Dark. Cold. Weightless.
Eyes: shut. Breathing: stopped. Pulse: gone. Life?
The young man called Arathaert awoke with a start, shield in hand and senses on full alert. He was met with only the stillness of the night. Around him, his companions slept soundly. As well they deserved: it had been a long few days.
Now wide awake and unable to sleep, Arathaert sat up in the large commons room of the Trestlebridge Inn, wrapped in his blanket. A little over 24 hours ago, he and his friends had been caught up in the Battle of Trestlebridge. It had lasted all through the night. At dawn a fearsome orc-captain had arrived bringing trolls, and they had very nearly broken the last remaining defenses of the town, namely, his friends.
Oh, and Arathaert had died in that last struggle.
Well, now you’re just being dramatic, he chided himself. Technically he hadn’t died the first time. Just had the wind knocked out of him. Sheer grit and his sense of duty had called him back to the battle, but he was soon knocked flat again. And that time…
“I couldn’t have actually died then, could I?” he mused aloud. Across the room, Karvett Logsplitter spluttered suddenly and violently before resuming his snoring in deep slumber. Best to continue such thinking silently.
The last thing he remembered was dropping to the ground in the trampled grasses outside of town as the world began to fade. Then he was waking up, stripped of armor and weapons, with a tremendous headache some 20 clicks west of the battle, on packed earth in a circle of small rune-etched stones. And with no wounds whatsoever.
On top of all that, he had felt…different. Like there was something in the back of his mind, a presence he just couldn’t shake. All the way back to town he had felt like he was being watched, but there was no movement on the open fields around him.
His arrival in Trestlebridge had been perfectly timed to coincide with the conclusion of the remembrance ceremony for those who had fallen in battle. If his life was a story, the author certainly had a healthy dose of clichéd irony.
“Trouble sleeping?” came a whispered voice. Arathaert nearly jumped out of his skin.
It was Teriadwyn. “Boy, do I have a headache,” she groaned. “Did we win the battle?”
“Shh,” Arathaert motioned at the others. “If you want to talk, let’s talk outside.”
The pair headed into the hallway silently; once outside the room, they sat slumped in the corridor against the wall. Sleep may have been evading them, but they were both tired.
“What do you mean ‘Did we win the battle?’” asked Arathaert. “Have you been drunk this whole time?”
“I’m not proud of it.” Teriadwyn thought for a moment and grinned. “Okay, maybe a little. But you know I fight my best after a few drinks.”
“You had one drink,” laughed Arathaert. “One drink and then you were screaming at that poor cobbler who wanted to repair your shoes.”
Teriadwyn blinked. “Oh, is that what he wanted? I thought he was telling me to shoo. The nerve of some people.” She blinked again. “Wait, but that was…oh. I didn’t mean the Battle of Trestlebridge, you dunce. I know we won that.”
“What battle did you mean, then?” In all of his years of knowing Teriadwyn, Arathaert had developed the knack of retaining a calm demeanor when trying to figure out what she was up to, and it was paying off now.
“That Wheeler fellow who was with us at the South-gate. The soldiers were challenging us to a drinking game in the tavern. I had already had a few drinks at the time, he started to get fresh with his words, and…I guess you weren’t there. I’ll have to find out who won.”
Arathaert eyed his friend. Knowing her, it was more likely that the Trestlebridge guardsman had said something completely innocuous and possibly not even to her. “A few drinks?”
They were on the house, in celebration of surviving. Plus there isn’t a whole lot else to do in this town. Also we thought you were dead. Obviously we were wrong.” She punched him lightly (by her standards) in the arm. “I’d never admit it to the others, but I was worried.”
“After you went down?” Teriadwyn shrugged. “We beat the bad guys. We won. The rest is history. Well, I hope it’s history. It really should be.”
“I mean, what happened to me? To my body?” Arathaert explained how he had regained consciousness far from the battle, bereft of his armor and weapons.
