Sunday, 21 January 2018

Episode II - IV Lessons of Strength

A Cliff-top Duel

Lessons of Strength
(Full Chapter)

The wane light of the Ishep moon cast it’s pale glow over the darkened world as cool breezes slithered among the streets of the City of Veils. Other than the sounds of soft rushes of air, the constant thrum of the churning river winding through the core of the canyon below, and the chirruping of desert cicadas, the city was silently tranquil. All of the denizens of Alsira Thaenat had retired to their homes to sleep, to drink their troubles away in one of the public lodges, or had slunk away into the shadows to hatch their plots for the next day. All was calm, save for the echoing hammer-strikes of Ghelta’s booted feet on the dry stone streets as she sprinted towards the Leiggenskappf.

Every stride forward was a lunge from her long legs as she ran and each footfall was the slap of leather against the chilled rock. She moved with a purpose, pumping her arms at her sides, stretching them with each step, as if she were grasping through the air at her destination. Her breathing was heavy and the warm vapor rising from her open mouth rose in little clouds towards the star-filled night’s sky.

Despite the cool breezes that teased at her crimson hair and cooled the sweat over her body, she wore nothing more than her favorite tunic — a mass of tattered linen, more than any sort of body covering — and her leather shorts. The scabbard of her klaive was tied tightly to her thigh so as to not jostle as she ran. Her gaze was focused on the robust lodge ahead of her as she shut out all other awareness of the world as she ran. All that existed in her mind was the shadow of the Heroes’ Lodge with the flickering torchlight beaming from its windows and the sounds of music as well as shouts of the warriors erupting from within.

In a matter of moments, Ghelta managed to finish her run and shove open the wooden door to the Leiggenskappf, as she entered she let her boots slide across the straw-strewn wooden floor. Her eyes darted around the lodge, from the skaldt playing his lute while singing a tune from the artist’s alcove; to the roaring flames coming from the fireplace; then to a group of warrior’s flipping stools as they wrestled each other in the corner; and finally to the bent form of Ylethus looming over a table to stare at his horn of mead.

She didn’t let her feet slide any further as she pushed against the back of a drinking old warrior and tore across the floor to Ylethus. As she neared a muscled woman with a tankard in hand got up from her stool and blocked Ghelta’s path. Ghelta gave the woman a hard elbow to the ribs, causing her to almost lose her grip on her drink and slump slightly into the table. The woman belted out a retort of curses, but Ghelta returned the words with her upturned left arm and a slap of her right hand against the inside of her elbow — a gesture of equal viciousness. The woman belted out a hearty laugh and got back to her feet, easily forgetting the slight.

Ghelta pushed her legs hard and jumped over another table in front of her, sliding on her rump and guiding her momentum with her hands. Two haggard warriors looked up from their conversation to see her glide between them. Her feet impacted the floor on the other side and she continued to run the last few yards over to where Ylethus sat with his back towards her.

“It’s time!” Ghelta shot the words out between heavy breaths. Once she reached Ylethus she slapped her hands against his immense shoulders and used his back to stop her run. “Skartha is in labor. The pups are on their way.”

Ylethus turned his head and peeked over his shoulder at Ghelta who bent forward and placed her hands on her knees to catch her breath. One of his bushy eyebrows shot up for a moment and then he turned back to his horn of mead in silence. He lifted the horn to his lips and swallowed back the last dregs of his drink. He let the large horn fall away from his fingers and clatter to the table. He turned back, wiping some of his favorite drink from his beard. His eyes twinkled with light from a nearby torch.

“Well then, we don’t have a moment to waste.” He lifted himself from his wooden bench, which groaned in relief as he got to his feet. “She’s in the kennels?” He turned on his feet and placed one of his giant hands on Ghelta’s shoulder as she nodded up to him. The two of them began to walk for the door.

“Ho-ho!” A blonde-haired man holding a full and spilling tankard aloft in front of him pressed past two other warriors to near Ylethus. “You said one of your wolves is giving birth?” Ghelta looked over at the man who grabbed his long, braided beard with his free hand, lifting it up and over another warrior’s plate of food as the other passed by. He lifted his beard like a maiden would lift her skirts to avoid soiling them in mud near a stream.

“Yes, Amsthyn, are you interested?” Ghelta continued to walk with Ylethus but leaned back over the large warrior’s arm. She could see a smile on Amsthyn’s face as he nodded back.

“It was my wolf that knocked her up, I might as well be there to see the consequences.” Amsthyn laughed and raised up his tankard as he pushed past a fat warrior and a tall one with her hood drawn who was also pushing by. He spilled some of his ale onto his head and began to fuss with his immaculately cut hair. “Provided I can get past these fools, I’ll meet you at the kennels!” He elbowed the fat warrior in the gut and stopped in his tracks. The fat man stared up at him sternly for a moment as Amsthyn remained frozen, watching the other man’s reaction. The fat man erupted into laughter and Amsthyn did as well while giving the fat warrior a light slap on the chest.

Ghelta and Ylethus stepped out of the warm and hearty atmosphere of the Leiggenskappf and into the chill air of the city, outside. Ylethus kept his hand on her shoulder as they slowly walked from the door. Ghelta looked up to Ishep in the sky and gave a long and thought-filled sigh.

“She wasn’t well a few hours ago.” Ghelta slumped her shoulders slightly and began to gnaw at her bottom lip. “It must be a hard delivery. She crooned from her kennel and when I went to check on her, she snapped at me.”

“It’s probably just her instincts.” Ylethus moved his hand and clamped his meaty fingers around the back of Ghelta’s neck to comfort her. “I’ve seen several childbirths over my life, Ghelta. One that I was responsible for, several that the warriors under me wanted me to be present for, and one right on the field of battle.” He rolled his eyes at the last memory and quietly chuckled to himself. “Bringing life into this world is the same as taking a life from it; it’s a bloody, painful, and extremely scary process. She probably just wanted you to leave her be.”

“That’s hard to do.” Ghelta looked up to Ylethus as the continued to walk toward the kennels. Her ice-blue eyes shone full with the star-filled and moon-haunted light from the heavens above. “Just as you think of your warriors as your children, I see the wolves I take care of the same way. I can’t stand when they’re in pain or scared.”

“As you say, those wolves are like my warriors-” Ylethus pulled Ghelta close to his side and looked off to one of the jutting cliffs above. “You care for them, but they still have to handle their own lives. We use those wolves for hunts, just as I use my warriors for war, you have to trust that they know what is best for themselves. There are times when you have to cut the mother’s cord and let them fend for themselves.” He returned his gaze to Ghelta as she stared down at the ground. He shook her neck softly to get her to look up at him.

“I know.” She crossed her arms over her chest and ceased her gnawing on her bottom lip. “I just want her to be okay. She’s been mine since she was a pup. Birth is such a scary thing.” Her words became choppy as she got lost in her own head.

“Yes, and perhaps one day you will have to experience it.” Ylethus gave a sardonic laugh that was abruptly cut off by a punch from Ghelta in the side. “What? One more year and I’ll have to grant your Kollishi Thaulp to make you an adult. Surely you’ve had your eye on one of the boys in the city by now.”

