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Seas Overhead, Skies Below

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Flostym Year 400

Cloelia awoke to the irritating realization that she was shivering. She rubbed her feet together in a futile attempt to generate heat, but the thin quilt covering her body and her thin nightgown could only do so much. Instead, she got out of bed and shuffled towards her clothes chest to try and find her Wyrmstym weather clothes. Living so close to the Sluice Gate had thankfully prepared Cloelia for seasonal shifts in the otherwise pleasant climate of Zofia. Recently, however, there had been uncharacteristically chilly days, even to the point that snow had begun to fall. It was the middle of Flostym now. The villagers felt these bore ill tidings, and Lukas had said that the changes even had some of the local gentry fear for how their crops would fair.

“Aha, there you are,” Cloelia murmured when she found her wool stockings and a thicker petticoat. She took a quick peek out the window to determine if she would need more. The early morning sky was a dreary gray, but no sign of sleet or rain at least. A cloak and some extra layers would be fine. Cloelia quickly got dressed, then washed her face in the basin and squinted at the water’s sting before combing her hair and putting it into her usual side plait braid. Ready for the day and what lay ahead.

Coming down the steps, she found the house matron already starting on breakfast. Due to her father’s position as the only qualified physician for a good deal of acres he had been able to hire Midge full-time for decades now. Clerics and Saints within Mila’s priories would sometimes travel the countryside, but having a regular physician that worked for coin instead of blessings did the locals much more good. At least that was what her father had told Cloelia whenever she asked.

“You're up early today, Miss Lia,” Midge commented as Cloelia sat down at the table and waited patiently for her morning repast. There was a glint of mischief in the woman’s eye. “Have any plans with that handsome lordling?”

Cloelia accepted the offered brewed tea and added her usual cream with an enigmatic smile spreading across her face. Though she attempted to play it off, the teasing made her giddy instead of embarrassed. “Just some deliveries for today. Old Piers is one of the customers, so if the Mother is willing, perhaps I will pass Lukas on the way.”

Piers was an old hand that tended to the fields of the estate Lukas’s older half-brother, Felix, had inherited from their father five years passed.

Midge cackled before turning back to the meat and eggs frying on the pan, the delicious aroma made Cloelia’s mouth water even as her face reddened. She took an orange from the fruit bowl and began to peel it to pass the time. Midge continued her round of teasing.

“If you ask me, I’m sure he’ll pop the question any day now. The cold weather I’ve heard has a habit of stoking the fire in people’s hearts. And other regions, if I’m honest.”

If her father was here, he would probably twirl the end of his beard and wag a finger at Midge’s bawdy attitude with his child, even when she had prepared morning after teas for the mistresses and concubines of the estates since she was twelve. Now twenty-three, she had the full book and gossip knowledge of what happened in beds and haylofts and fields and what other places people thought of.

The promise of a future where she woke up to Lukas’s warm body beside her though filled her with a prick of longing, though and Cloelia found herself unable to play coy as Midge set her breakfast down. “If… if Lord Felix consents to the match.”

“And why shouldn’t he? Marrying you won’t make Sir Lukas a threat to his title,” Midge countered. “You two have been courting since he returned from that fancy academy, and that was over two years ago! I say it’s high time you eloped, especially with the whispers of war going around. That’s what your parents did.”

Cloelia paused in taking a bite of her eggs at the comment. “...Don’t say that around my father, Midge. He gets cross when Mother comes up.”

“Your father went out to see a patient and won’t be back until supper. No need to worry for my sake, Miss Lia.” Midge pat her elbow, before going back to her regular duties. But the warm thoughts of Lukas were doused with cold reality once more. Could the son of a lord, even a second son, and  the daughter of a working man and a noble that married below her station only to flee the marriage a handful of years later a suitable match by polite society?

But Lukas had said that he didn’t care for what nobles thought of her. He based his ideas of people on their character, and he thought her character was as good as any highborn lady. With that reassurance in mind, Cloelia tucked into her breakfast, cleaning the plate and finishing off the orange before setting out on her medicine deliveries.

Her father had taken their old nag, so she would have to go on foot. Thankfully most of her parcels of tonics and powders were intended for the village about a ten minute walk north. Cloelia wrapped her cloak around her to stave off the chill, but could still feel it creep in when an especially hard gust nearly knocked her to the ground. Gritting her teeth, though, Cloelia pressed on.

