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First Blood: Fiction

MinstrelMinstrel Member
Some months ago, I began writing a backstory for a Revival character, Song. One thing led to another, and my short story ended up becoming a novelette! It was a lot of fun to write. In it, I got to explore a number of the features discussed in the forums. My readers (to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude) included two family members who are founders; the story also introduces their characters, Dalem and Dante.

There's a lot we don't yet know about Revival. When I needed information to move the story along, and couldn't find it in the forums, I made it up. I did my best to create a world informed by Lovecraft's writing, the history of the Middle Ages, and of course Revival itself. I've learned a lot in the process!

I'll post the story in sections over a period of time, as it's long and needs to be broken into units small enough to meet the character limitations of forum posts.

I hope you enjoy the story!


  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Chapter 1: Firelight

    Song opened the cottage’s rough timber door, stomped inside, and slammed the door carelessly behind her. The thick mud of Synodin New Spring flaked off her boots, along with a few crystals of refrozen snow. The fire burned to her father’s comfort, too low to suit her. From the corner of her eye, she saw him look up from the fishing lure he crafted. She didn’t meet his gaze. She walked stiffly to the bed and threw herself face down on it.

    She heard her father sigh, then noticed the sound of him putting the lure down on the table and, as was his habit, covering it with a plank to prevent the delicate components from being bumped or blown away. She heard his chair creak as he stood, and the sound of the chair as he slid it across the dirt floor to the bedside. A second creak signaled him sitting once again.

    “I’m sorry you had a rough time,” he said.

    She reflected on the day, clearly her last as a spinner’s apprentice. She remembered the bumpy thread she’d spun, and the knotted mess she’d made of it. As kindly as her teacher assessed her lack of capability in the trade, the rejection still stung. She felt even more awful knowing she’d apprenticed with every tradesperson in the village who would have her, a number that had grown ever smaller as news of her serial failures spread.

    “Your hair’s tangled,” he said. “Let me fix it.”

    Song felt him lift her right braid, remove the tie on the end, and unwind it. She heard her hairbrush bump the bedtable as her father lifted it, then felt him patiently working out the snarls at the ends of her long, auburn hair. The familiar routine relaxed her a little, and her eyes began to tear. As her nose stuffed up, she reached into her pants pocket for a handkerchief, put it over her face, and eased into a sitting position. Her father released her hair while she wiped her face and blew her nose, then continued brushing her tresses as she stowed the linen square. As he finished, she turned so her intact braid faced him. He began to take it apart.

    “I failed again,” she said.

    “Judging from your wild hair, spinning a fine, straight thread isn’t where your talents lie.”

    She snorted. “Nothing in this village is where my talents lie. But I could learn anyway. I just need more time.”

    “Yup. You learn in your own time, and you learn well.”

    “But I don’t have more time.”

    “Not here, anyway. Unless you want to learn pole fishing from me.”

    “Fish stink.”

    He began to untangle the end of her newly unplaited braid. “You know, there are lots of trades besides those practiced here. Maybe it’s time you explored some of them.”

    “How can I do that?”

    “By going to another town.”

    Song stiffened slightly with surprise. As a pole fisher, her father found adequate supplies within and just outside the village. They’d seldom left their village, so she knew little of Theleston. The thought of leaving frightened her almost as much as the thought of staying with no viable trade. But Falcreek might not be so bad, just a day’s trip away. If something went wrong, she could easily come home. “So you’re saying I should go to Falcreek?”

    “Not exactly,” he said, surprising her. “First off, people here and in Falcreek are generally simple folk: we fish, we log, we spin. You should go someplace where there are lots of different kinds of craftspeople. Second, I’ll wager some people in Falcreek have heard of you. That could make it hard for you to find someone willing to take you on as an apprentice.”

    Song’s shoulders sagged.

    “You need to travel far enough away no one knows you. You’ve got to find a place where there are many trades practiced. It should be somewhere people come and go from all over Theleston: A city like Crowns Rock.”

    Song started, pulling her hair painfully away from the brush. She didn’t feel ready to travel where she’d be on her own in a strange place so far from home. She opened her mouth to complain, but her father put a finger up to her lips to silence her.

    “You can travel to Falcreek with a group of traders,” he said. “Then join a caravan. I’ve saved some coin over the years, more than enough to pay for your trip and support you until you’re settled into a trade. I’ll miss you, but I know it’s the right thing for you to do.” He dropped his hand to let her speak.

    Song felt desperate. “I know nothing about Crowns Rock! Where would I live? How would I find a job? What happens if I get sick?” She heard her weak, shaking voice, and stopped talking in embarrassment.

    “You’d do well to get some help,” he said, taking back her hair and brushing it soothingly. “Make at least one friend. I know,” he said, raising a palm toward her as she opened her mouth to protest. “I know that hasn’t gone so well for you in the past. But a big city’s different than a little village. Here, you’ll always be the girl who burned down the stable. There, you’ll have a fresh start.”

    “I was just trying to get a better look at the spiders living in the tack room that night,” she said, feeling put-upon. “The torch was nearly as big as me. I was only five, after all.”

    “I know. But there are other clouds over you.”

    “How was I supposed to know Demma’s priests wouldn’t appreciate an offering of a snake? It’s a woodland creature.”

    “If it hadn’t been poisonous, they might’ve tolerated it better.”

    “Venomous. Anyway, they should’ve known how to handle it. And besides, I was only eight.”

    “Mmm hmm.”

    Song stared ahead at the rough cottage wall, knowing every other argument she could make suffered from the same weaknesses as the ones she’d already voiced. The firelight made sinuous ridges in the mud seem to come alive and move like tentacles of octopuses she’d seen at market. The tentacles twisted between illusory faces whose expressions shifted with the flames. Shivering, she wondered whose faces she’d see in the days ahead, and what challenges would weave around them.
    Post edited by Minstrel on
  • KalidoraKalidora Member
    Posts: 492
    Great start.. can't wait to see where life in Theleston takes poor little Song.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Chapter 2: Self-Defense

    Song stood at the entrance to the Falcreek caravan house, shivering in the frigid pre-dawn air, not sure what to do. The busy clerk told her to talk to a man named Abram about joining his caravan, then turned his attention to another customer. She had no idea how she’d find Abram. Hundreds of people and dozens of horse-drawn wagons packed the area. Cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and chickens complained noisily about their confinement. Half a dozen dogs stood restlessly by their owners, clearly anxious for the freedom of the road. Attractively dressed men and women worked the crowd, leading clients back to their brightly painted gypsy wagons. Caravan merchants sought out local merchants and tradespeople, making last-minute deals. Caravan guards stood around in small groups, bragging about their accomplishments and skills. The sights and sounds overwhelmed Song. Anxiety rose in her chest.

    The sun touched the tops of the trees and the tallest buildings. Her father would already be at his favorite fishing spot. Were she home, she’d be waking to the crackling of a new log on the fire and a bucket of water heated for bathing, instead of standing here in the cold after a sleepless night. She thought back to leaving her father before dawn the previous day.

    “Here’s the purse,” her father said. “Use no more than a tenth of the money to pay your passage. You should get to ride on a wagon, eat at breakfast and dinner, and sleep out of the weather. Make sure you’re promised these things before you hand over the coin.”

    She nodded.

    “The rest of the money will buy you room and board in Crowns Rock through the end of Ald Spring. Hopefully you’ll earn a steady income by then.”

    “Thank you.” She tied the purse to her belt next to her knife beneath her heavy, green wool cloak, fastened the decorative copper clasp at her neck, and hoisted her leather pack over one shoulder.

    Her father lifted her hood as she pulled on her woolen mittens, and kissed her forehead. “Good luck, little otter,” he said. “Be observant. Think before you act. Make at least one friend. And, no matter what, don’t draw the eyes of the gods.”

    “Okay father.” She hugged him one last time. When she let go, he stepped aside, opening the door for her. His smile held affection, admiration and worry all at once. She smiled back, then left before she started to cry.

    Inside her woolen mittens, she curled her fingers into her palms to warm the tips. Her breath, along with that of the many people and animals preparing to leave with the caravan, clouded the noise-filled air. She decided to seek out the clerk again to find out where Abram might be. As she turned, she almost ran into a tall man wearing rich robes like those she’d seen in books about Khan-Gorai. Flustered, she jumped and then drew back slightly.

    “Pardon me, young lady,” the man said, smiling.

    She nodded uncertainly, unfocusing her eyes so his expressive, tan face didn’t overwhelm her. A pair of bodyguards flanked him. The caravan house noises faded in the man’s imposing presence.

    As he began walking past her, she found her voice. “Excuse me, sir.”

    He and his guards stopped and looked back at her. “May I help you?” His inviting expression made her feel as though he saw nothing but her.

    “I’m looking for a man named Abram. Can you tell me where I might find him?”

    “Certainly, child! I’m Abram, master of the outgoing caravan, the largest I’ve ever assembled for this journey. Now, who might you be, and how might I help you?”

    Song felt intimidated by his easy, cultured demeanor. She swallowed hard, then said, “I’m Song. I’m looking for passage to Crowns Rock. Do you have room on your caravan?”

    “Indeed!” he said, smiling broadly. “I’m happy to accommodate such a lovely passenger!”

    Song felt embarrassed by his complements, but relieved she could travel with him. Then she realized she had no idea what came next. She blushed. “Thank you. What do I need to do?”

    “Ah, this must be your first journey with a caravan, then, no?”

    She nodded.

    “I see. Well then. The terms of your passage are thus. First, you’ll ride in the third wagon. You’ll sit where the driver, Thorfinn, tells you to sit. Second, you may sleep beneath that wagon. Third, you may eat breakfast and dinner with the paid workers: drivers, animal tenders, guards. I hope you brought provisions for lunch.”

    She gestured toward her pack with her head.

