- Rune Breaker: Chapter 1 – The Bargain is Struck
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 2 – The Clever Girl
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 3 – A Paradise in the Future
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 4 – Clan of the Winter Willow
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 5 – Spell-worked Water, Alchemical Food
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 6 – Waste Not Want Not
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 7 – Battlelines
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 8 – Filling the Gap
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 9 – The King of Flame and Steel
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 10 – Recovery
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 11 – Sisters, Brothers
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 12 – Her Most Beauteous Wings
The timber gave out with a groan, punctuated by pronounced cracks as it came crashing down from the roof, trailing a curtain of smoke and flame with it. Preceding it was a shower of cinders that stung at the wagon guards wherever their skin was exposed. They did little more than make Taylin blink as a few fell n her face, or tumbled out of her hair.
But the collapsing beam would do more than sting or burn. It’s weight could easily crush them, wagon and all.
As Taylin watched, trying to will herself to pull hard, faster, and get the wagon out of the way, she suddenly wished she hadn’t left the Eastern Brand in the King of Flame and Steel’s body. The wheel of flames it cast could probably have torn the falling wood asunder.
Something painful hit her an instant later, like a white hot lance that drove itself through both eardrums and into her brain. Only after it had passed did she realize it was sound; pure, intense sound at a pitch and volume she never wished to ever hear again.
And she wasn’t the focus of the assault. The air above seemed to ripple in tune with the ear-splitting tone and to her amazement, so did the falling timber; for a split second at any rate. In the following second, it twisted impossible and flew apart in an explosion of blazing embers. The sonic burst continued on, tearing apart another burning section of the roof in a similar fashion before the noise finally ended.
Throughout, Taylin never stopped pulling, never focused on anything else, even as the pain in her head made her vision go blank. When she was finally in possession of her senses, she was nearly outside.
Ahead of her, she saw Kaiel, a red stain marring his right thigh and a line of dried blood on the side of his head. The flute was no longer blazing with the fell-light bow’s flames, but was at his lips as he’d just finished playing.
Only then did she make the connection and realize exactly what had happened in the barn: Kaiel had destroyed the timber with a pressure wave of pure sound. The battle-choirs of the hailene could do similar with their voices, but Taylin had never been so near the receiving end before.
Breathing hard from what felt like hours of exertion, she continued on, hauling the wagon until she came up even with Kaiel. She had no excuse not to; her kind was bred to fight until literally torn apart; her wounds were nothing compared to what she’d received over her lifetime. Something in her head still roared and demanded to wade back into the fray.
But something else told her that her part was over. The children were safe, the King was dead, and without a leader, or his nightmare vision, his army’s resolve wouldn’t last. Maybe it was the highly inappropriate reassurance she got from sensing Ru’s mood changing from raging blood lust to smug superiority; maybe it was the fact that the sounds of battle moving farther away; or maybe it was just that she’d lost more blood than she thought.
No matter the reason, she stopped fighting the urge to sit down. She did so simply by letting her legs fold up beneath her. There was a sharp bruising pain thereafter, probably banging her good arm on the wagon’s dashboard. She leaned against it, half-listening to Kaiel’s exclamation at her action, or his efforts to rouse her.
Then Grandmother was there. She told Kaiel something about how Grandfather needed him to look at the King’s body and how she would see to ‘the child’.
Had one of the children been injured? Was it her fault?
In Taylin’s impaired state, it seemed as if Grandmother teleported as Ru did; now standing by the wagon, now in the traces leaning over her. A small hand gently touched her nearly-flayed arm and the shuddering ecstasy of strong healing magic made her eyes roll back in her head. It was too much for her mind after everything else, and she was thankful that just before the world faded, she heard Grandmother order her to sleep.
She didn’t remember waking up, that first moment of awareness after sleep. Instead, she found herself lying on her side, having a staring contest with an ancient, gray tomcat.
That morning, she hadn’t really taken time to look, but it struck her that with an apparently infinite repertoire of forms, Ru chose a particularly battle-damaged specimen for his preferred feline form. It’s fur was streaked with light patches; old scars from dozens of fights over territory or mates, and one ear was notched in no less than five places. There was also a slight bald spot over one eye, a more severe scar, and that eye would have likely been rheumy if Ru kept with a perfect impersonation of the original animal.
Instead, the cat’s eyes were the same yellow as his own; a yellow that could never be mistaken, even poetically for gold. They were the eyes of a wolf, or great hunting bird.
