In the late evening, Damien opened his eyes almost as stubbornly as he had shut them. His body jolted him upright, sending panic through his limbs and spine. Something was wrong, he could feel it.
Getting out of bed proved more difficult than needed. His feet were far too unsure of themselves to be prancing about at such speed. In haste he ended up slithering down the staircase rather than stepping. Gripping onto the oak railing sent pain shooting through his hand and fingers.
“Agh.” He held his palm with the other, remembering. But this was not the time to be dwelling on it. There were more pressing things.
At the bottom of the stairs he made out the sounds of his family reverberating from the dining room. They were having supper without him yet again. Steeling himself, Damien came into the dining room, bracing his body with the back of an empty chair. Kallus, Lanara, and Naelen all paused their eating to look at him.
There was silence first, before Damien formed the words to speak. “Where is she?”
Kallus let out a sour grunt. “You would do well to forget her, boy. She is likely halfway to Tauros by now.”
Lanara beside him was in a more sympathetic mood. “I am sorry to hear that she left so soon. Come, you should eat something.”
Eat? His heart was broken into pieces and he was being told to eat?
Damien cast his eyes down. “I’m…not hungry,” he said, though the need to sit down in a chair was compelling. Once he sat, Naelen snorted while pointing at Damien’s injured hand.
“Not that he’s in any condition to feed himself.”
It was true. Damien had certainly seen better days, but he was in no mood to quarrel with Naelen. He wanted to lay back down on his bed, gripping the hollow space in his chest. It was hard to accept Ashlyn was gone. Dissapeared without properly saying goodbye. What was she so afraid of, he wondered? She had said something about him using his powers, but that wasn’t it. Not really.
She probably believed every lie Kallus had fed her. He had gotten into her head and broken her morale. And she was so quick to surrender.
Damien found himself glaring at Kallus, balling his good hand into a fist.
Kallus looked up from his meal briefly. “Something you wish to say?”
“I blame you for this,” Damien seethed. “Ash may have given up but I don’t plan to.”
“Give up?” Kallus squinted. “There is nothing to be done. The only way you will be at peace is to accept that Ashlyn was always too far beyond your reach. Her birthright is the Kingdom of Lorianthil, while you are simply lucky to inherit anything I grant you.”
“I don’t want anything from you, don’t you see that? I want to leave and…start over.”
“And where could you possibly go? Without my name you are but an outsider. An orphan. There is no inheritance, no claim you can make that will change that. And yet I am willing to give it to you, so long as you keep your promise and stay here.”
It was a fair offer, more generous than Damien deserved at this point. But the burden was already too great.
Damien let out a sigh, unable to say anything in response. He reached for a glass of water and took a much-needed sip.
Apparently, Kallus was not done speaking. He turned his attention to Naelen next, a concerned look on his face. “Nihilan, it would be best if you did leave Gumber for a while. After what happened earlier today I see you and Damien are incapable of getting along. You are both strong enough to injur each other, and I do not think keeping you close together is wise. I have sent word to the swordmasters in Careth. Where your sister is training. They expect you by the end of summer.”
“What?” Naelen coughed down his food. “But…you said I had a year left. I’m not even close to being ready for my exams.”
“You are ready,” Kallus nodded. “Your skills will be sufficient.”
Naelen shook his head, grumbling inaudible nonsense.
Damien understood his brother’s frustration. Yet another convenient lie from their father. Still, it was not his place to speak against it.
The table fell quiet again, and the family went on about eating in silence. Damien shared a few glances with Naelen, and for the first time it seemed like they were both on the same page. Naelen did not particularly want to leave, and Damien did not wish to stay. Though it went unspoken, an instant bond formed between them.
After supper, Damien went down to the forge in hopes to get away from his frustrations. His right hand was in poor shape to pick up the hammer, so he used his left instead. Hammering steel with the wrong hand yielded many flaws, but he pounded fiercely on the metal, allowing his anger to seep into it.
He did not hear Kallus stopping at the bottom of the stairs, but he sensed the elf’s presence nonetheless. His staring aquamarine eyes. Damien spoke without turning to face him.
“I want to be alone.”
Kallus hesitated before taking a few steps forward. “Sinen in luttasír.”
Damien craned his head, wincing. “What? Something about a river?”
“Yes. It is a saying passed down by the Elders. Though we may not know exactly where we will end up, a man does what he can to stay on course.”
Damien rolled his eyes and continued his hammering. “I don’t want whatever encouragement you think you’re giving me. I was…happy. Don’t you realize that?”
“Happy with a girl who can control you? That is not true happiness, Damien.”
“She was never controlling me!” he spat. “You really are delusional. I would rather you just admit that you’re crazy instead assigning blame to her.”
“I do not blame Ashlyn for what she is. She is not fully mature, and I suppose that is why you could not see the signs of her influence on you. Thankfully, she saw as I did. She understood that you were becoming more and more vulnerable to her.” Kallus came up, gripping the boy’s shoulder. “It is my hope that in time you will see that too.”
Growling, Damien jerked out of his grip. He had nothing kind to say, but he forced his thoughts out. “I wouldn’t have minded it.” He kept hammering, steel upon steel. Each pounding blow ringing in his ears.
The elf looked at him, prompting for more.
“I wouldn’t have minded being her s-slave– or whatever,” he said, breathing out a sigh. “Any life with her…is still better than the life I’ve lived.”
“You truly believe that? Even at the cost of your own self?”
“Well, myself isn’t all that great. I feel like…she made me better than I was. Different. More than just an orphan in chains.”
“You have come a long way, Damien. You are far from the isolted boy I took in. It was never my plan to take so much from you and leave you empty-handed.”
“What are you saying?”
“Perhaps it is time I granted you more status. You have worked for me in my little forge, but I want to see how you would run it. In my absence.”
Damien stopped, squaring himself to Kallus. “You mean…put me in charge?”
“Yes. You do not need my supervision, you are quite capable of meeting our clients’ demands.”
It was true. Damien had been relying more on his own ability rather than Kallus’ as of late. He had already crafted, delivered, and sold several pieces without Kallus’ help. Culturally, age sixteen was when a son was officially viewed as a man here in Gumber. Damien was almost sixteen, almost ready for the status himself. And Kallus was much aware of this.
“Alright,” Damien nodded, setting the hammer on his shoulder. “You have a deal, Kallus. I just…want to ask…if I make enough money to build my own house, would you let me go?”
Kallus dipped his head, crossing his arms. “You made me a promise, don’t forget. You cannot have your inheritance in exchange for nothing.”
“I promised I would stay in Gumber. I never promised I would live with you forever.”
“This is true,” he smiled. “Under normal circumstances, a human would not be given his own land here in Gumber. I will see to it that you have property of your own. Is there anything else you want?”
“Yeah…the next time Ash comes here…stay away from her.”
“I do not think she will be coming back,” Kallus laughed. “Not even for you.”
“Eh, so flows the river.” Damien shrugged.