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Snow, thought Kherian, catching his breath. So much snow!
Varrock was a glistening white city, as though carved from ice. The heavy blizzard which had swept overhead during the night had left the trade capital of Gielinor covered with several inches of fresh, powdered joy. Now that the sun was setting, the sky falling to a delicious indigo blue, Kherian felt as though he’d stepped inside a painting.
Along the streets, couples walked arm in arm, wrapped up warm in scarves and heavy coats. Some walked with small children, who were often bundled in so much clothing they resembled little Christmas parcels with legs, tottering alongside their parents. Lanterns were being lit inside the building surrounding Varrock Square, casting a golden light over the snow, making it glitter as though thousands of tiny diamonds were hidden within.
The young boy was brought back from his thoughts by a snowball, which exploded across the back of his head.
"Hahaaa!" brayed Jonty, his best friend. Kherian whirled around to see him standing across the street, a grin spreading across his rosy cheeks. "I got you good that time, Kher!"
"We’ll see if you’re laughing in a minute!" Kherian called out, kneeling low to scoop up a handful of snow and pack it into a ball. Jonty giggled, ducked in anticipation... then made a break for it, looking for shelter behind the huge fountain which dominated the centre of the Square.
Kherian’s snowball caught him on the shoulder, throwing up a spray of white as it disintegrated on impact.
Jonty slowed, brushing his coat. "Only just. You were lucky."
"When you’re as skilled as me, you don’t need luck," said Kherian.
"Yeah, yeah. You’ll be a great warrior one day." Rubbing his hands together, Jonty walked over towards his friend. The sandy-haired youth was only wearing thin gloves, and Kherian guessed his fingers must be frozen by now.
"You bet." Kherian smiled. "How many coins have you got?"
"On me? None. I have to save all my pocket money for my little sister’s present."
"Wanna get some meat pie? It smells great. I’ll buy it."
"You?" Jonty gave him a curious look. "Where did you get coins from?"
"My aunty. She was convinced I was going to freeze solid out here, so she made me promise to get something warm. C’mon, it’s over here."
The two of them walked across the street towards one of the stalls, where steam was rising up the wooden beams and out into the winter sky. In the distance, Kherian heard the faint sound of music. A jingling of bells, and a flute, light and melodic behind it, accompanied a choir of voices rehearsing a carol. He smiled to himself, rubbing his nose with the back of his sleeve. "What are you smilin’ at?" asked Jonty.
"Nothing. I just enjoy Christmas, is all."
They reached the stall, where a kindly old woman wearing a woollen hat and a huge purple scarf stood ready with two wooden plates. Kherian paid, and she cut them two thick slices using a large knife. The aroma of spice and seasoning was mouth watering, and the boys accepted their servings with relish.
Jonty sat beside Kherian on one of the chairs set up before the stall. They blew on their pies, listening to the crunch crunch crunch of footsteps amidst the snow and the laughter of the children sharing in the magic. Kherian took a bite which almost scalded his tongue but tasted hearty and rich.
"I wish it was like this all year round," he said after swallowing.
"I don’t," said Jonty. "It’s too cold."
Jonty had been his best friend for as long as he could remember. The two of them had grown up in neighbouring houses, and were frequently exploring the city and looking for adventure. But for Jonty, the adventure stopped as soon as there was a risk of being caught up in something that could get them into trouble, or took them too far from home.
For Kherian, that was where the fun started.
Just as Kherian took another mouthful of pie, a snowball bounced off of his scalp. Raspy laughter followed, and he turned around to see a familiar face.
"Didn’t see that coming, did ya!" The brutish bartender’s son was a clear foot taller than Kherian, and almost twice the width. He wasn’t a bully, exactly, but he certain liked to throw his weight around to amuse himself.
"No," said Kherian, turning around on his stool as Jonty shot him a weary glance.
"Aww, don’t sulk, you big baby." Balek walked over still cackling. As he reached the pair of them, he put one of his big hands on Jonty’s head and ruffled hard.
