_I rest on a swath of grass, ten or so feet from the shore, looking over the moonlit sea. It sparkles. I hold my pole tight, in anticipation. The fish aren't biting much today; their appetites satisfied, and so I sit here, feeling no drive to return home. The moon's traces stretched silk ovals on the placid surface. No ripples. Odd for a night like this, when the wind usually blows fiercer than the gods. I have spent all day on the seaside, waiting for a bite. It is how I make my living, snatching the things up from the salty brine and flaying them.
Most days, I don't carry on this late, heading home long before the sun sinks. But today a brilliantly setting sun, coupled with the frustration of lean pickings, tempted me to stay until dark. The thin moon keeps me still, binding in its crepuscular light.
Even so, I must depart sometime, and now is as good as any other. I reel in my line leisurely. It is cut halfway, my lure gone. I felt no pull. It was cut, as by a knife. I stand up, gazing out across the sea into nothingness, curious. I walk toward the water, and a sudden gust of wind blows salt into my face. I taste the brine, bitter to my tongue. It gets into my eyes, burning, and tears drip down. I reach the water, and cautiously touch its surface, then jerk my hand back.
It is boiling. Seething, even. Bubbles rise up, from a depth my weak eyes cannot pierce in night, and burst beneath my fingers. Something is there, just below my sight, and I cannot fathom it. The tears increase threefold; I clutch a scalded hand; I run, nearly as fast as the wind howling around me, screaming with me.
I must have stopped sometime, and looked down at my hand. Because I remember, as distinct as that crescent moon, the color of my hand. I had not dipped my hand into the sea.
It had been boiling blood._
I bolted from my bed, sweat flinging from my body, and caressed an uninjured, tanned hand. Another dream? I still could not remember the dream from the other night; this one similarly eluded my grasp. I shaved and washed quickly, shaking rapidly. In my haste, I nicked my cheek with my knife blade. My breakfast was more enjoyable; the night's appointment with Crito and Pera spurred me on. My excitement gave slightly stale dates and salted beef a taste slightly juicier than normal.
After eating I set to work on the forge. The layout is standard for a smith's house. The forge itself rose from the ground to roughly waist height, set outdoors and ringed by a wooden fence and my house. The fence both hid all but the smoke from outside view, and required visitors to pass by the forge to reach my house, while none of the smog produced by my smithy could likewise penetrate. A small chimney rose from just past the doorway, in case any errant smoke found its way inside.
I only worked on the sword for an hour that day; with the kind of progress I had been making, I would certainly be done within the week, and the robbers would be dealt with. I spent the remainder of the morning crafting more useful items for the townspeople: keys, silverware, and the like.
I was interrupted in my work by Calinon Nicander. The man did not bear his age of fifty well. His thin strands of disappearing hair did not complement the belly protruding from his red silken robes. His son was notably absent; the two politicians were usually inseparable.
"What can I do for you, Elder?"
"Are you daft, child? Ioducus tells me that you have been assaulted recently. I came to check up on you." Whatever his physique might seem, his voice bore no signs of weakening. It was still the gruff baritone I remember from my youth, when he would sit at the dinner table with my father, discussing politics, trade, and sport long after Lady Nicander had ushered me to bed. The two nobles had taken the roles of my aunt and uncle, mostly because of the friendship my own parents had shown them. I still long for those simpler times, when my father and his friends were strong men, capable of doing anything. My words betrayed our newfound distance.
"Just a minor scuff-up, it's nothing serious."
His sidelong glance showed his distrust. "Are you sure, Milcom? He said they were extorting from you."
"He says that the guards are already in a fuss about it. There's nothing either of us can do by getting the town council riled up, too."
He smiled knowingly. "Don't be so sure, Milcom. Us old men still have some tricks up our wrinkled sleeves." I laugh along with him, and politely decline. "Well, if you need us to order anything done, don't hesitate to ask me."
