By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 36 - A White Morning
Berdusk, 1371 DR, Eleint, 10th day, early in the morning
The smell of fresh snow and the warmth of a body next to hers, slowly creep into Immerine’s consciousness as the process of waking up begins. Snuggling a little closer to the body next to her, Immerine reaches out to her companion, and feels a rough material at her fingertips. Fingers? The thought of fingers strikes Immerine as odd. What happened to paws? Immerine sits bolt upright and looks around. Where is she now? What happened to Lucan?
“Wow! Easy now.“ Immerine feels a hand reach out to her as a man’s voice calls out, filled with concern. The warm hand is touching her bare skin, which is covered in goose bumps. The frosty air sends shivers down her spine, as she looks around bewildered yet her brain does not register clearly what she sees. All muscles in her body protest at the rapid movements, they are still stiff and sore from the abuse they’ve taken, and a pain stabs her in the side. The man’s hand is gently pulling her down into the bedroll again. “Hush… Ehm… you’d better lay down, and wake slowly.“ There concern in the man’s voice is evident to Immerine as his gentle strength forces her back to the ground.
Immerine looks down at herself and sees flesh. She looks at the man and sees flesh. She lies perfectly still where he has pushed her back under the bedroll. She blinks at the early light glittering through the trees. Her eyes dart around looking for her clothes. “You are well, Lieutenant? Why did you follow me at such a breakneck pace? I thought surely a man like you would understand the dangers involved.“ She does not move and he can tell she is bunched up like a frightened hare, despite the even tone in her voice.
“I’ll get your clothes; you’d better remain under the covers.“ Getting up and out of the bedroll, the Lieutenant takes of his tunic. His well-muscled torso is sparsely covered reddish hair and showing only a few scars. “Here, this is warm, please put it on.“ He hands over his tunic to Immerine. “I’ll be all right. I will tend to the horses. That should keep me warm enough.“ Crawling into a corner of the lean-to, he retrieves Immerine’s clothes. “You managed quite well in saving me. Thank you. Oh… ehm… please call me Barim… ehm… that’s my name.“ Barim smiles a little awkward as he hands the clothes over to Immerine. “You might want to tuck your clothes in with you to warm them up before you put them on. I’ll go and see to the horses now.“ Moving out of the lean to, Barim walks over to the two horses, which are standing quietly where Immerine left them last night.
“If you do not mind Lieutenant, I would rather maintain a distance with you. Calling you by your proper name makes me even more uncomfortable.“ She tries to keep her eyes averted from his torso, but they sneak back from time to time.
“I saved you, but there was a battle here last night and I almost lost. A lady and her animal companions aided us and tended my wounds.“ Immerine looks down at all the fresh wounds/scars. She also looks for the deep wound on what would comparable to a wolf’s flank. On the left side of her torso she sees a partially healed wound. The scar tissue has ripped open a little, and a trickle of blood flows down to her hip.
“Wow, you have been quite busy.“ Barim says, a hint of admiration in his voice, “Saving me, battling, building a shelter, gathering firewood and even fetching fresh straw for the horses.“ Barim bends through his knees and picks up a handful of straw. “You’re an amazing woman.“
“We need to get back to Berdusk. He will be… I mean, they will be worried.“ Immerine turns too quickly to look for her clothes and groans in pain at the stiffness in her body. Suddenly she raises her hand to her face to make sure the mask is still in place. Finding no mask, Immerine shrieks in fear, and covers her head with the tunic and peeks don the armhole. She looks about frantically for her facemask. She rolls out of the bed despite the cold and her body’s complaints. “M – m – my mask! I have to find my mask!“
At her shriek, the Lieutenant turns around, worry etched on his face, he sees Immerine crawling on all fours to find her mask and clothes in the lean-to. Stark naked, she only has her face covered with his tunic. Before Immerine can react Barim quickly turns around facing the horses, and occupying himself with rubbing Qwenta’s flank. Finding her mask, Immerine quickly dons it. Picking up her clothes, she crawls out of the lean to.
