Hiraeth

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Valonia
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Joined: Mon Jan 25, 2021 9:19 pm

Hiraeth

Post by Valonia »

Many years ago…

The old man felt himself being shaken awake. And kicked by what felt like… sharp hooves? In his younger years, he might have been quicker to strike with his staff. The best he could manage these days was blinking his eyes open and blearily focusing on what was around him.

“Grandfather! Mother told me to bring this deer to you. She said you might be able to help it,” Valonia said, eagerly waving a small deer at her grandfather. The deer, for its part, was simply flailing in fear. “And also, I was to check on you to see if you needed anything.”

Holtraed regarded both child and cervid with an expression of dismay. Even for one such as he, being assailed by a deer was not a common occurrence. Not to mention that it was not typical to be awakened from ‘meditations’ (read: a nap) by having said deer half-lobbed at him. He suspected the child was more interested in assisting the deer than assisting him... Still, he was not truly offended (though he was mildly impressed she’d managed to keep hold of the deer, and he assumed her relative strength had been acquired from her assistance on the farm). He knew well by now his twelve-year-old granddaughter’s enthusiasm often took precedence over good sense and reason. She was young, and her actions were typical of the young.

He leaned forward in his chair to study the creature she had brought, squinting slightly at it.

“I see,” he observed. “Young, but its spots have faded. It is old enough to forage on its own. How did you come by it?”

He did not scoop it up, but rather gestured for the girl to set it on the ground for him to examine. He simply no longer possessed the energy or the enthusiasm of his granddaughter. Setting his yew-wood staff aside, he laboriously lowered himself to the ground and took a seat near the deer.

“The dogs cornered it by the sheds near the barn,” Valonia explained, kneeling next to the deer and holding it down to keep it from running off again, though the old man’s presence had a strangely calming effect on the animal. “I had to chase the pups off, and punch Red—”

A strange mixture of dismay and bemusement crossed the old man’s face. “You… punched the dogs?”

“Really only Red. And… not hard? I mostly scared him with a stick.” Valonia had the sense to look embarrassed and ashamed. “But what else was I supposed to do? He was not being good. I told him to go to the barn, and that I was angry with him.”

The old man closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose, and shook his head slowly.

“I know deer are food, but I did not want them to get this one,” Val said stubbornly before he could reply with his disapproval. “I like it. I want to keep it.”

“No. You cannot keep it, Valonia. It is not tame. It is wild.”

“But it is staying still. Maybe it likes me!”

Holtraed did not feel like explaining why it wasn’t immediately running away, but it certainly was not because it had become endeared to the youthfully graceless actions of the girl. Instead, he said simply, “It is afraid. Of the dogs -- and of you too.”

“Why me? I saved it!” Valonia frowned. “But… maybe if I feed it, it will like me?”

Holtraed fixed a critical eye on her. “Why is it important that you keep it?”

The girl squirmed under her grandfather’s scrutiny, but would not be cowed. “Because I like it, and want it as a pet.”

“And your wants and whims are more important than those of the creature you profess to like?”

Valonia was about to reply, then reconsidered, and snapped her mouth shut. Her embarrassment was plain on her face.

Holtraed regarded her sternly. “Do you know anything about the care of such creatures, Valonia?

“Nn…not exactly? They eat grass, right? So I could feed it hay-…”

“So the answer is ‘no’.”

Val winced. “No, grandfather.”

“Deer browse, which means they feed on the leaves and bark of shrubs and the shoots of trees,” he explained, stroking the young deer’s head softly, rubbing his calloused thumb over what appeared to be the barest stubs of antlers. It calmed, laying its head down on the old man’s knee. “Though they eat hay out of desperation some winters, they cannot process it. Deer have died of starvation with a belly full of hay, Valonia.”

That did not appear to dissuade the girl, and Holtraed could practically hear the wheels in her head turning. “So… they can eat yew shoots then?”

Holtraed gave the girl a sharp look in return. “Yes, but yew is poisonous to most animals and humans. You will not pick shoots in order to feed an animal you are not keeping. Do not get the sap on your hands.”

“I just want to help it,” Val frowned.

His expression softened. “I understand, and it is good you desire to help, Valonia… But ‘want’ without knowledge may kill what you claim to care about. Sometimes, if you cannot be gentle, more harm than good may result from your actions. Consider this a lesson. Do you know what the deer symbolizes?”

The girl seemed curious, even as she shook her head.

“Protection, yes. But also compassion, intuition, sensitivity, and gentleness,” he explained. “Valonia, you have known Red since he was a pup. And he has been your guardian for many years.”

“…and I beat him to find a new pet,” she said, frowning.

Holtraed nodded. Her intelligence was not in question, just her impulsivity and roughness.

“It was not wrong of you to want to save the deer, but I must emphasize that our actions have weight,” Holtraed said. “Red is a dog, and his instincts tell him to chase prey. Does he deserve harm for following natural instincts without malice?”

“No… but I did not want him to kill the deer.” Valonia’s brow furrowed, clearly thinking this over. “What could I have done to stop him from chasing it?”

“Red listened to you when you sent him to the barn, did he not? Perhaps ordering him to stay may have worked, or perhaps you could have grabbed his collar and allowed the deer’s escape without punishing him,” said the old man. “But the important part now is that you do consider what you should do. Violence should not be your first resort, for—”

He paused for a moment, mentally debating. All of this -- this lesson, the deer, the tutelage of another, it was venturing into territory that he had wished to leave behind. It did not belong in this world they now lived in, had not belonged for some time.

“—for force without justice is tyranny,” he finished anyway. But even as he spoke the words, he felt a keen sense of nostalgia mixed with loss. How could he explain such things to the child, when the world that lesson belonged to was long gone?

Perhaps something of his thoughts were apparent on his expression, and Valonia looked at him in concern. “Are you alright? Should I bring the basket? Uncle Robert said—”

“Uncle Robert told her that you might be able to aid yourself if she brought you the reagent basket -- which I notice she did not,” Robert explained to the old man, strolling toward them carrying the basket Valonia was supposed to have retrieved from his cabin. “It seems she was more interested in her food friend, as I suspected.”

Holtraed was not particularly pleased to see Robert. He also secretly suspected the younger man found it a game to annoy him. Still, the old man understood the significance of offering aid, and knew what it would cost the younger man.

The ether had been… sullied, somehow? And in its place had risen a strange darkness. To attempt to unravel that tangle of impurity, as Robert did, was to find a great and empty space… or resort to darkness. In a way, it was almost admirable that Robert still fought. But if his own stubbornness did not kill him first, he would likely lose his mind to that vast empty.

That did not mean Holtraed didn’t find the man irritating.

“It is not food! We are not eating it!” Valonia insisted.

Robert let out a long suffering sigh and looked skyward. “My mistake. We could not possibly eat cute and cuddly creatures. ‘twould be an affront against nature. Why, we can only eat gristly and horrible beasts like rats and snails and slimes and headlesses--”

“Ewww,” said Valonia, making a face at him. “Uncle Robert, we are not eating those things!! That is disgusting!”

“Watch how often you scowl at me, Valla,” Robert ‘cautioned’, grinning. “Your face will freeze that way, and you will start to resemble your grandfather. Are you seeing this, Holtraed? Surely it is like looking into a mirror.”

Holtraed scowled at Robert.

The girl also continued to frown, though it was again clear that the wheels in her head were turning. “Grandfather… what will happen to the deer now?”

Holtraed was a pragmatic man, and knew that nature would not have been kind to the animal if it had been caught by anything else. But, it had come to them. Its fate was apparently in the old man’s hands. He couldn’t say he’d ever passed judgement on a deer before.

“As it is uninjured, and Valonia has a clear preference for its lot, we shall let it leave,” he said simply.

He stopped petting the young deer, and gestured for it to stand. The animal blinked at the old man for a moment, then ran toward the forest. It was unclear whether it would be safe there (nature being what it was), but the forest was where it belonged.

Holtraed leaned heavily on his staff to lift himself to his feet. It was becoming more difficult each season, but something about helping the animal made the pain easier to tolerate. Releasing the animal was a small, foolish kindness, but it was a tiny spark of goodness in a world that had become all too bleak. Perhaps that was what ailed him most -- the knowledge that things were not what they were supposed to be. That something had been altered, and he did not possess the ability to change it back.

Robert observed the scene, though he refrained from commenting on the old man’s condition. “That seems an awful waste, even for you. Am I to understand that your beliefs prevent you from eating sandwiches that walk into your midst?”

“-I- do not kill beings who seek aid and healing, Robert. If you and your kind had understood that, perhaps none of us would be in this mess.” Whatever soft expression the old man had evaporated at the sound of Robert’s voice. “Not everything is merely a commodity to use, or a threat to destroy.”

“That is a bit harsh, Holtraed. And just to clarify, before you act on the urge to hit me with your staff or decide to throw me into some manner of woods gaol, it was a joke.” Robert held up a hand defensively, even it was clear by his expression that he remained uncowed by the old man. “I came to see whether you were in need of help. Deanna tells me you have been poorly of late. I cannot pretend I am capable of much these days, but is there anything I can try to assist?”

For a moment, Holtraed felt some inkling of shame. It was unfair of him to assume the worst about the younger man. He was not responsible for the fate of Britannia, no more than any of his kind were. While he could string together the chain of events that instilled judges that would burn people for minor crimes, it was conspiracy theory. He was simply in a poor mood, and thoughts of the past soured his mood more than he thought.

“I will cede my comments were uncalled for,” the old man began.

“It is of no matter,” Robert interrupted, carelessly waving off the implied apology. “I see it as a sign of health. If you were not grumpy at me, I would think you were on death’s door. So will you let me help you?”

“No. Though I acknowledge the offer, you cannot help with this.”

Valonia looked at the old man like he was deathly ill. “Why not, Grandfather? Maybe we can help anyway. I can gather some herbs, and make sure Uncle Robert does not burn the kitchen when we boil them. What do you feel?”

“Hiraeth,” Holtraed replied.

“Here-righth?” Valonia frowned, wondering if that was some sort of disease she had never heard of. “Here-right?”

“If only.” The old man's face creased in a humorless smile. “No, it means the opposite, Valonia. Hiraeth is the longing for that which is not, and cannot ever be again. It is the knowledge that perhaps such things never were, though it does little to mitigate the feeling of loss.”

He moved himself back toward his bench, and settled back upon it with a groan. He then looked out into the distance, feeling solemn and melancholy.

“I would rather you never feel such, child,” he said. “Instead be content in the present, believing here is right.”

Valonia nodded seriously, even if she didn’t know what he meant. But he was talking in a serious tone, and so that meant it was important.

“Hmph. To be sane in a world of madmen is in itself madness,” Robert pointed out, taking a seat on the bench next to the old man. “She should be taught not to accept such things, and rather to fight back.”

“Perhaps,” Holtraed admitted.

“You agree?” Robert seemed genuinely surprised. They rarely agreed on anything.

“I have never disagreed with you on that,” Holtraed admitted. “But how to fight? And who would teach those lessons? You? Or perhaps you have some trusted colleagues you would entrust your niece to?”

Robert let out a long sigh.

“No, I dare not send her into a nest of vipers. Certainly not unprepared. And with my mind being full of holes these days…?” He shook his head, then turned toward the old man. “But what of you? We may disagree on a great many things, but I will not dismiss your path. It is something at least…”

It was some manner of backhanded compliment that Robert did not ‘dismiss Holtraed’s path’ so lightly, but it was still a sign of how wrong things were. It made the old man feel even older, and only emphasized the weariness in his bones.

“When I severed connections, it was permanent and intentional. I trust none of my kind. Those that left are wild, feral, and scattered. Those that stayed may have wanted to preserve Justice… but ended up perpetuating that which we swore to fight against. And myself? The counsel of the years is upon me,” Holtraed replied softly. “And I cannot help but listen. The past is gone. Perhaps it is for the best that what I know dies with me. Let the children learn this new world.”

“Surely things cannot be so dire, Holtraed,” returned the younger man with his typical cavalier attitude. “I know it has been damp this year, but perhaps a decongesting tea? Or perhaps peppermint-…”

This is exactly what I mean, Robert. You making tea and potions. Me passing judgement over deer,” he tried to explain, though he doubted Robert would comprehend. “My son breaking an ancient cycle by learning to wield an axe rather than runes. He tills the ground rather than reading its signs. Meanwhile, your sister breaks ties with your past by choosing to wield a sword instead of the ether. She has children rather than apprentices. All because the world is not as it was.”

It was clear by Robert’s expression that he understood perfectly. The a half-angry, half-sorrowful expression on his face mirrored what Holtraed himself felt. Just without the weariness that had settled into his bones.

“No… it very much is not,” the younger man ceded. He folded his arms across his chest. “It is a poor thing we have found to agree upon, Holtraed. Even during the days of my apprenticeship, I knew something was not right. But did you know that the few colleagues I maintained contact with before-… well… before my infirmity, disputed that anything was wrong? As if the great morass was normal. Idiocy! Or willful ignorance? I cannot tell which. I do not know how can they deny the truth of what is right in front of them. They sell the world to buy fire, Holtraed. It is folly.”

In an odd way, Robert’s understanding was a comfort to the old man in his dark mood. Though he and Robert were more adversaries than kin, it was somewhat reassuring to Holtraed to not be the only one who had the sense that something was wrong. In his life, it had found it a battle even to keep his sense of reality. It was yet another sign of how wrong things were that Holtraed found more solace in an adversary’s words than he did in those he once called friends.

