Dawn struck the city of Manus, illuminating the tops of the buildings first and working its way down the Walled City. It took a while for the sun to reach the center, the secret center of the city where they gathered. And that was fitting; even light could not so easily find Manus’ heart.
And those that walked in the keep, one of the most secure places in the world, did not begrudge the lack of sunlight. They had artificial light of magic and fire; if they longed for the sun, the security of this place, this city, was a welcome trade.
For their city was Manus. It was no Salazsar with its simpering impractical architecture, or even Pallass’ unoriginal, boxed design. Oteslia? Waiting to be burned. Fissival? Weakest of the Walled Cities—practically a miracle it hadn’t been destroyed yet, hah! Zeres?
Zeres was pretty good. But the minds who’d designed Manus had been determined to build a city that would never fall. And, to be fair to them, it hadn’t, which was considerable in itself because Manus, perhaps as a product of destiny or bad luck (to their enemies), was based right on the border zone next to the five Hives and land claimed by the Antinium during the First Antinium War.
For proof of that, you had only to look to Manus as a city and compare its design to that of the other cities. Not even Manus’ design—a many-sided star that allowed its walls to overlap and hit any threat—but the way the wall had been built unlike every Walled City still standing.
The wall itself was slanted a few degrees outwards, so the tops of the wall put the bottom into shadow. And due to this unique miracle of engineering, it meant that anyone trying to slap a ladder against Manus’ outermost walls would have it fall on their heads by force of gravity alone.
And if they decided to hunker under the battlements, or try some other method of climbing up, the machicolations, the meurtrière—or as they were colloquially known, ‘murder holes’—built into the wall would allow the defenders to mercilessly assail those below with boiling oil, spell, arrow, or just a few rocks dropped from a height.
This overhang was a feature seldom seen in most architectures, let alone on this scale. It required exceptional engineering knowledge to pull off, or even describe. Overhang, machicolations, taluses, and so on—it was a language the defenders of Manus had inscribed into their lexicons. How else could you even describe a city like this?
Beyond the first wall was a glacis, and a secondary, inner wall on top of the incline, ready to fire upon the helpless invaders who had finally taken the outer wall, only to find that they were now exposed and facing a second wave of defenses from a situation deliberately designed to place them at the most disadvantageous position possible.
The outer wall protected the first, lowest layer of the city which could and would be sacrificed in time of attack. It was filled with buildings of course, mostly residential; the valuable architecture and goods lay past the second wall, in the heart of the city. Should the enemy somehow take that wall, they would still not seize Manus as easily as Pallass, with its open floors. An army might have a home ground advantage, but they would be demoralized fighting with an opponent that had summited the one major defense of the city. Manus’ soldiers on the other hand would simply retreat to another level of fortifications; that of the inner city itself.
Slanted walkways, choke points, portcullises, plazas which allowed those seeking the inner city to trickle in reinforcements slowly while the defenders had three or even four ways to quickly block an army’s advance—the city was a fantastically fun place to be if you were a child or tourist, with its crazed architecture and unique landscape. Was it fun to live in? Well, Manus’ residents certainly numbered as many as any of the other Walled Cities. And the soldiers didn’t seem to mind it much either.
So, then. By ground Manus was unassailable. By air, almost likewise. The architecture had been made by Drakes keenly aware of the nature of three-dimensional combat. So Manus incorporated towers, narrow passages that would stymie a flyer, sacrificial heights that could be evacuated. In case of aerial spells. Or Dragon’s fire. Archers could pepper an enemy in a game of cat-and-mouse, giving fliers little opportunity to maneuver.
But again, this was all architecture. What did Manus have besides extreme paranoia? The answer was its academy. The officer’s academy of Manus was to Izril—perhaps much of the world—what Wistram was to [Mages]. The sprawling complex in the inner city boasted a curriculum and facilities even the Titan would admit was impressive.
And if Manus didn’t have a [Strategist] who was Niers’ exact equal, you could argue their school turned out far more graduates and leaders than Niers’ smaller, private academy. Drakes from every city and Gnolls too came to Manus to learn the art of war. That was what Manus had to offer.
The largest army. The training schools that produced legends like General Sserys or Dalthson Forwing. The bastion of Drake might against the numberless Antinium. Manus did not export any one good in numbers. What it exported was sheer military might. This was the City of War.
It was also fairly poor, as Walled Cities went. Second-poorest, only defeated by Oteslia, in fact. A military juggernaut Manus might be, but the money that went to fuel its military industries and import fine Pallassian steel, Oteslian foods, and the best magics from Fissival along with the quality of Drake and Gnoll recruits it so desired meant that it was weak to economic pressure or sanctions.
Yes, Manus had stockpiles of preserved food that could last it for potential decades in siege, but those were rations. It could and did experience food shortages or a lack of goods which the other Walled Cities often did not. For who wanted to take their goods so close to the Antinium Hives? What could Manus really sell that, say, Zeres or Salazsar could not? Thus, Manus often found itself weaker in areas that did not involve swords.
Still, Manus was only a punching bag in diplomacy, until the Walled City went to war. Then its coffers flowed with the spoils its soldiers looted. So other cities treaded carefully around Manus. It was needed.
Manus was a gateway of sorts. A bastion that held the land of Drakes and Gnolls from the Antinium. While it stood, the Antinium could never march forwards without exposing their backs. And the Walled City could be surrounded, but never taken. Not by the Ants. They had broken themselves twice on Manus’ walls without ever managing to take the city for themselves.
That alone had given Manus more value in the last few decades. A renewed importance beyond acting as a war leader in repelling foreign armies from Izril’s shores. It made Manus’ defenses all the more important to maintain. When the Third Antinium War occurred, it would be Manus that stood on the front lines again and dared the Grand Queen’s armies to assail them.
Anyways, that was Manus. The people were still people, and the [Soldiers] weren’t always at war. And in the center of the inner city, the keep, the heart of Manus was guarded at all hours. Walking down these halls now came the rulers and protectors of the city. There were many of them, but a select few, eight in number today, had been called to a council. They walked down, into the most secure spot in the keep. Eight came, but the war rooms in the keep could have held dozens of their number. Hundreds in one.
Manus had Lords and Ladies of the Wall. But, unlike other Walled Cities like Salazsar, whose venerated ranks of aristocracy grew fewer with each century, or Pallass, whose nobility were almost unknown in the face of the democracy, Manus’ Lords and Ladies of the Wall added to their ranks with each decade. They did not trust in heritage alone for worth. So Manus’ own added to their number, choosing the most valorous, highest-level, and sound of judgment when they appeared and elevated them to their peerage.
Those were the Lords and Ladies of the Wall who came to answer the call now. They were [Generals] and [Captains], [Commanders] and [Strategists]. And they acted in conclave, under the lead of their ruler. Manus was an elective monarchy, and their leader ruled for two years with each election unto perpetuity if they did their jobs well. That meant that with a host of poor leadership, Manus’ champion would be replaced often, but with a wise one, they could reign for decades unchallenged.
This was the room they stopped in. An angular table—a decagon—allowed for ten seats around the cold table, cut from one block of black marble. It was, of course, magical. As the eight called to the room took their seats or greeted each other, the table flickered to life. It was a magical map, and it depicted Izril in miniature.
The geography of the table was perfect, or it had been when the table was made, some two thousand years ago. Some parts of the geography had been corrected to match the present terrain, but clumsily. The [Mage] who had created the map table first had been an artist; those who had endeavored to alter it in centuries past had not had the same level of skill.
Still, it would do. And as the eight waited, the person who had called them here walked from her own tunnel down into the room. Her tread was heavy. Her wings folded. But her gaze was no less determined. Just more tired. She entered the room and those seated stood at once and bowed to her. The Drake returned their bows with a short nod. She did not speak as she went to one of the chairs—they were all the same—and seated herself. But there could be no question. With perhaps one exception, she was above everyone else in the room.
