Runo held up her hands, trying to stop the Anthilian from just dashing towards her and cleaving her head from her neck – just like it had happened when she had possessed that raven.
What kind of evil fortune was that? Out of all the King’s Men she could find cleaning up the village, it had to be her?
“W-Wait,” she pleaded. “I come in peace. I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore. Please!”
That did not stop her.
“I invoke the rite of protection!” She fell to her knees.
That did slow her down, at least. The Anthilian reached up to her, and she felt the cool touch of her axe on her nape. The folded ceramid felt sharper than steel and hungrier than a wolf.
“I would not expect the dogs of Tuonela to know anything about rights. Is it by right that you descend every winter to raze our people and to kill our sons? Is it by right that the Gloom Lord swallow up entire swaths of land only to set their foul heel on it? Answer, me, Marrower.”
That word in her mouth felt like she was chewing on a piece of bad meat.
“I ask the King of Anthilian, in his high seat in Carthaza, to hold mercy over my deeds and my words. I ask the King of Anthilia for shelter and passage, for I am alone and hungry, and I come bearing no arms and no ill will. And forever I will pledge peace and friendship with the people returned from the Sea.”
The other let out a long, bristling breath. She did not lift her axe, but Runo felt the tiny vibrations on the blade, a sign she was indeed hesitating.
“How can I expect a Marrower to hold to her word? When the only word in Tuonela is dangling from an iron chain?”
She coughed. The soot was really getting to her mind. She blinked tears away to peer at the Anthilian’s face. It was so different from when she had killed the raven Runo had possessed. Back then, she displayed the same contempt for Marrower magic, but she held no ill will towards the bird.
Now she clearly perceived the hate and livor bubbling up from her heart in an all-devouring flame, just as hungry as that of the coronite.
“I have maps. I desire to serve under the Iron Crown no more. I repudiate it all!” Runo shouted, finding the strength for it under the haste of desperation. “I came here to provide you with information, in exchange for safe passage.”
“A betrayer’s trust is quite the flimsy thing.”
“I have invited the rite of protection,” Runo countered, and for the first time her silver eyes shone just as bright as the aqua orbs about to kill her. “You doubt I may go back on my word, but you don’t seem to give me the chance either. Are all the King’s Men ready to let their weapons talk? In that they would be welcome to the same Iron Crown they profess to fight.”
The other flinched.
She bared her teeth in a snarl, but she did withdraw her weapon.
“The mercy of the King applies to all, even the dregs skulking out of the earth’s holes. Stand up, Marrower.”
She did as she was told, relief spreading through her heart – unless it was a trick. This Anthilian had proven herself to be skilled enough to perform the cleansing rite, which meant she probably wasn’t some upstart, but she was also alone.
Who could accuse her of impiety and betrayal if she killed a lonesome Marrower in the middle of a razed village?
The Anthilian swirled the weapon and aimed at her with the battle-axe’s pommel.
“No other designation?”
“Just Runo. I have no earned a title yet, and now I never will.”
“Not for lack of trying, I am sure,” she spat. Runo winced at the memory of all the slave-mills she had been forced to train upon. At the memory of the poor horse, which she had pushed to its death just a few moments before. Those would not go away just because she had pledged her allegiance to the King. “I am just a Stalker at the service of the Alabaster Seat. I can’t hold any claims upon you, not dispense any sort of pardon. If you truly want to beg for it, you will have to follow me until we reach my Captain. He will be able to provide a more permanent judgement, and see if you are even worthy of touching our lands.”
Runo nodded, still holding up her hands and her head low.
“I…” she coughed. “I do understand. Can we leave this place? The soot is choking up my lungs.”
She saw her grin behind the wet cloth covering the lower half of her face. Why hadn’t she thought of that? It would be such an easy accommodation.
She had been used to have others serve her needs for too long, and another pang of regret thrust into her like a rusty nail.
“Show me these maps and information of yours.”
“I thought the…” she stopped raked by coughs, “… the rite of protection came with no strings attached.”
“It does. My patience, though, does not. Show to me you can be trusted, Marrower.”
Runo nodded, opening up her coat and producing a thick envelope, opening up slowly as the aqua gaze of the Stalker never left her for one moment. She towered over her. Runo was used to Anthilians being tall, but she was a giant of a woman, standing at least two head taller than her, her short black hair covered in soot, and yet she appeared as pristine as a statue of marble.
“Here,” Runo finished unfolding the envelope, showing a series of maps, sheets of parchments, and strips of paper and cured skin, some of them even inscribed with old and consumed spells. She passed it to the Stalker who gave them a quick look.
“I can understand only part of this.”
“Some are written in our common tongue, but most have to be translated. This will be part of my services to the King, if he will allow me mercy.”
“Asking for forgiveness should not be hampered by bribing.”
“Nor should it be limited by the kind of person asking for it.”
The Stalker chuckled. A dry, brief laughter that shook Runo with how self-assured it sounded.
“Not by the kind of person. But deeds speak louder than blood for sure. Now pick up your envelope and walk, Marrower. I will see that you reach the rest of my company.”
Author’s Notes: Thanks for reading.