Marin’s voice echoed through the still morning air. “A test?!”
“A test,” I repeated with a laugh. “If we’re going to be leaving you in charge while we’re gone, I want to make sure you’re really up to the task.”
She continued to stare in slack jawed disbelief, looking between Lia and myself for explanation. “You never told me there would be some official test at the end of all of this! I would’ve, uhm...I don’t know, prepared myself or something!”
“Don’t worry about it, Marin,” Lia said, rubbing her shoulders. “There’s no passing or failing to worry about; Lux just wants to judge how your training has been going for himself, and he likes to be dramatic about it.” Her lips curled into a grin as she peeked out at me from behind Marin’s head.
“Me? Dramatic?” I asked, holding a hand to my chest dramatically. “I like to think that my way of looking at things makes life more interesting. And yes, while it is a test, Lia is right; there’s no passing or failing. I just want to get a measure of your abilities. There’s a chance Lia has been going easy on you because you’re her first student.”
“Going easy on me?! Have you seen the things we do every day?” she replied, completely aghast. “I go home with new bruises every single night!”
I clicked my tongue. “If you’re getting hit that often, I guess it’s a good thing we’re having the test, right?”
Marin sputtered as she tried to formulate a response, but Lia clamped her hands down on the fiery girl’s shoulders and pulled her backwards. “Remember what we worked on, Marin,” Lia cooed. “Experience your emotions, but don’t let them control you. Keep your head level and ready to react to any situation.”
After a series of annoyed grunts and groans, Marin let out a long, whistling breath. “I am ready for the test, Lux.”
“Perfect. Let’s begin.” I summoned my sword as I crossed the yard to Lia’s usual starting position. “I assume you can handle blunting your own weapon?” I asked as a faint flicker of orange energy shimmered along my blade.
Her eyes squinted as Lia handed her an onyx longsword. “Yes,” she answered, unable to remove the annoyance from her voice entirely.
I watched as her mana activated and the sword flickered to life. “Okay then. We’ll start with your combat fundamentals and move on from there, so no enhancements for now.” With a quick flourish of my blade, I crouched into a ready position and waved her on. “Whenever you’re ready.”
The words had hardly left my mouth before Marin charged across the clearing. Our initial clash gave me a rough idea of her skillset, and I found myself satisfied with the work Lia had done over the past month. Her attacks were powerful and precise, yet slower than the finessed approach Lia used. She had excellent combat awareness and footwork, but her aggressive style oftentimes left her too close to effectively use the full length of her longsword. After a few more engagements to test her defensive reactions to my various attacks, I disengaged and held out my hand. “Good! Now, let’s see how you do with two blades.”
Lia tossed the matched onyx longsword to Marin, and our sparring continued. The fiery passion of our previous bouts was suddenly gone, replaced by reserved, mechanically repetitive strikes. I reached out a tendril of mana to Lia while the fight progressed and pressed against her consciousness. She’s slower than you are.
She doesn’t like using two weapons, Lia answered. She says it’s too many things to keep track of, and that she’d rather “just focus on what feels right,”.
I grinned. I suppose that’s fair; I’m not overly fond of the style myself. Even so, it’s good to learn a bit of everything. My sword caught the edge of both of Marin’s blades, and I heaved her back to make some space between us. Throw me your old sword. I dropped my bastard sword into my offhand and caught it in a reverse grip as Lia tossed me her saber. Marin’s eyes widened as I reengaged combat, and she shrank against the onslaught of my new style. As her blows glanced off my parrying sword, I reached out and disarmed her offhand blade with a flick of my wrist.
The lack of the extra blade seemed to only invigorate her, but despite her valiant efforts, I continued to push her back across the yard. I knew all too well the difficulty of fighting off multiple blades using a single weapon, and had only become truly proficient with the skill after years of daily sparring with Kel. Marin tucked and rolled away behind me after a particularly brutal set of swings, and I tossed Lia’s extra sword to the ground. “You can do better than that, Marin! Come at me with everything you’ve got!”
She grinned with anticipation as she began to chant under her breath, and I saw the multicolored layers of combat enhancements flaring to life around her. I waited patiently for the ritual to conclude, sparing her my usual harsh lesson of not pausing to chant on the battlefield. When she had completed her list of spells, she launched into another round of attacks with renewed vigor. It was abundantly clear that her parallel introduction to combat and magic had been to her benefit; the two seemed to come together to create something greater than the sum of its parts, and Marin fought with a level of skill I hadn’t anticipated.
Her attacks came in harder and faster than before, cutting in new ways with spins and feints she had held back until her enhancements were in play. She let out a frustrated yell after each gambit was turned away by a simple dodge or parry, letting her mana flare more powerfully with every successive attempt. Although I was fully satisfied with her proficiency in enhanced combat, I continued the fight for my own enjoyment; it had been far too long since I had sparred with anyone apart from Lia, and even though she had taught Marin most of the techniques she threw against me, they all had their own unique spin when coming from a different opponent.
