Path to Pinefar (short story)
Title: The Path to Pinefar
Author: player of Charna Ja'Varrel'Kav
Her breath came in short, ragged gasps. Scrambling up the tree she was aware of the burning pain in her lungs from not only the cold mountain air but from her recent sprint up the side of the mountain. Scuttling for the next branch, she slipped down the broad trunk of the monir she was attempting to climb, and scraped her bare ribs on the bark when her thick tunic snagged. She stiffed a yelp, her eyes anxiously cast in the direction she had come from. She could see the passage of her recent flight, and could barely make out the sound of pursuit if not the sight.
Her fingers were white with tension from holding her precarious perch midway up the tree, and she was beginning to feel the pull of strained muscles across her back when she felt something shoved under her foot. Her heart leapt faster for a moment, if that was possible, but she gazed down to see the dusky fur coating of her trusted friend.
Bracing his paws upon the trunk of the tree, the giant mastiff shoved his head under her foot once more, and hoisted her further up the tree. She was small, to be sure, but she knew that even this little bit of help must be a burden to him. Not wasting any of the valuable time, or the beast's efforts, she grabbed again for the branch, and began the arduous task of pulling herself up. It seemed to take an eternity to get high enough, her eyes constantly cast at the track she had just sprinted.
The mastiff, loyal to a fault, stayed at the base of the tree with his front paws braced upon the rough bark as he watched her ascent in utter silence. The foliage obscured her, but still he waited. She began to worry for him, her eyes casting east and down with regularity.
Finally, she was high enough, or so she thought. Taller then the tallest Ice Giant, at least.
She whispered softly, the words of her spell coming to mind with more ease then the names of many of the people knew in both her past, and present. It was only when the last syllable of her spell was cast, and her body began to melt into the shadows that the mastiff gave up his watch.
She stared with wide eyes, her head pounding, and her breath still ragged, as the mastiff ran to the edge of the track. What is he doing?
Her mind raced, and she recoiled against the trunk as to her astonishment the mastiff barked down the path where her pursuants were just breaking the trail. Catching sight of the mastiff, they surged forward.
She held her breath, praying that the sound of her own racing heart, which seemed far too loud in her own head, would not draw them to her, while also praying that Imaera would give the mastiff speed enough to outrun them. Surely, she would aid him. To be sure, she quickly intoned something to Tonis. It never hurt to hedge your bets.
They crashed past making far more noise then she had, and only paused at the base of the tree for three minutes; all of which felt like an eternity locked in one of Sheru's nightmares. And she, of all people, would know just what that felt like.
She forced her breath to slow, releasing air that she hadn't realized she'd been holding tightly inside, and waited for the sudden spots that filled her vision to clear. She counted slowly to the number of thirty even though a quiet voice inside her begged her to be far away. Prudence demanded her calm, nervous screamed for flight, but deeper inside was the learning of a not so long ago teacher that told her what she must do next. Carefully, she lowered herself to the ground.
A faint rustle in the bushes behind her caused her to whirl in that direction, and crouch low at the same time. Instinct must have placed the dagger in her hand because she did not remember grabbing for it of her own will.
Snow crunched beneath the large, familiar paws of the mastiff as it edge forward. Grinning, she sheathed the thin faenor blade, and rubbed the beast's great head. She praised him quietly, her cheek resting on his scruffy head while her eyes were trained on the bushes he had just vacated.
There was time, not much but some. She waited a few more moments to ensure that the fatigue of her flight had left her.
At least, she thought, my hands are not shaking any longer.
Rising from the mastiff's side, she gazed up the trail. She wasn't sure how they had known she?d come this way, and she wasn't sure which of the many had hired them or if they worked on their own. The Dark Lords weren't, after all, without a wide array of followers.
Pulling a well-used shawl from her sack, she began to wrap it about her head, face, and neck. The dark green linen would keep her bright rust-hued hair from being so clearly seen in the mountain foliage and snow. Red on white, if that doesn?t scream target, she thought but then just let the thought die without finishing it; no need to be morbid.
Dressed in greys it wasn't that hard to blend with her surroundings, she was thankful for more then the first time that her cold weather clothing could give her a natural camouflage of sorts. She glanced at the mastiff, and then silently gestured with her hand; her finger pointed to the ground but swirling clock wise. The mastiff nodded, his intelligent eyes telling her nothing but shot off westward in silence. He'd bring them, she knew.
She slipped her darkest blade from her harness without a sound, and drew forth a small silvery vial from yet another of her many pockets. Ny always chided her for what she carried, but she'd yet to not find a use for any of the things upon her. She filled the blade's fuller with the amber liquid, and carefully returned the stopper to the vial.
Calling once more on the darkness that was nature, she wove her spell, and merged with tree. She closed her eyes when she heard the bushes before her rustle, her breath stilling ash her body slipped into the quiet that she knew as death's dance.
There were three of them. Taller then she, and far more bulky, but that never determined the outcome of battle. It was skill, or stealth, or oft times luck, but not usually size.
They ranged before her, the first dropping his knees to examine the impressions in the ground. He breathed as raggedly as she had not that long ago, and she decided to save him for last when she was tired again.
