Pulling his knees up to his chest, Bren tried to force away a bone-rattling shiver that shook his thin frame as he huddled beneath the bridge of some small Empire town. It had been a month and fourteen days since he fled from his home in Blumenthal, from what he had done and from… that man. Bren shuddered again, this time for a reason unrelated to the cold. He knew he shouldn’t linger in one place for too long but he was too tired to force himself to stand.
But when he wasn’t focused on staying off his radar and keeping himself alive, the memories took advantage of his lowered defenses and made sure he would never be rid of the taste of ash in his mouth. He could still feel the flames, the heat of that night burning beneath his skin like it belonged there. No matter how much he scratched at the scars hidden beneath his sleeves, he couldn’t escape the fire. Even as he fled town that fateful night, running blindly through the dark with no destination or belongings besides the clothes on his body and the fear coursing through his veins, he couldn’t escape the feeling of the flames leaving his palms or the screams calling to him to be set free.
The flashback-induced haze in his vision cleared abruptly when a hand gripped his shoulder, a round freckled face swimming into his view. He flinched, attempting to scurry backwards but found that he was already flush against the brick support of the bridge above him. The face’s mouth was moving, but Bren couldn’t make out any sounds past the rushing of his blood in his ears.
He shielded his face from his attacker, muttering a string of frantic pleas in Zemnian to be left alone. “B-bitte, es tut mir leid— Lass mich alleine, bitte.”
“Woah, woah, woah,” the high scratchy voice of the person in front of him finally broke through his panic. “Take it easy, kid. I’m not gonna hurt you or anything.”
Bren bit his tongue to put a stop to his nervous rambling, peaking past his hands to take a better look at his fearsome attacker— who appeared to be a halfling woman with a long brown braid over one shoulder, sporting a slanted toothy grin that he supposed was meant to make him feel less threatened. Her hands had released his shoulder and were now held in front of herself placatingly. Bren reluctantly lowered his hands away from his face, instead wrapping his arms around his chest tightly to keep from scratching anxiously at his arms.
The halfling woman’s smile dimmed, and she bit her lip in thought before nodding resolutely to herself. She took a slow step forward, arms still raised as Bren seemed to shrink further into himself as she neared. “My name is Veth, Veth Brenatto. I was just asking what you were doing out at this time of night; you’ll catch your death of cold.”
Bren jumped to his feet as Veth neared, backing away from her. “I… I was just leaving, actually. Danke, but alles gut.” His reassurance was undercut by the way he swayed uneasily upon standing, his lack of recent food or water making him lightheaded. His balance upset, he began to tip backwards but a firm pair of hands caught the front of his coat and held him in place. The short halfling woman was surprisingly strong for her size and had a determined glint in her brown eyes.
“Yeah, you certainly look ‘all good’ to me,” Veth drawled sarcastically, eventually releasing her grip on Bren once it looked like he was no longer in danger of passing out in front of her. “What’s your name, kid? Do your parents know you’re out this late?”
Bren smoothed out his coat where Veth had grabbed it, a lie slipping out on instinct. “My name is Caleb Widogast. Und I…” a flash of his burning home, the cart he had placed in front of the door shaking as frantic fists pounded to be set free before falling silent. “I do not have anyone waiting up for me.” At Veth’s raised eyebrow of thinly-veiled concern, Bren Caleb continued, backing away from Veth and out into the street. “But you are right, Frau Brenatto, it is late. Ja, I should be getting home. Danke, gute nacht.”
Caleb hurried away from the persistent halfling woman beneath the bridge, following a road he did not know in a direction he was unsure where it led. But he knew it was unwise to let someone get too close to him or ask too many prying questions, even a friendly-seeming halfling woman. He couldn’t allow himself to trust too easily; and if she was as well-meaning as she seemed, he didn’t deserve it. His intention was to reach another town, but he had only been walking for twenty minutes when he felt the exhaustion creep back over him and his vision began clouding over with dark grey spots. The adrenaline of the earlier encounter had faded and he would need to find a safe spot to rest again. Spotting an alleyway, he hurried into the darkness just as his knees buckled beneath him. He caught himself on the sharp metal rim of a garbage can, letting the pain give him the strength needed to make it into a more hidden alcove of the alleyway before collapsing fully. He pressed his hands to his chest, trying to ignore the sluggishly bleeding cuts he now had on both palms. He let his eyes slip closed, the brisk chill of the encroaching winter season doing little to cut through the exhaustion weighing him down.
