Samren had never wanted to be a father. His grandmother made the mistake of filling his head with stories of far off places, exotic peoples and sights so beautiful they stop your heart. That was the destiny Samren had chosen for himself. Travel. Adventure.
He’d made it as far as the next village.
At seventeen he left home, leaving his sisters, a weeping mother and a stoic, silent father. Samren didn’t have any money, and none in the village would lend him any as a favor to his father who wished Samren would ‘stop this nonsence’ and become a shoemaker, like him. So he was forced to leave without a florin to his name. It was a few days walk to the next village, Shokeden, and Samren planned to find some unskilled work there, make enough to get him to Sura and then barter his way onto a ship bound for Arbos, Nektiri or Khadar. After that, who knows? He’d make his fortune as a trader. An adventurer. Marry the daughter of some Nektiri Merchant King and live like the gods had. The whole point was that it could have been anything. Until Arrea. Far from being the daughter of a Nektiri Merchant King she was an orphan of the Fault War, indentured to the cheesemaker of Shokeden. They had spoken when he was sniffing around for work, and Samren was immediately smitten. Although he’d end up securing seasonal work picking apples on the other side of the village, Samren always found a reason to swing by the cheesemaker. By the time he had saved enough to get him to Sura, Samren didn’t like the weather – wouldn’t be good for travel. When the weather cleared Samren had heard reports of pirates preying on Suran ships; probably best to wait a season more.
Two years passed in this way and then, on the morning of the start of the summer season, Arrea told Samren she was pregnant. Suddenly the weather and the pirates seemed like minor inconveniences, and Samren cursed his reticence to leave. Arrea’s owner was a good man, and he was willing to take Samren on so that he could continue the cheesemaking business. Samren, despite suddenly despising the smell of the place, agreed. What else could he do?
Four more years passed. Arrea’s owner died leaving her a free woman, and she and Samren as owners of the cheesemaker. Their daughter, Salie, became a curious child. Her many questions frustrated Samren who spent his days churning and repairing and bookkeeping. Arrea did all she could, but with Samren so far disconnected from their family it increasingly fell to her to raise Salie. She spent the evenings with Salie on her lap, spinning tales in the candlelight. Stories of Nektiri and Khadar. Of the serpent people in Arakesh. For a time Samren sat with them, but as the months continued he found less and less comfort in it.
It’s winter. It’s cold. Samren sits alone pouring over ledgers, wondering where some missing stock has gone. Arrea and Salie sit in the next room by the fire. Arrea is telling a new story; this one is about a cerenerian driven mad by loving a human, who drags all of her lovers’ likeness down to a watery death. Salie sits in rapt attention. Samren struggles to focus on his task; he hears the excited whispers in the next room and catches the odd word of the tale. His mind drifts to sea voyages and sandy shores. To Merchant King’s daughters and swampy jungles. He’s shaken back to the cold confines of the cheesemakers cottage by a shrill squeal. Arrea’s description of the bloated corpse of the cerenerian’s latest victim has shocked Salie, and for Samren it is too much, He thumps the table he sits at and marches to the main room, “Can I please get some bloody quiet! Would you hush with all the nonsensical prattling! I can’t hear myself think in there!”
Both mother and daughter stare wide-eyed at Samren, and it’s only moments before he can no longer take the accusation in their eyes, “Right. You, bed.” Samren points to Salie’s cot in the corner. His daughter looks to his wife for confirmation, and she nods, “Tuck yourself in tight, little one.” Salie slides off her mother’s lap and slinks across the room to her bed. Arrea glares at Samren who shrinks beneath its weight and returns to the his desk in the next room. Arrea is having none of it however, and she positions herself in the doorway between the spaces, “And what’s your problem then?”
Samren casts his hands over the ledgers in front of him, “Someone has to do somethingabout all of these.”
“Right now? Like this?”
