Chapter One - The Boy of the Rivenlands

The ground shivered with a distant trembling, as the Rivenlands so customarily did. To those not of the place the sounds could be mistaken for the booms and rumblings of the thunder of the not so distant stormy clouds, but there was very rarely anyone in the Rivenlands that didn’t know it to be home. This was because the Rivenlands were unstable with a kind of seismic activity occurring little elsewhere in Terron – the world; at least those of the Rivenlands knew not anywhere else like this.

These tremors, quakes, and upheavals were around ever since recorded in the villages and towns of the Rivenlands, in the Twin Libraries that were maintained. At least, that’s what everyone knew, and that’s what the books told. What did that really matter, though, if they hadn’t always been there? If one day there were no Great Divides, if there were no rifts splitting through roads and villages, and if there were no quakes that broke land and building alike. Just so long as the tremors, quakes, and upheavals were there now. Because this seismic activity kept the Rivenlands secluded from the whole and vast world of Terron, and that was just what the denizens of the Rivenlands wanted. Well, most of them.

A young boy didn’t, his home in the Rivenlands more remote than most. He did not understand why the scattered villages and towns preferred this life, to a place where the soil beneath your feet did not threaten to disappear at any moment come the distinct rumbling, which could then swallow up your livelihood…or worse, your family. And preferring as well to a place where nowhere in the vast whole world was out of question to wander to, where it might just not be necessary to carry climbing tools when you left home. Sure, there were mountains and ridges there, whole chains of them said the epic tales and the grand stories. Those earthen eruptions, long since stilled and steady, needed climbing tools too, but you wouldn’t need to carry those burdens on you nearly wherever you went just in case you fell, or just in case a quake hit. In the Rivenlands you might even need them to rescue someone else. Such a hard and violent fall knocked people clean cold before, and took the lives of many besides.

This young boy grew weary seeing people and livestock disappear into the rifts, grew glum when farmland and homes were ruined by the land breaking, spewing earth, rock, and dust. A village had even be lost some years past, the most devastating quake in a long while as he was told and unfortunately knew more personally, leaving the survivors to migrate elsewhere and build again. He had to admit their perseverance was impressive, maybe even inspiring. Even so young as he was he could see this was the stuff that held the Rivenlands together, even when the earth itself wouldn’t. It didn’t hurt that his mother and brother told him so.

This is the strength that the people had, his mother and brother told him, that they wouldn’t give up their way of life no matter what happened to them. It gave him hope, although he wouldn’t admit this to his family. There were certain things like that that were too hard to say, that even though it was a good thing it hurt too much to say. He tried so many times to admit things like that, but he couldn’t go through with it. Definitely not the way he wanted to. He wanted to be strong and tough like his older brother, like his selfless father had been. His eyes would well with tears, and then his mother would comfort him or his brother would tease him. The teasing wasn’t malicious, it never was. He had never seen the like of which in his brother towards him, not like what he saw in other children and siblings to one another. But the teasing bothered him anyway. He couldn’t stand to appear weak. He just didn’t want either of them to see how vulnerable he could be, because he wanted to be the one providing strength to them, not the other way around.

The young boy, his name Trem Imbernoc, was told why the denizens of Rivenlands preferred their home of earthquakes. But still he did not understand. And how could he when this place was all he knew. He knew not the threats and burdens of strife, of invasions, and of warring nations. The Rivenlands were without a mighty military and a formal government. This meant, if the Rivenlands were not secluded and sequestered from the influences and reach of the realms of kingdoms, dynasties, and the Empire, that the Rivenlands would be subsumed into any one of those nations, whether they be industrious, rural, growing, aggressive, or passive. It was simply the way of things as the Rivenlands weren’t nearly so far to be unreachable, and yet even then, it would surely happen. A nation of some sort would come upon them, and seeing as they were nothing of a nation of their own, naturally the Rivenlands would be taken into the fold, no matter their wishes, no matter how much of a clamor was made. For the denizens of the Rivenlands were just the few.

And the earthquakes were why the Rivenlands were secluded and sequestered. The rifts and fissures through the surrounding land so numerous and so haphazardly formed, broken so on so many occasions in just about the same general vicinity that – as the tales did tell – these cavernous rents collapsed and grew, in such trembling and rumbling disasters, into the Great Divides. These Great Divides were then chasms so deep into the earth’s flesh that they might as well have been long abandoned imperial mine-rents, having stripped the rock to the metaphorical bone, and so broad and jagged were these Great Divides that they were broader than canyons, broader than anything anyone in the Rivenlands had seen, at least as far as they were telling to one another and to the young boy, Trem. The fractured and crumpled edges of these chasms, the Great Divides, were too unstable and unpredictable to construct any fashion of a bridge the denizens of Rivenlands knew of, and thus far, as the Libraries told, not a one had been attempted.

Some librarians surmised that the world and peoples beyond the Great Divides had not made any notable attempt at a bridge-like structure because of two things that diverged into other reasons. The first was that, as Trem had already learned, the sheer difficulty of ever possibly achieving such a feat with the depth and width of the Great Divides and then the heavily precarious instability. The second was that, at least as Trem was told, it was very probable the Great Divides were believed to be cursed or haunted, and so venturing into the unknown past the Great Divides did not warrant sufficient reasoning and weight to even try. After all, how would they know there wasn’t just more Great Divides deeper in? Perhaps the whole land was a wild and horrible crisscrossing of this unique splitting of the earth. This theory about what the outside world might consider the Rivenlands to be – a wasteland of broken and cracked earth, riddled with Great Divides – also applied in reverse. The world beyond the Rivenlands could be that same considered wasteland of broken and split earth, an abyss with little clinging to life. There was no way Trem, or anyone else of the Rivenlands, could know in actuality. That would then mean the knowledge and concepts of kingdoms, dynasties, and the Empire were of ages past, when perhaps the earth was not erupting in upheavals and splits. Out of all things this was lesser spoken of, because the people of the Rivenlands were relucant to consider, let alone embrace, that they may be truly the only ones upon Terron. And so the denizens of the Rivenlands did hold the general belief that there were kingdoms, dynasties, and even the Empire out beyond the Great Divides, and furthermore they wanted nothing at all to do with them.

The theory about the Great Divides being haunted and cursed, stemmed from more than a guess with no evidence. For when one peered into the Great Divides, even with a spyglass or a long scope, a smoggy murk lingered at its yawning depths, clinging to the ragged and chipped dark stone, obscuring through its thick haze their chasm floor. The librarians were reluctant to answer Trem if the smog was lying precisely atop the chasm floor, or if it was hanging above, and if so, how far it was from the chasm floor. No matter which way he wiggled into the question or subject, there wasn’t an answer given. It wasn’t something he should be asking after either, for this was something he avoided even idly wondering aloud with his family. No one ever thought to cross the Great Divides, because anyone who tried disappeared with utter finality. It was such an assured fate it was taken as undeterrable fact, that the Rivenlands would forever be separate from the whole, foreign world. And with such little information on the subject, a subject of which he had to be furtive in pursuing in the rare occasions he was near enough and unencumbered enough to enter one of the Twin Libraries, he didn’t even know if search parties were attempted. No one would be any the wiser if someone fell into a coma at the bottom, and wasted away, abandoned, their loved ones and village thinking them dead already.

And so, the people of the Rivenlands preferred their land of fissures and quakes, because not a nation could touch them. Not even the troublesome, virulent and alien-like Empire, that even the Rivenlands had nefarious tales of; such as their inky dark machinery, some oily, some chalky, their people half worked metal, half pinkish flesh, and eyes made from moon rock. It was wondrous but strange to Trem, so strange it truly seemed little more than a tale.

