Rune Breaker: Chapter 14 – Another’s Darkness

This entry is part 2 of 15 in the series Lighter Days, Darker Nights (Rune Breaker, #2)

“You don’t have to grip the leads so tightly all the time. They’re very well trained; they’ll follow the wagon in front on their own even if you fell asleep most of the time.” The wagon master, Signateria had taken it upon herself to teach Taylin how to drive and care for her wagon, seeing as both Rai and Bromun’s jobs required them to range far from the wagons for a healthy chunk of the day.

She was close to both and Taylin’s adoption into the tribe relieved her of babysitting duty, so it was the least she could do.

Taylin ducked her head and loosened her steely, one handed grip on the leads. “I’m sorry. I just don’t trust horses. Or most animals. I’m not used to anything bigger than a rabbit outside of a cage or a hunting party.” The wolves were an exception; they were highly trained and didn’t behave like animals at all in her opinion. Not that she knew how animals should act.

She had her other arm around Motsey to steady the child as he dozed on her lap. He’d insisted that he wasn’t sleepy and the he be allowed to watch his aunt’s wagoneering lessons, but was asleep less than five miles out. He looked incredibly comfortable, despite his cheek resting on the cold, chain links over her chest.

The chain shirt was now modified to open in the front and with eyelets to allow her wings to pass through. Worn over a regular shirt and under her similarly modified vest, it was a near permanent part of her wardrobe. The others often wondered at that, but compared to the battered breastplate she used to have to regularly, the chain was light and comfortable. As a concession for Motsey’s comfort, she did, however, removed the spade shaped pectoral that clipped over the front closure of the chain shirt to reinforce the weak point it created.

Signateria laughed jovially. “These aren’t horses; these are nir-lumos ponies; they’re about as willful as a tumbleweed as long as they’re fed. If there’s an animal on Ere you can trust, it’s a caravan pony with a full belly.” She gave Taylin a mischievous look that reminded her just how similar the wagon master was to Rai.

Taylin didn’t know what the look was for until she was alerted by a snort to her right. Se turned to find herself face to face with Gaddigan, the monstrous war horse she’d ‘earned’ in battle. The rest of the horses she and Ru earned between them had been sold off in ones and twos over the past few weeks, but Ru insisted on keeping the huge animal, paying out of his own earnings to buy it from her.

Despite it costing him apparently no energy to fly or hover constantly, the mage rode his new mount whenever the caravan was on the move. The name, he informed her, was from his original tongue and meant ‘he who violently rejects’.

What it was he rejected, Taylin didn’t know, but she assumed it was something right and holy in the world. Possibly happiness, or the pleasant dreams of children. What she was certain of was that the big horse remembered her for throwing it aside on their first meeting and hated her for it. And its ire was not something she wanted to be on the receiving end of. Not only was she well aware that Gaddigan had killed at least three wolves in that first battle, but she’d personally watched it kick a wild boar to death when it came too close during a hunt a few days earlier.

She stiffened and shied away from the creature’s cold gaze. If only it was he that was in convenient strips and packed in salt in one of the barrels strapped to her wagon’s roof. That would make her enjoy him a great deal more.

Her reaction set Signateria off, laughing and drew amusement from Ru, who no doubt had ridden up alongside specifically for that reason.

“I’m sorry.” Signateria said, trying to catch her breath. “But you’re a giantess with flaming sword. No matter how big Gaddigan is, he’s still a horse.”

Taylin’s face reddened. “I’m not afraid. I just don’t trust turning my back on him.” She insisted, then shot Signateria a reproachful look. “And I’m not a giantess. I’m average height for ang’hailene.”

“I do wish you wouldn’t keep adding the prefix to that.” Kaiel was riding on the opposite side from Ru and Gaddigan and Ru, but until that moment, everyone involved thought he was too absorbed in the book in his hand to take notice of the conversation. “And I can vouch for you not being a giantess. There’s none around now except maybe in the most remote areas, but the Museum of Xenology in Harpsfell has a displace of giant bones and illusions of how they looked and moved; a female giant would be almost twice Taylin’s height and be a beacon of mystic radiance for all the earth energy that naturally collects in their bones and muscle.”

Ru gave him a level look past Taylin and Signateria. “I for one am quite glad that you were here to ruin that humor with facts, Arunsteadeles.”

In turn, Taylin turned and gave him an odd look, braving Gaddigan’s dark eyes to do so. That was the third or maybe forth time Ru used the chronicler’s name instead of profession or one of the growing collection of slurs he was learning for students of the Bardic College. It started the day before, after she returned form her bath and still sounded plainly alien to her.

Whether it was a good or bad change, she wasn’t sure, so she just sat back and observed until she knew more.

Kaiel never looked up from his book and had no reaction to Ru’s jab at him. “So Taylin; you’ve never been to a city of size before?”

