From DivNull RPG
Earnmund Healfred Torctwalh (”eagle-hand half-wisdom light-slave”) was born to Herce and Epaphus, a poor wood cutter in the north village of the Ligeuria Forest. Immediately after birth in the family home, Earnmund’s mother attempted to kill him for no discernible reason. Weary from childbirth, she was easily restrained by the midwife who assisted in the delivery. Later, Herce remembered nothing of the event and could provide no explanation of her behavior. In fact, she always refused to believe it had happened, and was always very loving to her son.
Earnmund’s name means “eagle-hand” and springs from an unusual birth mark he has on his chest. It resembles this drawing in both shape and scale:
When Earnmund became 10 years old, he was told by a friend that on the day he was born, a blind woman was passing through the town. She collapsed to the ground and began to yell that a child born nearby would be afflicted by an ancient family curse upon reaching adulthood. When Earnmund asked his parents about the validity of this story, he was beaten and sent to bed without dinner.
Epaphus was known throughout the village for his honesty. As such, it was no secret that he was somewhat disappointed in Earnmund. Earnmund was much weaker than his six brothers (all older), and showed more talent for daydreaming than cutting wood. He spent most of his time by himself, thinking up stories or drawing on rocks. He could not write, but pretended to, drawing strange symbols and shapes to detail his rock-drawings and illustrations. Some of these he gave away to villagers as good luck charms.
At 8 years old, Earnmund befriended an older neighbor named Aginor. Aginor was in failing health. He had been a wood-cutter like Earnmund’s father, but lost his legs in an accident, and was now slowly dying from infection and grief. He had been an imperial soldier for a time, and knew how to read, so he taught the skill to Earnmund. It was difficult to learn reading from Aginor, because it was hard to understand him. He tended to babble, mumble and occasionally pass-out. Earnmund learned to be very patient from dealing with Aginor.
Although he only had access to two books (a religious text detailing the advantages of following Mars, and the weathered travel diary of a merchant that Aginor found on the road), Earnmund read voraciously. When Aginor died from his wounds, he gave the books to Earnmund, who read them over and over. He did not understand some of the words in the diary, but used them in conversation anyway, betting that no one else would either.
Earnmund became very familiar with Mars, mainly because a passage in the book mentioned that if you lost a battle, “it was Mars’ will.” Earnmund latched onto this passage because everyone in the village said that about Vestia when something bad happened. The village all worshiped Vestia, and so Earnmund did to, but he wondered what happened when Vestia and Mars wanted different things to happen. Earnmund figured that they would fight, and he reckoned that in a fight, Mars would serve Vestia her lunch. He decided that he ought to be nice to both Mars and Vestia, just in case. This tended to be the total depth of Earnmund’s religious introspection. He’d been brought up to believe in Vestia and so he did. Whenever Mars and Vestia’s methods seem in opposition, Earnmund generally figured that the gods knew what they were doing and didn’t worry about it too much.
Earnmund’s family, especially his father, frowned highly and audibly on his reading habit, feeling it odd that it should be such an obsession. Even other villagers would often refer to Earnmund as Epaphus’ “strange boy”. To Earnmund, this became less and less tolerable. One day, the village was abuzz with the news that Klimine had ran away from the village. This planted a seed in Earnmund that grew each time anyone mocked him, until finally, a week after his ninth birthday, he ran away from home.
He didn’t go far, just into the surrounding woods. He did pretty much what he always did: decorated rocks and read. He also found that he had to find and prepare his own food, a task at which he did not excel. He eventually discovered that some of the berries that he found had much the same taste as his favorite of mother’s pies, and managed to avoid starving by eating them. He had stolen a hatchet from his father’s tools and practiced throwing it a trees. He managed to bring down a bird with the ax, but didn’t know how to prepare it. He was gone for eight days before homesickness, hunger and a bad cold forced him to go home.
He survived the punishment that came to him for running away, and lived the next three years in relative peace. Because he did not know how to prepare the bird, he began to pay more attention in the kitchen, asking questions. Because he was too small to cut wood with his father, he helped out in the kitchen and maintained tools and the house. He became quite adept at carving axe handles.
By the time he was twelve, he was required to join his father most of the other older men of the village in cutting trees. He hated this work. It was hard, and he was not really strong enough to keep the pace of the other boys his age, adding to his ostracizing from them. He suffered in silence, always polite but always loathing those who mocked him. On the one day of the week when the village rested, Earnmund would always return to the woods. He would practice throwing axes, and continue to read and decorate rocks (by now, he had graduated to carving).