Fate, though, had decided he should be first because just as she had thought the last, the other two separated down the various paths.
She waited, feeling the effects of her spell beginning to dwindle, and desperately not wanting to lose the advantage it would give her. Yet, she didn't want to be hasty. Opportunity would strike, she knew, and patience was her ally right now.
One of the few, she thought with uncharacteristic wryness, that wasn't fickle.
He stood slowly, his right arm rising to shield the sun from his eyes.
THERE! NOW! Cried the voice she knew to be her inner chaos, and she shoved herself off of the tree.
Swallowing the cry she wished to utter, she came up low behind the man and crammed the sapara under his armpit where the joints of the brigandine armor lay bare. She heard the light cotton gambeson shred as the blade pierced it, and swiftly reached across his broad back to cover his mouth with her free hand. His shocked cry, followed by a greater gargle of pain was muffled in her tiny hand, but not she quickly realized enough. She lifted her wild eyes from the man's back just as his incredible weight began to drag her down with his slumping body. Adrenaline singing in her blood, she shoved the man?s face from her, and turned the downward slump into a thrust adding all her weight to her sword-arm.
The maneuver worked, and the keen-edged sapara slide into the body only to reemerge through the collarbone, the major artery in the neck split. The sanguine liquid pumped heartily from wound, but the man would not still. He barked some inarticulate command that echoed across the grassy slope at the exact same moment that his hand flew back, his fist catching the fine bones of her cheek.
It swelled instantly, and her hand loosened on the blade. Her breath rushed from her in a mighty gush as she landed hard on her tailbone, and she lost precious seconds struggling to gain her feet. Seconds, she quickly realized that she simply did not have as around her the bushes parted.
She skittered backwards on her hands, doing a reverse crabwalk as the pair of returning men took in the scene before them. Their comrade was dieing, his legs twitching spasmodically in this death throes. By some instinct of self preservation he kept batting blindly at the sapara crammed under his armpit, eventually that would still.
She couldn't help the smirk that crossed her lips watching that, because she knew that the blade was well imbedded. She rolled to her left as the man on her right lunged at her, his blade was drawn and she was still bereft of one. It brought her a little too closely to the man that was there, but a snarl from behind her caused the smirk to return.
"Ye bettah duck." she said with calmness that she didn't feel. Later, she would marvel that her voice had not shaken.
The man did not register her words, for on the heels of them the mastiff burst from the mountain thistle and over her head. His enormous paws slammed with force into the man's chest, and the pair went down with a tumbling roll away from her. She didn't have time to worry about them, because the other man was now upon her, and she still didn't have a blade in hand.
More warily then the others, the man circled her while she watched from her kneeling position. She moved with painstaking slowness, not wanting to force the man to move swifter then she was prepared for. Whispering softly, she began the words of her spell knowing as she did that really it was a plea to nature to help her at this very moment.
As the last syllable of the plea died, and she felt more then heard the thrum of the swarm as it arched across the trees behind the man. The black biting insects surged across his back, and swirled quickly across his vision. She had a glimpse of wide blue eyes before he stumbled backwards with flailing arms.
Rising swiftly, she had to give the man credit. He had not fallen as others had when presented with the swarm, but he had given her time to draw the longer, lighter khopesh from her harness. She surged forward in the aftermath of the swarm, and watched with wondering eyes as they appeared to melt away from her but still remained tightly within the vision of the man.
He battered her thrust aside with his own blade, she wasn?t sure how he could have seen it with the angry red welts that riddled his face, and swelled his eyes, but the blow jarred her arm enough that she gasped with the ringing shock of it. He countered quickly, his instinct and skill above her own, but she was swift and unaffected by the swarm around him. She received only a glancing blow to her unprotected left forearm, cursing inwardly at the lack of a shield.
He swung his legs at hers, and she was suddenly greeted with a view of the brilliant blue sky. Her breath again exploded from her, even as her tailbone throbbed with the all too familiar pain. His blade loomed into view. Time seemed to slow, her fatigued arms bringing her khopesh up in what she knew wasn?t going to be enough time. She refused to close her eyes, or maybe she was unable to, and watched in mute horror as the blade swung further downward for a crippling strike. To her shock, and wonder, the strike triggered a spell she had previously woven upon herself, and a bevy of wild thorns surged forward to not only block the deadly blade but to knick and mar the hand that held it.
Swears filtered through the air as her attacker's strike was miraculously diverted from her head, and he was obscured by another thrumming swarm strike. Rolling to her feet, she swung wildly at the man, hoping that something would connect. She felt the impact along her arm, the blow raking across his exposed chest. Not, she realized anything more potent then a mild irritant.
Yet, her opponent began to slow. His movements were growing sluggish, his feet dragging in the snow. Poison from the insect swarm and her thorny protection must have begun to coarse through his veins. This brought her new strength, and she surged forward. Rolling her shoulders, she brought herself within his guard; the maneuver was something she?d seen the Big Bear do. Success of the move thrilled through her chest, lending power to her blade as it whistled through the small space only to snick across the man?s exposed throat. He crumpled at her feet. His blade fell too from fingers that were numb, though his hands flew to the second mouth she?d created in his neck.
