THE SHADOW OF HISTORY - CHAPTER 3
I laid my hand on the black fabric, hesitating for a moment, before looking up at my professor. “This isn’t some sort of test, is it? I won’t get in trouble for this later, will I?”
Professor Marius cocked an eyebrow at me. “If it is a test, it is doubtful that I, the administrator of said test, would give you the answer. And as for any trouble, you should know that you cannot break rules without incurring risk. With these sorts of questions, I cannot help but wonder if you are planning to avoid punishment by claiming you were tricked or somehow coerced into taking these robes.”
“I wouldn’t say coerced, but it does feel like you’re trying to lead me down that path.”
I paused and considered what Professor Marius had said so far. He offered me the robes, told me that apprentices don’t have to be ordained, and that if we want accommodations the robes would make it easier.
A small, huff of a laugh escaped me. I should have known better. Professor Marius was far too clever to put himself in the line of fire. Of course if we were caught he would be questioned as to why he offered a former student the robes, but if I took them I knew he would not allow me to play the victim.
“You know it would be your word against mine should we be discovered,” I said, not quite willing to give up the game yet.
“That it would. The naïve graduate against the upstanding professor.”
“Yet it is the upstanding professor who is telling me to break the rules.”
“Ah, but we have already established that I am not telling you to break the rules. I am merely offering an opportunity.”
“From a position of power. Anyone close to me can vouch that I hold you in the highest esteem. It would be very difficult for me to go against what I perceive to be your wishes,” I said, my hand still on the robes in Professor Marius’ waiting hands.
He tilted his head slightly and the sun caught his dark grey eyes, flashing like lightning amidst the clouds. “Yet those wishes can also be seen to stem from my own human weaknesses. It is well known amongst my colleagues that I am a private man, so much so that many have voiced their concerns about my solitary habits. If I told them I wished to pretend for a couple weeks that you were a part of my lonely world as a fellow member of the Church, I dare say they would be quite moved and pity me for a momentary lapse in judgement.”
“Is that what this is? A momentary lapse in judgement caused by loneliness?” I asked.
“I believe the discussion was concerned with how to avoid punishment, not about the truth behind our decisions. With that in mind, Remus, I care little as to what you choose to do with this robe or what you choose to tell others should anyone learn of this conversation. The only thing I hope for is that you make your decision without regrets and with a full understanding of your own personal reasoning and values.”
Did Professor Marius even understand what he was asking of me? This was a lot easier when the question was simply about whether or not to take the damned robe. Though I suppose it was my fault for trying to hedge my bets instead of making a decision. My uncle often forced me to face the practical side of becoming an adult, but it was Professor Marius who was forcing me to consider the more intangible side of maturing. Specifically that making choices as an adult was not as black and white as I was told it would be as a child.
Still, I had a feeling I was making this whole thing overly complex. At some point I needed to accept that I could not plan for every single possible outcome. If I didn’t take the robe I felt I needed to find another way to please Professor Marius. If I did take the robe I felt I needed to concoct a web of lies so I wouldn’t have to face prosecution if I was caught. But both of these contingencies were based on premises that may not happen or may not even be true! I had to focus on what I knew right now and trust in my abilities to deal with problems as they arose or else my life was going to end up like this situation right now – endlessly running through what-if scenarios and trapping myself in moral contemplation. It reminded me of a story I was told as a child, of a yak born with two heads that each wanted to travel in opposite directions and inevitably starved from indecisiveness.
I slipped my bag off my shoulders, stripped off my thick sweater, then took the robe from him and pulled it on. It was slightly too big and just as stiff as it looked, but now that I had the official garb on I could at least more properly consider my feelings. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel guilty. If anything, I felt childish, as if I was playing dress-up.
“If anyone should ask, I’m apprenticing to become a professor of theology under your tutelage,” I said and hefted the bag back onto my shoulders, hoping that childish feeling would fade as the days went by. “Let’s go.”
“As you wish,” Professor Marius said with a little bow of his head. Though I tried to read his expression, there was no hint of a smile or glint in his eyes that would allow me any inkling of this thoughts. No doubt he schooled his features on purpose so I wouldn’t be tempted to do what I was attempting now – searching for approval rather than being confident in my decision.
We continued west out of the city and though I had seen the phenomenon before, it was always entertaining to me how the clusters of buildings would suddenly give way to wide open fields. In mere moments, it felt like we had left civilization all together.
