WIP 2: Prologue

Prologue:  Bones and Emptiness

Duke Baudemagus,
Dux Bellôrum and loyal servant,

Do not concern yourself with the impotent blustering of diplomats and politicians like Ambassador Antoninus.  We have promised that no military action against Synes will be funded by Synesi gold, and for the time being, we intend to abide by that agreement.

-We wouldn’t want to shatter Antoninus’s idealism.  Should we choose to make war with his homeland, we will arrange for Count Hashii to conclude the ambassador’s assignment in Aquilaleon long before any troubling news could reach him.  It would be a shame, however, to pull Hashii away from his distractions in Vestiga Gæsi-

However, our agreement does stipulate that the monies must be fully spent before we can ask for more.

So we turn our attentions to Ehre and Mut.  Beaudous and Tothila have been quiescent of late, but we still receive rumors of their collusion with the Abaisd city-states.  We leave it to your judgment on our security in that matter.  Interestingly, sources from Cærimonia inform us that the separatist movements on the peninsula are growing in strength and insolence.  Daily we receive reports of the city-states solidifying support from the southern Brackish tribes and warlords such as Rixueramos Lrrch.  It is impossible to believe they are capable of doing this without Ehrech or Muttese assistance.

We believe a softening of that support is in order.

Therefore, we are authorizing you to prepare plans to enforce a more firm occupation of Palpin.  Towards this goal, we are giving you Count Pharamont’s alæ from Goort and releasing 10 million solidi for your use.

It is time to remind the city-states that they are subjects of EroBernd and not its peers.  Such a display should show mighty Synes exactly how effective we can spend its gold.

Your friend and master,
Duke Valven

***

In the cool morning air, steam rose from the raw wounds of the dead and dying, and blood slowly soaked into the forest floor.  The scouts were not prepared for what they would face, and they had paid the price.  The victors’ horses whickered quietly in the night, and mist gently swirled around the trees and through the riders, bedewing their armor and leathers and chilling their bodies.  The damp pre-dawn cold was deceptive, as once God’s Eye rose, the forest would quickly become bitterly hot.

The riders rested silently, relishing the odor of blood and the rush of their swift victory.  They patiently waited for orders from their commander, while the servants and footmen muttered with nervousness as they tugged at the corpses.  These woods were rumored to be haunted by gwrach, traellern, Darkbloods, and rraakk, and the young men and boys feared the moment when their protectors would depart for battle.

Bawlich knew better than to believe in such Fée Tales, but he had no interest in calming the young fools.  Their superstitions were irrelevant and of no concern to him.  He had other matters to consider.

He was waiting.  Waiting and watching.  As he sat patiently, he absently rubbed at the patch of smooth black felt that covered his throat and parts of his cheek.  He glanced down and caught a few of the boys watching him.  They recoiled in fear at the terribleness of his gaze, and he grunted in shallow amusement.  If it were only that easy to frighten the enemy.

Beyond the tree line, the land descended into a broad, shallow valley that spread out to the north.  At this time of year, it was filled with the dark greens of summer grains, their narrow blades reaching skyward and nearly ready for the harvest.  It was a shame, Bawlich mused mildly, that within a few hours’ time, those fields would be little more than trampled mud and ruin, watered with blood, and fed with flesh and bone.  He wondered how many within the nearby village would go hungry, come winter as a result.

Although still hidden by the predawn darkness, he knew the valley before him was split by a series of narrow, steep hills, driving northwards, the shape and orientation suggestive of a spine.  The valley was divided nearly evenly into two plains, each resembling an out-stretched wing.  Near the northern extreme nestled the village of Cumba Folican.  From his vantage, Bawlich could appreciate the affectionate appellation given this place by its residents:  Butterfly Valley.  In the spring seasons, when the blàthblauus and red rix were in bloom, these fields would be awash in spectacular greens, blues, and reds, like the great colored wings of a crystal flier.

