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Skin of Glass

By Shawn Hagen

Adventure / Fantasy

Night of Snow and Blood

Snow had softened the rough edges and jagged lines of the land. Falling flakes made the once clear air nearly white, muffling sounds as it masked vision. A strong wind, blowing from the northeast off the Great Glacier carried a sense of wrongness as well as the punishing cold.

It was not a night to be outside.

She stood on a ridge, cloaked in white, covered by the same snow that hid the land. She had not moved in some time and the snow gathered on her eyelashes, brushed across her face, melted, traced wet paths across her cheeks like tears, and then froze in the fur lining of her cloak's hood.

It would have been easy to mistake her for some fine statue, but for the tiny wisps of vapour that arose from her mouth and nose.
She stood in the open, but only one paying careful attention might spot her.

And those she was hunting were not paying close attention.

They were making their way up a set of switchbacks that climbed the side of the mountain. There were other ways up the slope as it was not that steep, but they were lazy.

For the past twenty minutes they had been climbing, moving into and out of her view. She caught snatches of their conversation, the harsh, inelegant phonemes of the goblin tongue. They had been drinking, some might be drunk, and were little concerned. Careless and foolish. Not that being sober would have made much of a difference.

She had marked them as they climbed. The two giants at the front, breaking the trail for their smaller companions, the five figures, swathed in furs, all the size of humans, six smaller forms, likely goblins, bringing up the rear, pulling the sledges. A strong force for one to deal with, but she had already made her plans.

When they passed the ridge, heedless of her, she moved, leaping down at them, her cloak billowing out behind her, like wings. She fell between the two hill giants, her sword spinning about her as if it were some separate creature unconnected to her.

A deep slash opened across the back of one giant's neck as she dropped. Lower, a slice into the abdomen of the other. The blade then ripped across the back of the first's thighs, cutting through the fur and clothing to the flesh beneath. Just as she touched ground, her feet landing lightly atop the snow, she savagely hacked the second one across the knees.

She leapt away, leaving the two giants, both mortally wounded and crippled, to collapse. One fell forward onto its knees. The other toppled backwards, crashing over two of its companions.

As the giants fell, bleeding, she stood on the edge of the path, sword held out, a line of red along the blade. She watched as her foes stumbled about, confused, unsure of what was happening. She could have leapt forward, moved among them, cut two down before they could react, and she was tempted to do so, but she held her position.

One of them saw her. He lifted a war-axe, his hood falling back from his head to reveal the hard face of a human; from one of the barbarian tribes, she supposed. He charged her, voice raised in a call to Tempus. She waited, watching as he swung the axe at her. At the last moment, just before the blade would have hit, she shifted to the side, treading on the edge of a fall, letting his force draw him across her blade. The sword cut deep, and his falling body might have pulled her over the side of the path had she not twisted the sword to break the hold of flesh.

She heard him fall, the cries of pain cut immediately, violently short with a sound of breaking bones.

And now they were aware of her. Aware of the fact that three of their number were dead, including their two strongest. She stood there, still covered in her cloak, untouched. They might run.

A tall orc came forward, moving with care, a battle-axe in his left hand, a shield on his right arm. He thought he had an advantage, he was used to fighting right-handed opponents; fewer had experience with left handed ones. It was true, but did not take into account that in the many years she had lived she had had faced a large number of left-handed foes.

His first attack was retrained; she could tell he was not completely committed to it. It was supposed to draw her out, give him a better idea of what he was dealing with. She did not react other than to take a small step, making certain that her footing was secure.

When he came in again it was more aggressive, but again it was not a real strike, at least not with the axe. When he swung the shield around, trying to bash her with it, she raised her sword, catching the heavy circle of wood and deflecting it above her head. Moving forward, under his shield arm, the axe still out of the way from his feint, she slammed the pommel of her sword into his jaw, breaking teeth.

He lashed out wildly, the axe coming around faster than she had anticipated, forcing her to leap back.

The goblins were trying to pull crossbows from the sledges, she could hear their panicked cries as they searched for and fought over weapons. At least one of those the giant had fallen on was trying to get free. The largest of the five who wore cloaks was trying to move forward to support his companion, but the giant's corpse hindered him.

Falling back under the leader's renewed onslaught-driven by anger and pain she suspected-she watched him fight, at the same time keeping him between her and the crossbows the goblins would soon have ready.

The style, with shield held high and the low slashes with the axe, was-and she was surprised to note it, but not so much as to let her guard down-Dwarven in nature. An orc who had copied the fighting style of the Dwarves, mixed with the savagery of his own race.

