[size=18]Chapter One: The Tempest[/size]
Chapter One: The Tempest
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of golden daffodils
Beside the lake beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
― William Wordsworth, I Wander'd Lonely as a Cloud
“That storm is rolling in quick,” said the elf from atop his steed. Valerian Raakshas, former Captain to the Guard of Aludariel Sun’vael, Wind Cutter and estranged Ban-iarla to the High Court of the Rhydinian Qualinesti, looked askance to his dark haired counterpart. The smaller elf, her hands gloved in supple leather, smoothed soothingly over the mane of the pure white winged horse she called her own. The pegasus chuffed in annoyance.
“Shh, now Apollo, we’ll rest soon,” she cooed softly. The Wind Cutter gave Apollo another pat then hooked a boot into a stirrup to haul herself up into the saddle. Sweeping her braided tail of midnight over a shoulder, she finally regarded her mounted companion. “We’ll need to see a farrier before we leave for Darkstrand."
“Shattervein should have at least one on hand. Ready to ride?” Val asked. Aludariel nodded curtly and turned Apollo for the southern face of the ride they had been riding. Val let her lead. It was always better to do so when the storms came. They had a way of darkening her light and plunging her into sullen silence. He could do little but wait for it to pass. They reached Shattervein Haven just as it began raining. Set on the edge of the Eastern Forest and at the mouth of a deep, dangerous valley, it truly was a haven for those passing through. The elven riders made it to the Haven’s edge and slowed to a trot. Sparsely populated, those who lived there were already hunkering down in preparation for the nasty storm. The tavern at the end of the main drag was the only beacon of activity and soon Valerian and Aludariel joined the fray, falling into line near the tavern’s stables.
By the time they reached the front, the drizzle had turned into a downpour, soaking their hair and cloaks and saddle packs. Valerian dismounted first, his boots sinking into the muck as he led his horse to the stable’s mouth. Aludariel joined him a moment later, cringing at the squish of mud that went nearly to her ankles.
“Single malt scotch and sugar beet pulp for these two,” she instructed the stable hand, slipping him enough silver to ensure the task would be done. The boy looked down at the offering and his eyes widened. He bobbled a nod and led the pegasus and the mare into the dry safety of the stable’s awning. Val had slung their gear over his shoulders, leaving Ali to lead the way to the tavern’s main entrance. “Set us up with a room and I’ll get us something to drink.”
Once inside, Val went one way and Ali the other. The tavern was packed and smelled vaguely of wet dog. With a curl of her lip, the pretty elfess stepped up to the bar and shouldered into a space a bit larger than she needed. While some elves towered over others, her kind were better suited to hanging with dwarves. Aludariel was a tall one for her Qualinesti blood but still she stood only a few inches above the five foot mark. The initial lift of her hand did little to get attention so finally she whistled for the grizzled tender behind the bar. Taking his time, he eventually made his way down to her.
“Getcha summat?” He growled.
“Two plates and a pair of meads. Make ‘em hot.” The girl had the sort of manners that would make even the lowliest of the court cringe but the tender was used to the gruff sorts and so he shuffled off to fulfill the order. It left Aludariel to lean there at the bar with one eye on the stairs to await Valerian’s return. The hard smack across the seat of her breeches soon became a more pressing matter that had her whirling around to find her assailant.
“What’s a pretty bird like you doin’ here o’ all places?” He wasn’t a massive man but he was definitely larger than she or even Val. His hair was pulled back into a greasy tail at the back of his head and he grinned down at her with a smile lacking at least three teeth. That said, Ali didn’t cower before him and instead leveled a devastatingly sharp stare upon him.
“You’ve three seconds to apologize for touching me.” Her voice, softly melodic as it was, carried a steely edge that recommended he do exactly as she said. To her chagrin, he began laughing, a deep, baritone guffaw that had nearby patrons staring. The Wind Cutter counted to three in her head then struck, quick as the lightning that danced through the sky outside. His face jerked to one side as if he had been slapped though nobody saw such a thing happen, but once his head was turned, she snatched him by his grimy ponytail, twisted them both toward the bar and yanked his face down until it met the bar. Immediately she let go and took a step back. The man was quick to stand up, a hand over his nose and blood trickling through his fingers. Still she regarded him evenly. “Now you have two seconds to apologize for touching me.”
