EACH STORM THAT RAGES
The bard trailed off, as it was quite apparent that the children were no longer paying much attention to the story. He was just getting to the good bit, too. But the family had obviously not been to Archet recently.
“What happened here?” whispered one of the mothers in shock. Her husband held her hand, while the other parents held each other for support. The children, seeing the state of their parents, were mute and somber as well.
The bard cleared his throat. “About a year ago, the brigands hit this town hard.” Seeing the looks in the eyes of his audience, he raised his right hand and placed the other upon his heart. “True story,” he clarified, “not some made-up tale. They called themselves the Blackwolds, and they caused a lot of trouble in Bree-land.”
“Aye, we’d heard of them. We didn’t realize they were brigands, though. They seemed to be on the side of Bree-landers, standing up to the southerners who came trying to take over everything.” The father who had spoken shrugged. “We knew they were thieves and murderers, of course, but since they seemed only to be picking on bullies to begin with, we let it go.”
The bard sighed. “That is how it begins.” He gestured at the town in front of him. “And this is how it ends.”
The town still looked like a burnt-out husk of itself, but it did look better than the last time he had been here. Repairs had resulted in the construction of several small stand-alone shelters around the town center. Small steads had been built in the fields of the dale, and in the distance it looked like the nearby ruins at Bronwë’s Folly had been repurposed into a common living space for refugees from the town.
“It was a citizen of this very town,” the bard continued quietly. “Carter? No, Calder. Calder Cob. He had grown up in Archet, but developed a bit of a gambling problem as he got older. Eventually he had driven away his wife with his habits and was nearly bankrupt himself. The Blackwolds offered a way to pay back his debts. Which he did. But by then he had changed.
“It can be a slippery slope sometimes, you know. Make one mistake, and it becomes easier to make another trying to correct yourself. And on and on the deeds are compounded until you find yourself standing over bodies you have killed while your home is in flames around you. Except that it is no longer your home, not anymore.
“For if home is where the heart is, you no longer have a home.”
One couple was weeping openly, their children close by, unsure of how to act. Usually they would be the ones crying, and their parents the ones to console them. “Can we see Uncle Ned and Aunt Polly now?” one of the little ones asked.
The bard looked away. “Well?” asked one of the fathers. “You’ve been dodging that ever since you learned we were coming to Archet. What do you know?”
The bard drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. Raggedly. “Come with me,” he said quietly. “I’ll take you to Ned and Polly.”
The group descended from the cart, and the bard led them over a patch of grass to a nearby farm. Mounds of crops were planted, awaiting the bloom of the harvest. As they approached, however, they began to see with horror that these were no crop-farrows: they were graves.
“This was the Cob family farm, once upon a time. After the burning of Archet, it was made into a grave site for those lost that day.” The bard paused before one of the graves. A metal rod had been planted into the grave, twisted into an ornate knot at the top by some skilled smith.
The ten of them stood there, silently, for some time. Tears fell without shame, and breath came slowly and in harsh intervals. “What happened?” one of the mothers asked at length. “How did they die?”
The bard shook his head. “I wasn’t here for it, so I don’t know exactly what happened. Ned was the jailer, and had several of the Blackwolds in prison for various misdemeanors. I have heard that releasing them was one of the first things that the brigands tried. He must have been killed trying to stop them.”
He knelt over the patch of earth, eyes deep and distant. “As for his Polly, there are a couple of stories surrounding how she died. Some say she died of sorrow soon after Ned drew his last breath. Others say that arcane strangers in red robes among the Blackwolds terrified her, and her heart stopped of sheer fright.” He shrugged sadly. “Sorrow or fear.”
There was a long silence, followed by yet another. The shadows of the trees had slightly shifted before anyone spoke again. “Well, I suppose we had best be headed back,” remarked a father. “We’ve…visited…Ned and Polly.”
As the group climbed back into the cart, one of the younger girls stamped her foot suddenly. “No! It can’t end this way! It can’t!”
“Susie, get in the cart,” her mother said gently.
“No!” she yelled. “There has to be a happy ending! This couldn’t have been for nothing!”
“This isn’t a story, Sue,” started one of the boys.
“I don’t care, Donald!”
“Susie? Is that your name?” The bard’s voice was quiet, and calm. It had a soothing effect on everyone, even little Susie. “Come here, Susie.”
The girl climbed into the cart with the bard and the other children. The bard sighed. “There is a lesson to be learned here, Susie. Do you know what it is?”
She shook her head, but Rose, the eldest girl, chimed in. “Mistakes lead to more mistakes.”
The bard frowned. “What makes you say that?”
“Calder Cob. He made one mistake, and in order to fix it, he made another. And another. And another. And with each mistake, things spun out of control until people were killed and towns burned!” She was very close to tears, and was obviously trying hard not to cry in front of her younger siblings.
“Calder Cob made mistakes, yes.” The bard snorted. “A great many mistakes. And he paid for it with his life in the end. But not before a good many other lives were also lost.”
“What about the heroes?” Susie asked suddenly.
“Heroes?” the bard asked, puzzled. “What heroes?”
“In your story, the ones from Bree.”
“What about them, Sue?” Rose asked, a bit annoyed.
“They did wrong too, right?” Susie turned back to the bard. “They were in jail. They broke out. They even stole a person! But they became heroes in the end, right?”
“They fought the goblins and spiders,” chimed in Donald. “And they rescued people from the camps of monsters.”
“And they fought in the Battle of Trestlebridge, didn’t they?” asked Rose, slowly. “They risked their lives to protect people they had just met.”
A slow grin spread across the bard’s face. “Children are a wonderful thing,” he remarked to no one in particular, and chuckled. Then he gazed back down at the children. “There was an old poem that a colleague of mine loved. How did it go…?”
‘The Wheel of Time keeps turning, as lights die and forests dim, storms call and skies break. Turn it will. The Wheel is not hope, and the Wheel does not care, the Wheel simply is. But so long as it turns, folk may hope, folk may care. For with light that fades, another will eventually grow, and each storm that rages must eventually die.'”
He smiled down at Susie. “You see? Mistakes need not lead to more mistakes. Overcoming your mistakes can make you into a hero. But more than that, with all the folk who hope against dread and who care against calamity, overcoming your mistakes and breaking the cycle will make you free…free folk.” A light twinkled in his eyes.
“Look at that!” The children rushed to the back of the cart. A bird had swooped low overhead and was dancing in the sky with its mate. It was a brilliant red color and bright against the dark greens and browns of the dale.
The bard returned to the front of the cart with the parents, listening idly to the sound of the wheels turning along the road back to Bree. “How are the children holding up?” asked one of the fathers.
The bard grinned. “I think they will be just fine.” He was distracted suddenly by a pull on his arm. It was Susie, and she hugged his arm tightly.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“For giving this a happy ending.”
“A happy ending?” The bard laughed. “My dear girl, this is just the beginning!”
Written by GreyMaster
Tales of the Free Folk will be taking a short break to make improvements to the show. We will be returning on January 2nd with GreyMaster as the GM, Andang as a player and also many improvements to the show. We will give more details over Twitter as we get closer to the next episode.
Miss an episode? Watch the entire series here.