The sun dipped heavily as the remaining pyres burned. Danin had performed the last rites for all of the residents who had fallen at Kellas House. I had spent my time hauling the bodies of the giants and orcs to a large pile well off to the side of the main approach.
The spot of land for this pyre will be cursed, for sure. I thought with some apprehension.
Tagaern helped with the residents, first, and joined me for the rest. I had become numb to the task, treating the bodies simply as rotten meat that needed to be disposed of. Using Silah to hack apart the greasy carcasses of giants so they could be moved had numbed me further, seeing very little resemblance of what had once been living, breathing creatures. Fleets of maggots crawled over my skin with each heavy load.
Dried blood had soaked into so much of the dirt around the landing and the floorboards inside of the structures that it would be hard to cover up without some doing. You could rely on time and weather to eventually make this all a memory, at least, I hoped that was the case.
Their skins bubbled as the pitch took the flame and the pile of bodies began to cast their oily smoke toward the sky. I put the head of the giant that had taken Duncan's head on a pike facing the burning remains then turned away, hoping that I could eventually put all of this behind me.
Not today. I thought. Eventually. Time and weather. Perhaps just time.
Silah had been sheathed, but that sensation of her holding my hand was something I could still feel. It was a comfort that I desperately needed. I had twisted her in the sheath to maintain contact just to keep that sensation. Her presence was soundless, but she, too, seemed to mourn.
I joined the others, looking down at the red and black ichor that coated my arms and body. At first, my sense of smell had been hidden behind the mining mask, but after a while I began to have trouble drawing breath, so I doffed the mask and dealt with the smell directly. I was sure that I would be smelling it for a good part of the coming weeks.
After performing rites, Danin had used his god given ability to create water to rinse away some of the bile that remained. The group was solemn, sitting at the beaten tables and looking around the now empty courtyard of Kellas House. It almost had a semblance of normal, if not for the burned barn, walls riddled with arrows, and broken doors being constant reminders of what had happened here.
"I know I have obligations with you gentlemen, but I fully intend to help Amalia rebuild." Tagaern said, scrutinizing everyone's faces.
"I'll be offering my services, too." I said with a nod, "Whatever I can do to help."
"We should see what she has planned." Sig said, thinking on it. "I wouldn't make any assumptions after what happened here."
I nodded thinking of the scars she'd have to bear. She wouldn't let this be the end of Kellas House. I'd make do my best to make sure she had everything she needed to bring it back to its former glory, perhaps help it become even more.
"Shall we, then?" Floki said, glancing at the thinning sun. "If we're going to get to Hlofreden before nightfall, we should leave now."
I watched the others shuffle out while I took a moment to stand in the quiet courtyard, simmering in the near setting sun. Tears flowed again as I allowed myself a moment to feel. It was about loss, sure, but the loss of everything I had depended on within the span of a week. My life was changed dramatically. I looked to the skies still unsure whether I felt the need to curse or thank the gods that looked down on us. I couldn't shake the feeling that my life had never been my own, that it had always been dictated by someone else.
We moved at a rapid pace to close the remaining miles between Kellas House and Hlofreden. My rucksack dug into my shoulders from the bouncing gait. I had carried my life on my shoulders for months feeling much like a vagabond. I vowed that I would talk to Hagan go Brach and rent one of those waterfront apartments in Hlofreden. Perhaps it would give me the sense of home that I had been longing for?
The moon was high behind us and the sun's light had nearly faded as we crested the great wide stairway down into Hlofreden.
Torches lit the front of the gatehouse casting heavy shadows over a line of soldiers that stood in a series of red long coats. Bromm chuckled softly as he looked on. It took a while down the path to understand what had amused him. The line of red uniforms were being instructed, or, perhaps, reprimanded, by none other than Robyn.
