Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Forest Fire

Featuring artwork by Rengin Tumer

 
     The volcanoes were perfectly white. The sheer sides, both inside and out, were as plain and bright as chalk, and the air grew cooler the deeper into the crater they moved. Zara had gone on to scout ahead, searching for a way out in one direction while Dane and Nergui looked in another. Zara was, after all, a little more accustomed to these places than either of the others were, and if any of them could survive alone, it was her.
     Nergui's shoulders tightened as her foot left the final step from the staircase cut into the side of the rock, and looked again across the crater she inexplicably found herself standing in. This whole situation went beyond every rational response in her body. Descending into a volcano to escape the heat outside it? It was ludicrous.
     But should she really be so surprised? Every realm so far had challenged everything she'd ever learned; 'normal' had a completely different meaning in these lands - if it had a meaning at all. But at least that meant there was no lava where she stood, nor sulphur, steam, nor ash. There was only solid rock, and a number of equally white tunnels cut into the far side.
     Dane stepped forwards and gave her a reassuring tug on her elbow. She did her best to loosen her shoulders as she followed him, but her anxiety wasn't so easily moved. But, as long as her feet were, it would do.
     She'd tightened further by the time they reached the far side, and stared at the four circular tunnel entrances without any kind of clue. Eventually, Dane moved forwards and chose one, Nergui suspected, at random, but without Zara's keen eye, there was no better method for selecting their way forwards. So, she followed him as unwillingly as she had at every other turn, and tried to keep her thoughts focused on what was needed rather than wandering onto frets she could do nothing about. But, as ever, the effort to steer her mind away only leaded it directly onto what she'd wanted to avoid.
     "You're thinking about him again, aren't you?" Dane asked softly as they moved into the tunnel. "Your father?"
     She managed a pitiful smile. "I never stop thinking about him." The fact that he'd noticed was enough to kick her attention firmly onto their surroundings, and she noticed at last that the perfectly cylindrical tunnel was far too bright, so far from the opening.
     Her black eyebrows knitted together as she peered at the stone a little more closely, then held her palm just an inch away from it. Somehow, it was giving off a light of its own. A number of things went through her mind, and she took a careful step away when the word 'radium' lodged itself at the centre.

    The next thing she noticed in a desperate attempt to distract herself were the clusters of black flowers growing in spots across the ceiling, but she saw quickly that they, too, were stone. Otherwise, there was nothing at all to see.
    "Are you sure we won't find the tree here?" She asked, trying to draw her thoughts away from further impossibilities, and glanced towards Dane as he nodded.
    "It only grows in the sun. Here," he looked over the tunnel while his dark, mottled skin creased into a wistful frown, "nothing grows but stone."
   Nergui followed his gaze towards the approaching exit as she pondered the likely truth of that statement. "Do you know why Zara needs it?"
    "What makes you think she'd tell me?" He smirked almost helplessly, then gripped her with a brief but assured gaze. "She's been here for centuries. She knows what she's doing. If she says it'll help you find your way back, or help us find a way to help you find your...way back..." He forced aside his own frown of confusion and smiled simply instead. "Trust her."
     "I'm trying..." She tightened again, shrinking her height closer to his, and glanced up at the weight of his hand on her shoulder. His comforting smile, however, faltered when something else caught his eye.
    She followed his frown towards the exit and saw, in the forking chamber filled with a dozen tunnelways beyond, a robed figure standing almost as still as a statue, so tall and slim, it was as if his body had been stretched.
    "Another one." Dane tried to shift his tone into something more positive. "Think it'll be as benevolent as the last?"
    "Or," she murmured, "as wretched as the three before that."
   They couldn't stay in the tunnel, not if they were to find a way out. So they braced themselves and continued, watching the motionless figure closely. His face first appeared to be densely shaded by his hood, until Nergui reasoned that he was far too dark for that. Her uneasy suspicions were confirmed when she noticed the edge of his skin flickering like an unstable void. His robe seemed to be all that was giving him any shape.
    Then eyes coalesced. They were his - its - only features.
   "You shouldn't be here." The voice boomed from somewhere else, and ricocheted through the chamber.
     Nergui battled to find her own voice, but Dane spoke up before she could succeed. "We don't want to be," he said as calmly as he could, "we're looking for the hartscale tree, we just need to find a way out--"
    "You won't get it from me," it rumbled. But there was a strange look in its eyes - eyes, Nergui noticed, that were fixed entirely upon her. And had been since they'd appeared. She had no hope at all of reading what lay behind them. "But..." the look intensified, "I won't stop you from finding it. There is no need."
     "No...need?" Dane asked while Nergui fought against shrinking back from that stare.
     The flickering being seemed to shake its head. "No need." Then its eyes disappeared as suddenly as they'd formed.
     Dane sent her a brief look before peering back at the blind thing as politely as he could. "We'd be out of your way sooner if--"
     "No need." Then the being vanished altogether.
    "Well," Dane sighed, looking instead across the array of branching white tunnels, "I suppose that could have gone worse." And again, he chose a path at random, and the pair walked on.
     They travelled in silence until movement on the stone-flower wall just steps ahead of them tore a gasp from Nergui's throat, and two rich, violet eyes opened and stared back at them from the stone - or, rather, a rocky projection from the smooth, uniform tunnel that looked almost like a six-legged lizard, the same size as herself. The pair moved on far quicker after that, and stuck closer to the middle of the path.
     They followed a handful more tunnels and made the crossing over another cold, white crater when the world finally began to change.
     "Is this it?" Nergui asked, brushing back her long, black hair as she stared ahead at the sunset light pouring in from the end of the tunnel, bathing the monochromatic world in wonderfully warm colours. "The edge of the realm?" But she found a strange look on Dane's face, itself now brushed by the golden light - a look that, for once, did not reassure. And yet he moved forwards anyway without a word of answer.
     Nergui couldn't bring herself to even mutter under her breath, and followed him out rather than be left behind among creatures she couldn't see.
     And discovered the crater beyond alight with metallic golden flames.
    Astonishment froze them both, watching the gold writhe up across the white, mountainous walls around a lake of cold, silver magma. It took them a long moment to notice that the fire gave off no heat at all, despite the black scorches across the rock. Instead it was the thundering collapse of the volcano itself that came to dominate their attention, along with the squealing, howling alarm of animals they'd never noticed but could now certainly hear. Things they'd thought were stone flowers or outcrops in the other craters moved in a panic and opened their vibrantly-coloured eyes of lilac, crimson, yellow and blue, and it seemed, in that horrific moment, that all the colour of the realm was held in the eyes of its beasts, and in the flames that now destroyed them.
    "We have to do something," Nergui declared in a tight whisper, though she had no idea at all of what.
    "Yes," Dane replied, and gripped her wrist with a strong hand. "Run the other way!"
    "B-but--they--"
   "I know, Ner," he told her emphatically, even as he pulled her back down the tunnel, "but there's nothing we can do! We'll just get ourselves killed!"
    He was probably right. She didn't like it, and he probably liked it even less, but he wouldn't have suggested such a thing if there was any other way. So she gritted her teeth and gave in to his urging, making back towards the chamber of tunnelways. But as they stumbled out into the next crater, they found another swathe of raging golden fire.
     And the tunnel behind them filling with the first.
     Fear raked its way through Nergui's muscles. It was only Dane's effort to push her - probably more gently than it felt in her shock - towards the wall of the volcano that she finally escaped the grasping reach of the flames at her back, and they ran with eyes fixed solely to the wall-cut stairs. They staggered and stumbled their way up, snatching glances towards the stone-skinned creatures falling around them with the crumbling rock, and she soon noticed, her fevered eyes dragged by every scream, the bursts of colour that rose from the flame every single time one of the creatures fell or was overrun by its reach. Red, lilac, yellow, blue, pink - exactly the same variety as their eyes.
    Her mind was snatched away from the abstract pondering of periodic elements when the steps beneath her rushing feet shook and shattered. She didn't need to hear Dane's warning, nor voice her own, but they both yelled it anyway, and let another surge of adrenaline propel them forwards and block out the useless knowledge that the higher they went, the worse it would be if they fell. They barely managed to stay ahead of the collapse.
    And yet still Nergui managed to stall for a foolish second in fascination as a glimpse of the next volcano over revealed that, not only was it already far worse off than theirs, but that the silver magma at its centre was roiling, too - and there were new shapes and colours emerging.
     "Move, Nergui!" Dane shouted ahead of her. "What's wrong?!"
     If he'd spotted the same, it hadn't interested him. Not enough, at least, to risk his life to watch. She pushed on without wasting time on apology, and settled instead on another rapid glance as she scrambled to keep up.
     The magma was almost leaping onto the burning creatures; wherever the flames changed colour, the magma was drawn, and it was where the magma receded that immense swathes of green were left behind, and bolts of light leapt from its depths.
     But there was no more time to marvel than that brief second. The collapse was beginning to overtake her.
     She scavenged as much energy as she could to move faster, but her heart leapt into her throat before she could use it. She and Dane both plummeted with the rock, falling with boulders as small as their heads and others as big as a house. How none of it struck them, they would never know, nor how they managed to land in this crater's far smaller pool of magma rather than the solid, bone-crushing floor.
     Even against its comparative softness, pain was the first thing to seize her senses, and the second, mercifully, was the numbing coolness that stole it away. Even before she'd shaken off her daze, she was fighting her way through the surprisingly thin liquid to the surface, where she took the biggest, sweetest breath she ever had before.
     Dane was already hauling himself out at the edge when she reached it, and the both of them choked and dragged their heaving chests back into a normal rhythm. When Nergui finally looked down at her hands, expecting to see gloves of molten silver, she found instead metallic patches shrinking and vanishing over almost bone-dry skin. She wondered to herself, as her heart sped up and almond-shaped eyes widened, what mercury poisoning would feel like.
     "Nergui..."
     Her attention snapped up, and she found Dane staring wide-eyed around them at what remained of the volcano. She gasped despite her lungs as she followed his gaze.
     The golden fire had vanished, and the fragments and debris of the walls had become large, white hills, covered in the lower reaches by the same green that sprawled beneath them now, closer to moss than grass. Orange flowers sprouted in thick clusters, rendering the moss a warmer hue, and creatures of pure light leapt and sprang around the lake of glittering silver, yipping and chortling in joy.
     Truly, in that moment, the crater looked as though it had always been that way.
     Nergui shook her head to herself as she stared around it, and a knot tightened in her brow.
     "After all that destruction," Dane breathed, "this is what happens?"
    "I was going to ask you..." Her slanted eyes narrowed as a thought burrowed in. "Sequoias won't grow without a forest fire... Maybe some awful things need to happen to make room for something new..." She felt Dane's eyes flick towards her. She knew what he was thinking. Because she was thinking it, too. 'Maybe that's what's happening to me, stuck in these realms...'
     But she didn't say it.
     Nergui pushed herself to her feet while Dane rose in equal silence beside her. "Come on. We'd better go find Z--"
     "Thank the gods you're both all right!"
     Their attention fired up towards the top of the highest hill where a dark figure stood, waving a bow above her head.
     "Come on!" Zara shouted as they grinned in relief. "I've found a way out!"
    "Does it go where we need it to?" Nergui called back, but even from that distance, she could see Zara had simply shrugged.
     "Who knows?"
    She smiled and shook her head while Zara turned and set off behind the hill, and forced some confidence into her bearing. "Won't know until we get there, I suppose. Come on," she turned Dane the best smile she could, "let's go find this tree..."