“That’s right…we did find your things when it was over…” Teriadwyn looked embarrassed. “Okay, I’m probably not the best person to ask about this, but it looked like you just…disappeared.” She made a waving motion with her hands as she said this.
“Disappeared?” Arathaert had a strange expression on his face, some mixture of curiosity, horror, and disbelief.
“I was drunk at the time…I can’t be sure of what I saw.”
“No, no…” Somehow that made sense. There was a definite feeling of otherworldliness to the whole ordeal. Suddenly Arathaert knew where he could find more information. With that realization he felt the full effect of his drowsiness again.
“Thanks, Teri,” he said, getting up. “I think I’m going to head back to bed now. This talk really helped; I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’m going to see if there’s anything to eat downstairs. I’m suddenly very hungry.” A sly look entered her eyes. “What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Probably going to visit the library.” The records and books in the archive might have theories about what happened to him. What if this had happened before?
“I figured as much,” Teriadwyn snickered.
“It’s okay, Ara. She’s a good girl.”
The blood rushed to his face. “That’s not what I meant,” he protested.
Teriadwyn threw up her hands to interrupt him. “Hey, you do what you want. But she’s a good girl. I wonder if they have any pickles in the larder.”
Arathaert sighed and trudged off to bed.
The pale morning light filtered in through the windows of the Library of Trestlebridge. Raelynniel sat silently at her usual table. The battle was over, and now things would settle back to normal. The town would rebuild.
She had spent most of the previous day at the infirmary, tending to the wounded. While she lacked formal training as a healer or medic, she was learned enough in herblore and had seen enough texts on field dressings to contribute to the efforts. But now that the wounded were treated and the few healers in town were no longer overwhelmed by the number of new patients, her help was no longer required.
Nobody would be coming to the Library today. Too much else to attend to.
“The Library is a haven, Raelynniel,” her mentor had used to say, “a haven where one can escape from the chaos of the world and find safety in the worlds at your disposal here.” And he would always tap the side of his head with a knowing smile.
“But it is not merely safety in escape,” he would continue. “It is also safety in preparedness. In these records are many secrets which are ours to discover. Imagine what we could do with them.”
“But if the secrets are printed in these texts, why hasn’t someone else already discovered it?” Raelynniel had asked once, on a day when she had not particularly wanted to continue with his exercises and musings.
“What secret is written down?” he had replied. “Are you training to be a lore-master, or a mere archivist? Words are written down, Raelynniel, not secrets. True, these books and scrolls are covered in information which anyone capable of reading can learn for themselves. But that is not the job of a lore-master; that is not your job.
“Your job is to discover what is not written down, to discover what connects two seemingly disparate pieces of information. Your job is to find the pattern and predict what follows. Anyone can read the annals and genealogies of the old kings of Arnor; can you tell me why the kingdom collapsed?” Was that a rhetorical question? No; he had expected an answer then.
“It’s not a simple question,” she had protested.
“Exactly. It is not a simple question. No information is ever given in a pure, objective form. It always comes with speculation, with an agenda, with context. Others will look for a plain truth that anyone could see, but you should know better: the truth is always hidden in what you cannot see. Remember that, Raelynniel.”
She had remembered. Now she blinked and snapped back to the present moment. Master Jerrold had been prone to ranting in the days before he ran away from Trestlebridge. He would talk about Ghost-kings and spectres, too. He was old. Her gaze fell and rested on the Founder’s Book still lying open on the desk where she had left it.
It had been the tradition of Trestlebridge, ever since the old days when the town had sprawled north of the Gorge, to have the resident lore-master keep a record of thoughts and events in the book. It was a large and thick book, and many of the large pages within were still empty.
The last entry was in Jerrold’s handwriting. It had been written some time before he approached her that day in the Library, offering her a permanent position where she could continue her reading in the Library, as well as offering to train her to make the most of her studies.
And so he did train her, the Lore-master’s Apprentice. Up until a few weeks ago, when he had packed his meager belongings and deserted the town, not long after the orcs began to be spotted south of the Gorge. After three days, in accordance with the rules, she officially became the Lore-master of the town, Apprentice no more. She still wasn’t quite used to the role, to be honest.
