The clouds above drifted further and further with each passing second, pushing apart and back together like waves in the Sapphire Ocean. Shifting her weight slightly to the left, Anastasia looked off toward the town of Forrendale. From her vantage point amongst the branches of the large oak tree which grew before the farmhouse, Anastasia could watch the citizens bustle about their daily lives. She had taken a liking to watching, ever since the tree grew strong enough to support her weight. Whenever Anastasia lay atop the branches of her tree, she felt relaxed, calm, and peaceful. The oak was a place where everything around her was nature, and no stress or worry filled her thoughts and soured her mood. The feeling always came naturally to her. Ever since she could recall. It was a wonderful feeling.
Unfortunately, the world never seemed to respect Anastasia’s feelings.
“Anastasia!” her father, Hammond, called from the doorway of the farmhouse. “Come inside! I’ve got a surprise for you!”
How wonderful. If it were up to Anastasia, she would have everyone around her simply leave her alone on her “birthday”, or as she preferred to think of it, the day her mother abandoned her upon the doorstep of an insane religious cult in the middle of the largest rainstorm Armea has ever seen. She didn’t see it as a day for celebration.
Sadly, her father never shared that opinion.
With a sigh, Anastasia swung around the oak’s branch on which she was perched and lowered herself toward the grassy ground. Being just shy of five feet and five inches in height, her shoes could not quite reach the lush green grass which loomed below, but the remaining distance was small enough that she could simply drop to the surface without injury. iii Hitting the ground, a jolt of pain flowed up Anastasia’s body. After stretching her rested limbs, she shook away the discomfort, turned toward the wooden silhouette of her home, and began walking toward the door.
Father best have not done anything too extravagant. The thought was a sour one as Anastasia recalled the previous celebrations her adoptive father had created for her. She always pretended to love the streamers and the homemade cakes which Hammond Daren created for her party, yet above anything else Anastasia would prefer not to have any of it.
Opening the door to the farmhouse and stepping across the threshold, she searched for her father. The lower floor of the home was modest in size; consisting of a large open area which served as both an entertainment room and kitchen and one rather large bedroom. The door to her father’s bedroom was wide open, yet he himself was not anywhere she could see. Strange.
Walking over to the steep wooden stairs, Anastasia ascended to the second floor. As she walked, her hand glided atop the railing which separated the floor and stairwell. Her father had built the railway. He cut it from the dark oak trees which grew in the grove behind the farm. Because of his disability, it always looked a little rough and remained a shade darker than the rest of the house. However, despite its aesthetic flaws, the rail had served its purpose for twelve long years.
As she reached the top of the second floor, Anastasia flicked on the shry lantern which rested on a small wood table by the stairs. Illuminated in warm, bluish light, the room was rather large, yet Hammond was still not to be found nor were there any traces of a dreadful celebration. To Anastasia that meant only one thing.
He better not have moved my books to set up his stupid decorations.
Tossing away such thoughts, Anastasia crossed the length of the room and walked into the bedroom which waited at the far end. The room was her bedroom and had been ever since Hammond found her. Prior to that, the room had been the habitat of Hammond’s sole child Sanya, Anastasia’s adoptive brother.
Sanya was always a little bitter about having to surrender half of his fortress to Anastasia. Before she came along it was a spacious living area which allowed him ample room for the paintings he loved so much. Now, she owned half of said space and defiled its sanctity with her bookshelves and scrolls. Even if he tried to, Sanya would be unable to find places to hang his possessions around her mountains of literature.
Their father had taken extra care in the construction of Anastasia and Sanya’s bedroom. Of the rooms in the farmhouse, theirs was the only one in which he had placed a soft grey carpet he had purchased from Forrendale’s market. The carpet was worn and matted now from the years of use, but it still gave the room a softer look then the rest of the oaken home, almost as if the love and care of a father for his children was manifesting within the walls.
Stepping across Sanya’s half of the room and into her own, the scene which unfolded before her was not what Anastasia expected. Instead of a grand display of overwhelming affection in the form of banners, streamers, and ribbons, the picture was simply her father. Clothed in a plain white shirt, his brown leather jacket, and a pair of worn brown slacks, he sat upon her bed atop the woolen sheets. He was not even looking at his daughter as she entered, but instead gazed out the window which looked out toward the barn. Anastasia was becoming less and less annoyed and more and more concerned.
“It’s been fifteen years since I first found you upon the doorstep of the Corec Cathedral,” said Hammond quietly. “You were so small back then. The entire length of your body fit in one arm, and you slept through even the loudest of noises. Whether it be a storm like the one I found you in or the king’s army marching upon our doorstep, you would’ve stayed fast asleep.”
Anastasia’s father was laughing now. A strange laughter which fell upon her ears as might the hollow echo of a man’s voice in a cave. Full… yet distant.
“You said that you had a surprise for me,” Anastasia said, reminding him of the reason he was in her room to begin with.
Hammond appeared to return to his normal self with the sound of her voice, his hollow musings transforming into the warm, rich voice of the man she had come to know and love as a father. “Of course, my dear,” he smiled, reaching into the front right pocket of his jacket. From within, he withdrew a small brass object, decorated with ornate carvings of leaves and vines and circular in shape. One end had a slight protrusion which appeared to be a button of some form.
“This watch has been in the Daren family for five generations,” Hammond told Anastasia. “My father gave it to me, his youngest son, and now I give it to you, my youngest child.”
Taking her hand gently, her father placed the brass pocket watch in Anastasia’s palm. “Keep it safe,” he said. “One day it will be your responsibility to continue our legacy by gifting it to your youngest.”
