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The Hour of the Wolf -- House Arhakuyl 
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Joined: Tue Oct 04, 2005 5:06 pm
Posts: 1203
Location: Flanders, Belgium
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“What do you think?”

“Is this an armour or a corset?”

“Would a corset protect you against a blade, Santhil?”

“Would this?”

Bing!

“Hey! Knock that off!”

Santhil gave Yalasmina the evil eye while she warily kept the blade in sight. Her witch sister, in her opinion, had too wide an amused grin on her lips. “So, not a corset.”

“Not only a corset,” Santhil remained in disagreement. “Lahnia, what do you think?”

Lahnia had only just walked in, holding her kitten in her hands, and looked confusedly at Santhil. “New armour, Santhil?”

“A gift from the Temple,” Santhil clarified. “For not riding their ass down into the abyss.”

“As a show of good faith,” Yalasmina corrected her. “Recall that, officially, we carry no blame.”

“I could do without this discussion, Mina,” Santhil pleaded. “It is a dark page I want turned as quickly and quietly as possible.”

“Hence the gift,” Yalasmina said. “No hard feelings, all in good faith. And it suits you wonderfully. Your ‘package’ no longer risks dropping out.”

“It’s a good fit, I’ll give you that,” Santhil admitted, and stretched her arms, her shoulders, her back. “Gives a bit more cover than the Temple’s usual apparel.”

“Why is that, anyway?” Lahnia suddenly asked. “Maibd wear—what?—ten square inches of steel? And people wonder why their demographic gravitates towards the young. Or perhaps new.”

“First of all, fully plated metal armour is bulky, heavy, restrictive, and tiring,” Yalasmina explained, her voice hinting vaguely at annoyance or, perhaps, the irritation of having to repeat such answers often.

“Yeah, maybe,” Lahnia countered with half a laugh. “But it also keeps you breathing.”

“Well, grunts may be comfortable in a tin tank,” Yalasmina argued, “but the battle dances of the Maibd require more sophistication, agility, and skill than they could muster, anyway.”

“On behalf of the grunts: Hey!” Santhil called amusedly. “Besides, that isn’t the whole story, is it, Mina?”

“You are correct,” Yalasmina agreed. “We are the brides of Khaine. All we do on the battlefield is for his blessing. And we receive it.”

“Ooh.” Lahnia grinned widely. “Oh, I see. The man upstairs must be ‘pleased’ to pass his blessings. Or is it just hard work, and does he need some female distraction?”

“Most witches are unusually good-looking, aren’t they?” Santhil added. “Supposedly, they must be, if they want to survive day one on the battlefield.”

“There truly is nothing sacred to the two of you, is there?” Yalasmina sighed, but smiled.

“Even you have to admit, Yalasmina,” Santhil said, “that never before was there greater proof that cup size factors gravely into a Maibd’s career path.”

“It’s not a matter of cup size,” Yalasmina stood her ground.

“Mina, I may not know Khaine, but I know guys. Trust me. It matters.”

“And anyhow, Lahnia,” Yalasmina changed her focus, “who are you to argue? Sorceresses aren’t exactly known for their modesty, in clothing or otherwise. And you don’t even claim a god to please.”

“It’s stylish, it’s tasteful,” Lahnia said. “I never get any complaints about my wardrobe. But at least I’m always covered, even if I have to make a quick, unexpected move.” She straightened her back and lifted her chin with a playful smile.

“Stylish and tasteful?” Yalasmina challenged. “Going natural, you mean.”

“Well, obviously, I can’t speak for everyone. But most of us have enough decency not to... distract the troops too much.”

“Ehhuh,” Santhil said. “Try harder.”

“We can distract them a little, can’t we?”

“Speaking of distractions,” Yalasmina suddenly said. “Santhil, are you ready?”

“I suppose. Fits like a glove.”

“Ready for what?” Lahnia asked, and scratched her cat behind the ears when it meowed for her attention.

“Since Santhil will be joining our ranks in an honorary capacity, the Temple graciously invited her to partake in introductory training,” Yalasmina explained. “We will teach her some of our fighting techniques. In return, we will have a live, experienced gru— fighter to practise with.”

“Oh? That actually sounds interesting,” Lahnia said. “Can I come?”

“It’s not an open-house day, Lahnia,” Yalasmina gently declined, and saw her sister slump a little. “But I will let slip that my superior is planning to speak with you while Santhil trains and, if you ask, I’m sure she will allow, for this once.”

“What exactly does your superior want with my court sorceress?” Santhil inquired with suspicion. “Nothing sinister, I trust?”

“Nothing of the sort, Ari,” Yalasmina soothed her. “She simply recognises that, while the coven mistress is one representative of the Convent, Lahnia, as your court sorceress, is another of some importance, and that you lend your ear to her concerns. In a sense, she’s a political force.”

“Me, a political force?” Lahnia sounded as surprised as she was, really. She considered it for a while. “I hate politics.”

“Everybody does,” Santhil added. “Mina, you, me. Everyone.”

“But you are a politician, aren’t you?”

“I suppose irony’s not through with me.”

°°°

As a rule, temple halls were dark, secluded, high open places with occasional torches lighting the way. Here in the dwarven hold, the next best things were taken to honour the god Khaine. It was a coarse but functional match, and tapestries were hung in an effort to indicate this place of worship and reverence.

The training hall, or the area designated as such, was surprisingly better lit than the other rooms, and also a lot more filled than usual. So Santhil was told, that is; she had never been here, and very few laywomen ever had. While the training itself was nothing of a closely guarded secret, tourists and gawkers were barred. But today, there was a more of a crowd than she expected to be usual, since personnel of diverse manner and ranks attended the introductory training their new honorary member would be having.

Equipped as while training with Virtok—who she was scheduled to train with this afternoon—Santhil wore a thickly padded shield, a soft-wooden, blunt sword and, contrary to her usual equipment, the suit of armour the Temple had gifted her. Her purpose for the moment? Showcase the battle methods of a ‘grunt’ against an experienced Maibd. Santhil prepared herself mentally for a quick, brutal defeat while the instructor explained what her audience, the to be instructed, should pay attention to: speed, intimidation, grace, agility. Watch the weapon, she stressed, always watch the weapon. Good advice.

“Now, Drachau Arhakuyl,” the instructor finally addressed her. “Are you ready to fight?”

“As ready as I’ll be,” Santhil replied and loosened up her arm muscles. “How do we do this? Do you attack? Do I attack?”

The instructor pulled a vaguely amused grin on her lips. “Whatever you believe helps your odds, Drachau. Give it your best.” With a piercing shout, she suddenly raced at Santhil, wooden daggers firmly in her hands and poised to strike at any angle necessary. Santhil instinctively took a step back. The intimidation act worked.

Much to her own surprise, Santhil managed to block off the barrage of blows on her shield, quickly stepping and moving to take the blunt of the rapid assault. This woman was fast, insanely fast, and Santhil felt on the backfoot the entire few seconds they were at it. Then, she swung her sword up and wide, grazing her own shield while she deflected a blow. A miss, of course, but she bought herself a second of respite while the instructor lept back and retook grip of both her daggers.

There was a brief applause from the crowd. Apparently, just swinging anywhere near a Maibd was an accomplishment. The clapping died quickly when the barrage renewed, with a new thought guiding it: two blades and one shield means one blade should get past.

Santhil felt she had less than a few seconds before her guard would be defeated, already needing to bring her sword in to deflect near-hits, and took a gamble. With a sudden, hard move, she dropped to one knee and swung her sword for the armoured legs. The blade missed the first leg but connected with the plating on the second loudly and, as she had hoped, lifted it from the floor. But then she felt blunt wood strike the full side of her neck.

Equally surprised and amazed, Santhil immediately looked at how she could possibly have been struck, and saw the instructor roll next to her and onto her feet in a fluent move. An applause followed.

Lightning reflexes, those women.

Santhil kept on one knee and stared at the instructor while she approached. “How did you hit me?” she asked, bewildered.

“You dove and swung, I leapt and stabbed,” the instructor said, and needlessly offered her hand to help Santhil back onto her feet. “You’re good. Quick, limber, strong.”

“Thanks. Coming from the woman who cut my throat in—“ and Santhil checked her pocket watch quickly, “just over ten seconds, that means much to me.”

The instructor’s eyebrows shot up with a smile. “Ten seconds? Impressive. Most don’t last six.”

“Ehhuh,” Santhil replied non-committedly. “Something tells me I have much to learn.”

“Then let’s teach you. Come.”

°°°

It was still cold outside, despite the high sun of the approaching noon. The skies were clear, the wind calm, the earth covered in frost but not snow. There were few trees in the area, though all pines, and only occasionally a bird flew twittering by.

“Are you a religious woman, Mistress Arhakuyl?” Lahnia cast a sideway glance at the high priestess while they walked alongside each other. It had been a quiet walk so far, with only cursory comments about the weather or the landscape. Lahnia would have been happy had it stayed at that. “No,” she replied almost instinctively. “I believe in deitic entities, but I do not worship them.”

“Deitic entities,” the priestess quoted her. “Not gods?”

“I’ve found the word ‘god’ or ‘gods’ to carry a religious connotation,” Lahnia clarified. “Deitic entity makes it sound less like religious worship and more like an estimation of strength.”

“So you accept that there are gods or godlike creatures, but you do not worship them.”

“I know that there are deitic entities, and I do not worship them,” Lahnia corrected.

“Though both your sisters are religious,” the priestess added, inviting her on into what would hopefully remain a civil discussion. “Does this ever cause friction?”

“As a rule, no.” Lahnia thought on it a while longer. “Well, it does, but not directly because one is religious and the other isn’t. Yalasmina does not demand I worship her god, though she believes me disrespectful of Khaine.”

“And you do not fully disagree with her,” the priestess probed from Lahnia’s intonation.

Honestly, Lahnia had to admit that she didn’t but, in essence, that had little to do with Khaine himself, if the creature even existed at all. “I am apprehensive of some of his followers,” she replied, making sure the priestess understood who she meant by that. “The codes and rules to which they adhere in an attempt to placate him, and the intolerance of other religions, views, or beliefs.”

The high priestess nodded silently. It was not the first time she caught that reproach in her face. But she was not here to defend herself, her religion, or her institution. “You find us intolerant of others?”

“I admit that my dealings with the Temple have been few and distant, so I haven’t much personal experience,” Lahnia said, and flicked a lock of long hair back over her shoulder when the wind playfully blew it out of line. “But I’ve seen that, wherever religious strife whips up, the Temple of Khaine is always suspiciously closeby.”

“But you do not have personal ill experience with us?” the priestess attempted to ascertain. It was the first move to the ‘never judge a book by its cover’-plea.

“In a sense,” Lahnia said with half a snort at the absurdity of what she was doing at this very moment, walking alongside the Temple official casually. “You did skewer and poison a friend and colleague of mine, bringing our battlegroup to a grinding halt until she recovers.”

The priestess sighed slightly through her nose. “Mistress, I feel I must stress that, until ruled by court after judicious investigation—”

“—not anyone should rule out the very plausible suspects,” Lahnia filled in with a faked polite smile. “That would just be stupid.”

The priestess kept a contemplative silence. She knew better than to argue with someone so convinced of her guilt. “Do you fear us, Mistress?”

“The ease with which you circumvent our laws in the name of religious worship scares me sometimes, yes,” Lahnia stressed.

A brief silence fell. Lahnia felt that she may have struck a chord, and she mentally backed away from the argument. While usually she would have been happy to finally have someone other than Yalasmina to discuss these matters with, she kept in mind that angering the highest religious official in the battlegroup would not sit well with Santhil.

“But that is a gripe with our legal and social system more than the Temple,” she rounded out her view. “To answer your question, Eminence: yes, I tend to be uncomfortable around your disciples.”

The priestess nodded acceptingly but, so Lahnia could tell, she had an answer prepared. “Sorceresses, such as yourself, Mistress, circumvent the mortal laws of physics and nature, and you bend reality to and by your will.”

“Is this the ‘you worship Chaos’-argument?” Lahnia interjected.

The priestess glossed over it with a gentle smile. “Regardless of where you draw your powers from, one could say you have a terrifying ability to disregard laws that bind mortals like myself.”

“Unimaginable, astronomical powers, bound by the laws of our empire like any other citizen.”

“I sense we are unlikely to find common ground on this topic,” the priestess ventured. “Perhaps we should change it.”

Lahnia nodded thoughtfully. Some part of her would love to have hammered through on it, knowing that she was in the right on this but, again, she was supposed to be at least a little neutral. “Perhaps we should.”

The two women walked on for silent minutes. Lahnia cast a furtive glance at her companion, feeling she had been abrasive, and found the priestess calm and composed. Which was good; Lahnia had another line of questions in her mind. “Has Khaine ever incarnated?”

This clearly was a question the priestess had not anticipated, and she needed a second to think. “Incarnated?” she asked to clarify.

“Appeared as an avatar, or infused someone... somehow bonded with a mortal?”

“There are records of people claiming to be divinely infused by Khaine, yes. But, naturally, the very nature of these events makes them impossible to verify.” The priestess’ curiosity was piqued. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m just curious,” Lahnia skirted the question and its answer. “I sometimes hear people say these things. The signs are not as obvious as the blessings of Chaos, then?”

“There have been no records of mutations with any of our loyal disciples. Khaine appears in many aspects, and his blessings are subtle and invisible to the uninitiated.” The priestess beamed Lahnia an amicable, almost amused smile. “She is a remarkable presence on the battlefield, isn’t she?”

Lahnia gave a slight start, and immediately asked: “Who?” But the priestess’ knowing look cut through her bluff, and she felt caught en flagrante. “I am not seriously considering it but, well, you know.”

“Your curiosity is founded, Mistress, though I find myself misled. You claimed yourself an atheist, yet you wonder thusly about your sister.”

“I don’t. I’m not even convinced an entity named Khaine actually exists. But both my sisters do, and I care for them, and want to understand the things they find important. And I can think of no-one better to ask.”

The priestess nodded gracefully. “I believe Drachau Arhakuyl to be a very talented fighter with great potential.”

“I meant about—”

“Only time and Khaine can tell. As long as she remains respectful of Khaine and his disciples, and keeps his teachings and ways close to heart, he will surely watch over her.”

Lahnia accepted that answer as intended—final—and directed her attention slightly elsewhere. “Santhil told me she was expected on the temple grounds, and she mentioned practicing with the Maibd. Is she receiving tutelage?”

“Tutelage? Not entirely. We offered an introductory training session with the Maibd, though the offer was not entirely selfless. Facing our Maibd against a skilled combattant with several battles worth of experience will help them as well.”

“Would it be... inappropriate of me to watch? I’m curious how she will do.”

The priestess smiled. “Our temple and our rituals are not open to visitors. But, given the circumstances, I am certain we can make an exception.”

“Thank you.” Lahnia felt excited at the prospect of seeing her sister square off against those fanatics. “I appreciate it.”

°°°

The wooden blade glanced off Santhil’s armour when it was stabbed for her side, and she curved her back to avoid it. The instructor seemed pleased with Santhil’s progress, and had already marked her a quick study.

The more Santhil fought the Maibd as they honed their skills on her, the more she appreciated the name of their fighting technique: battle dances. Their every move carried a mesmerising grace, each step, each swing flowing into the next. There was something strangely enthralling about it, and she was excited to be a part of that intricate dance that was exclusive to the worshippers of Khaine.

Adrenaline pumped through Santhil’s body and kept her quick, strong, and flexible. The high pace and skill of combat left with her an almost exhilarating thrill she hadn’t felt since she went the full mile for her dancing finals back at the academy. For a moment, a brief moment, her memories took her back to the wide open hall, the bright beams of sunlight falling past the heavy curtains and onto the wooden dancing floor, her family and friends standing at the sidelines, watching her every move in silence...

But all good things come to an end, and the impressive ones all the sooner. Santhil was shown that the saying “dancing with the Maibd,” a vague reference to being in way over your head, had a very literal etymological source.

The blade swung level and long, and Santhil was off-balance. She bent back far, farther than she was used to doing without a partner holding her, but still felt the wood touch her throat and hold. The instructor called the fight to a halt, and approached.

“Well fought, Drachau,” the challenging Maibd admitted, panting silently from exhertion. “But I’ve won.”

“Won? No,” Santhil squeezed from her throat while she kept effortfully in balance, her back fully curved backwards, and straining her abdominal and leg muscles to keep her from toppling. “I’ve lost, but so have you.” She patted her sword against the Maibd’s side; her opponent gave a start at the touch, and looked at her instructor. She agreed with Santhil.

Santhil moved her leg to resettle her balance, and stood fully upright again. The Maibd was not pleased to have lost, but nodded respectfully to Santhil. Santhil returned the favour, and awaited her next challenger with anticipation; she relished the opportunity to fight opponents skilled so differently from her usual sparring partners. She glanced a look over the audience and picked up new visitors.

The witch Zyln, recovering from her injuries, stood at the side of the small crowd, speaking low with some of her fellows while they observed Santhil. The hidden whispers and furtive glances left little to wonder on the topic of discussion. When Zyln caught her eyes with hers, Santhil reflexively cast her look away, and cursed herself for doing so obviously.

Having just arrived, her sister Lahnia was accompanied by the high priestess. The two held a respectful but not hostile distance, and Santhil surmised some frank things had been said during the talk. But it seemed all had gone as well as she could have hoped. Lahnia’s face brightened visibly when she saw Santhil looking at her, and Santhil’s heart welled up with warmth and the pride she saw in her sister’s eyes.

Santhil tore her eyes away from the crowd when she heard her next opponent step on the mat. She wasn’t surprised to see that spark of supreme confidence in her eyes, or the slightly contemptuous smirk on her fine lips; while Santhil might have been faring better than many of her peers would have, she was still being squarely kicked face first into every corner of the room.

But that didn’t mean she had to take that attitude.

That look, combined with knowing her sister’s proud eyes were on her, gave Santhil a surge of malicious creativity. She grew a smirk of her own, and pointed her sword at the Maibd standing across her. "Sa'an'ishar, Maibd-Khaina," she chuckled. “Lakh Oriour ir ya Khae.” Listening to your sorceress sister harp on the proper pronounciation of elder runes paid off on the strangest occasions. And now, she took to the most insidious lesson she had learned today: Maibd were incredible on the attack, and downright horrible on the defense, so she did the only sensible thing she could.

She charged. Which came as a complete surprise to her opponent and, she heard, the immediate crowd.

Her first swing went narrowly overhead, her second was even closer. Santhil pressed the pace hard on her opponent, bouldering through her attempts to commence one of her many battle dances. Speed was everything. She slashed wide, hard and fast, covering as much space with her blade as she could.

The Maibd saw what Santhil was doing, and knew that hastily dodging every attempt on her wellbeing would not win her the fight. She tried to find a gap in the wall of blades Santhil threw up in front of her and, when she saw the smallest opportunity, prepared for the attack. The moment Santhil pulled back her shield, she took her chance and attacked.

With a powerful swing, Santhil slammed her shield into the charging Maibd brutally hard. Santhil felt the heavy backforce on her arm when she floored her opponent in a single blow. She hadn’t meant to hit her that hard but, all in all, she didn’t feel sorry. She lowered her sword and tapped it on the Maibd’s chest.

“Sorry about that,” she lied halfly. “I didn’t think you would charge into that.” There was something elating about seeing the Maibd flat on her back, eyes slightly defocused, still trying to get her bearings.

Felt like victory.

°°°

“It was a... learning experience,” Santhil replied, and enjoyed the glass of simple, cool water after the hard training she had endured. She wasn’t as backbroken as after a training with Virtok, like the one scheduled immediately following, but it had been a powerful experience nonetheless. “How did I do?”

“You have always been a quick study,” Yalasmina said. “But you’ve surpassed yourself again.”

“Ah, you know,” Santhil said, blushing mildly, “it’s just... you have to watch the legs.”

One of Yalasmina’s eyebrows shot up, and she kept her eyes on Santhil’s. “Uhhuh,” she replied non-committally.

“Why are you— Wait, that came out wrong,” Santhil caught on. “I wasn’t watching watching, I was just paying attention to their stance and how they were going to move.”

“Uhhuh,” Yalasmina repeated.

“I mean, legs talk in combat,” Santhil explained hurriedly. “You have to listen to that, see what they’re going to do and... how they’ll end up and...” Her voice trailed off. “So I wasn’t looking in... you know, that sense.”

Yalasmina kept a level look at her sister. “Anyway,” she said with a loud breath, hinting at a change of subject, “you impressed your instructor enough that she may consider writing you down for regular sessions.”

Santhil’s eyebrows curved finely, and a smile grew on her lips. “I’d like that. Though perhaps the Maibd could beat me less gleefully than they just have.”

“I’m sure you will have ample opportunity to study our legwork,” she said, and then smiled reassuringly. “You’ve done amazingly well, Santhil.”

“You know, for a grunt,” Lahnia added in Yalasmina’s stead when she joined her sisters with a happy smile. “Hello, sweetheart,” Santhil greeted her.

“Santhil, I will return to my duties,” Yalasmina said. “Don’t forget your training with Virtok.”

“I won’t, Mina,” Santhil replied. “Thank you.” She smiled at her witch sister when she left, then turned to the sorceress one. “Have you been here long, Lahnia?”

“No, I just saw the last fight, but hey, you were awesome there,” she said.

Santhil smiled warmly at Lahnia’s compliment, and emptied her glass. “Thank you. But compared to the Maibd, I am still a brontosaurus on rollerblades.”

“Well, I disagree. I think you really stood your own there. Okay, so they were faster than you, but what do you expect? They’re Maibd. You’re normal. You weren’t brainwashed into being a swimsuit model of blood and carnage.” Lahnia ignored the ranks of Maibd around her and, luckily, they returned her the favour. “You’re you because of you.”

“Mistress Arhakuyl,” Santhil said stately, and straightened her back. “Did you just compare me to a swimsuit model?”

“No. Yes. Maybe?” Lahnia wonderingly cast her gaze about. “There is no right answer to that.”

“Then telling the truth is your only choice, isn’t it?” Santhil laughed amusedly at her sister, and dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “I’m just razzing you.”

Lahnia raised her chin while she observed Santhil’s amusement. “I’ll have you know I was more eloquent with the high priestess.”

“I can imagine. When you are angered, you unleash a torrent of intellectual prowess.”

“What makes you think I was angry?”

“You’re you and she’s her,” Santhil chuckled. “How was your talk?”

“Annoying. It’s like they don’t even know how arrogant they are. I mean—” But Santhil cut her off, there, and added with softer voice: “Not on their grounds. We are guests.”

“Not fair,” Lahnia protested. “You get to storm in, banner trodding, sword flashing, and call the high priestess every slither and creep in the zodiac, and I don’t get to discuss a civil talk?”

Santhil was at a loss at what to say. Lahnia was right—she truly was—but it was not a matter of fairness. Still, she was happy to hear her absent answer interrupted when a familiar voice accosted her. “Drachau Arhakuyl?”

“Ah, Zyln, hello,” Santhil greeted her friendly. “You haven’t met, I suppose. Zyln, Mistress Lahnia Arhakuyl, my court sorceress and dear sister. Lahnia, Zyln, the woman who performed miracles to safeguard me while we were in the deepest bowels of the hold.” And who incidentally she tried to kiss. Santhil felt deep embarrassment grip her, and tried to keep from turning red as a tomato.

“Hello, Zyln,” Lahnia opened friendly. “Santhil speaks very highly of you.”

“Mistress Lahnia Arhakuyl, the drachau’s court sorceress,” Zyln repeated the name politely. “I can only recall good words of you as well.”

A dead silence followed. Santhil would have liked no better than to sink into the earth and disappear into a tiny hole. She avoided any sort of eye contact with the Maibd next to her, squirming subtly as seconds slowly added to a growing awkwardness. She looked at Lahnia briefly for help, any help, but only found her sister looking back at her. Say something, Lahnia’s eyes said.

“How’s the—” Santhil’s voice suddenly shot off-note, and she cleared her throat to recover and win herself half a second. “How’s the leg?” Lahnia rolled her eyes invisibly, and Santhil wordlessly challenged her to do better.

“Recovering well, Drachau, thank you,” Zyln said gracefully. “I hear you have recovered very quickly, yourself, venturing back into the depths and defeating an invisible demon.”

“Well, you know, I didn’t have part of a blade in my leg. That, ah, that helps.” She chuckled awkwardly and looked back at Lahnia. Get me out of here.

Lahnia, in turn, continued urging Santhil to talk to Zyln. Clearly, there were things they had to work out, and it would only be polite to speak with the woman that had risked her life, voluntarily, to preserve Santhil’s.

Santhil fiddled with the handle of her sword, fingering the grooves, and kept a just over conversational distance with the woman standing next to her. “Zyln, I, ah...” She choked, and glanced aside quickly, verifying that no-one could hear them. She swallowed, took a deep breath, and tried again. “About,” she finally said, keeping her voice low so that no-one outside of the conversation would hear. “About what happened—”

“Ah, Zyln, here you are,” Yalasmina suddenly said from close behind Santhil.

Santhil’s gloves creaked audibly when she squeezed a new groove into her sword’s handle when her muscles froze on the spot. Lahnia saw her sister tense up and subtly turned away to hide an amused smile with her hand. “I would check up on your injuries, if you would let me,” Yalasmina continued.

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to be rude,” Zyln replied. “The Drachau was just—”

“The Drachau will be late for her appointment,” Yalasmina said, and gave Santhil a meaningful, piercing look. “Come, you shouldn’t pressure your leg.”

Zyln smiled politely. “Of course. Thank you. Drachau. Mistress.” She bowed gently, then followed Yalasmina deeper into the temporary temple grounds.

Santhil blew out her breath and put a hand on her chest bravely holding back her bashing heart. Lahnia snorted into a laugh. “Oh, you think that’s funny, don’t you?” Santhil snapped. She took another deep breath. “Where in Khaine’s name did Mina come from?”

“I’m sorry,” Lahnia laughed, trying to get a hold of herself, but barely managed to even stay upright. “It’s just...” She suddenly gasped for air. “Your face when Mina showed up...”

“Sure, go ahead, laugh,” Santhil growled at her. “I almost had a heart attack. Very funny. You couldn’t warn me?” Lahnia didn’t—or couldn’t—answer properly anymore, and put a hand on Santhil’s arm to keep herself from toppling over in laughter.

“Oh, and thanks for helping me out, there. I was squirming like a wounded fish out in the desert, and you just went: ‘Talk to her, talk to her. Sure, you tried to plant your face into hers, but water under the bridge, right? No reason this should be awkward.’ ” She gave half a snort of her own while she saw tears run over her sister’s laughing face. “Yeah, that really cracked you up. Fiend.” She shook her head with a sigh while Lahnia almost hung from her arm, holding it with both hands. People were looking at them. A sorceress doubling up over a sour-faced politician did that.

“I had not pegged you such a joker, Drachau,” the high priestess said when she approached with a curious look.

“This? Oh, this wasn’t me,” Santhil said. “It was all her.”

“Truly? You have made me curious.”

Santhil took a breath and suddenly stopped. Right. “It’s... actually something of an inside joke. And... I should really be going.”

“Of course, Drachau. Please find a good day.”

“And you, Eminence.” Santhil bowed her head politely and waited for the high priestess to leave before looking down at Lahnia. “Are you alright down there?”

“I’m okay,” Lahnia wheezed, and pulled herself upright again, drying her tears. “I’m okay.”

“Can we go, now?”

°°°

“That should heal nicely,” Yalasmina said. She observed the wound closely, and dabbed it with desinfectant. “I’ll clean it up a bit and change your bandages.”

“Thank you,” Zyln replied, leaning on both her arms. She watched Yalasmina as she collected warm water and bandages. “Yalasmina, are you close to your sister?”

Yalasmina pressed her lips while picking up scissors and some cotton. “Santhil, you mean,” she finally said before walking back to Zyln. “Somewhat, yes.”

There was a long silence while she put some wood on the fire and pulled a utility table next to Zyln. She sat down, put scissors between her lips, looked at her patient, and saw her look back. Yalasmina sighed through her nose and applied some cotton on the wound. “She went to a military academy, studied art with a major in dance, and is drachau of the colonies. Eastern colonies; I sometimes forget the western ones.” She started wrapping the bandage around Zyln’s leg. “She is happily engaged,” she added with no particular tone.

Zyln nodded thoughtfully, not sure whether remaining silent would be polite or simply offer Yalasmina to continue. She didn’t know the medic priestess well. “Have you seen her in combat?”

“More than once. She is a good fighter. Nimble, strong, intelligent. Perhaps a bit too aware of it. Inexperienced, but Virtok teaches her, and Khaine watches over her.”

“He really seems to,” Zyln added. “Or she could be very good.”

“She’s good,” Yalasmina hummed, putting the metal scissors between her lips again. “And she’s blessed.”

“It is uncommon for those not of the Temple to be blessed, is it not?” Zyln hissed quickly when Yalasmina tightened the bandage. “Khaine must be pleased with her.”

“Must be her cup size,” Yalasmina said, carefully rolling the bandage around the wounded leg. She shot her eyes up briefly when she heard no answer, and found Zyln giving her a level look. “Sorry. My sisters sometimes insist on filling my mind with... nonsense.”

“Have you ever noticed anything... out of the ordinary about her?”

“Zyln, if you would hypothesise with me,” Yalasmina suddenly said, and kept her focus on her work. “Suppose for a moment that, hypothetically speaking, someone would believe that my sister is not only blessed but perhaps divinely essenced.”

“I didn’t mean—” Zyln instantly said, alarmed, but she was cut off with a slow wave of Yalasmina’s hand. “I make no accusation,” she assured the wounded elf. “I am merely thinking out loud.

“Because this might imply idolisation other than Khaine, this would be considered heretical. Now, if someone with my level of authority, or any other Temple Khainite, were to find out about this, she would be forced to excommunicate the heretic. Anything less would be a violation of the Temple’s law, Khaine’s law, and she would be best never to enter a battlefield ever again.”

Zyln kept still, silent, and her eyes squarely on Yalasmina. “But luckily no-one is presently forced into such a decision,” she finally tried.

“Oh, luckily, indeed. Because you couldn’t imagine the shitstorm they would be in.” Yalasmina looked up at Zyln and gave her a long, hard stare. Zyln cast her eyes away in silence while she felt the angry gaze pierce her skin and soul.

Yalasmina finally breathed deeply through her nose, meanwhile finishing up bandaging the injured leg. “Someone with such heretical beliefs would do best not to ever speak of it. Absolutely ever. Not to friends, not to family, not to their superior, their colleagues, their imaginary friend, their reflection—ever. For the sake of everyone involved, she should either give up her folly, or practise her heresy in silence.”

“That sounds like reasonable advice to follow.”

“Doesn’t it? Not too tight?”

“No, it’s good.” Zyln gave Yalasmina a cautious look. “Thank you.”

“Performing my duties,” Yalasmina side-stepped the topic. “You should return to yours.”

°°°

Lahnia wet her lips when she parried the overhead blow on the wooden blade. It had been a while since she practised, and she was still rusty, but it came back to her.

“You were taught well, Mistress Arhakuyl,” Virtok complimented her. “You control your technique well.”

“Thanks,” Lahnia replied with a pleased smile. “I’m not as good as Santhil, though.”

“Lady Arhakuyl is a professional; you should not compare to her.”

Santhil gasped for breath, nearly tripping over her own feet when she pulled herself next to Virtok. She put her hands on her knees, sweat dripping from her forehead, and looked up wordlessly at Virtok.

“You have done well, Lady Arhakuyl,” Virtok said, and checked the pocket watch he had on loan from her. “But you can shave off another ten seconds.”

Santhil shook her head, panting, and snorted. “And you say you’re not a funny person.”

“You have fifteen seconds to go back to the start of the track.”

Santhil laughed tiredly, wiped the sweat from her face, and looked up at him.

“Twelve.”

She groaned and wordlessly, defeatedly, dragged herself together and jogged back to the start of the assault track.

“Is she going to be okay?” Lahnia asked, looking pitifully at her sister drag herself away.

“She’s fine,” Virtok said with a knowing smile while pocketing the watch. “Combat occurs on many levels. Skill is vitally important, but skill will not help you when your muscles fail you. I am confident your sister can take those ten seconds off in her next run.”

“Well, it’s... I’m not sure she’s going to make her next run,” Lahnia said.

Virtok smiled briefly. “She's fine. Were you taught to fence as part of your training as a sorceress, Mistress Arhakuyl?”

“Eh, yes. Yes, I was,” Lahnia replied absent-mindedly, and pulled her focus back to the conversation. “Obviously, the idea is not to get that close in the first place, but sometimes...” A blue flame briefly flickered over her blade, and she gave a wicked grin. “Sometimes.”

“If swordfighting interests you, Mistress Arhakuyl, would you accept my teaching?”

Lahnia caught Santhil leaping across the artificial gap and gracelessly slamming her body against the wooden wall as she barely missed the ledge and only just managed to hold onto it. “Yeah, ah, no. No, I’m good. I’m just, ah, I’m just an amateur. I’m not really interested in going professional... ah, just yet— Is she—?”

“She’s fine.”

°°°

“Feel anything yet?”

“Every part of my body.”

“Anything magical.”

“Lana, honey, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be feeling,” Santhil replied. “You call it the ‘winds of magic’, but that’s all I know.”

“It’s a lot like wind, in a sense,” Lahnia said, then gave it more thought. It was hard to explain or describe something that came naturally to her; feeling magic was like her skin feeling someone’s stroke. “You’ll know it when you feel it.”

“I suppose I do feel—”

“That’s draft.”

“Ah. Yeah, I... I figured.” Santhil took her hands off Lahnia’s and broke off the magical contact. She needed a moment to recover her focus. “Remind me again why we’re doing this.”

“Oh, come on, Ari,” Lahnia said with an excited smile. “You’re not a complete magical dud: you have some potential in you. You might actually be able to learn magic.” She looked at her sister with an incredulous, stupefied look. “Aren’t you even curious?”

Santhil laid a hand in her neck and idly stroked her wet hair. She had taken to a hot bath after her day of training had finished, and had hoped for some light chatting before retreating for the night. Somewhere along that path, she was talked into this. She couldn’t really remember how that happened. “Sort of,” Santhil finally admitted. “But I’m—”

“You’ll figure it out. You’ll see.” Lahnia held her hands out to Santhil again. Both had taken to a tailor’s sit on Santhil’s bed, a bit too far from the fireplace to gain much warmth from it. “I’ll try to channel a very little power through you. See whether you can hold on, alright?”

“Are you going to jumpstart me again?” Santhil asked, and eyed the inviting hands warily.

“Tch!” Lahnia exclaimed, and shook her head amusedly. “I’ll be a good girl. Don’t you trust me?”

Santhil hesitated for a moment, then decided to trust her sister and slowly placed both her hands in her sister’s care. Not long after their hands connected, she felt the gentle but averse sensation course through her body again. It was notably less powerful than when Lahnia tested her potential, but she recognised the feeling, and her mind and body warningly connected the dots. She ignored them wilfully.

It was silent. Santhil felt the flow stop, as if a dam suddenly stopped the river, and she tried to feel how the remaining energy dissipated from her body. An aching sensation remained, throbbing in her muscles and nerves, but she felt the magic was gone. Wordlessly, Lahnia sent another stream in that, to her standards, must have been pathetic. Santhil liked that her sister didn’t seem to judge her in any way.

“So...” Lahnia waited for a moment, keeping her voice low. “What were you going to say?”

“When?” Santhil asked, unsure whether the distraction would help or hinder her efforts.

“Zyln. What were you going to say to her?”

“Ah, I don’t know, Lana,” Santhil stalled. “I don’t even know what I should say.”

“But you were going to say something,” Lahnia probed. “When Mina showed up.”

Santhil breathed deeply through her nose. She couldn’t hold the charge Lahnia channelled through. Surely, siphoning something from that stream must be possible. She bent her neck left and right, irked by the overstimulation of nerves all over. “I was going to apologise for trying to kiss her.”

“Huh,” Lahnia said, surprised a little. “How did you envision the rest of the conversation?”

“Well, the way I see it,” Santhil said, and took a calming, steady breath while she felt the warm energy surge through her again. “She’s either angry with me, and that’s that, or she’s fine with it, and...” Her voice trailed off.

“And?”

“And that’s as far as I had it figured out.” Santhil waited for a reply, a witty retort, or any kind of response, but found only silence. After a while, when the energy stopped surging through her body, she let loose her curiosity: “Alright, just say it.”

“It’s just that I thought you’d know how to say no,” Lahnia said. “I mean, catnip.”

“Yes, well, none of them ever believed I was an incarnation of their god,” Santhil said. “And therefore considered themselves already married to me.”

“You must’ve had weirdos. As in,” Lahnia paused for a moment. “Really persistent people.”

“Look, honey, I’ll deal with it when— Yah!” Santhil snatched back her hands and clasped her arms together and, more importantly, away from Lahnia. “Sheesh, Lana!”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Lahnia said, looking worried. “Are you alright?”

“...Yeah, I’m fine,” Santhil said, shaking her hands for a moment. “I just don’t think I’m cut out for this.”

“Oh, come on!” Lahnia pleaded. “I said I’m sorry.”

“It’s not you, sweetheart, it’s—” Santhil stopped when she saw the excited look in her sister’s eyes. It must have been so annoying to Lahnia that Santhil would never understand or experience the most important part of her life and, now that the opportunity glimpsed at her, she grasped it with both hands. “I’m never going to reach your level,” she told Lahnia more than herself.

“But who’s saying you need to? I don’t expect anything from you. I want you to... to try, at least. Believe me, when you try your first magic, and you feel that energy, and you channel it, and... and you do it all wrong and it hurts, but you do it, and you light that candle...” Lahnia crawled all the way back in her memories, back when she was a little girl being taught magic by much older sorceresses. “That feeling that you just... screwed physics and lit that candle.”

Santhil didn’t believe she’d ever even get to the level of proficiency needed to light a candle with her mind, but Lahnia cared deeply about it, and Santhil cared deeply about Lahnia. That made it a no-brainer to her. She held out both hands to Lahnia. “But I’d like to be in bed by midnight,” she said.

A brief silence fell.

“It's past midnight, isn't it?”

“Only a little bit.”

Santhil looked at Lahnia a while longer and finally nodded. “One o'clock.”

“Promise.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Mon May 30, 2011 6:11 pm
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Cold One Knight
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Always a good read. One of the reasons I still come back to the site is for this. ;D

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<Sirist> So you won't lose me. I'm still around. I'm just in you, and in everyone I've known.
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Wed Aug 10, 2011 5:24 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
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Lahnia let her fingertips stroke Santhil’s desk while she slowly circled around it. A number of closed files where on the far left corner. Some blank papers were closely to the right. Ink, quill, and pencils were ahead of her. Lahnia smiled gently. It showed her sister was a ‘lefty’.

Santhil had asked Lahnia to hold down the fort while she and Yalasmina were out. Jesamine was still incapacitated—though last they heard, she was slowly recovering—and a good part of Santhil’s seriously diminished general staff would be busy with the logistics of the army. All this leaving no-one to deal with the more menial, administrative side of running an expedition. This was where Lahnia came in.

Honestly, Lahnia was happy for the vote of confidence Santhil put in her. Yalasmina had been annoying her long enough with the notion that she should start acting responsibly. How could she better show her mettle than to take over the responsibilities of the most powerful woman in the colonies? Even if it was just for a day or so.

Lahnia put her hands on the arm supports of Santhil’s fairly ordinary chair, and slowly sat down. She looked out over the desk with a smile. She had a childish pleasure in sitting in the drachau’s seat, behind the drachau’s desk, using her quill and pencils...

And this time, Santhil had been very clear to her staff, she had assured Lahnia, though she did ask to be considerate and not take leap decisions. Lahnia had no issues with that; for all her wishes to take on a little more responsibility, she was no strategist, and she had no ambition to ever be one.

Knock, knock. Lahnia looked up sharply from her meanderings, and called out through the open door to enter. A messenger with well-described house markings (but what clan would that be?) entered quickly, and stood surprised. “Drachau Arhakuyl, Mistress?”

“She’s out on a sortie,” Lahnia replied. “I’m filling in for her. Can I help you?”

The messenger took half a second to reprogram his etiquette from ‘military chain of command’ to ‘strange recluse that can detonate your organs,’ then instantly kicked into gear. “Mistress, I bring a report about a rise in rats; they’ve been spotted around our storage rooms.” He handed over a map with two sheets in it. “There is also the matter of the potatoes that are about to go bad if we cannot use them within the next two days.” Another map changed hands; Lahnia quickly closed the first and accepted the second. “My commander left a question on the party you had planned—beg pardon, Mistress: that Drachau Arhakuyl had planned. He feels his forces could really do with the morale boost, given that they have been doing guard duty in the dwarven hold for a long time.” There was no map for that. “And the new banners and uniforms you requested are held up in port because of nearby hostilities.” A small, folderless stack of papers was discreetly unloaded onto the desk.

Lahnia blinked. He meant Santhil requested them, of course, but she was trying to keep track of everything he said. “How are our current supplies? Of banners and uniforms, I mean.”

“Our current situation is in the reports, Mistress,” the messenger explained politely. He waited for almost a second before he continued. “Am I dismissed?”

Lahnia looked up from the file she just opened. “Hm? Oh, yes, of course. Thank you.” She scratched her temple and stared down into the papers.

Time to get to work.

°°°

“Where did those people come from?” Santhil demanded to know while she strode into the manor house that doubled as her command post. As had become customary on her sorties, two Maibd flanked her in full battle gear, serving as her bodyguards. “Ill-guarded, you told me,” she continued against the commander closest to her. “Pushover, you assured me. Easy pickings, you convinced me.”

Yalasmina kept out of the intricacies of running a military campaign and focused on the reason for her presence: accompanying Santhil while she sought out a suitable birthday gift for the queen. The manor they were meeting in was to be that gift.

“They must have been in the neighbouring villages,” the commander defended himself and his scouts. “They must have gathered militia.”

Apparently, so Santhil was assured, it was customary for conquering commanders to offer a summer or winter retreat in a picturesque or expensive location. How this decrepit, forgotten dunghole, ten miles south from the middle of nowhere, was going to be a nice retreat for the queen remained a mystery to Yalasmina, but perhaps it was the thought that mattered.

“Militia?” Santhil asked, her voice pitching off unpleasantly as her vocal chords tensed in surprise. “Longbows, knighted cavalry, a set of battering rams—Have you even looked at them? If this is their militia, commander, I’d hate to meet their standing army!”

Zyln stood respectfully with Yalasmina, staying with her unofficial superior when Santhil had joined her commanders. “May I ask?” Zyln quietly addressed Yalasmina while keeping her eyes on the animated meeting going on two or so feet in front of her.

Yalasmina answered by silence, and kept her eyes on the commanders as they spoke, observing their manner and non-verbal behaviour. Some of them grew uneasy under her scrutiny.

“Yes, I am upset, very upset,” Santhil confirmed the commander’s suspicions. “I see hostile forces, five times our size, converging on this village, and the only thing keeping them out is a pallisade! Made of wood!”

“Why are we out here?” Zyln asked quietly, keeping most of her focus on the lively discussion going on amongst the military staff.

“To protect her,” Yalasmina said, knowing full well that wasn’t the answer to her actual question.

“I meant—”

“We do not mingle in military matters,” Yalasmina whispered clearly. “We guard Santhil no matter the reason, no matter the consequences. Everything else—and everyone else— is secondary to us.”

“Reapers down the main street,” the most junior commander proposed, lining his hand along the street marked on the makeshift map of the village. “These two buildings should provide flanking cover.”

Yalasmina’s eyes followed the junior commander as he explained the particulars of his idea. He was uncomfortable. Santhil seemed to approve of his plan, or at least not disapprove outright, so that was not the problem. His look hastily shot out to Yalasmina once while she kept hers on him. He was either afraid of her, or nervous in her presence for more profane reasons.

Men had the most elaborate fantasies about Maibd.

“Two units flank the gate,” Santhil added. “Spears down the main road to hold the charge. We set up roadblocks here and here.”

Yalasmina finally decided to give the man some reprieve and cast her attention on Santhil. Her sister seemed too absorbed by the situation to even notice her two bodyguards standing just out of the discussion. Her staff, of course, was less accustomed to the presence of the Temple's finest, and kept a respectful or perhaps cautious distance.

“Long, short, long,” Santhil clearly said, tapping the clarion that she and her officers carried. “Pass it on to your captains and lieutenants. That’s the order to let loose the artillery. When that happens, everybody clears the main road and lets the Reapers fire their volley.”

It wasn’t peculiar for people to desire the Maibd, or so Yalasmina mused. Forbidden fruits had a powerful appeal, per reverse psychology of sorts, and fueled elaborate and powerful rumours. After all, if there was so much peril in the chase, surely there had to be a magnificent pearl in the triumph.

“Alright, then. Relay the orders, set up lookouts, and start setting up the roadblocks. I expect the attack at early dawn,” Santhil said, and looked over her commanders briefly for questions or objections. None were raised. She nodded confidently. “Very well. Dismissed.”

The most junior commander quickly rolled up the map and fiddled briefly with it in his hands. He turned to Yalasmina and, under guise of a deep breath, gathered courage to speak. While he did so, he aimed his eyes at hers, and he caught a look so thoroughly discouraging that he stopped dead in his tracks, mouth half-open, while still rolling up the map in his hands. He instantly clammed his lips closed and carefully walked a good way around Yalasmina.

Santhil looked at her sister and chuckled amusedly. “I will name that look the ‘Dreamcrusher’, Yalasmina. You wield it skilfully.”

“I am not here to entertain the men under your command, Drachau,” Yalasmina said calmly. She insisted on proper distance and title in these situations: she did not want preferential treatment for being Santhil’s sister, and she was not going to cut Santhil any slack in that respect, either.

“You have made that inescapably clear to him; from joyous puppy love to ‘please don’t emasculate me’ in two seconds,” Santhil said, visibly impressed. “Oh, come on, Mina. You’re a beautiful woman, you have a commanding aura, and you’re dressed... tastefully. You shouldn’t be surprised people are intrigued by you.”

“Oh, but I am not surprised, Drachau,” Yalasmina replied. “I am, however, betrothed to our god, Khaine, and he is a jealous god.” She kept an insistent look on Santhil. “People sometimes need to be reminded.” She left it to her sister to fill in all the blanks she so deliberately left open.

Santhil nodded subtly while keeping her eyes on her sister. “You haven't come to watch over me, have you, Yalasmina?”

“Have no fear, Drachau,” Yalasmina replied with a marble-smooth smile. “I am watching your every move.”

°°°

Lahnia didn’t really understand. She was certain it was just a matter of miscommunication. “They’re rats,” she told the captain on guard. “How hard can this be?”

“Rats are persistent creatures,” the captain maintained. “We need to set up traps and ferret them out. They nest in the smallest of places, and we need to act quickly. For instance,” and he pointed to her left, “there you have two, right now.”

Lahnia, in an almost trained reflex concerning vermin in general and rats in particular, snapped her look to her left and saw the brown-furred creatures down the corridor, one standing on its hind legs and furrowing its whiskers, the other sniffing around busily. She held her hand out to them and, after a quick but mute flash, zapped one of them to crumbles. The other one caught a flame from the sudden burst, and left a smokey trail as it raced off to put itself out.

“Wow,” the captain said. “That’s a really neat trick. Say, maybe we could get some sorceresses together; that could...” Lahnia’s stare gradually cooled the captain’s enthousiasm for his newfound idea. “...help do... if...” He cleared his throat. “Never mind.”

“How quickly can you get those traps set up?” Lahnia asked.

“Meow?”

Lahnia looked down and saw her kitten brush past her legs. “Hey there, sweetie. Are you hungry?” She added a mental note to give it its food as soon as this conversation was over.

“Say, that could probably work, too,” the captain said, pulling his chin. “We don’t have a lot of cats, but we can send them after—”

“What? Are you going to send a little kitten like this after a rat like that?” Lahnia gave him an indignant stare. “Have you seen how big those things are?”

“Beg your pardon, Mistress,” the captain said, fiddling uncomfortably with his hands. “You’re not giving me a lot to work with.”

“The traps?”

“Well, yes, we probably have a few of the traps that the beardlings left behind; if we can figure out how to deploy them, that should help us. But I can’t tell how long that will take. Or whether we have any.”

