Cherries of Wrath"

The Mundane Aspects

Grapes & Cherries of Wrath

By Katrionah Rosalette in Dark Ages


Dedicated, as always, to Klaudaryn.
And for Etienne, because I'm such a pathetic liar.



Prologue: Ignorance is Bliss

"Alvar...! Alvar! Open up, old man!"

    The vehement cry from outside roughly tore the old man from his deep slumber. His blissful snores were ended in but one, abrupt snort.
    Alvar's wrinkle lined eyes, still heavy and laden with the sleep they were forced from, reluctantly fluttered open. There was little more than sheer darkness to meet his awakening; no further cries came from outside. For a moment, he began to wonder if the calling had just been a dream. Stiffly sitting up, he strained his old ears for any further noise in the darkness of the cottage. It was the middle of the night after all; no one in his or her right mind would come calling at such a late hour. Yawning, he shifting back down beneath the ever-comforting place beneath the covers.
    "Just my imagination..." He muttered to himself. "Probably shouldn't... work so... hard..."
His musings softly faded to snoring once more as slumber once again took him, welcoming him back with the beginnings of another sweet dream. It was not to last. For again, piercing through the silence before, there came both the annoyed voice of outside. All of which was accompanied by violent knocking at the door, which in the course of it all nearly rattled the door off its rusty hinges.

    "Alvar you old goat!" Cried the visitor from above the rattling of the door. "I know you can't be sleeping through this! Open the door!"

    In a drowsy, hurried rush, Alvar thrust the sheets away and to the floor. With each footstep upon the drafty wooden floorboards evoking a low groan, he slowly made his way for the door, which was still being roughly beaten by whomever awaited him behind it.

    "I'm coming! I'm coming!" He called out, if only to silence the earsplitting knocking.

    Clumsily unfastening the locks upon the door, Alvar flung the half-rotted slab of wooden open. There, standing face to face with him, face masked by the cowl of a deeply colored cloaked, stood his late visitor. A torch was roughly clasped in one hand, raised at just such an angle that the golden light could only touch the deepest chasms of his face. The rest was cloaked in shadows just as cloth hid the rest of his body.
    From the moment the door was opened, the stranger said nothing; he nearly stared at  Alvar expectantly, waiting for an answer that the old man did not know how to give. So instead, the two stared at one another in silence. Save the droning chirps of crickets in the field or the occasional cackle from the torch.
    And Alvar, having just barely gathered his senses from his rude awakening, finally pieced together a conclusion to who the stranger may be. Dark cloak, sudden calling in the night, all other features hidden....

    "Am I that old!?" Alvar cried out shrilly, nearly dropping down to his tired knees in order to plea for some mercy, a new lease on life. Something at least.
    "Ah... Ah yes! I know! A match! Yes, that's it! You can't have me unless you win a match!" He paused, searching his groggy wits for some form of challenge. "Chess! You shan't have me unless you beat me in a game of chess! There's years in my life yet I tell you, and I'll...!"

    He didn't have time to finish. For as he babbled on about some means of negotiation against death, the strange had thrown the hood of his cloak back, revealing his face in the dim firelight of the torch.
    The man's shaggy auburn hair, already matted as it was, fell about his head in disheveled  angles, making the rest of his appearance look all the more worn and beaten by the night. His eyes, an even deeper brown than his hair, were ablaze with anger and impatience even as Alvar finally realized who he was.

    "Goran-!" The wine merchant cried as if by some triumph. "Goddess! You could have said so in the first place! You're like to scare me to death, knocking at my door at this hour!"

    Goran roughly pushed his way past the old man before proper invitation could be given. His torch, discarded at the door just as suddenly as he entered, was extinguished noisily in the barrel of rainwater collected from the summer rains. The water would be full of ash come morning, making it useless for the watering of the grape vineyards. Alvar had little time to think of such matters, for Goran had already made his way to the cabin's center, his mouth moving faster than his flustered footsteps as he did.

    "And just who did you think it was?!" His unbidden visitor snapped.  He waved his hand briskly as if to dismiss any answer Alvar had to offer him. "Ah.... never mind it. I don't care what delusions run through your head at night." Goran reached into the deep green folds of his tunic, withdrawing a grimy looking sheet a parchment from within. "Whatever the case, you just might be interested in this I'll bet..."

    Alvar looked to the other quizzically, still not quite grasping the meaning to all this even as Goran thrust the crumpled and messily retied scroll to him. He could feel Goran's eyes upon him as he fumbled with the strings, the task was made all the more blundered by the shadows that covered his work. Unfolding the paper, Alvar gazed uncertainly down to what looked to be lettering of pearl ink. It was some official document, no doubt to that, though judging from the numerous smudges, tears, and fingerprints that graced it, Alvar was not the first to view it.

    Several minutes of this examination passed, though Alvar himself kept little notice of such passages in his life. All just the same, the impatient tapping of Goran's foot upon the cabin's weathered floorboards was enough to remind him of his dawdling.

    Goran sighed heavily, no longer making any effort to show what little good manner he had. "Go on, read it before sunrise, would you?" Still Alvar hesitated, Goran grimaced as though he meant to vent his frustrated and vexed nerves upon the decrepit walls of the house.
    "Oh come on!" Goran groaned, looking liable to begin tearing at his hair from the tension that was welling in him. "There is a slight bit of urgency in this, Alvar!" It was the first time all night (save that he said while nearly beating down the door) that Goran had bothered to addressed the aged farmer by name.