The weather was not the only thing that was strange: she found no one on the path doing regular work or chores. Even the nearby fields were empty of their usual tenders. Midge didn’t say anything when she came this morning, but now Cloelia was growing even more worried. Once she reached the outskirts, many people were standing just outside their doors. Some of the men were stone faced, while the elderly held their hands in prayer. She went to the closest house where a small boy, Nika, had a bout of fever. His mother, Gisi, was tearing at her beautiful curly hair, face tight with worry.

“What has happened? Is Nika alright?” Cloelia rushed forward, her hand gently pressing against the woman’s wrist. Though she was a mother, there was only a few years in difference from their age.

“His fever broke, but he won’t be safe for long,” Gisi moaned. “None of us will.”

Cloelia frowned, the ominous atmosphere grow more oppressive with Gisi’s words. There were sounds of chests being opened and snapped shut, before Gisi husband Paolo came with his hunting bow and a dented helmet covering his head. Despite his wife’s open dismay, he looked unphased.

“Oh, Miss Lia. Thanks for stopping by to see our boy,” Paolo smiled. “The payment is on the counter.”

Cloelia frowned deeper at Paolo’s nonchalance, her response taking on an edge of judgement. “Where are you going leaving the mother of your children so distraught?”

“The Knights of Zofia have rebelled against Chancellor Desaix, and they’re calling for volunteers. I’m going to make more coin playing war than working this year’s crop. If it keeps up, most of it will die off, and then we’ll be flat on our feet.”

“A… rebellion?”

That was unexpected. There had never been talk of rebellion in Zofia, not ever. Even if the king was a known philanderer and the looming presence of the Rigelian empire, there had never been rumors of a civil war brewing. “When did you get this information?”

“A runner came down from Lord Felix’s estate about an hour ago to talk about volunteers.” Paolo grinned. “Can you believe it? The Knights of Zofia are opening their ranks for sure! I’ll come home with coin and a title!”

“Gisi moaned again, pulling her husband’s shoulders. “Paolo, please… we can make do here if we’re all together. Don’t leave me a widow.”

Wait, if the news came from the estate...

“That’s nonsense, Gisi.” Paolo kissed her forehead, before giving her hair a tousle. “I’ll be back before you know it, I promise!”

“Paolo,” Cloelia knew it was rude to speak up, but, but . “Where are those that are meaning to leave planned to meet?”

“Oh, at the crossroads by late morning,” Paolo easily answered, and Cloelia pressed Nika’s medicine into Gisi’s hand.

“No payment required,” Cloelia said hurriedly before breaking out into a run, trying to reason with her head as her legs carried her back to the path and the wind stinging her cheeks.

Lukas might have military training, but would Felix actually send his only brother to war? From how Paolo talked about it, it wasn’t a forced subscription. Maybe Felix refused, and Lukas was still at the estate doing his morning training.

Nevertheless, she headed directly for the crossroads. There was a small crowd there of young men and some women, all from the village or nearby farms. A few horses with well-armored riders stuck close together. Volunteers from the local families, perhaps, but none of them had red hair. For a moment, Cloelia paused, trying to steady her breath.

Cloelia, for a moment, felt reassured. He wouldn’t be going with the draft, he would stay. Then that all came crashing down when she heard a voice call her name, and she turned on the path to see Lukas, dressed in light armor.

“Cloelia, are you alright?” Lukas asked, hands reaching out and resting on her shoulders

“You’re… you’re leaving, too?” Cloelia asked, hating herself for how weak her voice sounded to her own ears.

Lukas frowned. “I am. My brother thought it would be good for the family name if I went.”

“Good for him, you mean.” Cloelia spat, dropping all point of faked deference to Felix. She could see now he was a coward and deserved none of it.

Lukas sighed. “...Either way, I must go. I was hoping to pass by your home on the march, but... it’s good to see you.”

Perhaps these words would sound lackluster coming from someone else, but she knew Lukas sometimes had… difficulties expressing the depth of his feelings. Cloelia leaned against Lukas and wrapped her arms around his waist. The top of his chest plate was cold against her cheek, and part of her bristled that Felix had sent Lukas off without a horse or proper clothing.

“Here, take my cloak,” Cloelia moved to undo the clasp, but Lukas took her hand in his and smiled.