“What’s this? Is Ghelta pregnant, too?” The loud and boisterous voice came from Amsthyn and he sprinted up behind them. He still held his tankard in one hand, with a drumstick of meat dangling between his fingers. With his free hand, he reached out to ruffle Ghelta’s crimson locks.

“Yes.” Ghelta shot a menacing glance over to Amsthyn as he caught pace beside her. “I’m with child, and it’s your’s, Amsthyn.” Her full lips spread into a savage grin that let the tips of her canine teeth peek out over her bottom lip. She shot her head to the other side to look up at Ylethus. “He took my innocence. Now I’ll be fat with his spawn in short order.”

Amsthyn’s face contorted with confusion as he nibbled on his drumstick. He looked down to Ghelta and then up to Ylethus. As he lowered his food from his face, he noticed the hulking warrior beside him fluidly pull one of his jhulken-blades from his back and level it over Ghelta’s head to point at his face.

“If this is correct, Amsthyn, you have a choice; your life or your manhood. Don’t worry, I’ll sever the balls quickly, but I might have to slowly hack off the rest.” Ylethus narrowed his eyes and lifted his upper lip into a snarl. He kept his blade leveled at Amsthyn’s face and only an inch from his nose. Both watched each other silently and cautiously for several moments.

“Hah!” Amsthyn broke eye contact first and took a long swig from his tankard. He eyed the drumstick in his hand and then looked over to Ghelta. He took her in from head to toe and then leaned back to look at her rump. “I couldn’t have. I wouldn’t.” He leaned forward and crouched slightly to look Ghelta in the face. “Look at her. I could hardly get it up. She’s too young for starters, and I like my women to have more curves. I wouldn’t be interested.” He shook his head vehemently and went back to nibbling on his drumstick. “-Even if I was in a drunken stupor and the gods had cleansed the world of everyone be her and I.” He gave a cruel laugh. “Sorry, little lady, but you can still keep dreaming.”

Ghelta turned her right foot out and swiveled her hips. With one quick motion, she lifted her left leg up high, bent her knee, and turned to kick the tankard and drumstick from Amsthyn’s hand. She kept her leg raised up with her foot higher than her head, using her leg to bar him from moving forward. Amsthyn looked despondently at the food as it hit the ground, then slumped his posture to sulk.

“Perfectly good meat and ale gone to waste.” He turned his head back to Ghelta. He slowly raised up his hand, placing a single index finger on the toe of Ghelta’s boot, then began to push her leg down. She let her foot drop back to the ground. “I was enjoying those.” He leaned in and scowled at Ghelta for a moment. As quickly as his mood went sour, it jumped back to playfulness as he hopped behind Ghelta and grabbed her by the head. He put her in a headlock beneath one of his arms and started to ruffle up her hair with his free hand.

Ylethus spun his blade in his hand and sheathed it as easily as he had freed it. He gave a snort and continued walking toward the kennels. He could trust his men, and although it was plain that he disliked Amsthyn’s joke, he also showed how much he enjoyed watching Ghelta squirm. The warriors beneath him knew that he would protect them all if he could, but they also knew the ferocity he would protect his adopted daughter. They called him the ‘Mother Bear’ when it came to Ghelta and they were right.

Ghelta and Amsthyn wrestled for a few moments and then easily caught up to Ylethus. They walked the rest of the way to the kennels in silence. Ylethus turned several times to look at Ghelta and each time he could see the mounting concern on her face as she looked back up to him. Amsthyn tried once more to bring levity to the walk by lightly slapping Ghelta on the back of the head, but it didn’t work.

A long and painful howl came from the large wooden building they were walking towards. As soon as sound began, Ghelta ripped herself away from Ylethus and Amsthyn to sprint head-long to the door. She pulled the door open with enough force that it might rip from its hinges and she ran into the darkness inside. Ylethus and Amsthyn looked at each other for a moment and followed after.

Ghelta pushed her way though several hallways and then stopped near the exposed back of the building. She stopped at a doorway and slowly placed her hand on it. She bit her lip again and took several heavy breaths. She looked up to see Ylethus and Amsthyn make their way to her.

“I know you’re concerned, but don’t coddle her. Most wolves want to be left alone with they give birth.” Ylethus began to trip over his own words as he placed one of his hands over Ghelta’s. His hand easily dwarfed hers that was pressed against the door. Her other hand was white-knuckled as she gripped the metal knob.

Ghelta held her stance for several moments, she looked up to Ylethus for some time and then darted her eyes over to Amsthyn. The blonde warrior returned her look with a shrug of his shoulders and a sheepish grin. She inhaled sharply and then turned the knob, pressing against the door slowly to enter the room.

The room beyond was dark save for some of Ishep’s light making its way in between the overhanging roof and the half-wall that served as the wolf pen. Cool breezes flowed over the half-walls and made the open gate at the far end of the room swing back and forth with a quiet creaking. Ghelta’s eyes darted across the straw-strewn ground to each corner before finally resting on a shadowed form curled up in the farthest recesses.

Ghelta slowly stepped into the kennel and lowered down into a crouch, she let her fingers trail on the ground and then slowly lifted her hands with palms held up as she neared the shadow. Her eyes adjusted to the dark and she could see Skartha laid out on a pile of straw. She reached out to the wolf and let her other hand touch the ground. She could feel wetness beneath her fingers and stopped.

As Ghelta looked at her fingers, she could see the dark blackness of blood in the dark. She looked down to see four small masses coated in glistening mucus among a huge pool of blood. The four bodies were each smaller than the size of Ghelta’s fist. She rummaged in the blood for a moment and then looked back to Ylethus who had entered the kennel behind her.

“I can’t find any remains of the sac and I can’t find the placenta.” She took a step closer to Skartha and placed a hand on the wolf’s flank. “I don’t know if she ate it already.” She leaned forward watching two extremely slow puffs of breath rise up from the wolf’s mouth and into the night’s air.

Ghelta lightly touched the wolf and then pressed one of her hands to Skartha’s chest. She could feel the wolf give only a single belabored breath. Her face furrowed in concern and then she pivoted on her toes to reach over to the four masses on the ground.

She seized up one of the bloody bodies and held it between her hands. The blood that coated the tiny little form had turned cold. She felt it in her fingers, waiting to feel a breath or heartbeat come from it. After several moments she raised the little body towards Skartha’s face. The wolf-mother stared at it for several moments and then turned her head away slowly. She let her head slump into some straw nearby and gave another long, wheezy breath.

“I think this one is stillborn.” Ghelta let one of her long legs pull out from her body and she moved along with it back to the small bodies strewn near the rump of the wolf. She still held the small lump in her hands and gently set it down in some straw.

She snatched up another body and felt it in her fingers. The body was cold and lifeless. She tried to massage the pup’s chest and she raised it up to her face. After several moments she gave a short and sad sigh and placed the little body next to the other. In short order, she made her way through all of the pups.

