Element of the Abstract: Chapter Thirteen
The road ahead was always shrouded in a thick, mysterious cloud of fog. The forest was lush and coniferous upon crossing the river, pines and firs and hemlocks dominating the world–– so verdant, even in the depths of November. This evergreen forest thinned slowly as they traveled on and on, no end visible through the mist. The terrain had become rather hilly as they got farther from the river valley, and the fog drifted in front of them as they descended from every little peak. In these valleys, the coniferous trees would disappear, in their place swamplands full of ferns, moss, and old rotting snags. It was on a narrow boardwalk over one of these particular wetlands that Urta stopped in his tracks, causing the single-file line of travelers to halt.
“What? What is it?” Osryn asked impatiently. His body ached, his lungs were tired, and the sun was creeping down towards the horizon, casting a pale yellow haze through the fog into the swamp.
“Listen,” Urta said, and everyone did. The swamp was quiet, as most frogs were freezing for the winter, and in the distance the faint sound of laughter and conversation could be heard.
Sebastian’s eyes widened. “People.”
“You’re going to need to hide before we move forward. Can you do that?”
Adelaide nodded and tore off her backpack, digging in it for a brown shawl which she draped over her shoulders. It was long enough that it covered her lower arms, which she simply kept crossed behind her back. It wasn’t comfortable, but it would do. Sebastian, on the other hand, borrowed a handkerchief from his sister and tied it around his higher eyes, effectively hiding his abnormality, but effectively blinding him as well.
“I’m so excited to interact with society!” Adelaide giggled, twirling around in a circle so her shawl billowed out around her. “Aren’t you, Sebastian?”
“I can’t see, you know…” Sebastian muttered. “This isn’t going to be fun for me the way it is for you.”
Osryn put his hand on his son’s shoulder, who reluctantly accepted it. “Don’t worry, son, we’ll guide you.”
The group moved forward through the fog until slowly the shape of a building emerged from the haze. It was a large, old-fashioned building, sporting the same greys and browns most Lunoran architecture had. Outside, a small group of people was laughing and drinking from metal flasks, leaning against the fence of the building’s long front porch. It was directly adjacent to a small grimy pond, so thick with algae that it hardly looked like water. A sign hanging haphazardly over the entrance to the tavern-like establishment read, in thick black marker, “The Screeching Leech Tavern & Inn.” On the opposite side of the building as the pond, there was a booth erected of dark black wood. It appeared to be unoccupied, but simply read “Potion Seller.”
The group was approaching from this side, and as Osryn passed the booth, still guiding Sebastian by his shoulder, someone lazily rose from behind the booth, stretching their arms as though they’d been asleep. Osryn stopped to look at the person, who was yawning and didn’t notice him until they stopped. The stranger narrowed their eyes, leaning over the side of the booth.
“What say you, traveler?” The odd person grunted, running their hand through their stringy hair. “It’s rude to stare…”
“You sell potions,” Osryn started pointing at the sign. “I am interested in buying.”
The potion seller snickered. “You can’t handle my potions. They’re too strong for you.”
Sebastian, unable to see the man, was not amused by what he was hearing. “We want to purchase some potions, merchant. Do you care for our business, or not?”
“Hmmm…” The potion seller looked between the two of them and shook their head. “No, I’ll pass. You both look rather… well, shall we say ‘worse for wear.’ Were I you, I would seek a seller that sells weaker potions.”
Sebastian clenched his fist, frustrated that he didn’t know where to direct his glare. “What are you insinuating, man? That I am weak? That my father is weak?”
Osyrn’s mouth fell agape as the potion seller lifted a hand holding a cane and lightly bopped Sebastian on the head, startling him. The potion seller scoffed mockingly and offered Osryn a sinister smirk, though they were still addressing Sebastian when they hissed, “You think you can handle my strongest potions? Ha! My potions are fit for beasts, not mere men.”
“I am no man…” Sebastian growled.
“Clearly,” the potion seller said. “You’re just a boy.”
Sebastian lunged at the seller, who retreated back beneath their booth before he could even try and make contact. Osryn held him back, but Sebastian swatted his hands away. Adelaide, who had moved forward with Urta, was catching wind of the conflict happening behind them and raced to her brother’s side.
“Sebastian, are you okay?”
“No!” Sebastian growled. “This fool of a merchant is mocking me and I won’t stand for it.”
Adelaide softly spoke. “Come on, Sebastian. You must not concern yourself with the opinions of strangers.”
