Once upon a time, there was a village somewhere up north named Ansvil and in it lived a girl named Sophia. She hadn’t lived the most prosperous of lives but it was far from poverty. All things considered, it was a rather grand time for the twelve-year-old girl as a stable roof, a job and a relatively safe place to lodge would be beyond most people.
Then, bit by bit, things went wrong in a suitably dramatic way. It all began thirty-eight days ago and Sophia firmly blamed it on a certain captain named Rutherford.
The wind was picking up again on that day, setting the clouds adrift amongst the darkened skies. The few trees shook and shivered, whistling as rain and snow threatened to follow through on its inevitable downpour onto the stone-covered shores. Even though the usual mist was gone in favour of the brewing storm, the atmosphere was no less grim as the sky stirred like some slumbering god’s nightmare.
The seaside village of Ansvil was quiet, its inhabitants burying themselves into their homes with the fewest candles lit. By the shore, the docks too were silent, filled to the brim with grounded ships that found themselves tied up like horses in a stable, anxiously creaking as thunder rolled by. One would expect this village to function rather well as a trading port but its tragic history of terrible luck kept ships from travelling here often, leaving only the brave or foolish to sail the sea between here and everywhere else.
Baskets laid empty, nets being hung up instead of fishes. The sun that should be hanging up high in the sky was nowhere to be seen, buried under layers of grey, the same colours as the multitude of buildings that stacked alongside the shore and up the rocky hill.
In the quiet little village sat a structure that was larger than most, just slightly off from the central square. Above its door hung a sign that read, ‘Corner Inns’, painted simplistically with strokes of dull red against the wood. Whilst it was assumed that there were indeed beds for travellers, in truth, it was more of a place for people to enjoy legal and rampant consumption of ale. In this time of day, the tables should have few visitors but yet now, fisherman with nothing better to do suddenly found themselves flocking to the best, if out of necessity, watering hole. There was a subdued discussion of the oncoming winter amongst the haze of alcohol, huddling around their heated mugs to ward off the encroaching chill. The dull light of dull rush candles hung from the brick pillars and wooden tables cast dully across the room, creating a similarly dull atmosphere.
Off to the side, a girl named Finny was busy trotting between tables, refilling drinks with a jug full of cheap beer whilst the owner of the tavern, Mrs Creighton, was busy elsewhere. She had announced that she had some important business to take care of before leaving the building in their care with speed that belies her age.
Sophia, as again was on cleaning and cooking duty, wiping a mug behind the counter and had been on the job for the better half of the day already. A small book with strokes of lines that represented her efforts in keeping track of the clientele and payments could be found on the table. A pot of pottage was boiling in the back, bubbling above an orange fire as the aroma spread around the building. She was just about to set down the mug when the dock bells tolled.
This late in the fall, most ships would much rather dock in some harbour that wouldn’t seal itself completely when ice inevitably forms. Obviously, no one was expecting any ship to arrive in this ominous weather but yet, there it was.
Attention was caught and the door creaked open as some men walked out, off to check whatever that had caused the commotion.
“The fuck is that?” someone said from the outside moments after he left.
Sophia wasn’t particularly interested or concerned. That lasted all of five seconds until most of the patrons were suddenly up and about, leaving their drinks behind as they streamed out of the tavern after some indistinct conversation. As shown, it seemed that quite a few people were concerned about the bell ringing — far more than she did.
“Oi!” Sophia called out in alarm. The men hadn’t paid their tabs yet and they were already gone! Alas, her voice went unnoticed as the fishermen disappeared purposefully beyond the door. The other girl in the room, Finny, could do nothing as she helplessly attempted to stop the rapidly leaving customers but by the time the words managed to leave her stuttering lips, they were already gone.
With a half-sincere groan, Sophia left the half-cleaned mug onto the counter and hurried around it, stripping her apron and tossing it onto a table.
Mrs Creighton will kill me for this, she thought to herself.
