Author Topic: Kyr's Bones I: Young Blood  (Read 1309 times)

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Offline Rabbit

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Kyr's Bones I: Young Blood
« on: November 05, 2018, 07:40:59 PM »
Once upon a time, I wrote a really rubbish draft of this story for Nanowrimo in (I think) 2012. And I mean, really rubbish. But it's stuck with me, and I've been working on it bit by bit ever since. I'm currently working on the... fourth incarnation? And I like to think I've improved on it somewhat.

I'm not going to commit to posting the entire thing here but I wanted to share the first chapter with you. It's a [desc=for me, at least]long 'un[/desc], clocking in at around 10,000 words, and though I am working on this for Nanowrimo 2018, this first chapter has been completed for quite some time and is much more polished than the parts I'm working on for Nano.

I also don't have an updated blurb for the new version. Sorry.

Soooo... if you're also doing Nano, good luck and I'll send some writing mojo your way (if I can spare it!!) and if you fancy procrastinating from your own writing for a bit, have read below!



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Chapter 1: The Halfwinter Party
« Reply #1 on: November 05, 2018, 07:47:49 PM »
Kyr's Bones I: Young Blood
Chapter One: The Halfwinter Party

A bead of sweat trickled down her spine. Ysilga fidgeted in her seat and took a deep breath, the cloying stench of incense and herbsmoke clinging to her nose. She heard Harlaw’s steady breathing beside her and the crackle of the flames. She frowned, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand. Gods, why did it have to be so hot in here?

“Stop your fidgeting.” Harlaw spoke in a clipped tone. Ysi opened her eye a crack to peer at him. His face shone with sweat just like hers and his hollow cheeks were flushed a deep pink. At his throat hung an amulet in the shape of the Mark, glittering in the firelight.

Nausea roiled in her stomach. She didn’t know if it was the heat or the smell, or the magic. Meditating like this was meant to help her find her focus, to better reach the Aether and draw its arcane power into the true realm to be put to work in a spell. So Spellmaster Harlaw said. This was their fourteenth session and Ysi didn’t feel any closer to the Aether than when they started. She puffed out a sigh and fidgeted some more. On her palm, the tattooed Mark itched and she struggled against the urge to scratch it.

“Enough.” Harlaw stirred. His grey eyes flicked open. “Now we will try again.”

Ysilga stretched. Across the desk, Harlaw drew a wicked little dagger from his belt and bile scorched the back of Ysi’s throat as the blade flashed in the light from the brazier. Her fingers twitched in her lap, ready to make the healing signs. Even after all this time, a part of her hoped it would suddenly become easy. “I’m ready,” she said, struggling to keep her voice even.

The Spellmaster nodded. He wrapped the fingers of one hand around the blade and made a fist. A small grunt escaped his lips as he jerked the blade free and blood ran freely between his fingers. Ysi tried to steady her breathing as Harlaw thrust the hand under her nose.

Ysilga closed her eyes. She knew all the finger marks by heart - she’d had enough time to learn them - but what she lacked was the magic they were supposed to bring forth. With her left hand, she slowly began the first healing sign and the right - the Marked one - she held open over the red-smiling wound. The lessons had taught her that a good Mark mage danced with the Aether, calling down its power like a fragile songbird and showing it where to sing. It seemed to Ysi more like a heaving ocean in the midst of a Darkwinter storm - brutal crashing waves forcing her back to the shore, sapping heat and life from her body.

Focus! She could sense the Aether. It flowed like a gossamer sheet in a gentle breeze. Her fingers curled deftly into the next sign and she flicked her wrist upward but in that instant, the Aether turned against her. She could feel its resistance pushing back on every fibre in her and the familiar tang of vomit burned in her chest. Stars flashed behind her closed eyelids.

“Hurry up.” His voice sounded distant and muffled.

With the third healing sign, Ysi felt the first tendrils of power rising. It started as a burning in her chest that spread slowly down her arm and towards her Mark. With every passing second, the burning intensified until she could barely draw breath into her lungs. Her mouth felt dry and hot and her head swam and her trembling fingers mis-signed. The magic snapped taut like a rope and she felt herself sway in her seat. Unbidden, a weak sob escaped her lips. She hung there, in the world between worlds, letting the power wash past her like a tide, not daring to grasp for it.

And as she waited, only mere seconds, she realised that this place was not empty. She was not alone. Something watched from deep in the shadows, though she couldn’t see what.

“Enough.” Harlaw didn’t bother to hide his irritation. Ysi dropped her hands and steadied herself on the edge of the desk to keep herself from toppling. The Spellmaster pulled a cloth from the folds of his robe and daubed blood from his hand. “You aren’t even trying, are you, girl?”

“Of course I am.” She glowered at him. Her throat was dry and raw and she trembled feverishly despite the heat from the brazier. “But the Aether still resists me.”

“Nonsense.” Harlaw peered at his wound and then with deft, practised movements, he made the signs for the healing spell himself. The Mark on his palm gave off a soft, silvery glow. “Your entire approach is still too crude. You’re charging in as if to fight when you should-”

“Coax it. Appeal to it.” Ysi reeled off the lesson impatiently. “The nature of the Aether is to be channelled to its purpose. I know.”

Harlaw’s face turned stony. “Don’t speak back to me, Youngblood,” he said darkly.

Ysi hesitated. “I’m sorry, master.”

“Be grateful I still agree to teach you at all. Clearly there is still much work to be done to refine your method. You’ll never be ready for the Proving if you can’t even cast a simple healing sign.”

Ysi swallowed dryly and watched Harlaw examine the wound on his hand. He smoothed away the last of the blood and began to dab the droplets that had spilt onto his desk.

“I see no point in wasting our time here any further, Youngblood,” he said coldly. “I would tell you to keep up the meditation whilst I’m away but I doubt you will.”

“You’re riding out with the hunting party?” Ysi leaned forward in her seat.

