by Sam Medina
A half-elven slave girl finds a pair of ancient swords and discovers who she really is.
In the Border Kingdom of Heinmark, by the banks of the Langstrom River there lived a worm-farmer. Now, he was not the sort who dug up earthworms for the ends of fish-hooks or who raised grubs for the keepers of pigeons, nor did he raise poisonous angarra for sale to apothecaries and murderers. He was in fact a cultivator of giant silk-worms, but not a very good one. Hendrik was his name, though only his wife ever called him that, and though his surname was Keltsen, he was most often called Sulk, though never to his face.
Hendrik, or Sulk, if you will, was a moody man of average height and outstanding girth, with a surly disposition and hands slow to his work but quick to act on his temper. Some attributed his ways to his notable lack of success as a worm-farmer, and others to chronic indigestion, but in either case, Sulk was pleasant enough to be around if he was in a good mood. Such moods were rare indeed, and it was during one of these bouts of uncharacteristic good-naturedness that Sulk went to the local slave market to acquire some help for the farm.
The slave market was really not much more than a moldy wooden platform of questionable workmanship where men of poor manners and poorer hygiene bought and sold those unfortunate enough to have been sold for debts, captured in raids, or who had been born into that sad condition. On this day, like most market days, the small square was crowded and noisy, thick with the scent of unwashed bodies, tobacco, and horses.
Sulk pushed his way past some old men playing at dice and took a seat on one of the raised benches facing the platform. The gallery was what the local men called it, though it was hardly worth the name. He grinned at a serving maid from the nearby tavern. She smiled brightly but deep dislike simmered in her eyes as she minced her way back to fetch another tray of ale.
A good number of slaves were bought and sold as the day drew on, with the men cheering whenever a particularly promising one was brought out, or when a spirited slave would spit at or fight a new master. These would usually be put down with the sort of spiteful vigor for which the Men of the Borderlands were well-known. Thus it was that in a quiet river town such as this, the slave market was often the best entertainment that could be had without spending any money.
By mid-afternoon Sulk’s good mood had eroded. The only slaves that caught his interest were too expensive, and the wooden bench had given him a particularly irksome splinter. He was, however still determined, and he had high hopes that a good prospect costing less than seven gold marks would emerge. Sulk was well into his fourth pint of watery ale when the stooped old auctioneer announced the next slave for sale. There were no takers at five gold, and it was obvious why.
It was a small, wiry girl with dark, unkempt hair, large violet eyes, and long, pointed ears. “A fine purchase, this rechaizo is, young and ready for work. Taken in a raid, she was.” Rechaizo was an elvish word, but well-known to Men throughout the borderlands and beyond. Unwanted, they were called, and that is what the children born of enslavement and the depredations of war were to their elven relations. They had no place among what remained of the Elven peoples, and for the most part a cruel place in the world at large. Most lived in poor villages in the western forest, or were enslaved, or became outlaws of every sort. Few lived beyond fifty years, and most died young.
Sulk fingered his purse. At five marks, the girl wasn’t cheap, but the wiry ones were always the best suited to hard work. She was small enough that it wouldn’t cost much to keep her. She couldn’t be more than nine or ten years old, but with these half-breeds it was hard to tell. After a moment, Sulk came to the conclusion that she could be taught to tend the worms and perhaps even raise a decent garden. By the time she’d earned her price back for him, she’d be a woman grown and easily sold for twice the price, or more if she was pretty.
That is what Sulk told himself as he counted out the coins to the slave-keeper, but some of the townsfolk later said that he seemed almost fond of the child. This may have been true of Sulk in his better moods, but such a mood had little chance of lasting once he returned to the reek of worms and the wife who would rather he had bought a young mule.
“You’ll work, you will, little one, and hard, too, if you’re to earn your keep,” Sulk said to the child. “I’m a kind man, but I don’t take to lazybones and free-loaders, no sir.” The child nodded, and they walked on in silence, the man leading his purchase by a thin leather rope.