“The world will right itself though,” Robert said, still stubbornly resisting the new reality of the world around him. “We must keep believing that.”

“But it has been a long time, Robert,” replied the old man. “If things do change, I do not expect that I will be around to see it.”

He looked at Valonia, who was now trying to feed the field mice under the wooden deck of Holtraed’s cabin. She had lost interest in the discussion of old men, and was now trying to lure the mice by making a trail of corn, rather than waiting patiently for them to come to her hand.

“But I do not fear for myself. I am tired and welcome the rest,” he said quietly. “But I worry for the children.”

“It is no good to think such things.” Robert shook his head, his hair grayer than Holtraed ever remembered seeing it. “Let me get you some tea. We can add some ginseng to it, and –just for you-- I will endeavor not to become comatose.”

Robert grinned in that grating way of his, making light of his own condition. It seemed he could not even take that seriously.

Holtraed was not amused, and did not feel in the mood for jokes.

“Save your energy. Do not sacrifice for my sake,” he said somberly. “But give me your word that you will look after them when I cannot.”

“Holtraed, I am practically a cripple—” Robert protested.

“Please watch after them, Robert. And when the time comes, ensure my body is burned. I trust you are still capable of setting things on fire?” the old man said.

Once upon a time, Holtraed would have wanted to be planted in the earth with the rest of his kin. Perhaps to one day nurture a seed into a tree, and renew an ancient cycle. But those times were gone. His parents had been burned, as had his wife. The cycle was broken and it would never be reformed.

“Yes, but, ah-… you have me at a disadvantage. The first time you make a joke, and it is about this.” Robert’s expression was conflicted, trapped. The old man had not requested anything of him in this way before, and this was not the sort of request that could be denied. “Very well, Holtraed. You have my word.”

Holtraed knew that extracting such a promise from an adversary…? was unfair. But in an odd way, Robert was the only one he trusted to do this. Bernhard would be subject to sentimentality. Holtraed normally respected his son’s decisions, but this was not something that could be left to chance. For their sake, this needed to be done. Robert alone truly understood the request.

Besides, his kind had always had a knack for fire.

Robert had an odd, stricken expression on his face, and opened and closed his mouth as if he wanted to say more. But instead, he sat with his back against the wall of the cabin, deliberating. "Hiraeth, you say?” he said finally.

The old man nodded solemnly. “Hiraeth.”

They settled on the bench in silence, together alone in their respective thoughts.
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Valonia
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The Warmth of Soil

Post by Valonia »

So they sat and settled,
Their ambition lulled to sleep,
Without a goal to bind them,
Vice within did creep.

Though conquest was rewarded,
Though new lands did bear fruit,
In laze they were forgetful,
They grew everything but roots.

For all their lust to manifest,
For all their plunder and toil,
They did lose what’s most important,
They did lose the warmth of soil.
-- ‘Heithinstok’, Unknown


----

Many years ago…

Robert leaned down and rubbed the brittle leaves between his fingertips. The dry and browned plants crunched and crumbled with ease, as if this had been late autumn rather than the middle of spring.

A thin line of consternation formed between his brows.

He turned his attention to the soil itself. There were no signs of ground pests, disease, rot, or anything of a ‘normal’ variety. Even the dead plants themselves seemed ‘normal’ enough – normal in the sense that such things happened to plants. But it was all just out of place. Out of season.

Of course, if there had been something detectable to normal senses, Bernhard would have seen it easily enough without Robert’s help. For all the adventuring they did in their youth, and all the history latent in Bernhard ’s blood, the man had truly and fully embraced the life of a farmer. But Robert wasn’t looking at just what he could see. He was trying to determine something else… something elusive. The muddying of the ether, and his own clouded senses, made finding definitive answers challenging... but not impossible.

He turned his attentions instead to the edge of the field, relying on senses Bernhard had never bothered to develop. It was a risk for Robert to do this, but as long as Robert was careful, this might work. He could reach out, as if with a cautious hand, into the unseen…

There. Yes, that was likely the answer.

Robert stood, wiping the soil off on his leggings like the backwater dirt-farmer he had apparently become, then looked toward the edge of the perimeter, and toward the breach he could just barely see.

“You are right, Bernhard . This is not natural,” Robert concluded. “I cannot tell you what exactly caused this… But the runes have reacted – that much I can tell you.”

Bernhard did not appear surprised by that, though it was clearly not what he had wanted to hear. He frowned contemplatively behind his heavy brows, then stroked his beard.

In that mannerism he was very much like his father, Robert noted, even if Bernhard had shunned the knowledge the old man possessed. Or perhaps Holtraed had refused to share such knowledge with his son? It was likely both, but Robert could only guess at the truth. Druids were notoriously secretive about their hidden lore (at least in Robert’s experience…), and they did not appreciate Robert (or any of his kind, really…) nosing into their glades OR their practices OR their business. And though ties of kinship and friendship had earned Robert passage here, Holtraed was especially secretive. He certainly would not be open to sharing the entirety of his motives with Robert of all people.

Robert found irony in the fact that Holtraed’s name literally meant ‘Forest-Counsel’, and yet he kept secrets even from his descendants and hid the lessons he knew.

There was also something terribly bleak about Holtraed making the choice to sever the connections he harbored with his kind. Bleak, too, was the fact that Bernhard was asking Robert of all people about things he himself should have known. And it brought Robert no humor to know that necessity meant Bernhard was farming land that had been guarded since before Sosaria became Britannia, or that Holtraed himself had granted his son the permission to do it, giving himself over to the despair that there would be none to take up the old wards anyway.

There was a sad irony that of the two of them standing here, only Robert understood the gravity of the situation. And in spite of his normally cavalier nature, he had to admit Holtraed was right about one thing: the world was not as it should be.

“What do you mean the runes ‘reacted’? In what way?” Bernhard asked -- though by the tone of his question, it seemed he already had his suspicions.

“Look there.” Robert gestured toward a dead tree that had been decorated with symbols grown into the wood itself.

He knew something of the tree’s significance, though he was not privy to secrets of the druidic circles. Though Robert had not taken a full tour of the perimeter of Holtraed’s-… well, Bernhard ’s ‘farmstead’, he was quite certain there were several more of these particular trees lining the edge of it. All marked with runes that had lasted far beyond the ones that had marked the trees. And Robert also knew that only a few years ago, that this particular tree had once been hale and hearty. Now, it had been knocked over, seemingly felled by the wind and its own weight, and a broken log was all that remained.

“The Elk,” Bernhard commented, recognizing the broken rune.

“In civilized places, that would be called ‘Sanct’. And it means ‘protection’,” Robert explained. “And it has been damaged. That rune of all things. I am uncertain of the exact original purpose of these runes, as their authors and I… speak a slightly different dialect, we shall say. So I cannot tell you exactly what it was blocking, or what could have overwhelmed and shattered it. But a ward is a ward. If your father were feeling better, I would recommend you consult with him on such matters, but…”

He shrugged, not knowing how to finish that statement without being hurtfully insensitive.

The old man was in poor health and even worse spirits these days. While Robert and Holtraed were not exactly friends, the younger man was concerned. Though they held very clear differences of opinions, Robert was not the sort to wish ill on a colleague (could he be called that?) for differing ideals. If anything, he hoped Holtraed pulled through. For all their arguments, some part of Robert did not want what Holtraed represented to pass from the world. There had been far too much loss already.

Bernhard studied the rune, understanding the symbolism if not the entirety of the meaning. His father had taught him, of course. And that fact brought Holtraed’s condition to mind… But for now, his duty was to investigate the current threat.

“Think the threat is magical in origin?” he asked. “Is it intentional?”

If Robert had been able to draw upon the ether as it had once been, he might have been able to answer Bernhard ’s questions by examining the runes closer, more closely inspecting the structure of the spellwork to see what manner of foes these were meant to defend against. Regardless of difference in ‘dialect’, he could probably have found enough evidence within the spell to reach some sort of conclusion.

But as things were…?

“My mind is full of holes, Bernhard . I cannot ascertain that unless you want me to be the sole vegetable in this field,” Robert said with a grimace. “So, no, I cannot tell you whether it is expressly ‘magical’ in nature, or a beast of some sort, or something else. But if I had to guess? Yes, I would expect the disruption of a druid glade’s warding runes to be related to the rest of the troubles in the land. You knew something was amiss already, or you would not have consulted me on farming of all matters.”

The broad-shouldered man shrugged a bit, then nodded in confirmation. “Perhaps I had hoped you could tell me otherwise. Is there anything that can be done? Can you do something?”

Robert rocked back on his heels, stunned by the magnitude of the request. “Replace a centuries-old warding rune grown into the living trees by what would appear to be a whole circle of druids no longer extant? No… I cannot even begin to restore this, Bernhard . The glade has been compromised. Not to a great extent YET, but it is still a metaphorical breach in a fortress wall-…”

He frowned, contemplating.

“—though I might use a modified rune as a lesser barrier, perhaps?” he considered. “I cannot replicate growing protective enchantments into the living wood of symbolic trees mind you, but if I use a metal focus, and imbue that—”

Bernhard ’s eyes practically started glazing over. He had as much magical aptitude as his father and mother ever had, and was clever enough (as far as mundane matters went), but Robert was well aware that the interest in anything magic had simply never manifested itself. Most of Bernhard ’s children had unfortunately followed their father’s path, wasting what potential they had in their blood. Not that Robert only found value in magical interests, of course. Nor would he insult his friend or his own sister by saying such things to their faces (for Deanna was just as culpable in this as Bernhard was, after all). But it was just a loss of--

“Was that a ‘yes’ that you can do something? Or will this go horribly wrong and burn down half the forest?” Bernhard said bluntly, interrupting his friend’s thoughts.

“I cannot guarantee that will not happen… Though you must admit setting the forest on fire would certainly be a definitive way of eradicating threats,” Robert returned, only half-joking. He shrugged noncommittally, his thoughts already shifting to ideas he could implement. “But at any rate, it is unlikely fire will come into it at all. And while this metal rune idea is most certainly not what the ancient druids would have wanted… they are not here, and I am. I shall do this in the ways I know. If it additionally reassures you, I have a copy of one of Nystul’s treatises on this very thing, and I should be able to replicate it closely enough to have effect. As I recall from my reading, the rune itself should be what provides the bridge between the Ether and the physical world, which allow me to create some manner of barricade. I can place it in such a manner to reinforce the break--…”

“Without you falling into another of your fits?” Bernhard asked quietly. “I know I am asking a lot of you…”

“In theory, I should suffer no ill effects,” Robert replied. “But there is risk in all endeavors… though to be honest, if this would be the end of me, I welcome it. This is my purpose; not farming. I may not control what events happen, but I can decide not to be reduced by them.”

Besides, he had given his word to Holtraed. While it likely would not change much if Bernhard knew, Robert was reluctant to speak of the extent of the old man’s world-weariness. Robert felt compelled to both protect the old man’s dignity and spare Bernhard the full knowledge of his father’s growing malaise.

Bernhard patted the other man’s shoulder firmly. “I knew I could count on you, old friend. Though, I wish there was some way to return the favor. You are protecting my family, you taught my children, and yet your own life is languishing.”

“We are long past the point of counting debts, Bernhard . We are family now. It is my responsibility.” Robert dismissed Bernhard ’s concerns with a handwave. “Besides, you have given me refuge during dark times. The only family I have left is here. I cannot ask for anything more.”

He appreciated his friend’s well-meaning words, and knew well that Bernhard believed in paying his debts. But in reality, there was little Bernhard was capable of offering aside from the shelter that he had already given. Just as Bernhard had no interest in ancient Arts, Robert simply couldn’t be a farmer. The biggest problem Robert faced was that the ether was… different now. Though he had trained and studied and spent most of his life in study of it, delving into its mysteries, learning to control it… it was not viable anymore. But as broken as Robert might be right now, as wrong as the ether was, he refused to give it up. There was simply no other life he wished to live.

“You could find some nice forest lass and settle land of your own, you know,” Bernhard suggested. “If you want it, a portion of this place is yours. Just say the word. And as I recall, you and Lynesse seemed to be having a good conversation the last time we went into town...”

“It was a thinly-veiled argument, Bernhard . Lynesse is the sort to accuse me for a perceived insult, let alone any actual crime,” Robert shook his head. “No, I would promptly find myself burned to death by the courts both for my ‘crimes’ and for the entertainment of the rustic woodsfolk. Better that she continues to think of me as ‘that amusing scholarly man from out of town’, and her interest remains from afar. Besides, I do not belong here, Bernhard . We both know this. Do not give up guardianship of this land, especially not to the likes of me. The ancient druids would turn over in their graves. Or trees. Or however it is they do such things. Frankly, I am not entirely certain they are not still lurking around somewhere in the heartwood of their trees, just conscious enough to be righteously offended by my presence.”

Bernhard ’s generosity was great, but misdirected. Robert himself was not privy to the secrets of druids, and would make no claim to such things, but even he understood this place should stay under the custodianship of its ancient protectors. Even though Robert was considering embedding protective metal runes into the dirt, it was a far cry from what the ancient druids would have done -- and certainly did not designate him as any manner of proper caretaker. If the old druids could see him now, it would likely be taken as some manner of insult, even if he certainly did not intend such. It was simply an act of desperation in dark times.

