Canticle of Silk, Verse 1 – The Demon Within

Jakob stared at the leech as it sucked at his forearm with open amazement. It didn’t hurt nearly at all, not like he thought it would, and even if it was uncomfortable it wasn’t nearly as bad as his burning lungs. Besides, he was five now and he had to make sure the priest knew he was tough.

“Does he-.” A sudden bout of wracking coughs doubled him over, his free hand clinging to his gut as the arm with the leech stayed strapped down in the small chair. Father Tycho gave him a pitying look as he groaned and helped him back into his chair after the coughing subsided. He wiped Jakob’s eyes of tears with the handkerchief he always kept in his breast pocket with that ever-present powdery old person smell before stowing it away. Jakob, his senses regained, took a deep breath and tried again.

“Does he live there now?”

Father Tycho gave him a curious look before his eyes were drawn once again to the leech upon his arm, now swollen with his imbalanced humors, and chuckled kindly with a shake of his head.

“Oh, no child. He comes off just as soon as he’s had his fill. See?” He gestured with his withered hand and in moments the leech tumbled off into the Lurihim’s palm, completely engorged. The handkerchief was once again in hand, this time dabbing at the young boy’s ring shaped wound that bled freely in the leeches absence.

“But I think you’ll be seeing him quite a bit from here on out. Him and his little friends. You gave your mother quite a scare the other day, didn’t you?”

Jakob didn’t have to pretend at embarrassment, looking down into his lap in shame. His throat was still raw, and he tasted metal every time he swallowed.

“It wasn’t my fault,” he whispered so quietly the old priest had to lean in to hear. These past few weeks he’d learned many strategies to keep the coughs at bay, so painful were they that he’d do most anything to avoid them. He’d stopped running anywhere at all, took stairs slowly, spoke little and, when he thought he could get away with it without being rude, whispered.

“I didn’t do anything. The coughing just started, and I couldn’t stop. I fell down…and then there was blood on the carpet.”

Jakob folded in on himself, reliving the moment again in his mind.

Lord Sauber, his distant cousin he’d been told, had rode out with his retinue to the country manse a days ride from Laatzen. Jakob’s parents had moved him out there on the advice of one of the Prosecutors stationed within the Order of Enlightenment, who told them that the foul spirits of rumor and deceit might have infected him given how plentiful they were in the city, and that some time in the country might give him a chance to be away from them and not under their constant assault.

After a month his condition hadn’t improved. Lord Sauber had come to speak with his father on matters of state, but also to see young Jakob to see if he couldn’t lift his spirits. Before dinner could even be served Jakob had been weaving between the servants in the main hall when he felt a small cough coming. One cough turned to two, then three and four, and before he knew it he’d crumpled to his knees coughing blood out next to the Graf’s dinner chair. He couldn’t breathe, his chest seizing, the coughs refusing to stop until everything went black.

Needless to say, dinner had been canceled, and despite his protestations to the contrary Jakob knew it was his fault. If he’d just been…better? Stronger? Maybe then he wouldn’t have embarrassed his parents so much, caused such a fuss. And now they’d gone and called up some village Lurihim while they waited for one of the Sisters of Sorrow to arrive as his new personal doctor.

Father Tycho’s hand fell on his shoulder and gave it a soft squeeze.

“It’s alright my boy,” he said in that way elders did when they were trying to protect your feelings.

“You’ve got a demon latched onto your lungs something fierce. Too much of the phlegmatic humors, not enough of the sanguine. It’s alright, my boy, we’ll get you sorted out just right. If I can’t cast out the demon, the next one will, else Lurien will call you back to God, and you won’t have to worry about pain any more.”

There was some comfort in that, at least. Worse than the embarrassment was the pain, but he was a big boy now and had to grit his teeth against the tears whenever the coughing finally stopped. He hated the demon inside him, torturing him, ripping him up from the inside. He’d do anything to be rid of it, even read one of those big books his tutor had that had all the words in it that made his eyes hurt. He’d read it all the way through and not complain if it meant the demon would go away.