After about two years of this life, Earnmund became bigger and stronger, even stronger than some of the other boys his age. With his increased size and experience came more important and dangerous tasks in the village. An accident with another boy severed two of the smaller toes from Earnmund’s left foot. The wound was quickly tended, but became infected and Earnmund spent several days in bed with a high fever. Just when it seemed that he was getting better, strange black sores began to form on his body. He did not know what they were, but when his family saw them, they became very frightened, and would only enter Earnmund’s room to bring him food. He heard them whispering about “the black death”. He didn’t know what that was, but he knew that the week before, another boy caught the black death and the villagers burned down his house, with the boy’s whole family still in it. He hoped his parents wouldn’t tell anyone that he caught it until he got better. He made a circle of his good luck rocks around his bed to protect him from the villagers.
Earnmund liked having the black death at the beginning. He did not have to work, and he got a whole room to himself; however, when the black sores began to harden, Earnmund realized two things about the black death: it was unbearably painful and it was not going to get better. He also began to hear voices through the pain and heat of the disease. He heard whispers of villagers, plotting to burn him and his family. He heard his family, calmly discussing how best to kill him. He heard all the names he had ever been called by the village. He even heard total nonsense. Sometimes he would find himself mumbling, maybe repeating what he was hearing, he couldn’t tell. But the clearest voice just asked questions: why didn’t he hate the village? Wouldn’t he like to see his tormentors punished? Didn’t he want to live? After seven days of this, Earnmund began to hate everyone around him, convinced they meant to kill him. He also started answering the voice.
It took him half a day of thought to decide if he wanted to live. Once he answered that he did, the voice said “I can save you and punish your enemies. All you have to do is ask me to come and do it.” Earnmund began to hear yelling from outside, and saw a glow under the door that told him that his house had begun to burn. Still nearly delirious with pain and fever, Earnmund whispered, “Come then. Do it. Please.”
From nothing, a shadow formed next to the bed. Earnmund could not look at it. He knew only that it was anxious. It muttered more words Earnmund did not understand, and Earnmund’s numerous sores began to glow a sickly green color. Earnmund became very calm and heard the shadow say “you may wish to hold a good luck rock in each hand to help the healing.” Without much thought, Earnmund got out of bed and picked up two rocks from the ring around his bed. The shadow howled and leaped out of the now-broken circle, crashing through the door into the inferno of the house. Earnmund saw the green glow envelop him and lost consciousness.
Only the first time he woke up was he greeted with any noise; after that it was always silence. Sometimes he woke up to light, sometimes to smoke, sometimes to night. Eventually, he woke without pain, and then he groaned. He was surrounded by burned out beams and soot. It looked as if the roof had collapsed, but fell in such a way that the wreckage supported itself around him, though Earnmund failed to see how he was unburned. He found a way out and pushed though. Oddly, he felt fantastic. Once he hit sunlight, he saw that the sores were gone. He also saw that his house, and several others, had been burned to the ground.
He knew he should hide, but he saw no one in the village. He saw that all of the houses were locked up, shutters and doors closed. He worked up the courage to peek into one of the houses. Inside, on the floor, were two dead people, covered with black sores. He looked in another house and saw three more. He took a full day to verify that everyone in the village was dead in their homes, killed by the black death. For some reason some of the bodies, mostly women, also had their heads turned all the way around to face backwards.
Earnmund somehow knew that, at least for now, he had nothing to fear from the black death. He put up signs outside the village as a warning to others and began to dig graves for the whole village. He intended to give everyone and individual grave, but in digging the first grave, he knew that would take to long. He dug an oversized grave and put everyone from one house into it. He did the same with another house, all the while watched by a horned owl. He was halfway through digging a third hole when a new voice asked “Burying those you killed?”
He whirled inside his hole, bringing the shovel up to defend himself. He saw the stranger, staring disapprovingly down on him, arms open with his hands at head level, their backs to Earnmund. “What?” Earnmund managed.
“Why summon it if you have any pity in you?”
“Summon what?” Earnmund demanded. “Who are you?”
The stranger became more angry. “Why summon it if you still have remorse?” he demanded.
This made Earnmund angry also. “Summon what?” he demanded again. The stranger arched an eyebrow. He began to stare at Earnmund in a way that made the boy feel most uncomfortable. The stranger then began to laugh out loud. This made Earnmund even more frustrated. “Stop that laughing,” Earnmund said, brandishing the shovel, “or I’ll give you a right slogging on th’ noggin.”
At this, the stranger laughed even harder, saying “I’m sure you would, boy. I’m sure you would.”
Earnmund, having just about enough of this, decided that “noggin” is not a word to use when making threats. He brought the darkest voice he had, stood straight and said “Leave here, sir. Now.”
Laughs turned into mumbles. The stranger’s hands and eyes flashed. His word grew louder and his hand trembled at his waist. His yelled a word then, bringing his hand up. The dirt under Earnmund’s feet moved up quickly, taking Earnmund with it. He landed with a jolt, almost falling from the mound of dirt into the now perfect and complete grave.
