View Full Version : Wings Unfurl
Note: The first chapter in this story is new, but the second and third have been posted before in the Road Goes Ever on thread. I'm putting them here because this character is still developing, whereas the rest of the characters in the old thread seem to have faded away.
Chapter I: Wings Unfurl
A grey-white cloud and mist shrouded the sky and the land alike in an ethereal brightness, where nothing moved but the wind-stirred gorse, and only the twitter of a skylark broke the muffled silence across the hill.
Braint crouched beneath the blackthorn hedge, watching a little fat spider twine her dewy webs between the thorns. The stone felt rough against the bare skin of her feet, yet she enjoyed the feeling; idly stroking a patch of bright green lichen with the backs of her fingers, and feeling the dewy droplets break on her skin. Anyway, it would give her better grip when the moment came to pounce.
She looked impatiently up and down the gully before her, each end vanishing into the mist that had rolled in up the wild foothills, and listened achingly to the soft blusters of the wind. The enemy would be along at any moment; they were sure to take this path… so predictable. Nevertheless, she was becoming anxious. They had been waiting here for half an hour at the least, and her reputation as a leader was at stake. She could hear the others shuffling restlessly behind her and she shot them a demanding glare, holding a hand near to the ground to make them quiet.
It was as well that she had. Twelve blurred figures were moving cautiously along the gully, but they were moving quietly, and had come further than she had expected them to without being seen. She lowered herself a little, so that her head did not make a silhouette against the bright grey clouds behind, and waved a hand behind her to signal that the ambush was coming close, and to be ready. They each moved into their positions with admirable stealth, and she felt a little flutter of pride, feeling that this battle would be decided soon after it began.
They were coming very close now; just a few paces away and down the stony bank. She drew her sword silently and readied herself to leap.
Ten strides, eight, five, two… now!
With a rush of adrenaline and a blood-curdling howl, Braint launched herself from the rock at the leader of the enemy, landing on his back and knocking him into a stagger. But he was strong, and did not fall. With a jerk he threw her off before her sword could find his throat, and she rolled away, ignoring the bump and batter of the rough-clod ground. She leapt up, seeing that her companions were now locked in deadly battle with their prey, giving loud whoops and yells, or screaming as they fell to the ground.
Braint measured her enemy and charged at him, ducking his thrust and ramming her shoulder into his stomach. Again, he was not knocked down, and her shoulder jarred so she whipped around and swung for his throat. His own blade darted up and countered her swing, then jabbed for her heart. But he was too slow; he had not knocked her blade far enough off course, so she led it down with all the speed she could muster, and it connected with his wrist. Her foe screamed in anger and pain and clutched his forearm, his sword clattering to the ground, and then he was hers. She raised her blade and jabbed forward, striking between his ribs; a fine, clean kill, and one she could be proud of.
As he tumbled lifeless to the ground, she looked wildly around for her next victim, but found them all fallen or falling, while the remnant of her own party whooped their victory and saw to their wounds. Only four of her own were dead to twelve of theirs. They had done well. She joined in their wild ululation for a moment, dancing about upon the grassy rocks, then sheathed her sword and paced back to the body of her fallen adversary.
“You’re too slow, Renos. I was bound to beat you, even if it didn’t come down to an ambush,” she said to the prostrate form at her feet, a measured scorn in her voice.
“You gave me a splinter – why do you have to hit so hard?” he responded, digging at his bruised wrist with his fingernails and frowning.
“Because,” she responded haughtily. “Luain says if you don’t try when you’re practising, you’ll be no good when it’s real.”
Braint was trying hard not to smile at her own cleverness, though she did feel a measure of guilt for not smoothing her blade before battle as she should have done. She turned to the rest of the children and began taking score, to know who had killed whom, and how.
“I got Nerra; got her before she even saw me!” declared a stringy-red-haired boy proudly, standing with his foot upon his fallen sister’s stomach, and nearly losing his balance as she pushed it off and swore at him. “And then Elis got me, and Merros, and Owen,” he added with a frown. “But I nearly got him”
“Nearly’s not good enough. The crows grow fat on those who nearly win their battles,” she told him sagely, echoing her uncle, and trying to copy his seasoned warrior’s growl, without much success.
She gave Elis a brief glance and a smile, which he returned warmly, sitting upon a lichen-covered stone and spinning his wooden sword on its point against the ground. He was a handsome boy, two or three summers older than Braint, but he was not yet a warrior. Nevertheless his experience showed, and Braint secretly felt – though she would never admit it – that he may even be a match for her if it came to a fight.
Once she was sure she knew who had fought how, she turned to the other children and called out in commanding tones:
The response was immediate, the group charged into their positions as if born to them. The line was in order of rank, and the two oldest – Renos and Elis - came on the highest end, and the youngest and least experienced on the other. Braint took her place at the head of the line and stood to solemn attention as the green-clad figure who had been watching the battle picked her way down from the rocks.
Braint’s nerves fluttered again. She had never failed to win a battle in play or in practice, but what if someone had fought better than her?
Lanis finished her descent and paced towards them, the green of her tunic setting off her hair, which was so deep a red as to be almost purple, and her pale feet picking their way daintily across the stony ground. She stopped and considered the line for a long moment, before unlooping two holly leaves bound on horse-hair thongs from around her neck.
She approached the line and set the first over the head of Elis, making Braint’s heart flutter again. It was clear he deserved it, but did she this time? But then with a ripple of relief, the little girl stopped in front of her and hooked the second leaf around Braint’s neck, and she felt the comforting *****le of its thorns against her skin that was the feeling of victory, and approval.
She smiled at her sister. It was ever important to win approval fitting to her station. A princess of the Cambriani – so ancient and proud a tribe – had to be fierce and fast, and strong and wise, and always honest and honourable. Braint was ever trying to be all of these things, and felt she succeeded in some at least, though it was hard. But Lanis made it seem so easy. She was eight years old and already had the presence of a Dreamer. What’s more she knew her animal – the hare, messenger of the Gods, whose form is printed upon the face of the moon. The strength this gave her was tangible, and stirred in Braint twin feelings of pride and envy. At the same time she wished her sister to be powerful and great, and also lesser, so that she would feel no shame in being outdone in spirit by one who was three years younger than herself. And so she was both proud and intimidated now, looking into the green eyes that seemed to have no bottom to them.
She bent to kiss Lanis on the cheek and at the same moment she reached out and tickled her sister’s ribs, making her just a girl, giggling and squirming, and breaking the air of solemn wisdom that made Braint feel less.
The group laughed with her, and then Braint turned to them and called out,
“Skirmish! Choose your sides and arm yourselves!”
Twenty-four pairs of feet ran to a weathered standing stone nearby, where a haphazard pile of wooden armaments was stacked. Braint jostled with the other children and come up with her own shield and a light jerkin of leather scales, which she tossed on over her tunic, then hurried back to the battlefield.
The children divided themselves into two parties of twelve, led respectively by Braint and Elis, then within those groups found their shield-mates and quickly resolved who was to take which role. Lanis beat a hasty retreat and climbed to the top of the standing stone to watch.
Braint chose Renos, the boy she had fought earlier, to take her shield-side; a wordless apology for her earlier scorn. Renos was a good fighter, but he let opportunity blind him on occasion and became reckless, so it would do him good to practice defending and setting up kills for his partner.
And so the two lines faced one another, giving wild invented whoops and taunts, since to use the true war-cries would mean an oath to fight to the death; until one side was victorious or every man was slain, and this was only play.
Circling, the lines drew closer and performed several mock-charges, and Braint felt the blood pulse through her veins like fire. The excitement of battle swamped her senses again and she lusted for blood. She gave a wild cry and the lines met with a clash of wood on shield and flesh. A few fell immediately, and a part of Braint watched the battle impartially, noting to herself who held their ground the best, and where the strengths of each child lay. The rest of her teemed with excitement as Renos held out well, engaging their foes so that their attention was distracted from Braint for split-seconds at a time, allowing her to sneak her blade around their guard.
One, then another, and another fell to her blade and the wild thrill of nerves seized her – the euphoria of allowing her body to move almost of its own accord, flowing like water; flawless and powerful, her mind detached, giving directions that were as slight as the nudge of a knee that will make a trained horse spin on the spot. This was how she fought – her strength was not enough to overpower her enemies, but her speed and balance made her deadly.
A girl named Sulla yelled out in mock-agony as Braint hooked her blade behind her knee and brought her to the ground, following up with a quick jab to the chest that left her lying with her tongue out and eyes rolled back – a child’s naiive vision of death.
But then something grabbed at Braint’s heart for attention. A little feeling like the touch of a cold hand on skin, and she whipped around at once, knowing its source.
Lanis was staring at her from atop the standing stone, crouching and waving frantically for her to silence the group.
Ignoring the whack of a wooden sword across her distracted shoulder, Braint made the frantic ‘Tshhh!” noise that was the signal for all to stop without a word, and every eye snapped to her. Her heart beat quickly as she ran over to the foot of the stone, where Lanis was clambering down as quickly as she dared.
“What is it?” she demanded, quietly.
“There’s two men coming! They’re on horses, coming this way!” Lanis’ eyes were wide, seeming to fill most of her face.
“No-tribes. Tharbadders? Maybe Numen. I don’t know. They both have swords but not shields. One has a good horse, one doesn’t.”
“Alright. Good girl. Run back to the village and tell Father and Luain. We’re going to catch them!”
Braint could barely believe what she had just said, but Lanis nodded hastily and pelted off without another word, and she felt herself begin to ride the wave of excitement she had recklessly stirred. Braint looked about at the other children, feeling giddy. All of them were flushed and excited, having listened intently to Braint’s words with her sister. She felt her mind stall for a few moments before finding the surety and confidence she needed to project.
“Sulla, Owen, hide the weapons! Everyone, off the path! Draw your knives! Shield-mates keep your shields but sword-mates, hide yours! Tarren, Meros, you two find your slings, you’re going to open the attack – try and hit their sword hands! Then in with spears to knock them off and scare the horses! Knives and shields follow. We’re going to take them alive! Best fighter gets the good horse!”
Her ragged group of warriors-to-be had never looked more excited or more driven. Each one of them moved fluidly up the bank and sunk into the gorse and heather, and expression of utmost focus upon their faces. Braint was encouraged by her choice of companions. She took up the same position she had begun in – under the blackthorn bush. The spider was still there, rapidly tangling a moth in her web.
Braint felt bolstered by the sight, though the thrill in her veins was this time tainted with fear. The stakes were higher now, and she could be killed. She must not fail. She took the wooden-tipped spear that Owen handed to her without a word and gestured with her fingers that Renos, her now shield-mate should be ready to run out before her.
As the sound of hooves drew ever nearer, she gripped the holly leaf about her neck, feeling its welcome sting through a heady shroud of adrenaline and bowel-clenching terror. She poked her head up a little to see the two riders approach. Lanis had been right. They looked like Tharbadders, and were speaking that tongue. As such they were enemies, riding through her land. She was inwardly glad that they were not Numen – they fought fiercely indeed and were not easily slain.
The two horses approached at a brisk trot, and she made a signal behind her back for the two slingers to fit stones to their weapons. Taren and Meros were excellent slingers, and this attack would be much easier if they managed to strike their targets first time. Braint gave the man on the good horse a worried look. His head was a better target, and she knew that she would dearly regret to lose any of her friends to his blade, which looked likely. But they were too close now for her to change her orders. So she gave a shrill whistle, and two slingstones whirred overhead at great speed, whilst the mob of children leapt up with a wild yell and charged down the bank.
One stone shattered on the wrist of the better-mounted man and he screamed in pain, falling from his horse. Braint and Renos charged at the other man’s horse with a yell, and he drew his sword and struck out. He was driven more by surprise and alarm than by intent, so Renos caught the strike with his shield, and Braint jabbed hard at the man’s throat with her wooden spear, making him gasp and choke and slew sideways from his mount, which whinnied and bolted.
