Fantasy Fiction posted April 3, 2021 Chapters:  ...5 6 -7- 8 

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The four travelers face angry orcs.

A chapter in the book She Walks in Beauty

Fire-Brand's Mercy

by K. Olsen

On their way south through Ash Kordh to the lands of humans, Runa and her companions have crossed paths with an orcish war party out for revenge.

Rúna had no time to think before the orc shaman surged forward, blood running cold as he tapped into the beast spirits of Ash Kordh. A symphony of cracking bone split the air, his body flowing into that of something between orc and bear, snarling fangs ready to devour his foes. She stepped immediately into his path, placing her body between Thema and Chi, a spine-chilling war scream ripping from her lips as she lifted her shield.

The effect on the orcs was immediate. Suddenly, the arrows ceased. 

Great claws caught Rúna’s shield with enough force to fling the shapeshifter, hurling her out of his way, but the bear shaman did not finish his charge. He went past Thema and Chi at an angle, body reverting to his orc form as he panted for breath. “Why are you with them, steel-weaver?” he growled.

Rúna picked herself up from the ground, still quaking from the force of the impact. She knew the blow had done her arm an unpleasant amount of damage, mostly by wrenching her shoulder. It would heal, not quite dislocated, but it hurt more than most of her mentor’s blows had—and Steinnvor was no fainting violet. She pointed to Terese, the weathered woman still laying against the pine needles where she had originally fallen. “She is my ward,” Rúna panted. “They take her back to the land of her fathers and mothers.” 

The orc shaman shook his head, piercing yellow eyes still focused on Rúna’s face. The charcoal, painted across his cheeks and forehead, combined with the white ash of a long dead funeral pyre, made his visage suddenly more pained and sorrowful than angry. “They are not worthy of you.” 

“You call her steel-weaver,” Chi said cautiously. “What does that mean?”

The shaman’s anger flared like a torch, and his lips curled into a bestial snarl that showed the fangs jutting up from his lower jaw. “I care nothing for your speech, worm,” he thundered. “Be silent or I will rip the tongue from your head.” 

Chi’s jaw closed so quickly that his teeth clacked together unpleasantly, earning a grimace from the dark-skinned man. Thema seemed far less afraid, stalking forward with her short spear in her right hand.

An arrow zipped by her head, burying itself into a tree with an audible impact. This time, it was a legitimate warning shot and enough to stop Thema in her tracks. A few inches lower and it would have permanently ended the life of Chi’s sister. 

 Rúna stabbed her sword into the earth and let her helm hang on its hilt, her thrust burying it deep enough in the loam to stand on its own in a gesture of peace. “I am Rúna Tólasdottir. Who do I speak to, shaman?” 

“I am Zull Fire-Brand,” he said, rising to his full height. He towered over even Rúna, and she stood two inches above six feet. The shaman advanced towards her, but instead of lashing out with an attack, he held out a hand. He still wore the paws of a bear’s fur over his hands, iron claws gleaming dully in the firelight as they closed around her fingers in a greeting grasp. 

“You will not kill them?” Rúna said. A new respect was forming in her tone: he spoke with the two-part name of a goth, an orcish warleader. That was very rare for a shaman, who normally stood in an advisor’s place. This one was probably even greater a warrior than his endless array of battle-scars suggested.

He gestured towards her sword. “So long as that is buried, I honor your peace, steel-weaver.” 

It was a damn sight better than Rúna had expected, but her people were always welcome and honored in orcish camps on the rare occasions they strayed openly beyond the storm-wall. After all, it was orcs and giants together who had shattered the worst of the demons’ armies. “I should have told you who I was,” Rúna said more quietly. “I am grateful you listened to me instead of the blood rage.” 

He turned to look at Thema and Chi. “How did you come to be with the servants of the butcher bird, steel-weaver? They are creatures of savagery and slaughter.” 

Thema bristled at that. “Watch who you call savage, orc,” she said, pride blending with arrogance as she scowled at him. 

Rúna put a hand on the orc’s arm when she saw his muscles flex like he was preparing to rethink his decision. “You honor my peace, Fire-Brand,” she reminded him carefully. 

“They are lucky you stay my hand,” the orc shaman said darkly.

Now that they were close and her own desire to fight cooled, Rúna’s senses were almost overwhelmed by the orc. He smelled of wet fur and smoke, of blood and iron, of bitter herbs and fresh war paint. She knew full well that he was more than capable of killing her in a moment. Her twitching, painful shoulder from a single blow told her more than enough of that. “I do not know this butcher-bird,” she said honestly. “I am new to these lands. I only crossed the Sea of Glass a month or two ago.” 

He growled low in his throat, an animalistic sound well paired to the glow of his eyes in the low firelight. The sun was not yet set, but darkness was creeping over the land. “It is an evil sign, the butcher-bird that is the very cruelty of the Lord of Smoke himself. You are fortunate to never have known it, Rúna Tólasdottir. It brings only misery and grief in its wake.” He pulled something out of his belt and let it unfurl in his hand. 

It was a banner, one probably carried by a knight on his lance. A red bird silhouetted on a field of black, its wings were outstretched like one in flight. A sudden chill swept over her as she stared at it. Rúna was no seer, but she knew the feeling of Fate gazing upon her after her time in the ritual just before she had left her home. She gazed at the banner, almost hypnotized for a moment before pulling her eyes away. 

