Last Breath of Excelsior 2

CHAPTER 2
“The Knight”

Content Warning: Blood; Profanity (D, H words)

            A few days had passed in a decidedly more uneventful fashion. Ritter had become more capable of taking care of the kids and milking the cows in an expedited manner, so Dun “promoted” her to helping him in the field as well. As Dun plunged his shovel into the ground, Ritter waited, crouched with a trowel ready to till the dirt further. Ritter finished churning a pile of earth, wiping her brow and glancing at the scarecrow, surrounded by crows flapping about.

            “Y’know, if you paid me another gold coin a day, I’d scare away the crows.”

            “You want me to string you up on a post? Or you wanna run around and chase ‘em like a dog?”

            “The latter, and we’re gonna need it, considerin’ the current occupant doesn’t seem to be doin’ the job.”

            “It’s fine,” Dun replied, not looking up from his work.

            “Is it? They’ll eat the crops.”

            “No crops yet, and they’ll find food otherwise.”

            “Once food starts poppin’ from the ground, those things are gonna pluck it all before the harvest.”

            “Said it’ll be fine,” Dun grumbled. “Don’t worry about them birds.”

            Rit watched the crows hop around the scarecrow, pecking at its base.

            “Some people say crows are messengers of the dead. They help guide souls to the afterlife.”

            “Where’d you hear something like that?”

            “A bard who rolled into town last summer, said he heard it on his travels.”

            “And you believe that?”

            “Why else would crows hang around dead people?”

            “Because they’re carrion birds. They just like dead things is all.”

            “Well, maybe they like dead things and they guide souls, too. Both can be true.”

            Dun sighed.

            “Oh! I have it! They guide people to the afterlife by eating a corpse. Bard said the shamans over on the Western shores believe crows made the world.”

            “From psychopomps to gods, huh?”

            “Which one do you think it is?” Ritter asked.

            “I don’t think it’s either, a bird’s a bird.”

            “But what if it’s not a bird, right? What if it’s a god?”

            Dun dug his shovel into the ground and leaned against it, staring at a fairly content Ritter.

            “Go feed the goats.”

            “I already did.”

            “Go…play with them then, so they burn off the energy. Let Potatoes knock you over, she needs a victory every once in a while.”

            “Fine,” Ritter stuck her trowel in the dirt and shuffled off towards the goats’ enclosure.

            Dun twisted the soil with his shovel, stopping when he saw Ritter run past, towards the center of the field. Ritter’s arms shot up into the air, and she let out as loud and as deep a roar she could muster, directly at the murder gathering around the scarecrow. One or two of the crows cawed, but the group took off, disappearing into the tree line beyond the field. Ritter set her hands to her hips and nodded triumphantly, strutting back past Dun and towards the goats’ enclosure.

            “For your consideration,” she said.

            “Y’know, crows remember the faces of people who hassle ‘em,” Dun replied.

            I don’t fault them. It’s their nature, a voice said in the back of Dun’s mind. I only wish we hadn’t set foot here.

            Dun took a deep breath and began digging again.

            Biel shuffled from the water closet with labored steps, an arm wrapped tightly around her abdomen. She winced in pain as she slowly set herself back on the couch. Outside, she could hear someone scraping their feet on the stoop, and she hurriedly swathed herself in the blanket and tried to sit up straight. Ritter opened the door slowly, peeking her head in first.

            “It’s okay, I’m awake,” Biel said weakly.

            Ritter, covered nearly head-to-toe in dirt, jumped through the doorway and spun to push the door closed.

            “Oh where is my daughter?” Biel said, looking at a dirt-caked Ritter.

            “I’m right here.”

            “That can’t be, all I see is a little earth sprite! You’re so dirty today, Rit.”

            “Yeah, Dun promoted me to hole-digger! I knew I’d end up doing that. And look!” Ritter reached into her pocket and pulled out a jet-black feather, holding it by its calamus. “There’s crows that hang around sometimes, so I took one of their feathers as a souvenir.”

            “That’s very pretty.” Biel smiled.

            “Here, feel it.” Ritter took Biel’s hand, slowly sliding her fingers up either side of the feather, displacing the barbs like a wave of rolling night.

            “Very nice,” Biel said, barely above a whisper.

            “How are you feeling today? Did you get much rest?” Ritter asked, placing the feather in her hair.

            “I…tried.”

            “Was it bad today? You can tell me,” Ritter said.

            “It’s worse today, but I should…get dinner ready, you must be starving, huh?” Biel said standing up.

            “I am, but you rest, I can get dinner,” Ritter said, trying to keep her mother down on the couch.

            “No no, you go get washed up. Dinner is for my daughter, and I heard that if you feed earth sprites after dark they’ll never want to lea—oh—” Biel stumbled and dropped to her knees, barely catching herself on the edge of the couch.

            “Mum!”

            “I think…this is…too much,” Biel cried, wrapping her arm around her stomach again.

            “Are you okay?”

            “I…”

            “I’m getting the healer, please mum, don’t move.” Ritter jumped to her feet and ran for the door, the feather falling out of her hair and fluttering to the stone floor.

            Ritter didn’t come to the farm the next day. Dun waited for her before starting his work, but she never arrived. He let the goats graze for a time and milked the cows. He tried working the field a bit more, but couldn’t help but find himself distracted wondering where Ritter was. In the afternoon, Dun went to the shop and asked where Ritter lived with her mother. Tompsa’s directions were somewhat approximate however, and Dun had knocked on three separate doors to awkward results.

            As Dun stepped up to another door, he hoped that he could find Ritter’s home, if only to save him from uncomfortable interactions. Fortunately, he heard Ritter’s voice on the other side of the door.

            “I’ll be right back, so please just rest,” Ritter said, opening the door to a startled Dun. “Dun, what are…?”

            “You uh…d-didn’t show today,” Dun stammered.

            “I’m sorry, I…couldn’t, I—”

            “Ritter, is someone there?” a weak voice asked from within.

            “It’s…uh…Dun,” Ritter said into the house. “No, mum don’t get up.”

            “Don’t be rude then, invite the man in,” a woman draped in a blanket opened the door wider, stepping aside. “Please, come in Sir Kel.”

            Dun glanced at Ritter. “There’s that ‘sir’ thing.”

            “Please, in. Is there anything we can get you?” Ritter’s mother said.

            “Oh, no ma’am, don’t put yourself out on my account,” Dun said, taking a large step into the house.

            “Call me Biel, please,” Ritter’s mother said, stepping aside.

            “Mum, please, go back to rest,” Ritter said trying to gently guide her mother back into the house.

            “What brings you to our home today?” Biel laboriously lowered herself into a couch covered in blankets and pillows.

            “Oh I was uh, expecting your daughter today, and I got concerned when she didn’t arrive.”

            “You were concerned?” Ritter stifled a giggle.

            “Aye, I can care about things on the odd occasion.”

            “Oh, I’m so very sorry,” Biel said, “that’s my fault. I was having a very bad spell and Ritter wouldn’t leave my side.”

            “It’s no problem, ma’am, you’ve no need to apologize. These things happen, I just…uh…well really couldn’t do much without your daughter’s help.”

            “Farm won’t run without me, huh?” Ritter smirked.

            “Yeah, something like that,” Dun said, rolling his eyes to the girl.

            “Ritter, maybe now is the time to go get that medicine the healer suggested? That is if Sir Kel wouldn’t mind keeping me company for a time?”

            “Uh…no that’s fine, I can sit down for a spell,” Dun said.

            “Okay. I’ll be right back,” the girl said, heading for the door. “You won’t even know I’m gone.”

            “So it won’t get quieter?” Dun asked.

            “Mum, teach Sir Kel some manners while I’m gone,” Ritter snipped before she closed the door.

            “I apologize,” Dun said sheepishly.

            “It’s okay, Ritter is a handful, I know. She brings out interesting sides in people.”

            “That she does,” Dun chuckled, rubbing his nose.

            “Sir Kel, I would really like to thank you for allowing Ritter to help you work on your land. And to be so generous with your coffer, it has been more than helpful for the two of us.”

            “I’m glad to have her, it’s made things a lot easier on me. I didn’t have much hope of finding someone willing to work that field with me, even for gold coins.”

            “Ah, well I want you to know that despite Ritter’s spirited nature, I taught her to never disrespect someone, regardless of good cause, of which I think there is none in your case.”

            “You know my case, do you?” Dun said, crossing his arms.

            “Well…I’ve only heard the gossip, and that you had not left Blanhearth on good terms. I can’t speak to the veracity of it all, but it’s not my place to judge.”

            Mention of Blanhearth brought Dun back to a time in the kingdom, standing on the balcony of their adventuring headquarters, located above a tavern, and looking out at the lower levels of the neighborhood. Many a night spent drinking wine and watching the lights of the city dance after a successful venture, all of it gone in one gray, bloody afternoon.

            “All considered, you don’t look like some craven, thieving murderer, and nothing of what is said about you gave my husband and me reason to think less of you,” Biel assured.

            “Do you mind if I ask where your husband is? Rit said he was ‘away’ or some such.”

            Biel took a hand and wrapped the blanket over her arm, taking a deep breath.

            “Denam…he was a sailor.”

            “A sailor? Quite a ways from the sea, this hamlet.”

            “Yes. We moved here not long after Ritter was born, I was offered a teaching position, but he always longed for the waves again, and…we agreed that sending coin back from his time at sea would be best. One day…a squall came up on their return, the ship was thrown off course, dashed against the cliffs. Only half the crew survived, and Denam wasn’t among them.”

            “I’m sorry.”

            “Thank you. It’s been on two years now, and we had a modest amount saved. I was at the schoolhouse for a time, but then I got sick. Teaching became difficult when I was in constant pain, and medicine to manage that pain is…expensive.”

            “I can’t imagine it was easy,” Dun muttered.

            “It’s been trying, but that is why I appreciate what you have done for Ritter.”

            What did we do? What in the spiraling hells was it all for, Dun?

            Dun shook his head.

            “Oh, no ma’am, I’m grateful to have someone as earnest as Rit helping me. You raised a fine girl.”

            Ritter trotted up the road out of town with the same vigor as every day before, and soon hopped up onto the porch of Dun’s home. She knocked on the door, but there was no answer.

            “Helloooo!” Ritter called, knocking again.

            She motioned closer to the door and heard clanking past it. She knocked one more time, then opened the door, stepping in slowly.

            “Hello, Dun…?”

            In the house, Dun was at the stovetop in the far corner, cooking something in a skillet.

            “Hey!” Ritter shouted over the scraping and sizzling coming from the cooking.

            Dun jumped, looking over his shoulder. “What are you doing here? You’re early.”

            “I wanted to get to work earlier, make up for missin’ yesterday,” Ritter said, walking over to the dining table.

            “That your idea, or your mother’s?” Dun asked.

            “Mine, I care about my work,” Ritter said.

            Dun lifted the skillet from the stovetop and stepped to a small cabinet, taking out a beige plate. He set the plate down on the dining table, next to one that had already been placed, and then brushed the contents of the skillet onto them. Dun took the fork next to the first plate and stuck it in the food on the new one, and then pushed it towards Ritter’s side of the table.

            “What’s this?”

            “Breakfast. Eat up,” Dun said, walking back to the stove and tossing the skillet atop it.

            “You don’t need to feed me.”

            “Well, you’re here, and I already fixed you a plate, so eat it,” the old man muttered, grabbing another fork from the cabinet. “I’d rather you not collapse from hunger while we work.”

            “I got food.”

            “You got copperworths in your pocket, and that ain’t food. Eat.”

            Dun sat down in a huff, staring at Ritter until she followed suit. Ritter climbed into the other chair and picked up her fork, poking at what she could only assume were eggs at one point in time. They certainly smelled like eggs at least, and she took a bite.

            “I haven’t had eggs in a while…” Ritter said with a mouthful, just letting the warm flavor of the yolk sit on her tongue for a time.

            “Why?”

            “Mum can’t cook a lot of the time, an’ I can’t cook. We can’t afford much, and what we can is simple, don’t need much preparation.”

            Dun tapped his fork lightly on the food on his own plate, looking at Ritter’s as she voraciously consumed her meal, despite her attempts to at least seem like she was taking her time.

            “Y’know…if you ever need to miss a day to take care of your mother, that’s fine. Don’t have to make up for it by comin’ in early afterwards or anything, neither,” Dun said.

            “It won’t happen again,” Ritter said, putting down the fork on her empty plate.

            “It will, and that’s fine. You’re doin’ this for your mother, so takin’ care of her is more important some days. I’ll keep a gold for you either way.”

            “One gold even if I miss a day?”

            Dun stood from his chair, and picked up his plate. “Gotta keep my only worker comin’ back somehow.”

            Dun brushed the rest of his meal onto Ritter’s empty plate, and then turned away for his room before she could say anything. Ritter stared at the new pile, and dug her fork from beneath it.

            “Hey, bein’ an adventurer and all, where’s your armor? Your sword and shield? I don’t see none,” Ritter said between mouthfuls.

            “What good is all that if I ain’t gonna fight anymore?” Dun returned, rolling up the sleeves of a button-down shirt he had put on. “Didn’t feel like bearing a coat of arms when the heraldry plowed me sideways.”

            Dun stopped at the table, watching Ritter scrape up every last tiny morsel of egg from the plate.

            “Finished?” he asked.

            Ritter nodded and licked the fork clean before setting it down on the plate. “Thank you, Dun.”

            Dun simply grumbled an “Mm-hmm”.

            “Not the tastiest eggs I ever had, but eggs still.”

            “Well, if you come early like this again, I can teach you how to make eggs for you and your mother. Then you won’t have to suffer mine.”

            “I’d…like that,” Ritter said, staring at Dun.

            “What are you looking at?”

            “Nothin’, you’re just really nice sometimes, I guess I can see why you were a knight, Sir Kel.”

            Dun sneered and rolled his eyes. He opened the door and left without another word, leaving Ritter to jump from her chair and follow.

            “You really don’t like bein’ called a knight, do you? Was the nobility really that bad to you and yours?”

            Dun made for the barn, and stopped when he picked up his shovel.

            “You know where your name comes from?” he asked, turning to Ritter.

            “Yeah, it means ‘knight’, what my parents hoped I could be someday. But then I wasn’t a boy, so I don’t get to be one, so…so much for that.”

            Dun grabbed the trowel on the shelf. “You can be whatever the hell you wanna be, Rit.”

