Posts Tagged ‘W.I.P.’

WIP 2: Prologue

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

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.

WIP 1: Prologue

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

Prologue:  Creation

Âkapirmas is strong

And in all things, I must defer to Him.

Âkapirmas is my judge and my teacher and my father

And in all things, I must defer to Him.

Âkapirmas allows His enemies to exist and prosper beyond my reach

But in all things, I must defer to Him.

Âkapirmas gave us victory over the demons

But He suffers our shores to be shattered and broken
And in all things, I must defer to Him.

Âkapirmas allows infidels to invade The Brotherhood

He suffers them to spread the word of their false gods
He suffers the low races to rape our soil with their seed
He suffers the witches, deviants, and whores
He suffers the exaltation of the knights of Gokh.

Âkapirmas permitted the rise of a false Prophet

Whose words poison the lands of the divnali-êtqra and all who revere Pennenc
But in all things, I must defer to Him.

For I have heard the divine somg of Âkapirmas

I have seen His true Prophet
I have kissed the soil cleansed by his footfall
I have answered his call
And I keep the blade of my sword steel bright.

For Âkapirmas comes not as a whisper but as a shout

And His vengeance will stain the world with blood
And in all things, I must defer to Him.

Prayer of Bredbeddle, 1027 PA
Doctrine of Hoël the Prophet

***

In the thick High Summer night, God’s pale eye shone upon the wasteland.  As the small party picked its way across the uneven ground, it was their only illumination.  For reasons he refused to divulge, Banw had forbidden any torch or tapir.

Little grew here other than the most hardy of plants.  Such a difference from the lands of Dagâ Dainâ, a scant day’s foot travel away!  Everything here was dead-or nearly so-though there were signs that things were slowly changing.

Gyneth paused in her march and, risking a swift kick from her companions behind her, scooped up a handful of the crusty soil.  Her fingers crushed and sifted the small clots with practiced care until they found a piece they could not crumble.  Holding it up to her eyes, the curved shard glowed whitely in the moonlight.  A shell?  She slid it between her lips and could still taste the salt.

They say all this used to be under water-that Dagâ Dainâ was once a sea-faring nation-then The Shake came.  Something about a war.  And the ground rose up to become the great mountains of the south.

And everything changed.

Or something to that effect.

Gyneth wondered, if the sea retreated so easily once, might it just as suddenly return?  Might the earth suddenly drop away from under her feet?  Might she at any second look up to see a wall of water rushing forward to reclaim this land?

Rokeby shoved her irritably from behind and muttered for her to pick up the pace.  She glared back at him but did as he said.  She wasn’t at all certain she belonged with this group, but she certainly wasn’t going to cross them.  The number of gold teeth in the man’s mouth implied a certain degree of affluence in replacing them… and proclivity for losing them.  They paid her dat good copper for her services, and she wasn’t about to disappoint him.

She flicked the shell aside and drove the thoughts from her mind.  The Shake happened long before her young life, though she has heard that her grandmother’s great grandmother witnessed it.  An eternity ago, so far as she was concerned.  Chances were the sea wouldn’t be reclaiming this stretch any time soon.

Gyneth kept an eye on the horizon nevertheless.

***

The group huddled together, watching Banw from a distance.  The ifrlis Gyneth accompanied appeared strong, skilled, and dangerous, yet she still felt unsafe in the presence of the sorcerer’s unspoken frustration.  Evidently, the men did as well.

They sat silently as they watched him pace the lake’s shore, as if he was counting and recounting his steps.  There were no birds here, no insects in the warm night air, and the only noises were their anxious breaths and the whickering of their two fists of pack horses.

Beneath it all, just barely heard, was Banw’s angry muttering.

This lake used to be a moving river before it all backed-up.  Gyneth crouched on her haunches and examined the rocks and soil around them.  Being a farmer’s shebari, there was often little else to occupy her mind other than children, husbands, and livestock.  She has no children, she was yet too young to marry, and the packhorses have already been tended to.  So all that was left was rock and dirt.

There was scant soil here-barely enough for the hardiest of weeds to take hold-nevermind crops.  A simple pass of her index finger wiped it away to reveal solid bedrock below.  There were no river stones in this river-none of the rounded stones one would expect to frequent the shores and bottoms of rivers-instead, the rocks here were jagged and uneven and raw.  Perhaps when the river was running, it didn’t run long enough here to wear them down.

“Welcome to the Azeran River, uh?”

