A Raven's Dance (Part Two)
Leif took another drink, eyeing the snowfall through the inn’s window. The Grey Beard was one of the more prominent inns in Gruiner. Tavrik did his best to keep it running smoothly, despite the ruckus the Blades or Viktor’s Bear’s sometimes caused.
He thought about the past three months, the fateful day in the forest, and the mysterious dream that had bound him and Talyn together. The raven’s magic had done something. There were moments when Leif could almost feel his presence nearby.
Then there were the dreams. Leif was certain he was seeing through Talyn’s eyes while he soared high above the snows or stalking them at night as a snow leopard. He was searching for something. Maybe even someone. Perhaps that was why he was so intent on watching others.
As is was, Talyn was perched above them on one of the candelabras hanging from the ceiling. It never got old watching how oblivious people were to his presence. His black eyes shone with fascination about the atmosphere of the room, as if enjoying the simplicity behind watching people go about their daily lives.
While appearing innocent, it was hard not to think there was another purpose to it. He seemed especially keen on observing the Blades. There was a trio of them by the hearth, all of them drunk as foxes. Leif felt a chill, while Talyn stared at them. His gaze was almost predatory.
What are you planning?
Leif took another drink, clearing his head. Those thoughts could come later. The front the door opened bringing with it a brief wind gust and a chill. He eyed the man walking in from the foyer. Sig was dressed in furs, as was to be expected, but clean-shaven. Like most Sokorans, he had blue eyes, but his hair was darker, almost brown instead of blonde. He had the look of a laborer, possibly a woodcutter, judging by the axe hanging from his belt.
The man walked up, pulling his hood off completely and sat down. “Ranger Tofson?” he asked.
Leif nodded. “I am. I was told you had a contract?”
“That I do, it’s a simple contract, though I know the payment is lower than the usual fare,” he said.
“Why not take this up with Huntsman Eirik? Grunier is part of his governance.”
The sound of chairs scuffing the floor behind him, drew his attention. Leif turned his head, glimpsing the Blades from the corner of his eye. They were listening in.
The man swallowed hard and leaned in closer. “There have been rising tensions,” he whispered. “I know some of you take contracts regardless of governance. I thought it best not to involve the Rangers here and ask for outside help.”
Leif narrowed his eyes and leaned forward. “What kind of tensions, Sig?”
“Thran Agrim has been assigning contracts from the boards to his men and the Blades,” Sig replied. “He had been voicing his dislike for your autonomy for months. Your Huntsman is furious and nearly come to blows with him over the matter.”
Leif curled his lip. A Thran giving out contracts was a violation of the treaty. “What of his daughter? Doesn’t she handle the day to day affairs and contract assignments?”
“She has abandoned the Rangers and joined the Blades…” he answered. “I’ve word that she said something about a new future for Sokoras.”
Leif blinked and stared at the man. How could Ylva do that?
“How interesting, Leif,” Talyn chimed in. “I thought all of you were family?”
He tensed. Talyn had never spoken in public before. Sig, however, had appeared not to have heard him. “This contract, tell me about it.”
“People have gone missing,” Sig said. “In the past, these things happen. Sometimes a Blade got too drunk and well…you can imagine the rest. The frequency is growing and I fear it is far worse than the Blades.”
“How does this concern you, Sig?”
“Because my daughter was one of them,” he said. “No one has seen her in days.”
Talyn sighed. “How boring,” he said. “I was hoping it would be something more entertaining.”
Leif bit his lip. “How old is she?”
“Fifteen winters,” he replied. “She was to be betrothed to a local trader’s son upon reaching her sixteenth year. The boy is distraught and is the reason I have the funds to make the contract.”
“You don’t suppose he’s responsible?”
Sig shook his head. “No, Dennig is a good lad and he loves my daughter very much.”
“What was her name?”
“Brenja,” he said.
Leif drew his lip taut, fighting to keep his emotions in check. Sig eyes were showing how hard this was for him. “Keep your shards.”
“Leif! Are you daft?!” Talyn commented.
Leif gripped the handle of his mug. It’s nice to see what you care about, raven.