The other horse was well trained, and circled its master, trying to kick at the children as he stuggled upright, reaching for his sword with his left hand, his right hanging limp and useless at his side. After a moment’s terrible indecision, Braint turned aside from her victim and charged at the stray horse, knowing that if she could avoid its hooves and get onto its back there was a chance it might accept her. It was a difficult manoeuvre, and as she planted the butt of the spear she felt it slip, making her heart jar, but before she could lose her nerve it caught and she was vaulted up into the air, landing on her belly across the saddle.
Life pulsed through her veins, purer and more real than she had ever felt it, as her heart pounded away like a war-drum and the sharp smells of horse-sweat and leather filled her nose. She almost slid off as the horse jinked sideways, but managed to grasp its rough mane in one hand and a stirrup-strap in the other, pulling with all of her strength to set herself over the saddle. One of her flailing feet found the other stirrup, and within half a heartbeat she was able to swing her left leg over, bruising the inside of her thigh as it met the saddleback, but then sitting fully astride. With an elated rush of disbelief and victory she seized the reins and gripped tight with her knees, at once holding on as the horse wheeled and bucked, and pulling hard to make it calm, trying to soothe it with her voice.
Whether by training or by the confidence it felt from her, the horse began to submit, and stood, tensed but still and indecisive. Braint knew that she could not hesitate, or the horse would begin to buck again; she must act as if the horse were hers and had been for years, so she confidently reined it around to face the battle and flicked it into a charge at the back of its former master. He was sparring ferociously with Elis, whose wooden sword was broken in two, but whose eyes were alight with wildfire and murder, slashing and swinging with his half-sword and his knife bared in his other hand. His opponent fought very well with his wrong-handed longsword, doubly so since his right wrist was undoubtedly broken beneath his bracer. But his distraction was his downfall, and he did not notice the thundering of hooves behind until it was too late.
As Braint’s new steed closed the last few paces, the man began to half-turn, a look of shock upon his face. The horse’s broad chest collided with him and sent him hurtling forward into Elis’s swung elbow. There was a sharp ‘crack’, and Elis leapt back, wincing painfully, but the man collapsed heavily onto the ground. Silence fell, except for a few whimpers and moans, but after what seemed like an age, someone began to cry out in victory.
The sound seemed muffled to Braint and her limbs shook and quivered violently. Her face tingled and she felt heat creep up it as her stomach turned over. She let herself down from the horse and approached the fallen figure. The wild whoops and yells began to fall silent as she did not join them. The world seemed to sink and spin around the focus of the man’s body, and she felt horribly afraid of it, though there was no sense behind her fear. She reached a shaking hand out for the man’s shoulder, feeling more nauseous by the moment. The last hand’s breadth was almost impossible to breach, but she had to know. Her hand touched the rough material of his cloak and pushed tentatively.
She leapt back onto her feet, stifling a yelp as the man let out a long, low groan. She walked in a few short circles, breathing as if she had just run a mile, her arm across her forehead as she shook with relief. She might have thought it fine and honourable to kill an enemy in her own land; certainly all of the songs and tales she had heard made such seem the highest aim of any warrior. Nevertheless, for those moments when she had thought her enemy dead, she had felt immeasurable sickness and guilt, and the relief she now felt was like a salve upon a burn.
Braint halted, realising that she could not indulge herself whilst there was still a danger to her friends.
“Sonos, Merra – bind them tightly, use belts and make sure they have no knives. They can not get away!”
As the two children mercilessly tied the two mens’ arms behind their backs, Braint found herself feeling a grudging respect for the horse-felled man. Whilst his wrist was clearly broken, he did not cry out as Sonos put his full weight into tightening the belt and tying it; he merely grunted and cursed under his breath.
She turned away to see who of her friends was hurt. Nerra’s face was tear-washed and she was choking and sobbing, rubbing at a bruised throat as her brother tenderly dressed and tied a long cut on her forearm, glancing with hatred at the lesser of the captives. Elis was holding his elbow, an ugly grimace upon his face, and Leos looked as though his collar was broken - his face was pale and his breath restrained. Among the others there were a dozen bruises and bleeding lips, but nothing that looked serious.
“Taren, go and catch that other horse, we’ll need it. The rest of you, fix your knives hard onto the spears so you can use them. I don’t want anyone to go close to them! If they don’t move, then use the spears, but don’t kill them or make them so they can’t walk.”
There was a flurry of activity and purpose in the village that night, and the adults could be seen striding back and forth between the round houses with grim expressions upon their faces. Braint sat alone in the smithy, picking at the hem of her tunic in frustration. She had expected her father and Luian to exclaim in pride, but as she and her friends had met the small host of warriors riding hard to meet them from the village, their expressions had shown only alarm and anger. Cardagos, her father, had roundly berated her for leading an attack of children against the two unknown men, and though Luain had said nothing, his expression made clear where his sympathy lay.
Braint kicked her heel mutinously against the log bench and stood up. Her prisoners had been taken away from her and led straight to the Greathouse, and she had not been allowed to follow. There was no justice in that, surely? Hadn’t she always been told to show bravery and daring? Hadn’t she won two enemy prisoners, without losing any? Hadn’t she stolen a man’s horse from under his very nose?
She crossed her arms and pouted at the silent forge, thinking hard.
No, she wouldn’t be shut out. The men were hers, since she had won them. She would hear what they had to say, one way or another.
Unhooking her cloak from a peg, Braint moved outside into the cold night air, feeling the nip of frost at her toes. She skipped quickly across the enclosure, ducking between the stilted granaries and making for the huge, conical silhouette of the Greathouse, looming and impressive against the star-strewn sky.
Nearing it, she leapt lightly up onto the thatch at the low eaves, and crept slowly up until she was a little below the smoke line, where the soot from the fire had made the straw dark. She carefully wormed a hand into the thatch, finding the join between two bundles and easing them gently apart. A glimmer of firelight showed through and a warm rush of air and woodsmoke crossed her face, making her wrinkle her nose. She could not make out the men they had caught, but would see her mother, Gwyddhien, pacing back and forth in her regal robes and glittering golden torc, speaking in the language of the Tharbadders. Her voice was low, and Braint did not know the tongue well, so she put her head close to the tiny hole she had made, straining to hear and understand.
“I hope you’re going to fix that when you’re finished,”
Braint spun around on the thatch, letting out a squeak of surprise and beginning to slide down it. Luain was standing there, larger than life, his shaggy wolfskin cloak draped over his shoulders and his arms crossed, watching her. Putting down her hands to stop her slide, Braint felt her face flush red in embarrassment and indignation.
“I wanted to hear. I didn’t think anyone would see me,” she said to him, trying to find a defiant tone.
“Oh, I don’t think anyone did, but it’s hard not to notice a handful of soot and spiders when it lands on your head,” growled Luain, beginning to grin.
“Oh,” replied Braint, flushing redder by the second.
“Come, do not feel rejected, my girl. Your father was angry earlier because he was afraid for you. Little Lanis came running up to him screaming about Numen riding through our land, telling that you meant to fight them. Of course he was afraid. It was a dangerous thing to do.”
“But they weren’t Numen, they were Tharbadders, and there were only two of them,” replied Braint defensively, still not sure whether she was being further berated.
“Not Numen, eh? Well, you need to choose your enemies more carefully. The man you felled was Dunadan, as they call themselves, or I’m a blind stoat. Just because he was not speaking Elderin, do not think he was not Numen. You were lucky none of you died. They are grim and merciless foes.”
Braint stood for a moment with mouth open, a look of shock and confusion playing across her face.
“But… I wouldn’t have… not if I’d known… how did - how did we win?”
“Twelve to one and a broken wrist, and I hear that one brave soul stole his horse from under him,” Luain’s face showed the merest flicker of a grin. “You should commend that person. You promised the horse to the best fighter, and you must keep your promises. Empty words leave bitter hearts.”
Braint stammered in her eagerness to win back some credit for herself.
“I – I… but that was me! I stole his horse! And I used it to knock him down!”
“As I said, that person needs commending. I’d give the other horse to the slinger, if I were you. Without that shot, I believe you might all be dead.”
Braint beamed, hardly daring to believe the reversal in her fortunes. Praise always felt more real coming from Luain than from anyone else, and she loved him for it.
“Away now. If your prize tells us anything that concerns you, I’ll let you know. Go and look after your friends. They fought bravely for you and some of them are hurt.”
Beaming across her face, she threw her arms around her Uncle’s muscular belly and turned and skipped away, feeling as though her skin were glowing with pride.
Eight out of eight! Excellent! Once more now, come back around!"
With a brilliant thrumming of bunched nerves, excitement and danger, Braint, daughter of Gwyddhien and Cardagos reined her chestnet mare around and galloped her back towards the makeshift spear stand, now empty but for one long-toothed shaft.
The pounding of hooves and the rush of the wind in her ears kept up a momentum that was echoed by the drumming in her chest. She cantered past the stand and took up the last spear, tossing it up into the air and catching it again arm-raised so that its tip faced the straw bag model of the Great-Urk that was her target.
"Keep her straight, put fear into the enemy with your charge! Let him see that he is already dead!"
On any other day she might have resented Luain for his constant advice, but the spirit of the day was almost as high in him as it was in her, and she paid him no heed. The moment of the charge was hers, and his calls turned themselves in her ears into the terrified screams of the Great-Urk of the Mountains and the hated Torbruggi cowards as they turned and fled before the storming hooves.
Fifty paces, thirty, twenty five... now!
She cast the spear. A pang of terrified regret hit as her knuckle was clipped by the butt of the spear leaving her hand.
No no no! Let it hit! Let it hit!
The spear waggled in its flight and veered right, but not by much. With a heady rush of exhilaration, she heard the hushing thud and crack as it passed cleanly through the target's thick neck, severing the wooden pole that represented its spine. The spray of corn-grey dust became in her battle-lusting eyes a spurt of black-red blood as the head flopped sideways, held on by a few thumbs of rough reed sacking. The thick iron helmet dropped with a thudding smack onto the wet grass below and rolled to a halt.
Whooping her victory at the top of her lungs, Braint leapt from the saddle in a manoeuver she would never normally dare to try - the warrior's dismount at the gallop, perfectly executed. The Gods were with her today, and she could do no wrong.
She came to a running stop in front of Luain, whose eyes glowed with pride. A lesser man might have wept at the moment, but the scarred old warrior, decked out in his full compliment of ragged kill-feathers and with his golden wolf-headed torc about his neck stood to attention with an expression of fierce-faced joy and pride which was almost too much for Braint.
With all the strength and depth he could muster, he called into the air,
"Gods! Ancestors! Here is Braint nic Gwyddhien, Eagle-Dreamer and Warrior to the Cambriani!"
His voice boomed and echoed around the god-filled valley she had chosen as the place both to seek her Dreaming and to take the spear tests that were the final part of her initiation. The meltwater-swollen waterfall behind roared its approval and the great standing stones thrown down into the valley echoed the old Warrior's voice and sent it back to them a hundredfold, filling Braint's mind with his words.
He banged his fist to his chest and then threw out his palm to face her in the salute of one warrior to another upon victory in battle.
Braint fought with all the strength she had to control the exhilaration welling inside of her, and to stop it from bursting out as tears. She returned the salute with good grace and only a slight blur in her vision. The two warriors stood for a moment, statues of dignity, reveling in their shared pride, and then there was the joyful rumble of laughter as Luain stepped forwards out of his salute and flung his arms wide. Braint choked a laugh and tears began to roll down her face. She leapt forward into his embrace, pressing her ear to his chest to hear the cavernous booming of mirth, and breathing in the smells of horse and wolf and man that always hung so strongly and reassuringly around him.
