|The Great Balance Chapter I|
It was a few hours after dawn, a warm gentle breeze was blowing through the mostly barren landscape, and the sun was casting sporadic beams of light as it struggled to pierce the veil of hazy clouds dotting the sky.
” She’s beautiful.” He said. The woman Moraine, had cradled in her arms, a treasure he for the last three years had been actively pursuing. A treasure he had dreamed of possessing his entire adult life. Who could have foreseen, that high in the western mountain ranges, in a tiny insignificant village, no more really, than a bunch of primitive huts, huddled together, he would find the reincarnated paragon of light. They were standing in front of one of those ramshackle huts, and the man, staring intently on the girl nestled in her mother's arms was constraining himself from reaching out for her, taking what should be his. Although, just by gazing on her, he felt a great wave of relief washing through his body, like massive weights being lifted off his shoulders, all the exasperation and disappointment he had felt during their hunt the last three years had seemingly disappeared simultaneously. Yes, it was her, he was sure. He could feel it in the sensation inside his very bones, his very soul. He had found her finally, all that was now left was to reach out and take her. He hadn't noticed his right arm had begun to physically reach out towards her and was startled when that arm got impeded by a large hunk of man. The husband, a tall brute named Andre, had stepped between them.
The husband was wearing a short woolen coat, and thick wool trousers. He motioned his wife to step back, as he put himself between him and his prize. “My lord” the large man began, fumbling for his words and clearly not accustomed to prolonged moments of speech. “As you can see, my wife and I are simple folk, we haven’t got much in the way of goods. But because of this I cherish my family above all others, I know my daughter is special and you are not the first to come looking for her blessing, many have found good fortune after standing before her.” All right, maybe he was more than just a simple brute. The fact the man recognized him as a lord, even though he had taken care to wear simple garments and had brought only five of his best men with him, was slightly surprising, but also quite the annoyance. “I show her willingly to anyone that comes looking, for I believe her gifts should be shared with any who could find aid in them. My fear however, lies in the possibility that you would not be content by gazing upon her.” Andre had started his speech looking into the ground, showing proper protocol for one of his trivial stature. Now however, he stared directly into the outsider's eyes, arms folded in defiance.
The Lord smiled, although his eyes showed no signs of humor. “My good man. I must say you are quite the observant one, and quite correct. My name is Aidan, maybe you have heard of me?” The large man only shrugged, signaling that very surprisingly, he had in fact, not. “Well, I have traveled very, very far to lay eyes on your magnificent daughter, and now that I finally see her, I have no doubts that she is exactly what I have been searching for. Alas, standing in her presence is indeed an elevating experience, but I would go as far as to ask your permission to hold the child in my arms.” By now, curious heads had appeared in doorways, old-folk and young farm boys, weathered men clearly more familiar with holding a scythe or a herding cane then a sword or a pen. Andre studied him, then the five muscular men behind him. “Swear to me, that you mean her or this village no harm.” Again, the lord smiled. “I swear. Quite the contrary actually.” After a while, the man nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer. Or perhaps realizing that he had no other option. He signaled his wife to come close. She was a slender woman, reasonably appealing. Like her husband, she had brown eyes and long brown hair, tied together at her shoulders with a coarse piece of fabric. She smiled a nervous but warm smile as she approached the lord and presented their child. Approximately three years old, the girl, despite her parents, had short golden hair. Her features was, for one so very young both majestic and breathtakingly beautiful and she stared at the stranger with calm unblinking eyes. They were light grey, almost silver. Aidan took her in his hands and the girl turned to her mother, a confused look now upon her face, as he rested her on his left arm. “Fate have truly blessed you with a daughter so special and fair. I promise you, she will be treated with the highest care and reverence when I take her back to my city.” “My lord!” an incredulous expression had appeared on Andre’s face. He had both hands slightly raised and balled into fists, but had no weapon anywhere in sight. “You swore you meant us no harm!” “And I meant it." the Lord calmly replied. As I said, your daughter will receive a far superior life in my care and as for your village?” Aidan reached with his free arm under his modest travel cloak and produced a fat bulging pouch, which he casually threw at the other man’s feet. “That pouch contains more gold than three times the worth of everything in this village, I give it gladly.” Feeling his fury boiling over. Andre in a heartbeat produced a heavy smith’s hammer, which had been set in his belt behind his back and shouted “Moraine run!” as he charged the party of six. Aidan’s men where well trained though, and before Andre had taken two steps, they had already moved between him and their lord. The first one caught the large hammer with his face, bones cracking as the impact reduced his mug to a bloody mess. The rest had produced short swords from under their cloaks, revealing chain mail underneath. Andre flung the hammer like a projectile at the man standing now a couple