410 United Era
An arc of light inched over the Mindon Mountains and pushed back the darkness. It climbed higher, forcing the starlit sky to cede its ground. As the arc advanced above, the sleeping valley awoke below. The shadowy silhouette of a large oak, its thick arms stretching into the sky and reaching down to the ground, gained definition. Its leaves became visible, transitioning from grays to greens, and began shining as the sun crested the distant mountains to the east.
By the time the transition from night to day was complete, the town square surrounding the oak bustled with activity. Proprietors opened the shuttered windows of their shops and unlocked their doors. Merchants opened the sides of their wagons lined up along the waist-high fence surrounding the tree and set out their wares. Locals moved from shop to shop, running their daily errands, and gave a wide berth to the armored horses tethered to the fence.
On the opposite end of the growing town, across a creek flowing low from another winter of poor mountain snow, Yolken Thornhill filled a mug with ale. He set it before one of a dozen men hunched over the bar in the tavern he ran with his aunt and younger brother. Patrons occupied every table sandwiched between the bar and hearth on the opposite side of the quaint room. He had barely finished breaking his own fast and taking the chairs down before people had begun streaming in. He looked over at the stairs with a furrowed brow and then gathered an empty plate and mug from the bar top.
“Hey! I wanted another!” complained a scruffy man with dirty hands and clothes.
“Sorry,” Yolken said. “I thought you were finished. Another mild, then?”
Yolken set the empty plate on the bar and refilled the mug. He set the mug down before the man and then looked over at the stairs again.
The wooden kitchen door swung open and his Aunt Selena, a slender, middle-aged woman, walked out holding two plates of steaming hot food in her hands. “Where’s your brother?” she asked as she passed the bar. She deposited the plates at one of the tables and returned to the kitchen.
“Still sleeping,” Yolken said as she walked back by. He snatched the dirty plate from the counter, his annoyance at Javen rising to the surface, and followed his aunt into the kitchen.
He set the plate in the sink, then stepped out through the back door for a breath of fresh air. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, reveling in the tingly feeling that accompanied the warmth of the sun on his skin. The Little Mindon bubbled forlornly as it flowed past the tavern. He let his breath out slowly and visualized himself breathing away his annoyance at Javen. He didn’t mind his brother enjoying himself now and then, but Javen was growing increasingly irresponsible.
“It’s too early to be angry, Yolken,” Selena called through the doorway.
Yolken ignored her and breathed in again.
“It’s dying, you know,” a raspy voice said.
Yolken opened his eyes and saw Relan, one of the tavern’s regulars, stop in front of him. His clothes, as usual, looked as though he’d been sleeping in them for half a season. “What is?” he said.
Relan gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. “The sun. Just a matter of time. He knew it, too.”
Yolken was mystified. “What? Who knew?”
Relan shook his head and walked away. Before he disappeared around the side of the tavern Yolken barely heard him mumble, “No cursed scales gonna be sniffing ’round my place.”
When Relan was out of sight, Yolken went back inside. “Relan’s here,” he said. “And I’m not angry at Javen. Just annoyed.”
“Angry. Annoyed. What’s the difference?” Selena said, turning from the stove to look at Yolken.
“I’m tired of him shirking his responsibilities all the time.”
“He just needs a little more time to mat—”
“He’s twenty-two years old!” Yolken exclaimed. Feeling oddly warm, he reached up and wiped his brow with the sleeve of his shirt. “If he doesn’t want to do his part around here maybe it’s time he finds his own way.”
“Yelling at me won’t help,” Selena said. “And neither will threatening him.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“He’s your brother, Yolken. And there’s nothing more important in life than family.” Selena turned back toward the stove. “I know your brother’s not as hard a worker as you,” she said over her shoulder, “but the Great Dragon makes each of us different. Forcing him to do something he doesn’t want won’t help matters. And besides, if anything, you could stand to work less. How are you ever going to court Kaylan if all you do is work?”
“How did you…” Yolken started, feeling the warmth inside him move to his face.
“I watched you grow up together, and I see how you look at her whenever the two of you are around each other,” Selena said. She turned and placed a plate piled with eggs and pan-fried ham on the table. “It’s obvious you’ve been in love with that girl since you were a boy.”
“I…I didn’t think you knew.”
“Yolken, dear, I might be your aunt, but I’m also a woman.”
Yolken picked up a towel to wipe the sweat beading on his forehead. “How am I supposed to work less if Javen won’t do his share?”
“Talk to him.”
“Talk to him again. Gently. And not in anger. Keep trying until he comes around.”
“Can’t you talk to him?”
“He’s a grown man, same as you. I could talk to him, but it’d be better coming from you. He needs to know you need him. Maybe you show him that by giving him more responsibility.”
“I’m not giving him more responsibility until he learns to manage what he already has.”
“That’s for you to decide. Now, take this to Relan,” Selena said, adding a thick slice of buttered bread to the plate. “He’ll be cross if his food gets cold.”
She turned back to the stove, and Yolken knew she was done with the conversation. He picked up the plate then dropped it back onto the table with a yelp when it became scorching hot.
