Type of Short Story: Novelette
Summary: Husband, father, and scout for the Kaldari Coalition of Tribes, Garren has no interest in the ongoing petty conflicts between his people and the Children of Elseth in the north. He lives a life of paradoxical peace in Kaldari border town of Plen. Unfortunately for Garren the fates seem determined to take him down a much darker path - one man's mistake will bring a brewing war to his doorstep and change his life forever.
I hate crowds.
The woods are open and free, where your only enemy is what can sneak up on you. When a mountain cat sees you, it is already too late - it will kill you, or you will kill it. Cats and bears do not waste their time with deception. People are far different creatures. A human will act as if they care for your survival, and slit your throat when you're not looking. Being around people I do not trust tires me, because it is my job to seek out threats before they become a problem. In the woods, I am a man of confidence. I am a master of my trade as a Kaldari scout.
In a crowd, however, I am suspicious.
The sun is pitchfire bright in Plen's village square. What would usually be an open, grassy space surrounded by the village's mudbrick homes is crowded with vendors peddling their wares. Canopies are erected to block out the sun, but still it is hot enough to sweat. There is music coming from several directions; strings and wind playing different harmonies, against the shouts of children and the chatter of families. The people are so crowded in between the booths that they physically touch. Plen's market day is the largest between the border and Shald, and it attracts too many people. Were it not for my family, I would have avoided the place altogether.
My husband, Elias, and my son, Ethen, walk close beside me. Ethen has seen five cycles, and stands with his brown hair brushing the tips of my fingers. He is fascinated by the people and sights around him, a wide grin on his face. I squeeze his shoulder to remind him to keep up - he is a distractible child.
Elias understands the look I'm giving him. It's the same look I give him every time he puts me in a deliberately difficult situation. He is shorter than I - though that is not unique to him, since I have only met one man who could rival me for height. He has our son's light brown eyes and keeps his dark hair molded into spikes, a convention I scarcely have the patience for. Today his chest is bare; he wears only working pants and a backpack for his healing supplies. The eagle tattoo which covers most of his back glistens with perspiration.
He pauses in the middle of the crowd and smiles, his mouth wide open to say something smart.
"Ethen!" I call after my son as he rushes off after one of the other children. His small body disappears between the robes of a man browsing a booth of cured meats; only Elias's hand on my arm keeps me from tearing the crowd apart to rush after him.
"Leave him be, Garren," says Elias. "He's a kid. We had an agreement."
My half-hearted growl makes Elias let go of my arm. His much paler skin is beginning to turn dark with the coming of summer, bringing it nearer to my shade.
"If I was allowed to run wild-"
"You would have killed God and been eaten by a mountain cat, I know." Elias's eyes gleam.
It's what I love about him, and also what I occasionally hate - he is quick to smile and without worry. Elias is my opposite in nearly every way. I shake my head.
"Come on," says Elias, "I've got things to buy over here." He jerks his head toward Leesim, an herbalist traveling from the Alke province.
I sigh, but follow him. I have no reason to be in the market and nowhere to be until the sun reaches the border mountains. This adventure is purely for Elias's needs.
Leesim looks as if he barely made it to Plen. He is an old, twiggy man with little muscle to him. He speaks easily with Elias about their trade, with their barks and leaves. Elias seems very pleased with the selection. I recognize many of the names of plants and what they are for, but I am no healer - the words do not excite me the way they do him.
A breeze catches my shirt, and I welcome the coolness. I don't usually wear such thin garments. My leathers are at home, with the rest of the trappings I carry. Elias insisted that attending the market armed would be rude, that it sets a bad example for Ethen. He has very complex ideas about etiquette, but I forgive him for it. His parents were artisans who received only very basic war training. Elias does not understand the prevailing Kaldari culture as I do. It is ironic, I think, since he is full Kaldari. I am not. Perhaps it is the blood of Elseth's Children running through my veins which causes me to care so much about Kaldari culture. I have much to prove to others as well as myself.
From my peripheral vision I see Kayl, headed directly for me. She is also out of her customary clothing, adopting softer, lighter attire. Her ruddy bronzed hair is tied back from her face, green eyes set against tanned skin. She has a lean build, but fights well - we have practiced the swords together many times. She claps me on the shoulder when she is in range.
"I didn't expect to see you here, friend," says Kayl.
"Expect to see him more often," Elias calls from over my shoulder, interrupting his exchange with Leesim. "He owes me a few outings."
I glare at him, but it is exaggerated. Though I show annoyance, I understand and appreciate Elias's intentions. Kayl finds this amusing.
"Have you heard about the raid?" Kayl asks, leaning on one hip. She holds a half-eaten apple in her free hand, spoils of the market.
"Last month?" I say.
"Last night," Kayl raises an eyebrow for emphasis. "All locals. Tileil lead them over to Chall. Twelve houses, gone."
Houses. "Violence breeds violence," I tell her simply. I do not hide my disdain well.
Raids between the Children of Elseth and the Kaldari have been more frequent lately. As Elseth's Land declines, tension between our people increases. The border raids are nothing but mere sniping; no goals are accomplished, outside of hurting each other. I do not find this efficient, or useful.
Kayl shrugs. "Well, if you didn't hear about it from me you would have heard about it tonight. Everyone on watch is talking about it."
"I am sure."
I have made her uncomfortable, but she recovers well. She manages to smile. "Well, until tonight I suppose. Nice seeing you again, Elias."
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