Season One, Episode One
The dream again.
The dream, again.
It’s the same boy.
The same shock of blond hair. The same knobby, bloodied knees. The same small hands. The same small shoulders, heaving, same shivering, same bowed head –
Same sword, falling toward him.
It’s raining, and she can feel her confusion, her anger, her fear… She knows in the strange way you just know in dreams, that she is seeing this through her own eyes, that the emotions are her heart beating so wildly in her chest, her stomach twisted so terribly, that breathless cry from her lips as she races to save...
A perfect stranger.
She has never seen this boy.
She knows she is not playing the role of some other in her dream. She knows it to be her own eyes looking out at this horrible scene, her own ears hearing high, reedy whimpers like a sound an animal might make, trapped and frightened… And yet she knows, even as she slides down the embankment to the muddy, grassy shoreline, even as she crawls across the sharp shale closer to the water, desperate, desperate to reach him...
She has never even seen this boy.
He could be anyone.
No one she should care about, and in point of fact, she hasn’t cared about anyone in years.
But in the dream she is screaming out against the sword that seems to fall like...
Like her whole life she has been racing to stop this moment. Every breath she has ever taken has led to her scrambling in the freezing, shallow waters of this muddy creek, watching her own blood swirl in the eddies and drift downstream, twining with the blood from the tiny, knobby knees...
And she knows too…
She will save him, or she will die trying.
Or, she will wish she had died.
For failing this.
For losing him.
The sword is rusted and rough, terribly treated by a man who looks like he cares for himself with the same disregard: unshaven scruff, lips curled over blackened teeth, cruel blue eyes that blink through the rain and his own too-long strands of hair, watching his black-nail fingers curled around his poorly patched hilt, following the arch of the blow down to the boy’s bent neck and –
She knows she will not make it in time.
Her cry rises in a crescendo over the blond boy’s whimpering and she raises her hand, helpless, reaching out though she’s far too far to reach him...
Little brass bells tied together with leather and flowing down her forearm amongst a profusion of gold charms. Expensive, this Tokre. The gold and the thick blue silk of the ribbon wrapped around her palm as naturally as though she has always worn it this way... Of course, it is not the gold charms that cause the shock, observing her own hand in her dream. It is not the sensation of wet silk, the ribbon wrapped ten times around her palm, a ribbon of such silk, that long, easily costing an average man a week’s wages… No. It is the little brass bells that make this dream of a stranger and a moment she has never lived… a haunting. A most beloved memory. Seven little brass bells. She gave some just exactly like these ones to, well, the only person she ever really did love the way she seems to love this boy in this dream. She gave them to…
But, no –
She never thinks of her.
She never dreams of her.
Instead night after night, week after week for near on six months now, she has dreamed of a little boy, crying in the rain, hunched and huddled on his knees before a man with a rusted sword.
Her hand reaches out, and the bells tinkle, and the sword falls.
And she startles awake.
Golden eyes blink open.
It is unmistakable.
It takes her longer than usual to heat the water.
She’s exhausted from six months of nightmares and hiking hundreds of miles to the south, each day drawing closer to civilization and dogged by the knowledge that she should turn back, thinking, every morning, that she should turn back, that she must turn back. Yet she can’t get her feet to move naught but south. Every step increases the likelihood that eventually her luck will run out, eventually she will run into a ranger, or a hunter, or a trader, and eventually she will have to walk through small villages and perhaps right through a city square to get to the river with the sharp shale shore and the boy waiting there…
There will be swords and screaming. They will do their best to kill her.
A ferawicce belongs in the Woods.
A ferawicce is more beast than man.
Yet she keeps walking south.
Walking to the rescue of a boy she would think is just a figment of her imagination except… things are never so simple with her. The same way she can feel sunlight lingering in the branches that have curved to make her current shelter, the same way she can feel the thrumming heartbeat of a rabbit hiding in the brush ten yards away… She knows the boy exists. She can feel him, almost hear him, like a rushing river out of sight just beyond a hedge. Though she has yet to see the white waters, she is certain they lie ahead.
Some might suspect it’s women’s intuition, except she is not only a woman, and she knows her dreams of the boy are driven by the same magic that allowed her to pull water from the ground to fill her hammered metal bowl, the same magic that has her staring at that water now, trying to clear her mind and concentrate and she expects then to whisper to the water, and the water will whisper back…
She is too tired to concentrate. A hundred sluggish thoughts are drowning out her whisper and the water’s whisper. Where normally she can go through her entire day with her emotions unnoticed in their deep-dug pit inside of her, exhaustion has left the grate off the sewer and vapors of long-rotting emotion are wafting through the careless opening…
She always feels a sour sense of guilt when she uses her talents. Her father was always so adamant when she was growing up that she never speak to the plants or the animals, though it would have made his job much easier. The one time she made the ground shudder and the clouds were black and angry above their heads –
It was the only time he ever struck her.
He made her promise, then, that she would do everything in her power to use only spoken magic, only Waterwei words.
She wishes she could honor his memory and keep her promise, but it has been ten years now since he died and she wouldn’t have lived through the first week if she hadn’t broken that promise every day. Still, she remembers that his fist when he struck her, and his eyes when he beseeched her, were filled with fear. Her talent for magic without words is… dangerous. It terrified him. A man who was famous for his strength and his stout heart. A man who defended Talvin Island from all manner of beasts, and tamed the rest. A man whose fears you should fear…
And so she does her best to limit herself to the necessities.
No one ever taught her the Waterwei words for practical things though, only the trivialities you teach little girls so they can weave crowns of flowers or make a blade of grass into a butterfly. Small things of beauty do her no good out here. She needs words for chopping wood and boiling water and snaring small game.
She has no Waterwei words for these things.
So she uses her unusual talent, the gifts her damning golden eyes have given her. Oh, these gifts in no way compensate for the horror and the tragedy of her golden eyes – She is terrified in some measure of herself. Terrified of the terror she inspires and what dark stories and still darker truths must lay behind the vicious cruelty of men afraid. – but her dangerous, wordless magic… It has kept her alive.
Small things she does with magic without words, because she has no choice.
And water is usually very easy, hardly a thought, her talents barely flicker.
Her golden eyes stare at the water and she thinks…
Water bends itself to fit the shape of any container. It flows downhill without a thought to resisting gravity. Water is, by its very nature malleable, amenable, gracious. It nourishes and diffuses through the body where it races through veins and muscles and sinew and bends your arms and walks with your legs and blinks open lids over eyes bathed constantly in its saline solution...
It is usually just the barest whisper with water...
The ferawicce feels for that thread of purpose, or life, or vague, distant consciousness or...
In point of fact she has never found actual words for it.
