[Daniyah] The Squire

There had been no warnings, no prophecies, no preternatural superstitions that could have prepared her for this.

One moment, she walked side-by-side with the man who was her squire, enjoying the citrus breeze that twisted past her cheek in the open-air market. The sun had been bright overhead; not a cloud in the sky.

And then the blue turned to brackish grey in all of an instant. It was impossible to say which came first – the crack of thunder or the sheets of rain that fell like a trough being emptied into the wind.

Even in her dreams, she could still hear the townsfolk shouting, could feel the lightning coming by the way her scars prickled and itched. She’d relived this day a hundred times, but no matter how many times she did, she never felt prepared.

It was later known as the ‘Soulburst’ – no doubt a term coined by some scholar in his tower, struck down in black ink by the soft glow of magelight. It was much easier to sum up in words what had happened, than to quantify the actual experience of it. Accountants and officials had a tendency to measure loss in numbers and facts – this many dead, that much gold’s worth of destruction. For Daniyah, there were no numbers, no facts, which could express the impact of that day.

One moment, she was walking through a marketplace; the next, the world was on fire.

2E 572

“Ho, Singer! A moment of your time?”

The words were rich with musical inflection, pleasant to the ear; she turned, already beginning to shake her head, seeking out the man that lyrical voice belonged to. “I am no Sword-Singer, friend; only a wandering knight. What is it that you need?”

The speaker was not much younger than she was, dressed in the vestments of a desert mystic. His hair was long and wiry, his skin lighter than hers – but it was his smile that stood out, if only for how genuine it seemed. His eyelids were shaped in such a way that he seemed perpetually at ease – an impression that was mirrored by his relaxed stride. She couldn’t help but to mirror his smile, her head canting to the side.

“Not a Sword-Singer? Ah, even better! They’re a serious lot, aren’t they-? So bound by tradition, but can you blame them? There’s too much that’s been lost. Come, come, talk to me, Knight – you might have the answer to my problem.” The way he spoke was mesmerizing; the cadence of his voice was like a song. She arched an eyebrow, acutely aware of the sword at her side – he was entirely too charismatic.

A lone traveler could find trouble with a charismatic stranger.

“Very well, Shaman; if I can help you, I will. I’ve dinner on the fire – it might burn if I’m away too long… would you accept my hospitality for the evening’s meal?”

Courtesy had been trained into her by both Sir Colville and Hakeem. By inviting him to share a meal with her, she easily sidestepped the possibility of an ambush, without being impolite. It was only caution, however –for all his charm, there was something about him that seemed wholly sincere. He offered her a bow, deep enough to indicate respect, and there was gravity in his voice as he answered.

“I would be honored to accept, dame – and I am called Athmir, less a shaman, more a firecaller. Trained in the old desert ways by Degan… perhaps you have heard of him?” His eyebrow lofted hopefully as he straightened.

“You may call me Daniyah; well met, Firecaller Athmir. I am familiar with Degan only in passing – he’s from the northeast of the Alik’r, isn’t he?”

Athmir nodded, following her through the encampment. “That’s him, yes! A fine wizard, though – I do not envy his newest apprentice. He loses more and more of his spirit as the years pass him by, and with it, his memories can be a bit scattered…” He frowned and shook his head, adding quickly “…tough as they come, though, and wise!”

Daniyah smiled, familiar with the breed of man Athmir was describing. The pair threaded their way through canvas pavilions, hastily erected in the shadow of the cliffs. It was a gathering of local Alik’r tribes, and she was interested in keeping up with the particulars – though she belonged to no tribe herself, Alik’r gatherings were always an exciting affair.

At last they came to her camp – it was a humble one, on the outskirts of the moot, as befit her status as an outsider. The smell of heavy spices and cooked beans greeted them, and Daniyah felt some satisfaction at the man’s appreciative sniff; a knight often dined alone, and she’d managed to learn enough of the culinary arts to make her meals palatable. Her horse looked idly on – an old gelding that had been a faithful companion since the early days of her squirehood. Two years, now, she’d been Knighted; she knew that soon, she’d need a new mount.

“Please, sit. It’s nothing grand, but you are welcome to it.” She bowed her head, and turned to rummage through her saddlebags, retrieving a bowl and spoon. Carefully, the woman dished up beans and vegetables, spiced to scorch the tongue of an unwary taster – just as she liked it.

Her guest nodded, murmuring his thanks, and settled on a rock near the embers of her fire, watching the woman from the corner of his eye. Daniyah ate from the pot, using a dagger for a spoon – carefully. A host was gracious, and it wouldn’t have been the first time she’d done so.

“I was hoping you might know of a knight – or a Singer,” he began. Daniyah nodded once, carefully navigating her meal.

“… who might consider taking on a mage as an apprentice.” He finished serenly, and Daniyah nearly cut herself on her impromptu utensil.

“What? Why-?” She blurted, setting down her pot and staring at the mystic suspiciously. “You said yourself, you’ve a mastery of firecalling – what use has a mage for sword-singing? You don’t have the build for it, and what knight would take a full grown man to be a squire-? The Singers start at eleven – you don’t stand the slightest chance!”

2E 575

“Sep take you both! May you be eaten by savages in Valenwood, may the waters turn to poison in your belly and rot you from the inside out – I won’t forget this! Mark my words, wanderers, you’ve not seen the last of me!”

Athmir glanced sidelong at Daniyah, one eyebrow arching. “… I imagine this is the last we’ll see of him.”

Daniyah shook her head, watching the door close on the squalling man as the guards dragged him away. The sound of the lock turning seemed deafeningly loud as the crowd began to disperse, and she folded her arms across her chest, fixing Athmir with a pointed look. “You should be more careful, dabbling in eastern magic – you know they’d have thrown the case right out if they’d realized just how we came to obtain that evidence.”

Her squire grinned lazily.

In the three years since they’d met, the man had begun to fill out his armor. He’d always be built along slender lines, but not every swordsman was an ox – they worked together to find ways of improving his strength while still playing to his talents.

Unorthodox? Yes. But they’d both learned a great deal by doing so, and he’d even begun to expand his magical repertoire. Doubtless Hakeem would have been horrified at her willingness to go along with all this, but – she’d always had ideas he considered ‘queer’. Being open to magic was one of them; a holdover from her time spent in the bretonic Colville family where magic was merely another tool in their daily lives.

It had taken some time before she’d agreed to squire such an old pupil – he was only two years her junior, after all. But in working with him, she’d gained both a partner and a travel companion who had ended up teaching her as much as she had him; he was patient with her shortcomings as an instructor, and had an intimate knowledge of desert magic that she found fascinating.

And he was as good a man as any to have at her back in a fight, at that.

She shook her head. “Come on, squire. Let’s leave before we overstay our welcome – I heard a rumor about a town east of here. They say there was a rockslide; no doubt they could use our aid right now.”

2E 577

“Faster!”

Her voice was like a whipcrack as she prowled the canyon just beyond the reach of his blade.

In the five short years since she’d taken him on as a too-old squire, Athmir had developed a natural way with the sword that only confirmed that her choice to take him on had been the right one. No, he was no bruiser – he was a serpent, quick and deadly, unphased by opponents larger than himself. The man’s training had stripped him of any residual softness; he was lean and wiry, now, but his advantage was in his speed.

His style was not the same as her own. But then, it wasn’t supposed to be. Where she was tall and broad, he was smaller, and his body wasn’t built to bear the bulk of muscles like hers; where she relied on clever footwork and economy of motion, Athmir could dance circles around her when they sparred. Where she could bear down with force in a pinch, he had no such luxury.

The sword plunged downward, as if to shear through a sternum, and then he was away, the tip of the blade somehow at the level of a man’s hamstrings and slicing wickedly. It was as if his sword was a leaf in Tava’s grasp – yet the man’s sense of control never wavered.

Athmir’s journey to swordsmanship had been hastened by, of all things, the sorcery he’d been trained in. Degan’s methods had been rather more physical than Daniyah would have suspected; the easy cadence of the man’s voice wasn’t the only thing learned at Degan’s behest.

Try as she might, Daniyah couldn’t find fault with his exercise.

“Stop!” Again, her voice seemed too loud in the stillness of the canyon. The man instantly halted, sword held in place – his body was streaked with sweat and dust, but his breath was steady; barely winded. She envied him that.

Though he hadn’t lost his sleepy look and easy grace, Daniyah could feel the man’s intense focus as he watched the edge of his blade. He had rare talent – there was no doubt about it. Were she a different sort of person than she was, Daniyah might have thought it unfair, that he was possessed of so many skills; instead, she felt a quiet certainty that he was gifted by the Gods.

In the troubling times to come, such a man as Athmir might prove to be an avatar of HoonDing himself. There was no doubt that he worked hard to find his talents, but that he had taken only five years to find this level of skill seemed nothing short of a miracle.

She was blessed to have taught him.

“Wash off. It’s time to start thinking on your knighthood, Athmir – your skills are there. Now you must find a deed worthy of the title – a year, two more at most.”

2E 578

The rain came from nowhere; one moment, the sky was blue. The next, there was a downpour as lightning raced across the bloated black underbelly of black stormclouds that had materialized out of thin air.

Daniyah turned, blinking through the deluge as she struggled to determine what had just happened and how she might help. Everywhere in the marketplace, townsfolk were scurrying to find cover, merchants frantically trying to save their merchandise from the rain. “Athmir! Are you familiar with this sorcery-?”

To call for the aid of her squire was as much instinct as to reach for her sword. Even once his knighthood was complete, they’d agreed to travel together – they were a well-matched duo whose strengths complemented one another nicely.