Perhaps if he’d had less holes in his mind, and more time to prepare, he might have been able to come up with something to simulate what the ancient druids had done. The resonances were all wrong, of course, but perhaps if he substituted--…

“Father! Hurry!” Valonia was shouting and running, armed with a small bow that was little more than a stick on a string. “Goblins in the north field! Mother told me to find you!”

Bernhard was on the move, running in the direction his twelve-year-old daughter was pointing, and Robert kept pace behind him. Though Robert had never been as robust as the fighter-turned-farmer, he was pleased to see that assisting with farm life had ensured he had not yet shriveled away to a useless waif or physical cripple.

“Runes in the north as well?” Robert questioned as he ran.

“Aye,” Bernhard grunted quickly, understanding Robert’s meaning. “Broken too.”

Robert was, unfortunately, not surprised. That there were threats at all made the situation clear. While this was certainly not the first time Bernhard and Robert had to react to danger together, it was the first time in this place. Holtraed’s lands had always been safe before.

“I will handle this with the boys. Stay with Valla, Robert,” Bernhard commanded. “Do what you need to do… rune things.”

“But I can help!” Valonia argued.

“No,” her father said sharply. He didn’t stop to hear the girl’s arguments, instead heading north, his longer strides taking him quickly away. He called back loudly, “Help your uncle.”

Valonia had a particular expression on her face, the sort that made it clear she was thinking something rash… so Robert grabbed the girl’s shoulder.

“Listen to your father, Valla,” Robert said, shaking his head. Though he was not exactly pleased at being ordered around by Bernhard , he wasn’t going to begrudge a father ordering him to keep his child safe. Besides, he could genuinely use the girl’s help. Of all Bernhard ’s children, Valla held the most promise of being something other than a tree barbarian. “When you are older, you can fight goblins all you want. But for now, we have to check the trees—”

“Trees are boring though,” she lamented. “I want to fight!”

“Believe me, I agree,” Robert admitted, even if he was well-aware that goblin guts were not something a twelve-year-old should be playing with, and allowing casual murder would be terrible parenting. Still, he agreed with her far more than she knew. In his experience, fiery essences did tend to gravitate toward taking action (though he wasn’t about to attribute anything more than a casual correlation to that. A pseudo-magical personality profile was unlikely to hold up to any sort of academic rigor, after all). And Valonia had (perhaps unfortunately) something of her mother’s nature in her. His too, really. If he hadn’t broken his mind trying to investigate the columns, he probably would still be out there somewhere trying to get into something he shouldn’t. Or perhaps he would have defied Bernhard ’s mostly-reasonable requests, and set a lot of things on fire… all in the interests of defense, of course.

It was likely one of the reasons he (and ‘his ilk’, as Holtraed would put it) tended to have an uneasy relationship with earthy sorts, who believed in caution and preservation and healing and trees and boring things. There was certainly a place for such practices, but Robert personally never found it very inspiring.

“But this is important also,” he said, trying to convince both the girl and himself. “We need to ensure that the rest of the wards have not decayed…”

He knew even as he said it that preservation and protection were not inspiring things to a young imagination. They weren’t terribly inspiring to him, and he was well aware of how important such things were.

“I do not know anything about wards, but I have a bow,” Valonia insisted. “I can protect the farm by shooting things!”

Robert couldn’t exactly argue with her logic. His methods might differ, but the practice seemed sound to him. Threats were to be dealt with in only one way, after all…

“I again agree, but this still needs to be done,” he explained. “If we do not do this, greater threats may manifest themselves later. And if we cannot repair this, far worse things than goblins could come here. This is important work, Valonia.”

Valonia regarded her uncle skeptically, unsure if he was just trying to scare her. “But why would I use a ward thing when I can use a bow? Or a stick? Or even a rock?”

“Because the methods I shall show you are far more efficient than a stick or a rock, Valla. How about this? Help me with the boring parts of this task, and I will teach you to throw rocks with your mind afterward,” he suggested. “Far more efficient than a bow, surely you can agree.”

It was a simple linear spell, nothing that required drawing upon the ether to any extent. But it was a start. And Robert did, of course, have ulterior motives. Robert would not risk the girl’s life or mind, but he also could not leave her entirely ignorant.

What would happen to this place if Holtraed were to die? Would the wards cease? Bernhard himself did not know how to maintain them. Most of his family lacked the interest to continue the stewardship of this glade. What would happen too if Robert died? Neither he nor Deanna had any apprentices. There seemed to be fewer and fewer these days. Without anyone to transmit the knowledge, it could simply pass out of the world.

It was a grim prospect.

Valonia, of course, was unaware of the pressures secretly placed upon her shoulders, interested instead in the idea of hitting someone with a rock. “What?? Really??”

“Yes, really—or wait. Did you keep up on the memorization exercises I tasked you with?” he asked, eying her critically. “Name the rune of ‘movement’ and draw it in the dirt here.”

He picked up a nearby twig and held it out to her.

“The Journey,” Valonia said with boredom, drawing the rune in the dirt as asked. “There. Can we do this now?”

“After you give me the proper name of the rune,” Robert said pointedly.

Valonia rolled her eyes. She liked the mental games he had her play, but sometimes they got in the way of actually doing things. “Por, uncle. But grandfather would have said it was the proper name.”

“Your grandfather is not the one asking you the questions,” Robert retorted. “And the rest of the civilized world does not follow totemic simplifications. But good. You remembered.”

His tone aside, he was secretly happy that Holtraed had apparently been teaching the girl something. There was far too much for any one person to remember (and there was no guarantee that she would even recall enough to be of use), but preservation was desperately needed. Anything she remembered might be useful to her in the future. Any scrap of information might be the difference between the preservation of knowledge, or the complete disappearance of it.

It was unfair to place the burden of this upon the girl’s head. Especially unknowingly. Robert regretted the subterfuge… but what alternative was there? Yew was… well, treacherous was putting it lightly. And he didn’t trust anyone in Moonglow.

“Very well. You have answered the question, so you are ready for this,” Robert said. “Let us get started. We have much to do.”
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Blight pt. 1

Post by Valonia »

The nectar and ambrosia are withheld;
And in the midst of spoils and slaves, we thieves
And pirates of the universe, shut out
Daily to a more thin and outward rind,
Turn pale and starve. Therefore to our sick eyes,
The stunted trees look sick, the summer short,
Clouds shade the sun, which will not tan our hay.
And nothing thrives to reach its natural term,
And life, shorn of its venerable length,
Even at its greatest space, is a defeat,
And dies in anger that it was a dupe
- 'Blight' - Ralph Waldo Emerson

----

13 years before the cleansing of the Shrines…

In Valonia’s fourteenth year, there was a difficult growing season. It hadn’t been the first of its kind, nor was it the last, but it was the first time Valonia remembered anything about it. In farms in the high country, crops appeared withered and brown out of season. In lowland farms, it rained so much that either standing water made plowing impossible, or made it so seed rotted in the ground. For midland farms, the plants grew sickly and weak, with only a portion producing a useful yield.

Still, in some farms scattered throughout the northern parts of Britannia (mostly in the surrounding areas of Yew), crops remained relatively unharmed. The explanation the locals gave was that the unfelled trees kept the soil sound, unlike in other parts of Britannia.

As it turned out, Bernhard’s farmstead was one of the places where the crops were able to grow mostly as normal… though there was a distinctly drier, less-fertile area around the boundary of the fields. Still, because of the relative good fortune Bernhard and his family had with their crops, their produce was purchased by some of the surrounding farmers and communities. It was a lucrative year. And perhaps more importantly, Bernhard’s farm, and those similar to it, ensured that desperate famine did not add to the problems Britannians faced.

Though Bernhard was not the sort to profit unfairly from other people’s misfortune, it was still a relatively prosperous time for his family and he hoped to keep it so. So by the following spring, he had readjusted his efforts to ensure greater yields. In addition, anyone who could wield tools or carry a basket for seed was employed in this endeavor. Even Robert, who had no affinity or interest in such things at all, did his share. Everyone from the oldest of Bernhard’s sons, to the youngest of his daughters (who was now old enough to carry a basket of seeds), was dedicated to this task.

By this time, however, Valonia’s grandfather had almost entirely withdrawn, both from his family and others. Instead, he holed himself up in his cabin, eating only when food was brought to him, and conversing rarely, only when spoke to. The winter had not been easy on him, and it was becoming increasingly difficult as time went on.

“Grandfather? I brought you lunch,” Valla said, opening the cabin door with a foot while balancing a plate in each hand.

“Hmh,” came Holtraed’s grunted acknowledgement.

Valla blinked a bit to adjust her eyes to the dark cabin, then spotted her grandfather by the fireplace. The fire was not lit (since it was late spring and too warm for a fire), but Holtraed’s chair remained next to the fireplace and so he continued to sit there. Or doze, more likely. It was shadier here than out in the sun.

“Mother made the beans with roasted pine nuts and mushrooms that you liked,” Valla said, lifting the plates. “I helped pick the mushrooms and nuts.”

She dragged a small table beside his chair, cleared the old plate off it (which contained only half-eaten food), and set the new plates upon the table. It was concerning how little he was eating, but not unexpected.

Holtraed did not turn his head, though his eyes blinked open. “What manner of mushrooms?”

“Morels. I collected them this morning.”

NOW he turned his head toward her, though his pale cataract-plagued eyes couldn’t see her. A careless mistake could mean the death of her family, or render them comatose. “Were they hollow inside?”

“Yes.” Valla nodded, knowing where he was going with this. “I cut them open to make sure. And no, I did not pick any with the thin, browned stems, nor did I pick the red ones or the yellow ones or the brown ones or the—”

“Misshapen ones filled with fibers?”

“I made sure to avoid those too. I do remember what you tell me, you know,” she said, raising a brow at him, even if she didn’t think he could see her gesture given the dark of the cabin and the condition of his eyesight.

“Hmh. Perhaps you do.” Holtraed nodded briefly, satisfied at her recitations. She had been careful. Good. He did not acknowledge the proffered plate, however, proper mushrooms or not. “Who were those people today?”

“The ones with the carts?” It was a bit curious that he knew that people had been over at all, especially given his eyesight problems and his lack of proximity to the road, but Valla knew better than to question her grandfather’s senses. “Oh, I think they were from town. They were here to buy supplies.”

“I do not like encroachers to this place. Especially not those bearing Yew’s corruption,” he said in that peculiar way of his, as if he had any right to judge them. “Bernhard should not allow this.”

“Father is just selling food,” Valla said with a shrug. Perhaps her grandfather was just cranky because he was old? She wasn’t sure how to address his weirdness, so she decided not to bring it up at all. “He could probably take our carts into town, but people are buying things up before we get there. They come here with their own carts. Apparently, a lot of other farms aren’t doing so well.”

“Are they not?”

“No. It was too wet in some places, too dry in others…” Valla waved a hand. She wasn’t exactly a seasoned farmer, and only had some vague understanding of things. She knew the basics, but usually relied on her father or brothers to give her explanations. The farming process didn’t really interest her, even if she acknowledged it was important. “Father would give you a better explanation, probably.”

“I do not need your father’s explanations of plows and seed,” Holtraed acridly replied. “And that does not explain why those people are here. When I gave him permission to till the soil, I expected he would take only enough to provide for his family. Not exploit the land for profit.”

“He isn’t doing it for profit,” Valla returned, feeling inclined to defend her father’s decisions. “Not entirely, anyway. We were just one of the lucky farms. Why not share with others?”

“Luck has little to do with it, Valonia.” Holtraed’s weathered face creased even further into a scowl. “And ‘sharing’ for exchange of currency makes his actions transactional rather than altruistic. It is disingenuous to say otherwise.”

That sounded like sharp criticism, though Valla really couldn’t understand why her grandfather was that upset about it. It all seemed pretty straightforward to her. While she was not some sort of seasoned farmer, she was certainly old enough to know that it was exceedingly normal to sell one’s excess crops.

“Grandfather, why is it wrong to sell our crops rather than give them away?” she asked, not sure whether she should be humoring him, or whether it was just encouraging him to be weirder. “Shouldn’t father be getting something for his labor?”

“You see only a fragment of the situation, child.” Holtraed let out a long sigh, shaking his head slowly even as he knew that her lack of knowledge was directly his fault. And it would continue to be so, as she was still not ready to know. “His labor is not nothing... but you see only the strain of your father’s arm. You do not see the strain on the land, or the cost of what was given, that he in turn gives away.”

Valla did indeed feel like she was missing some information. Her father wasn’t even giving away melons or corn; he was selling them. So what was her grandfather even talking about?

“You’re right; I still don’t see the problem,” she said, starting to feel defensive about the old man’s criticism of her father. “Are you talking about the new fields? Because the way I see it, if we didn’t do something, people would go hungry. That seems more important than the cost of a tree.”

It was hurtful of her to say, knowing as she did how her grandfather venerated the forests -- and Valonia knew that it was hurtful even as the words left her mouth. But she squared her shoulders regardless (as much as a teenage girl was able to do), and stood by her words anyway.

Her grandfather turned his head toward her for a moment, and though his eyes were glossed over with white, Valonia had the strangest feeling he could see her. And in his expression was disappointment. “There is much of your mother’s people in you, child. Perhaps too much. I know that you are resolute in that what you think is the truth, and that you desire to take the actions you see. But I ask you to consider the consequences before it is too late. There is too much at stake.”

His expression became troubled, as he tried to find a way to explain. Something to get through to the youth-stubborn girl. Something to tip the balance in the war of earth and fire within her. Something to mitigate the problem he himself had created with his silence… but something that would not place his burdens upon her shoulders, for there was nothing she would be able to do.