“Does this child even have a name?” Mayrah Keltsen frowned. Winter was just two months away, and there was too much to do without having to tend to a child.
“Call me Katarina.” The girl’s eyes never left the stone floor of the farmhouse.
“I’ll call you a sass-monkey and give you a good wallop, if you speak out of turn again!” Sulk, it seemed, was himself again.
A shadow passed over the child's face. You will be free of these people one day soon. Her mother's last words echoed in her mind, and she clenched her teeth. You will return to Moonshadow, and restore our people. Tears welled up in her eyes.
“Hendrik. She may be one of those rechaizo heathens, but there’s no need to threaten her just for saying her name. Come here, and let’s have a good look at you, girl.” Mayrah took the girl’s chin in her hand and studied her face. She was a pretty child, despite her long, pointed ears, but there was a hardness in her eyes that seemed to promise mischief. “Now, listen to me, Kat -that’s what I’ll be calling you. We’ll not be cruel to you, but you’ll have to know your place. Just you stand there and keep those pointy ears shut and your nose out of grown folks’ business.”
Over the next few weeks, Kat was taught the finer points of raising the silk-worms, which she took to without complaint. The greater part of her day was spent in stirring the thick mud that the worms lived in, carrying sacks of dengo seed to their feeding troughs, and moving the pregnant females to the earthen brood tanks. They were docile enough most of the time, but the brood mothers were heavy, and they resisted being moved. Occasionally one would bite, their dull teeth leaving bruises and welts that hurt for days.
The summer had been difficult, with Sulk spending too much time in the village. Mayrah soon discovered the considerable pleasures of delegating much of her own work to the help, and Kat had been scolded more than once for wandering off into the nearby woods. By summer's end, Sulk’s absence became a relief. Kat grew used to the work, and learned to order her days, so that there was time for daydreams of freedom and forays into the forest in search of herbs and adventure.
By winter the annual silk harvest had been gathered, and the worms were moved to a large hut of rammed earth, where the few other animals on the farm were kept. Kat slept in a small nest she had fashioned for herself atop a column of earth. Small steps spiraled around it to a height of three yards, where a platform built of cast-off boards held a tidy, if humble place for a small girl to sleep. Sulk had only let her build it because she’d made the column itself into a fireplace which kept the animals -and the valuable worms- warm on colder nights.
Sulk’s good moods had come more often over the last few months, as his new help was a better keeper of worms than he, but he still was a difficult master to please when he was around. On most days, however, he left the worms to Kat’s care, and now that winter was come, Kat’s chores kept her mostly confined to the hut. She’d finished early today, and she sat on the mattress she’d woven for herself and sang quietly, as her mother had taught her, in the old tongues of the elves. She did not understand the song, but it gave her comfort with the memory of her mother, a slender half-elven woman with a voice like crystal chimes.
Watch, children, watch.
The Balance will come
as a doom creeping on the hills,
like the dew upon the fields.
Watch, children, watch,
and let justice guide your ways,
for your redeemer is coming,
with his unshakable purpose
to break the world.
Her hands moved silently, swiftly, putting the final knots in the hem of a hempen vest. She slipped it on and took the thin walking-stick she cut for herself in the fall and lightly ran down the earthen stair. Kat leapt into the air, brandishing the hornbeam stick as if it were a sword. The old mule in its stall eyed her with interest.
“It’s going to be a grand day in the Old Forest, Camby, you’ll see!” Kat patted the grey muzzle and ran outside and down the stony path that led to the forest road.
Hours passed without much adventure, though there was a particularly fat crow which seemed to follow Kat at a distance. It was getting late, and the evening chores would soon need doing, but just as she was going to turn back, she noticed an overgrown trail heading east from the road. With a skip, she set off to see where it led. Nowhere seemed to be the answer for a while, until after a turn around a stony ridge, the trail came to an end at the mouth of a cave.
