by Alice Baine
A farewell party is interrupted by upsetting news.
|It took twice as long to get back to the orchard on foot. By the time they reached Haley’s home, the setting sun had doused the land in an amber hue, and growing shadows had begun to crawl along the foot of the hills. Crickets were preparing odes for the coming nightfall. The two paused outside the front door.
“Thanks for walking with me,” said Haley. Her eyes fell to the ground. “I feel a little nervous after seeing that foreign man.”
“Don’t worry about him,” replied Dryden. “Byromar isn’t the town to visit if you’re looking for trouble.”
They stood in awkward silence as Dryden scrambled for something to say. “You and your parents are still welcome to come to Vilitamian’s farewell party, if you’d like.”
“I can’t,” murmured Haley. “I have to catch up on all the work I skipped today. But I’m glad we got to go to the bluffs.” She opened the door and stepped inside. “Enjoy the party.”
The door clicked shut. Dryden remained in place for a moment, his gaze resting idly on the door’s weathered and split oak panels. He returned to the road with a dull weight tugging on his heart. Pity for Murar intermingled with his own self-empathy. That man had no chance with Haley, and neither did he. Murar lacked the wit, the looks, and the personality, he lacked the human blood required for an acceptable courtship.
I should just forget about it. She’s already risking her reputation by spending time with a thruin. And it’s not like it can go anywhere.
He kicked at the fallen twigs and loose pebbles strewn across the main road. A faint wind caressed the leaves of nearby trees. The flames of sunset had begun to give way to the moon’s flaccid glow, while Zaltoras prowled along the horizon, slowly engulfing the sky as it prepared to encumber the land in another indefinite stretch of dreariness. Watching it brought an unexpected pang of loss, as if Dryden were bidding farewell to a close friend.
I hope it’s not another two years before Zaltoras leaves again.
Cheerful voices drifted over the hills as he neared his home. A dancing ball of orange glowed in the distance, a sure sign that Flint had started a fire out by the barn. Candlelight seeped through the house’s cracked shutters, and the smell of pie wafted from inside. Dryden hurried his pace, but the rustle of nearby footsteps froze him in place. Two dark figures scurried away from the property then vanished behind a thicket of trees.
Who was that? They’re going the opposite direction of the main road. They’ll end up in the middle of nowhere if they go that way.
He debated following them, but thought better of sneaking up on people in the dark. They were either drunk, lovers, or both. He headed for the back entrance to his house instead, away from the voices that laughed alongside the flickering bonfire. He climbed the crumpled steps and jostled the door until it unjammed itself from its sagging frame.
A sweltering heat welcomed him as he entered. Nearly a dozen candles lit the house. The kitchen’s brick oven billowed with flames. People crowded in the sitting room to his left, chatting, clinking mugs together, and filling the air with merry voices. Baked goods and hoppy ale teased his nostrils.
His focus narrowed on a staircase straight ahead, barricaded by droves of partygoers. He buried his hands in his pockets to prevent any eyes from settling on the bandages that ran from his knuckles to his wrists. Gaze downcast, he marched in the direction of the stairs in an attempt to reach his room uninterrupted.
Hardly a dozen strides passed before someone took him by the shoulder. He spun about to find his sister Monilia fixated on him, her azure eyes bright as two stars. “Where have you been?” she asked in a playfully stern tone. “I spent all afternoon cleaning. I could’ve used your help.”
Dryden gave a weak shrug. “Sorry, I didn’t know you wanted me around. I figured you’d want to be alone with Vilitamian today.”
Monilia rolled her eyes. “Please. I can’t wait for him to leave.”
Dryden didn’t reply, somewhat bemused by the remark. Monilia held a serious face for a moment, then broke into a grin. “I’m joking. It’s going to be the longest five months of my life. I have to plan the wedding all by myself. It’s a little stressful, to be honest.”
“Well, if you need any help with that,” offered Dryden, “let me know.”
Monilia twisted a length of hair around her finger. “Men don’t make good wedding planners. I’ll let you and father handle the lifting and moving once we’ve started setting up.”
Dryden chuckled. “Fair enough.”
“So where were you today?” asked Monilia. “You’re never this late coming home. You weren’t trying to outwait the party, were you?”
“No, I went to the bluffs today.”
Monilia’s eyes lit up. “Really? Who’d you go with?”
“Wait…” Dryden hesitated a moment. “…Why do you think I went with someone?”
His sister’s lips bowed in a mischievous grin. “I’m not a dunce, little brother. You went with Haley, didn’t you?”
Dryden felt his face flush. He ducked his head and turned away from Monilia as she giggled to herself.
“You make it sound so scandalous,” he muttered. “It’s not like that.”
“‘It’s not like that’,” chided Monilia, her tone rife with mockery. “Spare me! You’re enamoured whenever she’s around. You’d have to be blind not to notice.”
“Whatever,” grumbled Dryden. “You’re still exaggerating. Let me go change out of my work clothes.”
He rushed for the stairs, but Monilia called out behind him. “Hurry back down! I want to know everything she said.”
