Shyrrik raised a hand to his face to shield himself from the wind and the dust that whipped bitingly against him while he happened a glance out to the landscape before him, unable now to give more than a squint to look at it. The pressure shock from the catastrophic upheaval of soil and mantle had caused a massive disturbance in the immediate area, the features of the land broken in colossal fractures and turned up into a jagged and indiscriminate line of earthen rubble nestled up against the great scar carved so many fathoms wide, and so many leagues deep into the ground. Shyrrik had risen from the collapsing cavern in a stupor to the crest of a tall pile of rock and uprooted trees, and his vantage point was optimal. Stretching from one horizon to the other was a deep, black void into which one could peer for eternity, wide enough that one could scarcely spot its opposite shore, a teeming and unsettling darkness into which Shyrrik felt as though he was being lured. He held his mouth, the vertigo making him nauseated, and stepped away from the edge of his perch.
At the end of his sight, the line of the crevice met with the redness of the setting sun. The light wrapped around the area near to it in a kind of aura that glimmered noticeably, disclosing the existence of a wall or shell around the pit. The gods had made good their word; even now, Shyrrik could see the distant spark of clashing violence in the murky chaos as the dimensional tears poured forth with hell’s very own, ripping and gnashing at their confines and at each other. The barrier became translucent as it approached him and faded to invisibility at its closest point to where he stood. The most salient impression that it left upon him was the delicacy of it; to him, it felt fragile and fleeting, even if it may not have been so, and all the gods’ promises could not assuage the uneasiness he felt as he peered down into the unholy miasma bubbling up from the most violent places in the universe.
Amrit had made fools of them all. Shyrrik tightened his fists, but he could not find the strength to fuel his fury, for in the face of these new circumstances he felt only a supreme impotence. Weighing down on his shoulders was the snatching away of what he believed to be the power that he possessed to affect the world in some great and perdurable way, a morbid sense of time that unmercifully dismantled any inkling of ego he’d managed to construct over the course of his journey. He found himself staring out into a world uninfluenced by his presence but for his weak regard of it. A cold wind chilled him, causing him a shiver, and his heart had not the warmth or will to beat it back. In his mind, he could not reconcile the power he wielded in his bow with the notion that the story that he’d written for himself, that which set his soul alight and gave him direction, would conclude long after he had left this world. There was bitter irony in it, for the Shyrrik of yesteryear would have scoffed and asserted the blatant obviousness of such a thing. But, that Shyrrik did not have the heart which he did now.
At some point, Aedra joined him on his rocky spire. He acknowledged her somberly in his catatonic glance out over the new world, touching his own chest in restless melancholy. In that brief moment, he felt as though the only connection to a time when he’d felt alive was standing next to him for only as long as its own personal whims, in all their mystery, would fancy it. Kraytol was gone, Ejnar beholden to her own solipsistic reality, other companions killed or scattered. Mirabella was dead and Amrit had escaped to some other plane to suffer some unknown fate – Shyrrik couldn’t help but lament even the disappearance of every sworn enemy to validate the breaths that he now took. Reaching back into his quiver, he fingered about until he could pull from it the brilliant silver arrow that, for a long time, he’d nestled the hope of personal absolution within. A sigh left him, and half of a sour laugh, as he twirled it in a slow circle through his nimble fingertips.
“I truly thought,” he quietly remarked, “that I could define my own life by the one that I took with this shot. What a jester I’ve become.”
Then, he sat the arrow against the string of his bow, drew it with a wooden creak and a mist of magic, and fired it into the sun.
On the sea somewhere in the middle latitudes, there within a fleet of highly ornate ships from a distant land strode a fair galleon vessel through the calm waters under the intense equatorial sun. Down below the deck of the ship, Shyrrik tugged at his collar and wiped the sweat off of his neck, but could not find respite from the sweltering heat even in the shadows of the hold. His hair was clumped and matted to the sides of his face, looking none too elegant, and he’d long since abandoned his heavy leather cloak which threatened to suffocate him. He felt entirely like stripping off every last article sticking to his skin, but the regular influx of crewmen inspecting cargo and doing their general shiply work might not’ve taken to that idea quite so nicely, especially seeing that he’d nested himself for a while on top of their grain stores. Nothing in this hold was susceptible to degeneration from high temperatures, which suggested to Shyrrik that their destination would provide him with very little relief from the weather.
