The most wonderful thing about it was that it was a simple, ordinary house.
Not a large structure, but roomy enough for the comfort of its inhabitants, with a bit of space to spare. The walls were solid, dependable, fitted together over many months by loving hands. The builder had used no magic in the house’s construction, though certainly he could have. But that would, in a way, have defeated the entire purpose.
Windows sparsely dotted the structure, numbered and positioned perfectly. They were sufficient to admit the bright sunshine during the day, and the glimmer of moon and stars at night; to cool the house during the warm summer months, yet not so numerous as to make it difficult to warm against winter.
The house sat on the very outskirts of town. It was near enough to be neighborly, but retained a certain modicum of privacy unachievable in the heart of the small but bustling village. Chelenshire, it was called, a rather weighty name for a community of perhaps five or six dozen souls.
Another advantage to the house’s position at the edges of Chelenshire: It kept the inhabitants away from the slow but steady traffic that passed along what was once a major trade route. The odds of a stranger recognizing the house’s inhabitants were minuscule, but even “minuscule” was a risk not worth taking.
This morning, in particular, was a sunny one. The air was warm without quite crossing the fine line into hot, the sky a bright and cloudless blue. Birds wheeled above, droves of them, rejoicing in the last of the fine weather before the blistering heat and the rare but torrential storms of summer fell heavily upon them. Squirrels, gophers, and the occasional rabbit dashed across the grass, each on its own quest for fruits, vegetables, nuts, or whatever else might volunteer itself for lunch. An entire garden’s worth of food lined up in neat rows on two separate sides of the house. Lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, radishes, tomatoes, onions, squash, and more tomatoes—the lady of the house was abnormally fond of tomatoes—all beckoned invitingly. But though they would occasionally stop beside the garden, perched upon hind legs, to stare longingly at the repast calling to them, none of the rampaging rodents ever set paw into the garden itself. Something about the area itself kept the animals—as well as slugs, snails, and a huge variety of harmful insects—at bay.
There may have been no trace of magic in the building of the house, but the garden was another story entirely.
With a soft grunt of pain, the man currently at work yanking weeds from the bed of squash leaned back on his heels, one hand pressed to the small of his back. He was, he reflected grimly, too old to be spending hours on end hunched over the vegetables.
Hell, he didn’t even like gardening! It was his wife’s passion, she who spent so much of her time maintaining the place day after day. For his own part, he’d have been quite content to purchase the vegetables at the market. But though the money was not an issue—he’d enough saved from past endeavors to live many years in luxury—she had pointed out that such a lifestyle in Chelenshire would attract unwanted attention. And it was to avoid notice, after all, that they’d moved to Chelenshire in the first place.
Thus the garden, and their occasional hunting trips, and her embroidery and needlework, and his days spent in town, helping old man Renfro down at the forge or advising Tolliver on matters of policy.
But the forge was silent today, as was most of Chelenshire, in observance of Godsday. And she’d asked him, as a personal favor, to help in the garden. He shook his head, bemused, waiting for the pain in his back to recede. It was many years now since he could refuse her anything.
Of course, he reconsidered as he suddenly stood in response to another back spasm, maybe it’s time to start.
He wasn’t an especially conspicuous figure, not like in his younger days. He was taller than average—taller than most of the men in the village, certainly. In his prime, he’d been mountainous, his body covered with layers of rock-solid muscle; even Xavier, Renfro’s large son, was a delicate flower compared with what this man once had been.
Middle age stole that from him, though a combination of strict exercise and natural inclination saved him from going to fat, as so many former men of war inevitably did. He was, in fact, quite wiry now, slender to the point of gaunt. His face was one of edges and angles, striking without being handsome, and the gaze of his green eyes piercing. Hair once brown had greyed; it hung just past his neck, giving him a vaguely feral demeanor. Even now he could do the work of a man half his age, but he wasn’t what he used to be.
And his back still hurt.
The grin that blossomed across his face washed away the pain in his back. Quickly he knelt down, catching the wiggling brown-haired flurry that flung itself into his arms. Standing straight, he cradled the child to his breast, laughing.
“And a good afternoon to you, Lilander,” he said mock-seriously. “What are you running from this time?”
“Monster!” the boy shouted happily.
Gods willing, he could not help but think, this will be the worst sort of monster you ever know.
What he said, though, was, “Indeed? Is it a horrible monster?”
Lilander nodded, giggling.
“Is it nasty? Is it gross and disgusting?”
The boy was laughing loudly now, nodding even more furiously.
“Hey!” called another voice from just beyond the garden. “I heard that!”
Both father and son were laughing now. “Come on out, Mel. I’m just teasing.”