Dryden spoke over his shoulder in reply. “It’ll bore you.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
Dryden sighed, though he couldn’t keep a grin from forming. His sister had a way of lifting his spirits.
Nobody else bothered him as he climbed to the upstairs’ cramped confines. He crouched below the slanted ceiling and slipped into his bedroom. Darkness welcomed him as he shut the door. A thick sheet of fabric prevented any light from passing through the lone window. The bed rested to his left, and a dresser stood straight ahead on the opposite wall. He walked blindly through the blackness until his fingers pressed against the face of the dresser. After changing into a new pair of clothes, he untied the bandages wrapped around his hands and tossed the strips of fabric to the floor. He stood for a moment, running a finger along the bumps on the back of his bare hand.
They were hard as marble, as if gems had been imbedded into his skin. Two larger pieces lay half-buried in both palms, with thick veins trickling down to his wrists. Feeling the bumps reminded him of when they first appeared eight years ago. He could have filled a bathtub with the blood that dripped from his hands. The pain had been unlike anything he’d ever endured. Now, they were nothing more than horrible scars, ones which he felt compelled to keep covered.
The drawer grated against the dresser sides as he pulled it open, his mind half-glazed by the sour memories. Rows of clean bandages lined the inside, all neatly folded and organized. He took a new pair and wound the fabric from his wrist, over the rigid scars, up past his knuckles.
Hands covered, he retraced his steps to the stairs and pattered back into the frenzied buzz of Vilitamian’s farewell party. Monilia stood at the base of the staircase, caught in a seemingly uninteresting conversation with an older woman. As Dryden joined her side, she rested a hand on the lady’s arm.
“And here he is now. It was lovely speaking to you, Rita.”
Rita gave a wrinkled smile and greeted Dryden with a taut nod of the head. Dryden exchanged half of a formality before Monilia tugged him in the direction of the kitchen. “Let’s get something to eat.”
They wormed past the folks lingering about the oven’s scorching fire. A kettle screeched as it spat steam into the air. Fingers plucked at the array of food laid out on the dining table.
“Give me the details,” said Monilia. “You asked her to go to the bluffs, she said yes, then what?”
“She actually asked me,” replied Dryden. He gave a brief recount of all that had happened, though he excluded the details about the foreigner they had crossed. It only took one extra pair of stray ears before something like that would erupt into a blaze of rumours.
Monilia’s zeal had dwindled to a contemplative expression by the time Dryden neared the end of his story. “So she didn’t even seem to consider coming to the party?”
Dryden shrugged. “She’s got a lot of work to do, I guess.”
Monilia gave a sympathetic smile. “Well, she wanted to spend the day with you. I think that’s a promising start.”
“You make it sound like I’m courting her.” Dryden broke the corner off a biscuit he had taken from the closest dish. “There’s no point. You know the—”
Monilia cut him off with a wave of the hand. “Yeah, yeah. It’s against the law for thruins and humans to marry. I wouldn’t worry about that.”
“The punishment is stoning.”
Monilia furrowed her brow. “And who’s going to stone you? This is Byromar, not Feldamor or one of those other big cities.”
Dryden opened his mouth, but his sister raised a finger. “You’re bringing me down with your seriousness. Look, there’s Deletha. Seems like she’s having a grand time.”
Deletha, the oldest of the three siblings, stood cross-armed by the dining table, watching her husband as he wove some kind of bombastic tale to a deeply engrossed couple. She looked over at Dryden and Monilia, rolled her eyes, then accompanied them by the oven.
“I swear,” she said. “Wismire always has to make a scene with his stories. I thought I married a farmer, not an actor.”
“You can hear his voice from across the room,” said Dryden with a smirk.
Wismire flicked his wrists, as if he were snapping the reins of a horse. His small audience laughed as he rode atop an imaginary steed. He careened to the side, yanked on the reins, and accidentally spilled a drink resting on the edge of the table.
Deletha buried her face in her palms. “Oh, he can be so embarrassing sometimes!”
“If it makes you feel any better,” said Monilia, “Vilitamian is drunk as a sailor right now. I don’t even know where he is.”
“You two picked interesting men to marry,” said Dryden.
Deletha made a helpless gesture. “What fun would marriage be if your partner was plain and ordinary?”
“Speaking of marriage,” said Monilia with a wink. “Dryden spent his day at the bluffs with a certain someone.”
Deletha’s eyes glowed. A mocking grin creased her face. “Oh, really? So that’s why he was out so late.”
“That has nothing to do with marriage,” grumbled Dryden. “And it’s not why I’m late.”
Deletha made a smug expression. “Is that so? Did you get lost on your way back, perhaps? Maybe stumbled into the bushes by accident?”
Cheeks burning, Dryden fumbled for an answer. His sisters both seemed to relish in his discomfort. He muttered a few half-formed phrases, then nearly cried out in relief as their mother Liliana joined the circle. “Dryden, where’ve you been all evening?” Her narrow cheeks and delicate lips twisted into a scowl, as if her own question annoyed her. “Actually, it doesn’t matter. Could you take some wood to the bonfire?”
