Vagrant Story. Spoilers. Post-game, for Mithrigil.
"There's a man by the barns!" Berthold said, flopping down in the stone ring, right between Nellie and Robert. Both of them wrinkled their noses and scooted away. He hadn't washed again that day; he stank like sheep manure from the pastures, sour and rotting and moist. There was a fresh bruise near his cheek where one must have kicked him. "He disappeared as soon as I saw him, like water poured into milk! It's him!"
Berthold's father exiled him to the fields so often that Berthold spent more time outdoors than in. At times he slept out there, among the sheep; his father said doing so would make him strong. Instead, it made him reek.
I scowled. "You've the foolishness of a babe." I wanted to give a lofty sniff after that, but it would have filled my nose with Berthold. "Next, you'll speak of hobgoblins again, snarling the laces of your shirts."
Berthold scrunched up his face. No one believed him at first. There were questions asked, interrogations for detail. I listened to the discussion with a stony silence, refusing to grant him belief. He was eleven, liable to believe that snow would fall in summer. I was fourteen; I was wiser than that.
We lit candles anyway that night, stealing beeswax nubs out of sconces and assembling at the stone ring out near the well. In unison, we chanted the name for incantation, though most got it wrong and said it backwards instead, which was more likely to summon grubs than strangers. Half the younger ones were crying anyway, terrified of imaginary monsters.
When everyone had finished, syllables tripping off haphazardly into the night, we waited.
Everyone blew out their candles, grumbling, and parted ways to sneak back to their beds. I went back home along the garden path, skirting towards the lanterns that were hung near the workshop doors. My parents had warned me about being careful the older I grew, but I was no fool; I knew how to listen for the steps of the village boys, and none of them had shown any hints of straying towards my yard anyway. Oftentimes I cursed being a weaver's get, with roughened hands and calluses from the treadle. Safe though I was, it was a miserable protection.
And then I saw him.
At first, he was simply a figure set immobile by the path; a rough shape indistinguishable from a hewn log that had been left there to rot. When I drew closer, he blinked. He was less frightening than I expected. At first I thought that his hair was the only strange thing about him -- two long bangs arching backwards over his skull, like the horns on a goat -- but then I realized how fearlessly he held himself, how utterly at ease.
The radiance from the lantern flickered as moths crossed the surface of the glass. I came to a halt and stared.
"Candle," he uttered softly, hesitantly. The inflections broke over themselves. He cleared his throat. "Your candle."
I gave it over. He turned it around in his fingers, denting the softened wax, pinching the ridges. I thought that he might have been inscribing magickal runes into the surface with his thumbnails, but then I saw him press a little too hard and break the shell; a few drops of warm wax spilled over his knuckles, cooling almost instantly in milky streaks.
Another person might have flinched. The stranger did not. He lifted one of his hands towards his mouth, but stopped halfway, like a baby who'd been burnt but who remembered the taste would be foul.
"Are you hurt?" I asked, politely. It seemed like the thing to do.
The man shook his head.
"Are you going to kill me now?" I added after that, and he blinked, looking surprised and pained all at once, as if he'd stepped on a nail.
His voice, when it came, was thick with rust. "What reason would I have for that?"
"Because you're the Vagrant," I explained patiently, and repeated the chant again, just in case he was daft as well as mythical. "'If child by night holds candle high, then close fast the windows and shutter the sky. Say ye the name to which life must hark: say ye the name of the Vagrant Dark.'"
He looked askance. I could not imagine why. "And what is this name?"
"Sully Endis." Sullied, Nellie had always tried to argue, Sullied Endis made more sense -- but I knew my letters, and I knew better. You didn't have to understand a name in order to speak it. "Torat Sully Endis. The man who came back from the grave to claim the life of an aging priest, before he was finally banished to wander through the Dark."
He mouthed the sounds, reshaping them in a whisper I almost understood. I kept my chin high, unflinching. I was fourteen; I was not afraid of death.
