The sun had long since set on the strangest day of my life. Well, the strangest day of my life *so far*, I corrected myself. I was beginning to realize that things change very quickly sometimes, and this was one of those times. I am beginning to sound redundant even to myself, but these things happen when you’re lying on a bed late at night, with nothing to do but think.
I sat up, the rustling of the covers sounding like thunder in the silence. That is another one of the signs of boredom, when you notice meaningless occurrences. I guessed that my boredom was a direct result of the excitement earlier that day. I had entered Dargon, embarrassed myself several times, tried to steal a noble’s purse and nearly got myself arrested, only to be reunited with a childhood friend.
And now I am sitting on a bed in an inn that I couldn’t even recall the name of, tossing and turning while my dear friend Dalis sleeps like a child. I shrugged my shoulders and set my elbows on my knees. With a sigh, I put my head in my hands. Trying to make sense of things only made my head hurt.
Standing up, which is not an easy task for a fatigued person, I walked over to the window. Looking out, I couldn’t keep myself from laughing. “An alley,” I thought. Perfect scenery.
Strength returning to my weary body, I tried to figure out what I wanted to do. So I stood in the middle of the room for a moment, weighing sleep against insomnia. Logic left and insomnia won. I shuffled over to the small basin of water that was in a corner of the room. Dipping my hands in, I splashed the lukewarm liquid onto my sleep-deprived face. Staring into the wall, I thought: “Balor, Balor. How did you get here? What went wrong?”
I decided that I’d rearrange my things. It’s a strange habit that I have, when I’m bored I sort my belongings.
My pack opened easily and I laid everything I owned out onto the bed. As I did so, I couldn’t help but wonder what had become of my pursuers. They had followed me closely for quite some time, then suddenly they were gone. Was that how the guard operated in Dargon? “Strange,” I thought again. I shrugged off the ideas and went about my chore.
What had to be several bells later, I woke. This startled me because I hadn’t remember falling asleep. I started to pull myself up, and it was then that I noticed the weight on my chest. Looking down, I saw the source. A large, leather bound book was lying on my chest. Still half asleep, I was puzzled as to where the book came from. Suddenly, I remembered. Before I fell asleep, I had found the large book in my pack. I thought it strange because it hadn’t been there the last time I checked, which was only that morning. Maybe someone slipped it in during my performance, I thought, or maybe it was Dalis’s.
I picked up the book and studied its cover. I tried to draw upon my experience with the formal texts, no matter how small. No, I’m literate; it’s just that books are hard to come by. Thinking of that fact made me wonder more about how this volume just appeared in my pack. I examined it more closely. It appeared to be well-bound, and a title was on the outer cover. “Personas Remedian”. I sat back, trying to remember my ancient texts. My memory seemed to be hazy here, although the fact that I had very little training in the language didn’t help, either. “Personas”, I remembered, had to do with “self or “personal”. “Remedian” didn’t stir the stew, so to speak.
I opened the book to the first page. I sighed when I noticed it was completely in ancient form. Translation restricted my reading considerably. I began.
“Personal worth, above all else, should be recognized by an individual who wishes to do well. To achieve … ”
I had to stop. After that the words ceased to make sense. Well, I thought, I found the title. I wondered again who gave me the book.
A stirring from the direction of Dalis’s bed brought me out of my thoughts. It seemed that my friend was waking. I closed the book and tossed it onto the bed, next to me, giving it no more thought.
That morning Dalis and I decided, although I should have been the wiser, to skip breakfast. “The guard might still be about,” he had rationalized. My head agreed but my stomach hated him.
To take my mind off food, we resolved to continue the conversation that we had begun last night, a conversation that was cut short by fatigue; to catch up on each others’ lives. A lot can happen in ten years.
“So you’ve been traveling all this time?” Dalis said, marveling at my stamina, or possibly my stupidity.
“For all of ten years. I have to admit though, it isn’t as easy as I thought it would be,” I said shaking my head slowly, remembering.
“You thought it would be *easy*!” Dalis exclaimed. “What were you thinking?”
“I was young and stupid. You knew me then; you remember how I was. A fool’s fool.”
Dalis just laughed. I couldn’t help but see the humor in it too. I could recall the time when Dalis and I were fishing, and I fell in the Coldwell trying to leap it. I had thought *that* would be easy too. It’s strange how things seem more impossible the older you get. I longed for those younger days …
“Dalis, let’s go fishing,” I said, leaping from my seat.
I started over toward him. “Fishing, just like we used to. We could set up a camp and make a day of it. Just like we used to. What do you think?” I could barely contain myself.
“I suppose we could, but not now. Now, duty calls.”