            “Girls don’t get to be knights,” Ritter shrugged.

            “Says who?”

            “People.”

            “People are doughy sacks of loathing and contradiction, who would rather drag others down like the world did before with them; too ashamed that they didn’t fight back, to let anyone else achieve what they hadn’t. People don’t want girls to be knights, but if you have the strength and skill to become one, they can’t stop you.”

            Ritter’s cheeks swelled with a smile at the old man being not only nice, but inspiring. Dun handed her the trowel.

            “But knights are fools anyway, you should be something useful.”

            “Like what? A farmer?” Ritter giggled, taking the trowel in hand.

            Dun sneered. “It’s not so bad.”

            “I’d like to at least buy a sword someday, maybe I’ll travel. It’ll be my trusty steel, a friend that helps me solve problems and slay countless foes,” Ritter said, swinging her trowel like it was a blade. “Then I could still be out there, doing some good.”

            “A good person doesn’t force their friends to kill.”

            “What’s that mean?”

            “If you think of your sword as a friend, then it’s not simply a tool, and good people don’t force their friends to do things, even if they’re good at it.”

            “It’s just a sword, Dun,” Ritter said.

            “A sword is never just a sword. Now come, we’re just about finished tilling, then we can start plantin’ the maize.”

            By noon time, Dun and Ritter had made good progress in the field, having upturned the earth and shifted it about to be ready for the seeds. Dun had taken a moment to massage his hands from the work, so Ritter sat down in the dirt, leaning back on her hands.

            “You never answered my question before,” Ritter said.

            “About what?”

            “About why you hate bein’ called a knight and stuff.”

            Dun picked up the shovel, adjusting the head to mark the dirt where he wanted to dig next.

            “Well?” Ritter urged.

            “Nobles don’t care about the commonfolk, so long as they’re keeping them in comfort. You look at the people out in these towns, just trying to live their lives, growing food for everyone, doin’ work for everyone. People with titles like ‘knight’ or ‘duke’ aren’t diggin’ holes, plantin’ seeds. They’re busy in-breedin’ and getting into fights over land they don’t even live on. And what’s worse is, they just don’t care.

            “That man from the Eastern Sands I knew, Jardhun was his name, he had a word for what he perceived of how our aristocracy treats those below them – what he called ‘untouchables’.”

            “What’s them?”

            Dun plunged his shovel into the dirt.

            “People so low in the class system that they weren’t to be talked to, interacted with. Their nobility believed that doing so would dirty up their souls or some such.”

            “That’s stupid,” Ritter said, climbing to her feet, brushing the dirt from her hands.

            “At least they own up to it, such an engrained part of their culture. I didn’t care for how the aristocracy was running things, and I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind. Now, I get treated like an untouchable for the things nobles said about me, because I was ‘difficult’, but none of these folk are honest about it. They’ll argue their own virtues, talk like they care about things, but still keep a distance, believing whatever tripe someone higher on some imaginary hierarchy said.”

            “Except for people like Muller,” Ritter added.

            “Muller can stick his head in a horse’s—” Dun stopped himself. “Muller doesn’t know a thing, but he’s happy enough in his ignorance to treat me like he does, just because some nobles made it seem okay. Some people are just mean, and jump at the chance to be.”

            Dun lifted a shovelful of dirt and dumped it to the side.

            “Well…hey, y’know what?” Ritter said.

            “What?”

            Ritter slowly held up her hand, curling all but her index finger into her palm, and then pressed the fingertip into Dun’s forearm.

            “I don’t care what everyone else thinks,” Ritter said.

            Dun snorted, trying to hide a smile, which was almost successful given his bushy mustache. “You and I are about the same on that whole caste system, Rit.”

            “Well but then whatever,” Ritter said, opening her hand to slap Dun’s arm.

            “But thanks for the sentiment all the same,” the old man said.

            Dun thrust his shovel into the dirt, and his hands shook as the spade met with embedded stone. The shovel’s haft squeaked and snapped in two, and Dun’s hand slid over the break in his follow-through, catching the new, sharp end with his hand. He growled and dropped the pieces of the shovel as blood started to rush out of his palm.

            “Maker’s curse!” Dun mumbled.

            “You alright?!”

            “I’ll be fine, just…”

            “That looks bad!” Ritter tried to get a better look at the wound, but Dun pulled his hand away. Even so, she got a glimpse of crimson. “I’ll go get the salves! I saw the potion bag in the house!”

            Before Dun could protest, she was already running from the unfinished field to the house.  Dun felt the pulse of pain in his hand with every heartbeat. He instinctively, unintentionally, focused on the emptiness between the thumps, and slowly took his other hand away from the wound. Red crept from the jagged cut, and a bottomless pit formed in his stomach. The pulse of pain drew him closer to the space between his heartbeats, and his vision stretched and clouded, almost like a trance. Staring away into nothing, he saw the flicker of a black flame in the distance. Dun growled and dropped to his knees, holding his hand over the wound again.

            Dun felt his chest warm, balling up and traveling through his shoulder, down his arm, and into his injured hand. He exhaled deep and long, almost to the point of his throat closing, and his eyes met with the scarecrow further afield. He looked away.

            Ritter came back and knelt in the dirt. She pulled an old leather satchel from her shoulder and set it between them. Dun stared at the elaborate buckle that kept the bag clasped; there was still a dark fade of blood in its grooves, and old stains shaped vaguely like panicked, bloodied fingers spotted its surface in odd places. In the back of his mind, he heard himself muttering untrue assurances while his hands rummaged within the bag. “Don’t worry,” he said, surrounded by the dead and dying. “It would be okay,” he said, staring at the red splotch that grew on a white apron, pouring the medicine into still lips that breath no longer passed between.

            This was a mistake, a voice echoed in Dun’s mind. What did we do wrong?

            “These look old, I hope they still work,” Ritter said, holding up a bottle with an aged cork. The green contents inside sloshed around, clinging thinly to the walls with an unexpected viscosity.

            “Those were synthesized by the best alchemist in the region. They’ll have kept.”

            Ritter bit the cork of the bottle and plucked it from the throat, spitting the plug into the potion bag.

            “They ain’t wine, Dun. Here.” Ritter pawed for Dun’s injured hand, and he relinquished it.

            She held the bottle over his hand until the emerald juice poured onto his palm, washing away the blood. Dun cleared his throat at the sting of it, but it quickly numbed.

            “There. Wow, it isn’t as deep as I thought it was.”

            “I told you not to worry.”

            Ritter bent down and placed the empty bottle back in the satchel, seeing the name etched on the inside of the open flap.

            “Property of…who’s…Drema?”

            “The best alchemist in the region, like I said.”

            “This is his bag, why you got it?”

            “‘Her’ bag. She was someone I adventured with.”

            “Drema was a girl – she was a knight, too?”

            “No, she was an alchemist, but she was an adventurer all the same. She was from a small village to the north, knew a lot about living things and plants, how they interacted with the body. She liked to call herself the ‘Paragon of Potions’, whatever that means.”

            “How’d she join up with you?”

            “She wanted to get out of her tiny village, find more ‘specimens’, she called ‘em; we needed someone to keep us healthy. Worked out pretty well.” Dun looked at the wound on his hand, and four large, bloody gashes carving through Drema’s body flashed in his mind for a split second.

            “There’s some bandages here, they look new,” Ritter unrolled a spool of white between her hands. “Gimme your hand.”

            Dun looked away from the wound and held it to Ritter. She began wrapping the bandage around his hand, making sure to evenly space the strap. Then she wrapped it with a unique knot, tightened enough to make Dun grimace.

            “That’s a tight knot,” Dun said.

            “Pa’s a sailor, taught me lots of knots,” Ritter replied, rolling up the bandage spool and turning back to the bag.

            “Your mother told me about your father.”

            Ritter’s hands paused inside the potion bag.

            “I’m sorry,” Dun continued.

            “Wasn’t your fault, was it?”

            “Condolences ain’t about taking responsibility, just acknowledging the pain someone’s gotta bear. I’m sorry you lost your father. I empathize, y’know?”

            “Nothin’ I can do about it.”

            Dun exhaled loudly and looked off at the trees.

            “…thank you, though,” Ritter finally said, closing the bag and shouldering it. “Sorry ‘bout your shovel?”

            Dun stood up, scoffing as he picked up the pieces of the shovel in each hand.

            “Now I regret giving Muller that shovel back.”

            Dun smirked at Ritter, his white mustache tilting up in a way she hadn’t seen before. She chuckled, and a crow cawed somewhere in the trees.

            Dun and Ritter had no choice but to head into town. Although this was only Ritter’s second time being seen with Dun specifically, riding up through the main street was the first time she had noticed the eyes that seemed to follow the old man: odd stares, slanted brows, and narrowed eyes. Ritter counted several side glances from people and faces that, while they weren’t outright disgusted, sure didn’t seem pleased in any particular way. She hadn’t really been aware of the townsfolk’s feelings towards Dun until she started working with him, but now that she was, there was a pall of coldness everywhere Dun went.

            As they came up to the shop’s door, Dun saw a couple exiting. He opened the door and stepped aside to let them pass. The woman glanced at Dun from the corner of her eye and quickened her pace, and her husband followed suit. Ritter watched as Dun nodded politely to them, but they only continued on. No words of thanks, and they were down the street in seconds.

            “You’re welcome!” Ritter shouted at the street.

            “Rit hush,” Dun mumbled, moving through the door.

            Ritter followed into the shop and saw Tompsa behind the counter. He smiled, but really, he smiles to everyone, it’s part of the job. Tompsa did, however, address Dun as ‘Sir Kel’, which he didn’t have to. Perhaps he, like Ritter’s mother, cared more about respect than rumor. Muller, Gripple, and a third man were playing cards at their same old table in the corner. They looked up from their cards, and their eyes seemed devoid of joy, as if they were trying to launch disinterest straight from their pupils. That’s what it seemed like to Ritter, but not just disinterest in who Dun was, that he happened to be standing before them. It was an intense level of disinterest that felt like it carried a demand for Dun to simply stop existing entirely, as if his presence on earth was an affront to their sensibilities and nature itself.

            “Hey there Sir Kel, Rit, what can I do for you today?” Tompsa asked.

            Dun kicked his heels on the wood flooring as he walked up to the counter. “Need a shovel.”

            “Shovel? I’ll go see what we have,” Tompsa said, sliding to the backroom.

            “Shovel, eh Dun? Maybe y—” Muller began.

            “Aw shut your damned mouth, Muller!” Ritter snapped.

            Muller curled his playing hand down at the table and balked at the girl. “Why don’t you rein in that bronco you got in your mouth little girl, it’s outta control.”

            “And why don’t you take a shovel and—”

            “Alright Rit, that’s enough.” Dun said, setting a hand on her shoulder.

            “He was gonna—”

            “Yeah and he don’t matter.” Dun pulled Ritter up to the counter, facing away from Muller.

            “Okayyyyy!” Tompsa shouted from the back, most assuredly having heard the outburst. “I’ve got a few of these that came in recently from the Metalhead ironworks.”

            “Hm, they do good work,” Dun muttered.

            The shopkeep rested a brand-new shovel gently on the countertop, it made only the slightest of clangs. “What do you think?”

            Dun took the shovel from over the counter and held it tightly in both hands.

            “Seems good, I’ll take it,” Dun said.

            “Alright then, that’ll be ten even.” Tompsa smiled.

            Ritter leaned up on the counter, holding herself by the tips of her fingers. Dun reached into his pouch, fastened with the loose button, and placed a gold and silver coin each on the counter. “Y’know what? Get me another, if you can.”

            “Of course, I’ll be right back.” Tompsa left again.

            “Two shovels? You planning on breakin’ this one later today?” Ritter asked.

            Dun placed another gold and silver coin on the counter and pushed them forward. The shopkeep returned with another shovel, and handed them both over to Dun before taking the coin for his register. Dun took a shovel in each hand and headed for the door.

            “Boys,” Dun said as he passed by Muller and his friends.

            “Uh…Dun.” Gripple nodded while the others let out vague grunts of acknowledgement.

            As Ritter walked past, she turned at the door.

            “Wow Muller, you’ve got four of that same card there! Is that good?” Ritter said loudly.

            Gripple and the other player’s shoulders shot up.

            “Wha! Hey, you damned—HEY!” Muller cried.

            Ritter cackled and ran out the door. Both of Muller’s opponents immediately folded. Outside, Dun sat waiting for the girl in the wagon, the two shovels sitting across his lap. Ritter climbed into the front seat, still chuckling proudly.

            “You don’t need to stick up for me, Rit,” Dun said. “There ain’t any reason to.”

            “What do you mean? That’s what adventurers do, ain’t it? I don’t need to wait for someone to come cryin’ to me to help ‘em. I see someone in trouble, I wanna help,” Ritter said, holding her hands out at her obvious statement.

            Dun looked at Ritter, leaning against the wagon’s sideboard. “Sometimes I think you just like runnin’ your mouth, but maybe that’s because you haven’t gotta sword to swing yet. And the Eight help us when you finally get your hands on one.”

            “What’s that s’posed to mean?” Ritter asked.

            “It’s my grumpy way of sayin’ ‘thank you’.” Dun took one of the shovels and set it across Ritter’s shoulder. “Here.”

            “Huh?”

            “I dub thee Lady Ritter,” Dun said, tapping her shoulder with the shovel’s handle. “You need somethin’ better than that trowel if we’re gonna work the field properly.”

            “Does this get me another gold a day?” Ritter held onto the shovel, wrapping her small fingers around its haft.

            “Don’t push it,” Dun said, snapping the reins.

            After returning to the farm, Dun and Ritter took care in digging the stone they had previously uncovered out of the earth. It ended up being no larger than Dun’s head, but it was troublesome all the same. As Dun carried it to the edge of the field, he thumbed the nick his shovel left in the surface, and a splash of sundried blood that had fallen onto the stone. He tossed the stone into the grass, and in a blink his palm was painted with the smudged, bloody handprint of the cleric he knew. In that moment, he had cried out for his mother, not his god.

            I don’t know what awaits me, but I know we did good things. Sometimes that is all we can hold onto.