“You are as a fish in a pond,” he began. “Any drop of water you give away means you yourself are less able to breathe. What remains here is… finite. And the rains… they are far too long in coming. I know that what your father does, he does through ignorance. That is my fault, and my shame. In my folly, I allowed it and maintained silence. Now, I can only hope that my words to him do not come too late. But perhaps there is time for you yet. Valonia… if it is not already too late, this land and the responsibility of it may yet pass to you one day. Yet your words show that, like so many of your mother’s and uncle’s people, you seek to aid through destruction. But I must caution you: destroying this place --even though you seek to help others by doing so-- will not help those you wish to. Not to any great extent. The problem is greater than ourselves or the land. You cannot aid others if you yourself are in peril.”

Perhaps it had already begun and he had not seen?

Holtraed knew of Robert’s subterfuge, though it was minor and well-intentioned semi-deception. He knew of Bernhard’s mostly well-intentioned selling of crops -- though by Holtraed’s reckoning, it bordered on unjustly profiteering from misfortune. He knew of Deanna’s rejection of the past, and her choice to dissuade her children from magical influences. And though she had very sound reasons for her decision, it was intentionally choosing ignorance over truth.

He had seen these things in others, yet had refrained from turning his gaze upon himself. Was he himself perpetuating wrongs, while believing that he was justified? Had maintaining silence harmed more than it had protected? Was he undermining his own beliefs, his own objectivity, by believing his family’s safety was more important than the preservation of all?

Had he already failed? Had the wrongs of the world already seeped in?

The lines on his face deepened with his scowl, and he felt a growing sense of dread that what he had feared had already come to pass.

Valla, however, only barely understood her grandfather’s words. How did they get from the normal exchange of crops to the utter destruction of the farm?? Somehow she was a destructive fish?? And what did her mother or uncle have to do with this? What peril?? And what was finite about any of this?

“This is a farm, grandfather,” she said bluntly. “What do you mean ‘finite’?”

“I mean that what is here cannot be replaced,” he said solemnly. Not with the world as it was, anyway.

He stroked his beard in thought. Now that he turned his mind to it, he could see it had already begun. Not only because of Bernhard’s actions, but because of Holtraed’s own. He had been blind, in more ways than one. Or perhaps what they faced was too insidious for them to resist indefinitely? While that was certainly true, it also abdicated responsibility for their own actions. Their decisions had brought them to this point, and there was no undoing them.

“I understood the word,” Valla was saying, drawing him back from his thoughts. “But what part is ‘finite’? We have plenty of water, and irrigation isn’t a problem.”

She felt smart that she remembered something about the conversations she heard her father and brothers having.

“We can grow as much as we have space for, can’t we?” she continued. “How is doing that destroying anything??”

Holtraed remained silent, his jaw clenching, not sure where to begin with that. Perhaps it was futile to expect the child to go against her own nature. Perhaps she simply had too much fire in her for any other path to be tenable. Perhaps she was too lacking in patience. Perhaps he should simply accept who she was, and not hold out hope for something else.

Valla had the feeling she’d said something wrong, but she genuinely had no idea what that was. “Grandfather, I don’t understand. How is it not fixable? Can we just… put something back into the ground?”

Her uncle Robert had been burying those metal runes around the perimeter, after all. Wasn’t that supposed to help keep back the weird browning of crops?

“No. The land itself is tainted,” Holtraed explained quietly, knowing the girl would not understand. “Much as soil tainted by fungus, anything planted now in such ground will perpetuate the wrong. Though the plants may survive and grow, they will grow infected and serve only to pass on the infection.”

It was why he wanted to be burned rather than buried, as had his father before him, and his grandfather before that.

The girl was growing in troubled times. It was difficult to know how far the corruption went, how much the corruption had found its place within her heart. Would she start with good motives and find them distorted and wrong? Was she already under the influence of whatever had poisoned the land? Was this pride and fire part of the corruption that had taken hold of the land? Holtraed did not want to believe such, but he also had no gift of prognostication. He could not see how her traits and habits would turn out.

But far worse was that Holtraed had no way to make her see. He spoke the words, yes, but she did not understand. How could she? This was the only reality she knew. He could caution her, but she was young. She lacked restraint and wisdom. Though she had moments of compassion, she was also all too possessed of the selfishness of youth.

And Robert’s actions could not fix what was already happening. His attempts were a patch in a crumbling wall. The old man could not deny Robert was skilled at his work even in spite of his infirmities, but too much of the barrier was breaking down, and neither he nor Holtraed had the ability to restore what was lost. A patch, no matter how well-implemented, could not supplant the entire wall.

Meanwhile, Valla felt her grandfather was being deliberately vague and incomprehensible. Fungus now? How was she supposed to make sense of that? She also felt he was harboring some sort of important secret. What taint? What wrong? She was frustrated that he didn’t seem willing to give her answers, yet was holding her accountable for her ignorance.

“What do you mean?” she said, briefly treating this as serious rather than what was more likely ramblings from old people. “Are you saying we should be turning people away? Should Father stop growing things?”

“Yes, though he will not.”

“If he did though, would that fix things?” Valla pressed.

Holtraed considered that, then shook his head. It was too late for that now. “No. It would only slow down the permeating wrong.”

Valla wasn’t sure whether she was irritated or worried about her grandfather’s doomsaying. “What ‘permeating wrong’?”

“That, I will not say.”

“Why though?”

“Do not ask further, child. That is a burden for different shoulders.” He settled back in his chair, clearly considering the matter concluded.

“Says who? My shoulders are here, and this is my business,” Valla said stubbornly. “If there is a problem, then I will do something to stop it. We all will. If something is amiss, surely you can tell us and we will all fix it together.”

She had always gotten along with him before, but this was frustrating to her. She didn’t like her grandfather’s vagueness, and liked even less the idea that they were supposed to sit and wait for whatever doom and gloom he thought was coming. She didn’t even understand what he was saying was the trouble!

“It is beyond fixing,” Holtraed said, turning to her with his pale eyes. “The only thing in our control is to endure.”

That irritated Valla. Her grandfather made such a big deal about her father’s actions somehow destroying things, and his solution was… to sit back and do nothing??

“How are we supposed to endure if we do nothing to change things??” she said in frustration, her tone a little harsher than she intended. “Isn’t that just hoping and wishing things will change while doing nothing to ensure it does??”

“You cannot fight against this storm. Only weather it,” he said wearily.

His purpose, and the purpose of places such as this, was to preserve, to maintain, and to endure. What was here was fragile and finite, and he had been entrusted with the keeping of it. Besides, even if this place were spent, it would not be enough. He knew that as instinctively as he knew the changing of seasons, or the smell of rain on the air.

Yet there were people who needed to be preserved too, until things got better, until the world righted itself. If it ever would. Bernhard was not wrong for what he was doing, even if he was not right either. There were simply no satisfactory answers. And none would be coming. Holtraed feared for the future, knowing that he would not be alive to see the end of all this. And things were becoming all too dire.

“You are dissatisfied with my answers, child. I understand.” Holtraed let out a long sigh, feeling very tired and very old. “But I do not know the answers anymore, Valonia. The world has changed too much. I know only my purpose, or what it once was. Perhaps it is meant for us to pass from this land.”

The despair in him gave Valla pause. For all the frustration she held toward her grandfather, she certainly didn’t despise him. She was just stymied by whatever it was that ailed him. She could see clearly that something bothered him (something other than old age), and she wanted to help… but she had no way to fix it. She didn’t have the knowledge, didn’t have the ability, and was missing some important context. She couldn’t shoot this problem with her bow, nor could she punch it, or hit it with a stick. She was out of ideas. She didn’t have any answers, didn’t know what to do, and didn’t have any words to offer.

But she could see he was sad, and for lack of any other ideas, she placed a hand on his shoulder.

Holtraed could not see her, but he felt the gentle pressure of her hand. He appreciated the gesture even if it did nothing to alleviate the weight in his heart, and patted the girl’s hand gently.

The child had heart, even if her actions were clumsy and blunt. But perhaps there was hope for her yet. Perhaps corruption had not taken full hold. Perhaps she could still be trained where her father had refused. After all, Valonia thought Holtraed was wrong, yet still regarded him sympathetically. Perhaps it was a budding awareness to the connections people held toward each other? Holtraed had been concerned that her loyalties made her intentionally and willfully blind to anything outside of it, but he supposed that was to be expected from a girl her age. Perhaps time would give her the wisdom to see past such things.

He hoped that her heart and loyalties would not be turned against her, as had the best traits of the people he had known. He feared for the future, knowing there was nothing he could do at this point to change it.

“Do not listen to the worries of an old man, child,” he said gently, not willing to worry her over his own dark thoughts. “The problems I speak of are between your father and myself.”

“…alright,” Valla said, unsure whether to believe him, or whether he was simply trying to set her mind at ease.

“Go back and tell your mother that the mushrooms were prepared well. Thank her for me, and thank you for searching for them,” he said.

It was honest enough. Though he had no appetite these days, he could smell the seasonings Deanna had put into the food and knew she was skilled at it. Much like her brother Robert, she knew quite well the properties of plants and reagents. Still, though it was almost a shame she rejected the past as much as she did, it meant she was far less likely than her brother to set the kitchen ablaze.

“You’re welcome,” Valla said, her expression and tone brightening. “I found this spot by the creek, and I think I’ll go back because it had all sorts of them. I only collected a few of them and—”

Holtraed smiled slightly at the girl’s enthusiasm and chatter as she talked about mushroom locations. He no longer possessed such energy, of course. But he could still appreciate it in others. And as much as he lacked the interest or time in the girl’s chatter, it was a small bright spot in an increasingly bleak world.

“Yes, I understand, Valonia,” he interrupted her chatter. Though he appreciated her energy, he simply did not possess enough of it himself to listen to such things. Besides, he already knew. How could he not? The creek held some of the oldest trees on the property. “Though I also understand you are using foraging as an excuse to spend time with that neighbor child. While I do not approve of your father’s methods, it is clear he requires help with his farming. I suggest you spend more time with that than on mushrooms.”

“Oh. Um. Well… Brand was just helping gather them,” Valla said defensively, feeling a warmth creeping into her cheeks.

“Ah. I see,” Holtraed said, his expression stern, though his eyes had long since lost their sight.

Brand, was it? In the old language, it meant both fire and sword. He did not like that omen. Did not like it one bit. Not only was Valonia too young for such things, but Holtraed was not about to give his approval to anyone bearing such an ill-favored name. He wanted the girl to be happy, but not at that price.

What was that verse Robert occasionally muttered to himself? We sell the world to buy fire, our way lighted by burning men…?

“As I said, your father requires help,” the old man emphasized. “I do not need your forage so badly that I would have you neglect your other duties. Understood?”

Valla seemed chagrined. “Yes, grandfather.”

Holtraed trusted her words as much as he trusted any young teenager’s – which was none. He would have to have words with Bernhard. They did not need some fiery-essenced young hooligan traipsing about their lands. Robert was bad enough. At least his sister Deanna had the sense to find alternate paths.

But just to soften his words, he nodded toward the plate he could smell. “Thank you for bringing me this, however.”

“Oh, um. You are welcome, grandfather.” Valla nodded politely, her earlier enthusiasm dissipating. “I will bring these old plates back.”

As she said, the girl collected the plates. And as she left the cabin, Holtraed stroked his beard, feeling a sense of looming trouble.
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Blight pt. 2

Post by Valonia »

Give me truths,
For I am weary of the surfaces,
And die of inanition. If I knew
Only the herbs and simples of the wood...
...rare and virtuous roots, which in these woods
Draw untold juices from the common earth,
Untold, unknown, and I could surely spell
Their fragrance, and their chemistry apply
By sweet affinities to human flesh,
Driving the foe and stablishing the friend,—
O that were much, and I could be a part
Of the round day, related to the sun,
And planted world, and full executor
Of their imperfect functions.
- 'Blight' - Ralph Waldo Emerson



Regardless of what Holtraed may have wanted or warned, Bernhard’s actions did in fact result in a more lucrative year. But unbeknownst to the would-be farmer, Bernhard’s prosperity was not seen with grateful eyes by the rest of his neighbors. Rather, there was a growing resentment creeping throughout their hearts and minds, and his ideas of ‘generosity’ did little but fan the flames of it.

It all started out reasonable enough. Bernhard was doing better than others, so clearly he had to be doing something differently. Was there something he was doing that others could be as well?

But then they began to ask other questions. What knowledge was he hiding from others? Could he be hiding other things? Was his prosperity because of his family’s past?

Though druidic history was rife throughout the area, not every farmer maintained so direct a connection (mostly because druids seemed to have little interest in tilling the ground). And though Holtraed refused anything to do with Yew, it was readily apparent to others what he was -- he made little secret of it. He even still bore a yew staff cultivated from ancient boughs. But in spite of the help he had offered others in his younger years, the old man’s present disdain was clear. It was clear to others that Holtraed was his powers to aid his son, while despising the people around him. So not only was it insulting, but that harbored knowledge was unequal, and therefore unfair. It gave Bernhard an advantage that others did not have, and he was prospering where others could not. It was even more of an insult that Bernhard himself refused to see the advantages he had been given, claiming it was a result of hard work and good luck… and not whatever mysterious druidic secrets were obviously at play.

