By Kris Kramer
A Rise of Cithria story
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Everitt lifted his heavy head to see the burly, thick-bearded barkeep watching him from the other side of the bar, his hands squeezing out the last drops of grimy water from a wash rag onto the sticky wood countertop. Streaks of sunlight slipped between the wooden planks of the wall behind the barkeep, and Everitt squinted as one slashed across his face.
“I said, are you okay?” The barkeep leaned forward, planting two meaty hands on the bar. He squinted at Everitt’s face, examining him. “You don’t got the Rylish fever, do ya?”
“No,” Everitt said, forcing a weary smile on his face. “I’m fine. Been a long walk home, is all.”
“Mmmhmmm.” The barkeep frowned, not believing a word. “Walking makes your head hurt?”
His fears are many. But he offers me nothing.
Everitt froze. It had been days since he’d last heard the voice in his head. It whispered to him sometimes when he met people, opining on the strength of their will. He was fairly sure the words weren’t his own, but that only begged the question ‘then who?’ The Goddess? The Grim King? An ancient Anduain spirit or a Bergsbor deity? Any of those possibilities made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Men who heard voices tended to get thrown into a Church hospice and never seen again. So he did what he’d done since leaving Trenant Keep. He ignored it.
“Nah. Just been hit in the head too much. Like any good soldier, I don’t know when to duck.”
The barkeep nodded slightly as he wiped down the polished wood between them, unconvinced but also unwilling to debate the issue. Everitt faked his good humor until the barkeep finally wandered away, into the storeroom in the back, and then resumed rubbing his temples. His headaches were getting worse. And they weren’t happening due to any lack of skill in ducking.
He reached down to feel the worn leather satchel hanging at his side, its touch reassuring. For a moment, he couldn’t remember why he even had it. It carried something heavy, something someone would find important back home. A gift, he thought. The details escaped him, so he let it go. All he needed to worry about right now was getting to his new home as soon as possible.
The front door opened with a creak and late morning sunlight flooded into the small tavern, illuminating every dank corner. Once Everitt’s eyes adjusted to the harsh light, he saw a sailor standing in the entrance, wearing dark brown pants that ended at his calves, and a thin, linen shirt with streaks of brown tar across the front. Everitt hadn’t heard a peep from the high-pitched signal horn, blown from the town’s lookout tower to signal the arrival of a new ship at the dock. Had he missed it? The sailor rapped on the wall next to him to get everyone’s attention. Other than Everitt, though, no one else was in the bar, save for a sleepy older fellow named Jax sitting in the corner.
“Trade ship from Evidsar is in. Setting back out at the next bell for Conovaria and then Corendar.”
Everitt straightened up. “Taking passengers?”
The man nodded. “The captain handles goods mostly, but he’s got a few cots down below.”
The sailor left and Everitt quickly fished through his coin purse for an unar, a small copper coin engraved with a Thandaran crest, and tossed it on the bar. He gave Jax a quick wave and then left the tavern, a neglected little shack nestled in the trees alongside the Vitrix River. He worked his way down a riverbank crowded with tall grass and weeds and onto the docks of Rylicum, a small port town a day’s ride west of Corendar. He’d been here two nights, waiting for a boat that could take him on the last leg of his trip. Several times he’d almost given up waiting, opting to walk the rest of the way, knowing that would add days to his journey. Indecision had kept him paralyzed on that bar stool for two days, too impatient to leave, and too impatient to stay.
Now, salvation had finally come.
He found the ship, a long, narrow sloop with a single mast, tied up to the only dock in town. Two sailors dragged a large cart toward the town center a few dozen paces up a wide dirt path, while the captain, an older man in finer clothes, stood at the end of the dock, yelling at two other men still onboard. Everitt approached the rickety wooden dock, hailing the captain, who waved him over.
“I’m looking for passage.”
The captain regarded him with a raised eyebrow. “Headed south?”
“Aye. Breakwall. You stopping there?”
“I can pay.” He held up a large silver coin, stamped with the Thandaran flame. “A tren should be more than enough, right?”
The captain gave him a sidelong look. A tren was worth three vinars, the standard silver coin of nearly every trading post that accepted Thandaran money. “A tren just for hitching a ride to Breakwall?”
“A fast ride. That’s it.”
The captain rubbed his chin. “We gotta stop in Corendar for a few hours and pick up a load.”
“I usually dock at Conovaria for the night, just to see what furs they got. But the tanner there’s been overcharging me the last couple trips. Maybe if he sees me skipping him this time around he’ll be a little more forthcoming the next one.”
Everitt nodded. “So, one stop at Corendar for a few hours and that’s it? We sail through the night?”
“I can manage that. I can get ya’ to Breakwall tomorrow night.”
Everitt felt a huge load come off his shoulders. A weary smile formed on his lips. “Done.”
“Hop on, then, if you’re ready. We leave after the noon bells, or as soon as Enick and Roj come back with the cart.”
Strong willed, but can be bought. Useful.
Everitt winced at the strange words in his head and immediately looked away from the captain. He never had the stomach to face anyone after this demon – it had to be a demon – so prominently announced their weaknesses in his head. He stepped onto the boat and handed over the tren. The captain tapped it, then tried to bend it between his fingers. He grinned at Everitt with crooked teeth.
