(Excuse the “re-upload” of the first half of Chapter One. It has been edited in its entirety and includes the second half of the chapter. I’ll also be publishing the fully edited story as it completes to the Alyssum page here.)
“Oi! Stupid boy! Wake up!”
A gruff tone, then a terrible force thrust itself into the boy’s stomach. His breath escaped, and he clenched inwards with a groan.
“Oh no you don’t. Get out of bed. Now.”
A collection of pinpricks slapped his shoulder, and his eyes snapped open. A broom. That meant Harthon, his master, was standing over him, and Aeo knew better than to ignore him.
“You’ve got chores to do, Snapper. Get to it. Don’t make me smack you with something heavier.”
The gears in Aeo’s mind slowly gained traction. He sat up in the dark, quick enough to convince his Antielli master that he wasn’t disobeying him.
“Uh… aye, master.”
He drifted out of utter drowsiness, side-to-side like a sailor out to sea. He couldn’t help it. Despite the rudeness of the early wake-up call, it was like the boy’s mind swam in deep waters. Aeo rubbed his eyes. The closet was dark. He knew the sun had yet to rise, but there was little hope of further slumber. He stood from his small cot, but just as abruptly ran into something. The large muscular form of his master had not departed. Harthon still towered over him, holding out a crooked broom with an impatient and disgusted scowl.
Aeo took the broom.
“Lazy Adian,” Harthon replied. He took the boy by the scruff of his shirt and hauled him out of his sleeping spot in the closet. “Come on, go. Rooms, and then floors. Don’t youdare let me catch you nodding off.”
The voices had made him dream again. In his dreams, he was no longer in the village of Olvaren on Mount Falas. Instead, he stood upon a vast and barren valley of sand and rock, beneath a fierce noonday sun. He had seen sunlight drenched upon his skin, and its warmth had filled him, soothing and powerful. It certainly wasn’t a memory. Not his own, anyway. The region of Falas held no such promise of warmth, especially the village. The sun would shine brightly on Olvaren for perhaps a week or two out of the year before disappearing behind months of deep fog and overcast skies.
Sometimes the boy could convince himself that the valley of sand in his dreams were his memories. Distant ones, perhaps, and disconnected from his present life. If they were, they were proof that he’d ever been someone else… someone who wasn’t a slave. He couldn’t afford to think like that. So Aeo did his best to ignore the dreams, though they came night after night. He shook them off like rain when Harthon woke him each morning, and instead he focused on his many chores.
That morning, the Gray Pale Inn smelled like cheap ale and sawdust. Stale cheese, old tallow and grease. Except that morning, there was something more. Something awful. Oh, right: the fetid scent of an overfilled stable. Even with the back door sealed shut, the stable’s reek poisoned the air just beyond the dining area. A horrible stench. Aeo didn’t know anything about horses, but the old mares must have contracted some horrible disease in order to smell so foul. Not that Harthon cared. The patron had paid in advance for his whole team of five horses to be wedged into a meager space designed for two.
Aeo would be cleaning the stable after the patron departed that afternoon, and he would gratefully do it. Cleaning the stable was the only time he was ever free of the inn itself.
[What an idiot. And your master is an idiot as well. They’ll deserve each other when the poor beasts die. Such fragile creatures.]
Don’t say that about Harthon, Aeo thought in response to one of the familiar voices in his head. What if he hears you?
[That oaf would never listen to shattered men. We would sooner address dogs.]
Out of curiosity, Aeo thought a question in response: Wait, do you mean dogs can hear you if they want?
The Shattered did not answer his question. They rarely did.
That’s what the voices called themselves, the Shattered. Or, at least, it was the word they most often repeated. They were talkative at times, but they were rather picky about the words they whispered. Sometimes they seemed responsive, while other times they completely ignored Aeo’s presence and simply commented on events in passing. He had learned long ago that there was no need to speak to them out loud. They responded just as readily to Aeo’s waking thoughts than any words he spoke aloud.
