Normally Atros arose slowly from his nepenthe drugged sleep but adrenaline remarkably quickened the process this day. It’s not everyday that one finds a corpse practically draped over your bed. I wasn’t that corpses weren’t familiar to Atros, but Atros didn’t appreciate them popping up in his sleep. He quickly rolled out into prone position dirk in hand, but no opponent presented himself. He was quite alone in his rented room with everything exactly as he had left it the night before, excepting the dead man of course.
It was Thad, a man Atros had known for many years though he wasn’t particularly proud of the relationship. Thad had been a graduate of a slum in some city, which Thad had declined to mention. He’d learned at an early age that violence was a saleable commodity and had marketed his natural talent for it quite successfully. He’d gone from bully to strong arm to assassin all the while becoming increasingly belligerent and decreasingly likable. What with Thad’s wandering from one city to the next, it was eventual that he and Atros would cross paths. At first Atros had nearly fell in with him as a kindred spirit, a fellow survivor who often traveled in the same circles. But the relationship had cooled after Atros had seen some of the results of Thad’s recent labors. Atros didn’t disapprove of assassins but unlike Thad’s employers Atros felt that Thad let his brutality get in the way of his work. Thad’s calling card had become the gruesome state in which he left his victims, and sometimes their families.
But Thad had been successful as a hired killer. He could virtually guarantee results and had never been caught in the act by anyone, until perhaps last night. Nor had Thad ever betrayed the identity of his employers. It was sure that many, both the guilty and the innocent, would rest easier once they heard of Thad’s demise. Not that Atros would allow that to happen for sometime. He began to attend to the body while the early morning streets were still sparsely populated. Fortunately, whomever had slain Thad was much easier to clean up after than Thad himself. The most puzzling part of the whole matter was how a man as large as Thad could have his neck snapped without any signs of a struggle.
Later that day, Atros stood just outside the entryway to his boarding house. He yawned and had to shuffle his position several times while leaning against the cobble stone wall to prevent from drifting off. For someone accustom to going without sleep for days on end, this was a bit disconcerting. Atros wondered if perhaps the drugs he utilized were too strong even a man of his own will power. He had noticed that it was becoming progressingly more difficult to remain alert, a difficulty that he could hardly afford in his position. He was just resolving to start weaning himself off the nepenthe when the woman he had been awaiting rounded a distant corner.
He watched her as she approached apparently unaware of his presence. She wore a coarse bit of grayish linen, that doubled as both chemise and tunic, under a ratted surcoat probably fringed with fur at one time. She was short and somewhat dark in complexion especially on her hands which were small but rough. Her light brown, and lately unwashed, hair was cut short with straight banes lying across half her forehead. All in all, she was rather plain looking, almost masculine at first sight.
“Atros….” finally recognizing him in spite of his new wardrobe, Darla called out as she rushed forward to greet him.
“Call me Raffen!” Atros cut her off, his voice a harsh whisper. “Though that may shortly change as well.” With a piercing look, Atros cut short the conversation until they were safely in his room.
“How many names may one man have!?!” Darla seemed confused, unsettled, and somewhat hurt.
“As many as it takes to keep him safe. You’ve brought the books,” Atros said businesslike.
“Yes, I have them here in Dargon. They are quite safe.” Darla assured him.
“Good. I am very grateful. I’ve missed them,” Atros said. Darla winced though Atros didn’t notice.
“Bringing them wasn’t difficult. You’ve done much for me in the past.”
“You can consider that debt settled.” Atros said in monotone.
“I don’t think so. I owe you my life.” Darla said testing Atros.
“If that’s the way you want it, perhaps you’ll be able to pay in kind,” Atros lilted a bit.
“You’re in some sort of trouble?” Darla asked sounding concerned.
“There has been an attempt on my life. I anticipate more.” Atros said perhaps a bit teasingly.
“Who?” Darla asked.
“Do you remember a particularly brutal overgrown street waif named Thad?”
“I could never understand why you would associate with him.” Darla pronounced almost interrupting his question.
“He was dangerous but had his uses.”
“Was?… You killed him?” Darla asked tentatively.
“No, he died in the attempt but not by my hand.”
“Whose then?” Darla said a bit exasperated that she had to do so much coaxing to get simple answers.
“I know little more about it than you.” Perhaps sensing Darla’s impatience, Atros quickly explained the events of the morning.