But, he already knew this. When he’d been cornered by a pair of foreign emissaries while on patrol across the border of the great divide, their lustrous red regalia turned him to a faint point in the past when he’d had words with a dignitary from a place he’d only read about, far off the Mindosian mainland into areas unaffected by the recent troubles. The couriers had been quite insistent, and while they would not name their liege and only spoke in the name of the country, Shyrrik had a fairly firm idea of whom it was that so convincingly beckoned him. His current status resonated in his own mind with interest, for he was now a diplomat of some respectable rank, and this voyage consequently held some level of objective validity, even if he didn’t believe that to be true. He’d thought at first that his position within the Cheolian bureaucracy was sparse knowledge – he certainly didn’t make a habit of discussing it with those he met – but his reputation had grown far beyond his own ability to control it, and now others were able to derive his associations (and his whereabouts) through the same channels that he once used to glean what he’d thought to be secret information. Nothing doing about that, he supposed.
Sitting up with a great and miserable moan, he trudged his way back up to the deck, for the humidity was making him ill and the fresh ocean air seemed promising. Stepping into the blinding noon sun, he squinted and felt about the last few rungs to climb to surface near the ship’s edge. He licked his lips, for in their elven fragility they had fallen sunburnt and irritated, and he had not the ointments on his person to remedy it. The salty sea spray, however, only aggravated his nausea, and a long bend over the bulwarks saw him vacate the contents of his stomach into the sapphire waters. He coughed, spit up, and clutched his temples while leaning pitifully on his folded arm, decidedly wretched.
At his back, one of the couriers who’d fetched him approached and offered his sympathies. He was an elf of mature age, dressed sumptuously in bright and fiery colors with the insignia of his house displayed plainly on his chest. Not at all dressed for the weather himself, he looked particularly comfortable, hands clasped properly in front of him.
“Apologies, my Lord, if the galley’s cooking hasn’t settled well in your stomach.”
“I have heatstroke.” Shyrrik said drowsily with aggravation on his tongue, as well as the rancid taste of vomit which begged another spitting into the sea.
“I’d heard that rangers of your caliber were rather adept at braving harsh conditions, would that have been a frilly myth?” He bent a bit, seeming to challenge Shyrrik’s mettle a little more firmly than polite conversation ought to have allowed for.
“It’s been three days,” the half-elf shot back venomously, “and I find your ship to be a most foreign environment.”
“That is fair, my Lord.” The elf said with concession. “We were instructed by our dispatchers to ensure that you were able to withstand the elements, specifically heat.”
“This is a diplomatic visit.” Shyrrik questioned, suddenly suspicious.
“Yes, it is.” The elf cryptically confirmed. As he did so, he reached out and touched Shyrrik’s arm. A gentle pulse of blue light swirled around his hand, which flowed into Shyrrik, and the ranger’s next breath was a cool and frosted one that misted out in to the hot sea air before him. Finding equilibrium and regaining the resolve to stand, he wet his lips reflexively, only to find that they were healed of their chapped skin and burning pain. With his ailments mended, he was left in clear focus of just how peculiar this had all become.
The ship docked the next morning in the harbor of a grand and magnificent port town inside a bustling bay with vessels berthed so close to one another that they were nearly on top of each other. Shyrrik tipped his way down the gangplank in his best baron’s clothes, which he begrudingly scratched at and twisted around in while led along by his captors. He’d been informed that the party interested in his presence had been kind enough to journey from the nation’s capital, and if nothing else, it pleased the archer to know that he wouldn’t have to travel any further in the unholy heat when the spell wore off.
Their destination, a small statehouse in a secluded section of a far less busy district, had Shyrrik idly wondering if he was going to be the proud recipient of a dagger in the liver – he reassured himself that he was not of enough clout for such a thing to make a lick of sense, but he kept his eyes active nonetheless.