If she hadn’t moved slightly to the left, the fireball wouldn’t have glanced the side of her cheek; if she’d moved just a little bit more, the flames might have found a new mark in the entirety of her head, and she’d have been burnt alive.

All she could hear in that moment was the roar of the conflagration and the crackling of her skin. She couldn’t feel it – it was as if it were happening to someone else. But there was no time to suffer, no time to even think – another came rapidly after, and already, a market stall was smoldering. If it weren’t for the rain, the dry wooden stalls would have been little more than tinder.

Athmir shot blindly, a man possessed; she could hear screams as she surged toward him. “Stop! Stop, what are you doing-?”

Her voice was a feeble croak, and if heard her, he wasn’t listening. A man in a priest’s vestment lay sprawled across the cobbles, convulsing and frothing from the mouth. She nearly tripped over him. Her face felt strangely cold and was beginning to tingle; she knew she didn’t have much time.

And then she was at his side, shaking him. “Squire! In Leki’s name, stop this!

When he looked at her, there was no recognition in his eyes. His lips curled against white teeth, forming a terrible grimace; he shoved her away, and began to snarl a spell, tempestuous winds rising at his command. Her heart sank as the rain began to sizzle into steam.

He was raising a firestorm.

The rain would turn to steam and boil them; even if it stopped as suddenly as it began, unimpeded fire and wind would only make the death toll higher. There was no time to hesitate, there was no time to bargain or plead.

As she lurched forward, searing agony erupted in her head where the fireball had connected – a strangled scream emerged from her ruined lips and her vision went briefly white. A heartbeat later, she hit the ground – and Athmir was beneath her.

He’d never been at his best when confronted by brute force.

He snarled like an animal, and thrashed beneath her with an unholy strength, but she’d been fighting far longer than he had; instinct took over where sentiment might have paused her. The dagger at her hip was in her hands, and she was choking him.

She could feel the growl of his throat against her fingers as he struggled to speak incantations that would give him the upper hand, was aware that he was thrashing, but she held him as tight as a mother would her squalling infant, her own features severe as the stink of burned flesh choked her.

With just one motion, his snarling turned to gurgles and his limbs stilled as his throat hemorrhaged all across her hands, coloring them red. She let him go and he babbled voicelessly as his struggles became feeble, eyes gone glassy by the time he fell still.

The blade slipped from her fingers to fall beside the man, and she looked to the bodies, to the smoldering wreckage that littered the town’s square. The rain had stopped. The sky was blue.

Beyond doorways and through the broken soot-smudged windowpanes, she could see a few fearful faces beginning to emerge.

Aware of the eyes upon her battered, burnt form, she knelt stiffly, gaze searching the dead man’s features for something she recognized.

Daniyah bowed her head and drew her trembling fingertips to close his eyes for the last time.

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[Yngrid] Eye for an Eye

Time slowed as Yngrid stared death in the eye; she’d expected to feel something. To feel fear, maybe – to feel regret. But even now, at the end of all things, she was ice and stone and cold fury, numb to her core. Her lips moved; his name, but she’d no breath to speak it.

Jergan.

As those leathery palms tightened about her throat, black splotches wavered in her vision and her jaw clenched, lips pulling wide against her teeth in a terrible snarl. Her fingers scrabbled, and she could feel the strength leaving her – desperate, she reached for the twin moons of his eyes and dug.

There was a moment of resistance, before those viscous yellow orbs gave way beneath the pressure of her fingertips. Abruptly, he was reeling backward, and his clawed hands released her throat – she fought to breathe through her crushed airway, choking and gasping as she lunged forward after him. It was difficult to see, but that didn’t matter –

Finish him! A voice inside her skull shouted with all the conviction she had left within her battered body, and she was compelled to listen. For Jergan. For my son.

She reached and her hand found a broom handle; it would do.

The werewolf howled and screamed in fury and pain, staggering blindly and swiping its clawed hands this way and that. Only luck kept her from being disemboweled by its flailing – or perhaps it was more than luck.

There was no time; with strength born of fury, she seized the broom in both hands and broke it across her thigh. The sound of the wood snapping was like the rapport of an ice-lance striking stone. The impact shot through both hands, leaving them reverberating painfully – she felt keenly aware of her own life in those moments, of the way her heart hammered against her ribs, the tightness in her throat and the fact that her eyes were watering and half-blind.

She wielded the broken broom as though the pieces were swords instead of splintered wood; her lungs burned as though they were laden with embers, her head throbbed. She thrust the sharp end toward the monster’s furred form, barely able to see but fueled by a wrath that managed to be fierce and numb at the same time.

The makeshift spear impaled the beast, but didn’t stop it. It roared its fury and spun towards the source of its pain – an old woman with grey hair and skin like leather. That a crone like that could hurt him so was inconceivable; that she might yet kill him hadn’t crossed its mind. It yanked the broken broom handle from its ribs and tossed it aside, lunging after the scent of mildewed furs and dirty, camp-smoke laden skin, of coppery blood and bitter herbs.

Yngrid felt more than saw the massive form coming for her, and there was cold satisfaction in her bared teeth as she jerked aside and let it barrel past. For all that she was old, she was smarter than the beast before her; she would kill it. But there wasn’t time – already it was turning, groping for her with those claws and making an awful sound that seemed something between a shriek and a howl. It was just human enough to raise the hair on the back of her spine.

But werewolves weren’t human. Now was no time to hesitate, and she steeled herself with her son’s name once more – Jergan!

Not even Yngrid herself could be sure if her eyes still watered from being throttled, or from tears she hadn’t allowed herself to spill in the time since Jergan’s death. It didn’t matter, though.

With her remaining half-a-broom, she rushed forward just as it turned to face her, snout twisted and teeth pale in the firelight. The empty sockets where she’d pushed out its eyes were slick against the black fur, and its mouth opened wide as though it were about to devour her whole…

She rammed the broomstick into that vast expanse of teeth and terror, and thrust the broken end through the top of its jaw and into its skull.

The werewolf fell inanimate and crumpled to the floor, like a candle extinguished by a sudden breeze. Yngrid didn’t hesitate – she snatched up the other half of the broomstick, still sticky with blood, and thrust it through the beast’s throat.

Her body betrayed her, and she sunk to the floor, beginning to shake and tremble, like a sail luffing from poor trim. For Jergan, she told herself. After a moment’s hesitation – For Solmund.

Her first kill had taught her just how little she was prepared.

Next time, she would be ready.

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[Jin-Rei] Only a Story

“Deep down in the marshes, far past where Men dare to set their soft, supple feet, and beyond the clutches of Merrish fingers, it is said there is an old hollow tree, with branches that twist and grasp after the stars they can’t hope to capture… its bark is as hard and yellow as dried up bones, and when the wind blows just so, you can hear it whispering.

“What the tree whispers is a mystery to the living, but it is also said that there was once one who could understand its sibilant tongue.”

Her yellow eyes glowed in the firelight and her ridiculous cloak of patches took on a sinister aspect, like the rainbow colored scale of a fish with too-long teeth. The speaker’s hands twisted as she wrung them as if wringing the cold from her scales, casting odd shadows this way and that; her teeth flashed in a sly smile as she regarded her audience.

“… or perhaps you didn’t want me to continue-?”

Across the firepit, Ivan the Bull was watching her with open, rapt attention; his admiration wasn’t mirrored by his companions, but there was certainly some measure of grudging interest. There was Svetti, a Nordish woman with perpetually squinting eyes, and Traldoren Falendus, a dunmer who seemed of the belief that speaking beyond a dull monotone was beneath him. In fact, he rarely bothered to waste his breath speaking to his travel companions at all – but tonight was an exception.

“Go on.” He intoned with grudging interest, watching the argonian woman thoughtfully. His red eyes were embers in the firelight, and he sipped his flask of Imperial flin as he leaned back indolently. Ivan shot him a look that was almost an objection, but the large Nord thought better of it as he eyed Traldoren; it was clear the Mer’s lofty ways were intimidating to him. Svetti watched the exchange with an expression of mild amusement, eyes half-closed as she sharpened her axe.

Jin-Rei toyed with a talisman of feathers that dangled from one of the spikes that angled from her jawline, and bowed her head. “As you say, then.”

She wet her throat with a sip off her own flask – water, lightly flavored with mint. She preferred to be alert. “In the darkest reaches of the swamp, not far from the great hollow tree, there was once a creature who could hear that which others were deaf to…

“He began life as an Argonian slave in Morrowind, but his body was shaped by tainted Hist-sap – an abomination, born of greedy slavers who hoped he would be made stronger. The sap itself was stolen, perverted by the improper handling of outsiders; when they tried to Name him as a slave and a subservient, the touch of the sap twisted his bones and turned his scales to stone… he did become stronger, but it was to their despair – unable to hear the Hist’s calling so far from Blackmarsh, the change went unchecked and the silence drove him mad. Those that did it didn’t live to do so again, or so they say; at the very least, their bodies were never found… it could be that they were devoured by the very demon they’d created – much like the bosmer cannibals in Valenwood.”

Here, she shook her head, allowing the lines of her features to settle in solemn disgust; her hand had drifted from the feathered trinket and was now idly twisting a satchel at her belt. The runestones within clattered softly, inaudible to any but her.

“In the silence of the Hist’s absence, the monster listened with all his might – and the sap must have shaped him beyond what others might do, for he began to hear things that no man nor beast should have been able to hear. The closer he came to Blackmarsh, the more he began to hear… but that which is most important to all Saxhleel, the touch of the Hist, the – connection we bear, to one another, to the trees themselves… the poor brute never gained that. He could hear it in the whisper of the wind through the branches, but could never feel it in his bones – couldn’t comprehend the words.

