Suspicious Silence

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Her bony finger tapped Robert forcefully on the shoulder, snapping him out of his awe at the glorious vista before his eyes.  He turned and looked at her, and threw a glance at the bulging bag of bread she held out to him.

“Thank you, this kindness won’t be forgotten.  Perhaps if we have a good harvest, I’ll bring my son with me next time I travel to your lands.”  Robert smiled genuinely at her.  The bread was some of the best he had ever had.

“Yes, perhaps!” The old woman replied with a forced smile.  Being so good at lying, it didn’t show.  “Well, be careful on your travels.  Better get a good start while the day is somewhat young.”  Robert nodded, and turned away.

“Wait!” She burst out.  Robert whirled back to her as a bird chirped. “Take this with you!  Your legs are still weak.  You have no horse.”  She held out her gnarled wooden cane.

“I cannot take an old woman’s cane from her.”  He said laughing and shaking his head.

“Please, I have plenty more.  This one has no significance to me.  Take it.”  She held it out with both hands, and he saw that it was a very dark wood.  With lines curving up the side in strange spiral stylings he had never seen.  He hesitated, but took it from her.  He might need a weapon in Elven lands, his throbbing head reminded him.

“Thank you.  I will return this one day.”  Robert lied quietly.  His hands tightened around it, feeling the smoothness of the staff before holding it to his side to steady himself.  His legs were beginning to find their true strength again.  He walked, the staff longer than he remembered it in the shade of the hut.  The woman stood in the doorway watching him as he walked away through town, toward the mountains that were close to the borders of the Imperium.  Before those stony peaks lived the forest that Robert was found in, beaten and robbed.  The old woman cackled and coughed as she went inside, closing the door behind her.  The spell she cast left her tired, her bones ached more than usual.  It was time for a nap.

Robert continued walking through the town, feeling the stares of all the Elves looking him up and down.  A lone human in a land that despised him.  Looking to one merchant’s wares, some beautiful red apples gleamed in the sun and Robert glanced up with a smile at the owner.  The man stared back into Robert’s eyes with burning hate.  Robert could see crow’s feet beginning to form around the Elf’s eyes.

Signs of aging.

Robert looked back down and continued to walk, the hateful glares urging him to increase his staggered pace.  Children suddenly appeared out of thin air, singing some Elvish taunt as they threw small bits of rotten fruit at him.  Robert understood.  This was something to be expected.  Children act on impulses that adults bury deep within their hearts.  Well, most adults.  The children disappeared as quickly as they appeared.  Robert continued to walk along as quickly as his legs would take him, both hands on the staff that steadied his steps.  A rock flew toward him from behind as an instinct from his younger days tilted his head to the left.  His right hand reached up and without looking he caught a rock that was meant for his skull with a loud slap.

The crowd watching him was more silent than before.  He was quick despite his age.  A reaction that a farmer shouldn’t have.  Avoiding confrontation, Robert simply dropped the stone and continued down the hill out of town.  Heading into the forest valley below.  The people watched in suspicious silence as his head disappeared behind the road.


 

“Jah’sahn, are you sure that we should go into the Imperium again?  Maybe we should just go home.”  The young elf was nervous, and hungry.  His hands played with the string of his bow.

“We have to.” Jah’sahn replied as he carved up an apple to share with his friend. “This is our last apple, and I am not going back to farming.  I told you that already.”  He took a deep breath to quell the anger he had within.  Looking up at the clouds through the trees, the light glittered between the leaves.  His father used to have a word for it, before he died and left him an orphan.  His mother had died when he was a baby, during the Reclamation.  A stupid name for a stupid war.  Jah’sahn’s hands fiddled nervously with his sword resting in its sheathe.

“Fine, fine” His friend replied. “I just don’t want to beat up any old men again. It’s… not right. Human or no.”

“I understand, Brielbeh. How could we have known? After we tripped the horse up we had to follow through…” He paused for a moment in carving the apple. “But… I felt strange after that last encounter too. Even if the money we got for selling the horse kept us fed for a while. Did your sister recover with that medicine we got for her?” Jah’sahn offered an apple slice to him.