He was far too smart to be allowed to live.

She had left the fallen giants behind and been backed partially around a corner, giving her cover from the goblins. The corner was one of the reasons she had chosen the area for her ambush.

Instead of falling back from his next stroke she moved forward, catching his axe blade with her sword. Steel on steel rang out, and sparks fell about them. The force of the blow was transferred through her sword and into her hands and wrists. It hurt.

His axe blade went up, deflected high. She used the force to spin around him, avoiding his shield, slipping across the snow so she stood behind him. He was wearing armour, an iron collar circled his neck. He was not wearing a helmet. Orc skulls were reputed to be thick, but not that thick, she thought, as she brought her blade down on the crown of his head.

She pulled her sword free of his ruined skull and turned smoothly to meet the attack of a tall man. He was quick, and armed with a two bladed sword. His technique made the weapon a shield as well as a sword, the spinning blade ready to parry any move directed at him.

Slipping into a purely defensive stance, she parried each of his attacks, using minimum energy for each move, letting him flail against her defence. His technique was good, but ultimately sloppy, made up for by his reach and strength. She had fought such opponents before, and the opening came almost as she expected.

Her sword speared forward, slipping easily through his defence, the point of her weapon taking him in the throat, pushing through until a hand span of steel slid out the back of his neck.

For a moment they remained in their final stances, then he began to sag, and she pulled her blade free.

She turned and walked further up the trail. She stopped by a small opening in the rock, placed her blood-covered sword down, and then removed her longbow and a quiver of arrows from the cleft.

Stringing the bow as she walked, she listened to the chattering of the goblins as they tried to decide what to do. When she turned the higher corner of the trail she could look down on the scene of battle. Already the falling snow was beginning to cover the bodies and hide the blood. Almost as if it never happened, she thought, nocking an arrow and drawing the string back.

She released. A goblin screamed and died. Another arrow, another goblin died. The four that remained broke and ran. She waited until the switchbacks of the trail made them targets again. With precision she cut them down, the arrows speeding towards their targets with a fatal whistling.

She put the bow aside, picked up her sword, and then went to check on each of her fallen enemies.

Of the two that the giant had fallen on, only one remained alive: A woman, with the blonde hair and blue eyes of the barbarians, still partially trapped under the fallen giant. She looked up and began to beg, "Please, please kind warrior. Spare my life. Please, please spare me."

She stopped near the wounded woman, but not too near, and looked about. There had been a great deal of killing here. And it was not finished yet.

The long sword blow was precise and clean, mercifully killing the woman.

She reached up and pushed her hood back, her blue-black hair, pulled back from pointed ears, was a stark contrast to the snow. She knelt down near the body her green eyes looking into the already clouding, fear filled, blue eyes of her foe. She gently closed those eyes. "May your gods find you and keep you," she said softly in Elvish.

She stood, cleaned her sword, and then sheathed it. There was still work to do.

At the top of the path was a village. It was set into a deep and wide cleft in the stone-which had led to its name of Deep Cleft. A palisade closed off the open side, forming a space that enjoyed much in the way of defence.

One of the smaller gates opened and a young man rushed out, almost tripping in the snow. "Misara," he called happily. "Misara is back!"

Misara paused in her labours as the young man, more a boy really, ran towards her. Behind her were the two sledges, piled high with anything of value. She had pulled them up the path, away from the site of battle.

"Epcha, call some of your lazy friends to pull these inside," she told him, letting the harness fall.

"Right Misara," he said happily, then turned and yelled, "Woric, Tomas, Defan, get out here and help us!"

She watched him, a little surprised at his confidence, that natural way he lead. He had only seen fourteen summers, hardly a man even by human standards. When she had seen fourteen summers she had still been a child, innocent, protected, never wanting to be too far from her mother. Epcha had seen his mother die.

The three he had called, young men like him, came running from the village, laughing and joking, calling out greetings to her as they came. Then they took the harnesses and pulled the two sledges into the village. Misara followed behind them, watching them, a little amazed at how easily they had adapted to their lives.

But that was the nature of humans she thought, the amazing ability to adapt, the drive to better themselves, often at any cost. It had sent many of the Tel'Quessir retreating from Faerûn many years before.

She stepped through gateway; Epcha left his friends to pull the sledges farther into the village as he ran back to close and bolt the gate. Again, that sense of responsibility in the young man: While his friends were beginning to unload the sledges, treating it almost as if it were full of presents for a festival day, Epcha was making certain the gate was properly barred and shut.

