EpilogueNo Leaf CloverThen it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel
Is just the freight train coming your way......
It's coming your way
It's coming your way......
Life had grown complicated, he hadn't realized it as it was happening. Somewhere across the years it was no longer possible just to pick up and go, but go is exactly what Kruger had to do. If it were simply for him, he'd never consider it. It wasn't for him though, the small hand in his belonged to Nikolai. If not for him, Kruger wouldn't have left his business behind, wouldn't have said goodbye to friends. He'd have stayed where he belonged, continued in his semi-complicated existence. The boy wore his
curse. It wasn't something visible. To anyone looking, Niko was just a beautiful little boy with dark expressive eyes and a penchant for getting into scrapes. Only a few had seen the fevers come on, and known them to be unnatural. An accident of breeding, an ability so thoroughly blocked that Kruger worried the boy would one day burn himself up. It wasn't his fault, and for a brief time he'd been able to help Nikolai through them. He understood fire, and all of its wants boiled down to one thing, it wanted to consume everything until there was nothing left. Much as he didn't want to be here, Nikolai was far more important to him.
The gangway thudded to the dock, Kruger and Niko started for it, the former hitching his pack a little higher on his shoulder. Down river the stone obelisk still stood, as did the carving he'd done so many years ago. He'd had to read the words for Niko, and when asked simply say he guessed it was someone's name. The red bearded captain met them on the dock, stopping their progress. "We leave tonight, just before the sun sets. Should I reserve space for you?"
"Ready space for three, but at this point I'd expect only two." Kruger started to push past the man, when he felt the captain's hand on his forearm.
"I thought... well with you coming back here with your boy, that you'd be returning alone." His eyes searched Kruger's face. It had taken him several days before he could let his eyes linger there.
"After what I went through here, why would you ever believe that I'd leave my son behind?" Kruger tightened his grip on Nikolai, as though someone would come by and try to take the boy right from his grasp.
"Things are different, people are different. You'll see." The captain released him, when Kruger turned a heated gaze toward him.
"Am I supposed to believe the man who betrayed me first, Petra? For days you lied to me." Petra had the decency to look like he'd been slapped.
"You weren't clan then... now..." He stopped, when the heated gaze of Kruger turned menacing.
"What, Petra? What am I now?" Kruger switched hands with Niko and shouldered his way past the raider captain and stalked his way down the dock doing his best to not, in his anger, make it hard for Nikolai to keep up. His senses weren't anything like the first time he'd come to Glanchester. Knowledge had costs, and one of those had been his free communing with the elements. He was sure he'd heard Petra utter the word, scary
It was a fair trade, because within the forge they were all still there. Quite honestly, he didn't miss it the rest of the time. It had gone gradually, a gift of sorts, he could only imagine what his state would have been if everything were suddenly silent. Petra had said things were different, here and there it was true, but more was still the same. Another lie from the man wouldn't have surprised the smith, and at this point he didn't care. He remembered enough to know where things, and places were. Kruger pulled his hood up over his head far enough to hide his face in shadow before pushing through a door.
The New Road, restaurant had been here before Kruger had first come to the village. Where it stood had once been the new road, but now it was simply an old road with other old roads intersecting it here and there. The front window was still clean enough to be almost invisible, the tables were still thick hardwood stained dark, and benches instead of chairs ran along each side of them. He shuffled Niko into a table, letting him have the window to look out. There was nothing out there he wanted to see anyway.
Their entrance hadn't gone unnoticed. It was more like open looks and low murmurs to leaned heads. A tall, yet pleasantly plump, woman stepped to their table and gave Niko a little wave. "Hi there cutey."
Nikolai of course preened at the attention. The strawberry blonde woman wasn't unattractive. Kruger might have found her more so if he didn't remember how she used to curl her fingers into warding gestures whenever he was close by. "Welcome to The New Road, I'm Zarah..." Yes that was her name, the proprietor's niece. Then again everyone was related round here. "...and I'll be your server. May I suggest our special today? I can read them to you if you'd like."
Kruger shook his head beneath his hood. "No... just if Nisha's back there, tell her I need two of her backdoor stews, and a bit of hard bread for one of them. Get the boy a big glass of milk too. I'll just stick with water." He could feel her scrutiny now. It was all he could do to stay expressionless. "And Zarah, one more thing. Could you have her bring it out. I always pay a little more for the trouble."
Zarah waited a few moments, like she wanted to say something but couldn't find the nerve. Her departure only served to bring more looks. The woman didn't simply walk away, and go to the kitchen. She backed a couple of small steps, then moved hurriedly towards the swinging door. Nisha was not short, though Zarah had a few inches on her. But where Zarah was pleasantly plump, Nisha was all woman, and all business too. She practically stormed from the kitchen making her way straight towards Kruger and Niko, and daring anyone to stand in her way.
