The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 2

Ilinnia regarded the fading daylight as she walked through the waist-high grass. She stepped lightly to avoid getting burrs caught in her sandals. She had hoped to make the village of Tarn before nightfall, with the promise of a real bed luring her to skip the noon-day meal. Now that hope was diminishing with the sun’s orange glow. Like most queferi, Ilinnia lived on the coast and had never ventured so far inland before. The idea of another night camping alone in bracken after almost two weeks on the road came as a great disappointment.

After several minutes of weaving through a thicket taller than her four-and-a-half-feet, Ilinnia paused, shook out her tumble of azure curls and contemplated. Queferi children grew up with stories of angry wraiths lurking in the shadows of trees. Even the Elders had warned her at the start of her journey of the road’s treacheries past nightfall. But Ilinnia had a weapon the Elders were not aware of.

She rummaged in her pack until she found the heavy stone wrapped in cloth. It was a quartz geode her eldest sister Aurelia had enchanted for her. Learning how to unlock the spell had been Ilinnia’s first step toward becoming a Maion, a spirit weaver. Aurelia hadn’t known how long the spell would last once it was invoked and had cautioned her to use it wisely.

Ilinnia weighed the stone in her hand, comforted by its heaviness. While she pondered, the sun shrank to a wavering lip of yellow on the horizon.

“Only when it is completely dark,” she promised. “And only until I can see Tarn.”

The tall grasses soon gave way to trees, young saplings that flanked a road on either side. In the daylight the scene would have been pleasant, but now it was a tunnel of consuming darkness. Ilinnia tried hard not to imagine it as a mouth opening to swallow her. Around her, the insects began an eerie cacophony of noise. Clutching the geode, she forged on into the gullet of twilight.

As the forest thickened and the trees grew closer together, they formed a roof over her head. In places where the path ran beneath one of the great tyrants, a knot of dread tightened in Ilinnia’s stomach. When fear began to overwhelm her, she stopped. Beneath the crossed branches, night’s rule was complete. It was so dark she couldn’t be sure she still followed the road.

She knelt on a patch of fallen leaves and wrapped her fingers around the stone. She imagined herself within its heart, protected, safe from the evils that stalked in the darkness. Beneath its rough surface, she could feel the warmth of Aurelia’s magic, her sister’s love for her, and she called to it.
  The stone pulsed. Startled, Ilinnia almost dropped it. She twisted her hands, and the geode split into two pieces. Silvery light glowed from each facet of crystal, and the shadows fled in terror.

Ilinnia drank in the light and renewed her courage. She dampened the spell on one piece of the stone, wrapped it back in its cloth and put it away. She held the other like a bastion to keep the night at bay.   The path lay beneath her feet; she hadn’t strayed from it after all.

She held the stone aloft and started walking, but she hadn’t gone far before pausing again. A trail of blood mixed with the dirt. It laid a grisly path across the road and veered to the right, where the trees grew denser. As she peered into the darkened eaves of the forest, it seemed to her that the shadows peered back.

The voices of not only the Elders, but of her family railed in her memory, warning her not to leave the path under any circumstances. Slowly, Ilinnia’s heart beat back the voices of her mind. The calling of the Maion was that of healer and guide, learning to weave the energies of the earth to protect all under her charge. This blood had not fallen long ago—whatever creature had passed was surely suffering. Perhaps this was a test by the Ai, the spirits, to see if she possessed a soul worthy to serve them.

Ilinnia brandished the shining crystal and left the road.

Minutes passed as Ilinnia tracked the macabre trail. Her nerves frayed a little farther when two sets of heavy boot prints joined the crimson pathway. Just as she was about to turn back, she spied a natural light through the trees ahead.

Moonlight illuminated the clearing, and gave the grass and three fallen forms an unearthly glow. Ilinnia stepped out of the forest and let her guidelight shine over the figures. She studied them carefully. They appeared to be a little shorter than herself, not tall like the human folk she had seen, though they had heavier frames than any queferi she had known. One in particular gave off a faint scent of earth, reminding her of the tales her grandfather had told of his younger years. Sohntar. That was what he had called them. Three of them lay before her, but two were clearly dead.

The trail of blood, wider than before, led her straight to the third body. His bearded face was pale and glistened with sweat, but he still breathed shallowly. The most obvious wounds were in his right shoulder and left side. She knelt beside him to get a closer look.

The shoulder wound didn’t look deep, and the bleeding had already slowed, but the gashes in his side looked ugly. She pulled, and the crude bindings came away sticky with old and new blood. Beneath, the wound looked like claw marks from something big.

Ilinnia chewed her bottom lip nervously as she gazed down at the injured figure, then gave a small sigh. “I really hope you’re what the Ai wanted me to find,” she whispered to his still form. “Just… be nice when you wake up.”

Rolling up her sleeves, she set to work. She put the geode down next to the injury. She opened her pack and removed her waterpouch, a rough bone knife and a roll of cloth. It took most of the water she had to wash the gashes clean. Next she cut a long piece of cloth and folded it to make a thick pad to staunch the remaining blood. A few colorful cloth strips lay within reach. She gathered them, tied them together, and used them to secure the bandage. As expected, the shoulder cut was easier, though the waterpouch was empty when she finished.

Her patient didn’t move during the ministrations. His breathing remained thin, but even. If he bore any other injuries, Ilinnia couldn’t find them. Though she expected he would survive, it didn’t seem wise to leave him alone where any wild creature attracted to the scent of blood could find him. Besides, this whole affair had kindled her curiosity. What part did the Ai desire her to play in this?

With that decision any hope of reaching Tarn tonight disappeared, but Ilinnia no longer cared. This was more important than sleeping in a bed one night sooner. She lifted her guidelight and slipped into the trees to search for firewood.