He began to leave, but turned back abruptly. "By the way, blacksmith." My ears perked up. "Take care of Ake. She's a fine catch." It takes me a minute to get back to work afterwards.
By the time I arrived at the Titan's Head, I had worked up a good sweat, and was covered in ash and dust. Crito tossed me a damp cloth, and I freshened up in a closet. We sat down at a table, leaving Pera to work the bar while we waited for other customers to leave. They were mostly farmers from the outlying communities, though Philinus Nicander had stayed late, drinking as heavily as he usually did. Two of his household servants came and dragged him away into the night as he sang.
When the bar was clear, the three of us ate while we planned. Dinner was unicorn's flank, expertly roasted and marinated, sprinkled with crisp greens and served with a loaf of black buttered bread. We drank water, wanting to keep our wits sharp.
"So, tell me about your robber problems," I asked.
Crito began to reply, but choked on a mouthful of unicorn. After he hacked it back up, Pera filled me in. "We've been noticing it for about two weeks now. Every morning, there'll be something that needs replacing or refilling too soon, and boxes will be rearranged. We don't know where they come from, but they always hit the back room." The back room used to be rented out to travelers, but that was before Pera expanded the building. The new rooms were so much nicer, the two decided to convert the older one to a storage area.
Crito jumped back into the conversation. "Now, there's only two ways to get into the storage room. You can come in from the bar entrance, here, and it's just in front of you. Or you can come from the back, and go down through the hall until you reach it. So, we'll have to watch both entrances."
"Actually, couldn't we just barricade the back door? That would leave us with only one to guard."
Pera grinned. "Nice idea, smith. A few crates should do the job. Let's get to work."
'Work' consisted mostly of Crito and I lugging boxes, filling them to the brim with heavy objects, and running around back to see if the door budged, while Pera howled instructions at us. We finished the blockade as the sun set beneath the pines. The door was good and tightly shut. We chose our vantage points of the main entrance, and Crito doused the lights. Pera chose the door to the storage room. He sat against it and rested, clutching a carving knife, our standard weapon, in his hand. "In case they murder both of you lads," he affirmed. Crito sat behind the bar in a low chair, his head just barely poking above. I sat against the wall adjacent to the front. The plan was that if we saw someone coming, we would move out, and take the intruder both sides.
As time went on, it seemed less and less likely that one would ever come. Darkness covered all the floor, and the carved backs of the chairs traced nets of shadow on the plaster wall, now a light blue from silvery light. As the moon traced it's path in sky, the shadows swirled and shifted to accommodate it. Night seemed eternal. Gazing out a window, at the clouds which could only be seen by the absence of stars, I wished to stay forever.
The voice was a harsh whisper, from my left.
"Crito. Milcom. Come quick."
I lifted myself as quietly as possible, and scuttled over to Pera's post. Crito was as confused as I was. When we stopped, Pera lifted a finger to his lips, barely visible in the gloom. "Listen."
All was silent for what seemed like the longest time. The darkness settled down and filled in the gap left by our movement. And then I heard the scraping. From the back entrance. A glance to my side told me that Crito had heard it too. Sweat rolled from my chest and armpits; the robbers were no longer a theory, an adventure. They were real.
The scraping was not constant, but rather rhythmic. Then it hit me. "Crito, they're trying to open the door."
"Right. Let's get a closer look."
We slinked down the hallway, not seeing much of anything. To this day, I don't know why I followed my friend. We stopped, the scraping still beating out its monotone melody just in front of us. Louder than before. I squinted, and could see the crates shifting, slightly. More than moving, they quivered with each grinding shove of the robbers. Voices, now.
"So, think they're listening?"
"Hopefully they aren't that dumb."
"The others should be inside by now."
Before I could register the last voice as coming from just behind me and to my left, two meaty arms came up to enfold my neck. A gag told me that the same had happened to Crito. I don't remember much of my struggle, but I remember throwing myself around with all my remaining strength, smashing myself and my attacker into walls more times than I could count. I remember the sensation of choking, of my lungs battling to get a breath in but inhaling the same thing they just pumped out. I remember the dizziness, my head swirling because I couldn't think from the spinning and because I couldn't see past the spots swirling before my eyes and because I couldn't hear my attacker's grunts over the bells in my ears.