In the eastern plain-or wing-he could see countless lights picked out in the darkness, spread across the fields-the camp and watch fires of Coronel Bedoier’s forces, nearly 5000 soldiers of EroBernd-musketeers, riflemen, artillerymen, chaceours, grenadiers, volters.  Although he could not see it, Bawlich knew the golden finial that topped their colors marked them as a full brigata.  The core of their infantry were huge men, elite units from the EroBernac province of Goort, descendants of Brackish invaders, and in recognition of their heritage, they wore great headdresses of braided horsehair.  They were the Bàs’s Guardsmen, and this day, they would represent the mailed fist of the Seven Kingdoms’ might.  Further east were the great campfire circles of the supply train’s encampments, following the curve of the Donnos Du’la River.  Beyond the river, more significant hills rose, whose bulk were only suggestions in the darkness.

The plain west of the spine was empty, a great swathe of darkness beneath the predawn sky, but as Bawlich watched, he began to see signs of movement.  Like restless maggots, dim trains of light emerged from the western valleys, coiling and winding their ways east through the crops.  In less than an hour’s time, the hills west of the plains seethed with a vague glow, the lights of countless torches.  The opposing forces were arriving.

Before the eyes of Bawlich and his riders, the shape of the impending battle gelled.  Coronel Bedoier had marched his men hard all the previous day, arriving in Butterfly Valley just before sunset last night.  Having little time, he had turned his face to the west and made camp.  It was a risky gambit, for it was a less than ideal position.  With the river and hills behind him, he would find it difficult to withdraw should the battle turn against him.

And in the west, the forces of Rix Kelyddon must have marched all night, but they were comprised of fearsome, tireless cings, nearly 9000 strong, supported by eporetocings, caragum, and sacardds.  It was a true horde of untamed Bracks, and they had come for vengeance.

The Bracks rested less than an hour before they surged forward, allowing themselves precious little time to recover from their march and reform their ranks.  Breaking into four separate groups, two forces represented the main body of the thrust, and they rushed for the central hills, eager to take the high ground.  A third, smaller force arced northwards, seeking to occupy the village of Cumba Folican.  The fourth remained at the entrance of the valley in reserve.

As the first rays of sunlight broke across the sky, the first reports of cannon fire met the charge.

Bawlich was moderately surprised, although perhaps not as nearly so as the Bracks.  Apparently, Coronel Bedoier’s forces did not rest after their arrival, and they had established their batteries of cannon atop the spine of hills.  Starting slowly at first, the rate of fire increased as the guns warmed, and soon, round after round of solid shot blasted down through the masses of cings.  Five, 10, and 15-pound shells fired down into the fields, bounced across the ground, and passed almost comically through the Brackish ranks.  From this distance, the flying bodies and limbs looked like shattered puppets, and the thud of the cannons were strangely muted, pierced occasionally by an oddly distinct scream.

East of the hills, eerie pools of blue and green light burst into life within the Medianist camps.  At least four veneficus batteries had been unlimbered, and manned by their wizard operators, they began lobbing their sorcerous ordinance across the valley.  Of longer range than the cannons and not needing line of sight to aim, the weapons stood far behind the lines, almost among the supply trains.  Globules of sickly green and blue light passed overhead to settle over the Bracks, sickening and confusing and otherwise hindering them.  Blue and green, Bawlich observed, but no red, white, or purple.  Either Bedoier did not have Master Wizards, or he was keeping their power in reserve.

Medianist chaceours and volters encroached down the hills, and the sharpshooters harried the fringes of the Brackish assault, while the Bàs’s Guardsmen formed lines on the crest, preparing to meet the push.

The Bracks did not bring firearms to the battle, but they were far from defenseless.  Mangonels were pushed within range and used to lob stones and great pots of burning oil up the hill.  Caragum and sacardds worked their magics, blunting or deflecting the efforts of the wizards, veneficus, and the cannon.  Johlpa’s Bwyells slowly spun overhead like smoldering guardians, only to suddenly arc away in great fiery streaks to consume the Medianist cannon in violent explosions.

As the legs and courage of the cings carried them across the fields and up the faces of the hills, the cannons switched from solid shot to canister and grape shot, spraying the front ranks with musket balls and shards of metal.  The leading cings simply evaporated in clouds of blood and bone.  In some places, the charge faltered and stalled.  In others, they continued to press forward, the warriors hunkering behind their astalchs and the flesh of the men in front of them.

A series of explosions brightened the rising morning as a Johlpa’s Bwyell found a powder cache on one of the southern hills.  The hissing detonation threw the Medianist defenders into disarray, and the Bracks surged towards the summit.  They cheered and jeered as their foes retreated their cannon, limbers, and caissons.