If only it were that easy.

The Cold Embrace of Death

So many of the warriors here talk about the heat of battle, the feeling of blood rushing through your veins, the feeling of time both getting longer and shorter. Clashes feel like they take hours, but moments during them feel so fleeting. I felt a different side of this when looking for the sword of this mysterious potential saint, Rannveig. Their hatred for Sveas and her minions was palpable even in spirit when I met him in my vision, but I learned just how deep that ran. When I came upon the field just outside the eternal storm, I felt…calm, peace knowing this was the place I was sent to visit, that this great warrior would no longer be lost to time or held only in respect through fallible stories, and that my long journey wouldn’t be for naught. As this peace settled, my vision darkened. I rubbed my eyes to clear my vision, but when I came to, I was no longer in the warm sun of the late summer skies. Snow covered the ground, but I found no chill in my bones. In my hand was the sword I was looking for, and before me was a hoard of Sveas’s minions, the undead. My heart swelled, but again a peace washed over me. Death wasn’t something to be feared, but faced head-on. I prayed for strength, wisdom, and endurance in this battle and marched forward toward the encroaching sea of bodies.

A roar escaped my lungs as I swung my blade and immediately cut down four of these creatures, a light flashing on every connection of my blade. These were nothing. There were no weapons or armor on them, just a cold, bloodthirsty passion in their gaze. This wasn’t a battle of skill, but of endurance. I kept my wits about me as I cut down dozens, then hundreds. There was a break in the chaff, and I spotted more coming for me now armed and armored. This fight was only beginning. They rushed me this time and attacked with more coordination and tact, yet they were still no match for me. I focused but felt fatigue setting in. This was the touch of Sveas and I would not let her win. I let out another roar and took down the three that were flanking me. I rushed with determination through the ranks of these monsters and locked eyes with ones that could be considered my equal. They were much larger, and I felt the cold aura of Sveas even from the distance I was at. I rushed toward them, taking down undead left and right.

“Finally, a potential challenge. Here I thought you were toying with me, Sveas. I’ll take down your champions and whatever else you throw at me. I am not your slave. I am Rannveig the Death Defiant.”

I leapt towards the beast, and steel clashed in midair. Blows were traded, cutting down the surrounding troops, and for once, I was taking injuries. They felt cold and numb instead of the typical wounds I’ve felt before. At last, I slashed an arm off the champion, his sword arm, and took the chance to separate its head from its body. It slumped to the ground defeated, and behind it, two more warriors of similar stature approached, cleaving a path of their own troops.

“I thought that was too easy for the god of death. Let’s really see what you have for me.” I cleaved both of them, steel clashing, iron ringing, and my endurance fading. Between the wounds, the supernatural cold, and me fighting for what felt like hours, my abilities were dulling. I collected more injuries on my leg and arm. I took to one knee and felt the grip of Sveas tightening on my wounds. I took a painful breath in, and let out one final roar.

“I AM NOT YOURS, SVEAS! YOU WILL TASTE MY VENGEANCE!” I spun and cleaved the two fighting me, decapitating them in the process. I leapt at those surrounding me and continued my rampage. I knew my time was limited, but I would take as many as I could with me. A long sword slipped between my armor, a hammer battered my arm, a great axe knocked me off balance, and that was it. My injured leg gave out as I fell on my back. The hoard didn’t descend upon me, but instead one more champion walked through a part in the surrounding crowd. With a great sword in his mighty hands, I knew what was to come.

“Even in death you will not take me Sveas. My soul is not yours.” The champion impaled me to the ground as my vision again blurred.

I was back in the field, lying down as he had, sword in hand. The vision of Rannveig the Death Defiant was still humming in my mind. Even during all of that mayhem, I still felt calm. He felt calm. He did not fear death and, as such, faced it physically head on. I will make sure to honor him as best as I can.

