DargonZine 22, Issue 4

Changes

Nober 12, 1018 - Deber 1, 1019


I don’t want to be a scribe!” Briam screamed at the two people standing in front of him, his face red and wet with tears. He slammed his fist on the table. “I want to be a Town Guard. Rebecca said I can be a Town Guard.”

“Briam,” Sian said softly, reaching for his hand, but Briam pulled it away. “I don’t see how you can chase down anyone with just one leg. Guards need to be able to run.” She looked at Tom, who stood beside her for support, but he remained silent. The night before she and Tom had discussed getting a peg leg for Briam to give him at least some of his mobility back. While Tom was all for it, she had argued that Briam’s leg needed some more healing time.

“Rebecca said so when she read my flinger last year. I want to be a Town Guard!” Tears ran down Briam’s face. “I want to be a Town Guard!” he sobbed, stubbornly.

“Briam …” Sian began, but didn’t continue, instead she closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath in. “Stevene, give me strength,” she thought, “and get me through this.” Briam had his heart set on being a guard and rejected anything she suggested. Sian was at a loss.

“There may be a way, Briam,” Tom began carefully, looking first at Sian, then at the boy in front of him.

Shaking her head, Sian turned towards Tom, hoping to prevent what she felt was too soon. For the past six sennights she had been trying to get Briam to accept the loss of part of his left leg, an injury he sustained during the causeway accident. Three months prior, a barge had crashed into the bridge, collapsing the causeway in the process. Briam had been on the bridge at that time and his left leg had been crushed by one of the large stones as he fell. Sian considered it a miracle that he survived at all. The healer attending to him had been unable to save his leg. For more than a fortnight, Briam had been quite ill and his subsequent recovery slow.

Sian pulled gently on Tom’s tunic sleeve, but he seemed to ignore her subtle attempt of stopping him. She didn’t want to start an argument in front of the distressed child, didn’t want to raise Briam’s hopes for something she felt he wouldn’t be able to achieve. She would have to take it up with Tom afterwards.

“Briam, how badly do you want to be a Town Guard?” Tom looked at Briam.

“Very. It’s all I ever wanted to do.” He dried his wet face with his sleeve.

“You may not be able to run, but there are other duties a Town Guard performs. I spoke with Sergeant Cepero and Captain Koren –”

“What other duties?” Briam interrupted, sniffing.

“Reports, duty assignments, prison records, to name a few. But …” Tom paused for a moment. “But you need to know how to read and write.”

Briam looked at Tom. For the first time since Briam’s accident, Sian had hope that his dream would be possible. Why hadn’t Tom mentioned this possibility to her before? She had searched for an apprenticeship for the youngster and finally spoken to Genarvus Kazakian, the scribe. When Genarvus learned about Briam, he agreed to take him on, yet the scribe had a request. He wanted a second child to teach reading and writing to. He found it was easier to teach two children than one and it would encourage competition to learn faster. Sian thought about this and wondered who would qualify and meet the scribe’s requirement. It didn’t take her long to make a decision.

“If I study with the scribe, I can still be a guard?” Briam asked and looked from Sian to Tom. Sian held her breath for a moment, hoping that Tom wouldn’t disappoint the boy.

“You’ll have to work hard, do what you’re told, and when Genarvus says you’re ready, I will put in another word with Captain Koren,” Tom said. “It won’t be easy, but I think if you put your mind to it, you can do it.”

Briam sat quietly for a long moment. Sian could see he was seriously considering what Tom just said. “Stevene, help him make the right decision,” she thought.

“I have to study with the scribe then,” Briam said resignedly as he seemed to give in to the idea.

“You won’t be going alone to learn the skills,” Sian said slowly.

“Who else will be going? Oriel?” Briam looked hopeful.

“Oriel has her apprenticeship with the cook, remember? She loves it and wouldn’t dream of quitting.”

“Aren? Finn?”

“Neither, Aren finally started his apprenticeship with Derill, the furniture maker; you were still very sick when he left. Finn decided to hire on a fishing boat as a cabin boy. The ship will be leaving day after tomorrow.”

Briam looked her in astonishment. “He didn’t tell me.”

