Rune Breaker: Chapter 41 – Along the Passage of Conquerors

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series The Path of Destruction (Rune Breaker, #3)
‘Something I did not expect is how I’ve come to understand ang-hailene over the course of this trial. Aside from the unfortunate coloration of wings and hair, I have often found myself wondering as to what defect among them justifies their status. They run the same gamut of mental acuity, physical capability and emotional capacity as any of us.
 
I have watched them fret over their health, mourn those who died, and celebrate healthy births. And I have also seen the anguish in each of the surrogates, as they face the reality that the children they bore will be taken from them.
 
These women have birthed a new hope for the Hailene. And once this is over, they will be returned to lives of toil and obscurity. I weep for them and am forced to wonder if we even deserve the salvation they offer us.’
~ excerpt from the journal of Lena Hiddakko.
 
***
It took them an extra day to reach the road, as they were forced to detour around an enclave of aesthetics that hadn’t been there when the maps Kaiel knew were drawn. In the early morning of the fourth day, Taylin spotted a watchtower from the air and using it as a landmark, the group reached the road shortly before noon.
 
The Passage of Conquerors was a road wide enough for four standard wagons to pass abreast with no trouble. Dull stone slabs, their color varying with that of the local rock, were laid down to form it and were routinely tended by ere-a-focused wizards in the service of the King to keep it in good repair.
 
Approximately every twenty miles, there was a relief station consisting of a watchtower, modest stable and barracks for the mounted patrols and maintenance crews that worked the road. The buildings were always made of baked clay of magical origin: ere-a used to pile and shape dirt, akua to wet it, and both flaer and ferif applied to fire and strengthen it.
 
No matter what principality it passed through, the road and the relief stations belonged to the one true king of Novrom; the son of the Nov I, the man who united the nation. The only rule for using the roads Nov built was that no Prince could use them to move troops. In this way, the skirmishes between princes always remained regional concerns rather than all-out civil war.
 
By the next morning, they were out of Khish and through a narrow pass between two mountains: Mount Olaar and Mount Tenridhun. Beyond it was what Kaiel recalled as the Principality of Olaarian Valley, but what they soon discovered had become the twin Principalities of Olaarian Valley and Mahtesh.
 
It took two days to cross the valley, stopping only to resupply at an Olaarian fishing village on the edge of one of the valley’s many lakes. From there, they entered another pass, this time emerging in a defile dotted with boulders.
 
The road passed from there into forested hills that might seemed to go on forever except for the occasional logging or mining settlement and the ubiquitous relief stations.
 
Said settlements contributed to an increase of traffic on the road. Caravans of wagons or mule trains passed them regularly, as did armored patrols of soldiers and wizards in Nov’s white and purple livery. Even on the heavily patrolled Passage, no one traveled alone and everyone carried weapons.
 
Taylin noticed that when there were no wizards with a group, more people carried swords, axes or other bladed weaponry. In the absence of spells or expensive ash chalk, the only way to put down a spirit beast was beheading. Crossbows and guns meant nothing to the monsters.
 
On the ninth day out, Taylin felt as if the monotony of the trip might kill her. As they were following the road, there was no need for her and Raiteria to scout ahead, and because Kaiel was so good at negotiation, they had more than enough provisions to last, obviating the need to forage or hunt. All that was left for her to do was bravely sit in Gaddigan’s saddle (the horse wisely chose not to test her) and watch the miles go by.
 
While they were crossing the Olaarian Valley, she’d tried to read, but the words combined with the motion made her sick. She’d taken to asking Kaiel to impart knowledge of the places they passed through. Unfortunately, they were passing through another stretch of unclaimed territory that had no history, interesting or otherwise. Even Rai and Brin had been lulled into more or less dozing in the saddle instead of carrying on conversation.
 
And so she sat hunched in the saddle, wings outstretched for balance.
 
“Taylin.”
 
When Kaiel called her name, she was so grateful that she could have built a small temple in his honor. No matter what he was about to say, it would be better than the boredom.
 
She looked up to see him was smiling that self-satisfied smile that graced his features whenever he found cause to explain something new to her. “Kaiel?” She asked, trying to mask the desperation for some kind—any kind of mental stimulation.
 