Everyone startled at the loudness of the sorcerer’s words.  He turned to look at the group, and his eyes seemed to shine.  Flat card-like stones in his hands shuddered and shifted as if alive and frightened by his touch.

“Then, this is it?” Rokeby asked.

Banw shook his head.  “Nage, not exactly.  This river used run north towards Chur, then west towards the Skudd.  But now it’s gone.  One year it just stopped runnin’.  Gone.  And this lake formed.”  Banw chuckled without humor, “Much the relief of the citizens of Chur.  Damned place used flood each spring from the snowmelt…”

“If this isn’t the place,” Rokeby sputtered, “then-”

Tewi!” Banw snapped.  “The river hid its head, sees?”  He gestured towards the dark profiles of the Warband to the south, “It winds its way through these mountains, fed by springs far up there-the lake has grown-but where does the water still flow, uh?  Despite the lake, it still must go somewhere!”

He sighed deeply at the confused silence.  “Soon after the Azeran River turned into this lake, the Mi’zak River sprang life down in Dagâ Dainâ.  Its wild waters were untamed until King Bebrus dammed it.  The Mi’zak was born when the Azeran went underground.”

“Underground?” Gyneth wondered aloud.

Banw looked at her as if for the first time, and he smiled toothily.  The stony wafers in his hands shuffled and slid against each other.  “Yäh.  It is a complicated matter explain in detail, pektus.  Suffice say, when these lands rose up from under the sea, great sheets of rock broke apart and settled against each other, leavin’ many gaps and crevices and… holes.  Many things were uncovered… many things were buried.”

As if in illustration, the stones in his hands rose into a peak, like a precariously balanced deck of cards, before collapsing again.

“Somethin’ underground changed.  Perhaps somethin’ shifted or slipped or broke.  Where was once a river, now is a lake.  And somewheres beneath it, the water has found a new path… down the Mi’zak.”

“So what do you want?” Rokeby barked with more courage than Gyneth expected.  “You expecting us to walk all the way around this thing?  To find this drain?  We looking for where Azeran feeds Mi’zak?  This is a big lake, caragus!  We don’t have time for that!  We didn’t bring enough food for that, never mind grain for the horses!”

Banw’s hands slid together, calming and stacking his wafers in a single fluid motion.  “ might thinks that, wouldn’t ?  But, nage.  Me guide says we are at the correct place.  Our destination is here.”  The sorcerer turned away, “Make camp and start lookin’.  Circle the lake, but go na farther than a mile in either direction.  Wherever it is, it is close by.”

Rokeby swallowed and nodded.  At some level, Gyneth suspected he was prepared for a violent reaction to his outburst.  Now he almost seemed disappointed that he didn’t get it.  Throwing a wild punch at the nearest of his ifrlis, he gruffly ordered them into motion.

Gyneth backed away, her eyes alternating between the busy group of toughs and the solitary stone-summoner.  Her eyes met Rokeby’s, and he sneered, “Keep out of the way,” even though it was evident that she already was.

No fires were being lit.  Despite the daylong hike, no one prepared to rest or break bread.  The men began to unpack and assemble the identical burdens carried by the horses.  Quickly, frames of wood and leather took shape.  Bags of heavy burlap, reinforced by wood and bronze.  Backpacks likewise toughened and strengthened.  Rope and pulleys.  Picks and shovels.  Weapons.  Swords and short blades and compact, deadly devices Gyneth has heard to be called arbalests.  Each was carefully prepared and set aside.

The moon had begun to set by the time they were finished, and Banw was forced to allow torches.  The group separated and carefully began a search of the lakeshore.

Gyneth silently sidled up to Rokeby.  “What is this?” she hissed quietly.  “Who are you?  I’m killer!  I don’t know what my dat told you about me, but-”

“Shut up!” Rokeby growled, the torchlight flashing bloody red off the gold in his mouth.  “We didn’t pay for you to kill!  And we didn’t pay for you to complain or ask questions either!  You’re small, and your dat says you can climb.  That‘s what we need you for!”

“But the swords-”

“We ain’t going to kill anyone that doesn’t get in our way,” he assured, but the way his hand rested on the pommel of his sword gave her reason to step back.  “Do as you’re told, stay out of our way, and keep your mouth shut.  Do this, and your dat will be well rewarded.  Understand?”

Gyneth bit her lip and backed off.  Stay out of their way?  Easily done.