Lahnia nodded thoughtfully. Good point. But it’d have to do. “Check for those traps. We’ll need them anyway. Any other ideas?” She frowned when she saw a soldier race past them with two buckets of water. He seemed in a hurry.

“The problem can’t be new to this place,” the captain said. “There are bound to be vermin hunters in the nearby settlements that we could hire.”

Lahnia pressed her lips, considering the idea. “I’m not so fond of letting outsiders into the keep. I’d have to check with Ari about that.”

“With whom?”

“Santhil. Never mind.” Another soldier ran past them, swinging two empty buckets from his hands while he skid past the corner. Lahnia had no idea this corridor was so high-traffic. “It’s a good idea, though. What else?”

°°°

“Hold your ground!” Santhil ordered the soldiers next to her, and beat away a spear with her sword. “Keep them boxed in!”

The idea was simple: the enemy had broken down the woefully underfortified wooden gate and poured its troops in; militia from surrounding villages and larger towns, conscript soldiers fueled with rage over the pillaging and ransacking of the Druchii battlegroup in their homeland, and itching for their chance to retaliate. They streamed through the gate and hit the formation in the main street.

To their sides, shielded by the pallisade, were the spearmen and crossbowmen that dealt the real pain. As soon as the units filled with eager troops bolted into the gap, the crossbows fired, the spearmen attacked, and suddenly the militia found themselves outflanked and attacked from three sides by veteran troops with superior equipment. The plan had just one flaw: someone needed to take each and every charge on the chin.

Santhil blocked the sword overhead and, before she could finish him off, Zyln stepped in for the kill, drilling her ceremonial daggers deep through the man’s leather armour and into his body, killing him with a mesmerizing grace and elegance only the Maibd of Khaine possessed. Santhil nodded once to her, and Zyln beamed her a quick smile. They teamed up well.

The battle was taking its toll. While the enemy’s barely trained militia and cohorts of irregulars were no match for their professional army, both sides were taking losses, and every soldier counted. There were no reinforcements to call in, no tactical reserves, no grand and hidden strategy that needed her to stall the enemy. If Santhil lost too many soldiers, one of those charges was going to break through, right down the main street, into the deployed Reaper batteries, and then straight through to the backs of the other commanders.

“Hold fast,” Santhil shouted while the enemy militia saw the folly of their frontal attack and hurriedly, like a jellyfish sliding out a narrow bottle, spilled away through the broken gates. “Hold! Hold your ground! Let them run!”

Not pursuing their enemy instinctively felt wrong to Yalasmina. Usually, when in combat, she would already be riding the red wave of carnage, the mind-blanking flow her combat drugs would have brought her in if she had taken them. But Santhil had specifically requested neither Zyln or Yalasmina would drug themselves for the battle: she needed them focused and following orders.

“Everyone alright?” Santhil asked Yalasmina and Zyln, and received quick nods. She caught a glimpse of the captain leading this unit: he lied on the ground, his hand on his side, blood slowly seeping between his fingers. He silently looked at Santhil, his eyes filled with shame and defeat. Santhil understood, and ordered some of the soldiers to carry him away. “Hurry back,” she called after them.

“Drachau!” Zyln called out, taking a single step back. Santhil snapped her look ahead of her again, and saw what Zyln had: tiny lines crossing the morning sky on their way up. “Shields!” Santhil shouted, and pushed her escort down behind her while she held her shield up over them. The warning and her order had come right on time: her unit—with the captain gone, she was effectively leading them—took cover behind their shields as the arrows came down on them.

The wood-and-metal arrows soared past menacingly, leaving a distinctive, dull whistle when they passed Santhil’s ear. Her shield arm tingled when suddenly an arrow struck through the shield and armour and pressed its metal tip against her skin. She flexed her fingers. Close call.

Clarions sounded behind the walls and through the broken gates. Santhil peeked under her shield and saw another wave of warriors charge at them. Irregulars, militia— An arrow touched the bridge of her nose, and she pulled her head back instinctively. “Make ready!” Santhil called out to her soldiers. “Pin them down!”

°°°

Lahnia stared dumbfoundedly at the sergeant standing in front of her. It had been awkwardly quiet for a few seconds now. “Did you just say a rat burned down our stockpile?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the sergeant instantly confirmed. “A burning rat caused a fire in the stockpile, though we managed to douse the flames.”

“Anybody hurt?”

“Luckily, no. We were on scene quickly. There is some material damage, however.”

Lahnia stroked her forehead with a sigh and nodded. Of course there was. “Alright. Lay it on me.”

“As far as we can tell, the fire started with the banners. They were being temporarily stored there for cleaning until we could return them to the unit commanders.

“The fire then spread to the remaining stock of uniforms that were awaiting repairs from our tailors and fitters, who were currently busy cleaning the banners.”

Lahnia slowly sunk her face into her hand and sighed deeply.

“Our food supplies were next; it was then we noticed the fire and started rescuing supplies and bringing in water. But some of our food didn’t hold well against the water.”

“So,” Lahnia summarised, “we have no more banners, no spare uniforms, and our food supplies have dwindled.”

“On the plus side,” the sergeant added with a more positive spin, “the potatoes are no longer a problem.”

Lahnia gave him a long but impassive stare. “Santhil will be thrilled.” She took a deep breath, then nodded. “Dismissed.”

°°°

“You two, to the left!” Santhil ordered two soldiers fighting alongside her. “Help them to the left!” She spared a quick look over her shoulder and felt a tiny bit of welling hope squashed when she saw an empty street. She had hoped Gamman or Ardehan would have sent a spare unit her way by now. It meant they were in as deep as her. “Hold fast!” she shouted. “Hold them down!”

Directly across from her, a human, Sarthailorian officer encouraged his unit to break through the thinning Druchii ranks Santhil tried to hold together. Their eyes met briefly, locking gazes even though the officer—a junior lieutenant, Santhil guessed—had a thick, neatly chevronned helmet shielding his face.

“Do it,” Yalasmina quickly told her. “And make it ugly. We’ve got you safe.”

“You, their leader!” Santhil called out in Reikspiel, and pointed her sword at him. “Face me!”

As had been the case with Santhil, some of the troops around the lieutenant encouraged him to accept the challenge. They would cover him, they assured him and, slowly, the fighting directly around them simmered to a halt as both sides made sure no-one would interfere with the duel.

“I promise I’ll make this quick, honey,” the lieutenant said smirkingly as he stood in front of Santhil, sword and shield ready.

Santhil gauged his stance: sword at a wrist-splitting angle, shield gripped too tight, legs unbalanced. This man came straight out of training; poor training. She grew a lopsided smile and blew him a kiss. “Don’t worry. I can make a boy last.”

°°°

Lahnia warily observed the tiny devices and tools sprawled all over every flat horizontal surface in the room, and purposefully kept her robe close to herself. All over the dark room were lit candles with different sizes of magnifying glasses focused closely on scratched, white plates.

“Commander,” she greeted the workroom’s occupant, an officer in Santhil’s battlegroup with a talent for whitesmithing and a passion for jewelling. He was hunched over one of his desks, squeezing a monocle between his brow and cheek while dissecting some material with his pincers. “You asked for me?”

Lahnia had seen this commander a few times before, usually in meetings with her drachau sister. He was one of the more senior generals, a tall and perhaps somewhat gruff man. He wore a square face and a no-nonsense lack of smile as his everyday demeanour. When he heard his title, he cast Lahnia a respectful but neutral look. “Mistress. Yes, I have. I have taken a look at the gold dust the drachau found.”

Lahnia poked her memory. He was referring to the gold dust that Zyln found in Santhil’s hair when the two of them where in the deepest chasms of the mountain. Her face brightened subtly. “Ah, that’s great, I could use some good news right about now.”

The commander turned his stool on its screw and silently took the monocle to hand. He gave Lahnia a meaningful stare.

Lahnia sighed slowly. “What could possibly be wrong with gold?”

“There is nothing ever wrong with gold, Mistress,” and he tapped his monocle on the plate next to him before clearing his seat for her. “But this isn’t gold.”

“It’s not— Then what is it?”

He shook his head and offered Lahnia the seat at his worktable and his tools. “I have a hunch that a sorceress is better placed to tell me.”

Lahnia felt something akin to dread creep up her back. The happy touchy feely things in life were the domain of everyday men and women. Sorceresses were experts in ruins and tears and blood and destruction and generally things leaning towards the ‘bad day’-part of the spectrum of life. Asking for a sorceress’ expertise meant something was so incredibly broken that it required the thinking of a woman whose mind was unsullied with such petty concepts like the laws of physics. She wordlessly took the seat offered to her, brushed back a piece of hair that made it out of her clip, took a magnifying glass to hand, and took a good, long look.

A subtly dark aura glew from the specks of dust that lied motionless in front of her. When she focused her look deep into the tiny particles, she found them shifting under her very gaze, shining a tinge of darkness. Lahnia put down the magnifying glass and sat upright with a curious look in her eyes.

Next to her, the commander had his arms crossed over his chest, idly stroking his chin while observing the sorceress. “You understand why I asked for you.”

Lahnia held her hand over the desk and let some invisible energy from the air channel through her arm. Instantly, the tiny crystals moved restlessly on the plate. The dark aura became clearly visible, even to a layman. “Santhil is not going to like this,” Lahnia said, keeping her eyes set on the display in front of her.

“What is it?” he asked, a craftsman’s interest colouring his voice.

“This, Commander, is warpstone: magical energy so focused that it crystallised into the tiny particles you see here. It usually comes in meteorites hurled from the polar gates once every umpteen decades. But sometimes, rarely, it forms where the strands of magic cross; subtle, unstable ley lines of different colours coalescing into tiny discharges—crystals—of pure, tainting Chaos energy.”

He nodded slowly, trying to understand where the sorceress was coming from. “You’re right. The drachau won’t like this.”

“Not one bit.”

°°°

The lieutenant had dared two, maybe two-and-a-half swings before he decided his shield was a much safer thing to keep between him and Santhil. Yalasmina felt a tinge of pride in her heart when she saw the subtle steps and moves her sister made, improvements to her technique, taught by her practice with the Maibd.

All the same, Yalasmina kept a watchful eye on her surroundings, and also on the battlefield. There was only so much time a face-off between two officers was going to buy them. Through the broken gates, she could see cavalry form up and ready; they would roll in a charge in case the infantry failed to break through.

“Khaela Mensha Khaine!” Santhil shouted, overpowering the feeble gurgle coming from her opponent as his neatly chevronned helmet landed unceremoniously on the floor and rolled into his unit. Santhil added insult to injury and kicked the headless body back, causing the soldiers to hastily step out of the way while it stumbled back and hit the dirt gracelessly. “Thanks for playing,” she scoffed.

Zyln prepared for the renewed assault in the battlelines, but was met by the now almost familiar clarion call of retreat of their enemies. Tactical retreat, that is; there were more coming. The cavalry in the distance prepared their charge.

“Drachau, look alive!” Yalasmina called for her sister when she saw the archers prepare another volley. Santhil doubled back to them and raised her voice. “Unit! Shields!” she shouted, and held her shield up over the three of them. “Shields!” One of her soldiers was only just in time: an arrow meant for his head was deflected off his hastily raised shield.

Like quick, heavy hail, arrows whistled hauntingly as they sped past Santhil’s ears. She felt a quick tug on her brow when a metal barb grazed it, and instinctively knelt deeper, pulling the shield closer over her and the two witches in the shade. Another arrow broke on the armoured plates on her boots.

°°°

The sky was clear and sunny, the weather pleasantly warm for the time of year. In the distance, low, dark clouds rumbled closer, but for now, not a single cloud hid the bright sun, not a single fluffy tuft or white, stretched-out noodle across the enthralling blueness.

The assault was not going as well as planned, and the commander knew it. The commander worked it out on the captain; the captain worked it out on the sergeant, and the sergeant... well...

“You call that a shot, private?!” the sergeant bellowed against the archer, blowing his Sarthailorim shoulderpatch halfway off. “You’re an archer! Fire me some goddamn arrows!”

His first week on the job, his very first battle, and he of all people was picked to join the force sent to drive the Druchii out of the village. He didn’t even like being an archer; his thumb hurt from pulling the bow against it. But he was an even worse swordsman.

“You fire arrows like a wuss! Your knees are shaking like a twig in the wind! Pull that string like the leash of a dog running off with your lunch!”

Join the army, they said. See the world, they said. Go up against the Druchii, they quietly murmured. Get impaled on a drannach, they neglected to mention. His very first battle, and he saw the Arhakuyl banner, the dread drachau’s unmistakably veteran army, proudly trodding on the other side of the pallisade, butchering through colleagues he never even knew and now never would.

“You nock and fire an arrow right now, you useless twat! And get it over that pallisade!”

“But sir,” he dared, “shouldn’t I fire in concert with the other archers?”

“They already fired, soldier! You're unbelievable! My blind ol’ grandma is a better shot than you! You’re the reason pigeons crap on every statue in the country! You leave science baffled by your incompetence!”

“B—”

“Fi-i-ire!” the sergeant bellowed, and sent some spit flying over his lower jaw and the conscript’s shoulder.

°°°

“Reform!” Santhil shouted when she spotted her battleline loosening up. Twelve fighting soldiers, at best, to hold off a charge by a fully armed and armoured twenty-horse unit? Her soldiers were smart enough to see they were going to put up as much of a fight as a line of bowling pins. “We need to—”

A clarion from behind them. Santhil snapped her look to her Reapers and saw a familiar banner line up with them. Gamman had sent reinforcements. It was only a single unit, and of crossbowmen, at that, but beggars and choosers... “Fall back!” she decided in a snap when she felt no arrows had hit her shield for several seconds now. “Fall back to the Reapers!” She could almost feel the relief with what was left of her unit, and they scrambled away with the speed of the wind. It wasn’t cowardice; it was good and plain common sense. It was also part of the plan.

Sort of.

“Go, go, go,” Santhil told her escort in turn, pushing roughly against them while she kept her shield up to cover them. She quickly pulled in her head when a throwing axe ricochetted off the top lining of her shield. “Go!” her voice pitched.

Zyln threw Yalasmina a quick look and found it returned and confirmed. “Run,” Yalasmina told her hurriedly, and pulled her onto her feet. “Run and keep running until you reach our battle lines.”

“We can’t leave the Drachau behind,” Zyln protested.

Leave me?” Santhil quickly replied, and pushed in her back. “Try to keep up, grasshopper!” The enemy cavalry signalled the attack on their horn, keeping a narrow formation, and their supporting infantry —the ones with the throwing axes— followed hurriedly to their side. Yalasmina tapped her shoulder quickly; Santhil took the cue, turned on her heel, and dashed off after her escort.

Zyln threw a single look over her shoulder, confirming that Santhil was indeed following, then steeled her resolve and ran on. She could see the friendly troops reform at the end of the street, and the bolt throwers setting up. She hoped they’d try very hard not to hit them.

And then, suddenly, she felt a sharp pain in her back. Instantly, it rippled through her body; her muscles failed her in abrupt agony, and she collapsed through her legs. Gracelessly, her body slammed itself longly into the dirt. Shaken, she tried to aim herself up to run on regardless but, as soon as she tried to move her legs, was paralysed in agony, and only managed a drawn-out, heart-piercing cry.

Santhil snapped her eyes at the sudden cry from a voice she recognised, and instantly spotted Zyln lying on the floor, struggling to move. “Mina, wait! Zyln!”

“Keep running!” Yalasmina shouted in a snap decision, and roughly grabbed Santhil’s arm to make sure she would keep running. “We can’t go back!”

Santhil ignored her sister and spun around instantly. The flash turn nearly dropped her flat on her face; her foot skid out in the dirt, and she caught herself on one hand, but she recovered quickly and sprinted back to the downed witch. Yalasmina couldn’t hold on to her and spun around as well, tripping and rolling over the floor when the sudden jerk hit her. “Ari!” she screamed while she came to a stop. Her eyes widened in fright when she saw her sister dash off. “Ari, no!” She scrambled to her feet, and ran after Santhil.

Santhil felt the ground shake when the enemy cavalry thundered past her, and vaguely heard the firing signal for the Reapers positioned further down the street. Her eyes set on the infantry moving along the sides, on that one soldier that caught that the witch on the floor wasn’t quite dead; he lifted his weapon to correct that error and end her suffering on this mortal plane.

With a scream and a wide, ungainly swing of her sword, Santhil threw her full might in against the soldier’s blade, blocking his blow as it came down. The impact shuddered painfully through her arm and up her shoulder, but she kept running and bashed flat into the soldier with all her might, flooring him half a yard off. The other soldiers turned against her not a moment later, giving her only an instant’s reprieve of surprise.

Yalasmina roughly brushed against a stupefied enemy soldier while she ran past their ranks, her mind and eyes set on her sister. She could see Santhil fighting tooth and nail for every inch of ground, clearly possessed with superior skill over her opponents, but it would take just one lucky hit to take her out and, the way things were going, a lot of people were taking shots at that hit. It was a matter of seconds.

Santhil felt the adrenaline take over her mind and muscles, every bit of her subconsciousness focused on survival, giving her that split of speed and reflex that stopped a spear from skewering her eyesocket and instead left it to graze her temple. She felt the pain, but her body refused to act on it, and she elbowed the primate’s square chin with all her might. He didn’t give way a single step, and instead threw his full weight in against her, bashing her back hard into one of the wooden beams holding up the grocery store’s overhead roof. She struggled to free herself, but he kept her body pinned hard against the beam. One of his comrades swung back his axe, aiming for her neck.

With a leap, Yalasmina drove a blade through the axe maniac’s throat, and the other through his arm in an attempt to stop him. The axe flung out of his hands; Santhil pulled her head aside in a desperate, last-ditch attempt at survival, and felt the crude blade cut a narrow line into her skin before it splintered the wooden beam she was pinned against. Moving fluidly from one swing to the other, Yalasmina slashed the curved, ceremonial swords into the man holding Santhil down. He cried out in pain and let go of her; instantly, Santhil threw her leg up and kicked him harshly in the face, stumbling him back a few steps before he fell to the ground. The other soldiers gave the women wide berth and hastily rejoined their ranks.

Panting for breath, Santhil swallowed the hot saliva in her mouth and reached down for Zyln. “Come on, on your feet,” she yelled, and painfully roughly grabbed Zyln’s arm to pull her on her feet. “We’re not there yet!” But Zyln let out a deep cry and fell from Santhil’s grip.

“She can’t stand!” Yalasmina yelled, and glanced over the injury quickly. “And even if she could, she wouldn’t survive the run! Santhil, we have to—”

“Take her arms, I’ve got her legs,” Santhil said, and bent down over Zyln’s legs. “On three.”

“We can’t carry— Are you out of your goddamn mind!?”

“We can’t leave her!” Santhil yelled, and grabbed Zyln’s ankles. “Mina, I’ll drag this woman if I have to!”

Yalasmina thought quickly while she took Zyln’s wrists. “To the side of the street!” she suddenly said. “We’ll have cover from the arrows and we’ll stay out of the—” Her eyes opened widely. “—charge! Move, Ari, move-move-move!” Her voice pitched up panickedly while staring wide-eyedly over Santhil’s shoulder.

Santhil forcefully dragged Zyln half off the floor and to the closest side of the street while Yalasmina tried to follow suit. Immediately, she felt a painfully rough, flat punch in her back, bashing her aside and powerfully throwing her against the grocery store’s wooden wall. The armoured horse that grazed her ran on unfazed, disciplinedly holding the line in the charge down the street. They ignored each other. There were more important things to do.

“Santhil? Santhil, are you alright?”

Santhil felt her painful head for a second, then nodded as quickly as her aching skull allowed her. “Help Zyln,” she said, and tried to steady herself.

Yalasmina kneeled down next to Zyln and opened her hands, keeping them clear off the wound. The blood was dark, it flowed steadily from the arrow’s entry point, and Zyln had become a little paler, though moving her seemed to have next to paralysed her in agony.

“How bad is it?” Santhil said, and hissed when she touched her temple. That was going to be sore in the morning.

“She’s bleeding internally. The arrow hit an organ, probably her kidney,” Yalasmina made a quick assessment. “If she doesn’t get medical help right no—” She instinctively lowered her head when an oversized metallic bolt soared over them and splintered one of the tacky porch supports as it glanced off. “—right now, she won’t see the end of the battle.”

“Can you help her?” Santhil asked hurriedly, and brushed the wood chips from her shoulder. “Can I help?”

“We’re not doctors, Santhil—”

“You are,” Santhil quickly cut in.

“I am not,” Yalasmina stressed clearly.

“Today, you are,” Santhil persisted. “What do I do?”

Yalasmina thought quickly, hurriedly, looking down at the injury. She felt the ground shake as the cavalry thundered past them in retreat. “We need to sedate her,” she said, reached down her belt pouch, and unloaded the herbal contents on Zyln’s back. “Green, three-leaved, in her mouth, chew, swallow,” she said quickly, and grabbed the desinfectant from her pouch.

Santhil did as her sister commanded, picked out the relevant herbs, and pressed them against Zyln’s lips. “Chew on these. They’ll ease the pain,” she offered.

“Now hold her down,” Yalasmina ordered while she pulled off her gloves. “I need to pull out the arrow.”

“But the sedative hasn’t had time to—”

“So this is going to hurt like nothing she’s ever felt before, and I need you to hold her down.” She carefully wrapped her fingers around the arrow shaft. Zyln gave a start the moment she touched it. “Hold her down hard,” she stressed to Santhil.

Santhil gave Zyln a cautious, pitying look, and placed her free forearm in one of her hands. Zyln rolled her eyes up to her, gauging her intent. She felt the grip tighten in anticipation.

It was remarkably quiet: no scream, no beating, only a quick gasp, a held breath, and a vague creaking of leather and cloth while the life was being squeezed out of Santhil’s arm. Her fingers tingled as the blood ceased to flow to them.

Yalasmina cast the bloody arrow aside and looked into the open wound. It wasn’t bleeding as much as she had expected. Something was clogging everything up. She threw a look at the arrow. No arrowhead. She sighed quickly. “Santhil, I’m going to need your—”

“Mina,” Santhil interrupted nervously, looking over her sister’s shoulder. “Remember that unit without their lieutenant that we sent packing? They’re back. And they just saw us.”

“We’re out of everyone’s way now,” Yalasmina said, and quickly rubbed her hands and the cloth with the disinfectant herbs. “Their superiors will keep them in line.” She dabbed the cloth on the wound with her free hand. “Put your hand—”

“We killed their superior,” Santhil repeated. “And I don’t think they’re willing to drop the issue.”

“How many?”

“Eh... eleven, twelve, maybe?”

Yalasmina looked down into the wound and shook her head slowly. “If I leave her, she’ll—”

“I know,” Santhil cut in, and stood. “Help her, get her on her feet. I’ll be fine.”

“What— Are you— Get back here!” Yalasmina yelled angrily at her sister while she walked past. “Santhil!”

“Somebody has to keep them off, and somebody has to treat her,” Santhil stressed. “Do what you can. I’ll be right behind you.”

Yalasmina took a quick breath swallowed her answer, hissed through her teeth, and focused back on Zyln. “Santhil, Khaine be my witness, if we survive this, I’m going to strangle you with my bare hands.”

“Deal.”

°°°

Yalasmina moved her fingers quickly, stroking the organs painfully while she traced the sources of internal bleeding. Was it... finally, there it was; she could see the shine of metal were the tissue was torn. She threw a quick look at Zyln, who was still breathing and less squirming, exhausted from pain, and numbed by the herb. If Yalasmina didn’t need her absolute focus, she’d pity her.

It had grown dark. It wasn’t evening yet, but the low, thick clouds blocked out the sun almost completely now. A cold wind swept through the streets. Overhead, a flash of light was followed by a loud thunder.

When the thunder subsided, she heard the scuff of feet in the sandy dirt. A clang of metal sounded closely overhead. A scrape, a sickly squish of metal tearing through flesh, a male gurgle sounded. She had no time to worry about Santhil.

Zyln let out a long, painful groan. Yalasmina skipped her eyes at her quickly. “How are you holding?” she asked hurriedly.

“...Ouch.” The herbs were working, and her mind and body had surrendered to the torture. She no longer winced when Yalasmina’s fingers touched the wound, but it sure as hell still hurt.

“I know, Zyln,” Yalasmina sighed. “I’m doing whatever I can.”

“...The drachau?” Zyln asked, looking around as much as she could.

“Right behind me, being a goddamned heroine,” Yalasmina growled, and was cut off by a deep, bellowing roar turning into a loud, surprised scream passing narrowly to her side. With a thick metal bang, the soldier stopped his impetus by slamming headfirst into one of the wooden beams holding up the overhanging roof. “And apparently having a ball.”

Zyln hissed when she felt Yalasmina work. “I’m sorry I got you into this.”

“It’s not your fault,” Yalasmina said, and reached for the red-soaked piece of cloth.

“You should have left me—”

“Yes, we should have,” Yalasmina cut in annoyedly. “But Santhil, with her delusions of chivalry, believes she can save you. Now save your strength, and pray Khaine is with us today.”

Zyln managed a weak smile while she watched Santhil. “Right behind you,” she groaned painfully, “Being a heroine.”

Yalasmina shook her head disapprovingly and forewent on any kind of answer. She pulled a fine knife from her boot and held it against her finger. It would have to do. “This will sting. Hold still.”

°°°

With a sharp blow, Santhil beat the sword out of the man’s hand, dropping it to the dirt. In his effort to hold on and later grab his blade, he bent over precariously, brushing against her as he almost dove for his weapon. Santhil didn’t hesitate a second and bashed the pommel of her sword into his neck with all her might, slamming his face into her knee. He dropped to the floor, unconscious, two streams of blood trickling from his nose. One of his friends became more hesitant to attack, leaving her with a combattant less to worry about.

She peeked at her own battlelines, and saw a fivesome of her soldiers get a quick nod from their captain to come to her help. Santhil shook her head and gestured wildly for them to keep back, and backpedalled from the fight she was in. “Stay with the Reapers!” she shouted, her voice drowned out by the thunder. They hesitated, looking at their officer and back at Santhil. “Hold your ground!” she stressed, and caught a shine of metal in the corner of her eye.

One of the fighters had seen his chance, and thrust his spear for her side. He was quick, and Santhil only barely avoided it with a quick bend of her back, feeling the metal spearhead scrape her breastplate as it passed her. Instantly, she grabbed the shaft with her shield arm and yanked hard. He let go the moment he felt her grip on his weapon. Smart guy.

Santhil panted slowly and shook some hair from her face. Her temple stung painfully when she did, and some hair had clotted with blood. She winced. Apparently, she hit her head against that beam a lot harder than she first thought.

Suddenly, a loud metal shriek sounded, and sparks fountained from her armour while her torso was violently tugged into another direction, forcing her to take a step to not topple over. She spun around to see what hit her, saw nothing, then spun around again, and spotted the large metal bolt that nearly skewered her, now flying off into the darker distance. Santhil felt like giving her Reaper batteries a gesture that accurately reflected her sentiments, but held when she saw what her battery had aimed for—and hit. She quickly scrambled out of the way.

A formation of cavalry, lances in the air and banners trodding in the wind, made speed down the street she was hurrying to the side of. If that charge hit the lines futher down the street, she’d lose her entire battery of Reapers. Not only would that cost her the battle, but those things didn’t come cheap.

She looked around for something, anything she could do. Her grip reminded her of the spear she took. Without second thought, she aimed for the leader of the cavalry formation while it passed, and hurled it with all her might. Taking him out would dim the impetus of the charge.

The spear fatefully soared through the air, unhindered by the tumultous battle taking place underneath it. After a good second, it lost altitude and plunged down, widely missing the formation leader, and stuck into the floor somewhere to his left with a loud ‘twang’. Santhil considered she might have overestimated her skill a little, there.

The next horse couldn’t avoid the spear and misstepped on it, slipped over the wooden shaft, and crashed to the floor. The one coming after tried desperately not to suffer the same fate, skid out over the sand, and fell to the side. Santhil clenched her teeth when she saw the entire lane of the charging formation, along with a few haphazard riders to the side, topple, drop, skid, or fall to the ground, and one even trying to avoid that fate, steering his horse away, and crashing through a wooden door and into a house. Or mostly into a house; a killer headache would teach him to account for low ceilings.

Yalasmina looked over her shoulder at the tumult, not sure whether she should worry, and stared astonished at the carnage she saw. She skipped her eyes to Santhil.

“I...” Santhil said with a helpless look, staring at the result with similar surprise. “It was— It’s— I meant for that to happen.”

°°°

Another flash, even brighter than before, and an equally loud thunderclap. This thunderstorm was unusually prolific. Perhaps such thunderstorms were customary in this climate, or perhaps one of the commanders recruited a sorceress for the sortie. Yalasmina didn’t give it much thought at the moment.

“Still breathing?” she asked. Zyln swallowed and slowed her breath, but didn’t really answer. “Keep an eye on where the lightning strikes for me; tell me when it’s close.” Which had absolutely no use: lightning just struck, possibly miles away, but it gave her something else to focus on than the knife moving around in her body.

“It struck the village,” Zyln said weakly but surprised. “There is a fire.”

“Keep talking,” Yalasmina said, and held another knife between her lips. She was going to need to take along more supplies next time.

“Isn’t that... the manor?” Zyln continued.

Yalasmina spared a quick look. In the distance, the manor, slightly taller than the others, the one that Santhil aimed to give to the queen as her birthday gift, was now dotted with smoke and flames. Fire lashed around furiously, spreading over the roof alarmingly fast. She shook her head to herself and focused back on her improvised surgery attempt.

“Shouldn’t we—” Zyln stopped a moment to catch her breath. “Shouldn't we tell her?”

“She's busy right now, don't you think? Just pray the rain comes soon,” Yalasmina said, put one knife aside, and reached for the pincers.

°°°

Swing, swing, and wide! Santhil felt the drops of blood fall on her cheek when her blade connected. His scream was drowned by another thunderclap close overhead. It also drowned out the bellow of the late soldier’s comrade as he charged in on her, large hammer in both hands. He swung, she couldn’t avoid.

With a loud smash, he hit her shield. Santhil felt the straps and buckles that held it to her arm tear clean open as it was flung away at a dangerous speed. Quickly, she leapt back and narrowly avoided a second swing, aimed for her waist. When he came around for the third, she lunged forward and drilled her sword through half of his throat. Lucky. A weak gurgle rolled from his throat along with the blood that streamed down her sword.

Santhil yanked her sword out with a grunt of effort, and caught her breath. Quickly, she wiped her forehead with her now free shield arm. It was throbbing in mild pain, but she could move it, so nothing was broken. She held a moment to catch her breath.

A weak but insistent cry pierced Santhil’s ears and heart. She looked at Yalasmina, bent over Zyln as she was, and saw... pincers going into the wound. She swallowed and felt her kidneys suddenly give an uncomfortable ‘hello, I’m here’-feeling.

Suddenly, she felt a shoulder bash into her chest and throw her witlessly to the floor. One of her enemies, the one whose spear she took, got the jump on her, throwing himself against her for want of a weapon. That last, he remedied quickly, and he eagerly grabbed the large warhammer from his fallen compatriot. Santhil wistfully eyed her sword, hopelessly out of reach. Her eyes rolled up over the man as he lifted the oversized metal hammer high over his head with a toothy grin.

Yalasmina gave a start when a deafening crack rippled through the sky and shuddered her body. A metal plate of armour whistled when it soared past her ear and clanged loudly on the wooden floor, where it smouldered with a hiss. She frowned, arrowhead between her pincers, when the sickly stench of singed meat and burnt hair entered her nose.

Santhil felt little splashes of pain flare up over every nerve and muscle in her body. She tried to blink away the red and white spots that dotted her eyes, but the world remained a blurry, hazy thing. Her arms protested when she supported herself on her elbows.

The soldier holding the hammer had a couple of burn marks visible on his body, one of his teeth was blown out, and his eyebrows were burnt clean off. Lifelessly, he dropped to his knees, slowly careened over, and then fell flat next to her. Santhil felt a mist of noise dwell down over her ears, and slipped from her elbow, landing on the dirt again. She heard discordant voices scramble in her mind while the ringing drowned out the battlefield around her. But a familiar voice came out on top, calling out her name. She frowned mentally, trying to focus, and suddenly caught a clump of dirt in her face.

“Come on, on your feet!" Yalasmina yelled at her, fright pumping in her heart when seeing her sister floored so helplessly. "Get it together!”

Santhil coughed once and rolled halfway on her painful chest. Her heart was hurting, contracting spastically, completely thrown off by the sudden overstimulation of her every nerve. She bit through the pain, put one hand on the ground, and scraped one foot under her. The blood pumping erratically through her body kept an annoying buzz on her ears while she slowly, unsteadily, tried to gain a footing.

“Move, soldier! You're fine! Now get over here, I need your help!”

Santhil stood halfway up, swaying dangerously to her left. The world was spinning around her, pulling her aside, moving the earth under her feet, drawing little lines and oddly coloured circles around her. Before she well realised, she was holding the floor again, but this time next to Yalasmina.

Yalasmina gauged her sister’s defocused eyes quickly and reached over for her left wrist. She flinched when a spark crackled painfully, but took a firm hold of Santhil’s wrist again and forced her hand down on the bleeding wound. “Push. Hard.”

Santhil pushed down as hard as she could, pretty much lying flat on her chest, and aimed herself up on her elbow. The world started spiralling around her again. Keeping her hand put was surprisingly hard. “Am I doing this right?” she croaked.

“You are, Ari, you are. Keep that pressure,” Yalasmina quickly said, and opened Santhil’s eyelids, looking into her eyes. Her fingers left crimson prints all over Santhil’s face. “Are you hurt?”

“Hah!” Santhil laughed. “You should see the other guy.”

“That was lightning splash you experienced,” Yalasmina told her, turning Santhil’s head to check her for injuries. “You’re dizzy; what else? How are you feeling?”

Santhil blinked a couple of times and shook her head confusedly. "I can see sound and hear colour."

Yalasmina chuckled once. “Hold still, and keep that pressure.”

A loud thunderclap sounded overhead. Yalasmina pulled Santhil’s hair aside and gently padded the soaked cloth around her sister’s headwound. Santhil winced once, but found some comfort in the treatment. “How's Zyln?” Santhil asked while she felt her arm muscles protest under enduring stress.

Zyln took a few slow, shallow breaths before she answered. “I’m peachy, Drachau,” she said. "And you?"

“Mina said I'll walk it off.” Zyln gave a snort and instantly held in pain. “Yeah, my thought exactly.”

“Alright, Santhil,” Yalasmina said, and pressed the cotton patch down on her hand. “Press on this while I bandage her.”

Santhil did as she was told, and watched Yalasmina’s tired fingers unroll the bandage. It was surprisingly white and pristine, in contrast to the rest of their environment: grassy smudges, dirt, blood, sweat... She looked up at the pregnant sky, wondering when it would finally rain, and heard not a thunderstrike, but clarions. Loud, familiar clarions. Her army’s sign to attack. She aimed her unsteady gaze down the street.

Her army’s banners were up and trodding. She saw the infantry lines march up, the cavalry moving in on the side. If she weren’t so exhausted, she would be hopping around like a bunny. She looked the other way and saw the enemy army pull away. Clarions as well. They were in retreat.

It was over.

“...We missed the battle,” Santhil said.

“You’re breaking my heart, Santhil,” Yalasmina said tonelessly. “Keep still... and... you can let go.”

Santhil slowly pulled away her hand and rolled on her back. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. What a day. She heard Yalasmina call for a stretcher when the army’s front line had passed.

Seconds passed. She felt Yalasmina’s hands on her arm, offering to help her up. Santhil smiled gratefully and accepted the help.

Yalasmina pulled her sister onto her feet, carefully let go of her and eyed her closely. Just before Santhil could topple over, she put her shoulder under her sister’s and supported her. Santhil beamed her a quick, thankful smile. “I’m still going to strangle you when we get back,” Yalasmina told her.

“Take me home and I’ll let you,” Santhil chuckled, and took a deep breath. ”At least, we got what we came for,” she changed the topic, and aimed her free arm to the manor on the slight hill. “We held the village, and the queen gets her birthday—” She stopped. “Oh, no.”

Yalasmina followed her sister’s dread look and saw the same thing. Thick plumes of smoke towered out of the manor, tiny bits of glowing wood twirling artfully as they sailed fiery into the dark sky. A draft of flame blew through a window as the glass shattered from the heat.

“Oh, no. No. No no no... no!”

A snap. A crack. In the distance, she could hear the roof give way and crash down. Slowly, the walls followed.

“No-no-no-no-no—NO—!”

A long, painfully long crack drowned out Santhil’s cry as the middle of the building collapsed on itself, sending bits of itself flinging dangerously about.

Santhil slid from Yalasmina’s shoulder and collapsed to her knees, a dead stare set on the crumbling building that she was gifting to her queen. She saw the last wooden beam, one that had stood so bravely, slowly fall to the flames. Yalasmina gently squeezed Santhil’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Santhil,” she said softly.

“But... but,” Santhil stammered. “But... the manor... the queen...”

“You can always find her something else,” Yalasmina tried to comfort her.

“But... but I had... it was...” Santhil’s voice pitched sadly.

“Don’t cry, sweetheart,” Yalasmina said. “There’s nothing you can do.”

A quick ristle behind them. Yalasmina hadn’t the time to look over her shoulder before she felt a thick curtain of rain gush over her. She pressed her lips, looked up at the dark sky where the downpour came from, then stared ahead again.

Slowly, the flames lowered, the smoke thinned, the red glow dimmed. Within seconds, the rain became even more intense, and torrented down over them. Another thunder came rolling from the distant skies while the last cinders puffed away into the dark day.

“Are you crying?” Yalasmina finally asked.

“It just... doesn’t feel right not to.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Sun Sep 25, 2011 6:46 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
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“You’d think,” Santhil started while she squeezed a steady stream of water from her hair, “that they had made their point by now.”

Yalasmina chuckled briefly and took the clip/comb from her hair that had kept it all in place during the frantic battle. “If any point was made, Santhil, it is that someone up there likes you.”

Likes me? I’ve been cut, stabbed, shot, hammered, trampled, electrocuted, and—and!—saw the prize, the one we all risked our lives for in the first place, crumble into little pieces in front of me. Like a cardhouse. In flames.”

“You ran straight into enemy lines, with no regard for life or tactics—or sanity, for that matter—to save the damsel in distress who was there to protect you in the first place, and you were cut, stabbed, shot, hammered, trampled, electrocuted, and you survived. And now that we’re on that topic,” she said, and slapped Santhil sharply on her cheek. “You deserved that.”

Santhil’s eyebrows shot up in surprise when she felt the sting on her cheek and instinctively brought her hand to shield it from further abuse. She beamed her sister an amused smile. “I thought you were going to strangle me.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“I just didn’t exp— Wait, what?”

“Ari, Mina!” Lahnia called out with a wide smile as she caught sight of her sisters, and walked up to them. When she caught better sight of Santhil, she slowed her pace, and cautiously kept her flawlessly clean, beautiful, black robe a little closer to herself while she gave her sisters a pitying stare. “Oh... my... word.”

Yalasmina’s gloves, lips and forehead were smeared with dried blood, her boots spotted with mashed dirt and grass, like she cut someone’s throat and then decided to choke him in the mud for good measure. Likewise, Santhil had clearly spent the day refereeing a Blood Bowl grudge match in the middle of a hurricane. Both of them were soaked to the bone, streamlets of water trickling down their face and body, and dripping from their brows, chin, sleeves, boots, gloves.

“Do you ever have a normal day?” Lahnia wondered, still stunned at how trashed her sisters looked.

“Yeah.” Santhil laid a hand in her neck and sent drops flying out her sleeve. “Yeah, I think it was a... Tuesday?”

“Are you using that towel, Lahnia?” Yalasmina inquired with a polite smile.

“Oh, here you go. I just dried my hands on it,” Lahnia said, and offered Yalasmina the small towel. She then looked back at Santhil. “So, ah...? Do you need anything?”

“A hot bath, a stiff drink, and a wealth of good news.”

Lahnia nodded sympathetically. “Didn’t go well, did it?”

“Depends on who you ask. My generals are ecstatic at a beautiful triumph against the odds, clinging onto victory with the skin of our teeth to beat back a numerically grossly superior force. So, my generals, their soldiers, they’re going to bed with a warm, happy feeling in their hearts.

“And so would I, if... if...” Santhil sighed with a growl, and took the towel Yalasmina offered her.

“...If?” Lahnia tried cautiously.

“It was perfect, Lana, it had everything. Large manor, two floors, three bedrooms, big lounge, beautiful living room with a fireplace and an exquisite view on the village. Attic, basement, cellar—even a toolshed reminiscent of pre-civil-war architecture. And then... vamoosh.”

“Vamoosh?”

“Lightning. Right, smack down in that one...” She pulled out her hairband and swung her wet hair back, dotting Yalasmina’s freshly dried face with tiny droplets. “In the only...! Burned everything to a cinder. Bedrooms, lounge, living room, the whole she-bang. Gone. Dust blowing in the wind.” Yalasmina sharply snatched the towel from Santhil’s hands and gave her a dark look while she dried her face again. “Lana, I have had better days.”

“How about yours, Lahnia?” Yalasmina inquired, and handed Santhil the towel with a vindictive glance. “How did the drachau’s seat work for you?”

“It, ah,” Lahnia stalled. “It was...”

“Oh yes, Lahnia, please,” Santhil sighed in relief. “I could use some good news about now.”

Lahnia clicked her tongue and took a deep, deep breath. “Right, ah...”

°°°

If Santhil would sink any deeper into the uncomfortable couch, she would have been lying down in it. Her eyes had steadied for the most part, and she felt better, but she still appreciated the grip the arm support gave her. She settled her eyes on Lahnia’s. “Warpstone,” she said tonelessly.

“Warpstone,” Lahnia confirmed, standing next to her.

Next to her, with her legs pulled onto the couch, Yalasmina worked with absolute focus, carefully pulling strands of Santhil’s smooth hair aside to check her head injury. Compared to the rollercoaster surgery she had just performed, this was like giving candy to a child. Or taking it from a child, without the crying and beating and tossing. Though she would really like Santhil to: “Hold still.”

Lahnia bent over Santhil’s legs, trying to get a glimpse of the injury. “How bad is it?” she asked Yalasmina.

“Not as bad as it looks,” Yalasmina said comfortingly, but kept her focus on her task. “She probably won’t even need stitches.”

Lahnia smiled, and nudged Santhil’s leg. “You always get banged on the head.”

“Warpstone? Here?” Santhil asked Lahnia with a deeply perplexed look.

“Hold still,” Yalasmina stressed. “Just because it’s not as bad as it looks, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need treatment.”

“Speaking of treatment,” Lahnia suddenly said. “How is Zyln? Will she be alright?”

“She’s being treated by a real doctor—not someone bombarded to battlefield surgeon in the middle of no-man’s land,” and she glanced sharply at Santhil, who missed the look entirely, “and she will make a full recovery, though obviously she will be out of the fight for a while.”

“I guess taking an arrow in the kidney does that,” Lahnia said, and thought about it. She squirmed uneasily. “But she must think the world of both of you, coming back to save her when everyone else was falling back.”

“Santhil came back for her,” Yalasmina corrected, her eyes fixed on her fingers as they worked. “I followed Santhil.”

“I couldn’t leave her there to die,” Santhil said quickly, looked at Lahnia, and shook her head bewilderedly. “Warpstone?”

“For the love of—! Santhil, would you hold still?” Yalasmina exclaimed annoyedly. Santhil shrank an inch under the authoritary gaze, and looked still ahead of herself, her eyes focused on some dead point on the wall across the room. She hid a wince in a blink when she felt the warm, soapy spunge dab her headwound again. “Does that sting?” Yalasmina asked.

“A little,” Santhil admitted. “It’s okay.”

“Anything I can do?” Lahnia offered.

Santhil’s eyebrows shot up. “Coffee. Coffee would be great.”

“You’re off coffee,” Lahnia asserted.

“I’m—” Santhil gave Lahnia an incredulous look. “I’m not even on coffee. I’m not on anything.”

“Well, fine then,” Lahnia said, and crossed her arms. “If it’s coffee you want, you can go get it yourself.”

“Wh— Are you— Can you believe this woman?” Santhil asked Yalasmina.

“Ari, I swear to my lord and god, I will rub this soap in your eyes if you do not hold still,” Yalasmina threatened.

“I can make tea,” Lahnia offered.

Santhil felt her aching bones and muscles protest even before she moved them, warning her not to attempt to leave her seat for something as trivial as a cup of coffee. She slowly rolled her breath out her nose. “I’m at your mercy.”

“Really?” Lahnia looked her sister over with a teasing smile. “So, if I told you it was peppermint tea, there’d be nothing you could do about it.”

“You are a cruel victor, you know that?”

“Vae victas, Ari.” Lahnia beamed her an amused smile and winked while she walked away. “I’ll just be a tick.”

Santhil listened to her sister’s steps as they died to an echo and finally to a memory. The fireplace crackled calmly but brightly, submerging the room in a warm, golden glow, giving Yalasmina the light she needed to work, and Santhil the warmth she needed to relax.

Santhil’s eyebrow curved up when she noticed Yalasmina had an amused smile. “What?” she asked.

“You play her games,” Yalasmina said. “You tease and you play and you joke. You’re a good person, and a good sister.”

Santhil smiled warmly. “Thanks.”

“But if you don’t hold still, there will be pain.”

“Isn’t that wound clean by now?”

“It is,” Yalasmina confirmed. “I’m washing the blood out of your hair.”

“Huh. Thanks, I appreciate that.”

“I thought you might.”

“I’m back,” Lahnia said, and handed Santhil a mug of tea. “Here you go, fresh and hot.”

Santhil looked down into the mug and frowned. “It’s red.”

Lahnia raised her eyebrow subtly. “So?”

“Peppermint isn’t red, is it?”

Lahnia looked down into the cup with an amused sigh. “It’s not red, it’s brown. Don’t be a baby. You’ll be fine.”

Santhil looked suspiciously at Lahnia and carefully took a sip from her drink. She swallowed and blinked her eyes when they watered.

“Too strong?” Lahnia asked.

“It has a weird taste,” Santhil admitted.

“But you’ll get a minty fresh breath.” She looked around for a place to sit down, but there wasn’t really anywhere comfortable near her sisters. She turned back to Santhil when she heard her sister pat her leg with a smile. Lahnia grinned and carefully sat down in Santhil’s lap. “Drachau,” she said playfully.

“Mistress,” Santhil replied, and wrapped her free arm around Lahnia. She smiled contently when she felt the warm body nestle in against hers, and took another sip from her tea. “Comfortable?”

“I’m good,” Lahnia said, and pulled Santhil’s arm a bit tighter around her.

Santhil gently stared ahead of her. She found comfort in the care of Yalasmina’s fingers in her hair, even with the occasional sting or pull, and sighed contently. This was her little piece of heaven on earth. She took down most of her tea, and handed the cup to Yalasmina, who put it aside on the coffee table for her.

“Whatever am I going to do with warpstone?” Santhil finally said.

“Why do anything with warpstone?” Yalasmina answered. “Why is it such an issue?”

“Because it’s not gold,” Santhil explained, being very careful not to move too much. “Mining gold from here would’ve gone a long way in covering the war’s expenses. But it’s not gold. It’s warpstone.”

“Dealing in warpstone can be very lucrative,” Lahnia brought up.

“And very forbidden by imperial law,” Santhil said. “And even if we were to risk our necks and trade it anyway, I’ve never heard of a warpstone fence.”

“Don’t worry, I can take care of that,” Lahnia said.

Santhil dropped silent and looked at her sister. Yalasmina shared her stupefaction and surprised gaze.

“I mean, I know some people who know some people who trade things under the radar. I’m sure they can find a good fence for this.”

The silence from her sisters endured.

“Are we still live?”

“My sister,” Santhil finally said, “spokeswoman of the warpstone fencing syndicate.”

“What, you thought all I did was mull over books and literature, connecting sigil A to leyline B, running crossword puzzles in cryptic runes?”

“I just hadn’t pegged you for a career criminal.”

“Psh! I’m not a criminal. I’m just well-connected. I’m a good girl.”

“Uhhuh.”

“When that is required of me.”

Santhil faintly considered the option. She made herself a bit more comfortable and held Lahnia closer to herself, feeling her warmth, her breath and, very faintly, even her heartbeat.