“I’ll be fine. I have some of my own provisions squared away in my pack.” Lukas assured her, before leaning forward to kiss her cheek. Cloelia bit her lip and tried her best to hold back tears. She wouldn’t allow herself to lose composure around so many people. “Thank you.”

“When you got to their basecamp, write to me,” Cloelia pressed. “I’ll respond. Write whenever you can.”

“I will try my best.” Lukas replied. “Take care of yourself.”

Cloelia raised her head with a nervous laugh. “I should be saying that to you. You’re the one who’s going to fight.”

“Things have taken a turn for the worse in Zofia, and things might grow even more perilous with how close our lands are to the border.”

Cloelia frowned. “Lukas, do you think Rigel has anything to do with this?”

“I’m not sure. But it would best to keep your wits about you, alright?”

“...Alright.”

The two shared one more hug and kisses pressed against cheeks, but Cloelia felt some disappointment that she hadn’t plucked up the courage to kiss Lukas’s lips, but perhaps that would make him uncomfortable in front of a crowd. She heard snickers from the nobles on horses after they parted, and Cloelia flashed them a withering glare. She didn’t see any of them with sweethearts of their own.

Cloelia watched the troop march down the road that lead south, returning waves of friends and acquaintances. So many of them were her age or even younger.

She wondered whether she would see some of them again alive.

---

 

Dear Lukas,

Thank you for sending me that message. I hope The Deliverance will keep a foothold in Zofia castle. Knowing that you and the rest of the villagers made it safely is a heavy burden off of my chest…

The weather has turned from freezing cold to blistering hot here! I actually prefer the heat, but its the shifts hasn’t done much good for the elderly. Father is overworked, and I’ve had to go pay some housecalls myself. There is only so much I could do, but thankfully I have picked up some knowledge over the years! At least most of the tree orchards are still green and bearing fruit. They’re sturdier than they look.

Are they feeding you well in the army? I can always send a care package. The merchants seem to have more room on their wagons these days.

Yours,

Cloelia

 

---

Dear Lukas,

I simply have to write that that noble reaped what he sowed. Men like that try to make others feel small to make themselves feel big. Sir Forsyth and Sir Python sound like quite the comical duo, though! Of course, also quite kind. I hope your friendship with them grows strong.

However, save for that episode, I didn’t read much about how your feeling in the last letter. Sir Clive seems like a good man, and you are more than worthy of the new position he has given you in the Deliverance, but still. I know battle can take a lot out of people, and if you need to let things out, please know I’m listening in spirit.

Another set of crops have failed. The planters are wondering whether or not to try again when the seasons change. We still have food, but some of the villagers are now paying with supplies instead of coin, and it disheartens me. Their families need it far more than we do.

May the Mother keep you safe,

Cloelia

---

 

Lukas,

My last letter was returned. I’m worried. Has something happened to Zofia castle? Nobody has sent back news of you, so I’m paying that you’re still safe.

I saw Rigelian soldiers marching down the road today. I hid, so I don’t think they saw me, but I’m frightened. I think you were right about things changing.

People are leaving the village. People who have been here for generations. Felix is doing nothing to support us. All he does is keep holed up at the estate. There were rumors of an uprising east from here and a noble family was killed, and that is making the local gentry distrustful. I know times are tough, but there are good people here. They would never do such a thing!

Sorry, my words are beginning to ramble. I’m just… I’m worried. I miss you. Things would be better if you were here.

I hope you get this message.

Yours,

Cloelia

---

Paolo’s body was sent back today. Gisi won’t stop crying. I had to help clean up his body for burial but the stench was so much it was so hard and I kept seeing your face on his and the sight won’t go away. I don’t understand why we’re even cleaning it. We’re going to have to burn it anyway. Nobody goes to the cemetery because they’re afraid of joining the Terrors there. I want to cry and scream but I feel like I can’t.

Why is this happening? What is happening to us?

---

Wrymstym Year 400

“Lia, stop wasting paper.” Father said from his end of the table, hunched over an under ripe orange that was his morning repast. His once full head of hair was beginning to thin on top, giving Cloelia the impression that her father was truly becoming what he ate.

Cloelia paused in her letter writing, before continuing to move her quill. “We can use it for kindling later, don’t worry.”

She had stopped sending the letters a few weeks ago after the last one was returned unopened, but writing them felt therapeutic. It allowed her to write down thoughts that she couldn’t say out loud. How nearly every word out of her father’s mouth was to tell her to stop “wasting” things. Even though Cloelia was the one who had taken up the duties of keeping the house and infirmary clean. Even though since he had fired Midge, she was the one who had to think of new ways to work with what food they had and keep pests away from the larder.

