Author Topic: Chapter 6  (Read 10134 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 6
« on: April 08, 2022, 02:03:09 AM »
Chapter 6

The Ritual of Rejoining had come, again. Little Endu stood next to the tall man, wondering why Mommy and Daddy were crying. She couldn’t make out their faces, but her Mommy’s sobs carried clearly in the morning air. The tall man next to her—she couldn’t remember his name—reached down and took her hand. He was a navigator. One of the Sustained, and he was going to take her away. That much she knew for sure.

He also had a secret for her to keep. A secret she had to keep forever, even from her parents. Endu pulled at the tall man’s hand, trying to free herself. She had to go to Mommy. She had to make her feel better! The tall man took her by the shoulders and turned her to face the threads. “Everything changes now, child,” he said in that knowing voice of his. He reached into the threads and pulled out a sword.

Endu continued holding his hand trustingly, as he placed the blade at the back of her neck and stabbed downwards-

-Endu jerked awake, feeling a sharp pain in her neck.

It took a moment for her to remember where she was. In her armchair, at home. She’d sat down inside, and her head had tilted painfully to the left. That was right. Just a few moments to herself while the clothing dried on the line outside. She must have fallen asleep.

With a fatigued groan, Endu stood and went outside again, where the clothes were dry enough to fold up. Reaching over the aqueduct line, she took them down one by one. None of the Waters were wasted, naturally. Even as the clothes dried, it dripped into the line running past her house, and made its way into the village and eventually out to the fields.

Balter and Veles were sixteen and thirteen, and they definitely acted like it. Sometimes she felt as if she was cleaning up after them from sunup to sundown every day. And after a wrestling match like the one they’d had yesterday… it could only get worse on the clothing. Knock, knock, knock. Someone was at the front door.

Of course someone was at the door. She gave a rueful glance at the window as she put down the clothing to answer it. The knocking was repeated urgently, and when she opened it she saw Durhu, sweating and out of breath on her doorstep. “Durhu? What is it?”

Arico’s been shot. He signed at her frantically. He’s up near the cabin. Please, help!

As usual whenever a crisis arose, Endu moved purposefully and efficiently. There was no time for doubts or second-guessing, not when lives were at stake. Grabbing her medicine bag and some clean cloth hanging outside the porch, she snatched her sewing kit from its place by the door. Sadly, she’d had plenty of practice keeping her head during troubled times. She’d been through enough of them.

“Veles!” She called out as calmly as she could manage. “I’m heading out. I don’t know when I’ll be back, so you might have to make dinner, understood?”

Veles nodded back at her from the living room. A few of her neighbors outside gave her a look, but didn’t inquire. As the de facto healer in Tellek patch, she was often called away for some reason or other. Thankfully they usually didn’t look too closely into her movements. The last thing she wanted to do was draw the attention of the magistrate. That was the last thing Arico would want as well.

It took them a few minutes to get to the top of the hill. Durhu was panting again with the effort; he wasn’t as young as he used to be. Arico was lying on the ground, apparently unconscious, with blood staining the grass around him. Strangely, a young woman was with him; someone Endu had never seen before. Whoever she was, her dark face was ashen with worry and she was wringing her hands. She was sporting a nasty bruise on her face, as well. Endu was sure there was a story behind that.

A quick examination of Arico told Endu that it probably wasn’t as bad as it looked. The shot looked like it had missed his major organs and ribs, but the bullet was still inside. He’d lost a lot of blood as well. The stranger watched her intently as she examined Arico’s midsection.

No time to waste. Pulling out her metal pincers and a bottle, Endu sterilized her tools quickly. Then she knelt next to him and began digging around for the bullet. The young woman gasped and reached out as if to stop her, but Durhu grabbed her arm. Fortunately, it looked like the shot had been at a long range. The bullet was near the surface, and before long Endu had pulled it out. Blood was still oozing out after it, so she handed the cloth to Durhu and then placed his hands over the wound. “Hold this here, tightly.”

She checked Arico’s pulse and breathing, finding both had steadied slightly. Wiping sweat from her brow, Endu allowed herself a relieved breath and looked at the stranger again. “We can move him now. Help me with his legs.”

The young woman stared back at her, wordlessly. She only seems to speak dwarven. Durhu signed at Endu, keeping pressure on the wound with his forearm. She told me my son had been hurt, and led me back to him.

