Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Chapter Fifteen: Visitors(Part One)



"I see what you meant, Angus," Ardyn said, smiling as the wind skipped off Sapphire Sound. "This ship is a wonderful blockade runner!"

"It shares certain characteristics!" Angus protested. "It was never used for that purpose and was not designed to perform it!"

"You're not foolin' anyone, laddie," Corlane said, grinning at the young man. The three stood poised on the bow as they nosed in toward MacTavish Town, as the settlement around the Estate was known. "This is just the kind of ship a pirate would carve his other eye out for."

"No one in my family has ever been a pirate," Angus growled. "Not a one! We are upstanding citizens, and the timing of the pirate surge around the Sounds with our entrance into the shipping business is entirely coincidental-"

"As is the fact that those pirates never targeted MacLoughlin's ships?" Ardyn teased.

"Exactly!" Angus glared at her. "One more word and I'll talk to my father about keelhauling you, MacTavish."

"Oh." She put on her best frown. "I thought you made damsels walk the plank."

Angus threw his hands in the air. "Maybe we should! You won't let that go, will you?"

"I noticed the cannons on the weather deck, Angus," Ardyn said mildly. "Are they for fishing?"

"Every merchant ship carries some manner of self-defense. It's only logical!" Angus thrust his hands back in his coat pockets. "And that's all we are. Seafaring merchants, like MacTavish itself. That we're better at it than the competition is hardly our fault."

"'That those coincidental pirates happen to scourge the competition while we go unmolested can hardly be ascribed to us,'" Ardyn said in a sing-song voice. "'Lies, accursed lies and statistics!'"

"Woman!" Angus raised his fist with an overly threatening expression. "One more word!"

"Have a go," she invited, holding up one of her knitting needles. "If you dare."

"I'm starting to think Little John betrothed the wrong MacTavish," Ardyn's father mused, which made her drop her needlework entirely.

"What? No!" She started to crouch, leaning on the railing, but Angus bent over and swept all her effects up before she had a chance. "Thank you, rapscallion."

"You knit yourself a gag, why don't you?" Angus asked. "You nagging siren!"

"Pirates know all about sirens!"

"Well I don't know a thing, then!"

"I knew that already, but it takes a big man to admit it-"

"Woman!"

Corlane burst out laughing, clutching his gut as he nearly bent double.

"In seriousness," Ardyn said, hiding her red cheeks with the brim of her hat, "it's a very nice ship, Angus. It certainly makes the journey fast, and it has all the creature comforts anyone could desire."

"I'll make sure to tell the captain," Angus promised. He looked red, too, Ardyn noted with a little flush of sadistic glee. If she had to suffer her father's attempts to embarrass her, at least the pirate was in Hell with her.

Then he glanced side to side, and Ardyn had to take a deep breath.

"The Ambassador's necklace was a silver lantern, you say?" he asked. Ardyn nodded.

"With a purple gem."

"I heard something about a death cult that uses those necklaces," the young man said. "They worship the Gifted, especially a man called Vaneer. They say he's the Messiah or something, here to save the world from threats only he can foresee."

"Nutters," Corlane growled. "And the Ambassador's one of them?"

"She had the necklace," Ardyn said. "I can't imagine why else she would. And her correspondence with Princess Marona mentioned the name Vaneer a couple of times."

"It did?" Angus asked.

"Yeah, it did," Corlane said. "We went over the bloody chaff the night before we left. Weren't you paying attention, boy?"

"A lot of it," Angus snapped, "considering I was with my father and my brother meeting King Truman!"

"...right," Corlane mumbled. "Well, you should have told me that before I got on your case about it."

"I did tell you-"

"The point, Angus," Ardyn said, "is that the Ambassador's dialogue with one of the Marona princesses back in Rosa - I'm sorry, I've quite forgotten which one."

"The youngest one," Corlane said. "I remember that, quite clearly. It was the youngest, Leila."

"No, she's the middle girl," Angus protested. "The youngest is Luna."

