Rune Breaker: Chapter 27 – Ashes of The Dawn

This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series Lighter Days, Darker Nights (Rune Breaker, #2)
Taylin sat down at the edge of the parade grounds outside Daire City known as the Murderyard. King Solgrum had gone to great expense to turn it into a festival ground for a lavish ball, but the demon Immurai’s machinations had resulted in the place looking every inch the image its name conjured to mind.
 
Once bright and gay tents and pavilions, lit by magical arrays were either still smoldering or torn mostly free of their moorings to flap in the gentle breeze. Most bore stains from blood, soot, mud or unidentifiable things Taylin would rather not think about.
 
“How are we going to find anyone in this?” Signateria asked as Taylin sat her down. The halfling woman had the youthful look of her people, and was greatly the worse for wear with both her homespun shirt and britches spattered with drying blood, caked with dust, and her black hair hanging dirty and loose around her head. The only thing that still shone about her was the silver dice shaped charm; the devotional amulet marking her a priest of Pandemos, the One Dice Rolling.
 
Taylin, more than twice the halfling’s height easily, managed to look just as small and lost as she was as she folded her red wings and scanned about the wreckage.
 
There were people moving among the rows; soldiers and battle magi in Solgrum’s livery. Some were escorting hysteria guests toward the city gates, while others picked through the debris for survivors and casualties alike. The latter were being laid out in neat lines where there was clear space.
 
“The soldiers seem to be in charge here. We can start with them.” She didn’t sound happy at the prospect. Solgrum’s army was largely built out of mercenaries from Taunaun and Mindeforme: minotaurs and hailene. Other hailene made her uncomfortable, if not angry, and she’d fought enough minotaurs in her life to have an ingrained fear of them.
 
No sooner did they set foot in the Murderyard, than a minotaur in Solgrum’s garish colors emerge from a pavilion. His massive bronze sword was sheathed to his back, and in his arms, he carried the limp both of a man.
 
Based on his ears and nose, both sharply defined, but not inhuman precisely, Taylin guessed he had been a half elf. From his tattoos, concentric circles with the common patterns for the basic mystical energies, she guessed her had also been a wizard of some sort. His magic had not prevailed him, as evidenced by the claw marks that dug deep into his belly.
 
The minotaur had his head bowed over the dead man in reverence before he observed the pair coming up the way to his right. He tossed his head weakly. “Civilians need to leave. You will be allowed back to claim any you’ve lost once the dead are sorted and the living made stable.”
 
“We want to help.” Taylin said quickly. Not really a lie, as clearly helping with the response to the aftermath would help them find Raiteria and Bromun faster. If the pair still lived, they needed to be informed of the terrible fate that had befallen their only son.
 
A moment passed as the minotaur looked them over, and an itchy part of Taylin’s mind feared that he might charge them for disobeying. But her fears were unfounded. He merely looked down at the corpse and, apparently deciding that the man deserved to be done with the indignity of being carried as quickly as possible, nodded toward the center of the Murderyard.
 
“Come with me and command will have tasks for you. We won’t turn away aide at the moment, not when so many of our number have been sent into the city to prevent a panic.”
 
Signateria had to jog to keep up with the two tall folk when they started moving. “Why would the city be in panic? Only this place and the wagon yard at the Eastern gate were attacked and both of them are outside the walls.”
 
“You haven’t heard?” asked the minotaur, slowing his pace when he realized why she was near to flat out running.
 
“Heard what? Was something inside the city attacked too?” Signa had reason to fear that: most of the clan who hadn’t gone to the ball went instead to enjoy what the city had to offer. If there had been another attack, inside the city, then chances were good that Immurai had been targeting the halflings all along.
 
He minotaur let out a short, sorrowful moan. “No.” He sounded as if he wasn’t sure if Signa’s fear was better or worse. “His Majesty has fallen. The reign of Solgrum is at an end.”
 
Both women fell silent for several paces before Taylin spoke. “I’m very sorry, sir. I’m sure he was a good king.” Granted, she’d never heard of a good leader except historical figures as described by Kaiel.
 
The minotaur flared his nostrils and snorted. “No you aren’t. I’ve seen you about; you’re both with the Clan of the White Willow and their Grandmother and Grandfather thought him rude and a fool. And the chronicler mocked him with a subtlety that’s rare for humans.”
 
“I didn’t mean anything…” Taylin started.
 
