Bittersweet is the Distant Hearth
(This story takes place in the Nations of Rage campaign setting.)
I wish we had just paid the damned fine. Not that Garmos would have let us, of course, but you can always ask the gods. The worst they can do is not listen.
It started with us rolling into sleepy little Brinnanon just ahead of the first serious frost, flush with money and looking for somewhere to spend the winter in comfort. Brinnanon seemed like an excellent choice. Eref and I found the women amenable to our mostly true tales of daring-do. The fields around the town were filled with wheat, barley and hops, which meant that the ale was cheap and plentiful. We made a deal with the owner of the Water Dancer Inn for three months of hot baths, farm-cooked meals and pleasant companionship. After what we had gone through during the summer, it was like heaven.
None of us would have expected Garmos to be the one to spoil our fun, but then Aisa and Tanos woke me with the news that Garmos had been taken by the sheriff and that it was serious. They let us speak to him in his cell. He was pacing, angrier than any of us had ever seen him. The deputies, backwoods folk who hardly ever saw a Dragonborn, had stripped him naked, not realizing that his kind take that sort of thing just as badly as we would. Of course, he had stubbornly refused to ask for a tunic because that would be begging. Garmos would never beg.
When I asked him what had happened, his reply was simple. “I killed a man.” I was dumfounded.
“We were playing at dice and the man said I was cheating. I never cheat and when I explained that, he started laughing at me. I do not like being laughed at. I could see that he was not going to pay me, so I stood up and told him he needed to pay me. He drew steel and I defended myself.”
The four of us stared at Garmos, too stunned to speak. At nearly seven feet tall, wearing a chain shirt and a longsword that had been in his family for eight generations, no commoner in their right mind would take a run at him – certainly not over a pot that couldn’t have amounted to much more than a silver, if that. Add in the holy symbol that marked him as a paladin of Erathis and people generally became more serious whenever Garmos was around. Nothing about this made any sense.
Finally, Tanos asked, “Did his friends jump in?” It still seemed unlikely, but maybe the townsfolk got spooked and made a bad decision.
“No.” Garmos’ voice was flat and distant. “The man wanted to cheat me. The man drew steel. I have read the laws. I am permitted to defend myself. I did so.” Garmos stopped pacing and turned to face us. Naked, with the bars between us, I was still worried that he might attack us. “I grow tired of this. Different rules for me. No rules for you. Lie to me. Cheat me. Call me Dragonborn. I have a name, human, just like you. I am Garmos Seyntin, honored of my house. Go away. I am done talking.”
We spoke to the sheriff, who told us much the same story – minus the strange, cold fury. Garmos’ accuser had pulled a small dagger, the sort of thing you would use at the dinner table. Garmos could easily have punched the man in the face and been done with the whole affair. The Garmos I knew would have done exactly that. Instead, he had drawn his most cherished possession and used it to cut the man nearly in half. Whatever had changed Garmos, he was now alien to me.
They had found him a woolen shift by the time of his hearing. The two weeks of waiting for the magistrate had not gone well. Garmos had attacked the guards twice, screaming that his incarceration was unjust. After the second assault, they asked us for help, so we ended up bringing him his meals and changing his latrine bucket. None of us was able to get him to talk. He did not attack us, but we all felt as though he was on the brink of doing so. When they came to take him to court, they tried to put him in shackles, but he broke them, pulling apart the steel links with his bare hands. It took us three hours to get him to agree to go peaceably to the hearing.
The magistrate was sympathetic, but only to a point. He agreed that the law permitted Garmos to defend himself, but that there was no need to have killed the human. Garmos argued that the law is the law, no matter what. When the magistrate explained that it was his job to interpret the law, Garmos replied, “Then your law is a lie.”
We all winced at that, but the magistrate seemed unfazed. “I find you guilty and fine you three hundred gold as compensation to his family and to repay the city for damages during your incarceration.” Eref and I looked at each other in horror. That much would essentially bankrupt us. We had prepaid at the Water Dancer, but we would have to sell almost everything we had to come up with that kind of money.
“I will not pay.” This was even worse because we were sure that Garmos would not survive debtors’ prison, not with the way he had been acting.
The magistrate considered for a long moment, and then replied, “The Duke has asked that we send men to Iatamath to look for descendents of house Thridas. If I have your word that you will seek them out, I will absolve you of your debt.”
“You have my word.” With that, Garmos had committed us, though I suppose things could have ended up much worse. I would not have wanted to go outlaw, but none of us would have left Garmos to what was basically a death sentence. We owed him that much.
