The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 4

Ilinnia found herself at a loss for words, so much of their walk was spent in silence. She wondered if Dronkhar preferred it that way. Many times she glanced over to find his gaze fixed upon the path ahead, his expression distant yet ominous. She was curious about what occupied him but uncertain how to ask.

Tall weeds bearing small, white flowers grew on either side of the road. As she passed by, Ilinnia plucked one. “Snowmist,” she said with a smile.

“Eh?”

“It’s useful for alleviating pain.” She held the flower up when Dronkhar looked over. The sohntar made a sound that might have been a snort and turned away again. “Don’t be so quick to dismiss it,” she told him. “If your side still bothers you, I can use it in a salve or a tea later.”

“No point in running from pain,” he said. “It’s a part of life. You can flee, but it’ll just hunt you down in the end.”

Ilinnia pursed her lips, but she kept her comments to herself. Her thoughts turned back to the previous night. “Why did you kill those other sohntar?”

Dronkhar shrugged, a gesture she was becoming familiar with. “To keep them from doing it to me.”

“They wanted to kill you? Why?”

Faint lines appeared around the corners of his eyes as his expression tightened. “That’s no concern of yours,” he said with a bit of an edge. “They’re dead, I’m not, and that’s the end of it.”

Ilinnia swallowed and stared at the dirt road beneath her feet. “My apologies.” The uncomfortable silence stretched on for several minutes. “There should be some places to rest once we reach Tarn,” she ventured.

“You know the town?” He sounded a little surprised.

“I know of it,” she corrected. “There’s an oask there. All Maion initiates visit one on their journey. The Ai will tell me the next step—”

“The town could house a king’s bloody palace, and I wouldn’t care, as long as there’s a tavern.”

Ilinnia wasn’t sure how to respond to that.

The trail stretched on interminably, and Dronkhar slipped back into a brooding silence. Ilinnia could feel frustration gathering around him like a stormcloud. In the place between her mind and her sight, she caught a flash of a room crowded with people… other sohntar, maybe. There was a shout that wasn’t really heard, and a woman’s face, fearful, looking deep into her eyes. With a jolt, she blurted out a name. “Nolaara?”

Ilinnia flinched as the trance ended. She’d had a talent for sensing the feelings and memories of others since she was a small girl. It was part of what identified her as a prospective Maion. It felt strange to have that experience with a sohntar. Somehow she knew this was what occupied Dronkhar’s immediate thoughts, and suddenly she understood better why he was so terse. He was worried about someone, someone dear to him.

It took her a moment to realize that Dronkhar had stopped walking several paces back. His gaze was filled with a mixture of shock, anger and bewilderment.

“How…” He blinked and seemed to gain control of his temperament before continuing. “How do you know that name, girl?”

Ilinnia paused before responding, aware that she’d struck a nerve with her prickly companion. “As a Maion, I have the talent for receiving images and thoughts from others. You were concentrating so hard on something that it overwhelmed me for an instant.”

Dronkhar raised a wary eyebrow at her. “So you weren’t poking around in my mind?”

Blanching at the thought, Ilinnia quickly continued, “Of course not. It doesn’t really work that way.” She gave a bashful shrug. “To be honest, I’ve never been particularly good at it. Not like my sister.”

Another lengthy moment passed before Dronkhar gave his usual shrug and resumed walking. “What’s done is done. I suppose at this point I can at least answer some of the questions you’ve got rolling around in that space between your ears.” He sighed. “You don’t know much about sohntar. They aren’t all friendly or to be trusted, even by other sohntar.”

“Like the ones that were trying to kill you?”

“Especially those bastards. They’re from the Baelrock clan. Thieves and traitors who were driven to the surface wastelands centuries ago.” Dronkhar’s expression wrinkled with disgust. “Nolaara and I were in dire straits when I agreed to work as a guard for them. And no, that’s as far back as that story goes where you’re concerned.” The disgust turned to anger as his hands balled into fists at his sides. “They betrayed us,” he growled. “Turned on us like a plagued shronk not two days back. They took Nolaara when they tried to kill me.”

Ilinnia pressed her hand against her mouth in horror. “Did they hurt her?”

“I don’t know.” The muscles around Dronkhar’s mouth tightened. “When the fight was over, the only things in that tavern were a dozen corpses and me.” He looked at Ilinnia for the first time since he began the story. “That’s why I’m trying to find civilization. I need information before they send a Spiritbinder after me.”

“Spiritbinder?”

“Don’t ask,” he replied.

“All right,” Ilinnia said. “When we get to Tarn, I can petition the Ai. They might be able to help.”

“Nothing against your mucky-mucks, girl, but I need more than prayers to whichever deity is glancing this way if I’m to get to the bottom of this.”

“Could it hurt to try?”

Dronkhar looked back at the road ahead of them, frowning. At last he sighed. “Do as you will.” Again, the mantle of silence fell on them.

From her grandfather’s stories, Ilinnia wasn’t surprised at Dronkhar’s gruffness. She had the lingering sense that he’d omitted something important from his tale though. In the distance, the power of the oask continued to call to her, soothing her concern, and a peaceful smile spread across her face.

“We should be there soon,” she said.

“Oh?” Dronkhar replied. “More pictures on the wind?”

Annoyance flared briefly, but she replaced it with the understanding that Dronkhar’s trust was still shaken. She resolved to earn the piece of his life that he’d shared with her.

The road curved gracefully, and the trees grew thinner on either side. Around the next bend, the forest gave way to cultivated fields. Tiled roofs lay behind a short, stone wall in the distance.

The townspeople consisted mostly of humans that tossed polite waves to Ilinnia and mildly curious glances at Dronkhar. It wasn’t long before the sohntar halted in front of a wooden building with a cluster of grapes painted on a signpost out front. He gave a disdainful grunt. “This is my stop, though I’ll be damned if I’m likely to find a good drop of liquor here. I’m sure one of these people can tell you where to find your oak-thing.”

Ilinnia gave a friendly laugh. “It’s called an oask, and I know where it is.”

Shrugging in his typical fashion, Dronkhar stepped into the building.

Ilinnia turned down a side street that led to a plot of tilled earth where flowering bushes and a few short trees had been planted. A queferi caretaker dressed in a gardening smock gave her a greeting and a knowing nod toward the center of the shrine. A circle had been marked in the earth with shells and stones. She faced in the direction of her village, knelt in the center of that circle and closed her eyes.

I have come, she prayed. Ai, great spirits of the world and heart, guide me. I am prepared for the next journey…

The sunlight on her face darkened, as if a cloud had formed overhead. A chill breeze raked through her hair. A tendril of fear wormed into her heart, and she felt her pulse quicken.

I don’t understand, she cried. I’m supposed to see…

Ilinnia felt more than heard the stones, the flowers, the grass, all of nature scream in terror and pain as something dark touched it. With heavy footsteps it crushed the life from the plants and tore the trees from their roots. She struggled to make a sound, but fear gripped her throat. Step by step it approached, now behind her—

She leapt to her feet. The sun was bright again, and the green fields tranquil, but terror still seized her heart. The Ai were giving her a warning… something was coming!

An image flashed in her mind, and Ilinnia dashed from the oask, back toward the tavern.