Speakers – Part One

 

Alia lay on her back watching the night sky, her hands clasped on her chest. For a moment she could pretend all that existed in the world was the cushion of flowers and leaves beneath her. The forest grew thinner as one approached the center of Aelburn. Lush forests became small groves before turning into strategic clumps of trees near villages or cities to provide shelter as travelers passed through. Alia had grown up in a large port town, and then lived in solitude until Raffi’s men had forcibly drawn her out of isolation. The cloying heat was one of many new experiences since leaving Ravensea where constant sea winds kept the town cool. Even now, laying in the shade Alia’s loose gown stuck to her skin. She twirled one of the bodice strings in idyl motions.

 

That day played over in her head. She’d thought the path from her hut to the river was well concealed, walking it many times without incident. The first time Alia heard footsteps behind her she dismissed them. Denhollows was two weeks away and the trees were so thick here, no one could get by unless they already knew the way. Or followed someone who did. Heavier footsteps soon followed the first and Alia knew she was being followed. She quickened her pace, letting her fingers trail against the trees as she passed. They didn’t know the words for malicious or perverse but they could sense “wrongness”. They knew the metal that broke their bodies. And that’s how Alia knew to run. She’d been gathering stones for a protection spell, but they’d do no good for her in their current form so she let the basket fall from her hands. She thought she had been well ahead of her pursuers but as she came over the last hill, she saw the clearing filled with a ragtag band of mercenaries. Young, old, thin and hulking brutes all armed to the teeth. Alia turned, intending to skirt around her hut to an almost nonexistent path which would allow her to escape. Instead she saw a man standing in her way. There was a unnatural stillness to him. No twitching hands seeking a weapon. Only an unwavering patience. He made no move towards her until Alia’s shoulders slumped.

 

Alia didn’t use her magic to fight. She’d left Ravensea all those years ago for that very reason. Every magic user could manipulate the elements; not all could speak their language of emotions. Most sought these witches to keep their people safe on expeditions. It was nearly impossible to sneak up on someone who could hear the wind and “see” the number of attackers. Or listen to the trees as Alia did. Raffi wanted to keep himself safe from consequences. That meant keeping his men alive, though the individual themselves was unimportant, and stealing whatever would help achieve this goal. But knowing why Raffi wanted her didn’t tell Alia who was willing to sell her out. She was considering this when she was yanked to her feet. Cuthfre wasn’t much taller than her but his small frame and hanging clothing hid wiry muscles. Alia rubbed her sore shoulder and glared at him.

 

“He needs you to look ahead.”

 

“I can’t.” Her voice wavered.

 

She’d already explained to Raffi that unless each oasis was connected she couldn’t learn what they knew until they reached each one. A wind witch had been sighted in Sunmount but it was a riskier venture than catching her; isolated in her woods. If anyone within the town suspected they were coming the witch could flee. If the witch fought and they drew too much attention to Sunmount, reinforcements could arrive in little over an hour from Norcourt. Which wouldn’t deter an army but could be disastrous for a band of twenty that would be down one if Alia couldn’t make herself useful. Alia’s mind desperately sought a solution as Cuthfre dragged  her towards the largest of their three wagons. She’d tried sneaking away once, now everyone watched her and hoped she’d try again so they could earn an extra cut by bringing her back. Cuthfre pushed Alia forward and quickly moved away before he became the subject of Raffi’s anger.

 

Raffi wore a fine linen shirt that draped elegantly over wide shoulders and wider chest; stretching it to its limits. He sat on a bench with one foot up on a stool with curling feet while he carved up a statue. Alia watched each flick of that knife with her heart pounding in her ears.

 

“I need to know what I’m walking into.”

 

The only danger I’ll be warned of is you. Alia looked away, hoping he hadn’t seen defiance in her eyes.  “I won’t know until we’re closer.” She was almost whispering. All of her bravado disappearing instantly.

 

Raffi crept closer. Alia kept her face turned away, but the space seemed suddenly tiny. She tried to keep her breath steady but it caught in her throat when he helped her to her feet.

 

“It will do me no good to walk into a town so large without knowing this information beforehand.” Raffi held Alia’s hands gently in his while massaging them as if it were cold.

 

Alia had to fight a shiver despite the heat. “If we approach as traders maybe we won’t draw suspicion.”

 

“And who would have anything worthy of trade?”

 

Raffi spoke in a casual tone. Alia almost answered him but hastily clamped her lips shut. His lips turned up briefly in a smile. Raffi tipped Alia’s head up, making her strain to not look him in the eyes. He hadn’t forbidden it but they were a blue so light they almost seemed silver. Even knowing that the hidden warmth in them was false, Alia had found herself staring more often than she should. And she needed all of her wits about her.

 

“They fancy themselves scholars, I say we take advantage of their soft hearts.”

 

Raffi finally let Alia’s hands drop and he moved over to a gilded chest. As he unlatched it, she felt the urge to curl up far away from Raffi and will him to forget her. He pulled out a small paper bird that could be mistaken as a kite.

 

“When you know where the witch is and how the size of their guards, send word.” Raffi handed the paper bird to Alia, who took it in shaking hands. “You have until nightfall. Now run.”

 

***

 

Alia stumbled and she clutched the bird to her chest. Then, fear coursing through her, checked to make sure the paper wasn’t crumpled. That would break the spell on it and the men Raffi set after her would cut her down. Without looking over her shoulder, Alia kept going though this time she moved at a slower pace. She didn’t know if the guards would let her in and after awhile she only thought of the sweat dripping into her eyes. Alia licked her lips as if that would help the dryness. She ignored the aching in her throat, hoping the city was close. The thin slippers Raffi allowed her to wear were no match for the heated sand. There was a road but Raffi had kept well away from it and Alia didn’t know in which direction it lay. She wished for the thick hide boots she’d purchased on her last trip into a small town, but Raffi had had them destroyed. How long ago had that been? Months ago? A year? Had she’d really been a captive that long? The thought made Alia want to lay down where she was. She couldn’t consign someone else to this life.

 

Alia chanced a glance behind her to see two men on horseback in the distance. They could easily overtake her if they suspected what she was about to do. Alia turned away and walked as quickly as she could without losing her footing. She reached out to the wind though it was voiceless to her.

 

Run!

 

Silence answered her. Alia wanted to shout it out but she didn’t. Instead pouring all her hopelessness into that word, so the wind would carry her message to the witch who could hear it.

 

Please run!

 

A cool breeze blew and Alia laughed softly in relief. She’d never spoken to wind, at least not intentionally, but she took that as its answer. “Thank you.”

 

A harder wind pushed her forward, urging her until she began to run. This time she didn’t care about Raffi’s bird. There was shouting but it was covered by a howling gust. Alia looked to see sand blowing around her pursuers. She hesitated, wondering who she was running towards before deciding the unknown was the better option. Any way the wind pushed her, she ran; adrenaline kept her going for now.  But too soon her vision wavered. When Alia saw someone running towards her she tried to run but strong hands gripped her.

