Chapter (III): Fireside Fights (Part 1)

The branch in Varlaine’s hands rattled and shook, sending up a vibration that tingled through his palms and nearly convinced him to drop it outright. He winced at the feeling, but steeled his grip; Naz, who had just struck at it with one of her own, offered a nod of approval in return. She stepped back, lowering her arms, and evaluated his stance.

“Not bad.” Her voice cracked, as usual, and ‘Laine couldn’t help but liken it to the noise of the warm campfire he and Eryn had successfully built nearby. “Turn into your parry more. Don’t just stop the attack, deflect it. Create an opening.”

Eryn was standing near him, her own switch of wood gnarly and thick, heavier than Varlaine’s. The practice session had already been going longer than any Naz had provided in the week since departing Dalren. Even the older woman was starting to sweat with exertion, but she still had not had enough; no, her eyes turned to Eryn, fingers tightening around her branch again as she brought it up in a stance that paralleled the blade to the ground and pointed the tip at the rider.

“Your turn,” Naz instructed, rolling her head and neck to stretch them but keeping the stick trained on Eryn. “Show me your stance.” The trainee put off an air of boredom, looking skyward, perhaps hoping that Cassius would soon return with food. The griffon had been sent to hunt some hour or so prior.

“I really don’t think I need to.” When Eryn responded, it wasn’t directly to Naz’s face. She spoke first to the sky, and then her head turned to look at Varlaine. “Can we stop? My arms are tired and all of this is stuff we covered in the basics.”

When Naz spoke, she barely masked the annoyance in her voice. “We will stop when I think you can both successfully defend yourselves. Ready yourself, Eryn.” Still in a stance, Naz took a step to circle the blue-haired griffon rider, who was still watching the prince. Varlaine shrugged, and she rolled her eyes before lifting her own branch to block.

This time, Naz moved differently. Her strike on Varlaine had been easy to read, enough that he managed to see where it was coming from and shift sides to block it with time enough to spare. The way she approached Eryn, though, left her ‘sword’ in the air and pointed straight, as if she was going for a thrust until the last possible moment. Before Naz took the step that would commit to that strike, she shifted her hands and swept the stick around horizontally.

Eryn, who had prepared to block the stab using an overhead chop, stumbled off balance when she saw the branch instead aiming for her side. Even Varlaine could see how clumsy and sloppy her block became when she abruptly switched gears, body drawing away and arms turning into Naz’s strike. Wood struck wood with a loud crack, and Eryn’s makeshift weapon flew from her hands while the young woman yelped and jerked her hands away on reflex, shaking them out.

“That wasn’t fair,” Eryn protested. She put her hands on her hips and glared at Naz, who stared back unamused. “You went way easier on the prince.”

“Fair? You took on military training. I should hope you handle yourself better than a novice. You’re supposed to be his guard.” Naz shot back. “Pick up your weapon. Once more, the both of you.” A pause broke her speech, then, and she cleared her throat. “We’ll make it our last for the day. Varlaine, you first.”

She took up her weapon in the same stance she’d used to strike at Eryn, and turned her attention to the young silver haired boy. ‘Laine took a moment to appreciate the way she stood, weapon held high instead of at her side or in front of her, the way he typically saw Revengardian soldiers carry theirs. Perhaps it was a token of her homeland.

Breaking himself from his thoughts, the prince nodded to confirm that he was ready. Naz returned the gesture, and then moved forward to close the gap between them. He watched her hands, the way they tensed and shifted as she drew closer to him, and brought his branch up and to the side in advance. Once he was watching for it, he could see that she moved her weight to the side and carried herself a half step off kilter when she went for a feint. When her stick swung in from his left, he brought his in to meet it. While his arms moved, his left foot pushed out, forward, to throw more momentum behind the block. When his weapon slapped against Naz’s, it hit hard enough to quake the branch in his hand, but he was ready for it with a grip that whitened his knuckles and made his hands ache.

Surprised, Naz let her strike glance off with relative ease. She caught her balance quickly, and a smile graced her lips in a way that made it harder to concentrate on the jagged scars that marred her face. Varlaine briefly wondered why she did not smile more, when it was so eye-catching, but he lacked time to think about it when Eryn was simmering at him and Naz was stepping back, lips curling down to a more tame approval. “…Well done!” She praised, after a moment, some tiny amount of excitement in her voice.

(Part 2 is up, and can be found here!)

Chapter (II): The Road South (Part 10) (FINAL)

“It’s time to get up, prince.” When Eryn shook him awake, Varlaine sighed and brought one arm up to shield his eyes. Warily, he blinked them open; through the sleep, he could see a dim gray light filtering in through the window. Eryn sat back on her bed when he did, her bright orange garb done away with and replaced with a more common, muddy brown set of clothes. While he was busy crawling out from his blankets, she slipped her gray chestplate over her head. “Didja sleep well?”