            Dun let a heavy breath escape his mouth, and he wiped his clean hand on his pantleg. A crow alighted onto the stone and pecked at its surface. Dun scoffed and returned to the field. Ritter was upturning the spot of dirt where the stone had been with her new shovel, still trying to get a handle on it. Dun picked up his own and made a show of what to do while Ritter watched. He plunged the spade into the earth, and then pressed on it with his foot. Ritter pushed her shovel into the dirt, and leaned on it with all her weight. Dun pressed the handle of his shovel downward, lifting a clump of soil up. Ritter leaned on the back of her shovel, and a pile of dirt climbed from the earth.

            “So there was the man from the sands, and that alchemist,” Ritter said, turning her shovel over. “How many more were there in your party?”

            “It wasn’t just a party, I guess,” Dun said.

            “What were you then?”

            “It was a fairly prestigious adventuring company, called Excelsior.”

            “What’s that mean, ‘seltzer’?”

            “‘Excelsior’. Means ‘ever upward’ supposedly.”

            “Supposedly?”

            “Our cleric, Atlan, said it was a word in his holy book, written in a language none of us could read, so…” Dun shrugged.

            “There was a cleric, too?”

            “There was a cleric, too. There was also a wizard, Tarmaglia; the ranger Breff, and his charming brother Graff; and Meresda, a druid.”

            “Tarmaglia, Jardhun, Drema, Graff and Breff, Atlan, and…Meresda,” Ritter listed.

            Each of their faces flashed in Dun’s mind as Ritter spoke their names. Tarmaglia was a sourpuss, and liked to hide behind the brim of his fedora to seem more mysterious. Jardhun, never seen without his pagri, was stern, with a sharp beard extending from his chiseled chin. Drema had big thick glasses, and they always caught the light of the fire while she was reading her big thick books. Graff and Breff were twins, as inseparable as they were identical, with the charisma kings could only wish for. Atlan, ever the optimist, afraid of everything beyond the abbey where he grew up. He was determined to do good in the world, even if it scared him to death. Meresda was more often in some kind of wild shape, an owl being her favorite form, but when she was human, she had a cunning smile, flanked by the beads and feathers woven into her hair.

            “And Dun,” the girl pointed to the old man.

            “That was all of us,” Dun confirmed.

            “How come you aren’t together anymore? You really just liked farmin’ that much, had to leave it all behind?” Ritter asked, holding her arms out. “For all this?”

            A crow cawed in the distance.

            “You really want to know?”

            “I’d stop askin’ if you’d say.” Ritter shrugged.

            Dun dug his shovel upright into the dirt, and Ritter did the same. He took a deep breath and exhaled from his mouth loudly.

            “Excelsior had gained no small amount of renown in Blanhearth, and with that came some manner of weight with the nobility. We would end up consulted for our myriad skills and experiences, so policies were created based on our suggestions.”

            “Sounds nice.”

            “Politics ain’t nice, ever. We were just mercenaries, but we had a loud voice, and there were plenty who weren’t happy with that fact, either because we weren’t nobility and swashbuckled our way to the top, or our suggestions on policy began to blur the line between the classes.”

            “That sounds like you.”

            “It was…and that’s how I got everyone killed.”

            Ritter’s body tensed for a moment as a chill ran through her.

            “How, if you were all fancy and powerful?” she asked.

            “We were given a commission, a rescue deep in the mountains. It was dangerous, the height of chimera mating season, hence why we were the only ones who could get it done. I was certain we could do it, and thought about how much more indebted the aristocracy’d be to us after we saved their own from certain doom. But there was no one there to rescue, and we had stumbled right into a nidus. Nobles never meant for us to return, and we knew that the moment we found ourselves surrounded by a sault of chimera. We fell, one by one. I watched in horror as everyone I knew was torn apart.

            “When I came back as the only survivor, they spun a web of lies and deceit. They wanted us all dead, but it was easy enough to pin the blame on me. Suddenly, I wasn’t just an opportunistic egalitarian with a big sword, I was a selfish coward that left his closest friends, and the people we were sent to rescue, to die on a mountainside.”

            “Why didn’t you…fight back?”

            “I watched the people I loved get torn to pieces. I was in no state to argue with the aristocracy. The damage was already done, and even if I had succumbed to a murderous rampage, a cogent thought in my mind at the time, it’d never bring Excelsior back. So I did the only thing I could do, I emptied the coffers and left Blanhearth, which to no surprise only made me look even more guilty. Moved ‘round for a time, trying to outrun the rumors wherever I was staying, but…I got tired. Then I came here, found this old farm, fixed it up, just wanted to be left alone.”

            “How were you the only one to survive?” Ritter asked. “Lucky?”

            Dun was surprised. Perhaps it was the authenticity of a child, but she didn’t seem caught up on what had happened. Ritter took it as fact, but it didn’t change her opinion of him. She had spent enough time with Dun to know that whatever the townsfolk feared he could do, he wasn’t going to. She only looked to him to continue. Dun took a deep breath, held his wounded hand, and stared off to the horizon.

            “Some use steel of various shapes, others use magick of different schools. I wielded something between the two, an eldritch form of power beyond matter and spirit. I survive where others fall, and I’m harder to kill than most, but it takes its toll in other ways.”

            “What other ways?”

            “It’s a dangerous thing, it makes you selfish, thinking about your own capabilities above everyone else’s. What did it matter if a man couldn’t normally take a chimera claw across the chest – I could.”

            “Is that why you’re a farmer now? Ran off, threw away your sword and armor, tossed that power aside?”

            “It’s not something I can get rid of,” Dun unwrapped the bandage on his hand, showing Ritter a mostly healed scar in his palm. “It’s part of me. I can shut it out, but it’ll be with me ‘til the day I die, and then some.”

            Ritter took his hand, feeling the grooves of the wound in his palm. “It’s healed.”

            “Yup…”

            Ritter gave Dun his hand back, and checked her own hands. They ached from all the shoveling she had started doing, but they were immaculate compared to Dun’s calloused mitts.

            “I’ve seen how people look at you now, more’n just Muller and his harping,” Ritter said.

            Dun nodded slowly. “At least most everyone else steers clear.”

            “It ain’t right.”

            “I know.”

            “You didn’t do nothin’ wrong.”

            “Oh I did, Rit. People might treat me bad over mendacities, but that doesn’t mean I’m not guilty. And I pushed them away all the same.”

            “But folk shouldn’t be treatin’ you like you’re gonna stab ‘em in the backs and take their wallets. You ain’t gonna hurt ‘em.”

            “Doesn’t matter, rumor’s out there, and there’s no way to challenge the lies as much as there is the truth.”

            “Well I don’t care!” Ritter kicked her shovel over. “You don’t deserve to be treated that way. You’re comin’ to dinner tonight!”

            “What? I’m…?”

            “You need a reminder that nice people live here, too.”

            “Rit, I know nice people here – you work with me, and I see the shopkeep every couple of days. I know your mother don’t care about the rumors, and I ain’t gonna make her cook for me.”

            “I’ll do it then!”

            “You can’t cook.”

            “Then…you come over…an’ teach me how to cook dinner for us.”

            Dun chuckled. “You drive a hard bargain, missy. It is getting late, so…let’s get you home.”

            “Mum! I hope you’re decent!” Ritter burst through the door holding a small burlap sack.

            Biel was in her usual spot, entrenched on the couch, curled up in blankets. She tightly gripped her book at Ritter’s outburst. “Maker preserve, Ritter, what’s going on?”

            Dun stepped in behind Ritter, holding his own sack.

            “Evenin’, Biel.”

            “Sir Kel, welcome,” Biel closed her book and adjusted her position on the couch. “What are you…?”

            “Rit here insisted on me teaching her how to cook dinner for you tonight.”

            “Oh did she?” Biel looked to Ritter, who was too happy to be ashamed.

            “I don’t mind, really,” Dun assured her.

            “Look, we got some meat, and potatoes, and some other veggies,” Ritter showed Biel the contents of the bag she held. “Not just warm bread tonight.”

            “Kitchen is through here, right?” Dun asked, shuffling past the den.

            “Rit, how could you?” Biel whispered.

            “Sorry mum, I gotta go help Dun cook! You relax!” Ritter skipped into the kitchen.

            Biel had no choice but to sit back and return to her book.

            “Mum, where do we keep the big pot?” Ritter called. “Never mind, I found it!” A clank of pans erupted from the kitchen. “Sorry!”

            After a time, Biel needed to stretch her legs, and so she wandered into the kitchen to the sight of Ritter, standing on a stepstool, next to Dun as they watched over a boiling pot. Biel closed her eyes and breathed in through her nose. The aroma wafting from the pot made her mouth water.

            “Just keep stirrin’,” Dun pointed to the spoon.

            “Where’d you learn to cook, anyhow?” Ritter asked, picking up the spoon and churning it through the mixture in the pot.

            “Drema taught us.”

            “Drema, really?”

            “Yup, ‘cooking is just chemistry’, she said. I ain’t the best, but I’ve kept myself fed all these years.”

            “How is Ritter doing?” Biel asked, walking up behind them.

            “She’s a quick learner,” Dun replied.

            “That’s my girl,” Biel said, kissing Ritter’s head from behind.

            “Mum please, don’t disturb a cook in her kitchen.”

            “Oh apologies, master chef,” Biel joked.

            “It’s almost ready, if you wouldn’t mind taking a seat,” Dun said. “Go sit with your mum, Rit.”

            Biel slowly stepped over to the small table in the center of the kitchen, and as she sat down, Dun placed a bowl in front of her, filled with a steaming stew and a slice of bread. Ritter sat down next to her mother and Dun presented another bowl.

            “This looks delicious,” Biel said.

            “Smells it, too,” Ritter added.

            “It’s nothing fancy,” Dun said, sitting down at the table with his own bowl. “But I hope you enjoy it.”

            “I’m sure I will, thank you, Sir Kel,” Biel smiled, picking up her spoon.

            “Pleasure’s mine, ma’am,” Dun smiled back.

            Ritter looked between them, smiling herself as she took a huge spoonful of warm stew.

CHAPTER 2

“The Knight”

            A few days had passed in a decidedly more uneventful fashion. Ritter had become more capable of taking care of the kids and milking the cows in an expedited manner, so Dun “promoted” her to helping him in the field as well. As Dun plunged his shovel into the ground, Ritter waited, crouched with a trowel ready to till the dirt further. Ritter finished churning a pile of earth, wiping her brow and glancing at the scarecrow, surrounded by crows flapping about.

            “Y’know, if you paid me another gold coin a day, I’d scare away the crows.”

            “You want me to string you up on a post? Or you wanna run around and chase ‘em like a dog?”

            “The latter, and we’re gonna need it, considerin’ the current occupant doesn’t seem to be doin’ the job.”

            “It’s fine,” Dun replied, not looking up from his work.

            “Is it? They’ll eat the crops.”

            “No crops yet, and they’ll find food otherwise.”

            “Once food starts poppin’ from the ground, those things are gonna pluck it all before the harvest.”

            “I said it’ll be fine,” Dun said. “Don’t worry about them birds.”

            Rit watched the crows hop around the scarecrow, pecking at its base.

            “Some people say crows are messengers of the dead. They help guide souls to the afterlife.”

            “Where’d you hear something like that?”

            “A bard who rolled into town last summer, said he heard it on his travels.”

            “And you believe that?”

            “Why else would crows hang around dead people?”

            “Because they’re carrion birds. They just like dead things is all.”

            “Well, maybe they like dead things and they guide souls, too. Both can be true.”

            Dun sighed.

            “Oh! I have it! They guide people to the afterlife by eating a corpse. Bard said the shamans over on the Western shores believe crows made the world.”

            “From psychopomps to gods, huh?”

            “Which one do you think it is?” Ritter asked.

            “I don’t think it’s either, a bird’s a bird.”

            “But what if it’s not a bird, right? What if it’s a god?”

            Dun dug his shovel into the ground and leaned against it, staring at a fairly content Ritter.

            “Go feed the goats.”

            “I already did.”

            “Go…play with them then, so they burn off the energy. Let Potatoes knock you over, she needs a victory every once in a while.”

            “Fine,” Ritter stuck her trowel in the dirt and shuffled off towards the goats’ enclosure.

            Dun twisted the soil with his shovel, stopping when he saw Ritter run past, towards the center of the field. Ritter’s arms shot out into the air, and she let out as loud and as deep a roar she could muster, directly at the murder gathering around the scarecrow. One or two of the crows cawed, but the group took off, disappearing into the tree line beyond the field. Ritter set her hands to her hips and nodded triumphantly, strutting back past Dun and towards the goats’ enclosure.

            “For your consideration,” she said.

            “Y’know, crows remember the faces of people who hassle ‘em,” Dun replied.

            I don’t fault them. It’s their nature, a voice said in the back of Dun’s mind. I only wish we hadn’t set foot here.

            Dun took a deep breath and began digging again.

            Biel shuffled from the water closet with labored steps, an arm wrapped tightly around her abdomen. She winced in pain as she slowly set herself back on the couch. Outside, she could hear someone scraping their feet on the stoop, and she hurriedly swathed herself in the blanket and tried to sit up straight. Ritter opened the door slowly, peeking her head in first.

            “It’s okay, I’m awake,” Biel said weakly.

            Ritter, covered nearly head-to-toe in dirt jumped through the doorway and spun to push the door closed.

            “Oh where is my daughter?” Biel said, looking at a dirt-caked Ritter.

            “I’m right here.”

            “That can’t be, all I see is a little earth sprite! You’re so dirty today, Rit.”

            “Yeah, Dun promoted me to hole-digger! I knew I’d end up doing that. And look!” Ritter reached into her pocket and pulled out a jet-black feather, holding it by its calamus. “There’s crows that hang around sometimes, so I took one of their feathers as a souvenir.”

            “That’s very pretty.” Biel smiled.

            “Here, feel it.” Ritter took Biel’s hand, slowly sliding her fingers up either side of the feather, displacing the barbs like a wave of rolling night.

            “Very nice,” Biel said weakly.

            “How are you feeling today? Did you get much rest?” Ritter asked, placing the feather in her hair.

            “I…tried.”

            “Was it bad today? You can tell me,” Ritter said.

            “It’s worse today, but I should…get dinner ready, you must be starving, huh?” Biel said standing up.

            “I am, but you rest, I can get dinner,” Ritter said, trying to keep her mother down on the couch.

            “No no, you go get washed up. Dinner is for my daughter, and I heard that if you feed earth sprites after dark they’ll never want to lea—oh—” Biel stumbled and dropped to her knees, barely catching herself on the edge of the couch.

            “Mum!”

