Rune Breaker: Chapter 7 – Battlelines

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series A Girl and Her Monster (Rune Breaker, #1)

The superstitious, particularly those with no talent in magic of their own, often had dire warnings about its use. This as especially true for the abilities they coveted most. Chief among them was transmutation. Borrowing the shape of another, they hypothesized, always carried the threat of that shape dictating the shape of one’s mind. Above all, they feared the loss of self.

As far as Ru was aware, there never was a danger of that for even the most bumbling shapeshifter. In fact, crafting a spell to make it happen on purpose was almost more trouble than it was worth.

True, in taking on another form, it was a common shortcut to overlay the intended creature’s instincts. Plain and simple, it was easier to borrow the ability to run on four legs or breath fire than to learn how the natural way. But the shapeshifter’s mind was always in control as long as they were conscious.

Later, Ru would cite that last part and stupid cat instincts.

He woke up sprawled on his belly. Someone was scratching his head and blazes did it feel good. A purr rumbled out from him and he rolled his head beneath the stroking hand to get the maximum effect. And as good as that felt, the cat told him there was something even better. Languidly, he rolled over and with a drawling yowl, demanded belly rubs.

The hand complied. So very good. The cat was right. Wait, now a bit two close to the throat. The cat would have none of that and Ru agreed. The purr became a rough growl and he cracked open an eye to shoot a glare at Taylin for the…

Not Taylin.

Arunsteadeles. The charlatan.

The growl became a hiss that steadily became less feline and more primeval. He threw himself away from the surprised chronicler’s hand and transformed. The scythe appeared in his hands, raised in a fashion that informed the other man that he was but a wheat stalk.

In the same moment, Kaiel had gone from sitting by the fire, now merely banked embers, to crabbing backward from the murderous shapeshifter. It was quite clear that he wasn’t expecting the dozing tom under his hand to transform into a scythe wielding madman.

“You!” The both accused at the same time.

“Why were…” For once, the eloquence of loreman tradition failed Kaiel. “A cat…What?!”

Ru scowled at him, and lowered his weapon by inches. “As I informed Miss Taylin; a cat can get comfortable anywhere. I didn’t expect to be accosted in my sleep, however. Who goes around petting strange cats.”

Kaiel sputtered. “People! That and mousing are what cats are for!”

Before he would retort, Ru became aware of amusement in the link. She was trying to mask her mirth, but didn’t know how. It was actually fairly interesting to him that she was doing as well as she was, having no magical knowledge and no understanding of the link. By the same mechanism, he knew to turn almost completely around to spy Taylin. She stuffed almost half a cooked potato into her mouth to cover her expression.

Good morning, Ru. She sent, failing completely now to mask the humor she was feeling at the situation.

He narrowed his eyes at her. Why didn’t you tell him?

I didn’t even notice until he was already scratching your head. We were talking and he’s very distracting. To her credit, she made an attempt to look ashamed, but it was a losing effort while she was holding in laughter.

Ru scowled harder at her, but it only made her worse. Something light, like a disembodied giggle echoed briefly in the link. He was certain it wasn’t her. Perhaps the link’s magical arrays were damaged by Dey’s stroke against the hailene. Testing was required. But for now, his pride demanded he strike back.

Hovering over to the other side of the fire from both of them, he came down n a sitting position. The scythe was across his knees and he fixed them both with a ferocious glare. “I’m an ancient monster, you know; not some wooly creature that does tricks to amuse.”

Kaiel blinked. “Ancient monster?” Taylin blanched.

“Heh.” Ru bared his teeth in a cruel smile and made sure Taylin felt his amusement. For whatever reason, she was uncomfortable with explaining their impromptu time travel, but it wasn’t his secret. Besides, it was a good method of seeing if the chronicler was as intelligent as he put on. As a final turn of the screw, he abruptly passed the discussion by. “Whetstone.”

Taylin relaxed a fraction and reached over to where the stone and her broken blade rested on the smooth block Ru created the night before. “I had to use it to get my sword in some kind of shape. The villagers only have spears for weapons.” She shivered, but only a tiny bit. Ru only noticed because of the link. “I hate spears.”

The underhand toss that followed hit Ru squarely in the chest and nearly bowled him over. She hadn’t meant it, was horrified by it.

“Ru!” She was on her feet in an instant, as if she could do anything to help if he had been hurt. In truth, the lash of concern made him wince more than the stone slamming into him.

