Excerpt: What Matters Most

Frost covered the ground liberally, coating the grass and frozen dirt path with a layer of icy white. This late in the year, snow should have already covered the ground, but Kyros wasn’t going to knock the good fortune. Snow would have made travel more difficult and slower, and slow travel wasn’t something he could afford. He was already taking far too many risks.

Ourenville was a quiet village, far from the beaten path of anyone but the occasional peddler. Kyros mentioned the name of it a few times when he’d first arrived in the capital five years ago, but after the first few baffled reactions, he’d switched to just saying he was from a small village near the eastern border. That was accurate enough, and there were many of those and no way for the council to track him to any single village quickly.

Ideally, he should be headed for the southern border and the freedom that offered, not headed east, but he knew his mother. She wouldn’t be persuaded to leave her home, her neighbors, her life by a mere letter. He also didn’t trust that such a letter would arrive without being intercepted, and that would put her at even more risk.

At least no one knew about Raslin. Cold comfort that, especially considering that not even Raslin knew that he could be used against Kyros. Gripping the reins of his stolen horse tightly, Kyros resisted the urge to spur the horse to move faster. Laming his horse would only slow him down and make things worse.

If he had his bearings, he should be reaching the outlying farms that surrounded Ourenville soon, but he wouldn’t really be home until he reached the ruins on the outskirts of town. His mother’s house wasn’t far from the ruins; he and Raslin had spent many an hour exploring them for ancient treasures when they were younger, though they’d never found more than a bit of carved rock here and there.

Would Raslin still be in Ourenville? Would he remember Kyros, or want anything to do with him? It didn’t matter, Kyros thought bitterly, his mouth twisting unhappily. He couldn’t stay in Ourenville and he couldn’t take Raslin with him, so there was no point in asking those questions.

Kyros just hoped he wasn’t a fool for trusting the men who were coming to transport his mother to the coast; that would ruin his entire plan. Jallen and Ambry were good men, though, and they had no loyalty to the council. It didn’t hurt that they both had plans to leave the continent before year’s end, to start anew in a country that wouldn’t consider them as little more than mud on the bottom of its boot.

Kyros rode on. The sun rose higher, but the chill of encroaching winter wasn’t dissuaded by the bright sunlight. Kyros could see his breath misting in the air with each exhale, and the frost stubbornly refused to melt along the edges of the road. The trees he rode by had already shed their leaves, and the fields were empty and idle for the winter.

Smoke rose from the farmhouses, but there was little sign of people out and about. The time of year meant the men would be out hunting or gathering firewood in the woods, with some farmers smoking meat for the winter stores. Kyros frowned, looking up at the clear skies. Hopefully they would stay clear for as long as it took to get his mother safe.

If they had to travel through snow, though, then so be it. Nudging the horse to move more quickly, Kyros rode towards the ruins ahead. They grew larger and more detailed as he approached, and Kyros was surprised at how much they’d stayed the same. The ruins weren’t anything spectacular, just a large circle of stones, carved with intricate runes that made no sense to anyone. There were a few crumbling walls here and there that might have been buildings once, but the only thing that was recognizable was the arch that led into the clearing around which the rest of the stones were situated.

Kyros started to see people here and there as he rode into town. He slowed the horse to a walk, not wanting to cause any alarm or draw any extra attention. He was already getting plenty of attention; more than a few people stopped to stare at him as he rode by. He doubted anyone recognized him. He’d been twenty-five when he’d left Ourenville, and five years was a long time.

His mother’s house looked the same as ever. It was a short, traditionally built cottage. The door had been painted a bright green when he’d been seven, but the paint had faded with the years. The curtains were pulled open, and they were still the same: beige-colored and bland. The roof looked like it could use new shingles here or there, and were they staying, Kyros would take care of that. There was a new garden in the front of the house; like the fields Kyros had rode past, it was barren for the winter.

Guiding the horse to a stop in front of the house, Kyros dismounted stiffly. He ignored the aches and pains that came from riding for nearly two weeks straight. Typically, the trip would have taken nearly three weeks, and he was paying for pushing so hard. There was no stable at the house, nor a barn, so he’d have to see about properly stabling the horse later. For the moment, he led it over to a small tree and tethered it there. Then he grabbed his saddlebags and headed for the house.

He was halfway there when the front door opened. His mother looked the same and much older at the same time. He was abruptly hit with a wave of homesickness, which was entirely stupid considering he was home. The scowl on his mother’s face—probably for riding a horse right up to the house—faded away as he approached.

“Kyros,” she said, wiping her hands on the flour-covered apron she wore. “Why on earth didn’t you write to tell me you were coming?”

Kyros grinned, because that exasperated tone was exactly as he remembered. “It wouldn’t have gotten here before I did.”

“I suppose,” she said, studying him critically. “Well, come in then. You’ll have to stable the horse over at the MacRaflin’s stable. Pariles’ stable burned down last year.”

