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Month: February 2020

The Lady of the Lowlands

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

CONTENT WARNING

Author’s Note: Hello all, Museless Bard here. This short story is darker than my usual fare, and you should continue with caution. This particular story is about a dark, forbidden area, and a woman being lost there. It contains some violent scenes and content. This story is a horror story. If any of those are something you are uncomfortable with, please navigate away.


“Dark things begat by dark deeds haunt the lowlands, and it is best that you stay away from them lest you be caught up in their troubles, children…”

There was no fairy tale rhyme to ward children away from the lowlands. Rather the warning was painted in black and white for them. Travel from the village and stay in the lowlands after dark, and you would never return. The town would never find your body because they would never seek it out. It was too dangerous. It wasn’t just children that didn’t return from this place. Others who wandered into the morass found themselves lost. Those up to no good would venture close enough to dispose of evidence, knowing that the dark things beyond would destroy any signs of the atrocity they had committed.

Here in the muck lay one such case, half-buried in the cold, wet mud of the lowlands. She was alone. While she lived, it was clear that there was not much soul left in her. Her face was bruised and torn, and her body faired little better. Her open wounds would fester in the mud, tattered remnants of her clothes offering scant protection from the things unseen that would twist and poison her blood. Yet, as the sun set beyond the horizon, she began to stir. Little by little, she summoned the strength to endure. She crawled in the muck at first, dragging her body towards the distant setting light.

As the evening grew dim, she raised to her knees, finding a tree to help pull her form up and out of the mud. She trudged towards higher ground, knowing that her time was short. She was determined, unwavering.  If she stayed in this place, she knew she would die. Perhaps more importantly, she would be forgotten, and crimes committed against her would never be known. She was too weak to make good headway, though. Her legs pushed her as far as they could before dark. Each step dragged muck with her, the very ground holding her as if trying to pull her back and under the darkened and damp earth of the lowlands. Her blood loss made her sluggish. She had little energy, and her will could not overcome that simple physical truth.

She heard movement. The wet footfalls of something following her. She tried to pick up her speed as those wet thuds came closer and closer. They grew louder and louder. Soon, it moved from one pair of closing footfalls to two, and then three. She heard the noises begin between her and her distant goal of the border of the lowlands. She attempted to adjust her direction. Twisting to one side and going where the sounds were the quietest. Still, they persisted. They grew closer and closer.

Ravenous snarls were soon enough finding her ears. Whatever harried her had found her scent through all this muck and grime. It had no trouble tracking every change in direction she made. She knew that if she stopped, she would be overtaken. Her only option was to keep moving, to keep stumbling through the mud and the dark. She fought through the pain and weakness to keep herself going. If she failed, she would be killed – but she wasn’t faster than her hunters.

After a few moments, as the noises grew loud and close, there was a scent. It was the putrid scent of decay, the very essence of death itself. It forewarned of their arrival, and despite her desire to gag and cough, she kept from it. Any extra noise would have helped them hone in on her, and that was something she could not have. Every extra second counted. If only she could buy a little more time, she might be able to make it to the edge. She might be able to escape.

A dark figure leaped from the shadows near her. It was a blur to her, but she responded quickly enough to avoid its pounce. For a second, she believed that had been her doing, but that thought was quickly and irrevocably quashed when a second appeared in front of her.

There stood what was once a man, nearly six feet tall. His body was decayed, broken, and torn skin pulled tight against the body. His jaw hung helplessly open and she felt a cold chill break upon her with the mere view of the creature. There was a glow within it, a dim and sickly green that seemed to leak out from thinner patches of skin and muscle. It existed behind its eyes, and as it made a guttural growl towards her, the lights within flared brighter.

She had tried to keep running. She tried to pass it by. With one arm outstretched, it caught her as if she was nothing. Tips of its boney fingers bore into her naked flesh, the tips raking skin and muscle away as its grip tightened around her arm. It pulled hard. Its strength was impossible. It pulled her by her arm and yet was powerful enough to tear her off her feet, and as it did, there was an incredible pain in her shoulder and a deafening pop from inside her arm. Then, she smashed to the ground with the creature atop her. It pressed her hard into the muck and sought to hold her there.

It wasn’t just the one. Another grabbed her and its claws tore into her flesh to hold her down. Yet another found her leg, and she felt teeth sink into her skin and flesh, and the ripping pain of her flesh being torn from the bone. There was a moment of realization, of loss, as the creatures worked to tear her apart. She felt a wave of anger she had never known for those moments. She was unfinished, unwilling to die here, to die now. She wouldn’t. She would get her justice. She would get her chance to see things were made right, that this happened to no one else. She let out a wail; all of her pain made manifest in a single piercing sound that rose through the night.