The Shattered spoke in his mind. They never seemed to leave, at least for very long. There were many of them. Some came and went, unfamiliar and fleeting. A few remained as Aeo’s constant companions. But none of these ever shared with him their names (if they had any to share), and never explained why they spoke to him at all. Aeo never told Harthon about them. Never tried to, never wanted to. And he had no intention of doing so. If he were careful, the clever boy could spend two hours cleaning the stable, and he would have time to converse with the voices in his mind without interruption.
Some of the voices responded more often than others. He named these, according to their usual demeanor. Aeo pretended he could reason with the friendly ones. Ask them important questions. Like where he was born, what the world outside the Grey Pale Inn was like. Why they forced him to dream about sunlight, sand, and stone every night.
[You’re just as much a fool as your master,] would come the inevitable reply. [Wallow in the filth where you belong, slave.]
Aeo called that voice “Mean.” He didn’t like Mean very much.
[Relax, and think of brighter things,] another voice would sometimes say. [Life will find a way to repay you.]
Aeo called that voice “Kind.” He liked Kind a lot.
Every morning, Aeo began his day in the Grey Pale by cleaning the rooms of travelers who departed during the night. They were the worst chores of the day, especially if Harthon stopped him from getting enough sleep. By the time Aeo finished, the vaguest crests of daylight would begin to peak over the horizon, and weary breakfast-goers would begin to trudge through the inn’s front door in search of sustenance. Aeo would be expected to appear immediately, prepared to take their orders while Harthon attended the kitchen. Around 6 o’clock, the inn got busy. The merchants always said that Olvaren sat right in the middle of an important trade route between the war-torn nation of Adia, the Republic of Antiell, and the Free-States of San’Drael. Aeo didn’t quite know what that meant, besides the fact that the inn seemed to fill itself day and night of its own accord. As the only reputable tavern in Olvaren, Harthon’s establishment was the center of commerce in the tiny mountain village. Day in and day out, stranger after stranger would walk through the door. Tired travelers, irritable hunters, entire families, guildsman looking to get drunk, and nearly all of the unfamiliar faces trying to cross the mountain and leave Olvaren behind as quickly as possible.
“Hurry up, boy,” Harthon would say, every hour on the hour. Aeo’s master always seemed to know when Aeo needed a new chore to perform, and was always there to goad him onto the next one. If he slowed his pace, Harthon would catch the boy’s ear with something. A bare hand, a broomstick handle, an ale flagon, the base of a hefty wrought-iron candlestick. Once, when Aeo was six years old, Harthon had even thrown a clothing iron at the boy’s face. When patrons inevitably asked about it, he said simply: “It’s not my fault the stupid boy likes to run headfirst into walls.”
Aeo didn’t complain. It never did him any good. But he didn’t know why Harthon liked to hurt him so much.
[At least you know how to take a hit,] said Kind. [Not many do.]
Harthon was a wretched giant of a man. Six-and-three-quarters feet tall, and Aeo’s owner of seven long years. The hunters called him “a true son of Antiell,” whatever that meant. Aeo couldn’t remember a father besides him, but he didn’t think the man deserved the title. In his opinion, Harthon hardly deserved the bulging muscles and height that granted him his authority, much less the fame and high praises sung by his fellow guild hunters. Before owning the Grey Pale Inn, Harthon had been a master hunter in Olvaren, and before that, he had served as a mercenary for the Antiellan army. The swords, pelts, and trophies that hung above the Grey Pale’s mantle had all been collected by him personally, including several sunborne banners from the Second Adian War. Though Harthon had left the hunt behind, the hunt hadn’t left him; he had simply changed his prey, and now Aeo was his daily target. Aeo would sooner have risked sneaking up on a starving bear than dare to catch Harthon’s ire.
“No slacking, Snapper,” Harthon would often say to him in passing, even when it was obvious Aeo was working. “If you want to keep eating.”