“Can’t be too careful. I’ve seen folks press unars together and paint ‘em silver. Fools some people, but not me.”
The captain signaled one of the deckhands to show Everitt to a cot below. A skinny, gold-haired boy, barely into his teens, led Everitt down a narrow flight of stairs into the bowels of the ship.
“You from Breakwall?” the boy asked.
“No.” Everitt shook his head. “Not yet, at least.”
“You fought any Anduains or Bergsbor?” He glanced back over his shoulder at the sword hanging from Everitt’s belt.
He fears the captain’s lust. He will be mine completely.
“Some,” Everitt said, looking at the walls, the floor, the flickering candles hanging in glass lanterns on the walls. Anywhere but the boy. “But not lately. Not much happening up near Trenant these days. A few Anduains and Bergsbor sneaking around here and there, but that’s it.”
“You been to Hannerkeep? My brother’s there a lot. Says it’s a bit of a dump. Compared to Trenant.”
“Your brother’s right.”
The boy showed him to an open storage area with a few cots pushed up against the far wall. Everitt nodded his head in thanks and sat down on the cleanest one he could find. He listened as the boy clomped his way back up the stairs, then leaned his elbows on his knees and continued rubbing his temples.
They will corrupt easily. Quickly. They will beg to be mine.
“Stop,” he whispered, despairing at what he’d gotten these men into. The voice never responded to him, but he had to try. He rubbed his temples again, even though it made no difference. “Please.”
This entire ship will be mine. Soon.
The following day, just as the sun touched the western horizon, Breakwall came into sight. Everitt waited up top most of the afternoon, eager to be off the boat and on his way. He’d tried to avoid the sailors as much as possible, but it couldn’t be helped. Every time one came by, the voice returned, claiming how easy it would be to take them. He tried in vain to convince himself it was only meaningless words. But something deep down told him that he knew very well what those words meant, and what the voice had said about him not so long ago.
The boat slowly floated down the river before the sailors brought out steering poles, pushing the boat toward the eerily familiar docks. They edged up to the nearest one and the deckhands tossed a rope to the men on shore. One of them pulled until the boat bounced off the side of the wood, then tied everything down. Everitt didn’t even wait for the bobbing to stop. He hopped onto the dock and hurried up the path that led through the town and then up the hillside to the castle. He’d never been to Breakwall before, but he somehow knew the path as if he’d run it a thousand times as a boy.
He reached the castle gates, still open during the daylight, and threaded his way through the crowd of craftsmen, merchants, and laborers leaving Breakwall Keep for the night. Once through the gates, he paused, unsure where to go next. He racked his brain for a place, a destination, anything that would finally grant him peace.
Everitt shivered. He’d be done with this soon, he reminded himself. As soon as he reached the Lord’s Garden.
Most Calderans knew the story of the Lord’s Gardens in Breakwall. Lord Morgantin had opened the Gardens to the public as a way to garner support from his people and to project a magnanimous air while campaigning amongst the earls to be king. He’d lost that battle to the former general, Thaine Trannoch, but to his credit, Morgantin kept the Gardens open during daylight hours ever since.
A soldier eyed Everitt curiously as he hurried across the courtyard and through the entrance to the Gardens. Everitt jogged down the cobblestone path, and then around the hedge maze, searching for his quarry. The sun would set soon, and any minute guards would kick him out. He’d have to wait until the next morning to resume his quest. Another night might kill him. He needed to finish this now.
There. Walking down the west path with her handmaiden. The Lady of Breakwall. Lord Morgantin’s daughter.
His spirits soared as he approached the beautiful young woman.
“My Lady.” He bowed, catching only a glimpse of her annoyed look. “My name is Everitt Jonus. I’ve come to beg succor in your celebrated lands, so that I may witness my Lady’s charity in person.”
The Lady of Breakwall stared back at him, her stern expression unchanging. She had long, black hair, pulled back into a thin gossamer netting, and searching brown eyes. Her face was oval, with flawless porcelain skin, save for a small, flower-shaped birthmark over her left eye.
“Charity?” She blinked at him, taking in his unkempt clothes with the practiced disdain of a noble. “Do you not have any sense?” She waved him off. “Go to the Church and beg there.”
“I brought you something.” He held up the satchel. “A gift, from the north.”
The woman and her handmaiden tensed as he reached into the satchel. Their anxiety turned to wonder, though, when he pulled out a finely cut pink gem set in a circular brooch. He’d stolen it from a lord in the Red Hills who’d been visiting Trenant Keep. He’d never stolen anything before in his life but this magnificent gem he’d simply walked up and taken from the lord’s quarters while he was at a feast. It was the most brazen thing he’d ever done, and he wasn’t even sure why he did it.
“A singing crystal?” Her expression softened. He handed it to her, bowing his head slightly, and she looked at him in genuine surprise. “It’s beautiful.”
“You’ve wanted one since you were a child, yes?”
Her eyes widened. “How did you know that?”
Everitt smiled, feeling the weight of the world lift from his shoulders. “A very old friend of yours told me. She was very persuasive.”
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