AR 1211-12 Jarl Hastae, and the Awkward, Confusing, Stress-Filled, Very Odd Day -or- Hormones
The great archway into the keep of the Golden Eagle dwarves supported numerous inches-deep caps of snow. The largest one, on top of the eagle-totem’s head, comically resembled the conic hats favored by many gnomes in Dome-Snardt. Wind blew from every direction, casting white powder all across the grey sky, and coating every surface with a heavy layer of snow. It was full winter in the mountains, and even if they had been allowed outside, none of the students would have wanted to go.
Inside, safely tucked away in an over-heated study room, six friends sat around a table, books and loose papers strewn about. The scent of candle wax and ink filled the area. Though the table had no corners, Yari still somehow managed to appear seated at its head, Sardi to his left, and Geo to his right. Opposite Yari sat the great half-orc, Ox, and the elven cousins, Darreeli and Talenna, sat to his left and right, respectively.
Instead of adjusting the furnace, Yari had taken off his shirt sometime in the last hour, and draped it over the back of his chair; so inspired, the rest of the boys soon followed suit. It was far too hot for them, but the girls still shivered as though it was as cold as outside. Yari wasn’t sure if that was because they were girls, or elves. Maybe both. Whatever.
“Okay,” Yari said, holding up a piece of parchment with dwarven runes on it. “What word is this?”
No one spoke. “C’mon, guys!” insisted Yari. “You know this one! It’s one of the most important words in the dwarven language!”
“Oo!” Ox said, raising his hand.
“Sure, Ox, go ahead,” Yari nodded. “But, remember, you don’t have to raise your hand here. This isn’t class, it’s just tutoring. You can just shout out if you know the answer.”
“Right!” the big half-orc said, then began sounding out the word. “It’s sir-veesee-ahm.”
“That’s right, Ox. Cervisiam. And, do you remember what it means?”
“Beer!” came Ox’s bellowing laughter. The other boys chuckled, too; though, Talenna and Darreeli crossed their arms and harrumphed.
“I don’t see what’s so funny,” Darreeli complained.
“And, I don’t see how that can be such an important word,” complained Talenna.
Yari smiled soothingly at the girls and cheerfully explained, “It’s an important word to dwarves, because of their culture. Remember what Professor Gemforger taught us at the beginning of our Egg term?”
“Oh, yeah,” Geo piped up, “she said that, in most dwarven cultures, every major business deal is sealed over at least two pints of ale.”
“That’s right!” encouraged Yari. “Beer – ales and stouts in particular – is used to help foster camaraderie between the two parties entering into a deal. The idea is that, if both become friends, neither is likely to renege on the agreement.”
“Hrmm,” Talenna grunted, scrunching up her face in consideration. Yari thought she looked kind of cute when she did that. For an elf. “Okay, I can see that. Us elves don’t typically drink that much, but I understand that dwarves are different.”
“Hey, that’s good!” exclaimed Yari. “Professor Gemforger would be proud to hear you say that! That kind of accepting attitude is exactly what she’s been talking about in our Leadership class recently.”
Talenna glanced down at the table and gave a tiny smile, blushing at the compliment. Darreeli, however was having none of it. “I still want to know what was so funny!”
Yari flashed his trademarked impish grin, and asked the room, “Anyone wanna help her out?”
It was Sardi who piped up first, laughing, “Because we’re boys!” and sent all the other boys into fits of hysteria. Even Talenna surrendered an amused grin, though Darreeli just rolled her eyes.
“All right, all right!” Yari chuckled, trying to get control back of the room. “Let’s move on. Who can tell me what this word is?”
The door opened as he was speaking, momentarily sending a gust of cold air around the small room, and a new voice answered, “Barba. It means beard.”
Snorting and shaking his head, Yari answered, “Yes, Verona, of course you’re right. But, I was asking the folks who don’t already speak Dwarven.”
The human girl smiled defiantly, and closing the door, said, “Well, you should have been more specific.”
Yari just smiled back, and shook his head some more. “Hey, I’m glad you made it. Mind taking over for a bit? I wanna go get us all something to drink.”
