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It was the fifty-second year of the Age of Men. Emperor Cortos the Just reigned as the third ruler of the Great Empire of men. For Uic Avero, it was another day of hard work in the fields.
Although the rural outskirts of the Empire were spared its strictest control, their countless farms were required to bear the burden of the land’s demand for food, broadleaf and other crops, with much of their harvest funneled off to imperial stores.
His brown hair dripping with sweat, Uic plowed, shoveled, hoed, planted, watered and tilled. His body was strong from this sort of work. He had done it since he was twelve. Or was it eleven? But it was still no easy task. Not with this work, and not in this weather. The heat smothered him all day, suffocating, choking him without mercy.
Avero’s humidity coupled with the Empire’s infamously hot summers made him feel that he was drowning in the open air. His body was hot and damp and his eyes squinted from the harsh sun. Yet he refused to consciously think of it. He knew that great ball of fire was there above him, showering the world with its heat. He knew its terrible, undeniable strain on him, but he would dare not recognize it. Not for a moment.
If he thought on it, he would groan and resent it all in his mind. Yes, he would first resent the very sun itself, then the heat and the wet air, then the work. And finally he would deplore himself.
Whether it was logical or not did not matter– after all, this wasn’t even a conscious thought. (And couldn’t be, since he intended to keep it all tucked away.) But to hate any fact of life would invariably lead to loathing himself for where and what he was. Wasn’t it his responsibility? Wasn’t it his fault?
So he went on with his labor until the cool of evening came and his work was finally done for the day.
He took his dirty hand to his brow, wiping it with a dissatisfied sigh. Was there value in his labor? Was there real value in anything he did? He couldn’t answer his own questions, try as he might, and eventually he dismissed them, fearing to restart that dreadful cycle of loathing. As if the cycle of much work, little pleasure and little rest weren’t dreadful enough… Stay cheerful, me.
Uic started on the way back to his small home, the only property his father had left him when he died three years ago. He lit a hand-rolled broadleaf cigarette, lighting it with one of the village’s few street lamps. He mused about his childhood, about his mother and father.
How he had always waited for the day when he would reach the age of adulthood and leave his house to make it out in the world! He would move to a city to learn some profession, and work for wages worth his time. Perhaps he would band with a company of mercenaries, fulfilling dangerous but lucrative contracts. Or he would join the Army and become a daring soldier like his father once was. The world abroad was full of intrigue and opportunities, and a younger Uic longed to search for his place in that world.
Then, that time to go was nearly upon him. His sixteenth birthday approached and he was ready to make off with barely a word. He cared little for home, so cutting ties and leaving his birthplace bore a poetic beauty to him, like a young bird finally coming of age and leaving its nest in its first, triumphant flight.
But his parents were suddenly stricken with illness. The Red Scourge– curable, if you were a rich city-goer, but often deadly in places such as Avero where there were few skilled doctors. And there was no magic there, for the Empire frowned upon it and the village chief forbid any ‘witchery.’ After a few painful weeks they both passed away, leaving behind a young, broken Uic to decide his own future.
He had always felt on some level that he was somehow responsible for their deaths, as if his bold ambitions were the cause of their illness, so since that evil time, Uic’s heart had become hard and his mind had become clouded, murky. His dreams of adventure seemed to fall into a dark well, the bottom of which he could not see.
Puffing again on the cigarette, he wondered then about his own future. All he had was a small, poor house and a job minding the fields of the village’s richest man. And he only had that due to hard work and acceptance of low wages.
Would he go on every day, slaving away just to eat, desperately trying to satisfy himself with this wretched broadleaf habit he had taken up? Would he mirror his father’s life, marry and bear a child, only to die suddenly and leave behind another like himself? These fears, rational or not, were terribly real to him, haunting him always, as if the torturous truth lurked beneath every bucket and rake, behind the corners of every building that he had passed by a thousand times times.
He pulled the last bit of smoke from his cigarette and threw it to the ground, giving it a stomp. Rubbing his eyes, Uic puffed deeply, and it was at that moment he made a decision, or a realization, of something he could not easily define.
He was unsatisfied. He was unhappy to be sure, but he felt as if happiness was no longer relevant or attainable for him. But he felt that he could and should be satisfied with life somehow– surely he deserved that. Or could at least get his hands on it. Somehow. Somehow!
