Once wild magic shattered human civilization. Mage-built cities collapsed, spell-sped galleons sank, airships fell from the skies. Magic-born chimerae turned on their creators, and then their neighbors. The peoples of Awrhee fell into barbarism.
But that was generations ago. Humanity has scraped together kingdoms again, and learned to live without magic. Those who practice spellcraft are eyed with suspicion, as are the old ways, and the old places.
Some, however, seek treasure in the ruins of what was. Knowledge, gold, power—it’s out there. Treasure untold for anyone clever enough to find it, bold enough to take it, fast enough to get away with it.
It’s out there, in the Spell-Wracked Lands.
Flame Isfree and the Feather of Fate VII
A Serial Story by KD Sarge
The morning had dawned far too bright, and it was too warm as well, making Flame’s head and stomach hurt as if she’d spent the night enjoying herself. She huddled under her hood, enduring the warmth in favor of shade as they left the Stone Eye.
“Flame, do you really think you should take a hearth-cat into the wild?” Lory asked.
“I’m just going,” Flame said. “He’s the one following.”
“He came from the wild,” Kessa said. “He probably doesn’t want to be a city cat. Do you?” She scooped up the cat and cuddled it. “Him doesn’t want to be a lazy city cat, does him? Him’s a mighty hunter…”
Flame rolled her eyes and wished she hadn’t.
“It does look as if he’s adopted us,” Lory allowed. “What will you name him?”
Kessa shook her braids; the cat batted at them.
“He already has a name,” Flame said. “I just don’t know it. Ryahled won’t tell me.”
“I do not see the need to speak with a hearth-cat,” the ranger retorted.
“Ha! I think he won’t talk to you.”
Flame snatched a corner of Tolor’s cloak and tugged. “Hey, priest. Where are we going?”
“I do wish, Flame, that you would show me a little respect. If not to my position, at least to my rank.”
“Hey, human who manfully gave up all the good stuff to get power.” Flame tugged again. “Where are we going?”
“To the docks, Flame.” Tolor swept his cloak out of her hand with a sigh. “We are going to the docks.”
“So we’re not walking the whole way around the damn lake? Sometimes, priest, I could almost like you.”
“Your approval warms me more than the sun.”
At the docks Flame eyed the…boat…Tolor was trying to hire. It was big and flat, with none of the grace of a ship and probably half the speed of a drunken tortoise. “I think I’d rather walk, priest,” she called.
The cat sat by her boot; Flame nudged him. “You just like it because it smells of fish.”
“A flat bottom means it won’t tip so much,” Kessa pointed out. “And look. Sails. We won’t have to row.”
“They’ll find a way to put us to work,” Bran grumbled.
Kessa poked him. “You just don’t want to go on the lake. Can’t you swim?”
“I can’t,” Okon announced, stomping his feet. “And I don’t care to learn. My own two legs have been good enough for me this long.”
“Winter draws near,” Lory murmured. “We cannot afford the time. Do stop complaining, children.”
“Don’t even think about it,” Flame growled, pushing the cat back from where it peered into the water. “That carp would have you for breakfast.”
“Little one,” Ryahled went to one knee beside the cat, “are you sure you wish to come?”
The cat walked away to butt Kessa’s leg. Flame laughed though it hurt her head.
“All right, come on, then,” the captain growled, waving to them as Tolor put away his purse. “We’re about to get underway. Hurry up now, before the wind changes!”
Finally. Flame was first aboard. After a prowl from stem to stern, she and the cat settled in the best spot. On top of the pilothouse the breeze was cool, the sun was warm, and the captain’s pipe-smoke had a pleasant fruity smell. Flame sighed and pulled off her sword-belt and her boots. She wrapped her boots in her cloak and used them as a pillow. Within minutes she was sleeping the sleep of the wicked—undisturbed by conscience, and full of good dreams.
