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Katla
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PostPosted: Sat Jul 01, 2017 10:28 am    Post subject: Secrets Reply with quote

For trained warriors, there was little need for fully eight hours of sleep, and indeed, Katla was up barely more than five hours after falling to sleep herself, careful not to disturb her companion as she climbed from the bed and dressed, shinning down the ladder to seek out her brother and the rest of their party with her plan for the night ahead. That didn't mean that Aiden was allowed to sleep completely undisturbed, though. About an hour later, Siv climbed onto the bed with him, thumping down with her head on the pillow facing his as her kitten made a healthy attempt to get under the covers with him.

As exhausted as he was, like her, Aiden was a trained warrior and hence, a light sleeper. It wasn't Katla getting up that woke him so much as the arrival of her daughter and her daughter's kitten, though. He tried to ignore them as long as he could in hopes they'd get bored and leave, but after a while, he pried one eye open to peer at the girl and the kitten.

The little girl had her thumb in her mouth again, hugging her ragged blanket as she stared at him solemnly from a distance of about five inches away. It was a fair bet that she'd been sent up to wake him, but this probably wasn't what her mother had had in mind.

"Are you here to wake me or stare at me?" he asked, bleary-eyed and groggy, but awake. He was going to need more than a few hours sleep to catch up, sleep could wait until later.

She took her thumb out of her mouth. "Both," was the solemn reply before the thumb went back in her mouth again. The kitten made it underneath the covers, and began an exploration down his thigh, pinprick claws pinching as she went.

It was the sharp little claws poking his thigh that got him moving, reaching beneath the covers to find the culprit and scoop her out. He held her in one hand, close to his face where he could look her directly in the eye. "I have a better name for you than Cat. Your name should be Trouble," he told her, speaking directly to the "Cat".

The little bundle of scruffy ginger fur swiped at him pathetically, mewing in protest at being pulled out of her warm nest as Siv snickered around her thumb. "S'thee's no' t'throuba'," the little girl said indistinctly, blinking as Sigrun's voice made itself known from the bottom of the ladder.

"Siv, is he up yet? Katla's getting impatient to have him at the butts."

"How about Mischief?" he suggested further, leaving the kitten on the bed before sliding out from under the covers and getting to his feet. "He's up!" he called back, upon hearing Sigrun's query. He was already dressed, for the most part, but for his coat that was still covered in now dried blood.

"Best get down here, then!" Sigrun called back, her smile audible in her voice.

Siv sat up as Aiden rose from the bed, hauling her kitten into her lap. The thumb came out of her mouth with a pop. "What's mischief mean? You're all banged up."

"I'm sorry?" he asked, as he donned his coat, unsure if she was remarking on his health or his suggestion for naming the kitten or both. He didn't have much experience with children and obviously felt a little awkward around them.

Big blue eyes blinked slowly up at him. "You," the little girl pointed out. "All blue and green and ouchy." One small hand pointed a vaguely accusing finger at him.

"Have you never seen your mother that way?" he asked, pulling his coat closed before moving over to strap on his weapons, first the sword and then the bow, leaving neither behind.

She nodded, the little head bobbing up and down enthusiastically as she watched him arm himself. "Mamae gets banged up, and she puts the magic rub on, and it makes her all better," she informed him, wriggling to the edge of the bed.

"I'm afraid I don't have any magic rub, but I'll be fine," he assured her, unsure if she was merely curious or concerned. "Don't worry. I won't let anything happen to her," he added, after a moment, unsure why he was telling her that when Katla was obviously capable of taking care of herself.

"She won't let anything happen to you," Siv informed him confidently, dropping down off the bed, Cat hanging over her arm. She moved to the edge of the loft, and dropped the kitten down into the main room, turning to take her own time in climbing down herself.

He arched a brow at her comment as she clambered down the ladder, taking another moment to finish strapping on his weapons and securing them before moving to follow her. He didn't bother taking his pack, presuming he'd be returning here later. He wasn't exactly a prisoner here, but he wasn't a part of the tribe either.

Sigrun was waiting for him at the foot of the ladder. "Here," she said, handing him a pair of beautifully worked bronze cuffs, engraved with the sunrise. "Put these on. You need some mark to say who you answer to while you're under a claim - no one will interfere with you. The last person who challenged Katla had his nose broken so badly he can't actually breathe through it any more."

There was that word again - claim. What exactly did that mean? Was Katla claiming him as her mate, and if so, didn't he have any say in the matter? Nevertheless, he took the cuffs, pausing a moment to admire the workmanship before fastening them, too, onto his wrists. "What do you mean by under a claim?" he asked, trusting Sigrun to give him an honest answer.

"A claim is made on the spoils of war," Sigrun explained, cutting a hefty slab of bread as she spoke. "You saved Katla's life, so she claimed yours to keep you from harm from her enemies here in the hold. Some make a claim of a person to take them as mates, but those mates have little choice in the choosing. They cannot leave the one who claimed them, even after a set number of years. Katla wouldn't do that to you. She wasn't particularly happy about having to mate Jerrick in the first place." She placed a slice of ham and cheese onto the bread, handing it to him as she raised her voice. "Tabren!"

He wasn't sure whether he felt relieved or disappointed, but he was glad he wasn't going to be forced into a mating without some say in the matter. Whether he'd be allowed to leave once all this was over was another matter entirely, but one he didn't want to think too hard about right now. He had more important matters to think about, like his sister's life. "Thank you," he murmured before taking a bite from the bread. "She wasn't fond of Jerrick then?" he asked further, assuming that had been the name of her daughter's father.