“He was an argonian apart, in a hostile marsh of things that sought to turn his bones to dust and strip the twisted flesh from his body; and always, he could feel the nearness of his belonging… but always, it was just beyond his grasp.

“By the time he found the tree, he was no more Saxhleel than any of you are; he was something different, something worse… in his madness, he began to believe that the Hist was tormenting him; that these things had been done to him out of malice. He began to hunt, to prey on the unwary Saxhleel – and to tear out their hearts and devour them, believing that he might be able to absorb their power.”

Her audience was rapt; even Svetti had set aside her axe in favor of crouching nearer to the fire, arms folded across her knees, gaze intent. Jin-Rei allowed herself the barest touch of showmanship, hiding her satisfaction as she slipped a palmful of reagents into the crackling flames. A moment later, there was a soft pop and sizzle; faintly, the sound of weeping emanated from the fire.

“Each time it failed, he grew angrier and less lucid; he began to hunt younglings, to run them down and flay them open as an offering to the mysterious whispers he could hear, but never understand… each time he did this, the whispers grew louder and louder, until they became screams of anguish that rattled inside his head like rocks in a canteen! He couldn’t comprehend anything past those shouts and moans, accusations and condemnation in a jabbering tongue that was as foreign to him as the Alik’r deserts – … until at last, there was a voice which hissed and clawed at the back of his mind, calling to him, beckoning and urging and tugging him forward.

“The voice quieted the other voices, and whispered to the abomination – told him secrets no mortal should know. At last, the monster found its source, and lay down beneath its branches, letting it soothe the rage and confusion that warred within him. In return, all it seemed to want was to impart its twisted knowledge… to teach the misshapen Saxhleel the darkest arts of the Marsh, the secrets that the Hist would have hidden from the world.”

She exhaled a soft sigh, shaking her head, and let her hands flutter skyward as she continued. “But the poor brute didn’t realize that this gift was as poisoned as the tainted sap that made him what he was; even with all the strength imparted to him, his body began to weaken beneath the weight of that knowledge. Though the tree urged him, he strayed less and less… he could at last speak to something which understood him, which treated him what seemed like kindness- but in truth, he was no more free than he had been as a slave. Each day that passed, he became less a beast of his own will and want, and more a tool for the tree’s designs.

“He became thirsty for blood, and what little light trickled down between the trees made his eyes hurt and his skull ache; once he began to drink, he became stronger again, but his mind was as dark and clouded as the very waters of the swamp. Within his skull there was a constant litany of hatred and shadow, until at last he was scryed by a powerful witch, who tracked him down by his victims tortured bodies.

“She traced his path by rite and ritual, and found him sleeping beneath the branches of the tree, protected by it. Though she was deaf to its call, there was an evil breeze to the place – an unnatural stirring that made her uneasy, a shifting of shadows where there should have been stillness. She watched, she waited.

“For three days and three nights, she hunted the hunter – she followed at his his heels, concealed by her magics. Many ways of dealing with the stranger crossed her mind; perhaps he could be helped. Perhaps he could be freed of the tree’s influence, or spoken to in such a way that he might feel the weight of his crimes before paying for them. Perhaps, in destroying him, she might also destroy the tree.”

Here, Jin-Rei paused, eying her audience with a calculated glance before shaking her head. She leaned down to pluck a dry leaf from the ground, and twisted it between her fingers – letting the reflected shadows jitter over her features before seizing it in her palm and crumpling it into dry dust. She cast the remnants into the fire, which abruptly took on a purple glow.

“When at last she chose to appear before him, she cast a spell to quiet the hungers that drove him. The swamps themselves lent her their magic; there are some who might say that a swamp witch’s powers are fickle and false. Those few are foolish; what transpired then was nothing short of a miracle.

“With her terrible, wonderful secrets and spells, she reached out and touched him – and for the first time in his life, the monster knew some measure of compassion.

“She was bright as luminous mushrooms in the darkest of caves, like Jone and Jode when the clouds finally part and all the stars spill like jewels across the sky! Her scales were soft, and though his were stone, he could feel the touch of her skin, and it shook him to the core in a way that no victim’s struggle, no slaver’s strikes, had ever touched him before.

“And at long last, he could hear it – could hear it through her, that song that had been shrouded by silence for all his years!

“By the time she was finished and the spell was complete, he was both broken and made anew. The weight of what he’d done was a bitter yoke upon his shoulders, and the awareness of it was as a knife twisted between the ribs; in that moment, he was made Saxhleel for the first time. He knew what must be done to deserve the privilege of a Name, a true name… though he knew also that it might cost him all that he had left to take it.”

Her head bowed, and she leaned closer to the fire, hands reaching to clutch at her scaled shoulders as though cold. Her eyes squeezed shut for a moment, and she drew in a ragged breath before continuing, her words alive with the sorrow of the tale.

“He returned to the tree and the world of whispers and shadows, but it was her voice which lingered in the edges of his mind – her words and her breath which gave him the strength to do what need be done. Her brightness lived on inside of him, and made him whole – was the mortar that filled in his empty spaces, where there had only been broken pieces before.

“The tree didn’t like this, couldn’t grip and tug at his mind as it had; evil that ancient wasn’t born of naiveté. It could sense that its vessel had changed, and in retaliation, it dug its roots deeper, letting in all those echoes that had driven him in torment.

“He stood steadfast and resolute, made strong by the witch’s magic, and began to dig at the base of the tree, using his enormous, brutish claws to make the job faster.” Here, Jin-Rei plucked a stick from the ground and began to use it to prod at the frozen earth, in imitation of the story’s digging. Traldoren’s eyes were closed, as though sleeping – yet his features were alert and she could see the tension in the way his fist was balled in his cloak. Something about this story was clearly getting to him.

“For three days and three nights, the monster dug at the base of the tree – its roots twisted and tried to snare him; foul waters filled the rapidly growing hole, making him sick. Still, he persisted, kept digging and digging, even as his scales began to slough and bleed, and his claws turned brittle and wiggled loose like rotten teeth from his hands. He dug with the tips of his fingers bloodied and raw, poisoned by the tree and its powers, but resolute.

“On the morning of the fourth day, the Witch returned, gravid with eggs and full of purpose. She looked on the face of the broken monster, and gently placed a hand on his shoulder; through her, the Hist sang, and his pain receded.

“In the hole at the base of the tree, she made her nest in those foul waters, protected from the treacherous roots by her own clever spells. There, she laid the clutch; one by one, the eggs sank into the mud and disappeared… and the tree began to quiver.

“At first it was a tremble; then it was a shake. She could hear it screaming, though she had been deaf to it before… but the monster had no such fortune. He clawed and hissed, his broken fingertips raking across the drum of his membranes and destroying them utterly. As she laid the last egg, she moved to help – but there was nothing she could do.

“As he twisted and writhed on the ground, the tree itself began to hiss and sizzle as the stillborn young broke through the shells, given animation by the rituals of the swamp; their teeth were as sharp as daggers, and they chewed through the center of the tree, climbing its roots and gnawing away the soft, rotten insides. The broken monster lay still by the end; the tree was no more but a hollow skeleton from which all the wickedness had been stripped by gnashing teeth.

“The stillborn young turned to holy ash, their last remnants resting in the core of the tree – forever purifying those grounds into a sacred space, a testament to the Hist’s triumph over wickedness.”

Jin-Rei bowed her head, toying with a bit of stone she’d retrieved from one of her satchels. The stone was black, and shaped like a brutish claw; she turned it over and over in the firelight. Within a moment, there was a sudden gasp, and Ivan the Bull was lunging over to get a better look.

“Is that – ? No! It can’t be, that was just a story! And – what became of the witch? Of the monster-?” His voice was plaintive, just a touch surly; she offered up the stone claw without comment, offering an enigmatic shrug of her bony shoulders.

He turned it around and around, trying to find some evidence that it was fraudulent, and while he did so, Jin-Rei yawned widely. “It is time for sleep, my friends. Perhaps tomorrow, another story?”

Abruptly, she heard a scoff. Traldoren rose and stretched, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly. “Bloody hedgewitch, your story’s as much a lie as the rest of you. I tire of this.” He sounded bored, but the look he shot Jin-Rei was dirty as he stalked off toward his bedroll. Jin-Rei only smiled. “It was just a story, you may believe what you wish.”

With that, she liberated the stone claw from Ivan, tucking it back within its satchel and retiring to her own hammock. As she closed her eyes, a faint smile curled along her muzzle.

They could believe exactly what they wished. She knew the truth of things.

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[Daniyah and Rickard Colville] Dancing Lessons

[Rickard is property of Edd, whose profile is hopelessly out of date; character used with his permission. :)]

She could barely breathe; her ribs felt tight, as if they might at any moment snap. Her eyes watered and her lungs burned as she tried to make her breaths as shallow as possible, steeling herself against the pressure on her scalp and the tearing, wrenching sensations that reverberated all the way down her neck –

“For Gods’ sakes, girl, wipe that war-grimace off your face!”

Sabine Colville had the look of a woman who was in over her head, as she jerked a comb through Daniyah’s thick mane of wiry hair. It had, of course, been her idea to undo the myriad braids which had contained the unruly mass before now – she had envisioned all sorts of beautiful styles which might be much more suitable for a courtly occasion. Now, even Daniyah could see she was having second thoughts; the young squire tried a smile through the pain being inflicted on her scalp, and, for at least the dozenth time that evening, silently cursed fashion for being so bloody constrictive.

“I’m sorry, Lady Colville; only…” She wavered a second, then took a deep breath and blurted stubbornly – “Do we really have to do this?” Even as the words left her lips, Daniyah knew it was a pointless question.

