Approximate Reading Time 43 min
She was pulled, violently, away from the blissfully distorted visions, and serene peace of slumber, back into the tactile urgency of the waking world. The rush of freezing water hit with an impact that felt like a half-remembered memory from early childhood, of being kicked in the gut by a temperamental herdsmoll calf, only much colder. Immediately, the freezing water seeped into her sheets, her clothing, and bit deeply into her flesh, chilling her to the very bone. Her mind began to spin erratically, unable to do anything but react on a purely instinctual level.
“Wake up.” The words were said in a sly and dull tone. Part of her mind recognized the voice of her mentor, Ylethus, the rest was still reeling in frigid shock. “You slept enough, lazy, little arse.”
She had already bolted out of the sopping sheets and taken a perch on the top-most section of the bed. She was hunched, soaked, and glaring about the room with wide eyes, her arteries singing with the flow of adrenaline. Her teeth chattered in her skull, and she held tightened fists in each of her hands.
“You… Son of a-” Ghelta stammered over her clattering teeth. “I’ll… Kill-”
“Enough foreplay.” She was met with a loud and wet slap across the back of her tunic. One of Ylethus’ gruff hands gave her a rub and several pats, forcing the freezing fabric against her skin, causing her mind to reel at the chill, once again. “You’re now ready for action. Follow me, or I’ll thump you into another slumber.”
Ghelta took a swipe at her mentor’s arm, pushing him away from her. She slowly got out of her crouch, putting a single, dripping leg onto the floor of the muirral-skappf, the second leg came after. She took her time steadying herself on them as a new rush of moisture passed down her back. A sensation that felt like the cold, deathly claws of Olthenna, herself, had trailed them down her back, reminding her of her mortality, once again.
“You have only a few moments, girl. I expect you to run, fast as your scrawny little twigs can carry you, across Alsira-Thaenat. Get back to the barracks, get into your battle clothes, and be ready for inspection.” He stared at her hotly from the other corner of the room. With each word he spoke, he took a short and booming step towards the entrance of the skappf. “You’re expected to be ready, in full vhulkovyr standard, at my side, as we convene with the Elder Circle.”
She took a few jittering steps towards the door as well, keeping an arm’s length away from the hulking man, already in his armor, furs, and his cloak of station. She took a few cautionary swipes at him with her arms, ensuring the distance was kept. He got to the entrance first, lifting up the fabric of the door, pushing it aside and allowing the blinding noonday light of Dhaum in. He gave a long breath, his chest stretching out like a swelling barrel, ready to burst.
“You best not fuck this up. This has to do with your Kollishi Thaulp. The gods, old and new, forbid, you might actually get to grow up.”
Ghelta bolted for the opened doorway, running through into the warm light of the burning god above, out into the narrow cliff-side streets of Alsira Thaenat. Now was her time, finally, after nineteen long cycles of the seasons, she could finally become an adult. She didn’t want to disappoint Ylethus, she had to make a good impression, and this was the first time she really would be able to see everyone in the Elder Circle, including that elusive old crone, Oelvann Molth.
She ran down the street, a smile on her face, taking in the mixture of dry, warm desert air filtering in from above the canyon, and the cool rushing air that came up from the hidden, glacial river below. Her bare feet padded over rocks and weathered wooden supports, her calloused soles barely felt any of the sting from sharp rocks or splinters. Smells came at her from every direction, the wafting of a busy community, smelling sweet, musky, and filled with spices.
She looked around her to get her bearings, and noticed far to her left, and a half-dozen streets below her was one of the crossing bridges between the sides of the canyon. A hundred feet ahead, or so, and she would have to begin jumping across rooftops to drop down to its level. She sped up her stride even further, the sounds of her feet now taking on a speedy war-drum beat.
She soon began passing by some of the more luxurious private skappfs used by emissaries, important visitors, or subservient cronies of the Elder Circle. The smells subtly changed from rich prepared foods, and the natural stink of the common people, slowly to that of lingering perfumes, exotic incenses, as well as the pungent smells of recent, and no doubt unwholesome, sexual acts.
The street began to fill up as she continued her run, figures seeming to be the milling-about retainers of those pompous fools secured away in their decadent hostelry. A few courtiers sat beside the road on a wooden bench, covered from head to toe in heavy, gaudy, foreign garb. The strange paint on their faces was beginning to run due to sweat caused by the desert heat. Many were fanning themselves with reams of parchment or cloth fans. Two standing beside the sitting congregation began to waiver on their knees, complaining about the heat in their own strange languages, on the verge of fainting.
Typical foreigners. She had heard the tales many times before, all those from Alsira Thaenat, who had traveled far, had shared their stories in the leiggen-skappfs. Many of these dignitaries and their servants thought of the Jolash Plateau as some sort of rustic, exotic locale, filled with adventure and decadent delights. Few realized the harsh reality of living one’s life on the edge of a desert, at some of the highest altitudes in the lands of the Hoelatha people. This was a land of scorching days under the twin fires of the suns above, freezing nights filled with predators, or worse, and ravaging sandstorms that would flay the flesh from the most robust of men. This was not a vacation destination, this was a harsh land, filled with harsh people, and many considered it only slightly better than the darkened hell-realms of Gehemol, itself.
Ghelta let her smile turn to that of a rancorous grin. She looked down to these preening chickens on display, through her brow as she continued her run. A few of them got in her way, and received a hard shove, or bony impalement, for their lack of awareness, as she continued past.
A few of them had the nerve to raise their arms at her, shouting in strange and nonsensical languages their disapproval of her. She met their gazes, maintaining her stride and reciprocated their gestures with her own. A raised arm slapped on the inside of her elbow by her other arm, and a hand gesture of the mooncalf. Index and middle fingers erect, ring finger curled in, and her pinky finger erect at an angle. The foreigners may not have consciously known the meaning of the gesture, but they understood it on an instinctual level. Some backed off and gave looks of shock, others belted more cries through their flapping tongues.
She gave a laugh, openly at their expense. No one could touch her today, this was her day, her chance at greatness. She continued to run, feeling like she could leave the earth beneath her and soar through the skies. Much like she had in that half-dream state before she was dropped off at the muirral-skappf. She was an authroc on the wind, riding ahead of a deadly maelstrom. A majestic predator among the short-lived and shorter-minded prey that clogged up the street around her.
