Harold woke up cold and choking.
Where a few moments ago he was spooning with a beautiful elf girl who was whispering in his ear that he was the greatest lover she had ever known, now he was shivering and wet.
“COFFEE’S DONE. GO GET THE DAMN MILK.” Harold’s mother’s voice was gravel run across sand. Through his wavering waterlogged vision, Harold saw his mother drop the bucket she had just drained on his head and walk out of his room, leaving a foul smelling cloud of smoke in her wake.
“Being an adult sure feels like every other morning,” Harold grumbled as he sat up from his wet bed and began searching for the cleanest shirt underneath his bed. A quick sniff found him one that had probably only been worked in one or two days. He rolled it down his muscular chest, still proud of his idea to wear clothes that were at least a half size too small so that he always looked that much more impressive.
To be fair, Harold was ox strong, but when his biceps tightened and he could begin to feel the shirt sleeves start to cut off circulation, he swore he once saw a girl he fancied swoon.
As he jogged through the kitchen, Harold breathed through his mouth as to not be able to smell any of his mother’s pipe smoke and walked out the front door to a gorgeous blue sky. Down the road about a quarter mile, he could hear the bells and hollers of vendors in the town square and in the squat stone hut a dozen yards away from his home, he could hear the clanging of his father Fergus, the town blacksmith, working on some piece of weapon or armor.
The only thing Harold could do was smile. His mother hadn’t been kidding, yesterday he had graduated the schooling that Arrow’s Keep offered and today he was, as far as anyone cared, an adult. After breakfast, he would go into his father’s forge and begin to learn the art of smithing. If he chose, after a year of apprenticing, to take up the mantle as the next town blacksmith, he would be the third generation of his family that were born and raised on that plot of land and provided the town and traders with highly sought after weapons and arms.
There was nothing the strong sixteen year old man wanted more.
“Harold!” He turned, hearing his name being called from down the road. With the traditional crimson cloak of the town Mage’s Guild, Harold recognized Alphus. The older man raised his hand in a friendly gesture, and his salt and pepper hair rustled in an unknown wind. His arm dropped, and with a flick of the wrist, the gate to Harold’s home unlatched and swung open, and Alphus stepped through. Another similar gesture, and the gate swung closed with barely a sound.
It didn’t matter how many times he had seen it, magic intrigued Harold, but also scared him half to death. He had seen enough spells gone awry to not be completely in awe of someone like Alphus, one of the top ranking members of both the regional Arrow’s Keep Guild, but also in the entirety of the country of Reginar. From everything Harold knew, a simple spell like opening a latched gate, if done wrong, could open up a gate to a void where no light ever escapes and the screams of the voidwalkers could be heard coming closer with each moment. Excessive or not, it was a neat party trick.
“Hail Alphus. How are you today, Sir? Aren’t you and Dalton leaving this morning?” Dalton was Harold’s best friend, and similar to Harold, began to train under his father’s tutelage today. In the case of Alphus though, that meant presenting his son to the other magic users in the country capital a few days travel from Arrow’s Keep.
Alphus continued walking towards Harold with the authority of a man who knew precisely what he wanted and where he was going. His cool blue eyes were creased by the charming smile on his lips as he clasped Harold by the wrist and they shook in the traditional manner of men. “I am indeed. Your father was preparing me something special for the journey along with a set of horseshoes. I can tell from the noise that he is in, so please take no offense if I make haste. We have a deadline to keep.” And just as quickly as they were speaking, they were done.
He wondered what his father had made for Alphus. It was well known that Fergus’s craftsmanship was beyond reproach. Whether it was the basic, but devastatingly battle ready, swords he would sell to the town guard or the bejeweled spectacles he had been commissioned to make by various high ranking officials. There was a time when Harold was much younger where there was a year or more wait to get one of Fergus Orian’s specialty pieces. It was that pride that surged in the young man’s chest as he went behind his house and milked the cow for his morning coffee.
As Harold walked from the small farm area behind his home through the divide between the house and the forge, he heard raised voices. Getting closer, it was apparent that Alphus and Fergus were having words over something. A forge, being a small fire elemental trapped in a magically encased sphere, has a tendency of not being loud precisely, but noisy. It wasn’t until Harold was standing just outside the door did he begin to make out what the fight was about.
“—nd do you think that I can just conjure one up, Fergus?” Alphus said loudly.
“I toldja Alphie, you go get your petticoats all packed, and it’ll be here before you leave!” Fergus’ booming angry voice made Harold’s knees buckle. This was the same man that wasn’t allowed to sell his work as a street vendor because he kept scaring small children in the next town over whenever he began hawking.