“Shambling through the back door like common brigands, are we?” He made brusque mention of as they forewent entry through the forward archways. They’d slithered unseen round to the back entrance, and as his escorts placed themselves properly on either side of the door, he curiously noted that it seemed like they were preparing for a breach. The elven mage lifted the metal handle, and no sooner had the door swung free of its recess than a strong and sudden wave of wind swung it forcefully open, impacting with a blast against Shyrrik’s body and causing him to buckle. The wave was hot, fiercely so, and the air he sucked in reflex replaced the cool air in his lungs with a horrid burning, singing his throat and causing him a great wheezing and coughing. He looked down at himself; the loose threads of his clothing had ignited and burned down to the rest of the fabric. The smell of smoke and sulfur wafted about, and as Shyrrik regained his footing to cautiously make his entrance, he found himself as apprehensive as ever about this endeavor.
And as he was shut in by his envoys amid only the pitiful light of a single window, there among the various furnishings was something that, against all circumstance, sent a shiver through his back. For sitting at a small meeting table on the far side of the room was the ethereally pulsing form of a young elven boy who stared out at Shyrrik from his blood-red eyes with a deathly vacancy, faintly illuminating his surroundings with the throb of a subtle light that implied a power in him none too subtle at all. Even within the shadows cast by his long goldenrod hair, Shyrrik could see his eyes glowing with menace. The veins near the surface of his neck protruded and shined like rivers of magma, reaching up around his jaw and cheeks as hellish tentacles giving him the visage of a demon. His left ear, what should’ve been long and elegant as the other, was missing its extremity, and Shyrrik could see that the stub of it ended in a smoldering ember and ash. And every so often, a burning aura shone around him in the likeness of an electric flame, washing over him like waves of heat over a charred log. After a long and meaningful silence, the boy spoke, his voice grating and sibilant.
“You are the last man to ever offer me wisdom of any use,” he said with the sinister vainglory of a devil, “so now I ask of you, what manner of justice makes a whore of this world?”
And, of many things that gripped Shyrrik just then, the one that overtook him so inexplicably in that moment was the distinct sense of sadness.
Within sight of the great divide, rain gently fell between the treeline and the crumbling wall of bedrock and soil that rose when the scar turned the land up in a till. The rainwater had eroded the large slopes of earth for weeks, deteriorating them into a muddy slush that flowed down toward the Iskask forest, coating the ground for hundreds of feet in a murky brown color that smothered the grass and, when it had intermittently dried, gave the appearance of a strip of desert waste, a no man’s land separating the shelter of the woods and the frightful unknown. Here now, the mud cascaded down the hill in a wave to flow into the pools of oily blood around the broken bodies of monsters made of flesh, or pour into the charred craters of those who were born a bit closer to hell. Demon carcasses littered the open field in multitude, their black and red stains interrupted only by the footsteps of Shyrrik, who trudged slowly through the muck and carnage, eerie in his solitude among the silence save for the soft pelting of raindrops. Caked in dirt, soaking in rain, blood, and sweat, he dragged himself wearily through the half-sunken bodies toward the sanctuary of the forest, passing by corpses of all shapes and sizes. The menagerie of creatures escaping the barrier was, if nothing else, fascinating.
He was in pain, and sauntered with a limp. Something had tagged him on his left leg, and he wasn’t sure what, but he’d paid it no mind up until now when it was all that remained to give focus to. There’d been many monsters, he thought, too many to go and vengefully pursue the one who’d scratched him up. Putting himself down on a nearby tree root, he massaged the damaged muscles and let out a frustrated sigh through his teeth, then sifted through his things to find a stalk of ginger root to gnaw upon and calm his nerves. On the notion of Kraytol’s special blessing, he’d been very much of the idea lately that he would ‘use it when he needed it’, a degree which naturally never came about for him. But as he retrieved a bandage from within his satchel and wrapped it around his wounded limb, he was forced to recognize that this was not a testament to his own strength, but rather lingering of his old, conservative ways. He’d not moved past being a woodsman, not in habit and not in mind; worse than that, perhaps, he’d not matured through his tendency to prefer isolation. He’d felt just like he did a decade ago, without purpose or direction. This troubled him, which made his constitution worse…which resulted in this.