            “I think…this is…too much,” Biel cried, wrapping her arm around her stomach again.

            “Are you okay?”

            “I…”

            “I’m getting the healer, please mum, don’t move.” Ritter jumped to her feet and ran for the door, the feather falling out of her hair and fluttering to the stone floor.

            Ritter didn’t come to the farm the next day. Dun waited for her before starting his work, but she never arrived. He let the goats graze for a time and milked the cows. He tried working the field a bit more, but couldn’t help but find himself distracted wondering where Ritter was. In the afternoon, Dun went to the shop and asked where Ritter lived with her mother. Tompsa’s directions were somewhat approximate however, and Dun had knocked on three separate doors to awkward results.

            As Dun stepped up to another door, he hoped that he could find Ritter’s home if only to no longer have uncomfortable interactions with other townsfolk that gave him sour looks. Fortunately, he heard Ritter’s voice on the other side of the door.

            “I’ll be right back, so please just rest,” Ritter said, opening the door to a startled Dun. “Dun, what are…?”

            “You uh…d-didn’t show today,” Dun stammered.

            “I’m sorry, I…couldn’t, I—”

            “Ritter, is someone there?” a weak voice asked from within.

            “It’s…uh…Dun,” Ritter said into the house. “No, mum don’t get up.”

            “Don’t be rude then, invite the man in,” a woman draped in a blanket opened the door wider, stepping aside. “Please, come in Sir Kel.”

            Dun glanced at Ritter. “There’s that ‘sir’ thing.”

            “Please, in. Is there anything we can get you?” Ritter’s mother said.

            “Oh, no ma’am, don’t put yourself out on my account,” Dun said, taking a large step into the house.

            “Call me Biel, please,” Ritter’s mother said, stepping aside.

            “Mum, please, go back to rest,” Ritter said trying to gently guide her mother back into the house.

            “What brings you to our home today?” Biel laboriously lowered herself into a couch covered in blankets and pillows.

            “Oh I was uh, expecting your daughter today, and I got concerned when she didn’t arrive.”

            “You were concerned?” Ritter stifled a giggle.

            “Aye, I can care about things on the odd occasion.”

            “Oh, I’m so very sorry,” Biel said, “that’s my fault. I was having a very bad spell and Ritter wouldn’t leave my side.”

            “It’s no problem, ma’am, you’ve no need to apologize. These things happen, I just…uh…well really couldn’t do much without your daughter’s help.”

            “Farm won’t run without me, huh?” Ritter smirked.

            “Yeah, something like that,” Dun said, rolling his eyes to the girl.

            “Ritter, maybe now is the time to go get that medicine the healer suggested? That is if Sir Kel wouldn’t mind keeping me company for a time?”

            “Uh…no that’s fine, I can sit down for a spell,” Dun said.

            “Okay. I’ll be right back,” the girl said, heading for the door. “You won’t even know I’m gone.”

            “So it won’t get quieter?” Dun asked.

            “Mum, teach Sir Kel some manners while I’m gone,” Ritter snipped before she closed the door.

            “I apologize,” Dun said sheepishly.

            “It’s okay, Ritter is a handful, I know. She brings out interesting sides in people.”

            “That she does,” Dun chuckled, rubbing his nose.

            “Sir Kel, I would really like to thank you for allowing Ritter to help you work on your land. And to be so generous with your coffer, it has been more than helpful for the two of us.”

            “I’m glad to have her, it’s made things a lot easier on me. I didn’t have much hope of finding someone willing to work that field with me, even for gold coins.”

            “Ah, well I want you to know that despite Ritter’s spirited nature, I taught her to never disrespect someone, regardless of good cause, of which I think there is none in your case.”

            “You know my case, do you?” Dun said, crossing his arms.

            “Well…I’ve only heard the gossip, and that you had not left Blanhearth on good terms. I can’t speak to the veracity of it all, but it’s not my place to judge.”

            Mention of Blanhearth brought Dun back to a time in the kingdom, standing on the balcony of their adventuring headquarters, located above a tavern, and looking out at the lower levels of the neighborhood. Many a night spent drinking wine and watching the lights of the city dance after a successful venture, all of it gone in one gray, bloody afternoon.

            “All considered, you don’t look like a craven murderer, and nothing of what is said about you gave my husband and me reason to think less of you,” Biel assured.

            “Do you mind if I ask where your husband is? Rit said he was ‘away’ or some such.”

            Biel took a hand and wrapped the blanket over her arm, taking a deep breath.

            “Denam…he was a sailor.”

            “A sailor? Quite a ways from the sea, this hamlet.”

            “Yes. We moved here not long after Ritter was born, I was offered a teaching position, but he always longed for the waves again, and…we agreed that sending coin back from his time at sea would be best. One day…a squall came up on their return, the ship was thrown off course, dashed against the cliffs. Only half the crew survived, and Denam wasn’t among them.”

            “I’m sorry.”

            “Thank you. It’s been on two years now, and we had a modest amount saved. I was at the schoolhouse for a time, but then I got sick. Teaching became difficult when I was in constant pain, and medicine to manage that pain is…expensive.”

            “I can’t imagine it was easy,” Dun muttered.

            “It’s been trying, but that is why I appreciate what you have done for Ritter.”

            What did we do? What in the spiraling hells was it all for, Dun?

            Dun shook his head.

            “Oh, no ma’am, I’m grateful to have someone as earnest as Rit helping me. You raised a fine girl.”

            Ritter trotted up the road out of town with the same vigor as every day before, and soon hopped up onto the porch of Dun’s home. She knocked on the door, but there was no answer.

            “Helloooo!” Ritter called, knocking again.

            She motioned closer to the door and heard clanking past it. She knocked one more time, then opened the door, stepping in slowly.

            “Hello, Dun…?”

            In the house, Dun was at the stovetop in the far corner, cooking something in a skillet.

            “Hey!” Ritter shouted over the scraping and sizzling coming from the cooking.

            Dun jumped, looking over his shoulder. “What are you doing here? You’re early.”

            “I wanted to get to work earlier, make up for missin’ yesterday,” Ritter said, walking over to the dining table.

            “That your idea, or your mother’s?” Dun asked.

            “Mine, I care about my work,” Ritter said.

            Dun lifted the skillet from the stovetop and stepped to a small cabinet, taking out a beige plate. He set the plate down on the dining table, next to one that had already been placed, and then brushed the contents of the skillet onto them. Dun took the fork next to the first plate and stuck it in the food on the new one, and then pushed it towards Ritter’s side of the table.

            “What’s this?”

            “Breakfast. Eat up,” Dun said, walking back to the stove and tossing the skillet atop it.

            “You don’t need to feed me.”

            “Well, you’re here, and I already fixed you a plate, so eat it,” the old man muttered, grabbing another fork from the cabinet. “I’d rather you not collapse from hunger while we work.”

            “I got food.”

            “You got copperworths in your pocket, and that ain’t food. Eat.”

            Dun sat down in a huff, staring at Ritter until she followed suit. Ritter climbed into the other chair and picked up her fork, poking at what she could only assume were eggs at one point in time. They certainly smelled like eggs at least, and she took a bite.

            “I haven’t had eggs in a while…” Ritter said with a mouthful, just letting the warm flavor of the yolk sit on her tongue for a time.

            “Why?”

            “Mum can’t cook a lot of the time, an’ I can’t cook. We can’t afford much, and what we can is simple, don’t need much preparation.”

            Dun tapped his fork lightly on the food on his own plate, looking at Ritter’s as she voraciously consumed her meal, despite her attempts to at least seem like she was taking her time.

            “Y’know…if you ever need to miss a day to take care of your mother, that’s fine. Don’t have to make up for it by comin’ in early afterwards or anything, neither,” Dun said.

            “It won’t happen again,” Ritter said, putting down the fork on her empty plate.

            “It will, and that’s fine. You’re doin’ this for your mother, so takin’ care of her is more important somedays. I’ll keep a gold for you either way.”

            “One gold even if I miss a day?”

            Dun stood from his chair, and picked up his plate. “Gotta keep my only worker comin’ back somehow.”

            Dun brushed the rest of his meal onto Ritter’s empty plate, and then turned away for his room before she could say anything. Ritter stared at the new pile, and dug her fork from beneath it.

            “Hey, bein’ an adventurer and all, where’s your armor? Your sword and shield? I don’t see none,” Ritter said between mouthfuls.

            “What good is all that if I ain’t gonna fight anymore?” Dun returned, rolling up the sleeves of a button-down shirt he had put on. “Didn’t feel like bearing a coat of arms when the heraldry plowed me sideways.”

            Dun stopped at the table, watching Ritter scrape up every last tiny morsel of egg from the plate.

            “Finished?” he asked.

            Ritter nodded and licked the fork clean before setting it down on the plate. “Thank you, Dun.”

            Dun simply grumbled an “Mm-hmm”.

            “Not the tastiest eggs I ever had, but eggs still.”

            “Well, if you come early like this again, I can teach you how to make eggs for you and your mother. Then you won’t have to suffer mine.”

            “I’d…like that,” Ritter said, staring at Dun.

            “What are you looking at?”

            “Nothin’, you’re just really nice sometimes, I guess I can see why you were a knight, Sir Kel.”

            Dun sneered and rolled his eyes. He opened the door and left without another word, leaving Ritter to jump from her chair and follow.

            “You really don’t like bein’ called a knight, do you? Was the nobility really that bad to you and yours?”

            Dun made for the barn, and stopped when he picked up his shovel.

            “You know where your name comes from?” he asked, turning to Ritter.

            “Yeah, it means ‘knight’, what my parents hoped I could be someday. But then I wasn’t a boy, so I don’t get to be one, so…so much for that.”

            Dun grabbed the trowel on the shelf. “You can be whatever the hell you wanna be, Rit.”

            “Girls don’t get to be knights,” Ritter shrugged.

            “Says who?”

            “People.”

            “People are doughy sacks of loathing and contradiction, who would rather drag others down like the world did before with them; too ashamed that they didn’t fight back, to let anyone else achieve what they hadn’t. People don’t want girls to be knights, but if you have the strength and skill to become one, they can’t stop you.”

            Ritter’s cheeks swelled with a smile. The old man had said something not only nice, but inspiring. Dun handed her the trowel.

            “But knights are fools anyway, you should be something useful.”

            “Like what? A farmer?” Ritter giggled, taking the trowel in hand.

            Dun sneered. “It’s not so bad.”

            “I’d like to at least buy a sword someday, maybe I’ll travel. It’ll be my trusty steel, a friend that helps me solve problems and slay countless foes,” Ritter said, swinging her trowel like it was a blade. “Then I could still be out there, doing some good.”

            “A good person doesn’t force their friends to kill.”

            “What’s that mean?”

            “If you think of your sword as a friend, then it’s not simply a tool, and good people don’t force their friends to do things, even if they’re good at it.”

            “It’s just a sword, Dun,” Ritter said.

            “A sword is never just a sword. Now come, we’re just about finished tilling, then we can start plantin’ the maize.”

            By noon time, Dun and Ritter had made good progress in the field, having upturned the earth and shifted it about to be ready for the seeds. Dun had taken a moment to massage his hands from the work, so Ritter sat down in the dirt, leaning back on her hands.

            “You never answered my question before,” Ritter said.

            “About what?”

            “About why you hate bein’ called a knight and stuff.”

            Dun picked up the shovel, adjusting the head to mark the dirt where he wanted to dig next.

            “Well?”

            “Nobles don’t care about the commonfolk, so long as they’re keeping them in comfort. You look at the people out in these towns, just trying to live their lives, growing food for everyone, doin’ work for everyone. People with titles like ‘knight’ or ‘duke’ aren’t diggin’ holes, plantin’ seeds. They’re busy in-breedin’ and getting into fights over land they don’t even live on. And what’s worse is, they just don’t care.

            That man from the Eastern Sands I knew, Jardhun was his name, he had a word for what he perceived of how our aristocracy treats those below them – what he called ‘untouchables’.”

            “What’s them?”

            Dun plunged his shovel into the dirt.

            “People so low in the class system that they weren’t to be talked to, interacted with. Their nobility believed that doing so would dirty up their souls or some such.”

            “That’s stupid.”

            “At least they own up to it, such an engrained part of their culture. I didn’t care for how the aristocracy was running things, and I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind. Now, I get treated like an untouchable for the things nobles said about me, because I was ‘difficult’, but none of these folk are honest about it. They’ll argue their own virtues, talk like they care about things, but still keep a distance, believing whatever tripe someone higher on some imaginary hierarchy said.”

            “Except for people like Muller,” Ritter added.

            “Muller can stick his head in a horse’s—” Dun stopped himself. “Muller doesn’t know a thing, but he’s happy enough in his ignorance to treat me like he does, just because some nobles made it seem okay.”

            Dun lifted a shovelful of dirt and dumped it to the side.

            “Well…hey, y’know what?” Ritter said.

            “What?”

            Ritter slowly held up her hand, curling all but her index finger into her palm, and then pressed the fingertip into Dun’s forearm.

            “I don’t care what everyone else thinks,” Ritter said.

            Dun snorted, trying to hide a smile, which was almost successful given his bushy mustache. “You and I are about the same on that whole caste system, Rit.”

            “Well but then whatever,” Ritter said, opening her hand to slap Dun’s arm.

            “But thanks for the sentiment all the same,” the old man said.

            Dun thrust his shovel into the dirt, and his hands shook as the spade met with embedded stone. The shovel’s haft squeaked and snapped in two, and Dun’s hand slid over the break in his follow-through, catching the new, sharp end with his hand. He growled and dropped the pieces of the shovel as blood started to rush out of the palm of his hand.

            “Maker’s curse!” Dun mumbled.

            “You alright?!” Ritter shot to her feet.

            “I’ll be fine, just…”

            “That looks bad!” Ritter tried to get a better look at the wound, but Dun pulled his hand away. Even so, she got a glimpse of crimson. “I’ll go get the salves! I saw the potion bag in the house!”

            Before Dun could protest, she was already running from the unfinished field to the house.  Dun felt the pulse of pain in his hand with every heartbeat. He instinctively, unintentionally, focused on the emptiness between the thumps, and slowly took his other hand away from the wound. Red crept from the jagged cut, and a bottomless pit formed in his stomach. The pulse of pain drew him closer to the space between his heartbeats, and his vision stretched and clouded, almost like a trance. Staring away into nothing, he saw the flicker of a black flame. Dun growled and dropped to his knees, holding his hand over the wound again.