“He tried to tell you, but you chose to ignore him and so he gave up.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t tell me, tell Finn. You two need to make up.”

Briam nodded. “So who will go with me?”

“Can’t you think of anyone?” Sian said, amused her charge hadn’t guessed it. Briam’s eyes went wide. A giggle escaped her. “Just because she’s younger doesn’t mean she can’t join you.”

“Kerith!”

“Yes, it’s me.” Kerith grinned as she entered. “Took you long enough to guess.”

“Kerith, you were eavesdropping!” Sian scolded the girl.

“Couldn’t help it. Briam was screaming and I wanted to know why.”

“Kerith,” Sian sighed. “Did you get the messages I gave you to Aren and Oriel?”

“Uh huh,” Kerith said proudly. “Both got permission to come. We’re going to have a good-bye meal for Finn tomorrow and day after tomorrow we start with the scribe Kazakian. I’m so excited and Aren is proud of me. Oh, I can’t wait!” She skipped across the room and tossed her long sandy hair.

“Please go and bring the dry linen in, Kerith,” Sian said and watched her dance out of the room.

“Think it over, Briam,” Tom said. “Reading and writing are good skills to have as a Town Guard.”

“Tom, will I still get a sword?”

“I don’t see why not. If you can pay for one that is. Swords are expensive!”

“Then I’ll go with Kerith and learn,” Briam replied thoughtfully and for the first time since his accident a slight smile stole across his face.

“Will I have to stay at Kazakian’s? I don’t see how I can get back and forth every day,” Briam said after a moment of silence.

“We’ll see about that,” Sian answered before Tom could say a word. “Let’s just make sure that Finn’s last days with us are pleasant.” She ruffled Briam’s hair and left his room.

“Thank you, Stevene,” she thought and wiped a tear from her face. “May peace enter this house again.”

***

“I don’t know what I would have done without you,” Sian admitted as she and Tom were alone in the kitchen that evening. Briam, Finn, and Kerith were asleep in their beds. “I really appreciate your being here today. Briam’s been so difficult to direct. His episodes and displays of anger towards Finn and Oriel, partially blaming them for his accident, were wearing me down. I don’t know how much longer I could have been patient with him. I’m certain these outbursts were part of the reason Finn hired on as cabin boy.” A single tear ran down her cheek. “I’ll miss him.”

Tom pulled her into a tight embrace and she placed her head on his chest. It felt good to have his strong arms surround her and give her strength. A mene later she freed herself from his arms and almost immediately regretted it. She wanted to kiss him, but held back.

“When we spoke with Briam I thought for a moment you’d mention the peg leg again. Letting him know he can work for the Town Guard as a scribe really helped raise his spirit.” She looked at him and smiled.

“He needs a goal and hope,” Tom said. “I don’t think it’s too soon for a peg leg either. He needs to learn how to use it and he needs motivation to work through the pain. I spoke with Joliana and Rebecca and they agree that Briam needs to learn how to use a peg leg sooner than later. He’ll learn to walk and join in with the other children again.”

Sian sighed. “I hate it when you’re right. How do I arrange for a peg leg for Briam?”

“Don’t worry about that, Sian. I’ve taken care of that already. I can bring it in a day or two.” He grinned. “I knew you’d give in.”

Sian smiled at him and shook her head. She noticed his expression change and he looked more serious than she had seen him before.

“Marry me, Sian,” Tom said and took both her hands in his. Sian paled. She hadn’t expected this.

“What … what about your mother?” Sian stammered and swallowed hard. “She hates me.”

“Mother hates every woman I’ve had feelings for. This time I won’t stand for it. I’ve loved you as long as I can remember. Marry me, Sian, please.”

Sian looked into his grey eyes. Slowly, she nodded and whispered, “Yes.” She raised her head and met his lips. She felt Tom pick her up and carry her to her room. She heard him close the door and then felt his hands loosen the knot on her belt.

“We’ll tell them tomorrow,” he said softly, kissing her neck.

“Tomorrow,” she replied and responded to his kisses in her own way.

“You what?” Elise Madden looked at her son, unable to believe what she had just heard.

“I asked Sian Allyn to marry me and she agreed,” Tom repeated.

