The Fire (part 18)

(Missed part 1? Start here!)
Thia snarled as she launched herself upwards at Loake and wrapped her hands around his throat. He didn’t have a chance to react. To his credit, Thia thought, Loake was trying to process many things at once, such as maintaining his spell on Stenwin, wondering how the enchantment holding Thia had failed, and struggling with the fact he was slowly losing the ability to breathe.

After her experience on the ceiling, Thia was particularly happy that Loake’s face was turning an interesting colour. Loake stopped waving his stumpy fingers in the air and instead tore at Thia’s hands, trying to loosen her grip. Thia held fast and smiled, lifting him a few centimetres off the ground.

Stenwin fell to the floor with a crash, Loake’s concentration being elsewhere, and Thia glanced over. He was laying face down and far too still. Thia squeezed harder upon Loake’s windpipe and found that increasing the pressure was almost effortless.

To her relief, Stenwin groaned, and whispered, “Methana smiles on me.” It was hard for Thia to tell as he was burbling into the wooden floor planks.

She grinned, then looked at Loake. His eyes were rolling back in his head, and his legs had stopped kicking at her. She threw him backwards and he hit the wall, landing on the floor like a crumpled doll.

She rushed over to Stenwin and eased him up, her arm behind his back so he could sit and face her. Stenwin’s left eye was bloodshot, a mess of red, but at least his skin was returning to its normal colour. He wheezed, sucking in air, and clutched his side. Thia pressed her hand against his torso and he winced.

“Methana may smile upon you,” Thia said, “But she sure likes to make you suffer first.”

Hooking his arm around her neck, she helped Stenwin to his feet and they shuffled carefully to an overturned chair. Thia wondered whether this had been her chair or Gweynn’s, before righting it and setting Stenwin down.

She almost didn’t hear him, but Loake was too angry to be stealthy. Thia whipped around to find Loake running at her, his arm raised, teeth bared in rage. Something bright and shiny and sharp glinted in his hands.

Thia could only think, ‘That bastard took my dagger.’ She was about to duck, when she remembered Stenwin sitting behind her. Thia realised, in a second, that if she moved he would be hit.

In her mind, she was already dodging, allowing Stenwin to take the brunt of the attack so she could round on Loake. But for some reason, her feet stayed still and time seemed to slow.

It made no sense to Thia; everything she had done until this point had told her that she prized survival above all else, that the logical thing was to step away so at least one of them would live on. Yet something gnawed at her inside and she remembered that Stenwin was only in that state because of her; because he had tried to help her.

“Foolish boy,” whispered Bethaira as Loake bore down on Thia, “But a useful ally, yes?”

Thia ignored Bethaira, and instead threw up her arms to brace for Loake’s blade.

In her mind, Thia heard Bethaira tut in disapproval and growl, “I am not enamoured with the thought of dying for your sense of guilt, child.”

Thia realised this was the feeling scratching at her and she felt annoyed that something so petty was going to end her existence.

Thia saw the tip of Loake ‘s dagger (her dagger, she thought, unhappily) approach her arms as she weakly tried to shield both her and Stenwin. She wondered, furious, whether Loake would keep her blade as a souvenir. 

In an instant, heat suddenly erupted under her skin and shot out of her hand, a red flame which burst into the face of Loake, though a little off to the left. He screamed and staggered, falling to the floor as Thia’s arm shot backwards with the force of the blast.

Loake had thrown his hands up, but too late; he ripped them away and screamed again as his fingers made contact with the smears of flesh that had once been his face. Thia made the mistake of looking at what remained of Loake’s eyes, and pushed away the sensation of her stomach trying to forcibly eject her last meal.

Stenwin’s face, though speckled with blood and painted with bruises, was paler. He stared at Thia’s hand and she followed his line of sight. Her palm was a mass of blisters and blackened skin.

Thia looked at Stenwin in amazement, shaking her head.

“It doesn’t hurt,” she said, gripping and releasing a hand that, by rights, she knew should have been disintegrating with every movement.

Stenwin moved his gaze and looked directly into Thia’s eyes. His stare was hard and his eyes narrowed. 

Thia felt afraid and, not for the first time, alone. She wondered whether Stenwin would condemn her, or rather how he would. There was no question that the power Thia wielded had a certain demonic stench to it, and its effects were devastating (though a small part of her, possibly even Bethaira, was rather pleased with just how devastating). As a holy man, Thia knew that Stenwin could not let this stand. She sighed, and thought that this was probably the last time she would dabble in this”mercy” business.

To her surprise, Stenwin smiled and said, “I thank you for my life. We have much to discuss, Thia, but I believe that will have to take a lesser priority.”

Thia stared at Stenwin and let her confusion pour out through her eyes.

Stenwin smiled again but grimaced as he tried to raise his hand and gesture at the hut. 

“Your aim,” he wheezed, “May require some improvement.”

Thia felt the heat on her neck before she even turned her head. Loake still lay squirming upon the floor, unable to find comfort in any of his contorting forms. However, past him, flames had grown long, born out of Thia’s unfortunate new parlour trick.

“Note for the future,” Thia thought as she stood, Stenwin clutching onto her for support, “Wooden huts + fire = bad.”

“Gweynn’s going to be annoyed to say the least,” Thia said, Stenwin hobbling beside her.

“Who?” Stenwin muttered.

Thia shook her head. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, “I don’t think she’s around any more.” She paused for a moment, Stenwin squeaking in pain, as she bent down to pick up her dagger. Apart from a bit of soot and some small spots of blood, it seemed fine. Pleased something was going her way, This tucked the blade into her belt and carried on pulling Stenwin towards the door.

Outside, a horse whined in distress, and Thia considered the issue of reinforcements. She decided she was too tired to consider much of it and would just have to deal with it when they got there.

They approached Loake, who had stopped thrashing around and was now just whimpering. He heard their footsteps and threw out a hand, trying to grasp at their legs.

“Help me, Thia!” Loake implored, “We were friends once.”

Thia snorted. “Only according to you,” she said, kicking his fingers away.

Loake yelped, his hollow eyes staring up at her. “You can’t leave me here!” he shouted. “There’s no one else!”

Thia looked around the room and estimated she had a few moments before the smoke overpowered them.

Curious, she asked, “So no nasty surprises waiting out there for us?” Out of habit, she nodded towards the exit before realising the gesture was wasted on Loake.

Loake’s hands locked around her ankle, his fingers digging into her flesh. “They’re a ways back, in the forest,” he said, nodding furiously. “Didn’t want the help overhearing nothing they shouldn’t. Now, please, just pull me out of here. I’ll tell you everything!”