Resentment began to breed contempt. How was it that Bernhard was justified to profit from the misfortune of others? If people were in need, surely those people were entitled to that aid – not a sole farmer whose father had cut ties with the community long ago. It was some sort of insult that Bernhard was gaining fortune while others were suffering, especially while treating the greater community as some sort of blight or thing to be shunned. It was a problem, an injustice, and something that needed to be remedied.

So it was that from the barbed roots of contempt grew equally-barbed intentions.

----

In early autumn, a large portion of the harvest had come in and was ready for trade. As was common in the area, able-bodied adults would bring the carts to Yew and handle business there. This meant that Bernhard, Deanna, Robert, and Bernhard’s sons Sten and Arne would go early in the morning, while Valonia and her sister Rowan were to stay home with their grandfather (mostly because none of them would have been of much use hauling supplies or driving the ox-carts).

It wasn’t an uncommon or strange decision; children had been left behind during other trips to town with no worry. The journey was only a few hours by cart or foot, and even in these times, threats were few and far between. Even with the risk of goblins present, Valonia had her bow, the dogs were alert and had been trained for such dangers, and both girls were old enough to tend to things during the time their parents and siblings were gone. Besides, though Holtraed’s eyes were dim, his disposition generally poor, and his arms now unsuited for the carrying of heavy burdens, he was still capable of handling himself against goblins. Besides, goblins disliked the sun and usually only became active when the sun began to set. Anticipating the threat of monsters, the adults planned to be back long before then. Whatever contracts were made in town would simply have to be completed the next day. Monsters were a threat that could be somewhat planned around.

Human threats, however, were more difficult to anticipate.

It was mid-morning when the bandits struck the granaries. The dogs barked out a warning and tried to stop the interlopers in the fields, but bows and axes made quick work of the would-be guardians, especially when wielded by hands that knew the threat of wolves and worse. The only things the bandits found in the granaries were seed for the next season, and some grain meant to last the winter. Perhaps the thieves expected to find extra secret hidden supplies Bernhard was supposedly holding back, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. No more than any other farm in the area. Their looting, however, gave the girls time to flee.

The girls had heard the warning the dogs had given, so using the time their guardians had bought them, Valonia and Rowan fled back to the house, barring the doors and windows. Though they would have preferred to find some way to keep the animals safe, they eventually left them to their own devices.

The bandits next headed toward the barn, which the girls had vacated. The thieves led off what animals they could, even though some of the cows and goats fled toward the fields or the forests. Some of the animals, the thieves killed out of spite. The sound of beasts dying was audible even to the hiding girls.

The next building along the path, the large shed, held preserved foods such as canned meats and the dry cheeses made to last the winter. As Valonia and Rowan watched between the slight gaps in the barred wooden shutters, the bandits carried away armfuls of supplies. That was more along the lines of what the thieves were after, after all. So for a moment, as Valonia and Rowan hid in the barred and sealed house that was becoming oppressively hot in the autumn sun, they hoped that the bandits would be satisfied with their spoils and leave.

But then the bandits turned toward the main house, the next building along the path.

Valonia did not know what the bandits hoped to find, but she wasn’t willing to find out. In preparation, she nocked an arrow and watched the door intently. She knew without looking that she had twelve arrows, all ones she had made herself. She didn’t want to think of whether she had enough, or whether she would miss -- or even what would happen even if she struck true. In spite of her words that she wanted to fight, the fourteen-year-old was not some hardened battle veteran. She was simply trying to steady her hands and ignore the pounding beat in her chest.

Behind her, with her feet on the ladder leading toward the loft where they slept, was her sister Rowan. Valonia had told her to hide in the loft, cover herself, and remain silent. Though Rowan was not willing to leave her sister entirely alone to the defense of the house, the eight-year-old was simply not capable of aiding in any meaningful way. Nor could she run fast enough to reach their grandfather’s cabin which was further along the path. The bandits were at the door, and their grandfather’s cabin was a fair distance away. Neither Rowan nor Valonia had much hope that they would be able to reach it without being seen.

An unspoken fear rested in both their minds: what if the bandits had already dealt with their grandfather already?

Footsteps sounded on the wooden deck, and then the wall thudded as the weight of something heavy rammed against the door. Though the heavy logs used in the construction of the large cabin were solid, the hinges of the door were not, nor was the doorframe. She could see it start to give way with each blow. So when the door burst inward as she expected it would, and she saw the first sign of a human face, she loosed her arrow around the height of a chest. Then another arrow.

Ten. She had ten arrows. She focused on that, rather than on what she’d done.

The intruder fell back, but only to be replaced by another. Valonia didn’t know whether she had actually killed a person or not, or whether her current efforts would kill someone, but she couldn’t let herself focus on that.

Nine arrows. Eight. Seven.

One of the arrows went into the door that had been slammed back, but there was a pause, as if waiting. She could hear banging on the shutters, voices (though she was far too afraid to understand what they were saying), and then footsteps once more on the wooden deck. She couldn’t tell whether there were two bandits or twenty. All she knew was that she had seven arrows left and Rowan was frozen on the ladder behind her.

“Get to the loft! Hide!” Val hiss-whispered to the girl behind her.

The 8-year-old obeyed, not knowing what else to do.

There were more footsteps approaching on the deck. Half-whispered conversation. Someone moved the door back once more, peeking around the corner. She loosed another arrow.

Six arrows. Five. Four. Three.

Some of the arrows went awry. But there was blood on the floor, so at least some of her arrows had struck true. Valonia didn’t want to think about that, but she couldn’t afford not to. She wasn’t sure if some of the targets she’d taken aim at were actually people trying to enter, or whether they were just moving the door to distract her.

Three arrows left. Then two.

Suddenly, there came frantic cries and scuffling. The sound of footsteps retreating from the deck. Muffled screams cut short, the sound of heavy forms falling, and lots of scrambling.

Valonia wasn’t sure she could trust in the bandits’ retreat. She tucked the arrow in the waist of her leggings, then and ran toward the door with the intent of pushing it closed as best she could. By this time, the doorframe had been broken, and the hinge shattered, but the heavy wooden door would be some manner of barricade by itself.

But looking outside, she saw a menagerie of animals. Flocks of low-lying ground birds swarmed around the cabin, their wings beating at any bandit that didn’t flee fast enough. Foxes nipped at heels while badgers snarled threateningly. Wolves prowled the perimeter, their calls sounding strange in the middle of the day. Coyotes (who would not normally be this close to the larger canines due to their competitions for territory), loped along the field to examine the fallen. A large bear battled in the near distance.

An elk galloped toward her, and in fear, Valonia raised her bow, grabbed the arrow she had tucked into her leggings, and nocked the arrow. Elk could be aggressive, she knew, and now was a terrible time to be overcome by the wildlife along with the bandits.

But the massive animal slowed to a stop before her, and regarded her with eyes of a dark liquid brown. Its breath came in a low huff, and it was so close that Valonia could feel the warmth of it on her forehead as it loomed above her. For a brief moment, it just looked at her. Then it slowly turned its massive antlered head toward the bear, and Valonia felt drawn to do the same.

Now that Valonia was focusing on it, she could see that the bear was old, with large ragged teeth, and pale eyes that saw nothing -- but it did not need to. Claws still lashed out in terrible strikes, and though blood stained the graying fur of its chest, it raged with deadly intent.

…and the bear was her grandfather, she realized. The idea was insane, but she understood it instinctively, with senses she didn’t fully understand.

Her grandfather had been outnumbered, that was clear from the bodies that were scattered around him. But he still fought. And whether or not confronting him had been the bandits’ original intent, there were a few who stood their ground. One was aiming for him.

Valonia let loose her own arrow. She followed with her last arrow even before seeing the first strike true. She then ran toward the fight even if all she had left was an empty bow and quiver. She hadn’t realized she was screaming in rage until she saw animals screaming with her, their voices carrying where hers did not. Small birds flapped their wings in agitation and shrieked a cacophony, while foxes yipped and bared small pointed teeth. (The wolves, meanwhile, stared silently at their progress, unwilling to be commanded by some child. While they would not leave their present banquet to chase at the heels of a shrieking girl, they turned their eyes toward what might be another meal.)

The girl’s efforts were well-intentioned, but unnecessary. Though her noise distracted the last combatants, her grandfather finished off the last of his assailants with teeth still strong --if broken. And with that, the threat was gone.

The bear was gone soon after, leaving only her grandfather prone and bleeding into the earth.

Valonia ran up to him, and with some effort, was able to turn him onto his back. A dark spot had formed on the front of his robes, though the girl could not tell whether it was from an axe or an arrow. She pressed a palm against it, dimly aware that keeping the blood inside him was important. The animals scattered, though Valonia didn’t notice that part. She had stopped paying attention to them, and they had done the same for her. Instead, she focused on her grandfather, and the growing stain on his chest.

Blood dried more brown than red, she noted, feeling distant and numb.

His breath came in ragged gasps, but his pale gaze was steady. He looked at her, and somehow past her. Valonia never really knew whether he had seen her at that last moment, for he both lacked vision and didn’t, but she remembered his words.

“Preserve…” he whispered. “…protect.”

“I do not know how,” she whispered back.

He reached up to her face, and with a gnarled fingertip covered in blood, drew lines upon her forehead. She didn’t need to see the rune to know what he’d drawn. The Elk.

It was message enough, and she knew what he meant. She had studied the runes for this long; how could she not know? For all the simplifications they had used for the rune, for all the ‘translations’ her uncle had tried to make, there were deeper meanings that her uncle Robert was simply not privy to. But here and now, her grandfather was referring to the hidden meanings, the ones her uncle would not have known. After all, it had once upon a time been a language to the druids; not merely a mark one used to bring about an effect.

And in one mark, he said all he needed to.

On the surface, the Elk merely represented protection. But past the surface meaning, it meant facing fear. Protection was not easily won without trial or sacrifice, and the need to conquer fears rather than be ruled by them was what earned it. In the old meanings, the rune also represented consciousness or awareness. It was a protective teaching energy, but it also meant listening to that energy. It meant a long journey to find it, and to find temperance and wisdom. And like the antlers of the elk, or the branches of the yew reaching toward the sky, it meant opening oneself to higher purpose and meaning.

That was the message he was giving her. That was what he was telling her to do.

But all of that was daunting. How was she even supposed to start? Was she supposed to just manifest all of that out of nowhere? Was she supposed to believe it would just pop up suddenly, even after she’d failed? How was she supposed to have courage in spite of fear, when the threats were all too real and all too present? How was she supposed to protect others when she could barely protect herself?

She wanted to ask him these questions (and far more), but the time for questions was over. Her grandfather’s hand fell to his side, and he lay still.

----

It was several hours later before the adults came home. With a numb, small voice, Valonia told them what had happened. She and Rowan had not been able to move him, or any of the bodies, and they had not done anything to chase the animals. The girls had been comforted as best as they could, then sent to bed. Valonia’s brothers were tasked with checking the perimeter, while her parents and uncle tried to make some sense of the chaos.

Valonia, of course, could not sleep. She crept from bed to watch the adults, though she knew she should not.

Her father was collecting her grandfather’s body. The old man’s body was light from age, and it was no effort for Bernhard to lift it. Grief was etched in the lines on his face, but his eyes remained dry and his back unbowed as he turned toward the cabin Holtraed had occupied in life. He would not leave his father’s body in the dirt -- though it occurred to him that perhaps the man himself might have wanted that.

Meanwhile, Robert made as if to protest, but Deanna put a hand on his arm and shook her head. In defiance of his sister’s silent request, Robert called out, “Delaying this will not change his wishes.”

“Now is not the time, Robert.” Deanna’s eyes shot daggers at her brother and his stubborn persistence. “Give him some time to pay his respects. We can discuss this in the morning.”

Bernhard did not even turn around, or even acknowledge his wife’s comment… though perhaps his heavy silence was confirmation enough.

“We may not have such time,” insisted Robert, ignoring his sister’s pointed glares. Though she might have had a point, he believed there were more important things at stake than sparing his old friend’s feelings.

That got a reaction from the bearded man.

“He is dead,” snapped Bernhard. “One more day will not change matters.”

“Yes, he is dead. And this land, for all its problems, possesses a vitality it lends even to the deceased. What he asked of me… Bernhard, your father is trying to protect you and your family,” Robert insisted. “That was the reason for his request, and you know it as well as I. The wards have fallen. It is not safe. If they have weakened enough to allow violence to happen here, then allowing undeath may not be far behind.”

“He was strong,” Bernhard said. “He will not succumb.”

“He was strong, which is why he would be a threat,” Robert warned, watching the other man bring the body into the cabin. “You saw the animals.”

Bernhard said nothing. Nor did Deanna, who stood at the door of the cabin, barring the way to her brother. She folded her arms across her chest and looked at him in disapproval. And though she was loathe to draw a blade on family, the hilts at her waist were reminders that her weapons were not crippled by the muddied ether.

The fireplace remained dormant and Holtraed’s cabin was dark, though the windows had been opened to allow the last light of the day into the small dwelling. There was little of it left, however. The clouds were starting to form, dimming what little light would have remained.

Bernhard placed his father’s body down on the bed, and composed it, folding the old man’s hands together over a fragment of the yew staff that served him in life. It had inexplicably broken… though for some reason, that came as no surprise. Though Bernhard had not taken that path in life, he knew enough about it to understand. But the broken staff was yet another reminder of the reality of the situation.

He pointedly avoided looking at the dark blood staining the old man’s robe, and he moved back outside the cabin, looking out onto the carnage. It wasn’t much better than being inside the cabin, really… but with his back to it, he wouldn’t be able to see through the windows or the bloodied body that remained within.