 

“I heard you call. There’s no need to worry.”

 

Alia tried to fight the tears that sprang to her eyes. “No. You were supposed to run,” she croaked. She looked into a gentle face, their eyes were full of concern.

 

They shook their head and untied the flask at their waist. “Here, drink this. You don’t have to worry about those two anymore.”

 

Alia tried to explain but she was sobbing and exhausted. Her words barely made sense to herself.

 

“Ki!” A second person approached with his sword drawn. “Is this why you ran off into the desert? He looked Alia over, decided she was harmless, and sheathed his weapon.

 

“Yes, Andriet. This is why.” Ki wrapped their arm around Alia and tried to move her but she resisted.

 

“You have to leave.” Alia pulled away from them. “He took me. Please run.”

 

Andriet shared a look with Ki. “Look around. He’s not here.” His voice became softer, like she was about to break. “You got away.”

 

“But you need to come back into town with us.”

 

Alia reluctantly let Ki lead her, all the while insisting they run.

 

***

 

Sunmount was impressive in size if not presentation. The shops were of a practical size and pressed against one another. It passed in a blur. Though Sunmount was not far from Norcourt, it was a quiet town compared to the busier city and there wasn’t much traffic to force their way through. By now Ki and Andriet were nearly dragging Alia, arms tightly around her waist with her arms hanging around their necks. With the height difference, Ki the shortest and Andriet the tallest, it was an awkward and slow crawl to their destination. There were questions about who she was along the way but she couldn’t hold onto the words, and Ki didn’t answer.

 

Ki shouldered open the door to a shop . “It’s not much but it’s home.”

 

Alia could only let out a moan in response. Ki frowned and swung Alia into their arms. Her head lolled against their shoulder, enjoying the coolness of their linen shirt against her cheek.

 

“I’ll see if I can cook something up for her,” Andriet said as he made his way to the kitchen.

 

Ki bounded up the steps and Alia had to squeeze her eyes closed against a growing headache. She let out a gasp and held desperately onto Ki when they laid her down on something soft. She looked wildly around the room.

 

“Deep breaths,” Ki repeated until Alia finally relaxed. They brushed hair out her face. “Just focus on getting some rest.” They opened the shutters, gave her a sympathetic smile, and then left.

 

Alia ran her hands over the cotton quilts. She didn’t want to trust this. Afraid that this would disappear, some illusion, and she’d find herself back in Ranafre’s caravan. She glanced at the open window. Her breathing quickened.

 

You have until nightfall.

 

Alia shuffled backwards until her back hit the headboard. She curled into a ball, arms wrapped around her chest and forehead pressed against her knees.

 

***

 

When someone shook her, Alia awoke with a start. She drew in a breath. She expected a hit that never came. When she finally peeked over her hand she saw Andriet waiting patiently standing by the bed. His black hair was short but messy waves were starting to fall into his eyes.

 

“Kia had to close the shop, but we’ll make it up tomorrow. You don’t make enemies with one who talks to the wind,” he grinned as if they were old friends. But he moved slowly when he turned and reached for a bowl on a nearby table. “Had to learn how to cook early, so it may not be a meal fit for a noble table but it’s good.”

 

Alia clutched it with shaking hands. Her appetite hit with sudden force when the smell of beef stew reached her nose. She shovelled it down before Andriet could change his mind. When she finished she started to lick the spoon before  remembering Andriet was there. Self conscious, Alia let the spoon drop into the bowl. “Thank you.” She took a shuddering breath. “Thank you, but I can’t stay.”

 

“You don’t have to stay here. You also don’t have to run, from anyone.” Before Alia could protest, he continued. “You can take my old clothing. I’ve… I’ve been trying to get rid of them.” Andriet tried to give a dismissive shrug despite his somber expression.

 

Alia remained quiet. She watched him closely as he moved casually to the small closet.

 

“My mother made these when I young, trying to get used to suddenly towering over the other children.” He pulled out more stuff than Alia thought the closet could hold. “They’ll be a little… short but it’ll do until Ki can make you a better dress.”

 

Andriet suddenly fell silent, pausing for such a long time Alia thought he’d reconsidered.

 

“This is fine! Really!” She tried ignoring the fact that her gown was so dirty its original dark green color had been long hidden and holes were patched when she could scrounge together the material.

 

Andriet squared his shoulders. “I never really got to wear these. The Ghosts took our town.” He turned with a pair of dresses over his arms.

 

In some stories the Ghosts were a group of spirits that wandered the wilds, seeking to avenge a city lost to time. In others, they left the wilds on a whim to roam the surrounding lands as corporeal spirits; rushing over cities and villages like a flood and leaving little behind.

 

When Andriet spoke again, it was more to himself than Alia. “One for every day, the other for celebrations.”

 

“I’m, so sorry.”

 

“I don’t know who made it or who didn’t.” A sad smile crossed his face, but he didn’t meet her gaze. “There’s a part of me that still hopes I’ll meet my parents again.”

 

Homesickness and disappointment warred within Alia. Her  parents were safe, of that she was sure. Her mother was born into one of the wealthiest trading families. They lacked for nothing. “They wanted to use me. Just as Raffi does.” Alia stared down into the empty bowl, almost forgetting Andriet was still in the room until he gently laid the dresses on the bed. The ends would barely pass her knees and the sleeves would need to be cut off entirely. Guilt flooded Alia at the thought.

 

“Raffi’s the one after you?”

 

“He’s after Ki.” She barely suppressed the trembling threatening to overwhelm her. “If he suspects I warned you he’ll kill me.” Her voice was a harsh whisper.

 

Andriet only folded his arms and let out a snort. “Let him come. We’ve dealt with his kind before.”

 

At that moment the door opened and Ki stuck their head in. “Is she awake — Ah, there we go.” Then they noticed Andriet’s expression, growing serious. “What’s happened?”

 

“Someone’s after you, again.”

 

Ki sighed and rubbed his head as if being hunted for his powers was just another frustration to deal with. “When will they get here?”

 

Alia was incredulous. “But there are only two of you. You’ll be overrun!”

 

Ki came close enough to lay a comforting hand on Alia’s shoulder, but quickly stepped back to give her space. “We’ll be okay.”

 

“I’ll protect you. As usual.” Andriet rolled his eyes but a smirk tugged at his lips.

 

Alia looked desperately between them before finally saying, “Nightfall. Raffi has a band of twenty and they will enter the city as soon as the sun sets.”

 

“He’d never get that many people in without….” Andriet looked Alia over again. He sat on the stool again, his voice weary. “Who are you?”

 

Ki shot him a warning glare but Andriet ignored them.