“Watch the inn!” she yelled out at the stammering barmaid as she dashed out of the tavern, not even bother to check if what she said was heard at all. Immediately, she found herself buffeted by the cold, late autumn wind, stinging past her sleaves and exposed neck.
Huddling over and looking about, the last of the men could be seen hobbling away on the dirt path, framed by the dual rows of huts and buildings. They weren’t the only one on the streets, no. From almost every house, people of different age too walked out, old men and curious children alike. In but a moment, it seemed that the previously empty streets were suddenly filled with villagers, murmurs of unease echoing up.
“What’s this ruckus about?” an older woman asked her, holding her younger son by the shoulder and as she struggled to get her voice above the crowds.
“Dunno, sorry!” Sophia replied, jostling her way through the horde. It was rapidly clear that they were all heading for the docks, apparently summoned by the still ringing bell. As short as she was, she rapidly knew that she would achieve very little trying to force herself to the front. So, she broke off from the crowd and duck into an alleyway.
As she was wearing a long-hemmed dress, it was rather tricky to manoeuvre herself around the various clutter that blocked up the passage. When she finally extracted herself, she found another path that led up and out of town. There were a simple palisade, a gate and some stairs that led to two watchtowers, looming up high above most of the village. The road itself wasn’t empty at all, some other women standing tip-toed as they gazed seaward, leaning against fencing above the village and whispering amongst themselves.
Deciding not to compete with them, Sophia trotted up to one the towers. Up there was a guardsman, a bow in hand and a frown on his face. Most men in Ansvil will learn to use bows or pikes, one way or another. Usually, that meant youths will usually take up guard under the tutelage of other more experienced guardsmen. This particular cloaked figure tucking away within the tower had brown hair, cropped short along the sides before letting it fall back in a braid, barely visible underneath the furred cap he wore. That man was her brother, Uther, being all of five years older than she was.
“What do you see?” she yelled up.
For a moment, he didn’t answer. Then, seemingly surprised, he called back, “What are you doing out here? You’re supposed to stay inside!”
“Everyone ran off and they didn’t pay! Need to see what it's all about!”
“Big, evil-looking ship coming to port,” he replied, holding his hand above his brow as he glared off in the direction of the port, “Now go back!”.
“Can I come up there?”
The man leaned over and saw her there, panting. With both eyebrows raised, he demanded, “Where’s your coat?”
“Didn’t have time,” she answered honestly.
“Get up here before you catch a cold!”
The space up there was cramped, not meant for multiple people to occupy at the same time. Most of the time, the other guardsmen would be rather upset at her intrusion but they too were a tad too busy watching outward. Sophia had to spend a while trying to squeeze in, pushing Uther aside so she too could take a look. Without a word, he took one arm out of his heavy, furred coat and slung it across her shoulders.
There, in the waters, was a ship unlike any she had seen before. For a moment, she had frozen in disbelief as she struggled to register what her eyes were seeing. The ship, if it could even be called that, was dark in colour, slow and heavy. It’s size easily dwarfed the fisherman’s ships as it meandered into the harbour, its sails eclipsing those beneath it as it towered up high. If she were to take a guess, it would at least be fifty meters long and just as tall.
Phantom-like in its deceptively quick movement, the monstrously large ship glided along the water’s surface, breaking the waves as it approached, sails fluttering like feathers on a raven.
Against the smaller, wooden longboats that the villagers of Ansvil favoured, it reminded Sophia of some hungry predator stalking its prey, striding into an enclosure of sheep with utmost confidence. Without a doubt, it was the most dangerous-looking thing she had ever laid her eyes on.
“You see it?”
“Yeah,” Sophia breathed out, her voice momentarily stuck in her throat, “What is that?”
“That’s Zweitsian colours,” her brother muttered, shifting his grip on his bow, “Zweitsian on a massive fucking boat.”
Sure enough, flying above the tallest mast, and from this point, even higher up than they were, was a flag. On it emblazoned a golden crown, surrounded by a trio of swords against a backdrop of a dark red shield, its design stylized. The flag fluttered in the wind, whipping back and forth as the ship sailed smoothly into an open harbour space.