“Stay away from caves, you hear me?” Sulk had said to her on more than one occassion. “You’ll find naught there but bears or trolls or trouble of an ugly sort.” Kat reached into her small satchel and drew out a reddish stone about the size of a plum. She rubbed it briskly, shook it and then stepped toward the cave as the fire gem began to cast its dim light. The fat crow squawked and hopped onto a large rock at the cave’s mouth, craning its neck to peer inside.
“Fortune favors the bold, does it not, Mister Crow?” Kat stared at the bird for a moment, half-expecting an answer, and then stepped in.
The entryway of the cave was untidy and rank with a terrible stench of rotten eggs and decay. Leaving would have been the best course of action. Curiosity, however, overcame discretion, and so Kat stepped in further. About ten yards from the mouth of the cave there was a sort of nook, and in it was a small mound of what at first appeared to be refuse.
Kat began to poke about in the mound. Soon she found that among the broken pot shards and scraps of leather were coins of silver and gold. Kat looked over her shoulder and bit her lip. Surely this has to belong to someone, but then who would leave gold and silver in a pile of rubbish? She stuffed two handfuls of coins into the small square pouch on her belt.
I'll buy my freedom and become a wandering adventurer, like Moab of Starwatch. Or maybe a feared assassin like the Grey Ghost.
Kat stood on the heap and struck what she thought of as a dramatic pose. She rammed her walking stick down on the pile, and it sank in, striking something that shifted,and then stuck. She strove to free her stick to no avail, then leaned back on it with what weight she had. Her staff came free with a shower of clay shards, leather scraps, and rocks, and she fell backward, getting a nasty scrape on her left arm for her trouble. A scowl crossed her face. She dusted herself off, and then her violet eyes brightened and the scowl became a grin.
Much of the small mound had been scattered, and near what had been its center metal gleamed in the flickering light of the fire gem. A pair of thin shortswords with curving hilts lay on the cave floor in plain leather scabbards. Small, nimble hands quickly set the scabbards onto her belt. She drew one of the swords and held it aloft. A cool feeling like a breeze within her chest passed over her, and she sheathed the weapon, unsettled by it. Is this magic?
As the sun began to approach the horizon, Kat emerged from the cave wearing a scaled shirt too large for her but which she was certain must have been crafted from the hide of some terrible beast. She ran most of the way back, stopping at the small spring which fed the ponds on the farm. She took a long drink, and then noticed that the old fat crow was still with her. For a moment she imagined him to be a fine hunting falcon, but then the call of freedom once more took her firmly in its grip, and she was off for the house.
“Where have been off to, Alley Kat?” Sulk rose from the chair beside the door of the cottage, almost dropping his pipe. He stepped toward her as quickly as his bulk would allow, his cheeks florid with rage. Kat had missed the worms’ evening mud stir, and so he’d had to do it himself. He stopped short and glared at her, then noted her change of attire. “Found yourself some outlandish clothes, and now you think you’re fancy, don’t you? Stole them is more like it!” He reached for her, but she was quicker, and circled around him toward the hut.
“I’m leaving.” Kat glared back at him.
“Pig slop, you are. Without this little trinket, you’ll just be carted back to a slave market.” Sulk lifted a leather cord hanging on his neck. Secured to it was a small brass disk, the token of ownership. Stamped into it was a design matching a brand on Kat's right shoulder.
“I’ve got my life-price. You know the law.” He can’t do this! In the Border Kingdoms, half-without a token matching my brand I’d be assumed to be a runaway slave. I’d be in constant danger of enslavement or worse.
Sulk’s anger ebbed as he considered those words. He doubted her, but greed shone in his eyes nonetheless. “Where’d an alleycat like you get twelve gold marks? I’ll not have you thieving and bringing trouble upon us.” He moved toward her, and she backed away lightly.
“Why would you care where I got it? I found a great treasure in the forest, and the lawful price is ten.” She looked him square in the eye, and he spat on the ground at her feet.
