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Tag: Fantasy

The Old Mother

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

Author’s Notes: Hello all. This story is my first unfinished part of the Bestiaries that I am posting up. I’ve had trouble with writing lately, partially due to all the things going on in the world at current – partially due to general struggles with this story. The idea is about half written, and I intend on finishing it. I think it will end up being about two thousand words, so consider this a preview. I couldn’t let myself continue to struggle on this piece and hold up my writing, so I’m going to take a break from this story.

               The nightmares that had plagued her had been near endless. Every night her dreams were invaded by a whisper. She could never make out the voice, but each night it seemed to find her. The whispers woke her up in a cold sweat. It wasn’t a small uncomfortable sweat, but rather one indicative of someone coming down from a run. She lay covered in a small layer of sweat that had cooled as she rose out of her dozing state. Her legs ached as if some travel had occurred, but her bed showed no sign of her having left during the night. Still, each time she heard the whispers, she felt as if a chase had only just ended, and awaking was the escape.

               On this night, nothing was different. She sat panting as she woke, moments going by ever so slowly as she regained her breath. Her hands rested lightly on the feather stuffed mattress; her gaze fixed on her knees as she waited for the calm to return to her. She hoped that it would be swift, but it wasn’t. There was slight nausea as adrenaline calmed throughout her system. Her throat burned as she breathed, cold midnight air on rough flesh within.

               For nearly an hour, she sat in the dark, alone and trying to determine what the whispers had said or meant. She could never understand them, or at least when she awoke, she never understood them. She finally gave up and pushed her covers off her form. Her head fell to rest in her hands, and she gave a long, sad sigh as a sense of failure pushed into her mind, replacing much of the earlier fear that had overwhelmed her.

               She eventually swung heavy legs over the edge of her bed and felt the cold dirt floor of her family roundhouse. Nothing was moving in the house, not her parents or the rest of her siblings in the room. She could hear no animals braying out in the fields and no bugs chirping in the fresh night air. It was all silent. She carefully stepped away from the bed. Even her light movements made one of her sisters stir somewhat, but no one awoke.

               She took careful steps away from each. Her footfalls were soft, nearly silent, and it was a common enough occurrence that few would wake even if she made an errant step. Still, she did not want to wake anyone. Her mind was still reeling. The whispers had felt intensely alien to her. They were something that in and of themselves sent a cold shiver down her spine, but she could not place a finger on why. There was no tone to the whispers, nor were their words or inclinations. There were no growls or other sounds, but she could feel a sort of anger and pressure building each time the dream came to her. Every time it had gotten worse, and it had been so frequent lately, she felt a sort of unease when thinking of going to sleep.

               The young lady found her way outside. There she stepped into the nearly frozen mud of their farm and walked in the dark out to her favorite spot. She had found a secluded line of trees, just a few minutes’ walk from her home. It had been this grove that she always found herself going to when she needed some time to think. It was something she had learned from her mother, a place they shared as a spot where they could find calm. So, it was here that she decided to calm down from the nightmares.

               There was a pleasant silence to the early, crisp morning air. The dew settling on the trees gave a familiar and pleasant scent. What little wind there was this time of day was distant and gentle, rustling leaves and moving on without a care. For what short time she had alone in a family like hers, these moments of respite came too few but lasted a good while once they did. Mornings were a time of solitude, a time when she could feel alone – like dreams should have been. This morning was different though.

               She realized after some time that the wind had stopped. She felt no more bristling of the cold morning breeze, the leaves no longer waved in the distance, and there was no more dripping of disturbed dew from overhead within her grove. Instead, the was stillness – but the sound of the wind remained. The realization caused her a moment of pause and confusion. She didn’t know why that had happened until she listened close. The wind must have dissipated some time ago, instead replaced by the whispers that haunted her dreams each night.

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The Caryatid Grove

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

               If one travels beyond the great city-states, north along the coast for a few weeks times, where towns give way to villages, and villages to hamlets, one will come upon the foothills of the high black mountains. Once within the foothills, if one stays near the within sight of the coast, they will eventually see what remains of old quarry cranes in the distance. Thick slabs of wood held together by long rusted iron bolts rise from the hills, partially reclaimed creeping and climbing vines and weeds. The weather of a shoreline cut them down, and few remain standing as tall as they once did. The remnants of fallen beams litter the approach to the hill. For the keen-eyed, an old cobblestone road stretches down the hill and towards the coast, but no docks mark the shore any longer. Only a few scattered stone foundations and pillars remain, long rounded by the constant wind and mist of the seas just feet beyond.

               Finding the overgrown road leads to the sea sprayed quarry. The veritable mine drills down in stepped layers. Each carved from the surrounding earth. Each flattened where stone blocks were once hauled free of their home before being taken to faraway lands. The sharp, uncut marble lines the walkways, chisel marks from generations ago still perfectly visible. So too were the tools abandoned. Rusted hammer and pick heads litter some areas of the mine, and rotten crates falling to dust and grime sit as reminders of a once-thriving economic powerhouse of a place. There were luxuries here, once, for those who spent their lives and bodies cutting luxury from the earth for others.

               It would be wise to stop one’s explorations here on these first steps of the mine. Those who have come this far, though, will have seen the grove. At the bottom of the mine lies a new ecosystem. A small pond of stagnant seawater has given rise to all manner of flora one would tend to overlook – but the colors are vibrant. Deep greens and pearlescent white and gray mark the blooming plants and flowers. Another circle around the quarry and another step lower, and one begins to feel the weight of the place. Something in the air is heavy, and it burdens the breaths taken. Each step towards the goal is more of a struggle. Each is an acknowledgment that going further is taking a choice into your own hands and accepting the dangers below.

               For those that travel this far, it is almost always wanderlust that drives them. None come here in search of treasure, or fame, or fortune. Whatever lies at the heart of this place takes none of that and wishes nothing but solitude, but its mere presence and existence beg the curious to come forward and venture deeper.

               The scent joins one the third step of the quarry, accompanying the sight below. There is nothing quite like it, except to say that it smells almost like a port. Rotting flesh in stagnant water mixing with the ample salt creates a particularly potent cocktail of scents, even before being stewed in a natural stone pot warmed by the grace of an unblocked sun. The mix of ancient dirt unearthed by mortal avarice and its reclamation by the earth is potent. It isn’t only the quarry itself that the soil has reclaimed, however.

               Hidden among the white and gray of the marble are the bones of the miners. While once they likely lay open to the sun, the rains that eroded the base rocks away brought a thin layer of silt to cover them and hid them away. Deeper still in the mine, as one approaches the mire of its bottom, there is a change. The birds and other beasts of the region have not traveled here. They have not pushed this deep. There are no hissing of bugs, chirping birds, and no croaking of toads. The hallmarks of a wetland are missing, despite ample plumage from the plants that have taken up residence here. Then the reason becomes clear.

               At the bottom of the quarry, where the earth was opened for deeper veins and to wash away excess water, there stands a figure of marble. She sits on her knees, her face looking up slightly with her hands raised to protect herself. Her clothes are draped across her, even appearing wet and clinging near her knees. Every curve, every wrinkle, was painstakingly preserved in stone. No stray chisel marks exist, no stray hammer falls to cause even a single blemish. This point is as far as most will ever go. This statue, in all its lifelike quality, is the thing of legends. Tales of the monster within the quarry are many.