She had ruled Manus for fourteen years. And she wore the trappings of her station, even in this secure room. A set of armor any Named Adventurer would envy. A helmet crafted to fit the Drake skull, the cold-blue metal emitting vapor even in the cool room. Armor made of wide, shimmering scales of every color, which flashed as they caught the light. Dragonscales.
On her clawed feet were boots whose soles never touched the ground, made of a leather from a hide no one could name. And lastly she carried a glaive, the air around it crackling with an unspent thunder of electricity at her side. Manus’ people knew it as the Fang of Manus, but those who were privileged to wield it as a symbol of authority knew it by its old name. The first name, given to it when Manus was still new.
It was said that it could damage Manus’ walls. All these things she carried, and they were heavy. The Drake set her glaive against the table and the eyes of the eight went to it for a moment. But they had seen it and her armor a hundred thousand times, so they made no comment and focused on her instead. The Drake had blue scales, as blue and pale as the open sky, mixed with white, and, a rarity, yellow. Three patterns gave her scales a quality as exotic as any Lizardperson’s, although that was an unspeakable insult to her and thus, the city.
Because she was Dragonspeaker of Manus. And beneath her armor of state, her clothing was black. The six Drakes and two Gnolls who filed into the room dared not speak at first, as Dragonspeaker Luciva Skybreath settled herself in her seat. She looked around heavily, meeting each eye. Then she began without preamble.
“We are here to discuss the Siege of Liscor. The battle that followed at the Bloodfields. And the ambitions of Tyrion Veltras. We have held our conclave en masse with all our peers. Let us talk frankly now. Your thoughts?”
The Lords and three Ladies of the Wall exchanged swift glances. Not of nerves; just waiting to see who had the most pressing opinion. That came from a Gnoll with half of his face damaged, his nose and cheek and jaw along his left side all scar tissue. He enunciated carefully, and his eyes were sharp despite the damage to the rest of his face.
“If I may, Dragonspeaker. We came close to disaster at Liscor. Pallass’ Assembly was slow to act and their idiocy could have cost us our gateway to the north. We have been complacent; that much has been discussed. In the coming days and weeks we shall question how and why Pallass was so lax, and, indeed, the circumstances under which the Humans obtained so many trebuchets. It bodes ill. But this has been discussed. I say we have averted disaster, though by no action by any Walled City but luck and Liscor’s own defenses. As for the battle at the Bloodfields, we were dealt a loss. But it was a small battle—”
He broke off, grimacing. His eyes flicked to Luciva’s and away. The table held its collective breath. Not a minute into the conversation and it had already been brought up, tactlessly. The Gnoll Wall Lord spoke in a pained voice.
“I beg your apologies, Dragonspeaker. I misspoke.”
Luciva went still for a moment. But then she shook her head quietly.
“No. I agree with your assessment, Wall Lord Makhir. It was a small battle. Larger than the ones we have fought in recent years, but small considering the scope of the wars we have traditionally had with the Humans. In centuries past, in the battles that first formed the Blood Fields, our armies held humanity off by the barest of margins, and the dead lay in such profusion…it was a small battle. If one that I consider beyond all acceptable cost.”
A small exhalation came from all those present. The Gnoll, Makhir, bowed his head.
“I agree. And yet, the remark was insensitive.”
“I take no offense, Makhir. No one here is to blame.”
He nodded and fell silent. Luciva looked about, meeting every eye. And no one made comment. They did not need to. It hung in the air unspoken.
The history books as they were being written would record Tyrion Veltras’ battle at the Bloodfields after being unable to take Liscor as an act of spite—or perhaps calculated gains. The Humans in the North did take the lead in the battle, but the losses were hardly substantial on either side in the grand scheme of things. But it had cost Dragonspeaker Luciva everything. The reinforcements from Manus had taken part in the battle. And that had resulted in…
Her daughter’s death. Luciva closed her eyes. Just for a moment. And she breathed out slowly. Heavily. In the dark room, illuminated mainly by the magic table’s glow, the Wall Lords and Ladies could see bright flashes from the small opening in Luciva’s mouth as she sighed. And they smelled something acrid.
Oxidization in the air, much like the sparks that the Fang of Manus sometimes gave off. It was one of the reasons why the inner war room was bare of carpets and why all of the other guests, save the youngest, touched the ground or the wall before touching anything metallic. Especially the Gnolls; you could get a damn good shock and scorch marks in fur were hard to get rid of. On Luciva’s back her furled wings stirred, but that was the only nod to her emotions she let slip.
Wings and breath. That marked her as Oldblood, but more than that—True Oldblood, the rarest of all those who bore their ancestor’s heritage. Manus was famous for that, too. The old bloodlines ran strong in the city, and the people respected that as much as military genius.
And speaking of old blood…another Drake leaned forwards, filling the silence Makhir’s comments had caused. Her scales were teal, but that was such a poor word to describe the color. The scales shone and flowed, more like water than solids. And her wings, the yellow spines along her neck, all were sculpted. If Luciva was a shining example of the full extent of her heritage, this young Drake was the radiant sun itself. She was beautiful. And when she spoke, it was crisply, loudly, without a hint of awkwardness.
“A small battle. We lost tens of thousands of Drakes in total. So did the Humans. A small army’s worth, [Hunt Commander] Makhir, Dragonspeaker. It may be few in comparison to the population of Drakes as a species, but it is still a blow. One we must reply to. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Let’s not waste time.”
The others nodded soberly. The fact that this Drake looked younger than any other Drake by at least a decade was unremarked upon. She was meant to be here. The next to speak was a Drake who had brought his spear to the table.
“Is this a prelude to war? Tyrion Veltras was halted from besieging the city, I remind you all, not only by luck, but by his peers. Magnolia Reinhart was instrumental to that. She threatened her own people to avert the battle.”
“Does that speak to her practicality, sense of honor, or simply a Reinhart scheme though, Spearmaster Lulv?”
The sole female Gnoll leaned in, her paws gripping the table. Her blonde fur was rising due to the static charge as she sat next to Luciva. Lulv frowned.
“I am uncertain. But I think her actions have attracted her the goodwill of some of our peers. My informants—I submitted a report you may have all read—tell me a Courier bore a message straight from Oteslia’s city to her mansion.”
Another Drake Wall Lady shook her head.
“I saw the same report. Whomever is making an overture to her is not being subtle. Need we be concerned?”
“Not yet, I think. The north is in more turmoil. They’ve started a political war amongst themselves. I have no doubt it will develop further as the nobles return to their estates. If this is Magnolia Reinhart’s scheme to take advantage of this in a way that harms us, it is hard to see. Whether it benefits her in the north though…”
Luciva raised her claw to prevent someone else replying. All eyes fastened on her again. The Dragonspeaker nodded.
“So. Back to my question. Is this a prelude to war?”
“Perhaps not against all the north. But Tyrion Veltras has made his position clear.”
Wall Lord Makhir growled and the others nodded. So did Luciva.
“As have many peers of the north. Let us say Lady Magnolia Reinhart is averse to war. She and her faction do not represent the north. And it is humanity, once again, which has launched an assault that was unprovoked. Do we agree on this as well?”
“Hm. I do.”
“Barring the usual tensions? I do.”
“Sunken ship. Two murders of Human [Merchants] on the roads. Hm—we have not had a major war save for the Terandrian incursion four years back, and that was only backed by Izril’s nobility, which they disavowed quickly. This was unprovoked, I agree.”
Spearmaster Lulv drummed his claws on the table.
“Tyrion Veltras does have a reason. His wife.”
The table fell silent. After a moment, the female Gnoll shook her head.
“That was nearly a decade past. He may have cause I grant, but those who followed him even when it became clear that Liscor was the target have no excuse. Unprovoked I say.”
The rest agreed. So did Luciva. She spread her claws on the table.
“So. Leaving out what must be done in Liscor, the fault with Pallass, Magnolia Reinhart as an individual I ask this question of you eight: given the unprovoked assault on our people, should we reply?”
And then there was silence. The eight paused. After a moment, Lulv spoke up.
“I am against it. Let the north tear itself apart for months or a year. Our interference might unite them.”
