Richard keeps fighting, Hank keeps gambling, and something ominous looms.
| Richard thrust the end of his staff forward, catching Kent Witkin center chest. The force of the sudden impact drove the boy back, knocking him to the ground. Sprawling with a hard thud, the boy lay for a moment as air slowly seeped back into his lungs. Eventually, he rose up on his elbows, staring horrified at Richard.
“Start shit with my younger brother, will you?” Richard glared, pointing his staff menacingly between the Witkin boy’s eyes. “It absolutely concerns me, you little weasel!”
The Witkin boy scrambled backwards, desperate to distance himself from Richard’s fury.
Richard turned in annoyance to regard the new speaker, and caught sight of Bret Witkin. The eldest Witkin stood brandishing an axe haft while his second brother, Darrell, kept behind holding a broom handle. Both adolescents glared at Richard.
“What gives you the right to bully my little brother, Richard?” Bret challenged, voice full of authority.
Richard felt his anger rising, and he returned their looks with his own fury.
“Bully, is it?” Richard spat wraith.
He paced gradually towards the two using his staff as a walking stick. They continued glaring at him as if trying to compete with his own boiling rage.
“I saw you picking on him,” Bret convicted, jabbing an accusatory finger. “Why not pick on someone your own age?”
“I doubt either of the two of you would do any better,” Richard threatened as he came within feet of the other two adolescents.
Neither was his exact age, but being in between the two was good enough for Richard. Flicking the bottom end of his staff out, he allowed the haft to slide through his grip until the top end came between his fingers. Grasping it, he grabbed hold of the haft with his off hand, and adjusted his grip on the end. The bottom end lay resting against Bret’s outer ankle, posed for the attack. Fluidly, Richard swept his staff, knocking Bret’s feet out from underneath the larger adolescent. The older boy toppled, landing hard on his back.
Darrell leapt back in surprise, brandishing his broom handle defensively, while Bret lay dazed in the dirt for a moment. Struggling back to his feet in aggravation, he gawked at Richard.
“I wasn’t ready,” he protested.
“How about now?” Richard brandished his staff at the older boy, poised to strike.
Bret lunged forward in wild fury, batting at Richard’s staff with his off hand as he swung his axe haft. Not the smartest attack, but still hazardous enough. Effortlessly, Richard swiftly rolled his staff away from Bret’s hand in a disengaging maneuver. Rolling the end back to position, he followed through with its momentum, striking the staff against the axe haft. Leveraging it, he parried the threatening swing away. Rolling the staff in his hands again, Richard then brought it down, slamming its end directly atop Bret’s shoulder. The force of the blow dropped the adolescent to his knees. Releasing the axe haft, Bret took hold of his own shoulder, and seethed in agony in the dirt.
Richard’s gaze fell upon Darrell. The younger adolescent slumped back slightly, eyes wide with dread. Though he continued to brandish his broom handle defensively. Glaring, Richard took up position, pointing his staff directly at Darrell.
“Haven’t had enough yet, eh?” Richard bellowed at Darrell, causing the younger boy to cower further still.
“That is enough,” an all too familiar voice called out.
Though the words came out gently, the authority behind them was indisputable. Still brandishing his staff at the middle Witkin boy, Richard glimpsed over his shoulder. His dad, Emmitt, stood with fists on hips, scowling deeply. Dropping his guard, Richard turned to face his dad properly.
“Come here,” Emmitt pointed at the ground before his own feet.
Holding his staff as a walking stick, Richard sighed heavily before pacing into position. It was difficult to look his dad in the eyes.
“And you,” Emmitt turned towards Hank, who had been standing off someways, “come here.”
Reluctantly, Hank walked up with chin down, to join Richard’s side. Gazing up into their dad’s eyes, he awaited Emmitt’s cue.
“Who started it?” Emmitt demanded, eyes locked on Hank.
“Well...” he began, but then turned incredibly shy. “It wasn’t Richard,” he finally offered feebly.
“What’s this all about?” Emmitt’s eyes narrowed inquisitively.
Hank shifted uncomfortably.
“I…” he attempted, but failed as quickly as he started.
“It’s his fault, Mr. Ordell, sir,” Kent’s voice came full of accusation as he now stood, pointed fervently at Hank. “Hank tried to cheat me, he did. He tried to cheat me out of my copper.”
“I didn’t though,” Hank protested, turning to face Kent. “I promise, I’m not cheating you. I don’t mean to cheat anybody.”
“He won’t pay me back my copper, Mr. Ordell, sir,” Kent drove on.
“I don’t have it yet,” Hank pleaded, “but I promise I’ll give it back.”
He looked deep into Emmitt’s eyes.
“What’s this about copper?” Emmitt pressed.