Her heart stopped for a beat as she remembered that the Zweits — they were the foreign country her own was vassal to. Empire, she reminded herself as she struggled to recall the half-baked history sermons her brother had given her. All of that had been in the realm of stories, spoken words and now it had come to life most unexpectedly.
It was all beyond her expectations and now the very story was sailing into port. Looking down, she saw that her hands were shaking as they gripped the wooden railing.
Why are they shaking?
It wasn’t from the cold.
“That’s bad, isn’t it?”
“Probably,” her brother grunted, "But not as bad as it could have been."
"It could have been another flag instead."
"That's what I thought."
“Should we be running?” she nervously asked, her heart thumping in her chest.
“... No,” Uther managed to answer, “I don’t think they are attacking.”
They watched nervously as the ship drifted closer to the harbour; its dark, gleaming carapace shone like the fur of a wolf. A rope was tossed out and the shivering dock hands received them.
Surrounding the port itself were the various fishermen, all dressed up in their own coats, bunching up like stranded seabirds. Even from this distance, she could see that some were nervously palmed the hilts of their rickety weapon, feet shuffling as they stared out at the titanic vessel. At the fore and waiting at the harbour itself was the Reeve himself, a pompous looking man that wore a doublet a size too small for his prodigious gut, flanked by his two personal guards that stood stoically around the cowardy man. In most cases, one would never see the Reeve aside for the most astounding events as he would isolate himself in his manor for weeks on end.
How the man managed to make his way out here was a complete mystery but either way, it clearly showed the importance of the arriving ship.
Eventually, inexorably, the ship anchored and a plank was lowered, hitting the wooden dock with a thud that Sophia swore she could hear.
Marching off the ship first were men that looked to be demons of metal. Armoured in shining steel, plates and helmets above some leather jacket, the soldiers of the Zweutaland stepped heavily onto the wooden dock, lining up with utmost purpose. In their hands were pikes, gleaming even in the veiled sunlight, pointing upward at the sky.
Compared to the measly two guards and the rabble of fishermen, blessed their foolishly brave hearts, the soldiers looked to be fully capable of slaughtering the entire village without issue. If they were aiming for intimidation, they had certainly succeeded in it.
Oh, sweet Guviar protect us.
After the soldiers, another person stepped out. Similarly armoured but it was clear that whoever this person was, this man was their leader. Instead of the helmet, he wore some sort of wide-brimmed hat, decorated with medals that glinted. A long coat could be seen around his waist, boots stepping onto shore but anything else was too far away to be seen clearly.
The man said some words and held something out in his hands. Whatever it was, the Reeve took a good long look before making some sort of hand motion. Together, the Reeve and the figure, whom Sophia assumed to be the captain of the terrifying ship walked off with several of the Zweitsian soldiers, the crowd parting around them as they made their way up.
“Sophie,” Uther said, his voice urgent, “You’ll need to get back to the inn.”
Broken out of her trance, she whisked her head back to him, “But that’s where they will be at! Everyone who stops at the port goes there.”
“And that’s where you’ll be needed,” her brother insisted, “The Zweits got a stick up their backside but they aren’t known to be brutes. Besides, it wouldn’t be good if Fin’s the one who gets the greeting, ye?”
Sophia took a deep breath, taking a glance again at the gloomy ship that now dominated the port. Eventually, she reluctantly agreed, “Fine. Don’t wanna get Mrs Creighton mad as well.”
“There you go. Now hurry before she catches you.”
The way back was blessedly smooth and devoid of people. The doors and shutters were closed all along the road, dark and bleak. The wind stung her face as she frantically trotted back, the cold biting into her skin. Even without her brother urging her to return, she had little desire to venture out for any longer and welcomed the return to the warm interior of the inn.
As she hurried on her way, the various citizens were already streaming back to wherever they came from, their eyes and attention still attracted to the tip of the mast, visible above the various houses and from the streets. Before any of them had made it back, however, Sophia had already found her way through the front door.