               Our lady statue’s last gaze is frozen in time, so lifelike that she must be real. She must have been a person at one point. At least, this is the legend. Stories of a weeping woman seen deep in the quarry, near the statue, are told by local farmers tending their flocks nearby. A landwyrm preys on the beasts nearby, according to local hunters. So, one must venture deeper to know what monster on which one may stumble. One has.

               Within the mine, there is little but death. Whatever took residence there, did so with great anger and violence, and it has not left. Deep in that mine lies the reservoir of water collected over the years, a deep underground lake, and near that lake stand a dozen statues. Each statue is of the same woman, perfectly replicated to exacting details, and all stand watching the entrance of the mine for their maker. There is no growth of the natural here; no animals or plants have overtaken these statues or this lake. Beyond these statues, though, the old mine is long forgotten. None of have ventured past here and survived. The only one who has tried came back a broken man, mumbling about the stone maidens, but never finishing his tale before he would panic and escape the conversation through guile, or breaking down into a weeping mess of a man.

               There have been a few others who tried to venture into the quarry, who attempted to investigate the mine. Those wise enough stopped at the stench. Those with experience stopped at the first statue. Those that ventured deeper never returned. For whatever has taken the quarry, only one thing remains, the drive to create and maintain the Caryatid Grove.

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Dragonslayer

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

               For whatever reason, he had agreed to this particular job. He had a reputation to uphold, he supposed, but each one of these was trying his luck. He had found his way to a cave system were reports of a dragon sighting had originated. They told stories of fire bathing the farms outside of town, great wings blackening the sky, and a roar that could throw men off their feet. All of it sounded rather harrowing when you heard them say it. All of it seemed as if the town was at the edge of its rope. They desperately sought a hero. Of all the towns he had to wander into – theirs happened upon him at the wrong time.

               His spelunking into a cave gave him ample time to think and put together what he had heard from the townsfolk. It was mostly outlying farms that were attacked. Very little was killed in the attacks, primarily beasts and often only single beasts. This dragon in the wilds had been picking off livestock one at a time.  None of the townsfolk could give him a good description of the dragon himself, but he could see the damage. Outbuildings burned, fields turned to ash, and livestock lay slain. But only a few people were killed. Only three or four townsfolk died overall.

               When he found the lair, his suspicions were confirmed. Townsfolk were superstitious folks and people that didn’t have the experience needed to identify monsters. Peasants knew only a hand full. All undead were zombies or skeletons, all apparitions were ghosts, all otherworldly beings were demons – and all great lizards were dragons. Of course, how they had mistaken this thing for a great lizard was beyond him. He had spotted what it was from the cave entrance. Well, that was a bit braggartly. It had been evident to him as he walked through the caves. There were burn marks along the wall, from where this thing had brushed up against them. All along the walls and floors and ceilings. It was something else entirely – something that dripped fire.

               The thoughts lifted when he arrived in a large chamber. His hooded lantern had cast just a dim light around the corner as he entered, but as soon as it breached the chamber, there was a flickering glimmer that rose from the ground. Then the color became clear. Silver and gold lay strewn about, piled next to a thick wooden chest marred and eaten away by the supposed fire of the beast within the caves. With that realization, he felt a smile cross his face. He was not disappointed. Foolish common folk thought a gift of coin would sate a great serpent like a dragon.

               Then his heart sank. It even skipped a beat. There, tethered to the chest by manacle, was a young woman. She was unconscious it seemed, and it was clear that she had been left down here as part of the sacrifice to sate the dragon and stop the terror that had been rocking their township. He moved closer to her and watched her in the silent and dimly lit cave. Her chest rose and fell. She was breathing, at least. That gave him some hope that he wasn’t too late. His relieved sigh fell on her face, though, causing her to stir just slightly.

               Her eyes crept open and met his for a split second. She was tired, frightened, broken by her experience of being cast aside until she saw his face. He saw the light of life flash in her eyes. He knew the realization that she had just made before she said it, but he could not react quickly enough to stop her from saying something.

               “They sent a hero to save me?” She spoke; the woman’s voice a whisper at first, but the excitement of being saved grew. As it did, so too did the volume of her voice. “You, noble dragonslayer,” The adventurer shook his head, mouthing the words ‘no’ and ‘quiet’ to her as she continued, she either ignored him or couldn’t see them. “have my eternal thanks.”

               “Be quiet,” The adventurer whispered harshly, pressing a gloved finger against her lips, “Don’t say anything.”

               “But you are a dragonslayer, sent to rescue me. Surely you do not fear,” The woman spoke slightly muffled through his finger.

               “Shut. Up.” He cut her off by putting his palm on her mouth as she spoke. It warranted a little squeal from her, surprised, and suddenly unsure what was happening. There was a hint of an echo of the noise that reverberated in the room. He kept his palm pressed hard on her mouth. He could feel his palms beginning to sweat under the leather and cloth, and his mind drifted from her to listen for any sound he could.

               Aside, of course, from her mumbling under his palm. He listened close for a minute before he heard nothing that alarmed him, and then he gave a slight nod to her. He raised his other hand, still holding the lantern, to his mouth and shushed her again. Then he slowly moved his hand from her mouth.

“Did you not kill the dragon?” She seemed to realize something was wrong, but at least she wasn’t talking loudly now. She was whispering at least to the best of her abilities.

“There is no dragon,”

“Then why are we being quiet?”

“Because there is a monster. So. Shush,” He said before setting the lantern next to her. He moved over to where the manacles met the chest and set the lamp down next to them. He paused and took a breath before a hand reached one of the many pouches on his belt, and he pulled a small thin, and well-worn lockpick from the pack. He fidgeted, working the lock as a seasoned professional, and it seemed as if he had barely started before he finished, and the lock popped open.

“If it is not a dragon, what is it?”

“What part of shush don’t you understand?” He all but hissed back at her. He pulled the lock pick slowly back and released the manacles from the chest they had been attached to and turned back to face her. Of course, as soon as he had released the lock, she moved forward, dragging the iron manacles across the cold stone cave floor with a loud clanking sound. “Fucking really?” He hissed at her action. She stopped as soon as she realized what was happening.

“Sorry,”

“Just shut…” He paused midway through the statement. Something had caught his ear. It sounded almost like a struggling breath, a quick hiss of air. Then there was a crack. Creaking claws against the stone of the cave. The woman backed slowly away from the sounds, while the adventurer cursed repetitively under his breath. The sound was still distant, but it was growing closer, and while she might not have realized it, it was clear to him that they were caught in its lair now. He finally snapped into action, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Look at me,”

She did what he said and turned to face him. “I…”

“Just listen. In a few seconds, one or two giant beetles are going to come through the entrance. Whatever happens, don’t get close to them. Don’t touch them, don’t be near them. Even if one attacks you directly, keep moving,”

“What?”

“Trust me. Tearing your own skin off to get away from it is better than getting the fire on you,”

“Fire?”

“More like burning oil. Doesn’t come off,” The adventurer reached to his back and pulled the crossbow from between his back and backpack. “Have you ever used one of these?”

“No,”

“It’s idiot-proof. Perfect for you,” He grabbed the charging handle and pulled back the bow, yanking a bolt from its quiver on his belt and balancing it against the string. “Take it. Keep it flat. When you see the monster, press in this lever,” He tapped the lever at the bottom of the bow lightly. “Aim for the big ass of the thing. Not it’s head. Just the bulbous ass. Got it?”

