The notice came early one bright winter morning. As usual, no one saw who put it up—not the baker, up to prep his ovens and begin his day’s work; nor the head priest, rising to prepare his morning sermon; nor even the guards who patrolled the borders and saw so many strange things roaming in the mist just beyond. Still, when the time came for morning prayers, there it was, in the center of the town’s central bulletin board, fixed in place with no pin, and bearing the signature of the Keeper. It was discovered by the baker’s daughter, who let out a startled cry and drew the attention of nearly the whole town. The people gathered there to mill around in general unease until the priest arrived, striding through the crowd without hesitation to pull the notice down.
“The morning’s service will be postponed until noon,” he said. “Please spread the word.”
Even after he said that, it took a while for the people to disperse, peeling away in small groups, until only Ash was left. When he was certain everyone was gone, he crept closer to the bulletin board and pressed his fingers to the spot where the notice had been, concentrating with all his might. Some part of him hoped almost to the point of sick anticipation to feel something, but there wasn’t even a tingle there. If the Keeper had used magic—and he almost certainly had to have, given the circumstances—no traces of it remained.
Ash let his hand drop with a sigh. Even if he hadn’t seen the letter itself, lurking at the edges of the crowd as he’d been—even barely being able to read as he was—he had a good idea of what it had been about. He rubbed at his arms to try and chafe some warmth back into them, finally turning away from the bulletin board. As he did, he looked up automatically, up towards the Keeper’s castle on the hill that overlooked the town. It was a tall and narrow shape there against the town’s northern skyline, its outer walls set with black stones that shone like glass in the sun. At certain angles, it looked remarkably like some giant dark bird roosting as it watched over the city below. Ash stared for a moment, squinting against the bright sun, before he began to make his slow way to the church, on the far end of town.
For as long back as anyone in Ravenhearth could remember, stories were told about the Keeper up in his castle on the hill. Only a few things were known about him: that he was the one who kept away both the miasma and the things that lurked in the mist, that only people bearing his token could make it safely to the next town and back again, and that he was almost certainly immortal. While most of his communications with the town were brought by one of four servants or some marvelous, strange clockwork creature, once every ten years a letter like this arrived in Ravenhearth, carried by no one and always saying the same thing. It was nearly as well-memorized as one’s prayers.
To the people of Ravenhearth, greetings and salutations; I hope that this finds the lot of you healthy and whole. As always, if there is any particular trouble that requires my attention, please be sure to direct it with the return of my normal grocery order.
I have written to you on this day to request a companion among your fine number. Whoever feels enough softness in their heart to take pity on my lonely self and come to live with me here in Ravenhearth Castle will be welcomed. Male or female, young or old, ugly or lovely: these things have long ceased to matter to me; all that I require is a willing heart and steadfast faith.
Of course, I do not expect anything beyond simple company, and I will pay for the privilege I have been granted. Whosoever comes to me thus, I promise, I shall reward with an annual salary of fifty gold sessters, plus the room and board that one might expect as an inhabitant of Ravenhearth Castle. And also, of course, I do not expect this decision to be made lightly or quickly. I am entirely aware of the magnitude of what I am requesting. Please give yourselves two weeks to decide who is willing and capable of such a thing. I will send a servant at the end of the fortnight; please, at that time, be prepared to come to me.
Ash dug the toe of his shoe into the thin layer of powder snow and kicked up, watching as it fluttered back down. Fifty gold sessters was no small amount of money—it was more than what the mayor and the shopkeeper earned in a year combined, and that was enough to tempt most people.
The problem, really, was how frequently the letters came. Ten years was often enough that even Ash could remember when the last one had arrived. He’d been eleven years old or thereabouts and running errands for the shopkeeper when he’d seen the letter and its heavy seal of black wax. He’d drifted up to get a better look and had received a sharp jolt that had knocked the breath out of him and sent him tumbling to the ground. Years later, the memory was still sharp and heavy in his chest.
Just as he remembered, though, those who were older than him remembered other letters and the people who had made the decision to make the climb up to the castle. Every ten years, a letter came, and there was no trace nor mention of the person who had preceded them. In the long years of Ravenhearth’s history, over two dozen people had gone up to the castle, never to be heard from again.
And so, naturally, for each fact that was known about Keeper Ravenhearth, there were a dozen rumors, each branching off another until they were a convoluted web. It was a popular topic of discussion in the town’s single tavern, the One-Eyed Crow. Of course everyone was grateful for Keeper Ravenhearth’s protection, the gossips said—and this was how they prefaced themselves before launching into their speculation, as if that aside would be enough to apologize for any rudeness—and continued spinning wilder and more fanciful tales with each iteration.
Perhaps they were offered up as human sacrifice, one theory went: the town of Ravenhearth was protected from the miasma and its creatures, certainly, but that protection came at the hideous price of an innocent life. It was the sacrifice of a few for the good of the many.
There were other stories as well: that Keeper Ravenhearth changed his companions into the clockwork creatures he sometimes sent down to the town to run his errands, or that he turned them into birds and sent them out into the world as his messengers. One story—only told in whispers with shamed faces—said there was a room in Ravenhearth Castle that functioned solely as an abattoir, where the floors and walls were coated by two centuries’ worth of blood and rotten bodies. Sometimes, late at night, when there was no moon and the miasma outside was particularly thick, one might hear the screams of the lost, begging for a mercy that was never to come.
Ash himself had heard a whole host of other possibilities branching off those ideas, and none of them really appealed to him as something plausible. Sometimes, on the coldest of nights, when he huddled in the church’s doorways for shelter, he curled his fingers and dredged up all the memories he could of that one bright sharp tingle he’d felt from that note ten years ago. It had been warm, and for all that he had been warned off time and again for dabbling in things he could not quite understand, he chased after that feeling again, as best as he could. The head shopkeeper dealt with orders from the castle directly himself, but Ash had gotten close to one of the clockwork horses once, nearly close enough to touch—he’d been caught before he actually could, but that memory was also one that lingered.
And now here it was again: the Keeper’s letter, asking for a companion. Ash stopped in place, digging the toes of both feet into the snow. It took only a few seconds for the cold to seep in through the thin patchwork material of his shoes. He’d taken a bad fall from an apple tree during the harvest season, and all the money he’d saved to buy himself a new pair of boots had evaporated just trying to convince the doctor to give him basic bandages. His stomach was cramped in a vague tight hunger; he’d mostly learned to ignore it. His mother’s ring was a heavy weight around his neck, more solid than his threadbare shirt.
I want you to learn, someday, she’d said to him, her eyes shining. I want to show you how wonderful it can be. Maybe you’ll surpass me. I’d like that. What parent doesn’t want their child to become something greater? You’re my son; you could be a truly great mage someday. What do you think about that, Ash?
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” he said aloud. After a few moments’ pause, for an answer that wasn’t meant to come, he laughed and nodded, and the next breath he took made him feel light and easy, in a way he hadn’t in months—years, perhaps!—and he straightened up, as tall and proud as he could make himself, and strode off towards the church. It would be a few more hours yet before the town meeting that the priest had announced, but Ash’s mind was made up.
Soon, he told himself. Everything would be settled soon.