When she woke the sun was directly above, the barge was well out on the lake, the cat had wandered off, and men were talking right below her.
“I’m tellin’ ye, Captain,” a low voice repeated. “Somethin’s there.”
“Nonsense,” the captain growled. “Jemba, you been sailing this lake even longer’n me. You know there’s nothing but weather going to give us any trouble.”
“Hain’t been to the bottom yet, and I hope as to never see it,” Jemba responded. “Captain, somethin’ hit the leeboard. Weren’t no odd swell, neither. I was watching.”
“A waterlogged bit of driftwood, not quite sunk. They’ll float a fathom under for days.”
“Ye gonna give me credit for knowing the lake or not? Tweren’t no log. Maybe the tales of Aktenaq—“
“Ahoy!” a voice shouted. “‘Ware the stern! Eyes to starboard!”
Flame leaped to her feet, sword-belt in hand. Starboard, ship’s right—she squinted, searching while she buckled on her weapons. The ruffled surface glittered, bright and impenetrable.
“Clear!” a voice shouted. “I see naught, Captain!”
“Aye, ‘tis gone!”
“Matren!” the captain shouted. “What did you spot?”
“A fin, Cap! Tall as a man, it was!”
“I told ye,” Jemba muttered. The captain snarled.
“Your eyes played tricks, and now you’ve given the men—”
“Drown me for a fool if I said aught to any but you!”
“Captain.” Flame stepped to the edge; both men jumped when she spoke. “Captain, our leader is a priest of some power, and the older woman a mage. Alert them if you fear danger.”
“Danger me drunken mother!” the captain snapped. “There’s just—”
The boat jolted up; Flame staggered as it slammed down. Men fell shouting and sails snapped and things bounced about the deck.
“Man overboard!” someone shouted.
“Where away?” the captain yelled. On the stern someone pointed. Flame grabbed for her bow as she searched the dazzling surface. No shadow broke it.
“Gone, Captain!” the lookout shouted. “Was a whirlpool, sucked him under!”
“There be no whirlpools on the Lak Anul!”
Where the man had been pointing, the glitter turned red.
A man-tall blue fin broke the water.
“To arms!” Flame shouted. “It hunts!”
“Aktenaq!” someone screamed. “Gods save us, Aktenaq!”
Flame set arrow to string and wished she’d stayed by—Lory. Yes, Lory was a better choice in this.
Wait for a good target…the fin disappeared. Where—
“Helm, hard to port!” the captain shouted. “Run for the shallows! Pallo, Cedric, tighten the mainsheet! Prepare to jibe!”
“Jibe ho!” answered voices.
“Ile Padu is closer,” Jemba pointed out.
“Padu has no shallows to—ware the boom, elf!”
The sail, swinging over, boom aimed at her knees—
“Lugs!” Flame leaped, letting the sail catch her. She slid into the sag, tangled behind the boom. Buried in yielding white, facing away from the mast— The boom swung on as the craft turned. Then with a SNAP! the sail filled, launching Flame backward.
She gulped one deep breath before the cold lake closed over her.
Blood before her eyes, was she—no, it was her hair. Flame darted forward, her hair streamed back. Up, go up, find the sun and swim for it—the boat. That shadow moving away was the boat, the creature—
Stupid fin-thing was nowhere in sight. Flame swam. Cursed not knowing nautical talk. Jibe ho meant duck! Thought about why she had to be the one in the water, not whether Aktenaq ate Vral.
Wondered why the low yowl of a furious cat filled her head. Bobbed to the surface and gasped air.
“Gods damn, there goes another ‘un! Fool lubs—”
A splash, a body diving from the rail—Ryahled coming to save her as if he could help her swim faster. Flame kept her eyes on the boat.
Last one out of the water was dragon’s dinner…
“Torm, Stef, man the harpoon!” the captain shouted. “Aloft, drop the sails! Jemba, throw a line! Matren, get these lubs out of the way! To arms! Every man Jack of you, keep your eyes peeled for that infernal beast!”