“And if we do not reply? Will another Walled City? They must know we have teeth, or how else will they back away? These are not rationed foes. They are like dogs, circling, testing. They must have blood drawn or they will come back with less fear.”
Makhir clenched a paw into a fist at his table. The Gnoll Wall Lady nodded. Two more Drakes nodded; another dissented. The female Drake flicked her claws at the map.
“I agree with Wall Lord Lulv. If we reply, we risk inciting a conflict. And we cannot risk it. Not with the Antinium.”
She looked around the suddenly quiet table. A few of her peers grudgingly nodded, but Luciva didn’t. The Dragonspeaker looked to her left, at the youngest Drake, the only one not to make her feelings plain at this point. She nodded to her.
“Rafaema. Your thoughts?”
The Drake was poking at the geography of the continent. She looked up, blinking, as the other Protectors of the Wall looked at her expectantly. Her tail swished—in embarrassment?—and she replied in the same, clear, definitive voice.
“If they attack us, we attack back. It’s as simple as that, isn’t it? Why are you all debating about it?”
Without hesitation. Manus’ Protectors of the Wall glanced at each other. And one by one, they nodded. All except Lulv and the female Wall Lady. The rest had been swayed though, and they turned to Luciva. They didn’t need to voice their opinions; she had eyes.
The Dragonspeaker nodded. She closed her own eyes, thinking for a long moment. And her wings and tail stirred. The others waited. After a minute, then two, Luciva silently opened her eyes.
“It is an action that cannot be ignored. The north must answer.”
A sigh, and that was all. It was done. Lulv grimaced, but beyond that he listened as Luciva went on.
“We will take the lead in this. The other Walled Cities may know of it—and we may request the best fliers of their city. The True Oldbloods are needed. Manus’ children need not bear the entirety of the risk alone.”
“You intend to go forwards with our first plan of ruination?”
“It is the one we decided upon. There is no need to adjust it.”
“Which one is that? I forget?”
Rafaema’s question was answered by Lulv as he leaned over. Luciva ignored the whispering and went on, speaking names which got nods. A few suggestions were made, more names floated along with the cities the Drakes hailed from. But the majority of the work had been done in the decision-making. The names and plan itself had already been meticulously thought-out and prepared for execution. Manus’ elite didn’t waste more frivolous time talking.
“Thank you for your counsel. I will give the order.”
Luciva bade them all farewell one by one. A few of the Protectors of the Wall stopped to talk with her or exchange a brief goodbye among themselves; the rest filed out, returning to their homes and other duties quietly. This meeting had most certainly happened, but none of them would ever talk about it.
Only one Drake lingered in the room afterwards with Dragonspeaker Luciva. She was hunting for something she’d dropped. It turned out to be her personal bag of holding, under her chair. Luciva patiently let her fasten it to her belt, and nodded as the young Drake turned.
“What do you make of this, Rafaema? Was that a wise decision, or not?”
Rafaema turned, looking surprised. After a moment she shrugged slightly, and a bored, even tired expression crossed her face.
“It’s fairly normal to me. Humans have always been Humans. The Antinium bother me more. They’re new.”
She frowned. Luciva nodded seriously. The Antinium were a threat two decades old, but they marked a change in the balance between Gnolls, Drakes, and Humans that had existed for ages.
“Spearmaster Lulv and General Milka were correct in saying that a war with Humans would be disastrous. The Antinium would not be idle. We risk much by provoking them, even in reply.”
She was stating the obvious. Rafaema nodded, tilting her head from side to side, regarding the magical map on the table. She considered Luciva’s statement, then turned around and shrugged.
“Maybe. But then they would get away with it. And why would we ever allow that?”
And that was that. It was a pure answer, without second thoughts attached. Luciva nodded.
“Thank you for your time. No doubt my peers took your words to heart.”
“I just said what I felt. See you, Luciva. Um…sorry about Hedica.”
Rafaema left. That just left Luciva, standing at the table. She looked back towards her passage, that would lead her up, to a place where she could give the orders that would set the plan in motion. But she didn’t go right away. Instead, she sat back in her seat and leaned on the table, ignoring the magical geography her arms and head rested on. She didn’t know if she’d made the correct decision.
That was why she had called this meeting, to deliberate over one point. Had grief swayed her judgment? Had they been right to listen to Rafaema’s opinion? Luciva didn’t know, but she had made her choice and she had learned not to second-guess herself. She rested her head on the table, taking some small relief in the fact that no one would intrude on her here, at least not for a bit.
The decision had been made. The plan would work. Manus, and the Drake cities would have their vengeance for Tyrion Veltras’ aggression, at least in part. But today, all Luciva felt was grief.
Day 1 – Durene
She stood in front of the [Witch], the young woman wearing the pointed hat, swaying. The news of Laken’s disappearance, the loss from the battle, her yet-to-be-healed injury, all made Durene’s head swim. The girl was tall, strong, with a [Farmer]’s muscles and a build that came from her heritage. Her skin was cracked, grey, and rough. She was taller than almost any Human, six foot eight. And she was strong. But right now she could have been knocked over by a feather. Words were nearly doing the same trick.
The [Witch] frowned. She was young—although maybe older than Durene by a few years, three at most—and she was dressed in a long, dark blue robe. Her hat was pointed, and but for a broom and a crooked nose and some warts, she could have been a young version of the [Witches] that Durene had heard about in children’s stories. But Wiskeria’s business-like manner, intelligent eyes and spectacles were normally…normal. Now, though, she looked worried as she avoided the question.
“Where are they?”
Durene was in no mood for questions. She clenched her hands and Wiskeria, mindful of being picked up and shaken like a rag doll again, backed up. Wiskeria wavered. At last, she answered, speaking quickly and eying Durene as the half-Troll girl swayed again.
“I don’t know exactly. Durene, you’re in no condition to move just yet. If you’re thinking of following them, forget it. They had Skills and horses. They were trying to catch Tyrion Veltras, I think. And if he’s where I think he is—”
“Just tell me where! In what direction did he go?”
Durene covered her face. She wanted to cry. Nothing was right in the world. She heard nothing for a moment, and then Wiskeria sat next to Durene. She put a hand on the Troll girl’s shoulder and Durene felt it trembling. She looked up and saw the desolation in Wiskeria’s eyes too. They’d failed. The two sat together for a moment, and then Wiskeria spoke.
“South. They’ve all gone south.”
The news hit Durene like a wall. She looked around. She barely knew where she’d woken up. Her chest throbbed. It had been healed, right? It looked—red. Inflamed. Like a really bad cut. Durene touched it and made a sound.
“I don’t feel well. You used a healing potion, right? I think I need another.”
She tried to open her shirt to see the injury. It was being given air to breathe. The scar looked bad. Red. Puffy around her grey, cracked skin. Wiskeria looked alarmed. She put a hand on Durene’s arm, trying to steer her towards the bed. But Durene was far too heavy for the [Witch] to move.
“Lie down, Durene. You’re still not healed. You’ve been sick. You need to rest, okay?”
“I need to go after Laken. I think…I’m healed, aren’t I?”
Durene sat automatically. She touched at her chest and winced. The blade had gone straight between her breasts. That Hobgoblin…it was hurting a lot more now. Wiskeria put a hand on Durene’s shoulder. Incredibly, when she pushed, Durene felt herself flop back. The bed groaned.
Durene’s head swam. Wiskeria appeared above her, looking worried.
“The healing potion worked. But it also caused complications. You have a good [Healer] tending to you. Just—rest. Let me get her. It’s good that you woke up. But you need to rest, Durene.”
“I have to find Laken.”
The world was fading out. Durene kept on blacking out. Red, hazy pain and Wiskeria’s voice flickered in through her mind, filtering in through sleep as it pulled her down.
“Sleep. You’re going to be okay, Durene. Laken was worried. Just—sleep. And get better.”
“I thought I—”
Day 2 – Durene
It was a bad night. And a worse day. It felt like forever. Durene slept and woke in bursts. Her chest was on fire. It burned, with a deep, inner pain that tore her apart from the inside. It hadn’t hurt as badly when she was cut in battle. Now, it felt as though she were being burned. Her body was hot. And the pain—it went down inside her chest. Deeper, sickness turned to agony.