“Ranger, I can’t do that,” Sig said. “I know the rules. Not taking payment will violate your oaths.”
“Barter then,” Leif replied. “In exchange for searching, I want you to keep Eirik informed of anything that could be a threat to the Rangers. Tell the son that he is to do the same.”
Sig smiled, his eyes watering. “You’re a good man, Ranger Tofson.”
“I think you give me too much credit.”
Sig shook his head. “I don’t think the Rangers get enough.” He reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a silver barrette. “Denneg gave this to Brenja as a gift. I hear you can find people if you have something that belongs to them.”
Leif took the barrette, thumbing it between his fingers, then pocketed it in the pouch on his belt. Dennig must be wealthy to give such an elaborate gift.
Sig stood, “I pray your hunt is bountiful,” he said, sounding hopeful and giving a polite nod. The woodcutter glanced at the Blades, they were still watching, and exiting into the foyer and then outside.
Talyn flew down from his perch, his attention was still drawn to the Blades. “So we took a boring job,” he grumbled. “I was hoping for a real bounty.”
Leif rolled his eyes and took another drink. “We’re leaving.”
Talyn quickly hopped on his shoulder. “Into the barren cold we go…” he mumbled softly.
“If you hate it so much then be a snow leopard,” Leif replied. “After three months you still complain when you have the power to do something about it.”
He stepped out the front door, the cold greeting him along with the sound of a dejected sigh. Keeper take you bird, I swear.
“I can’t help it that I have my preferences, even if ravens are adept at handling the cold,” Talyn replied.
Leif paused. “What?!” He didn’t have to look to get a sense that Talyn was grinning to himself. “You mean, when I had to tuck you away and carry you for eight miles in that storm because you were worried about freezing to death, you would have been fine?”
Talyn playfully nuzzled his cheek. “You were so warm,” he replied.
“I swear, I should cook you.”
Talyn scoffed. “As if you could,” he said. “Besides, I’m a tough old bird. You’d only choke.”
Leif sighed, gripping the hilt of his shortblades. “I have only myself to blame for this.”
Talyn cawed softly. “Ironic isn’t it?”
Leif shook his head and stepped toward the nearest alleyway. He took the barrette from his belt pouch and closed his eyes. The feel of the silver and the teeth as he brushed his fingers against it, Leif soaked it in. If the girl was alive there would be a connection, a Thread tying her to it.
The skill was known as Finding. It was something taught by the Skegs, but only to those who survived the tests and had committed themselves to the Rangers. Level of mastery varied, but those with true talent could follow a Thread for miles.
“You’re using it, aren’t you Leif?” He sounded so excited as if it never got old. “You must explain how this works. I have never heard of magic like this.”
Magic, huh? I suppose it is…
Leif continued to feel barrette, the cold nipping his fingers. The Thread was faint, strained and ready to snap. The girl was alive, though barely.
A bright flash flared across his vision. Leif fell forward, eyes fluttering open. Through the haze, he recognized the Blades from the Grey Beard. They were still drunk, their gate holding a swagger as they drew their weapons. Two had skeggox, while the third a longblade.
Talyn…you could have warned me.
“We saw yew talkin’ with that local. Yew don’t belong in Grunier, ya flag is differnt.”
“Oh look, Leif, it’s a rare breed of human known as a moron,” Talyn commented. “Actually, it’s the worst kind, a drunken moron.”
Despite throbbing pain in his skull. Leif cracked a smile and rolled onto his back. Talyn did have his moments, few as they were. “I wasn’t aware my flag was unwelcome here,” he grunted.
As a general rule that Rangers visiting a different governance were required to wear the flag of their Hunstman someplace visible. Some had them tattooed. It was a matter of courtesy. Shuet’s flag was a blue standard with a warhammer in front of a bushel of White Fern.
One of the Blades sneered. “Yew Rangers trounce about, like kings. That’ll change soon nough’. We’ll be takin’s ya jobs.”
Leif put the Barette away and held his hands up. The haze was clearing. “Look, I took my contract and I’ll leave, it doesn’t require me having to return.”
“I don’t think yew understand, Ranga,” the one with the longblade said. “You ‘ave to pay a penalty for settin’ foot in our town.”