Just a little ways back towards the camp, she found a large wash, a place where the Azeran River used to flow in earnest.  Formed by a boulder nearly twice larger than her dat‘s cottage, the water here used to collect into a deep eddy.  Standing in what must have been the deepest part of the pool, she looked up at the boulder and tried to imagine what it was like when the Azeran River was alive.  Chavvies and shebaris like her might have found shelter here from the heat, diving into the water from the top of the rock.  Chasing fish.  Hiding from their elders.  Making sport with one another.

She shivered and smiled when a sudden gust of cool air rushed across her legs, stimulating images of diving into shockingly cold water on a hot day.

What fun that must have been!

Halfway enthralled by her own fantasy, she began to search the edges of the pool and then the top of the boulder for signs of those bygone youths-carvings in the stone, lost trinkets-but to no avail.  After a fairly thorough exploration, she gave up.  They were either long gone or never existed.

Unsure of why this disappointed her so much, she sat on the top of the boulder and sulked, setting aside her small torch and staring out at the night-darkened view.  With the moon gone, the stars of Heaven were sprayed across the night sky.  Below them, right where the line of the horizon cut into the sky, she could see the distant lights of Tûlas Turmas.  Behind her, to the south loomed the black presence of the Sentinel, the first of the Warparty, upon whose foothills they have been traveling all night.  She has heard that this great lake wound through the Warparty, connecting them.  Or separating them.  It sort of depended on how you wanted to look at it.

The lights of Tûlas Turmas shimmered, and she imagined she could hear the festivities.  The smells, the food, the music and dancing.  She craved the sweetmeats her mother made.  Lankinâ Kyot begins tomorrow.  Perhaps she would be back in time to enjoy them.

Somewhere, she wasn’t sure where, she could hear Rokeby and Banw yelling at each other.  Evidently, their search was not going well.  She honestly began to wonder who she has more reason to fear:  the sorcerer or the bandit.  In the story, “Alfritha and Dyvyr,” the jel’enedra was killed once her usefulness was over.  In the story of her own life, how could she be anything more than the simple jel’enedra?

Her eyes roamed around to see the light of the torches gathering as the men met and discussed their situation.

Did they intend to kill her too?  How much did they offer her dat for her?  What could he possibly do to these men if she never came home?

Very well, perhaps “Alfritha and Dyvyr” wasn’t the best thing for her to think about right now, though the alls-well-that-ends-well ending was always a favorite amongst groundlings like her.

Gyneth smiled.  The two lovers became wed upon the shores of a pool like this.  She glanced down.  And to seal their wedding pact, they threw the rings of their betrothed into the water!

Grinning broadly, she snatched up her torch and scrambled back down into the dried pool.  Perhaps her friends from the past left hints of their presence in this pool as well?

Holding her torch close to the ground, she began to search carefully.  Interesting.  Parts of the smooth rock basin were covered in old dried algae.  Seasons of debris and dead and dried weeds choked the bottom.  Seasonal rains must fill this basin for a time before the heat dried it out, but with the amount of rain these mountains got, she expected this pool would become much deeper.  Perhaps there is sandy soil beneath?  She digged about briefly but found only more clay and bedrock.

She shrugged.  The water must run off somewhere.

It was an insignificant puzzle, and she quickly lost interest in it-just as she lost interest in searching for lost treasures-there were none to find here.  She considered heading back to the horses and trying to find some food.

Another gust of cool air caused her skin to tingle and prickle.  With it came the subtle scent of water.

Gyneth stopped.  Cool breeze on such a hot summer night?  How could such a thing be?

She waited and shortly felt it again.  In fact, the longer she waited, the more she realized that the coolness was always there, pulsing softly like breaths.

Holding her torch lower, she watched its flame as it gently swayed.  In one direction was that great boulder; in the other, were the descending slopes of the Sentinel and the Dagâ Dainâ Plains beyond.

Eyes alternating between the boulder and her torch, she slowly moved closer.  The dark grayness of the stone faded to a natural dull brown as she neared, but beneath at its base, was a slash of darkness that remained solid as night.

Resting her hand on the boulder, Gyneth crouched down and extended her torch.

***

Gyneth felt extremely alone, isolated, surrounded, as if the weight of the darkness around her was on the brink of crushing her.  The roar of ancient water was all around her, the air was thick with the scent and feel of it.