“I’m not taking less than twelve.” Sulk didn’t believe her, yet he was hopeful that at least she’d found some coppers that could be had for ale money.
Without taking her eyes off Sulk, the girl reached into her satchel and threw the coins at his feet. This would leave her with just six marks and a few silvers and coppers, but she would find some way to make for the coast and be free of the Borderlands.
The farmer gasped, and dropped to a knee to gather the coins. Twelve gold Imperial Marks was nearly half this year’s silk harvest. Imperial Law obligated him to surrender the token of her freedom and let her go, but with the slave market closed for the winter, he would not be able to secure a replacement for the girl. The shock on his face gave way to bitterness at the idea of working the farm himself again, but then his eyes brightened anew.
“I’ll thank you kindly for the generous donation toward the welfare of our humble farm. I daresay it might even pay for all the care we’ve taken of you, ungrateful as you are.”
“Ungrateful? You barely fed me, and you cut most of my hair off and sold it for a few coppers when you bought me."
His voice then took on the affected tone of those who feign concern with the barest veil of hypocrisy. “Freedom, however, can be dangerous. An ignorant half-breed needs a proper upbringing, and I’d not have it on my conscience if something terrible befell you. Like my own child, you are.” Unable to hide his true meaning, he chuckled as he put the coins into his purse.
Kat’s face darkened. “You can’t keep me here! I’ll tell the magistrate!”
Sulk laughed. “And who will he believe, a respectable farmer or some rechaizo dog eager to slip the leash?” The girl clenched her fists and fought back tears. She’d known Sulk to be ill-mannered, lazy, and selfish, but she’d never thought him to be this bad.
“I will have my freedom, Mister Keltsen! I will have it, or-” she faltered. She could think of few threats she could make against such a man. She could not just run away, and to murder him outright would surely be abomination. “ I’ll have it -- or the Balance will come for you!”
“You ignorant little heathen, I ought to tan your hide for even mentioning your filthy gods.” Sulk took a step toward her.
“The Balance is not a god. He is sent by the-the. . .” The words died in her throat, and her eyes grew wide. Sulk reached for his belt. Somewhere above, a crow cried out.
A smirk crossed the farmer’s plump face. “Don’t have the nerve to talk your sass when there’s a ready belt, hey?” He took another step toward her, then noticed that she stood unmoving. She’d never been that afraid of his belt. “What are you gawking at, girl?” A loud huff came from behind him, and with it a warm breeze and the smell of brimstone. Sulk looked over his shoulder, and stood transfixed. He opened his mouth, unable to speak, and urinated.
Behind him there stood a scaly, reddish-brown creature larger than a bear. Its four wide feet bore sharp claws and its broad neck ended in a blunt, horned head full of teeth like daggers. A long, heavy tail swayed back and forth behind it, and a deep rumble came from its chest while yellow eyes glowered with murderous intent.
Kat blinked. It was a ner’gash, a land dragon. The elders were so sure that they'd been hunted to extinction. The dragon snarled then made a harsh, strangling noise. A mute? I thought all dragons could speak. The dragon leaped toward Sulk with open jaws, and a torrent of flame burst forth from its gullet.
Traces of foam were starting to fly from the mule’s mouth, and his ragged breath kept pace with the sobs coming from his rider. Kat kept her grip on Camby’s mane while trying to wipe her eyes with a sleeve. “Oh, Camby. I didn’t mean for old Sulk to get killed, I didnt.” She looked over her shoulder, but spied no pursuit by the dragon.
They crossed the small bridge into the village, and Katarina hopped off the mule’s back. She gave the animal a sharp slap on the rump. “Go on, get out of here, before that dragon gets a taste for mule.” The animal sprinted a few paces, then slowed down and sauntered off into the forest. Kat ran to the low stone building at the north end of the square. She hammered on the door. A window above opened, and a balding old man thrust his head out to peer down at her.
“My word, Kat! What for are ye raising such a ruckus? It’s near dark, it is. Run home and tell your master not to send you to trouble me after the day’s done!” The magistrate liked the little girl well enough, but he was known to refuse to deal with even serious matters once the sun began to set.