It was enough. The creatures paused, and they broke away from her. The lights within them flared brightly and they backed away. She had summoned something more dangerous than them, something they feared. She saw him as they parted.

There stood a man in a cloak and a mask. Behind the eyes of the mask was a burning green light where his eyes should have been. His skin was pale, but he was living. She saw him take a breath. She saw his chest rise and fall. In his hand was a gnarled staff of twisted, petrified wood and bone. He stepped closer to her, and the beasts parted and released her. They snarled at him, and with a wave of his hand, they moved further back and away from her. The masked man knelt in the mud next to her, and he offered her a hand.

She instinctively tried to reach for the offered hand, but her main arm had been dislocated. She couldn’t feel it, and she struggled even to bend forward just a bit.

He shushed her as she tried to move. He reached a hand across her and took her other hand. There was a moment of warmth that flowed through her as he gave her hand a small squeeze. He gave a smile, the wrinkles of it visible just beyond his mask. It made her calm. The pain was still there, but the wounds seemed less grievous to her. It had been shocking, unbearable. But now, it felt as if she could deal with it. She sat up slowly but surely, all the while, helped by his guiding hand. Soon enough, she stood with him. He gave her a nod and waited. He didn’t say anything, but instead, he walked with her as she moved. She was cautious at first, slowly watching the shadow creatures that had attacked her. They seemed less interested now. She seemed safe.

With a deep breath, she began her trek back towards the edge of the lowlands. It took her a few minutes, but eventually, she realized that he was guiding her. Once he had discovered her destination, he took the lead. It was just a few steps ahead of her. Despite the time it took to walk through the lowlands that evening, she did not speak to him and he did not speak to her. He only walked in silence for what felt like an hour. She appreciated what he had done for her and despite the wounds that still plagued her, it felt that with him there she held the strength to go on.

Eventually, near the witching hour, they reached the edge of the lowlands. The gentle hills rose out of the muck and towards the forests and fields of her home village. The masked man’s hand rose, and he pointed to a flickering light in the distance. Her eyes followed his point. Could she have been lucky enough that there was a camp nearby? She felt his hand drop hers. He turned to her and gave a single nod. She did not hesitate and quickly stepped up and out of the lowlands. When she looked back to thank him, he was not there. Nor were the things in the dark that had followed them. She was alone.

Cold, she wrapped her arm around herself and began to stumble up the hill. Her wounds still ached, but the hope of finding a way out of here and a second chance made her feel a surge of energy. So, with some speed, she made her way up the hill that night. The campfire came more into view and soon a lone tent and some figures too. She felt her heart swell with excitement and relief as she crested that hill to the camp.

Then it all stopped.

There was a woman, her face frightened and bloodied, her clothes torn. She couldn’t hear her whimpers, but she could see the fear twisting her face and the stains left by her tears. It didn’t take long for her to realize the two men in the camp. These were the same two that had tossed her in the morass just a few hours prior. They had just finished a drink, from the looks of it, and started back towards the woman. They had no intentions worth considering. She couldn’t think of it. She had to stop them, to end this. She was injured, and there was not a lot left in her. Maybe, she thought, she could give the woman a chance to escape. That would be enough for her. With that in mind, she breached the edge of the camp.

She had wanted to yell stop at them, but when her mouth opened, no words came out. There was only a groan. She knew she was frightened and weak, but she had to take action. As they descended on the other woman, she felt that rage return. She would not let them destroy another life out here. Whatever bits of fear she had left her for a moment, and she took a deep breath to scream at them again. As she stepped forward, she let out what she could.

To her surprise, it wasn’t a word. It was a wail. It was the same wail she had let out when attacked by those creatures.

The men were startled and jump up and away from the woman, turning to face this new threat. They reached for whatever weapons they had handy. One found a stick, and the other pulled a knife from his belt. Neither advanced, though. Both panicked and stumbled backward. As she stepped forward, they only moved faster and faster away from her. That rage still boiled. She didn’t understand why they ran, but she wouldn’t let them flee. She felt a surge of energy and rushed forward. One stumbled back and fell, and she raced to take advantage of that.

She saw the fear in his eyes as she was atop him. She let out a yell. Again, it came out a wail, and before her eyes, his body grew old and decayed. The skin on his face tightened, dried, and cracked open His panicked expression must have matched her own and was frozen in time as his breath slowed and stopped, but she did not have time to think about it. His friend launched at her and she raised her arm to defend herself. When his cudgel passed through her arm as if it were mist, everything clicked in her mind.

The realization made her panic.

