- 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
After that, the subject of Ru and by extension, Taylin, became closed. Kaiel went into his wagon to scrounge the evening’s repast while Taylin tried to make herself comfortable by the fire.
It was spring now, whereas it had been the height of summer when she entered the fated cave, and early enough in the season that when the sun was finally gone, a chill crept over the world. Taylin moved as close to the fire as she could without igniting her clothes. Burning herself wasn’t a concern; she had yet to meet a fire hot enough to do that.
After a time, Kaiel returned with a cast iron camp oven filled with water an iron pry bar, and a tin box of trail rations. His rifle was left behind inside. He sat down facing her with enough space to set the arm load of items between them.
“The good news,” He proclaimed as greeting, “Is that I thought to buy fresh rations when we were at the Dragonpier; dried fruits, some road-friendly vegetables, travel crackers, cured venison, and of course, potatoes.” He pointed to each item in turn. “The bad news is, I’m also got plenty of Allbuk’s.”
At this, he picked up one of a great many paper envelopes. On the front was a faint imprinted image of a fork and knife in a circle, overlaid with a strange, angular symbol. Taylin had never seen dwarven runes before, so she could only guess at its meaning. Beneath the imprint were serious block letters in imperial trade language: ‘Allbuk’s #3 Instant, Nourishing Porridge – Beef Flavor’.
The other envelopes were similar, mostly porridge in flavors such as Game Fowl, Bear, and Butter. A few others proclaimed themselves to be ‘Allbuk’s #12 Instant Creamed Corn’ and Allbuk’s #5 Instant Potatoes – Butter Added’.
None of that made sense to Taylin; those foods were moist and voluminous. They couldn’t be stored in tiny envelopes. She voiced this point after careful study of the packets.
Kaiel laughed politely. “I thought the Allbuk was world famous by now. I guess not.” Taylin shook her head that where she was concerned, no he was not. “Ah. Well you see, Allbuk is an alchemist and he’s discovered a way to separate water from food well past what we can do with normal drying. It renders down into…” He tore open the corner of an envelope of #3 so she could see the greyish powder within, “Powder.”
Taylin blanched. She’d been brought up on ship crackers and whatever rations or stores she could scavenge from enemies, but even the masters hadn’t forced her and her brothers and sisters to eat dust.
This drew another laugh from Kaiel. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to eat it like this. When you boil it in water, it comes back to itself… more or less.”
“More or less?” She asked, untrusting of this bizarre foodstuff.
“It really depends on how much you’re willing to pay. #3 is cheap and it’s basically grain flavored paste with dry beef broth for flavor. #10, the beef and potatoes with gravy is actually pretty amazing.”
“You don’t have any that say #10.” she pointed out.
He looked mildly cowed. “I wasn’t willing to pay. Besides, with a bit of care, herbs and some vegetables, even #3 can be a very nice meal.” To demonstrate, he took the top off the travel oven, produced a small knife from the ration box, and began cutting carrots and onions into it.
Before long, the pot was filled and the water a murky gray from two envelopes of Allbuk’s #3. Kaiel placed the lid on firmly and used the pry-bar to place the oven directly into the fire.
“Not the potatoes?” Taylin eyed the tubers longingly. Potatoes were a rare meal in her life; always plentiful in enemy supply lines, but eating them raw made her sick and the masters didn’t let their enslaved soldiers to cook for themselves. The only source of edible ones for her, therefore, was when a few managed to get cooked in the course of battle.
“Ah, we could have.” Kaiel agreed, “But if we just place them in a wet cloth like this…” Before adding the gruel to the pot, he had soaked a handkerchief in the water. Now, he placed three potatoes into the middle of it and wrapped them carefully. Once that was done, he laid the whole thing carefully atop the oven on the fire. “We’ll be able to eat them before the stew is done.”
This trick instantly found a place in Taylin’s memory. Now that she was free, she could have all the potatoes she wanted and now she also knew how to cook them. Such a simple step forward bought a smile to her face. “Thank you. Again.” She said after a short silence.
He waved the additional gratitude away. “Nothing of it, Taylin. You needed help, so I helped. Just like the Winter Willow is doing for this town. Just like you’re doing for them. It’s all a perfect working example of the third philosophy that I’m proud to take part in.”
She gave him a curious look there.