She stood upon the rocky, uneven surface, waist deep in old, slimy water, legs splayed, body thrown back to keep the tension upon the rope.  Her small torch was extinguished the moment she landed in this pool.  Evidently, this was where all the rainwater ended up.  She shivered.  All around her was hungry darkness.

The rope jerked and jostled.  Dirt, mud, and curses cascaded down upon her, the former getting into her eyes and hair.

She looked away and blinked, not daring to shift her weight or move her feet.  When she looked back up, there was the palest of blushes above her.  More jerking, more curses, and quickly the stone ceiling acquired definition as light spilled in.  It illuminated her dirty body and the rope as it rose upwards.  The pool appeared to be about 20 or 30 feet wide.

The cave wasn’t quite as big as her passage downwards had implied.  About 20 feet above her, the rope wrapped around the smoothed edge of an outcropping and disappeared.

“Curse you, bitch!” someone shouted down at her, “Are you sure this is the best way down?”

She didn’t answer, as she was unsure of what a response from her would gain, except perhaps a beating.

The moment they tied that rope around her waist and sent her down, she knew why they hired her from her dat.  She had always been good at climbing-her dat had always enthusiastically bragged and cursed her skills-but never had she had to do anything like this.

The cave beneath the boulder was large-big enough even for all the men of the group to stand in-but further down…  For nearly an hour, she crawled and twisted and pulled, struggling to navigate the treacherous and claustrophobic honeycomb of gaps and passages to gain access to the main passage deep below that Banw assured her she would find.

In actuality, finding this large cavern was easy.  Finding a way into it that the men could traverse… aye, that was difficult.

A head, a hand, and a torch appeared over the outcropping.  Rokeby nodded down at her and then disappeared again.  She could just barely make out him calling back up to the others.  When he reappeared, he was smiling, his earlier curses apparently forgotten.

Moments later, he replaced her as the anchor to the rope, and she was forgotten.

The process of bringing down men and equipment began.

***

“Did you have to find so much water to stand in?”

“Will I still be needed?” she asked in a small voice, “or can I go home?”

, we still need you.  We’ll be bringing all these bags back up soon… but filled and heavy.  We’ll need your help in coaxing them through the tight spots.”

“Filled with what?”

“Shut up, and get out of the way!”

***

The cavern was wider than it was tall.  Its walls were smooth and relatively clean.  Banw swore this was once a main artery of the Azeran River, or that it is like the main artery, or some such.  It was obvious that water used the surge through here.  The roar of it was ever-present.  Cold, moist air gusted and howled through these tunnels.  If what Banw said was true, then somewhere nearby, the great lake above them was slowly pouring into these caverns and flowing the many miles down to the Mi’zak.

Gyneth quietly wound her way through the smoothed, wet stone towers and rounded curves of this place.  The water flowing through here has given everything a strange, organic shape.  Down slope of the rainwater pool, she found other, smaller pools.  Fed by tiny springs and the ever-present mist, small rivers of water ran across the floor, disappearing into the darkness.  There were many places to hide but few things to find.  Everything smaller than an ox seemed to have been swept away long ago.  She stayed out of the way while the others worked.

“Gather the men together,” Banw’s voice echoed from somewhere nearby, “We moves upstream when ready.”

“Wait,” Rokeby answered with sudden tension, “All of them?  I thought we had agreed to leave some up top with the horses…”

All of them,” Banw answered with finality.  “The inigena can stay behind.  We has na more real use fer her… at least until we begins bringin’ the goods up.”

“Leaving an inigena behind with a team of horses?  I don’t think Virbius would approve-”

“Virbius won’t approve of us bein’ late,” Banw interrupted with heat, “which we are due the laziness of yer men and the sluggishness of that inigena!”

“Ain’t nothing to do with my men!” Rokeby snapped.  “If you had known where the fuck you were going…”

The silence between them seemed to burn the air, and Gyneth dared not move from her place.  At last, Banw said, “If feels yer men are … energetic, here is their opportunity prove it.  Gather all of them together.  We heads upstream.  We must finds the treasure quickly.  The horses must be loaded, and we must be underway before sunrise.  If we fails do , then Virbius will be displeased.  Am I understood, uh?”

There was a pause before Rokeby hissed, “Aye.”

Gyneth slowly released her breath as she heard the men separate.  Perhaps it would be best for her to head up now.  Better to keep herself far from this gang.  Perhaps when she got to the top, she should just run, run far, far away and never stop until she got home.

But treasure?  They were in search of treasure here?