 

Words by Kim Wedlock, art by Rengin Tumer.
All characters, and the concept of the Netherrealms, belong to Rengin Tumer.
This story and its artwork is not to be reproduced without the permission of myself or Rengin Tumer.
The artwork is available to purchase as a print from Rengin Tumer.




Wednesday, 30 September 2020

To Defend and Dissuade

     The scattered clusters of silver and purple sang gloriously against the drab stone and tattered standards of the courtyard below. These were not the chequered tents and pennants of provinces, but the united colours of Queen Madeleia, and it was among them her soldiers massed, clearing ash and debris to build forges and workshops. The fortress had been conquered just that afternoon, and, once prepared, it would be the ideal staging ground for the next attack against the Barbaric North.
     But, while the soldiers toiled under the eye of the lesser commanders and the dying winter sun, there was nothing more that Sir Pecheran of Montaria could presently do to further their goals.
     So he turned from the tower window, huffed and rubbed his cold hands together, then pinned them beneath his arms. "Where is Sir Gacharan?" He asked as he rejoined the other knights gathered around the glowing hearth.
    "Fortifying the outer walls," answered Belechar of Eiderstag before draining his mug. Not a drop rolled down the grizzled man's chin. "With Alestír."
     "Alestír?" Pecheran felt the blood drain from his face. "He's here?"
     "Arrived this morning."
     Rozilig the Grey shook his head to himself, fingering the Lord's talisman that hung around his neck while Pecheran returned, ashen-faced, to his stool. "I don't like this. It grates. It feels...underhanded. The very existence of that heathen's magic is an affront, and to use it is--"
     "The prerogative of the queen's champion." Lord Welden cast Sir Rozilig a condemning look from where he leaned in thought against the cold stone mantle, immediately silencing his discontent. "Sir Eckter the Silver is our commander. We follow his commands. We do not question them. Queen Madeleia appointed him, and we owe Her Majesty and her consort our unwavering allegiance."
     "But we are knights, my lord," Rozilig dared. "Does such a method of war not sit foul with you?"
    "Certainly does with me," Belechar muttered. Then he cast a weathered eye from the depths of his hood towards the others. "Have you seen his powers?"
     "I have," Ethelred of Treleian said darkly into the depths of his tankard. "I've seen him unmake the steel of armour and melt the knight alive inside it."
     "Don't you mean melt the steel around the knight?"
     The look he sent back to Sir Pecheran was even bleaker. "No."
     "I've heard things." Rozilig leaned forwards, pulling his cloak tighter about himself against the chill, and turned a grave look across them all. "He twists and unmakes the made. He is no illusionist. What he does is...it's real. Even when impossibility and the laws of our Lord say otherwise...he does it. He turned the air to water and drowned the front lines of the Saxi'ans--"
     "No," Belechar shook his head, "he removed the air entirely. There was nothing in its place."
     "That isn't how the matter went," Lord Welden declared, but Pecheran's alarm was already pressing him on over him.
     "But how?" The knight demanded of the others, managing at least to control the unease in his tone if not his eyes. "How can he do this?"
     "He's bound to something unholy," Rozilig sneered, "of that, there's no doubt at all. He makes a sound, like a guttural chant, a demonic hymn - it's wretched, whatever it is. His voice shudders the earth and bleeds the ears."
     "His voice?" Belechar frowned. "I thought he'd bottled the throat of a demon..."
   "It's unnatural, whatever it is," Ethelred muttered to himself, refilling his mug with the ale appropriated from the fortress's looted stores. "But it comes from his own lips, I'm sure of that much."
     "But is that not the incantation alone? Where does his mastery of it come from? There are stories that he eats the bones of the vanquished to rejuvenate - surely that cannot be true..."
     "Why not?" Belechar asked, raising Pecheran's concern that little bit higher. "A demon's heart sits in place of his own. Perhaps that's how he keeps it beating. And that foul heart is explanation enough, is it not?"
     Rozilig growled. "By the Lord's rights, it is. What other cause could there be for someone being able to boil the eyes of a man in his skull just by looking at them? Or to carry the strength of fifteen men in one hand alone?"
     "And charm even the fairest and most chaste woman into bed."
     No one missed the note of jealousy in Belechar's voice.
    Then Ethelred frowned. "If he has the strength of fifteen men in one hand, how can he love her without crushing her?"
     "It is unfitting," Lord Welden announced in a calm yet destructively authoritative voice, putting an end to their rumourmongering, "for Knights of the Realm to speculate. Alestír is the Champion's ally, and if he deems the man's arcane to be necessary, he is well within his rights to use it. And you forget, in your ignorance, that the Lord would not allow such a power to exist if it truly came from the heart and soul of a demon. The man would have been smote down at birth."
     "Then why does he have it?"
     "Because," Welden replied frostily, "the Lord permits it. For the good of the Queen, the good of our lands, and the good of our people does He permit it."
   Pecheran blanched when he caught Belechar mutter beneath his breath: "That's a convenient argument."
     But then Sir Rozilig spoke up, and turned the austere commander an open look. "Do we truly need him?"
     His steely gaze didn't brush him. "It is not our place to decide."
     "No, but it is your place to advise. My lord, the Northerners are slow-witted! We don't need sorcery to overcome them, whether the Lord allows it or not! We are far more adept - we could defeat them with one arm each tied at our backs!"
    "Sir Eckter the Silver wants him," Lord Welden continued just as rigidly, "and if the queen's champion wants him, he will have him, and he will use him. It is not your place to question it, nor is it mine. I trust our commander's judgement, and the Lord's guidance over him." Against possibility, he straightened even further and raised his chin even higher. "Perhaps you should worry instead about your men, and your honour. Do not strike fear in yourselves over your enemies - real or imagined - or you will lead all of us to graves dug deep into foreign soil."
     "That's giving the Northerners too much credit." But the grizzled, hooded knight turned his eyes away from the scathing look the lord finally lanced him with.
     Then the creak of the old door sent a flash of white panic through everyone's bones, feet were leapt to, and swords rang free of the scabbards kept habitually in reach. The man that stepped inside, however, didn't seem to notice.
     Sir Pecheran frowned as he returned his blade, and approached Sir Gacharan carefully. He was pale - even the orange glow of the fire couldn't cast any colour into his cheeks - and his eyes were wide. Haunted. Terrified. As if he'd been shown his own heart after watching it be surgically removed from his chest.
     "Gacharan," Pecheran said while the others stared on, some sheathing, the rest too unsettled. "What's happened?"
     His half-glazed eyes focused onto them from the distance and he stopped mid-stride as if stunned to see them. His voice, when he finally found it, trembled.
     "He fortified the walls..."


This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission.
Copyright © 2020 Kim Wedlock



Saturday, 5 September 2020

The Calling


     The long, flat drone of a horn ricocheted across the frozen, rock-studded landscape. Even in the throes of sleep, there wasn't a doubt in Katriga's heart that it was for her.
    She was out of bed in an instant, startling the little red dragon that had been curled up at the foot, and ran out through the door before he could even peep in surprise. Nothing but the gods themselves could have stopped her as she darted through the house. She didn't pause to snatch a breakfast, nor even call 'good morning' to her family - and the idea of actually waiting for them was as far from her mind as the fresh coat of paint on the front door.
    But they would come. They had to. The Calling was the most important day of her life.
    Somehow, despite being no bigger than a week-old kitten, Mogar managed to catch up before she was half way across the village, and the tiny little dragon took his place on her shoulder as she ran for its boundaries and out to the frosted valleys beyond.
    The Calling. Yesterday, Kat had turned eighteen and experienced the Kúkhulænn in all its painful glory, besting every challenge her clan presented - even if the challengers had all been the better part of drunk. But she had to admit - to herself, never out loud - that she was still a little sore from those duels that morning. She'd been in no fit state to stretch when it was finished, and even now she felt nauseous. She didn't believe for a moment that it could all have been nerves. Whatever trial awaited her out here, she knew she wasn't going to pass it with flying colours...
    But the night had been worth it, and today would be even better. Once she'd answered her ancestors' call, the world would open up before her, and she would finally be able to travel!
    Kat couldn't suppress the grin on her face as she tugged at the straps of her new plated fists, and her boots pounded harder over the ground.
    A chill wind chased her across the jagged valleys, just as it harried the rushing rivers and bent the creaking pines. And ahead at last, where the rough-hewn ground finally levelled out, guarded by ancient standing stones and shaded by bowing trees, stood a single, perfect, grassy mound.
    Only with the barrow firmly in sight did Kat finally slow down. Winded and dizzy, her excitement carried her ahead of it all. She barely noticed the crowd gathering a short way behind her; there was only the dense, heavy weight of a dozen presences ahead.
    Her breath caught in her throat when she understood what she was feeling, and her blood-red eyes flicked across the barrow in a fever, searching for...well, she wasn't really sure what for. A clue, she supposed. Because she'd arrived at the source of the horn blast, which itself had long since faded; she'd answered the call. But nothing at all was happening.
    She blinked and looked down at her feet. Perhaps she was too far. She took a few steps and stopped again.
    Nothing.
    A knot tightened in her brow. Was she supposed to wait? Or maybe say something? But what? And what if she said it too loud and angered the spirits? Maybe she was still too far - maybe she was supposed to knock? But knock on what?
    Maybe that was the clue. Perhaps she should go in.
    She gasped at a sudden hand on her shoulder before she could take a step, and Mogar snapped and puffed his own fiery little warning. But her head snapped not towards spirit or draugr, but the clan shaman - though he was a startling sight, himself, painted as he was by tradition. But the look he gave her stifled any other sound her anxiety could shape, and he suggested, in his usual muted gestures, that she calm down, and breathe.
    So she did just that, albeit with tremendous effort; closing her eyes, she smothered the fire in her heart at least until her hands stopped shaking, and came at last to notice something else laced into the air.
    Chanting. Voices. Not those of anyone she knew, and yet she knew them better and more deeply than her own mothers'.
    Then drums joined them, a slow, reiterating pattern that grew stronger with every cycle, shaking their way deeper into her bones until her heart beat in time with them.

     The crowd gasped, and Mogar peeped in startlement as he plummeted to the ground where Katriga had been standing just a moment ago.