"Right. That name sounds right. Her name was definitely something celestial." Ardyn relocated her thoughts with some difficulty. "So, the Ambassador was exchanging letters with Luna, the youngest Marona, talking about some Jason fellow, though they veered from specifics like professionals. I think the lady is here to meet up with him and organize some kind of coup over the Highlands."

"You know, I really miss the days I thought MacDonald was full of crap when it came to Nurem," Angus sighed. "What about the encoded thing?"

"Still working on it," Ardyn said. "I'll figure it out in time. I'm good at puzzles."

"We may not have time," Angus pointed out, which Ardyn could hardly deny.

They were silent as the Buried Treasure pulled into MacTavish Town's harbor.

***

"No! That one goes there, and that one goes there!" Ardyn's father clutched his head. "You bleeding idiots don't know the way from the Estate to the Town, do you?"

"Sir, you are telling us to put your daughter's clothes with the cannonballs." The porter looked confused.

"No! I know what my daughter's trunks look like!" Corlane waved. "They're right there!"

"Master Corlane, those are trunks of cannonballs."

"Don't you question me, laddie! I know what I'm about! I packed all of this stuff the one way and we got there fine!"

"Should we do something?" Angus asked. Ardyn shook her head.

"Dad's got the magic touch," she said. "Besides, he'll bite our heads off if we interrupt him. They'll go around in circles, and then the man will prove him wrong and everything's fine."

"Ah." Angus nodded serenely. "You know, Ardyn, it occurs to me that we're not helping a lot, just standing here watching everyone unload."

"Are you suggesting we help?"

"I'm suggesting we get out of these fine workers' way," Angus said. "I think there's a nice little harbor overlook about half a mile down that way, isn't there?"

"I think so, Angus," Ardyn agreed. "Do you think I should ask my father's permission before getting kidnapped by a pirate?"

"Excuse me?" Angus glowered for a moment. "Best not to disturb him, I think. He looks like he's having a moment."

"He's having a day."

"He's having a life."

"That's a wee bit more like it," Ardyn agreed, nodding. "Off we go then, Angus: nice and casual."

"Sir, that is full of grape shot."

"No! That's all the crap we were going to give Saoirse MacPhearson when she got elected, and look how that turned out!"

"Somehow, I think he blames that poor man," Angus muttered.

"Oh, they'll work it out," Ardyn demurred brightly. "I'm sure no punches are getting thrown. They're all too scared of Dad, and Dad's too busy trying to work out whether he's right or wrong about the cases. It'll be a great laugh down the line."

"I'm sure." Angus adjusted his collar. "So, about the Ambassador..."

"I should have known you had ulterior motivations!" Ardyn threw a hand to her forehead. "Here I think I'm getting five minutes to sit and not do anything that'll make me fret, and you start asking serious questions!"

"She didn't hurt you, did she?" Angus pressed. Ardyn paused to glance.

"No," she soothed. "The Ambassador got all up in my face, and I almost thought she was going to bite me, but I'm fine. Why?"

"Just checking," Angus said. Ardyn tilted her head.

"What?" she asked. "I appreciate you checking up on my health, Angus...but what are you really after?"

MacLoughlin stopped as they reached a semicircular protrusion from the waterside: a wooden platform that poked out into the Sound just far enough that salty spray flicked up with the breeze every moment or so. Ardyn took in the view, even though she had to clutch the brim of her hat to keep it from making an escape.

The Sound certainly deserves its name, she thought, eyes flicking across the horizon and the sparkling blue. I love water.

"Did she say anything about Kacey?"

Ardyn nodded slowly. "She told me to find her. No use to her lost."

"But she didn't know anything?"

"Angus," Ardyn said. "One: I would have told you if she did. Two: I'm pretty worried about her too. Three..." She leaned against the rail, gaze boring into him. "Three: you still haven't told me why you were betrothed."

"Laird John wanted me to protect her," Angus repeated. "I swore to him I would. I'm not exactly doing but so great of a job, am I?"

"Don't you blow me off!" Ardyn chastised. She reached out and thumped his chest with the back of her hand. "I'm the brains of the three of us, remember? Uncle John had ulterior motives. And you know what they were."

