A Jaunt in the Barrens, pt.3

From the Barrens, Part 3
Somewhere in the Barrens, Winter Y380

It’s cold, seeping through her clothes and running down her neck into her hair. The world is bobbing along upside down when she opens her eyes, which was such a bad idea that she immediately shut them, then slid back sideways into the blissful blackness she had woke from.

***

When next she climbs back into the grey, rougher hands are passing her along like a commodity, a parcel delivered. Hands touch her face, sliding along her bark, pressing hard against her temple which sharpens the world for a brief, blinding moment.

Brilliant blue eyes flood with relief as they look into hers. She knows that face, knows those feathers on the brow, remembers the taste of the wine they last shared in Holberg. “So…about your cousin.”

“Hansel?”

Then the moment passes, the clarity gone, and she’s struggling against the bonds, against the pain that spikes and stabs through her, and against the hands that are trying to hold her down.

Someone screams, primally, all rage and fury and pain at being captive.

***

When she next woke, her back pressed against stone, and her hands were heavy and cold. Lifting her head slowly, she blinked away the last of the fog that had persisted for who-knew-how-long. She reached up for her head, and started at the heavy iron that shackled her hands together, the long chain bolted securely to the wall. She looked around the bare room, eyes stopping on the League and Dawnish captives, six she could see.

She then noticed the dark eyes that bore into her from across the cell. There, an orc studied her back from where they sat on a table, idle fingers tapping a quick rhythm softly on the wood. Roughly dressed, but they looked strong, armoured.

“You’re all awake. Finally.”

She ignored the gruff voice, looking down at herself. Her fingers were bruised, cut and stiff. She shifted her weight, feeling where her body rebelled and flared with white-hot pain, where her clothes stuck to matted and clotted blood and new-forming bark. She looked over the others, guessing at injuries.

“What are you after?” Her throat scratched, vocals hoarse.

“Me? I’m just here to get to know you all. Who you are. What makes you tick.”

Despite herself, despite the pain in her cheek and the ache for water in her throat, she grinned, bit back a laugh.

We’ll see.’

***

The game was simple. They’d come in twice a day with some supply they needed, and all the prisoners had to do was answer their questions in the way they wanted, to receive them.

Sometimes it was a clean bandage, some herbs to sort out an injury, the bare minimum to keep a wound becoming too septic. Where did you come from. What are the armies doing here. Tell us all you know of the patrol routes, the numbers that have come.

Sometimes it was food, or a pitcher of water, though again, only the bare amount to keep a couple of them on the right side of dehydration. Why have the Dawnish chosen to push again. Tell us what they hope to gain from this ‘Crusade’.

The threat behind their position was explained to them on the third day. We are not the Druj; the deplorable torturers, the poisoners, the corruptors. But we know their methods. And we will use them, if you resist.

***

“Barossa,” the captives would whisper, nudging her to get her attention in the small holding cell, “What do we do?”

They turned to her for guidance, she couldn’t figure out why. Whenever they were uncertain how to act, whether to remain defiant, whether to provide more information when pressed, they’d follow her lead. In the quiet, whispered moments, she had to think quickly, work out what was most needed, like planning out a play. ‘Today, we need water. Resist long as you can, then tell them… Tell them about this.’

There were a few missteps, and they found ways to make one of them pay for lies, when they found a discrepancy between one statement and another prisoner’s, or when the info from the front did not match their accounts. The Dawnish wanted to be defiant, to resist the blood and pain and suffering. Soon it was becoming known that the League prisoners would break easier. And there Vitória was, the one who had seen most of Andrea’s maps, her tally sheets, her reports over dinner and wine. ‘Today, Jacomo needs some vervain. You tell them…..’ And she would come up with another believable lie.

It wasn’t long at all before the questions she was being probed with were starting to turn back at her captors. And sitting as comfortably as she could on cold flagstones, she ‘weakened’, and kept gathering info, and planning, and telling pretty little lies.

***

It was hot, so hot, as she clung to the arm draped around her, and the fox mask in her hands.

Do you know what it will take, to escape from here?” Alesso’s accent was thick through the hot air. 

“I don’t have to explain it to you, of all people.”

“You could stay.”

“We need to escape, and soon.”

“If I stay, I’ll die. I’m dying right now, if this fever doesn’t break.”

“They’re treating you–”

“You won’t be able to hold out for our sakes much longer–”

“Alesso. They’re going to kill me. Should I wait until they decide to do it?”

“They might kill the others.”

“My name isn’t Alesso, Vitória.”

“They are coming with me. I will not leave them behind. I am not that far gone off the path.”

“How far gone are you?”

“Probably far, I’m talking to you, aren’t I? You’re dead.” He smirked down at her, tightened his arm around her shoulder, the shell of a ghost.

“Whose fault is that?”

“Tomorrow, you’re getting the supplies.”

“Not. Mine.”

“Are you so sure?”

Hansel tightened his arm around Vitória’s shoulder, hugging her closer, and listened to the fevered conversation she thought they were having.

***

Arms clamped around her and pinned her shoulders down easily.

“Wait, what are you doing–” her stomach knotted as she turned her head back to see Elaine go ashen and turn away, as Hansel’s face went red with rage.

There was a clang of metal off to one side, and something was pulled from the bowl of the brazier that lit the room. She balked at the glowing red metal that was held towards her, struggled a little harder. “No, wait, don’t do this– I’ll do whatever you need, just name it–”

“Stop. What good is this going to do? She’s done everything you asked of her!” Hansel shouted up, pushing his way forward as far as his chains allowed “Numbers can change, armies can move, that’s not our fault if we’re wrong!”

Vitória struggled harder, unable to pull out of the grip she was in, panic and the racing of her heart louder than the rest of their argument. ‘Not fire, please not fire,’ thoughts screamed as words were passed between the orcs. She couldn’t miss the clench of Hansel’s fists, the twitch in his jaw, nor the red flush of his face as he looked between the old orcs and her, helpless and raging.