     A sudden harsh, salty tinge wrinkled her nose, and her eyes opened to a raging twilight sea.
    Kat swore and staggered backwards from the precipice, stumbling until she crashed to her rear, her heart hammering in her ears over the roar of the wind. It took a long, stunned moment before she dared to crawl forwards and peer over the edge to the swirling white crests below. Her heart lurched even higher into her throat.
    She stole a look behind her despite the certainty that the edge would creep closer if she took her eyes off it. The peninsula was probably no bigger than the hall of the jarl, her mother, but it was uneven, and half of it sloped enough to send her tumbling into the sea. Vertigo made her equally certain that she was already falling.
    Her fingers dug into the hard earth until, slowly, she pushed herself up. With a deep breath, she grounded her feet and looked around. A fjord opened a ways back behind her, and the mouth of the river opened up to the sea, with other rocky, tree-topped towers scattered in between. The sky above it was purple, streaked with long wisps of cloud, and the sea below stole a great deal of its colour for itself. But it was nowhere she knew. And, she suspected, nowhen.
    "What..." She had no idea what her own question would have become. This wasn't what she'd expected. Anything could happen when one was Called, it was true - but she'd expected to fight, not be abducted...
    It wasn't until a voice sent a tremor through the ground that she realised she stood alone.
    "Katriga Ormslíkir."
    She managed not to slip as she spun around to find it. "Yes?" She could see no one at all. "Where--"
    "You seek to travel," the voice boomed on. It sounded like an accusation. "To leave your ancestral home. Your roots. Your people. What do you expect to find out there that should be worth leaving your family?"
    Dizziness forced her to stop spinning, but she was given no chance to answer.
    "You have reached your eighteenth year. You have answered our Call. And now, you will be challenged."
    She wasn't sure if she should feel relieved at that or not, but at least something was happening now. 'Show respect, don't argue, and succeed.' That was the best advice she'd been given the night before, among plenty of worse, and some she couldn't think for a moment would ever have been applicable. But as simple as even those words were, it was the best she had, and she would heed them to the letter.
    Kat straightened and placed her fist over her heart. "I'm ready."
    In that moment, all colour bleached from the world as a fog closed in. It consumed the sea, the fjord and the very precipice in a heartbeat. She fought against taking a single step backwards in case the edge had moved after all, but the cloud thickened quickly, pressing in, smothering, seeping into her very lungs.
    And then, as alarm began to creep up her spine, she saw a shadow moving through the veil. Then another. And another. Five of them circled around her, vanishing and reappearing in the depths of the fog, until one of them broke from its path and lurched its way towards her.
    Here was her fight.
    Her fist tightened. She had no weapon but her plated knuckles - but that was just fine.
    Before the shape could fully coalesce, she drew back her arm and loosed a rapid hook. The shadow shrieked, its voice distant and muffled, and staggered backwards leaving a trail of grey in its wake. Had she hit it? She hadn't felt her fist strike anything...
    She was given no time to think on it before a second closed in.
    "You can punch me," the same ghostly voice rumbled through the ground, "kick me...and cut me...but always...without blood or weapon...will I march back upon you."
    She could barely spare a moment to curse, let alone comprehend the threat, and continued to lash out as, one by one, the shadows attacked, retreated with a hiss, and lurched their way forwards yet again.
    "What...am I?"
    'Riddles?!' But her immediate answer remained firmly behind her teeth. It wouldn't agree with showing respect. She continued instead to fight them off, growling against their unearthly snarls, channelling her frustration into her strikes. But for every one she repelled, another fell right back upon her. And every blow yielded nothing but that same grey wisp.
    Doubt quickly set in. Her fists had never failed her before - but she'd never fought things like this before, either. She couldn't even be sure that any blow was actually landing or if they weren't dodging backwards at just the last moment, trying to wear her down before setting upon her in earnest. And if she was hitting them, and those shrieks were shrieks of pain, it didn't seem to be doing a damned thing to stop them.
    And the fog helped nothing, disorienting her as each shadow vanished and reappeared after every attempt. How many were there? Really? She'd counted five at first, but was that just a trick? Were there more? Less? Or were there others waiting just out of sight, and each strike she made defeated one entirely, only for it to be replaced by another from uncountable ranks?
    Kat's boot slipped on the frosted ground and a startled curse barked from her lips. She grounded her feet again and stopped herself from spinning. But the assault continued from all sides.
    They were tireless, unstoppable; always they closed back in. And as for what they were, how was she supposed to know?! And how was she supposed to defeat something that didn't bleed?! It was as if they were made of the fog itself!
    The thought struck her so hard that the momentum of her punch overtook her.
    Perhaps they were made of fog. And how was fog overpowered?
    'It isn't...'
    Her teeth clenched as her fist passed through another misty figure. It was a chance. But if there was no substance for her fist to hit...maybe they had no substance to hit her with, either...
    With a deep breath, Kat lowered her arm and loosened her fingers. The shadowy figures slowed to a prowl and watched her through the cloud. The deep voice came again: "What...am I?"
    "The fog."
    The creatures slunk back into the grey. Then, slowly, the haze began to lift.
    Katriga released an unsteady puff while the voice reverberated again, quite without a note of congratulation: "Not everything can be fought. Not everything should be fought. Some things will only drain your energy and leave you exposed when a true danger arises. Learn to observe and reason, and trust that some things will pass on their own."
    But, as the last of the fog evaporated, an earth-rending roar shook the pinnacle and seared fresh alarm into her heart. And towering flames swarmed all around her.
    She spun around, shielding herself against the heat of the crackling flame, and found herself staring into the seething ruby eyes of a dragon. Its great maw cracked open, and another roar bellowed free.
    Instinct alone burst a matching roar from Katriga's own throat. Her boots grounded, she stared the great creature down, and it rightly shrank away. But before she could attempt to approach it, another roar gusted against her back, and the ground blazed in another wreath of fire.
    She staggered away, cursing colourfully, and watched between barred arms as the second dragon ignored her entirely, snapping its maw at the first and swiping at its answering bellow. And she found, despite all rationality, something almost familiar in that first colossal beast while it stood its ground just as stubbornly as she had - familiar enough that she felt a sudden surge of rage when the attacker's talons raked across its face.
    "I am as small...and as light...as a feather." She heard the voice perfectly clearly even over the fury and flames. "But the strongest man...cannot hold me for long."
    Her fists tightened again, though she had no clue what she could possibly do, and dove forwards to try to help the smaller dragon.
    "What...am I?"
    Even in the scuffle to avoid the teeth and talons of both beasts, her mind had just room enough for a thought. But it couldn't possibly be Mogar, could it?
    "Wrong," the voice boomed, and the dragons continued their fight while she scurried about between them, thrusting her fists against the attacker's scales. "You are thinking...about yourself..."
    'Thinking about myself? While trying to defend this massive thing?!' And then another thought tumbled in. 'Not everything can or should be fought...' So she should do nothing?
