Hey, folks! As promised, here’s chapter 2. Comments welcome!
The spray of arterial blood showered me in steaming droplets. Like a broken bowl, the head wobbled across the floor until it came to rest at my feet. My knife wobbled. The Dawn-Son soldier who had first leapt into the ruined building thudded on top of me, decapitated. I didn’t have time for surprise as the lifeless impact drove the breath from my lungs.
Lifeblood pumped fountain-like onto me, steaming and then freezing amidst my hair, my beard, under my snot-rimmed nose. I choked on it, spitting and fumbling with the dead weight atop me. The rank stench of ordure permeated the small room. Urine wetness on my leg as the dead man’s bowels discharged one last time. Scarcely breathing, I fought to escape from beneath the corpse when the sudden clangor of combat rang from outside. I got completely still.
Twin shadows advanced, coalescing into tall, rangy men as they passed beneath the smashed lintel. Gritting my teeth, I held my breath, supine, drenched in gore and shit. The newcomers searched through the building dark, muttering words I could not understand. They prowled toward us. I tensed, waited discovered and quickly executed. But the blow never came. Squinting, I watched as one of them scooped an object off the floor. When the man stood, I could see the uneven shape of the severed head swinging by its stringy hair from his clenched fist. As quickly as they had arrived, the phantoms vanished with their grisly prize.
With a sharp gasp, I remembered how to breathe. My first words were whispered thanks to whatever patron of luck had smiled on us this night. Somehow, ensconced in the darkness, the warriors had overlooked us. The sounds of battle had already died, though I still dared not move.
Billowing wind ushered fleets of snowflakes into the dark room accompanied by snatches of conversation, none of which was remotely decipherable. After the last strains of subdued chatter faded, I began counting my heartbeats. At two hundred, I listened again. Nothing. I pulled the Fae woman closer, taking advantage of the Dawn-Son’s residual body heat as the corpse cooled. She was a block of ice beside me. Little strands of her hair froze, a thousand red icicles.
I felt her skin. Terribly cold. It made me want to move, and I had to remind myself that whoever had slaughtered the Sons could still be out there, bedecked in human souvenirs. Eager to take another trophy, or two.
I waited till the tips of my fingers started to ice, and then waited some more for good measure. The cold demanded action—I had to move. Squirming out from beneath the now-frozen corpse, I picked myself up and relieved the Dawn-Son of his fur-lined cloak. He certainly didn’t need it as much as the Fae woman did.
Cold wind beckoned, and I trudged into the storm after hoisting the woman over my shoulder once more. Of the battle, there was no trace. The bodies had already been swallowed by the storm. Immediately, I was blind in the pale wash of white, and I damned the snow to some suitably hot hell as I limped forward.
Icy air seared my throat, jabbed my lungs when I took a breath. Methodically, I checked the Fae woman’s heartbeat. It beat arhythmicly as the growing storm tried its best to entomb us in a wintery mausoleum. My fingers froze into shovel-heads and I glanced around, trying vainly to get my bearings. Not a soul in sight. Only a cadger’s frozen corpse. His blackened hands were paralyzed in supplication. I have stolen through cities on the blackest of nights, fleeting as a shadow and silent as sin, but never with a dying woman in my arms and a near-crippled leg. It tested me to my foundation.
My inn loomed from the whiteout, a galleon breaking sea-fog; I gasped in relief, honestly not expecting to make it this far. I paused, gathered my thoughts. Run through the common room with a frozen, bloody woman over my shoulder? A well-executed plan followed by a well-executed man!
Instead, I moved to the Golden Keyboard’s side door, which, pocketed by darkness and obscured with heaping trash, was jammed shut. All nine of my fingers fumbled against the icy padlock, and the missing digit itched, as usual. Damn not-finger. My rusty steel key clicked into place. The door grated open after I put my shoulder into it. Inside at last, the inn’s thick walls harbored us from the killing wind and the worst of the cold.
I stomped the ice off my boots. The long hallway echoed with noise from the common room, flickered with light thrown off the distant fire. If anyone saw the Fae woman, we were both as good as dead. Propping her body against the wall, I rearranged my jacket on her frozen body, stuffing her hair and her ears beneath the pocked wool. Ice tinkled onto the floorboards. Her pointy ears, ice-bound dirks, refused to hide so I cursed them under my breath.