She was twelve, and built along sturdy lines; there was little enough to differentiate her from Rickard, Sabine’s son and her training partner. Not even the corset, pulled tight as it would go, could force much curve to her form; Sabine, however, was not content to leave well enough be.

“You’re a girl, dear; it doesn’t hurt to dress like it every now and again! Besides, I’m sure we can work with this – you’ll be so lovely once we just… do something with your hair…” She tugged at the brush, and Daniyah was wise enough to withhold her sigh; what little breath she had was too precious to waste on expressing her dismay.

Being in a dress didn’t change how she felt about herself. She was proud of her strength – she’d worked hard to attain it, and it was well suited to the tasks she was required to perform each day. She could tilt at the quintain and hit the mark almost every time; she could grapple with Rickard and send him face-down in the dirt. Daniyah spent hours scouring armor, sharpening blades, and working with weaponry every day. She loved the things she could do, and without her body just as it was, she wouldn’t be able to do them. That she didn’t look ‘ladylike’ didn’t bother her.

But Sabine was fussy about these things, and though she wasn’t as physically strong, perhaps, as her husband was, or even as Daniyah was – it was Sabine who ran the household with a lily-white fist wrapped in an iron glove. Most of the time, the young squire admired Sabine’s strength of character; but the woman had the idea that every young person, even young women who could joust and swordfight, needed to also know how to navigate in the confines of polite society.

To Daniyah’s displeasure, ‘polite society’ was a combination of most of her least favorite things. Confining clothing, the basics of cosmetic application, fussy manners, and coiffed hair were tedious enough… but the worst of it was the dancing.

If it was just dancing, she might have enjoyed it; she liked to move, and there was a natural rhythm to music that appealed to her. But this was partnered dancing, with none other than her erstwhile opponent, Rickard – and neither of them all too graceful at it. He had a tendency to blush and step on her, while she didn’t like to be ledabout the dance floor like a dog on a leash. She never felt graceful or light, like Sabine constantly urged for – she felt uncomfortable and confined in her clothes. Though her foster-mother assured her she was lovely in the Bretonic dresses she was made to don for the occasions, Daniyah had eyes and could see well enough that she looked like an ox in silks. It wasn’t fitting and she hated it.

“… just… let me… – there’s a salve for this, hold on a moment, I think I’ll just – fetch that…”

Sabine rose abruptly, forgetting the comb still lodged firmly in Daniyah’s unfettered hair, and disappeared into the hallway. Longingly, Daniyah looked out the window and wished herself in the stables. The stars had just come out from between the clouds, and both moons formed opposing crescents in the sky – she fancied they looked like two knights fighting back to back, with the stars for their opponents. She knew the night air would be cold and crisp, and no doubt she’d be set to some task or other, cleaning stalls or caring for the lamed mare Devlin acquired some months ago to see if they could mend her.

For a brief moment, she found herself wondering what Sabine would do if her young protégé were to vanish – but the thought was quickly banished with a brief frown at herself. It was ill-becoming of a squire, to shirk the duties assigned her by her Knight-Master. It didn’t matter how little she cared for the lessons she was being taught her; she would do her best to apply herself to them and learn what she could.

Still, the whole thing was pointless. It was clear she’d never be the kind of ‘ladylike’ Sabine seemed to strive for… and the dancing lessons felt more like a terrible form of punishment than education. But it was her duty to obey as her lord commanded.

***

“One-two-three one-two-three one-two-three one-“

Though he was the older of the two by a year, Rickard Colville was only barely taller than his partner and looked quite a bit more discomfited by the situation than she did. His palms were sweaty, his cheeks perpetually flushed, and his muddy brown eyes kept moving anywhere but to meet her own level gaze. The pair of them moved about as gracefully as a cat navigates without its whiskers, with much awkward bumping and the occasional tangling of feet. He seemed loathe to touch her, as though she were made of spun glass – a far cry from their accustomed grappling and fighting in the practice yards, and a change of pace that she rather resented.

It was the ridiculous clothes, she decided firmly, that made men act like gabbling fools around women; her hair had been tamed by Sabine’s arsenal of tonics, and was pulled into an elegant twist at the nape of her neck. Powders and inks had been applied to her features, smoothing the wind-chapped and acne-dotted planes of her skin into artificial silkiness. She barely recognized the girl in the mirror, and didn’t much care for her – she didn’t look like a person half so much as a doll, and the effect was unsettling.

Rickard, meanwhile, had been equally well-groomed. He wore an expertly tailored vest and smelled like soap, his hair pulled back in a horsetail, and his normal wispy facial hair conspicuously absent. He might have looked handsome, if it wasn’t for the fact that she knew him entirely too well as a windbag who was more interested in debating politics that he knew next to nothing about, than doing his fair share of the chores. And why were his hands so clammy and tentative-? It was unpleasant; if he was going to lead, he ought to lead, not mince and fumble. She shot him a dirty look, and dragged his hand back down to the bottom of her corset, placing it there firmly and hissing in a whisper – “You’re stepping on me again!”

“Rickard, dear, she’s right – you have to hold firmlylead the dance, don’t stumble through it!”

The dining hall had been cleared for the occasion, and Sir Colville was keeping beat on a small hand drum, smiling knowingly at the pair and not lifting a finger to free them from the torment his wife seemed insistent upon.

“Aye, son – shall I fetch the cane to help remind you?” He called less-than helpfully, still grinning a wicked grin. Rickard was quick to seize upon the opportunity to shoot his father a deep scowl.

Distracted, his boot found the hem of Daniyah’s gown; she fell off balance at the sudden forced halt and seized his shoulder just as he moved his other foot. The sily fabric of her gown shifted treacherously beneath his shoe, and, Off-balance, he careened straight into Daniyah, toppling both of them to the ground.

She couldn’t even move; the corset pinched at her ribs and made it impossible to breathe. There was duty, and then there was pointless torment. Her entire scalp felt tight where the hair had been forcibly tamed, her heeled boots felt like walking on stilts, and the whole thing was ridiculous. She couldn’t even sit up without Rickard’s hand, which he was too busy wringing to offer as he roll off her and tripped over his own tongue apologizing profusely.

It was too much. “I’m done! I can’t – do this anymore – tonight-“ Her breathless words were punctuated by unladylike grunts as she fumbled beneath the gown and – at long last – tugged the corset strings loose. Oh,sweet release! She gasped for breath and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, face hot with humiliation.

She yanked the boots from her feet and chucked them at Rickard’s stupid face, furious; to her dismay, hot tears stung at her eyes. Her heart thumped fit to burst, and she struggled for her feet amid her finery, shedding layers of the gown as she went. “I just – can’t!”

And then she was out the door and flying, bare feet striking the cold packed dirt, down to what Sabine would declare her ‘immodest undergarments’; it always struck her as strange, that her skivvies in fancy lady clothes covered as much as her usual practical training gear. She could feel the tears leaking from eyes but stubbornly choked back her misery, making a bee-line for the stables and for the musty hay-loft overhead.

Monkey-like, she scrambled up the ladder, bare feet tough as leather against the splintery steps. Here, she could still hear the soft sounds of the horses as they stirred beneath. it was dark and quiet and it smelled like sweet straw and summer hay, the scent gilded by dust and the horses. She darted to her favorite corner, uncomfortably aware that the finery she was wearing would no doubt gather every bit of dirt and dust in the stables, but too sick at heart to feel more than passing guilt over the matter.

Ensconced within her hiding place, Daniyah set about carefully loosening the stays of her corset. The soft glow of enchanted torchlight peeking through the loosely spaced slats of the hay-loft gave off only the faintest light, but it was enough for Daniyah. The corset still poked at her, but was no longer constricting her breath; she leaned against a bale of grassy feed-hay, letting out a deep sigh. Her fingertips traced the grain of the wood through the dust and loose straw.

Her mother had told her she must be good, that she must obey Sir Colville and always do her best. It had been a year since she’d been left here in his care, and in that time, she had done her best – he’d taught her so much, and he’d helped her. For the first time in her life, she hadn’t felt like she was in the way and a nuisance – she had been allowed to take up space without being a burden.

For the first time in a year, she’d finally lost her temper and completely disobeyed direct instructions. Not only that, she’d probably ruined the fine dress Sabine had had made for her, had thrown her shoes, and had cried – like some sort of spoiled child, she’d thrown a tantrum! None of this was fitting behavior for a squire. Her stomach clenched with dread as she considered the future, now that she’d ruined everything.

She’d be sent away, of course. Back to her mother, who would be disappointed in her. She’d never see Sabine or Devlin or even Rickard again. She’d never become a knight, she’d never master weapons – all because she couldn’t keep calm over a bit of dancing. The tears prickled and burned at the corners of her eyes, but furiously, she swiped them away with the back of her hand, dismayed at the amount of makeup that came away with them.

The Colvilles had deserved better than what she’d just done. It was too late to take it all back, but – it wasn’t too late to apologize. A Knight would apologize, wouldn’t she-? Then again, a Knight wouldn’t have made those mistakes, but… when she did, she’d own up to it, and apologize. She’d accept her punishment as fair, and do her best to atone for it. Now, even if she never was a Knight, she could at least act like one to the best of her ability.

***

By the time she’d changed and scrubbed herself free of cosmetics and pastes, the dining hall had been put right again, and Sir Devlin Colville sat alone, penning a later by the glow of an enchanted candlestick.

He was a grizzled forty years old, with a well-groomed beard touched with silver, and brown eyes the observed the world and seemed to make light of its hardships. In spite of the mischief that animated his spirit, he was a hard-driving taskmaster and not overly prone to fits of sentimentality. He was fair, but strict; for all that he was quick to smile, he was intent on making the two young people in his charge capable warriors.

