By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 29 - Winter's Embrace
Somewhere in the Reaching Woods, 1371 DR, Eleint, 9th day
Immerine’s face burns in shame and embarrassment. She leans low across Qwenta’s neck and trusts her stallion to take her where she needs to go. Thoughts race in her mind, ‘How stupid she is, how silly she sounded yelling at the top of her lungs, how sorry she feels and how guilty she feels for abandoning the group because of a few hurts.’
At first Qwenta seems to head in the direction of Berdusk, but as soon as the city’s walls come in sight, Qwenta veers off on a course parallel with the city. Coming up behind her, Immerine can hear the sound of another horse following. Yet the other rider seems unable to gain ground on the speeding Qwenta. The wind blowing her hair back, the sound of her cloak flapping, and the sheer speed of Qwenta almost flying over the ground sends a wave of exhilaration though the young woman’s body as she struggles with her feelings.
Immerine focuses on the surge of Qwenta’s muscles beneath her. She looses the reins and gives the stallion his head, wrapping her arms around his neck. She continues thus for many moments. She finally opens her eyes against the rushing wind, her beautiful orbs tearing against the force against them. She suddenly realizes she has no idea where they are. Panic seizes her and she whispers urgently in Qwenta’s ears, “Whoa, my beauty slow down!”
Qwenta seems to have enjoyed racing along enough, and as his mistress whispers him slow down, the horse obeys and comes slowly to a stop. Foam has gathered around his nose and mouth, and his flanks are wet and white with sweat. The cool breeze notifies Immerine that she is sweating as well. The evaporating moisture sends a shiver through her body. As Qwenta steps forward again to remain in motion, Immerine realizes that she doesn’t hear her pursuer anymore.
Immerine sits up and looks around as Qwenta slowly cools down. “Well, the only thing this accomplished was to get us lost.” She slips off Qwenta’s back and lands hard, jarring her wounded hip. A very unladylike phrase graces her soft lips as Immerine winces and almost loses her footing. She walks to Qwenta’s side to get her staff and leans on it as she turns in circles trying to get her bearings. Finally, she looks to the ground to see if she can pick up Qwenta’s hurried trail.
It doesn’t take long before she spots the trail in the soft soil. Leading Qwenta by the reigns, Immerine follows the tracks back to where she came from. Her sore hip bothering her at first, but after walking several yards, the muscles seem to loosen and walking becomes less painful. Dreading how her hip might feel in the morning, Immerine continues.
The smell of autumn is thick in the air. Rotting leaves on the ground providing warmth in the winter and next year’s sustenance to the plants, give of their typical smell. Toadstools and mushrooms grow in abundance near the trees. A patch of bright orange fungi decorates a fallen tree, covered with lichen. Though the season is often associated with death and decay, it has a beauty of its own.
The sun has lowered considerably when Immerine spots movement ahead. At first Immerine freezes in place, when Qwenta does not react adversely she slowly continues her trek, while keeping her eyes alert for danger and her ears tuned to the sounds of nature.
Getting a little closer, Immerine sees that it is a horse, a horse without a rider, but fully saddled. The horse seems to favor one leg as it stands still. Carefully approaching Immerine speaks to the horse in a soothing voice. The horse’s ears prick up at the sound and it utters a painful whinny. It is obvious that the horse is in pain, and when Immerine looks closer, she sees it’s right front leg seems to be broken.
Approaching faster, but still careful as not to spook the horse, Immerine’s eyes widen in surprise: Not far from the wounded horse lies the still form of Lieutenant Aluar. His left leg lies at an awkward angle, and Immerine can see the white of a leg bone protruding. The man’s situation looks very bad, his hair is matted in blood, and his right arm is tucked underneath his torso in a very uncomfortable way.
Immerine stares in disbelief at the scene before her. “Oh what have I done…?” She says in horror. Immediately she turns to Qwenta’s packs and pulls her healer’s kit from its depths. “Qwenta, dearest, please if you can understand me in any way. Keep the horse calm.” She drops to the Lieutenant’s side and checks first for a pulse, if the man is still alive she prays to Khelliara to help her stabilize him.
The Lieutenant’s pulse is slow, but still there. His chest heaves only slightly indicating that the body is still able to breathe though be it with apparent effort. Though Qwenta doesn’t move from the spot Immerine left him, the stallion’s presence seems to have a quieting effect on the wounded horse.