“Sophie!” Finny was immediately there, grabbing her by the shoulder, “Where were you off to?!’
Everything was still where they had been left at. The pottage at the corner hadn’t boiled over, blessed be the gods, and the Finny was still there. That reminded, the taller fair-haired girl was still shaking her.
“Needed to see. Zweitsian ship had just sailed into port,” Sophia decided to answer succinctly, if not entirely accurate and shrugging off the older girl’s hands, “Folks all rustled up, that’s all.”
“Zweits — the what now?”
“Zweits. Empire people.”
“Those pomps? How’d they get the men all rushing out?” Finny questioned in surprise.
“Apparently it looks like a warship or something, got them crowd nervous,” Sophia shrugged with a sense of certainty she didn’t feel, “There were soldiers and all that.”
Finny paused for a moment before muttering, “Well, they better return my customers.”
The blonde girl sighed, running her fingers through her hair in exasperation, “That couldn’t be helped. Well, next time something like this happens, I go, right? It's dangerous to go running about.”
“I’ll be fine!” Sophia argued.
“You made a promise, Sophie,” Finny reminded her, “And if you are going somewhere, at least wait for me, got it?”
“There’s this really important looking captain,” Sophia suddenly said, “Armour, hats and everything. He could be coming here, ye know, the knight person.”
Finny grimaced, a frown decorating her pretty face, “Knights, really? No doubt they would be heading here sometime soon. That, however, doesn’t change anything since you still got a job to do, so back to the counter with you.”
“You are no fun,” Sophia remarked.
“And you need to learn how to focus,” the older girl patted her on the head.
Sophia wrinkled her nose and stalked off. It wasn’t that she was angry, to be honest. In fact, she was feeling rather excited — this was the most interesting thing that happened to her ever since the Creightons took Sophia and her brother in six years ago, barring the occasional fights that would erupt when alcohol mixed poorly with bad tempers.
The Zweits had always been some sort of mythical presence, only talked about but never quite there. As told by her brother, Uther, their previous country called Bvurdrjord or something akin to that had been soundly beaten and conquered before being subjugated through a process called ‘vassalage’.
Sophia herself hardly understood what that entailed but she could hardly care less about it. Some folks seemed to be rather riled up and were still smouldering over the incident, which seemed rather silly when it had occurred nearly a hundred years ago. She sincerely doubted that anyone that lived in this village could even remember it happening.
That obviously didn’t stop the fishermen from picking up their fishing spears and pretending that they were worth a damn. Sophia couldn’t fault that though, especially since the Zweits were genuinely frightening to behold. However, under the dubious rule of the Reeve, some pompous fat man appointed by their mysterious Zweits overlord, life hadn’t been bad at all in Ansvil despite the lack-lustre performance.
Now, for some reason, a warship full of soldiers appeared and their captain stepped ashore for some conversation. For what reason could that be for, she had no idea.
What did matter though was that the soldiers, or at least some of them, were guaranteed to come to the inn for either merriment or old fashioned drinking. Fortunately for both of the girls, this occupation was merriment free and their clients will have to contend with swill instead of the more decidedly carnal pleasures. If they wanted that, they’ll have to go somewhere else or threaten the wrath of Mrs Creighton.
The Zweitsian soldiers, however, would be an unpredictable lot — after all, the Corners hadn’t had a record of Zweitsian customers so they had little idea of what to expect. Sophia herself hadn’t seen one before aside for the traders and those too were equally nebulous in their activities.
Fishermen were simple. Food, drink and conversation would be all that’s needed to relieve them of their coins. The occasional merchant ship that somehow had the idea of staying in this port would arrive and become sorely disappointed with the lack of trading partners, particularly those that sell things beside preserved fish and the odd carvings that somehow sold for reasons unknown.
Soldiers, especially those of a foreign empire were far less understood.
Will they be brutish? Are we safe?
