Possession

King’s Stoke, Autumn Wassail 380YE, Saturday.

***

It is becoming progressively harder to separate out what is what.

It begins in the morning, at the first sight of the Jotun in King’s Stoke, when her one hand reaches for her knife, and the other draws Lupo’s sword from his side in a swift moment. But the grip is not hers — and she’s never fought with two weapons before. If only she could get them out of the village, away from the others! It’d be easy to cut them down like the harvest. Vitória asks why the orc is looking at her, staring– Frederick says a name, corrects her that that is not a Jotun Orc, but an Imperial Orc, a citizen, that she was with them in Kalino at the wedding. There’s a moment of disconnection — because she knows there were no Jotun were at the wedding, and Frederick would not lie to her. So what is true? That the orc staring at her is a Jotun infiltrator, come to threaten Stoke and her family, or that the man she loved would lie to her? The discord does not sit well, like missing a step on a staircase; it’s easier to ignore what does not fit the narrative.

When she finally gets her weapons practice, when Lupo finally obliges her, everything about it feels wrong. Her hands feel clunky, untrained, her footing unsure. She was never the best soldier or bravo in the world, but she’s not so… untrained as this. Youthful, unskilled like hands playing with father’s swords when he’s not looking. Everything about the weapon is wrong, everything about her stance is not right. And then there’s the push back, the surge of emotions and all of her fear is channelled to hatred, and this is no longer practice… the only moment the anger subsists is when Vitória’s blood is gushing out from just across her ribs, and Lupo is trying to staunch the wound with pressure. This is too similar to… something dark, unremembered. She’s unsure; her mind recoils in horror and it’s better to not think on it.

There is another bout of disconnect, after Beatrix has reset her nose forcibly, and she’s shaking and on edge and trying to be grateful for the help while simultaneously wanting to push Beatrix off the bed into a pile of mud when the same Jotun Orc who was staring earlier enters their borrowed house, is looking for Victoria Barossa, and thankfully everyone surrounding her is now as on edge as Vitória has felt all morning. The Orc has a message to pass on, urging her to not fight–too young, too inexperienced, and it’s all too easy to rebel against that wish. Gabriel is the one to step forward, run interference and draw the attention as if she wasn’t in the hut, and amidst the blood trickling down her throat and out her nose, she’s momentarily confused as to who is family and who isn’t. She could slip between Beatrix and Gabriel, she could be on the intruder in a moment’s notice — but Frederick, beside her, has his hand across her knife in her lap, his palm caressing the edge; one move and she’ll hurt him, and she can’t bear the thought, no matter the danger and fear pressing down on her.

It keeps happening, more swiftly, easily: Vitória passes Gabriel with a smile and a wave, while promising Grandpa Gregory that she’ll be back with her armour and weapons. She rows with her father– who’s also the Orc? This is the source of the discord– who’s still pleading with her to listen to him, to her brothers. And she understands, she does: of course it’s wrong to let a child go off to war, but she can’t make them see that there’s no use running from the incoming Jotun, that she’ll follow Grandpa Gregory anywhere and that she wants to fight, that she’ll never become a sla– at the word, the thought, she feels a powerful connection instead of dissonance, two souls working to the same purpose– never be a slave to anyone. Isn’t it better to die fighting, than submit and have no Virtue? Benedict is still rambling about his pigs, and Rachel–Bo?–no, Rachel is adamant that they would all survive if they joined the Jotun.

And finally, finally, the monk James gets back to her and confirms that yes, she is being possessed. It’s all Vitória needs in order to relax, and let it happen, just like in Ennerlund. Now she understands, she knows what to do.

***

“Tori?” Gabriel calls out to her as she passes, and she turns, smiles at him. “It IS Vitória?”

“Of course it is, Gabriel.” What an odd thing to question.

“Felicity? Felicity!” Vitória turns to the call, shouts back that she’s on her way.

“Don’t worry, Gabriel,” she tries to reassure him. “This isn’t my first possession.”

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.”

 

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.”

***

Interludes from the Great Pits, pt.2

From the Great Pits, Part 2
Ennerlund, Holberg, Y379

“Form up and forward! Watch your footing.”

Vitória crossed her arms where she stood, straight backed, watching the way Lupo commanded his Wolves. There was safety behind the shields and arms before her, staring thoughtfully at his back while his unit pressed forward, where the tunnels opened into a wide mine shaft.

Pressed between Rodric and Vladimyr, two Vigilance priests from the Tower, she let them think they protected her, flanking each side where she stood part-hidden in the shadows. The wooden struts creaked underneath the troops feet as they made their way down and around the scaffold supports, the darkness below stretching, the scouts pressing forward into the black.

“5 Crowns says the struts are partially sawn through from underneath.”

“What?” The Captain turned, thought a moment, and whistled sharply, his men further down the circular walkway stopping.

“Sawn through the wood underneath. We saw it in the number 2 shaft last week. Wait until you get enough men on it and it might collapse.”

“Taking everyone with it.” Lupo swore colourfully as he ran his hand through his hair. “HALT! New plan. Rodric, grab the ropes. Lucille, you and…” He cast his eyes around. When they fell on Vitória he grinned. “So, Vitória, about that bet, who better to check than a light little Fox like yourself?”