She let out a terrified wail at his attack. The sound was loud enough, they say, to be heard in the distant village. As the wail faded, the man crumbled to the ground before her, lifeless. His flesh and life torn out of him and blown away like a fire snuffed out by a strong wind. All that remained was a desiccated corpse. Her vision was drawn to the young woman, who lay shaking on the ground, covering her head.

The panicked banshee turned to run back towards the lowlands. Her sight caught a glimpse of the stranger in the mask, standing at the edge of the morass. His hand stretched out and pointed back beyond the camp as she ran towards him. She glanced back, torches from the village riding out to investigate the sound.

The woman would be found. She’d be safe – if scarred.

With the sun starting to peek over the distant horizon when she arrived next to the man, she saw that cracked smile crossed his face again. He offered her a hand as she approached. She hesitated, and after a moment, she took his hand. The sun rose, and she disappeared, only ever to return when dark deeds were dealt near her resting place.

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Palatine – Chapter 02

Recovery

Reynfrey spent the next couple weeks awake and aware of his surroundings. For those first few days, there was little more than the thatch homestead that he was able to explore. The constant watchful eye of the seemingly perpetually perturbed Elyenora was at first disconcerting, but soon enough, it was clear that she did not know how to appear otherwise. He felt a burden to these people, kind folk just trying to make their way in the world now taking care of a crippled palatine. He would repay them, one way or the next – but unfortunately, his recovery would take time.

After a few days, he ventured outside for one of the first times. It was an experience he hadn’t expected to be as challenging as it was. Even walking out of the small homestead and into the surrounding field required him to dig deep for energy. He was winded before he found himself much farther than a couple of arms lengths from the entryway. Had it not been for Elyenora following a short way behind him to keep an eye on his progress, he may not have made it that far. He was too proud not to push himself.

Every day after was much the same. He’d press himself until he was winded and needed to rest. But each day, he pushed a little further, a little deeper into the fields. On the eighth day, he found himself walking around to the back of the home, a path he hadn’t taken yet since the gently rising hill behind the home might as well have been a mountain for much of his recovery. Each step quaked as he first traveled up the hill, beyond the small roundhouse that the family was kind enough to share with him. The hill served as protection from the elements, kept them a bit warmer in the winter and cooler in the spring, but its loose rocky outcroppings made it a slight challenge for him to climb. His legs were weak, unused for so long, and only just now returning to strength worth mentioning.

The trek had been worth it, though. Cresting that small hill, out of breath and panting more than he would have cared to admit, gave him a warm feeling of accomplishment, one that soon was washed over by a simple and beautiful vista. The top of the hill gave a wonderful view of the village, and the farmlands tucked safely in a large clearing within a dense, old evergreen forest. The forest gave a flash of a memory.

He remembered entering it on some old forgotten path with the rest of his traveling companions. He could remember the trail, the sound of the horses dragging the carriage. The chatter of the souls that walked with him, but then it went silent. The memory faded, and he once again hid it away. He knew he was unprepared to think about those memories, at least not yet.

He took a breath and exhaled slowly. His eyes drifted back to the village, and he scanned as he felt a hand rest on the center of his back. Despite her cold exterior, Elyenora was an ever-present and watchful eye and always willing to offer a hand in support. It was comforting, as comforting as the view of the small village felt to him. These were simple folk, farming the land and making their way in the world. They were willing to help one another and to help strangers. He had come from a different world, a world of stone and stricture, but here there was something more.

That first view would need to end there. He didn’t have the energy to venture into the village. Day after day, he grew stronger, though. The journey from their small home to the village became easier. As harvest came in full, he began helping Elyenora, and her daughter collect baskets of crops, eventually carrying them to the village with them. There came a day when he went with them to visit the smith as well.

Beynard’s smithy was a quaint one, like everything in this town. It was little more than a stone shack with an attached forge covered enough to be worked in the rain. Stacks of supplies sat near the forge, and within the small building were stacks of finished projects – horseshoes, picks, and hoes mostly. When they arrived, the quiet Athelis brought her father a hand-packed meal, his wife gave him a subdued kiss, and he called for Girart to join them. Reynfrey was pleasantly surprised to be invited, but he had energy and a bit of recovery, so he declined. He would let them eat as a family. Instead, he would tend the forge so they could enjoy the meal without the burden of their guest or of checking the forge.

So, there he sat, watching the flames dance as his foot pressed the billows to keep the forge warm and the current batch of iron for horseshoes glowing. It was a slow and boring task to him, though he admired the smith for being able to do it day in and day out, seemingly with little complaint. He found himself losing track of time, though, staring into that forge.

“Entranced by the fire, ser Palatine?” Beynard laughed, and that broke him from the reverie under which he had fallen.