Reluctantly, Sebastian allowed her to guide him to where Urta was standing, Osryn following along. The group converged outside The Screeching Leech and looked at it. A drunken woman with ratty hair yelled at them from the railing upon which she sat. “Preppy lookin’ types, are we? What’re you rich’uns doin’ in a place like this?”
“...Shall we go in?” Osryn asked, and Urta furrowed his brow.
“Do… you want to? I suppose we’ll have to camp soon anyway.”
Osryn nodded. “I am certain I could use a drink.”
“Same...” Sebastian muttered, and Osryn thought better of forbidding it. His children were growing up. They could have some ale. He wasn’t stupid, after all. He knew what it meant whenever his mead bottles were a little light.
They passed the ratty-haired woman without answering her question and entered through the heavy wood double doors. She scoffed and called after them, “Ey, can’t even spare a nickel for an ale?”
Inside the Screeching Leech was far more lively than outside, which was saying something given from what distance they could hear the sounds of merriment. A couple dozen small tables were scattered throughout the large room, almost all of them occupied, and a handful of waiters and waitresses were maneuvering their way around them, swifty taking care of task after task. It seemed that the place was running quite smoothly, despite the lack of staff–– they must get paid a pretty penny.
“Have a seat anywhere, folks!” A barkeep yelled to them from across the hall, hand-drying a martini glass. She flashed them a smile revealing a rather pointy set of teeth, a few of them gold. Osryn nodded in her direction and scanned the room for an empty table. Spotting one, he beckoned his party towards it and they side-stepped carefully through the crowded room, trying not to bump into any particularly portly patrons or wander into a server’s path. They found themselves seated at a round table in the corner of the room. It had exactly four seats, and the travelers collapsed into them wearily. Adelaide, who had been guiding Sebastian through the establishment, released her hand from his shoulder and he groaned, stretching his arms out above his head.
“I hate being blind,” he muttered. “It’s exhausting and humiliating.”
“Plenty of people are blind, son,” Osryn reminded him, looking at the placard in the middle of the table listing the drink specials.
“Yeah, well, I’m not.”
The bartender that had originally greeted them came whirling over to their table, whipping a pad of paper out of her apron. “How’s everyone doin’ tonight, hey? Name me Mariah. Yous looks thirsty.”
Osryn had never seen a woman quite like her–– obviously not from around Lunora, she spoke with a strange accent and her hair was kinky and dark, closer to Adelaide’s than his own. Her skin was a warm, chocolate brown, and her features were round and friendly. Osryn’s observant eyes fell upon her cleavage and he blushed, hoping she hadn’t noticed his wandering gaze. He cleared his throat. “Yes, I’ll have the Pollywog Porter.”
She wrote that down and nodded. “A fanny choice, my good man. And for the others?”
Urta quietly ordered a pale ale and Sebastian a drink special called a Brandy Heartworm. Osryn was unfamiliar with the naming conventions of this area, but the menu items read very strangely to him. Adelaide ordered a glass of mead; Osryn was more pleased than he should have been that she had developed a taste for the stuff. The waitress nodded and Osryn lifted a finger, realizing he had quite a fair amount of coin on him, and could treat the crew to a rather nice dinner.
“Oh, and if we could have the shaved steak over rice and some vegetable croquettes? For the table.”
“Absolute, sir. I’ll be runnin, then you’ll see your meal!” She disappeared into the crowd, leaving the travelers to themselves. Sebastian was rubbing his belly and groaning.
“Oh, I could use a nice rice bowl…” He murmured dreamily. “We’ve been eating nothing but trail mix and Urta’s jerky for days.”
“I worked hard on that jerky…” Urta said plaintively.
“Like you worked on your lie of a story?” Osryn was still bitter from the events of the riverside. “Tell me, how long did that take in comparison?”
Urta went silent and neither of the children jumped to his defense. With a heavy heart, Osryn realized his negativity was wearing on them. He hated how much they trusted Urta, even after he was confirmed to be a liar, an agent for some unknown master. He supposed their link to the Insectera was so strong he would never understand. Osryn had never cared much for blood relations, or perhaps in the case of the Insectera, hemolymph relations. Of course, he thought of his parents, but never fondly, and his brother was a basket case to say the least. Osryn knew that Nygel was a part of this–– it couldn’t be more clear.
Osryn’s birth family had always been the root of his problems. Was it so daft to believe his children could be harmed by what they find out about their own kind?
Their table was quiet. Perhaps there was simply a lack of conversation topics among the travelers or perhaps they were all simply too weary to care to start some. Soon enough Mariah returned with their drinks. As she flitted away to the next patron, she dragged her fingers across Osryn’s shoulder and he turned towards her, eyes wide. From a few tables away, Mariah winked at him. Osryn blinked. He had forgotten how to flirt with a woman.
