Talboa Forest, Northern Argoth, 10000 ft above the Aeryth Ocean, Year of the Minaret’s Horn, 1722 CE
It was frigid day in my sixteenth year when I met the man who would irrevocably change my life. Gunmetal clouds scudded through the sky, driven by the fierce winds that chilled me to the bone. As I entered the forest, the trees around me soughed and creaked. Talboa Forest wasn’t like Minzo. In Minzo, the trees were mostly oak, spread far apart. Talboa was a forest of regal pine and mastiff evergreens, grown close together. It was claustrophobic, but I’d had to get away and forests had always been a soothing sanctuary.
My glowlamp barely lit the path as I entered the deeper recesses of the forest, where the limbs almost completely blocked out the sky. Nevermind that I was lost in my brooding thoughts and scarcely paying attention to the path. Such that it was that I didn’t even see the figure sitting propped against a tree. I had no inkling I was no longer alone until a distinctly masculine cough stirred me from my reverie. I gave an undignified yelp and my glowlamp went flying, to land with a soft thud on the matting of pine needles littering the forest floor. Heart hammering, I bent to retrieve my glowlamp, fighting valiantly to compose myself before turning to glare at the man by the tree.
He reached up and snapped his fingers, igniting a glowlantern hung on a broken branch above his head, illuminating a mane of curly black locks, shot through with grey, above a pair of piercing grey eyes that matched my glare. Everything about the man was grey, from his eyes to his rather shabby clothes to the leather toolkit unfurled in his lap, all of which should have told me then exactly what he was, but the significance was lost in the face of my indignation. He remained silent, continuing to hold my gaze, scowling all the while.
“By the Oak, what are you doing?” I demanded. “Waiting to frighten unwary travellers to death?”
He cocked an eyebrow and the scowl deepened before twisting upward in a slight smirk. His voice, when he spoke, was a low gravelly growl.
“Unwary travellers may find death in the forest if they are out tonight, but not from me. The coming storm is far more dangerous than I.
As for what I am doing, I am listening to the trees. At least, I was until I was almost trod upon. You must be new to Tribeca, to have so wandered off in the face of a winter storm. You’re either very foolish, or very brave. Which that is- brave or foolish- remains to be seen.”
Had the response been different, or even just less condescending, we might have parted ways and I would likely have frozen in the storm to come. However, those drawled out words struck a raw nerve. I had fled to the forest to escape my stepmother and stepsister, both of whom sought to make my every day as miserable as possible. I was new to Tribeca. After my father passed, taken in an untimely accident, my stepmother had drug her daughter and I out to the middle of nowhere. Cecile hated being here more than I, and enjoyed taking her frustrations out on me. I escaped into Talboa every chance I got, but never quite so deep within before.
His words were like a spark to dry leaves. My shoulders went back and my hands curled into fists. It was lost on me that I was alone in the woods with a strange man I knew nothing about. He could have been a madman, or a dangerous fugitive for all I knew. I didn’t care. I was furious.
“Who are you, sir, to be lecturing me on wandering in the forest before a storm when you yourself are out here dozing at the foot of a tree?” I bit off, trying to hide the first stirrings of fear deep within. I hadn’t known a storm was coming, and the village was several miles distant. The man’s scowl returned.
“I was not dozing, as you say. I was listening to the trees. Just then they were saying to me to watch out for the oblivious girl-child intent on running me down.” He pointedly ignored my growing fury, busying himself with returning a variety of chisels, knives, tiny hammers, and pencils to the leather toolkit. He rolled the kit up and tucked it into a grey rucksack beside him. A small sketchpad and a half-carved block of wood followed.
“I am not a child,” I ground out, trembling with my anger. “I am a woman proper.”
He levered himself from the ground then. Standing, he was not much taller than I and my face burned with unbidden shame at this reminder that I was considered unattractively tall and thin and gangly. How my stepmother and stepsister loved to tease me now, with my da no longer there to keep them in check.