There were two main roads heading west, one on either side of the Wasuleth River. I was grateful we were still on the northern side. Though I never knew a southerner personally, they had a certain reputation of strangeness. The farmers weren’t all that different, but once you got past those fields it was a whole other story. They had purifying ceremonies whenever they ate, would wear colourful, elaborate dresses and tunics at all times, and had a strange accent when they spoke. It was also their witches and shamans who made the demon and faerie talismans to sell at the city fairs.
I felt a chill run down my spine as I recalled those talismans. Everything I once knew and took for granted was now bathed in a new, unsettling light.
We passed quite a few people as we began our journey, many of them riding yak or hog-drawn wagons. Most of them were heading towards the city, ready to sell and trade their wares. Professor Marius greeted everyone we passed and I followed suit, smiling and wishing them well. Some asked for a blessing which Professor Marius readily gave. “May the Scriptures guide your path, and the Ancestors embolden your steps.”
Though I loved the city, there was something awe-inspiring about seeing the fields of fresh, green crops spreading out as far as the eye could see and the massive expanse of blue sky taking over the rest of nature’s canvas. The dazzling view was enough to keep me entertained for several hours, but eventually my shoulders began to protest too loudly for me to ignore anymore.
“Professor Marius, may we stop for a moment?” I asked.
“Of course,” he replied, then looked out over the fields and pointed to a group of three large prairie ash trees. “Can you make it there?”
“Yes,” I replied, relieved, and followed him to the trees which were thankfully only a five minute walk away.
We set down our supplies in the shade and I mimicked Professor Marius as he stretched his arms and shoulders.
“It has been a while since I carried a rucksack,” he said, pulling out a flask and taking a few gulps of water. “You should hydrate as well.”
I nodded and pulled out my own flask which Marius had packed near the top, just under my own supplies and sweater.
“For the sake of time efficiency, I brought along some water purifying herbs, should you want to quickly refill your flask from the river before we leave again,” Professor Marius said.
“Which variation did you bring?” I asked.
He looked at me with a slight smirk that I was getting incredibly fond of seeing. “Most men would simply be pleased that we do not need to attempt lighting a fire every time we need clean water.”
I blushed. “I didn’t mean to be ungrateful, Professor, I was just curious.”
“I know,” he said and knelt down, reaching into his bag. He pulled out a pouch and tossed it to me.
It hit me square in the chest before I could even register I was supposed to catch it, and in a graceless flurry of limbs I scrambled to hug it to myself so at least it would not fall to the ground.
A foreign sound snapped me out of my embarrassment in a quick hurry. Professor Marius was laughing. Not chuckling softly as I’ve heard him do a handful of times before, but a true laugh.
“Perhaps a little more warning next time!” I exclaimed, though I was smiling. I didn’t care if his mirth was at my expense if I could hear him laugh like that. It made me wonder how many others were privileged enough to be privy to this outburst of expression. Selfishly, I hoped not many.
“Judging by that questionable display of coordination, I am not certain a warning would have helped much,” he replied.
“As you are no longer my professor, I will not fear repercussions should I find an opportunity to embarrass you in return.”
Professor Marius sat down, his laughing having subsided into a soft, amused chuckle. “I look forward to seeing the attempt.”
I sat down as well, still smiling. “Are you usually this spirited outside of the University, professor?”
“No,” he replied and sipped at his water before turning his attention to the large, Wasuleth River not far from us.
He didn’t say it sharply, but that paired with his averted gaze seemed to be a hint not to pry further no matter how curious I was. Did he not have friends? Was this trip perhaps as special to him as it was for me? Did what he said earlier, about his colleagues worrying about his solitary nature, hold some truth in it?
Luckily, there was a bag of herbs to distract me from my intrusive thoughts, and I took the opportunity to pour a tiny amount into the palm of my hand. There were five herbs that I could identify visually, and when I brought the concoction to my nose to take a small sniff, I was able to say with certainty what those five herbs were.
“It’s the speckled parsley variation,” I said.
Professor Marius looked back to me. “It seems Professor Oliver’s adoration of your keen observation skills were not an exaggeration. He was surprised to hear you weren’t already applying to apprentice at the apothecaries this past month. With his backing you would be able to get in anywhere you like, perhaps even at the castle if you so wished.”
Carefully, I poured the herbs back into the bag and sealed it tight with the string. “And I’m not opposed to that option at all.”
“What else are you considering?”
“Becoming a professor of theology like you.”
“Why?” Professor Marius asked.