“It’s going to be fine, Hansel. Calm down.” Flailing did nothing, unable to even shift the arms that held her, grabbed a handful of her hair, pulled her head back so her cheek was laid flat, as the red blade was brought closer.

Her eyes flicked between Hansel’s eyes, and the glowing metal inches from her cheek, so close she could already feel the heat. ‘Not the cheek, please by the Virtues, not the face.’

“Have courage.” She dared to whisper. His eyes, dark as the ocean, flared stormily as rage filled them, as he struggled and screamed louder.

“Hansel, calm! Look away, it’s all going to be okay.” Hansel’s screams only grew louder.

The metal first touched her skin.

***

She had been burned.

The brand on her skin glowed, or felt as if it did. She couldn’t bear to look down at the charred, russet-red-black skin again, the swelling around the marks that felt like fire had licked —still licked– three lashes across her chest. The agony was distracting, the heat unbearable. No matter how she tried to distract her mind, the pain was always there, always infuriatingly present. ‘They burned me!’

She didn’t even hide in the shadows, walking straight through the ramshackle village. She could hear the screams, the alarms, and the crackle of flame behind her. She could hear one of her allies fighting in the next lane. The cries of orcs attempting to put out the fires added to the chaos, not knowing whether to fight or save their livelihoods. The stolen knife clutched between her bound hands already dripped with blood.

This was an indulgence to rage, to vengeance: this felt sinful, but she wanted the world to burn because she burned. She lashed out at another brazier, sending it skittering into a cart of supplies. A torch in a sconce, she grabbed and tossed through a window. The chaos helped the others escape, diverted attention from the release of the prisoners to the spreading inferno. But for her, beyond the thinly veiled use that her seeds of chaos sowed, this just felt good.

More fighting was approaching, she’d need to move on soon. A woman skittered around a corner, –she looked just like Serena, which didn’t make sense– and cried out her name. One of the guards — “YOU!” Vitória screamed at the hated figure —  tried to rush her from the docks and was swiftly tripped with the swing of the chain hanging from her wrists. It was nothing to drive her knife through his throat.

Her skin burned more furiously, the Mawrig branded there a ceaseless ember that fanned the flames. Fingers searched as deftly as a pickpocket, pulling the key from a thread around the orc’s neck. She stood, fumbled with the odd angle, then laughed at the clink of the lock and the heavy clank of the chains pooling at her feet.

Amidst the crackle of the spreading fires, amidst the chaos of the night, Vitória shut her eyes. The smoke was beginning to sting, she was obviously seeing things. It burned, burned incessantly. Rubbing the raw and burned skin of her wrists, so long shackled, she looked back up. No, she clearly must be seeing things. Serena was running towards her.

***

She stood, apart from the others, shaking, shivering as they hid in a dark copse to ensure they were not followed. Biting her lip did nothing to keep her teeth from chattering, to keep her muscles from seizing up, or hide the pain she was in.

She looked around at the faces of those who had come to help free her, who had come just in time to shepherd her out of the burning town, away from the orcs just before her energy and adrenaline ran out.

‘I freed myself.’ Her mind whispered, holding tight to the fact as she looked over the faces of the five other captives that had made it out, then pushing aside the once face that hadn’t made it out, that she hadn’t saved.

‘But they also came to free me.’  Lupo was there, trying to insist she take his coat to keep warm. But he was her best friend, so utterly devoted. Serena had come, which surprised her, guiltily– because of course family would come, but it was so hard to forget that, once, they hadn’t come for her. Bo was there at Serena’s side, of course he would aid Serena — he sure as hell wasn’t there for Vitória. Hazel, now that was a surprise. She hadn’t known that Hazel was even in the Barrens, and the youthful briar wasn’t exactly combat tested. It took a moment before she could place the last person, she knew she–‘oh, Frederick Novarion. He must have come with Bo. I don’t think he even knows me.’

“Is that everyone, Vitória?” Her name snaps her from her reverie. Her eyes blink as the question is repeated, as eyes turn to her. She’s not ready for their stares.

“Everyone alive.” Their eyes darken, and she looks away, they all know that tone of voice. “We’d best move on.” She shrugs herself out of reach of their hands, pushing aside their attempts to check her for injuries, and gestures them off. “I want to go home.”

 

Heroes

“Barossa.”

“Not yet, gimme time to think.”

***

She didn’t like the term ‘hero’.

She first started hearing it more and more frequently when she first went to Anvil — seemingly everyone was a hero there. ‘The heroes of the Empire’ went to battle. ‘The heroes of the Empire’ did this, or that, or sat on a bench, according to the Pledge. According to people on the roads, in the inns and taverns, a citizen could be a ‘Hero’ if they had ever gone to Anvil, like it conferred some mystical mark, like it made you wiser or more influential. She didn’t like the term being used, at least to her mind, like a catch-all for ‘someone who can tell you just how deep Anvil mud gets.’

To her, a hero was supposed to be a great figure, like in stories and songs. They were Paragons, Exemplars. They were Empresses, Generals, Cardinals, Archmages, Gatekeepers. (Senators… well, jury was still out. There were only a few there that she’d call ‘heroic’. )

There were some notable people who had done great things, things that improved or inspired the Empire. There were the heroes of battles, the ones who charged in (sensibly or otherwise), the heroes who snuck behind enemy lines to rescue the injured, those who pushed beyond fear and went on to do great things for the Empire, those people are heroes.  But that wasn’t everyone, and once upon a time, she had felt like it wasn’t such a bad thing to not be a hero.

So it sat like a pit of ice in her stomach when she started to recognise the look in the other captives’ eyes — the look of soldiers looking for orders from their captain. It wasn’t a discussion, ‘Okay, what do you all think we should do?’