Satisfied with the woefully unsanitary job he’d done tending to his injury, he reached again in amongst his belongings, fishing from within a number of small and featureless stones, which he placed in a circle at the base of tree. In the middle of these, he carefully set a wooden crest in the image of a unicorn, then fell back to sit upon his legs in a submissive kneel. He put his gloved hands together, closed his eyes, and nodded on in tribute to the one that touched his spirit those many months ago. Shyrrik had never been a religious man, having certainly never prayed, and was unsure whether he offered these pledges out of obligation or a true appreciation for something that had once happened to him and had largely now been forgotten. He wondered if this was the sort of dilemma that the pious man grappled with all his life, for as it had been since he’d first lowered his head for the god he’d so intimately known, there was no inkling of a presence. He’d often thought that to be a ruler or a deity was a thankless role, but only recently had he discovered just how thankless it often felt to be a servant. Lo and behold, he received recognition for his prostrating – but not from a god.
“To whom do you pray, Shyrrik?”
Suddenly aside him, hands tucked into his sleeves, was Ragnar, the half-elf who had recruited him into the ranks of the Protectorate so long ago. Even now, the omnipresence of the Protectorate was something of a mystery to Shyrrik, but he again reminded himself that he was not such an obscure woodland hermit as he once was. Shyrrik opened his eyes, staring at the modest shrine he’d fixed for himself.
“No one, it would seem.” He said flatly, and began to gather his things.
“Most patrol the scar with a full battalion, and yet I find you here by yourself.” Ragnar said. “I’d think you a fool to challenge these demons alone.”
Shyrrik sardonically glanced over his shoulder, out through the tree line, gesturing to the slaughtered bodies with his eyes.
“You mean, those dead demons?”
“Hah.” The other half-elf snorted incredulously, and took a look back himself. There among the rotting husks was an enormous reptilian creature of intimidating size and form, with smoky gray scales and large, glassy eyes frozen in death; one short step away from true dragonhood. On its back, the chitinous spikes protruding from the undulations of its vertebrae were colored a deep and bloody crimson.
“That? That’s a red-crested ironspine you killed.”
“Is it?” Shyrrik responded disinterestedly, shoving his effects into his satchel. “I suppose I didn’t notice.”
“Remind me never to solicit your services on any missions that require lying.” Ragnar retorted, jolly in his sarcasm. “But, you have come along nicely, Shyrrik. You are strong, frighteningly so, and I was wise to choose you as my ally.”
“Do you have a mission for me?” Shyrrik interrupted. It was perfectly obvious to the both of them that he was asking not for a task, but for a distraction.
“No,” Ragnar replied, “nothing of the sort. I’m simply checking in on an illustrious member of our group, whom the whispering winds tell me has fallen somewhat out of sorts.”
Shyrrik spit out a noise of dismissal, and strung his bow across his chest, looking ready to avoid what he knew to be an oncoming interrogation.
“Do you seek death, Shyrrik?” Ragnar asked, following after him and keeping within range.
“Your concern is duly noted, spy.” Shyrrik bitterly responded, attempting to walk briskly enough to discourage his pursuer, but his leg nagged him.
“Continue to fight these creatures by yourself, and you will meet one that you cannot defeat. You are running toward demons of the flesh to run away from the demons in your mind, surely you see the irony in that!”
“I am not feeling particularly ironic this day, friend, I assure you I am not!”
Shyrrik twisted, splashed his feet forcefully in the rainwater puddles around him, raised his voice, and pointed his finger with malicious accusation. Sapping his will to be restrained was the pain in his leg, and in his heart.
“There are battles fought by men in places where your slithering tendrils do not reach!” He shouted, throwing his hood off of his head, exposing himself to the rain. “Yet here you stand, insistent that I expound upon you tales of my own impotence to allay your bloody sense of obligation! The world at large surely has intimate knowledge of my inner agony but has selfishly decided to exclude you from it, I will be sure to let it know how slighted you feel!”
Ragnar remained patient. “Shyrrik, of any man, you must know that men are not born so that they may suffer. Inviting oblivion upon yourself serves no purpose.”
