The snow had ceased to fall and the white clouds overhead shone just a little, the moon bright behind them, but unable to light up the darkness.
Through that darkness and silence came the sound of boots crunching across scorched earth and the slight metallic jingle of chain or scale armour. A figure came and though there was no light, and the darkness seemed wholly impenetrable, somehow the crossed swords of Veinar Agis seemed to shine out from the breastplate. The figure was all darkness otherwise, a shadow-shape, with massive curls upon head and some sort of sword in hand. Just his luck to be struck dead by some wandering mercenary as he lay upon his back after surviving that mess.
“You’re alright?” and it was the voice of a woman, standing over him. The words less a question, more a statement.
“Who are you?” Cabriabanus gasped, the fire still burning in his lungs. He curled his fingers around the hilt of the dagger at his back and tried to make the motion invisible.
“I am Mag,” she stated.
Though he was battered and bruised, and the pain was still sharp as ever in his leg, he managed a laugh. Here was a woman, dressed as a warrior, the symbol of the warrior god upon her chest, but bearing the name of the Mother of Waves.
There are five gods, though only four are acknowledged by the masses; rare it is when a man takes more than one into his heart. The priestesses tell a man that the gods are jealous, that they demand their followers remain loyal to one and only one. Cabriabanus had communed with the lot of them. Except that it was a dream and so he could not really be sure of anything. After all he held no love for the Dreamer and her lands, and was certain she held no love for him. But didn’t his dream prove the priestesses wrong? Didn’t it show that they were capable of working together? Even if it was just in dire need. Didn’t this woman before him only prove the point? Or perhaps not. Perhaps she was not a woman at all.
“Are you the Lady of the Waters?” he asked cautiously. Though he had met her once in this world, and again in dreams one could never be certain. Darkness obscured her so that he could hardly see at all.
“No,” she said with a softness bordering on melancholy.
“Where did you come from?” he asked. He had no energy to move further, even the fingers around the hilt of the dagger were weak and could hardly hold on. “Have you come to finish me?”
“No,” she said again. He closed his eyes, heard her slide the sword into a sheath.
“Praise the gods,” he muttered before exhaustion claimed him.
When he opened his eyes he was still in pain and there was still a great deal of darkness beyond the light of a fire. He groaned and managed to pull himself to sitting, though his left leg was stiff and he did not try to move it. The woman across the fire from him he could see clearly now for the first time. She seemed young, though her face had a somewhat haunted look about it. Or perhaps it was just the paleness of her skin, almost translucent, and the hunger in her eyes. She was thin to a point nearing gauntness and she had an air of ferocity about her. A storm of dark curls crowned her head and she sat, knees up, arms around them, watching him intently, the sword in its sheath at her side.
They remained in the clearing, the fireball having evaporated the snow in this area. And from what he could smell the dead as well. The only remaining scent of kobalos lingered on his person.
“Did they get their teeth in you?” she asked, as if listening in on his thoughts.
“I don’t know,” he replied, tired. His throat was dry and parched and he did not want her to watch him attempt to get to his feet, but had to try all the same.
He managed to stand, though the darkness seemed to close in around him and his head swam. In this state he would not be much good to his vow and his wards, but what else was there? He lived and so he was still bound to his vow. He wasn’t sure if it was a part of the magic that Innogen had performed upon him or if it was something else altogether, but somehow he could feel that the prince’s still lived. He couldn’t be sure for how long, though. The sooner he got moving the better. He was not one prone to flights of fancy and so could not wish for a Serenity to appear and heal him. He had to work quickly to find them before the wound killed him.
“You should sit and rest while you can,” she said.
“I cannot,” he replied. “I made a promise to protect those children. I will die before I dishonour it.”
“You will indeed,” she said. “You look ready to die any moment.”
He glanced down at her, sitting quiet beside the fire as though she had not a care in the world.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I told you I am Mag,” she said. “Who are you?”
