Born in the Cappard Sea, the wind blew east and crashed into the red-capped mountains that gave the land their name. Bran had set off in the very still silence of dawn, and now a sun without warmth was already high in the sky. Gusts plastered his shirt to his body, whipped his wool pants around his legs, streaming them out. Down it went, flailing into Terrowin, and into the small cliff overseeing it. The wind was carrying an icy chill, as summer was weeks ago gone.
Winter was claiming the land, just like how death would claim him soon.
He eyed his coat. It had a big tear cutting it into almost two halves. He let out a cold sigh, wishing his shirt was a bit thicker, or that he had worn an extra shirt. He tucked his arms into his armpits, and felt a little foolish, as regret tugged at his heart. If he had known better, he wouldn’t have fought that direbear. He looked again at his ripped cloak. He was going to hear an earful about it once he got back home.
No birds sang in the forest, no squirrels chittered from branches. Not that he expected them, really. Not in the soon to be winter. His hand went into his pocket, from where he retrieved an old cloth. It was dirty, but it would do. He cleaned his short sword from the cold blood and looked at his side. A big white furred mass was sprawled on the ground. He considered skinning it. Bear’s fur might fetch enough money to buy something for Elea. He frowned and admonished himself: he had to stop these actions, as it only encouraged her further. He looked at the back of his hand. Numerous black inky tattoos were etched on his skin. A sad smile appeared on his face, and he abandoned his earlier idea of skinning the beast.
His gaze wondered down the cliff. Terrowin was standing as proud as always. He could see some people going about near the gate. There were no farms around, as this land wasn’t fertile enough.
He hardened his face and went down the cliff. As he approached the Bourg, he saw some squabble in front of the gate. A stout man was arguing with an armored one. Bran couldn’t see his face because of the steel helmet, but he could recognize Sir Hadrin. He was a knight of the Bourg’s lord. Bran had quite the liking to this man. His status didn’t put him above mingling with commoners. Maybe it was because his lords’ status wasn’t high even among the lower nobles. Bran was unable to understand the nobles’ thoughts. There were no such ranks between men. They were meaningless once faced with death.
He shook his head again, clearing his mind of meaningless thoughts. His close fifteenth birthday was bringing those ideas to his head again. If anything had to happen, it will happen, and if he was to die that day, there was no changing that.
The fat man was a merchant, or maybe just a peddler, seeing the carriage full of goods behind him. Merchants were very rare here, as Terrowin wasn’t a big enough economical center to have a steady flow of them.
As he passed through the gate, Sir Hadrin glimpsed him, as he stopped paying attention to the wildly gesturing peddler. He sent a nod toward the boy. Bran did the same, and continued down the cobblestone road.
His destination was the market fair. As he made way toward it, he let his gaze wonder. The Bourg was as peaceful as ever. The economic situation wasn’t the best, as copper, the trademark of the Bourg, wasn’t that valuable in the kingdom, but people were satisfied.
He soon found himself at his destination, and his eyes spotted old Will fast enough, as the old man almost never left his stable. He ignored the gazes that didn’t leave him since he entered the Bourg and started, his voice filled with sarcasm:
“Will, how’s life doing for you? Not submitting to death yet?”
Will looked back at him. The old man was a faded version of his son. Dull blue eyes, sagging leathery skin, a bald head, tufts of hair growing out of his ears, and a chin too weak to grow any beard, Will loved to stay in his stable, even after his retirement.
“So boy, quite rare to see ya here in town. Celek’s in need of something?”
Bran liked the man. He was blunt and always direct in his affairs. But he was still stifled as his earlier questions were ignored. He swallowed his pride and said:
“He wants to rent two horses. We’ll bring them back in about two months” after a moment he added “I’ve got the money on me”
“Two months… So finally leaving this backwater place? Well can’t blame ya, young men these days want adventure as much as we wanted nice legs to warm our beds at night, back in the time. Or is it a girl for ya boy?”
Bran again wondered if he would become as annoying once he got at that age. That was only if he survived till that age. He showed a strained smile, giving a level stare at five nearby men, thinking about the repercussions of Will’s words if they ever got to the right ear…
Feeling a chill, he whispered to the old man:
“There’s no way that’s true, and you know that. Stop trying to make problems for me, Old man.”
Will showed a knowing smile, staring deeply into Bran’s eyes. Bran had garnered a lot of women’s attention before because of his eyes. They were an unusual mix of blue and green, changing color depending on the light. Now, no girl would approach him. His mood sank as he thought about the reason.
Will’s crackling voice shook him from his reverie:
“Ye should be happy boy. Few have ever garnered a noble’s daughter attention. And fewer also had the approval of the noble himself.”
