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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Heedful Hospitality

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“Elven…?” Robert repeated groggily.  His memory was still fuzzy, and his head burned as if it had been set out to bake in the sun.  Despite the pain in his body he pushed himself into a sitting position and let his eyes adjust to his surroundings.  It was a modest hut.  A once colorful rug covered the dirt floor with intricate patterns, the walls were the dark color of a local wood.  A small fireplace was across the room, with a black kettle bubbling over the flames.  It smelled pretty good, and his stomach rumbled into the quietness.

“Let me get you some food.  This was my Grandmother’s recipe.  So you can guess that it’s an old one.”  She cackled cheerfully like the elderly tend to do.  She turned and hobbled away, a gnarled wooden cane steadying her gait.  Her silver hair was pulled into a bun and Robert could see that her ears were longer and drawn into a pointed tip.  All at once completely alien and somehow familiar.  Robert rubbed his temples, taking the edge off of his throbbing skull.

Robert James Lowman.  My name.  But who… am I? 

“Here you are.” The old woman smiled and handed him the bowl.  Her hands shook way too much, yet only a small bit spilled out.  A thick brown stew steamed before him, carrots and potatoes and beef urged him to feast.  Raising the first spoonful, he smiled as his mouth filled with saliva.  Closing his eyes as he chewed, he gave a small moan as he turned the only-slightly tough meat between his teeth.  The smell filled the air around him, and suddenly he felt emotional.  He was missing someone.  Someone who used to cook like this.

“Linda!” He burst out with a full mouth.  He gulped down the bite and stared ahead, eyes pulled wide.  He knew he was married to a beautiful woman, one he was blessed to even know at all.  Robert remembered some of who he was.  They lived in a manor house far from here.

Nearly the other side of the world.

His heart beat faster in his chest, and he fought to keep the blood from his face.  Robert was lucky these Elves didn’t recognize him, but that’s about as far as his luck stretched.  His legs felt as if millions of needles were slowly prodding into them.  He must have been thrown from his horse.

Why am I so far from the border?  Why did the Crown send me here?

“Linda?  Who is she?  A lucky woman to have such a handsome man worry for her.”  The woman grinned at him with twinkling eyes, thinking of past times when Elves were forever young.  When she still had her husband there to keep her warm during the long winters.

“I am the lucky one, truly.” Robert replied.

I can’t let her know I am from the Capital.

New memories were swirling into existence on the canvas of his mind, painted with an eldritch brush held by the skilled, long-fingered hands of ancient shadows.  They enjoyed using this world.  It was more diverse than the traditional universes they sculpted to lure their captives into false memories.  So many opportunities for chaos, so many shadows that could grow and tangle and twist the minds of corporeal beings to their hateful desires.

So many variables.

 “You’re a sweet man for saying that” The woman continuing to smile. “So I know your wife’s name.  Who are you?”

“My name is R…Roger…” He trailed off and stuffed his face quickly with a heaping spoonful of the delicious stew to buy him time to think.  His name was infamous enough that he knew to hide it from even this frail woman.  And she was so pleasant!  The only Elves he had ever met were on the battlefield as a younger man or in the secret laboratories under the Citadel, unknown to even the nobility of the Imperium.

“Roger Theregin.” He said after swallowing his bite.  He could feel it travelling all the way down into his gut.  As if the potato was wrapped in guilt.  Rubbing his head with one hand, he used the other to place the bowl on the table next to him.  He knew he had to get back to safety.  His mission was a failure, but he gleaned some important facts that he had to get back to the Council.

“Ohhh, a name from your East!  You must be a farmer?”

“…Yes.  My wife and I have a small farm right on the border of the Imperium.”

“We both know the Imperiums’ borders reach much farther than the lines on the map.”  She laughed softly and shook her head.  “Ever since that one day all those years ago, we Elves have always lived in fear.  Mortality such as humans know it truly is a burden to us like we have never borne before.” Robert nodded silently, as he slowly began to swing his pained legs over the side of the bed.  He winced as the woman put her hand softly on his shoulder.

“You should rest.  Forgive the ramblings of an old woman.” Robert rubbed his thighs, urging the stinging away as best as he could.  He must have been here for days.  Feeling weak, he pushed himself up to stand.  He placed his hands on his lower back and stretched.

“I am strong enough to relieve myself from your care.  I wish I had some way to pay your hospitality, you were far too gracious to a stranger you scarcely know.”

“Nonsense” She waved her hand and shook her head with a solemn smile. “You are in an Elven home.  We may be poorer than we were before, but these traditions of hospitality will never die.  Even if we do.”  He nodded with silent respect, and stretched his hand out to take hers, she smiled and gave it freely — almost blushing as he kissed it.

