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The Whisper of War - Sample

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Chapter 2

He returned a couple of hours later. Instinctually and disconcertingly, I knew it was the man who had carried me down the stairs, before he reached the door. He was a tall, well made, silver haired Old Lord with dark eyes and a dimple in his cheek when he smiled. My heart tripped. “Hello pretty lady,” he spoke in the New Tongue, but with the accent of Old. “You just sit there nicely on your bench and I’ll give you some food and water, see?” he held a tray up so I could see it.

I slid back along the bench, towards the farthest wall, acting cowed. “Good girl,” he approved, his tone gentle. He opened the door and stepped within, placing the tray down upon the bench seat neatly beside me, before retreating back again and closing the door between us. “Eat up!”

I examined the contents of the tray. The meat had not been killed according to ritual, but it had been killed cleanly. I remembered my childhood experiences of meat killed both in and out of ritual, cleanly and not cleanly... It was better to avoid it, I decided.

I ate the vegetables. Someone, sensible to Arcana requirements, had not cooked the vegetables in animal fats and had not allowed the blood from one to run into the other. I drank the water; collected from the rainwater tanks attached to the houses and not the power-filled pools below, I noted. Whilst the power kick from the pools might have been welcome, being as I was in the enemy camp, it was best to take in such power only when needed; too much external power was addictive. It was better to develop the power within.

If she was drawing recklessly from external sources and had not developed her internal resources... that might be the source of the problem with the Rogue Arcana’s shield. It was a weakness worth exploring. It might also be the cause of her apparent strength of power; unusual for a stray subline Arcana. Not a true power source, and one that would eventually cost her.

The Old Lord opened the door. “Do you understand what I am saying?” he asked me, speaking carefully in the New Tongue. I considered denying it but suspected it would be hard to carry off over the duration of my time with them, so I nodded. “Good,” he smiled approvingly, his face lighting with it and his dimple dancing. I felt the tumble, and grit my teeth against it; ill timed, and dangerous hormones, I reminded myself. “Come with me, and I will show you where you may use the waste disposal and shower.”

He had me walk in front of him; I hoped he did not intend to watch me in the bathroom, or to take advantage of me whilst I was there. I would not permit it, and it would be a quick end to my subterfuge.

“Your hair is beautiful,” he commented as we walked back out onto the open walkway between the carved buildings of Tialsien. On the other side of the passage, the silver Old Lord, Thorn, leaned out the window of a house as he adjusted the screen there. “I have never seen anything like it. To your left now,” he advised.

We walked into a building. A big man with long black hair and eyes like green gemstones drew back against the wall as we entered. He had no power, absolutely no power. It was not a void, like with the shields. A void was a hidden space into which you could not see; this was an unhidden space in which there was nothing to see.

“Forgive the intrusion Evandir,” the man behind me switched to a third language, its roots also in the Old Tongue. It took a moment for me to adjust to the changed consonant sounds and the inflections. “The sorcerer’s latest slave needs to use the bathroom.”

I wondered who the sorcerer was and how I had become designated a slave belonging to that person. It did not concern me; I was confident in my ability to leave when my mission was complete.

“Of course, Shadow,” the green-eyed man regarded me with assessment. “This slave does not look dangerous.”

“No, she’s a small thing,” the man behind me, Shadow, agreed. “But, as we know from the sorcerer, small things can be misleading.”

“Indeed,” the dark-haired man frowned at me. “Do you require a second?”

“No, but thank you,” Shadow contained his amusement.

We continued past the dark-haired man, past a kitchen where a second dark-haired man was cooking and did not notice our passing, to a bathroom. There was a fountain shower, and a squat waste-disposal. The man, Shadow, showed me how they worked, with mild wonderment and discomfort. The Old Lords, I realised from his behaviour, had different facilities for such functions.

He produced two piles of cloth. One for drying, and a top and trousers for wearing, and displayed them to me before retreating outside the door.

I released the clothing strapped across my back and removed my weapons, laying them out in order, but within reach. I used the waste disposal, and then the shower, using the bar of soap to cleanse my hair, body, and clothing. I hung my clothing across the line in the room that was obviously for that purpose, before redressing in the clean, and strapping my weapons back into place.

Shadow, to his credit, waited patiently outside, and did not peek within until I exited. He was puzzled by my clothing, casting his gaze to those drying on the line, but shrugged and returned me to the cell. I waited to be sure no guard would be set before opening the trapdoor into the oubliette and dropping within.

The oubliette was dank, the walls wet with moisture. Its secret exit spilled me out into the internal stair. I returned up to the level of the cell and crept down the passage. The carving of the buildings provided hand holds and I was swiftly able to climb the facade of the building and swing myself in one of the top windows; the screen set there provided a moment of difficulty, but its structure was not complicated.

