Saer pulled his cloak tighter around him as he stepped quickly down the narrow alley and made his way to the village center. The twilight was deepening when he came to the main street. Across the way, the light in the front windows of the public house burned brightly like a beacon for weary travelers and thirsty villagers. Saer paused in the gloom of the little alley, hidden. Most of the villagers, more than fifty men and women by Saer’s count, gathered around the roughly hewed tables that were set before the high wide hearth.
He watched the people jest and banter. Most of the faces he recognized: friends and neighbors, people he had known since he was a child. A few of the men were unknown to him. Three strangers sat apart from the crowd; their black cloaks were draped across their shoulders, hoods thrown back to reveal blonde hair cropped close to fair skin. Their expressions were guarded, and their gestures cautious. Saer would receive no significant information this night, unless it came from these strangers. As he considered the men and the dilemma they presented, the mistress of the house came into view. Eva moved around the tables with the grace of a dancer, smiling and talking with each person as she passed. Her smooth brown skin and coppery braid glowed in the warm light of the fire. Saer sighed, and for a moment was lost to the sight of her.
“She’s got four marriage proposals this week. One was serious, I think.”
“Really? Who from?” Saer raised his eyebrows but didn’t look over. Edwin stepped into the dark of the alley to stand beside him. He was tall, taller even than Saer, and broad at the shoulders, with the same smooth dark skin as his sister, the same long copper braid.
“Orris of Honbel, if you’ll believe it.” Edwin laughed.
“I believe it. Will she accept?” He threw a glance at his friend.
“You know she won’t. Raised the same fuss she always does: who will take care of me, and more importantly the house, if she goes off. I tried to tell her I don’t need looking after, but she wouldn’t hear it. Place would fall down around my ears, she says, were she not here to keep things right. Don’t tell her, but I half agree.”
Saer chuckled. Edwin might brew the best beer in the province, but Eva kept the best house. And while Eva would be fine in any house in the realm, Edwin would be lost without his twin.
“Besides,” Edwin continued, “I think she’s waiting for the right man.” He gave Saer a sharp nudge in the ribs and stepped from the alley. “You coming in, or am I supposed to bring your cup to you?”
Saer followed, rubbing his side. “Don’t trouble yourself, innkeeper. You have a full house tonight.” He clapped his hand on Edwin’s shoulder and smiled wide.
“Too true, farmer. Too true. Got some visitors from the north. Just passing through, I expect. And Tysus has returned from Brydun. He’s been anxious to speak to you, though he wouldn’t say so. Shakes with a nervous tremor every time the front door opens.” Edwin held open the side door and waited for Saer to pass.
“Then I won’t keep him waiting.”
A cry of welcome went up when Saer stepped into the large main room. He moved from table to table, greeting his friends with firm handshakes and teasing jests. He moved with a confidence and grace that came as natural to him as breathing. He made his way to Tysus, who sat a little apart from the others, by way of the sideboard where Eva stood polishing glasses. He didn’t speak a word to her, but put his hand against the small of her back and dropped a chaste kiss on the top of her head. He turned back to Tysus, who stood as he approached. The pale, thin man looked drawn, weary – of mind or body, Saer couldn’t tell.
“Tysus, my friend,” he said, his voice soft and kind in the raucous din of the crowded room.
“Saer. You are looking well. How goes the harvest?” Tysus sat down and invited Saer to join him with a gesture.
“It goes well, thank you. Most of my crop is now happily fermenting in barrels all across the province. But you do not want to hear the tales of a tired farmer. Tell me, what news from the west?”
Tysus hesitated when Eva came up quietly and set fresh glasses in front of them. He did not speak until she was well away.
“I bring many tales from the west, and few of them are good. Rumors and whisperings, things a man should not speak of in open company, lest he earn the wrath of the king. What I saw for myself I can freely tell, though.” He took a gulp of his beer to fortify his resolve.
Saer waited patiently for him to continue, taking the chance to sip from his beer and scan the room over the lip of the glass. From the other side of the room, the three strangers watched him closely, openly staring. He held their gaze while Tysus gathered himself, then turned his attention back to his companion.
“The rivers and streams are dry. Crops are left to wither in the fields. Whole villages are abandoned, Saer, or burned to the foundations.” Panic began to rise in the man’s voice as he spoke.
“Calm yourself, my friend.” Saer laid a comforting hand on the young man’s arm.
“I wouldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe, until I saw them with my own eyes. The armies of the king… They are not men. I would swear it before all of the gods.”
“There will be no need of such an oath.” Saer sighed. “It is as we have long feared.”