Kaiel gestured up the road, about a mile distant, to where the Passage of Conquerors seemed to disappear. “We’ll be reaching Rivenport around three hours past noon, but you should be able to see the city pretty well by now. Why don’t you go up and have a look?”
 
Reining Gaddigan to a halt, Taylin clamored out of the saddle with a bright smile for Kaiel. “That sounds perfect, thank you!” Nothing she could do would have concealed her eagerness to occupy herself with something other than plodding forward.
 
Brin groaned as she drew up alongside Taylin on Miser and reined the bird up to stop as well. “Three past? We can’t make any better time than that?”
 
“Sorry.” Kaiel shrugged, wheeling his horse about when he realized that Brin and Rai were both taking Taylin’s dismounting as a chance to give their mounts some rest. “Even if we wanted to run flat out, we’re coming up on Riven’s Serpent; the road’s going to be much more narrow and precarious if we’re not careful. People die on the Serpent every year.”
 
To this, Brin rolled her eyes. “I work for the Historical Society and come this way regularly. People only really fall during hard rains and high winds. It’s a calm day and those white clouds don’t suggest rain to me. In fact, we’ve been having good weather the whole way in—except that sudden shower in the pass leading out of Olaarian Valley.”
 
“Safe than sorry.” Kaiel said. “You can run Miser all you want, but I’m not extending the endurance spells I cast on him to help you toward breaking bones on the Serpent’s flanks.”
 
Taylin held in a laugh at the face Brin pulled at Kaiel, then gathered up Gaddigan’s reins to pass him off to Rai. As she did so, she came face to face with the horse and looked him in the one brown eye turned toward her.
 
She hadn’t known a horse could actually glare until that moment. It made her wonder if horses were smarter than she gave them credit for, or if there was something about breeding them for fearlessness that made them so. It seemed to her that any increased intellect Gaddigan possessed was being diverted toward hating her with all the bile his equine heart could muster. That, and to stay his teeth from nipping at her because if he bit her, she was more than capable of feeding him his teeth.
 
The reins were snatched from her hands and she could tell via the link that it was Ru’s doing. They remained floating lazily in the air until the wizard floated up to grasp them. She nodded her thanks to him and he nodded as if she were a stable hand bringing his mount around.
 
Technically; by the nir-lumos rules of engagement, Gaddigan was her horse, but it had been Ru that convinced her to keep rather than sell him. Much like the House, which had been Issacor’s, things just had a way of becoming Ru’s if the owner didn’t protest hard enough.
 
Nothing could have convinced Taylin to protest over Ru commandeering her huge, possibly evil, warhorse. If it had been up to her, she would have the seventy Novish marks he was worth instead.
 
She left Ru to lead the horse and looked to her companions. “I’ll hurry straight back if I spot something unusual.” she promised before lifting off with a leap and a powerful stroke of her wings.
 
The land retreated below her and the road transformed into a river of gray and brown cutting through the green landscape. Minor rivers and small streams became visible through the trees, all flowing inexorably westward. In less than a mile, the shelf of land extending out from the mountains dipped precipitously, leaving a line of cliffs some two hundred feet tall.
 
Where the rivers and streams became falls, the Passage of Conquerors narrowed just as Kaiel said and became a winding way that snaked its way back and forth down the cliff face. Just one look at all its twists and turns told Taylin exactly why that expanse was called Riven’s Serpent.
 
There was one last relief station at the base of the cliff. Beyond it, Taylin saw that the open ground slowly gave way to wetlands as the many tiny water sources coming from the western slopes of the mountains all emptied out on the lush plain around the river delta.
 
Even the swampy earth was no match for the skills of Nov’s ere-a spellcrafters and vitae users, and the Passage of Conquerors continued through the wetlands, intersected by smaller causeways, just wide enough for two horses and made of living wood the same as the walls of Idarian Homestead. Wooden palisades sectioned off vast tracts of farmland both in the wetlands and on the more stable plains to the north.
 
In that same direction, Taylin could see that the river tumbled down a series of falls some five miles upstream from the city. The white foam of the waterfalls clothed the dark rocks that stood like daggers or the teeth of a massive beast. Shrouded in the mist, she could just make out the regular edges of some large, stone structure built beneath the largest waterfall.
 
