Two moons and three tens since the Mark of the Other One blossomed.
The village of Farstam was a quiet place. Despite being in the northernmost reaches of the Empire where the awakened ones of Iordur were locked in battle with the Empire’s armies, nothing exciting ever happened here. Maybe a stalker or two sometimes dared to sneak past the fort of Shadowwatch on Tristen, but they quickly went back the way they came from.
“Layla, get off your stomach, you slouch.” She pretended not to hear anything. “Layla! What are you doing, girl? I said you need to go find your sister.”
“Leyla went to play with Mutt, mum.”
“That’s exactly the reason I need you to find her. I swear, all you do is lie around the house and read books. You’re seventeen already.”
“It’s the dead of winter, what am I supposed to do?”
“Wait. Is that another one of Cynric’s books? He has already spoilt Leyla with his stories. What do you see in him? Every other girl in Farstam seems to be after him, but he has no sense of seriousness in him.”
“I am not after anyone, mum!” Layla added in a quieter voice. “Find a man, get fat and settle down is it...”
“You are seventeen! There’s so much you can do with your life right now.”
“Yeah, only the things I want to do are not on the list of everything I can do.”
“Life is what it is. You’ll have to find a way to accept it.”
“Life shouldn’t be what it is, but what you can turn it into. That’s what Sethian said.”
“Sethian is a mage. Like Cynric. She spent too much time dealing with the arcane to have any idea how to deal with humans and the real way of life.”
“Cynric is more than just a mage. He is a healer. He helps people.”
“A mage is a mage. If one is trained in the ways of power, you can be sure they are off in one way or another. The flow doesn’t run this world, you need to concentrate on what is in front of you, what is physical.”
“And that physical happens to be a potential husband.”
“I swear. You’ve been going off about this for a while now. It’s the way of things. Sonia got married recently, all the girls your age are already with someone or planning something.”
“I’m going off on it, because you keep on bugging me about it. Why do I need to rush?”
“I suppose you have a better idea then?”
“Maybe I do. Maybe I want to become a healer myself. Cynric and Sethian have taught me medicine for a while now. I could help...” At this point Alina gasped and rolled her eyes.
“Layla! Go find your sister!” This conversation always ended that way. Ever since she had turned sixteen, Layla had been constantly reminded of what girls her age should and should not be doing. She was sick of it. The brief lessons with Cynric and Sethian were her way of escaping this dreary everyday life.
Layla threw on her warm clothes, cloak, and stepped outside. The sun was peeking out behind a cloud for a brief moment. Despite being the dead of winter, the village looked busy. Some were doing necessary repairs caused by the winter storms, others were digging their house out of the snow. Some were simply hanging around, chatting, while others were hauling firewood. Mutt was behind the house, but Leyla was nowhere to be seen.
Dreading what was to come, Layla grabbed a pair of snowshoes and headed towards the northern edge of the village. Mutt followed obediently. Her mother was not wrong when she had said how Cynric had spoilt Leyla with his stories. His latest revelation had been a Draig’yar burial mound north of the village in the forest. You only needed to follow the river upstream. Speaking of Cynric, she noticed the healer heading her way, as Layla was making her way through the village.
The man seemed to have a constant grin on his face. At least, Layla had never seen Cynric with a serious expression. She wondered if it was even possible with such strong laugh lines as Cynric’s. His reddish hair had grown longer again and was wrapped in a tail.
“Going to the forest?” Cynric had this annoying smile on his face.
“You know it’s your fault. Leyla went there, right?”
“Well. I did see her playing around the river with some others.”
“But you didn’t see her leaving, did you?”
“Well, I am a busy person. It’s winter. People are catching colds and needing advice.” Layla shook her head.
Although she would rather eat raw onions than admit it to her mother, there was no way Cynric had both feet on the ground. A part of her admired the man. He did help a lot of people, but he looked rather hopeless and carefree. There was something about his eyes, the way he looked at other people, but not really looking at them. And she hated his stupid moustache.
“Funny that. I heard thundering sounds from the Badlands yesterday.”
“Thunder isn’t rare in the winter. You just can’t hear it all that well.” Layla rolled her eyes.
“Thundering sounds, not thunder.”
“Shouldn’t you come along then?”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine. I see you’ve found yourself a small bear already.” Cynric looked at Mutt, who yawned at something in the distance. “Have fun.”