“I lent him a copper a couple of weeks back,” Kent urged on. “And now he won’t pay me what he owes. I know he has copper.”
“But I don’t,” Hank insisted.
“I saw him give a copper to Peggy the other day,” Kent jabbed an accusatory finger again. “He gives her copper all the time, but he won’t pay me what he owes.”
“It was the only copper I had,” Hank coaxed, then he turned completely embarrassed. “I meant to give it back to you, but…”
Emmitt’s eyes narrowed further, and they all stood waiting in the awkwardness for Hank’s explanation.
“I owed her from a bet,” he finally mumbled.
Richard felt his face slacken as he stared in bewilderment at his younger brother.
“You’re gambling with your older sister?” Emmitt’s voice rose.
“It’s only when Richard gets into trouble,” Hank offered feebly, then immediately turned pale.
Richard blinked in disbelief at what he had just heard.
“Seriously?” He gawked at his younger brother.
“Hank,” Emmitt interjected sharply, “there’s no good that can come from gambling, even with one of your own family. It’s just going to lead you into trouble, like today.”
He motioned about the area for emphasis.
“But Peggy keeps betting against Richard,” Hank protested.
“You have to be responsible for your actions,” Emmitt pressed with a note of annoyance. “If you borrow from someone, you are indebted to them, and are responsible for repaying that debt.”
“I know, Dad, but-” Hank tried to explain.
“Which means,” Emmitt spoke over Hank, “that repaying your debt comes first. Gambling while you’re indebted will only lead to further debt. You still owe Kent here, and yet you went on to owe your own sister. Peggy at least could’ve waited, but you neglected your responsibility to Kent. Now look what’s happened.”
“But, Dad, I-” Hank attempted.
“No more gambling,” Emmitt snapped with finality. “No more borrowing, and no more debt. If you ever need copper, you’ll earn it. No exceptions. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Dad,” Hank mumbled, turning his face to the grass.
Emmitt turned towards the little Witkin boy, and motioned him closer. Kent approached them curiously, coming to stand between Richard and Hank.
“It seems my son, here, owes you a debt, which means my family is indebted to yours.” He fished about the interior of his hip pouch for a moment, before drawing his coin purse forth. It remained tethered to his belt by a length of string as he cradled it in his palm. Digging inside, he pulled up a particularly well polished copper coin, then held it out to the little Witkin boy.
Kent gazed with wide eyed reverence at the copper. Timidly, he reached out, accepting the coin. He continued to stare awe-struck at the copper nestled in his palm.
“Thank you, Mr. Ordell, sir,” the boy gazed up into Emmitt’s stern eyes.
“You see to your own brothers, now,” Emmitt indicated the still seething Bret, now standing with help from Darrell. “And be sure to tell your parents what happened here.”
He leaned towards the boy confidentially.
“You tell them everything that happened here. If they have anything further to say about it, they can speak with me later this evening. I’m about to have a very long talk with these two.”
Emmitt glanced harshly at Richard and Hank before looking back to Kent.
“I will, Mr. Ordell, sir,” the little Witkin boy nodded fervently.
“Off with you, now,” Emmitt waved the boy off.
Without hesitation, Kent turned and trotted off to join his two older brothers, and the three of them meandered away.
Emmitt stood with fists on hips, scowling disapproval into Richard for a long moment.
Just as Richard started to explain himself, Emmitt’s hand whipped around delivering a firm smack to the back of his scalp. Richard’s head jerked forward as he clasped his eyes shut, and he clenched his jaw more in annoyance than in pain.
“Well, you most certainly finished that fight!”
Richard opened his eyes to return his own scowl while his dad pressed on.
“And with quite the flourish, I’d say. Seems like you’ve gone and forgotten proper temperament the more you’ve advanced your staff work. You intend to resolve all confrontations like that, from here on out?”
“I wouldn’t have to resolve them,” Richard hissed through his teeth, “if other folks didn’t start trouble all the time.”
“So you intend to resolve everything that way?” Emmitt’s voice rose in bewilderment. “You mean to beat on anything that upsets you? Assault children?”
Richard squinted in confusion at his dad.
“Kent is nine,” Emmitt continued. “Nine, Richard. One whole year older than your brother, Hank, while you’re nearly an adult. You can’t keep tussling about like an ill-tempered child with everyone who crosses you. Look at me.”
Emmitt gestured to himself by tapping an open palm over his chest.
“Do you see me knocking folks flat on their backsides? Kicking their teeth in?”
The question took Richard by surprise. This wasn’t something he had anticipated his dad would say.
“No, Dad,” he meant it with every fiber of his being.
Emmitt drew in uncomfortably close, and stared straight into Richard’s baffled eyes.