Endu shook her head. She’d never had much of a gift for languages, and she only had a basic grasp of the dwarven tongue. It had taken years for her to even pick up a few phrases of Durhu’s handtalk. “Help me with him!” She emphasized, pointing at his feet and grabbing his shoulders. The young woman nodded and grabbed his legs. It took them some effort, with Endu purposefully going slowly, but they got him down to Durhu’s home before long.

Once inside and out of the cold, she removed the cloth from his side and matter-of-factly pulled out her sewing kit. “Put these in boiling water, please,” she said to Durhu, handing him the sewing needles. She was careful to speak clearly. He was a good lipreader, but he couldn’t catch everything that was said to him. “I’m going to purify the wound and then stitch him up, but I don’t think there was any permanent harm. He will recover.”

The young woman looked puzzled. “He’s going to be fine,” Endu repeated slowly while smiling at the newcomer, and she finally nodded.

It took about half an hour to properly suture his side with catgut. The stranger gaped at her as she worked, apparently new to this kind of medicine. She watched intently right up until the last pull, still looking amazed. This girl had apparently lived a very sheltered life before this. Endu was strongly tempted to stay and get the young woman’s story, but she had to get home before people started asking too many questions. Reluctantly, she left instructions with Durhu on how to care for him over the next few days before showing herself out. She knew better than to ask how he’d gotten shot. Whatever Arico was up to was best kept a secret. She only hoped he’d be more careful in the future. A great deal depended on that young man.

-.-

Gereho Weaver’s lips tightened as he opened the door. He’d had some idea of what to expect… but as always, seeing it with his own eyes was a shock.

The room was a nightmare. Blood had sprayed far and wide, marking virtually every surface. Turez’s body was sprawled by the cot on the wall, arms clutched at his chest as if in a last-ditch attempt to keep the blood from leaving his body. He’d clearly failed in that.

Weaver had fought battles before. During the last Tumult between the Houses, he’d killed his fair share of men in the field. It had changed him of course, as it changed everyone, but he had reminded himself it was for a good cause. His family’s prosperity had been at stake, and he had done what he had to do.

This brought those days flooding back into his mind. Shaking his head to clear it, he beckoned with his left hand. His dutiful adjutant Mehei was there in an instant. “Were there any other casualties?”

Mehei shook his head. “No deaths, my lord, but the scribe down the hall was knocked unconscious. I suspect he caught a glimpse of the assassin, and that’s why he was attacked.”

Weaver didn’t bother correcting him. Mehei was wrong of course, but given the mysteries surrounding the killer, there was no point in telling him otherwise. “Who was in command of the watch last night?”

“Barukha, my lord. Shall I fetch him?”

“No need. If he’d seen something, I’m sure he would have reported it by now. Have him removed from watch duty and reassigned to the House guard.”

“My lord?” Mehei hesitated. “I mean, after a failure of this magnitude, I would have suspected a more… punitive measure was called for.”

Weaver gave him a patient look. “None of the sentries saw anything either, Mehei. Barukha will never command again, of course, but he is still a navigator. We need every navigator we can get these days. Issue the order, and make sure that Barukha knows that it’s the only reason he’s still breathing.”

Even after centuries of navigators intermarrying and having kids, only about one in ten children could travel through the threads on their own. There were even some fortune-hunters: Sustained women who bedded navigators simply because they might bear a navigator child. Weaver had never met one, and officially had to disavow them for their ‘wicked’ ways. Still, from a practical standpoint he could understand why they did it.

The fact that Barukha was Gereho’s second cousin meant nothing, and they both knew it. Weaver hadn’t solidified his family as one of the ruling Houses in the city by being sentimental. He didn’t even think of himself by his first name, most of the time. All that mattered was House Weaver. In addition, no one was supposed to know that Turez had been here, much less had been murdered here. If he ordered Barukha’s death, he’d have to explain why, and he wasn’t prepared to do that just yet.

Weaver swept out of the room with Mehei in tow, and made his way to the records room. This outpost was fairly remote—one of the reasons he’d sent Turez here, in fact—but the documents he’d carried would have ended up being stored in this room. Here was another surprise. The documents were still here. Had Mehei been right after all? Why had the scribe been attacked, if not for this sensitive information?

At least the room afforded them some privacy. Weaver closed the door and then began pacing, trying to reason everything out. “The killer somehow made his way unseen into a fortified, heavily guarded outpost. He killed his target with a single stab to the heart, and then vanished without a trace. I can think of only one person who might have been able to do that.”

