Ventus – Day 8 of 135


Jordan awoke in another place, and his hands were on fire.

He was screaming. For a moment he thought he was in the sky again, because he was surrounded by flame–orange leaping sheets of it to all sides, a smouldering carpet underfoot, and blue licking tongues above his head. But he stumbled against a post, and the fires around him shook and long tears ripped through them. The flaming walls of the tent he was in began to collapse.

For some reason Jordan didn’t feel the pain, though he saw flame licking up from his hands, the backs of which were black and bubbling. And he could hear himself scream, only it wasn’t his voice. It was the worst sound he had ever heard.

The tent pole snapped, and the broken bottom half scraped up his side. He stumbled, flailing his arms wildly as, in a strange spiral fall, the heavy burning fabric of the tent came down on him. The impact, as if he were enfolded in an elemental’s arms, brought him to his knees. He breathed smoke and could no longer scream. His throat spasmed.

From somewhere he heard voices shouting. Men. He was pulled to and fro violently, and he heard the ring of swords being unsheathed. Blows all about. And the arms and chest of the elemental branded him, burned away his hair, stripped his skin, pressed against his raw muscles in a hideous, intimate massage.

The cloth over his face was torn free. He tried to blink; could see with one eye; watched bright blades held by desperate men tear at the burning canvas. But although his mouth was open, he could not breathe.

Then he was free. He staggered to his feet, straining, arms lifted to grasp at the sky itself, as if he were trying to climb the air. Jordan heard a deep clicking breath escape from inside himself. He caught a glimpse of men standing in a semicircle, expressions of horror or grim calculation on their faces. They wore military jackets and turbaned metal caps; one or two held muskets. Behind them was a green field crowded with tents.

He heard a deep voice say, “He is dead.”

He mouthed the words. Then he died.


Jordan struggled to awake. He reached blindly hoping to find the headboard of his bed; he felt cloth. That jolted his eyes open. Was he enshrouded in canvas? But no, it was a leaf-green cloak he pulled away from his face.

He arched his back with the effort to breathe. Rolling back, he blinked up at a ceiling of pale leaves, blue sky and white cloud beyond them. He heard himself gasping.

He tried to sit up, but it was as if someone very heavy were sitting on his chest; he struggled halfway up, and collapsed back, his arms out at his sides, hands up to grab the air. For a few seconds, he struggled to just breathe.

This wasn’t the nightmare of fire and death, but it was no better. He wanted to be in his bed, awaking to an ordinary day. The curtain wall wasn’t patched yet, and what was the work gang going to think if he didn’t turn up for work? He desperately longed to be there, digging at the mortar.

When his breathing settled down, he concentrated on raising his right arm. It moved like a leaden object, hand flopping. He brought it across his chest, and vainly tried to roll over. What was wrong with him? His body had never betrayed him like this before.

His head fell to the side. A meter away, a woman slept on her side, hands folded in front of her as though in prayer. Seeing her, Jordan knew what was wrong–or at least why. The witch had paralyzed him so he wouldn’t run away. She intended some evil for him, that was certain.

He moaned, and her eyelids twitched. Suddenly more afraid of being helpless with her awake, he held his breath. His vision began to grey after a few moments, and he started gasping again. She took no notice.

He was trapped, his choice either to be awake in a nightmare reality where his family was lost–or to be asleep and open his eyes in an inferno. He whimpered, and shut his eyes, and the very act of doing so propelled him into a dizzying spin that ended in unconsciousness.


Calandria awoke refreshed. She was on her side facing the boy, who was sprawled awkwardly as though he’d been fighting with her cloak. The sun was higher overhead and the morning was warming up nicely. She sat up, brushing leaves and bits of bark from her cheek, and smiled. The air was fresh and the sounds of the forest relaxing. Her job was going very well. Feeling lighthearted, she cleaned herself up, rolled the boy into a more comfortable position, and set about making a small fire. When that was going to her satisfaction, she rooted through her pouches, considering the rations situation. They would need more than the concentrated foods she had on her. Best reserve those for an emergency.

The Mason boy would be asleep for a while. Meantime, she would get them dinner.

First, she sat in full lotus, closed her eyes and scanned the vicinity. There were rabbits on the other side of the clearing. They were keeping an eye on her, and she would never be able to run them down. Luckily she wouldn’t need to.

Fluidly, she moved from the lotus position into a crouch. From her belt she drew the pieces of a compound bow. She put it together quietly, strung it and reaching in another pocket, drew out one of a number of coiled threads. These had an arrowhead on one end and feathers on the other, but were limp as a string. She unrolled the one she’d selected and gave it a whipping yank. Immediately it snapped straight and stiff.

Armed now, Calandria crept very slowly over the log next to Mason, under the canopy of a young pine, and into a nest of rushes by a stagnant puddle where midges hovered. She could see the dome of ferns under which the rabbits were eating. They were invisible to normal sight, but by closing her eyes and scanning she could pick them up easily.

Eyes closed, she straightened slowly and drew the bow. A moment to aim, battling the urge to open her eyes, and then she let fly. A thin squeal sounded from across the clearing.

She walked over the uneven ground and flipped back the canopy of ferns. Her rabbit lay twitching, well impaled. She smiled, and broke down the bow while she waited for it to stop kicking.

“Transmission,” said a voice in her head.

Calandria smiled. “Go ahead, Axel.”

“Got her. She was hiding near a brook a few hundred meters inside the forest. Seems to have been one of those old kids’ forts. Scan picked her up just in time–there’s a morph hanging around here, and it had located her too. Now that I have her, what do I do?”

“Hire her.”


“Axel, she’s compromised where she is. She may be in a position to embarrass Castor or Turcaret, which makes her vulnerable. She’ll get no help from her family. Best to make her independent of them for a while. Designate her Ravenon’s postmistress for this area. She can handle dispatches between the Ravenon couriers. She’s of age, and we see women handling positions like that all the time. It’s a good chance for her, because it’s a light job and won’t last more than a year or two. Once the war’s over, she’ll be able to move right back into her community, because she’ll have been there all along. Meanwhile, she’s independent of her family, and Castor won’t touch her because she’s one of ours.”

“Yeah. I see it. So you want I should brazenly walk into Castor’s place and install her?”

“Why not? See if there’s a house you can buy for her. And send a dispatch to Ravenon to open up a route here.”

“They might not do that.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s appearances that count right now. We’ve got the cash, and the seals of authority, we might as well use them.” She watched the rabbit kick one last time and go still. She reached down and picked it up by the arrow through its belly.

“Sounds pretty complicated, Cal.”

She smiled. “Just curb your tongue and your appetites, Axel, and pretend you really do work for Ravenon. The indignant knight, discovering a cowering maiden in the dawn light. Make yourself legendary. Isn’t that why you came on this expedition?”

He hmmphed. “You make it sound like a bad thing.” She laughed. “What about your kid?” he added.

“Asleep. I’ll see what I can get out of him today. Maybe knowing his sister’s safe will make him more reasonable.”

“Reasonable–” Axel bit back on whatever he was going to say. “Treat him gently, Cal.” He broke the connection.

She dropped the rabbit by Jordan’s feet and sat down on the log to contemplate him. He looked strong enough. Whatever did Axel mean?

Gently. She frowned down at the smooth skin of her hand, matched it against the mossy bark of the log. She was as gentle as water, she knew. It was only that today, and with regard to this youth, she was as purposeful as a river in flood.

She went to work skinning the rabbit.

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