“Yes, if they ever arrive. Our esteemed captain sees fit to send me traipsing after raiders instead of wasting my life in here attempting to teach you Mark magic.” His lip twitched. “Apparently the party needs another Spellblade to round out their numbers. In any case, I’ll be unable to teach you for the rest of the season, which is a blessing for the both of us, I’m sure.” He gave her withering look. “This lesson is finished. Leave me.”

With weak knees, Ysi rose and gave the Spellmaster and unsteady bow. It was a blessed relief to leave the stuffy confines of his office, though she had to rest her hands against the wall to keep from tumbling down the steps. Freed from magic lessons for the rest of the season! The long hours spent in Harlaw’s stuffy office poring over the arcane texts while he bemoaned her lack of talent were the only part of her Youngblood training she truly hated. It was supposed to come easily - there were Youngbloods at Red Barrow half her age who had twice her talent, as Harlaw was always keen to remind her.

By the time she stepped out of the keep into the afternoon sunshine, Ysilga felt almost herself again. Fresh snow crunched beneath her boots. She went to the well against the outer wall of the fort and drank and though the water was cold enough to make her teeth ache, she felt better for it. The rest of her afternoon was free, so she sat on the low wall which encircled Northwatch’s soul tree. The tree was named Ordenwyn and all around its base were dozens of offerings; painted stones and carved charms, here sprig of holly or frostblossom, there a twist of wool or a scrap of coloured silk. There was even a sword, long since turned to rust, that had been there for as long as Ysi could remember.

 As a Youngblood, her world stretched no further than the fort. When the hunting party arrived to stay for the season, Northwatch felt truly alive, filled with noise and laugher and new people to talk to. Ysi looked forward to it every year. It was the only time she saw any change to her usual routines - train, study, chores. Always the same.

As the Halfwinter sun warmed her cheeks, Gimsel’s cry from the watchroom at the top of the keep echoed across the yard. “Red cloaks to the south!”

Ysi leapt to her feet as the answering cry came from atop the gatehouse. Red cloaks could only mean Redweavers - the Halfwinter Party was here at last. She’d watched for them in earnest, hoping to be the one to spy their approach first but that didn’t matter now. She hurried up the narrow steps to the gatehouse and found the arrowloop that overlooked the footbridge. Near trembling with excitement, she peered out at the party coming up toward the keep.

The scarlet-lined cloaks that marked them as Redweavers floated behind them on the breeze. She counted about twenty or so - warriors, of course and perhaps a Spellblade or two - all mounted with a few more horses loaded with supplies. Ysi couldn’t imagine a more stirring sight. These were her people and her pride. One day before much longer, godspraise, she would ride as they did with a scarlet cloak of her own. A true Redweaver.

From above, she heard Wilwyn hail the newcomers and below her, the counter-weights began to stir. With a shuddering rumble, the thick iron gate inched open. As the riders filed into the gatehouse, Ysi left the arrowloop. Her little seax blade slapped the tops of her thighs as she skipped back down the steps. On the inner wall of the gatehouse was an open archway that looked down on the yard. Ysi shoved snow from the ledge and seated herself just in time to watch the first riders come through. She recognised the big man with the thick black beard leading them as Ismund Wolfsbane. He must be their captain this year. She recognised a few more faces - Elanwyn and Elandr, the twins, came almost every year. Resgeir came less often but she knew him too. There were new faces too.

Across the yard she saw Captain Estir, tottering down the icy steps from the keep, clining to the steady arm of Gimsel. The Steward of Northwatch, she was a hunched old woman with a cap of wiry, snowy white hair. Her Redweaver cloak trailed on the ground behind her. Once clear of the steps, she batted Gimsel away and straightened up, rapping her cane on the stone flags.

Captain Ismund, a massive greatsword slung across his broad shoulders, dismounted and with three great strides he approached Captain Estir and engulfed her tiny frame in thick arms. His booming voice rolled around the yard.

Hooves rang on stone as the last of the riders came into the yard, which now seemed half the size for all the bodies pressed into it. From her view point, Ysi counted eighteen people in all and four packhorses. Kess the stablewoman had come out, and was darting from horse to horse, shouting instructions to the riders as they dismounted.


Someone cuffed Ysilga around the back of the head. She turned, cringing. Wilwyn stood over her, arms folded across his chest. “Get down there and help Kess. You can gaze in wonderment when there isn’t work to do.” His words were curt but there was a smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.

Scrambling to her feet, Ysi dropped a hasty bow to the Second Steward. When she hurried down to the yard, Kess had already started moving horses into the corral she’s set up between the gatehouse and the smithy. There would not be space for all of the animals in the fort’s tiny stables but these were the shaggy, hardy mounts bred by the Barrow to cope with the cruel cold of the Endless Winter. Kess caught Ysi’s eye and pointed out the packhorses still standing beside the gatehouse.

“Take them over to the steps and begin unloading,” Kess barked to the two riders leading them. “Ysilga will show you.”

The first rider swept down from his horse with grace, adjusting the grey scarf that covered his mouth. The other came down more stiffly. She took the reins of two of the packhorses and left the lads to bring the others. As she tethered the horses at the foot of the keep and started fumbling with the leather straps binding their loads, Ysi cast furtive glances at the two newcomers. She didn’t recognise them at all. They were very young, she realised. Perhaps only a few years older than herself and the red of their cloaks was still bright as fresh blood. The one with the thick arms and a chunk missing from his nose caught her looking as he unwound his headscarf. He gave her a bright smile.

Jardin the quartermaster appeared then and busied them carrying the supplies inside. It seemed an age before all the sacks of grain and vegetables has been stacked away in the storeroom and Ysilga could peel herself away. She passed Wilwyn in the hallway, hopelessly trying to maintain some sense of order. He barked orders at the new arrivals - where to take their belongings, where to find their beds. It would be some time before the initial chaos died down. Ysi hurried upstairs, muttering to herself along the way. There was something she needed to do before the evening feast began.

She was ready, she told herself. The Master-at-Arms was pleased with her progress and surely the Halfwinter Party would need every blade they could get? What was the use of leaving Ysilga confined to Northwatch when she could be helping them? And gaining valuable field experience to boot? Her fingers lightly touched the hilt of her seax. The fine little blade was a rare gift from her father when she began her arms training. It was yet to taste blood.