    As Alvar hesitated to look over the tattered scroll once again, Goran uttered a low and frustrated scoff from under his breath. Even from where he stood, several feet away from the young vagabond of Suomi, Alvar caught a distinct odor of liquor upon the young man's breath. Clicking his tongue softly, Alvar silently mused why he hadn't seen the signs before, the realization alone was more than enough explanation for Goran's more edged that usual attitude.
    With Goran still eyeing him expectantly, Alvar could barely manage the wry grin from creeping in upon his tired face.

    "I can't very well read in the dark can I?" The vineyard keeper replied flatly. Barely able from making it sound like an insult of Goran intelligence (or sobriety), Alvar could barely resist backing away from the other for fear of his reaction. However, the young farmer said nothing in reply. Even in the dim moonlight that filtered through the dusty cabin windows, Alvar could detect the faintest trace of red flush upon Goran's haggard face.
    "Get the lamp over there." Alvar gestured lightly to a tarnished oil lamp that awkwardly sat perched in the corner of the windowsill. Within moments, even though Goran fumbled with the lightening several times from the brandy that still gripped him, the dark cabin was relatively lit and Alvar was allowed to read through the soiled parchment at last. Despite the numerous smudges in the elegant text and demeanor of the note, the message he read aloud was all the more chilling:

    "Let it be known to all of our neighboring and estranged kingdom of Suomi." He began. "That his majesty, Sir Bruce III, unquestioned and ever wise sovereign; ruler by birth to our divine city and all surrounding areas, has by royal decree given order to the preservation of our fair lands in that of wealth, stability, and well-being of all denizens within. Hence, by royal word and aide of council, it has been decided and agreed that in order to protect and maintain the sanctity of our fair region, a levy and regulation of all trade and communication between these two lands shall be limited, and if need being, admonished, to further ensure our prosperity's fortune and peace."

    "Who in the world wrote all this?" Alvar mused aloud skeptically.

    Goran still gazed attentively from where he  stood leaning against the room's furthermost table. "Go on, go on, you'll see near that end.

    Alvar cleared his throat and continued on,

    "Thus, it is to the opinion of this royal council, that it is in fact the far region of Suomi that has resulted in the extended periods of social discourse and financial flagging that have been discovered in Mileth and neighboring regions within the past seasons amongst the lower mundane classes. We the citizens of the great capitol of Ardmagh, ever concerned with the well being of such working peoples, have come to the agreement that it has been Suomi which had result in the waning trade and living amongst our fair populous. As such areas within our far off neighbor of Suomi have been seen to have excessive success in their crops and earnings and their export to adjoining kingdoms.
    For this such reason, trades in the products of our fair kingdom of Loures itself and close allies, have been fading due to increasingly unbalanced trade and takings. For that such reason, a balance must be found and established, and the farming areas of Suomi are strongly suggested to relinquish a substantial portion of crops and the like to the bettering of the conditions within Mileth itself.
    As with that such matter, trade to the neighboring port city of Undine shall be limited, and if need so calls, halted, in order to further insure the total balance. We, the most careful and understanding council to he the great Sovereign Bruce, strongly suggest such action be taken immediately and without fail. It is also by our view, that lest the harmony between our fair nations be questioned by those living within, then necessary action shall be taken in order to reinstate Loures' absolute reign and reason within Temuair.

           Israfel Galayne,
                        Head Chancellor to his Majesty King Bruce
                    All Hail Loures!'

    "I don't believe this..." Alvar muttered as he finished. Goran still looked to him expectantly, even if his mind had seemed elsewhere as the vineyard keeper read on. The letter was cryptic enough, no doubt to that, though it was so hard to tell it from the repetitive droning of whoever had written the notice.
    Alvar furrowed his brow anxiously. "A portion of all crops? Trade restrictions? I don't understand any of this!"

    Goran laughed bitterly in return, his mind seemingly snapping back into reality in that moment. "No one does!" He hissed softly. "You need to learn to read between the lines old man... No matter what, we loose." He paused, worrying a loose thread from his cloak with his hands as his eyes once again took a distant gloss. "No... We've already lost, Alvar.

    "We've already..." Alvar repeated the words thoughtlessly. "Lost...? What in the world do you mean?"

    Goran snorted abruptly. "Just what I came to see you about. You think I would bother to show you... or all the others, that personally otherwise?" He rose from his awkward seat upon the table, beginning a slow, anxious pace around where Alvar stood.
    The creaking of the floorboards beneath the farmer's feet added an eerie song beneath all he said. "There's no use of telling you really, everyone else is already waiting... watching." Goran frowned, the shadows upon his face deepening frightfully. "You had to be so slow, didn't you...? Ah, never mind it... I want you too come see for yourself, I don't have to explain that way."

    "Explain what?" Alvar demanded, raising his tone for the first time in what felt like ages. "You haven't given me a straight answer all night! What is all this business with Loures? Why the concern? It shouldn't be a problem if we don't go against them!"

