A taste of death

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The memory played resurgent, over and over in her mind. Flame and smoke, splintering wood and the desperate, tragic sounds of a ship collapsing upon itself in mid-air, its life stolen away as the ground reclaimed its lost materials. The demon had slid across the deck, hitting the rail and somersaulting backwards and away into space, vanishing into darkness. Holst had clung to ropes as the Black Scree sailed its final, tumbling, spinning voyage, pulling herself towards the helm as she was battered against the decking. She'd got a hand to the wheel, straightening out the ship's spiralling descent. Then had come the crunching of metal against trees and she'd been flung away.

Time had passed; she didn't know how much, for her watch had been smashed in the crash. When she'd regained consciousness she'd found herself propped against a mossy bank, a makeshift shelter of branches and leaves constructed to shield her from the elements and provide some semblance of camouflage. She'd sat, alone, unable to move while staring at her broken legs. They'd both had makeshift splints applied, though she could see the bruising and swelling through tears in her trousers and had feared she'd never walk again.

He'd returned after a time, bearing a dead rabbit across his shoulder, huffing in the humidity and against his ungainly body, more suited to formal dinners and committees than living rough in the wilds. Baron Lief, bloodied, damaged, clearly in his own pain, but very much alive.

At the sight of him, she'd wept. If he was her saviour, then she knew that her crew were dead. For a while she had maintained a foolish hope that Kinnean might have survived the fall, even knowing that the height had been too great. Even as she mourned the loss of her family, she rejoiced that Baron Lief was alive: there was no surer sign that the southerners would pay, dearly and without possibility of mercy.

Days went by; possibly weeks. Time was fluid and confusing and she suspected she had severe concussion. She lost count of the nights and sunrises, each day blending into the next. The baron found them food, cooked it, nursed her. For the first two days they said not a word to each other, as there seemed nothing worth saying, and instead allowed the forest to have its say - the shuffle of invisible animals in the undergrowth, birds in the canopy, leaves and branches in their continual caress, sometimes rain falling in fat drops onto the mulch of the forest floor. In the mornings a mist hung about the ground and she waved her hand back and forth through it, observing the plumes and being reminded of riding the airwaves: reading the currents, watching the clouds, being at one with the sky.

She lay on the ground, unable to move.

"You look better," Lief said. He was the first to speak.

"I'm sorry I have not yet returned you to Bruckin, baron."

He smiled, laughed a little, sadly, then turned more determined and looked her in the eyes. "We will still see the towers on the approach," he said. "I promise you that."

"You have a plan?" Her legs throbbed as the day's temperature began to rise.

"We are alive. We have no ship. We are far from the north. My plan for now is survival, captain. We will attend to the rest in good time."

It was her turn to smile. "You sound like your brother."

The baron exhaled sharply through his nostrils. "If only that were more often the case."

The forest creaked, idly observing the two intruders.

She summoned the courage to ask. "The others?"

"I found Kinnean's body while hunting," he said. "I gave him a stonebreaker's burial, as best I could. There is no-one else. No sign. I survived only because you pushed me below deck, where the hull was reinforced. It was a bumpy landing."

Holst said nothing. Stared at her legs, at the translucent green of the forest's leaves, at the patches of sky glinting through the branches above.

"We will have retribution," Lief said, poking at the fire he was kindling. "Guijus is done for. There is no going back from this. My brother will be summoning our forces even now."

"They don't know that you're alive."

The baron waved a dismissive hand. "They don't need to know. Bruckin is more than one man, or one woman. We are hewn from the mountains, Captain Holst."

"Viscount Lief, though - our forces - they don't know about what happened here. About her."

Confused, Lief paused and glanced up. "Her?"

"The attacker, who downed the Black Scree."

"Ah, yes," the baron said, his face contorted in anger at the memory, "I have been wondering at that. I've never seen someone so highly trained. But you say 'her'?"

"I caught a glimpse of her face, just before the ship lost its air and tilted. Baron, I can't explain it, but it was her - it was the queen. Queen Anja."

Baron Theodus Lief laughed, first loudly and unguardedly, then the laugh turned sour and he didn't understand her humour; finally he saw the seriousness of her face, and remembered that Captain Holst was not prone to flights of fancy. "Explain," he said.

"I can't," she said, shaking her head. "But behind the helmet, it was the queen's face. I've not been in her company as you have, but it is a face I've seen in a thousand murals, on a hundred paintings. It makes no sense, but it is what I saw."

Lief put a hand to his face, rubbed his chin and grimaced. "I must confess something, captain. It had been a good while since anything made sense in this valley. Rumours of travellers from beyond the mountain ring, talk of escaped prisoners, riots in the streets, my arrest - and now this." He stood, and paced in the clearing, twigs and leaves crunching underfoot. "The valley is unravelling, Praetus. All the strands are coming undone. And the problems, they all centre on Treydolain. There is a corruption here, right under our noses. Some form of rough sickness which threatens to drag all of us down into its pit." He sighed. "I can feel it. I know it's there. But I cannot see it. It shifts out of sight, and never takes form."

Shifting her position against the moss, so that she was more upright, she pursed her lips. "No matter. We will find it, whatever the source of all our troubles. We will find whatever it is, or whoever it is."

"Yes. Then we kill it."

The forest leaned with a cool wind, the animals suddenly silent. The valley took a breath, as it waited for the inevitable.

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