Outside Captain Estir’s office, she stopped with her heart in her mouth. She had to at least try. Ysi straightened her back, set her jaw tight and knocked. At Estir’s raspy reply, she slipped through the door. The old woman was hunched over her desk, quill in hand. She was positioned under the window to  give the best light for her failing eyesight but her gaze was keen and sharp as she looked Ysilga up and down appraisingly.

“Captain-Steward.” Ysi bowed.

Estir sighed. She lay down her pen and rubbed wearily at her eyes. “If the Barrow ever asks you to be in charge of an outpost, lass, turn them down. Too much paperwork. Dockets and chits and contracts, that’s all I ever seem to do.” She leaned back in her seat and smiled. “I thought I’d have a visit from you before long.”


“Spit it out, girl.” There was a wry smile on her face. “Whatever you came here to say. I’m listening.”

Ysi sucked in a breath. “I want to go with the Halfwinter party.” She paused. Estir didn’t immediately laugh her out of the room, as she’d feared. Into the quiet, Ysi forged on. She’d rehearsed this speech many times in her head already, telling it to the horses in the stables, the messenger birds and the leather training dummies in the yard. “Even if it’s only as a squire, or minding the supplies. Even if I have to stay back from the fighting, I don’t mind. I want to go, to see what it’s like. I’m ready, Captain.”

Estir studied her, leathery lips working over her empty gums. Her eyes narrowed in thought. Ysilga resisted the urge to squirm under her scrutiny. At length, the captain spoke.

“When I was your age, coming up to my Proving, there were twenty other Youngbloods in my circle at Red Barrow. We all took our cloaks at the same time. Most of them are dead now, but I remember every name, every face.” She trailed off. For a moment, she stared quietly out of the window. “You’re bound to the people in your circle, the ones you grew up with, trained with day after day.  It’s a powerful bond. Lasts all your life.”

Ysi nodded solemnly. “But I’m not part of any circle. I’m the only Youngblood here.”

“The only Youngblood here, and one of only a handful in the order.” She looked up at Ysi and smiled warmly. “The High Master would have my head if I sent you off to be killed by reavers.”

“But I’m ready, Captain! Crowspyre has taught me everything he can. Even he says I won’t learn any more until-”

“Until you fight properly, outside of training.” Estir cut her off, the warmth in her voice replaced with cool iron. “Until you draw blood from another, until you’re fighting for your own survival. Until you kill someone. Are you so eager to take another person’s life?”

Ysi tried to keep her voice level. “Of course not. But I am ready. I want to learn, I want to help. Please, let me join the hunting party.”

“Absolutely not.”


“Enough, Ysilga.” There was warning in the captain’s voice now. “No matter how ready you think you are, it isn’t ready enough. You’re still just Youngblood.”

Ysi gritted her teeth. She dropped her eyes to the floor and though she held her tongue, she felt aflame, burning with the need to do something. “As you will, Captain. Thank you for at least listening. May I leave?”

“You may. Go and find something to occupy your mind, girl.” Estir picked up her pen. “I’m sorry.”

Ysilga made a wooden salute and left. She clattered down the back stairs, not wanting to bump into anybody. Half of her wanted to cry, the other half wanted her iron war axe in hand and something to smash with it. She slipped out into the yard, which was clear now. The Redweavers would be gathering in the great hall, sharing news and cider until the evening feast. Overhead, pewter clouds rolled across the sky, promising heavy snow to come, and an icy wind blew from the sea to the east. Ysilga shivered. Her brown cloak was upstairs but she was too tired to fetch it now. The failed magic from Harlaw’s lesson still sapped at her energy like a sickness and on her palm, the Mark ached dully. Now there was an itch in her soul too. How could she remain here all the season with nothing to do? She paced across the flagstones.


She turned to see her Master-at-Arms, Gannus Crowspyre, approaching from the training yard. He eyed her appraisingly and said, “Why are you out here pouting?”

“I’m not pouting.” Ysi crossed her arms, underdressed and chilled. “I only wanted some air.”

“Liar. You’re angry.” His eyes narrowed. He’d always been able to read her mood, much to Ysi’s dismay. “Why are you angry?”

“I asked permission to join the Halfwinter Party and Estir refused me.”

Crowspyre snorted. “So she should. You’re not a warrior yet, Ysi.”

“I’m ready to fight, I know I am,” she protested. “And I’m bored witless here.”

“You are not ready,” he told her firmly. “And you won’t be a warrior until after your Proving. Pouting and stamping your feet like a child won’t change that. Don’t give me that look, girl.”

He dropped a firm hand on her shoulder and began to guide her towards the keep. “If you truly are ready, why do I hear from the Spellmaster about how little effort you put into his lessons?”

“I don’t… that isn’t…” She paused at the top of the steps. Crowspyre turned to her, eyebrows raised.

“You need a grasp of at least the basics of Mark magic to pass your Proving.”

“I know that.” She imitated Harlaw’s high drone. “A well-timed healing spell can save a life.

“And still you neglect your lessons. Are you cold?”

“No.” Though she was. “And I don’t neglect them. I just…” She thought of the burning, the sickening feeling that Mark magic left her with. The words fluttered on her tongue but she swallowed them back. How could she explain it?

Instead, she trailed after Crowspyre into the great hall, which was crammed with bodies and noise.  A smell of spilt cider and sweat hung on the air. Elandr was standing on a stool playing a bone pipe while his twin Elanwyn sang in a soft voice that was near swallowed by the din of the crowd. There came a series of loud bangs as Wilwyn hammered his fist on the top table to be heard over the noise of the room. “Shut your mouths, you ugly sack of dogs!”

Ysi slipped through the crowd and found herself a seat in the corner. Crowspyre took his seat at the top table beside Spellmaster Harlaw, looking even more bitter than Ysi felt. Beside him, Ysi could just see Estir through the solid press of people, one thin hand steadying herself against the table. As the din grew quieter and the Redweavers found their seats, Estir pursed her lips, her shining dark eyes roving the room. They settled briefly on Ysilga, who stuck out her chin and tried to look stern and commanding.