"’Ey!" Jonty cried out, trying to pull away. "Leave off, you’ll spill me dinner!"
"Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise you two were such old women."
"Excuse me?" said a voice behind them. The stall keeper raised her eyebrows in accusation.
"Sorry, ma’am." Balek bowed his head, before turning away to hide his grin.
"We’ve been out playing all afternoon," said Jonty. "Where have you been? Tucked up in your father’s place scrubbing tables again?" He glossed over the fact that Balek’s father only worked at the Blue Moon Inn, despite the bully’s claims to the contrary.
"It’s been busy," said Balek, flicking at Jonty’s cold ear. "We’ve had a lot of people coming in out of the cold. A few adventurers in there as well." He turned his attention to Kherian. "Who was your favourite again?"
"My favourite what?"
"The mighty warrior you’re always talking about. How he’s so brave and everything."
"You mean The Raptor?" said Jonty.
"Yeah. He’s in my pa’s place right now." Balek stood up straight, puffing out his chest. "I cleaned his table."
Kherian and Jonty looked at each other as the words sunk in. The Raptor was Kherian’s hero. A mysterious figure with a reputation for fearlessness in combat, dedicated to eradicating evil wherever it was found. The bards sang songs of his battle prowess and yet spoke little of the man himself. Truth be told, there wasn’t much to talk about. Hardly anything was known about The Raptor. Not even his true name.
"He’s in your tavern?" said Kherian, excitement swelling in his chest.
"Aye. My father’s place is the finest esta-"
Balek’s sentence wasn’t finished before Kherian scrambled to his feet. He started running along the pavement, remembered he was still holding the old woman’s plate, and hurried back to return it to her. She smiled at him, and he gave a quick wave before sprinting through the snow towards the Blue Moon Inn, Jonty and Balek in hot pursuit.
He arrived a few minutes later, warm from the run. Athletic for his age, the other two were still further back down the street, unable to match his speed. A stray, grey-haired dog was running alongside them, barking at the chase. Kherian peered through the window, ducking down low to avoid being seen.
There, at a table only yards from the window, sat The Raptor. Clad in his magnificent armour, which seemed too thick and heavy for any normal man to wear, the figure commanded respect. It was evident that all in the room were making a point of keeping their distance, spread out around the inside of the tavern... all, that is, except for two. Beside The Raptor sat a strikingly beautiful woman with flame-red hair, an open book in her hands. In front of them stood a man dressed in a bright contrast of yellows, reds and golds, his dark hair and beard immaculately sculpted. He seemed to be giving a speech.
Jonty caught up, panting. "Are they in there?" he asked, wheezing.
Bringing up the rear, Balek’s heavy cheeks blew hard as he caught breath which steamed around his features. He turned around and shooed the dog away. "Thbbbbt! Get outta here!"
Kherian nodded in response to Jonty, examining the window. It was closed, but through the glass he could see that the latch had not been locked. An idea struck him. Digging his chilly fingertips into the bottom of the window frame, he tugged as carefully as he could. After a little resistance, the window complied, and Kherian opened a gap just wide enough for him to listen in. Warm air from the tavern’s fire swept out over his hand.
The brightly-dressed man was still speaking. "Can you imagine the songs they’re going to sing about us, when this is all said and done?" He span on his heel, bending at the hip, and spread his arms wide in a practise stance of great poise. "We’ll return with gold in our pockets and glory in our hearts!"
"Sit down, Ozan," said the woman, not bothering to look up from her reading. "You are being a nuisance."
"Sit down? How can I sit down when we’re on the cusp of another marvellous quest!" Ozan leaned back, pretending to fence with an imaginary rapier. "Oh, Ariane, just imagine the perils and the terrors we’ll face in the hostile lands we intend to roam. Not to mention the treasure to be found!"
"You mean the artefact," said Ariane, her voice calm but stern.