“Yes, very.” He nodded his assent, and the blue-haired trainee smiled in return. She gestured to the bedside table, which held a pair of wooden plates: one empty, and one with a light meal of buttered bread and an apple. “It’s only been a night of rest and already, I will miss the bed. Did Naz come by?”

Eryn tied her armor off at her sides, one then the other, cinching it into place around her torso. “She did. There are clothes for you by the door, she said they should fit, and a bag of essentials.” It was silent for a moment, while the prince ate at his breakfast and Eryn slipped her hands into her wristguards. “She seems… friendly.”

While Varlaine wasn’t sure he would use that term, he nodded and finished chewing his bite of apple. Swallowing, he gave the older teen the best smile he could manage, putting back thoughts of the road ahead, of the trials they’d face. She tried to return it, he could tell she truly was trying, but then she stood and stretched her arms over her head. “Anyways. I’m going to go check on Cass, make sure he’s ready to fly. Don’t mess around too long, or Naz will come nag at you.”

‘Laine put his bare feet on the cold floor about when she was turning her back to him, and by the time he collected the bundle of clothes left sitting by the door, the rider had already disappeared down the hall. He laid the articles out over the bed—a white shirt, brown cloth pants, a lightweight traveling cloak, and a patched set of leather walking boots with thick socks—and sighed. At least he would cease to look like a royal target.

The sun was starting to drag itself over the horizon by the time he was dressed and exiting the inn. Biting into the apple he held in his palm, the prince was surprised at the tang it left in his mouth compared to the pure, sweet taste he’d grown accustomed to. While he was musing over that, a hand clapped him on the shoulder, inspiring a jump of surprise.

“There you are, kiddo.” Nico’s voice. Of course. Varlaine turned himself around to look up at the older man, and found exhausted green eyes appraising right back. “You’re running late. Naz already has the saddles packed and ready to go.”

“Sorry,” ‘Laine began to apologize, but Nico was already turning his gaze away from him to glance about. The town was surprisingly mobile, despite the hour. People bustled with bags, with boxes, with carts. They seemed to walk with a certain spring to their step that they’d lacked when he and Eryn had first come to town. “Where is she?”

“By the entrance. Good luck getting to talk to her, though.” Powerful fingers squeezed his shoulder and then released, and then Nico was hastily moving to help a woman who was struggling to drag a cart full of clothing. Left alone, Varlaine stood for a moment before realizing that he was in charge of his own direction. That in mind, he started off towards the gate he’d passed through just the previous day, alone.

When he arrived, he understood what Nico had meant. A throng of people surrounded Naz, whom was speaking to an older man while the pair of children from the previous day hung onto one of her hands. Though she was conversing quite intently with the gentleman, enough that her empty hand continually rubbed at a sore throat, she spared glances down on occasion to work her fingers in the grips of the little ones.

Eryn was behind her with a pair of kitted horses, already on Cassius and looking as uncomfortable and impatient as she could manage. A guilt settled in the pit of Laine’s stomach. It was his fault that she was dragged out here, and it was his fault that she couldn’t go home. So, it was his responsibility to her that urged him forward, sifting through the crowd and clambering on the steed he’d escaped the castle with, unbidden. Naz shot him a look of approval, which he briefly acknowledged with a turn of his head, before focusing his attention on Eryn.

“Are you certain you’re still okay with this?” He asked her, quietly. The birds were starting to wake around them, and the light was growing, a soothing orange glow that cast on the pair. Eryn slipped her fingers into Cassius’ neck feathers, petting at the griffon, before she responded.

“I’m going to get you to safety, Varlaine.” Her answer was resolute, and though she had to be just as tired as he was, her chin lifted with an almost arrogant pride in her words. “You’re my friend, and I’m not going to leave you to the wolves. Literally, apparently.” A snort freed itself from her nostrils when she joked, and he met it with a grin. If she could tell a joke, things couldn’t be all that bad.

“Thanks, Eryn. I don’t know where I’d be without you.” He tried to show his appreciation in his voice, and she appeared to accept it with a brief thumbs-up, laying forward to rest her cheek in Cassius’ soft feathers.

That handled, ‘Laine took the reins to his horse, turning back to look at Naz. The man she was talking to seemed to be mostly nodding his head in response to the mercenary’s hushed words, until the two went silent for a short while, looking straight at one another. She bowed her head deeply, and he reciprocated, before she knelt to offer the two kids who had clung onto her a hug. One in each arm, she squeezed the pair in turn, before standing up and ruffling their hair. One of the pair, the boy, was crying. The other reached out to hug him, while Naz turned away and moved to the larger horse waiting near ‘Laine.

