The Legend of Iveswood

Where hope hides in shadow.

LOI Vol.1 ‘The Dragon’s Curse’: Chapter 1

Loose Change is on the Wind

They call me a shadow.
I don’t blame them, considering what I am…but truth is seldom known without missing pieces.
Call me Storm.
The wind stirred my gray cloak as I scanned the street, leaning on a timber beam. Petals and downy seeds whisked past on a breeze oddly musty-smelling for the beginning of spring. I rubbed my fingers, blew on them, stuck them under my arms, but nothing worked, so I was left gazing down the street with freezing, tingling hands, and a stomach that felt like it would digest itself.
I was waiting.
The afternoon sun peeked through the clouds, and graced the roofs, roads, and uncovered heads. It glinted off the armor of a distant soldier patrolling the top of the walls—the gigantic walls of stone, twelve feet thick and sixty feet high, which loomed above all the buildings and protected the city with a strangling embrace. The hard, bold city of Fort Exalder.
Another gust bit through my cloak, and I shivered. The number of people around was still thinning out, most of them migrating further toward Main Street.
I silently urged them to hurry. That’s it, find something to do…anywhere else…
…At last, the street was clear. Almost deserted.
My eyes settled on the target again.
All right. Here we go.
Staring straight ahead, I strolled across the street to the building.
Through the open window, golden-brown loaves emerged from an oven, and steamed tantalizingly close now. I knocked on the fold-out counter facing the road, and the baker swept over, scratching a smudge of flour on his nose.
“Not noon yet, lad.”
“I know.”
“…Shouldn’t you be working, then? Before Twiligan starts?”
“Maybe I’m too hungry yet.”
The man squinted at me.
“Rather late for break-fast, and I’ve not done with stocking. Can you pay?”
I smirked. “I’ll take two of those, for this marvelous bit of workmanship…”
A rummage in my pouch, and I placed an iron spoon on the counter-top.
The baker spared it a dull glance.
“Don’t need one.”
My smile faltered. “Well, surely, a spoon of this quality is worth more than a meager two or three loaves of bread, and may be traded for other things in turn,”
“I don’t have time for trade. Do you have pieces on you, or don’t you?”
“Also this fine dish,” I cut in, drawing out a small ceramic bowl.
The baker eyed a few nicks in it. “And what use should I have for this old thing?”
“For pinching flour? Salt?”
“Go waste someone else’s time, guttersnipe,” he grumbled, wiping his hands on his apron.
“Wait! I have silver!”
The baker heaved a sigh as I thrust my hand into my pouch again. Orems, amethyst, and gloromur pieces I recognized by the slightest touch. When the telltale chill of silver passed through my fingers, I snatched it out, and brought it over the counter.
Wait, no!
I need food…
But this is valuable! Even scuffed up—
No, no, focus! FOOD.

My arm shuddered as I forced the Arget to the wooden surface, pleading and shouting abuse at myself in my head, while the baker watched me with a raised eyebrow.
I turned my head away and grit my teeth, as he claimed it.
He’s taking it—
We have food again.