Deanna moved toward him and silently placed a hand on her husband’s shoulder in support.

Robert followed after the two, trying to find a sensitive way of returning to the matter at hand. “Bernhard…”

“We have traditions. And burning him is not the way,” Bernhard said solemnly. “His body should be prepared the right way. He should be buried with a seed of yew. He earned that. Do not tell me he did not.”

There were other trees, of course, but he knew his father. And although Holtraed had turned aside from yew and its symbolism, it still fit him best.

“He did…” Robert ceded. “But he also turned aside from that tradition long ago, as have you.”

While he wasn’t about to say as much to Bernhard, Robert silently believed that yew was wholly inappropriate, given the choices Holtraed had made. While Robert was not privy to the secrets of druids, he suspected Holtraed was correct that burying him in such a manner would only preserve the wrongness that existed presently.

The problem was that there was no real way of testing such a theory. Robert couldn’t very well partly burn Holtraed’s body to see what would happen. It was horrific and disrespectful to hack the old man’s corpse to pieces to partially burn it. And it was too dangerous (from his perspective) to leave it unburnt.

“The world has changed,” he continued, trying to figure out some way of getting through to Bernhard. “We can no longer afford--”

“Can you not wait ONE DAY to burn him??” Bernard rounded on the man, feeling a sudden surge of anger and rage at Robert’s dogged persistence. He had thought the other man was his friend! So why insist right now? Why continue to pursue this when Bernhard had already said no? Had it been a mistake to welcome Robert here? Hadn’t his runes been supposed to do something?? “Are you that eager to remove any trace of him? Did you hate him that much?”

Though taken aback by his old friend’s vehemence, Robert refused to back down. “Hatred has nothing to do with this. I respected Holtraed. I am simply saying we cannot allow sentimentality to make decisions for us. We handle threats in only one wa--”

Bernhard’s fist rammed against Robert’s face, knocking him sideways, and he looked at his old friend with fury in his eyes.

“Bernhard!” Deanna shouted, moving toward her husband swiftly to stop him from drawing his hand back once more. Violence like this was unusual of him… but the circumstances were unusual.

“That ‘threat’ you are so eager to burn was my father!” Bernhard shouted, though he didn’t make any move to strike Robert again.

Robert rubbed his jaw, not surprised to see blood coming from his mouth. He spat it out, and looked at his old friend with anger, sorrow, and defiance. “And this is why he trusted me with this task, and not you.”

“Stop it, Bernhard. Let this rest for tonight.” Deanna preemptively grabbed hold of her husband’s arm. She turned to her brother, her eyes flashing in anger. “Robert, can you stop being an insensitive ass for one night?”

As if to emphasize her words, thunder sounded, warning of a coming storm. The storm seemed an appropriate mourner for a man who had followed the flows of nature for most of his life. And as sprinkles of rain began to fall, they provided a fittingly somber atmosphere to the whole affair.

For a moment, Robert looked as if he would say something in response to his sister’s comment. But he closed his mouth, scowling slightly. Part of him understood Deanna’s concerns, and understood her loyalty to her husband… but as sympathetic as he might be, there was a clear and present danger. It was just frustrating that these people were unwilling to address it.

Bernhard glanced up at the rain, then turned away from who he had once believed to be his oldest friend. “Nothing can happen tonight anyway. The rain will assure that.”

He wasn’t outright ignoring his old friend… but he was clearly not addressing Robert either. There was only the right way of doing things, and surely that should simply come naturally. What sort of beast was Robert that he would seriously consider desecrating the body of a family member?? Not only that, but Bernhard also refused to be forced into action. If the other man couldn’t understand the need for certain traditions and values, and connections to one’s past, and couldn’t respect Bernhard enough to give him the courtesy of time, then perhaps he wasn’t the person Bernhard had thought he was.

“I suppose we can all just go to sleep pretending nothing is amiss,” Robert said, unable to keep scorn out of his voice. He was not addressing Bernhard directly, but he couldn’t entirely ignore what the other man had said. Surely it was clear that there was a threat present. Emotions and traditions were surely less important than assessing the present danger. If Bernhard couldn’t understand the need to take action when the circumstances demanded it, perhaps he wasn’t the person Robert had thought he was.

Bernhard did not acknowledge that response, instead heading back up the path toward the main house. Whatever he might have had to say at it remained unsaid, though the tightness in the man’s shoulders and fists made it clear that it was not something that would calm the situation.

Deanna looked between them, both at the tense and angry posture of her husband’s withdrawing form, and her brother’s expression of defiance. She then raked a hand through her hair, before shooting a glance at her older brother. “He just lost his father, Robert. Try to have a little sympathy. We may not have liked ours, but Bernhard actually cared about his.”

Robert let out a long sigh. “I know. You do not have to tell me.”

“Oh, I think I do.” Deanna eyed her brother critically. “I know you. And I know you are thinking something. But I am asking you not to.”

“Not to what?”

“Not to do whatever it is you are planning,” she said bluntly. “Whatever ‘solution’ you are thinking of implementing. Whatever you think is more important than preserving your friendship with him.”

“And if some things are more important?” Robert looked away, ashamed but unwilling to divert his course. “I would rather have his hatred than his death. Yours and the children’s as well.”

“Robert, it is no longer your responsibility to look after me,” Deanna said, though gently. She was not without sympathy, after all. “That role has been reversed for some time. So please listen to me. This was a tragedy, yes. But no one could have known. I know you want to do something, take action, or make some sense out of the situation, but burning Holtraed now will not undo his death, merely alienate the living. Do you not think you are inflating the dangers just a little?”

Robert knew his sister was a pragmatic woman, perhaps far more than himself. For that reason alone, he decided to level with her. He knew she might be able to listen to reason.

“I truly do not know, Anna.” He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “All I know is that there is a permeating wrongness to things, and that I cannot stop it.”

It was a humbling admission, but an honest one. His knowledge on this was limited. Unfortunately, he did not have the luxury of investigating the situation fully and entirely before taking action.

“I may not be able to change the past, and I cannot stop what may come in the future, but I can do this,” he said in determination. “If I am incorrect, and I burn Holtraed in error, Bernhard may miss out on some traditional funeral rites. But if I am right, we may prevent undeath, or the perpetuation of whatever ailment this is that plagues Britannia. I truly hope for the best, Anna. Please believe that I truly hope I am wrong and nothing will come of leaving him unburnt. But the world is not that kind. Holtraed himself asked me to burn him. If he were to rise, you and I both know Bernhard would be unwilling to attack his father. And I do not know how places like this affect… well, anything.”

He gestured to the druid glade that had long since been turned into a farm.

“Would planting Holtraed in the dirt add the wrongness to the structure of the glade?” he theorized. “Would the wrongness corrupt what other wards remain? I do not have those answers. I am doing the best I know how.”

“Yes… I saw the metal runes.” Deanna frowned, and planted her hands on her hips. It was clear from her expression that she was at least processing what he’d said, regardless of whether she agreed with him or not. “I wondered why you would use those. You believe barriers are thinner here, then?”

“Yes.” Robert nodded, knowing Deanna would understand. She was the only one here with the background to do so. Bernhard had turned aside from such paths a long time ago. “Not interdimensional ones, perhaps? But barriers of a different sort. I do not fully understand, but I am acting on the best knowledge I have.”

“You could still be wrong about it all,” Deanna pointed out. “Both about the runes, and the nature of the glade’s ‘barrier’. You could be doing nothing. This could all simply be misfortune.”

“Yes, it is possible,” Robert ceded. “But it is a calculated gamble. If I take action, it may be fruitless. But if I do nothing, I am letting whatever happens come to pass. You know I cannot stand aside.”

The rain was starting to come down harder.

“You should tell him.” Deanna regarded her brother steadily. “He needs to know that your motives aren’t merely spite.”

“He would not understand,” replied Robert, feeling a keen sense of loss. “And if he would automatically assume my motives are spite, is it worth trying to convince him otherwise?”

Deanna frowned. It sounded an awful lot like Robert was coming up with reasons to avoid talking to Bernhard. “Give him a chance. After all the years you have known each other, has he not earned that much?”

He paused for a moment, then ceded, mostly to placate her. “…alright, alright. Perhaps. But give me a bit of time.”

He leaned back against Holtraed’s cabin, crossed his arms, and looked out at the impending storm. The rain was already soaking the woodpile, as well as the ground. Bernhard was not entirely wrong about the storm preventing the burning of Holtraed’s body. Even in the few moments of just standing here, Robert’s own tunic was becoming soaked, and the wind was all wrong for safely building a fire.

Deanna was unbothered, having long since adopted the dress and manner of the people of this place. The leather tunic had been prepared against the weather, and the leggings she wore shed water easily. She regarded her brother’s plight with some sympathy, but ultimately believed he was creating his own discomfort by stubbornly refusing to adapt, and expecting the world to bend to his will.

“Very well. It is probably best you give him some time to cool down anyway. But do not be too long,” she said. “The storm is almost upon us. Just come to the main house for the night. We can make up the common room for you to stay the night. Do not worry about returning to your cabin for tonight, especially given the circumstances. Besides, family should support each other in these times anyway.”

It was a touching statement, Robert thought. He nodded silently, though he kept his arms crossed over his chest.

“I will not be long. I just have some matters to think on,” he said.

Deanna nodded in reply, then headed back up the path where her husband had gone.

Robert stood there in silence for some time, watching the storm roll in.

His sister was right, of course, that Robert should give him a chance. Bernhard was normally reasonable, and their friendship had spanned a long time. There was no other person Robert trusted more to have his back. Even Deanna had no reservations about questioning Robert’s actions, or motives, or approach. But with Bernhard, support had always been guaranteed. The man had earned an explanation at the very least.

And yet… in spite of how much Robert valued that friendship, he decided he couldn’t afford Bernhard’s refusal. Not this time. This was far too important to leave the decision in his hands.

He turned toward the woodpile, and began to gather some wood to place it in the field. It was miserable work, especially in the growing storm, but he believed it had to be done. Purpose gave him strength, and the work went quickly in spite of the storm. Entering the cabin, he quickly gathered up the old man’s body, wrapping him in the blankets that covered his bed. It was a shoddy shroud, but it was the best Robert could manage. He continued to pile the wood around the body, trying to ensure enough fuel for this grim task.

However, it was on his final trip when he realized he wasn’t alone. Valonia stood there, watching him silently. Apparently, she had watched him the whole time he was gathering the wood. She had covered herself against the rain with her small cloak that blew in the wind, and with her hood up, she looked every bit like a fledging druid.

It almost gave Robert pause.

“What are you doing here, Valla?” he said gently, knowing she had been through an ordeal as well. “You should be back at the house.”

“You will burn him, won’t you?” she said.

For a moment, Robert felt a little judged for his actions, like the girl was confronting him somehow. Those thoughts were simply imaginings born of the storm and the circumstances, of course, but the impression was difficult to shake. Especially as he was in a druid glade, among the children of druids, planning to burn one of their own to preserve that very same druid’s kin, while a storm raged at the death of that druid. Of course the impression stuck with him.

Still, Robert had always been defiant before, and he would not change now. He would not to avert his course, nor would he allow circumstances –especially not nature-- to dictate his fate. His kind were not druids, after all, as Holtraed himself had found need to so frequently remind him. And like his kind, Robert too believed that it was his purpose and responsibility to use his will to surmount reality.

“Yes,” he said simply, refusing to deny his actions or balk at confrontation. “And if you heard that much, then you know why I believe it to be best.”

“Yes,” Valonia replied simply in kind.

“What do you intend to do?” Robert asked. “Do you plan to tell your father?”

While the child herself could not stop Robert, Bernhard was capable of it. And if she ran back now, Bernhard might very well be able to prevent what Robert intended. Really, it was a wonder that she had not done so earlier.

Robert couldn’t exactly fault the child if she had. But he hoped she would understand. Of all Bernhard’s children, she had the potential to be something other than simply a servant to trees and rocks.

For a moment, Valonia didn’t answer, though her expression was conflicted. She looked to the woodpile, which was almost right for Holtraed’s makeshift bier, and the wrapped body of her grandfather, who lay upon it. Among the storm and wind and wood, as if lying in state.

“He wanted us to protect people,” she said, her voice small but steady. “And we deal with threats only one way.”

Robert nodded, and placed the final pieces of wood along the base of the bier.

Valonia too withdrew a piece of wood from under her own cloak and placed it atop her grandfather’s body.

It was a fragment of Holtraed’s staff, Robert recognized. It was fitting it should be there… or perhaps it was an insult to threaten to set it to flame? He could not be sure. But at least to him, it felt right that it was there.

“One way,” Robert emphasized quietly to the girl, then turned to the completed, but unlit, pyre.

With that, he stepped back, withdrew the metal runes from his pouch, and began to trace the air with symbols and runes. The movements were still familiar to him, even after all these years. When he spoke the words, they responded as they must have in times before, long ago, when the ether was clear and one did not have to fight it to enact change.

The damp of the wood did not hinder the pillar of flame, nor did it prevent it from burning.

Her uncle fell into another of his ‘fits’ long before all his spellwork was complete, of course. The runes he had attempted to harness were no match for the muddied ether. And though Valonia did not understand the technicalities of the etheric disturbance, both of them understood what would happen. But Robert did manage to do enough. And at least for one night, he defied both nature and the morass of the ether.