She nodded quickly.

“Okay. Wait until I say loose. You’ve got one shot,” The adventurer said before bounding over towards the cave entrance. The sounds were getting closer, a deep rumbling hum growing ever louder, echoing through the cave – like a growling and rising roar. He worked diligently, while the woman stood frozen in place, shivering in fear.

He poured out pouches of something on the floor – sand or dust in a long repeating line between the sounds and the lair. He tossed the bag in the middle of the lines and twisted his arms to let his backpack fall to the ground behind him. He pulled a handaxe off the side of the bag and leaned his lantern against it, facing the hole where the monster would be appearing. Then he took a breath and steadied himself. He pulled back and stretched, preparing to throw the ax.

It took a few seconds before the lantern’s light revealed the oncoming beast. It was massive, with an ashen chitinous hide. It stood twice the size of a horse, with rapid beating wings rising from its back and beating like a hummingbird – giving the nature of the sound of the roar. From its form, slick oils dripped to the ground with sizzling hisses as each hit the ground. Short moments of light would appear as the oils melted the rock, for split seconds, the heating rock glowing from the sudden hits.

“Now?” The girl sputtered with the panic in her voice rising. The beast turned its head towards her. Its massive mandibles clicked and dripped bile to the ground below, ready to launch after this newest threat.

“No, beasty,” The adventurer barked at it, and let the ax fly. His entire body moved. Every ounce of strength he had pivoted on his hip, his arm arching wide to let loose the shaft. It spun across the cave room and stuck hard into the beast’s side. It pierced the hide, chitin crumbling away from the impact point, and thick oily blood oozing from the wound. As the blood covered the blade, it began to glow, to warm. The handle burst into flame, and the beast itself had a new target. It turned away from the woman and rushed towards the adventurer instead. He cursed under his breath and twisted to one side, running away from the thing but watching its position closely. Once it hovered over the dust he had laid, he called out to the woman. “Now! Loose!”

She pressed the crossbow lever quickly, aiming to the best of her ability. Her eyes locked on the bulbous backside of that creature, where the glowing ax-head still rested. It gave her something to concentrate on – somewhere to focus her shot. The crossbow let off a resounding twang. The bolt flew from the crossbow. There was a sickening thud, and the creature let out an agonized hiss, and it crashed to the ground where he had laid his trap. Then it twitched, its wings falling silent, and its hissing stopped.

The adventurer stopped running. He turned back towards her and barked, “What the hell? I told you don’t aim at the head! If you had…”

“I was aiming at the backside.”

“Oh,” He said, his tone calming from the earlier anger, “Good deal. Good miss. You are lucky as they come,” He said with a deep breath. He stepped over towards the beast, just a pace or two. He held a hand out towards her, motioning for her to stay still. “Let’s make sure it’s…” As he spoke, a drip of the creature’s fiery oil hit the dust. There was a flash of fire and light, and a loud thunderous noise before the dust erupted into a burst of fire around it and engulfed the creature. Parts were torn away from its body by the force of the blast. The oil-like blood and viscera rained across the cave floor. “Dead. Good. That went way better than planned.” He clapped.

She lowered the crossbow and looked over to him. He gathered up his bag and lantern and moved over towards the chest. “What now?”

“Well,” He spoke as he pressed up against the chest and opened it. There was a shimmer of gold and silver from within. “Normally, I’d worry about a second one. But they didn’t hunt enough for two, so this was a young one still looking for a mate.”

“That was a young one?” She squealed. “It’s enormous,”

“I said young, not small. They grow fast.” He put gold and silver into his bag without looking at her – as much as he could fit.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking payment?”

“From the town’s offering? Not satisfied with what they offered you?”

               He paused and shook his head, “No, not really. They did not pay well.”

               “Then… you came to?”

               “No. I didn’t know you were here.”

               “Then, why did you come?” She asked.

               “Because they admitted they gave an offering to the dragon,” He said with a sigh.

               “So, you’re going to steal it?”

               “Yes.”

               “How could you even?”

               “Look, before you get all high and mighty,” He said, turning around towards her, “There are monsters out here. And they sacrificed you to try to appease them, so,” He shrugged, “You can go back there and always know that they left you out here to die. Or,” He pointed to the gold and silver,” You can stuff your pockets full of coin and make your way in life. Find somewhere safe and away from idiots. Your choice,” He said with a wave towards the coinage before he moved back to collecting some for himself.

               That realization sank in swiftly. The woman didn’t know what they had thought that would accomplish now that she was thinking about the idea. She had felt that she was protecting the town. Even if it had been a dragon, how would leaving her have done anything but give it a snack? She swallowed and steeled herself a bit. Maybe he was right.

               “And where will I go?”

               “I don’t know. What can you do?”

               “Nothing. Cook. Clean.”

               “Well, there is a tavern in every town. I’m sure you can find work,”

               She paused, “What about following you?”

               “No. Not an option.”

               “Just to the next town.”

               He sighed, “No. I don’t do charity,”

               She paused for a moment, and then gave an option, “I can carry more gold for you if you take me.”

               He perked up at that thought – and so began their partnership.

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An Imaginary Friend

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

               When I was a child, we lived in a village on the edge of the forest. I suppose it is more accurate to say we lived in the woods outside the village, though. My father was a woodsman and my mother a fletcher, so it was only natural for them to be out in the wilds, and they took us with them. I enjoyed my time in the wild if I am honest. It was quiet and calm, and if you knew and respected the natural, it was even rather safe. Nothing was outstanding or special about those years, to my memory – though at the time, I did not write everything down as I do now, so I may have missed something.

               This story, though, is not about my life there. As much as I would like to discuss that, you asked of my experience with monsters, and the mundane details of the life of a woodsman’s children aren’t what you sought. What is necessary is an understanding of who we were, though. We were not educated folk, at least at the time. My skill for memory and aptitude for learning eventually allowed my parents to secure me a spot as a scribe’s apprentice, but it was nothing less than exceptional that they were able to do so. It was, in all descriptions, a changing of stars for me. This did lead to some unwelcome changes.

               I had been blessed to have a younger sibling, a sister. She was a few seasons younger than me, and well and proper followed in our parents’ footsteps. From an early age, she enjoyed exploring the woodlands. She learned bow craft while working as a fletcher, and she learned to hunt while following my father in the woods. Even though she was young, she was skilled – and she enjoyed the wilds. She loved nothing more than run in the wilds.

               It was a lonely life for her, I imagine. There were few children her age, and I was almost always busy with my studies and the constant need to practice script. She played alone for much of her life, as did I, I suppose. But I always had my studies on which to focus my attention. I believed then that loneliness engaged her imagination. She found a way to deal with that on her own. She began telling us stories of Eremurus.

From her descriptions, he was a young boy about her age. The other details, as they so often do with children, tended to change. His appearance or his demeanor often seemed to change based on her whims for that evening when telling the story. At first, it was harmless fun. It was just a girl who needed a friend creating one for her own. She told stories and tales of their adventures out in the wilderness. These were stories of fun, of jumping creeks and running through briars. These were things that friends did in this village, silly and pointless fun. It was healthy for children to play, and so my parents and I wrote it off. It was the same as anyone would have done.