And it wasn’t as though the townsfolk cared. Especially with a siege on their mind. The Library was the last place anyone was interested in visiting during such a threat. Raelynniel had tried to see if there were any records on orcs or their weakness which could help them in surviving the storm, but the closest thing she could find was an ancient text on the reproductive habits of the monsters which read more like lowbrow satire than useful information.
Since then, until the strangers from Bree appeared and gave a fresh breath of hope to Trestlebridge, she had kept to the Library where she could “find safety in escape”, as Jerrold had put it. Perhaps now it was time she put her skills to good use for the town. But how?
“I could start by continuing the tradition of the Founder’s Book,” she said aloud. Her words hung in the empty Library, and their weight in the air seemed to solidify her decision. She picked up a quill pen and held it over the next blank page, thinking. What to write?
Maybe I’ll start by explaining why Master Jerrold is no longer writing in here, she thought, and include some of the sayings he used to say. Starting with that nugget he’d never let me forget: the truth is always hidden in—
“You must be kidding,” she said to nobody in particular.
There was a recipe of herbs which, when boiled with honey, yielded a transparent concoction with the density of ink that could be used to write invisible messages. All you needed to reveal the message was heat.
Sure enough, when she had managed to light a candle and hold it close (but not too close!) to the page, the familiar wispy handwriting of Master Jerrold began to materialize as if by magic on the paper in golden-brown strokes. The truth is always hidden in what you cannot see.
And Raelynniel, resident Lore-master of Trestlebridge, began to read.
Arathaert knocked on the door hesitantly. He had been on his way to the Library to visit Raelyn— that is, to see if there were any texts related to the afterlife. He had always wondered at what lay beyond the mortal coil, and faintly remembered his father telling stories of Dúnadan lore about the Halls of the Valar and a land across the sea, but had no idea whether any of them were true, or speculation, or outright fantasy.
Death was tricky like that.
But in the streets of Trestlebridge, he had run into one of the guards (Steve, was his name? No, Camden…), who had himself been on his way to find Arathaert. Mayor Boskins had requested an audience in his home, providing no further details. Even Camden had found it strange, but was bound to follow orders.
The door opened. Harald Boskins, mayor of Trestlebridge, stood just beyond the threshold. It wasn’t a grand house, not like the Town Hall of Bree, but it was where Mayor Boskins conducted his business.
“Ah, you received my summons. Good,” he said, his face lighting up slightly. He gestured for Arathaert to enter. “Please come in, and pardon the mess. I’ve been busy.”
Arathaert looked around. There were various papers stacked in locations around the house, and the dining table in the room where the mayor was walking was covered in maps and missives. “I had heard that home offices were becoming a trend,” he joked.
Boskins laughed. “Yes…a home office. Truth be told, it was never intentional. I just lacked the will to really leave after Liza passed away a few years ago.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.” Arathaert took a seat across the table from the Mayor at invitation, and continued. “So you live here alone and never leave? I think I met a Ranger who lived like that.”
“I wasn’t alone until recently,” Boskins replied. He idly traced designs on the table with his finger. “Liza died a little over three years ago, of some sickness she picked up while visiting Bree-land. Then my boy Henry died fighting orcs, a few days before you and your friends showed up in town. And Eleanor…” He paused to look sadly out the window. “My Nellie grew tired of being cooped up here while her home was threatened. She left Trestlebridge a few nights ago, and I don’t know what happened to her.”
“Left Trestlebridge? Where did she go?” Arathaert puzzled for a moment. “Where could she go, for that matter? The orc-camps were practically at your doorstep!”
“I know. I assume the worst. At the very least she should not have left during the night.”
“You’re giving up?”
“I’m prioritizing, Arathaert.” He sighed and ran a hand over his face. “I want very badly to find my daughter, to tell her that the town is no longer under siege. And ideally, to evacuate her south to Liza’s family in the vale of Andrath.