 

So Alia told them of how she’d been used; what Raffi planned for Ki. He was prepared for a harder fight. He had a enspelled brand crafted that would bind Ki’s will and tie their spirits together. For the first time Ki looked worried but if he was panicked, he hid it well.

 

Andriet stood abruptly and strode from the room.

 

Ki gave a heavy sigh, looking towards the window. A breeze swirled around the room. They cocked their head. When the wind finally died down Ki said, “We’ll be ready.”

 

___________________________________________________________________________

 

This is the second story in my collaborative fiction project Worlds of Zumeria. You can read the first story, Twin Fates, here. Anyone can participate and use whatever medium or language they’re most comfortable with. Just read the “rules” at the end of the post and use the hashtag #worldsofzumeria so everyone can find your work.

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Weary

 

Weariness crept into my bones
So slowly
So deeply
I was unprepared
For the effort to open my eyes

 

___________________________________________________________________________

 

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Twin Fates

 

Hexiva poured dirt on the campfire and slowly stood, her fingers reflexively reached for the hardened oak focus at her waist. Without it what little magic she had left was nearly impossible to control and she’d be nearly defenseless. There was an ache in her bones that said turn around, but she had wares to sell and Norcourt was the best place to do it. A sprawling city that was almost a country onto itself. Built on the pursuit of knowledge, Aelburn’s national history was studied and archived in the city’s many universities. It served as a beacon for most of the world and many philosophers made the long journey. Not only to learn but also for a chance their country’s art and teachings would be placed within the Imperial Archives’ grand halls. Yet there were always those who couldn’t quite reach the inner circles so coveted on their own. And that’s where merchants willing to take the risk came in. Hexiva climbed into her wagon to check that no incredibly bold thieves had made off with anything not tied down. There were memory potions that gave whoever took them the ability to remember whatever they saw, for a short period. Students bought them to learn impressive spells for a showcase. Or to quickly learn defensive spells if their mouth had gotten them into trouble. There were gems to enhance magic well beyond the user’s abilities, as long as they kept it on them at all times. Luckily, Hexiva knew a gemwitch whose skills allowed her to disguise her stones’ magic as jewelry by casing them in spelled silver that fooled undiscerning eyes. This allowed her buyers to pass it off as common accessories if questioned by a guard. A bright student kept their stone hidden even in the presence of a “weak” teacher. If they weren’t, then they were banned from all schools but allowed to keep their belongings; minus the offending gem.

 

Unless he was stupid enough to not only worm his way into the bedrooms of all of his professors’ daughters but then challenge Dhelina Lindoom, the eldest and strongest, daughter to a duel when she dragged Ildefroi’s sorry ass before Summerspell Conservatory’s court. Guards swarmed the Freeforge marketplace to search for who sold him the gem. Hexiva barely managed to get away and hadn’t returned in nearly ten years. Rumors said Idefroi had been stripped of his robes and magic before being banished from the city with only the clothes on his back.

 

Hexiva hastily pulled her hair into a messy ponytail that spilled over her shoulder, drew up her hood and fixed the scarf over her nose as she settled into the driver’s seat and slapped the reins. Her horse was getting old but she didn’t want to break in a new one until she had to. As the hours passed the cool night air was replaced by a dry heat but the sun hadn’t began its climb up the sky. All too soon sounds of a busy road drifted to her ears. Merchants shouting at one another, dogs barking and running between wagons. Birds screeching as if their lives depended on it. Tired hooves beating against the ground and rattling cages. Caravans of returning students drew their own impromptu markets as merchants and traders crowded in, trying to hawk their wares to any who’d listen. Norcourt’s wall rose menacingly from the sands as Hexiva joined the slow crawl forward.

 

A sour feeling settled in her stomach. Dumb kid.

 

***

 

Carefully, she placed the case of love potions on a prominent rack at the front of her stall. She’d paid a hefty price for one large enough for all of her products, space between the next stall for her horse and wagon. A luxury in the cramped space but it would deter any horse thieves who didn’t want to avoid two merchants who might be friendly enough to help each other. And Hexiva fully intended on staying until she made her money back. However, if even one of the vials broke Hexiva would be up to her ears in raging, jealous admirers. That’s why she had specific instructions on how much to give someone at once. A drop each day on any food or drink they served until the potion was gone. She never asked for names but it was a well known secret that some used that obsession to get ahead. Especially since it was so hard to track. Those who ingested a love potion stated not being entirely sure of where their feelings ended and the potion began, even after the deception had been discovered. The depth of a potion’s manipulation made most people balk and being convicted as seller meant prison but the “city of knowledge” considered building one beneath it, so those convicted were sent away to Estermarsh. A coastal city south of Norcourt isolated by a foreboding mountain range on one side and a sea full of untold dangers on the other. No one who returned ever spoke of what happened there and only the truly foolhardy risked going back. Hexiva sat on her stool and prepared for a wait. Her existence was made entirely of risks. She’d only be hurting her profits if she worried too long about the legality of her products. So she sat and watched the crowds bustling past. Nobles, scholars, politicians, students, and the poor merged into a steady stream. Occasionally a cart rumbled by. If a merchant couldn’t afford a stall they travelled through the crowds hoping to get the attention of any passersby or they gave up. Soon Hexiva stopped paying attention to details unless someone eyed her stall a second too long. Some customers hesitated, wrangling with their conscience or waiting for their colleagues to pass. The woman across the street, leaning against a tent pole was doing neither. She was glaring at Hexiva.

 

She was only known as Serpent, even to Hexiva who was arguably the closest to her. And Hexiva knew exactly why Serpent was mad. It was due to her warning that allowed Hexiva to pack up what she could and flee. Serpent glared until Hexiva began to squirm, then she finally crossed the wide street. Her cloak flapping wildly and parting the crowd with the force of her anger alone. Anyone nearby scurried passed to avoid the trouble that normally followed.

 

Serpent vaulted over the table, red curls bouncing, and stalked over to the corner Hexiva had taken refuge in. “You were supposed to stay away,” she hissed. Her eyes narrowed. They were golden like the desert snakes whose speed and venom she channeled. Right now they were glowing, a change made apparent in the dark.

 

Hexiva nervously watched the rocking vials. “I did. Surely there’s other scandals to keep everyone busy.” She didn’t want to think about Serpent killing anyone who got close to them in a magically induced fit of jealousy. Of all the crimes she could be connected to, Hexiva was almost certain murder wasn’t one of them.

 

Serpent punched Hexiva in the arm. “Maybe others jump from one person’s tragedy to another, Hex. Not the Lindoom family.” She looked over her shoulder as if the mention of their name was enough to summon all six women. “Why couldn’t you have waited for me to send for you?”

 

“You wouldn’t have.” Hexiva’s voice was strained. She forced herself to stand up straight. Stepping around Serpent, she walked over to her displays and began to straighten them. For a moment her hand hovered over a plain wooden box. Within was a gem similar to the one she’d sold to Ildefroi, this time set in a lover’s locket. She had no intention of selling this one to anyone who couldn’t sense it.