“I already know that” Bran scratched his head awkwardly and continued: “The matter is just… complicated”
Upon hearing these words, Will sent a glare at him, and Bran turned his head, unable to keep up with his gaze. This old man may be fooling around at this age, but he was known through the Bourg for his valor and strength in his youth. He had heard from Elea that her grandfather once offered him knighthood, but the man had refused it, babbling about how status will corrupt his family.
“Things are never complicated, boy. Ye are making them complicated. If ye love the girl, just tell her”
Bran could only smile weakly at these words, choosing to remain silent. The matter was really complicated. He looked at his surroundings. Will started talking again:
“Those are yer own matters, but better remember the advice of these old bones. But ye didn’t tell me where ya’ll be going for two months?”
Bran was thankful for the old man for letting the matter go. Talking about Elea always made him anxious. As he mulled over a proper response, his gaze fell again on those four nearby men. They were discussing something, just like earlier. As he was about to sigh with relief, it dawned on him. Weren’t they five earlier? As he frowned in thought, he clearly saw a look of amusement flash through Will’s face. He whipped his head around, glared at the old man and said, his voice seething with cold anger:
“Old bones, stop losing my time. If you’re not giving me the horses, I’ll take them myself.”
He forcibly handed him a pouch of coins Celek had given him in the morning. Without waiting for a response, he strode forward into the stable.
Will’s voice was heard again, this time with amusement clear in it:
“Boy, yer noble girl is coming for ya! “
As Bran turned his head, he saw the missing fifth man joining his friends. And then he noticed Eleanor walking slowly toward him. The boy’s eyes were drawn by her figure instantaneously. Her hair was a rich shade of fiery red; it flowed in waves to adorn her mildly tanned skin… Her high cheekbones were in perfect harmony with her straight nose, making her look as if chiseled by a master in carving, while her eyes were a bright azure blue. He stopped the smile he was about to show, and adopted an impassive face. Her gaze wavered a little as she felt his cold indifferent gaze, but she didn’t falter while stepping into the stable. Bran felt a pang of guilt in his heart.
As she came up to him, he got a full view of her small but firm muscles. Bran was very tall for a soon to be fifteen years old boy, but Elea still came up to his nose. Her body was strong, as she was always trained by Sir Hadrin. Her lips parted as she slowly said, her gaze never leaving his:
“I heard you’ll be leaving for months. What is it about?”
He had expected it. He looked at the old man, who was grinning like a fool. He felt anger seeping into him. The two were accomplices.
“I wonder what your father will think if he heard you were eavesdropping.”
His words came out colder than he expected. She at least had the decency to blush. As crimson started to creep into her face and neck, he felt his body shuddering. In the past, he had seen many women with beauties that outstripped the divine, but all this girl’s small reactions were affecting him in more than a way. He had already understood a year ago that his love for her wasn’t fake.
In a slightly softer voice he said, not giving her the chance to respond:
“Let’s talk in another place”
He eyed Will from the corner of his eyes. The old fool waved back at him. He was only in control of the conversation at the moment because she had showed a small weakness. Elea was going to get her composure back soon, and she would be toying with him then. He wasn’t about to let anyone see the sight. He had heard many rumors in the last months about him being her whore.
Elea blinked her eyes. A look of realization appeared on her face as she looked at Will. His grin threatened of splitting his face into halves. She looked back at Bran, her lips morphing into a sly smile. Bran shuddered again. He hadn’t wanted to meet her today, as he had many errands to do. He cursed under his breath. He had to stop lying at himself. He was scared of meeting her. He didn’t want to give her farewells, when he wasn’t sure he’ll be alive after two months.
She held his hand in a tight grip, and started taking him along out of the market fair. He heard whistles and some dirty jokes as they made their way through a mass of people. Bran looked at Elea. Her wide smile was as charming as ever. They soon entered a maze of alleys, until they made it into a dead end.
He looked around. The walls were devoid of windows. He sighed. Just what had she been doing to find such a place? She let go of his hand, and he looked back at her. She was standing close to him, looking up at his face, her gaze fixing him in place. He started:
“You shouldn’t eavesdrop on me aga—“
He couldn’t finish his words, as her lips suddenly settled on his. His mind stopped for a second, uncomprehending, before going at full throttle. He tried to force his teeth shut, but her tongue forced its way into his mouth. He knew this action was wrong, and he tried to tear away from her, but after seconds of struggling, he couldn’t tear her apart from him gently without hurting her, and his body started feeling unusually weak. He knew she would only be hurt in the end, but he couldn’t stop her. He loved her, and looking into her misty, dreamy eyes, he understood she felt the same. Their lips parted for a moment, only to repeat the same process again. He knew this act was irresponsible, immature, but his body and mind couldn’t follow the voice of reason in his head. Their tongues invaded each other’s mouth. He felt her big front teeth and shared in the taste of her saliva. Eleanor put her arms around his neck, and kissed him with more hunger and fervor.