“Truly, thank you” He said with real respect. “I will come back one day to thank you for this kindness.  For now I must leave.”  She grabbed his hand with surprising strength as he tried to release hers.  He was startled, and looked into her eyes.  Hazel, but darker.  He felt a small fear grow within him before she smiled and spoke, reminding him of his own grandmother.

“Not before I pack you a bag of bread to keep you going!”

He laughed as he walked to the door, opening  it.  Looking outside as she prepared his bag.  The land was lush, clouds flew along on the breaths of cool wind.  People – Elves – went about their day, some carrying water to their homes.  Some tending their modest shops.  Mountains watched in the distance.  He listened to the far Eastern birds sing their foreign songs.  Unheard to him, the old woman muttered to herself inside.

“Never before have I felt such smooth hands on a farmer.” She scoffed.  “Roger Theregin?  More like Lord something-or-other.”  Placing the last bit of bread into the bag, she tied it shut with a bit of twine.  She flicked her eyes over to Robert, and seeing his back still turned she began to hold a hand over the bag.  The smallest glow emanated from the tips of her fingers as she whispered words that twisted her tongue around in her mouth, and made the space within the hut darker.  Even a skilled mage like her could not sense the devious pleasure of the shadows.  The fire shrank and sputtered, almost going out as she resolved her incantation.

“Foolish human.  To think that I would believe such a poor lie.  And for him to believe my own!” Her lips pulled back in a toothy smile as she unconsciously ground her teeth.  Even if this spell took time from her own life, it was worth it to help her son’s cause.  The last hundred years left Elves mistrustful of humans.  This ‘Roger’ was certainly an Imperial spy, sent to gather information on her family.  The old woman began to shuffle toward Robert’s turned back, the smile transforming from the conniving grin to a pleasant beaming.  Resisting the urge to take the large knife from her left and cleave it into his spine, she reassured herself with thoughts of her talented son.  So gifted with the arts, and with many friends he had spirited away into different parts of the world.  Even the Capital of the Imperium itself.  Reaching to tap Robert on the shoulder, she thought to herself:

“We are everywhere.”

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Candescent Clarity

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His heartbeat thundered painfully in his ear, mixing with the strange whispers that came and went like a terrible breeze between rotting trees.  He swore that he could feel spit spewing from empty space next to him as the strange language dripped into his ears.

Ko’se lano makora kojani noss’e

He shivered so hard he thought his back might spasm.

Robert knew that his wife would never make it off the planet, like most of those on Earth. There were only so many shuttles that were capable of escaping the gravity-well.  Not nearly enough.  They never made enough.  A terrible case-study of financial Darwinism.

He heard the airlock open, a whooshing creak accompanied by shouts and boots thumping into the passenger cabin.  Voices other than the ones from the darkness trickled through the flimsy plastic door to the suitcase compartment he crammed himself into.  A thin line of light gave him the air he needed to breathe and allowed him to hear his soon-to-be captors.

“Well, looks like Brillby finally offed himself.  Poor bastard.” A gruff chuckle.

“Have some respect, Clark.  The man lost more than most.” A reverent voice said.

“Hey — I said ‘poor bastard’.  Just… keeping it light.” Clark grumbled.  Slow, heavy footsteps.

“Jackson, what do you think?”  Silence.  Boots thumped around, and he heard the steel click of a rifle loading a bullet into its chamber.

“There will be no need for that, Clark.  Robert and I know each other.”  Robert felt frost spread within his gut.

Who is Jackson?  I don’t know anyone named —

The compartment clicked open and light flooded fiery fluorescence into his retinas.  Squinting, he saw the familiar sight of a gun barrel leveled at his face.  A man’s eyes came into focus, eyes dark as coal looking furiously at him.  A large hand came from the side and pushed the gun barrel down.

“God, Clark.  You still can’t listen.  You want to be stuck on sewage duty again?”  The older voice chided like an irritated father.

“No, sir.” Clark still stared at Robert with hateful daggers, unblinking.  He backed away, and allowed the older man to step forward and stare at Robert.  A shock of white hair on top of his head was contained by a small black beanie, a large and regal white beard covered his face and went down to the center of his chest.  The bluest eyes Robert had ever seen.  Like clear ice over a frozen lake.  He had seen this man somewhere before.  Somewhere.  But where?

“Robert, get on out of there.  Out of the shadows.”  Robert sheepishly climbed down with the awkward movements of an older, out of shape man.  A foot down onto the chair below – with hands still in the luggage hold – he began to slip and the artificial gravity caused him to fall — but Jackson caught him.  Strong despite his age and taller than he expected, Robert was set down onto his feet by Jackson holding him under his arms.  Like a parent sets up a toddler.  He felt the blood rush to his face.  Recovering quickly, Robert spoke:

“You said you knew me.  Explain.” The men erupted in laughter around him.