But the stranger disappointed me with his next words. "So this is what we have been reduced to." He might have been laughing, save that his lips were not working properly, and wavered between a smile and a frown. "Fairy tales and smoke."
Stung, I straightened my shoulders. "Why are you here otherwise?"
"It is not you for whom I attend, but another." Even this rejection was gently spoken, lacking the mockery that might have slanted the conversation steeply downhill into resentment. "A woman, pale of skin and eye, who goes about wrapped. She lives hidden from the night. Though she has been calling, she does not approach, and this incites great curiosity in me." He waited for a moment, and then pressed. "Have you knowledge of such a one?"
Naturally I did: Berthold's mother, a thin, wan-looking woman who doted on her son whenever she was seen in public. These times were not often. She dressed with utmost propriety, with a high collar and long sleeves even in the height of summer, though her hair was let down to hang limply around her face.
I told him as much, and it seemed that the information was enough to allow him to solve the puzzle in his own mind, pieces clicking into place behind his eyes. Not all, though. "Will you give me her name, in exchange for having spoken another?"
Hesitation gripped me for an icy heartbeat; then I commanded myself to stop being mulish. "Meredith."
The word was like an invocation: the stranger's eyes slipped closed, and he drew in a deep breath and held it. Then he exhaled slowly. If what he did was magick, then it was no greater than that; I could have accomplished the same with my own pair of lungs, had they not been pumping shallow with anticipation.
He returned the candle to me, depositing the rolled wax into my palms. "Call for me again, come tomorrow eve," he instructed, and I committed the order to feverish memory, nodding as he faded away.
I waited as long as I could the next night, watching the sky until the first few stars began to glimmer, and there could be no doubt as to the lateness of the hour. 'Twas simple enough to elude my parents again and escape to the garden paths. I did not know if I was supposed to call his name directly at the stone circle, or if anywhere would do; there was still the chance that other children from the village would be straying there for their own mischief, and I did not wish to afford the risk of their interference.
Reaching a twist of the garden hedge, I crouched down and listened. No one was coming. The match's flame rose when I struck it, cupped against my hand.
I lit the candle. I said the words.
He was there when I turned around, standing between the cottage and me. Some of the bafflement had left his features; he seemed more alert than the previous night, though the change was so miniscule that I suspected a trick of the candlelight.
"Did you find her?" I did not know why I asked; I did not want to hear the answer. Not really.
He nodded, but volunteered nothing.
That night, I was not as willing to let him give his decree and depart a second time, leaving me alone and wondering. "Tessa says 'twas the Vagrant who cast a blight on her father's crops last harvest. But she is a liar," I stated, offhandedly. I tried to sound aloof, but in truth, I was curious. "Do you show yourself to the others?"
"Shall I introduce you, then?" The thought leapt inside me like a fireplace spark, birthed in a moment unexpected. Surely all of them would be impressed. Vanity made me giddy. "I... I could bring you to meet with them."
He stepped forward suddenly, cutting the rest of my thoughts short. Before I could back away, he reached out with one hand, fingers crooked. When they brushed across my cheek, I could not tell if the touch was warm or cool; the contact alone caused my skin to tingle, tightening on my bones.
"The Dark favors you, child," he murmured. "Do not be tempted to find out why."
I could not help myself; I shuddered. Not from terror came this response -- I was not afraid of him, although I tried to be. The curve of his mouth was too wistful to seem threatening, and his eyes were too lost, as if he was listening to a song performed by a bard on a distant hill, sweetly yearning for him to join it.
Or so I thought. Just as I had begun to dismiss him as an addlewit, the stranger's head turned. He looked straight at me, and in that moment, I imagined he could see every foul thing in my soul: the lies I had concocted to escape from chores, the small arrogances and pride, the pins I had hidden in Tessa's shoes, every private grudge and treachery I had nurtured in my fourteen years upon the earth. He saw them, and he did not look away.
"You know the woman's son." It was not a question.
I nodded, struck dumb and shaken.
"Find reason to have him away from his home tonight."
