Gumber- year 463
Damien threw a bucket of used water onto the grass as he had done many times. The backyard of the manor sat several yards behind him. Damien loved going beyond the property limits. Out here, the forest was open and wild. Here, there were no footpaths that attracted attention.
Before going back in, Damien took the time to breathe the woodland air. He paced about the area, enjoying the freedom of no fences.
From a hundred paces away, he could hear Lila and Nihilan bantering as they sparred. Their wooden training sticks clashed against each other, echoing against the trees. The sound struck Damien as odd. When Lila and Nihilan practiced their sword skills together, it was usually inside the limits of the backyard.
Acoustics in the forest carried well. Even from a distance, Damien could hear their conversation. The sounds of their sparring drew him closer. When he found them, he stood at the side, keeping silent as he observed.
Within a few seconds of watching, it was clear that Lila had the upper hand. Nihilan was holding fairly against her. He parried her quick slashes in a zig-zag pattern and went in for a lunge to the chest. Lila dodged by pivoting her body. Her beautiful eyes teased him.
"My baby brother, trying to prove he can win."
Lila's pestering voice was getting on Nihilan's nerves. He overcompensated his next parry with a forceful lunge. His arm stretched far into Lila's territory, his back bending too forward.
"Huh." Lila tilted her head, gazing at his awkward stance. Raising her stick, she whipped him across the back.
"Ah!" Nihilan cried at the sting. His feet staggered forward until he regained his balance. "Did you have to do that, Lil?"
"Aw, did I hurt you? You shouldn't have left yourself open."
Nihilan was now rubbing the sore welt on his back. When he noticed Damien standing there, he took his frustration out on him. "Don't you have work to be doing?"
Damien held up his empty bucket. "When Kallus sends me outside, it usually means I'm done for the day. Besides, he left about an hour ago. Don't let me interfere. Keep training."
Lila took position for another round. "Come on, Naelen. This time I'll give you an opening."
Nihilan let out a curse. "I told you not to call me that. It's enough that Damien already does."
Lila laughed. "But it seems to fit you so well. You can be a bit of an ass."
He closed his eyes, reining his temper in. "If you insist on calling me Naelen, then I'm always going to call you Lilathanor."
"Go ahead. I'm not insulted."
He held up his stick. "Take your shot, then."
Lila came at him, only to be blocked. Her brother's stance was formidable, and his resolve was more steadfast than it was a few moments ago. He pushed Lila backward several inches and performed an overhead swing. Lila blocked, but failed to parry it to the side. With quick feet, Nihilan spun around and took a hit on Lila's open rib.
"Ouch." She hissed at the pain of getting whipped. "That does hurt. I wasn't really going to give you an opening. You know that, right?"
"I do." Nihilan let down his rod, savoring his small victory. "But I got you that time. Admit it."
"Never." She gathered up her things and faced the back side of the house. "I think that's good for today. Let's go in. I'm starving."
As she moved, Damien and Nihilan trailed after her. Nihilan shared a glance with him. "I totally won. You saw that, right?"
"Yes." Damien feigned praise. "You really got her there."
Inside, Tenila was there to welcome the three youths. She was used to the teenagers asking for food whenever they came in from outside. Lila and Nihilan, especially. "There's some fruit slices and peanut butter in the kitchen," Tenila said. "Go help yourselves."
The three of them went to the kitchen and dug into the fruit spread. Damien was usually the quiet one during snack time, but he found the moment was right to bring up a topic that interested him. He looked at Lila.
"So, have you heard back from anyone in Careth?"
"Not yet." Lila kept her voice hushed. "How do you even know about that?"
"Sorry." Nihilan raised his hand. "I couldn't keep it in. I'm so excited for you."
"Well, nothing is for certain yet." Lila ate her apple slice. "When I do hear back from the Fighters Academy, please let me be the one to tell Mom and Dad."
"Sure thing, Lil."
"Damien?" Lila craned her head to him. "Promise you won't tell?"
"I won't tell," Damien promised.
She beamed at them. "It is our little secret."
"So, you're practicing for your entrance exams, and Naelen is the best you've got?"
Nihilan winced at him. "You're just pestering me now," he said. "I want my name back."
"That's not happening." Damien shook his head. "Naelen is who you are to me."
"Try not to think of it as an insult," Lila said. "Think of it as a pet name."
Nihilan raised his brow. "A pet name?"
"Yes. My pet name is Lila. Your pet name...is Naelen."
Naelen sighed. "I suppose I can get used to it."
