Vol.2, Ch.4, P.1
Evergreen verdure blurred on by as we galloped fast to Mia’s fallen home.
Our path was that of a Nafílim marching route, laid for its leniency of travel: the trees sprouted spaciously from one another, and so was our horse-speed haste unhindered. A haste for which awaited only trouble with the waning of the noon-hours in this woodland. Thus did we stop and make camp as the last sunrays buried themselves beneath the horizon.
Smoke soon rose; our fire for the night was made. Between us it burned as we sat ourselves upon sundered tree-trunks. I then went about preparing supper: slices of hard cheese and hearty ham. Their aromas quickly wafted against the warm glow of the fire, but I did not keep Mia waiting for long. To her, I handed a generous share.
Yet wait she did, seemingly loath to have a morsel in her mouth before one could be had in mine. Table manners—likely instilled in her not by the callous hands of the slavers, but the wisdom of her parted parents.
Seeing this, I sliced up my own share in a hurry, and supper was soon set.
“Many thanks for this meal.”
“…many thanks for this meal…”
Whilst chewing the cheese, I gazed into the flame, finding in it a beckoning for reflection.
All has gone as well as I’d hoped. Our journey is mostly trodden—only a bit further now till we should find ourselves at the village proper. An early morning arrival, I reckon, were we to set out again at the break of dawn.
My eyes turned up from the fire on a whim, finding Mia quietly helping herself to her meal.
“Here, Mia. Some water,” I said, handing her my waterskin. Taking it, she then attempted to untie the cord locking its nozzle, but it proved too Gordian a knot for her dainty fingers. “Stubborn, is it? Let me.”
I summarily undid the cord, and handed the whole thing back to Mia.
“…thank you… Master…”
“Not at all. It’s an old one, that waterskin. The cord’s gone stiff,” I confessed as Mia sipped away. “Been with me for a decade and more it has, ever since my days back at the barony.”
To the waterskin she then looked. Her eyes glinted with thoughtfulness.
“…it’s… precious to you…?”
“Precious? I suppose so. Very much so, in fact.”
I knew then some relief. Mia’s heart was finally on the mend, enough to join in on some idle chatter. Steeled by the thought, I looked to her once more. Mere chatter could not remain so for long. Not when much weighed upon her frail shoulders.
“Mia. It’s my whim that’s brought us here. And it’s tomorrow that’ll bring you your answer, ill or no,” I broached, gazing at her flame-illuminated face. “…Are you afraid?”
With all softness of motion did she shake her head. “…you’re right… Master…” she answered. “…not knowing… hurts…”
Of course it would.
In her heart: a hurting, burning question, quenchable only by an answer from her sister, Eva. Whether it be the embrace of a warm reunion, or the silence of a cold corpse, the truth must be known, that little Mia might at last move on.
To her resolve, I nodded.
“We come on another errand, as well,” I went on. “Mia. Our covenant, the thrallspell—I mean to have it undone.”
Mia and I, we were slave and master respectively, a bond writ in the thrallspell woven upon the day of her purchase. The laws of Londosius forbade the breaking of it, and so I thought to have the deed done elsewhere. Namely, in Nafílim lands, by Nafílim magicks.
“Should prove a task easy enough, even for a run-of-the-mill wiċċa. Only, I know of none. Do you, Mia?
“…wiċċan… there lived some… in my village, I think… but…” she recalled, only to turn to the campfire. “…maybe… not anymore…”
And then, a small lull, filled with the crackling of the fire, the rustling of the foliage, the chirps and drones of distant critters. At its end, Mia looked to me again.
“…Hensen…” she said anew, “…maybe in Hensen…”
The fólkheimr of Hensen.
A large settlement, like a capital, where sat the jarl: chieftain and ruler of the Nafilim of these parts. I’d committed to memory the markings of a map, which, if it serves, situated Hensen a full-day’s horseride from Mia’s village.
My eating slowed as I ruminated further. Of Hensen. Of the journey ahead, now prolonged. Of cutting the chains between us. But in so doing did I notice her looking intently upon me.
“…Master…” her lips parted. “…you don’t need me… anymore…?”
My brows raised. But a thought, and I then found them furrowing.
