Skirmishes and Schisms by FibroJedi | World Anvil Manuscripts | World Anvil

Chapter 9: Episode 3: Of Wind and Fire

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Episode III: Of Wind and Fire


 

23, Jylta 545 AFD

Bezélan Minor, 14 Ur

"Here we are, my friend, please take a stool and rest your arms on the bar," Lenìc suggested as they entered his inn, "it's more supportive than the authorities around here."

His eyes darted all around the room full of half-broken chairs, and tables that were more an Ode to Knife-Art than designed to prevent food and drink from sliding off. How many games of Kal-Mys were recorded, and sometimes even etched, onto the tables could not be counted. But they were still standing, which was more than could be said about his patrons by early evening most days.

"Hmm, no broken windows or doors. That's two days in a row," he noted grimly, yet with satisfaction.

Victory is hard-won among the desperate, he mused.

Nyk knew his strength was failing but as only he and Lenìc had witnessed the King's 'true form', he knew he had to survive to have any hope of helping others.

"Minor is...cleaner...than Uranbé," he observed with a tight-lipped smile.

"You do mean indoors only, right?" Lenìc smirked.

Nyk gave a wry smile.

"And you know the real Uranbé ain't got much 'indoors' for its, let's say, real folk."

For saying the older man had only approached him this morning, the two had gained a camaraderie as though they had been friends for many years. Gathering himself together, Lenìc returned his thoughts to the impossible task ahead of him; keeping his neighbours alive.

"Right, well, if we haven't been burgled, Nyk, then we can make bread," he announced.

"B-but I don't know how to make bread," Nyk protested, "I was a woodworker, and not even a great one, truth be told. So, I could maybe carve a lookalike loaf - but that ain't gonna taste good - what I mean to say is, really, all I can do with bread is, well, eat it."

Lenìc laughed, grateful for the opportunity to do so.

"Slow your breathing down, friend - eating it is all I shall ask of you!" he replied placing a gentle hand on his shoulder, then called out "Pelorma!"

"Yes, Da-Lenìc?" came a softly-spoken voice from behind a cupboard full of linen and serviettes. A softly-spoken voice carrying a crossbow.

Lenìc turned around, noted the crossbow and an expression of understanding crossed his face.

"Ah, so that's why there are no windows broken?"

The girl of about twelve Winters gave a soft smile and lifted a fistful of bolts into the air.

"I didn't even lose any bolts this time! This thing is heavier than it looks," she grumbled, "but I found places to rest it for aimin'. Might be some dents in the windowsills, though."

"Nicely done, girl, nicely done. I assume you didn't actually kill anyone?"

Pelorma opened her mouth in shock.

"Oh, no Da-Lenìc," she answered shaking her head, "we have enough of that around here. I just fired to scare cowards away like you taught me. Then ran quickly to get my bolts back before lockin' the door again."

"Accidents can happen, but well done. You hide some strength in your arms, somehow."

Pelorma nodded with a grin, and flicked some of her blond hair from her eyes, "and long may it remain hidden!"

"Who's this refreshing breeze then, Lenìc?" Nyk asked, quizzically.

The innkeeper motioned for the girl to come closer to them. She placed the crossbow and bolts on the bar and jumped onto a stool, shaking her arms loose with a sigh of relief.

"Well?" Lenìc prompted her, "I don't need to talk about you when you're here."

"Thanks Da-Lenìc," she replied, lowering her eyes, "I'm, I'm Pelorma. Da-Lenìc and his Maira have sort of adopted me. There's just nowhere for me to stay proper yet, but I oftentimes end up here. Minor's not safe for kids."

Nyk smiled kindly at the girl, and gently lifted her face with a bony hand until her eyes met his.

"Minor's not safe for anyone. It'll make you grow up quickly too. Stick with people who keep you safe and..." he coughed, "most importantly, people who actually care about you."

"Mister Nyk, your hands are like ice," she replied, aghast and recoiled from his light touch, "sorry, I didn't mean to pull away from a kindly old gentleman, but..."

"Pelorma... 'lost light'? Yes, I think that's right," Nyk mused, "never apologise for pulling away from a touch you do not want, alright?"

Brushing away the meaning of her name, she nodded, then jumped down from her stool and ran behind the bar. The sound of water being heated rippled and gurgled around the inn's seating area.

"She was wandering the streets with no memory," Lenìc began to explain, "and, believe it or not, Minor's safer for kids than those who appear adult."

"Appear adult?" Nyk frowned.

"Let's just say some young people have to try and hide their, uhm, features, until nature makes it impossible."

"Oh," Nyk flatly responded, "even Uranbé is patrolled and most things like that don't happen."

"Pelorma's innocent and brave, and neither are in ready supply around here. It's a hard task, because I don't want to take the threads of her childhood away, but she has to defend herself, too."

"If you weren't succeeding at your 'hard task', it'd show in the girl, and it doesn't. I never had girls, but kids can quickly reflect those who help raise them, you know?"

Lenìc hummed in agreement. "No pressure, then."

"Cocoa, Mister Nyk," Pelorma announced as she returned to them, and proffered a steaming pot tankard towards him, "I hope you likes it sweet because I added loads of sugar. You looks like you needs it."

"Lenìc's dear Pelorma, you are correct. And this is worth more than a King's lunch coming from you."

He wrapped his hands around the tankard and held it close to his heart. The girl blushed.

"Mister Nyk, there's no need to be that gushy 'bout some hot cocoa."

"No, he really means it - in the most literal sense," Lenìc replied, in all seriousness, "he was offered part of a lunch from the King's floor."

"Th-the floor?" Pelorma asked, confused.

"Remind me to talk you through it later. For now, take that same cocoa-making heart, make one for yourself and fire up the oven please."

"Yes, Da-Lenìc. How much bread're we making?" she looked at the floor and scuffed her ragged shoe along the floorboards, "and yes, I was listening. Should I be sorry?"

Lenìc huffed.

"Hardly. You were listening out for possible intruders, probably opened the windows crossbow-first to defend the inn. You did a great job. And this building is not made of Crescent Marble and Vyenu Wood, if you catch my drift? Besides, there was no need to keep a secret from you, see?"

Pelorma looked up at Lenìc and beamed. "Only secrets worth keepin' are to keep someone safe and for wonderful surprises?"

"Exactly, my girl." he agreed.

"Thanks, Da-Lenìc," she said wrapping her arms around his waist and squeezing him.

He leaned down and kissed the top of her head.

"We are all doing our best, Pelly, okay?"

Pelorma released him from her embrace and put her hands on her hips and tilted her head.

"So...my question?" she added with a smirk, a test she often did to check he was listening to, and remembering, what she was saying.

Her adoptive father closed his eyes and took deep breath.

"However many loaves we can make from however many bags of flour we can find in the half-capital."

"With one oven?" Pelorma replied with shock.

Lenìc opened his eyes and gave her a smile.

"This is a game of bread or death, my girl. I shall have Maira get ours on the case too. I will need to go find flour."

"So, this is serious then?" Pelorma asked, "you don't look serious, but your words are."

"Would you rather I let you start a huge, serious job with a smile or a frown?" Lenìc asked.

Pelorma looked at the floor.

"Good point," she accepted, then looked up again, "I'll try to do as you then - do serious stuff well, but not be grouchy about it. And I think the name Minoritans Unite sounds a better game than Bread or Death."

Lenìc nodded. "Ha, already you understand leading - and messaging - better than our Blessed King. Anyway, I really must go."

"Do you just expect me to sit here until I become a bag of flour?" Nyk interrupted, with a half shrug.

"You can try some bread when I make it," Pelorma replied, "I'm still learnin'. You get to make it better, and you get to eat. You have the best job. Well, mebbe after the first couple of tests anyway," she added with a giggle.

Nyk chuckled. "I guess we had better start testing right away, then!"

Pelorma nodded and returned to the tiny kitchen. "We need more Szòltapi milk too, Da," she called to Lenìc, "no point makin' bread that's too dry to swallow!"

Nyk chuckled, as his cocoa began to warm and comfort him.

"She's a live one. And clever too. Szòltapi indeed. You don't hear Foyiitùn spoken that often any more, even less with a near-native accent."

Lenìc nodded. "Maira and I are doing our best to make sure she keeps learning and remains clever. Before the whole 'ignore-Minor-who-cares thing' Carnael started, we had regular trips to the woods. We never mastered the accent and only manage the odd sentence ourselves. But we know how to teach and...to find resources to help. This realm has forgotten how to communicate. We just help that one bit. She already knew a fair amount when we took her in."

Nyk pressed his tankard against his face, and the heat eased some of the ache in his head.

"You're doing a good job considering you only 'found' her," he reaffirmed, "and she doesn't just defend herself frantically. You have to be real careful with crossbows."

"Yes, she is a thinker," Lenìc smiled, turning to unlock the door, "exactly the kind of citizen His Lordship dislikes the most. So, beware of that dagger of hers."