“Are you two ready to leave?” She asked, voice scratchy and dry. Frowning, Naz reached to her saddlebags, fingers brushing past the sword that was strapped into place there to pick up a metal water flask that hung next to a much larger jug.

Varlaine wanted to ask her the same question, noting the shadow that hung beneath her eyes. She denied him by popping open the flask and drinking heavily, cutting off any response she could have given. “I’m ready.” He finally gave.

“Let’s get this show on the road,” Eryn waved a hand. Naz took it as an acceptance and lifted her reins up, drawing them tight and spurring her horse along. Varlaine let her get a short distance ahead, partially because he wanted to cast a glance back at the townspeople who had gathered to see Naz off.

The two children had been collected by their mother, who knelt down and held the pair close to her chest. A few other men and women waved goodbye, while still others broke away from the crowd to carry about their business, gathering up bags and boxes and carrying them off. Nicomenda stood off to one side, and the barmaid from the inn had her face buried in his chest while the archer wrapped arms around the girl. ‘Laine watched him for the longest, before Eryn called back to him as Cassius tramped after Naz’s horse.

Offering Nico a short wave, he received a tired grin for his trouble. Then Varlaine dug his heels in against his horse’s sides, careful not to push too hard, and the beast started off after his companions. The sun, off to their left, had begun to light the world; laid out in front of them was the road south, towards Skyvlan, and perhaps respite.

[CHAPTER END]

(The first part of chapter 3 is up now, and can be found here!)

Mock Cover Art

Hey, everyone! I decided this week to do something a little nonstandard for this place and post a little bit of artwork. A friend of mine, whose work you can find here (WARNING: Some content is NSFW!) drew up some art for the story. I wanted something to use as a basic cover art concept, and he worked with me to turn it into something I could use for a custom phone case.

Christian cover (1).png

I ordered through a custom phone case service, and got my case in recently. I made a few edits, but here’s the final version:

In case you were wondering over the names on the cover, they’re the three people who have contributed majorly to this story. The first is my own, the second is my wife, and the third is a close friend of mine. The three of us originated Erda as a joint writing project, and while that’s still ongoing, I took it upon myself to refine and rewrite the story for a more cohesive, reader-friendly experience.

I hope you enjoyed the update, and the art. I’m really fond of the way Naz is sitting and writing after a battle, and I think the color tones (red and blue mixing together) look stellar. Please do check out my friend’s work, he recently opened commissions and he’s a great artist.

Chapter (II): The Road South (Part 9)

Taking advantage of the silence, Varlaine worked his way through the food given to him, making sure never to take more than half of each portion. The chicken was heaven on his tongue, a finer taste than anything he’d ever had at his father’s table and more filling besides, and the bread had a dull warmth to it that soothed him from the inside out. The corn, he nibbled at; it was dry, and lacked the salt and butter that he was used to, but he appreciated the weight in his belly all the same.

When he’d finished his carefully measured bites, two fifths of every treat, he flicked a glance to the sleeping Eryn. Hunger panged at his stomach once more, and he let his eyes roam over the remnants on the plate. Biting his teeth together, the prince carefully nudged Eryn awake instead; when she stirred, he took one of her hands and placed the dish in it.

“What’s this?” She yawned, under her breath, eyes blinking awake with a bleariness that he found endearing.

“Dinner,” He answered in a whisper, which had her snapping to more attention. Holding the plate steady with one hand, Eryn immediately set in on the chicken. In barely the time it had taken him to prod at the cob of corn, she scarfed down the whole pile of meat—then she plucked up the remnants of the bread loaf and tore into that, too. Her intensity attracted Naz’s attention, the mercenary stopping to drink from the water Nico left behind before turning in her seat to face them.

“Don’t get too excited, you two.” She stood and stretched her arms, and Eryn looked up at her with both hands on the cob. “Finish your food, get a drink, and then I’ll see you to bed. We have an early start.”

Varlaine only bowed his head in response, but Eryn tilted hers in confusion. “Whaddaya mean?” She got out around a full mouth, before swallowing it down and coughing. Naz closed the distance between them and offered her the jug, and Eryn nearly spilled what was left of the plate on herself in her haste to accept. After a heavy gulp, she set it aside and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Early start?”

Naz stooped down to pick up the plate Eryn put to the side and offered it back to Varlaine. He took it, picking up the scrap of bread that was left and rubbing it against what was left of the chicken, trying to pick some of it up. “I promised I’d escort you south,” the merc reminded, “And we’re going in the morning. Don’t fret over supplies. They are packed already.”

Eryn blinked in surprise, and even Varlaine had to admit while polishing off the plate, that sounded almost too good to be true. She had already gone above and beyond for them. Nico was right, why didn’t she just point them south and send them on their way?