With the sudden realization that he was facing a warlock, Earnmund began to scramble away from the stranger, before he got turned into a frog or something equally hideous. Shaking, he tried the only thing he could think of to protect himself. Moving his hands in the proscribed way, Earnmund managed to stammer “please, Vestia, protect me. Please, save me from my plight, for he is a warlock or worse. I…”
“So are you, boy.” The stranger’s words froze Earnmund in his tracks.
Earnmund turned and looked at the stranger, eyes wide, now totally petrified. The stranger regarded him, like a bird might, and said “Very good. Now do not move. You will be unharmed.” The stranger began to mumble again, and move his hands. He held a fist-sized glass ball to his forehead and closed his eyes. Earnmund remembered, for no apparent reason, that he had threatened the warlock, and his stomach flipped over yet again. Earnmund suddenly felt tingly all over. When it was over, the stranger scowled at him slightly. “You did not know, so perhaps it is not your fault, and thus not punishable. Perhaps it is. In any case, it is not a decision for me to make.”
The stranger looked into the air for a moment, then set his shoulders. “I must hunt it down. I suggest you bury the rest, perform whatever rights your village had to make the dead rest easy, then look through the houses for food and light valuables.”
That sounded a bit like grave robbing to Earnmund. He said “Yes, m’lord. Whatever you say, m’lord. But…” he let his words die, hoping he had not said too much.
The warlock seemed to understand. “Boy, you have already killed them. How much more can you really dishonor them?” He waved his hands dismissively. “When you are ready, burn the houses and go.”
“Yes, m’lord. Go where, m’lord?”
“I don’t care. Just take care not to light the forest.”
This irritated Earnmund, and he let slip, “I know that, sir. I ain’t no idiot.” He immediately slapped his hand over his mouth. He was about to prostrate himself and beg forgiveness, but the warlock spoke first.
“No, of course not.” He wrapped a cloth over his mouth and moved through the village. Over his shoulder, he yelled “Good luck, boy. And stop painting rocks.”
Earnmund did what he said.
Once the last house was ash, and the woods were safe from catching, Earnmund set off to do the only thing apart from cutting wood that he had ever heard of: becoming a soldier. From the houses, he had gathered an array of his axes, a collection of the best cookery he could find, some good clothes (which he smoked to drive the black death from them), food, a number of coins and even a small gem set into a ring. With the fruits of the whole village in his pocket, Earnmund was richer than he’d ever dreamed.
Knowing that villagers took wood to Sulmo to exchange for food, clothes, metal and other goods, Earnmund headed there. On the way he thought a lot about the stranger. The magic words he had uttered sounded both alien and familiar, compelling. He had heard the stories about warlocks, but having met one, he was more confused then ever. He couldn’t believe he was still alive. Still, the more he thought back on the encounter, the less impressive the warlock became. He was horrifying, certainly, but in hindsight, he really didn’t behave much differently than Earnmund’s father. If anything, the warlock was even more tolerant. By rights, the warlock should have melted or cursed Earnmund for his rude behavior, but the warlock showed no sign of even caring. Why? And what was that about Earnmund being a warlock also? Is that what he said? Earnmund couldn’t be sure. One thing he did know, however: in the conference between the warlock and young grave digger, he would have much rather been the warlock. He wanted to be like the warlock very, very badly. But not so he could scare young boys. And not to feel the power of moving the earth. Rather, he really wanted to know how it worked. Being confronted with magic is much different than hearing tales about it. How did some words and hand gestures move the ground? Was that all there was to it? Earnmund figured probably not, or else everyone would do it. Even without knowing anything about magic, a strange thought occurred to Earnmund. If a warlock could work magic to move earth, could a warlock also work magic to change the earth-moving magic? He didn’t know, but he knew he would find out.
Earnmund was about an hour’s journey to Sulmo, cutting through the forest, when he heard the sound of someone cutting a tree. He ran over to see who it was, and found that he was near a road. On the road was a wagon that, while sturdy, had a broken axle. Three men sat on the wagon, their backs to Earnmund. Beyond them, a man hacked at a tree with a sword. Earnmund had never seen a sword before. Even Aginor didn’t have one, just a spear. Earnmund figured that these men must be soldiers, officers even, to have a sword. Since he wanted to be a soldier, helping these men might be a good first step. Earnmund walked up behind the men and said “He’s gonna ruin that sword.” He pronounced the ‘w’.
The men turned and Earnmund saw immediately that one was the leader. He was older and had a pot belly, while the other two looked threatening, like the one chopping the tree. The leader, smiled and said “Likely, yes. That is, unless you would consent to lend us your axe.”
