1. West Harbor
Not quite fully awake, Kail pulled the blanket around her shoulders and pressed herself further into the soft feather pillow on her bed. A light smile played across her lips as she remembered back to that afternoon; she could still see the grim frowns of the Mossfeld brothers as she, Amie and Bevil beat them in the Harvest Brawl. She wished she could have captured the moment as a painting to hang in her room. Perhaps she would paint it from memory. It would certainly be worth the effort to bring it out to gloat over the Mossfelds every year.
A bang from downstairs broke her out of her reverie, and she heard the sound of footsteps running along the corridor to her room. The door burst open, Bevil and Amie all but falling over each other. Bevil was wearing his chain shirt, and his sword was sheathed at his belt. Amie's hair was dishevelled, strands of it broken free of its tie, eyes wide with fear.
"Thank the gods you're safe," panted Bevil. "West Harbor is under attack. We have to get out there, now!"
"What? Who..." started Kail, his words cutting through the haziness of her mind.
"Dwarves, and some other things I don't recognise. But we don't have time to talk about it now. We have to help the militia!" said Bevil. He was all but bouncing on the spot, his hand constantly flitting to his sword hilt. Without another word Kail slid from the bed and threw open the clothes trunk. It was the work of seconds to slip on her leather shirt and stiffer hide boots. She grabbed her belt, two dagger scabbards firmly attached to it, and the material of her shirt cinched at her waist as she hastily buckled the belt. Finally she fastened her leather bracers around her forearms, and from the dresser by her bed she took her collection of throwing knives, securing them into their places hidden around her clothing.
"Lead the way," she nodded at Bevil. She followed her friend down the stairs, and Amie came at her heels. She could hear her friends' breathing; Bevil's deep breaths were calm, controlled. Amie was breathing quickly, her breaths shallower. The young woman was obviously frightened. Kail knew just how she felt. Her own heart was hammering inside her chest, and her whole head felt light. Please don't let me faint, she thought to herself.
She jumped and heard Amie squeal with fright as the outside door splintered in front of them. Two figures jumped through the wreckage. Though she didn't have much experience of Dwarves, she knew that these two were different then normal. Their skin was dark, their curses illegible as they sprang forward with their weapons held high. Bevil reacted by instinct, raising his sword to meet the closest of the fighters. Fear coursed through Kail's veins, but she slipped two of the balanced knives from her bracers, throwing them underhand at the second figure. The first knife flew wide, lodging itself in the door frame. The second found its mark, and a spurt of red blossomed from the Dwarf's throat where the knife met the hollow of his neck. He gurgled briefly, then collapsed into a pile.
She took two more of the small knives in her left hand and glanced towards the Dwarf who Bevil was fighting. She tensed her wrist, preparing to let the daggers fly as soon as her friend moved to give her a clear sight, but Amie was faster. Kail heard her speak the words of the spell, and several small missiles zipped from behind her, tracking unerringly towards the Dwarf. The missiles impacted the Dwarf's head and chest, and he too collapsed onto the floor. Bevil nodded at Amie as he stood panting, then nudged the body with his foot.
"Oh gods, I feel sick," Amie groaned, leaning back against the wall and closing her eyes.
"So do I," said Kail, swallowing the bile that she felt rising in her throat. She had never killed a humanoid before. Never had to. Trying to keep her mind busy, she turned the first corpse over, removed her knife from the Dwarf's throat and wiped the blood from the blade onto his shirt before replacing it inside her reinforced bracer. She retrieved the second knife from the doorway and looked out into the night. A horrific scene of carnage met her eyes; several houses across the river were afire, one warehouse fully engulfed by flames. Through the fire-lit gloom she could make out figures fighting each other like actors in a play.
"We have to get to the bridge. That's where we saw the militia," said Bevil, taking a step past her. She fought down a small pang of jealousy that he could be so calm, so... so brave! But then, he was part of the militia; skirmishing with the lizardlings in the Mere was common practise for them. She shot Amie a secretive frightened smile, which the other woman returned. Together they clasped hands, and followed Bevil out of the door.
They hurried down the dirt track to a red-clad figure tending groaning militiamen. The figure looked up as they approached, but did not stop his quiet chanting. He placed his hands on the temples of one of the downed fighters, and a blue glow enveloped them. The man on the floor began to twitch, and a moment later his eyes fluttered open.
"Thank you, Brother!" he said with conviction.
"Don't thank me. Thank Lathander," smiled the red-clothed man. Though his voice was soft and his eyes warm, he looked decidedly tired. Kail realised that he had probably been healing wounded villagers for quite some time. Just how long had she slept through this attack? And where was her father? As the newly healed man picked up his sword and ran off to the bridge, the priest turned towards the three of them.