No matter what she did, he found some sort of fault in it.

A loud squelching noise filled the air as her father tried to get what juice he could from the orange into his mouth. Cloelia sighed and folded her current letter, placing it in her pocket and getting to work on some tea. In the past few crop failures, and the necessary points to preserve certain herbs for tisanes for patients, she had grown resourceful with foraging for things that she had before scorned as simple weeds. As long as it didn’t make you sick and could fill your belly, it was good enough base for tea.

However, when she checked the container, there was no fresh water left to use.

“Father, you didn’t go to the well this morning like I asked.” Cloelia sighed.

“My old bones are getting too sore to move that fast in the morning,” Father replied after one last slurp.

Her gaze shifted to the empty fruit bowl at the center of the kitchen take. That was the last orange they had. She would have to go foraging for more. The sight made her more irritated.

“You’re not that old.” Cloelia muttered, half to herself and half hoping her father would hear. “You would get up at the crack of dawn mere months ago.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Her father’s voice reached that uncomfortable screech that grated on her ears. “You’re talking back to me?”

“No, Father, it’s just-”

“A spinster who freeloads is in no position to complain.”

Cloelia gripped the sides of the water bucket hard enough that splinters could have been driven into her skin. “Twenty four is not a spinster, and Lukas is still alive. He will return.”

And then when Lukas married Cloelia the man she had once respected as her father who had whittled away and left nothing but a spiteful husk could rot alone.

But the man was not finished, and let out a harsh rasp of a laugh. “Nobles promise anything and everything. You should’ve learned that lesson from your mother after she abandoned us. They leave the moment they think trouble is on the horizon, only caring to save their own skins-”

“Enough!” Cloelia raised her voice for the first time in many days, but instead of bringing relief, all it brought was the urge to yell more. But she wouldn’t let it overwhelm her. In this situation, Cloelia  would be the better person. That was some comfort she could keep, at least. “That’s enough.”

Thankfully, her father puckered up his mouth and said nothing and began to tug at his beard. Cloelia took the bucket out the door and into the fresh air.

Despite the limited foliage and dead grass, the clear sky cheered her up a little. Before making her way to the well, she walked over to the old nag’s pen and gave the horse a few pats on her neck. Though listless in the heat, she nudged her nose in Cloelia’s direction.

“This must be hurting you more than any of us, girl,” She whispered. “Hopefully there will be some fresh clover for you to eat soon.”

The nag still had enough hay and water for the day, so Cloelia wouldn’t have to make two separate trips. She began to walk down the path of trees that lead to the well. Maybe due to the groundwater, these trees still had leaves that offered shade from the light, making the stroll a usually enjoyable one.

Cloelia wondered if she should check for any mushrooms around their roots when she heard a twig snap. She halted and looked back at the path. No one was behind her, and when she looked ahead towards the well nobody was there either.

Maybe it was an animal.

When she looked out into the trees, she swore that she saw a flash of red cloth duck behind a trunk.

Maybe it wasn’t.

Cloelia broke out into a run back up the path. When she looked back, she saw three men pursuing her. Based on their tattered clothes and leathers, a sure sign of brigands. Cloelia threw the bucket back as a distraction, but the center caught it with the sharp end of his hatchet and flung it against a tree, making it crack and shatter.

Cloelia turned ahead and picked up her skirts. All she had to do was run. If she could just make it to the village then she would be safe-!

Two more brigands were waiting up the road, one with another hatchet and the other with a bow and arrow taught and ready to fly. She looked at the sides of the forest, but she didn’t know if there were any there either.

Cloelia yanked at the sewing scissors that hung from a chain around her belt as she stopped, turning back and forth at the brigands enclosed her like a trapped animal.

“Alright, sweetheart. Best for yee to come quiet like,” One of the brigand’s stepped forward.  talked like a sailor, his face tanned and sporting a grin that didn’t hold at all enough teeth. His hand reached out for the end of her skirt, and Cloelia drove the sharp end of her scissors into his hand.

As he screamed out in pain, Cloelia raised her voice as loud as she could, but was cut off mid-scream by something hitting the side of her head, hard. The trees and brigands began to spin and bleed out of color until she was left in utter darkness.