Immerine quickly dresses, shivering as the stiff and cold clothing comes in contact with her skin, then faces the Lieutenant and tosses his tunic back to him. “I did not bring the horses hay, the Lady of the Ice Queen did. She also tended my wounds after defeating the remaining foes that would have killed us all. It is she you should thank.“ Immerine kicks at the snow for a moment. Catching the piece of clothing, the Lieutenant quickly pulls it on. It must have colder then he thought.
“You saw my face… please… do not speak of this to anyone. If we were in my home and if I were, well – a full-fledged member of my sisterhood – I would have to kill you. You are what I believe to be a man of honor, may I have your pledge on this.“ The tone in her voice makes it apparent she considers this more important than seeing the rest of her bare body.
“I will give you my word milady.“ Lieutenant Aluar says while kneeling and bowing his head in front of Immerine, “You have saved my live, I would have perished in the snow had you not come back looking for me. I’ll pledge my honor and my word not to speak of what transpired here.“ Looking up at Immerine he continues, with the same sincerity in his voice, “When asked what happened, I’ll state that we took shelter for the storm. With last night’s weather, that is not unlikely. My men will see the wisdom of that, and that will be it.“
“Your men of Berdusk… they would kill a wolf who only meant to save a man.“ Immerine’s eyes take on a faraway look and she murmurs her dream softly, “Last night Saer Ashgale was hurt and lost in the storm. He was rescued by a pair of wolves, a male and a female. The wolves took him to the city walls outside the gate. The female wolf stayed beside him and howled loudly to get the attention of the watchers on the walls. She remained motionless and lay beside the wounded man the entire time. When your men came from the city they shouted to drive the wolf away, yet she stayed beside the man. Then… then one of them raised a crossbow and shot her, though there was regret in his eyes.“ She presses a hand against the bleeding wound in her side.
Still kneeling, Lieutenant Aluar listens attentively to Immerine’s tale, his eyes momentarily flickering in surprise when Immerine suddenly says accusingly, “Your men fear what they do not understand, and would rather destroy it.“ She walks over to Qwenta and says good morning to her steed and best friend. Standing up, Aluar hesitates for a moment, staring after Immerine. “I can understand what my men did. Though not generally a problem, some of the outlying farms have been attacked by wolves. This will happen almost every winter. Seeing a man lying in the snow, a wolf sitting beside him… I can imagine the guards’ reaction.“
“Lying! She was lying beside him, sharing her warmth with him to keep him alive.“ Immerine stops abruptly realizing she is getting upset over something she is unsure was a dream or not. “Never mind, it may not have even happened. As soon as you are ready we should leave.“ She bites her lip as waves of agony from her overtaxed body assault her.
Taken aback by her reaction, Lieutenant Aluar involuntarily steps back a pace. Shrugging his shoulders, he turns around and busies himself with grooming his own horse. As both turn their attention to the content horses in silence, the only sounds are those of the horses snorting now and then and the occasional rattling of branches or the sound of falling clumps of snow. Overhead the sky is gray. With the temperature slowly rising a little, it looks like it’s going to rain soon.
When the first drops of rain start to fall, both Immerine and the Lieutenant have their horses ready and saddled. “Before we leave I must do something, I have trouble connecting to my goddess in the surroundings of your city.“ Immerine whispers to Qwenta asking him to behave while she prays to Khelliara. Without waiting for a response from the Lieutenant she walks several paces from the man and settles on the ground.