No words for the doing of it, and no words to describe it either.
It is the furthest thing in the world from words.
Men use words.
Men mumble and mutter and shout and curse at the heavens and never seem to notice that it doesn’t change a damn thing.
It’s not words. It’s...
Understanding. Feeling a little in herself like water feels. Hasn’t she too bent herself to fit into a shape not her own? For ten years she lived amongst men, bent to fit into a container that looked a lot like a girl…
The water in this bowl might well have been the water in her body once.
Will be again.
Water rains down from the sky, fills the much larger bowls of the lakes and rivers, the great ocean that has crashed and wailed her a lullaby so many nights of her life...
And, oh yes.
Water also rages.
Who with a heart could stand on a shore and not relate to the waves crashing and spitting white foam against the cliffs and crags? Who would not feel in that moment a profound empathy, a feeling that you could shed this skin and walk into the waves and join them in their raging and you would be at home? Who has not felt impotent, as a wave against a shoreline?
The water in this bowl was perhaps once water in an ocean.
It diffused into the air the way we might watch a puddle dry. It rained down. The ferawicce filled her lambskin in the stream. Poured it into this bowl. Will drink it. Will sweat it out or leave a puddle of her own behind a shrub. And the water will dry back into the air. From whence it will rain down again. And the cycle will start again.
Usually it only takes a whisper with water.
Usually it only takes a soul the ferawicce has long suspected has lived many lives as water does.
A sound, a thought, a pulling against the water to remember a time of boiling, an empathy to remember a time when she has felt a boiling within her too...
Finally, finally, the water hisses and steam rises in lazy curls from the pot before the bubbles start hopping, hopping, hopping from the surface...
A vigorous boil. A steaming pot to which the ferawicce adds the leaves she gathered many months back, dried so carefully, cured and crushed, the berries she gathered only a morning hence, and oats liberated from their stalk and husk prisons late last fall...
She eats her steaming stew in silence, no fire flickering to dying embers.
Never fire, of course.
The roses wouldn’t stand for it.
The ferawicce thanks the roses for their shelter as they unfurl from their wicked grotto. The small sanctuary of thorns that guarded her as she slept twists, many limbs untangling from many others, until it is only a briar hedge once more. The ferawicce shivers in the breeze as the brittle little leaves do, caresses two of their brethren between her fingers to make the same soft scraping noises and...
She believes they have reached an accord.
She cuts a single bud from the vines, careful to cut low on the stem, gently fingering the delicate length, pulling the blossom up to her nose to smell... Clean, a distant, heady scent and... Roses smell like heartbreak, she thinks. She has never understood the giving of them as a gesture of love. Unless, of course, you are wise enough to realize that love and heartbreak are an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail, an endless cycle; ‘falling’, they even call it, and yet they always seem surprised to find themselves bloodied at the bottom. They get up. Drag themselves to standing. Climb step by teary step back to the precipice. See another pretty face.
Dive off again.
Anyone who ever truly smelled a rose would realize that heady scent is the wind rushing past your face, and the rocky soil rising to meet you, and the dark taste of tears and bloody knees and... alone.
Sometimes the ferawicce wonders if that’s not exactly why she and roses get along so well.
She understands alone.
Embraces it, as the roses do.
Has, as so many a man would tell you, fully her own set of thorns.
For now though, she bows to these, masters of thorns, her instructors in the ways of defense, curling tight around your petals, jagged edges to face the world...
With the two leaves in her left hand, the ferawicce whispers gratitude to the roses for their shelter and their teachings. Her right hand fingers the thorny stem of her single bud, and cuts deeply into the fleshy pad of her own thumb, watching her blood well dispassionately, and spreading it at the base of the bush, and then its brother, and then its brother down the line.
Roses give beauty, or heady vapors, or shelter...
Always for the same price.
The blood of a ferawicce will no doubt strengthen them. These bushes will have deeper roots, will grow taller and stronger, will have the most wickedly curving thorns.
It is possible they will learn to speak to other leaves.
It is possible they will learn subtler treacheries than thorns.
It is possible they will learn that even roses can feel the bite of thorns and love.
Or, heathen lusts, at least.
Most men, all men, would tell you a ferawicce cannot love.
Which, she has never understood, the ferawicce muses, as she makes her way to the lake nearby. What but senseless, senseless love, could create one such as she? Lusts, truly she can see their part. They say a woman lay with a beast to bear her. In her case, the traditional legend doesn’t make much sense. The man who raised her was a strong man, and a brave man, and a good man and… just a man. And the ferawicce shared his features. The same wide, round face, same apple cheekbones, same strong chin and wide smile. The man who raised her was undoubtedly her father. So she has always wondered if it was possibly her mother who was the beast, though the legend of the ferawiccen makes no mention of such a possibility. Did a man lay with a beast to bear her? Was it the beast who bore her?
Regardless. There was most certainly a strange seed involved in her conception. A mixing of lusts that should never have been mixed. That alone could explain the begetting of her…
But there are ways.
There was no need for her mother, whatever the woman was, to bear the child they begot.
The ferawicce might have been quietly silenced with just a bit of tea.
She might have joined with the earth again as only a bit of bloody discharge.
There was no reason to, and every reason in the world not to, bring this particular child to term.
The ferawicce can think of only one emotion strong enough to run a hand lovingly over that distended belly, to cause a woman, or a beast, to squat and scream and in this particular case die in the attempt to give life and...
The ferawicce can only surmise her father was heartbroken. He must have truly loved her mother, woman or beast. For there is no other reason why an otherwise sensible man would have convinced himself there was a ‘chance’, there was some ‘hope’, that maybe this babe wouldn’t be as stories told to frighten children, or maybe she could find a way in the world regardless, or maybe she would be a ‘different’ sort of monster...
And so the ferawicce’s father hid his beastly babe.
Every morning, before the sun was more than the faintest glow below the horizon, he would wake her and before they dressed and before they ate he would make her put a stinging solution in her eyes. People commented that as a baby she was prone to such screaming in the wee hours. He was no doubt putting the drops in her eyes himself then. As she grew older she would cry and throw tantrums and beg that they not put the horrible solution in her eyes – Just one day couldn’t they skip it? – but it was the one thing on which the usually soft-hearted man never faltered. Every morning the ferawicce would eat breakfast through teary eyes as the solution worked its magic, dying her golden irises a darker shade of amber.
Every day for ten years before the jig was up.