“Sure,” Verona agreed cheerfully, walking around the table to Yari’s place. Taking his stack of parchment, she riffled through it until she found a word she liked and held it up. “So, who can tell me what this says?”
Turning his back to everyone, and opening the door again – much to the chagrin of the two elven girls – Yari slipped out into the cave passageway. It was easily ten degrees cooler than in the study room, and he stretched deeply, enjoying the change in temperature. Two upper-class girls walking by – an elf and a fellow human – looked back over their shoulders as they passed. Yari suddenly felt exposed, realizing he had forgotten his shirt back in the room.
The human girl’s name was Aldhis, he remembered. She could easily have been one of the most physically attractive girls at school, were it not for the numerous scars that covered her body. She kind of reminded him of his Uncle Jarl.
Yari had gotten to know her some time earlier, and she seemed nice enough, if a little forgetful. Well, a lot forgetful; Yari thought Aldhis would likely lose her head if it wasn’t attached – and by the looks of her, there was a time when it almost wasn’t. He felt bad, but he knew how pride worked, and he tried not to show too much sympathy, or ask too many probing questions. He just did his Yari-thing, and was polite, charming, and friendly. It seemed to work.
The elf’s name was… N-something… Nelaser! That was it! If it weren’t for the fact that she was an elf, Yari’d probably have flirted with her more. Her features were too slender and sharp, too… elf-like. Other than that, though, she was fine. Nelaser acted very much the spoiled princess that Verona did, and Yari knew how to handle that sort. It was even fun, in its own way. Especially with Verona, because she was occasionally able to pick up on when Yari was subtly mocking her, and mock him back.
Failing not to blush, Yari finished his stretch and waved after them. “Hey, ladies!” he called, covering his embarrassment with a smile.
“Hey, Yari!” they answered in sing-song-tandem, and kept walking. He swore he heard them giggling, too. Oh, well. Girls were weird. Beautiful and enchanting, but weird. The shirtless boy turned and walked the opposite direction down the hall, toward the kitchen.
Around a particular corner, a noise caught his attention, and he stopped to listen. There was a wet, slurping sound coming from somewhere nearby. Curious, Yari followed it to a tiny closet, the door barely ajar. Carefully kicking the door the rest of the way open with his foot, Yari, Beckum, and Quinellia jumped a foot in the air in surprise.
“Aah!” all three yelled at once, Quinellia pulling her shirt closed as she did. Several awkward moments passed, as the three stared at each other, trying to figure out what to do next. Finally, Yari said brightly, “Right! Have fun!” and slammed the closet door closed. Taking a centering breath, he continued his mission for drinks.
The kitchen was almost as hot as the study room, but its smells were much nicer. Instead of ink and wax, it smelled of baking bread and cooking meat. It reminded Yari of nights back home, eagerly waiting for Eliza to finish making dinner. He didn’t have long to enjoy the aromas, though, before Wolf’s mother came bustling over to him.
“Yari, if I teld y’once, I teld ya a thousan’ times: I can’na give y’any special snacks, just a’cause yer me son’s friend!” she scolded in a voice not unlike his own mother’s. Well, actually very different from his own mother’s, but it had the same matronly authoritarianism to it.
“Oh, but you let Krunch have snacks!” he complained. In truth, he didn’t actually care about pre-dinner munchies; this was just another fun game to play along with.
The old dwarven woman fumed, “I most cer’nainly do not! D’ye mean t’tell me tha’ boy’s been sneakin’ inta me kitchen an’ pilf’ring food behind me back!?”
“Uh,” Yari said, trying to think quickly. “No?”
“I’ll have his hide tanned th’next time I see him!” she exclaimed, repeatedly smacking the palm of her hand with a wooden spoon.
“Right, uh,” the boy interjected, realizing he may have taken the game too far, “never mind that. I’m actually here to see if I can get some drinks for my study group?”
“Oh! Aye,” she said, ceasing the abuse of her palm. “Kalistar mentioned ye were helpin’ out some of th’other students.”
“Well, it’s not just me,” said Yari, modestly. “We all help each other. And, it was Sardi’s idea.”