The Silence after an Avalanche Fell

Eidr stood at the edge of the somber gathering, the weight of the cask of beer resting heavily on his shoulder. The funeral was a solemn affair, with mourners clad in dark furs and heavy cloaks, their breath forming frosty clouds in the frigid air. The bleak, rain-touched fall landscape served as a stark backdrop to the assembly, a reflection of the void left by Hallbjorn’s passing.

As he listened to the eulogies and laments of those around him, Eidr felt a profound sense of conflict within himself. It had been a long time since he had last taken on the mantle of a Skald, before his time in the unforgiving Rhimelands, before he had been forced to scavenge and fight for mere survival. In those days, he had roamed the harsh wilderness, far from the halls of poetry and song.

Now, as the Master of Coin of Runeheim, entrusted with the practical matters of the community, he felt that he had lost the right to call himself a Skald. The weight of responsibility had shifted from crafting verses, reading runes, and weaving tales to balancing ledgers and ensuring the clan’s economic stability. It had been a trade of skills, out of necessity, but it had left him feeling detached from the art of storytelling and the bardic tradition he had once held dear.

Eidr’s hands tightened around the cask of beer as he contemplated whether he had any right to stand before the assembly and recite the eddaic verses he had learned for the occassion. The verses, though etched in his memory, felt distant, like fragments of a past life. Doubts gnawed at his heart, whispering that he was no longer worthy to be called a Skald.

But as the ceremony continued, a deep sense of duty stirred within him. He could not deny the bonds of friendship that had connected him to Hallbjorn, and the promise he had made in the moonlit night, to honor his friend’s memory, weighed heavily on his soul. Eidr knew that, despite his changed role in the clan, he had a duty to pay homage to the fallen warrior in the most heartfelt way he could.

With this determination, Eidr steeled himself for the moment when he would step forward and share the poem he had prepared, knowing that even if his path had diverged from the art of the Skald, his heart remained tethered to the traditions and to the memory of his dear friend, Hallbjorn.

Eidr’s mind wandered back to the grim and fateful night previous, when he had first seen Hallbjorn’s lifeless body, surrounded by a circle of people, illuminated by the flickering firelight. The image was etched into his memory like a haunting painting. Hallbjorn’s chest bore the gruesome evidence of his demise—12 stab wounds, a grotesque testament to the brutality of his end. Worst of all, his heart had been ripped from his chest, a horrifying desecration of the fallen warrior.

As Eidr gazed upon the lifeless form of his friend, a seething rage had surged within him. His hands had clenched into fists as he watched Knut, another clansman, engaged in a one-on-one duel with the heretical enemy responsible for this vile act. The scene played out before him, and Eidr couldn’t comprehend why they allowed the wolf of slaughter the dignity of a duel, rather than descending as a united crowd to exact swift and brutal revenge.

He had expected the so-called heretic by the White Lion to pay dearly for the sacrilege of defiling Hallbjorn’s body. But as the duel unfolded, despair settled upon Eidr’s heart. The warrior, perhaps a coward in Eidr’s eyes, managed to evade the felling blows and slipped away like a wraith into the shrouds of the night, disappearing like smoke into the darkness. The grudge went unpunished, leaving Eidr and others with a gnawing sense of injustice, an unquenchable thirst for vengeance that was never sated.

In that moment, as he stood beside the fresh grave, with the echoes of the Eddaic poem still ringing in the cold air, Eidr couldn’t help but feel that the memory of Hallbjorn deserved more. His friend had been a warrior of unmatched valor, and the heretic’s vile act had gone unanswered.

After watching the enemy slip away into the night, with rage and despair gnawing at his soul, Eidr had retreated to the moonlit clearing he remembered so well. It was there that he had performed a ritual that was both an act of remembrance and a plea for justice in the afterlife.

In the quiet stillness of the clearing, he had sacrificed a fox, mirroring the gruesome manner in which Hallbjorn had met his end. The ritual had been a somber reflection of the depths of his emotions, with rage and despair mingling within him. Eidr had called out to Auvfaldr, the god of their traditional ways, beseeching the deity to grant Hallbjorn honor in the afterlife, despite the fact that his dear friend had followed the path of the White Lion God, Benalus. Eidr’s heart ached with the knowledge that their paths of faith had diverged, but he still sought to ensure Hallbjorn’s story and honor was preserved and that he received his rightful place among the Branded Men.

