Twelve Years Ago
Rain drops struck the window with heavy smacks. They clung for a second in thick globs before flowing slowly down the glass, leaving trails not unlike those of small unhurried slugs. Townsfolk rushed by on the street below in an effort to get indoors before the heavens opened even more. The ledger on the table next to the window read Drayfmont 1, 1039. It was Tyrfin, in the old calendar, the first day of winter. The season arrived with uncustomary punctuality this year. Aura Lockhaven watched the drops on their journey to the ground. Heaving a loud sigh that gave voice to her ache, the girl’s exhaled breath fogged the glass. The window looked as miserable as she felt.
Aura turned from the window. Despite the total lack of shadows on the ground outside, she knew the day approached eleven of the sun. Morgana would unbolt the tavern door soon, and they would arrive. They had arrived every day for the past week. They came like roaches. First they came to pay their respects and grieve with her. Then, they came to cheer her. Now, they came to do what they did best, eat her father’s food and drink her father’s ale. Only now, it was her food and her ale. Some nights, Aura just wished they would go away. Still, they were her people now, her customers, and she had a name and tradition to continue.
Her room was tiny. Officially, it did not exist. Lockhaven Tavern had only four rooms upstairs for guests. This room was that oh, I think a guest had to leave town early fifth room. It was kept mostly for customers too drunk to walk home but not too drunk to drag upstairs to sleep off their twelfth tankard of ale. It was also kept for the tavern owner’s youngest daughter, who all too often fell asleep behind the bar playing with her army of straw dolls. Aura needed a place to sleep, now that Lockhaven Manor, as the cozy house had been known, lay in a pile of cracked stones and charcoal. She thought her father would approve of her taking the small room, leaving the larger rooms for paying customers.
Once, Aura loved waking in this room. On most nights, it was around ten of the moon, and she awoke to Richard’s brawny arms lifting her with a laughter-filled Squirt, it’s time to go home. Let me tell you about the night a troll broke into this room! Her big brother carried her down the stairs to the sounds of flute, lute, and fiddle, laughter and bootfall, and always the fond farewell from Ester and their father, and not a few good nights from whatever customers happened to be standing near the door. This morning, as she had the past five mornings, Aura awoke to searing agony in her left hand, and silence so thick it beat in her ears as if she lay next to a drum.
Being right-handed, Aura always thought her left hand was just a spare, like that second hammer most carpenters carried in their chests. She knew otherwise now. For the past five days, Aura spent an hour slipping into her one remaining dress and brushing her hair. Whenever she instinctively used her left hand, she screamed as another blister burst. The apothecary told her that the wound would heal, eventually, but it would leave a nasty scar that stretched across her palm from her little finger to her index finger, then down to her thumb, and over to the other side of her hand, like an ugly capital letter C.
C for clumsy. C for careless. That candle looked so pretty in the market, all bright and blue. She thought it might smell like berries. Why did she light that one, instead of one of the others? The candlemaker must have mixed the fragrances wrong. It exploded, sending fire all over the sitting room, onto the rug and up the draperies. Why had she hid beneath the table, instead of running outside? By the time Henry Lockhaven reached her, flames had replaced the stone walls. He made it to the front door, throwing her out into the yard. Then, that burning beam fell across his back. She tried her best to push it off. All she had to show for her efforts were tears, agony, an empty life, and a bandage over a useless hand.
Aura threw her head back. She opened her mouth. Lockhavens do not cry in public. Cedric, Henry, Richard, and Ester stood silent as the gravedigger filled in the grave of Aurora. Even Aura, a newborn in Henry’s arms, remained silent. Cedric, Henry, Ester, and Aura stood silent as the gravedigger filled in the grave of Richard. Cedric, Henry, and Aura stood silent as the gravedigger filled in the grave of Ester. Cedric and Aura stood silent as the gravedigger filled in the grave of Henry. The scream wanted to come. Morgana might hear her. The scream became a gurgle in her throat.