    Goran stopped his pacing, just at the very moment he stood before Alvar. His dark eyes rose to meet the old man's own, the look in the amber pools was so distraught and haggard that Goran barely seemed more than a shell of hollow emotion and partial drunkenness.

    "That letter is weeks old, idiot...." He finally muttered. "It has been shown to nearly everyone in the village in that time."

    "Everyone but me, eh?"

    "Just listen... No one thought we had to let everyone know... No reason for alarm and such." Goran shook his head. "I shouldn't have even told those I did... But they passed on the word, and of course everyone got into a panic... How stupid can that be?"
    He paused, only so to take the time to sigh ruefully. "The others had to act rebellious of course, protect time honored traditions they said.... They've already refused. They've already sentenced us all to death by their damn blind action. Loures is here..."

    "Loures...?!" Alvar cried. "Here? Now?! Why didn't you tell me in the first place?!"

    Goran once again stared on hollowly. "Just come see...."

    "But... I still don't underst-"

    "Get dressed. You'll see."

    Alvar had nothing more to argue with the other. He was too muddled to so much as think as he hurried dressed in his worn work clothes. Goran waited by the door as he quickly threw on his clothes, occasionally gazing out the window as if he worried the soldiers would be knocking down the door next, catching them both off guard and dooming then. It was only then, as Alvar stole fleeting glances over to his strange informant, did he see the rusty old sword and sheath that hung loosely at his side.
    This was serious, much more serious than Goran had cared to tell him. And when he finally was dressed, though his hair and beard were still quite in a mess, Alvar took the still burning oil lamp in hand and joined Goran at the door.
    Not knowing what to say, he simply nodded to show he was ready, and Goran did the same in reply. There was really no reason to act so careful and cautious, it wasn't until Alvar read the letter that his companion took that attitude. As if simply knowing about the threat was enough to endanger them greatly.
    Even as the door rushed out from the worn old cottage, past the vineyards that were just coming to be ripe for picking, Alvar could not help but keep thinking how direly things had become without his even knowing. Loures had had so little to do with them for centuries now, as he'd been told. Though their neighboring province of Undine, with its scribblings of 'All hail Loures' scattered all over the town signposts like some laughable political graffiti, was an ever-present remind of what stood at their doorstep. He hadn't heard much about the hardships in Mileth before, just that the new outburst of the strange Aisling populous had set things off balance somehow for the mundane of the kingdoms.
    And still, as Alvar turned the onslaught of new, cryptic notions in his head, Goran pressed on ahead of him. The old man could barely keep pace, but he struggled to keep up nonetheless. The sense of urgency that now filled him gave him new strength, and the ever-growing ideas of how horrible things might have become was enough to carry his feet on even faster.

   Strange, he had never thought any such things mattered until now. Yet perhaps that was all the more proof his knowledge came too late.





Part I: Pride & Punishment

    Nearly all of Suomi stood about the hillside, must still looking dazed, anxious, or half-asleep. Whatever reasons each person had, the air of tension was mutual between all.  As Alvar and Goran slowly ascended the steep hillside, the hushed murmur of the numerous conversations already buzzed about the chilled night air.
    It became clearly obvious by the many villagers who stood huddled about that Alvar was the absolute last of Suomi's populous to be told of all this. Nonetheless, the anxiety was shared by all of them, and Goran's mood had only seemed to darken in the time the two had spent languidly trudging to the assembly place.
    All of Suomi's population, mostly farmers and merchants of various trades, stood huddled in a tight group at the hilltop. The winds of that midsummer's night blew strangely cold that night, giving them another reason to stay close, if not for fear of whatever they looked to below. At first, the reasons for the numerous gazes stolen across the countryside below were a mystery to Alvar, each and every member of the townspeople were so constantly doing so as they spoke. As he finally reached the summit of the hill, he could see, as well as share, their anxiety.
    A hundred, if not thousand, points of firelight dotted the small gully far below the town's hilltop vigil. The cluster couldn't be more than two miles from Suomi's border to Undine. At first glance, it would have seemed like a usual traveling groups camping, but there were far too many, and of too bright an intensity, to prove so. Those below were of the encampments of an entire Army. Loures' army.
    Still, that was not the worst of the sight, for as Alvar looked further still, he saw by the growing haze of light along the horizon that dawn was approaching. And anyone, regardless of their place in society's chain, knew what daybreak's coming would bring along with it. It was a favorite, and thus very predictable, tactic of Loures. On top of that, they were proud of the fact so many knew of their habits. Even by their victim's knowing of the exact time of attack, there was no hope for escape, or defense. It was especially hopeless for the residents of Suomi, their township was stuck between an entire mountain range, and on the opposite border sat land belonging to Loures' empire. They were, quite simply, doomed.

    "Why wasn't word of this sent soon?" Alvar hissed aloud in contempt. "This wouldn't be happening if we just went along with them.
    "And let those fools have their fill of our hard work?" A gruff voice from the crowd retorted. "Bah! We'd all rather die!"