“Yes. When then? There’s always something needs to be done, Arrea.” He turns to face the table, indicating that he wishes the conversation over. Once again Arrea isn’t finished. She strides over to the desk and leans down on it, “You’re not a cheesemaker, Samren. You’re a father. A husband.”
“And how’s this father and husband feeding his family then, hm? More of your useless stories? If I don’t get all of this squared away…”
“What!? What will happen? This isn’t about accounting for all of the bloody cheese, Samren.”
“What then? Hm? I sit in here every night for fun?”
“I don’t know. I do know I fell in love with a man, not an accountant. All of this? It’s not you. You’re putting it up as a… I don’t know. You’re pushing us out.” Arrea almost has to stop as the words choke in her throat. She lowers her voice, “I know things aren’t what you expected, but there are many kinds of adventures, Samren. And you’re missing all of them.”
Samren doesn’t respond, staring instead at the books before him. Arrea eventually gives up waiting.
Samren doesn’t know how long he has been sleeping for, but when he wakes it’s pitch dark outside. His candle has gone out and he can feel the tell-tale chill of snow through the walls. He’s still at is desk, and his aching back condemns him for not just getting up and heading to bed when he felt himself dozing off. He just couldn’t face her yet. He stands and stretches before fumbling through the darkness into the main room, reaching the cot he shares with Arrea. He pauses before sitting down, going through all of the tasks he has to get through tomorrow. When he finally clambers into bed and pulls the furs over him his mind is whirring with what’s to come. Despite finding it so easily at his work desk, sleep would not be so quickly cornered now. A minute passes and the whirring thoughts, without warning, stop. Samren opens his eyes to the darkness and tries to grasp the new thought that has suddenly surpassed all others. He rises, feeling the cold of the night once again, and carefully creeps over to Salie’s cot. Even though he can’t see anything he knows. He knows that as soon as he puts his hands onto her cot he won’t feel her. He knows she’s not there. She’s not in the house. Before he’s halfway across the room he gives up all pretence of being careful and he all but launches himself onto Salie’s cot – and he’s right. She’s not there. He tears the furs from it and calls out his daughter’s name. No answer but from his wife, “Samren? What are you doing?”
‘It’s Salie. She’s gone, she’s not here.”
“What?” Arrea gets up immediately and finds the flint striker; in seconds she’s lit the lantern by their bead and the light reveals what Samren already discerned – Salie’s empty cot. The light also reveals her boots and cape missing, and Samren rips open the front door and calls out into the night. No answer. He throws on his own boots and cape, pausing only for a moment to claim the lantern from Arrea, “Stay here in case she returns.”
Samren does not feel the slicing wind or the gently falling snow; he’s fixated on what he thinks are Salie’s tracks in the slush and mud. They’re hard to pinpoint close to the house, where the traffic from the days movements obscure later additions, but when Samren reaches the border of the field that runs up against his yard his heart sinks a league; Salie’s tracks are clear in the undisturbed snow, but they are not alone – another set, as big as his own, walk alongside his daughters’. They head toward the forest at the other end of the field. Samren’s careful gait turns into a sprint as he cuts through the night, headed for the trees.
Salie holds the man’s hand. She calls him ‘the man’ because, even though he looks just like her father, she’s certain he isn’t. He’s much too nice. And besides, why would her father come to the house from the outside, asking her to follow him on a treasure hunt? It is cold, and Salie is certain her mother will be cross with her, but it sounded like fun. Kind of like mother’s stories, but for real. Maybe Salie would have a story of her own to share next time they sat by the fire; that is, if her real father wasn’t so grumpy. The man carries a lantern and smiles kindly, “Not much further, little one.” Salie takes a moment to look around; the tops of the trees are just visible in the light of the lantern. They’re keeping out the snow. She hears an owl nearby but can’t find its big eyes reflecting the lantern light. If she’d given it much thought, Salie might have said being in the forest at night would have been scary, but as it stood she felt safe. “There. Home.” The man holds the lantern out before him, indicating a dark shape ahead. It looks like a crooked wagon, though there are no horses attached. As they get closer the light reveals a door built into the side, and a chimney poking through the roof. Salie is puzzled, “You… you live in a… wagon?” He age meant that she was still stopping to compose her sentences halfway through them.