It is her damning trait, her golden eyes. All who meet her gaze know her for what she is. And yet not even she knew what she was as a child. Her father was so religious about mixing his secret herbs and water and bathing her eyes that she never once met even her own gaze when it was anything but a deep amber-brown. In an ironic twist of fate, she can recall distinctly three times as a small child that she and the rest of the household were cleaned and dressed in their most solemn attire and marched into town to witness the ceremonial execution of a ferawicce babe and mother, ‘undoing the unnatural birth’, so the men said, shoving the babe back in the womb with a bloody dagger and bloody hands, tying the belly closed and heavy weights around the mother with a millithii metal rope, shining, so ‘beautiful’, everyone else always spoke of the precious metal, but the ferawicce always found it blinding, painful, as unnatural as their undoing of a birth and then...
Dropping the both of them into the ocean.
Three times the ferawicce saw a mother dragging her own bloody, broken, weighted body to the edge.
Better than the bloody men at her back, the wicked spears marching closer in a drummed procession as the soldiers continued the ‘Cleansing’ of ferawiccen from the population of men.
The ferawicce didn’t know she should have died with her mother as well, but…
The ferawicce never turned her eyes away like the other children.
She wonders if somehow, deep inside, she did already know. Something. Some hint. Some beastly howl echoing in her chest.
She felt compelled to watch to the last.
The women, and the baby beasts that grew beneath their hearts, they deserved, at least, for someone to see them go. For someone to remember.
Now she can look back and see the irony, a ferawicce watching a ferawicce execution. But then she only stood, one amongst the many men and women watching, and wondered why she thought it was so sad when everyone around her spoke of ‘peace’, how this bloody murder would save so many lives.
She wishes there was someone she could talk to about it now. She talks aloud to herself sometimes, just to remember the way words taste and because she was raised amongst men, she supposes, she finds conversation comforting, doesn’t like the silence and alone that stretches on for miles and forever in the Woods. Her father she misses, and she loved him, but many of the words she would say to him now would come out as accusations. Her mother… She has so many questions to ask. Her father, if he ever knew what her mother was, he might have been able to answer some basic questions. But she wonders if her mother might have understood wordless magic, and how it feels to whisper to water and scrape leaves to speak to the roses, and the vague sense of connection and life she feels humming between every living thing every moment of every day. The ferawicce thinks she learned the basics of how to live like a man, living amongst men for her first decade. She wonders if her mother would have been able to teach her how to live like a beast. She wonders if there is a way to live as a creature between, without becoming a monster of lore.
Of course, to some extent, the questions are only a front. Yes, she has many angry inquiries she would hurl at her parents if either of them was still alive. She has many practical questions she might ask once she calmed. But mostly she knows her desire to speak with them in these moments when she walks alone… It is truly only an orphan’s longing for something she could call ‘home’ or ‘family’.
If they were alive, after her screaming left her hoarse, she would care for them. As she has so carefully not cared for anyone in years.
She still thinks of the Waight brothers fondly, after all. The horse hands back on the estate on Talvin Island. The last time she saw them their eyes were wide with terror. They killed her father and they tried to kill her. But she still remembers all the good times that came before that morning too. She still remembers how the younger one always gave her a couple of the sugar cubes that were supposed to be treats for the Lord’s steed. She remembers that the older brother gave her the runt of the litter when one of the hunting hounds bore too many to nurse, and he told her if the puppy lived, she could keep him, and he did live, and she loved that dog.
She remembers -
She refuses to remember the girl who stayed up with her all night, every night for a week, feeding that puppy warmed milk dripping out of heavy swaths of cheesecloth stolen from the kitchen. Dosing together in between feedings, even though they both promised they would keep each other awake. The warmth of her body, the beautiful blond of her hair a still more brilliant gold than the ferawicce’s eyes are today –
She must never think of her.
She must never, ever think of her.
Even ten years old, and bloody, and barely conscious after she escaped from the Waight brothers, the ferawicce had realized right away that the only way she was going to ever get a foot beneath her again, ever stand, ever start her own, slow crawl back up the cliffs of love and loss to some semblance of living... The only way she was going to survive would be if she never thought of her ever again.
And she hasn’t.
Not in –
She has to think about it a moment.
It has been almost exactly ten years now.
She hasn’t thought about any of this, hasn’t dwelled on memories in ages.
It’s the nightmare.
How it has hounded her, and every time she dreams the dream anew it is only more vivid, immediate, heartbreaking.
How she can feel herself getting one step closer to the reality of it every day.
Thank God she is saved from her own musings.
Finally, she has reached the pebbled shore of the high mountain lake. She will fish this morning, and gather berries from the bushes this afternoon while the flesh dries over a low flame. Then she will keep moving south.
She drops her pack by a tree. Beside it, her leather belt with a dozen pouches and a dozen herbs for healing and cooking and magic. She takes off even her precious, heavy cape – her only physical defense against the biting chill still lingering in the air here, always lingering in the high, mountain air – and her boots and they too join the growing pile.
The water is good for none of these things. Her pants she keeps for an imagined protection against the cold she’s wading through, and because something feels unspeakably vulnerable about being naked, even here in the Woods. Her shirt and vest she leaves on for the same reason, though she rolls her sleeves up to her shoulders and –
The Tokre. Hers is much simpler than the one in her nightmare, the lighter blue silk of this one... She can’t honestly remember if it used to be a darker shade and the sunlight has stolen it... The silk is in much-deteriorated condition, and no doubt the water will be devastating if she slips, but she can’t bear to take it off. The single, golden charm glinting in the early morning light. The clumsily wooden charms that hang beside it even more precious for the small hands that carved those charms, tied them to this Tokre herself...
This Tokre was a gift from her.
The ferawicce has long brown hair, too long for practicality and she still brushes it, so carefully, every day, because the girl she never remembers whispered to her once that it was beautiful, blushed and hid behind her own beautiful hair...
The dark strands hide the ferawicce’s tears.
Too long alone, and too many nightmares, and too many memories.
She plunges her hands into the water to shock herself from her dwelling.
Grabs a fish with hands that move as fluidly as they do.
Bashes its head against the boulder beside her.
And ano –
The ferawicce falls.
The men who fish the brunette from the lake are tall, too lean, dirty. One has crudely-drawn tattoos running up from his wrists, disappearing beneath his thick coat, and peeking out again over his collar to run up the back of his shaved head and end on a mess of images at the crown. The images don’t make sense, don’t even mean anything to him really, just violence, and ink. The grey-black-bloody staining of his skin started with a wrist cuff when he was serving aboard one of the raiding vessels that braved the Devil’s Maw to pick off some of the rich coastal towns that thought themselves safe by virtue of a raging sea. The other men guffawed, rowdy and drunk and no doubt cruel but... He was one amongst them as he stared them down through the flames and the man jabbing a coated needle deep beneath his skin. Soon he was as rowdy, as drunk, as cruel as the rest of them. Maybe it was a sad sort of home, others would say. But it was the best home he ever had.
