It was an even darker and stormier night than one could potentially imagine. Trees were practically bent in half as they fought against the wind, and thick, obsidian clouds smothered any potential light source. In the midst of raindrops were icy pellets of pain three adventurers had found some shelter in the middle of nowhere.
There was really no time to debate who would be the one to ask for shelter, so instead of debating, Zephyr and Kay pushed Quentin in front of them, prompting him to knock on the door. He was closest, after all.
It felt like an agonizing eternity before the door opened. Light poured out of the doorway like a warm invitation to safety, but it was blocked by the guardian–a silhouette of an old hag.
“E-excuse me!” Quentin shouted over the storm. The wind almost ripped the wooden door off of its hinges. “We were looking for safe refuge until this storm passes! Would you mind if–if me and my companions sought shelter with you?”
The Old Hag eyed the shivering, sopping wet knights with a beady glare, costing yet another eternity, before her expression softened and she nodded gently. “You poor things, come inside right away, right away.”
Soft groans and exclamations clattered around the party, as they stepped into the overwhelming warmth, sweet and soothing. They stood there for entirely too long, partly because they were basking in the comfort of the hearth, and partly because they didn’t know where to step without tracking mud and rainwater everywhere. The hag had disappeared somewhere, but even if she had been near them, their lips were still too frozen to ask questions.
Not long after, she reappeared from behind the corner, holding a tray of tea and rolls. “Shed your cloaks and boots at the door,” she told them. “Don’t be afraid to travel further into my home, I have yet to do the cleaning, and a little mud won’t hurt anything.”
The knights were hesitant to comply, but slowly and stiffly, they let their cloaks drop onto the ground, kicked off their boots and stripped off the socks plastered to their feet. Zephyr was the first one brave enough to creep from the entrance, and further into the home. It was a hut, really, with two distinct spaces. One where the fireplace roared and the food was stocked, he noticed. A short table and a single cushion placed in the middle of the room. There seemed to be two
windows, but they had been boarded shut. Candles were all over the home, dancing to the beat of the storm and casting shadows in the corners. The next room was smaller, housing a humble bed, a chest, and other things he couldn’t see without appearing like he was snooping.
“Come in, come in,” repeated the hag. She set down three wooden cups and moved the plate of bread and cheese. “Have some bread. Have some cheese. Regain your strength. We can talk better on fuller stomachs, yes?”
“Talk?” prompted Sir Kay.
“Yes,” she nodded. “Stories must be told on a night like tonight.”
Hesitantly, Zephyr stepped forward to grab a roll. He bit off a small piece and chewed thoughtfully. Filling, soft, and decidedly not poison. A small, weary smile appeared on his face.
“You like it.” The hag matched his smile with a grin of her own. “Good.” A thought appeared to strike her, and she jumped. “Sit! Rest! You’re tired already…” she bustled off into the secondary room, and returned with blankets and pillows. “Do not fear spoiling them, just rest.”
Through their fatigue, the knights experienced the cushions as the softest thing in the world, stuffed with feathers of angels themselves and wrapped in silk from the richest of silkworms. The blankets fell over their shoulders like protective wings. Sir Kay had to stop herself from careening into Quentin’s shoulder and falling asleep.
“Thank you,” she told the hag. The boys echoed her. Zephyr took another roll, then passed one to Quentin at his behest. Quentin also took a slice of cheese.
“Of course,” came the response from the hag. “Have some tea as well. You like tea, don’t you? Yes…” she stopped arranging the table and looked up. Her eyes, clouded like milk, stared at each knight in turn, with an intensity that made it seem like she was staring through them instead of at them. “You like it sweet and creamy, it’s almost not tea at all, right?” She pointed one long blackened nail to Zephyr.
The ecstatic cloud of fatigue dampened ever so slightly. “Yes…” he answered dubiously.
She pushed the cup sitting on the left to Zephyr. Pale brown liquid was in it, the last few drops of cream swirling cheerful. She rounded on Quentin, “and you…you take it like I do. Sugar, but no cream.”
“I’m not picky,” mumbled Quentin. “But I prefer it.”
The hag nodded. She pushed the cup sitting on the right to him. It was a darker shade than Zephyr’s, steaming and alluring.
“And you,” she turned to Kay. “You like yours strong. And bitter.” The cup that was in the middle was slid over to her.
“How did you know that?” Asked Zephyr, after swallowing a mouthful of the Best Tea He Had Ever Had.
“It is a Gift of mine,” replied the hag. She sat down across from them, a cup of tea in her own hand. “Drink your tea, and when you’re finished, I shall tell you three stories. Your stories.”
“Is that so?” Said Quentin.
“That is so,” agreed the hag. “It is going to be a long night, and you aren’t quite ready to sleep yet. So we eat and drink, I tell you your stories, and then you figure out where to go from here.”
While such ideas of Gifts weren’t uncommon, the knights were having a hard time believing it. Gifts were for charlatans wanting to flaunt their talents, or wise rulers who selflessly helped their people, or witches who ate children for breakfast. What would she know about them? Granted, the tea was odd, but was her Gift really just being able to tell how much sugar they liked?
Not that they were going to insult the person taking them in. Chivalry was still alive, despite how tired and confused they were. Really, the only thing they could do was nod and humor her, and drink the tea.
|| ZEPHYR ||
Zephyr finished his first. When he set his cup down, the hag snatched it from across the table and studied the tea leaves at the bottom of it with intensity.
“Your name, please?”
“Crispin,” Zephyr replied automatically. “Sir Crispin.”
The hag tutted disapprovingly. “No it is not.”
Zephyr bit his lip. He had trusted her this far, he supposed, and though he could try to chalk it up to exhaustion and desperation, there was really nothing to gain from telling her his name (or so he tried to convince himself). “You may call me Zephyr.”
