Ardrion watched a pebble skip down the road. Rocks and dust scattered ahead of him. He kicked again, pretending to follow the same pebble all the way. His shadow followed too, slower to catch up with each step. Fire would be a good idea coming up.

Tomorrow, he'd break into the bread stuffed hurriedly into his meager pack hours ago. Holding off until then was already proving to be a challenge. Instead, he slid a hand to his hip to make sure the knife was still there. He was sure he'd have need of it sooner than he'd like.

Thick, twisted trees slowly closed in on the road. Twigs and needles crunched below his boots while heavy branches overhung what was fast becoming a mere trail through the woods. He considered climbing upward for the night, but he remembered his bed back home being precarious enough for sleep. Sunlight was beginning to find him less and less easily. It only served to make him less certain of that fire. This far west of town was an entirely new adventure.

He wove on and off the road further and further off.  The best he could find was a fat little shrub creeping out from beneath the edge of a boulder. Ardrion tucked himself in a little niche on the far side. A shoddy hiding place that left him feeling exposed as there was a fair shot he was still in plain view of some other trail. It might suffice for a night.

A matted bedding formed up against the rock as Ardrion swept up a pile of pine needles with his foot. Chirping insects kept the other noises at bay for a time. The sunlight retreated quickly as he spread himself over the ground and stared upward at the darkening branches.

All at once the world shrank to the chilled air against Ardrion's skin. He squeezed his eyes shut and ignored the tickle of water sliding over his temple. The boulder might as well have been sitting on his chest. It was the day that weighed on him so heavily.

His head spun restlessly with memories; his father the center of them. The old grey man was gone now, burned and on the wind. You'd think a stonecarver would have afforded himself a headstone. Ardrion laughed to himself. Or his son would have obliged. His lungs pulled in the frigid air.

Orphan. He'd never entertained the thought before. Not even when his mother sent him away from the supper table so long ago. Not even when he lashed at his father for “knowing better.” There was no one to stop him leaving now. No one who knew better. Days ago, he'd have thought it liberating.

Aren’t orphans just things from stories about heroes with tragic pasts?

A sob echoed sharply through the woods. Ardrion held his breath to stop from being crushed. The hazy silver light in the woods must have been swallowed by clouds or slid beyond the horizon. No moon to even watch for me tonight. In the relentless black of the night, he couldn't keep his mind at bay.

“Never go into business with death,” the old man sat hunched over his worktable, “lest you become too friendly.”

Ardrion swept in silence. The same circles, over and over.

“Ardrion—” he sighed.

“I hear you.”

His father looked at him squarely, fully stopping his work. A rare occurrence.

He stopped too. “I hear you.”

“You're near to boiling over. What this time?”

Ardrion shook his head and picked up his dusted path. “Just, it's not much of a choice what business I go into.”

“Is this a new fight or just a new beginning of the old one?” Crossed arms meant business.

Ardrion scoffed.

“Wars are for soldiers, Ardrion. There are better ways to practice heroics.”  His father returned to his work.

“It's not a war, I'm not a hero, this isn't a fight.” Ardrion continued his circle, dismissing his restlessness.

“Your brother might disagree.”

“Well, you can't disagree if you're dead.” Stop making it worse.

“You've had news?” His father mocked him, “No, you merely assume. And you sound every bit the child you were the last time we spoke of this.”

Why is he encouraging a fight? “I'm sorry. I won't bring it up again.” He kept his eyes on the floor.

“Don't make promises you can't keep.” His father offered, smugly.

Ardrion threw the broom to the floor. “Every day I'm eroding the floors, pacing, staring out the window. It's not enough.”

“Keep arguing. All night if you have to.”

“Or what?” Ardrion spat.

“I chain you to your bed frame.” His father stood from the table. “I'll not lose more of this family to this bloody 'border dispute.' And I'll be damned if you're not here come sun-up.”

Ardrion kicked the broom and stalked from the room.

Over and over again, he heard the words. He began to make out the silhouettes of the trees as the sky changed from black to blue. Overcast, the day began. As soon as Ardrion could see his hand clearly out in front of him, he kicked at the matted pine needles and made for the trail.

The sleepless night killed his appetite, which he knew would cause trouble, but it served him for now. The scrapes on his hands began to sting from groping the trees for hand holds as he stumbled over the uneven ground. He'd have a better time of it soon. The sun was rising quickly. From what he could tell the trail led him in a southeasterly direction, not that he could find the sun. Birds and furred things scrambled through the branches above him as his boots raised a clamor along the forest floor.

And then there was something else. Deep, resonating, hoofbeats pounded behind him. He glanced back and sidestepped to give the hurried rider some space. A second later he heard a loud crack as the ground spun upward and the black of the night returned. Somewhere back in the woods, his pebble lay forgotten.

The End

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