Mehei’s jaw dropped fractionally. “I… thought that was just a myth, my lord. I mean, the things he’s done seem almost legendary, if you believe the tales.”

“Tales do tend to grow as they’re told, but this is no myth,” Weaver assured him grimly. “I want you to arrange another search. Take two or three sentries you can trust to keep quiet, and check the exterior of the outpost. Look for…” He hesitated briefly. It sounded insane, but then it wasn’t the first time either. “Look for damage to the stonework that is almost invisible. You’ll need to run your hands across the wall sections to find any stones that shift when you press them.”

Mehei nodded, his expression still dubious, and then bowed and left. Weaver growled in his absence, at the inconvenience of it all. Turez—or rather the information he’d gathered—was supposed to be his golden bullet! What he could have revealed to the Council… would have put the final nail in Tanner’s proverbial coffin. So much for that plan.

Weaver was perfectly willing to admit that his quarrel with Lord Tanner was personal. Tanner had slighted him on many occasions, but there was more to it. Weaver had always tried to treat everyone in his lands with respect. From the servant girl who cleaned his room, to the paid guard at his gate, even to the stra’tchi slaves toiling away in their fields and factories—all of them knew that their Lord Weaver would always be fair with them.

Tanner was a different story. His servants lived in constant fear, a state he very much enjoyed inflicting on them. Even his most expensive Bonded were used to a brutal and unforgiving atmosphere. He had four wives, none of whom looked happy on the rare occasions they were spotted outside his territory. He had dozens of children who were known for competing, often violently, for their father’s approval. Years ago, Weaver had taken it upon himself to remove Tanner from power. At least then the people he’d been brutalizing would have a chance at a better life.

He shook his head. How in the Multitude had the assassin known that Turez was even here, much less in that room alone? As he pondered that in silence, Mehei finally came back with some news. He led Weaver to the southwest corner of the outpost, where the wall had been… compromised. A section of the corner had been carved out, as if by impossibly hard, impossibly thin tools. The killer had no doubt used the hole in the corner to slip in and out, and then had moved the brick and mortar back in place to hide his tracks.

So it was Heartbane after all. This attack and the damage to the wall fit with this particular assassin’s pattern. But why had Heartbane targeted Turez? He certainly didn’t work for Tanner. From what Weaver could tell, he had no loyalties to any specific house.

How he was doing it was another infuriating mystery. None of the sentries had heard a thing! What could cut stone like that, and make no noise at all? And why cut the corner of the wall? It would have been much easier to go for one of the flat segments. The cuts were so clean that another day or so and the stonework would have settled on its own, leaving no trace and further bolstering the killer’s already impressive reputation.

“Take the body out of here,” he ordered the sentries. “Drop it near the square in Barros patch, under some bushes. Try to make it look like he was killed there, if you can.” Turning to Mehei, he handed him the paperwork the assassin had apparently not known about. “Put this on the body. I can’t afford to keep it in my possession anymore, not if the Council orders a search.”

Mehei nodded and folded the parchment under one arm before pausing. “My lord… Turez bled a great deal in that room before he died. If we want to make it look like he died elsewhere…”

Weaver nodded. “You’re right, of course. Take a sheep with you to Barros patch. Slaughter it there and spread the blood around. Good thinking.”

He glimpsed up at the sky. A few hours, maybe, until sunrise. “Off you go now,” he urged them, and they set out immediately.

Grimacing, Weaver headed home to write his report for the Council. Another opportunity had been missed, it was true, but there would be more. One of these days, he would have what he needed to bring that arrogant bastard down. And that moment would be all the sweeter for the waiting.

-.-

After the medicine woman left, Jaas stayed by Arico’s side, sitting quietly and worrying. The old man—she assumed he was Arico’s father—brought her a warm drink from the fire and sat with her, holding her hand. She knew he could understand her, but it was obvious he couldn’t use his own voice. His language was something she’d never seen before—using gestures to speak.

And then there was the healer herself. Jaas had been sure that Arico would die, but that woman had saved him. She’d poured something on the wounds—some kind of alcohol by the smell of it. And then she’d actually sewn his wounds closed, which would have never occurred to Jaas at all! Back home, wounds as serious as Arico’s could only be healed with magic. But then, Arico had told her that magic didn’t work anywhere in this city. Obviously, these people had developed other ways.

Jaas wasn’t even sure how he’d been hurt in the first place. She hadn’t seen anyone with a sling or a bow back near the river. Clearly the locals had found other ways with regards to weapons, as well.