When his fit inevitably overtook him, Valonia took off her cloak and used it to cover him from the storm. And then she stood beside him, a small sentinel on a vigil of fire.
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Frayed and Undone

Post by Valonia »

"...and he honored him with the ritual of cremation, burning him together with his armor. Then he raised a barrow over his ashes, and all about were elm-trees planted by mountain nymphs, daughters of Zeus that beareth the aegis..." - The Iliad, Homer


“The threads that had held Britannia as one frayed and were undone. Undone were the good works of those who had championed the Virtues. As son battled father, as farmers warred with merchants, as They attacked They Who Were Not, a deep and terrible cleft widened between the people and their history…” – Ultima 9 manual


”Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity”
- 'The Second Coming' - William Butler Yeats

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The wetness of the ground kept the pyre from spreading, and the fuel it had been fed continued to sustain it. Thus, anchored in place and charged with solemn purpose and intent, the flame continued to blaze bright and defiant throughout the night. By morning, all that remained was ash and charred wood.

As expected, Bernhard was not pleased at all by what Robert had done. And though Valonia’s father was not the sort to harm the infirm, he made it clear that the would-be magus was to be left among the ash he had created. As far as Bernhard was concerned, Robert should be glad he wasn’t hoisted off the property entirely and left to the wind and wolves.

Besides, as much as this had affected Bernhard, he could not afford the luxury of grief or even to take action out of spite. He and his family now had more pressing matters to consider. While the bandits hadn’t stolen everything, they had taken enough. The loss of the stored winter supplies hit hard. As it was autumn and the bulk of the harvest had already come in, Bernhard and his family were running out of growing time. It was unlikely that they would have enough time to do more planting, let alone replace what was taken or destroyed. It would be a difficult winter ahead.

So it was that Valonia’s family recovered as best they could. And while Valonia’s mother Deanna found it suspicious that the corpses of men seemed slightly familiar (had they had contracts with these people before?), Bernhard knew they had little time to dwell on it. There was nothing to be gained from pursuing it through the Courts; the men were dead. Anyone who may have escaped or colluded with them could simply deny it. Thus, Bernhard and his sons committed the bodies of the men to the earth – though they buried them just outside their land. As much as Bernhard had turned aside from his past, he knew instinctively that they should not be buried here.

And if the animals were a just little hungrier and bolder just beyond the range of the property? Just a little more persistent in digging at the dead to feed…? Well, it was no more than these men deserved.

All the while, Robert remained standing silently in the clearing he had set ablaze, unmoving and unseeing. Even as days passed, he showed no signs of recovery.

Valonia tried to surreptitiously keep watch over her uncle. He still wore the cloak she’d given him against the rain and storm, but she had removed it when it became too hot, and made sure to throw a hat over his head when the sun rose. She tried as best she could to get him water, stacking a small woodpile beside him to lift a cup to his mouth. Beyond that, she didn’t know what else she could actually do. She couldn’t set up any manner of tent or shade without assistance. And the fourteen-year-old simply wasn’t able to bodily move an adult, nor did she know much about taking care of people with magical apoplexy, or mystical stupor, or whatever it was that was immobilizing him.

Though Valonia understood her father’s anger, she also understood her uncle’s motives and didn’t feel he deserved blame. So after she and her sister Rowan had finished tending to what few animals remained, Valonia went to speak to her parents, though they were preoccupied with the loss and destruction of their stores for the winter.

“We should ignore the contract then,” Valonia’s oldest brother Sten was arguing. “They know what happened. They can investigate and see for themselves.”

“I would not be so quick to invite them here,” Deanna replied, folding her arms together and regarding her son evenly. “They will bring their hired swords and claim it is for protection from the bandits that assailed us. And then we will have more armed people on this land. What do you expect will happen then?”

Bernhard shook his head at his wife’s suspicions. “The people here do not work that way. These people are not the plotting or maneuvering sort.”

“You are being far too trusting.” Deanna too shook her head, but for a different reason. Her husband was simply who he said he was, and tended to believe others were the same. But Deanna had seen too much in her life to place much faith in people in general. “You would believe ‘these people’ would not resort to banditry either.”

“Surely you do not suspect our neighbors of being responsible?” The Yew native raised a brow curiously.

“Let us say I have not ruled it out. People can be treacherous, Bernhard.” Deanna scowled. “Who else but our neighbors would have known where and when to attack?”

Sten glanced between his parents. “All the more reason we should ignore the contracts,” he pointed out.

“No. As much as I distrust these people, it would not be in our favor to do that. The merchants will not see whatever has happened here as an excuse -- and they are not entirely incorrect,” Deanna replied. “This is a breach of contract, and the courts will undoubtedly rule in their favor.”

Her tone was matter-of-fact. Deanna was a pragmatic woman, and had considered these possibilities already. It did not take much to see where things would go from here. In retrospect, she felt she should have expected ‘bandits’. But she had not anticipated physical violence. Not here. Not in this place. So in spite of her reasonable tone and calm demeanor, Deanna paced restlessly behind the table. She could have sat, of course, but chose not to. She was too on edge. Besides, her swords were regularly strapped to her waist these days, and it made sitting uncomfortable.

Then again, everyone around the table was armed these days. Her oldest son Sten was armed with his own axe, while Bernhard carried the same axe he had wielded back in their adventuring days. And though her second son Arne was not here at the table for this discussion, he was patrolling the lands alone, as was his wont, armed with bow and spear. He had been extra vigilant these last few days.

Bernhard stroked his beard and regarded his oldest son thoughtfully. “On this, I agree with your mother. I do not like it any more than you do, Sten, but there is far more trouble in not honoring the contracts than there is in giving over what remains. We cannot afford to war with these merchants. So if we use most of the remaining seed from storage to complete--”

“If we do that, what are we to grow next season?” Sten interjected.

It had been apparent from an early age that Sten was the most likely of Valonia’s siblings to take over this place when her father gave it up. Unlike her father, however, Sten’s connection to the land was less about custodianship, and more about working the land and maximizing yields. The axe he carried was formidable enough, but he wielded it as a farmer would. He’d had little interest in his grandfather’s teachings, and saw little use in dwelling on the past. All in all, he was a farmer, and aspired to little else.

“We will use what remains and simply grow less,” Bernhard was saying simply.

But the idea seemed short-sighted to Sten, and he shook his head. “Those are a lot of fallow fields, father. Not to mention doing this means we cannot replenish our stores.”

“Yes. Do you have a better solution?” Bernhard asked his son bluntly.

For a moment, Sten seemed likely to speak. But then he folded his own arms across his chest and frowned. “I suppose not, if you do not think we can simply tell off those idiots.”

“Not without consequence,” Deanna cautioned before Bernhard could reply. “Do not mistake me, Sten -- I would prefer to tell them off as well, but we are at the disadvantage.”

Sten threw up his hands in exasperation. “Then, no, I have no better ideas. I simply do not know how either of you intend us to magic up some seed for next season.”

At that, Valonia spoke up in a small voice. “Mice will have gathered some. It’s autumn, so it is probably the best time to find their caches.”

“Mouse seeds?” Sten let out a snort of disbelief. “Even if there were enough, they will all be mixed up.”

The girl shook her head. “No, the mice get them from the nearest fields. The caches are mostly sorted, actually.”

She had seen several from just her foraging trips, after all. All one type of seed, actually. One time, she had found a log full of alfalfa seed that was still fragrant and fresh. She wasn’t sure whether that log cache had been from squirrels, mice, or chipmunks specifically, but the fact remained there were stores to be found if one knew where to look.

Perhaps Sten would have known if he’d spent any time with Grandfather.

Valonia frowned slightly at the thought and lowered her gaze and added, “There are some stored under Grandfather’s cabin. Caches, I mean. The mice put them there.”

A quick pained expression flickered over Bernhard’s face, but it was gone quickly. “He is looking out for us even now, hm?”

It was more the mice doing it than Grandfather, but Valonia was well aware that the old man had known they were there and left them be. Who was she to say whether Grandfather had some hand in it?

“Preserve and protect, he said,” Valonia said quietly, feeling very small and sad about all of it.

At her words, she could feel the eyes of her mother on her.

Valonia hadn’t told her parents or brothers that those were the last words Grandfather had said. She didn’t know what to do about it yet. And though they had seen the bloodspot on her forehead, it had smeared beyond recognition long before they had come home. As far as they knew, the blood was from one or more of the bandits.

But just now, her mother’s expression resembled that peculiar sort of enigmatic that Uncle Robert had sometimes, as if seeing more than he let on.

“Squirrels cache too, but theirs are not as tidy,” Valonia added awkwardly to distract from the strangeness of things. She wasn’t sure it was helping. “But they have larger things like hazelnuts and walnuts and beechnuts that could make up for what was… lost. We can also collect some of the squirrels’ mushroom jerky--”

“Squirrel mushroom jerky?” Sten snort-laughed. “You are joking, right?”

Valonia blinked at her brother for a moment, then stood uncomfortably, discouraged by her brother’s laughter. She wasn’t sure why he thought it was so funny. The family regularly ate mushrooms she and Rowan gathered, after all. Why was it any different to get the mushrooms from squirrels? They were already dried and preserved, after all. Besides, the truffles the squirrels cached were particularly nutritious and flavorful. And the squirrels themselves could be food too, if the situation was harsh enough.

It was useful information, wasn’t it?

“I mean, those aren’t wheat berries or flour or corn or preserves… but it might get us through the winter,” Valonia said, feeling embarrassed and awkward, and wondering whether what she knew was just foolishness and frivolity.

“…squirrel mushroom jerky,” Sten repeated, and laughed.

Bernhold raised a hand to still his son’s laughter, and shook his head. “We cannot afford to turn away a ready source of food. This winter will be harsh.”

“Indeed. Every little bit helps. This knowledge might preserve and protect us, as you say.” Her mother continued to look at her oddly. “You know of more caches?”

“Not fresh ones like the one I found recently… but some maybe a year old?” replied Valonia, frowning in thought. “The animals forget where they put things sometimes. But the seed should still be plantable.”

Sten arched a brow and looked around at the other adults, amusement still on his face. His sister’s suggestions seemed foolish… but he wasn’t about to turn down free seed, of course. He was pragmatic enough to see the benefit of this plan, even if he wasn’t convinced of its success. “So we are going to raid squirrel and mouse caches then?”

“We will do what we need to.” Bernhard looked sternly at his son for his somewhat mocking tone, then turned back to his daughter. “Valonia, you can find these caches again?”

“Yes. Grandfather taught me,” she said simply, then lowered her voice and looked away.

Grandfather wasn’t here to explain things, nor was he here to just be. Sten wouldn’t have laughed at him --and besides, Grandfather would have known more. Far more. Valonia’s knowledge was a mere fragment of what he had known. She simply didn’t have enough knowledge, or answers, or anything. She wasn’t even entirely sure she was right about any of it. She couldn’t fight either. She felt practically useless. All she had was what little she remembered, and it wasn’t enough. She was trying to backtrack and remember fragments of things she’d been told, things she’d overheard.

As it turned out, trying to preserve things was more difficult than it seemed.

Her father placed a hand on her shoulder. “Good. We will need your assistance. Remember what you can.”

Valonia nodded, not sure she felt up to the task, but feeling the pressure to do so.

Bernhard turned back to his oldest son. “In the meantime, Sten, you need to make sure that the storehouse is ready. We may not have enough to replace what was taken, but it will be critical to store what is available. And we can separate out the seed we will use for contracts…”

Her father and brother began speaking among themselves, so Valonia tried to sidle over to talk to her mother, conscious that the woman had been watching her all this time.

“What is it, Valla?” Deanna asked quietly.

Valonia lowered her voice too. “Mother, are we just going to leave Uncle Robert there?”

Even though his position was relatively close to the cabins, this whole area was still a forest. And the clearing before Grandfather’s cabin was still exposed to the elements. There were animals out there too, and they were not as friendly as they had been when Grandfather had been alive. There was a clear risk. Without dogs to warn them, things were all the more dangerous.

Deanna pursed her lips, and a line formed between her brows. And though Valonia could not follow the threads of her mother’s thoughts, it was clear that a mental debate was taking place.

“No, we should not,” Deanna said finally, and this time raised her voice intentionally, knowing full well Bernhard would hear. “It has not taken him this long to recover before. This time is different. Something is wrong.”

Valonia felt both a surge of relief and a feeling of dread. While she was relieved that she wasn’t just imagining that something was wrong and that her mother knew something was off too, Valonia was afraid because it wasn’t normal.

Her father’s expression, however, darkened. “He made his choice. He can stay out there.”

“I am not condoning his actions, Bernhard.” Deanna let out a sigh, then regarded her husband steadily. “If this were a normal situation, I would be with you on this, for there would be little harm in it. But what’s done is done, and this fit of his is not—”

“That fit of his is his problem now,” Bernhard scowled.

“Something is wrong,” Deanna said firmly. “He cannot stay out there. He is still family, and we do not abandon family simply because we disagree with them. He took action because he believed it would protect us. Preservation and protection of your family and friends are part of your values too, are they not?”

“He made his choice. That is what he values most, is it not? Choice and will – and the concerns of other people be damned?” returned Bernhard harshly. “Who are we to thwart him from what he set his will to?”

Deanna drew in a breath, clearly about to rehash a very long-standing difference of opinion. But before she could say anything, Valonia spoke up in a desperate attempt to fix the situation and prevent further argument between her parents.