“It hurts. It hurts.”
Durene didn’t remember when she first called out for aid. She didn’t for a long time, until it was too much to bear. She’d never had anyone to look out for her. Not since she was thirteen. But she called out anyways.
And they were there. Voices soothed her. And she felt cool hands, cloths mopping at her brow. And then—unkind swabbing at her chest, pain bursting there. She pushed away weakly, but the hands came back. And above her, swimming into focus and out of it were faces. Voices. Some were familiar, others not.
One was Wiskeria’s, kind and worried. The other was stern, sometimes worried, sometimes not, but always filled with steely determination, snapping. Durene heard Mister Prost, Beniar, even Lady Rie, but never the voice she wanted to hear. They mixed together over the long night and the day, until the conversation was one confusing blur.
“Not going…increasing…tell him another day.”
“Clearly—my brews and poultices—”
“My authority here. If you—”
“Complexion’s poor…what should I write…?”
“…asking about you, Durene. ”
“Further south? Dead gods, what is Tyrion—”
“…here. Continue your conversation—”
“Not getting better? Maybe if…”
“…Another healing…you mad?”
“—No! Drop…and she will die. You…down now and leave my—!”
And then at last, a voice broke through the fevered mists.
“Durene. Laken’s doing well. He’s coming back as fast as he can.”
Durene opened her eyes. She heard an exclamation. Wiskeria was looking over her. Durene blinked. The [Witch] bent hurriedly.
“How do you feel? Durene?”
“I’m okay. I just had a—nap. I’m hot.”
There was a strange look on the [Witch]’s face.
“You’ve had a fever.”
“Oh. Good I didn’t have a potion. That makes it worse.”
“Yes…you should rest. Laken will want to hear you’re awake. Healer Pirose? Hold on, Durene. Let me just call her.”
Durene put her head back. She shook it gently. Her chest hurt, and it was hot. Not as bad as the night, but her lips were parched.
“I don’t need a healer. Just a nap. I’ll get up tomorrow. Can I have some water?”
Wiskeria grabbed a pitcher from the bed and offered Durene a cup. The girl drank thirstily and laid back.
“I’ll be fine. Tomorrow…I heal fast.”
Durene closed her eyes. The world swam. She licked her lips and raised her head.
“Can I have another cup of water?”
But Wiskeria was gone. So Durene lay back again. She was hot, then cold. The world swam. And the fever and the pain in her chest began to ebb. Too slowly. She licked her lips, wishing Wiskeria would return. She was a bit too—too weak to grab the pitcher herself. Which was rare. Durene murmured into the air as the night returned.
Day 3 – Durene
The rain woke her up. Durene opened her eyes and licked her cracked lips. She heard it pattering overhead. On a roof of some kind. Not hers; she knew the sound the rain meant when it hit her thatch. This was different.
Slowly, Durene opened her eyes. She was hot all over. And…weak. The fever wasn’t broken yet. But she was oh, so very thirsty. And someone had put a bandage on her chest. Durene frowned at it. She couldn’t ever remembering having a cut that needed anything like that.
Normally even the worst cuts she’d had closed in a few days. And were they tending to her with a [Healer]? She vaguely recalled Wiskeria saying that. That was…nonsense. All Durene needed was some broth, some time, and she’d be right as rain. The worst of the fever was over.
The patter of rain distracted Durene. She sat up unsteadily. The world swam, but she was very, very parched.
She didn’t remember getting out of bed, but she did feel each step in the unfamiliar…room? Yes, it was a room. And here was a door. Durene pushed it open. The rain. She just had to find—
The room past her bedroom looked foreign. New. One of the houses in Riverfarm? Someone had set up a lot of strange equipment here. Clean linens, needles, glowing potions—even scissors and a thin saw for some reason. Strange. Durene stared at it all and then saw the door. It was so close.
Step. Step. Durene chanted to herself, grabbing at a passing chair for support. It groaned under her weight.
“Door. Thirsty. Step. Door—”
And there it was. Durene leaned on the handle and it opened. She saw the rain coming down in sheets. The landscape was dark, and a bolt of lightning arced down in the distance. It threw the world into relief. Durene saw a row of houses opposite her. A familiar mountain in the distance. Yet the houses were foreign. But the rain was familiar, and when she stepped into it—
Durene sighed. It cooled her skin, soaked the bandage on her chest and her light clothing. She opened her mouth, letting the rain fall into it. How long she stood there, gulping down rain, she couldn’t have said. But then Durene heard a scream.
Someone shouted it from afar. Durene’s eyes opened with a snap. She looked around. A monster? Instinctively she looked for the long greatclub she’d been using. But it was gone. Durene’s hands curled into fists. They would do. She stepped forwards—
And saw a girl pointing at her down the street. The child was standing in the door of a house down the street, light at her back. Pointing at Durene. Slowly, Durene stopped. She saw someone rush to grab the girl, a man, and more doors flicker open. The call of ‘monster’ was taken up for a second by another voice, and then someone roared.
Swaying, the half-Troll girl turned. Prost ran towards her, ignoring the rain that soaked his clothing. He grabbed at her as she leaned on the doorframe.
“What are you doing?”
He stared at her. Durene blinked at him. Her chest felt worse than before. The dull pain was back. And the water wasn’t helping. He looked around.
“Get the [Healer]. And shut up whoever’s shouting that. You five, help me bring her inside.”
“I can walk.”
Weakly, Durene protested. Prost looked at her. Durene shook her head.
“I don’t need to be a bother, Mister Prost. I can walk back to my bed.”
Durene smiled. The concern in Prost’s voice reminded her of…a long time ago.
“Yeah. I’ll just—”
She took a step and let go of the doorframe. The world spun.
Day 4 – Durene
The next time Durene woke up, it was in her bed. She stared up at the ceiling and realized the rain had stopped. This time she felt much, much more awake. And finally, there was someone in the room. A woman with her back to Durene, dressed in green and yellow clothing, was mixing something in a bowl behind Durene. The girl blinked at the unfamiliar back and sat up.
The woman whirled about, jumping in shock. She had a stern face. Her eyes widened as Durene swung herself out of bed.
“Yup. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
Durene didn’t know how they’d gotten her back into bed. But she felt better after another sleep. Not as thirsty. And much cooler. She got to her feet. The woman’s eyes widened.
“You shouldn’t be able to get up! We haven’t been able to treat your wound with healing potions, not since it was infected—lie back down!”
“I’m fine. It doesn’t feel bad. I don’t want to be a bother.”
Durene muttered as she looked around the room. She shook her head; her legs felt wobbly, but she felt sure she could make it back to her cottage at least. She walked around the bed and the woman blocked her.
“Absolutely not. You’re finally getting better, but you’re far too weak.”
“I can walk. Really.”
Durene sat on the bed because the only other option was to pick the woman and put her to one side and that was fairly rude. The woman—was she the [Healer]?—pursed her lips.
“You can talk and walk. That’s impressive, I’ll grant you. I wouldn’t expect even a Gold-rank adventurer to do that so soon.”
“It was just a fever.”
The half-Troll girl smiled uncertainly. The [Healer]’s brows shot up. Durene anxiously looked down at her chest. But the bandage on her chest had disappeared and the red gash on her front was only a tiny bit enflamed. The [Healer] noticed the look and nodded.
“You’re pulling together faster than you have any right to. Conscious and able to get up?”
“I can walk if you want me to.”
Durene informed the woman calmly, a bit nettled by the strict tone. Maybe the [Healer] was used to patients other than [Farmers]. She was fine. Three days out of commission was bad enough. The [Healer] just shook her head.
“Lie back down.”
“No arguments. If you can get up tomorrow, I may let you move about. Your injury closed in two day’s span from what it was. That’s healing power. And if that’s so…one day of rest.”
“A day? In bed?”
The thought horrified Durene. She moved to get up again, but the [Healer] placed a hand on her shoulder.
“[Healer]’s orders. I insist.”