The matronly dwarf smiled at Yari, and said, “Drinks, eh? I c’n brew up some tea fer ye.”
“That sounds great, ma’am,” he answered politely, “but I was wondering about some hot chocolate?”
“I think I can do that. Go wait outside; I’ll have it brought out t’ye.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am!”
“Please, call me Elda!”
Yari nodded his acquiescence and left the kitchen to wait in the hall.
“What is it with you and not wearing clothes!” came a very familiar voice while he was waiting.
“Hey, Rissa,” he answered. “I thought you’d be at our study session today?”
“I had other things I was doing;” she said evasively. “‘Sides, you said you’d be going over Dwarven today, and I already speak that.” Her last words were spoken in flawless Dwarven.
“Yes,” said Yari, also speaking in perfect Dwarven, “that’s the point! We help out others with what we know, and they help us with what they know. It’s mutual back-scratching!” His last sentence, however, did not have a direct Dwarven translation. The best he could come up with was, “We all share the same keg!” so, he elected to speak it in Common instead.
Rissa scoffed. “Looks like someone’s been scratching your back, alright. You been sneaking out to see Elsie, or something?”
Yari turned beet-red. He had almost forgotten about that. All across his shoulder blades, his back was covered with just-healing scratches that looked too much like fingernails to convince Rissa someone else hadn’t given them to him. Knowing most of his classmates – especially Rissa – people would likely connect dots to a particular assumption he did not want them to assume. He really should not have walked around half the keep without his shirt! Crap. Well, whatever. What was done, was done.
“They look pretty fresh. When did this happen?” Rissa prodded mischievously, but Yari was gratefully saved from answering by the kitchen door opening. Elda Axeforger walked out backwards, carrying a large tray with nearly a dozen mugs of steaming hot chocolate on it. “Here y’go!” she proclaimed happily, handing the tray to Yari. “A nice, hot brew o’coco. Jus’ th’trick t’help young minds learn on a cold win’er’s day!”
Yari thanked her earnestly, took the tray, and hurried back down the hall towards their study room. Much to his chagrin, his sister followed right behind. “You should have Professor Garbett look at your back for you! Those scratches could get infected!” Yari tucked his head down and kept moving. Rissa continued to dog him, “Seriously? You’re not gonna tell me about the scratches?”
“Fine,” she said, as if in defeat, but Yari knew she wouldn’t give up that easily. She would bring it up again, at the least convenient opportunity. For now, though, she changed the subject, and he almost wished she hadn’t. “Have you seen Quinellia lately?” she asked.
Yari stumbled, causing hot chocolate to slosh from several mugs onto the tray he was carrying. “W-why would I know where Quinellia is?” he stammered nervously.
“Well, you know,” Rissa said in a teasing voice, “it just seems like you keep tabs on all the ladies in this school, so… anyway, I was supposed to talk to her about an assignment in Professor Hapgood’s class. She must have gotten busy somewhere else.” Another stumble from Yari, and the mugs clinked together loudly on the tray. He picked up the pace.
“You sure you haven’t seen Quinellia?”
The closet door was just ahead. Yari had to think of something. “Maybe you should go check her Cave dorm? She could be there,” he offered pathetically, hoping Rissa would reverse course.
“Naw, that’s ok, it can wait ‘til tomorrow,” she said. Then in Dwarven added, “Maybe I’ll join your study group after all.”
The closet door was upon them, and Yari said a silent prayer to Odin that no sounds would come from it. His prayer was answered, and the twins hustled by without incident. Around the corner, however, was a different matter. There, in the hallway, a scant few yards from the study room and hopeful safety, paced Beckum. The muscular boy seemed to be waiting for someone – Yari could guess who – and was debating with himself over whether to stay longer or go. Seeing Yari, his decision was made, and he advanced toward the pair.
“Good, Yari, you’re here – oh! H-hey, Rissa,” Beckum said, clearly hoping to have caught Yari alone.
“H-hi,” she replied with uncharacteristic sheepishness.