“Hey…what is this?”
My thoughts cut short as the baker angled the coin in the sunlight. “Now you mean to cheat me? I see no Abrecan. The weight is off.”
He tossed the Arget, and I gasped and caught it as it skittered off the counter. “Have you never seen old coins? Abrecan’s face is worn, but it’s worth the same as any other!”
The spoon and bowl he tossed over my shoulder. I heard him walk away as I plucked them out of the dirt, my stomach moaning.
It’s not working…
A low heat was rising…simmering behind my eyes.
I watched the baker resume his work, taking in the lay of the kitchen. A second tray of food joined the first. He grabbed a pot from a rack hanging on the back wall.
I crept close to the counter-window again. A last glance about, and I drew my arm back, closed one eye, and aimed carefully at a stack of pots and pans. And threw the bowl.
“Aargh!” growled the baker.
He hustled to the back of the kitchen amid a torrent of clanging.
I vaulted over the counter and hid beside the window, shrouding myself in my cloak.
“Ugh! Confound him,” the baker fumed, hustling around the long tables toward me, holding a shard of the bowl. His eyes never landed on me as he walked past, and leaned over the counter to survey the street.
After a minute, he gave up searching, and passed me again, continuing to stack a set of copper pots.
I crept over to the table the bread was cooling on, darted my hand up, and snatched one of the loaves.
What is one gone? I felt the knot in my gut loosen a little.
The baker was still muttering to himself, as he scooped up spatulas and wooden spoons. I inched back from the table and turned—only to find a woman stood between me and the counter.
Before I could think what to do, she shrieked.
The baker called out, “Another rat?”
I spun around as he did, and the baker stopped short. Fury twisted his face.
“You—filthy menace, I’ll teach you to pilfer my livelihood!”
I ducked, and his wife screamed again when he hurled a thick rolling pin at my head, missing by inches.
At least he isn’t a butcher.
Then he grabbed a large baking peel from the rack, and swung it down through the air. I sprang aside.
The peel cracked the floor where I’d been an instant ago.
The baker was blocking the door now. His wife still blocked the window.
In a panic, I dashed out of the kitchen and up some stairs leading to the second floor, followed by their yells.
A trio of children huddled back as I raced past them through a bedroom, tore open the shutters, and climbed out the second-floor window, up the side of the building. I got my boots on the edge of a beam, stretched—and caught the eaves.
As I hoisted myself onto the roof, the baker came to the window and roared, “The curse of Tarsk on you, wretch!”
“Wish granted,” I replied, crawling onto the shingles.
Once I reached the other side of the ridge, I jumped a narrow alley onto a thatched roof, startling a few mourning doves. After scanning the alley below for witnesses, I hung off, dropped onto a huge barrel, and leapt to the ground.
I dusted my hands on my tunic.
Too close, that. Phantom would be disgusted. …Now to find Nedius.
I set off toward Main Street.
As I wound deeper into the city, and the sun climbed higher, activity on the streets surged. Some men repairing winter’s damage to the rooftops were also hanging wreaths of budding foliage in the eaves, mostly handed to them by excited children.
Twiligan was almost here.
The smells of livestock, sweat, and straw mingled with those of spiced meats, square maple-cakes, and the hanging baskets of bluebells, columbine, and frostbane that decorated nearly every block now. Hawkers shouted their wares as if trying to see who was the loudest, above a chorus of workers building a stage for the coming festivities.
By the time I stepped into the market district, Main Street was heaving with even more travelers than usual. Visiting relatives surfaced from the crowds occasionally to embrace loved ones on doorsteps, or beneath the colorful tarps of tents, booths, and shops.
A row of slender figures shrouded in strange masks and hooded, pale-green robes pushed past me, weaving like acrobats to avoid touching people as much as possible.
Arboris, I smirked, watching them nearly topple a man carrying too much flour. Probably heading for the Treematon, and regretting every moment of this.
In a blur of red, orange, and green, I spotted a familiar corner where a girl in a long patchwork skirt was twirling. She came to a stop, and began juggling apricots, to the music and rhythm of several other entertainers and musicians.
She grinned and waved at me. I gave a nod.
Suddenly, I was shunted by the crowd into a tall man. We both stumbled.
A trailing servant stepped forth to help him, adjusting his fine robes. He took in my muddy boots and tattered clothes with disgust, wiping his hands on a cloth as he moved on.
I glowered after him, sorely tempted to swipe his purse for the outrage it would inspire, if nothing else, but he was already out of sight.