But not anyone could deter the peoples of the Rivenlands from their chosen rustic, peaceful, and simplistic lives, no matter the profession they followed to make a living, as it was all most certainly without the hustle and bustle of cities; whether one was blacksmith, toiling at their anvil with smelted ore and steaming metals worked hot from the forge; or a farmer, tending the irrigated rows that looked like corrugated sheets, soon piled high with sunny yellow wheat; or a weaver, threading stitches to mend worn clothing, or spinning fresh yarn for tapestries large enough for any child or pet to hide under; or a bard, lingering about the villages as he sang, too early for a performance in a tavern, his long fingered hands strumming a held instrument, with clustering children in his wake. Or even a Mayor, as the Rivenlands did indeed have those, overseeing the going ons of the village, maintaining trades and the like. This was a profession Trem least of all understood, and cared for very little.

Neither did those of the Rivenlands desire any land’s customs but their own, and neither their culture. Their laws did well enough; anything but their customs might as well just be taboo. Their very own, mostly quiet and sometimes rumbly, slice of the world was enough.

But the young, ambitious and spirited Trem Imbernoc wasn’t so content with that rustic kind of life as everyone else seemed to be, even his own brother, Keld. Though his brother wasn’t quite as bad as everyone else, and neither was his mother. In Trem’s sleep, his dreams chased after his adventurous fantasies of fighting monsters and discovering gilt treasure, of scaling mountains whose peaks pierced swirling clouds, and of soaring on dragon back, the wings the span of whole farm fields. But that wasn’t true. It was what he liked to say – only to his own family, and furthermore what he wished did happen. Though Trem did dream, he did not dream to such grandiose heights. Instead he spun these stories in his mind, such as when he found the time to daydream in his bed or when he scribbled away at his sketchpad of precious, thick white paper that’s texture was noticeable after stroking with charcoal or dragging with a brush. He then revealed them to his mother and brother as if they were true journeys he happened upon, although of course as dreams. And in that way, these adventures he claimed he dreamt of felt all the more real…and all the more possible.

The thunder rumbled again, thin glowing stripes of white hot lightning flickering in the dark storm clouds clinging to the horizon, while more of the clumpy dark clouds clustered forth, not quite as boisterous as those that lingered behind. This rumbling was stirring Trem amidst his grogginess, his cottony head in a distorted place between sleeping and awake. So familiar with the distinct sounds of the quakes, and therefore the thunder as well, he did not start awake, alarmed at the potential danger. It was only thunder, distant and gentle thunder.

Trem’s cerulean eyes opened to his room of light paneled oak wood, soft with hues of russet. His auburn brows, with flecks and hues of crimson, furrowed as he rubbed his face with the back of his hand, grumbling at the grogginess making his thoughts thick like too cold syrup. He had the incessant nagging feeling that he was forgetting something, and something important. Well, at least somewhat important. Trem turned onto his back, his multitude of hardy but soft blankets tangled around him; one was even latching onto a bedpost of willow wood by twisting around it an annoyingly excessive amount of times. Their colors were a patchwork of red, burgundy, orange and pumpkin. He stared up at his ceiling which was peaked like a roof, the paneling lateral and with an upraised relief. He always felt the safest here, secluded from all noise and danger. He couldn’t say why. Sure, there were an assortment of reasons why he felt that way, like his bed was on an upraised platform on the loft section of his shared room, but there wasn’t much literally different about the room than anywhere else in the house, and when quakes hit it certainly wasn’t the safest place. He ferreted himself on one occasion here during an earthquake, thinking stuffing himself under the bed and staring out at the sky through the broad window would be enough and thinking that so long as his family didn’t find out it’d be fine. Except they did find out, and this drove his family to tears with worry. The sight of his mother’s face, reddish and puffy, streaked down with the silvery rivulets of tears scared him more than that earthquake had. He never did it again, not when it was under his control anyway.

Trem turned over onto his stomach, his long and runny hair plastered to his head unpleasantly. It was persistently stubborn to maintain its tousled nature, like a comb and brush were its sworn nemeses. He didn’t mind it much, as he found it made him look more like a hero from a tale or fable, even just a penned book. That was partly why he never had it cropped like his brother had his. It’s not like he wanted to look like his brother either, as much as his brother was tough and Trem looked up to that he didn’t want to be overshadowed. Besides, his father had hair just like his and there wasn’t much in the world that was ever going to change his decision on that, no matter how old he got, no matter what changed in his life, and disregarding his bitterness towards hif ather, he had to keep his hair that way. It was an important connection he had with his father that he’d fight tooth and nail to keep, even though no one else seemed to think so, except his mother. She appreciated it, but didn’t talk much of it. Which was fine with Trem, talking about emotional goop wasn’t his kind of thing.

Trem stared up through the broad window, with several glass panes that made an angular shape as there was seating pressed right against the glass. It was like the ceiling of the Crou’s greenhouse, that was made of wrought iron and pristine greenish glass, in that one pane was angled out at a slant like the rise of a roof, then a few panes went across, and then another angled back down in a slant to touch to the wall. Sitting there on that thick seating Trem could overlook the Ruby Orchard and the more distant Swan Forest, even see a swath of the lake if the sky and light was clear enough that day. From down on his bed he could see the dark and stormy clouds on the horizon, which was threateningly leaking out into the otherwise serene sky of white patchy clouds, similarly clumpy like the storm clouds.

He idly wondered what precisely made storm clouds as dark as they are. Maybe it was just how thick they were? Or maybe they were angry, and no one wanted to admit it. Groaning, he sat up in bed, his bare feet thumping onto the paneled platform of his bed. He padded over to the broad window and seat, shoving his hands into the pockets of the loose slacks he slept in. That nagging was still there. What had he forgotten…?

His eyes moved along the expansive Ruby Orchard that lay before their home, the farm building, and the cider house. The bushy green trees were lush with ripe red apples, the color of rubies about when they were at their finest. The trees were lined in gradually curving rows and aisles by Imbernoc ancestors past, from his father’s lineage. The trees swayed in the coming winds, carrying the gentle sound of rustling far and the sweet scents of the apples. Trem scratched his chin, half hoping he’d find stubble there which wasn’t likely seeing as it was hardly past his eleventh namesday, as he stared at the storm clouds and the orchard. What was he forgetting? It was right on the tip of his tongue.

And then it hit him as hard as plunging headfirst into icy and clear waters, leaving him stunned as if he were staring up through the broken bluish ice floating at the surface with his insides freezing up just as well as the rest of him. He had dreamt up something like that in fact. The Ruby Orchard was in need of harvesting, as it had been ongoing for some time as it was just between the three of them and some seasonally hired hands, as well as the wolfish dogs. And it needed to be done before the storm rolled in, with all its blustering winds and cruel, sheeting rains. Too many apples knocked to the ground would not be good, especially not to his mother’s standards which were in turn his ancestry’s standards. Most importantly however, Trem was keeping a tally up with his brother Keld, and a lesser one with his mother. He was already behind as is. He cursed his lethargy and his inadvertent laziness at sleeping in, dreaming seemed to always make him sleep longer and have a more difficult time getting up. He was sure his brother didn’t wake him on purpose, so as to assure victory. No, Trem wouldn’t and couldn’t have that!