While Sophia was by no means educated and she knew it, she had heard stories about the behaviours that people with swords were known to get up to. The history of Bvurdrjord itself had been filled with more than enough strife to impart at least a modicum of terror whenever the word ‘war’, ‘raid’ or ‘swords’ were spoken. Thus, with the sudden arrival and subsequent conquering by the Zweits from over the ocean, a truly strange concept, had caught them all with their collective pants down during another war, the idea of plunging into another conflict was somewhat scorned.
The amount of bloodshed over the years and spoken stories were more than enough to fill Sophia’s mind with horrific imaginations of even more slaying and dying.
The more she fought about it while zealously scrubbing a tankard, the more apprehensive she became. Now that she thought about it, mixing ale, angry fishermen and some soldiers that her people held a grudge for might be a terrible idea. If they came to blows over some insensate matter, there were little that either she and Finny could do.
But with ships like that, I doubt that the villagers can do much of anything against them.
By now, some of the previous drinkers had returned and were quietly paying off their tab. When Finny came by the counter next, Sophia found herself tugging on the older girl’s sleave before she could leave.
“Finny,” she began.
“Yes? Are we out of pottage?”
“Er, no. I was wondering if you got a moment to talk.”
“Well, I don’t know about this but don’t you think we should really go find Mrs Creighton?” asked Sophia under her breath, uncertainty clear in her voice.
“Is this about the Zweits?” Finny took a guess, arms crossing, “Nervous ‘bout them?”
“I’m worried that they might stir up trouble.”
“They might,” Finny answered, “But ma’s due to come back in the afternoon so I don’t wanna bother her now.”
“Have you seen the Zweits before? Like, their soldiers and the like?”
“Me? Nah. Those fancy suits of metal don’t come to this part much. Ain’t nothing interesting around here. If there are, I doubt we are the interesting ones.”
“And if they start asking questions?”
“I’ll answer them. You just stand there and look pretty.”
“It’ll be fine,” Finny said firmly, kneeling slightly so her they were at eye level, “Trust me. They’ll not cause trouble and the men will not make them angry, alright?”
“Sophia! If someone's itching for a fight, I’ll toss them out. There’s no need to worry,” said the girl, standing up and straightening her apron, “Soldier’s just soldiers, doesn’t matter who they are. Now, go back to work and don’t fret about this anymore. I’ll have it handled.”
With that, she went and left, meandering back to the other patrons.
No matter how Sophia looked at it, these Zweits couldn’t be trusted and the lack of reaction from Finny was infuriating. Obviously, people who sneak up on another country, kill their kings, plant a flag and calling it theirs before disappearing over the sea couldn’t be good. Now, some of their folks were about to come by again and who knew what they could be up to?
But, despite all of that, Sophia had an obligation to listen so she did. If Finny felt that they would be safe enough, then so be it.
With a sigh, Sophia turned back to the same pot of pottage that had been merrily boiling away for the week. After a brief check of its volume and grabbing some diced up carrots to refill the stock, she spent the remainder of the day tending to the food.
Surprisingly, it remained rather uneventful as the seconds, minutes and hours went by. People came and went throughout the afternoon, leaving her with little else to do aside for what she had been doing for years; the routine checking of the cellar for rats, measuring the amount of barley left and inspecting the volume of ale left were amongst the duty she had. Normally, Mrs Creighton would be the one handling the numbers, coins and generally being the face of the inn, but she had chosen a poor date to be off on errands, leaving Finny and Sophia to take care of everything. That resulted in a rather exhausting mix of high tension, impending sense of doom and busy running back and forth to ensure that everything was in the right place.
After the final rounds of what would be dinner just before the sun sets, the inn was finally left empty and devoid of guests. Normally, it would hardly be this hectic but circumstances made it so, thus Sophia took respite in the act of cleaning all seven tables. At an earlier time than normal, Finny went ahead and flipped the sign hanging outside.
Closed, it said.
Following that would be their turn to enjoy their own meal, so Finny took the time to prepare a small platter of simple bread, a bowl of whatever that came out of the pot and some slices of goat cheese to go with it.
