At the Slaver's Association
The Fire This Time
At the Realm of Thorns
At the MorCon
At the ABYSS
Scatters from her
Thoughts that breathe
and words that burn.
The Progress of Poesy.
III. 3, Line 2.)
THE FIRE THIS TIME
The crunch of soil underfoot could hardly compete with the cooing and clicking of night creatures and the moaning of forest winds. A figure clad all in black, virtually indistinguishable from the shadows, trod along at a steady pace.
The woman - for certainly no man would have moved along with such unhurried grace - was reed thin, and her long legs resembled nothing so much as the agile limbs of a spider.
Black leather covered her from throat to toes, but occasionaly as she walked, a glimpse of pale countenance emerged from the shadows and shimmered almost blue in the moonlight. Her eyes, cloaked as they were in circles of kohl, hissed an occasional spark of amber fire, and from the coil of braid at the nape of her neck came the occasional wink of polished jet.
The doeskin knapsack at her shoulder issued its occasional plaintive creak, its buckles sometimes beckoning like tiny bells. But for the most part she moved in eerie silence.
Oh, there was one other sound, however small - the rhythmic murmur of leather on leather as the sheath at her hip pelted her upper thigh.
Her languid pace could, perhaps, have been attributed to hesitation. She'd wandered the land for years (sometimes it seemed centuries), murdering saints and giving birth to demons, seeing life and death in all its glorious forms ... but every landscape was a new adventure.
No two worlds were ever alike, and it had served her well to tread the roads lightly and under cover of night, never rushing into discovery but giving a place the time to unmask itself, and reveal its true nature.
A farmer's cart rumbled along a country road at sunrise; the well-travelled lane was still moist with morning dew. Thick forest had given way to wide open spaces, furrowed and planted with row after row of spring seedlings. A fine mist rose from the soil, rendering the air somewhat grey, colorless.
The rumble of wooden wheels was hypnotic, and combined with the gentle back and forth lolling of the cart bed, was a powerful sedative. As Schönen struggled to stay awake, her eyes relaxed to narrow slits, and her shoulders rolled from side to side.
It would not do for her to sleep until she had reached the safety of a temple or an inn - or even a secluded patch of ground in the wilderness, so long as it was well away from the main road.
By now, she had burrowed inside a heavy black cloak with a drooping hood, its main purpose to shield her identity. The thick felted wool trapped her body heat, forming an oven inside, and a shell that even the morning chill could not penetrate.
Whether as a result of the stifling of the cloak, or her growing weariness with the journey, she was ill-tempered and uncomfortable. Impatiently, she plucked a blade of straw from the tangle of it strewn across the bed of the cart. Rolling the piece of hay between thumb and forefinger, she touched another fingertip to the end and watched in sleepy fascination as it began to smolder. From the end of the straw grew a patch of brown that turned to black, then to glowing orange, before it sizzled and popped and sent up a plume of smoke that disappeared over her head.
When it finally burst into flame, she held it for a long moment, peering into the fire as though scrying. Maybe the tiny flickering light could reveal to her some shadow of what lay ahead.
The straw burned quickly to just half its length. She tossed it away, out of the cart and safely away from the rest of the hay, with a snap of her fingers. It fell to the ground and smoldered in the mud as the cart rolled on its lazy way.
The first hint of sea air pricked at her senses, causing her shoulders to stiffen, her eyes to open and her nostrils to flare imperceptibly.
By this time, a trail of charred pieces of hay lay scattered in the dirt behind the cart. As Schönen straightened and looked around, she could see that they were still in farm country. But a row of foothills bubbled along the horizon to her right, and it was likely that the coast lay in that direction, at a distance of several miles yet.
Schönen wrestled one arm from beneath the heavy folds of the cloak and slapped her open palm against the plank seat behind her, wordlessly signalling the driver to stop.
The cart came to a shuddering halt, springs and wood creaking with equal complaint. Without wasting another moment, she uncoiled her legs, scrambled for her sword, and sprang for the ground, dragging the knapsack out behind her.