When the room was finally quiet, the captain rapped her cane sharply on the table and began to speak. “Welcome, friends. As always, it is an honour to host our brothers and sisters here at Northwatch.” Her voice was reedy and frail but she held her audience in rapt attention all the same. “Mind your drink. Those riding out tomorrow will want clear heads and steady hands. That goes doubly for you, Ismund,” she said, pointing her cane at the him. He gave a booming peal of laugher and raised his cup to her.

“And so to work. Wilwyn has been gathering information these past weeks, and his reports have been troubling.” Estir’s tone change and now Ysi could hear the steel hidden beneath her age and frailty, a hint of the vital warrior she was in her youth. “It seems the reaving folk are gathering in greater numbers this year, more than we’ve seen in a long time. I have decided to lend Captain Ismund a share of Northwatch’s regiment. In my stead shall go Wilwyn Second-Steward.”

She reeled off a list of names. Ysi frowned. Most of the able fighters of Northwatch would be joining the party. The small part of her that still had hope was crushed that her own name was not among them. A commotion was growing in the benches at the front of the room. Ysi fidgeted in her seat and leaned forward to see. Captain Ismund was on his feet now, running his fingers through his thick black beard as he spoke. “With all respect Estir, you’re stark mad. You’d leave Northwatch near empty and ripe for the picking. The reaving folk have tried to take the keep before. If they were to succeed-”

“Old woman I may be, Wolfsbane, but I could keep this rock from a thousand raiders and reavers.” Estir poked him in the chest with her cane. “You’ll take the extra blades and be glad.”

Ismund folded his arms across his chest. “You’re stubborn as a mule but far more lovely, Estir. At least take my two green lads, Arnhallr and Rook. Teach them a thing or two. They still have red dye dripping from their cloaks but they’re both accomplished and able fighters.”

He pulled to his feet the young Redweaver with the yellow hair and the chunk carved out of his nose. Ismund clapped the boy on the shoulder. “Why, my Ari here is half a Spellblade already.”

The lad had the grace to look embarrassed, but Ysi could see a furrow on his brow that plainly showed he would rather ride with the others than be left behind. She couldn’t blame him she thought dully.

The quartermaster and cook had collared a few men and women to help her lay out trenchers and bring in the food. There was roasted boar with crisp, salted skin, baked grey-roots and a big black kettle of stewed vegetables which was carried in and set up beneath the top table. Ysi had little appetite but she stayed long enough for a slice of meat and a ladle of the stew. It made no sense to pass up a fresh roast. By the time she slipped out, Ismund was shouting for more barrels of cider to be rolled in. The mood was rowdier. Elandr had gone back to trilling on his pipe with a trio of Barrowmen singing throatily.

Ysilga pushed open the great doors into the yard and was greeted by a wave of icy, crisp air. Night had fallen and with it had come a light snowfall. Flecks of white spun dizzily through the air, melting against her hot cheeks. Ysi went through the archway at the foot of the keep, toward the training yard. She didn’t want to sit with the others and drink, not tonight. She took her blunted training axe from the weapons cache, a low-roofed stone shack built against the outer wall of the fort. There was a leather dummy set up in the middle of the yard, already wearing a light dusting of snow. Ysi hefted her blade and eyed it.

Her training as a Youngblood largely came from two people; the Spellmaster Harlaw Oakhill was her tutor in Mark magic, while Gannus Crowspyre taught her to handle a blade, to shoot a bow and to march for miles dressed in mail with a heavy pack. He lectured her on combat tactics and versed her on notable Redweaver battles won and lost. He also taught her how to survive out in the desolate land of the Endless Winter; how to hunt and fish, where to make a camp and how to build a fire. How best to stay warm in a blizzard and how to read the sky to know what weather was coming.  Every morning and evening, she trained here in this yard alone, with the dummies or with whoever she could convince to hold a sword against her. She enjoyed Crowspyre’s lessons. She understood the subjects and she thought herself well-learned in them.

Yet fighting was not all there was to being a warrior.

Ysi crossed to a rough bench just under the eaves of the cache and put down the axe. She could train until she was sore and stiff - and she did - but Mark magic remained the area in which she was not good enough. She lowered herself onto the bench and stretched her long fingers in front of her face. Her father and Harlaw both said she didn’t put the effort in, which perhaps was true.

 For most of her childhood, there had been no Spellmaster at Northwatch. The old one had died when she was seven, mere weeks after tattooing the Mark on her flesh. Years passed where she had no formal training, only piecemeal snatches of learning from her father or Wilwyn or whoever else had some spare time. Then the Barrow sent Harlaw who found her progress lacking and instigated daily lessons. With a great deal of concentration she could convey a feeble attempt at the simpler spells but the sensation left her dizzy and weak and made the Mark burn painfully on her skin. Harlaw only grew more impatient and ill-tempered as she failed to develop her skills as he expected. More than once he had sent her from his study in disgust, swearing not to waste his time with her any further, which suited Ysi just fine. A few weeks would pass free from his tutelage before her father or the Captain or somebody else would notice and oblige Harlaw to teach her again.

Neither she nor the Spellmaster looked forward to their lessons now.

Ysilga exhaled slowly. She held up her Marked hand and closed her eyes, seeking out  the Aether. She probed through that place in the dark of her mind where the connection began until she sensed it there, like a deep still pool of molten starlight. Her fingers curled into the first sign for a firespell and she felt her stomach tense. Her meal from earlier rose in her gullet and Ysi hesitated. She didn’t want to do this.

The Aether dropped away as she stepped back, dropping her hands and their half-formed sign. She pressed her hands to her eyes, waiting for the sickness to pass. It wasn’t fair! Why was it so difficult? Ysi gritted her teeth and snatched up her axe. Light-footed, she circled behind the dummy’s back, raised her weapon in both hands and sunk its blade deep into the dummy’s neck.

Her breath billowed in short, harsh intervals. This, she was good at. Why did the Order place so much value in magic? What could it matter that she fought without magic when her steel was sharp and true? Ysi wrapped her fingers around the axe haft and worked it free from the leather.