Killing them would be easy, they were drunk and overconfident. It wasn’t an option though and would only cause more problems for Eirik. Bodvar was known for being vengeful about his losses.
The trio moved in, encircling him. Cautiously, Leif pulled himself up, keeping an eye on them. The Blade armed with the longblade came in, slashing at his back. Leif turned, wrapping his arms around the Blade’s and twisting it.
The man screamed dropping the weapon, but his fellows were quick to step in. They swung their skeggox and Leif stepped back arms still locked with their companion. The man screamed from the motion, an audible pop sounding.
The pair missed and he released the third, pushing him into his friends. They dodged, letting him fall onto the stone of the snow-covered alley while he cried about his wounded arm. Undeterred they swung again, each rotating in rhythm. By their movements, they were used to fighting together. Each careful not to let the other get in the way.
Leif happened to glance behind him, the dead-end at the end of the alley was fast approaching. He had to fight to keep from drawing his shortblades. Even drunk, the pair were skilled, but he knew he was better.
With the wall getting closer, the aim of the two Blades was becoming more accurate. Adrenaline was sobering them up. Their pattern was growing predictable and Leif stepping in catching the Blade to his right under the arm with a quick jab.
He stumbled, grunting, and nearly dropping his skeggox. His partner came in attempting to seize the opportunity, but Leif cut him across the jaw with his right fist. He shuffled back, taken off guard and Leif followed up with a left hook sending him tumbling on to the stone.
He turned to the other, just catching sight of the third Blade as he barreled into him. The man’s shoulder collided with his abdomen, knocking the breath out of him and they went tumbling deeper into the alley.
Another flash blitzed Leif’s vision as he hit the side of his head against the stone wall at the end of the alley. He rolled onto his back shaking his head when he felt a hard blow to his stomach, then another to the face.
“Yew, scrivving bastard!” one of the Blades shouted. “Yew wrecked ma arm!”
The beating continued; the haze unrelenting. Leif faintly heard the other two laughing as they kicked his back and sides. Talyn…why do you only watch?
Desperately, Leif lashed out, his fist like a hammer. A high pitched squeal followed and through the stone, the faint vibration of something toppling. “He it’ ma scroat!” one of them screamed. “Kill em!”
“Now, now, boys,” Talyn said. “That’s just not polite. You can beat him, but you can’t kill him. He’s mine!”
His voice was deeper, more baritone. There was power in it, like one who carries authority. Like one who should be feared. A scream followed and behind it, Leif felt something wet splash onto his face. He turned, pain wracking body, and shook his head, trying to clear the fog.
It hadn’t been a singular scream. All three of them were screaming. Something large was tearing them apart. He could hear bestial roars between the screams, like an ice bear or a dragon. A dragon though, couldn’t fit in the alley.
When the fog in his mind cleared, Leif saw Talyn, in the form of a raven, his feathers soaked in the Blade’s blood. The carnage was horrific. What little of them remained was half-eaten. The width of the bite on one Blade’s torso was as large as a man’s head.
Talyn simply stood there, a feral glint in his black eyes. “I really did hate them,” he said. “Their thoughts were so distracting in the inn. Like an inane buzzing that wouldn't stop.” He sighed, shaking his head. “Well no loss, we just have clean this up and move on. You have a contract after all.”
“Talyn, won’t someone hear?”
He was getting easier to read, there was a feeling that he was smiling. “No one heard anything Leif.”
He was an interesting creature. Resilient too. One would have thought his injuries would have been more severe. Thankfully, Leif was so strong. Using magic to keep him going would have been less than ideal.
Talyn sighed happily. These past few months have been full of entertainment. Still, Yggsid had yet to be their destination. Leif had purchased a horse a month ago. Well, bartered for it. The beasts were obsurdly expensive. Watching the measures needed to maintain it was interesting.
The beast was a monster, like a mountain of muscle, with thick hair covering its hooves. The barding Leif had acquired to keep it warm was well made. But with what it would have cost him in shards, it made sense why most Sokorans used yaks over horses.
The horse did make a statement though. People took notice and showed him a bit more respect when they saw him riding it. It was doubtful it had been Leif’s intent. He wasn’t that kind of human.