    Hushed murmurs of reluctant agreement followed. Though most of the group weren't as keen to the notion of dying for their honor as others were. All the same, there was not much left to be said for anything. No for comfort, or bravery, or surrender.
    That one outburst, among all other things, was enough explanation as to what answer the representatives of Suomi, whoever they were, had given to the officials of Loures. All just the same, the pride they had for their labor had done little more than sign the death sentence for all of them. And now very few amongst the gathering still held such arrogant notions of perseverance against such tyranny.
    The conversations that still mulled within the air were debates of when the army would move, and what chance any of them would have. Morbid topics, to say the least, but it was all any of them had to talk of. Even Alvar, the picture of composure and kindness to the community, was at a complete, distraught loss.
    Yet, it was nearly at that very moment, before any more words could be said of their sudden predicament, that the first rays of sunlight began to touch the horizon. And within the very instant, the mere specks of shadow and firelight began to advance.

    "Sweet Goddess..." Alvar barely caught the soft oath Goran muttered under his breath. "Have mercy on us all..."





    The next few moments were nothing more than a blur. The total, unabashed panic that was shared between the villagers seemed to finally take effect in the instant Loures' army went on the move. Most of the gathering scattered. And, having no place to really safely run, they did nothing more than pace and dart in mad circles until a majority of them simply slammed into each other.
    The few that kept their heads barked sharp orders to the rest, calling for the children to be taken with the women and locked indoors. Most of the men chose to stand their ground, futile as it was. So, in a ragtag procession into their doom, the residents of Suomi all quickly rushed down the hillside and back within the western gates of the town. As said, the women all ushered the children into the assumed safety of their houses. Doors were locked in the blink of in eye, and shutters followed just as quickly. Alvar was caught in the middle of the mad rushed, feeling as though he'd been swept the midst of some insane and powerful tidal wave. Mindlessly following after the remaining band of farmers and the like, he lost all track of the passage of time. All he could tell for certain that daylight was slowly chasing away the cover of the night, and with every growing ray of light, the tension increased between all of those who dared remained in the open streets of the town. Suddenly, from amid all the confusion, a gloved arm roughly grabbed him, yanking the old man apart from the mob and into the growing silence of the side streets. It was Alvar again. His features, though they had lost the haze of liquor's effects, were all the more withdrawn and morose. He glared at him from the dark orbs of his eyes, just as he had so many times the previous night.
    "You ought to go take refuge, old man." He hissed in warning. "They'll go easy on the elderly, I know it."

    "What!" Alvar cried, his wrinkled brow furrowing with anger. "I can defend this place just as well as any of you others can! I'm not that helpless!"

    "Oh shut up!" Goran snapped. "Have you got a bigger death wish than the rest of these idiots! I'm telling you, get away from all this!"
    The ever more vexed farmer shoved him away with that. "They'll be expecting an old-timer such as you's heart to give out from all the excitement. Use that to your advantage, though I hope it won't end up to be true.

    Alvar stared at him silently, never had such words stung him so.

"Just go..." Goran muttered, his temper finally subsiding. "You of all people should know how this is going to get. Leave it to Loures... They just have to prove how 'almighty' they are..."

    Still, the old man said nothing.

    "Meaning..." Goran continued. "This is all going to get very ugly... I honestly hope your weren't too fond of your crops this year... They'll be torched before the day's end no doubt..." He paused. "Hey, are you listening? This is serious, Alvar! Your life depends on all this!"

    "Fine... Fine.." Alvar sighed at last. "I'll go... Though you should know, only fools die young."

    Goran smirked despite all the anxiety of the moment. "Stick to that grandfatherly advice, old man." He turned, hesitantly preparing to rejoin the ensuing chaos. "Maybe that way you can talk some sense into the survivors, eh?"

    They were cryptic words for such a parting, but in a way, it was all Alvar could expect from one such as he.





Part II: Up in Smoke

    There was little else for Alvar to do in the next several hours but sit and wait, silently listening to the cries from outside, cursing himself over and over for being totally helpless through all this. All the while he found that his gaze kept returning to the door at the far side of his cabin, watching the locks closely as if he expected them to be ripped away at any moment. It never came though, and he was left alone throughout the destruction that raged outside.
    Still, feeling all the more like a coward, he could not bring himself from his place huddled in the room's corner, if only to glance out the window just to see if the soldiers were about yet. There was really no need though, for the clamor of footsteps from outdoors was enough to tell him so, and that was all the more proof he needed that the village streets were still far from safe.
    All remained quiet in those endless hours. Save for Alvar's own tense breathing, and the occasional shout or patter of footsteps on the streets, there was nothing to break the still silence of his decrepit house turned sanctuary. Having no other company than his own worried thoughts, he often asked himself whether all this were really happening. Perhaps, in his old age, he had finally lost his mind, and had become terrified of the most trivial things.
    Yet no, the noises that penetrated the ancient log walls were far too real, far too vivid. For every doubt that crept into his thoughts, something else happened to prove such feelings wrong. There was the clattered of swords, and the barking of orders. Whether from soldiers, or the pathetically assembled militia of Suomi, he couldn't tell, nor care, any more.
    The sounds outside broke through his pondering every time, always cutting them off before they drifted to be much more morbid. The slightest noise, even the simple and familiar creaking of a floorboard from beneath him, tore him from his thoughts. Even then, no matter how he tried to pass the time, or keep his mind off the horrid truth, he found he could not so much as ever hope of keeping from returning to some aspect of what must have been taking place beyond his door. The horrors he had been all but excluded from the simple and ill placed command of a person he had never known to trust in the first place. It was beyond stupid, beyond foolish; it was just pure insanity.
    Throughout all this, the rotted wood of the front door was never once disturbed. Save the occasional rustling from morning winds, there was nothing physical that so much as stirred it. And all footsteps he heard rushed straight past, no owners of the voices he heard lingered long enough to consider looking within. Alvar was simply alone, forgotten, and tormented by his own thoughts even moreso in the passage of time. After a while, he began to wish the soldiers would choose to burst in, to end his miserable torture from his own silent musings, and let him share the same fate of so many dear friends.
    It never happened, and his thoughts still gripped him closely. Never once did his own mind let him forget the current situation.