He didn’t move at all, just stared and conveyed boredom and impatience on top of a searing ache.
Measure by measure, Taylin took in the rest of the scene. Ru was curled up in a nest of what seemed to be blood colored silk, atop some sort of wooden pedestal. She focused a bit more and realize it wasn’t a pedestal, but a chest of drawers. Where did a chest come from? She’d only seen those in passing during raids, or when it was part of her job to move a hailene officer’s personal effects from ship to shore.
The rest of the room slowly came into focus. From her vantage, she could see shelves built into the wooden walls behind the chest, and a door to one side of it. Directly in front of her, near her head, there was a low wooden footlocker with a pair of leather bound books, an ink pot, a nib of charcoal and a quill casually strewn on the lid.
Noticing the height of the chest may be realize she wasn’t on the floor. In fact, she lay atop probably the softest thing she’d ever laid on. The beds the masters kept, even the cots they kept in their offices and laboratories always looked so comfortable; could this be one of them?
I’m not certain if you’ve regained your senses or not when you ask questions like that. Ru sent with the hint of a laugh at her expense. ‘Is this bed I’m lying on a bed?’. Truly philosophical.
Ru? She asked, not helping her case in the least. You’re hurt. Why can I feel it now when I couldn’t feel when you were stabbed, or hurt by that ‘rifle’?
Those hurts could be remedied by shapeshifting. He replied. But damaging magic can cause lasting damage to me, even if the link make it impossible to completely destroy me.
But why does it still hurt?
The cat rolled his eyes. It doesn’t impair me, it only hurts. No need to waste energy on a healing spell.
But you’re hurt.
Please just heal yourself.
The cat growled a little and glared. That was all the indication she had that he was complying before the ache in the back of her mind faded.
A moment later, the door opened and Kaiel stepped in. He wore a gray jacket with ivory buttons, which hung open, revealing that he was shirtless beneath. Several layers of bandages were wrapped around his midsection and several more were wrapped around his wrists. His trousers were the same as he wore that morning.
“Oh. You’re awake.” He said with a tired smile. “Feeling better?”
Taylin instinctively took stock of her injuries. Nothing seemed to be bleeding anymore, though there was a bandage tied around her shoulder. The open gash on her arm was gone entirely. So she nodded.
“Good. Grandmother said that you might need more attention if you slept all the way until nightfall. There’s really no telling how much blood you lost.” Kaiel walked past the best and drawers and Taylin followed him with her eyes to an area of the room she hadn’t seen before; it held a table with a metal bowl and pitcher atop it and the bowls, cups and plates he’d brought out the night before underneath.
He took up a cup and filled it with water from the pitcher before passing it to her. “Drink. You’re going to need to eat and drink a lot to get back what you lost today.” Taylin sat up in a wobbly fashion to accept it, and once she had her cup in hand, he repeated the process with another.
“So do I, actually.” He lifted his cup to offer a toast, something Taylin knew nothing about. After a second of awkward starting, he toasted himself and took a long drink anyway. “She wants to speak with you as soon as you’re well enough to walk on your own.” his gaze flicked to Ru, then did a double take. “Is that…”
“Mine.” The cat said in a deep, cross voice that no small mammal should ever achieve. “Keep what you kill.”
“The adjudicators make sure everyone gets what they’re earned.” Kaiel said, but his tone demonstrated that he realized the futility of discussing it with Ru. He turned back to Taylin. “I’ve already mentioned it to him, but you should probably know too.”
She still didn’t feel like talking, so she merely nodded.
“That bandit king… I after the battle, the adjudicators and corpse crews were reclaiming his armor and weapon; checking to see what else of value he had—which is now yours, by the by—and they found something…”
“Heh.” Ru resumed his normal form, winding up sitting cross-legged atop the chest of drawers. Somehow, in the process of shifting, he also downed the shirt. With his robes, Taylin couldn’t tell, but with the silk draped over it, she could see that his frame was slight, almost emaciated. Idly, she wondered if that as a choice like the scarred cat or if it was his true appearance.
He didn’t pick up on those thoughts, but the link danged with his amusement at something, which he soon gave voice to. “As it turns out, you’ve bought shame upon generations of swordswomen. Imagine, coming that close to being bested by a hedge wizard like this so called King.”
Kaiel shot a disapproving glance at the mage. “There are any number of accomplished mystic sword schools. The College teaches several styles itself.”