The two girls shared a quiet dinner under the candles, most having been snuffed out to reduce its consumption. The last of the meagre sunlight faded from the sky, prompting the shutters to be closed and locked up. Sophia felt tired, limbs aching from their strenuous activities but her appetite was feeling somewhat blunted. Finny, on the opposite side of the table, had little difficulty in scarfing down her portion without a care in the world. Throughout the meal, Sophia kept glancing up at Finny, silently wondering how the blonde could remain so composed despite knowing the Zweits could show up.
“We’ll talk when ma comes back, okay?” Finny suddenly said.
Sophia flinched. She hadn’t said a single world but it seemed that the girl had read her mind somehow.
“Eat your food. And stop kicking the table.”
Sophia obliged, slowly shoving a spoonful of warm gruel into her mouth, chewing through the tough yet watery mixture of fish, barley and assorted vegetables. After swallowing she asked anyway, “How’d you manage it?”
“Being so… calm? Aren’t cha nervous?”
“I try to not think about it.”
Whenever something irritating happened, Finny would answer the same way. Not thinking about it, don’t worry too much, leave it as it is and focus on the now — it all felt too passive to Sophia but she was right. It wasn’t as if they could do much about the fact that some dozens of heavily armed strangers were suddenly in their village. All they could do was focusing on surviving and keeping their heads down.
With that, the fleeting conversation lapsed into a lull again.
Even though several years had passed, Sophia hadn’t gotten around to truly think about what she thought of the girl before her. Finny was a tall, slender blonde that seemed to be the personification of a willow tree, bending in the wind yet always standing at the end of the day despite almost folding in half every time. Mrs Creighton, however, shows a different aspect of resilience, expressing it in the form of a fiery temper and a mean swing that would be more than sufficient to drive any hooligans away.
That didn’t mean that either of them was incapable of care or subtlety, however, since they had taken in both Sophia and Uther when their father was lost at sea and the immediate death of their mother through a broken heart. Being a friend of the family, the Creightons decided that the two siblings could stay under their roof provided that they would work.
Truthfully, Sophia had little memories of her parents and their deaths. She was a bit too young back then to fully understand the whats and hows aside for the abrupt lack of them by her side. When the crux of the matter finally made its way into her head, three years were gone and she found herself learning how to chop food and not ask questions about what she was chopping.
Is Finny a sibling?
Yes, but at the same time, not quite.
She wasn’t sure what to think of that and had wondered what goes on in the blonde girl’s head. She had been taking care of her and teaching her how to make soup and stock, but she couldn’t help but felt that Finny’s constantly not quite present.
Then, the door went thump.
With the heavy scratching sound reserved for heavy wooden objects, the door creaked open and someone strode through, bringing with it a cold draft that threatened to snuff out the candle. Her head swivelled around, already thinking of the worst. However, the figure stepping through the door and into the candlelight wasn’t Mrs Creighton or some Zweitsian soldier; it was a familiar, tall figure dressed in a heavy cloak and shabby armour, the gambeson showing signs of tearing here and there, hastily stitched up with needles and threads.
Uther had returned, his silhouette was barely visible in the relative shade of the doorway. With another slam, the door shuts and the freezing wind receded beyond the dividing wood. Taking his woollen cap off and shaking it a bit, he walked closer to the table.
“You’re early,” Finny asked before Sophia could, “Did something happen?”
“No, I simply asked to leave early and I did,” he said evenly, shuffling over and sat down on a stool. Around his shoulders, he unstrapped his bow and pike, laying them on the table surface some ways off. He continued, “Wanted to see how you girls are doing.”
Sophia quietly stood up and strode over to the pot of pottage, its bottom was still far from showing. On the side, she had left some bread by the fire, letting it remained warm in the chilly weather. Swiftly, she assembled a small meal and brought it over to the table.
“It's been quiet, nothing unusual,” Finny said, “The clients didn’t cause any problems.”
“And Mrs Creighton?” asked Uther. Sophia received a small smile of thanks and pat for her efforts, so she hopped back onto her chair and resumed eating.
“Ma hadn’t come home yet.”