    For the longest while, his meandering thoughts, that so anguished him again and again, crossed back to the residents of the only home he'd ever known. Often only to wonder what their fates were through all the confusion and chaos outside.
    And for every time he considered such things, he cursed himself, an old man whose life had lost it's worth and was far more deserving of death than the others, for daring to remain indoors like an even more worthless coward. Yet he had, in a sense, promised Goran, and to go against that would be even worse.
    Before he realized, and before he so much as thought of it, he rose from his place in the corner. There was no sense hiding any longer. It didn't matter what anyone else had said. He may as well see for himself.
    Slowly making his way towards the door, his own thoughts still tore him between the decision even as he reached for the knob, as he opened it, and as he stepped outside into the discord of the streets.

    The rush of light blinded him for a moment, though as his visions cleared, he had nothing more to greet him than an unusually thick haze of morning fog.
    Hesitating for the thousandth time that day, he further tread into the cover that surrounded

    "Ready or not..." It was the only words his muddled thoughts could find to assure him in the action. And sighing heavily, he turned and headed down the beaten, bloody path. For the most part, he was glad by the fact the mists hid all features along the way from his sights.





    The streets of Suomi, much to Alvar's own surprise, were utterly deserted. Not a soul walked about them at all. Not a soldier looking to dispatch neither any further rebels to Loures, or a villager desperately seeking refuge from the chaos. No one, and nothing.
    It was impossible to tell anything now. The fog seemed to grow even thicker as he walked. And after a while of walking in total silence, Alvar began to wonder if he had taken a wrong turn somewhere and had been walking away from the turmoil all along. After all the streets could not possibly fall dead so suddenly, after the hours of listening to the trampling and shouting. Yet that was the case. No matter how odd it seemed, all was still about him, and the gray, hazy mists were making a fantastic effort at keeping his sights hindered and is wanderings blind.
    Buildings emerged from the hazes like ghosts, lurching into vision only when he had came very near. Everything else ahead was lost in the mists, only choosing to be exposed in the moments he past by. This could have gone of for hours, he couldn't tell anymore. After a while, he became lost in counting the number of trees, fences, and buildings that slowly past by him through the fog.
    Occasionally, other, much more distorted, shadows came into view. Some slumped over awkwardly by the fences, others sprawled out in the middle of the road. Despite the fact they could have shown clearly if Alvar only got close enough, he kept a careful distance. All of which, was for the futile, childish fear of what those poor figures really were. No matter how many he past by, a shiver never failed to run along his skin.

    All sense of time was lost to him throughout his disoriented walking. As much as he strained his ears, no sounder other than the hollow echo of his footsteps met his efforts. The wind began to pick up, as if for no other reason than to mock him with its symphony of mournful howls and spiteful laughter. Alvar began to wonder if he should just give up, turn back and head home to act as if nothing had ever happened.
    In nearly the exact instant the thought to turn backcrossed his mind, a faint odor wafted in upon the winds. It was a horrible stench, one he knew well, but still could not place. He stopped cold, desperately searching his memories for it. Then, as though some bolt of recognition had struck him, it became all too clear.
    Through his many years in living amongst the mundane farming community, it was common practice for the rotted or unusable portions of a harvest to be disposed of as needed. Oftentimes, they were simply thrown into stoves or bonfires to dispose of them quickly before the stench became too great. That was what the smell we, Alvar silently reminded himself. And, having nowhere else to go, or nothing else to follow thanks to the heavy mists, he followed the scent the winds carried. Even as he walked, his thoughts began to wander. It wasn't until he actually tipped over something in the road, at the very point where the stench was strongest, that he realized he had reached his goal.
    Grumbling softly as he got back up to his feet, Alvar grudgingly bent over to see what it was that obstructed the path. At first glance, it seemed to be a discarded pile of clothes, and if not for the fact that the lump rose and fell rhythmically, he would have continued to think so. It was then, just out of curiosity, that he jabbed it with his feet. And a startled, annoyed grunt followed. Instantly, no sooner had the old man withdrawn his boot, the figure beneath the wrinkled mass of clothes rose. Even more quickly, without another second's passing, a rusty and long ill used knife was pressed to Alvar's wrinkled throat. It was another, even briefer, passage of time, before his sudden assailant withdrew the weapon.

    "I though I told you to stay out of the way, old man." The gruff, though nonetheless welcome, voice sighed.

    Alvar grinned wanly, despite himself. "Can you blame an old-timer for being curious?" He retorted airily. "Besides that, if you were so strong about honor before, why are you wasting your time huddled in the streets, eh?"