On the delta itself, and both riverbanks, was Rivenport.
 
The cities she’d sacked as a slave soldier, and even Daire City were nothing compared to the sheer size of it. Stone walls, fifty feet high and wide enough that someone could have easily driven a wagon along them, guarded the shore-bound parts of the city from possible incursions by land; and bridges that rivaled the Passage spanned the river to the largest islands in out in the river.
 
While the buildings on the shore were of the kind she’d become accustomed to in Daire (nothing taller than five floors) structures on the islands reached ten at times, and one multi-spired building soared fifteen floors into the air.
 
Taylin gazed upon the city in awe for long minutes before something caught her attention that made her breath catch in her chest. At first she thought that the forest of tall, thin towers on the south end of the largest river island was just another strange architectural choice. It was only upon closer study that she picked out the airships.
 
The long distance haulers; simply gondolas suspended beneath balloons or cigar-shaped envelopes didn’t bother her. Nor did the ultra-sleek passenger vessels that were shaped like arrowheads instead of ships, and had wings that looked like decorative fans.
 
What gave her pause were those that looked more or less like streamlined ocean-going vessels with bat-like canvas wings, open decks, and sails. Except for small design improvements, they were the same designs the hailene had used for their warships in her time: the same ships that played host to most of the worst moments in her life.
 
She let out a gasp as she realized what she was looking at, and felt the link twist in response.
 
Is something the matter, Miss Taylin? Ru queried.
 
Taylin’s mind’s eye conjured the assembled crew on deck the night she decided she was going to leave those ships behind. The slaves used as shock troops, her peers, were forced to stand closest, along with those slaves who did the cleaning, heavy lifting, and general unskilled labor on the ship. They all watched her as the captain explained that this was going to be an ‘object lesson’; that they had no use for ‘clever ones’ on board.
 
Directly after that, her wings had been sheared from her body.
 
She forcefully shook her head to clear it, then forced herself to stare at the airships. In her time, they had been the most modern warships ever constructed. Now it seemed that more advanced craft than that were antiques—that they were even flying at all was just testament to the craftsmanship that went into them.
 
Most importantly though, her former masters were dead. More than dead, they were consigned to dust and the footnotes of history.
 
I’m fine, Ru. Thank you. She replied belatedly. Not that he cared, she reminded herself. All he was doing was fulfilling obligations the link imposed on him. She must have thought that last part more fervently than she intended, because the link was flooded with indignation.
 
Is it not enough that I have stated that you have my cooperation? Ru asked, his mental voice laced with petulance. You are no use to me at all if you shatter into panic over dead hailene or their engineering legacy.
 
Taylin exhaled forcefully though her nose in disdain. I can feel however I choose to feel, Ru. You don’t have that ‘engineering legacy’ burned into the dark places of your mind. Without her notice, the deep growl of the part of her that reminded Ru of Paive-Endiro joined her rant in Ru’s head. She continued, You talked about my darkness before? Well it was born on those ships.
 
And in her memory of them, it nested and multiplied. Even after Percival’s good conduct with her and her friends, she couldn’t think of hailene without feeling the itch of scales trying to grow on her skin. Something primal in her still saw them as the enemy, and she feared it would take a long time to free herself of that.
 
Seeing an opportunity in her anger, the link started to engage something, but Taylin sensed it in time and clamped down on it with her will before more than a twinge of discomfort came from Ru.
 
Sorry. She dipped a wing and started to circle back toward the group. They were starting down the Serpent. But sometimes you’re just so…There was no other word for it, and as she was speaking telepathically, it simply slotted in place, …unpleasant. Sometimes. You can see how I might have doubted you.
 
Heh.
 
The conversation ended there. Ru filled the link with a smug sense of superiority. They both knew that he’d actually been in the right in that exchange and he took great pains to make sure she knew that he knew it. Taylin imagined that it was probably the first time he’d held the moral high ground in centuries. If ever.
 
She flew long, lazy circles over the group, taking in the sights of Rivenport and its attendant lands until they reached the bottom of the Serpent. There, she landed and remounted Gaddigan so she could talk to the others about what she’d seen from on high.
 
