Hello yet again, fellow digressors. How was your weekend? Mine was a little busy, but not too bad. I got a copy of Microsoft Office on my laptop at long last, which should make my life as both a copy-editor and a novelist a lot easier. This makes me happy. However, because the program took time to install, and because I needed time to play with and get used to my new toy, I'm delivering this next short story opening a day or two later than I intended. (The opening for the first story, 'Street Rats', is here, in case you missed it.)
Anyways, some of you may remember Jorthen Lavahr from 'The Follower'. Despite any mistakes he might have made, he still seems to be well-loved by readers, and it's been quite interesting trying to develop his backstory, especially as he tends to come across as 'Mr. Perfect'. As you are probably aware, no-one is truly perfect, and we all have secrets, some bigger than others. So, without further ado, here is the next short story...
Reshan Territory, North-East of Jaern – Outerlands
Eleven years before the events of ‘The Follower'
There was a time when Jorthen Lavahr would have done anything for his father. If Atrin gave him an order, Jorthen would keep his mouth shut and obey, no matter the consequences. If someone from the outside asked him, he would say that hadn't changed.
But here, with the campfire crackling before him and Atrin plotting a course with their map a few feet away, Jorthen couldn't keep his mouth shut any longer.
“...I don't want to go.”
Atrin looked up briefly from the map, then went back to it without so much as looking Jorthen in the eye. “You'll go. The Council is expecting your arrival.”
“They're all older than me. I'm not supposed to join until I'm sixteen.”
“Ordinary people join at sixteen.” Atrin reached for his canteen of water and took a brief swig before speaking again. “We are not ordinary people.”
Jorthen swallowed. “What's so bad about being ordinary? What about...” He hesitated, but the question escaped him despite his efforts to be quiet. “...What about Amra?”
Atrin threw his prodding stick into the fire. Sparks leapt up from the coals upon impact, and Jorthen cringed to avoid them. He raised a hand to shield his eyes, but a hot look from Atrin made him slowly lower it and straighten his posture.
Atrin ground his teeth and raised his eyebrows slightly. “I believe I remember telling you not to mention her again.”
The evenness of Atrin’s tone made Jorthen gulp. His tongue felt thick, but he concentrated enough to make it work. “Sh-she…” No. No stammering. Stammering was a sign of weakness. He cleared his throat. “…She’s my friend. I barely got to say goodbye.”
“You’re lucky you even got a moment with her. I should have made all the preparations myself instead of giving you time to bid goodbye to the local rabble.”
Jorthen tensed. “Amra isn’t rabble.”
“Look, I’m going to say this once more, and if you bring it up again, there will be consequences. Are you listening?”
Jorthen’s muscles quivered, but he managed to nod.
Atrin’s blue eyes burned into him. “That girl is beneath us. Always has been, always will be. Forget her.”
All Jorthen could do was stare, unable to even avert his gaze. His mind seemed frozen, and with it every other part of him. Maybe that was why he shivered.
Silence stretched, and Atrin picked up another stick and fiddled with it in what seemed like a casual manner. He snapped off a deviant twig that had sprouted from it and eyed Jorthen again. “You hear me, boy? No son of mine will run off with an herbalist’s daughter.”
Jorthen wanted to retort, to ask what was so wrong with caring for an herbalist’s daughter, especially since that herbalist had kept him alive these fourteen years. But he withered under Atrin’s gaze, and he lowered his eyes to stare at the grass and mumbled, “Yes, sir.”
“And hold your head up.”
This command Jorthen rejected. Instead, he worked his jaw and glared at the coals of the fire before him. Half of him hoped Atrin would not notice, but the other half knew he would, and relished the rush of adrenaline that came from that knowledge.
“…Go to the tent and wait for me.”
The adrenaline faded as blood drained from Jorthen’s face. His mouth went dry, and he swallowed hard as his thoughts scattered. Atrin was taller than him. Even if Jorthen turned out to be the faster runner, his heart would likely betray him and take him to the ground long before Atrin gave up.
A Lavahr never gave up. Never quit. Never showed weakness.
“Did you hear me, boy?”
Numbness overtook Jorthen as he rose to his feet and stumbled towards the tent. If he was lucky, by the time he got there, he would be completely devoid of feeling. He would no longer care. By the time Atrin arrived, he would no longer feel pain, either physical or in that corner of his mind where Amra Sheram’s freckles and glittering brown eyes taunted him.