“Nice shape,” the other man mutters as he heaves the woman to the ground beside her pack.
“Nice things,” Coattael mutters back as he paws through the pack, tests the fabric of the cape: thick, soft, warm. It’s a beautifully crafted piece of fabric. And the leather belt with the pouches would be at home in the shop of a fine artisan.
He peers closer at the woman. Not dressed that nicely. And her Tokre is...
Sad. A child’s thing. A single gold charm and... Wooden carvings? Not even very good ones. And the state of the silk is quite literally a shame. Anyone with sense would have burning cheeks to walk through a town square with a Tokre in this shape.
His partner is pulling away the fabric at the woman’s chest, but Coattael looks closer at her face. Pretty. Newly bloomed into womanhood. Unmarked. Full lips and gently arching brows, a proud, straight nose, a high forehead and high cheeks... Too pretty to be out here alone. Too pretty for a Tokre in such disrepair. Despite the dark hair, even if her eyes are fully as brown, and despite the light caramel color of her skin...
So she’s not the ideal of beauty so many men publicly declare.
But she’s what a man would want, spoken in an honest aside.
A dark, full bloom. He imagines the taste of her is heady and spiced like mulled wine.
Someone would have married a woman like this.
Some father would have negotiated a steep price.
Some man who wanted a sip of mulled wine would pay and consider himself to have gotten the better of the deal.
She should be carefully guarded behind stone walls in one of the bigger cities.
She was fishing. Caught three already, even though they were watching since she came up and it was only... mere moments ago. An efficient fisher. And... from the dried meats in her pack... an efficient hunter, though he sees no weapons amongst her belongings. They’re weeks’ walk from any city over rough terrain, high in the mountains, echoingly alone...
His sniveling partner has been pawing at the woman’s chest. They have a strict rule about not ‘ruining’ their merchandise, but the sour-smelling man gets off just pawing the women, watching their dismay when they awake with aches and nail marks on their skin.
Not this one.
Coattael kicks the other man aside, his partner stumbling to his feet in anger with his knife drawn, but his pants are still rucked about his knees, so he’s no real threat. Coattael stares down at the woman, hard, wondering... She certainly looks to be all in one... rather lovely... piece. All the parts beautiful and accounted for. Two hands and two feet. The sleeping countenance of a swarthy angel...
He’s not sure what prompts him to check.
He didn’t know, not really. If he’d known already, he would have felt the terror before he got her lids open. He was expecting brown. But -
It’s Coattael’s turn to fall to the ground, to scramble away breathless and gasping. A man who has sailed the Devil’s Maw, but never has he seen –
He manages to gasp the word.
His disheveled companion stumbles forward to see for himself, a smirk curling his lips, clearly he doesn’t believe such a tall tale, a joke, a dramatic prank to scare him –
His is a frozen sort of terror. He stares down at the woman with his hands still hovering above her eyes after he has glimpsed their shade.
Coattael takes deep, measured breaths and tries to think. How has she survived these many years? Has she reached maturity? Legend tells that a ferawicce, full grown, is a beast no man can better. Whole cities did they level, once. Whole nations they left in burning, bloody disarray and screaming for mercy the ferawiccen never granted. They were worse than dragons and all the more damning for their slight and feminine form.
They felled this one from a distance. In a land she had every reason to believe was barren of men. And –
It’s strange that he would notice. The sort of thing he might notice if he was looking on a person now. Dark circles under her eyes.
They have felled a ferawicce because they happened to be at exactly the right place at exactly the right time when she would come along unconcerned and... exhausted. Sloppy. It’s poor work, if this were a scout or ranger. The ferawicce didn’t scope out the terrain, didn’t assess the tactical disadvantage of the valley, the concealment afforded her enemies by the thick woods and shrubbery...
She wouldn’t have survived this long if she was usually this sloppy.
Coattael levers himself to his feet, using his staff for swaying balance. He pulls the blade free. Ostensibly a staff and walking stick, ordinary though admirably carved. But the truth of his staff is a wicked blade that slips smoothly into a carved wooden scabbard. It is a spear as much as a staff. The blade so lovingly maintained...
“We have to kill her before she wakes,” he mutters.
His partner is brushed aside easily enough, but as Coattael pulls back his blade, braces himself, prepares to rid the world of an abomination hidden in a girl so beautiful she’s heartbreaking –
A sour smell overcomes him.
His partner holds back his arms.
“No!” His grin is sickening yellow teeth and sickening because this is no time for grinning. “Think of the price she might fetch us.”
“Price?” Coattael echoes stupidly. They’re water traders by name, and mostly by inventory, but they’ve traded women before. When they happen upon one. When the price is right. But, “Who would want to lay with a ferawicce?”
“There is a man for every whore,” his partner grins back.
“A death wish.”
“Her weight in gold.”
Coattael is nervous. He has learned well over the years to conceal the signs, of course. You don’t make it through the world of raiding, and then learn the fine art of smuggling, the careful language and quick feet of the black markets, without a steady hand and a steadier frown, furrowed brow, gaze hard and empty and waiting... Some men adopt this or that particular expression. Every man has his one. But the trick is just that it’s not too staid an expression, nothing too concrete. Because... by your very still you will give yourself away. No one holds an expression so still unless they are holding that expression carefully, deliberately. And there is no reason to hold an expression so still, so carefully, unless you’re afraid of the tale your natural, fluid expressions might tell, afraid of the reveal, afraid of the truth behind quirked lips, eyes darting...
Still, the King’s men stop them at the village checkpoint at Quàoimm.
Because Coattael’s partner isn’t as good at lying as he is.
Isn’t good at much really.
Except... a water witch, though the man doesn’t claim the title. No honor in being one, of course. And certainly not for a man. For a woman maybe a dash of respect for such a practical skill, even if it is a trivial magic... But a man so touched by the Waterwei? The ancient water goddesses that live in each lake, river, stream and, some say, even the ocean... Whispering in the ear of a man? It would almost be laughable, if it wasn’t so pathetic. A sort of strength for a woman, maybe. A weakness for a man. A making of him like he was a woman.
And, he has many qualities of a woman, Coattael amuses himself by a listing of them now. Sneaky and spineless and manipulative and volatile and selfish and childlike and... If he wasn’t so proud of that limpid flesh between his legs, didn’t paw at it and make all the right motions over the prostrate forms of all their other victims... Coattael might suspect his partner was a woman.
...A very ugly woman.
He snorts at his own thoughts.
Of course, it’s a mistake.
The King’s men were nearly through their jars, might have skipped one or the other of their largest, having already dipped into the first three, taken ‘precautionary’ sips, the bastards...
He comforts himself with that.