The farmer turned to see if he should continue on, but as he looked back over his shoulder, she was already well on her way to becoming a memory. He watched as she scuttled away across an open field, the cloak billowing out behind her. With a puzzled shake of his head and a tug on his beard, he turned back and shook the reins, and the old nag pulling the cart began to amble off in the opposite direction.
Schönen woke with a start. Her limbs spasmed and she clutched reflexively at the sword hilt by her side (where she'd known it would be).
Reassured by the cold steel filling her grip, she flirted with the questions whipping through her head. Where was she? It was night again. Was it Rhy'Din? No, the air here was cooler, sharper. Where was the boy? Here? Yes ... no, gone.
She had been dreaming of Rhy'Din again, apparently - incising the fog of other-consciousness had crisp images clicking past her mind's eye one by one ... the elegant stone spires of the Morkai Consortium ... the black horror of Shaidar Morin's visage, and the bloodstained walls of the ABYSS ... nataSha's fiery eyes, and the putrid offspring that had nearly rotted her from the inside out ...
And the boy, the beautiful cherub boy she'd acquired for her own at Turk's Tattoos. Collarless, he'd nonetheless stayed by her side through the weeks of her confinement, and mutely followed her from temple to wasteland. By the time they'd passed into Kula Bricusse, every inch of his skin - save his angel face - was marked with a network of rosy scars.
And there had been another dream then, that night camped by the shore, another jerking awake and clutching at the blade and thrusting it dazedly at the nearest body which happened to be that of ...
... her boy.
That night there had been sea birds winging overhead, their screeching masking his screams. It was the same sound that had jolted her awake this night.
Breathing deep of the present, Schönen blinked lazily at the night around her, and spared no more thought for the boy. It was not the first time she had killed a plaything - she regretted most the loss of such a beautiful canvas.
Truth be told, Schönen was more machine than woman where emotions were concerned - an elegant contraption, to be sure, but there might as well have been gears turning in place of her heart, for all that she knew of love and hate, sorrow and pity, or regret. It was as though, when all the fire had gone to her fingertips, none had been left behind for her soul.
All she knew was the sense of purpose that guided her, and made her relatively well-suited for life as a slave-handler.
Stretching towards the firepit at her feet, she kicked a little at the dying embers. Her bootheels sent up a shower of sparks that illuminated her slender legs for a moment. When the camp was plunged into darkness once more, Schönen reached up with one hand to adjust the bedroll supporting her neck.
It was some time before she slipped away into sleep again, but she did, eventually.
Tall beach grasses strained to stay upright against a moaning wind that wove its way up and over the dunes.
As Schönen stood, arms akimbo and feet planted astride, her eyes were fixed on a fat black lizard with iridiscent scales that had stopped to watch her. She wondered, absently, if there was a nest nearby - eggs might be good for breakfast, if she could find enough driftwood to start the fire.
The air smelled of salt and sulfur, and the sky was grey, the overcast veiled her features in a sickly pallor. Her jacket lay discarded, tossed carelessly onto the sand beside her. In a white cotton tank top, her upper chest was exposed, and with it the top half of a brand - two inverted points and part of an arc that reached nearly to her collarbone.
Overhead, a bird with the look of a gull but the screech of a dragon sailed in a lazy arc over the nearby jetty before wending its way inland. In the instant it took her to look up, the lizard had gone, scrabbling over the toe of her boot and darting for safety into one of the crab holes.
With the lizard gone, so was her excuse to linger. She took one last look out across the channel. The air was a murky warning ... all she could see was the water lapping towards her and a fog so thick that it might not burn off until well past noon - all the better for her chances of crossing unnoticed.
But however distant and enshrouded, she knew the building was there - the perfume of slavery's trappings was impossible to mistake. Finding her way would not be a problem.
Keeping the boat afloat might, however. With a low-pitched sigh, she turned her attention back to the task at hand - digging out the old skiff she had found half-buried in the sand the night before.
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