I blinked. For some reason I assumed he would be excited by my interest, not immediately question me on it. “Because the Scriptures have captured my attention and imagination beyond anything else.”
“I did not ask what you thought of the Scriptures, I asked why you want to become a professor of theology.”
“Ugh!” I exclaimed. If he was asking these sorts of questions it meant I was missing something obvious again. “You know, sometimes you can be a real pain in the ass!” I suddenly spat out and tossed the bag of herbs beside him.
He looked at me curiously, but did not reproach me for my horribly immature outburst.
I sighed heavily. Though I was usually mild-mannered, it seemed anyone I became comfortable around had the key to opening the more honest side of me, which included my instinct to lash out when frustrated. “Forgive me. That was uncalled for.”
“There may have been better ways to tell me to mind my own business.”
“No, it isn’t that. In fact, I’m incredibly happy that you seem to be interested in anything I’m doing. It’s just you have been constantly forcing me to face my problems and issues head on rather than avoid them and it’s frustrating to have to keep admitting my short-sightedness and perhaps willing ignorance.”
“It is not my intention to make you frustrated, Remus, only to push back on your convictions and make sure they stand firm in your own mind. Had you given me good reason as to why you wish to become a professor of theology I would have supported you whole-heartedly and been honoured to become your mentor as well.”
I smirked and picked at the grass next to me. “You know I can’t be that, not without some serious training on public speaking. It was the one thing that kept me from being a perfect student in your class. I still think you went a little too easy on me with that mark. It should have been a fail.”
“Your sermon was good, it was simply a shaky delivery.”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
“But that was not the only thing I was trying to bring to your attention, Remus. There is something else that may cause you frustration and difficulty should you choose the same path as me.”
I delved inward, ransacking every nook and cranny of my mind trying to think of what I could have possibly missed. I knew the Scriptures inside and out, I loved and understood the moralistic teachings of them, and in private at least I could explain the concepts with ease. What else could possibly get in my way?
Professor Marius did give me a moment to think, but eventually he locked eyes with me, his gaze far more intense than I was used to. It was exactly how I felt back in the Nemshi Hall, with the weight of his attention boring down on me.
“It is you, Remus, and your insatiable curiousity.”
My eyes widened. He had made no mention of my confession so I assumed he had swept it under the rug, but apparently he had not forgotten it at all. For he was right, the Church would not be pleased at all to find out I had too many questions about the Scriptures and the history they had taught me. Professor Marius probably knew it would be very difficult for me to let that go, especially if I was surrounded by the Church at all times. In fact, it was a recipe for disaster.
“Come, we should keep moving,” Professor Marius said and began packing his things back up.
I nodded and did the same, completely fine with leaving that conversation where it was for now. As stupid as it sounded, I worried my heretic thoughts would somehow soak into the very fabric of the stolen Church robes I was wearing and whisper my secrets to unmerciful ears once they were returned.
It was nearing dinner when my legs started to ache so bad that I winced with each step. Not wanting to appear weak, I tried to hide it, but Professor Marius obviously noticed and hailed down a wagon heading in the same direction as us.
I watched and listened attentively as he spoke to the driver, a middle-aged man with a slightly rotund stomach. I couldn’t help but notice he changed his mannerisms ever so slightly – adding a little bounce to his voice, curling his broad shoulders forward slightly, and lowering his chin so it was no longer held too high. It all made him appear meeker, friendlier, and less authoritative.
I was very pleased that there was an opportunity for me to offer my skills as well. The man misplaced the recipe for the special tea his daughter needed for her monthly pains and I happened to make a few variations for my aunt and cousin all the time. In return, the man offered us dinner and a place to stay for the evening, on top of getting to ride in his wagon for the next hour. It was an incredibly simple trade, and I couldn’t help but feel that we were getting a far better deal, but the man seemed perfectly happy with it.
With the verbal contract of our trade completed, Professor Marius and I hopped onto the back end of his wagon which contained only few empty bags and rope. With a snap of the reins the oxen took off with a start and Professor Marius threw his arm in front of me as I lurched forward, stopping me from being tossed right off the back of the wagon.
“Thanks,” I said, looking to him with gratitude. I really didn’t need to add falling out of a wagon to my list of embarrassments today.
“Of course,” he replied, then leaned closer to me. “You did well, showing confidence in your abilities as an apothecary.”
I smiled a little. “This one was easy for me, I make these teas for my aunt and cousin all the time. Should he have asked for something more complex I’m not sure I would have been so confident.”