He merely grunted and started to work on the blade. The concern mounted and Taylin wasn’t going to let the matter rest.

“I’m sorry.” She said earnestly. “I thought you were going to catch it.”

Her worry was going to give him a headache. Without issuing a single order, she left him no choice but to reply. “Because you’ve seen me fight.” He asked, though it sounded like a statement. She nodded and he smirked. “Yes, it does seem as if I have prodigious physical abilities, but those all come from knowing how and when to shift. When it comes to feats of muscle, I am equal only to a mortal man.”

Mortal child, actually. He wasn’t about to directly admit a weakness. It wasn’t even a weakness, he assured himself. He simply didn’t bother using the strength of his normal body when magic was superior in every way.

Taylin was about to apologize again, but Kaiel cut her off by clearing his throat. Ru was suddenly very happy to have him around.

“As I mentioned to Taylin,” He began as if the incident earlier hadn’t happened, “The scouts estimate that the bandits will arrive by noon from the northwest. Their King is with them and he’s bringing one hundred and a score horses and four spiders.”

“Spiders.” Ru repeated, incredulous. Taylin set her jaw.

Kaiel gave both of them a look. “Neither of you have heard of riding spiders before. Strange. Well the basics are that they’re twenty feet, leg to leg, can carry three of four riders depending on the style of howdah that’s strapped to them, and they don’t care a bit about walls, not even walls made of wagons; they go right over.”

“Kill the spiders, then the horses. I see.”

“No!” Taylin said. He gave her a look. “No, you can’t kill the horses. The villagers can use them or sell them. They’re too valuable to just kill.” She knew what she was talking about: standard pacification technique among the hailene shock units were slaughtering or stealing the local livestock so they had no food but what they were allowed and nothing to trade for weapons.

“I’m not allowed to kill the horses?” Ru glared at her. So much of his preferred repertoire for combat on open ground subscribed to the philosophy that collateral damage was the best kind of damage. Killing the man and not the horses might make the whole thing tedious.

“There is a practical upshot to that.” Kaiel offered. Of course he would side with Taylin. Or against Ru. Ru wasn’t entirely sure which this was.

“And what would that be?”

“The halfling rules of warfare scavenge: you keep what you kill. You kill a man in rightful battle and anything of his would be yours. That includes the horse, I suppose.”

“What need do I have for horses?” Ru spat, dragging the whetstone roughly across the scythe. Disappointment in the thing weighted heavily on him. It was a rushed creation, the working on it temporary.

“You could sell them.” Kaiel got to his feet. “Forgive me for saying, but both of you are woefully under-equipped for traveling in this part of the world. Some coin wouldn’t do you any harm.”

“That’s true.” Taylin said, sheepishly. “We had to leave where we were before so quickly that we couldn’t take anything with us. But still, we couldn’t take horses from the villagers.”

“We wouldn’t be taking from them, we would be taking from men who will very shortly be gone from this world.” reasoned Ru.

Kaiel was forced to agree with the mage. “The villagers don’t have a say in this. The Winter Willow is fighting the bulk of the battle, so everyone will follow their rules of warfare. Those that can fight will fill in the gaps in the defensive formation, and if they bring a man down, what’s his is theirs.”

“A society with sense.” Ru approved of the halfling way more every time he heard of it.

Not wanting to get into a discussion about the validity of the multiple cultures on Ere, Kaiel let that go past and continued his original explanation. “Taylin, if you would help hold the center gap with what few villagers who know how to set a pike, I’d appreciate it.”

“Wherever I will be the most help.” She replied and earned a mocking snort from Ru.

The surly mage shouldered his scythe and set eyes on the chronicler. “They appointed you general in this then? Is that another hat hung in your wardrobe, charlatan? Wizard, philosopher, scholar, and now tactician?”

Kaiel’s back straightened. He covered it by smoothing out the vest we was wearing in lieu of a coat that crisp morning. “That’s precisely what it means to be on the path of the loreman. You learn a great deal and you give people the benefit of that knowledge. I’ve studied the great battles of the War of Ascension and Age of Tragedies; so yes, I believe I qualify as a tactician.”

“Very well tactician, what role am I to play in this battle?” Ru smugly awaited what he was sure would be a lame counter.

“Same as I: Disruption.”

