- 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 following three days were full of strange new experiences for Taylin.
Ru was absent for the remainder of the day. When Grandmother said she intended to find his limit, she meant it. In addition to treating the wounded, she also had him working on raising an earthwork wall to help defend the town when the clan rolled out.
He returned to the wagon, leading a string of horses; part of his and Taylin’s combined spoils of war. The other part, mostly clothes, armor and weapons, were heaped upon the back of the great, black warhorse. And even with that windfall, Ru complained bitterly at how Grandmother refused to allow him to keep the surviving spider, citing how its presence in the caravan would frighten the ponies. That she compensated him out of her own coffers didn’t seem to mitigate that.
Raiteria appeared at the wagon the next morning. Grandmother had relieved her of her scout duties for the day so that the two new sisters could get to know one another. She young enough to have the eternally youthful quality most people thought all halflings had, but up close, Taylin could see the telltale signs of years of healed scars. And unlike the other clan members, she kept her straight, black hair cut extremely short to keep it from snagging in brush or falling into her face while aiming.
Unlike her husband, who only knew conversational imperial (a derivation of what Taylin knew as the tongue of the hailene’s enemy, which, in the intervening ears had become the dominant language), Raiteria was fluent. While all nir-lumos, being merchants by trade, knew a usable amount of imperial, scouts were virtual polyglots so as to act as spies.
After breaking the fast, Raiteria helped Taylin choose out cloths and armor she had no use for and took her to barter with a hunter who also received a windfall in the previous day’s battle. The difference was, that the hunter, a woman named Meerli, made most of her kills among the bandit elite, who as it turned out, were mostly half elves, or at least elf-blooded humans. That meant that they were in general taller than their fellows.
While none were as tall as Taylin, the men’s clothing fitted her in a way that wasn’t indecent, and Raiteria bartered with a tinker to modify one of the women’s chain shirts into a leather fronted chain vest to be worn over a hide shirt, which she also arranged to be made.
Once arrangement were made, she took Taylin out beyond the new walls to a small grove of trees and bushes that hadn’t been there the previous day.
They were grown by Grandmother’s magic, Raiteria explained, as funeral markers; fruiting trees for the fallen clan members, thorny bushes for the lost wolves. By Sylph’s providence, the halflings would be able to provide for their family in the future whenever they passed this way again, and the wolves, even in death, protected them.
Standing with Taylin in that solemn place, her sister taught her the prayer for the dead of their people. Together, they asked Sylph to keep the trees green and the One Dice, Pandemos to safeguard them in the afterlife as he does their living family.
That night, she and Kaiel ate with Raiteria, Bromun and their children. The two halflings regaled the honorary members of their clan with fond stories of the departed, mostly the hunters, whom Bromun knew well.
Ru didn’t materialize for the meal, tough the link told Taylin that he spent most of that time prowling the perimeter of the new wall. His deep concentration told her that he was working taking the construction very seriously, even though he had been cowed into creating it.
The following morning found Raiteria dispatched with the other scouts to mark out the best route for the caravan when it got moving again. Taylin spent it with Bromun and the hunters. The salt stocks were topped up with meat after the battle, and their job of gathering bandit corpses and burning them out on the flood plain was done, so they spent the day fishing instead.
Taylin thought she knew everything about fishing, having been on more than her share of foraging expeditions while on the ships, but the nir-lumos didn’t use boats and nets. Instead they broke out slim poles of prepared bamboo, tied lines with delicate hooks to the ends, and after attaching grubs or slivers of meat, proceed to use them to catch fish one at a time.
It seemed that fishing wasn’t primarily for sustenance, as the hunters largely ignored their lines. Instead, they turned to idle banter and boasting about their feats in battle, both recent and past. They were eager enough to include Taylin, but she stuck to the battle of two days prior; the only one she was proud of.
After returning with two full barrels of fish, the hunters brought Taylin to what would be her wagon; a garish green and yellow thing with lacquered, orange window frames and shutters. It was normally reserved for travelers who would pay the clan for their hospitality along their routes, but the Taunaun leg of their travels rarely attracted many passengers. Some of the wagons belonging to the deceased would eventually be converted to the same task now that they served no other purpose.
There weren’t many furnishings; all of Kaiel’s were purchased with his own coin; but there was a bed with a new, if cheap mattress, some shelves, and a chest, which upon closer inspection, was actually an outgrowth of the wagon’s gretharian walls. Bromun. It was enough for Taylin, who was too delighted with a bed of her own to complain about how she still needed to borrow things like plates or cups from Kaiel or ‘Rai’ as her sister preferred to be called.
Now, on the third day, Taylin was sitting on her bed – her own bed, listening to the wagon masters outside, working to get everything shored up and the ponies hitched up in preparation for the journey that Grandfather insisted should start by noon.
