- 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
The sun had just started to set when they finally reached the village. Kaiel’s description had been, if anything, too generous.
Built on the banks of the river, the place was little more than a U shaped cluster of reed-roofed cottages, built from bricks of fired mud. The closed end of the ‘U’ faced away from the river and was made up of larger, better built structures; likely a communal barn and storehouse. In the very center of the wide arc of huts, was a large communal garden, only recently sown at that time of year.
There was no wall, or fence, as evidently the region was of little interest to even marauding monsters normally. But what the villagers lacked, the Clan of the Winter Willow had provided, after a fashion.
Wagons; more than two dozen, hard topped caravan wagons encircled the tiny town like wooden sentinels. As they drew closer, Taylin could see wolves dozing beneath a few, occasionally in full harness and attended by a sharp eyes halfling with a crossbow.
The nearest stood, alongside his wolf companion, to challenge them as they approached. Bromun calmed his wariness with a few words in their tongue. As they passed, the guard watched them with dark, silent eyes, clearly taking their measure should Bromun’s faith be misplaced. To his credit, he didn’t even take a second look when Ru floated past, silent as grim as usual.
As they passed through the perimeter of wagons, Taylin’s foot nearly turned on something. She glanced down to see a twisted rope of hemp, partly disguised by the dust. There were two others just like it, also partially concealed. All of them were tied off to the hitches of adjacent wagons.
This struck Taylin as odd, but before she could inquire after them, a gleeful shriek came from up ahead. She looked up to see two halfling children, a boy and a smaller girl, running flat out for all there were worth toward their group.
The boy ran straight to Bromun, who caught him in an exuberant hug. The girl, chattering in the language of the people, dashed over to Kaiel and held up her arms in the universal gesture of a child who wants to be picked up.
Kaiel did not disappoint. He passed the reins of his horse to Rolfas and, making sure his rifle wasn’t in the way, he scooped the child up in a gale of happy laughter and childish babble. He laughed a bit and spoke back to her in her own tongue before directing her attention to Taylin.
“This is my friend, Taylin.” He explained slowly and in words Taylin could understand. “She only knows imperial trade, so you’re going to have to use that to talk to her, okay?” The little girl nodded enthusiastically. “That’s a good girl. Now say ‘hello’.”
Shining brown eyes looked up at the former slave and a tiny hand came up to wave. “You’re tall.” She said with a voice filled with wonder.
Both Taylin and Kaiel laughed at this, but Kaiel was quick to correct her. “Silly girl. That’s not how you say hello to new people. How did Grandmother teach you?”
The little girl looked sheepish for a moment, then composed herself until she had her face done up in a comically serious mask. “Hello.” She said with the stiltedness only a reciting child can manage. “My name is Raleian matei-Bromun.”
Kaiel grinned proudly. “That’s a good girl.” To Taylin, he added. “Bromun’s daughter. That’s his son with him, Motseitiel matei-Raiteria. Everyone calls him Motsey though.” He bounced the little girl in his arms once more time before setting her down. “Raleian, go to your daddy now, sweetheart. Taylin and I need to speak with Grandmother.”
Raleian giggled happily and ran over to her father and brother, making more happy little shrieking sounds along the way.
“She’s darling.” Taylin said.
“Aye. But just a warning, no matter how much any of the kids begs, and they will, do not pick them up unless it’s life or death, Grandmother or Grandfather has expressly said that it’s okay, or their parent does. Halflings do not take well to non-family handling their children. You would die. Screaming.”
With that, he started toward the center of the village, where, in addition to the garden, there were two wagons parked. Unlike the brightly colored, dust covered things surrounding the place, these two were painted white, though one had a fairly involved likeness of creeping vines on its sides.
The space between the two was given over to a campfire, ringed with large, flat river stones the villagers probably used for all their sitting needs. Two elderly men were siting by it now, to one side of a halfling woman who was diligently scratching something around the mouth of a clay urn half as tall as she was.
Taylin knew only a little about halflings, and was now sure that she knew absolutely nothing about their culture, but if the halfling woman were human, she would look to be in her forties. But halflings she had seen in the masters’ captivity and known to be more than six decades old, still looked a human twenty, meaning this woman was very old indeed.
As a backdrop of the entire scene, the human villagers were coming and going with urgency, filling several large tubs made of hammered tin with buckets of river water. Old men and old halfling alike ignored them. They ignored one another too, for the most part; the elderly men holding themselves silent while shooting one another worried looks.