It was fascinating, really. So many things here were new to her, and she suspected that this was only the beginning. Once again she wished for her quill and parchment. So many things to discover, and only her memory to store them! She smiled sardonically. And she’d thought she was so experienced and world-wise. Jaas the traveler, the scholar. Right now, it might as well have been Jaas the child, or Jaas the fool.

As she sat there, the old man stood and moved over to the fireplace. Soon she could detect the delicious smell of broth being stirred and heated on the fire. Her stomach grumbled loudly, and she realized it had been more than a day since she’d eaten anything. He didn’t seem to notice, though. Either he was deaf, or just very polite. Possibly both.

“I’m Jaas,” she introduced herself again. If he really was deaf, he’d probably missed it before. “You’re Durhu, aren’t you? I thought I heard that healer call you that.” His eyebrows raised in surprise, and then he smiled and nodded, making another series of motions with his hands.

“Wait. Slow down. Do you use your hands to form letters?”

He nodded again, and repeated the motion, this time slow enough for her to pick up. While the soup heated above the fire, he worked with her to demonstrate the dwarven alphabet, one letter after another. It was a fairly simple system, but she knew she was just scratching the surface. Obviously he used other motions to represent words or ideas, and only used the alphabet when he had to. Otherwise it would take him minutes to ‘say’ even simple phrases.

She was confident she could learn it in time, with his help. Whether she’d have that time… well, that was unclear. Those red-and-gold uniformed guards back there had been willing to kill them both, and their weapons were nothing to laugh at. Somehow she was pretty sure she’d see them again soon.

As for how they’d escaped, that was yet another mystery! The inside barriers seemed to be just as deadly as the outside one, but the guards could pass through them, as could Arico. And not only had he been able to take her along for the ride, he seemed to have teleported them here in the process, through that… white room! It was one of the first questions she intended to ask him when he woke up. Durhu handed her a clay bowl, interrupting her reverie, and she thanked him. The soup was a little too hot but otherwise excellent; it was certainly better than anything she could make. Cooking had never been her gift. More like a curse, in fact.

Every time the old man looked at Arico, his friendly smile slipped a little. Jaas kept in touch with her parents, but she hadn’t seen them in person for years now. The thought of what she would feel if her father was laying there like that tightened her stomach.

She tried to distract Durhu as best she could, getting him to demonstrate his hand language for her. She was starting to get a handle on it, how gestures could combine to make words that related to the original gestures, when the door swung open without warning. In walked a bald man, wearing a disturbingly familiar red and gold uniform.

He was huge, at least twenty-five hands in height, and built like an ox. He was wearing one of those short metal clubs she’d seen earlier, as well. Jaas backed away from him, looking for a weapon—or for another way out of the cabin—but before she could do anything, Durhu hurried over to her and put a hand on her shoulder.

Friend—he spelled out for her in dwarven.

The uniform was exactly the same as on the people who’d attacked her. Not entirely convinced she was safe, Jaas kept her distance and a wary eye on him as he entered the cabin. Durhu ‘spoke’ to him briefly, and he grunted before looking at her. “You are Jaas?” He asked in dwarven.

Just like Arico, his accented dwarven was heavy, but perfectly understandable. “I am,” she responded cautiously.

“We must leave, all of us,” he said calmly, looking around the room as if she wasn’t even there. “They are looking for you, and for him.” He glanced down at Arico.

Whoever he was, his voice was deep and steady. He might as well have been commenting on the weather for all the stress she could hear in his tone. Durhu nodded at her and hurried over to the pantry. He pulled out a small pack made of hides and started gathering food, enough for a few days at least. From what she could see, it was mostly dried fruit and hardtack jerky.

The big man moved towards Arico, but without even really thinking about it, Jaas quickly stepped between them. “You stay away from him!”

He blinked down at her in surprise for a second as if taking notice of her for the first time, and then chuckled. “Stay here if you wish, but I’m taking him. If you try to stop me, you’ll regret it.” At that he just shouldered his way past her, brushing her aside as if she weighed nothing, and carefully lifted Arico up off his bed.

Jaas grimaced, but at least it looked like the brute knew what he was doing as he carried Arico outside. He probably had plenty of experience moving injured people. He certainly looked like he had plenty of experience doing the injuring.

Durhu placed the pack in her hands and gestured towards the door. She hesitated only briefly before heading after the big man. After all, she didn’t really have much choice but to trust them.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2022, 03:22:42 AM by Daen »