In the distance, she heard Rokeby bellow for her, ordering his men to send her up to the horses on the surface.  His harsh voice echoed and boomed through the rounded walls, until they were eventually swallowed by the mist and hiss of tumbling water.

Flee?  Risk them chasing her?  Where else would she go but back to her dat?  Where else would they look for her?

Stay?  Perhaps get some of this treasure for herself?  Would that be possible?  What would they do if they caught her?  What would they do if they found out she knew?

Stay hidden then, she resolved.  Follow them, perhaps.  See what this treasure was.  Take what she could, and then slip back out before they were the wiser.  Aye, she nodded as she silently extinguished her torch in a nearby puddle.  That’s what she’d do.

As the group began to move, she remained in the shadows, hidden behind the torches of the men.  The very light they used to see blinded them to her nearby presence.  Gathering up their packs and tools, and led by Rokeby, they lined up and marched upstream into the darkness.

Banw lagged behind, carefully scanning rough camp with his eyes and then glancing up at the hanging rope.  “Where is the inigena?” he asked the last man in the line.

The ifrli shrugged-he was little more than a farmer’s chavvie-and gestured towards the rope.  “I heard Rokeby ordered her back up.  I suppose that’s where she is.”

Banw nodded, and the two followed the others.

***

The mist was thicker here, the water sounding more imminent.  Gyneth was not sure, but she suspected the floor on her right has fallen away, replacing solid stone with a sharp drop and a roaring, swift underground river.  Without a torch, she could not see it, but she could hear and feel its presence.

In order to see, she followed close to the group.  The ifrlis‘ torches glowed like Fée orbs ahead of her, illuminating the swirling mist in nearly perfect spheres of light.  Unfortunately, they did not provide much visibility in the fog, and the bodies of the men themselves were only suggestions of movement and shadow.

It came, thus, as quite a surprise, when Gyneth’s eyes caught a flash of light in that pitchy black chasm on her right.

There was some discussion ahead of her.  The men have stopped and circled around.  She could hear Banw’s voice but could not make out the words over the roar of the water.  Rokeby’s voice fired back, fatigue and frustration adding an edge to his words.  The ifrlis began to shuffle around uncomfortably as their leaders bickered yet again.

Were they turning back?  Were they staying?  Gyneth groped around for a place to hide.  If they came back, they’d surely find her.  Short of retreating the way she came, the only possible hiding place was in the darkness of the river chasm.

One of the men waved his torch, and there was that flash of light again.

Curiosity got the better of her.

On hands and knees, she carefully edged closer into the darkness.  She could feel the slick ground gradually turn downwards.  She splayed her hands and knees farther apart to improve traction, her fingers and toes gripping at whatever purchase they could find in this stone.

“Wait here!” Banw’s voice reached her with sudden clarity.

,” Rokeby answered.  “You’ve been hiding something from us, caragus!  You’ve hired plenty of men and horses for this treasure, but we’ve yet to see-”  The roar of the caverns swallowed his words again as they moved away.

Gyneth slowly worked her way towards where she remembered seeing the flash of light, and her hand fell upon something unexpected.  It was flat and roundish, rough and mossy on one side, smoother on the other.  Tree bark?  Gingerly, her fingers explored this strange object.  What could tree bark be doing down here?  Washed down here when the river was swollen by rainwater, she supposed.  But judging by what her hands were telling her, this bark belonged to no tree she has ever seen.

Could this be the source of the flashing light?  It seemed unlikely that such a rough thing could reflect the torchlight so well, but anything was possible she supposed.  Deciding that it was worth it to continue looking, she carefully tucked the bark under her shirt and kept moving.

The men’s voices rose into sudden shouting, much closer than she expected.  Startled, she lost her traction and, with a small cry, plunged headfirst into the darkness.  Blinded by fear, she flailed around with her hands, seeking anything to slow or stop her fall.  The noise of the water below her rushed up from the darkness like a solid wall.  She plummeted for what felt like an eternity.

When her senses returned to her, she found herself stopped, her hands planted firmly on a section of flat stone.  The roar of water was all around her.  Spray soaked her arms and face, and its buffeting pounded through her body.  She was very close to the river it seemed.

Carefully, she got her feet beneath her and crouched on her little ledge.  The cave above her suddenly filled with light, as the ifrlis rushed to where she was hiding.  “I heard something!” someone shouted.

Gyneth crouched lower.  Their boots and sandals were mere inches from her face.  Evidently, her downward plunge wasn’t as far as it felt.  She made herself small and hoped they didn’t look down.