"Ardyn..." Angus shifted his weight. "Ardyn, Laird John swore me to secrecy."

"Uncle John is...not going to take offense anymore," Ardyn said, stumbling over the lump in her throat. "Angus, I think I deserve to know what made him so certain to-"

"Ardyn!" Angus cut her off, standing very still. She paused...but only for a moment. She felt it too, and she turned to the street.

"We're being watched," she mumbled, before Angus had a chance to continue.

Coming across the street with a pack of mates was a tall, broad-shouldered man Ardyn had only seen before once in her life.

But she'd never forget those green eyes.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Chapter Fourteen: Good Men Still Have Secrets(Part Two)



Kacey stared. "You're wrong. My father would never...never..."

Kjetil caught her from behind, sword lost on the ground. Kacey thrashed in his grip as he hauled her backward, an arm around her throat.

"Your father led six hundred men that occupied the valley to the east of this settlement," Frode said, while the cousins struggled. "They came under the standard of his house, marching in great long lines. Our war parties could barely slow his advance, with your uncle's company guarding his flanks."

Kacey hit Kjetil with her elbow. He recoiled, and she was able to twist, flipping him over her shoulder and onto the snowy ground. Her shield flashed, and she drove it down on Kjetil's forehead. He lay on the ground, clutching his temple.

"My father led an occupation unit," Kacey protested. "He was a glorified manager. That's where he got his start in business, that's what he always told me! The myths of his martial legend were just that! He always said there was no legend to his accomplishments in war!"

"And that is the truth!" Frode scoffed. "Yes, Kacey, he occupied land, after he took it by force with legions of soldiers at his back. We called him Iron Fist MacTavish. Any sign of rebellion, he quashed, with brutality beyond what we considered acceptable means of fighting war. Silje lived in the settlement that resisted him the most. Every week, there was more trouble there, and more hostages were taken and executed as punishment, and that was after it took Iron Fist three weeks to breach the walls and subdue the place. His wrath was terrible."

"My father was a kind and gentle man!"

"After one too many rebellions, the town finally got what they wanted, unfortunately for everyone involved," Frode said. "They drove your father's men out, congratulations to them! And then what? MacTavish came back with more, and he burned half the settlement to the ground, slaughtering any who resisted. His men had their way with the village...and as Silje was betrothed of the Mayor before his death in the battle, they brought her straight to him."

"No!" Kacey cried. "This isn't true!"

"She was never the same." Frode met her eyes as Kacey stormed up almost to his face. "She became pregnant with you, though to all but myself and our other sister, she claimed you were the old Mayor's child, his last legacy."

Kacey shook her head. "You're lying. You're trying to turn me against his memory."

"Ask anyone in the village! They'll tell you the same." Frode waved his hand dismissively. "The night you were born, she knew she could not continue pretending. Unfortunately, you have your father's looks in every way. Your skin is pink, your hair is red, your eyes are blue, and human-shaped...save your ears, you ought as well be human."

"No." Kacey swallowed. "Dad...Dad brought me south...she gave me to him in hopes of a better life..."

"She did not give you to your father out of love for him," Frode said. "She gave you to him because you, as a half-elven bastard, not to mention as Iron Fist's, would have been used for your blood!"

"Stop talking!"

"She gave you to him because she could not keep you alive, but she knew he could," Frode said, twisting the knife in deeper and deeper.

"My father was a good man!" Kacey screamed.

"Then you indict the entire human race!" Frode shouted right back. "He left in the night, resigning his commission! From us he took no silver nor gold, no jewels or valuable trinkets. Just you, wrapped up in his arms as he and his coterie went south, never to be seen in these parts again. I assumed you'd been burned at the stake by the time you were six years old."

"You...you're wrong," Kacey swore, battling twin urges: to lash out or to break down. "That isn't true. That can't be what happened. My father would never do anything like that! He was a great man!" Her breath caught. "You're a liar! You're a hateful old elf trying to make me feel the same loathing you do for half my heritage!"

Frode stepped back. "You." Kacey's head turned the way he pointed, and she saw a pair of drow warriors. "Kill her."