“You were lucky.” Darla seemed somewhat relieved.
“It seems too unlikely to be unintentional… Thad dying while I was totally helpless.” Atros gazed off as though he were only thinking aloud.
“Thad had many enemies. Perhaps one caught up with him.” Darla’s suggestion drew Atros’ attention for a moment.
“You don’t think that Thad was incredibly careful while on a job? It would have been very difficult to surprise him. And who could have broken his neck with apparent ease? Also, why let me live? Why not take the opportunity to rob me, or Thad for that matter? Why leave everything so sloppy? I could have been set up in such a way that I would be certain to take the blame. As it was, it was easy for me to straighten everything up.” It was Atros who was becoming impatient now.
“Perhaps they feared waking you.” Darla suggested hopefully.
“Possibly.. But it just seems so unlikely…” Seeing nothing further to be gained here, Atros said, “Our first concern, I suppose, should be why Thad tried to kill me in the first place.”
“You’re certain that he was hired?” Darla asked.
“We didn’t exactly part on amiable terms but Thad would never have tried it without payment. And there was a good deal of money in his pouch.”
“So you expect whoever hired him to try again?” In spite of Atros’ opinion, Darla could be insightful.
“Yes, though they will delay a few days at least, waiting for word from that or for me to get less wary.”
“Any suspicions as to who put up the money?” Darla asked plainly.
“Probably Gilman. He’s here in town and I think he’s looking for me.” Atros suggested offhandly.
“Oh yes! I’ve traveled all this way and forgotten to tell you. I checked into things while I was in Magnus picking up your books. They aren’t looking for you. No report of any crime. And Gilman, apparently unharmed, put his business in the hands of his employees and left Magnus shortly after you did.”
“I suspected something like that. Still can’t understand how Gilman survived. He was assuredly dead.”
“That’s what I thought you meant in your letter but I decided that I misunderstood.”
“I’ve got to teach you to read and write. I don’t like having others read my messages.” Atros seemed annoyed.
“But you worded the letter so cleverly that no one could understand it but me. Besides the friend I got to read it to me is trustworthy.” Darla tried to reassure him.
“Yes but my ‘clever wording’ does add some confusion and I couldn’t relay many details.” Atros said, still being difficult.
“Enough details. I understood enough to come here and to bring your books.” Darla was becoming a bit annoyed herself.
“Yes you did and again I thank you. But I have another favor to ask.” Atros thought it best to settle things.
“Name it.” Darla said straightforwardly.
“The drugs that I am using cause me to sleep very deeply. Possibly Thad knew this and decided to strike at night. If Thad knew, then his employers probably know. I need a bodyguard I can trust at night.”
“No problem. I really need a place to stay anyway. I’m low on funds and know few people in Dargon.” Perhaps Darla hid a smile.
“That’s fine. We’ll live off Thad’s ill-gotten gains though we may have to lie low so as not to attract attention. No more nights at court.” Atros said trailing off, as was often his habit.
“Nights at court!?! You’ve been to court!?! During the festival?” Darla appeared surprised and jealous.
“Yes, but I didn’t really enjoy it. Besides the wardrobe is too expensive and uncomfortable. Have to see a friend and return some borrowed clothing. And tell him that I must leave Dargon.”
“You are planning to stay, aren’t you?” Darla was concerned.
“Yes, there is something here for me.” Darla gave him a quizzical expression. “Just a notion,” Atros said dismissing it. “I have a few errands to attend to. Why don’t you get all of your things and get settled. I’ll return with something expensive for dinner in a couple of hours. Oh, perhaps you best not get too settled. We’ll have to find some other place to stay tomorrow. I’d have done so today, but I was waiting for your arrival. We’d best be very careful tonight.” Both Atros and Darla departed for the respective errands.
When more than a couple of hours had passed and Atros hadn’t returned, Darla became concerned. But not knowing the city well nor anything about Atros’ plans for the afternoon, she delayed for some time before deciding to go searching for him. It was well that she did, because Atros returned as she was heading for the door. She didn’t mention his lateness nor did Atros volunteer much information, but true to his word Atros did provide the most delicious meal that Darla had eaten in sometime. After the late repast, Atros gathered a few of the books that Darla had retrieved and began jotting notes in one of his journals. When Darla asked him of this, he replied only that he was pursuing an idea. He advised her to sleep so that she might be rested for her vigil, but Darla was content to watch him and listen to the soft, irregular scratching noises of the long quill pen. After some time of this she drifted off.