She hadn’t known when, but at some point someone had recognised something — could have been the mask, which some of the Towerjacks would certainly recognise as being like General Gabriel’s mask, so that makes her a Barossa. Could have been… anything. At some point, someone had figured it out, told the others, and then 6 pairs of Imperial eyes had turned to her, asked her ‘What do you think we should do?’

In the back of her mind, she knew they only asked her because they, like everyone else in the Empire, would define her a hero because she knew how deep Anvil mud was.

***

“Barossa…. they’re coming back.”

“Okay. This is what we’re going to do…”

A Jaunt in the Barrens, pt.2

From the Barrens, Part 2
Murderdale, the Barrens, Winter Y380

She skidded to a stop, tucking her body behind a rock face to hide from the incoming barrage of arrows as two whistled past her ear. Listening to the shouts from the line, her hands fished out a bandage to start wrapping around her knuckles where the blood was starting to seep from the grazes there. ‘Cover it for now, clean it later, pray infection doesn’t set in.’

She watched as more of the Towerjacks fell back, slowly giving ground. She trusted that Andrea’s plans would work; she peered round the rock cut to see the fresh line of troops and crossbows ready to cover the retreating soldiers.

Vitória listened briefly, counting the clatter of arrows hitting rocks, took a deep breath, then broke cover to resume the retreat.

***

She set out the bowl of water and tossed the old bandages onto the fire, settling into a curled up ball in the armchair with a pair of tweezers and a square of clean linen.

“How’s your hand?” Lupo carefully set down the large tray of breads, meats and cheeses between them before he shrugged out of his coat and got comfortable in the adjacent chair.

“Stings. But I’m fine.” She slowly began washing her knuckles and cleaning the wound, brows creased. “What about your arm?”

“It is bruised but not cut. Be sore tomorrow, is all I need to worry about.” Lupo stuck his finger through the rent in his coat sleeve, wiggling it through the hole with such a down turned face that Vitória couldn’t keep from giggling.

“A few stitches and it’ll be good as new.”

“We talking about you, or my coat?”

“I don’t…” She fell silent as she bit her lip, focusing, and pulled a shard of flint from where it had impacted between her knuckles with a whimper. She had seen those taken to the surgery tent, the blood soaking the ground; though Beatrix ensured it was well run, she would do anything to avoid that place. “I don’t think it needs stitches…” she dunked her hand into the water, feeling the herbs brewed into it sting sharply, then pressed some gauze to the wound, cleaning away the rest of the dirt.

“Let me be the judge.” Lupo quickly caught her hand and looked at it, feeling around the edges of where the shard had impacted. She bit down a wince, refusing to acknowledge the pain with him so close, but it was an effort to not snatch her hand back, ‘What, Vitórialike an injured fox wanting to run away and lick their wounds?’

“Yeah. A stitch will keep it closed enough and mean better chances of not getting it infected.”

“I don’t want–” Lupo looked up at her, sharply. “I don’t think it needs–” His eyebrow raised in such a good impression of Rodrigo that she swallowed the rest of the sentence with a gulp. “I hate physicks.”

***

“D’you think anyone would notice if a lone little briar was to just… fall … off one of the ramparts? It is such a long, long way down.”

Her footsteps quickened when she felt the first cracks in her composure. There was a particular way of walking she had picked up from the family which was especially effective in this situation, and a quick shift of expression to one of I-will-end-you soon had people near jumping out of the way as she passed through the corridors.

Reaching her quarters, she shut the door with a hurried slam and leaned against it with her shoulder, sliding the lock firmly shut, testing that no one could force it open as her mask broke away from her face. ‘Get a grip, Vitória.’

She leaned her temple to the door, feeling a shiver start down her spine, followed by a second. Palms held the door shut while her mind raced. ‘Don’t panic. Don’t panic.’

It was perfectly rational to feel threatened. And she had had months to learn– both the best and worst practices of– how to compartmentalize and release emotions as best as she could, being a briar.

‘Just breathe, stop panicking.’

She slid down to the floor, curling her trembling arms around her knees, pulling into a ball and counting the thuds in her chest. She had not let them see her afraid, or intimidated; they didn’t deserve to see her shaken by the comment. Pride had kept her afloat. But alone, and afterwards?

She just needed to sit and shake for a little while.

***

“What is he like?” She leaned back from the dinner table, swirling her glass of wine, shifting seamlessly from fellow soldier to professional cicisbeo.

“Oh, um…” Lupo seemed taken aback at the shift in her demeanour, or perhaps it was the question that caught him more by surprise.

“Virtuous, honest, loyal to a fault.” She smiled outwardly, but inside she frowned; anyone could be said to be those things and she’d not know anything more about what made them tick.

“He has a temper on him, but it is reserved purely for the battlefield.” Lupo flicked his ear tip and grinned. “Swear he should have been born with pointy ears.” ‘How did he feel about Briars, then?’

“He has his faults, but who doesn’t. He can be slow to trust but that’s not always a bad thing. He’s vigilant, but then, you already knew that.” Lupo pushed his food about with his fork.

“What can I say? He’s one of my best soldiers, friend and brother; he embodies the spirit of the Tower far better than I do myself.”

She sipped at her wine, the bitter currant notes souring on her tongue. The spirit of the Tower. For a moment, she had forgot that this was to be a political match. She set her glass down.

“Yes, but what does he enjoy, what are his hobbies, what games does he play?” She forced a chuckle. “You could be describing a watchtower, Lupo.”

“He likes to travel?”

“So I’ll never see him.”

“Chess, he used to play often,” Lupo said after a thought.

“I am terrible at chess.”

“He enjoys evenings in taverns, like the rest of us, and singing songs. He can’t sing but doesn’t stop him trying. Kinda like me only when he gets drunk he doesn’t sing in tune.”

“Now, that I can work with.”

***

“There’s no one else?” The Lance-Captain frowned, gripping the hilt of his sword as he protested the assignment.