 

“I would have. When it was safe.”

 

Hexiva motioned to the vials she’d already set out then to the charm bags, the fire imp dust that could set a flame without matches, and more ready to be bought for the right price. The silence behind her stretched on so long Hexiva had to turn to make sure Serpent was still there. She let the unsaid question sit between them. Serpent’s expression didn’t change from one of frustration. Their argument was interrupted by far off shouting that was quickly growing closer. The crowd’s rhythm was broken again but this time chaos erupted as a young girl tried desperately to fight her way through the crowd. A group of masked guards followed in close pursuit.

 

She’s probably a thief. Just ignore her.

 

But the aching in her bones turned to a buzzing that set Hexiva’s teeth on edge. Her intuition flared in a particularly irritating way but gave her no hints besides “they are important”. That could mean dangerous and when it got this bad Hexiva would normally cut her losses.

 

I’ll have to get this locked away too.

 

But her intuition had saved her on too many occasions, that’s why she’d kept a bit of magic. Serpent touched Hexiva gently on her shoulder and she nearly jumped over the table herself.

 

“You going after them?”

 

Hexiva wanted to say no. She had no intention of dying for someone else’s problem. A moment later a glint of silver caught her eye as one of the girl’s pursuers slipped a thin blade from their flowing sleeve. That was an assassin’s weapon and their guild members were supposed to be forbidden from entering the city.

 

“Someone took a contract out on a child?” Hexiva made sure her focus was in its sheath before squeezing through the space between tables. “Can you get them somewhere no one will see?”

 

“I don’t see why we’re getting involved but yes, and I’m offended you had to ask.”

 

Hexiva made a “hurry up” motion with her hand, and then gave chase herself.

 

***

 

A cart loaded down with crates toppled over as one of its wheels splintered, making the girl take a hard left to avoid it before backtracking. She tried to hide under a table where a merchant was selling carpets but the elderly woman promptly kicked her back out. The assassins were almost on her then. At that same moment a group of students crossed Hexiva’s path. When she managed to push through them, she’d lost sight of the girl. There were curses thrown her way but she didn’t pay them any attention. They wouldn’t want to make a scene and tie their school to the markets.  A flash of red hair caught her eye and Hexiva took off in that direction. She saw the last of the assassins turn into an alleyway and her step faltered but she barreled forward anyway. There were no lamps here even at night. Sheets worn to rags fluttered over holes in the walls that passed for windows. Any peeking heads were quickly pulled back and the sheet pulled taut.

 

In the silence Hexiva’s footsteps echoed and they turned as one. The golden pins at their necks shone even in the muted light; likenesses of Inix, god of death. Inix was one of eight deities whose worship was allowed, if frowned upon, within Norcourt. Hexiva cursed her luck, her intuition, and the everyone involved in the contract as she ducked under a blade. It took a lot more effort than she  wanted to admit to call up enough wind to knock the assassins into the walls. The girl wasn’t far ahead and she stumbled, throwing a terrified look over her shoulder. Their gazes met for an instant before Hexiva had to dodge another blade. She unhooked her focus, made of hardened wood, to smash it against the crook of their arm. There was a satisfying crack but she had no time to admire her work. Three of them pressed her steadily back to the wall. She blocked a thrust and the dagger stuck in the focus. Their partners moved to strike but first one shuddered and fell then the other.

 

Hexiva let go of her focus and as the assassin staggered back, she landed a hard punch to their jaw that knocked them to the ground. She grabbed their blade and her focus, intending to go after the remaining three assassins. Serpent bounded past Hexiva but stopped suddenly. Venom dripped from the tip of her sword in a viscous liquid. The girl whimpered as one of the assassins yanked her up by the cowl of her threadbare cloak. Only two assassins stood between them, but now they each wielded a second dagger. The blades so dark it hurt to look at them directly, a pale green glow around the edges.

 

“This girl better be worth it,” Serpent muttered.

 

“Worth it enough not to die in an alley,” Hexiva shot back but she was thinking the same thing. With the focus cracked it was harder to get her magic to cooperate.

 

All she managed to do was ruffle their clothing. They immediately jumped forward to attack but Serpent easily fended them off. Careful not to touch the black blade even with her own. The girl took the chance to struggle, landing a solid hit with her elbow to their chest before kicking them in knee. When the assassin still didn’t drop her, she turned her head and bit down on their hand. They let go but followed quickly with a slashing motion. Too fast for anyone to follow the girl’s anguished scream cut off and, though her eyes stared at nothing, her hands were moving in a weaving motion. The assassin who struck her stood up straight like a string had been pulled. He gasped before his body crumpled to the ground. The last two assassins tried to fight. One threw their black blade but it wavered before falling to the side. Their bodies fell on top of each other.

 

“Put your sword away.”

 

Serpent moved slowly. They each expected the girl to attack. Hexiva threw the dagger aside, but kept hold of the focus for comfort. She took one step forward. And then another. As she got closer the smell of blood became strong.

 

She’s losing too much.

 

“I can help you, but I need to do it now.”

 

The girl’s expression remained blank, but her head cocked as if she was listening. Her hands slowed.

 

Hexiva showed her hood, turning in a circle. “We’re not with them.” She felt her heart flutter and sweat broke out on her forehead. “You’re going to bleed to death. I can help.”

 

After what felt like hours, the girl’s hands finally stopped moving. Her eyes snapped into focus moments before she started wailing. Hexiva rushed over to check the girl’s wound. She let out a hissing breath when she saw that the cut went from one shoulder to the girl’s hip. Hexiva put a hand on the girl’s head and put all her concentration on a spell that girl to sleep. Their wills clashed for a moment but the girl was too weak.

 

Hexiva cradled the girl in her arms.  She wrestled her magic, letting out sounds of frustration when she felt it slip from her control like gossamer strands. When she had a semblance of control, Hexiva visualized golden strips laying themselves over the girl’s wound.  She couldn’t make them solid enough to truly appear, but the bleeding soon stopped. This wouldn’t last long.   

“Wrap her in your cloak and take her back to my stall.” Hexiva barely managed to get the words out around clenched teeth.

 

“I’m not touching her.”

 

“You’re faster. Take her.”

 

Serpent muttered under her breath as she slipped off her cloak, wrapped it around the girl and took her from Hexiva. Then she was off. There were narrow, connecting alleys that would allow her to move unnoticed. Hexiva took the risker move and rejoined the crowd. If anyone noticed the blood on her cloak, she glared at them until they lowered their eyes but moved faster in case they went to a guard. She couldn’t risk taking on disguised assassins alone, though that seemed safer than what she was running towards.