I didn’t understand what he meant, and I told him. He silently revealed his left hand. On it was a ring.
My first thought was that my friend had gone and got himself married. Duty, my right foot. But that idea was banished in seconds when I examined the ring more closely. On it were several symbols. A book, a quill pen, the words Mae Gwybodaeth Gallu, meaning “Knowledge is Power”. I couldn’t believe it.
“You’re a member of the Guild!”
Dalis merely smiled and nodded. I couldn’t contain my joy. I started to spout off every congratulatory phrase I could think of. But deep inside, I couldn’t help but feel that twinge of regret and envy. I should be a member of the Guild, too. But then I stopped myself. No, I didn’t have the patience, the determination to spend years in study to become a member of the College of Bards. I knew that when I left. The pauper and the merchant.
“So what’s your ‘duty’?” I asked, allowing no hint of my secret thoughts leaking into my voice.
“I’m here doing research on a particular ancient text that we have just discovered. It was found in the area and the Guild likes to know a history of the works it holds. I have a meeting with a local named Corambis Desaavu. It’s been said he knows quite a bit.”
I tried to act as if I cared, out of politeness and courtesy, adding over-exaggerated “Is that so!” and wide-eyed stares of surprise. However, my patience wore thin rather quickly, and I managed, only under great restraint, to stifle a few yawns. Finally, with the risk of unconsciousness seemingly looming about, I decided to change the subject. “Dalis, do you ever have fun?” I asked, a twinge of sarcasm entering my voice.
“Do you ever do anything besides research? I bet you don’t. You didn’t when we were kids, either. I had to force you to go fishing, although you admitted you liked it. I’ll bet you’re still shy, too. When is the last time you saw a girl? Socially, I mean.”
Dalis was silent. I knew it. Then an idea hit me. I picked up the book that lay next to me.
“Here, read this,” I handed the book to him. “I don’t need it, and you seem interested enough in ancient texts. Besides, I can’t read it.” I stopped and shot him a glance. “Who knows, it may even do you some good.”
He read the title, looked at me, and smiled. “Maybe,” he said, and he started to laugh.
The rest of that day I spent sleeping, because there wasn’t much to do. Dalis had told me that he would be back within a bell or so, so I thought I could make up for the rest I missed the night before.
Dalis didn’t return until well after dusk. He seemed very excited, and most of that evening I spent in forced anxiety, listening to him as he rattled off some odd facts about history. While I admit history does interest me somewhat, I believe Dalis passed my boundary. M’Kivar, I thought, I hope that book does something for his personality. I would better enjoy a hearthstone!
It seemed like days had passed; finally Dalis decided to turn in for the night, I eagerly agreed.
The next few days were spent similarly, I would waste the day in our room while Dalis would go out chasing after some bit of history. At first I took the opportunity to practice my act. This stopped when the proprietor of the inn complained, rather loudly, too.
I really began to wonder about Dalis. How could he exist solely on research?
Finally one day, Dalis was home a little before dusk. We decided that we would spend the evening in the tavern below, quite convinced that it was safe.
“How’s the research coming?” I asked after we ordered our meals. The moment I said it I regretted it, and steeled myself for another history lecture. To my surprise, Dalis wasn’t even listening. He was staring off somewhere behind me, in the direction of the bar.
I followed his gaze, and what I saw surprised me. It did seem that my good friend had an interest in one of the barmaids!
“Talk to her,” I said, trying to coax him out of his shell.
“What?” he said, obviously not hearing me fully.
“Talk to her.”
“You mean you won’t,” I said as I threw a piece of bread at him.
“Well,” he started, staring at her with a bit of longing. I felt sorry for him at that moment.
The rest of the meal lacked for conversation, as I was starved and Dalis was infatuated. Afterward, as we adjourned to our room, I noticed my friend was looking depressed, or at least ill. I asked him about it.
“Oh, I’m fine,” he said. He always was a horrible liar.
I asked him again, and this time he confided to me that it was the barmaid from the tavern. I couldn’t help but smile.
“I *told* you to talk to her, but *you* wouldn’t listen!”
“I know, I know,” he said, shaking his head. He looked as if he was going to say something, then thought better of it. He simply rolled over onto his side.
I watched him for a few more moments, then I laid down as well. As my mind drifted, (I was drowsy from so much food), I swore I heard rustling pages. I smiled a bit to myself. Now, he’ll get somewhere …
The next morning I saw quite a change in my old friend. Aside from the bloodshot eyes and withdrawn face that displayed a lack of sleep, I saw what could only be described as determination. That’s what it was, because the first words out of his mouth were: “Balor, let’s go get breakfast!”