“You bitch,” he snarled, advancing on her onto to find himself cut off at the pass by a strong arm in between them. Val inserted himself between them with his back to Ali and his hands on the barrel chest of the greasy, bleeding man.
“This place is much too crowded for a tussle. What’s going on?” He asked. His question was for Aludariel but his eyes were on the large man before him.
“The little bitch busted my nose, I’m gonna **** up that pretty face of hers.” The man pushed forward again only to find Val’s bulk steadfast.
“And now you have a single second to apologize not only for slapping my ass but for calling me a bitch too.” Blade drawn, Ali extended its tip over Valerian’s shoulder to point it just beneath the man’s jaw. It was enough to keep him from moving forward further.
“Aludariel. Put it away.” Val said between his teeth.
“Not until I get an apology.” She insisted.
“Like hell.” The man spat. Val looked back to him, less than amused.
“She’s within her right to slit your throat where you stand for assaulting her. Should you escape with but a bruised ego and a broken nose, you can count yourself lucky. Now, please, I implore you sir, apologize and we can all go back to enjoying our evening.” Aludariel’s Captain asked the man. To further Val’s point in a more literal fashion, Ali pushed forward until she could feel the resistance of his skin against the sharp blade’s tip. He tilted his head back and finally stepped backwards.
“Fine. Sorry you’re such an uppity bitch.” He muttered. Aludariel snarled and pushed forward against Val’s back. The taller elf dug his bootheels in against the old wood underfoot and pushed back against her.
“Try again, sir.” Valerian said tersely. “You don’t want me to let her go, trust me on that.”
“I’m sorry I ever touched you.” The man growled. It hardly sounded sincere but it at least kept Ali from going after him again.
“And?” She prompted. Val looked back at her, exasperated.
“I’m not sorry for calling you a bitch, it’s exactly what you are.” Another step taken back, he was no longer within reach.
“He has a point, Aludariel. Take the victory, our food is getting cold.” Val told her.
“Fine. You touch me or any woman in this tavern without her consent again, I’ll have all ten of your fingers fashioned into a new necklace.” Ensuring that she kept the man within her periphery, she finally turned back to the bar. The tender looked far from amused, eyeing them expectantly for payment for their meal. Valerian paid the man and added a few silver extra to make up for the interruption. They ate in silence and retired to their room soon after.
As always, they slept in the same bed without touching. His proximity made it easier to sleep but she couldn’t sleep with someone else touching her. More often than not, and tonight was no different, she woke in the middle of the night to Valerian’s hands on her shoulders, stilling her from the midst of a night terror. He went back to sleep soon after and she laid awake, watching the flicker of lightning outside fade into twilight and twilight into dawn. Their room was aglow with the first hints of daylight when Valerian awoke for the second time. She had slipped from their bed an hour ago, cleaned and dressed herself. Their room was locked but she was nowhere to be found. Valerian frowned and quickly got dressed. Most of their belongings were already gone and those that weren’t had been neatly packed into one of Val’s satchels. He slung it onto a shoulder and rushed downstairs.
“Aludariel?” He called as he burst from the front door. Rounding the tavern’s corner, his first inclination was the stable and though his horse was still there, Apollo was nowhere to be found. The elf spun a circle to seek out a stablehand and found the teenaged boy dozing in the corner. “Lad. The owner of the white pegasus, where did they go?”
“Huh?” The boy asked with a bleary eyed blink.
“The pegasus, the only damned winged horse in this stable. Where did it go?” Val demanded.
“Oh. She said something about needing shoes. I think she went to Quodan’s down the way.” He pointed vaguely south. Valerian turned on his heel and hurried down the dirt road to see out this Quodan’s. It was there he found Aludariel, waiting less than patiently for Apollo to be fitted with new horseshoes.