She nodded in satisfaction. “That looks much more right. Zephyr, yes. You don’t have to worry about me, I have no use for your names. It just makes things much clearer. Zephyr,” she tasted the name. “Zephyr, the once-pirate–the still pirate.” She paused. “More bard than pirate, some would say. Music is everywhere for you, but especially out in the open sea, with the whistling wind and roaring waves.” She chuckled to herself. “Oh, you are quite the handsome one, Sir Zephyr.”
“How are you doing that?” Challenged the once-pirate.
“It’s all here, adventurer.” She gestured broadly to his cup.
Running on fumes and paranoia, his hand tried to subtly make his way to his sword, gripping the handle tightly. “What are you playing at?”
“Zephyr,” Kay murmured to him. “Stay your blade, she’s done nothing harmful yet.”
He clenched his jaw. Then he softened. “My apologies, madam. You’ve invited us into your home, I should not be causing a stir.”
“Bah!” The hag waved something away in the air. “You are full of emotions and thoughts and music, it’s delectable. Your reactions are unsurprisingly reflecting that. There is nothing to be sorry for.”
“I must apologize anyway.”
“Of course you must.” She smiled wryly. “And what better way than letting me speak?” Of course. He lowered his head ever so slightly.
“Once upon a time, there was a young boy. Hair dark as coal, and eyes as blue as the sea he had lived upon his whole life. The boy’s name was…Zephyr.” The hag smiled, while Zephyr eyed her warily. “Zephyr wasn’t the only child, he had a sister. Eurus.”
At this declaration, Zephyr flinched so hard, he almost knocked over the table. Quentin saved the table, while Kay, for the second time that night, reminded Zephyr to hold his blade with a gentle touch of her hand.
The hag continued as if nothing were wrong. “Eurus and Zephyr lived on a mighty ship, captained by their parents and surrounded by a family of the crew. Every day while the grown-ups went about their business, the children would find ways to entertain themselves on their lonesome. Counting gold coins they had scavenged, sword fighting with wooden sticks, playing Captain and Drowned Man. Sometimes they just hung over the edge of the ship, closed their eyes, and let the windy world overtake them.
“As they grew older, Eurus enjoyed spending her time in the crows’ nest, getting lost in the infinite horizon. Zephyr, not as fond of heights as his sister, would linger below, playing a lute his father had given him after one of their trips.
“Eurus was like a bird. Head in the clouds, attracted to odd treasures, and always trying to fly away for good. Zephyr tried to keep up as best he could, but Eurus was insatiable. She’d work herself to death to put her hands to good use, she’d spar so hard Zephyr was the only one unafraid to practice with her, she’d come up with thousands of ideas to improve the ship, the world, herself. At sixteen, Eurus would have run the most ruthless crew if given the chance.
“Eurus was known for her vicious nature, pillaging and plundering with little regard, while Zephyr grew up quite the charmer– ” (at this moment, the hag had to stop telling the story, for Quentin and Kay had burst out laughing so hard, Quentin ended up coughing for quite a while, much to the chagrin of Zephyr) “–and thus was able to use subtle methods of earning coin. Eurus thought he was boring. Zephyr thought she was insane. Both fought to the extent that siblings often do, but at the end of the day, she still sat atop the crows nest and Zephyr sang below it.
“Eurus grew into a bitter and angry woman. She looked down on those who dwelled on land and scoffed at the fallacies she had made up for them. She had heard tales of crimes against her parents, the shipmates, and shipmates that were no longer with them, and she took them to heart. Eurus became more daring, sneaking out of the ship and pulling risky stunts, growing more cunning and pulling riskier stunts.
“Zephyr was just as angry as Eurus, but a little more hesitant…no…not hesitant, but careful in his judgements. One night, while the ship had stopped to restock, Zephyr had learned music from a group of traveling bards, and in turn shared some of his shanties. Everyone in joyous harmony and reveling in melodies that opened his eyes made him realize there was another
side of the world he had yet to see. He had discovered a bridge between the land-dwellers and the sea-dwellers and everybody. When he tried to convey this connection to his sister, she scoffed and countered with various arguments until Zephyr was at a loss. He knew he was supposed to be there for his sister, but what could he do when she was so insistent on walking this path on her own? The only thing he could think to do: leave.
“The boy packed a small bag, said his goodbyes, and began to travel to the nearest city. He’d plan on playing his music to earn his wares…but when that was running a little slow, he’d fall back on his old ways. He never saw his family since, but that was alright with him. Every time he’d look up at the stars, he’d chart maps in his mind, and think that somewhere out there, his family would do the same. The world may be big, but it was never big enough to separate them entirely.”
At this, the hag’s eyes gleamed. “During one of his travels, he met someone very special. A Knight, less chivalrous and more furious all the time. He was enthralled. The Knight was annoyed. The two went on adventures, and eventually, the pirate-turned-bard became a knight as well.
“Not long after, Zephyr was haunted by a familiar face in the crowds. A swift-footed thief, wrapped in a cloak of the deepest purple, revealed to be Eurus.”
At this, Zephyr stiffened. Leaned in, eyes dark, mind numb.
The hag continued. “His blood turned to ice, and he pursued her, to no avail. Though he was much faster than his long lost sister, she had clearly known the city much better than him. But…fear not, he will reunite with her. Locked in their own kingdom, with a herd pounding at the gates. Brother and sister will reunite, and their world will set ablaze.”
Locked in their own kingdom, with a herd pounding at the gates,
Brother and sister will reunite, and their world will be set ablaze.
Well that sounded like a prophecy if there ever was one.
Zephyr cursed in his head.