    "Hmph..." A dull proceeding of footsteps followed, Goran walked away just enough to be hidden in the mist.  "A few minutes earlier and you wouldn't have made it ten paces from your door... Just so you know..."

    "What?" Alvar gasped sullenly. "Then..."

    "It's over?" His unseen companion finished for him. "Tch! Far from it I'd say. Those morons have just begun, I know it..."

    Alvar folded his arms wearily, stroking the tangled strands of his beard absentmindedly out of habit. "Well then..." He sighed finally. "Just what happened-?"

    A faint snickering came from wherever it was the young farmer stood. "Oh, the usual action against we rebellious little countries. The soldiers come in, knock the poor citizens around. And in our so lucky case, torch the subject in question."

    "That explains the stench..."

    "It was a poor crop this year anyway." Goran scoffed. "I don't take as much pride in my work as you..."

    Alvar blindly stepped closer to the general direction of the other's voice. "That still doesn't explain your lying there."

    Goran simply withdrew to avoid him. "What's done is done." He snapped. "Be glade they didn't care to wreck your part of town then. And just in case you're wondering, the others are already gone."

    "...Gone?" He barely managed to choke out the word.

    Once again there was a flicker of movement, as Goran continued to elude him. "Gone or dead that is... A good number of those cowards took flight the moment the soldiers passed through the gate." He paused only to laugh ruefully. "And those who stayed to fight back were down within he blink of the eye. Most of the soldiers sought to beat them long after their last breaths... Feh, they're a bit too much into showing us our place, don't you agree?"

    "That's horrible!"

    "That's the point. I'm sure the way Bruce sees it, the sicker the retaliation, the better we... Heh, 'learn our lesson'." Once again, Goran moved further into the haze.

    Alvar persisted, though he had only the sound of footsteps to follow the other by. "Just why do you keep moving...?"

    "Just why do you keep following?" Was his only answer.

    "Liquor lost its hold on you?"

    "If it hadn't, the pain wouldn't be so bad now."

    "Pain?" Alvar echoed, genuinely out of concern. He took a few more cautious steps forward, and likewise Goran feigned away.

    "Just be glad you stayed inside as long as you did, Alvar." Once again the rarity of Goran actually addressing him by name. "But... heh... wouldn't you know it was when I tried to retreat that they came after me... How's that for luck on my part, eh?"

    Alvar could not keep himself from throwing his arms up in frustration. "Can't you ever give me a straight answer for once?" He groaned.

    Again, there was a rustle of footsteps. And again, before he realized, mostly thanks to the fog, Goran stood right in front of him. The vineyard keeper didn't have the time to draw back, or to even gasp from the sudden closure of space between them. Once again, the fog had done well to conceal Goran until his nearly stood directly in front of Alvar's face. Fore a while, the haggard farmer had used that to his advantage.

"A straight answer you want, is it?" Goran was just close enough to Alvar that time to be seen clearly through the mists.

    Alvar was dumbfounded at the sight, for it had taken that very moment for him to realize the severity. Upon his face were numerous slashes, inflicted by what looked to be both hands and daggers. The wounds were obviously still fresh upon his face, as the blood still glistened about each slash and tear.
    The hazy mists that dwindled about Goran only helped to made the gashes upon his face glisten in the pale morning light to make them all the more disgusting. As his young companion saw the utter look of shock upon the old man's face, he smiled ruefully. It was not to last though, for the scars, still being fresh, simply caused him to relinquish the expression from the sudden jolt of pain the tensing must have caused.

    Once recovered, Goran managed the closest thing to a smirk without doing the same.

    "So, how's that?" He sneered.

    Alvar blinked several times, as if that could somehow wipe the pale expression of terror from his already worn and weary face.  "Er, yes... Th-that'll do..."

    Goran scoffed lowly. "Well.... No matter... There's still no hope for any of us now... 





    Part III:  Blessings of Retaliation

    A crisp, silvery laughter pierced the morning air before any further arguments could be uttered.

    "Please... You'd just give up that easily?" A new voice, one clearly feminine, though still all the more bizarre and enchanting, cut through their dull musings of hopelessness.
    It was then, as if in a greeting to the strange newcomer, that the fog parted. And for the first time that day, the lonely deserted streets of Suomi could be seen in their entirety.  All of which, included their new visitor, who stood only a few feet away from the two. Which left Alvar to silently wonder just how long she had been there in the first place.
    Whatever the reason, or however long she had been there in the first place, the two found them self suddenly within the company of Bertil, Suomi's resident Fae Priestess. She smiled warmly, which was what Alvar guessed to be the substitute for the greeting, much less introduction, she had neglected before.
    Like her sisters known throughout the land, Bertil's pale hair had an unusual silvery sapphire tinge to it. The color of the hair itself was only second in peculiarity to the length, as the gossamer strands of it cascaded down nearly touch her ankles. It was laughable to see the Priestess outside of her study for once, especially as the morning winds picked up as before only to stir her hair into hopeless disarray  all about her form. Despite the elements seemed to care only to playfully tease her in such a venture out, Bertil never once lost her composure (much less the wry, knowing grin that was ever fixed upon her face).