They probably wouldn’t have skipped any of the jars. His ugly bitch partner drew them over with his nervous eyes and nervous shifting. Their many jars filled with many waters which may give many powers... kept the guards entertained. They would have demanded to open every jar anyway, even if Coattael hadn’t snorted. They are the greedy sort of men you so often find in these sorts of official occupations. ‘Guards’ whose only real duty is to exploit every opportunity to exploit the very people they are meant to guard. Men who see position and responsibility only as an opportunity to abuse both. It seems, sometimes, like those are the only sorts of men who seek positions and responsibility in the first place. The rest avoid it. For, if not to exploit the reluctant generosity of the unarmed men before you, what good is position and ‘protection’ for your fellow man? What joy to be found in a life of service, if not that which you take for yourself?
As it can do no more harm, and probably wasn’t really responsible for even this much, Coattael allows himself another huff of amusement.
The King’s men demand they open the last two containers.
Big ones, hundred gallon barrels.
With... a surprise inside.
One of the King’s men actually cries and stumbles back. Since he’s not all that sad to see her go, Coattael laughs. His partner scowls. His partner thinks they have lost a potentially priceless whore, that they could have sold her into the slave market on the last night of the high moon and they could have been rich men indeed: “There is a man for every whore,” he kept reminding himself, kept chanting like a mantra the whole hike back, weeks of it, weeks of it. Now he’s watching the King’s men fish his priceless whore out of their barrel like he fished her out of the lake. He’s thinking how unfair it is, no doubt. Maybe, like Coattael, he is thinking how this is very like fishing from a pond, as so many of those in ‘positions’ are wont to do. Some sad and smelly man like them goes out and catches the many wild and wily fish that have survived all these years in the wild, and they do battle on the line and in the nets, and sometimes you hear the tale of men dying, drowned, strangled by their own line or trapped by their own nets when the fish proves the better of the match. But they bring back the ones they catch, in barrels quite like these actually, but bigger still. And the men in ‘position’, men who smell too sweet, like syrup, or rotting flowers Coattael thinks, they pour those fish into the ponds they’ve dug unnaturally out of the earth, sad, sad little lakes no Waterwei would ever deign to call Her own, and then they ‘fish’ those mighty fish from those tiny ponds, trap the beasts with no means to fight and no food and then claim a ‘victory’ over these foes when the once-great scaled beasts realize... It is the inevitability of man, Coattael thinks. It is the fate of every beast, and a man is a fool if he fails to realize it is the fate of every man as well as much as a beast beats in his breast... To be caught, and kept in a cage, and killed.
Coattael and his partner caught a ferawicce in a mountain lake six weeks’ hike from here, through land where wolves howl boldly and each step is a cautious shifting of snow that may barrel down the mountain at any moment...
And the King’s men...
Fish her from a barrel.
He laughs again, mighty, can’t help it, as they lay her out on the ground beside the cart, drawing quite a crowd now, and they do eye her as men eye a whore, as Coattael’s partner predicted there would be men to eye her, and buy her for a purse of shikles the same color as her eyes... Only her head was above water and what little clothing she was wearing is soaked against her form that indeed does look very much like a woman, lush and beautiful...
One of the men presses a hand against her chest, ostensibly to feel her heart beat and her chest rise, though his hand is rather too low for either. Then he carefully pries open an eye, as though to check if it’s responding to light, though Coattael and everyone here with half a brain realizes he’s wondering what he can get for her at the black market all the guards turn their back on in Quàoimm, for a shikle or three. Or maybe he really is considering keeping her for his own. Maybe he even has the generous thought that he might tie his own Tokre to her bicep, exchange it with hers, declare her his wedded and his beloved. Coattael knows many men claim one woman for their wife and many others for their bed; claim the most beautiful, or the most exotic, or the most talked of for their wife, just as though she were another charm on their Tokre. This one would indeed be a charm like no other...
His laugh might more rightly be called a guffaw, maybe a howling, as the guard falls back in an echo of Coattael’s own cry six weeks back.
He’s not surprised such a man doesn’t have the presence of mind to keep the discovery to himself: “Ferawicce!”
It starts a rippling of terror through the crowd, the word whispered and cried and passed along from the group close enough to hear the guard cry, to the far back of the line clogged up before this city gate while the guards pillage their fill.
Scared muttering. Babies crying.
But the ones at the back are too far to see that it’s anything but a babe. So the guard doesn’t lose the whole crowd to a stampede. Only the ones closest can see that he has stumbled back from a woman, from something they have all been so, so careful to keep as myth and legend. They kill the babes. They shove them back into the womb from whence they came and drown the babe and the one who bore it together. They commit these atrocities, though Coattael doubts any other would dare to name it such, because they are that frightened of...
Just exactly this.
This woman on the ground.
Her golden eyes.
He doesn’t even know what.
Legends are jumbles, of course. Only the scariest stories make it down the generations; a ferawicce pulling Quàoimm to the ground, actually, is one of the later stories, as they drove the beasts into the northern Woods and the men in Quàoimm were outpost men at heart, felt for the beasts they drove from their towns, had maybe a lingering sympathy even for the babes, sheltered a ferawicce, so the tale goes, and she repaid them by raising those very beasts of the Woods against them. Slaughtered the town, then called out to very flames themselves, bucked up the earth beneath these buildings and burned the rubble to dust.
The entire population of Quàoimm was rebuilt from those out on caravans at the time. Men at sea. Women visiting relatives. Some that had moved away from a town on the edge of the wilds years ago, but felt their commitment to family and memory was more important than fear. Moved back so a ‘Cartebell’ or ‘Jaim’ or ‘Smeiddr’ would live on the market square, just as they always had, just as they had been the very founders of this village from the first.
Of all villages, actually, Quàoimm might know best exactly what this woman-creature might do.
“Kill it!” one of them entreats now. “Kill it before it wakes!”
There is general agreement. Heads nod. Bodies press closer to see it done themselves...
The one guard draws his sword and...
The other guard stops him.
“She belongs to the King,” he murmurs to the man in the matching coat. To the others, “It is the King’s duty and right to sentence this wretched beast.” Over their cries, “Do you not wish to know how she came to be?”
It is an effective means of silencing them.
It must be painful, Coattael concludes, based on the way the whole village of them furrow their brows and squint and pale ominously.
“Yes,” the guard encourages their fear, and their silence. “She has grown to womanhood. Do you not wish to know how she evaded our Cleansing? If there are more? If, even now, there may be more of her ilk, hiding in the woods, hiding, even, in the homes of your very neighbors?”
This time the murmuring that breaks out is only men to their kinsmen, Coattael realizes, the different groups eyeing each other with suspicion already. It’s an effective means of breaking up a mob, Coattael has to admit. It shows, even, that this guard might not be a complete idiot.