“None of them are breathing. I can’t feel a heartbeat from any of them.” Ghelta began to choke on her words and feel tears filling up her eyes. She looked back to Ylethus pleadingly. “I don’t understand, how could all of them be stillborn?”

Ghelta watched as Amsthyn stepped from behind Ylethus and lowered himself into a crouch next to her. He reached out a hand toward Skartha and stopped himself to look back to Ghelta for permission. She nodded and he began to feel the wolf’s chest and around her neck. He held his hands for several moments and then let two of his fingers fall into the blood pool near the flank of the wolf.

“The birth was complicated, somehow.” Amsthyn choked on his words as well. He let his eyes fall to the ground. “Something was wrong and she’s bleeding out. I don’t think she has much longer.” He lifted his eyes to Ghelta and reached out to grab her hand. “You need to be here with her and say your goodbyes. Olthenna will be upon her soon.”

Ghelta clenched her fingers around Amsthyn’s hand and looked at him with tear-filled eyes. She could see the same tears in his eyes as well. He took two hopping steps backward and pulled on her arm with his to guide her to the wolf. Ghelta followed and felt Amsthyn’s grip release as he placed her hand on Skartha’s neck.

“I’m so sorry.” Amsthyn whispered in Ghelta’s ear and sniffed back some moisture. “It’s my fault because it was my wolf-”

“No.” Ghelta looked back to Amsthyn and shook her head. She leaned forward and clutched Skartha around her chest. “Don’t you apologize for anything.” She turned and began to run her fingers through the blood-matted fur of her pet. “You got to be a mother, Skartha. Sadly, Tolesh didn’t have any souls to spare for your pups.” She began to openly sob as she ran her hand over the wolf’s neck.

Ghelta laid her head on Skartha’s chest and held her tightly. She could hear the slow and ponderous breaths coming from the wolf. She could hear the space between heartbeats grow with each breath. Skartha’s body was growing colder by the moment as her life’s blood was pooling beneath her. The wolf’s eyes looked up at her and then she shifted slightly to place her muzzle into Ghelta’s chest.

The moments stretched on as Ghelta continued to sob over her dying wolf. The breaths shortened and the heartbeats fell away into silence. Ghelta continued to run her fingers over Skartha’s fur.

“You’ll be with Olthenna. She’ll take good care of you. When my time is done here, I’ll look for you in the Lands of Shadow.” Ghelta lifted Skartha’s muzzle up in her hand. She could see the wolf’s eyes close after she spoke her words. The wolf gave one last seizure of life as her leg lifted and dropped twice, then she was gone.

Ghelta held her close for several more moments and then turned to look back at Ylethus. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she could see the glow of the moon on the moisture of her face. She looked to Ylethus and then to Amsthyn who stood with his head in his hands.

“I’ll be okay. Please-” She felt her voice give way. “I just need some time alone.”

Amsthyn let his hands drop and looked at Ghelta. He gave a nod and turned to place a hand on Ylethus’ arm. Ylethus looked from Ghelta to the warrior beside him and back. Ylethus nodded and left with Amsthyn behind him. The kennel door swung open and closed with a creak and then a bang. With the two warriors gone, the silence in the kennels began to linger and feel haunted.

Ghelta ran her hands through Skartha’s fur once more and laid the wolf’s head down on some straw. She leaned back and allowed herself to sit in the pool of blood. She reached over to snatch up the four little bodies nearby in a desperate last check to see if they were alive. She felt each one and knew they were just as dead as Skartha was now.

She held the little bodies in her lap as she looked up to Ishep in the sky. She wanted to be angry at what had happened. She wanted to pull that moon from the sky and set it on fire. She wanted to make someone or something pay for the lives that were taken away this night. Sadly, there was nothing she could do and there was no one to blame.

This wasn’t a situation that she was used to as someone who was training to become a warrior. None of her skills with weapons could bring back what was dead. There was no foe to vanquish save for Olthenna, the goddess of death, but Ghelta was hardly a match for her. She desperately wanted to be mad at something, but she couldn’t be mad at all. The only thing inside of her was the hollow feeling of sorrow and helplessness that she had grown to hate.

She lifted up and examined each of the pups in her lap and then set their little bodies next to Skartha’s. Each one was beautiful in their own way. Beneath the blood and the mucus, they had down-like fur in completely unique patterns. Each of their little bodies were curled into little balls. Each had tiny little faces, tiny little legs, tiny little tails, and tiny little ears. They seemed complete in every way save for the spark of life.

When the last was placed down, Ghelta lowered her face into her blood-coated hands and began to quietly cry. More than the loss of her companion and her pups, she felt a strange kinship to this situation. There was something that pulled at and resounded with her spirit. She began to wonder if it was her own origins in this world that was similar. Ylethus had told her that her mother had died when she was still an infant. She had no memories of her that she could recall. The feeling of motherhood was something alien to her.

As she began to unpack the thoughts in her head and feel the tears running down her cheeks once more, she was pulled away from her sorrow by a strange sound. She stopped and lifted her head for a moment and perked up her ears. Immediately another muffled and barely audible noise came from the kennel around her. The noise sounded like a single breath or the quiet mewling of some animal.

Ghelta looked ahead and saw Skartha’s tail move slightly and one of her legs begin to quiver. Joy and confusion shot through her mind like lightning bolts as she looked over at Skartha’s face. She didn’t know how, but maybe Olthenna had forgotten to take her soul away. Maybe Skartha was still alive.

She grabbed the wolf’s face and ran her fingers over her ear. She pressed her head against the wolf’s chest but couldn’t hear anything. The body was cold and lifeless, but as she looked back to the wolf’s flank she could see another quiver of life. A moment more and another quiet sound bubbled up from the body.

Ghelta pulled away and looked at the wolf’s rump, lifting up the tail and then the leg. She watched carefully as she could see something dark pressing it’s way out of Skartha’s nether regions. One more mewling bubbled up and Ghelta jumped. She could see the lump squirming around trying to make its way free from the body. Ghelta pressed on the wolf’s abdomen and began to massage the lump free.

After some squeezing and fury, the little mass popped free and began to roll down a pile of straw to Ghelta’s foot. She watched in amazement as the little thing wobbled for a moment and then raised its tiny little head. She let curses and expletives of amazement roll of her tongue as she carefully lifted up the little body in her hands.

One more mewling breath came from the pup as she lifted it up to examine it. She could see the blood-covered, blind eyes on its face as sit moved its neck back and forth. Tiny little paws stretched out and grasped at her fingers. She knew it was alive and it was responding to her touch. Tears overflowed once more as she cupped the little creature between her hands. Her eyes darted from it to the corners of the room, searching for something that she couldn’t find.

“You stay right here and I’ll find you a blanket or something.” She knew that newborn pups were blind and deaf, but she was so happy that it was alive that she didn’t care. She laid the pup down near the foot of Skartha and got up to her feet. She looked down at the pup and then around the kennel once more. “Where in Gehemol did I put that blanket?”