Reynfrey blinked and shook his head, “I suppose so.”

“Fire does that,” The smith gave him a fine smack on the back. “It purifies through destruction, whether your iron or your mind.” He sighed a bit, “I’ll admit, I rarely think clearer than when working with the forge.” He gave a waving motion back towards the shack. “Come now. You’ve made it this far, and I might as well show you around.”

“Show me around?”

“Yes. You came all this way. And Girart can take over the forge. He needs the practice anyway,”

The boy seemed to hear his name from a distance, and he came around a corner expectantly. Reynfrey stood up and stretched just a bit, before stepping away from the forge, and the boy took his spot quickly – taking over exactly where he had left off, without skipping a step.

The smith didn’t wait for a real answer and began to move towards the shack. He explained a couple of things along the way, pointed out sights that Reynfrey had already seen, obvious items. It confused the Palatine slightly. Once they were back into the shack, though, the man took him to a far corner, where a small shelf sat on the floor and held thick ingots of iron. “Help me move this?” Beynard asked as he put his hands on one edge of the shelf.

Reynfrey nodded and sought a grip. For a moment, he instinctively raised both arms, only to be greeted again by the stump on his strong arm. He sighed and readjusted, putting his hand on the inside of the shelf. With a grunt, he and the smith pushed the shelf a few feet to one side, revealing a trap door beneath. “Just a smith and his veela wife?”

“Name a self-respecting smith that doesn’t have a hidden basement,” The man laughed as he pulled up the door. “Can you climb a ladder?”

“I suppose so,” The Palatine said with a nod, waving his lost arm lightly. “I can at least use this for balance.”

“Good. Follow me.”

The smith descended the ladder quickly. The Palatine struggled more than he would have liked to admit. He had to carefully grip and move, watching every step with a focus that would normally only found in treacherous conditions, but to him, this was a new experience. It wasn’t slick, but one wrong move, and he knew he would tumble down. Soon enough, though, he had reached the bottom of the rungs and stepped on a soft dirt floor. He was surprised, though, to find it dimly lit. He turned, expecting a torch, but there was none that he could see. The light came from a hole in the ceiling. He couldn’t make out anything, but the sunlight shone rather brightly for such a small hole. It was curious to him. When he stopped being amazed by that, he found himself staring at a small armory, broken weapons and armor scattered about the floor.

There, in the center of the far wall sat the shattered remains of his shield. His sword lay next to it. It caused the Palatine to stop in his tracks. For a moment, he couldn’t find a breath. He heard that awful sound that shattering of wood and steel as an enemy’s mace splintered the shield. He swallowed and shook his head as if to shake away the ghosts of the path physically. He finally just asked, “What is this?”

“I kept my own treasures down here,” Beynard said quietly, looking around the room. “I hope you won’t be too offended,” He said with a soft, somehow saddened smile. “I gave your compatriots a decent burial but salvaged what I could. A single fine sword,” The smith paused, if only for a moment, “I can reforge and make a lot of useful tools for the village.”

There was a moment of instinctive anger at that concept, but it quickly faded. Pragmatism, it seemed, was something that Reynfrey felt more important now than he would have when all of this started. “It’s fine,” He heard himself say, “They won’t be needing them any longer.” The term was a bit colder than it needed to be. There was a fit of bubbling anger there.

“Good… I only left one body with all its accouterments,” The smith replied, “The young woman.”

The term turned the Palatine’s skin pale. The blood drained from his face. He could see her in an instant. The warmest of smiles, a boisterous laugh that embarrassed her, a soft voice otherwise. “Then…”

“I know, yes – at least the basics,”

“We failed, then. Not just me, but everyone,” Reynfrey said softly without moving from his spot at the foot of the latter. “It would have been better you left me to die with them.”

The statement made the smith nod, “Failure isn’t the end of a story. It’s tempering. A point of growth. I don’t believe it would have been better for you,”

Reynfrey raised his hand and interrupted, “No, I agree on failure, but,” He shook his head. “The young woman was Saint Adelysia.”

“Oh,” The smith now too became pale, “Then it may have been best if we all had joined you.”

 

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Nanowrimo 2017 – Chapter 01

Author’s Notes: So, I saw people revisiting old works this week, and it inspired me to look back. The first Nanowrimo I officially joined was in 2017, and it was the first one I completed. That year, I wrote a contemporary fantasy about a teacher at a demi-human school and the dangers that came with that. It was my least favorite writing to date. By the end, the story didn’t work. I hated it. And I buried it. I didn’t even let my partner read it. I really never wanted to look at it again. I still don’t, if I’m honest – but it is important to do for growth. If I’m going to, I might as well share it with the world, right? Feel free to let me know what you think.