“But however that is,” he said aloud to himself, “I don’t know yet,” he muttered far more quietly. From then on, he had at least made that realization, that statement. A… goal? A goal springing from the depths of emptiness that had replaced those visions of a real future since three years ago?
I am not content now, but I will be. Somehow I will be.
The thought, or rather the spirit of the thought echoed throughout his heart until it slowly disappeared. Perhaps it would fade off into all the other noise. Or perhaps it would take root in his soul.
Uic descended down the dirt road, stomping sporadically as he worked against gravity’s irresistible pull. From the bottom of the hill he looked out to vast plains and rolling hills. Some distance off was a public road that was frequented by many traveling traders and caravans at noontime, but was usually nearly devoid of traffic this late in the evening. It was getting very dark but the scattered lamps along the distant road revealed its usual state of emptiness.
Uic’s house faced out toward the road. It was at the bottom of the forested ridges and grassy hills that enclosed and hid Avero from the great Manae Plain, which stretched over much of the Empire.
It was really an oversized shack with a second floor, Uic’s home. Two bedrooms, three closets and a nearly empty living room on the bottom floor, and a kitchen and dining area on the upper level. This construction was somewhat unusual and certainly undesirable. It was actually a sort of joke among rural Imperials that the poorest people kept their kitchens upstairs– a harsh remark on one’s social and economic status. Not that Uic talked to anyone unless it was necessary. Few Averoans spoke to each other often.
As he entered his home, his steps became heavy, turning into slow, sporadic stomps that were little more than gravity pulling his weak legs down to the ground as he struggled to continue moving. He started stumbling and fell against the wall, sliding down slowly. Utter hopelessness.
His eyes closed. Darkness. And yet as he blindly lied there, because his body and his soul seemed to desire it, the darkness only deepened until he was without thought or form.
His mind had no images, no worded thoughts, only an obscure, unique sense of feeling. It was inexplicable, yet it was altogether familiar. He lay there not remembering who or what he was; he simply felt the feeling and nothing more. It was beautiful.
Waking later from his sleep-like state, Uic slid back up the wall, looking at his hands and arms as if to make sure he was still real. He was, it seemed, as he let out the same disappointed sigh he had earlier.
He sat down to a small meal and then lay on his bed, thinking and dozing off, wondering what that feeling was and what he would do with his life.
Sleep began to comfortingly engulf him, but he heard a loud pounding at his door.
Who would so rudely awaken him at such hour? Jogging over to the door, Uic opened it up to a burly man clad in leather armor, wielding a fiercesome battleaxe.
Uic instinctively feigned a poor peasant’s accent. “What can I do for ye?”
“I want some food. What’yu got?” the man blurted, unreserved in his demand.
It took no time to process what was happening, though Uic could barely believe it. He turned around in a calm fashion to retrieve some food from his small cupboard. His heart was pumping. The single loaf of bread he brought back to the thug was about one third of all the food he had in store.
“This is all I got,” Uic said spitefully, holding it out to him.
Uic had not caught the insincerity in his own tone until he noticed the anger on the bandit’s face. The invader at his steps grinned, lifting his axe, bloodlust in his eyes.
Uic lunged at the door, kicking it shut in an instant. Backing himself to the wall right of the door, he huffed and puffed nervously.
Swoosh, bam! An axe crashed through it. The pounding vibrations of kicks started shaking his house, the feeble door oscillating violently, splintering apart more and more with each strike.
Uic knew he was in grave danger. The bandit would come in and slaughter him like an animal and that would be his end. Gone. No real memory, no mark on the world, nothing. Just gone.
Realizing his fate, he suddenly chose to deny it, to act in spite of it. He refused to die. At that moment, he looked up above the door and saw his father’s old army sword. A fateful gift for a man that chose to live? No time to think. He jumped up the wall, wrenching it from its place.
Retreating back to the right of the door, he quickly but quietly drew it from its sheath and held it in a fighting stance his father had taught him with a play-fighting stick when he was a child. He felt almost childish as long-lost memories returned, but the old sword and what he knew of using it was the only thing in the world that Uic had at his disposal at that moment.