"She's never been fond of his father," Sigrun explained. "Jerrick was Old-Tooth's son. The Thane ordered them to wed - if Katla hadn't tied her knots so tightly, Jerrick would have had her longer than he did. As it stood, he had her just long enough to put a child in her belly, and once he was a father, he tried to take control of the hold. Idiot boy, he was."
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Katla
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PostPosted: Sat Jul 01, 2017 10:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Why did he try to take control?" Aiden asked, assuming it was more than just a desire for power. He knew Katla and the Thane of her tribe didn't see eye to eye and that there was a power struggle going on, but he wasn't sure how Jerrick or Old-Tooth fit into picture.

"Because that's how his father took control," Sigrun said in a dark tone. She sighed, one hand on her hip as she looked at him. "Svarn should be our Thane," she told him quietly. "And after him, Hakon. Old-Tooth challenged the old thane when he was aged and infirm; he took the hold under his control in a contest that was far from fair. Then Halvar was killed in a raid on the Heart - a pointless raid, made only to remove him. Halvar was Svarn and Katla's elder brother, and Hakon's father. Old-Tooth forced the mating of his own son on Katla to gain legitimacy, but it backfired on him - Jerrick and Halvar were milk-brothers. He couldn't forgive his father for what he'd done."

As if he wasn't confused enough, the woman's explanation confused him further. "And to become Thane, Svarn would have to challenge Old-Tooth," he said, slowly making sense of it all.

"Svarn or Katla," Sigrun told him. "They've a good deal of support, especially now Old-Tooth is growing paranoid in his ageing. But one foot wrong, and we'll be turned out. He'll take Tabren, Hakon, and Siv away from us, and send us into the mountains to die. He's not yet made the mistake that will allow a challenge against him."

"I thought you said Svarn should be Thane," Aiden pointed out, unsure if a woman was allowed to become tribal leader here. Things were different in the lowlands, but that hardly mattered as he did not really belong there anymore.

"As the elder, yes," she shrugged. "But if it were Katla who challenged, he'd support her claim to power. They share the same mother, unlike Halvar - all three were unusually close. Tabren! Come when I call you!" This yell was answered by the youthful voice from outside.

"I'm comin', Mamae!"

Aiden took that as his cue to finish his meal and be on his way to meet Katla, wherever she was. "Thank you for your kindness and your honesty, Sigrun," he told her, gratefully and sincerely. He might have liked to have had more sleep and eaten a bigger meal, but the truth was that he'd had more sleep and food since arriving there than he'd had in a few weeks.

"Just you keep her alive out there," Sigrun told him fiercely. "There's already one child in this family who's lost both parents; Siv shouldn't join him." She glanced up as Tabren came in, scratching his fingers through his scruffy hair. "Take Aiden down to the butts," she told her son. "No side trips. And don't come back alone - wait for your aunt."

"Yes, Mamae," the boy nodded, flickering a wild grin in her direction. "C'mon, Owenson."

"I will," Aiden promised her without hesitation. Though he had only just met these people, he had taken an oath to protect and defend, and these people were no exception. He arched a brow at the boy, finding him a little bold for his age, but that wasn't a bad thing necessarily.

Perhaps it wasn't so strange that a boy of eleven should be so bold - in such a war-like society, he was likely close to the age when he might be considered a man, and just as likely to already be training with weapons. Whatever the reason, Tabren was a merry companion on the walk through the hold, leading the way past the huts and workshops down to the lake, all the while keeping up a cheerful commentary on the people they passed for Aiden's amusement.

At the butts, which turned out to be a training ground, Katla was sparring with another woman, both of them wearing bright grins as they exchanged blows with sword and axe that would make most lowland women think twice about ever lifting a bread knife again. As they watched, Katla headbutted her opponent, dropping to scythe her feet out from under her with one leg, her sword blade laid against the woman's throat. A clear win, and one the other didn't take badly, laughing as she rose to her feet. She nodded toward Aiden for Katla's attention, and the Dawn Rider sheathed her sword, moving to join her claim and her nephew.

"Impressive," Aiden remarked on her sparring once Katla joined him. He wasn't arrogant or foolish enough to challenge her to a fight, though he knew she'd asked him here so that he could prove himself worthy to her tribemates. He might have heard the story of how she became the Dawn Rider, but to see her fight proved her ability more than any story.

"For a woman who hadn't picked up a sword until five years ago, yes," she agreed, pulling the helmet from her head. "Tabren, Bjarth is pulling spears. Why not practice your throw for a while?"

The boy grinned happily at the suggestion. "Aye, Dawn Rider, I will!"

As he ran off, Katla's smile only showed in her eyes. Outside the walls of her home, she was like ice. "No one here uses the bow," she told Aiden in a low voice. "Make a show of it and don't miss. Once they see you're touched by the Lady, not one of them will object to you joining me on the hunt tonight."

"This Lady you keep mentioning ... Would she be the Goddess?" he asked, keeping his voice low so that the others would not overhear. Their belief system was different from that of the Lowlanders, and yet, there were some similarities, too.

She frowned curiously. "She's the Lady of the Skies," she told him, her own voice low, aware that this difference could earn him enemies of his own here. "The daughter of Father Earth and Mother Sea. She guides the visions of the augurs, and paints signs in the sky with the migration of birds; she protects the hunter. What is this Goddess of yours?"

"The Goddess of the Hunt," he replied, keeping his voice on a level with hers. "Mistress of the Wild - the forest, the hills, the animals. Goddess of the Moon, among other things," he explained. "Not so very different from your Lady of the Skies."

"No, not so different," she agreed softly. She stepped back, nodding to where a series of targets were set up - targets that were used for spear throwing, judging by the size of the holes in them. "Impress them, lowlander. Our lives might depend on it."