Earnmund suddenly realized that brigands might also have swords. He may have just made a huge mistake. But the pot-bellied man looked a little to old for brigandage. Earnmund thought that they might not give it back, but said “Of course, sir,” and brought the axe to the man at the tree. On the way, he saw an axe with a broken handle at the feet of the man. The man thanked Earnmund and began chopping. The leader thanked Earnmund as well, jumping off the wagon and shaking his hand. He introduced himself as Ovidus Niskenan, a merchant. They watched the man chop an new axle and talked. Earnmund lied about where he was from, for fear that they would shun him due to the plague, but mentioned that he was going to be a soldier.
Just then a rider trotted up. The man stopped chopping and walked toward Niskenan. One of the men on the wagon jumped down and the other produced a bow. The rider stopped away from the wagon. He indicated at Earnmund with his jaw and said to the merchant, “Taking up slave trade, are we, Niskenan?”
Niskenan laughed. He looked at Earnmund and said softly, “There are better futures for you than soldiering. I’d like you to do me a favor, lad. Go to [a particular inn] in Sulmo and ask for the innkeeper. Give him half of these coins” — he dumped enough coins for two night’s lodgings for five — “and tell him to prepare a large room for five for me. We will join you there. We’ll bring your axe to you there.”
Earnmund looked dubiously at him, looking for a con. These men were definitely not brigands, and probably not soldiers either. What did that leave?
“Trust me lad. I’m trusting you to go to the inn and not run off. If we don’t meet you tonight, you may keep the rest of the coins.”
Earnmund decided that this made sense and made his way to Sulmo. As he passed the rider, the rider tipped his hat, and dismounted. Earnmund tried to listen as he walked away, but he heard nothing.
He felt the weight of the coins the merchant had given him in his pouch, and realized that he was not as rich as he thought. The merchant gave him the coins like they were nothing and they were about a third of the value of the coins he took from the village. He started thinking about how much he now had an briefly considered running away with them, but he realized that if the merchant would give the coins to a relative stranger, he would surely give more. Plus, he gave his word, and his momma didn’t raise no cheat. He kept track of the coins so he could separate the merchant’s third back out when he realized that the merchant’s coins were really a fourth of his current total, even though he started with three times as many as he had been given. This intrigued him, and he distracted himself with the relations between the coin groups all the way to Sulmo.
The town was not the same as his village only bigger. He was confused at first, but quickly saw that a village based on trade would need places for traders to stay, and that meant lots of inns. And that meant people who worked in those inns instead of chopping trees. And that meant people that had to sell food to the inn workers, which meant more traders. He was fascinated with the lives that fed into and back on themselves. So much so, he almost let his pouch with the coins get taken by someone smaller than him.
He remembered reading a comment in the merchant’s diary that anytime you came to a new place, it was important that you assert yourself as someone who will not be taken advantage of. (It then said “except when” followed by words Earnmund didn’t know, like “charade” and “linguistic ledgermain”.) He decided that letting the take his pouch would definitely reveal to the city as someone they could push around. Plus, it wasn’t nice.
He put a stop to it by punching the boy dead in the nose. It felt good to do that instead of having it done to you. The boy kept a grip on the pouch and tried to run away. Earnmund hit him again, grabbing his arm. The boy turned a bit and moved the pouch into his other hand. Earnmund took to opportunity to grab the pouch. The boy used the opening to hit Earnmund in the face. Earnmund pushed the boy away, into the body of an onlooker. The onlooker pushed him back. Angry now, Earnmund moved to hit the boy in the face with the fist that held the pouch, when a broom hit him in the back several times in succession. Wielded by a stern looking old woman, the broom hit Earnmund and the boy as punctuation to a long diatribe in a language that Earnmund did not understand. The boy managed to run off, leaving Earnmund to stare at the growing crowd and the old woman, who by then was being restrained by two other old women. The townspeople looked at Earnmund sternly, obviously suspecting him of wrong doing. “He tried to take my pouch”, Earnmund said calmly, showing the pouch. This seemed to ease the crowd a bit. With one man nearby muttering “bloody thief punks”, Earnmund took the opportunity to ask for directions to the inn.
Careful to mention the merchant’s name first, Earnmund performed his task, then set out to explore the town. Just before he was had to get back to the inn, he ran into a purveyor of axes. While the handles were carved unevenly, the wood from which they were fashioned — something called “hickory” — was phenomenal. Earnmund wanted one, but thought they were priced to high, and he could carve one better. He asked the purveyor where he got the wood, but the man just said “trade secret”.
Earnmund waited in the inn for the merchant to come. He watched all the people, and listened to them talking as best he could. Eventually the merchant came in with his three men. The rider was nowhere to be seen, so Earnmund asked, “where is the fifth, sir?”
The merchant smiled at him and said “you are the fifth, son. At least until I can convince you not to be a soldier. Come on.” The merchant started up to his room, and Earnmund was clearly supposed to follow. He was a bit hesitant about it, but the merchant ordered the innkeeper to bring what sounded like a magnificent feast up to the room. Earnmund was dreadfully hungry.