Daniyah wanted to creep on her tip-toes, quiet as a mouse and small in her shame; but it would be too much like cowardice, wouldn’t it? A Knight didn’t shy away from unpleasantness, but faced it. She swallowed hard past the lump in her throat, and lifted her chin before deliberately striding towards the man who had instructed her for a year.

“Sir Colville.” Her voice was formal, as was her bow – just a bit lower than was strictly necessary. If he could see the slight quiver of her chin, he didn’t mention it; Sir Devlin Colville set aside his quill pen and regarded Daniyah somberly, lips just a little bit thin as he studied his truant squire.

“I – I apologize for my disgraceful behavior. I was wrong to throw my shoes, and to shed my skirts in mixed company. I owe Lady Colville an apology as well, and Rickard; what happened was a disgrace, and – and unworthy of one who would be a Knight.” She kept her arms stiff and straight at her sides, resisting the urge to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She hadn’t had time to do more than one fat braid, and curls had already come loose to frolic at her skull.

Devlin watched her, a hand lifting scratch his beard thoughtfully. She quickly continued, misery heavy in her stomach. “I will pack my things, Sir. And… I am truly sorry to have wasted your time.”

The words stuck in her mouth like mud. She closed her eyes briefly, sternly willing back tears; a Knight didn’t cry… or at least, if they did, Sir Colville had never mentioned it. Courage, in the face of all things.

She was startled by the sudden weight of his hand on her shoulder, and she lifted her head, eyes opening to peer at the man. He looked as firm as ever. “Daniyah, I will tell you when my time has been wasted. You would run away, now?” Here, an eyebrow lifted as he regarded her coolly. “Over a dancing lesson?”

Daniyah frowned, uncertain. “I- I’m not running away… but – you’ll send me back home. I broke the rules. I disobeyed direct instructions, and lost my temper and…” She couldn’t quite finish. Her face felt hot and her throat tight.

“Oh, that you certainly did! Never seen anything like that out of you, girl – if I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t have believed it! Lamya’s daughter, the steadiest temperament you’ll ever meet! And yes, you did break the rules, you disobeyed direct instructions, tossed your clothing, and ran off before we could stop you – but you really think I’d give up on you that easily?” Here, he sounded almost affronted, and let his hand drop from her shoulder, shaking his head and gesturing to the table.

“Sit. You’re not going anywhere, but we do need to talk about this.”

Mute and uncertain, Daniyah did as she was told, her heart pounding unsteadily inside of her. She felt as if her body belonged to another girl, and that she was merely an observer; her skin tingled and her motions were stiff. “I don’t understand…”

Devlin shook his head, taking a seat across from her. “Daniyah, everyone makes a mess of things sometimes; part of what I’m here to teach you is how to clean up that mess after – and mind you, yes, you made a mess tonight. But I’m not going to send you back home just for losing your temper. You’ll get scut-work for a bit, and you’d better offer a damn good apology to my wife and Rickard; you’ll probably end up learning more about the courtly things because of this little debacle. But it isn’t the end of the world.”

He brushed a hand over his beard, eyes half closing as he leaned back in his chair. “Now. Do you know why you’re being made to learn to dance, and don a Lady’s dress?”

The mere inflection of his voice changed ‘lady’ into ‘Lady’; a lady could wear a dress. A Lady wore a fine gown, like the one she’d been placed into. Still feeling uncertain, Daniyah swallowed hard and managed to croak out a ‘no’.

Devlin allowed her a small smile. “A Knight’s armor can be more than just metal; I’ve instructed you in chivalry, but so far our focus has been on combat… well, part of chivalry is courtesy. And part of courtesy is courtly manners. I know – the get-ups can be quite the hassle. I’m no fan of them myself, to be quite honest – and poor Sabine gets her feet stepped on more than she’d ever let on. A Knight protects herself and those around her with courtesy and good manners just as often as with a shield and armor; there are battles that are fought with the mind, girl, not just the sword-arm. Now I’m not so good at those sorts of fights… but for all that Sabine may not train in the practice yards, don’t underestimate her. There is plenty she can teach you.”

Daniyah frowned. A thousand arguments sprang to life, but she kept them carefully trapped in the prison of her teeth. She was torn between feeling light as feather – she could stay! – and wanting to argue that corsets were unnecessary items created only to inflict suffering upon their wearers. Still, silence seemed the better answer… and Sir Colville was a Knight. Surely he knew better about these things than she did.

If he believed that words and manners were as useful as combat skills, then she’d believe it too. Regarding him with solemn eyes, the girl nodded her understanding, and was rewarded with another small smile as Sir Colville shook his head.

That’s more familiar. Run along to bed, girl; you can offer your apologies to Sabine and Rickard in the morning. Rickard’s probably sore with you; Sabine made him dance with her, and she’s much taller than you are.”

Daniyah smiled tentatively in return; the image of Rickard being put through his paces by his mother was entertaining. Rising and offering a final bow, the young squire fairly skipped to her room to await the morning’s punishment chores.

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[Isheriil] Of Mer and Men

[Character of Isheriil belongs to Pigeons; story created and posted with permission.]

Isheriil sat on a stone bench, in the shade of an old plum tree. His long, thin nose was buried in a book so closely that that the tip was near enough to brush the yellowed pages. His eyes, however, were not following the carefully printed words. Instead, he peered out over the top of the tome, nervously tracking the movements of a group of children playing raucously in the market square.

It wasn’t fair, he decided. School was out for the day. Why had they chosen this particular part of town for their noisy games? He wanted to read his book in peace; it was a comprehensive study of the various species of clam found off of Skywatch’s western coast. Every time he tried to focus, their whooping and howling inevitably roused him from his studies! It was difficult to focus on the finer aspects of clam biology when he was quite sure he’d be spotted and harassed at any moment.

He debated the merits of slinking home or staying where he was and hoping to be overlooked, but by the time he’d decided, it was too late – the nearest of the children had spotted him. His book had drifted a few inches downward, revealing the top of his long nose and his nervously peering eyes; it was enough for Niria to catch a glance and come jogging over, her cheeks flushed a golden orange with play.

“Hay, Ishie!” There was no mistaking the meaning – calling him by the nickname they had to know he hated! Reluctant but resigned to the inevitable torment that would follow, he lowered the book, wetting his lips and affecting an expression of indifference – as though he hadn’t noticed his classmates, and was merely absorbed in his study.

“Hullo, Niria. D-didn’t see you there; what are you lot up to?” The aloof impression was rather spoiled by a stutter, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to look her in the face. The street before him was paved in crisp white cobbles, and the tree above was decked in pale lavender flowers that would soon become fat, sticky plums. He made a note to himself to avoid this spot when that happened; plums were such messy fruits, and it wouldn’t do to muss his clothing. A shame, too – they were his favorite.

Niria, however, tried valiantly to catch his eye, and offered an uncertain smile as she failed, following his own wandering gaze instead. No doubt this was another way she was mocking him. He licked his lips again and stubbornly continued to avoid her glance. Not to be deterred, the girl’s features crinkled merrily and she beamed at him instead- “We’re playing Altmer and Humans! Wanna come? You can even be Altmer! We take turns!”

His eyes narrowed slightly as he made careful observation of the tree’s craggy bark, avoiding touching it – doubtless it was just choked with dirt. Nature was always dirty. Quickly, he shook his head. “No thank you. I- I don’t like those sorts of games.”

“Awww, come on! It’ll be fun!”

Just then, one of the other children abruptly rounded the street corner, making a series of ghastly faces and shrieking at the top of his lungs. “GRRAWRRGHHL I’MMA HUMAN I AM GONNA KILL YOU AND BURN ALL THE BOOKS, BLAARGHWARRMRGH!”

Niria jumped, her golden eyes growing huge, and grabbed Isheriil by the hand. “Quick, Ishie!! ALTMER POWERS! BACK, YOU FOUL MAN! BACK I SAY, OR I’LL USE MY MAGIC ON YOU!”

Isheriil found himself being dragged along, stammering his protests all the way, as Niria stubbornly waved her arm around as though casting a thousand different spells all at once. The boy playing the Human howled and screeched as imaginary flames consumed him, and was soon ‘dead’ on the cobbles, limbs twitching. In spite of his reluctance, Isheriil had to admit that the other child made a good sport of it.

Nervous but resigned, he kept close to Niria’s heels as they scoured the streets for other pockets of Mannish invaders; of course, the Altmer forces outnumbered and outgunned the Men, who largely seemed to rely on screaming and waving their arms about. It was frightening and exciting all at once, and he never could seem to find his voice to help Niria much. But that was okay – she was doing a good job of dispatching the Men, even without his help. She didn’t seem to mind his quiet, anyway.

The round ended with a final march, all the ‘Altmer’ children rounding up what few reserves the ‘Men’ had left and ‘executing’ them for their crimes against the great island of Alinor. Then, the tables turned.

“Okay, Ishie, now we gotta be the Men – all you do is just scream and say things like a Man would say, kay?”

“B-but I don’t really – like humans… they’re – they’re dirty and -”

“Well, we’re not really humans, silly! We just gotta pretend to be like them, and take over Summerset Isle!”

“B-b-but I don’t want to take over Summerset Isle!”

“You just gotta pretend, come on!”

Niria, he decided, was an unstoppable and implacable force of madness, impervious to all reason and logic. He cringed and hunched to make himself as small as he could, thinking longingly of his book – but he as he was told.