The man and woman spoke between themselves, without reservation, as they prepared their evening meal in the kitchen. “Nexus is still having troubles with his outpost,” Thorn commented. “He has not yet asked, but...”

Briar sighed. “I would prefer not to.”

“I know, my one,” he was empathetic.

“Any word from the ambassadors?”

“No,” he drew the word out. “But sometimes no word, is good, Briar. It means they haven’t thrown it out, immediately.”

“And whilst they debate and show off to each other, Tratorym die.”

“I am sorry, my one.”

“Not your fault,” she sighed, heavier. “You said you saw Shadow taking the new girl to the bathroom?”

“Yes. Do you want me to summon him?”

“Not tonight, I will deal with it tomorrow.”

“She seemed... mildly mannered,” Thorn offered.

“That’s something, at least. If I can work with her...” There was a pause. “Do you think her muteness may be trauma related? That underneath it, she’s... normal?”

“Is anyone normal?” he was amused. “She is wearing jewellery made from bone.”

“True.” She thought about it. “Why, though?” she was puzzled.

“A very good question, to which I have no answer,” he replied.

Their conversation dissolved into a more carnal subject from that point, and I left their house shaking my head. I used the carving on the rooftops to climb across to the opposite house, and encountered the dark-haired, green eyed man, Evandir, in the window of his home. We regarded each other for a long moment; “I did not see you,” he said, his voice deep and cautious. “But you had best be back from whence you came before they seek you.”

“What are you?” I asked him, swinging my leg into the window frame, to assume a more comfortable position.

He blinked. “I was told you don’t speak.”

I flicked my hand. “Ignore that. What are you?” I repeated.

“I am Tratorym,” he replied. If his frown had grown any deeper, I could have hidden in the shadows of it.

“Why are Tratorym dying?”

“We are hunted by the Noxyim,” he did not seem surprised by my knowledge.

“And what are they?”

“The other people on our planet.”

“Ah,” it had begun to make sense. The dark-haired men were from another colony planet of the Old Lords. “Why does Briar wish to prevent your dying?” I asked him.

“Because the sorcerer is merciful,” he replied with confidence. “Harsh, but merciful.” Ah, I thought. The sorcerer was Briar.

“You will not speak of this.”

“No,” he agreed; he was a man with his own plans, I thought. I wondered how much the Rogue Arcana knew of them.

“No, “I smiled at him with my teeth and twisted a braid. “You will not speak of this, I bind your tongue on this visit,” I knotted my braid, sealing the spell.

“You are a sorcerer,” he observed, with sudden coolness.

“A less merciful one,” I informed him. “Good night,” I continued my passage along the roof tops. He leaned out the window to watch. Most of the buildings were empty. One further down held an older couple; their conversations were inane, until they mentioned the names Thorn and Briar. It did not take long to deduce these as the parents of Briar.

I put that information into my arsenal and returned whence I came. The green-eyed man, Evandir, still watched me through the window, scowling. I tugged my knotted braid and grinned at him as I dropped back, lightly to the ground. I returned to the cell via the oubliette, the climb up the hidden passage considerably harder than the descent had been.

In my cell, I settled upon the narrow bench, and drew the blanket up around myself. It had been, so far, an interesting mission.

I was pretty sure that the Rogue Arcana was Briar, and that she was experiencing power-addiction, which was affecting the shield she had constructed. Why she had erected the shield... it had something to do with the Tratorym... Evandir’s people. Why would Briar have an interest in another colony planet? Why was Evandir and his companion on this planet?

I slept until Shadow’s approach to my door woke me. “Are you going to behave again today?” he asked me with mock sternness.

I cringed against the wall and hoped my acting was convincing. He fed me again, before leading me back out to the Tratorym’s building. Evandir was in the kitchen doorway, still wearing his scowl of the evening before, as we walked past. I did not doubt, during my shower, from the power pull, that he tried, several times, to relate to Shadow, my activities the night before, without success.

As we returned along the hall after my shower and I passed him, he glowered: “Sorcerer,” he accused me.

I flashed my teeth at him.

He returned the toothy smile, showing sharper teeth, his canine and premolars elongated and sharpened. Predator, I noted, thoughtfully. The tooth abnormality was a warning; they might not have power, these Tratorym, but they were not without defences. I wondered at the environment that had resulted in such a physical change; I was sure it was not artificial. What other physical changes might the man have?

Shadow led me upwards, until we reached the plateau above the gorge. Briar waited for me there. There was a small boy with her. He grinned at me, effervescent with joy: “Are you like us?” he asked me. “I am Lief. We’re going to garden. I am good at gardening.”