But it became odder. Her descriptions over time became clearer, and they became less friendly. It was clear that her friend had an unhealthy streak. At first, it was only small things. Items were misplaced, things moved to strange locations in the night. Whenever my sister was confronted, she would deny it, and say that it was Eremurus. She was adamant, regardless of the minor punishments that were doled out to her. She never hesitated to claim her innocence and fought our parents’ accusations in earnest.

Things did grow worse and worse. More things disappeared, and anytime my sister would be blamed, it seemed that she would act out. She would fight back, crying, and wailing that she hadn’t done anything. It eventually became unbearable. Finally, one evening, a fire was set in the house – and again, my parents blamed my sister, though I believed her when she said it wasn’t her. Her blaming Eremurus was almost with a tone of defeat in her voice. She was sad, almost betrayed in a way. After a few weeks, the events stopped.

Then, if I am telling the truth, I don’t remember her speaking of Eremurus much. I believe she mentioned him from time to time, but for the most part, his name was no longer mentioned as far as I remember. We grew up, and while the occasional misplacement remained, the stories of the boy in the woods faded to memory.

Things were not good, though. It was in those years that the war came to our little village. Conscripts were sought out, and the men of the village were called to service. I was lucky. I was a scribe. I was given the role of a messenger, given a horse, and spent much of the war riding back and forth with messages for commanders. It allowed me to send letters home rather often. I spoke to my sister and mother often enough in this way. The letters were short and often abrupt.

A year into the war, these letters stopped. I would hear soon after that our village had fallen to you and your kind. I often wondered what happened to my father, and when. At least with my mother and sister, I know when something happened to them. When I returned here, I found many people had been killed, including my mother and sister. Such is war, unfortunately. So many of us ended up orphans.

I supposed when your forces dragged me here that it was for something military-related. I would never have expected you to want me here for more superstitious reasons. I was even more curious when your men wouldn’t follow me. They walked me to the edge of town and told me to walk to the home in the forest – my home. And so, I did. I had every intention of fleeing when I arrived there. But I saw my house burned down, and I felt a grief I’ve never felt before. You had taken everything from me, and there was a moment, a few moments, really, of overwhelming vulnerability and loss. I was alone, for the first time in my life, truly alone.

But I had been listening to the troops you brought with you. I listened to the superstitions. I heard them worrying about the pranks, the misplaced and missing items, and I suddenly remembered his name. Eremurus. Was that what you had found? Was that what was causing you trouble? I asked him. It was a foolish thing. There was no one in the woods, so asking an imaginary friend to come out was nonsensical. A foolish prayer from a lonely spirit to another.

Imagine my surprise when he answered. He looked like my sister described. He was constantly shifting his form, not sure which to be. He was an animal, a boy, something in between – all at once. He was so excited to see me. So happy one of the family came. And he excitedly asked if I would play with him if I had brought my sister. It took me some time to explain to him what had happened, to explain the concept of death and war.

He struggled to understand, at least at first. I had to find a way to explain to a nature spirit the concept of pointless violence, inflicted upon the less fortunate by the selfish. It took me time to find the words, but once I had succeeded, I returned to your guards to tell you what I had discovered. The thing that has been haunting you was a playful spirit, looking for his friend. But listen closely. You’ve only heard my words for the past few minutes. Aside from my speaking, there has only been silence. Do you hear it now?

That’s what happens when you anger a nature spirit. The forest itself has turned on you – but, I could only explain war to it one way. It was simpler than I expected, once I found the word.

Wildfire.

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A Young Fisherman

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiary

               From time to time, there comes a story of lost ships being found just out of sight of the shore. The stories were all similar; lost ships devoid of its crew but otherwise no signs of distress to be found. Stories varied on what had happened. Most were ships found long after they had left port, and madness offered as the most common explanation, but those of piracy, starvation, and storm sometimes arose as well. The dangers of the sea were many, and any long journey would prove to be a perilous one even for experienced sailors.

               One such ship, though, was found on a calm afternoon by a local fishing vessel. The ship had left the harbor only the day before. There had been no foul weather and no sign of danger. Fishing vessels had been out in the region that day, and there had been no reports recently of things such as raiders or privateers. And yet, the ship was found adrift.

               When the fishermen drew their boat up against the ship, they were able to climb aboard. The ship’s hull was undamaged. Its deck was undisturbed, with all the ropes, sails, and tools each in their proper locations. Further exploration by the fisherman revealed much the same across all sections of the ship. There were tables set with meals, half-drunk mugs of ale, and games of card and chance left unfinished. Throughout the ship, nothing was distressed. Most things were still as if members of this ship’s crew had vanished.

               Despite this, under the bright sun and calm winds, the ship felt peaceful. There was no feeling of ill will or danger. It seemed that everyone had just vanished. The exploration was slow but thorough. They sought every possible hiding place and looked for any given clue. When they found only the ship’s stock, they gathered back on the deck of the ship and discussed what could have happened. It was as if every member of the ship’s crew had just disappeared. But they left behind riches. There was a hold full of goods; steel, fur, and silver for trade. It was a wealth unseen before by any of them. Now it was theirs.

               There was a discussion on what to do. The crew sat around the deck and spoke to one another for a time. The youngest of the fisherman, who was still a new member of the team, was less comfortable than the others. He didn’t know them well, and as they talked about what to do, he merely watched. He could not put names to the suggestions being made, nor could he keep up with the variety of ideas put forward. The fishermen believed that they had found an abandoned ship, one that could easily lead them to more wealth than a life of fishing would bring them. There was some disagreement between them, though. Return to the harbor, collect the reward for the ship, take what they wanted; all came to the deck as a possibility.

               Then a man from their crew spoke up – despite all that he could, the young man could not remember his name or place his face, but he was familiar. He was one of them. Why not take the ship? It lay abandoned, but it was stocked well for a long journey. They could sail to a nearby port as traders, and there they would find their wealth. There, they could start anew.  

               They discussed their options for a time. They debated. The debate never grew genuinely heated, though, at times, voices did become louder. It was all on minutia, though. How would the wealth be split? How would they chose and treat new lives? Would they stay a crew or go their separate ways? After all, this was piracy in a way. They were considering taking the ship of the dead for their benefit. There was no sign of a crew though, not even notes or logs from the captain and crew remained. It was a blessing adrift.

               There was some debate on taking the ship just back to the harbor from which they had left. Each time it came up, the truth came that the ship would be confiscated if discovered. The fishermen would be without their prize. So, they made their choice. They would take the ship to a nearby port, sell the goods, and start over.

               Despite his youth and relatively new position with this crew, the young man did speak up. But he did not do so boldly. He meekly disguised his question as one about what would happen to the old fishing boat. The question seemed to perturb them. Why did it matter? But he pressed the matter, again and again. They relented. He would take the fishing boat back, let the harbor know that they were trying to salvage a ship. When they did not return, he could come looking for them to get his part of the treasure.

               The young man left the ship, took the fishing boat, and returned to port. His conscience got the better of him, though, and he reported the situation to the authorities. With the information, he was taken into custody and brought aboard another ship. That ship would take him to the Capital, eventually. First, it stopped by the planned destination of the fishermen. And he waited.

               No ship had come to port.

               When the navy searched nearby ports, no ship matching that description was found.

               The young man served several short conscription terms for his dealings. He lived a life of little substance, struggling to make ends meet. He always listened to the rumors, but the ship and the fishermen were never heard from again.

