Everyone dies alone.
His foot stumbled in the thick snow. Hands splayed out, he tumbled into the white powder, his aching body colliding with the frozen earth and scattered rocks hidden beneath winter’s white shroud.
His skin was bare and bruised. Blood had long drained from the epidermis, seeking protection deeper within his core. It made him look pale; a ghastly apparition that, had anyone come across him, they would likely have mistaken him for winter’s spirit or some frightful fey instead of a human being.
His feet finally found ground beneath him and using the coarse bark of a nearby sapling, he wretched himself from the ground. Small trickles of blood, like thin snaking ribbons, ran down from fresh cuts. The heat provided little, futile warmth to the blue skin.
Naked and cold, this was how he was going to die.
The world around him offered little comfort. Colv, known for its rugged and harsh land, was in the middle of a terrible winter. Temperatures had plummeted rapidly, choking the last of the crops with frosty fingers. As farmers were trying to salvage what they could, the snow swooped in. A sizeable amount of food store had been lost to the inclement weather. With the promise of kingdom wide shortages, it was really no surprise that the Colvians looked upon each new visitor with suspicion and half concealed hostility.
Furthermore, excessive hunting had forced many of the native animals into retreat from the anxious hunters overly concerned about famine. Many plants and trees were withering from the early snowfall, unprepared for the sudden change in climate. It was the type of season that left the land barren and empty and wherever Keirn turned, he saw death.
And all the while, the skies continued with their steady downfall. The snow drifting in thick curtains like flaking ash.
He didn’t even know where he was headed anymore. His feet moved and his body followed. Had he once had a direction or destination in mind? He couldn’t tell. All that seemed to press on his mind was the overbearing cold, the chill in his body which he couldn’t even shiver out. His teeth had once clattered, his muscles had once twitched and his arms had at a time rubbed for heat. All that had stopped now. Only the shaky steps continued.
Perhaps he was looking for a place to die.
Had he one word of advice to pass on, it was this: if someone ever offers you a Colvian Nap quickly refuse and run away. Apparently, the tradition entailed being brought into the middle of some gods’ forsaken wood and stripped of all your belongings. Keirn wasn’t positive, but he suspecting that the beating was optional. Perhaps it was an additional ‘thank you’ for visiting Colv during these hospitable times. If Colvians are known for something, it’s their hospitality.
This wasn’t how he had planned to go. Though most people usually don’t plan how they die, no one expects to perish in some strange foreign country, stripped of all their things and left to freeze to death in the wilderness. He was only twenty four years old and had looked forward to living at least triple that. He didn’t know what he was going to do with all that time; a predicament that had ultimately led him to his current state.
As it was, it started many moons ago when Keirn had gotten the bright idea. Since he was at that important stage in life where one finally chooses their career and settles down, he was instead going to scrounge up what belongings he had and pursue a childhood dream of his.
He was going to be an adventurer.
Course, what the minstrels and bards don’t tell you in their stories is that adventuring is perhaps the worst possible career in existence. This likely explains why there are so few people in the field. However, Keirn hadn’t stopped to think about that. Instead, he had convinced his sister and two friends to join him on ‘discovering the world’. It sounded a lot better than ‘vigilantism’ and ‘grave robbing’. Apparently his friends agreed, as they had joined him on his mad quest.
They had heard all the tales while growing up and knew what had to be done. At least they thought they did. They quickly discovered that you can’t just call yourself an adventurer and be done with it. Though they had initially decided each other’s role in the group, apparently the business worked quite differently. While Keirn had insisted on being the warrior of the group, somehow he had ended up as their token sorcerer.
Which was all well and good, except he couldn’t cast any magic.
Even the most basic cantrip escaped his mortal understanding. Almost as embarrassing, his childhood friend, Jeremiah, had ended up as their priest. His only problem was that he was an adamant atheist. Keirn suspected this radical stance arose from a rather disastrous relationship he once had with the village priest’s daughter. However, through either his austere moral compass or some secret religious devotion, Jeremiah had an uncanny ability to heal grievous injuries. He called it ‘holistic medicine’ and insisted it was a friendly nondenominational alternative form of healing that involves the understanding of both the functioning and interaction between the body and the mind and then utilizing that knowledge with the basic herbal curative properties to speed an individual’s natural recuperative abilities. He says holistic, everyone else says divine.
He could see him, just below in the forest’s gulley. He knew it was a hallucination, there was no way he would be here now. His stocky frame looked oddly out of place in the snow covered Colvian woods. He always claimed he was descended from half giants, but Keirn suspected that he said this in defence of all the teasing from the village’s kids. But, for a half giant, he was pretty short. Though Keirn had never met one, he was sure they would be taller than him, and he was only a few inches over six feet himself.
But in his mind’s eye, Jeremiah stood there, all noble and self righteous. He wasn’t in the battered chain mail. He didn’t carry the great two handed sword. No, he stood in his familiar worn shirt, tunic and ragged pants. The knees were still stained with dirt from poking around in his herb garden. And in his hands he held a steaming plate of meat and vegetables. What Keirn wouldn’t give for a hunk of meat cooked by his hands. Or even some vegetables covered with his famed gravy.
He couldn’t even remember what they had fought over. Likely, it was something trivial. Recently they had been arguing over just about everything. Things like, whether they should spend the extra gold, of which they were running low on, to get a room at the inn with a bath or to save their coin and sleep in the stables. Whether they should head south for warmer territories or press on into the north to see some of the winter all of them had been missing. Or even whether they should untie that kidnapped civilian or if they should just loot their pockets and pretend they hadn’t seen him.