She wasn’t alone. Grandmother was there, as well as a halfling woman named Saitrei, an acolyte studying the ways in which Grandmother channeled the power of the Goddess Sylph. The difference between them was that Saitrei intended not only to serve and receive the blessing of Sylph, but Pandemos as well; a wood carved rendition of the One Dice hanging from her neck alongside the paw and garland icon of Sylph.
Kaiel had taken Ru and left a short while earlier, when it became necessary for Taylin to removed her shirt so Grandmother could observe the masses of scar tissue that were all that remained of her wings. Ru protested that a dead man could not be lecherous, but Kaiel insisted and Ru didn’t care enough to argue, having some techniques he still wanted to apply to the earthworks.
Rai was there in their place, sitting with her as Grandmother poked and prodded the scars and occasionally said ‘hmm’.
Eventually, Saitrei stood up from where she’d been working with a mortar and pestle and, at Grandmother’s nod, began slathering the sickly green mush from the stone bowl all over her back. A strong, bitter scent filled her nostrils, making her cringe. “It smells like poison.”
“And it would be if you ate it.” Said Grandmother. “But you will be glad of it in a moment. The salve numbs the skin.”
“Why would my skin need to be numb? I thought this was healing magic?” Taylin asked, unsure in all matters magical.
“Aye, it is. But in order to regenerate what has been lost, we will first need to cut away the scars so new growth may return.” She was silent for a pregnant second. “Even with the numbing, it will be most painful. If you don’t wish to go through with it…”
“No.” Taylin said quickly and more bluntly than was strictly wise to use with the Winter Willow’s matriarch. “Please. I can handle it. I’ve been in pain before; this is worth it.”
Grandmother’s face remained an emotionless mask. “Then we will begin. Lie down.”
Raiteria hopped off the bed to give her room, but Taylin still had to fold her legs up against the wall to properly fit. That part was easy enough; learning how to get comfortable while crammed into crowed space that was cramped even without a few dozen fellow slaves packed in around her was second nature. She was uncomfortable lying there, on her stomach, stripped to the waste, however. The only people she’d seen n that position aboard the ships were corpses, on their way to becoming one, or wishing they were one.
The same restless surge of adrenaline she felt when the hounds were bearing down on her, or during the battle tried to reassert itself, but she forced herself to breath and forced it down. The three woman with her were family now, and they were doing their best to help her.
Grandmother producing an obsidian knife from among the supplies she brought with her wasn’t helping matters. The first cut, less so. It wasn’t like a slash in battle, where chaos and exhilaration distracted from the pain and the blow came swiftly and with little warning. No, she felt it and had time to think about it; every terrible inch.
Something tensed in the back of the link. Ru. He could feel to, courtesy of the link’s forced empathy.
Empathy, but not sympathy. Instead of concern or possibly horror, all she felt being directed toward her was curiosity.
Forcing her breath to stay even and the urge to bolt, or worse, fight back taxed her, but Taylin clenched her jaw, screwed her eyes shut, and did it anyway. She tried to get her mind off it, thinking about what life would be like once she could fly again. Maybe she could serve as a scout like Rai, or use her vantage to aid the hunters. Maybe…
It wasn’t working. Her imagination could be vivid at time, but it could conjure no distraction great enough to take her mind off the black blade and what it was doing. At this point, she wished that she would just pass out from the pain, but the numbing agent worked just well enough that blessed unconsciousness lingered on the edge of her mind, but never rushed in.
She was close enough to it though that she glimpsed odd images here and there; fever dreams she’d had before on the occasion that a lax captain would let a minor illness grow into a ship-wide contagion. She saw a city of stone towers, emerging from dense jungle that lay across the foothills of burning mountains like cats upon their master’s lap. She saw a very different jungle, this one inside a room whose walls were made of glass with sky all around. She saw a woman, a hailene like her former masters, but instead of a scowl, or self important smirk, she smiled warmly and adjusted her spectacles before reading aloud from a book. And then there was a man, speaking with the women from before; another hailene, but even for them, impossibly tall and angular. His eyes glinted with cruelty as he turned to look directly at Taylin…
Shameful. Ru’s mental voice broke through the pain and odd images.
Taylin was so surprised, she couldn’t think in words, instead sending him the telepathic equivalent of ‘?!’.
This is the mettle of warriors? Ru continued. Hallucinating after only a mere bit of surgical flaying? It tears at my mind, this mystery of how the sword and the fist became the symbol of conquest when it takes only a bit of pain to make both useless. In my time, a wizard who couldn’t conjure while half dead was deemed a failure.