“Surely you jest. That woman has no parents of record and those brats she surrounds herself with are nothing but trouble,” Elise spat out.

“No, mother, Sian has more than proven she is capable of raising children. In fact, every one of them has an apprenticeship. Yes, Sian is an orphan herself. How long are you going to hold that against her?”

“If you marry her, you won’t be able to come home anymore.”

“Mother, we’ll be living next door to each other.”

“We won’t. I’ll make sure of that.”

“Mother, be reasonable. I love her. Don’t you want to see me happy?”

“Happy yes, but not with her.”

“You’ve rejected every woman I introduced you to. Not one was good enough for you. This time, I won’t listen. I’ll marry Sian.” Tom looked at his mother. “Please, don’t make this difficult for either of us, mother. I love you, too. And I’ll always be there when you need me. I’ll just be across the yard.”

“You will not marry her! That is final!” Elise dictated, barely controlling herself. “Now, get out!”

“Yes, mother.” Tom said quietly and left the room.

Elise was furious. How dare he make a proposal to that wench? Of all the women in Dargon he had to pick one with questionable heritage. She had known that her husband, Trevor, dallied with other woman on his many travels and suspected that Sian, who was born out of wedlock and pushed around because her mother died in childbirth, was his bastard child. Her late husband had brought the then four-year-old Sian home one night and asked Elise to care for the child as her daughter alongside their six-year-old son Tom. She had taken one look at the sleeping child and flat out refused.

“She needs a home, Elise,” Trevor had said. “Someone who cares what happens to her. Her mother –”

“I don’t care what happens to her,” she had interrupted him. “Take her away.”

“I promised to find her a home,” he had replied. “I thought Tom could use a little sister to protect and love.”

“She won’t have a home here,” she’d said and turned her back. “I won’t raise your bastard child.”

Her husband had tried to explain, but each time she’d cut him off, refusing to listen. He’d taken the girl to their childless neighbors and asked them to care for her. She hadn’t forgiven Trevor for that either and from that point on, refused to share his bed. She had to watch the girl grow up and saw a resemblance to her late husband that no one else saw or wanted to see and her hatred towards Sian had grown. She just knew that Sian was her late husband’s bastard daughter. Why else would he bring that filthy brat to her house?

“I have to prevent that marriage,” Elise muttered, “I have to find a way to stop it without telling Tom. I have to get rid of Sian …”

***

Tom left his mother’s room feeling like a little boy who had done something wrong. He had tried to bring her happy news and all she had done was yell at him. He loved his mother, but he also loved Sian. He didn’t want to have to choose between the two. He’d seen the love in Sian’s eyes and treasured it. He had also seen the hatred in his mother’s eyes when he told her of the engagement and couldn’t understand why. He wished his father was still around, but he had died when Tom was barely ten.

“I need to talk to Roman,” he thought and left the house in search of his friend and colleague.

He found Sergeant Cepero at the guard house, filing reports. For a moment, Tom stood in front of the door, unsure whether to disturb his friend or not. He raised his hand and knocked.

“Come in,” the voice from inside called.

“Got a moment, Roman?” Tom asked as he entered.

“As soon as I’ve put these scrolls away, Tom. What brings you here on your day off?”

“I need to talk to you.”

“Sounds serious. Problems?”

“Straight,” Tom acknowledged. “Maybe you have a suggestion or two.”

“Is it about Sian?”

“How do you know about Sian?”

“I’m just stating the obvious. During the past sennights, every conversation between us has been either about Sian, Briam, or one of the other children living with her. And of course I saw the way you looked at her during Briam’s illness.”

“Can’t hide anything from you, can I?”

“Straight, you can’t.” Roman laughed. “I read you like an open book. So, what troubles you, my friend?”

“Two women,” Tom began and told his friend what had transpired between him and Sian, and his mother’s reaction.

“Ugh,” Roman said. “Not an easy problem to solve. You can’t just leave your mother or easily go against her wishes, nor can you abandon Sian and her children.”

“Straight, I love Sian and want to be with her. I don’t want to wait until my mother passes just to placate her. Mother will probably outlive me.” Tom sighed.