Ahead, around a slight bend in the street, the crowd began to fade away. Further ahead she could see a shadow in contrast to the brilliant blue sky above and beyond. A tall, well-toned, trim-bearded and rakish sort of shadow, that as she continued to run forwards, it took on the features of the man in the nude. He stood there, in front of a well-appointed skappf for a moment, heedless of who may see him in his state of undress. He handed something to a hunched form next to him, stared off into the distance for the briefest of moments, and then quickly returned to his dwelling.
Ghelta continued her headlong run, reaching nearby the front of that dwelling. She looked forwards at the hulking brute sitting on a wooden stool in front of the skappf. His face was a hideous mixture of dirt, sourness, and misery. He wore a metal chest-plate and vicious-looking metal bracers, all lined with the black fur of some sort of forest-creature. He sat, fixated upon the heavy, metal wave-cleaver blade he was currently sharpening.
“Ho!” She gave out a yell to get the brute’s attentions. He looked up at her quickly, beneath a blackened and bushy brow, stopping his care for his blade for but a moment. “Your master has a fine lhipossa!” She gave a holler while running past, towards a jut in the cliffs on left-edge of the open street.
The hulking brute held eyes with her as she stopped running, slowing to a walk. He gave a quizzical sort of look and a grunt that showed he didn’t understand what the word meant. Ghelta soon had to make the meaning clear.
“Erm…” She stopped for a moment, slowing towards the cliff’s edge in front of the skappf. Her mind grasped at another way to say what she wanted to say in the vulgar common tongue that many merchants and mercenaries made use of. “…Cock!” She stopped, with her toes at the edge of the cliff, beaming a smile back to the hunched man. He gave another grunt, rolling his eyes in their sunken sockets and returning to the ministrations of his blade.
“I’m sure you enjoy it, too. Both the sight and a nice, big, mouthful of it.” Her smile widened even further as every muscle in her body tensed up. The sour-faced bodyguard got to his feet, with far more spryness than she would have given him credit for. He leveled his blade and made direct eye contact with her. She hit a nerve.
With that, she fell forward, over the cliff, feeling the rush of air bellowing against her slowly drying tunic, under-shorts, and her cascading blood-red hair. She held her smile still, as she fell down towards the roof of a nearby skappf below. She hit the roof and gave a roll, throwing herself back to her feet, preserving her momentum, and continuing her run forwards.
Above her, the brutish man loomed, his sword still held before him, but no longer having an accessible target for his rage. He watched her for a few moments as she jumped from roof-to-roof, cliff-to-cliff, heedless of any impediments. He gave a shrug, letting the jest go, returning his blade to a scabbard on his back, and then walking back to his stool.
She stood tall outside the well-trimmed, but weather-worn wooden doorway of the barracks. A few of the leather straps of her armor cut in at odd angles around her waist and underneath one of her breasts. She thought that while she was recovering, she had gained a couple of pounds. If she could manage to ignore the tightness and the digging for today, she would be fine. She gave one last look at the silver and black, wolves fur trim on the shoulders of her armor. She smoothed her left shoulder with the back of her hand, then fluffed it up by pulling on it, very slightly, around the edges.
She could hear the loud booming footsteps of her mentor as he neared by where she stood. He was approaching from around the other side of the barracks, each step sounded like the strike of thunder, followed by a rumbling of clanking metal and groaning leather. She dropped her hands to her sides and then lifted them behind her to cross them. She pivoted on her feet slightly, spreading her legs to shoulder-width, settling into her formal stance. She gave one last look around her, down to the front of her armor to make sure she didn’t miss any straps, laces, or, gods forbid, pieces. Then lifted her eyes up to gaze far off into the distance, as she was taught to do.
“Ah, somehow, despite your obvious inability to do a damned thing right, you still managed to get ready in time.” The bellowing voice of Ylethus came at her like a torrent of wind. He crossed the corner of the barracks and came into view. The harsh wind of the upper plateau whipped at his cloaks, making him look regal.
Ghelta took a hard breath of air in, lifting her chin slightly and bellowing out. “You are correct, vhollen!” She continued her long stare forward, only taking in the details of her mentor with her periphery. “I did manage to be ready in time for your inspection. Despite my obvious inability. My inability, due to my inadequate teaching!” She projected her voice hard, wanting to give a smirk, but keeping her face expressionless. The leather straps began to dig harder around her chest.
Ylethus took a final step, standing chest to chest, pressing against her. He was about a foot and a half taller than her. He had always towered over her, her entire life. His dark beard, containing a few silver stripes, hung in front of her face. With every word he bellowed, it danced in front of her eyes. He looked down at her, eyes gazing over his chin to her. “I see.” He gave a thoughtful pause. “Well, I must admit, I did lack in the teachings I gave you.” He relaxed his pose for a moment. “I suppose the worth of the training is in proportion to the worth of the student.”
Her eyes narrowed, the tops of her cheeks began to flush. He was trying to push her into a corner, he was always like that. Every conversation, every bit of training, every single lesson, was like a complicated game of Jhulko’s Maze, with him. He never let up for a moment. Everything was a competition for dominance, and in that, he had taught her well.
“Does the vhollen want to continue wasting the student’s time? Or does he actually have a job to do?” A slight lift on the edge of her lips, but she still held her form.
“Impatient as usual.” He gave a gruff noise of disapproval and took a single step backward. She could see a smile on his face, she wanted to return it, but that would break her formal training. “Well, I see you managed to make yourself look like you were actually a warrior.” His eyes took in her form, analyzing every detail of her dress, her armor, and her stature. “I might even mistake you for one, but I know the truth.” He lifted a large hand and began to tug on the longest trail of his beard.
“The vhollen is correct!” She barked out loudly, her shoulders shrugging only slightly. “The truth of the matter is that I am but a wretched orphan! An unwanted bastard child! A disappointment to my mentor, to my tribe, and to my, all-but-forgotten, namesake!”
She could see Ylethus stop and take several deep breaths for a moment. She allowed her eyes to creep up to his. She saw it then, that moisture and twinkle in his eyes. She had hit upon his emotions and ridden him with a moment of guilt. His face remained steadfast, as well as the rest of his huge body, but it was all in his eyes, it always was. As gruff as he was, as biting and sarcastic, as violent and occasionally bloodthirsty, he held a soul in those eyes. A fatherly love, a sense of true empathy and caring, a deep responsibility for those under his command, and for the one student he felt as a father to. She had hit him at the seat of his soul.