            Dun felt his chest warm, balling up and traveling through his shoulder, down his arm, and into his injured hand. He exhaled deep and long, almost to the point of his throat closing, and his eyes met with the scarecrow further afield. He looked away.

            Ritter came back and knelt in the dirt. She pulled an old leather satchel from her shoulder and set it between them. Dun stared at the elaborate buckle that kept the bag clasped; there was still a dark fade of blood in its grooves, and old stains shaped vaguely like panicked, bloodied fingers spotted its surface in odd places. In the back of his mind, he heard himself muttering untrue assurances that things would be okay while his hands rummaged within the bag. “It would be okay” he said, staring at the red splotch that grew on a white apron, pouring the medicine into still lips that breath no longer passed between.

            This was a mistake, a voice echoed in Dun’s mind. What did we do wrong?

            “These look old, I hope they still work,” Ritter said, holding up a bottle with an aged cork. The green contents inside sloshed around, clinging thinly to the walls with an unexpected viscosity.

            “Those were synthesized by the best alchemist in the region. They’ll have kept.”

            Ritter bit the cork of the bottle and plucked it from the throat, spitting the plug into the potion bag.

            “They ain’t wine, Dun. Here.” Ritter pawed for Dun’s injured hand, and he relinquished it.

            She held the bottle over his hand until the emerald juice poured onto his palm, washing away the blood. Dun cleared his throat at the sting of it, but it quickly numbed.

            “There. Wow, it isn’t as deep as I thought it was.”

            “I told you not to worry.”

            Ritter bent down and placed the empty bottle back in the satchel, seeing the name etched on the inside of the open flap.

            “Property of…who’s…Drema?”

            “The best alchemist in the region, like I said.”

            “This is his bag, why you got it?”

            “‘Her’ bag. She was someone I adventured with.”

            “Drema was a girl – she was a knight, too?”

            “No, she was an alchemist, but she was an adventurer all the same. She was from a small village to the north, knew a lot about living things and plants, how they interacted with the body. She liked to call herself the ‘Paragon of Potions’, whatever that means.”

            “How’d she join up with you?”

            “She wanted to get out of her tiny village, find more specimens, she called ‘em; we needed someone to keep us healthy. Worked out pretty well.” Dun looked at the wound on his hand, and four large, bloody gashes carving through Drema’s body flashed in his mind for a split second.

            “There’s some bandages here, they look new,” Ritter unrolled a spool of white between her hands. “Gimme your hand.”

            Dun looked away from the wound and held it to Ritter. She began wrapping the bandage around his hand, making sure to evenly space the strap. Then she wrapped it with a unique knot, tightened enough to make Dun grimace.

            “That’s a tight knot,” Dun said.

            “Pa’s a sailor, taught me lots of knots,” Ritter replied, rolling up the bandage spool and turning back to the bag.

            “Your mother told me about your father.”

            Ritter’s hands paused inside the potion bag.

            “I’m sorry,” Dun continued.

            “Wasn’t your fault, was it?”

            “Condolences ain’t about taking responsibility, just acknowledging the pain someone’s gotta bear. I’m sorry you lost your father. I empathize, y’know?”

            “Nothin’ I can do about it.”

            Dun exhaled loudly and looked off at the trees.

            “…thank you, though,” Ritter finally said, closing the bag and shouldering it. “Sorry ‘bout your shovel?”

            Dun stood up, scoffing as he picked up the pieces of the shovel in each hand.

            “Now I regret giving Muller his shovel back.”

            Dun smirked at Ritter, his white mustache tilting up in a way she hadn’t seen before. She chuckled, and a crow cawed somewhere in the trees.

            Dun and Ritter had no choice but to head into town. Although this was only Ritter’s second time being seen with Dun specifically, riding up through the main street was the first time she had noticed the eyes that seemed to follow the old man: odd stares, slanted brows, and narrowed eyes. Ritter counted several side glances from people and faces that, while they weren’t outright disgusted, sure didn’t seem pleased in any particular way. She hadn’t really been aware of the townsfolk’s feelings towards Dun until she started working with him, but now that she was, there was a pall of coldness everywhere Dun went.

            As they came up to the shop’s door, Dun saw a couple exiting. He opened the door and stepped aside to let them pass. The woman glanced at Dun from the corner of her eye and quickened her pace, and her husband followed suit. Ritter watched as Dun nodded politely to them, but they only continued on. No words of thanks, and they were down the street in seconds.

            “You’re welcome!” Ritter shouted at the street.

            “Rit hush,” Dun mumbled, moving through the door.

            Ritter followed into the shop and saw Tompsa behind the counter. He smiled, but really, he smiles to everyone, it’s part of the job. Tompsa did, however, address Dun as ‘Sir Kel’, which he didn’t have to. Perhaps he, like Ritter’s mother, cared more about respect than rumor. Muller, Gripple, and a third man were playing cards at their same old table in the corner. They looked up from their cards, and their eyes seemed devoid of joy, as if they were trying to launch disinterest straight from their pupils. That’s what it seemed like to Ritter, but not just disinterest in who Dun was, that he happened to be standing before them. It was an intense level of disinterest that felt like it carried a demand for Dun to simply stop existing entirely, as if his presence on earth was an affront to their sensibilities and nature itself.

            “Hey there Sir Kel, Rit, what can I do for you today?” Tompsa asked.

            Dun kicked his heels on the wood flooring as he walked up to the counter. “Need a shovel.”

            “Shovel? I’ll go see what we have,” Tompsa said, sliding to the backroom.

            “Shovel, eh Dun? Maybe y—” Muller began.

            “Aw shut your damned mouth, Muller!” Ritter snapped.

            Muller curled his playing hand down at the table and balked at the girl. “Why don’t you rein in that bronco you got in your mouth little girl, it’s outta control.”

            “And why don’t you take a shovel and—”

            “Alright Rit, that’s enough.” Dun said, setting a hand on her shoulder.

            “He was gonna—”

            “Yeah and he don’t matter.” Dun pulled Ritter up to the counter, facing away from Muller.

            “Okayyyyy!” Tompsa shouted from the back, most assuredly having heard the outburst. “I’ve got a few of these that came in recently from the Metalhead ironworks.”

            “Hm, they do good work,” Dun muttered.

            The shopkeep rested a brand-new shovel gently on the countertop, it made only the slightest of clangs. “What do you think?”

            Dun took the shovel from over the counter and held it tightly in both hands.

            “Seems good, I’ll take it,” Dun said.

            “Alright then, that’ll be ten even.” Tompsa smiled.

            Ritter leaned up on the counter, holding herself by the tips of her fingers. Dun reached into his pouch, fastened with the loose button, and placed a gold and silver coin each on the counter. “Y’know what? Get me another, if you can.”

            “Of course, I’ll be right back.” Tompsa left again.

            “Two shovels? You planning on breakin’ this one later today?” Ritter asked.

            Dun placed another gold and silver coin on the counter and pushed them forward. The shopkeep returned with another shovel, and handed them both over to Dun before taking the coin for his register. Dun took a shovel in each hand and headed for the door.

            “Boys,” Dun said as he passed by Muller and his friends.

            “Uh…Dun.” Gripple nodded while the others let out vague grunts of acknowledgement.

            As Ritter walked past, she turned at the door.

            “Wow Muller, you’ve got four of that same card there! Is that good?” Ritter said loudly.

            Gripple and the other player’s shoulders shot up.

            “Wha! Hey, you damned—HEY!” Muller cried.

            Ritter cackled and ran out the door. Both of Muller’s opponents immediately folded. Outside, Dun sat waiting for the girl in the wagon, the two shovels sitting across his lap. Ritter climbed into the front seat, still chuckling proudly to herself.

            “You don’t need to stick up for me, Rit,” Dun said. “There ain’t any reason to.”

            “What do you mean? That’s what adventurers do, ain’t it? I don’t need to wait for someone to come cryin’ to me to help ‘em. I see someone in trouble, I wanna help,” Ritter said, holding her hands out at her obvious statement.

            Dun looked at Ritter, leaning against the wagon’s sideboard. “Sometimes I think you just like runnin’ your mouth, but maybe that’s because you haven’t gotta sword to swing yet. And the eight help us when you finally get your hands on one.”

            “What’s that s’posed to mean?” Ritter asked.

            “It’s my grumpy way of sayin’ ‘thank you’.” Dun took one of the shovels and set it across Ritter’s shoulder. “Here.”

            “Huh?”

            “I dub thee Lady Ritter,” Dun said, tapping her shoulder with the shovel’s handle. “You need somethin’ better than that trowel if we’re gonna work the field properly.”

            “Does this get me another gold a day?” Ritter held onto the shovel, wrapping her small fingers around its haft.

            “Don’t push it,” Dun said, snapping the reins.

            After returning to the farm, Dun and Ritter took care in digging the stone they had previously uncovered out of the earth. It ended up being no larger than Dun’s head, but it was troublesome all the same. As Dun carried it to the edge of the field, he thumbed the nick his shovel left in the surface, and a splash of sundried blood that had fallen onto the stone. He tossed the stone into the grass, and in a blink his palm was painted with the smudged, bloody handprint of the cleric he knew. He had cried out for his mother, not his god.

            I don’t know what awaits me, but I know we did good things. Sometimes that is all we can hold onto.

            Dun let a heavy breath escape his mouth, and he wiped his clean hand on his pantleg. A crow alighted onto the stone and pecked at its surface. Dun scoffed and returned to the field. Ritter was upturning the spot of dirt where the stone had been with her new shovel, still trying to get a handle on it. Dun picked up his own and made a show of what to do while Ritter watched. He plunged the spade into the earth, and then pressed on it with his foot. Ritter pushed her shovel into the dirt, and leaned on it with all her weight. Dun pressed the handle of his shovel downward, lifting a clump of soil up. Ritter leaned on the back of her shovel, and a pile of dirt climbed from the earth.

            “So there was the man from the sands, and that alchemist,” Ritter said, turning her shovel over. “How many more were there in your party?”

            “It wasn’t just a party, I guess,” Dun said.

            “What were you then?”

            “It was a fairly prestigious adventuring company, called Excelsior.”

            “What’s that mean, ‘seltzer’?”

            “‘Excelsior’. Means ‘ever upward’ supposedly.”

            “Supposedly?”

            “Our cleric, Atlan, said it was a word in his holy book, written in a language none of us could read, so…” Dun shrugged.

            “There was a cleric, too?”

            “There was a cleric, too. There was also a wizard, Tarmaglia; the ranger Breff, and his charming brother Graff; and Meresda, a druid.”

            “Tarmaglia, Jardhun, Drema, Graff and Breff, Atlan, and…Meresda,” Ritter listed.

            Each of their faces flashed in Dun’s mind as Ritter spoke their names. Tarmaglia was a sourpuss, and liked to hide behind the brim of his fedora to seem more mysterious. Jardhun, never seen without his pagri, was stern, with a sharp beard extending from his chiseled chin. Drema had big thick glasses, and they always caught the light of the fire while she was reading her big thick books. Graff and Breff were twins, as inseparable as they were identical, with the charisma kings could only wish for. Atlan, ever the optimist, afraid of everything beyond the abbey where he grew up. He was determined to do good in the world, even if it scared him to death. Meresda was more often in some kind of wild shape, an owl being her favorite form, but when she was human, she had a cunning smile, flanked by the beads and feathers woven into her hair.

            “And Dun,” the girl pointed to the old man.

            “That was all of us,” Dun confirmed.

            “How come you aren’t together anymore? You really just liked farmin’ that much, had to leave it all behind?” Ritter asked, holding her arms out. “For all this?”

            A crow cawed in the distance.

            “You really want to know?”

            “I’d stop askin’ if you’d say.” Ritter shrugged.

            Dun dug his shovel upright into the dirt, and Ritter did the same. He took a deep breath and exhaled from his mouth loudly.

            “Excelsior had gained no small amount of renown in Blanhearth, and with that came some manner of weight with the nobility. We would end up consulted for our myriad skills and experiences, so policies were created based on our suggestions.”

            “Sounds nice.”

            “Politics ain’t nice, ever. We were just mercenaries, but we had a loud voice, and there were plenty who weren’t happy with that fact, either because we weren’t nobility and swashbuckled our way to the top, or our suggestions on policy began to blur the line between the classes.”

            “That sounds like you.”

            “It was…and that’s how I got everyone killed.”

            Ritter’s body tensed for a moment as a chill ran through her.

            “How, if you were all fancy and powerful?” she asked.

            “We were given a commission, a rescue deep in the mountains. It was dangerous, the height of chimera mating season, hence why we were the only ones who could get it done. I was certain we could do it, and thought about how much more indebted the aristocracy’d be to us after we saved their own from certain doom. But there was no one there to rescue, and we had stumbled right into a nidus. Nobles never meant for us to return, and we knew that the moment we found ourselves surrounded by a sault of chimera. We fell, one by one. I watched in horror as everyone I knew was torn apart.

            “When I came back as the only survivor, they spun a web of lies and deceit. They wanted us all dead, but it was easy enough to pin the blame on me. Suddenly, I wasn’t just an opportunistic egalitarian with a big sword, I was a selfish coward that left his closest friends, and the people we were sent to rescue, to die on a mountainside.”

            “Why didn’t you…fight back?”

            “I watched the people I loved get torn to pieces. I was in no state to argue with the aristocracy. The damage was already done, and even if I had succumbed to a murderous rampage, a cogent thought in my mind at the time, it’d never bring Excelsior back. So I did the only thing I could do, I emptied the coffers and left Blanhearth, which to no surprise only made me look even more guilty. Moved ‘round for a time, trying to outrun the rumors wherever I was staying, but…I got tired. Then I came here, found this old farm, fixed it up, just wanted to be left alone.”

            “How were you the only one to survive?” Ritter asked. “Lucky?”

            Dun was surprised. Perhaps it was the authenticity of a child, but she didn’t seem caught up on what had happened. Ritter took it as fact, but it didn’t change her opinion of him. She had spent enough time with Dun to know that whatever the townsfolk feared he could do, he wasn’t going to. She only looked to him to continue. Dun took a deep breath, held his wounded hand, and stared off to the horizon.

            “Some use steel of various shapes, others use magick of different schools. I wielded something between the two, an eldritch form of power beyond matter and spirit. I survive where others fall, and I’m harder to kill than most, but it takes its toll in other ways.”