    “Excellent. You’ll pay for your lodgings and meals when we stay in towns. You’ll travel with us to the southern harbor on Crowns Rock. When we disembark from the ship, I will release you from my protection. Understood?”

    She nodded, not truly understanding what it would mean to travel with him over land or sail on a ship.

    “Good. Shall we walk to my wagon so we can discuss payment?”

    She nodded.

    “Very well. Follow me.” He offered her his arm.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Song had not expected this elegant man to treat her like a lady. She hesitated for a moment, then placed her hand on his arm.

    He smiled and began to walk down the line of wagons, his bodyguards just behind and on either side of him.

    Abram led her to the front wagon, a splendid affair that made her think of a cottage on wheels. Abram’s right-hand guard unfastened the hinged steps tied across the door on the back of the wagon, swung them to the ground, then opened the door. Abram swept his arm toward the door. “After you,” he said to Song.

    She stepped timidly onto the stairs, and found them stable. Reassured, she continued into the wagon.

    The inside of the vehicle stunned her. From the gorgeous Khan Gorai rugs to the detailed Skypass tapestries to the fine Falcreek furniture, every corner afforded some wonderful luxury.

    “I like to bring a little civilization with me on these long journeys,” Abram said as he entered the wagon.

    As if to underscore his words, a woman stepped through a curtain wall at the front of the wagon and glided toward them. Her dark eyes mirrored those of Abram, and her long, black hair sparkled with streaks of silver. A silk sari embroidered with a geometric blue flower design brought out the warm brown of her skin. She met Abram at the table placed at the center of the wagon, and they looked at each other fondly.

    “Ashu, I’d like you to meet Song. Song, my partner, Ashu.”

    Ashu bowed to Song. Not knowing what was expected of her, Song bowed in return.

    Abram walked over to a small, sturdy table, pulled out one of the chairs around it, and looking at Song said, “Would you care to take a seat?”

    Song wondered what he meant. Did he mean to give her the chair? Was he trying to sell it? She must have looked confused, because Ashu said, “Would you like to sit down?”

    Song nodded with relief and moved to the front of the chair. When she attempted to sit, Abram expertly slid the chair under her without touching the backs of her calves. Her eyes went wide with surprise.

    Ashu smiled.

    As Abram circled the table to the seat opposite Song, he looked at Ashu and said, “Would you be so kind as to bring me my ledger, pen and ink?”

    Ashu bowed slightly and went to work.

    “Now,” said Abram, “Let’s see your coin.”

    Song pulled up her purse. She untied it from her belt and opened it, only then realizing she had never looked inside. She peered into the little leather bag at a jumble of coins. How many? She emptied the purse on the table, and began to sort the coins by type. A deep chuckling distracted her. She looked up to see Abram watching with amusement.

    “You don’t know how much money you carry, do you?”

    She blushed and shook her head, feeling ashamed that she hadn’t counted the currency beforehand.

    “Here. I’ll show you how to deal with it.” He reached for her purse. She surrendered it without thinking, then realized she didn’t know if she could trust him. She felt sick to her stomach, looking at all her money sitting on his table.

    Abram held up the empty purse, ignoring its former contents. “First, you need to buy a new purse. A drawstring slackens easily, allowing a thief to remove items without the wearer’s knowledge. Instead, you should find a purse with a locking latch. You can keep the key on a sturdy metal chain around your neck.” He reached under his robe beneath his chin and pulled out a loop of interlocked steel rings.

    Song nodded.

    Letting the loop fall back beneath his robe, he said, “Second, leather laces cut easily. You need a purse that hooks directly to your belt with substantial leather, hide, or metal clasps.

    “Third, choose a purse made of thick leather or hide. Thieves find it difficult to cut through those materials.”

    She nodded, looking at her obviously inadequate purse.

    As he lay the purse on the table, he said, “You can find excellent purses in Crowns Rock. I suggest you buy one there. Meanwhile, I have one you can use. You can return it to me after you buy the new one.” Abram turned to his partner, who had returned with the materials he had requested. “Ashu, would you please bring me the new purse?”

    Ashu, looking surprised, put down the ledger, pen, and ink, and stepped away from the table.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    “And never put anything of value in pockets,” Abram said. “They slit easily. Now, the coins.” He turned his attention to the money. “I see two kinds here: silver and gold. Do you know how many silver equals one gold?”

    “Yes,” she said.

    “Ah, good. Now, can you count to, say, 1000?”

    “Yes, I can.” She had a knack for numbers. It got her in trouble when she apprenticed with a merchant and figured out he falsified his records.

    “Okay, then. First, group the coins by type.”

    She formed two groups: silver and gold.

    “Good. Now, count the groups.”

    She organized the gold into stacks of 10 and the silver into stacks of 8, with a few of each left over. She gave him the amount of each, and then, because she believed he didn’t think she could do it, told him the total value of the coins.

    “Well!” he said. “Excellent.” He then told her how much money she owed him. She quickly counted it out, and felt relieved that most of the money remained.

    Ashu had by this time returned to the table with a simple hide purse possessing all the virtues Abram described, along with a small brass key on a steel chain. She handed him the bag and key, one eyebrow raised.

    Abram smiled as if he didn’t notice Ashu’s expression. “Thank you, dear,” he said, taking the items.

    He put the rest of Song’s coins into the new purse and handed it and the key to her. Taking the bag, she noticed how much heavier it felt than the old one. She untied her belt, slid it through the thick hide loop on the back of the new purse, and re-tied it. She then placed the chain over her head. The key dropped far enough down the front of her chemise that the chain wasn’t visible.

    Meanwhile, Abram entered Song’s payment in the ledger while Ashu removed Abram’s coins. He then wrote a receipt for Song and pushed the receipt across the table to her. “Show Thorfinn this receipt.”

    Song nodded.

    Abram handed the ledger to Ashu, then stood and walked over to Song. “May I get your chair for you?” he asked.

    Song looked over at Ashu questioningly. Ashu said, “He’d like to pull out your chair for you so you can stand more easily.”

    Song bowed her head slightly toward Ashu, then started to stand. Abram pulled the chair out of her way.

    “You should go to your wagon now,” Abram said. “We’ll leave shortly. Let me see you to the door.”

    She glanced at Ashu again, feeling stupid.

    Ashu said, “It’s our custom to walk with our guests to the door and open the door for them.”

    Song bowed slightly toward Ashu again, recognizing the custom if not Abram’s description of it, and walked with Abram to the exit. As he opened the door for her, she turned and looked at the couple. “Thank you for your help,” she said.

    Abram and Ashu smiled. “You’re welcome,” said Abram. “I hope we enjoy an uneventful journey.”

    As she walked down the steps past the guards, the sounds of the caravan washed over her again. How would she endure the din for the whole trip? She hurried toward the third wagon. She found the bald driver leaned over in his seat, reins held loosely in his calloused hands. His ruddy skin had weathered to a leathery texture. When she stopped next to him, he looked over at her with striking blue eyes. “You need something?” he asked.

    Song handed him her receipt.

    “Ah. So you’re my passenger, then.” He returned her receipt. “Finn’s the name. Hop in. Sit anywhere, just not on the sacks at the back. You’ll crush what’s inside.”

    Song climbed up the side of the sturdy wagon and slipped over the edge. The load lay under two cerecloths, canvas fabric saturated with beeswax and pine resin, suitable protection from rain. She crawled under the sticky, fragrant tarpaulins, making sure her hood was up to protect her hair, hoping to muffle the constant noise. In the shadows, she saw several wooden crates up front and a pile of burlap sacks by the gate. From their odor and feel, she reasoned the sacks contained dried hop cones. She curled up between a pair of sacks.

    The temperature under the tarpaulins rose as the sun climbed higher in the sky. Song removed her mittens and reached into her pack. Pulling out a bag holding a mixture of nuts, grains and dried fruit, she nibbled away the edge of her hunger. She rinsed her mouth with a drink from her waterskin. As she capped the skin, she heard someone calling for the wagons to move. Shortly thereafter, her wagon lurched to life. The warmth and rhythmic movement comforted Song. She closed her eyes.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Song woke with a start. The wagon stood still, and she heard Abram yelling.

    “You were supposed to transport her! Where is she?”

    “I don’t know!” Finn said. “She climbed into the wagon, and that’s the last I saw of her.”

    As Abram continued his reprimand, Song crawled out from under the cerecloths. He stopped abruptly on seeing her.

    Finn, reacting to Abram, turned in the direction of Abram’s stare. His expression changed from worry to surprise to anger in under two seconds.

    “I’m so sorry!” she squeaked.

    Before Finn could react, Abram’s face transformed into a practiced smile. He shifted his gaze back to Finn. “I’m glad to see our guest well, my friend,” said Abram. He patted Finn on the back, then headed for his wagon.

    “You nearly caused me a lot of trouble,” Finn said to Song.

    “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!” she said timidly.

    “So, you were under the cerecloths.”

    She nodded.

    “That’s fine. That’s good. I’ll expect to find you there if you disappear again.”

    “I thought we were supposed to be in town by night,” Song said.

    “We got bogged down in mud. Now. If you want to eat dinner, you’ll need to join us at the fire.”

    Song looked at the boisterous group gathering around the blaze. She saw one man bring out a bottle of clear liquid, take a long drink, then laugh. The rowdy group made her feel uncomfortable. “No thank you. I’m not hungry.”

    “Suit yourself,” he said, then attended to the horses.

    Song crawled back under the cerecloths and waited until she heard Finn take the horses away. Then she poked her head out and looked around. She saw a clump of early-leafed bushes barely visible in the twilight outside the wagon circle, up the hill from her. It appeared deserted, making it a good choice for a place to relieve herself. She slid down from the wagon, heading toward the shrubs. The caravan sounds faded behind her.

    As she tied her belt afterwards, she heard someone approaching. Frightened, she burrowed deeper into the bushes and went silent.