of feet to his right. It struck him in the throat, crushing his windpipe and immediately sending the man, both hands clasped around his neck to the ground. The three remaining men did not hesitate though, and were now upon the large but outnumbered Andre. He ducked under the first swing, but was meet with a knee to his forehead by the next man. He stumbled backwards but did not go down, the kick to his groin and a hard blow with the end of one of the short swords to his face however, knocked him over. He immediately tried to recover, pushing with his hands to get up, but was turned around with a hard kick to his ribs, followed by a painful heel to the nose, the snap of the bone more audible than expected. Andre coughed, producing blood that spilled over his bearded chin. He looked Aidan in the eyes, saw him standing there behind his men holding his daughter in his arms and the lord was suprised at the amount of hatred on his face. “Snake” was all the battered man said, the effort spraying blood down his shirt. Aidan shook his head in disappointment. “You should be grateful I leave you and everyone else in this filthy, cowardly place alive.” The few onlookers from before had either hid inside or had simply started running as soon as violence had commenced. Moraine had headed her husband’s words and was now, nowhere to be seen. Aidan turned to walk away, but then with a shrewd smile, he stopped and said, “Oh, one more thing, what is the girls name?” Andre looked at his daughter, tears started to form on the large man’s face, he paused. Then with a heavier heart then he ever imagined possible, he answered. “Audrein. Her name is Audrein.”
On the other side of the continent of Thera, deep in the dank, putrid sewers of the sprawling city of Kairos, a woman escaped from her nightmarish dreams to a reality even more terrifying.
She and her husband Jack had in the past couple of months, been living with their young son Linus, in a deprecated one-story house in the city. They had sought a new beginning, after floods had claimed the seaside village they lived in. Life in Kairos however, had not been easy on the family, used to living in a small village with trees, grass and wildlife as a part of everyday life, the harbor district, with its stone landscape and dominant grey and brown surroundings gradually weighed down upon them. They persisted however, Jack, formerly a quite reputable fletcher, had struggled to find good work or any really, in the overcrowded city. After weeks pulling the odd job and living of the little savings they had, he finally acquired work by the docks as a roper. It had been hard for him, once a master craftsman, designing and constructing beautiful bows, now reduced to spending his days working the same piece of coarse cord, over and over again, for less than half the income. His wife Sheila had remained positive though, always reassuring her husband, that one way or another they would find a way. Reminding him, that whatever happened, they had been blessed with the beautiful son, they for so many years had tried to conceive.
Over the past couple of weeks however, things had gone even more awry. Strange occurrences had been taking place around them, but never involving them directly. Loyal hounds had ferociously attacked their masters, storages of salted meats and grain had unexplainably gone rancid, and three fires had started on neighboring building in the past seven days. The locals had been whispering about the streak of bad luck that had befalling them, ever since the young family had moved into the neighborhood. Suspicious minds pointed out that they had avoided almost all misfortune, and rapidly words like unnatural and witchcraft, were starting to be uttered behind their backs.
Last night, after a lightning bolt from an otherwise clear evening sky had hit and sunk a fishing boat, returning to harbor from a very successful day of trawling, the suppressed anxiety and fear of the districts citizens had erupted. Within minutes of the first man calling to action, an angry mob numbering nearly a hundred, marched upon the little family’s humble home armed with torches, crude weapons and prejudice. After taking the surely futile seconds to lock the door, Jack met them outside. Desperately and unsuccessfully, he tried to explain the unfortunate events, trying to calm the enraged crowd screaming for retribution. Some of the people, where men he daily worked with, others guardsmen stationed around the city to keep the peace. Yet as the first stone flew from a hand that had never intended to let go, and struck Jack in the forehead, things had escalated beyond the point of no return. As soon as he hit the pavement, unrelenting cudgels and merciless boots followed. Sheila watched in shock from their only window, screaming and crying as the mob tore her devoted husband apart. The locked door, gave her only a few, but precious seconds to grab their son and flee through the backdoor. She ran, terrified, as fast as her bare feet could move upon the rough stones. Horrorstruck, and hunted by the carnage she still could not believe had occurred, she took a dreadful look behind her shoulder. The image displayed hungry flames, already feasting upon their ill-fated home, the fire reflecting the blind ferocity of the men responsible. Hearing mad shouts all around her, she ducked into a small alley, between two slanted houses. She tried to catch her breath, but could not stop gasping for air, her head felt like it was going to explode. Frantically she scanned her surroundings, trying to find a way out of this nightmare and spotted a sewer grate, in the back of the alley. She looked at her son, he was calm, staring with his light grey eyes a slight smile on his face, subconsciously she noted the wrongness. Then she heaved open the rusty grate, and they plunged into the foul-smelling darkness.