Aeo did, of course. Though Aeo was a full nine years old that winter, he was much shorter than the other Antielli children his age, and considerably more gaunt.
Sure, Harthon may have been a brute. But he was decidedly more than just a mound of bitter muscle. The vindictive reactions to Aeo’s simple presence were matched only by the unusual friendliness and charm he exuded in front of guests. Even Aeo could admit how convincing his heel-turn appeared to complete strangers. As the social center of Olvaren, gossip and news came to the Grey Pale in droves, and Harthon set himself as its apex, spreading the day’s rumors and slander like butter on bread when working the counter. Few topics were off limits to him and those who let him bark. The promiscuous escapades of some young hunter and his mistress from Lincades? The strange religion of some backwater San’dorian merchant? The poor financial decisions of some poor sod he hardly knew? All free rein.
Always with the name-calling, too. He never called people by their real names. Especially not Aeo. “Snapper,” he always called Aeo. He wasn’t sure why. “Useless” was a popular one. “Good-for-Nothing.” “Red-Eyed Bastard” was reserved for rare occasions. He had once deigned to explain to the boy what the word “bastard” meant. Considering he’d never met his birth parents, Aeo wasn’t certain the title applied to him.
[Oh, it does,] whispered Mean. [Bastard child of a bastard lineage. The incestuous union of two branches, long-burned and drowned in tears.]
Aeo didn’t understand what any of the Shattered were talking about most of the time. Mean, least of all. And since no one else seemed to hear them, he had no intention of telling anyone about them. No sense making himself seem more odd than he already was.
Aeo was always to blame for something. Everything bad that occurred in the Grey Pale was his responsibility, his fault. If the patrons were unhappy with their “luxury accommodations,” the boy would get an earful; he was the one who cleaned the rooms, after all, and not Harthon. If a patron in the dining hall slipped or fell because of spilled beer or melted snow, the boy would be slapped; it was his fault the floors weren’t spotless and dry, not his master’s. Even if each incident occurred while he served drinks, took orders, or washed linen. Or swept. Or dusted the furniture. Or cleaned the dishes, wiped down the tables and chairs, counted inventory, or performed any one of the other two dozen daily duties. Perhaps the only thing the boy wasn’t allowed to do in the Grey Pale was cook anything. Once, Harthon had allowed it. The resulting “omelet” had caught fire immediately, and the boy was viciously throttled for letting the smoke choke the upstairs guests.
Goddess help him if heever spilled trays of food, or tripped and spilled drinks. At this, he would invariably hear Harthon laugh:
“What an Adian vyshti!”
This would regularly elicit laughter from the older patrons. What was a vyshti?Aeo didn’t know. Some old military slang Harthon never cared to explain. Adopted from his tour in the Second Adian War, supposedly.
The old hunters would call Aeo “Red-Eye” due to the crimson color of his Adian irises. And they said it to his face. It was the dirtiest insult they could muster, though perhaps a bit obvious. He’d grown to hate the ruby hues that stared back at him when he caught glimpses of himself in the wash room mirror. So much so, that he started averting his gaze. The second tell-tale sign of his Adian nature was his hair. He hated it, too, his bushy carrot-colored hair that made him stand out like a fiery carnival clown. Antielli boys and girls enjoyed brown or blonde hair themselves, and he envied their green and blue and pale brown eyes. So plain and neat and normal. Why couldn’t he be like them?
[You’re a spectacle, boy. Take it personally. Take offense. Be weirder for it, I dare you.]
One of the Shattered often “admired” Aeo’s physical appearance like this. Aeo called the voice Weird. He ignored Weird.
There were other Adian slaves in Olvaren, owned by other retired hunters. All with red hair and red eyes. But Aeo had never met them. He wasn’t allowed to “fraternize” with other slaves (whatever that meant), nor was he even allowed outside without Harthon’s direct supervision. “The boy is a scab,” Harthon would tell patrons, in no uncertain terms. “He’s a filthy Adian snapper, and he doesn’t deserve freedom. Not with polite society, not with other Antielli children, andcertainly not here in my inn.”