"No!" Kacey's shield flashed, and she knocked one's blade from his hands. The drow had about a moment to flinch before her heel caught him in the jaw, flinging him sideways. The second one cried out as she smashed his knee with the rim of her shield, and as he collapsed, she cracked his chin with it as well.

Frode walked calmly for his house - only to pause when Kacey's shield soared past his head and jammed his door shut. The metal quivered in the air.

Frode turned his head. "Let it go. I have spoken truth."

"You've lied," Kacey swore. She approached him, fists clenched. "I knew my father. You didn't. None of that is true. I don't believe it - I won't!"

Frode sighed, looking back forward. "Truth is not a matter of perspective or belief, Kacey MacTavish. Truth is truth. Your opinion of the truth does not change that truth is. Whether you wish it true or false does not either. And the truth is that your father was a rapist and a murderer, who all but kidnapped you."

"Don't say a word against my father!" Kacey raised her hands. "Unless you want to earn that right!"

Silence. The drow scattered behind her skittered backward, all save for Kjetil.

"Kacey, leave it," he urged. "Calm yourself. You show disrespect."

"Yeah, so does your father." Kacey quivered. "Turn around and put your hands up. Have a go. Earn the right to malign my dad."

"You are not welcome in this settlement if you cannot accept facts which displease you," Frode said, before starting back for his door. Kacey's jaw set.

"Coward!" she called, before lunging, fist upraised.

"Kacey!" Kjetil called, but she was too far gone. She swung for the back of Frode's head, screaming a war cry-

He sidestepped. She lunged past him, skidding in the snow before coming back around with her left. His hand snapped up and batted hers down as he wove backward, and Kacey snarled as ice formed around her wrist, locking it. She threw her right again, smashing the ice against her thigh without a care-

She was on the ground, gasping. Frode withdrew his hand from her stomach, retreating two steps while Kacey coughed.

"Enough," he said, his voice level. That only incensed her.

Kacey threw herself upright, out of words but full of rage, and she swung and swung. Frode evaded every blow, blocking only when he had no alternative. He waved his hand, and Kacey jumped over a thin sheet of ice forming on the ground below her-

Red flashed in her vision, and she had one second to see the gesture for Fell Fate before her foot hit ice. She went down hard on her side, crying out - but lashing out too, with both feet. Frode wove backward, and Kacey rolled to her hands and knees. It wasn't graceful, but she was off the ice, nursing her shoulder as she rose, flinging herself forward, trying to drive him into the wall of his house-

He spun out of the way, and Kacey howled as her good shoulder hit the wood with her entire body weight behind it. She pushed herself out with an elbow strike, but Frode swung, and a two-foot baton of solid ice cracked the side of Kacey's forehead. She stumbled as it broke in two, one half spinning away, and the other spinning in Frode's hand-

"Ah!" Kacey screamed as he drove the sharp end of what was now an icicle straight into her palm, nailing it to the wall. Her blood ran down her arm, and she set her teeth, diving into rage to escape the pain.

"Your anger will not change the past," Frode told her. Kacey shot her head forward, and though she didn't mark him, she at least drove him back. With her right, she ripped the icicle free, crying out again before reclaiming her shield. She swung, and Frode ducked and wove to avoid her blows.

His fingers touched her forehead. Kacey winced as light blue flashed in front of her eyes, and then paused as her thoughts abruptly leveled, the rage disappearing for just one moment in a flash of clarity.

Maybe he's right, she thought. Maybe this is foolish.

"No!" she screamed, superseding logic with pain. She struck out again, and Frode retreated. Emboldened, Kacey drove herself onward, kicking and striking-

The heel of his palm clapped her throat. Kacey choked, very suddenly, as something cold encircled her neck like a collar, pulling inward very tightly. She grabbed at it, and though she snapped the circlet of ice in an instant, an instant was all Frode needed to give her another vicious blow to the stomach with his right. Kacey howled - and then again, louder, as he drove his knee into her face, throwing her back upright.

His left put her all the way on the ground in a whirl of robes and cloak.

Her shield clattered away across the ring.