I kept a close eye on her mana reserves over the course of our duel, and made a point to shift into the final phase of my test before Marin had exhausted herself. After blocking a low cut with a particularly jarring parry, I stepped inside her guard and struck her wrist with my empty hand, knocking her sword to the ground. She jumped away with a yelp and took up a cautionary position a few yards away. “Fine, you win!” she yelled in exasperation, rubbing her tender wrist.
“Oh, so you’re giving up because you lost your sword?” I asked, pointing my blade towards her face. “That’s not going to work today.”
“What? Are you ser—” her response was lost as she bent backwards just in time to slip beneath a horizontal slash. The dodge transitioned into a backwards roll, and she popped back up onto her feet with wide eyed excitement.
“Your test isn’t over until I say it’s over, Marin,” I shouted, retaking my battle stance. “Show me what you can really do!”
She let out a triumphant laugh as she began to bounce on the pads of her feet, holding her hands palm out in front of her. I lunged forward with a quick stab aimed at her chest, but she twirled past the blow and reached up to the overextended grip of my weapon. Her fingers wrapped beneath mine as she attempted to pry my hand from the grip, and I saw her free hand shoot out in anticipation of where the weapon would fall once I was disarmed. I dismissed the sword just before it fell, then shoved her back with my now free hands. “Clever! That might have worked on someone else!” I quipped, shaking out my empty hands in preparation for the coming close quarters combat.
I had known she was exceptionally advanced in hand to hand fighting, but the exact reasons why weren’t clear until the final leg of her test began. It was the victory condition she sought that surprised me most; as opposed to the majority of unarmed fighters I faced that aimed for knockout punches, Marin was instead hunting for a submission. Her strikes often transitioned into grapples that tangled my legs and painfully torqued my joints, and I found myself tempted to call on my own combat enhancements to ensure I could keep fighting without dislocating an arm.
Unfortunately for her, the glow of her enhancements began to fade as she continually increased her mana usage after each failed submission, causing her attacks to grow more desperate and less accurate. When she lashed out with a sloppy attempt to sweep my legs out from under me, I caught her beneath the armpit and tossed her into the air, sending her tumbling head over heels across the yard. Sprinting ahead to where she landed with a dull thump, I pressed my boot down onto her shoulder before she could scramble back to her feet. “The test is over now.”
I felt her struggle beneath my boot for a moment before she fell back with a loud groan. “Damn it!” she cursed, bouncing her head off of the grass beneath her as I removed my foot from her shoulder. “I was so close, too!”
Lia jogged over and slid onto her knees next to Marin, shaking her excitedly by the arm. “You did such a great job, Marin! I’m so proud of you.”
“But I still lost!” Marin complained, propping herself up on her elbows.
“Well, you didn’t…” Lia trailed off with a giggle. “You didn’t actually expect to win, did you?”
“Maybe! I don’t know! I just wanted to pass the test.”
I reached down and offered her my hand. “Marin, you passed with flying colors. You did far better than I could have hoped for.” The compliment brought a radiant smile to her face as I helped her to her feet. “Where did you learn your hand to hand style? I know Lia didn’t teach it to you.”
Lia huffed at the apparent slight. “If I didn’t teach it to her, it’s only because you didn’t teach it to me.”
“That’s true,” I chuckled, putting an arm around her shoulders to pull her in against my side. She resisted grumpily for a moment, then accepted the gesture and looped an arm around my waist. “I taught you the basics in everything, and then decided to focus on what you seemed the most interested in. For you, that was two weapon fighting.” I gave Marin a friendly pat on the head, briefly scratching behind her rounded, fuzzy ears. “You, on the other hand, are clearly inclined for unarmed combat. I saw some pretty advanced takedown and submission attempts back there.”
Marin hummed beneath my hand. “Valandra and I used to play fight when I was little. She was a lot bigger and a lot older than I was, so it was never anything serious. Wrestling mostly.” She paused as a faint smile came to her lips, and she tilted her head back to stare up into the clear morning sky. “I call it wrestling, but I really just climbed all over her until she flipped me around into the grass.”
I felt shame burning behind my cheeks as Val’s tearful eyes stared at me through my memories, my blade pressed against her throat. “Seems like you learned more from her than you thought.”
She nodded thoughtfully as she continued to stare off into her past, until a sudden burst of excitement perked up her ears. “Wait, you said I passed the test! What happens now? Do I get to advance to the next level of training?”
Lia repressed a laugh. “There’s no next level to advance to. As you get better at using your mana I’ll teach you how to use other types of magic, but apart from that, you just keep practicing and getting better with what you already know.”
“Actually,” I interjected as an idea dawned on me, “there is one other thing.” Marin clapped excitedly, while Lia turned to look at me suspiciously. “Wait here, I’ll be right back.” Without further explanation, I jogged into the house and ran to our table of magical artifacts. My fingers traced along the metal edge of the gauntlets that once belonged to the King’s Strength, and I gave myself a reassuring nod. If she’s ever forced to face off against her sister, Marin should at least be on an even playing field. I gingerly wrapped the gloves in my cloak, then took the bundle back outside.