An hour into the battle, the plains of the west and the flanks of the hills were stained red with Brackish blood.  The air above the valley was thick with foul-smelling smoke, drifting slowly in the weak breeze, and the tops of the hills were almost completely obscured due to the continuing musket fire.  The Bracks now occupied the southern-most hills, while the Medianists appeared to hold the north.  Further north, the battle for the village continued, and smoke rose from its streets and rooftops.  The fighting must have been hand-to-hand there-brutal, dirty-spatha and bwyell and gæsum against bayonet, lance, and sword.

Bawlich impassively watched as the Bracks pushed and pulled and manhandled great mangonels to the summits of the closest hills.  The northern hills and the plains of the east were covered with the ranks and guns of the Medianist army, and the two sides met each other once again.

At a grunt from a subordinate, Bawlich’s eyes were drawn west towards the encampment of the Brackish command.  Nearly 500 cings were mounting up, accompanied by many of their stone-summoners.  Finally, the reserves were being committed.

With increased interest, he watched as they rode south towards the Brackish occupied hills, and then further south again.  A hush fell across Bawlich’s men as the barbarian riders passed so close to their trees, they could almost smell the embrekton in their braids.

Remaining hidden by the hills, the Bracks dismounted and formed ranks.  Bawlich’s eyes followed the line of their approach.  North of the Bracks were the circled supply wagons, the veneficus batteries, and Coronel Bedoier’s unprepared flank.  There would be no Bàs’s Guardsmen to meet them from this side.

With a gesture from him, Bawlich’s riders leapt to their saddles.  A squire, barely more than a boy, hesitantly reached up to hand him his helm, visibly fearful of his proximity to the scarred commander.  Bawlich accepted it with a nod and paused to regard the polished silver of its facies.  The impassive expression of the visor stared up at him with empty eyes.  Turning it around, he slipped it on.

With a twitch of his shoulder, he threw open his black cloak, exposing the long saber of Plainas Sarvas steel hanging at his side.  A serjant-brother came along side of him.  “Knight-Commander?” he asked eagerly.

Sir Bawlich nodded.  “Ready our brothers,” he hissed.  “We’ll use speed of horse.  No quarter.  No mercy.  Send them back across the Equoranda.”

The knight bowed, “As you command, my master.”

One hundred black riders drew their sabers.  They were heavy cavalry, cuirassiers, elite horsemen.  In the light of the rising sun, silver ravens flashed from the collars of their cloaks.  With a shout, they charged, long blades flashing, and they rode to war beneath the banner of the Order of the Raven.

***

Nothing moved within the dunum.  By the boduus Medianist calendar, this day was Primoris Dies, the first day of the High Summer, and divine Rhiadaf had seen fit to herald it in proper fashion.  The heat pressed down on the courtyard, baking the soil, oppressing the weak breeze that struggled through the buildings.  Soil, leaves, and other detritus collected in corners and against walls and steps.  Windows and doors gaped open and black, chimneys stood cold and lifeless.  Reins dangled limply from stocks.  Laundry hung from lines, dirtied by wind and neglect.  Baskets lay tipped and crushed, scattered across the ground.  A vague odor of rot and ferment seeped from the granary.

Tracks and blood on the dirt betrayed the passing of a pride of capalus.  Sensing the recent abandonment of this place, they took it upon themselves to empty it of the last of the dogs, koboldes, and stray livestock.  And now nothing remained.

Not too long ago, it was the thriving heart of a proud commote.  Now it was forgotten in Johlpa’s eye.

This was an empty place.  A dead place.

The thunder of hooves gradually rose beneath the weak sighs of the wind.  The riders came from the west, their formation tight and alert although no weapons were drawn.  They were a grim band of cings, 12 durni strong, road weary and battle hardened.  At their hips they carried spatha, bwyell, and falx-pennants fluttered beneath shining gæsum lances-some even carried fusil muskets.  They wore traditional Brack leathers and braca, ornamented with Chroani and Medianist stylings.  Their heads were covered by a variety of leather caps, archaic spangen helms, and Medianist shakoes.  The braids on their beards betrayed origins from several tribes-Logan, Capt, Gutus-while the scent of salt and clay spoke of the Chroani origins of others-but they all rode beneath the same standard:  A white circle on a dark field.

