With a lack of fanfare, and also a centrally focused desire to get home, Harold ran until his heart was fighting to shoot itself out of his chest, and his stomach was a knot wrapped around a tangle of ropes, entwined around a rock that was also trying to dislodge itself through his ribcage. His legs hurt from his near sprint. His arms hurt from how hard he was holding the box to his chest.
Not only did he do the job he was asked to perform, but he learned that his world might be different than he had always known. What was Sweetfoot trying to tell him, and why would, after Harold found out, it be enough to send him back into the woods to start a new life as a dwarf’s employee? The curiosity was killing him.
Only as Harold came up on his family’s plot of land did he think that he should have been more careful in his journey home, but that thought was cut short when he realized he wasn’t going home first. He had to deliver the box directly to Alphus and Dalton. ‘Dammit’ he thought, ‘I want to know…’ he thought as he stopped in front of the front gate to his home and caught his breathe. Sweat dripped down his face, and he wondered if there was an excuse he could make to run in, but nothing came to him. If he misstepped right now, he might not learn what was going on. If he failed, he might not earn his father’s trust or be told any of whatever was going on.
After his heart stopped thudding so ferociously, he began to walk towards the center hub of town. HIs sprint had saved him time, so he wasn’t worried about being late. His father hadn’t given him a timeframe to work within anyway. As he came to the end of his road, where the street opened up into the modest town square, the sweat had dried to his skin and the warm summer air had started to cool off his overheated body.
The town hub of Arrow’s Keep was one of the more affluent community centers in the surrounding towns. The Keep, as it was called, was rich enough to afford them a cobble stone center with a marble fountain in front of the grand gate that lead to it’s namesake. The citadel in the center of the fountain was a precise replica of the structure that loomed behind it, but with waterfalls spouting from every side. Aside from the capital’s Reginar Castle, the Keep had been referred to as the most defensible place in the entirety of the country. It had been the site of many wars before Harold, or even Harold’s father had been born. It was hard to not be impressed by the structure, with its dwarven stonework and look as if it was trying to touch the heavens.
As children, Harold and his friends would pretend that they were defending the keep like the heroes of stories. Invisible dragons would fly through the air and dive at the treeforts they referred to as the Keep, as the boys would hang from branches and try and scramble defenses and defeat all insurgents. Harold missed those times. So many of his friends had left in the past year as they reached apprenticing age. Today, Dalton would go, leaving just Harold to fend for himself in town.
He wondered if the words of Sweetfoot were making him wistful for adventure. He had always considered the idea of being a hero to be the world’s greatest endeavor. You discovered lands that hadn’t been seen for centuries. You found the treasures left by the heroes that came before you. He sighed and swallowed down those thoughts. Not everyone gets to be a hero, and as the heir to the Orian business, he knew his place in the world.
Delivery boy for a man he wasn’t sure he knew very well.
“Hail Harold!” The clear voice of Dalton came from across the hub. Harold looked up and saw his friend walking towards him with a small sack in his hand. The boy’s new red cloak, unembroidered or embellished like his father’s, hung around him like a bedsheet. It seemed that as you got older you learned to walk and make your cloak feel like part of you, much like Alphus did. Dalton didn’t have such grace yet, so it truly looked like he was a child wearing a loose towel around his neck. Beneath the cloak, the young man was wearing travelling leathers, with his hair pulled back into a braid like his father’s, but blond. Dalton stepped up and they shook from the wrist and a quick embrace. Dalton gasped at Harold’s squeeze, being a head shorter than him and half his weight. As they separated, he tipped his bag towards Harold, and he could smell the steam of roasted nuts from Mika’s Grocer, a loved treat in town.
Harold took a few and threw them into his mouth, relishing the sweet mix of honey and sugar mixed with the heartiness of the nuts. “One last bag before you go on your epic quest?” He smiled.
Dalton nodded, “Aye. We’re in the last moments of preparation, so I thought I’d take my time and enjoy the Keep one last time before we go. There is a chance it will be quite a while before I get back.”
Harold tilted his head, “I thought your journey would only be a few weeks or so?”
His friend shook his head, “No. My father’s trip will only be a few weeks. If I am accepted by the Mage’s Guild, there is a period of study that could keep me locked up for quite a bit longer. I only learned that myself the other day. It seems the amount of things I knew about magic are nothing compared to the things they tell you after you’ve sworn to be one. How about you? My father seemed quite unhappy with yours today.”
They sat at the fountain and shared Dalton’s food while Harold told him the entirety of the morning. Everything from the argument between Alphus and Fergus to what Sweetfoot had said to him about not knowing the entirety of his father’s story. Dalton listened enrapt. Finally looking down at the box that Harold had brought, “And this is… well, whatever it is?”
Harold nodded. “I’m to give it to your father and nobody else. I’m not even sure it’s ok that I give it to you.”
Dalton scratched his chin, small blonde stubbly hairs, matching the color of the braid on his head, had just begun to grow and he had taken to touching them when deep in thought. Harold thought it looked like he was trying a little too hard to seem like a sage or historian. “I admit, your father has never struck me as the nicest man, but some mysterious dark dealing criminal? I think perhaps the dwarf was putting you on.”
Harold nodded quietly. “Well, whatever the case is, I’ll find out after I give this to Alphus.” He stood up. “Shall we?”
Dalton didn’t stand, still in the midst of thought. “One last consideration. What are you going to do if this dwarf was correct? Let us say that it is something reprehensible. What then?”
Harold didn’t answer. It was the concern that had been with him since he left the dwarf’s encampment. His thoughts of being a hero and pondering where all his friends had gone were all part of the same. He was moving towards a crossroads, and even without Sweetfoot’s words, he would have been. Now, with the possibility that there was some moral question, it was even more apparent that big decisions were going to be made in Harold’s life. “I’m gonna miss you Dalt.”
Dalton realized his question was going to be left unanswered and stood up, embracing his friend again. “We’ll see each other again. Our fathers be damned.”
The conversation slipped into more basic things, with the moment of gravity passed. They had spent years together. Adventures together. They had smoked tobacco and drank the first time together, and were the lie for the other when their parents asked where they had gone. Dalton helped Harold learn how to read and Harold made sure that the older kids in town didn’t pick on the more slight Dalton. They were a pair for many years, and even as they got older and studies became more important to Dalton, their friendship was secure.
When they reached the front of Dalton’s home, Alphus was strapping packs to horses. “Hail Father.” Dalton said, and the man turned, saw both of them and Harold noticed the roll of his eyes until he saw the box.
He stepped up and without greeting, without any preamble, looked to Harold. “Is that mine?”
“Aye sir.” Harold said, presenting it.
Alphus snatched up and walked around the horse, opening a leather satchel and sliding the box inside of it. “Dalton, go get your pack. That was the last of what we needed and we should have been on the road just after dawn.”
Dalton looked to his friend with apologetic eyes, but Harold shook his head to tell him it wasn’t his fault. “Yes, Father.” He said, and reached out his arm once more to Harold. They shook and turned away before the welling of tears in their eyes gave them any reason to say anything else that might embarrass them in front of the older man.
Dalton ran inside his home, and Harold stood there, watching Alphus leading the two horses to a trough of water to give them one last drink before the journey. After a silent few beats, he looked to Harold, “Anything else?”
The man had been so friendly earlier in the day. Harold had never had reason to fight with Alphus, but it seemed whatever fight there was between him and his father had overflowed onto him. It all felt very curious to Harold, but he recognized that he wasn’t going to get any answers from this camp.
Maybe at home. “Sir. Safe travels.” He said, respectfully, and turned on his heel and began the journey home, where he hoped things would become clearer.