The Salt of Aereth
Location: Mid-November 3550; Duskhallow Village, Near Stormholm Caer, Cymeria
Richard pulled his cloak around him as he rode slowly through the darkened streets of Duskhallow village. It had grown late, and a light rain had started to fall as the air turned chill with the approach of winter, still mercifully a little while off. The horse he had been provided was a mare, too old to be of much military use, but docile and patient with novice riders. He was making his way back to Stormholm after having spent a very pleasant evening with Godwyn’s family. Godwyn himself had stayed behind with the intent of returning in the morning. The fact that Godwyn was training so close to home was unusual for the guard but not entirely unheard of. He would, however, be transferred to a more distant post once his initial training was complete to see more of Cymeria and develop a sense of loyalty to the country as a whole. That was a good thing, in Richard’s opinion anyway, even if Godwyn was nervous about being away from home for the first time. Deep down Richard couldn’t blame him. He had a good home.
Richard had been a bit surprised when Godwyn had approached him after training with the offer to come into town and meet his family. The next day was scheduled as a rest day, with the intent being for the trainees to wash and mend clothing, clean the barracks, and see to any other personal tasks that needed doing. At the end of the training day, the trainees had been granted leave to go into Duskhallow to purchase anything that they may need on the conditions that they stay out of trouble and be back no later than the afternoon roll call the next day. Richard had not had any particular plans, and so he had agreed. He liked Godwyn and if nothing else it would get him out of the barracks for a while.
Arriving by mid-afternoon, Richard surveyed the Ivanovich family home. It was relatively simple but larger and nicer than Richard had anticipated. It was two floors, though much of the ground floor was given over to the harness maker’s shop that was the family business. Still, the living area and the kitchen were spacious enough, and wonderful smells were coming from the latter.
Godwyn led Richard in through the business entrance and Adair, Godwyn’s father, greeted his son warmly. Hagan, Godwyn’s older brother, looked up from the bridle he was mending and greeted his brother as well before returning to work. “And who might you be, syr?” Adair asked and extended his hand.
“I’m Richard Coyle, syr, I’ve been training with your son,” Richard replied, shaking the man’s hand.
“Ah yes, Godwyn has spoken quite well of you, says you even saved his life back during that unpleasantness at Felonwood,” Adair replied as he gave Richard’s hand a powerful shake. His hands were calloused and strong, fitting to a working man. “He also tells me you are a traveler.”
Richard had to resist the temptation to massage his hand after Adair had released it from his powerful grip. “I wouldn’t go that far, syr. We had each other’s back, he did as much for me as I did for him.” Though at his next question Richard braced mentally to have to answer a whole slew of follow-on questions. “Yes syr, I’m a long way from home.”
“Hmmm…” Adair responded, his expression seeming to be no more surprised than if Richard had told him he was from the next village over. “Well then syr Richard, make yourself at home. A friend of my son is a friend of mine. I am afraid I must be something of a bad host. If I do not finish work on this saddle today, my customer will be most upset.”
Richard, for his part, looked relieved at not having to tell his life story and thanked the elder Ivanovich for his hospitality. Godwyn, his father, and his brother shared news and gossip for the next hour or so while the latter two continued their work. Richard watched in amazement as they both displayed a level of craftsmanship and attention to detail that was so conspicuously absent from the mass-produced goods he was accustomed to from home. Richard spent some time looking around the shop at the various pieces of tack that had been completed. While he had learned the names of the various items and how to put them on a horse, he knew almost nothing beyond that, but even to his untrained eye the quality was apparent, and the two workmen were making it look easy.
They reminded Richard in both their manner and their work of so many people he had known in the small Virginia town he had grown up in, unpretentious, hardworking, generous. Godwyn for his part seemed far more comfortable than Richard was used to seeing him. His nervous tendencies faded away as he fell back into the comforts of home, laughing and joking with his brother and sharing the news with his father.