“Ooooohh…” Adelaide teased, tapping her fingers on the table. “Father has a crush.”
“I… do not…” Osryn lied and Sebastian snickered.
“Dad, you’re redder than Daniela’s hair. She’s hot and she likes you. We all see it.”
“She does not like me,” Osryn insisted, taking a large swig of porter. “It is her job to treat customers like that. She’s hoping for a bigger tip.”
“Oh I think she wants more than just the tip…” Sebastian muttered, too quiet for Osryn to hear. Adelaide burst out laughing and even Urta could not hold back a smirk. Osryn glared at them all.
“What? What is it? Are you mocking me?”
“Oh, dad,” Adelaide said, shaking her head in pity. “You make it so easy.”
The conversation was light and playful for a few moments, but eventually petered out when a new, louder voice penetrated the space. Osryn and his companions all turned towards the source of the noise and saw a large, bearded, bald man sitting with a few younger men around the table right of theirs. One of the young men was quietly speaking to the waitress, but he couldn’t be heard by Osryn over the bellowing voice of the larger man.
“You know I canny be makin’ this up, boys!” He exclaimed, shaking a young man next to him by the shoulders. “I saw it with me own eyes, pinchers and all.”
“I’m almost to believe you…” The shaken man replied, fixing his hair. “How’d this happen? And where?”
“Down by Hansklau’s farm, boy,” The larger man told him. “Five of em, bigger than me. Lads, I swear a beetle looked ne’er so fearsome.”
Everyone at Osryn’s table was listening intently to the conversation. Adelaide nodded somewhat absently, and broke the silence. “So people know. Urta wasn’t lying about that.” The slight twinge of venom in her voice was directed at Osryn and he knew it, but he sipped his porter without letting it on.
“Osryn, I wanted to apologize again for what happened by the river…” Urta spoke up. Osryn looked into the stranger's dark eyes and saw nothing that indicated whether or not he should be trusted. He was a closed book, and sensitive Osryn despised him for it. Urta continued warily when Osryn did not reply. “I admit that I lied, and perhaps the truth would have served me better. My master only wishes to talk with your children. You trust that they are strong, no?”
“I trust my children,” Osryn huffed, slamming down his now empty glass. “I do not, however, trust the air of lies and vagaries through which you operate. Thus, I do not trust your master.”
“Father’s just worried about us, but he need not worry,” Adelaide told Urta. “Sebastian and I are strong, and we’ll take down your master if we have to… No offense.”
Sebastian remained quiet through most of this discussion, absently gazing into his drink and swirling around the liquid. Osryn worried about him more and more each day. His son had been acting abnormal since they’d embarked on this journey. He had always known his son was a sensitive boy, but that had never been a problem… had he convinced Sebastian that it was a problem? So far since they’d left Lunora, Sebastian had been masking this sensitivity with violence and antagonism towards anything that sets him off. On the battlefield, faced with adversity, a version of Sebastian emerged that Osryn felt he did not know. Yet when Osryn looked at him, there, hunched over a tavern table in dim lantern light, he saw the only son he did know: a skinny child with a fragile heart.
Without having asked, a new flask of porter was pushed in front of Osryn and he nodded appreciatively at Mariah as she took away his empty vessel. Sebastian yawned and Adelaide was leaning on her elbow with her face in her hand. They looked bored and exhausted. Then, Osryn remembered what it said on the sign outside the building. He took a large swig from his drink and pushed himself up from his chair. “I’m going to get us some rooms for the night. How’s that, then?”
“Please,” Sebastian whined. “I’m so sick of being blind.”
Urta looked at him, wide-eyed, but Osryn only glared.
“You can sleep outside for all I care,” Osryn said before walking away. He made his way to the bar, which by the looks of it functioned also as the front desk of the establishment. Their waitress Mariah was the closest one to it when Osryn approached, so she handed the drink she’d been making to the customer and bounded over to him.
“Yessir, how can you be helped?” She asked cordially. Osryn smiled politely, trying rather unsuccessfully to hide his nerves. She blinked a few times and Osryn realized he was staring.
“Oh, dear...” He cleared his throat and looked away, scratching awkwardly at his beard. “Pardon me. I am Osryn Seld, a wizard of the town Lunora. I seek shelter for the night in your inn–– have you any vacancies?”
“Hmm, lemme check…” Mariah found a nearby book and skimmed to the right page, glancing at it only for a moment. “Aye, sir. We’ve got plenty a vacancy, ya see?”