One block closer to the fortress—I finally stopped, the wave of bodies parting around me like a current around a stone.
A man in a threadbare cape and sandals sat at a street corner, resting a quarter staff against his shoulder, and holding out a bowl. Some linen bandages covered his eyes to shield them from bright light, but they didn’t cover the edge of a faded scar that stretched across his temple.
“Spare a few amethysts? A speck of food, perhaps? An exchange of words?” he implored to the passerby.
Someone deposited an apple-core. I scowled, watching the beggar discover it, then swat it out.
“Nyxus…” he muttered.
I sidled up and leaned against the building beside him. “Well met, Neddie.”
He turned. “Oh, it’s you, Storm! I never know from whence the wind blows yeh!”
I shot an uneasy glance at the traffic. “Slow day?”
“I can’t figure it. I hear ’em, swarming through the gates fer Twiligan an all, and you’d think the holiday cheer would instill a bit of generosity in their hearts, but I swear it’s been almost as meager as mid-winter. See anything amiss?”
“No, you’re right. I expect everyone is a little too excited about it. Things are sure to pick up as the weather warms, and people tire of staying shut up with their families.”
“Tired of family? Why, who could tire of spending Twiligan—”
He broke off when I put half my loaf of bread into his hand. He took it reluctantly.
“Oh, lad, fresh from the oven? Why…this is too much, yeh shouldn’t—”
“Already did,” I interrupted, stowing the other half.
“But, but you’re a growing boy! What are yeh, six or seven and ten years? I couldn’t—”
“My family has plenty at home.”
He hesitated, then set his bowl aside.
“Well…if yer set on it. Thank yeh kindly. Ah, I do have two ears’ full of news, in exchange.”
Dear old Ned tried to hide it, but I could tell from the eagerness in his voice that he was getting desperate.
Those cats that woman on the West Road feeds must eat better than either of us, I thought with a grim smile.
“You’ve got yourself a deal. Let’s hear it.”
“Ha! Draw up a chair at this fine table then, and I’ll tell the goings-on, my lad!” Nedius chuckled.
He paused. “Hang on, talking of family, how is yours of late? Any plans in honor of this fine new year?”
I cleared my throat. “Ah…they’re fine. Baking…boiling eggs. You know. As people do.”
“…Hmph. Quite the chatterer, aren’t ye?”
I bent my knees and sank to the stoop beside him.
“Ooh, yes, this will do. This will do nicely,” He murmured, putting a bit of salted pork from his pocket on the bread. “Now…Perran tells me the new cheese from Ingoell is ‘the finest,’ and promised to bring me some.”
“Oh, come on, Neddie, that’s not news,” I scoffed.
“All right, all right, calm down. I always save the best for last,” he waved me off, taking a giant bite of his food.
He held up a finger as he chewed at the speed of a tortoise. I crossed my arms.
“…Mmph…aherm…yes. You won’t like this—it’s downright worrisome, I’m afraid, but I might as well say it, been weighing heavy on everyone’s mind of late. It’s about the prince.”
I cast a flat look over the road before us. Oh, here we go. Everyone fawning over royalty. As if I could care less.
“I overheard it from Reginald in the south square, yesterday. He rode in looking to speak with Lord Adelric, only to find him still at the capital—which means he already knows.”
Neddie took a deep breath. “The prince has fallen ill. Gravely ill.”
He fell silent, as if waiting for a reaction.
I leaned forward. “…And?”
“Wh—why, that’s some terrible news!”
“But that’s capital business. What else?”
Neddie’s mouth hung open. “Capital business? All our hopes for the sanctity ’o Skylia are tied up in the fate of that golden child, who’s been attended by a handful of healers past a week! What if he dies? Grindian and his kin ever was wise and merciful, but then, then we’d be cast to the likes of that Sir Ormerod fellow, and I can’t stand him.”
“Why worry about that, though? I mean, aye, the prince’s death would be unfortunate, but, it’s not as if life here will change.”
He raised his bushy eyebrows above his bandages. “That’s a mite cold of you, lad, if I may say so.”
I huffed. “Well, I don’t mean to be. It’s just that, honestly…folks suffer and die every day across the land, and you don’t exactly see droves of strangers fretting for them, do you? Must we weigh the worth of others based on influence?
“Hmm…It is true some folks think that way. Heh, I get to meet a crop of them, sitting where I do,”
“Well, I don’t think that way,” I said scornfully. “While I don’t exchange words too often, it seems the glamours of wealth and power carry most people away like so many dandelion seeds. A lot of folks could do with a care for what is right below eye-level.”
The beggar tilted his head back.
“Do not…judge people too harshly, lad. Moth knows, we’re all guilty of something, and she loves us just the same.”
I frowned at the cobblestones. Like Tarsk she does.
“You’re too good for Exalder, you know.”