"I'm glad you're all safe. We saw some of the Duergar heading your way, and Georg feared the worst. You should all make your way to him. He's down by the bridge, and I have a feeling he's going to need every able hand that he can rally," he said.
"Brother Merring, do you know where my father is?" asked Kail, allowing a hint of worry to enter her voice.
"I haven't seen your foster father since the attack began. For what it's worth, I hope he is safe. But you can't tarry. Here, take these," he said, handing each of them a pouch of swamp moss. "You know as well as I that this will stem serious bleeding and aid a body's repair."
"Thank you, Brother Merring," said Amie.
"Be safe!" Merring called after them.
They found Georg and a handful of the militia holding off half a dozen of the dark Dwarves who were attempting to cross the bridge. Bevil immediately threw himself into the fray, slicing through one Dwarf's neck before turning to another. From the corner of her eye, Kail saw one of the Dwarves head toward Amie, who was casting a missile spell. She quickly grabbed her reed-pipe flute from her belt pouch, closed her eyes, and put the instrument to her lips. Being careful to keep her breathing controlled she played a series of notes on the pipe, her fingers delicately dancing along the length of wood as she changed pitch and tempo. The Dwarves nearest her stopped still, their faces suddenly blank as their minds became enraptured with the tune. The Dwarf charging at Amie fell to a blow from Bevil's sword, and the militia quickly despatched the remaining few attackers.
"Remind me to thank Lucas for teaching that to you the next time I see him," Georg said, patting her on the shoulder as she finished her wordless song.
"I don't know how you stay calm enough to stand there playing that with people fighting all around you. I'd be constantly forgetting the tune, or trying to join in the fight," admitted Bevil. She choked back a laugh. He thought she was calm? She was terrified! But she had to admit, Lucas had taught her well. When she closed her eyes she could almost hear his voice prompting her; "Let the music flow through you. Trust yourself, and trust the music. If it feels right to play a song a different way, then do it. These tunes I've been teaching you are nothing more than foundation stones. Build on them, and make the songs your own. That is the true goal of every minstrel."
"Now that I know you're all well," said Georg, "I need you to gather up as many of the militia as you can find and have them meet me in the fields on the edge of the village. That's where they're coming from, so that's where we need to make our stand. By every god, we're going to make them sorry they came to West Harbor. Well? Hop to it!" Georg and the rest of the militia trotted off across the field, and Kail turned to survey the rest of the village.
"Master Tarmas must be close by. I can feel magic in the air," said Amie. Kail shot her friend a questioning glance. Her eyes were narrowed at the burning houses as she searched for her mentor. "Don't you feel it, Kail?"
"No, but I have only a little magical ability. You've always been more talented than me," she shrugged. Amie's head snapped up at a flare of light from the centre of the village, the wind whipping her blonde hair around her face.
"There!" she said as a second flash of light appeared. She hitched up her dress and ran towards the source of the magic at full pelt.
"Wait, Amie!" shouted Kail.
"Amie!" cried Bevil at the same time. They followed the young woman over the bridge, noticed her stop dead in her tracks, and looked ahead. Tarmas was surrounded by a purple glow which Kail recognised as a magical shield. Opposite him was a strange humanoid creature, its grey-green skin stretched taut over its whole body. Black hair stuck up wildly from its head, and black eyes flashed angrily at Tarmas. The creature was surrounded by a similar magical shield.
"Hold on, master, we can help!" Amie called, springing forward to Tarmas' side.
"No, stay back, all of you!" shouted Tarmas. His brows were knitted in concentration, a sheen of sweat on his face, and he didn't remove his gaze from the enemy mage. Amie stood defiantly by her master's side as she cast the last of her missile spells. One of them hit the creature, but the rest were deflected by its shield. Kail felt her heart skip a beat as the enemy mage turned its head towards Amie and fixed the young woman with a malicious predatory grin.
"So, the whelp seeks to test herself," it rasped. "How pathetic." With a wave of the hand the mage sent a collection of fiery missiles hurtling towards Amie. Kail tried to move, to force her legs to step forward, to force her hands to make the gestures for a counter-spell, but she could only stand and watch in fear as Amie was engulfed by flames. The young woman shrieked in agony, then crumpled to the floor and was still. "I am done wasting my time here," the mage said. It shimmered for a moment, became insubstantial, then disappeared. In its place spawned three giant spiders, and Kail let her fear and frustration consume her as she began hurling her knives at the arachnids' multi-faceted eyes. As she vented her fury at the chittering creatures, Lucas' words came unbidden into her mind once again.