“We spoke about this, Lief,” Briar said to him gently. “She cannot speak. We’re going to kill the weed, and grow the plants,” she told me, more sternly. “I will demonstrate.”

She used her power to turn weed to dust, and then to grow plant to fruit. I watched both occur and winced. The boy, Lief, copied her; he could grow, but not turn plant to ash. Their method was an aberration. It was painful to see. “Your turn,” Briar regarded me.

I looked at her blankly; the look was not feigned. I had never seen the power used in this way, to think of it being deliberately taught... it threw me. I had no honest idea how to even begin to feign compliance; and in demonstrating the correct way, I would give myself away entirely.

She sighed, disappointed. “Nothing?” she asked me. “Absolutely nothing?”

I was sure I looked appropriately apologetic.

She carried on, repeating the demonstration and looking at me expectantly. I continued to shake my head, wide eyed; complicit but bemused. After a while, she sat us down in the shade, and advised we close our eyes and trace the life-tracks of creatures around us. This, she had correct. But it was also a skill mastered very early on, and her teaching had no depth.

She had swum in the power filled waters of Tialsien and absorbed the repository of information within, of that I had no doubt. But she had not spent the time... had not developed the skills to understand and order the information. Her use of her power was purely reactive, the theory where it was applied was skeletal, and had no depth of understanding.

She was a child, building castles out of sand.

It was almost frightening, because her power addiction and her access to the relics meant that she was a child building castles out of sand using a flamethrower to do so. What resulted was strong and sharply dangerous... but an absolute mess.

The silver Old Lord, Thorn, returned from hunting and caught her up against him in a deep kiss. “How is your new student?” he asked her in the Old Tongue.

“Disappointing,” she sighed. “I show her things that Lief is mastering and she looks at me as if I have grown two heads and am spitting jam.”

“Not very powerful, perhaps?” he regarded me, not quite believing his own words.

“Perhaps,” her brows pinched together. “Somehow, that doesn’t feel right.”

A woman with grey hair, from the first world, drew their attention from the top of the stairs. They drew together, talking in low voices.

“Here,” Lief said to me, tugging at my sleeve. “I’ll show you again.” He grew a plant.

I sighed. “Don’t do it that way,” I told him under my breath. “Watch now...” I showed him how to draw the nutrients out of the soil and structure the plant correctly.

He looked at me, open mouthed, whether stunned by my speech or method, I wasn’t sure. “Oh,” he said with a child’s easy acceptance of change. “Like this?” he repeated my method.

The tension eased from my shoulders. Preserve the lines. “Yes,” I smiled at him. Even the stray sublines needed preservation in case they could be drawn back into the enclave. “You see how much less energy it requires, and that nothing is damaged in the making? You need to study the structure of plants. There are two main systems, the shoot system and the root system...”

“Yes, I see...” he looked at me with enlightenment shifting to puzzlement. “Why don’t you speak to Briar?”

I leaned closer to him; “Our secret, little one,” and knotted a second braid regretfully. “Sometimes it is better not to speak; the words will not be heard, anyway.”

The three talking by the stairs walked over to join us, the two Old Lords frowning down at me. “Stand,” the grey Old Lord woman commanded. I stood, chaffing against the requirement. She patted me down, taking out the handles of my daggers, my swords, and scrutinising them, looking for hidden catches or buttons. She found the stars, and fingered the sharp edges, her scowl darkening. These she passed to the silver Old Lord, Thorn. The handles she turned over in her hands. “Do we trust that these are delusions of a sickened mind?” she asked them. “Or do we wonder...?”

Briar turned one over in her hand. I felt her try to feed her power through them. “They don’t use power... or not any power that I am familiar with, Willow,” she told them. “There is nothing in the repository of information from the relics...”

“There is no technology built into them,” Thorn replied. “Sentimentality?”

“I hope she’s an Arcana,” the one called Willow glowered at me. “I hope she is for your sakes. Sending an Arcana back to the home worlds now... it would be a major encouragement to them to comply with your requirements for this world.”

Briar swallowed. “Exchanging a person for those things... it is not right,” she said.

“Equality for your people,” Willow raised her eyebrows. “Recognition for these outposts, and the saving of the Tratorym, in exchange for a mute woman of mild powers? It seems like a reasonable exchange, to me.” An intriguing story was coming together before me, one which did not quite fit with the legends of the Old Lords, but did fit this strange stronghold...

“Regardless of her powers,” Briar refused. “She is a person, one of my people.”

“The needs of the masses outweigh the needs of the few,” Willow replied succinctly.