Now, don’t get me wrong; Dalis wasn’t in the mood for eating. His mind was on other things — people, actually. I convinced him to at least make himself more presentable — splash some water on his face, change clothes, anything so as not to embarrass himself. He reluctantly agreed.
Down in the tavern I saw my old friend as I had never seen him before. He strode straight up to the barmaid, who’s name I later found out was Kessia. She seemed surprised at his boldness at first, then relaxed. Of course, I was viewing this all from across the room at my table.
Their conversation soon escalated to the point were they sat down at a nearby table. I was surprised at myself for not feeling even a twinge of jealousy — Kessia was rather fetching. I credited it to elation for Dalis’s newfound confidence.
All that morning and a good part of that afternoon was spent in that tavern, Dalis talking to Kessia while I ate like a wharfman. It wasn’t until about the seventh bell that the barmaid was called back to work and the conversation ended. A good thing, too; I was beginning to swell with indigestion.
“Well,” I said to Dalis as we headed back up to our room, “what caused this sudden burst of confidence?”
“It was that book, Balor! I picked it up last night, in order to get my mind off Kessia — that’s her name, by the way — and I started reading. It really made sense to me. I think you may have changed my life!” The last he said with a smile. I couldn’t help but share his enthusiasm.
“So,” I said, “now that you have all this confidence, I suppose you wouldn’t mind taking off a little research time to go fishing, would you?”
“No, I wouldn’t mind.”
“*Finally*,” I thought. Then he added: “Not today, though, all right? I’m going with Kessia for dinner tonight.”
“You’re seeing her again?!” I reeled. This was amazing! Dalis barely ever talked to his mother when I saw him last, let alone seeing a girl steadily. I stopped myself, realizing that I was a little ahead of things.
“Well, of course! Go! It’ll be good for you!” I remarked, smacking Dalis on the back.
“Thanks again, Balor,” he said, and bounded up the staircase to prepare for his outing, still bells away. I started to follow, but then I realized that Dalis would probably want to be alone.
“Back to the tavern,” I sighed, as I walked back down the stairs. The whole rest of the day I was trying to suppress nagging thoughts about Dalis’s sudden change.
I took up cleaning the room as a hobby to pass the time over my next few days of solitude. Dalis was now spending most of his time with Kessia and some new friends, whom he never wanted to introduce me to. I dismissed that thought. I had been dismissing thoughts quite a bit the last few days, regarding Dalis’s behavior.
You might wonder why I was still cooped up in that room. That is on the account of Dalis overhearing something on one of his increasingly frequent outings.
“I swear to you, Balor, I heard the guards talking. They said ‘So, we start the sweep tomorrow?’ and the other one said ‘Yeah, we’ll find that thief.’ So you see, Balor, I’m just protecting you. It’s not safe.”
You might think I’m a moron for believing him, but I figure if Dalis wants me here so badly, he must have good cause, right? He’s never lied to me before. And yet …
My thoughts were cut short by a sound in the alley below. I was moving to investigate when suddenly something flew through the window, the sheer surprise knocking me to the ground. The sound of my body hitting the ground mixed with the sound of something else embedding itself elsewhere.
As I lay there, I heard the scuffling in the alley, again. This time it moved away. I lay on the floor for a few moments more, trying to discern exactly what had just happened.
Thoughts secured, I picked myself up. I looked around for the projectile that had invaded my room. It didn’t take me long to find the arrow that jutted out of the ceiling. I pushed a chair over, climbed on top of it, and removed the arrow, which was no little task. It only took me another moment to notice the note tied onto the shaft. I undid the note, thinking all the while who would go to all this trouble just to send me a message. Maybe, I thought, it wasn’t for me. Visions of death threats, written in blood, demanding payments from Dalis entered my mind. These were dispelled when I read the note, written in the artistic hand of a scribe:
I know this is a strange way to inform you, but I am pressed for time. I have a free moment, meet me down at our old spot.
The note caused a cascade of pleasant memories. Sunny days spent on the banks of the Coldwell, laughing, swimming, and skipping stones. I couldn’t help but smile. Memories of our “border wars” with other children in the neighborhood for “rights” to the spot. It was even the spot where I had first told Dalis that I was leaving. He tried to be supportive, but I could see that he was upset …
I packed up a few things and left for the spot that Dalis and I had frequented as children. I still found myself having to disperse apprehensions about my old friend. I just couldn’t help but wonder where he got the arrow.
