Artumes could not believe her bad luck.
She had met with a Marrower – and she had played the last trick she could expect on her!
She had never seen a servant of the Iron Crown stoop as low as this soot-covered girl. She looked so small and frail in her vest and boot and with her long hair, but her silvery eyes told no lie. Whatever colour they may have been before, they now bore the mark of the Marrower.
The girl had killed. The girl had tortured, and she had done so for the glory of the Iron Crown.
She smelled a trap of some sort. None of this information nonsense would mean anything. The maps and the papers she had taken a glance to seemed good enough, but they might just be notes scribbled together, forgeries to fool them.
She was not as versed in the matter as Thesanthei, let alone any of Carthaza’s lore masters. She would have to carry this piece of Tuonelan filth to her companions.
Would they think less of her because she had spared the life of a Marrower?
No – she had invoked the rite of protection and it was indeed the duty of any who served under the Alabaster Seat to obey and uphold it… no matter who did ask for it.
Even like that, her axe squirmed to have another neck to cleave. Why do you deny me so? Moonbite was not happy with her – at least, if this turned out to be a trap, she would allow her axe a chance to spill blood enough.
Also, she hated to admit it, but no matter how much she posed as battle-ready, she was still dazed from the cleansing ritual.
Something that did give a bit more credence to the Marrower’s words.
If she knew what Aertumes just did with the village, she would also know how draining it was to her. And that would have been the perfect chance to strike from behind.
The plan was, most likely, to guide her to her group and take them all out – but that also did not make too much sense.
The group of Marrowers had just razed the village, so they had come near enough to sense them and attack them if they so wished – or if those were their orders.
Or perhaps this girl was truly trying to repent and change her ways.
Artumes allowed herself a dark chuckle.
That was a likely story.
She watched the girl as they slowly walked through the destroyed village. She stumbled often, scraping her body over the burnt wood. Which was good, but she was indeed slowing them down.
Where she could see her skin it was rosy and pale, as if it had just grown back. Which meant she had been taken by the coronite right as she was officiating the rite.
Not the smartest move. Perhaps if she was escaping it was just because she was a failed Marrower who would soon be thrown into the grinder with all the other disappointments.
“Walk straight,” Artumes said prodding her shoulder with Moonbite’s pommel.
The other coughed and slowed down, but did as she was told, straightening her back – which showed the line of metal studs protruding from it. It followed the line of her spine until the small of her back in a cruel mockery of her bones.
Artumes’ lip curled. There it was. Together with the metal band encroaching her forehead, she had more iron studded to her body. A true mark of a Marrower, and a sign that, no matter what she did catch a genuine one.
For all the good it did to her…
She guided the girl out of the village. By the time they walked on the open plains, soot swirling around them but through the fresher air, she did seem to fare a little better.
Artumes was having a hard time being happy about that.
Still, if she came with the group, that meant that Heleth Skinflayer could not be far.
And their encounter had only been pushed a little further into the future.
Artumes opened her backpack and held out her canteen, passing it to the Marrower. Whatever her plan, it would not do to have her die out on the plains like that.
“Drink a little. We have a long walk ahead of us.”
As the two women crossed the land bringing them to the first hills, Runo panting and sweating and Artumes in a foul mood over her missed encounter with the chief Marrower, another shadow stretched over the plains, in the opposite direction and many miles behind.
It was a tall, bald man, his pale skin stretched by a series of steel pins encroaching his head like a halo. Each of them ended with a lock of black hair, fluttering in the dead wind.
He sat on a similar beast to the one Runo used as a horse. This one though was slightly larger, and its elongated face covered by a leather and iron muzzle, which reins the Marrower held in his hands.
Next to him, on smaller specimens of the same riding beast, slave-mills looked at him with glassy eyes, their spiked collars chained to his wrist by a thick chain that tinkled in the night air.
“I do not trust you, Runo,” he spat, his lips curling into a sneer. “And I do not trust Heleth’s lust-addled mind. But that does not really matter, does it?”
He had no idea why the favourite pet of their coven’s chief had made herself suddenly scarce.
She must be plotting something. Perhaps an attack on the grey companies of wandering Anthilians that had been spotted around there.
Or something even more devious. It would not be the first time Runo bent the rules to the point of breaking.
Then again, the man grinned, they all did.
Some were just better at coming out of it alive.
“We have a few hours yet,” he muttered, pulling on the pins that stretched the skin of his head into a sort of decorative fan. “Let’s try not waste them.”
He cracked a whip, and the huge horse-beast sniffed the ground, tracking Runo’s smell all the way through the blasted land.
The ring of coronite used by the heathen Anthilians would slow him down.
But stop him?
That was a different matter altogether.
Author’s Notes: Thanks for reading.