“Uh,” he grunted, fingers crossed, “She said where she went off to?”
“No, but she was in a hurry,” Finny answered, pushing the bowl closer to him, “Now start eating before your food goes cold.”
“... Sure,” he sighed. With a tug, he pulled off his gloves, revealing a pair of callus-covered hands. Gingerly gripping the spoons, he began slurping up the soup, dipping the bread in it with his fingers.
“Did the other guards say anything?” Sophia found herself asking, leaning over the table.
“Where are the Zweitsian staying, what are they after?” she elaborated further.
“Sophie,” Finny warned, “Let him eat first.”
“It's fine,” said Uther as he methodically munched through the bread, “Well, the guards didn’t say much about why or what the Zweits are after, but most of them seemed to be staying on the ship instead of moving off.”
“Staying on the ship?” Finny stated, “Even while docking? Seems rather suspicious.”
“Maybe they don’t wanna get clubbed in the night?” Sophia suggested.
“You know, that may not be too far from the truth,” Uther eventually said as he swallowed, “The villagers weren’t quite happy to see them.”
“Hmmph,” Finny grunted as she stretched, “It's for the better, I think. I don’t think our inn could hold so many and I doubt that your guard friends would appreciate sharing the barracks.”
“They wouldn’t,” he agreed, slurping down the soup as he had already chowed through the tough bread, “But they might show up here sometime tomorrow or later.”
“They better pay if they do,” said the blonde, “We don’t do handouts.”
“That saying, hows the folks? Seem like they gonna get rowdy the moment some Zweit steps in?”
“As I’ve said, quiet. They paid for their drinks and left, though there were fewer people coming for dinner. Might change tomorrow though, if Castor’s boys some knocking and get drunk off their arses.”
“Those… probably, yes. Try to keep them sensible, will ye?”
“Will try,” she replied, “And that reminded me, Sophie, how’s the larder looking?”
“Cheese’s running low,” Sophia replied, “But we should have enough to last for tomorrow if we go get some later.”
“That is if they even pay,” Uther uttered darkly, “Personally, I don’t trust the Zweits at all and having a bunch of soldiers and a whole lot of civilians? That’s a guarantee for trouble.”
“... You really think so?” Finny asked, concerned.
“I don’t know,” he said, idly scraping at the bottom of his bowl, fishing for vegetable lumps, “I would be a lot less worried if your ma’s here, but since she isn’t —”
“She sure chose a really bad time to be gone, but we’ll manage.”
“... You know,” Uther said, looking up, “If you need to, I’ll see if I can stay for tomorrow. Ask if any one’s good with taking my post and I’ll be stationed here.”
“You already asked them for early leave already, it's not good to ask again.”
“They’ll understand. The men aren’t the type to just let the only place that ale can be bought to be ransacked or attacked, their own lives be damned.”
That brought a snort from Finny, “True. If you are sure, then ask away. It’ll be good to see you around instead of just waiting for half the day over and over again.”
“Then I’ll ask,” Uther answered cordially.
No one spoke for a while again, then, as if suddenly remembering, he asked, “And if Mrs Creighton doesn’t return tomorrow?”
“Then we will keep on doing what we do, the Corners aren’t gonna go anywhere.”
“And if there’s trouble —”
“There won’t,” Finny stated with confidence.
“If there is,” Uther stressed the word, “If there is any sort of trouble from either the Zweits or the villagers, you are going to leave the inn, you understand? Don’t bother to save anything aside from your clothes, pack early.”
“You are too paranoid.”
“No, I’m cautious,” he said, “And you, Sophia.”
“Hmm?” she eeped, suddenly put under the spotlight, “Me?”
“Yes, you. Listen to Finny, alright? If she says something, do it. Don’t wander the streets, don’t go picking fights or bothering the Zweits.”
“I won’t!” she protested, “I’m not stupid.”
“Good,” he breathed out, leaning back. On his chin, some hair had started growing into the barest form of a beard. Prominent eyebags could be seen under each eye as he crossed his arms, “I don’t think that there will be problems with the Zweits themselves, but I want you all to be careful. Just in case if things go bad somehow.”