Lia’s eyes widened as her Detection revealed the gift I intended to give. Are you sure you want to give those away, Lux?
Of course I am. Are you worried she’s not ready?
No, it’s not that, it’s...well, I thought you would want to keep those for yourself, is all. Her voice dissipated with a small laugh, and she gave me an encouraging smile.
As interested as Marin was, the idea of using Detection to determine what I held beneath my cloak had clearly not crossed her mind. “What’s that?” she asked, bouncing in place. “Is it a reward for passing the test?”
“You could say that,” I grinned. “It’s how you start your next level of training.” I held the bundle in front of me and bobbed it up and down, gesturing for her to inspect it. She hopped forward and moved the supple black cloak aside, digging through the fabric until her prize revealed itself. I heard her breath catch in her throat, and she took an unsteady step backwards.
“Those are one of the King’s Primes,” she whispered.
“No, not anymore,” I corrected her. “Now they’re yours.”
She shook her head. “I can’t take them. I’m not, uhm, I mean, I can’t—”
“Yes, you can. You’ll put them to better use than their previous owner ever did, I guarantee it.”
Her eyes filled with tears as she reached out and brushed her hand along the intricate metal fingers. There was a long moment of silence as she inspected the gauntlets with a religious reverence, until she finally stepped back again. “They’re too big for me.”
I let out a barking laugh so loud that Marin jumped back with a startled yelp. “I can help you install some padding inside later. Right now, you need to try them on.”
She turned to Lia with pleading eyes. “It’s okay, Marin,” Lia reassured her. “You’ve earned them.”
After another long moment of hesitation, Marin nodded and plucked the first gauntlet from my outstretched arms. She slid her arm down the length of the metal glove until her fingers found their way into the articulated handpiece, which she flexed cautiously. The gesture seemed to fill her with resolve, and she quickly donned the second gauntlet as well. “They’re...lighter than I thought they’d be,” she commented softly. She continued to test her range of movement and threw a few punches at the air. “I can’t believe how easy it is to move with these on.”
I smiled, pleased with her assessment. “Are you feeling up to testing them out?”
“Of course!” she replied immediately, her trepidation from moments before nowhere to be seen. “I’ll definitely beat you this time.”
“I’m sure you would,” I chuckled, “but we aren’t testing them in combat. The magic stored in those gloves is too dangerous to spar with.” Her eyes widened as she pursed her lips, and she gave me a small nod. “Follow me.” The three of us walked to a particularly large emberwood tree at the edge of the clearing. “Punch this tree. No magic, just a regular punch.”
She raised an eyebrow at me, but shrugged and took her stance next to the trunk. A moment later, her fist lashed out and cracked against the bark with a loud thump. “Oww!” she whined, recoiling as she shook her hand against the pain. “Why did you make me do that!?”
“We needed a baseline to compare with your next attack,” I answered, reaching out with a small tendril of mana to her hand and activating the healing rune on my ring. Her scowl quickly faded alongside the pain as her fractured fingers mended under a faint green glow. “Now that we’ve seen what you would normally do, you can activate the enchantment stored in the gauntlets.”
Marin bit her lip. “I’m not sure I know how to do that.”
“It’s easy; all you need to do is reach out with your mana and turn the enchantment on.”
“Lux, I don’t know what that means. Am I supposed to—”
“Just try it, Marin. Trust me.” I tapped her once on the forehead with my index finger. “Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Let the mana flow through your body, and then reach out to the gauntlets. You’ll know what to do from there.”
I felt Lia’s energy rush out over my own, and we both watched intently as Marin began to channel her remaining mana reserves down through her arms. She hesitated there momentarily, then suffused the metal that covered her fingertips. I saw an immediate reaction as soon as the two fronts of energy met; the multicolored mana stored within the gloves swirled to life at Marin’s touch and activated the force enhancing magic inlaid into the metal. “I...I think I did it. I definitely did something,” she said under her breath. “There’s a weird tingling feeling in my arms; does that mean it’s on?”
“Yes, that means it’s on,” I snickered. “Whenever you’re ready, punch the tree again.”
She flexed her fingers in anticipation as her mana commingled with the stored power in the gauntlets. Her eyes snapped open as she reared back and threw another punch, aimed for the same spot as before. As soon as the metal connected with the trunk, a thunderous crash exploded out from the tree along with a hail of bark and splinters. A massive cone-shaped chunk of wood nearly six feet tall seemingly disappeared from the opposite side of the tree as a wave of force rippled out from the point of impact and up the towering emberwood. After a few secondary snaps, it fell forward and bounced off of the surrounding trees, eventually making its way down to crash against the forest floor.