    The person seemed to follow her path, pausing and sniffing as they went. “I know you’re here, girl,” said a slightly slurred male voice. “I saw you come this way, all alone. He laughed, then swallowed noisily. Something dropped into the grass; maybe a bottle. “Now, where are you hiding?” He moved around, as if he searched the area.

    Her heart raced. She knew he would eventually find her. Suspecting she wouldn’t win in a confrontation, she decided to run for the fire before he came too close. She jumped up and took off.

    “There you are!” He ran after her like a charging bull. She didn’t make it halfway to the wagon before he grabbed her cloak. She started to shriek, but lost her wind when she landed hard on her back. He straddled her hips and thrust his left palm over her mouth. She grabbed his wrist, trying to lift his hand, but couldn’t budge it. “Quiet now. I’m not gonna hurt you. Unless you don’t give it up.” He smirked, reaching with his right hand toward a dagger hanging from his belt. A band around his right wrist caught the firelight as he grasped the dagger hilt.
  • PolarisPolaris Member
    Posts: 1,020
    Wow great story! What happens next??
    "Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man." ~Zhuangzi
    Slightly mad resident of #2 Willowsgate, Crowns Willows, Blackwell
    Twitch Channel - Community FAQ - Dev Tracker - Revival Wiki (WIP)
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    @Polaris, @Kalidora, thanks! Polaris, I promise not to do a Snipehunter and leave you in the dark!
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Song bit his left hand as hard as she could.

    He screamed, pulling his left hand back. She tasted his blood. Terrified, she squirmed beneath him, pushing against his thick, leather vest and kicking. Off balance, he tumbled to one side. She scurried out from under him and ran. This time, he didn’t catch up. She raced between the wagons directly to the fire, then stopped abruptly, breathing hard, as all eyes turned to her.

    “What’s wrong, girl?” asked Finn.

    She felt blood on her mouth. Before she could wipe it off or speak, her attacker stumbled up beside her. His face flushed with anger. “She bit me! The bitch bit me!” He held out his gory hand.

    Finn looked from him to Song. His scrutiny made her feel dizzy and sick to her stomach. He then regarded her attacker, who said, “See? She doesn’t deny it! Bitch!”

    Finn turned slightly away from her attacker, his face stone. Suddenly, he pulled his hand back and punched her attacker hard in the jaw. The man reeled and fell over, out cold.

    “Nobody touches my passenger,” Finn said. “Nobody.” He walked over to Song, steering her to a log by the fire. The old woman sitting there slid over, making room for her. Song sat, grateful for the chance to rest before she vomited or fainted.

    The woman pulled up a rag tucked under her belt, dipped it in her cup, and began to wipe away the blood on Song’s lips and chin. “I hope you don’t mind, dear,” she said. “You look like you could use a little help.”

    As the crone dabbed at Song’s face, a tough-looking, middle-aged guard wearing well-made leather armor strode up to the unconscious attacker. She sized up the scene with clear, dark eyes. A bit of black hair stuck out around her golden, weather-beaten cheeks. “What happened here?” she asked.

    Finn said, “Apparently Cardano got into his cups and decided to have his way with this young woman. It didn’t go so well for him.”

    The guard’s face paled in the firelight. She turned and called, “Dalem! Come over here!”

    A sizeable, burly young man with dark hair and a wild, full beard trotted over. He wore a chain mail shirt. A carefully crafted longsword scabbard hung on his belt. “Ma’am?” he asked.

    “Haul Cardano back to the provisions wagon. Strip off his vest, put him in shackles and shove him under the wagon so no one steps on him. Hopefully he’ll come to before morning, so we don’t have to take up valuable wagon space with his miserable body.”

    “Yes ma’am,” he said. He bent over, grabbed Cardano by the ankles, and proceeded to drag him easily toward the wagon.

    “Dalem!” shouted the Captain.

    He turned back and looked at her. “Ma’am?”

    “Pick him u… oh, never mind. Carry on.”

    “Yes ma’am.” He continued on his way.

    The Captain turned toward Song. “I’m Captain Guanbao, head of the caravan guards. I apologize for what Cardano did. He’ll be walking behind a wagon in shackles for the rest of trip. He won’t bother you anymore.”

    “Thank you,” said Song softly.

    “You look awfully pale,” the Captain said. “I’ll have Dalem bring you something to drink. We keep a special medicine for our wounded guards. It should help you feel better.”

    “Thank you,” Song said timidly.

    The Captain nodded, then turned and strode away.

    Song realized she was shivering. She wrapped her cloak a little tighter around herself. It made her feel more secure.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Shortly, Dalem came back to the fire. He squatted beside Song, his face level with hers. “The Captain told me to bring this brandy to you.” He handed her a small, well-made pewter cup with an inch of dark liquid on the bottom.

    She took it from him. Bringing it to her face, she sniffed. She nearly sneezed. The strong spirit gave off a smoky, fruity odor. She took a sip. It tasted somewhere between hard apple cider and whiskey. It felt hot in her mouth and throat, warm in her stomach. She sipped again.

    “Do you like it?” Dalem asked.

    She nodded, turning her focus to him. His intent gaze surprised her. Maybe he liked this brandy? She held the cup toward him. “Would you like a taste?” she asked.

    He looked a bit surprised. “That’s kind of you, but no thanks. Only badly wounded guards drink this. I’d rather not share the honor.”

    “That makes sense,” she said. She sipped again.

    “If you hold the cup in the palms of your hands, it’ll warm the brandy and enhance the flavors.” he said.

    She grasped the cup with both palms. Her hands felt warm, and only shivered a little.

    “Have you drunk brandy before?” he asked.

    She shook her head.

    “Nothing tastes quite like brandy. It goes down especially well in front of a fire, even better with shortbread.”

    The combination sounded good. She nodded slowly.

    “Have you tried whiskey?”


    “Each city produces whiskies with different traits. My parents buy a 12 year old single malt from Rivershead. It tastes a bit like nuts and dried fruit.”

    Song had never heard anyone describe whiskey flavors like that before, but as she thought about it, she realized it made perfect sense. She nodded.

    He looked a little vexed, but kept up the one-sided conversation. “What does the brandy taste like to you?”

    She thought about it. She took another sip, swirling it around in her mouth. After swallowing, she said, “It tastes like the smells of autumn: over-ripe grapes, dry ground.” She paused, then blushed. ”That sounds silly.”

    “No, not at all!” he said, looking suddenly enthusiastic. “That’s good! Most people have trouble picking out anything at all.”

    She smiled weakly, then filled her mouth again with the deep amber liquid. Yes, she definitely tasted those things. The drink made her feel warm and sleepy. She no longer shivered. She yawned.

    “When we reach Crowns Rock, you should try the brandies and whiskies there. This time of year you’ll probably only find the ones made locally, but some of them aren’t bad. And the caravan carries a whole wagon of Falcreek distillates bound for the city. They’ll show up in the taverns and inns shortly after we get there.”

    She nodded. She’d enjoy experiencing a drink like this again.

    “Maybe I can convince Captain Guanbao to give me one of those imported bottles as part of my pay. I think I’ll ask for brandy, but a different type than this one, so you can try something new. I hear she has a private stock.”

    She smiled at him, nodding again. Closing her eyes, she imagined sitting on a chair in a building in front of a fire like the one warming her face and hands, holding a cup full of brandy. Her memory of the evening ended in that happy place.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Chapter 3: The Bandit

    Song woke in darkness. Cries of early morning birds wove between sounds of people tending animals. The smell of hops and resin meant she lay under the cerecloths in Finn’s wagon. She recalled the previous night’s events, which seemed like scenes from a vivid dream. How did she end up in the wagon? She rolled over, pushed herself to sitting with her arms, and peered out from under the covering.

    Low, gray clouds stampeded across the sky. The air felt unusually warm and humid for a New Spring morning. Six or seven people puttered about. Song saw women heading to a particular grove of trees, returning a bit later. She reasoned they must relieve themselves there. Lifting the cerecloths, she climbed down and headed for the thicket. This time, she enjoyed an uneventful trip. From now on, she’d make sure she knew the location of the toileting area.

    When she returned, she saw Finn tying the cerecloths to a series of wooden supports above the wagon, forming an inverted V. “Can I help you?” she asked.

    “No thanks, I can handle it,” he said as he secured another section. “Rain will come soon. I want the cerecloths tented over the wagon to keep the load drier. The upper tarpaulin sends most of the rain to the ground. The lower cloth catches any water leaking through and carries it out of the wagon.

    Song nodded.

    “We should reach Rivershead sometime this morning. When we get there, we’ll go to the caravan house to deliver and pick up goods. Abram will probably hire a new guard, too, because Cardano’s got a date with the Rivershead authorities. I’ll point you to a place to eat and stay the night. Unless I miss my guess, we’ll leave for Tide’s End tomorrow morning, so make sure to get back to the caravan house by dawn.”

    She nodded, but anxiety filled her stomach. What if the authorities released Cardano before the caravan left Rivershead? What if he stalked her?

    “You must be hungry,” said Finn, wiping his palms on his pants, apparently blind to her distress. “Can you cook?”

    “Yes,” she said, suddenly feeling famished.

    “Good. Go make yourself useful by boiling up a pot of porridge. You’ll find the pot and a bucket by the fire pit. Use the bucket to get water from the river. I’ll fetch the dry porridge and poke up the fire when I’m done here. Hopefully the rain will hold off until after breakfast.”

    She nodded again, then walked to the fire pit where the wooden bucket waited. Picking it up, she headed for the creek. She was so focused on her task she didn’t notice Cardano shackled to the rear of a wagon near her path until she was nearly upon him. He sat on the trampled ground, staring angrily at her. A chill crawled down her spine. She averted her eyes, walking quickly past him.

    “Bitch,” he said under his breath, just loud enough for her to hear.

