“You! Get off the test-field!” a gruff voice shook William from his reverie as he continued to stare up and the giant mechanical Bear. Gleans of the silvery light from within the structure caught his eye through the haze of smoke as he hurried out of the path of the lumbering giant.
Standing on the sidelines, he watched as the mech moved forward with its ground-shaking, staccato steps. His eyes lingered upon the long, hooked claws, sharped into sword points, retracted into the steel framework of the mech.
“What in the name of Annalose and Ardra…” he whispered, staring out at the see of glimmering orange and silver in the haze.
“You will not find Annalose and Ardra here, friend.” The gruff voice that had shaken him enough to get him out of the way of the mech said, and for the first time he noticed he was not alone on the edge of the testing field. He turned to look at the older Bear, who was dressed in protective leathers over his simple clothing. A familiar voice… a familiar face even.
“Dorwan!” William breathed, putting together the voice and the well-worn face with Doucent’s long-time general store owner. They had never been quite friends, but acquaintances, and neighbours.
The Bear narrowed his eyes a moment, scrutinizing his face, before the sparkle of recognition made the older Bear suck in a deep breath.
“William,” he said softly. William couldn’t help feeling a rush of happiness to see a friendly face, even amongst such a hellish background. Clasping the Bear’s paw, he beamed.
“It is good to see you, old friend.”
Dorwan nodded gruffly,
“First an enemy of Sinerrah, then you were dead, and then you were an even bigger enemy of Sinerrah. And now you are here… I’m not sure what to think.” The older Bear said, a ghost of a smile passing over his mouth before it set in a grim line, looking over William’s shoulder at the smoky industrial space. “Though, nothing seems to be right around here anymore.”
William turned to stand beside Dorwan and look out at the giant, shadowy figures that stretched out for a great distance in the hazy clearing.
“Yes, what in this Warbler’s Cursed world is going on here?” he asked.
Dorwan was silent a moment and then he placed a paw on William’s arm.
“Come along. Let’s get somewhere a bit quieter so that we can have this conversation.” The older Bear lead him through the smoky hazy towards the Arch that lead to his home village of Doucent.
William took huge gulps of air as it became fresher, the further they moved from the industrial area. It was a much lighter haze in the village, he noted, though still present, disrupting the simple beauty of the place he had chosen to live after leaving the remote area he grew up in, on the western island of the country.
As they walked through what should have been the bustling shopping district of the small village, he asked Dorwan,
“It’s midday. Where is everyone? Where is the stall market?” he looked around at the near empty square, noticing then that few lights were on in any of the surrounding buildings. As they approached Dorwan’s general store, he noticed most of the buildings were, in fact, completely shuttered.
Dorwan didn’t answer him as he fumbled to unlock the door to the general store. William had never seen the door locked in all his turnings spent in the village.
The Bears’ justice system was strict, and its punishments severe. They had all but done away with petty crime, meaning there had been no reason to lock a store’s door when it was closed. Dorwan saw his astonishment and gave him a grim look.
“Some of those Wolves have sticky fingers.”
William growled as he followed the older Bear into the store.
“And what do the constables have to say about those Wolves?” he asked, peering around the dim, dusty shop, with its nearly bare shelves. Dorwan snorted and walked over to the small table that sat in the corner by the stairs that lead up to his living quarters, taking a moment to touch the light crystal on the wall until the room was lit properly.
“They say nothing.” William swallowed a snarl in response, and followed his host over to the table, pulling out and sitting on a dusty chair.
“You closed the shop?” he asked, his mind flashing back to Elenya and the kids. He needed to get home, but he also needed to figure out what was going on. He had waited well over a turning to see his family… he could wait a little longer to gather some important information about what was happening to his people.
“I was ordered to close the shop, just like everyone else in the village.” Dorwan snarled, his fisted paw slamming down on the table nearly hard enough to crack the dusty wood. “Ever since the Monarch decided to bow to Mormant… everything has changed here, William. Surely Elenya has told you some of it…” William felt a clutch in his stomach.
“I have just arrived in Sinerrah. I was on my way home when I stumbled into that… whatever you can call it. Beast factory.” Dorwan’s eyes held something then that made William’s heart ache in his chest.
“You must go home. Immediately.” Before William could protest, Dorwan held up a paw. “Your family needs you, and I will be back here after nightfall. We can talk about the war machines and Sinerrah’s new laws then.”
William nodded hastily and hurried out of the shop. He took the familiar path leading out of the village to the east. He could see through the sparse trees the smoke-filled industrial area. So close to the homestead, he thought with a grimace as he approached the marker holding the Bearhelm crest — the one that marked his land, and the short route to his home — to his family.
As he approached the cottage, he noted that the air was thick with the acrid smells of the industrial park not far away, but the smoke was thinner. Tendrils of wood smoke rose from the red-brick chimney that he had built himself all those turnings ago. The shutters were drawn, which was odd for midday. Maybe to keep the smell out? He thought as he approached the door. He tried to turn the front door handle and was surprised to find it locked. The door hadn’t even had a locking mechanism when he had built it.
A fierce snarl, muffled by the closed door caught his ear.
“I’ve already paid my tithe and you are sadly mistaken if you think you can shake me down for more like you do the rest of the villagers.” His heart warmed at the ferocity lacing his wife’s voice.