Dryden’s shoulders relaxed. “Gladly.” He cast his sisters a vengeful look as he parted, though it only managed to draw snickers from the two. Navigating his way past the guests, he escaped the dense heat of the house and inhaled the fresh air outside. The shed rested a stone’s throw away; its rickety form paled in comparison to the one he was building for Martron. Rain always leaked through the straw roof, and the rotting beams looked ready to give out with the slightest gust of wind.
The smell of damp wood and moss hung heavy inside. Dryden shooed away several flies then grabbed an armload of wood. Loose pieces of bark clung to his bandages. He grimaced. Not many things annoyed him as much as dirtying a brand new pair he’d just put on.
People cheered as he arrived at the bonfire with a new stock of wood. The crowd had grown to over a dozen, seated in a semi-circle with drinks in hand. Dryden noticed Vilitamian among the group, staring at him with the glossy eyes of a man who’d drank more than he could handle. He held up his mug and hollered. “Oi! It’s my future brother! A fine replacement, if I do say so!”
He leapt from his seat and nearly fell into the fire. Foam sloshed over the lip of his mug as hands reached out to steady him. He pulled away, and wavering like a skipjack caught in a storm, he bumbled towards Dryden. “You know—” He hiccupped, wrapped his arm around Dryden, then led him away from the fire. “My only brother died when I was nine years old. The flu, I think it was.”
“Yes, you’ve told me before,” said Dryden.
Vilitamian tipped his head back and finished his drink. He shook the last remaining drops from the rim, then looked up at Dryden, his expression grave. “What I mean is, I think fate has sent you as a replacement. Because my father ran off when I was four, and my brother passed away five years later. I look up to you and Flint. You’re the role models I never had.”
Dryden craned his neck to escape Vilitamian’s rancid breath. “That’s kind of you to say.”
Vilitamian looked towards the horizon, as if he were deep in thought. He let out a long sigh. “I’m going to be gone for a while. I want you to take good care of Monilia till I’m back.” He held up his hand like a poet at a recital. “I love her more than a bird loves the sky. If I lost her, I don’t think I’d want to live anymore.”
“Me neither,” said Dryden. “She’s the best sister I could ask for.”
Vilitamian murmured in agreement. “Since I’m leaving, I wanted to tell you that I think you’re alright. I know I haven’t talked to you all that much, or been the friendliest, but I like you. I hope you’ll be happy to call me a brother.”
Dryden patted Vilitamian on the back. “Of course I will. But we ought to get you some water. I don’t want you vomiting in the guest bed tonight.”
Vilitamian ran a hand through his sandy-coloured hair. “You know, I think you’re right. I’d love some water.”
Dryden took Vilitamian’s mug and helped him towards the house, one wobbly step at a time. They laboured up the front step, teetering every inch of the way. Dryden reached for the door, but paused at the sound of feverish footsteps drumming from the outskirts of the property.
He squinted into the shadows. Someone sped towards the house while gasping for air, as if they’d been running for hours. A short, stocky silhouette bound towards them, barged past, then flung open the door. It slammed into the coatrack and sent hats and jackets sprawling across the floor.
“My husband is missing!”
It was Bevera, one of the nearby neighbours, a stout, middle-aged woman currently doused in sweat. She hunched over to reel for air. “He hasn’t come home yet! Something’s happened!”
A hush fell over the party. Folks gathered around as Bevera began to bawl like a child. “He’s gone! I don’t know where he is! He’s never come home late before! I know something terrible has happened! I don’t want to be a lonely widow! What am I going to do?”
Dryden seated Vilitamian on the front step and watched Deletha take Bevera’s shaking hands in her own. “It’s okay. Deep breaths. What do you mean your husband is missing? What happened?”
Bevera wiped her eyes on her sleeve and let out a long huff. “Sargan always comes home right after sundown. We’ve been married thirty-two years, and he’s never stayed out this late—especially not without telling me. He went to Bonial Woods today to set some traps, and he still isn’t back. Something terrible has happened, I know it!”
Flint stepped forward. He rested a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Maybe he stopped to help a neighbour. Have you spoken to Tamel or Wislon?”
Bevera nodded feverishly. “I’ve talked to everyone, even Grien and Enli. None of them saw my husband today.”
Apprehensive murmurs started to fill the room as people wondered aloud over Sargan’s disappearance. Bevera began sobbing again. She buried her face in her hands, shoulders throbbing as she cried. Flint eyed the crowd with an irritated look. He raised his arms to quiet the room.
“Stop it, all of you! We don’t need to waste time guessing what happened. Dryden and I will go check Bonial Woods, and if we can’t find him, we’ll gather a group to search in the morning.”
“He won’t survive until then!” howled Bevera.
“You don’t know that.” Flint picked up the coatrack and sifted through the pile of clothes. He pulled out his hat, threw it on, and parted the thick brown hair from his eyes. “Why don’t you sit down and have a drink to calm yourself? We’ll be back before sunrise, and Sargan will be with us.”