Ghelta reached into the straw in the corners of the kennel to search for the blanket she sought. Wherever she checked, there was nothing to be found. She began to grow frantic and tempestuous, taking some frustration out by kicking the gate nearby. She knew she had laid some blankets in here before she ran to fetch Ylethus. There was no way that they could have vanished in such a short period of time.

She looked up to the sky above and clenched her fists in rage. She gave one more temperamental kick to the kennel wall nearby where she stood and then heard the sound of cloth falling into the straw near her feet. She looked over at it and saw a blanket had fallen down. She looked up and noticed two other blankets that she had draped over the kennel wall. Immediately she felt warmth fill her cheeks and a rush of calm spread through her body.

“I’m a bloody idiot, aren’t I?” She snatched up the blanket and walked back across the kennel to the body of Skartha. She sat back down in the blood pool and draped the blanket over her arm. She looked to where she had dropped the pup, but the little wolf was no longer there.

She rummaged in the straw nearby but couldn’t find the pup. She leaned back and then heard a tiny sucking sound coming from Skartha’s body. She looked over and saw the pup nuzzling up to the dead wolf’s utter and suckling upon the nearest teat.

“Oh shit.” Ghelta watched as the pup hungrily pawed and nuzzled at the Skartha’s body while suckling. The realization tore through her mind that beyond what cold and dead nourishment her old companion had in her corpse, there was no milk that the pup would need. Her mind began to wheel and churn with ideas as she continued to watch the pup drink what was left.

With a click, she realized that she could get some milk from the brodenskappf. She loathed the thought of having to return to that place, but it was nearby and they would have some sort of nourishment for the pup. She knew from her childhood that the Broden-mother and several of the Broden-nurses would squeeze some of their extra productions and keep it in cold canisters for some of the infants. The thought of women milking themselves and collecting it made Ghelta wince, but it was the only place she knew of that would have what this pup needed.

Ghelta looked at Skartha’s face once more and then leaned in over the pup to press her hands upon the dead wolf’s utter. She shook her head at the thought but steeled her nerves knowing what she must do to keep this fragile, little life going. She lowered her face to one of Skartha’s teats and began to suckle on it while massaging the utter. Her mouth soon filled up with cold milk. She wanted to spit it out, but she kept going and using her tongue and throat to keep the milk in her mouth.

Once she had enough, she choked for a moment but managed to keep it all in her mouth. She pulled away, looking once more at Skartha’s face and then got to her feet. She didn’t want to have to pull the poor pup away, but she couldn’t leave it here while she went to retrieve the milk from the brodenskappf.

She leaned in to the pup and lifted her pinky finger over the pup’s nose. She pressed her face to her palm and let a bit of the milk in her mouth dribble over her lip and down her hand to her finger. She nuzzled the pup once and the pup pulled away from Skartha’s teat to suckle on her finger. After this, she snatched the little creature up in her hands and wrapped it in a blanket with her free hand.

She was able to rub some of the blood and grime away from the pup and then roll it up in the blanket. She kept her finger in the pup’s mouth, feeling tiny lips tugging at her flesh. She placed the rolled up wolf down the front of her shirt between her breasts. She worried it might slip, so with her free hand she unbuckled the lower belt from her scabbard — that secured it to her leg — and re-buckled it around her chest.

With a shake of her body as she hopped from heel-to-toe, she could see that the pup was secure in its little nest against her body. She continued to dribble small amounts of milk from her mouth, letting it gather in drops around her pinky to feed the hungry wolf. She gave a long sigh of relief and left the kennel.

* * *

It only took several minutes for her to walk to the brodenskappf and with some luck, she arrived long after the children and their care-givers had gone to sleep. The collection of lodges was eerily quiet and devoid of any light from within.

It had been years since Ghelta had been back to the brodenskappf. Ylethus had made sure to keep her as far away from it as possible after her incident with the chieftain’s son. She had walked by it several times in recent years, usually while performing an errand, and had always seen it bustling with activity. The same Broden-mother and Skaell-father watched over the children, despite their advancing years, while many younger broden-nurses had come in to help in whatever way they could.

Ghelta watched her footsteps as she made her way into the center of the area and made sure her pinky was still firmly in the lips of her pup so that it wouldn’t make any more mewling noises. She looked to the smoldering remains of a rock-ringed bonfire a dozen yards from the main dwellings for the children. Judging by the smoke and fading embers, all the members of the broden had retired hours ago to be lost in whatever dreams Sethos had in store for them. She just hoped that Skaell-father Jhulmin snored as deeply as he did when she stayed there so that she might not wake him up.

She crossed the yard and made her way to a crack in the ground that was covered over with aged and withered wood. As her feet lightly padded over the dusty rock, she looked up from her steps to see the same familiar boulder ahead of her. It was the same perch she had sat on for most of her time in the broden as she watched the bustling activity of Alsira Thaenat below. The stone seemed far smaller than she remembered it in her youth and now that she took one more look around the area, she realized the whole area was smaller than she remembered.

The fragility of her memories began to gnaw at the back of her mind and the emotions that welled up inside of her heart made her feel sick to her stomach. She shook the thoughts from her head and refocused her intention on the wooden trapdoor next to her feet. She crouched down and slowly wiped the sand from atop it until she could shove her fingers into a small hole in the wood and pop the door open.

With the trapdoor opened up, Ghelta gave one last look around the area to make sure no interlopers were present and then lowered herself backward down a small ladder. One of her hands raised to protect the head of the pup strapped to her chest while the other let her balance as she took several steps down into the dark. This was the storage area that Jhulmin had always kept well-stocked for every possible event.

This underground space was almost pitch black and Ghelta could feel the tugging of spider’s webs upon her hair. She knew that Jhulmin kept down here some extra bottles and hand-made nipples for several of the children that refused to be breastfed by the broden-mother or one of the nurses. Trying to find them in the dark, or more likely not break something while she was down here, seemed an insurmountable task. She dare not light a candle to guide her way, lest someone notice it from above.

Ghelta held onto the little pup at her chest with one of her hands, feeling her fingers grip around the little bundle of towels and fur. She closed her eyes and began to focus on her breathing. She could feel the pup’s heartbeat and her own as both seemed to slow and match in speed.

She didn’t want to draw upon some of the tricks she had learned since the incident at the broden when she was younger, but she had to draw upon one of those tricks in this moment. Ylethus had caught her several times and each time he had screamed at her with anger and fear. He made her promise to never do such, “dark magickal shit,” ever again. He always dragged her to go see Grandmaster Toulam who would examine her from head to toe and then perform strange rituals over her. Each time the old man did so, Ghelta found it harder and harder to do the little tricks that she had learned.

One such trick was something she called, ‘the Eyes of the Wolf,’ and she was focusing her energy to do so at this moment. Every time she used one of these powers, she felt a darkness slip inside of her and it frightened her to her core. She felt the pup continue to suckle at her finger, and her other hand holding the little creature firmly. She hoped that the joy and determination she felt towards this little life might keep the darkness at bay, while she drew upon her powers to help it survive.