Emptying her mind of pain, worry, fear and selfishness, Immerine focuses on the sounds around her and the love she has for her goddess. “Lady, I pray that you forgive me for my rash actions yesterday which caused the hurts to the man behind me. I will strive to think before I act in such a manner again. I feel such strangeness here and I am trying to understand what is required of me. My dreams – I think they were dreams – direct me in odd ways. If what happened did happen…“ She sighs at the memory, “I will cherish it forever. I ask that you allow your servant to continue to direct your power where it may best be used to aid others. Thank you for the life I have been given twice over since yesterday.“ She falls silent and focuses again on the woods surrounding her, staying still for some time. Then she sees a blue-white radiance enveloping a single leaf hanging from a low branch. Lazily the leaf drifts towards the ground, only to vanish upon touching the ground. At that moment a feeling of peace flows briefly through Immerine’s veins. Once finished she returns to the Lieutenant and the horses. “I am ready to continue now.“
In silence they lead their mounts through the forest towards the forest edge. Reaching more open space, both riders mount their horses in, what has now become a steady drizzle. The once pristine white snow is rapidly turning into an ugly slush, making the footing slippery for the horses. Lieutenant Aluar is the first to break the silence, “Not to offend you milady, but please don’t let your horse get away like it did yesterday. The current conditions make anything faster than a walk hazardous.“
“My horse did not ‘get away’. I gave Qwenta his head and asked him to take me as far from Berdusk as he could. After our ride, I realized I could not abandon everything that drew me here. I began riding back and that was when I found you and your horse. I can hardly be offended over something that did not occur.“ Her voice is quiet and she begins to withdraw into herself again. “Thank you for your promise… Barim. I wanted you to know I appreciate it.“ She falls silent once again.
The ride is dull and monotonous with the gray haze created by the rain reducing visibility to less then 100 feet. The two riders stick close to the edge of the forest in their ride south. Their best guess in the direction to follow. The only distraction comes a while later; Immerine hears the soft tingling of bells coming from the open field. Qwenta also hears the sound, swiveling his ears and snorting, before lowering his head again, stepping dutifully through the muck.
Immerine places a hand on Qwenta’s neck and slows him to a stop so she can hear the tingling better. “Barim…“ She says quietly, “Do you hear that?“ Immerine perks herself up and around on Qwenta looking for and trying to otherwise sense the noise. Barim sits up straight in the saddle, peering through the drizzle. “Yes.“ He whispers to Immerine, “It seems to come from that direction.“ Gesturing into the open field, Barim slowly draws his sword, and nudges his mount into the direction of the sound.
Immerine nudges Qwenta into the field. She turns her head from side to side until she realizes what she is doing and instead starts looking around. As the two riders close in on the sound, they see two fully packed mules browsing on some long and hardy grass. A single leading rope that trails on the ground connects both animals. Connected to their gear are small bells, responsible for the tinkling sound. The packs are covered under a piece of canvas, but the canvas has shifted somewhat, allowing the rain to drench the equipment underneath. The packs hold a pick, a tent, clothes, a rope, a spade and full saddlebags. One of the mules also carries a backpack.
Immerine peers closer and brings Qwenta to a halt. She dismounts and searches the area looking for the pack handler of the mules. It takes her a while, yet she finds no traces of the handler(s). The only traces she finds are the muddied tracks of where the mules have trodden while browsing. She can only follow them for a short distance before the trail is lost in the melting snow and continuing drizzle. Walking back to the mules, Barim has already taken the rope of the lead mule and has mounted his horse.
“I don’t think we’ll find the owner.“ Barim says, “The way the equipment is loaded on the mules. It seems these animals have been out by themselves all night.“ Showing the frayed end of the lead rope, he continues, “They have gotten themselves loose, by biting through the rope. They could have wandered from anywhere. Let’s take them back to Berdusk.“
Immerine pauses for a moment and looks around the field again. Sighing she takes off her mask. “Much easier to do this without these blinders on…“ She mutters. She approaches the mules and looks over their equipment before getting back atop Qwenta. Looking once more around, she nudges Qwenta onward. Lieutenant Aluar follows with the two mules in tow.
Finally, the drizzle has abated; enabling the two wet riders to see further ahead and Lieutenant Aluar sees a recognizable landmark. Shifting a little in the saddle, he brushes a few wet hairs out of his face. “I know where we are now. Not long and we should see the walls of the city.“ The confidence and relief in Barim’s voice convincing Immerine that he is not merely trying to reassure her.