A New Home

 

               Aching legs, a sore back, a bit of nausea, but it was all worth it. These had been long hours sitting in this tiny little economy seat, with old faded blue cushions giving only the slightest of support. The point where cushion met plastic seemed to have been designed to find the most uncomfortable place on his neck. The cabin was stuffy, and the smell of the hundreds of people who shared the form of travel with him had grown unbearable for a time. The seat next to him filled with someone who barely made an effort to roll himself into the plane that morning, an all too thin pair of pajama bottoms, and an old ragged shirt seemed too little to wear out on a long haul like this. But none of that mattered. Not today. Today, he got a glimpse – his first glimpse – of his new home. All the waiting, all the discomfort faded away. Now, they were making a final descent, and Jonas couldn’t help but feel that well of excitement in his chest.

               His eyes were glued to the cloud line as the plane began its descent. The announcements of the pilot were just noise in his ears, and there was nothing more than that view. The plane hit the cloud, mists rippling past the fuselage, and along the craft before it entered that ethereal fog. Light turbulence rocked the flight slightly, but barely enough to alarm even the most anxious of fliers. A few seconds more and the cloud began to thin. The excitement built, he felt himself take a breath and hold – just waiting.

               The clouds broke under his flight, and the city came into view. Or, mostly did. There were shimmers of lights in the distance, blocked by the shadows of the rainstorm they were descending through. Towers of business, mixed architecture, and monuments were visible, but only as blurry silhouettes and faded shapes. There was nothing grand or spectacular from this angle. There was a tinge of disappointment in him, a sort of stab at his heart as his expectations slumped over. He sighed a bit. But the lights. The lights were still beautiful. And the view of the rain from the ground would be spectacular. The disappointment faded as the plane approached a runway.

               Then there was the sudden jolt of the plane, the sound of rubber screeching against asphalt. The backdrop of lights behind the airport fascinated him. The world was so new to him, so expansive, even if he couldn’t quite see it through the rain. The plane rolled into its taxi-way, and then to a full stop next to a walkway. The crew gave the usual exit speeches, and people began to stand and gather their things. Back quite a way, it took a while for his turn to get there. He didn’t mind. When there was space, he stood and opened his overhead. He noticed the other bag in the hold. He hesitated a minute, before his fingers wrapped around the soft cloth handle of his bag, and then the hard plastic of the other. He pulled them both down, setting the hard plastic travel case in his seat. He leaned over to the man in his pajamas and gave him a little shake.

               “Sorry to wake you,” He said, voice a bit dry from not having said anything in a few hours. “We landed. I got your bag down for you.”

               “Huh?” The pajama-man coughed a bit and looked drowsily around. He finally found the window, his head lulling over to the glass as he looked. “Oh, thank god… ground.” He spoke through a yawn, and as he moved, there was a little rattle. He stretched and gave a nod and a quick, “Thanks, man.”

               Jonas felt a smile start to creep up his lips and he gave a nod back to the man. “My pleasure,” He said softly, before joining the flow of people off the plane. He, like everyone else, moved like a stream – down the aisle and past the flight attendants who gave their cheery, if canned, responses. Then through the pedway and out a gate. Then a hard right down another corridor to a tunnelway. It was dimly lit, except for the incredibly bright direction signs. They were almost hard to look at this time of day, but the occasional point towards the baggage claim gave him some hope that he would soon be out of his travel portion, and to his new home.

               He finally broke with the stream of others that flooded through the tunnels. He sidestepped out of the stream as many people stepped onto one of the automatic conveyor belts. He just kept walking alongside them. It wasn’t faster or more efficient, but it felt good to walk after the long flight. He adjusted, swing his cloth bag from one side and trading it from one hand to another. His eyes trailed along with people. And then he stopped dead in his tracks. His sudden stop caused the person behind him to brush against him as he passed. It warranted a quick, “Sorry,” from Jonas, but his eyes never moved from his target.

               He saw her — a beautiful woman dressed in soft, airy clothes. Her deep black hair was tied back in a ponytail. His eyes trailed down her form though, pausing at her waist, where shirt gave way to the sash, which gave way to a shimmer of scales and a long tail. She weaved through the crowd slowly, yawning. That tail slipped between people as she moved along with the stream. He could tell many people were used to it, the way they stepped away and around the serpentine movements. How many naga were in the city? How many had to be for people to be used to moving around them in crowds?

