The sun beat down on Dryden’s back, the warmth an odd phenomenon, one he wished he could take for granted. He set his hammer down and reclined on the shed’s half-finished roof. A spotless sky smiled down at him, the eternal stretch of blue interrupted only by a lone golden sphere. Zaltoras was nowhere in sight.
Funny that they would name a cloud, as if it were a living creature. When was the last time it vanished like this? Two years ago?
How strange the sun felt, its caress something neither fire nor steam could replicate. Why must it always hide beneath Zaltoras, that sheet of darkness? Zaltoras brought the rain, the thunder, the lightning—all unpleasant things. The sun brought warmth, brightness, tranquility—pleasant things.
Footsteps sounded somewhere nearby, snapping Dryden from his daydream. He sat up to a flock of sheep and the pasture’s rolling hills sprawled before him. He looked over his shoulder. His boss, Martron, walked towards him, his young son following at his heels like a loyal pup. “Young man, it seems like the sunshine is distracting you from my shed,” he said with a laugh.
Dryden fumbled for his hammer and box of nails, eyes searching for where he had left off. “I’m sorry. I just paused for a minute to look at the sky.”
Martron rubbed his chin with his wiry fingers. “It’s keeping us all from our work, eh? It’s nearly two hours past noon, and I’ve hardly moved.” He glanced down at his son. The boy stood with two fingers in his mouth, bright blue eyes fixed on Dryden. “Why do you look so frightened? Say hello.”
The boy muttered something incomprehensible and held up a wooden soldier for Dryden to see. Dryden smiled back. “That’s a nice toy you have.”
Dryden chuckled. “I won’t touch it.”
Martron tousled the boy’s hair. “It’s simply too difficult to work on a day like this. My wife and I plan to take my son on a picnic instead. Work will always be there tomorrow, right?”
Dryden scanned the shed Martron had hired him to build. The frame was finished, and the cedar siding had all been cut to size. It’d go up rather quickly, but if he focused on shingling the roof, he could have that done and out of the way by the end of the day.
“Dryden?” Martron looked up with a half-smile. “I said work will always be there tomorrow, right?”
Dryden scratched the stubble on his cheeks. “I can keep going…”
Martron waved his hand. “Pah! Zaltoras is gone. You’ve been working hard—you deserve a little break.”
“I really don’t mind...”
Martron’s grin faded. A serious expression overtook his hard-edged features. “Take the day off. And don’t run back home to help your father around the farm. Relax for a little while.”
A smile crept onto Dryden’s lips. He brushed the ink-black hair from his face and threw on a knitted hat. It was a little warm for the summer, but it hid his pointed ears well.
He gathered his tools and leapt from the roof, landing with the grace of a cat. “I appreciate your generosity,” he said, as he stowed everything in the shed. “I’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
“You deserve a day to yourself.” Martron gave him a sly wink. “A young man your age has other things to do besides work.”
“And what would those things be?”
Martron turned to leave. He spoke over his shoulder as his son chased after him. “Whatever men in their twenties like to do. Things a wife and child forced me to abandon.”
Dryden opened his mouth, paused, then departed without a word. Flocks of cinereal sheep bleated at the three as they crossed the fields to Martron’s home. The sizeable building dwarfed every other house in town. It garnered a state of near nobility with its proud display of brick and mortar, glass windows and slate roof. Beside it stood a wooden barn painted a strawberry red. Not a single board looked split or rotten. Even in a village as small as Byromar, the position of mayor promised wealth beyond what mere farming could ever produce.
Martron stopped at the door to his house. His son scampered inside while he remained beneath the porch’s awning. “You’re not going to the tavern, are you?”
The question caught Dryden off guard. “Why do you think I’m going there?”
A bout of guilt shaded Martron’s brow. “I was just asking. Don’t look so offended. I know you’re no carouser. It’s just…you might want to keep your distance. Gravenir told me some foreign looking fellows checked in recently. There’s quite a few of them, and um…” He chewed on his lip, eyes downcast as if he were about to give some tragic news. “…He’s not too sure what they think of thruins.”
Dryden flinched. As the lone thruin in a town of humans, the issue of standing out never seemed to wane. With his pointed ears covered, though, one would never suspect his race unless he were to somehow cut himself and they witnessed the exposed blood fade to its striking white colour. Even then, the chances of a confrontation were rare in a place like Byromar. But the thruins long, hostile history with humans still gave him enough reason to exercise wariness around any strangers.
“Thanks for the warning,” he said. He adjusted his hat and fluffed out his hair until it drooped across his shoulders.