Some hours later Darla awoke to find Atros still at his labors. He seemed to be quite weary though happy, saying that he thought he was onto some new discovery though he left its nature a mystery. Darla was only able to convince Atros that he needed sleep by suggesting that he might think clearer after a few hours rest. Atros acquiesced begrudgingly and took a dose of the nepenthe to settle to sleep for the remainder of the night.
Truthfully, Darla only understood a small fraction of what she encountered in Atros’ books. Many were in languages or codes unknown to her. Most were replete with obscure references and complicated arguments which would take a lifetime of study to understand. Even in those that were not, Darla’s reading skills often fell far short of complete understanding.
Sometime ago she had gone through many of these books before uncovering Atros’ dream journal. In it he kept all from his dreams which he did not wish to forget. Even though these were his good memories, Darla quickly grew to understand why Atros fought so hard to escape his nocturnal visions. Often times his hand was shaky and his thoughts overcome by emotion as he struggled to quickly record what were sometimes an entire lifetime in his dream before the memories passed away from him. Darla often wondered if destroying this journal was not the best thing she could do for Atros. It occurred to her that the good memories, which are recalled a thousand times with infinite sadness and longing, might be much more tortuous than the bad memories, which one can learn to forget or avoid. But it wasn’t hers to judge and she feared Atros’ anger.
After reading this journal that first time nearly a year ago, Darla began to understand why Atros kept everyone at a safe distance. The book recounted lifetimes which Atros had experienced in dreaming. Oftentimes he had no recollection of any life beyond the dream. As far as that individual was concerned the dream was his complete universe. These dreams were often the most painful for Atros, because for a time he could experience peace. But the collected recollections of dozens of lifetimes weighed heavy on Atros soul and no one could remove that weight.
Darla turned to the finger smudged pages of one dream entry near the beginning of the journal and began to read this tragedy once more. There were other dreams, other lives, much like this, but this was the most tragic because in it Atros had been the most happy. In this dream, Atros bore a name and spoke a language which were unpronounceable to Darla. He was a tall, kind man who enjoyed life’s simplicities in an age where others took them for granted. In time he found love. A beautiful young author, she was called Narya. After a lengthy and romantic courtship, they married. They settled in a small cottage in a secluded valley filled with wildlife, prefering their own company to that of anyone about them. The house contained hundreds of fantastic devices which made life easier or provided entertainment for the couple. They lived quietly and happily together and wrote many successful books. In time they had two children: a daughter and a son. One day just as his son was first learning to walk unsupported, Atros awoke and was permanently torn from the happiness that he had found in a single night’s dream.
Never able to return to that happy life, Atros thereafter bore its memories as a curse. His anger grew but he could find no one to blame. In his daily studies he sought to forever escape the dreaming which had become so painful to him, regardless of the content of the dreams. Atros had also developed a lingering doubt that this life too might only be a dream, from which he might be snatched at any moment. Thus, he forbore pleasure and love so that he might not regret their loss when he awoke. His fear of this life being a dream had slowly pervaded all his waking thoughts and actions until he had succeeded in fashioning an existence in which there was little cherishable.
Darla understood this, at least in part. It made little difference to her whether his dreams were somehow real, because Atros believed them to be real, which was far more important to her than any philosophical consideration. She had tried to help Atros. Slowly, carefully she had pierced his barriers and had succeeded in gaining some of his trust and friendship. But her hold to this position was tenuous. She realized that Atros often used little barbs in order to drive her from him, not because he disliked her but because he cared for her too much. She also sensed the contempt which Atros expressed in subtle ways for nearly everyone about him at one time or another, but she knew that it was only his way of coping with the pain at times. Perhaps he envied others who could lead an untroubled life. Darla wondered how he managed as well as he did despite all the frustration and anger within him.
As she left off reading that passage, almost of their own volition, her hands turned to the dedication, which Atros had at sometime scribbled on the inside of the front cover. She stared at what he had written there until the moistening of her eyes made it impossible to continue. He had written:
I’ve loved many and burried a few,
But in all my search found nary a clue.
The secret of life it seems
Lies forgotten in my dreams
Forever separating one from two.