Alyssum: Voices of the Shattered Sun – Revised Portion of Chapter One

I thought it might be fun to revise the first section of chapter one and get it out there to share. As with all things, I’m simply waiting for April 18th and my next doctor’s appointment. If I can get specific assistance with my ADHD, I’m going to be able to write so dang much I won’t be able to keep up with it. The fact that I’m already editing and writing without a specific medication speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the antidepressant/antipsychotic I’m currently taking. Vraylar has been amazing, if not for the jumpy legs and muscle spasms. A small price to pay for productivity!

Also, the creepy voices only Aeo can hear are incredibly fun to write. I can’t wait to tell the story of why they exist in the first place.

“Oy! 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.

[Go away. Leave us alone. I don’t like pain. It’s unpleasant.]

“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 Harthoon, 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… ay sir.”

He drifted out of utter drowsiness, side-to-side like a sailor out to sea. He couldn’t help it. Appropriate; despite the rudeness of the early wake-up call, it was like the boy’s mind swam in deep waters.

The voices had made him dream again.

In his distant thoughts, he was no longer in a village on Mount Falas. Instead, he stood upon a vast and barren valley of sand and rock, beneath a fierce noonday sun. He had seen the sunlight upon his skin. And its warmth had filled him, soothing and powerful. He didn’t know where the images came from. They certainly weren’t memories. Not his own, anyway. Life in the mountain village of Olvaren held no such promise of warmth. Olvaren was a place the sun shined brightly for perhaps a single month out of the year before disappearing behind months of deep fog and overcast skies. Sometimes he could convince himself that the valley of sand actually were his memories. Distant ones, ones that promised he’d ever been someone else. Someone other than a slave. But he knew they weren’t, and that he wasn’t. He could not recall anything beyond the sunlight.

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. Harthoon still towered over him, holding out a crooked broom with an impatient and disgusted scowl.

“Oh,” the boy whispered, taking the broom.

“Lazy Adian,” Harthoon 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 you dare let me catch you nodding off.”

“Ay sir.”

The Gray Pale Inn smelled like cheap ale and sawdust that morning. Same as every morning, really. Along with something… else. Something awful. Oh, right: the fetid scent of an overfull stable. Even with the back door sealed shut, the stable’s reek poisoned the air just beyond the dining area. It was a horrible stench. Aeo didn’t know anything about horses, but he had little doubt that some of the old mares had contracted some kind of illness to smell so foul. Not that Harthoon cared; the patron had paid in advance for his whole team of five horses to be wedged into a meager space designed for three.

[The patron is an idiot. And your master as well. They’ll deserve each other when the poor beasts die. Such fragile creatures.]

Don’t say that about Harthoon, Aeo thought in response to one of the familiar Shattered voices in his head. What if he hears you?

[You’re a bigger fool if you think that oaf would ever listen to us. We would sooner address the dogs and the pigs.]

Aeo thought a question in his mind in response: Do you mean animals can hear you if they want?

The Shattered did not reply.

That’s what they called themselves, the Shattered. Or, at least, it was the word they most often repeated. They were talkative at times, sure. But they were rather picky about the words they whispered. Aeo never told Harthoon about them. Never tried to, never wanted to. His master, or anyone else. He had learned long ago not to speak to them out loud; they responded to his thoughts as he thought them. The Shattered never really faded from his mind. There were many of them. Some came and went, unfamiliar and fleeting. A few of them never departed, but none of these ever told him why.

Aeo would be cleaning the stable when the patron departed, and he would gratefully do it because then he could talk to the Shattered. Cleaning the stable was the only time he was ever free of the inn itself. Free to think, and free to dream. If he were careful, the clever boy could spend two hours doing an hour-long task, and he would have time to converse with the voices in his mind without interruption.

When Aeo was alone, he could pretend to reason with them. Ask them important questions. Like who he was, where he was born. Why they made him dream about the sun and sand every night. At the very least, he could try.

[You’re just as much a fool as your master. Wallow in the shit where you belong, slave.]

Aeo didn’t like that particular voice, though it haunted him often.

Every morning in the inn began by cleaning the rooms of travelers who departed during the night from the inn’s few luxury rooms. “Luxury” was a stretch; at least the sheets were regularly laundered. Though early traffic was rare, Harthoon insisted that the luxury rooms be available at all times, even at three in the morning. By the time Aeo prepared these rooms for new patrons, the vaguest crests of daylight would begin to rise from 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 in the same instance, prepared to take orders while Harthoon attended the kitchen and bar. The merchants always said that Olvaren sat right in the middle of an important trade route. Aeo didn’t quite know what that meant, besides the fact that the inn filled itself with a regular crowd of its own accord. Day after night, stranger after stranger would walk through the door, becoming regulars. Tired travelers, irritable hunters, entire families, guildsman looking to get drunk… most of them trying to cross the mountain and leave Olvaren behind as quickly as possible.