A serious frown lingered about Martron’s jaw. “Sorry for bringing it up.”
Dryden smiled. “It’s better to be cautious.”
They bade farewell, and Dryden set his sights on the stretch of trampled grass that folks called the main road. Divots lined each side, formed by the heavy and frequent tread of wagon wheels. It wove along the edge of several forests capped in resplendent bouquets of lush verdure. They seemed to sparkle under the naked sun, and the leaves chattered gleefully with every gust of wind. Dryden took a long breath and imbibed the crisp aromas.
His trek brought him to an orchard. Rows of apple trees speckled the green hills with red and yellow dots. From somewhere deeper inside, a woman hummed to herself, her voice accompanied by buzzing bees and whistling birds.
Haley stood halfway up a ladder with her back turned to Dryden, stretched on her toes while she filled a basket with ripe fruit. Dryden crept unnoticed, picked a rotten apple from the ground, and tossed it in her direction. It bounced off the side of the ladder with a delightful thud.
Haley yelped and dropped her basket. The ladder wavered a moment before she steadied herself and collected her composure. “Dryden!” she cried. “I didn’t even hear you coming!” She brushed the hair from her face and gave a playful sneer. “You’re wicked. I nearly fell off.”
Dryden stooped over and began gathering the apples back into the basket. “Don’t worry, I would’ve caught you.”
Haley climbed down and knelt beside him. “I hope you’re prepared to explain to my father why all the apples are bruised.”
Dryden held one up, twisting the plump fruit with his fingers. “They look alright to me.”
“They don’t bruise immediately. What are you doing here anyway? Aren’t you building Martron a hay shed?”
“I am, but he told me to take the day off.”
Haley gave a sideways glance. “So you decided to bother me instead?”
Dryden stood up and threw the basket of apples onto his shoulder. “If it’s alright with you. Where should I bring these?”
Haley pointed to the far end of the orchard. “Would you carry it to the shop for me?”
“Only if you forgive me for scaring you.”
Haley rose to her feet and brushed loose blades of grass from her knees. “I’ll think about it.”
She led the way to the shop, a small wooden hut with a grand apple painted on a sign above the door. Metal chimes rang as they entered. The smell of baked fruit drifted from within.
Haley disrupted the chimes a second time as she shut the door behind them. “Father? Are you in here?”
A man appeared from behind a display of jelly with several jars cradled in his arms. “Hello, Haley.” He looked over at Dryden. “It seems you’ve found a helper.”
Dryden waved his free hand. “How are you, Chrizodo?”
“I’m doing well,” answered Haley’s father. “What brings you here?”
“Martron gave me the rest of the day off, so I thought I’d stop by.”
“That’s nice,” Chrizodo murmured, as he placed the jars onto an empty shelf. “How is your family doing? I hear your sister’s fiancé is leaving tomorrow morning.”
Dryden frowned. “Yes, Vilitamian will be gone for almost five months. But we’re having a farewell party tonight, if you’re interested.”
“I’ll do my best to make it,” said Chrizodo, never shifting his eyes away from the jelly.
Haley took the basket from Dryden and set it on a nearby counter. “Dryden asked me to go to the bluffs with him.”
“I didn’t—” Dryden’s words dried up in his mouth. Chrizodo eyed him with what looked like amusement, though his subtle expressions made it difficult to tell what he was thinking. “We have a lot of work to do,” he said to his daughter.
Haley tilted her head and smiled. “We always have lots of work to do. But Zaltoras is gone, and Dryden came all the way here to invite me. I don’t want to be rude.”
Chrizodo continued setting jars on the shelf, this time with his eyes fixed on Dryden. “I imagine your mother would needed help setting up for the party.”
Dryden shuffled his feet. “Well, yes, I should be home some time before the guests arrive.”
“We’ll only be an hour or two,” said Haley. “And his mother has plenty of helping hands at the moment.”
Chrizodo straightened his back as he placed the last of the jelly on a lower shelf. He examined the rows, and adjusted each jar until they sat in perfect synchronization. “Alright, you can go, but if you’re not back before sunset, you’ll have to sweep in the dark. We can’t afford to waste any candles.”
Haley skipped for the door, her skirt twirling about her knees. “Thank you, Father!”
The metal chimes declared their departure as she flung open the door. Dryden turned to close it, and met Chrizodo’s stare before he stepped out. The man’s lips arced upwards in the faintest manner, but still managed to deliver a clear message. Dryden gave a cordial nod, then hurried after Haley, making a conscious note to leave some space between the two of them as they walked for the main road.
Haley watched him from further ahead, her expression half mockery, half glee. “Are you scared of my father?”