The man nodded, smiling down at Salie, “I do.”
“I thought we… but I thought we were going to find treasure?”
“And we will,” the man who looked like father said. “But first I need to stop. For supplies. Can’t go treasure hunting on an empty stomach.”
That made sense to Salie and she held the man’s hand all the way to the wagon.
“Do you want to see inside?”
Salie didn’t, and wasn’t sure why.
“Come on. We can get prepared for our treasure hunt.”
Salie, being young enough that she didn’t much care for social protocol, didn’t feel the need to respond; instead she hopped about in the lantern light, moving instinctively away from the wagon.
“Salie.” Something in the man’s tone makes her stop and look at him. He sounded like father. “Salie. Inside please.” He is now standing between her and the wagon, and the smile on his face has been replaced with something grumpy. The light from the lantern casts strange shadows across it, and Salie wondered whether he did look like her father after all. She shrinks back a little, rubbing her hands together as she often did when anxious. The man who used to look like father steps toward her, “Salie, I’m not going to ask again.” Another step closer, “Get in the wagon.”
The little girl steps back once. Twice. She’s shaking her head slowly; she doesn’t want to go in, but she doesn’t want to make the man mad. The fear she didn’t feel before was now falling upon her like a flood. “Salie…” the man continues to stalk toward her. The lantern swinging in his hand, it momentarily casts his face in complete shadow. When his face revealed again he looks nothing like father, and his voice is shrill and cutting, “GET IN THE WAGON!”
“Salie!” Another voice; the little girl turns and sees her father crest the hill behind her – this one really is him. She calls out to him and makes to run, but she’s grabbed from behind by a dozen spindly tendrils which drag her back toward the wagon. Salie cries out in terror for her father as the tendrils more tightly coil around her. She is blinded when her hood is pulled over her face, but she can hear the struggle around her. Her father cries and grunts, and something else screeches angrily. Salie begins to cry huge chocking sobs. She is thrown to the ground when the tendrils gripping her suddenly come loose. Salie pulls back her hood and sees her father, lantern in one hand and stick in the other, swinging wildly as a web of shadow, teeth and eyes. Her father drives it backward to the wagon which opens by itself and accepts the creature. A second later and the wagon twists and lurches; great wooden legs, like those of a spider, erupt from the undercarriage. The doorway reforms itself into a snapping maw which makes slow, jagged attacks at her father. He stumbles backward, bides his time and when the mouth-door opens, he tosses his lantern into it. Another screech and an eruption of flame; it quickly seems to spread as if thrown onto kindling, and within moments the entire wagon is ablaze. The spider legs spasm wildly, finding a disjointed rhythm that carries it quickly down the forest path, away from father and daughter. Before long the fire is swallowed up by the night, though the screeching takes some time longer to fade.
It’s almost a week later. Salie opens her eyes and immediately grins. Samren is sitting over her and he too smiles broadly. “Father!”
“Good morning my little one.”
“Were… were you watching me. All night?”
“I said I would.” He leans down and kisses her forehead. Arrea enters with freshly produced milk, putting it on the table before joining her husband and daughter, “Come on my dearest, time you rose. Let your father get some rest.” Arrea lift Salie out of her bed and gives her own kiss to Samren. He rubs his face wearily and watches as Arrea explains to Salie what she was going to do with the milk she gathered. Samren isn’t really listening, but he watches and his stomach flutters. The sun is beaming through the main widow, giving the women a glow, and he leans back on his hands to get a better view. “Sights so beautiful they stop your heart,” his grandmother had said, “One day Samren you might be so lucky to see one.” Samren saw two. And he saw them every day.