Al wasn’t the most observant person in the world, but even he understood that several days of cold shoulders from Raulin and Anla meant they didn’t want to speak with him. He didn’t want to talk to Sakilei, and Tel was usually speaking with the half-elf and couldn’t hold a conversation with Al, so he had no one left to talk to but himself. And he didn’t care that he got strange looks from the others when he did so.

He decided he was going to write a field guide cum autobiography and used the silence as the invisible tablet to his audial quill and ink. He spoke about the conditions of the roads and towns, whether something looked suspicious or nice, the people that milled around, all in a low mutter and feverish cadence.

The group passed southwesterly along the Route of the Woods. Al got a few chapters done on the local flora and fauna as well as that recounted that one time he almost failed an exam because he had slept too late that day. They passed another few days on the trail and Al wrote a treatise on Tichen and his lesser known works. He also felt it was important to discuss the Br’vani people and what that meant to him.

He was in full-blown discourse on Berothian fables when Raulin brought dinner to Anla and sat next to her. “Do you think it’s time we do something about that?” he asked in Arvonnese, nodding his head to the rambling wizard.

“It still hurts,” she said. “I’ve done everything I can for him, yet he still thinks of me as some enemy. He doesn’t understand me, and until he’s willing to finally give instead of take, and to face what he did, I think we’re fine. Well, not ‘fine’, but okay existing near each other by not speaking with each other. I know it’s not the most mature way to…”

“I understand,” he interrupted. “I don’t like what he did any less than you. But, as angry as I still am with him, I’m still reminded that he is a person. He’s a man who’s lost everything in his life: his job, his family, his best friend, and now us, whatever we were to him.”

“I know,” she said, sighing. “I…I’ll forgive him. Just, not now.”

When the Berothian fables were finished, Al looked up to see that the group was split again. He got his bowl of stew and began dictating about them in between bites. Across from him sat Raulin and Anla, who leaned against each other in front of the fire. Raulin was a trirec, though it was more important to look past that when understanding his character. He was a man who chose to continue his profession when there were plenty of others he could pick from other than slicing mens throats. He claimed it was due to his order being able to find him and killing him for leaving, but if he was such a great trirec, why couldn’t he avoid them? And if he really wasn’t a great trirec, why would they bother to look for him in the first place?

Anla was a baerd, and he thought he might be able to one day write a refreshed history on that subject. That would be an important book to write for Ghenians. Perhaps he could teach a class on it at Amandorlam. They didn’t know what he knew about her kind, about the enslavement they could cast onto a man. If only a baerd got close to the king or one of his viziers…Maybe that’s why King Lerent, Taneus’ father, had ordered the peace summits with the elves and the eventual drawing of the Nui-Breckin Law. A baerd had forced it. It was something he’d have to look into and let Amandorlam know about should he find enough proof.

Telbarisk was speaking with Sakilei, per usual. (Oh, Al had forgotten that he could write quite a bit on grivvens for Amandorlam.) Al had no issues with Tel, aside from the fact that he had spent quite a bit of time with the half-elf, which meant he could be compromised. Actually, since he’d had some time to think about it, he did have a problem with Tel.

He listened. Tel and the half-elf spoke what he assumed was Elvish. Anla and Raulin lapsed in and out of Ghenian, favoring something that might have been Arvonnese. Even though none of them acknowledged Al’s presence, he felt like they were talking about him nonetheless. Why else would they speak in languages he didn’t know? Why would they splinter off and speak in partnerships?

They were plotting something, he realized. Something that didn’t include him. Or was it something involving him?

Al went to bed that night and woke with that same thought in his head. He realized it wouldn’t be a positive thing; his birthday was in January and they didn’t like him very much right now. In fact, they really didn’t like him. It was like he wasn’t there to them, setting out his plates of food and ignoring him completely. It would be best for them if he wasn’t there.

Or alive. Yes, it would be best for the four of them if he was dead right now. And since he had no reassurances that the quartet couldn’t survive a death, and he’d never fully believed it to be the case, he began to understand how easy it would be for a trirec to slice his throat and steal his chalice.

But, maybe, they had to have four people. He’d never thought of it before, but perhaps the spell and its one year expanse only started when the fourth person took their sip. If you lost one or never found the fourth person, maybe the spell would last forever.

And if your group decided to kill one of its members, you would want to start your year as soon as possible with a new member.

Anla moved back as they walked on the Route and spoke to Sakilei. “How long were you with the hunters, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I was taken when I was sixteen, so twenty-three years.”

She let out a pained breath. “So long. I don’t understand how people could do that.”