She had ventured through the shallow sewer waters gripping Linus tightly, for maybe half a mile, before coming upon a pile of stones. Fallen from the ceiling on the left side of the oval passage, they were jagged and moist, but reached just a few inches above the sludge. She sat down, placed her back against the wall and positioned Linus in her lap. Wrapping her arms around him, to give what little protection she could against cold and humidity. Before she cried herself to sleep.
As she awoke, the memories of last night’s horrors flooded back to her. She did not move for many hours, although her legs where aching and numb from sleeping seated on the hard surface. She simply let her tears flow silently down her cheeks, as she tried to absorb the reality of what had happened. Jack her proud and beloved companion, her whole world, her whole life destroyed, ripped from her at the injustice of mankind. She felt a crescendo of emotions, but above all an overwhelming emptiness. She wanted to give up, find a sharp stone and slash her wrist, freeing her from the pain. Then she looked down, Linus was still sleeping soundly in her lap, curled up in his mother’s warmth he looked at peace. Her tears had stopped, or maybe simple ran out, she would go on, she had to. While there was still an ounce of strength in her limbs, she would not abandon her son, her husband’s son to this cruel world.
The sewers where spacious, built around a thousand years ago when the city was in its prime. Now however, they were rarely maintained and slowly falling to decay. The harbor district lay at the south side of the city so she and Linus moved in the direction she estimated to be north. Only dimly lit every half mile, by slow burning oil stands, they traveled the better half of the day primarily in darkness. The sewers where a complex maze of intersections and passages, which more often than not ended in dead ends. After several hours, Linus who for a short while waddled besides his mother, allowing her arms some respite, stumbled on a piece of driftwood. “Mama” he said, as he presented the damp piece of wood. Sheila wrapped her soiled shirt around it, dipped and lit it on the next oil stand producing a torch. She did not have a plan, all she knew was that they had to keep moving and had to get out of the harbor district.
The sun had already hidden itself behind the tall city walls, when they finally emerged from underground. She had thought they would be somewhere in the shanty district, but the multicolored tile roofs gave no doubts, that they had ended up in the trade district instead. Third in terms of general wealth after the royal district and the scholar district, the trade district was located in the heart of the sprawling city. The houses here where primarily made of bricks instead of wood or stone, and besides the colorful roofs they often sported fanciful banners, proclaiming the goods sold inside. All of them, where at least two stories high and almost all the houses had some sort of shop on the ground floor, with living quarters above. Many had balconies or even terraces.
Linus was sleeping in her arms, he had not complained once, during their grueling flight. Although it was now almost a whole day, since either of them had eaten or drank anything, he had seemed perfectly at ease. Sheila herself was parched, and her head and stomach ached from dehydration and hunger. She spotted a large fountain, in the shape of storks spraying water into a round basin at the nearest square. The waters gurgling sounded like angels singing. She hurried over and mercifully drank her fill of the cool clean water. After, she removed her sash, folded one end into a tip and used it to gently dribble water into Linus’s mouth. He grunted at the sudden disturbance, but then happily drank in his sleep. She smiled, relived that the gruesome events had not taken its toll on him. After using the sash to clean them both as best as manageable, she examined her surroundings closer. The streets where empty, save for two guardsmen absorbed in talk further down one alley. In the opposite direction, she noticed a sign displaying the image of a pretzel, and felt the urge to move towards it. The shop had a large window, where bread and other pastries where displayed during the day, now however only a few crumbs remained. She circled around, and found a small gate constructed of iron bars, leading to a courtyard. It was locked. Immediately on the other side however, was a bin. Shifting Linus to her right arm, she reached between the bars and toppled off the metal lid, it landed on the court stones with a loud bang. Holding back a curse, she scanned the alley then quickly strained to reach within the bin, and pulled out a loaf of bread. It felt hard and stale, but did not have any mold. She froze mid ecstasy, hearing mumbled voices and hurried footsteps coming towards her. From the corner she had approached, a dim light from a lantern appeared. She fled, one arm clutching her child the other the stale loaf of bread.
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