It seemed like no time at all had passed when I arrived at the banks of the Coldwell, although the sun was nearly down. The fact that it was an awkward time for fishing didn’t enter my mind. I should have known then. My mind was clouded when I ran over the hill and saw a sight I hadn’t seen in years, the second in nearly a week. There was Dalis, busy putting the finalized touches to a makeshift camp, a camp exactly like the ones we built ten years ago. I don’t mind saying I was near tears.
Dalis noticed me and waved. I waved back and ran down to meet him.
“It looks great,” I said when I reached him.
“I know,” he said with a smile, and we both set to work, preparing fishing poles and bait.
We fished for what seemed like forever, but in reality was about a bell. It was then that Dalis told me.
“Balor, I think I’m in trouble.”
I asked what he meant; what kind of trouble?
Then came the shock. Dalis had been with Kessia when they got into an argument over “nothing” so Dalis had said. The argument got worse and Kessia threw something at Dalis “like a mad woman.” Dalis had “defended himself” when Kessia “threw herself at him” and the barmaid was injured.
“It all happened so fast,” Dalis whined. “Suddenly my knife was out and Kessia …”
I was appalled. How could this have happened? Nothing made sense to me, and then everything was perfectly clear. I told Dalis he had to turn himself in.
“Are you insane? Are you *mad*?” he screamed. “Do you know what they do to murderers?”
“Murder?!!” I screamed back. “You said she was injured!”
“Injured, dead, what’s the difference? C’mon, Balor, I need your help!”
“What’s the difference? *What’s the difference!?*” I screamed, “One is hurt, the other is *dead*, Dalis! I can’t help you then, *friend*. Since when did you start carrying a knife anyway? And what threat could that girl have posed to you that you felt you had to run her through?!” He remained silent. M’Kivar! “Answer me!” I heard my voice echo off the water.
“By the gods, Balor! I come here for your help, thinking you’d be a friend. Now you’ve already got me put away!”
With that, he stormed off.
My mind reeled. I couldn’t believe this at all. My life had been relatively normal until I returned to Dargon, and suddenly my oldest friend was a murderer. I couldn’t help myself. I sank to the ground and cried. Partially from exhaustion, the rest from agony and confusion.
I woke the next morning to a crackling fire and the smell of roasting fish. I knew without having to look. Dalis was back.
I got up and went over to a corner of the camp to relieve myself. When I went back the fish was done, so I ate some, all while keeping silent.
“I’m turning myself in, Balor,” he said simply.
I couldn’t believe it. This was more like the old Dalis. I supposed that he was still the same man inside.
“That’s great. You know, when it comes time, I’ll vouch for you, Dalis,” I told him sincerely. I still don’t know why.
“I knew you would,” he said. “Right now we have to get going. I don’t want them looking for me for longer than they have to. It will only make me look worse. Here’s what I need you to do. I’m going to go ahead to the guardhouse and turn myself in. You clean up here and then go collect my things from the inn. Will you do that?”
I said “of course,” and began right away. Dalis left in the direction of Dargon City.
I paced back and forth across the room, anxiety causing me to shudder every so often. Why had Dalis told me to wait? Wouldn’t he need me there to testify on his behalf? And should things go wrong, wouldn’t he need his things? Why not beat the flood and bring them to him now?
I was so preoccupied that I barely noticed when Dalis returned. At first I was overjoyed to see him, the curiousness of the situation not striking me until moments later.
“Dalis,” I started, “why are you here?” Reasons for his presence began to form in my mind, and I felt anger swell up. “I thought you were going to the guardhouse. If you are lying to me — ” I was cut short by my friend’s shaking head.
“Balor, Balor … You have to trust me more.” He smiled. It was a very disarming smile. “I went to the guardhouse. They allowed me to come back to collect my things. Everything’s fine.”
Relief washed over me. “Oh good, ” I sighed, walking slowly to the window, for a breath of fresh air. “I’m glad … ” Then it struck me like the wrath of the gods. “Dalis, why would the guards let you return alo — ” I stopped short as my gaze rested on an approaching contingent of guards. I had hoped for a moment that they would pass us by, that perhaps they were only on a night patrol. This hope buckled as the man who appeared to be the leader pointed at the inn and started to issue orders.
“Oh no,” I thought, “Dalis, why?” I whirled around to face my friend, who seemed remarkably calm.
“Dalis, what’s going on? Why didn’t you turn yourself in? You swore to me … M’Kivar! What are you doing?” I watched, stunned, as Dalis Benn, my closest friend, calmly walked to a chair, and sat down.
I looked fleetingly out the window again, seeing the guardsmen talking to the innkeeper. I slowly began to understand what was happening. I looked to Dalis, and his face confirmed my fears.
“Dalis, I don’t … Why?