With her thoughts focused elsewhere, her look idly rolled down over the coffee table and the woven carpet underneath it. True to dwarven styles, the patterns on the carpet were sober and direct, but nonetheless suitably attractive. One of the rectangular corners in the pattern seemed to widen and contract rhythmically, almost as if... breathing.

The sudden sound of a metal bowl that tapped the table roused Santhil. Yalasmina smiled at her sudden move. “Did I scare you?”

“I was just...” Santhil’s previous thoughts trailed away before she finished that sentence.

“I’ll clean this up,” Yalasmina said, and rose from her seat. “Anything I can get the heroine of the day?” she offered with a wry smile.

“Actually, yes,” Santhil took her up on it. “Could you get us two pillows and a large, thick, warm blanket?” Lahnia lifted her head from Santhil’s shoulder with a curved eyebrow.

“Are you going to camp here?” Yalasmina asked with an amused frown. “You’ll be sore in the morning.”

Santhil nodded slowly but confidently. “Something I’ll deal with tomorrow morning.”

“Bring three pillows,” Lahnia suddenly said.

“Three, Lahnia?” Yalasmina asked. “Is Santhil so uncomfortable you need two pillows?”

“Don’t you need a pillow, Mina?”

“No, I will be going back to the temple to rest,” Yalasmina said. “The high priestess will be expecting me there early in the morning.”

“Aww,” Lahnia moaned disappointedly. “Stay a while.”

“I have a perfectly good bed, Lahnia,” Yalasmina declined. “While this couch is uncomfortable, the room is cold and, frankly, the couch just isn’t big enough for the three of us.”

“We’ll make it work,” Lahnia pressed.

“Besides,” Santhil added, “you’re going all the way to find pillows and a big blanket for us; you might as well stay when you come back.”

“Or I can let you fetch your pillows and blanket for yourself,” Yalasmina countered.

“You could do that,” Santhil admitted, keeping a slight smile on her lips while she and Yalasmina stared at each other. A long silence fell over the room, and gently, the light from the fireplace patterned itself onto the wall, gliding meticulously over the masterful stonework. Santhil let her gaze wander to the intricate, otherwordly movement of the golden hue.

“I’ll get those three pillows,” Yalasmina said with a defeated sigh.

“Yay!” Lahnia said, and nudged Santhil with a wide grin while Yalasmina left. “You’ve got to teach me that. You worked her like wet clay.”

Immediately, Santhil snapped from her trance and looked back at Lahnia with a surprised, confused gaze. Lahnia’s words sank in with her, and she returned a late smile. “Hm? Teach?”

“Are you alright?” Lahnia asked, tilting her head sideways as if it would help her figure Santhil out. “You seem distracted.”

“I, ah...” Santhil looked back at the wall far across the room, where some of the fireplace’s light reached, and saw only the faint flickering of the docile fire reflected on the smooth stone. “Yeah, I... I guess I’m just tired.”

Lahnia smiled and kissed her sister on the cheek. “Mina will be back soon.” Her smile slowly grew to a grin. “But I’m thinking we have a little time.”

“Time for what?” Santhil asked, raising her eyebrows curiously until Lahnia brushed her nose against hers. “Oh, that,” she chuckled amusedly. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

“It’s not such a bad idea, either,” Lahnia said. Santhil laid her head back and laughed into her hands. “Admit it,” Lahnia followed up.

“It will be a very bad idea if Mina sees us,” Santhil countered.

“Psh, she won’t,” Lahnia cleared that off the table. “If we’re quick.”

“Or,” Santhil said while her laugh slowed. “Or we could settle on a raincheck.”

Lahnia nodded slowly. “I could settle for a raincheck.”

“Raincheck it is, then.”

Lahnia nestled in against Santhil with an amused smile on her lips. “Scaredy cat.”

°°°

Santhil rolled her neck slowly, looking up at the ceiling. Fitting the three of them on the couch had taken a little bit of improvising, but it worked in the end.

Yalasmina was at one end, hugging the arm support with her pillow. While ‘comfortable’ certainly wasn’t a word anyone would use to describe her positioned, she seemed accustomed to spartan conditions, and made do.

Lying up against Yalasmina was Santhil, flat on her back, with her pillow on and against her sister. She had a commanding view of the ceiling, and a completely immobilised right arm.

That right arm was under Lahnia’s pillow, scootched close against Santhil so the both of them fit next to each other on the couch. She rightfully held onto the blanket tightly: one uncautious move and she’d be lying on the carpet.

As she usually turned out to be, Yalasmina was entirely right. They would be sore in the morning.

Santhil idly gazed at that ceiling she had been seeing for a while now. She couldn’t find sleep. Her thoughts fluttered and lingered, never settling into ease or even on a single topic.

Avalaer, what of Avalaer? She’d have to mount an offensive, but she simply didn’t have the troops to pull that off, anymore. She could siege a large city, but the capital seat of the rebels? No.

What was she going to do about the queen’s birthday? The gift she was supposed to provide, in particular? She couldn’t gift her land. What else could she possibly give her?

She hadn’t heard of the religious tensions on the motherland, Ulthuan, in a while. Had they simmered and gone like a delirious fashion fad? Had the tempers died out the same way they had flared up?

What the hell was she going to do with warpstone? Was that the reason the dwarfs just packed up and left? Was that why Chaos kept haunting her? Magical leylines? Divine practical jokes?

And why did the ceiling look like a dark ocean surface, gently rising and sinking with the watery tides?

“So,” Lahnia said after a few minutes of relative quiet. “What are you going to give the queen?”

Santhil took her eyes off the ceiling water that singularly did not fall down on her, and brought them to her sister. “Maybe I’ll find another manor somewhere.”

“Maybe you should just give her something else; wine or cologne or something.” Lahnia turned cautiously to Santhil, making sure not to get bumped out of the couch. “They’re classics for a reason.”

“I can’t do that,” Santhil argued. “I can’t go off on warfare and conquest, claim land by fire and steel, and then send her a vial of cologne.”

“Why not?”

“Because she—and other people—will expect me to gift land or estate or something like that. We’re on a warpath, here.”

Lahnia sighed slowly through her nose. “I’d be happy with cologne.”

Santhil chuckled. “You’re not the queen.”

“I’m married to the king,” Lahnia countered. “That makes me queen, doesn’t it?”

“No, it makes you one of the king’s wives. Morathi is queen.”

“Do you suppose that makes her married to her son?”

Santhil slowly shook her head. “We’ve talked about taking my mind places.”

Lahnia giggled, and made herself a little more comfortable. “It’s a good question, though. Are they?”

“I honestly have no idea,” Santhil admitted.

Lahnia frowned. “You’re a drachau; aren’t you supposed to know these things?” She aimed her eyes up at her other sister. “Mina, are you asleep?”

“No,” Yalasmina immediately replied with a cold undertone of frustration. “No, I am not.”

“Do you know whether Morathi’s married to Malekith? I mean, she’s both a sorceress and a Maibd, isn’t she? Wouldn’t that make her married to Khaine as well as Malekith?”

“Morathi was a sorceress long before the rituals became law,” Yalasmina said. “And she is the first among the Maibd.”

“The first, eh?” Santhil pitched in. “I’m thinking, epic cup size.”

Lahnia cracked into a giggle, burrowing her face into Santhil’s shoulder. “Santhil Arhakuyl,” Yalasmina threatened, “I can kick you out of this couch.”

“I’m just following the Temple logic, here,” Santhil defended herself. “If the Maibd have to be appealing to Khaine at all possible times to gain his blessings, then surely Morathi—knowing who and how she is—would be one of his favourites.”

“Explain Hellebron, then?” Lahnia asked with a grin.

“Eh... pass,” Santhil said, and heard Lahnia muffle her laugh into the thick blanket.

The room slowly ebbed into silence again. Santhil moved half an inch in just about any direction and felt the warm wash of comfort shudder through her spine. She tried to close her eyes and be peaceful, but found herself impossibly light-headed, as if something was actively distracting her. She listened for sounds she couldn’t hear and, unsurprisingly, came up with nothing.

“Ari?”

Santhil instantly zoomed through a tunnel of her own consciousness, her mind confused but strangely comfortable with the lack of control it experienced. Had she fallen asleep? “Hey?” she said reflexively, a vague smile on her lips.

“What if you were king?” Lahnia asked, clearly repeating herself.

“You mean: queen, right?”

“King, as in, ruler of the Ulthuan Empire,” Lahnia clarified. “Or Emperor or Empress, if you’d like. Instead of Malekith. What would you do?”

“What would I do?” Santhil asked herself just as much as she repeated Lahnia. She looked up at the suspiciously dry ceiling and pondered briefly.

Replace Malekith? That wasn’t her ambition. She’d have to deal with Queen Morathi’s scheming or alluring or... whatever it was the queen did, and deal with it on a regular basis. She’d have to oversee the well-being of the empire and its people. She’d have to plan and wage war to keep the enemies at bay. The duties were soul-crushing.

“I would sleep with a different sorceress every night of the year,” Santhil concluded her thought experiment.

Lahnia blinked surprisedly, and supported herself on her elbow. “You would... what?” she asked with an amazed smile.

“Or maybe two at a time; how many sorceresses are there, anyway?” Santhil frowned when she thought about it. “More than seven hundred and thirty? I hope not.”

“Wh— B—” Lahnia tried to say something, then suddenly started into a laugh.

“I’d need calendars to write the names on, though,” Santhil mused. “Because getting those wrong would just sour the atmosphere.”

“That’s very considerate of you, Santhil,” Yalasmina sighed.

“I’m attentive that way.”

Lahnia cleared her throat while she recovered from her laugh, and looked back at Santhil. Slowly, her smile simmered from her lips, and her eyebrows frowned. “Mina, come look at this.”

Santhil held still, looking into Lahnia’s eyes as hers looked back. Lahnia had found something both fascinating as slightly worrying, or so the focus of her eyes spoke. Santhil tried to follow the bright blue eyes as they moved, like a cat trying to catch the light on the wall. She gave a start and jerked away when Yalasmina laid a hand on her far cheek.

“I’m just taking a look, Santhil,” Yalasmina assured her calmly. She gently slid her hand back to Santhil’s cheek and turned her head to face her. Yalasmina narrowed her eyes almost unnoticeably. “How are you feeling?”

“Peckish,” Santhil said. “I could use a late night snack.”

“You’re not tired or sleepy?”

Santhil smiled warmly. “I’m okay,” she assured Yalasmina.

“You, Santhil, are stoned,” Yalasmina corrected her.

“Stoned?” Lahnia asked, amazed.

Santhil frowned thoughtfully. “That actually explains a lot.”

“How did you— How did she even...?”

Yalasmina reached for the cup of tea on the coffee table and slowly breathed in the aroma of the little surface that remained. She blinked wordlessly. “Lahnia, did you add anything to the peppermint leaves?”

“No, why do you ask?”

“Because Santhil’s pupils are the size of olives, and this smells of carmine; red carmine, from the look of it.”

“Carmine?” Lahnia asked, surprised, and called on her memories. “I picked the peppermint leaves I left with the kettle over on the table.”

“The kettle on the table?” Yalasmina gave her a meaningful look. “I emptied my herb bag there.”

“You weren’t carrying anything poisonous... were you?”

“No,” Yalasmina said, and looked Santhil in the eye again. “No, I carry my poisons in their distilled, liquid form; I need medicinal herbs raw as leaves to mix them when I need to.”

Lahnia slowly sighed in relief. “You gave me a scare,” she admitted, then moved on to the next, perhaps obvious, question: “What can we do?”

“If it is carmine—and Santhil’s symptoms fit, so it likely is,” Yalasmina said while she felt Santhil’s glands and temples, “then there’s nothing we can do.”

“What symptoms? Large pupils?”

“I’m right here, you know,” Santhil interjected.

“Extra energy, lack of focus,” Yalasmina started. “Irritability, promiscuity, and cannibalism.”

“Cannibalism?” Lahnia asked wide-eyedly. “How does that even...?”

“It’s an ingredient of our witch drugs,” Yalasmina mentioned. “It removes pain barriers and inhibitions, among which is the revulsion of cannibalism.”

“Promiscuity and cannibalism, eh?” Santhil said. “Sounds like an exciting combination.”

“You wouldn’t hurt me, would you, Ari?” Lahnia said with a confident, trusting smile. She cursorily aimed her eyes at Yalasmina. “She wouldn’t, right?”

“No, she won’t, Lahnia,” Yalasmina asserted. “Now please, try to sleep.”

Lahnia aimed her eyes back at Santhil, and snorted once when her sister winked her eyebrows at her. She slowly, carefully rolled around again, feeling Santhil’s arm under her pillow while she snug her back up against her sister. “Will Santhil be able to sleep?”

“No,” Yalasmina said with perhaps the slightest tone of pity. “No, she won’t. But we still can, and we should.”

Lahnia turned her head to Santhil shortly. “I’m sorry, Ari.”

Santhil smiled warmly, and nodded reassuringly. Go ahead and sleep, her eyes said.

The room fell silent again. Breathing slowed peacefully, the blankets remained warm and still, and Santhil watched the carpet’s intricate patterns wrap around the legs of the coffee table, climbing their way up over the defenseless furniture. You just couldn’t trust decent weaving anymore.

Her eyes rolled to the sorceress hogging her arm, to long, dark hair, the pale, smooth skin of her neck and shoulder. Lahnia’s eyes were closed, her heartbeat soft and calm. She seemed so peaceful.

Santhil snuggled her nose into Lahnia’s neck and gently brushed up against her. Lahnia smiled contently and inched up against Santhil.

Half burrowed in Lahnia’s black locks, Santhil’s calm smile widened into a sinister, evil grin.

Yalasmina jerked awake when a scream of surprise pierced her ears painfully. She bolted up, looking alarmedly at Lahnia.

“She bit me!” Lahnia said, as far away from Santhil as hanging onto the blanket allowed her. She slapped Santhil’s arm and instantly started laughing. “You bit me!”

Yalasmina defeatedly hung back over the arm support and sighed deeply, looking upside down at the world while her sisters frolicked around and caused a ruckus.

This would be a long, long night.

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Mon Oct 24, 2011 3:19 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
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(I'm trying to stay on about a monthly schedule in posting. This can vary a little with the length of the pieces and difficulties I hit writing them, but monthly seems to be working out well. And a shout-out to SleekDD's piece; can you spot the reference? Little more flattering to a writer than seeing creations put to use!)

The guard threw his colleague a sideways, amused glance. He had been staring down the hallway for almost ten minutes now. “Like what you see?”

“Hm, what?” his colleague snapped out of his meanderings.

“You’ve been staring at the high brass down the hallway for an eternity,” he clarified. “So, is it the drachau or her court sorceress?”

“When I see those people together,” his colleague started. “Top class generals, politicians, sorceresses, and they’re together in the hallway in some impromptu meeting this early in the morning... It gets me thinking.

“What are they talking about? Why there? They crossed each other in the hallway like they do a hundred times, and one of them decided to stop the other. Because they have something to say, something to report.

“There’s Commanders Gamman and Ardehan, in charge of entire armies and their strategies; there’s Mistress Arhakuyl, a sorceress who could make a living out of controlled demolition; and then Drachau Arhakuyl, ruler of the whole continent, standing there with them. These people single-handedly make decisions about tens of thousands of lives.

“And there they are, discussing. Pondering. Calculating. This is it. This is the big stuff.

“Mark my words: something’s happening.”

°°°

“And then I punched his lights out, straight across the face!” Gamman said, acting out his story on thin air. “Elbow, fist, two black eyes in one blow!”

“Hah!” Ardehan laughed. “That’s rich!”

“Yeah, good times, good times,” Gamman said with a wide smile, savouring the memory. “But the women don’t seem too impressed.”

“It’s not about being impressed,” Santhil chuckled. “I’m just surprised he challenged you to a duel. He must’ve known he didn’t stand a chance.”

Gamman shrugged. “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, even if it ends up flooring him with a black eye. Two black eyes.”

“Maybe I’m being thick,” Lahnia said, “but isn’t the idea of a duel that someone dies?”

“Yes, but...” Ardehan thought on it for a moment to make sure he could give a satisfactory answer. “It would have been a cheap kill. Overkill. There’s no prestige in that.”

“I don’t know,” Lahnia said. “I’ve seen Santhil make really short work of people. It’s usually pretty impressive.” She beamed her sister a glowing smile. “There’s prestige in that.”

“That’s setting an example,” Gamman countered amusedly.

“It’s efficient, that’s what,” Santhil laughed. “I’m leading a battle; I don’t have time to fight a drawn-out duel to the death with every farmer with a blade.”

“How about you, Mistress?” Gamman asked. “Do your duels always end in a bloody pulp?”

Lahnia wet her lips and wiggled her shoulders slowly while keeping her eyes on her sister. “They’ve never gotten close enough to challenge me.”

“Damn right they haven’t,” Santhil said.

“Usually, when the sorceresses get into melee fights, that means the battle is going very badly,” Ardehan tracked back onto the topic.

“Some sorceresses really get into the thick of it, though,” Gamman countered. “They love the bloodshed up close and personal.”

Lahnia subtly tugged on Santhil’s sleeve to get her attention. She wiggled her shoulders impatiently with a wide smile and nodded away from the conversation.

“I’m not really comfortable with having them close to the front,” Santhil pitched in, her eyes set amusedly on Lahnia, who again nodded in an almost comical fashion. “I, um, I should probably... go?” she tried to read.

“There was something you promised,” Lahnia reminded her.

“I...” Santhil blinked confusedly while she kept her gaze on Lahnia. “...have? Have I?”

“Come on, you remember,” Lahnia pressed on, and nudged her sister’s arm gently. “Last night?”

Santhil chuckled weakly. “Last night is fragmented and hazy.”

“Tch, Ari,” Lahnia said, still smiling but also annoyed that her sister wouldn’t pick up on her hints. “Don’t be cheap. You promised.”

“I’m not,” Santhil defended herself. “I’m not, I just... I’ll recall, just help me out. I’m good for my word.”

Lahnia briefly eyed the two generals, who gave the both of them a quizzical look, and then laid one hand on Santhil’s shoulder and bent close to her ear. “Raincheck,” she whispered in a quiet breath.

Santhil frowned, her eyes rolling up and to her right while she lipped the word back to herself. Instantly, her fine eyebrows shot up again. “Oh,” she said with an almost curious pitch, catching on with the display of secrecy. “Wh— You mean now?” she asked.

Lahnia cocked her head left and right ever so slightly, her hair dancing around a little on her shoulders. “Yes?”

“Um...” Santhil waited for a moment, taken off guard by the sudden change of topic. “Sure.”

Lahnia smiled broadly and pulled Santhil away by her arm. “Come on,” she quickly said.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” Santhil told her commanders while she quickly backpedaled to keep her balance.

“No, you won’t,” Lahnia demanded.

“I won’t be back in a minute,” Santhil corrected herself.

Lahnia gigglingly looked over her shoulder, then stopped abruptly when she stood face to face with Yalasmina. Her sister seemed thoroughly unamused.

“Santhil Arhakuyl,” Yalasmina started, her voice laden with icily concealed fury, “we need to talk.”

Santhil came to an uncomfortable halt just like Lahnia had, and managed to look deceptively graceful while she slipped from Lahnia’s grip and turned to face whoever addressed her. “Oh, hi, Mina,” she said.

“The temple grounds are off-limits,” Yalasmina asserted. “We do not allow laypeople past our entrance hall, and we do not tolerate tourists.”

“Wh—?”

“Your guards do not enter the temple without our express and prior permission. This is the way on Ulthuan, in the colonies, and in the whole of the Empire.”

“I’m sure it was an accident,” Santhil threw in as a standard defense while she tried to catch on to whichever incident triggered this.

“Then teach your men to be mindful of their surroundings,” Yalasmina said, and leaned over to Santhil with a soul-piercing look in her eyes, causing Santhil to lean away just as much. “Because if I catch them inside again,” she said in a quieter, darker voice while her eyes narrowed, “I’ll make sure they’ll never breed.”

Santhil blinked once. “Um... okay,” she said in a small voice. “I’ll make sure to tell them.” She pitted an uneasy smile against Yalasmina’s continued gaze.

Yalasmina looked Santhil in the eye a while longer, then softened her look, stood fully upright again, and nodded politely to her other sister. “Lahnia,” she greeted her, and walked away.

“Bye, Mina,” Lahnia called after her with all the friendliness she could muster.

“Is she gone?” Santhil asked, rolling her eyes to her right as if she could look behind her without turning her head. “Holy crap, that woman is scary,” she added.

Lahnia covered her laugh discreetly with her hand, then looked at Santhil with an amused frown. “Why are your legs crossed like that?” she asked. “She can’t take what you don’t have.”

“I know, right?” Santhil said convincedly, and fidgetted her legs uneasily. “That’s just how scary she is.”

“Come on, you scaredy cat,” Lahnia said, and pulled Santhil along by her arm. “You have a promise to keep.”

°°°

“Jesamine Cadsane’s study,” Santhil noticed while Lahnia led her in. The place was maintained by servants while the mistress lied recuperating in her bed. She made a mental note to check up on Jesamine soon. “Why here?” she asked, keeping her voice down when met with the absolute silence that hung in the room; a silence that seemed content and tranquil until brashly broken by the sound of their trespassing.

“Because no-one will look for you here,” Lahnia said, and halted briefly after she said that. “Sounds ominous, come to think of it.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything, but yeah,” Santhil laughed quietly. “It does.”

Lahnia chuckled and put her hands against Santhil’s arms, nudging her back. Santhil amusedly let Lahnia guide her, and stopped when she felt herself bump into bookshelves.

A thin but wide haze of grey dust slowly simmered down from the books. The servants had been slacking a little in their mistress’ absence. Santhil resisted the impulse to brush the dust off her shoulders, and leant back against the wall-mounted bookcase with a calm nod to her sister, reassuring her that she would hold there as she wished.

Lahnia leant a little closer to Santhil, then hesitated and took a single step back. She seemed suddenly conscious of her hands, and fiddled nervously with them before finally settling them on her wrists, stroking them with her thumbs. “I, ah... I’ve been wanting to try something.”

Santhil’s eyebrow curved up, and she smiled, trying not to look too amused. There was something both endearing and flattering about Lahnia’s turn from confidence and anticipation to nervosity. “Like what?”

“It’s something I’ve seen you do,” Lahnia said or perhaps stalled. “With your boyfriends. Or lovers, I’m not sure where that line is, ah, is drawn.”

This time, Santhil couldn’t prevent her smile from broadening amusedly, though she tried hard not to appear derisive. “Okay,” she willed Lahnia to continue, and furtively double-checked that the grey, empty, lifeless room was indeed completely and entirely empty.

“Or that I’ve seen your boyfriends do with you; I don’t know which is which, just that I’ve watched you... um...” She frowned pensively, and cast Santhil a cautious look. “That sounded less like a creepy stalker when those words were still in my mind.”

“That’s alright, Lana,” Santhil glossed over it with a quiet laugh, and focused on the titbit of information Lahnia gave her. A quick glance at her sister’s nervous hands prompted a guess: “Do you want to hold me while we kiss? Or want me to hold you?”

“Oh, no, it’s not that,” Lahnia said with an amused smile of her own. “No, I just don’t know the—” She stopped suddenly, and gave Santhil an intrigued stare. “Would that be okay, though?”

Santhil smiled warmly and pulled one foot up against a bookshelf, making herself a little taller while she stretched her arms out to Lahnia’s shoulders and beckoned invitingly. Lahnia hesitated, afraid she might break some unspoken but commonly assumed etiquette, then walked up to her sister. While Santhil gently rested her forearms on Lahnia’s shoulders and around her neck, Lahnia felt lost on where to place her hands, and finally rested them on Santhil’s waist. “Like this?” she asked.

Santhil nodded, and straightened her back reflexively when she felt the hands reach under her jacket and over her back. The touch briefly brought memories of a careless, recent past to mind, but she pushed them aside with a blink of her eyes. “So,” she said under a deep, calm breath when she felt a comfortable squeeze around her waist.

Lahnia giggled suddenly, then cleared her throat. “So.”

“So, what is it you wanted to try?”

“Ah, I, um...” Lahnia looked away momentarily, then rolled her eyes back to Santhil. “Could I just... try it? Because...”

Santhil’s eyes opened widely in surprise. “Because I’ll say no?”

“No no no no, no, it’s not...” Lahnia stopped and quickly wet her lips. “Yes. Yes, it’s exactly that. Or, it’s more in how you might say no.”

Santhil looked at Lahnia for a while, then slowly grew a knowing smile on her lips. “You want to French kiss.”

“Well, you know, it’s...” Lahnia cleared her throat. “I’d like to try it.”

Santhil rested her head against the bookshelf while she kept her eyes on Lahnia. She breathed deeply through her nose, feeling the arms around her waist while she did.

“Come on, Ari,” Lahnia said with half a smile. “Just this once.”

“Aah, I don’t know, Lana,” Santhil hesitated, looking around again as if somewhere, someone was hidden in the room, spying on them. “It’s a little...”

“We almost sort of went there already,” Lahnia added. “It’s nothing really new, is it? Come on.”

“Well, no, but... Pffff,” Santhil blew out the corners of an uneasy smile while she freed one arm to stroke the back of her neck. “It’s... different, don’t you think?”

“It doesn’t have to be different. Look, you’re the best kisser I know,” Lahnia added in a quieter voice. “Who better to, you know... introduce me?”

“I, ah...” Santhil pursed and twisted her lips, and looked at Lahnia, tapping her fingers on her sister’s spine while she forced herself to make a call.

Lahnia conjured up an amused smile. “I’ll get you coffee?” She blinked innocently.

Santhil snorted into a chuckle and rested her forehead against Lahnia’s. She looked briefly into the eyes an inch from hers, and enjoyed a deep, calming breath. “Keep it civil, all right?”

“Is that a yes?” Lahnia asked, and her face brightened visibly.

“You owe me that coffee,” Santhil replied.

“Yesss!” Lahnia hissed clearly, and jumped a little in excitement, causing more dust to slowly simmer down from the bookcase they were leaning against. “Thanks.”

“Before I change my mind, Lahnia?” Santhil pressed with a warm smile.

“Right, right,” Lahnia said, and wet her lips quickly. “Right.” She tilted her head, closed her eyes, and brought her lips to Santhil’s while dull tufts of dust gently hazed down over them.

°°°

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Lahnia apologized while trying to keep up with Santhil’s pace. “I am so sorry,” she repeated the sentiment.

Santhil threw a quick look over her shoulder, then shook her head, disgust lining her face. She wiped her lips with the back of her hand for the hundredth time while she made a beeline for the canteen. “Gross, Lahnia,” she croaked. “Right down my throat.”

“I know, I know,” Lahnia sighed, hurrying next to Santhil to at least get a look in her eyes. “I couldn’t help it, it was stronger than me.”

“You couldn’t warn me, at least?” Santhil walked up to the counter and didn’t even wait for the corporal on duty to look at her before she ordered: “Two water, separate glasses.”

“It just happened,” Lahnia said, happy Santhil came to a halt somewhere so she could explain. “It wasn’t there, and then it just... Then...”

Santhil snatched one of the glasses before anyone could hear it hit the counter, kicked back her head, took in all the water, and instantly spat it back into the glass. “Then you sneezed,” Santhil filled in. The corporal rose an eyebrow, pinched away Santhil’s glass and pouted it out into the gutter, then discreetly removed his presence from this particular corner of the bar. “Flat into my mouth.”

Lahnia pressed her lips uneasily. “I did that, didn’t I?” She leaned against the bar and quietly stood next to Santhil. Her eyes scanned the room erratically, interrupted each time by a quick glance at her sister. “Are you angry?” she finally asked.

Santhil downed the second glass of water in a single go, and gently put it back on the counter. She spared Lahnia a sideway glance, sighed deeply, looked longer at Lahnia, and smiled weakly. “How could I stay angry with you?”

Lahnia allowed herself a smile at that, took one step to cross that indefinite line between conversational distance and comfortable presence, and waited calmly next to her sister. She didn’t know exactly what to wait for, but it just felt right to stay. “I guess this never happened before.”

Santhil snorted amusedly. “Nooo,” she said. “No, this was a new experience for me.”

“It’s just so damn dusty in there,” Lahnia said, and crossed her arms. “I’m really sorry.”

“It’s alright, hun,” Santhil soothed her, and turned around to look the room over. She breathed deeply through her nose, enjoying the late morning sun shining through the windows, and the relative calm of the canteen.

“So...” Lahnia finally said, and tilted her head a little to Santhil. “Best two out of three?”

Santhil gave Lahnia a surprised look, and immediately dropped her head into her hands to muffle her laugh. “You... are unbelievable.”

“Is that a yes?”

“You owe me another coffee.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

°°°

The wooden pencil swung rapidly back and forth between Santhil’s fingers, pulling a gentle draft past her ear while she looked over the document on her desk. On the windowsill, a tiny bird hopped around, twittering happily and courageously in the low noon sun. Santhil spared the winter bird a warming look before focusing back on the paper.

In the periphery of her sight, Santhil’s eyes caught crimson runes to Khaine beautifully embroidered into wide, dark sleeves. Santhil’s eyebrow curved up subtly, and she aimed her eyes up over the form-fitting, immaculate blouse, and perfect posture. “Hello, Yalasmina,” Santhil greeted her sister with a smile. “Say, that looks great on you.”

Yalasmina smiled vaguely. “This is my more civilian, formal look. I’m glad it pleases you.”

Santhil smiled impressedly. “Is this an official visit, Yalasmina? Should I be standing?”

“Somewhat official,” Yalasmina said, and held her hands behind her back. “Drachau Santhil Arhakuyl, I am reporting for duties as your liaison to the Temple of Khaine.”

Santhil chuckled amusedly, and then noticed her sister’s serious expression. “Oh my. You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“The high ecclestials certainly are serious,” Yalasmina said. “Their wishes have just been relayed to me. And I relayed them to the high priestess.”

Santhil looked her sister over while thinking, piecing the bits and hints from tone and phrasing together. “Oh, wow,” she suddenly concluded, “they went over her head.”

“Yes. Yes, they did,” Yalasmina filled in, and took a deep breath with raised eyebrows.

Santhil nodded slowly to herself, taking it in. “How did she take it?”

Yalasmina mentally went over the conversation following the relaying of her new orders. “She was... or perhaps, she felt... She just needs some time.”

“That bad, huh?” Santhil’s mind took her back to when she threw curses and insults at the priestess like she was a clay pigeon, and her unfazed composure. “Can’t have been pretty.”

“No. No, it wasn’t.” Yalasmina pressed her lips and took a deep breath through her nose. “Liaison officer. What do I do?”

Santhil leant back in her chair and crossed her legs. “I... have no idea. Did they give a reason for assigning you?”

“They felt that our standing with you would improve if they could encourage communication between you and them through a physical person that you could relate to.”

“Because I like you,” Santhil summarised.

“Because you like me,” Yalasmina agreed.

“I mean, not like as in like,” Santhil suddenly said, “as in liking what I see— I do like what I see—it looks good on you—but it’s not a level of liking that, ah, you would be— that we would be uncomfortable with or should be uncomfortable... would be uncomfortable with.”

Yalasmina kept a level, uncooperative gaze on her. Santhil avoided the look by slowly, very slowly, stroking the back of her neck. The clock behind Yalasmina ticked on tirelessly.

Finally, a knock sounded on the doorpost. “Yes!” Santhil immediately called out in relief. “Yes, please, come in.”

“Hello, Ari,” Lahnia said when she walked in with a package in her arms, and stopped just before she bumped into Yalasmina. “Oh hey, Mina,” she greeted her other sister. “Am I interrupting something?”

“Not at all,” Yalasmina said politely. “We were having some technical issues.”

“Hey, I don’t think I’ve seen you wear that before,” Lahnia noticed. “Is it new? What’s the occasion?”

“It’s not new, really,” Yalasmina said. “Rumouredly, Santhil holds Temple personnel to a preferential dress code, and I’ve been advised to play to that rumour.”

Santhil blinked. “I have a dress code?”

“Preferential dress code,” Yalasmina corrected her with a smile, then turned back to Lahnia. “I am now Santhil’s official liaison to the Temple.”

“Liaison?” Lahnia repeated the word to herself, and beamed her sister a happy smile. “You’ve been promoted.”

“It’s an assignment, not a promotion,” Yalasmina said with only the slightly hint of tedious repetition. Evidently, she had been saying that all morning.

“Come on, Mina,” Lahnia pressed. “It’s something of a promotion. You get to hobnob with high society now.”

“Yay,” Yalasmina said with a straight face and exactly zero enthusiasm. “Shall I leave Santhil with you?” she offered politely.

“Oh, could you stay, please, Mina?” Lahnia asked. “As Santhil’s official liaison to the Temple?”

Though the request evidently took Yalasmina off guard, she let the surprise wash off her skin like water dripping from marble. “Of course,” she said, and took a symbolic step aside to give Lahnia all the room she needed.

“Thanks,” Lahnia said with a quick smile. “Ari, the Convent wants to give you something.”

Santhil had let her attention slip to the document under her eyes and, at address of her name, immediately pulled her head up again and looked Lahnia in the eye. “For me?” she asked with equal amounts of surprise and caution.

“Did I mention it’s from the Convent,” Lahnia repeated herself tonelessly. “Open up?”

Santhil accepted the package and gently set it down on her desk. She traced her fingers over the ribbon, wondering briefly on the what and the why, then figured the only way to find out was opening it. With a few quick, experienced tugs, she undid the ribbon and lifted the lid off the neatly packaged box. “Oh, my...” She was both cautiously as pleasantly surprised as she stroked the gifted clothes with the back of her hand.

“Do you like them?” Lahnia asked neutrally.

“Lahnia, these are beautiful,” Santhil said, and moved on to the obvious question. “What is the occasion?”

“The Convent would like to show its appreciation of you,” Lahnia said, and crossed one arm behind her back, holding her other as it hung next to her. “You’re very open-minded towards sorcery, especially compared to some other hereby unnamed people.”

“None taken,” Yalasmina unfazedly filled in the blanks.

“So...” Santhil sang tonelessly. “This has nothing to do with the Temple’s generous and appreciated donations to my wardrobe?”

“Of course not,” Lahnia said. “By the way, are you coming to the party, tonight?”

“Um, yes?” Santhil replied with an amused frown. “I’m organising it, remember?”

“I see,” Lahnia said with a polite smile. “These would look very good on you, Drachau.”

Santhil snorted. “Subtle.”

“Aren’t I?” Lahnia said with a fake smile. “Could you take note of that, Yalasmina? I was asked to be subtle.”

Yalasmina nodded steadily. “I feel now would be an appropriate time to report back to the Temple.” She took a deep breath. “I may return with a package.”

“How do you like ‘dem politics’, Mina?” Lahnia asked with a suddenly amused grin.

“I will get back to you on that.”

“Mention I was subtle.”

“I will.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Sat Nov 19, 2011 1:43 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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As it turned out, the council chamber was the perfect location to host the party that Santhil and her commanders had been meaning to have. Excellent acoustics let the musicians’ varied songs and melodies reach all across the large room, allowing them a comfortable distance from the calm commotion of the dancing party-goers.

In the center of the room, officers, commanders, generals, and other dignitaries talked, chatted, and danced. It was a menagerie of people of mention in this battlegroup, the part of the expedition tunneling through the empire of men and into the abandoned holds of the dwarves, and now terrorized the lands the Sarthalorim believed safe. They were lighthearted about it.

Surrounding and embracing the dance floor, long tables covered with pristinely white cloth held the drinks and snacks that servants and volunteers offered the spread-out crowd in person as they skilfully maneuvered through the ever-shifting clear walking lanes. Light was a priority in such a large hall, and torches, braziers, and candles were plentiful, lighting the room up brightly but comfortably. It was surprisingly beautiful, dispelling the otherwise drab interior of the dwarven hold.

Lahnia was having a ball.

Or so her imagination lulled her while she stood at the sidelines, hearing her coven mistress harp on how to tell the different military ranks apart, and which ones were to be beneath her concern. Lahnia seemed to have committed some sort of social faux-pas when she chatted casually with a lieutenant—only a lieutenant; she was a sorceress, the drachau’s court sorceress and magical advisor, and she shouldn’t be wasting her time on anything but the top of the foodchain.

“Come on, Matron,” Lahnia sighed. “It’s a party; we’re supposed to have fun. Can’t we forget the social hierarchy chart for a moment?”

“Lahnia, sweet child,” her matron said with only slightly wavering patience—‘matron’ being what some sorceresses affectionally called their coven mistress. “It is exactly during these social gatherings that we must be our best. This is when we leave our reputation of secluded hermits behind and connect with those who can afford our services.”

Her matron really didn’t mean to sound avaricious, but it remained a factor to occasionally keep in mind: covens were financed through their members every time they were hired for specific tasks such as spellcasting or consults, or for larger projects such as battles. Coven sorceresses contributed part of their considerable earnings to their coven, and were allowed to keep the lion’s share. Being an expensive sorceress, Lahnia understood all that, and she knew that she had to make a good impression, but she would have loved to enjoy the party free of care and worry.

“Have some faith, Matron,” Lahnia said with a winning smile. “I’ll be a good girl.”

“Oh, Lahnia,” her matron sighed. “Last time you said those words to me, you set a man on fire.”

“Pants,” Lahnia corrected immediately. “I set his pants on fire, and that was entirely justified. He had been ogling and greasetalking me all evening, and then: ‘You must be a sorceress, because my pants are on fire?’ Last straw.” She crossed her bare arms defensively. “You taught me not to take crap from anyone.”

“But Lahnia, the son of the province administrator?”

“Matron, we’ve gone over this,” Lahnia sighed annoyedly. “I’m not going to apologise. Besides, I put him out before he got hurt.”

The coven mistress closed her eyes and breathed deeply, calmingly through her nose, mentally chanting a mantra of inner peace. “Could you please not set anyone on fire tonight?”

“You make it sound like it’s a habit of mine,” Lahnia replied with a frown.

“Lahnia, promise me.”

Lahnia steamed from her nose, tapping her fingernails on her arm while she waited for herself to get over the issue. “Fine. I promise not to set anyone’s pants on fire. With magic.”

“Thank you, Lahnia,” her matron replied with a soft but relieved smile. She let Lahnia’s words run by herself again slowly, and turned an almost suspicious look on her charge. “Are you hiding matches somewhere?”

Lahnia returned an unimpressed, level look. “Does this dress look like I’m hiding much, Matron?”

“You’re right,” the coven mistress dismissed her concern. “Now, on the topic of the drachau’s court...”

°°°

“Miss Yalasmina Arhakuyl, Maibd-Khaina and our newly appointed liaison to the Temple of Khaine,” Santhil introduced her elder sister to her commanders.

Yalasmina smiled politely at the group of high-ranking military personnel Santhil had finally convinced her to meet. She recognised most of them at least superficially and, as each commander introduced themselves, she shook the extended hands with a calm smile and made a conscious effort to memorise their names, some characteristic mannerisms, and the look in their eyes when hers and theirs briefly met.

Touching one of Khaine’s brides, even if just fingers and the palm of a hand in cursory introduction, was a strange sensation to the individual commanders in the gathered staff. In every sense of the word, the Maibd were not social people, and they were a rare sight outside of battle or temple grounds. Yalasmina, as a more senior member of the Temple’s fighting acolytes and priestesses (not that seniority meant much agewise with the Maibd), occasionally represented her sisters of faith, and some of the people introduced to her recalled her appearance in the Maibd’s significantly less modest signature outfit—and quite fondly so, she could tell from the looks slipping down from her face and over her blouse which, while clearly more civilian in style than her battle garb, left little of her figure to the imagination. Yalasmina was deeply acclimatised to looks of wanting and desire, of distant admiration, of wistful jealousy; so deeply acclimatised, even, that she had long since passed beyond ignoring them and simply bore them with graceful demeanour and unfazed composure.

Santhil, too, was catching more than an occasional glance of interest or curiosity. As an Arhakuyl, as a drachau, and as an attractive young woman, Santhil was accustomed to binding a gaze of interest every now and then. Her carefully chosen clothes, gifted by the Convent of Sorceresses and soon after minutely expanded by the Temple of Khaine, fitted her form like a glove, decorated with carefully immodest cuts and hemlines. It was still in the city wear class she had suggested—both the Convent and the Temple had adhered well to that guideline—but the results of minds and tastes clearly a cut above that of the masses garnered copious amounts of attention. Santhil was relieved that the looks were born from appreciation rather than pity; it had been tricky picking an outfit giving both the Temple’s as the Convent’s donations equal shine time, and her judgement had been sound, both politically as aesthetically. She was going to check on the political judgement by passing by the coven mistress later on.

“Congratulations on your promotion,” Ardehan offered after introductions had passed, and raised his glass of wine to Yalasmina.

“It’s an a—” Yalasmina felt a quick but discreet tap on her hand. “—honour, Commander.”

“A liaison, eh?” Gamman opened the topic. “So you will be our go-to woman for all things concerning the Temple of Khaine.”

Yalasmina nodded in affirmation. “If you require anything of the Temple, I am at your service.”

Those words were sudden, angelic music to the fine hearing of one particular commander, one very junior commander, and the latest addition to Santhil’s staff. It was only at Yalasmina’s words that the realisation struck him. His heart skipped a beat, then immediately made up for displayed slack with a drum solo powered by the soul of a death metalist. “Oh, I was actually thinking about requiring something of the Temple,” he said, sparing no effort to sound casual. His mind was prancing around on a sunny bed of sprinkly flowers. “That’s convenient.”

Santhil fought tooth and nail to hold her laugh back, and hid the smile into a glass of her wine. The rest of her gathered staff managed to hide their amusement to varying degrees, and even Yalasmina’s eyebrow curved up curiously. “Commander Hirkenshiel, yes?” Yalasmina recalled from recent memory. “I will be happy to assist in any way I can. After the party, perhaps?”

“Yeah, I can fit that in,” Hirkenshiel said in forced contemplation. “Not too late, though; I have a busy day ahead of me.” He nodded slowly, then suddenly added: “If that’s okay with you, that is.”

Santhil stilled her breath to stop from laughing, holding her midriff motionless painfully hard. Ardehan’s sympathetic raising of his glass to her, recognition of the colossal effort she expended, wasn’t helping one bit.

“Of course, Commander,” Yalasmina said, smooth and calm as a glacier. “Please let me know at your convenience.”

“I—” Santhil tried, and stopped immediately when her voice pitched uncontrollably. She held her index finger to her lips, cleared her throat, and waited a moment for the impending laugh to drop and settle. Finally, she cleared her throat again, swallowed slowly, took a deep breath, and turned to Yalasmina. “I’m going to do my rounds and say hello to everyone,” she excused herself with only a slightly noticeable strain on her voice.

Yalasmina laid a gentle hand against Santhil’s arm when her sister turned to leave, and bent over to her ear. “Where are you going?” she whispered with a perfectly faked smile.

“I’m going to rupture a kidney if I don’t leave right now,” Santhil whispered in return, and felt her eyes water.

“You can not leave me with these people.”

“You’re a liaison now, Mina. Liaise. You’ll be fine,” she added comfortingly.

“Come back for me,” Yalasmina reluctantly but invisibly gave in.

“I will.”

°°°

“I understand, Matron,” Lahnia repeated, a hint of despair underlining her voice. “Now could I please, please just return to the party?”

“Leave a good impression with the drachau’s court.” The coven mistress’ voice picked up speed, sensing that she should be leaving Lahnia to her devices soon enough. “Speak only with the highest tiers, dance only with the absolute top ranks.”

“I know, Matron.” Lahnia’s voice curved annoyedly.

“And no magic—”

“Go... away,” Lahnia slowly but clearly intoned.

“Right, all right,” her matron said, and took one step back before she turned hurriedly and bumped against Santhil. “Oh, beg pardon, Drachau,” she recovered, and straightened her robes with a single sway from her hand, subtle and fluid as only years and years of experience could teach.

“No worries, Mistress,” Santhil replied with a smile. “Are you enjoying the party?”

“It is a wonderful party, Drachau. Thank you for having us,” the coven mistress replied. She quickly scanned Santhil’s choice of clothes, and smiled politely. “They look very good on you.”

“Thank you,” Santhil said, relieved to have passed a cursory test. “You were very kind to gift them.”

“You are welcome, Drachau.”

“Would you mind if I steal Lahnia for a moment?”

“Not at all. Please,” the coven mistress excused herself, and returned to the party to gracefully navigate the pressure of civility and noblesse in high society.

“Pfff,” Lahnia sighed while Santhil walked up to her. “Finally.”

“What was that all about?” Santhil inquired amusedly, and set her empty wine glass on the pristinely white tablecloth next to them. “I think you’ve been standing here for over an hour.”

“Ugh, really felt that way, too,” Lahnia said. “Do this, be more like that, don’t do this...”

Santhil chuckled. “I always had this strange idea that sorceresses, being the founts of magical destruction and terror that you can be, never really got bossed around.”

“So did I!” Lahnia exclaimed with a wry grin, and flicked a lock of her carefully groomed hair aside with two fingers. “So did I.”

Santhil looked her sister over, resting her eyes on her fine nose and the almost annoyed, barely visible smile on her pearly pink lips. “You’re not having a good time, are you?”

Lahnia held back an immediate reflex to go in against that and say no, Santhil’s party was excellent and enjoyable, but she didn’t feel like lying, even if it was the polite thing to do. “She means well,” she excused her matron. “She’s under a lot of pressure from Ulthuan to ingratiate us with you.”

“Really?” Santhil was surprised to hear that. When she first came to the continent as the king’s drachau, she half expected to be bombarded by every conceivable faction, vying for her favour and attention. Things had been comfortably calm in that sense, everyone being modest in their calls for her attention, and she liked to believe the calm meant she did a reasonable job hearing and allaying their concerns.

“Well, you know, ever since they—or ‘we’—almost killed you with an earthquake,” Lahnia added with a slight smile. “That stuck with some people back in the motherland.”

“I suppose it does,” Santhil mused thoughtfully. “Well, enough politics,” she suddenly said with a fresh breath. “What are your plans?”

“My plans?” Lahnia said, and looked over the dancing hall. “My plans are to accost your commanders in friendly conversation and subtly bring them to consider employing the service of sorceresses.”

“Ah, so smile, bat your eyelashes, and show some leg?” Santhil asked.

“That’s not generally the kind of service we provide,” Lahnia said with a smooth smile. “Though obviously, I can’t speak for everyone.”

“Obviously.” Santhil nodded with a straight face.

“I wouldn’t want to impinge on creative interpretations of our laws and decrees.”

“You shouldn’t,” Santhil agreed. “Creativity is very personal.” Santhil and Lahnia looked seriously at each other while nodding vaguely, for a whole of five seconds, before both burst into a giggle.

“Thank you,” Lahnia said when she managed to subdue her laugh. “For making me smile.”

“Your smile is a reward on its own,” Santhil replied. “So, in other words, you’re preying on the people with the most stars and the fattest chevrons.”

“Yeah,” Lahnia reluctantly admitted. “Mina seems to be with all of them, though. I don’t want to elbow my way in there.”

“Not all of them,” Santhil corrected her.

“Yes, all of them,” Lahnia maintained, and nodded over to the altogether small group of people somewhere near the other side of the hall. “All your commanders are taking the opportunity to talk to the new liaison. And they should—I would, too.”

“Still, you’re missing someone.” Santhil smiled warmly, stood in front of Lahnia, and bent through her knees in a formal curtsey while offering her hand. “Mistress Arhakuyl, court sorceress to Drachau Arhakuyl, would you honour me with this dance?”

“Go away,” Lahnia said amusedly, and flicked her hand at her sister and looked aside. She let her eyes skip back to Santhil a few times before her smile dissipated. “You’re serious.”

“Think carefully, Mistress,” Santhil teased. “You wouldn’t want to leave a poor impression with the drachau of all those commanders.”

“Somehow, I don’t think this is what Matron had in mind,” Lahnia mentioned, and took Santhil’s hand.

“You can tell her I insisted.”

°°°

“So, how did it go, anyway?” Ardehan asked his colleague. “Did you get him?”

Gamman snorted briefly while whirling the wine in his glass. “Almost. Like always.”

Ardehan sighed slowly. “Santhil’s not going to like this.”

“I’ll tell her tomorrow morning,” Gamman said. “No point in ruining the evening for her.”

Yalasmina aimed curious eyes at the commanders, but wasn’t going to ask about it. This way, they could discreetly ignore her if her curiosity felt prying.