“Mostly. The fever’s almost gone, and she is talking again.” Brielbeh sighed and took the slice from Jah’sahn’s outstretched hand. “Its probably the only good thing that’s come of all this.” He muttered as he munched.
“Hopefully we can score something big. Maybe some information to give to the Ravens for a price. Maybe they’ll even let us join up.” Jah’sahn mused, tasting the sweet fruit as a small bead of juice trickled into his stubble. “But probably not.”

“Yeah, probably not.” They both were sitting in a tree high over the road, looking at the dancing patterns that the sun created through the trees on the ground below.

“They say you have to be pretty skilled with magic” Brielbeh chuckled. “The only magic I’m skilled with is making food vanish!” They both laughed through their nose with a short exhale.

It wasn’t the first time they had this conversation, or laughed at this joke.
Robert was walking down the same road they were watching, his legs steadily gaining back their strength. That stew the old woman made revitalized him unlike any meal he had before. He didn’t have to rely on the cane so much now, and he carried it at his side.  The birds were chirping all around him when he first came into the forest road, unfamiliar tones that made him yearn for home.  Now, they were mostly silent.  Robert’s hand tightened on the staff, as he felt a familiar fear creep into his body.  The urge to stop and go relieve himself on a nearby tree was overwhelming.  Ahead of him, hidden in the trees, the two young men noticed him walking.

“Jah’sahn!  It’s that man from before.” Brielbeh whispered. “What should we do?”  Jah’sahn stared at him coming down the road.  Thinking.

“Let’s see if we can’t help him.  To make up for what we did.” They both smiled at each other and began to make their way down the tree branches, swinging and leaping with the dexterity of youth.  They landed at the same time on the road, several paces from where Robert stood brandishing the staff at them.

“You two!” Robert snarled. “I won’t be taken by surprise again.”  Jah’sahn moved forward, palms out.

“No!  We felt bad about what we did, we want to –” An arrow materialized in his face, pushing his right eye from the socket.  It hung in a muddled mass at the tip, before falling into the dirt.  “Wee.. wahnt…to..” Jah’sahn slumped over and died in the dirt.  Brielbeh screamed and ran toward his dead friend, but three arrows thumped into his back, one cracking through his rib cage and poking from his chest.  His eyes bulged and he coughed, spewing blood over his white tunic.  He fell on top of his friend with outstretched arms.  Robert was mortified, glancing around at the trees and the bushes.  A voice came from somewhere in front of him.

“Aww, look at them.  Two little lovers.”  The words were laced with an audible sneer.  Small laughs came from the foliage to Robert’s left and right.  The voice was familiar enough to put him at ease.

“Omar!  I knew you and your men would come sooner or later.” Robert called out, placing his staff at his side again.  “Come forth, and have my thanks!”

Hooded figures came from the shadows, bows slung over their shoulders.  The curved blade of the Halharken Order rested on their hips.  The Imperium’s best trackers.  “I do think that these young men were going to help me… But…” Robert spit on their corpses as blood pooled underneath them, turning the dirt to mud.  “They also got me into this mess.  Stole my horse and everything.”

“Lucky you didn’t have this” Omar appeared above him crouching on a tree branch.  He tossed a sheathed sword to Robert.  “Or they would have known who you were straight away!”  It was Robert’s sword.  Shorter than a longsword, greater than a knife.  Forked at the tip like a trident.  Carvings along the blade, runes that no longer worked.  The pommel was resolved with the face of a bear.  Emerald eyes.

“Yes, that would have been extremely unfortunate.” Robert whispered, strapping it to his waist.  “Are you and your men hungry?  I have some bread for us.”