After a time Richard spoke up to ask about maybe buying some tack. He was not looking for himself, but had another plan in mind, though he kept that to himself. Both Adair and Hagan were happy to explain things to Richard, though a good deal of it went over his head. He mostly came away with the fact that the best tack was fitted to both the horse and the rider. Still, Richard thought, he might be able to bring his plan to fruition. He had promised to think more about it and come back.
Richard was relieved to finally reach the mouth of the cave that would take him back to Stormholm proper. The rain and wind had both picked up, though Richard’s cloak had done well in shielding him from the worst of the weather. Godwyn had helped him pick it out on an earlier sojourn into town. Shortly after getting his initial pay, the young guardsman had helped Richard find the right shops to outfit himself with civilian clothes and all of the other things he lacked without getting fleeced into the bargain. He was a good soldier and a better friend. After meeting the man who raised him, that was hardly surprising.
The gate guards made a note of Richard’s return in the log and waved him through into the caves that would take him back to his home. The moonglobes and the troughs of burning oil gave the place an almost eerie atmosphere, at least in Richard’s mind. Now he just had to not get himself lost on the way up to the garrison. Dismounting he elected to lead the horse back through the tunnels, having had enough of riding for one day.
After a little over an hour of talk and work Godwyn’s mother had summoned them all for supper. Ailsa was a bit older, and she had clearly been quite a beauty in her youth. Raising three children though had now given her a far more motherly and doting air as she hustled the menfolk in to be fed.
As they came in Rada, Godwyn’s younger sister was setting the table. On seeing Richard, she smiled at him. “So this is the traveler my brother spoke about.” She said looking Richard up and down. Turning to her mother Rada gestured at Richard. “He’s handsome, mother, do you think he would do for a husband?”
Richard for his part looked mortified at the girl’s words and the way she had looked at him. She was probably no more than 13 or 14 years old. Granted Richard didn’t quite know what the age standards were here, but he knew what his own was and he looked distinctly uncomfortable.
“Mind your manners, Rada.” Her mother chided her. “Go and fetch the bread from the oven.” Rada made a pouty face but did as she was told. “I apologize, syr,” Ailsa said as she returned her attention to Richard. “Please forgive the child, Hagan has just become betrothed, and I am afraid she has become somewhat fixated with the idea of marriage.”
“Not that different from her mother when she was her age if I do recall.” Adair chimed in with a laugh as Ailsa’s cheeks flushed in embarrassment.
Richard smiled and accepted the apology as gracefully as he knew how and congratulated Hagan on his engagement. Sitting down to eat he found that the supper offered was wonderful. A hearty stew of beef and vegetables with bread, cheese, and brown ale to wash it all down. While Richard had not had bad food at any time since he had been on Aereth, this meal had a particular comforting quality that was hard to adequately describe. There was a homey quality present that for Richard was bitter-sweet, knowing he may never sit down to dinner with his family ever again.
The conversation had hovered around the various plans for Hagan’s wedding that was coming in the spring. Though after a time Rada turned to Godwyn. “When will you be getting married, brother?” Though Rada had asked the somewhat conspiratorial look on Ailsa’s face showed that she would like to hear the answer.
Godwyn’s face flushed with embarrassment and he made several false starts before managing to answer. “As soon as I can locate a bride.” He replied meekly.
“That may not take too long.” Richard chimed in with a slightly evil grin. “I saw the way you were looking at Lynx earlier.” It wasn’t true, but that wasn’t going to stop Richard from having a little harmless fun.
Godwyn turned an even deeper shade of red and tried to protest, but his mother was already speaking. “Oh? Who is this Lynx? You should invite her over for dinner sometime.”
“She’s with the Morrighan, and I think she is a Thane.” Richard replied for Godwyn “She’s pretty with long red hair. Overall quite a catch.”