"Perfectly executed, Brother-Daughter!" the giant exclaimed, slapping her on the back. "Your eyes are the great eagle's of your Dreaming, and the dragon's fire burns in your heart. Your enemies will fall before you like corn to the hook! Come now! Let me look at you..."
With this he took her firmly by the shoulders and stood her an arm's length away, looking fondly upon her tear-streaked, beaming face.
"Oh, now that won't do! This warrior has no battle-braid in her hair!" he called out theatrically to the empty valley. He took from his pouch a two-tone grey dove's feather and showed her how to braid it onto her hair.
"There, in the mark of many more and of greater value to come, my warrior," he said to her, clapping her on the shoulder.
Choking back an ecstatic giggle, she shot a covetous glance at his many kill-feathers, all genuine and bound about by gold or silver wire, a mark of the many battles he had fought and the turns of the wire numbering the dead. Amongst them were three of the ragged black crow's feathers with the quills dyed in a dark grey-green that were most highly prized of all, as they showed that he had fought the Great-Urk of the southernmost tip of the Cloudspine, those who came without warning but with a massive stance, a regimental discipline and a sheer monstrous energy that could not be stopped except at bitter price.
"Now then! Let us bundle up your spears and go to fetch your serpent-sword. I am sure that is what you have been truly waiting for!"
Laughing and joking they set about tying up the bundle of spears and strapped them to the saddle of Luain's tall dun stallion. All were already grouped as they had been plucked from the chestplate of the target except for the last, which had buried itself in the tussocky long grass and frosted wildflowers behind.
They mounted and turned their horses to face home, away from the mountains, delighting in the fine weather the Gods had chosen to send for the first true day of spring. The clear, bright blue sky and golden sun warmed the soul and the skin against the last remnants of crisp and frost that still hid in the shadows, and the trees were laden with swelling buds that would soon become flags of the perfect emerald-green that only spring leaves could achieve. The Dreamers' grove of tall, twisted holly trees still bled with the last berries of winter. A brown hare bolted for their cover, heavily pregnant and wet from the melted frost.
It was a long ride and they spent much of it singing in tandem the stories of their people; of Ordovec and his rejection of the Darkfather, of Freca's murder by the Forgoil King Helm, and Wulf's victory that came so close before being snatched away along with the horse-plains; and of Maroc, whose Dreaming was so strong that she rocked the very peaks of the Cloudspine, collapsing the caves of the Urk who had beset them and leading her people to victory.
A cloud that Braint had not even seen pulled across the sun, taking with it the warmth of the day and a measure of her good humour. She stopped singing and furrowed her brows at Luain, seeing that he had also become more alert.
"What think you, Uncle? A sign?"
The bear-like man flicked the battle-braids from his face and looked around, frowning.
"Perhaps," he rumbled. "The gods speak more clearly to you than they do to me, my girl. Do you feel warning?"
Braint nodded mutely. The tingling up and down her spine was not born of the shadow alone, and she tried to see which of her senses was telling her to beware. She could not smell anything out of the ordinary, just the flowering gorse and the musk of a passing fox. Meltwater rushed distantly in a stream, cut by the flopping splash of an eel, and a few crows clattered overhead.
"There! Smoke!" she hissed, a cold hook tugging at her innards. "There is smoke over the village!"
The old warrior growled as he looked out towards the billowing column of black smoke that had just begun to rise a few hills away, exactly where their path was leading.
"Quickly! To the gallop! I smell treachery...."
He kicked the dun stallion into a gallop and Braint reined her mare after it, all the joy of the day draining from her to be replaced by a sullen dread. Her mind raced almost as fast as the branches could whip past her head.
Betrayal... but who? Berkos of the Torbruggi? No, of course not. He was an open enemy, and a coward, and did not command enough spears or respect to attack the Cambrani in full daylight. Then who? Who among our friends would wish us dead without calling war upon us first?
The question swirled around and around in Braint's mind as she galloped, noting the froth forming around the horses' mouths and the rasping of their breath, and each time it found no answer. The two neighbouring tribes were oath-sworn to her mother, and would risk the gods' wrath for such a crime. Also, each was too small to attack alone.
We shall see. If they have hurt Lanis, I will skin them all alive.
Braint could feel her steed's energy sapping away and failing as they began the last rise, over which lay the village. There came clear the sounds of screaming and shouted orders, the clash of steel on steel and proudly-sung battle-songs.
Oh Gods, they're losing. They are singing their death-songs.
The hard-run mare finally stumbled as a rock gave way beneath her hoof and weakly kicked, trying to stand. Braint rolled off and began to call to Luain, whose stallion was breathing like a saw and had bloodied foam at his lips.
"Luain... we must go in on foot, they are - " she stopped dead as a monstrous snarl came from over the rise, and was answered by an equally horrible roar.
"Urk! Urk! They have Urk!"
Her panicked voice rose high like a girl's, not with the steady calm of a warrior.
Her heart was hammering at her chest and there was a whining in her ears. Luain growled and leapt down from his horse. He cut the thongs holding the bundled spears and let them tumble to the ground. Taking the bundle, and tossing one to her, he gestured forwards. She ran weak-legged to the top of the slope and for a moment stood awestruck at what she saw. The hillfort was burning in several places, and a large part of the wooden pallisade had been torn down. The Cambrani warriors had held their ground though, and a line of them filled the gap, keeping their shields linked and fighting bravely against....
....two hundred Great Urk were swinging their great toothed swords with the strength of maddened bulls, and dashing at the warriors' faces with their iron shields. Behind them, jeering, was a man in a white cloak, not of any apparent tribe, surrounded by five of his guard.
With an enraged snarl Luain tossed his spear with all of his enormous strength. The man's jeering stopped short as the spear caught him fully in the back and buried itself up to a quarter of its length in his flesh. The guards spun around with cries of alarm and anger, and began to dash towards Luain and Braint, swords and shields raised. Luain took up another spear and hurled it, and then another and another, whilst Braint stood mutely by, holding her spear upright, dumbfounded and held by bowel-clenching fear.
The first spear missed, but the second and third were blocked by the mens' shields, forcing them to drop them and run forward bearing only their swords.
"Braint! On your guard!"
With a roared curse Luain drew his sword in one hand and hefted his smith's hammer in the other. He hurled himself at the attackers. One fell instantly, cowed into dropping his guard by the giant's anger, and another was too slow with his shield, catching the hammer fully in the throat. He collapsed, gurgling, to the muddied earth.
With a jerk, Braint realised that she was standing idle when she should be fighting to the death alongside her uncle. She regretted the lack of sword and shield, with which she was best trained, but instead leapt forward, eyes wide with fear, swinging the spear at the nearest warrior's throat, and kicking sparks off the rim of his shield as he blocked the swipe. She leapt aside from the counter-thrust that came from under his shield, and brought the butt of her spear around, whirling towards his face, and feeling the slight sickening knock as it caught and broke the bridge of his nose, sending him staggering back into Luain's sword thrust.
Another of the guards lay dead at his feet, and the fifth was running for the cover of the Urk line. He tumbled and fell as another of Luain's spears caught him squarely in the small of his back, and lay moaning and writhing upon the bloodied grass.
"We can't get through here... too many!" Luain roared, looking about wildly for another entrance. "There! The Gods' gate!"
A hundred paces around the great palisade wall, there was a small, wooden gate that every man and woman of the tribe had used just once, as he or she returned from her Dreaming in the wilds, in the dazed and gods-filled state that marked their movement into adulthood. It was sacrilege to enter it at any other time, for whatever purpose, but it was the only way into the fortress.
Four Great-Urk relentlessly hacked, cut and splintered the beautifully woven signs of the Dreaming that were painted upon the sturdy oaken gate, grunting their effort and curses to the few warriors who were on the other side, barricading it against them.
Braint ran after Luain towards them, her legs shaking as if she were in a fever, and the cold sweat on her palms causing her to drop her spear twice and stumble on the uneven ground.
The rushing whine increased in her ears as she crouched behind a small birch tree with Luain, twenty paces behind the raging Urk, and his low rumble of instructions sounded muffled to her, and her mind raced to emptiness, taking clumsy moments to understand his words.
"Their armour's weak at the back of the legs and under their ribs, but the warriors above the gate would as well save their arrows from that angle." Surely enough, the two bowmen in the nest above the gate shot straight down onto the Great-Urk and found no gaps in their thick platen armour.
"I'm going to cast my last spear to get their attention and humble one of the damned things maybe, but you must get inside. You can't fight them with just a spear in your hands, and an eagle can fly over a gate where a wolf can't. Those bowmen will get a prettier target with the cursed blackskins coming for me. Now, away! Behind the yew, there!"
Unthinkingly, Braint lurched upwards and ran shakily towards a stunted yew-tree ten paces to Luain's right. Five paces from it, the meaning of his words struck her.
He's going to die so I can get over the wall. Oh Gods....
She turned and stumbled, looking imploringly at him where he crouched, his battered old handsome face set in an expression of determination and barely-surpressed rage.
Her dejected choke of protest was cut short by a glare from the warrior, and he gestured harshly to the yew tree again, his fingers making a sacred sign that assured her instant obedience. Trying desperately not to burst into panicked tears, Braint turned and ran the last few paces to the yew tree and hid herself as best she could.
Luain burst from behind a tree with the roar of a dragon, casting his spear with all of his strength. It found its mark where the plates met on the back of one of the Great-Urk, which made a gurgling roar of rage, arching over backwards and dropping its weapons to clutch at the spear protruding from its back, and presenting its throat for the bowmen above. It fell, two shafts projecting from its throat, landing so that the spear pushed its way almost through the chestplate. The three others looked around, dumbfounded for a moment, and then charged, roaring, towards Luain, who held his sword and hammer ready. Almost not daring to look, Braint felt a tingle of panic at her back and broke from cover and rushed towards the wall. An arrow caught one of the Great-Urk where the tendons stood out in the back of its knee and it fell with a grunt, catching another in its exposed hamstring.
The wall did not seem to be coming any closer, and rocks jumped and rolled from the mud beneath her feet as Braint ran up the short hill. There was a horrible sensation of the skin on her back tightening in expectation of the hooked blade that would surely sever her spine at any moment, and time slowed, so the wall seemed a year's run away.
With a final rush she planted the butt of her spear into the ground and leapt with all of her might at the wall, using the spear to vault upwards as she would onto the back of a horse. With a crash that knocked all of the air from her lungs, she hit the wall, managing to grasp between the splintery wooden spikes that served as battlements with her left hand and swung painfully from side to side. She fought for a breath. It did not come, and the screaming and roars of battle became muffled in her ears.Her vision turned red, tinged at the blurred edges with black.
She felt her legs collapse beneath her and cold angular rock pushing painfully at her ribs and realised that she must have fallen, and would now certainly die. She pulled with all her might for a breath of air, and after what seemed an eternity, one came racking into her lungs. The terrible sounds of the world returned.
Fueled by this insignificant victory, she fought desperately to stand, and to her infinite surprise, found that she could. She tottered for a moment, light-headed, and then stooped to pick up her spear. Turning, she jogged back a few paces and pinched her eyes tight, too late. She had already seen the two strewn bodies of Urk at Luain's feet, and heard the monstrous snarl of rage as the last of the three, who wielded a great two-handed sword and no shield, lifted his blade and swung so fiercely that it could not be blocked by the tired warrior.
Her ears conveyed to her the ringing 'tang' of a sword being knocked aside, and the sickening slapping crunch as the sword found its way from collar-bone to hip and out the other side.