Kyros reached the front stoop, dropping his bags to pull his mother into an embrace. She was smaller, frailer than he remembered, and he hoped she wasn’t going to be too upset with him when he told her what was going on. His mother wrapped her arms around him, hugging him tightly before pulling away.

“Leave off that now, you’ve probably got flour all over your nice jacket there,” she scolded, stepping back and eyeing Kyros’ jacket.

“There’s too much dust on it to tell,” Kyros said, brushing ineffectually at the front of his travel-stained jacket.

“I suppose,” she repeated, obviously not satisfied. “Lunch will be ready shortly. There shouldn’t be any problem stretching it to feed three.” She turned to head back into the house, as though she hadn’t said anything strange at all.

“Three?” Kyros repeated, leaning down and picking up his saddlebags. Had she remarried and not told him? Given the reliability of the post, however, she might have written and the letter gotten lost. A new husband would make things more difficult, in more ways than one.

“Yes, three,” his mother said, clicking her tongue. “I know I sent you a letter last month … though at that, you were probably gone before it arrived. You remember Raslin, yes?”

“Yes,” Kyros said, dread growing in the pit of his stomach. Surely Raslin hadn’t married his mother…

“His sister got married last year and since I have no one to help me with this old heap of a house, we came to the agreement that he could stay here if he helped out around the place. That way, his sister could have their parents’ place to start her new family.” His mother headed into the house, and Kyros followed her, trying to make sense of that.

“Nikla got married? To who?” Kyros asked as he looked around the house. The house was built to a simple design: a single downstairs room that contained the kitchen, living room, and bedroom all in one. The bed was shielded by a simple set of paneling that hadn’t been there when Kyros had left. A large fire burned in the kitchen fireplace, heating the house thoroughly and throwing light throughout it. The loft was shadowy and dark, and to Kyros’ disappointment, Raslin was nowhere in sight.

“Angelos,” his mother replied, her nose wrinkling in distaste.

“Why?” Kyros asked, his eyebrows rising in surprise. He always thought Nikla had better taste. Angelos was well known for trying to get into the bed of any woman who crossed his path.

“She didn’t say,” his mother said. She shrugged as she headed towards the kitchen table, where a mess of flour and dough was spread. “She was getting older, you know. She was nearly nineteen when he proposed, and no one else in the village had offered.”

“Still, Angelos?” Kyros dropped his bags next to the table. He didn’t sit down, though the temptation was there. After all the riding he’d done in the last few weeks, however, he preferred to stand.

“I don’t pretend to understand it,” his mother said, shaking her head. “That girl hasn’t been the same since her parents died, but even still I thought no one was stupid enough to take Angelos.”

“When did they die?” Kyros asked quietly, wondering what else he’d missed. Raslin’s mother had been severely ill when he’d left—one of the reasons Raslin hadn’t come with him—but his father had been in perfect health. No one had mentioned anything different in the few letters he’d received.

“Carly died a few months after you left. Gorge a year or so later, after he was injured helping out on the Whelin’s farm and it turned septic,” his mother said, pursing her lips. “It was just the two of them for the last few years, and I know Raslin tried to help Nikla find a better husband, but that girl’s got a stubborn streak a mile wide.”

“I remember,” Kyros said. When the three of them had been younger, Nikla had thrown fits—very extensive fits—whenever Raslin and he tried to do something without her. Nikla had also been very particular about how she wanted to play, and arguing with her never worked. Perhaps her stubbornness was how she’d been able to make a marriage with Angelos work?

“In any case, what’s done is done.” His mother clucked her tongue, wordlessly stating her disapproval. “You should go get your horse settled; we can catch up properly when you return. Raslin should be back shortly; he was spending the morning patching some of the holes in Whelin’s chicken coop so he might keep his chickens through the winter.”

“All right. I’ll be back shortly,” Kyros said, his heartbeat taking up a notch at the thought of seeing Raslin again. He wanted to see Raslin, even if he was only going to be in town until Jallen and Ambry showed up to escort his mother to the coast. Maybe seeing Raslin again would be enough to finally put his feelings for Raslin to rest, though Kyros doubted it, considering they hadn’t faltered in the five years he’d been away from Ourenville.

Leaving the house, Kyros headed towards the tree where he’d tethered his horse. It was still there, with a few young children gawking at it from nearby. Kyros smothered a grin, ignoring them as he approached the horse. One of the children shoved another, and there was a short tussle before the one who’d shoved first took off running down the road. That prompted the other one to yell something about not fair and take off after the first. Kyros shook his head, wondering who they were off to tell that there was a stranger in town.

It took him far too long to walk the horse across town, and then endure the small talk that MacRaflin’s wife wanted to engage in—she finally grudgingly accepted that he would stop by for a chat later, after he properly caught up with his mother. The MacRaflin boy helped him settle his horse, though he was too small yet to do more than fetch things when Kyros asked after them.

Finally, he headed back to his mother’s house. As he drew close, his steps slowed. What was he going to say to Raslin? How did he get his mother to leave? What if the council didn’t believe Raslin knew nothing, and tried to get information from him using their more “creative” means? What if his mother told Raslin? Kyros had already accepted he’d have to tell her everything, but he couldn’t justify telling Raslin and putting him in danger, too.

