Reaping in Kale - Myth-Weavers

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Reaping in Kale

   
Reaping in Kale

Anneke did not look back after she started putting one foot in front of the other. Not once as she fled the smoking battlefield that had been her village. Bandits had come before and been repelled, but this was something else. The attackers had seemed intoxicated with fear, hurling themselves over the stakes, impaling themselves on her people`s makeshift spears and pikes in their desperate assault. Death in battle had been preferable to reporting back in failure.

Her husband Gilles, no fool for all his lack of proper education, had returned to the house just long to order her from it. Her last sight of him was rousing others too weak to join in her flight. Yet even as weighed down as she was, most could not keep up, and her cargo was too precious to wait.

She fancied she could hear that second heart beating alongside her own. One hand wrapped protectively about her swollen belly, Anneke vanished into the deepening night, following the secret paths she had known since she was a child. No outland raider would pursue until she was long gone, and even then there would be others, weaker than she, less driven than she, to capture first.

So she was not there at the end, when the last of the defenders were overcome, and the survivors brought in cruel bindings before the one who had ordered the attack. A warlord might have yet earned some measure of defiance from them. In the face of this creature, however, their courage failed completely.

Despite his slight build, there could be no denying the sense of power emanating from him. His eyes, glittering as if lit by some inner flame, passed over the Kalais as though inspecting cattle ready for market...or perhaps slaughter. After a minute of silent contemplation, he issued his decree.

As one, his fearful servants chorused with ritual intensity: "As You command, so we gratefully obey."

There was no more resistance, merely despondency. Now the once-villagers too understood, or thought they did, why death was preferable. When the last of them, slave and servant alike, had disappeared from his sight, the warlock deigned to draw his robes tighter about him, fending off the despicable chill of autumnal Kale.

He was disappointed. Too few children lived in these hovels for his liking, and only a few of those he had found thus far showed any sign of promise. He might need to venture deeper into the country for more able conscripts. Not for the first time, he cursed those who had destroyed the rest of his coven - no matter that he would have needed to do so himself sooner or later, before the same fate befell him.

Thinking pleasant thoughts on the retribution he would wreak upon those who had wronged him, he snapped his fingers. A dozen spywings, the last who had survived seeking him out, squeaked their excitement. By morning, only splintered bones and charred ruins would remain of what had once been a promising border village.

Yay! The next story. And a great start.

The borders between the nations of Kelerak and Kale, fluid as they had been over the course of their long and involved history, had never suffered the predations of tolls or of bribe-wardens. Some miles behind them, the great watchtower of Fort Sont stood empty, an unseeing eye standing over a garrison town that these days could not delay an attack from a band of goblins.

Still, the four had passed beyond the immediate reach of the horrifying Afej the Black, the lich whose wrath they had both roused and narrowly survived. The largest of their number lay huddled by the fire, trembling involuntarily, as her burns were tended by the closest thing they had to a healer.

Aidan of Zel (though, as a Ranarim half-elf, he was technically an Orlander) had certainly been tutored in the art of medicine, for those who strained against the Dark Occupation would ever have need of it. These were far from the worst injuries he had ever been called upon to treat, and he had seen people in vastly worse condition pull through.

Unfortunately, right now he had very little in the way of ideal equipment, and improvisation was an oft-literal grave risk. Perhaps all that gave him the edge here was the prevalence of fresh herbs, for many of the finest grew in autumnal Kale, and the indomitable constitution of his patient. It had been the latter, and a stubborn temperament greater than any mule`s, which had kept her going until the former could be applied.

"That is about all I can do," he said, shaking his head ruefully. "Thank Heshtail for that potion! When did you get it anyway? And when were you planning on telling us you had such a treasure on you?"

"Actually I`d like an answer to a question more important than those," interjected Brokk with a frown, even looking up from his study of the ancient stone tablet in his lap - a true rarity for the wizard. "How could you possibly have afforded it? It was of, at most, mediocre quality, but even so, such things do not come cheap, and nowhere that stocks such items has them so undefended that they can be stolen without everyone for miles around hearing of the theft."

Isolde laughed. "Relax. I didn`t spend any hard-earned coin on it. Certainly none of our hard-earned coin. A very charitable nobleman by the name of Lovelace purchased it just before we left Dragonspur."