He spoke that way to a priest of Tiathys once. After Harthon told him off, Aeo never saw the priest again.
About one in the afternoon every single day, the woman of the house would usually show herself. Ariste was her name. His master’s wife, and his “last and greatest conquest.” Harthon always called her “Good-for-Nothing,” too. And thanks to him, the whole village knew about her. Her drinking problems. Her constant maladies. Her “sexual infidelities.” How the respectable innkeeper put up with this poor excuse of a wife, no one in the village knew.
Besides Ariste’s drinking problems… Aeo never knew what Harthon was talking about. Just as Harthon kept Aeo on the hook for his supposedly lax nature, he tormented the woman for every flaw and imperfection. Because of this, Ariste never offered to assist her husband with the day-to-day operations of the inn. In fact, if she could help it, not a day went by that she wasn’t completely inebriated.
Just like Aeo, Harthon would slap her in public every once in a while. For forgetting to purchase firewood, for ignoring the dirty windowsills. Or even for just not being around enough. Despite the large gold ring on his finger, Harthon didn’t treat Ariste well. Yet Ariste never retaliated. She never yelled, or cried out when he hit her. She would simply slither down from upstairs, refill her wooden flagon with beer, and disappear back into the attic as quickly as she could. And though Aeo was swamped with work and worry, he didn’t blame her. She knew, just as Aeo did, how useless it was to complain or argue against the master of the Grey Pale.
[Few are they that find it,] whispered Kind. [That memory of belonging. Shards of glass, shattered as we.]
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Ariste would stumble downstairs to find the boy sleeping in his cramped little storage room. She would wake the boy with a start… but instead of hitting him, scolding him, or punishing them like Harthon, she would proceed to sob uncontrollably in the boy’s lap. She never said a word. She just… cried. For an hour or two at a time. Her presence so soaked in alcohol, it would make Aeo drunk just by the smell of it.
The boy never knew why she did this. And he never knew how to react to this behavior of the very grown woman. He never knew what to say, so he said nothing, and just… waited. After long enough, Ariste would fall calm. Quiet. And slowly, she would return upstairs without a single word, leaving Aeo to return to sleep dumbfounded. Three or four times that winter, it had happened.
It was proof, really. Proof that Ariste hated Harthon just as much as he did. She just never acknowledged it, not in public. By the next morning, Ariste would resume her apathetic attitude towards the boy, as if she’d forgotten the moment ever occurred. Besides those odd moments of mourning in the dark, she didn’t even acknowledge that Aeo existed.
To be fair, it was she that never spoke to him. If Harthon was meant to be Aeo’s father, Ariste was just as much his mother.
[He’ll be like us one day,] laughed Weird. [She’ll be like us one day. You’ll be like us, too.]
The end of Aeo’s long list of duties would approach as the sun fell behind the Falas Mountain every evening. The floors covered themselves nightly in slop and dirt as the crowds packed inside, and he cleaned them, even though each long night of song and dance would give him regular migraines. A flimsy mop served as his constant companion. Despite the raucous noise, Harthon would get busy enough that the boy would doze off, using the mop as an excuse in case he ever got caught. Sometimes Aeo would get dinner, if the crowd grew thin enough for Harthon to remember. More often, though, his master would just forget to cook him anything, engaged as he was with an entire trade route of patrons.
Both during and after the dinner rush, so long as the orders continued to flow unabated, the boy was more of an afterthought… for better or for worse. Afterwards, Aeo would sometimes discover an unpeeled potato, a leek, or a handful of radishes sitting upon his bed in the closet. A meager apology for forgetting him. He couldn’t cook them, of course. So he’d simply munch on the raw vegetables without a second thought.