               That was, at least, until he was very old. A stranger came to town, seeking the young man who spoke of a lonely ship – only to find a wizened old man ravaged by the passing of ages. The visitor asked him about the ship he had seen of the story from that day. He asked if anyone had believed him. The old man, of course, said no. No one had, despite the story remaining the same throughout his life. The visitor was enthralled by the story and thanked the old man for sharing it. He asked the man if he had gotten what he wanted in life.

               The old man shook his head. He had not. He avoided the fate of his crew, but another fate had followed him.

               The visitor needed to return to his ship, and he asked the old man if he would walk with him and share stories of his life. The old man agreed. That was all he wanted – for someone to believe him. The stranger was happy with that and admitted he believed every word.

               After all, the old man was the only one to get away from him that day.

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The Baker and the Widow

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiary

               There was a Baker who owned a small shop in a small village on the edge of a small gray creek that fed into a small, slow-moving river. There was nothing special about this Baker or his shop. Nor was there anything special about the village or the creek, nor the river that it fed. The village was a simple place, off the beaten path, but large enough to have built a community of families. It was a small friendly place, not known for danger or excitement – and there was little that happened that would throw off the routine of the place.

               That was until the Smith got sick. A healthy man who supplied the town with all its iron needs, the Smith came down with an illness rather suddenly. He had recently married, and his new wife tended to him dutifully. Being that she wasn’t from the town originally, though, rumors were quick to spread as they do in small communities. She was a stranger, and as she wasn’t one of them, she couldn’t be trusted.

               As the Smith grew weaker, the rumors only grew more vicious. The Baker heard rumors of her in his shop; she was a poisoner, her goal was to take his wealth, or she only came here to spread illness. None of this was true, he knew. No one else grew sick, despite the Smith’s Apprentice and family visiting to assist her in taking care of the ailing man. The Smith was no rich man, and frankly, the Baker had seen her coin from the city more often than the Smith’s trade since they wed. As for poisoning her husband, that just felt like a stretch made up by frightened minds.

               Eventually, at the edge of winter, the Smith passed away. Like so many in the village, the Smith would find his final resting place in the town cemetery. The once strong man had withered away, and his family wept. His Widow was inconsolable, though. While she tried to appear strong, she could not do it. She wept at his graveside for days and nights, only coaxed into leaving his side when tiredness overtook her, and the Smith’s family was able to carry her back home. Then she disappeared into their home. The Smith’s family left for their own homes to prepare for the depth of winter.

               The Widow rarely left their home, but the rumors stopped for a time. She gave the Smithy’s shops and all its contents over to the Apprentice, keeping only their home for herself. There she stayed alone for the season, only ever venturing out to purchase much-needed food and drink. She was a broken woman in those days. Her once beautiful smile and bright eyes had faded to a distant and unmoving stare. There was a nothingness that had taken her husband from her, and her eyes had locked onto it. She barely spoke, whispers only answering questions pressed to her, and once she had what she needed, she would return to her home.

               For that first winter, the Baker believed that she would die of heartbreak. She could not have taken care of herself in a way that any would survive. The chimney of her home rarely smoked despite the cold, the food she bought was a bare minimum, and she abandoned all hope of socializing. He couldn’t let that happen. He took it upon himself to visit from time to time, to bring her fresh bread, and to check on her. She rarely spoke to him for more than a moment. She would greet him at the door and pay him for the bread. When he asked if she was okay, if she needed anything, she would shake her head and go back into the building.

               This habit became a routine through even the spring, until one day she seemed in better spirits. She met him at the door, and for the first time, he saw a small smile on her lips. She spoke to him and told him that the Amarant was blooming. It had been her husband’s favorite flower, she explained. The Baker just returned the smile, knowing for the first time she might recover.

               As the summer continued, she tended to her Amarant around the house. She began to act more like she once had. He still chose to drop by and see her from time to time to check up on her. As fall approached, she even ventured out into the village and brought him much of her harvested grain from her gardens. They traded amicably, and he then watched from afar as she turned the fields behind the old house into a small farm. She tended it with a couple of the other widows of the town. She worked with diligence and purpose that he hadn’t seen of her since before her husband had died, and it warmed his heart to see.

               Through winter, he baked bread and took it to her as he had the previous year, though it was a bit rarer an event. She would greet him with some excitement. They would speak for a short time, most often about the bread and how he was finding ways to use the grain of the Amarant to extend the wheat supplies he had. By spring, it was clear the two had become friends.

               In the summer, when the Amarant bloomed, she would come to the Baker with fresh stocks. Now with hectares of the plant growing in her home, she had more than just seeds to share. The two began to dream up new recipes and treats with the plant. It made his shop a rather popular stop in the village, almost overnight. While the new bread became rapidly popular in the village, it came with rumors of the Widow and Baker. 

               Others had noticed their friendship. Others noticed them working together at odd times. Others noticed the way the Widow smiled more when the Baker was around. Rumors swirled of an affair, an affair that did not exist and that the Baker had never sought. Though as the rumors reached him, as people asked how long he and she had been falling for one another, he realized something. The rumors had found a truth that he hadn’t been able to admit.

               For nearly two years, he had visited her often. She had become one of his closest friends. Her smile filled him with warmth, and he felt more comfortable and calmer around her. The rumors, he realized, were true. He had been falling for her in the past years. There was a pang of guilt that came along with that realization. It was a sort of sense of betrayal to the memory of the Smith. It was a feeling that at first he could not shake off.

               One night near harvest, the two had met to exchange one last batch of the Amarant seeds before winter. When she arrived, they set to work in roasting them in his shop and chatted about the harvests and upcoming festivals. Small things, those that require no deep conversation, they were those that could fill the air and keep him from admitting anything deeper.

               Still, he found himself glancing at her. He found himself watching her when she wasn’t looking. She was beautiful. She always had been. These past years, though, as they grew closer and closer, he knew he noticed more and more. The way her smiles wrinkled the edge of lips, and seemed to even to reach to her eyes, the way she constantly readjusted her hair to keep it in place, the warmth of color in her skin from working with her plants, she never seemed to appear to him different than she had the first time they spoke as beautiful as ever – all of it must have entered his mind many times before. Now, it was stuck there, gnawing at him. But that night, she caught him staring.

               She asked why he stared, and her nerves caused her to brush her hair away from her face.  

               The Baker paused. He hesitated a moment. The flickering light of the fires of his kilns baking away filled the room with the smell of soon to be fresh flour, and in that moment of seeing her in the light of a fire, he could not stop himself. He admitted that she was beautiful, that he found himself falling for her.

               She now hesitated and gave a weak smile. Her voice whispered a short thanks, but there was a quaking there, a palpable unease. Then she said the words the Baker feared she would. She admitted she was not ready for a new lover, and with the sentiment, she ended the night. She stood up to leave. But, in a moment of weakness, he reached out and caught her hand. Her hand was warm, much as his was. Both were nervous. The Baker admitted that he needed her to know his feelings, but he had no desire to betray her feelings for her husband.

               The Widow waited a moment before answering. Her hand gave a squeeze before she pulled away. She spoke that now she knew his feelings. With that, she left.

               Winter fell, and the Baker felt that he had ruined something great. Each evening, it ate away at him. He would sit and watch the fires of his bakery, and he regretted ever saying anything to her. Then, he would wonder if it was anything but lust that had driven him. Midwinter, he decided to apologize again.