“Still, it was good to see you take charge like that. Also, now you need not feel guilty for wearing the robes. This is a fair trade.”
It was, but I felt like I didn’t really need the robes to accomplish it. Or perhaps I did. Would the man have believed my competence if I hadn’t been wearing them? If Professor Marius also hadn’t been wearing them at my side? At any rate, I was incredibly relieved that I managed to secure us a home cooked meal and a warm place to sleep. Also some time off my feet. My poor, poor feet. They were already beginning to blister, making it clear that I had spent far too much time sitting in the comforts of civilized luxury. If I was planning on doing any more of this travelling business I needed to invest in some better footwear.
Though the jostling of the wagon wasn’t exactly comfortable, I wasn’t about to complain. The hour reprieve felt amazing and I was extremely grateful that all I needed to do was relax and enjoy watching the city get smaller and smaller, fading into the horizon.
“At my parent’s farm, Torrin was always visible in the distance, just like this,” I said, voicing my last thought out loud.
“Did you ever visit Torrin as a child? Before you moved to live with your uncle and aunt?” Professor Marius asked.
“Yes. I fell in love with it at first sight. I hope one day to visit the four towns as well. Have you seen any of the towns?”
“I was born in Athmere.”
“Really?” I asked, turning my full attention to him. “Do you still have family there?”
It was the same “no” he gave me before when I asked about him being spirited earlier. It seemed there were some doors that would be closed to me for a time.
As promised, we arrived at the man’s farm about an hour later and the snorting of hogs, squawking of chickens, and the bleating of goats immediately sent me back to my childhood. Though I couldn’t say I had a bad childhood, I was never entirely comfortable on the farm, and the familiar, anxious feeling was already making my shoulders creep up to my ears.
“Irene! I got some company for dinner!” The man yelled.
We hopped off the wagon and walked around to see a black-haired woman in an apron standing in the doorway to a large log farmhouse. Though she gave her husband quite a glare, obviously not impressed with having entertaining guests added to her already high plate of responsibilities, she welcomed us in with a warm, tired smile on her face.
As we stepped inside my senses were assaulted with what seemed like the two extreme ends of the demon-faerie spectrum. The house itself was incredibly orderly with matching plates stacked on the shelves, coats all hung up on the wall in a row, and not a single toy on the floor. Which was surprising considering the absolute chaos the children were causing. I counted three boys and three girls ranging in age from probably a bit older than myself down to what I would guess to be ten years old. They all seemed to be running about and chasing each other making as much noise as they could, though I did catch a couple attempting to set the table.
“A boy!” One of the girls squealed as she noticed my presence then rushed up the stairs to the right in a flash.
“And a man,” said the oldest of the boys and eyed Professor Marius so openly I blushed at the impropriety.
The woman who had greeted us, Irene, smacked the older boy upside the head. “Eyes to yourself, Alfred,” she said and looked to Professor Marius. “Please forgive him. He’s far past due for a trip to the city to see people besides his family. I would have sent him today with his father, but we needed his help with the hogs. If he does anything embarrassing, please feel free to put him in his place.”
“I’m afraid that might only incentivize the boy further. Simple refusal to acknowledge is usually a better deterrent,” Professor Marius replied.
“What in limbo does that mean?” Asked the youngest boy.
“It means I will ignore him,” Professor Marius said and patted the boy’s head. “Now I think we should wash up for dinner. Would you be able to show us where your wash basin is, young man?”
We followed the young boy to the corner of the kitchen and let him wash up first before he ran away, giving Professor Marius and I a precious moment alone.
“Are we safe here? I’m starting to think I’d rather camp and take my chances with the coyotes than be subject to any of these peoples’ hungry looks,” I whispered to him.
Professor Marius chuckled as he dried his hands on a surprisingly clean looking cloth that hung over the edge. With these monstrous children I was amazed that things weren’t in more disrepair.
“I could take you off the market and tell them you are mine, if that would make you more comfortable,” he said, his grey eyes twinkling with mischief.
“It would not!” I exclaimed, my whole face turning so hot I could fry an egg on it.
“Oh, I see how it is,” Alfred, the eldest son, said and walked up to wash his hands just as I was drying mine. “You two together? Or just dancing around it?”
“We are not! By the Ancestors, he’s old enough to be my father.”
Alfred shrugged. “Wouldn’t bother me.”
I stared at him in disbelief. He was absolutely incorrigible!
“Remus?” Irene called.