“Apologies, miss,” Ardehan said. “We were discussing our attempts to end Sasha.”

“Sasha?” Yalasmina asked, not sure whether she had heard the name before.

“A Sarthailorian commander, and an expert pain in the—” Gamman stopped himself. “Santhil hasn’t mentioned him? Then allow me.”

Gamman briefly recapitulated the current situation. The Druchii battlegroup was holed up in an abandoned dwarven hold in the southern ends of the Grey Mountains, near Athel Loren. To the north, the majority of their forces was battling for dominion over the naval ports, to secure the influx of new troops and keep a meagre economy flowing. The southern group’s mission was to disrupt and harass the relatively unprotected southern lands, hoping to draw away enemy armies from the north to protect their homes.

“Hence the many sorties and skirmishes,” Yalasmina understood.

“Exactly,” Ardehan picked in.

Given wide berth, the battlegroup first decided to take more severe action and siege Avalaer, the capital of the rebels and their center of gouvernment, from the south, in a bid to either lure more enemy forces south, or to defeat the garrison and claim the city.

However, the nothern battlegroups, being more numerous and stronger, required only small reinforcements to permanently secure the ports to the north, establishing a foothold on the coastal region. To that effect, about half of the southern battlegroup split off and headed north to assist them.

“Leaving us undermanned,” Yalasmina summarised. She recalled both Santhil’s as Lahnia’s thoroughly incensed reactions. “But how does this Sasha character factor into this?”

Sasha, Ardehan went on to explain, was a Sarthalorian battlegroup commander sent south to put a halt to Santhil’s terrorising. It was a large stretch of land, almost impossible to cover with a single battlegroup, but he showed up from seemingly nowhere with uncanny precision, and usually in the flanks or rear.

“So, the forces coming to the defense of the village,” Yalasmina recalled. “With the manor Santhil wanted to gift to the queen; that was Sasha?”

“No,” Ardehan said. “That was some rookie militia commander. Frontal assault is not this man’s style. He’s not throwing his troops into a meat grinder just to get back at us.”

Yalasmina nodded thoughtfully. “And his armies are too strong to defeat?”

“Frustratingly, no,” Ardehan admitted. “And sometimes, we actually manage to beat him and his armies, just to have him slip away from our grasp.”

“May I offer the Temple’s more specialised services?” Yalasmina said. “If his generalship is the prominent issue, our assassins may provide relief.”

“We can handle him,” Ardehan declined. “We’ll discuss it with the drachau, and we’ll figure something out. I’m not going to let some monkey outsmart us.”

“Of course,” Yalasmina said. “I meant no disrespect.”

“None taken, miss. We may eventually take you up on the offer,” Gamman said, and raised his glass to her. “Now, when is that waitress making another pass here?”

°°°

Santhil’s heart warmed at the sight of Lahnia’s content smile while they waltzed on the dance floor. Her sister was a graceful, elegant dancer, easily keeping up with the deliberately calm pace Santhil set leading the dance. “Are you having a good time now?” she asked.

“I’m having a wonderful time,” Lahnia said. “Thank you, Ari.”

“Has it been long since you danced? You’re doing really well.”

Lahnia’s cheeks flushed mildly. She wanted to answer, but her eyes suddenly caught attention of something—or someone, perhaps—while she slowly spun around with Santhil. “Oh, Ari, did you have to invite him?”

“Who?” Santhil asked curiously, focusing on keeping their dance in good pace. “It’s an open party.”

“You know who,” Lahnia sighed. “He who must not be mentioned.”

Santhil’s mind needed a moment to process the cryptic puzzle Lahnia tossed her, but she soon aha-ed in realisation. “Right.” Her one-week ex-lover.

“Can you believe it? Look at him, he’s—no, don’t look,” Lahnia immediately stopped Santhil from turning her head. “He’s with a woman. Another. Again.”

Santhil breathed slowly through her nose. In an instant, Lahnia’s excellent mood, as if having flown too closely to the sun with wings of wax, had plummeted into depths of bitter frustration. “Look, honey,” she said, “you should forget about him, about—”

“Why?” Lahnia cut in. “Why should he get away with this? Why do I have to be the victim twice? Because I could burn him to a crisp if I wanted to?” She sighed annoyedly. “Does that mean I’m incapable of a measured, proportionate response?”

Santhil looked at Lahnia’s smooth visage, the lack of a smile on her lips, the subtle, annoyed frown of her brows. Only a moment ago, this face was resplendid with joy and happiness at the dance they were sharing. Now, they were both on autopilot, cruising elegantly but thoughtlessly through the dancing couples. The difference was invisible to outsiders, but world-changing to Santhil. And she hated the nameless man for it. “Do you want to get even?”

Lahnia took a deep breath and looked back at Santhil. Her culture, her upbringing, her inhibitions told her to drop the issue and be the better person in the conflict, to just leave it be and be done with it. But the look in Santhil’s eyes, brimming with confidence, purpose, and no small amount of mischief, burrowed deep into Lahnia’s pent-up, almost animalistic instinct for revenge. She hesitated for a moment, but soon went entirely on her faith in Santhil. “How?”

“First, we have to get his attention,” Santhil said, keeping her voice low and calm. “Make him come to us.”

Lahnia nodded slowly, considering it. She wasn’t sure she wanted him anywhere near her again, but she was willing to gloss over that in the interest of getting even. “And then?”

“Then? Then you leave him to me,” Santhil said darkly.

The unfamiliar undertone in Santhil’s voice carried into Lahnia’s spine with the promise of guilty pleasure. “How do we get his attention?” she whispered.

“We’ll dance a little closer to him, and we’ll be a slight... creative in our interpretation of the dance.”

Lahnia nodded understandingly, and she let a lopsided smile curve her lips. “Let’s bring it to him.”

°°°

Lahnia cleared her throat and waved some cool air over her face while she left the dance floor, and reached for some fresh water stalled out on the tables.

“That,” Santhil said with an amused grin when she joined her sister for a cool drink. “That got his attention.”

“Was he looking?”

“He was looking,” Santhil confirmed clearly. “I even think his new squeeze took note of his look.”

Lahnia wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She disliked ‘stealing’ someone away, inflicting some of the pain she still felt but, all things considered, she might be doing his latest conquest a favour. That’s what she told herself. “What do we do now?”

“Now we wait,” Santhil said, and sipped from the refreshingly cool water in her glass. “Are you all right?”

“Oh yes, I’m fine,” Lahnia replied, and giggled briefly. “I just... I’ve never done that before.”

“Really?” Santhil frowned with an uneven smile. “That wasn’t the impression you left with me.”

Lahnia playfully slapped Santhil’s side with the back of her hand. “What are you trying to say? Oh no, here he comes.”

Santhil chuckled and leaned back against the table. “Excellent.”

“Lahnia,” the man called with what was possibly the most suave voice Santhil had ever heard. This man was a pro. “Such a long time since I’ve been in your captivating presence.”

“Ugh,” Lahnia muttered, and rolled her eyes while she turned a chillingly cold shoulder to him. He hadn’t been here for a whole three seconds and she already wanted him gone.

Santhil’s eyebrows curved curiously and amusedly at Lahnia’s unabashedly hostile reaction, and she aimed her eyes back at the man who had just made his entrance. “She doesn’t seem to like you,” she said, angling for his attention, and she received it promptly.

With a smooth, winning smile and a respectful distance, he bowed briefly to the woman he pretended to have only just seen for the first time. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of your company yet, my lady. The name is Rikshel; friends call me Rex. What would people name a beautious revelation such as yourself?”

“Santhil,” she introduced herself without heritage or title. They would only get in the way at this time.

“A heavenly name,” Rikshel commented. “I believe Lahnia made mention of you.”

“Has she, now?” Santhil said with a surprised smile, and gave Lahnia a quick look. Predictably, Lahnia shook her head annoyedly, and took a good whiff from her glass, as if It would help her dull her hearing. “So, you and Lahnia know each other, Rikshel? You seem to have left a poor impression.”

“That would be entirely me to blame,” Rikshel admitted graciously. “Our relation would fall poorly with the sternest of our good community, so I must flutter to other, lesser flames to protect her spotless reputation and good standing. She is, after all, the drachau’s sorceress.”

Santhil allowed herself a slight smile at that. The man—a junior officer, she could tell from a cursory scan of his clothes—had no clue. “Flirting with the drachau’s sorceress,” she said with an impressed look. “That’s risky business, Rikshel.”

“Risk,” he said, and paused briefly. “Risk is not something a man in my profession can avoid. I have to face danger head-on every time our army sorties. But I draw the line where others become involved,” he continued. “I cannot force such a dangerous, adventurous life onto others.”

This guy was so full of it, Santhil was amazed it didn’t come oozing out his nostrils. “Are you into danger and adventure, Rikshel?” she asked, and tilted her head, showing her neck subtly.

Rikshel smiled smoothly, and calmly walked up to her. “Are you a dangerous woman, Santhil?”

Santhil felt the man entangle himself in the web she spun especially for him. It was an unfair fight, and she considered toying with him a moment longer, but Lahnia seemed to grow more and more annoyed by his presence and Santhil’s indulgence of him. “Women like myself want men like you to find out.” She emptied her glass, set in on the table, and laid one hand behind his neck. “Would you like to find out who I am?” Her other hand, she slid down, over his shirt, and let it wander deeper down while a lopsided grin curved her lips.

Rikshel smiled intriguedly. “You must be a sorceress, because I feel on fire.” Lahnia’s eye twitched, and a single crack formed in her glass.

Santhil chuckled. “I’m told I have a... touch of magic.”

Lahnia irritatedly mouthed Santhil’s last words to herself, and flipped her tongue disgustedly. She downed the rest of her water and instantly regretted not having any left. She reached for another glass, but stopped when she heard Rikshel utter a painful, held-in grunt. Curiously, she turned to her sister.

“I,” Santhil started with a sigh, the man in her outwardly gentle embrace bending over, his eyes bulging almost comically from their sockets. “I am not happy, Rikshel. Can you tell?”

Lahnia hid her smile behind her hand, almost ashamed of enjoying Rikshel’s predicament. She knew from experience that her sister had a powerful, vice-like grip; of course, that only added to her amusement.

“Now, I feel you owe Lahnia an apology,” Santhil said, keeping her eyes on his. “Don’t you agree, Rikshel?”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he wheezed quickly, his voice strained and uneasy.

“A deep, honest, heartfelt apology,” Santhil told him.

“I’m sorry I lied to Lahnia, I really didn’t mean to hurt her,” he said, an alarmed expression settling in his eyes. “Please don’t—”

“Don’t apologise to me, lieutenant,” Santhil corrected him with an insidious grin. “I am having a ball here.” Lahnia stopped herself just timely from snorting into her glass.

“I-I’m sorry I hurt you, Lahnia,” he told her when he managed to tear his eyes away from Santhil’s. “I really, really am. Please tell her to stop.”

“Um,” Lahnia mockingly considered. “No. No, I think the world would be a better place if you didn’t breed.”

Santhil laughed quietly. “Wow,” she told him, and pushed his face to see hers. “You left a very poor impression with her. Now, here’s—Ah, hush, hush...” Santhil tightened her grip painfully when she felt Rikshel squirm. “Here’s what we will agree on.

“I see your lecherous hide anywhere near my court sorceress again, by accident or not, and your little piggies, lieutenant,” and Santhil paused a moment, “will be going to the market.” She kept a serious, piercing gaze into his, taking a leaf from Yalasmina’s repertoire. “Are we clear on this?”

“Absolutely clear, crystal clear,” he said quickly and, Lahnia noticed, with a slight pitch in his voice. “Couldn’t be clearer.”

Santhil forced Rikshel in place a while longer, making sure the message left the deep imprint it was meant to, and finally let go of him. Immediately, Rikshel took quick, hurried breaths of relief. “Lieutenant,” she dismissed him coldly. He took the opportunity (and his family jewels) with both hands and walked out with a brisk, hurried pace and uncomfortably short steps.

“He shouldn’t give you any more trouble,” Santhil said, and looked her left hand over. “And I should probably wash this one.”

Lahnia looked at Santhil a while longer, then walked up to her, tilted her head, and gave her a long, soft, heartfelt kiss on her lips. “Thank you,” she said. “That was probably the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me.”

Santhil smiled warmly at Lahnia and nodded once in acknowledgement. “The world would be a better place if he didn’t breed? Ouch.”

“I’m having a ‘ball’ here?”

“I like to think I really nailed that single entendre,” Santhil said. “Do you want to get out of here?”

“Yeah, that would be great.”

°°°

It was blisteringly cold outside. On the grassy, rocky ground, the occasional flames from oil-laden clay torches lit a comfortable, even path. The flames brought a dim warmth to night-time strollers enjoying the calm evening away from the hustle of the high-brow party going on inside.

The night was clear and the sky was alight with thousands of stars and dozens of nebulae. Yalasmina absently recognised the constellations she was taught from an early age, and thought back of the stern teaching and crass discipline that partly defined who she was now. She was a Maibd to Khaine, respected battle sister and medic; she was a liaison to a drachau, representing the Temple and smoothing its relations; she was also strolling outside in the frosty grass alongside a commander who has the earnest trouble to make up his mind.

A creeping silence was dominating the lack of conversation between Hirkenshiel and Yalasmina. Hirkenshiel had tried courageously to strike a topic that interested, intrigued, or impressed the Maibd, moving from philosophy to literature to smalltalk, but to no avail. He had moved their company outside, squaring Yalasmina away from the party’s prying eyes and inquisitive ears.

“So, um,” Hirkenshiel finally broke the growingly awkward silence. “How long have you been a Maibd?” Immediately, he felt the urge to slap his forehead painfully hard.

Yalasmina’s lips kept the slight, polite smile she had worn all evening. “All my life, Commander. As a rule, Maibds are raised from birth.”

“Of course,” he said uneasily. “I knew, I just... um... So, are you ever curious about life outside of worship?”

Yalasmina thought on that for a moment; a brief, fleeting moment. “No,” she replied calmly. “Not really.” She fought back a yawn. Her sisters had definitely worn her out last night.

Hirkenshiel tongued his cheek, and briefly glanced at Yalasmina before he immediately cast his eyes away again. He had to have looked at her a hundred times by now, and Yalasmina’s complete lack of reaction to it was chillingly unnatural. “I like being under your sister’s command,” he blurted out in an effort to avoid drawing attention to his cautious look.

Yalasmina returned an accepting, agreeable smile.

“I mean, not in the sense that I get a kick out of taking orders from a woman,” he immediately attempted to dispel any imaginable misinterpretation. “I didn’t mean it in... that... sense...”

Yalasmina aimed her eyes to her left. Natural aptitude and decades of honing and training had given her a sharp, predatory awareness of her environment. Something in the bush to their far left had moved, something that seemed unfazed by fire or people. Very few nightly predators fit that bill.

“Not that I have an issue with taking orders from women,” Hirkenshiel immediately corrected himself. “It’s great to see women in positions of authority; I love seeing women on top.”

“Shh,” Yalasmina quickly hushed him, and held a finger up to his lips.

Hirkenshiel froze on the spot, his eyes solidly on his company while he tried to figure out where this was going. He breathed deeply through his nose when Yalasmina took a step away from the aim of her focus, and moved up against him. Her cold hand brushed down between them on her way to her leg, and smoothly, soundlessly she slid it back up and under her skirt. His eyes opened widely.

With a quick tug from her wrist, Yalasmina clicked her dagger from its sheath and held it hidden behind her. Slowly, cautiously, she moved away from Hirkenshiel and circled around the bush that had since stopped its stirring. Her muscles tensed.

The quick ristle gave it away. The shadowy figure darted from the bush and away from the two strollers, but couldn’t much start his sprint before Yalasmina was upon him.

Yalasmina slammed the figure’s back against the nearest tree hard, dagger held at his throat but holding back in case this was someone’s lame joke. From the sallow eyesockets in the course, plump face, shining, unnaturally off-coloured eyes stared into hers. They glinted with amusement.

“Hello, curse-blood,” he sang shrilly, unsteadily, and beamed her an anticipating, toothy grin. “Surprised to see us?”

Yalasmina narrowed her eyes confusedly at the human in her grasp, noting the eight-pointed star pendant hanging from his neck. He merely kept his lips firmly together, snorting in effort to keep from laughing.

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Fri Dec 16, 2011 1:03 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Santhil breathed deeply, slowly in the dark room. Out in the night, a stronger wind was brewing, carrying a promise of rain. A chilling draft pulled persistently under the heavy curtains, cooling the room but unable to permeate the thick layer of covers sheltering the bed. She smiled contently, savouring the night’s supreme calm, the tranquil breathing of her sister, and listened to the wind ruffling through the trees both near and far. Slowly but surely, she felt her consciousness slip into a deep, peaceful sleep.

This was the good life.

“Meow.”

Santhil sighed but didn’t move. Lahnia pulled the covers a little more over her head.

“Mow.”

“Go away,” Santhil groaned in the complete darkness.

“Mew?”

“Just ignore him,” Lahnia mumbled, and made herself impossibly more comfortable.

Santhil found that good advice and turned to her sister, wrapping an arm around her and burying deeper under the covers. She aimed her focus on the distant, relaxing sounds of nature, even when she felt the light padding of paws on the covers.

“Mow?”

“How did he even get in?” Santhil whispered tiredly in Lahnia’s ear. Lahnia didn’t answer, and Santhil considered her sister was ahead on her in the ignoring effort. She breathed in calmly, and suddenly, quickly, caught a paw on her cheek.

“What the—? Did he just hit me?” Santhil said, and shook her head. Lahnia snorted into a giggle, but otherwise kept put. “It’s your cat, you know,” Santhil denied all affiliation.

“He’s on your side of the bed,” her sister groaned.

“Not for long, he isn’t.” Santhil aimed herself up, gently picked up the cat, and set it down on the other side of the bed. “There you go—” She stopped short when she felt it leap back onto her lap. “And here you are.”

Lahnia giggled, and burrowed her face deeper into the pillow. “He knows you’re a pushover,” she shared muffledly. “You always give in.”

“Meow?”

“You know, he wouldn’t be this energetic if you played with him before bedtime.”

“I was dancing, remember?” Lahnia said, and turned on her back. “You were there.”

“Môw.”

“Go. Away.”

“He doesn’t understand you. You know that, right?”

“He can take the hint from my voice,” Santhil persisted.

“And the voice says: ‘I’m about to give in’,” Lahnia said.

“Mow?”

“No,” Santhil said and mouthed clearly. “Go catch a mouse or a bird or something.”

“Doesn’t understand you,” Lahnia sang quietly.

“He’s supposed to pass for a hunter,” Santhil said. “He should hunt for his food.”

“He is,” Lahnia summarised astutely.

“Meoww...”

“No. You had your chance when we went to bed. I am not going to feed you.”

“Môw?”

“No,” Santhil maintained, and nestled back in with Lahnia.

“Mew? Mow. Moow. Meôw... Mawr. Mew. Môôôôôw... Maaaaww... Meeeôôô—”

“I’m feeding the cat,” Santhil groaned while she turned over and slipped out from under the comfortably warm covers.

Lahnia giggled. “Pushover.”

Santhil chuckled amusedly, went for the matches, and lit a candle. “Did you know that cats actually emulate a baby’s cry? That they hit just the right pitch to get us to listen?”

Lahnia frowned and looked over her shoulder at her sister. “Really?”

“Yes. They appeal to our parental instincts.” Santhil slid into the cold robe that was on the covers, slipped her feet into her shoes—the floor was cold—and took the candle to hand. “They play us for suckers,” she said while she picked the cat up and rested it on her free arm.

“So...” Lahnia said while she leant on her elbow and looked at Santhil. “You’re kind of looking after your baby.”

“I’m looking after your baby,” Santhi corrected her sister. “It’s your cat.”

“Our cat. You gave him to me.” Lahnia smiled warmly. “Notice how he stopped meowing?”

“He knows he’s getting food.”

“He knew that the moment he saw you,” Lahnia giggled.

Santhil shook her head to herself and filled the bowl with the bits, remains, and leftovers they saved for the pets. Cats were fuzzy eaters, and for good reason, but the cat treats and moist little pieces of meat always went down well. She smiled warmly when she saw the cat reach its paw for the bowl. “Ah ah ah, when your four paws are on the floor.”

Lahnia stared at her sister in the candlelight she carried with her. There was a lonesome calm to being in the thick of the night with her, like there was no world outside of the bedroom, and the anonymous, empty night beyond the curtains. This spot, this time; this was all theirs, and theirs alone.

Santhil set the filled bowl down on the carpet and, after gently dropping off the cat on the soft carpet, worked to light the nearby fireplace. The warmth would keep the cat put and allow her to sleep. The flame caught on the firewood, and slowly but steadily grew. She prodded it with the poker, spreading the firewood around a little to keep the fire burning calmly and slowly. Content to see the light simmer inobtrusively, she stroked the kittens back while it ate, enjoying the warmth of the fire in the cold draft. In passing, she noticed her sister staring at her with the slightest of smiles. “What?” she asked curiously.

“You’d make a great mother. A great wife,” Lahnia said. “Irhuil doesn’t realise how lucky he is.”

Santhil smiled warmly as she blushed. “Thank you.”

“Come back to bed? It’s cold.”

“Yesss,” Santhil hissed, and hurriedly tiptoed back. “Yes, it is.” She slipped under the sheltering covers again, shivering when the concealed warmth enveloped her body, and lied down on her back, staring up at the ceiling or, soon after, at Lahnia’s face hanging over hers. “Hm?”

“Sooo... how about that rematch?” Lahnia asked with a smile that could pass for a grin.

Santhil frowned curiously at her sister, looking up at the faint glint of light in her eyes. “Rematch?”

“Best two out of three?” Lahnia prodded Santhil’s memory, and kissed her on the nose.

“Oh,” Santhil suddenly realised, her eyebrows shooting up the moment her memories settled in. “I can’t remember agreeing to that,” she teased.

“No, but you were going to,” Lahnia said with a playful smile. “Please?”

Santhil looked past Lahnia at the dark ceiling while she considered it, burrowing erratically through the haze of her tired mind. Her eyes wandered to the dim light from the fireplace drawing over the strong wooden beams and vaguely patterned stones. When Lahnia poked her arm playfully, she chuckled. “Oh, all right, all right...”

“Yay,” Lahnia said softly. “Pushover.”

Santhil narrowed her eyes at her sister. “I’m starting to see where the cat got it from.”

Lahnia giggled and brushed her nose against Santhil’s. She quickly wet her lips, closed her eyes, and brought her lips to Santhil’s.

“Your nose is clean, right?” Santhil suddenly whispered. Lahnia buried her face into her sister’s shoulder and started laughing. She slapped Santhil’s arm lightly. “Stop making me laugh,” she said.

A loud beating on the door tore through the calm atmosphere, freezing Santhil, Lahnia, and even the cat right in their spots. “Santhil? Santhil, wake up,” a voice called from behind the door.

“That’s Mina,” Santhil said, and shot her eyebrows up. “I completely forgot Mina.”

“You forgot Mina?” Lahnia said, and sat upright, giving Santhil some room.

“I left her to liaise with my commanders at the party,” Santhil said. “I told her I’d come back for her.”

The bonking on the door persisted. Lahnia frowned pensively while Santhil hurriedly left the bed and slipped into her robe again. “Okay, but... she’s not going to wake you up in the middle of the night just to tell you that, right?”

“Mina wouldn’t wake me for but the direst of things.” Santhil quickly tied a knot around her waist, hurried to the door, and opened it, standing eye-to-eye with Yalasmina. “Mina, I—”

“Get dressed,” Yalasmina interrupted her. “They’re here.”

“Who’s here?”

“Chaos. Chaos is here.”

°°°

Many of the dwarven halls were wide and dark, being underground and far away from any sources of natural light. Dwarven architecture had evolved to cope with those problems where necessary, and incorporated clever placement of braziers, torches, and shielded, central fireplaces to illuminate their ever so secretive on-goings.

With a quick, experienced, and almost subconscious flick of her head, unbothered by her firm pace through the halls, Santhil tossed her hair back over her shoulders while her fingers fiddled with the fine necklace’s lock in the back of her neck. A glance checked her blouse was buttoned down just enough to show Khaine’s master rune delicately engraved into the necklace’s gemstone.

“You almost appear to be grooming for them,” Yalasmina said, walking alongside to her right.

“Impfessions,” Santhil mumbled unintelligibly, her lips holding onto the fine gloves she’d wear in a moment. “Impfessions arh impfohfanf.”

Yalasmina nodded slowly, and glanced past Santhil at Lahnia, who walked along her other side. A wealth of information and intention crossed over when their looks briefly met. “Santhil, could we stop here for a moment?” Yalasmina asked for her attention.

“Hm?” Santhil looked at Yalasmina and slowed her pace steadily, then looked at Lahnia and came to a halt. Her sisters’ ambivalent expression caused one of her eyebrows to curve suspiciously. “Fis can’f fe goof.”

“Santhil, we...” Yalasmina started, and let her held breath roll free. “I am worried.”

“Fowhi—” Santhil picked the gloves from between her lips. “Worried?”

“You don’t have any real experience with Chaos, do you?”

Santhil chuckled. “You should see my desk.”

“Santhil, be serious,” Yalasmina said. “You’ve never met them in the flesh.”

Santhil narrowed her eyes at her elder sister while she fitted her hands into her gloves, not sure where Yalasmina was going with this. “True,” she confirmed, and furtively glimpsed at Lahnia to gauged her feelings on whatever matter they were discussing. “I know that.” Obviously.

Yalasmina sighed to herself, annoyed that she couldn’t find the words to express herself tactfully and still have her sister catch on. “Santhil, we don’t know what you see or what you hear in your visions.”

Santhil forwent any attempt at continuing down the hallway and, with an almost frozen gaze, stared at Yalasmina. “My ‘visions’,” she repeated her, offended by the succinct word for the complex, powerful experiences forced onto her, when her mind was coerced into sharing its territory with a foursome of peculiar avatars. Yalasmina picked up on that underline of indignance in Santhil’s voice, and waited patiently for it to sink. She was not a woman to make excuses for her words.

Santhil’s eyes wandered from their stare, aiming down into the hallway, dark and abandoned at this time of deep night, while her mind skit around through her mental vocabulary. Try as she might, a better word wouldn’t come to her, and she wanted to save her patience for the meeting. “My visions,” she conceded in a sigh, allowing Yalasmina to continue.

“Are you ever offered anything?” Yalasmina kept her voice deliberately calm, sensing that she was treading on a volatile topic.

“Yes,” Santhil answered, and subtly leant back with crossed arms, challenging her sister to make her point. “Concerned I struck a deal with the ‘Forces of Ruin’, Yalasmina?”

“Why are you seeing them?” Yalasmina immediately questioned. “Why have you agreed to meet with them?”

“They demanded an audience with me,” Santhil replied. “And—”

“With you,” Yalasmina cut in. “Not with the drachau, not with the commander of the forces, but with Santhil Arhakuyl.”

“It so happens,” Lahnia pitched in carefully, feeling a sudden need to defuse the tension steadily building between her sisters, “names are important to Chaos warlords, so maybe they—”

“Oh, shush, Lahnia,” Yalasmina stifled her attempt. “Santhil, what is there to discuss? They are Chaos, they are the anathema of all things of this world, and nemesis to Khaine, our—your god. We stand to gain only horror and destruction from dealing with them.”

“I’m not dealing with Chaos, here,” Santhil countered. “I am dealing with their warbands. With their mortal, human chieftains.”

“Who fuel and are fueled by—”

“Mina,” Santhil cut in, and softened her voice. “Mina, I know and understand. Have faith in me.”

Yalasmina sized Santhil up, disarmed by her confident look, and now torn between trusting her sister and trusting instincts that rarely proved wrong. “My faith is in our god,” she replied evasively while making up her mind.

“Interestingly,” Lahnia interjected, “not all priestesses make that distinction.”

“Lahnia Arhakuyl, that is not funny,” Yalasmina snapped. “Santhil, you don’t talk about your visions anymore. You and only you know what you’ve been told, what you’ve been promised. And now you’re walking into a meeting with them, and I have no idea what you’re going to do.”

“I will do the polite thing,” Santhil replied. “I will greet them, and we will discuss the reasons for their presence. No promises.”

Yalasmina eyed Santhil warily. While she felt her sister deserved some trust, she feared Santhil deluded herself into thinking she could outsmart or deceive the gods of Chaos. She would not be the first to make that mistake.

Santhil caught Yalasmina’s doubt and sighed to herself, and gently held her sister’s wrists. “Look, Mina, I would love to have your support when I go in there and face them. But if you feel you can’t give me your support, then I will accept that, and I will settle for your presence.”

Seconds slowly passed while Yalasmina looked Santhil in the eye, considering the compromise. “Very well,” she finally said. “I will trust you. Just please don’t... surprise me in there.”

Santhil beamed her sister a smile and let go of her. She turned halfway to Lahnia. “How about you, Lahnia? Do you trust me?”

Lahnia smiled warmly at her. “You need to ask?”

Santhil returned the smile, and took a deep breath for courage. “All right. Let’s go dazzle these people with some Arhakuyl medicine.”

°°°

“Ah!” the steel-encased giant growled loudly, towering a foot over his associates. “The elves grace us with their presence.” It wasn’t entirely clear which part of his greeting was most stressed with contempt; he did a pretty good job of evening it out.

The delegation collected across the table from Santhil was clearly a disparate, motley gang of outliers and extremes. Directly across from her, the seven-foot-tall menace of muscle and steel asserted his authority through threat and intimidation. It was impossible to tell what kind of mutated creature lurked in the shell, but it had to have been human at one time: the voice spoke the human’s common language, and bore accents and pronunciation distinctive to them.

Next to him, another human sat, his wiry stature an almost mocking contrast to his master or peer. Tattoos and paint covered his bald head, and oddly coloured but tattered robes decorated his body. His sallow eyes glinted with the amusement of a sadistic mind watching mice misnavigate elaborate mazes, of carrying knowledge beyond the understanding of other mortals, his mind freed from the boundaries of reality, logic, physics.

Others that were present appeared to be little more than pawns, subordinate cretins sycophanting to their masters in the vain hope of sharing in the gifts bestowed on the powerful. That made them no less cruel or scornful among themselves.

“Drachau Santhil Arhakuyl,” Santhil introduced herself to the dubious ensemble. “Administrator of the colonies, supreme commander of its armies, and Drachau to King Malekith of the Ulthuan Empire.” She smiled politely at them, a physical lie considered social norm in her culture. “You requested an audience?”

“Save me your petty theatrics, elf,” the armoured giant spat. “I am Vardannoz, warlord of these armies, and champion to the Chaos gods!”

“Well then, Vardannoz,” Santhil said, keeping to the coarse, paupered excuse for a language that was the common tongue of man. “What can we do for you?” She waited briefly until Lahnia and Yalasmina were seated, then sat down in between them. Their presence encouraged her to be her very best.

“I have cut a bloody swath through the puny ‘empire’ of mortal men, and I have crushed all resistance before me,” Vardannoz said, and raised his fist into the air. “I, Vardannoz, will attack the forest of Athel Loren, defeat its guardians, and claim it for the dark gods!”

Santhil kept her eyes on the imposing tree of rage towering over the rest of the assembly, waiting while the expectation for her to say something steadily rose. “Good luck to you?” she tried with a vague smile.

“Do not mock me, woman!” Vardannoz burst angrily, and slammed his fist hard into the table, the impact shuddering throughout. “Your support—!”

“—Mind the table, would you kindly?—” Santhil tonelessly interjected, her voice barely audible through the warrior’s bellowing.

“—was promised to me, and I shall have it! You and your forces are mine to command!”

Yalasmina glanced vindictively at Santhil. “No promises, hm?” she muttered audibly in her native tongue.

Santhil ignored the jab, crossed her arms and legs, and sat back. “Let’s try this again. Drachau Santhil Arhakuyl,” she re-introduced herself. “I own the continent.”

“History warns of your race’s treachery, elf,” Vardannoz growled. “Your enemies are wise in naming you the Grey Weasel. Your most practised tactic is synchronised retreat.”

Santhil just managed to resist a twitch. The ‘Grey Weasel’? Not exactly the name she was hoping to make for herself. “Yet here you are, demanding my assistance; in the pitch of night, no less.”

“Your puny sleep rituals mean nothing to me, weakling!” Vardannoz bellowed. “I razed a burning path through the realms of man! Only death and destruction lie in my wake! I serve the dark gods!”

Santhil looked at the blazing fury across from her, and fingered the jewelous rune across her neck. Slowly, a cruelly amused grin formed on her lips, a sadistic glint shining in her eyes. Lahnia glanced surprisedly at her sister when she heard a derisive chuckle. This was not a reaction she expected.

“Insolent whore!” Vardannoz yelled at her. “Explain yourself!”

“You ‘serve’ the dark gods? Really, Vardannoz?” Santhil’s mocking smile quickly dissipated. “I negotiate with your gods. I speak with them, and they speak with me. We talk.”

Vardannoz stared angrily at her across the table. His heavy, growling breath dominated the now silent council room.

“Humans,” Santhil spat contemptfully. “You’re so full of yourselves, thinking your gods will notice you for pillaging some hamlet or knocking down a shack. ‘Razed a burning path through the realms of man?’ Please.”

“You bluff,” Vardannoz accused her. “Your deception is shallow, elf. The dark gods do not speak to you or your kind.”

“Tell me, Vardannoz. You requested me by name, but who told you? How did you learn my name?” Santhil waited a moment for it to sink in. “Was it your seer, perhaps?”

Vardannoz’ glare aimed itself squarely at the much smaller human next to him. With complete disregard for personal safety, his alleged seer stared back at him, their eyes meeting, before he snorted into a burst of uncontrollable laughter.

“He can’t help it,” Santhil said. “He reads minds.”

“Raah!” Vardannoz roared, and smacked his ally to the ground with a single swipe from his massive hand. He fumed for several seconds, then turned to Santhil again. “Cease your conniving and deliver the assistance I was promised! The gods will look favourably upon you should you join in such a glorious assault.”

“If I have need of your masters’ blessings, Vardannoz, I will take it up with them in person,” Santhil declined his promises. “You are certain your troops will be sufficient to claim Athel Loren with my support?”

“I am counting on you to uphold your word, elf,” Vardannoz answered. “But with or without you, I will march on Athel Loren and I will seize it.”

Santhil kept her eyes across her, pondering, again fidgetting with the rune between her fingers. Next to her, her sisters sat tensed, riding the rollercoaster Santhil pulled them through. Yalasmina’s eyes briefly met Lahnia’s; they thought the same: Santhil would never convince them to stall or stave their attack. Her hand discreetly fingered the hilt of her blade, ready to draw it when hell would break loose.

“Then I will be so gracious to give you a chance to prove yourself, Vardannoz,” Santhil finally said. “Don’t squander it.”

Yalasmina blinked quickly, the only hint at her stunned incredulity. She aimed her eyes at Santhil. “Drachau, may we have a word? In private.”

“The witch disapproves,” Vardannoz laughed. “How predictable for a follower of a lapsed god.”

Lahnia held tensed as a violin, ready to spring into action. Was that the signal? Did they miss their window? Was Santhil planning something? Why couldn’t Santhil be clear? Annoyance prickled her as much as the adrenaline did.

“I’ve made a decision, Maibd-Khaina,” Santhil overruled her protest, and softened her statement with a furtive, hidden hand on Yalasmina’s leg. Immediately, she felt a stern grip on her wrist, and Yalasmina’s fingernails dug into her skin under the seam of her glove.

“Of course, Drachau,” Yalasmina slowly growled while she kept her sister’s hand pinned, making doubly sure her furious discontentment could not be missed. “I have nothing but trust in your judgement.”

“Your trust is well-placed,” Santhil reassured her. “Vardannoz, quarter your... ‘men’ in the stockrooms three levels below. And keep them there. Any humans seen wandering around will be put down.”

“Save your hollow threats, elfling,” Vardannoz spat, “and see to it you honour our agreement.”

Santhil smiled neutrally at him. “See you in the morning.”

°°°

“What the hell are you thinking?” Yalasmina snapped angrily at Santhil once they were alone in the council chamber. “Are you insane?”

“Will you please let go of my hand?” Santhil asked with a wince, and attempted half-heartedly to pull it away, but felt the sharp sting intensify.

“Answer the question,” Yalasmina persisted, and rephrased it very slowly: “What are you doing?”

“We don’t have a choice, Mina,” Santhil answered. “If we refuse, they will rampage their way through, and the damage they cause us may force us to forfait any chance we make at conquering Avalaer.”

“But Ari,” Lahnia added with a confused, almost disappointed sigh. “If Chaos gets their hands on Athel Loren, they will use the ley-crossings there to merge their worlds into ours, and create something the Ulthuan vortex can not stop. What is Avalaer to a permanent gate in the middle of the continent?”

“I know,” Santhil said, aiming her eyes briefly at Lahnia. “I know what’s at stake, Lana, and—“

“Ari, I don’t think you do,” Lahnia persisted, shock slowly seeping into her voice while the realisation settled. “We aren’t talking about a... summoning ritual or a... or a demon army popping out of the aether. This is a warpgate, the potential size of which could turn the entire continent into Chaotic wasteland.” She kept her eyes on Santhil to make sure her sister understood the gravity. “This would be like a third pole, Ari. North pole, south pole, and Loren.”

“Lahnia, sweetheart, I understand,” Santhil soothed. “Trust me, it will not come to that. Think with me: the Asrai are strong, but we have no idea how powerful these Chaos warbands are. Going along with them gives us the ability to intervene in case they get the upper hand. And speaking of hands,” Santhil said, and turned a desperate look at Yalasmina. “Would you please let go now?”

Yalasmina narrowed her eyes at Santhil, considering her sister’s plans and intentions. She wasn’t entirely convinced that Santhil knew what she was doing, but at least now there was reasonable doubt. With a quick, sudden flick, she pulled her nails from Santhil’s wrist. “Your hand does not belong on a Maibd’s leg,” she shared.

Santhil immediately jerked her hand away from her sister and flexed her fingers. “What happened to trust?”

“I warned you not to surprise me,” Yalasmina reminded her. “Agreeing to help the apocalypse invade Athel Loren surprised me. You’ve even provided them with lodging in a conveniently spacious location.”

“You might think that,” Santhil admitted. “And you may consider what else we store three levels down.”

Lahnia’s face suddenly straightened. “Hundreds of barrels of excess wine,” she said. “Ari, that’s brilliant!”

“I have my moments,” Santhil joked. “Let’s see how the great Vardannoz deals with hungover forces and an uncooperative ‘ally’.” At the sting of the nailmarks left in her wrist, she beamed Yalasmina a lopsided grin. “Is your faith in me restored, Mina?”

Yalasmina kept a scrutinous eye on her sister. “It is still undergoing extensive maintenance.” She sighed deeply, calmingly through the nose, mulling over what happened. “I will come with you, tomorrow.”

“I was hoping you would.”

°°°

Santhil stretched her tired muscles with a deep groan while making a beeline for her bed. “Better not get in between me and my bed, now,” she said, turned on one heel, and prepared to plunge back into the soft mattress.

“Wait!” Lahnia said, and yanked brusquely on Santhil’s arm.

Santhil nearly toppled over, threw Lahnia a surprised look, then aimed her eyes at whatever caused the warning. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, I don’t believe this.”

Curled up against Santhil’s pillow, eyes calmly closed and tail against its paws, half burrowed under the thick covers, a kitten purred contently as it slept peacefully and comfortably in the dim light of the fireplace and leftover heat of the bed’s owner. It snuggled a little deeper into its own fur at the sound of Santhil’s voice, and kept tranquil and still.

“There is no way he’s not doing this on purpose,” Santhil said. “There is no other explanation.”

“Come on,” Lahnia giggled, and pulled calmly on Santhil’s arm. “We’ll take my bed.”

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SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Sun Jan 22, 2012 4:31 pm
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I can just picture Vardannoz the next morning:

"ATTA-AACK!"

"Not so loud, I've got a migraine."


Kidding aside, the sudden use of the extra barrels was a good find. Given that the parts where written years apart, i have to wonder, did you have that use in mind when you first started writing the party preparations?

And as ever, it is well written. The manner in which you manage to humanize your characters towards the reader while any outside race still sees them as Druchii (callous, cruel and untrustworthy) is unique and entertaining.
The little concerns - such as being pestered by a cat - and their reactions to such events are recognizable and hilarious at the same time.

Keep it up and keep updating.


Mon Feb 06, 2012 7:41 pm
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Once I got my head around the alternative "reality" I found this to be a nice read. I still find it strange reading about the females acting girly, and a cat being treated with kindness. Their mannerisms and the environment in which they live made me think of WoW's Blood Elves, more than the Druchii. But still, it is plausible behaviour, GW are just very keen on portraying DEs as cold, heartless, murdering bastards! :P The pace is nice, the characters strong, and I enjoyed the interplay between them. I get the sense you had a lot of fun writing this.

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Tue Feb 07, 2012 1:07 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
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Glad to see people find the story entertaining. :) I do indeed have a lot of fun writing it, but I also invest much of my spare time into it (thinking or writing), and hearing that others enjoy it makes it easier on me.

SleekDD wrote:
I can just picture Vardannoz the next morning:
"ATTA-AACK!"
"Not so loud, I've got a migraine."
:lol: Reading that immediately put "The Worst Hangover Ever" from Offspring in my head.

SleekDD wrote:
Kidding aside, the sudden use of the extra barrels was a good find. Given that the parts where written years apart, i have to wonder, did you have that use in mind when you first started writing the party preparations?
Me? I can barely remember where I put my shoelaces in the morning. :p (I'm not a morning person, and though chasing my shoelaces around the house is probably good exercise, it does not improve my mood.)

Nightcall wrote:
Once I got my head around the alternative "reality" I found this to be a nice read. I still find it strange reading about the females acting girly, and a cat being treated with kindness. Their mannerisms and the environment in which they live made me think of WoW's Blood Elves, more than the Druchii. But still, it is plausible behaviour, GW are just very keen on portraying DEs as cold, heartless, murdering bastards! The pace is nice, the characters strong, and I enjoyed the interplay between them. I get the sense you had a lot of fun writing this.
I may take knowledge of the alternate reality a bit too much for granted. Where it becomes relevant, I often summarise it, but I imagine it's straining on readers because there is no established canon to fall back on when filling in gaps.

Thank you for the kind comments. :)

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SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Tue Feb 07, 2012 9:22 pm
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This so awesome (so is Lestat) ! You are very talented ! Is there any chance BL could hire you, so I could for once read fiction, in which druchii are not dump as ogres?

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Thu Feb 09, 2012 8:02 pm
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You are very awesome Tarbo. I'm still hoping to see Malekith and Morathi in this story. :)
Well mainly Malekith. ^.^
:3


Thu Feb 09, 2012 10:35 pm
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Sezax wrote:
Is there any chance BL could hire you, so I could for once read fiction, in which druchii are not dump as ogres?
I wouldn't want to be the guy/gal who has to decide what category my writing fits into.

Norelle wrote:
I'm still hoping to see Malekith and Morathi in this story.
Well mainly Malekith. ^.^
They will play their part as "supporting" characters. I'm quoting "supporting" because, really, we wouldn't want to make Santhil's job easy, now would we? ;)

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SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Fri Feb 10, 2012 8:13 pm
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
Post 
(I finally did it. I hit the single post character limit. The server gave me this stern, defeated look that says: "Happy now, vandal? Hooligan!" So I was considerate, and decided to split the story over two posts.)


It was much colder in Lahnia’s chambers than in Santhil’s. It had seen little use during the day, and had gone entirely unlit and unheated. The outside, chilly wind had slowly whittled away at what little leftover warmth remained, and even now the fireplace was dark and silent, and the last candle had been put out hours ago. Lahnia didn’t mind the cold: the covers were thick enough to withstand the draft that pulled over them, and she preferred a colder bedroom, anyway.

It had been a few hours since the meeting with Chaos had ended. Lahnia had been pondering on it all a while longer, trying to figure out just what exactly the humans could be up to. Yes, the most obvious use for Athel Loren, in their eyes, would be to solidify the powerful leying inside, straining it to a peak and tearing through this ‘grey’ world into the Warp, effectively creating a new Chaos gate. And to do that, they would require extensive rituals and powerful magic; free rein in the forest without fear of attack from the Asrai that dwelled there.

But was there something she was missing?

Maybe the barrier between the magic-ridden Warp and their own world was more tenuous than they realised, and a large enough battle could give their cultists and sorcerers enough time to create a crack, tiny fissures, sufficient to allow a surge from the other side to burst through.

She worried. Much of Santhil’s knowledge on the topic depended directly on Lahnia’s magical erudition. And yes, she told herself, she had extensive theoretical knowledge on the subject but, just as the Forces of Ruin, she had never been free to experiment in Athel Loren. Her knowledge—everyone’s knowledge—of Athel Loren had a lot of ‘maybe’, ‘probably’, ‘should be’ and, not uncommonly, ‘not the slightest clue’. Still, Lahnia was convinced that, should the situation take a turn for the worst, she would be on top of the magical aspects, and she drew strength from Santhil’s confidence.

Speaking of Santhil, and Lahnia only just noticed when she opened her eyes from a brief slumber, she no longer had her arm around her. Accustomed to and angling for that little bit of warmth, Lahnia rolled on her back to check whether her sister was awake. She was.

Santhil was sitting up in the bed, pillow set up against the wooden back panel, one leg pulled up under the covers, and staring pensively ahead of herself. She beamed Lahnia a quick smile when she noticed her sister move. “Did I wake you?”

Lahnia shook her head calmly. “Can’t sleep?”

Santhil let out a deep sigh and rested her head on the back panel. There was so much on her mind, she didn’t even know where to start. Her worries were myriad, legion, and obvious, and she wasn’t sure talking about them, giving them name and form, would help to allay her concerns. The greatest thing about talking to Lahnia was that you didn’t have to actually say anything.

Lahnia nodded understandingly, puffed her pillow up against Santhil’s, and moved up against her sister. With a quick prod, she squeezed herself under Santhil’s arm, and rested her head against her. “You’ll do great,” she said, and pulled the covers up to her chin.

Santhil smiled at the extra warmth snuggling up against her, and softly kissed her sister’s hair. “Sometimes, I don’t get why you don’t have more suitors beating down your door.”

“I burn people,” Lahnia whispered tiredly, and closed her eyes.

Santhil nodded thoughtfully. Fair point.

°°°

“What I expect, Vardannoz, is a gleam of competence,” Santhil argued. “ ‘Charge in and hope for the best,’ frankly, is not doing it for me.”

Vardannoz’ horse seemed like an almost twisted mirror image of her own mount. Its skin and manes were an ashy black, its eyes shining with a crimson glint, its whinnying closer to a threatening growl than a horse’s. The mutated creature unnerved Santhil’s mount, and she comforted it with steady pats on its side.

Dawn had long since passed, and the day was already in its late morning. The winter sun was climbing in the blue, empty sky, and shod weak but warming beams over the rime-filled grassy fields surrounding the forest, and the grassy knoll they were standing on.

The sight of Athel Loren, even from a distance, was still familiar. Not too long ago, she marched through the forest with entire armies, passing from clearing to clearing with massive siege equipment, archery regiments, and cavalry. In hindsight, and predictably, an unfortunate tactic, but nobody really believed that the ‘wood elves’ and the ‘spirits of the forest’ existed, or that they were so attuned to defending what they considered sacred. She was careful not to share with her alleged ally any of the lessons learned that day.

“And what manner of warfare would you suggest, oh ‘wise’ one?” Vardannoz spat in response to Santhil’s thinly veiled insult. “Please share this supreme insight that you so vauntly claim.”

Santhil symbolically lifted her hands clean off the issue, but firmly held the reins of her shaky horse. “You’re the one who wants to prove himself to his masters, Vardannoz. I’m here to support and observe.”

“Yet your presence has served only to gnaw and to grate,” Vardannoz taunted. “Does the prospect of true warfare rattle your composure?”

“I’m still annoyed with you and your men,” Santhil snapped angrily at him. “I offer you support, hospitality, and insight, and you break into my stockpiles and gorge yourself on liquors and wines.”

Santhil’s anger was not faked. Yes, she had hoped that Vardannoz’ warband would indulge itself, and yes, it most definitely had, but she had also hoped to see clearer evidence that the binge of nightly drinking actually affected any of them. Barring that, she would’ve hoped to use the wine to cover some of her war expenses, as she conveyed clearly and vividly to Vardannoz before they left to siege Loren.

