- 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
Now the nod was agreement. “This I do not doubt.” Suddenly, she looked bored with the entire thing, pretending to catch the two old men watching the exchange. “I say good men, did I, whose people risk their lives tomorrow in your defense, not make a quite reasonable request?”
The two shifted uncomfortably and the one who had spoken before led the other off in slowly rising and shuffling away from the fire, presumably in search of blankets and clothes for someone a head taller than either of them.
Without watching them go, Grandmother then made a dismissive gesture to Kaiel, Taylin, and Ru. “You all may go as well. I still have much work to do before I take my evening meal.”
“Might I begin the work on incorporating the fire conjuring and resultant triggers?” Ru asked, clearly eager. It was surprising for Taylin; feeling Ru’s interest and excitement at the prospect of such work.
“Aye, do as you will. No sense in dawdling.” Grandmother said, bending over her task.
Used to Grandmother’s dismissals, Kaiel turned and waited for Taylin to do the same. “Follow me. Instead of sleeping out in the open, you can use the wagon the clan lets me use. I like to sleep on the roof most nights anyway.”
“No…” said Taylin, distracted. Even though she’d managed to marshal control of herself outwardly, her mind was still wired with thoughts of what had happened and what was coming. Ru wasn’t helping with his unabashed enjoyment of his spellwork. Every part of her felt alight with energy, as if another fully powered healing spell were being cast on her over time.
She blinked, remembering what Kaiel was saying. “Sorry. I meant that I wouldn’t want to put you out. Plus, I prefer sleeping next to a fire anyway. I get cold easily.”
The chronicler nodded amiably and they walked in silence until they found themselves in the barren expanse between where the village stopped and the line of wagons began. Some of the halflings were already gathering around fires there.
Kaiel led her to an as yet unlit fire pit not far from a red and green painted wagon that was decorated with fern patterns up near the roof. His horse had been left hitched to the dash board with a ration of hay and a folding trough made of oiled cloth and filled with water.
“Welcome to my home of the past few days.” He said with a small laugh. “If you wouldn’t mind getting the fire started, I’ll see what I can do about dinner. If you’re sick of Allbuk’s, I’m sure someone did some fishing today.”
She had no idea what Allbuk’s was, but food was food to her. She’d never been given the opportunity to develop a finicky palate. “Thank you.” She said lamely and turned toward the fire pit. It was already piled with dry reeds and chunks of rotted timbers. It was probably Rolfas’s work, as Kaiel’s horse hadn’t tied itself up there.
With an embarrassed cough, she added. “Do you have a flint?”
Kaiel looked a bit surprised, but after a quick inventory of his pockets, handed her his flint and steel. It was as pristine and unused as the day he had bought it. “I didn’t expect you not to have one; being a traveler and all.” There was an unspoken question in his tone and he made no efforts to hide it.
“Ru knows magic.” It wasn’t an answer to his question, but it was the truth.
At this, Kaiel pursed his lips. She was clearly evading, but he didn’t want to corner her if he didn’t have to. “Yes. Yes he does. Forgive me for saying, but he doesn’t strike me as someone you should trust with something as vital to your survival as fire.”
“I know that.” It just came right out before she could stop it. There were so many thoughts and emotions clashing in her head, it was only just a matter of time before some of the negative ones emerged. Still, she dropped her volume before repeating it. “I know that. But… neither of us has a choice in the matter right now.”
Her common sense told her to stop there, but regardless of all the great things that had happened to her in the relative day since she woke up as a slave on a warship, she also found herself bound to a sadistic monster, forced to feel his delight in destruction and constantly reminded that she now held the same power over him that she hated all her life. Once a flaw appeared in the dam, there was nothing to keep it from growing.
But even with that,s he didn’t even know how to explain it; how to make the chronicler or anyone else believe her. The entire story would sound like madness.
“From what I overheard, you already know that a vastly powerful spell binds us together.”
Both of them jumped at the intruding voice. It didn’t take them long to spy Ru standing in front of the wagon. The villagers had furnished him with the scythe he requested, which he now held by the shaft above the handles so that the reaping blade curved so as to just miss shearing his topmost hairs. In the dying light, he and his yellow eyes looked all the more intimidating.
Satisfaction at startling them redoubled when he saw the expression on Taylin’s face at sensing it.
“If Ms. Taylin permits, I can explain.”
She glowered at his phrasing and replied automatically. “It isn’t only my secret to tell, Ru. If you feel like talking about it, I won’t stop you.”
“Hmm.” Ru said. The satisfaction was eroded away by his old standbys, confusion and a mild frustration. “I will tell him what needs to be known then. And only concerning the link.” He made it clear, mentally, that her own past was not his responsibility and that he would resent it if she insisted. She didn’t.
That settled, entirely without Kaiel’s knowledge, Ru leaned back against the wagon. “Very well. For your own knowledge, charlatan, I am afflicted with a complex working; a curse the binds me. I am only allowed freedom if another willingly accepts a bargain that binds me to them via a command spell-array I refer to as ‘the link’.”
He felt Taylin’s discomfort at the mention of it, knowing what came next in the explanation. It confused and vexed him to no end that she refused to simply follow the normal course for every master previous. Orders, he understood. Demands, wishes, strongly worded requests; all of those were right and proper and made sense. Being asked nicely and give choices didn’t.
Yes, he followed orders with as much willfulness and belligerence as the link allowed. Indeed, he had a history of wheedling and manipulating in order to gain some sliver of freedom and pursuit of his own goals. But the uphill battles, the constant challenges were what made sense. Taylin left him effectively unopposed and that made him wary. She’d outsmarted him once already; it was entirely possible that she knew the Rune Breaker’s history and her actions were an act to keep it from repeating itself.
If that was true, it was the first thing in thousands of years to actually frighten him. Because even assuming this, he was starting to doubt his properly high paranoia.
He chalked up this internal debate as the cause of the moment of weakness that followed.
“The link is more than a telepathic bond. It allows us to sense each other’s location and emotional disposition… unless one suppresses it. But most importantly, it acts as a restraint; binding me into loyalty toward the holder of the other end. I cannot allow her to come to harm, and if I stray too far, my imprisonment will be reinstated. That is how she can be assured my loyalty.”
Moving only his eyes, he concentrated on the fire pit. It was a simple bit of magic that didn’t strictly require a diagram or structure to create; any bit of power could create a flame. But as he’d so recently been contemplating conditional fire conjurations, force of habit took over and he imagined the simple diagram for a fire the size of the pit and forced a bit of his personal power into that framework.
With a whuff of ignition, the fire simply appeared atop the prepared kindling and began to blaze merrily.
Ru sneered at Kaiel’s expression. “And also for your own knowledge; your instincts are correct not to trust me. I am more dangerous than you can possibly comprehend. A monster of nightmare.” The sneer faded and he looked to Taylin, his expression the definition of neutrality. “But as long as she lives and throws her lot in with you and the Clan of the Winter Willow, I am a monster that is, for the moment, on your side.”
He sidestepped Kaiel and took a few steps as if to walk back to the village. “And now, I shall return to my work, which in the near future your life will depend on.” The baring of teeth Taylin saw as he started to walk past her couldn’t have been called a smile and she was thankful that it was meant for Kaiel instead of her.
It was the first time Taylin had seen him teleport directly before. In the span of less than a second, he seemed to become a living shadow, save for a last luminescence of his eyes, and then vanished completely. But before he did, he tossed one more barb in the chronicler’s direction. “Rest easy, charlatan.”