“Oh,” Shyrrik said with flamboyant sarcasm, “let us do speak of purpose. I find myself presented with two choices – that the universe dangled the illusion of power before me to lure me from the compartment of my own existential lethargy and chose in all its great wisdom to pull destiny from within my fingers and place it out of reach of my own mortal life for the sake of its own shitting amusement, or that I simply have made myself as gullible as that! For what have I saved in this world? What have I kept pure? A girl whom I swore to protect carved a path to hell in cold-blooded murder before my eyes, I could not stop my two closest compatriots from being defiled, and the one soul I have ever judged fit to inherit a world without war pitied my ineptitude so greatly that he gave his own lif-…”
His voice cracked. The ranger bit the leather around the pad of his thumb in anguish, tried to fill his lungs back up with breath, but stuttered further.
“I can bring death,” he said on an unsteady voice, “oh, I can do it well. But I cannot prevent it.” The rain ran off of him, his ears and his brow, and chin, leaving dirty, bloody streaks.
Ragnar, with a high brow, allowed him his moment of grief. Yet it seemed he would not tolerate it any further than that.
“Strong you are, Shyrrik, but what a fool you can be. This is not about you. It never was, and it never will be. Despite what you may think, and despite what you have seen, no man or god has made you custodian of this world, and it has never been your burden to take the pains of all men onto your soul so that you may carry on in agony like a living martyr. Do you not believe that you have suffered enough? You are flesh and you are blood, like any other man, and the gods gave to feeling men like you and I a world in which we could feel. You do not pay tribute to the gods by presuming your own life, their creation, to be meaningless and without worth. Whatever it is that you pray to, has it not occurred to you that what it wants most for you is for you to be happy?”
Shyrrik had become bewildered. He touched his own face, then eyed his hands, as if he could scarcely believe they were his own. Wavering, he fell into a humiliated kneel, and leaned forward onto both of his hands. Ragnar, unsure if he’d made the desired impression, sighed and turned himself to profile.
“Maybe I’m the fool. But I do know this, there is no war to be fought here, not for a long time. I want you to go home Shyrrik, or find a place that you can call a home, and simply be.”
He strode away into the forest, as Shyrrik began to weep. The rain had stopped.
In a town on the eastern Undjask plains, the sudden descent of the allied Mindosian army had both simpleton and soldier scurrying about in errancy and confusion. No one had been prepared for the continent to be so justly divided as it had been, and with contact to the east soundly cut, both the government and the military grappled with the logistics of restoring order as well as weeding out any remaining sects of Amrit’s forces emboldened enough to offer further resistance. Scouts had been dispatched to survey the damage caused by the upheaval, reconnoiter the surrounding cities, and speculate losses. The scar had not neatly woven its way through the land like a vein to the inconvenience of no one, but had cut right through villages and military encampments on its path to separate the Mindosian continent into halves, devouring many such inhabited places indiscriminately and wholly. It had taken days before word of what had transpired in the cavern between Amrit and his accosters had spread to the greater majority. Victory had not come without its toll.
Shyrrik stepped down from the cart he rode upon and put his boots to the cobblestone inside the modest city center, paying his shepherd a fair sum to brave the chaos of the open plains in this tumultuous time. Demons and desperate fools alike, it was not a period of safety for the lone traveler, with all local ordinances forbidding unsolicited transit until the forces that were could establish secure lines of communication and enterprise. Here aid the riverfront town’s most impressive block, not a single soul stood idly on his heels. Officers barked commands to their inferiors, who shouted those same orders down onto their own subordinates, who then scuttled about in an aimless fuss while trying to pull sense from where without. Citizens dodged and weaved in between the passing regiments, their mousey footfalls drowned out by the cacophonic ruckus, while others that clearly possessed no direction at all were still seen to scurry to and fro in a bemused panic, unsure of what to do with themselves at all but finding themselves seized just the same by the air of hysteria. Shyrrik elbowed his way through the disorganized horde, inconspicuous in his normal cloak and adornments, but he was nonetheless perceptive of the whispers that revealed him.
The eagle-eyed huntsman…
I’ll bet he’s the one who slayed the witch…
Shot her right in two, he did…
He did not spare the time to right them. There was only one person he’d come to a place like this to see.