“I see.” Osryn laughed slightly and nodded, adjusting his glasses. He swore his face was getting sweaty. “Well, I’d like to book three rooms for tonight, if possible.”
“Of course, prince,” She cooed, and Osryn could no longer hide the redness of his face. He was unsure if “prince” was simply a colloquial way to address someone or if she was intentionally flirting, but Osryn found it flattering. She looked at him only for a moment before continuing, but Osryn was struggling to deny the fact that she might, in fact, be into him. She got all the required information from him and handed him three small keys. Osryn brought them all over to the table and sat down.
“Adelaide and Sebastian, this is for you.” He handed them one of the keys. “I figured you would want to share a room.”
“What about Urta? You’re not actually going to make him sleep outside, are you?” Adelaide demanded to know. Osryn sighed, sliding another key across the polished wood table to Urta.
“Calm down,” Osryn sighed. “I’m not that cruel…”
The food arrived not long after and they scarfed it all down within a matter of minutes. All of them leaned against their chairs in a few moments of post-feast euphoria, digesting and reveling in how good it felt to be full. Living on trail food had gotten old very quickly for a family of decent chefs–– Osryn had taught his kids something useful, he supposed.
Now the sun was completely set and the tavern had reached its peak business, with tables overflowing capacity and waitresses working at top speed and efficiency. Adelaide and Sebastian rose from the table.
“We’re heading upstairs,” Adelaide said, putting her arm around Sebastian’s shoulder. “He’s tired and I’d like to get some reading done in peace.”
“Sleep well, my children.” Osryn was finishing his second pint and was aching for another. It was strong, creamy and utterly malty–– nothing like the fruit ferments he made at home. “I think I’ll stay here for a bit.”
“Do you mind if I stay as well?” Urta asked. “I was hoping to talk to you, man to man.”
Osryn wanted to deny that Urta could even be considered “man” at all, but the look in his eyes was sad, almost pathetic. Sighing, Osryn shrugged as Sebastian and Adelaide retreated to their room. “Sure. You can stay. Please know that I cannot forgive you for your obstruction and misdirection.”
“I’m not asking for forgiveness,” Urta said, folding his fingers together. “Only cooperation. Listen, Osryn… I wouldn’t tell your children this, but I’m not exactly happy working for my master.”
Osryn quirked an eyebrow. “You don’t say? Calling her “master” and doing her bidding doesn’t get you off?”
Urta shifted his eyes towards the floor and Osryn regretted the joke. Urta moved past it. “I’ve worked for her as long as I can remember… I know not who I would even be without her. Frankly, I am not sure who I am at all.”
Osryn took a few moments in silence following that. “Well, that’s depressing.”
“So we’re one and the same.”
“I know who I am,” Osryn insisted. “And I’m not one to fall for dumb ploys like whatever you’re plotting.”
Urta shrugged and gulped down some of his ale. “I’m not plotting anything at all.”
“Why, then, did you lie?”
Their conversation stalled and the noise of the other patrons came to the forefront. Osryn coughed. Urta sighed and shifted his gaze from side to side. Osryn stared at him, impatiently.
“I’m sorry, alright?” Urta managed to make eye contact. “I was told to say whatever I needed to to get you to come with me. Perhaps I went a little overboard. You distrusted me from the get go–– I was simply trying to maximize my chances.”
Osryn sighed, scratching his beard. “I suppose I understand. I already doubted you–– what good would it have done you to appear more suspicious?”
Urta nodded. “You wouldn’t have come.”
“You’re right…” Osryn muttered, and Mariah swooped over to his side out of the blue.
“How’s you good sirs?” She asked cheerily. “Caring for another?”
Osryn, still feeling rattled but feeling buzzed enough to consider Urta an ally, nodded. “Sure. One more I can do.”
Urta leaned back in his chair, stretching his hands out above his head. Lazily, he unwound the bun atop his head and let his shoulder-length hair fall flat. Osryn had no such compulsion to let loose–– he only let his hair down when he was going to bed, or on certain special occasions. Mariah returned within a few minutes with refills for the men, who had finished their beverages quietly in the meantime.
“Your children are smart and strong, you know,” Urta told Osryn. “I can tell. There’s a fire in them.”
“A little too much fire…” Osryn muttered, drumming his nails on his metal flagon. “I spend every waking moment worrying about them. Worrying I did wrong by them. Worrying I should have done everything differently.”
“Well, again, I’m not a father, but I don’t think it’s rational to overthink every choice you’ve ever made. Time stops for no one, Osryn, and the past is in the past.”
