Upon entering town, Glenn noticed three things: It was bigger than he remembered, long roads lined with stalls and buildings sprawling forever in all directions. It was also loud, the townsfolk talking and shouting and laughing more than he was ever allowed to. He covered one ear with his free hand, grimacing.
Also, his mother couldn't wait to get out of there. She tugged on his other hand, pulling him through the crowd. The strangers stared as they separated to let Glenn and Mama pass, their eyes hard. Woven through the noise were muttered oaths and curses. Glenn, being familiar with them, could easily pick them out.
The breath whistled from between Mama's lips, a bead of sweat rolled down her temple. He trotted as fast as his short legs allowed him, wanting to leave this place as quickly as possible but also wanting to look more upon it. He stumbled as she pulled harder, earning him a glare.
"Sorry, Mama," he mumbled, eyes down.
The town followed the curve of the seaside, the land rising the farther they walked. Gulls wheeled overhead, screeching and diving into a writhing mass as they fought for scraps on the rocky beach. Here the smell of the brine was much stronger than it was in their home near the Northern Ruins.
Glenn much preferred the sea to the dark and brooding mass of stone that watched them from the distance like the mythical creature called the Black Omen the funny people in robes liked to yell about. Owen said the ruins had once been a fancy house for a rich man and his family. Owen's family used to be rich too, so Glenn supposed he must know about such things.
The crowds thinned out as they walked the cliffside path, though the stares didn't let up. When they finally had a moment alone Mama stopped, her chest heaving and face pale. "Wait, Glenn," she gasped, gingerly sitting against one of the wooden fences that separated the path from the cliff's edge.
Glenn moved beside her and, not having a comb, ran his fingers through her thinning hair. Not that long ago it had been thick and shiny, her one vain pride, she'd like to say. The other women in their camp often looked at it jealously, muttered that some people had all the luck. A strange thing to say, Glenn supposed, since he'd rather have money and a home that didn't let in the wind and cold than a Mama with nice hair.
At Glenn's touch Mama closed her eyes until her breathing slowed. Then they continued wordlessly, soon arriving at an open gate flanked by two guards in full armour. Though they stood at attention, they simply watched the travellers as they passed through the opening. Glenn was sure they were memorizing everyone's faces. Adults could do strange things like that.
One of the guards glanced at him, his dark eyes alert. Gulping back his fear, Glenn hurried after Mama.
The area beyond looked like it had sprung out of the fairytales Owen's Mam liked to tell them, though Mama called such stories rubbish. The grass had been cut uniformly short and was a vibrant green beside the straight cobblestoned roads that led to huge houses in the distance. They weren't quite as large as the ruins but were much more majestic because they weren't falling apart. Their roofs swooped and peaked like the northern mountains, and the windows were so clean they were mirrors reflecting back gardens exploding with colour. Glenn practically inhaled the perfume of flowers, sweeter than the scraggly wildflowers Mama sometimes brought home when she was in a bad mood. They didn't really make her happier, only quieter, though she wouldn't snap at him after that. The men who visited her never brought any flowers, and their camp didn't have a garden.
Mama paused for a moment at the first crossroads to check a piece of paper she pulled from her pocket. Then, squaring her shoulders, she turned left, dragging Glenn behind her.
This road led them to a tall stone wall set with a closed iron gate. Through it the road continued, now lined with trees that drooped forward, their wispy branches and leaves swaying in the light breeze like the veils the women wore whenever someone died. Mama kept a scrap of red silk in her drawer for those occasions.
Two guards stood next to this gate, wary as they watched Mama and Glenn approach. "I'm here to see Lord Whytlock," Mama said, using her sternest voice. Glenn most often heard it when she had a visitor and told Glenn to go outside. Her coughing attack had made it raspier, rougher.
The guards' eyes slid from her to Glenn. Even though he'd washed his face and put on his best clothing, Glenn knew he didn't look nearly as fine as they did in their clean and tailored uniforms. Their armour glinted in the sun, reflecting the world around them in wonderfully bizarre ways. Glenn turned his head from one side to the next, watching its distorted twin in a guard's cuisse. Unlike his, their boots were clean of mud and dirt. Strings poked out of Glenn's sleeves and his hose sagged at the knee.