She stood at the end of the table and wrapped it hard, directly in front of Kruger. "Look here mister, if you want backdoor stew, then you ought to be at the back door
. I'm only obliging this because of the boy, an how nasty it is outside. An I ain't carryin' no food for you, I'm too old, and carried more'n my share to folks like you! And jokin' bout payin' extra ain't funny... no sir it ain't funny at all."
Backdoor stew, that's what it was called. In reality, it was what was left at the end of the day. Nisha would set the pot outside the back door for those who were having problems, and too proud to say it. For Kruger it was something else, he'd not been able to come and dine inside. Nisha would always slip him a little hard bread to go with it. "Maybe you've a hinge to mend, I hear a powerful squeak coming from that door of yours." Especially if he managed to fix something while he ate.
If any of the patrons had been subtle before, Nisha's tirade had drawn every gaze quite openly. It had also silenced the entire place. Her hand went to his hood and pulled it roughly from his head. Kruger tried to avert his gaze from her, but her meaty fingers grasped his chin and tugged his head around. The brand becoming visible to her, and anyone on that side of his face. Dishes hit the floor, Zarah was one of those with the clearest view which unfortunately meant that their meal was now littering the dining room floor. Nisha wasn't far behind, though she didn't hit the floor. She sank slowly to the bench, looking weak and suddenly silent. Her eyes drifted from Kruger, to Nikolai.
"I see it now, I surely do. Zarah! Hurrah up an get that cleaned, then get these two... Oh never you mind, I'll get it myself, don't be asking for help to get that up neither." She started to push her way to her feet when Niko reached over and tugged at her sleeve.
Nisha's eyes went round as saucers. "Escuse me... Lady Nissa. I'll help you carry, because I am big now, and if you carry for my da. I'll carry for me... since I don't eat so big of stuff as he does."
"Lady Nisha, am I now? I do not let strangers into my kitchen, no matter how knightly." Nisha regarded Nikolai shrewdly.
"I am Nikolai Aristotle Vevea-Allen. You are lady Neeesha." He sounded out the woman's name, giving her a questioning look, then the brightest of grins when she nodded. "You should call me Niko, because my friens call me Niko, and my ma an da. An if you do! Then we're friens, not strangers, an I can help!"
There was logic, and then there was Nikolai logic. It was flawed, and if put to it would fall apart. Perhaps she knew that to do so would break his heart. Maybe she couldn't stomach doing that, because she relented. Niko jumped up to stand on the bench, his little bottom doing a boogy dance as he hissed out the word. "Yessss!" He jumped from the bench, and hurried around to Nisha grabbing hold of her hand and skipping along beside her, looking up and starting off in a Niko chatter barrage.
On the way, Nisha leaned over and whispered to a man who abruptly left. The rumor mill had begun, but Georg would hear that he was here. He'd come, or Kruger would go to him. In the meantime, there was food. Nikolai carefully carrying a plate of something that was definitely not backdoor stew. There were purple streaks at the corners of his mouth and a look like he had a secret he wasn't supposed to tell. His voice carried above the din that had risen once more in the wake of discovery.
"But my stister says that I'm gonna be awfulensibly purdy when I grow up. Which sounds okay, but purdy is for girls. She's not my borned stister. Me an da found her in a house on the beach and dopted her. She's so tall, an purdy, and people make pictures of her in nice clothes doing things like..." Nikolai's little body twisted and bent, and he looked back over his shoulder and Nisha and did his best to wink and bite his lip at the same time, but couldn't quite get the two to happen together. The sight just made Nisha burst into a fit of laughter.
Niko wrestled his plate onto the table, then stood up and hugged Kruger, whispering to him. "I'm not sposeta tell you, but I had pie."
It almost wasn't fair watching Nikolai as he slowly wound the indomitable Nisha intricately around his finger. The boy didn't do it intentionally. He was himself, and it just happened. Kruger's mouth tipped upward at the corners with pride even if it felt jaded by his own experiences in this place. The bubble burst abruptly, Georg had returned home rather than venture to The New Road. Sure he'd given word that Kruger and Niko should go there. The smith couldn't help but feel it was just another slap to his face, especially when he'd been told where to find Georg's place.
Niko had done his hop step along the path, tugging at Kruger's hand every now and again, like he knew where he was going. Kruger knew, he stood outside a door he'd been through a thousand times. There was an excited jerk to his arm. A look to his son showed him pointing towards the edge of the forest.
"Da! A fox!" He'd seen them before, Niko got excited anytime he saw wild animals. "It's so close! I bet I could get closer to it!"
