Avem’s heart was beating faster than was healthy. He prayed no one heard the metallic clang of the dagger as it hit the tiled streets. His stupid butterfingers! Why drop it now of all times? Avem’s heart leapt to his throat, and his hair stood on end. He looked around. Nobody was even paying the slightest bit of attention to him, the boy pillaging a market stall full of ripe, juicy apples. He was deeply saddened to be stealing, but there was no other way for someone of his position to survive.
Avem walked off quickly from the market plaza with his brown cloak wrapped around him. He held the apples in his arms loosely, struggling to rush home before someone decided to stop him, if at all. He kept his head up to display his eyes, perhaps scaring off a potential attacker. He had irises the color of the sun, which often scared everyone he met. No other in the city or, perhaps, the world, had eyes like his. A rumor had started that his gaze could curse someone with their worst nightmare or turn them to stone. Because of this, those who saw him would avert their eyes immediately. This was probably the reason he could get away with thievery in broad daylight.
His sun-yellow eyes were unexplainable. Avem assumed he was born with them, but had no memory of his birth, or parents. His overgrown brown hair was littered with strands of crimson. His face was fair, but also had a hardness gained from years on the streets. Not one person in North Refuge could tell him where he had come from. They were too scared of Avem to approach him.
His brisk walk continued uphill to a road lined with alder trees, growing sideways due to the high wind. They creaked and cracked in the unusually strong wind, the alder wood groaning and creaking, threatening to snap off its limbs right above Avem. In North Refuge, this wind was bound to cause alarm among its citizens. Everybody was superstitious, some extreme and some less so, but superstitious all the same. The people of North Refuge were a cautious folk, often scaring themselves out of going anywhere unfamiliar. Avem continued uphill, on the same road, even more overgrown. Along the way, farms seemed to pop out from the ground. Many people passed him: rich and poor, fat and thin. Some gazed at his cloak suspiciously, but just his cloak. Others stared at the terribly hidden apples, but just the apples. They passed without a word, continuing to where their lives needed them next, never looking him in the eyes.
Avem lived on the streets of North Refuge. It was a small town full of sniffles, rude people, and often the Bronze Arm soldiers. They were named for the bronze arm pieces that they all wore. They were a corrupt faction of soldiers that abused their power behind His Majesty’s back. Their banners were lifted high across the city with their insignia, a gauntlet made of the shiny bronze, writhing in the high wind.
The seemingly endless walk ended when Avem collided face-first into the side of a horse. He hadn’t even realized it was in front of him. His mind was elsewhere, and he was not paying attention. It whinnied in alarm and tried to kick him, while pulling on its restraints around a fencepost gnarled with vines and weeds. Without realizing it, Avem had reached the Wineriver Village, a neighborhood of North Refuge.
The passage between Wineriver Village and his home was always hasty. Many dangerous individuals and bandit groups loved to stay at the famous hamlet built around the most renowned building of all, the Wineriver Inn. There were usually great choruses of voices coming from the Inn, with drunks passing in and out of the doors. Today there was no singing, only silent citizens passing by or leaning on the wooden support poles of the houses. They, too, observed the strong wind. They muttered to themselves and disappeared through the creaking doors.
Avem sat up on the muddy ground, trying to clear his head. Those who witnessed his collision passed on silently. A man, assumed to be the horse’s owner, ran up to it and shushed it, stroking its black muzzle. It eventually calmed down, now staring at the still dizzy Avem.
The man had long walked off when Avem finally decided to get up from the ground. He looked around him and found most of his apples scattered. He sighed, dusted off his cloak, and began collecting them. He would have to wash them in the stream on the way to his camp.
As he was reaching for the last apple, he heard the familiar sound of stomping boots coming from down the hill. He groaned with despair. The soldiers would surely catch him!
Avem quickly stuffed the last apple into his cloak, scrambling off into a nearby alley by the inn. The alley was lined with barrels and crates wrapped in a thick net. The netting offered better protection from prying eyes, while allowing Avem to see into the street beyond.
The soldiers continued to move until the lead man called them to a halt, observing the tavern. It was General Topea himself, with his short gray hair and icy-blue eyes.
He called back to his men. “Take a rest now. We’ll stop in the inn for a drink.”
They entered the inn. Avem could still hear them through the thin walls.
“Four ales,” called Topea in his deep, rumbling voice. There was clattering, and another voice spoke.
“Did you hear the news? We’re at war with Gwilin again.”
Another voice grunted. “That must be the third time this year, and we never gain anything.”
The General spoke up. “How else will we expand Montalia’s reach? How else will we unify Shatterrock again?”
One soldier responded. “Sir, I just don’t see the worth in thinking of unification now. We can’t be like the small tribes. We can’t just go into war after war after war, for eternity.”
“I agree with that, soldier,” Topea said. “But unification always comes at a price. You need to start wars to end all wars.”
They were silent for a moment, probably drinking their ale.
“Sir,” came another voice. “You desire unification of Shatterrock again? Even after all we lost in the Three Deceptions?”
“Soldier, we were, frankly, foolish during the Three Deceptions. It’s shameful. We are not the same Montalia.”
They were silent again. A few moments later, one of the soldiers said, “Sir, have you seen the Yellow Eye recently?”