In the room, after one of the best meals Earnmund had ever had, the man who had been chopping the tree gave Earnmund back his axe, saying “I like the handle.” Wanting to sound important, Earnmund thanked the man and indicated that he had carved it. He thought it might have come out too boldly, so he added, “Of course, the wood ain’t nearly as good as some you can find for sale here.”
“Oh?” the merchant arched a serious eyebrow. Earnmund, sensing that this was important somehow, told the group about the hickory merchant and the badly carved handles. As Earnmund described the man, he heard one of the men hiss slightly. The merchant said “If I could get the wood, would you be able to carve better ones?”
“I s’pose so, sir.”
“I have a deal for you then, son. I get the wood for you, you carve them, and then I sell them. They’ll be better, and we’ll sell for cheaper than the man you saw today. With luck, he’ll be out of business and that will make me a very happy man indeed. I’ll give you five percent.”
Earnmund didn’t really understand what was going on, but he remembered that the worn out merchant’s journal that he had been reading since he was little. The merchant that wrote it seemed to take great pride in making deals where the craftsman received as little as possible. Usually, though, they got more than five percent. Earnmund remembered something else as well. “Five percent before or after you subtract your costs?”
“Five of the profit,” the merchant said, without changing tone.
Earnmund was pretty sure that meant after the costs were subtracted, but the merchant in the journal always wrote that he would always pretend to know more than he did, so Earnmund didn’t ask for confirmation. He decided instead to look out for himself. “I think fifty’d be more fair, sir.”
The merchant exploded in laughter. “Gods Cicrops, look at the pair on this boy!” Then to Earnmund, he said, “Well, at least you can see when you are being suckered. Not bad for a country boy. How about fifteen?”
Earnmund figured that if this went anything like it did in the journal, he might be able to get as much as thirty-five percent, but what he really needed wasn’t money. “Forty percent.” He liked this game, but he could tell the merchant was humoring him.
Earnmund went in for his kill. “Twenty. And you learn me about life in the city and about merchanting.”
They shook hands. Then the merchant said to his men, “damn, boys, I think I just got snookered.”
The merchant made good on his claim. Within days, Earnmund had a load of hickory to carve. He ruined the first four handles he tried, and the next half-dozen were only marginally better than the other merchant, who by now Earnmund knew as Cadmus. Much later, Earnmund figured out that Niskenan got the hickory by intercepting one of Cadmus’ shippers and bribing part of the load out of him. He also found out the source of the wood, and sent one of his men to negotiate a deal. Soon enough, Earnmund got used to the wood and produced his standard handle. He gave the finished handles to Niskenan and within days started to seem them being sold in two different places in the city, one right across from Cadmus.
Niskenan started to train Earnmund as well, and was pleased to find that the boy could read. Niskenan thought that Earnmund needed to keep in shape, so he made a deal with the innkeeper that Earnmund would chop some of the inn’s daily wood. Niskenan also demanded that Earnmund be able to properly defend himself, and Argus would spend an hour a day with Earnmund teaching him how to fight.
Earnmund was comfortable with his axe, so Argus had him stick with that as a prime weapon. Argus fought like no one Earnmund had ever seen. He would spin his cloak in all manner of ways, using it like a shield, a whip, and a way to make himself seem in a different place than where he was. Earnmund begged to know how to do this, and Argus did, but only because it was easier to learn and teach both using a weapon and the cloak technique at the same time.
Within a few weeks, it became clear that Cadmus didn’t stand a chance in the axe handle business. Earnmund still thought the hickory handles, even his, were too expensive, but people seemed to buy them. Earnmund wasn’t let in on any of the other deals the merchant had going, though, in spite of his training. He got glimpses by virtue of being a messenger boy, and came to realize that the merchant was really two sorts of merchant. He pretended to sell one thing, but was really selling something else. Earnmund kept an eye out for what the other thing was, as it had to be small, but he never saw it, and was too polite to ask.
He used the wood chopping as a time to test his handles. He found that hickory could be a bit slippery, especially after your hands started to sweat. He started to experiment with ways around this. He took to carving designs into the lower part of the handles of his personal axes. He found that this greatly improved his grip. The designs weren’t coming out as good as the ones he put on rocks when he was younger. The techniques were a bit different. Plus, he was still leery of the warlock’s message to stop painting rocks, so he changed the style of the design a lot.
Earnumned never showed anyone these decorated handles until Niskenan barged in on him while carving one. “Cadmus has a new carver,” he said, “and his handles are as good as yours. What’s more, he’s managed to pull some favors and get a better price on the wood than I can manage.”
“What will we do, sir?”
“We need some way to make our handles stand out.” He then saw what Earnmund was doing to the handle. “Good work, son, you’re way ahead of me. What’s the target price?”
“Good design. How much?”
“Sell these, sir? I suppose. They take a lot longer, though.”