Mama had always worn her simple dresses like a queen, back straight and chin held high. Now her frock hung from her thin frame, and the colour had faded at her elbows. Seeing those pale patches made Glenn feel sadder.
"What business have you with milord?" one guard asked. His voice was deeper than Glenn had expected and brought to his mind images of goblins lurking in the dark. Whimpering, he hid behind Mama's skirt.
"My business is my own," Mama stated. She turned her head and pulled Glenn out from behind her. "Fiends, stop acting the scared little boy."
But he was a scared little boy, Glenn thought. He'd just turned four last week. Mama should have remembered that, she'd brought him the tunic he was now wearing.
The other guard frowned. "Entrance is barred to those who do not disclose their reason for visiting."
Placing a hand on a cocked hip, Mama sneered at him. "Fine. I'm here to deliver a gift to his Lordship."
Both guards stared at Glenn again and then shared a look. One sighed and nodded his head. With some hesitation the other unlocked the gate, which swung open noiselessly. How very unlike the gate leading to the Northern Ruins, which wailed and shrieked on especially windy nights.
They were escorted by a third guard, who appeared out of nowhere and didn't speak to them the entire time. In the shade of the strange bowing trees, the air was cooler. Glenn felt like he was enclosed in a perfumed tunnel. His head swam and he focused on the feel of Mama's chill, dry hand in his, his anchor in this strange place.
Then the road curved out from under the trees, revealing the largest house Glenn had ever seen. It had to be a thousand times the size of the one he and Mama shared, Glenn decided. Maybe even a hundred times the size of all the houses in their camp. An elaborate set of dark wooden doors stood before them, more menacing than inviting. Wide windows flanked them, but they gave no hint of what was inside besides the thick purple curtains covering them.
Bees hummed around the neatly arranged flowers and bushes covering the front and sides of the house. Something colourful darted in front of Glenn's face, making him jump. He stared at the insect as it winged away. A real-life butterfly! He'd only heard about them in the stories Owen told him. Owen had read books, back before he and his Mam had come to Glenn's camp. Seeing the strange creature made Glenn's estimation of Owen rise even higher. Perhaps Owen had even lived in a magnificent house like this once!
The door glided open without anyone having to knock on it. "Wait here," their escort said before stepping into the open doorway. He bowed his head to someone behind the door, his mouth moving urgently. Occasionally his eyes flicked toward Glenn and Mama.
Glenn stretched away from Mama and tried to peek into the dark entranceway for a glimpse of the stranger. Mama pulled on his hand again, and he fell back into place with a small yip.
"Stop your fidgeting," she hissed. Despite the weary droop of her shoulders she stood as stately as the trees surrounding the house. That strength had always inspired and frightened him.
Glenn needn't have been so impatient, for a balding head with a tuft of rusty hair swaying at the front soon popped into sight. The stranger surveyed Glenn and Mama silently, his expression unreadable. Glenn flinched. It was scarily similar to the one Mama gave before yelling at him.
To his surprise Door Man, as Glenn decided to call him, gave a massive sigh that caused his whole body to cave in on itself. "Milord is already in a foul mood over his stallion. To bring him this . . . he'll have my head."
He squinted at Glenn, who lowered his eyes to the ground. "Nay," he said, his voice sounded more hopeful, "she's simply an opportunist. Look at how dainty and frail the child is."
"How dare you insult my son." Mama stormed up the three steps into the entranceway and pushed past the bewildered guard to thrust her face into Door Man's. "How dare you question my word. Regardless of my faults, I do not lie."
She did not cry out when the guard pulled her away and pinned back her arms. His mouth open and knees shaking, Glenn could do nothing but watch. He was too small to fight back. Too weak and dainty and frail, just like Door Man said.
Door Man sniffed and threw Mama a haughty look. "Perhaps you wish to swap vices, then." The glare turned to Glenn. He felt like he could melt under it. "Lying would be the least harmful."
Spit flew through the air, landing on Door Man's bulbous nose. He made a disgusted noise as Mama laughed, the sound harsh and jarring amongst the splendour. "Perhaps your master would also appreciate such advice," she said before her cackles turned to harsh coughs that caused her body to shake. Both Door Man and the guard stepped back, their faces twisted in disgust.
Glenn ran to her side, one hand already in her hair. To his surprise she tried to push him back, but her hands just fluttered uselessly against his chest.