Relieved to remove myself from that situation I hurried over to the matron of the household. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Would you be able to make some of that tea for Cora, my daughter, and take it up to her? The kettle’s already hot and the spices are just on the counter over there,” she said.
“Of course,” I said, eager to make myself useful. Irene seemed to have a good head on her shoulders, hopefully her daughters would as well. Though I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised by Alfred’s behaviour, it wasn’t as if Patrick or Yanis were any less vulgar at times.
The process of making the tea was still calming despite being in a strange environment, but it didn’t take long for my nerves to return when I remembered that Irene asked me to deliver the tea as well.
Carefully, I navigated around the playing children and went up the stairs, stopping in front of the only room with the door shut and knocked gently. “Cora? I have some tea for you. Your father brought back the necessary herbs from the city. Um, I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Remus, I’ve just graduated from the University, and I will be a guest in your home tonight,” I said, knowing I was rambling at this point, but considering the strange situation I was in I didn’t exactly blame myself.
A moment later the door opened revealing the girl I had seen run up the stairs earlier. “Ah, so the boy has come up to visit. Remus, is it?”
“Yes. Are you Cora?” I asked.
“Nope. She is,” the girl said and opened the door further to reveal another girl in bed.
As soon as I laid eyes on her she let out a pitiful cry and hid under the covers. “Bethany! No! Make him go away! I can’t let a boy see me like this!”
Bethany snorted and I couldn’t help but start thinking of her as a bit pig-like, both in face and attitude. “She’s new to this whole bleeding thing. Very crazy. You know how girls get.”
“Yes. I mean, no. Uh, I brought tea. It should make her pain more manageable and soothe her nerves.”
“You a healer or something?” Bethany asked, looking me over.
“No, though I may become an apothecary. I studied herbs and potions extensively at the University.”
I saw Cora peek out from the covers. “Did you really make me tea?” She asked in a small voice.
“I did,” I said, eager to engage her in conversation rather than her boorish sister.
“Can you come put it on my nightstand?”
“Of course, Cora,” I said and walked into the room. I was about to set it down when something strange caught my eye, causing me to almost spill all the contents of the mug onto the floor.
“Careful there, gangly,” said Bethany and it took all I had not to glare at her.
“Stop being so mean,” Cora said and slowly sat up against the pillows. She looked a bit tired, but other than that she was quite pretty, with beautiful black hair like her mother’s tied in a loose braid. “Do you like my embroidery?”
“Yes,” I said and carefully set the mug down on her nightstand before looking back at her wall where three embroidered symbols were hung on the wall in circular frames. “I recognize these two symbols, but what is that one in the middle?”
“That’s my newest one,” Cora said with a smile, obviously proud of her handiwork. “We had a visitor a few months back who taught me that one. It means–”
Bethany flung herself onto Cora’s bed and covered her sister’s mouth with her thick hand. “Nuh uh. Not another word. Remember, mother always says never give anything away for free,” she said, then turned her attention to me. “If you want Cora to tell you what that symbol is all about, you have to offer her something in return.”
“I believe I just made her tea,” I replied.
“That was a trade with my father, I’m sure of it. This is a new trade.”
“Let her speak and name her price,” I said.
Bethany removed her hand, giving Cora a stern, warning look.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure what you have that I want,” Cora said, looking sheepishly at me.
“You sure about that?” Bethany asked, a faerie-like gleam in her eyes.
Cora blushed and my stomach sank. I had a horrible feeling about what was going to be said next.
“A kiss?” Cora asked, confirming my fears.
What was wrong with this household?! Honestly, the girl didn’t even know me, did it not matter to her if she was kissed by a strange boy? Or perhaps more importantly, did it not matter to me if I kissed a strange girl? For I knew a part of me was willing to do it if it meant I could uncover more secrets concerning these ancient symbols. But even if I was clever and simply kissed Cora’s cheek it would still be enough to get me into serious trouble with her mother or father. I also would have to explain myself to Professor Marius, and as he kept reminding me, explain myself to myself. Could I stand behind that choice? Did I want to be the type of man that could flirt and tease simply to get what I wanted?
There was also the possibility that I didn’t have to kiss her at all. She was about to tell me everything freely if her sister hadn’t stopped her. Perhaps I could find a way to get her alone and get the information I wanted in a much more gentlemanly manner. Though considering how conniving her sister seemed to be, I doubted she was going to make it easy to find such a moment.
1) Kiss Cora’s cheek and find out more about the symbol.
2) Find a way to catch Cora alone and ask her about the symbol then.
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