Rune Breaker: Chapter 4 – Clan of the Winter Willow

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series A Girl and Her Monster (Rune Breaker, #1)

For once, Taylin was in complete agreement with Ru. A beat behind him, she echoed his ‘What?’.

The stranger smirked; not a cruel sneer, but a playful ‘I know something you don’t know’ smirk, and dismounted, careful never to let them out of his sight. His soft boots did well on the sand and though he would have been a few inches shorter than Ru, if he ever stopped hovering, he didn’t seem to be looking up at either of them.

The rifle dangled down by his hip on a leather strap and one hand dipped down to hold it steady. The other reached up to tip the hat out of his eyes.

He was younger than Taylin first thought. Possibly, she was fooled by the rasp n his voice from travel dust, but now that she saw his face, he couldn’t have been that long out of his teens. Laughing blue eyes told of a soul that found joy and wonder easily. But he hollows and bags around them, couple with the wilted, uneven cut of his hair suggested he hadn’t done so recently.

Still, when he offered them a neighborly smile, it definitely touched those eyes. “The short answer, Madame Traveler, is this: I can’t tell when you’re lying, but I know when you’re telling the truth.” The smile turned back into the smirk from before. “You can lower your hands now.”

As they did, he cleared his throat and spoke again. “I am Keese Kaiel Arunsteadeles, a son of Novrom by way of the College of Harpsfell; chronicler, currently on walkabout, hoping to become named loreman and to follow of the third philosophy.”

Ru laughed uproariously in their shared mental space. Taylin silently wondered if her remembered his own introduction. Perhaps not so silently, as he suddenly ceased laughing and shot her a cold look.

It must have also shown on their faces because Kaiel laughed self-consciously. “I know. It’s a great many words to say I’m Kaiel, a student from the Bardic College. Everything else is useless detail, I suppose. But it is tradition.”

“No, that’s fine.” Taylin said quickly. “I’m Taylin and this is Ru. We’re… not from nearby and we were going to try and reach the town before nightfall. Are you from there?”

Kaiel considered for a second, then shrugged. “Not directly. As part of my walkabout, I’m traveling with the Clan of the Winter Willow. The town of Emisdaal on the northern arm of the bay is part of their usual caravan route, but when the clan’s Grandfather heard of the troubles out here, he decided his people could help. As his guest, I thought it was only right to help.”

Taylin looked around at the idyllic setting she’d so recently been so enthusiastic about. “What sort of troubles could there be here? This place looks like a paradise.”

An incredulous look came to Kaiel’s face. “Where exactly did you think that tele-gate landed you? This is south Taunaun. If there’s a place on the continent where the Age of Tragedies isn’t over, it’s here. Thirteen Nations Accord meant nothing here; a few old dukes too cities on the coast, the cults took the desert, and the rest is left to whoever wants to squabble over it.”

A blank look was the response he got in reply, as if he’d been spouting foreign gibberish.

He licked his lips and tried again. “I’ll put it simply; this part of the world, it’s wild still. No government, no rules. Some bandit king’s recently took it in his head to be a real king and he’s demanding tribute from villages along the Byse River.

“The people here? Their village doesn’t even have a name, much less enough to spare for tribute. So this ‘king’ has eyes toward burning them out as an example.”

Horrors from her memory came to Taylin’s mind. Other used torches and arrows; she and her brothers and sisters worked with blazing javelins designed to shatter into showers of burning splinters on impact. And there were times when she hadn’t needed the javelins. Visions of smoke, tinted orange by the flames it concealed, and fleeing, screaming and burning bodies raked her mental vision.

But the worst didn’t even come from her mind, but from Ru’s. Near-molten boulders falling upon a city of wood and stone; exploding into rains of lava or crashing into structures to ignite everything within. Then came lightening, red and violet and green, jagging into towers, tearing them stone from stone before continuing on into the streets, where it found and consumed the panicking masses there.

She didn’t know what she expected to accompany that thought from him. One would hope for horror, the same as she felt. Or, given his earlier blood-lust, perhaps sadistic glee. But there was nothing. Absolute null and it was not from him blocking their connection.

“No…” Taylin said it before she thought it.

“That’s how Grandfather felt.” Kaiel agreed. “So I suggest the two of you pass this place on by. There aren’t many spirit beasts or predators along the bay coast, you should be fine. If you came into the village though…” He gave her a sympathetic look. “I can tell you truly don’t want to hurt anyone and if you go there, you’ll either have to fight or else you’ll be in the way.”

