A Favour Given

I’m leaning on Serena heavily, my knees are fiery fury at my having walked too much, but I’m eager to pass the present into your hands. Serena had mentioned it was your birthday; in truth you’d have been given the gift regardless, it’s just a nice cover.

“It’s for when you need a bit of Courage.”

The minute the gift box is out of my hands I am afraid; it catches me off balance, as I gracefully slide (though fall is more correct) into the seat offered. I laugh, turn to make a joke to Serena with the expected easygoing smile, for it covers how exposed, how vulnerable I suddenly feel. What is wrong with me?

I don’t understand where this comes from. The design and colours were correct– I had verified the heraldry with the Civil Service personally. Gold snake, on green and white. I’m not exactly a master weaver such as the Dawnish are famed for– but the needlework was some of my best, I had worked for days on it. I don’t think this is nerves about the gift being subpar…

And I had studied so hard! Every book I could find on hearth magic, on the Dawnish and their favours, on symbolism and girding with them, and what they mean– this is, I suppose, my interpretation of your hearth magic, though in some ways (and in one particular way) it is my hearth magic, too, woven and embroidered into a favour. I can’t stop the tension building.

Why am I afraid?

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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.”

 

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.”