She turned to face us as we approached. The bleary eyed soldiers behind her reflected the exhaustion in her own eyes. The sight of Bromm clearly lit a fire in her, and her exhaustion evaporated. There were hints of a smile as she mock-glowered at us. Bromm stepped forward, nearly toe to toe with her, as she looked him up and down. He was spared the filth that Tagaern and I had taken on, helping Danin, Floki and Sig prepare the pyres for the last rights of the fallen.
"And here you are, the first living souls to show up at the gates when I hear there's trouble brewing." She said her expression now clearly showing her excitement at his return, "You are definitely trouble."
"It'd take more than an army of orcs and giants to keep me away." He said with some bravado, then added quietly, "It's good to see you."
His back was to me, but I could hear emotion creep into his voice. That emotion reflected in her eyes as she moved in to kiss him. Not content with a peck, though, Robyn grappled him and Bromm struggled briefly. His weak protest to maintain composure melted away to warm compliance.
"I like what you've done with the place." He said as she finally relented, looking on at the line of tired eyes dressed in red long coats similar to what Robyn herself wore. "On your dime, I suppose?"
"We don't have much of a budget for uniforms, so I thought the temple needed another donation." She smirked. "A lot has gone on since you've been off galavanting. We really need to catch up."
The glint in her eye was not lost on me. Fiery in every way, Robyn's intensity seemed to be counter to Bromm's cool and calm approach. Yet, they both were explosive under the right conditions.
Bromm nodded and he looked back on us. I could see his smile in the torchlight. He turned back to her as she stood coolly with her head cocked to the side.
"We're going to stop by The Sea Witch and get settled on what our plans are for tomorrow, but, if you're not already asleep when I get back, we'll catch up." His voice wavered slightly as he challenged his own exhaustion.
I chuckled at the hole he'd dug for himself.
"Hakaar. Pipe down." Robyn raised her chin with authority.
"Sure, Robyn." My voice was gravelly from lack of use.
She seemed to take notice of the state the rest of us were in as she turned her focus from Bromm. She took note of the presence of a new face, Jurgen, but passed him over quickly. Then she stopped on Tagaern and I, filthy from battle and the grisly task of clearing Kellas House. I gave her a weak smile, feeling far from well. She read the expression and nodded, her eyebrows pulled together in a sympathetic expression.
"Your friends from Kellas House are safe. They came in on the boat just earlier today. They're being cared for at the Temple of Acionna." She said, seeming to read my mind, then turned back to Bromm, "Are we in immediate danger?"
Bromm shook his head.
"The path is clear. The force has been routed." He said, his voice sounding off with a bone deep weariness.
She nodded proudly, beaming at all of us in turn.
"You disappear for a week and end up saving the world. I'm not sure I can compete with that." Her face lighting up again as she looked on him, "These men need my attention now, but I expect to hear all about it."
She leaned in for a quick peck and sprang back with a giddy smile.
"Drinks on you, then?" Floki said tentatively.
"Heroes don't pay for drinks. Hagan will pay, right Bromm?" Robyn said with a mischievous smile.
"Don't get me in more trouble than I am already." Bromm said, shaking his head slowly.
I was feeling the weariness that creeps in at end of travel had been setting in long before we had reached the gate. I was hungry without an appetite and tired without a bed. I was bound to collapse from exhaustion as we moved into the subdued bustle of the late evening. The city was still being dressed up for the coming festival. White and blue streamers clung to the lit streetlamps while other preparations were still being put in place. The exodus that had happened in Dowry wasn't apparent here in Hlofreden. I knew that many of these people would likely die defending this place. This was their home, their heritage, and they sooner die than leave it.
Thankfully, they wouldn't have to face that decision. This crisis had been averted. Yet, I knew it was only a matter of time before the Formless would make another push to extinguish the defenses that Kols had rebuilt with Bromm's dedication.
And we'll be here to defend it.
I felt Silah stir slightly through our connection. The feeling of her holding my hand had persisted since Kellas House, but the sensation of the squeeze reminded me of her silent presence.
We are of an accord, my dear. I thought inwardly.
I could feel emotion welling to the surface again as I moved with the others through the darkness. The pain and sadness that oozed from both Silah and I then mixed together, readily. There was the sensation of a small nod from her and the grip tightened again briefly.