“I’m-,” he faltered, could he trust her? What could she do to him? He hoped he could overpower a woman, even in his present state, if she tried to kill him. But what if she took the information and ran with it? Ran to the castle, revealed his location, what then? He certainly could not catch her if she ran. But then what could an army from Andrese do, if the prince’s had been taken by kobalos? Most like they would not even believe him and then he would simply die in a dungeon. If he could not find the kobalos in the mean time. Caution to the wind.
“My name is Cabriabanus Atholine,” he sighed. She did not look as though she knew the name. He nodded. “Thank you for the fire,” he said. “But I must find the children.” He attempted to take a step but put too much weight upon his injured leg, which screamed at him and refused to cooperate, sending him onto his face in the dirt.
“And what is it you are doing out here in the wild lands, Bel Atholine? With your children all dressed as prince’s? Waiting to be snatched up by kobalos?”
“I could ask the same of you, Mag,” he replied, wiping the dirt from his face. “A woman alone in the deep woods. Or are you alone?” He glanced around though he could see little beyond the light of the fire. He pushed himself to his knees, though he could not sit back for the pain was too great.
“I am alone,” she said. “But for your company.”
The silence stretched, while Cabriabanus caught his breath. His stomach rumbled loud enough for her to hear on the other side of the crackling fire.
“Have you any food?” she asked quietly, her eyes upon her hands.
“No,” he said, attempting to stand again. But the pain was too great and he could only just make it by clenching his fists and setting his jaw and forcing himself up by will alone. He stood on his right leg and felt like crying. He hadn’t felt that way since he was a child. But it seemed so futile.
No, he mustn’t let thoughts like that enter his mind; that slope being far too slippery. He pulled his sword from her sheath and attempted to use her as a walking stick.
“You’ll blunt your blade that way,” she told him.
“You needn’t worry about me,” he tried.
“I saved your life,” she said. “Where I come from that means it is mine.”
“And where is that?” he snapped. The pain was getting to him. He was trying to take another step, out of the firelight, into the darkness. There had to be footprints he could follow.
“I don’t know the name anymore,” she said. “A city by the sea.”
“Andrese,” he suggested through clenched teeth. “Is where I am from. And when a man saves another man’s life there, a simple thank you and perhaps a butt of wine is sufficient.”
“They got their teeth in you, didn’t they?” she said, rising and coming close to him.
“No,” he said, trying to move away, he set his weight upon his injured leg. “I-ah!” The pain was terrible. Not only in his calf but it had moved up into his knee and down into his ankle, making them stiffen so that he could hardly move. He teetered for a moment, certain to fall once again but she caught him by the arms and looked him in the eye.
“You cannot save them,” she said. “You can barely stand.”
“I have to,” he snarled, pulling out of her grip, teetering on his feet once more. “I can’t let them die, not like that.”
“Every father does what he can to save his children,” she started. He did not correct her. Better she think them his children than know that they were all fugitives. “But you will not save them if you do not rest. And heal. You have a few days.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked. She turned her gaze away from him. Spoke into the darkness.
“Rottdokk is taking them for the sacrifice. It happens on the dead moon.”
“Rottdokk?” he asked. “Sacrifice? What are you talking about? How do you know this?”
“The one who tried to lop off your head,” she explained, still not looking at him. “The big one. He is Orscan. Stab him in the heart and he still will not die.”
“You speak as though you know them. Most folk don’t really even believe in them. How do you know them?”
“I...” she looked down at her feet. When she finally turned her gaze to him it was steel. “Your children are dead. You don’t have to join them.”
“They’re not dead yet,” he snarled. “Do you know where they took them?”
“Oomglaken,” she muttered sullen.
“Please,” he said, and he reached out to take her by the arms. “You don’t understand what will happen if those boys die. I cannot let them die.” She looked up at him. Her eyes were big and dark and would have been pretty but for the ferocity behind them that made him think of a rabid dog. He thought for a moment that they had started to glisten but she turned away, pulled out of his grip. He tried to take a step forward and fell, crying out from pain and frustration.