“Hurry up, boy,” Harthoon would say, every hour on the hour. The old man always knew when Aeo had finished a chore, and was always there to goad him onto the next one. He made it common practice to catch the boy’s ear whenever he got within range. Sometimes a broomstick handle increased that range, or an ale flagon. Once, he had even thrown a clothing iron at the boy; it left quite the bruise.

Aeo hated it. He didn’t know why Harthoon liked to hurt him.

[Yes you do. But at least you know how to take a hit. Not many do.]

Harthoon was a wretched giant of a man. Six-and-a-half feet tall, and his owner of six years. A true son of the Republic of Antiell. Aeo couldn’t remember a father besides him, but he didn’t think the man deserved the title. In his opinion, Harthoon 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, Harthoon 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 Harthoon 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 Harthoon’s ire.

“No slacking, Snapper,” Harthoon would often say to him in passing, even when it was obvious Aeo was working. “That is, if you want to keep eating.”

And 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.

Aeo was always to blame for something. If the patrons were unhappy with their “luxury” accommodations, the boy would get an earful; he was the one who cleaned them. 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, no matter how much water the clouds above let fall. Everything bad was his responsibility. Even if it 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, stored and sorted supplies, or performed any one of two dozen other daily duties.

And Goddess help him if he ever spilled food on the floor or tripped and spilled drinks.

“What an Adian vyshti,” Harthoon would jeer, often to the delight of the patrons.

What was a vyshti? Aeo didn’t know. Some old military slang Harthoon never cared to explain. Adopted from Adia, the nation of Aeo’s birth. His actual home. Supposedly. A place he would never remember, somewhere Harthoon would never let him forget. They would call Aeo “Red-Eye,” due to the crimson color of his irises. The dirtiest thing they could say about him, as well as the most obvious. Such an insult would often elicit laughter from the hunters in particular, and he had no idea why. He’d grown to hate the ruby color when looking at himself in mirrors. So much so that he started averting his gaze. It was worse than just the eyes, though. He hated his red hair as well, 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.]

He ignored that advice.

After noon passed on, the boy would then sweep the inn’s kitchen and dining area, paying close attention beneath the tables and chairs. Then he would wipe down all those tables and chairs with filthy rags and dirty water. Scrub as he might, the inlaid stains and dirt never really went away. For all the years the Grey Pale’s furniture had served guests and patrons, the boy was certain he could have stopped cleaning them; they’d all been stained with enough alcohol to make them impervious to any further staining. By the time he’d finished these tasks, the lunch rush would begin, and Harthoon expected the boy to seat and serve every patron that entered the doors. Once the lunch rush died down, the boy’s next responsibility during the afternoon involved hauling cartons of fresh milk, cheese, fruit, and bread into the storeroom from its daily delivery. He had stolen a small bit of bread once, deciding to blame the rats. Unfortunately, Aeo was a terrible liar. Harthoon struck him with a frying pan, and he ended up with quite the bruise on his shoulder.

Perhaps the only thing the boy wasn’t allowed to do in the Grey Pale was any cooking. Once, Harthoon had allowed it. The resulting omelet had caught fire immediately, and the boy was promptly throttled for letting the smoke choke the upstairs guests.

At least once a week, when Harthoon would smack Aeo’s head or shout a harsh word at the boy, some new visitor to the inn would invariably pity Aeo’s position at the Gray Pale. Whenever this happened, if Harthoon were within earshot, he would make it a point to address the criticism: the boy was a dirty Adian scab that had no place in Olvaren. Not with polite society, not with other Antielli children, and certainly not as a free citizen. Not even free to wander outside the inn, as a matter of fact. There were other Adian slaves in Olvaren, owned by other retired hunters. But Aeo had never met them. He wasn’t allowed outside without a leash and Harthoon’s direct supervision. It’s why he enjoyed cleaning the stables so much, for the freedom of silence and solitude they offered. It was as close to the outside as he would ever get.