"Yes," said Ozan, rolling his eyes. "The treasure."
"No, the artefact," the woman repeated, finally turning her attention to her companion. "We are supposed to bring it back for study by the druids in Taverley, remember? You make it sound like you want to keep it."
Ozan coughed, laughing, his expression one of dramatic surprise. "Keep it? Perish the thought. I mean, despite the fact that such a magical item would probably fetch a large enough price to keep us all in fine wine and exquisite food for the better part of a year, of course I wouldn’t sell it."
Ariane smirked, turning a page. "You mean keep it."
"That’s what I said."
Shaking his head, Ozan ran a gloved hand through his hair. The mahogany strands fell exactly back into place as soon as they were released. "Well what about you?" he said, gesturing towards The Raptor, who had not moved an inch. "Surely you’re excited by the prospect of an intrepid journey?"
The Raptor said nothing.
"Oh, come on," the thief insisted, placing his hands on the fighter’s shoulder. "We’ll be sharing each other’s company for the next fortnight. You have to say something."
"Don't touch me," came the severe reply.
The Raptor’s voice resonated through the menacing visor like tearing steel. Ozan flinched, withdrawing his hand at once. After a long pause, Kherian was convinced there would be no further reply. Then that fearsome helmet swivelled ever-so-slightly, the raven feathers attached to the armour twitching at the disturbance.
"I'm only here for the demons protecting the artefact. Treasures mean nothing to me."
Ozan seemed rather offended by the comment, straightening his spine. "I'm not fuelled by greed. Well, not entirely. My reputation is built upon a love of adventure and the thrill of the chase." He grinned.
The Raptor turned his head again, resuming his previous position. "Worth comes in battle."
"Hey, hey, I’ve proven my worth a hundred times." Ozan tapped himself on the chest. "Ariane, tell him how worthwhile I am." "No," said Ariane.
The door to the street flew open with a loud creak. Kherian turned to see the innkeeper standing there, glaring at the three of them. "Clear off!" he yelled. "No kids on the premises!"
"We’re not on the premises," replied Jonty. "We’re on the pavement."
The comment was not well received, and the innkeeper took a menacing step forward. The three boys turned and ran across the street to safety.
"See," said Balek. "I told you he was there."
"Did you hear him?" asked Jonty. "He sounded terrifying!"
"Well of course he would, stupid," said Balek. "He’s a fighter!"
"Quiet," said Kherian. "I’m thinking."
The words came with such calm authority that the two boys complied without a quip or retort. They stood there in the street, the snow glistening from every rooftop and hedge, doorframe and signpost.
"I have to meet him," the boy said at last. Jonty and Balek looked at each other.
"He’s not exactly the friendly type, Kher," the former replied, glancing at the young girl leading three mounts along the road towards them. Their hooves clipped and clopped against the stone underneath. "I don’t think you can just go up to him and say hello."
"I know that, but it could be ages until I get another chance. How often do you suppose we’ll find him sitting in a tavern?"
"I dunno," offered Balek. "My dad’s place is quite famous."
Kherian looked up towards the swinging sign of the Varrock Sword Shop overhead. People were still walking up and down the street, and some more children their age had spread here to find fresh snow, untouched by the others still playing in the Square. "I have to do something to impress him."
A longer, sharper creeeeak came from across the road. The three boys turned as the door to the Blue Moon Inn opened again. The young girl had stopped with the horses, which were seemingly for the adventurers they had spied upon. Ozan came first, pausing for effect in the doorway with a long, drawn-out stretch. Ariane followed him out, with another shake of the head. Kherian guessed she made such a gesture regularly in Ozan’s company.
The Raptor came out last, surveying the street. He carried his great flail and his huge shield that , along with his colossal armour, must have weighed an incredible amount. Kherian noticed one of the horses was larger than the other two. "If you’re gonna do something, you’d better do it now," said Jonty.