Though he’d never admit it.
Coattael calls him exactly that, actually, vehemently, as the man demands their sleeping draught. They’ve been keeping the ferawicce dosed with – Coattael lies, tells them a dose three times what they’ve been using on the hike back, hopes maybe the ferawicce will die before the guards can get her to the King in Pöeddae, and they will look like fools, dragging a carcass back to talk. But this guard seems too wily for that, takes Coattael’s measure with a long look, tucks the bottle away and Coattael is not at all sure he’ll take his dosing recommendations at face value.
“You!” the guard speaks to a young man on the edge of the crowd of hearing. He is sitting atop a fine horse, though his clothes speak to the fields. Probably that beast is his family’s pride and joy. Probably that beast feeds them, provides perhaps those very clothes, ploughing their fields. But the guard has no sympathy, instead demands: “You will take a message to the King. Tell him what we have found here this day. Warn him of our coming to Pöeddae.” He ignores the general dismay of the boy, his father literally holding his empty hands before him to most poignantly ask, ‘But what will we do without our steed?’ He pulls the boy closer by the horse’s reins. “If you do not deliver this message in a timely fashion, if the King is not forewarned of my coming, I will hunt you down, boy of Quàoimm. And you will never have to worry about a bad harvest again,” he warns the boy, and his father too.
“But it’s not fair,” the boy’s voice wavers, even after his father has fallen silent, stepped back, hunched his shoulders in defeat.
The guard sneers, and speaks to the boy as a father would, a bad one anyway, condescending and teaching perhaps a true lesson, Coattael thinks, but not one the boy needs to learn, not yet. “Fair, need, right and wrong don’t play any part in what’s going to happen here, or in this life, boy,” the guard mutters only loud enough for the boy to hear now, his father, perhaps the few of them standing close enough to touch with an arm’s reach. “The sooner you learn that lesson, the sooner you’ll be a man.”
The crowd has only heard mutterings between a man and a boy, but they understand well enough.
What can these farmers do against the King’s men?
What can they do but spur this prized horse until the boy disappears through town. Likely the horse will never be the same again, a ride that hard... Perhaps the family will starve without him.
The guard doesn’t care.
The guard throws the ferawicce into the cage they keep for ‘criminals’, mostly for debtors and those who have dared to give offense. The guard eyes Coattael as if he’s trying to decide whether he should join the ferawicce in her cell on wheels, but Coattael only bows to him. He would have been happy to give the guard the ferawicce, if he’d only asked. Perhaps the other man can sense his sincerity, because he only waves them along now, muttering that they are the idiots, perhaps eager to get rid of the reminder, the proof, that he didn’t wrestle the ferawicce from the wild himself. Coattael is sure the tale the King hears of her capture will be very different than thievery at a small town checkpoint.
But the guard waves Coattael and his partner along.
And they go.
Coattael is happy to walk away.
Happy to leave the ferawicce far, far behind him.
King Abelard has read about the beast-women, of course. In detail. In depth. He has books beyond counting, shelves and shelves on all manner of magic and legend and bloody tales from history which no man may say are truth or fiction; as the years have passed the line has grown increasingly blurred and perhaps there is no truth but that the story teaches us and that this man’s heart hears an echo in these passages, and this man has learned courage from these lines here and this man knows regret, shame; that his ancestors ever acted this way is unconscionable and he will devote his life to seeing that nothing like this ever happens again; oh how the rivers ran red and these flowers were watered with blood...
It is the way of history and the lives men lead.
Blood. And battles. And a growing from the rust-red soil of that which will sustain us through more battles.
King Abelard wishes there were another way. If only life were ink and parchment and the beautiful words a man can weave into worlds far better than our own...
But it is not so.
Beautiful words mean very little. Only what they convey, the lessons they teach, the secrets and slips of survival.
Life is a gasping for each next breath.
A King’s life is a man trying to save a drowning nation. You must pull a hundred thousand souls with you to the surface, all of them kicking and flailing and it is only human nature that they would push you under in their panic, clawing for the surface and for air... It is a King’s life to lead his men to the surface and that gasping, glorious breath.
What was a boy’s love of beautiful words became a man’s scouring for the secrets and slips of survival.
King Abelard pours over the tomes in his library nightly.
He has the largest contingent of scholars in residence of any king in all their known history. An army to pour over those tomes likewise. So his army of the more traditional weapons of war is always the best prepared. So hopefully Abelard has scant need of that army because he is always wiser than the Kings that sit across from him down long, long tables, bluster and bleat and declare war one on his fellow and his fellow and his fellow and Abelard... Those who admire him call him ‘wise,’ he knows. Those who do not... They joke about ‘The Book King’ and make thinly-veiled references to his weak eyesight, how strong his arms must be from his exacting regiment of book-lifting, how skilled must he be in wielding a pen... He hears these men muttering in dark corners as well as he hears the men who publicly praise his wisdom.
He is not honestly sure who’s right.
Maybe a bit of both.
A wise man.
A weak man.
A man who fears the sharp edge of a sword.
But is this not only the basest wisdom?
Regardless, all come to him for counsel. He takes pride in the fact that he has managed to broker peace between bickering kings as often as he has whispered in one ear or the other the secret to winning this war. Many men fail to realize that all books are written in series, that all wars are fought with three more looming on the horizon; this army falls and it will be the tipping point that leads this nation, and then this nation and then this one to battle... Or... not. A winning of a single war by this party or the other may mean there are no more wars for even Abelard’s reckoning of the future. His own candle-weakened eyesight can only see three to six months into the future, on a clear day, but it’s more than most and he’s happy to whisper in a particular ear for six months of peace.
But in this...
In this there will be no brokering of peace.
Wisdom will have no place.
Which is good, because King Abelard is not at all sure he has managed to hold on to even a shred of his most vaunted attribute.
He is terrified.
As he urges his horse faster, faster, all he can think is: Do not let that thing enter his city. Do not let her within sight of his castle where his wife and his son were left sleepy and cozy, safe and innocent and beautiful, when Keagan woke him in the dark of morning with news he would have dismissed as lies from any other man’s mouth. A messenger, a boy, swaying dangerously beside his horse, barely able to keep his eyes open and the steed... He had been ridden too hard. The foamed, bloody mouth and wild eyes were unmistakable. He will never be the same, no matter that Abelard put his best horse-man to his care. He will give the boy a new horse, the best in his stables, if he was only on time, if only Abelard can intercept his foolish guards before they get within striking distance of the capital...