Vardannoz chuckled derisively at her, and even that simple sound boomed forebodingly from his helmet. There were many things ‘wrong’ with Vardannoz compared to his more human compatriots, not the least that he seemed possessed of a cunning belied by his crude, powerful appearance.

Santhil wasn’t entirely sure how much he suspected. He had to have been more than aware that her indulgence of his demand for support was tenuous, and that she felt no actual obligation to help him, but if he had suspected actual sabotage, and Santhil briefly eyed his man-sized, dark, double-bladed axe when she considered it, she would have been dead by now. She had to keep playing her part, and appear as a valued, corruptible associate to Chaos and its allies. She had the nagging feeling that that was exactly how the Chaos gods viewed her.

“I have bigger worries than your pride and glory, Vardannoz,” Santhil forcibly interrupted her train of thought. “I have wars to wage, civilians to defend, and economies to sustain. For that, I require troops—competent troops—and those cost money.”

“When the forest is ours, oh Grey Weasel, the dark gods will summon any and all forces you require for your feeble goals.”

“Again, if I want a promise from your masters, servant, I will discuss it with them in person. Speaking of which,” Santhil added, and dismounted her horse fluently. “We should declare our presence to the Asrai.”

Vardannoz snorted derisively. “Declare our presence? You would discard the element of surprise?”

“Don’t be simple; they already know we’re here,” Santhil snapped. “And in civilised cultures, people declare themselves when they enter another’s domain. Now, are you coming?”

“Feh! Leave your petty culture and your vaunted civilisation,” Vardannoz refused. “I will not be ambushed by your treacherous kind so easily.”

“Look, if you’re scared, just say so—I’ll understand—but the Grey Weasel is going,” Santhil persisted. “You can stay and ponder over which angle best to stampede from.”

“And what guarantee do I have that you will not betray us?”

“Would I offer you to come along then?” Santhil countered with a fake smile. “That wouldn’t be very smart of me, would it?”

“I will not come with you, elf,” Vardannoz said confidently. “But my seer will.”

Santhil held for a moment. This, she had not expected. “Your seer,” she finally said. “You would insult the Asrai by sending the lackey of a servant?”

“You can vouch for his safety, can’t you, oh cultured and civilised one?”

Santhil fumed visibly. “Fine,” she grumbled. “Send the nutjob. But he’d better listen to me.”

“He will hear your every word, elf,” Vardannoz said darkly. “Remember that well.”

°°°

The woods were thick and dark, the leaves and overgrowth suffocating the atmosphere and scaring away natural light. With her body now more familiar with and sensitive to the subtleties of magic, her nerves tingled annoyingly with every step she took deeper into the forest. Majestic trees loomed threateningly over her, their branches glaring silently, judgementally. From the sides, shadows drawn around them, invisible eyes pierced her back and shoulders, prickling her spine with cold needles of paranoia.

She was not welcome here.

Next to her, but one step behind, her human ‘escort’ followed, an unsteady grin on his face and an unstable, gurgling chuckle in his throat. He ogled her unabashedly, observing her every move with both anticipation and scrutiny. Santhil spared him a look, then shook her head with an irritated sigh. “What?” she barked at him.

“Just a moment,” he said with a trembling, pitched voice. “Just a little while longer, and the Arhakuyl woman shows her true colours. The deception will come off —yes!— and my master will be pleased with my warnings!”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Santhil said, and furtively slipped her hand to her sword, clicking it silently out of its sheath. “It’s a civil discussion between elves. You’ll be disappointed.”

“Cohorting with the enemy,” he almost squealed in delight, biting his lips to hold back an excited giggle. “You will be exposed as a traitor to the dark gods, Arhakuyl woman!” He immediately took a step away from Santhil, leaving her arm’s reach.

“Khaine’s blood, man, you are annoying,” Santhil hissed angrily. “Now shut up and keep your ears open.”

“Treason never pay-ays, treason never pay-ays,” he sang childishly, and ended in a positively thrilled giggle. This guy wasn’t playing with a full deck.

An arrow suddenly whizzed past her eyes and landed in between his with a soft but clear thud. He stared eerily ahead of himself for several long seconds while blood slowly trickled from the wound. Santhil kept deathly still as he finally, gracelessly collapsed over the thick, fallen branch he had just stepped over.

“Santhil Arhakuyl,” a soft but all-present voice said, and a gentle light shone ahead of her. She slowly turned to face it.

Some three yards ahead of her, a woman hovered silently about a foot over the bushy undergrowth. Her long, unkempt hair flowed over her shoulders and bosom, and a tattered robe hung from her body. An aura of light engulfed her and now shone starkly, unpleasantly, forcing Santhil to shield her eyes with her hand.

“You are not welcome here, Santhil Arhakuyl,” the woman said with a hint of curiosity in her voice.

To her side, in the darkness of the bushes and the shadow of the apparition’s aura, Santhil heard movement. A branch high above her twitched, and a single leaf dropped down. “Drachau,” Santhil still dared. “Drachau Santhil Arhakuyl.”

“Your title holds no meaning here,” her voice intoned informatively and factually.

“I insist,” Santhil said, and hid a nervous swallow while she lowered her hand and squinted her eyes.

“Very well, Drachau Santhil Arhakuyl,” the woman said, and gradually the light dimmed until Santhil could comfortably look at her again. The forest seemed so much darker while her eyes readjusted to the brown shadows. “What brings you here?”

“I came to declare myself,” Santhil said, and looked around cautiously when she heard leaves ristle in the periphery of her hearing. “Declare our presence to our distant kin.”

“This is a courtesy you did not extend to us last time we met,” the woman reminded Santhil, and slowly floated around her, keeping a clear distance.

“Wrongfully,” Santhil admitted. “My apologies.”

“We welcome your polite manners, Drachau, yet you come here with the same purpose, commanding an army to invade our forest and desecrate our secret grounds.” The woman spared Santhil a glance, then stared outward at what could well be the exact location of her army’s encampment. “Why do you hate us?”

Santhil felt like swallowing a bit of pride, then took a deep breath and straightened her back from the demeanour that she skulked around with earlier. “Our king demands your allegiance.”

“Your king, too, holds no meaning here, and his word no strength,” the woman reminded Santhil patiently. “Speak freely, Drachau. The gods of ruin cannot see you here, and your pursuers will not trouble you anymore.”

In hindsight, it was obvious, Santhil considered, that more covert assets would have been applied to spy on her, in case she decided to take matters into her own hands and kill the unimportant, spineless creep that was sent with her. “Thank you,” she said, not sure whether it was more appropriate to sound stately or grateful.

“We dislike the taint of Chaos,” the woman said. “You, too, have been touched by them.”

“I am not tainted,” Santhil replied defiantly, disliking this treading on a subject close to her.

“Chaos has touched you,” the woman repeated. “You feel their presence, and you ride as allies with their armies.”

“I have no love for the forces of ruin,” Santhil clarified. “And I have a proposition for you.”

“We are not interested in dealing with you, Drachau Santhil Arhakuyl.”

“Don’t be thick,” Santhil said. “Those armies out there are forewarned and forearmed. Even if you defeat them, you will be hurt and you will be weakened.”

“Then we will recover,” the woman said softly but determinedly. “Choose your words respectfully, Drachau.”

“Look, I am risking a lot coming in here,” Santhil said, and took an annoyed step towards the woman. “The least you can do is—”

“Move no closer,” the woman cautioned as well as commanded. As she spoke, Santhil felt a threatening tug on her leg, and saw a dark, barbed vine clench her leg up to her knee in a single, upward spiral. “The spirits in these vines will strangle your life essence from you.”

“At least hear my proposition,” Santhil tried. “No harm can come from listening.”

“Propose, then,” the woman offered, and turned to face Santhil.

“You do not wish this forest to fall to Chaos, and neither do I,” Santhil said. “And I will not spill any more of my soldiers’ blood for this place.”

“Then you have acted poorly in sending them here,” the woman reasoned.

“An illusion of cooperation is required of me to protect the people under my command,” Santhil defended herself. “The warlords that lead the hordes of Chaos have eagerly coerced me into presence. They count on my support to stand a chance against you. Without that support, you will slaughter them.”

“And this would please you,” the woman inferred. “Even though you betray your allies.”

“I am no ally of Chaos. Every dead cultist and demon worshipper is another note dimmed in their symphony of destruction,” Santhil said. “I have artillery batteries lined up near the periphery of this forest. Feed them fodder, tactically unimportant targets, whatever you can to keep them from making a difference.”

“An interesting proposition, Drachau,” the apparition said. “What do you ask in return?”

“Aim for their warlords and chieftains,” Santhil said, “and spare my troops while I appear to cooperate.”

It was already difficult to get a good look at who she was talking to, the surrounding light blurring her lines and contours; likewise, the forest’s ominous darkness seemed to fold around Santhil, making it impossible to read the spirit’s face and thus her thoughts.

“This is acceptable,” the woman finally said. “We will communicate our needs and wishes.”

“I don’t disappoint,” Santhil said with a confident (and relieved), lopsided smile. “How will you communicate—”

“You will know,” she was calmly told, though there was a clear hint of finality in the voice.

Santhil nodded musingly, not sure what to think of that, and decided she wanted to limit her time spent in her hostile environment. She eyed the vines around her suspiciously. “I will be on my way, then.”

“We have a proposition for you as well, Drachau Santhil Arhakuyl,” the woman said, floating ever so silently over the reach of the thick underbrush.

“Alright,” Santhil said with a cautious undertone as she felt the vines maintain their tight grip on her leg. “Let’s hear it.”

“We would provide you with a powerful alibi to your fake allies,” the voice declared.

“A powerful alibi,” Santhil repeated warily.

“Your presence holds ill will in this forest, Drachau. Your actions of malice still ring in the spirits you have harmed in your last visit.” She kept still, looking Santhil in the eye. “They would hunt you.”

Santhil took a slow breath of realization. “Ah,” she quietly said. “I see.”

“Do you accept?”

“Do I have a choice in the matter,” Santhil sneered, and looked about herself. Again, in hindsight, this was perhaps an obvious turn of events. “I accept,” she said contemptfully.

“Very well,” the woman said, and immediately, Santhil felt a powerful tug and a sharp ripple in her right arm. She gave a quick cry of pain and shock, and looked to see a finely crafted, feathered arrow shaft stick tellingly from her upper arm. “Good luck to you, Drachau.”

Teeth gritting, Santhil took her focus from her throbbing wound and aimed it at her hostess. “How gracious of you to leave me to my devices,” Santhil spat her angry sarcasm.

“Follow the will o’ wisp. It will lead you to your people,” the apparition said while she retreated into the forest. “Run, Drachau. The forest is angry.”

“Follow the what?” Santhil said confusedly, and tugged once on her bound leg in an effort to follow the apparition, but only found the stranglehold to tighten. “Hey, you can’t leave me here!” she yelled, feeling her arm prickle and sting while drops of blood slowly trickled down and stained her sleeve.

Finally, the grip on her leg lessened, and she angrily yanked herself free, taking a few steps to rebalance herself. “Hey!” she shouted in whatever direction she had seen her dubious hostess leave. There was no response. Of course there wasn’t.

Santhil looked over her shoulder, back the way she came, and spotted a faint, pure light dancing whimsically in the distance. She squinted her eyes in an effort better to see what it was, but came up wanting. Was this to be her guide? She swallowed a curse while pain pulsed threateningly through her arm, and turned slowly to the weak light dancing whimsically in the distance. Her pride urged her not to give the forest’s denizens the satisfaction of seeing her run.

Again, her right arm shuddered painfully, this time from the back, and her cry was brief and breathless in surprise.

Her pride would have to take one for the team.

°°°

“No, you are not.” Ready, Yalasmina meant. She stared unfazedly at the massive tower of steel and anger fuming at her. “You will be ready when Drachau Arhakuyl returns from her parley. If you are impatient, then you should have joined her when she gave you the chance.”

“I do not bow to your trite rituals, elf,” Vardannoz growled at her. “You abandon the element of surprise and give your enemies the time to rally their defences. Strike swift, strike hard, and burn everything that dares stand in your path!”

“Your understanding of tradition is irrelevant, human,” Yalasmina maintained. “Your use is in your obedience.”

“Do not mistake yourself a master, weakling,” Vardannoz spat, his contempt and anger rising subtly in his threatening voice. “I am not one of your pathetic slaves.”

“Even if you begged,” Yalasmina scoffed. Vardannoz kept a rage-fueled look on her through the slits in his large helmet, his grip tightening on his man-sized double axe. Yalasmina, in return, stared icicle-eyedly at him from the corner of her eyes, arms crossed and facing the woods. Unmoving and rigid as the statues posing at entrances to the older temples on the motherland, she kept ready to dart into action at the slightest move from his end.

An uncomfortable sensation slowly crept into her spine, as if a subtle charge was building in the air. Vardannoz reaction was more palpable, and he reluctantly took a step back before throwing his cape over his side and trodding away. Yalasmina watched him leave, keeping her eyes on his back for a while before aiming them briefly to her other side. A black, smoky, unnatural flame still flowed up over Lahnia’s arm, her fingers flexed threateningly. Lahnia eyed her accusingly, and Yalasmina aimed her look ahead of her again, back at the large forest that engulfed so much of the countryside and darkened the horizon.

“Do you have a death wish?” Lahnia started, letting the slow flame dim and dissipate from her arm. “Or did that genuinely seem like a good idea to you?”

“A disciple of Khaine does not bow to her enemies,” Yalasmina said, looking only halfly at her sister. “At Santhil’s bidding or not, these are Chaos worshippers and do not deserve to walk away from me.”

Lahnia shook her head and sighed disapprovingly. For a moment, she felt like saying something but, ultimately and uncharacteristically, decided against it, joining Yalasmina in her pondering gaze at the forest. A slight breeze blew past them, lifting some hair from their faces. “How long do you think she will be?” she nudged to a barely tangent topic.

Yalasmina shook her head expressionlessly, her mind milling through possible scenarios that could be sprung upon them. She couldn’t shake the impression that Santhil could’ve used help, and she felt uncomfortable idling around. “She’ll be back soon enough,” Yalasmina said, and slowly turned from the now intensely familiar view of Athel Loren. “She’s probably on her way back right now.”

°°°

Santhil panted, almost tripping over a thick log while she ran over it, and hurriedly shielded her face with her intact arm, pushing a thorny branch aside. A howl sounded closer to her than last time; the pack of wolves was closing on her.

Ahead of her, far away but rarely out of sight, the will o’ wisp guided her through the thick of the forest, through rough, rocky patches, through thorny bushes and stinging vines, but also through her predicament. Where it was guiding her to, Santhil could only guess, and she hoped that it wasn’t leading her around in circles just to spite her.

Santhil had been running for what felt like an hour. Her arm was stinging madly at her occasional use when she hastily diverted the brunt of a branch on her forearm instead of her body. Her legs, too, were aching, tired from navigating the unsteady, plant-filled terrain that seemed almost consciously trying to trip her. All the while, shadowy creatures followed her, zooming through the undergrowth, closing in on her with every pause she made.

A wide ditch, perhaps a dried up river bed, stretched out far in front of her. Santhil could spot the lack of growth even in the gloamy darkness of the thick forest, and also spotted the overhanging branch from a tree leaning into the ditch. She acted wilfully before her mind could warn her, and leapt for the branch with both arms to swing from it, land across the ditch and, she hoped, make some time.

Santhil cried through clenched teeth the moment her hands clutched the branch, her muscles almost failing with the razorsharp arrowheads lodged in them, but fought to hold, and swung herself forward with all her might and speed. She landed one foot on the ledge, nearly toppling over at the brusque stop, and clutched a tuft of grass to pull her forward and further onto her feet. Panting, feeling a trickle of blood drip into the palm of her hand, she paused a moment to find her guide.

The dancing light had made distance on her, now appearing as a faint glimmer behind the distant trees. Angry, Santhil cursed it under her breath for toying with her, and briefly considered to stop chasing it out of pride and spite. Then, behind her, across the river bed she just crossed, she heard ristling in the bushes, and low, quiet, but steadily approaching growls. Santhil grit her teeth and pushed herself on, ignoring the sting of her muscles, onward to the will o’ wisp.

This part of the forest was even thicker, with myriad trees curving her way, and surface roots and bushes riddling her path. Santhil most definitely did not recall coming this way, feeding her suspicion that the distant spirit was not, in fact, interested in her well-being, but rather in sending her through the thickest, most difficult regions of the wood, scratching and cutting herself on branches, brambles, briers, and everything else the forest could throw at her. But she had no choice.

Santhil put in an extra effort and narrowly ducked under a low hanging branch while she leapt over a patch of rocky ground. A brief scream of surprise left her lungs when her feet didn’t touch soil; gravity clenched her, and she fell a few feet down onto a steep slope, toppling her over, rolling her downhill until she fell flat on her left side through a timely safe to spare her right arm and the arrows that pincushioned it. Shaken, dazed, she coughed into the dirt under her, her body aching from the sudden fall. Her breathing had become almost symbiotic with a steady, fluent stream of inaudible curses, and she hurriedly picked herself up from the fall, shaking some dead leaves from her hair.

She scanned again for her guide. It was difficult to say what direction she was going, so she looked around, aiming her squinted eyes down the wind directions to find the accursed little spirit she was forced to follow. Foreboding trees, inky shadows, deep, thorny bushes, and low-hanging, sharp, powerful branches lined her sight, threatening her should she go that way, but no sign of light, no dancing, teasing sparkle of hope, even in the far distance.

It was gone.

Santhil ran on in what she believed was its last known direction, trying to get a heading. She had been running for what felt like hours; she had to have crossed miles and miles by now—that was why it left; she had to be close! Suddenly, her leg gave, and she gracelessly tumbled through a bush and into the hard dirt. Agony shocked through her body, through her bones when she tried to the leg that failed, and she hurriedly rolled on her back. An arrow stuck out the side of her upper leg, causing a shock of knife-like cutting each time she moved. She grit her teeth for a moment, then let out a loud scream of pent up pain and frustration. “Stop hiding and face me, cowards!” she yelled at the treetops. “Come down here on the ground and suffer the fury of Khaine! Let me see the white of your eyes when the life leaves your body!”

Her voice echoed eerily in the woods surrounding her. There was no answer. There was no other sound. Of course there wasn’t. Santhil shook her head in an effort to focus on her predicament, and felt her body tense up under the pain. She panted quickly while she looked around for something, anything to help her stand. That branch would do. She reached for the overhanging wood with her good arm and pulled on it as hard as she could, lifting her body off the muddy ground. She supported herself on her good leg as soon as she could, and leaned against the tree while she stood. She looked around to regain her bearings and hopefully find the will o’ wisp again. It had no use. It was gone.

Santhil swallowed and peered around in the darkness. It was this way, surely, but —and a feeling of dread crept over Santhil— that tree wasn’t there before. Or that bush. Or those rocks. She hastily looked around, trying to find some point of reference, anything to help her find direction. Nothing.

Padded paws softly treaded the dirt. Santhil held her breath when she saw several pairs of eyes slowly close in on her from the shadows. A low, threatening growl flowed into her environment. She slowly reached for her sword with her good arm, and winced painfully when her other gripped the knife she had strapped to her leg. Gently, cautiously, she stepped back.

A branch deviously hooked Santhil’s ankle and tripped her. She fell painfully hard on her tailbone, dropping her sword. One of the wolves approached her, ears pulled back and showing its teeth. Santhil gripped her knife hard.

But then, a rumble sounded from the heart of the forest, a rumble that grew to a powerful, bellowing, beastly roar. An unnatural draft picked up around Santhil, and she saw the wolves cautiously step back.

What was happening?

°°°

“Come on, Santhil,” Yalasmina muttered to herself while she impatiently tapped her fingers, arms crossed. “What’s taking you?”

“Do you think something happened?” Lahnia asked her, keeping her voice low.

“I don’t know, Lahnia,” Yalasmina sighed. “I really don’t know. I just wish she hadn’t gone in there alone.”

“They wouldn’t hurt her,” Lahnia reasoned, comforting herself more than Yalasmina. “She went in to have a civil discussion; they have no reason to harm her.”

“They’re the Asrai. They don’t need a reason to hurt outsiders,” Yalasmina defeated Lahnia’s attempts. “They shoot trespassers on general principle, let alone the drachau of a previously invading army.”

“Wait, do you hear that?” Lahnia suddenly said, and pitched her ears.

Yalasmina looked at Lahnia first, then to the impenetrable woods they overlooked. In the distance, birds flew excitedly into the air, roused by a rumble that grew into a loud, angry roar. “What in the name of...?”

“Is that... is that Santhil?”

Yalasmina gave Lahnia an incredulous look.

“Not that,” Lahnia snapped annoyedly. “That. There, you hear that?” She raised her finger when she picked up the sound again.

Yalasmina strained her hearing, trying to pick up anything other than the roar of rage, but before she could make anything out, she saw a robed body fly violently from the woods, crossing over a dozen yards in moments before crashing unceremoniously into the ground. Another one followed him, rags flapping erratically in the wind, and another, and more, strewing them out over the grassy hill. She and Lahnia stared on at the bizarre sight, until suddenly, a terrified female scream hit her ears.

Arms flailing desperately, Santhil toppled and spun wildly while an unnatural current launched her from the forest like the bodies of the spies sent after her. Thick, covering overgrowth suddenly cleared for the blue sky and bright sun, and the carrying current steadily subsided. Her scream pitched up unpleasantly shortly before she smacked against the ground and rolled on for a another yard before she came to a stop against a fresh corpse.

“Oh my— Ari!” Lahnia screamed, and ran down the hill after Yalasmina.

Yalasmina dropped to her knees when she reached Santhil, and skid a few inches over the dewy wet grass. “Santhil? Santhil, are you conscious?” She looked her sister over, face down in the grass as she was, nudged up against the still bleeding corpse. She briefly eyed the arrow wounds and the bloodstains around them and, to her great relief, saw Santhil move her arm somewhat with a low groan. Yalasmina quickly opened her shoulderbag and took out her immediate medical tools.

“Ari!” Lahnia called, and hunched down next to Yalasmina. “Ari— Mina, is she—”

“She’s conscious,” Yalasmina cut in, and pushed a small vial holding a fine, pinkish powder into Lahnia’s palm. “Have her sniff this.”

Lahnia was both curious as suspicious. “What’s this?”

“Adrenaline, caffeine, carminosa—carmine,” Yalasmina rattled off. “It’ll wake her and numb the pain.”

Lahnia popped the cork off the vial and held it up to Santhil’s nose. With her free hand, she brushed Santhil’s hair aside. “Hey,” she softly said. “Hey, take a deep breath through your nose.”

Santhil groaned painfully, much as people are wont to do after a sobering altercation with gravity, and didn’t seem able to do much more than squirm. “Mina, she isn’t...”

“Cover her mouth,” Yalasmina told her. “This should do it...”

Lahnia let her thoughts wander briefly on Yalasmina’s methods and quickly decided she’d rather not know. She hurriedly covered Santhil’s lips and held the vial against her sister’s nostrils. “Ari, this might hurt—”

The moment Yalasmina gripped one of the broken arrowshafts, Santhil gave a start and gasped deeply. A puff of the pink powder slammed into her nose, immediately letting her kick her head up and away from the vial. Her eyes opened and watered with a mix of surprise and pain.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Lahnia told her, trying to catch her look. “It’s us. Are you alright?”

Santhil shook her head erratically, trying to overcome whatever drug drilled into her mind, and snorted to clear her nose of the stinging powder. “...the hell, Lana?” she asked huskily.

“It’s from Mina,” Lahnia explained. “It’s so you won’t feel—” She stopped abruptly when Santhil clenched her fist into the dirt, tearing the grass between her fingers, and pressed her lips sympathetically while Yalasmina cleanly removed the arrow from her sister’s leg. “...wouldn’t feel that as much?”

Santhil’s eyes crossed briefly while Yalasmina inspected and treated her wounds. “She gets points for trying,” she groaned throatily.

“Roll on your back,” Yalasmina ordered. “Lahnia, help her. Mind her arm.” She took a deep breath, her focus unerringly on her charge.

Lahnia carefully helped Yalasmina roll on her back, holding her sister’s shoulders and supporting her head on the uneven ground. Santhil grunted once, then slowly let out a sigh as she laid her head back on Lahnia’s lap. She closed her eyes, resting for a moment, and felt her tired muscles ache and sting with exhaustion. The skimming of Yalasmina’s hands through her clothes and over her body, busily in search of unspotted or hidden injuries, was unsettling in how close it came to the arrows in her arm.

“So...” Lahnia let her voice trail a little, hoping to ensnare Santhil’s attention and aim it away from the efficient but painful treatment. “Yeah, I guess we’re done with forests for a while.”

Santhil looked up and into the sky-coloured eyes hovering above hers, gleaming with curiosity and sympathy. A long, drawn-out stroke of white cloud slowly passed behind and above her sister, and the sudden change of darkness and dread to calm, blue, sunny skies washed some of the anger and frustration off her. A half-amused smile settled on her lips. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, you know that?” She lifted her good arm up to her sister.

Lahnia returned a kind smile, and offered her arm when Santhil’s rose up to her. “So, what happened?” she asked. “Didn’t like what you had to say?”

Santhil chuckled weakly. “That’s sort of what we want you to think,” she said, and lifted her head to look at the corpses strewn out over the hillside. “And those will make it easier to sell.”

“Wait, you...” Lahnia’s face contorted in stunned indignance. “You let them shoot you?”

“Does this look like something I would agree to—” Santhil yelped quickly when Yalasmina pulled the last arrow from her arm, and she gave her a pointed, dirty look. “It stills fits the plan.”

Yalasmina snorted unimpressedly, medical scissors pressed firmly between her lips while she bandaged Santhil’s injuries. “You don’t have a plan,” she mumbled from the corners of her lips. “You have a goal.”

“Just because—” Santhil wrestled herself onto an elbow to serve her sister an answer, and soon felt Lahnia help her sit upright. “Just because things happen doesn’t mean things go wrong. Besides, how can you judge my plans? You don’t even know what they are.”

“All I know, Santhil,” Yalasmina clarified, “is that whenever you make a plan, I end up bandaging you. Now hold still.”

Frustrated, Santhil dropped her head back with a growl, letting Lahnia ease her back onto her lap. The adrenaline from the drugs was pumping through her mind and heart, and she made a conscious effort to remain calm; an effort she shored up soon enough when she heard what was coming.

Heavy clangs of metal and bone approached from her right, and Santhil aimed her eyes to her side to see, indeed, Vardannoz pulling his horse up beside her, having a smaller and thus lesser warlord following him closely. Her lips twitched in pain when Yalasmina tightened the bandages on her wounds.

“How endearing a scenery,” Vardannoz scoffed loudly. “Like mothers hurrying to a baby with a chafed knee.”

Lahnia’s hand clenched briefly, and Santhil felt an erratic, electrical surge flow down the arm that held hers. Santhil squeezed her sister’s arm furtively, and slowly felt the magic simmer and dissipate. “It pays to have competent, reliable associates,” Santhil skirted the insult, and aimed herself up again. “Care to explain these, Vardannoz?” she asked, looking at the arrow-laden dead bodies strewn over the hillside. “Product recall?”

“My seer?” Vardannoz demanded to know.

“Counterproductive,” Santhil said. “As it turns out, our Asrai kin do not like those touched by Chaos, and they can sniff them out from a distance.” She gave the corpses another glance. “Sniff them out very well.”

Vardannoz growled inwardly, aiming his attention away from Santhil and squarely onto the forest he intended to claim. “Deploy your forces on the hill and give us fire support. You will draw out the enemy by setting fire to their precious forest with your artillery, and I will defeat them in the clearings.”

“Vardannoz,” the lesser warlord addressed him, “we do not have the forces to defeat these spirits on their own soil. If we wait for just five more days, more warlords can—”

“I will not wait for my rivals to swoop in and claim my victory!” Vardannoz bellowed at him. “And I will not accept another show of cowardice! You will fight and you will succeed, or I will end you and take your forces as mine!” He gave Santhil a brief look while her sisters helped her up, then steered his horse away. “Carry out my orders!” he shared before leaving.

Santhil staggered onto her good leg, supported by Yalasmina, and looked Vardannoz in the back while he left. The other warlord remained, his stare a mass of pointed daggers aimed at his alleged master. “That’ll come back on your performance review,” Santhil half-joked, finding in his torment some relief from her own.

“I am Torgar,” the armour-clad man, almost comically a smaller copy of Vardannoz, minus the glowing eyes and booming voice, told her. “And these men were mine.”

“Oh?” Santhil said, surprise and resentment seeping in her voice, as a bolt of anger kicked in her heart. “So, Torgar, I have you to thank for this disservice?” Lahnia led her horse to her, and she leant some more on Yalasmina while she prepared to mount it.

“Against my wishes, Vardannoz sent these men to their deaths,” Torgar told her, clearly dismayed at the loss. “Their lives were wasted on paranoia, and more will die because of his ego.”

“I take it you don’t share your master’s optimism,” Santhil groaned while she heaved herself onto her horse, and grimaced painfully when she swung her injured leg over its back, pulling hard on her saddle just to stay properly seated. Despite the sting of her injuries, there was no doubt the drugs were working, and she could move, if carefully. “That’s refreshing.”

Torgar nudged his horse closer, and pulled up next to her. “He will be a master no longer. When the time is right, I will take from him the command he claims, and wield it as my own. Then I, Torgar, will build up the forces we need to conquer this forest and, under my lead, we will prevail.”

“Sounds like you’re planning a mutiny, Torgar,” Santhil said matter-of-factly, and beamed Lahnia a hasty smile when her sister sheathed a new sword into her saddle’s scabbard. “Good luck with that.”

“I must return to my forces, before Vardannoz grows suspicious,” Torgar said, and threw a quick look over his shoulder. “Do I have your support?”

Santhil looked at the helmet staring back at her, and kept a thoughtful (or perhaps dramatic) silence. Behind Torgar, far in the distance, Vardannoz was ordering forces around with a loud voice and threatening gestures. “I support winners, Torgar,” she finally said, and flashed him a lopsided smile. “Be a winner.”

An almost palpable grin formed invisibly behind his helmet. “Drachau,” he tried to pronounce, and nodded once before prodding his horse around and, with a swift jab in its belly, drove it into a gallop away from them.

“The unified front shows its cracks,” Yalasmina said, and held the reins of Santhil’s horse, letting her sister rest while she guided it back to her army. “Hopefully, we can take advantage of this.”

“I’ll figure something out,” Santhil said, and took a deep breath, finally away from the scrutinous eyes of her allied humans. “Come on, we have an army to deploy.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Mon Feb 20, 2012 2:14 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
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“Elevation, thirty-two. Hold... hold... fire!”

At the captain’s mark, a wealth of noise sprung up: the release of the ratchets, the twang of the tensed slings, the soar of the large, flaming bolts as they launched from the Reapers and arched high into the air, majestically, until they ominously curved down again and struck the trees, branches, and foliage. “Reload,” he called after a few seconds had passed. “Adjust elevation, up two.”

Lahnia let the pent-up stream of fiery darkness erupt from her arm, and cut it across the distance at the treeline, where shapes shifted agily through the shadows, holding still only momentarily to fire arrows at the on-charging, disorganised regiments of human fighters and cultists. At this distance, and with the cover of the trees, Lahnia knew full well her attacks were little more than ineffective flashes and intimidating blasts of sound. She felt a little under-used, as if sitting in a bathtub with a flotation vest strapped to her, but Santhil needed her here, so she did her best to stir the water, cause a few waves, and at least look helpful.

“Hold... hold... fire!”

Santhil was an excellent artillery commander, Lahnia knew, capitalising on the versatility of the Reapers under her command. These siege devices, reminiscent of giant, wheeled crossbows, could be fitted to be either long-range bolt throwers capable of skewering armoured men and even fortifications at ridiculous distances or, in a matter of moments, could be fitted to rapidfire smaller bolts, peppering whoever strayed too close and into the Reaper’s firing line. Really, the Reaper was a mark of engineering ingenuity, and her sister had been steadily growing its share in her army to prepare for the upcoming sieges. “Reload. Adjust elevation, down three. Increase spread by five, left.”

“How are we doing?” Lahnia asked when she pulled her horse alongside Santhil’s, and saw the battery crews tweak and turn the heavy machinery under the captain’s commands.

Santhil nodded to the forest ahead of her, wordlessly telling Lahnia her judgement was as good as hers. Large swaths of treetops and tall vegetation were aflame, blistering and burning in the heat. In the distance, through the smoky trails and haze, small creatures of light seemed to wisp, hovering near the treetops, lowering the flames with their continued presence. They prevented the fire from wildspreading around; hence the continuous changes in aim to the Reaper batteries.

“Will they manage?” Lahnia asked, staring at the little founts of light.

“They seem to be,” Santhil replied, and stroked her painful arm carefully. Her senses were running circles around her mind, and slowly the sting from her injuries throbbed to her consciousness as the drugs’ effects were starting to wear off. “They’d let me know otherwise.”

Lahnia stared quietly at the holes in Santhil’s sleeve and the reddened bandages underneath. She wanted to offer something to ease the pain, but couldn’t think of any herbs or mixtures that wouldn’t have side-effects like blood thinning or plain spacing her out. She pressed her lips, sad that Santhil was hurt, but secretly, shamefully, relieved that she wasn’t the one to carry the wounds.

“I’m fine,” Santhil said, a bit annoyed that Lahnia’s pensive stare drew her attention squarely on the sting she tried to ignore.

“You mean a signal?” Lahnia suddenly asked, as if snapped from a trance. “To let you know?”

“She told me I’d know,” Santhil replied, and focused on the burning woods ahead of her.

Lahnia frowned and cocked her head inquisitively. “She?”

“The spokesperson or spirit or some such—I don’t know. She had enough authority to get people not to shoot me, and the vines not to strangle me. She told me I’d know.” Santhil watched another barrage of flame take to the skies and curve down into the forest, striking treetops and trunks, and steadily brooding another fire. She growled throatily, and reached her hand down for her leg, but wilfully held it just short of touching her bandage.

“Hurts?” Lahnia asked, deliberately using as little words on the topic as possible.

Santhil pressed her lips, torn between her pride urging her to suck it up and her body warning her that this was going to hurt. She didn’t answer.

“I’ll get Mina,” Lahnia finally said, and turned her horse around. “I’m sure she has something that’ll help.”

Santhil nodded silently, and shared a hasty smile with her sister while she left. She aimed her attention back to the forest ahead of her.

The forces of Chaos had been making on-and-off assaults, trying to lure the defenders out with quick strikes of their infantry and incessant blasts of their sorcerers. From the outside, it was hard to judge how successful they were, but Santhil knew that the Asrai were smart enough not to be forced into the open, where they would lose the advantages of cover and hiding, and of their magical protection and disruption. It was visibly annoying Vardannoz and, at this distance, Santhil allowed herself a smug grin. It was comforting to see she wasn’t the only one to underestimate Loren’s defenders.

A gentle breeze pulled past her, carrying some dead, dried leaves along from the woods. Her eyes briefly followed the beautiful display as the leaves danced and twirled. One of them landed against her forehead, and she jerked her head away in surprise.

Memories of a voice—‘her’ voice, the spirit’s—were in her thoughts. She held still, as if to better recall the strange imprint that lingered, and tried to make out the words. Were they even words, or were they images, emotions, feelings?

“Lahnia told me your wounds were hurting,” Yalasmina said, and let her horse stop next to Santhil’s. “I can give you something for the pain, but—” She stopped when she noticed Santhil wasn’t listening, her focus somewhere between the battle and her thoughts. “Santhil?”

“Captain,” Santhil suddenly called. “Aim batteries three and four on that large tree, one o’clock. Set it alight.”

“Drachau?” the captain asked, not sure why Santhil was singling out one tree. Also, there were a lot of ‘large trees’. Big forest and all that.

“The tree, the moving tree,” Santhil pressed annoyedly. “The giant, moving tree, Captain! Set it alight when it reaches the clearing!”

“Aye aye, milady,” the captain said, only slight hesitation seeping in his voice. His drachau didn’t seem in the mood to expand on the details.

“Santhil?” Lahnia asked, joining her and Yalasmina. “Why are—?”

“It’s the leaves, Lana,” Santhil said, relieved that she had figured it out. “The leaves talk; they said...” She wet her lips quickly, thinking of some other way to phrase herself. “Or they told me to...”

“The leaves spoke to you.” Yalasmina shared a quick glance with Lahnia, and furtively let the herbs slip from her hand into her pouch again.

“Yes, it... because the tree is going to—” She pressed her lips when she tried to move her hurt arm, and aimed her eyes back at her sisters. “Mina?”

Yalasmina shook her head calmly. “Sorry, Santhil. You’re going to have to ride this out.”

Santhil frowned. “I thought you were saying—”

“I was mistaken.”

°°°

“I could care less about your petty rituals, elfling!” the warlord bellowed at Santhil, his subtly mutated (or mutilated) mount whinnying threateningly under him. “Carry out our orders!”

“Still, come around the artillery next time, would you kindly?” Santhil’s hand was still in the air, signalling a full stop to her artillery batteries to prevent them from ‘accidentally’ skewering the oncoming warlord clean off his horse; a courtesy she was slowly coming to regret.

The warlord merely grumbled at her, turned his horse around, and made a point out of galloping away through the firing lines. Santhil patiently waited for him to clear the field before she lowered her arm. Men and their egos.

“Your orders, Drachau?” the captain asked.

“You heard the man, Captain,” Santhil said, and nodded once to him. “His troops will engage the enemy in close combat, and we will support them by picking off the large targets.”

The captain nodded; that was what he had understood as well. “Aye aye, milady.”

“Oh, and, Captain?” Santhil halted him, and grew a subtle but savage grin on her lips. “Danger close.”

The captain matched Santhil’s grin. “Drachau,” he excused himself, and returned to the batteries under his charge.

“He’ll be back,” Yalasmina warned Santhil. She had decided to stay close to Santhil, given her injuries and her sudden ‘ability’ to commune with leaves.

“With newfound respect for our Reapers’ destructive abilities,” Santhil added, “and perhaps the wisdom to hear me out. Provided he survives his gaffe.” She turned to gauge her sister’s opinion. “You disapprove.”

“I wholeheartedly approve,” Yalasmina immediately corrected. “All the same, I feel you are playing a dangerous game here.”

Santhil wistfully blew a loose strand of hair from her face and surveyed the battlefield. The cultists of Chaos were strong, even in their dwindling numbers, and Santhil couldn’t help but feel that they were hurting the Asrai, hurting them badly. In the gentle breeze, another leaf briefly nestled against her temple before sliding away. She signalled the artillery captain to divert two batteries for a new target. Next to her, Lahnia kept blasting away into the treeline, making quite an impressive display. She sometimes forgot how little she understood of magic and its mistresses.

“How are you holding up?” Yalasmina asked her. “Your wounds.”

“They hurt,” Santhil answered matter-of-factly. “Means I’m still alive and conscious.”

Yalasmina nodded calmly, reached down her pouch, and handed over two off-colour clovers. “Chew on these. They’ll give a kick, but the pain will subside.”

“Thank you, Mina,” Santhil said, and chewed thoroughly on the herbs. The juice they left was sticky and sour, and seemed to mix disgustingly with her saliva. She reached for her flask, but Yalasmina stopped her. “Chew, don’t swallow,” she told her.

“Ari,” Lahnia called for her attention, and stopped her barrage, taking the opportunity to recuperate. “I think something’s happening.”

Santhil aimed her eyes to where Lahnia pointed, and saw what she meant: Vardannoz was bellowing and gesturing against his warlords. The fight was clearly not going as he had hoped it would, and he was doubting the competence of his commanders. One of them repeatedly pointed in Santhil’s direction. At that exact moment, one of her artillery’s bolts cleared a line through their troops, killing their unit’s biggest and toughest, and sent the rest of them fleeing.

“Captain!” Santhil called. “Aim for that surrounded treeman. He’s dead and gone anyway; take him down, now!”

“Do you think they’ll fall for it?” Yalasmina asked her.

“Come onnn,” Santhil muttered, chewing more vigorously on the sour clovers between her teeth. “Come on!” In the distance, Vardannoz looked scrutinously in her general direction. “Captain!”

Loud twangs and clicks, and the whistling breeze of soaring bolts cut through her voice as her batteries fired another salvo. With peculiar grace, the flaming projectiles glid through the sky, travelling great distances in moments, closing in on the large, mobile tree that fought tooth and nail to defeat its attackers. Two bolts narrowly missed it; a third splintered wood when it struck painfully hard, and two caused it to lose balance. It swayed, its branches quickly catching fire, then careened towards the battle lines.

With a loud, creaking crash, the treeman hit the ground and several of Vardannoz’ troops, sending dust, dirt, and debris flying into the air. Santhil winced briefly. She wasn’t sure whether that display of support would help or hinder her position.

Vardannoz looked at the display of open destruction, then at Santhil, and then back at the warlord taking this newest example as proof of her sabotage. With a rude, powerful gesture, he waved his vassal away dismissively. Santhil released the breath she had only just noticed she was holding.

“He’s coming back,” Yalasmina warned Santhil.

Santhil took a deep breath to prepare for... whatever was going to happen. The raging warlord galloped to her, again brazenly crossing the firing lines. Santhil rose her hand to bring a halt to her Reapers’ steady firing, and heard his approach by the hooves loudly treading the rocky dirt of the knoll. “Insidious whore!” the warlord yelled at her well before he stopped in front of her. “You kill my men and—”

“Step out of the firing line, please,” Santhil said in a deliberately calm voice that was overpowered by the human’s fury.

“—cohort with the enemy! But your treachery ends here, elfling!” He reached for his large sword.

“Are you sure you want to threaten me in front of my friends, manchild?” Santhil said, and heard, next to her and behind her, blades being drawn from their scabbards, and crossbows cock and lay aim. An unpleasant, pervasive aura prickled her skin and senses; Lahnia was ready for the worst, as well.

The thickly armoured human stared at Santhil and the forces gathered around her. Over the distant echoes of battle and war, his growling breath could still be heard, his hand squeezing a new groove into the hilt of his sword. Santhil waited confidently, warmed by the immediate show of loyalty from her troops and sisters. She imagined it had to be an impressive sight to be at the wrong end of them.

“This isn’t over, biatch!” the warlord finally bellowed, and turned his horse around. “We will meet again!”

“Just leave,” Santhil said, and swung her arm at him, “and leave warfare to the grown-ups.”

Immediately, a loud twang, the click of a single ratchet, and the telltale whistle of a bolt sounded next to her. Metal shrieked unpleasantly when the warrior was suddenly torn from his horse by the giant bolt skewering his chest, his arms and legs flailing comically in the air as he soared over the hilly ground for several yards and crashed into the grass. His mount panicked from the sudden tug that cost it its rider, and fled. Santhil blinked surprisedly, and turned to the captain with a curious look in her eyes.

The captain returned a helpless look of his own, and lifted his shoulders. “You lowered your arm, milady.”

Santhil nodded briefly. “Fair enough. Mina, can I swallow these things now? I need to be off.”

“Of course,” Yalasmina answered with a hint of surprise in her voice. “Where are you going? There is still a battle going on.”

“To see Vardannoz. He’s going to want an explanation for his warlord’s sudden death,” Santhil said, “and may take some bad advice now that the tides are turning on him.”

Yalasmina nodded. “Then I will come with—”

“No, you stay here,” Santhil commanded. “Make sure the Reapers are safe; call the retreat if you have to. I can’t lose these under any circumstances.”

Yalasmina held, staring at Santhil. She wasn’t sure how much of this was Santhil’s idea, and how much the leaves of bizarre wisdom and strange tactical insight—i.e. her odd hallucinations—were leading her on. But she wasn’t going to call her out in public. “As you wish, Drachau.”

“I’ll be back,” Santhil said, and led her horse down the knoll overseeing the forest. Vardannoz was just returning from what appeared to be a surprisingly successful charge. He was aware that things were not going well, but believed stubbornly that pressing on would see them victory. For all Santhil knew, he could be right. She needed to be sure.

Another horse whinnied softly behind her. Santhil frowned and looked, and saw Lahnia pull up next to her. Their eyes met, wordlessly having a brief conversation. Lahnia was coming; end of discussion. Santhil looked at her a while longer, then nodded with a vaguely grateful smile.

°°°

Visibly preparing for yet another charge into the thick of it, Vardannoz only held because he saw, in the corner of his eyes, Santhil and her sorceress approaching. “What is it?” he bellowed, as was usual for him—leading the forces of Chaos was bound to be very stressful on one’s voice.

“You asked for me, your vassal assured?” Santhil said, thinking hurriedly of how the two of them seemed to get along, or seemed not to.

“Bah!” Vardannoz spat. “Where is that cowardly creature?”

“Dead,” Santhil told him. “He ran in front of live artillery which, incidentally, I warned him of, earlier.”

Vardannoz’ invisible eyes pierced Santhil. “You killed one of my warlords?”

“No, he ran in front of live artillery and was shot,” Santhil maintained. “Stupidity did him in.”

“Or perhaps there was truth to his claims,” Vardannoz growled, and he quickly snatched Santhil by her blouse, lifting her an inch out of her saddle. “And you murdered him before he could expose you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Santhil said, her voice wavering now that Vardannoz had a firm hold of her, and she hastily motioned Lahnia to please, please be at the ready. “Why would I come here, then?”

“Brazen confidence in your skill at deception,” Vardannoz taunted.

“Vardannoz, I vouch for the drachau,” Torgar suddenly said, to Santhil’s and Vardannoz’ surprise. “He was looking for reasons to cover up his failure; the drachau is not to blame.”

Vardannoz aimed his eyes squarely at Santhil, keeping her uncomfortably lifted from her saddle while he peered to figure her out. Santhil waited for a few long moments, and finally spoke again. “Vardannoz, I have an idea that can help you. But would you gently let go of me, please?”

Vardannoz soon let go of Santhil, dropping her back onto her mount. Santhil held the saddle tightly with her good arm, then quickly straightened her blouse and jacket. “During my foray into the forest, I spoke briefly with a spirit there. She is the leader of the guardians. If I call her out, you can defeat her in single combat, and gain the edge in this battle.”

“A spirit, you say.” Vardannoz’ interest was piqued at the idea of both single combat, undoubtedly bound to be excruciatingly bloody, and the knowledge that victory in the challenge could very well lead to victory in the battle. “How powerful is it?”

“Come now, Vardannoz,” Santhil teased with a lopsided smile. “You can take on a girl, can’t you?”

Vardannoz nodded slowly at first, thoughtfully, then firmly once the idea and its consequences had fully sunk with him. “Excellent, elfling! Follow me and my men into battle, and call the spirit out of its hiding place! Once I have defeated it, I will lead my forces to the heart of the forest and to victory!”

Santhil furtively winked to Torgar. This was his chance. “I will join you, Vardannoz,” Torgar immediately said. “This will be a glorious charge!”

“Indeed it will be! To victory!”

°°°

Overhead, burning branches cracked and finally snapped, falling down onto the earth with a heavy, dirt-blowing thud. Strangely glittering dust laid spread out in several patches, reminding Santhil of the distant, taunting light that led her through the thickest, most inhospitable parts of the forest but, ultimately, to safety. Arrow-riddled remains of fallen cultists littered the bloodied grass, some of them surrounding fallen elves in camouflaged warrior outfits. Thick smoke settled as a mist over the floor, cleared only by uncomfortably hot drafts of wind. She hastily beckoned Lahnia to stay close to her.

The battle had looked so much cleaner from the outside. It had looked like the Asrai were holding the cultists off with considerable ease, that the fire was only a mild hindrance, that they were almost toying with the invaders, as they had with Santhil when she tried to escape the forest, hunted. Seeing all this, it wasn’t hard to imagine Vardannoz believed he could still win this; even Santhil believed it now. She really hoped she was underestimating the forces of Athel Loren again.

Immediately, Vardannoz ploughed his large, double-bladed axe through the smoke, audibly connecting with something living, and bringing it down. He lifted his weapon and pounded again for good measure. Santhil hesitated for a moment. The spirit that addressed her earlier didn’t stand a chance against him.

But there was more movement in the woods. Slow, lumbering movement; quick, skitterish movement through the intact trees and hidden behind the bushes. The guardians were assembling to thwart this newest attack. This was the time.