    Her hands shook. She kept walking, past the edge of the wagon circle. With a cart between herself and her attacker, she leaned back on the sideboard for a moment to pull herself together. She heard angry voices nearby. Turning her head, she saw the voices came from Abram’s wagon, and realized Abram and Ashu were the combatants. Song wondered why they would argue. They seemed so happy together.

    Several guards tended their mounts outside the circle. She saw Dalem among them, his back to her, currying a fine black stallion. She feared what might have happened after her memory ended the night prior. Did she pass out? Drop the cup? Insult him by falling asleep during their conversation? She hurried toward the stream, hoping he wouldn’t notice her, to avoid any unpleasantness.

    As she reached the bank, a cold water droplet hit her cheek. Looking up, she saw a barrage of rain tearing at the tender new leaves in the woods around the western end of the valley. The sound of the advancing storm rose as the downpour reached the treeless valley floor and drummed on the unprotected earth. The western woods blurred behind sheets of water. She turned and headed quickly back toward the wagons to avoid the coming deluge. The heavy rain would allow no fire, and no porridge, this morning.

    Along with rain came flood and mud. The caravan detoured off the road and up the side of the valley to keep the wagons’ wheels from sinking to their axles. Still, the soaked ground slowed the wagons’ progress. The forest extended further down the valley’s sides here than on the road behind them, giving the caravan less room to avoid marshy ground. Horses slipped and wagons mired in the boggy earth on the gentle slopes. Abram sent word along the train: when they reached the current hills’ top, they’d stop to take stock of what lay beyond.

    Before they made it to the crest, Song heard a call to halt the wagons. Finn reigned in his horses. Curious, she peered out of the cerecloths.

    She saw Dalem on his black stallion careening down the hill as fast as the slick ground would allow. Abram descended the stairs of the lead wagon to meet him. From the back of the caravan, Captain Guanbao cantered passed on her tawny warmblood, trailing a breeze as she hurried by. She pulled up next to Abram and Dalem, and they conferred briefly. The Captain gave Dalem an order, then the two of them spurred their horses and rode briskly back along the train. “Bandits coming!” Dalem called. “Circle the wagons! Get ready for a fight!” His eyes met hers briefly as they rode past. He looked worried.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    “Song,” said Finn as he got the horses moving, “Look behind the crates in the front of the wagon on your right. There’s a sword wrapped in canvas sitting on a shield. Unwrap the sword and drag out the shield. I need them.”

    Song did as she was told. The canvas held a scabbard containing a serviceable short sword. A steel rim circled the small, round, oaken shield. By the time she readied the gear, she heard another call to stop the wagons. She looked out and saw they were only about a third of the way circled. “Why are we stopping?” she asked.

    “Because the bandits are here,” Finn said with incredible calm. He reached back, pulled his sword from the scabbard and slid the shield onto his left arm.

    Song looked toward the hill and saw the remaining members of the forward patrol retreating toward the caravan. Some of them had blood on their clothing, and their horses looked agitated. Beyond them, at the top of the hill, a dozen bandits sat on horseback. As she watched, others joined them.

    She heard Captain Guanbao’s voice above the sounds of rain and people and alarmed animals, getting her guards into formation. Looking toward the Captain, Song saw both guards and wagoneers forming up for battle. A few people tied horses to wagons so they wouldn’t run away in fear.

    Finn turned toward Song and said, “My wagon’s strong. You’ll be safest hidden here buried in sacks. Climb under and stay put till I say you can come out.”

    Song nodded. Just before she burrowed between the bags, she peeked out toward the front of the caravan one last time. At least 20 riders approached, moving fast.

    Rather than attack immediately, the brigands circled the caravan. She heard their horses each time they passed. She wondered if they were looking for weaknesses in the caravan’s defenses. Because she heard no bowstrings thrum, she reasoned the riders must be out of arrows’ reach. The center of the caravan crescent marked the eye of a bandit storm.

    Abruptly, arrows began sailing into and out of the crescent, piercing the relative calm. People and animals screamed as they were hit. Bowstrings sang as missiles sped toward the raiders. Two loud thumps came from the side of her wagon on the exterior of the crescent, arrows missing their marks. Another ripped through the cerecloths, embedding itself on the wagon’s far side. Rain began to drip in from the tear. She huddled down deeper.

    Rising war cries and the bedlam of people running toward the caravan soon overcame the bowsong. She heard blades being drawn. A sharp clash of steel on steel pronounced the melee begun.

    Peaceful village life didn’t prepare her for the brutality of armed conflict. Swords clanged together; shields thunked as weapons hit them; people breathed fast and hard. Grunts of exertion and shrieks of fright and agony added to the clamor. Animals, tied or caged, struggled against their bonds and cried out in terror. It seemed as though the sounds of fighting were coming closer. Song covered her ears. The gesture dampened the awful racket, but did nothing for the terrified pounding of her heart.

    Fear stretches time. One sees things in slow motion, hears voices strangely defined over background din. And so she heard Finn’s cry above all the other noises. Worried for him, she wiggled free of the sacks, looking out from under the cerecloths.

    Some of the formation held, but the part nearest her had disintegrated under the attack, allowing bandits to isolate half a dozen defenders. Among those separated from the group included Finn, who faced a massive man standing just feet from Song. The giant’s back partially blocked her view, but she glimpsed Finn’s left leg drenched in blood. He lurched before his tall, heavy opponent, using his short sword and cracked shield to block the relentless blows dealt him with a blade longer than Song’s height. Each time the giant swung, he roared. As she watched, another attack hit Finn’s weapon, knocking it from his hand and putting him off balance. He dropped to one knee. The bandit yelled in triumph as he raised his claymore.

    Song sprang, her knife suddenly in her hand.

    She didn’t think about her actions. She heard nothing. She saw only the raider, hulking and terrible, beginning to swing his blade downward. She had to help Finn.
  • PolarisPolaris Member
    Posts: 1,020
    ... You promised no cliffhangers!! >.<
    "Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man." ~Zhuangzi
    Slightly mad resident of #2 Willowsgate, Crowns Willows, Blackwell
    Twitch Channel - Community FAQ - Dev Tracker - Revival Wiki (WIP)
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    @Polaris, actually I said I wouldn't leave you in the dark. I just didn't say exactly when I'd turn the light back on. ;) But don't worry, with any luck I'll post the next installment Wednesday morning (east coast US time). Thanks for continuing to read my story!
  • PolarisPolaris Member
    Posts: 1,020
    Minstrel said:

    @Polaris, actually I said I wouldn't leave you in the dark. I just didn't say exactly when I'd turn the light back on. ;) But don't worry, with any luck I'll post the next installment Wednesday morning (east coast US time). Thanks for continuing to read my story!

    Lol true. It's a great story!
    "Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man." ~Zhuangzi
    Slightly mad resident of #2 Willowsgate, Crowns Willows, Blackwell
    Twitch Channel - Community FAQ - Dev Tracker - Revival Wiki (WIP)
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Song landed on the bandit’s back, throwing her left arm about his neck and wrapping her legs around his big belly. He staggered, his yell turning from triumph to surprise. As his blade descended, it grazed Finn’s shoulder. Song swept her knife’s sharp edge across the brigand’s throat, just above her arm. He screamed.

    She’d never attacked a person, but she’d finished off animals struck with arrows by cutting the pulsing blood vessels of their necks. Whether this knowledge steered her hand, or Hoen intervened, or luck favored her, her desperate swing hit Finn’s attacker square on his left carotid artery. The giant’s scream morphed to a sickening gurgle. Blood pumped violently from his wound, onto his face, onto her arm, onto Finn.

    The bandit rocked back, away from her attack, and fell.

    She hit the ground hard. Agony sliced into her ribcage and the back of her head. The fall knocked her breath away. Simultaneously, the huge man collapsed on her. His bloody head hit her face; his body landed full on hers. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t see. Battle sounds faded with her torment as she gradually passed out.

    Song woke to pain. She felt nauseated. The intense throbbing in her head nearly drowned the grinding aches across her torso. She realized she’d urinated. Bandages put gentle pressure around her skull, and blankets provided comforting weight on her body. A soft, cool breeze touched her face. She opened her eyes.

    A few ragged, white clouds straggled eastward across the blue sky. A nearby fire complained about the damp wood fueling it, releasing billows of smoke and snapping angrily. She stirred, but hurt when she moved, so she lay still again.

    She heard someone limping toward her. Finn’s face appeared. “You don’t follow directions well, do you?” he remarked.

    She looked up at him blankly, then noticed his smile. She smiled back reflexively.

    “Can you sit?” he asked.

    Her smile disappeared. She found she could move her arms, but as soon as she tried lifting her head the world began moving.

    “I’ll help you.” Finn attempted to kneel beside her, and winced.

    She spotted bloody bandages around his left leg, and opened her mouth to ask him to stop.

    Before Song could speak, Captain Guanbao strode up. “Finn, go back to the fire,” the soldier said in a booming command voice. She grasped Finn’s left arm firmly, helping him stand. “You’re job’s to drive your wagon to Tide’s End, and you’ll do that better if you rest now. Dalem’s going to help Song. He’s been half worthless since the battle ended, anyway. No one’s going to miss him.”

    Finn nodded, and let the Captain lead him away.

    Song gazed back up and saw the sun slightly below its zenith to the west. The sky appeared crystalline. It seemed as if the rain had cleaned the bowl of the firmament and left it sparkling.

    She heard someone walking quickly toward her. This time Dalem approached, carrying a sizeable sack under his lightly bandaged right arm. He squatted beside her, a smile on his mouth and concern in his eyes. “I’m happy to see you awake,” he said. “I feared you’d miss tasting the excellent brandy I persuaded the Captain to advance me.”

    She smiled.

    “You know,” he said, “I didn’t catch your name.”

    “Song,” she said, her rough voice surprising her. She attempted to swallow and moisten her throat, but her mouth felt dry.