Ylethus reached out one of his huge hands towards Ghelta’s face, the entire calloused, warrior’s hand dwarfed her head within its shadow. She closed her eyes for a moment in anticipation, would he finally reveal his feelings to her face to face? Perhaps she had hit a nerve so deeply, he couldn’t help but reach out to her to show he cared. A fatherly gesture of his hand brushing her cheek. Finally.
She felt a prick of pain from her scalp, jolting her from her emotional longings. This sharp and unexpected pain, causing her to open her eyes back up to the face of her mentor standing over her. He remained there, same as before, dwarfing out the light of Dhaulm behind him.
“An errant hair.” His hand lowered down to her level, his giant index finger and thumb holding a single blood-red strand of hair, glittering in the daylight. “Obviously you haven’t learned how to braid your hair properly for battle.” A smile spread across his face. That moist twinkle in his eye had turned to the glimmering of wickedness once again. “Most unbecoming.”
She let her eyes slowly return to their leagues away gaze forward, shuffling her body back into formal inspection stance once again. Perhaps the moment he had revealed to her when she played at being unconscious was all a part of some sadistic game. Every time she felt like she could have a bonding moment with him, he pulled back and shifted away, no wonder the rest of the tribe considered her a crazed, emotional wreck. He had driven her to that.
“Is the esteemed vhollen done with his inspection of the young woman?” The familiar, steady, and aggravatingly calm voice came from behind Ylethus, nearby the doorway of the barracks.
Ylethus turned his great head over his shoulder to look back, while Ghelta took advantage of the lack of attention to lean on her left foot to look around her mentor’s immense girth. Ylethus’ beard dangled in her face and obscured her view. Quickly and without consideration, she lifted her right hand to press the facial hair out of her way.
There he was, that infuriating, smarmy, antagonistically annoying warrior-oracle who had left her to die on Old King Stohll. She gritted her teeth hard, feeling like they might crack with the strain. Her nostrils flared with rage, but she kept disciplined in front of her mentor. Hopefully, the arrogant prick would step one step too close to her, so she could test his fragile skull with a warrior’s head-butt, or perhaps a hard punch to the neck.
“Master Leiros.” She couldn’t believe the tone of voice that was coming out of her mentor towards this fecund arse-goblin of a man. It almost sounded as if he was happy to see him, which would be a first for anyone in all of the Jolash Plateau. “I take it that the Elder Circle has begun their meeting?” The rest of the giant man’s body turned towards the cloaked and bandaged authrakallin.
“Yes. They are convening presently if we leave now we should arrive precisely when they should bid us audience.” His eyes, the only part of his face visible under his white face-covers, quickly glanced over to Ghelta. Her face went hot with anger. “I believe, as of now, they are dealing with more mundane matters of governance.”
“Good. I’ve never been one for mundane matters.” Ylethus gave a smirk and shrugged his shoulders slightly. He lifted one of his large hands and quickly snatched the wrist of Ghelta’s hand that still pushed his beard out of her view.
Slowly, his head turned and cast a harsh, downward stare into her eyes. Ghelta retreated, taking up her formal stance, again. She held her free hand behind her back, yet did not try to pull her seized hand back from her mentor. She stared forward, as if oblivious to having been caught.
“Enough of this preening and peacockery.” Ylethus let go of her hand and furrowed his brow. “As you said, Master Leiros. We should leave now. Let us away to this mind-numbing dance of overfed bureaucrats.” He turned away from her, taking a few steps forward. “Your inspection has ended, Ghelta. I deem you worthy, for now. Be on your best behavior or I’ll gut you in front of the entire assembly.”
As Ylethus continued to walk away, Ghelta shrugged out of her stance, allowing her muscles to return to normal. She beamed at the cloaked back of her mentor, smiling from ear-to-ear. This was the first time he had ever mentioned her and the word, ‘worthy’ in the same sentence, in all her life.
Ylethus continued a slow walk back around the barracks. Leiros stood there for a few minutes, looking to the giant warrior and then back to Ghelta. She could hear him suck in air to talk with her, then closed his eyes, seeming to think otherwise. He shook his head and soon followed in step after Ylethus.
Ghelta was glad he chose not to speak. She didn’t know if her nerves could handle it. She was quite ready to break the man’s nose if he so much as uttered a single word. This was her day, and not even a stuffy, pompous oracle could take it away from her.
Ghelta had heard much about what the elder’s circle looked like during her arduous growing years under the tutelage of Ylethus, yet the place she held in her imagination did not match the place that was now before her. The area wasn’t so much a hall or a even a skappf, as it was a sprawling set of haphazard and loosely connected half-shelters, orchestrated around a large communal area that was nothing more than open stone. Ghelta had to catch herself for a moment as she took in the details, the floor wasn’t just stone, it was cracked stone that may once have been a polished and intricately set of floors, but was now nothing more than ruin.
Above it all, a rambling connection of threadbare tapestries and cloth coverings served as a billowing, precarious roof. Spears of hot sunlight cut through at strange angles, sending their blistering rays through to sizzle off of the ground below. Shade was in short supply now that the second sun, known as the lover-god Trallt, had risen. Many of those huddled in the circle clung to areas near the half-shelters, sitting areas, and breezy peripheries.
Most of those that were seated on pillows and wooden benches, all beneath the most clustered of cloth coverings wore the stark blue and purple long-coats of members of the etharalm, those being the central governing body of the community. Ghelta couldn’t discern too many details concerning the assemblage of people before her, she simply knew that those with the coats seemed to be the loudest of voice, and the most arrogant of bearing.
There quickly came a long and patronizing exclamation from one of the figures seated among the most opulently covered set of pillowed seats. “Ah, Ylethus.” The voice was familiar as that of the woman who had caused such a commotion in the muirral-skappf while Ghelta had still been mending. “So glad you could finally bother to grace us with your presence. Such as it is.” The one her mentor had called Oelvann Molth.