"Why do you not use the bow?" he asked curiously as he stepped forward and unslung the bow from his back. He wasn't too worried about impressing them. He'd learned how to use a bow almost as soon as he could hold one.

"Tradition," she shrugged, following him at a reasonable distance. "The game we hunt up here are bison mainly, some boar - hides too thick for arrows. Our spear points are stone; sharp and heavy enough to pierce that hide if you throw hard enough."

"I hunt smaller game," he explained, not bothering to explain that he was usually a solitary hunter. A solitary man on the move hardly needed a bison or boar to fill his belly when a rabbit or pheasant would do the job. If he really wanted to impress them, he thought he should demonstrate his prowess with the sword, but then that could be deadly. No, it was better this way. He came to a halt a short distance from a row of round targets made of twisted straw propped up on wooden posts, frowning thoughtfully a moment. It was almost too easy.
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Katla
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PostPosted: Sat Jul 01, 2017 10:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

She had her reasons for wanting him to show off a skill no one else here possessed; she was trusting him to make a good show of it. But as he paused and frowned, her own frown deepened. "What's the problem?" she asked in a flat voice.

"That's the target?" he asked, already knowing the answer to that question. "A beginner could hit that target." Of course, a beginner might not hit the center of the target, but he didn't think it would make for a very impressive display of his archery skills.

"They are meant for spears," she pointed out, laying one hand on her hip. She could see his point, though. "All right, what would you prefer? We can probably rig something up here and now for you."

"A moving target," he suggested, "or something small and precise." Though he wasn't sure what kind of moving target - certainly not a person. It didn't take a marksmen to hit a stationary target or one as big as the ones made of straw.

"A moving target," she repeated thoughtfully. She bent to pull a spear from the ground, holding it in front of him. "Could you put an arrow in that shaft while it's in the air?" It was a fair question - the shaft of the spear was about one inch wide, a difficult enough target from a distance on the ground.

He glanced at the spear, considering a moment before replying, "I can, so long as the arrowhead will penetrate the shaft." If not, it would just bounce off the spear, but his arrows were sharp and well made and he had a feeling it would work.

"Even if it doesn't, it'll mark it," she pointed out, hefting the spear in her hand. He was about to discover just what it was that gave so many people in this hold such well-developed shoulders. "Are you ready?"

He shifted the quiver of arrows on his back so that he could reach for one quickly, in case they decided to test his speed, along with his accuracy. He lifted the bow, nocking the arrow before pulling back the bowstring to prepare for the shot. "Ready," he told her, his own arms nothing to sneeze at. It took a good amount of strength to pull back that string and hold both the bow and arrow steady.

Katla hefted the spear once again, drawing it back over her shoulder as she angled herself, aiming toward the wheat field in case any of those arrows went wild. With a guttural yell that drew the attention of everyone on the training ground, she threw the weapon, watching it soar up into the air, spinning as it went.

With the bowstring already drawn back, all he had to do was take aim. Sighting along the shaft of the arrow and taking into consideration wind and distance, he let loose the arrow, not waiting for it to hit the target before reaching for a second and doing the same. Both arrows sailed through the air and hit the intended target, a few inches apart.

A surprised sound of appreciation went up from the warriors who had stopped to watch, though only Aiden got a glimpse of Katla's pleased smirk.

"Lowlander!" a bull-shouldered man across the field called, hefting his own spear. "Do it again!" He heaved his spear into the air, sending it spinning higher and further than Katla's.

This time Aiden managed to get off three shots in quick succession, each of them finding their mark and piercing the shaft of the spear in three places. This is what came of years of practice, as practiced with a bow as they were with spears and swords.

Thanks to that showing, it turned into something of a competition - the warriors of the Mountain-Hawk Hold each trying to outdo each other with their spear throws, and each hoping that at least one of Aiden's arrows would miss. Katla watched from the sidelines, her arms crossed over her chest. She couldn't see anyone objecting to her claim having a place in her hunting party now.

There were too many spears flying for Aiden's arrows to find them all, but he found enough of them to make an impressive show - at least, until he was fresh out of arrows. That was always the main problem with archery, but at least, he had shown his skill with a bow.

By the time he'd run out of arrows, he was a popular person on the field. Katla watched as men she'd grown up with, men who'd had a hand in raising her, men she'd helped birth, all came up to the lowlander to clap him on the back and congratulate him, welcoming him into their tight community of fighters. There were one or two sour faces, of course, and she'd definitely seen someone running up to the Thane's house, but Aiden had done what she needed him to do.

As Tabren scampered about the field, collecting the arrows, she pushed off the fence, moving to rejoin her claim as an old friend patted him heavily on the shoulder.

"Touched by the Lady, you are, friend," he was saying cheerfully. "Name's Bjarth. You comin' out with us tonight then?"

"Aiden," the hunter replied in return. "I am, if you will have me," he said further, though he had no intention of being left behind. He didn't bother to go into his own reasons for wanting to go along, letting them think he was merely going for the same reasons they were.

"You didn't think I'd waste a new asset, did you?" Katla asked, a flash of humor in her eyes.

Bjarth roared with laughter. "You never do, Dawn Rider!" he bellowed in his cheerful way. "I'll spot you at dusk."

She nodded, watching him walk away as Tabren came running back with his armful of arrows.

"Some of them were in real deep, lowlander," the boy told Aiden excitedly. "Can I learn that?"

"Aiden," the hunter corrected again, withholding the slightly exasperated sigh at the tribes' insistence on not using his name. "And yes, I can teach you, but it takes a lot of practice," he warned.

"I can practice," Tabren promised, nodding his head hopefully. "I practice all the time with my spear, and I could do the bendy thing instead of a spear, couldn't I, Dawn Rider?"

Katla smirked faintly. "It's called a bow," she told him. "And you could, if you can convince your father. I don't make the decisions for you, remember?"