Hastily Trem turned, getting at a run for the ladder that led to the rest of his room, serving only to fall over some errant gear he hadn’t stashed away a couple days ago. He scrambled himself together, making a lunge at the chest to the left of his bed, which sat flush to the platform that upraised his four poster bed. He flung it open, the wrought iron hinges and the latch rattling. He riffled through the deep chest, one he had made himself through years of work in studying under the carpenter and remaking many chests until he got it right, for the long sleeved hardy shirt, pale as stone, and the undergarment shorts he’d wear underneath the tough denim slacks that were hanging downstairs, and the worn and downturned leather boots he’d shove on too. As he was tugging on the clothing and tying the wide vee of the shirt at his chest he saw a smudge of crimson auburn amongst the trailing and curving rows of apple trees, ducking under the branched crown of an apple tree which was bursting full with the pale ruby spheres. Proof, that was proof! And was his mother no better?! He swore she was out there too, getting ahead of him.

Trem twisted, hopping in an effort to get the mulish shorts on and stumbled again, only to clamber across the paneled flooring to the ladder and slide down it in scrambling haste. He flew across third quarters of the width of the actual room, which had chairs angled toward the oak wood bookcase, its shelves stocked full of a smattering of subjects and then written tales which was a veritable treasure. It was uncommon for there to be any such collection of books aside from in the Twin Libraries, instead villagers and farmers tended to only have a few, and more often than not they were borrowed from a neighbor or a Library itself. It was different for Trem and Keld, being as their family was decently better off with the flourishing Ruby Orchard and their produced cider. Little else anyone could concoct such brews of cider, from sparkling to hard. It was a dear source of pride for Trem. Not just because it was his family’s, inherited and learned from his father, and it was what he was a part of, but it was also because of his mother. The Ruby Orchard had a soaring and tremendous advantage the other Orchards didn’t. This was because his mother was an alchemist, possibly the rarest profession in all of the Rivenlands. The elixirs, potions, and ethers she synthesized had effects on the plants, bolstering their yield and health, among other things Trem didn’t understand well enough. Others more were mixed directly into the cider, creating a whole medley line of cider with magical properties.

There was then a scattering of a couch, a bench and some tools, odd projects his brother and Trem would work on together when there was just enough spare time, even though the toys and trinkets of pieced together stone and wood had little use. But the two of them were always so busy, and Keld didn’t much like their mother Mareen toiling in the fields. It was a source of contention Trem typically felt out of place in. His brother had a point, but they also needed their mother out there, being as they didn’t have their father anymore. Keld’s problem was that he didn’t want their mother Mareen working in the fields, callousing her hands, when she could be putting her time to her alchemy.

Except the villagers and farmers were a superstitious lot and weren’t so readily accepting of her magical concoctions, such as to cure away sickness, but when there was dire need of it they rushed through the orchard on horseback and pounded on the door even in the dark of night. Not all of them were willing to come even then, their children dying in their arms due to their prejudice or unwavering disbelief. There were doctors, anyway, but none of them had the high rate of success the ethers did. Neither were they all so superstitious, depending on the degree of ‘magicitude’ Trem called it. Like some made bubbles effervesce from your ears, some made you as purple as berries, and others made your voice high and squeaky like a gnome. Amongst the favorites were the ones that, when doused over particularly selected rocks, erupted flashing sparks of colors, like a multitude of slivers of flint were struck against slabs of smoothed stones, dashing and chasing to find their place in the dance of sparking colors. Tossed into the sky, and then struck by arrow, they’d explode in a spectacular display, much like fireworks but also much different. When pressed why his mother Mareen didn’t combine the two, she afforded no answer and avoided the subject, never appearing to do so on purpose but Trem had his suspicions even if he didn’t at the time.

Trem halted, a chill gliding up his spine. No, I didn’t. No, I couldn’t have… With trepidatious horror his vision downturned, passing by the ladder that led to Keld’s loft area of the room on the opposite side, to witness his bare feet; his completely bare feet. His toes wiggled as if to taunt and mock him. He forgot socks. He considered for a moment going without them as the cost of time to rush back, possibly fall into something, and stuff them on his thick feet was just so high. He growled like one of the wolfish dogs of the Orchard and hurried back up into his loft that over hanged the room to stuff on his forgotten socks. He leapt completely off his loft, hitting the ground in an auspiciously smooth summersault which made a louder thud than he would’ve liked. He shouldered open the door, and just before he flew down the hall he saw white and uneven lettering out of the corner of his eye. His cerulean eyes wide, his head turned to gaze over his shoulder at his room’s door. His eyes widened a fraction more. Scrawled across the surface of the thick wood door in powdery chalk was the number, the precise number of how many ruby apples Trem had harvested this season. Below the number was a mocking face like the jester of a deck of cards. Seeing it there it was clear how pitiful it was next to his brother Keld’s. It wasn’t even scrawled there. Trem could only imagine how far it had gotten at present. How many hours had Trem even been asleep longer than Keld had?

Trem jerked forward and barreled down the halls of the third and highest story of the house, passing doors and rooms, his hands pushing and slapping against the walls of the turns to propel him faster and also lean and jolt him away from falling or stumbling. To Trem this house was a Manor, although nobody ever called it so, despite all of Trem’s efforts. Finally he found the large stairwell, of which was adjacent to another and was the only place in the house to get to and from floors. The dark wood stairs were like switchbacks, with wide banisters carved with sprawling vines burgeoning with buds that never opened and revealed what flower or fruit they actually were. Strangely Trem wasn’t sure if he had a dream of them opening once, to be tiny white pollen dusted blossoms of pink, his Mother’s hand upon the banister gazing down at the flowers that came to life from her touch. And though she stared upon their beauty, her eyes were so far away Trem felt like she was staring at another land.

Trem lunged at the banister, the sweet source of speed and precarious danger. He slid down it with such velocity his unkempt hair flowed back. As he met each turn of the banister, as the set of stairs turned at an angle, he gripped the wooden and glossy sphere there and swung around on it to slap his rear back onto the banister to continue sliding forth. It smarted some, but it got Trem down the stairwell the swiftest and that was all that mattered to Trem at that time.

Trem hit the floor running, his footfalls thudding on the polished paneled flooring that was worn and scuffed there more than most of the surrounding area. He passed by the den, where a cold hearth sat below a marble mantelpiece before a gathering of chairs and a long, low couch, where Trem didn’t go into any longer and not for a long while either. Was that where he last saw his father? His broad arm atop the dark blue mottled marble, craning his head to gaze into the hearth where a cauldron sat uncustomarily, its contents of surreal colors boiling and popping, green and purple was mixing together like viscous paints. No, it wasn’t, but it was the last time he saw his father before that tremendous and shivering quake happened, the one that took his father’s life when his father plunged into the cracked and crumbling depths after those trapped and fallen within. That same fissure that ran across the Soun Village, weaving underfoot the foundations of buildings and the meandering crisscrossing of roads, spewing white frothed water into the air from wells, their stone crushed from the shifting forces. The fissure was like a heaving beast, splitting and splitting an innumerable amount of times in a horrifying process like a demonic and clandestine ritual. Edges upon edges fell away, not just those at the surface but terraces below, places where people and bodies were, where anvils, looms, and logs were, where homes and their passed down belongings were. Why did his father just have to be a hero, acting as invincible as he always said he was? Why did he have to go and lie like that? To stare Trem in the eye, grinning with tears in his. Why’d the children have to cry and scream, stirring his father into action? It was the most bitter and mangled thing in Trem’s life, one he resented his father so hopelessly for. It tore him up, although he almost never spoke of it. It didn’t stop him from keeping a connection with who his father was, before that horrible moment, but still did he resent him for it. There wasn’t even a body to bury alongside their ancestors. That stung ceaselessly, atop of the fact that he couldn’t ever seem to reconcile that his father was truly and completely dead, like he might just appear one day at the doorstep or be out in the Orchard pulling free ruby apple after ruby apple, his dark blonde hair gleaming in the hot and beating sun.