Ru scoffed. “Fool. A real wizard’s role is raining down hellfire until the very memory of the foe turns to ash.”

Kaiel smirked and Ru knew there was nothing pleasant coming of it. “Twice a fool,” countered the chronicler. “Because raining hellfire is the role of mages who are not concerned with slaughtering the enemy horses.” The sound that followed was the grinding of Ru’s teeth.

Satisfied at finally besting him, Kaiel turned to walk back to his wagon. “And pay attention during the battle: today is the last day you call me a charlatan.” With that, he disappeared through the door. It was only with the source of his most immediate irritation gone that he caught the feeling of crossness emanating from Taylin.

“What?” He asked without looking at her.

“Why can’t you two get along?” She asked with her words, but her tone asked ‘why can’t you get along with him?’.

“You’ve already purchased a larger mercy for horses than any man who takes the field today can hope for.” He replied. “Do not test Fate’s love for you by attempting to barter even an ounce of respect for that charlatan.

“He’s been nice to us, Ru.”

“Nice to you. If only for the curve of your hip and swell of your bust.” He shot back.

“What?”

“Nydn tarome angua sumeres noctun.

Taylin gasped, horror in her tone and crimson staining her cheeks. “He wouldn’t!”

Ru couldn’t conceal his surprise at her reaction, that there was a reaction. And when he figured out what had happened, he groaned. “The link refuses to aid your understanding of a plain idiom, but it will translate a language four thousand years dead.”

“You didn’t know it did that?”

He shook his head and shifted the scythe to the other shoulder. “Not at all. I pluck the language from a person’s head almost on instinct. There has never been a need before.”

“So…” She was cautious, avoiding eye contact. “Even you don’t know everything it does?”

A growl caught in his throat, but he stopped it and suppressed the link so she wouldn’t feel the rage and shame boiling deep inside. He would admit every weakness before he would admit that there was ever someone better at him at spellwork given all time and resources.

The link was a masterpiece of layered spell arrays, conditionals, mentalism and null spaces. He understood the basics of its creation; the founding principles, but he had no idea what in its structure allowed it to judge and decide what was an order or not. As far as he knew, it was the pinnacle of his craft—and blazes and weirdings, did he hate that fact even more than what the link did to him.

Eventually, he became aware of the fact that he’d simply been floating there, saying nothing. Taylin was staring at him, confused. Somewhat amusingly, she’d picked up her sword and held it as if to examine it in order to cover that look.

Holding up a hand, he spooled out his personal power in thin skeins and sent it to wrap the weapon. Taylin let out a small sound of protest when he tugged it out of her hands and drew it to his own with the skeins of force. Still silent, he imagined a framework of lines and angles drawn over the surface.

Then he poured power into it. Reshaping wood was simple; it didn’t resist much at all and simply flowed into whatever form the caster chose, as did glass. Stone resisted a great deal, but with enough force applied suddenly, rough shapes were simple. Metal, especially worked metal, resisted violently to transmutation, and so as the broken blade was transformed, it spat a cloud of yellow sparks.

The sparks hid much of the actual change from Taylin’s view. When it was over though, the blade was shorter, but wider and a uniform width along its entire length. The double edges remained, but the jagged metal where the blade snapped had become smoothed and sharpened, a diagonal tip that effectively formed a third deadly edge at the end of the blade.

He gave it an appraising look before tossing it back to her. She caught it easily by the hilt, her look of confusion only growing. “Thank you?”

Ru disguised his satisfaction at changing the subject in indifference. “The link requires I do what I can to prevent you from coming to harm. As it was, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the blade simply shattered the first time you used it.”

“Oh. Well I still appreciate it.” the former slave offered him a careful smile, knowing full well that he wouldn’t return it.

Instead, he only nodded. “I believe I will see if the Grandmother requires any more assistance with spellwork.” And without giving her a chance to reply, he was gone.

Taylin looked down at the reforged sword in her hand. It was shorter than she would have liked, but that had been true even before Ru worked his power on it. There was nothing for it at the moment but to try and get used to the new balance in the weapon. Today was going to be a long and bloody one.

***

The bandit king must have roused his men early, or driven them hard in his anticipation of putting the village to the torch. The dark line of horses, backed by three irregular forms that must have been spiders, arrived a little over an hour early, a small cloud of dust forming behind.

Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 6 – Waste Not Want NotRune Breaker: Chapter 8 – Filling the Gap >>

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