There was a brief, thunderstruck, disbelieving silence. An intractably innocent halfling face beamed happily at them. Brokk groaned softly and buried his face in his hands. Aidan, for a few seconds longer still stunned into immobility, followed suit with a despairing wail of: "Isolde!"

"You were the one who mentioned it first," she retorted smugly. "You said he looked very important and very wealthy. Well, he was both - and since no thief would fall for the obvious trap of the immense purse at his belt, it was equally clear that it was the real one. So I, oh, how shall I put it? Punished his arrogance."

Her grin faltered momentarily, and she continued in a warning tone: "Aidan. Paladin of mercy, remember? Forgiveness. Bygones. Bridges and water and so forth. It did save Embla`s life."

The paladin growled wordlessly at the impossible moral dilemma, and resolved it by turning his back on the rogueish millstone he had willingly placed around his neck and ignoring her entirely for the rest of the evening. It was understood that this was nothing personal, not exactly. They had saved each other`s lives often enough to know that. Sometimes though, even the closest of friends have different opinions and avoiding any confrontation is just the best option.

...well, I can't say I'm surprised that Isolde chose not to resist stealing a heavy purse of money when it was. Just. RIGHT. THERE!

Haha it’s the small interactions in the story that are among the most enjoyable parts.

Once there had been some times of brightness and others of darkness, yet that clarity was in the past. Pain was her world now, hunger and thirst scraping at her innards, and a deeper agony pulsing in her belly. Anneke stumbled ever on regardless, no longer knowing what she sought or how long she had been seeking it. She knew only she needed it before long.

She fell at one point. She lay there, torment ripping screams from her dried throat, for an eternity before the man-elf found her, and carried her back to his camp. In her delirium, Anneke could barely make out the details of her rescuer, or his companions. She saw him being pushed aside by a tiny woman that could only be one of the strange hositan, a race of which she had only heard in stories, but more than that was difficult to understand.

On the other side of the fire, a living mountain stirred, rose to its feet. The shock broke through the haze, and Anneke moaned in fear as she beheld the scarred giant. The halfling at her side made soothing noises and stroked her arm delicately. It helped, a little, and Anneke allowed herself to sink to the ground, accepting that this was the best that could be done.

Questions came thick and fast. Most went straight over her head. Her memory of Kelevan was faint. She had heard it as a swaddling babe, but her parents had fled Daven before she could even walk, and she had grown up learning Kalais. Still, the two languages were similar enough for a few words to pass between them.

A truly bizarre little man, utterly hairless and looking older than the hills, took over after the first halting attempts. His Kalais was spoken in the crisp, flawless tones of high nobility. Despite this, the hositan seemed to be in charge, and kept barking at the man-elf whenever he tried to say anything or come closer. She told the little man which questions to ask, and he did so, and Anneke answered as best she could until there were no more.

She closed her eyes, surrendering at last to exhaustion, and wished she could close her ears to the argument that began to rage overhead.

*****

"I will be happy to see you on your feet any other time than this!" Aidan snapped at Embla, ignoring the wrathful glare she sent his way. "This poor woman needed medical attention close to a week past, by my estimation, even before her water broke. So sit down and shut up whilst I deliver her infant."

To his shock, Isolde also barred his path to the extremely pregnant woman beyond, her face set like stone. He had seen that look before when there was killing to be done, and to see it now twisted his stomach. He stared back at her, trying to convey the urgency of the situation through sheer intensity.

"By Bunga, you are not blind!" he pleaded with her. "She was ready to give birth yesterday. How she has forced her body to retain the child until we found her is a question for the gods. This is not something I am ignorant of, this is not an argument we should be having, and this, hositan, is not one of your precious shires; so get out of -"

Ash and embers billowed up around him. Dazed by the sudden impact, he nonetheless forced himself to roll clear of the campfire into which Embla had very easily thrown him. As his head cleared, and Aidan looked up at the two women he had traveled and laughed and bled with, he felt his spirit quail before their matching expressions.