“Never disagreed.” The minotaur cut her off. “His majesty was rude and he was self serving. And as far as I can tell his rule was not, in the Novromi fashion, legitimate. But he knew how to treat soldiers; gave us respect, and gave us a place here. A place for our families: the Victory Fields farming enclave. No matter what he was to you, or to the chronicler, he was a hope that my sons and daughter might grow up in a better way than they’d get scratching dust for food in the desert. With him gone… who knows?”
 
Taylin watched scene after scene of horror unfold as they walked. Here, a soldier was helping a human woman walk because her leg had been burned away to still-red coals below the knee. There, a wooden booth had been thrown through its two neighbors, only bits of gore gleaming wetly in the dying fires hinting at the toll.
 
“You won’t be allowed to stay?” She asked, if only to get her mind off of what she saw. The skeletons she and the others fought couldn’t have been responsible for that, could they? Evidence of their handiwork was just as clear: cloth and wood shredded by ghostly weapons or clawed hands, bodies bearing slashes and bite marks, and broken rocks in the shape of bones everywhere.
 
The minotaur laughed bitterly. “Who knows? More than a few folk still don’t trust a hailene all these centuries after the War of Ascension. And it still pains more than a few that my kind weren’t exterminated in the Age of Tragedies.” His eyes drifted to Signa’s amulet. “How appropriate. We all live on but a roll of a die.”
 
Taylin tipped her head back and looked at the starts through the smoky haze. They were different from when she would look at them in her rare free moments on the ships. “There’s still so much I don’t know. I’m sorry. If there was anything I could do to help…”
 
“Save your platitudes.” he cut her off. They had arrived on the main thoroughfare, where space have been made for dancing and entertainers. Now it was transformed: part military outpost, part field hospital. Weary looking battle magi and citizen spellcrafters were joined by conventional healers in tending to the survivors. The healers were performing triage and calling for magic where mundane means couldn’t help in time.
 
Their guide pointed them toward the site of the observation platform the King had been sitting on when last Taylin saw him. It was crushed to rubble and sodden where fires had been doused. Directly in front of it stood a military style pavilion flying Solgrum’s colors. “You want to help? See the commander? He’ll put you on a search team unless you’re skilled with healing.”
 
“Thank you.” Taylin tried to call after him, but he was already on his way, bearing the unlucky half-elf to join the rows and rows of dead waiting to be identified. Just seeing them all lined up like that made her think of Issacor and it was hard keeping her focus once it did.
 
Signa didn’t notice. “Don’t worry too much about what they’ll do without Solgrum. I’ve seen mayflies with longer lives than reigns in Eastern Novrom.”
 
Forcing herself to walk, Taylin nodded numbly. “Kaiel said the same thing. But won’t there be a war for the throne? Or maybe their neighbors will attack.”
 
“Most like, their neighbors don’t have the soldiers to move on them without losing their own lands.” Signa sniffed. “They might look down on Taunaun, but at least the dragonsired tribes and free settlements are stable.
 
Taylin decided to think on the implications of this instead of on the losses they’d suffered and would possibly learn of shortly. It didn’t take long for them to reach the pavilion. Two human guards in breastplates and chain stood before the entryway.
 
As Taylin was lost in thought, Signa raised her hand. “Hail. We were told to come here to volunteer for the search.” One of the guards sized them up, taking particular notice of Dottir Logi on Taylin’s back and the other sword Ru had given her, hastily attached to her belt.
 
“You’ll have to disarm to go in.” He finally said.
 
“Hmm? Oh.” Taylin shook her head upon returning to the hear and now. She went to undo the strap binding the Western Brand to her back when the tent flap opened. Stepping out into the cool air were a human woman in her forties with skinned baked to leather by overexposure to the sun and none other than Percival Cloudherd, the King’s Warden.
 
“I need this done quickly, Liytheed.” He was saying. Tonight, his hair was bound up in a formal topknot, and the right half of his face was reddened, as if he’d been burned, then healed to the bare minimum. “Everyone needs to be recalled, but the rangers need to be here well before sunrise. I want the army able to sally forth after this thing at first light, so there have better be a marked trail for them to follow.”
 
“Sir.” Liytheed nodded smartly before turning and jogging toward the nearest edge of the Murderyard, away from the city.
 
Only when she was on her way did Percival notice the two of them. His expression was dour enough at the moment and didn’t change on seeing them. In typical fashion, he stood up taller and fanned his wings a bit further than necessary in the presence of another hailene, but not by much.
 