“I understand, Miss. But I can’t just sit here and—”
“[Order of the Samaritan]. Lie down.”
The woman’s eyes flashed. Durene found herself laying back and pulling the sheets over herself before she knew what she was doing. She blinked up at the woman. The [Healer] sighed.
“You used a Skill on me?”
“I’ll use more if I have to. I don’t intend to lose you, not after a battle that hard-fought.”
That seemed like a poor reason. Especially because Durene had lost that battle. So had the army. The half-Troll girl closed her eyes for a moment, remembering. That was why the woman was here.
“Fine. I’ll stay in bed. Don’t worry about me. You’re tending to the others, right?”
The woman looked blank as she reached for her poultice or whatever was in the bowl. Durene’s head rose a bit and she frowned.
“The others from the battle. How’re they doing?”
The [Healer] had a very odd look on her face as she turned.
“Them? They’re fine. I’ve seen to them already.”
“Oh. Well, don’t let me keep you. I’m right as rain. Sorry I walked out yesterday.”
Another frown. The woman felt at Durene’s brow. Then she shook her head.
“Your fever’s broken. Tomorrow, if you’re well, we’ll let you stand up. Please don’t get up. I’m tired of having to chase you down.”
“You’ve done it before?”
“Six times already. You don’t remember? You keep looking for your cottage. Or this [Emperor] of yours.”
The woman smiled drily. Durene blushed. She lay in bed as the woman checked her scar and then dabbed something cool from the bowl over it.
“I’m sorry. But I’m awake now.”
“Yes. You are. And since you’re still awake, I suppose you could do with some food.”
Durene considered that.
“I am hungry. Do I have to stay in bed for that too?”
“Yes. Although you may sit up.”
So saying, the [Healer] left the room. Durene sighed and sat up. After an interminable amount of time where Durene just stared vacantly at the weird mixtures and the mortar and pestle on the table across from the bed, she heard the footsteps and saw the [Healer] come into the room with a large bowl.
“A stew. Let’s see you keep this down.”
“That’s not much. I could eat three bowls. I’m ravenous.”
The woman blinked at Durene. The girl blushed. She ate a lot, but it wasn’t as if she gained weight—well, not fat. The [Healer] shook her head.
“No matter how you feel—here. Do you need a hand?”
Durene shook her head. She took the spoon, lifted the bowl up, and began to eat. There were bits of meat floating in the lentil stew. It was hot, good—she barely tasted it. The stew would have burned Laken’s tongue, but Durene had finished the bowl in under a minute. The [Healer] looked shocked. Durene smiled, a touch smugly.
“Can you keep it down?”
The woman folded her arms.
“Give it fifteen minutes.”
“Can I stand up while I wait?”
“Then can I do something? I’m bored.”
The woman considered this.
She left the room and came back quicker this time. Silently, she handed Durene a book. The [Farmer] turned [Paladin] blinked at it.
“A book. If you need to entertain yourself, use this.”
Durene hesitantly stroked the cover. The book was bound expertly and it wasn’t nearly as worn as the trio of books she’d seen on Miss Yesel’s shelf. She opened it and saw a lot of neat words arranged on the page. They blended together seamlessly on crisp paper. Durene’s eyes widened.
“This must be expensive!”
“Mildly. You may borrow it. I’ll take your bowl.”
The [Healer] did just that. She left the room and came back to see Durene paging through the book restlessly. The girl closed it, embarrassed, and the [Healer] frowned.
“Not to your taste?”
“No…but it’s just that it’s a lot of words. And I can’t—er—”
The woman looked at Durene’s blush, then the book. She instantly understood what Durene was saying. Durene hung her head in shame. She couldn’t read it. She knew her basic letters and numbers, but a book wasn’t something she’d ever owned. She didn’t know if anyone in Riverfarm—the old Riverfarm—could read that well either. Mister Prost could, and a few others, but reading wasn’t a necessary skill. The [Healer] briskly took the book back from Durene.
“That’s fine. I suppose there’s no help for it. If you wish, I will read to you. Otherwise, I can ask and see if there’s something you can do with your hands. Knitting? Carving?”
“I wouldn’t mind knowing what the book was about. If it’s no bother, Miss.”
Durene blushed again. She had to admit she dearly wanted to know what the lovely tome contained. The front was a title—she could make out a few words, but the fancy calligraphy and the plain, pale-purple binding didn’t tell her much. The [Healer] nodded.
“Very well. It is something of a good story. I’m rather taken with it myself. This is a chronicle of an adventurer’s life. The tales of Thivian Stormless, the Named Adventurer known as the Lightning [Thief]. Do you know of him?”
Wide-eyed, Durene nodded. That was an old name. An adventurer who’d passed away not too long ago. One of the names everyone knew of course. He’d died when she was…eight?
“He has a book? I remember hearing about him dying. They said he died at sea, fighting a horde of sea serpents. And they said he could still steal lightning as it fell from sky. Even Archmage Amerys’ lightning! Is that true?”
The [Healer] smiled.
“I think he died in his bed. But I do recall him as well and I even had the privilege of seeing him at a banquet once. He was a talented [Thief]; he stole any number of hearts even in his late years.”
“You saw him? Really?”
The [Healer] coughed, a blush rising to her cheeks.
“It was what prompted me to get the book. I will read it if you’d like.”
“Please. But—can I have another bowl of soup?”
On cue, Durene’s stomach rumbled. The [Healer] blinked.
“You’re hungry still?”
Her eyes darted to the bowl. It wasn’t a bowl meant for a single serving; you could fill half a pot in it. It was probably meant to hold salad, not soup. Durene was embarrassed, but nodded.
“I’m sure I can keep it down.”
“Well…let me get another bowl. I’ll read to you and if you’re still hungry…”
The [Healer] took the bowl and left. Durene sighed and sat against her bed. She felt at her chest; her skin was still tender. The injury really had been bad; normally her skin could shrug off even her kitchen knife when it slipped. That Hobgoblin with the axe…Durene closed her eyes. Then the door opened.
This time the [Healer] was back with a bowl of soup and half of a rounded loaf of crusted bread. Durene’s stomach rumbled loudly and she reached out. The [Healer] blinked as Durene tore into the bread. She kept the bowl and watched as Durene ate the loaf down.
“Eat slower. You’ll give your stomach a cramp.”
“I always eat like this. And I’m hungry.”
Durene complained. She reached out and after a moment’s hesitation, the woman handed her the bowl. The soup went down slower this time, but still quick. Durene tasted it and savored the bites; the bowl was gone in a few minutes. The [Healer]’s eyes widened as Durene handed her the bowl back.
“You weren’t exaggerating, were you?”
“I said I was hungry. I could do a third bowl. Probably.”
The woman opened her mouth. Then she just shook her head.
“You’ll wait an hour this time. But if you’re still hungry then, I’ll get you more. Dead gods. Have I been underfeeding you this entire time?”
“Everyone thinks I eat less than I do. It’s fine.”
Durene sighed. She sat back and the [Healer] sat across from her. The woman eyed her, and then opened the book she carried.
“Well, you’re certainly the most lucid I’ve seen you. Incredible, really. Your fever broke yesterday and you’re already able to stand.”
“Not for someone who’s gone through what you have.”
Durene supposed that was true. An axe blow to the chest would put down most people, healing potion or not. She shrugged.
“I could really walk around honest.”
The woman pursed her lips.
“Tomorrow. As I said. You’re not to leave this bed except to use the bathroom.”
“Fine. But what will I do?”
“Listen. I’m going to read this book to you, unless you object?”
The woman’s brows raised. Durene yelped.
“What, for the rest of the day? Until I go to sleep?”
“That’s part of my job. And it’s why I’m here. I want to see how long you can stay up.”
“I can stay up all day, thanks. You’ll read that entire book and then some.”
The half-Troll girl folded her arms. The [Healer] just shook her head.
“That remains to be seen. Now, sit there until your stomach’s digested that food. Don’t lay back or it may come up.”