“IF YOU CALL ME ALPHIE ONE MORE TIME I’LL…” Alphus was screaming. He sounded like a child that had been poked one too many times. Harold had never seen one of Alphus’ perfectly coifed hair out of place, but this was a complete meltdown of composure. This was a man that could summon the demons and gods, and his father was goading him. Harold ducked down further, like it would make a difference if Alphus chose to throw them into a Void Dimension or something equally as horrifying.
“You’ll what? Math me to death? I got your horseshoes right here. Your other piece’ll be ready. I’ll send Harold with it as soon as I got it ready.” Fergus’ voice was calm. Intimidating, goading, and intentionally patronizing, but calm.
Alphus’ next words came through clenched teeth, “If that is the only way it can be. Believe me though, if it isn’t with the boy in short order, there will be hell to pay.” Ice water dropped into Harold’s stomach. Hell to pay? From a mage of Alphus’ calibre, that was more than a threat worth taking notice of. “I’ll have your business licenses revoked!”
The ice water dissipated. Business licenses? No fiery spawned drake? No lava encrusted golem? Harold was happy his father wasn’t in mortal danger, but couldn’t help feel at least a little disappointed. Dalton was much better at threats than his father was.
The forge door swung open, Alphus walked out – well, not walking as much as marching to the gate. He had a sack over his shoulder which clanged with each step, likely filled with the horseshoes his father had made him. The gate, which he had so delicately opened with a magical gesture, this time swung open with the force of an ox charging through them, and slamming shut just as hard. Harold winced as he saw the hinge splinter at the screw, and was aware he would be the one fixing that eventually.
He picked up the bucket of milk and headed inside for breakfast. It seems his first day at the job was going to be an interesting one. Angry mages and mysterious packages. It was just the sort of thing that Harold was hoping his new adult life would be like. He wasn’t much of a reader, but once a season a storyteller or acting troupe would come through town and tell stories like this. Sometimes it was a princess that a hero would have to go and save from the clutches from an evil vizier. Others would tell of a great beast that needed to be slayed. He would sit with rapt attention, eating a pastry and listening.
When he was younger, Harold was so enamoured by the storytellers that he asked his parents if he could try out for the troupe. After each of the performances, the actors would usually stay and talk with the children and even do little impromptu plays with them. On one occasion though, he turned and his mother had fallen asleep next to him. He carefully tamped out her still lit pipe and wandered over to the performers. The actors put the few children that lingered into groups to learn their parts for the small performance, and Harold, a head taller than every other child, got to play the beast that the knight would slay.
He remembered beginning to well up with tears, thinking that he didn’t want to be some monster that the other children were going to kill. That was when he saw her. Red hair, that the sun made prisms of fire dance across. Eyes wide, intelligent, devious, and kind. She was Harold’s first crush. She crouched down so she was eye level with him and asked his name. He told her through sucking in a snot bubble of sadness. She introduced herself as Ethel, which to this day was the most beautiful name Harold had ever heard.
“Harold. Acting isn’t like real life. You see, sometimes the monster is the most important part of the show. If there was no monster, there would be no show! So don’t think that you are being made fun of because you need to wear the minotaur’s head and roar. Think to yourself, ‘With nobody to fight, a hero is just a boring guy with a sword. You make the hero interesting which makes you twice as interesting.”
His complaints and fears and worries of having to be a monster were gone in her twinkling eyes.
“HAROLD, GET YOUR DAMN RUMP OVER HERE, WE’RE GONNA BE LATE FOR DINNER.” came the gutteral drawl of his mother who had woken up, and was dusting herself off. Since the crowd had dispersed, she was just laying in the street at that point. She stood up, lit her pipe, and waited for her son with eyes that said ‘you better.’
The boy sighed, “Imma hafta go. Can I try again when you come back?”
Ethel smiled, and some part inside of him blossomed with flowers, butterflies, and nausea. “I don’t just request it, Sir Harold the Minotaur. I demand it.” She leaned forward and pressed her lips to his forehead. As she pulled away, he felt warmth flood throughout his entire body. His family didn’t hold any faith in the gods, but for this one brief moment he felt connected with the ethereal spirit and at peace with himself and the world. This simple gesture of caring from this beautiful woman was a moment of clarity and crispness in the hazy life he had known til this point.
He vomited on her shoes and ran.
“HAROLD, FINISH YOUR DAMN COFFEE, YOUR FATHER NEEDS YOU TO WORK.” He looked down and his first cup was empty, and he barely remembered coming in and enjoying it with how lost in his past he was. He occasionally remembered that day fondly, as it was the one spot he felt that he knew his place in the world. When he would go back to the seasonal storytellers, Ethel was never there. At least, he assumed she was never there. He would stand behind trees or in bushes or stay home, too embarrassed to consider going and finding out.
“Thanks for breakfast, Mother.” He said, cleaning his cup in the wash basin.
His mother mumbled something incoherent and took a sip of her more pungent coffee.