“If you angle it upwards more, you could take off his head.”

The young Redweaver Ari stood at the gateway, leaning with one shoulder against the wall and watching with interest. He was dressed in typical Redweaver garb, a black leather tunic embroidered with the order’s sigil and his warrior’s cloak draped over his shoulders. Ysi watched him seat himself on the bench, lounging back like he sat upon a throne and seeming to take up a great deal of space. She smiled thinly and without warmth, silently willing him to leave.

“So, you’re the Youngblood of Northwatch. How do you keep from going mad from boredom in this iced-up hinterland?”

Ysi bristled. “Don’t call me that.”

He looked up at her, surprised. “Oh, I meant no offence. Only that I heard talk of you, back at the Barrow. There are few enough Youngbloods. The Council wanted you brought there for training but your father refused.”

Ysi studied the head of her axe to hide her confusion. She hadn’t known that. Why would her father keep her at Northwatch, when surely it would have been better to train her at Red Barrow with the other Youngbloods?

“What are you called then?”


“Well met. I’m Arnhallar. Ari, if you like.” A slow, easy smiled dawned across his face. He gestured for her to sit beside him. Ysi shook her head.

“You’re a Spellblade.” She pointed to his weapon, a long, thin sword, the type only carried by that small, elite class of fighters within the Order, who matched quick and deadly bladework with combative magics.

Ari looked pleased. “Not quite yet. It will take another year or so before I have enough experience.” He scratched at his beard. “I thought I’d come to ride out with the others. A rude joke by my father to abandon me here. Which bring me back to my first question; what’s good to do here? How do you spend your time?”

Ysi shrugged. “I train a lot, down here. Sometimes with Crowspyre.” She though about it. “I suppose there isn’t much to do that isn’t chores or training.”

Ari looked like he’d been handed a death sentence. “Gods,” he groaned, with his head in his hands. “It’s worse than I feared. The tedium will kill me before the season turns.”

Ysi couldn’t help but smile at his mock despair. He glanced up at her with eyes like dark amber and winked, and she felt a colour rise to her cheeks. “You could help me train. Fancy swordsman like you, I’m certain there’s a lot you could teach me.”

Ari straightened up and stretched luxuriantly. “I’m sure not that much, but we’ll see.”

“There’s blunted swords in the cache.” Ysi skipped back a step, lifting her axe. “Come on, we can spar.”

Pushing a lock of yellow hair from his eyes, Ari drained the last of his cider. “Sorry, not now. We were up before dawn this morning and I’ve been looking forward to a real bed since the first night out from the Barrow.”

“As you will.”

“Come, don’t look so gloomy.” He stood and set off walking back to the keep, and Ysi fell into step beside him. “I’m appointing you as my guide to Northwatch, to keep me from flinging myself from the tower out of boredom. There’ll be plenty of time for swordplay, I’m sure.”

Ari’s words soon proved to be false. As soon as the Halfwinter Party and their Northwatch brethren had ridden from the keep, the drum of their hoofbeats carried away on the wind, Captain Estir assigned Ari and the other young Redweaver Rook to their watches. With both of her tutors absent from the fort, Ysilga had for more time available to her than she was used to. She still trained morning, noon and night as usual, alone in the yard behind the keep, and she carried out the variety of chores expected of her as the most junior person. She fetched water for the kitchens and helped Jardin pickle endless barrels of vegetables, which would see them through the darker months. The messenger birds atop the keep needed tending to every day, feeding and watering and the waste scraped from their cages. She would take new messages down to Estir, or bring the old woman food and drink through the day, as she wanted.

Her free hours she spent keeping Arnhallr company. He was usually posted to the gatehouse and there she’d find him, wrapped in his cloak and mithering about how dull Northwatch was. She brought him hot cider or sometimes a nut cake from the kitchen. He was good company, she decided, bright and funny. Ysi was so accustomed to being the youngest person at the keep by a decade. Having somebody her own age to speak to was a revelation.

One morning, when she fetched her training axe and shield from the armoury to go through the manoeuvres Crowspyre taught her, Ari strolled down from the keep and offered to spar with her.  Ysi was well used to sparring with the Master-at-Arms during their lessons but fighting with Ari was a different beast entirely. Despite his heavy build, the young Spellblade was fast as a winterhare and as hard to follow. Beside him, Ysi felt ungainly and crude. The pair of them quickly made it a part of their daily routine, early in the morning before Ari disappeared off to his watch.

One bright morning a few weeks into the season, Captain Estir gave permission for Ari and Rook to leave their posts for a day of rest. Ysi pestered Jardin for some food to take and the three of them saddled horses and rode up the coast to Singers Cove. It was an odd little cove, backed on all sides by sheer black cliffs and the only way down was a path so steep and narrow they’d been forced to dismount and lead the horses down. Here they sat on the black shale beach, swathed in thick furs to keep out the cold, and counted the icebergs on the sea.

“So where is the singer?” Ari asked in his gentle, nonchalant way as Rook conjured some Markflame to warm their fingers. The sky was clear and blue but despite the sunshine there was a cruel frigid wind tearing in from the water.

Ysi pulled her furs tightly around her throat. “If you stand on this beach and sing, or shout or anything, you can be heard out there on the water.” She turned to gesture at the cliffs that hemmed the beach. “The shape of the rock I suppose, does something to the sound if you stand in the right spot. I’ve never been certain exactly where, though.”

After that, they spent a good hour trekking up and down the beach, trying to find the Singer’s Spot, as Ari dubbed it. Rook quickly grew bored and went off alone to investigate the rock pools, but Ysi had a fine time with Ari, the both of them shouting obscenities up at the cliff face. Ari showed her how to set her stance to keep her footing, even while fight on unsteady ground. They practised sparring on the glossy shale until a light snow began to fall in the afternoon and they decided to start a slow ride back to Northwatch.