Swim. Ryahled had nearly reached her, but he offered no safety. Eyes on the boat, and swim.
Even with the sails sagging, the craft was drawing away.
“Stop the ship!” Tolor shouted. “We have to—”
“Ye can’t stop a bloody sail-barge, ye daft bugger!”
Could drop a gods-damned anchor—
“Someone help them!” Kessa was bouncing at the rail. “Please, we have to—”
“Fin ahoy! Aktenaq!”
“Swim, elym,” Ryahled said as he reached her and stopped swimming to tread water. He watched over her shoulder as Flame swam past him. If he wanted to meet the stupid fin-thing in the water—
On the barge Lory snatched a rope from a sailor. “Let me! Itenitsu Flame-tcha!” she shouted, throwing the coil in the air. The rope sparked green and the end shot at Flame. Lory handed the other end to Bran.
Gotta love a mage…Flame caught the rope, felt Ryahled grab her belt. Bran and Tolor hauled.
“Put a rhythm to it!” the captain shouted. Three sailors and Satak jumped on the line. “Heave!”
Flying through the water— “Heave!”
“Gone! Fin down, I’ve lost him!”
“You’re almost there!” Kessa leaned over the rail, Okon holding her belt. “Flame!”
A current tugged at her feet. Flame caught Kessa’s hand, was hauled aboard. She caught Okon’s hand and turned. Ryahled—
Was gone. Only an expanding red stain remained.
Bran stood, the end of the rope in his hands. Tolor and Lory looked at each other. Kessa’s arms slid around Flame. “Is he—”
“Pulled under,” a sailor said. “Brave lad, saved his lady—”
“Not in this hell or the next!” Flame snatched the rope’s end from Bran, put a loop over her arm. Tugged off her boots, and sliced a strip of leather from her sleeve to tie her sword to her wrist.
“Flame, tragic as it is—”
“He’s not dead, priest.”
A sailor pointed. The water turned red again, a few boatlengths away.
“Perhaps not yet, Flame,” Tolor said, “but—”
Flame dove into the water.
Ryahled was not dead. She’d know.
Several long seconds while she cursed the idiot ranger, then—she couldn’t see, her eyes could not penetrate the water far. But she knew.
Flame swam down. Until her lungs burned, her head throbbed, little stars danced—
Ryahled. Swimming weakly, a blood plume trailing his leg. Below him in shifting shadows a finned-snake-thing twisted in coils.
The damned ranger stopped swimming. Flame darted forward, grabbed his face and gave him what breath she had left. Wrapped the rope around him and clawed for the surface. Had to breathe, had to breathe, needed air—
Lady of Light and Joy, thanks be for that blessed nectar, air… Flame barely noticed when the rope tugged at her. She did have enough sense to turn, letting her body keep Ryahled’s face above the surface.
“Fortuna favors!” someone shouted as eager hands pulled both limp Vral aboard. “She found him!”
“True love!” someone else yelled. Flame would have killed him, but instead she lay gasping, sprawled on the deck next to Ryahled’s unmoving form.
“Lay him down!” Tolor shoved sailors out of the way, knelt to put his ear to blue lips. He straightened, his eyes found Flame and he shook his head. “I’m sorry—”
“He’s not dead,” Flame snapped. “Heal him!”
“Get underway!” the captain roared. “Ye don’t see a dead beast, do ye? Telly, push the water out of our foundling! Mage, if you’d give us a hand—”
“If I can…” Lory let herself be pulled away. A sailor turned Ryahled on his stomach, squeezed his ribs. Water gushed out of him. Tolor wrapped a cloth around the ranger’s leg above the bleeding and tied it. The sailor pushed again. More water. The captain shouted for more sail. Okon stood at Flame’s hip; Kessa wrapped her arms around her. More water came out of Ryahled. Not as much as before. The sailor flipped him, listened as Tolor had.