She opened the book. Durene settled against the backboard, comfortably. She felt odd and couldn’t place why. Then she realized that not once had the [Healer] looked askance at her skin. And she looked completely normal around Durene. Well, she had been tending to her for three days. The [Healer] opened the book, licking one finger as she flicked to the first page.
“Very well. Let me know if you feel sick or ill at any moment. Ahem.”
Five days into the storm that raged across the sea, and the ships still sailed on. One ahead, five behind. The Bloodtear Pirates, one of the most feared and dangerous [Pirate] navies in the world, were in hot pursuit of the Waveblade, the stalwart vessel captained by Gallheart herself, a Drake with two scars across her face, one of the finest [Ship Captains] to ever leave Zeres’ harbor.
She stood on the bow of her ship where she had lashed herself to the wheel, and still she steered her ship onwards, though it had been five days since the storm began and she had neither slept nor abandoned her post.
Durene’s eyes widened as the [Healer] turned a page. The woman’s voice was soft, and she was no natural reader, but the words and language were unlike any story Durene had ever heard told. It had form, structure—it wasn’t a fireside tale, but something as good as the travelling [Storyteller] had told. No, better. The [Healer] smiled as Durene sat up. She began the second page.
The storm blew even fiercer, threatening to drown the ships. Yet the Bloodtear Pirates did not relent. The Waveblade had a treasure they sought, and so even as the waves threatened to capsize the ships with each swell, they sailed through them. Gallheart took her ship through one wave, and then the next. But the third caught her unawares and it bore down on them. She cursed as she looked up at the waters rushing down as one of the Bloodtear Pirate ships turned over, swept away by the water.
“Damn them and this mission,” she swore. “If this is the end..!”
And it was at that moment that the waters disappeared. The wave crashed down, but a hundred feet from bow to stern, the air was suddenly clear. Waveblade sailed through the wave as two more Bloodtear Pirate ships were broken by the massive wave. But someone had taken the waters that would have doomed Gallheart’s ship. She turned her head.
And there he stood. The [Thief] of legends. He stood on her decks, smiling, his eyes, one real, one enchanted, glittering. Thivian Stormless. He swept Gallheart a bow.
“Why the startled look, Captain Gallheart?” He laughed lightly. “Surely you didn’t forget the Lightning [Thief] was your guest of honor? If I can steal a bolt from the heavens, a wave is child’s play. Or didn’t you think the legends were true?”
“If I thought the legends were true, I’d have wondered how Thrivian Stormless could have landed us in the worst storm this side of the century.” Gallheart snapped back. “Tell me this cargo’s worth it or I’ll throw you overboard now and damn our contract.”
“Once more, Captain Gallheart. The fate of Baleros may rest on it. If the Eye of Medusa is not returned, there might be war between the Gazers and the entire continent. Take us on. And you’ll be rewarded in not just gold, but glory.”
“Gold’s enough for me. Glory fills no holds. Just you keep your hands at the ready, Human. Because there are two ships on our back and I have no doubt more seeking to block us. Once this storm ends we’ll get our bearings…”
Durene listened as the [Healer] flipped from page to page. And the book unfolded, a tale of daring and wonders. Caught on page. The half-Troll girl had never heard the like. And her eyes were fixed on the book as she sat, forgetting about her desire to get up. And, true to both their words, the [Healer] read into the night and Durene listened, pausing only to use the bathroom thrice and eat a large dinner.
The book closed with Thivian Stormless’ last daring tale and Durene felt her eyes flicker shut moments later in the darkness. The [Healer] regarded her and shook her head as she blew out the candle she had lit.
That was the last word Durene heard before she fell asleep.
Day 5 – Durene
Durene heard the same word the next day. She was on her feet this time, before the [Healer], whose name was Pirose, even awoke. The older woman left her room to find Durene scarfing down a plateful of bread, salami, some hard cheese—all that Durene had found in the cupboards. The half-Troll girl paused guiltily, but Pirose just shook her head.
Durene tried to hide the food behind her back. Pirose ignored that. She gestured to Durene on her feet.
“If I didn’t know you were half…well, I would have assumed you had some kind of healing Skill. Without healing potions, an infected injury that deep usually takes months to heal—if it even gets better. You’re a lucky young woman.”
“Well, it’s long for me. Four days is the longest I’ve ever been out. And I once cut my arm nearly to the bone. But I was out the next day. I heal quick.”
Proudly, Durene stuck out her chest then she remembered the scar. The [Healer] blinked at her and opened her mouth. She saw Durene checking her chest; the tip of the scar was just visible at the hem of Durene’s dress. The [Healer] frowned as Durene lifted a hand.
“Don’t touch it. And don’t lie on your chest when you sleep, obviously. It’s still yet to heal. You may recall that you were sick? The healing potions are too dangerous to use even now, so it’s had to heal on its own. You’ll still be weak for…at least a day if your healing continues to be this quick. And you’ll have a scar.”
“I know. Thank you for looking after me.”
Durene mumbled. She absently bit into her breakfast. Pirose shook her head.
“I’m just doing my job. I was sent by Lord Veltras to ensure that Riverfarm’s wounded were cared for. You were my last patient.”
“Lord Veltras sent you?”
Durene nearly choked on her next bite. Pirose smiled.
“Of course. He struck an alliance with your [Emperor]. Emperor Godart, isn’t it? Part of that was a [Healer] who could tend to the injured. Especially you. Lord Veltras is not a man to forswear himself. I am his best [Healer]. Until I came here, I was with the main war camp. I’ll be travelling north tomorrow, I think. I expected another week until I was sure you wouldn’t relapse, but this is astonishing.”
“I’m just good at healing. Thank you. Uh, Miss Pirose?”
Durene was suddenly shy, as if the two hadn’t spent last night gasping over Thivian’s exploits in the book. Pirose smiled, and her stern face warmed slightly.
“My job is reward enough when my patients live. As I said, it was a challenge this time. I know infections, but you did as much work as I. When I think of the state of your wound when I first arrived—idiots with healing potions should be hung.”
“You mean Beniar? What, did he pour a healing potion on me?”
“Three. Your people couldn’t tell that they were accelerating your illness with each potion. I can understand that as you were being carried off the battlefield, but your [Witch] friend should have known better. Then again, she was the one who stopped them from killing you. Idiots.”
Pirose sighed. She walked past Durene and found a kettle. She seemed used to the house they were in, enough to make tea without having to look for anything. Durene fidgeted. Were they in a village other than Riverfarm? This couldn’t be Pirose’s home; it was far too modest and newly-built.
“I always thought it was weird how healing potions made people sick like that. They cure normal wounds right off. So why do sicknesses get worse? Sometimes they’ll fix my cold right off. Other times they get worse.”
Again, the [Healer] eyed Durene.
“They shouldn’t ever be used in times of sickness. And with respect, the healing potions you probably use shouldn’t have that effect either. Healing potions are essentially regenerative energy poured into the body. They let the body heal fast, to the point where it ‘remembers’ being before it was hurt. That’s why they work so well even with serious injuries. Of course, they can also hinder; you can’t build muscle since a potion will just revert any gains you make. And the same goes for illnesses.”
“It gives the sickness strength?”
Pirose pursed her lips as the kettle boiled on the small fire she’d lit. She poured the tea into a cup, caught herself, and poured Durene a cup too. She offered the girl a cup and Durene tasted the liquid.
“Close. In theory, a good potion augments the body’s strength to fight off the sickness. And a master [Alchemist]’s potions will do that; they’ll allow the body to recover from the illness if it’s at all possible, doing the work of weeks or months in seconds. But in practice, most of the energy goes to the illness for some reason. So suddenly your small cold has more strength than your body and it gets worse and turns into something potentially deadly. I can’t imagine how strong your body must be against disease. Well, I’ve seen it first-hand.”
So saying, Durene gulped her tea. She knew the liquid was close to boiling, but it was only hot on her tongue. Pirose blew on her cup, eying her.
“Even so. Your infection was beyond bad. I’ve given your people a lecture on everything they did wrong. Again, your [Witch] friend saved your life. Her craft saved you in the time it took for me to arrive. You should thank her when you see her next.”