Bran felt his body shudder. He wanted her very badly. He pulled away for the kiss, a line of saliva trailing between their lips. Elea looked at his lips, her azure eyes full of longing, and then she looked at his eyes, the confusion in her eyes betraying the questions in her mind.
Bran inhaled deeply to steady his breathing, and said:
“Elea, let’s stop here. This isn’t prop—“
He felt his heart react as she once again sealed his lips. Not a thump, exactly. Not even a leap. But a kind of swish, like a frog kicking off from a muddy bank. His mind was moving between three emotions: excitement, fear and guilt. Elea tugged his black hair, holding his head still, as her tongue swirled inside his mouth. All sounds stopped reaching his ears, as she and her movements became his only focus. Her free hand took hold of his jaw, and her body pressed on his own. As she took a second to catch her breath, he unconsciously pulled her hard against him and kissed her back. Her eyes showed joy, contentment and excitement. He closed his eyes. She groaned softly, low in his throat, and then his arms circled her. All they knew was that no one existed around them. He felt her moist lips tugging on his own.
He felt a faint throbbing in the black tattoos etched on the skin of his body, and his eyes snapped open, immediately sober. All his senses flooded back to his mind, and he looked up, pulling away from the kiss. Some rocks, as large as his head, were falling right on top of them. It was mere moments before they would be crushed. Reacting instantly without thinking, he tightened his hold on Elea’s body, and twisted his own, rolling out of the impact range, which almost deafened his ears. He sighed. This was a close one, all because he was careless.
Now he was even surer he could never be with her. How could they ever have a peaceful instant, if death was threatening him in every single moment he was breathing? The girl stared at his face wide eyed, and then she looked at the big red pieces of stone. Her gaze settled on him again, and she pushed some of his hair locks out of his face. He felt something warm trickling from them. Seeing the horrified look on her face, as she looked at him, he understood that it must be blood.
He held her hand in his and said in a reassuring voice:
“It’s just rubble, don’t worry about it.”
She used her free hand to touch his cheek, slowly. Then she pushed him off her and stood up unsteadily. Bran was already used to her being unpredictable. He stood up in turn, dusting off his clothes. He looked at the stones. They were red colored, and looked like pieces of something bigger. He sighed and looked up. A part of the side of one of the buildings surrounding them was broken.
“I’ve never seen someone as unlucky as you Bran. Do you realize how many accidents has it been till now? Five! Look, your coat got such a big rip. Celek will definitively be angry.”
He cursed under his breath. If it was only five, his life wouldn’t be so crappy. He looked again at Elea. She was looking at the coat he had flung on his shoulder with her smiling face. Her eyes contained a hint of worry. He sighed again. She had only now noticed his coat.
“I came across an ice direbear this morning. It wouldn’t leave me alone so I killed it”, with a bashful smile, he added “The coat paid the price though.”
Her eyes widened a little. She hung her head, took a deep breath, and then exploded:
“You are too much! Our hunters kept tracking him for a month, without avail, and you just come and meet him with some damn luck?!”
Her outburst surprised him a little. She said it was luck, but it was actually bad luck, and nobody knew better than him how unlucky he was. It was as if the world wanted to kill him off.
“Anyway, what was that about being away for two months?”
A grunt escaped his lips. It was foolish to hope she would forget about that. He inhaled and said:
“Celek wants to go to the capital. He got some things to do there.”
She narrowed her eyes; her left hand brushed his cheek. Some of the tension in his body faded.
“Why would Celek ever need to take you to the capital? Doesn’t he always leave you when he travels?”
He opened his mouth to tell her the truth, but he stopped. He never understood how she could control him this way. It was turning into an interrogation. He summoned all his willpower and said:
“He wants to see if I can learn magic”
He didn’t lie; it was the truth, or at least part of it. He looked at her lips. After that earlier, he was craving for more from her. He almost bent down to kiss her. She noticed her gaze, and made a sly smile again, her azure eyes deeply burrowing into his. She then said:
“Why can’t you just learn here? We got a priest of Azelf; he can teach you all you need“
She whispered into his ear:
“Your birthday is in a month and half, and I want to spend it with you.” She stopped for an instant, her breath tickling his ear, and went on: “While Celek is gone, you can come live in our manor. My lord father-”
“I will never learn gods’ magic.” He firmly said, surprising her. He continued softly: “The matter is a bit complicated. I mean… There’s someone who’ll be coming from far away to teach me another branch of magic, so I really got to go.”
