Howard had been gone six months this time- far from his longest trip, but a decent enough spell to clear his head. He spent more time away than at home, and that was the way he liked it… for the Blythes were the most miserable family that any bastard could think to be born into.
Every moment at the homestead was a trial for Howard. The charade grew tiring, the never-ending challenge of pretending to respect his “family” while they scorned and rejected him. It wasn’t his fault that his mother was born before wedlock, thereby forfeiting the right to bear the so sacred name of Blythe. And Howard himself, the lowborn product of sin, couldn’t even dream of sharing a table with the Family. But he was still human, wasn’t he? And their blood relative regardless. He didn’t deserve their ire.
Howard emerged from the forest bordering the homestead and marched reluctantly to the manor. He ambled through the farmland, distracting himself from the diplomacy ahead of him. His mother Cassandra was working the soil, drawing crops from the earth with her worn hands. “Hello mother,” Howard called as he passed her.
“Dark news to follow,” she murmured, not seeming to notice him. “He will come from the forest, and we will all answer for our crimes…”
Cassandra could have been a scholar before the Blythes took their share. There was a natural intelligence behind her green eyes, and a strong will governed her soul. But years of being told she was tainted for being born too early… that takes a toll on anyone. And after the unfortunate incident of Howard’s own conception, her mind had started to leave her. The Family was kind enough to leave her in charge of the farm, a task fit for a simpleton… not for pay, of course. She was lucky enough they let her stay.
Howard moved on. His mother was not in the best place at that moment; he would talk to her when she was fit to reciprocate. He continued to the house and cautiously peered into the family room, hoping for a moment to gather his patience. But the gods would not grant him peace on this day; Isadora saw him at the doorway and beckoned him in.
Isadora was married to Edmund, the eldest natural-born child of old Sebastian Blythe. She married into the family but matched their disgusting arrogance so naturally that it was easy to call her Blythe. Howard had no fond memories of his aunt- no, not his aunt, she would never tolerate that sort of relation. She was just Isadora to him.
“When did you get back?” she snapped at him.
“Just now. I was going to get settled.”
“Don’t bother. Percival and Walton need their dues, then you’d best go see my husband.”
Isadora had never been anything but transparent about her feelings toward Howard. He still remembered a time as a child when he was foolish enough to call himself Howard Blythe. She dispelled that idea too quickly: “Bastards don’t have family names,” she had told him without emotion. “You’re just Howard.”
Just Howard nodded respectfully and bowed out of the room. Isadora was not worth worrying about, just a failed mother who should have paid more attention to her own little monsters. All of Howard’s cousins were morons, but Edmund and Isadora’s wretches were unhinged morons.
In the lobby, Howard rummaged in his pack, withdrawing four lockboxes and placing them on the immaculate floor. The smallest, labelled farm, he set on a table for Edmund to find. Poor Cassandra tended the many acres of farmland with no complaint and little help, yet her brother collected all the profit.
The Blythes were only farmers on paper. Although their lands had always fed the local villagers and kingsmen (for a price), agriculture was merely a front for much more illicit, and profitable, ventures. Of course, with so much contraband to move, Edmund Blythe needed someone dispensable who could still be trusted. Howard was their reluctant distributor, travelling sufficiently far to sell weapons to bandits with impunity. Blythe Banditry, they were called, for this family had no flair for subtlety.
Howard stacked the last three lockboxes in order and headed down to the basement. He navigated the rows of storage and moved to the back wall, where he felt around at waist-level for the spring button. As his fingers settled on it, the wall slid open and a staircase beckoned him further down.
In the secret distillery, flames crackled and bright liquids boiled softly in flasks. The gentle brews in this dark room were another heart of the Blythe empire. The Blythes brewed alcohol, sure. Yet their operation was hidden for the unique qualities that composed their brews. Blythe beverages were imbued with potions and poisons, and everyone knew it. Their toxic concoctions allowed horrible people to commit heinous acts, yet every tavern in Parada carried their unassuming products.