 

***

 

Hexiva grabbed a bottle of aged wine she’d been hoping to sell to some bored noble. She pulled the stopper out with her teeth and doused a rag with the alcohol.

 

“She’s a Child of Verais.” Serpent hovered over her shoulder. “She could kill us as soon as she wakes.”

 

“She would’ve done it already,” Hexiva said as she cleaned the cut. “The box under the seat.”

 

Serpent’s voice drifted away but she returned soon and sat the box on the ground. Hexiva flipped it open and threaded the needle. She wasn’t a trained medic but she’d come across enough mercenary bands to know how to stitch someone up. She just hoped her spell would keep the girl asleep long enough for her to finish.

 

***

 

Smeni let out a groan and tried to open her eyes but her lashes seemed like they were glued together. She started to reach up to rub them but a burning pain shot through her back. She let out a whimper.

 

“Hey, don’t go undoing my hard work.”

 

Smeni couldn’t see the person talking clearly but she noticed their eyes. A soft, tawny brown that reminded her of home. “Momma?” she managed to say though her voice sounded garbled.

 

They placed a hand on her forehead. “No fever.” They let out a relieved sigh.

 

“I’ll take her to an inn. Let the fates decide what happens next since they’ve graced her with their gift.” A new voice that held all the fear Smeni was used to hearing.

 

She pressed her lips together, but they trembled and a tear snuck out. She hadn’t meant to use her power again. Even now could still see the elderly version of herself, she’d never get to be.

 

“To cut a life, you must give life,” her nurse had said before making her promise to never use magic. And to never reveal to her mother what she was.

 

“I don’t wanna go. I want papa.”

 

“Sure, whatever you want. Right now go back to sleep.”

 

Smeni didn’t want to, afraid she’d wake up in a room alone like so many times before, but eventually sleep pulled her back. She woke occasionally to hear haggling over prices or when the woman who called herself Hexiva, despite knowing Smeni must have seen her true name, came to coax her to eat. The other woman still gave her distrustful looks but fingered her sword if anyone looked at Smeni too long. Serpent came over to her eventually and let Smeni lay her head on her lap. The day passed in this deceively normal way, with deals being made and Serpent’s cloak being pulled over Smeni when a guard passed by.

 

When Smeni awoke again she was in the back of a wagon. She crawled to edge and looking up, she didn’t have to crane her head back far to watch the night sky passing by. Then she realized that was wrong. She searched the horizon for any sign of Norcourt but there was only grass as far as she could see.

 

“You wanna fall out?”

 

Smeni started at the sound of Serpent’s voice. Tears welled in her eyes. “I came to find him. You have to take me back.”

 

Serpent regarded her silently, chewing on her inner cheek. She looked away when she said, “Hex is worried he brought the contract.”

 

Smeni’s stomach twisted and she folded in on herself. Serpent made a “tch” noise and motioned Smeni over.

 

“Live today, find out tomorrow.”

 

“Are you scaring her back there?” Hexiva asked in a disapproving tone. She gave Serpent an irritated look over her shoulder, then patted the seat next to her.

 

Smeni gripped Serpent’s cloak then shot a worried look at her.

 

“It’s yours. I’ll get a new cloak next town over.”

 

Smeni walked shakily to the front of the wagon and climbed up with Serpent’s help. She wrapped the cloak around her and settled next to Hexiva.

 

“So what do you want to be called?”

 

“Smeni.” She answered with a definitive nod of her head.

 

Hexiva gave her an uncertain smile and then they settled into a silence that would soon become routine.

 

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I was going for a spooky swirl with the picture because I wasn’t sure how to show fate since it’s such an abstract concept. Did I manage it? 😅

Twin Fates is the first story a public, shared world project I want to try. Some things are purposely left out for story reasons. Others because I want the world to grow and I’ll be adding things in time. If you want to add your own thing at any point just tag it using #worldsofzumeria on any social media you use. It can be a short story, artwork, song, or any creative media and in any language you’re comfortable with.

 

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Tumblr – Will probably make a long “guide” post at some point but if you have a question about what you can/can’t add, just DM me. You can create your own plots, just nothing world or universe ending. Maybe I’ll create rules if I honestly need to but let’s just use common sense and basic human decency here.

Poetry Art Prints

 

I’ve wanted to draw my own backgrounds for awhile, but always talked myself out of it. I’ve been drawing again on a pretty regular basis so I’m redoing some of my favorite poems in this format. Afterwards it’ll be new material. I’ll still do photo edits the same way I have been if I can’t get an image the exact way I want it and those will still be posted on Instagram, but I won’t offer those as prints for obvious reasons. So if you’re interested in supporting me this way, I’ll leave a link to the gallery below but liking and sharing my content is just as good. I know I haven’t been updating this blog as often as I used to but the amount of pages I have now has honestly become overwhelming. So I apologize but also thank you to anyone who has stuck around! 💗💗💗

 

 

Gallery where all of my prints will be

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Carry Me Away

 

Carry me away

If your arms can bare the weight

Of more than your own burdens

If your ears can hear more than the voice

Of your own self-imposed sorrow

Carry me away

If I’m not so much to bear

When my darkness matches yours

If my tears fall louder in the silence

Then maybe you’ll hear me

And take me where I’ll float away

Numb

Unaware

Please, take me there

Carry me away

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You can find this poem and others on my Instagram page

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Quiet The Rune’s Song

 

Aoirenne Runesong snapped close the book she was reading. The noise made Tyshri, one of her younger sisters, jump. Aoirenne returned it to the shelf and marched out of the library, a lone braid flapping behind her like a flag. Ignoring the looks she got and Tyshri’s pleas, Aoirenne rushed through the halls and up the stairs to her father’s office. She pushed the door open, not flinching as it bounced against the wall, and stood with her hands on her hips. Aoirenne didn’t want her emotions to flood over but how dare he? Bhalrigg took one look at her expression and sent his aides from the room. Tyshi stayed for a moment, bouncing nervously from foot to foot, before fleeing.

“Did no one think to ask before handing me off?” Aoirenne struggled to keep her voice low. She’d never raised her voice to her father before. Never argued with him in fact but this, she couldn’t let go.

Bhalrigg grunted and rubbed his forehead. “Khardren Briarshield is an honorable man and he will make a fine king some day.”

Aoirenne felt herself falter for a moment. Khardren had fought beside her on more than one occasion. He’d even sought her out though socially Aoirenne was beneath the prince, even as a cleric. “I’m not arguing against his character,” she said after a moment. Some of the bite was gone from her voice. “I’m arguing against being expected to wed against my will.”

“I did not expect you to take such offense to the match, so I accepted Khardren’s proposal.” Bhalrigg shrugged and then paused. His dark eyes searched her face. “If there is a reason for me to rescind my approval, I will.”