Being saddled with a madwoman was far better than being on his own. He kept close to Niria, and was surprised to find that she accrued some victories as a Man; when they’d been Altmer, all the Men they’d encountered had quickly been ‘killed’ by their Altmer powers. As it happened, Niria’s vivid imagination gave them swords made of sticks, and if they caught the Altmer defenders by surprise, their enemies would eventually give way to the poking of tree branches, having to admit that they had been tricked and slain by the enterprising humans. Soon enough, however, they came to their bitter end – surrounded by Altmer on all sides who raised a deafening din of magic noises, their fingers wiggling dramatically. It was here that he and Niria made their last stand, and at last collapsed into a spasming pile of Mannish ‘corpse’.

That was the last round for the evening, and the children filtered away to their homes, filled with pride for the inevitable victory of the Merrish people, and tired from the day’s exertions. They grinned and chattered to one another as they went, and Isheriil was swept up in their mass before finally splitting off to trot home to his books.

In the safety of his room, the door firmly closed and his shelves of books surrounding him, the young elf anxiously eyed himself in a mirror of well-polished silver. He was sticky with sweat, and unhappy about the whole adventure; his clothing was mussed, and he was dirty where he’d fallen down. His book had been claimed as a Merrish artifact, and he had no idea where it had ended up at the war’s conclusion; peevishly, he was now sure that the invitation to play had all been some sort of set up by his peers to steal his book.

When he finally fell asleep, he dreamed fitfully of Men’s faces leering from in the darkness, their swords tearing holes in Altmer bodies and their fires burning libraries full of books. He woke trembling in the darkness with sleepless half-moons beneath his eyes; he wrapped his skinny arms about his knees and waited grimly for dawn to break.

Never again, he promised himself. Never again would he play Altmer and Humans.

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[Daniyah] Ovank’a – To Search for Mercy

Her father’s greenhouse was cool and bright, half sunken into the ground with stained glass windows reflecting brilliant color against the sand-colored stone. Medicinal plants grew in deep clay pots, the smell of leaves and blossoms mingling with cool wet earth and pungent herbs. It was here that her great uncle rested, and it was here where he would spend the last of his days.

It was strange to see him so thin and pale, his skin like well-worn leather pulled tight against the bones of his cheeks. He resembled nothing so much as a skeleton, animate only with labored breath. His was a cruel disease – not content to strip the old man of the rangy muscle that he’d worked for all his life, it had also taken his vitality and strength of will… what was left seemed little more than an echo of the man she’d known, recognizable only by moments. This emaciated elder seemed a stranger to her now, and she couldn’t help but mourn for the loss.

She reached to grip his bony fingers, her head bowing against the desert breeze that gently stirred the slender stalks of Angelica at the foot of his bed. His door was open; she’d left it so. Hakeem Sulayman had always been a man who enjoyed the wind and sand and unrelenting sun – as beautiful as her father’s estate was, there was something bitterly cruel, that he should die so far from the elements he’d called home. At least she could do this much – she could give him the wind, dulled and muted to barely a whisper. It was something.

He stirred, his rasping breath turning to a cough; his eyes suddenly snapped open, beetle-bright and fixing her with a hard stare. Reflexively, she dropped his hand, meeting his gaze squarely.

“I’m not dead yet, girl!” The words were rumbled with the force of his displeasure as he glowered at her fiercely. He looked more like himself than he had in months. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you better than to mourn the living? Your face is as long as an elf’s, looking at me like you’re going to start caterwauling – what, have you become a spoilt milksop in my absence? I trained you to be a knight, girl! Act it!”

His voice was like two stones grinding together, made weaker by sickness, yet his spirit seemed intact; Daniyah hid a smile as she bowed her head, letting his grouching and criticisms pass through her ears as if they were so much wind. “It’s good to see you awake, Sir.” She paused, lifting her gaze to regard him once more, memorizing the weary lines of his face again. “ – I had hoped you might recall what day it is?” Her tone was mild – but there was a touch of mischief, inaudible to a stranger’s ear, that Hakeem could no doubt hear.

With visible effort, he drew himself to sit up, sputtering indignantly and gripping her shoulder for support as he went. His weathered brow seemed to droop over his sunken eyes, heavy with age, but he managed a baleful stare as he eyed his once-pupil and scoffed. “Of course I know what day it is – do you know, pup?”

This time, she couldn’t quite subdue the grin that tugged her crooked features, and chose to hide it beneath instead by rubbing her scarred cheek with a weathered hand, as if thinking. “It is Ovank’a, the twelfth day of Morning Star – a day of devotion to Stendarr among our Alik’r friends. I had hoped you might pray with me – we could surely use his mercy for the year to come.”

It wasn’t so unusual for him to lose track of the days; he’d never been troubled by days or even years, but had insisted that Daniyah know each holiday that bore relevance to the Redguard. Even the strange desert folk of the Alik’r, whose culture tended to assimilate more from the outside than was considered ‘proper’, received their careful diligence in study. She had retained that knowledge in the time since. It had been rather more useful than she would have guessed as a surly youth in an old man’s tutelage.

It didn’t bother her to offer reverence to Stendarr; even as a child, her mother had worshipped the Imperial gods, while her father was more rigidly adherent to the traditional pantheon. Suitably, she found herself with favorites among both – she offered deference and prayer to HoonDing, Tava, Leki the Swordsaint… but Stendarr had no approximation in mythos of her people. His compassion for those less fortunate was a virtue largely ignored by Redguard culture, yet it was impossible to overlook the lessons he offered to a knight whose travels were guided by her principles.

The old man cleared his throat and eyed her with a withering stare, grimacing and smacking his gums in displeasure. “You come all this way to trouble me for a prayer? Dammit, girl! Don’t you know better than to bother your elders over such trifling things?”

It was good to hear him grumbling; the illness might be slowly stealing away most of what made him himself, but today he was more lucid than had become normal. “Please accept my apologies, sir. Perhaps you ought to take this deficiency in my teachings to them that taught me?”

Had he been stronger, the clout of his hand might have been enough to hurt; but her head was hard and his strength was sapped as he cursed her soundly. She knew better than to grin, and did her best to look contrite as he snarled and raved. Only a friend could see that he was plainly enjoying every moment of his complaints – it was visible in the brightness of his eyes, the very faint twitch of his lips, too subtle for a stranger to note.

“Deficiency in your teaching? More like deficiency in that thick skull of yours, full of rocks and sand and bits of fluff! Back in my day, pups knew better than to yap at their elders – I’d tan you black and blue, if I thought it’d make any difference! Too damn stubborn and then some – should’ve told Mahomet you were too much of a mule for me to make any difference in, coming to my bedside and begging me to pray for mercy! Ha! If anything, needs to be less mercy, keep from encouraging pups like you to be cheeky with their elders and betters!”

She let him keep going, enjoying the familiar sound of his cantankerous snarls. She busied herself with unnecessary fussing, tidying his things. Though it hardly needed doing, there was comfort in action, powerless as she was to make him well again. She poured a mug of cool water and offered it mutely to the man, before refolding the spare wool blanket that rested at the foot of his bed. He accepted the mug with an indignant flare of his nostrils, and allowed his tirade to be cut short by thirstily drinking. She took the opportunity to sit beside him, and interrupted the silence.

“Great-Uncle… things aren’t going well.” She spoke abruptly, voice quiet; the words seemed reluctant. Aware of his gaze, she could almost feel the levity draining from his features. She hazarded a glance his way, frowning and already regretting that she’d cut short their familiar banter.

“Yes, girl? I’m listening. Say your piece and be done with it.” He’d never had much patience for dawdling, and his eyes were sharp even as the last hints of a smile faded from his lips.

There was a lump in her throat as she finally voiced her worries. “There will be war soon; the borders have been drawn, the people are straining beneath the burden. We have refugees deserting their homes, bandits and slavers growing in strength to pick at those who are fleeing for safety. What I am doing… isn’t enough. What is one grain of sand against a tidal wave?”

She was acutely aware that this might be the last time she could seek his counsel, and reached for his hand, impulsive. His skin felt like paper, and she held it gently, smoothing her fingertips over his bony knuckles. He squeezed her hand, but there was so little of the strength she recalled, she could barely feel his grip against the scars and callouses on her own battle-worn palm.

He leaned back against the wall, his features sagging somewhat. “Child… I am too old to stand with you, now. We both know this – and what are two grains of sand, against what will come?” Letting out a sigh, he shook his head before continuing, weary. “Praying for Stendarr’s mercy won’t right these wrongs; the Gods can’t stop us from destroying ourselves, girl. Men, Mer, Betmer – we’re all bound and determined to tear one another apart, and Stendarr stands for all of us. How can he take sides-? Better to cry out for HoonDing’s guidance, than the Imperial gods whose ears are full of pleas to take this side and that – and each of them in opposition to the next!” His ancient features creased in a grimace, and he made a tsking sound.

“Better to hope for victory, than for peace… so that our armies can again clear the vermin within our borders, without worrying of threats beyond them. So that we might rise in dominance, rather than be broken and fragmented.”

Daniyah frowned very faintly and twined her fingers with his. Hers were rough and marked by combat, little nicks and pale white scars, seasoned by wind and sand and cold metal gauntlets… they looked small, but strong, against her uncle’s hand. His hand was bony, softer than it used to be – creased by wrinkles and ridged with veins, weathered beaten and scarred, but with a memory of strength. She felt small in the presence of the man who’d trained her, who’d spent his life studying the old texts and learning what little he could find of the Ansei.

Still frowning, she shook her head, turning her gaze back to Hakeem. “I believe that the Covenant will prevail; we all do.” There was no question of that. “We have the might and strategy of our people, the brutality and force of the Orsimer, and the cunning political devilry of High Rock… against all that, how can other alliances hope to stand-?