Trem had entered into the hall that led to the foyer to the front door and opened up a gaping swath to the massive kitchen, where the fire pit set into the floor with a short rock wall – to keep the fire in and everyone else out - was hot with fragrantly burning wood, their bark a tessellation of red hot curling and flaking edges. Much of the cooking was done at the fire pit, an assortment of metal stuff being used like tall pots set on a ring or grating and bars set aloft to skewer meat through or grill it. What the fire pit couldn’t cook the baking oven could handle, set farther away in the kitchen. The smoke of the fire pit filtered up through a mason funnel of brick and some material that held it all together, that led up and through the chimney which emitted the curling dark smoke, visible even when the house and orchard wasn’t. His mother was at the wood table with an ornate and prominent grain. She was already garbed for the fieldwork with the sun hat pushed back out of sight except for the tight woven string, but she was leaning back lounging as she smirked with crimson, naturally curling lips.

Trem started to shove on the denim slacks from the prongs on the wall one leg at a time, hopping clumsily around in the hall and partway into the kitchen in his effort to get them on. And then more alluring and enticing scents overcame the burning wood, it was of mouth watering breakfast. With the slacks on Trem dumbly padded over there, marveling at the reddish wood plate filled with crinkled crispy rashers of bacon, the grease smeared about, and fluffy scrambled pale yellow eggs with bits of greens mixed in that he didn’t care much for. Grilled mushrooms were in a heap at the corner of the plate, their glossy texture incredibly appealing. A glass of apple juice was already filled, condensation on the clear material from likely sitting in the Icebox.

The Icebox was off in another corner of the kitchen, surprisingly able to withstand the heats of the kitchen while also keeping its content cool to a chilled state. Because of this, what was desired to be consumed from the Icebox typically had to be removed a considerable amount ahead of time so they could return to a proper, edible temperature, if not just out rightly heated in the fire pit or elsewhere. The Icebox was a strange looking thing of silvery metal, which as he was told was steel, with multiple latches on the swinging open side with the other having even more hinges. It emitted a hissing sound each time it was opened or closed. Inside there were heaps of frosty chunks of ice, which required that the contents be sealed in bags of any sort, such as hempen or leather. Apparently this was an alchemic device and was a solid reason why they didn’t have many neighbors over, aside from the sheer distance.

“Thank you Mother,” Trem said as he plopped down into the heavy chair at the other side of the table in front of his mother. “..This, this is for me right?” he asked hurried.

“Of course it is, and if it wasn’t, it’s not as if I could say no to you at that point! And I don’t think you’re considering skipping breakfast, or else I’d tell you that you must eat before you go out.” His mother’s smirk turned into a soft smile that shone in her turquoise eyes. She had warm and gentle features, with a small chin and a slight jaw. Her flowing and full hair that habitually curled back from her shoulders was a fiery scarlet red with yellowish oranges brushing through like sun bright paint seeping and bleeding through a rose swath of paint. Already Keld had outgrown her height, as she wasn’t a tall or statuesque woman to begin with.

Trem scarfed down the food, unwilling to make any table talk less he take any longer to get outside. Momentarily he had forgotten all about the harvest when the savory breakfast was in sight.

His mother continued talking, gazing out the tall double paned windows that gave a clear view of the Ruby Orchard with the rows of swaying apple trees. Already there were iron banded barrels of smooth wood heaped full of apples scattered against the trunks of trees in view. A wolfish dog, it’s grey and brown coat shining in the late morning sun, was lying near a barrel with his paws folded underneath his muzzle. “The batch of apples in risk from the rain will make it before the storm hits, so long as we do it of course. So you needn’t worry Trem. The remaining can survive the storm.”

Trem noticed now there were shadows beneath his mother’s eyes, the kind from a lack of sleep. The kind she got when she sat in the den too long, staring at the cold hearth beneath the mantelpiece. The family portrait above the mantelpiece surely stared back, the family whole rather than missing a very important piece. It was made years ago by the traveling painter in his wagon and took an excessive amount of sitting still for a prolonged period of time. This was when Trem’s thin shoulders stuck out too much like bones with his face as bare as his ass and he had an easier smile; when Keld hadn’t grown into a tautly muscled trunk with a perpetual shadow of stubble to his face and a subtle hardness to his eyes; and when his mother didn’t go so oft without sleep while her smile was as bright as the ruby apples, and furthermore she didn’t neglect her alchemic talents to instead focus on the Ruby Orchard and its cider, as if she couldn’t bear to remotely treat the Ruby Orchard similarly. Trem still didn’t have any shred of facial hair, a continually sore and bitter subject. Trem barely noticed the portrait anymore, his eyes persistently happening to slide and glaze over it whenever he did happen to look at the den or be around it.

“Alright,” Trem rushed out in between shovels of eggs. “And I’ll get more in than Keld this time, for sure. He didn’t wake me by the way!”

His mother chuckled, lightening the shadows beneath her eyes. She brushed back her fiery hair from her face. “Oh he said he tried, tangling up your blankets worse in the process. I could hear him yell at you, so he definitely did try. Not that it’s his responsibility to get you out of bed mind you.”

Trem managed a peevish scowl, exaggerated from his wordless state. Shortly after Trem’s fork clattered to the emptied plate, dirtied with grease and little else. “I’m off!” Trem announced, rising from the table and shoving the chair in. He didn’t wait for any response from his mother, or to see if she was coming with him right then, as Trem rushed out of the kitchen past the crackling fire pit, which was cooling now with some logs smoldering lightly and the flames low. He passed into the foyer, shoving on his broad brimmed straw woven hat and forcing on his well worn boots, their bottoms cleaned from scrubbing just the other day. He passed through the tall double doors of the house; taller than even his father had been, bringing back a sore memory. He had asked his father why they needed such tall doors, and his father answered with a hearty chuckle, 'Sometimes the horses walk upright too.' Trem believed him right then and there, yearning to see such a thing. And he was going to too, his father had told him, because the circus was migrating over to the nearest village in some months. Of course that was before the series of severe quakes hit, swallowing the Soun Village. There wasn’t anything for the circus to go then anymore. He convinced himself it didn’t matter, mostly.

Stepping out onto the cobblestone path, from the stone steps of the doorway proper, the light was glaring. It washed out everything in yellowed gold, making the world indistinct and vague. Trem winced and righted his wide brimmed hat so that it actually obscured the sun, but still his eyes needed some moments to adjust to the sheer difference in light. He made a slow walk amongst the already picked apple trees, their vivid green leafy branches swaying unburdened in the curving and curling breezes, almost like they were dancing to their own tune that no one else could hear as they were excited to begin the growing process of their fruits anew, their existence given purpose and therefor joy by feeding his family and their customers, whether by fruit directly or through juice and cider. The grass was soft beneath the sole of his boots, with a familiar cushiony give to it that nothing else in the Rivenlands had. That is Trem considered the grass beyond the Ruby Orchard different, slightly so but enough that he knew the difference. Maybe it was just childish illusions, or the more likely different set of boots he used for the roads, villages, and forests.

He rushed out into the Ruby Orchard, going around to pick up a carry basket from the gathered collection of barrels and supplies deeper inside the rows of apple trees. There weren’t enough barrels, so Trem had to stride back into the farm building and wheel out more barrels. The carts to carry the filled barrels were there too, hence the scattering of barrels full of apples. There was a seasonal hired hand about, Haun with dark, foamy hair and bulky shoulders, who had been working for them for a few years now. It was beyond him what the man did when he wasn’t working the short time he did for them, and Trem never had the mind to ask. Probably a hunter though.