“And this ‘king’ knew not a one.” Ru replied with a smirk. “You saw him when he fought Miss Taylin: all brute force and spell-worked speed. He was as much a swordsman as I am.”
The chronicler turned away from him and back to Taylin. “In any event, the real issue is the source of his power. When they pulled the Eastern Brand out of him, the adjudicators noticed a tattoo on his back; a nine pointed star atop a downward facing triangle with script in the ancient imperial language at the points. It’s the symbol of a demon.”
“Immurai the Masked.” Ru interjected.
Kaiel nodded. “He’s well known in the circles that actively oppose his master’s worshipers: the Church of the Three-fold Moon. And his mark is the way that he grants power to his followers. My guess is that the King’s activities in this part of the world were on his behalf. It’s entirely possible that this village wasn’t just an example, but a sacrifice to Immurai.”
Taylin stared at him for a long moment before speaking for the first time since waking up. “And we stopped him?” Her voice was small and raspy.
“That we did.” Kaiel said with a gentle smile. He took her now empty cup and refilled it before placing it back in her hands.
“Good.” She said, looking at her dim reflecting in the water. It wasn’t bad for her first twenty-four hours of freedom.
“Good doesn’t cover it from the clan’s point of view.” Kaiel said, clearing a space on one of the tables so he could sit. “Not only did you save the creche wagon in the barn, but half the clan saw you leap in front of that fireball for Raiteria. To say they’re impressed with your sacrifice is an understatement.”
She made a face and sipped her water. The cold liquid cleared away some of the roughness in her throat and let her voice grow stronger. “That wasn’t a sacrifice; I can’t burn.”
Kaiel quirked an eyebrow at this and she knew she’d given something else valuable away. Slowly, he continued on topic. “Whether you can or not, the clan saw it as you taking pain that would have been hers and saving her life. On top of saving the creche wagon, you’ve demonstrated the highest values of the nir-lumos.”
Taylin dared to hope. Her eyes brightened and she found herself sitting up straighter. It was as if all her lingering fatigue and weakness had fled her. “Does this mean Grandmother really will give me back my wings?”
The chronicler smiled and gave a half laugh. “Taylin, she was already going to do that. She promised you that just for fighting beside the clan.” He got up and went to the shelf beside Ru. From it, he took a band of crocheted material. It was an arm band of sorts, mostly white, but at the center was a teal square with three downward pointing triangles on it; two below, one above.
He let her look at it, trace the shapes with a finger, but he never relinquished it.
“You have to understand something about the nir-lumos: Their family structure has very little to do with blood. Every child born here will know Grandmother and Grandfather was just that, regardless of if their parents were originally members or not. Their brothers and sisters are the children of your generation you felt closest to and every other nir-lumos on the face of the planet is your cousin.”
Kaiel took the band back and studied it fondly. “Family to them is about the key emotions: love, kinship, and the will to protect even at risk to your own health. To protect family is to be family and they do not care if you have blood relations here, or even if you’re a halfling.”
Taylin’s eyes were fixed on the band and her voice was muted when she spoke. “That has something to do with being family then?”
“Aye. This is a kinship badge for the Clan of the Winter Willow. Every clan has their own style, but the purpose is the same: marking out tall folk who have been accepted as family, part of the clan. This one marks me as Bromun’s brother. I saved him from under a wagon that rolled during a landslide a few weeks after I started traveling with them as a paying guest.” He replaced the band on the shelf with some reverence.
“If you accept, yours would look much the same; blue instead of white at the band, as you’d likely be adopted as Raiteria’s sister for saving her. If Grandmother holds you in extreme regard or trust, she might make you an aunt to the children you saved as well.”
Sudden awkwardness settled in the wagon. Taylin was trying to process the implicit offer she’d just received. She called her bellow ang’hailene brothers and sisters, but they weren’t. Some were better than others, but it was usually the most insular and brutish that survived. Everyone that she’d ever formed a bond with was dead within two years. True, she didn’t know what being adopted by the clan entailed, but still, it was a shot at belonging somewhere, with people who didn’t see her as a slave or weapon.
But that wasn’t what made Kaiel seem so awkward. He hemmed and hawed a bit more before finally giving his concerns voice.
“About that trust, Taylin…” She was startled out of her thoughts by the words. The expression on his face wasn’t helping. “… there are some things that concern me and Grandmother trusts me enough that my concerns make her concerned as well.”