“But it won’t be an easy victory, and there will be many casualties among those who support the war indirectly. We will be weaker for it if our farmers, our traders, our craftsmen and children, are cut down by the buzzards who profit off of human suffering… you should listen to the politicians in their grand halls, Uncle! Listen to the generals, to the soldiers – everyone is ready for this war, ready to make the first move and slaughter enemies beyond our borders, while within them, those whose backs bend to support it are abandoned to their own resources. And just when resources are scarcer than ever? Oh, certainly there will be some protection – but too little, too scattered, with everyone’s eyes on the outside! And I am only one woman, one grain of sand against all the chaos of the ocean itself; what can I do? I feel so damned powerless to make them see!”

His gaunt features had shifted to a sly grin; she felt her lips tighten in irritation. Either he wasn’t taking her concerns seriously, or he’d conceived of something she wouldn’t like hearing. For all that she scowled at him, he looked entirely too serene.

“So don’t worry about teaching a blind man to see. Don’t be one – be many.” As if it was the simplest thing in the world.

He continued, uninterrupted. “Perhaps it will still be little, against all that follows… but you’re right, aren’t you? You have conviction and truth on your side. So go to them, knight, and protect those who have been left – vulnerable, as you say. Make friends. Bring allies. Let others focus outward, and you? You focus in. There are those who aren’t useful to the war effort, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful to you – find them. Bring them together. Help the ones that need help, and let others focus on winning back the Ruby Throne.”

Her eyes narrowed and she could feel heat rising to her cheeks. She freed her hand from his and looked aside, rising restlessly. “You’re being absurd. I travel alone – you taught me to be independent! I keep my own company, am beholden only to my own truths – the truths that you helped show me, and the truths I found for myself!”

“Things were different, for me. Times were different. The world changes, and I had the luxury of bearing no banners. Can you hold to your convictions, and still ride alone? I don’t think so. It is decided. You will make your own path, and it is not the same as mine.”

Her mouth opened, then closed. She eyed the old man warily, grasping for arguments, but finding none to combat the uncomfortable option set before her. Frustration ruled her, if only for a moment, and she blurted-

“So what, should I start my own Order-? Raise fancy silk pennants and have trumpets bray my coming, like a peacock in spring? That isn’t my way; I work best alone- I couldn’t even keep a squire alive to complete his training! How can you expect me to do this thing, to bear the burden of this task?”

Bitterness, uncharacteristic of the scarred woman, had crept into her voice and she realized she’d gone too far even before she’d finished speaking. Hakeem reached out and pinched her – hard, for all his feebleness. She flinched away, looking aside; she could feel the rising blush to the very tips of her ears.

“So what, you wanted me to offer you some easy solution, something to comfort you instead of hard work-? I didn’t teach you to wallow in pity and doubt, pup! Stand up and bear the mantle, or give in – get yourself killed out of stubbornness, trying to fight alone. I’m not your teacher anymore, it’s on your own head whatever you choose… but you’re my last student, and I damn well except better of you than to flee from duty! I’d be ashamed of any knight I trained, backing down just because a thing is difficult!” His voice was sharp as a whip-crack, but – the effort of so hard a speech seemed to take something out of the man. He began to cough, a horrible rasping sound, shrinking against the wall, eyes closing as he labored for breath.

Daniyah’s lips thinned. The prospect was ridiculous – wasn’t it? But it wasn’t her way, to discard her mentor’s wisdom without at least considering it from all angles. He had an insufferable habit of being right, in the end. Biting back impulse, she bowed her head respectfully, and, with a tone far more level than she felt, spoke.

“I will think on your words, sir. I think I’d better go. You… need your rest. I should not have troubled you with such things.”

Hakeem waved her off, breath ragged and pained. If he had a retort, it was lost in his struggle just to breathe; she could feel the sting of her conscience as she slipped out the door, and waited just out of sight.

It was many minutes before his breathing returned to normal, and it took longer still for him to settle back into his bed.

Lips thin and brow furrowed, she closed her eyes and offered a prayer to Stendarr –

Mercy, please. May his passage be gentle.

Don’t let him suffer.

Posted in Daniyah El-Amin, Holiday Series | Leave a comment

[Yngrid and Solmund] Silver Lining

[Collaboration with Galien, featuring Solmund Bruknytta and Yngrid Bruknytta approximately twenty years in the past.]

She dreamt she was falling.

Her body parted a sea of clouds before plummeting towards the surface of a storm-tossed sea, but she didn’t find that she was afraid – only sad, that it all should end so quickly. She closed her eyes and waited for the waters to take her, to drag her down –

… and awoke to the sudden need to vomit, as she had every morning for the past month.

As she heaved up the contents of her stomach into a chamber pot, crouched beside the pallet she shared with her stirring husband, she promised herself she’d find time to consult her ma on this mysterious ailment. It seemed only to strike in the pre-dawn gloom, leaving her feeling wretched for all of a half hour; it was easy to ignore, but for the rude wake-up call that had left both her and Solmund sorely lacking for sleep.

A large hand shifted her hair away from her cheek, and her husband growled into the quiet between heaves – “You’ve been sick a while. Should go see someone. Your ma, maybe – or a priest.” The hand drifted from her hair to rest on her shoulder, and she glanced up wearily. “I haven’t had time. We’re awake now, though; might as well start the day.”

The barrel-chested man peered down at his wife, looking troubled, but grunted an affirmative. His hand fell from her shoulder, and the floors creaked as he rose to dress for the day’s work.

Yngrid wiped the back of her mouth with a rag and stood, tucking the pot in the crook of her arm to be emptied, and set about preparing herself for the rest of the day that would follow. Though they went to bed early, she still felt exhausted. He was careful to hide it, but she could feel Solmund watching her, and his brow seemed more creased and worried than it had been before.

Today, then, she told herself firmly. No matter how much better she felt by midday, she resigned herself to taking a few hours to visit her childhood home. Her stomach knotted in dread; whatever it was should surely have righted itself by now. Her jaw set grimly, and she finished tying her braids, pausing only to eye her pale, haggard looking features in the rust-flecked sheet of metal that passed for a mirror.

Even to herself, she looked worse than ever.

***

The sway-backed pony was a jolting and uncomfortable ride that left her sore and bruised all over. Worse still was the cold rain that seemed determined to soak her through, leaving the long track miserable with mud. Even so, she didn’t envy her husband; the Tern’s Beak would have a rough time of it today. Between the trees, she could catch glimpses of white-veined waves snarling and frothing, and there was a bitter wind blowing in from the north. She didn’t trouble herself, worrying for him. Storms came and went, but Solmund and Yngrid had weathered them before, and would weather them again, no doubt.

Through the sheets of bitter rain, she could barely make out the squat, broad cabin that was her family’s ancestral home. Smoke rose from the chimney– greasy looking smoke, but the cold sapped her sense of smell, which was probably a blessing. Her mother wasn’t Ma Blacktooth without reason, after all.

Sodden and jostled and inexplicably tired, she slid from the pony’s back and pulled open the gate, nudging the old beast in before latching it behind her. He half-heartedly began to tug at the beaten grass as Yngrid trudged to the door frame. Dread was an anchor weighting her stomach as she shouldered the door open and stepped into her mother’s house.

The stink of charred fish and her mother’s familiar voice snarling curses beneath her breath was as familiar a greeting as any, but Gwenaa was quick to set down the black metal cauldron that was causing her so much trouble. Within moments, Yngrid found herself being critically examined, pinched, patted, and hugged –

“You’ve come to visit your old ma in the middle of this storm? By Tsun, but you never do that anymore – look at you! All skin and bones, and those dark circles under your eyes, harrumph! Is Solmund keeping you properly-? Has something happened? Don’t just stand there like a blinking toad, speak already – and you’re dripping on my floors, tracking mud in no doubt, let’s fetch you a shawl and take off those boots!”

Yngrid felt as if she were eye of a terrible storm, as Ma moved about her, fussing unnecessarily. It was impossible to get a word in edgewise, as she was admonished and fretted over by turns, and at last she found herself seated in a chair by the fire, wrapped in a shawl with a mug of toe-curlingly strong mead in hand.

Gwenaa eyed her daughter with a hawk’s sharp gaze as she chattered on blithely, bemoaning the rain for coming too early and cursing the fish for being elusive – the fire had been at fault for her latest charred luncheon, of course, and how could she be blamed, worried sick over her husband’s safety in weather like this? But nothing escaped her keen eye, and at last, there was silence between them as she reached for her daughter’s cold, rough hands.

“… but enough about me. Yngrid, why are you so pale and wan-? You look poorly, child. Have you been sleeping?”

She couldn’t quite help the faint tug of her lips; at thirty and two, she was no more a child than Gwenaa herself. Yngrid studied the weathered lines of her mother’s features, the cool grey of her hair, and couldn’t quite set aside the memory of burying her face in her mother’s shoulder as a child. She’d smelled of leather and the sea and, yes, burnt things too. It was just how she was.

But not even memories could banish the dread she felt, as she reluctantly spoke her fears into the comfortable, if rare, silence.

“I fear I must be ill, ma… I thought you might help me. I don’t know what’s wrong, but… each morning, I wake at the crack of dawn to be ill, and each day, I feel heavy and tired and- not quite myself. I ache for no reason.” She frowned and glanced aside, pulling her hand away from her mother’s to look steadily into the fire. Yngrid’s thin lips grew thinner, and she bowed her head, a lock of damp brown hair escaping her braid to brush her cheek.