“It wasn’t that bad, was it? Me being sick?”
Shocked, Durene prodded at her chest. Pirose slapped her hand down and sipped her tea. Her silence spoke volumes. Durene looked around the cottage.
“Well, thank you. I owe you so much. Is—where am I? Are we in Riverfarm?”
Pirose’s eyebrows shot up.
“Of course. This is one of the new houses built. I’ve been staying here—with little to want, I might add. Except for new reading material. The [Steward], Mister Prost, has been very accommodating. As has Lady Valerund.”
“Rie? Prost? Where are they? Can I see them? I can walk today.”
“I told them you were well yesterday. I think they’ll want to meet with you. But before I let you rush out that door—”
She held up a finger as Durene started for it. The girl turned. Pirose frowned.
“You’ll do some tests and I’ll ask you some questions before I’m satisfied you’re well. Don’t lie. I have a truth stone for difficult patients.”
“I’m fine. Really. I feel great. A bit weak, but I can do anything you want.”
Durene patted one arm. Pirose put down her cup.
“You can prove it to me. Take a breath.”
She ran a series of quick tests, from listening to Durene’s lungs as the girl breathed in and out to making Durene stand on one leg and answer some questions about her childhood. Pirose didn’t seem convinced Durene was fully recovered; she asked about the color of Durene’s urine and even what her other leavings looked like this morning, and she forced Durene to strip.
Blushing fiercely, Durene let her inspect the scar with practiced fingers and answered truthfully that she could barely feel the fingers. Pirose might have kept asking questions, but for the strength test; when she handed Durene a length of thin firewood and asked her to snap it, the half-Troll girl, exasperated, picked up a log and snapped it in half.
The spray of splinters shot across the room and into the fireplace. Pirose stared. Durene hadn’t even used her knee; she’d just flexed the wood and it had split like that. She stared at the wood; it wasn’t even that dry. Durene abashedly dropped the wood pieces.
“Sorry about the mess.”
“Well, that proves that. You have a Skill? You must. Even for your size, that was impossible.”
“I do um, have a Skill. [Enhanced Strength].”
Pirose’ eyes widened.
“On top of your natural body? Dead gods. One wonders how you were ever hurt to begin with. You could have killed a warrior in steel plate with your fists.”
“I fought the Goblin Chieftain. I think he was their leader. He had an enchanted axe. I nearly got him. But he got me.”
Durene frowned and sat down in a chair. Pirose silently regarded her, and then the wood littering her floor.
“That’s a battle as I understand it. But you’ve satisfied me that your body’s well. If tomorrow I check and your scar’s nearly healed, I’ll consider you fit for anything.”
“Thank you. Again.”
Pirose smiled softly.
“It was my duty. No more, no less.”
She showed Durene where the broom was and the two were finishing sweeping up the wood splinters when a sharp rapping came from the door. Someone opened it before either woman could answer and a voice called out.
“Durene! You’re awake!”
The half-Troll girl turned. She saw a flash of dark red, a sweeping dress patterned with silver. Beautiful, costly fabric, something completely alien to Riverfarm. A face with skin not roughened by weather. Painted nails, lilac-touched lips. And two sparking indigo irises. The mouth lifted into a delighted smile as Lady Rie Valerund walked, no glided towards Durene. The girl froze up instinctively, but Rie threw her arms around Durene and hugged her.
“It’s a delight to see you, Durene. No—a miracle. After your third fever I thought—Miss Pirose, can she be on her feet so soon?”
Lady Rie turned to Pirose, looking mildly alarmed. The [Healer] inclined her stately head, combining a nod with a slight curtsey for Lady Rie.
“I judge her to be almost recovered, Lady Valerund. When the sickness was defeated, her strength came in a rush it seems. She went from barely lucid to being able to stay up nearly a day yesterday. This morning she rose before me.”
“Amazing. Truly. We owe you a debt of gratitude, Miss Pirose. If there is anything I or the demesne of Riverfarm can do for you…his Majesty wishes it to be known that no reward is too small.”
Lady Rie bowed slightly. Pirose paused.
“The offer by his…Majesty is most gracious. But I am paid by Lord Veltras for my services. I executed my duty to the best of my abilities, as I did with any patient. I am only glad Durene is so healthy.”
“Just so. Durene, please sit. You look well, but why risk it? Here. Prost will be here shortly. He is as delighted to see you as I, I’m sure. We’ve already spread the word that you’re on your feet; there are many waiting to greet you. But we shall take it slowly. You have so much to catch up on…”
Rie fussed over Durene, guiding her to one of the chairs in the small living room that was combined with the kitchen. Bemused, Durene sat, watching the [Lady] arrange her dresses to sit in a humble chair herself.
This was not the Rie that Durene remembered. The woman Durene recalled was just as elegant and beautiful, but the girl distinctly recalled hating Rie’s guts. Not least because Durene was convinced Rie was attempting to become closer to Laken than she had any right with Durene at his side.
She was exquisite, that Durene had to admit. Compared to the plain, honest folk of Riverfarm, a [Lady] like Rie was a brilliant, rare creature, exotic and wonderful. And scheming. She often tried to talk with Laken privately, or flatter him. And while he had ignored most of her attempts, Durene hadn’t missed any of it. How could she? It was obvious.
How did you seduce a blind man? With soft hands and a soothing voice. And that was what Lady Rie had and Durene didn’t. The half-Troll girl had been paranoid that Rie would manage to trick Laken in some way and she had hated Rie with all her heart—she’d had the feeling Rie regarded her as an obstacle, not as competition or a rival. And so Durene was naturally cautious, remembering their history.
But today—all of Durene’s jealousy and worries not only seemed to be groundless, but her old emotions also felt far away. Durene found herself smiling at Rie. She was so grateful to see a familiar face, and the [Lady] felt completely genuine.
“What’s been going on, Rie? Why are you so upset? I’ve only been out…half a week?”
The [Lady] didn’t even blink at Durene not addressing her by her title, but she inhaled sharply. She looked at Durene, and then at Pirose, who made a face and shrugged. Durene looked from woman to woman and Rie was opening her mouth when the door opened.
“Durene? Are you—”
A weathered man stepped into the room. Prost was every bit as worn from his old class—[Farmer]—as any of the men and women Durene knew. But he was stalwart despite it all and of late, he looked taller. More distinguished. And certainly kinder than the man Durene had known. Indeed, when he saw Durene he strode over and hugged her as well!
“Durene! Girl. It’s a sight for sore eyes to see you on your feet. But should you be out of bed?”
“I’m fine, Mister Prost. Really! I feel as strong as ever. I’m sorry to have worried you!”
She must have been really badly hurt, for all of them to be so anxious. Durene smiled and the man stepped back, looking her up and down. His eyes fixed on the top of Durene’s scar and she blushed. He looked away hurriedly. Pirose made a disapproving sound.
“We need to get you into proper clothing.”
Lady Rie nodded at the thin dress Durene wore. The girl nodded, and only now wondered whether the clothes had come from. They fit her well and there hadn’t been anyone close to her height or build in Riverfarm.
“I can have someone fetch your clothes. And we’ve kept your cottage maintained—as well as we can with that bird attacking anyone on sight. As for the rest, we’ll get you sorted, don’t worry, Durene. You can take it slow these next few days. Assuming Mistress Pirose thinks it’s wise?”
“I’m leaving tomorrow if Durene continues to heal at this rate.”
Pirose replied blandly. She sat at the opposite side of the table as Durene, Lady Rie, and Prost sat around the dining room. Prost still looked incredibly relieved to see Durene on her feet, but Rie’s eyes were now flickering to Durene’s face, and a cautionary frown was written on her features. Durene felt her own hint of reserve return as she looked at the [Lady].
“What is it, Rie?”
The woman pursed her lips and looked at Pirose.
“How much do you remember, Durene? Or should I say, has Miss Pirose told you what’s been going on?”
“Nothing. But I remember everything. I remember the battle. Us losing—the Goblins beating us back. And that Hobgoblin with the axe.”