Kacey coughed, blood running from her nose. She tried to get her hands under her, but her body wouldn't cooperate when her mind told it to rise.

"No...you..."

All the rage bled away as she struggled and failed to find her feet, over and over again. Something else took its place: something much darker.

"No." She dropped her head on the cold ground. "No!" Her fists clenched, but all she did was wrap up snow in them. Hot tears exploded from behind her eyelids, and her chest heaved with great wracking sobs. "No!"

Dad...Dad would never...he wouldn't! He...he couldn't...

Someone touched her hand. Kacey hissed as green flashed in the corner of her eye, even with it closed, and she felt her laceration seal itself. A hand found her shoulder, and firmly, but without rancor, it rolled her over. It was her nose, next, and she shuddered as she felt it slide back into place.

Frode murmured in the elven language as he knelt over her, addressing each of her injuries in turn. All Kacey could do was weep.

"No...no..."

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Chapter Fourteen: Good Men Still Have Secrets(Part One)



Kacey had never been more thankful for the hunting excursions she had taken with Corlane than now. Every day, drow hunters brought back the carcasses of animals they slew with fangs and claw, only for families to hurry over and take one or two, still warm. The adults and children alike drained the kills of blood, and Kacey was left to sort through the pile of catch, looking for anything in decent enough shape for her to carve up and cook.

"Can I subsist off of blood?" Kacey asked Frode, on one of the hunting trips. They stood over the body of an elk the redhead had brought down herself with the flint-tipped spear Kjetil had given her. She didn't relish the act of killing an animal, but it didn't turn her stomach as much as when she'd killed the ruffian, and there were drow children who wouldn't survive without sustenance.

"I doubt it," Frode told her. "If you had the internal makings of a drow, never would you have had much appetite for the food of men, for your stomach would be a secondary thing evolution hasn't quite eliminated: present, able to function, but very small and entirely unnecessary. Your teeth do not have what ours do to drain the blood and process it, else you would have noticed at least once when you bit your tongue or your cheek. But perhaps you can survive off of it, more so than regular humans - though I would wonder why you would want to."

Kacey knelt by the elk. She considered for a long moment, then steeled herself and scooped a little of its blood up in her hand, for the experiment's sake. She shuddered as it went down...but frowned as she found the taste better than she'd expected.

"I don't think it's something I'd ever choose to do, for many reasons," she finally said, wiping her hand clean as best she could, "but maybe if I had no other option, I wouldn't die."
Frode nodded, and Kacey's constant tension eased as she saw clear approval in his eyes.

"You two." He waved to a pair of the hunters, with their own spears. "Kill her."
She'd taken them down. Frode had approved of that, too, and the savage, quick way she'd gone through both.

"Maximum efficiency, minimum effort," he said later, during a lesson on Vod inside the town hall. "Vod is an art ancient, unique to our people and the mighty Dragon Lords who imparted it to us."

"Humans can perform Vod," Kacey said, thinking of Brigid.

"Humans can imitate Vod," Frode corrected, turning up his lip. "Their rituals in darkness to tap into the Threads that connect and bind this world together are primitive. The dragons serve the gods directly, and they are so connected to the Threads that they can sew with them with merely a touch." He mimed a dragon's claw, tapping his own on the tabletop beside them. "The mighty dragons, after the creation of the drow from the mere elven castes, taught the skill to the mightiest of chiefs, and gradually it spread. Elves must perform the rituals the same way humans do, but to those of us with the higher caste's nature in us, the Threads are very close to hand."

"Literally," Kacey said, with a raised eyebrow. Frode scowled.

"Take this seriously, MacTavish," he snapped. The only time he used her Clan name was when he chastised, and she lowered her head at the sound of it. "We speak of the gods and dragons, and the sacred culture of the elven people."

"Apologies, uncle."

"But you are correct: like the dragons can cast with their claws, we can sew Threads with our hands, if we but know how." He tilted his head. "How did you learn?"

"My father hired a Vod-witch, a human maid," Kacey said. "She knew some of the signs. And she bought me this, before my wedding day." The redhead produced the book. Frode swept it up in a flash.