“But I can’t be so selfish. I am responsible for a town that needs to rebuild, and I need to help with the rebuilding. I have already dispatched scouts and messengers north, to the farmers on the Downs, and south, to the farmers in the northern Bree-fields. The news of the battle will spread. Nellie will learn that we are no longer cowering under the terror of orc-kind.”
If she’s still alive, Arathaert thought, but he kept it to himself. Mayor Boskins was still talking.
“Which brings me to why I asked to speak with you, Arathaert.” His eyes seemed to come back into focus as attention to business once more drove away the cloud of misery. “You are the subject of much gossip about town. Is it true that you had died in that battle?”
Arathaert hesitated. “I’m not sure,” he answered. “I was hoping to find answers to that question myself.”
The mayor nodded thoughtfully, then waved a hand. “Well, I was merely curious. This is not the time for such metaphysical matters. What interested me more was your declaration to become this town’s warden.”
“I was thinking the term ‘guardian’ might suit the role better.”
“We can work out the details of the name later,” laughed Boskins, “but I wanted to be sure you were not rushing heedlessly into this decision. Are you not already a part of the Bree-guard? I recognize the livery.”
Arathaert opened his mouth to speak, then paused. “No, not anymore, I think.”
“I sense there is more to the story than that.”
Arathaert sighed. “I should be honest with you, Mayor Boskins.”
“You should,” the mayor replied wryly.
“We were not mere travellers stopping by your town,” Arathaert confessed. “Most of us are fugitives from the Bree-town Guard. We made a few mistakes and had been left to cool off in jail for the night…but we escaped.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“And then in our haste to escape we unthinkingly kidnapped Pineleaf, a constable from Staddle. Teri actually stuffed her in a body bag.”
“That’s starting to sound bad.”
“Then we roughed up and captured a brigand leader after killing his two bodyguards, turning him over to someone who lived alone with a pile of body bags in a corner.”
“That’s…pretty bad. And I’m starting to notice a theme here?”
“And just before arriving here, we may or may not have threatened a horse-merchant who was trying to swindle us.”
Mayor Boskins roared suddenly with laughter. “You ran into Nelson at old Hengstacer’s farms? Son, if you stood up to that daytime robber, you need not fear any wrath here. That man’s stubborn pricing is a big reason why more of our town could not evacuate before the siege closed in.
“If recent events have taught me anything, it is this: the mistakes of our past need not dictate our future. You may have started the path which brought you here as common fugitives, but you stand now in this town as its heroes. And that is how we will remember you, whether you stay or go.”
“So…I could stay here? You’re okay with that?”
“Of course! I know that Hinton fellow on the Guard would be glad to know you’re sticking around. For that matter, I’m sure the rest of our Guard could learn some tips from you, once they’re back on their feet. And we’ll need as many hands as we can get around town.”
Arathaert nodded. One burden had been lifted, and yet a new burden of decision now weighed heavily. “I’ll have to think about it,” he said at length. “I have a lot of things to think about right now.”
Mayor Boskins nodded and rose. “Just remember, young guardian: you will always have a home here in Trestlebridge.”
Teriadwyn sat in the empty tavern. It was afternoon, and she had been sitting in the room all morning. Ordinarily she would be deep into her fifth or sixth pint by now, and yet her first mug sat on the table in front of her, untouched.
She’d had a lot to think about lately. She only dimly remembered the Battle of Trestlebridge. She’d had some drinks, and then…it was a haze. It had been as though someone else had been controlling her actions throughout that ordeal.
And Arathaert had died.
Or nearly died, at any rate. Apparently he wasn’t even sure what had happened. What if she had been sharper? What if she had been more focused? What if she let everyone down again?
“Ye’ve been quiet all day, ‘aven’t ye?” The barkeep stood next to the table, across from her. “And ye’ve ‘ardly touched yer drink. Mind if I sit ‘ere?” He pulled out a chair and sat heavily. “So…what’s on yer mind?”
Teriadwyn sighed. “I never really knew my parents, you know.”
“No’ the first time I’ve ‘eard that in ‘ere.”