“Was it the inigena?” Banw muttered angrily.

“I don’t know, but I heard it too.”

“Bats then?”

“I’ve seen bats in this cave, have you?”

“I ain’t seen thing in this cave.  bats, treasure.”

The men searched about halfheartedly, the argument still heavy in the air around them.

Abruptly, Banw spoke, “Very well.  I’ve little interest in arguin’ with .  Me orders were fer yer protection only.  does not know what we’re dealin’ with here… and I knows little more than .  We goes in as a group, but yä touches nothin‘ until I have said it is safe, understood?”

“What’re you saying, stone-summoner?” Rokeby growled.  “There’s magic up beyond?  Guardians?  Spirits?”

“I just told I knows little more than .  But Virbius gave me very specific instructions on how the goods are be handled.  Fer our safety, we does it his way, yäh?”

Dismissing any other discussion, Banw turned and headed back up the passage.  With a snort and sneer, Rokeby stormed back down towards their camp, shoving men aside.  He passed his torch about, giving the darkness a cursory examination.  Despite winning this battle with the sorcerer, he didn’t seem happy.

“Well, you heard the man!” he bellowed as he turned back.  “We’re all going in, but you touch nothing until he’s done what he has to do!  Understand?”

The ifrlis muttered and nodded, giving their leader a wide berth as he stalked after Banw.  They fell in behind him quickly and nearly fell over themselves when he suddenly turned around again.  He eyed the darkness over Gyneth’s head one more time.  “One of you stay here,” he muttered.  “Let us know if you hear anything more.”

The ifrlis looked at each other uneasily and silently agreed that the job would go to the youngest, smallest of their number.  It was the boy Banw spoke with earlier, and as the others moved upwards, he was left behind with only the light of his torch-and the hidden Gyneth-for company.  Miserable and terrified by his lot, his eyes darted back and forth as they searched the darkness.  Slowly, he backed away from the sounds of the river and pressed himself against the far wall.  Holding his torch in his hands, his hands between his knees, he slid down to the floor and waited.

Gyneth wanted to suggest he stop staring into that torch, lest he’ll never see anything coming, but she chose to hold her piece.

The boy’s location was fortuitous.  Glancing to her right, Gyneth saw the glimmer of light again, a nearly perfect circle flashing with the guttering of the torch.

The men’s voices grew distant and indistinct as she eased closer to the light.  It seemed near the edge of the river, and she approached it gingerly.

The men’s voices rose in excitement.  She could not hear what they’re saying, but they certainly seemed happy.  There were cheers and even some laughter.

The circle of light was just out of her reach, and she cursed quietly as the boy stirred in reaction to the cries of joy.  The circle disappeared and reappeared erratically, and her eyes had difficulty remembering where it was in the darkness.

Pressing herself flat against the steep stone slope, she stretched her arm.  It grew quiet again up the passage-broken occasionally by what sounds like chanting-and the boy sighed and returned to his seat.  The light reappeard, mere inches from her fingertips.

The piece of bark bit into the skin of her belly as she stood on the toes of one foot and carefully leaned further and further out.  She was not sure what was beneath her-safe stone or a raging, sucking rapid-but chill spray tickled her legs, so she took no chances.  Slowly reaching further and further across the darkness, her fingers at last touched the light and found it cool, hard, and solid.  Crawling their way across, her fingertips could feel its smooth, irregular surface.

Grunting quietly with effort, she finally closed her fingers around it.  She clutched it tightly in her fist for a moment before slowly easing back.  She was shocked by the weight of its small size.

When she felt that the majority of her weight is back over her feet, she collapsed with relief and excitement and explored her new prize.

Her fingers told her it is a coin, rough serrations around its edge, some sort of picture on either side.  It was heavy, so very heavy.  Heavier than the coppers her dat so carefully counted at their dinner table.

She slyly raised it above the lip of the cave floor until it caught the firelight of the chavvie‘s torch.  It glowed like blood.  When she turned it in her fingers, she saw the suggestion of a regal profile on one side, something sinuous on the other.

There was a scream.

The cave trembled, almost imperceptibly at first.  Then it shuddered again, and she clutched the coin to her breast.  She stood and peeked over the ledge.  The boy’s attention was drawn up towards where the ifrlis went.  After that scream, it grew strangely quiet up there.