“Spirit!” Santhil called out to the fire-laden sky, trying to throw her voice over the loud crackling of the inferno raging on around her. “Show yourself! Show yourself and fight for your people!” She lifted her sword into the air to draw attention and, hopefully, get the guardians to recognise her and Lahnia as their unlikely allies. “Answer the challenge!”

“Who am I looking for?” Lahnia asked hushedly, barely audible over the ristling and crackling. “What do I do?”

“If things get ugly, protect the spirit,” Santhil said. “You’ll know it when you see her.”

A glimpse. Santhil recognised the light that had blinded her at first, and saw that same starkness now glimmer behind the trees. “Vardannoz!” she called, and pointed in the light’s direction.

Vardannoz looked, he saw, he understood. He nodded once to Santhil. “Excellent, elfling! Now clear a path, and cover me while I crush this woman!”

“We will shield you, Vardannoz,” Torgar answered, and rode to him. His look crossed Santhil’s, as if telling her this was the last time she’d see Vardannoz alive. Santhil nodded quickly. He drove his horse up behind his leader, and drew back his large, serrated blade.

“Behind you, Vardannoz!” Santhil suddenly yelled. “Look out!”

Torgar froze in surprise, his sword held still in preparation to strike. He threw Santhil an almost panicked look, and immediately noticed Vardannoz having turned to him. “Vardannoz, wait, no!”

“Traitor!” Vardannoz bellowed and, with a wide, powerful swing, tore through his vassal, cleaving cleanly through the thick armour and magically searing and burning the flesh and blood where it met the blade of his axe. There was no cry or scream, only the sickly squishing and cracking of ripped flesh and snapped bone, and Torgar’s lifeless body slipped off his horse and onto the ground, amidst so many of his forces.

Vardannoz looked at Santhil, and she felt that odd sensation people feel when someone looks at them with newfound, heartfelt respect. They shared a brief moment of understanding, until a several-hundred-pound branch plummeted down on his head, cracking his mount’s spine in two, and crushing his helmet deep into his body.

Santhil jumped briefly in surprise. Horrible as the sight was, with bloody spurts escaping from where his crushed head had been, she couldn’t bring to take her eyes off, staring as the giant tree lifted its branch again, and brought it down onto the bloodied heap to further pulp it into demise.

“Oh... my...” Lahnia sounded as surprised and strangely elated as Santhil looked. “I... think he’s dead.”

Santhil nodded clearly. “So do I. Let’s get out of here. Go, go!”

°°°

“Look at them,” Yalasmina said, overlooking Athel Loren. “They are still trying.”

Santhil looked away from her assembling army, and gazed at the few forces that, in the evening light, still foolhardedly mounted a charge into the forest. Fifteen skinny-bodied men at best. They wouldn’t make it past the first patch of undergrowth. “Dead men walking,” she said. “All their leaders are dead. If they haven’t fled by now, they never will.”

Yalasmina nodded slowly, and threw a lengthy look at her sister. “Santhil, I am proud of you.”

“I’m... kind of impressed with the carnage, myself.”

Yalasmina snorted calmly, and shook her head to herself. Santhil winked quickly at her, and turned back to look at the forest.

The fires were mostly put out, and the wisps of light were now beautifully visible in the evening sky, steadily but surely dousing the flames that still burned from some of the treetops. The sounds of war had died out, along with the battlecry that the dozen or so foolhardy men carried with them into the dark forest. Santhil had mixed feelings about Athel Loren: there was something hauntingly beautiful about it, especially now that the sun was slipping behind the horizon, throwing coloured beams of light over and through the thick of the woods. She was still angry with it, with them, with her, over having been chased out and peppered with arrows. The elation of an unlikely victory dulled her resident anger.

“Kind of makes you want to siege it again, doesn’t it?” Lahnia said. Santhil threw her a pointed look, and Lahnia snorted into a laugh. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding! Oh, the look on your face!”

“When you sleep, Mistress,” Santhil threatened her playfully. “When you sleep.”

“Lahnia, Santhil, come,” Yalasmina told them. “They army is departing. We’re going home.”

Santhil looked at Yalasmina and, in a gentle breeze, felt a leaf settle on her cheek. Gently, it slipped away again, brushing her chin on its way into the wide open world. Santhil softly felt her cheek, aimed a look at Athel Loren, and chuckled once.

“Santhil?”

“I’m coming, Mina. Let’s go home.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Mon Feb 20, 2012 2:16 pm
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Executioner
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Absolutely amazing work, I am so glad that I found this thread! Now I just have to live with the disappointment that there's no new stories for me to read... :)

Keep up the awesome work, and look forward to the next installment!

_________________
The House of Black Flames: A Druchii Project


Tue Sep 04, 2012 12:36 am
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
Exhausted. Spent. Worn out. Santhil didn’t much care what impression she gave others while she laid sprawled out in her bed, tucked away under the covers that warmed to her body temperature. She could only hear wisps of the doctor talking to Yalasmina outside her bed chamber, good-naturedly reminding her of Santhil’s injuries and assuring her that they would heal nicely. The arrow wounds still stung, obviously, but the doctor had given Santhil a shot to dull the pain and help her rest. Santhil liked the doctor very much right now.

Next to her, sitting on the bed, Lahnia stared at her sister with an amused smile. Peace, calm, and quiet blanketed the room while she gently stroked Santhil’s hair from her forehead. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

Santhil slowly lifted her hand and gave the AOK-signal. Lahnia snickered into a giggle. “Yeah,” Santhil calmly whispered. “This is the stuff.”

“Well, you deserve a break,” Lahnia told her, and sat upright again. “You’ve hit your disaster quota for this week. Is there anything I can do for you? Anything I can bring you?”

Santhil looked lengthily at her sister, her eyebrow curiously arched while she observed her. On Lahnia’s end, given the interest, an eyebrow curved up as well. “Yes?” she asked with a growing smile.

“Something has been bugging me,” Santhil admitted, “and maybe you can help me clear this up.”

“Hm?”

“How is it that...” Santhil lifted her hand from the bed, drawing Lahnia’s contour in the air. “When we do a sortie, you always come back looking great, and I end up looking like I went through a trash compactor?” Lahnia started laughing again, swinging her legs under the bed. “How do you do it? Is it magic?”

Lahnia needed a moment to recover, and held the back of her hand to her lips when she cleared her throat. “Not all of us go flying through the air, drachau,” she added when she managed to suppress her laugh.

Santhil nodded invisibly. “Right,” she said. “Yeah, I guess those two could be related.” She stared up at the ceiling a while longer, feeling the bed shiver timidly under her sister’s laugh. It was Lahnia’s way of letting battle stress wash off her. “Okay, alright,” Santhil said when the laughter endured, “what’s the joke?”

“It’s just that,” Lahnia managed to say, “you’ve never left Athel Loren on foot!”

“Yeah, you go ahead and laugh,” Santhil grumbled tiredly. “I could’ve broken something.”

“You did break something: your last in-flight record.”

Santhil narrowed her eyes threateningly at Lahnia. “Spaced out or not, you know I can grab you, right?”

Lahnia bolted upright and saluted stiffly. “Arhakuyl’s 4th, the king’s airborne, sir!”

“Why you...!” Santhil called out, lunged for her laughing sister, and snatched her around the waist with her arm and dragged her onto the bed. “You’re in for it now, sorceress!”

Yalasmina shook her head at the commotion in the room, standing in the doorway, and cleared her throat loudly. “Lahnia,” she called over the tumult of her sisters. “Come on, you know Santhil needs rest.”

Dragged onto Santhil and lying on her back, Lahnia aimed her eyes up at Santhil, a wide smile chiseled firmly onto her lips. “I’ve got to go,” she whispered. Santhil nodded slowly in understanding.

Yalasmina crossed her arms and leant against the doorpost, waiting. Steadily, seconds passed into moments, and finally, she rolled her eyes to herself, and walked up to her sisters with a vague smile. “Time to go, Lahnia,” she said, and took both her hands and pulled. “Up you go.”

Lahnia started a giggle at Yalasmina’s half-hearted attempts to pry her away; a giggle that readily grew into a laugh. Yalasmina tried again, and then again, a little harder, and eventually, to Lahnia’s great amusement, gave up with a sigh. “Santhil, let go of Lahnia.”

“No,” Santhil childishly refused, and wrapped her arm tighter around Lahnia. “Get your own.”

Yalasmina set a hand in her side. “You need to rest, Santhil.”

“Lahnia has a restful influence on me,” Santhil argued hazily. Lahnia aimed her eyes up at her, making it impossible for either of them to keep serious. “You know... sometimes.”

“Santhil...” Yalasmina narrowed her eyes invisibly at her sister. Santhil shrank a little deeper into her bed and under her covers, but still clutched Lahnia closer to her. Yalasmina looked at the two of them a while longer, felt a tiny part of her heart melt, and accepted defeat. “Make sure she rests,” she told Lahnia with half a smile.

Lahnia nodded reassuringly at her sister, and followed her with her eyes until she had left the room and had quietly closed the door behind her. She slowly rolled over in Santhil’s grip. “Not the way I had envisioned people fighting over me, but beggars and choosers...”

Santhil smiled amusedly, and slowly, exhausted, tucked a lock of Lahnia’s hair behind her ear. “Would you like that? Having knights fight for your favour?”

Lahnia cocked her head slightly, enjoying Santhil’s caress. “Mina’s not really a knight, but you are.”

“I’m a knight?” Santhil mused on that slowly, tediously slowly, her mind hazed by the painkillers.

“You’re landed, you’re a drachau to the king, who is your liege lord,” Lahnia expanded. “You have a sorceress at your beck and call.”

“Shouldn’t that be the other way around?” Santhil frowned pensively. “You being the mistress of the dark arts and all.”

“You’d think, right? Turns out people are afraid of sorcery and, by association, terrified of sorceresses,” Lahnia said, and rested her chin on her hands.

“Can you blame them? Have you seen the power you can summon at the flick of your mind? People like me—we struggle with long division and shopping lists.”

“Maybe,” Lahnia said non-commitally, staring at Santhil’s steady hand while it stroked her face calmly, peacefully. Her eyes caught sight of Santhil’s engagement ring when it glimmered with the light of the fireplace, and she looked at it curiously.

It took Santhil a few moments to notice the gaze and the change in focus. She held her hand up to Lahnia so she could get a good look. “It’s nothing new,” Santhil mentioned with a slight smile. “Still the same ring.”

“Can I?” Lahnia asked, and set two fingers on the ring. She accepted Santhil’s silent lack of protest as permission, and pulled carefully to wedge it off her sister’s ring finger. She ended up needing a little more force than she anticipated, but finally the ring came off with a jolt. Santhil flexed her fingers and rested her arm like the rest of her body: lying flat on the mattress like a roadkill.

Lahnia looked the ring over, turning it between her fingers, subjecting it to the uncanny scrutiny of someone who could tell lazuli from armenus and gold dust from warpstone. Santhil observed her sister’s focus with a warm, loving smile, staring at the eyes shining brightly in dusk’s slipping light.

“Why is it,” Lahnia pondered, “that when you're someone's mistress, it's ambiguous whether you're a lover or a ruler, but when you say 'master', there's no such ambiguity?”

“Oy,” Santhil groaned heavily. “Societal philosophy is not a dish on drugged Santhil's menu.”

“But it's true, isn't it? You call me a mistress of the dark arts, and there's this ambiguity that wouldn't be there with 'master'.”

Santhil humoured her sister and pondered on it for a while, letting her head sink into the pillow while she stared blankly at the ceiling, her main source of inspiration when pondering. “I kind of like the ambiguity in your case,” she mused slowly. “Mistress is a better fit for you.”

“Is that so?” Lahnia asked with a lopsided grin. “You like me 'ambiguous'?”

“I'm just saying, why pick? Why force you to be either one or the other?” Santhil effortfully leaned up against her pillow and looked at Lahnia again. “Pigeonholing just doesn't work for you. In my view, that is.”

“Yeah, um... we've already established what your 'view' on sorceresses is,” Lahnia reminded her. “The threesome calender girls.”

“This is my campaign promise,” Santhil said hazily. “When I am king, I will be a responsible spouse to all of my —how many wives would I have? I need cue cards for this.”

Lahnia snorted into a giggle, and looked at Santhil through the engagement ring she held up between her fingertips. A peaceful silence settled over them while steadily the oncoming night darkened the room.

“Don't you think that whole charge with Vardannoz really ended in a big anti-climax?” Lahnia asked.

“Anti-climactic is good,” Santhil said with a calm breath. “I like my battles anti-climactic. Climaxes come from tension; tension means something can go wrong. I don't like battles that can go wrong.”

“Still,” Lahnia said. “There's this build-up of tension, anticipation for the grand finale, and we go in there, ready for anything because this is it, the big score, the real deal, and then... poof, dead. He's had it, he's not going to get up again, so we rush out of there, call it a day, pack up, and go home.”

“I like how your description is multi-functional,” Santhil musingly said. “We could be talking about the siege, or we could be talking about my love life, and we'd have the exact same conversation.”

Lahnia stared at her sister a moment longer, blinked, and suddenly rolled into a laugh. Her futile attempts at holding back ended in muffling her laugh in Santhil's shoulder.

“I guess that's funny when you're not me,” Santhil murmured, and exhaled calmly through her nose, enjoying the soft warmth her sister's presence gave her.

“Aww, don't be sad,” Lahnia cooed between fits of giggling, and lied on top of Santhil, looking her sister in the eye. “I'm here. My companionship will please you.”

Santhil's eyebrow curved up amusedly. “Ouch, right in my heterosexuality.”

“Pffft,” Lahnia dismissed it, and rested her chin on her hands. “Coming from the woman who likes me 'ambiguous'.”

Santhil giggled uneasily, her eyes locked with Lahnia's mere inches from each other. “Well, yeah, I didn't mean ambiguous as in, you know—”

“Uh-huh,” Lahnia said unimpressedly.

“I mean—”

“Yeah.”

“No, it's—”

“Mm-hm.”

Santhil stared powerlessly at Lahnia.

“Squirm, little fish, squirm,” Lahnia said with a widening grin, instantly causing Santhil to giggle inwardly. “Your mistress demands it.”

Santhil tried to stop giggling, and succeeded partly, looking at Lahnia with an amused smile that occasionally grew when squashing laughs that welled up. Slowly, her giggles simmered down, and she felt the dimming haze cloud her mind again. “You've been blasting away for the entire siege. Aren't you at all tired from funneling all that magic?”

“I am,” Lahnia admitted, and touched noses with Santhil. “Very much so, in fact. Thanks for asking.” She tilted her head to her side and kissed Santhil's lips softly. “Also, nice try.”

Santhil smiled lopsidedly. “You like kissing me,” she remarked.

“You are very kissable,” Lahnia replied, and stroked Santhil's lips with her finger. “What's your excuse, hm?”

Santhil's eyebrows shot up. “My excuse?”

“You're collaborating,” Lahnia said with a slight grin, and gave her sister a peck on her lips.

“I'm cooperating,” Santhil begged to differ. “Nuance.”

“Is that so?” Lahnia tilted her head and moved in for another kiss. Before their lips touched, she suddenly pulled away, and Santhil lifted her head in an effort to meet her. “Oh? And what do you call this, then?” Lahnia said, and laughed quietly.

“Entrapment,” Santhil drily replied. “I didn't want to label it, but there you go: entrapment.”

“Isn't a label kind of like pigeonholing?” Lahnia wondered, and cocked her head at Santhil with mocked curiosity.

Santhil narrowed her hazy eyes at Lahnia. “Remember I said you're a restful influence? I lied. You're a nail in my coffin.”

Lahnia snorted with laughter and, being right in Santhil's face, covered her lips to keep quiet. “I'm joking; I love you,” Santhil stated the obvious, and smiled wearily at Lahnia's amusement.

Lahnia sighed happily but wistfully. “I need to get up early. I'm meeting the girls.”

“The coven? Are you going to teach them how not to kill me with an earthquake?”

“I should be so ambitious,” Lahnia said with a grin. “But we should get to the resting part of our night.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Santhil admitted grudgingly.

“So, how about...” Lahnia stood and bent over Santhil. “I put some wood on the fire, make us hot milk, and we scooch up, warm and nice, to get some sleep?”

Santhil ignored the dulling pain of her limbs, and smiled contently at the prospect. “That sounds great, Lana. Thanks.”

Lahnia gave Santhil a quick peck on her lips before heading off. “I'll be back in a tick.”

“Please do,” Santhil called after Lahnia, already feeling the night's cold slowly, methodically drain all the warmth her sister had left her.

Her mind foggy, her body throbbing and aching, Santhil wasn't even sure she was comfortable. She briefly aimed her eyes at the doorway Lahnia had left by, and then aimed them dead ahead of her, staring at the ceiling while her eyelids grew heavier with each blink.

°°°

The brush was gently lifted from the painting. At first glance, it looked like a faithful reproduction of the image ahead of her: the dark, dead trees rising up, silhouetting their prickly branches against the giant moon that had just risen over the night's horizon; the broken ruins, remnants of civilisations ancient and recent; the thick clouds pulling darkly past the moon as it daringly outlined them. But the painting kept telling her it was missing something... what was it missing?

Santhil took half a step back and looked the painting over with great scrutiny. As she did so, she caught a figure in the corner of her eye, and looked at him. He was balancing on a rock, his arms stretched aside as he gently swayed from left to right without dangerously careening in either direction. His tall, frayed appearance seemed strangely familiar but, at the same time, oddly unusual. It took a moment for Santhil to recognise him as one of the four avatars that haunted her mind from time to time. But this was not the slick-figured creature. “Tzeentch,” she said with a calm that surprised herself.

The man smiled absently, focusing on his balance. “Would you like me to be?”

“You’re not Nurgle. You’re not Slaanesh, and you’re definitely not Khorne,” Santhil reasoned.

“But I must be a manifestation of the gods of Chaos?” he asked, and flashed her a brief grin. “I am not merely a figment of your imagination?”

Santhil looked about herself. There was something different but not altogether alien about this place. There was the grass under her feet, colourless, bleak, and perhaps lifeless. There was the moon in the sky, threateningly enormous and close, dominating the night sky. There was the gloomy mist hanging at the height of her waist, a hazy blue, transparent cover that stretched from the stoney ruins she was standing in, out into the dark woods ahead and to her side. It was an almost perfect but darker reflection of the world she knew. “Where are we?” she asked.

The man’s smile grew, and he aimed two fingers distantly at Santhil. She didn’t look behind her or over her shoulder; she knew he meant her forehead. “I’m dreaming?” Santhil wondered. Of course, she had to be. “The painting?”

“You like painting,” the man said.

“It’s missing something,” Santhil remarked.

“Imagination.”

Santhil raised her brow at the man, and felt her lips match with a lopsided smile. “Imagination? You tell a woman who dreams up all of this that she lacks imagination?”

“I say your painting lacks imagination,” the man clarified. “I make no statement about the woman. But, then again, you did dream up the painting.”

“So, what you’re telling me,” Santhil said, becoming amused, “is that my depiction of my imagination is lacking.”

The man smoothly leapt onto another rock and balanced carefully on it. He didn't answer.

“Predict something for me,” Santhil said, and set her brush aside. “You're the god that supposedly knows everything in past and future; make a prediction.”

“You will wake up.”

Santhil narrowed her eyes unimpressedly. “Something less obvious.”

“Not everyone wakes up. People die in their sleep. Don't Arhakuyl die in their sleep?”

“I'm not going to die in my sleep,” Santhil snorted. “...Right?”

The man's smile widened invisibly, looking at the rocky, waist-high wall he was crossing carefully. “You will wake up,” he repeated.

Santhil heard something at the very periphery of her senses. Were those voices? She looked around for the source, letting her eyes slip over the eerily silent forests, the dark, lifeless grass, to finally settle on the abandoned ruins. “Are there other people here?” she asked her companion and, when met with silence, turned to him. He was no longer there.

Curious, Santhil left her painting and brushes behind, and followed the voices echoing in the ruins, navigating the waist-high fog cautiously so not to trip over any of the collapsed stone columns. Maybe it was a dream, maybe it was a vision, or maybe it was neither, something for her to still discover. At any rate, she told herself, this could impossibly be physically real, so she let her curiosity guide her.

Perched on tall, crumbled walls, withered effigies of unfamiliar creatures stared down at her. As Santhil walked through the cold shadows that the large moon cast, she looked up at those bizarre depictions, trying to figure them out. She felt an unnatural breeze roll through the ruins, steadily, brushing against her almost rhythmically, the only sound she could hear other than the grass squeezing under her step, and the tristle of her clothes over her skin.

The way the stone statues were arrayed made them look like guardians, depictions of fearsome creatures meant to scare away evil spirits and discourage trespassers. A sudden bump against her knee cautioned Santhil to spend more time looking through the fog, and less staring at the skyline. The unfriendly breeze drew hauntingly past her, almost breathing in her neck, and she picked up her pace.

Santhil was relieved when she heard the voices again. The sound gave her direction, and she swiftly made her way through the ruins, happily making distance from the prying statues. The voices sounded more excited than before and, more importantly, child-like. They were chanting something, and Santhil quickly made out what that was. She swung her legs over a low stone bannister, and found herself in a clearing.

“Freak! Freak! Freak!”

Some eight or so children were laughing and shouting, shoving a little girl around roughly. Freak, freak, they continued while the little girl cowered in tears. One of the older girls grabbed a lock of her hair painfully hard; a lock Santhil immediately recognised as her family's telltale grey. “I bet if we cut her hair, it'll grow right back!” she said, a pair of scissors gleaming in her other hand.

“Hey!” Santhil shouted at the children, and paced towards them. “Hey, knock that off!” Her stomach turned uneasily as memories of a youth riddled with bullying surfaced.

The little girl screamed when the scissors set into her grey locks, to the cruel delight of the other children. When a good pluck was cut off, she tore herself away, fought her way out of the group, and ran.

“Freak! Freak! Freak!” the children chanted at the poor girl while she ran away from them, victoriously holding the pluck of grey (and some black) hair up like a trophy.

Santhil slowed down, her heart tearing over the girl's grief, and she helplessly reached an arm for her. She threw a sharp, vindictive glance at the group full of laughter and mockery, but left them behind her and followed the crying girl into the mist.

°°°

Santhil halfly opened her bleary eyes and, head buried in her pillow, felt the warm sunlight peering in from the balcony and falling on her cheek. A cold draft pulled over the covers of her bed, making her scoot closer to Lahnia, only to find no-one was there, next to her, to share their warmth. She sighed, disappointed, and rolled on her back.

Every bone and muscle in her body ached and strained, telling her that it was okay to stay put like a sloth OD'ing on prozac. Get some rest, get some sleep; what's the worst that could happen?

That was a question her mind could answer. With astounding clarity, it meticulously recalled every task, every issue, every problem, trouble, and obstacle that was probably going be urgent over the course of the day. That's turning out to be quite a bit, Santhil. But, you know, it probably could wait until tomorrow. Because there's no reason to assume that this stuff really is urgent. Except if it is, because that could be a problem.

Santhil slapped her hand on her face, trying to make her stop thinking, and slowly pulled over her cheeks. Now she was both too tired to budge, and too nervous to rest.

A sideways glance revealed a note on her nightstand. Happy for the distraction, Santhil sat up against her pillow and took it to hand.

Hey sweetie,

Yalasmina left you these in case you hurt too much to rest. They last a couple of hours each, so don't take them all at once; dose for a good, long sleep.

We'll check up on you during the day.

XXX

Lahnia


Santhil looked at the processed herbs, ground and clotted into doses, on a small metal plate on the nightstand. She stroked her painful leg, happy that her arm was healing well, and took a deep, courageous breath.

°°°

Bright, warm-hued sunbeams shone through the whitely dotted sky and into the wide corridor. It was pleasantly warm for the time of year; the otherwise wet climate seemed to have made some room for a more steadily dry day. Weather was a little different in the colonies than in the motherland.

“So we’ll give that a try, see how it goes,” Santhil agreed with the commander who accosted her along the way, nodding gently in thought. “That should give us a good feel of the situation while we get everything in order...?” A friendly frown curved her brows. “Is something the matter?”

“Oh, apologies, Drachau,” the commander excused his lack of focus. “I believe there is a woman looking for you,” he explained while pointing past Santhil.

Santhil simply smiled. “No rest for the wicked, right?”

“You know, that saying is actually a bastardisation from a religious text,” he noted with a sudden surge of interest, or perhaps he was trying to impress her.

“Really?” Santhil offered him to continue. She knew, of course; literature was a required course in her art education, and if that hadn’t hammered it in, either of her sisters would have. They were knowledgeable like that.

“Yeah, it is,” he said, and... stopped. An awkward silence creeped over the conversation, broken only by two guards passing them on their rounds down the hall.

“I had no idea,” Santhil saved him from an embarrassing lack of follow-up. “I kind of like the contemporary meaning, though.”

“Of course, of course,” the commander replied. “I just thought you might find that interesting to know. Not a lot of people know that.”

“I can imagine,” Santhil said, scoring high marks on her acting skills. She introduced a closing silence of a few seconds. “I should probably check who needs me and why so,” she said with a smile.

“Of course, Drachau. I’ll keep you informed.” He bowed his head politely, but not too deeply—he knew Santhil wasn’t that dead-set on protocol—and walked away.

Santhil, in turn, looked over her shoulder and indeed found a woman standing at a respectful distance. When their eyes met, she approached Santhil with a reverend smile. “Drachau Arhakuyl,” she greeted her.

“Zyln, hi,” Santhil said with some surprise when she suddenly recognised her. “I hadn’t recognised you with clothes on.” Barely had those words left her lips, and Santhil closed her eyes with a sigh and stroked her brow.

Zyln turned an amused smile on her lips. “It’s alright, Drachau,” she said. “I realise I am out of uniform.”

“Well, you look great, still,” Santhil added. “How are you? Should you be up and walking already?”

“I felt I could do with some careful walking while the weather is pleasant,” Zyln said, and looked out briefly. “Our temple—what we’ve made our temple—is functional, but the sun can be welcome.”

“Would you like to sit down?” Santhil asked, and looked around for anything that could pass for a seat.

“I am fine, Drachau, thank you,” she chuckled friendly. “How are you? No ill effects from the lightning strike?”

“Yalasmina told me I would feel disoriented or confused at times, but no-one’s noticed anything yet, so...” Santhil stopped, and frowned pensively. “I’m actually not really sure what to think of that.”

Zyln started into a suppressed laugh, but soon leaned against the wall, a painful expression in her eyes while a smile still held on her lips. “Oh, ow, I really shouldn’t laugh.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Santhil said, and immediately stepped forward to offer assistance. It was a gesture more than actual help: at the first step, her leg protested, sharply reminding her that she was shot the other day, and the resulting jerk in her gait, no matter how much she steadied it, earned her a pitying look from Zyln. Santhil smiled wrily, and stroked her painful leg. “Asrai shot me the other day. The arm, too.”

Zyln smiled calmly at her. “Forgive my intrusion then, but should you be up and walking already?”

“Um,” Santhil started with a grin, and stroked her neck. “I tend to heal pretty quickly from these things, all things considered. I mean, I almost forgot about the lightning strike.”

“The lightning strike is difficult to forget,” Zyln chuckled. “It is not something you see often.”

“I know, right?” Santhil said with a sudden, pensive frown. “These things only happen in corny stories and urban legends. And then: boom. Still, it saved my life, and living Santhil is happier Santhil.”

“Miracles still happen in this world,” Zyln noted, and looked at Santhil standing right in front of her. She breathed slowly, calmly though her nose. “Drachau, when we were lost in the caves beneath, you offered that I may call you Santhil, and I declined at the time. Could I change my mind?”

“Of course,” Santhil replied, only later wondering whether a shift in familiarity was a good thing in their somewhat special case.

Zyln nodded politely, and breathed calmly while she collected her words. “Santhil,” she finally said, “When you called the retreat and we ran, I was struck. At the time, lying there in pain and shock, I was not fully aware of what was happening.” Her words were deliberate and steady, giving herself the time to think everything over. “I was struck and fell, and in that brief moment when I tried to stand and failed, I... felt Khaine had rejected me, and that my final moments should be spent in contemplation of my errors and failings.

“But you, Santhil Arhakuyl, came back for me. And you fought an entire battle, tooth and nail, at my side. And saved my life.”

“Yalasmina—”

“Yalasmina followed you, and she helped me, and she treated me, and I would not be alive if not for her courage and expertise,” Zyln said. “And I thanked her, and she has my continuing gratitude. But she was not the one who came for me.”

Santhil smiled awkwardly, embarrassed by the heartfelt praise. While usually she wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to have someone stroke her ego a little, flattery was rarely this honest. “Yeah, ah, off the drugs, Mina’s not really the, erm, headlong charge... type...” Santhil vaguely motioned with her hand, not exactly sure what she was trying to say. “She’s sensible that way.”

Zyln beamed her a warm smile, amused by the succinct character sketch. “She is a wise woman,” she agreed.

“She is, she really is.” Santhil nodded thoughtfully, a little longer than was necessary, to bridge the silence that crept and settled on them. As seconds stretched into the terrain of awkwardness, she aimed her eyes out the window and cleared her throat discreetly.

“I should return to the temple,” Zyln finally said.

“I should get back to work,” Santhil instantly added. “Heal well.”

“And to you, drachau,” Zyln said and, with some effort, bowed briefly, and retreated several steps before turning away.

Santhil stalled herself, and pensively watched the Maibd leave. While she did wonder what exactly made Zyln believe her to be some conception of Khaine, she reckoned her attention was better focused on the colony's administration and war strategy. Still, she was flattered.

“Hello, Santhil.”

Santhil broke from her dwindling thoughts and saw Yalasmina approach her. She beamed her sister a brief smile. “Hello, Yalasmina.”

“Up and about already, I see,” Yalasmina said with a hint of disapproval.

“Can’t keep an Arhakuyl down, Mina,” Santhil grinned. “Unless, you know, you bury her.”

Yalasmina nodded with a vague smile. “My mind was on chains and straps, but yours makes sense as well.”

Santhil’s eyebrow shot up surprisedly with a lopsided grin. “Your mind is a creepy and also kinky place.”

Yalasmina kept her smile while she tilted her head.

“I was joking about the burying thing.”

Yalasmina nodded calmly.

“But you weren’t about the chains and straps,” Santhil caught on.

Yalasmina shook her head.

“...Was there something you needed me for, Mina?”

“I came to check up on you,” Yalasmina said. “But you weren’t in your chambers, so I tried the council room and the sunnier corridors.” She aimed a smile at the sunlit frames of the tall windows lining the corridor, and then wrapped her fingers around Santhil’s necktie. “You managed to get dressed on your own, one-armed. Necktie’s loose, though.”

“It's a fashion statement,” Santhil explained. “It's also difficult to get right with one hand.”

“It looks good on you,” Yalasmina said, sizing her sister up, trying with the necktie a little tighter, and then looser again, with a button higher or lower. “Since you’re up and about, though, I would like to take the opportunity to replenish your symbolic contribution to Khaine at the temple.”

Santhil pondered a moment on what Yalasmina could mean by that—she could also just ask, but her sister preferred people to think for a moment rather than blurb out a question—and finally narrowed her eyes. “I’ve already donated blood.”

“But we used that blood to lure out a demon, you recall,” Yalasmina countered smoothly.

“What is it with people and wanting my blood? It’s like I bleed gold,” Santhil suddenly said. Yalasmina, however, simply kept her eyes and an oddly inviting smile on her. “Come on, Mina, I’m hurt and hurting; can’t this wait?”

“You’re fit enough to chat up a Maibd, Ari,” Yalasmina said. “You can donate a little blood.”

“Hm? No, I wasn’t—” Santhil stopped, and blinked in surprise. “You were watching me?”

“I was looking for you, but you were engaged and I wouldn't press. The two of you were cute,” Yalasmina said in no particular tone, focused on straightening Santhil’s tie. “Coming?” A subtle tug made clear she wasn’t taking no for an answer.

Santhil moaned dismally and sighed. She really, really hated needles and syringes. But maybe she hated the ritual blade a little more.

“Just a nick, Santhil,” Yalasmina said patiently while she pulled Santhil along anyway. “Don’t be a baby.”

“It’s not about being a baby, it’s about my blood not being ‘on tap’,” Santhil argued, and followed reluctantly, her balance too weak to resist without hurting her leg. “It’s not an all-you-can-drain buffet. There is a limited supply of Santhil’s blood, property of Santhil. You can’t just take whatever you want, whenever you want.”

“Really?” Yalasmina said unimpressedly.

“Really,” Santhil maintained crossly, and halted. “You can’t just drag me along and start bleeding me. I have rights.”

Yalasmina stopped as well, tightening her grip on Santhil’s tie to make clear that she was not above strangling Santhil to get her way. “Are those your final words?” Santhil gave her a silent, resolved stare, in turn harassed by a judging, piercing gaze.

Finally, Yalasmina nodded slowly, keeping her eyes on Santhil’s. “I know just how to deal with troublemakers like you.”

°°°

Halfway up the ladder she had set against the bookcase, Lahnia looked at the stack of books on her arm. She wasn’t sure whether to put them on the fifth or the sixth shelf. The fifth fitted better in her classification system, but the sixth actually had room. She briefly wondered whether she would get away with stuffing it on the seventh instead, but decided her future self would hate her for it. With a sigh, she straightened her arm to the fifth shelve and carefully levitated a select few books from it to make room.

Levitation, a refinement of telekinesis, was a deceptively tricky magick, wrongfully labelled a cantrip by laypeople. Contrary to the stereotypical destructive magic, levitation had the devil in the details: superior directional sense, spatial awareness, and very careful application of force. Apprentice sorceresses would sometimes simply topple over, struggling to maintain their own balance on top of nudging objects in different directions.

Lahnia, however, was no longer an apprentice sorceress, and could reliably sift through her books without dropping off her ladder, even when a quick knock on her door briefly unsteadied her focus. “Come in,” she said, and kept her mind on the task at hand.

Calm, slow steps behind her. Her curious nature didn’t like having her back to people—one of the levitated books slipped for a moment, but she levelled it with a quick jolt on the cover.

“Busy?” Santhil asked, oblivious to the focus her sister currently required.

“Just a— Santhil?” Lahnia asked surprisedly, and looked over her shoulder. Immediately, one of her books slipped from her arm; she reached for it with her free hand, letting go of the ladder while rebalancing herself, and consequently sent one of the levitated books soaring. Santhil hastily flattened her back against the wall and narrowly avoided the dangerously speedy projectile, her eyes following it with curved eyebrows until it hit the far wall with a dull thud. Soon after, the other books lifelessly dropped to the floor in a deliberate but no more orderly fashion.

“This room needs to be marked a hard hat area,” Santhil opined.

“Ari, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in bed, resting.” She blinked when she caught better sight of Santhil. “Are you having a lollipop?”

Santhil nodded victoriously. “Strawberry. I got you one, too. That's your favorite, right?”

Lahnia’s face brightened, even when still showing some surprise. “Thanks,” she said, and dismounted the ladder and settled the books she was carrying on her desk. “How did you get these?”

“Mina didn’t have to call in backup. She wanted to incentivise that,” Santhil said, and handed Lahnia her other lollipop. “This might be the first time I’ve ever seen you wear pants.”

“I know, I feel like a crossdresser,” Lahnia immediately replied, and looked her dusty self over. “Sorry about that.”

“Don’t be; they look good on you.”

“Flatterer,” Lahnia accused her sister with a grin. “Did you need me for something?”

“I got a medical opinion advising me caffeine would help me cope with my loss,” Santhil said, and briefly showed her bandaged wrist.

“Was the medical opinion coming from a medical professional?” Lahnia asked skeptically.

“Details. Want to grab a coffee with me?”

“You know I don’t drink coffee,” Lahnia replied. “But I’ll join you.”

“Excellent. Let’s—” Santhil tried taking a fluent step back, but instead her foot hooked against something soft and furry. She flailed her arm widely with a look of surprise in her eyes, tried her other leg, hit a stack of books with it, and toppled back. Lahnia winced and instinctively looked away while her sister disappeared behind the ledgers of knowledge with a brief cry and a graceless thud.

“Mâwr!” Green, feline eyes indignantly looked into Santhil’s grey irides. Lahnia, too, dared a gander at Santhil, and peeked over the stacks of books that had toppled her. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“Wonderful, Lana, thank you,” Santhil said with toneless sarcasm, and kept an accusing gaze on the cat. “You know that saying: there’s more than one way to skin a cat? Let’s find out. You like science—let’s do science.”

Lahnia beamed an amused smile at Santhil and offered a hand to help her up. “You were supposed to rest, Ari. Why are you out of bed?”

“Honest to Khaine, Lana, I just asked myself that very same question.” She took Lahnia's helping hand, and slowly, carefully, picked herself up. “Thanks,” she said, and dusted herself off.

“Where's your lollipop?”

“Must've dropped it when...” Santhil peeked over the books she had just toppled over, but found no trace of her candy. What's more: Lahnia's cat had disappeared as well. “Son of a...!” Santhil indignantly exclaimed when she pieced it together.

Lahnia tried hard, very hard, not to laugh, but that only made her chortle when looking at her sister's dismayed expression. She looked away hurriedly, briefly delaying the inevitable, and started laughing.

“Un-be-lievable,” Santhil sighed, and shook her head.

“Coffee,” Lahnia said, and cleared her throat. “Let's have coffee. I'll go change, and we'll have coffee.”

“Change? You don't need to change—you look great.”

“I am not going out with you when I'm looking like this,” Lahnia persisted, and backpedalled to her chambers. “I won't be long. Don't kill our cat.”

“Your cat,” Santhil called after her.

“Don't kill the cat.”

°°°

“So, I've been thinking,” Lahnia said while she idly whirled her tea around in the cup. “You'll be resupplying your army's uniforms fairly soon, right? With the whole stockpile freak immolation accident.”

Santhil nodded slowly while enjoying her hot coffee. She had put off supply issues for a while, especially since nothing was urgent or critical, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to replenish stock. “Do you have a shopping list?” she asked grinningly.

“Psh! Since when do I order through the military?”

“What's wrong with ordering through the military?”

“There's nothing really 'wrong' with ordering through the military. Your catalogue is just a little unimaginative.”

“Right, I forgot. Spokeswoman of the fencing syndicate,” Santhil recalled.

“Anyway, this would be a good opportunity to go over the designs,” Lahnia continued. “See if there's something you'd like to see changed or modified.”

Santhil cocked her head. “They're called uniforms for a reason.”

“And they're nice uniforms; I'm not saying there's anything wrong with them,” Lahnia admitted. “But they're uniforms designed by people on Ulthuan to serve people on Ulthuan in that weather and mindset.”

Santhil thought about it. It was common knowledge among her staff that, while the standard uniforms were a fair fit given reasonable weather conditions and reasonable timeframes, the colonial forces worked in anything but reasonable conditions. Also, she was getting the impression that Lahnia had given this more than casual thought. “You have some ideas,” Santhil probed.

“A couple,” Lahnia said. “I was thinking about putting something together, design a little, if that's okay with you.”

Santhil nodded slowly, looking her sister over. While one could hardly call Lahnia a slave to fashion, there was no doubt she had a discerning eye for colour, form, and function. “Sure,” she said. “I'd love to see your ideas. Oh, but get Mina in on it, could you?”

Lahnia blinked in surprise, needing a moment to find some sort of connection, and sighed annoyedly. “Oh, come on, Ari. Must I? You know we do nothing but argue.”

“Lana, it's a matter of politics,” Santhil explained. “If I let you design the uniforms, then I, the drachau, am letting the Convent design the uniforms.”

“But Mina? I mean, if you put two statues of us in the same room, and give it five minutes, they'll be fighting.”

“She's the liaison; I can't not pick Mina. What sort of message would that convey?” Santhil said, and lifted her shoulders helplessly. “You're my sister, and she's my sister. You're Convent, she's Temple. From the outside, it's a perfect match.”

Lahnia growled inwardly and sighed. Her initial joy over convincing Santhil to let her work on a new line was already tasting sour. She sipped from her tea and thought on it.

“Look,” Santhil said, and reached her hand over the table to Lahnia's. “I'll talk to Mina and tell her it's your idea, your call. She'll understand,” Santhil assured her, and tried to catch her look. “Trust me?”

Lahnia looked at Santhil a few times, trying to make up her mind. The prospect of fighting and arguing with Yalasmina was offputting, but she did really want to help Santhil out, and wanted to see her designing serve a purpose. “Because you didn't kill our cat,” she finally agreed.

“Thanks, Lahnia,” Santhil said. “You're an angel.”

Lahnia smiled briefly, and felt her ring hit the tea spoon with a soft ping. “Oh hey, that's right,” she recalled.

“You're wearing my engagement ring?” Santhil asked, curious.

“I noticed this morning that I still had it, but I wasn't sure where to put it so you'd find it when you woke up, so I figured I'd give it back to you later,” Lahnia said, and looked her hand over. “Wore it so I wouldn't forget.”

Santhil beamed amusedly at Lahnia. “And then you saw me and you completely forgot.”

Lahnia giggled. “I know, I get distracted.”

“I have it on good authority that my appearance has distracting qualities,” Santhil teased with a grin. “Perhaps I should be more modest with it.”

“Really,” Lahnia said half-heartedly. “You wouldn't want to cause accidents.”

“With great cleavage comes great responsibility.”

Lahnia hid her amused snigger in her tea and nodded once to Santhil. “How's your black poison?”

“Tastes like victory,” Santhil said, and sipped from her cup.

°°°

“Have a seat, chief,” Santhil offered in the man's native tongue as she carefully—stately, she made it seem—sat behind her desk.

The human sat down on the edge of his seat with some trepidation. It was not the first time he had seen an elf, but it might have been the first time he had seen a female one, and a very attractive one, judging by the colossal effort expended to look her in the eye. “Mayor,” he politely corrected her. “It's Mayor, ma'am.”

“My apologies,” Santhil said. “How may I assist you, mayor?”

“Ah, um...” Santhil's address suddenly sprung him into action. “I'm having some issues back in the village that, um, I could use some help with.”

“Mm-hm,” Santhil replied, and took her detailed map to hand. “And you are mayor of...?”

“Onderville, ma'am,” he said, and leant over Santhil's desk, scooting even closer to the edge of his seat. “About here,” he pointed on the map, close to the fortifications.

Santhil's eyes flit over the map to check the village's surroundings. Seemed to be fairly close to Athel Loren as well. Which reminded her that she'd need to check just how active the Asrai would be outside of their forest, and what exactly their diplomatic stance was. “And what appears to be the issue?” Santhil bridged the pensive silence from her end.

“There's been some, err... problems with the villagers,” the mayor admitted. “Or, well, not really problems: more like difficulties. But it could become problematic, err, in a sense.”

“Is the population ill?” Santhil guessed, keeping her eyes on the map. “Is your security threatened?”

“There's this guy, um—you wouldn't know him—and he's gaining support with the villagers and he... sort of challenged me for my position. You know, not out loud or anything, but people are kind of... siding with him.”

Santhil briefly waited for the rest of the explanation, and then aimed her eyes up from the map and onto the mayor. His own eyes had left the map as well, though they had eventually wandered onto the curves of his hostess rather than the ones on the chart. Santhil reached for her water and cleared her throat, subtly cueing him to recover.

“Anyway,” the mayor suddenly said, snapped from his thoughts, “I was hoping that maybe you could make a show with some troops and, um, declare me mayor officially.”

“You don't need military assistance for that,” Santhil said with a polite smile. “A simple show of the applicable documents and certificates should suffice.”

A stunned, palpable silence followed.

“You are fully licensed to hold office by provincial authorities, aren't you?” Santhil pressed with a feigned hint of incredulity in her voice.

“Yes. Yes, of course,” he quickly fibbed. “Because, obviously, I shouldn't be holding office if I weren't, uh, fully licensed by, uh, the providial authorities.”

“Provincial.”

“Provincial authorities. That's,” and he briefly cleared his throat, “that's what I said.”

Santhil sat back in her chair, and exhaled slowly, pensively, her gaze set on the mayor in front of her. While destabilising the region had been her strategy from the outset, she considered that perhaps it was time to rethink that strategy.

On the one hand, meddling with local government, assisting them by providing a least-effort way to settle their problems, could be a powerful, insidious step to undermining rebel authority. The fact that the mayor was here at all, requesting to speak with Santhil rather than the rebels, meant that he felt she was more likely to actually help his cause, or that they already turned him down.

On the other hand, Santhil couldn't possibly meddle in each and every little local conflict, not now and not when eventually she would have control over the entire region. Also, especially now, a large part of the populace would be very, very wary of any goodwill intervention from the 'great empire' that was at war with them.

What she needed was to set an example.

The mayor cleared his throat discreetly, not sure what the holdup was about. Surely for a drachau, this was a minor annoyance she could easily correct.

“Let's hold elections,” Santhil decided.

The mayor blinked confusedly. Did the militaristic dictator just tell him to poll his populace?

“Go to your village, and announce that there will be a popular vote to decide who the mayor should be,” Santhil clarified, running it by herself at the same time. “I will send some troops to maintain order and assist the process.”

The man thought fast and hard, trying to find how he would benefit from this. Surely, he just told her that public opinion was starting to turn against him?

Slowly, his smile widened. He had cracked the case, and he liked the idea. “We fudge the vote.”

“What you do with your knowledge and powers over the electoral process is at your discretion,” Santhil hinted, and nodded once to dismiss him. “Mayor.”

The mayor's grin widened as he stood, and he bowed respectfully. “My lady drachau.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Fri Jun 14, 2013 4:35 pm
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Dark Rider

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As always, a very enjoyable read, Tarbo, and I am delighted to see that this is not quite dead yet. The continuing adventures of Santhil remain hilarious and, for me at least, a pleasant reminder of the campaigns in question.

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Fri Jun 14, 2013 9:28 pm
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Wow am I glad that these have resurfaced! I had to read through it all once again, thought I must stress that 'had to' is probably an overstatement - I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Keep up the amazing writing!

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The House of Black Flames: A Druchii Project


Tue Jun 18, 2013 1:23 am
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
The winter sun shone starkly on the sober but flimsy curtains, casting a full, diffuse light into the room. A profound, calm silence hung pleasantly to go with the light. While Yalasmina seemed too preoccupied to even notice, Lahnia did occasionally let het eyes wander across the room before adjusting her design or, as happened regularly, starting anew on a fresh piece of paper, setting the previous design apart from every other previously set apart design.

When the bed had filled up with ideas, Lahnia went through her meanderings, mixing and matching, arranging them in her mind's eye. And while her mind's eye busily skit about, her own eyes rested on her sister.

Stoicially silent and impeccably postured, Yalasmina sat at the desk, reading the bound book in front of her while occasionally, she cast her eyes aside to take notes. Lahnia was curious—burningly so—about what had Yalasmina so absorbed, but she also appreciated that they had managed to share a room for this long without arguing; an unspoken blood truce she was very reluctant to break.

“Those glasses look very fine on you,” Lahnia finally said, breaking the silence that her stare had made to feel awkward.

Yalasmina briefly took her eyes off the text and beamed Lahnia a polite smile. “Thank you, Lahnia.”

“I didn't know you wore glasses,” Lahnia continued. She stopped herself from adding instinctively: I didn't know you had a habit of reading things. Which was true, sort of, but also unlikely to help their ceasefire effort.

From her end, Yalasmina did feel that Lahnia wanted to add something and that she vehemently refused to do so, and she also had a good sense of what that addition would be. Despite all this, Yalasmina made a conscious effort to ignore it. “I don't really need them, but it is easier on my eyes.”

Lahnia nodded understandingly, not really sure where to go from this. To Yalasmina, the follow-up seemed crystal clear, and her focus returned to the large book in front of her. Lahnia, in turn, picked up that perhaps there was nothing left to say on the topic, and went back to her designing.

Paper ristled gently when Yalasmina flipped back through the pages, following some reference in a note she made earlier. The stroke of a pencil sounded when Lahnia made a subtle but defining change, leaving her surprisingly pleased with the design. Which reminded her of the arrangement she had with Santhil. “Mina, could I show you some of my sketches?” she asked anticipatingly.

“Mh-hm,” Yalasmina hummed, and bookmarked her page before walking over to Lahnia.

“Oh, I was going to come over to you, you didn't have to—” Lahnia stopped halfway, and cleared some space on the bed. Yalasmina smiled gratefully and took a seat where offered.

