Whispers From the North
by Matthew T. Acheson
An old traveler regales his company with tales of adventure, but when he is asked for a love story his air turns very somber indeed.
Sabryna watched intently as the old traveler reclined comfortably in an oak rocking chair by the fireplace and took one final draw from his clay pipe before setting it down on the table beside him. After a pause of appropriately dramatic length he leaned forward, and with a wry smile and a youthful gleam in his eyes, he put the finishing stroke on this latest of many tales of his journeys in the southern lands.
“In the desert kingdoms they say to keep your friends close and your purse full. Well, I can’t recall the last time I was blessed with a weighty purse, but for the price of eight sovereigns I was able to improve my status from that of a foreigner under arrest for trespassing in very ancient, sacred ruins to an honored guest complete with a tour guide and military escort.” Then he raised his copper mug with a hearty laugh and finished. “And that my friends, is the south.”
With that, the air around Sabryna seemed to erupt with the clinking of mugs and the cries of friends and well-wishers buying each other another round and toasting to the health of the mysterious old wanderer by the fireplace.
To her he was like some exotic puzzle box, and it was clear that she was becoming more and more enamored with him with each passing tale. There was something about the man that excited the imagination and captivated the spirit.
Very much caught up in the moment, she called aloud to the old storyteller with uncharacteristic fervor. “Sir, you have fascinated us with your accounts of exotic peoples and wondered us with your tales of far-away places. Now I beg you to tell us a story about love.”
Nearly at once a great hush fell over the common room. All eyes and ears hung upon his words that had yet to be spoken, but they never came. That face which had previously beamed with energy and charm had been transformed into a visage of grimness and brooding, and the eyes that had before shone almost unnaturally with life were now dull and turned inwards.
He retreated back into the depths of his chair by the fireplace, and there he sat in total silence for over an hour until the tavern had all but emptied.
It was evident to her from his dejected countenance and the slight tremors in his hands that he was reliving painful memories, and she felt wracked with guilt for bringing about his distress. For her, the last hour had been spent in silence, trying to negotiate the proper means and opportunity for amends. But it was not until her friends finally rose to leave that she found the courage to approach him.
“If... if I caused you any pain, I am terribly sorry,” she said delicately.
“That’s very kind of you to say, my dear, very kind, but please think nothing of it,” the wayfarer replied warmly as he toyed with a worn silver ring on his left hand. “As it happens, I do have a story to tell you, although I must warn you that it’s probably not the sort of love story you were expecting to hear.”
Her pulse quickened, and her former excitement returned. “If you think you can manage... I mean if it isn’t too much trouble.”
“Not at all, my dear,” he said quietly. “In fact I believe it would do me some good to tell it to you. It’s something I haven’t spoken of in a long time. Not once.”
Sabryna and her friends sat down quietly on the nearest padded bench they could find, and after what seemed like an eternity of thoughtful silence the old man began his tale.
“I was born in a cozy little wooded village far to the north called Mills Creek, and it was there that I spent the first decades of my life. My father, like his father before him, was a prominent businessman and his influence extended for more than a hundred miles in any direction.
“When I came of age I was put in charge of one of his many stores, and over the years he made it clear to me in his own fashion, without having to speak the words aloud, that he expected me to take up the mantle of the family business when he retired.
“Naturally he was more than displeased when at the age of twenty-six I moved to the coastal city of Dunthorpe to attend the university. His assistance extended only to tuition and the most minimal of housing expenses, so my years at school were spent in virtual poverty. But they were the happiest days of my life.
“It wasn’t until my third year as a medical student that I met Nikkara. I will never forget the first day I laid eyes upon her; the memory of it is branded into my mind as if by iron and flame. Her father owned and operated a small tobacco shop out of a pavilion a few blocks down the street from my boarding house. I had gone there with a mind to buy a new pipe, as the stem of my own had broken beyond repair, but as soon as I saw her I was completely dumbstruck.
“When she approached and inquired if I needed assistance I was not able to utter a single word. Truth be told, her presence had so befuddled my mind that I completely lost all sense of purpose as to why I had entered the shop in the first place! Such was the measure of her beauty.
“Her frame was delicate, yet whispered of a hidden strength that even the most gifted sculptor could not hope to capture. Her face was as smooth and flawless as polished marble and her hair fell upon it in golden rays of sunshine. Her lips were like autumn fire; her eyes of the purest and deepest blue. And it was the kindness and sincerity of those eyes, and the music of her voice that instantly enthralled me.
“As I’m sure you can imagine I made many more visits to that little tobacco shop in the following weeks, and what I learned of her character during those early moments of our courtship forever sealed my heart to all other women in this world. Simply put, she was the kindest, most giving and sincere person that I had ever met. What she saw in me was a mystery that I frequently pondered, but it is sufficient to say that by the end of my junior year we had fallen hopelessly in love.
“We took frequent walks together amidst the pine forests and stone promenades that litter Dunthorpe’s coast. Some days we would sit out upon the rocks, watching the tide ebb and flow as we fantasized about the details of our future lives together. After graduation I would set up my own practice in Mills Creek where we would be married, have children, and live out our days together in happiness; it all fit together so perfectly.
“The only obstacle to our bliss was the slow decay of her father’s financial situation. By the time summer break came around at the end of my third year it was clear that the collapse of his business was imminent and that the betrothal gift for Nikkara’s marriage was the only thing that could stave off ruin.
“Being the beautiful and charming young woman that she was, she had received numerous marriage proposals from wealthy suitors all throughout the region. Her father was a kindhearted widower, and he did not wish to see his only child live out her days with a man she did not love.