Most of the village accommodations had be commandeered by various ranking military officials as they scrawled out staging operations and took inventory of their resources. Even the town inn was bare of drunks and whose-its, filled instead with the heavy thud of armored soles against the weary wood floor as soldiers and their superiors funneled in and out, exchanging information and orders. The ornery howling of directives was loud and constant, but one voice rang present and clear above all others in its confident regaling of all those in the tavern enlisted to its demands. Bustling busily about was a familiar half-elf beauty, done up as if the war waited just outside the doorstep, orating brashly and winding her way from table to table, checking figures and hearing useful words from those who brought their reports back from the field. Grabbing a man by the collar of his plate armor who might’ve amounted to two of her, she waved a finger in his face and supplicated him none too shyly for further tabulations. The inn was in utter bedlam, but she seemed to be making sense of things.
All of this was admired by Shyrrik as he stood just within the doorway, silently observing. It took a fair while for anyone to break focus long enough to recognize his presence, and even here he was surprised at the reaction he was able to produce with a mere show of the face when the lot of soldiers spun their heads his way and abruptly stood in reverence of him.
“Commander Shyrrik!” They disjointedly cried. This tickled him; he was no officer of any sort. Laelia turned herself around with a look that could only be described as murderous.
“Comma-…oh, I know that I won’t be hav-…you will all be grabbing your seats about now, you will!” She barked, shortly unable to finish a sentence in her fluster, and suffice it to say her men shrank timidly back into their chairs without an objection or a further word to return to their work. Then she turned on her heels toward the man who had so boldly inserted himself into her element, tapping her foot and seeming very much like an agitated cat.
“I see you survived your spat with the big, bad hobgoblin, Mister Fancybow. Now, what is it that I can be doin’ for y-”
Her bravado was curtailed suddenly when Shyrrik strode to her, cocked his fist back, and deposited it soundly into the muscles of her left shoulder.
“G’wuh!” Came her strangled cry as she recoiled, staggered back a step, and pulled a look of utter bewilderment from a store of quite a few warring emotions. As if in sympathy, the bar fell gravely quiet, soldiers stunned into silence and mouths hanging stupidly agape. Her befuddlement soon turning to outrage, she shot her arms straight down and fumed at him with a nose-kinking snarl.
“You…stupid…idiot!” She growled out, unable to form a more potent string of insults. “You don’t just trot your merry way up and hit a gir-”
There may have been some justice in the way that she was abbreviated once again when the ranger’s hand cupped her in the small of her back to lead her on into his lips that came covering her own. And she was taken aback, so much so that she nearly stumbled and braced herself against the table at her rear, the other hand flat at his chest, staring at him with wide eyes through nearly the entire duration of his promptless kiss. When he separated, the way her lips came after him in yearning left her embarrassed and aflush, mouth left just scarcely open and deeply breathing. There did arise, here and there, a knowing little snicker of approval from their audience. And when the ranger made to sweep her up behind the knees, bringing her against the breadth of him in a ginger carry, those snickers turned to a raucous hooting and hollering with men banging their weapons on tables and kicking their boots unto the floor underfoot, sending the two of them with applause into the bed of privacy.
The clamoring of urgent business continued into the evening hours, rumbling through to the inn’s second floor as a dull roar, which a pair of half-elves quietly listened to in their tranquil luxury. Laelia sat upon the sheets’ edge, serenely smiling and brushing softly down the tousle of her hair, while Shyrrik lay near to her, eyeing her unabashedly. The girl would eventually want her clothes, but Shyrrik found her hand and kept her near, much to her amusement.
“Again?” She purred. “I have my obligations, lecherous man. I cannot lie in bed forever.” But Shyrrik seemed austere.
“If I go to Cheolia, will you come with me?” He softly bid her.
Her lengthy pause was appropriate, for he’d just asked so much with so little. Turning to see him more directly, she raised her knee and hugged her arms about it, unafraid to look him in the eye.
“So, the wanderer wishes to wander no longer?” She curiously wondered.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, “but if you are with me, I will stay.”
“Then you are still the vagabond prince of the trees, yet it seems as though you are penning the last pages of your own story.” She wove her way through his implications. “This lady archer of fortune has more of her own tale to weave.”
“I am not an idle man.” Shyrrik said. “Do you believe that it would be so dull and listless, to be my wife?”
She softly sifted through his bangs, kissed him on his brow, and gently traced the length of his long ear. “Wedding you would not be a sentence.”