“Leif, why did you buy this thing?”
“Because I got the feeling we’d be traveling to a lot of out of the way places. Binyorn horses can travel far and carry a lot. Plus, I’m not walking across the breadth of Sokoras at your leisure.”
Talyn grinned inwardly. Practical.
“I need to ask you,” he said. “How is it I am starting to get an idea of what you are feeling?”
Talyn paused. This was unexpected.
“Talyn?” he pressed.
“It seems, we have become connected…”
“You don’t sound happy about that,” he commented.
“Well, I would rather keep my feelings to myself.”
Leif laughed. “You selfish feather duster! You think it well and good to know everything about everyone else, but when it comes to you, no one should know.”
“See you get it, Leif, this is why we make such a good team.”
A wry smile etched its way onto his face. “Team? Is that what this is?” he asked. “I thought I was playing poor jailer to a creature I cannot understand.”
“Jailer?!” Talyn replied. “Leif I’m wounded,” he added, nuzzling up against the Ranger’s cheek. “I thought we shared something special?”
Leif curled his lip, drawing it taut. “I really don’t like you…”
“Aww, Leif, is that what you say to someone who saved your life?”
His expression changed, eyes growing distant. Talyn stared at him, strangely though, hid mind had become clouded and hard to read. Perhaps it was too soon to change. There were other ways I could have dealt with them.
“Leif, where are we going?”
“Viktor has Fern plantations scattered throughout his territory, the larger ones are marked on the most current regional maps. I get the feeling we’ll find the girl at one of them. Rauld isn’t far. It’s the largest and developed into a small town.”
“This Fern, what is it?” The question appeared to annoy him.
“Medicine, narcotic, or poison, take your pick,” Leif answered. “When properly refined it can help alleviate pain, or keep you warm.”
“And if improperly refined?”
“It wrecks the body,” he replied. “The more you take, the more you need to keep warm. Eventually, you freeze to death. Fern addicts are violent and dangerous without their fix.”
How curious… “Does this Viktor sell it as a drug?”
Leif’s expression hardened. “He used to, so they say before he became Thran. He sold it to the Dark Guilds of Absion.”
“Typical human,” Talyn commented. “He used the money to raise an army and become a king.”
“You sound like you’ve seen that plenty of times Talyn.”
More than you know, human. They were all the same, each scrambling for power, prestige or position. Like ants, each clamored to be at the top of the pile until another knocked them over. When would they learn how useless such ambitions were?
“Talyn?” Leif asked. “You’re brooding.”
Talyn narrowed his eyes. “This is going to get irritating quickly.”
Leif laughed. “I think it’s my turn to get some enjoyment out of our arrangement.”
Talyn turned his head, pecking him on the side of the head. “Quiet you! Or I’ll make you dance like a marionette on strings.”
Leif reached over, swatting at him. “Talyn!”
Talyn took flight, gliding toward the horse’s head, and using it for a perch. The Ranger’s expression was mixed, somewhere between annoyance and showing that he felt as if he had won a small victory. He pivoted, facing forward, catching sight of something poking through the treeline.
“Rauld I take it?” he asked, looking over his shoulder.
Leif nodded. “Rauld.”
Leif cringed as he examined its walls. Rauld looked more like an elaborate prison, its iron gates uninviting. They weren’t high but were built sturdy and made of stone. Viktor’s Bears patrolled the walls, their watchful eyes shifting between the street and the world outside.
“I don’t like the atmosphere or those men,” Talyn commented.
“Are you going to eat them too?”
Talyn cawed. “No,” he replied snidely. “They probably taste as horrible as the other three.”
Leif rolled his eyes. You amaze me sometimes.
Leif rode in, past the iron gates. The heaviness he felt outside the walls grew after laying eyes on the village itself. The buildings were organized and streets easy to navigate. The uniformity was unsettling.
Leif studied the guards patrolling the streets, then eyed the people going about their business. “Talyn, find me the name of an inn, please.”
Surprisingly, he took off without complaint moving between buildings and vanishing from view.