Looking carefully at the watch her adoptive father gave to her, Anastasia frowned. “You should have given this to Sanya. He is your youngest child, not me.”
“Nonsense,” Hammond replied. “You’re as much my daughter as he is my son. You have been a member of my family since the day I found you.”
Anastasia smiled. Despite her reservations, she did believe her adoptive father cared for her as much as he did his biological son. Nothing could change that.
Many times, Anastasia found herself wondering whether the reason her father allowed her to remain in his home for so long was because of his hatred for the Corec. She couldn’t help but feel as though he shouldn’t give her everything he did. Food, a warm bed, a home . . . a family. Raising two children at the same time was costly for Hammond. Taxing both monetarily and physically. Childish thoughts. All he’s ever given you is his love and affection.
As she reviewed her time living with her father and her foster brother Sanya, Hammond reached forward and pressed the button on the side of the watch he had given to Anastasia. She observed as the top of the timepiece opened to reveal the clock which rested beneath the brass hood.
The clock was not anything special. Consisting of a dozen hour markers and two hands, the only unique thing about the object was the fact it appeared to be broken.
“It’s busted,” Anastasia said, looking into her father’s eyes with confusion. Both hands on the watch were stuck in place; frozen in their final resting places. One upon the ten and the other between the one and two. The minute hand, the one which pointed between the one and two, gave a slight twitch every few seconds as if struggling to prove to the onlookers that time was indeed moving.
Returning her gaze, Hammond smiled at Anastasia. “Indeed. The watch is old and broken. Yet that doesn’t mean that it’s worthless.” From his eyes, Anastasia knew his words were meant about more than an antique pocket watch.
He sighed. “Just take the watch. I believe Bianca is waiting for you out by Forrendale’s well. You should go meet her.”
Scanning her father’s face, Anastasia saw only sorrow in his expression. “You know what dad, Bianca won’t be going anywhere for a little while.” Slowly, she lowered herself down upon her woolen sheets beside him, turning her gaze to the window and the cows grazing in the grasses by the barn. “I don’t think you’re worthless,” she whispered to her father. “What happened to Rebecca wasn’t your fault. If you had done anything more, then you could’ve lost a lot more than just an arm.”
Tears were welling within the corners of her father’s eyes. They were faint, but Anastasia could clearly make them out in the dim glow of the bedroom. “From what you and Sanya told me about her, Rebecca wouldn’t have wanted you to endanger yourself to save her. She died for Armea… that’s what you told me she always wanted. You being around to take care of Sanya is all she could’ve hoped for.”
Her father choked back a sob. “In my life, I’ve had many regrets, but the fact that Rebecca never had the pleasure of meeting you, Anastasia, is one of the greatest.”
Looking into his eyes Anastasia gave her father a small smile. He returned it with equal enthusiasm. “You know,” her father said, “this time next year you’ll be eighteen years old. Meaning you’ll be able to choose if you want to enlist into the king’s army or stay here at the farm. Do you know what you’re going to do yet?”
Anastasia had forgotten. Next year would be time for her decision already. The day she turned eighteen. Anytime an Armean child turns eighteen years old, a messenger is sent to present them with the option of enlisting in the king’s royal army. Whether they wish to go or stay is entirely up to the person. The choice is one of the most important some people ever make and one she had pondered many of times in her life. Her only issue with remaining at the farm is she isn’t quite sure she is cut out for farming. Whenever her father requested her assistance in the fields, she ended up with more cuts than should be possible in one day. On the other hand, she didn’t want to leave her father alone. “Don’t worry,” she assured her father, “nothing could ever make me leave my home.
Her father smiled. “You best be heading to town. Bianca shouldn’t be kept waiting for too long.” Anastasia stood from where she sat upon the bed, slipping the pocket watch into her pocket. Turning away, she walked out of her half of the room and into Sanya’s. Since he departed for the king’s armies his room had not been touched. It still had the dozens of colorful paintings which Sanya loved so dearly, albeit they had now gathered a decent layer of dust coating the frames’ tops.
Continuing her path, Anastasia walked out of the room and to the staircase which would take her downstairs. Turning and beginning her descent to the bottom floor, she heard a hard knock at the front door of the farmhouse. Quickly, she hurried down the stairs to the door and opened it. Waiting on the other side were three men, all in matching army uniforms. Resting in the arms of the closest soldier was an Armean flag and a small circular medal.
After a brief silence, the man nearest the entrance spoke. “We regret to inform the family of First Sergeant Sanya Daren that he has been slain in battle as of three and a half weeks ago. For his brave and honorable service, we present you with an official medal of honor in combat and the Armean Flag, made from silk woven in Sulluset itself.”
As the man reached forward to hand her the flag and medal,
Hammond came down the stairs behind Anastasia. With one look at the man Anastasia was speaking to and the objects in their arms realization dawned on his face. Tears welled up in his eyes and he fell to his knees crying. Anguish was seeping from his every pore as he grieved the loss of his only son.
Anastasia barely noticed his grief, nor did she hear his sobs, or the scripted words of support provided by the soldiers. Everything was a blur. Distantly she heard the details of her brother’s demise. Something regarding the Wastes of Tagar and a run in with the savage people who lived there. None of that mattered. In her mind all she could picture was the last time she saw her brother’s face, walking out the door in his brand-new uniform, a smile painted on his face. Don’t miss me too much Ana. I’ll be back before you can. I promise. Empty last words and an empty promise. “We are truly sorry for your loss.” The soldier said. The only issue with his words was that in a situation where you’re giving the news of a family member’s death to a relative, they don’t truly care about your support. Nothing can really fix the pain of the loss. Except time.
To see more of Alex, please read about the “The Strangers Orphan” and his online interview on Celthric.