Picking in itself wasn’t much hard. A child could do it, and as a child he had, foolishly thinking the apples were fallen stars. He hadn’t the faintest why he thought that. Except it was the amount of picking, the sheer amount of time of a generally strenuous activity as the apples weren’t all within arm’s reach of where the ladder started at and required a deal of maneuvering. There was then the climbing and balancing on ladders, the hefting of baskets and barrels – a portion of which was loading them into the carts, and then the heat and beating sun. Trem was urged to rush, in the gentle quiet of the rustling leaves overhead and the swaying globe-like apples, but he couldn’t as much as he wanted. He just had to be too responsible and caring for that, didn’t he. Handling the fruits too roughly might bruise them, or something similar. He had dropped them in the past, even missed the gaping hole of the basket or barrel. Trem had desperately hoped he would’ve grown out of his clumsy and unwieldy nature by now, but he definitely hadn’t and there weren’t any signs of it letting up. He grumbled to himself a bit about this as he plucked free apple after apple, the sorting would be done after and so would beginning the process of making cider.

It was hours of long, repetitious work in the hot sun yet refreshingly cooling breezes that carried the sweet scents of the apples far, with hints of hickory carried even farther from the neighboring farms’ chimneys. The biting chill and snap of autumn had yet to arrive in full force, so the sun further served to make Trem sweat. He longed for the colors of autumn for that meant traveling on the roads, delivering barrels of apples, cider and juice when during such a season feasts were abound. He encountered his brother Keld various times on his route, and ubiquitously he had that self-confident grin that he’d win the competition, his auburn cropped hair unimpeding him much to the contrary of Trem’s hair. His mother was about as well, though her job would end up being more reining the carts with their two bay geldings harnessed and pulling.

The whole harvesting of the Ruby Orchard wasn’t finished by the time rain was falling in a hazy drizzle, the stronger breezes swaying the many boughs of the trees. Lightning and thunder rumbled in the not so distance, closer than the booms that roused Trem in the morning. The haul was all but fully brought in to the cidery buildings, the trundling wheels groaning under the hastened speed to breach the double doors of the building larger than two barns smushed and fitted together. Trem wasn’t laden with baskets any longer, the rest on the moving cart with the pulling horses. He removed his wide brimmed hat, and stared up into the sky with its clumpy gray storm clouds, hazy with the visual noise of rain. He didn’t mind the droplets hitting his face, slowly soaking through his hair; neither the ones that hit his eyes, causing him to blink hard.

Sure, lightning could touch down, could alight the tree just beside him, but he wasn’t worried. There was a serene peace of mind watching the storm clouds overhead, unleashing rain and soon the lightning, roaming from elsewhere in the world; from beyond the Great Divides of the Rivenlands. It was through these clouds, this rain and lightning, that he felt connected to somewhere else on this rock of a planet. He wondered at where they had been before they found this fractured and split land, with people living on it as if it weren’t a crazy thing to do. Was it somewhere with keeps and castles, with knights and mercenaries? Bristling spears, gleaming swords, and dashing arrows? With seas of rolling sand and tossing water? Only things in the tales, things he’d never know. He wished, as he rubbed his eye from a fat raindrop, that he could speak to this roaming storm and ask where it had been, ask what those places were like, and what it thought about this place and about him.

Light flashed amongst the dark gray clouds, and then more flashes emitted from different areas amongst the clouds, the clumps looking like low lumps of a quilt to him. Trem smiled, half in his own little world, wistfully thinking the storm was talking to him; saying and telling that the world out there was great and exciting. But it wasn’t, it really wasn’t. An irregular line of white light zipped from the sky in an instant with kinks like a flattened rod of metal bent back and forth down its length, like from a blacksmith whom was taking out his anger upon the flat of metal, choosing wherever his rage took him to make a bend so that some kinks were inches apart and others feet. It was faster than Trem could blink. He didn’t blink either, even though it seared light into his cerulean eyes. The irregular line touched down into an orchard tree, blasting a boom and shaking the ground beneath Trem’s feet. Trem fell as he felt the heat from the orchard tree shooting up in flame, a charred rent visible through the scarlet and orange flames into its trunk, like a gash from a great sword. It wasn’t one laden with apples any longer, as it was close to the Ruby Orchard’s buildings. He couldn’t imagine what could’ve happened to them. Would they have burned like the tree was? Or would they have exploded, blasting bits of fruit flesh and seeds everywhere, like grenades of fire to the rest of the Ruby Orchard?

Trem’s ears rang as he felt lopsided, like he couldn’t get his bearings. Maybe he hit the ground too hard, or the booming sound knocked him too far off his balance. Was that a snicker, just behind his ear? Like from an extra tiny person? He groaned with his hand to his head, to his soaked down hair that streamed with water. His brother rushed by, tossing a bucket filled with rainwater onto the roaring fire of the tree. Haun joined him, tossing another bucket of water at the tree. Haun was a frantic mess, searching wild eyed for more buckets inadvertently filled with water, while Keld turned away, running into the cider building with a determined look on his face despite that he was running away from the fire, abandoning the emergency like a coward, like the way Trem was feeling right then if he could manage to get up. But he didn’t know if he’d really do that.

Why did dousing the tree with water really matter anyway? It was raining, and it was raining increasingly hard. Wouldn’t the rain down the fire on its own accord?

Trem struggled to rise, tremors rocking through his legs like he was just a newborn calf. He could feel tears in his eyes, despite the rain streaking down his face, hiding any evidence of them. Trem shuffled backwards before Haun grabbed him, pulling him away with his bulky and tanned arms. A concentrated spray of white rushing water came, blasting onto the tree. The roaring fire fought back, spewing flicks of embers back out at them. Trem could almost see a sneering face in the fire, like a mischievous and malicious imp. The spraying water overpowered the fire though, drowning it out until the concentrated water died down, the tree barely smoldering where the gashed rent was in the trunk that cut through the bark, charring where it was.

His mother dropped the hose with a metal nozzle, while his brother was holding the bulk of the hose, where it must have thickened with the girth of a python. Trem wasn’t sure what would happen to the tree. It wasn’t like this had not happened before; lightning touching down onto a tree, but a tree could either survive with some work done on it….or a new sapling would have to be planted in its place.

Haun called, “Ma’am, everyone’s alright?” He was breathing hard and quickly, his big chest rising and falling.

Trem’s mother nodded, with a smile. Her fiery hair was shades darker in the rain, reminding Trem of the hot burning coals of the fire pit, when they glowed at their deepest and brightest. “You can stay with us until the storm passes if you want Haun. It’d be quite dangerous and difficult getting home. I’m sure your family is alright as well, safe in their cottage. It’d not be like them to be out during this. We’re just the ones a little crazy,” she said with a wink. Trem wondered if anyone else could even see it.

Haun was troubled and torn about this, gripping his wide brimmed straw hat upon his head as he stared at the rent in the apple tree. “Suppose you be right ma’am… I’d not be able to see much farther than some feet ahead of me on the roads. Feels like I might just get smacked with lightnin’ too, even though the lightnin’ would have a whole forest full o’ trees to pick from. So yes, ma’am, I’d much like that.”

His mother nodded, while Keld was hauling back the lengthy and flattened hose into the cider building, the double doors not even partly closed in the emergency, leading the stone flooring to be darkened with dampness from the hazy rushing rain. His mother then asked, “Why don’t you start up some stew for all of us in the kitchen? The fire pit is long cold by now. What you need would be in the icebox and the cupboards.”

“I sure will,” Haun replied eagerly, bowing to her even in the rain, and then he hurried off nearly at a run at the house. It loomed over the Ruby Orchard, as stark as a keep to Trem’s imagination. The bricked chimneys, jutting out above the house’s stapled roof and spread across it as well, were like a spired towers to Trem.

