- 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
There were only a few hours left of sunlight when Taylin, Ru and Kaiel exited the wagon and it was instantly clear that the clan wasn’t going to allow any of it to go to waste.
It seemed that every able-bodied individual had been mobilized. As they walked through the village, Kaiel explained how everyone in the clan, from children only just able to walk, to those even more elderly than Grandmother and Grandfather, had a specific role in their day to day lives, especially after a battle.
The hunters, who doubled as the clan’s warriors became corpse crews once the fighting was over, gathering the dead of both sides and preparing the clan’s casualties for funeral rites. They worked side by side with the adjudicators; mostly older, but not elderly females, who during the battle had functioned as lookouts.
At the same time they were doing that, Kaiel revealed, the adjudicators also kept a meticulous tally of who killed whom. This ensured that warriors received what they earned, but also ensured that swift execution was doled out to any who took the life of a clan member.
Ahead of those two worked the healers. Only five of their number boasted any magical capability at all, but all of them had learned at least the bare minimum of field surgery. Those without magic did triage and patched up those who could be saved with mundane means, while dropping red cloths across the chests of those whose survival depended on supernatural intervention.
With surprising reverence, the tinkers stripped the enemy corpses of valuables and set about cleaning and repairing what needed it for resale at the next city. For most of the halflings, keeping what they killed only meant that it was added to their wares for trade. All nir-lumos, Kaiel told them, learned bits and pieces of craft work as they grew up; after all, they earned their money in trade, but the tinkers were the elderly, who, by the time their age showed, were masters in one or more crafts, and children, learning at their feet by doing.
Still others, named as wagon masters by Kaiel, were busy directing pony teams in dragging the bodies of slain horses to the outskirts of town for butchery. Part of the meat would be salted for the clan, part left for the village. Taylin was fond of her ‘waste not, want not’, adage, but felt more than a little bemused at the fact that she’d been trying to minimize the horse casualties.
As they entered the town center, Taylin noticed something directly that she realized she’d seen during the entire walk: some of the wagon masters were diligently working to drape wetted down canvas in haphazard arrangements across some of the wagons that had been nearest the most contested gaps along the line.
“Kaiel?” She finally asked, indicating a pair of halfling women wrestling one such canvas into place, “What are they doing?”
The chronicler chuckled slightly. “Oh, that? They’re tending their wagons’ wounds.”
Ru gave him a withering look, but Taylin only nodded. “I didn’t think that could be done without magic.”
“Are you both bereft of what little exists of your wits?” Ru spat. “You cannot heal a wagon. It is not a living thing. At best, the attempt would only foster mold and rot in the wood.”
“Correct.” Kaiel conceded, only serving to make Ru even more flustered. He let the mage grind his teeth a bit before taking pity upon him. “Unless you’ve’ built them of gretharian.
Taylin nodded. “The masters… the hailene built their ships out of it. Actually, it was more like they grew their ships out of it. They had very powerful wizards who tended the ship groves and made sure the gretharians grew into the shapes they wanted.”
“Simply put,” Kaiel, Ru was certain, was being condescending on purpose, “There are places on Ere where the ambient healing energy; the same kind you concentrate to create a healing spell, builds up like dammed water and has miraculous effects on anything that lives or grows in the area: namely the gretharian tree, which, if properly cared for, is immortal, even if sawn into planks and bend into wheels. If it gets damaged, you need only keep he area properly watered until it heals.”
Ru nodded and fell silent. He hadn’t learned much of this new world, the one they called Ere. Before he was bound to the link, the world was called Chai’Tel. There had been no hailene; only halflings, the forest folk, and the so called savage races; ogres, goblins, orcs and assorted beastmen. None of them ever traded with one another, much less came to their aid.
Of one hundred and seven masters before Taylin, he had only been commanded by twenty in the years following whatever unfathomable cataclysm resulted in him becoming dormant in a mountain valley on the continent of Raefon and being discovered on a desert island in the far south. Ere had only the single, nameless super-continent, split in half by an inland sea and he’d never been given the time or opportunity to learn much else about it beyond who wanted who to die horribly.
This new bit of knowledge, however intrigued him. Not so much the immortal trees, but the idea that ambient magical energies on Ere were not uniform at all points. If there were places with concentrations of life-giving energies so high that they altered the local flora, did that mean there were also places where the elements such as fire or air did the same? Possibly even the basic building block of abstract magical structures: ether? That was valuable information indeed.
Taylin glanced over at him as his mood shifted from annoyance to calculating and eager, but he ignored her as the continued walking.