Beckum draped an arm around Yari’s shoulder and walked him away a few steps, making no effort to hide the fact he was trying to talk in private. Leaning down to whisper into the shorter boy’s ear, he said, “Uh, man, seems you barging in spooked her away. Guess she’s kinda worried.” Glancing back at Rissa, he added, “You’re not going to tell anyone what you saw, right?”
Answering in a voice loud enough for Rissa to hear, Yari said, “Don’t worry, Beckum. I can empathize; I’ll be discrete.”
“Thanks, man!” he beamed, patting Yari on the back, causing him to flinch. At that point, Beckum noticed the scratches on his back and, no longer whispering, said, “Damn, Yari, looks like you do empathize. Got a wild one, eh? Ha! Lucky bastard.”
As Beckum left, chuckling down the hall, he passed by Rissa, who completely avoided eye contact with him. That was interesting, Yari thought. Hadn’t she said she was over her crush on him? And, did Beckum just turn around and check out her backside? Jerk. That was his sister!
“So,” Rissa began.
“Nope,” said Yari flatly, starting back towards the study room. “I gave him my word.”
“I know,” she sighed. “That’s that.” Huh, that was easier than he had thought it would be to shut down her prying. Weird.
Rissa held the door open for her laden brother, and gestured grandly. “After you, Lucky.”
Yari took another steadying breath before entering. Walking in, he placed the tray of mugs on the table, and looked around. “Hot chocolate for everyone!” he exclaimed happily. Enthused cries were let out by all, and many of the scattered papers were soon stained by accidental splashes of the dark brew as everyone grabbed up a drink. Rissa squeezed herself between Talenna and Sardi.
Carefully walking his own mug around the table to stand beside Verona, Yari glanced at the parchment she had been holding up and cocked an eyebrow. Written in a sloppy Dwarven script, were the words for, “Dirty,” and, “Pig.”
“Alright,” she said, putting down her mug. “Now, again, who can tell me what this says?”
Ox raised his hand and recited, enunciating each word, “That is how you write ‘Boys’ in Dwarven.”
Verona snickered and said, “Very good, Ox!”
Rissa didn’t even try to hide her smile at her classmate’s joke. Yari sighed and put his mug down too. “Actually, Ox,” he said, “Verona is playing a joke on you. Verona, why don’t you tell Ox what that really says?”
“Oh, ‘dirty pigs’, ‘all boys everywhere’, what’s the difference?” she answered offhandedly.
Darreeli and Talenna joined Rissa in sickering. Geo and Sardi crossed their arms in frustration. Yari walked back to the door.
“Verona,” he said, “may I speak with you in private.”
“Can’t it wait, Yari?” she asked innocently. “We’re really on a roll, here.”
He stood in the open entryway and glared at her until she relented and followed after him. In the hall, he took her upper arm firmly and walked her away from the room far enough so their conversation wouldn’t be overheard.
Cocking his head at her, Yari asked gently, “What’s the deal, Verona?”
“Whatever do you mean, Yari?”
“Don’t do that. Don’t insult me by playing dumb. Something’s bugging you. What is it? C’mon, Verona, I’m not some dirty pig, I’m me! You know me. You can talk to me.”
“Oh, yes, I know you, Jarl Hastae,” she laughed. “You’re just like all the rest of your kind! I thought you were different, but you’re not!”
“Don’t worry, Yari,” she continued hotly, “It’s not like I’m mad at you, or anything. How could I be? That’d be like getting upset with a pig for rolling in mud. It’s not its fault it gets dirty; that’s just what it does!”
“Verona… what?” the boy continued to stutter, and then realization hit him. “Oh.”
“Yeah, ‘oh’. I know you haven’t been to see that little tavern girl of yours. So, who scratched up your back, Yari? Was it Franziska? Did she put out more, so you decided ‘to Hel with that other prude?’”
“Fran? Gross! Listen, Verona, calm down. I’m not cheating on Elsie, okay? Now, enough of this;” he insisted calmly, “we’re friends, remember? We’ve known each other our whole lives, and we’ve always been able to trust each other. You can trust me, Verona. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“If you can’t figure it out, maybe you’re not as insightful as you think you are, Yari!” she exclaimed, beginning to sob. Well, that came out of nowhere, he thought. Okay, crying girl! Must fix. Must fix.