“Master Cullywich, you’ve got to rouse the Watch! There’s a dragon! A big one! And its killed Mr. Keltsen!”
Cullywich sighed, then scowled. This little one was a fair child, to be sure, and a pleasant one, but her head had been filled with stories and adventures ever since that skinny old minstrel came through the village last summer. “A dragon? There’s been no wild dragon in these parts in near to a hundred years. And them that’s of the Covenant keep to the West, if they even still live.”
“I’m telling the truth! It came out of the forest! It’s bigger than a bear and breathes fire and has teeth big as knives!” Kat looked around. “Please, you must call the Watch!”
Cullywich frowned. The Watch were volunteers, mostly old soldiers and tradesmen, who were rarely called upon to do anything more than track down a lost child or stolen horse, and there was trouble enough to be had with the village Council without raising an alarm over wild stories. Though he was appointed by the Imperial government, that government was far over the mountains to the east, and the Council was just a short walk away. “Repent of your lying ways, child, and get ye home! It’s been a mild winter, but them wolves still come down from the hills and like to eat cute young things like yourself. Don’t trouble me again!” He slammed the window shut.
Kat stood there for a moment, then hurried off to the blacksmith. Marcus had always liked her, and knew that she was no liar. She found the huge man in his shop, cleaning his tools. A broad smile broke through his thick, dark beard, but then vanished. The girl's cheeks were tear-stained and she was clearly shaken.
“Miss Kat, what is the matter?” He set his tools down and knelt, taking her hands in his. “Is it Sulk? Has he forgotten his manners again?” Sulk had once struck Kat outside the smithy, and Marcus had called him over and had spoken quietly with him for some time. After that he hadn’t hit her again.
“No, no, Marcus! Sulk is dead!” The girl looked up at him. “You have to believe me, I never meant for it to happen. I found these things in the forest--” Marcus now noticed that she wore a leathery scale shirt and a pair of shortswords were at her belt. “I found them and when I got back, it came and killed him!”
“What came? What killed Sulk?” Marcus poured a mug of hot cider and handed it to her.
She sipped at it, and did not answer for a few moments. “It was a dragon! It breathed fire and it jumped on him. I think it ate him.”
Marcus motioned for her to sit, and pulled up a stool for himself. “I’d think this was a mighty tall tale, Kat, but I’ve never known you to lie. Are you sure it wasn’t a bog salamander?” He did not doubt that Sulk was indeed dead, but he hoped that it had been fear and upset that had colored her story. Salamanders were dangerous, and could breathe a little fire, but a wild dragon of even modest size could prove disastrous for the whole village. The dragons of the Covenant kept to the West of the Great Forest these days, and rarely killed men or their livestock.
“I know the difference, Marcus. It was much larger, reddish brown, with a short, wide head and a thick body. Salamanders are skinny.”
Marcus nodded, and was about to speak when someone outside screamed. There was a crash, followed by more screams. Marcus crossed the shop, put on a mail shirt and a set of heavy bracers. He took up a wide-bladed axe. “Stay here.” He stepped to the doorway, looked outside, and then ran toward the square.
Kat peered outside. Smoke rose from nearly every building near the square. Several bodies lay in the street. One of them looked like Kendyll, the butcher’s son. Half a dozen men of the Watch stood about twenty yards from the beast, swords drawn and looking as though each one aimed to time his rush so as not to be the first to get close. The dragon sensed their fear and charged, scattering all but a small, portly man determined to hold his ground. He swung his sword wildly as the dragon leaped upon him. He never screamed.
A hulking figure approached the dragon from behind and swung an axe at its spine. Marcus! The axe scored a small gash on the first stroke, but on the second it stuck in bone as the dragon wheeled around to face its attacker. The dragon reared up, and Marcus held on to the axe with both hands. He kicked at the reptile’s head, and struggled to free his axe. The creature snarled and shook the big man off. Marcus rolled and got to his feet, taking up a large rock. He hurled it as the dragon charged, striking it on the nose.