    “Song. What a pretty name. Glad to meet you, Song. I’m Dalem. The Captain ordered me to take care of you. You need to drink something. Let me help you sit.” He swung the sack down and, kneeling, placed it beside her chest on the side opposite the one where he knelt. He then reached one arm around her back. “I’m going to sit you up slowly and slide the sack behind you for support. If you need me to move slower, let me know.”

    Song felt her torso rising. Her nausea and headache spiked, but she pressed her lips together and endured the discomfort. Her torso upright, Dalem slid the sack behind her and eased her back against it. She winced when her body met the sack. As her muscles relaxed against the support, her queasiness and pain eased and her expression softened.

    “I know just the thing for a thirsty warrior,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

    Song looked around. The scene disheartened her. At least ten people lay on makeshift pallets. A score more sat or worked despite bandaged wounds, Finn and Dalem among them. She saw one man crying over a motionless child. Beyond the wagons, which were now properly circled, people stacked whatever reasonably dry wood they found into a huge pile. She glimpsed a dozen bodies lying covered on the ground near the pyre. She wondered how many she couldn’t see.

    Dalem returned promptly with a mug and sat next to her. “I think you’ll like this,” he said. He lifted the rim to her lips. From the smell, the small clay tankard held warm, hard apple cider, enhanced with spice. She sipped a little. Moisture bloomed in her mouth and trickled down her dry throat. He tilted the mug away while she swallowed, then offered it again. After a couple minutes, she managed to take the mug shakily in her hands and drink by herself.

    “You know,” said Dalem, “When I heard you’d leapt from the wagon, I thought you’d gone berserk. Has that happened before?”

    She shook her head slowly. Moving it hurt. “I’ve never attacked anyone,” she said weakly.

    “Well,” said Dalem, “You sure made up for lost time.”

    Song looked into her mug. The white clouds above her reflected from the cider’s surface as liquid amber fragments. She wondered how her own mind reflected reality, shivering at the unsettling thought.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    “Are you cold?” Dalem asked.

    Song shook her head again. “Just thinking,” she said.

    “I find it’s best to think of something other than battle right after a fight,” he said. “It’s easy to become depressed dwelling on death and injury you can’t change. Let’s talk about something more cheerful, like what you got out of this besides a terrible headache.”

    Song looked at him, curious.

    “You get to keep the belongings of the bandit you killed,” he said.

    “Oh!” she said, surprised.

    “The brute wore beggar’s clothes,” Dalem said, “His claymore was beat to shit. He only had a few silver pieces in his purse. But he carried something special on his belt. Let me show you.” He rose and stepped toward Finn’s wagon.

    Dalem returned with a rich brown leather scabbard in his hands and held it out to her. It bore a knotted otter motif. She held the mug in her left hand and touched the head of one otter with her right index fingertip. She traced the length of the design. It felt cool and durable. She teared up, and blinked purposefully to keep her vision clear.

    From the scabbard protruded a well-made hilt. An indented, circular brass pommel abutted a small, slightly flattened grip wrapped in deerskin. The brass bar forming the crossguard curved down, allowing the weapon to be used effectively to bind an opponent’s sword or disarm them entirely.

    “Wait till you see the blade,” Dalem said. He reached out and took the mug, setting it on the ground beside her. He then steadied the scabbard with his left hand and pulled out 28 inches of steel with his right. Putting the scabbard aside, he handed Song the sword, properly balancing the blade on his left hand while offering her the hilt in his right palm.

    She took the sword gingerly. A deep fuller ran down the center of the blade’s upper half, reversing to a diamond cross section on the lower half. The stiff lower half tapered to a mean point. The weight distribution gave the weapon superb balance, and the grip fit her hand perfectly. The piece’s excellent condition impressed her. She carefully handed the sword back to Dalem.

    “The guy clearly didn’t use this weapon,” Dalem said, sliding the sword into its sheath. “It’s too small for me, let alone him. He probably picked it up from a victim. A noblewoman or small nobleman might’ve worn it for show and dueling. Maybe the bandit thought it made him look classy.” Dalem made a sour face, then set the weapon beside her.

    “I should try finding the owner,” Song said weakly, picking up the mug. She thought her voice sounded a little better.

    Dalem smiled indulgently as if looking at a child. “That’s a nice thought, but not practical. Picture this: You walk into Rivershead, declare you possess a stolen sword, and say you’re looking for its owner. You’ll attract lots of takers! Sadly, the former owner is probably dead.”
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Talk of Rivershead reminded Song of Finn’s instructions from earlier that day, making her suddenly anxious. “Finn said I needed to lodge in Rivershead, but I can’t even stand up! What’ll happen to me?”

    “Captain Guanbao gave me the honor of seeing to your care,” Dalem said. “Finn will take you by wagon to an inn, and I’ll carry you to a room. Becca’s agreed to stay with you. She’ll handle your personal needs. Finn and I will pick you up at dawn.”

    “Who’s Becca?” Song asked.

    “She’s the chirurgeon,” he said.

    She nodded. A thought occurred to her. “Why do you keep getting stuck taking care of me?” she asked. “Aren’t you supposed to guard?”

    Dalem blushed. “Well, um, I do as I’m ordered. Anyway,” he said with a smile, “Caring for you is truly no chore.”

    Dalem’s hesitation suggested more to the story than he shared, but she didn’t want to upset him by digging further. She smiled weakly, taking the last mouthful of cider. She felt tired. “I think I should sleep now,” she said.

    “Your wish is my command!” Dalem said. “I’ll prepare a place for you in Finn’s wagon, then carry you over.” He picked up her sword and took the mug, then walked away.

    Song closed her eyes, grateful for the care.

    He returned minutes later. “Time to go for a ride!” he said cheerfully.

    She looked up at his smiling face, and smiled back reflexively. She wondered how he could stay so cheerful amid all the death and injury.

    Dalem squatted beside her. “I’m going to slide one arm under your arms and around your back, the other under your knees. Then I’ll stand up slowly. Are you ready?”

    She nodded.

    He lifted her easily, covers still around her, and strode to Finn’s wagon. With the gate down and cerecloths pulled open, she saw a pallet made of several wool blankets. Her sword lay next to it. He leaned over the wagon bed and placed her gently, rearranging the blankets so they draped comfortably. Apparently satisfied with his efforts, he stepped back and proceeded to close the cerecloths. “Rest well, Song. I’ll see you in Rivershead.”

    She smiled drowsily as he put up the gate, and fell asleep almost immediately.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Chapter 4: Catgut Sutures

    Song woke to village sounds. Finn’s wagon stood still. She heard people walking and talking. Their footsteps sounded as if they crossed hard earth, their voices echoing slightly. She smelled freshly-baked bread and roasting fowl. Opening her eyes, she saw the cerecloth stained reddish with evening light.

    The wagon’s gate latch clicked as Dalem opened it. “Hello!” he said. “Welcome to Rivershead! I hope you rested well.”

    She nodded. She no longer felt sharp pain in her head, only a dull ache.

    “We’re at the inn, and we have rooms.” He held up a pair of keys in his right hand. “Your room’s all set up. Are you ready to see it?”


    “Let’s go, then!” He picked her up, leaving behind her soiled blankets. “Are you sure you’re made of flesh and blood?” he asked. “You feel light as a bag of feathers.”

    Finn hobbled up and closed the gate. “After watching her off that bandit, I can say for sure she’s made of sterner stuff than feathers,” he said. “I’m gonna take care of the wagon, Dalem. I’ll meet you in the great room.”

    “You got it!” Dalem said, heading to the inn’s entrance. He dropped a piece of eight in the hand of the waiting guard, who pushed the door open. As they entered, half a dozen patrons stared briefly, then resumed their activities. Crossing the great room, he scaled the stairs to the second floor. He walked down a hall, stopped in front of a door, and worked a key into the lock. The door swung open with a high-pitched creak. Dalem stepped inside.

    Candlelight welcomed them to the small room. Two clay pitchers and bowls holding soaps perched atop a compact oak dresser along the wall to the immediate left of the door. The wall in front of them held a generous window with dusty, off-white cotton curtains. Two narrow beds sat just right of the window, each next to its own oak bedtable with a candle in a brass holder. Old oak chests with towels and rags squatted at both beds’ feet. A chamber pot separated them. A fire in the brazier warmed the room. The near bed beckoned with its covers turned down. Dalem placed Song in the prepared bed carefully, pulling the blanket up to her chin.

    “Becca’s running errands; she’ll arrive later tonight. Meanwhile, let’s feed you. How about I get you bread, soup, and a mug of porter?”

    She nodded.

    “Very well, m’lady,” he said, bowing deeply. “I’ll return shortly.” He left, locking the door behind himself.

    Song immediately sat up. The world spun around her. She waited for it to stop. She swung her feet over the bedside, pausing until her dizziness subsided. She unfastened her cloak, letting it fall off her shoulders. Her shirt hit the floor next. She pushed her boots off with her toes. Bending her legs one by one, she removed her socks, adding them to the shirt on the floor. She slid her feet to the planks, leaning against the bed as a wave of dizziness and nausea lapped over her. After standing a moment, she felt more stable. She loosened her belt, placing it on the bedtable along with her traveling purse. Her wool breeches dropped last. She and her clothes smelled horrible.

    She eased down on hands and knees, pulling her cloak to the floor with her. When her dizziness passed, she headed for the chamber pot. After relieving herself, she grabbed the towel and rag from her chest. Crawling to the pitcher and bowl, she brought them to the floor. As she bathed, her headache and dizziness intensified. Upon finishing, she returned to bed, pulling the covers over her still-damp body.

    Moments later, she heard a key in the door lock. Dalem entered holding a tray with a bowl of steaming broth, a spoon, two thick slices of bread with butter, and a mug with tan foam spilling over its edge. “Your dinner, m’lady,” he announced, then stopped in his tracks. His eyes widened. He set the tray on the chest carefully. “Why were you up?” he asked.