“Come now, Balor. Don’t be an imbecile! You must have known that I wouldn’t really turn myself in? You *must* have!” His smiling face seemed to turn sinister, though his expression never changed. The he laughed. The wind rushed out of me, and I suddenly felt very sick. No, no, no, no, my mind repeated it. This couldn’t be happening. I was verging on hysterics. It was a joke! That was it! Sweat poured over my face, and I suddenly felt very weak.
“You didn’t know! By the gods Balor, you should be glad the guard is here for you. You never would have survived on your own, as naive as you are!”
His words drowned out in a swirl of sound. My reality seemed to fall apart before my eyes. And then, as it often does, everything became painfully, horribly clear. “How could I have been so stupid,” I whispered to myself, “So blind, to see what Dalis has become; what he *is*?” The events of the previous days made sense now. Keeping me in my room, the unexpected outing, everything. “He *used* me!” I wanted to scream. Anger swelled in my gut. The guards’ footsteps grew louder as they approached. I had to act. I ran toward Dalis, full force.
“Balor, what are you *doing*?!” he shrieked as he jumped to his feet, just before my shoulder slammed into his gut. I felt him double over onto my back. Using my momentum, I picked up Dalis and threw him behind me. As he hit the ground, I noticed a knife clatter away from his tumbling figure. Moving with speed that was fueled by anger, I snatched up the knife and pounced upon Dalis, holding his now-prone body down with my knee. “I’m going to kill you,” I growled, and I saw fear — genuine fear — in his eyes.
“Balor!” he squeaked, “don’t do it! Please! Gods Balor! Don’t kill me!” His voice gradually worked it’s way up into shrieks or terror, but I didn’t care. “Good-bye, you bastard … ” I growled again as I brought the knife slowly down toward his skull. And then, something unexpected happened: I smelled flowers.
I later recalled that the sensation was in my head, but that was after the fact. I knelt there, pinning Dalis’s screaming and wriggling form, recalling a decade before, when Dalis and I were boys, wrestling in the fields outside of Dargon. I remembered how I had beat him and pinned him down, just like now, and how he looked up at me and told me we’d be friends forever. As I recalled all of this, I felt tears well up in my eyes, and I looked down at Dalis. He was trying to wriggle his hand free, toward the knife in my hand. All memories faded.
I raised the knife again, but as I did, there was a pounding outside the door, and I knew the guard was there. I took one final look at my “friend”, then slammed fist and hilt full force into his head. A small trickle of blood seeped out of his nose as his body went limp.
I figured that I had a few minutes before the guard found my whereabouts and even then the doors to the room seemed sturdy enough. I jumped up, leaving Dalis where he lie and began a hasty search of the room. “I’m going to find it,” I repeated to myself. Then, as I searched Dalis’s bed, I saw it: a large, leather bound book. Gathering the flint and tinder that was in my bag, I moved quickly to start a fire in the hearth. It caught quickly enough, and the good quality of the wood there coaxed the flame even higher. I wasted no time offering my sacrifice, and tossed the book into the heart of the fire. Smoke rose and a strange scent filled the room. As I waved my arms to fend off the onslaught, I heard footfalls in the hallway, and voices approaching my door. I took a last look at the fire, and I nearly fell dead on the spot. The book had not caught! The flames raged all around it, but the leather-bound tome was unscathed. I frantically tried to push some of the burning embers onto the cover, but it was no use. The embers burnt but the book would not catch. My fear and anxiety peaked as pounding emanated from the door. I tried to figure out what was wrong; what I could do. The banging on the door became more intense, and it didn’t take me long to realize that the Guard were trying to force their way in. I looked at the book once more, stuck the knife into my belt, grabbed a few of my things, and hopped out the window, landing on the roof below just as the door splintered and caved in with a crash.
“Nehru’s blood!” a gruff voice shouted from inside, “What happened here? DeBec, search the room; Jyphis, I want you to get the others around the building. Tell them to stop anyone who wants to leave the area, and to retain them. This Hardwin won’t get far.”
I rolled down the slanted surface of the roof pushing my arm out at the last second I pushed my arm out to give myself lift. I performed two complete tumbles before landing squarely on the ground, much to my discomfort.
I looked up and down the alley I now stood in, and decided on a direction. The alleys flew by as I made my way toward the gates of Dargon. I wondered where I would go. I saw something on a building that caught my eye. It was one of my signs. Barely stopping, I grabbed the sign and stuffed it in my pack. Then I ran again, this time not stopping until I was out of town.
It was then that I wondered what makes things happen in this world. I thought, isn’t it strange how the biggest events of our lives can start with the most incidental of things, with no foresight or intention from us. I still haven’t gotten over that.