               The thought made him excited. His heart raced a little bit. Back home, the only demi-human who lived anywhere near them was a literal old bog hag. Of course, she was nothing like the stories of hags. She was friendly and outgoing and ran an herb shop. One of those places you could find whatever rare spice you wanted, and with a room in the back labeled 21 and Over Only but only blocked by hanging strings of beads. The stories had always fascinated him. Now, he was watching a Naga move past him. It was brilliant, at least until she spoke.

               “Enjoying the view, asshole?” She barked at him as she passed by.

               He felt a blush fill his cheeks as she slipped by. He was embarrassed for a second, and then called out to her, “Sorry! New here – never met a Naga,”

               “Still haven’t,” She said as she slipped away into the crowd, though he did catch her add a “Fucking tourists…” As she moved out of earshot.

               There was some laughter – but Jonas couldn’t help but smile. He gave an embarrassed little nod to those laughing and began to move back on his way. The excitement was still there though, he had a bit of a pep in his step now, and moved a bit faster towards the baggage claim. This was it, his chance, and it felt amazing.

               When he reached baggage, he quickly found his bag. He was in a bit of a rush, it seemed, pushing past other groups with quick apologies every time. “Sorry,” He’d say and lean past a group to check to see if a bag was his. “Excuse me,” While reaching through another. Finally, he found his bag; a large, hard leather suitcase, likely older than him. He gripped the bag and pulled it free from the conveyor belt, and quickly moved out of the way of others. He found a chair and lifted his bag with a little bit of a heave. It was heavy, but not too bad. He sat it down and unzipped one of the smaller pouches. As he routed around, he saw a man holding a sign nearby.

               Lindstrom. The sign read.

               “Oh, hey!” Jonas called over, waving the hand that wasn’t rooting around in a pouch in his bag a bit frantically. “Hey, with the sign,” He called a bit louder. The man finally looked over to him, pointing at himself. “Yes, you.” He waved him over, “I’m Jonas.”

               “Oh.” The man said softly, a bit deadpan, “Good.” He spoke and walked over. “I’m Mr. Harmand. I am here to give you a lift to your apartment.”

               “Mr. Harmand. That’s an odd coincidence. One of my coworkers is named Harmand,” Jonas said before letting out a quick, “Finally,” And pulling a small silver charmed necklace from the bag.

               “Not a coincidence. I drew the short straw…” Harmand all but signed. “And you may not start yet, but I have class in the morning, so…”

               “Oh, right, sorry!” Jonas spoke quickly, pulling the necklace on and tucking the rune charm into his undershirt. “Sorry, sorry,” He repeated before taking a moment to zip up the bag. He lifted it up and then nodded to Harmand. “Ready when you are.”

               “You weren’t, but… whatever. Come on.” Harmand said with a bit of a groan. “Let’s see if we can’t get you home, and then I can finally go back home.”

               “I appreciate it, by the way,” Jonas added.

               “Don’t mention it,” Harmand spoke as they headed out of the baggage claim and to the exits. Then they were on the street.

               Jonas took a deep breath and cast his eyes around the airport as they walked. In the distance, he could see the buildings, the twinkling lights of the city. The rain cascaded down on him and Harmand as they walked out into the parking lot towards Harmand’s car. Each step they picked up the pace a little bit. It was pouring the rain, and he soaked through in seconds. The chill hit him hard and fast. When they got to Harmand’s car, the lights flashed on and off, and the doors unlocked. The two opened their doors and slid in, with Jonas pulling his cloth bag and suitcase into his lap and settling in. He shut the door softly and glanced over to Harmond for a moment, who just stared at him.

               “What?”

               “Nothing,” Harmond said, then he sighed. “Welcome to Gray Harbor, Jonas.”

               Jonas couldn’t help but smile. “Thanks, Harmond. Happy to be here.”

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Palatine – Chapter 01

Author’s Notes: So, this was the second chapter of a story project I started sometime last year. It was one of those stories that came to me almost fully formed, and I think it could be a lot of fun to revisit this year. I chose Day Shift over this idea because Coeur is a bit darker and more violent, and I did not want to write that through the holiday season. Now, though, I think it could be an interesting piece to go back to. This is technically the second Chapter, but I think it might work better as the introduction.  The first chapter needed much more in the way of rewrites, though, so I wanted to share this one instead. If you enjoy it, let me know.

The Stranger Awakes

He took a deep breath. His chest expanding swiftly as the cold air took to his lungs and seemed to stick to them like oil. He felt himself cough, and it caused him to sit up swiftly. He coughed hard, dry throat scratched by the force of the sudden strangling breaths in his throat. As he cleared them, his eyes blinked open. The light burned, and his focus struggled to find anything at first. But as color returned to him, and he began to see shapes, he found himself staring down at a rough woolen quilt on a bed of woven cloth over something soft — hay, by the sounds of it.