"We'll have to make a bow that fits your frame," Aiden told the boy, assuming he was going to be around long enough to teach the boy to shoot. Archery wasn't a skill that one learned overnight. "Thanks for fetching my arrows."

"I could come with you and fetch your arrows -"

"No." Katla wasn't even going to entertain that idea. "I need you here to help take care of Hakon and Siv," she told her nephew pointedly. "Your parents would never forgive me if something happened to you."

Tabren scowled. "But you're letting Aiden go, and he's just a claim," he complained. "He's not even rutting you."
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PostPosted: Sat Jul 01, 2017 10:30 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Just a claim. Aiden scowled. It was going to take more than a little fancy archery to win this people's respect. He wondered, in fact, if he ever would. Then again, why did it matter when he didn't plan on staying that long? "I'm also a grown man who can take care of himself," Aiden pointed out. And for all his bravado, Tabren was still only a child of eleven years.

"I can take care of myself!" Tabren argued hotly as they headed back through the huts toward their home. "I can use a sword and a shield, and I killed a corpse just last month, all by myself!"

Katla raised a brow, but said nothing. It seemed she'd had this argument with her nephew several times before.

"Someone needs to stay back to protect your family," Aiden interjected, hoping the boy would see this as something worthwhile and not just an excuse to convince him to remain behind. "Being a man means protecting those who are weaker than yourself. Can you do that, Tabren?"

"But nothing ever happens here," the boy whined. "I want to go on the hunt, like the Dawn Rider and Father. I'll be a great warrior, just like them. But no one wants to let me try." He let out a great sigh, scuffing his feet through the dirt as they walked.

"And if you are away when it does happen, what then?" Aiden reasoned, letting the boy sort that out for himself. It was unlikely that anything would happen in the village while they were gone, but there was always that possibility.

Tabren scowled, but he didn't put up any more arguments. He was used to losing when he tried to fight for his right to join the hunting parties that left every evening.

Katla laid her hand gently between his shoulder-blades. "Don't be in such a hurry to grow up," she advised quietly. "It isn't any fun, being an adult in these times."

Aiden smiled a little to himself, seeing that things weren't much different here than anywhere else he'd been, at least where children were concerned. They were always in too much of a hurry to grow up, not realizing what they'd lost until they were adults.

"You know what would give you an advantage in learning the bow?" Katla said suddenly, drawing the boy's attention from his feet. "You should take over the wood chopping for the stove. That will make your arms and shoulders strong. Would it not?" This, she aimed at Aiden curiously.

"Aye," Aiden replied, taking his cue from Katla. "It will help with the sword and spear, as well," he added, which was true. "I wasn't much younger than you when I learned the bow," he said, though he didn't mention just how much younger.

"And it is something you do not need someone to teach you how to do," Katla added. "Something that would make your mother happy to know you are doing, and something Hakon and Siv will not be allowed to do for some years yet."

Tabren brightened as they spoke, encouraged by this offer of a responsibility that would bring him closer to his ultimate goal. "I can do that."

"The first thing we'll work on is making you a bow. We'll need the right kind of wood - yew or elm," Aiden added, letting the boy know there was more involved in mastering archery than learning to shoot.

Tabren nodded eagerly. "There's yew just outside the stockade," he offered. "It's a graveyard, so all that wood's got to be yew."

Katla bit her lip, trying not to smile. The forest outside the stockade was, in fact, a mixture of pine, elm, and oak, but she would let Aiden puncture this hopeful bubble.

"When I get back, we'll go looking together. That is, if you trust me," Aiden said, adding that little caveat at the end. If the boy wanted Aiden to teach him to shoot, he was going to have to trust him.

"Trust you more if I could go tonight," the boy muttered, which was probably about as close as Aiden was going to get to an acknowledgement. As they approached their hut, he slipped away, pulling at the wood axe set in the stump Svarn used to chop wood on.

Katla bit down her smile until they were inside. "Well, it's going to take him a while to get it out."

"He's got spirit. Reminds me of myself at that age," Aiden observed, though, of course, they weren't related. Maybe boys were just always boys, a little too eager for adventure, despite the danger.

"He's never going to be burly like Svarn," Katla shrugged, smiling over at her brother. "No one's as thick as Svarn." Her brother scowled at her, even as his wife laughed at the comment on him.

Aiden smiled at the easy camaraderie between the group, even knowing as he did that he was not part of it. As far as they were concerned, he was a lowlander and an outsider, but they were slowly starting to trust him.

"So, you're off without me tonight?" Svarn asked. The big man was sat at the table, skinning a brace of rabbits as Sigrun took the meat from him to chop and cook it. "Sure you won't need me?"

Katla shook her head. "Not tonight, Svarn," she told him firmly. "Someone has to stay."

Aiden remained quiet, allowing the little family to talk without him interrupting. What could he say, anyway? There was no point in promising he'd protect Katla when she was likely to be insulted by it. Instead he found a place to sit where he was out of the way and started to sort through the arrows to see which needed repairing.

"Hakon, fetch that twine down for me, would you?" Katla asked her other nephew as he passed through the room. She smiled at him as he did so, letting him go on his way as she sat down at the table herself.

"Who're you taking with you?" Svarn was asking, glancing at Sigrun significantly as Katla's hands started to repair the arrows Aiden set aside without a word being spoken between them.

"Bjarth's coming," his sister told him mildly. "Sven went out earlier - he's holding the horses for us."

Without a word spoken between them, Katla and Aiden started working to repair the arrows and replenish his supply, just in case they were needed later. Neither said a word, and yet, they worked so well together, it was almost as if they'd known each other for years, not a single day. "How many are we taking?" Aiden asked, at long last.