Leif turned to his right. A trio a Bears were staring him down. They were carrying bucklers and had skeggox hanging from their belts.
“What’s your business here, Ranger,” the one in the lead asked.
“Just simple contract,” Leif replied, reaching into his belt pouch and pulling the barrette out. “I’m supposed to deliver this.”
The Bear narrowed his eyes, his brow furrowed with suspicion. “Seems like strange that a Ranger would deliver such a thing to a place like this in lew of a courier.”
“Name one courier that would want to make the trip,” Leif replied. “Especially with the recent weather.” As if on cue, a cold gust of wind whipped through the gate.
The Bear narrowed his eyes, grinding his teeth. “Where are you staying, Ranger?”
“The Sheep’s Den,” Talyn chimed in, landing atop the horse's head.
A wave of relief washed over him. Talyn’s timing couldn’t have been better. “The Sheep’s Den, I’ll only be here for a couple of days to resupply and I’ll be on my way.”
The Bear leaned back, whispering something among the other two. Both men nodded. “You have two days. If you don’t leave by then, we’ll throw you out without your horse.”
“As you wish.”
They stepped away, but even as he passed, Leif felt their eyes at his back.
“Clever Leif,” Talyn commented. “You surprise me.”
“Should I take that a compliment?”
Talyn cawed. “Yes. It means you aren’t stupid.”
Leif frowned. When you say it that way it still sounds condescending.
“You know they’re going to watch you, right?” he asked
“I would be surprised if they didn’t. I’m starting to think Viktor is up to something.”
Talyn bobbed his head. “I would be shocked if he wasn’t.”
The Sheep’s Den was good cover after all. Though it seemed that Talyn played some part in that. The main room was open and spacious. It appeared that there were other travelers here too. Some of them merchants. The stable had been big enough for Slep, though the innkeeper insisted on charging more shards that it was worth to keep him there.
So far, Viktor’s men had kept there distance and Tyln hadn’t commented about anyone watching them being watched. Either they didn’t care or were being especially cautious. Either way, the snowfall had resumed and was heavier.
Talyn had resumed his perch, his gaze fixed on the streets and Rauld’s people. He was acting strangely interested. Perhaps it was the way the Bears were behaving or how inhospitable the village felt. Still, there wasn’t enough distance or time for him to return before they had asked about an inn.
“You already knew, didn’t you?”
“Knew what?” Talyn replied.
“You knew about this place and the inn, even before you understood my intent.”
A soft gust of wind blew through the street. The silence was telling. So, you have been flying around on your own while I sleep.
Leif sighed shifting his attention to the street. He touched barrette, following the weak thread he sensed connecting it to Sig’s daughter. After a few minutes, he stopped, casually stepping close to a nearby building and leaning against it.
A large wooden wall blocked his path, no doubt the plantation’s fields were on the other side. Ramparts had been build into it and along their paths were more of Viktor’s Bears keeping watch. None of this felt right, but the Thread led past the wall.
“She’s in there isn’t she?” Talyn asked.
Leif pursed his lip. “It appears so.”
Talyn sighed. “Then Viktor is enslaving his people to work the fields,” he said. “How typical.”
“I guess warlords are creatures of habit.”
“Oh, Leif, you have no idea,” he replied wryly.
His age was showing again. You could hear it in his tone. It was like listening to a jaded old man who had seen a lot of terrible things.
“So do wait till nightfall?” Talyn asked.
“We do. While we wait, we had best shop for supplies.”
“Appearances are important,” Talyn chided. “We can’t have others interfering.”
Leif tried to crack a smile. “Well, you could always eat them.”
Talyn hissed softly. “Leif, I don’t think I’ll be helping you again anytime soon,” he commented.
Leif sighed. Why do I get the feeling your help only involves killing people?
The chill of the night air was unusually bitter. Leif felt it seeping in through his furs and armor. Oddly Talyn had taken the form of snow leopard, but his behavior was different. He was more cautious. His muscles were tensed and ears were twitching back and forth.
“What are you staring at!” he whispered.
Leif grinned, adjusting the rope and hook hanging on his shoulder, and shook his head. They can see you in this form, can’t they?