“We’ll just raise the price. Why not, for such a handsome item. You have to sign them though.”
“Sign ’em, sir?”
“Yes. That way Cadmus won’t be able to copy your design. It’s against the rules of the… it’s against the rules. Just put a mark on them that is uniquely yours.”
“Like what, sir?”
“Well, how about the mark on your chest or something. Honestly, son, I don’t have to think of everything.”
“As you wish, sir.”
As the merchant left, he said over his shoulder, “a real merchant would have asked me to increase his percentage to thirty.”
Eventually, the axe handle market stabilized. Cadmus become know for high quality, low cost axe handles. Niskenan became known as a supplier of custom designed, high cost handles, all with Earnmund’s birthmark worked into them. The market for custom handles was much less voluminous than for low-cost handles, but Niskenan had better connections, so he managed to ship handles to other places.
Earnmund also managed to suggest a way to cut costs when he accidentally set fire to some shavings. He noticed, that once he put the fire out, the smoke smelled very good. He played around in the inn’s kitchen with the wood and managed to get some meat to retain the flavor of it. When he tasted the meat, he realized that it tasted just like an expensive sausage that was sometimes brought into the village for trading. He showed Niskenan, who congratulated him on the find. Soon, a locally made sausage began to show up in the town, tasting much like the expensive import, but at half the price. As an assignment, Earnmund was given the task of finding from where this new sausage came. He was sure that, ultimately, it obviously came from Niskenan, but he could never prove it. He could never find a trace of its source.
Earnmund began to suspect that the small product that Niskenan sold was information. He started to believe that he was a spy, but Earnmund could never figure out for (or against) whom. Generally, the merchant was only in the town one to three days out of the week. By then, he had set up a house, and Earnmund was charged with running it. Earnmund took special care of the library. With its 23 books, it was the largest book collection in the town.
Earnmund continued to train with Argus. He once asked him where he learned his fighting skills. Argus said that he had been an adventurer, and had seen most of the empire. Some of his fighting style he invented, but the basic cloak technique came from [some exotic place]. Earnmund demanded to hear about places Argus had been and what he did there. Argus seemed to have an endless supply, though sometimes Earnmund doubted their truth. Still, being an adventurer sounded pretty neat to Earnmund and he said so. Argus laughed and told him that bodyguard work pays more steadily. Twice during these conversations, Earnmund asked Argus if he’d ever seen any warlocks. Both times, Argus maneuvered his way out of answering the question, so Earnmund never asked again.
The town itself continued to grow, fed by immigrants from the center of the empire. The town was known for its gossip, being in a location between the central empire and the outer fringes. Earnmund heard loose rumors of the black death to the [some direction] from time to time, but never anything firm. Earnmund watched the city grow with fascination. As more people came, more diverse experience was available to the citizens, making the town more attractive and bringing in more people. At one point, he mapped out all of the wheels within wheels that he could see working in the town.
Niskenan continued to come and go. He had begun to include Earnmund in on more and more of his negotiations, and they would often talk about the event before and after, analyzing and dissecting what went right and wrong. Niskenan used a series of hand gestures to convey complex messages to his bodyguards, and he taught Earnmund this sign language. Earnmund was never sure if this was invented by the merchant or if other people also used it. Earnmund’s wood carving duties waned as the market began to dry up, so he began to look after the merchant’s books. Earnmund was sure that Niskenan had another set of books for his more shadowy dealings, but he never made an effort to uncover them.
Niskenan also took a wife at this time. Larissa was a very striking woman, exotic, having come from Persia. She struck Earnmund as being very dim, all assets in the brain department apparently having migrated to her ample bust line. It was unclear how Niskenan met her, but she obviously made him happy. It was hard to tell if she was happy or not. Generally, she stayed behind while Niskenan was abroad.
Earnmund began to ask Niskenan about the cities he visited. He wanted to travel to them to see how they worked as well. He painted pictures in his mind about the cities, waiting for the time when he would get to see one. As it started to look, the first city he saw might be the very town he had been living in.
The town possessed a number of shrines and worship halls, but never contained a real temple. That changed when a contingent of Mars began to build one, creating quite a social stir. A temple was the mark of a real city in many people’s eyes. Mars gained quite a few converts in the town.
Earnmund was curious about the new temple and its religion. He had read one of its books when he was younger of course, so decided to visit a service. Though he certainly believed in Vestia and continued to worship her, Earnmund had never really felt any special closeness to her, especially recently. The was always something missing. Perhaps the temple of Mars would have it.
That wasn’t his only reason for going, however. The arrival of the priests and their entourage into the town was a public event, with everyone gathered on the main road to get a glimpse of the newcomers. Amongst the entourage was the most beautiful girl Earnmund had ever seen. Even prettier than Klimine, who Earnmund had once seen naked by the river. She seemed about 17, like Earnmund. Her name was Phaethusa, and it turned out that she was the daughter of the head priest of the temple. Naturally, everyone else saw her as well, and she became a favorite subject amongst the men and boys in the village. Like many of them, Earnmund went to service also to catch a glimpse of her.