            “What other ways?”

            “It’s a dangerous thing, it makes you selfish, thinking about your own capabilities above everyone else’s. What did it matter if a man couldn’t normally take a chimera claw across the chest – I could.”

            “Is that why you’re a farmer now? Ran off, threw away your sword and armor, tossed that power away?”

            “It’s not something I can get rid of,” Dun unwrapped the bandage on his hand, showing Ritter a mostly healed scar in his palm. “It’s part of me. I can shut it out, but it’ll be with me ‘til the day I die, and then some.”

            Ritter took his hand, feeling the grooves of the wound in his palm. “It’s healed.”

            “Yup…”

            Ritter gave Dun his hand back, and checked her own hands. They ached from all the shoveling she had started doing, but they were immaculate compared to Dun’s calloused mitts.

            “I’ve seen how people look at you now, more’n just Muller and his harping,” Ritter said.

            Dun nodded slowly. “At least most everyone else steers clear.”

            “It ain’t right.”

            “I know.”

            “You didn’t do nothin’ wrong.”

            “Oh I did, Rit. People might treat me bad over mendacities, but that doesn’t mean I’m not guilty.”

            “But folk shouldn’t be treatin’ you like you’re gonna stab ‘em in the backs and take their wallets. You ain’t gonna hurt ‘em.”

            “Doesn’t matter, rumor’s out there, and there’s no way to challenge the lies as much as there is the truth.”

            “Well I don’t care!” Ritter kicked her shovel over. “You don’t deserve to be treated that way. You’re comin’ to dinner tonight!”

            “What? I’m…?”

            “You need a reminder that nice people live here, too.”

            “Rit, I know nice people here – you work with me, and I see the shopkeep every couple of days. I know your mother don’t care about the rumors, and I ain’t gonna make her cook for me.”

            “I’ll do it then!”

            “You can’t cook.”

            “Then…you come over…an’ teach me how to cook dinner for us.”

            Dun chuckled. “You drive a hard bargain, missy. It is getting late, so…let’s get you home.”

            “Mum! I hope you’re decent!” Ritter burst through the door holding a small burlap sack.

            Biel was in her usual spot, entrenched on the couch, curled up in blankets. She tightly gripped her book at Ritter’s outburst. “Maker preserve, Ritter, what’s going on?”

            Dun stepped in behind Ritter, holding his own sack.

            “Evenin’, Biel.”

            “Sir Kel, welcome,” Biel closed her book and adjusted her position on the couch. “What are you…?”

            “Rit here insisted on me teaching her how to cook dinner for you tonight.”

            “Oh did she?” Biel looked to Ritter, who was too happy to be ashamed.

            “I don’t mind, really,” Dun assured her.

            “Look, we got some meat, and potatoes, and some other veggies,” Ritter showed Biel the contents of the bag she held. “Not just warm bread tonight.”

            “Kitchen is through here, right?” Dun asked, shuffling past the den.

            “Rit, how could you?” Biel whispered.

            “Sorry mum, I gotta go help Dun cook! You relax!” Ritter skipped into the kitchen.

            Biel had no choice but to sit back and return to her book.

            “Mum, where do we keep the big pot?” Ritter called. “Never mind, I found it!” A clank of pans erupted from the kitchen. “Sorry!”

            After a time, Biel needed to stretch her legs, and so she wandered into the kitchen to the sight of Ritter, standing on a stepstool, next to Dun as they watched over a boiling pot. Biel closed her eyes and breathed in through her nose. The aroma wafting from the pot made her mouth water.

            “Just keep stirrin’,” Dun pointed to the spoon.

            “Where’d you learn to cook, anyhow?” Ritter asked, picking up the spoon and churning it through the mixture in the pot.

            “Drema taught us.”

            “Drema, really?”

            “Yup, ‘cooking is just chemistry’, she said. I ain’t the best, but I’ve kept myself fed all these years.”

            “How is Ritter doing?” Biel asked, walking up behind them.

            “She’s a quick learner,” Dun replied.

            “That’s my girl,” Biel said, kissing Ritter’s head from behind.

            “Mum please, don’t disturb a cook in her kitchen.”

            “Oh apologies, master chef,” Biel joked.

            “It’s almost ready, if you wouldn’t mind taking a seat,” Dun said. “Go sit with your mum, Rit.”

            Biel slowly stepped over to the small table in the center of the kitchen, and as she sat down, Dun placed a bowl in front of her, filled with a steaming stew and a slice of bread. Ritter sat down next to her mother and Dun presented another bowl.

            “This looks delicious,” Biel said.

            “Smells it, too,” Ritter added.

            “It’s nothing fancy,” Dun said, sitting down at the table with his own bowl. “But I hope you enjoy it.”

            “I’m sure I will, thank you, Sir Kel,” Biel smiled, picking up her spoon.

            “Pleasure’s mine, ma’am,” Dun smiled back.

            Ritter looked between them, smiling herself as she took a huge spoonful of warm stew.

CHAPTER 2

“The Knight”

            A few days had passed in a decidedly more uneventful fashion. Ritter had become more capable of taking care of the kids and milking the cows in an expedited manner, so Dun “promoted” her to helping him in the field as well. As Dun plunged his shovel into the ground, Ritter waited, crouched with a trowel ready to till the dirt further. Ritter finished churning a pile of earth, wiping her brow and glancing at the scarecrow, surrounded by crows flapping about.

            “Y’know, if you paid me another gold coin a day, I’d scare away the crows.”

            “You want me to string you up on a post? Or you wanna run around and chase ‘em like a dog?”

            “The latter, and we’re gonna need it, considerin’ the current occupant doesn’t seem to be doin’ the job.”

            “It’s fine,” Dun replied, not looking up from his work.

            “Is it? They’ll eat the crops.”

            “No crops yet, and they’ll find food otherwise.”

            “Once food starts poppin’ from the ground, those things are gonna pluck it all before the harvest.”

            “I said it’ll be fine,” Dun said. “Don’t worry about them birds.”

            Rit watched the crows hop around the scarecrow, pecking at its base.

            “Some people say crows are messengers of the dead. They help guide souls to the afterlife.”

            “Where’d you hear something like that?”

            “A bard who rolled into town last summer, said he heard it on his travels.”

            “And you believe that?”

            “Why else would crows hang around dead people?”

            “Because they’re carrion birds. They just like dead things is all.”

            “Well, maybe they like dead things and they guide souls, too. Both can be true.”

            Dun sighed.

            “Oh! I have it! They guide people to the afterlife by eating a corpse. Bard said the shamans over on the Western shores believe crows made the world.”

            “From psychopomps to gods, huh?”

            “Which one do you think it is?” Ritter asked.

            “I don’t think it’s either, a bird’s a bird.”

            “But what if it’s not a bird, right? What if it’s a god?”

            Dun dug his shovel into the ground and leaned against it, staring at a fairly content Ritter.

            “Go feed the goats.”

            “I already did.”

            “Go…play with them then, so they burn off the energy. Let Potatoes knock you over, she needs a victory every once in a while.”

            “Fine,” Ritter stuck her trowel in the dirt and shuffled off towards the goats’ enclosure.

            Dun twisted the soil with his shovel, stopping when he saw Ritter run past, towards the center of the field. Ritter’s arms shot out into the air, and she let out as loud and as deep a roar she could muster, directly at the murder gathering around the scarecrow. One or two of the crows cawed, but the group took off, disappearing into the tree line beyond the field. Ritter set her hands to her hips and nodded triumphantly, strutting back past Dun and towards the goats’ enclosure.

            “For your consideration,” she said.

            “Y’know, crows remember the faces of people who hassle ‘em,” Dun replied.

            I don’t fault them. It’s their nature, a voice said in the back of Dun’s mind. I only wish we hadn’t set foot here.

            Dun took a deep breath and began digging again.

            Biel shuffled from the water closet with labored steps, an arm wrapped tightly around her abdomen. She winced in pain as she slowly set herself back on the couch. Outside, she could hear someone scraping their feet on the stoop, and she hurriedly swathed herself in the blanket and tried to sit up straight. Ritter opened the door slowly, peeking her head in first.

            “It’s okay, I’m awake,” Biel said weakly.

            Ritter, covered nearly head-to-toe in dirt jumped through the doorway and spun to push the door closed.

            “Oh where is my daughter?” Biel said, looking at a dirt-caked Ritter.

            “I’m right here.”

            “That can’t be, all I see is a little earth sprite! You’re so dirty today, Rit.”

            “Yeah, Dun promoted me to hole-digger! I knew I’d end up doing that. And look!” Ritter reached into her pocket and pulled out a jet-black feather, holding it by its calamus. “There’s crows that hang around sometimes, so I took one of their feathers as a souvenir.”

            “That’s very pretty.” Biel smiled.

            “Here, feel it.” Ritter took Biel’s hand, slowly sliding her fingers up either side of the feather, displacing the barbs like a wave of rolling night.

            “Very nice,” Biel said weakly.

            “How are you feeling today? Did you get much rest?” Ritter asked, placing the feather in her hair.

            “I…tried.”

            “Was it bad today? You can tell me,” Ritter said.

            “It’s worse today, but I should…get dinner ready, you must be starving, huh?” Biel said standing up.

            “I am, but you rest, I can get dinner,” Ritter said, trying to keep her mother down on the couch.

            “No no, you go get washed up. Dinner is for my daughter, and I heard that if you feed earth sprites after dark they’ll never want to lea—oh—” Biel stumbled and dropped to her knees, barely catching herself on the edge of the couch.

            “Mum!”

            “I think…this is…too much,” Biel cried, wrapping her arm around her stomach again.

            “Are you okay?”

            “I…”

            “I’m getting the healer, please mum, don’t move.” Ritter jumped to her feet and ran for the door, the feather falling out of her hair and fluttering to the stone floor.

            Ritter didn’t come to the farm the next day. Dun waited for her before starting his work, but she never arrived. He let the goats graze for a time and milked the cows. He tried working the field a bit more, but couldn’t help but find himself distracted wondering where Ritter was. In the afternoon, Dun went to the shop and asked where Ritter lived with her mother. Tompsa’s directions were somewhat approximate however, and Dun had knocked on three separate doors to awkward results.

            As Dun stepped up to another door, he hoped that he could find Ritter’s home if only to no longer have uncomfortable interactions with other townsfolk that gave him sour looks. Fortunately, he heard Ritter’s voice on the other side of the door.

            “I’ll be right back, so please just rest,” Ritter said, opening the door to a startled Dun. “Dun, what are…?”

            “You uh…d-didn’t show today,” Dun stammered.

            “I’m sorry, I…couldn’t, I—”

            “Ritter, is someone there?” a weak voice asked from within.

            “It’s…uh…Dun,” Ritter said into the house. “No, mum don’t get up.”

            “Don’t be rude then, invite the man in,” a woman draped in a blanket opened the door wider, stepping aside. “Please, come in Sir Kel.”

            Dun glanced at Ritter. “There’s that ‘sir’ thing.”

            “Please, in. Is there anything we can get you?” Ritter’s mother said.

            “Oh, no ma’am, don’t put yourself out on my account,” Dun said, taking a large step into the house.

            “Call me Biel, please,” Ritter’s mother said, stepping aside.

            “Mum, please, go back to rest,” Ritter said trying to gently guide her mother back into the house.

            “What brings you to our home today?” Biel laboriously lowered herself into a couch covered in blankets and pillows.

            “Oh I was uh, expecting your daughter today, and I got concerned when she didn’t arrive.”

            “You were concerned?” Ritter stifled a giggle.

            “Aye, I can care about things on the odd occasion.”

            “Oh, I’m so very sorry,” Biel said, “that’s my fault. I was having a very bad spell and Ritter wouldn’t leave my side.”

            “It’s no problem, ma’am, you’ve no need to apologize. These things happen, I just…uh…well really couldn’t do much without your daughter’s help.”

            “Farm won’t run without me, huh?” Ritter smirked.

            “Yeah, something like that,” Dun said, rolling his eyes to the girl.

            “Ritter, maybe now is the time to go get that medicine the healer suggested? That is if Sir Kel wouldn’t mind keeping me company for a time?”

            “Uh…no that’s fine, I can sit down for a spell,” Dun said.

            “Okay. I’ll be right back,” the girl said, heading for the door. “You won’t even know I’m gone.”

            “So it won’t get quieter?” Dun asked.

            “Mum, teach Sir Kel some manners while I’m gone,” Ritter snipped before she closed the door.

            “I apologize,” Dun said sheepishly.

            “It’s okay, Ritter is a handful, I know. She brings out interesting sides in people.”

            “That she does,” Dun chuckled, rubbing his nose.

            “Sir Kel, I would really like to thank you for allowing Ritter to help you work on your land. And to be so generous with your coffer, it has been more than helpful for the two of us.”

            “I’m glad to have her, it’s made things a lot easier on me. I didn’t have much hope of finding someone willing to work that field with me, even for gold coins.”

            “Ah, well I want you to know that despite Ritter’s spirited nature, I taught her to never disrespect someone, regardless of good cause, of which I think there is none in your case.”

            “You know my case, do you?” Dun said, crossing his arms.

            “Well…I’ve only heard the gossip, and that you had not left Blanhearth on good terms. I can’t speak to the veracity of it all, but it’s not my place to judge.”

            Mention of Blanhearth brought Dun back to a time in the kingdom, standing on the balcony of their adventuring headquarters, located above a tavern, and looking out at the lower levels of the neighborhood. Many a night spent drinking wine and watching the lights of the city dance after a successful venture, all of it gone in one gray, bloody afternoon.

            “All considered, you don’t look like a craven murderer, and nothing of what is said about you gave my husband and me reason to think less of you,” Biel assured.

            “Do you mind if I ask where your husband is? Rit said he was ‘away’ or some such.”

            Biel took a hand and wrapped the blanket over her arm, taking a deep breath.

            “Denam…he was a sailor.”

            “A sailor? Quite a ways from the sea, this hamlet.”

            “Yes. We moved here not long after Ritter was born, I was offered a teaching position, but he always longed for the waves again, and…we agreed that sending coin back from his time at sea would be best. One day…a squall came up on their return, the ship was thrown off course, dashed against the cliffs. Only half the crew survived, and Denam wasn’t among them.”

            “I’m sorry.”

            “Thank you. It’s been on two years now, and we had a modest amount saved. I was at the schoolhouse for a time, but then I got sick. Teaching became difficult when I was in constant pain, and medicine to manage that pain is…expensive.”