What was even more annoying, Cynric seemed to be fully enjoying the attention he got from everyone in the village. Some girls were absolutely taken with him even though he was above thirty. As Layla made her way towards the river, she could already see a lone trail snaking alongside the frozen riverbed towards the forest. Sighing, she put on her snowshoes and set off in her sister’s tracks.
It was darker under the trees than she would have liked. Layla did have Mutt with her. The dog was known to terrorize entire packs of wolves and had even had a scrap with a stalker once or twice, but this eerie silence was not reassuring. She had walked for a while now. Maybe a thousand paces or more. Trying not to look too scared and worried, Layla hastened her steps a little.
“Layla! I found it! I found the dragon grave!” Layla yelped and clutched her cloak. Looking right, she saw her stupid younger sister on top of a huge pile of rocks.
“Leyla! Are you stupid!?” She said with a slightly higher pitched voice than she would have liked. “You do not make this much noise in the forest in winter.”
“Look! I found it. There is a door down here. Only it is human sized.” Her sister jumped towards the middle of the stone pile and vanished from sight.
“Leyla get back here. We need to go back. Mum’s all up in my business because of you. Leyla?” She made her way to the pile of stones where Mutt was wagging his tail trying to figure out how to climb onto the slippery boulders. Climbing onto the pile, she noticed a lower area in the middle of the pile, but Leyla was nowhere to be seen. Until a boulder in the middle vanished and Leyla’s grinning face came into view.
“There a rock that’s not really here! Look! There are lines and circles on that door down there.” The vanishing boulder had startled Layla again. She slid down the boulder she had been squatting on and fell on her behind.
“For the love of...” Suddenly they could hear Mutt barking. It was not a happy sound. The dog was angry at something. “Leyla you little brat! You do not go into the forest in the winter. And you do not make that much sound!” Layla hissed as she could see the colour draining from her sister’s face and could feel the same happening to her. What now? They were deep in the forest. The trees were large, and the ground was slowly rising towards the Badlands. Should they climb up and run? Or stay hidden. A thousand thoughts ran through her head.
After what felt like an eternity of Mutt barking another voice shouted out. “Stay where you are! Show me your face!”
Layla stumbled across the slippery boulders to the top of the pile to see what was happening. It was Iorgen, the grandson of the village elder. He had his bow nocked and pointed at a figure some distance away wearing a black and silver cloak. In one hand, the stranger had a blood-red sword pointed at Iorgen. “Damn it, Layla. Don’t come here.” Mutt was still barking frantically. “I said show me your face. Put that sword away or I’ll let the arrow fly.”
The figure in black seemed to be struggling to stay on their feet, they were leaning against a tree. “...elp mi... lp... mi...” The man kept making weird noises. Layla did not know what to make of this situation. The stranger shouted out with a hoarse voice and the suddenness of the shout made her cover her ears out of fear. Layla could not understand a word what he said.
He was slowly sliding downward against the tree he was slumped against and his hand was wavering all around the place.
Iorgen put his bow away and grabbed a short-sword from his side. Slowly he advanced on the stranger.
“What are you doing?”
“Shut up and stay there Layla.”
“What is going on?” Leyla had climbed next to Layla.
“Oh, for the love of... Both of you are here. Damn it all!”
The stranger fell on his knees, still slumped against a tree. His arm fell, and the sword seemed to vanish as it fell into the snow. Mutt suddenly darted forward and danced around the man, his tail wagging. Iorgen was within the sword’s reach from the man. Slowly, he put the sword under the man’s chin and lifted the hood off with his other hand.
The man seemed completely out. Slowly, he sunk backwards. Iorgen twitched away from the man and stood there for a moment. Then he knelt next to the motionless body. Mutt was still jumping around and tried to lick the strangers face several times, only to be shooed away by Iorgen.
“This is bad. You should come here Layla. Leyla! Run to the village and get help. Now!” As if struck by lightning, both of the sisters jumped down from the boulders. Leyla sounded like she was about to cry when she called Mutt over. She disappeared back the way they all had come from.
Layla knelt on the other side of the stranger’s body and had to bite back a gasp. He stared at the man with her mouth open. There was dried and fresh blood visible everywhere. He had been wearing armour, but large pieces of it and the clothing underneath were missing. His right arm was in a sling. He did not have much on him, except for two large binding scrolls and remains of a sleeping bag rolled up and strapped to his back. “No snow shoes, not even a water skin. What was he doing?” Iorgen commented. Layla noticed the man’s hair had white roots.