To reject the prince would threaten their family’s standing, nearly aristocrats themselves, if it didn’t get them exiled. However the hard look on Bhalrigg’s face told Aoirenne he wouldn’t hesitate to take that risk. Aoirenne approached her father and placed a hand on his arm.

“I cannot take a husband, father. To remain in the Order my devotion can’t be divided.”

“The Order does not give you magic, Aoirenne. It runs in our blood and will remain should you marry.” Bhalrigg hit his chest with pride. It made the beaded necklaces he wore rattle fiercely.

Theirs was the oldest magical line in the city. Her great great grandfather was a paladin whose name was still known around the world. Aoirenne couldn’t help a prideful smile at the thought.

“I know father,” she said, sobering. “But I have worked hard for my position. Do I not have your respect for that?”

Bhalrigg nodded slowly.

“Then you will not ask this of me. Tell the prince that I cannot marry him.”

“He will take great offense at your rejection.” Her father allowed himself to sit on the edge of his desk. “But…if he was ever worthy of you, he will respect it.”

Aoirenne tried to sound confident as she replied, “I think he will.”

***

She was in the middle of studying a particularly dry text, her eyelids growing heavier by the second, when she was approached by Bunmond Hammerfist. Nearly a week had passed since she’d rejected Khardren. Aoirenne hadn’t expected the head of the Order would take an interest in her now. She jumped to her feet,  trying not to curse when her knee banged against the table and she tripped on the chair.

“Master Bunmond, I’m honored.”

Bunmond seemed short, even for a dwarf. He had thick white hair that flowed freely down his back and he wore heavy armor. His magic was mostly physical, though he could heal, while Aoirenne’s strength lay primarily in healing. Though all dwarfs were warriors and their enemies didn’t live long enough to worry about the difference.

“You are a gifted cleric, Aoirenne Runesong. Battle proven and loyal.”

Aoirenne waited with bated breath. Praise from Bunmond was highly sort after, yet Aoirenne couldn’t accept them without a sinking feeling rooting her to the spot.

“That steadfast loyalty and wisdom, well hidden behind a sharp tongue though it may be, will serve you best as queen. This is a great honor and I can think of none more than deserving than one of your house.”

Those words struck her like a blow. Brunmond wanted her to marry Prince Khardren for the sake of her family’s magic; to birth children that would become the heirs of two great magical houses. No doubt the Order’s name would be held to even greater esteem if her children lived up to the heavy expectations that would be placed on their shoulders. As well as their parents’.

“I took an oath to protect our people from any who would seek to destroy us, but I have no desire to be a pawn.” Aoirenne squarely met Brunmond’s gaze. “I stand by my decision.”

“It is a selfish one that puts your own desires above the whole. It defies all that you’ve been taught.” Brunmond didn’t raise his voice but it shook the library around them nonetheless.

Aoirenne’s legs felt like they were trembling so badly everyone could tell this act wouldn’t hold up much longer. “I desire only to remain with the Order and serve my people in the way that I’ve been called.”

“We do not decide our calling, Aoirenne. We decide only to face what befalls us, or to run from hardships.”

“I am no coward!”

“And I care nothing for words that so clearly contradict what’s before me.” Brunmond gave her a withering look that may have been enough to chastise Aoirenne any other day, before spinning on his heels and storming away.

Aoirenne held onto the table to keep herself standing. Her whole body shook from outrage and uncertainty. She hadn’t expected her decision to accepted, but…a coward? It was a mockery of the lives she’d saved, the blood shed to protect those she loved.

A coward? Aoirenne took a deep breath. How can this be what they think of me?

Her name would be struck from the records lest her family’s entire line share her fate. Aoirenne would be exiled from the Order and ranks of aristocracy. She’d live among the dwarves too poor to build proper housing, living in a mostly unlit tunnel system below the city. If she was even allowed to stay at all. What was a dwarf without their house? Their honor gone. All that Aoirenne held dear had been stripped away in a matter of seconds. Her many siblings would gain their own legacies but all would be marred by Aoirenne’s disgrace. She thought of Bhalrigg, who still proudly hoisted the name of his oldest child. What would he think as he buried all memories of her? Tears were falling before Aoirenne could stop them. Her chest ached and she knew she could not bare to see this come to be. Leaving the tome forgotten, open on the table, Aoirenne went in search of Prince Khardren. To see if he would still have her.

***

And so the binding is made.

Those words haunted Aoirenne for weeks after the wedding. Nipping at her heels and weighing heavier on her shoulders each time she looked at her husband. Aoirenne forced herself not to balk at the word. She wouldn’t blame Khardren for Brunmond’s backhanded maneuvering. There was a loud knock on the chamber door, followed by Khardren’s unmistakable baritone voice.

“Is there anything I can do for you prince?” Aoirenne asked before a servant could announce him. She entered the anteroom and immediately took in that Khardren wore a blue tunic with silver borders and trousers tucked into fine leather boots. Not his armor or well worn travel clothing.

Khardren greeted her with a warm smile that lit up his face as he approached, but there was a sadness in his amber eyes. He took off his gloves and sat down heavily on a stool in front of the fireplace. When Khardren began placing logs himself, Aoirenne quietly dismissed the servants. The part of her that was relieved at their absence was quickly silenced by worry. Aoirenne watched Khardren light the fire and waited for him to speak. He stroked his beard,  absentmindedly.

“Khardren?” Aoirenne prodded when it became clear that he wasn’t going to speak on his own.

He grunted but didn’t turn away from the fire. His hand moved from his beard and tightly clasped his knee. Aoirenne came to stand beside Khardren, placing a hand on his shoulder before giving it a brief squeeze. He wasn’t just worried. He was scared.

“My father is ill.” He took a deep, shuddering breath. There was a pause as Kradren paused to compose himself. “He hasn’t been well for…a long time. But today….”

It all snapped into place. King Uzotir hadn’t been absent from their wedding, or much of public life now that Aoirenne thought of it, due to his disapproval of her. “He’s dying. Isn’t he, Khardren?”

He didn’t answer her, but he tightly grasped her hand.

Aoirenne couldn’t stop a dry laugh, but she bit back her words. Khardren must’ve been pressured to take a wife with his father on his deathbed. Her own ire was dampened with the knowledge that serving as queen may come sooner than later. That Uzotir would be gone so suddenly was something she didn’t want to consider.

Fighting to speak around a quickening heartbeat and sudden dizziness, Aoirenne said, “I am still a healer, Khardren. How could I not use my gifts to help the king?”

Khardren stood, her hand still in his. “The royal healers have nearly exhausted themselves with the effort of trying to heal this disease.” He shook his head sadly. “I would not ask you to risk yourself, Aoirenne.”

Aoirenne gave him a genuine smile, though her lips quivered. “I know you wouldn’t, yet that’s still my calling.” She tried to walk around him but Khardren didn’t let go of her hand.

“I know you didn’t want this path, and maybe I’ll never know what changed your mind, but I hope to be worthy of the sacrifice in time.”