In the dark hall I tripped more than once on upraised floorboards. Laughter ringing from the common room sped me on my way up the stairs, which creaked and groaned like a poorly-made chair. My door was at the top of the flight. A jagged keyhole marred the blood-red boards, painted such to drive away the devils of the night. Or so the locals tell me. When darkness falls deep as snow and the disparate worlds of the living and of legend draw into close embrace, I can almost imagine the fetid breath of ancient Erovian demons icy against my neck; only then am I thankful for my red door.
I thought I felt the woman stir, and nearly dropped her as I lowered her to the floor. She was stiff, covered with borrowed blood. There would be time to ask questions later, if she survived the night. I unlocked my room, pushed open the door.
Strength sapped, I tried to lift the Fae woman and failed. Breathing hard and shivering for all I was worth, I grabbed her under her arms and pulled her across the floor as gently as possible. Say what you like about Taveol, but first say I’ve a strong heart, if not a strong back.
Bumbling in the dark, I grasped for a light, managing to coax a small flame to life on the meager taper I kept on my bedside table. Its warmth was welcome, and I unwrapped the linens that served as my gloves from my hands, slowly working the frost from my knuckles over the candle-flame. Like a snake, I molted from my now-wet clothes, setting the amulet that hung around my neck down carefully. I pulled on the only other tunic and trousers I owned and wrapped my feet in threadbare cloth.
Divorced from the immediate danger of the cold, I turned my attention to the woman. My taper’s flickering light illuminated her face, the rise and fall of her chest. She possessed an icy beauty, that which cannot be touched by mere men like me. I worked my jacket off her body, scattering snow across the wooden floor. Crystals of ice and gore splotched her perfect skin, but she had no wounds to account for the blood.
I lifted her onto my cot. If she were a human woman, I might have admired her nakedness, but she was Fae. Such things were not permissible. Instead, I fixed my eyes on her blue fingertips as I cleaned her, dried her off, wrung out her hair. Splotches of red remained, but they were not blood. Something deeper in her skin, fading like a dying sun.
She was still cold, despite my attention. It clove to her like a child to his mother’s knee. But I had seen men revived even though their limbs were frozen through. They had awoken, walked around, and then died suddenly, every one of them, hearts bursting from the sudden expansion of their blood vessels. The rewarming process was incredibly delicate.
I grabbed my fur blankets and piled them on until she looked small beneath them. A fire, next. The task was a steady, calming one and soon, flames danced in my cracked hearth.
I pulled back the bedcovers and clambered in, trapping my own heat in the cocoon of warmth. As gently as I could, I hugged her close without rubbing skin. Her body seemed to leech my warmth away, left me shivering. Not unlike sleeping beside a block of ice. I remained there as long as I could.
I hauled myself to the fireside, rubbed my hands. When I returned to the cot, I brought a warmed bowl of water, not boiling, but steaming in the flickering light. I poured it down her throat as slowly as my shaking hands would allow. A little color returned to the Fae woman’s cheeks, though she was far from healthy.
A slam from downstairs brought me upright in a flash. Front doors make a distinctive sound when smashed open, and that was it. I threw the blankets over the Fae woman as footsteps crashed up the stairs. Wild pounding against my door seemed to shake the floor, and I was only halfway across the room when my door burst open on its ancient hinges. Leah, my only barmaid plowed into my room, eyes wide. For once, her face was not caged in that eternal frown.
“Master Räv!” she lurched to a halt as she saw me limping toward her. “I-I couldn’t stop them, they just charged right in…”
Boot-steps pounded in the common room. I felt sick.
“Slow down, girl,” I said, hearing the calmness of my voice as if from a half-league’s distance. “Tell me quickly, are they wearing all white?”
“Yes!” she said, voice shaking. “Yes, white everything.”
My heart lurched.
“Go to your room, and stay there,” I commanded, limping toward my desk. Leah did not move. “I said GO!” She flinched at the iron in my voice and found the courage to dash back down the stairs. A banded iron chest squatted on my desk, and I pulled it open soundlessly. Three knives glistened, points up, like soldiers at attention. Heart pounding in time with the advancing clamor from the below, I pulled all three knives out by their delicately balanced hafts, careful not to touch the glistening blades. Demonshood, distilled, clung to the metal in black droplets.
I spared one glance to my cot and the blanketed Fae woman before limping toward the stairs.
Shouting below sped me downward as I stretched my arm back and forth, loosening it, before palming one of the throwing daggers. I stopped at the corner with one arm behind my back, tensed like a coiled spring. The Sons of Dawn were waiting in the common room. I could hear them, could imagine them spread out within the throng of patrons. Difficult targets. I evened my breaths, prepared to throw, and stepped around the corner.
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