Aura stood before the bronze mirror, making certain she presented a confident face to her town. Her auburn hair, growing redder with each passing year, looked tolerable, considering it missed Ester’s hands and brush. The nice blue dress, the only one remaining from the fire, was clean. Morgana washed it for her every night. Staring at her emerald eyes, she wondered if they would ever sparkle again. She thought she looked about as confident as a ten year old could, considering she carried the weight of the hopes of four dead adults on her narrow shoulders. At least, she still had Uncle Cedric, whose shoulders filled a doorway. When Grimchester Lockhaven died, his eldest son, garrulous Henry, took the tavern, while his youngest, quiet Cedric, took the brewery. Theirs had been an amiable, and profitable, partnership. Now, Hartshorn’s wealthiest man, and a lifelong bachelor, Aura knew he was too stingy to take a wife, one who would want his money. With each passing year, her father said of his brother, one year older and one farthing tighter. Still, he often ate with her family and always told her funny stories while bouncing her on his knee. She doubted if the man would open his wallet enough to take her into his home, but she hoped. Cedric was, after all, her family.
If she had just not lit that particular candle, she would slip into a long, thick woolen dress. With ease, considering her left hand would not be burned. Then, she would put on her winter coat. Then, she would wander across the street to pester Brythony with her latest dream about living in a castle and being able to control the weather. She thought about crossing the street to see Brythony, except her recent dreams were all about fire, smoke, and death.
Turning from the mirror, Aura walked to the small table by her small bed. Without thinking, she flexed her left fingers. Fire roared through her palm. Aura winced and fought to control the scream pushing its way up her throat. When she could breathe again, she reached her right hand toward the table. With delicate caresses, she touched the few items on it, the few things to survive the fire. Propped against a tin tankard, she kept her parent’s portrait. In front of it, lay Richard’s sword, Ester’s favorite wine glass, Henry’s tankard, and Aurora’s thimble. In the center sat the most precious of all, a smoke stained leather bound notebook containing her father’s tales of the Sarethian Seven, copied down as Henry told them to her only five months ago. Whenever she read it, and she read it often the past few days, she still heard her father’s voice. Other than the tavern and her own name, this tiny shrine was all that remained of her life.
Aura took her time descending the stairs. She knew what awaited her. Or rather, she knew who did not await her. Only four months earlier, she would have flown down the stairs to hear It’s about time you woke up, Squirt from beaming Richard. Only four months earlier, she would have received a tousle of the hair from Ester, followed by Look at you! You’re such a mess. Let me put you together. Only four months earlier, Henry would have scooped her up, thrown her over his shoulder, carried her across the tavern, and deposited her on the bar. Now, sit there and make sure I tap these kegs the right way, will you?
A nice, tidy tavern, with walls of cream colored plaster over stone, and thick oaken upright beams every eight feet, and a sconce bolted to each beam. Four windows, three along one wall, and the fourth near the wide front door. A fireplace with its winter fire already warming the chilly air. Over the mantel, a muscular monster of a two headed axe, and a shield big enough to serve as a child’s bed. Four chandeliers hanging from the wooden ceiling with twelve candles each blazing overhead. Twelve round tables with eight chairs at each and a lit candelabra prepared in the center of each. Three stools in one corner, with a lutenist already seated upon one, checking the tuning of his instrument. The dark wooden bar against the back wall, behind which stood the blonde Morgana, polishing pewter tankards. Behind her lay the already roaring kitchen and the stairs down to the cellar where famous Lockhaven ale aged. The only Lockhaven in sight was the girl standing in the center of it all.
Half a minute later, that changed. The door burst open. Trailing the rain and wind behind him, Cedric Lockhaven strode into the tavern. Aura smiled upon seeing him. He looked like a shorter, thicker version of her father. Same brown hair and beard, same heartbreakingly blue eyes. Her smile faded as he stormed by her without even a nod. He bolted to the bar. The girl followed her uncle as he knocked on each and every cask and keg. He inspected the kitchen, tasting the roasts and stews. He checked every cask in the cellar, twice. Then, he snatched the ledger from Morgana, reading only the most recent page.
Cedric walked to the center of the tavern, and looked around. Aura followed, wondering what he was doing. The man nodded. Then, he looked down at Aura. She cocked her head to one side, trying to read his gaze. His eyes looked like ice. He pointed toward the front door.
“Get out,” Cedric Lockhaven said.
“What do you mean, Uncle?” Aura asked. “I can’t leave. My customers will arrive for luncheon soon.”
“They’re my customers now,” Cedric said. “Get out.”
“This is my tavern now,” Aura replied.
“Not any more. It’s mine,” he said. “A tavern is no place for a child.”
“You’re going to run it for me?”
“No,” Cedric said. He remained quiet for a full minute. “I am going to run it for myself. You don’t belong here anymore.”
“But it’s my home, Uncle Cedric.”
“No longer. I said, get out!”