As he offered the fox’s life to Auvfaldr, the moonlight filtering through the trees seemed to cast an ethereal glow upon the clearing. Eidr’s voice had risen, fervent in its plea, and the very same Eddaic poem that he now considered reciting during the funeral had echoed through the woods. The words had flowed from him like a tribute to Hallbjorn’s legacy, a recollection of the Branding that had earned him the title of the Avalanche, a name that still rang through the hearts of Runeheim.

Eidr’s memories were a tapestry of emotions, intertwining with the traditions of his people and the unbreakable bond he shared with Hallbjorn. Now, as he prepared to share the Eddaic poem once more, he hoped that his story, his friend’s memory, and their shared history would be recorded among the annals of the Branded Men, so that future generations might know the tale of the Avalanche and the enduring friendship that transcended even the divisions of faith.

He spoke.

“Neath the mountain Einjallar, on the Wolfchaser river,
Winter’s ice thawing, the river-banks swelling,
As village-gates opened to spring’s first endeavors,
A wild man descended the rime-covered mountain.

He came to the meadhall, calling for guest-right.
His trunk as a barrel, limbs stout as tree-trunks.
The hair on his chest mixed with blood long forgotten.
Hallbjorn his birth-name, scion of Greywolf.

On the mountain he trained, through windstorm and blizzard,
The fire of his rage overcoming the winter.
His mentor surpassed, now he came to the lowlands
For bloodshed and glory, the hunt never-ending.

The men of the village met these words with a challenge,
The warrior’s way, a test of the stranger.
Should he prove himself strong against the warrior chosen,
Then he would be welcome, with shelter and feasting.

Seven men stood before him, the pride of the village.
As guest he could choose the one he must challenge.
Hallbjorn emptied his ale-horn and met them with laughter.
“Every one will I fight, and be done by the sunset!”

The circle was drawn, the warriors made ready,
Cast lots for the honor to be first to the blood-pit.
They took up their axes and sharpened their daggers,
Each eager to fell the arrogant stranger.

As the first fighter entered, the crowd roared to greet him.
Just as quickly the crowd fell back in stunned silence.
The mirthful great man, the wild man of the mountain,
Before them transformed to a terror of bloodshed.

The blood of the first still steaming, he pointed
To the second in line, and called him to come forward.
As a starving man given the key to the feast-hall
Was Hallbjorn when faced with the chance to do battle.

Seven entered the pit to bring down the stranger.
Seven men carted out, bloodied and broken.
Hallbjorn squinted against the sun not yet setting,
Looked to the crowd and called for more ale.
This was witnessed by Erik, the Skald branded Treehide.
In the feast after battle he stood and declared:
‘This unstoppable power that comes down the mountain,
I name thee the Avalanche, and call for the Branding!'”

Postmortem

Esparei had died.
She knew that with terrible clarity.
Murdered on the bridge, then hidden in the woods. How cowardly. How cruel. How- cold the world suddenly was. Like nothing she’d ever felt. There was no gentle embrace of the divine. No final comfort. Just- cold.

“You poor girl.”
She didn’t know the voice. Her limbs started to twitch. Her skin knit together.

You’ll never be warm again.

She could sit up by some miracle- her fine gown crusted in blood and dirt, her pistol still clutched in her right hand. And the feeling of absolute dread, making the back of her neck tingle. Alone? No- not this time. Not her murderers. A woman.

Then- she was at the tavern door. Then, she was speaking plainly, artlessly, feeling hollow and violated until the anger shot up unexpectedly like a viper.

She had stripped bare, showing Vernon the ugly gashes across her torso- hacked at like she was nothing more than a thing, a piece of meat. She had demanded blood for blood, as was her right. She- she-

You’ll never be warm again.