The beast-women – the ferawiccen, he steals himself to the word – could pull whole cities to the ground with only... a dance, a movement, a strange, wordless calling to the earth and the very soil beneath men’s feet would buck beneath them and... Pöeddae sits atop an isthmus: the Sound of Devaii with its towering mountains and the great Waiikraii River that splits the continent precisely in two – they call the landmasses ‘twins’, joke about the Southern Twin and the Northern Twin – and Pöeddae sitting precariously balanced atop a mountain and the only strip of land to bisect the Sound at the river’s great mouth... It looks an island, but ships learn that the land bisects the sound, only a matter of feet beneath the surface, at their own peril. King Abelard has always considered this location a great advantage. They control all the surrounding mountains of the Sound and the only way to attack is by sea, the volatile Devil’s Maw passage to the north and the strangely dead seas of Waaiwi to the south. They say the southern seas are haunted. Many a ship simply never returns from those dead still waters. No current any man can see or feel. So the superstitious avoid the southern waters, and the sensible avoid the northern. And anyone who actually makes it to the sound with an armada intact, well, many have run aground on the ‘extended territories’ of Pöeddae, as they call their shallow waters. A pain for shipping. They have had to build their docks along the shore and the sound beyond Pöeddae, which might have been a great shipping city indeed, is instead a quiet water market. But Abelard has always considered it a nearly-perfect defensible position.
The ferawicce can make the earth shake and shudder.
And she can likewise call the seas to rise.
At this particular moment, Pöeddae could not be more terribly situated.
His own steed is faltering beneath the blistering pace when finally, finally, the fool guards and their millithii cage behind them come into view. Knight Keagan rides ahead, calling at them to stop, stop where they stand! King Abelard urges his steed to keep pace, only a field further, and he rears to a stop only a moment behind his Knight. Though gasping more as he dismounts, still a good show for an old King.
“What were you thinking, bringing this beast here?” Keagan speaks the very words Abelard would have said, if he could have gasped the syllables. He does that often. As much Advisor as Knight. As much both of these things as he has always been Abelard’s very closest and loyal friend. They call Keagan ‘the King’s right hand,’ and though Abelard knows this is a common phrase, the words are often muttered with a significance that implies insult, that Keagan’s is the hand that wields the sword, while Abelard clutches at his pens and paper. And yet he never feels that disdain from Keagan. Only that the combination of their particular strengths, together, makes them a formidably team. “The ferawicce should have been killed on sight!”
“Should have been killed,” the first guard replies though, “many years ago.”
“So you saw fit to delay her execution still a week further?” Keagan asks.
“So I thought his Highness,” the guard stresses, “might want to know how she’d lived nearly two decades longer than she should have...”
Abelard is not a fool. This question is another terror he has already considered. But no knowledge is worth the risk they are taking.
“We will scour the Woods,” is the compromise he has wrought with his own terror, and the terrible risk it would be to ask this beast-woman for a truth they likely wouldn’t get anyway. “But she dies now.”
Keagan is, in fact, already drawing his sword.
But as he rears back to deliver his blow through the bars, a voice sounds.
No, not a voice. A growl.
The ferawicce underestimated the knight. Most men would rear back in their surprise. Their hesitation, that split second when they paused with wide eyes and a shiver of terror down their spine... enough. Enough time for her to...
What exactly is she planning to do?
The last thing she remembers, she was fishing in a mountain lake and there was a searing pain at the back of her head and then… She has memories of dark and dank and cold and… hands, touching her. She is almost as terrified to pursue those memories to clarity as she is to confront her current situation.
How did she get here?
Where is here?
Why didn’t she turn back on any morning of the six months worth of mornings when she told herself she should, when she reminded herself that this, exactly this, would happen if she kept hiking south?
From fishing in the mountain lake to memories of dark and rough hands and deep muffled voices to…
She woke to hear “…she dies now” and knew instinctively that she had made it to the swords and screaming portion of her journey and yet no matter how she had anticipated this, thought she was prepared to call down dark clouds and shaking earth as she had once as a small child…
She’s not at all ready for swords and screaming.
She’s not, to be completely honest, even ready to see the faces of men again.
Her last memory of men is the most painful memory in all of her lifetime’s collection, once familiar and friendly faces twisted in fear and loathing, men she had always thought of as friends and protectors suddenly using their fists and drawing their knives against her. Living alone deep, deep in the Woods, she has seen no men since those men. And she realizes now, despite the haunting nature of alone and the longing she has felt sometimes for words and voices… She could have happily gone her whole life without ever seeing another man.
Their faces, the general musk of men even, the deeper tone of their voices…
It all brings back that horrible morning, the one face the ferawicce most loved in the world twisted in horror, and the men who were her friends who were suddenly intent on killing her.
And now here, again.
Her newest memory of men.
Intent on killing her.
She knows the stories and she knows she is a monster of lore, but they are monsters of the here and now to her.
She has never held a sword.
All she has is the knife one of the Waight brothers stabbed into her leg the morning she ran away. She has never tried to use it for anything but cleaning a catch. And yet, as she heard men’s voices declaring so arrogantly that she must die so that they might assuage their fear…
Her anger overruled her fear and when she growled out her denial she thought the man with the sword might startle back and it would give her an opening, for her knife, or for an instinctive calling to the earth or sky…
She thought he would falter, and she would strike.
Oh, but not this man.
His eyes widen, true enough. But there is no hesitation at all to his sword-stroke. And those eyes are narrowed again by the time the metal...
Slips through the bars.
And between two of her lower ribs.
The ferawicce gasps at the pain, but more at her own surprise, the shocking waking to her dream that despite no training she might still take on an armed man and come out the victor with only the instincts of a vicious nature to guide her.
A rare man, this one. Brave. Or... foolhardy. Or... no, something else. Intelligence in those narrowed eyes. She believes he suffered the same hesitation, the same terror, as any man. But he worked through it so quickly there was no perceptual pause.
A dangerous man then.
As if the burning through her side wasn’t evidence enough.
But he has underestimated her as well. He expected her to fall to her pain and so his grip on his sword is focused on thrusting it forward... Not keeping her from pulling it away. She supposes, in point of fact, she does fall. But she’s damn sure to twist a hundred and eighty degrees when she does, ripping a larger hole in her own side, but when the metal of his blade hits against the front of her ribcage, it jars the blade from his hand. She catches herself on hands and knees, shakes herself like a dog coming out of the water and... stands. It takes more effort than she lets on, but she manages it. And then comes the trick. The show. Every confrontation has one. A testing of one’s enemies mentally, something to make them consider you, reconsider, even, if they truly wish to do battle with you. The ferawicce learned from the beasts, of course. It’s a dog’s raised hackles and his lips pulled back to show you his shiny, sharp teeth, the growl, how deep and low and terrifying from his chest... It’s the bear rearing on his hind legs and showing you the full expanse of his arms’ breadth... It’s the toad that puffs himself big with breath, the possum hissing on tiptoe, the rooster dancing with his head down...