Nyk stopped mid-slurp.

"Sh-She has a dagger? But I didn't see it."

Pelorma popped her head around the corner and winked.

"That, Mister Nyk, is the whole point!"

23, Jylta 545 AFD

Edge of Frostplain, North of the Viàn Falìnai, 14 Ur

It seemed that with each step the Kyadii took North, the more their strength returned and the more they felt able to speak among themselves. A few began to laugh, or share stories, or think about what exploits they had planned once they finally reached their home, even though that would be at least another day or two. There was an air of hope for the first time since before they had arrived at the Viàn Falínai. The party had finally reached snow-covered ground and more was gently falling from the steel grey skies. Both Hera'llyn and Polarnis had decided to depart, deciding their work appeared completed, and were carried away once more by Aevyenkai, the Crystal of Air. Jaridà was finding the gradual ascent difficult, but his Qal'ath-issued boots were firm underfoot, and dug into the ground so that he did not slide. He had had to concentrate on his breathing and avoiding tripping up now-concealed rocks. While he could not join in the fresh joviality and kinship between the Deenfeiss, he could not deny their transformation. Yet there was one Kyadd who remained silent, focussed on each heavy footstep as though he was heading towards his doom. Ferrfeiss. Sensing this, Rusziné used his height to his advantage and strode quickly to the chief's side then kept pace with him. After some moments, the Kyadd seemed to find his voice.

"Thank you," he managed.

"For what, friend?" Rusziné asked.

"For not immediately deciding you knew the answerrrs or the words of encourrragement I needed."

Rusziné huffed.

"I barely know you, how can I tell you what you should be thinking or feeling? It's not my place."

"No, it is mine," Arrnwarr replied from Ferrfeiss' other side, "and even I am struggling."

With a heavy sigh, the Kyadii Chieftain stopped, stretched and looked from Arrnwarr to Rusziné.

"Where is Ayàvi?"

Rusziné blinked in surprise.

"She's around here somewhere," Rusziné replied, "as useless as that reply is to you. Why?"

"I'm here, I'm here," called a voice from behind them, "I've clearly flown for too long recently, I'm not used to hard walks. And the trees at home stop most of the snow getting...too...deep," she explained stepping over what she thought was a deeper dip in the ground, not wanting to risk it being an icy pit.

"But isn't the Bruha Foyblànii mostly on an incline, which would make you used to difficult treks?" Rusziné asked with a wink.

Ayàvi grimaced.

"Thanks for that, Iné," she grumbled in mock indignation, before turning to Ferrfeiss, "why did you need my attention?"

Arrnwarr crossed her arms, also intrigued as to why he required the girl from the White Woods. Ferrfeiss tilted his head questioningly at her then returned to his thought.

"It was not that I needed Ayàvi as such. More that, with her in earrrshot, various people-groups arrre rrrepresented. Though I do count her as a frrriend personally now," he paused and a sad look came over his face, "what I wanted to ask you all was...when your leaderrrs...fail, how do you rrreplace them?"

Rusziné took a step back in shock.

"So... you were serious back there then?" he asked.

"He was," Arrnwarr replied on his behalf, then stalled, "but I do not think his view of today matches what the rrrest of us think."

"How can I not have failed, Arrnwarr?", Ferrfeiss seemed to yowl, "I brrrought dishonour. My actions led to a rrrift between allies. I put our people in dangerrr for no rrreason."

"And no one came unwillingly, Mrrhairrt23," Arrnwarr pointed out, "everrry Rarshk chooses theirrr own destiny, no? So each put themselves in dangerrr."

"Yes, but..." Ferrfeiss tried to retort.

"Hold on one moment," Ayàvi interrupted sternly, "before you left your dens near the Glasdei, what did you decide the aim of your journey was?"

Ferrfeiss frowned, "To find a long-lost brrrother, to brrring him home and to make surrre no one died in the prrrocess and to tell Qal'ath to stop enslaving our... ghyta."

"Cubs?" Rusziné translated.

"Yes, that is the word. Cubs. That was my mission."

"Oh, now this sounds familiar," Rusziné sighed, "so let's put this another way. My mission was to stop you Kyadii from reaching the capital city and to make sure no one died in the process."

"But you succeeded Rrrusziné! I did not," Ferrfeiss growled in protest.

"To borrrow a Leaf-Word..." began Arrnwarr, "that is brrruffus."

"I have to agree," Rusziné continued, "you found your brother, discovered that he was already home and that he was pretty much not a slave. And how many of your group died in the process?"

"None, thanks to you and the White Leaves."

"So did your mission succeed or fail based on your original intentions for it?" Rusziné asked pointedly.

Arrnwarr placed a hand on one of Ferrfeiss shoulders.

"You can admit you were wrrrong in front of these people, you know?"

Ferrfeiss closed his eyes and sighed.

"Fine," he begrudgingly accepted, "frrrom what I set out to do it was... a success."

Rusziné was about to continue when shadows of other Kyadii were cast near their feet. Ferrfeiss turned to them and glanced at each one. Where he expected to see anger, annoyance, disappointment - even disgust, he saw determination and confidence. Where he anticipated drawn Rzarchprls, he saw some fangs bared in smiles. As if to speak for them once again, Klorwyrrb stepped forward.

"We hearrred yourrr conversation," he started before coughing, "I will try to calm my purrr, one second."

A Warrior-Kyadd who cannot control his purred 'r's really has had a satisfying day, Rusziné thought.

"We agree with Qal'ath and the White-leaves," Klorwyrrb nodded, "though I do wish I could tell Klor'asq this. Him or that silky Kyaevy."

"I will tell Kyaevy," Ayàvi chuckled, "about the point of view, but not the 'silky' bit, I promise."

"As you wish," Klorwyrrb smirked, then looked his chief in the eye once more, "you took us out of our comfort to find another wearing our marks. You found two. Most of us enjoyed a good fight. We brushed with death but were not overcome. What kind of warrior never faces death? We may not be forged of fire, but we are rrrefined by ice and light are we not?"

Arrnwarr looped her arm around Ferrfeiss' and gave it a gentle squeeze. Taking the hint, he nodded.

"As I've said on many occasions, yes," he agreed, finding it difficult to hear his own words 'thrown into his teeth'24.

"Then you have made us stronger today. We came near to death but were not overwhelmed. We fought, but did not die. We came in stealth and distrust and we leave in the open and with allies. The Deenfeiss Leen exist in Frostplain, the White Woods and even in the Walled City. The whole day has been one challenge after another, and before you hang your head again, Ferrfeiss," he said firmly, causing Ferrfeiss himself to look up sharply, "that is precisely the kind of life we should be leading. Maybe without the heat poisoning thing."

Arrnwarr laughed softly, surprised at herself for a moment.

I won't show my silky side for too long, she resolved, I don't want the clan to think I've lost my knife-edge.

"What I am trying to say, Ferrfeiss," Klorwyrrb concluded, "is that you have done what a Chief of the Deenfeiss should do. We have all been tested and we've survived. So bring on the next test, yes?"

"W-with me as Chief?" Ferrfeiss asked, using his strength to contain his emotions.

"Until you can no longer do what a Chief can do. The way the Deenfeiss have always done it."

"Can I add something, Klorwyrrb?" Arrnwarr asked.

"Can I stop you?" he responded, grinning.

"Of course not!" Arrnwarr retorted with a rumbling growl, "but asking was fair too. What I would say, Ferrfeiss, is that you need to pick up the old trrradition of having at least three leaderrrs. Sharrre what needs to be done."

Rusziné, aware they were discussing clan policies had remained silent by Ayàvi who had kept quiet for the same reason. Jaridà had found the trunk of a long-dead tree some distance away, where he leaned and occasionally surveyed the lands around them. Ayàvi rested a heavy head on Rusziné's arm and smiled slightly.

"You could decide not to turn up to your own leaving party, you know?" she suggested quietly.

"I know I could," he agreed in equal tone, not wishing to alert Jaridà, "but I have two reasons why I can't. The first is honour - there is precious little left of it in Qal'ath. Carnael will be assembling my former squad to witness my expulsion. It will have a greater impact if I am there - yes more satisfaction for Carnael, but also the squad, especially for the one man I consider a friend. Some of those soldiers will only survive if they obey the King, so I have to show loyalty and honour."

Ayàvi tutted. "You don't owe them anything, a number of them purposefully dishonoured you."

"I realise that, but without my squad - the ones I chose to come onto this mission with me - the outcome may have been much worse."

"And the second thing?" Ayàvi prompted him, then became slightly annoyed that he did not immediately respond, "you don't have to tell me, I guess."

"I was just finding the right words, Avi," Rusziné explained, "the second is this: if I am not exiled then I cannot return to Qal'ath if she needs me."

"But if you are forced into Tolmyr Sands you could die there," she protested.

"And a dead person is free from obligations, and restrictions of movement."