Verona reacted as though she had been punched square in the chest. “Wh-what did say?” she stammered, trying to regain her footing.
“Uh, I was just thinking, it’s been a while since I saw you two together. Maybe, if you won’t talk to me, you could talk with her about whatever’s bothering you? I ran into her and Beckum on my way to the ki–” Yari was cut off by Verona’s mournful harrumph.
“Figures!” she sobbed. “She was supposed to work on an assignment with your sister; instead, she ditched yet another friend for that cheating pig.”
Yari mentally kicked himself. Why was he always so slow at connecting dots when it came to girls? Whatever. He had a pretty clear idea of what was going on finally, and he thought he might be able to help.
“Beckum left you for Quinellia, didn’t he?” he asked. Verona sniffed and wiped her nose. Yari thought she was close to a full breakdown right in front of him. He gave her a concerned smile and reached out to hold her shoulder. All her defenses came down at his touch, and she threw herself into his chest, crying freely. Wrapping his arms around her, Yari patted her back. Her hair smelled nice.
“I told him I wasn’t ready to… you know,” she said between sobs, her voice further muffled for being spoken into him. Yari liked how her skin felt against his. “Next thing I know, he’s dating my best friend!”
“Forget about him,” he whispered, trying to ignore his hormones. “He’s a jerk, and not worth your time even thinking about.”
“Oh, that’s easy for you to say!” she continued to sob. “You have a girlfriend and a boyfriend! You don’t need to worry about spending the rest of your life alone!”
“I don’t have a boyfriend!” said Yari through gritted teeth. Damn! Would people ever give up on that? He and Sardi were close friends; so what? So what if they spent a lot of their free time alone together? They were allowed to! It was no one else’s business what they did, and they should just keep their noses to themselves!
Oh, right, crying girl. Time and place, Yari reminded himself, time and place. What was it with all the girls around him suddenly going crazy, anyway?
“Whatever,” he conceded, making sure to relax his voice. “I don’t think you need to worry about spending your life alone.”
“No way! You’re one of the most competent, intelligent girls I know. You’re strong, and kind, and,” he added mischievously, “you’re pretty cute, too!”
There was a ray of light through the clouds as Verona’s tears paused their downpour momentarily. “Do you really mean it?” she whispered.
“Of course I do!” he smiled, encouragingly. “And, you know how bad I am at lying.”
“Yeah, you pretty much suck at it,” she said, straightening herself, but not pulling away from his embrace. She smiled embarrassedly, and wiped her nose again. “Thanks, Yari. I’m sorry I lost it in front of you.”
“Hey, anytime,” he assured. “That’s what I’m here for.”
Verona gave him a quick peck on the cheek, which felt very nice. “I know. Thanks, again.”
Good. Crisis averted. Score one for Yari! “Hey, Verona?” What was happening? Why was he still talking? She wasn’t crying anymore; he didn’t have to keep talking. “Y’know, there’s that dance coming up?”
“Yeah?” she acknowledged.
“I was thinking… why don’t we go together?” Where did that idea come from! That was a bad idea. He already had a girlfriend. He should just remove his hands from Verona’s waist and go back inside the study room. How did his hands get to her waist? What was he doing!
Verona looked perplexed, and he found himself continuing. “I just thought, y’know, maybe you didn’t want to go through an evening of watching Quinellia hang off Beckum’s arm by yourself.”
Her expression changed from perplexed to pleased, and she smiled broadly. “That sounds wonderful, Yari, thank you. I’d love to go to the dance with you!” She kissed him again, sending odd sensations to the lower parts of his body, and all but skipped to the room. “Coming?” she asked, looking back.
“Uh, yeah,” said Yari, otherwise unmoving. “In a sec’, okay?”
Yari watched the study room door open, Verona slip inside, and the door close again. He stood, then, watching the closed door for a long while. He leaned against the wall, and slowly slid to the floor – the stone further abrading his already-tender skin, leaving him even more uncomfortable. Eyes wide, and focusing on nothing, Yari grabbed his head in his hands and very quietly had a major panic attack.