"Just the four of us," she told him. "We'll need to move fast, and we'll need to move quiet once we're in the Heart. We can't afford to attract their attention, so it's a small group and a lot of luck."
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PostPosted: Sat Jul 01, 2017 10:30 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

He wasn't referring to arrows, but warriors. He nodded his head, in both understanding and agreement. The smaller the party, the less likely they'd draw any attention, so long as they didn't get caught. With any luck, it would be a quick in and out. "I can track them, but it will be difficult in the dark, and we can't risk torches."

"We can if it's veilfire," she told him quietly. "The dead can't see it."

Svarn frowned across the table at them. "That's a risk not many would take with so few at their backs, sister," he pointed out worriedly.

"It's a risk that needs taking," she told him with a shake of her head. "If there's even a chance of finding her alive, we need veilfire."

"Veilfire?" Aiden echoed, assuming it was some sort of magic, though until now, he'd been unaware that the tribe was capable of such things. If he went alone, he was sure he could get in and out without being detected, but if his sister was there, freeing her wouldn't be easy, and he was going to need all the help he could get.

"Dream flame," Katla explained. "The veil between the world of waking and the world of sleep is thin in these mountains - that's why the dead rise and the demons march. There are certain places where you can reach into the world of sleep and pull flame through the veil."

"And you know how to do that," Aiden said, since that much seemed obvious. "Can you show me?" he asked, wondering what else one could pull through the veil besides flames.

"It's dangerous," she warned him. "More things than flame exist in dreams, and spirits can kill you as easily as a sword. Some have been lost to the veil altogether - they go in, but they never come out. They haunt the dreams of those they left behind."

"How do you pull flame from the veil without releasing anything else?" he asked further, curious but foolish enough to insist on learning something that he was better off not knowing. He had plenty of skills of his own to rely on.

"You offer the spirits something of your own, something they want, so that you can pass safely," Svarn said darkly. He turned his eyes to his sister. "And you've done it too often," he added. "One day soon, they'll ask for your life."

Katla didn't answer, looking down at her hands as she twisted the thin twine about the arrow head she was securing.

Aiden looked from brother to sister, eyes narrowing to almost mirror the look on Svarn's face. "And what will you offer them?" he asked, needing to know. As much as he needed to find his sister, he didn't want to put anyone else's life at risk in order to do so.

"It depends which spirit I encounter," she said, her voice just a fraction too calm. She was as concerned about the risk as Svarn was - not for herself, but for her daughter. Siv didn't deserve to have a mother who couldn't feel love, or who had no strength left in her limbs.

"I agree with Svarn. It's too risky. We'll find another way," Aiden said, leaving no room for argument. He didn't think waiting until morning would do much good, as it would be dark inside the mountain either way. "Have you been there before?"

"To the Heart? Once," Katla told him. "It used to be a hold - the Stone-Bear tribe lived there, long ago, before the dead rose and stole it from them. All holds are laid out in similar ways - it's relatively easy to find your way inside."

"I have an idea," Aiden started, "but it means I won't be able to fight." He murmured some unintelligible words under his breath and lifted his hands, brows furrowing in concentration. After a minute or so, a sphere of light appeared to hover over one hand, bright but not blinding and enough to light their path.

As one, the three others leaned back from the table, wary of the magic on display. "You never said you were an augur," Svarn accused in a grumpy tone. "Can't claim an augur, spirits wouldn't allow it."

Sigrun shushed him, but Katla was frowning, her expression deeply troubled. "You can hold that there, can you? If we protect you, you can move with it?"

"I'm not," Aiden pointed out, closing his hand and extinguishing the light as easily as one might extinguish a torch. "I'm a Shadow-Walker," he said, deciding to trust them with the truth. If they'd wanted to cause him any harm, they'd have done so already, and in fact, they seemed to be trying to help him.

Svarn abruptly rose and left the room, dragging Sigrun behind him as Katla stilled. Her pale eyes pierced Aiden's, alarm and something that might almost have been fear in her gaze. "You're a what?"

Aiden frowned as Svarn and Sigrun abruptly left the room, his gaze following them a moment before looking back to Katla, worrying he'd offended them in some way. "A Shadow-Walker," he repeated, wondering if he should have kept that to himself, but it would have come out sooner or later. "I am sworn to fight the Dead."

"I know," she said gravely. "We all know." Her expression was deeply troubled once more. "How much do you know about the start of all this?" she asked him firmly. "When the dead began to outnumber the living and took over the mountains?"

"Not much, I'm afraid. I know there aren't many of us left. My father was a Walker before me and his father before him," he told her, as honestly as he could without going into too much detail.

She nodded slowly. "We don't know the full details," she told him. "Most of it was lost when the holds began to fall. What we do know is that every hold that took in a Shadow-Walker was lost. Every hold. We're the last hold in the mountains, and ..." She sighed, shaking her head. "And I need to get you out of here before others learn what you are."

"Are you saying it was our fault somehow?" Aiden asked, turning defensive. He had been born and raised to fight the Dead. In this, he had expected they were allies, not enemies.

"I'm saying that Shadow-walkers bring death," she said sternly. "And I brought you into my home, to where my family dwells. We don't know how, or why, but Shadow-walkers brought death to every other hold." She shook her head, horrified at the thought of harm coming to her family. "I'll not let them kill you, but when your duty is done, you can't come back here."

"No, Katla. The Dead bring death. Shadow-Walkers only hunt the Dead, but I understand your fears." For a man who had been brought here against his will, he wasn't looking happy about having to leave. "If you want me to leave, I will leave, but you should know that this isn't the fault of the Walkers."