“Oh. I supposed Ru would have relayed that.” He said, embarrassed. “The long and short of it is, the idea of helping those in need directly; without cats-paws or go-betweens, is a new thing in some circles. They would rather build up a hero than become one. They say we’re just story spinners and…” He sighed, recalling Ru’s favored insult for him, “charlatans, whose purpose is to tell the stories, not be part of them.”
He shifted a bit and reached into his coat pocket, producing a silver half-flute. “People like me, or some of the loremen I idolize, have made it their goal to prove that the direct way, the third philosophy, is just as valid as any other.”
Taylin picked up on the implications of the entire speech and blushed. It was an unfamiliar feeling to have her face heat up that way. “It’s very nice to say, but I’m no hero. I’ve just seen this sort of thing the bandits do too often. Someone has to stop it.”
Kaiel looked her in the eye, his expression more gravely serious than ever. “Then why not wait for a real hero to come along for these people? Maybe a prince of Novrom will com along, or someone from a penny novel. One of them could easily sweep in and deal with one little bandit camp, yes?”
His examples made no sense at all to her, but she wasn’t about to let on that they didn’t. She already appeared ignorant of more than enough things to make him suspicious and anyway, his question had an obvious answer.
“None of them are around right now. There’ no time.”
“Precisely.” Kaiel dropped his gaze and fiddled with the flute’s keys. “And I would imagine that’s the moment each of those folks became more than mere mortals. No mistake; you won’t star in a dime novel for what you’ll do for these people, even if I write one, a simple raid wouldn’t sell. But because you came and because you stood; even if no one ever knows what happened here, for that moment, I believe all of us will be heroes.”
Taylin looked at him wide-eyed for a moment. His conviction was iron clad on the subject and just hearing how he said it made some part of her sure of it too. It was a heady feeling.
Then he chuckled and broke the spell. “Except for Ru.”
She couldn’t help laughing at this too.
While looking congealed and a foreboding shade of beige, the stew was enjoyable, if still not the most delicious thing even the ex-slave had eaten.
The conversation had gone well. Through it, Taylin had tried her hand at subtly leading the conversation into areas that provided her with precious information about the course the world had taken while she slept. She was sure Kaiel suspected as much, but the chronicler hadn’t made an issue of it, instead supplying her with exactly what she was looking for.
Surprisingly, the end of the War hadn’t heralded a golden age. Without the unifying threat of the Hailene Allied Army, the Vishnari Empire fell into a cycle of civil wars that saw atrocities one the same level as their former enemies. That was the Age of Tragedies and it had only ended within living memory with a peace known as the Thirteen Nations Accords.
In addition to Taunaun, where they were at the moment, she learned of the fractious nation of Novrom and its many principalities all vying to be kingdoms, the rough and tumble country called Callen where tribal warlords ruled by rite of strength, and finally Chordin, a frozen land wrapped around the glimmering jewel of a city called Harpsfell, home to the Bardic College.
Kaiel was a Novromi, transplanted to Harpsfell and aspiring to become a citizen of this still fresh, new world. Taylin felt it explained a lot about him.
After dinner, she lay back on her elbows and digested the wealth of information. There was a lot of world out there and she burned with a curiosity to see the whole of it. Idly, she wondered if only loremen or perspective loremen could take walkabouts.
While she mused, Kaiel turned to face the fire and brought the flute to his lips, playing with one hand while the other held the clay cup of weak wine he’d brought out to accompany dinner.
A few minutes later, Taylin was startled out of her considerations by the appearance of a ball of scintillating light above the campfire. The mysterious orb pulsed like a heartbeat, shimmering and blending from one color to the next in a beautiful display. It took her a moment to realize that the color changes were perfectly in time with the flute music.
She looked over to see Kaiel, eyes closed and wearing a dreamlike expression as he continued to play. Already regretting the interruption, she was nonetheless ceased by her curiosity.
“What are you doing?” She asked in a hushed tone.
Kaiel ceased playing, but the orb persisted on its own volition for several second thereafter before fading gracefully from the night air. He smiled with a slightly sly pride. “I was just practicing the College’s brand of magic. I suspect I’ll need it tomorrow.”
“It’s nice to see that Ru was wrong. No charlatan could make something so beautiful.”
This drew a sigh from him. “As much as it pains me to say, Ru doesn’t realize, but he’s not wrong, not technically anyway. You see, the powers we use—“
“Keese Kaiel.” He was interrupted by a deep, clipped voice. Both turned to see the owner step into the fire light.