            “I can’t imagine it was easy,” Dun muttered.

            “It’s been trying, but that is why I appreciate what you have done for Ritter.”

            What did we do? What in the spiraling hells was it all for, Dun?

            Dun shook his head.

            “Oh, no ma’am, I’m grateful to have someone as earnest as Rit helping me. You raised a fine girl.”

            Ritter trotted up the road out of town with the same vigor as every day before, and soon hopped up onto the porch of Dun’s home. She knocked on the door, but there was no answer.

            “Helloooo!” Ritter called, knocking again.

            She motioned closer to the door and heard clanking past it. She knocked one more time, then opened the door, stepping in slowly.

            “Hello, Dun…?”

            In the house, Dun was at the stovetop in the far corner, cooking something in a skillet.

            “Hey!” Ritter shouted over the scraping and sizzling coming from the cooking.

            Dun jumped, looking over his shoulder. “What are you doing here? You’re early.”

            “I wanted to get to work earlier, make up for missin’ yesterday,” Ritter said, walking over to the dining table.

            “That your idea, or your mother’s?” Dun asked.

            “Mine, I care about my work,” Ritter said.

            Dun lifted the skillet from the stovetop and stepped to a small cabinet, taking out a beige plate. He set the plate down on the dining table, next to one that had already been placed, and then brushed the contents of the skillet onto them. Dun took the fork next to the first plate and stuck it in the food on the new one, and then pushed it towards Ritter’s side of the table.

            “What’s this?”

            “Breakfast. Eat up,” Dun said, walking back to the stove and tossing the skillet atop it.

            “You don’t need to feed me.”

            “Well, you’re here, and I already fixed you a plate, so eat it,” the old man muttered, grabbing another fork from the cabinet. “I’d rather you not collapse from hunger while we work.”

            “I got food.”

            “You got copperworths in your pocket, and that ain’t food. Eat.”

            Dun sat down in a huff, staring at Ritter until she followed suit. Ritter climbed into the other chair and picked up her fork, poking at what she could only assume were eggs at one point in time. They certainly smelled like eggs at least, and she took a bite.

            “I haven’t had eggs in a while…” Ritter said with a mouthful, just letting the warm flavor of the yolk sit on her tongue for a time.

            “Why?”

            “Mum can’t cook a lot of the time, an’ I can’t cook. We can’t afford much, and what we can is simple, don’t need much preparation.”

            Dun tapped his fork lightly on the food on his own plate, looking at Ritter’s as she voraciously consumed her meal, despite her attempts to at least seem like she was taking her time.

            “Y’know…if you ever need to miss a day to take care of your mother, that’s fine. Don’t have to make up for it by comin’ in early afterwards or anything, neither,” Dun said.

            “It won’t happen again,” Ritter said, putting down the fork on her empty plate.

            “It will, and that’s fine. You’re doin’ this for your mother, so takin’ care of her is more important somedays. I’ll keep a gold for you either way.”

            “One gold even if I miss a day?”

            Dun stood from his chair, and picked up his plate. “Gotta keep my only worker comin’ back somehow.”

            Dun brushed the rest of his meal onto Ritter’s empty plate, and then turned away for his room before she could say anything. Ritter stared at the new pile, and dug her fork from beneath it.

            “Hey, bein’ an adventurer and all, where’s your armor? Your sword and shield? I don’t see none,” Ritter said between mouthfuls.

            “What good is all that if I ain’t gonna fight anymore?” Dun returned, rolling up the sleeves of a button-down shirt he had put on. “Didn’t feel like bearing a coat of arms when the heraldry plowed me sideways.”

            Dun stopped at the table, watching Ritter scrape up every last tiny morsel of egg from the plate.

            “Finished?” he asked.

            Ritter nodded and licked the fork clean before setting it down on the plate. “Thank you, Dun.”

            Dun simply grumbled an “Mm-hmm”.

            “Not the tastiest eggs I ever had, but eggs still.”

            “Well, if you come early like this again, I can teach you how to make eggs for you and your mother. Then you won’t have to suffer mine.”

            “I’d…like that,” Ritter said, staring at Dun.

            “What are you looking at?”

            “Nothin’, you’re just really nice sometimes, I guess I can see why you were a knight, Sir Kel.”

            Dun sneered and rolled his eyes. He opened the door and left without another word, leaving Ritter to jump from her chair and follow.

            “You really don’t like bein’ called a knight, do you? Was the nobility really that bad to you and yours?”

            Dun made for the barn, and stopped when he picked up his shovel.

            “You know where your name comes from?” he asked, turning to Ritter.

            “Yeah, it means ‘knight’, what my parents hoped I could be someday. But then I wasn’t a boy, so I don’t get to be one, so…so much for that.”

            Dun grabbed the trowel on the shelf. “You can be whatever the hell you wanna be, Rit.”

            “Girls don’t get to be knights,” Ritter shrugged.

            “Says who?”

            “People.”

            “People are doughy sacks of loathing and contradiction, who would rather drag others down like the world did before with them; too ashamed that they didn’t fight back, to let anyone else achieve what they hadn’t. People don’t want girls to be knights, but if you have the strength and skill to become one, they can’t stop you.”

            Ritter’s cheeks swelled with a smile. The old man had said something not only nice, but inspiring. Dun handed her the trowel.

            “But knights are fools anyway, you should be something useful.”

            “Like what? A farmer?” Ritter giggled, taking the trowel in hand.

            Dun sneered. “It’s not so bad.”

            “I’d like to at least buy a sword someday, maybe I’ll travel. It’ll be my trusty steel, a friend that helps me solve problems and slay countless foes,” Ritter said, swinging her trowel like it was a blade. “Then I could still be out there, doing some good.”

            “A good person doesn’t force their friends to kill.”

            “What’s that mean?”

            “If you think of your sword as a friend, then it’s not simply a tool, and good people don’t force their friends to do things, even if they’re good at it.”

            “It’s just a sword, Dun,” Ritter said.

            “A sword is never just a sword. Now come, we’re just about finished tilling, then we can start plantin’ the maize.”

            By noon time, Dun and Ritter had made good progress in the field, having upturned the earth and shifted it about to be ready for the seeds. Dun had taken a moment to massage his hands from the work, so Ritter sat down in the dirt, leaning back on her hands.

            “You never answered my question before,” Ritter said.

            “About what?”

            “About why you hate bein’ called a knight and stuff.”

            Dun picked up the shovel, adjusting the head to mark the dirt where he wanted to dig next.

            “Well?”

            “Nobles don’t care about the commonfolk, so long as they’re keeping them in comfort. You look at the people out in these towns, just trying to live their lives, growing food for everyone, doin’ work for everyone. People with titles like ‘knight’ or ‘duke’ aren’t diggin’ holes, plantin’ seeds. They’re busy in-breedin’ and getting into fights over land they don’t even live on. And what’s worse is, they just don’t care.

            That man from the Eastern Sands I knew, Jardhun was his name, he had a word for what he perceived of how our aristocracy treats those below them – what he called ‘untouchables’.”

            “What’s them?”

            Dun plunged his shovel into the dirt.

            “People so low in the class system that they weren’t to be talked to, interacted with. Their nobility believed that doing so would dirty up their souls or some such.”

            “That’s stupid.”

            “At least they own up to it, such an engrained part of their culture. I didn’t care for how the aristocracy was running things, and I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind. Now, I get treated like an untouchable for the things nobles said about me, because I was ‘difficult’, but none of these folk are honest about it. They’ll argue their own virtues, talk like they care about things, but still keep a distance, believing whatever tripe someone higher on some imaginary hierarchy said.”

            “Except for people like Muller,” Ritter added.

            “Muller can stick his head in a horse’s—” Dun stopped himself. “Muller doesn’t know a thing, but he’s happy enough in his ignorance to treat me like he does, just because some nobles made it seem okay.”

            Dun lifted a shovelful of dirt and dumped it to the side.

            “Well…hey, y’know what?” Ritter said.

            “What?”

            Ritter slowly held up her hand, curling all but her index finger into her palm, and then pressed the fingertip into Dun’s forearm.

            “I don’t care what everyone else thinks,” Ritter said.

            Dun snorted, trying to hide a smile, which was almost successful given his bushy mustache. “You and I are about the same on that whole caste system, Rit.”

            “Well but then whatever,” Ritter said, opening her hand to slap Dun’s arm.

            “But thanks for the sentiment all the same,” the old man said.

            Dun thrust his shovel into the dirt, and his hands shook as the spade met with embedded stone. The shovel’s haft squeaked and snapped in two, and Dun’s hand slid over the break in his follow-through, catching the new, sharp end with his hand. He growled and dropped the pieces of the shovel as blood started to rush out of the palm of his hand.

            “Maker’s curse!” Dun mumbled.

            “You alright?!” Ritter shot to her feet.

            “I’ll be fine, just…”

            “That looks bad!” Ritter tried to get a better look at the wound, but Dun pulled his hand away. Even so, she got a glimpse of crimson. “I’ll go get the salves! I saw the potion bag in the house!”

            Before Dun could protest, she was already running from the unfinished field to the house.  Dun felt the pulse of pain in his hand with every heartbeat. He instinctively, unintentionally, focused on the emptiness between the thumps, and slowly took his other hand away from the wound. Red crept from the jagged cut, and a bottomless pit formed in his stomach. The pulse of pain drew him closer to the space between his heartbeats, and his vision stretched and clouded, almost like a trance. Staring away into nothing, he saw the flicker of a black flame. Dun growled and dropped to his knees, holding his hand over the wound again.

            Dun felt his chest warm, balling up and traveling through his shoulder, down his arm, and into his injured hand. He exhaled deep and long, almost to the point of his throat closing, and his eyes met with the scarecrow further afield. He looked away.

            Ritter came back and knelt in the dirt. She pulled an old leather satchel from her shoulder and set it between them. Dun stared at the elaborate buckle that kept the bag clasped; there was still a dark fade of blood in its grooves, and old stains shaped vaguely like panicked, bloodied fingers spotted its surface in odd places. In the back of his mind, he heard himself muttering untrue assurances that things would be okay while his hands rummaged within the bag. “It would be okay” he said, staring at the red splotch that grew on a white apron, pouring the medicine into still lips that breath no longer passed between.

            This was a mistake, a voice echoed in Dun’s mind. What did we do wrong?

            “These look old, I hope they still work,” Ritter said, holding up a bottle with an aged cork. The green contents inside sloshed around, clinging thinly to the walls with an unexpected viscosity.

            “Those were synthesized by the best alchemist in the region. They’ll have kept.”

            Ritter bit the cork of the bottle and plucked it from the throat, spitting the plug into the potion bag.

            “They ain’t wine, Dun. Here.” Ritter pawed for Dun’s injured hand, and he relinquished it.

            She held the bottle over his hand until the emerald juice poured onto his palm, washing away the blood. Dun cleared his throat at the sting of it, but it quickly numbed.

            “There. Wow, it isn’t as deep as I thought it was.”

            “I told you not to worry.”

            Ritter bent down and placed the empty bottle back in the satchel, seeing the name etched on the inside of the open flap.

            “Property of…who’s…Drema?”

            “The best alchemist in the region, like I said.”

            “This is his bag, why you got it?”

            “‘Her’ bag. She was someone I adventured with.”

            “Drema was a girl – she was a knight, too?”

            “No, she was an alchemist, but she was an adventurer all the same. She was from a small village to the north, knew a lot about living things and plants, how they interacted with the body. She liked to call herself the ‘Paragon of Potions’, whatever that means.”

            “How’d she join up with you?”

            “She wanted to get out of her tiny village, find more specimens, she called ‘em; we needed someone to keep us healthy. Worked out pretty well.” Dun looked at the wound on his hand, and four large, bloody gashes carving through Drema’s body flashed in his mind for a split second.

            “There’s some bandages here, they look new,” Ritter unrolled a spool of white between her hands. “Gimme your hand.”

            Dun looked away from the wound and held it to Ritter. She began wrapping the bandage around his hand, making sure to evenly space the strap. Then she wrapped it with a unique knot, tightened enough to make Dun grimace.

            “That’s a tight knot,” Dun said.

            “Pa’s a sailor, taught me lots of knots,” Ritter replied, rolling up the bandage spool and turning back to the bag.

            “Your mother told me about your father.”

            Ritter’s hands paused inside the potion bag.

            “I’m sorry,” Dun continued.

            “Wasn’t your fault, was it?”

            “Condolences ain’t about taking responsibility, just acknowledging the pain someone’s gotta bear. I’m sorry you lost your father. I empathize, y’know?”

            “Nothin’ I can do about it.”

            Dun exhaled loudly and looked off at the trees.

            “…thank you, though,” Ritter finally said, closing the bag and shouldering it. “Sorry ‘bout your shovel?”

            Dun stood up, scoffing as he picked up the pieces of the shovel in each hand.

            “Now I regret giving Muller his shovel back.”

            Dun smirked at Ritter, his white mustache tilting up in a way she hadn’t seen before. She chuckled, and a crow cawed somewhere in the trees.

            Dun and Ritter had no choice but to head into town. Although this was only Ritter’s second time being seen with Dun specifically, riding up through the main street was the first time she had noticed the eyes that seemed to follow the old man: odd stares, slanted brows, and narrowed eyes. Ritter counted several side glances from people and faces that, while they weren’t outright disgusted, sure didn’t seem pleased in any particular way. She hadn’t really been aware of the townsfolk’s feelings towards Dun until she started working with him, but now that she was, there was a pall of coldness everywhere Dun went.

            As they came up to the shop’s door, Dun saw a couple exiting. He opened the door and stepped aside to let them pass. The woman glanced at Dun from the corner of her eye and quickened her pace, and her husband followed suit. Ritter watched as Dun nodded politely to them, but they only continued on. No words of thanks, and they were down the street in seconds.

            “You’re welcome!” Ritter shouted at the street.

            “Rit hush,” Dun mumbled, moving through the door.

            Ritter followed into the shop and saw Tompsa behind the counter. He smiled, but really, he smiles to everyone, it’s part of the job. Tompsa did, however, address Dun as ‘Sir Kel’, which he didn’t have to. Perhaps he, like Ritter’s mother, cared more about respect than rumor. Muller, Gripple, and a third man were playing cards at their same old table in the corner. They looked up from their cards, and their eyes seemed devoid of joy, as if they were trying to launch disinterest straight from their pupils. That’s what it seemed like to Ritter, but not just disinterest in who Dun was, that he happened to be standing before them. It was an intense level of disinterest that felt like it carried a demand for Dun to simply stop existing entirely, as if his presence on earth was an affront to their sensibilities and nature itself.