The swarm, seeing that their job was done, swirled through her wild hair before hurtling back over the trees to whence they had come. Fleetingly she wondered where her shawl had fallen, but presently she squatted on the man's chest. She plunged her khopesh into the ground beside his head, watching with satisfaction as his blood-shot eyes widened in alarm. Bracing her elbows on her knees, she stared down into the dieing man?s face.
"Who," She began slowly, impressing herself with the ease of her words after her exertion, and the utter lack of fear even though that emotion tickled her belly. "Sent ye aftah me?"
He said nothing. Dropping her eyes to his neck, she cursed and stood. Her blow had severed his vocal chords, as well as deeper into his neck then she'd meant to. Crimson life gushed from between his fingers, the spray melting the snow wherever it touched. Her foot lashed out on her way up and way from him, smacking the side of his head.
She retrieved her sapara first, the blade truly wedged into the bones of the dead. She sometimes, like now, surprised herself with her strength. She had grown accustomed to thinking of herself as a child, much as everyone else did. That it was to her advantage never really struck her. The blade was a long time in coming free.
By the time she had cleaned them both, and turned the sapara to her well padded harness, she began to recognize the sound that had been at the edge of her hearing for sometime now. Her eyes shot behind her, and she reassured herself that the men she had killed were indeed dead.
Where was the groan coming from?
Leaning heavily on her khopesh, she moved to her feet belatedly acknowledging the fact that she'd have to bind the gash on her left forearm. She'd thought it only a scratch, but the adrenaline was wearing off, and the wound was feeling like a hundred fire ants had made a meal of it. She followed the noise, her feet making all too visible a track in the snow. Had she accidentally gotten her own poison in her veins? That of the swarms? Shaking her head, she pushed her way through the bushes.
The snow was spangled dark red in an erratic pattern of sprayed blood that her mind would not, could not make sense of at first. Her lids were heavy when she lifted her eyes to the nearly prone figure not twenty paces from her in the snow. Vicious bite wounds riddled his thighs, chest, and arms. His hands were a ruinous mass of beef, which he presently brought to shield his face.
"Nae! Cosain!" she screeched, as the macabre scene before her brought a flash of recognition to the surface of her drugged mind. She needed one of them alive, she needed to question them.
Her cry was too little, too late. The mastiff's jaws clamped down on the man's throat and tore it free, sending gore, blood, and sinew streaking across the pristine snow.
The mastiff shifted his mighty head, his lips curled back into a snarl as he regarded her. She had seen this before; he was caught in the hunt. With the very last of her strength, she sank to her knees, and spoke the words of another spell. Wild nature rolled through her, and her vision shifted to greys and yellows.
Her own lips drew back, the snarl echoing that of the mastiff's. He advanced upon her slowly, his paws leaving a crimson impression in the snow. Closing her lips, she issued a soft whimpering plea, and rolled to her side. She shivered as her sore shoulder muscles touched the cold of the ground for the fourth time this day, and exposed her belly to him. He continued to advance, his lips dripping blood that she prayed was not his own.
As she lay fully upon her back, her tunic lifted to reveal the bruising of her recent climb up the tree. Could it have been only twenty minutes ago already?
At the sight of her pale, freckled skin beneath the grey linen, the mastiff's tongue lolled from his mouth, and his last few steps toward her were a jaunt eased of his battle tension. She felt the spirit of the wolf drain from her, but did not see it as her eyes had closed. She risked losing herself and Cosain every time they had to fight like this -- apart, yet together ? But he was all she had right now. All that she could trust.
She felt the mastiff lower his mastiff body next to her, and reached her hand towards him. For his part, the mastiff ignored the hand to lay his wet muzzle across her stomach.
Long moments stretched, as she and the mastiff lay silently in the snow. He struggling to catch his breath, she too tired to move.
I'll be sorry if I don't move, she thought as her muscles began to stiffen in the cold snow.
The mastiff must have sensed her thoughts because he lifted his head and begin to gingerly sniff at her wounds, lapping here and there as warranted. The next several moments were spent in inspection of the mastiff's limbs, flank, and head. She was amused as he appeared to look her over just as thoroughly as she did him.
Climbing to their feet, almost as one, they moved into the other clearing to gather the few items that had scattered during her flight and the consequent battle that had followed. Glancing back up at the mountain, she pondered the summit.
Who had sent them?
She wondered. All of her known enemies, her once family and friends would have come themselves.
Later, she would struggle to remember what the trio had looked like. She would fight with her memory; pleading with it to give those she had killed faces, and races. Her conscience would plague her with questions she did not need to hear. Were they fathers? Sons? Husbands? Later, she would wonder if the Bear would have approved her methods. Or the Coyote approved of her tactics. Later still, when the night was darker, and she lay alone in the dark, she would wonder if He would have approved of her viciousness and she would succumb to the despondency that her present path in life had led her to. Later. Later.
Presently, she shook her head as she turned from the clearing, and made her slow way down the mountain.
"I dun think we should hunt up in Pinefar ta'day, Cosain." she said in the best conversational tone she could muster.
Mutely, the mastiff followed.