The bell jangled over the low murmur of conversation and wisps of laughter. His face obscured by a hooded cloak, Oryn stepped across the worn threshold of the crowded tavern. The patrons spared him a glance before returning to their ale and concerns about the Guild’s offer to the inhabitants of Last Hope, uninterested in an old man wearing a shabby cloak, leaning on a gnarled walking stick. A fleeting smile touched Oryn’s lips. He shuffled toward the back corner.
Only the man seated at the back table took notice. A guttering tallow candle illuminated his tight-lipped expression. One hand rested on the dagger in his belt. Tense. Ready to bolt. The quarry of a relentless hunter.
Oryn approached him. The candle flickered, sending shadows skittering across the low ceiling blackened with the smoke of many years. He wrinkled his nose. The stench of strong ale and stale sweat was heightened by the pungent undercurrent of poverty and desperation clinging to the crowd, and even more strongly to the man seated across from him.
“May I join you?” Without waiting for a response, Oryn sat. He lowered his hood and brushed the shaggy white hair from his face.
The man’s hazel eyes widened. He exhaled slowly, his body uncoiling. With a slight tremor, he reached for his brimming tankard of ale. “How did you find me?”
Oryn pushed up the sleeves of his worn cloak and set his elbows on the table. “Have you forgotten who I am, Edgar? Finding you has been the least of my problems in these dark days.”
Edgar grunted, raising the tankard to his lips. “I’ve tried to forget a lot of things.”
“You may try to forget, but you cannot deny what’s happening.” Oryn’s voice dropped to a whisper. “You’ve seen what will befall the people of Last Hope if the Guild takes control of the town. They already control nearly all the merchant and craft guilds throughout the land. Their false promises of prosperity and independence are a yoke squeezing the necks of the commoners. Someone must challenge them.”
“Like the poor soul they hanged in the square this morning?” Edgar shook his head. “I’m done with challenging the Guild.”
“I recall not long ago you dubbed someone who uttered those words a coward.”
“Times have changed. Being a coward has kept me alive. Unlike a lot of good people. Besides, I’ve taken an interest in other matters these days.”
Oryn’s gaze shifted to the five-year-old girl perched on a barstool. She spoke earnestly to one of the barmaids. Her pale face was smudged with dirt, her brown hair unruly. Her ragged clothes revealed skinned knees and elbows. Others saw no more than a barefoot waif, but Oryn glimpsed the gossamer threads of fate entwining the girl named Sydney, visible only to his wizard’s eyes. The interweaving strands of possibility formed a constantly shifting tapestry, easily unraveled by the slightest alteration.
“It’s not easy, raising a child in a place like Last Hope. Is this the sort of life you want for her?”
Edgar leaned forward. “How do you know about Sydney? She’s no concern of yours.”
“I’m afraid she is. Her future concerns me. Unless you change your present course and fight for what you believe in, she’ll have no future.”
“I won’t let Sydney be a pawn in one of your schemes. I’ve seen what happens when your kind meddles in the affairs of mortals. Leave her alone.”
“Wizards have been trying to preserve what good still exists in this world.” Oryn studied Sydney again and turned back to Edgar. “Tell me, Edgar, whose child is she? Is she even yours?”
Edgar clutched the handle of the tankard, his knuckles turning white. “She’s not my blood, but she is my child,” he said, his voice low and intense. “I found her abandoned on the street and fostered her when no one else wanted her. I won’t let you take her, old man.”
Oryn stroked his beard, pleased by Edgar’s reaction. “It isn’t my intention to take her from you.”
“Then what do you want?”
“Edgar?” A feather-soft voice spoke before Oryn could reply. They turned to see Sydney standing beside them. She tugged Edgar’s sleeve, a determined crease in her forehead. “Edgar, I gotta show you something.”
“Not now, Sydney,” Edgar said with a weary smile. He gave her a gentle push.
Her green eyes fixed on Oryn. He sensed a momentary spark of recognition, as if she realized what he was. Impossible. She isn’t a wizard. Perhaps I’ve overlooked something.
Sydney thrust out her lower lip. “But I have something for you.”
Edgar pinched the bridge of his nose. “All right. What?”