The smugness passed from his face and he studied me shrewdly, hooded grey eyes fully taking in my appearance- my patched and too small clothes, my gauntness, my rather unkempt hair, and specs held together with resin where Cecile had broken them and my step-mother refused to have them replaced. He plucked his glowlantern from its branch and started down the path away from me and deeper into the forest. I sputtered, not sure of what to make over the bizarre encounter. At this time the weather decided to make itself more fully known as sleet began to pelt down through the canopy. I cursed softly. The man had been right. I’d be lucky to get home safe, and even luckier not to get sick if I did make it home.
“Well, come on then.”
I looked up to find that the man had halted. He now held the lantern up and was staring back at me. When he saw he had my attention, he jerked his head, indicating I should follow.
“You must think me crazy to follow you! A strange man deep in the forest, wanting to lead me further in as a storm builds. I don’t even know your name.”
“My name is Ari Jeffersson, and I live here. You want to ride out the storm in safety or not?”
Ari Jeffersson? The name sounded familiar. After a moment, I placed it.
“The Hermit of Talboa?” I had been warned by the villagers to stay away from the forest interior, that a reclusive, irascible man made his home deep within. He emerged occasionally with wondrous wares to barter in exchange for supplies. I had purchased a stone carving crafted by the mysterious ‘Ari Jeffersson’ shortly after we arrived in Tribeca. It was a small owl, my father’s favourite bird. I slipped my hand in my pocket, withdrawing the figure.
“The very same,” he muttered. “I’m sure they warned you to steer clear of me. Normally, that’s good advice. I don’t like intrusions. However, I’ll make an exception in this case. You’ll never make it back to Tribeca. You need shelter for the night.”
“Now you want me to spend the night with you? We’ve only just met. Do you make all the ladies feel so special or just the ones too young for you?”
I shouldn’t have been baiting him. He was offering sanctuary after all, but it was worth it to watch incredulity and indignation war on his face. In the end, mirth won over both, and he tipped his head back and laughed long and loud as the sleet continued to patter down around us.
“Only the very special ones.” His eyes shone with a wry amusement. “But come. You have nothing to fear from me. I have no designs upon your innocence. I can let the Constable know that I am sheltering a wayward villager. He can send someone to collect you on the morrow.
You know my name, young lady,” his voice gave extra stress to the last word, “but I am at a loss as to how to address you.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Lady Mai,” he said with a slight bow. The slight smirk had returned.
i ignored it as I caught up to him and we continued down the forest path in silence for a few moments. I considered the eccentric, rather infuriating man walking before me, the hermit sculptor who had crafted the tiny owl in my pocket. Why did he live out here all alone? What new project had he been working on? I gave voice to the last question.
“Hmm? Oh, the wood? It will be an airship when I am finished,” Ari replied.
The walk to Ari’s home in the forest passed quickly after I coaxed him into talking. He set a brisk pace, stopping once when he realized I had fallen behind. My jacket was proving little defense against the deepening cold. I had started to shiver badly. Ari seemed unfazed by the chill. His face softened as he saw my plight.
“Forgive me. I forget others feel the cold more than I.” He slipped a ring off of his finger. “Here, give me your hand.”
I held my hand out, unable to resist teasing him again as he slipped the ring onto my thumb.
“First you invite me back to your house for the night, now you’re giving me a ring. What’s next Master Jeffersson-” My words cut off as the coldness abruptly vanished. No wonder he wasn’t bothered by the cold! No sooner had the ring settled upon my finger than a shield of warmth wrapped around me.
The smirk was back. “Careful what you ask, ny’della, lest you get an answer.”
I scowled back at him. The man was most vexing, his comments bordering inappropriate, though to be fair, I was the one who seemed unable to keep from trying to provoke him. Yet, I felt safe. I knew, without a doubt, that I was safe with Ari, that he would neither harm me, nor allow any harm to come to me while I was under his protection.
The rest of the walk passed with companionable conversation. The more I engaged him in talking about his passion for crafting, the more animated he became. I learned that he worked with stone, wood, and clay. He rambled on, bouncing between a discourse on the best materials to use, and where they could be obtained, how cooking compared to crafting (he enjoyed that as well), the values of solitude, and where he divined his inspiration- from the trees. He answered my questions with an equal animation, and I secretly drank in the attention. It had been so long since I had received any of a positive encouraging nature. In between it all we teased and gently provoked one another.