            “Hey there Sir Kel, Rit, what can I do for you today?” Tompsa asked.

            Dun kicked his heels on the wood flooring as he walked up to the counter. “Need a shovel.”

            “Shovel? I’ll go see what we have,” Tompsa said, sliding to the backroom.

            “Shovel, eh Dun? Maybe y—” Muller began.

            “Aw shut your damned mouth, Muller!” Ritter snapped.

            Muller curled his playing hand down at the table and balked at the girl. “Why don’t you rein in that bronco you got in your mouth little girl, it’s outta control.”

            “And why don’t you take a shovel and—”

            “Alright Rit, that’s enough.” Dun said, setting a hand on her shoulder.

            “He was gonna—”

            “Yeah and he don’t matter.” Dun pulled Ritter up to the counter, facing away from Muller.

            “Okayyyyy!” Tompsa shouted from the back, most assuredly having heard the outburst. “I’ve got a few of these that came in recently from the Metalhead ironworks.”

            “Hm, they do good work,” Dun muttered.

            The shopkeep rested a brand-new shovel gently on the countertop, it made only the slightest of clangs. “What do you think?”

            Dun took the shovel from over the counter and held it tightly in both hands.

            “Seems good, I’ll take it,” Dun said.

            “Alright then, that’ll be ten even.” Tompsa smiled.

            Ritter leaned up on the counter, holding herself by the tips of her fingers. Dun reached into his pouch, fastened with the loose button, and placed a gold and silver coin each on the counter. “Y’know what? Get me another, if you can.”

            “Of course, I’ll be right back.” Tompsa left again.

            “Two shovels? You planning on breakin’ this one later today?” Ritter asked.

            Dun placed another gold and silver coin on the counter and pushed them forward. The shopkeep returned with another shovel, and handed them both over to Dun before taking the coin for his register. Dun took a shovel in each hand and headed for the door.

            “Boys,” Dun said as he passed by Muller and his friends.

            “Uh…Dun.” Gripple nodded while the others let out vague grunts of acknowledgement.

            As Ritter walked past, she turned at the door.

            “Wow Muller, you’ve got four of that same card there! Is that good?” Ritter said loudly.

            Gripple and the other player’s shoulders shot up.

            “Wha! Hey, you damned—HEY!” Muller cried.

            Ritter cackled and ran out the door. Both of Muller’s opponents immediately folded. Outside, Dun sat waiting for the girl in the wagon, the two shovels sitting across his lap. Ritter climbed into the front seat, still chuckling proudly to herself.

            “You don’t need to stick up for me, Rit,” Dun said. “There ain’t any reason to.”

            “What do you mean? That’s what adventurers do, ain’t it? I don’t need to wait for someone to come cryin’ to me to help ‘em. I see someone in trouble, I wanna help,” Ritter said, holding her hands out at her obvious statement.

            Dun looked at Ritter, leaning against the wagon’s sideboard. “Sometimes I think you just like runnin’ your mouth, but maybe that’s because you haven’t gotta sword to swing yet. And the eight help us when you finally get your hands on one.”

            “What’s that s’posed to mean?” Ritter asked.

            “It’s my grumpy way of sayin’ ‘thank you’.” Dun took one of the shovels and set it across Ritter’s shoulder. “Here.”

            “Huh?”

            “I dub thee Lady Ritter,” Dun said, tapping her shoulder with the shovel’s handle. “You need somethin’ better than that trowel if we’re gonna work the field properly.”

            “Does this get me another gold a day?” Ritter held onto the shovel, wrapping her small fingers around its haft.

            “Don’t push it,” Dun said, snapping the reins.

            After returning to the farm, Dun and Ritter took care in digging the stone they had previously uncovered out of the earth. It ended up being no larger than Dun’s head, but it was troublesome all the same. As Dun carried it to the edge of the field, he thumbed the nick his shovel left in the surface, and a splash of sundried blood that had fallen onto the stone. He tossed the stone into the grass, and in a blink his palm was painted with the smudged, bloody handprint of the cleric he knew. He had cried out for his mother, not his god.

            I don’t know what awaits me, but I know we did good things. Sometimes that is all we can hold onto.

            Dun let a heavy breath escape his mouth, and he wiped his clean hand on his pantleg. A crow alighted onto the stone and pecked at its surface. Dun scoffed and returned to the field. Ritter was upturning the spot of dirt where the stone had been with her new shovel, still trying to get a handle on it. Dun picked up his own and made a show of what to do while Ritter watched. He plunged the spade into the earth, and then pressed on it with his foot. Ritter pushed her shovel into the dirt, and leaned on it with all her weight. Dun pressed the handle of his shovel downward, lifting a clump of soil up. Ritter leaned on the back of her shovel, and a pile of dirt climbed from the earth.

            “So there was the man from the sands, and that alchemist,” Ritter said, turning her shovel over. “How many more were there in your party?”

            “It wasn’t just a party, I guess,” Dun said.

            “What were you then?”

            “It was a fairly prestigious adventuring company, called Excelsior.”

            “What’s that mean, ‘seltzer’?”

            “‘Excelsior’. Means ‘ever upward’ supposedly.”

            “Supposedly?”

            “Our cleric, Atlan, said it was a word in his holy book, written in a language none of us could read, so…” Dun shrugged.

            “There was a cleric, too?”

            “There was a cleric, too. There was also a wizard, Tarmaglia; the ranger Breff, and his charming brother Graff; and Meresda, a druid.”

            “Tarmaglia, Jardhun, Drema, Graff and Breff, Atlan, and…Meresda,” Ritter listed.

            Each of their faces flashed in Dun’s mind as Ritter spoke their names. Tarmaglia was a sourpuss, and liked to hide behind the brim of his fedora to seem more mysterious. Jardhun, never seen without his pagri, was stern, with a sharp beard extending from his chiseled chin. Drema had big thick glasses, and they always caught the light of the fire while she was reading her big thick books. Graff and Breff were twins, as inseparable as they were identical, with the charisma kings could only wish for. Atlan, ever the optimist, afraid of everything beyond the abbey where he grew up. He was determined to do good in the world, even if it scared him to death. Meresda was more often in some kind of wild shape, an owl being her favorite form, but when she was human, she had a cunning smile, flanked by the beads and feathers woven into her hair.

            “And Dun,” the girl pointed to the old man.

            “That was all of us,” Dun confirmed.

            “How come you aren’t together anymore? You really just liked farmin’ that much, had to leave it all behind?” Ritter asked, holding her arms out. “For all this?”

            A crow cawed in the distance.

            “You really want to know?”

            “I’d stop askin’ if you’d say.” Ritter shrugged.

            Dun dug his shovel upright into the dirt, and Ritter did the same. He took a deep breath and exhaled from his mouth loudly.

            “Excelsior had gained no small amount of renown in Blanhearth, and with that came some manner of weight with the nobility. We would end up consulted for our myriad skills and experiences, so policies were created based on our suggestions.”

            “Sounds nice.”

            “Politics ain’t nice, ever. We were just mercenaries, but we had a loud voice, and there were plenty who weren’t happy with that fact, either because we weren’t nobility and swashbuckled our way to the top, or our suggestions on policy began to blur the line between the classes.”

            “That sounds like you.”

            “It was…and that’s how I got everyone killed.”

            Ritter’s body tensed for a moment as a chill ran through her.

            “How, if you were all fancy and powerful?” she asked.

            “We were given a commission, a rescue deep in the mountains. It was dangerous, the height of chimera mating season, hence why we were the only ones who could get it done. I was certain we could do it, and thought about how much more indebted the aristocracy’d be to us after we saved their own from certain doom. But there was no one there to rescue, and we had stumbled right into a nidus. Nobles never meant for us to return, and we knew that the moment we found ourselves surrounded by a sault of chimera. We fell, one by one. I watched in horror as everyone I knew was torn apart.

            “When I came back as the only survivor, they spun a web of lies and deceit. They wanted us all dead, but it was easy enough to pin the blame on me. Suddenly, I wasn’t just an opportunistic egalitarian with a big sword, I was a selfish coward that left his closest friends, and the people we were sent to rescue, to die on a mountainside.”

            “Why didn’t you…fight back?”

            “I watched the people I loved get torn to pieces. I was in no state to argue with the aristocracy. The damage was already done, and even if I had succumbed to a murderous rampage, a cogent thought in my mind at the time, it’d never bring Excelsior back. So I did the only thing I could do, I emptied the coffers and left Blanhearth, which to no surprise only made me look even more guilty. Moved ‘round for a time, trying to outrun the rumors wherever I was staying, but…I got tired. Then I came here, found this old farm, fixed it up, just wanted to be left alone.”

            “How were you the only one to survive?” Ritter asked. “Lucky?”

            Dun was surprised. Perhaps it was the authenticity of a child, but she didn’t seem caught up on what had happened. Ritter took it as fact, but it didn’t change her opinion of him. She had spent enough time with Dun to know that whatever the townsfolk feared he could do, he wasn’t going to. She only looked to him to continue. Dun took a deep breath, held his wounded hand, and stared off to the horizon.

            “Some use steel of various shapes, others use magick of different schools. I wielded something between the two, an eldritch form of power beyond matter and spirit. I survive where others fall, and I’m harder to kill than most, but it takes its toll in other ways.”

            “What other ways?”

            “It’s a dangerous thing, it makes you selfish, thinking about your own capabilities above everyone else’s. What did it matter if a man couldn’t normally take a chimera claw across the chest – I could.”

            “Is that why you’re a farmer now? Ran off, threw away your sword and armor, tossed that power away?”

            “It’s not something I can get rid of,” Dun unwrapped the bandage on his hand, showing Ritter a mostly healed scar in his palm. “It’s part of me. I can shut it out, but it’ll be with me ‘til the day I die, and then some.”

            Ritter took his hand, feeling the grooves of the wound in his palm. “It’s healed.”

            “Yup…”

            Ritter gave Dun his hand back, and checked her own hands. They ached from all the shoveling she had started doing, but they were immaculate compared to Dun’s calloused mitts.

            “I’ve seen how people look at you now, more’n just Muller and his harping,” Ritter said.

            Dun nodded slowly. “At least most everyone else steers clear.”

            “It ain’t right.”

            “I know.”

            “You didn’t do nothin’ wrong.”

            “Oh I did, Rit. People might treat me bad over mendacities, but that doesn’t mean I’m not guilty.”

            “But folk shouldn’t be treatin’ you like you’re gonna stab ‘em in the backs and take their wallets. You ain’t gonna hurt ‘em.”

            “Doesn’t matter, rumor’s out there, and there’s no way to challenge the lies as much as there is the truth.”

            “Well I don’t care!” Ritter kicked her shovel over. “You don’t deserve to be treated that way. You’re comin’ to dinner tonight!”

            “What? I’m…?”

            “You need a reminder that nice people live here, too.”

            “Rit, I know nice people here – you work with me, and I see the shopkeep every couple of days. I know your mother don’t care about the rumors, and I ain’t gonna make her cook for me.”

            “I’ll do it then!”

            “You can’t cook.”

            “Then…you come over…an’ teach me how to cook dinner for us.”

            Dun chuckled. “You drive a hard bargain, missy. It is getting late, so…let’s get you home.”

            “Mum! I hope you’re decent!” Ritter burst through the door holding a small burlap sack.

            Biel was in her usual spot, entrenched on the couch, curled up in blankets. She tightly gripped her book at Ritter’s outburst. “Maker preserve, Ritter, what’s going on?”

            Dun stepped in behind Ritter, holding his own sack.

            “Evenin’, Biel.”

            “Sir Kel, welcome,” Biel closed her book and adjusted her position on the couch. “What are you…?”

            “Rit here insisted on me teaching her how to cook dinner for you tonight.”

            “Oh did she?” Biel looked to Ritter, who was too happy to be ashamed.

            “I don’t mind, really,” Dun assured her.

            “Look, we got some meat, and potatoes, and some other veggies,” Ritter showed Biel the contents of the bag she held. “Not just warm bread tonight.”

            “Kitchen is through here, right?” Dun asked, shuffling past the den.

            “Rit, how could you?” Biel asked in terse whisper.

            “Sorry mum, I gotta go help Dun cook! You relax!” Ritter skipped into the kitchen.

            Biel had no choice but to sit back and return to her book.

            “Mum, where do we keep the big pot?” Ritter called. “Never mind, I found it!” A clank of pans erupted from the kitchen. “Sorry!”

            After a time, Biel needed to stretch her legs, and so she wandered into the kitchen to the sight of Ritter, standing on a stepstool, next to Dun as they watched over a boiling pot. Biel closed her eyes and breathed in through her nose. The aroma wafting from the pot made her mouth water.

            “Just keep stirrin’,” Dun pointed to the spoon.

            “Where’d you learn to cook, anyhow?” Ritter asked, picking up the spoon and churning it through the mixture in the pot.

            “Drema taught us.”

            “Drema, really?”

            “Yup, ‘cooking is just chemistry’, she said. I ain’t the best, but I’ve kept myself fed all these years.”

            “How is Ritter doing?” Biel asked, walking up behind them.

            “She’s a quick learner,” Dun replied.

            “That’s my girl,” Biel said, kissing Ritter’s head from behind.

            “Mum please, don’t disturb a cook in her kitchen.”

            “Oh apologies, master chef,” Biel joked.

            “It’s almost ready, if you wouldn’t mind taking a seat,” Dun said. “Go sit with your mum, Rit.”

            Biel slowly stepped over to the small table in the center of the kitchen, and as she sat down, Dun placed a bowl in front of her, filled with a steaming stew and a slice of bread. Ritter sat down next to her mother and Dun presented another bowl.

            “This looks delicious,” Biel said.

            “Smells it, too,” Ritter added.

            “It’s nothing fancy,” Dun said, sitting down at the table with his own bowl. “But I hope you enjoy it.”

            “I’m sure I will, thank you, Sir Kel,” Biel smiled, picking up her spoon.

            “Pleasure’s mine, ma’am,” Dun smiled back.

            Ritter looked between them, smiling herself as she took a huge spoonful of warm stew.

CHAPTERS
1 – 2 – 3