With a single action of his will, he let go of everything else he had thought was important. Only his survival mattered in that blink of eternity. Only the old sword in his trembling hands was of any use in this world. It was the only thing between him and annihilation.
The slams continued and the door splintered and cracked more, until a large hole had replaced the center of it and the bandit started pushing his bulky self through. Uic gripped his blade tightly and swung it to his left– with a swift chop, he had struck into the bandit’s back. A painful roar.
Uic pulled the sword back in the same motion and hopped to the center of the room. A throwing knife whistled past his face and he fell back to the floor. The bandit was stuck halfway inside and halfway out, swinging his axe wildly, barking to stay back, threatening death and destruction in curses half spelled out in angry blasts of spittle.
Outwardly unaffected, Uic lunged toward him, piercing the man through the door, through his chest. The bandit yelped, shaking his head in despair. Uic twisted the sword and blood poured out. As he began to slump over and die, Uic pulled the bandit into his house and into the middle of the floor. He wiped his father’s blade clean and walked to the door.
Peering out the large hole, he saw a lit caravan on the road. It was stationary. Likely more bandits awaiting their comrade’s return with a plundered meal. He was nearly overcome with panic as he looked back to the slain bandit lying in the living room. Then an almost ludicrous idea came to him which, in his still hot anger, he could not resist.
In a few moments, Uic was suited up with most of the bandit’s gear, heading towards their caravan with two morsels of food and no thought for his life. He did not want to die, but neither did he want to live on as he did. Perhaps this would be his end. His ridiculous but courageous final battle.
At least it would have some meaning, he thought.
Uic approached the caravan’s lights with his head down, holding the food out so as to distract them from his bloodied armor.
“Y’really got beat up, eh mate?” one of them spouted off, the others chuckling and rolling on their backs. “We thought ye got off’d by townies!”
Uic chuckled a bit with a deepened voice, tearing off and throwing half a piece of food to each of the bandits with a quick glance. There were three, all sitting with their guards down. No better time. They could see through his disguise at any moment.
He took another step forward, suddenly dropping his food. He drew his sword and slashed deeply into the closest one’s neck. The other let out a yell of surprise and held out his short sword, still sitting, but Uic’s heavy blade knocked it from his hand, and in a moment he was pierced through with cold steel.
Uic then turned towards the last bandit and pounced toward him, although this one was more prepared. They crossed swords, exchanging grunts and curses with each parry and slash, hacking at each other viciously.
They fell atop each other and pushed their longswords toward each other with every ounce of strength they could muster. Uic suddenly remembered and drew a stolen dagger from his belt. Defenseless against a second weapon, the final opponent was slain.
Uic knew it was finished. No outlaws would seek their revenge on him or the villagers. It was rural justice. Imperial justice. Bandits were scum, and none despaired to hear of a gang of them killed for any half-good reason. One had even broken through his door, tried to kill him!
One foe’s eyes were still open, his blood strewn across the floor of the caravan. He knelt by him, closing the bandit’s eyes with his fingers.
Deeply sighing, tears fell to the crimson puddle below him. Now that the anger had worn off, he had to wonder– had he done right to kill these bandits, these fellow men, whatever sorts of men they were?
It was too late for that. How many had they robbed? How many had they killed? He knew the eyes of law and men may not look upon him with guilt, but didn’t the gods hate to see man slay man? If it wasn’t the gods he felt pulling at his heart, then it was his own conscience. Uic never thought of whether he would kill another man or not, but if he had, he would never have expected it to feel as it did.
Stepping back and sitting against the vehicle’s wall, Uic held his head in his hands. The Empire was a dangerous place. Full of bandits and murderers and villains. All of Eterneth was. But there was no way to prepare his heart to kill several men in a few minutes’ time.
After some minutes of silence, he put his emotions aside and purposed to deal with the situation.
He scavenged what he could and piled it next to the wagons, then took everything back to his house and put it away. Changing into his own clothing again, he came back to the caravan, dragging the body of the first bandit he had slain behind him. The bandits he piled in the wagon and Uic started spilling the drums of lamp oil that was in one of them, pouring it on both the wagons.