“I understand well enough. I started as pain. I’m what the polite Ghenians call a ‘product of war’. My father was some nameless Ghenian soldier who helped raid my mother’s tribe. She said over half the men fighting were slaughtered as well as some of the women and children. They burned my mother’s village. She escaped, not without scars and suffering.

“They rebuilt a place more secure and stronger, but peace and laws wiped out any chance of revenge. Under the friendly banner, the Ghenians came and inspected my tribe and found me. She screamed and cried when they took me, but she could do nothing. If there was no peace, the tribe would have slit the throats of the bounty hunters that took me. That peace strangles.

“And since then, I’ve been with one group of bounty hunters or another. Sometimes they are professional. Sometimes they are vile and hedonistic. Most have fallen in the middle. If you ask if I regret killing Casquio, my answers with always be ‘no’. What he did and what he had me do, just one tenth would be worth his death.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

“Say this: I whev kalav. You have sorrow, but you are not sorry. It is not your fault that my life has been the way it is, but you still empathize and mourn with me.”

I whev kalav,” she said.

He nodded. “Do you mind if I ask you a question in return?”

“No, go ahead.”

“Why is your strange, dark little man staring at me so much?”

She turned to look at Al, who was glaring at Sakilei with open hostility. She sighed. “I think he’s jealous. I’m not entirely sure; his voice has sounded strange since you’ve joined us and I don’t recognize what emotion it is. It’s not quite anger.”

“I think he’s a bit crazed. Sometimes we would find men in the middle of the woods like him, barking at the moon like wolves, sleeping in caves, eating pine cones. It’s a strange sight to behold; men choosing to be less then men. I sort of enjoyed them, since it meant that not everyone wanted to be a proper Ghenian gentleman.”

“I don’t think Al is going to be eating pine cones any time soon; he palate is far too refined.” She bit her lip. “He is going through something right now. You didn’t meet him when we were in Whitney, but he was far different. He’s always had a problem with my magic and me being a piscarin, but I thought we had reached a sort of unspoken truce about the matter. He also seemed to be lightening up about his morals. He sees the world in black and white; either you’re good and law-abiding, or you’re evil and a law-breaker.”

“A man named ‘Gray’ doesn’t see things in shades?”

She laughed lightly. “It’s an ironic moniker, I suppose. No, for the longest time he didn’t like us, especially Raulin, because of our moral ambiguity. He’s had some moments of his own recently, so I had hoped he would begin to see the world differently. But, no. He’s backtracked in the last few weeks. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I don’t think he’s anything to worry about.”

That night was calm and quiet. With the fire going and no foul weather in Telbarisk’s sight, they all camped under the stars, save Al. He was inside his tent shortly after dinner and hadn’t said anything to anyone, not even himself.

It was sometime after they had fallen asleep that Al quietly opened the flap to his tent. The fire was almost out and there was no moon in the sky to illuminate him as he crept towards the sleeping figures. He ignored the largest one across the fire from him. He ignored the two figures sleeping side-by-side, their limbs tangled with each other. He made for the remaining one.

Sakilei was on his side, not how Al needed him. No matter; he could exercise patience. He waited until finally the half-elf shifted so that he was on his back, facing the stars. Al didn’t hesitate. He raised his arms and plunged the knife down.

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  • Monica

    May 27, 2019 at 2:02 pm Reply

    I have no idea what’s going on, but I’m very intrigued. And I also want to shake Anla and Raulin for leaving him alone when he’s creepily muttering to himself and glaring at everyone. I mean, she’s right not to forgive him, but he’s also clearly going crazy, so they should at least be watching out for him, knowing that he has all his magic stuff. Aah, though I guess maybe they are and I’ll see that next chapter. I want to know what’s going on! My guess is he’s been using the Unease on low constantly and it’s been messing with his head, but I don’t know how likely that is since he hasn’t gotten the periodic depression from going off it, unless using it just a little just gives him constant paranoia?

    Dammit, Al, I’m trying so hard to like him and he’s making it so hard for me. (I don’t know why I’ve latched on to him when the other three are more sympathetic, but I feel like there’s going to be some good emotional pay-off with him here). Anyway, the story’s fun and thanks for writing 🙂

    • Forest Green

      May 27, 2019 at 2:51 pm Reply

      I had someone on Royal Road also say they were confused about what’s going on with Al, which is where you should be with him. Though, the answer is more or less what you’ve guessed. And the quartet does need some work before the year’s up; it seems simple to stick four people together and just have them be nice to each other, but in this case it isn’t. Which is one of the reasons why they were bound together; one of them will need unwavering loyalty from the other three by the time the spell is done and this is a way to almost guarantee that happens.

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