“She’s ornery enough for that,” Roman grinned as he said it and a brief smile stole across Tom’s face in reply.

“Do you have any suggestions?”

“You could move.”

“There isn’t a place in all of Makdiar that’s far enough away from my mother. No matter where I go, she’ll find me and take revenge. I need to find a way to appease her without losing Sian.”

“Do you really think this is possible?” Roman said

“I have to think about it,” Tom said. “I think an ale or two might help.” He briefly shook Roman’s hand, thanked him, and left. He had a decision to make.

***

Three bells later, Tom returned to his home. He had been at the Inn of the Panther mulling over what to say to his mother. Nothing he thought of sounded right. It seemed his mother had made up her mind, but this time he wouldn’t stand for it. He loved Sian and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Tom took a deep breath and entered his house.

“Mother?” he called out, “Are you home?”

“Where have you been?” Elise’s angry voice sounded from the kitchen.

Tom walked towards his mother. “Talking with Roman,” he answered her.

Elise sniffed. “You smell like you’ve been drenched in ale. Did you drink?”

“Had a tankard of ale at the Panther.”

“Humph.” She turned towards a kettle over the fireplace and stirred its contents with a wooden spoon.

“Mother,” Tom began, “I …”

“If you’re thinking I’ve changed my mind about Sian, you’re mistaken,” Elise interrupted.

“Why?”

“I don’t owe you an explanation. You’re my son and you owe me obedience!”

Tom opened his mouth, but his mother silenced him with her look. “You will not marry her, and that is the end of it!”

Tom took a step towards her; his hands on his hips. “Mother, I will marry her whether you like it or not.”

Elise stepped forward, the wooden spoon in her hand.

“No mother, it’s my turn to speak, and please let me finish. I love her and I love you as well. You’ve interfered with every girl I brought home. No one was ever good enough and Sian means everything to me. If you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I had hoped you’d be happy for me, and that we could be happy together. If you don’t want to live next door to us, I’ll take Sian and we’ll find another place. I will marry Sian.” Tom looked at his mother. Her face had turned from red to pale and back to red. She was furious with him, he’d seen that expression often enough. Before he could react, Elise had hit him in the face with the wooden spoon. Wordlessly, Tom turned and left the kitchen. He went to his room, stuffed his few belongings in a bag, and took one last look at the room he’d called his. He’d ask Roman if he could put him up for a couple of days.

***

“Briam and Kerith get to learn reading and writing,” Finn blurted out when Aren and Oriel entered the kitchen.

“We know,” Aren said and ruffled the younger boy’s copper hair. “I heard you’re going to learn how to live on a fishing boat.”

“More than that,” Finn replied proudly. “They’ll teach me how to fish, mend the nets, and sail the ship.”

“Straight,” Oriel laughed, “And how to gut and salt fish. You’ll probably do more of that than anything else.”

“Nah,” Aren said with a smirk. “He’ll probably spend most of his time leaning over the railing, returning his food to the sea.”

“No, I won’t!” Finn gave Aren a stern look and grinned when the older boy gently boxed his shoulder.

Sian stood over the kettle, stirring the stew she had cooking. It was Finn’s favorite dish and she had taken extra care today to prepare it. For a moment she left the wooden spoon in the kettle and welcomed Aren and Oriel. “Where are Briam and Kerith?”

“Upstairs,” Finn replied. “Kerith brought in some flat stones this morning and she and Briam have been drawing marks on it with charcoal.”

Sian sighed; the room would be a mess, not to mention the children. “Aren, will you make sure the two of them will wash up properly now and come down to eat? Tom should be here any moment.”

“Straight.” Aren vanished from the kitchen.

Oriel stepped next to Sian. She took in a deep breath. “Smells good. May I try?”

“Sure, get a spoon.”

Oriel pulled a spoon out of her apron and held it up, grinning. Sian placed a small amount of stew on the spoon and Oriel tasted it carefully. “It tastes better than I remember!”

“Why thank you, Oriel. The stew’s nearly done. Why don’t you set the table in the meantime?”

“Straight.”

A knock on the door startled Sian. She looked up, saw Tom standing in the doorway, and felt her face flush. Then she noticed the bruise on his left cheek.

“May I come in?”