    Another roar rent the air, and the burning ground shook with an advancing step. The smaller dragon inched backwards, and for a moment she caught the briefest flash of fear in its eyes. A dragon rarely showed such a thing.
    She couldn't do nothing.
    So Katriga threw another punch into the attacker's hide with another draconic roar of her own, then another, and another, until she noticed her footing begin to slip. The ground was thawing. A snatched glance behind her revealed the crumble of the edge - and another to the side that the attacker was losing ground far more rapidly than its victim. If it kept breathing fire so furiously, it was going to make itself fall off.
    When the smaller dragon roared its hatred and retreated another step backwards, Kat moved in. She ran around the larger dragon, punching against its impenetrable hide, making a nuisance of herself more than anything, if the thing had even noticed her. But she ran and struck anyway, doing all she could to draw its attention. A sharp flare of heat across her back suggested it was working.
    Flames followed her in spurts and bouts, and the ground beneath her feet continued to soften, crumbling stone continued to fall, until, at last, the beast's great wings unfurled and it took to the sky with a frustrated howl of defeat.
    "What," the voice came again, "am I?"
    She stole a moment to breathe as she watched it go, then turned back towards the smaller dragon and held her hand out towards its burned muzzle. She smiled as it pressed back against her palm. "Fire," she replied, and with a rumble of approval, the dragon pulled back, spread his wings, and lifted off with a single powerful beat.
    "Some weapons are double-edged," the voice intoned as the surrounding flames began to thin, and the pinnacle ceased its collapse and began instead to rebuild. "Learn when to press on them, and when to hold back, or you risk undermining your own efforts and carrying yourself to defeat."
    She watched the dragon vanish among the thickening clouds above, smiling after it even while she considered the words. It was only when a chill prickled at her cheeks that she looked back to her surroundings and found, once again, that the fjord, the sea and the edge of her cliff had vanished in another thick fog.
    'No,' she thought, 'not fog...' It was too white, too cold. Then something small and wet struck her cheek. She lifted her fingers to it, then saw another land on the back of her gauntlet and spread from a small white speck to a single, crystal drop. Snow.
    Kat looked up and around herself while more flakes brushed her cheeks, and watched the cloud grow denser. Little grey discs drifted through the air for as far as she could see, growing gradually larger the higher she looked. The chill, too, began to bite, and she pulled her clothes tighter before squinting at a grey shape in the distance.
    'Again?' A growl slipped through her numb lips, but she prepared for the assault anyway, gritting her teeth against the cold, and fought her mind to focus. Slowly and steadily, the shape drew nearer. And, unlike the last, clearer. Something that looked like enormous antlers rose from the top of its head, and the pad and click of feet through the snow numbered four. 'Caribou?'
    She inched backwards as a face formed clearer through the cloud. Caribou didn't have tusks. Nor, she noticed as it continued its approach, claws. Her fists tightened, but movement to the left drew her eye as another beast appeared. Then another.
    By now the snow was thick, and visibility had dropped to mere feet, but the creatures kept coming. Something about their slow and steady pace unsettled her, and she boomed a great draconic roar towards the first to frighten it off. It flinched and hesitated, but the second was undeterred. The first soon resumed.
    She spun and roared again towards another, and it, too, faltered in fear. But the hesitation was shorter than the last. And more had since appeared.
    "As two...as five...as seven...as nine..."
    She spun and backed away as six antlered, fanged and clawed beasts slowly closed in around her.
    "Without a face...the voice shouts loudest... Without identity...the heart rings strongest."
    There were too many of them, and yet not one of them was attacking. A chill moved up her spine as confusion spun her around even faster. 'Why aren't they attacking?!'
    "What...am I?"
    'What are you, what are you...think, Kat, think!' She stamped her feet, in part to warn off the creatures, in part to warm her legs. But the cold was already seeping in. 'Fog, fire, snow. One, five, nine, loud voice - wind, snowflakes.'
    "Snow!" She shouted, making towards a break in the approaching wall of antlers.
    "Wrong."
    The wall closed before she could reach it. The creatures slowed further and clustered around her. Tusks drew close, and furry muzzles sniffed at her face. Mouths opened and chewed at her clothes. She stiffened, more than prepared to strike back, but still not one of them touched her beyond the warm gust of a snort through their noses.
    The knot in her brow tightened. They weren't attacking. They weren't attacking, because she wasn't a threat. Not while there were so many of them...
    Her gaze passed over those gathering further out. It was a whole herd of the things. Some were huddling together, looking at her but making no attempt to get close and investigate like the rest. And there were smaller ones, younger ones, bouncing around without a care. Because they knew they were safe...
    A tentative smile tried to tug at her lips, but doubt kept it at bay.
    "What...am I?"
    The young beasts bounced and bleated. Finally, her smile came through. "Family."
    The creatures didn't turn and leave. The snow didn't relent, the wind didn't fade. The chill continued to bite.
    Her frown grew deeper, until the deep voice rumbled again. "Community. ...But 'family' will suffice." On that cue, the animals moved on and continued their migration, paying her no more than a final, cursory sniff as they passed.
    "Accept and embrace the people around you. Strength comes from within, it is true, but together, that strength can move mountains and protect things far greater than yourself."
    The cloud and snow vanished, and Katriga found herself standing back on the pinnacle with the fjord behind her, the purple ocean crashing against its foot, and the sky touched again by only a few wisps of cloud. The air felt almost warm. She closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of comfort. Whether she was built for the cold or not, it didn't usually come on so suddenly.
    But she started in fright when she opened her eyes again and found a figure standing before her, one that flickered between a ghostly woman and the dried husk of a draugr. But she didn't raise her hand towards it. Instead, she bowed with her fist over her heart. When she rose, more spirits stood behind it.
    "Be sure of yourself, Katriga Ormslíkir," the ancestor said in the same booming voice, one that still seemed to originate from everywhere and nowhere. "Be sure of your choices, and do what needs to be done. Take strength in your hands and wield it. But don't shun the help of others - among your kind, or the world beyond. It will be a lonely, dangerous place if you confine your trust to your clan alone. And," the draugr's lips peeled back into a crooked smile, "Mogar doesn't count."
    "Mogar!" The thought struck her before she could even try to mull over her words. "What of him? The prophecy said--"
    "'Upon whence your kin is born of dragon's blood, so shall this creature bond with them'." The ancestor nodded sagely. "The prophecy said what was needed."
    Kat's face screwed up in dissatisfaction. "That's not really an answer."
    "And yet," the ancestor flickered back into a ghost and gave her another crooked smile, "it is the absolute truth. Patience, Katriga."
    She was about to protest when she felt something strange pass over her, and fought breath back into her stunned lungs. "What was that?"
    "A boon. Fortitude. Luck and awareness on your travels, wherever they might take you." The ancestor stepped forwards - it was one step, she was sure it was one step, and yet it covered the length of the seven or so strides between them, and her cold, dry hand was suddenly pressed over her heart. "Live well, Katriga."
    Then the world went black.