He took a breath in order to continue, but was interrupted when Ferrfeiss and Arrnwarr turned back to them.

"We can make it home frrrom here," Ferrfeiss acknowledged, "but before we go, I want you to have something Rrrusziné."

He reached behind his neck, untied the knot holding his necklace together and held it out to Rusziné, who gave him a quizzical look as he took it.

"The bone I think I recognise, but this ice crystal...?"

Ayàvi gave a gasp and reprimanded herself for not having noticed it before.

"Everice," she whispered, "it doesn't grow near our Bruhaii. The way the blue, silver and white flow together is beautiful."

"Everice...grows?" Rusziné asked, to which Ferrfeiss nodded and shrugged, which made Ayàvi laugh.

"He has a lot of your mannerisms, Iné!"

"So it would seem," Rusziné smiled, "apologies Ferrfeiss, please continue."

"It's something of a pest if left uncontrolled, and we help in its control. But I am not giving you a weed, Rusziné. Ayàvi, you know of Everice?" Ferrfeiss asked.

"Only in passing. Kyaevy won't remember it either, of course. But I do know that it stays frozen. Even if you were to grind it down and throw it into a volcano, the grains would remain ice. It may even be blessed by the Glàsdei-an-Ormà."

"I wouldn't know about that last parrrt," Ferrfeiss replied, "but you are correct on your firrrst point. It also has healing prrroperties. At that size maybe only for little things, for beings such as us, we would need farrr greater amounts."

"It remains ice even where it's hot," Rusziné murmured, "wait. Is this what Klor'asq's dagger was made of?"

"In a way," Arrnwarr confirmed, "we think it's of smooth stone with a coating of Everrrice, then sealed with incantations, or possible something more trrraditional. To make a blade as thick as a horn but not too brittle is difficult with Everrrice, if not impossible. It is a plant, afterrr all."

"We use it to keep kills frrresh, exactly the same as Klorrr'asq does in his kitchen. Why I didn't see this earlierrr, I do not know," Ferrfeiss berated himself, "for large animals we must pile Everrrice around it. But for smaller hunks, just stab some in, wait a few moments and rrretract it. Easy, frozen steak."

Rusziné smiled gratefully, and began to understand the reason Ferrfeiss had chosen to gift him the necklace. He handed it to Ayavi, who reached up to tie it around his neck.

"Thanks Avi, I'm not great with knots that are behind me," he acknowledged, before focusing on the Kyadii once more, "and my deepest thanks to you. Now, please excuse me. I must go so that I am not late."

"Indeed you do. May we meet again. And Rrrusziné and Ayàvi," he said, glancing from one to the other, "be kind to each other."

Motioning to the others of his clan they turned back North and began to their trek deeper into Frostplain.

"There they go, on the long way North, back home," Rusziné sighed.

Ayàvi hung her head.

"We have precious time to 'be kind to each other'. I'll call Maergràvo then let's get you to Traders Square, hmm?"

23, Jylta 545 AFD

Traders Square, 15 Ur

Though sundown was still some time away, Traders Square was not as busy as the merchants were used to, and with certainly not the number of customers they wished for. At this time of year, the centre of the Square held a carefully-managed fire, enabling four different culinary business-owners to cook hot food, heat soup and, most importantly, keep everyone comfortable so they did not rush home too early.

Among the calls for freshly-killed elk and boar, or roasted nuts plus the best bread to put any of those ingredients in, an Elelup atop some crates cleaned his monocle for the umpteenth time since his arrival not one Ur earlier.

"Soot," he grumbled, "it gets everywhere."

Fafa, an independent valuer of certain trade goods made his living by helping others to make theirs. He had little interest in the food merchants. Necessary though they were, they made little profit on each sale that there was almost no room for price increases that would facilitate his commission charge. However, his attention was drawn to two types of stalls - jewellers and miners who sold raw ores and gems either to the general visitors to the square, or to said jewellers. His ultimate goal, for the last few years, had been to find true gold, Melfyorm. He was still on its trail, meaning his work funded his life and current business ventures, while also keeping his proverbial eye in other corners of the Realm. The traditional gold mines had dried up years ago, and yet occasionally a rare ring, or wrist-cuff, or pocket-watch would catch his eye and he would try to trace it to the source. He had not yet succeeded, but if he could, his plan was to gain a monopoly on the trade and use of that material. It was not only sought-after by the rich, the magically-gifted had a need of it too, as Melfyorm could conduct the Elemental arts, as well as traditional magicks, far better than any other metal. His main barrier was that almost all the everyday folk, in short, everyone beneath him in society, owned a material that went by almost the same name. The stones they used, frustratingly called Melfy or "fire rock", retained heat for Urs and, sometimes, days. Thus they were often heated in a fire, then placed in rooms with no hearth to heat them too.

Stupid languages, giving the same name to two very different materials, he thought in annoyance, while trying to maintain an approachable and affable expression.

In one corner of the square, Marshall Jewan haggled the metal trader down on replacement grip edges for his boots then moved onto the blacksmith's stall to have them hammered into the right shape, glad that the metal he had chosen was pliable enough not to require the heat of a forge. Once they were affixed, and he was satisfied, he paid both merchants and glanced around at the citizenry milling around.

"All it takes to be part of it is to not put your head too far out," he muttered, "so long as you stay beneath notice, no one cares."

"Exactly Marshall," a Fafa interrupted from near his right elbow, startling him, "I would apologise, but one must be near another to converse with them, and your rank insignia is on your casual uniform."

"And you are?" Jewan asked with uncertainty.

"Just an Elelup whose business is everybody else's business," he smiled, "don't worry I pay my taxes, in case you ask."

"I wasn't going to," Jewan replied flatly, "while such a crowd would be a good place to find some swindlers, they are also nigh impossible to catch in this setting too. Besides I have other things on my mind."

"Fair enough. Your War-cat is very well behaved," Fafa noted, peering around a stall at the prowling but otherwise unoccupied Kyjushi.

"Trust me when I say that's for the best. It's not pretty if they turn on you."

"You don't tie them to the wall or fence?" Fafa asked in surprise.

Jewan shook his head.

"If you wish to try, the Realm won't pay your medical or healer costs. Should you survive though, you may be assigned a Mind Mender."

Fafa huffed.

"Fret not, I'll leave any creature alone whose individual claws are longer than my feet."

The Marshall was about to try and make an exit, when he noted the cat look upwards with its ears pricked and its eyes wide. Without excusing himself, Jewan pushed his way through the crowd and laid a gentle hand on his Kyjushi's back, then gazed in the same direction and saw the silhouette that had caught his friend's attention.

"A Great Hawk? This far South?" he frowned, thinking back over the day's events.

It's possible that Rusziné is either on the way, or has a friend watching over him, he considered, I don't think he's ever flown a Hawk before. Then again, he rode a Kyadd earlier today, so who knows?, he pondered, wishing he could feel the humour of the statement, If he is going to be around here soon, then I don't want to be. He needs to do whatever he needs to do before the sun sets.

"It's okay girl," he said gently to the Battle-Cat, "it's no threat. Feel how calm I am?"

The red feline sniffed his hand and neck, then licked his cheek, an instinctive way to sense sweat or other signs of anxiety. After a few moments, she snorted happily and he climbed on her back. The Marshall sighed with relief, realising that his training in leadership, which involved hiding your feelings from people above you, helped him to control his fear.

He gently applied pressure to the left side of his Kyjushi's neck, she turned in that direction and they padded North, then West to make their way around the Square and silently into the hills towards Oestun Vyai.

High above them, Maergràvo watched until they were far from the Square.

<< You are not without friends in Qal'ath, Rusziné, >> he communicated through Ayàvi, << I admit I had not counted on the Kyjushii being deployed to your ceremony. I will place you gently in the vicinity of the Square but, I hope, where your arrival will not be noticed by everyone. >>

"It doesn't much matter if they do, but I appreciate it," he replied gratefully, "If Carnael has the Battle-Cats out, he really does intend on chasing me into Tolmyr Sands. Fine, he can do that, so long as he has not unwittingly lent one of the three Kyjushii who happen to like me," he chuckled, "anyway, I have a maximum of three Urs before I must be at the Viàtoli."

<< Then make the most of the one Ur you have at the Square >>

"I will," Rusziné agreed.

 

23, Jylta 545 AFD

Traders Square, 15 Ur 30

 

They had only been at Traders Square for half of one Ur and Ayàvi was already craving the freedom of the hills, trees and skies.

"Ugh, how do people put up with...being so close to...others?" she asked forcing her way through to where Rusziné was looking at rows of herbs and pouches of spices.

"Hey, at least at this time of year, they can stay warm like this?" he suggested, "you know, like the ocean Fish-catchers do in snowstorms?"

"Well, given the grasping of hands and growls of annoyance around the meat griddle, I can't argue that they sound more like animals," Ayàvi agreed, forcing a smile, "and my long leather and fur tunic keeps me warm and safe most of the time, so I don't need a crowd to do it for me."