Thrice they circled the dunum‘s enceintes.  They orbited deiseil-wise, their gazes wary as they searched for signs of activity within, before venturing inside.

They spread out through the dunum, quickly occupying the place.  Finding no opposition, they conferred briefly, relaxing somewhat, but none were relieved.  They had come prepared for battle, but finding emptiness was even more unsettling.  With a nod from their leader, some cings dismounted and began exploring the buildings, while the others remained mounted in the middle of the courtyard.

Their leader remained apart and thoughtful, his head bowed as if oppressed by heavy concerns and fatigue.  Finding this place empty and undefended was an unexpected and disturbing turn, and he struggled to absorb the implications.  Carefully removing his leather cap, he turned his face towards the fierce sun and whispered a quiet prayer to Rhiadaf.  Like most cings, he was powerfully built, broad of chest and strong of arm, but unlike his peers, he was taller than average and wore his beard shorter than was fashionable.  The countless braids in his hair and beard glistened with sweat.

Draped over his riding leathers and horse saddle, he displayed the braids and leathers of the Luct-Marvos, although they were changed, simplified into almost a caricature of the traditional appearance.  At a distance, the tassels appeared as a solid dark field, with a single white center.  It was the symbol adopted by his cantref and his rix, and he bore it proudly.

His past marked him as luct-marvos.  The ring on his finger made him a donios.  By the scars on his body and his steadiness in the saddle, he was an orgetos, a slayer of men.  He was rhyswr, an honored champion to his rix and his clan, and at his hip, he carried the sword of a dead king.

Looking away from the sky, he surveyed the abandoned dunum and then turned his clear blue eyes towards the rolling hills beyond the gates, to the west, towards home.  Trouble darkened his brow like a spring thunderstorm.  There were few men who could ride the Brackland moors without fear as he did-he brought with him the strength of his body, the skill of his sword, the blessings of his god, the directive of his rix, and the love of his wife-but at this moment, he had to fight back the urge to spur his horse out of this cursed place and race for safety.

He did not look down when one of his cings approached but merely extended his hand to receive what was offered.  He already knew they found what he had expected and feared.  Silently, the cing laid the white rod in his hand and stepped away.

He raised it up, breaking his gaze away from the horizon only when the rod was level with his brow, loath he was to turn away from that pathway of escape.  The spike was pure white, nearly more so than ivory, and nearly as long as an arrow.  Delicate golden and silvery glyphs danced down its shaft.

“Such a lovely thing,” he murmured, “to bring such trouble, uh?”

“They’ve been here,” the cing below him muttered unnecessarily, fear taking command of his tongue.  “We need to tell the rix!”

“Of course we do,” he answered, forgiving his man for his fear.  He turned the rod over in his hands.  Not rraakk, not boduus, not Brack.  This was something new, taking whole dunums, emptying entire commotes.  And it was spreading.  “Find anything else?” he asked.

“Yes,” the cing answered and gestured to another.  The second man approached, carrying a naked blade.  The rhyswr‘s face trembled as he looked down at it.  It was a spathuriges, the symbol of a rix‘s authority to rule, and no rix would willingly leave his dunum without it.  He looked away and pulled his reins through his hands, causing his epos to dance to his nervousness.

“This place is ripe,” a cing murmured, “There is much here to make ours.”

“We’ll come back,” the rhyswr promised with a nod.  “And make this place our own.  But later.  There is nothing more for us here now.  Mount up, we must return and share our news.”

Because Twrch knew time now was of the essence.  For the white rods were moving west, and the cantref of the New Mill was next.  Rix Gronw must be warned.

His home and his family must be protected.

And he was certain Rixa Esmeree would know what to do.

***

Clouds scudded across the brilliant sky, briefly obscuring the sun, mitigating its fury.  A cool breeze skipped across the tops of the hills, tickling the florets of grass and carrying the scent of blàthblauus, lavender, and suadus anata.  In the distance, travelers’ bells rang forlornly, their lonely tones resembling moans.

Up the hills and down, children ran and played, hiding in the tallest grasses, splashing through the narrow rivulets flowing in-between, covering themselves with mud and grass and flower petals.  A wolfhound puppy barked excitedly and nipped at their heels.