Her hands clenched into fists. Maybe hundreds of years had passed, but for her, only a few hours had passed since her escape. Only minutes ago, she had tasted a life of peace and freedom. No more fighting. No more war. The broken sword weighted heavily at her side and tongues of flame flickered at the corners of her vision.

Fighting is what she knew. She was good at it, better than the Captains; she’d proven that in the first few moments after her escape. But she had only ever fought on the orders of others; in battles of conquest, of spite, and all the other darker purposes of war.

But there was another way. She had seen it. In the faces of every enemy she’d faced in the masters’ service. Defense. Protection. Raising sword in the service of what was right and against everything the masters stood for; against what was wrong.

When she looked up, Kaiel had turned to mount his horse again. “Wait!” She said, a bit too loudly. He stopped and glanced over his shoulder. A sick feeling hit the pit of her stomach, but it couldn’t batter down the resolve she’d already formed. “I… How can I help? I promise I won’t be in the way. I just… I can’t let that happen to anyone. I won’t just walk away from this.”

Kaiel raised an eyebrow as Ru made a put upon sound. “Your companion doesn’t seem to agree.”

“Whether I agree or not is immaterial.” Yellow eyes locked on blue. “I go where she does. I have no choice.”

It took Kaiel a moment to parse that. There was neither resignation, nor recrimination in his tone. Another possibility asserted itself, but there was no scrap of loyalty in the statement either. It was merely fact. It either of the former had been the case, he would have seen Taylin in another light. If the latter, he probably would have let it go past unquestioned. But he did have questions and the guilty look on Taylin’s part wasn’t helping.

Ru preempted whatever Kaiel intended to do about it. “Do not pry in these matters.” His voice was blunt and cold and his stance, hovering in the air turned predatory.

A flick of his hand, a quick gesture he’d only learned a week or so previous, and Kaiel heard movement behind him.

A patch of grass rose up from where it had been lying on the slope above the beach. Instead of sending it’s roots into the earth, the grass was expertly woven by those same roots into a cloak that had until that moment concealed a small man; a halfling.

Tall for his race, he would have stood waist high next to Kaiel. In addition to the grass-weave cloak, he was dressed in snug fitting mossy greens and earthy browns, his long, dead-black hair tied back in a hasty tail. And he had a crossbow trained at Ru’s head, a machined, steel quarrel at the ready.

“And do not threaten me.” Kaiel informed him evenly.

Somewhere beyond the top of the ridge, a basso snarl sounded from something feral and angry.

Ru answered that snarl with one of his own, but Taylin grabbed his arm. “Ru, stop!” She turned to Kaiel. “I’m sorry. Our situation is sensitive and complicated.”

Letting go of a deep breath, Kaiel nodded. His hand reached up and tipped the hat down over his eyes again. “Aren’t they all? Peace, though; I don’t want your secrets. If one of you wants to help, no one here will turn you away.”

“Thank you.” Taylin said, sighing her relief. “Ru,” She glanced over at him, not letting go of his arm, “If you don’t want to help, you don’t have to.”

The shapeshifter huffed and rolled his eyes. She refused to understand, he concluded. It certainly wasn’t that he had explained it inadequately. In fact, he chose not to even reply.

From that, Taylin drew some conclusions of her own. Namely, that either something had to be done with the link or Ru’s understanding of it. Being linked with someone you clearly didn’t like was doing Ru no favors and her attempts to accommodate him only annoyed. Time for a different tactic.

Running a hand through the savaged, red locks on her head, she trudged forward. “Lead on, Kaiel.”

Kaiel had been watching the entire exchange with an analytical eye, finding it interesting. “I’m sure the clan and the village will be most grateful.” He took the horse by the bridle and wheeled it around toward her. “Here. You can ride back, I’ve got spells to give me endurance afoot.”

Before Taylin could refuse, a spike of rueful amusement and keen interest subverting the white noise of annoyance in the link made her start. Ru barked out a laugh so wicked that it made the halfling who was still covering him with the crossbow recenter his aim.

You are a wizard?” the incredulity dripped from his words.

Kaiel reverted to the expression of a teacher going over the lesson the tenth time. “No… I already said as much. I’m a chronicler on the path of the loreman. It’s a bit like a wizard to those outside, but the source isn’t the same and there’s a certain style to what we do.”

“A charlatan in other words.”

That had Kaiel fuming. “And what is it that you know of wizards? I see you wasting spellwork to float about, but I’ve yet to see any true capability.”

Cruelty and blood-lust almost overwhelmed Taylin as they rushed into the link. “Would you like to see?”

Ru! Stop.

The cold, mechanical movement and Ru fell silent before the sentence was done, the anticipatory grin faded into his expert mask of neutrality. “Yes, Ms. Taylin.” Kaiel glanced between them, trying to figure out what had just transpired.