Ghelta pressed forward, grabbing the large sword arm of her mentor and pushing in front of him. An attendant in brown and red robes stood in her way, preventing her from seeing more of the area, so she gave a hard shove past him. She could hear the man give out a long sigh, but he soon went quiet, possibly after Ylethus gave him one of his famous, ‘I’ll rip your head off if you say anything,’ looks.
She could finally see fully into the circle and took in the details of the woman before her, who had now lifted herself to her feet. As Ghelta began to drink the details of her form in, she soon began to realize the presumptive imaginings she had of her in her mind matched the features this woman had succinctly. Her features were stark, angular and broad. Her jawline was severe, at a strange angle that made a person want to take a double-glance at her to make sure they saw her correctly. Her eyes were a rich shade of brown, yet held no warmth to them, at all. The dress of her hair seemed like it didn’t know what it wanted to exist as, the front half around her face was loose with long bangs that draped to her neck, the back part remained pinned tightly, almost painfully, to the back of her scalp.
The woman seemed to be around the same advanced age as Ghelta’s mentor, yet she had none of the ruggedness or weathering to her skin. For one who was native to this inhospitable desert climate, her skin remained clear, and an almost pale yellow in complexion. Rather than the mixtures of ruddy tans and swarthy browns that composed most of the Alsi-Kavi tribe. Her hair was a patchy mixture of golden blonde and deep black, with slashes of aging grey cutting through. Her nose was hawkish and sharp, looking almost like the beak of a ferocious bird. Her lips were severe, thin, framed with wrinkles in the tight rim of her mouth, held in what could only be described as an eternal snarl of bitterness.
“Oh? You actually started something of worth?” The booming voice of Ylethus seemed to fill every bit of the space in the circle. Otherwise preoccupied eyes in chattering skulls quickly turned to look at the hulking warrior before them. “And here I thought you were doing nothing more than the idle clucking of hens.”
Ghelta stood proudly beside her mentor, attempting to mimic his gregarious stance. As she took a step forward and broadened her shoulders, she could feel the incessant constriction of leather seize and tug at her skin beneath her armor. The sensation was painful, she wanted to reach in and adjust what was wrong, but she dare not. She felt as if a cholnath razor-snake had coiled around her entire left breast, and portions of her ribs, as it began shredding skin as it constricted tighter around her.
“Shall we commence, or would the vhollen like to bask in his own glow for a few more minutes at the elder circle’s expense?” The voice came from a tall and gaunt man, who had emerged from the shadows behind one of the half-shelters. He took a few steps forward, taking up position behind and beside Oelvann Molth. He began to tap two of his right hand’s fingers against the inside of his left elbow, showing impatience and possibly giving some sort of signal to the rest of the circle.
Ghelta turned her head to see where that annoying oracle who had followed her and her mentor to the congregation had gotten to. She could see him moving through members of the crowd at the edges of the circle. He would stop for a moment, looking intently at people who themselves were watching the activity, or speaking to each other in hushed tones. For a few moments he would gaze off and flutter his eyelids, with one hand raised before him, as if he was somehow drinking the thoughts of the people around him, or picking up some harmony that no one else could hear. He would glide again to another group, and another, as if he were invisible, or as if he were some sort of keen desert canine who had managed to hide amongst the herdsmoll he soon sought to devour.
She quickly turned her gaze back to the figures before her, trying to find someone in the group that seemed familiar, even in passing. The only other person there that she could remember the features of were that of Ylethus’ brother. He was standing, half-hidden behind one of the shelters, using the stark brilliance of the outside light as one might use shadow to conceal themselves. He was no longer wearing the azure long-coat of his station, but was as of now standing in a tightly fitted, interlaced set of brocade white and green robes that bellowed around his leather leggings. These robes came up to a long hood that he used to try and conceal most of his face. Yulhest made eye contact for a brief moment with his brother and then turned away to leave the circle.
“Enough chatter. We are here to settle this business concerning the vhollen’s request for an expedition to the north.” Oelvann Molth projected her voice sternly and loudly to the congregation who slowly went quiet. “Vhollen Ylethus, despite his brashness, and his quarrels with many etharalm of late, has served our community well. He has petitioned the elder circle for resources and leave for this expedition.” She raised her right hand, holding her middle and ring fingers aloft, then sweeping that same hand outward in front of her in a grand gesture. “I have had a chance to speak with him on this, and with other members of the counsel here. I believe it wise to grant the vhollen this task under certain conditions. I thus pass the motion to everyone here.” She raised her left arm, crooked at the elbow, perpendicular to the ground. Her left hand held out, and then allowed her left arm to drop parallel with the ground.
The commotion of a multitude of voices roared up from the crowd after Molth’s gesture was made. She retreated for a moment to take up her seat in her sheltered area, while a silk-clad male covered in wrappings of fine metal chains began to fan her frantically with a linen fan mounted into the end of a large serpentine staff. Ylethus remained silent for a moment, gazing around to the chittering faces of the circle around him. The look on his face grew harsh and impatient, his brow furrowing and quivering.
Ghelta could sense that her mentor did not enjoy this entire situation. He had to stand here, almost helpless, while a group of over-fed, over-powerful, over-sexed, and under-worked bureaucrats spoke about him in hushed tones and generalized assaults on his character. He continued to stand proud, tugging at the leather straps of his chest-guards, keeping his bearded chin held high, but again his emotions betrayed him through his eyes. It was almost painful for Ghelta to see him so impotent before his lessers.
She turned her eyes away and decided to follow the example that Master Leiros was currently displaying when it came to the crowd. Many eyes were on Ylethus, surely, but none seemed to be focused on her. She didn’t want to leave her mentor’s side, but as he had taught her many times in exercises — good reconnaissance leads to a quick victory. This in mind, she made her way around the circle, putting on the guise of an idle and inquisitive broden whose curiosity was getting the better of her.
“He dares to start a war with the Haakuenth in the south, and then wants to gallivant off into the north?” As Ghelta approached a small group of men wearing almost nothing more than green and purple robes, strange hats and sandal-clad feet, she could hear the sharp voice of the eldest among them with clarity. “He burned Haaken Vaulthaen almost to the ground. Surely, those Watchers who hide in Mount Kenikal would seek vengeance against us. And here he goes, wants to go on an adventure. Phaw!”