"Yes, but your battle at home isn't against people Ayàvi," Rusziné pointed out, "they're far more dangerous than any beast."

"Are ya gonna take summat, or just stand yappin' like hyenas?" the herb-merchant shouted, more to be heard that out of annoyance.

"Yes," Rusziné confirmed, "sorry, I meant I'll take something," he clarified, inciting a laugh from the White-leaf, "a pouch of Violet Dragonleaf and...a spoon of Tarranian Cactus Root. Better make it a large spoon. And I need the pouch too."

"I hope your coin's as good as your tastes," the merchant grumbled, "Violet Dragonleaf ain't exactly common you know."

"Now, now," Rusziné replied, "I'm Byāntite."

The merchant frowned and looked away.

"Which means," Rusziné continued, "that we both know that it's prolific in Aevyenù Woods. It grows in the same place the Violet Tea-leaf. And the Dragonleaf seeds tend to blow over the Bluelight Ocean, don't they?" he asked, purposefully using the Common Tongue name of the sea.

He crossed his arms and waited.

The trader looked up at him and scowled.

"Typical, the first customer who sees value in the plant is the only one in the whole Realm who knows owt about it."

"Where do the seeds land, then Iné?" Ayàvi asked.

"I don't know for sure, and it's only from the Summer's Western Aevyten storms that they actually make it across the Ocean. My guess is that some lands on Ghrryssz, which is of course..." he motioned to the trader.

"Qalathian territory," he muttered.

"And some may possibly even grow just over Crescent Cliffs closer to Shevezz than Bezélan. That area also happens to be," he pointed to the trader again.

"Fine, yes, Qalathian territory, and within one hour's stupid walk from the Capital City. It doesn't grow all year round and not every year either. And people can't be bothered to walk out there just for a flower that may or may not have the medicinal properties they need. Just pay me what you think it's worth, and leave me alone."

Ayàvi laughed and rested her head against Rusziné's arm to hide her face.

"Lucky for you," Rusziné responded to the merchant, seriously, "it is worth a great deal to me. Even more so tomorrow, when it could make the difference between life and death."

He reached into his pocket for one of his two leather carry-bags and dumped it in front of the trader, who was torn between glee and horror at the value in front of him.

"Two business lessons," Rusziné stated, ensuring he had the man's attention, "firstly, never assume people know nothing, but always try to know more than they do. Secondly, rarity alone does not mean high value for everything."

The merchant nodded blankly and pushed some empty pouches and the ingredients Rusziné had ordered to his side of the table.

"Also lucky for you," Rusziné concluded, "I know these plants are genuine. Unlike your so-called Lunarblooms over there," he pointed, "that species is almost, if not completely extinct. And if it does exist, it will be out of your reach. Make those ones into a display to attract attention, but don't sell it."

"I sort of don't need to now...uhm, Iné," the merchant accepted.

"Then I will be on my way. Fair trading to you," he bowed and narrowed his eyes, "and I mean fair."

Fearing the man had some sway with those who could keep a close eye on him, the trader nodded nervously and began to cut the stems of the white flowers to different heights, arranging them as a self-cooling fan or peacock tail. Nearby stallholders and customers watched him create the art and a number of them approached his table with interest.

Seeing the stall-holder was not trying to sell them as Lunarblooms, Rusziné gathered his purchases into a front pocket, put his arm around Ayàvi's shoulder to pretend he was no different to many others at the Square and glanced over the crowd.

"Now, that meat griddle you were talking about?" he asked, then spied Jaridà who, being much shorter than him, was jumping to be spotted.

"He didn't need materials, but he did want food it seems," Ayàvi chuckled, "at least we're likely to get a fair price up front for that. Well, you are, unless they have Hare Sausages, I'll just grab some hot corns."

"I want to see how long he can hop like a bunny before he gets tired," Rusziné smirked.

"Now, Iné, don't be mean, we don't have time for that," Ayàvi laughed.

 

23, Jylta 545 AFD

South-West of Timri, 15 Ur 30

Though he dreaded his destination, Marshall Jewan breathed a sigh of relief as his Battle-Cat bounded West, staying close to the Bracken Barrier, but without risking an injury from it's hand-length barbs. The fresh Winter air was becoming even cooler as the afternoon drew on but now, being sheltered by the hills of the Bevérohii to the North, he felt more at ease than earlier when he and the others were exposed to the elements at the Stones of Myrn.

Was that really only this morning? he thought, taken aback at how much had taken place in such a short time, I'm certainly tired enough for that to be true, though.

Squinting into the distance, he could make out the raised, wooden form of the Hill-sworn Fort, an Elelupi Tower used to spy for threats from the North and West. He was about to spur his Kyjushi to its gate when she abruptly stopped, causing Jewan to knock his head on her neck.

"Ugh," he groaned, levering himself upright, and shaking his head, "what was that for?"

The deep red and strongly-built feline lifted her nose and sniffed in seemingly every direction. Having recovered from the sudden jolt, the Marshall lowered his voice.

"What is it, Ajaru?"

Unlike the remainder of his squad who he knew would also be on their way to Tolmyr, Jewan's Kyjushi, or rightly Kyjusha25, belonged to him and, in combat terms, he belonged to her. This was because she bonded to him from a cub where she learned basic hunting, tracking and navigation. While any Battle-Cat can be vicious, they are tender towards those they care about, making a bond between Kyjushi and rider an invaluable asset to the Qalathian war-force. So while the Marshall could not "speak bird", he understood his wordless companion far better than most of his peers.

Ajaru laid down and kept her tail still, her ears twitching and nose constantly sniffing the air, glancing this way and that. Jewan laid his head carefully on her neck so as to keep as low a profile as possible too.

So we wait, he thought, at least I chose where my head went this time.

Ajaru gave an almost inaudible purr in response to him relaxing on her, which reverberated through her throat to her friend's ear, then she returned to her silent vigil.

"Get into your positions for the love of everything East," she hissed, "and Jùsân, stop eating for once. Some Byāntites have enhanced hearing."

She brushed dust from her robe and dried the sweat from the grip of her brand.

To be on time he has to pass this spot in no more than two Urs, she calculated, gazing skyward.

23, Jylta 545 AFD

Traders Square, 15 Ur 40

"That was tasty," Jaridà announced with satisfaction, wiping juices from his short beard, "even better when you don't have to pay for it."

"You're welcome," Rusziné nodded, "sorry it's not a sit-down victory meal at the army's alehouse, but it's not a bad second choice."

Ayàvi had not found Hare Sausages, but had to concede that the hen patties were, at least, not taken from the wilds of nature. The White-Leaf had confirmed that the former bird had also long stopped laying eggs, before purchasing a pattie, her stomach reminding her that her last meal had been far too long ago. Ayàvi also did not share how good hers had been, as she was irritated at how much she had enjoyed it. Conscious of the time, however, she turned back to Rusziné.

"Do you have everything? I need to leave this place," she stated.

"I have some flexible water pouches, sugar-cane sticks, new rubber - well, maybe half as 'new' as the hawker wanted me to believe, but it'll suffice. Plus those herbs and pouches."

"I don't know the plants, but it seemed to be some sort of poison cure or antidote?" Ayàvi asked.

"In the volume I bought them, yes, it should purge certain poisons and offer some protection afterwards. Usually they're used to buy time."

"And the other things?" Jaridà asked.

Rusziné shrugged. "Snacks", he grinned.

Ayàvi, losing the joviality she had allowed herself to enjoy, clenched her jaw.

"Avi?" Rusziné asked, concerned.

"You're gearing for survival; hideaway water pouches, concealed herbs, sugar for energy - with the cane tubing excellent for sap- and honey-sucking. Rubber for your boots."

"Correct on all accounts," Rusziné nodded, "as I would expect for a lover of the outdoors."

"But you're only looking to the short-term?" Ayàvi asked, though, in her mind, it was a statement.

"Also correct," he agreed, "survival may be Minor's long-term solution, but they don't have to survive predators. Well, of the non-sentient variety anyway."

"But if you're prepared to try and survive for a few days, doesn't that mean you haven't completely given up," Jaridà asked, aware that too was not truly a question.

"Very astute of you, Jaridà. Let me just say I have hope - a small hope, though I admit."

"We need to head back to Maergràvo," Ayàvi interrupted, trying to conceal her feelings on the matter, "though I really wish we didn't have to."

 

South-West of Timri, 15 Ur 40

Even Jewan's normally stalwart patience was beginning to wear thin when, seemingly out of nowhere a distressed chittering shot past him in a flash of white. Ajaru roared and swiped fiercely with both front paws,  causing a flurry of black feathers to rain onto the Marshall's head. He brushed them off and looked up to see a black bird with a slightly hooked beak and red eyes trying to dive past them. It fluttered left, then right, up then down, looking this way and that. The Battle-Cat growled and watched its every move.

"Keep its focus while I look around us," Jewan commanded.

