Chapter 5.3

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*****

Cliff stood in the kitchen looking out at his sister and the fox. After a minute of silence, he looked to Jethro, who in turn, looked up from his gun inspection. Cliff's breathing intensified. He bit down on his lip, hard enough to break the skin.

"Goddamn it Jethro! Look at what that damned northern propaganda has done to my sister. It's turned her inta a Yankee bitch. A heathen! I knew Pa shouldn't ta sent her to that school. They teach 'em nothing but lies. That Ms. Peggy is a carpetbagging-northerner here to take our girls and make 'em into abolitionist-whores. Ain't no place for reading as far as Julia... or any other girl is concerned unless it's the Bible. Now she's chasing some fantasy that a rabid animal is her friend. And a hero at that. Goddamn it, I'll kill that mongrel of an animal myself." Rushing outside, Cliff grabbed the rifle that leaned against the porch railing. He tore a cartridge on his teeth and watched as the powder trickled into the barrel of the rifle. He jammed the powder down and loaded the lead slug. Cliff cocked the hammer back and leveled his rifle at the fox that was resting on a tree stump next to Julia. Jethro grimaced.

A calm breeze rippled across the grass. A crow screeched as it perched on top of the house, observing the standoff. Cliff focused on the fox at the end of his sights. He saw the beast perk its dark auburn head up, test the air, and glare back at him. The fox leaned over and nuzzled Julia whose back was toward the house and the boys. Cliff shifted his rifle to the left, pinning his bead on his sister's back. In a lucid moment, he said to Jethro: "Jeth. We would have our chance to join up with the army. To fight the Yanks. She's the reason we aren't with my Pa right now. We could tell 'em all that she was playing with it... the thing went off on her. We was out scouting in the woods, but we heard the shot and rushed back. Too late. She's dead as a doornail when we came in."

Jethro gripped Cliff's shoulder, nails digging into his soft skin. Wiping his own teary eyes, Cliff looked up to his friend's eyes, receiving the quiet brunt of a stern lashing. "Don't look at me that way Jeth. She's corrupted." Cliff pleaded as he slapped Jethro's hand away. "I love you Julia. But by God, may He have mercy on your little demonic soul." Cliff re-adjusted and leveled the rifle.

*****

"You've got a long life ahead of you Achilles. But you best be careful not to get caught in any other traps. I might not be there to save ya should it happen again." The fox licked her cheek. "Goodbye my friend. I'll remember you always."

Julia stood up and looked towards the house. She spotted Cliff and Jethro standing together, Cliff's rifle was leveled at her and the fox. He was whispering to Jethro. Julia instinctively glanced down at the fox and screamed: "No! Run, Achilles!"

Bang!

Gnochi emphasized the story's end by slamming down on the stage with his boot. The maids were all huddled together, conferring among themselves; the patrons, all still in shock. A strange quiet covered the whole hall. Even the bustle from the kitchen was null as the staff took a break to listen. "Alright folks, now, what are we going to discuss?"

As if shocked back to life, the maids and the rest of the staff began functioning again. The movement jolted the patrons from their collective daze. "Who died?" someone asked.

"That's up to interpretation. Plus a true magician never reveals his secrets," Gnochi said, winking.

"Come on, Gleeman. Was that a real story or did you just make it up? Give us the truth," one heckled.

"The truth is: that story is thousands of years old, no copies remain but that in my brain, and even if I could ask the author, I doubt I would get a straight answer. Whether or not it's a true story is lost from even my archives," Gnochi admitted, tuning the guitar.

One woman from the back asked: "That girl, Julia, she spoke of a war between brothers. How big was the family?"

"The war young Julia spoke of was the American Civil War." This provoked a flurry of rapid questions all asked at the same time. Ignoring them, Gnochi explained, "America was a country that existed on the same land as our Lyrinth, although it encompassed all of the western nations, a few of the southern nations and even still a few faraway places as well. Many of the battlegrounds from that war, which saw the more progressive North, battling the more conservative South, occurred long before the first age ended, are now underwater. The war itself was fought for various political and social reasons."

"Who won?" a man asked.

"Every source I've read claims that the north won, yet when you see the numbers of casualties, hundreds of thousands –many times the population of Imuny here– and when you consider the lack of immediate change, it's hard to say for sure."

"Is Lyrinth headed for a civil war?"

"I don't know. I sincerely hope not though," Gnochi admitted. Whatever political turmoil Lyrinth is stricken with, I need to fulfill my contract well before that strife ignites.

"I'll drink to that," the heckler agreed. Fresh pints of mead and ale were brought to the patrons waving for more alcohol.

"Mistress, Mirage, I think my job here is done," Gnochi said, standing and stretching. He found his hat, which he had rested on the neck of his chair, and stuck it on his head. Mirage and the inn's mistress looked to each other and nodded. "I'll be back down once more before I make tracks to answer any more questions." Gnochi stepped down from the stage and walked over to the stairs. He mounted the first, then turned around to survey the crowd. They had begun, in hushed murmurs, to discuss the first age, and his story. He saw the maid, Cleo, standing in front of one of the doors looking at him, almost with a look of longing on her face. He shook his head, climbed to the second level, and then walked to his room.

--------------------

Thanks again for the continued support. As a budding novelist, every read, every vote, and every comment works double to helping me out.

Read on,

Matt

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