"First, we have to address your little... problem. Daeghun tells me that Georg can't teach you. That you balk at fighting. That until you are pushed far enough, you won't react. That when you finally do react, you... lose yourself. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, mind. Some of the best fighters I've known are berserkers. Battle frenzy does not make you a bad person; just the opposite, in fact. It means you are more in-touch with the more primitive, primal aspects of Human nature. This is where your strength comes from, and I am going to teach you to channel that strength a little at a time, to use it as a tool, to shape it, to control it so that it does not control you. The first thing I'm going to teach you is that fighting is not all about hacking at your opponent with an axe. I'm going to make you better than that. I'm not going to make you into a fighter. I'm going to make you into a survivor. So what do you say? Will you give me a chance to teach you?"
The world swam into view as Kail opened her eyes. She was kneeling on the floor in front of a body, and she barely recognised the charred corpse before her as Amie. The dead woman's clothes were blackened with soot, and what little skin was visible was blistered and burnt. She felt a hand touch her shoulder.
"Are you... yourself?" asked Bevil, slight hesitation in his voice. She couldn't blame him. "I just haven't seen you like that in a long time. I thought... I thought Lucas had taught you how to control it." Beside him, Tarmas snorted.
"Control it? Boy, it's in her blood. You can teach a wolf to do tricks and take food from your hand, and given enough time it can even appear to be domesticated. But there is always a wolf lurking inside, waiting to drop the pet dog act. I said from the very beginning that all this bard nonsense wouldn't do her any good. She should have been embracing her abilities, exploring her heritage, not hiding it behind songs and flourishing knives."
Kail listened dispassionately as Tarmas went on to complain about Amie's foolishness. She kept her eyes on Amie's body, but felt nothing. It was always like this, when the battle frenzy took her. All of her emotion spent at once, draining her of the ability to feel. Lucas had tried his best, and it was true that he had managed to help her face her fears about fighting. But despite all that he had taught her, she still felt like she was walking along a knife-edge ridge at times. Barbarian, the other children had called her when she was younger, before Amie and Bevil befriended her. It was a name that still hurt, occasionally. But not now. Right now she felt nothing. She had a task to perform, and she needed to complete it.
"We'll mourn Amie later. Right now we need to finish finding the militia to make a stand with Georg, or more will die," she said. She saw Bevil flinch at the coldness in her voice, though Tarmas merely nodded thoughtfully. Kail ignored them both for a moment as she retrieved her throwing knives from the spider corpses. Even in the midst of blood-lust, most of her weapons had hit their marks. Lucas always praised her good aim.
"You two finish gathering the militia, then. I'm going to find Georg in case he needs my assistance," said Tarmas. He strode off, and they heard him mumbling 'fool girl' under his breath.
"Are you sure you're alright?" Bevil asked again. She nodded, and let him lead the way towards the fields. The militiamen were not hard to find, scattered as they were. Some were too far gone to be saved, but together they were able to help half a dozen with their injuries. Kail was about to suggest that they find Georg when a dancing shadow in the corner of her eye caught her attention. One of the enemy attackers, a squat, dark Dwarf, was standing beside the ruins of a burning barn. He clutched at his stomach as blood and viscera spilled out onto the floor. When the pair approached, his face turned to a sneer.
"I killed three of you weak surfacers today. Your entire village will lie in ruins before we are done here tonight, and your corpses will feed the fires that will be warning beacons to the rest of your surfacer-kin," rasped the Dwarf. Kail blinked, and in one swift movement slipped one of her daggers from its belt sheath and plunged it into the Dwarf's throat, cutting through the cartilage of his windpipe and severing his spinal cord. She stepped back, pulling her dagger clear as the Dwarf fell forward.
"Did you have to do that?" asked Bevil in a hoarse whisper. "He was dying. He couldn't have hurt us." Kail bent down to wipe her dagger on the dead man's shirt.
"Should we show them the same mercy they showed Amie?" she asked calmly. No doubt her father would not approve. He would probably have kept the Dwarf alive, tried to pry answers from him, try to discern their motives, their numbers. But Daeghun was not here. She was. Their numbers and motives didn't matter. It didn't matter if there was one, or one thousand. She would fight until there were no more, or until she fell.
"Sometimes you really frighten me," Bevil admitted as they turned away from the corpse. She merely smiled.
They found Georg and the militia crouched in the tall grass of the fields, watching the forest as they tensely shifted their weapons. Kail crouched down beside Georg, who acknowledged her with a toss of his head without taking his gaze from the trees before them.