Sometime through the fight, I remembered my knife. I weakly stabbed it at my attacker's arms and belly, but it was enough. He let go, and I fell to my knees as he ran away. Something fell from him, small and glittering. I snatched it up. A ring. I placed it in my pocket, and rested.
Amazingly, there was a perfect, pure silence, broken only by my own gasping from breath. Then, I noticed an accompaniment of Crito's gasps and sobs, from down the hall.
Fear hurried my steps, and trepidation slowed my gait. I must have seemed a monster, shuffling towards Crito and Pera's post. The son was bent over the father, weeping. I took a closer look, and was horrified. The old man's stringy beard was white where it met his face; below that, it turned a deep crimson. the blood covered his neck, flowing slowly, viscously. It pooled in his cloth shirt, staining the fabric and seeping to his chest. His eyes were a sight that I will always remember, always wake up screaming about. They flitted from side to side stopping to look at nothing in particular, never resting on his son. They were wide open, dilated, straining at something, and I knew with all my heart that the old man was trying to meet his son's tearful gaze. His lips quivered, matching the beating of his chest as his heart struggled to pump blood through a smashed conduit and as his lungs pumped to speak his last message. The mouth was silent.
Then all of the movement stopped, and I knew that life had fled Pera's body. Blood dripping to the floor in a diabolical beating.
I ran from the inn, screaming incoherence at the top of my voice. Guards and faces I could not recognize broke from their sleeps and rushed to me, comforting me, begging to know what was wrong. I could only point to the inn. A guard ran to it, and ran back. He clutched the town bell cord, and rung it twice, three times, its resonance a harmony to his shouts of "Murder! Murder!" The crowd flocked in every direction at once, some screaming, some pretending to be calm. I remained on my knees, weeping and clutching at my face. My hands came away covered in blood.
I remember going back to the inn at one point. Pera ahd been moved to a bed, and Crito knelt by him, resting his head on him and crying. I put my arm around him, and knelt too.
I left, sometime.
Calinon met me. One phrase was all that was needed. "The Council will be involved." I nodded.
I saw the specter of Sacas's manse looming before me, and spat at it.
I washed my face and body constantly, over and over again. When I slept, I still felt dirty.
_We stand on the shore our village gathered as one. The full moon bathes us in its radiance. The great boat is before us, furnished with gold, tapestries, weapons, and livestock. It has been expertly painted, scene's of the King's birth, life, and death in glorious battle. We have all traced our fingers over the colors, over the stories, many times over the past two months, and we remember. The King lays in the center of the boat's deck, his body preserved.
Ten of us, the King's closest friends in life and death, stand naked except for the paint on their bodies. We are painted as warriors. The rest of us carry torches, flaming to the heavens, and are dressed in white robes, the paint of the warriors only on our face.
One of the ten, the King's wife, lifts our voices in a song of prayer. Our voices and pitches mingle, sometimes clashing with each other, sometimes conforming into beautiful melodies. We begin:
Where once the sun beat down
The moon now sets below the mountains.
Where once armies trod
Now a widow howls in despair.
Where once we were whole
We are whole, but one less.
Where one life burned fiercely
Death will burn as brightly.
We continue throughout the night, and then the sky begins to lighten above the ocean. We fall silently. The ten of us wade into the shallows, and grasp the boat. We push with a greater strength than we have ever known before. We all gaze out to the spot where the sun will rise, and the boat floats out over the waters, slowly. We pass torches to the ten, and we all walk into the water as one, watching. The sun crests, and the brightest green flashes out at us. The widow shouts, "As in life, as in death!" We echo, and the torches sail away.
The boat flares up, the treasures burning and melting, to share the afterlife with our King.
We depart as the last ember sinks, and we follow our Queen._