“Breathe,” Flame growled. “Damn you…”
The sailor straightened. Kessa buried her face in Flame’s hair. Flame shoved them both aside and forced breath into the stupid Vral. It came out his nose, she felt it on her cheek. Flame pinched his nose and blew again.
“That’s it, lass, a kiss will help if anything will.”
Flame glanced up long enough to know who to kill. Forced another breath into the arrogant ass beneath her hands.
“Live,” she snarled. “Live!” She said it again, forced it down his throat. Live.
Ryahled coughed. The sailor pulled Flame back, turned Ryahled on his side. He vomited; more water splashed the deck. Kessa hugged Flame. She pushed the girl off, leaned to grab the front of Ryahled’s shirt as he tried to sit up. Stared into dazed eyes.
“I refuse,” she told him. “Keep your damned life, j’Dlun. I will not have it.” She let him fall to the deck and stood, staggered away. Shoved off Kessa’s help and stumbled on in her wet leathers with water running down her face and streaming from her scabbard.
Stupid damned Dlun.
Flame put her last dagger away and grumbled some more as she lifted her sword. Every blade she owned had needed to be oiled. Her bow was gone, and Ryahled’s was almost beyond her strength to pull. Her leathers were with one of the sailors, being carefully cleaned. Her hair had dried in enthusiastic, staticky curls. Her boots were on the deck full of straw, her stockings hung in the first mate’s cabin, and her bare feet were cold.
They were still on the lake, hadn’t even reached the river yet because the beast had scratched his back on the rudder and sprung a leak with all his thumping. The captain had to be cautious. Also, he was convinced that the Great Elf-Hero Ryahled had killed Aktenaq, and so morning would bring the sight of the great body bobbing dead in the waves. Such a trophy could be worth a lot.
Flame shivered in the breeze despite her cloak and hoped the thing was dead.
Around her ropes creaked and sang; she was in the rigging on a small platform used for something else usually. Lory had told the captain that it was a good idea to have Flame in the rigging in case the creature came back. That Flame was the best scout for fifty leagues. The real reason, though, was that Flame was hiding.
Night had fallen; above her head stars bloomed. Flame snarled at them and bent over her sword.
Sailors were a superstitious lot, everyone knew that. No one realized the other side—they were a romantic bunch. They all thought the flaming world of Ryahled’s heroics—not one noticed he hadn’t helped Flame at all—and they were mighty caring about Flame, too. Snarling didn’t help; they put it down to worry about Ryahled and only came back nicer. Then Tolor had forbidden her to kill any of them. Or even stab them lightly. She’d had to come up here before she broke contract. Damned if she’d come out of this quest poorer than she went in.
And why the hell did she hear purring? The effing cat was curled up with Ryahled in a spare cot the captain had ordered put in his own cabin.
Flame also heard Kessa, talking herself into climbing. Just a little higher. Flame had done it.
Too tired for more effort, Flame mentally rolled her eyes.
The girl’s head appeared at the edge of the platform. Flame shifted over. The girl managed to get settled without falling off. Flame went back to work on her sword.
Was the cursed sabre purring? Maybe she hadn’t done as well in that bargain as she’d thought, if the damned thing—
And was Kessa actually offering her a wineskin? Flame grabbed before the illusion vanished.
The illusion was a quite decent red. Flame quashed the urge to gulp it. Gulping was for beer. “Tarisen Hills,” she announced, handing it back in case the girl hadn’t looked at the stamp. “1380. Where did you get it?”
“The captain,” Kessa murmured. “He brought it out to ‘put some heart’ in Ryahled. I…suggested you could use some too.”
Flame snarled and looked for the captain below. If she accidentally dropped just one knife…
Kessa hefted the skin. Flame went back to oiling her sword.
“He called you elym,” Kessa murmured after a long moment. “Right before he dove in, he called you Jamrhee and his elym.”