The wound at the man’s head seems to have stopped flowing, but it’s hard to tell how much blood he has lost. Praying to Khelliara, Immerine beseeches her for aid. Though the mystical flow of healing energy leaves behind a headache, a pulsating greenish light enveloping her hands as Immerine moves her hands over the body, before fading rapidly. Her goddess does allow Immerine to stabilize the wounded man, yet leaves Immerine feeling drained. Only then does she feel the cold wetness of the forest floor.
Immerine winces at the throbbing pain behind her eyes, and pulls her healer’s kit to her side. Her hand dips inside and she looks for two potion bottles. Finding them she sighs deeply. “For emergencies, when all else is lost and hope is bleak.” She whispers and uncorks one of the bottles. Immerine tilts the man’s head slightly and slowly dribbles the potion of cure light wounds into his mouth. Once he breathes a bit easier she lays his head back down gently and takes stock of the situation. The potion seems to have eased the man’s breathing; it has returned to a regular more deep in – and exhaling.
Immerine leaves the man and the horse momentarily where they are, and starts searching the immediate vicinity. After gathering some branches twigs and leaves, Immerine constructs a lean-to. She places her bedroll under the lean-to for the lieutenant. Carefully she lifts the man, and drags him slowly to the makeshift shelter. With some of the remaining wood, she builds a small sheltered fire and sets it up to force the heat into the lean-to while venting the smoke away from the camp.
Using her knife, Immerine prepares several sets sturdy pieces of wood to use as braces for the Lieutenant’s broken bones. With the man still unconscious, se sets to work to set the bones and fix the braces. After setting his bones and bracing them Immerine leaves the lean-to and walks toward Aluar’s horse. Slowly approaching the animal, she speaks soothingly to it and tries to comfort the wounded animal. The horse responds well to Immerine’s approach and remains calm, letting itself be patted, though now and then nervous shivers race through its body. Immerine kneels down next to the horse, carefully examining the condition of the leg.
The leg seems to be broken, but the bones are still aligned in the right way. Rising slowly as not to spook the animal, Immerine takes the second potion, uncorks it and forces the animal to drink it. The horse at first doesn’t want to drink the liquid and tries to toss its head up. Yet Immerine manages to prevent it from doing that. Speaking softly to the horse again, she tries a second time. Much to the woman’s surprise, the horse swallows the healing liquid this time.
Kneeling once more beside the horse to check if the potion had the desired effect. The horse still seems to favor its leg, but when Immerine touches it, the horse allows her to, and as far as she can tell, the broken leg has healed.
Satisfied that she has done all she can, Immerine tends Qwenta. Kissing the horse on the nose, she tethers them but gives a long lead rope so they can graze and takes leave of the two horses. She walks up to the lean to and huddles in with the Lieutenant to keep him warm. The sun has sunk below the trees and the clouds have covered most of the sky, creating an early dusk under the trees. The small fire provides some light to the two people in the lean-to, but the body warmth and the blanket are the only things that keep the cold night at bay. Keeping her healer’s kit ready, in case she needs to stave off shock and fevers from Aluar during the night, Immerine tries to get as much rest as she can.
Suddenly she awakes, the faint traces of the headache still there. It is as if something is amiss. Peering into the darkness, she sees almost nothing, but can hear nervous movements of the two horses. Slowly her eyes adjust somewhat to the darkness, and in the glow of the dying embers, she can make out the faint outlines of the nearby trees and the two horses. Then she hears something else… As if several creatures are talking all at the same time without making sense. The sound is faint at first, but becomes louder and louder. An incomprehensible unnerving collection of gibberish voices…
Immerine crawls from the shelter and retrieves her staff. She stands on alert and listens to the forest around her. Licking her lips she moves a few meters away and looks around. She is prepared to defend the wounded man and herself as best she can and grips the staff firmly.
The sound seems to come from behind the shelter, peering that way, Immerine thinks she can make out a roiling mass hurtling through the darkness toward her makeshift camp. Qwenta and the Lieutenant’s horse are neighing panicky, yanking on their tethers. The gibbering sound gets louder and louder as the mass comes closer.
Immerine’s heart leaps into her chest as she runs to the shelter lays her staff on the Lieutenant and tries to drag him out of the path of the roiling mass. Leaning under the lean-to, she momentarily loses sight of the gibbering mass. Immerine can hear the threat climbing up on the lean-to. The next thing she knows is something pulling on her tunic, dragging her backward. Quickly she grabs up her staff again to face the menace, placing herself between the wounded man and the attacker. In the dark gloom she sees not one, but several small furry creatures staring at her. The fur gleams oily in the glow of the embers. Several sets of hands are groping for the woman. One hand pulls from the staff and snakes up to the symbol about her neck to caress the crafted unicorn. “Khelliara give me strength to withstand whatever comes.” Immerine whispers.