"This...is passable," he said, after flipping through several pages. "It is uninspired and glosses over the beauty of Threadwork and Vod to teach a dry arithmetic lesson, but it is an acceptable way to learn the gestures if the gestures are all you wish to learn."

"What else is there to learn?" Kacey asked. "Teach me, please."

They spoke of Threads, how they tied emotions to people to concepts. They spoke of dragon-lore and worship, and the Forgotten Gods worshipped by the drow of the North. Kacey memorized names like Harra and Dor-gon and Char. She and her uncle spoke often of things like Health, Clarity, Safety...

"There are more concepts in Vod than stars in the sky," he said. "But for each there is a gesture. Masters of Vod can cast with a look, but this requires a lifetime's meditation and study of the Threads and how they bind."

"You talk of sewing with Threads," Kacey said. "What do you mean?"

"When you incant, what do you do?" Frode asked. "Did you wish for your dog to recover? Did you wish those children better?"

"I..." Kacey frowned. "I don't know how to explain it. I just did it."

"You sewed with the Threads," Frode said. "You took a Thread from your dog, and you sewed that Thread to Health. Sooner or later, the Thread breaks, but no matter: it has still been sewn, and the effects will not reverse of their own accord."

"I've only ever really used Vod to heal," Kacey said. "What else can I do with it?"

"You can smite your enemies, but not with flashes of fire and lightning like wizards do," Frode said. "The most useful combat tool in your arsenal is Fell Fate."

"I saw the gesture in the book," Kacey agreed. "How, exactly, does it-"

She blinked as Frode's hand was in her face, his fingernails and claws glowing red along with his skin. She waited as he withdrew his hand.

"...that didn't do anything," she said, frowning. She shifted her weight. "I mean, it was startling, but that didn't-" She cried out as she slipped on the floor, crashing down on her face.

"Ow!" She got her hands under her, and then was flattened again as Brigid's book fell on her head. "Ow!"

Frode snickered, and it was the first amusement she'd heard from him. She looked up, and though she saw mirth at her plight in his eyes, he at least seemed happy she'd expressed what interest she had.
She was making him proud, a little at a time, and that was enough.

"You," he said, pointing to a group of three elves behind Kacey. "Kill her before she regains her feet."
 
***

Kacey paced in the town's practice ring, hardly shivering in the chill. Kjetil stood before her, checking over the sword in his hands. Kacey frowned as she watched him run a hand over the steel, coating it in a thin layer of frost.

"How do you do that?" she asked. "Is that Vod?"

"No," Kjetil said. "Like my father, and like most in this village, I am Winter."

"Excuse me?"

"There are four types of drow, cousin Kacey," Kjetil explained. "Castes, you might call us. Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn. Each one has power related to their season, and are resilient to its weather far more than most."

"What was my mother?" Kacey asked. "If you knew her."

"A Winter. Like all of my family."

Kacey sighed. "I wish I had that in me. I'd love to be able to cast snow and ice...and my journey here would have been so much easier if I didn't feel the cold."

"You are much more resistant to it than most of your father's kind," Kjetil said. "You should have died in that blizzard. And I wager you have always loved snow, have you not?"

"...yes," Kacey agreed. "Winter doesn't seem like the time to be inside and warm, whatever people say."

"That is your mother's lineage talking to you."

"I see you two are ready." Frode walked up, and Kacey cracked her neck. She flipped her shield off her back. "Kjetil-"

"Let me guess," Kacey predicted. "'Kill her'?"

Frode eyed her, but he looked amused. "Practice killing her."

Kjetil swung. Kacey slipped backward, shield up, letting him come at her. She blocked an overhead, then had to evade his attempt to kick out her knee. She struck back, stamping on his foot before ramming her shield into his chest.

"Your father's death was not your fault, Kacey," Frode said. She made sure Kjetil was still off-balance, then risked a reply.

"If I hadn't been there...if I'd just made a fuss and left Angus standing at the altar..."

"There are many in this world sewing Threads of Vod and of fate," Frode said. "One who sews decided your father's thread ought to be cut. You were not the one who did. His blood is not on your hands."