“Of course.” Sian turned to Oriel, “Please add one more bowl to the table.” She saw Oriel’s nod and turned her attention back to Tom. “What happened?” She gently touched the bruise.

“I’ll tell you later,” he said quietly.

Sian nodded and went to check the stew. “It’s ready,” she announced and lifted the kettle off its hook and placed it on the stone slate on the table.

“Oriel, please get the others.”

“Aren! Finn! Briam! Kerith! Come now!” Oriel yelled. Sian only shook her head. Within moments all were at the table, even Briam, who had resorted to hopping around on one leg rather than being carried.

Their meal was filled with joy. Aren told an anecdote from his apprenticeship and the other children roared with laughter. Oriel, not to be outdone, told them about one of the cooks using salt instead of sugar for the pudding.

“You should have seen our faces as we tasted our dessert,” Oriel giggled, “it was awful. I only hope I never make that mistake.”

Every now and then Sian and Tom swapped glances across the table and smiled at each other. Surprisingly, none of the children mentioned the bruise on Tom’s face.

After everyone had eaten, Tom stood up. “I have two surprises for you. I’ll be back shortly.”

Within a mene he returned holding a large parcel. “This is for Briam,” he announced and handed it over to the boy. Briam ripped the wrapping off and his eyes went wide. The other children stared at what their friend was holding up. Finn was the first to talk.

“A peg leg and a cane! Just like a pirate.” He blurted out.

“I’m no pirate!” Briam replied with dignity. “How do I use this?”

“Let me show you,” Tom said and stepped next to Briam. “See these straps? They will hold the leg in place so you don’t lose it when you walk.” He took the peg leg and fitted it onto Briam’s stump, tying the straps around his thigh, ending with a knot. He then took the cane from Briam.

“You’ll need to hold the cane with your right hand so you have support when you lift your right leg. Let me show you.” Tom demonstrated how to use the cane for walking. When Briam nodded, he returned the cane.

“Your turn to try. It will be uncomfortable for a while, your leg hasn’t been used in three months.” He stepped behind Briam and helped him stand up.

Sian watched in amazement as Briam took his first steps with his new leg. He walked slowly to the door and then back to his chair. The children were cheering and clapping. Briam’s face was pale and sweat was dripping from his forehead, but he was beaming with joy.

“It hurts to walk. It will get better, straight?” he asked Tom.

“It will get better. A little practice every day and you’ll be walking all the way to Genarvus’ place and back in no time. Tomorrow, we’ll take the wagon. As you grow, you’ll need to be fitted for a new leg.”

“How did you know what to get for me this time?” Briam inquired.

“Oh that was easy. I measured your good leg for length and the stump for the holder when we changed your dressing,” Tom said.

“You’re sneaky,” Briam replied and Tom grinned.

“You said you had two surprises,” Kerith piped up.

“I did say that,” Tom replied and looked at Sian. She nodded.

“Sian and I are getting married.” For a moment no one spoke, then the children erupted in laughter and screams of congratulations.

“When?” Finn inquired.

“Don’t know yet,” Sian replied, “But we’ll make sure you’re home. For now, we’ll keep it our secret. We’ll tell everyone when we set a date.”

“And by tomorrow the whole duchy will know,” she whispered in Tom’s ear. He laughed at her comment and placed a quick kiss on her forehead.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent with games and discussion what food to prepare for the wedding, what Oriel and Kerith would wear, and whether Sian would wear the traditional green gown she had inherited from her adoptive mother for the ceremony.

***

The eighth bell of night had rung and Sian got up to wake the children. Finn would have to be at the harbor before dawn if he was to leave with the ship. His bag was long packed. Neither of the children had slept much, but for once everyone got up without a complaint. Aren readied the hand-wagon which would carry Briam and soon they were on their way. Shortly after they’d left the house, Tom joined them silently.

A quarter bell later, they reached the harbor. Finn hugged Sian, Oriel, and Kerith good-bye, waved his hand towards Tom, Aren, and Briam, and walked on board. The first bell of day rang when the sails were set and the ship left the harbor with the outgoing tide.

Sian wiped a tear from her eyes. She felt Tom’s hand on her shoulder. Briefly, she rubbed her cheek against it.