“I stuck around with the others because I was bored, you know? That’s why I became friends with Arathaert in the first place. We could always find mischief about town. And that’s why I started drinking. It was something new.”
“Ye do know folks call ye a lightweight behind yer back?”
She snorted. “They call me that to my face, too. And they’re not wrong.” She sighed and idly turned the mug on the table, looking at the dark golden mead inside. “I just don’t want to forever be known as the girl who always got drunk and caused trouble, you know.”
The barkeep had a small cloth and was idly scrubbing at a spot he had noticed on the table surface. “If ye don’ mind me askin’, what do ye want to be known fer, eh?”
Teriadwyn stopped playing with the mug. “I don’t know.” She pulled a crumpled letter out of her pocket. “My own woman, I suppose? For a long time the authorities in Bree turned a blind eye from the trouble I would get into, since my guardians were friends of Mayor Tenderlarch.”
She smoothed open the paper. “This was written the day after we left Bree. The only family I’d ever known has left Bree. Apparently there was a series of attempted murders at the Prancing Pony and they thought it was unsafe.”
“Murder, ye say?” The barkeep chuckled. “A tragedy of course but ye can’t ‘elp but think that’ll be good fer me own business up ‘ere.”
“I think I need a fresh start,” continued Teriadwyn, lost in thought and ignoring the man across from her. “Arathaert mentioned at one point that he might stay here and help to protect the town. Maybe I can stick around, too. I’ve always had his back, and I could start over here.”
“I could always use an extra pair of ‘ands around the place if yer interested,” the barkeep grinned.
Teriadwyn looked at the mug, then slid it toward her new companion. “With respect, sir, I think I’ll pass, though I appreciate the offer.”
The barkeep nodded. “Suit yerself,” he said, picking up the mug. “Ye clearly have a lot on yer mind. I’ll leave ye to it. If ye change yer mind, remember drinks are no longer on the ‘ouse.”
Teriadwyn chuckled. “Thanks,” she said. “I think I needed to let that out somehow.”
“Ye just did, lass. Ye just did.”
As night fell, a man sat in the common room of the Prancing Pony. A lute lay in his lap as he scratched at a piece of parchment on the table.
“Having a hard time?” Barliman Butterbur looked over his shoulder. “What are you writing about now?”
“I’m trying to compose a tale about the last prince of Cardolan,” replied the bard. “I heard you telling that story to some of the children and I think it could work in ballad form.”
Butterbur laughed. “Yes, Bob’s daughter seemed to enjoy it quite a bit!”
The party in the back room came out with a sudden clamor. “We’ve tarried here for too long,” their leader said. “Barliman! We’re here to pay!”
“Excuse me,” apologized the innkeeper to the bard.
“You look like you’re ready for an adventure,” remarked the bard. “Watcher Heathstraw, is it?”
“Second-Watcher Heathstraw,” corrected the man. “I was left in charge of Bree while the Chief Watcher went out to monitor the brigand activity up the Greenway.”
“Up the Greenway?” laughed the bard. “They’ve been rather close to home lately.”
“Indeed.” Heathstraw frowned. “So the Chief is coming back. That means I can lead this retrieval party north after those fugitives who escaped from the Bree jail last week.”
“I’d heard about that. Do you think it was related to those Riders in black who came around up here?”
“I don’t know,” replied Heathstraw. “But it was awfully convenient. We had reports that they had gone north from Hengstacer’s Farm. So we’re going to stop by Trestlebridge to see if they made it that far.”
“Trestlebridge,” repeated the bard. “Sounds like an interesting adventure. Mind if I tag along?”
“The road could be dangerous.”
“The town of Bree itself has become rather dangerous of late.”
“Fair enough,” admitted Heathstraw. “Well, we ride now. Those fugitives have been on the run for long enough. Now they will have to answer for their deeds.”
To be continued…
Written by GreyMaster
Tales of the Free Folk will be returning on January 2nd with a new format and some new players. You can join us in the chat for the 8th episode here.