Kacey cried out as Kjetil lunged, striking her shield. She felt the reverberation as far up as her neck, and she stumbled backward, covering herself as best as possible while he came at her. Metal bongs echoed.

"Your mother was the younger of my two sisters," Frode continued, while Kacey remained on the defensive. The redhead gave Kjetil a push-kick to the chest that sent him stumbling, and this time, she kept her shield up while she spoke.

"Where is she?"

"She left, after your father took you," Frode said. "I know not where she went. I believe she is dead."

"I refuse to."

"Then I hope you prove me wrong."

"What's her name?"

"Silje." Frode waited as Kacey took the offensive, throwing roundhouse kicks at Kjetil while he struggled to regain his balance. "Do you know their story?"

"No," Kacey said, as she retreated. "My father told me she gave me to him, and sent me south with him in hopes of a better life."

Frode laughed. It was harsh, and not amused at all. "Yes, that would be his version of events. I suppose it's even true, from a certain point of view."

"What are you talking about?" Kacey asked. "He never told me how they met and fell in love, if that's what you're asking."

Frode regarded her. "They met, all right...but there was no love involved in your conception."

Kacey turned, heart skipping a beat. "What do you mean?"

Frode regarded her. "Your father took my sister by force, Kacey MacTavish."

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Chapter Thirteen: Kacey Half-Elven(Part Two)



Again, Kjetil led Kacey into the long, low building that served as the town hall. Still she was cold, but it was nothing compared to the chill she had known on the road. She hungered, for this town had very little in the way of solid food, but she had eaten enough last night to survive.

The mayor rose as Kacey entered, and she inclined her head respectfully, mimicking Kjetil.

"Hello, Kacey," he said in his raspy, quivering voice. He left his stool behind, and with a smooth walk that belied his wrinkles, he approached.

"Hello, Mayor," she replied.

"Call me Frode. Everyone does." He waved his hand. "I see Kjetil's children didn't drink of you in your sleep."

"For which I am grateful," Kacey said. "I don't know how my blood would taste: I am half-elven."

"I see you have your father's great wit," Frode said. "It will not save your life."

"What do you ask of me?" Kacey glanced at Kjetil, then back to Frode. "I have nowhere else to go. I want to learn how to belong here."

"Do you?" Frode asked. "Is that your aim?"

"Yes-"

"Well, forget it!" Frode waved his hand. "You will stay for a while, but not forever. We all know it, except you."

"But..." Kacey blinked. "My mother's heritage...I have drow blood in me!"

"You do, and that's the curse you bear for the rest of your miserable life," Frode said. "You are nothing, Kacey Half-Elven."

"What are you talking about?" she demanded. "My elven blood isn't a curse. I don't belong in the world of men any more-"

"But you think you belong here?" Frode laughed, dissolving into a coughing fit after a moment. His white lips curled up. "When a man looks at you, Kacey, he will call you half-elven, taking in your ears and your Vod-witchery. When a drow looks at you, we will call you half-human, from the pink hue to your skin and the color in your hair. Neither group will call you one of us."

"But I have drow blood-"

"You think you're the first bastard brat born of two races to drift around this world?" Frode demanded. "Your breed are lost in the cracks, Kacey! Men shun you. Elves shun you. You are the worst of both races, embodied with those traits that make us distinct without the culture and nature to make them meaningful. Your kind are forgotten and downtrodden by all, drifting from corner to corner of this earth, never settling, unable to find peace. You think if you just run another set of miles, you will find a place where you belong, but there is nowhere you belong, MacTavish! You are no bridge between two worlds, but a thrown-aside piece of refuse that has no claim to either of them!"

Kacey flinched. She shook her head, though. "You say I have no purpose? You say I belong nowhere?" She swallowed. "I won't believe it. I refuse. I can't sit back and say I'm destined for nothing but meaningless misery."

"And good for you!" Frode cried. "I'd call you craven if you did!" He clasped his hands behind him. "Never accept it when people tell you something is hopeless. It is hopeless to live in the snow and the waste of the North, but we carved out a life for ourselves, when your father's people took our land."