By the time we reached his home in the woods- and what a home it was!- it felt as if we had know each other forever. The house itself was built around and between three stout mastiff evergreens that were spaced apart from one another in a rough triangle. It was, quite frankly, the most beautiful home I’d ever seen. It climbed up the sides of the trees, tapering to a point high above. Inside, there were two or three places where isolated rooms were blocked off, but for the most part the cottage was mostly one big room with three levels.
A depth well generator was nested in the space between the triangle of trees, rising to nearly the height of the second level. A stack of depleted rods lay against one wall, waiting to be sent for recharging. The mysterious hermit must bring in more than it would first appear with his crafting, to be able to afford the upkeep on the generator. The rods must be recharged by Technomancers, and were usually relegated for military use.
Ari sat his pack down and went to turn the generator on. As it hummed to life, glowlights flickered on around the big room. The generator was not the most amazing thing to me in Ari’s treehouse. What drew my attention were the books! Shelves upon shelves lined the upper levels of the cottage. Interspersed between them were numerous workbenches with various projects scattered over them.
An amused chuckle brought my attention back to Ari.
“The books, they interest you?” he asked, as he bent down before the fireplace. A moment later, a cozy fire was blazing in the hearth. “You may peruse them at your leisure. But first…”
He walked over to me and held out his hand. It took a moment for me to realize he wanted the ring back. I had completely forgotten I was wearing it. The gentle smirk returned as he slipped the ring off of my thumb, as if he knew some secret that it amused him to keep hidden. I scowled at him. Infuriating man! He merely laughed again, and walked around to the far side of the generator. I followed, and discovered that a comm panel was nested with the generator in its alcove.
“Constable Arnitsson, come in.” There was a long pause.
“Constable’s not in right now, Master Jeffersson. This is Relsson. Can I help you?”
Ari grunted an acknowledgement to the first part.
“I just wished to let you know that I’ve collected a stranded villager, a Mai Connlansson. Please inform her family that she is safe. They can be found-” He paused, and looked to me.
“273 Eckhart, by the Grey Goose Tavern. My step-mother. Elaine Mervinsdottr.”
His brows drew together at the last, but he dutifully relayed the information. Deputy Relsson thanked Ari and said he would personally inform my family and that either the Constable or one of the Deputies would come to collect me sometime tomorrow, weather permitting.
“Your stepmother does not share your father’s name?” Ari asked. He busied himself at the counter near the hearth, and I realized that not only did Ari have a depth well generator, but his home was equipped with a cold storage unit as well. I decided then that he must be some rich eccentric, come to live out the rest of his life hiding in the forest. I wondered what he had been before coming here. I didn’t dare ask.
“My… my father passed away a few months ago,” I replied softly. It still hurt, that loss, and the others, well, they acted like they didn’t even care. I knew Elaine saw me as an unnecessary burden, and would seek to make a match for me as soon as possible. So long as it wasn’t more prestigious than any that could be arranged for Cecile. Not that that was very likely. I was hardly a prize. My throat closed up and tears stung my eyes. I would not cry! Not now. Not here.
Ari made a soft sympathetic noise. He put down the pot he had pulled from a rack above the cooking counter and gestured for me to follow him.
“Come, things should be warm now.” He led me to a small room off the far side of the house. I was again amazed, for it held a proper washroom with a bath and everything. That meant the house also had a recycler and a water reservoir. Ari disappeared into another room beside it and emerged holding a pair of pajamas.
“These may be a little big, but they’ll be better than sleeping in your outdoor clothes. Go on. Take the time you need,” he said softly. His face was serious and broody now, as if a switch had been flipped. I didn’t want to leave it with both of us unhappy. I gave a weak grin as I accepted the bundle.
