Back then, it was all rather different.
Balik had been young, back then, of course. Back then, he didn’t have the aches and the pains. Back then, he didn’t find himself waking up suddenly, wondering where he was and where everyone had gone.
Most of them were dead now, of course. A few had gone to prison, which in the Summer Empire wasn’t all that different from dying, except slower and with more rats.
Balik had been in prison for a while. Even now, he would occasionally remember the taste of raw rat and feel sick.
Sickness along with the aches and pains of age – maybe he would be better off dead too.
Balik groaned and muttered some of the curse words he’d learnt in the Low Islands. The Low Islands were in the cold north of the Summer Empire where endless winds blew and a day without rain was regarded as an ill omen, so – to Balik’s mind – they had some of the best swear words he’d ever heard. Most of them anatomically impossible – even for a Shunna exotic dancer.
Balik stumbled over to his window. Well, over to his hole in the wall.
The castle was a ruin now. But this part of it had a roof, which kept the constant Summer Empire rain off his balding head.
Out there, the world looked grey and cold, much as it always did.
But there was something.
A new shape in the mist.
Balik pulled the worn blanket around him, feeling one of the holes in it tear itself a little larger. There was a time when he had women to keep him warm. Even for a few years in his prime a Shunna dancer – what was her name? She had legs as long and as warm as a Shunna summer. If only she were here to wrap herself around him.
Corin – that was her name.
He remembered how she’d died. He shook his head at the memory.
The thing in the mist had resolved itself now. A horse and a rider heading towards the remains of Balik’s Keep.
It meant trouble.
It always did.
These days there was not much Balik could do about trouble. Still he went through the necessary ritual of strapping his sword belt around him. His gnarled fingers struggled with the clasp, fitting the tongue through and pulling it tight. The holes seemed to get smaller, harder to see, and closer together as the years passed.
He struggled down the winding staircase. Back then, he could almost fly down it, taking several steps with each stride.
Nowadays he had to hold a hand out against the crumbling damp stone to stop himself from falling. There was a hole in one of his boots and as the steps wound down, his boot invariably found a puddle from the leaking roof.
The rider rode into the courtyard, looking around at the deserted walls and the place where the gate used to be.
Back then; this had been a bustling thriving castle. The last of Balik’s servants had disappeared several years ago. Either died somewhere in the depths of the castle or run away to a better master.
Balik didn’t care.
He looked up.
The rider threw back her hood.
Balik gasped, feeling his heart race. It was as if Corin lived again.
The woman dropped down from the horse. ‘Father, I’m home,’ she called as she ran to his arms.
Balik smiled as she hugged him, back then there wasn’t much that ever felt as good as this.