Dryden smirked. “What do I have to be afraid of?”
“Nothing at all.” Haley tossed back her head. Her chestnut hair trickled over her shoulders. “You know, my father and Flint used to be quite the rebellious duo. They were notorious in Byromar—you couldn’t take your eyes off them, or they’d start some sort of trouble.”
A brief silence flickered, as if the past had enraptured her imagination. She turned to Dryden with a shrewd mischief in her eyes. “So how did you become such a stuffy old man if Flint was the one who raised you? You never have time for anything but work.”
Dryden shrugged. “My real father must’ve been a stuffy man, too.”
His remark erased the smile from Haley’s face. “No—I—sorry…I didn’t mean to word it like—”
Dryden brushed his hand through the air. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not like I’m the first person to be abandoned as an infant.”
“Yeah, that’s true…” Haley gave a quiet titter. It failed to dispel the tension that had begun to swallow the air around them, so Dryden altered his attention to the road and changed the topic. “Why do you want to go to the bluffs?”
Haley curled her lips, and put on an air of indifference. “Because I was bored. The orchard can get lonely sometimes. We’re so far away from the main square, and we hardly get any customers. Though we might travel to the city soon and rent a stall at the marketplace. I hope we do—it would be so exciting!”
They chatted casually for a time, until the sound of hooves clopping down the road interrupted the conversation. Two horses crested a hill with a small wagon in tow. A man steered from the front seat, his face hidden by a worn straw hat. He brought the horses to a stop in front of the two and lifted his brim.
Haley waved to the man. “Good afternoon, Renoll.”
Renoll smiled, his grin checkered with two missing teeth. “Good afternoon, Haley.” He looked over at Dryden. Hesitation seemed to hamper the muddy brown of his eyes. “Same to you.”
Dryden nodded, well aware of the sudden awkwardness.
“Are you headed to your farm?” asked Haley.
Renoll nodded. He pointed his thumb at the wagon’s contents. “I just picked up a load of hay from Daven’s place. I’m on my way back now.”
“Would you be kind enough to take us to the bluffs?” Haley cast an irresistible smile, one Dryden felt no man with a heart could say no to.
Renoll bit his lip. His eyes darted in Dryden’s direction for a split second. “The two of you, eh?” He pondered for a moment, but Haley’s charm must have trumped Dryden’s heritage. The amicableness soon returned to his face. “Well, it is on the way. I suppose you could hop in the back with the hay.”
Haley clapped her hands together. “Thank you!”
Dryden tried his best to ignore the nervous eyes of Renoll as he climbed into the wagon. Taking Haley by the hand, he hoisted her up, and they flung themselves into the prickly mound of straw.
A fervent wind, jostled into existence by the ocean’s unending fury, tore away loose strands of hay and rapped Dryden’s hair against his face. The wagon slowed to a halt, and Renoll turned around with one hand on his hat to keep it from blowing off.
“We’re here,” he called in a voice raised to compete with the wind.
Dryden and Haley leapt down from the wagon. “Thanks again,” said Haley. “Have a lovely afternoon.”
Renoll smiled at her, then nodded tersely to Dryden, as if he only possessed enough pleasantry for one person at a time. As he departed, Dryden and Haley moved for the bluffs—a stretch of insurmountable cliffs facing the eastern ocean.
The water was rough today. White foam rode the dark blue waves. Dryden mounted the fence that guarded the edge of the cliff and seated himself. Far below, waves crashed against the rocky base and swirled about in a whirlpool of froth.
Watching the pelagic bustle left him feeling heavy, as if the water kept forlorn memories imprisoned beneath its surface. He closed his eyes and let out a long breath.
Something brushed his shoulder. He opened his eyes to find Haley seated close beside him on the fence. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
“I don’t know…” Dryden turned to face the ocean. “There’s something about the bluffs—I’m not sure what it is. It seems a sad place, like a graveyard.”
Haley narrowed her eyes. “That’s odd. What’s it have in common with a graveyard?”
Dryden chuckled. “I don’t know. It just has that invisible presence.”
“You’re a strange one.”
Haley clicked her feet together as they sat side by side, no words exchanged while the ocean stormed below them. Dryden’s mind began to wander, though it never strayed far from the touch of Haley’s shoulder against his own. Maybe I should say something. He peeked at her from the corner of his eye. Or maybe not. Damned if I had a clue…
He chose to relish the silence, though it didn’t last long before loud, deliberate footsteps interrupted. A square-jawed fellow approached the two with his tiny eyes locked onto Haley as if she were a fount in a desert. “Hello, Haley. What are you doing here?”