Once patrons stopped entering and started leaving, Aeo would stumble back into his closet to sleep. Without effort, he would drift into the Shattered dreams, his only real escape from his life in the Grey Pale. And then the cycle would repeat. Three o’clock every morning, he’d start it all over again, kicked in the stomach by Harthon. So the pattern had been for the last year or so, as if set in stone. Harthon never let it vary. Needless to say, the lack of sleep was starting to get to Aeo, and he rarely felt well.
Maybe my eyes are red because I don’t get enough sleep, Aeo thought to himself once. Maybe that’s why think I’m lazy.
[The eyes of our bloody crusade beg to differ greatly,] growled Mean.
The thing was… Harthon never slept either. Not when Aeo did, anyway. He ignored Aeo at night just to throw him out of bed every morning. And he had no memory of Harthon ever taking so much as a nap. What madness drove the man to such a high level of productivity, the boy couldn’t fathom. He never even got sick, and he never took breaks. Maybe he just ran on cruelty and coin. Maybe slapping the boy gave him some kind of infernal strength. Maybe the rudeness towards his wife let him subsist, sleepless.
Day after day, Aeo thought to himself: This can’t last much longer… right? He’s got to slow down some time. But the man never did. In fact, it seemed he only became more ruthless.
The idea of freedom had occurred to the boy at times. The idea of running away, running for Adia. But he couldn’t simply run to the nearest nation. All he knew was that the Antiell-Adia border was out there somewhere, far to the west. And the rule was that if he somehow managed to cross it, he could be free. Simple as that. Maybe if he did run away, if he escaped the Grey Pale at eleven or twelve o’clock at night as the patrons were leaving, he could get as far as the highway or perhaps the next town before Harthon would notice his absence.
The only way to escape slavery was by climbing. Climbing up the mountain, up through the canyons and forests and desolate wastes on the other side. There was another country behind the mountain, a high one, of sand and wind and stone. The Land of the Eternal Sun: the nation of Adia. His home. Maybe that’s why the Shattered showed him visions of the long desert, night after night. If he could find a way to climb over the barren side of the mountain without freezing to death, he could be free of Harthon and the Grey Pale and Olvaren. He would never have to work in the filthy tavern again.
But he never dared to try. Not even once. The fear of being caught kept him caught. The cold frightened him too thoroughly. No Antielli trader would dare carry an Adian slave back to their hated enemy, so that wasn’t an option. He would never make money, certainly not enough to convince a random traveling scholar or mercenary. The traders spoke of the desolate nation of Adia as if it were weeks away, and the boy was certain he couldn’t hide for weeks and weeks without a plan. Assuming Harthon didn’t catch wind of his intentions beforehand, of course. There was no telling how many hunters from Olvaren would go hunting for him if he fled. They ‘d probably hunt him for free, even, just to gain Harthon’s favor. And he could not imagine the punishment that would await him. He’d be beaten within an inch of his life, surely.
No, there was no way. Maybe when he grew up, he could buy his freedom like other slaves. Or maybe he’d just live the rest of his life and die within the confines of the Grey Pale.
[You wouldn’t be first or last to fall in service to mediocrity,] the voices would say. [Accept your fate. The sooner you do, the sooner you will become us.]
* * * * * *
“Get out of bed, boy! Now!”
Another kick to the stomach. It knocked another dream of the sun right out of him.
He lifted himself out of bed as best he could. But it did not feel like three in the morning.
“You didn’t clean the kitchen at all!” Harthon shouted, right in his ear. “It’s filthy, you vyshti, there’s crumbs and dirt everywhere. If I start seeing rat droppings in the inventory because of this, I swear I’ll make you eat them. Now get back out there and clean it right!”
Harthon struck him on the head rather sharply with the handle of the broomstick before throwing it in his lap. Then, just as quickly as Harthon’s massive form had appeared, his master thundered out of the closet. Aeo ignored the sharp pain, peering over his shoulder and out of the tiny window. Only darkness stared back at him. Honestly, he’d probably only been sleeping for a few minutes at most.