She screamed. Like something had come undone in her. Like all the grief and rage were pouring out like a storm and she couldn’t stop. Not even if she tried. Screaming and sobbing and pressing herself as far into the corner of her room as she could, until Vernon, barely awake and panicking, rushed in and held her. Soothed her. Let her cry herself out while murmuring prayers softly and squeezing her hand.
“I think you should let the High Inquisitor examine you. I’m worried about you.”

She didn’t respond. Just squeezed his hand a little tighter.

Promises

It was sometimes a difficult thing to keep her promises.

She didn’t make many to other people, but she made plenty to herself…which was just as important, but without the witnesses and social pressures, were reliant on her to be the promiser, the promised, and the arbiter.

Her own personal codes – the things that were important to the integrity of her own self image – were at times also alien to the people around here…and sometimes to herself.

She had vowed to never marry; to never engage in sexual relations. And at the time she made this promise, it made perfect sense. It still did, she told herself.

The kiss with Corbin. If had been her first and her last. Fourteen and overcome with the wants and passions of love.

She had felt out of control. Like she wanted to spend every moment with him – waking and not. She was hungry for him in desperate ways that were all-encompassing where he was nearly all she thought about.

It was infatuation and it was all so new.

And all her guards were let down, and she hadn’t been attentive to the sermons at Convocation. Her heart hadn’t been in her prayers. Her thoughts had been full of lust and selfishness.

And it was shortly thereafter that the…atrocity…of what happened to Miette had occurred.

It should make a difference that Miette was resting peacefully now, and that the Rocheaux tomb had been cleansed. And it did. Miette had told her she was forgiven. And she believed her.

But…

But the guilt had always been so heavy that its residual mass still lingered. It was like wearing a tight piece of jewelry or corset for so long that even if the item was removed, the body still remembered its shape.

She could never undo what had been done – she could only keep moving forward and trying to be better.

And in the terrible aftermath of her crimes, in the days that followed the blood and stains and sleepwalking, she turned over in her mind every single thing she could have done differently.

At first, she had tried to find an explanation for the signs of violence that she had woken up to – anything that would explain that it had nothing to do with her.

She had been hunting. She had tried to defend Miette. Maybe she had been wounded in a way that had closed up? A really terrible nosebleed.

And then when logic intruded onto her thoughts, and she was left with the conclusion that she must have somehow harmed Miette…then the sickening guilt, the loathing, and the backtracking into what she could have done differently started.

She could never afford to be distracted again. She was a person that demons, spirits, and Malefic could influence and infect. She was not safe.

And so she would never love – not in that way. She promised herself.

And then, one day, god wiling, she would take the vow of the Nuranihim officially. Then it would be a promise to god, and not just to herself.

That was the plan. And she had stuck to it.

At this point in her life, age 31, she was past the point that most married, and soon the danger would be past. She would age, and everyone around her…even Corbin…would pair off. And she could remain, steadfast and devout…laying Malefic to rest in eternal penance.

The Sanctum had never turned up, but she had taken on the cloth all the same – different vow, and different rites, but needed all the same.

She might never be able to rely on god to bear witness to her oath and keep her promise.

So she had to tread carefully – because if she let herself down, others would surely follow.

Isabel’s Workshop

The heat that lingered outside was more oppressive in Isabel’s small workshop.

No, her father’s workshop.

She still couldn’t really think of it as her workshop. His presence was still everywhere here, even if he no longer tinkered, polished, or hammered in this space. She could no longer remember all of the causes of the various scorch marks, missing table chunks, and oil stains, but many of them had been there since she was a small girl. They were reminders of the lessons she had been taught here. The minor injuries and lectures. She sometimes caught herself whistling the same tunes while she worked that he always had- as though the sounds in the air were just as much a permanent part of the space as the walls. It was like there were certain things that needed to be done just so; almost like the elements of ritual in a sacred space.

Nowadays, he and her mother rested their swollen joints, looked out the front door, and spoke of the past. She hoped that the cushions, boots, and various comfort items that the community had banded together to obtain for them had made their last several months more enjoyable – at the very least less painful.