Marin’s jaw hung open as she stared at the carnage she had inflicted. The clearing filled with a swarm of large red leaves, all flipping wildly through the air in a kaleidoscope of motion and color. I saw her begin to turn towards us through the swirling crimson, her eyes bouncing back and forth between her upturned hands and the dancing leaves. I applauded in unison with Lia, who let out a loud cheer of congratulation. The noise seemed to rouse Marin from her stupor, and a grin spread wide across her face. She performed a small, wiggling dance in celebration, culminating in a series of excited jumps and fist pumps.
“That was AMAZING!” she yelled. “I’m gonna do it again!”
“Woah, there,” I said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I’m glad you’re excited, but you don’t need to go clear cutting our forest just because you can. I happen to like these trees.”
She put her hands to her stomach and let out a long, loud laugh. “Okay, I guess you have a point,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. She rang her knuckles together excitedly as she spoke. “I’ve never felt anything like that before. There was so much power coursing through me when I hit that tree, it was…” she trailed off as a shiver ran up her spine.
“I know how you’re feeling, Marin, but you have to make sure you don’t get carried away with all that power,” Lia said in the serious, didactic tone she used during their lessons. “From now on you should train with the gauntlets on, but you have to promise not to activate them unless you’re in real danger. Can you do that?”
“Sure, of course,” she answered, partially distracted as she stared at her hands again. After another few moments of inspection, she straightened up and gave us each a small bow. “Thank you. Both of you. I promise I won’t let you down.”
I clapped my hands together emphatically. “Glad to hear it! Now, with your test out of the way, you’re free to go. You’ve earned the rest of the day off, I think.” I paused to turn and look at Lia, waggling my eyebrow. “Unless your teacher says otherwise.”
Lia rolled her eyes with a laugh. “No, we’re finished for the day. You did a great job, Marin.”
Marin let out a loud cheer. “Thanks! I need to get back and help make dinner for tonight; Elise is coming, so I want to make sure that everything is exactly—” She cut herself off with a small squeak. “What I mean is, I have to make sure dinner is ready. For everyone. You two are still coming, right?”
“We’ll be there,” I said, resisting the urge to tease her.
“Awesome! I’ll see you tonight, then!” she called out as she turned and began to sprint into the forest. “Don’t be late!” Her voice echoed back at us along with her heavy footfalls, both of which quickly faded into silence.
“All things considered, I think that went much better than I had originally hoped,” I mused as we made our way back to the house.
“She’s come a long way,” Lia agreed, taking my hand. “It’s hard to believe how well she’s doing, given how short of a time we’ve been training.”
“A month is a long time, at least in terms of our style of training,” I countered. “You’ve only been training for...what, three months at most?”
She stopped on the doorstep. “No, that can’t be right.” I watched with amusement as she counted silently to herself, repeating the process multiple times as she shook her head. “Wow. That is right. How is that possible?”
“Time has a funny way of tricking you like that,” I chuckled, tugging her inside.
“I guess so,” she replied quietly. “It feels like it's been years since I met you.”
“Imagine how you’ll feel when it’s actually been a year. Or ten years.” I bumped her shoulder lightly with mine. “Think you’ll be sick of me by then?”
“That depends on how many times you ask me if I’m sick of you between now and then,” she said, nudging me back.
“Hmm. I’ll have to save it for special occasions.” I flopped onto the couch when we entered the living room and stared blankly at the high ceiling, enjoying the respite after my morning of sparring.
Lia paused halfway up the staircase. “Aren't you going to pack? We’re leaving tomorrow morning, and we’ll be at my parents for most of the afternoon.”
I gestured lazily over my body. “Done. I travel light.” She waved me off with a shake of her head as she climbed the rest of the staircase and disappeared into the bedroom. Having already donned my gear for Marin’s test, I was ready to leave apart from a few final items; I rose begrudgingly and retrieved the diamond orb from our table of curiosities, then moved to the kitchen to refill a pouch on my belt with trail rations. Satisfied and fully packed, I returned to my supine position on the couch and waited for Lia to finish her own preparations.
She returned a few minutes later with a small backpack that she set at the base of the stairs before joining me on the couch. “We’re finally doing it,” she said as she wormed her way in between the back cushions and my chest. “An adventure that isn’t just us running from Virram’s guards.”
My thoughts turned again to Val’s recent arrival, but I forced the feelings down before they could ruin the moment. “It’s been a long time coming, but we made it. This is just the first of many.” I kissed her lightly on the forehead. “Sorry it took so long to get here.”
“Oh, I can’t really complain,” she said with a smile. “The past month has been alright, I guess.” Her smile widened as she let out a repressed laugh. “Maybe the best month of my life. Who’s to say, really?” I felt an intoxicating warmth surround me as Lia’s aura expanded into mine. My remaining anxieties melted away, and I took a deep breath as I closed my eyes to bask in the feeling of calm.
There was a light tapping on my forehead a few moments later. “Hey. No sleeping. I promised my parents we would help them get the house ready this afternoon.”
The tapping grew more incessant as my eyes remained closed. “Get up, Lux.”
“Mmm,” I groaned, pinning her in place as I nestled further into the couch.