He hung his head in apology. She stared at his face, fully engrossed into the mixture of colors in his eyes. After some time, she said:
Theodore sighed. He looked at his electronic pad. Ten minutes were left. As each second passed, he grew more frustrated. He looked at the front tables. Maya was acting like an honor student as always. She looked interested in the things the teacher was saying even in the last minutes of the school year.
He looked again at his pad. Only ten seconds had passed. He grew angry. He hated school, as it was a major loss of time. He dearly wanted to be in his virtual pod, at home.
As he looked up from his desk, he saw the teacher staring at him. He wondered if he should act like he gave a fuck, but it was tiring to look that way. He shrugged it off, and looked at his pad. Nine minutes were left.
This wasn’t going to end. He decided to sleep. As he closed his eyes and put his head on his desk, his thoughts couldn’t calm down. He sat up again and glared at his pad. Twenty seconds had passed.
‘Not here. Not in this place!’
He frowned, and then thought about Eduard. This morning, his friend had proposed the idea of playing Origin together, and he didn’t know what to do. The game was definitively interesting, but lacked many key aspects other virtual realities had. No level system, no relevant big plot or story line till now, and the pain settings were at a mandatory 100%.
He would have never heard of Origin, if not for his friend, as it was one of the most ignored games. It had garnered the attention of quite a few hardcore gamers, but that was it. In front of the huge amount of diverse virtual realities, it seemed like nothing.
Theodore was quite bored now with the usual games, but he still didn’t want to start playing that one. He was living a life free of pains, so why would he go seek it on his own?
He didn’t know what to do. Eduard was a very good and close pal to him, and he owed his friend too much. He could start playing Origin just to please him, but it just didn’t feel right.
The game was mostly centered on player killing, as monsters were quite rare. He didn’t hate that kind of setting, but it felt bland. Who wouldn’t want to fight with mystical monsters in a game? He had also heard about the highly realistic AI and monsters. Being as humanlike as possible for an AI and being intelligent for a monster was good, but again, who would want to play a game where monsters didn’t respawn, and where questgivers could die a definite death? It was fated to become boring sooner or later.
He sighed. The game was good, but was definitively lacking. A minority liked that touch of realism, but to him and to most people, that kind of games wasn’t enticing.
He looked again at his pad. Nine, eight. He felt a surge of joy. Only a few seconds before the end of the school year. He grabbed his pad. All the students heard a ringing, and the teacher immediately stopped talking, showing a knowing smile as they all stood up.
Theodore wasted no time, with his pad was already in his backpack. He walked hurriedly toward the door, but a girl came up to him, meaning to talk. He remembered her name, Mia. He could see a guy and two other girls, her friends, with the corners of his eyes. They were standing a slight bit farther at the side. They were her friends. He ignored them, continuing on his path toward the sliding door.
One of the girls called up to him. Fuck, he had to deal with them now. He didn’t hate them, but they would surely take a lot of his time.
He turned toward them, and forcibly squeezed a smile, while raising his brow quizzically. The guy, taking the cue, started:
“We’re having a class party in the afternoon.” At the sight of Theodore’s tilted head, he added: “Wanna come?”
Theodore looked at them, and then at Mia. She looked uneasy under his gaze, and was probably the one who came up with the idea of inviting him. He had made it clear to everyone else he wasn’t interested in too much social activity.
“Sorry but I already got an appointment. Some other time maybe” he added with a genuine smile, as he had no reason to antagonize them.
The guy didn’t look surprised in the slightest. He gave up, sending an acknowledging nod back as answer. Theodore turned to leave, but heard a faint voice calling for him. It was Mia again. Mia Stanford, she was one meter fifty something. Adorned with blond hair, brown eyes and a kind but a bit shy personality, she was a really desired girl. It was mindboggling that she could like someone like him, everybody shared the sentiment. He felt pity for her though, as he didn’t have any romantic feelings for her.
“Can I add your number to my pad?” her face went a bit red as she added: “Umm, to call you if we’ll hold something else in a later day”
He felt bad for thinking about rejecting this demand. He sighed and gave her his number. It wouldn’t hurt, probably. If she ever started getting her hopes up, he’ll be direct with her.
They just weren’t suited for each other.
She smiled and looked happily at her newly added number in her pad. He bid her goodbye, and before she had time to stop him again, he went through the door, and disappearing in the elevator.
“There’s not much time left!”
He stifled a groan. These voices were getting more annoying with each day. He closed his eyes, emptying his mind.
He had to consider whether he’ll start playing Origin in these holidays.