Jonathan is a king’s man. As was his father before him, and his mother too.
Some are made to rule, others to be ruled; others still, like him, made to serve the ruler. Burne is an ant, a minor pest made bold by inattention and misrule. While the king has been preoccupied, Burne has dared to snatch crumbs from the royal table. Like an ant Burne moves quickly and is difficult to deter, but he will crush him if he can.
The village is an annoyance, a few hundred farmers and craftsmen with the usual petty concerns: how much are my taxes this year, when will my son come home from war, should I sow peas or oats in the fields I have left. It is tedious, but he supposes at least they know their place. His men, frustratingly, are proving increasingly difficult to control; wandering eyes are becoming wandering hands and soon enough will be wandering feet in the middle of the night.
His lip curls – the old excuse. Far from home and no one would be the wiser. He has no wife to betray, but he respects himself more than to carry on with some dishevelled milkmaid, drunk on the fear of a foreign land.
He does not think about dishevelled elves, bold and laughing as they drag him through the brush.
The men bring him the bundle later, delivered via the tower’s teleportation circle. It had worked its way through gradually, inch by painful inch. It is a scarf, dirty and marked, holding 100 gold pieces. And bound into the knot holding it close, a note written in a child’s scrawl. The money is inconsequential to the riches he holds at home, so he orders it be dispersed to those most in need. His lieutenant raises an eyebrow at the unexpected act of generosity, but moves to carry out his orders.
Would this be what she wanted? He can hardly tell. When they first met she had struck him in the face, then escaped the cell he had thrown her into by turning into a rat. She was remarkably unattractive for an elf. He supposes he was not so handsome either. But in her expression he saw a resignation he recognised; the sign of a soul long dead. They are both buried under layers of endless rote, a life spent walking slowly along the line of duty and routine to the grave.
And what routine should he follow now?
Well, there is always patrol. He climbs the tower, looks out. Hills to the west, desert to the east. The unexpected world is full of promise and adventure and he is suddenly furious. How dare this land exist? How dare they be free? Don’t they know that they merely live to follow the king, to take their allotted place in life and serve, serve, serve, until there is nothing and no one left? Why should he want more?
His hands are gripping the parapet hard, the paper in his right hand crumpling. He had forgotten he was still holding her note.
SEE, it reads, NOT DEAD YET. It is nothing, but it is enough.