Dabbing at his nose with a handkerchief, Door Man pointed at the path with his free hand. "Throw them both back into whatever wretched hellhole they came from." He raised his voice to be heard over Mama's hacking. "Milord is not to be bothered by—"
"And yet he is," another voice said from behind them. "What in damnation is this racket?"
The words reverberated from the darkness, freezing and quieting everyone like a spell, though Mama's body continued to shake with barely suppressed coughs. Glenn had already felt like a statue, his body having gone cold at Door Man's threat. Why had Mama brought him to such a horrible place?
Door Man and the guard turned to the newcomer and bowed, revealing him to Glenn. He was shorter than everyone but Glenn, and half as wide as he was tall. Everything about him was round and plump and covered with shiny skin that reddened at the sight of Mama.
His eyes were almond-shaped and a vibrant green. Like his, Glenn thought. A large, sloping forehead led to green-greyish hair that had been slicked back straight. Glenn had never met anyone with green hair, except for himself of course. Mama's was a rich plum colour that he'd loved to stare at as he combed it.
"Dearest, what is the commotion?" A short woman as pale and twitchy as a baby eaglet came out of the doorway at the back of the hall. The liquid in her glass threatened to jump over the rim, her hand was shaking so badly. At the sight of Glenn and Mama she squealed and the wineglass fell, exploding into a shower of glass and liquid.
At that same moment Mama doubled over and vomited blood.
A tall man with the most impressive mustache Glenn had ever seen burst through the same doorway as the woman, who had now begun shrieking at them all. Taking everything in with keen eyes, he placed a hand on Glenn's shoulder and turned him around. "Best stay out of the way, child."
His vision blurred by tears, Glenn couldn't see where he was being led. "Mama!" he wailed, struggling weakly against the stranger.
"I'll have someone look after her. Stay here." The man's voice was strict but not unkind as he gently pushed Glenn forward. Glenn heard a door close, and the commotion in the front hall became muted. In the relative quiet he heard the sound of multiple people—or things—breathing.
Glenn whirled around and wiped his eyes, trying to focus on his surroundings. Slowly it morphed into a large, dark cavern of a place lined with wood-panelled walls. Shelves crammed with more books than he'd ever seen in his life filled most of the wall space, leaving just enough room for a massive desk and another door. Overstuffed couches and armchairs had been arranged in the centre of the room to face each other on a lush carpet that in different circumstances he would want to lay down on.
Two boys and a girl several years older than him stared at him from one of the couches, two with curiosity and one with a scowl. All were dressed finely, the boys in long tunics modelled after those worn by the adult men and the girl in a pink dress that stole his breath. It floated around her ankles, gauzy as the spun sugar he'd seen some of the townspeople eat. It was the colour of the sunset, a rich purple-blue that complimented her honey-coloured hair.
The scowling boy stood and marched toward him. "Who let this urchin in?" he demanded, his face flushing. He had the similar build and complexion of the ghost-lady from the hallway, but his hair was the texture and colour of dried grass.
"Emery," the girl warned, her mouth pursing.
Emery stared at Glenn, sizing him up just as all the adults had done today. Glenn averted his gaze, hoping the other boy would lose interest and leave him alone.
"Are you deaf?" Emery said, putting his face close to Glenn's. He prodded the terrified boy's shoulder. "I asked who let you in?"
"Enough, Emery," the other boy said, now standing up from the couch.
Emery laughed, a harsh sound that made Glenn flinch. "Come now, Cyrus, you're not going to defend this beggar, are you? He's barely fit to wipe our boots. Best to take out the trash before its stench poisons the room."
He turned back to Glenn. "Get out."
Trembling, Glenn didn't move. He didn't know what was going on, who these people were, why he was there. He didn't know what he'd see in the hallway outside if he left, wasn't sure if he even wanted to—the yelling and wailing had stopped, leaving a hush that unsettled him even more than the noise had.
"I said get out!" Emery shoved Glenn in the chest. With a cry, Glenn fell to the floor, no carpet there to soften the impact. Pain shot up from his backside, numbing his legs and stealing the breath from his lungs.
The other boy, Cyrus, strode forward and grabbed Emery by the front of his tunic. "Unhand me, or I'll tell Father!" Emery wailed, twisting like a trapped animal. He may have been taller, but Cyrus was sturdier.