“But it’s Daddy’s! That means it’s mine!”
“It belongs to the one best suited to run it and that’s me! Don’t think I haven’t seen you spill the ale. Claiming you hurt your hand. You’re wasting profits. Lockhaven Tavern is mine. If you want money, go be a harlot. Get out!”
“Cedric, no!” Morgana shouted, storming toward the Lockhavens. “It’s cold outside, and raining. She’s wearing an autumn dress and the girl doesn’t even have a coat.”
“As for you,” Cedric said, turning on Morgana, “I know your husband can’t feed that brood of yours alone. How would you like to see him try?” When Morgana shook her head, Cedric said, “Get back behind that bar where you belong, and I don’t want to hear another word about this child again.”
Aura gulped. Four months ago, her brother Richard died on Rathstone Bridge defending Hartshorn against a Skol attack. Two months ago, three Flumantine boatmen raped and strangled her sister Ester. Six days ago, fire took her father Henry. That didn’t count the fact that her mother Aurora died giving birth to her. She had not thought it possible that life could get any worse. Now, her tavern was gone, and the only remaining member of her family just threw her out. What feelings remained in the child’s soul plummeted down into her bowels. She wanted to urinate. She wanted to cry. Lockhavens do not cry in public.
“Where will I live?” Aura stammered.
“That is none of my concern,” Cedric snapped. “Just don’t go asking any of my customers to take you in. I’ll see to it that you don’t! Now go, or I’ll sell you to the Skols for a tidy sum. How would you like that? End up in some Arantian king’s bed?”
Aura’s hands flew to her face. She ignored the agony in her left palm. This could not be happening! How could Uncle Cedric be so cruel? She trusted him. Only four months ago, he had been so kind, but everything had changed within those four months. Shaking her head, she mumbled, “Let me gather my things –”
“I have some things upstairs –”
“The only things that are yours are what you are wearing. If it’s in this tavern, then it’s mine.”
Her parents’ portrait. Richard’s sword. Ester’s goblet. Her father’s tankard. Her mother’s thimble. Her notebook. Her tavern. All that remained of her life had just been wrenched from her grasp by the one man she trusted to care for her. Her head spun. Black flecks appeared before her eyes. This could not be happening, she thought. She wanted to vomit. She wanted to cry. Lockhavens do not cry in public! Lockhavens do not … do not … do not …
Aura threw back her head. She shut her eyes. Every shred of love, every shred of hate, every fear, every tear, every piece of grief, anguish, joy, peace, rage, and stirring feelings she did not understand roared up her throat, twisting together into unity as they did, and erupted from her mouth in one long scream. The sound was not that of fear or rage. It was that of pure creation and absolute destruction. Aura became that scream, an vocal entity roaring out the throat of a fleshen vessel into the air. The scream flew around the tavern. It smashed into the walls. It rattled tankards. It roared through casks. It raged through the kitchen. It knocked the lutenist off his stool. It continued to smack the walls long after the mouth that uttered it closed.
“Dear Baniar,” Morgana whispered. She collapsed to the floor, staring at Aura in horror.
Aura opened her eyes to an almost blackened room. Only the cold gray light struggling through the windows illuminated the tavern. The odor of soot from extinguished wicks filled the air. Even the fireplace and oven had been snuffed out. The only sounds in the tavern, other than raindrops on glass, were the breaths of fear, greed, and fury.
The tavern looked as empty and silent and she felt. She stood oblivious to the darkness around her, knowing only that which consumed her. The chaotic storm of raging emotion, and the total void of nothingness filled her. Without another word, Aura turned toward the door.
Her feet made no sound upon the floor. With each step, her heart broke further. With each step, she left behind a life she thought would continue forever. With each step, her soul trembled more as yet another feeling tore itself loose. By the time she reached the door, she no longer knew what she felt. Aura Lockhaven felt it all. Love for her father. Pride for her brother. Grief for her sister. Sorrow for the mother she never knew. Pity for Morgana. Terror for herself. One feeling, one special feeling, for her uncle.
She ignored the fire in her left hand. She ignored the cold bite of the iron latch in her right. What were they compared to the agony in her heart? As she turned the latch, she turned to Cedric. She cast him a cold glare, one devoid of all feeling except unrefined hatred.
Aura said, “I thought you were my father’s brother!”
Then, she stepped out into the freezing rain.
= = =
An illustrated chapter from The Fires of Tallen Hall, the upcoming second Aura Lockhaven novel.