               From time to time, he would visit her home and drop off some fresh bread. She would greet him at the door and accept kindly. When the topic began to fall from his lips, though, she would end it and reenter the home. She shut him out night after night, time after time.

               Finally, one night the snow fell hard, and he stood at her door. He offered her bread when she greeted him, as always. She accepted, and he asked her if she would let him say his piece one last time.

               She protested, she refused, but she slipped up in her refusal. For a split second, a single word slipped out and revealed her truth to the Baker. She felt the same way. She could not, though. She would not let herself fall in love with him.

               There the two stood silently as the snow fell, watching one another quietly. Neither spoke a word. Finally, the Widow apologized. She asked the Baker not to return, and she closed the door.

               The Baker took a long walk back to his shop. There, crestfallen, he threw himself into his work. The snowstorm continued to build up around the village, but with his heartbroken, he paid little attention to that. Travel in the village stopped for a time. He gave in to despair, and one night the snow piled high on his home and ice packed against the chimney. When the warmth of the kilns melted just enough, there was a small collapse. Thatch fell from the ceiling to the fires. The villagers were not able to react quickly. The night was dark, the village covered with high snow, and no one noticed the building slowly catch aflame.

               No one except the Widow.

               The Baker awoke in the night to the flames, cutting him off from any escape. On the second story, above the source of the fires, he felt himself burning. The fires reached him in his bedroom, the heat of the fires lighting the walls and raising from the stairwell. He coughed, unable to breathe. He knew this was the end, and he was afraid.

               Then, in the fires, he saw her – the Widow.

               She stood at the top of the stairs, flame jumping around her form. The fire had burned away her clothes, and the Baker saw her truly for the first time. She stepped toward him. Her form was untouched by the fire. Time then was slow. Despite the fire, he felt cold. He could barely keep his eyes open as she approached, his life force dwindling as his lungs desperately sought a breath in the smoke-filled room. When she reached him, she leaned in, placed her lips against his. He felt nothing else. A moment of bliss and then silence.

               He awoke in her home, days later. The fire had taken from him much of his strength. His strength would never return, and slowly but surely, the Baker faded away. Still, the two had one more year together. For that last year of his life, he lived with the Widow. The rumors swirled once again; the two were lovers, the Widow had set the fire, the Widow had walked through fire to save him, she stood unburned – some were true, no doubt. Yet, the two were happy, for those short seasons, and when the Baker finally died, the Widow was inconsolable. She lived there for another year or two before she left the village.

               The Amarant still grows there as an ever-present reminder of the Widow’s love, renewed each season. All through the lands, the same story still is whispered by superstitious townsfolk. Many villages have a small home with Amarant growing in its garden – and with some there lie a single lonely grave, tear-stained by the cursed Widow that like her favorite plant, is made new with each fallen love.

 

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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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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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Marches – Chapter 05 (Second Draft)

Author’s Note – So, I wanted to show the second draft of this chapter. I hated the original version of the chapter, but love the character of Romi. I wanted to bring it closer to how I hoped to change the story in the next drafts, and while I’m now working on a third. I really enjoy seeing the evolution of stories, and thought it might be worth a look for anyone watching along. I hope you enjoy this rewritten and revised version of my least favorite chapter.

The Fox’s Bastard

Mirabelle had found herself at home in the village faster than she had expected. The people of Milae were incredibly cordial to her, with an excitement to have her that she never saw in any of the people who visited her old home. She never knew the people of the villages outside of Towers at the Temple, but here – she was already getting to know people. Only a few weeks had passed before she had found a few she could genuinely rely on to help her with many things. Ervig, specifically, had been essential in helping bring her information about the region.

She had been lucky that the Astier owned two manors, as well. They had a fortified home atop a nearby hill, which was built across a river tributary and was where the family actively lived. But Chateau Ronic, where she currently lived, was the home of one of the middle Astier ancestors. From what she gathered, the eponymous Ronic was a leader of the village but otherwise detached from the family affairs. However, while the others were off at war, she was able to defend the village from an opportunistic attack. The villagers held it up as one of the pillars of their relationship with the family.  It seemed the family mostly used the manor as a place to stay when visiting the village now, but for the time being, it was hers to do with as she pleased.

She kept herself busy learning about the region and its people but made time for meals with Tienette. While she did not connect much further with Valamir, she did spend quite some time with Sarus’ younger sister, Cynewise – though she always went by Cyne. The two did not enough together for Mirabelle to consider her a close friend, of course, but she could easily see her becoming one in the future. Still, this isolation made her feel rather lonely. One day, that feeling began to gnaw at her more than usual, and she decided that she needed to leave the residence and go about in town, in hopes of clearing that fog from her mind.

So, with Coralie and Bastien behind her, she ventured out into the village once again. It was a day like any other in the town. A few traders had come into town that morning, as they did every few weeks. It was a time when she could get a few items she didn’t normally have access to – mostly dried goods from the coast, in this case. Still, she enjoyed looking. Every once in a while she would find something from home that helped her feel a bit more grounded. It was a challenge for her to avoid simply buying up more than she needed too, but luckily Coralie was always nearby with a reminder about her stipend.

Today was not unlike any other. The sun peeked through the leaves of the trees scattered throughout the village giving a little bit of warmth on an otherwise blustery day as the summer season faded into autumn. The people were happy though, the sun and early stages of harvest beginning keeping spirits high, despite the colder day. She spent some time chatting with some local villagers as she passed through, still impressed that she was greeted well nearly every time. Of course, there were outliers. A few villagers had let it slip that they’d prefer an outsider not be joining their ruling family – but she had expected that sentiment to be the most common.

Instead, even only a few months into her stay, she found herself walking the streets of the village with the same confidence she might have strolled the temple. While speaking to the baker, though, her ear caught a warning.

“Look out!” A villager’s voice pierced the otherwise peaceful day. There was a distinct, sharp screech of someone in trouble, then the sound of a scared or wounded horse.

Mirabelle felt a heavy hand on her back, the gauntlet edges pressing into her spine and forcing her back. Bastien may have said something, but it was impossible to tell. There was the distinct sound of steel leaving scabbard. On her other side, Coralie and falling back against her as well, both pushing her back and into the merchant’s stall. She barely had a chance to look to see the trouble. A pair of large draft horses had been startled, or maybe injured. She couldn’t tell. Their drivers tried desperately to get them back under control. Then there was a distinctive snap, the leather of their reins giving way under the stress. One of the drivers fell back at the change in force, losing his footing and smashing to the ground with a scream. His partner was startled, and the second horse’s reins were lost. Both horses tore forward. The cracking of wood followed as they stripped free of the cart.

Then the animals rushed forward down the street, panicked. Little was more dangerous than a frightened animal, and a massive draft horse on a busy street was a genuine threat. When they rushed down the street, people scattered. Mirabelle saw the creatures rush at a villager, one raring up and striking out with its front hooves. Luckily, the villager had been able to dart out of the way, but they moved fast towards the other villagers. One villager fell near one of the horses, who kicked back. “Bastien!” Mirabelle’s voice broke through the noise.