He shrugged. “Aw, well, now I won’t argue with yeh. Nonetheless…I do wish perhaps the Old Forester would make with all speed and save the prince as he saved his grandfather. And, as fer what is happening closer at hand,”
He stopped. Took another enormous bite.
I rolled my eyes, and rested my chin on my hand.
Finally, he swallowed. “Near the inner walls, I hear another Demirus has taken up residence, after the last one got caught lying and had to clear out before he got hauled to trial. Some say this new one is surprisingly accurate, though she says dark days are ahead of us. Another war, perhaps.”
I cast a glance up at the clouds roiling forth to eclipse the sun again.
“Looks like rain, to me,” I replied, unimpressed. “Does her Aether puddle rest beneath open sky, by any chance?”
“Wh—no, days of hardship, not—agh, you know what I mean, yeh scamp!” he scolded, bumping me with his staff.
I grinned. “Oh, surely, you don’t go in for that sort of nonsense, Neddie? There’s a reason most of the Demiror keep to themselves—they take all Skylians for fools. Any one of them who comes to us offering ‘services’ is a fraud.”
He gave a dismissive wave. “I know that, I take it with a grain of salt. All I’m saying is, the timing is ruggle, and that’s flat. Lord Adelric almost had them banned from entering the gates. Some wonder if he be pestering the King to have a law passed against Demiror hawking their abilities even now.”
“That does sound like our most esteemed and wretched commander.”
Neddie bent to one side and spit.
I rested my elbows on my knees, and glared up at the looming towers of the fortress several blocks down.
Adelric Blair, Lord of Exalder and Commander of Skylia’s Third Legion, was away…and yet the feel of his presence lingered, from the all-encompassing wall of the city beyond, to those turrets and ballistae of his fortress proper. It was all a perfect prison.
“He’s slated to return soon. There’s even talk of a parade.”
A growl rose in my throat. “How sweet. Charming. Let him enjoy himself.”
“Ha! I doubt it. Yeh know I can’t understand why you hate him so, Storm! The man is nothing like those born to power—they say he was promoted by King Grindian himself for his deeds at the border. A soldier through-and-through, straight to the point, and tough as nails. I guarantee if there is a parade, the only pomp will be from all his admirers, none from himself.”
“I have my reasons…” I paused. “Ugh…sorry, I, I didn’t mean to drop by to foist my gloom on you. Let us speak of other things.”
“Nah, now hold on, this time explain it to me: why do yeh hate him? If it be reasoned, I ought know—and warn folks,” Neddie insisted, sweeping his hand and accidentally hitting a passing washerwoman.
She turned and shot us a dirty look. I pointed at Nedius’s bandages and motioned helplessly. She flounced off.
I heaved a sigh. How to explain
“Because, he scorns those in need. What of you? You fought and suffered the same battle he did, and yet he lives in a castle, and you on the streets. The least he could do is offer you work you’re capable of, so you can have food and a roof over your head. But he won’t.”
Neddie was quiet.
He turned his face toward the passing crowd.
I widened my eyes, fearing I had offended him.
“…Forgive me, I shouldn’t speak of this. I meant no—”
“Now that’s an idea.”
The beggar scratched his chin, then dusted the crumbs from his beard. He patted me till he found my arm, and shook it. “Strange, eh, how I never thought to ask? I should! The hour he returns! Then we’ll see what sort of man he is.”
I winced. “Aw, Ned, please, please don’t get your hopes up. I’ve…heard first-hand how cruel he is. And, my offer still stands, if you need shelter, of course,”
“Oh, and it’s fair kind of yeh, but I’m doing all right. The innkeeper at the Lucky Owl always saves my spot in the common room, night or day, and I’d sooner take that than walk ’round the slums. Although…I could use a guide up to the fort, the day I make my request. You’ve no love for the place, but, would yeh help me over there, for the sake of a poor urchin’s peace ’o mind?”
I sucked in a slow breath, feeling the spring chill again.
I never even set foot in the square in front of the fortress unless I had to. It was much too close. Too many guards. Right up to the gate… Suicide. Out of the question
Of course, I couldn’t tell him that. Neddie didn’t know what I was. Which was why it seemed safe to talk to him.
What if I wore a disguise? Or found someone else to help? The gate guard might prefer to escort him inside himself, anyway…
“I’ll see what I can do,” I managed, and rose from the stoop. “Thank you for the chat, Neddie. And try not to choke on your food.”
As I edged onto the street, he waved, and called out, “Change is on the wind, lad! Change is on the wind, and a grand old tempest is brewing behind it, I’ll wager!”
Then the stream of people carried me off.
I gazed up at the increasing heights of the buildings.
Wouldn’t that be nice.

Read a scene from the middle of Vol.1, Chapter 6: ‘A Trick of the Eye’

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