     A startled squeak turned immediately into excited little peeps as Mogar swept back up onto Katriga's shoulder, and she blinked back towards the barrow. Trees had replaced the sea, standing stones the ancestors, and the fjord, as she whipped around, with a crowd of people, her family beaming among them. Her youngest sister Ragna was the only one who hadn't yet turned eighteen, and she stared back at her from their side with a mixture of fright and blazing fascination.
    When her mothers, Skurta and Jarl Thorhalla, stepped forwards and embraced her, the rest of the crowd burst into cheers, and she felt the tension in her ribs finally ease.
    She'd done her clan proud.
    And now...now she could chase adventure...

 The following story was written for Brooke, who owns all the characters and their histories.
This story is not to be copied or reproduced without both mine and Brooke's permission.
Words copyright © Kim Wedlock



Saturday, 22 August 2020

It's Just Business


   "An escort job? Who?"
   "Not 'who'. 'What'."
   A crease formed between Taria's eyebrows as she looked from the contract to the humourless man behind the desk. "All right, what then?"
   "No idea."
   "That's not really good enough..."
   "It'll have to be," the man replied, then squinted through his apparently disinterested demeanour to regard once again her sun-kissed skin and almost inhumanly angular features. She didn't flinch from the stare. "Where did you say you were from?"
   "I didn't. Nor," she handed the contract back with a deliberate smile, "do I take on illegal jobs."
   The man's eyebrows rose. "A mercenary with a moral code, how about that. Well, there's nothing here to knot up your precious sensibilities. It's a historical thing of one kind or another - acquired and sold by above-board means."
   "'Historical thing'? A relic? Books? A statue?"
   But he only shrugged. "Couldn't tell you. It's going to Jarl Marland in Kora." He moved out from behind the desk and walked towards a map pinned up to the wall, covered in so many old pin holes that some of the settlements had been completely eradicated.
   She studied where his finger struck it, a city to the north east, then traced her own finger along potential routes from Reyviin. "Three days," she deduced.
   "Two and a half, at most."
   "Demand?"
   He shook his head. "Landscape. So?"
   She pursed her lips while an errant summer breeze slipped through the window and brushed her short, red hair over her eyes. "Fine," she said eventually. "I'll take it. For a hundred and twenty krona." She didn't need to look to know the man had turned red.
   "A hundred and twenty?! This says--"
   "Ninety. I know. I can read."
   "B-but i-it's a small job--"
   "And 'historical things' are valuable." She turned him another deliberate look. "And when the clients are so tight-lipped, that tends to mean they're even more so. Which means the road may not be quite as smooth as it could be."
   His already squinted eyes narrowed further, and he opened his mouth to speak.
   "And I can't help but notice," she continued before he could, "the date on the request, and the fact that the request is still here. If you fail to get it to him in the next four days, the contract will expire and you won't see a penny of it. Am I right or am I right?"
   Words she didn't catch were grumbled under his breath. "Fine. Hundred and twenty." He shoved the contract back into her hands and stormed off behind his desk. "Get out."
   Taria grinned and left.