“No, there isn’t, and I don’t like your tone.” Fiora was a slight woman but damn! The Commander could stare down an ogre.

Vitória leaned against the wall, arms folded across her chest, waiting out this latest insult. It would have been amusing to watch, if she could pretended they were talking about anyone else. But the knowledge that she was the subject still tore at her pride.

“The Lance would prefer a physick who…” Commander Fiora van Holmauer raised an eyebrow, daring the lancer to finish the sentence.

“… Can keep up with us.”

“She can.  Anything else?”

“But she’s a–”

‘Say it. I dare you, say it. Say I’m a Briar. Say it.’

Maybe your glory-addled brain isn’t getting this. She is going with you, because there isn’t another combat-ready physick who is willing to. You seen to be racking up a reputation. And if you are SO willing to lead your troops into danger without a physick to attend to you then I question both your wisdom and your loyalty. And if I hear one more word from your lips that isn’t ‘Yes Commander, certainly, Ser,’ then I will do all in my power to ensure that you are sent back to Dawn with a testimony of just how gloriously you acquitted yourself on this Crusade, as a precursor to an inquisition into your Virtue. And I will get her to lead it.” Fiora pointed to Vitória, who struggled to keep her expression neutral.

The Lancer glared at her, turned his face and quickly retreated, ignoring Vitória completely.  Fiora ran her fingers through her bangs, then set her hands on her hips. “Are you absolutely sure that you still want to go, considering…”

“It’s fine. Some of the Bleeding Hearts are going along, they’ll keep an eye out for me.”

“I’ll have to tell the General about him. Something’s going to come to a head, and soon.”

“Would you really have done all those things?”

“Well, he was pissing me off!” Fiora sighed, shaking her hands out, letting go of the tension in her shoulders. “We’ve had 29 reports of disloyalty, dissention, or unbecoming conduct this season, all from Dawnish pillocks who can’t stand the only help they’re going to get. Maze’s end, does this happen every season? Ungrateful wretches.”

“Damned ungrateful.” Vitória touched her elbow gratefully, then let her get back to her paperwork. “Tell Andrea I’ll be back for dinner tomorrow.”

“Will do.”

***

Her fingers packed the wound with a poultice of marrowort.

“Okay, get up, start running.”

She got up and ran to the next wounded soldier, dragging him backwards while the front line tried to press back against the orcs long enough for their friend to rise. The orders were becoming jumbled, each ear hearing a different command from a different Captain.  Fall back. Push forward. Hold the line. Retreat.

It was easy for her to slip amongst soldiers who were begrudging her presence there, all for a little bark. They might not say her name, they might not look her in the eye or acknowledge her there, but they did still need her. They bled like any other soldier.

“You.” An arm grabbed her leathers as she slipped past, jerking her around, then let go as quick as possible, as if afraid of taint. “There’s two soldiers down around that ridge, get them back on their feet while we distract them from the other side.”

Her eyes scanned from the cold glare of the Lance-Captain to the ridge, surveying it in a moment before she set off, unsure why the hairs on her neck were standing on edge. ‘Just your pride, Vitória. It’s not you. It’s HIM. Smug asshat. Do the job to hand.’  She barely took notice that she was the only one not retreating.

She slipped through the ranks as they retreated and formed up, glad for the rock cover as she made it closer to where the soldiers were down. She ducked around one orc as they charged at a knight, slipping down the hill where the bodies were still on the ground.

She touched the first, shivering at the deep wound left down the Bravo’s neck. She looked the woman over, felt for a pulse she knew was not there. Vitória scrambled across to the second body, knowing the chest was too still, and the blood from the wounds dripped but did not beat with a pulse. ‘Already dead.’

She went to move, but her hand paused, images flashing quickly before her eyes. A bit of cloth used as a makeshift bandage. Used potion bottle.  A smudge of blood like someone cupped a cheek in grief, in goodbye. Nothing of value left behind.‘This doesn’t add up. They were….’

Vitória jumped up and ran back around the ridge edge, looking for the distraction she didn’t think was coming. Something swung down and cracked the back of her skull, the world spun before it faded.

‘Already dead.’

***

A Jaunt in the Barrens, pt.1

From the Barrens
Dawnguard, the Barrens, Winter Y380

Thank you for coming.” Virtue’s eyes were shrouded by the mourning veil, the black silk covering her red-rimmed eyes.

The wagon rocked over the bumpy road, jostling Vitória awake from the light sleep she had managed to get on the journey. The weight of her chain dug into her, pulled her down, and her shoulders rolled back and forth to loosen the knots that threatened to form.

“Of course I would come.” Maric’s voice as she welcomed him into her villa was warm, as was his hand on her cheek as she escorted him into her bedroom.

Only a few more hours and she’d be off the trods, she’d find Andrea and would spend the night in a bed and not in armour. She could hide, take off her mask, lower her hood, and relax in the company of friends– but more important, she’d feel useful, and it had been 6 months since she had truly felt like she was needed somewhere.

“And you’re staying for the season? It’ll be nice to have you at home this winter.” Her mother’s voice, sounding older than she remembered it sounding, so pleased at the visit from an errant daughter.

She pulled out Andrea’s letter and read it again, as the wagon rocked over another bump. Better to be useful than left behind. At least this time, no one could accuse her of running away.

***

Her fingers flicked through all the paperwork taken from home, stashed alongside the documents and judgements she managed to salvage from the rain and mud and storms from the Solstice.

A copy of the Pledge, though at some point she’s lost a page of it, but thankfully not the one she’s mentioned in. That should go in her keepsake box, and a profuse letter of thanks was due to Ozren. Tucked inside — to keep it dry– was the very slightly muddied copy of the Looking Glass that Maric had bought as a present.

Her list of votes and judgements, along with a treatise on Courage that Levitia had recommended. It was followed by a stack of correspondence from her congregation, appointment forms for a new priest, and requests for a new triptych for the chapel. Then, there were those accounts of the first true liao visions. She still felt nervous just having read them.

