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Hiraeth

Posted: Sun May 09, 2021 4:04 am
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.

The Warmth of Soil

Posted: Thu May 27, 2021 6:17 am
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.”

Blight pt. 1

Posted: Thu Jun 17, 2021 2:15 am
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.