Note: If you haven't read parts one and two of Side Story: Ahrs, please back up to the previous blog posts to experience the full story in order. Part three of Ahrs Brandson's journey is a poignant metaphor for my approach to storytelling. I come up with a bunch of ideas away from my keyboard, organize them into a rough outline of what should occur when, where, and why . . . then I go in a completely different direction when actually writing. This process is at once frustrating and exhilarating. How exciting it is not knowing the actions of your characters beforehand! To be able to experience the adventure right alongside them! In Ahrs's case, his path through this scene changed three different times—all in the same sitting, all without any revisions or adjustments to what was already on the page. Why? Because a life without extra complications is boring; both for you, me, and the character themselves. One of the chief commandments of fiction writing states: "It is never wrong to make things worse for your characters." And so it goes with Ahrs Brandson . . . Side Story: Ahrs—Part Three How could anything be so dirty?
Hands an angry red, ooze collecting between his fingers, Ahrs observed the end result of an hour's worth of labor: a patch of clean wagon no larger than his chest. The splintered, washed-out wood was in sorry shape, but the pitch-colored boards around it were in far worse condition. If only Savion had painted it black; then the contrast wouldn't be so stark. But no, there were dozens of hues represented beneath the muck—all of which peeled away with the slime, leaving behind lumber that was well on its way to rotting.
It took a considerable amount of effort for Ahrs not to groan and gag into the thin handkerchief tied about his mouth and nose. His muscles were shrieking, his nostrils revolted at odors he hadn't known existed, and his soft skin was blistering at an alarming rate. Would he last another hour? Was Savion's knowledge and patronage worth this . . . agony?
This is a test, Ahrs decided, nodding his head in satisfaction at his wise deduction. The old coot wants to see if I'm really dedicated.
Ahrs slapped his rag back into the swirling grey water, flecks of paint and mud floating on top like pond lilies, then squeezed it as hard as he could. For the briefest of instants, he imagined it was Savion's skull, slamming it against the next dirt-encrusted wheel spoke. The brown clump took the hit like an overcharged airship lume. Not a speck of dust dislodged. With a sigh, Ahrs leaned in, throwing his entire body into scrubbing.
Pride and dread filled the exhausted youth as, under the lashing of the merciless midday sun, he finished scouring one side of the wagon. It still looked horrid. Splinters poked from the sodden timber at every conceivable angle, and the bluish-bronze roof, holed and sagging, seemed like it might buckle and crush the wall at any time. But compared to the other side . . . Ahrs snorted. There was no comparison.
Yet no matter what a brilliant miracle he'd worked here, three more faces—and the ceiling, and the inside!—remained. Ahrs used his filthy sleeve to wipe sweat from his forehead. He immediately regretted the choice as sludge dribbled down his nose, forcing him to shut his eyes. Ducking, he reached for the bucket to dash water across his cheeks, only to catch himself at the last instant.
"It's Voiding everywhere!" Ahrs spat, gobs of silt literally spilling from his lips. Ruined. His robes were ruined, his tunic was ruined . . . He wiggled his pelvis, feeling something slimy slosh about near his nether region. Oblivion! Even my undergarments are ruined!
A couple of local brats playing with a poorly sewn ball stopped their game to jeer at him. They were used to being covered in garbage; what did they have to laugh about? Casting aside his dripping cloak, Ahrs thumbed his nose at them, which redoubled their hysterics. They made a series of hand gestures he'd never seen before, then scampered off down the street to annoy someone else.
Arms hanging, Ahrs trundled around to the front of the wagon, wanting nothing more than to curl up and cry. He was awful at cleaning, a source of amusement for the townsfolk, and just a chore boy for his new master, Savion. Though what had he really expected to gain from this desperate adventure?
His father had accepted his inevitable conscription, but his mother had insisted that Ahrs do something, anything, to avoid marching off to war. It was she that recalled Savion's visit to their city and the mystifying tolerance the Sarconian authorities displayed toward him while he peddled his magics. It was she who, with tear-filled eyes, had drafted his letter of recommendation, packed a traveling kit, and snuck him out through the kitchen garden under cover of nightfall a fortnight prior. Ahrs had trusted her then, but now . . .
Distracted, he mechanically raised his arm to wipe the driver's seat. Ahrs's rag never touched the bench. Instead, it and his hand struck painfully against something metallic, eliciting a dull clang that warbled through the air. Dropping the rag and clutching his fist, Ahrs gazed at the object he'd hit.
His jaw dropped. "By the Vene . . ." He caught himself midway through the old prayer. Even in a backwater like Identstalen, it was best to avoid speaking aloud anything related to the taboo Church of Light.
Still, Ahrs couldn't help but be awed at the sight before him. Savion's wagon didn't have a driver's seat. In fact, the whole front of the contraption was missing, replaced by a mass of welded plates, steaming pipes, and countless gears and wheels. Ahrs's first thought was of his own blindness. How had he missed seeing this device when he first arrived? It was parked toward the neighboring building, but should still be visible if one approached from either end of town.
More magic, Ahrs reasoned, stepping closer. Some sort of proximity based illusion, perhaps? Savion's incredible capabilities continued to be at odds with his abrasive personality—and his tidiness.
Curious, he flicked his fingers against the central segment, a cylindrical chamber that was similar to his house's boiler. Ahrs was prepared to jerk away, but the surface was cold to the touch. Bizarre. His understanding of scientific subjects was limited, but most magtech he'd seen had a tendency to glow, smoke, and shoot flames. Not, he glanced at his shivering fingers, dimple your digits with frost.
"I see ye've met Shenvel."
Ahrs spun. Savion was resting against the washed flank of the wagon, arms and legs crossed, countenance inscrutable. How did he . . .