“I saw the farmland and there are people working it… but where do they live?” She asked once she was situated and the group moving again.
 
It was Brin who answered. “Oh, they live in Market Town mostly. That’s the section of the city on the near shore. Wagons come around all the different plots when their shifts change to bring them in; even the ones out here in the Serpent’s shadow.”
 
“They don’t live on their own land?”
 
Kaiel took this one. “None if it is their land, Taylin. It all belongs to the Historical Society of Kinos who in turn run Principality Riven in Nov’s name.” When he got an askance look at that, he went on to explain how that came to be.
 
“Lord Riven controlled most of the southern coast of what we call Novrom near the end of the Age of Tragedies. He allied with pirates, bandits and roving bands of glory seekers to keep control and committed genocide on the dragonsired peoples that called it home.
 
“When Nov I rose to power, Riven knew what was coming and threw his lot in with him. He was the one that came up with the principalities in the first place. But he didn’t appreciate it when Nov gave him a principality only half the size of the territories he controlled before Nov’s unification campaign. He plotted against Nov but before he could enact his plans Nov got word of them.”
 
Kaiel gestured to a distant patch of farmland where Taylin could see what looked like boulders occasionally breaching the water. “Nov publicly fed him to the wild trulls in the river.”
 
Taylin was familiar with trulls from her time on the ships. They were massive terrapins, larger than three horses and highly aggressive. The hailene used their shells as hulls for light airskiffs and emergency craft for their larger warships.
 
They also laid some sixty eggs in a go, each large enough to feed four people for an entire day. Many fellow slaves had died in expeditions to collect said eggs. Unusual for most reptiles, trulls defended their nests with ferocity.
 
“To make sure everyone knew what happened,” said Kaiel, “Nov refused to allow a new Prince to step in and Principality Riven remains a testament to Riven’s foolishness to this day.
 
It continued on like that for an hour: Taylin and eventually Raiteria asked questions that Brin and Kaiel were happy to answer, no matter how minor. Around them, traffic started to increase as smaller roads and farm causeways spilled more riders and carts into the Passage.
 
Most of the mounts they passed were ornises with a few loaded wagons pulled by horses. Ceratos and spiders seemed to be missing altogether.
 
At the same time, more people who passed them than not were half-elves, and more and more humans had dark skin like Issacor’s had been. To Taylin’s dismay, she also spotted more hailene either flying in from the fields or flitting about in the rapidly approaching city.
 
There was a new race mixed into the groups they encountered as well; one Taylin had never seen before, but had heard of at length: miare.
 
She’d heard them described as ‘catfolk’, and indeed, the had fine pelts and heads that resembled a feline’s. That resemblance was only superficial, however. Taylin noticed that unlike a cat, they had broad, pronounced jaws that gave them all a slight under-bite that no cat possessed. Their tails coiled and flexed on the owner’s whim and once or twice, she saw them being used as a clumsier third appendage; something monkeys could do that cats couldn’t. Not only that, but their eyes were all large and round in proportion to their heads, giving them a quizzical, owlish look.
 
Most of them wore some manner of robe or long kilt that covered their legs all the way to the ground, but when Taylin did get a look at them, she found that they walked on their toes, usually barefoot or while wearing an exotic looking sandal.
 
True to what Brin had told her of the miare, every single one offered polite greetings as they passed and those on foot even bowed. For Taylin, who had grown up in a world where everyone tried to appear larger than and dominate one another, it was disconcerting.
 
All the same, she returned all of those greeting as Kaiel did, with a polite incline of the head. Raiteria soon joined in, leaving Brin and Ru in unlikely solidarity as they ignored the greetings.
 
At half past the third hour of the afternoon, they reached the gates of Market Town.
 
There were actually three gates there: a central set through which the Passage of Conquerors passed along with wagons loaded with goods, and then two smaller ones. Stone obelisks flanked the larger gate bearing inscriptions in six different languages that informed visitors to use the side gates under penalty of imprisonment.
 
The words were enforced by three squads of five: two soldiers with rifles, two with iron mauls, and one wizard carrying a staff of forked gretharian wood with a blue-glowing orb between the twin tines.
 