“Going home, huh?” The sharp voice of none other than Veth Brenatto seemed to echo down the alleyway he was huddled in, and his eyes shot open once again. It was too dark for his eyes to make out Veth, but he could see her figure backlit by the street lamps, and it was that of a disapproving mother, her arms firmly on her hips and her foot slightly tapping in disappointment.
“Bitte, just leave me be. I am no concern of yours,” Caleb murmured tiredly.
Veth sighed softly and moved further into the alleyway. “How could I not be concerned about a child freezing to death in the middle of the night. Yeza says tonight will be the first frost of the season and is expected to be the coldest frost in years. You need a place to stay—”
“Nein, nein I am fine, thank you,” Caleb stammered, curling in on himself as his body betrayed his statement by shivering violently.
Veth crossed her arms firmly. “It was not a request, come on before we make Yeza worry more than he usually does.”
Caleb still didn’t know who this Yeza was but surprisingly, he found himself stumbling to his feet and following behind Veth, the strange halfling woman who he imagined wouldn’t take no for an answer; and he supposed he wouldn’t want to make this Yeza worry, whoever he was. They walked further into the town for a few minutes in complete silence, Veth walking in front of him, arms still crossed in a display of maternal displeasure, but glancing back every so often to make sure Caleb was still numbly following in her tracks.
They ended up stopping in front of a small apothecary, and Caleb waited anxiously as Veth rummaged through her pockets in search of a key. She pushed open the door once it was unlocked and stepped through, sing-songing shrilly, “Honey, I’m ho-oome!”
Caleb hesitated outside the doorway, flashing back to a different rustic home, the flames licking at the wood as his classmates watched on with morbid glee.
“You’re letting the cold in,” Veth chided.
Caleb took a shuddering breath and stepped in, closing the door softly behind him. Caleb followed Veth mutely through the building, passing the shop portion of the apothecary and unlocking a second door that led into the living area. A gentle-looking halfling man, even shorter than Veth, was seated at a workbench, working on some sort of potion. He turned around in surprise, miraculously not spilling any of the volatile materials he was working with. He left his work on the table and rushed to embrace Veth.
“You’re home! I thought something must have happened, but I know you’ve told me I worry too much so I thought I’d distract myself with some work. Did… did something happen?” Yeza asked in concern, glancing past Veth to take in Caleb, who was anxiously picking at loose strands of his coat and looking anywhere but directly at the halfling couple.
“Yeza, this is Caleb. He needs a place to stay for the night,” Veth moved away from Yeza and crossed the room to Caleb, gently placing a hand on his arm. “Caleb, this is my husband Yeza. He’ll make us some warm dinner while I get you settled in, okay?”
Yeza nodded enthusiastically, even though neither his wife or Caleb was actually looking in his direction. “Oh, yes! I had a stew in that is almost done, actually, and I’ll make us some tea, too. Be right back!” He hurried out of the room into what Caleb assumed to be the kitchen, as he heard the clattering of dishes being brought out of cupboards and a soft humming starting up.
Caleb was so entranced with domestic sounds he hadn’t heard in quite some time that he didn’t notice Veth had been shepherding him into a living room area, guiding him to sit down on a couch.
“The couch will be a bit short for you, I’m afraid— we haven’t had humans over in, well, ever. But I’ll get you some blankets and I’m sure it will be much more comfortable than that dirty alleyway you were planning on passing out in.” She hurried over to a closet and began pulling out an absurd amount of soft wool blankets, coming back over and pulling him up again. “One moment, Caleb,” she said as she smoothed down a bedding of blankets and pulled him back down again, tucking two more around his shoulders and leaving a stack on the end of the couch “in case you get cold.”
“Danke, but this is unnecessary. I can take care of myself.” Caleb attempted to sound confident, but didn’t shrug off the welcoming warmth and comfort of the blankets around his shoulders.
Veth carefully took ahold of his hands, which were still bleeding slightly from the cuts he sustained earlier. “Yeah, I can see that. Wait here.”
She scurried off in the direction her husband had gone and Caleb was left alone with his thoughts, which never worked out well for him. But despite his base level of anxiety, Caleb couldn’t find the energy to be too worried about his current circumstances. If he wanted, he could always sneak away after Veth and Yeza retired to bed. As he relaxed further into the couch cushions, he tried to convince himself that’s what he would do, even as his eyes slipped shut.