"And what will he do?" Cyrus said, dragging the struggling boy to the other door. "He's a bigger coward than you."
"You're such a bully, Emery," the girl called from the couch as Cyrus opened the door and shoved Emery through it. "And I'm so happy to be rid of you soon."
The door slammed shut, drowning out further protests from Emery. Glenn jumped as fists pounded against it a few times, though Cyrus and the girl waited until the noise stopped, staring at each other the whole time with resigned patience.
Then she turned to Glenn again, her hand flying to her mouth. "Oh dear!" She hopped off the couch and ran over to him, Cyrus on her heels. "Are you all right? Did he hurt you?"
Taking Cyrus's proffered hand, Glenn eased himself up. His body still ached from the fall, but nothing seemed broken. He shook his head shyly, avoiding the girl's eye.
"Sorry about that," Cyrus said. "Emery's a bit of a twat."
"Cyrus!" the girl said, covering her mouth again in shock.
"What, he is!"
"Perhaps, but it's not polite to use such language, especially in front of guests."
Glenn sniffled and wiped his nose against his sleeve. It didn't matter—he'd heard much, much worse from the women in his camp and their visitors.
Cyrus gave a dramatic sigh. "Fine, my apologies for abusing your fair ears, dear cousin."
The girl giggled. Glenn felt soft fingers underneath his chin gently tilt his head up to face her. Her eyes were unusual, pale green bleeding into gold. It reminded him of leaves changing into their autumn colours, of a warm fire and cool nights.
"What's your name?" she asked him.
Glenn wanted nothing more than to please this girl. "G-Glenn," he said, suddenly nervous.
"Glenn? What a nice name. Pleased to meet you." She gave him a warm smile and a graceful curtsey. He decided then that Leene was the most beautiful person in the world.
Then Cyrus smiled, and Glenn second-guessed himself. The boy was an echo of the girl, with enough similarities to hint they were related but not close enough to be siblings. His hair was tawny rather than golden, much like the feral cat that liked to pounce out of the garbage heaps at Glenn, claws out and hissing.
"Nice to meet you, Glenn. My name is Cyrus Osten. This is my cousin, Leene Vivale. And that t—" He looked at Leene again. "That other person was Emery Whytlock, son of Lord Pig-Face Whytlock."
Leene and Cyrus dissolved into peals of laughter that was like sunshine fracturing over the ocean. Glenn could only watch, amazed at how easily they laughed. Tears were actually streaming down Cyrus's face!
Cyrus wiped them away as he struggled to catch his breath. "Don't take anything Emery says or does personally, Glenn. He's in an especially unpleasant mood today."
Glenn struggled to keep up. "Why?" he asked.
"We're moving to Guardia. Leene's to marry the prince when they're older and I'm going to train to become a great knight." Cyrus puffed out his chest with pride.
Leene blushed. "Only if he likes me."
"Of course he will. Everyone adores you."
Cyrus could have been speaking a different language for all that Glenn understood. He supposed knights and queens had to come from somewhere, he'd never given it much thought. He'd never even thought about being a grown up, let alone what he was going to do a week from now. Each day had been enough of a struggle to handle on its own.
With a guilty start, he realized he hadn't thought of Mama in the past few minutes. Where was she? Was she okay? He wanted to see her but knew she wouldn't be happy with him if he barged in on her and the other adults, tears streaming down his face like a baby. He could pretend to be brave, for her sake.
"Where's Guardia?" he asked, less because he cared and more to distract himself.
He instantly regretted his question when they shot him questioning looks. "You haven't heard of—" Cyrus began before Leene jumped in, frowning at her cousin.
"It's a continent to the northwest," she said. "It's quite far, it takes at least a week to travel there by boat. Here, let me show you."
She moved to one of the bookshelves and stood on tiptoe, stretching to reach a large volume on a higher shelf. The book thumped onto the couch, its spine cracking as she opened to a colourful page. "This is where we live, Choras." She pointed to a large green shape in the bottom-right corner of the page. "And this is Guardia, in the northern Zenan continent."
The continent didn't look nearly as nice as Choras, bordered as it was by brownish mountains. It stretched downward to another continent that was almost as green as his.