There was too much hope in Khardren’s eyes and Aoirenne couldn’t hold his gaze any longer. She gently pulled her hand away and prepared herself to meet the king.

***

The king’s chambers were dark. However the mass of people gathered in chambers, coming and going, told Aoirenne there were multiple large rooms. The king’s servants wore stony expressions as they watched her pass. Khardren had to have sent a messenger ahead of her somehow because they’d been expecting her even if they didn’t want her there. A guard opened the doors to the king’s bedchamber. Her steps sounded thunderous despite the carpeting. Uzotir lay on a large bed in the center of the room. His hair was thinner than the last time Aoirenne saw him; wispy strands of greying hair sprawled over the pillows propping him up. There was a tall armchair beside the bed with bright red cushions that held all the cheer left in the room. Aoirenne self consciously traced her necklace, a blue gem with white intersecting lines painted on and set in a golden collar, as she approached the bed.

“Your highness.” Aoirenne kept her voice steady as she bowed.

Uzotir focused on her, and for a moment his brown eyes were clear before clouding over with sickness again. “Aoirenne Runesong,” he croaked. “My son’s wife.”

Aoirenne steeled herself for the scathing comments that were sure to come. Instead Uzotir fell into a coughing fit that filled Aoirenne with dread. “I’ve come to offer my gift of healing. If you would accept it.”

A man in the corner wearing a healer’s white robe stod abruptly, red faced. He wavered slightly from the effort. “You are arrogant indeed if you believe you can succeed where we have failed!”

“She will try under your guidance, Harbek.” Uzotir’s voice was stern despite its weakness. “You will ensure that her offer of help is genuine.” He lifted a shaky arm to motion Aoirenne forward.

She kept her expression neutral as she stood at the king’s bedside. She ignored Harbek’s burning glare. Aoirenne took Uzotir’s hand in hers, bowed over it, and then touched the gem on her necklace. She felt its comforting warmth before it began to glow. Her magic gathered in the gem and she focused it through her arm, into Uzotir. His sickness shone brightly to her senses but as she attacked it, a greater darkness pulled her in with a force greater than she could fight.

As her surroundings disappeared, Aoirenne breathing became quick and shallow. She fought hard to keep panic at bay but her gut was shouting at her to run. She pulled more of her magic through her necklace, searching for Uzotir’s essence. His life force was a faded golden light that flickered like a fire about to go out. Aoirenne cried out in dismay when she saw this. Whether audibly or only in her mind, she didn’t know but determination took root and temporarily drove away her previous fears. Aoirenne used her own magic to shield Uzotir. It left her vulnerable for a time and she felt the sting of darkness like knives. Aoirenne felt her skin being pierced and without thinking she called on Sifrahulda, the goddess of healing, and was overwhelmed by the influx of energy. There was no slow intake and her gem’s warmth turned to a searing heat. But through her pain, Aoirenne could hear a feminine scream; unearthly and twisted with rage. She felt her shield weakening and tried gathering the overabundance of magic to strengthen it.

Aoirenne felt Uzotir begin to fight back, and his light broke through enough to blind her. The other presence was pushed away by their efforts. Before hope could bloom Aoirenne’s shield shattered and the light faded quickly, like it was being drained away. Aoirenne gasped audibly, too shocked to do more than gulp in air as nerve wracking pain consumed her body. She felt more than saw Uzotir shudder, felt his final struggle. Aoirenne knew it was hopeless and she’d barely had a grasp on Sifrahulda’s borrowed magic just a moment before, but she sent it flooding into Uzotir. She didn’t know if she was desperate to save the king or herself, and she didn’t let herself dwell on the implications of the latter. Aoirenne poured until there was nothing left for her to give. Her fingers grasped uselessly at the carpet as her surroundings slowly came unto focus. Rapid footsteps and clanking armor filled the room. Slivers of pain shot through Aoirenne’s head with each new noise. And then someone started yelling.

“I knew a no name former cleric couldn’t be trusted with the king’s life. And look what’s become of him!”

Tears heavy with disappointment and self loathing slid down Aoirenne’s cheek, dripping off her chin. How could she fail at the one task that had always given her purpose? And when so much depended on Uzotir living. Khardren was to become king someday. Not now. Not because of her mistakes. Aoirenne was suddenly yanked to her feet. She let out a pitiful moan. The guards’ faces blurred and wavered before her. The floor seemed to tilt beneath her as she dragged from the room.

***

Aoirenne didn’t remember getting to the room she was thrown into. It wasn’t tiny, though not as large as her confused mind told her it was. Sunlight streamed in through the thin slit of a window, revealing the room’s only furnishings; a cot, a plain wooden table and chair. Aoirenne’s legs still felt too weak for her to attempt the short distance. She let herself fall to the floor. That scream echoed in her head. Aoirenne breath came out in great heaves as she felt that cloying helplessness dragging her down again.

We’ll be marked as traitors. What was I thinking?

She shuddered as she remembered that darkness, the hatred. How could it have captured Uzotir so completely? Would anyone believe her if she revealed it? Would Khardren believe her? Aoirenne didn’t love him, not the way he loved her, but they’d trusted each other. She didn’t want to see the difference on his face now that she’d killed his father. Aoirenne forced herself to her feet, using the wall as support, and made her way to the door. She banged in it until it was shoved open.

Aoirenne fell in an ungraceful sprawl, but she didn’t let that stop her. “Please, let me speak to my sister. She’s healer as well and knows my skill. She will vouch for me.”

The guard that stood above her held a barely restrained grief. His voice was rough when he spoke. “Your word has no weight. Any sister of yours holds even less importance.”

“Please!” Aoirenne voice cracked and she winced inwardly. “Tyshri, and the Runestone house, has always been loyal to the throne! I only ask for the chance to say my goodbyes.”

The dwarf turned away and Aoirenne let all of her desperation and regret pour into her voice. She needed to speak to Tyshri.

“Please. She is my dearest friend. I ask only for one last chance to speak with her.”

Dwarves understood loyalty, to the whole and to family, and Aoirenne was counting on that. No one had accused her of purposefully killing the king, yet. So while he may think her incompetent she wasn’t a criminal. He hesitated long enough for Aoirenne to worry that maybe it was too late. She’d already been lined up for execution. It was too late to run.

 

“Fine,” the dwarf grumbled, finally. He spoke just loud enough for her to hear. “Once. And be quick about it.”

Aoirenne only tipped her head in acknowledgement. She let some of her uncertainty show on her face. The door slammed closed again. Aoirenne felt nervous laughter bubble up and she clamped a hand over her mouth to keep it in. Eventually she sobered. If she succeeded….

If we pull this off, it means I’ll never see them again.