Proof to the Lieutenant’s statement is delivered a while later. Out of the wisps of fog the looming gray walls of Berdusk appear. Beyond the walls, Castle Hill is hidden within the low hanging clouds. Though the forest road is within reach, both of the riders see the wisdom of riding through the fields. The snow and rain have transformed the forest road into a virtual river of mud. Making steady pace, the riders finally arrive at the gates. When the guardsman emerges from his post, he looks up at the two. “Lieutenant!“ He exclaims surprised. “We… we were… Welcome back saer!“ The guardsman snaps a salute at his officer and his masked companion.
Acknowledging the salute, Lieutenant Aluar presses on, heading straight for the castle. Though before they can turn up toward the castle, other riders approach them. Riding at the head of the group is Captain Zaina. Her long blond hair tied back in a ponytail, but otherwise free to the elements.
Upon seeing Barim and Immerine, her face splits in a smile as she urges her horse forward to meet them. “Glad to see the both of you are alive and well.“ She says as she returns Aluar’s salute. Looking at her officer and at Immerine assessing if they are in need of a healer, she rides up to Immerine. Laying her gloves hand on Immerine’s arm, Captain Zaina looks into Immerine’s eyes. “Saer Ashgale was very worried about your disappearance yesterday. So much so that he risked his life in finding you. By all reports he almost lost it.“ The Captain’s eyes betray no emotion; her cool blue eyes remain focused on Immerine’s green eyes. “He is being looked after at the moment. If you want, I can take you to him.“
Immerine holds the woman’s gaze with her own eyes. Years of hiding her emotions have schooled Immerine’s face into its own mask of complacency. “Yes Captain, I would like to see him. I am pleased Lord Ashgale was recovered safely. But, if you do not mind, I am leery of the methods those within these cold walls have of treating the wounded.“
A flash of – what, anger? – flickers in the captain’s eyes. Her tone instantly becomes less warm, just shy of outright cold. “If you will follow me then.“ She wheels her horse about. If she’s angry she keeps it well hidden. Her behavior resembles cool detached professionalism. “Lieutenant, report to Alert Fallonahr. Dismissed.“
A brief ride through the streets takes the Captain and Immerine to an elegant yet simple mansion. A single tower rises in the air at one corner, like the trunk of a tree it seems to grow out of the building. Hitching their horses to the gate, Captain Zaina gestures Immerine to proceed and walk up to the door. Before Immerine is halfway, the door already opens, and an elderly servant bows, welcoming them in.
“My thanks Captain.“ Immerine says as she is waved to the lead position. When the servant bows Immerine crooks up an eyebrow. Immerine smiles at the servant, “Elderly father, there is no need to bow to me. We are both on equal terms in the grand scheme of life.“ She reaches out to the man and helps back to a standing position. “I am sure the Captain agrees. I hear she holds no pretenses about social status. Your years have earned you respect. I ask that you merely allow us to attend Lord Ashgale. Is he in residence presently?“
“As you wish milady.“ The servant replies, this time not bowing, just inclining his head slightly. Closing the door behind Captain Zaina addresses he addresses them both, “Saer Ashgale is in. If the ladies will follow me?“ Before the man has led the two visitors towards the stairs, a woman impeccably dressed glides out of a side room. “Welcome in my home ladies. I’m Shevralindra Angruatil.“ The half-elven lady dressed in an exquisite moss-green velvet dress that accentuates the curves of her body. Draped around her slender neck a silver collier set with diamonds. The tip of her left ear holds a diamond studded silver earring to match the collier. “You are here to see Lord Ashgale. He should be awake by now. Follow me please.“
Elegantly the lady moves towards the stairs and leads her guests up into the tower. Stopping at a door, Lady Angruatil brings her finger to her lips in a gesture of silence. Quietly the door opens, and the women see a naked Matteo hop on one leg through the room. Well naked… most of his torso is covered in bandaging and his right leg is set in a cast. He has wrapped a bed sheet around his lower body, but it slipped giving the women a brief glimpse of his rear end before he turns towards the sound. Lady Angruatil steps into the doorway, blocking the view for the other two.
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