“I have never seen such creatures. I swear my blood ran cold in my veins to look on them. Not one looked like another. Some walked as the beasts of the northern fields: four-legged, their heads bowed low, with horns or spikes running the length of their backs. Some walked as men, upright on two legs, but were so grotesque that they could never be confused for one of this realm. A few could even take to the air as the birds do. What are they, Saer?”
“Demigods. Half breeds. They are the children of gods and men. Most have lived in this realm for centuries, moving among us in disguise, wishing only to live out their days in peace. But something has stirred in them of late, turning their hearts black and poisoning them with rage.”
“What are we to do? How are we to protect ourselves from such fearsome creatures? Surely the gods can control them…” Saer’s sorrowful expression made the sentence die on his lips.
“We do only as our king commands, Tysus.” Saer looked pointedly at the strangers. “We give as the king requires, be it grain or cattle or tribute or tax. For he is our king. We do not defy him, nor do we ask the gods to do so in our stead.”
Tysus had said too much, and asked too much of him. The king’s spies traveled freely across the land, and the gods no longer offered them protection, having abandoned this realm for their own. News of the demigod army moving freely in the provinces was expected, yet filled Saer with a strange mix of rage and despair he could not predict.
The men sat quietly together, each lost to his own thoughts, while the crowd cheered and joked around them. For a moment, Saer let his thoughts turn to bitterness, picturing in him mind’s eye the war that was sure to come. He watched as his friends were struck down and left to bleed in the dust of a far off field. He saw fires rage across his beloved fields and cut through the forests he had roamed as a child. And from high in the mountain citadel, he heard the false king laugh.
“No.” He came out of his thoughts to find his hand moving in precise circles on the smooth wooden table, a compulsive habit of comfort. His sudden remark brought Tysus out of his reverie.
“I am afraid I am quite weary from my long journey. Perhaps we can speak again tomorrow.” He gave Saer a weak smile.
“Of course, my friend. Forgive my mood. It seems I have too much on my mind. Join me for supper tomorrow, after you have rested. Long has it been since you were a guest in my home, and I would be happy for the company.”
Tysus nodded, grateful. “Thank you, dear friend. On the morrow.” He stood and shook Saer’s hand.
“On the morrow,” Saer answered, and watched as the man made his way through the crowd. He turned back to the table, and found the three strangers standing before him.
“We wish to speak to you, Saer of Rigunth, on urgent matters. Can we speak freely here?” The speaker was a grim-looking man, the oldest of the three. The younger men stood silently on either side and stared without blinking.
“That depends on your business, sirs.” He did not regard them unkindly, but rather with indifference as he resumed his seat. They were undeterred and took his move as an invitation to join him.
“It is said that you know much of the ways of the gods.”
“It is no secret that I trained as an Ili, but I have no more knowledge of the gods than any other student of the enthilia. Why do you seek me out?”
“Rumor speaks of your commune with the gods. They say you have knowledge of things well before they come to pass.”
“Rumors are whispered lies wrapped in the guise of truth. I have no such knowledge.”
“You do not deny that you speak to the gods.”
“Nor do I admit it. Now please, leave me in peace.” Saer turned his attention to his glass. He glanced past the trio to see Edwin’s eyes fixed on his.
“We seek the knowledge of the ancients. We know this power is in your possession.” The man spoke through clenched teeth, his voice barely above a whisper. Saer assumed this was meant to make the threat more menacing, but the affect was wasted for Saer was simply amused.
“You know nothing.” He chuckled, his words at odds with his tone. “And you are a fool besides. You believe I have the knowledge of the gods? You believe I can foretell events, or see what lies in the heart of a man? Tell me, what prevents me from looking into your heart, and seeing the treachery that is written there?” The strangers looked to one another, unsure how to answer.
“Either you believe I have this power, yet do not want me to use it for fear of what I might see; or you believe I do not have the power, and your quest is in vain.” Edwin approached the table and Saer stood to meet him. “Another round for these gentlemen, please Edwin. They have much to think over.”
The men watched him, mouths open and eyes wide, as he laid a small stack of bronze coins in the center of the table and walked away. The night was cloudless and cold when he stepped from the bright warmth of the house. He stopped in the shadows just beyond the door and adjusted his cloak over his shoulders. He did not see the side door open, or hear Eva’s light footfall as she stepped into the night until she was quite close.
“Saer?” Her voice was soft but steady.
“Eva.” He let the despair creep into his expression.
“Those men, the strangers from the north, they are servants of the king, aren’t they. He has found you.” She crossed her arms against the cold.
Saer nodded and opened his arms to her. She stepped into his embrace and laid her cheek against his chest as he wrapped his arms around her. They stood, each clinging to the other, seeking comfort in the simple touch, and let time wash past them. Then without warning, Saer let her go and stepped away.
“I love you, my Eva.”
“I love you, Saer.” And he was gone, swallowed by the night.