But he had never been lucky. So numbness would have to be enough for tonight.
Reshan Guard Military Base, Jaern – Reshan Territory
Eight years later
Lieutenant Cpt. Jorthen Lavahr strode down the hall and ignored the looks his frenzied stride drew from others. Well, perhaps it would not have seemed frenzied had someone else used it, but the uneven rhythm and the way he leaned forward to gain momentum were so unlike him that only a few around him neglected to move out of the way. A young recruit with silky raven hair smiled and stepped forward as if to intercept him, but he ignored her. He barely felt the impact when his shoulder connected with that of a passerby, and it only occurred to him as he entered the echoing stone foyer a few feet ahead to mumble an apology. He spotted a door ahead as it swung open and some officer he couldn’t identify entered. He should have been able to identify him. Perhaps he was from another province?
What did it matter? Jorthen caught the door before it could swing closed and stepped through it.
Jorthen’s feet halted even as his mind raced forward and tried to plot a course to the nearest solitary place. He took a deep breath and ignored the ache growing in his chest as he turned and smiled at the recruit behind him. “Yes, Haren?”
“Sorry to disturb you, sir.” Ardran Haren’s copper hair fell into his eyes, and he brushed it out of the way as he straightened his scrawny shoulders. “Permission to make a request, sir?”
Ardran’s sudden change in posture reminded Jorthen to square his own broad shoulders, though he didn’t bother with the dark chestnut hair that likely fell over his own forehead. He put his hands behind his back and managed a slight chuckle. “Ardran, if you want to make a request, then make it. An overture isn’t necessary.”
Ardran’s cheeks flushed red, and he ducked his head briefly. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Um…” He wiped his hands on his tunic, then quickly folded them behind his back as if to copy Jorthen. “…I… would like to file a complaint, sir. A-about my roommate.”
One of these days, the recruits would learn the difference between a request and a complaint. Jorthen nodded. “Find Inspector Brehn. He should be in the northern training room.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Ardran turned and sprinted a few steps before halting. “…Uh, what should I tell him, Lieutenant Lavahr, sir?”
You can tell him to keep you busy for a few minutes so I can get out of here.
Jorthen blinked and reined his thoughts in again to form an answer. “Tell him what you just told me – that you want to file a complaint against your roommate. And give him whatever details he asks. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Ardran nodded again and halfway turned to go, then hesitated again. “You don’t look well, sir. Should I call for a physician?”
Abomination. Was it that obvious? Jorthen forced another smile that he hoped looked real. “I’m fine, Haren. Now you’d better hurry if you want to catch Brehn. I think he’s scheduled to meet a lady friend in about twenty minutes.”
Ardran’s blue eyes widened. “Yes, sir.” It took only half a moment for him to forget entirely about Jorthen’s appearance and to sprint off towards the northeast section of the base.
And people thought women were the only ones with ears for gossip.
Jorthen glanced around to be sure no-one else was approaching, then turned and walked out of the building, pulling the door closed behind him.
Outside, the town seemed to be made of all brown materials, and even the grass that sprouted up between cracks in the walkway seemed to have aspirations of turning to match that palette. The military base’s grey stone set it apart, as did the splash of color from the Reshan standard that waved from the battlements. Jorthen set his sights on the green of the grass at the edge of the town square and headed that way. Out here, people still recognized him, but as none had any immediate business with him, he met with no delays.
He did not know how long we walked before spots crept into the corner of his vision and crouched to lower his head between his knees. From there, he rocked back into a sitting position, closed his eyes, and focused on breathing evenly. His pulse still raced, but with some effort, he made it slow and even out into a less painful rhythm. The adrenaline that had charged his flight drained slowly from his muscles, leaving him fatigued and aching for bed. But it was only midday, and he had two batches of recruits left to wrangle before his scheduled activities ended and the paperwork began. Not to mention any meetings he hadn’t known were coming, or any more impromptu questions from the recruits who already knew him.
He had a good mind just to sit here for the rest of the day and pretend he’d been in some secret meeting the whole time.
If only Atrin Lavahr had not been sitting in one of the southern meeting rooms at that very moment, likely prepared to launch a full investigation should Jorthen not return in time to perform every one of his duties.