He peered behind him, under his feet and glanced over both shoulders, but saw nothing.

"Hùlan," he cursed, then noticed Ajaru's tail had flicked over his shoulder. Following its path with his eyes, his gaze eventually rested on what the Kyjushi had been indicating; a small, white bird on the Battle-Cat's back, flopped limply on its front and struggling to breathe.

They were about to climb on the Great Hawk's back when Ayàvi suddenly turned her head to the side, a look of concern on her face.

"What's the matter, Ayàvi?" asked Jaridà.

"A familiar presence."

"Shouldn't that be a good thing?" Jaridà asked.

"Are you happy to be near everyone you're familiar with?" Rusziné asked pointedly, "or would you feel good if someone you're familiar with was suffering."

"I'd be glad I was with them, but, you're right, not happy about their situation."

<< We need to be in the air,>> Maergràvo pointed out, <<I can see better once we're above the hills. >>

"Good point," agreed Ayàvi, "come on everyone. Maergràvo says we need to fly again."

Once everyone was settled, the Great Hawk drew on Aevyen and hurtled West.

From their hiding spots, they could just make out the large cat. Her heart was pounding, knowing that the wrong scent could give away their positions.

What was that Raven trying to achieve? she thought angrily, it was just a Winter Sparrow.

She peered around the boulder a quizzical look playing on her angular features. The King hadn't said anything about Rusziné arriving by War-Cat and that unsettled her.

"Though it would explain 'armed but not armed'", she muttered, "not that you can just pop into the Capital and say 'by the way I just want a red cat for, like, eternity, or until I die in the desert'".

She gripped her brand and began to slowly angle it towards the feline's feet, when the Elelup mage in their party rolled across the floor to her.

"Stop. It's not the one you want."

"What? Why is there another here then? I thought Carnael was taking all the squad with him," she whispered.

The Elelup shook his head.

"All but one. Don't kill a soldier, we're supposed to get into his good graces, remember."

She threw her head back and sucked in some cold winter air and slowly let it out again, watching as it formed vapour.

"That was close," she whispered in gratitude, "thanks."

Without responding, the Elelup crawled back into his position and into hiding.

"It's an Aszilmìs," Jaridà noted in shock, before turning his attention to the Raven who was still seeking its prey.

"Well done for intervening," Jewan whispered to Ajaru, "the white bird is a friend of Qal'ath. As for that one," he added pointing to the sooty, black bird, "it clearly is not. You may attack it when you're ready. Just try not to leap, as the white bird is injured."

The Kujushi roared once more and gashed with its fangs towards the Raven, who swooped under her jaw and dived past her head, only to meet the solid form of a Kyjushi tail swipe. With a squeal mismatched with its size, it span out of control and, with caws of annoyance, the black carrion tumbled in front of the Battle-Cat with a dull crunch and vanished, leaving only a scorched and hissing patch on the ground.

"And not a natural bird either. The Snowbird was trying to warn us about something," he realised, "or to tell someone else. The black bird meant to stop her doing so. Please grab one of the black feathers you scared out of it for me." Jaridà asked.

Snorting in assent, Ajaru took hold of one in her mouth. The Marshall carefully lifted the Aszilmìs onto his shoulder.

"I think its the same one from earlier today," he added with sadness, gently stroking her head with his little finger.

"Hang in there, friend," he softly, and reached into a pocket for a piece of biscuit.

The bird seemed to hesitate, then crunched and swallowed it, before letting her head sink onto the soft material that covered the Marshall's shoulders.

"Quickly now, Ajaru," Jewan urged, "Rusziné can help and we know exactly where he'll be and when."

With a rumbling growl of agreement, they shot towards the Hill-sworn Gate.

There's nothing like urgency to blind you to other threats, she thought gratefully.

23, Jylta 545 AFD

South-West of Timri, 16 Ur 00

"Well that stinks," Jaridà noted as he neared the blackened circle on the muddy path.

"But nothing else is singed anywhere near it," Rusziné mused, "so it wasn't a campfire, that much is certain. It could be an Elemental attack - not by the Elements, but using them, I mean."

"Possibly," Ayàvi flatly responded, unable to shake the feeling that something horrible had transpired just a few moments earlier.

<< Feathers, Ayàvi >> Maergràvo said, pointing with one of his feet.

The White-leaf bent down where the Great Hawk had indicated and collected a few of them.

"Large, black ones at that. Too large for a crow, too small for winged lizards. That leaves Ravens."

Rusziné snapped his head around and gave her a quizzical look.

"Ravens? They're not native to Qal'ath, does it look like one or many?"

"Hmm, it's hard to tell from fallen feathers," she answered, "but I wouldn't say many."

<< Use your brand near the scorch, Ayàvi, >> the Great Hawk suggested, << use it to detect levels of your Elements. >>

The White-leaf nodded, unhooked her branch and closed her eyes.

Kaivià ... aevyensé, erdésé?

The patch began to glow first, white, then gold and finally red, causing a wispy trail to ascend and float eastward, despite there being no wind to carry it in that direction.

"Well," she sighed, "it answers one question, but raises many more."

"I don't know magicks," Jaridà answered coming to her side, "but I'm interested to learn - what question does it answer?"

"I feared an Aszilmìs had been killed. But the latent Elemental Air and Earth here is dissipating East, not North. So something happened here and I think a Snowbird was involved, but their essence is not present, meaning it did not die here. But I don't know anything else."

"Ravens..." murmured Rusziné.

"What's the significance, Iné?" asked Ayàvi.

"If there was only one, then no importance at all. It's if there are many that we need to worry. Well, if you believe in prophecy, but I trust your judgement, so I'm happy to say there was only one. As you said, no answers here. Just more questions."

Jaridà stretched. "How far is this from the place you were going to drop us? If it's not far, we may as well walk."

Ayàvi nodded, "I think that's a good idea anyway, now," she agreed tightening the leather strap holding Rusziné's great-sword to her back, then turned back to the man himself. "Hold onto that small hope, Iné. I will do the same."

Rusziné gave a sideways glance and seemed to clear his throat. "I...will Avi."

<< Just embrace him Ayàvi, there is no shame in it. >> Maergràvo spoke to her.

She threw her arms around his neck and held him for a few moments. Taken aback, he reciprocated, briefly enjoying the scent of fresh winter air that seemed to surround her.

Is that Winterberry juice perfume? he asked, before banishing the thought from his mind, how can I be distracted at a time like this?

"Please...come back to us sometime," Ayàvi pleaded, "and remember you have friends."

Releasing her, Rusziné bit his lip and struggled to reply.

"Rusziné's terrible at 'goodbyes', which is why he has so many friends," Jaridà explained, making Ayàvi chuckle, despite herself.

With a glance at the Byāntite, she jumped onto her Great Hawk and they took off, climbing higher and higher.

<< We're not going straight home, are we? >> Maergràvo asked her, << nor are we going straight to Camp Hope? >>

"Of course not, but I need him to think I have."

23, Jylta 545 AFD

Near the Hill-sworn Gate, 16 Ur 30

Now I have to wind myself up for a second time, she thought, digging deeply within herself for the fighting edge she knew she had.

The enormous Hawk had not been in the plan either, but it was with great relief that she watched it depart. She whispered to her brand:

Pékormiver.

The tip of her weapon gave a weak, green light, which she held North, where another in her team would see it. They would change the colour and continue passing the message until everyone had received it.

Once a red light had flashed to her from the East, she stowed her brand away.

It's time.

"So, other than you, what else lives at Tolmyr?" Jaridà asked, more to distract himself than out of interest. They had calculated that roughly one and a half Urs remained before the King's deadline of sundown. This gave them time to walk quickly enough to stay warm, but with no need to rush either.

"Many things live there," Rusziné answered, "it only means 'death to the exile' under Carnael's interpretation. It could easily be translated as 'death is exiled' - in a desert, people expect nothing to survive, yet things do. In Sablesand, the Kyadii thrive. I think Tolmyr Sands was originally called Tol Myrsands - the exiled death-sands. See, it doesn't have sand in it the way you like to think of sand. Well, it has some but that's only what's blown in, the rest is just dirt and grit - but both sand and grit, without water, are lifeless."

"So the 'death' part should refer to the sand itself, not to whatever lives there?" Jaridà asked.

"'Should' is probably too strong a word," Rusziné replied shaking his head, "what I am saying is that very few words only have one narrow definition, except to the narrow-minded. But, to answer your question, there are lizards, of course. Then there's a type of translucent butterfly, large wall-climbing scaled critters that make homes in rock-faces and a viper species or two."

"Hence the poison remedies?" Jaridà asked, adjusting his sword and shield so they felt more comfortable.

"Not at all. The vipers eat eggs or small desert rats. Larger creatures may smell tempting, but they don't attack them - except maybe in self defence. It's the plant-life that's the most deadly. That and fear of not finding the exit through the mists, which can cause death by dehydration."