A stirring in the kitchen caused them all to turn. Kallus was standing there, seeming petrified.
"Hi Dad." Lila waved at him. "Back from the Tribunal already?"
His voice was low but serious. "Ashlyn has returned to Gumber." He paced toward Damien with a curious look. "It seems she is summoning you, Damien."
"Me?" Damien turned. "What does she want?"
"I imagine she would have you join her for supper. It is the common custom around here."
"Supper? That's it?"
Kallus smiled at the boy. "Yes, supper. Be ready." He patted Damien on the shoulder before making his exit.
Damien didn't like the way Lila and Naelen were looking at him now.
"What?" Damien asked. "Is it a big deal to be invited to supper?"
"It is." Lila nodded.
"Especially when it comes to you," Naelen said. "Being invited into another house is the highest form of acceptance. And you are human, so, that is impressive."
"Oh." Damien crunched his brow. "Is that why your parents are always hosting other people?"
"That's exactly right." Naelen straightened himself. "Just put on your best clothes and comb your hair. You'll do fine."
Lila came closer to Damien, scrutinizing his appearance. He preferred to wear his ratty work clothes whenever he was down in the forge.
"I can help you," Lila said.
Damien shrugged. "Alright."
At supper, Damien sat with Calda and Ashlyn. After a year inside Kallus' manor, Damien had grown used to supper being an opulent ordeal. Here in Calda's house, it was more simple. The meal was roasted venison with a light, creamy sauce. Chopped potatoes sprinkled with parsley lined their plates.
Damien was not eager to talk while eating. He didn't even dare to look Ashlyn in the eyes. Under her gaze, he felt exposed. Like a fraud.
"Is Kallus treating you well?" Calda asked.
Damien nodded. "Yes. He's been teaching me how to work the metal. It's supposed to be difficult, but I enjoy it."
"That is good to hear." She beamed. "Kallus has a true talent for crafting weapons. To think he's finally making something of it."
Ashlyn looked up from her plate, squinting at Damien. "He's teaching you to make weapons but not to wield them?"
"I suppose he doesn't have a lot of spare time," Damien said. "He doesn't even train his own children. He pays a sword master to do it."
For the first time that evening, he looked over at Ashlyn. She was wearing a decent outfit. Her hair was pinned into a wrap-around braid. For a girl of thirteen, she possessed a poised beauty. "How was your year?"
"It was good," she said. "You look well, Damien. I see your hair has grown in."
Damien self-consciously touched his head. "Yeah."
"And you've put on more muscle."
"I have?" He looked down at himself. For all he cared, he was still skinny. "Eh, I guess so." After taking another bite, he said, "I'm not quite sure why you summoned me here."
Ashlyn's giggle made him smile. "I didn't summon you. I invited you. Thanks for accepting."
"Oh. Kallus made it sound like I had to come. I thought I was in trouble."
"Why would you be in trouble?"
"I don't know." He poked at his potatoes. "It is stupid of me, I guess."
"You are not stupid," she said, taking a bite. "I wanted to ask: have you remembered anything about your past?"
Damien remained quiet for a long while. When he answered, his voice was shaking. "Look, Ash-- Ash-- Ashlyn...I haven't really been that honest with you." His eyes squinted shut. "I remember plenty about my past. It never really goes away."
Ashlyn tilted her head. "You're saying, you don't have amnesia?" She saw him rubbing his forehead.
"The only thing I don't remember is why I was in Githal. I grew up in Eolnir. I was never allowed to leave."
"So, you do have amnesia?"
"Only a little."
"If I could help you figure out what you were doing in Githal, would you be at peace?"
"I doubt it," he said. "I'm sure someone in Githal wanted my blood. That's all they ever want. They must have taken too much."
"Your-- your blood?"
"They took your blood and left you to die? That doesn't make sense. When I found you, you were scarred with magic damage."
Damien went still. His heart was beating fast. He already said too much. Perhaps it would be better if he stopped now. Then again, Ashlyn was a friend. She had proven herself trustworthy by keeping her promise to visit.
"My blood...causes magic damage."
Her face twisted. "I don't understand how that's possible."
"Neither do I." He let out a breath, folding his arms. "If you want to solve this riddle, be my guest. Just know that you won't like the answer."
Ashlyn had to sit with it for a while. She allowed the remnants of her meal to go cold.
"Ashlyn." Calda said from the side. "Perhaps our friend, Lothira, would be able to read him."
"Perhaps." Ashlyn agreed.
Damien's eyes shifted between the two of them. "Who's Lothira?"