As Ghelta continued to monitor her breathing, she could feel the tendrils of shadow come out from the darkness around her and caress her flesh. Several of the tendrils burrowed deeply into her and caused the tiny hairs on her arms to stand on end. She could feel the heartbeat of the pup start to race as its instincts flared to life. She tried to fight the darkness by reaching out to the pup’s energy and allowing it to suffuse her own. A battle of wills tore through her center until finally a crackling feeling from deep within allowed her to realize she had won.

She opened her eyes and could feel the energy of the room around her rippling under her attention. The room was still dark, but she could make out the outlines of objects around her as if everything was cast in a dim, indigo light. As her eyes adjusted to these new perceptions, she could make out rows of shelves around her, some with folded cloth and others with small jars of preserves. She turned her head to the other wall and could see several more shelves holding miscellaneous utensils, tools, and small baubles.

She took several steps further into the dark and after about four strides she could feel the floor slope and turn slightly to the left. She lifted her left hand from the pup to guide herself by lightly touching several of the shelves. Her sense of sight was heightened, but she could only make out shifting shadows and outlines if there was agape in her attention she might trip over some object on the ground, or walk straight into a set of shelves.

Ghelta closed her eyes once more and focused more of the energies inside of her, as she did so she could feel a tendril snap at her consciousness like a flurry of a limb from some testing predator. The tendrils were wrapping around her, wanting to get inside and take over. One more lash came at her and tried to steal her focus away but she held strong despite. She tried to remember what the bottles looked like from her childhood and manifest those thoughts from memory into reality.

She opened her eyes once more and could see a shifting mass of purple off to her right. She knelt down to look at one of the lower shelves near her waist and she could see the bottles stacked there. A shimmering cloud of purple energy clung to the outlines of the objects and as she reached for them, the haze faded away. She could feel several dozen glass bottles neatly stacked around her hand. She moved her hand up to the next shelf and could feel several of the fake nipples strewn about in a pile.

Quickly and as quietly as she could, she snatched up three of the glass bottles and shoved them under her tunic beside the body of the pup. She reached out for the fake nipples and placed three of them into one of her shorts pockets. She gave a quick look around her in the dark, more out of habit than anything else, to make sure no one was around her and then began to make her way back to the ladder.

The wooden rungs of the ladder felt warm and dusty as Ghelta’s left hand dropped from one to another. The pup at her chest began to wiggle slightly and made a tiny squeak of a noise. In response, Ghelta spat some more of the milk in her mouth into the palm of her hand and let it dribble down to the pinky she returned to the pup’s mouth. It was growing painful on her jaws and throat to keep the milk held there for so long, but she had to keep going until she could get out of the broden with her stolen prizes.

As the little wolf began to suckle greedily once more, she tried to shake the darkness from her eyes. She focused her breathing and let the energy inside of her disperse. She closed her eyes for a moment and imagined the tendrils of snapping darkness receding away from her. She did as Grandmaster Toulam had taught her to do when she was younger and focused on a ball of white light growing up from inside of her as if warding off or banishing the darkness away. Slowly, she started to feel more like herself as she took two long and deep breaths.

She opened her eyes to see only darkness and the dim light of the stars above coming in from the open trapdoor. Relief and calm spread over her consciousness and then gave way to determination. She grabbed the nearest rung and pushed herself up, lifting one foot over the other to get to the top of the ladder.

Once Ghelta was able to peek her head over the ground, she noticed a flurry of motion and quickly dropped her head down. It took her a moment to realize what she had seen as adrenaline coursed through her veins. She had seen the wooden door to one of the lodges open up and a figure stumble out into the night. Ghelta bit her lower lip and pressed herself against the ladder.

Slowly, she raised just enough of her head past the hole to see what was beyond. She looked at the wooden door that had been slammed open and was now creaking its way shut once more. Her eyes darted to and fro, covering different points around the lodge until they fixed themselves on a woman’s body as she made her way from the door. The woman was stumbling as if she were still half-asleep, yet her pace was brisk as she sent herself around the side of the lodge and toward a small shack a few yards to the east.

The woman wore the leather shoulder-guards and bandoleers that signified herself as one of the broden-nurses. Below these items of station, she wore a white linen gown that she had hiked up to above her waist. Below the tailings of her gown was nothing more than the exposed flesh of her legs, crotch, and buttocks for all to see, that is if there were anyone else other than Ghelta awake at this hour.

The broden-nurse made her way to the shack and threw open the door in a rush, she still held her gown hiked up and turned around to face where Ghelta remained crouched. Panic tore through Ghelta’s senses and she held her breath, waiting to be found. The woman seemed unconcerned as she lowered herself down upon a seat and let her eyes close. A look of contentment spread across her face and Ghelta realized why the woman was awake in the middle of the night.

Ghelta lowered her head below the ground and leaned against the ladder while sighing under her breath. She gave the woman, who hadn’t shut the privy door in her haste, a moment of privacy as she finished her deed. Each moment that went by was counted in Ghelta’s mind as her nerves continued to be wracked at the possibility of being discovered.

She twisted slightly on the ladder and lowered her gaze to the bundle of towel and fur next to her chest. The pup had pulled away from her finger and raised its tiny head up. Ghelta knew that all newborn pups were blind and deaf for several days after birth, but it almost seemed like the little creature was looking up at her. The pup opened its mouth and a tiny little sound came out, more like a whisper than the earlier mewling it was doing.

“Shh.” Ghelta whispered to the deaf pup as if it could hear her words. Maybe it could feel the vibrations in her chest, along with her heartbeat. “We’ll be out of here soon. Once this bint wipes her ass and gets back into bed, I’ll get you some milk for tomorrow.” She ran her hand along the down-like fur atop the wolf’s head. It nuzzled back against her fingertips and gave another whispered sound.

Ghelta remained quiet, pressed against the ladder, and lightly scratching behind the ears of the pup until she heard a slamming of wood against wood. She turned on the ladder and slowly raised herself up to the very edge of the ground. Ahead she could see the same nurse, her gown dropped to flowing around her ankles, make her way from the privy to her dormitory. The nurse navigated her way with bleary eyes, profuse yawns, and the occasional scratching at her rump until she reached the door to her sleeping area. With another loud bang, she threw open the door and entered the darkness within, letting the door slowly creak back into place behind her.

Remaining motionless, holding her breath, for several moments hoping that the broden-nurse would make her way to her bed and drift back to sleep easily. She began to wonder if the commotion had woken up any other members of the broden, or any of the sensitive children. She remembered back to her memories of being ditched with this group and knew it would be next to impossible for the nurse’s slamming of doors to awaken anyone. The children were often shoved into crowded sleeping chambers where they would have to endure each other’s snores and tumbles. She knew that most of the nurses and attendants were often exhausted after a day caring for the children. A few moments more and she found the daring to pull herself from the hole and get back to the rocky plateau above.

She lowered herself into a crouch and snatched up the trapdoor. As she closed the worn wood down over the hole, she pressed one of her feet against the pivoting-end to quiet any creaks or groans from the rusted hinges. Once she felt it was securely in place, she brushed some sand and dirt over it while smearing her footprints. She made her way backward from the door, occasionally looking behind her to make sure no one was there, and then got up to jump away.