As Howard delved deeper into the distillery, he heard hushed voices coming from the back. Passing more rows of intricate glassware, he saw his cousins Landon and Rosabella, 15 and 18, sitting close together on a workbench. They both seemed to be poring over a pocket-sized journal, which they each clutched tightly, and whispered to each other. Howard approached the unaware siblings, and he caught a few of their phrases: “Tonight,” Landon mumbled, “beneath the bridge…”
“Good morning,” Howard greeted them, startling the duo immensely. Rosabella scrambled off the workbench and pocketed the book, and Landon jumped to his feet. Without saying a word to him, they walked briskly past Howard the way he had come. “Where is your father?” Howard called to them, but they refused to acknowledge his presence. He shrugged, and placed the lockbox labelled brew on the workbench. Soon he heard footsteps coming from the stairs, and Percival Blythe entered the scene.
Percival was the youngest of Howard’s uncles, yet his blond hair was the first to lose its color. As the youngest, Edmund Blythe had put Percival’s branch of the family in charge of brewing operations.
“There you are, kid,” Percival grumbled. He snatched the lockbox and pried it open, gazing ravenously at its contents. He counted the gilded coins and sighed, throwing the box down in frustration. “That’s a light payout,” he spat accusingly.
“I had trouble selling the latest batch,” Howard explained. “Our vendors claim the drops are dilute.” Maybe keep your dumb children away from the brew, he almost said.
“Whatever.” Percival pretended to be interested in a funnel, listlessly twisting its valve. “You better go find my brothers. And Orion’s been missing you, dumb child that he is.” Howard accepted the swift farewell, and briefly made his exit.
As he passed the kitchen, he heard his aunt Meredith arguing with her daughter Theodora. “You are not opening a bathhouse!” Meredith screamed. Another argument fit for this well-adjusted family.
“You told me that everything I own has a value, and everything I want has a price!” his cousin shouted back.
“I wasn’t telling you to whore yourself! We’re better than this!”
They really weren’t, Howard thought. Theodora was the dumbest of the lot, and also the least like the Blythes. She had their green eyes, but inherited dark hair from her mother. Imagine father Walton’s dismay when his only child was a dim-witted girl with the look of a bastard. At least Howard could pass for a Blythe; he had their blond hair. If Theodora wanted to forge her own path through prostitution, it might be the peak of her achievements. Howard hurried past the kitchen before the women could entrap him in their argument.
Howard left the house and climbed the hill looming over the Blythe lands. Had their ancestors not settled down next to the densest silver mine in Parada, the Blythes might still be in the dirt where they belong. As he ascended, he heard a low rumbling from the slope above him, and he knew the worst of them was coming. Sure enough, Edmund’s eldest, Luciana and Lysander, crossed Howard’s path on their descent. They were accompanied by a large silver construct, the source of the rumbling. Charon the silver golem was Lysander’s bodyguard, a humanoid lump of silver given artificial life. Charon was blessed in that he had no real emotion or thought; he didn’t have to understand nor care about the Family’s bullshit.
Lysander sneered at Howard as they passed. “Look sis!” he laughed. “Our best-paid slave is back from his vacation!”
Lysander was the eldest son of the eldest son, making him the heir to the Blythe fortune. Edmund Blythe had spent 22 years trying to groom his son to be in charge, but the dumb shit wouldn’t learn. Lysander had always known he was uniquely “special” in that someday he would be able to boss around his entire family- the kid had always been miserable to the others as a result. Yet ever since he had started his homeschooling, Lysander had been spouting nonsense about how he was the “hero of the story.” Edmund had been sending him and Charon off on tasks more often, but Howard suspected he was merely trying to get them off the homestead for a spell.
His sister Luciana was no better. She wore the mask of sincerity well, but Howard knew she was dangerous. Luciana was 24 years old, but had already been married four times- the first when she was 16. With no other redeemable skills, it was her job to marry into wealthy families and secure a hefty dowry- then, after a brief honeymoon, the groom would go missing and his grieving widow would take all. Edmund had no qualms about selling his daughter again and again, but Luciana took part with glee. Howard had to admit she frightened him. Even now, she was planning a fifth wedding to a rich lord in Regalon.