“Is it a silver witch?”
“I don’t think so. That blood is human. Can you fix him?”
“What?” Layla stammered. She was not sure what was expected of her.
“You hang around with the mage, surely he’s taught you something.”
“You can’t just learn the flow, he told me about first aid.”
“Well, do that then.”
Layla was not sure what to do. Helping someone had sounded easier in theory. “I don’t know. Do what? I don’t think I can.” A brief silence. “What do we do?”
“I think we should haul him towards the village. You take one arm, I’ll take the other.” Iorgen put his sword away. “He has burned his wounds. He won’t bleed to death. Maybe.”
“But his arm is broken.”
“He is completely out. He won’t feel it.” It took them a few moments to struggle the man upright in the snow. He was tall. A limp body was heavier than Layla had thought. While they were setting off back towards the village, a thought kept bugging Layla.
“He has white streaks in his hair.” Iorgen said nothing. “What if he is an awakened one?”
There was still another moment of silence before Iorgen answered. “That blood looks human.” After another moment of silence, he added. “I think.”
“That’s not helping.”
“Shut up and help me drag him. The mage can tell for sure. Right now he is out of it and he probably will be for a while.”
“Cynric is a healer.” Layla growled in response through gritted teeth. The man was heavy.
By the time they had left the denser part of the forest behind and nearing the edge, they ran into the people coming from the village. Someone had mobilised a small militia with dogs, horses and everyone had at least one weapon. Thankfully, someone had had the idea to bring a sleigh along. The stranger was hauled on it and Layla and Iorgen were tasked with keeping him from slipping off. It was well past midday when they got back to the village. Slowly but surely the daylight was dwindling.
“I don’t need a diagnosis mage, I need you to tell me whether he has the taint or not.” Gaven, Iorgen’s grandfather and the village elder was talking to Cynric. The stranger was on the sleigh, in front of what was the healer’s house. He was twitching and tossing his head around every once in a while. A small crowd had gathered. Most of the men still held weapons around and other people were trying to see from a safe distance. Cynric was scowling at the stranger and touching his neck in places. Then he tore open the left hand sleeve. A weird vine tattoo was covering the arm and disappeared somewhere under the armour. “The taint mage.” Gaven was getting impatient.
“He has something akin to a bloodseal.”
“I can see that. That’s another reason why I’m asking.”
“Bloodseals may hold back the awakening. There is no taint. Get him inside now. There is still hope for him.” Cynric made to enter his house, but Gaven grabbed his shoulder.
“You say he has a bloodseal and you want to help that man. We don’t know who he is. He might even be...” Cynric simply struck the village elder’s hand away.
“By the time we can find anything out about him, he might as well be dead. I might have been sent to this village, but I do not answer to you. I gave an oath to use my powers to help anyone I can without judging them. If he dies, we will know nothing about him.” Cynric turned away and told something to Sethian, the retired battlemage, now Cynric’s helper. “Layla you can help too. Get inside and wash your hands.” The man’s usual grin had vanished and Cynric looked almost like a stranger.
Layla jolted awake. She did not recall falling asleep, nor did she remember where she was. But her blurred sight recognised the familiar décor of the healers’ house. She heard voices from the front hall. They sounded like her mother and Sethian. “You know Cynric and I can’t always be here to look after the stranger. We are not teaching her in the ways of power, neither of us have the ability to unbind her flow. What she’s learning is actual medicine. It’s more physical. Trust me, Alina, it’s a good idea to let her learn now that we have a willing subject.”
“I still don’t see...” Layla’s mother began, but Sethian was having none of Alina’s attitude.
“One day Cynric will be gone from the village and maybe me as well. It will be good if there is someone who knows a little more than the regular folk medicine. It’s practical knowledge. It will benefit the village. And don’t worry about the stranger. He won’t be waking up anytime soon.”
“Well, if you think so. It’s not like she’s doing anything useful right now. But can I go get her home now?” Her mother would not back down easily, Layla knew.
“She’s tired. She’s asleep. She isn’t going anywhere. You can come in the morning.” Layla sighed in relief. That would postpone the inevitable nagging she would get from mum about where Leyla went and why. She heard the outside door close and made herself more comfortable in the large chair she was in. Someone had put a blanket on her.
She looked around in the dim room, towards the motionless form of the stranger laying on a mattress next to the warm wall. She could hear the faint and uneven breathing of the stranger and her sleepy mind drifted back to what had happened during the healing.