Ysi rode ahead, sitting straight-backed and proud in her saddle, a feeling of immense self-importance filling her as she led the two older boys. The snowfall grew heavier and she thought to take the path through Balalor Forest where the trees would keep the worst of it at bay. It was a more interesting route to ride, in any case, but Ysi quickly found the woods darker than she expected for this time of year, or the light was fading faster than she thought. As their horses stepped into the gloom beneath the tall pines, she realised this route would take longer. They couldn’t ride at more than a gentle trot through the dense forest and Ysi was wary of any twisted roots or uneven ground that could cause injury to her horse. Kess would tan her hide if she returned to Northwatch with a lame horse.

As they rode, Rook showed them some curious shells he found on the beach. He meant to take them back to Red Barrow, he said, and find the creatures that made them in a book he seemed very fond of, Oludkin’s Treatise on Natural History. According to Rook, Oludkin was the Barrow’s Loremaster two centuries ago and had endeavoured to find and document every different variety of plant and animal scattered across the Skaaldic Isles. After seventeen thick volumes filled with detailed ponderings and intricate diagrams, Oludkin had died with his great work unfinished. Ysi could see the gleam of fervour in Rook’s eyes as he spoke of it and of his own dream to follow Oludkin’s path.

“Loremaster Jaenik has promised me a place as Keeper when I return to the Barrow.” He reached from his saddle to pluck a spray of kingspine as he passed. “I’d rather be there in the library than here.”

Ari laughed and shook his. “Bah, give me blade over books any day.”

Ysi was inclined to agree but Rook just shrugged his shoulders. “A warrior’s path is not for everyone,” he said mildly. “I was born into this Order and I’ll die in it too but my skills are better suited to academic work. It’s fortunate that the Order understands that. Oh, stop here! Stop!”

He reigned in his horse suddenly and dismounted. He skipped off the edge of the narrow track they followed and crunched unsteadily through the snow. “Look at this!”

Just below the path was a snow-capped boulder and Rook stopped before it. He pulled off a glove and reached out to touch the stone reverentially. Ysi leaned forward in her saddle for a better look. It didn’t look like much to her.

“It’s a lump of rock.” Ari cast Ysi a disdainful look and she laughed.

“No, no, look at these,” Rook said excitedly. He traced his fingers across the rock’s surface. “Runes. Old ones. What is this, Farki? Gah, if I only had paper and charcoal.”

“My heart breaks for you,” Ari said solemnly. “Now let’s go.”

“I can bring you back here another day, if you like,” Ysi called down. “I’ve ridden past this rock half a hundred times, I could find it in the dark.”

Rook scrambled up the slope and mounted his horse, looking disappointed. Ysi turned in her saddle. Here there was an opening in the tree canopy and a flurry of snowflakes spiralled lazily from the ash white sky. The ground sloped down to an icy brook cutting through the forest.

“If you follow the river east from here, you’ll come to the track we were on this morning,” she told the others, drawing back her hood. “You ride ahead, I’ll follow in a moment. I need to find some snow to melt.” She swung out of her saddle and took her horse aside to let them pass. Ari nodded knowingly and spurred his horse onward toward the water. Rook gave her a slightly bemused look as he passed and Ysi waited until they were a little way ahead before she ducked behind a tree and fumbled with her furs. She couldn’t help but shiver as she squatted, bracing herself against the trunk.

As she returned to her horse, she saw no sign of the others up ahead. A deep chill settled over her, even through her thick layers, and she hesitated with her hands on the saddle ready to mount. The horse shied, turning his head this way and that and Ysi spotted movement amongst the trees beyond the river. She hushed the beast with a protective hand on his neck while she peered down across the water.

There was definitely something down there, a darker shadow gliding between the shade of the pines. Ysi’s fingers twitched toward the hilt of her seax. Wolves were common in these parts, as were boars. Less common but largely more fearome were the tales of wyverns and wargs.

The sky had taken on a sickly green hue. The horse whickered, his ears twitching and Ysi felt the hair prickle on her neck. Something was wrong. She touched a hand to her ear - had the river stopped flowing? She couldn’t hear it any more. Her chest tightened. She turned her heard to shout for Ari and Rook and just then, a figure stepped out of the trees.

It was like remembering a nightmare. Shrouded in tattered robes of grey, so unnaturally tall and thin that he looked stretched and wrong somehow. Shreds of memory gathered together, reformed and Ysilga gasped. How could she have forgotten him for so long? The Wolf-Headed Man.

Her bones seemed rattle in their sockets. He was a shadow from a childhood nightmare, a shadow of blackest night that would stand at the foot of her bed when she woke. It was but a dream, she told herself firmly. It wasn’t real, then or now. She screwed her eyes closed, breathing hard and willing the spectre to melt away.

Befouled, debased. The words crept into her head without her ears hearing them but still she clasped her hands to her head, trying to keep him out. She could hear his hollow, shuddering breaths like a man with whiterot in his chest. The season is turning, the moment will come but it is not now.

“Enough! No more!” she cried out, trembling where she stood.

Faint birdsong drifted through the trees and when Ysi cracked open one eye, the phantom was gone. The river lapped against the rocks as it tumbled past. Ysi glanced around,  fearful still, but world seemed to have righted itself. She took a full breath, taking in the sharp fresh scent of the kingspine towering overhead.

A crunch of gravel at her back and a point of cold steel pressed against her throat. She turned to stone.

“Good furs. Take them off. Drop all your belongings on the ground. Start with the seax.” Her voice was low and gravelly. The blade bit deeper. “Hurry up, lass. I’m not a patient woman.”

Dreamily, Ysi fumbled with her belt. Her scabbard fell away. An invisible hand snatched it away and she felt bare. This is madness! Why had she sent Ari and Rook ahead without her? Why had she given up her weapon so easily? Stupid, stupid.

When she undid the ties on her furs, they were wrenched from her shoulders with such force she slipped in the snow. Catching her balance, Ysi turned to see her robbers for the first time. The woman who threatened her grinned toothily, still pointing her knife toward Ysilga. There were four of them, reavers all by their looks. One had already mounted Ysi’s horse - Kess will have my hide for that - while another was wrapping her furs around his bony shoulders.