She idly wished she could have obtained what they needed by herself, but her talents had never been particularly marketable, and she had no taste for business dealings. And that was really the whole theme of how she ended up making such a mess of things when her parents could no longer support themselves. The people here…her people…they gave without any expectations. They reached out their hands to her and steadied her when she stumbled again and again. She didn’t know how to repay all of the debts she seemed to accrue – both of coin and of goodwill.

She frowned, and brushed some of her untameable hair out of her face, relying on the sweat to keep it momentarily in place. Her kerchief veil was never of any help at all.

Someday, mama and papa would be gone. God willing, someday she would reach their age. And who would take care of her when the time came?

Her dear friends? She hoped that they would all be happily married with families of their own. She hoped they would be bogged down with only the simple worries of a comfortable life, and that these questions of hunger, want, and morality would have already long ago been answered. Would she continue to be a burden in that bright future?

She was full of a gnawing, nervous energy.

She had been so immersed in her burials and duties as a priestess that she had not actually *built* anything in some time.

She always seemed to be running from one mutilated corpse to the next, and it made it difficult to even make the things specifically requested of her – let alone having the time to experiment and improve on her designs.

She mused on how much time a person actually has in their life. It’s an unknown quantity and a finite surprise. But ultimately there are only so many hours; so many minutes allotted to a person to do what they believe they need to do.

She tightened her clamps and glared down at her quite lethal spike trap. How could she ever have thought it was a good idea to try to sell or trade something like this? No one was actually using this sort of thing for animals. All she could do now was pull them and try to modify so as not to have wasted the time spent developing them.

Perhaps she should break off or file down most of the spikes, but leave a few that could have a soporific applied to them. They would wound, but they would not kill.

Sighing, she thought back on all the times she had lectured Alphonse about his sinful alchemical preparations, and now here she was thinking of the ways in which she could use some of them.

She asked herself for the thousand thousandth time if she was a hypocrite. Was her recent stand during Convocation regarding the nature of sin just a self-serving argument?

She thought of Lysenna, of Little Hugo, Granny Jo…Corbin…and all the rest.

No. No, they were human and a divine reflection of god. They were her friends and they all were trying to do the right thing even if they disagreed on what that was. The Testimonium had it wrong. She knew it. The true sin was that of Discord – of turning away from one another; hurtful divisions.

Now, the trick was trying to strengthen the faith of the community so that the rest of the sins were not questioned.

She blinked. What an odd thought. The rest of the sins made perfect sense to her.

Just changing one thing does not invalidate the whole.

She looked down at the trap in front of her, and got down to the work of modifying it.

An Ambitious Proposal

Eidr sat alone on a rugged stump at the edge of the cliff, his quill poised above a sheet of parchment as the wind tousled his unkempt hair. Below him, the grotto stretched out, a dark and mysterious abyss that had captured the interest of the Runeheim Society of Scholars. To Eidr in that moment, this was a much-needed sanctuary, a place where he could let his mind roam freely, far from the prying eyes of the highborn who now looked to him as the temporary Master of Coin.

His rise from a lowly gravedigger to the position of tax collector was nothing short of miraculous. But it was a miracle he intended to exploit to its fullest extent. The sudden vacancy in the position of Master of Coin, resulting from the execution of one of the previous Masters for slave trading, had presented him with an opportunity like no other. He had planned on using that title, planned on manipulating things as tax collector. But Lady Vindicta had given him something far greater than he had ever had before. He would repay the debt with work befitting.

Eidr dipped his quill into the inkwell and began to draft his proposal to Lady Vindicta Dragomir. He knew that in order to wield power, he must first appear legitimate, which was something he could never achieve in person. His social class had been one of servitude and poverty, but his mind was his weapon. It was his knowledge of academics and logistics that had set him apart.

As he wrote, his thoughts flowed like a river, each word carefully chosen to convey his intentions without ever stating them outright. He spoke of fiscal responsibility, of the need to maintain the stability of the realm’s finances, and of the importance of fair taxation. He emphasized his commitment to upholding the laws and values of the land.