His eyes drifted around, and he found himself in an unfamiliar place. He could see the small room was all but barren. A small table near the bed, on the other side, a small wooden chair. A pile of wood carvings sat discarded near it. A wooden plate of bread, and a tin cup filled with something. He swallowed and found himself sitting for a moment – just staring at the bread. He was hungry, but not starving, though he couldn’t explain why.

The sudden sound of a chicken’s crowing outside the window caught him off guard. His head snapped to the window, and he found small wooden shutters there, half-open and giving a decent view out into the world. He could see a forest in the distance, but there was a great stretch of farmland between him and it. He was sure that was the forest he had been in, though. The forest where he had died. Or, where he thought he had died. It didn’t look familiar from here, though.

He had pondered on the view for a moment or two before he heard a door pushed open. His eyes started to twist over to the door, but he found he had barely begun to look that direction before he saw the child. It was a young woman. Perhaps nearing adulthood, but not quite there yet. She seemed startled to see him, and she dropped what she was doing and ran as soon as he had turned.

Instinctively, he reached out his hand to stop her – but when he did, he saw only a bandaged nub where his arm had once been. From halfway down his forearm, there was nothing. His arm ended at the bandages. His right arm. His sword arm. He tried to move his hand, his fingers, and he could feel them there still. He thought. But there was nothing. But if there was nothing, why did it hurt? He felt a bit of panic begin to take him as he realized the injury was as real as any he had ever had. More real, even. Something else was wrong and felt off. He felt something on his head. He moved his off-hand to investigate, quickly finding bindings around his left eye.

He had barely thought about it, but his sight was odd. There was pain there. Something had happened to his face, around his left eye. He couldn’t see the bandage at all, and only felt it. There was a grim realization that he had lost part of his face – and likely his eye during the battle. He ran a hand back across his skull, finding what remained of his ear wrapped up in the bandages. It was barely half what it should have been, cleaved off near its middle.

He started to stand, to try to find where he was. But swinging around to put his feet on the floor, he realized he had no strength. He felt the weight of his form on his feet as he tried to stand, and his legs shook under the stress of the atrophy. He stopped trying shortly after and heard in the distance the girl – or a girl, perhaps – calling out for her father. It was merely a moment later that a woman appeared in the door. This one was older. Or she was his age, at least. Her hair was disheveled but pulled back in a small ponytail – one that she had cut herself. She wore simple clothes, a hand-sewn and undyed dress, cinched at the waist with a simple cord. Her skin was rough, much darker than that of the folk he had become accustomed to seeing. She was from another land and working in the sun on the land had kept her tanned for her kind. She was quick to try to stop him from standing up.

“Ser, you should not stand,” Her voice came to his ear. It was a pleasant sound and brought a smile to his lips. He thought, likely, he would have thought that of any voice.

He tried to speak, but at first only breath escaped his throat. It took a moment and some exertion, but he finally made a sound. “I tried,” He said quietly. The phrase brought memories back to his mind. He needed to be away from those thoughts. So, he pushed the conversation forward. “Where am I?” His voice was barely a whisper at the time.

“A small stead – no name for the village,” She spoke as she stepped over to him. She took the cup from the table and moved it over to his mouth, “Here, drink.”

He couldn’t rightly say no, as she was already tipping the cup to his lips. He obliged and drank the water as it hit his lips. She was talented. He could only drink a bit, but as soon as he started to falter, she had pulled the cup away. He noticed as she turned to set the drink on the table though that she wasn’t human. Her ears raised and tapered like leaves.  “You’re a veela?” He swallowed a second time, feeling as all the water hadn’t drained from his throat.

She paused a moment and let out a small sigh. “Yes. For a dead man, that seems an odd second question.”

He adjusted. The woman was right. If she had saved him, it shouldn’t have mattered what race she was. He swallowed again. The water on his throat gave him a bit more ability to speak, though still at just a whisper. “Apologies.” He spoke with a soft breath, adjusting to lean back against the bed. “Thank you for helping me.”

She made an unhappy noise and turned to face him. Her slender features and angular face made her scowl all the more obvious as she stared at him. “Thank my children. They found you and brought you back to the village. My husband and I could scarcely believe they had dragged your near corpse that far.” She shook her head. “Think no more of it, though. We are happy you live. And it is good you are finally able to at least able to sit up.”

“Finally?”

“You’ve been here… a full season. It nears harvest.” She answered. The information surprised him, and it must have looked as if it did as well as she read it on his face. “You would awake every couple of days for a short time. Enough to eat a bit, drink. Let us clean you up.” She listed the information as if it wasn’t the first time she had explained it. He had to think about that and glanced outside again. The trees in the distance were still green; the winds still warm.