Despite all of that, Kyros was looking forward to seeing Raslin. Anticipation thrummed along his nerves, and Kyros felt oddly nervous as he crossed the yard. What if Raslin didn’t remember him? What if Raslin was upset that he’d never been able to join Kyros in the capital? Kyros hesitated on the stoop, but finally made himself open the door and enter the house.

Raslin was there. He sat on a stool near the stove, describing something to Kyros’ mother. His hands were moving as he spoke, aiding in his description of something or another. He looked much the same as he had when Kyros had left; his dark hair was cut short to keep the curls manageable and his smile still lit the room and showed off the dimples in his cheeks. He wasn’t stocky and neither was he thin, but he’d always been more than strong enough to carry his own.
His smile faded when he looked up and saw Kyros. His jaw dropped open, and Kyros’ stomach flipped nervously. “That’s not—”

Kyros’ mother laughed, clasping her hands together over her bosom. “The look on your face!”

“Oh, shush,” Raslin muttered, his smile slowly creeping back. Kyros gathered the presence of mind to shut the door behind him and step fully into the house. He was suddenly conscious of how he looked, covered in road dust and generally unkempt. There was nothing to do for it, however, and Kyros resisted the urge to brush the dirt from his jacket as he moved to join them in the kitchen.

“Hey,” Kyros greeted, suddenly tongue-tied. He could go up in front of the entire magic council and denounce the way they practiced magic, but he couldn’t seem to find a single thing to say to Raslin.

“Hi,” Raslin said, smile still in place. Kyros relaxed, his stomach settling—Raslin remembered him and wasn’t upset to see him. Raslin turned back to Kyros’ mother. “You could have warned me, Ailynn.”

“It was more fun this way,” she said, her pleased smile lighting her face. “You would have gotten all worked up until he returned, anyway, and that’s annoying.”

“I would not,” Raslin objected, scowling. “How long are you staying?”

“A week or so,” Kyros said, well aware of how strange that would seem to them. Spending three weeks on the road to get to Ourenville, then spending a scant week before returning? That was a great deal of effort for very little point.

“You’ll be staying for at least two weeks,” Ailynn said sternly, leveling a frown at him. “You can’t have come all this way just to miss the solstice festival.”

Kyros blinked, startled. He hadn’t realized it was that close to Solstice already. He’d been plenty distracted in the capital, but enough that he hadn’t realized it was nearly Solstice? Ailynn’s eyes narrowed stubbornly—she would fight him on it, but Kyros couldn’t afford to wait two weeks.

“We’ll see,” Kyros said, hoping his mother wouldn’t push the issue. The solstice festival was his mother’s favorite celebration. With it so soon, it would be much more difficult to convince her to leave.

“Are you that busy in Alesdor?” Raslin asked, drawing Kyros’ attention. “Surely they wouldn’t miss you for an extra week. You could always plead travelling woes. It should snow any day now, and that would keep even the most determined travelers off the road.”

“Besides which,” Ailynn said crisply, her mouth tightening at the corners. She was angry, and Kyros wished he could agree. “You haven’t been home for Solstice in five years. I think you could stay a few extra days in order to spend the holiday with us.”

“I really shouldn’t,” Kyros said, slowly, trying to come up with a way to say no. Nothing came to him, however, and he finally said, “All right, I’ll stay the extra week.” He could rescind that once he explained to his mother how dangerous it was for them there.

He also had to figure out what to do about Raslin. It had been one thing to leave Raslin in the dark when he was just an old friend; it was another altogether now that he lived with Ailynn. He couldn’t leave Raslin to face the council’s authorities with no warning, but Raslin couldn’t know too much, for his own safety. Kyros pushed the thoughts away for the moment. He’d sort it out later, when he didn’t have the distraction of Raslin and his mother. Raslin was watching him curiously, and Kyros forced a smile as though he was excited about spending Solstice in Ourenville.

“Good,” Ailynn said, stepping past him towards the pantry. “Ras, be a dear and set the table?”

“Of course,” Raslin said, standing up. He nudged the stool closer to the table, which was free of the floury mess that had covered it when Kyros had gone to settle his horse. Kyros watched Raslin, mentally chiding himself to get his act together. He couldn’t afford to have Raslin realize that there was something going on other than Kyros just coming home for a visit with his family and friends.

“Kyros.” Ailynn bustled out of the pantry with a few dried apples. “Don’t just stand there, lend a hand.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Kyros said, a genuine smile turning his lips. He stepped forward and took the apples from his mother’s hands. She pressed a kiss to his cheek before he could turn away.

“I’m glad you’re home, Kyros,” Ailynn said, pressing her hand briefly to his arm before stepping back.

“I’m glad to be home,” Kyros said. It was true, even if it was going to cause his mother a lot of misery. She’d be safe though, and hopefully she wouldn’t hate him for uprooting her life.