Stenwin groaned and Thia suddenly felt the pressure upon her double. Not only had he passed out, but whatever Bethaira had done, it was beginning to wear off. She looked down at Loake and sighed.

“One problem, friend,” Thia said to Loake, “Is that I think you’ll just tell me anything.”

Loake began shaking his head to protest, but Thia kicked him in the side with much force as she could muster considering she was inhaling large amounts of smoke whilst carrying a not-unheavy warrior. Loake groaned and rolled away from her, trying to protect himself from further attacks.

Thia started dragging Stenwin towards the doorway, tears streaming down her face as the smoke filled her vision.

“Second problem, old chum,” Thia shouted back to Loake as he scrambled on the floor, trying to crawl towards her voice, “Is that I think it’s time I made my own truth.”

Finally, Thia reached the doorway and gasped, allowing the cool, sea air to fill her lungs. She tottered a few feet further down the porch with Stenwin, then collapsed. As was fast becoming a habit, Stenwin groaned.

“Just wait here,” Thia panted, laying him down on the ground. She stood and saw the frightened horse, its black shape shimmering in the darkness like moonlight reflecting off a lake. Its reins were tied to a nearby tree. Its head bucking up and down, it was trying to pull away, the sound of the flames howling louder and louder.

‘A wise beast,’ Thia thought.

She arranged Stenwin as carefully as she could, then marched back to the hut. The flames were licking through the roof now, the hut a small, glowing lantern in the darkness. As she approached, Thia saw Loake heaving himself upwards, feeling along the floorboards for a way out. He was only a few feet from salvation, but was twisting away from it.

This stood there, quiet, watching him scrambling for life. She watched. She let Bethaira watch.

Slowly, she pushed the door closed. A stack of firewood lay to the side. Thia reasoned Gweynn would have no use for it now, wherever she was. She grabbed the largest piece and pushed it against the door, jamming the other end against a porch roof strut.

Thia turned away towards Stenwin. With not inconsiderable effort, she dragged him over to the horse, the animal still pulling at its harness.

Thia laid a palm along its nose and shushed it until the horse had stopped stamping. Slowly, Thia untied the reins and led it a little way from the burning hut.

Stenwin was just about able to stand, but a slightly spooked horse made the job a lot harder. Eventually, Thia was able to push Stenwin onto the horse’s back.

“Be good,” she told the horse, “And I’ll steal you something nice.”

Taking the reins in her hand, she walked along, leading the horse and Stenwin away from the collapsing ruin.

The Contract (Part 17)

(Missed part 1? Start here!)

Quick recap because it’s been bloody ages since I was last able to post.

Thia, having lost all sense of who she once was, knows only two things: her first name, and that she can trust no one.

Oh, and she really likes shiny gems. So, three things.

Oh, and that she’s a half-elf. OK, so she knows more than – you know what? Let’s just move on.

Despite being betrayed and fighting several people who seem to think she deserves death, she has formed a friendship of convenience with Stenwin, a fighter who seems too naïve for his own good. Together, they have been captured and their attempts at building a real friendship have just been rudely interrupted.

The figure stepped forward into the dim light of the hut.

Thia lifted her head from the floor, straining her neck to get a clearer view, though the ligaments beneath her skin almost seemed to resist her efforts.

Their host nearly filled the door frame, but only width ways. Thia recognised him even before his pale, broken face had emerged from the darkness.

“Meat boy,” she whispered.

“Who is -” Stenwin began, but his sentence was cut short by a cough from the stranger.

Meat Boy nodded at Stenwin and said, “Believe the little lady there is referring to my good self, sir. Name’s actually, well, unimportant, really, but it’s Loake.”

“Meat Boy suits you better,” Thia replied, “Really sums up your uncanny resemblance to offal.”

Their captor ignored Thia’s remarks and instead smirked at Stenwin, staring down at him. “Always a pleasure to meet a brother of the Order,” said Loake, in a way that made Thia think he was not very pleased to see Stenwin at all.

Thia glanced at her friend, but Stenwin seemed oblivious to Loake’s sarcasm. Instead, he nodded deeply at their captor and replied, “I am honoured, though confused as to why you would treat a respected individual in such a rough manner.”

Stenwin shuffled and straightened himself before twitching his head in Thia’s direction. “Good sir,” he continued, much to Thia’s increasing disbelief, “We have no quarrel here. Please inform me of what crime or trespass we have committed.”

Thia could have burst out laughing as she watched Stenwin’s naivety shine through his blue eyes. She stopped herself when she remembered that charming idiocy would get them killed.

At Stenwin’s demand, Loake’s smirk had grown across his face, an unpleasant slash in the ruined flesh. He gazed at Thia and jerked a thumb at Stenwin as a question.

“Yes,” she sighed, pushing her upper body as high as it could go, “He really is like this.”

She looked at Stenwin as pointedly as possible and added, “All. The. Time.”

To his credit, her new companion took the hint and allowed Thia to helm the conversation.

Loake chuckled then coughed again to punctuate their conversation. To Thia, this was done in order to mark that they were now leaving the land of idiotic banter and racing headlong towards the land of pain and blood and pointy objects.

“Tell me about the ritual,” Loake asked, addressing the air over Thia’s head. He seemed to be picking something unpleasant from his nails and was looking at anything but her.

Thia sighed again. “Don’t know, don’t care,” she told the ceiling, “It’s not like my memory has magically reappeared.”

Thia only heard Loake mutter two words: “Wrong answer.”

There was a sudden rush of air, and it felt like it was ripping through every fibre of her body. The next thing Thia knew, her hair was falling over her face, and she was staring down at the wooden floor of the hut, her back pressed against one of the wooden beams. Several feet below, Thia could see a startled Stenwin looking up at her, whilst the smug Loake was teaching intricate patterns in the air with one of his sausage-like fingers.

She gasped, her chest crushing inwards. Her scalp felt tight, like her skull was about to burst through her skin. Thia wanted to claw at her throat as it squeezed shut, but her hands were pinned to her side. Her vision blurred and blackness began to creep in at the edges. In the centre, she could see the insufferable Loake stifle a yawn as Stenwin shouted something she could not hear. 

All she could do was die.

The force against her neck suddenly lifted and Thia threw back her head, inhaling as much air into her lungs as possible. She let her head hang down for a moment, but found that this put pressure back on her throat. Shaking her head from side to side, Thia held it against the ceiling, despite the muscles screaming along her neck and back.

She looked down and saw Stenwin was shouting. She was having difficulty understanding the words, but Thia could tell from his face that Stenwin was scared. His mouth was twisted, snarling at Meat Boy as he barked and threatened him with, well, she was not sure what exactly, but Thia smiled as she managed to make out a particularly colourful insult about Loake’s father.