Harthon would return twice an angry if he didn’t hurry. Aeo obeyed his master’s command, slipping on his thin shoes and standing. But not without striking his head against the shelf above his cot first.
“Shak!” he swore.
Harthon never let him swear in front of patrons. But he could swear in private all he liked.
Slipping his shirt over his head and grabbing the broom, Aeo stumbled out the door of his closet into the dining area of the inn. All was quiet and dark, save for a few moldering candles still lit in the candelabra above the tables. Aeo crossed the room and ducked into the kitchen without making a sound; he wasn’t normally afraid of the dark, but he was afraid if it concealed his master.
Harthon was not there. Odd. Still, there was no telling when he would come downstairs to check on his progress. He never slept, after all.
The kitchen seemed larger cast in foreboding shadow. With the light of a single lantern burning dimly above crates of potatoes and carrots, he began to scrape the floors with the broom. From what he could see of the floors and the counters, it wasn’t half as bad as Harthon complained… besides the smell. But the kitchen smelled like rotting produce and dirty dishwater all the time. At best, he could see a few stray dust bunnies and chopped vegetables pressed up against the baseboards beneath the bar and sink.
The boy sighed. He could feel his eyelids pushing down on themselves. He pressed on, jamming the broom into the space between the floor and the side of the counter. If he hurried, he would be able to return to sleep in no time.
After a minute of concentration, though… he couldn’t hold on. He was simply too tired. Brush after brush after brush, the rhythm alone was rocking him to sleep. Worse, the rhythm wasn’t actually cleaning anything, shoving the dirt and crumbs around. He shook himself from his daze.
Snap out of it. Come on. Don’t be dumb.
[You don’t know what tired feels like,] said Mean. [Not in the slightest.]
[Poor little thing,] whispered Kind, as if examining Aeo from further away.
Aeo thought to himself: I just want to go back to sleep. Leave me alone, okay?
When the voices remained silent, the boy knelt down to get at the debris underneath the stove. For some reason, it was Harthon’s pet peeve to have anything noticeable beneath, even if he himselfput it there. Sure enough, Aeo saw a few stray crumbs in the darkness. Maybe that’s why he exploded at him.
Warily, he placed his hand on the stove. It was cold. He lowered himself to his belly and shoved the business end of the broom underneath.
Then, as if on cue, everything went completely dark.
“What? Master, what are you—?”
Harthon was nowhere to be found. Aeo turned his head towards the hanging lantern. Or, more accurately, to where its light had been. The light had died; probably burned through the wick.
He growled and stood to his feet. He couldn’t sweep if he couldn’t see.
Aeo began to fumble his way through the kitchen drawers beside the oven. He needed matches. Matches, matches. Where were they again? Naturally, matches were extremely off-limits. But the thought of waking Harthon just so his master would relight the lantern filled him with unimaginable dread. He rubbed the still-pulsing goose egg on the grown of his head. He didn’t want another bruise.
Shak, where does Harthon keep the matches? In here?
Blindly, he lifted his arms and found the edge of the cupboard door above the stove. In the dark, he could make out the silhouettes of two dozen square boxes of differing sizes. He only needed one specifically.
No. No. Not that one. Not this one.
At last, a tiny one reached his fingers. He slid the lid open, and within were fifty thin spruce sticks coated in white phosphor. At last, he found the matches. He’d never lit one himself, but he’d seen Harthon do it hundreds of times. Just strike the phosphor against the box until it lights up, and relight the lantern. Easy.
The boy crossed the room, careful not to stub his toe against any of the scattered crates. Cautiously, he clambered up on top of the first row of potato crates, careful not to actually step or kneel on any of them. Up above, the lantern was still smoking, a few red embers still smoldering within the tiny wick. He could only hope the lantern still had oil; he’d gotten lucky with the matches, but he had no clue where Harthon kept the lantern oil.
