I woke and reached out to hold her. My hand fell through empty air, slapping the blanket on the bed with a hollow sound that echoed in the room. My eyes were closed and I squeezed them shut tighter. I did not want to open them. If I did, I would have no choice but to accept the realization that she was gone. A scent drifted to me, and I breathed in her essence. It was a faint smell, mixed with my sweat and the stench of the unwashed blankets, but it was also her smell and I breathed it in deeply. My body moved to curl up next to her only to find nothing against me — nothing next to me. Sharp pains flared inside me and spread throughout my chest. I curled tightly into a ball and told the pain to go away. My nails dug into my palm and I felt that, too. My fist tightened as I tried to use the pain to shut her out of my thoughts, but my vision of her only strengthened.
I opened my eyes, hoping that seeing her gone would somehow make everything go away — would somehow show my body that there was no sense in causing pain for something not here. And my body did see that there was nothing there. And it cried out even stronger. A moan escaped my lips, and I crushed them together to prevent another.
Voices of people outside seeped into my room. Life in the town continued on, unaware of me. Getting up, I dressed slowly. Each movement was a labor unto itself. The wool breeches were wrinkled and old. As I pulled them on, they scratched their way up my legs, clinging to me in various places. I didn’t bother changing my shirt. It was the only one I had that wasn’t falling apart, and I’d gotten used to the smell anyway. I picked up my cloak and clasped it around my neck. It was patched in several places, and I wore those patches like a knight wore his shield. Even though the world battered at me, my cloak protected me. And she had sewn those patches; she was caring for me still. Sighing, I reached for my boots. They were the last. Soft, faded, worn leather filled my hands as I pulled the cold boots over my feet. The day was starting just the way too many had started before.
I stepped outside and looked up; the clouds were billowy and bunched together to cover the entire sky. The hard rain had stopped for now, but small drops of water fell against my face. A drop landed hard against my cheek and splattered. Another fell onto my nose, running down the side. More landed upon my face and became my tears as they traced their way down my cheek.
Taking a step forward, I slipped on the wet ground and plopped heavily into the mud. The cloak lay under me, shielding me from the wet and cold. Turning, my hand squished into the ground as I tried to stand. Cold, grainy mud flowed under my hand. As I put more pressure to try to stand, my hand oozed ever further down; a squeaky sound bubbled up from the ground.
“Ol’s piss,” I hissed as I pushed hard to stand shakily upon weak and trembling legs. There was a sucking and popping sound as my hand left the mud. Absently, I started to wipe my hand on my cloak, but stopped. No, I won’t let her shield me any more. I ran my hand down my wool breeches; the scratchy and old material abrasively brushing the mud away. Then I ran my hand over my shirt, soft leather smoothly brushing the rest of the grime away.
The sun was trying to shine through the clouds on the horizon, but was failing miserably. Only faint traces of light could be seen. Yes, another day to muddle through, hoping that some light would appear.
“Do you think the gods might be angry with us?” a woman asked her companion as they walked past me.
“Have you done something to incur the anger of the All Creator?” her companion asked, a small smile on his lips.
“No, I just have this feeling. Like something is going to happen. I can’t describe it.”
Her companion’s mood was light as he asked, “Something happen? Like what? The end of the world?”
“Well, no. Nothing that drastic. I hope.”
I couldn’t hear them anymore as they turned a corner onto another street, but I replayed their conversation in my head. They were both partially right. Something *had* happened and the end of the world *had* appeared.
Looking up at the cloud covered sky, I let the rain fall into my eyes. The heavens are gone, only mud splattered pain remains. The end of the world had come and all that it had left is another day of loneliness and despair.
I had a Sterling left. That was enough to wash down the bitterness stuck in my throat with the cheapest ale, and enough to seat me in a warm, dry place for most of the day. What better place to sit out another day than the Shattered Spear? It was a small, out of the way inn that most people avoided — most decent folk, that is. The Shattered Spear was known, in certain areas, for less than legal dealings. The town guard didn’t frequent it often, and when they did, it was always known in advance when they would be there.