With Talyn following close behind, Leif stalked closer to the plantation’s main gate. Four guards were patrolling along the rampart and two more stood on either side of the gate. The wall itself was about fifteen feet.
“We're not going to assault that are we?” Talyn asked.
“No, I just wanted to see how heavy the guard was in case we had to fight our way out.”
“Good, because I wasn’t going to help you.”
Leif sighed. You pick now to pout like a child.
Using the buildings for cover, he kept watch on the patrols while moving along the wall’s perimeter. Talyn remained ever close and eerily silent. After several minutes of waiting, Leif noticed a window. Leif stepped out when Talyn abruptly locked his jaws around his ankle and tugged.
“Patrol,” he whispered.
Leif flattened himself against the building, the faint sound of two men laughing reaching his ears. Minutes later, two Bears passed by. Leif kept his eyes on their backs until they turned the corner. He shifted his attention back to the wall. Their window was gone.
“We could always tell Sig she’s dead,” Talyn offered. “Chances are she is.”
“No, she’s alive.”
“How do you know?” Talyn’s tone showed how curious he was.
“Because I do.”
He simply shrugged, at least that’s how it appeared, and crept forward, his attention on the wall. After a few minutes, he spoke up.
“We should move now.”
Leif stepped forward, the guards were far enough out. He rushed the wall, quickly taking the rope and hooked it over. To his surprise, the grapple made no sound when it found purchase on the wall.
He scowled, pulling himself up. Not helping he says! So infuriating!
Talyn scaled the wall with relative ease and Leif unhooked the rope upon reaching the top of the rampart. He climbed over, taking the grapple to the opposite side and anchoring it, he rappelled down. Once at the base of the wall, Talyn took the hook in his mouth and tossed over, then leapt, landing on his feet.
“Bears!” he snapped harshly.
Leaf bundled the rope and flattened himself against the wall. The footsteps of the Guards on the rampart grew louder. Silently he prayed that under the cover of night, and in the dim torchlight, they wouldn’t notice the drag marks of the rope or his footprints in the snow. Once their footsteps drifted away, he and Talyn sprinted through the fields, using the large bushels of fern for cover.
The main hall was large, its stone structure reminiscent of a keep. Based on the scattered assortment of windows, it had three levels. To the right of the hall was a set of smaller buildings. The Fern was likely processed there before it was taken to the storehouse beyond them.
Leif stared at the hall. The Thread was strongest here. The quiet pricked the hairs on his neck. Something wasn’t right. There were no guards.
“Talyn, do you hear anything?” he whispered.
Talyn shook his head. “Nothing.” He stalked closer, keeping low to the ground, then turned his head toward a smaller building several yards off to the left of the hall. His ears twitched.
“Viktor’s Bears are there.”
Leif sized up the building. It was probably large enough to house twenty or so. Why are they not on patrol?
It was hard to tell if Talyn was reading his mind, but without a word, the shapeshifter stretched out, his fur turning black, while muscle and bone reshaped themselves. Once the transformation was complete, he took the air and began checking the windows.
After finishing with the upper floors, he stopped and flew back. “It would seem, that the workers are being kept on pallets and crammed into rooms together.”
“Fifty workers per room at least,” he replied.
Leif locked his jaw and crept closer to the hall. Talyn shifted forms, becoming a snow leopard and followed. They stuck close to the hall's perimeter stopping up reaching its main doors. Leif tested them and they gave, cracking opening.
“Strange. Shouldn’t they be barred so late at night?” Talyn asked.
He wasn’t wrong. “They should, no one simply leaves their front door unbarred or unlocked.”
Leif fought back his surprise as Talyn moved ahead, slipping between the cracks in the double doors. It felt somehow off that he wasn’t the one going in first.
A soft growl escaped the shapeshifter's throat.“I’m just curious,” he muttered, then added, “this is no longer boring.”
Leif shook his head and followed after him. I doubt I’ll ever understand you…
The hall was like any other. Rows of tables and chairs were lined up neatly along its length with an avenue between them leading to platform and table at the far end. The master of the house and his chosen circle or family would sit here. At the center of the avenue was a grand firepit whose embers had long died out.