Elym literally meant ‘bound.’ Flame was certain Kessa knew that. The girl pulled her knees to her chin, rubbed her toes together nervously. She was barefoot, probably to climb more easily.
“Is he your husband?” she asked.
“No.” ‘Spouse’ was a common usage, but that was just another example of Ryahled’s inability to see the true world. They were not wed. Flame took the wine. Drank and handed it back.
Kessa drank again.
“Jamrhee…royal family?” she asked, toying with the skin.
Flame snorted. “Do I look like a princess? No. Jamrhee is a clan name. Clan and family are not the same.” Her sword was purring. What in the Abyss…? That Tekler bastard must have had an odd sense of humor. “Think of clan more like…like a guild. Family you’re born into. Clan is—what you’re good at. Supposedly.”
“So Ryahled is…Dlun? Tree Clan?”
“Tree, support,” Flame smirked, “footstool…any could be correct.”
Kessa chuckled, fell silent. “I’ll never be Vral, will I?” she whispered eventually.
“Why would you want to?” Flame tossed her curls, swore as they fell in her face. “You think Ryahled is a self-righteous bastard? He’s the most tolerant Vral you’ll ever meet. Short of your father, anyway.”
“Daddy…” Kessa tossed her braids. “I miss him.”
“He sounds worth missing.”
“So if…I did want to be Vral, what clan would I be?”
“It’s not like that.” Flame took the wineskin back, took a long pull. Wiped her mouth with her sleeve. “When a child has seen two full winters, the family holds a Clanning,” she explained. “After a lot of partying—as wild as the Vral can manage, anyway—when everyone is good and drunk an elder examines the child and declares her clan. Decides her entire life when he’s stoned out of his gods-took mind.” Flame caught herself testing the edges of her eljamrhee, the clan symbol on her face. She cursed and drank again. Handed the wineskin back to Kessa.
“So he named you Jamrhee,” Kessa said after a long while of not drinking. “Why have I heard that’s the royal house?”
Flame made a face and took back the wineskin. “Because it’s the most important clan, supposedly. Jamrhee aren’t declared often.”
“It means…will and harmony. Right?”
“Yeah.” Flame snorted. “Bastard got that one dead wrong.”
“I don’t know,” Kessa said. “Will—that’s the same as stubborn. You are certainly that.”
Flame chuckled and sheathed her sword, leaned back to watch the stars dance among the ropes.
“Jamrhee,” she said, “are always wed to Dlun. Always. Ryahled was nearly seventy when I was Clanned, and already a ranger. One of the best, as Father would have it. He says ‘Led asked for me, but—”
“When you were two? That’s disgusting!”
“One Jamrhee, probably twenty Dlun. If he wanted to marry Jamrhee, I was the only choice in our haven. The only female, anyway. Gods know my brother would have drowned me if he thought that would get him Ryahled.”
“You have a brother?”
Flame elbowed her.
“Whoever had the idea first,” Flame went on, “my father and ‘Led’s made a pact. Illyara Zelyem j’Jamrhee would wed Ryahled Janel j’Dlun on Midsummer’s Eve in the year of Singing Willow. It would be a blessed union, creating great power and many children. And we even looked good together.”
“‘Led.” Kessa giggled. “Trust you to ruin a fine name. And where were you on your wedding day?”
“On the wrong damn continent, thank gods.” Flame sat up with the wineskin. “I got tangled up with a man who wanted to prove he could dogsled from Royuskak to Snarl Point.” She grinned. “Damned if he didn’t do it, too.” Again she lifted the wine. “Thank gods for Elik. That boy never got tired.” She giggled, nudged Kessa with her knee. “Those damn dogs, though—they slept with us. Nice and warm, but damn, when we got up to something—rotting dogs would sit up and watch…”
“Eww! Why do you tell me things like that?”
Flame grinned at the stars and told Kessa more about Elik. It was her duty to educate the girl, after all.