In the dream, Keenin stood watching the fire elemental, Calendor, as the smoldering spirit surveyed the battlefield in front of them. The wind blew past softly, the men’s armor glinted, weapons flashed, horses bit and reared as the men of Meladona and the undead army of Iscara clashed. The noise rained over them as family, love, and friends washed away.
“What’s the point in staring at it?”
Keenin asked, but he didn’t expect the spirit to have an answer. When he woke Keenin felt alone. It was only him that knew this life wasn’t meant for him — not anymore. But he liked this place. The adventures. The work. And his friends. It was all he had really asked for. So why not a little longer.
From his bed at the inn, Keenin had come to face the splotchy wood of the door. He let himself imagine Dia sleeping peacefully in her room across the hall, finally leaving behind the guilt of getting a second life. Then he caught the sound of her voice out the window and smiled. Keenin left the safety of his bed and wiped the sun from his eyes as he wandered down the stairs. His sleepy mind half expected to encounter the sight of a blazing hearth fire and rafters hung with drying bundles, but he came to face the empty lobby and bar where the bartender was organizing the shelf of liquor.
Keenin set a hand on the front door, but instead of pushing it aside, he closed his eyes and listened more to the cheerful voices outside. Somehow he knew that it would never be him on the other side. And the only place he was going was to war.
He closed his eyes tighter against the sound.
“Are you all right kid?” the bartender asked louder.
Keenin opened his eyes.
“I’m fine. Just a headache.” He let his hand drop to his side and turned to the barkeeper. “Can I have two meat pies?”
“It’s early morning kid. We have porage now. Come back at lunch.”
Something in Keenin’s voice convinced him. The barkeeper held out a hand. “Fine, ten copper.”
Keenin took out the coins and passed them over the table.
“The pies will be out soon,” the barkeeper said leaving to give the order to those in the kitchen.
Keenin took a seat on one of the chairs along the front of the bar to wait. He thought that Dia should be happy with the food. In a way, he was starting to get frustrated again over the petty arguments of his friends, but he would also miss them. The barkeeper walked back in.
“Could I also have some water?”
The guy poured him a glass and Keenin pulled it over, only to have something to hold. Perhaps this living stuff hadn’t been so bad.
“Sorry. Things got a little heated,” Dia said sitting down beside him.
Keenin focused on the decorated bottles on the top shelf behind the bar.
“It’s not your fault,” he told her.
A cook handed the barkeeper a plate with what Keenin knew were the meat pies. The barkeeper put the plate in front of him and wandered off.
“What’s that?” Dia asked.
How stupid, Keenin thought to himself. He kept thinking to ignore her, but she was right there anyways. He pushed the plate over.
“It’s for you and Clide, if he eats these things,” Keenin told her.
She picked up the pastry and took a bite.
“I was going to wake you,” Dia said. “Shook you and all, but you stayed right asleep. I guess you meant what you said when you wanted to take a break from our lessons. You could have said you were tired before the magic show.”
“You would have complained that the stables were cramped,” Keenin said simply. He wasn’t going to say that his dreams were bothering him. “And it earned us a ride.”
“We’re almost packed up,” Dia said. “Or rather Clide and Ru have almost loaded everything. I brushed down the horses.”
“You were missing me then,” Keenin said.
“Well, you did sleep past sunrise. And before we go I wanted to say that I know it hasn’t been easy for you to settle down. You ought to know that I’ll be proud no matter what you want. Whether you decide to go home or make a living on a farm somewhere. Clide and I can take care of ourselves so you don’t need to worry. You can go find a better magic teacher too.”
“I’ve no doubt about your abilities,” Keenin said. “But it’s been getting harder sleep with the talk of this war so a few more nights of hearing your voice would be nice.”
Dia struck her fork to the empty plate in front of her and her eyes shifted to the meat pie sitting untouched in front of him.
“You should finish eating that and come out. They must be ready by now,” Dia told him.
Keenin remained by the bar while she left. He didn’t pick up his fork.
“She’s quite the tough girl,” the bartender said. “You ought to admit straight out how you feel.”
Keenin pushed his plate away.
“Thanks for the food,” he said simply.
He followed Dia outside, letting in the bustling noises and sweeter scents of the morning. A green painted homely wagon detailed in red scrawls had been rolled up near the door and Clide was helping to load crates alongside a dark-haired man who must have been Vindice’s partner. Vindice stood by the remaining boxes counting out money for the fresh delivery while Dia held a potato as though to inspect the lot herself. Vindice spoke a comment that couldn’t be heard. When Keenin moved closer Dia had already run after Clide to inspect the inside of the wagon. He regarded Vindice.
“What did you do, put them under a spell?” he asked the woman.
“Don’t be silly. We had a fun talk about careers yesterday,” Vindice informed. “I saw how your friend patched her old dress and lifted the hem so I suggested tailoring practical clothes for women.”
“You must be joking,” Keenin said.
He hadn’t pictured Dia as that type of girl, but then, what had he imagined they would do? A trio of hero’s helping to clear off local pests? Maybe Dia as a teacher. Maybe himself a trader of rare ingredients. And Clide?
He watched the dragon boy stand on the back of the wagon and drop an apple into Dia’s hands, making her smile. She gave him a crude curtsy in return. Keenin remembered the food she had brought him in the forest.
“I don’t see any potions?” Keenin mentioned.
“People see what they want. And you can never have enough food in a war. Don’t tell me you’re already having second thoughts,” Vindice nagged him.
“No,” Keenin said. “Not anymore.”