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Bran slowly surveyed the large living room. It was midnight.
Fire swayed constantly, casting eerie shadows on Celek’s pensive face. They could hear the howl of winds outside. They were lucky that Celek knew this place. A night outside in this weather would have been madness.
The old man wasn’t here, Bran noted. He approached his uncle, who must have already noticed his presence despite his lack of noise. Bran opened his mouth to ask the first question he had on mind, but before he could, Celek’s tired voice started:
“He’s Aharon, a ancient sorcerer from the south, and an old comrade in arms from the times of the Undead war”
Bran’s body shivered, and his eyes widened. The Undead war. It had happened one year before his birth. He had heard many stories about it, a war that encompassed the whole world. It had almost led to humanity’s extinction, and all heroes who fought were venerated for years. Celek was such a person. It was surprising that this old man was such a hero too.
His father was one too. Bran shook his head. He wasn’t going to waste time thinking about him.
“You came to ask him for help”. Bran affirmed. He now understood Celek’s real goal in this travel to the capital. “You want to ask all your old comrades to help you. To help me survive”
Celek remained silent, which was an answer enough for Bran. He hated that he was such a burden to his uncle, who was about to ask all his friends to risk their lives alongside his, all in order to take on his tribulation.
It was his only hope though. He also knew he had no way of persuading his uncle to give up and just abandon him.
Like his father did.
His voice hardened unconsciously as he continued:
“An ancient sorcerer? Is he the one to teach me magic?”
Celek gazed at the boy’s eyes, his violet-blue eyed stare making him almost fidget.
His uncle gazed back at the fire, and after a tired sigh he said:
“He was supposed to be one of your teachers. Unfortunately, he denied me all help”
Bran sat on another chair and said with a dejected sigh:
“He wants to live his last days in peace. We can’t deny him that”
Celek dismissed his words immediately:
“It’s not like that”. Celek hesitated for a moment, which was unusual. “It’s a complicated matter”. He stopped at that. Bran waited for more explanations but nothing came.
Celek was hiding something, he was sure of it, and somehow it had something to do with him. Yet, as much as he wanted to know about it, he wasn’t going to force his uncle to reveal it. Celek was his benefactor, and the least Bran could do for him was to respect his privacy.
After some moments of silence, Celek affirmed:
“At the cottage, you noticed it too”
Bran widened his eyes, remembering the matter. He hurriedly asked:
“The red mountains had disappeared for a moment… How did that happen?”
His uncle frowned. He thought for a moment and then started slowly:
“I can’t understand it either. Maybe it was someone’s magic at work”. He pursed his lips in exasperation. At the very least, that doesn’t concern us for now. Our first concern is your girl”
Bran cringed noticeably, and Celek revealed a small smile. He tapped with his fingers at the armchair, as he carefully added:
“Are you serious about being together?”
The boy frowned. It had been a question he had been struggling with for a long while now. He wanted to be together with her, but there was no foreseeable future they could have together. He would always be struggling for survival, while she had a land to rule in the future. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. It was time to give a final answer.
He loved Elea, and thus wanted her happiness. If they separated now, she would be sad for a while, but she would move on sooner or later, as he would disappear from her life. Maybe she would even find a way to follow her dreams. He opened his eyes as he exhaled. He answered:
“No. It’s better if each of us follows his own path”
A few moments of awkward silence went by, Celek gazing at the fire. At long last, he opened his mouth:
“Besides for your black hair, you look exactly like your mother. You especially got the eye color from her”
Bran’s mind reeled at the unexpected words, and especially at the mention of his mother. Celek never mentioned his sister before. He also seemed weird tonight, drawn out, a bit more vulnerable. Bran didn’t know what to think about it. His mind then registered the information about his eye color, and he gasped. It had been inherited to him. He almost teared up, but he pushed down the emotions.
It wasn’t time for that.
“Do you love the girl?”. Celek once again changed the subject.
Bran decided to be honest about it. He nodded his head toward his uncle affirmatively. He was smitten with Elea.
“Then you should get this over with”. Celek continued. “She’ll be going with us to the capital, where there will be no outside interferences. End this properly while you’re there. She’s bound to be hurt, but at least keep that to a minimum”
Bran merely nodded his head. He didn’t trust his voice enough to answer. He was ready for this, but he couldn’t help being choked with grief. Being together was merely a fantasy that couldn’t happen in reality.
After long moments, his emotions steadied down. The grief wasn’t going to disappear, but he had to learn to live with it. As he had learned to live with despair. He was going to force himself to do that, for her sake, in order to not draw her into his miserable destiny.
He didn’t know how much time went by in silence, but as he calmed down, Bran said:
“Is this why you let her come with us? What do you intend to do about her once my birthday gets close?”
“I can find trustworthy friends to escort her back here by then. I also don’t think she would be willing to stay with us”
Right. Bran nodded. After he would leave her, he didn’t think she would be able to bear staying around. It was for the best.
“If we survive your tribulation, we’ll think about where to settle for the next three years”
If they survived. The words weighted heavily on Bran’s mind. These were indeed the last times he’ll be able to see Elea. He sighed.
He tried to think about something else. He thought about her father and said:
“The lord told me that tens of thousands beasts have immigrated from all around the continent toward the west”. He voiced then his suspicions. “Do you think it has any relation with this tribulation?”