“Stop gawking at the damned armour and help me out here Seth!” Cynric had roared. His demeanour had changed in such a drastic way that Layla was almost too afraid to say anything.
“But... It’s Iordurian.”
“And it’s rent to pieces, now shut up and help. Layla grab those small knives from the shelf behind you.” Layla had expected more blood and open wounds under the clothes, but that did not seem to be the case. There were several bone-like objects lodged in his right shoulder though.
“He’s seared his wounds shut. Not smart. There are older wounds in addition to these fresh ones on his right shoulder. Bad infection, there’s rotten blood inside of him.” Cynric rattled off.
“Or it may have saved him from bleeding out.” Sethian interjected.
“I doubt that would have killed him. That bloodseal looks...”
“You’ve never seen one have you? Yeah. This is one nasty bloodied mage. Never seen something quite like that myself. Not the kind of bloodseal I am used to.” Sethian’s eyes seemed to glint as she said that.
“I know how it’s supposed to work.” Cynric said after a short while. The rest of the procedure was spent in silence. Occasionally Cynric would demand in a sharp tone for Layla to hand him something or hold a reopened wound closed so he could sew it shut again. The healer would stick small needles around those stitches and older scars and have Sethian channel power into them.
After a while Sethian made some remarks again.
“Someone’s tried to crush his throat.” Cynric either did not hear it or ignored it. “And these parallel burns across his torso. There are claw marks under there. Five fingers. Could be an awakened one.”
“Or a varra.” Cynric added through gritted teeth.
“He has demon scars all over him.”
“The spikes in his shoulder made it obvious enough. He took on a small swarm. Old and new scars, probably more than once.”
“I think a small swarm is...”
“It doesn’t matter right now. You’re not helping Seth!” Layla hadn’t seen Cynric this tense.
“This bloodseal.” Layla could not help but ask.
“Not pleasant, not something for you to know about.” Cynric sounded stern.
“I know, but isn’t that something about...”
“The bloodied arts. A way of power. Most of it is taboo, but sometimes a high ranking mage or noble that has provided outstanding service to the Emperor may receive a bloodseal.” Sethian was the one to answer.
“The Emperor has one of these? So why did Gaven dislike him so much?”
“You’re not helping...” Cynric said in an annoyed voice. “They don’t give these seals to anyone. There is a bad reputation around the bloodied arts. Sometimes illegal practitioners will steal these powers to do harm.” Cynric added after a while. “It’s not something you need to concern yourself with.” It took time to look over every bit of the stranger’s body. Cynric took his time and by the time they had finished, it was pitch black outside. Torches and small lanterns had been lit all over the village.
Sethian had been very interested in what the stranger had on him. Specifically, the armour and the large waist guard, a belt with reinforced plates inside a large swath of red fabric. His cloak, the waist guard and what remained of the armour all had an intricate silver embroidery all over them. Inside the rolled up and torn sleeping bag were two large binding scrolls and three curious earrings. Sethian called them devourers.
Other than that there were four silvery daggers sheathed in the breastplate, one of them had its blade broken off and the other was badly chipped and burnt. All of this was in the room, next to the northman’s head. That is what Sethian had taken to calling the stranger. Only thing missing was the sword Layla had seen. Someone had rode back to the Draig’yar mound and looked around the area, but found nothing. Cynric only nodded and said that he knew when they came back to tell him.
As she was about to drift back into oblivion, she heard voices from outside the room again. Sethian and Cynric were talking. “What did she say?”
“Reluctant, but Layla has been coming here for a while now. I think I talked Alina into letting her daughter learn a little more. She did well today.”
“True. A little pale, but she didn’t complain at all. She has a knack for this.” A silence ensued. “Spit it out Seth.” Cynric said with an annoyed voice.
“They didn’t find the sword.” Layla must have imagined it, but Sethian sounded gleeful.
“I know, damn it. Next time someone says that sentence, I am going to throw up.”
“Gaven was about to march in here again, once the healing was over. I had to chase Hawthorne and Hardy away too. Some of the other knuckleheads too.” Sethian laughed. “As if the northman would wake up when they want.”
“You looked at his belongings? Do we know anything about him?”
“A northman.” There was apparent joy and giddiness in her voice.
“Come on, Seth! Iordur fell ages ago. There is no way there would have been survivors. Those who did, abandoned their humanity. Did you look hard enough, or did you just drool over the Iordurian stuff. He must have had something else on him.”