His mother’s familiar presence neared Trem as she curled an arm around him, and then looked into his face to see how he was. Whatever she saw worried her, and she led him towards the cider building and past the broad opened double doors, gaping like a yawning beast. He used to call it a barn by mistake. It didn’t matter how many times his older brother corrected him, Trem was obstinate in his claim that it was a barn and did anything he could to prove his older brother wrong, such as scribbling across the building with chalk with the word ‘barn’ in multiple places, even inside. He had to scrub those down, which deterred him from doing it again until he forgot and did it all over again. Somehow that conquest slowly disappeared, like at some particular day he completely forgot about it and never looked back, never even wondered. It’d be many a years since it, and now he could see how childish it all was. It had been a strange way to compete with his brother, to be right in something he actually wasn’t. Pride and stubbornness his mother had said.

Trem didn’t realize how cold he was until he was clear of the rain for a few moments, under the shelter of the building. He broke into a shiver, his arms huddling around himself. He felt so incredibly cold, his clothes like a whole icy trap. His mother led him further, though he didn’t pay attention to where. He heard muddled conversation, like he was listening to it through a tunnel or a deep hole in the ground. A hole in the ground… It brought a dark memory of having fallen once, dirt and dark surrounding him, like plunging into the underworld where everything was backwards and upside down all at once. Light wasn’t light, dark wasn’t dark, and the sky was a ceiling of dirt. He had been so calm, so quiet, even though he really shouldn’t have been because of how dire the situation was. It might’ve been what saved him though, to slowly wander amongst the dark, gently running his hands across the rough newly shaped earth from the shivering quake, feeling the rough edges of rocks and then a fissure, a rent, where he sidled through. He had felt so curious, like he was exploring a tomb. More likely it was just the innocence and ignorance of a child, in wonder about this new situation.

It was only a dark and frightening memory now, sobering even, that he was so close to death, so fortunate to have not been crushed into a flattened pile of guts, blood, and bone by the way the earth happened to split, slide, break, and press. And more fortunate to have found a way out as he had, a way to be reached by his father whom came after him to rescue him. His father whom had succeeded, unlike when he hadn’t, unlike when he never came back and the merciless earth rumbled, shifted and closed after him half a day later.

When Trem snapped out of it, he was wrapped in a blanket that seeped warmth into his bones. Someone had taken his sodden shoes, his soaked shirt, and his hat that had been partly crushed by the weight of the rain. He blinked very quickly, looking about. His mother was sitting beside him, rubbing his back soothingly as she watched him, the lines of worry creasing her forehead easing as Trem looked back, no longer in his trance or whatever it had been.

“Thanks Mother…” Trem said quietly, feeling abashed by his weakness. It didn’t seem his brother needed tending to like that, as his brother was organizing the barrels and pushing on the rounded tops. It looked like they were going to sort them later, prepare them for the press, and then actually begin the pressing. It might change depending on when the rain let up, or if there were any more issues with the Ruby Orchard. He didn’t want to know what would happen if another lightning struck hit while they were asleep.

He couldn’t help himself. He asked, “What happens if another lightning strike hits…?”

His mother blinked, “It’s rare for a storm to hit one of our trees, really, but I suppose we’ll just have to keep watch, won’t we? Good thing Haun is staying the night.”

Trem nodded mutely, blinking out of sync.

His mother continued, “We’re very glad the lightning didn’t hit you. It came very close,” her rubbing of his back quickened to reassure him. “You’re safe and okay though Trem, you know that right?”

Trem nodded slowly. Had that been all it was, he was scared? Or was it the shock too, the effects of the impact of the lightning so close?

His mother stayed with Trem a little while longer, and then went to help his brother. There were tiers to the place, with one greatly large room where they were in now. Upon the shelf-like tiers the barrels would be hoisted and categorized, on one whole wall was a selection of cider from amongst the years that would be sold per discretion and demand. He never understood himself how cider could last so long, hard or not. The machinery for the pressing and the distillery were in separate chambers, and so were the barrels as wide and fat as ponds. The place smelled of apples, cinnamon, and a mingling of other spices. He breathed it in, finding the smells to calm his nerves.

Once the Ruby Orchard was fully harvested, it’d be many months of work throughout stages. He felt so close to being out on the open road, delivering the iron ringed barrels full to the brim with cider and collecting the bags and satchels of coin, when he could then weave and roam amongst the forest with no burden, feeling as free as a bird as he swiped with his wooden sword. Soon enough he’d have a real one just like his brother, and be able to go off alone in the forest during such journeys.

Steeling himself, with reserves he didn’t really have, he rose and went off to assist his older brother and mother. The barrels needed to be marked with a thick, stubby chalk that left an uneven, somewhat pockmarked trail, denoting what was generally in the barrel and that they were unsorted. They did know what was in them now, but amongst the whole collection of barrels they might not later. It wasn’t something ever put to question, and it was more precautionary in this case. Other markings would have more detailed information, such as the year, the stage, if completed, and so forth. The white chalk also was easy enough to wipe away with a thickly woven cloth, maybe dipped into a liquid always labeled, though he rarely recalled the name.

The barrels finished, the cart empty with its tarp left rolled up on some rungs against a wall so that it could dry out in the open air, and the horses led off into the stable accessible from the back, to eat and rest, Trem left with his mother to the kitchen, while his brother more fully tended to the two horses. The animals were skittish and unruly in the boisterous weather, their hooves clunking on the hard stone floor, and would take some coaxing to eat. Keld was talented with the horses, like he knew what they were thinking. They tended to ease in his presence, their neighing quieting and the tossing of their heads stopping. His father was like that, Trem was told, so Trem sourly thought it could be the horses didn’t know any better and thought Keld was his father. How that’d be nice, to think his father was still alive, to not have that bitter and gnawing scar, refusing to heal all the way, refusing to just be quiet.

The horses liked to just drag their freakishly long, wet tongues over Trem’s hair, slicking it back messily and very uncomfortably, making just about anyone around laugh. Maybe he’d be laughing too, except the gunk of saliva slinking down through his hair and neck didn’t even tempt the noise to rise out of his throat. He’d given it many tries, more often in private, but it was like his hair was made of spun cinnamon and the horses just couldn’t get enough of that. He supposed it could be worse, in that the horses could greatly dislike him to the point of aggression and animosity. There were some people like that, particularly children, whom the horses would rear at, and dangerously so. Their hooves knocking down someone, especially at the skull or chest, could strike them dead just like the breaking of the earth from a quake. Instead for Trem the horses treated him like an infant, maybe like one of their own children. He might not mind it, really, but he wanted to be respected, and he wanted to be able to ride a horse without the horse three times out of five disregarding his directions via the reigns. It was hard to deal with, because it bothered him more than he admitted to anyone, which made him cry out of frustration like a sniffly girl, which was even more embarrassing. How was he supposed to grow up into a man if all he did was sniffle, cry, and get red in the face when he met confrontation of significant weight that just happened to pierce his psychological sphere in the right spot and the right way to bother him. If he was a hero, that’d be his one true weakness. That and a dead father he guessed. Maybe an aversion to lightning too.

The flaws and fears he perceived to have started to rattle off from that thought process, making him feel petulant and gloomy about himself as he walked with his mother through the cider building and into the adjoining hall and room between the house and the building. His vision was downcast, staring at his bare feet poking out just below the ruddy blanket. It still seeped warmth into him, but he didn’t so badly need it now, even with the occasional shiver and the corresponding sniffle. He started to wonder how he could be any worse at being a hero, and then it hit him hard, like he was bowled over by the cart with a stone pillar rolling and tumbling in front of it. He’d be flat as paper, lying there, unable to stir a muscle, watching the lightning lash about and the rain patter on him. He’d be little different than the dirt and sod, except he wouldn’t get muddy. Maybe the rain would like him better then, because then he’d be showing off the rain, instead of just soaking it in and hiding it, making it into something unpleasant and grungy.