“Grandfather asked him to,” she blurted. “He asked Uncle Robert. He needed Uncle Robert to burn him because he said Uncle Robert’s kind are good at fire, and there was something wrong in the ground and Grandfather couldn’t be put in there. And Uncle Robert promised, even if he didn’t seem happy about it, because it was the only thing Grandfather had ever really asked him to do. So it wasn’t just because Uncle Robert wanted to. He didn’t. But Grandfather asked. And it was important enough that even though Grandfather didn’t like Uncle Robert, he thought Uncle Robert would be able to do this when no one else would be able to.”

She was trying to remember, but she didn’t know if she got it right, and she wasn’t even sure she was being understandable. She was just doing the best she could, trying to get the spirit of the wording since she couldn’t remember the words themselves. But it was so long ago, and there were so many things that had happened since. She didn’t know if she remembered properly, and she’d been wrong before. But all Valonia knew was that she badly wanted things to go back to the way they were.

But she also had the sinking feeling that they never would. She didn’t know whether it was because things couldn’t go back, or whether it was because she hadn’t seen the problems before now. Maybe what she thought the way things were before had been an illusion. Regardless, that past was gone now, and there was no returning it.

She realized that she understood all too clearly what hiraeth meant now.

“Grandfather told me things were wrong, and I didn’t understand. I still don’t… Not fully,” Valonia continued, wiping at her eyes with her sleeve. She looked down to try and hide it. “And I know I do not remember everything the way I should. But I agreed with Uncle Robert because he was doing what Grandfather was saying. He was doing it to protect us. It wasn’t his fault.”

Deanna shot a pointed look at her husband.

Bernhard’s jaw clenched and unclenched for a moment, then his expression softened slightly. “Valonia, the issues between your uncle and I are just that: between he and I alone. You do not have to defend him. None of this is your responsibility, or your fault.”

It certainly didn’t feel that way to her. Valonia kept her gaze lowered.

“There is a lot of uncertainty right now, I realize,” her father was saying. “But we have found ways before, and we shall again. We are a persistent people, and there are still things in our control.”

“The only thing in our control is to endure,” she murmured, repeating her Grandfather’s words once more.

She agreed with what Grandfather said now… but part of her wished she’d never had to. She hated how helpless it made her feel, that the only thing left was to simply survive. That they could do nothing against what happened to them or around them. That there was so much outside their control.

If she had her choice, she wished she could believe as her uncle did, that her will alone could change things. But that wasn’t how things were. That wasn’t reality.

Unknowing of her thoughts, Father was nodding at her slowly, his expression as solemn as Grandfather’s. “And we will endure, Valla. As we always have.”

Valonia wasn’t so sure about that. But Father was just saying things he thought would soothe her mind and reassure her. It was comforting on some level, mostly that he cared enough to do so. But his words weren’t reality either. Enduring wasn’t guaranteed, no more than it was guaranteed that one’s will changed things.

“I’ll go look for those caches now,” she said quietly, then turned to go.

She felt the eyes of her parents on her as she left.

----

Valonia didn’t know if it was appropriate to bring ashes to the oldest part of the old growth, but she felt she needed to do something. It occurred to her that she probably should have told her parents, as they had warned her against wandering. There was no longer a guarantee that any part of these woods were safe, or that there weren’t bandits still around. But Valonia had brought her bow, and she’d made a few arrows in the days since the attack. She didn’t really want to use it, but there was something she needed to do here, and she wasn’t going to go unarmed.

Rowan had insisted on going too. While Valonia hadn’t wanted to bring her younger sister along (for the 8-year-old’s own safety), Rowan had insisted she needed to do this. She had her own knife that Arne had made for her, she argued, and she wasn’t useless anymore.

Given her reasoning (and the fact that Valonia could sympathize with her feelings of uselessness), she let Rowan accompany her. Perhaps the younger girl could resolve something too.

They met by the stream they had gathered mushrooms at, though the time for morels was long past. Anything left would probably be dried out. But it still made for a good meeting spot, as they were both familiar with it. Besides, given the seeds they had selected, this would be the best spot.

“Didn’t Uncle Robert say there was something wrong about putting him in the ground?” Rowan asked curiously, looking down at the small hole they had dug.

“Uncle Robert also thought burning him would make it safe. So if turning him into ash makes things safe, then it should be safe to bury his ashes,” Valonia explained, using her superior 14-year-old logic. “Besides. It seems more right than leaving him in the clearing.”

It made sense to her, anyway.

Rowan seemed to consider that, then nodded. “I guess I agree… but should we have told Father maybe? Knowing we’re doing it might make him feel better.”

Valonia suspected her sister was right. Maybe she would tell him later. But for now, it didn’t feel like the right time. Besides, she wasn’t even sure she was doing it the right way. She’d just gotten a notion in her head, and though her sister was going along with it, it didn’t mean it was right. She just didn’t want to tell Father about it in case it was wrong.

Or maybe she was becoming more like Grandfather and keeping secrets. Or maybe she was too much like Uncle Robert, and didn’t want Father to interfere. Not that either of those things were terribly positive traits, she realized. Really, her sister was right; Father would have to be told.

“Not yet, but I will tell him eventually,” Valonia promised Rowan. “But try not to say anything in the meantime. But if anyone asks you, you can say it was my idea. That way they cannot blame you.”

Rowan nodded slowly, accepting her older sister’s decision on the matter.

Valonia took a clay jar of ash out of her bag, lifted the top to open it, then placed open jar and lid within the hole. It wasn’t all the ash from the pyre, but it was as full as Valonia could make it. It was probably creepy and weird to haul around her dead grandfather’s ashes, but that made Valonia all the more reluctant to tell anyone about it. And she had done her best to include the ashes of his staff. That part felt important.

She and Rowan regarded jar and hole solemnly for a moment, then Valonia turned to her sister. “Did you gather the seeds?”

Rowan nodded, and pulled some samaras out of her pocket – the pod-like seeds of elms. “I thought elm felt right.”

At first consideration, it seemed to be too easy a selection. The samaras were right here on the bank, after all. It was why this was the best place for morels -- elms were the best trees to get morel from. Had Rowan just been lazy about picking seeds? But for a moment, Valonia considered her Grandfather, the things she had seen him do, the memories she had of him, and how she thought he might have wanted to be seen.

Supposedly, in a language long ago forgotten, ‘samara’ meant ‘guardian’ or ‘protector’. But not the Guardian the Avatar had fought in the Avatar stories, but a real protector. And elms were firmly anchored to the earth, thanks to their strong roots. Elm trees were said to possess some sort of magic, bringing order to chaos, courage to the fearful, and solutions to those facing difficulties. Supposedly in other places that weren’t Yew, the elm was the sort of tree where people gathered to meditate under.

Valonia thought it felt appropriate. Maybe not an entirely perfect match, but it was likely the way Grandfather would have wanted to be remembered. She nodded in agreement with her sister. “Alright. Put them in there.”

Rowan dropped the seeds into the hole, and Valonia covered seeds and jar with dirt, filling in the hole they had dug. She didn’t know whether they would grow properly or not, but this was the best that she knew how to do. She’d never heard how Grandfather’s people did things, and he hadn’t done anything like this when anyone else in their family had died. She was too young to have known how he’d handled his own parents, and she hadn’t seen him bury Grandmother.

Rowan, of course, hadn’t even been born during most of that. She knew even less than Valonia herself did.

For a moment, Valonia regretted the sheer lack of knowledge she had. There was so much that she simply had never heard, known, seen… And so much had already been lost, and she didn’t think she was capable of reclaiming it.

But what was the alternative? To do nothing? Grandfather had said that more harm than good may result from ungentle actions. But Valonia didn’t see that she could wait for answers to manifest themselves. And she refused to be the sort of person to sit and wait for things to happen, she decided.

For a brief moment, the sisters stood there in silence, each wrapped up in the thoughts in their own minds. But after a moment, the wind through the trees almost sounded like voices. Not quite… for Valonia could not make out the words. But they almost sounded like whispered fragments of words, words just far enough that she couldn’t quite catch them…

Valonia wondered if they were alone, and drew her bow just in case.

At her sister’s movement, Rowan drew her own weapon, an antler-hilted dagger her brother Arne had obviously made. An expression of extreme seriousness appeared on the small 8-year-old face that would have been almost comical if the situation hadn’t been what it was.

“Almost sounds like voices,” she whispered to Valonia.

“I hear it too… but I am not sure anyone is there.” Valonia shook her head at her sister. “Run home. I’ll be right behind you.”

Rowan looked at her sister in consternation. It had not been too long ago that she had been ordered to leave, while Valonia had stayed and fought. That day was burned into her memory. And now it felt like it was happening again.

“You promise you are coming too?” she insisted.

Valonia nodded. “I’m coming too.”

Rowan ran up the deer trail that served as a path, while Valonia briefly turned back toward the old growth.

The wind picked up, and the rustle of the trees grew more intense, harsher. But just rustling. No actual voices… though if Valonia had been a more imaginative girl, she might have started to hear words in the whispering. Angered words, angered voices, hissing words through rustling leaves. It was a completely foolish thing to imagine, of course, but the trees almost sounded angry?

And then, over there, there was a boy of around 15, with animals on rope leads.

Valonia lifted her bow. She knew she’d promised Rowan that she’d be right behind her (though not in those exact words), but this was important.

At first, the boy didn’t see her. He had his head down, for the wind whipped the branches toward him. Though he’d tied his blond hair back, the catching branches and the wind had whipped it partly over his face and harassed him at every turn.

The animals behind him, however, did not seem bothered by the wind. And those animals were a couple of her family’s goats and their cow.

“What are you doing here?” Valonia demanded, not lowering her bow.

Brand raised his head, and there was alarm written on his face as he saw her bow. “Valla, it’s me.”

“That did not answer my question, Brand,” she replied, not lowering her bow.

She didn’t know if she could actually kill her friend, but she did know that she was angry that he was here. Angry that he came traipsing through the old growth with stolen animals. What had he been thinking? Had he been part of the bandits who’d come here before? How could he possibly think it was a good idea to come back?

Brand stood in place, raising his hands slightly while still holding the leads. “I found some of your family’s animals wandering.”

“So I see. Found them, you say?” Valonia asked skeptically.

“Yeah,” he replied lamely. “I… heard what happened, and hoped to find you here. They know about it in town. And since I found these, I figured they should be returned.”

He lifted his hand again to avoid being hit in the face with a longish branch that had been tossed by the wind.

Valonia remained unbothered by the wind. Her clothes didn’t even rustle. She regarded him suspiciously. “What exactly have you heard?”

“That there was a bandit attack. Not much else,” he answered, shrugging in an awkward way that was trying to be nonchalant even if it was anything but. He seemed nervous and unsettled at being here.

He should be nervous, she decided, as this place wasn’t for him.

She wasn’t sure she believed his professed ignorance, and kept her bow trained on the center part of his chest. She didn’t want to loose an arrow, but if he had been part of things…

“Look, Valla, I know I shouldn’t have come,” he said, as if reading her thoughts. Then again, her expression probably said more than she intended it to. Or maybe it was the aimed bow. He frowned uncertainly. “But I also know that winters are hard, and it was wrong what happened to your family and… well… Here.”

He looped the ends of the rope leads around some of the branches that saw fit to hit him in the face, and stepped back and away from animals and leads.

The wind had stopped blowing as harshly, though there was still rustling in the trees.

Valonia wasn’t sure what to do. Having the animals was important. Perhaps not as important as seed might be, but the animals were still food for the winter. But was he part of the group that had taken them to begin with? She certainly didn’t know. She hadn’t seen everyone who was there. She hadn’t remembered seeing Brand there, but there was a lot she hadn’t seen, being too preoccupied with hiding.

“…that’s it?” Valonia asked, uncertain what to do now. She finally lowered her bow.

Brand shrugged again and seemed confused. “Uh, yes?” he said with all the eloquence of a 15-year-old. “Was I supposed to do something else?”

“No, I guess. But were you-…” she started to ask, then stopped. “Nevermind.”

Part of her wanted to know whether he’d been involved. But part of her wasn’t sure she wanted the answer to that question. She wasn’t sure what she would end up having to do.

Brand looked at her curiously. “What were you aski—”

“Why did you bring them back?” Valonia said quietly, interrupting him. “Are you not worried someone will say something about it?”

It was a loaded question, she knew. But she couldn’t help but act under certain assumptions. She had heard her mother’s suspicions, after all. And maybe Valonia wasn’t so easily dismissing them as her father had.

“Whatever. People talk too much.” The boy shrugged again, this time indifferent. “Someone had to do something.”

This time when he spoke, he had something of his normal, unassuming confidence. Like it had been an easy decision to make. Like he genuinely didn’t care what others thought or said about him.

Valonia wasn’t sure if she was frustrated by that certainty he possessed, or admired it. In some ways, she wished she could be more like that, being able to see paths so clearly. Perhaps she envied him the type of determination that let the opinions of others flow past him unheeded. It took a certain kind of strength to defy the expectations of others, and steal back what had been stolen.

If he had been involved, she reminded herself. Because she still didn’t actually know for sure whether he’d been involved in stealing anything.

“So… are we still friends?” Brand asked, interrupting her ruminations.

She paused, considering that. “Yes. I guess,” she answered finally, shouldering her bow, and stepping forward to take the rope leads of the animals. “Thanks. For bringing these back.”

The boy nodded. “You're welcome. It needed to be done.”

Valonia turned to leave, then paused, and looked back toward him. “But… use the road next time. If you come back.”

“I will,” he said, though it was unclear whether he meant that he’d use the road or that he’d come back.
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