Soon enough, they reached the end of the meager community garden where the large, white wagons were situated. One, the one not adorned with the vine motif, was covered with wet canvas that still didn’t completely hide the burn marks. Taylin realized with at start that it was the creche wagon; the very same one she’d rescued earlier in the day. In hindsight, it made perfect sense that it was in the center of the circle of wagons, next to what she now took to be Grandmother and Grandfather’s wagon.
She took it to be so because a small coalition of halflings and humans were rushing too and from a hastily constructed shelter consisting of a bed sheet string from the side of the vine covered wagon to two poles. Beneath it, Grandmother sat on the step leading up to the open door of her wagon, carefully sipping from a wooden bowl of water.
Grandfather stood nearby to deliver a tongue-lashing to anyone who came along wasting her time. Taylin could see why: the halfling matriarch looked tired. Not just tired, but visibly diminished, and drained of the warmth of life. It was the first time she’d ever seen a halfling look old.
Among the petitioners were the two village elders from the night before, Partha and the other, whose name Taylin didn’t recall. When they saw her, they didn’t bother hiding their stares or quiet whispers to one another. She heard the word ‘hailene’ n there and quickly tuned them out. She didn’t want to think about that at all at the moment.
The halflings all gave either smiles, or nods of greeting; word had gotten around quite quickly about what had happened in the center of town. The smiles were from parents, spared their worst nightmare becoming fact.
As for the villagers, they gave the group a wide berth and the direction of their fearful glances clued her in as to exactly who was that was for. The burst of pride and smugness in the back of her mind helped.
“What did he do?” Taylin asked Kaiel quietly as they stood to one side and waited for Grandmother’s attention.
“He was particularly tactless in satisfying his curiosity over he Eastern Brand.” Kaiel groaned.
“It was an insult to a work of art to swing that blade with an intent to cut.” Ru sniffed. “It isn’t a sword at all; it is an amplifier for elemental fire, capable of increasing the potency of any fire-dominant spell tenfold. That this bandit king didn’t simply incinerate the entire town at range speaks to how poor a wizard he was.”
Now it was Kaiel’s turn to grind his teeth. “None of that explains why you felt it prudent to channel a few fireballs through it at random. Blood to ice, Ru, these people just got done putting out fires that almost annihilated their homes. What is wrong with you?”
“Unless they build their homes in the sky, they were never in any danger.” said Ru, folding his arms.
“Ru…” Taylin chided, but had no idea how to finish that sentence. As far as she could tell, directing his dangerous spells into the air was restraint for him. Instead, she turned to Kaiel. “Where is the Eastern Brand now?”
“The halfling matriarch ordered it taken from me.” Ru growled, a certain despondency pairing with anger in the link.
“It isn’t yours anyhow.” said Kaiel, “It belongs to you, Taylin.”
“So you said.” She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Surely, the King had to die; he hadn’t left her any other choice, but taking his things seemed mildly ghoulish. On the other hand, it was, contrary to Ru’s assessment, a very nice sword; finely balanced, and with her strength and balance, a better one handed weapon than the once-broken sword. That she was immune to its sparks and flames added to the utility it could see in her hands.
She was still ruminating on it when she heard her name being called. Looking up, she saw that Grandmother was done with the petitioners ahead of them. Kaiel cleared he throat politely, which got her moving.
“I’m very sorry about that.” She started, but Grandmother cut her off.
It wasn’t a harsh command like before, but it was the command of a woman who was that frightful combination of tired and busy that were particularly beastly when one knew that the work was not yet done.
Taylin dropped into her customary crouch without thinking, but this time it seemed to be good enough for Grandmother.
The elderly halfling took another swallow from her bowl. A tangy scent hit Taylin’s nose, telling her that it was laced with some sort of unfamiliar herb. When she was done, she leaned forward to peer at the much larger woman before her.
Slowly, as if it were being carved into the granite of her normal expression, a satisfied smile came to Grandmother’s features. “You’ve appointed yourself well, girl. You and your companion,” She didn’t even bother looking at Ru, “accounted for a third of the bandit casualties by yourselves. In killing the lieutenant, who dealt just as heavy a blow to the clan, you avenged Agaeteria, and Winsomas, plus four of our wolves. In killing the King of Flame and Steel, you avenged Naipolmun. I know you did not know this, but it matters to the clan, vengeance does.”