“Opam, see this.” The fourth had drawn Ysi’s seax from its sheath and held it up to catch the light. “Barrow-forged steel. She’s a Redweaver, Opam!”

Opam cast him a scornful look, knife still raised. “Do you see a pissing red cloak on her, Kinpf?”

“What else you have?” The man named Kinpf lunged forward and grabbed Ysi’s arm, groping around her waist for other goods to steal.

“Stop it!” Ysi struggled, tried to push him away. He reeked of carrion and his fetid breath stank of fish. Her fingers curled into a fist and she struck him on the jaw. Quick as a serpent, Opam darted forward and gripped Ysi by the throat. Kinpf staggered away, clutching his chin and Ysi found herself tossed forcefully to the ground.

“See? No Redweaver at all but a frightened little girl lost in the big dark wood.” Open pressed Ysilga’s face into the ground and laughed. “Here, Mjonefr. Would you like a go at her? A little justice for your leg?”

Icy snowmelt soaked into the front of her tunic and Ysi gasped for breath, trying to crawl away. Opam pressed her knife into the flesh of Ysi’s leg and twisted it slowly. “Are you a Redweaver, girl?  Only we four have no love for your kind. You attacked our camp at Tvnir. Mjonefr lost his leg, see?”

Fingers twined into her hair and forced her head around. Ysi blinked. Mjonefr stared stonily down at her from her own horse. His right leg ended in a stump, bloodied and bandaged. He spat at her. “Take her blasted leg. Leave her to bleed in the snow and let’s be gone, Opam!” he bellowed. “We have to reach the Down before the others move on.”

Opam straightened. Ysi pushed herself up onto her elbows and looked around, shuddering for breath. The woman held a filthy hand out to Kinpf. “Lord Mjonefr says we must go, so we must go. Give me the seax.”

Reluctantly, Kinpf handed it over and Opam tested the weight of it in her hand. Ysilga lay sprawled in the snow, shivering and too afraid to move. The reaver took a step toward her, raised the little seax. A wordless moan of dread rose in Ysilga’s throat and she desperately tried to scramble to her feet.

“Don’t think it’ll cut clean through, girl, but-” She stiffened as a black shafted arrowhead erupted from her cheek. Ysi screamed.

Ari rose up behind her, lunging forward with his narrow blade flashing in the light. His blow caught Opam in the neck, severing her head half-off in a spray of blood. Ysi snatched her seax from Opam’s limp grasp and scrambled to her feet as Ari turned to Kinpf. His Redweaver’s cloak swelled behind him and Ysi saw his fingers move, almost too fast to see as he made Marksigns and passed his hand near his sword. The metal edge rippled with flame.

Kinpf screamed as Ari slashed up under his arm. The nameless reaver lurched toward Mjonefr on horseback as Kinpf fell. Ysi stood frozen, trembling and shocked and before she could think, another arrow came whistling from the treeline and took the fourth reaver in the shoulder as he scrambled up onto the horse. Mjonefr kicked the beast and took off, his companion still fighting to find purchase behind him.

Wordless, Ysi watched the two reavers disappear into the forest. Mere seconds had passed since Opam loomed over her, ready to dismember her with her own blade. On the ground, Kinpf gave one final gurgling rasp and fell still. The snow-covered rock that had so entranced Rook only moments earlier was marked with a red arc of blood. Ysi turned her face from Ari to dash tears from her cheeks.

“Are you hurt?”

She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. Not hurt. Instead she trembled now with anger and humiliation. She couldn’t look at Ari, or Rook who stepped silently out from the trees now, bow still in hand. The reavers had stolen her horse, stripped her of her furs and nearly killed her with her own damned seax, and was worst part was that she’d let it happen. She lashed out with her boot, aiming a vicious kick at Kinpf’s corpse with all the hate she could muster. “Idiot!”

 How would she explain the missing horse to Kess? Word of it would creep around the fort. How could she look Crowspyre in the eye? And her father? Her cheeks flushed with shame at the thought.“Ysi-”

“Don’t.” She shook Ari’s hand off her shoulder and stood, simmering with rage. “We should go back now,” she said too sharply. She ignored the baleful look on his face as she stooped to retrieve her scabbard and buckled it back in place with shaking hands. With her fist clamped around the hilt, she swept past the others and set off up the path.

Night was falling when they finally reached Northwatch. Still brimming with anger, Ysilga had refused both Ari and Rook’s offers to take one of their horses - she’d cursed them out before they gave up asking - and so the two young Redweavers had insisted on walking too, much to her irritation. Ysi’s mood darkened with every stride. She didn’t say a word all the way back and as they came into the yard, all three were weary and footsore. The torches around the yard crackled and sparked as Ysi stomped past, intent only on finding a dark corner to sulk in. Ari stopped her at the foot of the keep.

“We have to make a report to Estir,” he told her, his tone soft. Ysi turned away in disgust but he took her arm in a firm grip. “Ysi, what happened in the forest was not your fault. If anyone is to blame, it’s Rook and I for leaving you alone.”

Ysilga wrenched her arm away, her anger spilling over. “I have never needed minding before you came here and I don’t need it now. I am not an imbecile!”

“But you are a Youngblood.” His tone matched hers for anger. “And you were our responsibility, whether you see that or not. We’re fortunate none of us were hurt.”

Though she glared hatefully at him, Ysi could feel a shameful tremor in her chin that she had to clench her jaw to hide. Ari gave her a look of distaste.

“Act the sulking child if you like,” he told her archly. “Or come with me to the Captain, make a full account and accept the consequences, like a Redweaver ought.”

Arnhallr turned and marched up the steps into the keep. Ysi stared after him, pridesick and feeling the cold air on her hot cheeks. There was a fresh smell on the wind that promised a heavy snowstorm, one of the many things Crowspyre had taught her to recognise. She recalled another snatch of wisdom from her mentor, not taught in any lesson but imparted during a wake some years ago. She’d found him alone in the yard, drinking deeply from a cask of cider he’d stolen from the kitchen. There were tears on his cheek and he wiped his dripping chin and told her, “Every sunrise is a victory. Death comes for each of us and always too soon.”