“Aren, Oriel, it’s time for you to return to your masters.” Sian said quietly. The children bade farewell and walked briskly off.

“And it’s time for you two to meet Genarvus Kazakian and begin your studies,” Tom said and began pulling the hand-wagon.

“Are we going to live with the scribe?” Kerith asked.

“No, there isn’t enough room. For now you’ll be coming home every night. I packed lunch for you. Tom will pick you up at ninth bell.”

“I’m glad I get to come home at night,” Kerith said and gave Sian a brief hug. “Then the house won’t feel so empty.”

Sian was amazed by the girl’s comment. She smiled at Kerith. “I’m glad too you’re coming home at night.”

Kerith let out a big yawn. “Can I ride with Briam, Tom?”

“Straight, climb on in.”

“Thank you.” She nestled herself next to Briam, place her head on his thigh, and was instantly asleep.

Sian looked from Kerith to Tom and both grinned. She placed her hand next to Tom’s on the handle and together they pulled. As they reached the marketplace, they heard the now familiar sound of clicking ceramic plates. Sian shuddered briefly and moved closer to Tom. A few moments later, they saw a group of Doravin moving slowly toward them.

Sian admired the beautiful pattern on their robes, which were made of round ceramic plates, linked together by metal loops. While each robe seemed to be made the same way, the pattern on each was different. As the wearer moved, the plates made a clicking sound, which led Sian to assume there was a second robe of similar structure underneath. The stony garment covered the Doravin from neck to just below the knees. A metal mask covered each Doravin’s face and a leather cap with the same pattern as the garment completed the outfit. Only one of the people in this group wore a stiffened cloth mask and Sian wondered why. To her astonishment, the Doravin in front of her were barefoot. She hadn’t noticed that before.

Sian had mixed feelings about the newcomers. The constant clicking of their robes gave everyone advanced warning one or more were approaching, but at the same time she couldn’t see their faces and that frightened her. Why did they hide their faces? Were they sincere? Did they have ulterior motives? She felt that if they didn’t have anything to hide, the Doravin should show their faces.

“I can’t tell whether they’re man or woman,” Sian said when they were out of earshot. “Every time I see one of them, I get goosebumps.” She shuddered. “I’m glad you’re here with me. I wouldn’t want to run into them this early in the morning alone.” She felt comforted by Tom’s presence.

“So far they’ve lived up to their promise to rebuild the causeway and keep mostly to themselves.”

“Don’t they frighten you?”

“Yes and no. I’m happy I don’t have to interact as much with them as some of the other guards, but from what I’m told they’re good workers. What bothers me is that they’re taking work away from the people in Dargon.” Tom said. “I would like to get a closer look at one of their garments. I wonder if it protects them from attacks with a knife or if it holds back an arrow.”

“Are those the Doravin Kerith and Finn have been talking about?” Briam asked from behind. Sian looked at her charge for a moment. She’d forgotten Briam hadn’t been outside the confinement of the house and yard since his accident.

“Straight, Briam,” Tom explained. “They came about a month after the causeway broke. They’re here to fix it. Work on the causeway’s progressed nicely. By spring we should be able to use it again. Probably before that.”

“Did they break the causeway?”

“No, Briam, it was a barge from Kenna. It collided with one of the pylons in the water and then the causeway collapsed.”

“What do they look like underneath all that armor?”

“I’m not sure if anyone has seen them without their attire. They’re a very private people.”

“Where did they come from?” Briam wanted to know.

“I don’t know for sure,” Tom began, “They arrived by boat and now live due north of Dargon. They have erected tents there.”

“I want to go see that,” Briam said.

“Me, too!” Kerith piped in, rubbing her eyes.

“You’ll do no such thing!” Sian said. “I want you to stay as far away from them as possible. We don’t know what they’re up to and they don’t show their faces. We’ll leave them be. They like to keep to themselves and we’ll let them. You’ll see enough of them at the market — that can’t be helped –

but you will stay away from them! Promise me that!” Sian had stopped walking, making Tom halt as well. She looked directly at Briam and Kerith and noticed them shrink back from her.