Eidr knew that Lady Vindicta Dragomir was no fool. She would read between the lines, see the potential for mutual benefit in his proposal. He couldn’t afford to be seen as a threat, not with so many eyes on him. He needed her support, her trust, and he had to earn it subtly.

The grotto below him whispered secrets of forgotten ages, and the cliffside stood as a symbol of his ascent from the depths of society. Yet Eidr couldn’t help but think that he still had to descend into it. He still had to investigate the blood-stained grotto beneath him.

With a final flourish, he signed his name at the bottom of the parchment. The proposal was complete, carefully crafted to give him the legitimacy he so desperately needed. He would send it to Lady Vindicta, and for now, let the ink on the parchment speak on his behalf. He would have to get second opinions, his words alone weren’t enough.

As he folded the document and pocketed it, Eidr gazed out at the grotto once more. It was a reminder of the lengths he had come, and the depths he was willing to explore to secure his position. The wind carried his thoughts away into the abyss below. He saw only shadows below.

Distraction

Sitting at his workbench, Valentin is trying to modify a pump valve, his hands fumbling with the machinery as if he had forgotten what it was for. He is desperate to lose himself in his work, but his mind keeps wandering to a lovely face. ‘The very idea is ridiculous. I am too old for her.’

The metal parts in his hands felt like strangers, despite having fitted valves to piston’s dozens of times. No matter how Valentin turned the pieces, they would just not fit correctly. This was made all the worse by his increasing inattention. ‘If I were to marry Sophie, Camille would be at peace. Juliene might be safe. I might. No, I cannot ask that of her.’ With a shake of his head Valentin forces himself to pay attention to the task at hand. To the reliability of metal fitting with Metal.

Valentin takes out a file, and shaves a small amount of metal off of the recalcitrant piston. He goes back to trying to jam it back into place, despite the fit still not being quite right. ‘She is everything I could want in a wife. A brilliant mind. Possibly the most compassionate woman I know. She loves knowledge and learning as much as I do. She is beautiful. And she has so many books. I could easily’

Valentin’s inattention causes his hand to slip, throwing him forward. He lets out a gasp of pain as his arm slams into the edge of a nearby metal plate. Looking down he sees the cloth of his shirt has been sliced open, and below that his arm.

“Merde” he mutters under his breath, watching the blood start to stain the white cloth. Crossing the workshop he grab an old piece of mostly clean linen and presses it against his arm. Gritting his teeth, Valentin presses the gashed arm against a work bench while he ties the bandage with his other hand. ‘I don’t need to be happy. I have my work. And I have Julienne to watch over. That is enough.’

Valentin lowers himself into an old chair as he waits for the throbbing in his arm to go away and the sweat to dry on his forehead. Now he has no familiar distraction to pull him away from the thoughts run through his mind. ‘I could be happy with her. But she deserves better than me. Sophie gives so much to Luisant; she has a right to ask for her own happiness.’

Sinking deeper into the chair. Valentin closes his eyes and fights off the pain. After a long time he rises and goes back to work.

Brushfire Lullaby

It is a warm Summer day, the shadows hanging far from the trees keeping the clearing cool during the long days. ‘Perfect time for a wedding.’ Alex thought to himself as he watched his friends get married, Cadence the Templar he was squired to and Milo, the dashing rogue that always had his back, even during stupid plays. Honestly surprised it was happening this market, they seemed to keep pushing it back, with everything getting in the way. It was honestly Cadence’s trademark, pushing off stuff that they wanted to do and focus on what needs to do.