Gwenaa studied her daughter shrewdly, eyes narrowing. “Sick in the morning, hm? Tired, and tender?” Yngrid met her ma’s stare with a guarded frown; there was something in Gwenaa’s eyes that seemed perilously cheerful, as a smile might erupt at any moment, though her words were properly businesslike.

“It’s been happening for a month and some, now – I should be past this, I feel healthy otherwise. Are you familiar with this, ma? Do you know of a cure-? It’s getting in the way of Solmund’s sleeping, and my own as well.” It was hard to school her irritation in the light of her mother’s crafty expression. Whatever it was she seemed so pleased about, Yngrid felt little more than cold fear and exhaustion.

“Tell me, child – your monthlies, have you had them?”

Yngrid frowned severely at her mother. “That’s a private affair, ma… besides, you know it’s – unpredictable, with me.” She blinked. “But – no, I… I haven’t. It’s been at least two months, come to think of it…”

Gwenaa raised an eyebrow and her smile widened. Yngrid eyed her for a moment, puzzling… then blinked again as it dawned on her.

“What – you don’t think…?”

“About time, Gridie!”

“But for years – we’ve tried – we can’t! The priestess said we –“

“Well Mara changed her mind, now didn’t she? She’s a goddess, she can do what she pleases, can’t she?”

“Pregnant? Are you sure-? Do you really think…?”

And then her mother was up and sweeping Yngrid into her large, soft arms, and she still smelled of leather and ocean and burnt things. Her voice was loud, but her shoulder was soft, and she babbling away about names and whether it’d be a boy or a girl, where the child would sleep, how the cousins might play together. Yngrid felt her heart pounding and her throat was tight, her eyes were hot.

They’d expected a baby for years after they’d married; and year after year had passed with no child. A priestess had blessed them, but to no avail – no potions, no herbs, no magic spells could make fertile what was barren; not for them, anyway. Whose fault it was never came into question… one of them, both of them, did it matter? She’d consoled herself that perhaps someday they might raise a foundling, but… it had been twelve years, now. They’d resigned themselves to their strangely quiet way of life, to a family name that would spread no further than their small, empty household.

It wasn’t a bad life. Just not, perhaps, the one they’d envisioned together.

She blinked, and pulled away from her mother’s embrace. “I have to go. I have to tell Solmund – he… he should know.”

Her heart began to beat faster. She should have been happy, but she was too stunned for the words to really mean anything. Her hands trailed down to her abdomen, resting over where their child would grow.

It would seem more real when she told him, surely. She let her hands drop, and hurried for the door.

***

Yngrid’s dream was prescient in one way, at least: the sea was furious.

Its waves leapt out of the enveloping mist like the vengeful ghosts of its name; white-crested, charging, swelling, until all-too-real masses of grey seawater rose up to loom over the small cog and smashed down again, spraying foam over the deck. The Tern’s Beak’s bow cut each apart gallantly, but this was no ordinary fishing weather.

The solitary man on board remained nearly motionless, except for subtle shifts of his body, keeping him upright as the craft ducked sideways and cleared the crests. He was the dreamer’s husband and no stranger to this gamble. The sea was rough enough to stir up the big, lazy fish that kept to its floor on calmer days. When these swam forth to play, to feast on the small barnacles, crabs and other morsels freshly torn by the tempest from the rocks, it was a chance for some of the best catch in weeks, if you knew what you were doing. It had paid off before, and it would pay off this day.

Or so he believed, until he heard a loud crack near the stern. Or did he? The wind was singing endlessly, a mad dirge-wailer whose quiet, treacherous hiss became ragged whistling, which turned at whim to a roar that pressed into the eardrums, before receding again to sob with primal abandon high in the milky sky. The suspicion was enough for him; on the Sea of Ghosts, a hint of trouble was as good as proof, and he was not a man to coddle himself with wishful thinking.

He turned his head, ignored the earful of seawater from the latest wave and located the source of the report. Each of the ropes that secured the trawling net behind his ship had been looped around three horn cleats. One of these, on the left, gave way, and its remaining brethren were not equal to the increased load.

Solmund half-slid, half-stepped as quickly as possible along the low deck. Wide-legged, he caught hold of the threatened rope, looped it a few times around a gloved hand, gripped with the other and heaved back. The horn cleats relaxed, for the moment, and the fisherman’s feet found reliable points of purchase. When the cog cleared a wave and dove into a trench, he used his weight to fall back from the stern to the mast. He hooked his arm around the tall beam before regripping the rope and felt it dig into his chest when the bow rose again. He braced his thigh against it, too, for good measure. This could work. It would work.

They remained locked in their contest, man and sea, for many long minutes. With his back to the bow, Solmund judged his progress by the waves he left behind. The Nord’s black hair was pressed into pointed clumps, flat against his forehead, and the brown eyes were ringed bright red from the sting of seawater. He stared through the spray into each trough, and began to surrender reluctant, unheard grunts of pain whenever the bow climbed again and the mast threatened to cave in his chest. Slowly, very slowly, it seemed as though the fury of the sea were waning. The mist still revealed nothing, but the Tern’s Beak was approaching a sheltering cliff, according to plan.

And yet, as soon as he allowed the thought to comfort him, the cog dove once more, and the Nord’s innards bounced more violently than before and not quite in the right way. He watched the stern drift sideways. With no hand on the steering oar, it would not take long for the vessel to turn its side to the waves, risking a capsize. It would not take long, but maybe it would take long enough to reach calmer waters.

There was no maybe on the Sea of Ghosts.

Without further hesitation, Solmund let go of the rope and put all his weight on the steering oar. The cleats gave out promptly, as he knew they would, and both ropes slithered into the mist. The victorious sea took back its bounty and his fishing net as trophy. It was over.

An hour later, when he spotted his wife returning home down the path from the forest side, he was already seated on the long bench outside their house, with the weaving rack in front of him. They had spare nets, but Solmund believed in fixing his mistakes immediately. His fingers felt twice their normal size, and his hand seemed made of iron and yet the crosswise knots kept forming, one after another.

“I lost the good net and the catch!” he called out to Yngrid as soon as she was within hearing range. The plain truth, at once, with no excuses to follow. It was his way.

As she approached, he yanked violently several times on the rope he was using for weaving the net. It unspooled from its capstan, making it rattle on the pebble-covered ground. When he got enough, he severed it with a chop of the bearded axe that rested beside him.

She stood over him and was looking at him weird. He was too tired to care.

“Whatever it is, I don’t want to hear it.” He threw the fresh length of rope onto the other end of the bench. “Get going with the other side when you’re ready.”

He looked rather worse for the day’s hardships, his back bent and his hands moving stubbornly across the netting. His features were twisted, and she could just by the set of his shoulders that he was angry with something.

She felt little about the net, or the fish; couldn’t even seem to find disappointment for the fact that the day’s work was lost, or that they might be a bit lean for it. She moistened her lips, and shifted from one foot to the other uncertainly, before at last settling down at the other end of the netting.

Her hands took to the task deftly as she bent her head over the coarse rope, but her thoughts were elsewhere – she felt as though she were floating, somehow. She shook herself, and watched her husband from the corner of her eye.

Several minutes passed in silence, before she abruptly set the rope down, blinking to herself.

“I found out what was wrong with me.” Her tone was conversational, almost as if she was going to chatter about her day – but Yngrid was not one to chatter about anything, let alone trivialities. She peered at him expectantly.

Solmund stared at the calming sea through the rope-lines on the rack, vertical like prison-bars, a defeated pugilist plotting the next round.

“Steel brackets, that’s what the thing needs,” he muttered. “None of that carved cleat shite.”

He spoke his reply before he really heard his wife. After a moment’s silence it came to him, and he gave her the corner of his own eye.

“Did you? Out with it, then.”

She continued to watch him, hands idle, before calmly turning her gaze to the sea. A very small smile tugged at her usually solemn expression.

“We’re going to have a baby, Solmund.”

It was as if she was commenting on the weather. Absently, she picked up her end of the netting again, but – couldn’t seem to quite find the strands to knot.

It did seem more real, now. She let her smile settle; her bewilderment had ebbed, leaving satisfaction in its wake. It was as if the anchor had dropped from the pit of her stomach, and the ground was stable beneath her once more. She’d told Solmund, and that made it all the better.

His lips opened dumbly and his eyes bulged wide. In truth, for all too long a moment, the fisherman looked like nothing more than a fish out of water, himself.

“Gods be praised!” he shouted, leaping up from the bench, all the day’s fatigue gone and forgotten. “Gods be praised, woman!

He whirled around and drove his axe ferociously into the side of the house. Both arms free, the big Nord bent to his seated wife and seized her about the small of her back and shoulders. Her rear flew from the bench and her toes left the ground when pressed her to himself, and she let out a startled grunt of surprise.

“Gods be praised,” he said once more, quietly, as he buried his stubbled cheek in her neck. He shut his eyes and the wide grin stretched his face in an unfamiliar, even frightening way, using muscles so unseasoned they threatened to snap with effort. “I believed it, always. They clucked their rotten tongues, didn’t they? They said we were cursed, didn’t they? Well, we showed them, like we always do. You showed them.”

He let her go, and kept opening and shutting his hands, as if looking to do something about the news.

“Sod the net. No more work for you,” he finally decreed. “And I’m getting started on a crib.”

For all the days she lived, she would treasure that unaccustomed smile which stretched across his weathered jaw – it was infectious, and she startled herself with a bark of laughter, shaking her head.

As if the Gods themselves had actually had a hand in the affair, the clouds abruptly broke, revealing the pale autumn sun at long last. Yngrid was sure she’d never seen so beautiful a sight in all her life.

Posted in Collaboration, Yngrid | Leave a comment