“…Mia. I take pains to be as sympathetic a friend as I can. But a word of nonsense, and even I can be moved to anger,” I explained calmly. “Friends need one another. And you, Mia: you’re my friend.”
“What’s not needed is the thrallspell binding us. That’s all.”
“…yes…” she said, gazing down again. “…I’m sorry…”
“Very good,” I nodded. “And just the same, you can be rightly angry should you ever hear silliness from my own lips, Mia.”
“Silly indeed, my lips. I oft speak ill or out of turn, especially to girls such as you, Mia. I tread ‘round needles, ever afraid I might air some folly.”
“…it’s all right… Master…”
What is, I wonder?
Much of what I say of late has only ever earned me misconstruance or scorn. Thus have I found myself given to misgivings about my speech. Worrying whether or not I’ve adequately communicated my point. Worrying whether or not I’ve aired unwise words. Worrying if I’m none the wiser in spite of it.
But I suppose worrying is in itself warrant enough to how prone my faculties of speech were to the faux pas. A troubling thought, truth be told. Though another weighed more heavily to tear me away from it.
I took a breath.
“Another matter, Mia. One I must make plain. Should we find your sister alive and well…” I broached again, pausing, “…then it’s by her side where you belong.”
Mia sat silent.
Words unsought, perhaps, but none that could be rebutted. She had lost everything. But if, by chance, there remained aught at all, then she ought keep it, and dearly.
“Come now, Mia. Get some sleep while you can. We leave at dawn.”
With a spirit seemingly unsettled, Mia obliged, wrapping herself in a blanket and laying down upon the warmed grasses.
The night waxed. The forest slept.
Under the canopy of foliage and far-flung stars was Mia’s slumbering face. Her features flustered in the dancing glow of the campfire as it popped and crackled quietly on.
I poked the flame, stoking its embers. Its airy hum, its spittle and sparks—there was a romance to the sound, one I well-liked. No doubt an unmatched complement to a benighted scene.
Our journey—it has gone well.
Taking Mia along demanded a milder route, an account I heeded with much care. And thanks to my efforts, our travels have been untroubled thus far.
Tomorrow, then. Tomorrow shall we know the worth of our quest.
Mia rustled in her blanket. Her eyes awoke. And to me they looked as she sat up.
“I know, Mia.”
It would seem she had in her a sensitivity to the presence of others. Perhaps born from some innate magick—or from long fearing the fury of Men. Whichever the case, she sensed something nearing anew: the stirring of beasts.
I might’ve been too comforted by the easy course of our journey. Comfort the fates oft find too fresh a hare to harrow for their own humour. And I was to them a mark of much worth, for it seems that with but a fancy of relief do I well-tempt their wiles.
“Stay beside the fire. I’ll handle them.”
I rose and readied myself. Afore, far in the dark, emerged our bestial visitors.
Wood-wolves. A pack of four, each a half-passus and more from head to haunch. No behemót were they, but such was of little solace in the face of their uncanny wit—uncanny enough to rout Men and savour their flesh, a meal they would partake in with their packs from time to time.
Now, being one of them.
A shorter blade serves more soundly than a full sword, at this rate. Thinking so, I took up my knife nearby and faced the wolven prowlers. They crept closer and closer still, deliberate in their pace. My eyes left them not once as I gripped and tore a blanket with my blade, the shreds of which I then wound about my left forearm.
Patience possessed each of their paws as they edged in. Their eyes sharply measured the distance to our camp as they continuously calculated the best time and position to strike. Uncanny wit, indeed.
Fortunately, the forte was found also within me. They all intended to pounce and strike in concert; I intended to disallow them the opening. Thus did I step forth at an angle, abruptly breaking the equilibrium and placing me closer to two of the beasts.
The move ignited some spark: at once, the two lunged forth.
Divide and conquer was the name of the game. When faced with many, fight them afew. The first two’s instinctive attack proved their blunder; it was they that would be dealt with first.
Just as quickly did I raise my left arm, wedging its wrapped length in the flying maw of one wolf. The jaw snapped shut. Pain was absent: wolven fangs are long and keen, but not enough to pierce so layered a protection.
In my right hand, the knife. From below, up it shot, deep into the throat of the arm-biting wolf.
Air and blood spewed. Life left its lungs.
But thereafter did I immediately stoop down low.