Apparently one of the creatures landed in the remnants of the campfire. It dances wildly on one leg, shrieking out, adding a different sound to the distracting gibbering of its partners. Qwenta whinnies and kicks out with his hind legs, hitting only air. It is difficult for her to discern in the darkness, but at least four of the ugly creatures advance without apparent fear.
Immerine prepares to meet the creatures and balances lightly on the balls of her feet. She spares a momentary thought for the severely wounded man behind her before facing the advancing creatures. As the first of the little monsters jump at her, Immerine brings her staff down in a fluid move. The Rashemen woman is rewarded with a resounding crack as her quarterstaff connects with the beast’s skull and the beast crumples down in a furry heap. Her victory is short-lived however.
The other creatures jump at her, hands groping and jaws snapping all the while uttering the eerie gibbering. Bringing her staff around in another series of quick movements, Immerine manages to down another of the creatures, before she feels nails raking across her armor and teeth sinking painfully into her flesh, opening numerous gashes. The creatures seem to swarm over one another, as if in a hurry to get to their prey. Immerine manages to remain upright, despite the weight of the creatures. One has managed to hang onto her back in an awkward way, plunging its sharp teeth into the woman’s side; another has attached itself to her left leg, holding on tightly as a third has crawled on top of the second one and has raked a bloody gash across Immerine’s neck.
From the corners of her eyes, Immerine can she other small dark shapes moving around where the horses are. Qwenta and the other horse don’t seem to want to go down without a fight as she can hear their legs kicking out at the oily threats. A dark shape flies through the air, and lands with a sickening thud against a nearby tree. The individual that had rolled into the campfire seems to have regained some of its senses and is advancing on the veiled woman.
Immerine cries out in pain as the beasts tear into her. She keeps her feet and continues to defend the unconscious man behind her. “You will not have him so long as I stand.” She snarls at the vicious and single-minded creatures. The creatures don’t seem to take notice and keep on their attack. Immerine feels again teeth sinking into her leg, bringing her out of balance. The weight of the monster on her back dragging her downward, but the creature itself looses its hold on the woman and falls to the ground. As the valiant woman falls down, she momentarily sees a silent white shape gliding over the battle scene. Bringing her staff up in defense, while twisting to break her fall, Immerine manages to dislodge the persistent creature on her leg. Her third attacker lands on top of the woman as she connects with the forest floor, its teeth sinking through her armor and into the soft flesh of her left breast. She feels the weight of another creature land on her arm, pinning her arm and weapon to the ground.
The world slows to a crawl for Immerine, pain flows through her as she tries one last rally against the creatures. She opens herself completely to her faith trusting wholly in her goddess to deliver her to her fate while trying to dislodge the creature pinning her to the ground.
Intense cold air flows close to Immerine, sending intense shivers across her wounded body. The creature that was about to sink its teeth into the woman’s head shrieks in agony, sending a breath of foul air into Immerine’s face before tumbling suddenly silent away from the prone woman. The little monster’s ugly features fall away from Immerine’s line of sight, only to be replaced by the muzzle of a large white wolf. Its intelligent ice-blue eyes stare for a moment into the emerald green ones that belong to Immerine.
Then in a lightning quick move the wolf strikes. Its jaws snapping shut on the remaining creature. Snapping the little monster’s spine with its powerful bite, the wolf shakes its prey a few times before flinging it away.
Immerine struggles to her feet during the respite and prepares for the next onslaught of the beasts. Looking frantically around her to see where the next attack is coming from, Immerine sees the large white wolf closing its powerful jaws on another of the small creatures. Glancing over to where the horses are, she hears panicky whinnying again. Another large white wolf is attacking two of the small creatures, but scaring the horses in the process. The whites of their eyes gleaming in the darkness as the horses try to avoid the bigger threat.
At her feet one of the oily creatures is stirring again, its hungry eyes staring at the wounded woman. Baring its teeth it seems ready to attack. At the moment it wants to spring forward, the small silently flying white shape Immerine saw previously, rakes the creature, disrupting the attack.
Immerine watches the wolf like she is in a dream. She turns to walk to the horses and help dispatch the remaining creatures. She focuses on putting one foot in front of the other.
“Stay!” Immerine hears a voice from behind her. She is about to take another step when the command comes. Looking around, she only sees one of the two white wolves sitting on its haunches. It is licking the blood from its muzzle and paw, while looking at the woman. Perched on the lean-to is what appears to be a snow-owl.