None that weren’t undergoing bombardment. “No, not really. I’ve spent most of my life traveling around, mostly up in the air.” It was amazing how the mere arrangement of words changed the truth into a plausible lie. Kaiel would know what she meant, Signateria would be spared her outrageous life story, and Ru…

There was a small, sharp pang of amusement in the link. Did you do that on purpose?

And if I did?

He didn’t reply. She started to press him on it, maybe force him to admit that she had more wits about her than he initially thought, but at that moment, a spotter atop one of the lead wagons called out. There was a scramble of activity up front as the entire caravan slowed to a stop and two pennants were hoisted atop the lead wagon; one a white flag with a purple slash across it, the other, a green design with a white border.

“Kaiel, what’s going on?” Taylin asked, hand already reaching toward the hilt of the Eastern Brand. The weapon rested now in the elaborate scabbard the King of Flame and Steel kept it in; a mechanical contraption designed to allow the sword to be swiftly and safely be drawn while slung across the back..

The chronicler closed his book and stowed it in a saddle bag. “Someone’s spotted a sentry. Might be a legitimate officer of the Principality, might be a bandit spotter.”

“What do the flags mean?”

Signateria fielded that one. “The white and purple say we’re friendly merchants. The green and white says we’re nir-lumos and can and will make them a head shorter if they mean to make it a fight.”

“Ideally, it’s seen as a bit less badly confrontational.” Kaiel laughed, “But basically, yes.” He reached down for the rifle hanging by a strap across the pommel of his saddle and check to make sure it was loaded. “I’m going to ride up ahead to help with the show of force, should it be needed. Coming along, Taylin?”

Taylin had spent most of the past three weeks learning how to function as part of the clan. She learned basic mundane healing with herbs, bandages, needle and thread, she hunted alongside Bromun and his fellows when the need arose, and scouted from the air on behest of Rai’s group. But she had yet to find a definitive place and was eager to lend her aid to anything that needed it.

She nodded and carefully handed the sleeping Motsey off to Signateria.

“I’ll put him to bed beside Rale in your wagon.” the wagon master smiled, accepting her charge.

Taylin gave her honest thanks before hopping nimbly down from the wagon. With her wings back to balance with, her movements were far more graceful than they were when she first met any of her new companions. Ru kicked Gaddigan into a trot beside her.

By the time they reached the head of the caravan, Grandmother and Grandfather had brought their wagon around and set up the tent from before. Grandmother sat on a folding stool in front of a table of similar design set with a spell worked cool pitcher like the one from Kaiel’s wagon, and two cups. Grandfather sat in the wagon’s doorway, his rifle across his knees, drinking from a third cup.

Kaiel and Grandmother engaged in a nonverbal conversation consisting of head tilts and eyebrow movements until the elderly halfling spoke.

“Sentry.” She informed them, “Flier. One of the scouts came back to report: he came from the direction of Daire City, but he’s flying strange colors: red, white and yellow.”

“I don’t recognize it.” Kaiel admitted. “Torm Dondaire’s colors are white and orange.”

“Probably had another shift.” Grandfather said with a disgusted scowl. He didn’t care for the Novromi way of politics. “We haven’t ranged this far south in three years thanks to the drought opening better places to ford in the north. That’s time for three or four changes of the guard in this part of the world.”

“Possible. But I hope not. The Dondaire government’s been stable for fifteen years; a minor miracle for a principality this far east. Then again, fake colors means a very brazen breed of bandit has moved into the region.”

A spotter called out from where he’d scaled a tree when the wagons stopped. Everyone looked in the direction he was pointing.

Though still distant, the figure was easily picked out against the cloudless blue sky. It was shaped like a man and carrying some sort of polearm, which trialed red, white and yellow streamers just below the head. Most visible, however, was a fourteen foot span of white feathered wings.

Taylin’s breath caught in her throat and without thinking, her hand closed over the grip of the Eastern Brand. Her thumb found the tab protruding from the scabbard up past the hilt and flicked it down. Internal clockwork turned and six miniature bolts slid open. One side of the scabbard was open to the air, save for the aforementioned bolts. Once they were withdrawn, springs on the other side moved a false internal wall against the blade, forcing it out of the scabbard by an eighth of an inch. All Taylin had to do was rotate her wrist and the sword would come free, fully drawn.

At the same time, Ru was treated to a tide of anger and the vivid memory of grabbing a stumbling guard’s wing as he passed and dislocating it. He gave her a pointed look to make clear to her that he’d seen that. She refused to meet his gaze, but didn’t let go of the sword either. Very pointedly, he noted that he didn’t sense any shame there.