The service was set in a newly built cabin. It was setup as a shrine while the temple was being built. Earnmund was prepared for what his book said about a service to the Mars. He became more and more irritated when the service he attended was obviously not what was in the book. Even more, the more he paid attention to what the priests said, the less he liked. Whatever was missing from worshiping Vestia, it definitely wasn’t here. Earnmund did have a bit of luck during the ceremony, though. Phaethusa performed several functions during the service, mostly bringing certain religious implements from the back of the shrine to the altar. During one such maneuver, a small part of the decoration on the back of her vestment fell to the ground right next to Earnmund. Though two other boys saw it, Earnmund snatched it up first.
After the service, this gave him a perfect excuse to approach Phaethusa. She was standing with her father Aethon, the head priest. When he first saw the priest entering the city, Earnmund was impressed by him. He possessed a peculiar mix of otherworldliness and common man. After hearing Niskenan make some unfavorable remarks about him, though, Earnmund saw him merely as a man. And after this service, it was clear that Mars could not offer much to Earnmund. As a result, Earnmund had eyes only for Phaethusa.
“This fell from your [proper term for military god’s religious vestment],” Earnmund said, offering the fallen ornament. Phaethusa smiled at him, clearly impressed that he knew the proper name for the gown.
“Thank you,” she replied in a voice that filled with sweetness and just a hint of unknown danger. “I had not noticed that it fell.”
“You’re so pretty, I bet no one else did neither. They was prob’ly all staring at you.” It wasn’t poetry, but it made her smile even more. Earnmund was positive that the smile held more than just politeness. He pressed on. “My name’s Earnmund Torctwalh. Pleased to meet you.” He bowed like his momma taught him. She started to respond, but her father interrupted.
“And how did you find the service, young Earnmund?”
Earnmund saw that the priest was regarding him strangely. He figured that the priest was impressed by his knowledge of the vestment name. Phaethusa certainly was, so Earnmund decided to pull out all the stops. He knew that he had a history of charging into situations without thinking them through all the way, but he could see no disadvantage here. “Well, it wasn’t what I expected, sir.”
Earnmund went on to explain that it lacked many of the elements that were mentioned in the book, although he never mentioned the book itself. He was encouraged when Phaethusa seemed to brighten at this comment.
“Oh, your pardon, then,” the priest said. “I had not realized you were a soldier.”
“Oh, I’m not, sir.”
At this, Phaethusa’s face turned ashen. The priest became very grim.
“Come with me.” The priest grabbed Earnmund’s shoulder and ushered him to a small room at the back of the shrine. “How do you know about us.”
Hestitantly, Earnmund explained about the book. The priest became very serious and looked down over Earnmund. He asked “do you intend to become a soldier?”
Earnmund had been working under the assumption that, eventually, he would, but he realized at that exact moment that the idea had absolutely no appeal to him at all. By this time, he could see Phaethusa eavesdropping on the conversation, along with two men Earnmund did not recognize. He supposed them to be fellow suitors for Phaethusa. Earnmund said “No. Not a soldier. I’m going to be a…” the word “merchant” was in his head, but for reasons he did not understand, the word “warlock” came out of his mouth. Phaethusa gasped, pulling her hand to her mouth in surprise. The two men looked at each other, then regarded Earnmund.
The priest guided Earnmund back into the main shrine and presented Earnmund to the altar and to all of those left in the room. In a loud voice he said, “Hear me! This young man, Earnmund, has read Avestares, a text for which he is not prepared. In doing so, by the law of the great Sol Invictus, he has embarked on ro nineus. Any path he finds to Sol Invictus, he must work out for himself. He may never be admitted into this shrine, or any other dedicated to Sol Invictus. No follower of Sol Invictus may provide him with religious council.
“Oh, great and powerful Sol Invictus! Your servant presents Earnmund Torctwalh, who by your own law shows willingness to find you for himself. Solely placing himself in your divine hands, he accepts your holy retribution for any violations of this judgement of your law.” Releasing Earnmund, the priest whispered to him, “begone from this place.”
Earnmund, still a bit stunned, found the exit. He was doing so well, only to lose Phaethusa. She wanted him! He was sure of it!