But when she looked at Stenwin’s eyes, they were shining too hard, and glistening trails were carved into his cheeks.

Loake snapped his fingers to draw Thia’s gaze to him.

“Personally, I’m not a fan of this stuff,” Loake said, his fingers continuing to dance. “I prefer just being upfront – gimme the answer I want, or I kill yer. Simple enough, right?”

His head lolled to the side with the grace of a wet sack falling off a table. Smiling up at Thia, he said, “So you have to know that for me to go to this sorta trouble, I must really want that information you got.”

“Son of a goatfucker!” interjected Stenwin, screaming, “Have you no honour?”

Thia raised her eyebrows and did her best attempt at a shrug. “He still thinks you’re capable of compassion,” Thia said, addressing Loake.

Their captor smirked. “And you,” he asked her, “What do you think?”

She smiled but grimaced as she tasted blood welling up from a cut in her mouth. She spat it towards Loake, where it landed at his feet. “From my limited experience with you so far,” she wheezed, “I’d have to say I’m not as optimistic as my friend there.”

Loake nodded his head. “See, maybe that’s why this won’t work,” he murmured, rubbing his chin. “You know better and you seem, well, if you don’t mind me sayin’, a little resigned to this.”

Placing his hands on his hips, Loake sighed. “Well, let’s try the other one, then,” he said, and he waved his hand in the air. Suddenly, Thia was falling and she struck the ground, landing on her shoulder. The shock reverberated through her body and she rolled on her back, her eyes closed as she tried to shut off the pain which threatened to overwhelm her.

She heard a yell and her eyelids flickered open. Staring up at the ceiling, she saw Stenwin now trapped against it. The force holding him seemed to be stronger, the wood beneath him splintering as his body was pushed against it.

“Stop it!”, Thia shouted, her voice ragged and torn, “Let him go! He is no part of this!” She tried to move but she was cemented to the floor once more; all she could do was struggle.

Loake was staring up at Stenwin, turned away from her, his hand movements now stabbing instead of rhythmic.

“I’m gonna put your friend here through a lot of pain,” he drawled, “I’m gonna make him give up that last little piece of dignity he’s somehow managed to hold onto, and I’m gonna make him beg for death. All of it, because of you. So, tell me about the ritual. Tell me what you did.”

“I don’t know!” Thia screamed, her eyes locked on Stenwin as he grimaced, “I don’t remember anything!”

“Try,” Loake said, “Or your new best friend will eventually find out what it’s like to have no windpipe. Here’s a clue, though: he won’t know for very long.”

Stenwin was no longer shouting; his teeth were gritted in defiance, but his face was slowly turning a perculiar purple shade, his eyes bulging. 

“Stenwin!” Thia stammered, pleading, “Stay with me! You have a family, I promise, oh Gods, don’t you dare die, I promise,  I will help you find -”

Loake was upon Thia in seconds and he threw his hand across her face, smacking her head with the same level of force once directed at her throat. She gasped as she bit her tongue, the blood pulsing into her mouth as her head hit the floorboards. For a moment she could not see as the room pitched from one side to another.

In her head, Thia whispered, “Bethaira.”

The room slowed its movement and when it had finally settled, Thia could see Loake standing above her.

“You don’t get to promise him a rat’s fart until you’ve told me what I want to know,” he sneered, before turning his attention back to Stenwin.

Thia felt no presence from the entity and closed her eyes, focusing upon her breathing. 

“Bethaira,” she repeated in her mind once more, and waited, telling herself she would beg no further.

Thia felt a heat start to burn beneath her skin and she heard Bethaira whisper, “What now, child?” The voice in her head almost sounded irritated and Thia snorted at the idea she was somehow inconveniencing the entity inhabiting her.

“Do you want me to help you?” Thia spluttered, spitting out fresh blood.

Loake turned his head at Thia’s words, his eyes widened with surprise.

“Of course I do,” he said, “So start with the ritual.”

Thia ignored him and listened for her unwelcome guest. Eventually, the voice clawed at the edges of her mind.

“How?” Bethaira asked.

“I’ll take you there!” Thia shouted, “I’ll do whatever you want, just help me stop him.”

Loake looked down at her in confusion. “Take me where, to the ritual site?” e asked. “And who’s him?”

Thia closed her eyes and waited, the silence in her mind deafening compared to Loake’s bewildered ramblings.

Finally, she heard a small, quiet laugh. It started as a trickle, pouring into the void until it had almost filled the world.

“Anything, child?” Bethaira said. “Really, you should truly choose your words more carefully. However, I accept the terms of our agreement.”

Thia felt her skin begin to burn and she tried to push her hand into the air. The enchantment binding her held fast for a moment, but as she struggled she felt them start to give way. Back and forth, pushing and pulling, she tested their limits until she felt them weaken. With one last push, she wrenched her hand into the air with a scream, much to Loake’s and Stenwin’s surprise.

As Thia threw out her arm and grasped for Loake’s throat, she heard Bethaira chuckle and say, “Oh now this takes me back.”

PART 18

Believe in Something (part 16)

New to the series? Start here

Thia opened her eyes and found herself staring up at wooden beams criss-crossing a ceiling. She thought of Gwynne’s home, with its basic, rustic charm.

Shadows flickered across the beams, dancing as flames crackled nearby.

Something occurred to Thia and she frowned, turning her head. She hadn’t thought she could still be surprised, but sure enough, there it was: the hearth she had first found warmth, not two feet from where she lay.

Thia glanced around; the lack of windows made it difficult to tell if it was night or day, but the fire provided enough light to see Stenwin propped up against the bed.

Thia could not be sure, but the expression he had may have been of relief. The combination of shadows and bruises blooming across his face made it difficult to tell for certain.

However, she heard the smile in his voice when he spoke. “Thia,” he croaked, “You’re alive. Thank Methana!”

His head nodded forward slightly, but he straightened his shoulders and looked back up at her. “Did they hurt you? Are you well?” he asked, his words etched with concern and anger.

Thia smiled. “I appreciate your concern,” she told him, “And the answers are ‘probably’ and ‘I don’t know’. Please be assured, however, that I plan to discuss this with our captors at length.”

“Well,” she continued, glancing around the hut, “As soon as they decide to grace us with their presence.”

Thia tried to shift her shoulders, and quickly realised her hands were tied together in front of her. She raised her feet a few inches off the ground to check and she tutted as she saw her ankles were similarly bound.

“Bloody amateurs,” Thia muttered, wondering why they would make such a foolish mistake. She began to lean up so she could untie her feet, but felt a heavy weight press down upon her. It pulsed through Thia, pinning her to the floor.