   "Hold here, Ten," Taria told her horse, and peered up at the fine house standing regal near the more manicured of the public gardens. A frown creased her brow. Historical research paid this well?
   She shrugged it off and dismounted at the gate. No one was around to guard or greet her, so she went ahead and wandered up the path and knocked at the door. The man that opened it was old and humourless, and didn't say anything beyond "courier?" before closing it again and marching off. Apparently, she wasn't permitted inside.
   Muttering his lack of manners, she satisfied herself instead by peering in through the window beside it at the array of trinkets and valuables on open display. She whistled in astonishment. It was just as well she was above thievery. This place was just begging to be looted.
   Taria darted back when she spotted movement inside, and the door was quickly snatched back open. The stiff old man gave her what she assumed to be a disapproving look, then stepped aside and let a younger man out instead. Again, no words were exchanged when he closed the door.
   Taria sneered after him, then turned her attention onto the new fellow who she found staring back at her, wide-eyed. He couldn't have been more than twenty, but it was as if he had never seen a woman before. He flinched when she smiled, and offered her hand. "Taria."
   "E-Edred. Edred. Lord Ingar's apprentice." He shook her hand nervously. Then stood there, staring at her again.
   She nodded slowly, then looked to the package in his arm. It was large, probably about two and a half feet long, but it didn't seem particularly heavy. "Is that it? What we're delivering?"
   "Wha--oh, yes, yes it is." And then he stared again.
   She smiled uncomfortably, then turned on her heel and led him away. "You have a horse?"
   "In the stables," he hurried along behind her, "yes."
   "Good." She took Tenebris's reins and gestured for Edred to lead the way, which he did with a strange, hurried shuffle, as though he wasn't moving at all from the knees up.
   Far from her surprise, they barely spoke at all along the way, and once they'd mounted up outside the city walls, the silence quickly began to prickle. Taria wasn't inclined to endure it. But then, she never had been. It was only out of courtesy for his clear discomfort that she'd restrained herself for the last fifteen minutes, but it was rapidly becoming more than she could bear.
   "So you're an apprentice," she said before she could stop the words from tumbling out, and gave him as friendly a smile as she could while he looked back at her with wide, startled eyes. "What does that mean?"
   "O-oh, uh, yes, well, uh, you see, every few years, Lord Ingar takes on one aspiring historian and teaches them his methods. Then, when they've advanced far enough, he'll write a referral to the Fellowship of the Hiso--"
   "No," she chuckled, "no, I know what an apprentice is. I mean what do you do? For him?"
   "Oh!" He managed a meagre chuckle, himself. "Well, I organise his work..."
   She continued to smile patiently. "...And?"
   "...And learn the processes he works by..."
   "...And you do your own research in between?"
   "Uh, no, I-I help him with his - organise his files, check for errors, corroborate his connections, strengthen them where they need to be, collect what he needs from libraries..."
   She couldn't keep the frown at bay for much longer. "You do none of your own work? At all? It's all his?"
   "Mhm!" And he sounded proud of that.
   "I...see... Oh!" Her smile returned in triumph. "I see! So your name will be on it beside his when he publishes it!"
   But his sudden chuckle erased it again. "Gods, no! No, of course not! It's not my work!"
   "Mm. Seems to me that it kind of is... Well, how long have you been in his tutelage?"
   "About three years."
   Her eyebrows flickered. "And how much longer?"
   "The same again."
   "Half way?! You're half way, and you're still only doing clerical work?!" She shook her head as his wide eyes blinked. "How will you possibly know you've advanced 'far enough' if you're not given any chances to prove it?! When I was an apprentice, I might've had to gather sword oil and wrappings, but at least I was still able to hone my own skills in between..." She cast him another furrowed look. "You seriously don't do any of your own research?"
   But his expression had stiffened, and he held himself with a sudden pompousness that certainly didn't suit him. "Miss," his tone had risen foolishly, too, "it's a manner of work you don't understand. Master Ingar is a fair and highly-sought master. I'm fortunate to be chosen."
   "And I daresay he's fortunate to have someone so...obliging..." She sighed and drew out her map at a fork in the road. "Well, what drove you to history, anyway?" She glanced up when he didn't answer, and found him frowning at her peculiarly.
   "You're not much like I thought a mercenary would be..."

   Mercifully, by the dawn of the next morning, Edred had relaxed considerably. Her constant pestering of questions she just couldn't for the life of her hold back had sufficiently worn him down, and he laughed at her story over a breakfast of fruit and cheese.
   "He slipped on the wine," she grinned uncontrollably, "the mug flew from his hand, hit the lamp, the last flame burst in a sputter and fizzled out, then he's on the floor, wailing like a cat. Two more come at me, but I could see them just about clearly enough with the window behind them, but all they could see of me was the light reflecting in my eyes - so I closed them, crouched, scurried forwards and tripped them as they ran. Then, while they're rolling about on the floor, cursing and wheezing and the rest, the cobbler flips his pancake, even in the stiff darkness, and says 'I had more onions in the back'!"
   "You're making that up!" He guffawed.
   "Not a word of a lie!" Well, mostly.
   While he continued to grin and partially collapse as he repeated his favourite bits to himself, Taria noticed someone approaching from the road. She rose and positioned herself smoothly between him and Edred. She could see even from that distance that the tawny-skinned, well-muscled man was another mercenary.
   Her hand loosened, ready to reach for her blade even as she relaxed her tone and smiled. "Morning," she called once it was clear he was definitely heading their way, and he replied in kind.
   "Morning - are you Ingar's couriers?"
   Her hand flicked closer, but her smile widened amicably. "Certainly. And you are?"
   "Yaruun." There was little friendliness in his voice. "He sent me to join you."
   "Oh? Why would he do that?"
   But the man's eyes immediately slipped onto the apprentice. Edred duly paled. "Why?" He managed not to stammer, looking back to her in confusion. "He didn't say anything to me about it."
   "Why would he send you if I've already been hired?" She asked as he came to a stop a polite few paces away.
   "You were hired on Jarl Marland's behalf. I'm working on Ingar's. It's as simple as that."
   Her hand twitched again as he reached towards his hip, then withdrew a folded sheet of parchment from his belt. He extended it warily, and the pair stared back at the seal.
   Somehow, Edred paled further. "He doesn't trust me..."
   "I can't attest to that," Yaruun replied, tucking it away again. "I'm just here to make sure you don't feign theft so your jarl gets both it and a refund. It was an after-thought, though, so I'm being paid well whether I end up being necessary or not. All the same," he turned pointedly to Taria, "if you are up to no good, I advise you to leave now. You can't stand against me. I will be able to stop you."
   Her eyebrow twitched, but she smiled all the same. "I appreciate the warning. But I took a contract, so I'm sticking around. I need the money."
   "Well, I'm paid either way, so it makes little difference to me. And if you're lying, at least I warned you." He turned and marched back to the road where his grey horse waited. "I'm ready when you are."
   Taria gathered up her tidied bedroll and clicked Tenebris over, strapping them back to his saddle. She noticed Edred's nervousness as he tidied away his own. "Not one for people, are you?"
   "I admit," he cast another uneasy glance down towards the man, "I prefer seclusion. Just being out here is several great leaps from my comfort zone. But...he makes sense..."
   "Yes, unfortunately, he does. So it's just as well we're not up to no good. Right?"
   He smiled nervously. "Right."