“You need to learn how to carry yourself in society, Son,” Emmitt urged fervently. “You need to learn to be more cordial, even with those who you are certain are in the wrong. You still need to show proper tact and manners. Or you’ll end up like those you claim to combat, and only make trouble for yourself.”
Richard shifted slightly in impatience, but continued to return his dad’s gaze as he listened.
“Did you see how I resolved the issue today?”
Richard gave a small nod.
“Did I resort to fists and blows?”
“No,” Richard mumbled in response.
“And would you say that the issue is well resolved, or not?”
Richard exhaled audibly as he clenched his teeth together.
“Learn how to work with the members of your society,” Emmitt implored. “Remember that they’re people, too, and they have many needs. Some like your own, and others different from yours. But they still deserve respect, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Richard mumbled even softer than before.
Emmitt grasped both of Richard’s shoulders in the kind of grip that indicated how important this next part was.
“Remember your dreams, Richard,” Emmitt pressed. “Remember them always, and don’t ever throw them away. Be that example you want to be. Be the man you aspire to be, always, and never be anything less. Act like that man, always. Be fair, and honorable. Be better than just some rough who knows only how to throw sticks. Her Grace knows you can hold your own, but it’s time to stop relying on your fists. It’s time you start using this.”
Emmitt prodded a firm finger against the middle of Richard’s forehead.
“Use what you’ve got between your ears, and use it more. You’ll be better off that way. Fists should only ever be the very last option you go with. Don’t pursue it. Use your head, and think your way through conflict. Let your thoughts stand for what’s true. It’s time to be a man.”
Richard’s eyes cast about one general spot to another as he pondered over what his dad had just told him. It was a lot to take in, and he didn’t know just how happy about it he was. It all just seemed too cheery of an approach. Such high hopes didn’t seem to hold up well in reality, from what Richard had seen. With a heavy sigh he finally nodded his understanding.
Emmitt gave a look that was hard to place, but eventually dropped his hands from Richard’s shoulders and stepped back with dry satisfaction.
“I’m sorry for all the trouble, Dad,” Hank mumbled in shame. “I promise no more debt. Once I pay you back, then that’s that.”
“Too right, you’ll pay me back,” Emmitt confirmed. “Now, do you two want to learn something about your future profession, or not?”
“We still get to see the royal king’s procession?” Hank looked up with hope filled eyes.
“Get to?” Emmitt scoffed. “You mean you’re going to, whether you like it, or not. Today’s a day of history being made, and I want you two to see it. This could very well be the most important day of our lives. Now let’s go get Eli, and be off.”
A wild ram meandered down the steep slope with his family of seven in tow. Noticing Richard, along with his brothers and dad, the stout creature came to a halt. Raising his horns high, he studied the four people as his kids and ewes huddled around him. Emmitt motioned to Richard and his brothers to hold for a moment, and they all waited and watched for a long while. Satisfied, at last, that all was clear, the ram proceeded down the slope. As the wild sheep made their way off, Emmitt turned to the three with a studious look.
“Even creatures that may look soft and cuddly can still lash out with all the ferocity of an angry badger.” Emmitt glanced between the three of them, but Richard felt with some annoyance that this was intended for him. “Animals defend their offspring just as much as people defend their children. If we were to walk up too closely for it’s liking, that ram could’ve charged right through any of us. Richard and I, included.”
He pointed between the two of them for emphasis, before looking Richard straight in the eyes.
“There’s no need to go antagonizing. Best to let things be. Take the initiative in showing patience, and allow yourself to give time to others.”
Then he looked at Hank.
“Think of how your actions may impact others, and don’t ever do anything that may grieve them. Acquiring debt is one of the fastest ways into trouble. Trouble for yourself, your loved ones, and others.”
Emmitt gave a small smile of reassurance. A moment of silence passed between them.
“Do you hear that?” Eli looked curiously at the rest.
“What?” Richard panned around in confusion. “The pipes?”
Eli nodded fervently, causing Richard to roll his eyes heavily.
“Eli, the pipes have been playing for hours now. We could hear them first thing this morning back at the house.”
“But they’ve changed now,” Eli observed. “They’re playing a different tune. Listen.”
Richard focused on the sound filling the air all around them. It was a strange piercing noise like thousands of ducks whistling at each other. He wasn’t sure how much he actually liked the sound, yet if peace was to reign he’d probably have to get used to hearing it to some extent. Regardless, the tune had indeed shifted, even if only into something else that was lively and upbeat.
“What are they playing now?” Eli asked.
“I don’t reckon anyone’s heard it in nearly a hundred years,” Hank pondered aloud. “Last time any Royal songs would’ve been played would’ve been back during the Old Kingdom. Back when our great-granddad first came here.”