The new hailene banked sharply into a shallow dive that he checked just before reaching the head of the caravan. He back-winged to start his landing, which had the side effect of extending his wings to their fullest. They were crisp, uniform white, as opposed to Taylin’s red-to-orange gradient, but he had dyed blue circles at the joint, with blue arrow patterns radiating from them.

He was dressed in leathers with a steel pectoral that still both the orange circle with white fill in the center, steel gauntlets and boots of the same. In addition to the halberd he carried, there was a bandolier of throwing knives across his chest and three tin cylinders with complex looking metal mechanisms on top tucked in his belt; two bore black stripes painted up the side, and one had red.

“Grenades.” Kaiel explained in a quiet voice so that only those near him heard. “Pretty common closer to the capitol in Kinos, or the Historical Society’s base in Rivenport.”

“Weapons?” Taylin asked.

He nodded. “The red ones are alchemy’s answer to the fireball, only nastier, because they’re filled with slag metal that can punch holes in you even if the concussive force or flame don’t get you. The black contain noxious smoke; what it is exactly depends on who mixes it.”

“This era simply hands mystic levels of offensive power to anyone doesn’t it?” Ru sneered.”An equilibrium of violence.”

Neither Kaiel, nor Taylin replied because the hailene had landed. He folded his wings loosely to his back and straightened up to his full height, which was a few inches shy of Taylin. His black hair was tied back to stay out of his face in flight, but he took the time to release it now, all the while ignoring the caravan as if they were an audience waiting for him to perform.

Posturing. Taylin knew it well from watching her former masters. The racial superiority complex of the hailene extended all the way down to the individual. When two hailene met, they made it clear that the other wasn’t worth their time until the other earned their respect, and even then, all forms of hailene relationship was centered around establishing dominance.

Ang’hailene weren’t like that. Weren’t even allowed to be like that. But Taylin needed to do something besides reflexively try and spit him on the end of her sword. It probably wouldn’t do if he turned out to be an emissary from the city. So she straightened her spine and make a show of briefly flaring her own wings.

His eye fell on her and his expression was unreadable. It wasn’t the open contempt of the hailene she knew, but it wasn’t particularly friendly either. As quickly as he gave her that look, he went back to ignoring her.

“Who leads this caravan?” He asked in a rich, loud voice.

Grandmother caught his eye. “I do. I am Tifarene mate-Callotian, Grandmother of the Clan of the Winter Willow, servant of Sylph Reborn. Who are you and what business have you with my people?”

The hailene took a few steps forward and threw Grandmother an odd salute in Taylin’s eyes: right fist lifted to eye level, fingers facing toward her with the elbow standing straight out form his body. “My name is Percival Cloudherd. I am a Warden of the Daire-Solgrum forest, by order of King Solgrum I of Torm Dondaire. My task is to make you aware that you are now within the bounds of the Daire-Solgrum and inform you that His Majesty prohibits hunting here without his express permission. I am to order you to recall your hunters. There would be a fine if they have already taken game within the forest, but imprisonment awaits those who do so after the message is delivered.”

Grandmother’s lips tightened into a thin line. “The nir-lumos are not poachers. And we’ve always been welcomed in these lands before.” The hunters weren’t even out looking for game at the moment, instead they were gathering herbs and other reagents to replenish the stores of the healers and other magic users. But she felt no need to tell him this.

“Things have changed, ma’am.” Percival said bluntly. There was no concealing the bitterness in his voice. “His Majesty has claimed the Daire-Solgrum as his property. You are still welcome to come and trade, just not to hunt without permission.”

“Most leaders see wisdom in letting the nir-lumos have an exception.” Kaiel spoke up. His rifle was pointed at the ground and his finger was off the trigger. There was no need to back up his point with force. Common superstition said that Pandemos protected the halflings, not only against spirit beasts, but all aggressors. Part of it was racist propaganda left from the Age of Tragedies to explain how ‘obviously’ superior fighting forces were repelled so disproportionately often, but in modern times, people actually believed it.

Percival gave him a flat stare. “Most would, yes. His Majesty does not.”

Kaiel’s brow raised. Now that was interesting. He definitely saw insubordination in that tone and in the shift in the guard’s position. “King Solgrum… I’ve only heard that surname once before in this part of the world. Is your liege related to Desminon Solgrum? The lumber baron?”

“Lumber baron no longer.” said Percival. “His holdings have been folded into those of the Principality’s holdings these past two years. Such is his confidence.” Again, the tone of disdain and bitterness.

Kaiel nodded. A great deal more information had been passed between them then was said with words. “Very well. I’m certain that the hunters won’t mind being recalled; the Winter Willow is in times of plenty.” He glanced sideways to make sure Grandmother was in agreement. His way with words and politics were part of his job in the clan as long as he stayed with them, but such matters always came down to her and Grandfather.

Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 13 – Tales of the Rune BreakerRune Breaker: Chapter 15 – The Tenth >>

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