Hamelin woke up with a sluggish yawn. At his headrest, Wither was curled up in a little ball, still snoring gently. He took the time to study it closer, inspecting its form as well as their bond with one another.
The night in the Purple Palace had been an illuminating experience, one that had shown him another side of his little sidekick. It had refused his command and transformed itself, instead of retreating into safety, leading it to receive an attack from the alchemist.
The result was nothing less than remarkable. Hamelin had only experienced magic a few times, but he understood that it was a powerful force that was not easily neutralized — at least if the stories he read were true. Yet, somehow, that was exactly what Wither had done, and more; reflecting the attack back on master Jorn with an unexpected ease.
Niling… that’s what he called it, he thought to himself, caressing Wither with his index-finger. He had read all the books in the study, and none of them made any mention of something like this being possible.
I’ll have to ask. Nodding to himself, Hamelin stood up and got dressed. The incident a week ago had been excellent cover for him to focus on his nocturnal activities, but he could not pretend for too long, or his family would grow suspicious.
With a mental command, he ordered Wither to hide above the loose planks in the ceiling, and stepped out of the room.
After finagling breakfast in the kitchen, he found his father in the study, flipping through what looked like account books.
“Father,” he said, announcing himself. The man turned in his seat, looking over his shoulder and gave a grunt of recognition.
“You’re up,” he said, matter-of-fact, “How’s your head?”
“It’s fine, thank you.”
Lord Whitter nodded and turned to his books. Before he could shoo him away, Hamelin stepped closer and said, “Father, can I ask you a question?”
“I’m very busy Hamelin. I will answer one question, then you must go see to your studies.”
Hamelin took another step forward, close enough that he could see his father’s facial expression. “What’s a niling?”
For a moment, lord Whitter’s flipping motion stopped, and surprise flashed across his face. Without looking in Hamelin’s direction, the man said, “Who did you hear that word from?”
“Some of the servants,” Hamelin explained, trying on his most innocent look, “They sounded scared…”
Sighing, lord Whitter turned to his own son, scrutinizing the strange child. “You shouldn’t listen to gossip, Hamelin. These… nilings, as you call them, are merely stories. They are nothing for you to worry about.”
“But what are they?”
“That’s enough. I said I will answer one question, and I have. Now, go attend your studies.” The tone was stern, and Hamelin recognized the note of impatience. Swallowing the cheeky remark on his tongue, Hamelin bowed his head and left the room.
Since no one expected anything from him, as the idiot of the family, Hamelin did not exactly have any ‘studies’ to see to. Instead he drifted down into the courtyard, where he found a shadow in which to sit and think.
His father’s reluctance to even entertain the question was telling in and of itself. The dark expression on his face had also spoken volumes. The only other time Hamelin had seen his father react like that, had been at the dinner when the Inverse had been discussed.
Linking the two based on a mere facial expression was a stretch, but Hamelin’s instincts told him there was a connection. What it was, however, he had little to no idea about. Though he would like to know the answer, Hamelin had more pressing matters than a small mystery.
He was about to go through the plan for the coming days in his head, when a voice broke his concentration.
“Your head alright?”
Looking up, Hamelin gave the impression of being startled, although he had sensed the interlocutor approach. Heston stood looking down at him, hands on hips and a furrowed brow.
“I-I’m fine,” Hamelin said, eyes darting to the sides, then down on the ground. Heston knelt down in front of him, placing a hand on his shoulder. Hamelin tried to move away, but his brother caught him in an iron grip.
“Hamelin, look at me.”
He was tempted to show just an inkling of his strength, but resisted the urge. Slowly, Hamelin raised his eyes and looked up at Heston.
“Look, I’m sorry about the blow, alright?” Surprisingly, the older boy’s eyes were soft, “I just wanted to scare you a little, not hurt you. You’re too timid, Hamelin; that won’t do when you’re out in the real world.”
“What do you mean?” Hamelin said, shrinking his voice to a bare whisper. Taking the role of a scared child was not hard, but it did grate slightly on his nerves.
Heston dropped his head, sighing. He then released Hamelin and took a seat next to him, biting on his lip. “Mother told you, didn’t she? About her family.”
“She said grandpa is mean to us.”
“He’s not mean, exactly. Just… indifferent.”
“What does that mean?” Hamelin looked up, widening his eyes and displaying all the naivete he could muster.
“It’s not easy to explain…” Heston sighed and took up a stick and began drawing in the dirt by their feet. “I saw him once, you know… our grandfather.”
“What’s he like?”
“Cold,” Heston shook his head, and kept up the scribbling in the dirt. “Mother didn’t even try to speak with him; she just curtsied and kept her head down.”
“Didn’t he say something, then?”
“No he did not. Walked right by without as much as looking in our direction. I didn’t know who he was at first, and so I thought nothing of it; not until Wayne told me afterward.”