“Will you share our fire?” she offered, ignoring Thema’s withering glare. 

The orc shook his head slowly, returning his gaze to her. “No.” The word was blunt and forceful.

“Because their companions wronged your people grievously,” Rúna said with understanding. “I am sorry for your pain, Zull Fire-Brand.” 

The orc looked down at her. “Your condolences are appreciated,” he rumbled as he held out the banner to her. “Let this be an omen of your own sorrows, should you follow where they lead. Let it warn you away from the southern paths, for they will bring you only misery.” 

Rúna hesitated. “What have you seen?” she asked in a lower voice, not at all interested in Chi or Thema knowing anything of her fate.

“A torment. I see it in the firelight as it dances across your face.” Zull’s gaze pierced even her soul. “Leave them, steel-weaver, or your regret will be a thing of legend.” 

The shapeshifting giant shook her head, well aware that the misfortune he spoke of was something the gods demanded she endure. Her fate was a dark one and nothing would change that. The Gatekeeper had said as much. “I cannot. I have given Terese my oath that I will defend her. I will not break my word.”

“Very well,” Zull said in a low voice. “You have my sympathies.” The orc turned his attention back to Thema, Chi, and Terese. “If I see you in these woods in the morning, my mercy will find no foothold in my heart. Flee with everything that you are or I will rip you apart limb from limb. You are alive through the grace of Rúna Tólasdottir, may you honor her name for the rest of your worthless lives.” 

“Thank you, Zull,” Rúna said sincerely. A chance to escape was more than she had expected to receive. “I will see them from your woods. They will work no evil.” 

His tone almost burned in the growing darkness when he answered her. “I pray you do, steel-weaver, for I would not like to mingle your precious blood with their corruption against the stones of Ash Kordh, but I would do it.” 

Rúna bowed her head and gripped her sword, pulling it free of the earth. Next she adjusted her shield off her arm, slinging it across her back with straps to hold it in place. She wiped down her blade before sheathing it again and looking to her companions. “We need to run,” she said firmly, loping over to grab Terese’s bed roll and then her own, carrying both across the shield that was now again out of her way. “We will not have a second chance.” 

Zull watched them without a trace of warmth in his face, hardened like flint to the task ahead. “You have until dawn.” He stood between them and the horses, offering them no chance to take their mounts. Not that they could really ride on much of the Obsidian Road, treacherous as it could be footing-wise. They had led the horses as pack animals more than anything else.  

Terese wasted no time in moving, pausing only long enough to grab Rúna’s hand before starting her run. Her strides could not cover the same length as her guardian’s, but she had no intention of staying and angering the orcs beyond any amount of mercy. It was clear that the weathered woman had taken the young giant’s word. She would run as fast as she could for as long as she could, whatever happened, so long as Rúna was at her side to keep despair away. 

Thema and Chi followed quickly, well aware that antagonizing Zull would not end well for them. There were too many orcs to fight, almost fifteen visible as they fled. That did not count any others concealed on the far side of the camp. 

The hours of the night stretched on, cold and hard like winter stone, as the four companions fled the dark woods. Terese ran as fast as she could, but the older woman did not have the strength or stamina of her companions. Within the hour she was stumbling. 

 Rúna skidded to a stop on the Obsidian Road, almost gashing her foot on an outcropping of the razor-like black stone. She turned to her companion and picked Terese up in her arms. It would slow her and fatigue her, but she couldn’t afford to change into the form of a winter wolf with Thema and Chi here to scrutinize her. The lessons of her people were a warning echoing in her ears: do not let the small folk know what you are. Zull had figured it out instantly on hearing the battle-scream of her people, but orcs were far, far more knowledgeable of such things than the denizens of the southern human kingdoms.

“We cannot outpace them,” Thema panted, taking the chance to stop. “Orcs can run like horses and we no longer have our mounts.”

“We have to keep moving,” Rúna said, gripping Terese as tightly as she could without hurting the woman.

“I can keep going,” Terese said, trying to struggle. 

“Be still,” Rúna murmured in an attempt to soothe. “I promised I would not let you come to harm and this does not trouble me.” She looked back to Thema and Chi. “There will be khiirdu on this path, tangled spaces. We can use them to cover distance much more quickly than we could on a straight road.” 

“Are you mad?” Chi demanded. “We cannot navigate through that without a native guide, the magic confuses all senses!” 

If Rúna had been human, she might have shared his concern. However, where humans were cut off from magic and could not perceive its flows, her senses would be just enough to follow the tangled webs of Creation to the exit. “Do we have another option, Chi?” she asked. “I was born in the north and know its ways. I can find us a path through.” 

Thema punched her brother in the shoulder. “Move,” she said fiercely. “We follow the northerner. The only way out is through a khiirdu.” 

Chi muttered something unflattering under his breath, but moved to let Rúna take the lead. 

“Are you certain of this?” Terese said quietly. 

“As death,” Rúna said with confidence she only half felt. “Trust me.” 

The weathered woman nodded. “I do, angel. Always.” 

Runa Tolasdottir - a young giant adventuring for the first time.
Terese Sagarra - a fugitive noble accused of treason and Runa's ward
Thema Koroma - a human warrior in the service of the Lord Protector of Genev
Chi Koroma - a human fire-speaker in the service of the Lord Protector of Genev.
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