She looked at Stenwin in confusion, but he only smiled kindly back at her and said, “A spell, compliments of the sorceress, I believe. They tied our limbs in case we reached out for anything useful.”

Thia wiggled as much as she could to look at Stenwin properly, which is to say not much. She could see he was in a similar state to her, but sitting upright. His armour was dented and blood shone black on the skin she could see.

Thia closed her eyes and said, “I apologise. I have no sense of what is going on, but I’ve dragged you into it.”

She rolled her head to face Stenwin. He shrugged. “Ah well,” he muttered, “It’s not like I had anything better to do.”

Thia let a jolt of laughter escape her. It was a bitter joy, but she would take what she could get.

“I don’t even know you,” she said, “Not really.”

“We seem to have some time,” Stenwin replied. “What would you like to know?”

Thia thought for a moment, picking through questions she wanted to avoid, but deciding to say them anyway.

“When did you lose your memory?” she asked, staring at Stenwin for his reaction.

He shifted and blinked, but finally said, “A month or so back. They found me unconscious on the ground, surrounded by the bodies of bandits, apparently still clutching my sword.”

Stenwin smiled wistfully. “It must have meant a great deal to me.”

“Still fighting the good fight,” Thia said with a grin.

Stenwin nodded to one side. “That was my impression; that I was a good man, ambushed by thieves. Defending myself must have led to my present condition.”

Thia frowned. “Why a good man?” she asked.

Stenwin pointed to a charm hanging around his neck. It was a golden disc, suspended upon a thin, leather cord.

Thia sighed and said, “Remember how it’s dark?”

Stenwin’s head bobbed apologetically. “Oh, yes,” he flustered, “Well, it is engraved with the symbol of Methana.”

At Thia’s blank expression, Stenwin said, “Methana? The goddess of justice and protection?”

Thia shrugged her shoulders as best she could.

This seemed to baffle Stenwin, who strained to lean forward and say, “How could you not know the gods? Even with the loss of my memory, I knew the names of our defender and trickster deities. I knew my purpose was to help others.”

“And look what that’s got you,” Thia replied, staring at the ceiling. “I mean, I don’t want to appear ungrateful, but it just seems like all that’s given you is trouble.”

Stenwin humphed and said, “Not all. I also have the appreciation of a saved town.”

“For now,” Thia replied, closing her eyes. “Right now you’re their saviour, but they always take their heroes for granted in the end. Soon, you’ll be expected to save them from everything and anything and, when you can’t, they’ll abandon you as quickly they held you to their hearts.”

Stenwin shook his head. “I cannot believe you are so cynical.”

“Believe, holy man,” said Thia, unmoving.

Stenwin rubbed his chin against his shoulder, his face itching from the blood. “I am no holy man,” he told Thia, “But I know what I am. I am a man of faith and justice.”

He stared at the fire for a moment, then said, “And I believe that one day I will find those I have left behind.”

Thia opened her eyes and looked at Stenwin. His gaze was fixed on the flames, light shining within. “You mean a family?” she asked.

Stenwin nodded. “It’s why I was in the village. My rescuers had heard of a healer who could mend minds. They had no idea where the healer had gone, but he was meant to be wandering here at some point. So, I decided to wait, perhaps help where I could.”

Stenwin laughed and held up his bound hands. “It has not gone to plan so far, however.”

He paused and drew a deep breath before adding, “I woke alone, but I knew there were people I had to return to, people who were waiting for me. They need me to protect them, I am sure of it.”

“They’re probably dead, now,” Thia said, interrupting.

Stenwin frowned and studied Thia. “Why would you say that?” he asked.

Thia shrugged and said, “Think about it logically. You believe that they, this family or whoever, need you to defend them from the world, yes?”

Stenwin narrowed his eyes, but he nodded reluctantly.

Thia paused, wondering whether she could (or wanted to) stop herself. However, something within compelled her; she was certain she did not want to hurt Stenwin, but there was something dangerous about his naivety. She looked at a man who trusted that things always worked out in the end, and she believed this trust would eventually kill him.

Thia cleared her throat and committed.

“So, if they are defenceless,” Thia continued, “And you’ve been gone for a few weeks, is it not likely they have perished?”

Stenwin did not answer immediately. Instead he glared at her, weighing up his words. Finally, he said, “I still have hope that Methana will protect them.”

Thia laughed. “My apologies,” she told Stenwin, a tear falling from her eye, “But from the little I’ve seen of this world, hope is merely a device to keep us moving.”

She sighed and said, “I mean, you’re the first decent being I’ve met, and that may only be because you don’t remember the terrible things you’ve done.”

Stenwin began, “What makes you think I have -”

“Faith,” Thia said, interrupting him. “Faith can be used to justify awful, horrible deeds. If you turn to it for salvation, there’s likely something you’ve run from.”

Stenwin shook his head. “Then you misunderstand its purpose,” he said, a sad smile blossoming across his face.

“I don’t think I do,” Thia snapped, instantly feeling like a moody child.

Stenwin smiled at her. “We will have to disagree, in that case,” he said, “But perhaps I will be able to convince you some day that the gods watch over us.”

Thia snorted and thought of Bethaira. “Trust me,” she said, fixing her gaze upon Stenwin, “I believe in the gods. I just don’t think they’re on our side.”

Just then, the door of the hut swung open. A figure, framed in moonlight, stood before them. It held a hand up to the doorframe, slowly tapping a finger against it.

“This is all fascinating to listen to,” the figure said, “But I think it’s time we begin.”

PART 17

The Voice Within (part 15)

New to the series? Start here

“Oh, my child, you are quite a worthless being, are you not?”

Thia could sense she was laying on her side, but when she opened her eyes, she could see nothing. However, she recognised the rasping, hollow voice she had heard a number of times, tinkering away in her head.

“Leave me alone,” she told the voice, “I could give two shits what you think.”

The voice laughed, and a burning sensation fluttered under her skin.

“Think, child?” said the voice. “I merely know.”

There was something different about the voice. On the previous occasions, it had been distant, a noise in her mind but muffled, like it was shouting through a wall between them. Now, the voice was clear; she could hear the gasps at the end of every sentence, and the way the voice scratched over words like claws on wood. She could hear the crack of parchment-dry lips as they scraped against one another to form sounds.

It sounded closer than ever before.

Thia stared into the black air, her gaze flicking from side to side.

“What do you want?” she demanded, shouting into the abyss.

The voice chuckled to itself. “Do you not first wish to know who I am?” it asked.

Thia sighed scornfully. “Who you are is irrelevant,” she explained, ensuring her tone sounded more in control than she felt. “What you want affects me more directly. I do not need to know the name of the man coming to kill me; I just need to know his intent.”