Howard hurried past them, and reached the top of the hill where a small nook in the earth sloped downward into a cave. This was the Blythe Silver Mine, but the stone crannies hid a greater secret- the heart of Blythe Banditry. Howard found a particularly dusty corner of the cave and traced his rune signature in the dust. The cavern crumbled, and an alcove opened up.
In the weapons forge, uncle Walton was finishing up a silver crossbow, engraving the handle with the logo of Blythe Banditry. His nephew Orion, Edmund’s youngest, watched nearby. Walton was perhaps the coldest of the siblings, so it was only fitting that he would take charge of weapons operations, placing weapons in the hands of Blythe’s personal clan of bandits.
“What took you so long, fence?” Walton sneered. Howard handed him the lockbox labelled weapons without saying a word- he knew better than to feed into Walton’s vitriol.
“Howie!” Ten year old Orion squealed. The brat scrambled over and hugged Howard. He pretended not to be repulsed. “Did you bring me anything?”
“I’m afraid not,” Howard replied, trying to sound disinterested.
“Are you forgetting something, bastard?” Walton glared, looking at the final lockbox. Part of Howard’s duty was to take the family’s stolen goods halfway across the mainland where they could be sold in a place where no one would recognize their missing possessions. The fourth boxed contained their meager earnings from the garbage they’d pilfered from the town.
“Your cousin works so hard to pick pockets in Losanghosville,” Walton lectured. “Won’t you give him a share in that coin?” Orion did contribute most of the stolen product, but he was sloppy- he took too much from everyone, he was clumsy and careless. The child was caught more often than not, but he would persist regardless. Still, the little monster felt entitled to a few coins each trip for his “hard work.” Howard tossed them his way as appeasement.
“Please excuse me,” he said cautiously, backing out of the cave, “Edmund wanted to speak with me.” Howard left the cave and hurried back to the manor. He was nearly done making his rounds. He headed to the study, where he knew the patriarch of the house would be waiting.
Edmund Blythe was an intimidating figure. He didn’t look like much, just a man in his forties with hard eyes and no smile. Yet this was a man who could bury someone so completely that no one would even bring up their existence again. Howard had never felt anything but fear and loathing for his uncle.
“Close the door, Howard,” Blythe commanded. He complied in silence. “How was your journey,” he spoke- it was not a question, but a demand for information.
Howard knew better than to engage in small talk. “All product was sold in Ebongate for 879 GD. That’s roughly one hundred less than expected. Vendors noticed that we diluted the brews, but I salvaged the situation.”
“Good enough.” The two sat in silence; Howard did not dare speak first. Finally, Edmund continued. “More batches are ready. When would you like to depart again?”
This was a tricky question. Of course Howard would love to leave immediately, but he couldn’t seem too eager. Moreover, he knew Edmund already had a plan for him. “I will leave whenever you wish,” he decided was a safe answer.
“It’s not so simple.” Edmund looked at the ceiling unsettled, which made Howard equally perturbed; he had never seen the man shaken before. “You know my mother has not seen many visitors. For the past week, she has requested to see your mother every night.”
Eleanor Blythe had moved up to the attic when her husband Sebastian passed and Edmund took over as head of the house. She was a crueler, more terrifying woman than any Blythe, and few of them dared to visit her whenever it could be avoided. She worked the loom day and night, always spinning tapestries that adorned her walls… tapestries with no designs, only names, dozens of names inscribed in rows, among them the name Sebastian Blythe. Who could guess why she did it? Walton believed they were cursed, that every name in the cloth was a poor soul Eleanor had doomed. Percival claimed the loom had a power, that every soul she named was contained in the cloth.
And now Howard was told she had taken an interest in Cassandra. He understood why Edmund was concerned. “What does that imply?” he asked tentatively.
“Your mother has not been well for a very long time. I’ve tried to quell her dazed ramblings, to no avail. She’s delusional at her best, manic at worst. Yet whenever she returns from the attic, she is as clear as any of us.