"Aris?" Wishful thinking surely. Foxes didn't live this long, but maybe some offspring of offspring? Still the animal took a few slow steps forward, nose working in their direction. It's ears twisted ever so slightly one direction and another. He got to his knees, holding his arms out as he'd done many times when Elle was still alive. The fox moved in short bursts, pausing and taking a few more steps. Niko was getting over excited, and Kruger had to give him calming shushes, telling him to wait and see. The animal's nose touched Kruger's arm, it's head was kept low promising a good bite if this was some kind of trick.
"Aris." He tried again, and the fox's head came up swiftly, it turned on his tail running straight into the woods only to rush back a moment later. It leaped and bounded off Kruger's chest, taking off once more excitedly. The little fox stopped eventually, pausing in its run to look at him panting. Kruger took Niko's hand in his, spreading it out and holding his wrist down. It was the little fox familiar, he was sure of that now.
"This is Niko." Saying that suddenly felt strange to him in a way it hadn't for a long time. Aris drew close, sniffing the boy's hand, then proceeding to lick it. Niko's fingers were still sticky from the pie Nisha'd given him. "I'm going inside for a minute or two, Niko. Play with Aris. Don't let him wander."
"I won't!" Niko was released, and the boy took off like a shot, trailed by that red streak. Kruger hadn't said the last part for Nikolai. He knew Aris was a girl, it was she who wasn't supposed to let Niko wander. Kruger chuckled as Aris darted in front of the boy when he got too close to the trees. Niko fell, and the fox was right there trying to clean the blueberry from the boy's face.
Kruger watched until he was certain the arrangement would work, then he pushed through the door.
"It's rather rude to enter a man's home uninvited." The voice was deeper than he figured it would be considering the age of the one who spoke.
"I'd agree with you, if you weren't in my house without permission." Kruger watched Georg's gaze go to the front window and the boy out there. The old man's eyes weren't so piercingly blue now, they'd gone stormy since he'd last seen Georg.
"Someone had to watch over her. I figure it's a fair trade." He didn't look back when Kruger gave his unimpressed grunt. "Got yerself a new apprentice?"
"That would be new, since I don't even have an old apprentice. If he were my apprentice, what need would I ever have to bring him here?" Kruger wanted to look at his son out there, but he trusted the fox with Niko far more than the old man sitting at his
table. It was his, a lot of the things in the little place were still technically his if he'd wanted to stake a claim.
"I see... I see. You'll be wanting him tested then. An apprenticeship if he passes." Georg passed a hand over his eyes, he looked tired, but that might have been a tear in his eye. Kruger stubbornly refused to believe that was possible.
"He'll pass your test, I took that test, remember? I don't just show up with a hope, and there will be no apprenticeships for Nikolai." Kruger's voice snapped across the gap between them. It was enough to make Georg rise to face him. He was old, but far from frail. Yes, he'd needed to push himself upward, but that seemed more like aching joints than weakness.
"Why come to me, if not to use my influence?" Georg looked frustrated at being spoken to that way in his own home.
"This isn't a bonding session, Georg. It's not a negotiation either. This is an ultimatum. If he passes your test, you decide to come with us. That or know you'll never hear from any of us again. Niko's returning to the family that loves him. I don't need you, he
does." Kruger's words seemed to shock Georg. Now he was looking to the window again at Niko as the fox ran circles around him.
"I'll decide, only after I test him. Is he ready?" The old man's fingers grasped the back of a mismatched kitchen chair.
"For the test? Of course he's ready. For you? He may even be ready for that too. I'll need a few minutes with him, then I'll send him in." Kruger turned from the man he'd once called grandfather, taking half a step toward the door before the old man spoke.
"I never got to say it to you.. I'm sorry, for what happened to you and to Al..."
Georg's words were cut off abruptly. Kruger spun back mid-step and connected the back of his hand to the man's mouth. The slapping impact sent him sprawling to the floor. His hands sprouted fire as he looked up at Kruger with an anger almost as intense as the blaze on his hands.
"Do it! Go right ahead, but you're mouth will never be clean enough to say her name. Not to me! Not to your damned wolf god!" His heart was pounding and his fists were pulled tight. Kruger could see the hurt in Georg's expression, and couldn't make himself care. The only thing he cared about was that voice in the back of his head that sounded like her.You're doing it again. You know how it makes me feel when you look at me that way... What way? Like I'm never coming back... I'd stop, but you'll still give Valerian the letter, just in case you don't...
he couldn't coax her back. baby?
Nothing but the silence and his own inner voice.
"Get yourself cleaned up while I tell Niko what's happening." Kruger's tone was commanding, he would accept no less from Georg.