“This one has balls, lieutenant.”  Lee giggled.

“Leave us.” Jackson whispered.  The two guards exchanged glances.

“Sir?” They both said together.  Jackson remained silent, simply looking at them from the corner of his eyes.  They both looked at each other and shrugged in unison, walking toward the airlock.

“We’ll be right outside, sir.”  Jackson waved his left hand at them, his right on his sidearm.

“I know why you’re here, Robert.  Do you?”  Jackson asked as he stared unblinking with wolf-eyes.  Robert replied with silence and a stare.

“I finessed my way into this universe.  I followed you from outside your real home, back on Sedgebrook Drive.  You fell through quite the rabbit hole.  Again.  Do you know what’s happening yet?”

“What are you talking about?  Sedgebrook?  I lived outside of the city, within view of the Great Elevator.  What do you mean, ‘this universe’?  Who are you!?”  Robert said.

The older man shook his head.

“When you think of your wife, what memories do you see?”  Robert’s heart skipped a beat.  Those strange memories of a different timeline flashed again into his vision as he conjured the image of Linda’s face.  Something was horribly wrong.

“I… I don’t know what’s happening to me.  These memories aren’t –”

“Those are your true memories, Robert.  Each time you slip between worlds, they become harder to see.  Given enough time, they will vanish completely.  You have to focus, focus on your love.  That’s the only thing that they don’t understand.”

A thunderous explosion shook the Gwaden, and they both lost their footing and fell into seats across the aisle from each other.  They locked eyes and Jackson stood remarkably fast for someone his age.  He leaned over Robert and put his left thumb in the middle of his forehead with a soft force and his right thumb into the skin over his heart.  An electric current rushed through Robert, and memories he had forgotten about rushed back to him in an instant.  The cold forest.  The sands of post-war America.  The lights flickered and died inside the shuttle as another explosion rocked the Gwaden, and the red glow of emergency lights filled the cabin.  Whispers violently hissed, forcing fear to flow into Robert’s body.  A fear laced with anger.  He remembered everything now.

But for how long?

“They hate me, Robert.  I try to save the souls they keep.  You are not alone in this game.  Millions of people over the course of human history have become trapped in their game, replaced by the elites of their malevolent society…”

A blast rocked the ship, cracking a hole in the hull of the Gwaden.  Air began to rush out of the docking bay, and he could hear the screams of Lee and Clark as they were sucked into the vacuum of space.  The artificial gravity created by rotation was stopped as the frigate lost power, and Jackson skillfully glided over to the airlock and pounded his fist on the emergency seal to force the door shut.

“They are going to kill us both, Robert.  Fill your mind with thoughts of your wife, and your life.  Maybe they will be strong enough to –”

Another explosion rocked the ship and there was the monstrous sound of steel being ripped apart, violently tossing the shuttle out into space.  Crashing and tumbling, Robert was bounced around inside the cabin along with Jackson.  He protected his head the best he could, and pissed himself only a little bit.

“Dream of her to escape, Robert.  You must dream of  -”

A stray slug of iron tore into the shuttle, tearing it in half like a wet paper bag.  Robert’s eyes dilated from fear.  Remembering the first time he was knocked out by the vacuum of space, he could not help but let fear wash over him.  There were no happy thoughts to be had.  Clutching at his throat, his lungs burned as the air was pulled out of them.  He felt his eyes bulge, and begin to pop.

Stars looked on, devoid of emotion.  They had seen this all before.

And they would see it all again.

 


 

A washcloth woke him, icy on his steaming head.  Comforting.  Soft.  A skillful hand dabbed his fevered skull with the caring touch of a mother.  Almost settling back into the pillow, Robert began to sit upright and pain shot through his body, driving him back into the bed.  His legs were like hard, dead rubber.  Forcing his eyes open, the natural light made him squint.

“Hush now, don’t try to move.  I found you in the dark wood.  You should know better than to go there.  Bandits love to ambush travellers.  You had nothing but the clothes on your back when I found you.”  Robert’s eyes had adjusted and focused on the elderly woman who was tending to him.  The corners of her mouth were tilted ever so slightly upward, the tiniest smile.

“Where -” A cough thundered from his chest, labored.  He felt exhausted and weak. “Where am I?”

Who am I? 

This thought he kept to himself.  Robert knew his name, but his mind was a terrible mixture of shadows and fog.  He was scared, and tired.  So tired.

“You are far from home, ser.  Human land is a week’s ride from here, with a fast horse.  And we don’t have any of those left.” The woman sighed.  Something about the sighs of the elderly make one feel an existential despair, and it weighed on Robert’s fragile psyche.  Tears began to form under his eyes.

“Shhh.  There, there…  Don’t worry.  You have surely heard tales of Elven hospitality?”

 

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