“Um… thanks, I guess.” Eryn, ever graceful, dismissed the comment with a handwave. Naz offered her a hand to her feet, which the rider refused, placing her palm on the wall behind her instead and rising on her own. One of Naz’s scarred lips twitched briefly, before she extended that hand instead to Varlaine. The prince took it and pulled himself to his feet, offering her the plate. She set it on a nearby table as carefully as she could, to avoid making any noise.

“Are you two ready for bed?” The older woman asked.

“Yes,” Varlaine agreed. Eryn studied his face for a moment, before shaking her head.

“I’ve gotta feed Cassius,” She informed.

Naz swayed her head, left to right. “He’s already eaten, and been taken to a stable with… Varlaine’s horse.” She answered, watching her words. “You two only need to worry about resting, for now.”

After giving her a dirty, interrogating look, Eryn shrugged. “Fine, if you say so. He better be in good shape.” She grumbled. “Where are we sleeping, anyways?”

“There’s a room with two beds upstairs.” Naz answered. She reached down to the foot of the table she’d been sitting at, scooping up her bag and tossing it over her shoulder. Then she took her gauntlet from the tabletop, holding it in hand. “Follow me.” When they were ready, she turned around and led the pair to the far wall of the tavern, where a staircase led up a floor. On their way, Varlaine stopped for a moment to look through an open door, into a pantry behind the bar’s counter. Briefly, he caught a flash of Nicomenda with his arms around the blonde-haired bar worker in a firm embrace, before Eryn tugged him by the arm to keep up.

***

The room Naz guided them to was barely big enough for the two beds that it held, along with a short table between them and a window above that that let in moonlight. The beds themselves were small, smaller than Varlaine had slept in when he was half his age now, but his eyes felt so heavy that the stained pillow he eventually rest his head on was almost enough to put him under on contact.

Eryn climbed into her bed and rolled over, facing away from him, while Naz stood near the door and watched the pair climb in. The rider pulled her patchy quilt over herself tightly, while Laine laid under his for a moment and looked up at the ceiling, letting the day’s events slip through his mind and recounting what all had happened. After a silent moment of overwhelm, he was startled when a red head of hair entered his vision, and strong hands took care in tucking his blanket in around him.

The stream of consciousness that was trickling down his brain dammed itself when he felt the older mercenary bundling him up. He was a prince, yes, but it had been many years since someone had tucked him into bed. When they moved away, one of his own reached out from the blanket and grasped Naz by the wrist. She stopped and looked at his hand, then at him, standing in front of the window between the two beds. Her armored glove sat on the bedside table to her right, set to the side.

“Can you stay? Just a little while?” He asked, very quietly, as his fingers released her. “Until I fall asleep.”

She deliberated for a moment in her answer, and immediately guilt balled in his stomach. She’d already done so much for him, for them. Certainly, she had more important things she needed to handle, and rest that she needed to get herself. Before he could dismiss his own request, Naz nodded her head slowly.

“Just for a while,” She responded simply. Her bag was placed on the floor, and then she sat against the bedside table. Varlaine watched her reach into her pack and pull out a hardy looking jar of ink, bundled in a cloth, and then a leather-bound book. From the inside cover of the book, she pulled a feather pen.

Slipping her remaining glove off, Naz pulled the stopper from the ink and put the bottle on the floor beside her. She had to prop the book up on her knees to get any of the windowed moonlight to shine on it, but she managed well enough. The mercenary held it there, then dipped the pen in the inkwell. She wiped the edges off on the rag the bottle had been in, already stained with months of black streaks. Then she pressed the pen to the page and began to write, in a long, flowing script. Varlaine scooted up on his pillow to read it over her shoulder. She didn’t seem to notice.

‘Fifth of Lune, 1227.’ She scrawled the date at the top. ‘Returned to Dalren with the Revengardians safe and sound. Pressed the townsfolk to move west; I fear any delay could lead to a painful end to their story. I hope that when I leave them in the morn, they will possess the strength to make it to Kelvrir without me.’

Varlaine watched her write, listening to the soft scratch of pen on paper. The mat under him grew more and more comfortable, and his eyelids only heavier.

‘Nicomenda informed me that the boy, Varlaine, was beset by a wolf Alra who was hunting his trail. Varlaine appears fine, but I have my worries.’ Naz tapped her pen a few times at the paper in thought, before continuing. ‘I will keep an eye on him as we travel. If his seekers have Alra on us, there will be a need for nightguards and haste, as much as I can inspire in the pair. The girl is going to give me trouble…’

The words on the page were blurring together, enough that Varlaine questioned a line he read after going over it twice with blurring eyes. Finally, he let them fall closed, and closed they stayed.

(Part 10, the finale to chapter 2, is up, and can be found here!)