Osryn nodded, holding his beer up in a toast. “I’ll drink to that.” The two clinked their mugs together and Osryn offered him a soft smile, only now managing to loosen up his attitude towards the man. “You know, Urta, you’re right… my past is my past. I need to think more of the future. I still have time to do something… to be something.”
“Be something?” Urta blinked. “You are something. Hell, you’re everything to those kids.”
“They think I’m old, overbearing and mean,” Osryn sighed. “They’re basically grown up, now. They don’t need me anymore.”
“Children will always need their caregivers,” Urta said. “I… don’t remember my parents.”
Osryn debated whether or not he should ask, but decided to press it. “What happened to them?”
Urta swallowed. “I… genuinely don’t remember. I don’t remember a lot about my past, if I’m being honest. It’s kind of a blur.”
Osryn could understand that. He had spent a fair portion of his early twenties engaging in so much substance abuse he hardly remembered a single day. That was something he wouldn’t judge Urta for. He turned the man’s mantra on its head. “Well, you said it: the past is in the past. No use fretting over it, am I right?”
Urta chuckled, taking a rather hearty sip of ale. “You know, I get it. Feeling like no one will remember me if I die. I mean, I don’t really have friends, or a family.”
“What’s your master to you then?” Osryn asked. “Nothing?”
“No…” Urta exhaled sharply, twisting a knot out of his hair, which was actually rather curly when he took it down. “She’s… she’s everything, really.”
Osryn nodded and averted his eyes, taking a sip. He didn’t feel like it was his place to ask what exactly that may have meant. The two men continued drinking and their merriment progressed until, after their final pint, they were both convinced they were good friends now. Hell, they always had been. Osryn had been foolish to ever doubt Urta. They had a lot in common. He was a good and kind man. He was glad he had decided to pay for his room. Urta, it seemed, was penniless. That, or cheap–– but Osryn would never think that of his dear, dear friend.
Osryn and Urta parted ways on their floor, at the doors to their adjacent rooms. Osryn locked the door behind him and immediately breathed out a sigh of relief. He’d had a good time, but he was an introvert at heart–– he was happy to be alone in a room he could call his own, at least for the night. The inn was small and homey, with nothing but a bed, side table and desk in it, with a few wall sconces and two oil lamps. Osryn lit the sconces and one of the lamps, preferring a lower level of light, especially when he was drunk. The porter swirled in his mind and he settled into the chair by the desk, though he had no books or papers to pore over tonight. No, tonight he only held within him thoughts of his children, their journey, and the stranger with whom they traveled. The booze was betraying him now–– was he mad to believe Urta could be a decent person? That perhaps he could be trusted? Adelaide and Sebastian trusted him, but they were young and naive. What did they know about reading people?
Osryn blinked a few times and wiped his eyes. What did he know about it, either? He had always struggled to read social cues, and he hardly understood his own children. His mind ambled on over to Sebastian and a wave of worry crashed over him. He clenched his teeth and exhaled through his nose, trying to steady himself before the alcoholic depression struck him down. He waited for a moment as he floated through the dizzy spell, eventually re-grounding himself in reality.
Rising from his chair, Osryn wandered over to the window and pulled aside the worn curtain. The window sill was deep and coated with a thick layer of dust and cobwebs. Beside the webs lay the still, lifeless body of a stink bug. Osryn was used to those, dead or alive–– like every bug, they were drawn to his children and as such, his house. He stared at the bug for a moment before picking it up, carefully examining the exoskeleton.
Insectera. The children had invented that word, but what did it mean, really? Sebastian said it meant anyone with a link to the world of bugs–– the twins, Urta, all insects themselves. The simple truth is that Osryn would never be able to answer the questions about their identity that were etched into the children’s minds. If anyone could answer them, it would be Urta and his master… and if not, Osryn did not want to think of what could happen.
Osryn was not Insectera. He wasn’t sure he wanted his dear kids to follow an unknown path alongside suspicious mutant strangers, but he could not deny them their legacy. They deserved to know. He had agreed, after all, to go with them towards the only sign there’s been so far of where they may have come from.
Still, Osryn worried and worried, wracked with doubt and contradictory ideas. Even he had lost track of whether or not he trusted Urta, whether or not he thought this was all a trap, whether or not he was a decent father. No answers would come to him. It seemed that even now, when it mattered most, they evaded him. Eventually, Osryn collapsed wearily onto the old bedquilt, teetering on the edge of sleep. He watched the lantern flames flickering on the ceiling and with one spell, one fluid motion of his right hand and fingers through the air, snuffed them all out.
Insectera Book Two: Matters of the Heart, coming... eventually.
© 2022 Rychard Collins