    “I washed,” she said.

    “I see that,” he said. “You could’ve fallen and hurt yourself!”

    “I crawled,” she said. “You can trust me. I won’t do something stupid.”

    “Like attacking a bandit three times your size?”

    “That wasn’t stupid!” she said. “Finn needed help.”

    He shook his head, smiling a little. “Finn’s right; you are troublesome.” He lifted the tray, placing it on Song’s lap, then stepped back. His breathing seemed a little fast. “Are you able to feed yourself?” he asked.

    She nodded.

    “Good. Finn and I rented the room next door.” He gestured toward the wall to her left. “If you need anything, just yell. We’ll hear you.”

    She nodded again.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    As hungry as she felt, Song could eat only half her food before nausea set in. She put her tray on the bedtable. As she began to arrange her pillow so she could lie down, she heard a key in the door lock. She looked up.

    The door creaked open, and an old woman shuffled in, dragging a large sack and bent under a backpack seemingly too large for her tiny frame. Song recognized her as the crone who cleaned the blood from Song’s face after Cardano’s attack.

    “Hello, dear!” the woman croaked cheerfully. “You must be Song.”

    Song nodded.

    “I’m Becca. We met yesterday evening. I must say, you’re looking better.” She released the sack, closed and locked the door, and climbed out from under the backpack. She tottered over to Song. “How do you feel?”

    “Nauseated. A little dizzy. My head hurts.”

    “Let me look closer.” Becca lifted the candleholder at the bedside, bringing it near Song’s face. She put a hand over one of Song’s eyes, then the other, then dropped her hand to her side. Returning the candleholder to the bedtable, she said, “You’re improving. You still need to rest.”

    Looking at Song’s hair, then down at her dirty clothes, Becca said, “Dalem tells me you crawled to the washbasin to bathe.”

    “I soiled myself. I had blood on me. I smelled terrible.”

    “Bathing must’ve taken all your energy. I see you left half your dinner.”

    Song looked away, chastened.

    “Don’t feel bad,” Becca said. “In my experience, cleanliness helps people stay healthy, to say nothing of more pleasant to be around. Would you like me to wash your hair and clothes?”

    Song looked at her, surprised at her generosity. “Yes, thank you.”

    “You’re welcome. Let’s start with your hair.”

    After washing Song’s hair and clothes, Becca bathed herself. She changed into a coarse, yellowed cotton chemise. Pushing up the sleeves, she washed her dirty clothes and draped them over what furniture was not already covered with Song’s damp clothing. Her work finally done, she teetered to her pack and squatted in front of it. She rifled around, muttering to herself, then stood and headed back carrying a thick book, a quill, a capped inkwell, and a sheaf of loose papers. Leaving all but three pages on her bedtable, she shuffled to the room’s far, shadowed corner, eased herself into a cross-legged seat on the floor, and placed the papers beside her.

    “Dear, if you need anything, just let me know. I’m going to meditate.”

    Song nodded. She missed the relaxation her meditation sessions provided when she lived at home. Anticipating a chance to join Becca in her practice soon, she slipped into sleep.

    Song woke to the sound of something clinking in the door lock. Opening her eyes, she saw glowing coals in the brazier. The nub of her candle starved a weak flame. She glanced toward Becca, who appeared deep in a trance. Song wondered why Dalem would enter their room in the middle of the night.

    The tumblers in the lock clicked. After a moment, the door swung slowly inward with a long, slow, high creak. Someone built like a man entered. With no hall light, Song couldn’t make out his features. “Dalem?” she asked nervously, her heart beating faster.

    The man closed the complaining door and locked it. As he turned, her throat tightened. “Dalem!” she called weakly. Before she could inhale, the intruder jumped atop her thighs. He grabbed her pillow, slammed it over her face, and held it there with both hands. Her scream barely reached her own ears. “You won’t bite me this time,” Cardano whispered, chuckling.
    Post edited by Minstrel on
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    @Polaris, thanks for the encouragement!
  • PolarisPolaris Member
    Posts: 1,020
    OMG! You did it again!! >.<
    "Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man." ~Zhuangzi
    Slightly mad resident of #2 Willowsgate, Crowns Willows, Blackwell
    Twitch Channel - Community FAQ - Dev Tracker - Revival Wiki (WIP)
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    @Polaris, if these cliffhangers bother you, here's the trick to avoiding them: read to the end of the chapter, and leave the rest of the text for the next day. But where's the excitement in that? ;)
  • PolarisPolaris Member
    Posts: 1,020
    Minstrel said:

    @Polaris, if these cliffhangers bother you, here's the trick to avoiding them: read to the end of the chapter, and leave the rest of the text for the next day. But where's the excitement in that? ;)

    Spoken like a storyteller! <3
    "Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man." ~Zhuangzi
    Slightly mad resident of #2 Willowsgate, Crowns Willows, Blackwell
    Twitch Channel - Community FAQ - Dev Tracker - Revival Wiki (WIP)
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Song’s fear overwhelmed her. How could Cardano be here? He was supposed to be in the custody of the authorities! She flailed and kicked wildly, but her injury and increasing lack of air weakened her. Cardano shifted one hand off her pillow. He pulled back the covers, revealing her naked body. He chuckled once more. She heard a knife slide out of its sheath. She struggled, but couldn’t budge her attacker. Suddenly, pain cut into her abdomen as a blade drew a line from side to side. Warm blood trickled onto her skin. She writhed in terror. She couldn’t scream; she had no air. She began to cry silently. In her desperation, she heard something unexpected: foreign words dancing above a strange, soft keening. Surely her imagination had gone wild from panic and lack of breath. She would pass out soon. She felt terrified and helpless.

    Suddenly, bright light flashed through the gap between the sheets and the pillow. Cardano screamed. He lurched off her. As she pushed away her pillow and gasped for air, she heard a loud thud.

    Cardano rolled on the floor, wailing, his hands over his eyes. A dark, viscous liquid glistened between his fingers. He struggled to his feet, ran into a wall, bounced back, stumbled into the wall again leaving a stain, bumped into her bed, backed against the window. He cowered there, moaning. The dark fluid oozed down his hands, dripping like soft mud to the floor.

    Song noticed Becca shuffling toward Cardano. The old woman’s alert brown eyes appeared to glow green with reflected candlelight. A piece of paper crumbled to gray dust in her left hand, contrasting sharply with her dark brown skin. She opened the window behind him laboriously, and began to push him through. He offered no resistance.

    The door slammed open with a high-pitched squeal. Dalem barged in, sword drawn, wearing only pants. Finn followed close behind. Both men’s heads turned toward Song. She reached for a sheet to cover herself, but her shaking hand couldn’t grasp it.

    Song heard a dull thunk from outside. Becca stood alone facing the open window. Cold air poured through, flowing across the room, causing the weak candle flame to flicker.

    Dalem dropped his sword and ran to Song’s bed as his weapon clanked to the floor. “Braugg be merciful!” he said. He reached across her for the candleholder on Becca’s bedtable, lighting the unused taper. The fresh flame revealed bright red blood seeping out of a long, thin gash.

    Becca shuffled over beside them. “The wound needs cleaning. I’ll get water and soap.” She turned to Finn. “It’s cold in here. I’d appreciate it if you’d shut the window.”

    The door squeaked as Finn pushed it shut. He limped across the room. Peering outside, he looked away abruptly, closing the sash. “Did the guy come in this way?” he asked.

    “I think Cardano picked the lock,” Becca said, leaning over Song. “Do you have a handkerchief, Finn?”

    Finn reached into his pocket, retrieving a large cotton square. He held it out to Becca.

    “Step to the other side of the bed and clean Song’s face. She’s crying.”

    After Finn dried her face, Song managed to grasp the handkerchief and gently blow her nose. Her eyes cleared for only a moment. When Becca touched the soapy rag to the cut, Song squealed and teared up again.

    “Finn, pull the covers up over Song’s legs, and get the blanket from my bed for her chest.”

    Song felt the covers slide up her legs, the scratchy wool blanket drape across her chest. Her shivering lessened.

    “I’ll stoke the fire,” Finn said, then limped toward the small woodpile near the brazier.

    “Thanks, Finn,” Becca said.

    “Will she be okay?” Dalem asked.

    “I think so. It’s a nice, clean cut. The blade slashed to the muscle, but only severed the outer fibers.” She put aside the blood-soaked rag. “Still, it needs suturing. I have supplies in my pack. While I’m getting them, lay a clean towel over her abdomen and put a little pressure on it to reduce bleeding. Like this.” Becca showed him what she meant, adjusting his hands to her satisfaction. The pressure changes intensified the pain. Song cried out.

    Becca toddled slowly to her pack, searched through it, and came back with a curved needle, a ball of catgut, a bit of cloth, a short knife, and a small, stoppered copper flask. She opened the flask. Its contents smelled of garlic, onions, wine and something bitter. She saturated the fabric with the fluid. “I find this potion helps keep wounds from becoming infected,” she said.

    Using the wet material, she wiped down her hands, then the needle, knife and catgut as she prepared them. Apparently satisfied with her work, she said, “Dear, I’m going to wash your tummy with this potion. It’ll hurt. Then I’m going to sew up the cut. You’ll feel two sticks, each followed by a pull, and then tension as I tie off the suture. That’s going to hurt, too. It won’t feel as bad if you can drink something. Do you think you can?”

    Song looked at the sharp, curved needle and the thick, black catgut, and nodded.

    “Finn,” said Becca, “You’ll find a blue bottle containing spirits in my pack, along with a small pewter cup. Pour out a full measure of spirits and bring it here.”

    He quickly found the container and carried the brimming cup to Song’s bedside.

    “This doesn’t taste good, dear, but it does the job,” Becca said. “Finn, help Song drink.”