She wished she could say it came as a surprise, but Ru seldom had anything to say that wasn’t mocking in some way unless it pertained to combat or magic. It was possible that this too was his way of rebelling against the link. After the first time, it hadn’t punish him again for rudeness. She was still trying to figure out what triggered it that time.
Nothing to say in your defense? He taunted.
It’s different when you’re fighting. She tried to explain.
Heh. Even mentally, he found a way to specifically make that noise. Pain is pain, Miss Taylin. If you can conquer it in one context, you have no excuses being unable to in another.
Taylin frowned at this. It made a kind of sense, and yet it didn’t. Handling pain when she was fighting was simple; it was the same reason his felt like it hurt more—distraction. But she didn’t have any distractions, just lying there in the wagon as she was.
That’s not it at all. She said. It isn’t as if I can have this done while I’m dueling someone. I can only just lay still and let her work.
Another reason mages are superior. Said Ru, smugly, We can engage in more duels than simple brute combat. Granted, brute combat is an enjoyable pastime, Miss Taylin, but the correct tool is always superior to the one that merely fits better in the hand.
The tone in the link grew slightly wistful, though it was his general pride in himself that was dominant. When I was a man, I often succeeded in me best feints, most diabolical flanking maneuvers and most crushing victories, all using merely the art of debate.
Taylin couldn’t help but laugh inwardly. Is that why you always start arguments with Kaiel?
He brooded for a bit before answering. Just because I neither like, nor trust the chronicler doesn’t mean I don’t find his own philosophical and diplomatic training formidable. Trading verbal assaults is a worthy form of recreation.
It caught her marginally off guard that he admitted to that. She half expected him to simply reaffirm his hatred of Kaiel and be done with it. Which brought another question to mind. Is that why you’re so rude to me? I thought it was because of the link.
Another long pause, then: Heh. To be enjoyable sport, the target must deliver blows of their own. And the link care not if I am rude as long as I follow orders and do no psychological harm.
Why then? If I’m not fun to argue with and you aren’t spiting the link, then what’s the point? I’ve never done anything to make you hate me… Guilt wafted into the link, On purpose.
There was incongruous amusement in the link as Ru felt he’d scored a point against her in revenge for outsmarting him in the cavern. You will notice, Miss Taylin, that I have not mocked you since the day of the battle, when it became clear that you would make bad sport in arguments.
That’s not true. You did it today, just a moment ago!
Indeed. And not for sport, nor out of rebellion. His tone became that of a master speaking to his apprentice. Tell me, Miss Taylin, have you ever used a spear as a walking stick, or cleared brush with a sword? He waited for her to reply in the affirmative. Some weapons are more versatile than others. But none has ever been as versatile as the Rune Breaker.
Realization hit her almost immediately once she knew what to look for. She hadn’t taken notice of the pain the entire time they talked. The whole thing had been a distraction. Guilt started to well up anew when she realized that even if he’d tricked her into doing it, she had used him. But then she remembered the smugness spiked and her guilt was subsumed by embarrassment. He had tricked her! His entire talk about feints and crushing defeats… it had all been part of an even larger misdirection.
Ru read her mind before she could think of what to say. The phrase you are looking fore, Miss Taylin, is ‘well played’.
I can’t believe you!
And yet I’ve never made a secret that I am a manipulative monster. We are now even, I believe.
As the embarrassment and shock started to wear off Taylin became aware of the room around her once more. None of the three halfling women even noticed the argument or her reaction to Ru’s triumph. The numbing salve had mixed into her reopened wounds, causing them to feel more like heavy weights on her back than painful cuts.
The cutting itself was done, had been done for some time, it seemed. Grandmother was speaking in the halfling language, a prayer to Sylph. It was only when she felt the first touches of healing magic, pleasurable and warm, did she understand that it wasn’t just a prayer, but a spell. The spell. She was getting her wings back.
Unlike other healing spells, it wasn’t a swiftly passing sensation followed by the tingle of knitting skin. Nor was it the mind-addling rush that was the full healing spell Ru used on her in the Rune Breaker chamber. It settled into the wounds on her back, into the wing stumps, and then began to seep outward, suffusing the muscles around the stumps and then down into her pectorals and the thin, but strong band of muscles that controlled the hinged ribs of all hailene. Atrophy was cured in a glittering cascade of humming energy.
And then the itching started. Her scars never itched and it was a shock to feel sensation there. That feeling only grew and expanded as the area itself followed suit. Weight she hardly knew she’d missed, muscles she only felt as a memory; Taylin became increasingly aware of them through the fog of the healing magic and the numbing agent.
On a reflex she once thought lost forever, she flexed and felt wet feathers ruffling against the her bare back before lifting up against gravity until their tips dragged the ceiling. The itching continued for several minutes longer, as feathers continued to fill out and nerve networks finished linking together.