Taylin was left with that sick feeling once again rolling in her gut. She hated herself for that, but she could only imagine what would have happened if she hadn’t ordered Ru to… It was then that she felt the growing smug satisfaction.

You did that on purpose!

He didn’t reply, but he didn’t try and hide how pleased he was at provoking her to issuing an order either.

Taylin’s jaw tightened and she made sure he felt her anger in the link. She tried and failed to keep it out of her voice. “You can ride, Kaiel. I’m used to long marches. Let’s just get moving.”

It didn’t take training from the Bardic College to tell Kaiel that the two had fought without words. And it took even less training not to question it. Hand still on his mount’s bridle, he turned the horse fully and started up the slope. Once under way, he motioned to the halfling, who eased the crossbow and stored the quarrel before stalking silently over to join him.

“Bromun matei-Frocture, I would like to introduce you to Taylin.” He said, knowing full well that Bromun heard the entire exchange. “Taylin, this is Bromun matei-Frocture, beloved hunter of the Clan of the Winter Willow.”

The little man nodded to her. “May the One Dice favor your path, Taylin” His voice, like his face, were younger than his expressions, but Taylin had never met a halfling before to know if that was normal or not.

In the culture of slave soldiers, friendly, formal greetings weren’t the norm. “To you as well.” She managed.

As they neared the top of the hill, they were met by two other halflings, a man and a woman, both in grass-weave cloaks and woodsman garb like Bromun. They were accompanied by a trio of huge wolves.

***

Kaiel had taken care of the introductions; the other halfling male was Bromun’s brother, Rolfas and the female was Rolfas’s wife, Minarene. He had also kindly explained that the wolves were a crossbreed of timber and dire wolves exclusively raised by caravan-bound halfling clans. They served as both mount and battle partner for hunters, who were also the caravan’s martial specialists.

The leather harnesses with hardened panels over the ribs the wolves had on and the crossbows, weighted chains and wickedly curved kukris the halflings carried spoke for themselves on that fact.

On the walk to the village, the conversation was light and mostly held up by Kaiel and Bromun enlightening Taylin about Taunaun’s banditry problem while the other two hunters ranged off some distance to search for any signs of the enemy.

Eventually though, Kaiel broached a subject Taylin had been secretly glad hadn’t come up yet. “Forgive me for asking and shun it if it insults, but… I’ve noticed that you don’t really strike me as human or elf.” At this, he startled her by dropping seamlessly into the language of the masters. “Amo ‘Taylin ayean hailene-de. Ayes I hailene suras velates?”

Involuntarily, she shivered at the very sound of the words. Scowling bitterly, she refused to make eye contact. “Aan. Iba ang’hailene. Iba tolos velates.”

Kaiel’s eyes widened with shock and disgust. Tolos velates: one whose wings were taken, as opposed to suras velates: One whose wings were lost. He’d heard of the former, certainly, but always in accounts of historical accounts of the savagery of the early Age of Tragedies and of course, the Hailene War of Ascension. Taking wings was the most cold blooded torture the hailene inflicted upon each other, reserved for traitors and… and those deemed inferior, the ‘not people’ who didn’t fit the hailene ideal, who they called ang’hailene.

“They still do that?” There was a tracer of anger in his voice. “It seems Taunaun isn’t the only place where the Age of Tragedies still lives on.”

Taylin looked at him sidelong, hope in her eyes. “They don’t do that any longer?” She immediately realized her mistake. “… I meant ‘you haven’t heard of it being done?”

“Not in my lifetime. Not for a good hundred years.” He turned to Bromun, who hadn’t understood the conversation in hailene-de the native, dialect of the hailene. As much as he hated to admit it, the caravan halflings still knew more about individual settlements in the East than he did. “Have you heard of any groups of hailene that still take wings?”

Bromun was half leaning, half sitting sidesaddle upon his lupine partner, Gruwluff (which he’d helpfully translated from the halfling language to Taylin as ‘Feral Grin’), his feet firmly standing on loops built into the great wolf’s harness. He shook his head.

“The cliff-dweller tribes still exile ang’hailene, I’ve heard the tribes like Fellweather and Lightwings even give the children over to the ogres and dragon cults, but they don’t cut anybody’s wings off. Part of the rules of war for them, actually. I’d wager gold that any of them we deal with hasn’t even thought of it since Nov III’s abolition crusade ended slavery in the East.”

Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 3 – A Paradise in the FutureRune Breaker: Chapter 5 – Spell-worked Water, Alchemical Food >>

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