She giggled as she fought against my imposing form, pulling her arms in tight to her sides and rocking back and forth. I felt my body slipping towards the edge of the cushions as she continued to push me away, and I fell onto the floor after a brief, awkward struggle. I opened my eyes to find Lia staring down at me from the couch.
“That wasn’t very nice,” I groaned, scratching the back of my head.
“You were going to fall asleep, like you always do,” Lia teased, sticking her tongue out.
“What’s so bad about that?”
“We promised to help my parents get everything ready before our dinner tonight!” she repeated as she reached her hand down to help me to my feet.
“You promised to help. I don’t remember saying anything of the sort.”
Her helping hand disappeared halfway through the motion of pulling me up, and I nearly fell to the floor for a second time. “If you don’t help, you don’t get any dinner.”
I considered the ultimatum for a moment. “In that case, we should probably get going,” I said, starting towards the door. Lia let out an exasperated sigh as she grabbed her bag from the base of the stairs, then jogged up behind me and took my hand as we began our walk through the forest.
Over the course of our journey, I noticed for the first time that the path we followed had worn down to a thin dirt trail in the grass, clearly demarcating where Marin, Lia and I had traveled back and forth over the past month. The sight made me smile; while the timeless nature of our secluded homestead made it easy to forget, it was nice to see a reminder of the long term stability we had created.
Marin greeted us at the door when we arrived and immediately doled out a long list of tasks to be finished by sundown. As she informed us multiple times over the course of the day, Elise’s visit for dinner would be the first time she had seen the house, and everything had to be completed before her arrival. Lia was enlisted to help her mother unpack the stubbornly remaining boxes scattered around the house, while I was sent back into the forest to find a fresh protein for our dinner. “Something more exciting than rabbits, please,” Marin implored me as I was shooed out the door.
I found a large range of potential targets in my initial sweep with Detection, but I discounted most of them based on Marin’s criteria for an “exciting” main dish. There was the usual range of pheasants, turkeys, and other wild game birds, as well as squirrels and rabbits, but my eyes were set on a larger prize. I was surprised to see a vulroc out during the day; the red and grey striped fox stood as tall as a wolf, holding statue still on a fallen tree as it surveyed the surrounding forest. While they were sometimes hunted for their beautiful pelts by less than reputable sportsmen, Lia had told me it was generally frowned upon to kill them, and that the meat was next to inedible, so I left it to its business.
My sights finally settled on a solitary bihorn grazing in an open clearing. Despite its name, the ox-like beast had only a single horn growing from the top of its head. Lia had explained the odd name came from a children's story in which two of the Primevals argued over how many horns the animal should have; the parable ended with a moral lesson about compromise, but I had failed to see how the tale justified the incorrect nomenclature. The oddly named bihorn was generally a domesticated beast for both food and labor purposes, but the smaller wild variant still existed in much of northern Lybesa’s forests and fields.
Once I had stalked within visual distance of it, I suffused the beast’s neck with mana and activated my Pain Reduction enhancement, then swiftly followed up by shattering three of its cervical discs. It fell to the ground without a sound and remained still, instantly dead from the severed nerves. I moved in to retrieve my prize and, after taking a moment to prepare myself with enhancements, hoisted it onto my back. While it wasn’t as large as a domesticated bihorn, it felt as though it weighed nearly half a ton as I draped its legs over my shoulders and began the hard walk back to the Corell’s.
My return was met with a fanfare from Marin and Marten, who were working on organizing the storage shed when I emerged from the forest with my trophy in tow. I asked the pair for help butchering the animal, and was amused by their responses: Marin refused the task outright, stating that the process would make her queasy, and Marten ran inside without explanation. He returned a few seconds later with Hana, who carried a small fold of leather under her arm as she followed behind him excitedly. While she looked over my quarry, Marten gave me a satisfied nod and left the two of us alone. After the brief inspection, Hana opened the folded leather to reveal an impressive array of knives and set to work guiding me through the butchering process.
As I learned over the next few hours, Hana’s father had been a butcher in the Kaldanic town of Myca, and despite his insistence that butchering was “men’s work”, she had learned everything he knew by helping him in the back room of his shop as she grew up. She quickly surpassed the skills of her two older brothers and was set to inherit the shop when her father grew too old to run it himself, but the persistent advances of a young trader named Marten eventually convinced her to move away to Tolamar and start a family. Between her skills in butchery and my ability to move the half ton carcass around with ease, we had the bihorn hung, drained, skinned, and ready to be portioned in just a few hours.
I brought a large tenderloin cut inside to Lia once the portioning had begun and helped her get dinner preparations underway. The remainder of my afternoon was spent bouncing from task to task whenever I was needed, be it in more butchering work with Hana, helping Marten with heavy crates, fetching water for Lia’s cooking needs, or assisting Marin in whatever strange duties she had remaining on her list. While everyone else happily worked on their own projects, Marin paced through the house nervously, always finding a small corner to sweep or a picture to straighten. Despite my reassurances that the house looked lovely, she always waved me off with a huff and found another job to occupy her mind out of my sightline.