The image of the boy on the beach, dying in her arms, flashed into Thia’s head for a moment, but she quickly pushed it away.

The voice was quiet, long enough for Thia to shift uncomfortably.

Eventually, it said, “An interesting point, though I would argue that what I want has a great deal to do with who I am.”

Something swished past Thia’s head, and she jerked backwards. Her back hit a wall, a little shock of pain stinging at her. Thia kicked at the stone and let the pain wash over her.

Thia was tired in her bones; tired of fighting, of running, and especially tired of herself. The weariness spread throughout her as she suddenly realised that Stenwin was likely dead.

Thia growled in frustration, in anger, in exhaustion, and she directed it back towards the voice.

“Shut. Up!” she barked, “Just shut up. I don’t have the patience for your bloody riddles. I’ve been betrayed and nearly drowned. I am alone in a foreign land, a place where attacking me seems to be a national hobby. On top of all that, a creepy voice appears every now and again to make fun of me.”

Thia laughed without feeling any joy. “You know the best of it?” she asked of no one. “From the little I can tell, this is just my normal day to day life.”

Thia could feel heat gathering around as the anger in her voice grew. “But, lucky for me,” she continued, “I’m apparently surrounded by death and almost permanently covered in other people’s entrails.”

She hit her head against the wall and used the pain to push her on. “Now,” Thia said, “I wouldn’t really mind so much if I could at least have a break. Maybe a nice ale or two, a quiet evening gambling with someone else’s money, but no. There’s been no end. No straight answers. No peace. There doesn’t ever seem to be an end to this.”

She could feel something twisting inside her and she found herself lightheaded, floating through the pain.

“It just won’t end,” she cried through clenched teeth, her words rushing into one another, “And I just seem to make it worse. Why won’t it -”

Suddenly, a cold force pushed down upon her stomach. It winded her, and her rage was extinguished.

Thia lay back, gasping at the air, feeling the heat fade from her surroundings.

A few feet away, she heard the voice tut.

“Whilst I appreciate your situation,” said the voice, appreciating nothing, “I hope you will understand that I do not care nor have time for your petty theatrics.”

Thia wanted to punch out at the smug, self-satisfied voice, then stopped as she realised it sounded exactly like something she would have said.

The voice continued, “Hysteria will not help you, nor losing your mind.” The voice laughed at its own joke. “Well,” it said, “Considering that it is already lost.”

Thia tried to sit up, searching the darkness for the source of the voice.

“My memories?” she asked, “Is that what you mean?”

“Among other things,” came the reply.

Thia could hear the smile piercing through the words and growled again, readying herself to launch at the voice.

However, it just sighed and said, “Child, you cannot attack me. I exist only in your mind.”

Thia blinked and gave up trying to scan through the blackness. She rested her head against the wall. For some reason, she felt more at ease than she ever had been. “So you’re not real?” she asked, almost relieved.

“Oh, I did not say that,” the voice whispered, and Thia felt the peace slipping away, replaced instead by a creeping, heavy coldness.

“I am real,” said the voice, “But only here. I do not exist outside of you, at least for the moment.”

Thia seized on the part of the sentence that interested her most, asking, “Wait, what do you mean, ‘for the moment’?”

“This world is difficult to live in,” the voice said, almost ignoring Thia’s question. “It’s too solid, too bright. The minds of mortals provide a comfortable compromise. Many dark places in which to hide. It has been… too long.”

The voice sounded like it was floating above her now, but Thia did not dare to look up.

The voice continued, “Sometimes these mortals are aware of our presence. Sometimes not. Those who are can gain a benefit to this…arrangement.”

“What are you?” Thia asked, not wanting to know the answer.

She felt a wave of air hit her face and she closed her eyes, pressing her eyelids together tightly. The voice whispered at her ear, and she smelt decay and scorched flesh. It almost overwhelmed her, but she kept her eyes shut.

“Child,” the voice said, “You know what I am. Or you suspect. Now, would you rather hear instead what I want?”

Thia did not reply. She willed the being away, trying to push past the sounds echoing in her mind.

The voice ignored her silence. It scratched at her skin and said, “Child of Bethaira, I want to return. And you will help me.”

“Thia!”

Stenwin’s voice pierced through the blackness and she turned towards it, relieved to hear he was still alive. Thia could see nothing, but she was certain it was him.

“Best you were going, child,” sighed the rasping voice, “It appears your companion is searching for you.”

Thia felt herself being pulled away, but she called back to the darkness one last time.

“Wait,” she shouted, “What is your name? What do I call you?”

The voice laughed, distant now, the snags in its voice fading as Stenwin’s shouts grew louder. Thia pushed Stenwin’s voice to one side, struggling to remain and hear the answer.

“You already know my name,” the voice said, “All of my children do, though they have forgotten its meaning over the centuries. They honoured me, once, so greatly.”

For a moment, Thia thought she heard a muffled cry. “It was,” the voice stuttered, “It was divine.”

Light shot through the darkness around Thia, pinholes of bright white exploding into view.

She screamed in frustration, reaching out to the shadows for the voice’s words, grabbing onto them for dear life.

“Bethaira, child,” the voice whispered to her, before Thia was carried away. “You may call me Bethaira.”

PART 16

Before A Fall (part 14)

NOTE: New to the series? Start here

“Down!” Thia shouted, an ominous hiss cutting through the air around them.

Stenwin dutifully threw himself onto the cobbles, groaning as he smacked against them. Thia dropped next to him, the stones pummelling her flesh.

‘Still,’ she thought, watching the flames roar above them, ‘Better to be bruised than barbequed.’

The fire sputtered out and Thia glanced back towards its source.

Standing at the end of the alleyway before the junction was the woman she had seen at the beach. Thia searched her mind, unable to recall whether she had labelled the woman Hot Sauce, Flamey, Fire Lady, or none of the above. Either way, Flame Fingers (as Thia eventually settled on) stood just in front of Jeffen’s corpse with her arms outstretched towards Thia and Stenwin, her dark cloak so long that it brushed along the ground.

With her wild, red hair flickering around her face, Thia thought Flame Fingers would have looked entrancing. That is, were it not for the remains of Jeffen’s flesh slowly seeping up her cloak’s hem.

Thia pushed Stenwin’s arm and shouted, “Move!”

They launched themselves up, decorations for the festival fluttering in their faces as they ran, and Thia pulled Stenwin into a side alley. They pressed themselves against the buildings as another blast of flames flashed after them, the orange festival flags igniting and consuming themselves.

Stenwin leaned back on the wooden walls for support, panting hard.

“Friend of yours?” he asked, arching an eyebrow at Thia.