“Surely, Tramsom, there is more to this than mere adventure. I heard tale from one of the aldunn that the vhollen attacked Haaken Vaulthaen under fear that the Haakuenth would attack us, first. There have always been rumors that those Veshkolden Delathi soldiers stationed there were becoming more hungry for blood and warfare. They were fighting against the Haakuenth who were merely using them as city guards and mere displays of power.” A younger man lifted a hand and put it on the older man’s shoulder to get his attention and calm his nerves. The younger man’s voice was soothing and level, almost drowned out among the cacophony of voices playing out amidst the elder circle.
“I believe it a simple matter of causality and gross power-mongering, brothers.” A louder, nasal and more arrogant voice soon spoke over that of the soothing young man. This new voice, despite wearing the robes of a philosopher or pauper, seemed like he was some arrogant noble of station from some far off land. He had a strange accent and his body mannerisms seemed to belong to a man who was far too sure of himself. “I heard from several attendants and a skaldt, that the brute known as Ylethus, took a slave unto his house during the sacking of Haaken Vaulthaen. A sorcerer of foul hedge magics, known simply as Xanolith. That sorcerer is the one who guides Ylethus to the north. No doubt for his own gain at power, at the cost to all of us!”
Two more male voices cut in sternly and with a few more remarks the group of robed men were soon yelling over top of one another. Ghelta continued moving forward, around the circle, and approached a new set of people. These were an exotic set, wearing heavy crimson and gold scarves around their bodies. Their skin was the same as most of the members of the Alsi-kavi tribe in the city, yet there was a somber darkness to their eyes, lips and their hair that set them apart. Despite the heat of the blazing suns, these men and women sat comfortably in head-to-toe scarves and coverings. They did not seem to sweat or show discomfort at all, they merely sat quietly, whispering to each other behind raised hands, their voices sounding almost like the billowing of the cloth roof above in the gusting breezes winding their way through the canyon.
Ghelta continued on, a dozen steps ahead was a small shelter filled with blue and purple long-coats barking at each other and consulting some set of parchments they kept handing back and forth to each other. She took a few steps forwards and entered into the light cascading in from outside the circle. The brilliant light dazed her for a moment as she began to stare straight into it. She turned back, dancing green and orange lights swept their way across her sight for a moment, while everything around her took on several more shades of darkness. She took another step forward, that is, straight into the side of a man who was not in her way a moment earlier.
“Whoa, there, young warrior!” Unlike most of the others that Ghelta had run into that day, this man didn’t seem to react like a pompous snob. His voice was jovial, calm and had a strange accent that seemed more whimsical than arrogant. Ghelta couldn’t make out any of the details of his form from the brilliance of the daylight sky battering at her eyes. “My pardons for getting in your way, but I must press by as I’m…” The man leaned in to Ghelta’s ear for a moment and whispered. “…Rather quite late.” He pulled back and despite not being able to clearly see much of the man but his shadow, she could tell he was smiling broadly, amused at his own expense. “I’m here to see some man named Ylethus. Could you point me in his direction?”
Ghelta lifted her left arm and with a directed finger she pointed towards the huge and darkened shadow of her mentor at the far end of the circle. She wanted to smile back or to stammer out something to this man, but her tongue held firm and her face remained like stone. She was happy that he recognized her as a warrior, at least someone this day had.
“Thank you.” The man brushed by, bringing up a wafting smell of spices, high-priced ale and a faint hint of perfume. The man took several steps into the circle and then turned around to look directly at Ghelta again. “Oh, and thank you for the earlier compliment in front of my heostal-skappf. My man there, told me you remarked about my fine lhipossa.” The man lifted his arms to his side, gave a short chuckle, turned away and continued his stride towards the center of the circle.
Ghelta did not know if it was the heat of the twin suns upon her face that made her cheeks feel hot, or if it was the embarrassment that earlier actions and words were coming back to bite at her. The one man in this multitude who had treated her with what she felt was respect and kindness, and it was the same naked man she had remarked on a few hours before. She stepped forward, out of the light and decided that she was done with her eavesdropping. She began a slow walk towards her mentor.
She made it halfway through the circular area at the center of the ring of crowded shelters and strewn about benches when she heard a shrill voice bark out beside her. “Phrim! You deigned to acknowledge your summons, at last!” It was the voice of Oelvann Molth and it made Ghelta want to cringe.
She looked up, and so did the man she had earlier talked with. He froze in his tracks, looking to the side. Ghelta continued her walk towards her mentor, her shoulders hunched up, and the annoying constriction in her armor growing worse with every breath. She kept her eyes down when she neared the man, slipping past behind him and out of sight.
“Ah! Most gracious Oelvann. I finally made it here at last! It seems that boy you sent, gave me the wrong directions. I wouldn’t want him to be scolded for his misgivings, but if it weren’t for such, I would be here and already be put to your exalted service.” She saw him lift up his arms and give a long bow from the edge of her sight. She realized that the man she had run into was quite at home here in the crowd. A silver-tongued bastard without a shred of shame.
Ghelta reached the side of her mentor and turned on her feet to face back into the center. She could feel the faintest edge of Ylethus’ armor pressing against her side, felt him give a shudder, and then grumble of displeasure. He wasn’t happy that she had left his side, but she would make up for it by telling him what little she had heard once the congregation was done. She took one more step back, pressing against his side, to show solidarity and support. He lifted one of his large hands and placed it on her right shoulder. She thought it was less a sign of fatherly support, and more of a gesture to prevent her from straying off again.
“Oh? It was hard for you to find one of the largest areas in the entire city? The highest point, on a cliff that overlooks the rest of the canyon? The place that any citizen of this fair city could point you to, should you bother to ask?” She was really trying to hammer it home to this Phrim fellow. Ghelta now concluded that the Oelvann had no sense of humor whatsoever, and it would be wise not to cross her in the future.
“My apologies, Oelvann Molth. I am but a visitor to your fair city from the lands of the Tolsi-Kavi in the north. I will endeavor to do better in the future.” Ghelta could now make out more of Phrim’s figure as her eyes began to readjust to the shade. He was a handsome enough man, dark of hair, a slightly paler complexion than anyone else in Alsira Thaenat — save for the stark alabaster skin of herself — with a well-kept beard. His clothes were efficient and seemed to be halfway between the leather armor of a warrior and the tight-fitting coats of the elder circle members. His body was lean and youthful, his eyes were like glimmering emeralds, and his face looked kind. He didn’t break eye contact with the woman before him and held a sly grin on his lips. The look on his face seemed almost as if he were challenging her to a duel.