She’d taken his words as the ramblings of a grieving friend deep in his cups but weighing them now, Ysilga thought she understood better. She might easily have been killed in Balalor today. Surely she could find it in herself to be grateful for that, for Ari and Rook’s timely intervention, and treat the whole affair as a lesson learnt. Next time, she would be more prepared. For now, she could face the fruits of her misfortune with humility and be glad she still breathed.

The kitchen was filled with the meaty aroma from the mixed pottage keeping warm by the fire. Jardin looked up from her work and nodded as Ysilga passed through on her way to the Captain’s quarters. Despite her newly found insight, she still ascended the steps to the upper levels with a deep sense of foreboding. As Ysi sidled into Estir’s office, she found Ari already halfway through his report. He nodded to her as she stood at his side. Captain Estir sat straightly in her seat, studying the pair of them closely, not saying a single word. When he reached the telling of how they parted in Balalor, Ari turned to Ysilga expectantly.

Her throat seemed choked with wool as she put her words together carefully. She left out entirely any mention of the Wolf-Headed Man for they would only think her mad, and as she recounted her ambush by four of the reaving folk, Estir frowned but held her tongue. When finally Ysi finished reporting, she sagged with relief and longed to depart already but Estir’s lips worked around her missing teeth for a moment. At length, she spoke.

“It troubles me that they would be so brazen as to threaten one of ours so close to Northwatch.” Estir’s dark eyes glittered deep within weathered wrinkles and her expression was stern but not unkind. In fact, it seemed to be filled with pity, Ysi thought. Pity for a useless, half-trained Youngblood who had shamed herself and the Order for which she stood. “Think very carefully, Ysilga. Did your attackers say anything we might use? Where had they come from, or where they were heading?”

The window shutters were ajar and a cold draught blew in, making the candle flames gutter and dance. Their three shadows swooped and loomed across the room. Ysilga drew a slow breath. She could picture the woman’s face, Opam, twisted with dark delight at the thought of dismembering her. What had they said to one another? She chewed her lip in thought. The man who escaped on her horse, Mjonefr, had lost his leg fighting the Halfwinter Party at Tvnir. Was there anything eles? Mjonefr had been eager to kill Ysi and move on quickly. She closed her eyes, imagining his face, pale and drawn from bloodloss.

It came to her then and she looked up, eyes wide. “Our people attacked them at Tvnir but they were said they were fleeing to the Down, Captain. It sounded like there were others waiting for them there.”

Estir leaned back in her seat, looking thoughtful and sad. “Darksur Down… if they’ve claimed the Down then the settlements there must have been raided. I don’t recall hearing from them in some months.” She pulled a slip of paper towards her and took up her quill. “The hunting party must know of Darksur’s fate at once, if they don’t already. Luck might have it that they can meet the reavers there.”

When Estir had finished furiously scribbling the note in her shaking scrawl, she folded and sealed it and passed it to Ari. “Send a bird immediately, lad,” she told him curtly. As Ari nodded and made a smart bow, the Captain turned a stern face to Ysilga. She quailed and turned to look desperately after Ari as he went.

“Quite a misadventure, girl. I will inform Kess. It won’t take her long to realise one of her beasts is missing and of course, you’ll be disciplined justly.” Estir made a curled fist under her chin. “There will be no further excursions outside the keep, not without a more experienced Redweaver. Those two lads did well today but they may not be so lucky a second time.”

Ysi stared dully at her boots. “Yes, Captain.”

“It seems that every year, times grow more dire. The snows come thicker than ever and people grow desperate. More and more turn to reaving and raiding, taking at will the fruits of honest toil by other folk.” Her voice cracked and for a moment she looked more aged than ever but then Ysi saw the glitter in her eye and the smile that turned up her mouth. “But I understand too that you are young and bored and frustrated, and you have too much time on your hands. You cannot join the fight and nor can you push onward with your training because a foolish old woman has sent away your teachers!”

Ysi jerked a bow, shocked. “Captain, I would never-”

“Always know who you are girl. I am an old woman. I am, at times, foolish. I sent Harlaw and Gannus away, only thinking of bolstering the party’s numbers. And you have the Proving, looming close, and so you need to keep busy, training where you can and working where you cannot.” Estir reached for her cane and stood unsteadily. “Continue training with Ari. I will speak to Rook about practising archery with you.”

“Of course.” Ysi nodded. “And my punishment?”

“That will be whatever Kess can find for you to do. Mucking, cleaning leathers. I hear the stable roof is leaking.” Estir leaned heavily on her stick and shuffled around the desk. “Meanwhile, I will give you a shift on watch.”

“Really?” Ysi was taken aback. Surely that was no task for a Youngblood?

Estir seemed to read her mind. “It will be useful experience and it will teach you stillness and patience.” She stopped in front of Ysilga and looked her up and down. The top of her head barely met Ysi’s chin but she held herself regally, both hands clasped around the carved head of her cane. “In a few short weeks, the Barrow will summon you home to begin the final phase of your Youngblood training. Until then, you must be kept too busy to fret about it. Go to Kess first thing tomorrow. You may leave.”

Ysilga nodded and bowed low. Estir smiled a crooked grin and Ysilga left. As she took the stairs down to the kitchen two at a time, her stomach growled. She reflected on her exchange with Estir and found herself relieved. She’d expected harsher punishment than a few extra chores. And being put on watch seemed like less on a punishment than giving Ysi what she’d wanted all along - a chance to be useful to the Order, outside of chores and housekeeping.

In the warm kitchen, Ysi filled a bowl with pottage, took a crust of brown bread from the basket on the table and sat alone in the great hall to eat. The fire was burning low in the pit. She didn’t know where Ari and Rook had gone but she wanted some time alone to think.

The bitter taint of humiliation still hung around her like a stink and the only way she could think to be rid of it was to be better, or even the best. Ysi chewed and swallowed, resolving to put more time into her training. Until Master Crowspyre returned, she would train with Ari or Rook as long and as often as they would allow and she would start tomorrow.

The next time she found herself under attack, she would not freeze with fear.



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