What was Elsie going to say when she found out he had asked Verona to the dance? Would she call him a pig, too? Maybe he was a pig; he found himself hoping Verona would kiss him some more.
Sometime later the door opened, and a pair of distinctive green boots came into his view. “What the Hel was that all about? Are you and Verona…?” Rissa’s voice trailed off.
Without looking up, Yari said, “Leave me alone, Rissa.”
“What’s the matter? Are you butt-hurt because the girls were poking fun at the boys? You need to get some thicker skin, buddy.” Rissa added with a grin, “Especially on your back.”
Yari didn’t show any indication he thought her comment was funny. Never lifting his head he said quietly, “Can you please just go away?”
Rissa suddenly realized that something was truly upsetting her twin. Shifting tone from haughty to empathetic she said, “Um…no. What’s going on?” Rissa waited a moment and got no response. She gently nudged her brother with the toe of her boot. “Hey, I think this would be a good time for you and me to have a talk, don’t you?”
Yari put his head between his knees and covered it with his arms. “No,” came his muffled response.
“Wrong answer. Hey, I know as well as anyone how brutal this school can be – how brutal this life can be. Let me help you.”
Rissa extended her hand to her brother as a boost off the floor. “C’mon, my pep talks have to be good for something besides fighting and winning huge stuffed dragons!”
Her brother still didn’t move, but he did offer, “I think I actually might be a pig.”
Giving up the attempt get him to stand, Rissa instead plopped down next to Yari. Bumping into him playfully, she teased, “Why, ‘cause you cheated on Elsie with someone here at school?”
“I haven’t cheated on Elsie. At least, not yet.”
That piqued his sister’s interest. “Not yet?” she repeated.
“I,” he stammered, “I think I have a crush on Verona. I just asked her to the dance that’s coming up.”
“Aha!” Rissa said, “So it was Verona that gave you the scratches! Yep, you’re a pig.”
“No, that’s not it! You’re getting it all wrong,” Yari moaned, “I only asked her out just now.”
“So, you’re saying there’s a third girl?” Rissa whistled and shook her head. “Damn, bro. You gotta learn to keep it in your pants!”
“Yeah, great pep talk, sis. Thanks.”
Another set of footsteps advanced toward them. “Session’s gone down into just the girls talking about boys,” Sardi said. In an instant the still-shirtless boy was sitting on Yari’s other side, sandwiching him between Rissa. The feeling of Sardi leaning against him had an oddly calming effect, and Yari finally took his head out from his knees as his friend put his arm around his shoulder. “What’s going on out here?”
“Yari’s got girl problems,” answered Rissa. Then, as an afterthought, “You know I am suddenly feeling very over-dressed.”
Sardi was quick with a response, “Go ahead, Arissa, you can take your shirt off too. We don’t mind.”
“Gross, man! Yes we do mind!” Yari exclaimed. “That’s my sister!”
“Relax, I’m kidding,” Sardi snorted, and rubbed Yari’s back comfortingly. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you about these scratches.”
“You mean you didn’t give them to him?” Rissa asked.
Yari glared at her, and Sardi answered with mock haughtiness, “Certainly not! I am a gentle lover.”
“Not helping, Sardi,” Yari grumbled.
“Who said I was trying? Isn’t it the job of the best friend to make fun of you until you give up and feel better?”
“No, I’m pretty sure that’s the twin sister’s job,” he said sardonically.
Rissa leaned forward and smiled at Sardi. This was not the reaction she had expected from him! He smiled back at her, and Rissa decided to continue the jesting at her brother’s expense, “You know, you two are half naked already. I can give you some privacy if you want to take the rest off, and go at it.”
“Hah, Hah.” Yari said, sarcastically, clearly not as amused as his human bookends. “That’s enough.”
“Right,” Rissa said. “Let’s get back to Yari’s problems. In fact, Sardi, my brother and I were just discussing the source of those scratches when you walked up. So c’mon bro, why don’t you fess up. If it’s not Sardi, or Elsie, or Verona –”
“Verona?” Sardi inquired, raising an eyebrow.