Quiet reigned. He continued to pace, his gnarled hands clasping and unclasping.

"Bare your arm."

"What?" Kacey frowned. "My arm?"

"Do as I say!" Frode approached. "Bare your arm and strip your sleeve."

"Why?" Kacey asked, clutching her forearm.

"I am Mayor of this settlement," Frode said. "I say as long as a sack of drink walks among us, it would be selfish of you to deny a powerful leader a delicious feast when he asks it of you."

"You want my blood?" Kacey asked. "Aren't you satisfied with the fresh-kill your hunters bring in?"

"I want human blood, and that's in your veins too," Frode said. "Bare your arm, half-human."

Kacey swallowed. Slowly, she extended her arm. She hesitated as Frode reached out and ran his fingers over her wrist. She watched him bare his fangs.

"No!" She pulled her hand back. "I don't want to. You've got no right to my blood."

"I control whether you stay in this village or go," Frode warned. "Your arm-"

"No!" Kacey stared him down, shaking. "I refuse, you old crackpot. Back away."

Their eyes locked. He tilted his head to the side, and Kacey wondered if he would simply take what he'd been denied-

"Well done, Kacey," he said. "Very well done." His lips parted to reveal a smile, of all things. "You're learning well."

"What?" she asked. "I refused you."

"You have lines you won't cross," Frode said. "And that is good. If you would do anything, then you are worth nothing." He turned, leaving Kacey to chew on that. "You may stay in this settlement as long as you like, Kacey Half-Elven." He raised his hand. "But! You must always fend for yourself, understand? No one will carry you if you are a drain on us."

"I understand," she said. "I agree."

"Good." He didn't turn. "Kjetil. Kill her."

"What?" Kacey asked, in the instant before she heard the snick of a blade coming out of its sheath. She spun, and the drow captain lunged at her, slashing for her face with a wicked serrated dagger. Kacey's hands came up. She blocked, then lunged and grabbed, but his wrist slipped through her fingers.

"Ah!" The redhead cried out as Kjetil struck her in the stomach. She stumbled backward, only to have to throw herself on her back to avoid a stab that would have taken one of her eyes.

Frode still observed the far wall.

Kacey flung both feet up, and she caught Kjetil in the chest. He nearly flew backward, and then she threw herself upright, reaching over her shoulder and drawing her shield. She flipped it onto her arm, and the next sound in the room was a metallic bong as she caught Kjetil's next strike.

His hand seized her shield. Frost formed over the metal thing, spreading from his skin, and Kacey hissed as it ran over her arm and between her fingers. With her free hand, she lashed out, striking him in the face hard enough he lost his grip on the knife. It fell, and Kacey kicked it aside. Her next move was to throw her entire weight behind her shield arm, and Kjetil couldn't stop her from clipping his chin with the heavy metal disc. He stumbled, and Kacey spun into a slam with the shield's rim that put him on the ground.

Frode clapped. "Very good, Kacey."

"What was that about?" she demanded. "I should take you on now. You just said-"

"In the wild, there are no rules and there is no honor," Frode told her. "You live or die by your reflexes and your will to act. If you cannot fight for yourself and your family, then you and they do not drink at the end of the day." He lowered his eyes. "I lost one niece to the predations of the outside world. I will not see you suffer as I am sure she did."

Kacey sucked in breath. Then she slung her shield over her shoulder and turned to Kjetil.

"You all right?" she asked. "Did I hurt you?"

"Only a little." The drow rubbed his chin. "You are dangerous, cousin Kacey. I am surprised."

"Here." She offered her hand and pulled him up. "Sorry about that."

"Do not be. I now know what will happen to the first person to jump you with no warning. I will not lose sleep for your safety."

"Kjetil will be your companion while you are here, and you will stay with his family," Frode decreed. "I will teach you Vod, and I will teach you our history, and I will teach you of yours as well, if you have the courage to learn. But you will need to at all times be on guard, for I will test you and threaten you at every corner, and to fear death in this settlement would be wise. If you cannot survive us, you cannot survive the Wild that is your fate."

"I'm willing," Kacey said. "Teach me."