Of personal correspondences there were few. A thank-you letter from the theatre for organizing the Mask Room. A wonderful drawing from Balthazar that still made her smile. A letter from Sarietti that she really should reply to promptly.

Of course there was her songbook, alongside Felice’s, and twelve more songs to copy into it.

At this rate, she had another eight hours of work to occupy her time. Nowhere near enough to do, but it was better than having the Dawnish stare at her face and mutter barkbleeder under their breath.

***

“How are you finding it here, Vee?”

“No one really wants me here; it’s hard to ignore the glaring whenever I pass. Wine’s good, though,” she shrugged and pulled the poker from the coals, swirling it into a jug of wine to warm it through before she poured two glasses for them both.

“They not treating you well?” Andrea took the warm beverage, a crease forming on her brow.

“Nothing I can’t handle. At least you get more respect, you’re the General.”

“I think there’s much they’ll forgive me for, when they want my army.” Andrea’s face cracked into a silly grin. “Heh. My army.”

“Hasn’t really sunk in yet, has it?”

“Nope.” Andrea reached for her hand and grasped it tightly. “If they keep harassing you, you let me know.”

“I will.” Vitória sipped her wine. She had no intention of doing so.

***

She crossed her arms and leaned back against a tree, maintaining the image of indifference and nonchalance. She was bored, fighting the urge to demonstrate just how angry and annoyed she was at being held back in reserve. She watched as the lance pushed forward, glory barely restrained on their gleeful little faces as they drove into the sides of the orc patrol.

She’d barely call it a skirmish, it was over so quick. “Like Dawnish lovemaking, isn’t it?” A chuckling voice in her ear rang. She rolled her head aside to look up at Lupo hovering over her, leaning one arm against the same tree holding her up.

“So many little knights with something to prove,” She chuckled darkly.

“Come on, Little Fox. They’ve had one glory, soon they’ll be calling for the physicks.”

***

“So will you do it?” She shouted through the door.

“Yes, I already told you.” The voice was exasperated, tired, and she paused a moment, ear pressed to the wood, chewing her lip.

“So when can we start?” She jumped back from the door as it suddenly opened and Lupo’s face glared down at her in irritation.

“Come on, Little Fox, how eager are you to have me kick your ass?”

“Eager. Can we start after lunch?” She smiled like she used to as a child, warm and innocent and eager; she couldn’t tell whether it antagonized the changeling more.

FINE! After lunch. You do realize I’ll soon make you regret asking me, right?”

“Doubtful. Courtyard, after lunch!”

***

Her fingers ran down the pole, tracing the grain along the dark polished wood. Her fingertip reached the cold metal and it’s sharp edge, so broad, different from the needle thin line of her rapier.

Rodrigo hadn’t been in his shop when she had stopped by to borrow it; she couldn’t remember the last time she had successfully found him here. This time, he had been gone for days already, not even Samantha knew where he had disappeared off to. She had done her best to point her in the direction of a suitable length weapon, one that another of his newer apprentices had finished recently as a special interest project.

It would do to learn with. But later on, she would still go back to ‘Drigo and get him to weigh in. He might be willing to make her something special.

She rested the spear by her bed, beside her sword and knife, a contrast in size and purpose. The rapier did nicely for show, an elegant weapon for when she desired elegance.

There were some places where elegance would still get you killed, though.

***

She smiled as Andrea rambled on, enthusiastically emptying her brain as the General went over routes and plans and troop assignments and siege schematics and–

While she rambled, Vitória went over what she wanted to ask her, phrasing each word carefully.

Andrea, I need to ask you something. It’s important, life and death. Andrea, I need you to know something… I need you to do something for me, if…’

Andrea shuffled the papers on the table, looking for the supply tally she had just had to hand. Vitória slid her palm under a sheet and pulled it out for her, passed it with a smile.

There’s evidence that people are being taken away from the settlements here, probably to slavery.’  They were still trying to learn who had taken them, and where. The burned out shells of farms and homes from the Carmine Fields burned her eyes, until she shut them. She stood and moved to put another log on the fire, poking the embers until the smoke provided an excuse for her eyes to be watering.

I’ve not got… Would you…’ Vitória’s fingers twitched around cold metal, and she looked down to see her hand on her knife. She returned to the table, sat down, watching Andrea’s face and the life within it.

Once, she had seen that face pale, colourless, as Druj poison fought to take hold and nearly succeeded. A friendship begun with one dose of herbs, in exchange for a life. This is an equivalent debt. This should not be so hard to voice.

If ever in your power, save me from that fate, even if it sends me to the Labyrinth.’

“More wine, Vee?”

“Oh, yes please.”

***

A Little Training

Co-written with D.


A Little Training
Drycastle, The Barrens, W/S 380

Lupo paced in the training area, his spear resting over his shoulders. “You sure you want me to help you train, Little Fox? I’m not the best of teachers–”

“And I’m a terrible student; we’ll be fine.” Vitoria’s shoulder shrugged lightly as she tossed her cloak aside. She missed the warmth immediately, and paced slightly to keep warm, before she realized she was mimicking Lupo and grinned. “Even if you weren’t one of the best people to learn from–which you are–” She shifted her grip on the unfamiliar weapon. “Everyone else is too busy, or gone missing, or…”

Lupo took his hat off by and laid it on a nearby rock along with his bandana. “Right then. If you’re sure, I think we should begin immediately… you look cold, Little Fox.” He began to spin his spear around in his hands decoratively before letting it rest with the spear tip against the toe of his boot. “First lesson: how to block.” As he finished the sentence he smirked and kicked the tip of his spear hard, making it fly point first towards his opponent, shifting his grip straight away to catch it as it moved. He had to attack first and quickly; he did not want her dwelling on what she didn’t want to say.