The cave trembled.  A split second later, a howl beyond Gyneth’s understanding banged and crashed through the tunnel.  It chilled and terrified her beyond her ability to reason.  With the last echoes fading in her ears, every instinct in her soul demanded her to flee, but her feet remained firmly planted in their place.  She could hear the screams of the men.  They were hopeless, animal cries, mindless, as if they were unable to comprehend what was happening to them.

The cave was shaking as if something huge was throwing its weight against its walls.  There was another roar, more screams, followed by deafening crashes.  The end of the hall blinked into clear visibility as waves of orange light spilled around a bend.  A gust of fetid, searingly hot air struck Gyneth in the face.

Blinking past the light, she could see the cave here was much larger than she thought, larger even than the cavern where they entered.  It continued nearly 40 more yards upstream before it turned out of sight.  The floor sloped unevenly downwards, from left to right and from back to front.  She was standing on a shallow ledge, near its lowest point.  Below her, was a silvery stream of enraged water, coiling and churning its way through the cave with insane speed.

Gyneth made eye contact with the boy.  Her fear was reflected in his eyes.  “Run,” he whispered.

“Run!” she answered.

All was suddenly quiet ahead of them.  Only a regular suggestion of breathing seemed to rise above the roar of the river next to them.  The cave grew dark again, with only a faint flickering of light suggesting the details of the walls and floor.

“Run,” the chavvie whispered, offering her his torch.

Run,” she urged back.

Li’ sa’ eer!!!” Rokeby’s voice suddenly howled from ahead of them, his terror sending new chills down her spine.  “RUN!  RUN!”

Gyneth and the chavvie stood transfixed as sudden commotion filled the tunnel ahead of them.  She could hear the men scrambling, heading her way.  She could hear something huge launch itself into pursuit.  Whatever it was, they were bringing it to her.

There was motion up ahead in the darkness.  And suddenly, the tunnel was flooded with blazing light, three fleeing forms silhouetted before it.  The fire moved like an animal, filling the cavern, banking off the turn, chasing down, and enveloping the men.  Heat blasted and blistered Gyneth’s face.  The breath was sucked from her lungs, and she was thrown forward against the lip of her ledge, as if the fire hungered for her as well.  The cool mist in the air and the dewed water on her skin turned to steam instantly.

Then there was darkness, a pummeling and battering of her body and ears, and cool water spraying her face.  Staggering to her feet, she peeked out from her hiding place.  Three burning skeletons laid where the men once were, flesh and fat spitting and melting onto the cave floor.  Rokeby’s golden teeth trembled in the heat and then collapsed into molten puddles.

Gyneth glanced over to see the boy laying on the ground next to her.  His face was blackened and bleeding, his hair and clothes smoking.

Her free hand found his fallen torch, and she scooped it up as she scrambled off the ledge.

“Run!” she hissed, pulling at his arm.  His skin crackled.  In the guttering light of the fires, she saw the shadows of something huge slinking towards them, sliding itself around the bend upstream.  The boy layed transfixed.  “Run!” she urged.

She heard a deep, low growl.  Two great saucers suspended high in the darkness reflected the light of her small torch.

With a howl of madness, the chavvie leapt to his feet and charged.  “Banw!” he screamed mindlessly, “He will help us!”

Gyneth moaned in terror and surprise as he shoved past her towards the creature.  The light of her fire suggested a wall of endless coils, muscle, and power.  Without warning, a great talon dropped out the darkness.  The chavvie shrieked as his bones and body were crushed.

As if curious by its work, the beast lifted its paw to inspect the damage.

Gyneth’s courage failed, and she fled.

She ran through the darkness, her small torch and her memory her only guides.  Great rounded shapes of stone loomed unexpectedly out at her as she tumbled downwards.  She tripped and fell, leaving much skin and blood on the rock before she found her feet again and continued running.

As if playing with its prey, the creature behind her was slow to react.  She imagined it casually sucking up the boy’s dieing body, crushing it in its jaws, savoring the taste before finally swallowing.

When it began its pursuit, it was distant.  But it closed the distance rapidly.

Gyneth was surprised by how quickly she reached the camp.  Their torches were still lit-the fetid pond shining in their light-the remains of their equipment strewn about in orderly piles.  At the very center of the pond was the rope.

She didn’t break her stride as she plunged into the water.  Throwing her torch aside, she leapt and caught the rope, pulling herself up hand-over-hand with practiced ease.  She reached the first ledge and rolled herself over, just as the cavern filled with the thunder of the beast.  The pool exploded as it surged through, scattering the torches and equipment.  It paused in a brief inspection of the camp before charging downstream.