Yari moaned, “I asked Verona out.”
“Yikes, man! Why’d you do that?”
“I don’t know!” he complained. “I was trying to make her feel better, and then she kissed me, and I kinda lost control of what I was doing.”
“What about Elsie?” Sardi asked.
“Now you see his dilemma,” Rissa added. “And then there’s the other mystery girl – or boy – who is in desperate need of a manicure.”
Yari groaned again loudly, and re-hid his head. “I am not cheating on Elsie!” he proclaimed.
“No, not yet,” Sardi mocked, and continued to rub his back. Scrunching his nose in good humor at Rissa, he shared a look with her at Yari’s expense. “So, I take you’re not gonna tell us anymore about your back?” From between his knees, Yari made a noise like a growling cat. Sardi let the matter drop.
“Hey, just keeping you humble, Mr. Ladies’ Man,” Rissa quipped. “You gonna be okay?”
“No. Maybe. I’ll figure it out,” sighed her brother.
“Okay. You know where to find me if you need me,” she said, getting up. “I’m always available to help out my little brother!”
“Not so little, anymore!” Yari called out as she walked away. “I’m catching up to you!” Rissa just waved, without looking back.
Yari wasn’t alone in the hallway with Sardi for long. After Sardi had helped him finally stand up, Geo and Ox emerged from the study room, pulling on their shirts as they walked over. Geo tossed a bundle at Yari and said, “Grabbed your shirts for you. No sense in staying any longer, they’re so far off topic in there, they’ll never get back around to Dwarven!”
“Thanks,” said Yari, straightening out the bundle, and separating Sardi’s shirt from his. He handed it over, and put his head through his own. Then, standing without his arms through their sleeves, he said, “It’s about dinner time. Who’s hungry?”
Sardi, having properly re-clothed himself, said, “I could eat.”
“No thanks,” said Geo. “Ox and I’re off to find Professor Eleros for some target practice.”
“’Kay. Later, then,” Yari said, bobbing his torso in lieu of waving, and he and Sardi parted ways with the others. Sardi, by now used to the occasional odd thing or two Yari would do now and again, made no comment about how he was wearing his shirt as they walked toward the dining hall.
Other students were just starting to trickle in, and the line for food was still relatively short. When they arrived at the stack of trays, Yari looked pathetically at them, then made a pouting face at Sardi. “Fine!” Sardi said, exasperated, and grabbed two of the trays. “I’ll get you through the line.” Yari smiled victoriously and wiggled his head back and forth. “You’re gonna have to carry it to a table, though. I can’t balance two trays with food on them.”
Once properly loaded with a fine mess of meat and vegetables, Sardi took his tray in both hands and watched Yari. He tried not to laugh while he waited for what was sure to be an entertaining show. Sure enough, Yari fumbled uselessly, trying grab his tray through the fabric of his shirt.
“Oh, Odin’s beard, Yari!” Sardi swore after several failed attempts, and put his tray back down. “Just wear it right!” He stuck his hands down Yari’s sleeves, and pulled each of his arms out. “There.”
Yari gave Sardi a grumpy look, and picked up the tray in protest. Sardi stuck out his tongue and took his food to a table. Yari followed behind, and stuck his own tongue out as he sat across from him. They both giggled at each other, then ate in silence.
“You got class after this?” Yari asked, as they finished and walked out of the noisy room. It had filled up quickly after they sat down, and was now packed with loudly munching students.
“Yeah, Herbology and Alchemy,” answered Sardi. “I’m surprised you aren’t taking it, actually.”
“Don’t need to. My mom taught me all about that stuff when I was little.”
“Littler, you mean.”
“Oh, go cough up a hairball.”
A little further on, Sardi stopped at a branch in the hall. “I’ll catch ya later,” he smiled.
Yari smiled back and waved. “Yeah, pro’lly tomorrow at breakfast. Sleep well, man.”
“Hey, Sardi?” asked Yari, before he could leave.
“Thanks for being my friend. I mean it.”
Sardi blushed and glanced down. “Heh, same to you, man.”