"People die there because they get lost?"

"Correction," Rusziné replied, "people would die there if they weren't rescued. It's been a long time since I heard anything about Tolmyr, so who knows nowadays. But yes, fear is enough to cause death because it makes thinking rationally much harder."

"You seem to know a lot about a place I'd never heard of until today," Jaridà noted.

"I am from a place you are not taught about," Rusziné smiled tight-lipped.

How can they just chat like nothing is happening? she wondered, bemused, he's being sent to his death, for the love of feathers.

She was counting their steps now, and calculating how far he was from her easternmost ambusher. Equidistant from her own position was her aim.

Come on, just a little closer...

"Hmm, the sun's dropping behind the hills," Rusziné noted, "we should arrive before Carnael, so long as we pick up the pace a little."

Jaridà nodded then noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye, and he drew his sword and shield.

Rusziné smiled.

"Good reactions, Jaridà. Apparently, not even on the way to the Viatoli is enough to keep you from harm. Nothing is ever that easy, is it?" he asked.

A figure dressed in an ornate blue robe strode confidently from behind the boulder and placed herself in the middle of the westward path.

"Not for you, or I, Rusziné," she said with a smirk, "going somewhere?"

The man shrugged.

"Just having a relaxing stroll to my doom, nothing much, you know?" he replied as nonchalantly as he could manage.

Jaridà had positioned himself between the woman and his unarmed counterpart, despite Rusziné hand signals not to.

"But she's unarmed, Sir."

"They are the most dangerous, Jaridà," Rusziné responded firmly, "either she has hidden weapons, or hidden allies."

The woman gave an unsettling chuckle. "Both, actually. At least we won't be killing an ignoramus."

She raised her hand and a blue spark shot upwards from her hand, and dissipated in the air. At that, two other figures came from their own concealment places, one with a brand, and another a book. All three mages now faced Rusziné.

"That's a bit on the dramatic side, considering I have no weapons. And while I don't know the name of my ambusher I recognise Elemental robes when I see them. Or some sort of Mage anyway."

"And what a relief to be able to be able to wear them, too," the woman replied, spinning on one foot with her arms out as though carried by a liberating breeze, "so freeing, so...deadly," she said pointedly, glaring at him, "as for my name, well, its Aszai-Sénà, but you can call me Ash."

"Tell me, Ash, that isn't short for Aszil Jaisénà26 is it?" Rusziné smirked.

"I did not come here for a linguistic argument," Ash sneered.

Rolling up her sleeves Ash cast a few lightning bolts towards them. One glanced off Jaridà's shield, and Rusziné, having seen the directions she flicked her wrists had narrowly avoided two others.

"Sir, what does it matter what her name means? She's trying to kill you."

Another, wilder crackle flew past Jaridà's head and Rusziné pushed him behind an outcrop of rock that had forced its way through the Bracken Barrier.

"Know your enemy, Jaridà," he replied, aware of his heightened breathing and heartbeat, "a name means everything. She's named 'no mind' - what kind of parent does that?"

He turned back towards Ash and picked up a handful of stones. The mage scowled and sneered.

"Parents who did not understand the potential of the one they brought into the world - or did not care about it. But your friend is right, why bother knowing it?"

She drew her arms up, spun around and lightning bolts rained from the sky.

Staring frantically around him, he answered, "because I now know you have something to... prooove, argh!"

He exclaimed as one bolt landed near his feet, throwing him to the ground. One of his legs landed hard on a jagged stone in the path, digging into his flesh and he cried out in pain as his head narrowly missed another. Wheezing, he held tightly to the stones in his hand.

"Why are you killing a dead man?" he winced as he forced himself to stand, "now you've torn my trousers. But I can't avoid all of your bolts, can I?" he tried to taunt, his leg throbbing from his injury, "So, go on, do that trick again, it'll do wonders for your Elemental Essence."

"Don't give in to his attempts to distract you," cautioned a mage, who carried a golden brand encrusted with blue and grey gems, "we have a job to do."

"And I intend to do it," Ash stated.

She shrugged in a manner she had seen Rusziné give her and re-invoked the Storm Call, granting him the opening he needed to hurl his handful of rocks full in her face. As she cried out in pain, the pattern of bolts changed, causing nearby grass and trees to catch alight and creating a small circle of safety around him.

Ash felt blood on her cheek, and stamped in anger as she saw her storm subside.

"That is it," she yelled, "I'm done with you, with all of you. Everyone, fire at will."

"Riné!" Jaridà appeared to call, as he threw his shield across the ground towards him.

Nodding his thanks, he picked up the shield and began to glance around the circle that was slowly closing in on him. The light was fading and he realised he had little time to figure things out.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" Ash shouted, "He's got a tiny shield compared to his height, take him."

"What was that?" Ayàvi asked, jumping to her feet on the back of the Great Hawk and looking West once more.

<< A storm, >> he replied, << an invoked one >>

"But right where Rusziné was going!" Ayàvi replied in horror, "and he's not armed."

<< No, but he could be. >>

Ayàvi drew the enormous, heavy great-sword from her back-strap and carefully held it in two hands.

"Remember how earlier we were told not to swoop?" she asked.

<< Of course. >>

"Well, I think we have justification for it now."

Rusziné looked from mage-to-mage.

"Fire...Lightning, no Erdé, Ousii, no Aevyen. Thank the Elements."

He took a breath and charged at the one he hoped was a water mage, who had just enough time to cast a wave incantation, before being knocked to the floor by Rusziné's shield. He dug his feet into the newly-fresh mud to try and prevent himself from falling face-first into the slippery sludge, battling to keep the water-spell at bay.

"Arrrggh!" he cried out with the effort, before turning and letting the flow rebound from the shield and fly directly at the fire mage, who was thrown into the Bracken Barrier with a chilling scream.

"Ayakan," Ash called in a desperate shriek, "answer me, please!"

Giving up his fight against the ground, Rusziné fell and, breathing heavily, rolled to where Jaridà was sheltering.

"I'm not made for this kind of...stupidity," he wheezed.

"What in the Blazes of the Fyrian just happened?" cried Ash in shock, as the water ceased and became a pool of brown liquid, "Ayakan? Tharyk? No, that's impossible."

"I'm alive, but someone help," the fire mage called in distress, "I have thorns stuck through my arms."

"I'm coming," called the water mage, still shaken by the force of metal that had temporarily knocked him unconscious.

"Rusziné? Where are you, where have you hidden yourself?" Ash shouted, "get back out here, you fool, your luck is about to run out."

He did so, still holding Jaridà's shield, as damp as it was, grateful it had given him the time he needed.

"Never say that to a gambling man. Incidentally, I did nothing that should have killed them," he stated simply, "my fear was you would get involved, which could have killed all of us. What with lightning and water being...explosive."

"You stunned the water mage and extinguished the fire one, then? That is a temporary reprieve," Ash grumbled, "you had better hope you did not do any worse."

"Why?"

"Why? You are asking me why I should hope you did not murder my friends?"

"Friends?" Rusziné spat, "either they're not, or you don't know how to be one. Never have a Fyr and Ousii mage together unless they are extremely experienced. And I would never have intentionally killed them, not that you would understand that."

Ash growled and her eyes darted to two other locations where her team should be in hiding. They came out brands trained on him, but less brashly than the first wave. Jaridà came to Rusziné's side.

"I know you wanted me to stay hidden, but it smells wrong here. You're unarmed and had, it seems, at least five mages here to fry, burn or drown you."

Rusziné sighed.

"Very well. I'm sorry to have dragged you into this."

Jaridà hung his head, "you were not the one to order me to Tolmyr Sands. That was the King. I am only following orders. And now I finally realise that there is a time to obey, and a time to do what is right. Often they can be the same, but at other times they diverge."

He drew his sword and stood back-to-back with Rusziné, gripping it with sweaty palms.

"Jaridà," Rusziné continued in a lower tone of voice, "from the stones in their weapons, I think most of these major on lightning spells. If one bolt comes at you, try to deflect it. If two, throw down your sword and run, they're not here for you. Better your sword gets melted than you."

"Thank you, Sir...I mean, Rusziné."

Ash was ruing not having brought a healing sage with her and her face felt swollen, but with three mages against two soldiers, the advantage was still hers.

One and half soldiers, really, she reasoned.

She unhooked her brand and pointed it at one of the other mages two did the same to another, who trained theirs back at Ash. Rusziné frowned.

"I don't like the look of this," he muttered.

"What are they doing?" Jaridà asked, wishing they would just find swords and spears so he would know how to combat them.

"I'm guessing here, but if I'm right, it has different names...the Storm Prism is one of them. At least I think that's what's going on."

"Prison?" Jaridà asked, unsure he had heard correctly.

"It is, yes."

Lightning shrouded with a blue mist shot around the triangular circuit the mages had created and Rusziné threw the shield on the floor. This one had no escape. Downing the shield may only give him a few extra seconds. He had seen it practised in various forms, and not in a threatening way, when he had visited Claris at the Crystal Circle. He had never thought he would be in the centre of one some day.

