The Forbidden Spark - Chapter 4

May 26 2020

Selenia left just before dawn the next morning, still groggy from a poor night's sleep. She'd hoped that sleeping in a familiar bed might help keep the feverish dreams at bay, but had found no such luck.

Part of her regretted not waiting for Reese to get up before departing. The man was owed a goodbye, but talking to him the previous night had precipitated in her a complicated mixture of guilt and hesitation. Fleeing the whole situation had proved the path of least resistance, if not the honorable one. She only hoped that some day, she'd be able to tell him the whole story.

Selenia reached the ramparts of Renise early that afternoon. Her leg felt marginally better, allowing a swifter pace. A light rain drizzled over the capital city as she walked under the western gate, steel teeth drawn up to the top of the massive arch. She took a deep breath, catching whiffs of ocean salt accumulated in the air. The scent sparked a stream of childhood memories, bouncing around in her head in free association.

She passed the merchant's square, catching the shrieks and giggles of children running after each other between the carts and merchandise stands. Youngsters were a frequent sight inside Renise, and a rare sight outside of it. Over time, the frequency and brutality of the orc raids had forced the Crown's hand in mandating that all children of the surrounding region be boarded by the Church, until they were of age to enlist, some time between sixteen and eighteen years old. Large dormitories and classrooms had sprung on the northeast side of the city, and day by day the minds of Saphrin's future generations were carefully molded by the lectures of the clerics.

Moving there at age nine with her mother had proved difficult. The thick stone walls of Renise had served as a constant reminder that she was no longer free to roam the vast expanse of the Gerlitz countryside, and her fellow students had not facilitated the transition one bit. Her only solace had been the proximity of her mother's home, a humble cottage by the northern docks. The only refuge from the daily torments of a boarding student's life, she'd visited it as often as she'd been able.

Arriving there now, Selenia wondered once more why Nora had chosen to settle in a property so close to the ocean. Perhaps there'd simply been no other option, but the sea's constant reminder of her father's death on a boating accident, the very tragedy that had precipitated their move to the capital city, seemed like an awfully steep recurring price to pay.

The front door quickly swung wide open following Selenia's rhythmic knock, the same pattern she'd always used when visiting as a child. Nora stood beaming in the entryway. "Selenia! You really came! I did not expect you here so soon," she said as she squeezed her daughter with her signature bear hug. "Come in, come in."

The cottage was a little messier than Selenia had last seen it, with half-finished shoes and boots spread out between sheets of leather. Crafting had been Nora's third act, following her life as a farmer near Gerlitz and her mandatory service in the Renisian Infantry before then. She'd earned enough renown at her skill that she now worked for the Crown Makers Guild, crafting light footwear. And by the looks of it, she'd been taking some of her work home.

"Don't worry," said Nora, pouring tea into a pair of clay cups. "I can clear up some room and lay down a cot for you. Are you staying long?"

"Just for the night. I need to talk to a couple people in Southtown, and then I'm off tomorrow."

"Be careful down there dear," warned her mother. "It really hasn't gotten any safer lately. If anything, the Black Daggers have only grown bolder."

"Don't worry, one week stuck in bed with the clerics taught me my lesson. I'll be careful." The pained look on her mother's face instantly made her regret the quip. "But maybe you can actually help me with this. During your years in Gerlitz, did you ever hear about a place called Ryst? It's supposedly in Brekeren, far to the northwest."

Nora took a sip from her tea. "The name sounds vaguely familiar, but nothing in particular comes to mind. What is it?"

Selenia pressed right past the question. "What about… I'm trying to find a high-ranking Mountaineer, through unofficial channels. Do you know any?"

Her mother frowned. "Mountaineers? The Bluefinch outlaws?"

Selenia nodded, cupping her hands around the steaming tea.

Nora's brow furrowed in consideration. "Well… There was, hmm… I wouldn't want anything to happen to him. You know they're a pretty secretive bunch."

"I understand. This is not Scout business, this is personal. I'm not going to report any of this to anyone."

"What are you getting yourself into now, Selenia?"

Selenia gave her a stubborn look. "Mom, please. This is important."

Nora sighed. "Do you remember old Kaarl? He lived in Renise when we moved here. We served in the Infantry together, ages ago. I'm sure you've seen him at least once or twice. He still comes by the shop every once in a while, often with a couple extra hands as he typically buys in bulk. 'Shepherd,' they always call him."

"I think so? Maybe? I'm sure I'll recognize him. Do you know if he's at the Lendmar outpost?" asked Selenia.

"I don't know what that is dear. It's not like he tells me about his business when he comes in. We talk, but not about any of that." Nora laid one hand on her daughter's, looking at her insistently. "Selenia, what is this about?"

"I'm just trying to solve a puzzle is all. I promise that I am doing everything I can right now to stay safe, and take care of myself." Her mother relaxed a little at that. "That man, Kaarl," she continued, "is he a good man?"

Nora nodded twice, without hesitation. "He is," she said. "So please make sure that you don't toss him in a bind."

"I won't tell a soul," promised Selenia. She took a moment to appreciate the irony of having to give her that assurance. If only her mother knew just how little she wanted to tell anyone about any of it.