Heston shook his head, as if he was trying to throw off the memory, “In any case, because mother was originally of a higher rank, those above us in the peerage wants to make sure we understand our place. Wayne has had to constantly prove himself above reproach because of it, and I’ve been forced to fight in duels where I had to make a show out of losing. Mosel has come out unscathed because of Mage Correl’s tutelage, but you, Hamelin? What do you have that can save you?”
Hamelin let his eyes glaze over, as if he had not even understood half of Heston’s monologue.
“Arh forget it… You clearly don’t understand, and therein lies the problem. An idiot like you have no way to protect yourself, and because of you, we will all be thought lesser of.” Heston stood back up, his fist clenched tight. He looked down at Hamelin with a conflicted expression, but in the end, he closed his eyes and turned his back.
“If only you weren’t born,” Heston said, his voice a hoarse whisper. Then he stomped off, leaving Hamelin alone, who looked after his brother with eyes narrowed to slits.
Once Heston had disappeared into the manor, Hamelin stood back up, eyes still narrowed. He did not enjoy being talked to like an idiot, but the ruse was helpful in diverting attention away from himself.
Soon, though, he would not need to rely on the resources of the Whitter house. Once he had secured the underground in Tremon, he just might grant Heston his wish, and perform a disappearing act so thorough that he might as well never have been born into their lives.
His face twitched, as the image of his mother’s weeping face appeared in his mind. She would mourn him, of that he was certain.
And what of it? She’s human… they are sentimental creatures.
He shook his head, trying to rid himself of the image. It would not go. He turned and struck the tree he had been sitting beneath with his fist. Even with his inhuman strength, his knuckle barely made an indent in the rough bark. The pain helped relieve him of that annoying image, though.
“Are you alright, Hamelin?” An innocent voice said, nearby.
Hamelin turned and faced his youngest brother, Mosel, who stood nearby, chewing on his lip. Worried that he might have shown something out of character, Hamelin quickly hunched his shoulders and looked down, saying, “I’m f-fine.”
“You don’t look fine. Did Heston say something to you again?”
He hesitated for a moment. Deciding it was best to run with Mosel’s interpretation of events, rather than make something up, he nodded his head.
Mosel closed in and put a hand on Hamelin’s shoulder. With clear, blue eyes, the boy said, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. I know what it’s like.”
Mosel nodded and said, “I was the youngest before you, remember? Heston used to play pranks on me, even back then. He doesn’t know any other way to show that he cares.”
“He cares about what?”
“About you, silly. And me, and Wayne, of course. He cares more than he lets on, but he just doesn’t know how to say it.”
Sighing, Mosel sat down by the tree and patted the seat next to him. Hamelin sat back down and looked expectingly at his older brother.
“It’s not easy being the second born, Hamelin,” Mosel said, looking up at the wide sky, “Heston has to prove himself while being compared to Wayne all the time. Should something happen to Wayne, it is Heston who would have to shoulder the responsibility of our family’s estate, and he’s afraid that he will not be able to live up to the task.”
Hamelin studied his older brother closely. It was quite an insightful analysis, coming from a nine-year-old, but perhaps he should have expected it from such a deep thinker as Mosel. He had been tutored from a young age into becoming a powerful mage, a field of study which required profound knowledge on the nature of reality — even with only his cursory knowledge, Hamelin understood that much.
“I see,” Hamelin said, projecting the image of someone who understood nothing at all. Mosel smiled and patted him on the head. “As I said, don’t mind it, Hamelin. I’ll take care of you.”
Furrowing his brow, Hamelin met his brother’s eyes. “You’ll help me?” He asked, unsure of what his brother could possibly gain from helping him.
“Of course. I’m your older brother, right? Wayne is too busy learning how to run the household, and Heston is focused on becoming a warrior, so it falls to me to help you out. That’s what brothers are supposed to, after all.”
Brother…? Hamelin shook his head. He could not understand this human sentiment of helping those who clearly were just a burden. He had used it to his advantage, until now, but that did not mean he understood it.
“In fact, take this,” Mosel said, digging through a pocket in his jacket and retrieving a perfectly round and clear, crystal marble. It had a small hole running through it, allowing for a leather string to knead through its center.
He handed the trinket to Hamelin, who looked from it to his brother with a confused expression. “What’s this?”
“Mage Correl showed me how to heat up sand so fast it becomes like this. Neat, right? It took some attempts to get the technique down and avoid all the impurities, but in the end I think I managed pretty well. I was going to give it to mother, but I think you need it more than she does.”
“Why?” Hamelin looked it over from every angle, but found nothing noteworthy about the marble. It was a small orb, nothing more, nothing less. What use could he have of it?
“It’s a promise,” Mosel said, raising a finger.
“That’s right. It’s a promise that I will always be there to help you, Hamelin. If you find yourself in a trouble, one day, just send me this crystal, and I will come find you. No matter what, you understand?”
Uncertain what to do with such a flimsy promise, Hamelin gave Mosel his best smile and said, “Thank you, Mosel.”
“My pleasure, little brother,” Mosel said, and helped Hamelin fasten the trinket around his neck, “Now, let’s see if we can’t find something you’re good at.”