   Edred had stiffened back up in the company of this man, but Taria was unconcerned. If anything, she found herself even more interested in breaking down the mercenary's walls than she had been the apprentice's. She trotted Tenebris up beside him, and heard Edred draw his closer for safety.
   "Do you have any idea what we're actually transporting?" She asked him. "Edred won't tell me."
   "It's not my business to know," he replied flatly despite his lilting accent, his eyes unmoving from the road. "It's my business to escort it."
   "Even so, you're not curious?"
   "Why should I be? It's intellectual business, and I don't have the head for it, no matter how much my mother might wish otherwise."
   "She disapproves of your profession?"
   "Yours doesn't?"
   Taria's eyes pulled back to the trees, and she shoved away the small crease from the middle of her brow. "I wouldn't honestly know..." Her gaze drew back to him easily enough, and she smiled once again. "You're not from here."
   "No. Ivaea."
   "That's it?" She asked, picturing the deserts, mountains and grass plains to the north. "Just 'Ivaea'?"
   "You need more?"
   "I suppose not..." She looked again at the serpent crest on his scabbard, and the matching image on his shoulder. "Are you part of a guild?"
   "Yes. The Dralagsi."
   "But you're working alone?"
   "Not all of us are cut out for working in groups, and not all jobs need multiple hands. Surely you realise that. You're out here without your guildmates, too."
   "I don't have any. I always work alone."
   "No guild?" Despite the vaguest hint of surprise in his voice, he still didn't look away from the road.
   Taria smirked to herself. "'Not all of us are cut out for working in groups'. But I did train with one."
   Yaruun grunted, but that was all.
   "What do you usually work on?" She asked after barely a moment. "What's your speciality?"
   Finally, he looked her way, and his eyes were brimming with suspicion. "You ask a lot of questions."
   "As far as I'm aware, it's not a crime."
   He looked indignantly back to the road. "It's considered rude among my people."
   "Oh...well...we're not among your people. Really, though: what's your speciality? And why did you start? If your mother doesn't approve, it can't be a family business."
   "It isn't."
   Silence.
   "...So why did you?"
   His answers became only more tight and closed off with every question she asked, and before long, he stopped answering altogether, leaving them to ride on in what silence Taria would let sit. But they wound up making good time - mostly because the mercenary seemed to be pushing his horse in an effort to get away from her, but she supposed she couldn't blame him. And anyway, she was being paid by the job, not the day, so the sooner it was done, the better. And it looked to be an easy matter, too. With two mercenaries, thieves were less likely to try anything - though his unwillingness to talk made it difficult to gauge his likely reaction if they did. All she could really guess was that he would probably either try to take charge, or try to do it all himself. Either way, it looked like her part would be defensive. But giving in to that position early on was easier than trying to break down someone's stubborn pride...

   It was only when Taria peered at the map and tried to work out if the forest ahead was Tuskroot or not that she realised just how dark it had gotten. Kora was surely only two hours away by now - but Edred was tired, the horses were tired, and there was every chance that the jarl would not appreciate being woken in the middle of the night to deal with the arrival of an old relic. And the last thing she needed was to upset a client and have him pay the middleman less. That would mean less for her.
   So they made camp just hours from midnight at the edge of the birchwoods that sheltered the old city, ate their dried meat and tough bread - a meal that didn't seem to sit too well with the apprentice, as it hadn't the night before - and turned in, leaving Yaruun to keep watch.
   It took some time for Taria to find any sleep. Her mind kept knotting and twisting and racing. It wasn't often that that happened, but Yaruun - a man who didn't belong here in Turunda any more than she did, and who followed the path his profession laid out just the same - had made her think on her own home. Or, what little of one she had. Bouncing between orphanages hadn't exactly instilled a sense of 'belonging' anywhere. But she'd made the best of it, and she couldn't say she didn't enjoy where her life had taken her - especially seeing what passed for an apprenticeship in this place. But...she just couldn't shake the question as she lay there in the restless, smothering summer warmth: would her mother have been proud of her, if she'd had one? Or would she be disappointed? Or would she just be scared for her, risking her life and sleeping rough as she so often did?
   She lost herself in the matter for a long while before the sheer power of the knot in her jaw reminded her that the answers weren't for her to know. And that, honestly, they didn't really matter. She was happy with her choices.
   Taria closed her eyes and breathed, and sleep settled in easily once she let it.

   The world was black when she jolted awake, and only one sound touched the air. It wasn't an owl. It wasn't a cricket. It wasn't the wind. It was one sound she'd heard more times in her life than should probably have been healthy if it invoked an immediate sense of purpose rather than fear. Did that make her survival instinct broken, she wondered absently as she reached for her sword, or heightened?
   Well, she wasn't dead yet.
   She pushed herself up as the sword withdrew from Edred's body, and watched him hit the ground with a heavy thud and a gasp while Yaruun lifted the package from among the apprentice's belongings.
   Yaruun met Taria's burning stare. "He wouldn't hand it over." His eyes, in the half-clouded moonlight, were neither regretful, nor cold. It was just business.
   Edred's, when her gaze flicked back to him, were wide with shock. But the wound in his shoulder wouldn't be fatal - assuming she could get him help in time. Which meant dealing with Yaruun quickly.
   She'd already shoved herself to her feet, and her blade waited ready in her hand. All the numbness of sleep had fled with the sound of it ringing across her scabbard's locket.
   Yaruun was on her before she could ask a single question. And she realised too late that she was at an immediate disadvantage. His longsword had far greater reach than her shortsword. There was little use even trying to compete.
   Daggers, however, required an entirely different fighting style.
   She barely sidestepped his thrust as she lunged aside for the smaller blades, and danced her way around a second. He must have expected her to take a moment or three to adjust to the difference, and that incorrect assumption gave her room to get in an easy shot at his unprotected side.
   Or so she'd thought. He turned just fast enough to knock her dagger away with his sword.
   "I've warned you," he told her coolly.
   "I know," she replied much the same.
   "Stand aside, Taria. I have a contract."
   "So do I. But more than that," she made for another quick strike, which he didn't deflect in time, "you drew innocent blood."
   He pushed off, disregarding already the shallow cut in his side, while she leapt back, found distance, and exploded into a quick attack towards his legs. Her blades moved in a flurry, and she hit him a handful of times before his boot fired her backwards and sent pain flaring white across her face.
   She cursed and shook it off as fast as she could, and barely managed to sidestep and duck beneath his next rapid strike. He kicked at her again before she could react, but she saw this one coming and slashed a blade across his calf. He grunted, but that was all. His sword still flashed upwards into a skyward arc.
   But Taria didn't steal distance this time. She twitched back and let his momentum continue, leaving his torso open. Then she shot around his exposed side, moved up to his sword arm, and feinted just as he engaged his next attack. Her foot hit the side of his knee with all her strength.
   He crumpled with a curse, and she kicked him forwards as he fought for balance before stamping hard on the back of his other.
   Despite the crunch and howl, Taria's attention turned immediately onto Edred.
   "You okay?" She asked while he stared past her, pale, at the man trying to push himself back up, grunting through gritted teeth.
   His wide eyes soon crashed up onto her "You won't finish him?" He somehow managed both to whisper and shriek. "He'll come after us!"
   "Not with his ligaments in that shape, he won't. And anyway," she smiled, turning her attention quickly to the extent of his bloodied shoulder, "I don't take lives if I don't have to. He was only doing his job. Now come on: to your feet." She dragged him up and clicked the horses over, helped him up onto his own, gathered their things and left Yaruun there. The Ivaean mercenary didn't ask for help once.