Her jaw dropped, and she struggled to keep her chin up bravely as he approached, unravelling a coil of rope. “Shi–“

***

Increasingly, it was Ozren who was pulling her from the depths of the mines, insisting that she return to the surface, get a proper meal, and a proper rest. The first time, he had damn near dragged her into the light, and she had been dazzled and blinded by the sun for hours. He had promised, upon seeing the tear streaks down her dirty face, that thereafter he’d only do it in the evenings, but he wouldn’t relent from making sure she was taking care of herself.

She was glad for it, though. When the sun would set and they’d sit around a fire, and talk about such a myriad of tales and stories and topics, it helped to be among strangers whom weren’t judging her, or comparing the person she once had been to the person she was now. Whomever that was, when the mask finally came off her arm, and she could let the mask on her face slip a little more. Inside the mine, it was all business, and there was comfort in it. Outside, with nothing to focus on… it was nice to have a friend.

The stories Ozren told were wonderful, disarming, and more than once she’d wake up after a short doze and find out that she’d missed the end of the tale. He’d smile, and promise to repeat it another evening, and why didn’t she get some more rest? But despite his efforts, she’d never sleep more than a half hour; it wasn’t the same as feeling safe amongst family.

***

“We’ve had two near misses in this tunnel alone,” the foreman sighed as another shift rotated on. Vitória pressed against the rock face to let the exhausted miners pass by. “I don’t think we’ll be able to continue safely in this direction until we get some fresh heavies in to sweep the passages for traps.”

“That probably won’t be for another week,” the briar sighed, counting on her fingers, “Maybe two. Marius’ troop are finding it slow going in the Northern passages, and Lupo’s wolves have been redeployed to Reikos so we’re–“

“Struggling.” The foreman sighed, rubbed her palms into her eyes and sagged against the wall. Vitória remained silent.

***

The removal of remains was never a job she was asked to do, and she was grateful for the small relief of not having to take the bodies topside. It wasn’t out of disgust, or an unwillingness to get her hands dirty; she genuinely didn’t know what to do with a corpse, which amused some of the physicks in charge of establishing sanitation in the mines. “Leave it to us, we know what to do.”

She could patch up a living body, set bones, ease pain, and in a pinch she could perform surgery, if there was absolutely no one better suited available. She knew what herbs could be distilled to combat an illness, and her suturing was neat and tailored to leave no scars. But her education was half-learned, out of necessity rather than enjoyment of the subject, and there were glaring holes in her knowledge that made her feel useless in the task of what to do when faced with a long-dead, nameless corpse. It wasn’t exactly in the remit of a cicisbeo.

Hers was a job of comforting the living, assisting the passing of souls to the Labyrinth, and performing funereal rites– and even then, she only really had family experience to go on. Her mind skipped over the most recent funeral –had it really only been 39 days? The wound was still too fresh and yet she knew, to the day— and went back years and years to her grandmother’s funeral. When there had been a cremation and rings and masks, half her ashes scattered to the Vassa, half kept with the family. She had been quite young, but it was the first time she had been allowed to Mestra, officially, since this was a Family Outing to celebrate Grandmama and everyone went, no excuses. It was the first time she had been shown how her family mourns, with laughter and fistfights and tears all mingled together until one couldn’t tell what the emotion you felt was underneath your mask.

She continued to watch over her miners, those on this side that she could protect and comfort. She would offer a prayer over the corpses, when carried past on a stretcher or when she had to pick her way through the bodies. And she tried to ignore the glaring boundary line between life and death that her skills did not cross, where she was of no use and helpless.

***

“Do you want to talk about it?”

She paused in counting the stockpiles of liao, her fingers counting each small dose in twos and threes.  

“About the levels? Well, we’ve made a dent in them, that’s to be sure, but at this rate we should be–“

“No, not the liao.”

She inhaled, held the breath, and released it slowly, struggling to keep a mask on. She turned, her eyes looking into Ozren’s face where he crouched down beside her. In the dim light of the lanterns about them, his eyes were probing, and she looked away despite herself.

“I don’t know what you–“

“Yes. You DO.” His hand reached out to pull her fingers away from the Liao chest, before she could start counting again. “You know, there are enough priests here that we could check–

“No.” She pulled her hand away. “Don’t waste liao when we have need of it for more important things.” The vehemence in her voice surprised him, surprised her too were she to admit to it. She forced a smile, and pushed the tally sheet back into his hands. “Niccolo would have a fit to waste the liao. We shall either find out when it matters, or in Anvil. The Synod will have to be informed by then, anyways.”

“Are you afraid of what might be seen?”

“If I didn’t know you, Ozren, one might think you were challenging my Courage.” A quirk of a smile crossed her face as she tried to pass it off as nothing, but there was a tremble in her voice that spoke of how close her mask was to slipping off.

“Vitória, are you afraid–“

“WOULDN’T YOU BE?” For the first time since, her hands trembled, her eyes blazed with emotion, and she let the Spring energy run unchecked. “Wouldn’t you be afraid if all you were Proud of, was suddenly…” She choked at the thought, unable to speak.

“Yes. Yes, I probably would.” The passion dissolved away, leaving her suddenly exhausted, and she slumped. Only barely registered the hand on her shoulder. “Doesn’t mean anything has to change if you don’t want it to. Doesn’t make you any less Virtuous.”

“Hand on heart? I don’t believe you.”

***