“Lupo!” What meant to sound chiding turned into a laugh as she jumped away, trying to bat the spear away — and succeeding enthusiastically, if not exactly gracefully. “Alright, alright — I’m ready.”

His smirk continued as he made repeated probing attacks, each one a little wide or a little high but each with full speed and force. Each time a blow was parried he bounced backwards, making full use of his reach and his opponent’s lack of it.  After a dozen or so probing blows, he put a little space between them. “So tell me, Little Fox… what brought about the new choice in weapon?”

She shrugged, trying to keep her eyes on the tip of his spear, concerned this was a ruse. “Well, no more banner means a free hand, I suppose.” She took in a deep breath, and tried to keep light on her feet. “And I’m tired of not being taken seriously. Vitoria, fall back, Vitoria, go there, Vitoria, don’t be rash — like I’m ever rash on the battlefield, like I don’t know what is at stake.” She exhaled slowly to hide a sigh. “Like I’m not capable of holding my own, like I’ve not had to hold my own before. Sick of it.”

Letting the spear tip trace a figure of eight in front of him, Lupo slowly advanced towards her. “Oh, I am very much sure you can hold your own, Little Fox.” He switched the movement of his spear to a side sweeping motion as he closed the distance to striking range. “And why should you care if others take you seriously? You are the best judge of what you can do.” She made a dismissive face, and he pressed forward. “The wolf does not concern himself with the opinions of sheep and the fox should not concern herself with the opinions of hens.” He gripped his spear tightly, changing his grip to one more akin to a greatsword hold, and swung it in a high overhead blow, hoping to draw her into a block.

She ducked, and prodded her spear at his legs without intent to hit him. “I don’t care!” Her voice sounded petulant. “I’m just sick of being treated with kid gloves. Shielded, protected, ‘you’ve suffered enough so let us handle this’, it’s –” She narrowed her eyes at him, and swung again with more force towards his centre. “I see what you’re doing. I thought we were going to train, not chat like old men around the fire!”

He brought his spear across his body, holding it at both ends to block the blow aimed at his hip. As the shaft made contact with her weapon he turned his body towards her, rolling his body down the length of her spear and launching a hard elbow towards her head as he span.

She squeaked, then cried out as the elbow connected. With a warcry she dropped her spear and grabbed his, tangling legs through his and trying to wrestle and trip him down to the floor. “Taste Briar wrath, you wolfy bastard!” Laughter rang around the courtyard. She had an older brother; she knew how to wrestle longer legs to the ground.

He struggled not to laugh at the comment. Trying to lock his legs, he momentarily maintained his balance as he wrestled the spear with her. Managing to lift her off her feet, the spear up to his shoulders, using his height to his advantage, he suddenly let out a grunt of pain as Vitoria brought her heel down into the side of his kneecap. Finally losing balance, he braced his shoulders for impact as he toppled over, still clutching the spear tight, and now with the Little Fox on top of him.

She tried to stop laughing, before she hopped and rolled away. “You remind me of ‘Drigo.” She snatched up her own spear and again resumed a ready position. “He never has time to spar with me anymore.” A corner of her lips turned into a wry grin. “And he always falls for that trick, too.”

Lupo chuckled to himself as he stumbled to his feet, dusting himself off and resetting his guard with his spear. A wolfish grin returned to his face. “Congratulations are in order, Little Fox … you are the first cicisbeo to successfully ever get me on my back.” Without waiting for a response he took the initiative and resumed his probing attacks, this time the wide and high blows replaced with rapid ones looking for actual gaps.

Really?” Her face lit up as she registered the praise alongside surprise, before she let out a squeak and had to focus again on his attacks and her defence.

***

“So how come you decided to come to the Barrens this season?” She slumped on the ground, leaning against the bench Lupo sat on, and took a long drink of water before passing the cup up to him.

“In honesty … I’m not quite sure. My unit are in Mournwold this season, but I didn’t really feel like following Marcher orders. So I thought I might come and freelance here a little. Besides, a lot of people I care about are fighting out here and it’s not too far from Holberg.” Lupo groaned as he reached down to a nearby satchel and pulled out a bright red apple. Taking a bite, he continued to speak between chews, “Besides, I had to come and support my sister. She’s always been there for me when I’ve needed her.” He took another large bite out of the apple, and offered Vitoria the remaining half.

“It’s nice of you to come support Andrea.” She accepted the apple and nibbled it. “I guess I was just surprised that you wanted to come, with the region cursed and all.”

He chuckled. “This will be the third time I’ve been in a region with this bloody curse. It’s nothing that I cannot endure,” he said with a shrug. “Besides, an extra physick being here could probably help, not to mention I’ve seen the trouble you can get into, Little Fox. I had better stay nearby in case there are any more mineshafts that need exploring.” He let himself smirk again as he reached for a nearby water skin.

“Do you really think I just get into trouble?” Her fingers idly rubbed along the right side of her cheek, shivering uncomfortably as her nail touched the unfamiliar ridges of new bark.

“No, I just think trouble has a knack for finding you.” He took a long drink of water and sighed. “How come, no matter how much you will it, there is never wine in these things? Each scar you bear is a visual reminder of a life lesson learned, Little Fox, and briars display their lessons prouder than the rest of us. It’s nothing to worry about.” A sincere smile replaced the normal smirk on his face.

“It’s starting to eat at me more, I suppose. Not the bark, no use crying over that. Each patch was gained in service to the Empire, I am proud of that.” She shrugged, and stood quickly, moving across the courtyard and searching her pack for another waterskin. She pulled it out and carried it back, tossing it into his lap. “Just, that lingering feeling that people are thinking I’m a liability. I might not be the wisest, but I’m vigilant. They see the action and just assume I’m being reckless, like I’m incapable of… It’s…”  She sat down beside him and leaned back against the wall, no longer a cicisbeo, simply a weary soul. She pointed at the second skin in his lap. “That one’s wine, by the way. Is that what it’s like to be a changeling, too?”