The two horses that drew the carriages had calmed down since the violence ceased. He cut them loose and gave them each a smack on the backside. They trotted off together, free. Maybe he could have taken and sold them, but he couldn’t bear to damn another soul to live out its life in Avero. Not even horses deserved that, he thought. Besides, he was content with what he had plundered, morbid as it was. Was this the way of the world, to kill and take?
He took out a dwarvish lighter he had plundered and nearly lit the wagons before he suddenly realized he had entirely forgotten to check the rear wagon for anything worthwhile.
Hoisting himself into it, he suddenly felt a chill. In the back of it lay a coffin-like case of ice. A mysterious feeling came over him, replacing the feeling of stupidity for nearly torching everything before he had inspected it.
Uic walked to the coffin with slow, marked steps and wiped it with his hand. The lid suddenly dissolved into a thick, cool mist, revealing a deathly pale young girl inside, lying motionless.
Uic cringed and stepped back, staring at her beautiful body. She was dressed in an unusual but exquisite white, frilly dress. Her hair was long and strawberry blond, but her skin and lips were bluish white– she looked frozen. Sadness overcame him. He wondered who she was and why the bandits had kept her frozen body in this casket of ice.
He leaned forward to touch her face with both of his hands. At the instant he did, her skin and lips filled with life and her eyes opened, revealing a phantasmic hue of ruby red. Uic jumped back with a yelp, then stood back up and looked her in the eyes. She smiled and weakly lifted her hand, as if requesting a proper handshake. He was baffled, but her warm gesture was as inviting as her smile was alluring.
Uic grasped her hand softly but with some hesitation. Her smile grew as they gently exchanged a handshake. He uncontrollably smiled back, both because she was so amiable, and because the mysterious beauty of the situation overtook him.
As they shook, a strange warmth engulfed Uic’s hand, and sparks started shooting out from his right hand. Unbelievable! As he drew it back though, it continued and the warmth grew all over him, sparks spraying wildly.
Suddenly confusion was overtaken by realization of the danger that the fit of sparks posed. He began to run out of the cart when the wagon ignited, and in an instant the cloth ceiling was ablaze, with the sides and floor lighting quickly.
Uic ran pull to pull the girl out of the coffin and away, but as she came to her feet she fell roughly to the ground, seemingly unable to support her own weight.
“Shit!” Uic exclaimed, grabbing around her chest and pulling her into his arms as he stumbled out.
He trotted back to his house with her, too dazzled to even look back. All the while the hot sensation within himself quickly rose to a burning sensation. Her ruby eyes stared at him all the way back, until she faded into unconsciousness as he reached the door of his house.
Uic laid her onto his bed, looking over her for a moment. Her face was bruised and her formerly immaculate dress was now grayed and charred, her skin now dirtied with ash like his own. She was breathing and uninjured, however, so he left her alone to go into the living room and think.
Uic stomped around the room desperately considering the situation. His attention turned momentarily to the blood that remained throughout his chamber. His contemplations continued on and on in circles as he cleaned the floor and boarded up the front door with scrap wood.
Finally the mess was clean and the door was repaired. Sort of.
Amidst the struggle in his mind, a thought came to him. He reached into the loot in his closet that he had gotten from the wagons earlier and pulled out a long broadleaf cigarette with a mischievous grin.
Through all the unprecedented trouble and mayhem of the day, he had at least come to acquire one of his few pleasures in life– that small, paper tube of vice, tightly, uniformly rolled by a machine in some distant province, filled with glorious, if fleeting relaxation. That was broadleaf.
He sat back against the wall next to the doorway of the room where the girl slept, puffing on his cigarette and holding his father’s sword in his lap. His worries dissipated more with each puff, until he started to doze off.
With each nod closer to a sweet slumber, his head sank between his knees and he grinned more. The cigarette fell between his legs still burning away. He was off to sleep without a final thought, but with a beautiful, unique feeling. Yes, fear, worry, guilt– but above that, hope, victory, the feeling that he experienced something new, that he had begun to walk a new path in life.
The feeling of… satisfaction?
Contentment. Was he content already? Maybe he was. Or maybe he somehow discovered that he would be– in the future. He didn’t know when, but eventually. And to know that, he felt like he was already content. And Uic was content to be content.
See BlinkofEternity.com or Amazon to purchase the eBook!