“Now you’re trying to get me out of my clothes,” I chided. The gentle smirk returned, and the stormy darkness disappeared from his grey eyes. He said nothing, but returned to his cooking, leaving me to explore the unexpected washroom. I filled the tub with hot water. Once it was full, I sank into the steaming depths, savouring the experience. Our home lacked the luxury of a bath, making do with a simple shower stall. My old home, the one I’d shared with my father, had had a bath. I missed it. I missed the life I’d had before. More than that,I desperately missed my father. I let the tears come this time, silently, not wanting my grief to intrude on Ari.
My bath had long since cooled when a loud bang drew my attention. I could hear Ari’s muffled shouting through the door. Rising, I drained the tub and contemplated the clothing he had lent me. Pale grey and extremely soft, they smelt of pine and cedar and earth, with a hint of something sharply metallic. Feeling clean and refreshed and somewhat shy to be wearing my benefactor’s clothes, I ventured from the washroom.
“Leave be, you overgrown featherduster! We’ve a guest. You can have some when I’m finished. Have you forgotten how to hunt?”
I walked back to the living area and pulled up short, confronted by the sight of a soot eagle perched on a stool near the cooking counter. A soot eagle! The casual presence of such a bird should have been another clue as to Ari’s true identity, but it was also lost on me at the time. I made a strangled noise and the eagle stopped trying to snatch food from Ari’s counter and fixed me with one piercing, pale grey eye. Sleek dark grey feathers puffed out in aggression. The soot eagle screamed once and hopped down off the stool. Its claws clicked on the floor as it stalked towards me. I backed away, not wanting to be anywhere near the bird’s razor sharp, metal-infused claws and beak.
“Merc, behave yourself. Don’t scare our guest,” Ari said to the eagle. It paused, settling its feathers, then continued its approach, all the while making soft grumbling noises. “He won’t harm you. He’s just curious.”
“You have a soot eagle as a pet?”
Merc stopped in front of me and regarded me for a long moment, then lowered his head. I was too afraid to move. Despite Ari’s assurance that the eagle wouldn’t harm me, I found my pulse racing. Merc headbutted my leg, still grumbling.
“He wants you to scratch him,” Ari said without turning from his work. I warily stretched out my hand. The bird’s feathers were surprisingly soft. He grumbled happily as I scratched behind his head, then wandered back to resume his place on the stool.
“Supper soon. Make yourself at home,” Ari said.
I took Ari up on his offer and ascended the stairs that led to the second level. I prowled around, drinking in the variety displayed upon the shelves. I also took the opportunity to glance over the projects upon the work benches. One held various wood projects in different stages of completion. Another had stone carvings scattered upon it. A third held finished pieces of pottery and several sketches, some of which appeared to be complex blueprints for airships.
Down below, Ari continued to argue with Merc. The smell of cooking food filled the cozy home and set my tummy to rumbling. I chose a book on Arkaddian cultural customs, then another on technomantic magicks and carried both back down the stairs with me.
“Just in time,” Ari said as he carried three plates over to his small dining table. He next carried over the stool, complete with eagle, and placed it before one of the plates.
“Sit, sit.” He gestured towards the table. “What do you care to drink? I’ve water, of course, and cider. Or if you prefer hot tea…?”
“Water, please,” I replied. Ari returned to the table a final time with two cups of water, and a third filled with pungent alcohol. The meal passed in companionable silence. Ari waved away my offer to clean up, encouraging me to go enjoy the books I had brought down. I curled up in one of the two comfortable chairs before the hearth with the book on Arkaddia. Before long I dozed off to the sound of Ari washing dishes and carrying on a one-sided conversation with the soot eagle.
I woke to find myself tucked in a warm and unfamiliar bed. It took me several long moments to recall where I was. I had a moment’s panic before I found my specs on the bedside table. I slipped them on, bringing the world back into focus, and wandered out into the main house to find Ari asleep in a fireside chair with his feet propped on a stool and an open book in his lap. He was now wearing sleep clothes similar to the ones he’d lent me. Firelight glinted off of a heavy chain about his neck, the ends of which disappeared into his shirt. A low crooning drew my attention to the shadows beyond the chair in which Ari slept, and I could just make out Merc perched on his stool. I smiled and shook my head before returning to the warm bed and sleep.