Gyneth didn’t hesitate.  Leaping to her feet, she scurried up the tunnel, following the winding path of the rope back to the surface.

There was a roar of rage below her, and the rope was suddenly torn from her grasp.  Gyneth had to make a hasty grab for the walls to keep from being pulled down with it.  The cave shook violently as a huge claw reached upwards in an effort to snag her.  Rock and dirt fell all around her as she felt the creature digging upwards.  She heard boulders crashing into the water below.

Gyneth climbed as fast as she could.  She reached the topmost cave just as she heard the great inhalation.  With a desperate scream, she leapt for the surface, rolling herself into the dried pool.  Seconds later, the night was lit by fire from below.

She crawled away as quickly as her wounded body allowed.  She began to shake.  Exhaustion and fear and injury threatened to overwhelm her.

The crashes from underground continued as the beast vented its fury, struggling upwards to find her.  Was she safe here?  The quakes grew stronger.  The great boulder above the wash shifted and then sank.  Could it actually be digging its way out?

Something caught her eye.  It was a thin trickle of water, streaming out from behind the boulder.  With the next tremor, the boulder moved again, and it became a torrent.  And then without warning, a great wall of water plunged towards her as Lake Azeran spilled into the wash.

Gyneth tried to turn and run, but she was far too slow.  The water struck her, lifting her and bowling her over and over.  Then just as suddenly, it sucked her backwards.  She flailed about, trying to find some sort of purchase with her hands and feet, and finally caught herself on a rock.  The waters pulled at her viciously, and it was several seconds before she dared lift her head.

In the blackness of the night, the river swirled around the great boulder and disappeared into the caverns below.  The earth shook.  Slowly, slowly, the boulder shifted and rolled and sunk.  There was another tremor, and then it disappeared beneath the water entirely.  Gyneth stood and watched.  A great whirlpool formed where the rock once stood.  Slowly, the water around her ankles disappeared.

Limping to their camp, Gyneth found the horses frightened but otherwise unhurt.  Clutching a guttering torch, she found some protected shelter and resolved to hide until daybreak.

In the light of the fire, she inspected the coin.  It was gold and beautiful.  On the obverse, a stern-looking king glared back at her.  Turning it over, she saw a dragon coiled in a figure-8, consuming its own tail.

Tired of the bark biting into her skin, she pulled it from under her shirt.  Before she could toss it aside, something about its features in the torchlight drew her eye, and she stayed her hand.  The torchlight revealed it to be no bark.  It was a great, leathery scale, covered in ancient moss and lichen.

Far beneath her, the earth shook.

Feast of Daho and Abnoba

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

(Palpi ballad)

Old Daho, the carrion boduus,

The black boduus of Clyno…

From him, ev’ry cing, bna, and fœtus

Was spawned, then raised, watched, guarded, and checked;

His black eyes do not care
His gut seeks other fare;

‘Till his children hang limp by the neck’d.

Then his beak will grow heavy with marrow.

That old black boduus of Clyno.

Is that the wind dying, my sweet?
Nage
, two devils dining, my sweet!

Through a murderer’s bones to and fro,
Their feathers black in the bright moon glow.

Hoyw, Abnoba, carrion dona!

She who has supped on riges’ marrow,

takes what old Daho leaves .

Yer nest is a noble rixa’s skull,

‘Tis cloven and crack’d,
And batter’d and hack’d,

But with tears of blue eyes it is full:

While its cheeks will run heavy with marrow.

Let me toast you, O boduus of Clyno…

Is that the wind dying, my sweet?
Nage, two devils dining, my sweet!

Through a murderer’s bones to and fro,
Their feathers black in the bright moon glow.


Abnoba:  Brackish goddess of death, rain, rivers, fish, and fishing. Caretaker of the dead. Sister of Aelle. Worshipped by fishermen, boatmen, and the exsanguinators and dressers of the dead.
bna:  Woman.
boduus
: Raven.
cing:  Knight.
Clyno:  One of the 12 Palpi city-states. A former Brackish dunum and major center of trade and culture.
Daho: In Brackish mythology, the first man. Father of the founders of the 10 Brackish tribes.
dona:  Wife.
Hoyw!:  Hail!
nage:  No (denial of an affirmative).
riges:  Kings and queens.
rixa:  Queen.
:  You.