"Tarmas told me about Amie. We will all miss her, and the others killed by these bastards," he said quietly. She nodded, waiting for him to continue. "We've seen a lot of movement out there. I think they're massing for an attack. I mean this as no slur on you, but do you think you can control yourself? I don't doubt your... effectiveness in combat, but after that time you lost your temper and almost set Daeghun's house alight with that dragon-fire..."
He didn't have to continue. He was right to be worried. Tarmas had told her, after the incident, that people like her, people with tiny traces of dragon blood in their veins, often manifested powers of their draconic ancestors. Dragon Disciples, he called them, though she had no intention of becoming one, dragon-fire or no dragon-fire.
"Don't worry. I will stay back," she agreed. Later it would probably hurt that he didn't trust her to keep control of herself, but right now it was still too soon to start feeling again. She was still dead inside, still numb. Everything seemed easier this way.
A shrill cry came from the tree line and a stream of dark Dwarves, and other creatures with spikes all over their bodies, poured forth. They rolled across the fields as a wave of death, and as they drew near Georg sprang up, the rest of the militia following him to meet the charge. True to her word, Kail kept out of the fighting. She watched Bevil and the others hack at the enemies, then took out her flute and played one of the songs that Lucas had taught her.
Lost in her world of wordless tunes, she had no idea how long she played for. Wave after wave of invaders charged the village, and each time they were repelled, though not without losses. She kept her eyes closed, and managed to ignore the screams of the injured and the dying around her. The stillness of her soul and the dancing notes of the songs were the only things in the world.
"Daeghun!" Kail's eyes flew open as Georg shouted her father's name. She lost her rhythm and the song faltered. At the same time something inside her went pop. She felt her heart beat again. Fear, exhaustion and relief washed over her, and it was all she could do to remain standing. Her father was standing at the far end of the field, accompanied by two rangers. The three of them were shooting arrows into the line of Dwarves, and most fell before they reached the militia.
"That's the last of them," said her father. "Now let's see how many of ours we can claim from death's clutches." Georg nodded and began organising the militiamen. Brother Merring hurried forward and immediately began healing those with more serious injuries. "I am glad to see you are well, daughter. Not all have been so lucky," her father said with an openly appraising glance. "I hear you lost a young friend."
"I'll mourn Amie when we've finished dousing the fires," she replied, bowing her head in respect for her friend.
"That is for the best," her father agreed.
"What in the hells were those things?" Georg asked gruffly. Brother Merring broke away from his inspection of a villager's broken leg to pinch the bridge of his nose.
"Duergar, dark Dwarves. The others were Bladelings. Their kind are not from around here," he replied.
"But what did they want with West Harbor?"
"I'm afraid Lathander doesn't illuminate all mysteries for me," said Merring, placing his hands on the villager's leg once more. "We must use our own resources to find those answers. But I do believe they were looking for something of great value to them."
"Kail... come here for a moment," said Daeghun, gesturing for her to step away from the others. Once at a safe distance he examined her briefly with his eyes, weighing her up. As an Elf, he was one of the shortest adults in the village. But she was not much taller than him, and he barely had to raise his head to look her in the eyes. "I need you to do something for me." Though he was not an expressive man, she heard the agitation in his voice, and that worried her. Very little could phase Daeghun.
"What do you need me to do?" she asked immediately. He nodded imperceptibly, and she got the impression that she had just passed some sort of test, or confirmed a decision he had already made.
"I need you to go to the swamp ruins and retrieve something I left there long ago. I believe it may have something to do with this attack, and I would prefer to find it before our attackers do," he said.
"The swamp!? Aren't those ruins infested with lizardlings?" she asked as one of her eyebrows quirked up in surprise.
"Yes, which is why you aren't going alone." He turned to the militia. "Bevil!" The young man trotted over bearing an armful of bandages. "You will accompany my daughter to the swamp ruins." Kail almost grinned. Bevil's surprised expression was a mirror of her own.
"But the lizardlings..."
"Won't be a problem for the two of you," finished Daeghun. "You have both fought admirably tonight, and I have no doubts that you will be safe enough as long as you stay together. Now don't tarry here. You know the way to the swamp. Hurry back as soon as you have what I want. It is in a chest in the largest room of the ruins. Go now."
Bevil sighed as Daeghun returned to Georg's side. "No offence, but your father sometimes creeps me out." Kail rolled her shoulders, loosening the tenseness in her neck and shrugging at the same time.
"He's just concerned. Are you ready to go now? I don't want to spend the whole night trudging around in the swamps," she said. Bevil sighed again, but hurried to give the bandages to Brother Merring, then lead the way to the swamps.