For the ferawicce it is a golden glowering through the bars, and a deep breath though it makes the wound in her side scream through the whole of her body and then…
It is so easy, so instinctive, so startling, like falling…
To slip into that strange stream of life she always feels vaguely at the back of her mind, that unnamed something, energy, force, power, magic, tying absolutely every living thing together. As she takes a deep breath she feels as though she is fanning flames of anger within herself until it is a mighty blaze that drowns out the pain of her injury and then the sounds of the men making frightened noises, angry shouting, before her, and then even the sounds of the forest and all the hundreds of forms of life she usually hears chirping and nibbling and chuffing around her.
That unnamed something that ties everything together is suddenly so obviously a golden stream, gold like her eyes, gold like there is a whole reservoir of that same golden water that extends to her very core and seems an unending supply. She is suddenly bathing in that golden stream and she knows if she only crooks her finger, she can pull on a single thread in that golden web and set the whole thing to shaking. She can pull harder and break a golden string, if she likes. Or she can flood the interwoven streams until they overflow their banks, explode with the same force as water let loose from a dam. Or she can pull all that water into herself and leave the streams dried and dead…
She feels invincible.
She feels like suddenly this anger is every moment of anger she has ever felt all compounded into this single instant.
And then it is every other anger anyone has ever felt, ever.
She is incensed and nothing matters except that the world burns as she is burning.
They are high enough on a mountain that she can see a great city like a model a child might build, sitting many miles below them on a strip of land like an island. She pulls on the golden web where it connects through a thousand connections all the way from where she and her captors are standing and that city so many miles beneath them. She pulls and pulls, gathering the threads closer, stretching further threads down the line taut, taut, taut and then the first thread breaks! And then another! And she can feel the ground shaking here but the once calm waters surrounding the city are frothing white and waves are crashing high into the air and she watches as buildings begin to crumble and dust rises in tiny plumes so far beneath them.
And then the castle starts to swaying…
“No! Please no! I am begging you! Kill us, as we intended to do to you! But please do not kill the innocents in Pöeddae. They have done you no harm. I beg you!”
The ferawicce does not know how much time has passed but the man on his knees before her has a face covered in tears it would have taken long moments to cry. It’s hard to think of anything when the pull of the golden streams is so strong, like an inexorable current, like the whole ocean trying to pull her out to sea and yet so intoxicating; it feels so right, so blissful, like she would never have to feel another moment of pain in her entire life if she only stayed right here, only refused to fight, only let the golden stream pull her out to sea where she could float insensate forever…
But this is a man’s face that is beseeching in a way she hasn’t seen since her father begged her not to pull together dark clouds, not to…
Shake the earth.
As reality prickles at the edges of the golden ocean, the ferawicce realizes that her hands ache and her cage is behind her; it looks like something ripped through the bars. She ripped through the bars.
Her feet are standing on air a few feet above the head of the man who is bowed before her.
Innocents, he said.
Would they not be just as happy to kill her? Every man, woman and child in this city of Pöeddae?
“Do not punish my people for their King’s mistake,” the bowed man before her begs.
It is poignant, a King who will beg for his subjects’ safety. It reminds her of the nature of service the Lord of Talvin Island always displayed. It reminds the ferawicce of her father –
As if he can somehow sense the words that might save him, the King whispers then, “My son is only seven.”
The ferawicce remembers how beautiful the beloved girl with the blond hair was, the one she never thinks of, when she was seven. She remembers that she was the daughter of the Lord of Talvin Island and no doubt their Lord did things that made others angry sometimes and once there were indeed war ships off their shores and the ferawicce’s father went to battle with all the rest of the men and the ferawicce and the girl with golden hair hid together in the basement of the Lord’s mansion with the rest of the women and children and the ferawicce remembers her impotent rage at the thought: that someone would touch one hair on that beloved blond head when it was her father that had wronged them and not the ferawicce’s friend at all. She remembers her quaking horror at the injustice. She remembers holding that blond head so gently against her chest and swearing in her high child’s voice that she would kill anyone who made it through the basement doors. She’d felt invincible in that moment too, so certain that she could take on anyone who made it through that door, that her love could best any hate, overcome even the steepest odds.
Isn’t that a sad thought?
The last time she felt this strong, love was her strength.
This time it’s hate.
The last time she was the plucky heroine in this scene.
This time she’s the villain.
Damn reality filtering back in when the golden ocean of rage was so much easier.
Damn ten years of good memories and one great love that make it as hard to be a beast as it is to be a human.
Her feet start to sink back to the earth as she lets go of the golden threads she was pulling towards herself, as she feels the swell of wordless magic calm and settle once more, as she feels the madness that gripped her scrabbling to keep hold but finally, finally, falling away.
She feels gutted and dizzy and weak.
And she still can’t afford to show those things.
She is still the puffed toad before predators.
Also, she is still angry, even if it is only her own anger now.
In the shocked still as the shaking earth settles, she runs the Knight’s sword through the guard unlucky enough to be standing within reach. She holds the gaze of the other three through his final, gurgling breaths, daring them, telling them this will be their fate also if they take so much as a step this direction.
It’s a lie.
She is too tired and too weak to even pull the sword out of his body of her own accord. Instead she only lets the man’s body fall back so the sword slides free. It’s surprisingly heavy, now that she’s aware of such things, and she only manages to keep hold by clawing at it desperately with both hands.
She has killed a man and she feels nothing.
She might kill these others too, if she had the strength.
Except… maybe not the King who begged for his people.
And maybe not the Knight standing steadfast beside him.
She doesn’t know anymore.
Who, who, who is the monster here?
She won’t stay standing much longer.
And she doesn’t trust that they are not all monsters, every person standing here.
And she thinks she has done quite a decent job with this show, this mental battle before the battle, this pretend and puffery that may mean there is no actual battle.
She glowers and feels the golden ocean lapping eagerly at the edges of her mind.
“Walk away,” she tells the men before her.
The words are hardly intelligible beneath the hoarse growl that has become her voice, but they must be clear enough.
Because the Knight pulls his King shakily to his feet.
The remaining guard stumbles away, runs away, flees like a coward.
The King stares at her for a long, long moment and the Knight stares at his King.
The King’s voice is hoarse too, and hesitant, as though even he is not sure he should say the words but they are wrung from his relief, perhaps: “Thank you.”
The Knight pulls him back by the shoulder.
They flee more like men, but they still flee.
Her show of growls and teeth is impressive.
She is a monster, after all.
She is a ferawicce.