“She tells me that Eleanor is stitching a new tapestry. Day and night she toils, adding new names to the cloth: Eleanor, Edmund, Walton, Cassandra. Apparently she just asks Cassandra questions while she works. She asks Cassandra what she’s been dreaming about. Howard, have you talked to your mother yet?”
Howard remembered what his mother had said: Dark news to come. Was that a consequence of Eleanor’s meeting, or the cause? Did Eleanor believe her daughter was prophetic? “We haven’t spoken yet,” Howard lied.
“I don’t know what my mother is after,” Edmund continued. “I’m not on the best terms to ask her. Yet I fear that dark times will come for our family. Howard, do you know why I’m telling you this?”
Howard noticed his uncle’s word choice: our family. That couldn’t be good. He shook his head.
“You’re smarter than the rest. You can see the writing on the wall. You can go back out with more product, or you can stay here a while longer and help me save this family. For once, I’m giving you an honest choice.”
“Why do you need my help?” Howard didn’t feel like he had a choice at all; he wanted only to be on the road again, but that option seemed like an illusion.
“I have a plot, a plan to test the true nature of my mother’s tapestries, and in doing so, reveal to us what the threat is. My plan has the added benefit of putting Losanghosville and its lands in our pockets. But I can’t execute it alone, and I certainly don’t trust my children to do it.” Edmund felt in his pocket, and withdrew a silver token inscribed with the logo of Blythe Banditry. He handed it to Howard, almost respectfully. “You are a Blythe too. If you save this family, you’ll have a greater role in this business than any of us. Dare I say, you’ll be the hero of this adventure.”
“I… I better see what I can learn from my mother.” Howard clenched the token, and ran from the room before Edmund could stop him. Damn him! He thought he could manipulate Howard with talk of family. He lost that leverage through twenty five years of disrespect. Howard had already made up his mind. He would explain everything to his mother, then be on the road at sunrise. If the Blythes were all dead when he returned, all the better.
Cassandra was still in the field when Howard found her. “Dark days, bright nights, poison on the floor,” she whispered.
“Doomed,” she continued, “all of them doomed. Death to the brash one, death to the bride.”
“What does that mean?” Howard pleaded. Suddenly, she seemed to notice him.
“My son,” Cassandra mumbled. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Mother, what did you mean when you said there was dark news to come?”
“Death is coming for this family,” she said, now alarmingly conscious. “I’ve seen it in my head, over and over. I don’t know when, but it comes shortly. Death to everyone… save one. Yes, I… I’ve seen it every time. One Blythe will live.”
The token in his hand now felt very heavy. “How could you know that?” he asked gravely.
“Always one gets away. Every vision, a different Blythe. I don’t know who the survivor will be, but there will be only one. Howard, it could be you.”
“I’m not a Blythe.”
“Of course you are.” She took his hand and raised the token to his face. “You are the son of a Blythe, and you can’t escape that. Run if you like, that won’t excuse you from the fate that will befall us.”
“So what if I stay? How do I know I’ll be the survivor? Couldn’t it be you?”
“Not me,” his mother murmured sadly. “My fate is set. Nor the heir- he must die every time. It could be you, though. Could be.” Her eyes seemed to glaze, and Howard realized her moment of clarity was passing.
It could be me, he thought. Howard imagined what it would be like to be the last Blythe, the only Blythe. He would burn the manor down, to begin. He would take his silver token and turn the name Blythe into something meaningful, something pure. With his family’s fortune backing him, Howard could accomplish something positive.
And all he had to do was wait. He could lie low, stay apprehensive, and go along with Edmund’s plan. Just play your part, he told himself, stay safe, and he could be the survivor. Yet so many Blythes seemed to know more than he did. Eleanor spun her cloth, the children whispered over journals, and Edmund was hatching a plan to take the village. Did they truly know what was coming, or were these coincidence? No matter, Howard would finally outscheme the Family.
It’s funny, he thought. Moments before, he was prepared to leave again. That was before he learned his family might all die. If only one may survive, why shouldn’t it be him? Would he rather it be Isadora, Walton, Lysander? Of course not. He would have to take part.
“The deliveries will wait,” he said aloud. “On second thought, I’ll stay a while longer.”