There soon came a loud and deliberate clearing of a throat from the tall and gaunt man who stood next to the shelter that Oelvann Molth sat in. He lifted his left hand, making a half-circle with his fingers and began to move that hand down his right arm; another gesture to get the members of the elder circle’s attention.
“Right. I take it we’ve had enough time to discuss this matter.” Oelvann Molth blurted out as she got to her feet. She derisively hand-waved the man in silk who was fanning her and made a few quick strides towards the center of the circle. “Does any of the counsel have anything to add to this matter?” She lifted an open palm up and waved it around the room, going around and back again.
The room fell silent. A few people kept whispering in hushed tones into ears and behind lifted hands, but within a matter of moments everyone ceased. The tall man moved forward to stand beside the Oelvann and watched the congregation around him intently. He would make eye contact with a few persons, tap his fingers on his chest, nod and move to the next. Not a single person in the group stood up or lifted their voice.
“Ylethus, do you have anything to add?” Oelvann Molth finally turned her eyes towards the elder warrior. Ghelta could feel him bristle at the mention of his name.
He gave a long breath; not quite a sigh, but more of a groan. “I reserve my words for the proper time, Oelvann. Once you have mentioned the conditions I must have for my expedition.” He turned his head to survey the room around him. One of the three-pointed tips of his beard brushed by Ghelta’s cheek. She saw his eyes stop for a moment with his head turned somewhat to the side. She followed his gaze to a gap in the sheltered areas where his brother Yulhest had returned. Beside him were two young men, dressed in the vhulkovyr armors of young warriors. One was a large and imposing young man with a brooding face. He wore full armor and furs. Beside him was a smaller and less masculine young man who wore only partial armor, allowing sections of his arms, legs and mid-riff to be exposed. The younger man had wild eyes, like a perpetually startled cat.
“Fine. I put my conditions forward.” Oelvann Molth allowed her upper lip to curl into a snarl and she gave a long sigh. “Ylethus, the expedition you seek shall be granted with the following conditions present. You must take three younger broden who have selected the vhulkovyr caste as their chosen lifestyle for their adult life. It would seem that you have been neglecting your duties in ensuring the younger members of our tribe can attain adulthood through their rite of Kollishi Thaulp. Thus, this elder circle will enforce that you do so with three broden as an example. We hope that we will not have to enforce this kind of thing in the future. Yes?”
Ylethus gave another grumble and nodded deeply so that the entire congregation could see his movements. He didn’t say a word. The hand that he held on Ghelta’s shoulder clenched, with his fingers digging into the leather and fur shoulder pieces. She couldn’t understand if he was being protective of her or if he was mad with her.
“Good. The three broden that you will be taking with you, are the two sons of aldunn Yulhest. Taybald kolst Leippendrahl, and his younger brother Istobin kolst Leippendrahl. You will also be taking a direct student of yours who you have been neglecting for some time. An orphan by the name of Ghelta kolst Wyghtsmourn, first and only of her namesake.”
Ylethus waited a few moments after the Oelvann’s words and then began to draw in a breath to respond.
“I’m not finished, vhollen.” Her eyes locked with Ylethus’ and it felt like a chilling wind blew between them. “You have also petitioned the elder circle and the Order of the Authrakallin to take one of the warrior-oracles with you. You stated that this is necessary to ensure that the memories of this expedition are preserved and authenticated. I agree, however, your petition to take Master Leiros is denied.” She stopped for a moment, a smile tearing at the thin lips of her face, watching the warrior squirm.
Ghelta looked up to Ylethus and saw his eyes narrow until the color of his eyes faded between his weathered and sagging lids. Ghelta could feel heat and anger coursing through his body. Faint sounds of snapping or expanding leather in his armor let her know he was tensing every muscle beneath them. She lifted her right hand to his and gave a single pat. She felt him relax as his eyes turned down to her’s, then quickly went back to their chilling gaze upon the Oelvann.
“You will still have a member of the Authrakallin to ensure you what you wanted, Ylethus. But, given matters that are happening here in Alsira Thaenat concerning the fall-out of your siege to the south, we need Master Leiros here. His talents are best suited to use by this community.” The smile on her lips grew wider, making Ghelta want to wince at the tightness and pain it might be causing. “We will provide you with the expertise and services of Master Verran, instead. You are familiar with him, yes? He consulted with you, aldun Yulhest and myself, concerning the commotion your student caused at Auhl-keignfel Stohll?”
Ylethus gave a single downwards nod. He was clenching his teeth in his jaw, making the sides of his face near his ears and the remaining hair on the sides of his head sprout out and quiver with each muscular spasm. He would be in a ferocious rage when this congregation was finished. Ghelta began to wonder what objects in the barracks he would break first, or if he would go straight to his sword and begin cleaving into the side of the barracks, itself.
“Another condition, Ylethus.” The Oelvann continued to push herself, if only she knew how close she was to suffering a warrior’s rage and perishing in bloody slaughter. “All knowledge, all assets, all treasures attained on your expedition are the rightful property of the elder circle of Alsira Thaenat. This expedition is not for your wealth. This is granted on behalf of all the Alsi-Kavi tribe. What you return with, will be ours. Hopefully to use for the betterment of our people.” She stopped for a second and motioned slowly towards the man named Phrim closer to her. “To ensure this, as well as to provide a proper chronicle of your expedition, we will be giving you the services of notable skaldt, Phrim kolst Skathuld. Understand that he is a chosen representative of the elder circle, as well as the grand circle. Should anything untoward befall this man, you will be held for high treason.” The smile grew, showing teeth this time. Ghelta thought she could see fangs in her mouth. “Do you understand?”
Phrim turned towards the Oelvann and scrunched up his brow in confusion. He turned slowly towards Ylethus on the other side of the area. He looked down to the ruined stone of the ground, then up to make eye contact with the hulking, and enraged warrior. He lifted both arms to his side, palms up, as if he were begging pardon. Perhaps he didn’t realize that he would be used as a tool by the Oelvann in such a way.
“Now do you have anything you’d like to say?” Oelvann Molth took two steps towards Ylethus, then dragged one of her feet on the rough stone, turning her back completely towards him.