The thunk and click of the door unlocking made him step back a bit from the threshold. The door swung open and Elenya stood there, crouched into a fighting stance, a heavy looking club brandished. She looked as if she was about to continue snarling until recognition washed over her face and the club dropped from her paw. She flung herself at him, and he caught her, effortlessly, pulling her as close as he could, into a crushing hug. His wife, the mother of his children… the thing he had missed most in his long absence.
“William.” She breathed, pressing her face into the soft crook of his neck, nuzzling him. She broke the hug and took a step back, a grin transforming her stern face into an echo of the young cub she had been when they had first met — when he had first come to Doucent. He hadn’t been looking for a wife, but she had set her sights on him as a mate and it hadn’t taken him long at all to come around to the idea of sharing his life with such a smart, strong woman. She had only gotten stronger as she aged, though there was an edge of hardness to her now that made his heart ache.
It hadn’t been an easy several turnings for the Bearhelm clan. When their youngest son Erikkson had first fallen ill, William had returned home from Katheyra to tend to his family. But the money he had saved ran out very quickly and the healers became more and more expensive as the mystery of Erikkson’s illness continued to be investigated. Elenya had taken the responsibility of the family and their son’s health onto her shoulders when he decided to go off to Mormant for some lucrative work as a mercenary. It had gone against both their moral compasses for him to do such work, but the times were desperate and he was willing to do anything for his son.
Things had gone south with the Wolves and suddenly he was being pinned with faults that were not his doing, and hunted by Wolves. He was declared a rogue and enemy of the state, and he had fled into hiding in Katheyra. With his dear friend Beddigan’s help, and the help of a new friend, Shianne, he had faked his death and sent Beddigan home with his family heirlooms — his last ties to his family name. He had not seen Elenya since his friend had delivered the message to his wife that he was not dead, and he had continued to send money home in secret. But it had been a long time that Elenya had been alone, taking care of the family.
He watched as the smile faded from her face and a haunting look crept into her eyes. For a moment, he expected to be on the receiving end of a tirade — one that he greatly deserved. He would have preferred that to the sorrow that now filled his wife’s eyes.
“Elenya?” he asked as she gently pulled the door shut behind her. He looked at the door for a moment, puzzled. And then it hit him — Erikkson. She must have caught the recognition in his eyes because she choked back a sob and turned her gaze away, trying to hide her tears.
“A few months ago. Nothing anyone could do.” She said quietly, pain roughening her voice. William felt the world dip and bow beneath his feet. His son was gone.
He was mildly aware that Elenya was leading him into the cottage and settling him into his favourite stuffed chair. The daze started to lift as he looked around the open living area of the house he had built, but had not become a home until Elenya joined him in it and birthed his children.
His wife joined him, sitting stiffly on the edge of the adjacent couch, setting a steaming cup of ambleberry tea on the low table in front of him. William tried to meet her eyes but her gaze was fixed on a point across the room — the doorway to the children’s bedroom.
“Elenya… I’m sorry that I was not here.” He choked out, emotion catching in his throat as he felt the waves of despair and anger radiating from the proud, beautiful Sow next to him.
Her eyes flickered over to him and he saw in their depths the same steadfast, resolute strength that they had always held.
“You were away. It could not be helped.” Was her only answer. This is a much longer conversation, he thought, but he let her words close the door on it for now. He took a sip of his tea, enjoying the tart berry burst against his tongue for a mere moment, before the hollow ache returned. He swallowed a sob that burned in his chest.
“When do the children return home from school?” he asked, feeling a desperate need to hold his two remaining children.
The lingering traces of pain evaporated from Elenya’s face, and he nearly leapt from his seat at the anger that replaced it. She was the one to stand though, pacing angrily around the room, fussing with a blanket on the back of the couch, picking up a book and moving it from one table to another just to have something to do while she moved.
“The children no longer go to school. They are old enough to work now, in the eyes of the Monarch. You passed Billy’s workplace on the way here, that polluted festering war machine factory. And Ellie is out on one of the new community farms helping with the planting and harvesting.”
William exploded up from his chair, unsettling his teacup, causing the pink liquid to slosh over the rim.
“What?” he roared, “How has this been allowed?!” Elenya rounded on him, nearly crashing into him.
“We weren’t exactly given a choice, William.” She snarled. “The Wolves came in, new laws were formed, and enough dissenters disappeared for us to prudently agree to everything that’s been thrown at us.”
William sucked in a breath in an effort to calm himself. It didn’t work.
“What in this Warbler’s Cursed world has happened to my home?” he raged.
She snarled softly in response, turning away from him. Picking up his tea cup and moving it into the kitchen, she sighed, bracing her paws on the countertop.
“Our leaders have failed us, and our society is breaking and changing in ways I never thought I would see.” She said, her back to him as she rinsed the cup. “We have bent to the Wolves and the Monarch no longer places his people first. And enough people have been corrupted to make that will law.”
William stalked over to the door and flung it open, looking out at his land with changed eyes. Everything was different now. The war had come to Sinerrah in a way he had never imagined.
Leaving the door open he turned back to Elenya who was leaning against the washing basin with her arms crossed over her chest.
“This cannot stand.” William said quietly. A flash of fear crossed Elenya’s face, but was gone in an instant.
“No, it cannot.” She agreed.
William crossed the room and pulled his wife into a firm embrace, feeling her soften in his arms.
“I’ll fix this, Elenya. Somehow, I’ll fix this.” She said nothing, but he swore he felt her agree with him.
To be continued…
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