The demand seemed impossible. I opened my mouth to complain, but all desire to resist had fled. Beneath the stranger's regard, I was not a haughty weaver's child with secret dreams; I was nameless, formless, and he was too.
"What will happen to Berthold?" I whispered, the afterthought coming suddenly, jerking at my heart with dread.
It seemed that the stranger sensed my fear, for he lifted his hand towards me once more, though it hovered near my hair and no closer. "To him? Nothing. Go now, and be safe."
It took some convincing to pry Berthold away from his pastures, but less than I feared: the nights were growing chill, and he caved to the promise of a hot meal in exchange for helping me finish the wool carding. My parents looked at me gravely when I made my request to them, and insisted that he make his bed in the front room by the hearth. I ignored their concerns for my virtue, too eager to seek out the vagrant's doings and solve the mystery of his intent.
It was minor trickery to escape from my window when I heard my parents retire for the night. Berthold's home sat at the far end of the village. It was not far to walk.
I was less than five minutes away from their cottage when I saw it: red and gold and blue through the treeline, writhing together in coils angrier than any blaze I had ever seen before in my life. It was as if someone had ripped open the belly of an iron stove, and magnified it a thousand times in scale, so that the temperature closest to the wood -- that eerie, flickering sapphire hue that was the inner sheath of heat -- bloomed free of all constraints.
Bells were beginning to clang. Metal tongues screamed the emergency call.
Other villagers had awoken at the clamour, calling to one another as they sought to ferry water from the nearest well. Their silhouettes wavered like a puppet show against the light. The barn and all the pasture gates had been opened, leaving stock to run as nearby haybales began to smolder. Berthold's house was already consumed. The sheep were in a panic, bleating and stinking and crying.
It was the vagrant's doing. I knew it.
They said later that Berthold's father had gone ill in the head, setting fire to his home and committing violence upon his wife. Her dress had been found on the grass outside, rent and covered with blood; the knife was clutched in Berthold's father's hand. It was a foul working, all agreed. And yet -- and yet, now some of the villagers were muttering, when they thought we could not hear -- it was not entirely unexpected, considering the man's personality, the man's fits of temper.
The Church sent priests around to intone words and have us all bow our heads as we listened, though they conferred amongst themselves for a full day before finally setting up a gravestone for Berthold's mother. No digger was called in; her body was never found, and as for the father, the Church chose not to include him in their service.
Still, they lingered. I saw them frequently at the blackened ruins of Berthold's home, conferring with one another, and dusting ash from the strange pattern that had been stamped into the cracked stones of the foundation. Too, there were sterner looking soldiers with them, men and women whom I imagined belonged to the infamous Valendia Knights of the Peace -- although Tessa argued with me and said they belonged to the Crimson Blades instead.
Neither of us could figure out what purpose they were there for, in the end.
Berthold was taken in by an uncle on his mother's side, a solemn man who nevertheless showed kindness after opening his door. He began to attend his letters with the village tutor as well. Though it meant that Berthold stayed inside at proper hours, the influence of his uncle also resulted into the introduction of soap into his life, and we were all the more grateful for it.
I did not tell him of the nightly meetings I had shared with the stranger. I did not tell anyone, particularly not after Berthold changed as we all grew older, becoming increasingly thoughtful, and refusing to ever raise his hand in anger no matter how grave the insult. He spoke a little to me, when I finally sought him out to satisfy my own curiosity.
His father had often been strict. His mother had cried. These were his memories.
Sully Endis never returned to me, although I gave into temptation and struck a candle on the eve of my wedding, staring into the darkness and wondering at my own quivering hope.
I finish this story now only because I am old, and this is a thing to be known. When I am done, I will climb the stairs to my chambers and there will be a candle waiting for me; there has always been a candle waiting for me, though by custom it goes unlit.
This one will not.
Remember, then, the words which I have spoken and the rhymes which children laugh at without fear. What games we think are petty amusements have their purpose. My conspiracy with Sully Endis was one of them.
I say this true: the Dark is out there, and its vagrant too.