He might not have been able to tell Signa from any other halfling, but it wasn’t often that he saw a red winged ang’hailene. Almost imperceptibly, he inclined his head to them. “Forgive me if I do away with decorum. “Come with me.”
 
“Should it…” Taylin gestured to her swords.
 
“Leave it. You won’t be in here long.”
 
They followed him into the tent. Aside from the roof and a slight damping of the sounds outside, there wasn’t much difference inside or out. A folding table had been erected at the back with a slate atop it bearing a chalk representation of the Murderyard on one half, and a less detailed one of Daire City on the other.
 
Clustered around the table were other soldiers; a minotaur, three humans, two half-elves, and a hailene woman with one wing swathed in bandages and pinned down flat to her back. But with them as well was a pair Taylin hadn’t expected.
 
“Grandmother! Grandfather!” She exclaimed, inadvertently making herself the focus of everyone’s attention for an uncomfortable moment.
 
“Signateria. Taylin. Glad you lived.” grinned Grandfather. There was more relief than sorrow in his voice, which bolstered Taylin’s hopes for the clan’s survival as well.
 
Percival stepped partially between them. “The clan of the Winter Willow is aiding us in the search for survivors; something that we are deeply thankful for.”
 
Signa gave him a skeptical look. “How are you in charge? Weren’t you a Warden when you met the caravan?”
 
A flicker and offense passed over his face, but he remained calm save for an annoyed tremor in his voice. “The Warden. Leader of the King’s rangers, scouts and wilderness patrols. With the King murdered with no heir, the Royal Guard annihilated to a man, and General Galvanner missing, I am in command of the army until the General is located, or whoever ascends the throne replaces me.”
 
Taylin couldn’t have been less concerned about Percival’s promotion and stepped around him to come kneel beside the clan leaders. “I didn’t know that the two of you were here when the attack happened.”
 
“We weren’t said Grandmother. “We were having dinner when we heard the news and came here was quickly as we could. Has word only just now reached the wagons?”
 
A lump formed in Taylin’s throat and she had to force it down before she could speak. “The wagons were attacked too.”
 
“Blood to ice.” Grandfather muttered and was drowned out by a much harsher exclamation from his wife.
 
Taylin nodded her agreement. “That’s why we’re here. We need to find Rai and Bromun.” her voice broke. “T-they took Motsey.”
 
***
It took a quarter-hour for word to reach the command pavilion that Raiteria and Bromun were indeed alive and part of the teams scouring the scene of the attack for survivors. It took the rest of that hour to locate them and bring them back.
 
Out of respect, Percival took his reports outside when the pair was bought before Grandmother and Grandfather.
 
Aside from the two clan leaders, Taylin and Signateria were the only ones present. As the nir-lumos were a highly social people, this made them tense the moment they came inside, before they even saw the grieving and guilty faces.
 
Bromun spoke first, slipping into the fast paced and breathless language of his people, which Taylin understood little of. Whatever it was made Grandfather bite his lip hard and Grandmother to put her hand atop his as much to comfort him as herself.
 
Before Grandmother could reply, Rai spoke over her. In any other situation, it would have been so rude as to be unheard of, but she had noticed that Signateria, whom she had left to watch over the children, was there and looking shaken. It wasn’t hard to understand what she said, even without having lived some weeks among the clan. ‘Where are my children?’
 
That was the last straw for Signa. Se broke into sobs right there and it was all Taylin could do to hold and comfort her. Even with the dice priestess shivering in her arms, Taylin couldn’t take her eyes off the stricken parents.
 
“Raleian is with Kaiel. She will be fine.” Grandmother spoke slow, calm imperial for Taylin’s sake. Having heard the entire story, even she was putting off the worst of her bad tidings. “The attack here was a distraction to cover an attack on our wagons.”
 
“Motseitiel.” Rai interrupted. “Nasae sa Motseitiel?”
 
Grandmother pressed her lips together and drew a long breath. Even she was on the edge of tears. All of the children of the clan were as her own. “The girl, Layaka betrayed us. He has been taken.”
 
Bromun let out an animal howl that would have seemed out of place even from Gruwluff’s throat and dropped to his knees. Rai froze in place, trembling as her small fists tightened. With teeth grinding in an effort not to cry out just as her husband did, she narrowed her eyes at a threat she couldn’t yet see with an unspoken promise that when she did, she would put an end to it. One word fought free of her boiling fury. “Nasae?”
 
‘Where.’
 