Just one step begins a path to the final step of a journey, my father had told me. He had never said how many steps it would take to complete that journey, nor how long each step would take. But step I did, all the way down the grey and brown alleys to the inn.
Stepping up to the door to the inn, I grasped the latch. Cold, damp wood greeted my hand as I lifted the latch and pushed the door inward. The doorway was more than just a frame for the door; the cold from the outside seemed to stop its advance and was pushed back by the warmth of the inside. Yes, it was more than just a frame. It was a doorway into a warmer, livelier world.
Voices echoed throughout the room while the fire crackled and spat embers. The floor creaked and gave a little as I stepped inside, yet no one bothered to look my way. I wasn’t a guard, I wasn’t a noble, I wasn’t prey of any kind for the predators here; no, I was just another ragged, muddy, poor beggar. Oh, father, how far I’ve fallen on this journey. I turned and shut the door, letting the latch fall from my hand. With a clunk, it fell into place and the outside world closed on me. It was just another closure in my life, only this one wasn’t as painful as the rest. Turning, I looked around for an empty table near the fire. It was unusually crowded this night. I settled for just an open table towards the back of the inn.
The chair creaked and moved as I sat in it. For just a moment, I thought it was going to break and fall apart, crashing me to the floor, but it held my weight and wrapped itself somewhat uncomfortably around me. I wasn’t paying attention to anything but the chair and didn’t notice the woman until she cleared her throat.
“We don’t have tables for beggars. You either buy something or leave,” she told me. Ol’s blood! She was a large woman. I just stared at her wondering how I had missed her coming over to my table. She stood a good hand or two above anyone else in the room, her shoulders were broader than most men’s, and her arms were bigger than my thighs. I tilted sideways around the table to peer at the rest of her. My mouth fell open as I saw her legs. Just one leg looked bigger around than my waist.
“Staring will cost you more than you’ll want to pay,” she threatened, her voice a deep hard sound. Looking up into her face, I saw brown hair cut short around a stern, square face. The frown on her lips seemed to be nailed there. There was a slight motion to her cheeks as if she were clenching and unclenching her jaw. I pulled out my Sterling and set it on the table.
“Your cheapest ale until that runs out,” I rasped. “And your pardon. I hadn’t meant to stare.” She grabbed the coin before I could see her hand move. Big *and* fast. I watched her go to the bar and people seemed to just slide out of her way. I imagined that if someone did get in her way, she wouldn’t go around them; no, she’d just walk over them as if they weren’t really there at all.
I had drunk each ale slowly to make my time here last as long as it could, but my Sterling was nearly gone. There was still a mug of ale in front of me and as I reached for it, the room spun and faded out bringing the table closer to my eyes. There was a dull thunking sound but it was muffled and far away.
When I woke, the inn was still crowded. The fire was blazing brightly. Looking around, I saw an older man trying to get everyone’s attention. He shouted, although I couldn’t hear him over the din of conversations. He waved his hands, he pounded on a table, but nothing he did made a difference. The people here in the inn were in their own worlds: talking, laughing, shouting, and drinking. The big woman started to wend her way through the place, and every table she passed, she *got* their attention. It didn’t take long for the people to focus on the old man, especially when she joined him.
“As I said before, I’m Jamis, the new owner of this inn. My partner, whom most of you have met, is Jahlena.” He pointed to the big woman. Now I had a name to go with the body. “If there is any trouble, she will be the one to handle it.” Jahlena crossed her arms in front of her and stared at the room, to no one in particular, yet to each one of us. “And now that I do have your attention, I want to present my daughter, Tira.” A young girl walked over to him. She was short and plump with curly blond hair. I guessed her to be about ten years old or so. In her arms, she carried some sort of wooden, stringed instrument. I couldn’t get a good look at it because she was holding it tightly to her body with both arms. Her eyes darted out at the crowd and then down to the floor. Her feet shuffled in place when she looked down, then she’d look up into the crowd again only to sweep her eyes quickly to the floor. She shifted her instrument a little higher and tighter to her as her father addressed the crowd.