The old templar didn’t hesitate. When her voice called, he pushed off from her and rushed towards the villager. He raised his sword, both hands firmly gripping the hilt of the old weathered blade and raising it as a spear. With a yell, he met his mark – the blade sinking into the draft horse as it raised with a sickening sound. The templar followed through, pushing his entire weight into the beast. He was not a small man, but the beast was enormous. He pushed with everything he had and tilted the thing just enough to knock it back and away from the villager crawling to their feet. The villager let out a scream as the horse hit the ground next to it, with the templar now atop it.

That was all the opening that Mirabelle needed. She pushed past Coralie and rushed out to the villager on the ground. She gripped the villager’s hand and helped him up. Her handmaiden was right behind her, though. As soon as the villager had started to climb to his feet, she felt Coralie hit her in the back – hard. She and the villager stumbled forward, and she turned to see the handmaiden rolling out of the way of the other angered horse.

“Coralie!” Mirabelle yelled back to her as her eyes caught a glimpse of Bastien pulling his sword out of the creature and stepping away. Then she realized her mistake. One of the draft horses, the one still standing, had rounded back around to face down the small foreign handmaiden armed with nothing but a dagger. And the other rolled back to its feet, despite the blood pumping out of the sword wound in its chest.

She saw it then, the bright white bone at the center of each horse’s skull.

“They’re licorne.” Mirabelle almost laughed with a mix of excitement and fear. They were not just frightened and scared animals. They were unicorns, their horns carved off their skulls and forced into service as draft animals. They were bred for war, fighters from the day they stood to their deaths. She felt a hand on her shoulder, then another, the villagers pulling her back and off the street and to a nearby building.

Bastien let out a yell and hit the pommel of his blade against his shield. The loud noise drew the attention of the wounded beasts, and as they prepared to strike again, one of the villagers yelled as well, hitting a hammer against the wood wall of the building next to him. It drew their attention, and as the wounded licorne rose to its feet, the other huffed and beat on the dirt road with a hoof. There was another yell, another burst of cacophonous sound. The poor beasts seemed confused, and it was clear they were frightened. They wavered, and shortly after darted down the street and away from the noisy crowd, and twisted hard to move towards the woodlands around the village.

The few minutes after felt like a much longer time, but soon enough, Ervig and his men had reached the scene and were helping people get things back to normal. At first, Bastien and Coralie were reluctant to let Mirabelle help, but once they did, she found herself calmed by the tedious tasks of cleaning up a market stall alongside one of the village artisans. She had helped pick up some of the smaller items that had been knocked aside in the rush of folk trying to find a safe place to stand, but her eyes would drift away to Ervig from time to time.

The man questioned the merchants whose cart the beasts had broken away from, took count of their things and seemed exacerbated by the time he stepped back over towards the stall where Mirabelle and company still stood. Bastien stepped out to greet him, still standing with his blade out and a watchful eye on any around his Lady.

“What did you find out, Sir Ervig?” She heard Bastien say.

“Not much. They bought the licorne from a merchant traveling through Rane. What information they had would be useless in finding out anything. My instinct is that they had no idea what they purchased.” Ervig let out a long sigh, “I’ll be getting some hunters together to try to track them down.”

“Any skilled enough to bring down a frightened licorne?” Bastien asked.

“We’ve got good hunters. I’ll put up a bounty for them, and we’ll get them down quick,” He took a deep breath, lingering a moment. “A bounty should help speed things along.”

“Bastien,” Mirabelle spoke under her breath, quietly joining the conversation and drawing looks from the two men. “Get him the coin needed for a bounty from our stipend.”

“My lady, this isn’t a d’Argent issue. The Astier will handle the coin,” Ervig protested, though only half-heartedly.

“It will be faster if I do it. If you insist, you can have the Astier repay me…” She spoke as she brushed off her robes and smiled over at the shopkeep she was working to aid. “Besides, I saw the danger. I want to assist.”

“Of course, my lady. And we thank you for that. You are too kind…”

Mirabelle just smirked and shook her head. “I will offer double the amount if the beasts are brought back safely. I would like to think they could be reformed.” She stretched. “Coralie and I will walk through the village again. Bastien, go with Ervig, and get what he needs.”

“Yes, Lady d’Argent,” Bastien agreed, “If Coralie is comfortable protecting you on the return to the manor.”

“I am,” The handmaiden gave a single nod.

“And my men are about if you were to get uncomfortable,” Ervig added. “And I will have Bastien back to you quickly.”

“Good,” Was all Mirabelle thought to say before smiling to the merchant and going back to working for a few moments, as Bastien and Ervig moved off to handle setting up the bounty. She wondered if she had made the right choice, but didn’t dwell. As the shop was cleaned up, she said her farewells and returned to the manor for a time.

Two days passed before she heard any word on what had come of the Licorne hunt. The autumn weather continued to push colder, and with a seasonal rainstorm hitting the area shortly after, she found her spirits down. The lands here were beautiful in their way, and from the manor house, she could watch over the small village to the west and enjoy wonderful views of the forest and rivulets to the east. Unfortunately, the turning color of the leaves had been cut short by the pounding rainstorms of the previous two days. What had looked like a beautiful array of colorful leaves had been stolen from their branches, with only a scant few leaves remaining on the branches.

She had expected that their hunt for the Licornes had been cut short as well, made impossible by the rains and fallen leaves. She had little hope they would find it and resolved to keep a vigil for the beasts.

A beating on the manor door near dusk on that second day was answered by one of her servants, who returned to the commons room where she sat reading as Coralie played lightly on her old viol. Bastien, as always, was nearby but left the lady to her own devices and busied himself with other tasks.

“My lady, Sir Ervig is here to see you,” The servant spoke with a bow.

“Very well. Show him in.”

“Yes, my lady,” The servant said before stepping back out of the room.

Ervig stepped in a moment later, his normally thin frame looking even frailer when soaked through by the rains he had walked through to get here. He spoke up quickly, “I am sorry to bother you, lady d’Argent, but I wanted to update you on the hunt.”

“Calling it off?” Bastien spoke coldly from the corner.

“Yes,” Ervig responded with a shrug, “But not for the rain.”

“Why, then?” Mirabelle asked as she pushed up from the seat.

“A young woman brought me the Licorne this evening.” He spoke. “The remaining one. She found the wounded one had succumbed to its wounds, and ended it.”

“But she was able…” Mirabelle turned and set her book aside, trailing off as she turned to speak to the man.

“Trap it, and bring it to us, yes,” Ervig gave a low laugh, “In the pouring rain, deep in the forest, with a fresh layer of leaves. I’ll admit, I am surprised.”

“And who was this lady?”

“That would depend on who you ask, my lady.” The militia captain’s lips twisted a bit uncomfortably, a sort of wince on his face.

“What exactly are you implying, Ervig?” Bastien spoke up, more curious at the tone than most of the others.

“It was the Fox’s Bastard.” He replied.

“And should that mean anything to us, sir Ervig?”

“Right,” Ervig brushed some rainwater off his arms and took a deep breath. “She’s the daughter of Luc Cedolin du Rane. He was a marquis, across the border from Milae.” Ervig explained. “He was called le Renard, the Fox. Not because he was particularly cunning or quick, but rather because he had orange and red hair.” The militiaman pointed towards his head or the hair on it – which bore no resemblance of similar colors. “He never married. His lover died in childbirth, and he raised Romi alone.”

“Her father never granted her status as a full member of his family?” Mirabelle asked calmly, but quietly as they still stood in the midst of the room. She didn’t want to be too loud, to speak to openly and say something uncouth about the huntress who had just accomplished something she had frankly thought a nigh impossible dream.