Selena turned around at the sound of the ham and eggs beginning to sizzle. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Yolken said. “The plate got really hot when I picked it up.”
“Did it burn you?”
“I don’t think so,” Yolken said, looking at his hand. When he looked up, he locked eyes with his aunt and sensed her displeasure. With a shake of her head, Selena turned back to the stove. Yolken used the towel to pick up the plate and hurried out of the kitchen. He set the plate in front of Relan and said, “What would you like to wash that down with?”
“Mild,” Relan said. “My head’s pounding this morning, lad. You weren’t kidding about your strong being strong.”
“I warned you, didn’t I?” Yolken grabbed a clean mug and asked, “You sure you don’t want water instead?”
“Nah. Once I get this fine cookin’ of Selena’s in me, I’ll be good.”
Yolken turned around and pulled the stopper on one of the six barrels lining the wall until the mug was full. He never understood how Relan could wake so early each morning, considering that he spent every evening sitting at the bar—and never with an empty mug—until Yolken closed the tavern for the night.
The moment Yolken set the mug down, Relan picked it up and drank deeply from it. “Where’s Javen?”
The stairs creaked before Yolken had a chance to respond, and he looked up. Javen was slowly descending, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. He still wore the clothes he’d had on the day before; his damp shirt clung to his body, and his light brown hair stuck out haphazardly.
“Late night?” Yolken said when Javen plopped onto the last open bar stool. The question was rhetorical. He knew Javen hadn’t come home until it was getting light out; Yolken had already been awake, thinking about the coming day, when Javen had stumbled down the hallway and not so quietly shut his bedroom door.
Using a metal hand pump, Yolken filled a mug with water and set it in front of Javen. He watched Javen pick it up and take a sip, then said, “Norin came by last night and told me our shipment came in, so I need you to pick it up.”
Javen looked up at him with bloodshot eyes. “Do I have to?”
“Yes, you have to,” Yolken said. He turned and called into the kitchen through the window, “Javen’s awake!” and then began attending to the other patrons sitting at the bar. Selena emerged with a plate of food. He watched intently, hoping she would say something, but she just set the plate in front of Javen and went back into the kitchen. He could still sense her displeasure.
A few minutes later, Selena reemerged and set a list on the bar next to Javen’s plate. “Finish your breakfast and then see to your errands,” she said. “You’ve slept half the morning away, and there are things that need doing.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Javen said.
Yolken gave his aunt a nod of approval.
“You and I need to talk about what happened in the kitchen,” she said. She made her way through the tavern, gathered a few plates and mugs, and then shouldered the kitchen door open.
When the door swung closed behind her, Javen said, “What happened in the kitchen?”
“Nothing,” Yolken said. “I also need to brew today, so when you get back, I’ll need you to tend the bar.”
“Again?” Javen exclaimed.
“Yes, again,” Yolken replied. “It’s been busier than normal with all these southerners passing through. And for once I wish you’d be willing to help around here.”
“If it’s so busy then maybe you should hire someone.”
“The lad’s right,” Relan said. “Your father was the same.”
“What do you mean?” Yolken said.
“He kept himself so busy here he never got around to building that house of his.”
“I have help,” Yolken retorted. He knew Relan was right, though. Their father had bought a plot of land by a maple grove east of town, situated on the Little Mindon, where he’d intended to build a home for their family. “If Javen put as much effort into helping me as he does chasing girls, we wouldn’t have a problem.”
Javen shoveled food into his mouth and mumbled, “I help.”
“Just finish your breakfast.”
Yolken tended the bar while Selena moved between the kitchen and the tavern, filling orders and taking empty plates and mugs back. When Javen finished his food, he snatched the list from the bar and shuffled back to the stairs. He came back down several minutes later with clean clothes and washed hair.
“Hurry back, Javen!” Yolken called before Javen disappeared through the door. When the door closed behind him, Yolken watched Relan mumble into his mug. He typically ignored Relan’s half-crazed remarks about the Regency, but his curiosity got the better of him. “What were you talking about earlier, Relan?” he asked.
“Why would the Regency sniff around your place?”
“Not gonna let them.”
“But why would they?”
“Dunno, but I saw them scales sniffing round the backside of Brall’s place on my way here.”
“Huh,” Yolken said. Whenever Dalia, the regent of the Croff province, came down from Croff, Brall hosted her at his inn, so Yolken wondered what interest the Regency would have in him. He’d heard the stories whispered by ale-loosened tongues about people going missing, but they were always stories from faraway places. Relan claimed to have known people who went missing, but Yolken had long ago learned to ignore the tales he spun. “And what about the sun?”
“What about it?”
“Haven’t you learned yet not to pay any mind to what Relan says?” Relan said.
He had a point. Relan talked a lot of nonsense once he filled himself with ale. How could the sun possibly be dying? The Great Dragon sustained the sun by breathing its power into it. It was probably the most nonsensical thing Relan had ever said.
The front door swung inward and slammed against the wall. Brall, a rotund, bald, and sweaty man, barged into the tavern. “Yolken!” he shouted, swabbing his glistening forehead with a soiled handkerchief. “I need your help! The chancellor of the south is coming to the Oak!”