Haley peered over her shoulder with a disinterested mien. “Oh…hello, Murar. You aren’t at your father’s today?”
Murar straightened his posture. Dryden noticed him puffing his chest slightly. “No, I decided to go for a walk today, since Zaltoras is gone. Business is going well, so I can afford to take the afternoon off.”
He cast Dryden a quick glance after the last remark. Dryden took no heed, instead leaning into Haley just enough for the man to notice. To his delight, it sparked a flare of obvious envy. It practically oozed out of Murar’s eyes and nostrils.
“I’m glad you’re doing well,” Haley said in an absent-minded tone.
Murar adjusted his feet and stroked his clean-shaven cheeks. “Yes, I am enjoying it. I was actually planning on heading south later. I could walk you home this evening, if you’d like.”
Haley ran a finger along the fence. “That’s kind of you, Murar, but Dryden is taking me home.”
Murar’s eyes darkened. “I see. Well, as long as you have someone to escort you.”
Haley giggled. “Yes, Byromar is rife with danger, isn’t it?”
“It can be,” murmured Murar. He stood awkwardly for a moment before flashing a smile too wide to be genuine. “It was good talking to you, Haley. Enjoy your day.” He trudged away, shoulders sinking with each step.
Dryden watched him depart. A slight empathy fluttered in his stomach, yet he couldn’t keep his lips from splitting into a stupid grin.
Haley turned to him with a sour expression. Her cheeks glowed red. “What are you smirking at?”
Dryden couldn’t hold his composure. He laughed to himself and brushed loose hair back under his hat. “You’re quite the heartbreaker.”
“I am not!” grumbled Haley. “It’s just…he’s a little strange. He makes me feel uptight.” She furrowed her brow. “I’m not interested in him—it’s as simple as that.”
“I think that’s a good reason,” said Dryden.
Haley blushed even more. She ducked her head. “So what do you think of your sister’s fiancé? Vilitamian? He’s sounds quite wealthy. I heard he’s building a house that’s going to look over the ocean.”
Dryden opened his mouth to reply, but stopped as a figure clad in a night-hued cloak hurried by. Their eyes met for a brief moment. The stranger had a harrowing stare. Purple shadows ringed his sullen eyes as if he hadn’t slept in days. A sword hung from his belt—an oddity in a town as peaceful as Byromar. His long and frenetic strides carried a sense of earnestness, one that suggested he was in a rush to be somewhere of the utmost importance.
Haley and Dryden both craned their necks to watch him move along the bluffs. His shadow almost seemed sentient, as if it possessed more spirit than his body. An odd aura hung about him, something Dryden couldn’t quite define.
Haley leaned close and spoke in a serious tone. “I saw that man before! Three days ago, I think. I found him wandering in the orchard. He asked me if anyone else worked here. I could barely understand his accent, but I told him it was only me and my parents, so he turned and left for the shop. It was the strangest thing.”
“Did he buy anything?”
“No. And he asked my father the same question. It was like he was looking for someone. I don’t know why he wouldn’t just ask, though. We all know each other in Byromar.”
Dryden checked to make sure his hat still covered his ears. “Is he one of the visitors staying at Gravenir’s inn?”
Haley held up her hands. “I don’t know. I didn’t know we had foreigners staying in Byromar.”
“Martron told me today. He said to keep a distance.”
Haley’s mouth gaped. “Are they hostile? That guy had a sword.”
“I don’t know. I know nothing about them.”
“I wonder if we should talk to Gravenir.”
Dryden frowned. “What could they possibly want? There’s nothing in Byromar but crops and livestock.”
“I suppose they could be visiting.” Despite her hopeful words, Haley looked far from convinced. “It’s awfully strange, though, to ask both me and my father the same question. His Velian was good enough for him to explain why he wanted to know that.”
“What does your father think?” asked Dryden.
Haley pursed her lips. “The same as me. That man was looking for someone, but for some reason, he wouldn’t say who.”
Dryden dug his heels into the fence. “Maybe we should let Martron know. I’ll tell him tomorrow. If he or any of the other foreigners start acting strange, he can send for some guards from Feldamor.”
Haley sighed. “I hope they’re just visiting. Byromar has nothing to protect itself with.”
“Byromar has nothing to protect. If he’s so desperate to find someone, he can ask around. There’s no need to be secretive about it.”
“Then why was he?” asked Haley.
Dryden shrugged. He looked to his right. The stranger had already made it quite a distance. The wind rippled his long black cloak; his shadow flickered atop the grass. Though it was difficult to tell from so far away, it seemed like he had turned around and was staring back at him.