Thia gulped mouthfuls of air before answering, her head slumping back against the building. She stared at the sky for a moment, then said, “Maybe once. I honestly don’t know.”

Thia looked down the path. “Come on,” she said. “This will take us back to the main road.”

She began to walk, but Stenwin grabbed her arm. His eyes were wide in disbelief.

“We’re being hunted by a sorceress who can incinerate us,” he gasped, still recovering from the morning’s unexpected exercise. “Leading her towards innocent people is folly!”

Thia half-smiled at Stenwin and patted the hand holding her back.

“One day,” she said, smiling wider, “You must tell me how you remember to care about all of these things.”

Thia pulled her arm away and beckoned Stenwin to follow her. “Trust me,” she shouted as they broke into a jog.

“I do not,” Stenwin shouted back, but ran after her nonetheless.

Thia smiled at that, thinking that Stenwin was certainly wiser than he appeared.

She glanced backwards and saw Flame Fingers appear at the end of the alley. The woman stood firmly in place again and began muttering, her arms slowly raising.

Thia looked up, looked at the stance of Flame Fingers, and had an idea. She pushed Stenwin to the side as she felt heat playing along her back. She slammed herself against a building as the fire rushed past her.

She crouched down and glanced again at the sorceress. The jet of flames was recoiling back to her and only once the fire had extinguished did she begin to advance.

‘Perfect,’ Thia thought, pulling Stenwin up.

“Listen,” she told him whilst he checked his beard for singe marks, “I need you to keep running.”

“See those barrels down there?” she asked, pointing further down the alleyway. “We’re going to split up just behind those. Just make sure you stay visible.”

“Why -” Stenwin began, but Thia cut off his dissent.

“Just do it!” Thia growled, then, seeing the look on Stenwin’s face, followed it with a softer, “Please?”

Stenwin seemed no happier, but gave a slight nod.

Thia nodded back and they started running down the alleyway once more.

Thia had noticed the barrels on their way to the bakery, but more than that she had noticed a turning just before them.

As they ran through the useful obstruction, Thia darted to the left, waving her hand for Stenwin to start running down the middle of the lane.

If Stenwin had any objections, they were lost to Thia. She let her feet pound upon the stones as she turned left, then left, then left again. Her legs ached, screaming with every strike against the ground, but she kept moving.

The alleyways were like a warren, one spilling onto another at random intervals. On the way to the bakery, Thia had been thinking of the dangers she was putting them in, the potential fallout, and the likely need for a quick and surreptitious exit strategy.

However, her observations were now proving more useful as an attack strategy.

As she rounded the last corner, she spotted Flame Fingers, and Thia increased her speed, running full pelt at her opponent’s back. The cloaked woman was sauntering in the direction of Stenwin, but she stopped just before the next junction, her arms beginning to raise in front of her. She was stood just below the banner pole Thia had spotted earlier, a declaration of festivities that some patriotic soul had stuck a few feet above their front door.

‘Now or never,’ Thia thought, and she jumped, reaching for the pole.

Her fingers just caught it and she grasped on tightly, swinging her legs forward.

Flame Fingers heard something and her head whipped round just in time for Thia’s boot to connect with her face.

Inside, Thia rejoiced but, as she heard a crack, she sighed at the fact that nothing ever seemed to go perfectly. The banner pole gave way, snapping in Thia’s hands, and she fell, landing her full weight upon the sorceress.

If the woman had not already been knocked out, she was now, and Thia sprawled on top of her.

Pushing herself up with one hand, Thia looked down at the woman. Wispy breaths escaped from her mouth, though the woman’s eyes were firmly closed. A nice, red boot print was starting to develop along her left cheek and, though Thia believed the woman would not thank her, at least she was still alive.

“Thia!” Stenwin shouted, running back towards her.

Thia smiled and sat back on her haunches. For the first time in what seemed like a very long time, she felt good. She couldn’t wait to tell Stenwin about the things she had noticed about their opponent’s fighting method, and how she had used these terribly clever observations to defeat their enemy.

She was feeling rather proud of herself, all in all, but there was something off about Stenwin. He was running at her, hard, his arms flailing above his head.

Thia frowned and squinted at him and was about to say something, when Stenwin spoke again.

“Look -” he shouted, but that was all Thia heard.

As something hard hit the back of her head, Thia thought absently that perhaps she wasn’t as smart as she thought. The ground rose up to meet her and, falling into the darkness, she suddenly remembered that the sorceress had a partner.

PART 15

Unlucky For Some (part 13)

NOTE: Some mild gore. New to the series? Start here

Sunlight pierced through the otherwise grey sky, illuminating Thia and Stenwin as they crept down the alleyway.

Thia was not happy with their approach at all. If danger awaited them at the bakery, then it would have good notice that company was coming round for lunch. Not only had the shadows of the alley fled thanks to the sun’s unseasonal brightness, but Stenwin’s footsteps thumped loudly on the cobbled streets.

Thia frowned down at her companion’s heavy boots. Stenwin slowed as they reached a corner and Thia took the opportunity to tap him on the shoulder.

He turned to look at Thia, eyebrows raised in response.

Thia leaned in and whispered, “Could you perhaps be more, um, light-footed?”

Stenwin gazed upwards and considered the Sky, pursing his lips together.

After a heartbeat, he looked back at Thia. “Perhaps,” he answered, “Though it is not characteristically known of my profession. However, I will endeavour to do my utmost whilst carrying this very heavy sword and protective clothing which, oh yes, I’m employing at your bequest.”

Thia squinted at him. “Your poor attempts at humour notwithstanding,” she told Stenwin’s grinning face, “I do appreciate your assistance. However, that help will be for naught if you go charging around that corner into certain danger like a man looking for a fight.”

Stenwin smiled sympathetically. “Is that not what we’re doing?”

“Well, yes and no,” Thia said, quickly glancing up ahead for any sign they had been spotted. They were stood so close to the turning for another alley that she would sooner be creeping towards it than having a discussion regarding strategies.

“Yes, we’re looking for danger,” Thia continued, maintaining one eye upon Stenwin and another upon the corner. “Well, if you can call that miserable excuse for a human that. However, I’m not looking for a fight.”

It was Stenwin’s turn to frown. “You aim to resolve this peacefully?” he asked. Shrugging, he rested his hand on his sword. “I must admit, I did not anticipate you would choose diplomacy.”

Thia snorted at Stenwin’s naivety. “And I am not.”

Stenwin’s eyes widened as he realised what Thia intended. He shook his head and held up a hand as if to placate her. Instead, Thia crossed her arms in impatience.

“Wait,” he said, “You really do mean to murder him?”

Thia sighed and she fixed her gaze upon the cobbles. She did not have time for this, but Stenwin was unlikely to budge from his position.