We asked the magistrate for details while Garmos went to fetch his things. It was a fairly simple tale. Younger son of younger son takes up vows because he is sure he will never inherit, and then goes north to the hinterlands because there are tales of sickness. His house falls on hard times and this guy’s children, if any, are all that are left. The Duke’s looking at a civil war unless an heir can be found. As we listen, Aisa starts smiling and before long we are all considering that this might actually be a good thing. Nobles like it when you make their life easier.
We still had more than a month before the first thaw. Garmos remained sullen and withdrawn. After the incident with the shackles, the guards would not let him keep his sword, peacebonded or no. I can’t say I blamed them. I went to look at the man Garmos cut down, hoping for some insight as to what had happened, but all I found was the aftermath of a quick, violent death. We found a bank that was willing to store the blade – for a small fee. None of us begrudged the expense, not if it kept Garmos out of trouble.
Garmos spent most of the wait exercising. If it had not been for the incident, we probably could have set up some two- or three-on-one bare knuckles matches for some easy coin. As it was, word had gotten around and the townsfolk were clearly afraid of him. Not that Garmos seemed to notice.
The best sign of spring is being woken by birds. That year was no different. On the day we left Brinnanon, they were chirping so loudly we could scarcely make plans over breakfast. We retrieved Garmos’ things without incident; though I swear I saw his tongue flick out to taste the blade as he checked to see if its keepers had done it any harm.
On the way north, we kept an eye on Garmos as best as we were able. In the legions, they taught us that the unit has a goal, not the individual. Being an adventurer is more complicated. You are always jockeying competing aspirations, hopes and, yes, even fears. We had been something akin to a family for a while, but we were definitely feeling the strain. The farther we put Brinnanon behind us, the more Garmos talked, mostly to Aisa, whose wisdom he respected. He would also join in the conversations around the evening campfire, though the one thing we really wanted to talk about lingered at the edge of our group like a poisonous shade.
One night, Garmos and I drew the watch before dawn. He had chosen a fallen tree facing the rising sun and sat there looking at an amber pendant I had never given much attention to before. I decided to take the plunge. “It’s not fair, Garmos. You are keeping something from us. Something that is making you crazy, something that could get the rest of us killed.”
He opened his jaw, and then closed it again. People who do not have experience with the Dragonborn do not realize how difficult they can be to read. They lack lips, so they cannot smile, look surprised or any of a hundred other expressions we take for granted. It is a good thing they tend to be so concerned with personal honor, because most of them could lie to Humans with ease.
“For all that we have been allies for centuries, your people do not bother learning much about mine. We know this about you. Humans imagine themselves as kings of the world, with a special destiny reserved for them. Humans cannot be happy with what they have. They always want more, even when they take from others to get it.” These were exceptionally strong words for someone who was walking around with two Humans, including me. Every race has its purists, those that believe that they are better than everyone else. You hear it in peasants, most of whom will never leave their backwater town. You hear it in nobles. You hear it in shopkeepers. You do not hear it in friends that have pledged their life to yours.
He continued, “We do not mate as Humans do. Before we are bonded, it is not uncommon to produce eggs with those we love or are attracted to. We use a special ritual that puts these eggs to sleep, not maturing until the enchantment is broken. Sometimes these ‘maybe children’ are awoken when one of their parents dies without having a chance to bond. Sometimes they are awoken into houses that need more children. Sometimes they are used to restore a family line.”
“When they are no longer wanted or when one of the parents requests, they are taken to the temple and returned to Bahamut to be reborn.” He paused for a long time, then reached into his backpack and withdrew a letter. He handed it to me. I looked at it, but do not read the Dragonborn script. “Envesa, who I loved and still love, has decided to join her house with a family of merchants. Despite our promises to each other, she has decided that I am too wild, too flighty to be a proper father and mate. Our children are no more. The last sign of our love has been put to the fire, as though she and I had never been. And I am angry, Perard, so angry. I had thought that doing this would give us the life we wanted. Instead, I have nothing. I killed a man who did not deserve to die because I was lonely and hurt. I am sitting in the woods, far from home, chasing a dream that no longer exists.”
I sat down next to him and handed him my flask of rum. He took two deep droughts from it, and then sat quietly with me, slowly sipping, as we watched the sky turn from purple to pink to blue. Garmos was better after that. I think it helped to just tell someone his troubles. Over the next few days, I explained to the others that Garmos had been upset by some news from home, but skipped over the details, not knowing how much he was willing to share. Everyone relaxed and things returned to normal…
At least until we reached Iatamath and learned the story of the missing cleric, but that is a story for another day.
This was what popped out of my creativity over the last couple of days. I hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to offer critique. I tend to be much stronger with technical and scientific writing than fiction and I would like to improve.
As kind of a thought exercise, I made up Garmos as a character using the RPGA guidelines.