Her own lips twisted in a disapproving moue, a brown-haired girl, just shy of her teenage years, stepped from around the corner. She wore, as they all did, a simple tunic and breeches of undyed cloth. She was, her parents had decided, far too prone to dashing and racing around to dress her in skirts.
“Well, you don’t look as though you were chasing him,” the grey-haired man commented seriously. “You don’t seem to have been running at all.”
“I don’t need to run,” she said smugly, staring up at the two of them. “I’ll catch him eventually anyway.”
“Oh? And why’s that?”
“I’m smarter than he is.”
Lilander stopped laughing and scowled down darkly at his older sister. “Are not!”
Mellorin sighed theatrically. Her father, fully aware that he would soon have to be stern and fatherly, restrained a grin. She was so much like her mother.
“I refuse,” she said with exaggerated dignity, “to be drawn into that kind of argument with a child.”
The man’s lip quivered, and he coughed once.
“Are not!” her brother insisted again.
Her eyes blazed suddenly. “Are too!” she shouted.
All right, that was about as far as it needed to go. “Children!” the man barked, sharply enough to get their attention but not so loud as to suggest he was angry—yet. “What have I told you about fighting?”
“I don’t know,” Lilander said instantly. “Besides, she started it.”
Shaking his head, the children’s father gave them both another sound lecture—one he’d given hundreds of times previously, and fully expected to give hundreds of times more, possibly starting as early as lunch—and sent them both into the house. The windows weren’t quite thick enough to keep the recurring cries of “Are not!” “Are too!” from invading the garden.
“Louder than ogres,” he muttered with a trace of a smile as he turned back toward the vegetables.
“More dangerous, too,” came the reply from behind him. “They broke another window this morning. That’s why they were outside in the first place.”
She stood at the edge of the garden, leaning on a rake. She frowned at him, but he’d known her long enough to see the spark of laughter in her eyes. Her hair, a richer brown than his own had ever been, was braided in a simple tail. A few rogue strands fell across her face; she brushed them aside reflexively, unaware of the gesture.
“You’re beautiful,” he told her sincerely.
“And you’re trying to change the subject. I’m too tired to be flattered.”
He couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, I’d be more than happy to look after the children today. Of course, it means I’d be forced—reluctantly, I assure you—to skip helping you out here in the garden . . .”
“Oh, no! No, you’re staying out here with me if I have to stake you up like one of my tomato plants. You—”
A sudden shattering drifted from the general direction of the kitchen, followed immediately by “Mellorin did it!” “Did not!” “Did too!”
Their mother shook her head, sighing. “As soon as we go deal with whatever disaster just happened in the house.”
“Ah,” he replied, “normal life. It’s what we wanted, isn’t it?”
She laughed again, even as they started moving, the garden temporarily forgotten. It was amazing, even after all these years together. “I love you, Tyannon,” he said simply.
Tyannon smiled back at him, this man who had been her husband for half her life. “I love you too, Corvis.”
Corvis Rebaine followed his wife back into the house, pondering for just a moment how much things could change in seventeen years.
The celebration wound gradually down, leaving all of Denathere deliciously exhausted.
The westerly sun shed the last rays of the day upon the lingering vestiges of barely controlled chaos. Streamers of bright cloth littered the roads, as though a rainbow had shattered above the city, strewing shards carelessly about. Children, their exuberance not quite worn down by a full week of freedom and too much sugar, ran around madly, laughing happily or shouting at one another, determined to experience the absolute maximum of fun before their parents called them home for supper and bed. Even a few adults still danced in the streets, one hand clenched about a flagon of ale or mead or wine, the other clenched about the waist or wrist—or, in a few of the darker alleys, other parts—of a second like-minded citizen. Vendors shouted hoarsely to passersby, trying doggedly for one final holiday sale.
But most of the city residents, worn out from a full week of revels, were snug in their beds, beginning the painful recovery that all too often follows excessive jubilation.
At the edge of town, Guild-hired mercenaries cranked the handles of a huge wooden wheel. Chains clanked, gears rotated, wood creaked, and the gates of the city ponderously slammed shut. The sound, a solitary clap of thunder, rolled across the city. Drunk men sobered slightly at the sound, and the happiest citizens shivered briefly, for it was a palpable reminder of what they were celebrating—what they had so very nearly lost.
Outside those walls, atop the same small rise on which the regent’s tent rested so long ago, a figure stood, watching the city’s lights wink out one by one. The people of Denathere would sleep soundly this night, worn out from celebrating their liberation from the Terror of the East, safely ensconced behind their walls. And impressive walls they were, higher and thicker than those that had fallen before Rebaine’s assault, topped by guard towers equipped with catapults and ballistae. Even given Denathere’s poor position, the new walls alone made the prospect of taking the city a daunting one.