“In the meantime, do not undermine me in front of my men again, and I will think on it. Provided you make the next hour very convincing…”
An ocean away from the Mindosian continent, the sun was high and shining in the sky with hardly a cloud to be seen, beating down favorably upon the Cheolian people, but especially upon those serving the house of Illan in Hybourne. And it was certainly not that Cheolia had escaped all tumult in these chaotic weeks and months, but having been spared the same magnitude of devastation, many of the island states had managed some semblance of normalcy, even tranquility. The house of Illan was lively with the busy movement of its residents and its servants, servants of all kinds rushing about in good economy to tend to their daily duties. In the year past, the mansion had fallen grey and its fields turned brown with neglect, the inhabitants unable to preserve the necessary numbers to maintain it. Now, though, it was lush and green, bright and optimistic, brimming with life and the vitae responsible for it. Groundskeepers washed the soil from the sides of the stone facades and trimmed any branches, fronds, or tendrils of shrubbery to keep the manor in homely, presentable shape, while stewards scrubbed floors and windows, dusted about and beat rugs to cleanliness outside. Man and beast turned the dirt up, followed closely by women and children who nestled seeds into the fresh earth. Ushers and family consultants fled on their toes to keep pace with their busy schedules, while guards stood as motionless statues and watched them pass.
The Lady Shyrron would have liked to enjoy such a gorgeous afternoon most certainly; an afternoon walk always did wonders for one’s perspective. But, like the serfs, she had her own responsibilities to tend to, which among other things included conducting business with lords and state officials, and this would keep her cooped up in front of a long, oaken desk for the better part of the day, surrounded by dusty old lords who were simply no fun at all. Presently, she was entertaining the neighboring baron and his business propositions related to the exchange of ore and grain. The islands having developed independently as historians would have everyone believe, some were suited to grow crops, and others were more rich with useful minerals, so these meetings were common. All parties involved sat in a circle among each other, the Lady’s advisors at her sides, and the visiting baron’s at his. Prattling on about the seasons, quibbling over the price of equipment, speculating in futures, it was all very humdrum, and as the beautiful sun outside drew her thoughts out into daydreams, it drew her focus away from the table.
“Beg your pardon, Lady Shyrron?” Queried the baron from across the table.
“…Ah, what? Oh dear, I am dreadfully sorry, it is quite difficult to scheme of how to swindle you out of your britches on such a glorious afternoon.” She said graciously with a smile, removing her chin from her palm.
“Ha’hah!” The white-haired aristocrat had himself a jolly guffaw. “Blessed be the seasons, I just might let you, for I am in a righteous mood, I am! It is a fine time for all Cheolians, we are plentiful and without want.” He grinned a cheshire grin, dimpling his round and pink-colored cheeks with his old elf ears in a subtle curl.
“Yes…yes, I believe we are.” The Lady replied, distracted by herself.
A young servant came to the Lady’s side just then, presenting a message into her ear, at which she smiled much more genuinely and sent him away.
“Baron,” she spoke, “it seems that I have a visitor. Please walk with me, I will humor our guest and we can continue our discussion outside, for I cannot spend another moment indoors!”
Exiting the assembly hall, the two exchanged brief words before arriving into the foyer. It was a vast and elegantly sculpted room, furnished with dark woods and finely crafted brass pieces over an iridescent marble floor with large, round columns in regular intervals. There came a great knocking at the entry doors, and a pair of guards lifted the heavy walnut slab that sealed them to let them swing open into the manor. The sun poured brightly in a white glow as they divided and beamed into the sensitive elven eyes that watched as a tall figure with long hair in a flowing cloak appeared first as a dark silhouette with his escort in tow, then took definitive shape as her son, Shyrrik, hero of the Mindosian front and none too meager a man on this side of the pond as well. Lady Shyrron glowed with a bit of maternal pride, and in a small moment of vanity she’d meant to show her him off to her fellows.
“Gentlemen, this is my son, Shyrrik.” She said with the touch of proper accent that highlighted his name in its intended way, announcing him with a high voice. “He is fresh in from across the waters, and he bri- oh!”