The beast stopped and shook its head. Dark blood seeped from one of its nostrils, steaming as it dripped to the ground. Marcus eyed the dragon warily and noted that it must have exhausted its flame for the moment, or else it would surely have tried to roast him by now. He drew a pair of long daggers from his belt and attacked.
One dagger broke as it collided with a thick horn, and the other nicked the side of the dragon’s jaw. The man and the dragon crashed to the ground, and soon the beast had him pinned down. Marcus stabbed and slashed with his remaining dagger, doing little damage while struggling to keep the beast’s jaws at bay. The dragon bit down on his forearm, and though he wore bracers of steel wrapped in leather, bone snapped and blood trickled down his elbow. His free hand moved in a blur, and he slammed the butt of his dagger into hollow where he thought the reptile’s ear might be.
The dragon released its grip, and as it rose, Marcus kicked at his belly with both feet, knocking it back. He rolled, and his hand found the hilt of the sword which had belonged to the portly watchman. He rose to his feet and faced the dragon.
The dragon crouched, snarling, its eyes alight with rage. It circled in slowly, having learned not to take this man lightly. He was not soft like the others. The dragon opened its mouth, and made the strangling noises it had made earlier. Marcus readied himself for the attack, lifted the sword, and then the ground rose up swiftly to meet him and he knew no more.
Marcus! Kat was out in the street before she’d even thought to cry out. Most of the remaining men of the town had fled, and what few had not taken to their heels only watched from what they regarded as a safe distance. Cowards! Kat drew both of the shortswords, and again that feeling of a cool breeze filled her chest. She ran into the square and stopped about ten yards from the creature.
“You murderous brute! You have no quarrel with these people. Begone, or I will feed your carcass to the ravens before morning!” She knew little of the formal Challenge that the heroes of old once made, but the dragon appeared to pause and consider her words. After a moment of thick silence, the reptile made a huffing noise that lasted several seconds. It might have been laughter.
Kat charged, and the dragon surged forward to meet her attack. It snapped at her legs, but she leaped into the air and onto its head, hopping over its back as she slashed. The dragon wheeled around and cried out in its strangled voice. Blood flowed from a large gash in its back. I am a servant of Kurrumarrak, a keeper of the light, Kat whispered to herself, and attacked again. Fear cannot stop me. Death must stand aside. She moved in and out with a speed this dragon had never seen in its short life, for it was a young dragon, and had never seen one of these long-eared man-things.
The dragon slashed and snapped, but could not reach his prey. This small one was so fast, and her claws were sharp. It bleed from several wounds now, and its rage was giving way to a feeling as unfamiliar as it was suffocating. The dragon feinted, and this time the little creature attacked from the left, to bring her blade down on a scaly shoulder. She never saw the dragon’s tail.
It struck her solidly in the ribs, driving the air from her lungs and knocking her into a tree. She’d kept her grip on her weapons, and tried to rise but sank back down. The dragon approached, its shambling walk made unsteady by a deep wound on its right flank. Kat forced her eyes open. Over in the square, Marcus lay motionless in a growing pool of blood. Death must stand aside.
She stood up, using the tree at her back to steady herself. Defeat will not consume me. The dragon was closer now, its snuffling breath matched by a deep rumble coming from its chest. Its flame is replenished! Kat fought the urge to drop the swords and run. Her knees shook as the dragon reached the tree, and her eyes burned with tears. The dragon opened its mouth, and as the glow of flame rose in its throat, she screamed, “Death must stand aside!”
A torrent of flame burst from the dragon’s mouth. At the same time, a shaft of golden light seemed to rise from the ground, enveloping Kat. The flames broke on the surface of the shaft, parting to either side as the half-elven girl leaped forward with a high-pitched scream. The swords rippled with blue fire as they sank into the dragon’s chest.