Avem’s blood froze.
The General chuckled. “Not recently. He must be hiding in a hole somewhere. Tomorrow I’ll finally take care of him, and that will be the end of that. No more threat to our order.”
Avem couldn’t help but lean away from the wall. His hands felt the cold, packed dirt underneath him as he shook with fear. Still, it wasn’t all bad. To get him, they would have to catch him. Comforting himself with this, he leaned back into the wall, listening to it creak slightly as the voices came back into focus.
“Like I’ve said, General,” came a scolding female voice, probably the bartender’s wife. “He’s just a boy. There’s no threat to speak of. He’s a boy that people are afraid of for no good reason. Please, have some compassion.”
The General scoffed with disregard. “Compassion? Really? I’ve given him years to run off on his own, yet he’s had the nerve to stay. He taunts me. The people are afraid, and I am a man of the people. I will do what needs to be done.”
“I’ve heard the rumors are true,” said one of the voices. “I heard he can turn you to stone just by looking at you!”
Another soldier scolded the first. “Obviously, that’s not true, you fool. We’ve stared him right in the eyes and haven’t so much as cramped.”
Avem heard the scraping of barstools.
“Don’t get too comfortable. Our march is not finished. Move out!”
Barstools moved in unison and the soldiers walked single-file out of the inn, continuing uphill.
Avem retracted from the wall gently, taking care to stay hidden among the barrels and crates. A shot of panic went down his spine. He would have to make it to his home immediately and stay there for a few days. He couldn’t afford to be seen, and as he thought of General Topea’s threats, he shivered.
Montalia had been in a state of decline ever since the Shratan Empire collapsed, the empire that had previously controlled Montalian land. Not long ago, the continent had been split between two empires: the Shratan Empire and the Gora Empire. Both had collapsed, creating dozens of micro-nations. It had been survival of the fittest, nations rising and falling every year. In this time of political turmoil, nations like Montalia had strived to retake the lands they had lost and become the next great empire. There were many unification idealists who hoped that Montalia would rise once again, and there were radicals like General Topea who would stop at nothing to achieve it.
Avem stood up from behind the barrels. He made his way through the bushes opposite the inn, not paying attention to the thorns tearing at his face. The General had been terrorizing Avem his entire life. Every time Topea saw Avem, he would threaten him with death and imprisonment. All because of his eyes. It was all he could do to stay out of his way.
Eventually, Avem reached his roughly cut paths, piercing the thick forests. He took a left here, a right there, straight ahead and a left through some snapped-off branches until, at last, he was home. Or the closest thing to it.
It was a simple clearing, with a pitched tent made of dark brown and green striped cloth, propped up on thin but strong pieces of timber. The tall pines around him offered protection from the cold wind. A dying fire was simmering a few feet away in the center of the clearing. Around the camp were some supplies and tools. An axe for chopping, a basket, a bucket for water and food, a long stick to hang a pot over the fire, a spade for gathering plants, a homemade slingshot for dealing with wolves, a dull knife he made himself with flint, a hook, and a bedroll made from stolen clothes.
At least it was comfy.
Nearby was a stream with small waterfalls cascading down the rocks, going west of the camp; beyond the stream was the Miracle Meadow. It was a beautiful place with honeybees buzzing about, honeysuckles, lavender, and other plants sprouting from the fertile soil. It was walled off by the Wolf Wood, which no one dared to enter, except Avem. He usually gathered healing plants from the Meadow and mixed them together. They were good for treating anything from a splinter to a wolf bite. Most of his treatments were improvised, recipes gained from trial and error, usually resulting in intense pain and many accidental poisonings. He had a field day robbing the healer’s hut for cures back when he first tried out healing, but now he had memorized useful combinations. A prickly plant he stole from a travelling healer was very useful for burns, when crushed into a paste.
Avem had a daily schedule for his activities in his camp. First, when he rose in the morning, he checked the traps and barricades that surrounded the clearing for broken parts, or even the occasional squirrel that had landed on the barricade, which would be an easy meal. Next, he gathered water from the stream, heated it, and made tea out of the mint leaves that were sprouting all over the ground. He would have a breakfast of anything he managed to dig up or steal or hunted with his dull knife. He usually had a good meal on a good day. Just yesterday he was lucky enough to kill a squirrel, steal fresh bread, and—a luxury—drink a rare tea from a distant land, where he nearly lost an arm trying to steal from a very rich merchant passing through town that had not heard the tales of Avem’s eyes, and chased him around North Refuge. Avem only managed to escape when a mole hid him in his burrow, in exchange for scraps of rotten food, which the animal seemed to enjoy.
At the end of the day, he gave himself free time to do what he pleased until bedtime, though there wasn’t much to do for entertainment in the camp.
The final step to his day was his favorite, watching the sun go down from a tall pine tree. The sunsets were always more beautiful in the warm months when there was a slight breeze of warm air, though the cold of winter didn’t bother him much.
This evening, as Avem stared into the sun, it was truly the perfect conditions, at just the right temperature. Even the strange gusts of wind seemed to have stopped just for this moment. General Topea may have been a great cause for alarm, but Avem knew that he was safe in his camp.