“You let them get their teeth in you,” she said, turning around to stare at his pitiful form. She sighed. “You mustn’t let it fester,” she said, crouching down beside his leg. “Let me look at it.”
He sighed after struggling with the movement and the pain. His head still ached and his body was sore and he was tired and hungry.
“Fine,” he said. “Though I am not certain you could do anything about it.”
She fixed him with a stare and then turned to his leg. With gentle, delicate fingers she pulled back the leg of his britches and stared at the stiff strip of cloth that bound his swollen, blackening leg.
“Gods,” he breathed. The darkness around the wound had stretched out since last he looked and dark fingers of his veins reached farther toward his knee.
“Sometimes,” she said looking at the wound carefully without touching it. “Sometimes they eat poison or chew rusted weapons. It gets into their blood, makes them crazy. It also makes their bite...unpleasant.”
“What are you talking about?”
She looked up at him, sharply. “Kobalos.”
He shook his head. “This is not a kobal bite. It was an arrowhead. I pulled it out two days past.”
“This is hideous,” she said, looking from the wound to the man. “How could you...how did you fight with your leg like this?”
“I had no choice,” he said. “I had to fight, to protect the p-, the children.”
“You are a strong man.”
“Not strong enough,” he said. “I could not protect them.”
“They will die quickly,” she said, as if it were a comfort.
“They’re still alive,” he said. “And I intend to find them.”
“Then you will die too,” she said, finally able to look him in the eyes again.
“I’ve heard few tales of kobalos that I believed, and none tell of men who live after encountering them. But I am alive, and that means something.”
She said nothing for a long while, searching his face in the light of the fire. Then she turned back to his wound and said, “I think I can help this to heal, if you wish.”
“How?” he asked.
“I know some....things,” she said. “Let me show you.”
She carefully untied the knotted cloth and unbound the wound. A rank stench of decaying flesh filled the air. She placed one hand lightly upon his knee and the other around his ankle and let out a sound like nothing he had heard from a woman’s lips before. It was the keening of sea monsters and the harping of gulls combined. It was the crackling of lightning penetrating the deepest parts of the ocean. As the sound escaped her lips the wound started to burn. From the outer edges, it started with a gentle burning, as of a light steam and then grew until it was skin sat in the sun too long. The burning moved inward toward the main wound as it grew stronger. He started to sweat, tried to struggle, but her hands upon his knee and ankle closed, holding tighter than he would have imagined from a woman. The pain grew brighter, like flesh touching hot iron and when it finally reached the centre of the wound it felt as though she had poured molten iron into the hole in his flesh. His very skin was boiling, his body shuddering and he let out a howl of pain great enough to frighten anything that moved in that wood for leagues. His roar, melded with hers in the dark wood, was the last thing he heard before he passed out from the pain.
He dreamed of kobalos attacking again, that Mag sat idly beside the fire while they surged around him, gathering him up, carrying him away deep under the earth. It was like a dungeon, but instead of finding Rora dead, as he had so many times in his dungeon dreams he found the prince’s, tortured and dying. And as they died the emptiness opened up beneath him, swallowing everything, except for Mag, who stood by with her haunted face and a fireball in each hand.
The dream shifted. He was in the castle, in the tower cell, with the infernal shutters rattling, and the wind whispering against his naked flesh. Cantan entered the room in full plate armour, but he moved as though he were not fighting, but performing sword forms for an audience. Cabriabanus threw himself at the plate mail automaton and Cantan hit the wall and broke into a thousand pieces. Before he could catch his breath Innogen entered, screaming bloody murder and unravelling from her feet up, taking parts of the room with her. Until he stood, alone and naked, in a tower cell without walls or roof. The wind howled, somehow the shutters still rattled though they were gone. Mag appeared, wearing a gown fit for a queen, with a neckline that plunged between her breasts. In the middle of her chest a strange birthmark like a fireball, and as he stared it started to writhe and flicker, to come alive, growing brighter and brighter until it spun out of her chest and struck him, knocking him off the tall tower. He burned as he fell and the emptiness opened up beneath him.