He took out a single match, and slid the phosphor tip against the rough surface of the box.
Strike one: nothing. Strike two: nothing.
Strike three: “Oh!”
In a poof of smoke, it burst alight. He quickly thrust the match into the lantern wick, but… it wasn’t lighting.
Wait, what? Why not? Oh, right. The wick.
He fumbled around the lantern until he found the knob. He spun it, and additional wick emerged from within the brass casing. The lantern lit right away, much brighter than before.
“Good,” the boy whispered with a sigh of relief.
Then, just as Harthon had done many times, the boy shook the match to make it go out. And it didn’t go out.
He shook it again.
The flame grew bigger.
He couldn’t drop it. He’d catch something on fire, for sure, and probably himself! He shook and shook, but the flame burned all the hotter, dropping closer and closer to his fingers. All at once, he felt the heat and dropped the match.
But the fire remained. The small candle-like flame attached itself to the boy’s finger like a drop of water.
“Ah! No, no! Get off!”
He shook his hand in a panic. The flame grew bigger, spreading up his finger and onto the back of his hand. It felt warm, just like the dream of the sun, even as he imagine the flame devouring his skin like tissue paper.
“Get off!” the boy cried, spinning to jump off the potato crate.
He spun too fast, flying off the potato crate. As he swung to keep his balance, his arm struck the lantern straight off of its hook, and with a clatter, the iron light crashed behind the crates. He had no time to recover it, though; he had to extinguish his arm! The fire had already spread from his hand, catching his shirt and lighting the cloth.
“No, no, no!”
The flames were so large, they actually helped him find the sink on the other side of the room. He pumped the handle desperately, and his hand finally met with a torrent of groundwater. The flames extinguished. He tossed water onto his forearm, smothering the flames latched to his sleeve… at last, those flames went out as well.
He imagined his skin melting like cheese, wrinkling and peeling like a decaying tomato. He felt the charred flesh, up and down, again and again… but there was no charred flesh. No pain. No damage at all, not even a burning sensation left behind. His sleeve was charred and stiff, but his arm was fine.
His mind was racing.
How did…? Why doesn’t it hurt?
He then smelled smoke. Was Harthon cooking something?
Then he saw light. Dim at first, but then quickly rising. The potato crate, partially filled with straw, had caught the lantern’s flame.
“Ah! No, no!”
As Aeo stood there in shock, he heard the Shattered speak:
[It might have been the match you so carelessly discarded,] one of them whispered. Weird, maybe.
[He really is quite dull,] agreed Mean.
“Shut up!” Aeo cried in response. “Shut up! Help me put it out!”
As if they could.
Then, Aeo heard the last thing he ever wanted to hear:
“What in Hell’s name is going on in here, boy?! I thought I smelled— holy shit!”
In blind panic, Aeo twirled around to look at the kitchen doorway. Standing there was his master Harthon, his jaw unhinged as he stared at the building inferno.
“You little b-b-bastard!” Harthon screamed. Aeo had never heard him stutter before. “Water, boy! Get the bucket, get it now!”
“Move!” Harthon cried, charging towards the sink. “Move, you idiot!”
Apparently, there was already a bucket in the sink, which Aeo only noticed as Harthon shoved him to the ground. In desperation, the old hunter pumped the sink handle like a monster, filling the bucket as quickly as the ancient system allowed. Which wasn’t fast, truth be told. As he pumped, Harthon filled the room with obscenities.
“You red-eyed bastard!” he roared, trying to kick at Aeo while pumping water; Aeo was well out of range. “What have I told you about matches, vyshti! If the inn burns down, I’ll kill you! I swear I will!”
Aeo responded with the only excuse he had:
“I didn’t mean to…!”