Beyond the play of the children, nearly a quarter a mile away, smoke and dust rose from the homes, chimneys, and foundations of Rix Gronw’s proud new dunum, Novio Breialos.  Circling it for nearly as far as the eye could see were verdant crops and low walls formed from plowed up stone, except for where the hills grew too steep and close together, such as where the children scampered.  Above the enceintes and the towers flew the odd flag of the rix‘s cantref:  a simple white circle on a dark field.

It was perfect and beautiful.  Life was perfect.

Everything was all wrong.

Esmeree could feel it.  Foreboding danced across her skin like angry ants.  It burned in her breast like a wound.  This was wrong.  She did not deserve this, and it could not last.  Her eyes scanned the horizon for clues but saw nothing, and yet they were continually drawn to the southeast, towards the distant Palpi Peninsula and Cliffs Reach.  Towards home.  She felt oddly better when she looked in that direction.

Nage, she thought, THIS is home now.

The children squealed in sudden laughter.  Iall was among them, intelligent, clever, and beautiful, her skin and face burnt a dark brown like a proper inigena.  She led, and the others followed, and the puppy chased.

Squirrel sighed quietly and stirred in her sleep, and Esmeree looked down into her friend’s face.  Squirrel was beautiful, the jewel of the New Mill.  Her golden hair fell across Esmeree’s syrmä and the blankets they laid upon, tangling in her fingers, framing her face.  Stray locks of gold danced in the breeze.

Esmeree cradled Squirrel’s head in her lap and gently brushed the hair from her eyes.  Her finger traced the orbit of the young woman’s brow and then down her cheek to her lips.  Her heart swelled.  There were few people in this world she loved as much, few people she would so willingly lay down her own life for or fight so hard to defend.  But things were changing.

Her gaze drifted from her friend’s lidded eyes to her full lips and the awkward teeth they concealed.  Esmeree adored that overbite.  Just as true beauty could not exist without imperfection, so did the teeth augment her friend’s charms.  Sadly, they continued to be a point of embarassment for her friend, despite Esmeree’s best efforts to convince her otherwise.  Years ago, when they ran in the street gangs of Cliffs Reach, her Black Ember name had been an unkind reference to those teeth, but it was her nimble skills, uncanny agility, and playful humor that truly earned her the nickname “Squirrel.”  She had been the Black Ember’s most graceful stick-a treasure Esmeree jealously protected-and now that they were in the New Mill cantref, Esmeree vowed to continue to do so.

Esmeree’s fingers gently tickled Squirrel’s lips, causing the girl to sigh and smile in her slumber.  A tiny golden stud projected from below her lower lip, and from it hung a delicate golden torc.  It flashed in the sunlight as Esmeree’s finger circled it.  She stared at the jewelry and wondered at how much has changed over the past year.  The torc marked Squirrel as a dona.  It represented the covenant between her and her husband, a bond of trust and love, and a vow that she was not coept-inigena and shall never lose her tongue.

Esmeree’s eyes followed the line of Squirrel’s throat, down to her breasts rising and falling beneath her simple syrmä, further down to her belly.  Few were aware of the growing bulge-Esmeree, Squirrel, her husband-but that wouldn’t last for long.

Yes, things were changing.

Squirrel sighed and mumbled in her sleep, drawing Esmeree’s gaze back to her face.  Her lips were parted slightly, revealing just a glimpse of the teeth within.  Her little torc glittered in the sunlight.

A child shrieked with excitement.

Esmeree’s ember suddenly burned in her breast, and she rubbed it gently to calm it.  Instead, the burning increased.  The stone beneath her flesh was her connection to God, her advisor and companion-the “source” of her sorcery-and with a will of its own, it began to summon.  Rather than resist, she recognized what was happening and opened herself to it.  Squirrel’s torc trembled, light flashing from its twisted facets.  The light caught and held Esmeree’s gaze.  It grew and brightened.  She fell in with a sigh.

***

The sky was white light, the color and intensity the same as the flashes from the torc.  It was blinding, and it washed all the color from the world, but it was also comforting.  Esmeree knew she was within the bosom of God.  She was within her own ember.