    In long, almost arrogant, strides, Bertil closed the gap between then, looking both Alvar and Goran over carefully with her crystalline eyes. For all the time she spent looking them over, or pausing as if to mull over her own thoughts, both of the mundane, even despite Goran's own usually apathetic nature, simple stood dumbfounded where they were. And Bertil, it seemed, sought to use the fact to her advantage, taking her sweet time in how she stared, paced, and mused softly to herself again and again.
    "So now..." When she spoke at last, her voice sounded sweeter than ever to the two. "All... All this was done by soldiers of Loures, eh? Mmm... If I heard correctly that is..."

    "Ah... Yes." Alvar barely found his voice beneath the awe that held him. "T-that's right... My, uh, Lady."

    Bertil turned slightly to face him once more, leaving Alvar to feel as though he'd simple melt down from his knees. Surprisingly, the fae maiden sighed ruefully. Even as she shook her head briskly in frustration, her silvery hair danced merrily about her entire form.

    "Feh... How silly of me. " The remark seemed to be little more than a personal scolding. "I forgot about this little... Mmm, say, mundane infatuation issue." She paused, turning around further to fully face the two before her.
    She clapped her hands together suddenly. "Alright then you two, come off it now!"

    No sooner had she said so, the gorgeous glow that loomed out her divine figure faded. The lustrous sheen of her hair dimmed to become simply ordinary. And her shimmering eyes, though still attractive and alluring as Alvar saw them, no longer held their entrancing sheen to them.
    Realizing what a fool he had made of himself, falling over his own words and actions like a newborn, Alvar did as best he could to gather what he could of his own dignity. Bertil, however, saw his efforts, and the playful smirk upon her face simply widened to tell him so. As he finally regained his wits about him, Alvar took the opportunity to steal a glance to Goran, who seemed to be in just the same embarrassed state as he.

    "Well, well." Said Bertil. "I suppose a little retribution is in order, wouldn't you both say so?"

    "Retribution...? Just what kind of... retribution?" Goran cut Alvar off in replying to the Priestess' absentminded musing.

    Bertil waved her hand indifferently. "Ah! You know, a bit of pay back... An eye for an eye, as they say.

    A jeering, though obviously painful, smile crossed Goran's scarred face at the notion. "Say... A plague on Loures, lady?"

    For the first time since they saw her, Bertil's carefree grin gave way to a subtle scowl. "Not so severe, sir." She muttered. "Hmph, what does solving violence with violence get you..."

    "Plenty..." Goran muttered scornfully, rubbing the scars on his face as though to second the remark.

    "Tsk!" Bertil scolded. "Keep that up... Er, whatever your name is, and see if I bother to help you then!"

    "Eh...?" It was the first time in a while Alvar managed to get a word in. "Help us...? How?"

    Bertil laughed breezily, though it held only half the musical properties to it now as it had the first time. "I thought you would never ask!" And with a smooth wave of her hand, she beckoned them come closer. It wasn't as if their counsel would be overheard by anyone, just as Goran said most of Suomi was either gone or dead. No matter the trivial matters of the situation, neither of the farmers gave objection to the action, drawing closer to the Priestess in an awkward circle to discuss her plans.

    'Perhaps...' Alvar silently told himself as Bertil began her explanation of the plan. 'Perhaps things may be looking up after all.'





Epilogue: Due Payment

    "So... That's it?"  Viveka's enrapt and attentive looks dropped as her aged customer finished the tale.

Alvar looked up from his mug of brandy listlessly, finishing his sip before meeting the bartender's disappointed gaze that loomed over the tavern's bar. "Well, yes... The rest you know I suppose."

    "No I don't!" The woman retorted sharply. "You still haven't said what that plan was yet!"

    "Oh, haven't I?" He took another long sip from the mug.

    "Agh... Alva-a-r!"  Viveka groaned. "I know your mind's at least remotely all there!" She ran the tattered strands of her hand towel about her fingers anxiously. "I swear it, man; don't play dumb with me, leaving out the best part!"

    "Best part?" Her old customer echoed lightheartedly. "It's rather dull really, are you sure you want hear it, dear?"

    "Yes, yes!" The waitress cried out the words in an almost childish anticipation. Alvar simply took a for more thoughtful sips of brandy as opposed to going on, taking special care to turned the bittersweet around his mouth to fully savor every drop... Not to mention slowly torment poor Viveka as she anxiously awaited the story's ending.

    Sighing vehemently, she finally tossed the towel aside in frustration, accomplishing little more than greatly startling a small rat that scoured the tavern's floorboards for discarded pieces of food.

    "Fine..." Viveka muttered childishly. "If you won't go on, then that'll be the last brandy I serve you tonight!" It was a meager threat, but to anyone who spent most of their free time within the walls of Suomi's one and only tavern, it was a severe one.

    Yet, despite Viveka's efforts to push Alvar on to finished, the old farmer simply uttered a low, snorting laugh. "Please, woman!" He chuckled airily. "Who do you think makes the wines and liquors around here, hmmm?"

    Defeated in all her efforts, the young bartender expressed her exasperation though the closest she could manage to a growl.

    Alvar simply laughed even hard still. "Alright, alright then!" He agreed with mock reluctance. "I'll tell you the rest, just don't let all the pretty little veins in that head of yours burst, dearie."