All that was left now was to snatch up some milk for the pup. She had doubts about using the stored milk that the broden-mother gathered for the infants, but it was the only source she could get at. She remembered back to those few months that Ylethus had abandoned her here as a child and the location of where the broden-mother kept the stored milk dawned on her. She had a memory of that drooling, cross-eyed fool, Paulk, getting in trouble after sneaking into the broden-mother’s quarters. Despite being far too old for it, he had a proclivity towards drinking the stored milk reserves.

Ghelta quietly moved like the wind towards the broden-mother’s quarters while checking every few moments that no one was watching her movements. She reached the side of the stucco hut and raised herself slowly to peer through the open window. Her hands caught the frame and she lifted herself to peek through the open wooden shutters. There was no glass in the window to distort her sight.

Inside, she could see the plump and aged broden-mother laying on a fine mattress at the far end of the hut. She laid splayed out, with only a silk sheet covering the lower part of her body. She snored loudly, and with each pitched, noise-some breath, a necklace of bone clacked between her massive bosoms. The woman’s clothes and dress of station were draped over a nearby wooden chair beside a small table. Strewn about the table and haphazardly piled on a small shelf anchored into the stucco wall were numerous books on herbs, husbandry, and some small tomes of hedge magick.

Ghelta’s eyes slid over the room and took in all of its contents until she had to stand on the tips of her toes to find what she sought. It was directly under the window sill that she found a small, lidded cauldron simmering above a brazier of smoldering coal. Hanging from a metal rung was a wooden ladle and a small towel insulated the handle on the cauldron’s lid.

Ghelta pushed herself up, shielding the pup strapped to her chest with a hand, and managed to get one of her long legs through the window. She let it limply hang there as she scooted her rump onto the sill. During this entire process, she kept her eyes firmly fixed on the immense, snoring set of breasts on the nearby bed.

Leaning forward to snatch up the ladle from the nearby rung and giving a pat to the pup’s head, she reached under her shirt to pull out the first of the bottles. She felt her left leg wander too close to the cauldron and pulled it back, almost causing her to topple over. Thankfully she secured the bottle between her thighs and snatched the top of the window sill before she fell and knocked the cauldron from its perch.

She lifted the ladle up to her mouth and bit the handle tightly to secure it. She continued to pull out the other two bottles from beneath her shirt and set them between her thighs. Once this task was complete, she leaned forward, holding onto the pup so that it wouldn’t fall, and snatched up the cauldron lid with a free hand. Every muscle in her body started to sing under the strain she held while balancing on the sill, holding onto the bottles, biting a ladle with her lips while holding the milk in her mouth back with her teeth, and lifting a heavy metal lid.

The cauldron’s lid popped up and she was able to gingerly slide it to the side of the wide-brimmed metal edge. She balanced it carefully by flexing out the toe of her boot to hold it in place. Once satisfied that it would not fall, she snatched the ladle from her mouth and dipped it into the warm milk below. With her other hand, she lifted the first of the bottles from the vice-like grip of her thighs and proceeded to pour the milk into it.

She did this several more times until she was on the last ladle-full of milk that she needed for the third bottle. Once each was filled she pulled one of the fake nipples from her pocket to secure the top of the bottle. This was now the last one and she could finally be done with this place. She began to pour the last few bits into the third bottle when she felt a rustling and heard a mewling coming from her chest.

Ghelta didn’t know if it was the smell of the warm milk or the feeling of warm steam coming up to rile up the pup. She thought that wolf pups were blind, deaf, and unable to smell, but something had caused it to stir. It had come to life in a writhing and noisy form between her bosoms causing her to drop the ladle in a panic.

The only solution that came to mind was for her to shove her thumb into the pup’s mewling mouth and lower her head to lightly bite the hackles behind the pup’s head. Milk dribbled over her lips and onto the pup’s head as it went quiet and stopped moving. She had seen mother wolves do this to stop fussing pups several times in the kennels. The success came at a cost, as Ghelta felt the contents of the third bottle spill down her leg.

She kept her precarious perch for a few moments as her eyes focused back on the broden-mother laying upon her bed. The noise had caused her to stir and stop snoring. The heaving set of breasts jiggled once and then contorted as a small woman’s head lifted up from the pillows. Her aged and weather-worn face looked more like leather than skin after all these years. Her eyes remained shut and her toothless mouth began shifting about in her face.

“Jhulmin, go to sleep!” The woman turned her head and lifted a flabby arm to bang on the far wall of the hut. “Don’t you wake me up, again, you prick!”

Ghelta remained frozen as the rest of the bottle’s contents dripped down her leg. She could feel one of the sealed bottles shift between her thighs, but she clenched all the more to keep it secure. She found herself silently praying to whatever god might be listening that she could get out of this situation without getting caught. She closed her eyes for a moment and took in a sharp breath through her nose.

“Oh shove it up your arse, you old bat!” The gruff and low voice of the Skaell-father erupted from the other side of the stucco wall. A bang came from that wall that sent one of the teetering books on the broden-mother’s desk crashing to the floor.

“I’ll suffocate you with my arse-” The broden-mother began cursing beneath her breath as she began to punch at one of her pillows with her hand and lay back down on her bed. She rolled over, causing the bed to groan as her bosoms flapped upon one another. The hefty woman finally settled into her new position.

The moments stretched on and Ghelta felt like she was ready to give up, but then the broden-mother’s snoring started up once more. She could feel her shoulders slump with relief. She let go of the pup’s hackles and kissed its milk-coated head. With a few shifts of her weight, she was able to get control over her situation on the window-sill.

She managed to finish up quickly and store the newly filled bottles back beneath her shirt. Afterward, it was easy enough to set the lid back upon the cauldron and place the ladle back upon it’s rung. She shifted herself from the sill and fell back onto the dusty rock outside the hut.

She didn’t know how she managed to pull off the theft and not get caught. In her head, she thanked whatever god had given her the strength to get through this ordeal. She made her way cautiously out of the brodenskappf yard and with a quick jump over a wooden fence she was free at last.

“You are one demanding little sod, aren’t you.” Ghelta whispered to the pup as she made her way back to the kennels. “You almost got me caught. Don’t do that again.” She rubbed the milk from the pup’s fur with an edge of the towel bundle. She could feel the heft of the filled bottles around the pup and a sense of satisfaction made its way through her like warmth on a cold night.

As she could see the shadow of the kennels come into view, sorrow began to gnaw away at the warmth she felt. Back there were the bodies of Skartha and her stillborn children. She was glad that one life was spared on this evening, but she still had to ensure that those who were lost could find some sort of peace.

One of the most important tenets of the Alsiran people was that those who died must give back to their community. Whether it was fellow tribes-people or animals, all bodies must be used to their fullest before they were set to rest. In a place like the Jolash Plateau, where the ground was made of rock and sand, it was hard to find places to bury the dead. What could be harvested was, and then the remains were burned in funeral pyres so that their spirits could ascend up to the lands of the gods.