“Look,” she said, “I understand this might make you uncomfortable, but it’s the easiest way to end this.”

Stenwin stared at her in disbelief. “Are you lost in your own mind, girl?” he asked, stepping forward to form an even more solid barrier between Thia and her goal. “He didn’t kill your beloved ones; he stole some personal items. How is what you are proposing in any way proportionate? There is a code one must live by!”

Thia stared at Stenwin now, her arms still crossed. “Why?” she asked.

Stenwin threw his arms up in the air. “Why? Because there are rules. Because it is immoral. Because causing pointless harm and suffering to others is cruel.”

Thia rubbed her eyes. Her frustration with Stenwin, with Gweynn, with the boy on the beach, all of it was beginning to burn away inside her.

“I do not have time for moral debates, Stenwin,” Thia said, stabbing a finger towards him. “He betrayed my trust. If the easiest path is to sneak up on him and suffocate the life from his body, I choose that.”

“What are you talking about!” Stenwin shouted. “There are a dozen other ways for us to approach this; reason, intimidation, diplomatic solutions –.”

“No!” Thia shouted, her voice raising to match his. “I cannot allow him to escape unpunished! He needs to pay!” The rage was growing inside her again, heat searing along her skin. Somewhere inside her, Thia felt a sharp pain. Something was wrong; she found herself wondering why was she so angry.

But the pain was coursing through her now and she gasped. Thia stumbled to the side, a dull ache smacking against her ribs.

Her vision was blurring, shapes and shadows flickering before her. She could see Stenwin’s face, crumpled in concern as he rushed to support her.

She tried to breathe in slowly, resting her face against the cool stone of the alley wall. She thought about Stenwin’s words and knew them to be true; though Thia was angry with Jeffen for taking what little she had left in this world, did she truly believe he ought to die for such a transgression?

Somewhere, she heard a voice laugh.

“Thia,” Stenwin said, his voice wavering, “What is that?”

Stenwin was pointing at Thia’s right hand. She slumped against the wall and tried to focus upon her palm; a small patch of darkness had appeared upon it. She could feel no pain, but Thia knew it was burn mark, a mass of blackened flesh.

Yet, the mark was growing. What had seemed like a small circle one second twisted in another. Small tendrils crawled out from the edges of the circle, swimming towards each other and interlocking in a pattern.

To Thia’s eyes, it was starting to look like a sigil. The laughter was like trickling water in her head now, landing heavier and heavier upon her soul with every drop.

It looked so familiar –

Suddenly something flew out from the corner ahead of them. It hit the wall and slowly slid down, landing in a bloody mess.

Surprised, Thia blinked at where the object had landed then looked back down to check her hand.

The mark had disappeared.

‘I’m losing my mind,’ Thia thought, grabbing at the wall and Stenwin to pull herself to her feet.

“Are you well?” Stenwin asked, his gaze shifting from Thia to the mass behind them.

Thia stood and brushed her clothing down. “I shall be,” she said, a hand upon his shoulder. “More importantly, what was that?”

Stenwin and Thia turned to face the heap and the smell of burnt flesh hit both of them at the same time.

Covering her mouth, Thia edged closer whilst still keeping her distance. What had landed against the wall ahead of them was a mess of torn fabric and blood. Chunks of flesh and bones protruded from the pile of what Thia could only assume had once been a living being.

Thia spotted something in amongst the redness; it was a peculiarly symmetrical object, which stood out in the chaos of its surroundings.

It was her bag.

“Stenwin,” Thia said, stepping slightly forwards, “I think someone’s already solved our moral conundrum.”

Thia heard a short hiss, as if the air around her was evaporating, and she threw herself to the ground. Above her, a jet of orange flame flew towards the wall, missing Thia by a mere fraction.

She did not turn to look at the direction the flame had come from, partly because she knew what was there and partly because she did not want to have it confirmed. She crawled forward and grabbed the satchel. It resisted, the strap tangled around a shard of bone, but with a wet, slithering pop, she released it and scuttled back to Stenwin. He had fallen upon the ground in shock, but was thankfully unharmed.

“We need to move,” she said, pushing at Stenwin as he gathered his mind together. “Now!” Thia barked.

Stenwin lumbered up and Thia grabbed his arm, dragging him along with her.

“Run!” she shouted, and their feet pounded upon the stone cobbles, away from what had once been Jeffen.

 

PART 14 HERE

Consequences (part 12)

New to the series? Start here

The main road dissecting the village was flooded with people. Bright orange banners hung above, strung between buildings, proclaiming the start of the Western Rises festival. This occasion was obviously big business for the market as every stall was splashed in orange and offered some kind of discount on a tenuously-linked food or trinket. The market formed a border along which the crowds trudged. The stall owners shouted unlikely claims about the quality of their wares, which all but the most gullible traveller ignored.

Thia jostled through the masses, her shoulders smacking hard against bodies and bags, eliciting cries of annoyance.

She ignored them and pushed through, her head whipping from side to side as she scanned the crowd for the thieving barman.

Suddenly she felt something grab her arm. Thia raised her free hand and prepared to throw it into the face of her attacker, but as she twisted around, she paused and sighed.

“Stenwin,” she said, “It is customary to call someone’s name rather than manhandling them.”

Stenwin let go of his grip, but took a moment to speak as he caught his breath.

“I did,” he said, leaning over, hands on his knees as he recovered. “Several times in fact. You ignored me.”

Thia shrugged. “Guess I was focusing on other things.”

Stenwin stood upright and looked at Thia. “Is it worth this effort?” he asked as Thia’s gaze flicked from one face to another in the crowd. “Surely these items can be replaced.”

Thia stared at Stenwin, long enough for him to shift from foot to foot.

Finally, she relented and said, “Even if that were the case, they were mine. He took some things that belonged to me and I want them back. End of discussion.”

Changing the subject, she muttered, “Come on,” and gestured for them to go forward.

However, Stenwin held up a hand and beckoned her over to one side of the crowd. Thia sighed, but followed; she needed his help, but she also needed to get Stenwin moving.

They both stood by a stall selling a variety of fruits and vegetables, all of which had seen better days.

Thia was having difficulty making the impatience choosing through her, so chose not to.

“What is it?” she asked. “Why are we stopping now?”

Stenwin nodded. “A fair question,” he said. “We’ve lost sight of the culprit, yes?”

Thia huffed, but did not challenge him.

Stenwin smiled and said, “Then we require information. In my short time here, I have had need of assistance. Let me introduce you to a good source of it: Othen Vellimer.”