"Can my sword take the brunt of it?" Jaridà asked desperately.

"No," Rusziné sighed, "once they're done making the prism, your sword would take one corner and the others would be attracted to the element of water in our bodies."

"Ha! Ahahaha, yes, finally you realise you cannot squirm out of this one," Ash cackled, "you cannot joke your way out of a jail that you cannot control. And before you think to roll under it, don't bother."

"Laugh it up, Ash," Rusziné called back to her, "murder's satisfaction is so short-lived, even if the pay packet lasts a while. You may have wanted to be the Blue your name was supposed to mean, but in the end, one day, only ashes will remain. Do as you will."

Pushing his sermon to the back of her mind, the mage closed her eyes and waved her hands over and under what she could see of the mystical prison, which shot further bolts to the centre and upwards, to complete the prism.

"To humiliate you further," she cried, "we'll destroy you with the Common Tongue. Prism -collapse!"

As it began to shrink around them, Jaridà threw his sword in anger at one of the mages who took the blow to her shoulder and knocked her behind a rock, flipping the lightning prism onto its side.

"Out the bottom end now Jaridà, they were never here for you!" Rusziné yelled.

"But sir," he protested.

"Do as I say, hùlan," Rusziné yelled, "I'm trying to save your life!"

Jaridà nodded and sprinted to the outward boundary of the prism, quickly checking on the mage he hit who appeared wounded, but not in danger.

"I... won't attack you."

Jaridà glanced to his left with a questioning look.

"He is right. We were not here for you. I hold no grudge against you for using your instincts," Jùsân grumbled, certain his shoulder was out of place, "but if you want to use them once more, I will stop distracting you."

Recognising the hint, Jaridà swung around and, in a panic, picked up his sword once more, his mind racing.

I have to do something. Anything. The prism's still going to crush him.

Her heart was pounding as they neared. She was banking on the mages being so distracted with their incantations to notice the hawk overhead. As that seemed to be the case, she thanked the Elements for the first good plan to work properly for the day.

<< I know which one to get, Ayàvi. You focus on the delivery. >>

Ayàvi nodded.

"The centre of the Prism?" she asked, knowing he would probably only reply if she was wrong.

The shot had to be near-perfect.

No, I have to aim for perfection, she decided and cleaned the eye-shaped gem of his sword.

"Ugh, why won't you just die, like you're supposed to?" Ash shouted, spitting blood and tasting bile, "this was supposed to be easy. Try'nd, ideas?"

"We still have the Prism Tip, Aszi," called the last remaining mage.

Nodding in response they both raised their brands until the sharp end of the electric prism was pointing down on Rusziné.

"Goodbye, leaf-lover," Ash said menacingly, swiping downwards with her hand.

In that very moment, Maergràvo swooped, caught up Try'nd and threw him onto a grassy hillside, where he landed roughly, fell unconscious and rolled limply back down the incline.

"Try'nd, no!" Ash cried, tears now rolling down her face, "where did that Hawk come from?" she asked in desperation, hoping there were no others.

"Heads up Iné," called Ayàvi from above, and dropped Ruszinés sword through the tip of the Prism giving him just enough time to roll away, through the mud and to safety. The sword landed upright in the oozing flow and the lightning crackled around it, and the gem in the hilt absorbed it until there was no more.

His head pounding, and ears ringing from the din that had just subsided, Rusziné began to crawl.

Jaridà's eyes darted to Rusziné, then to Ayàvi and then to the sword. He could see Rusziné making moves to reclaim the sword and with it some element of self-defence.

It was then he saw what Ash was doing just outside of his former captain's field of vision.

He charged.

Rocks were being drawn towards Ash, rent unwilling from the ground her conjured wind carried them in circles around her body.

<< I cannot get close to that, Ayàvi >>, Maergràvo communicated regretfully.

"And I have nothing to drop onto her head, either. Just keep us a safe distance above her," Ayàvi replied, frustrated that the Prism hadn't been the thwarted, final knock-out blow she had hoped for.

Whoever that is really wants Rusziné destroyed, she pondered in horror, but they must be getting low on mental resources by now.

"Oh, you banked on their being no Ground and Air mages,"  Ash taunted, trying to push the pain away from her concentration, "pathetic soldier. You do not understand magecraft. It's time to tear your weak body to shreds. I came to kill one and only one person..." she continued as the rocks spun faster around her, "and you're the special one to take all of this..."

As she began to complete her incantation, Rusziné saw a blur of steel run past him.

"Jaridà, no!"

Ignoring him, the trainee soldier continued his charge.

"And you," he shouted in anger, his blade trained on the middle of the rock wall, "do not...understand...friendship OR loyalty!"

As he neared the swirling stones, he yelled back at Rusziné.

"I am not needlessly sacrificing myself. It is needed!"

Ash unleashed the full force of the spell which, as intended, met its first target and immediately disintegrated Jaridà. Its anger spent, the rocks fell harmlessly to the floor.

Jaridà's now bent sword hovered briefly above the rock pile before it landed with a weak clang and shattered into two pieces.

"No..." whispered Ash, who fell to her knees, shaking, "No! No innocent was supposed to die...and I can't...I don't have anything...more."

Rusziné, struggling to hold himself together, hauled his body up using his sword as leverage and leant on it breathing hard, fighting against the urge to lose control.

Ash looked across the rock pile at him, horror and grief written on her face.

How did he survive? Why? she thought in panic.

"You...you were supposed to be unarmed," she shouted, "they said you wouldn't be armed."

With some effort, Rusziné drew his sword out of the mud and wiped it on the nearby grass. He turned his face away, his jaw set.

"They told you correctly, whoever they are," he growled through clenched teeth, "I was not armed until the moment you attacked us."

Ayàvi deftly landed next to where Jaridà's sword lay and bowed her head in dismay. She looked at the back of Rusziné's head, and knew she did not have the words he needed.

"I know he's gone, Avi," Rusziné confirmed, not wanting to meet her gaze, "He stood no chance. It was his choice, damn him. He even used my own words against me. No...he used them for me. I live and he does not," he sighed, "sadly that mage cannot push herself any more for some time, so I can't even beg for death. And it wouldn't be enough even if I could. Jaridà should be here and I should not be."

"And did you kill any of my team...my friends?" Ash asked trembling, "because if you did, everything was bought at too high a price."

"As I already said, I did nothing to kill them. I regret the one pierced by the Barrier, though. That was accidental."

Rusziné turned around and pointed his sword towards the mage, glad he was a number of paces away from her.

"But Jaridà's death should never have happened, Ash. Never. I was the one on death watch, not him. And you have bought nothing. I was your intended target and I, regretfully, still live. I was no threat!"

"But you had your sword delivered at the perfect moment, when you most needed it," the mage protested.

Ayàvi looked up from her study of Jaridà's sword and hilt.

"He never knew it was coming," she pointed out in a tone more measured than she felt, "I just happened to be in the area. As he said, he was unarmed."

As she finished her explanation a rustle a nearby bush caught their attention.

"And he could not have known the 'perfect moment' ahead of time," a raspy voice added,

"Tharyk, you're alive!" Ash said, running to his side, only for him to roughly push her away.

"Yeah, no thanks to you," he sneered, "Carnael said 'when he's not armed, he's armed' and you forgot that bit."

Silence descended, but it was Rusziné who broke it first.

"This...this mess, this horror, was, was Carnael's idea all along?" he asked horrified, "this is bad planning, even for an imbecile like Carnael. And I wasn't armed, which is the only bit he seemed to get right!"

Hurt by her friend's rebuttal, Ash turned back to him and wiped sweat and dust from her now-dirty face.

"How was I not able capture you, even with the flawless Prism? What were you armed with, yet you weren't armed? I don't understand. What did I do wrong? How did you outsmart and outfight us, with no weapon in your hand?"

Ayàvi stood and strode straight to her position her own brand out.

"Because he makes connections where 'others' destroy them. He builds bridges where 'others' leave ruins. He tries to protect the weak while 'others' send people to their deaths. Rusziné did not need physical weapons to get to his destination safely."

"Put your weapon away, please," Ash begged.

Ayàvi sighed.

"You don't even recognise a defensive intention any more, do you?"

Ash sat on the ground, ignoring the dirt and whimpered.

"He was armed with allies..."

"No Ash," Ayàvi replied sternly, "you had allies too. He was armed with friends."

Rusziné, who had been silent since the name of the King of Qal'ath had been uttered, looked up, his eyes red in grief and anger.

"You...killed a soldier of Qal'ath...and for what? What did Carnael promise you? I hope it was worth the life of a new recruit to the army. Tell me! What did he bribe you with for my head? And you think he'll forgive you for destroying the soldier's life, which I can guarantee wasn't in your agreement," he wheezed and his head began to pound, "Well? What was the great plan from his glorious Majesty for when you go back there for your just reward for your failed mission?"