“A place called the Isle of Nhan Raduul.” Taylin spoke without thinking, sating her ache to do something for her adoptive sister and brother-in-law. “They demanded something called a ‘soul battery’. Do you know what that is?”
 
The pair looked to one another for the answer, shook their heads and then looked to their leaders.
 
“We know nothing.” Grandfather admitted. “At first, we suspected that it might be why Solgrum was killed, but Percival knows nothing either. We hope that Kaiel might be able to tell us, along with the location of this isle.”
 
Bromun got to his feet shakily, his face still a mask of grief. “I will go and ask directly. And then we will leave for there immediately.”
 
He started to leave, not waiting for the dismissal of Grandmother or Grandfather. Except Rai stopped him by catching his sleeve in her fist. “We can’t both go. Rale is still here. She needs one of us.” They locked gazes for a long moment before she continued. “The hunters took more losses than the scouts. They need you. The clan needs you here. My son carries my name. I will be the one who goes and brings him back.”
 
Taylin expected an argument, but Bromun evidently saw the logic, or was following some custom of married nir-lumos. He merely nodded and embraced her. “I will watch over our daughter. And she’ll be waiting for you.”
 
***
The army mobilized before them that morning, as the thick mist still clung to the earth and muted the early rays of the sun. A column of ceratos in spider-chitin barding, heavy warhorses in barding spellworked for lightness, and riding spiders thundered out of the western gate and turned south to follow the path of the mysterious creature that murdered the king.
 
From atop the wagon that had been his and would soon just be another spare in the clan’s caravan, Kaiel watched them bully their way through the foreboding mist in search of vengeance.
 
“We’re going to have to follow them.” He announced.
 
“Why?” Below him, Taylin was carefully tying the intricate knots to secure a roll of specially treated linen around it’s all important cargo: the body of Aba Issacor Trueddeles.
 
The knots and linen were according to Kaiel’s own careful instructions concerning Novromi burial practices. His armor would be buried above him so that potential grave robbers wouldn’t disturb his body and the linen was cured in an alchemical solution that prevented scavengers from sniffing it out. In honor of his service to the Mother other Blade, they had purchased a good, steel blade and etched Issacor’s name and accomplishments down the center with spellwork. It would serve as both grave marker and sacrifice to the Mother in the form of making a new blade available for an aspiring swordsman to eventually take up.
 
The burial, outside the view of Daire City’s walls would be their first task when they stopped to camp.
 
“Two reasons:” Kaiel climbed down gingerly. Not willing to wait for Ru to awaken, he’d paid for a potion of while buying supplies and those took time to work, unlike direct magic. “One, I’ve exhausted my books and none of them mention anything called a ‘soul battery’. And if I don’t know, and Ru doesn’t know, our best, closest hope is the Historical Society in Rivenport.”
 
“I still do not believe that you checked all of those books in so little time.” Ru lurked in the shadow of the wagon, next to the tied Gaddagan. He was looking more indignant than the horse at the decision to use the big war-mount as a pack animal after Ru refused to leave him behind.
 
“A new invention since your time: indexes.” Kaiel said dryly as he inspected Taylin’s handiwork. Said knots were clumsy and not even at all, but they were secure and he’d seen her take too much care in the doing to tell her it was wrong. Instead, he nodded to her, feeling secure in his choice when he saw the same, but accomplished smile from her.
 
Ru muttered something rude. His attitude had steadily soured after waking to the memory of his humiliating defeat and the fact that they were on the move again, on a quest to find Motsey. Despite his simmering disdain for the chore, he kept his tongue about it, as Taylin had made it frightfully clear that she would have none of it from him on the matter and the link made it known that it would enforce her will.
 
As she had been ever since he woke up and proved to have no lasting injuries from his confrontation with Matasume, Taylin ignored the dark mage. “That makes sense. What’s the other reason?” As she spoke, she lay a careful hand on the linen covered body, over Issacor’s crossed arms.
 
Kaiel noted to gesture, but said nothing. “Nhan Raduul is in disputed waters—between Novrom, Rizen and Mon Sulus Kime. There’s no regular routes there by sea, air or even teleportation, so we’ll need to hire a ship. Again, all roads lead us south: through the Passage of Conquerors, to Rivenport.
 
“Between here and there is unclaimed territory and the Principality of Khish, which doesn’t have the population to cut safe paths. That means spirit beasts and other dangers. Our best hope of survival is to shadow the army as far as we can. They’ll scare off lesser beasts and bandits while supplying a better target to any greater beast that wants a fight.”
 