Unable to contain an eruptive sob and a feverish wave of nausea, Braint turned and charged at the wall, screaming her tear- streaked plea to the Gods, throwing her full strength at the spear. She felt the swooping rush as she sailed through the air towards the wall. She hit higher up this time and felt a hand grasp her elbow and roughly yank her upwards. A cry of alarm did not quite block out the methodical grunt and thrumming swish of the Great-Urk Captain as he swung his grisly sword from behind her blind back. There was a splintering thud as its hooked tip buried itself in the palisade, and her foot was twisted aside as the halted blade ground grittily against the bone of her heel, mixing her blood with Luain's.
In a moment of exquisite pain and grief, she felt a rush of panicked energy unfurl inside her. With a roar of effort, the two warriors atop the wall pulled her up and over the built wooden spikes, which rasped roughly across her belly before she flopped to the platform deck, breathless and stricken numb with grief and terror. She felt for the briefest moment the tingle of relief at her rescue, and a heartbeat later felt it swamped with a pouring rage which could not be quenched.
She leapt to her feet, drawing in a deep, pained breath, and grabbed the tip of a pike that was rested against the guard-nest inside. Tossing it up, hand over hand, she turned with a terrible scream of rage that shook her very bones and raked at her throat. She rammed the pike down with all the strength the Gods would lend her, and its tip speared viciously through the up-looking eyehole in the Urk Captain's helm. With a blood-rage the like of which she had never felt, she felt the scraping pike pass through the back of the helmet, and heard the crack as the weight of the loose shaft twisted the dead Captain's head back so far that its neck broke.
The two warriors stared at her, open-mouthed with amazement, but she had no time for them. Four able-bodied swordsmen had been barricading the gate below and were needed elsewhere.
She leapt down from the wall and landed in a tumbling roll that found her on her feet again, not noticing the hundred pounding pains or the gritty sting of mud working its way into her heel.
Inside the fortress, she could see where the smoke had come from, as it lay still chokingly thick above the ground. The Greathouse was aflame, as was the Elders' place, and several sections of the wall. Massed warriors moved in blocks, cloaked in the black-rimmed sky blue that marked them as Cambriani, fighting savagely against the metallic storms of energy that were the Great-Urk, and singing aloud their wish for Mandedd to take their souls when they fell.
Anelis, the Elder Dreamer, stood beside the burning greathouse, and such a ferocity was in her eyes that Braint quailed. All the years were stripped form her as her eyes burned with flickering red fire, screaming incantations that caused the very flames of the thatch to leap up and plough into the lines of Urk, wrapping their foes in an incendiary embrace which caused them to drop their weapons and wail, tearing at their skin and letting off a foul black smoke that made their fellows gag and choke.
The rest of the Dreamers stood around the greatest of the roundhouses that was still whole, chanting in unison with a power that made the grass ripple and wave and the air sparkle with brilliance. Flickering blue bolts of light shot from them, furies condensed into blue flame, which massed into the Urk, causing black sprays of blood and demolished muscle where they hit, and making them drop their guard so that the Warriors could plunge their weapons in.
But still the Warriors sang their death-songs, and from where she stood, Braint could not see why. She pelted towards the smithy, thinking to find her father, or failing that, at least a sword. Inside, there was no one, except for a few scattered parts of Efnal, who worked the bellows. He had seemingly been torn apart. Stemming a violent wave of nausea, she forced her warrior's eyes to glance about for a good weapon.
A number of good blades hung from a rack, but each had a bare tang and no handle. The only sword that was whole was the testing blade, notched and partly blunt from where a hundred better blades had struck it and left their mark, but still, it was the right weight, and its metal was as good as any made by their enemies. She grasped it and ran outside, scampering up the conical thatched roof to overlook the battlefield.
What she saw made her sway and nearly fall. The two hundred Urk she had first seen were all slain, and the ten or so warriors who had survived and could still limp were dashing as fast as their tired and battered legs could carry them towards the main fray, which came from the western side of the fort. Four hundred Great-Urk were battling with as many warriors, formed in a great saw-toothed line, shields locked, pushing forwards and stamping on the fallen warriors with their great iron-shod feet.
What made the tribe's fate inevitable was the hundred mounted men, cloaked in white and bearing spears, who were galloping at the warriors from their left flank, tossing their spears and waving their swords with a great roar of impending victory.
Braint looked about wildly, the feeling of a hook at her stomach tugging so tight now that she was surprised her insides did not burst out. Her breathing came shortly, in gasps of panic.
Where are our horses? The only cavalry I see is theirs!
And then she found them, a tumbled mass of bodies, outside the far gap in the palisade, all soaked with blood and with the shafts of spears and lances standing proud from them, the occasional glimpse of their coloured cloaks flapping in the wind or lying blood-weighted over the bodies. The briefest moment of pride welled up through the horror as she realised that the bodies of the Cambriani horsemen were less than half in number than those of the enemy, and that.....
....the faces of all those she knew who would have been in that heroic charge flashed up before her face, smiling and joking, tending to their horses with a loving care that was so rare amongst the tribes.....
The grief bit at her throat, and she half-slid, half-tumbled her way down the roof, her eyes swimming in hot tears. Her limbs were shaking, and the reality of the situation hit her in one black swoop.
The Cambriani are no more.
When she reached the bottom of her slide at the eaves, she stood shakingly, and tried in vain to wipe the tears from her eyes.
She ran forward, towards the house around which the dreamers stood, flinging their final curses before being ridden down by the white-cloaked traitors.
The hundred or so Urk left standing roared their victory, and the shivering desolation of it coursed through Braint on a wave of renewed nausea. The screams she heard now were not warriors', nor hurled challenges and curses, they were the screams of the children and elders as the Urk made a great circle and took their pikes, thrusting them at the screaming crowds as they ran for their lives, and set their ends into the ground, raising their grisly trophies high into the air.
The final blow that stopped Braint dead in her tracks, aghast, came atop one of the pikes. With a crippling shock, Braint spotted the green-clad form so alike to her, except for the hair, which was the colour of dark ox blood. She was dressed to her best - a torc at her neck and a heavy gold bangle around her wrist, hanging limply at her side - in readiness for her sister's homecoming as full Warrior and fourth of the Royal line of the Cambriani.
That sight hung in her mind, as Braint sat sobbing under the blackthorn hedge, the walls of Bree looming darkly through the rain off in the distance. She could not remember fleeing like a kicked hound into the wilds, nor what had happened since.
The first day of autumn dropped its heavy, clinging rain through her muddied sky-blue cloak, and all she could remember of the time between then and now was when after two days she had returned to lay as many brave warriors as she could upon the death-platform, so that they might find their way across the river into the care of the Gods and Ancestors, and might never again be disturbed by the grief of the world. Everything of value had gone; all the gold, silver, and most of the swords, including that which was hers: the Ancestor-sword borne by her father and named Mona, that she had last seen being tossed into a sack by a Great-Urk Warlord, his belt pendant with the freshly cut heads of warriors and their families.
....Lanis' face had been beautiful even in death; the birch-bark strip of the Dreamer at her brow, a slight, knowing smile upon her lips and eyes closed as if in sleep.....
Braint had wept herself hoarse as she had tidied her sister's hair and drawn in her own warm blood the mark of her Dreaming inside Lanis' forearm, to guide her on her journey to the other side. She had found her father, and her mother, and all three of her brothers and laid their hewn bodies beside Lanis, close in death.
....and Luain. Never had she had such a task before, but she did the best to make him whole, binding his cloak tight about him, and had lain him by her father; his brother, with his sword and hammer upon his chest, and the head of his killer placed as an offering at his feet, the cut-off pikehead still projecting from the back of its helmet and holding the head within.....
It was the best she could do, and now she must simply ask the Gods to keep their bodies for one year, until their journey was complete and she could burn their bones, and speak their names without fear that they would hear her and turn back out of pity, losing their way. Until then....
Braint shouldered open the heavy door to the Pony, her hands laden with the hares she had caught, and two plump pheasants hanging over her shoulder, their necks dangling against the stained sky-blue of her sodden cloak.
She was met by a variety of sullen stares and the guttering light of a dozen oil lamps. Bertram Appledore sat huddled in a corner with his brother and three friends, each of whom wore the special look of resentment that they kept just for her. Braint smiled a humourless smile under her dripping hood and kicked the door shut behind her, wiping her feet on the muddy rushes and straightening up.
Bertram had not been able to walk easily since last week - a fact he owed to an ill-judged attempt to woo Braint, given courage by no less than seven flagons of ale. This had not made Braint overly popular within Bree; Bertram and his brother Rowlie were well known and liked through the town, and she was a grim-faced outsider with little humour and strange mystical marks upon her arms and legs. In fact, the only face inside the Pony who seemed pleased to see her was that of Barliman Butterbur, the balding innkeeper, who bustled over and admired Braint's catch happily.
"Well, you've done me a favour and no mistake Miss Braint! We're fresh out of hares, and those pheasants'll go down a treat once they've been hung for a week or two. I'll just get Ramsi to make you up something now...."
He took the game from her and bustled off towards the kitchen, breathing heavily through his mouth and looking furrow-browed at a small slate in his hand, scratching tally marks upon it.
Braint quietly moved to an unobtrusive corner with a brightly burning reed lamp and huddled close to it, allowing the warm fug of the room into her bones. The burning rushes....
The fire-sprites hugging close to the Urk, making their skins crack and pour smoke... the Great-house burning, the air shimmering with blue. Braint nic Gwyddhien, leading a charge of five hundred horse against the attackers, cutting them down like corn to the hook. Standing victorious, Warrior-queen.....
"Here you go miss. I'm afraid you'll have to move to the ground floor for tonight, we're all full up upstairs."
There was a warm thud as a bowl of steaming soup and a flagon of ale were set upon the table before her, with a small loaf of crusted bread.
Braint nodded her thanks to Barliman.
Her neck still stung where she had ripped off the plaited golden torc, and her hair was matted and tangled, bearing no braids.
The red-faced portly innkeeper gave her an encouraging grin before turning away and calling out for his assistant in a loud voice. He was a good man.
Braint tore off a chunk of bread and dipped it into the soup, letting the smell of it fill her nose and steal her attention. Chewing slowly, she savoured the mouthful, swallowed and took a swig of ale. Concentrating on the flavours and guessing the ingredients helped. It meant her mind was occupied and not free to wander.
".... all orcs and goblins, said he!" Braint looked up sharply. The speaker was Rowlie Appledore, brother to the unfortunate Bertram.
"On my honour, last week it was, took that ole Missus who lives out past Bromley's place. House cleaned out and burned to the ground, an' her an' her son visitin' her, all taken away and eaten up!"
The Great-house burning, the air shimmering with blue. The screams of the children and elders ringing in her ears. Lanis upon a pike, raised high in the air, still mouthing her shock as her lifeblood drained away.....
There was a growing whistle in Braint's ears.
"Well I never!" interjected Bram Oakley in an angry grumble. "I 'ad the young man muckin' out the pigs fer me last week! Baril were 'is name. Cheery young chap and a good worker to boot. What's the world comin' to, I ask you...."
Braint turned quickly in her seat and cleared her throat, causing him to jump and spill his drink. He gave her an unhappy grumble and looked away. The others glanced at her with mixed looks of suspicion and derision, muttering into their drinks.
Braint's pulse was racing, and her expression fierce.
"Where? Where are these goblin? These orcs?"
Braint felt her tongue stumble on the harsh-sounding language. She had been being tutored in it until her bleeding came, but the time after that had been filled with numerous ceremonies and rites, and so she had had little chance to practice.
"What business is it of yours, eh Miss?" asked Bram, giving her a suspicious leer.
"You want them dead? Tell me where they are."
"You mean ter say that you're going to go and kill 'em all, Miss? Just you by yourself? You'se mad I say. No girl's a match for a band o' goblins, true as it rains in spring!"