Taking a swig of the wine, he grinned. “I could not possibly describe what it is like to be touched by summer, but my brother Niccolo always called me reckless. I believe he used to think of me as a liability, but that never stopped him trusting me.” She looked up at him for a moment, pensive. “Vitoria, I honestly believe that you are a liability tono one, and were you my sibling I would gladly fight shoulder to shoulder with you. I WILL fight shoulder to shoulder with you. But stop seeking the recognition of others, or caring about how they perceive you: do YOU consider yourself reckless, do YOU think you’re incapable on the field, do YOU consider yourself a liability? If the answer is no to all three, then maze damn what others think.” Taking a further swig of wine he threw the skin into Vitoria’s lap. “Tell me, Little Fox, out of the Barossas in the last battle, who was it who broke ranks, got cut off and defied orders from their General? And out of the Barossas, who was it who went out into the enemy’s lines and recovered aforementioned reckless Barossa?”

“Not narrowing it down enough there, Lupo.” The wine skin thuded hard against her thigh but felt cool against the tender muscle, and she shifted it absently, thinking long and hard, her eyes unfocused. “I think that circumstances have made me what I am; no chance to change me, make me other than what I am.”

Lupo groaned as he stood up. “You are what you make yourself. If you don’t like what it is, then forge yourself anew. All that circumstance has made you is strong, it made you a survivor. It’s down to you to make yourself what you want to.” Stretching his shoulders and neck, he offered a hand towards Vitoria. “Now what do YOU want to be, Little Fox?”

She grinned, tossing the wine aside, and took his hand to stand. “Ripped at every edge but still a masterpiece.”

***

E13 2016 – Prompts

Prompts from E13 Winter Solstice event.


Of Prosperity: The Opera of the Virtuous Beggar

She blinks. When she opens her eyes the stage lies before her, she can hear the rapturous applause from a packed house. She steps onto the stage, not knowing the lines, but it’s okay because she does know them, knows them by heart, the role she’s always dreamed of playing, always told herself, next season, we’ll perform that opera.

She feels a brief moment of ire when she looks at Benedict, being held back and distracted by Anguila. At what point do you call in the militia to report art being murdered? No, Benedict is not right for the role. Now Gabriel would be, would take to it shiningly and together, they could bring down the house, bouncing off each other as only two actors who genuinely had a rapport could when on the stage. Wherever is he? We should discuss…

The others are distracted by Benedict, and Mendicante slips past them all, continuing the play as the audience deserves. She moves to the next scene, slipping behind the set pieces and off stage for a brief pause. Andrea is waiting in the wings, and so is Tess.

Backstage, Vitória breathes, and then speaks. Her voice is pensive, curious, her own– “Help.” — and then is ultimately lost as the opera resumes. The stolen key must be passed on, the audience must know how important it was to the story, how important it is to her! They must be made to be Prosperous!

Now, it is her cue, she’s due back on stage, and they’re holding her back. Why don’t they see? This is the role I’ve wanted, push me forward, let me go!

Gabrielle is here now, watching, directing, the stage manager observing from the wings, disapproving. Voices raise, new stage directions given.

She blinks, struggling to remember the role she was playing — Who am I? Is the play over? Where is Gabriel?– and follows the director’s new commands. The play is changing. Gabrielle has stepped onto the stage now, and Julia grinds her teeth and follows her directions.

Gifts

At her side is a silk beaded pouch, laden with the words she wants to say but cannot. As Vitória’s fingers take one out, she decides whether she is likely to find the recipient in the immediate area, and then replaces it. There are so many, each one a word she cannot find the time to say; each word felt deeply, truly.

She has a long way to go before her gifts reach their recipients. She is tired of ‘cannot’. She will say these words before the end of the night.

Similarities

The words never stop, idea to idea so quickly that for anyone else it might be difficult to follow the trail of erratic thoughts.

I can relate to this, but there’s not a pause in which I can speak of it. And for a change, I don’t need to.

I’ve seen this in clients before, seen when a bishop or merchant comes to me, distraught and vexed by the day, and they simply need to rant or ramble away the day’s events. Like slowly pouring out the contents of a water jug, I encourage her to ramble, until her vessel is lighter for the unburdening. I am merely there to listen, to stroke the skin gently, and ask questions to encourage the mind to continue processing its own problems.

Nora’s hands were cold and her brow creased, when I arrived. When she leaves the tent, she seems warmer and lighter for the talking.

This, I will not charge for. It is nice to provide for another, gratis, what one desperately needs oneself.

Marriage Proposal

Small ticks. Nervousness in stance. Tension in the shoulders and neck. The striving to remain polite and courteous when one has nothing to say, but still the edge of vigilance in all he does. The wariness that does not go, because now there is something unfamiliar between them, and he is still deciding how to react to her.

‘I am an unknown, more now than before. This is a battleground he is not familiar with.’

If she had any more tears tonight, she would weep for it. Instead, she smiles, and tries to laugh as a fellow soldier would, like how it used to be. But still, in the rear of her mind, she feels like an enemy to him, and not a prospective match.

Knife of No Effect

She loves the different reactions everyone seems to have when the knife slips into their hands. The difference it makes, the conversations that happen that otherwise wouldn’t.  

She makes note of those who resist its effects; there’s something she inherently dislikes, distrusts, about those who cannot be direct to her. It at least tells her who to hide herself from.

But the rest? They provide endless entertainment. She’ll be sad when the magic fades– it will mean going back to subterfuge and cunning wordplay and her head and heart simply aren’t in it anymore.

RODRIGO!

The cry is desperate, manic; a voice she’s heard say the name in so many different ways — playful, exasperated, laughingly, solemn– but never with such an edge to it. Vitória’s eyes just manage to see Lupo rushing forward, but the body he drags back, struggling, fighting him off, is not her brother, but his wife. Gabrielle kicks at him, tries to push him away but Lupo’s arms are stronger.