“Yeah, we get that,” Finny said.
“Kinda hard not be going out when I need to buy cheese,” Sophia muttered, “That should be fine, right?”
“Well,” Finny said as she looked back at Uther, “I suppose that you’ll have to go around asking to buy then. That, or we’ll have to go with less cheese.”
“... When’s the next time the market comes about?” he asked, eyes closing for a moment.
“Three days, probably. Old Ada’s gonna be there.”
“She’s still selling the same things? You really need a new …”
With that, the conversation gradually detracted into small talk and other more genial matters. The atmosphere relaxed as mundane needs floated atop the trance-like reality of Zweits, knights and danger, returning a sense of normality to the lives of these three.
Eventually, Sophia was sent off to bed as she grew tired, the night dragging on amidst the oncoming winter as the other two waited a bit longer downstairs at the table, the wick burning late. The first snowflake had fallen sometime during the early morning and many soon followed, descending downwards unto Ansvil.
It had been a hectic day for the girl.
Through the white, Sophia drifted off to sleep, dreaming of armour, swords and ships.
The evening was quiet and the next day came all too quickly. Through the morning drowsiness, she struggled to get dressed, putting on her apron and reviewing her list of things to do. Slipping open the bolted shutters, she found herself witnessing a completely changed scenery.
The previously dreary rooftops and tumultuous clouds of grey had been exchanged for a bright, if not cleared, expanse of blue and white. Chimneys of black bricks stick up through the stacks of snow upon rooftops, reducing the village into vague shapes of verticality even as the sun barely peeked through at the far-off horizon.
Snow! She thought excitedly. For the last few weeks, the sky had been stirring lethargically, bringing with it only rain and precious little else. It seemed that finally, it had decided enough was enough and burst its store of flakes and crystals, covering the seaside like a blanket of frost.
The cot next to her was empty as Finny, once again, had woken up earlier than she did. Finny had never been the sort to enjoy frivolities and in Sophia’s opinion, had forgotten the meaning of fun.
Stricken with a sudden and irresistible urge to educate her sister in all but blood, she found herself rushing downstairs to announce the big news.
“Snow!” she yelled eloquently, “Finny, its snowing!”
As she ran and stumbled into the first floor once again, her body positively vibrating with excitement, Sophia said again, “Finny! Snow —”
Then, her voice suddenly caught itself in her throat and strangled itself to silence. A strange sight greeted her. The shutters were barely open, beams of light shining through the cracks between the wooden planks. Finny was standing at the counter, her back against it and her arms were crossed firmly, a frosty expression across her face. In the back, skulking in the shadows was Uther, sitting down with his pike laid across his lap, his mouth set in a line.
The strangest, yet perhaps the most important thing in the room, however, was the two men standing in the doorway despite the inn having yet to be open. One of them was heavily armoured, gleaming pauldrons shining in the early morning’s light, his helmet obscuring whatever thoughts he might be having. He stood resolutely, like a small hill, an arm resting on the heavy cutlass sheathed around his waist.
The second figure was just as tall but less armoured, though that didn’t seem to detract any sense of danger from him. His heavy coat was laid with strips of metal, like scales of some sort of great beast. The collars reached up around his neck, revealing long, golden hair that was swept backwards, revealing a pair of piercing blue eyes that burns with a manic intensity. In his hands was a wide-brimmed hat, clutched in gloved fingers before him.
In a split second, she suddenly remembered the whole of yesterday’s events and recognition sets in, freezing her in her tracks as she stood there awkwardly, not quite sure what to do, limbs locking up mid-stride.
For a moment, nothing moved as all four sets of eyes flickered towards her.
“Apologies, we do not mean to impose upon you,” he spoke. His voice, unexpectedly, was silky soft and smooth, drawn out like a cat’s purr with the slightest bit of rumble in its depths, “I am Captain Rutherford and I would like to ask you some questions if that’s alright.”
Oh right. That was a thing.