Kherian looked around, panic settling on him. What was there to do? Dance in the snow? Cartwheel through it? People said that The Raptor was a hardened veteran of a thousand battles. What on earth could a young Varrock boy do to catch his attention? Suddenly, like the flash of a struck match, an idea came to him. Watching his own hands work, unable to say for certain that he was aware of what he was doing, Kherian knelt down and grabbed a handful of snow.
Jonty tapped him on the shoulder, biting his lip. "Uhm. If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, then I would stop thinking it." Ignoring the advice, Kherian formed the snow into a ball, which fit snug into his palm. Standing, he looked across the street at The Raptor, who had turned his back to adjust the stirrups of his horse. He felt his hand shaking as he took aim, poking at his bottom lip with his tongue.
Kherian threw the snowball and it sailed through the air as though time itself had slowed. Its flight took hours instead of seconds, and it would surely miss by several yards.
Then it dipped, and burst across the back of The Raptor’s head.
Within an icy city, the entire street froze anew.
Every single person turned and looked. Children stood and stared, open-mouthed. Adults covered their mouths and shut their eyes. Nobody dared move, as if the slightest motion would set off the catastrophic rage which was surely to follow.
After an agonizingly long moment, The Raptor turned with all the haste of a glacier. Despite the thick steel covering his eyes, Kherian could feel him scanning the street for his assailant.
"Who threw that?" he asked. The words carried the length of the street. When silence was his answer, the warrior spoke again. "I said who threw that?"
"He did," said a voice behind Kherian. The boy whirled around to see Balek pointing at him. Fear gripped Kherian’s spine with taloned fingers, his mouth growing dry and his bones turning to jelly.
This was it.
"Now, come on," said Ozan hurriedly, giving a weak laugh as the Raptor started to approach, striding across the road with fragments of snow dripping from his shoulders. "The kid didn’t mean anything by it."
The Raptor ignored him, drawing ever closer. Kherian stood before him, too terrified to run away. As the huge man –a giant! – descended upon him, Kherian locked his knees and forced himself to breathe. His mind was whirring, trying to find some way to make this better.
Coming to a halt before the boy, The Raptor towered over him. "Is this true?" he asked in that dreadful, metallic voice. Kherian, swallowing hard, nodded.
"Explain yourself, boy."
Despite his two friends standing nearby, Kherian felt completely alone. With his nerves frayed and his teeth chattering, Kherian stood up straight, stared up at The Raptor’s visor, and spoke as bravely as he could. "W-worth comes in b-battle."
The Raptor gave no response. The moment hung between them, thick and heavy, as though trapped in a bubble which would not pop. The rest of the street ebbed away, Varrock and Gielinor forgotten. For a few horrifying, wonderful seconds, Kherian and the Raptor were the only two figures in existence.
Then the warrior grunted. "Make sure you remember that." The Raptor turned and walked back towards the horses. Ariane breathed a sigh of relief from atop her horse, just as Ozan slapped his face and exhaled.
"Merry Christmas!" Kherian called out. The Raptor ignored this, marching back across the road, but Ozan laughed brightly and waved. "And to you, boys. Be grateful you survived to see it!"
As the three adventurers rode away towards the city gates, Jonty slapped Kherian across the arm. "You dolt! You nearly got yourself stomped into the ground!"
Kherian laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. "I guess I did, didn’t I? Well I keep trying to tell you that I’ll be a great adventurer one day!" He patted Jonty on the shoulder and walked past him, grabbing a nearby bin-lid. Turning to face his friends as he back-pedalled along the street, he growled in a display of playful ferocity.
"C’mon, I dare you! Dare you face the mighty Kherian?"
Jonty and Balek looked at each other, as though considering the possibility that their companion had gone mad. Then they laughed, and rushed forward to chase Kherian back towards the Central Plaza, yelling and jeering all the while, their heels kicking up flecks of snow to be scattered into the cold night air.
Author: Ben Hennessy