“No. Oelvann Molth. I accept these conditions and will work for the benefit of my people.” Ghelta felt his hand leave her shoulder, falling to his side. She looked up towards him, almost afraid to make eye contact. He narrowed his eyes for a moment and turned his head very slightly towards her. He lifted his same hand again and rested now upon Ghelta’s left shoulder, closest to him.
Searing pain shot through Ghelta’s body and overwhelmed her for a moment. With the weight of his hand now on her left side, every bit of constriction she felt grew to a fevered pitch. She could feel the binds in her armor cutting directly into her skin, whole sections of her flesh were screaming out to her or numb and filled with constant prickles from lack of blood. She bit her bottom lip until it bled. It was too much and she had to get the armor off. Something was very wrong with how she put her armor on.
“For the sake of Tolesh’s brilliant fuck!” She felt the words erupt from her mouth as she scrambled and tugged at her armor. She shoved her mentor’s hand away angrily and began work unbuckling and untying the pieces of her armor on her left side. She ripped her fur-covered pauldron off of her body. Pulled for a few moments until she got her chest-plate off. She tugged and ripped at the buckles on her left side, opening up the bare flesh of her left breast to the crowd before her. She looked down and examined herself, seeing the reddish blemishes spread across her ribs and chest. Seeing the now bleeding cuts along her side and beneath her bosom.
Commotion grew in the elder circle once again voices gossiping amongst themselves about the activity they had just seen. Ylethus took a step back from Ghelta as she continued to examine her flesh and scramble to pick up pieces of her armor she threw upon the ground. There were a few gasps and a few chuckles from the crowd.
“Well, I see why this one may not have been ready for her rite of adulthood.” The voice of Oelvann Molth cut through the din and once her words were finished, laughter followed after. “It seems like she follows after her mentor. Or that she doesn’t even want to be a member of the vhulkovyr after all.”
Ghelta seized and held the bits of her armor in her arms. She looked up towards the Oelvann with tears and rage in her eyes. She gave a quick look to the people around her, all those arrogant, favor-currying rats were laughing at her expense. She looked to Yulhest who was ushering his two sons out of the circle. The oldest one, Taybald kept to himself as he left, Istobin however stared at her with a slacked jaw and that same annoying expression of bewilderment in his eyes. In the middle of the circle, Oelvann Molth gave another sadistic grin, the tall and gaunt ass-licker beside her held amusement on his face as well. Phrim, however, looked horrified and legitimately concerned for Ghelta’s well-being. He took a few steps towards her, but realized she had no place to and remained where he was.
“I think we are concluded here. You may leave, vhollen. I’m sure you need to discipline your student before you leave on your expedition.” Oelvann Molth turned and walked back towards her opulent shelter filled with pillows. She sat down and motioned to the servant to continue fanning her. “We move to other business now. Kaulmin, go fetch the dignitaries from Corannithulta. They have an audience now.”
Ylethus gave a hard shove to Ghelta’s back to get her to move away from the circle. She complied, still holding pieces of her armor in her arms. Her eyes were completely filled with tears and the brilliance of the suns turned her vision into a glowing, watery mess. She followed her mentor at his side as he walked away. She wondered where that annoying oracle had gotten to, he wasn’t with them when they left. No doubt, when he didn’t get what he wanted, he left. It seemed like something he would do.
Today was Ghelta’s day to prove herself to her mentor and to her community. This day was indeed taken from her, by circumstance, her behavior, and the cruelty of those she must now lay her life down to protect upon adulthood.
Ylethus didn’t leave much time for anyone to get settled before he told his retinue that they would be leaving. They had just arrived back at the barracks to an entire crowd of people preparing all that they needed for their expedition. Ylethus wasn’t one to sit idle for very long. He enjoyed to be as prepared and ready as possible for any campaign or action.
He had handed Ghelta some traveling clothes in a rush. Grabbing her armor and shoving it in a large bag that he carried with him. He didn’t talk to her the entire time he got the last preparations done up. They had left the barracks and the city of Alsira Thaenat in under an hour. What few words anyone could get out of the old warrior were simply that he wanted to get the trip under way while there was still daylight in the sky.
When the last sun had finally set, the members of the expedition, as well as a few members of the ahlketh caste — those people given to a lifestyle of labor and support to the community — had made an early camp a stretch of miles into the Jolash Plateau, north of Alsira Thaenat. The smoke and lights of the canyon city could still be seen on the horizon to the south and remained as a now distant reminder of home.
Ghelta avoided everyone in the group. Phrim had come to sit beside her when they first made camp. She responded by getting up and moving to another area. He got the idea quite immediately and did not press the matter further. She had been utterly humiliated in front of all the people whom held power in her tribe. Many of those jaded old fools would probably continue to talk about the uncouth broden pretender for weeks. That is, until some other bit of gossip took their fancy. Her existence was nothing more than joke to those people.
The younger men sat huddled around a roaring campfire. Taybald and Istobin sat together, quietly talking to themselves. Phrim sat next to them, occasionally looking towards the two brothers and wanting to talk, but remaining silent. Once or twice he looked behind him to the fringes of the camp where Ghelta sat on a rock in solitude. She remained, looking back to the twinkling lights of her home, or to the stars mirroring their glow above them. Four older warriors that were hand-picked by Ylethus sat on the opposite end of the fire from the younger men. One was busy staring into a horn cup of alsinat mead, while three were playing a game with a set of faded, old cards, and some dice.
Ghelta knew that Ylethus had moved to the other side of the camp, to another fire nearby that was set by the ahlketh retinue that were supporting the warriors on this trip. Many of the Ahlketh seemed to be of good humor as every few minutes one world blurt out in drunken song, or give rise to tell some raucous campfire tale. Only twice did she hear Ylethus’ voice speak out from the rest of the ahlketh, as he gave orders to one of their luegin-yarls. She hadn’t noticed where Master Verran had gotten to, he refused to sit at the fires with everyone else. The last Ghelta had seen him, he was forcibly grabbing a bowl full of stew away from Phrim and stomping off into the darkness. She hadn’t heard what he shouted at the skaldt, but given her earlier introduction to him while she was healing, it no doubt involved his typical fits of impotent rage for being selected on this expedition.