The sound of a wagon rattling up the dirt road alerted us to Elise’s arrival as the sun began to set over the forest. We gathered outside as the carriage entered the clearing, drawn by two large black horses and driven by a familiar blonde-haired young woman in a Three Barrels uniform. Elise stepped out of the carriage wearing a full length blue overcoat and carrying an enormous bottle of wine. “That’ll be all for tonight, Bella,” she said as she passed her driver. “You can retrieve me at sunrise tomorrow.” Bella nodded, waiting for Elise to cross the yard before she reined the horses in a circle and drove back down the road.
“Hi Ellie!” Marin shouted, dashing forward to wrap her in a tight hug.
“Hello, dear,” Elise answered with a smile, returning the embrace with her free hand, “it’s good to see you!” She looked pastpassed Marin to where the rest of us stood in front of the house, and then up to the house itself. “So, this is the place!” She kept her arm around Marin’s shoulders as she walked across the lawn. “It’s a beautiful home.”
“Thank you, Ellie,” Hana answered. “I’m glad we’re finally able to have you over to visit.”
Elise offered the bottle of wine out to Marten. “It’s long overdue! Things at work have been inordinately taxing the past few weeks, to say the least. Tonight’s getaway is exactly what I needed.”
“Well then, come in!” Marten said, gesturing to the front door. “Dinner should be ready any minute, and you still need the grand tour of the place!”
“Oh, I can show you around, Ellie!” Marin volunteered, beaming beneath Elise’s arm.
“Thank you, dear,” Elise responded, “I think I’ll take you up on that.” Before going inside, she looked in my direction. “Lux, Marly, it’s been too long! How’ve you been?” She looked around the clearing for a moment. “I see that your ‘extra supplies’ have disappeared.”
“We’ve certainly been busy,” I grinned. “Thank you again for your help with that.”
“No need for thanks. You paid me to do it, after all,” she laughed. “Maybe someday I’ll see what all of those Imperials paid for.”
“Maybe,” Lia chimed in. “It might be a while, though; we’re leaving tomorrow on a bit of a vacation.”
“So I’ve heard,” Elise said, giving Marin a small shake, then nodded her head towards the door. “Let’s talk about it over dinner. I’m starving!”
When we all filed into the house, Marin immediately led Elise away into the living room to begin the tour, excitedly pointing out various aspects of the house that she found particularly impressive. The rest of us moved to the kitchen to set the table and put the finish touches on dinner. We plated up six servings of braised bihorn over roasted vegetables and topped with crispy leeks, as well as extra full glasses of wine courtesy of Elise’s offering. The pair finished their tour just as the last plate was set out, and we all sat down to eat.
The first minute of our meal was filled entirely with the sounds of clattering utensils and voracious chewing as we all dug into the fork-tender bihorn, too engrossed in the food to speak. Elise pounded the table with her fist after a particularly large bite and let out a loud, satisfied grunt. “This is delicious! Where did you find bihorn this fresh? Was it Harren’s shop? I swear that man is always hiding his best stock whenever I go in there.”
“Lux brought it in this morning, fresh from the forest,” Marten answered through a mouthful of food.
“Oh, he’s a hunter, too?” she asked coyly, raising her eyebrows at Lia for a moment before turning to Hana. “That must mean you were the butcher in question.”
“Yes,” she answered with a wide smile. “It was nice to have a reason to use my knives again.”
“You know, I could find you a job in town if you’d like. Primes, you could open your own shop; I know you’ve got the skill, and I’ve got the capital.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I’m quite content with where I am now,” Hana answered. “Though I must admit, I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to practice now and then.”
“That can easily be arranged,” I cut in, “as long as I get a meal out of it.”
“Of course,” she laughed. After taking another bite of her dinner, she returned to her previous conversation. “Speaking of work, Ellie, how’s the business been? You mentioned something when you arrived about a taxing week.”
Elise groaned and shook her head, then grabbed her wine glass and drained the half full vessel in one gulp. “Not so good,” she said eventually, wiping a few dark red droplets from the corner of her mouth. “I’ve lost five caravans in the past two weeks. Not just the goods, but the whole damn caravan; wagons, horses, men, everything.” She shook her head and gave a bitter laugh. “I know it’s bandit season, but they usually aren’t so thorough about it.”
“Bandit season?” Lia asked. “There’s a season for bandits?”
Elise nodded. “Winter for Kaldan is bandit season for Lybesa. All of the northern farms will be sending the bulk of their crops out to bolster Kaldan’s food storage, which means all the trade roads will be at their busiest. Naturally, that means people looking to acquire those goods by less than legal means will be at their busiest as well.” She traced her finger around the rim of her empty wine glass. “Without the Mountain Gate, everything has to go south. The Lybesian Midlands are...what’s the right word...not lawless, exactly, but certainly less enforced than the rest of the country. I would normally avoid the area altogether this time of year, but my options are limited.”