“I promise,” the children said softly in unison. Sian breathed a sigh of relief. She turned and continued to pull the wagon with Tom.

***

They had barely reached Kazakian’s place when the alarm bells sounded. For a moment they stared at each other.

“I’ve got to leave; they’ll need me!” Tom said and darted off towards the guard house.

“I wonder what’s going on,” Sian muttered more to herself than anyone in particular.

“Sian?” Briam and Kerith said in unison.

“It’ll be fine,” she said and knocked on Genarvus’ door. A man with olive skin, dark hair, and a thick moustache opened the door. He smiled when he saw Sian and the children.

“You must be Kerith and Briam,” he said with a thick accent. “Welcome. Please enter.”

Briam finished tying his peg leg on and carefully climbed out of the wagon. Sian could see it took him quite some effort to walk the few steps to the door and into the house, but he didn’t complain.

“Well done,” she whispered in his ear when he was seated. Briam beamed. Sian turned to Genarvus. “Where can I leave the wagon?”

“In the back. There is a small yard. The wagon will be safe there.”

“Thank you, Genarvus.” Sian replied. “I’ll see you tonight.”

“Good day, Sian,” Genarvus said and closed the door behind her.

Sian pulled the wagon behind the house and made her way home. She hadn’t gone far, when she noticed black smoke rising. Her heart started racing and she increased her pace. The closer she got to her home, the thicker the smoke was. Sian broke into a run. She took the last turn to her home and then stopped cold. Her house was on fire, so were the houses on either side. Sian felt the color drain from her face. A moment later darkness enveloped her.

Sian awoke in a dimly lit room. She turned her head and moaned. The pain was almost unbearable.

“Lie still,” a voice instructed her.

“What happened? Where am I?”

“You fainted and when you fell, you hit your head on a cornerstone. You have a nasty gash on your temple. I had Lilike stitch it.”

“Rebecca?”

“The same. You’re in my house.”

“Where are Briam and Kerith?”

“They’re staying with Genarvus. When he heard what happened, he said he’d keep them at his place until such time other arrangements can be made.”

“Tom?”

“He’ll be here later. You gave him quite a fright.”

“Why?”

“You’ve been unconscious for nearly two days. You had a bad fall. We couldn’t wake you. Tom will be pleased to hear you’re finally awake. Lilike’s already on her way to tell him.”

Sian relaxed into the pillow. If she held her head still, the throbbing in her temple was tolerable. She closed her eyes. As she was about to drift off to sleep, the picture of her house burning appeared before her mind’s eye. Suddenly, she felt nauseous. She leaned over her mattress and vomited.

“Lie still,” Rebecca instructed. “I’ll get you cleaned up.”

“Rebecca?” Sian said softly after she had a chance to rinse her mouth.

“Do you need anything?”

“Did my house burn down?”

“Yes it did.” Rebecca answered slowly. “Someone set it on fire. Ronan and Mae’s house burnt down as well, as did Tom’s.”

“No,” Sian moaned. “Did anyone get hurt?”

“The fire brigade was able to extinguish the flames. Elise escaped with burns. She’s being treated at the Olean temple. Ronan and Mae weren’t that lucky. The fire surprised them in their sleep.”

“Who would do such a thing?”

This time, Rebecca did not answer her.

“Rebecca?”

“There are rumors. I won’t say right now and you need rest.”

Sian sighed. Dutifully, she closed her eyes, but sleep wouldn’t come.

Half a bell later, Sian heard Tom entering, asking for her. She was about to call out that she was awake when she heard Lilike’s voice. She sounded out of breath.

“Rebecca, they say that Elise set Sian’s house on fire.” There was a long pause and then Lilike’s voice reached her ears again. “Hello Tom.”

“Can I see Sian?” Tom asked and a moment later he sat by her side. He looked tired; his grey eyes were swimming in unshed tears. He wiped his face with his sleeve and then reached out for her. Despite her throbbing headache, Sian sat up and embraced him. He held her close for a moment and then gently laid her back down.

“Sian, I’m so sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?”

“Mother,” he began, “I should have realized …”

“What?”