Turning to face the two unusual animals she says, “They are afraid and may hurt themselves… I need to calm them.” Immerine is torn between the command and helping Qwenta. Her breath comes in heavy puffs in the cold night air.
“They will be ok in a moment, just sit down.” A feminine voice comes from the direction of the horses.
Immerine takes one last deep breath and uses her staff to slide gratefully to the ground. She looks to the symbol around her neck and touches it reverently. “Thank – you Lady for your grace in saving us.”
“I’m not the Lady you are referring to, but your thanks is appreciated.” Despite the pleasant words, the voice seems to lack emotional warmth. Immerine hears the sound of breaking bones coming from the direction of the voice. “That was the last.”
Immerine looks at the small oily bodies and her face scrunches in puzzlement behind her tattered mask as she tries to place them. Then she looks at the numerous wounds she received and closes her eyes momentarily in weariness. “How is this possible? My speaking to you, I mean.” She asks as she rests her eyes.
“Not as strange as you might think.” The feminine voice says, drawing Immerine’s eyes in curiosity. What Immerine sees is a large white wolf staring at her. As Immerine looks into the ice blue eyes, the world begins to shimmer… or is it the wolf… apparently the latter Immerine concludes, as the wolf shape seems to grow and blur further.
As the shimmering form solidifies, Immerine sees a woman standing where the white wolf was but moments before. The woman is of lithe build, and has delicate features. In stark contrast with the weather the woman is wearing no clothes to speak of. A pair of doeskin boots, a thin cape, a belt and a necklace is all that covers her body.
Her breasts heaving with breathing as if catching her breath, no clouds seem to form when she exhales into the frosty air. When the woman walks up to the makeshift camp, Immerine sees a satchel and a slightly curved sword hanging from the belt. The necklace seems to be made from the claws of some animal and holds a small lozenge shaped symbol. She reaches in the satchel and throws something on the remnants of the campfire. Immediately the fire comes back to life, radiating comfortable warmth.
In the flickering light of the fire, Immerine can tell the woman has long raven black hair and intense blue eyes. Though no warmth comes from those eyes, just a neutral stare. Reaching once more into the satchel, the woman pulls out a simple shift and pulls that over her head to cover her body. Though Immerine has the impression that the shift has nothing to do with modesty.
“I’m Cyrysta, guardian of the winter wood…“ The woman introduces herself. She gestures to the two animals near the lean-to, “…and these are my companions SnowFang and Hoot.“
Immerine inclines her head to the owl and wolf as well as Cyrysta. “I am called Immerine. My companion…“ She indicates Qwenta, “…is Qwenta. The wounded man is Lieutenant Aluar of the city of Berdusk and the other horse is his. I owe you and your companions a life debt for myself and these others.“
“What were those creatures? I have never seen their kind.“ As Immerine asks she checks all three over visually to make sure they are not wounded, then looks at her own wounds and winces. She turns quickly, remembering Qwenta and the other horse, and moves to get up and check them. Her quick movement catches her system by surprise however, and her body protests, sending black spots swimming in her vision.
“You’d better stay girl.“ Cyrysta says in a firm voice that just stops short of a command. “You don’t have to fear from my friends or me. You’re a daughter of the forest, and therefore under my protection.“ Having readjusted her gear, the woman walks up to Immerine, offering her support. “Let’s go and get you in bed with the soldier. I will look after the two of you. You just take a rest.“ Up close, Immerine recognizes the symbol hanging on the bearclaw necklace, the lozenge with the snowflake symbol: Auril, the Frostmaiden.
Immerine blinks her eyes several times trying to clear away the spots. “But I don’t want to go to bed with the soldier, I hardly know him at all. I helped him because he was thrown and his arm and leg were broken and his poor horse had a broken leg too and then these things came and now… and now I am panicking.“ She takes a deep breath.
“Don’t be foolish girl.“ Cyrysta looks Immerine sternly in the eyes. “It’s going to be cold tonight. You both will need the warmth your bodies can provide.“ The woman strikes Immerine as somewhat inhuman, her accent has a strange tilt to it, almost elvish.
Immerine focuses on the symbol of Auril, “I know this symbol… the Icemaiden, correct?“ There is a hint of disbelief in Immerine’s voice.