Many families would keep the skulls of their fallen family members in their homes. Proud lineages would keep the skulls on display in a ceremony room next to the living area. Other members of the tribe thought of that custom as morbid and simply burned their family members while casting their ashes to the wind. No matter the way they honored the dead, each body must be treated and harvested with care.

She would honor Skartha and her pups in the same fashion once she got back to the kennels. She would need to harvest Skartha’s body for what she could use, such as furs, bone marrow, and a few of her ribs. She would boil her skull and place it in the ceremony chamber of the kennel along with Skartha’s mother and Ylethus’ old wolf. The pups would remain intact and have their bodies sent to whatever realm the wolves went to when they died.

Ghelta looked down once more at the pup strapped to her chest. This one would be hers and she would raise it proudly. She understood what it was like to lose her mother and be abandoned as an orphan. She would not let Olthenna take this little wolf away from her. If she had to steal milk every night, she would do so. She would chew the pup’s food once it got old enough, and she would teach it to hunt like a mother wolf would.

She felt tears well up in her eyes once more as she kissed the top of the pup’s head again. She felt the pup shift in the towel and she lifted a corner of the cloth to cover the pup’s face. She knew the little creature was blind, but as a token action, she didn’t want it to see what must be done to set its mother and siblings to rest.

* * *

“Well, what kept you up all night?” Ylethus turned from the stew pot he had simmering over the hearth to see Ghelta as she entered the house with a slammed door behind her. He looked her over and smiled. “You look like shit.”

Ghelta tromped into the dining area of the house and set a dripping bag onto one of the chairs. She gave Ylethus a sideways glance as she pressed past him to grab a pitcher of water. She drank from it and walked over to a small basin near the kitchen and began to pour the water over her arms and hands. She began rubbing her hands together to get rid of some of the caked blood and ashes.

“I put Skartha and her pups to rest.” She looked up for a moment to see Ylethus lift a spoon from the stew to his lips. He gave a nod of approval and then turned to look at Ghelta. He pointed to the stew and Ghelta nodded back.

“I assumed as much, but what is that you have stuck between your tits?” He raised one of his bushy eyebrows and pointed the spoon towards Ghelta. “Also, every time you move around I hear the jingling of glass. What did you steal?”

Ghelta finished up with the water and poured it down a nearby drainage hole. She walked over to Ylethus and lifted the bundle from her chest with her left hand. She leaned over the table and unstrapped the belt around her midsection with her right hand. Once loosened, the three bottles fell into a heap on the table.

“This is the only surviving pup from Skartha’s litter.” Once the bottles fell to a rest, Ghelta let the belt fall to the floor. She used both hands to hold the pup towards Ylethus. The corner of the towel fell away and a little pup nuzzled upwards.

“Well, I’ll be damned to Gehemol…” Ylethus let his words trail off as he leaned in to survey the little animal. “I thought they were all stillborn.” He furrowed the features of his face as he placed the spoon back in the stew. “You didn’t do anything strange, did you?”

“Strange, like what?” Ghelta was honestly puzzled and pulled the little pup back from Ylethus. She shook her head and kept staring at Ylethus from different angles, trying to understand what he was saying.

“That dark magick shit I have to keep telling you not to use. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to get Toulam to purge that stuff from your mind and body.” He narrowed his eyes and lifted the towel to look at the pup. “I don’t need you raising the dead or some-such unholiness.”

Ghelta pulled the pup back and looked angrily back at Ylethus. She let her bottom teeth jut out and scrape along her top lip. He had hit a nerve with her.

“I didn’t raise it from the dead, okay?” Ghelta rolled her eyes and set the pup lightly on the table. She tugged at the corners of the bundle to make sure the pup was secure. “This one was left inside of Skartha when the rest came out. I only found it when it had the strength to howl at me.”

Ylethus took a step from the stew pot and lifted his sleeves up. He looked at the bundle and then lifted up the pup. “So, what are you going to do now?” He prodded at the cloth with one of his meaty fingers and saw the little wolf nuzzle at him. His features immediately softened.

“I’m going to raise it as my own.” Ghelta beamed proudly as she began to lift up and set down each of the bottles on the table. “I’ve stolen some milk to feed it.”

“Stolen from where, exactly?” Ylethus lifted his massive and bearded head to look at Ghelta. His eyes narrowed once more and he began to whistle from his nose as he took in sharp breaths.

“Well, none of the other wolves are pregnant right now, and I’m certainly not capable.” She gestured to her chest and cocked her head to the side. “So, I, uh-” She stammered over her words and then took in a sharp inhalation. “I kind of stole it from the brodenskappf.”

Ylethus seemed to deflate after hearing the words. He held the pup in one hand and began to pinch at the bridge of his nose with the other. “You did what?”

“Oh, come on!” Ghelta pointed at the bottles on the table. “It’s leftover milk used for spoiled infants. I’m only going to take a bit each day until the pup can be weaned. That old hag broden-mother probably just tosses it out every day, anyway.”

Ylethus shook his head and continued to pinch his nose. “You’re stealing food from the gods-damned brodenskappf. That milk is specially treated for the infants who are sick or those who belong to important families. They put all kinds of concoctions and alchemical crap into that stuff. Some merchants even pay a high price to get a vial of it.”

Ghelta scrunched her face and took a step back at the words. She remained quiet and let her features dance with confusion. She didn’t know if Ylethus was making up what he said or if he was actually telling the truth.

“I’m not lying, you little git.” He lowered his hand from his face and began to shake his head slowly. His beard ruffled and moved along with his large head. “If a member of the broden catches you stealing that milk, you’re done for. I don’t mean execution, that would be too merciful.” He took a pause and made sure he had Ghelta’s attention. “Far worse, my dear. You’d be expected to spend the next decade or two as a broden-nurse. Would you like to have mewling little bastards suckling on you all hours of the day? Would you enjoy having to wipe shit-smeared arses? Do you really want to go back to that place?”

Ghelta’s eyes went wide and her jaw went slack. The mere thought of having to become a broden-nurse was the closest thing she could think to real horror. She would rather be gutted alive on the fields of battle, or slowly ripped apart by a horde of blood-thirsty monsters. Anything but having to spend time being responsible for someone else’s children.

“I see the horror in your eyes. I think the consequences of this are sinking in, right?” Ylethus gave a sardonic grin and then lowered his eyes back to the pup. “I understand what you have to do to keep this little one alive.” He lifted the pup from the towels and held it up to examine the little creature. “She’s your responsibility now. All I can say, is-” He paused for a moment and looked back to Ghelta. “Don’t get caught.”

Ghelta gave a single nod from across the table and took a seat in one of the chairs. Ylethus noticed the little pup gumming some strands of his beard and handed the little fur-ball back to Ghelta. She took up the pup in both hands and held it against her chest.

“So, have you figured out a name for her, yet?” Ylethus turned away to grab two wooden bowls in his hand. He snatched up the spoon and doled out a heaping serving of stew into the first bowl. He flourished the spoon like a chef might, taking amusement in his skill. He handed the first bowl across the table to Ghelta and lifted his eyebrows to emphasize his question.