Stenwin stretched out a hand and pointed towards the direction of the fruit and vegetable stall owner. Othen Vellimer was an older man, his wispy white hair escaping from beneath a well-worn hat. His eyes were milky pools which narrowed then widened as they caught a glimpse of Stenwin. He turned to face them properly, nodding at Stenwin, until his gaze settled on Thia. Othen grinned at her, waving hello with a hand covered in sores.

Thia grimaced. To her mind, he looked in as good condition as his wares.

“A fine day, is it not?” said Othen. “A most fortuitous start to our revelries this wondrous season.”

‘Oh gods,’ Thia thought, ‘Just what the world needs: a chatty shopkeeper.’

However, she paid mind to the fact there must be a reason Stenwin had brought them over. ‘Or rather,’ Thia thought, ‘There had better be one.’

Stenwin beckoned Othen to the side of his stall and leaned in, whispering.

“We’re after some information,” Stenwin said, his hands shielding his mouth in such a comically over-the-top fashion that Thia had to pinch the bridge of her nose and lower her head to stop herself from laughing.

Othen, who had also leaned in for the obviously illicit conversation, said, “I would be glad to give my support to you good Sir, but perhaps you could assist by furnishing me with some relevant details?”

“Are you familiar with Jeffen?” interrupted Thia, practically bouncing on the spot. “Works at the tavern. Seen him today?”

Othen seemed to consider the sky for more than what Thia would call a reasonable amount of time.

She was about to put a halt to Othen’s cloud-inspection, when he said, “Unfortunately, I have not had the pleasure of his acquaintance on this fair morning.”

Thia frowned at Othen, her eyes narrowing. She was beginning to wonder if he was demented or maliciously wasting her time. He smiled blandly back at her in answer.

Stenwin coughed, having caught sight of Thia’s expression, and said, “Tell me, Othen: if a person were to find themselves in a desperate need to, um, alleviate themselves of, erm, some circumspectly-acquired goods, whom would they visit?”

It was Stenwin’s turn to receive a fierce glare from Thia as she said, “Dear gods, you both take a long time to say nothing.”

She looked to Othen and spat out each word slowly, “Who. Deals. With. Stolen. Goods?”

Othen rolled his eyes in response. “Child,” he said quietly, “There are always reasons for precautionary measures.”

He nodded towards Thia’s right and she saw some oblivious guardsmen wandering through the market, making cursory inspections of the stalls.

Suddenly realising how loudly she had just proclaimed an interest in criminal activities, Thia felt both personally and professionally embarrassed. All she could say was, “Ah.”

After a moment, she added, “Apologies. I slept badly.”

Othen nodded and winked. “No harm,” he said, then waved them nearer.

Thia and Stenwin leaned in, Thia paying careful mind not to fall into the rotten fruit laid out on the stall.

“A shame Jeffen finds himself in dire circumstances once more,” Othen said, shaking his head. “However, he should know better by now not to, well, borrow items from his workplace.”

‘Or don’t shit where you eat,’ thought Thia. It occurred to her just then that Jeffen must indeed be in a desperate situation to commit a crime he could be so easily tied to.

Unfortunately, she has little time for sympathy or curiosity.

“Where would he go?” Thia asked.

Othen shrugged, but his eyes twitched from side to side, scrutinising their environment before he continued.

In a low voice, he said, “That would rather depend upon the quality and category of the goods in question.”

Thia bit her lip. She was not inclined to trust Othen with the information, but if it would make a difference over where Jeffen would scurry, Thia did not want to take any chances.

“Jeffen may have developed an interest in weaponry and fine decorative items,” Thia explained, holding out her hand to indicate the size of her dagger. “Weaponry about, say, this long and, um, pointy.”

Othen chucked. “I am but a mere informal acquaintance of our friend Jeffen, but I am somewhat familiar with his modus operandi concerning these particular types of goods. In past situations regarding antiques, he has always sought the advice of Jeppers & Huzzal, his personal legal advisers.”

Othen waved a goodbye at them and started shouting about how much rotten fruit someone could obtain for a silver.

With that, Stenwin performed a smart, short bow, then tapped Thia’s shoulder and motioned for her to follow him.

He led her into a alley, a crooked, narrow lane, but sufficient shelter from prying eyes. The alley was lined by stone and wooden buildings, engraved with plant life striving to cover every surface. Judging by the state of the structures, Thia thought it possible that the clinging vegetation was the only thing keeping the buildings upright.

Thia stared at Stenwin in confusion, her arms outstretched to emphasise how decidedly unhappy she was.

“Where are we going?” Thia slammed a fist against an ivy-covered wall and instantly regretted her decision. The aching shudder of the impact reverberated along her arm and up to her skull, causing her to clench her teeth in pain. If she were not already in a bad mood, she had certainly ensured it now.

Stenwin held up his hands to placate her anger. “We need to make our way to the bakery,” he stated, in a way that sounded like it was supposed to be an explanation.

He began walking but Thia grabbed his shoulder and twirled him around to face her, halting his determined march.

“Tell me, because I’m obviously an idiot,” Thia hissed, “Why are we going to a bloody baker when the fruit and nutty market trader specifically said, in as many words as possible, that we needed to see a solicitor?”

Stenwin smiled benignly, and held Thia’s shoulder. “I understand your personal effects are important to you, but I can assure you that -”

Stenwin’s next words flew from his mouth, inaudible, as Thia pushed him hard against the wall. She pressed her hands down on his shoulders and let him see the answer in her eyes.

“I need to find the things he stole from me,” Thia growled, aware as if from outside herself that her voice was getting louder, her skin blazing with rage. “They were mine. They are all I have. Do you understand that, Stenwin?”

Stenwin smiled at her, more sadly this time. “Yes, I do,” he said, “I very much understand.” He reached for one of her hands and patted it and suddenly Thia remembered she was not the only one abandoned by their past.

Thia released Stenwin, who stood upright and said, “The bakery is adjacent to Jeppers & Hazzal. Othen has a simple code; when he means one place, he states another. Each location is set. It avoids the impression that he is directing people towards a criminal element.”

Stenwin began walking once more, but continued speaking as Thia followed behind. “Othen has proven a useful ally,” he explained. “I needed some information about a local ne’er do well and Othen offered some advice on the matter. I’ve taken care to acquaint myself better with him.”

“You are sneakier than I thought, Stenwin,” Thia said, surprised at his aptitude. “I assumed you just hit things with swords.”

Stenwin smiled back. “Oh, I do that too,” he told her. “But I sometimes find that it’s more efficient to know where I should be swinging the mighty sword in my hands before taking aim.”

Thia snorted at the phrasing, but waved at Stenwin to continue. “My apologies,” she said, hand muffling her voice, “I appear to have a very, very silly imagination. Please: lead on.”