    Finn lifted Song’s head slightly, causing another bolt of misery across her abdomen, and brought the cup to her lips. The liquid smelled like herbed whiskey with no fruit or smoke to it. She took a sip. It tasted bitter and hot. She gagged, involuntarily tensing her abdominal muscles. She moaned around the fluid in her mouth, but managed to swallow. She took another sip, then another.

    Becca said, “Okay, Dalem, lift the towel.”

    Song felt a new stab of pain when the gentle pressure subsided. She gasped, feeling her warm blood begin to trickle onto her abdomen again.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Then a cool, burning sensation flowed over her wound. The burn increased. It brought tears to her eyes. She raised the soggy handkerchief to her face and blew her nose again. Becca dabbed the wound with the cloth, intensifying the pain. Hoping the drink would help, Song gulped down another mouthful. As she neared the last of the liquid, she began to feel sleepy and disoriented. She heard a commotion on the street.

    “Finn, you’d better tell the innkeep about the trash pile outside his window. I suspect the local constabulary will want a word with you as well. It’s a shame you don’t know how Cardano’s eyes ended up like that,” Becca said pointedly.

    Song heard Finn limp across the room and let himself out. The door creaked mournfully.

    “Hold the candle so I get enough light on the cut, Dalem,” Becca said. “Good, that’s right. I’ll tell you when to blot the blood away so I can get a clear view of the wound. Are you ready?”

    “Yes,” he said.

    The needle pierced Song’s skin. She cried out softly, and felt her stomach clench with nausea.

    “You’re doing great,” Becca said, pulling the catgut through the hole. “Dalem, blot now.”

    Over and over the needle pushed through Song’s flesh, and the catgut pulled through the hole it left. Over and over Becca tied off the suture and Dalem applied the rag to the oozing wound. It became a painful rhythm, a hymn of misery. She closed her eyes as the room began to spin. With vision gone, her nausea lessened. She tried counting the piercings: six, seven, eight. She lost track at 12. After what seemed like an hour, the rhythm broke.

    “I’m tying the final knot now, dear. You’re a brave young woman.”

    She felt a pull as Becca snipped the catgut. The wound ached and burned.

    “Raise her midsection, Dalem, so I can bandage her,” Becca said.

    Dalem lifted Song slightly off the bed as Becca wrapped a length of cloth around her midsection. He smelled musky. With the bandage in place, he eased her back onto the bed, lifting her covers over her, finally pulling away Becca’s blanket.

    Song heard Becca and Dalem moving around the room, washing, opening Becca’s pack. They spoke softly, their words blurred by her haze of drugs and pain. The sound of her caregivers sharing routine conversation comforted her. She sank into an exhausted sleep.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Chapter 5: Fiery Vision

    Song awoke confused. She lay on her back in a quiet, smoky place. Her tummy hurt, partly from menstruation, partly from something external. When she moved slightly, she felt tugging along her abdomen. Her head ached a bit.

    Opening her eyes, she saw the dim ceiling of her room at the inn. Bitter memory returned. She looked over at Becca’s bed. Becca slept child-like with a look of utter calm on her face. Turning her head toward the window, she saw only white through the glass. An unseasonable snow fell, muting sounds outside. She imagined sparkling white flakes covering Cardano’s blood.

    She heard a stir on the floor beside her bed. Craning her neck, she saw Dalem lying between her and the door. He’d dragged a mattress and covers into the room, probably from his room next door. He lifted his arms and stretched deeply, yawning. Opening his eyes, he saw her looking at him. He quickly sat up, facing her.

    “You’re awake!” he said quietly. For once, he didn’t seem to know what else to say.

    “I didn’t expect to see you here,” she said.

    “After what happened last night, I couldn’t bear staying anywhere else. I was supposed to keep you safe. I failed.” He looked away.

    “I remember you helping Becca sew me up. Thank you.”

    He didn’t appear comforted. “It’s the least I could do.” He ran his fingers through his unruly hair, to no effect.

    “Why was Cardano here?” Song asked. “He was supposed to be in custody.”

    Dalem blushed. “He was in league with the bandits. They set him free. I didn’t want you to worry. I figured we’d seen the last of him. It never occurred to me he’d hunt you down.”

    Becca, apparently awakened by the conversation, joined in. “We all learned something about Cardano: he’s determined. He should’ve known you were guarding Song, Dalem, yet he risked being attacked by you in order to get to her, and for what? For Song biting him when he attacked her? She said nothing against him. He implicated himself. Very strange.

    “Even though he died when he fell, I suspect we’ll see him again, perhaps in just a few days. We need to be ready. But let’s start with a more immediate concern. How do you feel, Song?”

    “My tummy hurts, and feels like something’s pulling. My head aches a little. I’m thirsty. And my time of moon came early.” Song worried about how Becca and Dalem would handle her menstruation. Many people believed menstruating women were cursed, unclean, or even possessed of enhanced magical powers. She felt grateful her father was not among them.

    “I’ll get you clean rags,” Becca said without concern. “Right now, though, I’d like to examine your wound. Do you remember me suturing a long cut across your abdomen?”

    Song nodded.

    “I wasn’t sure you would. The drink I gave you makes some people forget.”

    Becca pulled the blanket off her bed, laying it over Song’s chest. Holding it in place, she pulled down Song’s covers to reveal the bandages. She lifted the still-burning candle in its holder from her bedtable. “Dalem, would you please hold this?”

    Dalem stood and took the candleholder from Becca, who gently unwrapped Song’s bandages. The cloth stuck to the dried drainage; pulling it loose hurt. Putting the wrappings aside, Becca examined the wound. She nodded. “It looks good. No infection. I’ll clean it, put on more potion, and apply fresh bandages. I’ll be right back.”

    As Becca tottered to her pack, Dalem said, “Song, you said you’re thirsty. What would you like to drink?”

    “When I took ill, my father fed me meat broth, cider, or porter.”

    “I doubt the innkeep offers broth this early,” Becca said, returning to Song’s bedside. “But he likely provides cider. You can start with that and a little porridge. Now, let me dress your wound.”

    The soap and potion stung, but not as badly as she remembered from the night before. Dalem put down the candleholder and lifted Song so Becca could wrap the new bandages around Song’s hips. As he eased her back onto the bed afterward, he said, “Why don’t I head downstairs to get your breakfast?”

    Song nodded. Suddenly her eyes widened. “Oh no! We were supposed to be at the caravan house at dawn!” She tried to rise, but the movement caused a rush of pain along her tummy. She gasped.

    Dalem put his hands gently on her shoulders, encouraging her to lie down. “It’s too dangerous to travel in a blizzard,” he said. “We wouldn’t be able to see bandits approaching. We might leave tomorrow if the storm stops soon. If not, we could be here another day.”

    Song eased back onto her pillow, sighing with relief. Not only had she not missed the caravan, but Becca and Dalem didn’t fear touching her during her time of moon.

    “Whether or not the caravan leaves tomorrow, you’d be wise to stay here,” Becca said. “If you travel too soon, you’ll aggravate the wound and your head injury. You need to rest.”

    “But who’ll take care of me?” Song asked.

    “I will,” Dalem said.

    “But you’re supposed to go with the caravan,” said Song.

    “I’m supposed to take care of you,” he said. “That’s a direct order. We can always join another caravan when you’re ready to travel.”

    Song wondered about the money she’d spent for the trip. Would Abram refund any of her coin? She decided not to think about it. She could do nothing to change the fact she was injured.

    “Now, let me get you that cider and porridge. Becca, may I bring you anything?”

    “Yes, thank you,” the old woman said. “Cider and porridge sound good, and any breakfast meat they’re serving. I’m famished.”

    “I imagine you are,” Dalem said. He headed out with the familiar creak of the door.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Snow fell the rest of the day and all night. Villagers woke to a heavy, wet, thigh-high covering, with drifts over windowsills. The caravan stayed in Rivershead another two days.

    The weather favored Song. Not only did it give her time to rest, it also provided ice to reduce the swelling and pain of her wound. By the morning of their departure, Song’s head felt fine and her cut appeared dry. Becca declared her well enough to travel.

    Finn drove his wagon to the caravan house along frozen streets in the dim light of pre-dawn. Becca sat quietly beside Finn. Dalem squatted in the bed behind them, chatting with Finn and looking out. Three days snowbound clearly left him restless. Song lay on her back in the wagon bed under the cerecloths, wrapped in blankets, a hot water bottle against her chest.

    As they neared the caravan house, Dalem cried out. “Dante!” He scrambled past Finn, jumping to the road. Song heard snow and frozen mud crunch as he landed and ran off.

    “I guess they know one another,” Finn said, sounding amused.

    “Dante settled recently in Crowns Rock in the same neighborhood as Dalem’s parents,” Becca said. “I know all three professionally.”

    Song wondered if by professionally Becca meant chirurgeons or magicians, or some other skill the woman had yet to reveal.

    The wagon halted. Song heard familiar caravan sounds. She closed her eyes tighter, as if blocking out more light would reduce the noise.

    “Thanks for the ride, Finn,” Becca said. “I’ll see you in Tide’s End.”

    “I hope so,” Finn said. “If it warms up today, the road will get muddy, and we won’t get there before nightfall. No telling what’ll happen then.”

    “We’ll just have to deal with it,” Becca said matter-of-factly. She turned toward the wagon bed. “Take it easy back there, dear,” she said.

    “I will,” said Song, keeping her eyes closed.

    The day passed uneventfully. As Finn predicted, the caravan didn’t make Tide’s End by sunset. Abram directed the wagons to circle. Dalem helped Song see to her personal needs, then escorted her to the fire pit where dinner was being prepared.

    As they arrived, a young, clean-shaven man approached them. He possessed a slender build, giving him the illusion of above-average height. His pale complexion and fair, wavy hair contrasted starkly with his black cloak. “So this is the girl who’s keeping you out of the card game tonight,” he said to Dalem.