Aoirenne let out a bitter laugh. She’d lost everything she strived to protect. But the time for tears had passed. She closed her eyes until the urge to collapse faded. She shoved her emotions into an easily ignored corner, and she waited. Hoping against the odds that her sister wouldn’t be delayed.  

When Tyshri rushed into the room, crushing Aoirenne in a hug, she didn’t struggle.

“It’s not true! I told them but no one would listen!” Her hair fell loose down past her waist. She hadn’t taken the time to put it into a neat bun, which told Aoirenne the state the family must be in.

The women held each other tightly for a long time before Aoirenne finally whispered, “They mean to charge me as a criminal then? I suspected.” Aoirenne felt a grim smile tug at the corners of her lips. “I have a final favor to ask of you.”

Tyshri stepped back, holding Aoirenne at arm’s length and nodded. Her trust made Aoirenne’s chest ache. “Speak to Meldan. He lives in the trade district. He’ll know why.”

Tyshri started to speak but Aoirenne shook her head. “No questions. And whatever anyone says of me, you agree.”

“I won’t!”

“You will. And you’ll tell our father to do the same.”

“No. I will find Melden if you wish, but I’ll never turn against you.”

“For our family’s survival you must.”

Tyshri left without answering. Aoirenne wanted to call her back but there was nothing she could change. She had to choose the path she’d been too afraid of. One where home was a temporary name and Aoirenne Runesong didn’t exist. The one Melden would help her find.

***

The room was pitch dark when there was a low tap against the door. A few seconds passed before there was another one. Aoirenne had regained her bearings as time passed but she was defenseless. The door creaked open.

“Hurry up. Melden had to crack out the good mead for these uptight royal guard but someone’s bound to check on the king killer.”

Aoirenne wanted to slam the door just enough for it to make a satisfying thud against the young dwarf’s face. Instead she forced her stiff joints to react and ignored the hunger pains vying for her attention. They made their way as silently as possible down the stairwell. Coming to a sudden halt outside of the guard room. Drunken laughter, joking and what passed for singing assaulted their ears.

The young dwarf grumbled and took his helmet off. “Drunk or not, they’ve still got eyes.”

“If they can recognize me, they’ll recognize I’m wearing a gown,” she hissed. The many layers that had been mere annoyances just this morning might be her undoing.

He shoved the helmet into her arms despite Aoirenne’s objects. She had no choice but to shove it on, holding it in place with one hand and her skirts in the other. They shouldered open a side door. It led to the gardens, which seemed to stretch on for miles ahead of them. Aoirenne set her jaw. She silently cursed the decisions that brought her here. And then they were off.

She heard the shouts but didn’t let herself understand the words. Didn’t let herself stop when she heard the heavy footsteps behind them. When the first guard reached her, Aoirenne took off her helmet and used it as a bludgeoning tool to uppercut them. She tried to pretend she didn’t recognize the female dwarf now crashing to the ground. A flash of silver, and then a clattering as a sword clashed against the young dwarf’s shield. An old thing that wouldn’t take many more hits like that.

“Move your ass!” He pushed her roughly forward. Aoirenne stepped on the bottom of her skirt and stumbled. He grabbed her arm, pulling her after him. “Whatever you did to the king would be useful now.”

Aoirenne thought of the presence she’d encountered and a feeling of dread anchored itself around her spine. She thought of the decay, far more advanced than damage from any disease she’d ever seen. Even if she could speak around her fear, Aoirenne didn’t know what she could say that would matter. So she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Not who she’d been or who she was leaving behind. The dwarf reached a grate in the wall that was made as an exit for the fountain “river”. It wasn’t expected to hold up to attack. He took his ax from his belt, striking at the metal bars repeatedly with the butt. Aoirenne grabbed his shield, using it and her helmet as crude weapons to bash anyone who got too close. But she saw more guards coming. A moment later she heard the sound of splintering wood. The male dwarf grinned and Aoirenne smashed what remained of the shield against his face.

“You owe me a shield.”

“You still owe me a rescue.”

Just as the bars clattered to the ground, Aoirenne heard a familiar voice. Her breath caught and she squeezed her eyes shut.

“Aoirenne Runesong, I order you to surrender or hereby be judged as criminal!” Khardren’s voice was forceful but lacked a certain conviction.

Even if he believed she was innocent, Aoirenne knew she’d been judged as guilty the minute she failed to save the king. Harbek had made certain of that, Aoirenne was sure. She opened her eyes to see Khardren stalking towards them and she hesitated. Some part of her wanted to believe that there had ever been a chance her account of events would be believed.

“What are you doing? Come on!?”

That snapped Aoirenne back to her senses. She turned and fled. Running full tilt down a steep hill meant sometimes they fell, rolled before temporarily getting their footing, and rolling again. When they reached the bottom,Aoirenne had no time to catalogue all of the new cuts and bruises screaming for her attention. She hobbled after the dwarf as they made for the treeline.  

Meldan’s caravan was hidden where the trees were thickest. Aoirenne could barely see the wagons through the low hanging branches. Meldan paced, muttering under his breath. He was a large man and he wore merchant’s robes but Aoirenne could see telltale signs of armor underneath his clothing.

As they got closer, Aoirenne heard Meldan exclaim, “Skogren should’ve been back by now.”

“There were complications,” said the young dwarf next to Aoirenne,  shooting a glare at her.

Meldan spun on his heels. He crossed the space between them with the largest steps a dwarf could take. Meldan and Skogren embraced tightly.

“We need to move now. Any thoughts you have of ever returning, let them go or you’re a liability and you can make your way alone.”

Aoirenne nodded. Khardren’s words came back to her then. She pressed her lips together so they wouldn’t tremble.

“Good. You’ll need a new name, and a history to go with it if you choose, but for now it’s my job to make sure you live to get that choice.”

“And what payment do you expect in return?” Aoirenne held herself up proudly, only a slight hiss of breath as she straightened betrayed her pain.

“If we’re in need of it, your healing services. And if we’re desperate, your sword.”

“We’ll be desperate soon enough,” Skogren said in warning.

Meldan ushered Aoirenne to the most nondescript wagon in the line. He helped her in before turning to shout orders. Aoirenne pressed herself to the floor, listening to the sounds of the caravan around her. Each noise sounded thunderous. She held her breath. Each second held the threat of Khardren’s men coming to drag her back to her prison cell and certain death. As the adrenaline faded, exhaustion ate at her but Aoirenne refused to rest until she knew she was safe. Or at least until she was far enough away she could convince herself the worst had passed. Dawn tinged the sky before Meldan thought it safe enough to slow their pace. And the sun was beginning it’s climb over the treetops before Aoirenne finally let herself fall into a dreamless sleep.

 

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This took me longer than expected to write 😥 This is the last short story I have planned for this universe but I’m always willing to write more if anyone’s interested. If you want to read the other short stories I’ve written check out Prophecy For Hire or Hammer And A Spell (the “first” story, but order isn’t too important).

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