Jorthen raised a hand to his right temple and rubbed it, trying to rid himself of the headache growing there. How had his life come to this? When he’d joined up eight years ago, he’d managed to convince himself that the Guard would serve as an escape. True, he’d left some things behind, but at least he would be away from Atrin, except for the inevitable visits here and there. He could be independent. He could make something of himself.
And he was something now, all right. He was twenty-two years old, easily over six feet tall, and strong. He could put on a brave face in any situation, and there was hardly a woman in Jaern who would not revel in his attentions. Even those who did not particularly like him could not hate him, such was his charm and his skill as a diplomat.
And in this moment, he hated it. He hated all of it. Because it had all come from Atrin. He orchestrated everything, pulled strings to get Jorthen in before he was technically of age, conditioned him by various methods to push through anything, and constantly reminded him of any shortcomings he still needed to eradicate. There was not an aspect of Jorthen’s life that did not smell of his father’s influence.
But then, had he ever really expected that to change?
A rhythmic pounding fell on his ears, and he opened his eyes. His vision was still blurred, but if he squinted, he could see something on the northern horizon, a dark shadow in the distance, growing nearer as the pounding grew louder. A horse and rider?
He stood and fingered the shakahn at his belt, just in case, but kept his mouth shut and his eyes on the figure in the distance. It could be a scout returning with news from one of the Reshan-Shamindo bordertowns, perhaps, but if so, why did he ride so hard? And as the horse approached, Jorthen could see that it was far from a war steed. It looked to be more of a packhorse, really, its shaggy grey coat littered with dirt and flecked with sweat, stride faltering as if it could not take much more running.
And the skinny rider’s black hair, pale skin, and ragged clothing sent the word Shamindo ringing in Jorthen’s head.
His pulse spiked again, and he pulled his blade free of its sheath. “Guards!” His voice came out hoarse, so he cleared his throat and called out again. Voices from the town behind him proved that someone heard him. If it came to a fight, he would have backup.
At the disturbance, the grey horse tossed its head, released a shrill whinny, and stumbled to one side, then toppled, throwing its rider into the grass some yards away as if he weighed nothing. Jorthen dropped into a fighting position, but when the rider did not rise, he strode forward and tried to get a better look. The fallen horse paid him no mind as its lungs heaved in an attempt to catch its breath, but he leaned down to pat its neck as he peered at the rider nearby. He had landed facedown, but from here Jorthen could tell that he was small, barely a man if he was one at all, and that he carried no weapon. Jorthen slowly lowered his own weapon and froze as he spotted burns on the arm that was not pinned beneath the rider, and charred holes where fire must have caught his clothing.
Jorthen kept still for a moment, then sheathed his weapon and knelt next to the boy. He touched his shoulder as lightly as he could and turned him over onto his back, then recoiled slightly at the sight of more burns on his face and neck. If treated, they should heal without leaving scars, but how had they gotten there? How much more of his body was burnt? Jorthen heard footsteps behind him and called over his shoulder, “He’s injured. Find a physician.”
One of the newcomers repeated the order, and someone else sprinted back towards the base. Yet another person knelt beside the fallen horse to assess its condition. Jorthen stretched out a hand to feel for the Shamindo boy’s pulse.
The boy gasped and jerked away from Jorthen’s hand as his eyes flew open. Jorthen started, then held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Easy, easy – I’m not going to hurt you.”
From behind him, someone called out, “Shamindo! He’s a Shamindo spy!”
“Quiet,” Jorthen snapped. He looked at the boy again and offered a hand. “Come on. We’ll get you some help.”
The boy shook his head and tried to scramble away from Jorthen, but fell to the ground again, his green eyes wide, emaciated body trembling. The burns covered his hands and arms, and his tunic was singed halfway into oblivion. He could not have been much older than sixteen.
Jorthen swallowed hard. “…Easy,” he repeated, and extended a hand again. “I’m Jorthen Lavahr. Let me help you.”
The boy blinked at him, uncomprehending in his panic. All at once his muscles went loose, his eyes glazed over, and Jorthen barely moved forward in time to keep him from hitting his head on a rock as he fell unconscious again.
Jorthen cursed under his breath and glanced at a Guard recruit as the boy stepped up beside him. “Help me get him to the base.”
The boy nodded, and with little difficulty they lifted the Shamindo and headed for the military base. Until this point, Jorthen had managed to focus his distractible mind on the matter at hand, but as they walked, he could not help thinking, Won’t Atrin be thrilled when he finds out about this?