“Beasts…”. Celek thought for a moment. “That’s unlikely. Such a tribulation would be too easy to deal with”
Bran smiled bitterly. Easy. Only his uncle could say that. He was envious of that.
“Something must be happening in the other regions of the continent, which made them immigrate here. Don’t think too much about it. If it is related to you, we will know at your birthday”
Bran nodded his head. He was blessed to have his uncle with him.
He had to get stronger. Magic was his only hope for now, and he hoped he had some talent at it.
He had one last thing to tell Celek about.
“The tribes of the south are gathering to wage a war on this country. The king made no moves yet”
Celek’s face immediately turned serious. Bran added as a whisper:
“Should we do something?”
His uncle ignored him, glaring at the fire, his mind analyzing countless possibilities. It was the first war the world would know after the Undead war. The countries back then had agreed on a treaty of peace, in order to give humanity a chance to go back to its earlier population.
The king had made no move yet, and that meant he was plotting something. It was a big matter, which especially affected the heroes of the Undead war.
“Now this changes everything”
Unexpectedly, a small smile crossed his face. He turned toward Bran and told him:
“We will do nothing. Everything just became perfect”. He stood up and with a smile added: “And now I have something important to do, so we will stop our conversation here”
Bran widened his eyes. He wanted to know what his uncle was plotting, but he couldn’t. He trusted him, and he wouldn’t pry. It was a blind trust, but Celek already showed he was more than worthy of it three years ago.
He stood up with a nod and turned toward the stairs. After two steps, he remembered something. With a hesitating voice, he said:
“I think you would want to know this. When the red mountains disappeared, Elea had a headache, and seemed as though she forgot about them”
Bran then continued his way toward the stairs, his back turned toward his uncle. He had been unable to see his shocked face.
His steps heavy, he walked up to his room, and as he rested his hand on the knob of the door, he sighed. He was tired, and problems would never know an end. Maybe death was the only solution he had.
He shook his head. It wasn’t. He would keep looking for a way to deal with his curse, in order to live a normal life.
The door of Elea’s room opened up, and she stuck her head outside. As her eyes rested on Bran, she grinned. He smiled back. These were their last moments together, he had to imprint them all into his memories, and make them as good as possible.
Because he wasn’t going to commit the mistake of loving someone again in the future. If he lived that is.
He mouthed a silent ‘good night’ to her and went into his room.
Bran opened his eyes. It was time to go. His biological clock was always pinpoint on time.
He stood up, trying to smooth his messy hair with his hands. The result was subpar. He decided to leave it that way.
He stretched his arms, his groggy mind slowly gaining more focus and clarity. His wounded leg ached like never before. He took some leaves of Pashan and chewed them thoroughly.
He took the sword from the side of his bed, and put it on his belt. His eyes looked through the window. It had snowed all night long, and snow had gotten even higher. They had to rush through this travel.
He opened the door of his room, and found a bucket full of water. A similar one was in front of Elea’s room. The old man must have put them there. Aharon, he reminded himself. The great hero Aharon. Should he tell Elea about his identity? It would be amusing to see her being nervous before bidding him good bye. A pity he had refused to join them.
He washed his face, and then trudged down the stairs. His tattoos flared, and the wooden stairs he was on crumbled under him. His body immediately reacted before his mind could register the situation, grabbing a protruding piece of wood. The crumbling must have woken up all of them. Bran cursed his curse and the bad luck that came with it.
Celek appeared on top, followed with Elea, who stared at him with wide eyes. His uncle stifled a chuckle. Bran rolled his eyes in annoyance, and said in an impatient voice:
“I have a wounded leg. Are you going to help me or stand there laughing?”
Celek took Elea in a princess carry, much to her surprise, and effortlessly jumped the broken part of the stair. He put her down then a extended a hand toward Bran, lifting him from the hole. He stopped trying to hide his amusement. Bran merely sighed in resignation. This had happened so many times that it had become funny to his uncle.
Elea looked at him weirdly and murmured:
“How can someone be so unlucky?”
Bran had another question on his mind. How would they explain this to the great Aharon?
The old man opened a door, carrying two bags. He then stared with startled eyes at the destruction the stairs had gone through. His eyes immediately went to Celek, anger visible within. Celek merely shook his head with a laugh, and then shrugged. Bran felt apologetic, but he didn’t know what to do.
The old man fumed in silence, as he carried again his bags that were as big as a four years old infant toward the door of the house. Bran wondered about their content as he followed suit.
As they got out into the cold, they found the horses fully prepared and harnessed. It must have been Celek’s work. Oddly, there was an additional horse.
Bran’s mind immediately turned excited, catching the meaning. The old man was coming along.
He turned his excited eyes toward his uncle, who nodded back with a smile and said for also Elea to hear:
“The sorcerer Aharon will join us on this trip to the capital”
Elea gasped. She must have recognized the name. Bran chuckled at her shock. The old man turned out to be a hero of stories she heard at school.
“You’re just joking… This isn’t true… It can’t be!”
Celek kept his smile on his face as he said:
“It is true. Furthermore, he will teach you and Bran magic for these two months”
Elea’s skepticism slowly turned into excitement. Celek had no reason to lie to her. Bran smiled too. He could finally get to learn magic.
Maybe there was some hope along the road.