Grass tickled her cheeks and the backs of her knees.  Rising, she tried to blink away the tears as her eyes struggled to adjust.  There were figures everywhere.  They stood imperiously all around her, huge and imposing.  Shielding her eyes with a hand, she waited as her vision began to clear.  The nearest figure was a statue, carved perfectly from white stone.  Its edges seemed to melt into the light around it.

The only sound was a gentle trickle of water.  Esmeree didn’t need to look around to know that a creek ran nearby.

She knew this place.  She had been here once before.  It was the Locus Amoenus, the place of the asps.

Was this a vision from the Dragon Knights?  From God?  She wondered if there was any difference.

Esmeree slowly turned, taking in the grassy hills, the vine-covered pillars, and the eerie statues.  Everywhere she looked, they seemed to change and move.  Shifting, circling, closing in on her.  She did not necessarily feel fear, but she did wonder at their intentions.  Ultimately, a line of statues stood before her, six in all.

Shielding her eyes, she cautiously stepped closer, and the breath caught in her throat.  She recognized these people, and her heart broke at the memories.

The first statue was the beautiful, moon-faced Candy.  Next was the doomed alf from the Harvest Festival.  Then faithful Baran, loving Eclipse, the nameless martyred asp, and finally, kindly old Myrdd.

Tears welled in her eyes as she approached them.  Like all the statues in the Locus, they were carved from impossibly white stone, detailed to the point of being life-like, even when examined closely.  Esmeree halfway expected-halfway hoped, halfway feared-that they would leap to life at her approach.  They were clad as asps, naked and covered in Gokh’s coils, the tattoos mere suggestions on their skin through clever detailing.  They were beautiful and perfect and terrible.  Their eyes were blank, lifeless, and their expressions were not welcoming.

Candy and Baran looked so painfully young and small-she had forgotten how young she was when she knew them.  Eclipse looked so brave and earnest-truly he had the heart of a knight.  The alf was distorted and idealized-his image conjured from her young girl’s memories.  The asp stood regal and proud, just as she remembered him from his horseback.  Esmeree gasped a sob as she lastly touched the leg of Myrdd-his death was just too recent.

She thought she had become accustomed to the visions offered by her ember-she thought it could offer no more surprises-but this was unexpected.  She was unprepared by this mustering of fallen friends and family.  Her legs trembled, her stomach clenched.

Why were they here?  Why would her ember summon these people in her vision?

And then she understood.  Sudden horror and sorrow swelled within her, and she collapsed to her knees.  Dear God, she realized.  She understood.  These were the souls she consumed-souls her ember consumed-those unlucky few who happened die in her proximity, who died when her ember hungered and needed to grow.  Were these statues the only artifacts remaining of their existence?  Statues in the Locus Amoenus?  What cruelty was this?  What sadism?  What was the message God was trying to tell her?

Wiping away her tears, she now saw four additional pedestals beyond Myrdd.  They were vacant and waiting.  Esmeree trembled with horror.  Four more?  Who?  Who was fated to stand in those places?  Her mind filled with faces-Gronw, Iall, Squirrel-and with each possibility, her terror grew.

Who?” she demanded through her tears, but the Locus remained silent.

No, not silent.  A new sound had come to her attention.  The gurgling of the little creek was changing, turning into a grinding buzz, like stone against stone.  The light of the sky began to intensify as Esmeree clutched her ears against the intrusion.  She looked up at the accusing faces of her fallen friends and family, the ultimate representatives of her failures.  The light behind them grew brighter and brighter-it grew as the grinding grew-and soon it obliterated their features.  Arms and legs and faces dissolved, leaving only heads and torsos floating in a sea of golden light.

There was too much.  She could not shield her eyes from the light or her ears from the sound.  She writhed on the ground, and she screamed.

The earth trembled.  Her vision blurred.  Reality trembled and shifted.  Abruptly, she was plunged into silence.  She stirred and struggled to her feet.  She found the Locus empty and vacant except for a deep pit cut into the ground.

She frowned and wiped at her tears.  This felt different.  The Locus was different.  The sky was different.  The air felt different.  Everything felt different.

A different vision?

Two visions?

The darkness of the pit called to her.  Curiosity grew within her.  It felt good to look into that darkness.  It felt even better when she stepped closer to it.