“Tira dreams of being a bard. And I know and Jahlena there knows that you can dream all you want and it won’t mean Stevene’s blood for getting anything done. So, I’m bringing her up here to play for all of you. *And* I don’t want no lies coming out of your mouths about her playing. She won’t get anywhere with that. You tell her just what you think of her singing.” He didn’t wait for a reply as he walked back to the bar. Jahlena was close behind him.
Tira said something, but it was a whisper and I was too far away to hear her. Someone else must not have heard either.
“Speak up girl,” someone shouted.
“This is a song I wrote,” she said. “I call it Love’s Gift.” She moved the instrument and I saw that it was a small lyre. Strumming a few strings, she hummed before she started singing. Her voice quivered and cracked as she started singing, and she seemed to miss a string or two on the lyre. But as she sang, her voice smoothed out and became soft and serene; her fingers strummed the lyre’s strings to produce a flowing melody that matched her voice.
I concentrated on the words and pieced together what she was singing. It was about a boy and a girl who met and fell in love. They had a beautiful time together until tragedy struck. The girl died, leaving the boy all alone. He fell into despair and all the light and life left him.
I tried to stop listening as it was too close to what had happened in my life. Each word was a nail and each chord was a hammer driving the song into my soul. “Why Megan, why?” I wanted to scream! “Why did you have to leave?” The table resisted my efforts to rise and I stumbled away from it as I headed for the door. I couldn’t control my arms as they flailed away, trying to keep anything from reaching me, especially the words of the song.
The door opened easily, as if it wanted me to leave, as if something helped me along my way outside. It was night outside and there was something different. As I stood in the street, it was brighter than normal. Looking up into the night sky, I expected to see clouds and maybe some stars. The light that shone down upon me burned its fiery image into my soul. A bright ball flared in the sky and left a long trail of fire in its wake. But no, it wasn’t a trail of fire as the ball didn’t seem to be moving. I didn’t get to stare long.
I didn’t see him coming and I didn’t know how he recognized me, but the pain in my gut from his fist told me he remembered me.
“You don’t look so good, now,” Art said as I lay in the mud. “You don’t look good at all.” His foot snapped out and caught me in the side. Lights flared in my head that looked like the ball of fire in the sky, only more of them. Pain lanced my body. Just when it subsided, Art kicked me again. And again.
Some things come full circle and I was meeting my circle’s beginning or end. I’d defeated Art easily the first time I’d met him. He was a rather large bully who didn’t have much skill in fighting. He fought as he did now: against someone who couldn’t fight back.
“Leave him alone!” a familiar voice yelled, but I couldn’t place it.
“Who?” Art asked as he turned around. “You! You don’t tell me what to do!”
“I’m tellin’ you now!”
“You ain’t nothin’!”
“Maybe not, Art, but I’m a shadow boy. You know what that means Art? It means I got a family. A family that watches out for each other. You think you’ll be *safe* walking down the alleys at night? In your home? You got to sleep some time.”
“He ain’t worth it anyway,” Art spat at me as he walked away. My eyes closed and when I could open them again, someone was kneeling next to me.
“Who?” I muttered.
“It’s me, Lylle,” he replied.
“Lylle,” I whispered. He had grown since I had last seen him. Along with Art, I’d met Lylle on my first day in Dargon. Lylle had helped me while Art had hindered. The circle was complete and the fiery ball in the sky had blazed it shut. Lylle looked up to where I was looking.
“It’s an omen of some kind, isn’t it?” he asked.
“It’s a harbinger of doom!” a passing priest replied. “An omen that the end of the world will come!”
“No,” I whispered. “Not that it will come, but that it has come and passed.”
Megan was gone.