“But knowing Nikkara’s character as I did, I knew that if she had to marry a wealthy man to keep her father from becoming a beggar on the street then she would do so without hesitation. And so before going away that summer her father and I agreed upon a betrothal gift that was just large enough to right his business affairs, and I took my leave with the promise that I would return within a month with the entire sum.
“My own father was a hard man, but upon returning home I had every expectation that once he understood the full depths of my caring he would agree to provide for the entire betrothal gift as is customary amongst my people. But my decision to abandon the family business in favor of a career as a practitioner of the medical arts had embittered him and he refused to support the union. Ever the haughty aristocrat concerned with the reputation of his family, he insisted that I marry a woman of my own station and not ‘some common wench begotten of a pauper.’
“For days I lay about my room in a dreadful state of torment, unable to eat or sleep. Donnelly, the head servant of my father’s estate, grew concerned and made repeated inquiries as to the cause of my distress. I call him Donnelly, but that was not his real name, for it is our custom in the north to give domestic names to servants that hail from foreign lands.
“His true name was Khalide Dhras, and he was born in the great desert kingdom of Selucaih. Like so many other foreign servants, he had been a free man in his own land but was captured and enslaved during some war or another and brought north to be sold on the slave market. After ten years of loyal service my father had granted him his freedom, a small salary, and allowed him to marry.
“From the day of my birth to the day I left for the university, he had been my guardian and mentor. The bond between us extended far beyond the master-servant relationship, and even well beyond that of mere friendship. When I told him of my plight he was immediately afflicted with the utmost concern for my happiness and even went as far as to offer me his entire life savings to put towards the betrothal price, but even that would not have been nearly enough.
“While Khalide was my shoulder to cry on, so to speak, my old childhood friend Aidan MacNeil was the type of man who could get things done. He was a great red-giant of a man, with a naturally positive outlook on things and a genuine lust for life. When I approached him with my problem he swore that he would find some means to a solution.
“Working as the foreman of his father’s sawmill, he was a man of some moderate means; but most of his earnings over the years had been squandered on wine and women. Although once an infamous womanizer, he had recently become engaged to a fire-haired barmaid named Effie whom he had impregnated in the spring.
“‘She’s got the body of a succubus and a mind twice as dirty,’ he had told me over a cup of mead, but there were subtle hints in his mannerisms that told me that his feelings for her ran far deeper than he was comfortable letting on. His chief concern, or so he related, was to save up enough to move out of his father’s house and buy his own so that he could start a proper life with her after the child was born. Thus it was little surprise when he came to me with a solution that benefited us both.
“At first I thought it strange when he insisted that we discuss the matter at Keller’s, the pub where his fiancée worked, and even stranger when he motioned for her to join us at the table just when the discussion turned to my present situation; until I learned that the proposed solution was not Aidan’s at all, but Effie’s.
“She explained to me that she had grown up in a small village to the northwest called Coventry, where there was a certain upper-class family of ill repute whose roots in that community extended back several centuries.
“The surname of the family was Abernathy, and their ancestral home was an ancient stone manor of enormous size, perched atop a densely forested hill several miles outside of town; although according to Effie it had not been occupied for generations. Located at the base of the hill was the entrance to the family crypt where it was said that every member of the Abernathy clan from the very founding of that household all the way up to the present day was interred.
“It was in nigh but a whisper that she related the remainder of the story to us. ‘My grandfather had worked as groundskeeper for the last of the Abernathy line to live in that accursed mansion before it was abandoned,’ she had hissed across the table. ‘And he told my brothers and me that they was of a foreign stock with peculiar beliefs, and that they always buried their dead in a grand and wealthy fashion. Rumors of their foreign witchcraft and mastery over demons were ’nough to keep the local boys away, but I figure if anyone ever got up the courage to sack the place, they’d pull a king’s ransom worth of heirlooms and such out of that hole.’
“With his arms crossed and a smile that bespoke of adventure, Aidan went on to say a great many things that were clearly meant to sway me away from any moral reservations I might have had about the venture. But what he did not realize was that this road, no matter how dangerous or criminal, would pave the way to a life with Nikkara, and there was nothing and no one in the world that could have stopped me from walking it.
“So it was decided then and there that the adventure would commence, and we toasted to our success with several mugs of Keller’s dark ale. The remainder of the evening we spent laying out the details of the plan; transportation, provisions, what tools of the trade would be necessary, and of course where we would sell the goods once they were acquired. In the latter, Effie promised to provide the name of a local fence in Coventry who could assist with that most delicate part of the operation.
“When I returned to my father’s estate that evening I was a new man; completely reformed and invigorated with new life and a new sense of hope. Khalide noticed the change immediately and with much coaxing on his part I let him in on all the details. Being a man of deep religious belief and moral integrity, he of course tried to dissuade me from lowering myself to petty theft.
“‘Mister Gillian, you are a man of character, I beg you to reconsider,’ he said. But his efforts were akin to asking a starving man to refuse food, and his objections were doomed before they began. In the end he decided that if he could not talk me out of going, then he would come along to provide ‘spiritual guidance’, as he put it.
“We packed what sundries and provisions were thought to be necessary for a two-day trip by horse and cart. In his usual manner, Khalide packed an overabundance of foodstuffs. The cover story that Aidan concocted for his father’s benefit was clever enough for me to suspect Effie’s involvement in its creation. My own story was not nearly as original, although it mattered not, as my father did not show the least interest in hearing it when I told him that I would be going away for a few days.”
Copyright © 2011 by Matthew T. Acheson