"We're...underground practitioners, so we thought..."

"You thought you could schmoozy up to the king and get your own way?", Rusziné sneered, "that somehow Carnael, who despises mages and would be rid of all of them if he could, would suddenly welcome you with open arms? 'Official Mages' at long last," he yelled throwing his arms wide open,  "was that it? I don't recognise your robes but I know you're no locals, making it doubly difficult. A murderous shortcut must have been so enticing. Well?"

Ash's body began to shake with fear.

If he doesn't calm down, I will be the dead one...Elements protect me.

"Th-they call us witches...but it's just that they, they don't understand!"

"No, they won't will they? They call the Crystal Circle that in some parts of the Capital, did you know that?" Rusziné asked looking down at her.

Ash looked up, her eyes wide in shock.

"But they're..."

"As official as you can possibly get. Exactly. What did the King call them again, Ayàvi?" he asked.

"I believe it was something like 'unelected but annoyingly powerful mages'," she answered, speaking as clearly as her emotions would let her.

"Then all this was...what did...what did Carnael actually want?"

"My guess?" Rusziné shrugged, wincing with the pain of doing so, "Carnael hoped you could succeed in killing me - or capturing me. If you caught me, I would miss my meeting and then he could justify a bounty hunter or twenty. But if you did not succeed and you died in the process, then what's a few less unofficial mages in the realm? You know what? I bet he was hoping for the perfect storm - one even better than Storm Call - a battle so destructive that it killed us all," he paused to apply pressure to his bleeding leg wound, "There is one person and one that Carnael cares about. And that is His Glorious Undying Majesty of the Unassailable Eternal Realm - Carnael the Second."

"L-Lytania's got his ear."

"Horse dung!" Rusziné spat, "Lytania thinks that's true, but she's no less collateral than you or I. Everyone is replaceable. Until the whole of his Realm shakes, nothing will change him. Until he meets a foe he truly cannot understand, doing nothing is how he rules. He uses those around him. Every one, it included me and that, most definitely includes you."

Ayàvi ran up to Rusziné and threw her arms tightly around his shaking shoulders, hoping the pressure could restore some control.

"You have to calm down, Iné. Please. You're going to cause more hurt if you continue. And you're making your wound bleed more. Remember, we're supposed to be kind to each other."

"How can I be calm?" he asked, shaking free of her grip, "Exile wasn't enough for Carnael, he wanted blood. Well, you know what? He's got blood. Several bleeding Mages and one dead soldier. And not even the one he wanted. And that...Ash," he spat, gesturing to the bedraggled girl, "nearly made his dream come true by killing us all - I'm no mage but that Prism thing is dangerous."

"It's meant to be dangerous," Ash responded sarcastically, "you would have died if that tip had reached you."

"Yes I would," Rusziné agreed, "but I bet you three were Linked at the time weren't you? Weren't you?" he demanded.

Ayàvi's eyes widened at the realisation and turned on Ash.

"That's beyond reckless, woman. Think!"

Ash rubbed her eyes and stared blankly into the mud. "I can't. Not any more. I'm not sure I ever was thinking."

"Then let me do it for you," Tharyk replied, sheathing his own brand to ensure he wasn't deemed a threat, "we made a promise to succeed where all have failed before. That no price was too great to pay if the goal was reached. To make Desperate Doom succeed - did you know that's the other name for the Prism? -  we had to Link, meaning all but the original invoker would have their mind melted the moment the Prism imploded. And we would have done it gladly if we could move world events forward by even one step," he explained, his control of his own emotions fraying, "but you couldn't even do that."

Jùsân crawled out from the grass, holding his stomach.

"I was expecting this to be difficult, Sara-Ash, but not because you were incompetent," he said, pointing at her, "why you were sent to set events in motion, I'll never know. Now we have to start over."

"Hulàn," Ash whispered, "I nearly killed you all as well. How many live?"

"We all do, thanks to the actions of our target, ironically. And no thanks to you. We are leaving, but don't bother to follow."

Bruised and bleeding, Jùsân, Ayakan, Tharyk and Try'nd formed a line in front of her.

Ayàvi whispered to her brand and a narrow thread of light wound around them and then flowed to Rusziné's leg providing some relief and stemming any potentially-fatal bleeds, before returning to her once more.

"A parting gift," she whispered.

"See, Ash?" Jùsân said, indicating the White-leaf, "even they know how to treat friends and enemies. We should have brought a healer, but you assured us that for one simple unarmed man we did not need one. And we trusted you. Maybe, maybe She will let you back once you've demonstrated your understanding."

"Don't leave me alone please, I beg you!" Ash cried.

Ayakan shook his head, "You've learned nothing from the fight, have you? You're not alone."

Ash sobbed bitterly as she watched the shadows of those she had worked most closely with walk away East.

Once he was assured the others were outside of earshot, Rusziné stretched and pointed the great-sword at her head, glaring down in fury. The tip of it touched her temple and she whimpered in fear.

"How dare you take the life of someone just to make yourself popular with the King," Rusziné shouted, "to try and become official mages at the cost of someone's life, as though the Elements could ever agree to that strategy. Jaridà's murder can never - and I repeat never be forgiven."

Ash looked up, her ice-blue eyes watery with tears, and stared into Rusziné's own, causing the tip of his sword to almost pierce her skin.

"You may as well kill me. Everything I've done is worthless, I am worthless. It would be justice, after all. It would bring balance. Just...just do it."

"Iné, no, don't add to the sorrow!" Ayàvi shouted, shielding her eyes with her hands and stifling a cry.

Unable to control his inner fire, Rusziné screamed, raised his sword and threw it away from himself until it rested at the feet of Ayavi's Hawk. He bent over, choking and spluttering for air.

"No," he replied, with difficulty, after a few moments,  "No, I can't do that. Not even this angry. Not even this betrayed. Not even in this moment when I have every right to do that. Not even when it could be justified."

"B-but why?" Ash asked in a mixture of confusion and amazement.

"Because... because I am not him. Because you were betrayed too. When the poor and worthless fight among themselves, those wreaking injustice need to do nothing more," he closed his eyes and reached down to her, "give me your hand, Ash."

With her face caked in mud and her robe torn from rocks and briers, she did so realising how out of control his arms were, and yet had spared her.

"What now?" she asked, releasing his grip, "I have nowhere to go and no people to return to."

Ayàvi, on the verge of tears had returned to the abandoned sword and fixed it carefully to her back.

"Now, Iné has an appointment to keep," she answered wearily, desperate for this long day to be over and for the cool breezes of the Woods.

Rusziné turned to face Ayàvi and lowered his eyes.

"Avi, I'm... I'm sorry. I should not have yelled at you. I'm sorry for hurting you, I should have been more kind."

The girl returned to him and offered her arms and, this time, he responded to her embrace and they both wept.

"Your anger was justified... Ajainé," Ayàvi murmured in his ear, "and when the greatest test came, it did not overcome you. I was afraid it would, but... I'm proud of you."

<< Oh man of Byantē, you have much to learn of the Foyii even now. >> Maergràvo interjected.

"What do you mean?" Rusziné asked, wiping tears from his eyes, grateful his Skyspeech understanding allowed him to hear the tone of the Great Hawk.

"He means I am not sad because you hurt me. I am sad because a life has been lost, because people have been used, because I'm losing a friend that I've only just made, and lastly, because King Carnael has ceased to act like a king and has severed ties with my people, our people Rusziné."

"So, where do I go?" asked Ash, desperate for a direction, "send me anywhere just so I don't have to feel so, so empty."

Ayàvi glanced over at the bedraggled mage and saw her brand had burned to a crisp, a fact that had not gone unnoticed by Ash herself.

"I know it's dead," she sighed, "I can't truly conjure without a brand. I just draw power through it. Well...I used to."

Ayàvi huffed, feeling little sympathy, "brands, at least, can be refashioned. People, not so much. As for your question, well, Rusziné has to be exiled - as you know. So you must travel with him. You have no weapons, no books, no artefacts. You're both just civilians, not mages - I guess there's an advantage in losing your brand after all. Yet you were sent to kill or capture Rusziné. You should report this to whoever else is present at the ceremony of exile, or whatever in the void it's called.

And I...have a sword to deliver."

She climbed gingerly onto her hawk, looked around and frowned. "The trees are no longer burning."

<< I had time to tend to them while you took care of the people, >> confirmed Maergràvo.

Ayàvi sighed with relief, slumped down onto his back and wrapped her arms carefully around his neck.

"Take me to hope," she sighed, "for there is little left in this land."

With a final lingering gaze with Rusziné, they lifted up and away, sending a calming downdraught as a parting gift from the Hawk.

Rusziné, his muscles still pained and his wounds stinging worse than any marsh-fly's bite, picked up Jaridà's sword hilt and stuffed it behind his belt.

"Come, Ash. We have an exile to attend."

 


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