Three elderly men sat on a doorstep in the shaded half of a sunny street, talking amiably about the weather, the state of young people and all other matters important to the old. From time to time, they passed a large bottle of ale around, sipping lazily at its contents as they listened to the various reminisces of their companions. When at last the supply of relevant memories was exhausted, the conversation turned once more to current affairs and the business at hand – a business that proved highly contentious amongst the group.
"I'm telling ya, things are heating up again," one man said, his bald head shining in the bright sunlight. "I can almost feel it. It's just like the last time... it's like even the birds and the trees know it."
The faces of his companions showed instant concern.
"Quiet!" a round man hissed from behind a fulsome beard. "Heavens, Jack! You know it's bad business to be talking about things like the last time. What did we get from it? Ten years of misery, that's what. I wish we were rid of it all, rid of the fighting, rid of the fear, and rid of people like you! Honestly, stirring up trouble amongst decent folk. Just isn't right and you're old enough to know better!"
"I'm also old enough to remember!" the bald man retorted scornfully.
"Remember what exactly? The death that was brought us? The pain and the suffering? You were there, for spirit's sake, you were there when Heather died... and for WHAT?"
"For a chance..." Jack snapped, his voice trailing off as he rose angrily and stalked away down the street.
"That was cruel," the third man said reproachfully, sitting forward from the shade and watching his friend disappear around a bend in the road.
"Aye," the bearded man agreed, "but sometimes old Jack needs to be reminded that nothing in this world comes free and easy."
The third man shrugged. "True," he said, "but I reckon Jack had a point. Even you can feel it, Gorn, the whole village knows it. The weight of the times is beginning to press down on us and it doesn't help having an army camped on your doorstep..."
"Hush," Gorn replied dismissively. "I've got no grudge with Mendeth – or any other Neredin for that matter."
The third man raised his eyebrows in surprise. "And what about Heather?"
Gorn sighed heavily and looked wistfully down the street, his eyes focused on nothing in particular. "I don't blame the Neredin for what happened. I blame those damned hill bandits – their promises blinded her, blinded us all. We should've known it would end this way..."
"Has it ended?"
Gorn chuckled without humour. "You're starting to sound like the bloody miller now Kerna, all fables and portents. Spirits damn me if I'll ever be as foolhardy as him."
"Lower your voice!" Kerna said urgently, gesturing towards the other side of the road, where two boys were sat, crouched conspiratorially behind a pair of large barrels. "One of those lads is his grandson."
* * *
Aston and his friend Henna peered over the top of the barrels and surveyed the busy village square.