Brokk, wizened face even more pale than usual, helped him to his feet. The pair headed away from the camp, practically driven off by Isolde snapping at their heels, one of her many daggers actually glinting in her hand. When they had gone far enough for her liking, Isolde snarled at them to stay put until they were called for, and then turned back. They obeyed.

Even when the screaming started anew, rose to a pitch beyond mortal endurance, and fell back to silence, they obeyed.

*****

Stuhndinen.

The giantess` voice rumbled like an avalanche, and Anneke could understand only the fact that it contained an order. She gazed blankly into the night sky, hoping that she could ignore everything and float away from her pain. Instead, her head was forcibly turned to face the immense woman she had been left with.

Stuhndinen. Skirrime vheva. Stuhndinen! Yitzti, frohleyn.

Anneke wriggled, struggling futilely. Questions whirled through her mind. What did this creature want from her? Why was she being ordered to guard a thing? Did she look like this was in any fit state to do anything except lie here? Then Anneke realized something. She had understood one of those words. 'Skirrime' meant to struggle, or to fight, typically defensively rather than aggressively. And 'vheva' was very similar to...

She could not help but scream, but the moment she started trying to rise to her feet, the giantess let her go. Now, she watched the struggle, utterly indifferent to Anneke`s pain, interested only in seeing how much she would fight to protect her unborn baby. Anneke had seen this before, from the other side, when she had helped others through this. It had to be done a certain way so that mother and child had the best chance of surviving it.

Her legs threatened to give way at any moment. A warm trickle, blood or urine or both, ran down her thigh. Had she thought the earlier contractions painful? No. This fresh torture was true pain. But she was standing on her own. Anneke could almost smile. Then her legs did give way.

The giantess caught her, moving with a speed and grace belied by her great size. Arms as broad as her waist held up Anneke, pressing against her back and keeping her chest pushed out enough to allow free breathing. She wailed, the sound devolving into guttural bellows as her delivery truly began. A soft touch, feather-light, moved across her belly. The halfling woman had returned and was running her hands over the bump, feeling out the size and position of the baby.

Strange midwives, but I trust them, was the last clear thought Anneke had, before her world contracted into the struggle of birth.

Haha she threw Aiden into a campfire. Hehe excellent.

Despite its smoke-seared raspiness, Embla`s voice still carried far enough to reach the men, and they walked back into the camp, nervous for a reason they could not name. On their return, Brokk, wisely, sat himself down by the devastated fire and began to build it back up into something worth having overnight, saying nothing and looking at no-one. Aidan, however, roared like a wounded bear.

Embla stared impassively at the raging half-elf until his wrath abated, then picked up the limp figure at her feet - wrapped in one of Embla`s own great blankets as a shroud, yet blood still soaked through the thick cloth in certain places - and walked off wordlessly into the twilight.

Some minutes later, Isolde returned from the deepening darkness. Her face and hair glistened, freshly washed, but there was more than enough blood left spattered about her shoulders and arms to show what had happened. The newborn she held was of a good size, which for the halfling meant only her years of hardship gave her the strength to carry it safely.

"Some mothers cannot survive births that are so difficult," she spoke softly, as much to the baby as to Aidan. "I had to make the choice that was no choice. "

Aidan glared at her. "You think I could not-"

"No, Aidan," she interrupted him, still in that gentle tone. "I knew you could. It was just not your place. Whatever others may think - human, elf, perhaps dwarf, I do not know your beliefs here Brokk - it is not your place. It is not a man`s place. Only in the most dire need would hositan, or Embla`s people it seems, allow a man to take part. Even so, you would have needed magic to save her. You have none."

"I might have tried," Aidan snarled back, refusing to back down this time. "I should have tried. I should have stayed until Embla tired of throwing me into the fire. I should have demanded of Brokk that he bind the pair of you until you saw reason."

Isolde smiled sadly back at him. "You are my friend, Aidan. I know you. Trying to save her as well only to lose her would hurt more than this. Men seem to take it as a personal insult, from the whole world to them alone, if they have not the skill to help another who needs their aid. Pah, so do some women without the sense they were born with!"

"Now hush. Sulk if you will, curse us if you must, but hush. This, hmm, not-so-little one will sleep off the birthing exhaustion soon enough. Then we will truly have a problem."








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