Bromm moved ahead and caught the door as other patrons moved into The Sea Witch. There was a tentative cheer that filled the room. Faolin's music eddied around the conversations that filled the dining area. The events outside hadn't quelled the excitement for tomorrow's celebration. The festival of Làn-Mara was nearly upon us.
Jurgen was out of sorts. It took Floki getting him situated at a table. He picked up a mug and looked at it with a sort of teary-eyed wonder that made me realize how long he'd been wandering as a stranger in The Veil.
We sat around a table near the entrance, close to the bar where Macaulay looked on us with some incredulousness. Sabella and one of the other serving girls immediately converged quickly on our table. Sabella waved her off and the girl gave her a scowl.
"What can I do…" Sabella spoke then immediately slapped her hand to her face, "By the gods, what is that?"
She backed away from the table and the surrounding tables responded in kind. Those close to us were also aghast and began to abandon their seats to move to the far side of the tavern to escape the smell of death that clung to us.
"A stout, please. Just one and I'll go clean up." I said wearily.
"Likewise, I'll take a pint of Shatterhammer," Tagaern said, raising his hand in turn.
Sabella looked to Macaulay, eyes watering and pinching her nose shut, looking horrified.
"Make it quick, boys. Sure, times are hard, but we've got a tavern to run." He shook his head with a grimace as he pulled two wooden mugs and filled them.
Sabella gingerly took both mugs by the handles in one hand and deposited them in front of each of us.
"Cheers." I raised a mug in the air to no one in particular and tossed my head back, draining the mug quickly.
I put the mug down loudly as Tagaern also speedily finished what was in front of him. We both pushed back from the table and made our way through the parting patrons to the rear exit of the The Sea Witch.
I pulled silah from her sheath as I stepped outside and took the first bucket from the well to rinse any residue that remained on the greatsword, then wiped her dry. I held the sword blade down, willed her to join us, then let her go. Then commenced to drop the bucket in again to draw water.
"Thank you." Silah's silvery voice reached out thinly in the moonlit night.
I closed my eyes and nodded. Seeing her and hearing her voice again reminded me of that gulf that had formed between us. Tagaern and I were silent for the first little while. I stripped to the waist and began to drop bucket after bucket over my head, taking care of both clothes and armor, letting the filth run off me in sheets. It glittered and rippled in the moonlight, meandering down the alleyway. Silah remained silent, unbreathing and frozen in place, lost in her own thoughts. I sighed, recognizing how far away she was, wondering if I would ever truly know what had happened to her back there.
"I'm going to need your help." I finally said to her, hoping to shake her free from whatever she was thinking about.
She turned and looked at me, unblinking, then nodded. She slowly came back to herself, beginning to move and act more like flesh and blood.
"We've done this before." She said, remembering, then gave a small smile. "Scrubbing down a horse."
"Yes, but you've never scrubbed down a horse." I said with a looking at her with a slight smile as she seemed to relax little by little.
"Yes, I remember everything." She looked a little haunted as she said it, but then continued, "You're as big as a horse. I really don't see a difference except that I've never seen horses get this dirty."
Her voice trailed off as she moved back to the storage shed and retrieved the scrubbing brushes and hard soap.
Tagaern was busying himself with the same tasks. I caught him smiling as he couldn't help but overhear the conversation. The scrubbing continued with an exchange of polite jabs that wholly avoided the events of the last week. I began to feel a semblance of normalcy.
It was still clear she had changed, but the ache I had felt began to take a different shape. She was still herself, but that childlike playfulness had been subdued—nearly extinguished—by this newly realized pain that trembled just below the surface. It laced every word she spoke.
There was a pause as I dug through my pack to lay out my clean clothes and undershirts over the door of the storage shed. I glanced at her, she had reverted to her unmoving state with only her eyes following the soapy water as it flowed away.
"You said we should talk. Are you ready to talk?" I said the words tentatively.