    "Hmph, now that's a nice thought." Viveka scowled at the very notion, though she reclaimed her place at the stool behind the bar as before. The simple action alone was her signal for Alvar to go on and finish his tale.

    Clearing his throat, and stealing a few more sips from his mug, Alvar finally carried out her plea. "Well now... After Bertil had explained what she..."

    He was cut short from the very first sentence though. The door of the tavern was slammed open roughly. Though it, in fact a mere split second after its opening, darted a familiarly cloaked figure; whom closely followed by three men, obvious strangers to Suomi's lands.
    No explanations were needed for the sudden intrusion, and the vexed look that came across Viveka's face was enough that she shared Alvar's knowledge of which the one pursued was.

    "Trouble with business again, Goran?" Alvar muttered, not bothering to look back up from his mug.

    "Tough customers!" The farmer panted. "That's what!"

    "What're you babbling about?!" One of the three strangers snapped. He turned abruptly just long enough to explain their cause to the two who looked on. "Swindler! Forced us to pay him to pick his rotten old cherries, then not only that he stole more when we weren't even done!"
    Another of the three men stepped forward. "If that's not pure robbery I don't know what is!"

    "Feh! Robbery he says!" Goran scoffed. "I didn't ask you to trample the crops like boars, did I? Serves you brutes right, I'd say!"

    The first of the group was near literally fuming "Who are you to talk, you... you..."

    "Hold on now!" Alvar rose suddenly to come between the near fight, which was only after he had finished off the last drops from the mug. "There's a perfectly reasonable explanation I'm sure..."

    The third of the foreigners finally spoke up. "I'd like to know what good excuse he has for nearly robbing us all blind then!" He shifted a leather strap upon his shoulder, just so that the sheath that sat attached to it glimmered threateningly in the setting sun's golden light.

    "Now, now!" Said Alvar. "Times have been... rough her lately, and you'd best know what chances you're taking in coming around here looking for share of our hard work."

    "Hard work?" The first of the group echoed. "Half of these things aren't even worth picking!"

    Goran rolled his eyes. "There is the little phrase 'buyer beware'."

    "Oh yes," The third stranger muttered. "But surely we as buyers have our right against the seller, hmm?"

    "Heh! I'd like to see what you'd try with that stick of yours then!" Goran hissed. "Aisling or no, you're a pathetic lot to want to waste your time in these parts!"

    "Agh!" The first cried. Alvar stepped back subtly, leaning against the bar. "That's it!!"

    Without warning, the three foreigners were back after Goran. The wily farmer saw the continuation of the chase, and in a flash, if not even more quickly than he came, he was racing back to and out the door again. He paused for a split second nonetheless, taking care to slam the door flat into the face of the group's leader. Alvar and Viveka watched the scene unfold, as quickly as it happened, in rapt attention.
    It was strange, no matter what the cause, and Alvar drew back from the bar with a grin to acknowledge the fact.

    "I'm guessing that happens a lot?" Viveka sighed.

    "Oh, that was a tamer case the usual with his... Mmm, 'customers'.


    "Yes... Bertil blessed that worthless farmland of his to be suitable for cherries. A nice slap to the monopoly Loures had on it eh?" He chuckled softly, taking in hand one of the many bundles of the sweet fruit that foreigners and placing the most promising piece to it to his still grinning lips.

    "Not bad though... I must admit."

    "Ha!" Viveka cried triumphantly. "So is that what you were going to say."

    Alvar tore another cherry from the bunch. "I suppose it is."

    The old man turned from her abruptly with that, still picking and eating from the bunch in a careless rhythm as the bar tender stared at him uncertainly.

    "Well then, my dear." Alvar mumbled, barely able to form the words with his mouth full. "I think it's best I get going now, maybe catch up with Goran and those others before they decide to just run him through... Or something to that extend.

    Viveka, still gazing at him with a removed look in her eyes, simply nodded absentmindedly in agreement.

    "Pity really." Alvar sighed, tossing the plucked cherry stalk aside as he walked for the door. "Brutal times these are you know, can't hardly trust anyone!"

    As though the words had snapped her back from her thoughts, Viveka shook her head suddenly. "Wh-wh... Wait a second! What happened to hard times?"

    The old man half shrugged as he reached the door. "Brutal... Hard... Same difference."

    No sooner than he was halfway out the door, breaking into a surprisingly (at least for his age) brisk run out and into the dirt road that led to Suomi's main section where Goran's cottage lie. He was already past the crumbling wood gates of his own house before Viveka too emerged out onto the road just outside the tavern.

    "Hey! Wait!" She cried after him, waving her arms about wildly as if it could really somehow signal him back.

    "Alvar! Come back, Alvar!" She ran out the worn threshold of the tavern and out into the crisp air of the coming evening. "Alvar!! You didn't even pay for all this! Come back here...! I know you can hear me up there...!! Come back!"

    She turned slowly, meandering back into the sanctuary of the tavern. "Old goat..." She muttered, shutting the door and advancing to clear away the glasses and plates. It didn't really matter much to her, as it were. The tales from Alvar, at least to her, were always more than enough for payment.

    "Payment enough..." She whispered to herself with a grin, "No matter how much of a freeloader he is..."