“I don’t know. Jealousy maybe or misguided thinking. If she believes something is true, then there is no way to change her mind. I told her about our engagement and she said she would do anything to stop us. She didn’t quite say it that way. I didn’t think she’d actually do something so vile.” His breathing was heavy. Sian realized how difficult it must be for him and placed her hand on his.

“She loves you, Tom. I heard she is being treated at the Olean temple.”

“Not anymore,” Tom replied bitterly. “She died about two bells ago. Her injuries were too severe.”

“Tom …”

“I was with her when she died and …” Tom swallowed hard. “Her last words were that you’re my half-sister.”

Sian paled. “No, Tom. It’s not true!”

“Mother said that my father was never true to her. He traveled quite a bit, and mother said that she was sure he had other women. What made her really angry with him was that he’d expected her to raise one of his bastard children. She said that she’d looked into the child’s face and recognized my father’s features in it. She refused and father had turned the child over to their neighbors. She was talking about you, Sian.”

Sian wiped tears from Tom’s face. “No, Tom, it’s a lie. When your father asked my adoptive parents to take me in and care for me, he also told them that he’d taken pity on me. He found me just outside a village, covered with open sores and bruises all over my body. When he inquired about my parents, he was told that I belonged to no one, that my mother was long dead. He paid a healer to treat my wounds and promised me a family. I remember, because he was telling me about his son and that I’d have someone to play with who would not beat me, but protect me from bullies. I also remember how disappointed I was when I found out I didn’t get to stay with your family. Your father said that you would still look out for me, but that Silas and Marit Allyn really wanted a little girl and that I could call them mom and dad. So I stayed with them. Your mother was mistaken.” She closed her eyes for a moment.

“Are you sure?” Sian heard the doubt in his voice.

“Straight, I’m sure. I don’t know how many times I asked my mom to tell me the story how I came to live with them and she always told me that your father wasn’t mine.” Sian saw that Tom’s face was less grim.

“Tom, look into my face. Do I look like your father?”

Tom stared at her for a mene and then his face relaxed as he let out a small sigh of relief.

“No, you don’t look anything like him,” he said finally. “You don’t have any resemblance at all.”

“Do you think that’s the reason your mother hated me so much? Thinking that I was your half-sister and that seeing me reminded her of her husband’s infidelity?” Sian looked at Tom. She noticed he was fighting back tears. Ignoring her throbbing head, she sat up and pulled him in a tight embrace. “I’m sorry you lost your mother, Tom.”

“I’m not, Sian,” Tom said quietly. “After what she did to you and the children, killing Ronan and Mae, three houses in ashes, ours included. She thought you all were asleep upstairs when she set the house on fire. She’d seen that Aren and Oriel had been there for dinner. Mother showed no remorse when I told her that Ronan and Mae had died. She was livid when she found out that you and the children were fine. Half the town could have burnt down were it not for the fire brigade. I cannot forgive her. Ever! Her body is being burnt as we speak without a ceremony.”

“Tom!”

“No, Sian. Not after what she did. If you hadn’t left the house as early as you did, you, Aren, Oriel, Finn, Briam, and Kerith would have been burnt as well. I cannot forgive her for that. If I’d lost you …” He shed bitter tears. “I wish –”

“Don’t say it, Tom. Don’t!” Sian interrupted. She held him tight and, after his tears eased, kissed him.

A fortnight later, Sian and Tom stood in front of the ruins of their burnt houses. Kerith and Briam had joined them. Sian had been pleased to see how much progress Briam had made walking on his peg leg. He could now walk from Genarvus’ place to the market and, after some rest by the well, walk back.

“There’s nothing salvageable left,” Tom said quietly. “I’ve picked through the ashes, but the fire burnt so hot, it melted the kettle and knife blades. I don’t know what she used to start the fire or where she got it from.”

“We’ll rebuild, Tom. One house for all of us. The land is still ours. Not all is lost.”

“Straight,” he replied and pulled her into a tight embrace.

“Can I get my own room?” Kerith piped up.

Briam ruffled Kerith’s hair and commented, “Couldn’t you have waited another mene? Tom was about to kiss Sian.”

Sian felt heat rise to her cheeks. She freed herself from Tom’s hug, looked at Briam and Kerith, and opened her arms. The children rushed into her embrace.

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