He didn’t know what to do. As if tried to help Harthon, he’d probably be smacked. And if he tried to put the fire out, he’d get roasted. Helpless, Aeo simple laid upon the stone floor, watching the fire burn faster and faster. As if capable of sentience, the flames climbed from the crates of food to the blackening wooden walls of the kitchen. One of the crates at the top of the pile had been filled with thatch, to better protect the pile of hand-sculpted ceramic platters inside. The heat from within it was so intense, Aeo could hardly stand to face it.
But stand to face it, he did. It felt like the dream. The dazzling dream of the sun.
In that moment, a thought rose to the forefront of his imagination. An intoxicating thought that he had never before contemplated. Though he knew he shouldn’t wish it, he wanted the fire to rise higher. Burn brighter. More fiercely. Consume everything. Make it all go away. He almost felt tempted to reach out to it. Take its brightness with his bare hands. Burn his arm again, and it to spread further, like a glittering snake sliding across his skin.
Harthon’s shouts droned in and out. He wasn’t paying attention to them. No, he was listening to the voices: a mesmerizing pattern of crackling echoes, an uncontrollable dance of infernal light. He didn’t want it to end.
Somewhere in the midst of this hallucination, Ariste had entered the room. Unlike Aeo, she did not stop to merely observe. In fact, as she raced past him to smother the flames with her coat, he realized he had never seen her so… alert. Finally, with the water bucket filled, Harthon threw the paltry gallons into the conflagration. To everyone’s shock (and Aeo’s slight delight), the flames did not calm. Instead, they devoured the water like oil, making the fire erupt with a heated whirlwind, bursting upwards towards the ceiling.
“You did this!” Harthon shouted at Aeo, no longer able to control the situation. “This is your fault, you piece of filth!”
Aeo, still mesmerized by the blaze, almost had the audacity to ask Harthon why he thought so. But Harthon did not give him the chance to speak. Grabbing the boy by the collar, the great hunter yanked Aeo out of the kitchen. Then, with a single arm, he cast Aeo into the dining room like a limp ragdoll. The boy collided against one of the dining room tables, smacking the edge of his eyebrow against the solid hardwood.
“I’ll strangle you for this, boy, you hear me?!” Harthon screamed, repeating himself. “I’ll kill you if this place burns down!”
Then, he spun on his heels and grabbed his wife. And with just as much force, he threw her towards the door of the inn.
“Go and get the constable!” he screamed. “Don’t you dare come back without help!”
With no further instructions, Harthon scrambled back into the kitchen, pumping yet more groundwater into the wooden bucket. Aeo felt immediate agony as his right eye fell blind from blood. He struggled to stand, unable to find his balance before Ariste herself recovered. All of a sudden, her felt her hands lift him up, helping him recover.
“Aeo,” she whispered, already sobbing. “I’m sorry, my little boy, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for everything.”
Aeo couldn’t think, hearing only the crackling of fire and Harthon’s screaming. Ariste continued breathlessly. He had never heard her speak like this.
“You have a choice, Aeo,” she whispered to him, even as she tenderly held his face. “Help me get the constable. Or leave this place. Leave it all behind. I’ve never had a choice, Aeo. But you do!”
Aeo froze. He didn’t know what to do. He stared at Ariste with his single good eye and witnessed a completely different person.
“Go, Aeo!” she said, shaking his shoulders. “Go! Don’t come back! Run for Adia and don’t stop until you cross the border, you hear me? Go!”
His feet then outran his thoughts. His feet slipped upon the snow outside the inn, but they did not stop running. And it took several minutes of running to realize that this was exactly what he wanted all along.
He would never be hit again. Never screamed at again. Never abused again, or kicked again. He would be free, for Ariste had freed him. He looked back once, to see if Harthon or Ariste had seen him make the choice. Harthon was still inside the Grey Pale, screaming. And Ariste was running out into the dark, heading in the opposite direction.
He didn’t look back. And in his mind, over and over, he thought to himself:
I’m never coming back. I’m free.