Runo has tried to keep her mind away from what the night of… celebration asked of her. Spells and wards and pleads would all be useless to stop (to slow down!) someone as Heleth, so it has been days since she has attempted her spell again.
She leans forward, brushing her fingers right under her nose. They are clean now, have been cleaned for some time, but what can erase the fresh, raw images of the feast night? The bones dancing like honey, the blood sizzling against the panes of scalding iron, and the screams and the laughter and the smile she had to paint on her face, hooking nails right at the corners of her mouth and pulling-
Pulling hard every time Heleth leaned into her, biting into her neck, and pulling her closer for a thirsty kiss –
Runo presses her fingers against her eyes – she has to stay in control. All that in in the past. The studs piercing her vertebrae seem to shiver with the memory of each ritual she has officed, every sin she has committed as Marrower.
And now, she is getting ready to commit one that, to the eyes of the Gloom Lord watching over all of them, is a far grater one. She sits down and pours water in a steel basin, mixing it with a few drops of her own blood, as they swirl inside, never dissolving, writhing in rivulets like crimson eels. It has been a while since her blood got solved in water.
It will be forever before her sins get solved as well. But the King of Carthaza, of the Anthilian nation, has shown so far to be kinder than summer, and tougher and stronger than the nails of the Marrowers and the stillborn hearts of the Gloom Lords.
Perhaps he can save a bit of that kindness for her. If she shows she is repentant… and gives him something valuable to go with her surrender.
Looking to her reflection in the basin full of water, she extends her senses through her simmering blood and plunges her face into it.
In those days, the raven has been without her guide.
As he mind flies through air and flesh she tries to pinpoint its location, follow the trail of heartbeats that it leaves behind as it proceeds to move in the actual land beyond the borders of her mind.
She knits herself with it once she finds it sitting on a branch, miles to the east of where she has been forced to leave it. The raven feels just like the last time, a puppet of flesh and bones and blood, answering to her will. It has feasted shortly before, and managed to rest.
Perhaps she can hope in some good luck.
During her life under the thumb of the Gloom Lord, she has learned that there is no such thing as gods, as how would the gods allow something as the Marrowers and everything else that goes in Tuonela go on? The gods must be without might nor mercy. A god without compassion is guilty, and one without power is useless, so she has to put her faith in a different kind of authority. That of the King – and maybe hope Heleth does not reach her once again.
Runo’s heart thunders inside her far-off body as she pulls on the raven’s will once again. It leaves the tree for the skies, looking down at the countryside, at the dozens upon dozens of farmsteads where more Anthilians keep working. Rivers and channels criss-cross the fertile land. This is the King’s breadbasket, and here is the place where much of the resilience she admires so much comes from.
The raven flies over people bent to the waist as they tend to the fields – it’s the end of summer after all, and soon the winter will be upon all of them, all the more cruel for it coming from the frozen north behind Tuonela. Hence they haste.
It feels the same like the Harvest in Runo’s country, except the crops they will be dealing with shall be far darker.
But this is not the kind of thought she has to keep in her heart now. She has to reach further east.
Proceeding at speed thanks to a favourable current, the raven goes over more fields, spotted towns, and the occasional river where more boats as sailing by. Some are white and sport triangular sails, like those at the service of the King. They are the same Anthilian ships she has seen crossing the thick waters of the Black Lake, while others mount square sails and they are bulkier and darker.
Iskalnari ships – she can hear their cries and songs from here through the raven’s ears, as the little people moves about on the ship, carrying their business about with a cheer and a spring to their step.
The raven plunges down – she has seen Iskalnari before, but always as prisoners, and never in their natural environment. Feeling like a child stirring an anthill with a stick, she guides the raven to pass by between their sails. She does not dare to make it stop, though: the Iskalnari are known for their skills with the crossbow, and she has grown attached to the raven, if only because of how skilled and strong it is.
The Iskalnari are too busy with each other to take care of the raven’s quick dash. She gets a flash of their short bodies, like shrunken men. Their bald heads and cheeks shiny under the light of the sun and a sheen of sweat. They wear rich clothes of linen and silk, colored in shades of green and purple and gold. Some hold their hands together as they keep merrily singing.
It might seem strange to think that this people of dwarfs has established a mighty mercantile empire to the south, and the smiles on their jovial faces so different from the dismay and sorrow she has seen on the prisoners.
But it is beyond her reach. She is not here to give them anything more than a passing curiosity – and even if bubbles of shame rise inside her chest at the memories of the prisoners she did not help to escape, Runo knows she can’t do anything for them at the moment.
Perhaps in the future, when she will have her pardon, she can work towards loftier goals such as including the little people in her attempt to leave it all behind.
For now, the raven has to leave the ship of merry merchants and head further east, towards the border that comes closer with each hour.
Towards the lingering cloud of dark smoke that raises from the horizon like a looming curtain.
Towards the impassable terrain that has been engineered to slow the advancement of Tuonela to a crawl.
Towards the Burning River.
Author’s Notes: Runo is not an easy character to write. I hope I will make justice to the Burning River tomorrow. Thanks for reading.