Above the firepit hung a smokestack with chambers branching out from along the ceiling. It was almost like looking at a stone tree with a break at the base of the trunk. The ‘branches’ of the stack likely connected with rooms on the other floors to keep them warm. With the embers died out, it was apparent that the guards watching the workers had little regard for them or any interest in making sure they stayed warm.
Three sets of doors sat on either side of the hall and two more beyond the platform itself. It was likely the two doors at the end led to the kitchens, pantries, and food stores. Their doors on either side would lead the hall’s sleeping chambers and guest rooms.
Talyn paused, turning his head left, then right. “This way,” he whispered, heading left.
“How do you know?”
“Because I memorized the layout when I checked the windows,” he replied, sounding a bit irritated. “Just accept I’m smarter than you Leif.”
Leif scowled. “I should make a pelt out of you…”
Talyn softly purred and simply walked away. “You can try,” he replied.
He followed the shapeshifter, toward the middle door on the left. Talyn sat on his hind legs, balanced himself and pawed the door handle. The door eased open and he pushed his way through.
“Seems you’ve had practice,” Leif commented.
“I’m still not telling you how old I am, Leif.”
Leif cracked a grin and followed him in. “It was worth a try.”
The spiral staircase appeared to extend between each floor. It was steep and like the rest of the hall, made of stone. Leif reached into his pouch and thumbed the barrette between his fingers. Brenja was close.
“Your turn,” Talyn said.
Taking the lead he followed the stairs to a small landing on the second floor and checked the door. Like the doors in the main hall, it wasn’t locked. He opened it, his attention focused on the pull of the Thread. Brenja’s connection to the barrette was strongest down the hall to his right. He paused, noting the torches sitting in their cradles had burned out.
“So you finally noticed,” Talyn commented.
“Talyn…what is this?”
The shapeshifter cracked a feral smile. “Consider it a perk of our arrangement,” he replied. “You’ve been too consumed with your work to notice these past three months.”
Leif took a breath, steadying himself. He knew he couldn’t lose focus now. Answers come later.
He followed the hall, to the door where the pull was the strongest and opened it. The barrette slipped from his fingers as he stared into the room in stunned silence. True to his report, there were fifty workers all laid out on palettes. What Talyn hadn’t said is that they were emaciated and half-starved.
Pulling himself together, Leif scooped up the barrette and quietly slinked into the room. The workers were asleep, some of them snoring. Against the wall hung the furs and clothing they were expected to wear while working the fields. White Fern was an unusual plant. It thrived in the winter but struggled in the summer months.
Leif reached the window, Brenja’s thread was pulsing and he turned, to see a young girl close to the same state at the others. Her blond hair was stringy and skin pale. Her appearence was reminiscent of a Fern addict. Her arms and body were more defined, and with the simple shift she wore, it was hard not to notice how beautiful she was.
He knelt, slipping between her and her neighbor's pallet. “Brenja…” Brenja stirred, rolling onto her side. She was shivering. Leif pulled her blanket over her. “Brenja.”
Her eyes slowly opened, but they were distant as if seeing past him. “It is time to work?” she asked. “Viktor will be happy, The Fern is growing well.”
Talyn growled softly. “Kill her,” he said coldly. “She is dead. I know this magic. This alchemy.”
“Kill me?” she asked. “Is Viktor displeased? I’ll work harder. Do better. I want to make him happy. He deserves our devotion.”
Leif reached for the wall steadying himself. He gagged, fighting back the bile in his throat. “Talyn…what is this?!”
“Old knowledge, very old. It enslaves the mind,” he replied. “I know this plant, you call White Fern now. I will not speak its name, but I know it.”
There was no mirth in his voice, no cynicism. Only disgust and anger. His expression said the sight of her and the others had dredged up a very old memory.
“Kill her Leif, it’s the kindest thing you can do. Sig doesn’t have to know.”
“No, Talyn, we can take her to Yggsid. The druids can help her!”
He crept closer, his yellow eyes turning black. “Are they Aetharian?” he asked, his voice growing deeper. “Are they keepers of ancient lore? No…the cure for her is gone. She will die soon, whatever this Viktor is attempting, it is clear he does not understand the alchemy.” Leif stared into his eyes, it felt as if the inky blackness within those orbs would consume him. “Kill her…Or I will.”