Kaiel hailed the halfling woman in the halfling language and came to stand before her, head deeply and respectfully bowed. Unsure of what to do, Taylin did as he did. Ru on the other hand, floated past to study the tubs, a feeling of interest and professional approval in the link.
After a few minutes of back and forth between herself and Kaiel, the halfling woman lifted her eyes to Taylin. Her eyes were kind and in the firelight, it could bee seen that her hair lightened from the normal halfling black at the root, becoming a soft, medium brown. Her fingers never stopped working on her etching.
“I am told that chroniclers are excellent judges of character.” She said. “And Keese Kaiel believes that you are genuine in your desire to help us help the people here.”
Taylin failed to meet her gaze and ducked her head in the affirmative. “Yes. I want to help. I’ve seen this happen too often and just once, I want to stop it.”
The click-click-scratch of the slim metal rod the halfling was using on the vase slowed a tin bit. “He refused to vouch as highly for your companion.” Kaiel shifted uncomfortably and looked at Taylin sidelong.
She bit her lip. “The honest truth is, I cannot either. But if you turn him away, you’ll have to turn me away as well.”
“Oh?” The word blended to perfection curiosity, suspicion and mild surprise.
“It’s complicated. Ru and I are strangers, but there is a spell binding us together. I myself don’t understand the full extent of it, not being gifted for magic, but it will do something to him if we’re separated.”
The halfling looked to Kaiel for confirmation.
“Apologies, Grandmother, but I didn’t know as much. Only that they can converse without speaking; be that telepathy or something else, I hadn’t had time to analyze it yet.” He gave Taylin a guilty look, making her know where his loyalties currently lay. “They’re hiding other things as well. Nothing dangerous to us, in Taylin’s case, I’m certain.”
Not the etching stopped. Grandmother sat the urn aside and laid the rod in her lap. The kindness drained form her eyes, leaving only steely seriousness. She pointed to the dusty ground in front of her. “Sit.” She ordered.
She’d said or done something wrong, Taylin knew. Even not knowing exactly what it was, she felt terrible about it. So she dropped slowly into the posture she normally took when allowed to sit; crouched on the balls of her feet, elbows on knees.
“All the way.” Grandmother said firmly. Almost without her own consent, Taylin complied. The halfling woman fixed her with an appraising look and clasped her hands in her lap in front of her.
“Now. You have come to me asking that I trust my family to your hands. Every one of the nir-lumos; who you would call ‘halflings’, you see here is my child in spirit before the Green Maiden and the One Dice Rolling. They are precious to me in ways that your most precious possession will never be to you. And that is why I will brook no secrets from you.”
She leaned forward, making it clear that in no uncertain terms that between them, size was no object. “I respect that some things cannot be said, but now you must look me directly in the eye and answer truthfully: is what you conceal a danger to my family?”
Taylin considered this seriously. She hadn’t considered it and wanted now to be sure that she wasn’t endangering anyone.
Her origins were simple enough; everyone that would know to come after her was dead. The question of her true nature was a bit more murky. Never had she attacked anyone who wasn’t clearly identified as an enemy, even as far gone as she’d ever been. The real question was Ru.
There were no illusions that Ru enjoyed violence and destruction; that he was cruel and manipulative. But at the same time, he wasn’t a rampaging, indiscriminate monster. He knew how to choose his battles and after the initial confrontation, seemed to accept that Kaiel and Bromun were off limits for his aggression.
Something deep inside, a voice she refused to accept as a part of her, added that he was also fully restricted by the link. A single word, or thought from her and he would be forced to obey. She fought back that voice, wrapped it in chains of will and resolved not to even consider that.
But it was true. Could she honestly say that she wouldn’t use the link’s control of Ru to protect others like Bromun’s children?
Very slowly, she raised her eyes to Grandmother’s. The elder halfling’s hair wasn’t the only thing lightening with age. Her eyes, once likely the same near-black brown that the other halflings showed, were hazel. “Yes, Grandmother. My secrets are not a threat to those you care about.”
Grandmother looked up at Kaiel, who nodded almost imperceptibly. Suddenly the kindness and warmth returned to her all in a rush. One small, work-calloused hand reached out and touched Taylin’s forehead. “Then I welcome your help, Taylin. And if you protect my family well, I promise to share with you Sylph’s gift and make you whole once more.”