Durene closed her eyes. The room went quiet. Slowly, the [Paladin] remembered the battle. It had all being going so well. She’d been leveling up, they’d been harrying the Goblins—until they reached the city and took it in an hour. Then Durene and the army that Wiskeria had called for had camped, anxious, waiting for a fight until the Goblins started hurling rocks at them. Wiskeria had been nervous, debating whether it was time to attack. Then she’d gotten the message and they’d gone in. They’d been winning. Right up until—
“We lost. Right?”
Rie hesitated. It was Prost who nodded. His voice was low.
“We did. The Goblins overran our lines. We were retreating—we might have been wiped out but for Lord Veltras’ army. They saved us.”
“I remember. Wiskeria said. But was it really Tyrion Veltras? The Tyrion Veltras?”
Durene looked wide-eyed at Prost. He nodded, and his gaze reflected a touch of the awe she felt. Tyrion Veltras. He was a [Lord], perhaps the most important [Lord] in the north. A real war hero, a man who controlled a huge amount of land—he had sent his army to save Riverfarm?
“They pushed the Goblins back. And Lord Veltras himself rode to Riverfarm. He took out a group of Goblins that had tried to attack Emperor Laken. Well—it was more than that. But he showed up just in time and no one can deny that. We’d have lost you, everyone fighting the Goblins, and perhaps Riverfarm and his Majesty himself but for Tyrion.”
“And then Laken went with him. Why?”
That question had plagued Durene since she woke up. Prost and Rie exchanged a glance.
“They struck a deal. Lord Veltras needed Riverfarm’s trebuchets. They’re invaluable. Or rather, they were. His Majesty, Tessia, the engineering team—they all left after building as many trebuchets as they could. They went with the army.”
“To fight the Goblins?”
“Um. In part.”
Again, both older Humans looked at each other. Pirose just grimaced into her teacup. Rie’s fingernails absently flicked delicately. She looked at Durene.
“What else do you remember, Durene? Anything after that?”
“I—had a conversation with Wiskeria. She told me I was out for a week and that I couldn’t go after Laken. I guess I got sick again because I had to sleep. I remember having a fever the next day. I heard you talking—you were all pretty worried. And then I woke up and went out into the rain. Sorry about that, Mister Prost.”
The man nodded, blinking. He looked at Rie and she shook her head.
“Um—the next day I woke up and I was feeling a lot better. I could get on my feet, but Miss Pirose had me sleep. We read a book. And today I felt just fine.”
Durene looked around. She had a sinking feeling that something was off. The looks Prost and Rie were giving each other and her told her something was amiss. Both looked back at Pirose. The [Healer] shrugged.
“Her sense of time’s off, but her memory is quite good. There’s nothing to worry about. But you should tell her now.”
“Tell me what? Is something wrong?”
Rie nodded. She smiled tightly and smoothed her dress.
“You’re largely correct, Durene. All that happened. But I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood how long you were sick. It wasn’t a handful of days you were lying abed.”
Durene could see that. She frowned.
“How long was it then? A week?”
Prost and Rie shook their heads. Durene whistled.
“Two weeks? No, three? It can’t be longer than three.”
She looked from face to face. But their expressions were grave. Prost shook his head slowly.
“It’s been far longer than that, Durene.”
“But I remember…”
Durene broke off. That first day had been a blur of voices and pain. And now that she thought of it, the sky had been all too clear after that night of rain where she’d gone outside. But it couldn’t have been longer than three weeks, surely? She looked around, growing restless. Rie hesitated. It was Pirose who stepped in. The woman spoke calmly, putting down her cup.
“I can’t tell you how long you were initially sick for, Miss Durene. It took me two days to reach Riverfarm from the main force with Lord Veltras. I haven’t his movement Skills and I had to travel with an independent escort from his command. When I got here, the potions had accelerated the infection in your chest. It was into your lungs, and almost down to the bone. I didn’t think I could save you, even with my Skills and techniques. But somehow, you recovered, and faster than anyone could have dreamed. Even so, that healing process…have you seen people taken sick by infection?”
“Once. Davimy got cut bad around his leg. He took weeks before they had to cut off his leg. Then he got sick and died two days later. And sometimes I know it takes weeks, but you see a [Healer] and use poultices. You can move about unless it’s real bad.”
Durene muttered. Illness and infection wasn’t too common even in Riverfarm, what with potions. And when it happened it was bad. But…she looked up. At Rie.
“How long was I asleep? Just tell me.”
The [Lady] nodded and took a breath.
“Durene, you’ve been fighting your illness for fifty days. Today is the fifty-first day since the battle with the Goblins.”
The world spun. Durene put one hand on the table. Prost reached for her arm, but Durene stood up.
“That can’t be! Fifty one days? I was only out for a few days! A week! I would have remembered that. I—”
“You had a fever for weeks. Three, in fact. Each one worse than the last. When Prost found you in the rain, the last one was breaking. But while you had them, we thought you might die. You didn’t wake up. And the infection was so deep—I saw it. And I’ve never seen anyone survive a wound like that.”
Rie shuddered. Prost nodded, looking pale. Durene looked wordlessly at Pirose. The [Healer] nodded.
“The healing potions closed the wound, but the disease took root. And when that idiot adventurer—”
“—when he decided you weren’t healing fast enough, he accelerated the infection rather than letting it heal naturally. If you’d just stayed and rested after the [Witch] who treated you gave you the first potion you’d have been fine. As it was, you survived. But it has been fifty one days.”
Durene stared. She looked around the table, at Prost’s grave face, Rie’s anxious one. At last the pieces fit. This house, Pirose being accustomed to living here—the houses she hadn’t recognized.
“What happened while I was gone? Tell me. Please?”
She whispered it, unsteady. Rie stood up. She laid a hand on Durene’s arm, gently.
“More than I can say, Durene. Don’t worry; Riverfarm isn’t in danger from the Goblins anymore. And—you may need to sit. There’s a lot that’s gone on that you need to know about. Where to begin? The Goblin Lord’s dead, for one. But the siege—well, it’s been complicated.”
“Siege? What siege?”
Another round of glances. Durene felt as though she were meeting the strange folk that Laken had summoned. The fae. She raised her voice. She couldn’t help it.
“Where’s Laken? I want to see him. He’s back now, right?”
It had been fifty one days. Surely he was back in Riverfarm from wherever he was gone? Why wasn’t he here? But the look in Prost’s eye—he shook his head.
“He’s still not back yet. Durene. He went down to Liscor. You know where that is?”
The name was only vaguely familiar. Durene’s heart sank.
“Isn’t that a Drake city?”
“The northernmost one. Right in the High Passes.”
“But that’s hundreds of miles away. He went there? Why? Did the Goblin Lord run that far? Why did Tyrion Veltras need trebuchets?”
Aghast, Durene looked around. Prost hesitated. Rie bit her colored lip.
“It was an entire event. And while I can assure you his Majesty is safe, Durene, it may be weeks before he returns still. And his prisoners will bring more trouble than I can imagine. As if we don’t have enough for him to deal with when he returns.”
The world was shaking on its axis. Durene looked around, breathing faintly. She wanted to run, burst out of the door so Prost, Rie, Pirose, all of them would stop looking at her like this. Cautiously, as if she might explode from what they were keeping from her. Or lash out.
“Goblins. Hundreds of them.”
Durene’s incredulous, horrified look made Rie stand up again. She walked past Durene and poured herself some cold tea.
“We’ll explain everything. But before you leave, Durene, you must understand. Riverfarm’s changed. It’s larger. Much larger than you remember. And we have more problems to deal with. Emperor Laken Godart cannot return quick enough. So much is different. But Durene. It’s going to be alright.”
Rie laid a warm hand on Durene’s shoulder. The girl let it happen. She met Prost’s concerned gaze, and saw the reserve in Pirose’s eyes. And Durene held still. Laken was gone. He was gone. And she—she looked around and everything was different. So very different.
When she had gone to war, Riverfarm had been a collection of nearly six hundred people, already bursting at the seams, the remnants of a few villages banding together.
Today? It was over two thousand.