“No,” she said, raising her voice. “I’ll be good, I’ll work harder! Please!”
“Shhh,” Leif whispered. “No one is going to hurt you. Your father sent me to find you.”
“No,” she replied. “I am home. This is my home. Viktor asked me to stay to help him. We’re going to make a future for Sokoras.”
Leif blinked, his eyes opening wide. “What did you say?”
“We’re going to make a future with Sokoras,” she repeated. “Viktor will be High Thran.”
Leif shifted his weight, leaning harder on the wall and covered his mouth. He took slow breaths, fighting to keep from throwing up. Ylva…If Eirik finds out.
Talyn growled. “Leif.”
“You look sick,” she said. “Do you want me to make you feel better?”
Leif shook his head, her words barely registering. He felt someone touch his face, then press their lips to his, followed by their tongue. At that moment the present snapped back into place and he grabbed Brenja, pushing her against the wall.
“What are you doing!”
“Leif! Your voice!” Talyn said.
“Making you feel better,” she said. “The guards say I’m good at that.”
Leif stood, using the wall as an anchor. “Go to sleep, Brenja, it will make Viktor happy,” he said softly.
Like a child, Brenja smiled happily, though she was still shivering. She laid down, pulling the heavy blanket over herself and closed her eyes. Leif turned to the rest of the room, his heart pounding and drew his shortblades.
“Just her, Leif,” Talyn said. “Just her. They can be replaced. She is the contract.”
Leif looked at her. It was so unfair. She would have had a life, a chance to have a family, but Viktor had taken that. He knelt beside her, his shortblade shaking in his hand. “Lie still,” he whispered. “Keep your eyes closed.”
Brenja smiled. “Okay,” she replied.
Leif sheathed the shortblade in his left hand, then placed it over her mouth and clamped her nose shut with his fingers. Because of whatever she had been given, Brenja never opened her eyes while trying to fight him off. In her partially emaciate state, she was too weak and soon went limp. He pulled his hand away a wave of guilt washing over him.
“She was already dead, Leif,” Talyn whispered.
“It still feels like murder,” he replied.
The shapeshifter sighed. “Moral semantics, Leif.”
“Shut up, Talyn.” Leif sheathed his other shortblade and taking Brenja’s body in his arms be started toward the door.
“Where are you taking that?” Talyn asked.
Leif clutched her close and turned back to him. “To the firepit downstairs. We need to burn her body before sunrise.”
He was quiet, his eyes empty and expression plain as the snow around them. Since rising at dawn, no amount of jabbing or insult had moved him to speech. Leif simply stared at the horizon toward Grunier. Only the dull sound of Slep’s hooves clomping in the snow, and the occasional snort he often did, broke the monotony.
Burning the human girl’s body hadn’t been enough. Too much evidence remained of their presence. Magic had been the only recourse. Talyn glanced back at the Ranger. Leif made no comment about invoking magic or the intensity of the conjured flames. His expression was, as it is now, making it hard to know if he had been furious or relieved. His mind was still clouded and hard to read.
This is all boring. I should have been the one to kill her. He’s being ridiculous.
“Talyn,” he said. “I need a favor.”
Talyn froze, tilting his head curiously. “A favor?”
“I want you to become a snow owl and deliver a message to Eirik in Grunier,” he said. “Then I need you to deliver a second message to Sig.”
“Leif, You know I don’t speak to others.” Talyn narrowed his eyes. Why is he assuming I can take such a form?
“While you slept, I wrote the letters, and sealed them,” Leif replied stoically. “I will make camp outside of Grunier and wait for your return.”
Talyn stretched his wings, studying him. “If, I were inclined to do this,” he said. “Then I want to go to Yggsid.”
Leif shifted his eyes from the horizon. “You will do this,” he said, tugging on Slep’s reigns bringing the horse to a halt. “Or we will not move from this spot.”
His tone was flat and empty. He meant every word.
Talyn sighed. “Fine, I will deliver these. Then we go to Yggsid.”