As they rode up to the right hand gate, Kaiel took the time to display his brooch bearing the crest of the Bardic College. “It won’t make the line shorter,” he explained, “but it will serve to make the guards more polite.”
 
Taylin nodded absently as she looked up at the city wall. Even for a woman with wings, it gave her a touch of vertigo. Not only were they high, but where Daire City’s walls looked seamless, she could tell that Rivenport’s wall was actually a single, gigantic slab, probably raised out of the depths of Ere by a cadre of wizards. Atop it were arrayed men and women armed with rifles nearly equal in quality to the one Rai carried, as well as some sort of brass and iron contraptions that looked like larger versions of the forked staves that wizards at the gates carried.
 
She wondered just what kind of force the people of Rivenport were expecting that might require that level of defense.
 
In the middle of her musing, a young half-eleven man came running up to them, dodging carts and pushing aside people on foot. His skin was acorn brown and his ears stuck out from his head in a clear giveaway as to his heritage.
 
“Chronicler Arunsteadeles!” He called, waving. With a few more bounding steps, he stopped before them in a dramatic swirl of his red and gold cape, which was embroidered with the pattern of a dragonfly’s wing. Even having run through a crowd of dusty, grubby farm workers, he’d remained impeccable. Beneath the cape, he were a black silk shirt under a red velvet vest with gold toggles, a pair of loose black pants cut in the local style, and highly polished riding boots.
 
Kaiel reined in his horse at the sound of his name and raised an impressed eyebrow at the flourish. “That would be me, yes. And you are…”
 
“Chronicler Eddic Bairoe.” Said the young man, “I’ve worked with your mother at the university here.”
 
A small but warm smile came to Kaiel’s face. “Ah, so she got my message. How is she?”
 
Bairoe shook his head. “Your mother didn’t send me, Chronicler. The College affiliate here did… at the request of Librarian Yolinderan.”
 
That made Kaiel come up short. He spoke carefully as if entering a verbal minefield. “The senior librarian of the Historical Society’s central library? What would he want with me?”
 
“Not for me to say, Chronicler. I’m to bring you to him directly. No stops, not even to stable your mounts.”
 
Ru glared at Kaiel. “What did you do, Arunsteadeles?”
 
“Nothing.” Kaiel said. “I sent a request ahead of us to the Historical Society for maps to Nhan Raduul and any information they might have on the Soul Battery. We need to know what that is before we do anything else. Otherwise, we’ll arrive empty-handed.”
 
Bairoe coughed politely. “Librarian Yolinderan has personally taken over all research regarding your request.”
 
“Of course.” Brin groaned. “It would have to be dangerous to justify all this rigamarole.”
 
The other chronicler only nodded and reached into his vest to extract a plaque in red and purple with a black, swirling symbol painted on it. “If you’ll follow me then.” He didn’t wait for an answer before turning and starting toward the larger gate, presenting the plaque to the guards.
 
***
As the companions followed Bairoe into Market Town, their progress was followed by a man sitting in an alley between a tavern and a feed store. Most people avoided him, thinking him a beggar. If they looked closer, they would have seen his well-muscled physique and the healthy cast of his skin.
 
None of that could betray his true nature. He had been created with that in mind.
 
Zect tipped his wide, straw hat up a bit to watch the Rune Breaker and those with him pass. For just a moment, he caught Ru’s eye. He raised his gourd in greeting, then lowered the brim of his hat as the dark mage glared. From the way his master flinched, she’d felt the spike in his anger.
 
“Be as angry as you want, Ru.” Zect said, uncorking the gourd and inhaling the scent of lamp oil from within. “Whatever Immurai has planned, he intended only you and your master to get this far. The spirit beasts and bandits would have seen to that.”
 
The renegade demon raised the gourd to Ru’s retreating back and took a drink.
 
A moment later, an old man glanced down the alley, face sour with disapproval for what he saw as a vagrant getting drunk in his own filth. Zect smirked, then belched a tiny fireball into the air for his benefit.
Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 40 – A Strong SoulRune Breaker: Chapter 42 – The Soul Battery >>

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