Anyway, he knew how he could be worse - if he didn’t have his mother, his doting, protective, and guiding mother; his shield from the world of earthquakes, from starving, from being out in the cold and dark. He’d know far less, and he’d never learn anything more from her. Maybe he’d have his brother, but his brother knew nothing as much as his mother and couldn’t ever possibly understand him like his mother did. It scared him terribly, to the point he began to cry anew, which drew his mother’s attention. She stopped, and took his shoulders, asking him what was wrong and then holding him in her warm, comforting embrace. Even though her intentions were to soothe Trem, it made him feel all the worse. Because what if he didn’t have this? What if he didn’t have her? He’d be a shell of a human being, and he’d grow up to be a pitiful excuse for a man. What was he doing with his days, tending to the Ruby Orchard, and then playing with his toys? Maybe even being a burden like he just was to his mother and brother? No, he couldn’t do that anymore, not when his mother could disappear just like his father did, like a magician playing a trick, except he never did turn up like the magicians could do with person or jewel. He didn’t know the full extent of what he was going to do, but he wanted to learn from her with a fierce and keen hunger. He wanted to appreciate her and her lineage, just like she appreciated the Imbernoc’s. She deserved that. And that meant he had to master alchemy, which further meant that one day he’d have to teach someone else too. A small part of him said, as well, that he had to be better at it than anybody else than his mother, and better than anybody else at it also meant his brother. His brother couldn’t lord this over him, take this away from him. He would be good at something, and it would be this, it would be this one single thing if there was a shred of decency in the world, if there was any hope at all for Trem Imbernoc.

“Trem, please tell me what’s wrong. I can’t help you all the way if you don’t tell me. You need to tell me, you can’t shut me out. It’s not good for you, and you know this. And you don’t want your mother distraught, do you? Because you’re making her distraught, by not telling her. Trem Imbernoc!” his mother cried, frowning sternly at him as she stared closely, her face framed by her fiery hair, the brightest thing in the wood paneled room, even with the meadow patterned rug beneath their feet.

Trem sniffled, fighting back a suffocating wave of pain by trying to will himself to speak while also dealing with his sudden anguish. He swallowed multiple times, feeling like he might just fall over at any moment, unable to handle it. He fought tooth and nail to get ahold of himself, to steel himself and calm the heck down. He wasn’t a child, he wasn’t going to cry any more than he was, and he was going to tell his mother. He refused anything but. “I-I realized what life might be like without you… if you disappered like Father.” A shock of pain showed on his mother’s face, but he kept on talking before he lost the thing that let him speak through his suffocating prison – momentum. “I realized that I’d be far less of a person without you, and I’d become even less as I grew up. I need to learn from you Mother, I need to learn alchemy from you. It’s the right thing to do, it’s what I need to d-do…”

His mother, while pained, was shocked and astonished. What he said appeared to relieve her greatly, and she embraced him fully again, rocking him gently back and forth on their feet as she hummed the tune of the lullaby she always had to him. It wasn’t just when he was upset, but when he was going to sleep, when she was even cooking and she was humming it to herself. The warmth from the blanket and from his mother, combined with the rocking, the lullaby, and the soft cushion of the rug beneath his bare, damp feet gradually ebbed away Trem’s nearly hysterical suffering, distanced himself from the suffocating prison like it was becoming smaller and smaller, like a towering and looming mountain in the distance growing smaller and more insignificant the farther he tread. He still breathed shakily, but he didn’t sniffle anymore, and that was a thing to be proud of.

“It’ll be alright Trem, I’m not going anywhere, and I’m not going to go diving after anybody but you two into a fissure. I won’t leave you two alone, I promise. And I’ll teach you, I’ll stop putting the Ruby Orchard first so much. It won’t be neglected, but neither will the alchemic teachings. How does that sound?” his mother asked of him.

Trem nodded, rubbing the back of his hand under his nose and smearing goopy snot across it. He scowled at it, abashed worse than he was.

“Clean yourself up, get some warm socks on, and then come for dinner. No buts. You have to do this,” his mother said.

He nodded more vigorously, feeling determined to do what she said with not much of a discernible reason other than to please his mother, considering the outburst he just had and that she just agreed to be his teacher. He knew he was incredibly fortunate in this regard. If he was the son of anyone else, he might never ever come to know alchemy. It really was a mystery to him how she knew it at all, but then he didn’t know her maiden name or any of her blood family beyond him and his older brother. Neither did she speak of any of those things, and seemed an illustrious master in avoiding the subject, a skill Trem was envious of.

Trem sped off, his feet pounding away at the rugs and smooth wood paneled floors, making thuds like a tiny army of birds pummeling into the siding of the house, with wedge-like hats of a military of bird kind. He saw the glow of the fire pit from the kitchen as he swung around on the big ball of the bannister and flew up the stairs, his blanket billowing behind him like a dashing cape. He grinned to himself, through the snot and tears, imagining himself as a hero chasing after an assassin, trying to get away after a failed attempt on a king’s life. Trem wouldn’t let him go though, the assassin was fast but Trem wasn’t tiring out. He had a plan as to how to trap him, and so every turn and hall he passed was a step closer to capture. Trem caught him when he flung open the door to the bath, rattling the door on its hinges. When he unmasked the assassin, by filling the bath up with steamy water, the assassin had the face of a fox with a long snout and giant, triangle-like ears nearly as large as a wild rabbit’s. It sneered at him like that face in the fire of the burning tree, the charred rent like a great scar tracing its cheek and up through its muzzle. Trem shivered, shaking away the strange image from his imagination. It really did get carried away from him too often, just like the snickering he thought he heard and the sneering face in the flames of the apple tree. He hadn’t willed that in the slightest. It had been what he saw. Trem wondered if it should’ve scared him more, but it didn’t. It was too fake and imaginary to, and it was likely conjured from the jarring event, of him smacking the ground.

Did Mother check my head for damage or wounds…? he wondered, feeling through his straggly hair. He didn’t feel any sore spots, anything that hurt remotely. That was reassuring. Trem slid into the bath waters, grinning at the heat and the soap bubbles stirring and popping at the surface. He scrubbed himself vigorously, left alone to his thoughts amidst the gentle splashing of his movements. It was an effort to not imagine the bath as an expansive lake beneath a snowy mount. His imagination had gotten away from himself enough for one day.

It was near an hour of scrubbing, dunking, drying, and dressing. He gave himself one go at holding his breath beneath the steamy waters, the heat of the bath surrounding all of Trem just like he was lounging in a hot spring set into a mountain. Supposedly that was where his parents met. His father had been searching after a recent wide reaching quake, and happened upon a chain of hot springs beneath a small mountain. No one had heard of them for generations Trem was told. The quake must’ve uncovered passages to them, and miraculously they still bubbled. And his mother was there, having found them first. They squabbled humorously over the rights, and in the end claimed discovery by them both. A generous move his father had said of his mother, being that she was there first.

Then Trem was flying and sliding down the stairwell and bannister all over again, at each landing glancing out the paned windows at the hazy, streaky rain and the white flashes of lightning. He didn’t see any red, no trace of fire, which was reassuring, although he wasn’t the one keeping watch at that time. Trem wondered then about the dogs, their unique breed making them appear like mild mannered wolves, with some noticeable differences such as the subtle rounding at the peak of their ears and then also the bright blue of their eyes. He hadn’t noticed them in the commotion. He supposed they had come inside just the same. It wasn’t like his family not to notice that. Trem admonished himself about this, because he had to be just as responsible as the rest of them. He had to be relied on too. He had to get better at that, he just had to.