Henri was officiating the wedding, looking so proud as he opened up his words. The forest behind decided to erupt in noise, trees falling all over. Not wanting their wedding disturbed, Alex would excuse himself to see what went wrong. He’d make it over to the old bridge, listening to it creak and moan with his weight, making sure to only step in spots where it was still sturdy. The beavers had made a mess of everything, eating all of the wood that was good. Stopping near the end of the bridge, he’d see some rustling in the bushes ahead and readying his gun to meet whatever shows up. Three beavers come out, looking straight at him. Sighing, he’d yell to make some noise towards them, scaring them off into the deeper forests. They dropped their sticks in a hurry, trying to lessen the load to get away from the gunman.

Alex would step off the bridge into the forest, his vision getting clouded for a moment and with a quick wipe, he’d see the forest on fire in front of him. Trees would be long ablaze and the ground shrubs long gone, with the bonfire reaching towards the heavens. The beavers would be replaced by the shadow people, looking back at Alex with their shiny eyes and having multiplied about. All of the eyes would be on him, with him unable to move from his spot and can almost taste the ash on his lips. His hands would feel sticky while grabbing his musket, with what looks like blood covering them. One of the figures pointed back towards the wedding, with Alex forcibly moving his head like it was being held in place by a giant’s hand.

The wedding party would be barely visible through the smoke, the guests all being more shadow people who turned their heads to look at him. The bride and groom would be still look the same, though with both their heads missing and Henri being replaced by a Lion headed man, with a mane of pure flames licking out. Slowly the head would turn to look at him, same as the shadow people.. Same as those in his dreams. A voice would ring out from behind him, making him catch his breath. The flames would blink out, the shadow people all gone and his hands as clean as they were when he first cleared the bridge.

“Is everything okay Alex, anything up ahead?” He’d hear Gerard say from behind him, the town captain showing up to back him up. Taking in a couple of breaths, he cough what felt liked ash from his lungs. “Yeah.. Yeah, its all good. Just some beavers that scampered back into the forest. All is good now.” He’d say, looking back at the wedding just wrapping up. All was well, it was a nice Summer Day for a wedding. His friends looked happy there, now together and able to start a new life together. He’d sigh slightly, ‘That’s something we don’t get to have anymore.’

A Dream and A Daisy

CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!

The ringing of hammer meeting anvil echoed in the lonely smithy. The heat of the forge a comfort in the rainy autumn evening. Sparks flew after each impact and gently floated down as embers. A strong steady hand held the piece in place as the the man worked his craft. Focus, concentration, strength, endurance all cycled in the man’s mind. On the wind a voice danced, “I’m still here”.

The man paused, deafened by the noise of his labor, but still able to hear the whispered words. “You think I’m gone, but you know me better.”

The man looked now through the open door, into the gentle rain, and amongst the foliage appeared a…shape? A human? A wolf? A spirit?

“You run but I will find you. You fight, but you know me stronger. Remember what you were taught.”

Suddenly, the skies darkened and lightning ripped across them, the figure now standing just outside the door to the smithy. The flames of the forge were snuffed out, leaving the man in darkness. Another lightning crack illuminated the creature’s mangled form just moments before them man was struck.

Then a bird chirp echoed in the darkness. Light crept through a window and roused the man in bed. His sweat soaked the linens and his breath galloped from his lungs. He sat up not believing what had happened and questioned what was and wasn’t real. He touched his face where he imagined the strike to have connected and found no scar, no wound, only a memory of the event. He sat for many a minute trying to work what had happened, what meaning there was in this…dream? returned memory? false memory?

He was stirred from his thoughts as the door to his room burst open

“Big Brother!!! Good morning! Did you sleep well?” A young girl bound into his room as sunny as this pleasant early morning.

“Uh, Yeah. I slept fine. How’s our little daisy doing this morning?”

“I’m good. One of Father’s friends came by earlier wanting to talk to me, but he scared me. I don’t want to talk to scary people”

“It’s okay. We can talk to him together another time. Would that be okay? You wouldn’t have to be scared if your big brother’s there” The man gave the little girl a warm smile.

“Hm, maybe. Only if we can get pastries after”

“Haha, alright then.” The man smiled again, but buried in his eyes were the pangs of doubt, anger, and hatred. The girl was right to be afraid, and the man would protect her and the rest of his family with his life.