Lahnia breathed deeply through her nose, steadying herself while she showed her creations to possibly the most critical carbon-based creature of this era. Seconds seemed long minutes while Yalasmina's eyes skitted and burned over the papers.

“You're talented,” Yalasmina said appreciatively. “Very talented.”

Lahnia blinked briefly in surprise, waiting for the 'but' that would turn the compliment into criticism.

Met with complete silence, Yalasmina aimed her eyes at Lahnia. “Oh, um, thank you,” Lahnia quickly recovered. “Sorry, I spaced out for a moment.”

“You don't seem happy with this design,” Yalasmina said, and showed her one of the sketches with numerous strikethroughs and scratches. “What bothers you?”

“Yeah, that one,” Lahnia said, and pouted her lips. “It's not a uniform so much as, ah, an idea I had while I was... creating.”

“It looks promising,” Yalasmina said. “Santhil will love it.”

“You think so?” Lahnia asked, and looked the design over. “I thought she'd think it's too... girly, maybe?”

Yalasmina stared sideways at Lahnia. “Santhil is a girl.”

“Yeah, but not a flowers and ribbons kind of girl.”

“There are no flowers or ribbons in the design,” Yalasmina countered.

Lahnia sighed. “You know what I mean, Mina.”

“No, Lahnia, I do not,” Yalasmina said, eyebrows raised. “But I sense you are afraid that Santhil will somehow disapprove of your ideas.”

“She studied art, Mina,” Lahnia suddenly said. “How am I supposed to impress an artist?”

Yalasmina took a deep breath and looked the designs over again. “I can't guarantee you that Santhil will choose the line that you'd like her to. But she and I both have an eye for quality, and these are all quality. So I can tell you that she will be pleased with what you have, and not be disappointed.”

Lahnia observed Yalasmina's face for any expression of doubt, gauging her eyes, her brows, her lips. “Do you really think so?”

Yalasmina smiled gently at her. “I do, Lahnia. You will impress her.”

Lahnia's face brightened considerably. “Thanks, Mina. That's very nice of you to say. So... do you have anything to add or maybe change?”

Yalasmina looked back at the designs, studying them. “Santhil likes having her things close-by or on her person. Makes her run around less and keeps her focused. Perhaps make this a waistbelt and add some pockets to it? A sheath, even?”

A quiet hum passed Lahnia's lips while she thought it over, imagining the changes. “That might work, but I'm worried it could throw off the balance. You know, top to bottom.”

“Pull up the hemline?”

“Isn't it already a bit... high, maybe?”

Yalasmina shook her head calmly. “You've got at least two more inches of space. Santhil won't mind; she's a leg person.”

Lahnia thought it over, looking at the design. More and more, however, her attention slipped, and she pensively rolled her eyes back to Yalasmina.

“Yes?” Yalasmina finally invited Lahnia to share her thoughts.

“You seem to know Santhil pretty well,” Lahnia said.

Yalasmina thought a moment on her answer. “Somewhat. I am not as close to her as you are, but I am familiar with her desires and preferences.”

“Ah, and when you say 'desires,' you mean that—”

“In the most literal, unambiguous possible sense.”

“Okay, point taken,” Lahnia said, and cleared her throat. “Let's drop the topic.”

“Let's,” Yalasmina agreed, and focused back on the sketches in front of her.

“I just have one question,” Lahnia hurriedly said. “One quick little question. Um, she... seems to run hot and cold, sometimes. You know, to, ah... I don't really know what I mean.”

“To you?” Yalasmina asked.

“No. No, no, no, it's not— I think she's very warm to me, but— Why do you ask that? Do you think she runs cold to me, sometimes? Is that something you think happens?”

“I would be surprised if it wouldn't happen. Culturally, she has been raised to respect sorceresses and treat them with the highest dignity. Your very... cordial approach may throw that cultural compass off at times.”

“So... you're telling me to be more distant? Do you think I am making her uncomfortable?”

“No, I do not believe you make her uncomfortable,” Yalasmina replied calmly. “I'm saying that, when Santhil responds reflexively to you, that response will be a mixture of her cultural upbringing and your relationship with her.”

Lahnia cleared her throat uneasily and blushed a bit. “Well, 'relationship' is, uh—”

“Your blood bond and friendship,” Yalasmina expanded in the same breath.

“Yes. Blood bond and friendship. Exactly. That is the nature of our relationship. Same page. We're on the same page. Good— Great.”

Yalasmina's eyebrow curved curiously or perhaps questioningly in Lahnia's direction, and her eyes burned unblinkingly on the sorceress.

“Let's drop the topic,” Lahnia offered.

“Let's,” Yalasmina agreed again.

°°°

Lahnia calmly flipped the page in her book. The golden light from the candle next to her was well enough to read for her, and she pulled her legs a little closer under the covers of her bed. Or, well, Santhil's bed.

Sorcery was not typically a thing of bookish study and science, and belonged more to the realm of talent and intuition. But, like science, the possibilities were nearly limitless, and it helped to read accounts, journals, and anecdotes. Also, rituals and runes had very intricate and complicated bases that did require careful study.

Over time, Lahnia had started to piece together the things she never really mastered about runes, and reading more in-depth explanations than she otherwise had the patience for helped her immensely. Sometimes, when something suddenly stuck with her, she felt a brief snip of indignance that her teachers had never considered explaining it the way she just figured out but, lately, she reasoned that perhaps Santhil would feel the same way about her.

The door opened. Lahnia looked up from her text and watched Santhil quietly, effortfully limp into the room. She kept quiet, gauging her sister's mood before asking how her day had been. Sometimes, it was nicer not to ask and simply to understand.

Santhil approached the bed, inhaled deeply, and dropped back on the bed with a gracelessly poof of the thick covers. Every muscle in her body ached like mad, every neuron in her brain sputtered dimly and yawned. What the painkillers had hidden, and had done so masterfully well, was just how worn-out she was. She admitted that she needed to rest, and that was exactly what she was going to do.

Lahnia observed her sister's slow, deliberate breathing, set her bookmark, and leaned over Santhil with a warm smile. “You okay?”

Santhil took a slow, deep breath. “There are no enemy battallions in at least three days march,” she said tiredly. “Hirkenshiel is on first line watch duty tonight. Lizima is on second line. All captains reported on duty. All watch posts report clear.”

Lahnia nodded amusedly, impressed with the effort Santhil went through to get a restful night. “I fed the cat,” she offered.

“Yes,” Santhil said, and briefly pointed at her sister without otherwise moving. “Thank you. You are a good woman.”

Lahnia's lips curled into an amused smile. “So there is no plausible reason anyone will disturb us tonight.”

“Exactly,” Santhil said. “I didn't mean it with the slight connotation you gave it there, but yeah.”

“W—” Lahnia blinked in surprise. “What connotation? It's exactly what I said, the way I said it.”

“Says the mistress of ambiguity,” Santhil said, and rested her hand on her stomach, staring up at the ceiling.

Lahnia looked Santhil over. Her clothes were subtly rumpled from the long day of walking and moving. Her hair had strayed from her hairband, strands hanging over her neck and cheek. Dark-blue bags ringed her eyes, which looked glazed and dry. “You look tired.”

Santhil nodded slowly. She wasn't even comfortably on the bed, but she felt she could just sleep here for days.

“I take it that chasing your magical potential is not on top of your list right now?” Lahnia guessed.

“Exactly how conscious would I need to be?” Santhil murmuringly asked. “Because I can do a mean potato bag imitation.”

Lahnia giggled quietly and poked Santhil. “Come on, wash up and get changed for bed. I brought you something for tonight; it's in your dressing corner.”

Santhil's eyebrow curved up curiously. “Oh? What's the occasion?”

“No occasion. It's something I had in my wardrobe, and I want you to wear it,” Lahnia said with a winning smile, and nudged Santhil with both hands. “Out. Try it on.”

Santhil groaned effortfully, painfully, and clambered to her feet. With a suppressed but pitiful limp, she headed over to her dressing corner and stepped behind the screen.

“How is your leg?” Lahnia asked. Part of her told her not to show pity for Santhil; after all, against all advise, her sister had insisted to be up and about today, so she had brought it on herself. But Santhil was very pain resistant, and seeing her limp like that made her own legs feel uncomfortable.

“Killing me. If I ever meet the archer who shot me,” Santhil called, “I will shove my boot up 'twixt his bottocks repeatedly and unrelentingly.”

Lahnia nodded slowly. “Graphic. And the arm?”

“Better. Can't lift much, but I can use it.”

Lahnia twisted her lips, thinking. Santhil's candle threw a vague silhouette on the screen. It wasn't much of an indicator of Santhil's progress. “What was Athel Loren like?”

Santhil took a deep breath, and not just because the water was icy cold. “Same as last time. Thick, dark, and trying to kill me. Doesn't like me one bit.”

Lahnia nodded to herself, thinking briefly on her own experience with the forest, and spun a lock of her hair around her finger. “And, uh,” she said, and cleared her throat, “you mentioned a 'she'—a spirit?”

Santhil halfly held back a scoff. “Oh, she was a funny one. I was actually kind of happy not to think of her.”

“Oh, sorry,” Lahnia said, and pensively played with the lock of her hair. “Do you? Think of her?”

“Pfff, a little bit,” Santhil admitted. “She didn't seem as hostile as I expected her to be. Not sure how to interpret that. This is a very nice nightgown.”

“Isn't it? I think it's perfect for you.”

“Uhhuh. You wanted me to wear it now; is it the keyhole look-in?”

“No.”

“Snug waist?”

“Nope.”

“...Lace finish?”

“Noooo.”

Santhil slowly hobbled back from behind the screen, tossed the towel on a chair and sat back down on the bed. “It's comfy. I like it.”

Lahnia reached for a pill and some water, and handed them to Santhil. “Mina left you these to get some sleep. She said to wait until you were ready to sleep; it's pretty strong stuff.”

Santhil frowned. “I thought Mina wanted me not to use painkillers.”

“It's not a painkiller; it's a sleeping herb.”

Santhil let out a quiet 'ah' and took the sour pill with a swig of water. It would need some time to settle in, she reckoned, and she beamed Lahnia a thankful smile while setting the glass aside.

Careful not to strain her throbbing, pulsating leg, Santhil slid under the heavy covers. Her side was still mostly cold, but that wouldn't take too long to change. She dared a cautious stretch, inched closer to Lahnia, and finally rested her head on her pillow.

As soon as Santhil was settled and comfortable, Lahnia almost comically snuggled up to her, wrapping an arm tightly around her stomach, and nestled her head on Santhil's shoulder with a content smile.

“Ooh,” Santhil finally figured out with a grin. “It's the silky fabric.”

Lahnia giggled amusedly, and pulled the covers up. “Keyhole's nice, too.”

“It is,” Santhil agreed, and sunk a little deeper into the bed. She kissed Lahnia's hair once, and felt her sister hold on tighter to her. Slowly but surely, the cold covers warmed to the both of them and, along with it, her leg ached and throbbed. She grunted uncomfortably, but decided against moving. Maybe it would pass as the sleeping medicine kicked in.

“Hurts?” Lahnia asked, aiming her eyes up at Santhil.

“It'll pass,” Santhil reassuringly glossed over it, and gently pulled Lahnia closer to her.

A breeze caused silent ripples in the heavy curtains blocking off access to the balcony, and some snowflakes twirled into the room and fell to the cold, stone floor. The pale blue moonlight shone only dimly past the curtains' thick fabric, casting a slight play of light on the floor for those caring to see.

“Are you sleeping?” Lahnia whispered, hushed by the night's silence.

“Not yet, no,” Santhil whispered in return, and softy stroked Lahnia's forehead with her nose. “Not comfortable?”

“Just curious,” Lahnia said, and paused. “How do you and Irhuil sleep?”

Santhil inhaled deeply. “I guess that depends on lots of little stuff, like how hot it is, and how our days have been.”

“You don't have a fixed thing,” Lahnia summarised.

“Yeah, I suppose you could say that. I mean, there are preferences and tendencies and all, but it's not like we're professionals or anything.”

Lahnia gripped Santhil a bit tighter and smiled warmly. “I have no idea what I'm doing,” she said. “Or, well, you know what I mean.”

“No worries,” Santhil giggled. “You're a natural.”

“It's not... weird, is it? Do you think it's weird? You know...?”

“Umm,” Santhil said, and raised her brow amusedly. “No? I mean, I don't think it's weird.”

“It's just that, ah, signalwise, I don't want to, uh... feel weird about this.”

“I was not getting weird signals,” Santhil replied.

“Okay, great, that's what I wanted,” Lahnia assured. “That's exactly what I'm aiming for. Wait, you said 'was,' as in, past tense.”

“Yyyyeah, um,” Santhil said, and aimed her eyes at Lahnia. “This wasn't weird until you started implying that maybe I should think this is weird.”

“Oh. Oh, right, I shouldn't—”

“That's probably best.”

“Right, good, I'll stop talking about it.”

“Thanks.”

“Is it the hands, though?” Lahnia suddenly asked. “Are my hands somewhere wrong? Is there something that—”

“Okay, suddenly? Very conscious about where your hands are.”

“So... are you saying they're not where they should be or...?”

“I'm saying you make it sound like you're feeling me up.”

“I'm not, I'm really not,” Lahnia hurriedly defended herself.

“I know! I know, but you make it sound like you are, and that makes me feel like you are, even though I know that you're not.”

Lahnia giggled amusedly. “We sure went downhill pretty quickly.”

“Nah,” Santhil dismissed it, and moved a little in the bed. “We're still good.”

Lahnia smiled at Santhil, but also narrowed her eyes inquisitively. “Are you saying that because you don't want to hurt my ego, or because Irhuil is actually worse?”

“It's an honest assessment from my point of view,” Santhil said. “For instance, big pro? You haven't once slept on my hair.”

“He does that? Doesn't that hurt?”

“I only notice once one of us turns in our sleep and, yes, that smarts,” Santhil confirmed. “But he's already fast asleep by then and I don't want to wake him up, and in the morning, I completely forget to tell him.”

“Wow. Score one for me,” Lahnia said with a bright grin.

Bonk! Bonk! Bonk! A fist pounded the door hurriedly.

“Goddammit!” Santhil exclaimed.

“Go away!” Lahnia called with a hint of defeat in her voice nonetheless.

It was quiet again. Santhil waited, listening for the night-wrecker to leave, but heard only a wavering silence fed by doubt and uncertainty. She sighed deeply, and finally called out: “What?” Lahnia reluctantly rolled away from Santhil to give her some room.

The door cautiously opened. The messenger, quite a bit paler-faced than he was when he knocked, peeked inside. “D-Drachau?” he asked for permission to enter.

“Yes,” Santhil said, and sat up in the bed. She beckoned for him to enter, and rubbed her forehead. “Yes. What is it?” She took a deep calming breath while the man entered, telling herself that he was only doing his job. “Sorry. What's the matter?” she tried calmly.

“We've, uh,” the man started, shaken, and swallowed and cleared his throat. “There has been— Uh, rather, we have an encounter, ma'am.”

Santhil nodded once. “Commander Hirkenshiel—”

“H-He sent for, um, second line—”

“And Commander Lizima—”

“Food poisoning, we think, ma'am.”

“And this is—”

“Urgent, ma'am. It's, um...” He nervously squeezed his fingers. “You should probably see this.”

“Of course I should,” Santhil muttered, and squeezed the bridge of her nose and looked at the messenger. She was equally close to murder as to jumping off the balcony.

“Alright,” she finally sighed. “Alert the officer of the watch to assemble an escort, relieve Commander Hirkenshiel from the encounter, and we'll meet them at...?”

“Mezzanine, ma'am.”

“At the mezzanine. Sorry about the... Dismissed.”

“Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am.” The messenger briefly clicked his heels together and left as quietly as he had entered.

Immediately, peace and silence returned to the dark room. Lahnia lit a candle with a gentle touch of her hand. Santhil, sitting upright in the bed with the covers pulled up to her chin, stared silently at the closed door. Lahnia looked at her, resolved to join her sister on this 'encounter,' for misery shared was misery lesser.

“You'll have to get out of bed to—”

“I know,” Santhil groaned.

“...Sleep medicine kicking in?” There was no answer. “I'll... go wake up Mina. She'll have something for you.”

“She's going to love this one.”

Lahnia wide-eyedly nodded to herself. “This will be interesting.”

°°°

To her left, almost touching her cheek, Lahnia stared with mixed amounts of curiosity and amazement, idly holding her cat and stroking it behind the ear. To her right, equally close to her, Yalasmina observed with sharp scrutiny and distrust, hands on her back. Santhil, herself, had no idea what to think, pensively brushing her lips with her fingers.

Huddled in the darkness, some yards from them, the ratmen tittered and skittered; curious almost as much as Santhil and her sisters were. She could make out some of what they said: 'grey' kept coming back—grey and pointy ears, all the while pointing unabashedly at Santhil and her sisters.

“I know of them, read about them,” Lahnia clarified in a whisper. “I've just never seen one before.”

Santhil started to think that, yes, she had seen them before, down in the inky depths of the dwarven mines. Flits and bits of her memory returned as her mind scrambled to find what it could in the big, hazy stash of jumbled and hastily unprocessed snapshots collected at that time. She remembered seeing these creatured lurched over her, she remembered a blade, and she remembered... 'grey-grey'.

“They tried to kill me at some point,” Santhil said, lost in thought and memory. “When the room exploded. Held back because they caught grey on me, and then the demon chased them off.”

Yalasmina's eyebrow curved up curiously. “You never told us that.”

“I sort of glossed over it back then. Wasn't really sure what I saw,” Santhil said, her focus on the ratty creatures ahead of her. They seemed to be arguing.

“You just figured... Zyln needed a shave?” Lahnia tried.

“Hello? The room exploded,” Santhil pressed. “As in, kaboom, fly to a random square on the board, do not pass go. Stay next turn to count your body parts and wiggle scorched bits of cultist innards out of your clothes and orifices.”

Lahnia blinked quickly, picturing the image Santhil was painting. “...Ew.”

“Gibs galore.” Santhil's eyes glazed a bit while thinking of it. “Very... modern art.”

“Something's happening,” Yalasmina remarked.

One of the smaller ratmen—or Skaven, as she recalled Lahnia saying—was shoved into the torchlight by the lengthy arms of its peers. With large, wide-open eyes, it stared at the three women looking back at it. Its nose jolted once when it sniffed in the sudden silence. A finger poked it harshly in the back, and slowly, cautiously, it approached them. “Grey-grey,” one of the rats, decidedly grey and white himself, urged his comrade on with.

He seemed both frightened and curious, and the black nose on his long snout moved comically as he sniffed hurriedly in Santhil’s direction. Keeping low, he cautiously approached, the constant sniffing aurally dominating the hall. Santhil signalled her sisters to step back and her guards not to approach, and kept still while the rat creature crept nearer, his eyes locked with Santhil’s and, only occasionally, slipping to the grey strokes in her hair.

Santhil forced herself to remain calm and unthreatening, beaming the creature a gentle smile when it stopped a few feet away from her. She wasn’t really sure what the creature was thinking of her cologne, but her opinion on his strong odor was difficult to suppress, and she promised herself not to breathe deeply through the nose while it was near.

The burlap-covered, furry creature hesitated when it entered arm’s reach, hunched and diminuitive, then quickly skittered up to Santhil and sniffed her clothes, her jacket, her arms, her hair, her back with amazing speed and interest, rubbing its nose all over her. Lahnia took another step back and covered her mouth and nose with her hand. She had the same opinion of the ratty creature's personal hygiene.

The comically large, brown eyes set on Santhil's again, studying the silvery grey iris in her left eye, then her right, and then her left again. Santhil beamed the creature a friendly smile, amused by its intense curiosity. “He's sort of cute,” she mentioned to her sisters. It looked curiously at Santhil, and then to the women she was addressing.

Keeping low, it approached Yalasmina, sniffing hurriedly to catch her scent. Yalasmina, in turn, stared the furry creature in the eye. It took a small step closer, sniffed a little. Her eyes narrowed subtly. It froze. A quick, quiet sniff finally broke the silence, and it cautiously inched away from Yalasmina and on to Lahnia.

Instantly, Lahnia's cat hissed aggressively, showing its teeth and claws. The small ratman leapt away, grabbed Santhil's leg, and hid behind her, peeking at Lahnia from under her arm. Santhil tried not to laugh, and felt a bit sorry it was scared.

“My name is Santhil,” she said slowly, deciding to stick with the simpler Reikspiel, tongue of the humans so rampant in the area. “What is your name?”

“Boomsqueak,” it replied quickly, and let go of Santhil. “Boomsqueak third.”

“Boomsqueak the Third?” Santhil repeated. “Are you from a family line of Boomsqueaks?”

“Lab research. Third rat to lead.”

Santhil nodded slowly. “Do you mean you are the third in line to lead the research?”

“No-no, am lead now. Last two boomsqueaked.”

“They... boomsqueaked?”

He —sounded like a he— nodded quickly, happy that Santhil seemed to be catching on, and even happier to be communicating. “Boom!” He imitated a big explosion with his arms. “Squeak. Third since start year. January,” he added quickly.

Santhil's smile simmered away. “...Wait, the two last ones exploded? Since January?”

He nodded hurriedly, a wide and proud smile on his snout while Santhil's look grew ever more horrified. It was early February.

“Boomsqueak!” he tried again, not sure why Santhil had fallen silent.

“Boomsqueak,” Santhil repeated silently. “The third since January.”

With a happy grin, as if he hit a cheese jackpot, he turned and looked at his superior(s). Communication had been established. Talks could commence.

°°°

“Well,” Santhil said, exhaling broadly after the brief talks. “That brings another perspective onto the whole situation.”

“So the Sarthailor have been fighting to exterminate them for years, and the Asrai have now joined the effort against them,” Yalasmina summarised. “That explains their initial fright and hostility, with us being elves.”

Santhil raised her eyebrows in agreement and nodded pensively. “But they're even worse than humans in breeding and spreading and tearing the whole place down, so I can see where our kin are coming from.

“And it all keeps some of the Sarth and Asrai off our backs.” She breathed deeply through her nose, happy to be away from the ratty, unwashed odors and back to the much more pleasant presence of her sisters. Lahnia seemed conflicted, staring at the ratmen —Skaven, the name was Skaven— Skaven delegation. “Are you alright?” Santhil asked her.

“Ari, it's...” Lahnia sighed unhappily. “Can't you do anything?”

Join the genocide? Protect them from their kin? Issue crates of cologne? “What about?”

“Boomsqueak,” Lahnia said, and looked at Santhil, her deeply blue eyes shining with pity. “He deserves better than this.”

“It's not our place to judge,” Yalasmina countered, “and it's not our prerogative to intervene. Besides, he seemed happy with his calling.”

“He seemed indoctrinated,” Lahnia argued. “Did you see how the other rats treated him? No sentient creature would be happy to blow himself up.”

“Ergh,” Santhil doubted, frowning while looking at the Skaven delegation leaving the meeting. “I'm sort of with Mina on this. This seems to be how they do research, and it's not our place to tell them to stop.”

“Ari, you're a drachau; surely you can do—”

“It's an internal matter, Lahnia,” Yalasmina stressed. “We have enough trouble keeping our own on the straight and narrow.”

“So... what?” Lahnia concluded. “We're just going to let him blow himself up? Nice meeting you, we'll come by to sweep up your squishy bits in a week?”

“Don't be melodramatic, Lahnia,” Yalasmina sighed.

“Explosions are dramatic!” Lahnia argued. “I can't believe you'd just let him die like that!”

“It's not your call, Lahnia,” Yalasmina maintained. “Settle down.”

“You know, I'm just about done with that patronising tone of yours,” Lahnia said.

“Then stop making a scene like a six-year-old, and accept that this is the way things are,” Yalasmina said. “Don't make Santhil's job more difficult than it already is.”

“Things are the way they are because we don't change them,” Lahnia maintained. “It is exactly your kind of thinking that keeps injustice and inequality afloat.”

“How would you feel if they came over to us and said: the way you do things is not how we do things, and we're right and you're wrong.”

“And imagine where we'd be if, thousands of years ago, we'd all have gotten stuck thinking: eh, things are what they are, no use trying to change anything.”

“And see where sticking our noses into other people's business has gotten us: war after war after war. Do you really want to risk diplomatic relations for an individual of a race that doesn't live past thirty?”

“Age potential doesn't factor into this; it's—”

“Age potential should factor very gravely into what we do and how we act. Humans live fifty, sixty years, and they're some of the most aggressive, destructive species we've ever met. These Skaven live up to thirty, and they're embroiled in wars all over.”

“Oh, low age potential is a recipe for war?” Lahnia scoffed. “Because, yeah, we're not an invading army or anything.”

“That's different and you know it.”

“Wow,” Santhil said, amused and amazed. “You two are still at it?”

“Well, I'm happy we amuse you, Santhil,” Yalasmina snapped sarcastically.

“Oh, I'm not amused yet,” Santhil chuckled, and patted Boomsqueak on the back. “Meet our new ambassador.”

Confused, Yalasmina looked at the diminuitive ratman, and then at Santhil. Lahnia shared her confusion, but her growing smile showed she was quicker in putting the pieces together.

“Now this, these confused, incredulous stares, these amuse me,” Santhil said. “When you realise you were so busy arguing you didn't even notice me limp all the way over to the other delegation.”

Lahnia narrowed her eyes skeptically. “You limp pretty fast for a cripple.”

“I call it power-limping. It's a thing.”

“Our new ambassador?” Yalasmina asked, looking the creature over, and finally aimed her eyes back to Santhil. She nodded briefly. “Good thinking.”

“I have my moments.”

“And you have injuries,” Yalasmina added. “I will check them before we go back to sleep.”

°°°

“When you said 'we' go back to sleep,” Santhil mentioned, “you really meant you and Lahnia.”

Yalasmina thoroughly checked Santhil's eyes, sizing up her pupils and reflexes. “Your body seems to grow more accustomed to the effects of carminosa, so you might be able to catch some sleep, but we should be careful not to create a dependence,” she said, and kneeled down in front of Santhil to check on her leg. “You don't want to become addicted to witch brew.”

Lahnia fought back a yawn and handed her design sketches over to Santhil. She had hoped to introduce her sister more gradually to it, but it would be a welcome distraction from her injuries. “Here's what we have so far.”

“I don't get hooked onto stuff easily,” Santhil assured Yalasmina, and looked the designs over. She winked a silent 'thank you' to Lahnia.

“It's not a matter of being mentally hung to the effects,” Yalasmina countered. “It's a matter of building a physical dependency on the drug.”

“Maibd use it, don't they?” Santhil said with a lopsided frown. “These are some very nice uniforms.”

“Maibd use it,” Yalasmina confirmed. “The Temple of Khaine insists that maibd be accustomed to its effects. So I come across scores of people who became physically dependent on it.” She reached up and pulled the designs down with her finger, looking Santhil in the eye. “You don't want to be one of those people.”

Santhil nodded slowly. “Got it.”

Lahnia leaned against Santhil and pulled her legs onto the bed. “You like?”

“I like,” Santhil said, impressed. “Military, practical, stylish; it looks really good. Think you can get me a prototype to—” She stopped, and growled throatily while her eyes slowly crossed.

“Uh, Mina, I think you hit a sore spot,” Lahnia helpfully cued in.

“I know I hit a sore spot,” Yalasmina confirmed, and dapped the wet cloth into the bowl of warm water. “But I will wash this before I bandage it up again.”

Lahnia doubted whether she was curious enough to see the arrow wound, and was happy that her sketches blocked any view on it. Then again, she felt that perhaps she ought to know, if only for support, and she peeked past the papers in Santhil's hands. “Huh,” she silently remarked.

Yalasmina's eyes shot up to Lahnia, but she continued swiftly cleaning the wound. “Unimpressed?”

“In a word, um... yes?” Lahnia tilted her head curiously, now fully absorbed by the injury. “I expected it to look... worse somehow.”

“I've always been a quick heal,” Santhil said, and looked down at her leg as well. “And it seems to be healing nicely.”

“No thanks to you,” Yalasmina told her. “Hobbling about on that leg for a whole day should've left you crippled.”

Santhil chuckled amusedly. “You sound disappointed.”

“Amazed is a better word,” Yalasmina said, took a deep breath, and stared at the wound. “I know that you recover very quickly from all manner of injuries, but this is spectacular.”

“I just got majorly lucky with what the arrow hit and what it didn't,” Santhil waved it off, and returned her focus to the sketchings.

Yalasmina took a deep breath and reached for the bandages. “Try to avoid needing to be majorly lucky in the future.”

“Next time I'm about to get shot, I'll ask the shooter to be gentle and thoughtful.”

“Next time,” Lahnia said, “you will be fully armoured. No more letting Asrai take potshots at unarmoured Santhil.”

Santhil rolled her eyes to the side and squarely at Lahnia. “Unarmoured Santhil ran for hours through brambles, brush, briar, and breen, and would not like to relive the experience as fully armoured Santhil weighing an extra fifty pounds.”

“Then fully armoured Santhil will have to work on her endurance a bit,” Lahnia contended, and raised her chin. “In the interest of not getting pincushioned.”

Santhil pouted her lips and kept her eyes on Lahnia. “I find it difficult to argue with that.”

“Whatever you decide, Santhil,” Yalasmina said, and collected her tools and kit, “I will be ready to patch you up.”

Lahnia giggled and wrapped her arms around Santhil's waist. “Come on, back to bed, you.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Tue Sep 17, 2013 5:38 pm
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Bravo! And keep them coming :D

_________________
The House of Black Flames: A Druchii Project


Sat Sep 21, 2013 12:46 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
What a mess.

While fresh and clean from her morning bathing, Yalasmina's mirror image was confrontational and unceremonious. Bags lingered wealthily under her eyes, underlining a desire for the day to end right this moment so she could retire to her bed. Her pupils were small and contracted, her looks slightly glazed, perceiving the world through a hazy filter of distance and weariness. Sleeping in hadn't helped one bit, and she felt a pinge of guilt over being perceived as lazy.

She decided against trying to hide the obvious, and went about preparing for the day as she would for any other. Santhil had asked her to see to the expedition's daily toils and troubles while she was out and, for a moment, Yalasmina wondered how Santhil coped with long days and late-night, all-night escapades.

She recalled: copious amounts of caffeine.

Yalasmina expediently fitted her long hair in a bun, straightened her collar to perfection with a single tug, and looked briefly into the mirror. Ready for anything.

“Yalasmina?” a voice called from the slightly ajar door.

“Eminence,” Yalasmina surprisedly greeted her superior, and opened the door for her.

“Good morning,” the high priestess greeted her politely. “Were you able to catch up some sleep?”

Yalasmina simply returned a smile. “Thank you, Eminence. Good morning, and how may I assist?”

“There is a man here to see you. He's carrying a bouquet.”

Yalasmina nodded calmly. “You explained to him...?”

“I explained that gifts are traditionally offered to the Temple, not to individuals, and he did relent, provided that...”

“Provided that I were to accept the bouquet in name of the Temple,” Yalasmina filled in.

The high priestess smiled at her. “You left quite the impression with him.”

“So it seems,” Yalasmina skirted the issue. “The visitor is waiting in the entrance hall?”

“If you could handle this at your discretion?”

“I will.”

°°°

The night's snow still blanketed much of the town, even as it slowly melted under the morning's winter sun, rays of light refracting over frozen drops and crystals both pristine and broken. Dirt streets were cloggy and muddy, and even the modestly paved town square was messy and slippery. Usually, Lahnia would be less enthused to be in a place like this, but she felt she was witnessing a bit of history.

Away from all the ravages of war, from death, decay, and destruction, something new was blooming here. Regardless of whether the humans living in the town had previously elected their mayors or not, Lahnia felt that Santhil explicitly endorsing elections would help the populace see her drachau sister in the better light that Lahnia felt she so rightly deserved, and away from the accusations of methodical evil and indiscriminate cruelty.

Santhil had insisted they bring a sufficient but minimal amount of soldiers, solely for maintaining order and personal protection. She wanted to appear non-threatening which, given recent history, would be a herculean task. But this was also the reason there were no maibd, this time; while visually attractive, their presense was more likely to enforce rather than help repudiate the darker edges of Santhil's reputation.

Lahnia stood a moment and observed her sister as she spoke with incumbent mayor. The prototype model of the new officer's uniform looked very flattering on her, fitting her like a glove, and Lahnia was happy that the day's weather seemed to cautiously underline its usability. She wanted to ask her whether it'd be alright for her to wander about and see the first steps of democracy for herself, but she wouldn't want to interrupt the conversation.

Lahnia wasn't sure what to think of the incumbent mayor, and eyed him from a distance, trying to read his posture and non-verbal communication. Even from where she was standing, Lahnia could tell that the man brimmed with confidence, obviously as impressed with himself as he hoped Santhil would be. On her end, Santhil seemed to humour him, keeping a pleasant demeanour while he seemed to go on and on. Lahnia ultimately reconsidered her decision not to interrupt, reasoning that perhaps her sister would welcome a chance to escape the human peacock, and walked over.

“Ah, hello, Mistress,” Santhil greeted her as soon as was socially acceptable—all in the human's native language, of course; it would be rude to speak Eltharin and immediately exclude everyone else from the conversation.

“Drachau,” Lahnia replied amusedly at the call of titles. “Chief.”

“Mayor,” the mayor corrected politely. “It's mayor, Miss...?”

“Mistress,” Santhil filled in. “Mistress Arhakuyl, my sister and accomplished mistress of the arcane.”

“Apologies, Mayor,” Lahnia said. “Drachau, may I confer with you for a moment?” Her knowledge of the human languages was more archaic since she rarely practised it.

“Certainly,” Santhil offered helpfully. “Mayor, would you please excuse us?”

“Of course, Drachau,” the human mayor said and, with a brief bow, took his leave.

Lahnia waited a moment for the man to leave before turning to her sister. “That guy was wiping his eyeballs on your body.”

Santhil blinked with an amused frown. “That is a new and disturbing expression.”

“I think it's very fitting in this particular case,” Lahnia said, and lifted her chin invisibly.

“You're just jealous because you're not the only one attracting eyeballs anymore,” Santhil teased.

“Psh! What makes you think I'd want humans ogling me?”

“Did I ever mention you have the cutest accent?” Santhil suddenly said.

Lahnia blinked quickly, startled by the change of conversation. “Yes, but... you know, not lately.”

“Then I do so now,” Santhil said. “Have you come to my rescue, or did you really have need of me?”

“How do you think his odds are?” Lahnia asked.

“Um,” Santhil stalled. “I'm being pleasant and friendly with him, as I like to think I am with people in general, and I take no offense to his ogling, but I didn't mean to summon the impression that I was actually open to—”

“What? Ew!” Lahnia exclaimed, and gave her sister a disturbed look. “Seriously: ew!”

“You asked!”

“His electoral odds, not his getting-lucky odds!” Lahnia laughed. “You make me feel dirty just standing next to you. Ew.”

“Oh, that? Fair, I guess. He could make it, he could not make it. Haven't given it too much thought.”

“Think the people would elect him after his stint of collaboration with the enemy?” Lahnia hinted.

“I'm not the enemy,” Santhil half-scoffed. “I'm the king's drachau, the highest official authority on this continent. I'm here to end this farcical power grab, and bring peace and stability to people's lives.”

Lahnia pressed her lips and nodded impressedly. “Nice.”

“You think? Not too strong?”

“Eh, it just needs a little polish. I liked the peace and stability part.”

“Yeah, I've been having trouble finding a brief way to describe the rebels,” Santhil admitted. “Without making them sound like the courageous underdogs standing up to the evil empire, that is.”

“Hmm,” Lahnia mused. “Try portraying them as outsiders? People love a good 'us versus them.' ”

“That might work,” Santhil said, and took a deep breath.

“Anyway, I was thinking of taking a look around and see the people cast their votes,” Lahnia said, and wiggled her shoulders at Santhil with a hopeful smile. “Would you like to join me?”

“I would love to, sweetheart, but I should go speak with the candidates, see what their expectations and cooperation will be like,” Santhil reluctantly declined. “Sorry.”

“I, uh, sure, yeah. Duty calls, right?” Lahnia said, hiding her disappointment. “See you later?”

“See you later,” Santhil agreed, and signalled two guards to stay with her sister.

“Oh, Ari, must you?” Lahnia sighed. “I don't want to scare people by poking around with a full guard.”

“This is rebel territory, Lana—”

“Weren't you implying this is actually your territory?”

“Yes, and this village is currently allied and aligned with the usurpers. I'm a gracious woman, Lahnia, but I am not naïve.”

Lahnia twisted and pouted her lips, annoyed to have two guards forced upon her. She had really hoped to make as few waves as possible while satiating her curiosity.

“Look,” Santhil said, and stood in front of Lahnia and took her hands. “This whole 'democracy to the people'-thing is an experiment of mine. I'd never forgive myself if anything happened to you. Please let these two soldiers guard you.”

Lahnia looked at Santhil for a while, then leaned over and gave her a peck on her lips.

°°°

“They're lovely, Commander. Thank you,” Yalasmina said with a polite smile as she accepted the bouquet of flowers. “We will find a nice place for them.”

Hirkenshiel returned a warmer smile, and looked curiously at Yalasmina now that she was in better light. “You look tired.”

“Recent nights have been very eventful,” Yalasmina summarised. “With Drachau Arhakuyl needing medical attention at odd hours.”

Hirkenshiel smiled empathically. “Are you her court physician?”

“I have been... prescribing and applying medication that assist her in enduring the physical demands she faces,” Yalasmina replied.

Hirkenshiel nodded with a serious look on his face, trying to show that the conversation and, by extension, Yalasmina had nothing less than his full attention. “So, you're a doctor? It's Doctor Arhakuyl?”

“I am not a legally licensed professional,” Yalasmina said. “But if I were to be, amateur paramedic would better describe my skills.”

“Paramedic? That's, uh, that's really something,” Hirkenshiel said, in the meantime searching frantically for something to say that wouldn't embarrass him. “So you do emergency care?”

“When my care is the best available, Commander, the situation is an emergency,” Yalasmina joked. Sort of.

“Ah, don't sell yourself short,” he said. “Your friend survived, didn't she? And the drachau is still in one piece, too. How is she, anyway? Drachau Arhakuyl, I mean.”

“Recovering, despite the needs of her station,” Yalasmina answered factually, picking up the conversation was drifting into smalltalk. In the past, she would have cut the talk short here, excusing herself to pursue her other duties. But now, she was an official liaison and unofficial spokeswoman, and her demeanour rubbed off on the Temple of Khaine. “She needs to rest more.”

“Yes, she does. She would, um, feel better if she rested more. I told her that recently: 'you should rest more'. Say, uh, would you like to go for a coffee?”

Yalasmina could actually use a good dose of caffeine, and it would be rude to decline without a clear reason, but she didn't want to give Hirkenshiel any ideas. “I promised Santhil I would see to some of her more mundane, trivial tasks while she was out today. But I can spare five minutes for a coffee.”

°°°

History as it was being made. Inside of a bakery doubling as a polling station, with people lining up in the cold, huddled and clothes drawn close. Despite fires lit to warm the building, the doors were wide open, and the bakery was chilly and wet and damp all the same.

While understanding of their reservations, Lahnia was disappointed that the villagers, all humans, avoided eye contact with her. She would have liked to see some sense of hope or anticipation with them, but found them almost recoiling in fear when they saw her. Briefly, she blamed her armed guard for the frightful effects of her presence, but she soon forced herself to accept that simply being of a different species would cause great distrust.

“If you approve of the mayor,” the civil servant at the polling station repeated for the umpteenth time, each time to a new group of voters, “mark this with an 'X' on the piece of paper you get. If you prefer the other candidate, mark this clearly with a 'V'.”

When a brown, burlap bag full of paper was taken to the backroom for counting, Lahnia craned her neck in an effort to look inside. Noticing her curious look, the civil servant quickly sized up Lahnia, then nodded assuringly at her to go ahead and have a peek. She returned a grateful smile and, trying to interfere as little as possible, slipped into the back room.

The backroom was the baking room, and the fire under the oven made the room pleasantly warm. Five guards were in here, tallying votes in favour and against. Their first look at Lahnia was outright hostile but, as soon as they recognised her as affiliated with Santhil, they beamed a brief smile and continued their work.

Lahnia looked at the guards diligently at work, watching them count and mark, and then stuff processed votes in burlap bags. One of them then took one of the bags to the oven and threw the counted papers into the fire.

Lahnia's eyebrow rose curiously. “Why are you burning those papers?”

“They're already counted,” the man at the oven said. “No use in keeping them.”

“But what if you need a recount?” Lahnia asked.

The man chuckled. “We're aiming for seventy percent.”

Baffled, Lahnia looked closer at what the guards were doing, and saw one of them take empty pieces of paper from a burlap bag, and then mark them with an 'X'. Another extended the lines on a 'V', changing the letter and thus the vote. The tallying, it seemed, was an estimate of how many votes they needed to forge; the ones they couldn't change and needed to go, were tossed into the fire.

Lahnia blinked, stunned by what she saw. “You're cheating,” she stated the obvious.

“We're not making seventy percent without it,” one guard said with a sigh, and continued on.

Lahnia puffed indignantly, and looked at her two bodyguards. “They're cheating. Look at them.”

“We are under strict orders not to intervene, Mistress,” one of them excused their inaction.

“Well, I am countermanding that order,” Lahnia pressed. “Santhil wants clean, proper elections.”

Her two guards briefly looked at each other, then back at Lahnia. “Mistress, these orders are directly from the drachau. No intervention, except in cases where your safety may be at risk.”

“And I'm telling you— Wait, Santhil? Santhil explicitly ordered you to turn a blind eye?” Lahnia blinked incredulously, her surprise hiding an angry growl.

“We should leave, Mistress,” the guard advised, noticing the freshly hostile gaze of the election riggers.

Lahnia looked the fivesome over, meeting their eyes one by one. Their muscles tensed, doubting whether they were best served to leap for their weapons or to dive for cover. She narrowed her eyes at the guy considering to grab his sword, ready to blast him with the magical energy building in her hand.

“Now, Mistress,” her guard pressed, and roughly took her arm and pulled her away.

“Hey!” Lahnia protested, and felt the other guard lean against her back to goad her out of the room. “Hey, let go of me!”

Once out of the room and back in the polling station, Lahnia yanked herself free as soon as the grip on her loosened. “Get your hands off me,” she snapped angrily, and rubbed her throbbing arm.

The queue of citizens, waiting for a chance to poll, looked warily at the brief disturbance she and her guard had caused, but otherwise kept still and quiet. Lahnia glared disapprovingly at her guard, but took to heart her promise to make as few waves as possible, and instead walked out of the station and into the cold. Her guards, of course, dutifully followed her.

The fifty or so humans lining up were quietly huddling from the cold, and stared furtively, distrustfully at the foreign creature that she was. She looked similar but different; she wore different clothes; she spoke differently. In a place where conformity and poverty were the norm, Lahnia's wealth and heritage drew jealousy and scrutiny.

Lahnia looked the line of people over. The queue was steadily shrinking; polling was about to close, and that meant the 'results' would be in soon.

“Shall we return to the drachau, Mistress?” her guard finally raised.

“Yes,” Lahnia said, and nodded to herself in resolve. “Yes, we shall.”

°°°

Santhil giggled quietly and drank some water. To her right, the incumbent mayor ended his laugh in a chuckle, while to her left his challenger smiled uneasily. It might have been the first time he ever met an elf, let alone the invading army's drachau.

She couldn't tell from his cautious looks what parts of her reputation he had picked up, but he was clearly conflicted on how welcoming he had to be towards her. On the one hand, his elven overlords warred against this woman, and spoke of her intent to pillage, enslave, and decimate the population. On the other hand, and most ironically, she was his best hope to depose who he felt to be a dictator much closer to home.

“I have to ask though,” Santhil suddenly said, and tilted her head. “Only two candidates? I expected more, somehow.”

“There were some other candidates, but they weren't serious contenders,” the mayor explained, and then smirked amusedly. “I mean, one of them was a woman.” He looked to his opponent and found a cautious but agreeing smile returned.

Santhil's smile invisibly turned from amused to fake, and she nodded briefly. “I'm sure your people are well served by that criterion.”

The mayor held momentarily, unsure of how to interpret Santhil's reaction, and it took him a second to realise his gaffe. “Well, that's not to say that women are incapable of responsibility or authority,” he added. “Obviously, some are. It's just that, given the opportunity, women would vote for women, instead of being thoughtful and vote with their minds.”

Santhil nodded understandingly. “You want to keep sexism out of the democratic process,” she summarised.

“It's a very real danger,” the challenger suddenly said. “I heard people say: 'I wish I could vote for a woman.' ”

“Heaven forbid,” Santhil said, and sipped from her water. “Where would the world come to if women were to hold office?”

The mayor and his challenger glanced at each other, trying to figure out whether the other could accurately read the drachau's response. Was she agreeing with them in principle, holding herself to be a rare exception? Was this a conceiled snipe of sarcasm? It was hard to tell.

Women, right?

“Anyway,” the mayor said, and cleared his throat. “The results should be in soon, and I was hoping that you would announce them, Lady Drachau.”

Santhil twisted her lips lopsidedly. “I'm not sure that sends the right message to your constituency. These elections are not something I am organising; they are your collective responsibility, and I don't want to take credit or steal anyone's thunder.”

“On the contrary,” he argued. “Since we will be partaking in your gouverning, it seems all the more fitting that you validate our process. As a show of your support?”

Santhil hesitated. On the one hand, the entire reason of her presence here was a PR campaign: she wasn't evil incarnate, she wasn't a bloodthirsty rampager, pillager, and murderer, and she had a genuine interest in the well-being of the populace—because a happy populace would not oppose her reign, but that was best left unmentioned.

On the other hand, proffering herself too much could be seen as unwelcome intervening of a fiercely distrusted party, namely herself. While partaking in the announcement would grant official legitimacy simply by virtue of her presence, it could also undermine authority through association with the evil overlord.

Santhil's meanderings were disturbed when she heard Lahnia walk into the room and, from the sound of it, she seemed annoyed. A quick glance at Lahnia's face, her eyes and lips, tilt of her head, told Santhil that the sorceress was not simply irritated, but outright incensed with her.

“Mistress,” Santhil greeted her sister, pre-empting an immediate burst of hostility, and politely rose from her seat. The two humans briefly looked at each other, unsure of what to do, and hurriedly decided to follow Santhil's example in standing up.

Lahnia stopped mid-breath and momentarily suppressed her anger. “Drachau,” she returned the formality. “May I confer with you, please?”

Santhil felt a frisson of doubt run down her spine, unsettled by the hint of disappointment in Lahnia's voice that hit her like she ran into a brick wall. “Of course,” she immediately replied, masking that the blow had left a fresh dent in her ego. “Would you two gentlemen excuse us for a moment?”

Sensing something hostile in the air that may or may not have been magical energy seeping from the sorceress, both mayoral candidates cooperated surprisingly well in leaving the room and, hopefully, the blast radius.

Hearing the men had left, Lahnia crossed her arms and stared at Santhil. “Well?” she prompted her drachau sister to explain.

“What is this abou—”

“Under strict orders not to intervene,” Lahnia fumed. “Except in cases where my personal safety is at risk.”

Santhil nodded briefly, recalling her clear orders. “Did the guards violate my orders?”

“No, they followed your orders to the letter, Santhil. Even with clear election fraud happening right under our noses.”

“You can't blame a soldier for following—”

“It's not them I'm angry with,” Lahnia cut in. “Those people rigging the vote? They didn't try to hide it from me. They even explained part of the process to me.” She leaned over to Santhil, eyes burning into hers. “They assumed I approved. Why would they assume we approve of them rigging the vote, Santhil?”

“Umm, miladies?” A human guard poked his head in from behind a door, not sure whether he wanted to interrupt the conversation held in a language he could make head nor tails of. “The poll results are in, and the mayor would like you to announce the outcome, Drachau.”

“I wonder who won,” Lahnia icily muttered.

“I will be with him in a moment,” Santhil told the messenger, then turned to Lahnia. “You saw people rig the vote? What did they do, specifically?”

Lahnia growled and crossed her arms more tightly. Was Santhil questioning her judgement? “They changed votes by turning the 'v' into an 'x', they created new votes from blank pieces of paper, and they burned what they couldn't fudge.”

Santhil nodded thoughtfully. “How much?”

“Tch! Is that even relevant? Too much!”