She nodded uncomfortably. "I gave you my word, and to that I hold," she promised him. "I'll get you to Heart, I'll fight by your side. But I cannot lose my hold, lowlander. It is all I have."

"And if we win?" he asked. It was unlikely four of them would win against a mountain of dead, but stranger things had happened. Either way, it seemed his days here were numbered, and he found himself regretting having to leave. It had been a long time since he'd been part of a family; only his sister remained, and she'd been taken.
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Katla
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PostPosted: Sat Jul 01, 2017 10:31 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"If we find the truth of what happened, if it's not what we have always believed ..." Katla sighed, shaking her head. "It's all speculation, lowlander. I cannot make promises with the lives of my people. I won't speculate with my daughter's life. You should hope we find something in there tonight that will change my mind."

"It doesn't matter, Katla. I'm grown used to being alone. All I ask is that you don't blame my sister for what I am," he told her, not blaming her, and yet feeling the sting of rejection all the same. "I am grateful for everything you've done for me, and I don't wish your people any harm."

She frowned, disliking the way things had turned out. "If you were not a Walker, I would welcome you into our home," she admitted reluctantly. "I wish you had not told us."

He smiled a little sadly, touched by her regret, though her feelings would not change things. "You would have found out sooner or later, and then what would you think of me for keeping it from you?"

She held his gaze, her eyes dull with a pain that she wasn't sure she had ever thought to feel again. "I'd have killed you for keeping it," she admitted, glancing down at her hands. What was wrong with her? She'd known him only a day - less than a day - but she knew she would miss him when they parted ways. She'd not felt that way for anyone before now. "Keep it to yourself, for now," she advised. "No need for Bjarth or Sven to know, not until it's too late for them to abandon us, at any rate."

He mirrored the look in her eyes, pained, sad, lonely even, but he knew better than to argue the point. Being a Shadow-Walker - a Hunter of the Dead - was a mostly solitary life; a legacy that would most likely die with him, and then where would the living be? "You need not go with me, Katla. This is my quest, not yours." At stake, his only flesh and blood family member left living.

"I gave you my word," she repeated, emphasizing her point. "I keep my word. Turning you loose out there would be sending you to your death, and I will not do that. No one deserves to be abandoned without hope on the mountainside."

"I don't know what I'm going to find there," he murmured thoughtfully, a worried expression on his face. "I'd know it if she was dead, but ..." He trailed off, refusing to give up hope just yet.

"So long as the chance remains that she might still live, you have to try," she agreed softly. "I know. My father didn't give up on my mother until he held her body in his arms. Believe me, I know." She rose, laying a hand on his shoulder, strong fingers squeezing. "Come away for a walk with me. Let them cook and eat together without us."

He rubbed a hand across his face, though there were no tears. He was well beyond tears, or maybe they just hadn't caught up with him yet. His sister was all he had in the world, and without her, he would have to face true loneliness. He wasn't sure why she wanted to walk alone with him for a while, but he was too heartsick to refuse, nodding his head in silent reply.

Katla lead him out of the hut, turning to guide him away from the gathering of habitations to where greenery hung from the over-hanging rocks of the sheer granite wall that surrounded the hold, out of sight of a casual glance from anyone looking their way. She scuffed her foot over the smooth rock beneath them.

"This hold is not a stable one," she said quietly. "I've the support to establish one new, but nowhere a new hold could be built safely to last out against the dead. If that sword of yours is truly a legend-blade, and I can get you in striking distance of the demon that controls the Heart ... both our problems could be solved tonight."

While it was true he had spent less than a day here, he had already become fond of these people and their ways and found himself regretting having to leave. Then again, if staying meant putting them in harm's way, he really had no choice. "I have an idea, but you may not like it."

She turned toward him, her eyes curious. "I'll listen, if you've a mind to talk it through," she told him. "I may seem harsh, lowlander, but life is harsh up here. If you've an idea that'll make it easier, I'll listen and see it done."

"The sword is the key," he started, offering more secrets he had never shared with anyone other than his own flesh and blood before. "I do not know how to explain, but it knows where to find the Dead and it will lead the way."

"Can it find the one controlling the dead?" she asked intensely. "The demon who raises them, who sends them against us?" Her gaze was hard, but it was clear she was trying to hold back a sudden hope that not all was as hopeless as it seemed.

"Aye, I believe it can, but I have never been able to get far enough inside the mountain to try," he replied, with a thoughtful look on his face. "My father once told me that it was the demons who killed the Shadow-Walkers and made slaves of their souls. It was the Lady - the Goddess - who gave us the sword," he continued, "so that we could free the enslaved souls and scour the land of the demons, but there are so few of us now. I am only one man, and there is only one sword."

A fierce smile suddenly appeared on her face, strong hands reaching up to grasp his face and pull him into a hard kiss. "We've got them!" she celebrated, releasing him as she grinned wickedly. "That hold will be ours by dawn!"

This kiss took him by surprise more than anything else she could have done. That she was now grinning at him and looking as though they already had a victory in hand was secondary to that kiss. "I don't understand," he murmured, the taste of her lips lingering against his.

"I know that hold inside out," she told him with a grin. "I've been in and out of it a few times over the last years. I know exactly where that demon dwells, and I know exactly how to get to it. You concentrate on the demon - we'll keep the others off you until you're done. Demon dead, the dead released, the spirits banished, and the Heart is ours for the taking."

"And what then?" he asked, not even bothering to mention his sister. If she was still alive inside the mountain, they'd find her, one way or another; but if they succeeded in defeating the demon and taking the hold, what then? Would he still be an unwelcome outcast or would he have earned not only their respect but their trust - something he thought he should have earned already.

She turned back to him, her smile more than a little suggestive. "Fancy being a Thane's man?" she asked, her brows high. "I can make the rule in my own hold, after all, and if I want a Shadow-Walker, I can have one."