Ghelta had taken off most of her clothes, and sat on a still warm rock. She wore her favorite threadbare tunic and a set of comfortable leather leggings. She was bundled up in a thick authroc-down blanket from the growing chill of the night-time desert. She was soon growing numb from ruminating on her folly earlier in the day. She was mad at herself for her actions, mad at the people around her for their cruelty, and shamed for letting down her mentor when he needed her. She kept her eyes to the horizon, and moving slowly to look at the silhouettes of the great Whendan Mesas west of Alsira Thaenat. Those immense towers of ancient rock stood like blackened sentinels against the star-filled sky.
She looked to the tallest of them, trying to see if she could see any fires or light from the top of Old King Stohll. Perhaps that is where Master Leiros sat, beside his hounds-tooth rock, awaiting to hit another person in the stomach with his staff. Or maybe he remained there brooding, like Ghelta was now doing, angry that he was unable to go on this expedition. He was an arrogant prick, but despite all that he had done to Ghelta in the past, he seemed like a distant friend compared to the fickleness she had witnessed in the elder’s circle.
“Are you still stewing in your rage?” The voice was that of Ylethus. Somehow that hulking herdulth beast of a man had managed to sneak up on her while she was off in her own thoughts.
He walked in front of where Ghelta sat, grabbing a hefty stone, as wide as a man’s arm, from the cracked surface of the plateau and dropped it with a loud thud beside her. He sat down on the small boulder with a loud groan and the cracking joints of an old man. He was still in his full armor, but he had taken his cloak of station off, along with some of the metal bits around his lower arms. Ghelta looked to him once, a sour look on her face, and turned on her rock to face away from her mentor.
“You can’t be in a pout the entire voyage, you know.” He continued on despite her silent protest to his presence, as if he was almost oblivious to her reaction. “Eventually you’ll have to kill something. Maybe then you’ll be in better spirits.”
Ghelta remained silent, her eyes upwards towards the stars ahead of her. Maybe if she could just ignore him for a few more minutes he’d go away. He was stubborn though, so she may have to endure him for an hour or more.
“I have something to show you. I worry you’ll just end up more mad at me. All I can say in my defense is that I’m older than you, I’ve dealt with far more shit in my long life, and I did it to help both of us.” She could hear him rummaging around in a pack, pulling a few pieces out and setting them on the sandy earth of the plateau in front of him. She gave a quick glance over her shoulder to see what he was doing and saw him arranging the pieces of her armor on the ground.
“Are you going to look over here, or do I need to grab your head and force you?” He was switching back into the stern tone he used when he taught her as a mentor. She gave a half-hearted shuffle of her behind on the rock to face in his general direction. She didn’t face him head-on, she wouldn’t give him that satisfaction, but she did look to him from the side.
“You are still young yet, although you’re older than most students I’ve taught over the years. I’ve tried to impart most of what I know to you about combat and warfare. You can handle yourself with a sword, I know that.” He leaned forward and picked up some pieces of her armor, laying them across his knee. “There are many things about life that you don’t yet understand. One of the most important, are the games that we older warriors need to play. Games of politics with those that would not be settled until they turn our caste into nothing more than puppets for their empowerment.”
He lifted up one of the pieces of her shoulder armor, as well as a few buckles and straps that she would use to keep her armor around her chest and stomach. He handed the pieces to her and she took them up in her hands. She looked down to them and then up to his eyes.
“Next time you’re in a rush to get your armor on. Whether it be to prepare for glorious battle, or simply to look your station in front of those who might kill you in other ways. You best inspect your armor closely. The slightest malfunction, the slightest over-worn strap or lace, and the slightest amount of sabotage might mean your doom.” A softened smile spread across his face, separating his dark mustache from the grey and black mass of his beard.
Ghelta’s crimson brow pressed upwards in confusion. She looked down to the pieces in her hands. At first glance they seemed perfectly fine. She was about to state as much with a drawn in breath. She flipped the pieces over in her hands, looking down at them carefully, and inspecting every last lace or buckle. That is when she saw that half of her laces were several inches too short. Small knots tied into the strings ate up their length, hidden in amongst the inside padding of her armor. She grabbed her chest-plate from the ground in front of Ylethus. The buckles were reset to a be three notches smaller than her normal frame.
“You Jhulko’s lhipossa-sucking…” She stammered as she grabbed more pieces of her armor and found even more subtle bits of sabotage. “You rotten, herdsmoll fucking…” She threw the pieces down to the earth in front of her, standing up to her full height and shrugging off her blanket. “Thaekkuz-damned, arse-hole!”
Ylethus slapped his knee and gave out a single chuckle. “That’s more like my girl!” He got up to her feet, dwarfing out the height and any threat that Ghelta could pose to him. He reached his arm up and gave her a powerful slap to her back that almost sent her face-first into the ground. “Now pick up your shit and get your bony, little arse back to the fire! We have tales to tell and mead to drink.” He stretched and let out his chest. “Contrary to what that corpse-faced bitch back in the elder circle thinks, we’re not on an expedition to the north at all. We’re on a quest, my dear girl. A quest for treasure and power, to the fabled ruins of dreaded Vorrginth!”
He stomped off away from her carrying the bag he had her armor in before, beaming with pride and in a more cheerful mood than Ghelta had ever seen him in before. She grabbed her blanket and spread it out on the ground, tossing the pieces of her armor into it so she could pick them all up easier. She was still furious with him, but now she understood that the whole event was some sort of deranged lesson on behalf of her mentor, which took some of the bite out of her rage. At least, now she had someone to direct her fury at, not just herself.
“You! Skaldt! Thimm, or whatever your damned name is. You best have a damn good tale to tell.” He reached the fire-side and seemed to eclipse the entire light from it. “Nathbhurn! Stop staring into your bloody cup and go get some more mead for the rest of us. We have young warriors to get drunk!”
She picked up the last piece of her armor and pinned the corners of her blanket together to haul the whole thing back to the fire. She’d take her mentor up on the mead, the food, and the joviality. Maybe, she thought, in a few hour’s time once the old man had gotten good and drunk, she could get her revenge on her mentor.
After all, this was still her day; her chance to become an adult. Anyone who got in the way of her this day would pay dearly.
(Author Notes / Lexicon / Lore / Character Bios)