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Calcutta, 1946

This is a story recounted to me by my Indian grandmother, who is now in her 80s. She lived in Calcutta through the late 1930s to 1947, when her family moved to England to escape the violence in the region. She was about 9, according to her memory. This period was just before the British Partition of the region based on religious population, where Pakistan and modern-day Bangladesh were created as a separate country for the Muslims, and India was made to be solely for Hindus and Sikhs. This action created the largest population exchange in human history. The story takes place on August 16th, 1946. A day that first was supposed to be known as Direct-Action Day, but became known as the Great Calcutta Killings. Within a short time, over 4,000 were left dead. Even more homeless after the fires died down. This event sparked several days of violence across India, with Hindus attacking Muslims, and Muslims attacking Hindus — the “Week of the Long Knives”.
My Grandmother’s family was upper-middle class, and their home stood tall and clean. They were able to hire housekeepers and pay them well enough to provide for their own families. She was raised Catholic, since the family was close with the British and wished to remain so, but the city itself was predominately Hindu and had a large Muslim population. The Direct-Action day was supposed to be a Muslim-organized peaceful protest to show defiance to the British rejection of the proposed 2-state solution, but quickly turned violent after the heat and fiery speeches turned the hearts of men darker than coal. There are conflicting reports on who started the violence, but both sides were guilty in participation of slaughter and ethnic-cleansing. Skirmishes lasted for days. Factories where Hindu workers lived were invaded and the walls coated in blood and gristle. Homes where Muslims lived were chained up and burned to the ground.
What she remembers is being on the roof of their home with her sisters, taking the day off because of the planned protest scaring her family into isolation. They had a milkman, whose name she could not remember, coming down an alley delivering his goods as usual. He was a young Muslim man, probably no more than 18 years old. Door to door he went about his rounds, and as he drew closer they waved to him. He smiled and waved back as several Sikh men appeared from the shadows and stabbed him with their knives and sliced with their kirpans, each taking their turn thrusting the young man between his ribs, back, and eyes as his screams turned to gurgling noises and silence. They continued their stabbing even after he was dead until they were exhausted and blood filled the alley. The sisters were frozen in horror on the rooftops, as one of the men noticed them and spoke:
“Sorry to have let this filthy Muslim get so close to you, friends!” They dragged the man’s corpse and shoved him down a nearby manhole and left cheering to themselves. About this time, smoke could be seen from the downtown area, as fires were being set to businesses and homes. 

Her and her sisters finally broke from their shock and ran inside, horrified. Luckily their father had the foresight to prepare for this. A detachment of British guards had been sent to their home to protect the family, and all day they remained inside. Screams and crashes mixed with crazed laughter and chanting echoed outside in the city, and crept through their windows. They were inside all day, mortified of what was happening outside.
As night fell, the violence subsided slightly. Every night she would go outside to look at the stars before bed, and out of habit she snuck away from her parents and sisters to go to the roof again. Smoke made the stars blurry this night, and fires burned creating strange shadows that flickered and danced to the music of chaos. She heard the awful sound of metal scraping against concrete, and ducked down behind the low wall that ran along the border of the roof. With the curiosity inherent to a child, she peeked over the wall to look down into the alley where their acquaintance was brutally murdered earlier. The manhole was being pushed aside from below, and when the creaking stopped there was a terrible silence for a moment. A man, clothed in shockingly white robes, came from within the man-hole. He climbed out, and looked around for a while. She recognized the young man from earlier, the milk-man.
“Impossible” she told me. “It was impossible for him to have survived that attack. And his robes were so white and clean, even coming from the sewers of Calcutta! But that was when he looked at me. I felt cold, but not the type of cold from an icy wind from the North. This cold came from my heart — no — my soul! I felt frost inside of myself, and I could not help but cry. I felt so scared and alone then, in that moment. And then he nodded to me, and began to walk away. Something was off, and I couldn’t figure out what! And then I looked closer. His feet appeared beneath his robes as he moved slowly away. They were twisted backward, completely opposite of a human’s feet. He walked toe-to-heel, as we walk heel-to-toe. My father always told me of bhoots, mostly as stories used to entertain us. But now, I have seen one. I rubbed my eyes to clear my vision of tears to get a better look. But he was gone. The silence was broken again and more screams came from up the alley. A woman’s scream, and men’s laughter. I ran back inside to be scolded by my Father. I never told anyone in my family this, for fear they would think I was crazy. But the next day we left the city under British escort, and my sisters protested as they complained about leaving their friends alone. But me, I just wanted to get away from that alley. From that angry, lost soul.”

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

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