Where my windpipe once was, now was surrounded by another set of enclosing fangs: the second wolf, taking the split-second chance to leap and snap at my throat. Only, I had the same idea.
In that slice of a second, I glanced and gleaned its flying form from below. My knife flashed up. Its blade bored into the beast’s jugular. Blood and bones gurgled and cracked.
Taking on the wolves as they dart about the dirt would’ve proven too unfavourable a fight. It is only when they take to the air that they are unguarded. Thankfully the tactic worked: not more than two seconds in, and already two of their number were ended.
But now the knife was lost. Too jammed was its blade in folds of hide and crevices of bone. Hesitation would herald my own end, and so I abandoned the thing altogether.
Two down. Two left. To them, I faced.
As if noting the loss of my knife, the wolves made winds of themselves and gusted my way. But I knew their course: in anticipation did I align with their warpath, that the two could not assail me both at once.
The third was closer; the fourth trailed a ways behind. Seeing this, I focused on the former and thrust forth my left hand, straight into its lunging maw. Right as its snout snapped shut, I clenched my fingers into a fist, for in them was now its tongue.
A wood-wolf’s bite is a terror to behold, but its licker can only lick. And of things to behold, the power of my grip is my point of pride. The beast knew for itself why, for as its tongue was clutched without mercy, it found its jaw incapable of closing.
I followed the wolf’s leaping trajectory and threw it to the ground. My full weight was imbued into my knee as I then slammed it into the side of the beast’s jugular. Here was it weak of hide and muscle, and so did I give one final heave of my weight.
A crack—muted by flesh and fluids. The wolf’s spinal cord was crushed.
Yet the moment was unfinished. Already was the last wolf sailing straight at me. I ducked, missing my assailant by half a hair’s breadth. I then rebounded, ready to meet another attack, only to find the beast’s momentum unturned.
In that instant, I knew.
This pack—it was well-practised in harassing our upright species.
The wolves learnt early on that we tallfolk kept our bags bedight with all manner of earthly delights. What the last of the pack picked, then, was not our flesh, but our rucksack, laying near the fire.
To it, the wolf rushed, rousing fear in our steed nearby. The horse neighed wildly and retreated, leaving Mia alone.
“Mia! Away from the sack! Now!”
But my words went unheeded. For whatever reason, Mia herself ran towards the rucksack.
Through it she then rummaged.
The wolf lunged.
I followed, dashing in.
There, taking something into her hands, Mia fell aside, beholding the beast as it snapped and tore away at the baggage, scattering our rations.
In another instant did I myself lunge, bringing my entire body down upon the wolf from behind. My arms locked fast around its neck, and with all mustered might, squeezed and constricted it.
The wolf writhed with rage under my weight. A struggle stretching on for three minutes and more, during which I relented not a single bit in denying its lungs of air. Slowly, slowly, slowly, its wrath faded, along with its life.
Serenity, once more.
The crackling of the campfire.
The whispers of the trees.
The chirps and trills of nocturnal fauna.
Breaths yet quick, I released the wolf and rose. After making certain that it was, indeed, now a carcass, I turned and went fast to Mia’s side.
There she sat, right beside the ravaged rucksack. And upon her person, no wound or graze that I could glean.
“Mia…” I said, relieved.
“…M… Mas… ter… I…” she quiveringly murmured. “…y… your… precious…”
Clasped tight in her arms was my waterskin.
Verily did she save it from the wolf’s violence. A deathly wager, all for the old, “precious” bag of water.
Should I rebuke her for such recklessness?
Down to her I knelt.
Into her eyes, I gazed.
“Mia. Thank you.”
(Language: Old Norse) “Folk-home”. In Soot-Steeped Knight, a large, central Nafílim settlement where resides the jarl of the region’s dominant clan.
(plural: passūs) A unit of measure used by the ancient Romans, taken from the length of a pace (2 steps). 1 metre is equal to 0.6757 of a passus. A passus, therefore, can be roughly equated to 1 and a half metres.
Wiċċa / Wiċċe
(Old English; plural: wiċċan) A witch. In Soot-Steeped Knight, the Nafílim equivalent of a sorcerer. Wiċċa and wiċċe are male and female respectively; wiċċan is the plural form, used for both sexes. The ċċ consonant is pronounced ch, as in “chair” or “charge”.