“When your great-granddad first came here,” Emmitt glanced between them with a wondrous look, “he heard those songs during times of war. Now that the Revolution is over, it’s time we hear those songs during peace. The world is changing, and a new future awaits us. It’s just over that summit, there.”
He nodded his head towards the hill crest above them.
“Let’s go have a look.”
Emmitt grinned broadly up at the summit as they continued along the path. A steady spring breeze brushed passed as the sun shone gently upon them. It built in strength the closer they came to the summit, swaying the tall grass with increasing vigor.
The further they hiked, the heavier both Hank’s and Eli’s breathing became. Richard looked over his shoulder at them. Noting their excited expressions and lack of sweat, he rounded about to better face his two panting brothers.
“You two alright?” Richard knelt before them. “Do you need to rest?”
Hank shook his head slightly, while Eli’s head could’ve spun around his own neck from how hard he shook.
“We’re almost there anyway,” Eli indicated, “and we’re not even that tired. We can make it, yet.”
“Alright, then,” Richard smiled proudly, “but go ahead of me. I got your backs.”
Grinning from ear to ear, Eli trotted up after Emmitt, panting all the while.
“Thanks, Richard,” Hank gave him a polite smile as he passed.
Nodding assurance, Richard followed after them, and their climb recommenced. Higher up they went, and the breeze gathered in strength still, carrying with it the ever nearing song of Royal pipes. Coming within the final dozen yards or so to the summit, the climb became much more difficult. Progress ground to a crawl as Emmitt and Richard worked to help both Hank and Eli along the treacherous path. Even Emmitt was beginning to pant from the exertion, yet he encouraged the younger two along with patience and a caring smile. With the final hurdle cleared, Emmitt drew the three into a close huddle.
“Just a few yards left,” he could barely contain his own excitement, “and we’ll be the first ones of the whole empire to see the royal king’s procession. We’ll be the first to see our future. A future between our two peoples. Between us humans and half-elves.”
Motioning them forward, he waited to come up behind them. All four stepped towards the summit, eager to see what lay beyond. Royal pipes shrieked in the steady breeze, and at last they could see beyond the hills. Everything clear out to the distant Nir River came into view, and Richard felt his wonder turn instantly to shock.
Richard recalled the various processions that had passed through their town during his childhood. Merchant authorities, diplomatic emissaries, and military commanders all emblazoned with imperial flare. All journeying into the mysterious territory north of the river. A land said to be home to half-elves, and to be in constant struggle.
He remembered the soldiers that had marched through the last few years. Entire armies inscribed with the rising sun of the New Dawn, crossed over to quell the ever expanding half-elven revolution. So many entered, yet he couldn’t recall seeing any return. The Revolution had been crushing for Richard’s people.
Standing on the summit, now, it looked more like an army than a procession marching along the highway. Thousands of tiny figures in Royal burgundy and sage flowed across the roadway, polearms held aloft. Some sat higher up on horseback at certain intervals, their lances waving slightly in the breeze. So many cavalry interspersed amongst a horde of infantry.
The flags of the New Brytorian Kingdom and it’s three royal states led the entire mass along with dozens of vicious pikes. Nearly a quarter mile up the highway, a break in the polearms and a flash of flamboyant color hinted to the positioning of the pipers. Behind them, dozens of heavy horsemen trotted after, the sun glinting off their plate armor. Several carriages drove along, interspersed amongst the knights. It was impossible to tell which was the royal king’s, but the lead one bore a massive knotted insignia held aloft by a pole. Following the carriages, the remainder of the royal king’s escort seemed to stretch off into the horizon.
“That’s the royal king’s procession?” Richard stared on in bewilderment as the army below marched through their stunned silence.
“There’s so many,” Eli’s awe finally broke free. “Are they all here?”
“Why would they all come?” Hank seemed uncertain. “Are the peace negotiations that important to them?”
“Yes,” Emmitt’s voice came like a forced breath. “That’s exactly it, Hank. It’s just that important to the Royals.”
Richard glanced side-ways to catch Hank and Eli appearing completely overwhelmed to know what to think. Looking at his dad, though, he caught something he’d never seen before. Emmitt turned to him, then, all color drained from his face. Mouth agape, and eyes bulging, sweat began to trickle off his forehead.
“Everything’s going to be fine, Son,” Emmitt lied. “Everything’s going to be just fine. You’ll see.”
Turning back to the stream of royal soldiers, Emmitt pulled both Hank and Eli close to him, squeezing their shoulders. Richard stepped up to his side, and placed an arm over his dad’s shoulder.
“You’ll see,” Emmitt whispered in an attempt of reassurance.
The four of them stood there, huddled together for a long while, as the burgundy and sage mass marched along to the shrieking of Royal pipes.