I averted my eyes down onto my empty dinner plate as my role in her hardships became apparent, but she moved on without pressing the point any further. “It’s only about two days of travel across the Midlands that’s really troublesome. You’re generally safe once you reach Oraille, so I’ve had my contacts send word whenever one of my caravans rolls into town. Since the start of the season two weeks ago, half of my crews have failed to arrive.” Her finger stopped on the edge of her glass, and she let out a heavy sigh. “I just hope my people are alright, somewhere out there.”
“We could look into it for you,” I offered, glad to find a way to ease my conscience. “Lia and I were planning to go down that direction on our trip to the capitol anyway. It wouldn’t be any trouble.”
Elise raised a finger as if to scold me, then paused as her expression changed from one of consternation to slight amusement. “Were I talking to anybody else, this is where I would remind them that my caravans are always escorted by three armed guards, and that two civilians on holiday would only be putting themselves in danger by hunting down the missing wagons.” She laughed as she grabbed the wine bottle from the center of the table and poured herself another glass. “Given what I know about you two, none of that really applies in this situation. Even an organized company of bandits wouldn’t be an issue for you, would it?”
“Not even a little bit,” Lia remarked casually as she chewed on the last of her bihorn.
“In that case, I won’t pass up the opportunity to potentially save my men. If you manage to find them and send them home, there’ll be a hefty reward waiting for you when you return,” she stated, “plus a bonus should you stumble across the missing wagons and goods in the process.”
“We don’t need a reward, Elise. After everything you’ve—”
She held up a hand and cut me off. “That’s not how I do business. You’ll be doing both me and my men a service, and you’ll be rightly compensated, end of story. If you’re not interested in coin, I’m sure we can find another agreeable reward.”
“If you insist,” I shrugged, already updating my mental list of necessary supplies for our remaining renovations.
“I do.” She took another hearty sip of wine and sat back contentedly. “Now, enough about my business. How have your endeavors been lately, Marten? Is the area everything you hoped it would be?”
“I can’t complain,” he answered. “The local contracts you gave us have kept the wagon moving nonstop. Given this new information about the Midlands, I think we’ll be content to stay local for quite some time.”
“We went to Caelum’s forge yesterday!” Marin chirped, excited to find entry into the conversation. “We managed to get everything he wanted sold down to the southern market in one trip!”
“Oh, did you now?” Elise chuckled. “Out of all the leads I gave you, I’m surprised that one worked out. Caelum has always been a prickly old man, to put it nicely.”
“As a prickly old man myself, I get along with him just fine,” Marten joked. “He was very appreciative of our more personalized business offer. And our lower fees.”
“Get back to me when you try to use that business model with a few hundred employees,” Elise countered. “Until then, we can peacefully coexist in our own markets. Unless, of course, you’d just like to come work for me.”
The business conversation continued well into the evening until the leftovers were cold and the wine bottle was empty. We moved into the living room for our usual nighttime ritual of playing cards and split into three even teams. Marin and Elise both boasted of their superior skills when the game began, but the copious wine consumption from their side of the table at dinner proved to be too much of an obstacle for them to overcome; their team was quickly eliminated from the first round of the game, and both women began to doze off together on their low couch.
Our game concluded half an hour later with a narrow victory for Marten and Hana. While I helped them quietly move the furniture back into place, Lia helped Elise extricate herself from beneath a sleeping Marin; the girl had fallen asleep and tipped sideways against Elise, and was currently snoring softly with her head in Elise’s lap. When Lia attempted to rouse her, Marin pawed the helping hand away. “No, s’fine. I’ll...sleep here,” she mumbled, nestling her head closer to Elise’s stomach.
“Poor girl can’t handle her wine,” Elise remarked, watching her through heavily lidded eyes. “You can take her to bed; I’ll sleep here for the night.”
Lia nodded. “I’ll grab you a pillow and some blankets after I—”
“You don’t hafta sleep here,” Marin protested suddenly. “Just sleep with me!”
Elise’s lips curled into a slow smile. “Thank you, dear, but I think you’ll be more comfortable by yourself, in your own bed.”
She shook her head. “No, I’d be more comfy if you—”
Her counter offer was cut off as Lia scooped her out of Elise’s lap. “Time for bed, Marin,” she said as she turned and carried the inebriated girl away.
“Nooo,” Marin moaned helplessly as they rounded the corner, “nooo, take me back.” Her lamentations faded as I heard her bedroom door open and shut.
“She’s a sweet girl,” Elise said softly as we watched them go. “Marten did good finding her.”
“Yeah, I think they’ll work well together,” I agreed, moving to the nearby hall closet to grab an extra pillow and blankets. “You know, she admires you quite a bit.”
“That’s one word for it,” she grinned, accepting the sleeping accoutrements. “I’m sure her, erm, fixation, will move on soon enough.” She slumped over onto the couch and unfolded the blankets just enough to cover down to her knees. “I can’t say I mind too much, though. The way she looks at me, it’s...different, than the way most men do. It makes me feel young again.”
