everyone said goodbye to Sim one more time. Hugs were exchanged, surprisingly to Alida, tears were shed most by Lor, and before long, Sim was on the road with the northbound rebels.

Alida sat down at the long table again and looked around the room. Surpringly, the inn was very clean for having had guests. The guestrooms were clean, hardly slept in, the fire from the night before was dwindling and on top of the mantelpiece, the shield hanging on the wall seemed to have been hacked at a few times.

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