The smile faded a bit in reverence for the departed. All told, fourteen of their people had died and a score of wolves. Many more would have followed them if she hadn’t called upon every last ounce of her strength to channel Sylph’s healing. Even then, two others from the wagon the King destroyed might yet succumb to their wounds. Those casualties, plus the three dozen wounded accounted for the largest in decades. All from mere bandits.
No, she reminded herself: all from bandits whose leader held favor with a demon. Had she the energy, she was certain she’d find telltale remnants of temporary spells worked over the bandit elite and lieutenants.
She sighed and pressed on, coming to the happier instances in Taylin’s record of the battle. “You also put yourself in harm’s way to protect our Raiteria. And then you went on to do the same in protecting all of our children. I am certain that Keese Kaiel has informed you of what that means to us and of the honor we wish to bestow upon you.”
Taylin hesitated to speak out of turn, but when Grandmother didn’t continue, she spoke up. “He did, Grandmother. But… I do not deserve it. What I did, I did because I promised to help protect everyone here. It was never about gaining an honor, or even getting my wings back.” She cast her eyes downward. “I’ve never fought before… not for good reasons, or even a reason I chose myself. I had to do this, even if I received nothing in return.”
A spark of interest entered Grandmother’s eyes and she glanced at Kaiel who nodded. Her gaze returned to Taylin. “This is precisely why were would want you as kin, girl. Family is not about profit, or even thought. Being family should come as an instinct and mere blood cannot grant that.
“However, before you accept or not, I must make you understand: if you become kin, then you are kin. You are our responsibility and we yours. As many of our young ones are wont to do, you are free to come and go as is your desire, and you will know that you will always be welcomed back. But when you are here, you will give us all your skill, just as much as any other here. You have seen that Keese Kaiel lends his skills with spells and marksmanship; no less will be expected of you with your sword and any other place where you can lend a hand. Is that understood?”
Taylin nodded, feeling somehow warm even under Grandmother’s scrutiny.
“Good. Then as Grandmother of the Winter Willow, I extend to you the sisterhood of Raiteria matei-Harun, who stands prepared to accept you and make you aunt to her children. What is your answer?”
The warmth only increased. It wasn’t the raging fire in her belly she sometimes felt in battle, but rather like curling up somewhere and knowing both comfort and security for the first time since… When had she felt that before? Not on the ships, where the soldiers were almost as cutthroat as the masters themselves. And not in the mines where death came in a dozen forms and many who curled up to sleep never awakened, as the gas overtook them.
But she had felt that. Dreamed of it a hundred times, yes, but she had to have felt it once to even know to dream it. And yet, she couldn’t remember. Why couldn’t she remember?
Aye se Pe’le.
She is my very clever girl.
She blinked away the shade of a memory. It couldn’t be real. What was happening now was real; the nir-lumos and her acceptance into a true family that cared about one another, stood by one another. Absolutely she wanted that. With all her heart, she accepted.
It was a moment later that she realized none of those words were spoken anywhere inside her head.
Embarrassment tinged her cheeks red. Ru made it worse. He sensed the whole thing going on in her head and his mental laughter rattled around her mind. The borderline awe and admiration she’d felt from him during the battle was all but dissolved.
“Oh.” She said quietly. “I lost myself for a moment there. I’ve never actually had at…” The words died in her throat as she struggled to keep herself from rambling. The woman in front of her was the leader of an entire people. She didn’t need to hear about her lonely past.
Clearing her throat, she started again. “That is to say, yes, Grandmother. I would love to become part of the clan, and to become Raiteria’s sister. I… I don’t know how to thank you.”
Grandmother smiled, the first completely open smile she’d seen from the elder halfling, and put her hand on Taylin’s forehead. It took all of the former slave’s self control not to flinch away. Unless it was to receive combat healing, she hated to be touched. “I welcome you home then, child. But don’t thank me yet; we can’t spare anyone tonight to prepare you a wagon. And there are still so many that need healing… it will be days before I can return your wings.”
Taylin was dumbstruck. She’d actually forgotten about that particular promise for a bit. It was just so unbelievable that…
You are rambling in your head again, Miss Taylin. Ru intruded.
“Oh! You don’t have to worry about that, Grandmother. I could wait a year… or a dozen if I needed to.” A flat out, bald faced lie, but no one could begrudge her that. “I just… thank you. How can I start helping the clan?”
Grandmother’s eyes twinkled with amusement. It was like looking at an entirely different person now that she was speaking with family. “Tonight? Rest, if you cannot bare to stay in bed, seek out and speak with your new family. The Hunters will be at rest once the grim work after the battle is done and you will at least find time with your brother-by-marriage.”