“No!”

Esmeree spun around to see Llydaw standing behind her.  The sky-clad knight wore a wooden mask of pure terror, and he extended his hands towards her desperately.

“Do not go there!” he screamed.

“What?” she stammered, backing away from him.

Behind his mask, Llydaw’s eyes pleaded with her.  “They are the masters of underground passages,” he begged, “and you cannot answer their call!”

She frowned in confusion and glanced behind her, when he suddenly lunged.  “NO!!!”

She staggered backwards away from the vehemence of his voice.  Her foot stepped into emptiness, and she pitched backwards.

“Noooo!” he howled again as she fell, his voice trailing away into hopelessness and despair.

Darkness and ecstasy engulfed her.  The earth trembled.

No, not the earth.  It couldn’t be the earth she felt, for she was falling through the air.  Reality trembled.  Her vision shifted as she fell.

Into silence.

Into darkness.

Into pain.

Esmeree gasped and sobbed.  Gradually, she realized she was back in the Locus.  She could feel the grass beneath her body once again.  She recognized the return of the river’s gurgling.  She yearned to find it, to dive into its chill waters, to soothe herself and wash away her tears.  But she found she could not move.  She could not see.  And her body was awash with pain.

No, not her entire body.  Just her hands and legs and face.

“Enjoys the comforts of this place, uh?  Enjoy the privileges of yer station?”

The voice was harsh and angry and sad, and so nearby, she felt she could reach out and touch it.  It was strangely familiar, but she could not place it.

Esmeree’s hands were ablaze in pain.  Gingerly, she raised them and tried to bring them together.  To her horror, she realized the source of the pain.  Her thumbs had been cut away, severed cleanly, and her blood made her hands and forearms sticky and hot.

Ásta ec álumâ,” the voice whispered.  “Perhaps does not deserve such honors, uh?”

Whimpering, she raised her remaining fingers to her face, to seek the reason for her blindness.  She gasped.  She could not determine if she still had eyes any longer.  All she could feel were lidless, pulpy masses.  Warm slime covered her blood-slickened fingers.  Blood?  Or something worse?

“What obligations has forgotten?  What wrongs has left unmended?”

Esmeree tried to sit up, but her legs would not work correctly.  She flopped to her side and curled herself into a ball.  Her feet followed her legs lifelessly.  She did not need to touch them to know that the great tendons above her heels have been severed.

“The harm only grows as allows time pass…”

She was ruined, destroyed.

Ásta ec álumâ.”

No, she realized suddenly, not ruined.  She was merely helpless.

“Dinas Esgair,” the voice whispered in her ear, the soft breath warm against her skin.  “Ásta ec álumâ go there is find it.  Ásta ec álumâ.  Bones and emptiness.”

No, not helpless.  She was disabled.  Dependent.

No, not that either.

Venerated.  Worshipped.  Treasured?

Then the words came to her though she understood them not.

She was tumám akmal.

Mam’aMam’a, look!”

***

Mam’a!  They’re comin’!  They’re comin’!”

Esmeree startled awake.  Despite the blue sky and pastoral scents, it took her a moment to realize that the visions were gone and her body was once again whole and unharmed.  Looking towards the voice, she saw Iall running towards her, the other children in tow.  She was shouting and smiling, pointing back towards Novio Breialos.

Squirrel stirred and sighed.  Looking down, Esmeree saw her friend smiling up at her.  “Yer shakin’.”

Esmeree quickly wiped the tears from her eyes and tried to smile back.  “It’s just my legs,” she said quickly, “You’re starting to get fat, just like a lazy matir.”

Squirrel gasped in mock horror, and one hand instinctively fell to her belly.  “Oh, bitch!  best get through with those taunts now, afore I start takin’ them personally!”

Esmeree forced a laugh and bent to kiss her.  She felt true love for this girl.  They shared a bond that no man or woman could shake, and she had always thought that would last forever.  But what of a child?  What changes would that present?

And what if what came to pass before happened again?

The image of an infant appearing on a white pedestal appeared unbidden in her mind’s eye.  Then it was joined by Squirrel on an adjacent pedestal.  Two of the four so easily filled.  The vision gave Esmeree a violent chill, and she broke away from the kiss abruptly.