“I wasn’t going to just leave without you.” She assured him in quietly placating tones. The soft expression and the delicate pull of her mouth sated his annoyance for the time being. They traded a few words and he went back to the stable to retrieve his mare. By the time he got back, Ali and Apollo were ready to go.
“It’s a day’s ride to Darkstrand. Kaivyre is expecting us before sunset so we’ll want to keep our stops to a minimum.” The logistics of the trip took them through dense and perilous forest but it was the only easy way to reach their destination by land. They left Shattervein behind and set off once more with another job on the horizon. Four hours into the forest the bleating of a young foal in the way brought their progress to a stop.
“What’re you doing here, little thing?” Val asked. The foal wobbled to its feet then fell, bowing its head to nurse its hind leg with a series of licks. “Mmh, you’re hurt…”
“Where’s its mother?” Aludariel wondered aloud, dismounting from Apollo with a soft pat to the majestic creature’s neck. Approaching the injured animal slowly, she offered a palm out to show she was no threat. When the baby let her near, she gave it a gentle graze of her fingers beneath its chin. To her left, the cracking of branches beyond the treeline had her gaze snapping aside just as Valerian called her name.
There were six of them, dressed in a hodge podge mash of presumably stolen garb. From the left and the right they emerged, a small company of thieves by Ali’s guess. One bore a long muzzled musket fashioned with a bayonet tip that hadn’t been cleaned or polished in some time judging by the caked on sludge coating the tip pointed at Aludariel. Another had two flintlock pistols pointed at Valerian, still mounted as he was. The others were armed with varying blades, all drawn.
“Off the horse, knife ear. Empty your pockets, both’a ya.” The man with dual pistols demanded of the duchess’s captain. Watching Val from the corner of her eye, Ali remained crouched before the injured foal, still gently stroking the creature’s neck soothingly. The taller elf slowly dismounted but didn’t stray far from the horse.
“If it’s money you want, you can have it. We need none of your trouble.” Valerian told them evenly. His hands were lifted, turned palm out toward the man who had not one but two pistols aimed at him, cocked and ready to fire at a moment’s notice.
“Check their bags, you know the drill. Dump the trash, take the rest.” The marauder directed his company and jabbed the muzzle of one pistol against Val’s shoulder. “Step away from the mount. We’ll be relievin’ ya of those too.”
As the men rifled through their bags, Aludariel murmured soft sounds to the foal and slowly rose to her feet. Val gave her a look, imploring her not to act rashly.
“What happened to this baby?” She asked finally.
“What baby?” The head raider asked with a look of confusion. Ali’s gloved hand dipped to indicate the hurt horse. The man snorted. “What’s it matter? It got ya to stop didn’t it.”
Aludariel Sun’vael was a woman of ambiguous morals at best but of all the things in the world, she refused to tolerate those who took advantage of the weak. It set her blood to boiling and her hands tightening into fists. Before she could speak up again though, one of the men going through her pack on Apollo’s flank shrilled a whistle to his boss, holding something up in his grasp.
“Keep or trash, Cap?” He called. In his grubby fist was a wooden hand mirror. The wood was dark and mottled, carved into the shape of a wolf, in the paws of which was the polished mirrored glass that reflected the ugly marauder’s scarred face.
“Trash it.” The other man said. The one wielding the mirror tossed it over his shoulder. Boiling blood spilled through her muscles before the mirror ever hit the ground, launching her into motion not for the mirror itself but for the one who had called it trash. She heard breaking glass and the sharp shot of a fired bullet from one of the two flintlocks. It whizzed past her and crashed into a tree at her flank, sending wooden splinters through the air.