"Shenvel?" Ahrs asked.
Savion came closer and rubbed his palm against a raised band running the length of the device's central portion. "This ol' girl. My wagon, store, home—'er beatin' heart, at least."
He kept rubbing for a moment, long enough that his skin should have frozen to the metal. Yet . . . Shenvel . . . didn't seem as displeased with his touch as . . . she? . . . was with Ahrs's. Acknowledging such a difference would, of course, imply sentience, and that was impossible. No matter how advanced Sarconian magtech became, infusing a hunk of metal with a soul was a feat too far.
Surprise at Savion's appearance fading, Ahrs pointed at the collection of softly humming parts. "Is this magtech?"
"Ha!" His mentor touched the band in a specific sequence—five different points along a space the length of his arm.
Slowly, like the dawn creeping over the Great Divide, radiance suffused Shenvel. It began as a trickle—liquid light tracing lines, swirls, and curves at the same spots Savion had pressed. From there it dribbled outwards, slinking between the gears, rounding the wheels, slithering up the pipes. Soon the entire apparatus was coated in glowing figures. Ancient, wondrous symbols whose like Ahrs had only seen in storybooks.
"Runes," he gasped, eyes alight with amazement. "They're breathtaking."
"Don't lettit take too much o' yer wind."
"Why's that?" Ahrs asked. With reluctance he tore his gaze from the gleaming metal, turning to look in the same direction as Savion. "This is exactly the kind of thing I want to learn from you, so I'd appreciate it if you'd show more interest in—"
Five men came barreling onto the road from an adjoining street. Ahrs recognized the man in front. Clothes rent and damp, thin hair plastered to his face, it was the same irate noble Savion had cast from his wagon not two hours prior. The men clanging after him were also known to him, their chainmail and crimson tabards ubiquitous the Empire round.
Savion's rejected client had summoned the local guards.
Clapping Ahrs on his sore shoulder, the Engraver scampered up a set of rungs welded on Shenvel's side, calling back a much belated answer to his question. "'Cus ye'll need it fer runnin', o' course!" Reaching the top, Savion pressed the flat of his hand to a raised pedestal. As it shone, light streaking around his digits, he uttered a single command.
Cold steam jetted past Ahrs, erupting from wheels that started to turn of their own accord. Ahrs stumbled back, eyes darting between the shouting soldiers, Savion perched above, and Shenvel gradually rolling away.
"You there!" screeched the aristocrat, even his voice like that of a drowned rat. He gestured animatedly at Ahrs. "Stop him! Stop that swindling cur!"
The wagon continued to pick up speed, its tail end nearing. Ahrs couldn't move. His brain tried to process half a dozen things at once. The grimy rag and waste water at his feet. The impossibly radiant carriage. An old guard swearing at him. Boots clanking and pikes swinging.
None of this is what I wanted, Ahrs reflected bitterly.
"C'mon!" Savion roared, waving at him with his free arm. "What're ye lollygaggin' around fer?"
The nearest guard must have heard him, for he quickened his pace and brandished his weapon. "The lad's wit' him! Grab the boy first!"
Ahrs wanted to shout, I'm not with him! for all the good it would do. Seeing red, the noble immediately began shaking his fist at him while the rest of the troopers changed course. Better to nab the guy on foot than run down a rumbling, racing contraption.
Ahrs slumped. His mother had sent him away to avoid the army, yet here the army was, chasing him. Sure, these were provincial cast offs. The old, infirm, or those with the right connections. But they would still catch him, clap him in irons, and, upon discovering his age, ship him off to a forlorn hope unit—the kind reserved for criminals whose chance of survival was best friends with zero.
Which left Ahrs one avenue for survival. And, ironically, it's the same one that landed me in this situation to begin with, Ahrs thought.
Laughter burst from his lips, startling the guards into inaction for the briefest of instants, and he took off after the accelerating wagon, crying out to Savion as he sprinted. "Will you teach me?"
"Already said I would," his master called back. The distance between them continued to grow; Ahrs was no great athlete, having never had a reason to properly exercise a day in his life, and Shenvel's wheels turned faster and faster.
People lined the street, once again drawn from their homes and workplaces by the commotion. They cheered Ahrs and jeered at the soldiers, a harmless act that could have severe repercussions—if the guards weren't otherwise occupied. Their aggravated cries grew closer, hounding Ahrs as his sore muscles propelled him down the uneven thoroughfare.
"Really teach me?" he yelled, blood pounding, lungs aflame. "Actual runes, and Engraving, and Talisman-etching instead of just menial chores?" Ahrs nearly tripped on a worn, slanted cobble, but righted himself and kept running. This was another test, just like the cleaning. Reaching Savion was impossible, but if he pushed himself his master would come back, save him, and share his secrets.
"For the last time, yes!" Savion bellowed through a cupped hand.
Then he turned, sat down on the wagon's roof, and leaned over the pedestal he'd used to operate Shenvel. Bright light flared around him, forcing Ahrs to squint. Was he activating a spell? Giving the wagon orders to turn around?
No. Wheels squealing, Shenvel leapt forward, doubling or tripling her pace. Young maidens clutched at their aprons and bonnets as the vehicle zipped past, fathers shielded their children, and the Sarconian banner hanging at the far end of town was torn free of its mountings as a jutting length of pipe snagged it. That elicited more applause from the crowd, but Ahrs couldn't bring himself to exult.
He fell to his knees, staring at the diminishing dust cloud beyond the Identstalen outskirts. Even when his face was thrust onto the grimy stones by a pair of rough guardsmen, he didn't look away from that sight. The chaffing of the rope tied about his wrists and the sting from the blow to his backside were nothing compared to the agonizing feeling roiling in his gut.
Ahrs had been abandoned.