Braint's mouth twisted as she bit back an angry retort.
"I did not ask for your opinion, sir. I asked where they are," said Braint, narrowing her eyes at him.
...not a coward, not a coward...
Bertram gave a measured sneer and leaned back in his seat airily, adopting a businesslike, mocking tone.
"Well now, gents, it seems what we have here is a genuine firebrand. I say we should tell the young lady where these disreputable characters might be found, so that she can save us from them!" He gave a pompous smile, which Braint returned mockingly. "And I think a wager is in order!"
"Hrrr, aye! A wager!" growled Bram appreciatively. Braint gave him a venomous look.
"Well, my dear, how sounds this: if'n you return to this place bearing the head of the chief of this meddlesome band" - he gave a disbelieving wink - "then I shall give you twenty silver pennies and a round of ale, eh? And if you, say, return battered and bruised, or without the prize, then you shall give me - ah - the... pleasure of your company, for one night. Eh? What say you?"
The flare of anger that might have left Bertram headless was stayed by a gruff look from Barliman as he shook his head disapprovingly at the man.
"Now now, Mr. Appledore, let's not be making no silly wagers that'll get the young lass killed! I thought better o' you..."
"Sixty pennies," Braint cut in.
Fool. 'The pleasure of your company'. I could agree to that and spend a night throwing rocks at you.
Barliman gave an unhappy groan and bustled over to Braint, meaning to discourage her, but before he reached her, Braint had grabbed Bertram's hand and shook it hard.
And so she found herself, two nights later, creeping through the dripping forest, her bare feet padding silently across the wet leaves and mosses. Her skin tingled under the woad-lines she had painted upon herself, the writhing form of the dragon grappling its talons with the sky-blue eagle. The gods were watching her, but whether there was approval in their gaze, she could not tell.
Her palms tingled. There was light over the next rise. Gripping the tangled roots with her toes, she climbed the slope silently. She could feel the cold wind raising goose-pimples upon the skin of her bare legs, and sending the loose leather of her tunic flapping. This day she was acting out the plans of the gods, for good or ill. No armour would stop the killing blow if she was meant to die, and her minimal dress showed faith and acceptance of their will.
An ugly chattering and rasping laughter rode on the wind, and as Braint grew nearer to the flicker of firelight, she could see the huddled, swarthy figures of a dozen goblins biting strips of meat from chunks of stewed bone.
A sentry fiddled with the strap of his crossbow, thinking himself concealed in a tangle of holly. He was not looking in Braint's direction, and she pressed a thumb to her forehead in thanks for it. She changed her course and drew her skinning knife from her belt.
Twenty paces... ten... five...
Braint's heart beat so hard in her chest that she was amazed the sentry had not not heard its clatter. Two paces behind, she stopped, adjusting her grip on her knife and feeling cold sweat roll down her back. Her eyes were wide and her tongue moistened her lips nervously.
Coward! Coward! Coward!
Achingly long seconds passed, and she did not move. The sentry sneezed and wiped his nose on his arm, leering into the darkness.
Her arms were paralysed by fear, and there was no way out. No way back now. A shivering terror and heart-rending sorrow welled up inside her, so that she was almost ready to drop to her knees and beg the goblin's forgiveness for her intent. An unbearable longing swept through her chest for strong, warm arms to close on her and lead her away; loving hands to give her spiced warm milk; a cheerful, rumbling voice to sing her to sleep by the last embers of the fire and keep her in peace. A tear rolled down her face, stingingly cold in the night air, and a tiny, shaking gasp escaped her. The goblin stiffened....
Never again. All dead.
... and the gods intervened. As the goblin began to turn, a decisive rush of rage took her and her arm darted out like a striking snake, the knife's blade pushing its way fully through the sentry's neck, and trapping the wind in its gullet, so that it could not make its death-cry. Warm, black blood welled up out of the wound and soaked her hand as she twisted the blade and followed the goblin to the ground, ensuring that it did not clatter.
She straddled its chest on the ground and pushed her blade slowly into its heart, allowing no darting scrape that might be heard at the camp. The goblin's beady black eyes fixed on her own, wide with panic and hatred as it clutched at its throat, mouthing wordlessly as a bubbling flow of black blood flooded its mouth and spilled over onto its face. She stared into those eyes as the squirming ceased, cursing it with all her soul and reveling in the creature's bowel-voiding terror and shock.
The forest seemed to turn blistering red and she stood, breathing levelly, and looked up at the fire. starting at a silent stride, she moved towards it, breathing harshly, light-headed with wrath and grief, but as she grew closer caution left her, and she drew her father's notched testing-blade with both hands and let out a wordless roar, her war-cry not finding the names that it so longed to give voice to, but nevertheless seeming to shake the trees to their roots and make the goblins cringe and cower, and sending one of them diving headlong into the fire in shock.
Nothing could stop her. The gritty long blades of the goblins shook in their hands as they madly swung at her, and the pommel of her sword crashed down onto the skull of one, sending it tumbling blank-eyed to the ground with a muffled 'crock'. Her blade whipped around and hissed through the air, barely slowing as it met the stomach of another, unseaming him and spraying his lifeblood over his bewildered and enraged fellows.
Another fell, and another. The slippery woad on her leg turned aside a long knife and her flapping cloak few in the eyes of its wielder, allowing Braint to bring about her blade and behead him.
She was vaguely aware of one of them roaring orders, its voice becoming more and more shrill as its audience was made into a bloody tangle, writhing in the mud of the campsite, and when none remained but it alone, she saw it turn tail and run towards the distant rocks, madly throwing its knife at her face.
Dragon-fire burned at her chest as she gave chase, ducking the blade and charging down the goblin with the speed of a wild horse. The goblin's many bangles and heavy helm were making him trip and stumble in the knotted mud and leaves, and a fearful glance over his shoulder caused him to run directly into a blackthorn bush, whose sharp embrace made him squeal and jump back into his pursuer.
Braint rammed him into a tree and knocked him to the ground, where he squirmed, hissing and squealing as she brought the dragon-headed pommel of her sword down into nose, and then again, and again, and again until the squirming gave way to twitching, and black blood stung in her eyes.
She stood, and brought her sword down once, decisively, removing his head. She stooped to pick it up, but as her heartbeat began to slow and she saw what she was reaching for, the battle-rage left her, and an uncontainable wave of nausea took her, followed by a choking sob and an unquenchable feeling of loneliness.
The door to the pony barged open once more, causing everyone within to jump and turn their heads. One or two reached for their weapons as the bedraggled figure pushed her way inside, soaked in black blood and reeking, her war paint smudged and blended until her skin looked blue-black and scratched, and her hair hanging in a dripping mess about her head.
The Pony's patrons gasped as one, and Bertram Appledore virtually cowered in his corner, his friends and brother visibly edging away from him as it became clear what they were looking at.
Braint walked over to his table and Bram Oakley fell from his stool in an effort to remove himself from the nightmare apparition. She dropped the mangled, pulverised, sodden thing onto the table by its hair and said, in a voice so much stronger than the one they had come to know as to be almost unrecognisable:
"There. Sixty pennies. Spare the drink, I don't think I could stand the company."
Bertram's mouth flapped, and a brief hint of argument crossed his face. Braint was impressed. She did not think he would have the nerve to argue.
"I... I - I mean to say, how do I know this is..?"
"Because I do not lie," She said flatly, her hand moving almost imperceptibly towards the hilt of her sword.
Bertram hastily looked down and gathered his purse, emptying its contents and looking imploringly at his friends to make up the remainder. They grudgingly did so, and Braint took ten coins directly to the bar and put them down in front of Barliman.
"For the upset, and the mess. Thank you, Barliman, for all of your kindness. I shall take my leave of you now. Keep well."
Not waiting for a response from the stunned barman, she strode briefly outside and disappeared into the rain, where old Vallan the beggar would awake the next day to find himself, unexplainably, forty coins richer.
There you are... that's the story so far. As ever, all feedback and comments are welcome; positive and negative.
Hope you enjoyed!
I really would appreciate some feedback, you know... get a kind of sinking feeling if no one replies. :(
Very well written and giving considerable insight to the character. I know a lot of it was cut and pasted but the lengthy nature of the post somewhat discouraged me to read it :).
Very nice piece of work - now when are you going to do Vesp? ;)
Very well written and giving considerable insight to the character. I know a lot of it was cut and pasted but the lengthy nature of the post somewhat discouraged me to read it :).
Yes, I thought that might be a problem, maybe I should have done it serially - just seemed a bit cheesy when I'd already posted two of the three stories :)
Nevertheless, thanks for your feedback, and anyone, feel free to read it one story at a time!
and as for Vesp - erm... two steps ahead of you there. Have a look at posts older than a month old ;)
I was deeply surprised when I was checking the forum archives and stumbled upon this. The amount of character development present awes me, and the entire story kept me riveted to the screen. A most excellent literary effort. I can barely wait to see more from you, small-print :D
Finally had the chance to read it all the way through. Thumbs up...or to the forehead...or...burnt on bacon...or what have you. Nice work.
Something was moving in the bushes behind. It was not a loud sound, or something that she could be sure of; just the slight tightening of the skin across her back and an involuntary twitch in her ears. She did not react immediately, but took another couple of cat-pawed paces forwards through the moonlit undergrowth. Focused on some imaginary prey, she moved her right hand down to pull a thorny bramble out of her path and at the same time smoothly unhooked the strip of hide that held her skinning knife in its doeskin sheath. She knew someone had been tracking her since she had moved into the foothills yesterday. There was not much she could do if a bow was being aimed at her, but the feint smell of lime and animal grease had tickled her nose twice today, and those who hunted so daubed did not use bows.
She crouched slowly, staring hard at a point of nothing, and tugged the slingshot loose from her belt, making a subtle play of fumbling for a slingstone in the shot-pouch and making her apparent distraction the fool’s-bait.
A little ‘hush’ of leaves crushed under pouncing feet from behind her and she rose up, spinning about with knife in hand, and stabbed forward. Her left hand knocked aside a knife that had been turned back towards its wielder, ready to cut her throat, and the right closely missed stabbing her attacker in his shoulder as he stepped back with a snakish grace, letting her blade hiss past and stab the night air. Wrong-footed, Braint ducked a swing clumsily and was glad to have done so; the knife she had knocked from the painted man’s hand was bound by a cord to his wrist and so he had snatched it from the air again only moments after having it knocked from his grip.
He was good, and her immediate counterattack bit the air again as he leapt back out of its way and for a moment they circled, each glaring with predatory eyes. He was ghosted; his wiry body covered in clay, grease, ash and white lime. His eyes and cheekbones were lined to make his face a grinning skull, and his hair spiked upright to make him taller and more fearsome. She slowly stood a little taller, lowering her blade until it pointed to the woodland floor.
Breath steady; eyes calm.
With a banshee wail he leapt at her and almost immediately sprang backwards again, predicting her trick-strike and seeking to take her off balance as she lunged. But her strike did not come, and she did not move until he was on the back-foot of his leap, when she darted forwards under his guard, slashing diagonally down and feeling her blade scrape across temple, cheekbone, tooth and chin. He bawled in pain and choked, staggering backwards with his left hand covering the hideous wound on his face. Blood streamed down his arm and his left eye was pinched shut but his right still watched her, creased in pain, and his blade was still raised defensively. She could still die upon it if she let arrogance lead her feet.
So she did not. She let him stagger backwards, suppressing whimpers and gasps, then reached again for her sling, fitting a stone to it with a far more fluid ease than she had before. He had no choice now. Unless he closed the distance, he was dead, but when he did, she was ready and he was distracted. She stepped neatly aside, ignoring a moment’s admiration for his tenacity, and reversed her knife, backhand stabbing beneath his shoulderblade as he staggered past. He collapsed against the tree trunk, lounging like a wounded lion. The power and grace were gone from his limbs now and blood bubbled in his breath. She crouched down to wipe her knife on a mossy root, and then looked up and stared into his eyes as he began to cough.