Two against six seemed hardly fair odds but the marauders hadn’t counted on Aludariel’s fury nor Valerian’s blood oath to protect her at all costs. In the narrow clearing eight bodies tangled in a flurry of fists and steel, punctuated by short range shots that tore flesh of friend and foe alike. Undaunted by the pain, Ali found Blood Boiler’s edge just as formidable against those she cut down. One after another fell until there were but two to face her and her companion. The orchestrator of the entire thing had tossed his pistols aside in favor of a cutlass from his hip. It seemed unfamiliar in his hand, a fact Aludariel capitalized upon as she parried and riposted his advanced. He lunged and she slipped beneath his guard to thrust for the soft spot between his arm and armor.
Blood Boiler. It was as if time slowed. Aludariel felt every beat of her heart and every bead of sweat as it formed and trickled down her forehead. Simultaneously she felt as light as the air and as heavy as the greatest of anchors. Beholden to the call of her blade, reality fell away in favor of the incorporeal scene before her eyes.
”Blood Boiler.” It was the first word of many that Grimm read from the ledger before him. The old smith was a face she hadn’t seen in at least fifteen years. Worse yet was the one standing in front of him, his face blazing with righteous fury. Kruger was older, a man rather than a boy, different but still the same in so many ways. It was as if the blade in her hand was no longer her own. Her hand remained posed to hold it, but she couldn’t feel it in her grasp, it’s familiar weight lost to the summoning.
“Kruger,” she whispered, her mouth dry. Hers was not the only blade called to and soon she felt the ghastly presence of all those that came after her, everyone ever touched by the smith’s expert hand. Few she knew, he had died so young so how was it possible that he could go on to make more of these works. Weapon after weapon stole through the veil until the two smiths were enclosed in a lethal circle.
“You took my home, my friends… you took my family, my dignity… my name, and My TRUST! I’ve hated you all my life, you in my mind with every weapon I’ve ever created. A thousand deaths and more Grimm, yet here you stand. I’m tired of not being able to sleep at night, of being afraid to open up to anyone, of being afraid I’ll end up just like you. I’m going to do something about that now.” Kruger told the older smith, oblivious to the way his name had slipped from Aludariel’s lips. He was so close that she could almost touch him but still he remained just out of reach. So close yet so terribly far, an entire lifetime away. Bearing witness as Kruger swept Grimm’s legs out from beneath him, the younger smith pressed one of the summoned weapons, a warhammer he called Dark Heart, against the old man’s throat. “I’m going to forgive you, and forget that you were ever anything to me. I can’t forget what you’ve done, I see it every time I look at myself. For that, it’s my turn to take from you.”
“No!” Aludariel felt the pull of the younger smith’s will as he pushed it throughout the forge but in turn the scene before her faded from her view. Blood Boiler’s familiar weight returned to her hand and the crushing gravity that had seemed to stop time was relieved. Her entire momentum had been thrown though and rather than follow through with the jab of her blade through the marauder’s torso, she crumbled forward. It was all the opportunity the man needed. He brought the pommel of his cutlass in a sideswipe for her temple. It connected and stars lit up her vision but she caught herself with a press of a hand to the dirt, swinging a boot up not only for counterweight but also to connect with the man’s ribs. It was his turn to fall and in turn she pounced. Tears poured through the dirt that stained her face and her tensed muscles let loose with a cleaving swing that packed such force it cut almost clean through the man’s neck as he fell.
Behind her, Valerian had finished the remaining thief off, leaving him in a heap with his comrades. Both elves were stained with their own blood and that of their assailants, painting a macabre picture of just what had happened on that desolate forest road. Val carefully collected his younger charge, getting her back to her feet without a question as to just what had rattled her so. He found her mirror, broken as it was, and carefully tucked it away into his own pack so that he could have it mended once they made it to Darkstrand. He made sure Aludariel was settled in her saddle and went to tend to the injured foal, mending the horse’s broken leg to the best of his ability. They couldn’t take it with them but it was the most he could do. Once he was certain they left nothing behind save for the bodies of six unlucky men, he too mounted his mare and set them back into motion once more. The elves would still make it to Darkstrand by sundown, perhaps then he could question Ali further.