Her boasting prematurely concluded, she found herself in her son’s arms, who’d not kept the distance between them and pressed himself to her much in the way that sons did to their mothers. Taller than she, he wrapped himself around her shoulders, pushing his cheek aside her head and tucking his face down, holding onto her dearly and desperately. Though taken aback at first, her motherly inclinations forgave all formality, and she slid her arms upon his back and embraced him with half a century’s worth of love. Her pristinely pampered hair and immaculately arranged clothing were put into a tousle, but she cared not, and sat her forehead to his shoulder in comfort as mother and son.
“I have missed you so.” Shyrrik said in a way that showed great relief, stoking such a beautiful happiness within her that was as plain as the shining sun.
“Do you plan to silence all of womankind with your tripe, Shyrrik?” Came the sass of a voice from somewhere behind him.
The ranger let himself loose from his mother, smiled handsomely at arm’s length, and stepped aside from her view to reveal the cocked hips and audacious grin of his female counterpart, who looked on with her ever-mocking, ever-loving eyes. Just past her, obediently waiting outside the doors, was the great and imposing figure of his wolf, sat patiently in the grass with his big bottlebrush tail dusting about excitedly behind him that nearly swept a nearby guard right from his feet. This made the Lady Shyrron curl her fingers against her chin, her joy evident to all those in the room, including her associates. The baron smiled with his hands on his waist, having borne witness to all of this with great amusement, and his round belly shook with laughter.
“I believe a recess is in order,” he announced to his own, “we may resume in the evening.”
The afternoon sun was just as generous a time later when Laelia stood out before the manor, past the border of the untrimmed reeds, pulling her bow in a modest draw. She let an arrow fly for a short distance, sinking its head into the dirt and grass with a dull thud, the impact putting its long stalk into a sway with the wind on the waving cattails. This picturesque sight was interrupted with the skidding arrival of the running wolf whose claws tore divots into the soil and sent clods flying carelessly about. He grabbed the arrow in his massive jaws and turned to bound back with his heavy, yet graceful, steps sending tremors into the ground that Laelia could plainly feel. He stopped before her, rearing much like a horse with his enormous paws out, and then settled lowly so that she could retrieve the “stick” from him and ruffle his golden-frosted mane and ears, tell him he was a good boy, before sending him running once again with another shot out into the distance.
From a balcony overlooking the property to the east, Shyrrik leaned upon the stone rail before him and observed this with a small smile. His mother, as well, found the sight very charming, and watched with him. They were warmed by the light and the enthusiasm in the air, and without conflict, Shyrrik could feel the apprehension and tightness in his body leaving him down through his toes, which he curled inside his boots.
“I fled so quickly after we first met. I will not be rushing away from you this time.” Shyrrik said.
“You’ve brought a woman and a dog with you, I’d say your intentions were fairly clear.” Lady Shyrron teased him.
“If I’d been your son only two years prior to this, you’d share my amazement at such a prospect.” He huffed, and pushed up off of the railing.
“I believe the motherly thing to say would be that I feel as if I’ve ‘known you your whole life’.” She chose to refrain from condescending to him. “But I do not know my son. To have a chance to know you is a blessing unlike any other, and I thank any god that will take credit for bringing us together.”
She looked to him. “You are very much unlike your father. He was a wild and boisterous man, but sweet, and in my youth I found him captivating. You are quiet, and stern.”
“I was raised well, by a good man in an unpleasant place. I have always been a thinker, a right miserable one at times, and I might’ve let the world pass me by entirely had I not met that woman, Aedra. My circumstances since have made me a better man, and…um…”
He watched as Laelia struggled with all her might to dislodge her cloak from inside the wolf’s mouth, who was very insistent on taking it as his own and grappled with her with a playful growl. She slapped him over his ears and dispensed every foul word she’d picked up from the sailors on the voyage over, while Shyrrk scratched his ear.
“She’ll be fine.” He said, and Lady Shyrron laughed.
“I am vested in this life, now.” Shyrrik said with confidence. “For a long time, I think the world was unsure of what to do with me. I am ready to be a son, a lover, and a leader.”
“You have spent your whole life in a place far away from here,” his mother offered, showing concern, “can you be happy in Hybourne, Shyrrik?”
Shyrrik thought for a moment.
“I believe I have the power to be happy anywhere. But, here is nice.”