“Just in case, you’ll be even safer with the aid of a docent.”
 
Rounding the corner of the wagon, breaking through the last, thready bands of mist, was Brin. Behind her, lead by thick, leather reins that clipped to a muzzle that kept its massive beak shut, was a rag thief. The huge, flightless bird was outfitted with a saddle and riding harness that arrayed two saddlebags over its breastbone. Rust red plumage looked slick and glossy from recent grooming, and it’s thick nails had recently been filed.
 
“Brin.” Kaiel didn’t try to hide the enthusiasm in his voice. “I didn’t know you were coming. This is clan business after all. You don’t have to go.”
 
“And we aren’t paying you.” Ru added harshly.
 
The elf woman ducked her head, causing her lose hair to fall around her face. “If not for me, Layaka wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere near Motsey. This is as much my fault as anyone’s and I’ll take responsibility for that.”
 
“This isn’t your fault.” Kaiel said quickly.
 
“Except it so clearly is.” Ru rose from where he sat and floated a few inches off the ground. Brin tensed at the accusation and the yellow glare that came with it.
 
“Layaka…” Kaiel ignored Ru, “Partha followed us from Taunaun. I suspect he.. or she… would have found a way to worm into our confidence no matter what. Luck of the One Dice that her method turned out to deliver such a stalwart ally in you to us. We’d be glad to have you, I’m sure.”
 
Brin followed his lead in ignoring Ru. “Thank you.” She gave Gaddagan and Kaiel’s nameless gelding a curious look. “I bought Miser here because rag thieves are built for distance over capacity—but aren’t you going to need remounts if we’re going to make reasonable time?”
 
“I have spells to fortify them.” sad Kaiel, “And you, Ru and myself should be able to heal anything that’s not instantly fatal. Luckily, Ru’s monster there is more than strong enough to carry supplies for three horses and an ornis.”
 
“Ornis?”
 
Kaiel gestured to Miser and the bird eyes his hand like the delicious morsel it was to its kind. “Rag thieves. That’s the official name.”
 
Brin nodded and offered a smile. I’ve only ever heard them called rag thieves.” She hitched the ornis to the wagon and went over to Taylin, who was carefully strapping Issacor, the bundle containing his armor, and the sword to the simple wooden sledge she and Kaiel bough for the purpose while out buying supplies.
 
“Hi.” She said shyly. Issacor’s death could have also been blamed on her via Layaka.
 
“Hi.” Taylin replied quietly, not looking up from her work.
 
Brin fidgeted awkwardly and tried again. “How’re you feeling this morning?”
 
Taylin shook her head and answered honestly. “I don’t know. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like this before. I’ve been in losing battles, had people who were kind to me die… but I’ve never felt so much like I’ve just completely failed before.”
 
Careful of the other woman’s wings, Brin draped her arm around her shoulders, trying not to be put off when she flinched at the contact. “I know. We’re… We’ll get Motsey back. If it sends my soul down to the Seven Interlocking Hells, we’ll get him back. And if you want me to, Reflair and I can consecrate Issacor’s grave.”
 
Timidly at first, Taylin nodded. “Thank you, Brin… And it isn’t your fault. Layaka was my friend too. I trusted her. We all…” She sighed. “Trusted her. And now all we can do is try and make it right.”
 
Shortly thereafter, as Brin helped where she could in making the final preparations, Rai arrived.
 
Her expression was stony and focused, very much unlike the woman Taylin knew and called ‘sister’. Dressed in the green and brown scout’s garb, she led a pony whose coat was covered in dyed designs; prayers to both Sylph and Pandemos that formed mystic arrays of protection and luck courtesy of Grandmother and Signateria. On her back was a familiar weapon: Grandfather’s rifle, along with her scout’s pack and the finest spiked chain in the caravan.
 
No doubt, the entire clan had worked to outfit her with the best of everything they had. To the nir-lumos, she was not just a mother seeking her child; she was on the most sacred mission they could undertake. They all were.
 
At her arrival, Kaiel stood as if at attention. “I’m sorry that it took so long, Rai. We had to wait until the shops open to get all the supplies. Besides, we’ll move faster and with fewer hindrances with Percival’s army ahead of us.”
 
Rai cast a quick, but weighty glance at Brin, then said, “I trust your advise, Kaiel, and thank you for coming with me. All of you. Are we ready then?”
 
“Absolutely.”
 
“Good. Then let’s go. Motsey is waiting for us.”
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