He was a halfling, aged in much the same way as Grandmother, but unlike any of the other male halflings Taylin had seen since entering the village. They wore their hair long with a handful of small plaits spaced throughout and kept their faces clean shaven. This one was just the opposite; his hair was cut short, especially in the front, foregoing the bangs the others cultivated. He also sported a tightly controlled beard that, due to his age, was nearly blonde.
In his arms, he carried a cloth wrapped bundle that looked too large for him, and on his back was strapped an implement almost as tall as he was and as round as a wagon wheel. As he came further into the light, Taylin made out tick spokes beneath the dark covering stretched over it. It was a wagon wheel.
Kaiel turned swiftly and bowed his head deeply. “Grandfather. I hope this night finds you hail and joyous.”
The elderly halfling half smiled. “I am hail, but tomorrow will bring death. I will be joyous when we turn away this threat and those who fall for the right cause sleep in cool shade.” He turned his attention to Taylin. “And in this battle, I’m told we are not alone. Taylin, yes?”
“Yes sir.” She said, unsure how to address him.
He scrutinized her a moment before proffering the bundle. “The villagers have little to wear that will fit you. The best they could do was a good, heavy dressing gown and winter robe. It’s hardly something you’ll want to fight in, but it should do for the night.”
Taylin unwrapped the bundle to find the aforementioned items, plus what looked to be a solid slab of leather. She looked at him questioningly, earning a mildly embarrassed sigh for her troubles.
“There is also little in the way of armor here that can be adjusted for you before tomorrow. I managed to procure the smith’s leather apron.” He shrugged off the wagon wheel from his back and rolled it up beside hm. It was covered in layered bands of stretched hide and sported leather straps that looked suspiciously like bridles on the back. “One of our tinkers also put this together. It won’t stop sword thrusts, but it should foul arrows.”
He grimaced. “It isn’t much, I know. Neither Grandmother, nor I would fault you if you chose to leave rather than fight tomorrow.”
Taylin looked down at the ‘offerings’. This was the best these people could offer because it was the best they had. Much like her, they had barely anything material to their name. Unlike her, they have families and friends and loves who they needed to know were protected. How could she put her own life ahead of theirs when their deaths would hurt some many more than themselves while the only mourning at her demise would be Ru over his lost sliver of freedom?
“I didn’t ask for anything. You didn’t have to…” She said in a small voice, still looking at the relatively fresh, clean clothes. Hers were stiff with dry blood and torn all over. “I was going to help regardless.” She looked up at Grandfather and met his eyes, which showed none of his age. “But thank you.”
Grandfather nodded with a ghost of a smile. “You are welcome. Now if you will excuse us…” He gestured to Kaiel. “Keese Kaiel, the scouts will return soon. We would like your input for the battle plan.”
Kaiel nodded smartly and got to his feet. “Of course, Grandfather.” To Taylin, he said, “I’ll probably be gone for the night. If you need anything, you’re welcome to anything in my wagon not in a satchel or under lock and key.”
“Thank you, but I was probably going to try and sleep anyway.” Taylin said to them. Grandfather was already off, forcing Kaiel to hurry after him.
Once they were gone, Taylin took stock of what she had now: A broken sword, a wagon wheel pretending to be a shield, a leather apron (which all told, was about as good as the boiled hide armor hailene slave soldiers were given), and a new set of clothes. Knowing it always paid to be resourceful, she also counted the clay cups she and Kaiel had been drinking from.
She didn’t know why she took stock, exactly, but it felt natural to her and anyway, it was a good habit to get into now that there was not quartermaster to issue her what she was allowed from mooring to mooring. First thing was first, she shucked off her ruined clothes and put on the gown and coat. They were both made of stiff, itchy wool, but they were warm and that mattered most. Warmth had been a luxury for so long.
Afterward, she sat back down b the fire; actually sat, because she was allowed, and contemplated her old clothes. An entire lifetime of experience told her not to waste them. The worst part of the blood could be washed out. As for the holes and slashes; on the ships, there were always the valets, also slaves, but the runts of the warrior litters. A friendly valet would sew up a tear and save a clumsy soldier from the quartermaster’s wrath.
There was not valet around and she had no idea how to sew, but even destroyed clothing made softer, more comfortable bedding than straw…
She didn’t know how long he’d been there, but she was suddenly aware of Ru’s presence by the fire, just a few feet to her right. He appeared without greeting and the whole of his focus was on three fat, still gasping fish. He was carrying by a cord passed through their gills.