“The armour, the daggers, they’re all priceless. Very, very high quality. Stuff like that wasn’t made outside of Iordur. He has three quality devourers. And other than the binding scrolls, there is nothing else notable on him at all.”
“He could have picked them up from anywhere.”
“As if this kind of gear would lie around in a thieves’ den or at an antique merchant. He doesn’t look like he is around these parts either. Biggest damn eyes I’ve ever seen.” Layla heard a tired sigh from the other room.
“Sethian.” Cynric’s voice lowered. “Are you thinking at all? A northman. A worshipper of the Other One and a spellsword. This is impossible.”
“It would explain the massive bloodseal. It reaches all the way up his arm, neck, and branches back down to his heart. Never seen something like that. And the presence around him.” Sethian sounded giddy. Cynric on other hand, extremely tired.
“I thought you couldn’t read presences.” The healer said with a tired voice.
“I can’t. But you’ve been rubbing your temples from a while now. I can read people. That must be one hell of a headache you have right now.”
“You said he had devourers on him. You might want to put one back on his ear again.” There was a moment of silence. “What? Stop looking at me like that, Sethian.”
“How strong is he?” Sethian asked in a quieter voice.
“You know I’m not that good at reading presences. No one knows how to weigh blood anymore. I can tell when a presence is there...” Cynric’s voice trailed off.
“It has to be quite a headache though.”
After a small while Cynric answered. “It’s terrifying. That northman is beyond frightening. I’d rather face an awakened one than him.” Another sigh from the room over. “He should be weak right now. There is such damage in his system that he must have died recently. Several times. And then he came back. It is impossible but years of learning and practising medicine tell me, it is the only explanation possible. The more I try to grasp his flow, the less I am unsure. That bloodseal might have healed him on its own, eventually. It’s like an ocean. I’ve seen a few talented people and bumped into a few Warlords that have been honoured with bloodseals and all of them pale in comparison. I am reminded of our Archmage, but even the memory of that man feels hollow compared to our patient.”
“They didn’t find the sword.” Sethian repeated once again.
“Layla said it looked like it vanished.”
“Soulforged then.” Sethian sounded like she would start dancing around the room at any moment. Layla could not understand why she was so giddy at the idea.
“So, our northman is not some illegal bloodied mage.”
“That is what worries me. The thoughts people will have. Gaven is not going to be happy if we tell him that the unconscious man in his village is from Iordur.”
“That is the only conclusion we have right now. Layla said he couldn’t understand what language he was talking in either. He does not look like anyone from the continent, nor is he a Pelesian. He sure as heck is no Alyar, D’yer, or Ereko. He is clad in Iordurian made armour and weapons and clothes!”
“What about those binding scrolls?”
“Do not touch.”
“What?” The sound of a chair scraping the floor sounded from the other room.
“Can’t you tell?” Sethian asked incredulously.
“No.” Cynric stated flatly. “If we open one of those then we might know something.”
“I took one of those binders in my hands and all I could do was stand there like an idiot, stare at it in my hands and do nothing else. I am not going to touch it again.”
“What am I going to tell Gaven? He will want me to help him write to Shadowwatch or Makers know where else.”
“That we do not know enough yet. It is best to wait until the man wakes up. You hold some authority after all. You have an imperial mandate from three regional Warlords. You are a representative of Imperial Law. Gaven is a local village elder.”
“I hate you Seth.” Cynric sighed. “Put that devourer back on him, so I can get some sleep. By damn do I need it after tonight.”
Footsteps sounded in the hallway. Sethian entered the room and fussed about around the stranger’s head. She left and the sounds of doors closing echoed through the house. Layla was not sure if she was overly tired or had all of her sleepiness disappeared after their conversation. She knew a little about ways of power, but she could not tell what was going on. Why was Sethian so giddy?
She had heard about Iordur, how gods, angered by the Pureblooded Emperor, shattered it with pillars of fire raining down from the sky. How its people, who had lost all faith in their unfaltering ruler, a ruler that in their eyes rivalled all the Makers of Light. How a kingdom that founded the old empire abandoned all humanity and awakened into demons out of free will. Turning into the shadow-beings that were locked in battle with the armies of the Empire not too far from here. She peered towards the tall stranger, sleeping in the room. Layla was hoping he would wake up soon. There was excitement in the air she had not known forever.