"The Guardia family has reigned for almost six hundred years," Leene said, her voice wistful. Her fingers slid slowly over Guardia, stopping at a tiny castle perched on the northern mountains. "Would you like to hear about them?"
Glenn nodded, wanting to be soothed by her soft voice. She settled onto the couch and, after a moment's hesitation, Glenn sat beside her, Cyrus perched on the arm next to them. Leene began her story, her voice rising and fading like the tides, as sweet as honey and morning sunshine and the flowers adorning these strange houses.
Glenn's eyes drifted closed, his head toward her shoulder. Her words blurred together and his fears about Mama dulled as he let the story seep into his mind. A brave man in a golden helm led a group of soldiers against a horde of rough-looking men. A grey-haired queen waved gracefully to her adoring subjects from her balcony. A young knight in gleaming armour and a crimson cape faced down a strange creature with twisted limbs and a gnarled face.
"Boy," the knight said, looking past the monster and at him. "Glenn."
Someone shook his shoulder. He blinked, trying to get his bearings. Leene was gone, though he could hear her and Cyrus whisper to each other from somewhere behind him. The mustached man knelt before him, hands on his shoulders to keep him steady as he awoke.
"Cyrus, Leene, gather your things, I won't say it again," the mustached man said. The two other children went silent as the man turned his attention back to Glenn. Sighing, he gently squeezed Glenn's shoulders. "I won't mince words, Glenn. Your mother is gone."
The words landed on him hard, crushing the air from his lungs and making his limbs go cold. His Mama had left him. Why?
"Where'd she go?" he asked, struggling to keep the tears from falling but failing as one slid down his cheek and then another.
"Somewhere we can't follow yet," the man said. "She's with the Algetty now."
His brain stuttering, Glenn tried to put together the pieces. The Algetty? But they didn't live in this world, according to the loud robed people. They were . . .
Glenn wailed as the realization hit him. Mama was dead. Just like Owen's Da, just like one of Mama's close friends in the camp, just like the little girl who'd wandered too close to the river last spring.
She was gone and now he was alone with nothing but his tears and a grubby tunic and loose hose to his name.
In his misery he barely noticed the soft hand that rested on his arm, the faint sweet scent that accompanied it. "I am so sorry, Glenn," Leene said. He looked at her and was surprised to see tears streaking her face.
"I've made arrangements for her, so she'll rest in peace." The mustached man contemplated him quietly, though Glenn's grief masked his nervousness. Then the man stood up abruptly. "Cyrus, give Glenn your handkerchief please. Leene, help clean him up. We want him to make a good impression with Mother."
"Father?" Leene asked, a tremor in her voice.
"Some men may trade honour for coin or company, but I will not," he muttered, half to himself, as he walked to the door. Then, to Glenn, "You're welcome to come with us to Guardia if you have no other place to stay. At the very least, join us for dinner. Which will go cold if we don't hurry," he added louder in Cyrus and Leene's direction before disappearing into the main hallway.
Just like that, the feeling flooded back into Glenn's limbs and fingers and toes. They were inviting him to live with them? It was almost impossible to believe, a fairytale he could see, hear, smell, touch.
"Oh, Glenn, how exciting!" Leene dabbed furiously at his cheeks with Cyrus's handkerchief as they followed her father out, Cyrus carrying their belongings. "What fun we'll have together! We'll go for carriage rides and visit the canyon and the cathedral, which are supposed to be magnificent."
"And we can catch tadpoles in the ponds and train in swordplay together," Cyrus added, a large smile on his face.
The entrance hall was empty, though Glenn heard a grumbling coming from the next room. The main door stood open, letting in a stream of light and a cool, fragrant breeze that wrapped around Glenn and begged him to join it. And he wanted to, but then his eyes dropped to the spot where he'd last seen Mama.
The floor had been cleaned, all trace of her gone. A part of him wanted to curl up onto the hard spot and wait there until the pain finally ended and his memories faded. Yet another part of him, the one he somehow knew he'd hear more of as he got older, prodded him forward. This was why she'd brought him here, he suddenly realized. The tunic hadn't been her only birthday gift.
"Come on, Glenn!" Cyrus called from the front path.
With one last look at the empty room, Glenn hopped down the stairs and grabbed Cyrus's and Leene's waiting hands. Together they ran to the carriage. From its roof a single red pennant fluttered in the wind, bright in the late-spring sunshine.