As she watched Epcha close the gate she noted Darvin Fullerson making his way towards her. He was the village's leader, an old man with thinning white hair, cropped short. He limped, favouring his right leg, and as he got closer she could see the scars that covered the left side of his face, and the eye patch he wore.

She nodded as he got close. "Master Fullerson," she said politely.

"Lady Dawntide," he replied, using the human equivalent of her family name: Anor'Esira. "I am glad to see you safely returned."

"I killed them all," she told him, keeping her voice low. "I made certain of the two giants and the woman."

He closed his eyes, some tension seeming to leave him. "I am glad of that."

"I rolled their bodies down the hillside, they are all far from the village now. If the winter scavengers do not feast on them you can ensure the bodies are pushed into the Rauvin come Greengrass. Until then the snow will hide them."

"They were the group I was most worried about," he told her. "The two giants could take down our walls, and Creske was far too cunning. I think she was beginning to suspect that we were hiding things from her."

"Perhaps, but now it is over."

"For a time," he told her, nodding. "If we can sell all of our goods at Silverymoon this year... Well, we'll have to see what the future holds."

"Yes," she said, nodding. She was looking over at Epcha and the others. Several other young men and women had joined them and they had found the crossbows. "I should have taken them with me, as you said."

"But you didn't." It was not an accusation, just a statement of fact.

"If I had, some would have been hurt, some might have died."

"They will have to be blooded eventually. Sooner is better."

"What you say is true. I will take them up into the mountains tomorrow. We'll likely find something dangerous, but maybe not so dangerous that we will have to bury any of them."

"As you say."

"I'm going to get some rest now."

"I'll show Epcha and his cronies how to use those crossbows." Darvin gave her a half bow-he likely would have bowed deeper if his injuries had allowed it-and then limped over to the sledges.

She watched for a moment, then turned and walked towards her house. The single story cabin had been empty when she had arrived in Deep Cleft, like several other structures in the village. It was well made, with sturdy, planed logs, fitted together and mortared in place with a mixture of clay and stone. Whoever had built it had taken the time to make certain it was done right.

There was smoke rising from the chimney so she was not surprised to find Mary kneeling by the hearth, boiling water. There was also the smell of chicken in the house. Mary's famous stew.

She looked up at Misara, a broad smile appearing on her wrinkled and weatherworn face. "Lady Misara, I am glad you are back. It is too cold of a night to be out, walking about."

"I know Mary," she told the woman. She did not know if Mary really believed that she was simply out, taking a walk in the snow, or if she just chose to pretend it was so.

"I've boiled water, and filled the bath for you," she said as she picked up her cane and used it to lever herself to her feet.

Misara wanted to go and help her, but she knew that such a gesture would not be appreciated. Instead she said, "Thank you Mary."

Mary nodded, still smiling, and walked, using her cane only a little, towards the door. Misara took the heavy wool and leather cloak from where it hung by the door and held it out for Mary. The old woman let it slip around her shoulders and then pulled it tight around her. "You get some rest Lady Misara."

"I will."

Mary patted her gently on the arm, then pushed open the door and walked out.

Misara pushed the door closed behind her and then latched it. She removed her cloak and put in on the peg that Mary's cloak had recently occupied. She kicked off her boots, leaving them, as well as the dirt and blood on them, on the stone tile in front of the door. In socked feet she walked towards the fire, removing her long jacket, letting it fall to the floor. Under it was shirt of Elven chain, woven through with strips of silk to silence the already quiet links.

She undressed slowly. Some of her clothing she let carelessly fall. Other pieces, like the chain shirt, she carefully examined, and then put aside. Her sword she spent more time on, looking for any damage to the blade. Satisfied it was sound, she brushed a thin coat of oil on it and returned it to its sheath.

Finally she stood naked in front of the fire, letting the heat, light, and shadow play over her pale skin. Then she took the pot of boiling water from the fire and carried it into the bathing room.

Another of the features that showed the craftsmanship that had gone into the cabin was the bathing area. It was a small, walled-off space in the corner, floored with stone tile, a drain that allowed water to flow away drilled in the stone. A large barrel, its outside covered in wax, was the tub. She dumped the hot water into the barrel, letting it mix with the water that Mary had poured in earlier.

She splashed water from the tub onto herself and then used some soap and a small towel of Maztican cotton to clean up. Once clean she climbed into the barrel. The water rose over the rim and splashed onto the floor, eventually draining away. Arms across the barrel rim, cheek on her arms, she closed her eyes and let the warmth of the water ease the dull pain in her muscles.

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