“But at what stage does sacrificing the individual for the better good lead to sacrificing the better good for all?” Briar protested, heatedly. “Every person matters. Every person has someone who loves and values them.” I considered her, re-evaluating my options.

“Shall we call Nexus in?” the Old Lord, Thorn, suggested.

“Yes,” both women decided in unison.

He looked from one to the other in mild surprise. “Fine, then,” he agreed.

“Here,” Briar returned my handles to me. “I don’t know why you keep these,” she said to me, “but I don’t see why I should take them from you.”

I could give her a dozen very good reasons but did not. I tucked the handles back into their placements, and noted the Old Lords watching me do so with deepening frowns. “If they had blades,” Thorn murmured.

“I know,” the one called Willow agreed, “and yet, they do not.”

“The delusions of a damaged mind... with a parent who was a soldier?”

“Ancient habits carried forth as ritual?” she suggested.

“Let’s see what Nexus makes of it,” Thorn decided, reluctantly. “She is not powerful.”

“Noooo,” but there was a shadow of doubt in her tone.

“No?” he looked at her sharply.

“Looking at her light reminds me of watching a flashlight covered by cloth. If someone wanted to hide what they could do, but still show... something...”

They both looked at me, eyes narrowed, almost colourless blue and amber, reviewing, considering, assessing. I met their gazes, and unmasked my power - a tease, a moment of ego – before shielding it once again. They both recoiled, breathless, looking away. “What does it mean?” Willow asked Thorn.

“I don’t know,” he glowered at me. “I don’t know. But I suspect that our hopes of finding an Arcana to send back to the home worlds is dashed... whatever she is I don’t think we can risk sending her.”

“Yes,” she agreed. She leaned forward and fixed me with her gaze. “What are you?” she whispered, her tone broking no denial. I remembered the look of the Tratorym, Evandir, flashing his sharpest teeth at me, in defiance, and repeated the expression.

I faded my gaze and met hers; empty and vacant. I felt her frustration rise.

“I’ll go summon Nexus,” Thorn decided.

“Send a medic up,” Willow advised. “To get some tissue samples.” He arched an eyebrow at her. “I want to know what she is.”

“Return to the garden,” Briar instructed me, “keep trying what I taught you this morning.”

I returned to the garden beds, but did nothing but wander with Lief, who chatted animatedly to me. I could not risk speaking to him again, so did not.

Eventually, another silver haired woman came to the top of the stairs, carrying a kit in her hand. Briar brought her over to me. This silver haired woman smiled at me cheerfully. “This won’t hurt at all,” she assured me confidently.

She took a blood sample, several pieces of hair from the root to tip, and swabbed the inside of my cheeks, putting the pieces away into her kit. “It will take some hours to determine,” she told Briar. She took another device out and scanned me head to toe. “But I can tell you she is oddly perfect.”

“Perfect?” Briar repeated, surprised by the word.

“No decay in her teeth, no signs of mended broken bones, no evidence of scar tissue, no illness, perfect organs, perfect eyesight, perfect hearing. Her level of physical fitness would make your mate envious. No physical reason at all for the muteness.”

“Healer?” Briar wondered.

“It would be an explanation. She is also older than twenty of your years old, if you were wondering. It can be hard to be precise, especially considering her perfect physical condition... but her wisdom teeth are fully present. I’d say early to mid-twenties.”

“Thank you,” Briar narrowed her eyes and scrutinized me. “Maybe we do have time, after all.”

I remained in the vegetable garden, with Lief and Briar, as the day grew older. Briar’s mother, Meadow, joined us at some stage, several rows away. She was not a strong talent, I noted. An empath. Strong enough, for a subline, that it was not surprising that the line had tossed up an Arcana. She and Briar chatted about inane things; plans for plantings, a pregnant sister at another location...

Whilst Briar was distracted by her mother, I subtly worked against her teachings, undoing the structures she had imposed on Lief, showing him beyond the confines of her abilities. I did not need to talk to do so; I demonstrated the method, and he reproduced it. It would be hard to determine, from a distance, his power from mine; at least, it would be for these ones, I suspected. The Old Lords’ powers were failing, weak, and the outlines were uneducated and confused.

Lief’s power was greater than Briar’s I determined; I was able to reason out from what I overheard, that she had reached Transition late, and unguided, fallen into the power by accident, and as a result, had not the knowledge to access the depth of knowledge available through the ancient’s repositories. Lief needed to go to a stronghold where he could learn the science, the structure, the guidelines and the discipline behind the power.