“Yes I serve the Ice Maiden, so unlike the two of you, I’m not bothered by the cold and know what it can do to those not used to it.“ Putting her hand on Immerine’s shoulder the strange woman turns Immerine toward the lean-to. “You might want to remove your armor and most of your clothes so I can tend to your wounds. That is if you want me to treat them.“ The woman’s voice remains cold and somewhat uncaring in contrast to the words. “The little critters are not the most healthy around, and you might catch a disease if the wounds aren’t treated. It’s up to you.“
Immerine looks down at the lieutenant, “Agreed. I will share the blankets with him. I would also appreciate you aid in treating my wounds. I have a healer’s kit, but I am beginning to run low on its supplies and have not yet had a chance to observe many properties of the flora in this area. I ask that if you can, you see to the horses, please.“ She allows the woman to direct her to the lean-to and slowly removes her armor.
“I’ll check on the horses, you just lay down, and I’ll check on you and the man in a moment.“ Turning around Cyrysta walks towards the horses, whispering something. Both horses seem to allow the woman to approach. From what Immerine can see as she removes her damaged armor, Qwenta and the other horse seem to calm down as the woman reaches them. A flurry of movement catches Immerine’s eye and when she turns to look, she sees the owl flying away. Of the other wolf there is no sign.
Immerine shivers as the temperature drops once she is out of her clothes, but keeps her facemask on. She looks at the numerous wounds about her body and shakes her head. “I should have gone back with the soldiers.“ She whispers. After looking at her wounds she glances over to make sure Qwenta is being taken care of and smiles as she watches the woman. “You are skilled, again I thank – you.“
The woman seems to ignore Immerine for the moment. She takes her time examining the wounds on the horses and soothing the animals. After a short while the woman walks back up to the camp. Cyrysta squats down a little away from the campfire and pulls several small pouches from the satchel at her waist. Mumbling in a tongue Immerine doesn’t recognize, Cyrysta seems to mixing several components in a small bowl, all the while making strange gestures with her hands.
Once she is done, she walks back to the horses. From the lean-to Immerine can’t see what’s going on. After a while the woman returns, and this time walks up to the lean-to. “Whom do you want me to treat first?“ Cyrysta asks.
“P – p – please. Treat the man. I – I – I did so earlier b – b – but I ran out of herbs and healing magic.“ She chatters in the cold.
The woman kneels down next to the man and she opens the bedroll. The cold air raises goose bumps on the man’s arms. Cyrysta opens the man’s tunic and starts examining him. Looking over to where Immerine is seated she says, “Seems your treatment has repaired most of his injuries. I’ll treat him a little more. For the rest he just needs to sleep and get rested. Tomorrow he’ll feel… stiff and sore, like you will.“ Dipping her fingers in the small bowl, the woman applies a grayish paste to the man’s chest and forehead. Lieutenant Aluar starts to groan a little when the paste is applied, but his eyes remain closed. Cyrysta mumbles a few words in that strange tongue and a blue glow spreads from the paste, running in rivulets across the man’s torso and head before winking out.
“Now, you’d better get in here with the man, and I’ll treat your wounds as well.“ Cyrysta says as she looks again over to Immerine. The cold blue eyes are taking in the young witch’s body, examining it.
Immerine looks over with strong reservations. Finally she stands and moves over to the lean to and climbs in with the Lieutenant. “I have very little in this world. What may I do to repay your actions?“
“To continue in your efforts to rid the world of undead abominations.“ Cyrysta answers, examining Immerine’s wounds. The woman’s hands are cold to the touch, sending involuntary shivers across Immerine’s body. “There are fell forces at work in the area creating more abominations, even bringing them from afar by magic.“ Dipping her fingers into the small bowl, the woman scoops some more of the grayish paste and applies it to the wounds on Immerine’s legs. The paste has a numbing effect when it contacts the skin. The young woman hardly notices the other woman’s fingers running over her legs applying more paste to the remaining wounds.
“Some of my allies felt a surge of power a while ago, not far from the city. A spirit of nature answering a call to banish an un-living creature.“ The blue eyes make brief contact with the emerald, a cool stare reminding Immerine of an ice-cold mountain lake. “It seems that you have been deemed a worthy vessel to combat the corrupting ones.“
Having treated Immerine’s legs, Cyrysta moves to kneel beside Immerine and opens the young woman’s shirt. “When nature finds you a worthy champion, that makes you an ally of mine.“ Immerine has to wince slightly as the woman applies the paste to her breast. Cyrysta again starts a soft chant after having applied the last of the paste, resulting in a similar effect Immerine had witnessed on the Lieutenant. The blue glow has a cool soothing effect, and Immerine feels overcome by a wave of drowsiness.
Immerine’s eyes flutter as she struggles to stay awake a few more moments, “I will never allow such abominations to thrive, while I live.“ She tries to formulate the right words in the growing fog of exhaustion and numbing sleep, but cannot. She loses the battle and her eyes close on their own and she falls asleep her body limply collapsing backwards.
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