    Dalem looked flustered, but didn’t miss a beat. “Song, this is my friend Dante. He hired on in Rivershead as a caravan guard. Dante, meet Song.”

    Dante bowed gallantly. “Your reputation precedes you,” he said as he stood. “You fight off men twice your size, murder bandits three times your size, and don’t faint when you’re sutured. But I didn’t know your hair was spun of flame. Dalem’s been keeping things from me.”

    Song smiled at the clever comparison.

    “Let’s get you seated,” Dalem said quickly. “I don’t want you to wear yourself out.” He led Song away from Dante to a log next to the fire pit, helping her down. As he stood, he looked pointedly at Dante.

    Dante smiled, saying, “It was nice meeting you, Song. I hope you’ll forgive me. Some of the guards have been directed to collect green onions for tonight’s dinner.” Bowing again, he took his leave.

    “We’re having barley soup,” said Dalem. “Abram’s providing a few chickens. Would you like a cup of cider while we wait?”

    She nodded. The fire warmed her face and hands, but she felt evening’s cold at her back.

    Dalem returned with two mugs of cider. He sat next to her. “Here you go, m’lady,” he said, handing her a mug. He took a long drink, then held the cup on his lap.

    “You don’t have to stay here with me,” Song said. “I can manage the cider. You should join your friend Dante.”

    Dalem looked surprised. His face went blank for a moment, then he leaned toward her and said, “I’m supposed to keep you safe. The more I know about you, the better I can protect you.” He looked hopeful.

    “Well, if you think so,” she said, not convinced but too weak to argue.

    Dalem looked relieved. In fits and starts, he teased out Song’s life story. With every exchange, she opened up more. He looked sympathetic as she explained how raiders murdered her mother a year after she bore Song, but not before the woman took three of her attackers with her using nothing except the very knife Song now wore. Her father never again brought a woman into their cottage, leaving Song an only child. He flushed with anger at the story of the village crafters giving up on her. He laughed when she told him about how her father took her fishing when she was a child, and she took pity on the carp he caught and let them go. Before she realized how long she’d spoken, someone tapped gently on her shoulder. Song flinched, winced, and turned to see Becca.

    “I’m sorry,” Becca said, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

    “It’s okay,” Song said.

    “It’s time for dinner. You ought to eat.”

    Song looked around. She saw everyone eating but Dalem and herself. She blushed and looked down.

    “I’ll get you a bowl of soup,” Dalem said, quickly rising.

    “How are you feeling?” Becca asked Song.

    “A little tired. I’ve been sitting here since shortly after we stopped. My abdomen isn’t too sore.”

    “Good,” Becca said, taking a spoonful of soup. After swallowing, she said, “I’ll check your bandages tonight after dinner. If there’s no drainage, we can leave them off.”

    Dalem returned with two bowls of soup, each containing a spoon. “Here you go,” he said to Song, handing her a bowl.

    Song took the soup gratefully. She began to eat as Dalem sat down.
    Post edited by Minstrel on
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
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    “Dalem,” said Becca, “It’s going to be cold tonight. I don’t think Song can keep warm by herself. I’d like you to bed with her.”

    Dalem choked on his soup.

    “I’d do it myself,” Becca continued, ignoring the spectacle, “But I’m all skin and bones. I’d probably chill her.”

    Wiping the soup off his beard, Dalem said, “Sure. Fine. That’s a good idea.” His face looked flushed.

    After dinner, Dalem escorted Song out to relieve herself one last time. The cloudless night sky pulled warmth from everything below it. By the time Dalem helped her into the wagon, her cheeks tingled with cold. Becca waited for them with soap, water, a potion flask, and clean bandages. She motioned for Song to lie down, then removed the used bandages. Finding the wound free of discharge, she cleansed it and left it unwrapped. Once Becca left, Dalem eased down beside Song, facing her, and pulled the blankets over them. Turning toward him, Song snuggled up against his chest, sighed, and lay still. His heartbeat sounded fast, strong, and regular.

    “Song?” Dalem asked, his voice echoing in his upper body.


    “Have you ever lain with a man before?”

    “Just my father. I have an uncle, but he stays with his woman and children in his own cottage.”

    “Oh.” He pulled his pelvis back away from her and rearranged the blankets so they fell between the lower halves of their bodies.

    She moved as close to him as she could. His warmth reminded her of when she slept with her father. She always felt safe there. She fell asleep almost immediately.

    In a dream, Song stood outside the caravan circle, looking into the darkness beyond. Suddenly, the night ripped apart. Out of blackness came a stream of awful creatures. They bore down on her, hopping in a manner both comical and terrifying, but she stood her ground. Just before they reached her, her hair turned into blood-red flames, illuminating their terrible faces. The creatures shrieked.

    She woke screaming.

    “What’s wrong?” Dalem asked immediately, sounding fully awake.

    Song buried her head in his chest for a moment, catching her breath and letting the pain in her abdomen subside. He smelled a little like the sandalwood box in which her father kept her late mother’s ring. She found his scent comforting. She looked up at him and said, “I had a dream.”

    “Tell me about it.”

    “There was a tear in the night. Creatures came out of it.”

    “What did they look like?”

    “They were sort of human. But they didn’t have foreheads or noses. They were big; about the size of a large pony. They hopped.”

    “Dear Hoen,” Dalem said with concern. “Do you know what a ghast is? Have you ever seen one before?”

    She shook her head.

    Dalem rose. Above the warm bed, his breathing fogged the air. “You stay right here. I’m going to let Captain Guanbao know.” He opened the wagon latch, jumped down, and trotted away.

    Song pulled the blankets tight around herself. They held luxurious warmth from Dalem’s body. She lay still, listening intently. All seemed peaceful.

    Then she heard a rending sound. It seemed to come from outside the caravan circle directly opposite Finn’s wagon.

    She crawled to the front of the wagon and found Finn sleeping on the seat. “Finn! Get up! Something’s wrong!”

    “Huh?” he said, raising his head.

    Song heard horses begin to move about, nickering.

    “I had a dream. Dalem said I saw ghasts. Something just tore out there.” She pointed into the night.

    Finn sat up suddenly, listening. He reached past Song for his sword and shield. “You stay right here this time,” he said, climbing down.

    The caravan began to awaken. Urgent voices accompanied sounds of weapons being drawn. The horses became more agitated. Song puzzled over her dream. What did her flaming hair mean? She crawled to the wagon’s gate, pushing bags of fragrant hop cones aside, and peered out. The nearest fire pit caught her eye. Two people stoked the fire, which had burned to coals. Dante stood before it. “I need fire!” he called. “All the fire you can make!”

    Song wondered why he needed fire. She realized it would take time to build a strong fire with wood saturated by recent snowmelt.

    She heard the ghasts coming now. Their approach sounded like arrhythmic drumbeats on the front side of a crescendo.

    Someone screamed.

    “More fire!” Dante called again.
  • MinstrelMinstrel Member
    Posts: 402
    Song remembered fires from when she lived with her father. He sometimes encouraged combustion with dry, delicate pine cones, adding twigs and then larger branches until the flame could finally support logs. She once tossed in a hop cone instead of a pine cone. It worked well, but her father explained hop cones cost too much to burn. She thought momentarily about grabbing a bag of hop cones to put in the fire pit, then discarded the idea. It would take time for the cones to dry the wet wood. Judging from Dante’s desperate tone of voice, he had no time to spare.

    She suddenly knew what to do.

    Song climbed carefully down from the wagon, dragging her pack and sword with her. She winced as her feet hit the earth and her abdomen tightened to support her. Pulling her pack and sword to the gate, she let them drop to the ground.

    Guards sped past her to get to the ghasts. She dodged the runners, edging toward the weak fire. As she reached it, she saw Dante holding a small lens. He looked agitated. The people stoking the fire threw limbs onto the sputtering coals haphazardly, as if hoping more wood meant more flame.

    Song reached into the pit and grabbed a burning limb by its cool end.

    Dante apparently noticed her, because he said, “Hey!”

    She paid him no attention. She turned, stepped toward the back of Finn’s wagon, and threw the limb inside. The motion caused her abdominal muscles to tense painfully, but she ignored the discomfort.

    Dropping to hands and knees, she pulled her pack and sword away from Finn’s wagon. As she backed under an adjacent wagon, she heard hop cones begin to pop. Like a sudden downpour, the popping quickly became thunderous. Then, in a roar and a flash of heat, the cerecloth ignited. The wagon and its contents burned hot and high.

    Song saw Dante’s eyes widen. He ran around the fire pit to position himself at the outer side of Finn’s flaming wagon. Holding up the lens and chanting words she didn’t understand, he created a huge magical lens above his head. Tilting the lens in his hand, he swept the blinding beam of firelight across the field, targeting each ghast in turn.

    Song closed her eyes as unearthly screeching rose from the darkness outside the caravan, drowning out Dante’s chant. The chaotic drumbeats of the ghast’s approach stopped, then hastened and retreated. The sickening wails waned. Dante’s chant reemerged from the cacophony. It became possible to distinguish the number of creatures crying: six, five, four. As the frenzied fire began to burn itself out, the final semi-human scream ended at its crescendo. Guards ran back to the caravan, cheering Dante.

    Song heard Dalem calling her name frantically. She raised her face and opened her eyes to see him facing Dante, wild-eyed, clasping Dante’s upper arms. The wizard stood by Finn’s burned wagon, staring into the cold night, breathing heavily, dripping sweat, surrounded by celebration. Ash covered his fingertips. He held no lens. “Where’s Song?” Dalem asked desperately.

    Song tried to speak, but her throat felt dry and tight. She only squeaked. She swallowed hard.

    Dante’s eyes appeared to focus on Dalem’s agitated face. Then they looked about, settling on Song. He pointed toward her.

    Dalem ran to her, squatted, and took her hands in his. “Thank Hoen! Are you okay?” he asked.

    She nodded.

    “What happened to Finn’s wagon?” he asked.
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