“I was thinking-” Ghelta held the pup up to her eye-level and smiled. “Khollta.”

“Queen of the Wolves.” Ylethus spooned out another heap of food into his own bowl and let the spoon fall back into the pot. He lifted a leg and straddled one of the chairs and lowered himself down to the table. “A fitting name, if a bit uninspired.” He glowered at Ghelta for a moment and then softened his features into a sincere smile.

Ghelta set the pup back into her tunic and snatched up her bowl, lifting it slowly to her lips. She watched Ylethus face for a moment as he continued to beam from across the table. He gave a nod to her and she slurped up some of her stew.

“It’s a good name.” He lifted his own bowl to his lips and let his nostrils flare as he breathed in the smell of stewed meat and vegetables. “A Wolf-Queen for a Warrior-Queen.” He chuckled and filled his mouth with food.

* * *

“-Just as I told you that you must temper your strength, you must also show it openly.” Ylethus let his heavy foot slide across the rocky cliff-side as he readied his attacking stance. He brought his greatsword up to his eye level and stared over the blade at Ghelta. “It is from our strength at arms that the members of our tribe gain their security.” He strained the boulder-sized muscles of his upper body as he pulled the guard of his sword past his face and then plunged it forward.

Ghelta barely moved her head out of the way of the thrusting sword. The blade tore through the air in the space between Ghelta’s neck and shoulder. She only had a moment to realize how close Ylethus had come to severing the artery in her neck. With a single downward swing, he could decapitate her easily. She struck his blade hard with the edge of her klaive, drawing the metal upward. She used the strength in her arms to keep the weighty blade far enough away that she might pull her head around it.

“We, as members of the Vhulkhovyr caste, are responsible for the safety of our tribe. We are the sword-arm and the blade that oftentimes must be sent to cast down those that would kill or rape our own people.” Ylethus pressed the blade down against Ghelta’s for a mere moment and then relented. He drew his blade up and allowed the momentum to build into another swing. “Ours is to live by the blade, to fall by the blade, and to ensure that others cannot cut down the people we love with their own. Each of us is expected to pay the ultimate sacrifice so that the innocent may live in peace.”

He let his hands slip from the hilt of his sword as the momentum kept it aloft in the air. He snatched up the hilt with a different stance and brought the immense blade downward towards Ghelta’s head. His eyes flared open and his froth began to build up from the corners of his howling mouth.

Ghelta could see the light of the twin suns glint off of the blade as it came plummeting down upon her. Her instincts were to freeze up from fear but her training took over and without thinking her muscles were working hard to keep her alive. She swiveled her feet below her and let herself fall forward towards Ylethus’ feet. As soon as she reached his boots she let go of her klaive and closed her eyes while splaying open her legs as far as they could stretch.

Thunder echoed throughout the cliffs as Ylethus’ blade struck and cleaved into the rock between Ghelta’s legs. Following the thunder of splitting rock was a swell of wind that washed up Ghelta’s back and made every inch of her flesh well with goosebumps. She took a moment to try and cleanse her mind of shock so that she might see if she was in pain from the blade sundering her flesh.

The moments dragged on but Ghelta couldn’t feel any pain rising up to her consciousness. She looked over her shoulder quickly and noticed Ylethus’ sword buried halfway into the rock. The edge of the blade was no more than a hair’s width from her crotch. She gave a relieved sigh and looked up to Ylethus who continued to stand above her.

“Many naive scholars I have talked with over the years have all told me that the world would be a better place if we all lived in peace.” He continued his lesson, oblivious of almost cutting his adopted daughter in twain. “Such a sentiment is something worth wishing for but is not practical at all. As long as violence lives in the hearts of men we must use that threat of violence to hold greater depravities at bay.” He began to pull on his hilt to free his blade.

Ghelta snatched up her klaive from between Ylethus’ giant boots and pushed back until she could feel the edge of his blade against her rump. She coiled her legs around the sword as the giant warrior pulled his blade from the ground. Using Ylethus’ strength to lift her up, she lowered her right leg down the blade to notch the top of her right boot into the sword’s tip. She lifted up with the blade and was held aloft in front of Ylethus.

He lifted her to his eye level and continued his monologue. “A society bereft of those that are willing to die or kill to protect it and its values is a society that will fade away beneath conquering flames.” He narrowed his eyes at Ghelta and cocked his head to the side, seeing the odd position he found her in. “Those same scholars, if they were as wise as the authors of the books they drown themselves in, would realize that the time for peace in this world is passed. All that exists in the heart of humanity is violence, now. It is our job to keep those violent wolves from our doorsteps so that the future generations may know some semblance of the peace they lost long ago.”

Ghelta felt her dry lips spread into a painful smile as she focused on Ylethus’ puzzled look. She struck out with her klaive, thrusting it over her arm to cut through Ylethus’ beard. She could feel the blade snag on some of his flesh by his neck. His eyes went wide with shock and rage as his mouth opened up with a silent yell.

Ylethus swept his sword hard to the right and then allowed it to carry over to the left. He let his hands go of the hilt, letting the weight of the blade and Ghelta attached to it, carry it toward the cliff-side. Ghelta let go of the blade with her legs and reached downward with her klaive to drag its tip across the ground.

Narrowly, she was able to slow herself and the sword down before she went sailing over the cliff. She felt her legs sweep over the edge as her klaive dug into a rock to hold her in place. She managed to scramble up to her feet and hold herself in a crouched stance on the very edge.

She looked around her and couldn’t see Ylethus’ sword anywhere. She leaned over her shoulder to look down the cliff-side and saw the glinting blade falling to the rock-strewn sands far below. Her eyes shot back up to Ylethus and every muscle in her body tensed as she prepared for the giant warrior’s rage.

Ylethus lifted a hand from the side of his neck and displayed it out in front of him. There was only a small dribble of blood on his fingers. A cruel smile spread across his face and he lifted his chin in the air in defiance.

“I think you’ve gotten the point.” Ylethus took a single step toward Ghelta and pointed his bloody finger at her. He curled his outstretched hand into a fist. “Now for the next lesson. One you should be prepared to learn after striking your Vhollen. The lesson of courage.” Ylethus lowered his shoulders and began to kick at the ground. With a thunderous howl of rage, he tore forward into an unarmed charge straight at Ghelta upon the cliff’s edge.

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V: Lessons of Courage

1 comment:

  1. Talk about a bit of a bittersweet fate for Skartha.

    I see where going through different phases of Ghelta's life now, and this particular one of her losing Skartha was definitely sad. Still it's not all bad, as I sensed one pup would survive the ordeal and thus become the one she would keep to for the rest of her life.

    Ylethus has clearly trained her well, steeling her against the world in the process. Still, I wonder if he forgets that she is still a girl, and it appears she has a degree of fragility to her despite the darkness she holds back inside.

    I wonder too when we will see Aethel again, but I imagine it will be sooner than I think.

    Will we ever hear of Tyverus and Isilda's deeds as well? I can only wonder at this point.