In the end, Keirn suspected it was his choice words about Jeremiah’s ex that may have finally torn the rift between them.
“You’re just jealous,” Jeremiah’s spectre accused as he took a large bite from the succulent roast in his hands.
Keirn paused, gasping for breath. The cold air ripped at his throat and, even though he knew the young man standing in front of him wasn’t his friend, he couldn’t help but lower his hands to cover himself.
“As delightful… as it would be… to banter with… my delusions…” Keirn gasped, “if you don’t… mind, I’d really like… to find… someplace warm…”
Keirn had wondered if his life would flash before his eyes as he approached death’s door. Apparently his past would rather haunt him as he made his way up the front walk.
“Admit it. You always wanted what me and Autumn had. You want an intimate relationship where you could share yourself with someone else, make yourself vulnerable and not be afraid of being hurt.”
“No… That’s what… you’ve always thought… I wanted…” Keirn replied. “Remember… Calandria…?”
Calandria had been the one moment when Jeremiah had interfered with Keirn’s personal life. Jeremiah often commented on how the ladies seemed to flock to Keirn’s side, fighting with themselves for the young man’s affections. He had spurned them all. Jeremiah felt he had found the perfect one, Baroness Calandria Del Morden. After a whirlwind courtship, Keirn had managed to accidentally get himself engaged to the Baroness just as Jeremiah and the others were discovering that Calandria had murdered her father, imprisoned her suitors and was hell bent on the complete domination of her kingdom. Tragically, she had thrown herself off the balcony during the very revolt she had staged herself, right before Keirn’s very eyes. Or, at least that is what Keirn maintained.
Jeremiah, however, maintained a different opinion on the matter.
“Clearly she doesn’t count. People don’t kill the ones they truly love.”
“For… the last… time…. I didn’t kill… her… She threw herself…”
“Off the balcony. Yes, the woman who at the very moment she had everything decided prematurely plunge eight stories to her death. Most people do that when they’re losing.”
Jeremiah’s spectre took an unconvinced stance. Keirn couldn’t help but notice that the food had vanished from his hands as he crossed his arms across his chest.
“You know… what your… problem… is?… You’re to damn… moral…”
“Only for you would that be considered a problem…”
“It is when you… hate yourself because… you can’t even live… up to your own… standards… No one’s… perfect…”
“You always have to be right, don’t you!”
“I don’t have… to be… I just… always am…”
And with that, Keirn pushed past his friend, intent on finding some miserable place to curl up and die away from Jeremiah’s judgemental eye. His friend didn’t make an effort to follow. He never did. He never knew when to give up on something and when to pursue it. Maybe that’s why his relationship ended so badly.
Or, it could have been because Autumn was utterly insane. Sometimes it was hard to tell.
But as Keirn pressed on through the snow, he wasn’t entirely sure that there wasn’t any truth to Jeremiah’s words. Was he possibly running away from something, even now? Could there be something which he would rather take Death’s frigid embrace over instead of facing?
As he stumbled through the sloped ridges of the small ravine, he didn’t have much time to ponder this disturbing line of thinking. Instead, he found Derrek. He was sitting upon an ice sheathed boulder, carefully tuning his lute and appearing rather oblivious to the cold that Keirn was trying desperately to forget.
“Am I to be… haunted by all… the incompetent… people I know…” Keirn sighed.
“Hey, don’t blame me,” Derrek replied, still examining his lute carefully, “I’m your delusion, you’re not mine.”
“Then… as my delusion… I banish… thee…”
He had meant to sound more forceful, but his voice was starting to crack. His throat was hoarse and seemed to scream out for some water. Or, more tantalizing, tea.
Instead of obeying, which was actually rather a testament to how accurate Keirn hallucinated, Derrek instead leapt from his perch and strolled to Keirn’s side. He strummed absently at the instrument in his hands, his eyes still mirthfully twinkling. Out of all of them, Derrek was the most likely to benefit from their harrowing travels. He had the makings of a fine minstrel and was heart set on heading to the city once their journey was all over to join a wandering troupe as a bona fide playwright.
Unfortunately, Derrek also felt himself somewhat of an inventor, specifically of a new type of music that would revolutionize the entertainment business. He dubbed it ‘noise’. Uncreative, but accurate. Keirn knew little about music but Derrek assured him that every song he produced had absolutely no harmony amongst its notes. And Keirn was apt to believe him as it was as bad as it sounded.
“If… you’re going to… bother me… could you at least… not play anything…” Keirn sighed.
“But I wrote this for you,” Derrek replied. “I call it, The Ballad of Broken Wings.”
The only thing that sounded nice was the title. Keirn could feel his teeth clenching as his ears were assaulted by the dreadful cacophony.
“Is there… any purpose… to this visit… or are you here… to make this more painful… than it really is…”
“I’m no more than I have ever been,” Derrek replied, fingers still twisting and snapping at the lute’s strings.
“A friend, who’ll stick by your side no matter what.”
There was something undeniably odd about Derrek that Keirn couldn’t quite put his finger on. He doubted that now, in the grip of pre-mortem madness, he was likely to unlock whatever secrets troubled that carefree smile. It was just another unnerving reminder of how you can know someone for a long time and still not understand them.
“I thought… I told you… to go… away…” Keirn grunted, raising his sore and tired limbs in an attempt to cover his ears.
“Well, it’s not my fault that you chased away all your good friends.”
“I’m… quickly… remembering why…” Keirn hissed. He took a pointless swipe at Derrek. As his arm passed through his head, the image of the loud minstrel faded. The noise, however, lingered.
Continue to Soul of Company Part 2 >
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