Saturday, 2 June 2018

Episode II - IV Lessons of Strength (Shard I)

A Cliff-top Duel

Lessons of Strength
(Shard I)

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.

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