"Are you asking if I'd be your mate?" he asked, brows arching upwards, obviously surprised at this turn of events. Just a short time ago, she was telling him he'd have to leave and now she was telling him the exact opposite. As far as becoming Thane was concerned, he had no compunction about helping her overthrow the current Thane, whom he'd taken an instant disliking to upon meeting the man.

"You prove to me that you are not a beacon for the dead, that you can end them, and I'll bear you a son to take over your line when we're gone," she offered plainly. "Maybe even the hold. It's clear you've little enough waiting for you in the lowlands. Stay in the mountains, make a life with us. With me."
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Katla
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PostPosted: Sat Jul 01, 2017 10:31 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

That look of surprise was still there on his face. Did he dare hope? "You are taking a big risk in trusting me," he pointed out. Though what he was telling her was the truth, he needed to know why she had changed her mind.

"If it's my time to go, then I'll go," she said simply. That was the philosophy of the mountains - there was no point in trying to fight against your fate. She considered him for a long moment. "There's no proof of what happened in the other holds," she told him. "Only stories and legends. I don't lay stock in stories and legends. I believe in what I can see and touch. I believe you are a good man; you saved my life without ever knowing a thing about me. Siv likes you; my brother likes you. That is enough for me to know I can trust you."

"They like me, but they don't trust me," he pointed out. Not anymore, anyway - all because he'd made the choice to be honest. "I promised I'd protect you," he admitted further, unsure how she'd take that. Would she be insulted or angry or merely flattered? "I meant it when I said I do not wish any harm to your people." Even if it meant his own or his sister's death.

"If they didn't trust you, you'd have been chained in the kennel with the dogs," she told him firmly. His comment on a promise to protect her drew her up sharply. "I don't need protecting," she said without thinking, but her expression softened as she realized where that came from. "But having someone watch my back isn't unwelcome."

"You would really like for me to stay here? With you? With your family and your people?" he asked, hardly believing her words, though he was sure he had understood her correctly.

Her head tilted, the slant of her eyes seeming almost cat-like in the shadows beneath the hanging greenery. "Is that such a terrible thing to consider?" she countered. "Are we too savage, too barbaric for your civilized lowland ways?"

He actually chuckled, perhaps for the first time since meeting her. "I am not truly a lowlander, you know," he pointed out. Not really. He belonged to neither the lowlanders or those who lived on the mountain - separate and alone, except for his sister.

"You're not Amarri," she pointed out with a faint quirk to her lips. "We're set apart, the last of our kind in this hold. A new hold needs fresh blood. I'd have yours, if you'll agree." She shrugged. "Although I could probably convince you if you didn't agree - it just wouldn't be very comfortable for either of us."

"Convince me or force me?" he asked, but there was a teasing gleam in his eyes that told her he wasn't opposed to the idea. "I did promise Tabren I'd teach him the bow," he pointed out, though that was hardly a reason to stay.

"Could be both," she shrugged, the flash of her eyes daring him to think she wasn't perfectly capable of being as convincing as she needed to be. That she was asking at all was a courtesy, she seemed to be suggesting.

He knew he should give her offer some thought, but it wasn't often he made a connection like the one he'd made with her and her people, even though they had only just met. "I don't believe in chance, Katla. I believe everything happens for a reason. The Goddess watches over us and guides us. Perhaps she brought me here for a reason," he suggested, though he hoped his sister's life wasn't forfeit because of it.

It was all dependent on what they achieved tonight, of course, but it was a step up from what might have been waiting for him if he had never crossed their path at all. Katla raised her brow as he used her name once again, surprised that he seemed so at home with it already. "So your answer is ...?"

"If we survive ... if I survive ..." He corrected himself, as he had promised to keep her safe and intended to keep that promise. "... then, my answer is aye. I would be pleased and honored to have you for my mate." And why wouldn't he be? It was more than he could have ever hoped for before coming here.

She smiled - the first true smile she'd given him, though he had seen it touch her face with her daughter a few times. "Then you had best hope you are skilled with knots," she warned him teasingly. "Or you may not have a mating that satisfies you."

"Knots?" he echoed, brows arching upwards, a hint of amusement on his face, though he was not entirely sure what it was she was hinting at. "I do not think you need to worry there."

"Hmm," she teased, knowing he likely didn't have the first idea what she was talking about. "Perhaps I should sing faster than I did for Jerrick, to give you a challenge."

He actually laughed at her teasing, though he really had no idea what she was talking about. "I do not think life with you would ever be boring," he told her, daring to reach for her hand.

"You could be right," she agreed mildly, tangling her fingers with his as he reached for her hand. "I'm argumentative, stubborn, confrontational. I'll never give in, even if I know I'm wrong. You will never win an argument with me - just convince me not to bring it up again."

"Hmm, I think I can live with that, if you can forgive me for snoring," he countered, finding that simple human touch welcome and comforting. He knew it wasn't his only flaw, but it was, for the moment, the only flaw he was willing to admit to.

"You'll learn not to snore," she predicted with a smirk. It was strange, to be touching him willingly. To be touching anyone who was not her blood kin, in fact. Jerrick had not been the love of her life; in truth, she had barely been able to stand him, but she'd done as she was told and tied her knots too tight for him to get more than one undone during the ceremony. She didn't think she needed to be quite so thorough with her knots when it came to Aiden. If they survived the night ahead.

"I'm not sure how one learns not to snore," he replied with a smirk to match hers, but he didn't argue the matter. It was a minor miracle that they were even having this conversation. "And what do you think your daughter will think of our mating?" he asked curiously, loathe to let go of that connection, as simple as it was.