His body relaxed a little into the curve of the trees, shivering, and it was clear that he was not a man but a youth, perhaps no more than a week past his initiation. Were it not for the gash on his face he would have been beautiful; square-jawed, lithe and muscled like a dancer, but she looked at his handsome, boyish face and found that she was unmoved. She should have felt sympathy for him, and there was a time when she would have felt sick with guilt, but now she could not even muster the decency to feel shame at killing someone who was not long out of childhood. He had meant to kill her, and he had lost.
“You fought well,” she said shortly. And it was true; the fight might have gone either way. “I would not like to meet the man who taught you. But a true Ghost can see into an enemy, and know when she is tricking him, and when she is double-tricking him too. My elder brother knew that. Perhaps he will tell you when you cross the river.”
The boy looked at her, some of the pain fading from his face. He was beyond speech now; his left lung was full of froth, but he had not looked away.
Braint looked down at the leaves for a moment, spinning her knife on its tip against the root.
“I respect your skill. It is a pity that it was wasted on a Torbruggi.”
She gestured towards the limed pattern on his chest, marking him as one of her most hated enemies.
“I would tell you to walk proudly to the ancestors, but your soul should linger for a time first – you are too young to have been at my village that day, but you are an ally of orcs, and you do the bidding of men who are worse. You should witness what that truly means before you go to the ancestors; see the kind of men and beasts you have sworn your blood-oaths to and when you do you will hang your head in shame. Perhaps the ancestors will forgive you. I can not.”
She stood, and his eyes lazily followed her, his body convulsing twice as he coughed roughly. She walked over to him and crouched down, and her hand was ready to catch his as he played his last hand and tried to stab her in the neck. She twisted the knife from his grip and quickly thrust her own up to the hilt into his heart.
After a few moments of seizure, Braint was alone again. She hummed a chant for the departing dead as she gently closed his eyes. Mercy, at least, does not require forgiveness.
//ooc: Since I have been deprived of playing time (and sleep) of late, I thought I would use my break at work to add a little colour to the forums. A little dark, perhaps, but I have been learning about the effects of long-term stress and horror (fortunately not first-hand, but in lectures). How bad people do good things and good people do bad things - and how sometimes there is no line to be drawn - is an area of interest for me in fiction. I hope I managed to get across something that feels real at least in part. C&C welcome ;)
When you write your books t-s-p, I'll buy them.
I second that motion Brindisium :)
The moon hung in a fading-blue sky, as the last flames of the day made flags of burning gold scatter along the western horizon. Braint curled her toes over the rough lichen-covered granite and looked down into the little dell. Four figures sat crouched around the fire, poking at it, talking quietly and shooting wary glances up towards where she sat...
...a thin twist of smoke drifted up through the treetops before being dragged away by the breeze. That could be dangerous - she would have to show them how to make a fire without smoke.
She stared for long, hammering moments at the shape of the running hare shadowed onto the moon’s silver surface, and ran her thumb over its twin, ink-scarred into the skin of her left forearm. A small circle of warmth spread from the movement of her thumb as it circled over and again, flattening the goose-bumped hairs as the evening chill set in. She thought about the girl whose mark it had been, and wondered if she would be recognised by her now. Her eyes fell to the ground for several long moments, then looked up to the moon again.
Lanis had been twelve years old when she died; nearing her first bleeding. A small, delicate child of porcelain-smooth skin and deep, autumn-red hair, she had had the presence of a powerful Dreamer from the beginning. It was difficult for Braint now to remember her as she had been in the early days; the snot-nosed weeping child who had always been closer to their mother’s heart than Braint could be, who had frequently woken screaming in the night having dreamt badly and wet the bed - the distant, ungrateful girl who never wanted to playfight or run or climb or hunt with her. That had hurt; she had never really thought about it before, but it had stung that Lanis had never wanted to do what her elder sister did.
It had never suited Braint to be the youngest, and since she could remember she had longed for a younger brother or sister to teach and protect; someone who would look up to her, who would grow to be fast and fierce and skilful - but never quite as good as her - who she could play tricks on and who would play tricks on her in return. But Lanis had been born small and she had stayed that way; it was clear she would not make a good warrior or hunter but even as a small child she had been able to give the impression that she was looking through people, weighing them and calmly deciding their worth. Braint remembered the bitter jealousy she had felt when she had noticed that her mother and father always kept Lanis present when they were meeting with envoys from the other tribes, and that they watched her to see whether she would hide from them, or ignore them, or even go over to them and sit on their laps as they held council. Braint had rarely been allowed into the Greathouse when there was a council, but Lanis’ judgement of people had been more instinctive and reliable than that of a hound or a horse and so she was ever invited, unless she was out fishing or wandering and could not be found.
It had seemed like a challenge at first, for Braint to win her sister’s favour, but in time it became too difficult to be anything but frustrating and humiliating. Lanis should have looked up to Braint, but it seemed that the two shared almost nothing in common, and her gentle rejection had been harder to understand than open hostility or dislike would have been. No, they were never truly close as children, except on those few occasions when Braint was truly upset: when her favourite hound had been mauled by a boar; when her best friend had been taken by the flux, or when Luain had shouted at her for risking her life in a foolish game. Each time when she had seemed inconsolable, Lanis had silently come unbidden, usually bearing a fragrant honeyed drink and had sat with her wordlessly, resting her head on her shoulder or putting her arms about her; dry-eyed, quiet and warm. On those occasions, there was no one else whose presence she could have preferred, or even accepted.
For most of the time that they had shared together, Braint had lived in envy of her sister, whom she knew was wiser, more dignified and far more beautiful than her, and she had jealously snatched all the praise she could for her skill with a sword or spear, or sling or on horseback. Under this moon, it was easy to remember Lanis the Dreamer, whose deep grey eyes had always seemed to see straight through Braint’s facade and into the heart beneath. She had loved her sister deeply, and feared her equally, though she knew that Lanis would never seek to hurt her. She had never even sought retribution for any of the bitter tricks and pranks that Braint had played upon her, simply cried as though she did not understand why her elder sister would be so cruel. But Lanis’ was a power wholly unknown to Braint; divorced entirely from the sun-fire and gold and the blood-rage of battle, and that is what she feared. How could she stand there, so small and soft-muscled; pale and vulnerable, and yet be able to make grown adults, seasoned warriors, and respected elders listen to her like an equal? It had not seemed fair that she could be so wise and respected without even trying. Braint knew that she could have broken Lanis in a heartbeat had she wanted to, but even the thought of such violence against something so delicate and caring made Braint's stomach clench tight and her legs weak. To hurt her would have been to desecrate a sacred shrine, or club a rare and beautiful water-bird. It should have been impossible now to think of something so brutal, senseless and disgustingly unfair as had happened to her.
Braint shuddered, feeling a wash of cold disgust and spat the bitter taste of hatred from her mouth, pinching her eyes tight for a moment and struggling to breathe. After long moments she looked again at the moon. No, it was easier now to think of Lanis as she had seemed then: as a god, a force of nature, untainted by human duplicity, pure and forgiving, but unfathomable.
It was only in the last two years of their life that Braint had found it in herself to forgive her sister her unearned grace and the adoration it drew from all of those who met her. She began to understand finally that she did not have to compete. She had just begun to see that what had stood between them for the past ten years had been Braint’s own insecurity, and her fear of being inadequate; it was only when she had stopped trying to prove herself better than her sister that she had seen that she was not inferior, only different. Only then could the two of them truly relax in one another’s company, and to Braint’s delight, she had found that she had a talent for making Lanis laugh – something that only her uncle Luain had hitherto been able to do with any frequency. There had grown in Braint then a fierce love – something so potent that it almost hurt, squeezing at her gut, and she felt she knew for fleeting moments what it would feel like to be a mother.
It had been the hardest thing that Braint had ever done to forgive herself for failing to save her, but she knew in her soul that she could not have done other than she had. She had been upon an errand for the Gods on that day, and as soon as she had felt the danger she had ridden her horse so hard that it probably could not have recovered. All she could have achieved by arriving earlier would have been to die moments before her sister had. Sometimes, she knew, the Gods called upon a dreamer to serve them ahead of time, and perhaps they had made sure that Braint could not have saved her. All of this rang true, but the bitter injustice of it still stung like a salted wound. She had tried hard not to hate the Gods for their theft.
Retribution, then, had been the only purpose of her life. It was her people who had been betrayed, and she was alone in the world; the last of the Cambriani, and the only one who could take vengeance. It had seemed so, at least, until she had learned that she was not alone. New terrors as yet unimagined had begun to form unbidden within her, for it was all too easy to be the queen of a dead people, and another thing entirely to be a Leader. It had always seemed that the rank was wasted upon her; her mother was queen, and as far as Braint felt, she always would be. But now, with the smoke still stinging her lungs from the escape from Tharbad, she knew that the freedom that single-minded reckless hatred had afforded her could no longer be relied upon to see her through. She had clung to the traditions and culture of her people like a lifeline, so that when she died – as she surely would soon – she would be able to cross the river proudly, and not as a faded stray from a once-great people.
There had been a kind of perverted freedom in being alone and without responsibility. There was a purity in her singularity of purpose, and it had been clear to her that the old customs were all that mattered, and anyone who could help her find vengeance could be a friend, no matter what they had been before. There was something almost like excitement to be found in journeying with those she had once been sworn to fight against, and more in the conflicts that arose when they failed to conform to the customs of her people. There was a strange and compelling power to making others fear momentarily for their lives, and then offering them a reprieve; the flash of fear or mistrust, replaced by relief as she lowered her weapon. Now that she thought of it, she felt a little stab of shame, imagining what her uncle would have said had he seen her using her weapons to intimidate those she had no intention of killing.
But that was just it; she could no longer pretend to herself that whatever she did was justified. She was Queen, and the title had to mean something. It was more than a royal torc and another cruel irony; she had the right of blood over these children in the dell. It was up to her, who had never led in earnest, to see that these few people were cared for and lived long enough to pass on their blood. A flush of frustration burned at her cheeks and she kicked the ball of her foot down against the stone. She was no longer free to risk her own life, because it no longer belonged to just her. But how would she make them accept her? When she had stood before them, they had huddled in a group together, looking at her with a mixture of wary gratitude and veiled mistrust. Who was she now but some wild stranger? A painful reminder of a past left behind? The children had formed their own group, and Cumal had been their leader. Whatever Braint did, she would be compared to him, and their grief for the pale-haired youth who had led them would make them remember only his virtues, and none of his failings. She could not abandon them, but they did not want her.
Nevertheless, she could not leave them to govern themselves. They had been children when the steading had been attacked, and they had grown under Tharbad’s heel. How could they be anything other than children now? Brigit, the eldest, seemed full of the fire that was proper in a warrior, but her arms had grown soft, and her movements were clumsy and angry. She would need teaching in the ways of war, but first she would need to learn respect for Braint and to remember the laws of rank that would allow her to regain humility. Hella, who could tell? She had no presence, seeming only a quiet follower. Braint had not had time to discover whether she was any use or had learned any skills before Tharbad had ruined her. Breyi, the younger girl-child, might have been Brigit’s sister. Their hair was alike, and there was clear hero-worship in Breyi’s eyes when she looked at her elder kinswoman, but she had a jutting, stubborn jaw and would be even harder to tutor than Brigit, when the time came. And Caradoc, the youngest: he might have been a Tharbadder. She could not feel in him the spirit of her tribe. He was young and clumsy and awkward, making far too much noise as they moved through the bush, and dropping the meat in the fire as he struggled to help.