Her face brightened. Her scrawny arm thrust a handful of string at him. “For you.”
He carefully untangled the knotted mass. The string looped through a hole in the center of a copper coin. “What is it?”
“Don’t you see?” Sydney jabbed a grimy finger at the coin. “My first take! Pinched it this morning, like ya taught me. It’ll bring luck. Do ya like it?”
A smile crossed Edgar’s face, easing the haggard lines. “Of course I do,” he said, patting her head. “I’ll keep it with me always. For luck.”
She grinned. “We need all the luck we can get. Like you always say.”
“That we do, Sydney.” He brushed the hair from her forehead. “Now you’d best be getting to bed. I’ll be up soon.”
Sydney embraced him before darting back into the crowd. The barmaid she’d been talking to earlier caught her hand and led her to a staircase across the room.
Edgar faced Oryn. “If Sydney’s so important, why should I risk being hanged?”
“Every parent makes sacrifices for his child.” For an instant, he faltered under Edgar’s fierce stare. “To give Sydney a better life, you must teach her to do what is right. Make your life an example for her to follow.” From within the folds of his cloak, he drew forth a leather purse and placed it beside the empty tankard.
Edgar grasped the purse and loosened the drawstring, his eyes widening. To someone in his present circumstances, the silver coins were a fortune. “Why are you giving this to me?”
“Use it to give hope to those who have none. Use it to help others fight—”
“Bribery? You must be desperate if you’d stoop to bribing me, old man.” Edgar tugged on his stained shirt, frayed at the seams, and rubbed the stubble on his chin. He stared at Oryn a long moment. “And if I refuse?”
“You’ve always been so damn stubborn.” Oryn expelled a long breath. “Do you really want the Guild to win? Do you—”
“If…now if I do what you ask…I’d expect you’d be in my debt.” Edgar placed his hand on the purse, fingers clenching the soft leather.
“Indebted? To you? Really, Edgar.” Oryn curtailed a sharp laugh and leaned back in his chair.
“I’ve never asked you for anything before.” Edgar’s eyes glinted in the flickering candlelight. “Promise, you’ll look after her…if something should happen to me.”
“Please, don’t ask me that. Anything but that.”
“Keep her out of harm’s way. That’s all I ask.” Edgar reached across the table, seized his hand, and squeezed it, startling the old wizard. His voice caught in his throat, full of resignation. “You owe me, Oryn. Promise me this one thing.”
Oryn knew such a promise would be impossible to keep. Sydney represented a single thread in the tapestry. Many others also required his attention. “I’ll do what I can, but I can make no such promise.”
Edgar glanced at the purse, his jaw tightening. He released Oryn’s hand and looped the purse under his belt. “I’ll do what I can, too, and we’ll call it even.”
Oryn stood and put a hand on Edgar’s shoulder. “I’ll count on you. Be well, Edgar.” He moved toward the door, his mind a jumble. Much remains to be done. He tarried in the doorway to glance back and saw Edgar press Sydney’s coin to his lips.
Raising his hood, Oryn stepped into the muddy cobblestone street and dodged a puddle. Light rain beaded on his wool cloak. He leaned on his staff, his shoulders sagging. He’d just committed a man to certain death. A good man, who deserved more hope than he could offer.
In these dark times, the Kingdom of Thanumor desperately needed hope. Not long ago, when the world was young and the veil between the realms of human and faery was whisper thin, enchantment and magic had inspired the kingdom and its people. Now, magic was looked upon with distrust, even heresy.
Hope was a fragile creature. Oryn had held it, fluttering, diaphanous, a delicate heartbeat thrumming beneath his fingertips. Grip it too tightly, and hope would be crushed, forever lost. Let it go, and hope might grow and expand to many who needed it.
A light flared in one of the second-story windows, and a child’s face pressed to the glass. She fixed him with her stare, her green eyes luminous in the darkness. This time, Oryn knew her. The realization rattled his weary bones. He turned, his staff tapping in time with his quick footsteps, his knowledge wrapping him in a cloak of apprehension.
Without the proper guidance, hope might also grow wild and untamed, a creature transformed, all nails and teeth and harsh angles. A creature to be feared.
Copyright © Cindy Young-Turner