By this point, Godwyn was staring daggers at Richard who managed to keep a straight face for just a few moments longer before laughing. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist. None of that is true. Well, Lynx exists, but it isn’t like that. My mother was the same way, always after me to meet a nice girl, settle down, and make her a grandmother. I couldn’t resist playing a bit of a prank on Godwyn here.” After a moment though Richard’s tone and expression turned a bit more serious as he addressed Aidan and Ailsa. “Godwyn’s a good man, I am sure he will find a lovely young woman in due time, but he shouldn’t settle so give him some time to find the one.”
At that, both Godwyn and his parents looked mollified, though Richard suspected that Godwyn planned to get him back for this as would be fitting for brothers and brothers-in-arms, and the conversation turned to other topics.
“Damn it,” Richard swore at the solid rock wall he was face to face with. Clearly, he had made a wrong turn trying to get back to the garrison. The path had been deliberately turned into something of a labyrinth to confuse would-be attackers. This had the unfortunate side effect of also confusing new recruits like one Richard Coyle. Not that his Horse hadn't tried to warn him, seeming more than a little reluctant to take their last turn. Richard patted the animal's neck. "Sorry girl, I should have listened to you." he apologized to the mare. Grumbling, Richard turned around and headed back towards the last junction in the tunnel. With any luck at this rate, he might make it to bed by midnight. At least though the meal he had was sticking with him and he would not be going to bed hungry. Richard found though, despite his navigational error, he couldn’t be too upset. The conviviality of the evening was sticking with him as well as the meal.
Following supper, they had enjoyed a pleasant time by the fire, talking and playing cards. Though Rada had been sent to bed not long into the evening, despite her protestations, between yawns, that she was not tired. That was fine by Richard, she had won the first two hands with ease. The game they played reminded Richard a little bit of Rummy, though with some differences in the rule set. It made for a pleasant focus as the conversation flowed along with the drinks.
Before too much longer Richard found himself yawning as well. He had instinctively glanced at his wrist to see the time, still having not quite broken that habit. Rising though he bid his hosts a fond farewell, shaking hands with the men and kissing Ailsa’s hand.
Godwyn showed Richard out, and as they stood in the doorway, the young guard looked a bit skeptical. “Are you sure you can find your way back?” He asked with a distinct note of concern.
“I’ll be fine. How lost can I possibly get?” Richard replied with a grin. “Enjoy your time at home.” Though Richard lingered a moment and his tone became serious. “Thank you for having me come over. You’ve got a good family Godwyn. What my mother would call salt of the earth.” Godwyn looked flattered if a bit confused and Richard realized that they probably didn’t have that idiom here. “It means they’re simple, honest, hardworking people. They’re the kind of people you want as neighbors and friends.” Richard sighed slightly. “It makes me miss my own family.”
Godwyn nodded slowly, his features sympathetic. “You are always welcome here. I guess, with what you’re going through I shouldn’t be so worried about getting re-assigned. Though, when that does happen if you are still here, will you look after them for me?”
At that, Richard smiled. “Of course Godwyn,” he replied and shook his friend’s hand. “Now get back to your family. I’ll see you tomorrow at roll call.” With that, they parted, Godwyn heading back into the warmth and comfort of his family home and Richard out into the wind and rain.
Tired and more than a little sore from his (longer than strictly necessary) journey back to the garrison, Richard finally arrived at the barracks. The lights were out, save one small lamp by the door and the men slept soundly in their bunks. Pausing Richard looked out over them. Each one of them, he realized, had a family not that different from Godwyn’s or in all honesty, his own family back on earth. While there may be oaths and high ideals, what each man was here to protect was home and family. “Not so different,” Richard said quietly as he made his way to his own bunk. Taking off his boots and preparing to settle in he smiled as he thought about his evening. The request that Godwyn had made just prior to their parting had hung in Richard’s mind. While he may never see his own family again, he had been invited to share in a family here. That was something worth fighting for alongside Godwyn and his comrades.