Sensing her unease, Squirrel frowned and sat up.  “Easy?”

Esmeree tried to smile and shook her head, as if to say there was nothing to say.  Rather than explain, she nodded towards the dunum.  A band of riders was on the road to Novio Breialos, led by a tall, slender cing.  Even at this distance, she could see the mark of Gronw on their leathers, the white circle on the dark field.  Following her gaze, Squirrel’s frown brightened to a smile of joy.  “They’re back!”

“And all of them, it seems,” Esmeree agreed, although she could not match her friend’s excitement.  No casualties meant no confrontation.  No confrontation meant nothing has changed, for the better or the worse.

Leaving the other cings as they entered the dunum, the leader broke away and rode towards their hill at a gallop.  Squirrel sought and found Esmeree’s hand, and she squeezed it tightly.  She did her best not to let her hand tremble in that embrace.  There was something about the approach of this rider that confirmed the terror of her visions.  She knew he came bearing news of bones and emptiness.

Ásta ec álumâ.

The epos thundered to the top of hill, and the rider leapt expertly from the saddle.  The two girls stared up at the tall Brack as he stalked to their resting place and removed his leather cap.  Twrch had always been a handsome man, but today he glowed in the heat of the day.  The rigors of his journey lent him an exceptional, rugged beauty.  Kneeling before them, he properly took the hand of his wife first and pressed it against his left cheek.  “Me dona,” he murmured with feeling.

He subsequently endured the enthusiastic embrace and kisses offered by Squirrel.  “Me donios!” she sighed breathlessly as she buried her face in the braids on his cheek.

Spoken in Palpi, Twrch’s rich Brackish burr lent a sense of power to his words.  Esmeree and Squirrel grew up learning to fear that tongue and that accent.  As adults, and living amongst them now, it had a different effect on their bodies.

“Viverra, please,” Twrch said impatiently, visibly embarrassed by his wife’s Palpi show of affection.  Squirrel laughed as she allowed him to writhe free of her clutches and approach Esmeree.

“Me rixa,” he said reverentially, pressing her hand against his right cheek.

Esmeree was solemn.  “The only thing that troubles me more than the use of that title, mighty cing, is the news I know you bring.”

Twrch looked startled for a moment, his eyes looking into Esmeree’s.  Those pale blue eyes seemed in conflict for a moment before he finally looked away.  “Me apologies, Adgarios.”

“And what of Rix Barrog?” she asked brightly, feigning a light heart, “Were his threats proven to be bluster?  I see no wounds, no missing cings…”

Twrch hesitated, and Esmeree’s heart sank.  “Nage,” he said, “His dunum was abandoned.  All souls were gone.”

Esmeree reached for her ember, rubbing it for comfort.

Álumâ.  Emptiness.

“There was nothing for you to find there?”  She could not hide the tremor in her voice.  “Nothing at all?”

Twrch frowned at her knowing tone, but he did not question her.  With a glance at his wife, he rose and walked to his horse.  He returned with a narrow rod of purest white.

Esmeree took it with trembling hands and clutched it to her breast.  It was cool against her cheek and did not warm.  Her ember trembled at its proximity.

Ásta.  Ivory.  Bones.

Ásta ec álumâ.  Bones and emptiness are to be found in Dinas Esgair.

What wrongs has she left unmended?

Then her eyes widened with realization.  The voice.  The man’s voice was the key.  Now she knew.  It was a voice she should have recognized-it was a person she had met only once over 2 years ago-and now she knew its owner!

Adgarios,” Twrch urged, “the place was empty, the people taken knows the meanin’ of the ivory rods as well as I.  They are comin’ the New Mill!”  When Esmeree did not respond, he extended his hand.  “Please.  Come with me!  Me men are with Rix Gronw.  He will be waitin’.  Perhaps-”

“I have to leave this place,” Esmeree whispered.  Slowly, she stroked her cheek against the rod.

“W-what?” Twrch sputtered.

Perhaps the solution wasn’t immediately in sight, but the path was clear.

She looked into his eyes.  “I must leave this place.  I… I need to go to Dinas Esgair.  I must go there before it’s too late.”

Before it was too late.  To right a wrong-to prevent one more pedestal from being filled-perhaps all she’ll need to do was sacrifice herself.

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