Katla chuckled lightly. "You'll learn," she promised him. Mentioning Siv made her frown a little. "She never knew her father," she told him quietly. "She knows his name, but little else. Svarn is the constant man in her life, but she knows he isn't her father. And she likes you. I don't see a problem there."

"She hardly knows me," he pointed out. Then again, neither did Katla, but she had decided for herself that he was a good man and that she wanted him to be a part of their lives. "What about Svarn?" And the rest of the tribe, for that matter, though he supposed if he proved himself and cleansed the mountain of the abominations, no one could argue his was worthy.

"We recognize deeds over words," she told him firmly. "It is our way. If you can rid the Heart of the dead, then you are worthy and no one will argue it. Svarn and I will decide who will be Thane of our new hold - it will be one of us, but whichever one it is, the other will not fight against them. Now more than ever we need to be united."
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PostPosted: Sat Jul 01, 2017 10:32 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

And here, he thought she wanted to be Thane. "You are lucky to have them - your family and your people," he pointed out for the first time since arriving. He only hoped his sister still lived so that she could meet these people and come to know them with him.

"Even in the darkest night, there's some light to be found," she agreed mildly. "Your night has been very dark, hasn't it, lowlander? And your light was stolen away." She frowned, setting her jaw fiercely. "We'll find her. I swear to you, we will find her."

"Aye," he replied, the smile fading, turning gravely serious. "It may be too late already, but I have not felt her death," he said, reaffirming what he'd already told her.

"You ... you can feel her?" she asked sharply. He'd mentioned it before, but she hadn't truly thought he'd meant it. Now she knew he was a Walker, it wasn't entirely outside the realm of possibility.

"We're twins, born of the same mother at nearly the same time of birth," he explained. Even so, being twins only strengthened the bond of blood that already existed between them. He had always been able to feel her, even from childhood.

Katla's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "So ... if you're a Shadow-Walker ..." she said, feeling her way through a snippet of very old storytelling. "Tell me, lowlander, what was your mother?"

He hesitated a moment, that frown still on his face. He had never shared any of this information with anyone outside the small circle of the Initiated. "My mother was a Handmaiden in the Temple of the Goddess," he replied, giving her enough information to connect the dots without telling her everything.

She drew in a sharp breath. "Your sister's a Light-Bringer," she said worriedly. "The demon has a Light-Bringer in the Heart." She swore then, a word that had little meaning in the tongue they shared but definitely expressed a certain amount of angry frustration. "You should have told me."

"Now you know why it's so important I find her," he said, besides the fact that she was his only flesh and blood and that they'd been together forever - even in the womb.

"If we get through this, you and I are going to have a long talk about all these things you haven't been telling me," she informed him sharply, a warning in her tone. "A Light-Bringer in the Heart is the greatest threat we've ever faced in these mountains."

"I wasn't sure you'd understand," he explained, not to mention the way they'd reacted to learning he was a Shadow-Walker. What would they have done if he'd told them the rest? "Being what I am is ... I have not spoken of these things to anyone in years." It was another way of explaining how very solitary his existence had been, aside from his sister.

"I need to get another pair of hands in," she said, shaking her head. "At least one more for our party. This is far more complex than I was expecting it to be." She shook her head. "You may not trust us, but you should trust that we know our mountains. We know a threat when it exists."

"My sister will do everything she can to fight them," he pointed out further, though he knew she couldn't fight them alone forever. He also knew she'd rather die than let them use her, even if it meant ending her life herself.

"Has she ever faced a demon before?" she asked rather pointedly. Her opinion of lowlander women was not the highest to begin with. "If that thing corrupts her, the sun will never shine again. The sun is the only thing holding them at bay!"

He understood her fear and the urgency of their quest and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "We will prevail, Katla. I can feel it." He wasn't sure he could explain just how he knew that, but he did. There had been an imbalance in the world for decades, and that imbalance was about to tip the other way because of them.

"Feelings aren't going to help us tonight," she said in a short tone. "Come on. You need to eat and prep for the hunt. I have someone I need to talk to." She gave him a tug, moving to untangle her hand from his before they stepped back out into the view of her neighbors.

He knew that, too, but she couldn't feel what he was feeling. It wasn't just knowing that they would prevail. That would be nothing short of arrogant. It was about needing to prevail as their very existence counted on it. Before she could step away from him, he touched her cheek, turning her back toward him and leaned in so close that she could feel the warmth of his breath on her face and see the sincerity in his eyes.

"I will never keep anything from you again. I swear," he told her, his words for her alone, just before he touched his lips to hers, returning the gift she had given him a short while ago.

For all her toughness, her harsh outlook, Katla Dawn Rider was still woman beneath it all. A woman who had taken a fancy to this man, and despite her need to be a warrior, she knew she'd developed a weakness the moment his lips touched hers. She'd never felt herself melt before; never allowed herself to be kissed like this before. With Jerrick, everything had been a fight; with Aiden, she found she didn't want to fight. Her lips softened beneath his, her fingers clenching in his stained coat for a long moment before she abruptly pulled back with a gasp.

"I need a clear head," she told him, stepping away. But it wasn't a dismissal or a rejection. If anything, she had just told him he had more of a chance with her than any other man ever had.

Perhaps he was just reminding her that there was something else at stake here besides the very future of their world. There was hope in that kiss and a hint of longing and passion. As for himself, he'd been with other women, but he'd never felt anything for any of them like what he felt for her. He couldn't help but smile a little, even as grave as the situation was. The Goddess - the Lady - had brought him here for a reason, and he chose to believe they would not fail.

There was too much at stake to even consider failure. Though very few knew it, their entire race depended on this one night, and on a very small group of very determined warriors. If they wanted a future, they were going to have to fight for it.
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