“How many weeks?” He asked.

“Of your calendar, nearly fourteen,” She spoke softly.

He nodded and just stared out the window for a moment, looking to the forest. “And any others?”

She didn’t answer – at least not visibly. The wounded man’s eyes never looked to her. The silence was enough. He was the only survivor, but he knew that on the floor of the forest. Still, he had a moment of hope. If he had not died when he should have, perhaps another lived. Perhaps she lived. But he knew that was little more than false hope. He nodded. “Thank you again,”

“I’ll fetch you some soup,” She said, and she moved away from him. He could hear her walking through the house. He didn’t look away from that window, though. He just listened, and then looked down at his hand. Or his lack of hand. He took a moment and glanced around the room again. He heard a door open somewhere else in the house. Then there was talking. This time it was a male voice and the woman from before. He couldn’t hope to make out what they were saying, but soon footsteps were coming towards him.

These were heavy, with thick boots hitting the wooden floor before a figure appeared in the doorway. This man was wearing a smith’s apron, marred with soot from ash in the forge no doubt. The man himself had a build like a mountain. Though, he did have a bit of weight to him from living a seemingly comfortable life. He wore a warm smile, much warmer than that of the woman before him. His cheeks were covered in a thin and scraggly beard, partially burnt from cinders of his work. His hair was long, and like the woman tied back away from his face. His ears marked him as human. From behind him, the young woman from earlier peeked into the room. Not willing to come in as he did.

“Well,” His voice carried like an orator as he entered the room and grabbed the chair. He pulled it around the table and to the bedside with a long, warm smile and sigh. “It seems you’re finally awake. I’m glad you live. I would not have believed you could have, were you a lesser man.”

“I’m no great man,”

“I’ve only just met you. But you are not a lesser man to be sure.” The smith gave a bit of a nod as he spoke, leaning back in the chair. He smelled of coal and iron.

The iron smell brought up the thought of blood in his mind. It made his stomach turn almost instantly and put images of death in the forefront of his thoughts. He turned away from the smith and shook his head. “I am sure you are giving me too much credit,” He said quickly, the fast whisper stressing his throat.

“I suppose we’ll learn as you recover… you still have quite the ways to go,” The smith spoke with a nod. “Introductions are in order, I think.”

“Introductions?”

“Yes. You deserve to know us, and we deserve to know you,” The smith nodded.

“Ah. Yes,” There was no reason to be shy, “My name is Reynfrey,” The man spoke and turned back to the smith, starting to offer a hand. He withdrew when he realized the futility of such a motion.

“Reynfrey? Just Reynfrey?”

“Reynfrey Couer,” He responded with his surname as well, finally twisting to shake his head, “Reyn is enough.”

“And are you a ser or lordship?”

“Does it matter?”

“Only proper to address a man by title,” The smith said quietly.

Reynfrey shook his head. “What title is earned a deadman?”

“By your dress, Palatine.”

The smith seemed to be more learned than he had expected. “And what gave it away?”

“A blue cloak, white and gold embellishments on your sword,”

Reynfrey smiled softly, “Fair enough. And as a Palatine, what is the name of those who find me in such straits?”

The smith leaned back and cracked his knuckles. “I am Beynard. You’ve already met my wife Elyenora. And I gather you’ve seen my daughter, Athelis. I have a son as well, Girart.” He smiled a wide smile, “No surnames or titles to remember. Our small village needed a smith, so here I am.”

Reynfrey took a moment to take in that information. A simple village smith knowing what a Palatine is and looked like, or how his sword was any different than that of any man-at-arms raised a few questions. And with a Veela wife, he recognized that there was more to Beynard’s story immediately – but he was in no place to ask or question it at the moment. “I owe you and your family a great deal of thanks.”

“Yes, you do,” Elyenora spoke coldly from the doorway. “And likely more by the time you are fully healed. Come, soup is ready.” She spoke simply before turning back to another room in the home. “Husband, help him to the table.”

“Of course, Elye,” Beynard spoke as he stood. He clapped his hands against his knees and moved over to the bedside and offered over his hands. “She’ll warm up to you, Ser Reynfrey. She’s cold but as happy you are awake as any of us.”

“I’m sure,” Reynfrey struggled to stand, falling almost immediately, only to feel the smith’s powerful palm smack against his back and push him back up. “I’m only a toll at the moment, so I understand her fatigue with me.” His voice was stronger already but still kept to a very quiet tone. It was beginning to hurt to speak.

“An investment,” The smith spoke as he wrapped his arm about the man. “Come, we’ll take it slow. You could use the walk. Your legs haven’t worked much in the past weeks.”

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