She looked down at them now, observing the tight-lipped frown with which Breyi had fixed her before quickly looking away, and tried not to feel angry that they had survived. She wanted Lanis - or Luain, or Cardagos, or Gwyddhien, Elis, Sonos, Merra, or any of her old friends - so badly that she thought her heart might simply stop. But instead she had these damned ungrateful midden-foxes!
She swallowed, looking away sharply in case anyone saw the scowl which she could not keep from crossing her face.
No, that was foolish. What she had was a reason to live, even if they could do with a wash. She made herself stand and suck in a few long, cold lungfuls to calm herself, before turning once to the moon and raising her thumb to her forehead, then heading back down to the fire.
Lanis nic Gwyddhien
//Hello. I began this a while ago and picked away at it. I wanted to find a way to express in a more real sense what such an amazing tragedy would do to the psyche of a survivor, and as such things are easiest to understand when rather than looking at an atrocity on its full scale, the story or face of one individual is our point of empathy. Also, I felt it important to show how in one person, although such a horrible event can never really be overcome, grief will eventually be tempered by nostalgia and fond memory, and how it's possible in time to move on, if never really to get over. The painting was done as I normally do them; with some reference to begin with (Andrey Varushew), but then continuing along my own tangents, mixing in some features of Braint's face to provide a family resemblance and hopefully ending up with a fair representation of her unfairly beautiful kid-sister. I know I've done something right, because I look at her face and wish I had written a story where she survived.
Evokes innocence intermingled with hardship and quite acceptance. Beautiful.
//Hello all. This is the final entry in Braint's story. I wrote it mostly for myself: to wrap up her story and not let all ym plans go to waste. I know it's quite long and unpolished, but hope some of you read and enjoy it. It's been a pleasure knowing you all. ;)
Epilogue - Wings Unfurled
The blood on Braint's hands was congealing, making them stick uncomfortably to the tacky hilt of her dagger. Without taking her eyes from the burning village, she reached down slowly to wipe them on the dewy grass, though it had little effect. A muffled scream made her turn her head sharply. This one was closer than the others, and it was followed by a harsh laugh and jeers. Someone was running towards the copse where she was hiding, panting in terror. It was a woman, her pale blonde hair was straggled and dirty, her tunic was torn and there were no boots upon her feet. She whimpered in terror as she crashed through the bushes half a spear-throw away to the right, and moments later it became clear what she was running from. Two grinning tribesmen were sprinting after her, whooping and jeering. Braint sighed and resumed wiping her blade upon the grass.
“What are you doing?!”, hissed a boy's voice angrily from the shadows behind. “Help her!'
Braint sheathed her blade and looked back to thevillage ahead of them.
“No,” she intoned quietly. “There are two. I can only kill one at a time, and the other will call out. The risk is too great.”
“You damned savage! Have you no mercy?”
A girl's voice this time. Braint rounded on her with narrowed eyes. She opened her mouth to berate her, but the girl's face was twisted with barely suppressed fury and impotent frustration. She remembered that rage and swallowed her threat.
“It is not about mercy. We can not help every one of your kin.” she said, attempting a conciliatory tone.
“Then what use are you!” snapped the boy, flicking a pale forelock out of his eyes and grabbing his sister's arm. “If you'll not help her, we'll not help you. Come, Éohild, let us leave this savage to her fancies!”
In a silent, graceful movement, Braint rose and stepped in their way. A flicker of fear flashed across the boy's eyes briefly before he set his jaw again in anger. He opened his mouth to complain, but Braint cut across him in a low but commanding tone:
“Quiet. We have no time for games. I need you sister's help, so I will do as you ask. But this is the last time. Stay here. Do not follow me, or you will regret it. Stay.”
Without waiting for a response, she turned and began to jog silently through the bushes, reading the tracks upon the ground. It was not difficult. Even had they not torn through the undergrowth like raging boars, sobs and jeers rang through the forest ahead. A blind man could have tracked this prey.
Braint stopped at the edge of the clearing and took her bearings. The larger of the two Torbruggi tribesmen was atop the Rohirrim woman, whilst the other stood watch. He was a wiry man, with thin hair that hung like rat's tails down the back of his neck, but he was alert, watching the way back to the village and barely glancing at his companion. It was clear from his manner that they had done this many times before.
Braint gritted her teeth and swallowed. She wanted to charge, and punish these vermin with the long blade, but they were too far apart to take swiftly. Instead she padded around until she was within pouncing distance of the larger man and his victim. She made herself look, though it sickened her, and waited until the man was least alert.
Silently, she pounced, smashing the pommel of her dagger hard into the rapist's temple and bounding past as he grasped at his head in silent shock. The rohirrim woman screamed, but that did not matter: there were many womens' screams on the air tonight. Three bounding paces and she was upon the rat-tailed man, ramming her knee into the back of his and gripping his chin; bringing up her blade to slash his throat, but he was a slippery foe. He twisted hard, ramming his elbow into Braint's ribs and slipping from her grasp and leaping upright. Wincing, Braint thrust her knee forwards, hoping to knock the wind from his lungs before he could call out, but instead catching him hard in the groin. The low howl he let out was not loud enough to carry, but she did not allow him to time to regain his breath. Again she rammed forward her knee, smashing it into his face as he bent double, and striking again and again with the pommel of her dagger onto the side of his head. Quick as a snake, she rammed into him, following him down and stabbing repeatedly at his chest and throat as he fell.
Before the shock had even faded from the rat's eyes, she was on her feet again and running at the burly warrior. She was almost too late: he was on his feet, gathering his breath to roar. Desperately, she leapt at him, thrusting her dagger for the point where his ribs met. With a slick hushing sound, the warrior's roar was turned into a gurgle moments before it reached his lips. But before the blade had bitten as deep as it may, his elbow came up hard at the top of Braint's skull and she tumbled to the ground. Her head pounded as the world spun. She staggered to her knees and squinted through the pain as the warrior tried to pull Braint's blade from his chest. Stumbling towards him, she grappled for a moment with his slippery hands, before managing to plunge the blade home even as he gripped it – deep into his heart.
Wincing, she drew it forth again and turned, before falling forwards onto one hand, the other grasping her head. Dizzily, she looked up to see the dishonoured woman staring at her in horror, still lying against a tree-stump. Blinking and scowling, Braint climbed to her feet and gestured with her chin towards the forest. The woman struggled to her feet and fled.
Spitting on the grass, Braint cursed, then moved to the gurgling form of the rat-tailed tribesman as he writhed feebly on the ground. She kicked aside his clawing hand and finished him cleanly with a thrust to his heart, before flicking the blood from her blade and striding from the clearing, past the two wide-eyed Rohirrim youths, who backed away as she passed.
“I told you not to follow me,” she said impatiently. “Come. I still need your help.”
Without looking back, she broke into a silent jog, ducking under branches and leaping over briars and fallen logs with barely a whisper, though she might not have bothered, given the crashing and panting that followed behind.
As they grew close enough almost to feel the heat from the towering flames, Braint began to slow, and waited for the two youths to catch up. As they approached, she raised a hand to signal her presence, and the girl named Éohild barely stifled a yelp as she spotted her. Braint's heart skipped a beat at the sound, and she quickly turned again to be sure they had not been heard or seen. Nothing... good. Turning back, she frowned at Éohild, but the girl was too scared to notice her anger. Sighing, she took her arm and pulled her down into the shadows, earning a scowl from her brother. Braint reached out and turned the girl's head so that she was looking into her eyes.
“You must take care! If you are seen too soon, all of this will be in vain, and no one will avenge your people, or mine. I know you hate me – you see only another 'Dun-lend-ing'. But you must trust. I know what you are feeling now. Whatever else I am, I know the burning in your gut, I know the terror, I know the fury and the grief, and they come from the crimes of the same man. There is only one difference – I had no hope for vengeance to comfort me, but if you do as I ask, then our enemy will die before the dawn, and these... filth will rejoin their horde without a leader. I know it is not enough, but I can not kill all of them. Perhaps your kinsmen at the Hornburg will make them pay properly for their crimes, but with your help, I will do what I can here and now. Is your fear greater than your rage, or will you help me?”
Éohild sniffed and looked down to the grass, nodding quietly. Braint looked to her brother as he put an arm about her. His face had softened a little, but still it was marked with a scowl.
“Why her? Why can't you do it? Or me?”
Braint was growing impatient, but she could not risk losing them now, so as she turned to keep watch, she spoke a reply.
“Because I am a warrior. He will see it in me and he will not follow, or he will call his orcs. Your sister's strength is inside her, and it will hide behind her fear. I have watched this man for two moons now. He has no honour: he preys on the helpless and fearful, even when it is not safe to do so. He can not resist, and tonight he will pay.”
Braint's eyes did not move from the road below all the time she spoke and now, she saw what she had been waiting for: three horsemen were riding towards the village at a trot. From the way they were slumped in the saddle, two of them were already thick with ale. The third, a ghostly figure, whose body was daubed with clay, lime and charcoal, rode upright, his body moving fluidly with the gait of the horse. Braint reached back and slapped the youth Éolmir on the shoulder.
“Go, now! Keep low and ride hard, tell them to make ready!”
The three horsemen were riding closer now, two of them laughing loudly as they surveyed the ruins of the Westfold. Braint glanced back over her shoulder. Éolmir was hugging his sister tightly and and whispering something in the language of Rohan.
“No time! Go I said! Go!”
With a sniff, he was gone, and moments later, she heard distant hooves as he mounted a stabled horse and fled, two spearthrows distant. Braint's heart was pounding hard in her chest. The horsemen were closer. She could see his face now... Berkos, Haldad of the Torbruggi. Gaunt and bearded he sat upon a flashy white horse. A gaudy torc in the shape of an eel coiled about his neck, and at his belt glinted a flash of gold from the pommel of a long blade. Her father's blade. Her blade. Rage fought with grief and terror in her chest, and she felt weak. Her head and ribs throbbed from the blows she had received. Hands shaking, she reached behind her and pulled Éohild forward to crouch next to her. Braint glanced down at her. She was sobbing quietly, and seemed small and frail as she shook with fear. Taking pity, Braint wrapped an arm around her and murmured in her ear.
“Be brave, Rohiril. I have seen your kinsmen ride, and none can catch you. All you must do is cross the brook, and nothing may harm you there. I will be close behind. Go now, and do not falter!”
Feeling wretched, Braint pushed Éohild firmly out from the shadows of the overturned cart, where she stood dumbly for a moment before running across the street, whimpering quietly. Braint watched her, following her pale hair as it passed the gloom behind one of the unburnt barns, towards the crossroads and the three riders.
A harsh voice barked out in the tongue of the Hills: “Hyn! Forgoil!”
Fast as a snake, the ghosted rider tugged forth a sling from his belt, loaded and begun to whirl it through the air. Éohild screamed, and Braint's gut tightened almost unbearably. But the Ghost did not let loose his shot. Berkos laughed and laid a hand upon his shoulder. He muttered something, grinning to his drink-sodden companion, who laughed lecherously.
“Come closer, girl! I have something for you!” called Berkos, walking his horse towards her.
Every muscle in Braint's body was tensed. Éohild should have run by now. She was frozen to the spot, letting them get too close. Braint felt sick.
Another scream, and Éohild was running for her life, sprinting for the tethered horses away in the gloom. Laughing raucously, Berkos and his guards broke into a slow canter to pursue. Braint waited, not daring to show herself before the Ghost's eyes were averted. She did not dare look at him, lest he felt her gaze. The three horsemen were galloping now: Éohild had reached the stable, and they had spotted the horses. They were closing fast...