The sight tells her all the information she needs to know about the danger her brother is in, and Vitória is acting before thinking. She is infinitely grateful to Lupo for pulling Gabrielle back from danger, for doing the right thing. It makes it so much easier for her to do the wrong thing.

She tells Gabriel what has happened, passes the banner into Sarietti’s hands, and dashes off to get her brother back.

Pain

She knows they came with five.
She knows that she has to follow Gabriel, because if she doesn’t then how will anyone know where he is–
Only she doesn’t have the banner anymore. So how will they find him?

Her ears ring, and her vision is spinning, and one hand is empty so that means she’s lost the banner.
Gabrielle’s voice is loud, too loud, angry with her. And Sarietti and Cicero’s hands won’t let her go.

They came with five, but four are running off.
They’re leaving her behind because she failed.
She can taste blood in her mouth.
She knows how fast a fox runs, but with hands holding her back how will she ever catch up to them?

Cicero looks at her with pitying eyes.
Sarietti tells her they will return–
She remembers a time when she believed the same.
Her mind can’t handle being left behind. They might never come back to look for her.
Something snaps.

The marrowort is making her confused, and she adds a dose of Liao to fight the fear that she will never see them again.

She knows they came with five.
They must leave with five.

If she can catch up to them.

Beloved Mountebank

She knows the moment they emerge from the hospital, and her heart skips a beat.

She just knows.

Her feet bring her to Felix’s Watch, where she sees she’s too late, where no words can offer comfort to those surrounding Faustino. Her feet step forward.

Her voice is more hesitant than she wants it to sound, when she offers words of comfort for his soul to take with him; she wants to do this for him, she’s afraid of being turned down. But her voice speaks nonetheless.

Her words explain how it is done, as she tries to comfort Virtue. It is not like trying to comfort Serena, and feeling like she’s not wanted there. Virtue lets her in, they choose the words together.

Her hand brings Virtue close, and Virtue’s hand is warm. She says the words without thought, with no memory, just straight from soul to soul. Faustino’s cheek is growing cold.

She smiles, remembers the card tricks he was showing a Highborn child, just outside this tent, how the cards danced in the air, and the child laughed. “He’s very good,” Gideon had said. She had agreed. His smile was the brightest thing she knew.

They take him away, and she is left alone. She runs.

Blood

Her thoughts drip slowly like blood from a wound. Words die in her throat because her broken jaw is too sore to move. What words she can scrape out serve only to briefly reassure those who bug her, perfunctory speech and platitudes, hiding the true thoughts she can’t express.

It is easier to hide from people; she doesn’t have any more energy to waste on them. It is too painful to think beyond ‘Sit. Stand. Smile. Nod.’ All she wants to do is hide in the Fox tent, and scream, but she did enough screaming at the hospital. It would probably upset Serena — Serena, who sits across from her, and is silent and still.

‘Serena doesn’t want your comfort.’ Her head shouts at her, because the Jotun have cracked it so thoroughly that her thoughts can only scream, running thickly like blood from a wound. ‘She has others for that.’ But her cousin’s stillness is just so– so still, so opposite from Vitória’s constant movement. It’s nothing, and something, and it’s wrong.

Vitória stands, towel in her hand, knowing she has to do something– so she wets it to wipe the blood from Serena’s cheek, her neck, her nose. She’s not got words, because she’s given up on them. Knows how futile they are, has lost faith with trying because to be rejected again would be more than she could bear. She doesn’t want to talk. Blood still drips.

Gently she wipes the blood away, trying to restore something that is lost. Words would bounce off Serena’s walls. Blood lasts longer than words.

She wets the towel again and continues, and she’s not sure exactly why. Soon there’s hardly any blood left, but even a Physick can’t tell if this wound will heal. But she did something about the blood in the wound.

A Banner Lost

“It’s just a banner, we can always get another.” The words are quick to try and console but she can’t shake the sensation that those that are trying to comfort her just don’t understand what it means to her, that it was now gone.

The ring on her finger seems duller now. It used to shine with the colours of Catia’s woven silks. But the flashes of orange and green are not the same now. She can’t tell whether it’s psychosomatic or not, but her finger feels cold, naked, like she cannot tell whether the ring is there or not. A flick of her wrist and the ring could fall away from her. That’s what the Jotun will do, isn’t it? Send curses through the banner to strike everyone sworn to it. Is she truly worthy to wear a ring to the banner, knowing how she’s failed everyone who had ever recited the words, Steel and Virtue?

She can’t help but feel judged for her failure, like eyes which were once warm and friendly are colder, unwelcoming, unfriendly. ‘It’s just an item,’ she repeats like a mantra, but cannot help but feel that once an item becomes a symbol, an idea made manifest with magic and oaths and blood, it can’t ever go back to just being ‘a stick with a flag’.

Inside the Storm

“I dreamt I was sailing on a ship all the night.”

“Oh, did you?” Vitoria’s hands become sweaty, so she pulls the bedding closer around her body. “Must have been the sound of the canvas in the wind.”

“It does sound like sails, doesn’t it?” Yes, it does. There’s nothing else she could try and equate the sound to, to trick or distract her mind from the sound the wind still makes as it batters against the canvas.

“You were not storm tossed in your dream?” Vitoria is glad that she’s hidden from sight, still aching from curling too tightly into a ball to hide from the choppy seas and the gales of her nightmares.

“No, not at all, it was a pleasant voyage and the sun was shining.”

“How wonderful for you.” Her hand fishes under the pillow for a mirror, but even her eyes aren’t ready for the mess that remains of the right side of her face. She gingerly prods the new bark and angry veins, the black eye and the deep purples, blues and reds that snake down her jawline, still puffy and swollen. Nobody needs to see this.

“Are you coming to breakfast?” Adelina asks.

“No, I think I’ll try and sleep some more.”