“Help me here, Lahnia,” Santhil pressed. “How much? Incidental?”

“Seventy percent,” Lahnia sighed angrily. “They aimed for a seventy percent win, and they said they had to work hard to make that seventy percent.”

“So it's safe to assume he would not have won by popular vote?”

“Would he cheat otherwise? Santhil, you told me you wanted to give these people a taste of democracy, of what it is like to determine your own fate. Liberty! And instead, you're just... You don't even... Did you lie to me?”

“Lahnia, sweetheart, I said this was an experiment. And this was something I expected might happen,” Santhil said, and she walked over and held the arms her sister crossed angrily. “But the elections are not over until I appoint the new mayor. I have the final say, and I'll handle this. Trust me to handle this?”

Lahnia looked her sister over, calming slowly, very slowly. While occasionally relying on some cunning and guile, Santhil did not make a habit out of lying to her, and she did seem sincere. Moreover, she wanted to believe the reality Santhil posited. “Please don't make me feel sorry for coming here,” she cautiously relented.

Santhil smiled reassuringly, kissed Lahnia on her cheek, and offered her arm. “Come on, they're waiting for us.”

°°°

The incumbent was going on and on about the importance of elections, of people having a say in their fate, of how elected officials are nothing but representatives and servants to their people, and so on, and so forth. Throughout his flow of speech, he occasionally, indirectly referenced Drachau Arhakuyl as a facilitator in this milestone event. He didn't go so far as to call her a liberator, which was probably a good thing.

Lahnia wondered how long he would keep going. The skies were overcast again, and it was snowing heavily. There was next to no wind, and the thick snowflakes floated down gently and settled on hair, shoulders, brows, eyelashes. Lahnia was happy to be well-protected in her tall, fur-lined wintercoat, gloves, and boots and, from the makeshift stage, pitifully eyed the less fortunate populace gathered on the town square.

“So, with great trepidation, I invite the Lady Drachau Arhakuyl to announce the polling results and officially declare a winner. Townspeople, let's hear it for the Lady Drachau!” He stepped aside and gave Santhil ample room to stand right next to him.

It was quiet, eerily quiet. Even the crickets, always ready to point out an uncomfortable silence, were absent; winter had driven them into hibernation. Never in her life had Lahnia seen such a large group of people collaborate into such deafening silence.

This was going to be a tough crowd.

Arms linked, Santhil gently pulled on Lahnia, offering her to come along. Lahnia hesitated. She looked at the silent, rightfully distrustful crowd that were being cheated out of a fair election. She looked at the confident, almost smug grin on the incumbent's face. And she looked at her sister, unsure of exactly what role she was playing in this, and suddenly wondering whether Santhil had played her, as well. She let her sister's arm slip, looked away, and huddled herself a little tighter.

From the corner of her eyes, Lahnia saw Santhil look back and flinch subtly, hurt by the refusal to join her, but walking on nonetheless. That brief, ached glance filled Lahnia with shame and regret, and her breath picked up along with her heartbeat. Santhil's steps on the wooden stage tick-tocked into Lahnia's ears like a clock pointing out her inaction, adding to growing self-resentment.

Before Santhil was at the platform to speak, Lahnia quickly pretended to pick up something she supposedly lost and was looking for, and hurriedly joined her sister. Pleasantly surprised, Santhil beamed her a grateful smile. In turn, however shaky she felt about the whole affair, Lahnia returned an almost apologetic smile.

“We're all freezing, so I'll keep this brief,” Santhil announced to the crowd with an amused smile. Silence. In the back, a child started crying. “But before we start, I do have an announcement to make.

“My entourage brought to my attention that there have been some disturbing irregularities in the voting progress. Legally cast votes, entrusted to your officials for counting, would have been fudged, burned, or padded in the backroom. I take these allegations very seriously.”

Some people in the crowd dared look up at Santhil now. She took heart that at least she had the attention of those few. “I've been told the goal was to give the current mayor a comfortable margin of at least seventy percent of your vote. So let's see the results. Mister Mayor, if you please?”

Stunned and alarmed, the incumbent leaned over to Santhil. “What are you doing?” he asked with an incredulous smile.

“The right thing,” Santhil replied. “You should try it sometime. It's liberating, and you get to be smug about it. Now, would you kindly?” She opened her hand to him, ready to accept the envelope holding the results.

“But...” Confused, he handed over the envelope. “What do you need me to say? I don't follow.”

“Just step back a bit, breathe deeply, and don't make any sudden moves. You'll be fine.” Santhil opened the envelope and swiftly unfolded the paper she found inside. In front of her, the crowd was starting to murmur amongst each other, occasionally looking up at what was happening on the stage. Excellent.

Santhil snickered amusedly. “Well, look at that. Seventy-one percent in favour! People of Onderville! Is this your vote?” The murmuring in the crowd rose, growing more agitated. “Did seven out of ten people vote in favour of your current mayor, the man here on stage?”

A single man shouted 'No' from somewhere in the left of the crowd. Another followed suit from the other side. More and more voices of discontent made themselves heard.

“Do you want new elections? Do you want honest elections?” The crowd's responses were not as enthouiastic as she had hoped. While they felt they had been cheated, they also weren't used to much liberty and, perhaps most important of all, Santhil's reputation was not really helping her there. At least they weren't openly hostile to her at this point. “Then you will have new and honest elections!”

The crowd was lukewarm at best, but clearly did not oppose the idea, either. Or maybe the snow packing on their bodies was draining their enthousiasm. It didn't matter: all she needed was one chance to show them a different way.

She turned to her soldiers and their captain. “You know the drill: tents, fires, keep these people warm and safe.”

The captain saluted quickly and relayed Santhil's orders. They had practised on this before leaving, and they came properly prepared.

“Um... um, Lady Drachau?” the mayor quietly dared, trying to catch Santhil's attention. “I, uh, I'm confused. Forgive my slow-wittedness, but I don't really see...? Fudging the vote a second time will be difficult.”

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Santhil amusedly said. “Captain, see to it that the mayor here is kept somewhere safe and survivably warm.”

The mayor appeared alarmed, and soon smiled nervously. “Oh, I see now. You're going to fudge the vote for me. Third party, legitimacy. I get it now.”

“Mister Mayor, your optimism is heart-warming. Captain, if you please?”

Santhil watched the mayor be escorted off the snow-packed stage, and set a hand in her side. In hindsight, it was best for the crowd not to have gone overboard. Agitated people could have turned on her as easily as on their mayor.

Suddenly, Lahnia clasped her arms around Santhil's waist and quietly hugged her tightly from behind. Santhil smiled, touched by the enthousiasm, and stroked Lahnia's arm. “Hey you,” she said.

“Hey you,” Lahnia replied, and nestled her cheek against Santhil's. “You planned this out, didn't you?”

“I prepared for the possibility,” Santhil nuanced. “I didn't actually, you know, roadmap this or...”

“But you kept in mind this was a likely outcome,” Lahnia filled in.

“Pretty much. I wanted to tell you beforehand, but it felt... I don't know. I should've warned you about it.” Santhil tilted her head, trying to read Lahnia's face. “Are you angry with me?”

Lahnia pressed her lips. Yes, happy as she was that Santhil was resolving the issue, she was still angry for feeling duped, and she was still angry that maybe, just maybe, Santhil would've let it all fly if no-one had contested the outcome.

“Tell you what,” Lahnia finally said. “You say three magic words, and walk with me as we inspect these new and honest elections you promised, and I'll be peachy in no time.”

Santhil smiled warmly at her, and softly kissed Lahnia on her dry, chilly lips. “I love you, you know that?”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Tue Oct 29, 2013 6:15 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
“Freak! Freak! Freak!”

From a distance, Santhil gave the cruel children a sharp, vindictive glance, but pressed on into the thick mist they had scared the little girl into.

The mist was higher here, making it difficult for Santhil to see. As she followed the sad crying, she forced herself to slow down. It was night, and the moon was out and large, lighting up the mist and the nearby ruins, but she still had difficulty seeing any more than four yards ahead. She didn't want to drop off a cliff.

“Hello?” Santhil called out, hoping to get a better bearing of where the girl was. She reminded herself that she didn't really know what else was out here, and she felt the strange need to be a little less loud. “Are you here? They're gone. I'm not going to hurt you.”

Sobs, quiet sobs. Santhil carefully walked where the sound of sad sniffles led her, and found herself standing near a tall, dead tree lurching over her with long, prickly branches. But the girl was not in the branches, Santhil knew. She walked over to the tree and kneeled down next to a hole between the thick roots. Bending over, she could just make out a vague form.

“Hey, there,” she tried softly. She only got a sniff in return. “They're gone, you can come out now. I'm just like you, look.” Santhil freed up her hair, letting it fall down over her shoulders, flashing her own grey hair out to her. But the girl stubbornly stayed put. Santhil recognised the behaviour all too well, and sat down next to the hole, leaning back against the tree. She looked around.

It was such an oddly desolate place, a dark parody of what she knew the real world to be. While she reminded herself that she was dreaming, she also felt much more aware than dreamers usually are, and very much not in control of her surroundings.

She hated it when they messed with her head.

Cautiously, the girl poked her head out between the roots. Santhil glanced sideways at her, and calmly stroked the girl's hair. “It's okay,” she said. “Come sit here with me.”

“Everybody hates me,” the girl sobbed, but still she crawled out and sat down on a root. “They keep yelling at me and bullying me.”

Santhil sighed through her nose and nodded in agreement while keeping a watchful eye on her environment. She was all too familiar with the frustrations the girl expressed. She allowed herself a slight smile when she recalled her grandfather often comforting her after she was bullied. “They're just jealous,” she said. “They're jealous and they're scared because we look different.”

Would her own children be in for this as well? Arhakuyl tended to have many more daughters than sons, and the traits of grey seemed to be dominant in females. Her sisters had it. Her mother had it. She had it; heck, she had it twice.

“But!” she told herself as much as the child next to her. “But we all grow up to be really, really good-looking. Give it a few years, and suitors will trip over themselves to get in your good graces. No more yelling 'freak' or cutting off your hair. No more creepy stares and...” Okay, that was a lie, but still. “They're just afraid because we look different, that's all.”

Santhil looked at the girl again and found herself face to face with a pale, white-haired, glowing-eyed version of herself.

“Then let's give them something to fear!”

Santhil cried out in surprise and leapt away, immediately finding herself gripping whatever was behind her.

She was holding a mattress. On the other side of the room, the fireplace had died out. A brusque breeze pulled past, howling quietly into the bedroom. Santhil sighed and rested her head on her pillow again.

Lahnia lifted herself halfway off her pillow, and looked at Santhil with dull, squinted eyes. “Ari, are you alright?”

Santhil forced herself to inhale deeply through her nose for a single, long breath. Hearing Lahnia's voice and seeing her face, even if only the contours in the darkness, immediately calmed her spirits. “...Yeah,” she finally said. “Did I wake you?”

“It's okay,” Lahnia lied, the purple lines under her eyes visible even in the dim lack of moonlight. “Bad dream?”

Santhil had suspected that by now she would have been able to tell the difference between a dream and a 'vision' or message, but since they both played out within the confines of her mind, there was always a sliver of doubt. “I'm not sure. Probably.” Her head was throbbing.

Lahnia kept quiet for long enough that Santhil briefly suspected she had fallen asleep leaning on her elbow, until she tilted her head, trying to read Santhil's face. Lahnia placed her hand on Santhil's heart, feeling it beat, and then gently palmed her forehead. “You're a little warm,” she said, and tried again with the back of her hand.

“Just some headache. It'll pass,” Santhil bravely asserted. “Sorry to wake you.”

“I have something for that,” Lahnia said, and fought back a yawn while sliding over to her side of the bed.

“No-no, Lana, you don't have to...” Santhil reached out for Lahnia, but caught nothing, and let her arm fall on the bed. She hated to send her sister out into the cold at this time of night—what time was it? Three?—but with the adrenaline subsiding, her head was starting to feel as if someone had flossed it with a cheese grate.

Some half-distant clattering of dishes and rummaging around made it into the bedroom as Lahnia prepared whatever she had in mind. Santhil tried closing her eyes, but she was too fresh from her nightmare to trust her surroundings and not look around. There was a cold draft in the room, and she quickly pulled her arms back under the covers.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Lahnia offered while she came back with a goblet of... well, given the odd smell, Santhil didn't really want to guess what it was. “You gave such a start waking up.”

“No, I'm... I'd rather just...” Go back to sleep? Not that quickly. She hid her doubt in careful sips from something that tasted like it combined peppermint, eucalyptus, and blood of a rat that overdosed on alcohol.

Lahnia smiled weakly at her and clamped her arms around herself when she felt the cold draft pull by. She tiptoed back to her side of the bed—usually the left—and immediately shuffled over to Santhil's side, nuzzling up to her sister while she finished the herbal drink.

“Hello,” Santhil joked in between sips. Lahnia giggled quietly, and waited for Santhil to finish and lie down before she wrapped her arms around her and nestled in on her shoulder. “You don't mind?” she asked, just to be sure.

Santhil kissed her forehead and smelled her hair. “Never,” she whispered, and sighed calmly, feeling Lahnia move a bit to keep both herself as Santhil comfortable. Her head still pulsed hotly, but as long as she kept still and calm, it would pass.

“What about Irhuil?” Lahnia asked.

“Mmh,” Santhil hummed quietly. “He won't mind.” It did make her wonder, even if just briefly, whether Irhuil had likewise found himself someone to help keep the bed warm. Her eyes narrowed invisibly.

“That's not what I meant, I—” Lahnia stopped herself while her mind trailed off to a new, more interesting line of thought, but she eventually traced her steps back, and looked up to see Santhil's face. “I mean your visions. No disrespect meant,” she quickly added, recalling the conflict between her two sisters over describing her deitic memo's as visions.

But Santhil had already relented on the proper terminology, if only because she had no better alternative, and was pondering Lahnia's question, because really, “I haven't given it much thought.”

“You've got enough on your plate already,” Lahnia glossed over it. “Get some rest. New day tomorrow.”

° ° °

Our sweetest Santhil,

Thank you so much for writing us regularly. We can only imagine how busy you must be. It is always heartening to hear our daughter is well and healthy. We are all so very proud of you!

It is peaceful here, and business has been going well and better. Your father is thinking about renovating part of the manor: he wants to put a statue of you in the garden, and also rearrange the portraits in the main hall—I've stopped him just short of trying to name a village street after you!

But it made me realise we do not have a recent portrait of you and your sisters. If you could find the time, could you have a portrait of each of you made? If you could also send one with all three of you together, I am sure it would make a perfect centerpiece.

Thank you for assuring us Yalasmina is doing well; we hear so rarely of her. She has always been closer to you than to your father and I. We wish her warmth and love, and we really hope that someday she will feel a part of our family. Who knows, perhaps being a liaison to you will warm her up to all of us.

All our love,

Mother and Father


° ° °

“And get this,” said Gamman, pausing for effect. “He retreats.”

Santhil raised her hands up and grabbed her head in frustration. Her pad dropped with a load clash, papers went down twirly and gently, and her pencil bounced off the flagstone floor with a happy rhythm until it found out nobody was watching and quietly settled down.

While her body tensed up for fight-or-flight and her heart roiled with rage at the report of failure, her mind opened the floodgates of Zen and calm in an attempt to stem the tides. She didn't want to be angry. She didn't want to yell. But she had to fight hard to keep some measure of composure. “But a quarter of his army is—”

“Cut off and up against a cliff,” Gamman finished with a grin of almost amused disbelief. “And right in my flank if I want to pursue him. Sure, I can attack them first, but I can't kill them quickly enough to then catch up with him. And if I leave a large enough group to guard them, I don't have anything to chase him with.”

Santhil pulled her nails down over her cheeks and growled. She looked out the window into the rainy weather while Gamman busily dripped and trickled water from his hair, sleeves, trousers, and brows. “I want to believe these battles cost him,” she groaned. “I want to believe we're wearing Sasha down, whittling his troops, and maybe we are. But I just know he's on the home field, and he can recruit whatever numbers he needs to throw at us.”

“I like to think we kill them faster than they breed.”

Santhil didn't really want to run the numbers on human reproduction, if only because it reminded her of human reproduction. “How many prisoners?”

“One hundred and thirty-two souls, fifteen of them injured.”

“That's way too many,” Santhil sighed. “We can't keep that many soldiers under control and still do large sorties.”

Gamman pressed his lips, eyeing Santhil, waiting before he offered: “We could always kill some of them. Or all of them, really.”

Santhil found herself seriously considering it. Send a signal, intimidate the enemy, and get rid of the prisoners at the same time? Tempting, but... “No. No, if we do that, we invite them to do the same should they ever catch soldiers of ours. Our people will know.” She took a deep breath and hunkered down, picking up pad, papers, and pencil. “I'll contact the rebels for negotations. Maybe we can appeal to their self-righteousness and cajole a strategic advantage out of it.”

“Got it. Sorry to let you down.”

“No, you did the right thing,” Santhil assured him, and excused him with a quick nod. He left behind a tiny puddle of muddy water.

Santhil mouthed a silent curse, and wanted to throw down everything she was holding again, just to get it out of her system. But if she did that, she'd roll right into screaming in rage, racing up and down the walls, and end up wimpering in a dark corner somewhere. So she just stared ahead of herself, eyes out in the rain while her mind bubbled and hazed, trying to think of a way to take Sasha's battlegroup out of the picture once and for all. Or that was what she was trying to think of; really, her mind took her back to blissful glee at the thought of seeing the man gurgle in a pool of his own blood.

“Deep breaths,” said Yalasmina calmingly as she walked up behind her. A whiff of her scent caught in Santhil's nostrils while fine fingers stroked and then slowly kneaded her neck and shoulders.

Growling more than breathing, Santhil closed her eyes and tried to relax while her sister soothingly massaged her neck. Her grip on the pad lessened, no longer leaving marks in her fingers, and her pencil escaped the snap of death.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths. Santhil closed her eyes and let fresh air fill her lungs. She'd figure this out. She could do this. She had proven she was capable of this. As long as she managed not to suffer heavy losses in people, materiel, or morale, Sasha posed no inescapable danger.

But she really, really would've liked to be able to plan out a week's strategy without having to take into account an army group that had the ability to pop up anywhere, at any time, and cause mayhem, ruckus and havoc. Just once, for her to be able to give an uncomplicated, straightforward order to her commanders: There they are. Go fetch.

Santhil inhaled deeply through the nose, and tried to breathe out the worries and stress. The rhythmic, professional massaging of her neck made that breathing sound more like a content purring. “You're a miracle. Marry me.”

Yalasmina hummed noncommittally. “Shall I run that by Hilea for you?”

“Could you? We can work out the details later.”

“Mh-hm.” Yalasmina let her hands slide up to Santhil's temples and stroked them soothingly. “Have you been sleeping well?”

Santhil cocked her head left and right I doubt. “So-so.”

“Stress? Nightmares? Lahnia?”

“Lahnia's been great, really,” Santhil countered the subtle insinuation of grouping Lahnia with stress and nightmares.

“Did you take anything to sleep?”

“Uh, some herbal tea for the headache and a hug for the sleep.” She thought back of it and smiled warmly.

“Turn around,” Yalasmina ordered, and felt Santhil's forehead and checked her eyes as soon as she was facing her. “Could be a mild withdrawal from the witchbrew. Restlessness, headaches, and higher temperatures are symptoms. Higher blood pressure as well, so be mindful of sudden nosebleeds.”

Santhil nodded, taking it all in. Having a medical diagnosis from a semi-professional made her feel a lot happier believing last night really was just a bad dream caused by a bad trip. “Okay. Thanks, Mina. Did you need me for anything?”

Yalasmina nodded once and put her hands on her back. “You will be pleased to learn that Mistress Jesamine Cadsane is recovering, conscious, and able to receive visitors.”

“I am, very much so,” Santhil said, her lips turning into a pleasant and then amused grin. “Are you?”

Yalasmina returned a simple, non-committal smile, but remained silent.

“Wait, you're not allowed within thirty yards of her quarters,” Santhil quickly recalled. “How could you possibly know this before I do? Did the Temple—”

“I came across Lahnia, and she told me,” Yalasmina interrupted Santhil's train of thought. After a brief pause, she added: “Paranoia is also a possible symptom.”

“...Let's just go see her.”

° ° °

Jesamine Cadsane's living quarters seemed to have livened up along with their owner. The heavy curtains were open, letting in what meager light the rainy skies allowed. The fireplace was crackling calmly but brightly, bathing everything in golden rays of warmth and fuzziness.

“It's good to see you're feeling better,” Santhil said, sitting on one knee next to Jesamine's bed.

Jesamine was indeed looking much better than in previous days. Her fever had mostly subsided, her eyes were brighter, and her face had more colour. She returned a friendly smile. “It's certainly good to feel better. I didn't cause too much delay, I hope?”

Santhil shook her head with pouted lips. “We've been more than busy. No need to fret.”

“If anything, blame the people who tried to kill you,” Lahnia said. Santhil winced invisibly; she had hoped to stay wide and clear off that topic.

“You mentioned something about that,” Jesamine picked up with a pensive frown. “You went after cultists, you said?”

“Well... yeah, we killed a lot of Chaos cultists,” Santhil said, in hindsight not at all proud of how she was blindsided on the issue. “But in my defense, you only pointed out your suspects afterwards.”

Jesamine frowned with a slight smile. “Pointed out, drachau?”

Santhil snorted. “You're joking, right?”

Jesamine kept the light smile on her lips, cast her eyes about quickly in thought, then looked back at Santhil. “I'm... afraid I don't follow.”

Santhil took the tiny amulet hanging from her neck and showed her the precious stone engraved with the mark of Khaine. “See, you reached for this. Remember?” Jesamine's eyes focused on the little stone, recalling it as something Santhil wore habitually, but her face remained otherwise impassive. “No?”

Lahnia gasped quietly, and hid her grin behind her hand. Before Santhil had the time to find out what her sister was thinking, Jesamine suddenly recalled: “I do vaguely recall something like that. I had a fever at the time, so they are hazy memories.”

“There has been no clear evidence of Temple involvement,” Yalasmina felt obliged to add at this point, “and the Temple declines to comment, as always.”

“Maibd-khaina,” Jesamine greeted her stand-offishly.

“Mistress,” Yalasmina returned a similar greeting.

“So, I understand that it's presumptuous of me to invite a maibd along with me,” Santhil apologised while looking from Jesamine to Yalasmina and back, “but Yalasmina is not privy to this kind of information, and she had no part in it. Whether she's entirely opposed to it, however...” Yalasmina beamed Santhil an exaggerated, fake smile. “Jury's still out on that one.”

“For the record, I feel Mistress Cadsane's incapacitation cost the war effort considerable time and set us back strategically,” Yalasmina said.

“I'm impressed,” Lahnia said, and nodded clearly. “You said that with feeling and everything.” She got a thoroughly evil eye in return.

“I have no quarrel with Yalasmina,” Jesamine said. “Are you the high priestess now?”

“No, Hilea remains the high priestess. I have been assigned as a liaison to the drachau.”

Jesamine's eyebrows rose without her eyelids following. “Congratulations on your promotion.”

“Strictly speaking, it's an assignment,” Santhil offered. “Not a promotion as such.”

Jesamine nodded thoughtfully, then looked back at Yalasmina. “We will be seeing each other more often.”

Yalasmina returned a smile that stopped right at the corners of her lips. “Yes.”

An uncomfortable silence crept in between everyone and settled on their backs and shoulders. Lahnia cautiously aimed her eyes to Santhil, and Santhil returned a similarly awkward look.

“Well!” Santhil exaggeratedly slowly said, and stood to her feet. “We should let you get some rest.”

“Oh. Thank you for visiting,” Jesamine said. “I should be up and about tomorrow, drachau. Or wobbling about, as the case may be.”

“No rush, take your time—“

“If I spend one more day in bed, I will go insane.”

“Okay, I can imagine that's true. We'll check tomorrow, and see whether you're up for garrison duty.”

Jesamine nodded. “Very well. See you tomorrow, drachau. Lahnia. Maibd-khaina.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Wed Jun 04, 2014 7:31 pm
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Executioner
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Joined: Thu Oct 20, 2011 9:50 pm
Posts: 158
*heavy breathing*

I missed these! The story is really coming along nicely, can't wait to see how it continues to unfold! Just don't do a GRRM and make us wait another 10 years for the next one please ;)

_________________
The House of Black Flames: A Druchii Project


Thu Jun 05, 2014 7:54 am
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Joined: Tue Oct 04, 2005 5:06 pm
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
What a beautiful day.

While relishing the morning sun, Lahnia feasted her eyes on the capital's Main Street: a wide, mostly well-kept street with fountains and sculptures, trees and plants, lanterns and benches. To the side were stores and inns, each more extravagant or classy than the other. Close-by, in neighbouring and connecting streets, she could see the houses of the rich and well-off, probably the owners of these places of business—true nobility would have their seat either on their land in the country, or on a calmer, quieter place a small distance from the center of the capital.

The Sarthailorian capital, that was, of course: Avalaer. This was the seat of rebel governance, the bulwark of resistance, the center of the might that her drachau sister aimed to bring down. And here they were, the three of them, lazily strolling down the road to the palace ahead. No big fanfare, no procession, no fuss. Just Santhil, Yalasmina, herself, and a few of the city guards escorting them through the mass of people going about their business.

Some people, especially children, gawked and stared. While the Sarthailor were initially an all-elven offshoot from Ulthuan, the exiles from the civil war many millenia ago, their lineage had slowly watered and mingled with humans or weakened from inbreeding. Now, as far as Lahnia knew, there were only a few hundred full-blood elves in their corner of the world; invariably the nobles, invariably in command. So while the sight of elves was not entirely new or alien to these humans, they were a rare sight. Lahnia also imagined that the three of them looked quite different from what any humans there had seen before.

The Temple of Khaine, she knew to have no equivalent or surviving relatives in this culture, so Yalasmina—however conservatively dressed to Temple standards—was in strange attire to them. Not to say that she was anything but impeccably presentable, but the rune of Khaine was foreign and held no significance to these people.

Santhil was in mixed military-civilian dress, which was nothing odd on itself, but drew attention still. Or, really, it would be considered odd even in the motherland of Ulthuan, since women were few and far between in the mainstay military, let alone leading from the front. And Lahnia had picked up that the Sarthailor treated elven women as precious, valuable creatures whose survival was of the utmost importance, so having them in any duty that involved the military was a no-no to them.

And then, of course, herself. If elves were a rare sight, and elven women all the more, then surely seeing a true-and-blue sorceress was the stuff of lottery winnings and finding diamonds when tilling your garden. Sure enough, little children soon chased after and ran alongside her horse, gawking starry-eyed and brightly-smiled, shouting with childish joy and whispers of wonder.

Lahnia reached her hand down her side, stretching her fingers as if stroking the surface of a lake. As she touched the imaginary water, the air rippled and colourful lights sparkled away too the oohs and aahs of the following kids.

After a while, their parents called, and a few children followed a bit longer but ultimately, they broke away, peeking past people to catch another glimpse. Despite the chilly weather, Lahnia felt a bit warmer with the knowledge she had brought some wonder into their day.

“I like it here, don't you?” Lahnia asked Santhil. No-one had said a word since they entered the city. “It's a bit crowded right now, but look at the houses and the streets, and that fountain there.”

Santhil nodded, her mind giving only token presence to Lahnia. “It's a wide street. Most other streets seem to end up here in some way.”

“The walls were a bit higher than reported,” Yalasmina said.

“But once we hit this street, we're in,” Santhil added. “This place here, and that plaza there; those are the sites we'll want to hold down. In fact, to an invading army... yeah, I see this happening.”

“Really?” Lahnia tonelessly said. “Your first time into a capital that has stood for thousands of years, and you obsess over how to torch it? It's a thing of beauty.”

“And that pains me, Lahnia,” Santhil sighed. “It breaks my heart. But I'd rather break my heart than lose my head.”

Lahnia felt conflicted. She loved her sister dearly, and she knew that Santhil needed to quell and quash the rebellion expediently and absolutely. But still, “we can be careful not to... damage it too much, can we?”

“Uhh... yeah,” Santhil said, more in afterthought than with any conviction. “I mean, the plan is not necessarily to raze it to the ground. My beef is with the rebels, not the city.”

“I don't want soldiers dying because I like this place,” Lahnia clarified. “That's just wrong. But... we can be careful, right?”

“The less we destroy, the less we need to rebuild,” Santhil agreed.

“I'm sure we can trust Santhil to find a way that balances the effectiveness of her siege with the integrity of the city sculptures,” Yalasmina pre-empted Lahnia.

“I'm not saying: don't siege effectively,” Lahnia countered. “I just...” She stopped herself. While she really did want to get her point across, she also knew how it would end: in bickering with Yalasmina, burdening Santhil with not just the upcoming negotiations but also with counseling her sisters. So she decided to drop the issue.

Santhil reached out to Lahnia and squeezed her hand. When Lahnia looked at her, she caught a quick, knowing wink. Lahnia beamed her a warm smile in return.

Minutes later, they entered through the castle gates, unbarred, wide open, and barely guarded. A quick look told them why: most of the guards were occupied, hurrying along with banners and pikes, candles and torches, and...

“Are those festivity decorations?” asked Lahnia curiously.

“Valentine's,” Yalasmina surmised.

“That's not today, is it?” Lahnia sounded alarmed.

“If I understood correctly,” Yalasmina said, “they hold thematic days for about a week, including fertility celebrations, a procession; it's a popular time for conducting marriages or proposing.”

“Ah,” Lahnia quietly said, relieved that she hadn't messed up and missed Valentine's. Suddenly realising that Santhil was frustrated with a lack of news from her fiancé, Lahnia considered her sister was not looking forward to the holiday, and she threw her a careful but scrutinous glance.

Santhil focused on current proceedings, staying eerily quiet on the topic. She beamed the city guard a pleasant smile as they left, leaving her and her sisters in the care of the castle guard. And those seemed to be far too busy with preparations to take much notice of the delegation in their midst.

“It's almost like nobody's expecting us,” she said, and checked her pocket watch and compared with the letter she had received earlier. There was the expected blah-blah in there, about how the Sarthailor leadership could not risk traveling so far away into dangerous territory, that Santhil and her entourage were welcome to visit the capital city—and she double-checked the date and time—with the only request to keep it low-key so as to not disrupt the daily business of the city dwellers.

As if by divine intervention, one of the guards noticed them, and approached with a friendly but authoritive look. “My ladies,” he greeted them.

“Drachau Santhil Arhakuyl, Mistress Lahnia Arhakuyl, and miss Yalasmina Arhakuyl to see... Caern? Caern,” Santhil introduced them.

The guard gave Santhil a scrutinous look before nodding curtly. “We will take care of your horses. Please go inside; the captain will escort you to your meeting.”

“Thank you,” Santhil said, and dismounted. She offered Lahnia a helping hand, holding out both hands to her, and Lahnia happily let her sister catch her by the waist as she stepped down. Santhil offered the same to Yalasmina, who narrowed her eyes at Santhil but did take her up on it. “Thank you,” she nonetheless shared.

Both Yalasmina and Lahnia followed in close step with Santhil as they entered the palace proper. It was not the unsiegable leviathan that was King Malekith's fortress (it took a mind of special paranoia or megalomania to match that), but it still stood fast and strong as a seat of government, ruling over an entire country. Even its entrance hall was tall, grand, and inspiring.

Also, missing a captain.

“Sooo...” Lahnia said with trailing voice.

“I feel at home already,” Santhil joked, and looked around for anyone else she could accost. “Excuse me, miss?” she accosted the closest maid.

“Milady?” the maid replied, startled that she was addressed; by apparent nobility (because elf), and in her own language, no less.

“We were supposed to be welcomed by a captain who would give us directions,” Santhil explained. “Do you know where we could find them?”

“I... believe the captain stepped out to... help carry things,” the maid recalled with little certainty. “But if you go down the hall and to the left, you can meet— Oh, Rogst, come here a moment,” she suddenly called a passing guard. “Do you know where the captain is?”

“Uh... no, but maybe I can help?” Rogst offered. “Where do you need to be, miladies?”

“We're meeting with Caern,” Santhil said.

“Oh, the prince? You can probably find him in the council room,” he said, and pointed to the back of the hall. “Go through there, take a right, go up the stairs to the third floor, and then down the hall again and to your right.”

Santhil nodded to herself, visualising the given directions. She checked quickly with her sisters whether they had them likewise memorised. “Excellent, thank you.”

“You, uh, you're welcome,” Rogst said with a slight blush and a hapless stare.


° ° °


Who were those people?

Sitting on one of the uncomfortable benches lined along the sunlit hallway, Lucien had been pondering, meandering, thinking when he heard steps and voices. That wasn't uncommon in a hallway, of course, but it was uncommon for him to see elves he hadn't seen before, dressed in garbs he couldn't quite place. So he had been looking at the threesome of women down the hall from him, trying to guess who they were, where they were from, but he came up empty. He could just go over and ask, but...

Lucien was the son of Caern, prince and protector of the realm. Everyone knew Caern and everyone knew Lucien, and if he went over to them, politeness would have him introduce himself. And as soon as people knew who he was—or, more precisely, who his father was—their demeanor changed completely.

For a long time, Lucien had seen this just as the way things were, as a perk and privilege, that he was to be treated with respect. But as he was coming of age and was expected to find a marriage prospect, he started to find it an ever increasing nuisance. How could he have an honest conversation with people, get to know them, if they were presenting a facade? How could he get close to anyone if they kept a deferent, guarded distance at all times?

So he was a bit surprised to see that one of the women, the one in an unfamiliar but distinctly military-looking uniform, walked up to him with an apologetic smile on her lips and a pocket watch in her hand, and addressed him directly. “Sorry to bother you,” she said while he straightened up. “Could you tell me what time it is? We're here for a meeting, and we seem to be a bit off time.”

Lucien didn't need to check any clock; he knew exactly. But up close, his attention was drawn to the woman's otherwordly, bright silvery irides. Two similarly coloured locks, neatly parted in the middle but smoothly contrasting with her otherwise dark, tied-back hair, framed her cheeks. “Uh, nine— Nine thirty. We've been busy preparing; may I ask who you're here to see?”

“Yesss,” the woman almost slissed. “That would be—” She stopped and turned to the other two women in the distance. “I'm asking! Nine thirty!” she called out defensively.

Lucien turned up an amused smile, but hurriedly hid it again before he could appear disrespectful. “Are they giving you a hard time?”

“Hm? Nah, it's okay, sorry about that,” she dismissed it. “I love them to bits, they're rays of sunshine in my life, and I wouldn't trade them for love, life, or riches. Anyway, we thought it was about ten thirty; isn't this area in Colonial Time?”

Colonial time? It hasn't been called that for a while now,” Lucien said, and calmly rose to his feet. “Where are you from?”

“It's no longer called— Then what is it called now? Please don't be Freedom Time.”

Lucien half-laughed. “Freedom—? No, no no. Standard Time.”

“Standard Time,” said the woman tonelessly. “You make an exception and you call it Standard Time.”

“Well, uh... I, uh, I never really looked at it that way.” Lucien pretended to think that over while the woman picked up a tiny pencil and scribbled some cryptic instructions into the lid of the pocket watch.

He couldn't make out what she was writing. The letters were tiny, barely legible, and probably in code to fit into the paper inside the lid. Her language of choice appeared to be a close dialect of Indecipherable. “You must travel a lot.”

“Oh, you have no idea,” she wide-eyedly said. “Places to be, people to see.”

“Is it your first time here? I can't recall seeing you before.”

“First time, yes,” she said, and she swiftly pocketed her watch. “I'll be here more often in the future, though. It's some way off at the moment, but we're getting closer.”

Lucien nodded thoughtfully, trying to imagine what she could mean by that, but also happy to hear that he'd be seeing more of her. “You're certainly welcome to visit,” he offered, having some trouble taking his eyes off hers. He blinked when she noticed his stare, and weaved a brief apology. “I don't mean to stare. I've just never seen...”

“No worries.” She winked quickly at him. “I get that a lot. Just don't stare for too long or I'm going to think you collect eyes.”

Lucien laughed and shook his head incredulously. “That's disturbing. Say, I can't really place your accent.”

“Hm? Oh, my accent is a lost cause. I've spent time in Lothern and Saphery and Caledor and now I can pronounce every letter six different ways, all of them wrong.”

“I think you have a very clear and elegant pronunciation, really,” Lucien said. “If I'm not too forward saying so.”

“Thank you, that's kind to say. So, are you going to be following the negotiations with your father?”

Lucien's breath stopped briefly. He had hoped that maybe she wouldn't have recognised him, that he and she could have a simple conversation unmarred by the required niceties and deference of nobles. In hindsight, that was naive of him, even though he enjoyed the illusion as long as it lasted. “Ah, uh... no. No, I won't be,” and he cleared his throat, “attending with my father.”

“Oh, you thought I hadn't recognised you,” the woman caught on with half a grin. “Sorry. Done my homework.”

Lucien smiled calmly. “Apologies for the deception. I just like having conversations as equals, and everyone else here knows who I am. Feels like a clean slate, you know?”

“Oh, I feel you,” she immediately agreed. “It's nice to have a blank page instead of people just gushing your reputation on you. Would you like to exchange first names and pretend we don't know each other?”

Lucien frowned amusedly at the odd offer, but decided to go with it. “Sure. Hi, I'm Lucien.”

“Santhil. Pleasure to meet you.”

“...Zseanthyl? Am I pronouncing that correctly?”

“Sin, Akh with stress, Nu, and then Thil.” She pointed to the runes composing her name on the breast of her jacket.

“Oh, that's your name there?” Lucien surprisedly said. “I was trying to make those out, but... what are they? They look like the old runic script that our ancestors on Ulthuan used.”

“It's still in use, but mostly just for formal occasions like, uh, name tags,” Santhil said, and grinned knowingly. “So that's your story, hm? You were trying to read my name?”

“I was!” Lucien exclaimed defensively. “You just... you told me not to look you in the eye,” he fumbled.

“That's true, that,” Santhil admitted, and tongued her eyetooth. “How about we say you just find my dress uniform fashionable?”

Lucien puffed once. “It's very nice.”

“Isn't it? You like?” Santhil turned and posed, showing off equal parts the uniform and the form underlying it. “It's a recent design and I'm really fond of it.”

Lucien hesitantly let his eyes slide up and down. It wasn't proper for a lord to watch a lady like that, and it wasn't proper for a lady to present herself such. But in many ways, Santhil was not like other people he knew, and he found the change refreshing and the view appealing.

Santhil finally turned back to him and wiggled her eyebrows teasingly at him. Lucien laughed briefly and shook his head. “You are definitely not from around here,” he said, fully oblivious to her identity. “Where did you say you were from?”

“Ulthuan, born and raised,” said Santhil. “First time you meet someone from the mother country?”

“Yes. Yes, actually. They're rare—you're rare.”

Santhil nodded understandingly. Maybe some communication was present between families torn apart millenia ago, but meeting and seeing each other in the flesh? Unlikely. And her own strategy had been not to assign ambassadors or diplomats or anything else that could give the rebels a semblance of legitimacy or souvereignty.

Even now, she was meeting not with the leader of the rebels, but with 'the person or persons currently occupying, legitimately or otherwise, the province level of governance', the implication being that she was effectively the leading authority of the area, and the rebels were just squatting it.

Thinking of violence and rebellions, Santhil took advantage of the brief lull in the conversation to peek at her sisters. They weren't fighting, but they were talking, which was effectively a countdown to tragedy.

“So, is your husband here as well?” Lucien tried.

Santhil tore her attention away from her sisters and back to Lucien. “Hm, hey? Oh, I'm not married.”

Those words were said in a disinterested, perfunctory tone, just matter-of-factly, ironing out a misunderstanding. But to Lucien, they were sang by angels in an immaculate chorus, deceptively wrapped in the dullary of conversation but hiding a nut of pure surprise and elation. His heart was confused about whether it should stop for a moment or beat really, really quickly, so it decided to do the one and then the other. “Really?” he tried to say as casually as possible, and he cursed the squeaky pitch that snuck into his voice.

“Mh-hm,” Santhil hummed distractedly, and glanced sideways at her sisters. Still okay. “So, what brings you here? Aside from living here, obviously.”

“Oh, uh...” Lucien needed a moment to rebase himself, and to pull him back to present reality, no matter how dreamy today was looking to him. “I was hoping I could catch a glimpse of the drachau. Or maybe speak with her.” It sounded awkward in hindsight. “Put a face on the legend, if you catch my drift.”

“Ah, I see. Waiting in line backstage.” Santhil winked quickly at him. “I can get you a portrait, if you like. Autographed and everything.”

“A portrait?”

“Yeah, you can hang it on display,” Santhil said and, leaning closer, added with hushed voice and lopsided grin, “or you can keep it somewhere more private, if that is the nature of your interest.” She stood fully upright again. “I'm having some made; I'll send you one.”

Lucien blinked a moment; he had some trouble following Santhil. “Oh, you mean portraits of you?” he suddenly realised.

“Well, yeah,” Santhil said, not sure where the confusion could come from. “Or of me and my sisters. Speaking of, I should get back to them.”

“Are they your sisters?” Lucien asked, and looked at the two women who were no longer speaking to each other.

“Yes. Do you want to say hello?”

“Uh... sure.” He followed Santhil back to her sisters, keeping one step behind her.

“Girls, meet Lucien,” Santhil said, icebreaking a timidly cold silence between her sisters. “Lucien, please meet Lahnia and Yalasmina.”

“Lucien, as in...?” Yalasmina asked.

“The same,” Santhil filled in.

“Pleased to meet you, Lucien,” Lahnia greeted him with a friendly a smile.

“Pleased to meet you, too,” he replied, his mind fighting between thinking and keeping up with recent events. “Are you all from Ulthuan?”

“Yes, we are,” Lahnia confirmed. “Originally, at least. I'm not really sure...?” She looked to Santhil for clarification.

“We kinda sorta have an official residence all the way over in, uh, oblivion somewhere,” Santhil said, recalling Tor Cynath, the official seat of government for the colonies that Santhil oversaw. It was probably the farthest place up north that hadn't been overrun by Chaos and its human, tribal vassals. “You remember, blizzards in winter, sleet in summer?”

“Oh, right, that place,” Lahnia recalled with little love for the memory. “It had rats.”

“Big rats,” Santhil explicited. “Kitchen knife size. That was an amazing throw, by the way.”

“Thank you,” Yalasmina said politely but guardedly. She was not one for the spotlight, and she deftly avoided any attempt to set it on her.

Lucien smiled, overwhelmed by meeting new people with interesting stories in a place otherwise dominated by the same old faces and the same old troubles. “So... you no longer live on Ulthuan?”

That was actually a good question, and Santhil mulled on it. Home was where her parents were, back in the motherland, but she hadn't been there for a while now. She suddenly felt a bit homesick.

“We have family on Ulthuan,” Lahnia filled the silence.

“Oh, I see,” Lucien quietly said. He imagined that, while the three of them had made it out of there, escaped the empire's grip, their family was still stuck and probably in hiding. “I hope you get to see them again soon.”

Santhil nodded to herself. She wanted to make her family proud of her accomplishments, not just today, here, at the negotiations, but over her entire record: leading armies all the way through the human lands and into the Grey Mountains; managing the battles over the seaports to the north, to make sure that shipments came through when they needed to; harassing, interdicting, and denying much of the Sarthailorian southlands with a much smaller force... Yeah, she had something to be proud of.

During her musings, Santhil caught Lucien looking Lahnia over. He seemed to be subtly looking for something on her, his eyes darting from her hands to her ears and to her neck... and then down a bit to her chest. Santhil clued in Yalasmina with an amused grin: yep, Lucien was definitely a young man who didn't get out of the palace much.

“Hm?” Lahnia hummed as she caught on to Lucien's interest.

“D— Ah— Ay... I...” he stammered hurriedly, flustered by her sudden attention, “I was wondering... I don't recognise, uh... are you a mage?”

“Sorceress, yes,” Lahnia said, and waited a moment for him to collect his wits. “Was there something you'd like to ask?” she offered.

Santhil leaned to Lahnia and fluttered her eyelashes innocently. “Did it hurt when you fell from the heavens?”

“Psh! Ruffian,” Lahnia dismissed Santhil with an embarrassed smile and a quick wave of the back of her hand. “Are you attending the negotiations too, Lucien?”

Lucien shifted his balance uneasily when reminded. “...No, I am not. Father believes I am not experienced enough.”

“Oh,” Lahnia said, and dropped the issue when she picked up his reluctance to discuss it.

“Okay, point,” Santhil said, “but how does he expect you to learn, standing outside? You don't have to actually do or say anything. Don't be an active participant, but be an observer. And, you know, be an observer sitting on the right side of this wall here.”

“Oh, don't pressure him, Ari,” Lahnia warmly said.

“I'm not pressuring him,” Santhil asserted, but immediately turned to Lucien to check before continuing, “I'm not, am I? I'm just disagreeing with Caern's judgement which, uh, at this juncture, should no longer come as a surprise.”

Lucien tilted his head inquisitively. “You and father do not see eye to eye?”

Lahnia hid her grin behind her sleeve, pretending to rearrange a lock of hair. Yalasmina invisibly lowered her eyelids a notch. Santhil blinked once, amused. “One could say that we've had professional disagreements,” she explained, “but I haven't met him in the flesh yet, so I can't speak of his personality. Who knows, maybe he's nice, maybe we'll get along, go out for some coffee.” Lahnia had to try harder not to laugh, and squirmed behind her sleeve. “He could be cute, right?”

Lucien nodded thoughtfully at first, and then made a realisation that sent his previously high-flying heart plunging down into crevasses deep within the ocean floor.

It started to make sense. With Santhil still unspoken for despite being an adult, she was here to find a future husband and, as tradition required, was joined by her elder sisters to judge marriage prospects (though Lucien had some trouble making out who, exactly, was the elder to whom). And if she were here to see his father and Lucien had not even be told that a young, unmarried noblewoman would be visiting, then he was likely talking to his future stepmother.

Incredibly envious of his father and now also deeply embarrassed to be attracted to Santhil, Lucien tried to focus on the topic of negotiations. “What do you think will happen to those soldiers if we can't strike a deal?” he asked, and held his chin pensively. “Should we fear for their lives?”

Santhil raised her brows and took a deep, thoughtful breath. “Suppose you were the one in that position: you have a hundred and some troops of your enemy, trained and hostile people, that you have to keep under watch. That's a problem. So you reach out to your enemy, and they won't listen to reason. They won't go with what you offer or ask—whatever the specifics, negotiations fell apart.” She looked at Lucien. “As supreme commander with a responsibility, what are your options?”

Lucien tried to imagine the scenario, but their enemy was uncharacteristically careful with her troops, and they rarely captured any troops, let alone healthy ones capable of starting a riot.

“You could put them to work,” Santhil started. “Forced labour is inefficient and unreliable, but you have to feed and clothe them anyway, so you might as well get something out of it. If the conditions are brutal enough, the work force whittles down to a manageable amount, but you still need to guard everyone while they work.

“You could deport them,” she continued. “Send them somewhere they can't be conscripted back into a hostile force. It means you're going to have to expend resources to keep them from happily rejoining their army, but at least you can spread the cost and the burden and keep it off your own armies.

“Or you could execute them. That's obviously not going to go over well with your enemy, but you already tried being reasonable, so the next step is being rational. Dead people don't join armies, don't cause riots, and don't need food or medicine.”

“There's not really a happy ending for them,” Lucien took away from it.

“Except if you manage to strike a deal that makes you accept that a hundred combat-ready troops return to your enemy's armies, ready to kill the brave soldiers in your own,” Santhil said, and she pressed her lips for a brief moment of silence.

Lucien nodded, taking it all in. This woman and her entourage had clearly been thinking on this, and he was starting to understand why they had been invited to partake in the negotiations: while it would be highly unusual to have a woman at the table, it sounded like tradition would have to take one for the team. Lucien, for one, was happy to have her here, and not just for the negotiations.

“Well, I shouldn't take up your time any longer. Thank you for being here,” he said, looking the three sisters over, “and I hope the negotiations are fruitful.”

“Thanks for the welcome,” Santhil returned the goodbye, and brushed a hand over his upper arm as he turned, catching his attention. “We'll see you around?”

Lucien smiled warmly at the prospect. “I'd like that. Good luck.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Sat Feb 14, 2015 10:08 pm
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