Yari closed the distance between them in a step, and hugged Sardi tightly. The act startled him, but Sardi quickly recovered and returned the embrace. “You gonna be okay?” he asked Yari, echoing Rissa’s concern from earlier.
“I’ll figure it out,” Yari answered, letting go of his friend. “I’m sure this is one of those things that only seems really important ‘cause I’m a teenager.”
They shared another smile and walked away in separate directions. Yari’s feet took him up into the main keep, away from the school. He wandered through the stone passageways, until he found the winding stairs leading up into the rookery. Having previously obtained permission to work with the birds, no one waylaid him on his trek.
At the top of the stairs, Yari was hit by the full chill of winter. Open to the air, the rookery had windows in every direction, overlooking the valley and forest beyond. He walked over to the window facing where Elsie lived, far off in the distance, and leaned on the sill.
It was still snowing, though the wind had died down to almost nothing, and little fluffy flakes drifted serenely past his vision. The sky was dark, but the land was blanketed with snow, diffusing any light into an impressive glow. The falling snowflakes were like motes of light, circling down and around an already impossibly bright sea of white. Stars, orbiting another star so large it engulfed the sky, becoming the horizon. In its wake, everything else was reduced to nothingness. An infinite amount of tiny stars, made finite by a single, infinitely large, finite star.
Lost in his thoughts, Yari hardly noticed as a large raven flapped over and perched on his back. As it walked across his shoulders to find a decent perch, the bird dug in its claws a little for purchase. Apparently finding an acceptable spot on his right side, the raven cawed once, loudly.
“Oh, hey, Mamma Bird,” Yari said absently. “Sorry, I didn’t bring any food for you tonight.” The bird cawed again, and walked back across his shoulders to his other side, further scratching him through his shirt.
“Shouldn’t you be with your babies?” asked the boy, straightening from the windowsill. The bird flapped its wings momentarily for balance as its perch moved. Yari moved into the center of the room and looked around. In various cages, clustered together, perched a menagerie feathered creatures. Falcons and hawks, jessed and hooded; spotted pigeons, clustered together in a tight ball of fluff; and, near the back, Yari’s favorite: an unkindness of ravens.
Yari never understood why it was called an unkindness. In the few months since he started working with the birds, the ravens had been the friendliest to him. The raptors were cold, responding only to his authority. The pigeons were stupid, except when it came to their message routes, and very messy. It was only the ravens that had developed a report with Yari, outside the boundaries of avian professionalism. His dwarven mentors were rather surprised how quickly they took to the boy.
He found Mama Bird’s nest, and offered the back of his hand to her. She hopped on, and Yari lowered her down to her babies. They were huddled together, sleeping soundly, and hardly stirred at all as their mother nudged them with her beak and settled down beside them.
Of all the ravens, Mama Bird was his favorite. She was an odd bird, ironically named, never having taken a mate. As she was getting on in years, it was assumed she would never have any chicks, but less than a week after Yari began working with her, two solitary eggs were found in her nest. Three weeks later, they hatched into two of the largest raven chicks anyone at the keep had seen. Yari helped care for and feed them, as Mama Bird was pulling double-duty for want of an apparent father, and he had begun to see the two as his children after a fashion.
“Brought the kids something shiny, though,” he said, producing two polished and dulled caltrops, and placed them in the nest. “For when they wake up.” The doting mother cawed again, and Yari thought there was a note of appreciation in the noise. “Stay warm,” he told her, and gently stroked her feathers before leaving back down the stairs.
It was getting late, and Yari figured he’d turn in for the night. As he made his way to his bunk room, the boy’s thoughts were still troubled and confused. He sat on the edge of his bed for a long while, staring into the shadows and listening to some of the other boys sleep. When he could no longer keep his eyes open, he kicked off his boots, tossed his shirt aside, and laid down, falling asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
That night, Yari dreamt he went on a double-date with Elsie, Sardi, and Verona. They were all having a picnic in a tiny boat, floating along in a sea of stars and snow. It would have been a nice dream, save for that he had no idea who he was actually supposed to be with. In the morning, he awoke feeling a little better than the night before, but still very, very confused.