When he got home, Earnmund realized that he might have misinterpreted the look on the priests face when he introduced himself to Phaethusa. Looking back on it, it might have been an indication that the priest thought Earnmund was not good enough for Phaethusa and was looking for any reason to keep him away from her. If that was the case, he played right into the priests hands. He wondered if ro nineus was really a tenant of Mars’ religion or if the priest made the whole thing up just to get rid of him. He really needed to consult with a priest of Mars which was he one thing that he was prevented from doing, for fear of divine retribution from Mars. If it was a sham, it was clever. Dangerous to disprove. After some heavy thought, Earnmund decided that if it was a sham, it would not have its desired effect. After all, Earnmund could still see and talk to any follower of Mars on non-religious matters. He just couldn’t do it inside a shrine. He would try to woo Phaethusa.
The hard part was finding a place to meet her. She and her father lived in the shrine, so he could not sneak in there. He had to wait until she went out, which was not very often. Earnmund kept watch when he had time to see if she left. He figured he could get an idea of her schedule, he could conveniently be where she was going. He watched messengers and errand boys come and go from the shrine. Sometimes he followed them to see if they were running errands that were obviously for Phaethusa. From memory, he carved her likeness into wood, usually into fist-sized cameos. He always put his mark into the back. When he got good enough at it, he would drop them in places where he knew someone would find them. He once braved putting one near the front of the temple, which by then had been completed.
This surveillance went on for months, never once yielding sight of her. Earnmund was beginning to fall behind in his work from devoting so much time. Earnmund hadn’t intended to tell anyone about his spying, but early on, Larissa caught him sneaking into the house late at night. She was calm about it and they began to talk about the whole situation. Over the months, Earnmund realized that he had judged her wit unfairly. She was a very bright woman. What Earnmund had interpreted as a dull mind was really Larissa not knowing a word of [Earnmund’s language]. She now spoke very well for such a short time. Often they would meet alone and talk about progress of the spying. Sometimes Earnmund would teach her more words. She made the search for Phaethusa, and the whole situation, bearable.
Finally, through blind luck, Earnmund came face to face with Phaethusa, right at a time when he was not looking for her. Niskenan and Earnmund were working on a deal with two other merchants in the same inn Earnmund first entered in the city. During the deal, a huge ruckus erupted outside. Earnmund and [other merchant], one of the other merchants involved in the deal, were sent out to see what happened. Outside they found one of [other merchant’s] porters bleeding in the street, apparently having been just trampled by a rampaging horse and wagon. [Other merchant] sprang to action, ordering one of his men to fetch some healers from the temple.
When the healers arrived, Phaethusa was with them. She assisted the healers, not noticing Earnmund. With skill, the healers managed to stop the bleeding and save the man. Only then did Phaethusa see Earnmund. Her look of embarrassed horror broke his heart into a thousand pieces. She made a sign meant to protect her from black magic. Earnmund realized that because he blurted that he wanted to be a warlock, she was totally frightened of him. Priestly sham or no, he managed to screw this up totally on his own. Why had he said that in the first place?
Confused and hurt, Earnmund ran home. Larissa was there, and he burst into tears and she held him. Through sobs, he told her what happened, until he couldn’t handle words and just kept crying. After a while, he realized that he wasn’t just crying about Phaethusa, but about his whole life, the villagers, ‘you already killed them, boy’, and wasting his time away in the town. What was he doing here?
He ran out of tears and just held Larissa for a while. She smelled good. She absently stroked his hair and his back. Earnmund began to laugh the laugh that only comes after you’ve been crying like a baby into someone’s shoulder, soft and gentle, with a sniff. She smiled and kissed his shoulder.
Then she lightly kissed his neck.
Earnmund’s eyes open and he felt her kiss his neck again. He pulled back a bit and look at her, but he only saw her eyes closed and her full lips. She smelled good. He kissed her mouth. She kissed back. For a full minute, they were swimming in euphoria. Then, at the same time, they both came to their senses, and slowly but firmly pushed each other away. They looked at each other and knew that something major had just happened. They also both knew Niskenan well enough to know that he would not like it one bit. He took a dim view of anyone moving in on his holdings. More so, Niskenan was a mentor and a friend. It would not be right to misplace his trust.
At the same time, they said “we can’t do that again.” They laughed, and for a moment everything was fine.
He woke the day after and – still wanting Larissa in his arms – knew the future would be most uncomfortable. Some days he could barely look at her. Sometimes he heard her and Niskenan in their bed chambers. He wanted to ask her daily if she thought of him in those times, but neither of them spoke of it again. Sometimes, though, she would scent his pillow with a hint of her perfume, which filled his dreams with fire. He wanted to tell her about that, but never could as long as Niskenan lived.
Earnmund hated this thought. One could not think it without, however briefly, considering the possibility of killing him. He hated this thought even more, but it continued to grow. Earnmund never went so far as to actually form a plan for murder. He realized that the whole situation was turning Niskenan, the one innocent in the whole situation, into his enemy. After all merchant had done, this was tremendously unfair of Earnmund, but he knew that, if he stayed there, he would begin to greatly resent Niskenan. He could see it starting already.
At first opportunity, Earnmund had to get away.