   Despite the circumstances, she still gasped at the sight of Kora: the ivy clinging to the outer walls, the high merlons cut into the shape of leaves, clear even in the moonlight - and, above all else, the back of the city, cut straight from the quartz-studded cliffs, glinting and glittering like a sheet of stars.
   Edred was in little state to admire it, nor answer her flurry of questions. He half-slumped over his horse, clutching his shoulder, and looked about with listless eyes.
   Her concern hiked, fascination sharply forgotten, and she urged her horse faster. "Hurry, Ten! Hurry!" He snorted and obeyed, dragging Edred's leashed horse into a canter behind him.
   The guards at the gates gave her directions to the medica, and she kicked forwards without a second to waste, weaving on up through the sleeping hillside city until the old rounded building appeared ahead through the quiet streets.
   Despite few being on hand inside, Edred was seen to immediately, and she was pulled aside to have her nose poked at, too. She was fine, and assured them of it multiple times, but they insisted.
   She sighed and sat back down while a young man began pressing clinically at the bruising across her brow, and stifled her curse. She'd worked it out along the way there. Actually, she'd worked it out the moment she'd heard his blade cut through Edred's flesh. Yaruun had been hired to steal it back. Of course he had. He hadn't tried hard enough to get rid of her, so she hadn't noticed it at the time, but with her dead beside this unlucky apprentice, the jarl would be satisfied that thieves or bandits were to blame rather than any kind of underhand deception - maybe he'd even get his money back and compensation from the contract office, and the seller, evidently protected by some obscure liability clause or rule in the transaction, would keep both the jarl's money and the...whatever it was...
   She frowned down at the package she'd carried in, not daring to leave it outside to be stolen. She still hadn't been able to work out what was inside it, nor why it had made a noise when she'd grabbed it.
   Once the medic had concluded that she was, in fact, fine, and gave her a salve to cool the swelling, she left the poor, pale apprentice in their care, assured that he would make a full recovery, and sought out somewhere to stable Tenebris and find herself some rest - after casting back a cursory note that there was another man out at the edge of the forest that might also like a little bit of help, of course. She wasn't a monster.

   She slept well until she awoke beside her horse to a blinding strip of early dawn light falling across her eyes.
   She cursed and shielded them behind her arm, then found the tiptoeing stablehand apologising profusely for waking her, though he looked bemused at the same time. Why would she sleep down here when there were beds in a tavern literally on the other side of the wall? But, honestly, she couldn't even remember making it to the stables. Something in the salve must have made her drowsy. They really should give warnings about that kind of thing...
   After a quick bite that often consituted a breakfast on the road, Taria went to check on the apprentice, but he'd apparently lost more blood than she'd realised and the medics refused to discharge him. He was given no opportunity to argue, though, because he had yet to actually wake up. So it was left to Taria to take the mysterious bundle to the jarl, who the medics told her she'd find in library in the cliff face itself. She couldn't help a skip of fascination in her step as she hurried along towards it.

   Her eyes adjusted quickly to the dark of the library, and when she turned around to glance back out through the glass doors, the morning light almost blinded her again. She snapped away with a strained murmur and set off further into the building. Or, carving.
   Bookshelves lined the walls and segmented the hall, reaching all the way up to the tall, far-off ceilings. She saw, as she craned her neck, the images cut into it, though she couldn't make them out, and wound up spinning on the spot trying to find the right perspective.
   "You there!"
   She stopped and snapped around at the voice, then spotted two men hurrying towards her, both well-dressed, though the older of the pair held himself with a distinctly prouder bearing than the other. Both of them carried an eager light in their eyes.
   She bowed. It had to be the jarl. He didn't seem to notice the gesture, though.
   "You've brought it!" The jarl beamed. "Marvellous!" He all but snatched it from her, but before she could confirm her latent presumption that a fat purse meant fat fingers, he handled it with at least as much care as Edred did.
   She watched the pair of them stare at the wrapping as if they were suddenly afraid of what might be inside it.
   Then, suddenly, the jarl's head lifted and his eyes crashed back onto her. "Come! You've ferried it all this way, it's only fair that you get a look!"
   She wasn't about to argue, though she did have to hurry to keep up, and followed them into a well-lit back room where the jarl set the package on the table. Taria frowned as he all but leapt back from it, then the younger of the two moved forwards, and she watched him stare at it for another long moment. It was only at the jarl's excited command that he finally began to unlace it.
   Her eyebrows dropped when he drew back the cloth. "A tattered old fiddle? That's what we were bringing here? A fiddle?"
   "A nyckelharpa," the young man corrected in a voice barely above a whisper, his green eyes glittering. "Pre-magic elven, First Era, about one thousand four hundred years old, one of the earliest versions of what became the most iconic instrument, even in our own age!"
   "Really?" She took a more interested step closer. He caught her hand before she could pluck at a string.
   "Really."
   "Anthis."
   They both looked back to the jarl, his eyes as thick with fret as his voice.
   "Can you restore it?"
   Even she turned a cautious look back towards him as he circled around the table, mindlessly ushering them out of the way to look at it from all angles before daring to finally touch it. Never mind that it had been jostled about and strapped to the back of a horse for the past two days.
   Finally, he nodded. "I can. I think. I know a luthier who should be able to help..." he breathed a sound that was either a gasp or a stifled squeak. "It's so old... How much did you--"
   The jarl's cough and far from subtle nod towards Taria cut him off. He straightened instead and enforced composure over himself. It did little to chase away the glee in his eyes.
   Then the jarl was suddenly in front of her, shaking her hand vigorously and pressing a note of confirmation into her other palm, all while ushering her towards the door. "Thank you for your help, young lady. It trust it wasn't...too much...trouble..."
   She turned her head away while he stared at the bruising across her nose and brow, probably only now noticing it for the first time, and smiled offhandedly, freeing herself from his grip and making towards the door for herself. "No. None at all. And it took me only two days - you might want to let the oaf in Reyviin know that. Otherwise, gentlemen, best of luck with your fiddle." She reached for the handle, but she couldn't help casting back a curious smile. "I should like to hear it, if you get it working."
   Anthis smiled and gave a single nod of his head while the jarl descended back into staring at the thing, then Taria stepped back out into the library.
   Her smile promptly withered, and her eyes dropped down to the note of delivery. "Now to try to get my money out of that weasel..."


Taria and Tenebris belong to Patricia of FairyLiterary. Set in The Devoted's Turunda by request. This story is not to be copied or reproduced without both mine and FairyLiterary's permission.
Words copyright © Kim Wedlock