Braint got up, and began to sprint towards the stables, just as a flash of silver showed that Éohild had finally managed to untie and mount a horse. She had picked a fine steed, too: a tall grey gelding that had belonged to an Éored message-rider. As the hooves of the four horses thundered away down the roadway, Braint sprinted into the stables and leapt upon her horse's back to give chase.
The four flicking tails of her quarry came into sight as her horse warmed to the run, swishing and curling through the moonlight. She kept enough distance that they would not hear her through the rushing air, but her mount was straining hard to keep its speed.
Idiots. They think they are safe here, assured in their victory...
With a thrill, Braint caught a glimpse of Éohild's long-legged grey as it leapt across the brook and passed into the woods. She grinned as a rope suddenly whipped tight across the way behind the passing grey. The Ghost and honour guard saw the cord too late. Their steeds screamed as they tumbled into the trap, smashing to the rocky ground in a mess of broken limbs and blood. Unable to stop, Berkos' mount leapt to avoid the tumbling bodies, then screamed in terror as a great black shape loomed up in the path ahead of it. A great bear stood upon its hind paws, reaching wide with its dreadful claws and snarling like a demon. Rearing high, the horse turned and threw its rider before bolting back the way it had come, passing Braint in a flurry of wild mane and fright.
Skittering to a stop, Braint dismounted and advanced on Berkos as he crawled desperately backwards from the advancing bear. Its face was something from a nightmare. In place of fur, its maw was covered with bare pink skin and long-healed gashes, as though it had awoken as an inept huntsman tried to skin it. With a terrible yammering snarl, it advanced on Berkos as he struggled to his feet.
“No, Huer, this one is mine.”
Braint spoke quietly, but her words seemed to cut through the noise, and the monstrous bear rumbled to silence and sat upon its great hanches. Berkos whipped around, drawing his sword, then glancing past her, he began to run for her horse, a look of furious determination upon his face. A rustling came from the woods around, and the way was blocked. Dozens of shadowed figures flowed from the trees to encircle Braint and Berkos, many drawing bows and blades as they moved. Berkos stopped dead and fumbled at his belt.
“Raise that horn to your lips, Berkos, and Huer will knock your head from your shoulders before it sounds.”
A look of anger flashed briefly across Berkos' face, before he drew himself tall and called out in haughty tones:
“And what brigands are these who accost Berkos, Haldad of the great Torbruggi tribe, heir of Wulf the Scourge, and cherished ally of the White Hand!”
Berkos stood tall and commanding, his battered frame not withered by age but made tough, like an old oak.
“Heir of Wulf? You think that because you hold that blade, you are his heir? You were not even warrior enough to take it from my father's hand yourself. Though he killed your son, you had not the courage to face him! You made your women bear children by orcs, and sent their filth-spawn in your place!”
Braint spat upon the ground between them. Berkos raised a brow.
“Your father? Then you are Cambriani? I remember, of course... then you must be Braint... or Lanis?”
Such rage filled Braint's body that her vision seemed to flare red and her limbs shook. Words stumbled at her tongue as she sought to give vent to her fury.
“You – how... dare... YOU DO NOT SPEAK MY SISTER'S NAME! YOU CANNOT – YOU DARE...”
Her words became an incoherent snarl, and she reached for her blade. Behind Berkos, the bear Huer growled and clambered to his feet. A hand landed upon Braint's shoulder, softly, and a voice spoke softly to her.
“Not like this. Your anger will kill you”
Braint turned sharply, and scowled, pushing Brigit's hand away, but calmed a little. The number of times she had told Brigit to control her rage... it was foolish to break her own advice at such a crucial moment.
“I apologise, Braint Haldad. I did not mean to open old wounds,” Berkos bowed his head, and Braint again fought to control the boiling in her blood. “And perhaps you misunderstood me. I do not claim to be the blood descendent of Wulf, Freca's son. I am his heir in spirit, for I lead the Tribes as we take back what was stolen from us so long ago. If you are truly Wulf's honoured kin, then surely you can understand the honour of this endeavour? We are reclaiming our lands! Turning the tide of blood from our people to our enemies! Ridding ourselves of the shackles of Gondor and Rohan. I seek to finish what your honoured ancestor began! Is that not a worthy goal?”
Berkos spoke with the practice of one who had addressed thousands and roused them to war, but Braint was unmoved. She looked past him to Éohild and Éolmir, to Breyi and Bered, her young kinsmen; to the few Sunonni warriors who had not been slaughtered, and past them, to the faces that were not there, but should have been: Elis, Cumal, Luain, her father, her mother, Tolin, Donos, Merkos, Nemma, Lanis....
“Worthy? No land, no pride is worth the blood you have spilled. You speak of turning the tide, yet you have your animals butcher children and elders; you rape, burn and destroy! You killed my people! You allow your women to be desecrated by fiends! You ally with a craven wizard and his orcish minions to burn a path through Rohan, and you speak of breaking shackles? If this is what Wulf began, then I spit upon his memory!”
“I regret that the Cambriani made themselves the enemy of the Tribes. The army of Many Colours would have been the fairer for your blue cloaks, Haldad, but your kin were blinded by their hatred of the orc-kin, and could not see that they are merely a weapon! And as for the White Hand, He is their master, and He is our ally. You know little of Him if you call him a mere wizard. He is a messenger of the Old Gods. Even the Elderin immortals say it is so. He is the wise hand that guides the armies of the Gods to their rightful victory! Your grandfather could not see his wisdom, and neither could your mother. It was with great sorrow that we saw the brave Cambriani turn against us, who should rightfully be at the tip of the spear! But it is not too late. We march for the Hornburg, and with the guidance of the Hand, we can not fail.”
“No. You speak of great glory and freedom, but I have been watching you, Berkos. I have seen your desires acted out, and no victory is worth such crimes. You have no honour. I feel only shame and sickness to think that your armies might take back our old lands. The gods spit upon you and those who do your bidding! If this is truly what the Tribes are then they do not deserve to be free! The Hornburg may fall, but you will not live to see it. Draw my father's sword if you will, but your head will rest upon a spike, and your body will be scattered among the trees for your master's crows!”
Berkos sighed and shed his cloak. He was not a frail man. The wired muscles of many years' fighting stretched taut as he flexed his arms, ready to face her.
“So be it, little Haldad. I will fight you now, if you agree to the match before the Gods. If I kill you, then I shall walk free and the blood-debt is settled. Agree to this or I shall blow my horn and die knowing that you and all of your followers will suffer long before you come to join me across the river. Perhaps when we meet upon the other side, we will look together on the world and you will see the worth of what I have done.”
Braint looked across at him levelly. She was a little surprised that he had not sought a more cowardly way out, but then she should have expected that. Berkos was not a coward. He was the worst kind of snake: he sought out the weak and struck without warning; not out of fear but of malice and guile. He might even have believed that he was acting for the good of the tribes, but Braint knew. She did not have to be a Dreamer to look past his mask. Berkos was black-hearted. For all that he shone like a gilt spear in the sun his core was corrupted and cruel, and no God would ever let such a man cross the river. His soul would be swept away and become nothing. A cold glee seared through her veins and her muscles shivered.
She was not afraid now. She felt she could not be afraid. This was what she wanted. Love, warmth, safety - none of these things mattered. None of them could truly be without vengeance, and she was on its verge.
“So let it be, Berkos. Draw my father's sword with your unworthy hand. It knows its master and it will taste your blood ere long.”
Berkos bowed, and Braint spat upon the ground.
Steel glinted in the moonlight as the two blades were drawn and they began to circle. Braint closed in, watching Berkos closely. He was not afraid of her either: that much much was clear. It did not matter. The blood sang in her veins and all weariness fell away. Her first strike was that of a snake and Berkos barely managed to parry. The second caused him to stagger as he struggled to raise a blade to block it, and the third scored a red line across his shin. He did not cry out, but swung his shield, forcing Braint to hop back and giving him time to gather himself again.
His eyes darted across her face, calculating. He had underestimated her and it showed in his face. He squared his shoulders again and took a deep breath. Braint tilted her head and left herself open, mockingly. He would not close, though. Only a fool took such obvious bait.
Braint's feet danced under her as she circled, letting herself bound forwards and feint back several times and noting the twitch in the sword tip that showed Berkos' uncertainty. Making as though to lunge, Braint whipped about her left hand and let fly the pebble that had been warming in her palm straight for Berkos' head, and shot forwards – straight onto his blade.
Its twitching had been a feint; Berkos was less rattled than he had wished to seem. He had avoided the thrown pebble with a slight inclination of his neck and lunged at Braint's charge. It was all she could do to batter at the old sword and divert it to her left, but not enough. The encircling crowd gasped as the blade of Wulf the scourge bit into Braint's side. Shock and a sharp, needling pain coursed through her body, but it was not enough to overwhelm her fury at being impaled upon her father's sword. Her forehead swung forwards and Broke Berkos' nose, and with a howl she slammed down the pommel of her sword onto his wrist, jarring his sword hand away from the grip and sending fresh spikes of agony through her side.
Staggering backwards, she looked down at herself. A red mist of fury seemed to gauze her eyes and she gripped the gilt serpent handle of her father's sword, tugging it from her body with an inhuman howl, and pushing the sensation of sickness and torment to the back of her mind. She was not finished yet. She growled as the blade pulled loose, crimson with her blood, and gripped in hard in her right hand, swapping her shorter blade to the left.
Something seemed to ring in her mind as she advanced upon Berkos' prostrate form – something akin to a song. No, that was not it. It was the shape a song would leave in her mind, but without the sound...
Berkos was crawling backwards now, for the first time his face betrayed true fear, and he was reduced. No longer was he the craven lord of the united Tribes; now he was an old man. The wolf-skin pelt across his shoulders looked greasy and unkempt; his gums were pale where his lips drew back in terror, and his eyes were pleading.
“B-bercy!” he cried, holding one hand to his nose to stifle the blood flowing from it. “Please! We cad parley! I have b-buch to...”
Wulf's blade swished through the air in a dreadful arc, biting through Berkos' neck as though it were nothing more than damp straw. There was a sigh from the crowd as his head thumped to the ground.
'Odd', Braint thought. 'I had forgotten how fine a blade it was.”
Arms grapsed at her shoulders, lifting her from a slump. She had not known she was on the ground... Brigit's face radiated concern and fear as she looked into Braint's eyes and slapped gently at her cheeks. She thumbed her forehead in salute as Braint looked at her.
“Haldad. You have won. It is over.”
“No...” Braint slurred. Pain was *****ing at the edge of her mind, threatening to overwhelm her. She breathed in sharply and straightened her head. “No, not yet.”
With a shaking hand, she fumbled at her belt for her knife, and pushed it into Brigit's hand. The girl nodded grimly. The Sunonni and the remnants were already there... men, women and children closing in silently upon the body of their enemy, knives in hand and cold calm on their faces.
The great bear grunted and turned away from them; the rest, who were not of the tribes and did not understand either turned their face in disgust and horror, cried out or gravely looked on as Berkos' body was taken apart.
Braint could feel her heart weakening, but spoke still to Brigit as the night closed in. “Make of him the blood-eagle that is my sign. Let its curse lie on their hearts and make them … weak... in battle. Harry them, slow them, have... the Dreamers... sing for the Hornburg...”
...and then all was gone.
High above in the jewelled blue sky, an eagle sang. It was a God-eagle: far distant, but its note was clear and carried words upon the wind. It had come for her, her dream-guide. She did not regret it.
...but it was not singing of her. No, it sang of a great darkness passing, and it did not wait for her to follow, but drifted on to the sunlit horizon. She tried to rise and follow, but fell immediately back onto her her bed as her side burned, but it was not the grinding agony of a festering wound, but the chiding sting of a healing scar.
Braint nic Gwyddhien, Haldad of the Cambriani tribe of northern Dunland
//Unfinished, but it's now or never.... ;)
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