Harthoon may have been a brute. But he was decidedly more than just a mound of bitter muscle. He was also astoundingly two-faced. His vindictive nature to Aeo’s mere presence was matched only by the friendliness and charm he let exude in front of guests. Even Aeo could admit how convincing his heel-turn looked. As the social center of Olvaren, gossip and news came to the Grey Pale in droves, and Harthoon set himself as its apex, spreading the day’s rumors and slander like butter on bread when working the counter. The promiscuous escapades of some hunter and his mistress? The strange religion of some backwater merchant? The poor financial decisions of some poor sod he hardly knew? Few topics were off limits to him and those who let him bark. Always with the name-calling, too. He never called people by their real names, especially not Aeo. “Snapper,” he always called Aeo. “Useless Boy.” “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 parents, Aeo wasn’t positive that title applied to him.

[Bastard child of a bastard lineage. The incestuous union of two branches, long-burned.]

Aeo didn’t understand the voices most of the time. And since no one else seemed to hear the Shattered, he had no intention of telling anyone about them. No sense making himself seem more odd than he already was.

About one in the afternoon every single day, the woman of the house would usually show herself. Ariste was her name. Harthoon always called her ‘Good-for-Nothing,’ too. Thanks to him, the whole village knew about her. Her drinking problems, and her “sexual infidelities.” The ones Aeo almost certainly knew didn’t exist. How the respectable innkeeper put up with this poor excuse of a wife, no one in the village (except Aeo) knew.

Just as Harthoon kept Aeo on the hook for his supposed lax nature, he tormented the woman for her imperfections. Ariste provided little assistance in the day-to-day operations of the inn, rarely caring to place a mask of sobriety upon her visage if she could help it. Just like Aeo, Harthoon 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, Harthoon 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.

[Few are they that find it. The memory of belonging. Shards of glass, shattered as we.]

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Ariste would stumble upon the boy attempting to sleep in his cramped storage room. She would kneel on the ground before him, waking the boy with a start, and proceed to sob uncontrollably in the boy’s lap. Embracing him as she cried, her presence so soaked in alcohol, it would make Aeo drunk just by the smell of it. Three or four times that winter, it happened. The boy never knew how to react to this behavior. Never knew what to say. He knew Ariste hated Harthoon just as much as he did. She just never showed it 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, Aeo didn’t speak to her. Though, to be fair, it was she that never spoke to him. If Harthoon was meant to be Aeo’s father, Ariste was just as much his mother.

[He’ll be like us one day. She’ll be like us one day. You’ll be like us, too.]

The pinnacle of Aeo’s long list of duties would begin 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 the long night of song and dance would give him a mighty nightly migraine. A flimsy mop served as a constant companion, and despite the raucous noise, the boy would often doze off with it in hand as an excuse in case he ever got caught. Sometimes Aeo would get dinner. More often, Harthoon would “forget” to cook him anything, busy as he was cooking for an entire village 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. At times, Aeo would discover a raw potato or leek sitting upon his bed in the closet, and he would waste no time devouring the vegetable without a second thought.

Then, at ten o’clock, despite the maddening noises of accordions, fiddles, and screaming, Aeo would stumble clumsily into his closet to fall asleep. Without effort, he would drift into the Shattered dreams, his only escape from his life in the Grey Pale. Then the cycle would repeat, at three o’clock every morning, and he’d start it all over again. For so the pattern had been set in stone for the last year or so. Harthoon never let it vary.

Maybe my eyes are red because I don’t get enough sleep, Aeo thought to himself once. Maybe that’s why they think I’m lazy.

[The eyes of our bloody crusade beg to differ greatly.]

Harthoon never slept. Not when Aeo did, anyway. He ignored Aeo at night just to throw him out of bed every morning. What madness drove the man to such a level of productivity, the boy couldn’t fathom. Maybe he just ran on cruelty and coin. Maybe slapping the boy gave him strength. Maybe the rudeness towards his wife let him subsist, sleepless.

The idea of freedom had occurred to the boy at some moments. 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 if he ever managed to cross it, he could be free. Maybe if he did run away, if he escaped the Grey Pale at eleven or twelve o’clock at night, he could get as far as the highway or perhaps the next town before being noticed. But he had heard traders talk about 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 being discovered. There was no telling how many hunters from Olvaren would go hunting for him on Harthoon’s behalf. He could not imagine the punishment that would await him then.

The only way to escape slavery was up. Up the mountain, up through the canyons and forests and desolate wastes on the other side. There was another country behind the mountain, one of sand and wind. 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 Harthoon 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 to smuggle him away. Assuming Harthoon didn’t catch wind of any plan before it hatched, of course. He’d be beaten within an inch of his life if he tried.

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.]