I had taken my first bath in the repository of knowledge at my first blood and repeated it every year since. The absorption difference was... stark. I had been raised to explore and embrace my ability, I had studied in depth the powers and weaponry since I could walk... this Arcana, Briar, had begun as an adult. She was adept, empowered, possibly brilliant... but she drew from brittle resources, the skin upon the knowledge I drew upon. I drew from the core.

It was not, however, too late for her. She was still within Transition.

We were brought food and drink to the plateau and ate it beneath the trees. Briar was impatient to be off doing something else, her eyes flicking to the stairs repetitively; but waiting for something in order to do so. As we finished our meal, Shadow came up the steps, and Briar sighed; “Thank you,” she said to him in the Old Tongue. “Do with her what you will, just keep her out of trouble. See if you can get her to talk perhaps; there’s no medical reason she should not do so. Come, Lief,” she switched to the New Tongue and held out a hand to the boy, “let’s take you back downstairs to your parents.” She left, with her mother and the little boy.

“Well then,” Shadow smiled at me, and brushed his hand across my cheek, tucking a stray hair behind my ear. It was an intimate gesture. “I don’t know what to do with you, honestly, and I’m guessing you’re not keen to go back into the cell. If you behave yourself, you can run my errands with me, perhaps.”

He took me back down the stairs with him, and moved in and out of the buildings, speaking to the people within of minor things; food, repairs, and building projects. At one point he took me to the bridge made of woven grass: “This is the fastest way across,” he said to me doubtfully. “Hopefully you’re not skittish about heights.”

I shook my head, and he gestured for me to proceed him across the bridge. It was an odd structure, I thought, innovative in design in that it used readily available and plentiful resources. It was... not in keeping with what I had been taught of the Old Lords.

The whole stronghold was odd. All three worlds, as well as outliners, were present. There was technology here, yes, but not plentifully. The vehicles on one side of the gorge, some medical instruments, and the armour which not many seemed inclined to wear...

On the other side of the bridge, they were building houses. Shadow became involved in helping, simply telling me to stay put in the shade of a half-built structure. I was happy to comply; it allowed me space to observe and eavesdrop. Unfortunately, their conversation was limited to the task on hand and casual chatter about people residing in the stronghold, none of it useful. Shadow tried, several times, to draw me out, to get me to speak; I resisted. Being mute was useful; people spoke more easily around you if they thought you could not repeat what it was that they said. It was a common ploy engaged by Arcana when entering the villages of the outlines.

One thing I noted as the afternoon passed was that none of the Old Lords present had more than a shadow of power. That was interesting... Another piece of a puzzle.

Towards evening, a vehicle flew over the gorge, raising heads and eyes in its wake. Small, two-person, it landed on the plateau. After a few minutes, an Old Lord descended the stairs, moving fast and with impatience. He was first world grey; his hair held the sheen of iron stone, shimmers of light and dark, left loose around a face that was too pretty for the scowl it wore. He strode angrily down to the level that the Rogue Arcana and her mate occupied.

Shadow was returning me to my cell, promising to bring me the evening meal once he had secured me in place, and had paused when the vehicle flew overhead, waiting for the new arrival. We stepped aside as the grey-haired Old Lord came striding towards us, his ornate robes fluttering at elbow and knee with the force of his movements. He paused, stalking over to stand frowning down at me, his brows dark iron steel above eyes the colour of storm clouds.

My breath caught and my heart stuttered. My physical reaction shocked me; he shocked me. Transition, I told myself sternly, just a strong reaction due to being in Transition. But I wondered if I would be able to steal a strand of his hair...

“They’re waiting in their house,” Shadow told him, a hint of coolness in his voice. I felt him move a step closer to me; defensive.

The grey-haired Old Lord leaned forward and scented me, from jaw to brow, his eyes half closed. He leaned back, frowning, before reaching out to touch my hair, his eyes going hard as stone. “What manner of creature is this?” he demanded of Shadow, but did not wait for an answer, and instead stormed towards the home of the Rogue Arcana and her mate, leaving me breathless and weak kneed in his wake.

My heart pounded. “Shit,” I swore in the New Tongue, closing my eyes. I recovered myself, remembering that I was not alone and unobserved. I shot a look at Shadow.

He raised an eyebrow at me. “I heard that,” he commented.

“Well, he was a bit of a - ” I used a swear word “wasn’t he?”

Shadow burst into astonished laughter. “Yes, he often is,” he agreed with warmth. “So, what is your name, little bird?” I considered using a woven spell to bind him to silence as I had Lief and Evandir, but chose another tact instead, and smiled, closed lipped, holding my hands out. He sighed. “That’s it, is it? You know they won’t accept that, don’t you?”

I nodded, undisturbed. He sighed again, gustily. “Come on then,” he said.

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