I smiled awkwardly, taken completely off guard by the sudden rush of personal information. “Do you need anything else? Another pillow, some water maybe?”
“No, I’m quite alright. Thank you, dear.” She let out a loud yawn before settling into her spot on the couch. “Now, if I’m to have any chance of meeting Bella at sunrise, I need to get to sleep.”
“I’ll leave you to it, then,” I nodded, grateful for the excuse to make my exit.
“Lux, wait,” she asked suddenly, grabbing unsuccessfully at my sleeve. “I need to thank you, properly.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all. No need to wait for Lia to get back for your blankets; she might be a while in there.”
“No, not that.”
I furrowed my brow for a moment, then snapped my fingers as the recognition came. “I can’t promise what we’ll find on the road, but I can say that we’ll get to the bottom of whatever—”
“No, no,” she laughed, “not that either. For Marly.”
My eyes squinted as I puzzled over what she could mean, then shrugged as I came up empty. “I’m afraid you’ve lost me, Ellie.”
“I was always so afraid that Marly would end up alone, living with her parents forever. Thank you for making sure that didn’t happen.”
“That’s not fair, Elise,” I said firmly. “Lia is a wonderful girl. Anybody would be lucky to have her. I just got lucky, is all.”
She smiled. “That’s just it, dear. Marly was far too good for the men back in Yoria, and she knew it. Given the choice, she would have stayed alone forever rather than settle for anything less than she deserved.” She took my hand and gave it a soft pat. “So thank you for making sure that didn’t happen.”
My cheeks burned as I looked away. “I, uh, I’m not sure what to say.”
“Say ‘you’re welcome, Elise,’.”
“You’re welcome, Elise.”
“Good,” she said with satisfaction, slumping back down onto the couch. “Now, put out that lamp and let me sleep.”
Still flustered, I stood and did as I was told without question, turning out the lamp that hung in the corner of the room. The door to Marin’s room opened as I passed by, and Lia exited before closing the door behind her. “She’s about as settled as she can be in her state,” she quipped softly.
I chuckled as I was reminded of Lia’s similar experience during our stay at the Council Chambers. “I helped Elise get situated as well. I don’t imagine either of them will be pleased waking up at sunrise.” I put out the final hallway lamp as we walked to our room and quickly prepared for bed ourselves.
“I’m not sure I’ll get any sleep tonight,” Lia remarked as we slid beneath the sheets.
“Well, you’d better try; we’ll be sleeping on the road again starting tomorrow,” I teased.
She groaned and took a moment to readjust herself into a more comfortable position. “At least we don’t have to watch our backs the whole time.” I turned out the lamp and put an arm around her waist. “Our first adventure on our own terms,” she sighed dreamily.
“The first of many,” I reminded her. She gave my hand a light squeeze of acknowledgement, and we both drifted off to sleep.
Hana roused us just before dawn. I was surprised to find both Marin and Elise awake as well, though the former looked much worse off than the latter; Elise was smiling and composed as she ate breakfast with Marten, while Marin leaned heavily against the kitchen wall, her hair particularly frizzy and disheveled. Lia moved to her side and attempted to teach her how to lessen her nausea through meditation while I fetched our breakfast. After the light meal was finished, we all filed outside to find Bella and her carriage already waiting.
We said our quick and well-practiced goodbyes to Lia’s parents and Marin, then joined Elise in the back of her carriage. She had insisted we join her on her trip back into town, and we soon found out why; after producing a paper and quill from below her seat and folding down a large wooden desk across her lap, she wrote down a comprehensive list of every man and woman that had gone missing since her bandit troubles had started. I was impressed by how detailed each missing persons report was, down to skin, hair, and eye color, approximate height and weight, and any distinguishing features.
I stashed the reports in my pocket once we arrived at Three Barrels, and parted ways after a final, sincere thank you from Elise. When Bella disappeared around the corner with the carriage, Lia and I were left alone at the entrance to the headquarters. We stood quietly for a moment, both staring off into the distance down the southern road. “We made it,” I said eventually, taking Lia’s hand.
“We made it,” she echoed.
“It’s time for me to keep my promise,” I proclaimed, taking a step forward. “It’s time to go on an adventure.”
Hi there. I'm Adam, the author of the "Restart Again" series. I started this writing project in the spring of 2019 as a fun creative outlet, and much to my surprise, I actually stuck with it! Fast forward to a year later, and here I am with the first book completely finished, and the second well under way. It's been a great experience, and I'm glad I have a chance to share it now!
I'd never heard of this site until recently, when one of the Amazon reviews for this book suggested I share it here as well. I'm not entirely familiar with how the site works, and whether or not it's frowned upon to just come here to share fully finished products that exist on other sites. With that in mind, I plan to drop a chapter on here every Sunday and Wednesday until the entire book is posted. If you enjoy it, hop over to my website to find the latest news on the project, and a link to the Amazon page where you can buy the eBook/paperback. I hope you enjoy it!