It had been a single day by Taylin’s reckoning; one during which her entire world had been swept away in a storm of welcome chaos. She had gone from the broken agony of punishment to lung burning weariness in her desperate fight to escape, to the euphoria of a powerful healing spell and the desperation of suffocating in stale air. Even the giddiness following her discovery of where and when she was couldn’t top what she was feeling now.
Suddenly, it was finally all too much for even she who was born to withstand the harshest treatment and condition. She fell forward on her arms before Grandmother and was wracked with incapacitating sobs of joy.
The cascade of positive emotions was so great that it startled Ru out of his own explorations. Without preamble or warning, he appeared, hovering over her, with
Kaiel jumped at his arrival, but Grandmother was not.
“Ah, the companion. I wished to meet you as well.”
Ru glided sideways so that he wasn’t directly over Taylin. Both he and the link weren’t entirely sure what to make of what he was seeing. Crying usually implied the harm had been done, but the mistress was very clearly ecstatic about whatever was making her cry.
The link split the difference by only punishing him lightly with a sharp, pulsing pain between the eyes, which he patiently ignored. He raised his chin when Grandmother addressed him.
“That is mutual.” He gestured to the tubs and then the urn. “Assuming that you performed the spellwork here yourself.”
“Aye.” She said, a small prideful smirk upon her lips. “For the battle tomorrow. I intend to give us the best possible advantages.”
“Your structures are exceptional.” He said. “Connecting all five vessels to the urn simultaneously with that number of variant trigger gestures and effects. My only criticism is that you neglect the value of fire conjuring in your evaporation array. Using solely water and wind control makes it slow; you will not be able to react.”
By now, Taylin had collected herself and was looking up at him, trying to figure out what in the world he was talking about.
Grandmother gave this some thought as she pulled the urn back onto her lap, starting her etching again. “I see what you mean. Alas, Sylph does not favor flame in her blessings. Nothing I can conjure could heat that much water.”
Ru’s oddly colored eyes were alight with the spark of inspiration. “Then with your leave, I should like to integrate my own into your structure.”
“I thought you didn’t want to help.” Taylin said, forgetting to relay that mentally.
“Yes, Ms. Taylin.” He replied. “But this was before I saw these workings. A people capable of this is a people work risking blood to protect.”
Kaiel folded his arms, disapproving. “But if Grandmother wasn’t an expert spellcrafter…”
“I still would have fought.” Ru said. “But only because Ms. Taylin was foolishly intervening and I cannot allow her to come to harm which I can prevent. Now I feel that I shall put some effort into this.” He looked back to the halfling woman. “Do I have your permission to act?”
“By all means.” she replied and turned her attention to the old men, who had watched the entire conversation in silence. “Good men; I trust that you’ve heard now that there are two more come here to see that your homes do not burn. I ask that they receive the hospitality you’ve shown to the Winter Willow.”
The man closest to them, tall and broad shouldered with skin like leather and hair like so many wool threads, grunted his ascent. “Right ya are, missus. By ash and flame, we owe all ya more than we can pay.” He looked to Taylin and Ru. “What is it ya need, we’ll see if we can provide.”
“Oh, we don’t need anything.” Taylin said automatically, but Grandmother was already talking over her.
“You can save your food, good men. Our wagons can provide for them, but neither we, nor you have space to spare for sleep, so they will need good, thick blankets and the young woman needs clothes.” She eyed the pair again before saying, “And judging by her sword, it wouldn’t go amiss if you saw if to scrounge together whatever armor you can, or a proper sword.”
“A sturdy scythe would also be welcome.” Ru added in a low voice the rumbled just across the register into something unsettling.
Grandmother turned back to him with a vaguely interested look. “You know, Keese Kaiel has refused to put his word in your favor with me.”
“I wouldn’t expect less from a charlatan.” Ru said evenly. “But he is right, given what he knows and does not know. But as you have heard, my attitude on this endeavor has changed.”
She cocked her head and gave a half nod, but it was no indication of agreement. “I also heard that before you were so impressed with my workings, you were fully prepared to give your bare minimum while those I love die.”
Ru’s face split in a less than stable looking grin and Taylin could sense both irony and an echo of his earlier blood-lust She braced to try and stop him if he did anything untoward. “No one ever said I would give my bare minimum. I’m told that a mounted century is bearing down on this place with an eye to burning it to the ground. When they come, I will kill them. And I never do my bare minimum when it comes to destruction.”