The broad hall had the mouth watering smells of stew wafting in from the kitchen as Trem landed with a too loud thud onto the rug covered floor from sliding off the bannister at a breakneck speed. He padded over; his feet snug in socks and moccasins with leathery laces encircling the shoe. The table was being set, while the pot of stew simmered over the fire pit stocked with a cross of fat, stubby logs atop smoldering coals. Haun poured thick milk from a pitcher of blown glass, exposing its inner white contents unlike most of their kitchenware.

The three of them sat down amongst a quiet mingle of conversation as Keld served each person a hearty bowlful of stew, and then sat down to eat as well after he poked at the fire pit with a cast iron to stifle the flames. The stew in their bowls steamed with so much heat it couldn’t be eaten yet, but the rolls of bread could be, with bits of dried apple and nuts baked in. They discussed the business of the day, and the precautions about the lightning that would have to be taken as the stew cooled. Trem stared frustrated at his bowl, willing it to cool, while he threatened it mentally to be eaten too soon, like it was any concern of the stew’s that its flame be put out early…as if it would not scald his mouth, throat, and tongue, incurring Trem the damage and none at all to the stew.

Eventually the stew cooled enough to be eaten. By then Trem had been distracted by staring out the long window of the kitchen, watching the bushy leaves – jade in the dark - rock and sway in the sheets of rain, like the clouds were actually just buckets, deluging periodically thus making large splashes. The flashes in the dark didn’t make him nervous, and neither did the rumblings of thunder. He idly wondered what seeing another tree caught aflame from a lightning strike would be like, like there’d be some difference being in the safety of his house.

The rolls were eaten and the bowls emptied. The pot over the fire pit was covered, to be stored overnight by whoever happened to be on watch at the right time. Trem was going to watch at early morning. It’d be easiest after a night of rest, but at least they were trusting him with something. There was definite reluctance from his mother. Sure, Trem could be emotional and sometimes easily shaken up, but that didn’t make him a useless sack.

Trem bid his good nights and thanks for the meal, and clambered up the stairwell with his brother to rest for the night. Keld would be taking the watch just before him.

“I’m sure it’ll be alright,” Keld said, his hand upon the bannister as he looked upward, as if the future of the night was held there. “An animal might prowl around, seek shelter, but lightning won’t hit again. Even if it did, I really, really doubt it’d be anywhere near as bad. It was a little strange how fierce the fire got, a little like it was a monster!” Keld laughed, patting Trem hard on the back.

“Hey, I’m not a kid. That’s not going to scare me, so stop teasing me Keld. I bet you’d have reacted similarly if the lightning touched down right near you too!”

Keld rolled his eyes, wiping back his cropped hair with his hand like it needed it. It clearly didn’t. Trem stared daggers, and placed his foot wrong, thinking a step was sooner than it was. Who the heck gets a stair wrong that isn’t broken!? he asked himself, exasperated, as he stumbled a bit, and then feigned his blunder into a run that took two steps at a time.

“I’ll make it first!” Trem called, breathing hard already. The strain and burn in his legs crept up on him fast as he made it past the second landing. The hall supernaturally stretched on before him, like an infinite path or a hole sinking into the depths of Terron, when he caught a glimpse of the markings on their bedroom door. The number Trem’s total had been. With a chill he realized they hadn’t discussed the numbers. Trem had no idea whether or not he won or lost. He was keeping mind of his own count, and not his brother’s. There wasn’t worry over Keld overinflating his number, being as then that’d skew with the whole harvest’s numbers and that would be catastrophic for the cider and logged stocks. As well, supposedly his mother kept track in an indiscernible way, as if she always had a presence everywhere on the Ruby Orchard. Admittedly, there must’ve been a difference between the baskets and barrels. There didn’t seem to be always, being as the competition between them couldn’t hinder the harvest. It was more likely his mother had a penchant with numbers, a skill he partially had. He hoped it’d improve with age, any manner of counting or numerical interaction flying in fractions of a moment, as simple as witnessing the objects or things themselves.

The overtly stretched hall bounced back, and Trem skidded to a halt before the door. He stared up at the number, and removed a stub of chalk from his pants, clean unlike the trousers from harvesting that Keld wore, their hems scuffed and stained with mushy grass and dark brown dirt. Least he didn’t track dirty boot prints through the house, as Trem had seen his sweaty grey socks exposed.

Burning with pride at his sincerity at his hard earned count, Trem marked the new numbers of his own apples gathered on the wall, above the previous set, and then with a curt nod held aloft the stub of chalk to his brother whom was standing beside him. His brother’s face looked foreign to Trem in the shadows that masked his features, and thus his expression. Keld’s countenance appeared inexplicably grim, as if this was a matter of utmost importance. A small part of Trem knew this wasn’t important in the grand scheme of things, in the whole of their lives. It was only of importance to their small corner of their world, only to their bond of this year.

But it gave each of them a goal to strive for. The both of them knew, even talked about it casually in private, that it was more trivial and amusing to their mother. She participated in it to humor them, but also to show interest in what they cared about. They didn’t mind, neither of them were upset over it.

“Too bad this isn’t over riches,” Trem said, feeling uncertain about uttering his inner hopes to his brother, even in this innocuous way.

Keld nodded, taking the stubby chalk in hand. He swiftly marked onto the door, small puffs of powder releasing at the tip from the hastened motion. It was all of a few seconds before Keld pushed open the door, turning the two comparing numbers to the wall out of sight, and chuckled as he strode into their bedroom, disappearing out of view as he turned past the doorway.

Trem stood there, frowning. Keld harvested over a third more than Trem, for the third year in a row ever since they started competing. Trem allowed himself a sigh. It made sense. Keld had been out earlier today, and Keld was years Trem’s senior, banded with muscle. Trem was scrawny in comparison, and he knew that. So that definitely gave Keld the advantage. It was definitely unfair, in that there wasn’t any way for Trem to meet that gap, but it also wouldn’t be right for Keld to handicap himself or take an artificial penalty to his numbers. That was simply the way of things. There was always differences between people, and that was where the nature of competition led. If everyone were all the same, then what would be the point then?

It was alright. Trem would try again, and try again for as long as it took for him to win, and then Trem would keep doing it even still, hoping that one day he would have more wins than losses than his brother. Regardless, it made Trem content that it brought a chuckle to his brother, whom tended to be overly serious, like he shouldered the worst burden out of anyone in the family. And Trem knew that wasn’t true, because his mother did. Not that Trem would say that. Maybe he would in time, he certainly was tempted, but only if Keld lashed out.

The door creaked, drifting gradually back to a close, rearing the set of numbers before Trem, being as Trem had been there so long for the door to do so. He smiled sadly at the numbers, and then pushed the door aside and closed it behind him. He’d be the one to clean it tomorrow, and take on additional chores as per the competition. He’d do it honorably, as that was what was right. As that was part of what being a man meant, honoring your word and being sportsmanlike.

Not that Trem truly knew what it took to be a man, or what it meant to be a man. But he did know that his father wasn’t one. In Trem’s eyes a man wouldn’t abandon his family just to save some strangers, regardless if they were children or not. The bitterness stung as Trem tinkered with the woodcraft tools and the blocks of wood, and passed from the forefront of his mind as he climbed up into his loft to bed. He tossed himself into it, looking over at his brother’s side. His brother had his arms behind his head, staring at the ceiling with a stony gaze, lost in his own thoughts.

Trem wondered what it was his brother was thinking of, and then his thoughts turned to what Trem should be thinking of – his newfound, ambitious goals of mastering alchemy under his mother’s tutelage. After all, that would be one step closer to becoming a hero, wouldn’t it?

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