“Unsure. When her father died,” The captain took a breath and crossed his arms. “She was only fourteen. Her cousin took regency of his estate, and she was officially named a bastard by the Duc du Rane.” He glanced down to the small puddle below him. “There are rumors that her cousin orchestrated it. But, in the end, she is illegitimate. By law, she is just Romi. Her cousin did grant her a small piece of land on the edge of our territory. But she mostly subsists by hunting and has a small contingent of loyal servants.”

“How many?”

“Significantly less than you brought to the village, my lady,” Ervig said quickly. “She is a kind girl, but of little concern.”

Mirabelle made a noise somewhere between a huff and growl. It made the others around her take notice, though primarily those servants that had traveled with her to Milae. She took a deep breath and then gave a little bit of a shake of her head. “I’d like to know more about what happened to her and her family.” Her fingers tapped along the side of her robes, and after a moment, her voice called out an order, “Coralie, have the servants find what they can from the village over the next few days.”

“Of course, my lady.” The handmaiden gave a quiet bow, her music fading as she began to stand up, “We will find what information we can.”

“And I still want to have a meal with her.” Mirabelle clarified. “Bastard or not, she is of noble blood.” She spoke with a quick nod. “And I look forward to it.” She seemed to have decided as she dusted off her clothes and looked to Ervig. “Thank you, Ervig. Please bring me a report after you’ve sent one to the Astier. And given it is Astier land, they may keep the Licorne if they would like, but if not, I would like it brought here.”

“Lady d’Argent,” Bastien started to protest, but a hand raised by the young woman cut him off.

“Yes, my lady,” Ervig said after a moment. His head twitched to one side for a second and he gave a smile, “My lady, you do recall you are just a guest here, correct? There is no need for you to worry about the day to day.” He smirked, poking at the young girl, “Or are you considering staying?”

Mirabelle frowned at him. “You forget yourself.”

“My apologies, my lady,” He replied with his hands raised for a moment. “I meant it mostly in jest.” He admitted with a smile to her, and then he gave her a bow. “By your leave, ma’am.”

She gave him a dismissive wave, and then looked over to the others, before returning to her seat and taking back up her book – though the pages rarely turned. Her mind was elsewhere.

Once the day of the meal arrived, Mirabelle set it upon her servants to prepare a traditional Cote d’Argent meal – light fish, sweet fruits and vegetables, and a stout bread. She gave them their orders and went back to her quarters to bathe and clean herself up. Then, once she had dressed in a nice enough dinner dress, she set about waiting for her guest to arrive. As the night began to fall, clouds began to fill the sky, blotting out the stars, though the rain did not return — only the chill of the Autumnal air.

It made for a dark night, and as the dinner hour passed, her servants began to mill about and see if she would decide to eat without her guest. She did not. Instead, she sat and waited. After an hour or two, she relented and allowed her servants to eat – but she waited. Night fell darker, and the deeper the time went the more she listened to her servants speak about how she was wasting time, that the girl wasn’t coming.

With the darkness engulfing the home, she had her servants light a lantern outside, and one for her to read by, and she continued to wait. As she read, she listened. Bastien’s snores from his place nearby her were perhaps the loudest sounds, but Coralie’s insistence on busying herself around the lady came in a close second. It was not as late as each seemed to feel it was that night. Only an hour or two had passed since darkness fell, but they were impatient.

When there was a knock at the door, Mirabelle stood and moved over to see who it was. Coralie rushed to stop her and to open the door herself, but the lady would not have it. She opened the door to greet the archer and her guard with a smile. She had expected someone more imposing on both counts. The Huntress was a small woman, with a rounded face and bright red hair toned with just enough light browns to give it the tawny or orange color for which her father was known. She only met her eyes for a second before the woman looked away, nervousness extending from every motion and twist of her body. Her guard was not much more impressive, a tall, lanky man with only basic armor of tanned hide and a simple spear. The only impact he made on Mirabelle when she saw him was the odd thought that he looked uneven.

“I apologize for the late hour, my lady,” Romi spoke with a deep bow. “Please forgive,”

“Not at all,” Mirabelle replied swiftly, cutting her off. “Hunter’s rarely come home until the end of the day, Lady Cedolin.”

Romi smiled and lowered her head. “Thank you,” She said quietly.

“Come in and have a meal with me. Your man is welcome to rest and eat as well, of course.”

“You are too kind.”

The two walked into the manor and found themselves in the dining room. The sat to eat and for the next few minutes, they found themselves merely exchanging more pleasantries, which irked Mirabelle – though her face never showed anything but kindness. As the conversation seemed to go nowhere, she opted to push the archer, to see what she could discover about her. After a drink of wine, she spoke plainly.

“Ervig says you are the daughter of Marquis Luc Cedolin – but a bastard.” Lady d’Argent put a hint of emphasis on the last word. “He is wary of you.”

“Ervig is…” Romi’s grip tightened on her cup, and she sighed, “Cautious, but correct. They call me…”

“I know,” Mirabelle spoke softly. “You don’t have to say it.”

Romi nodded and continued. “I live in a small home in the forests on the Rane border with Nid de Vouivre. It is a meager hunting lodge my father built. Something my cousin didn’t care enough to take.”

“You don’t seem to harbor much ill will…”

“My cousin is a fox. He is cunning and always a few steps ahead of anyone who faces him in a political arena. He doesn’t join conflicts he will lose. His case against my inheritance is ironclad in regards to the law. He has contacts at every level of the court of Rane and he can bend them with a few choice words.” She spoke with a clear bit of sadness. “Had he put his skill to something great, he would likely be one of the best of us – but he is driven by power and wealth.”

“Perhaps one day, you can secure your lands again,” Mirabelle spoke with a succinct nod.

“No. My father’s lands are rightfully his. As long as he leaves the lodge and forests to me, I have no reason to test him.” The archer shrugged. “One day, I hope to be able to sway him back to something more important than power and wealth. His potential as a courtier and leader is astonishing. His mastery of debate and the sincerity to which he puts his mind to the research behind arguments is inspiring – if currently misplaced.”

Mirabelle didn’t say anything. She was a little surprised. That was rather high praise for a thief and con-artist, but moreover, she was astonished at her sizing up of the man. “Tell me, what do you think of Ervig’s abilities.”

“Hm?” Romi raised a brow and paused between a bite of her dinner. “I…” She thought a moment. “As a military leader, he is talented, but his domestic abilities leave much to be desired. He tends to want to handle things himself and lacks the education required to adjuvate village projects properly. It drags him down as a domestic steward, but his skills with a spear are quite good. His understanding of bandit tactics and small conflicts makes him very skilled at defending a village such as this. He also has a knack for connecting with his subordinates.”

Lady d’Argent gave a little nod. She thought that maybe there was more to the archer than she let on, but this all but proved it. “Do you know this much about every noble in the region?”

“What?” She shook her head for a moment, and then sighed, “Well, yes. I have had to. Otherwise, how would I hope to keep my quaint holdings?”

“So, you know about the Astier family?”

“Yes, of course. As a regional power, and the nobles of the closest town to me, I have too.” Romi spoke softly.

“What can you tell me about Valamir?” Mirabelle asked, before shaking her head. “Actually, no. I know the Marquis and Marquise…” She pondered for a moment, “Romi, what can you tell me about Sarus?”

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