Still unmoving, her eyes met mine, and gave a near imperceptible nod.
"Do you want me to ask you? Or do you want to just tell me?" I asked her quietly.
Tagaern, also stripped to the waist, gave me an awkward look.
"I can leave." He said, "If this is personal."
"It is fine, Tagaern." Silah said turning to him with a weak smile.
My heart skipped a beat as she said his name. There was no stumbling, no mispronunciations, no doubt whatsoever.
"There's too much to just tell." She stood up straight, her chin lifted as she looked on me, preparing herself, "It may be best if you ask."
I took a deep breath and words came and went. I felt my mind go blank as I looked at her now resolute face. The things that I desperately wanted to ask were things I considered personal, things that were only between us. Everything else was far too general, which defeated the purpose of asking in the first place. Still, I ventured forward.
"You remember everything? Your past life? Your past bonds? I thought that wasn't possible." I spoke softly, looking at her rigid form in the moonlight.
"My life … before this, yes." Her words were stilted as she said it, "I still forget those I am bonded with."
She turned inward for a moment and then said softly, "I think I am starting to understand why."
I was quiet and Tagaern had frozen in place as he quietly dressed in the shadows behind us. He may have forgotten that him lurking in the deep shadows did nothing to hide him from my ability to see in the dark.
"Though, I only remembered bits and pieces before, I now know with a surety that I was a result of The Great Bargain that ended our war with the Formless. But they needed someone on this side of the barrier to make sure that the result of The Great Bargain remained in place. We were chosen, the daughters of the leadership from the other seven tribes, to be that protection. To become," She halted and took a shuddering breath, "what I am today."
I nodded. Watching her struggle for control over her emotions. I moved forward and gently put my hand to face. She moved into me, but then shook herself and stepped back.
"There's more." Her cheeks glistened from a trail of a single tear, "But not here."
She pulled away and wiped at her eyes again, composing herself as she pulled back what she had been feeling.
"You two should get dressed. I'll wait for you inside?" Silah said, as she turned and nodded to Tagaern and pushed through the door.
I pulled on an undershirt, small clothes, and the slightly wrinkled, but refined outfit from Mont Brooks. Thankfully, my rucksack hadn't let the stench of the places I'd been permeate the only clean clothes I had. Not that I could tell, though, as I could not evade the perpetual smell of death that clung to the inside of my nose.
The pit in my stomach now came from heartache for Silah. It had been something I worried about for ages, but now it was apparent that her ignorance that had protected her vanished as her memory came forward.
I sighed at the thought.
"I don't envy you, lad." Tagaern said as he tugged at his slipping belt, "She's seen a lot. Experience changes everyone..."
He swore under his breath.
"Nothing fits anymore!" He cranked down on the belt of his clean clothes but it was well past the notches.
"I have a feeling experience is changing you, too. You're looking more of your old self." I smiled at his frustration, "Perhaps you need to visit the clothier yourself? You might want to wait a bit for the really expensive stuff. I think you've got further to go, yet."
He raised an eyebrow and looked down at himself, patting around his thinning belly and nodded.
"Well, then." He nodded with a smirk, "I didn't expect that!"
"I'll just be a moment. Get another stout up for me. I think I'm going to need more than a few drinks." I patted him on the back as he moved back into The Sea Witch.
I could feel Silah near the edge of our bond and sighed. She was still Silah, but she was still holding something back. No doubt she was also feeling weary, drained from the fight earlier today.
It was just earlier today and yet it had felt like many days had passed. I thought.
I realized that the rest of this armor would take far more energy to clean than I cared to expend at the moment. I felt the intense need to burn all of my underclothes as well, but it didn't seem to be the right place for such things. I stowed the filth stained clothes and armor in the storage shed, then I scrubbed my hands clean while staring at the moon.
An odd thought struck my mind as I stood there and I voiced it.
"You're welcome, Acionna. We've given your day back to you." I spoke softly to the cool night air while smirking at the moon.
(Get to know Akeron.)