Categories > Original > Fantasy > White Razor

Ashes Fall

by Kadrin 0 reviews

The meeting in Erta.

Category: Fantasy - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Action/Adventure, Fantasy - Warnings: [V] - Published: 2005-05-06 - Updated: 2005-05-06 - 6575 words

Even armoured, Tarrion's robes were not impregnable. The blood had started to soak through a few hundred metres from Kadrin, and it was dripping in a deliberate rhythm onto the ground behind him. A few drops had fallen onto the sheath of Sikeh Kim Rai's khemjat, and Tarrion had almost sat down and carefully cleaned them off. Sanity had returned, though, and he'd continued walking. Harrag Holm was, he hoped, not far. If he could reach it, he could find a healer; if he could find a healer, he could survive.

It was cold, and dark, and the lightly forested area outside Kadrin seemed to be full of monsters and threats lurking between the trees. The moon seemed bigger outside of Kadrin, and Tarrion managed to half-convince himself that was a simple delusion brought on by pain and shock. His slow walk was drifting, no longer a straight line, and he started to wonder if he would simply miss Harrag Holm. It would be horrible enough to be almost funny: desperately trying to reach the nearby town, Tarrion would collapse two or three kilometres past it, and die in his own blood.

He found that he was walking on a trail. That was good. Someone might find him.

When someone did, despite the obvious clip-clopping hooves of the tralin and rumbling of the wheels, Tarrion found himself convinced it was a Thaern. He moved as quickly as he could to the side of the road, hoping to hide, and then turned and put one of his hands to /White Razor/. The coach nearly clipped him as it passed, for a moment illuminating him with inside light, and then came to a halt past him.

The coachman approached him tentatively. He looked like a Kadrin hero in need of help, Tarrion knew, but it was easy enough to steal a Kadrin robe, easy enough to feign an injury, and with that done, easy enough to overpower an unsuspecting target. Mali had captured three such imposters. Doing his best to appear unthreatening, Tarrion dropped his hand from White Razor and nearly stumbled in doing so.

It was the stumble, Tarrion thought, more than the hand. The coachman came around to his right, and pulled Tarrion in against his side to help him walk. The two riders in the coach, a man and a woman in plain clothes, were now outside, staring at him in shock. "Four give salvation," the woman murmured, in an almost instinctive prayer. The man made a holy sign. Both helped Tarrion into the coach.

"Don't worry," the man said. "Kadrin is very close. We'll take you right there."

That, too, would be horrible enough to be almost funny. "No," Tarrion breathed.

The woman looked at him. "No?" she asked.

"There's no Kadrin," he said. "Harrag Holm. Please."

"Do you think he's..." the man said. To the woman, not to Tarrion. The coach had started moving again, and it was turning around.

"If you go to Kadrin you will be killed." Tarrion tried to put as much simple sincerity in his voice as possible. "Please. Go to Harrag Holm."

The man stared at him. The woman called to the driver, "Harrag Holm!", and a moment later the coach turned again. Tarrion almost sighed with relief.

It seemed to take a long time to reach Harrag Holm, and the coach seemed to bump and jostle all the way. At first, Tarrion put pressure on the wound himself, with the man and the woman staring at him as if any second he would either die or attack them. They were certainly used to seeing Kadrin heroes, if they lived anywhere near Harrag Holm. They had almost certainly seen one or two injured or killed. But this close to the heroes' school itself? Never. And what had he said about "no Kadrin" and "you will be killed"? Surely insane.

It wasn't long before Tarrion's grip weakened, and then the man and the woman alternated in holding his robe to the holes in his side. Once or twice, he tried to deliver some kind of an apology. Neither of them ever responded, or even said anything.

He never lost consciousness. There was some pride in that.

They came to Harrag Holm eventually, and the coachman drove quickly and unerringly to a healer Tarrion knew, scattering pedestrians in front of him. As the passengers took him from the coach, one under each arm, almost carrying him entirely, Tarrion noted that both tralin were in a lather, making plaintive complaints. They wouldn't get beyond Harrag Holm without driving the beasts to death. Tarrion reminded himself to thank them for their speed, almost certain he wouldn't be able to remember.

There was a fee for the healer's attentions, Tarrion knew, and he'd paid it for others he'd found on the road several times. In throwing on his clothes in Kadrin, though, he'd left his money pouch behind, and only had a few plaincoins in his sash. He wondered what would happen - would he be turned away? The healer, the coachman, and the two passengers lifted him onto the table, though surely he couldn't weigh much, and then Tarrion watched as the man proferred a purse to the healer. The healer absentmindedly pushed it away, opened Tarrion's robe and pushed up his undershirt, and then made gestures telling them to clear off. It was a load off Tarrion's mind.

The healer - Jarad Aldan, Tarrion remembered his name as - clicked his tongue over Tarrion's wounds, and prepared some tools, and then carried a tiny cup of some herbal concoction to Tarrion's side. As he poured it into Tarrion's mouth, even stroking his throat to help it go down, Tarrion busied himself trying to identify each herb in the drink. He'd noted carnflower and red blessing, and was trying to work out if that last taste could really be the intensely lethal tebric flower, when the potion took effect and Tarrion fell, very quickly, into a very deep sleep.


He didn't know how much later he woke up, but he noted with some shock that there was light streaming in through the window. With further shock, he saw that the window faced west. He pulled himself to an ill-advised sitting position before he knew what he was doing, and winced.

"Not too much quick activity," Aldan warned. "You'll undo my good work."

Tarrion reached up to his abdomen, touched the spots where the Thaern's axe had torn him open. There were still wounds, but much thinner, and now stitched together and bandaged. Jarad Aldan was the best Flesh Magician in Harrag Holm, but he always recommended a combination of magical and nonmagical healing. It seemed to work well enough.

His undershirt and robe were hanging from a clothes rack by the door. Tarrion squinted for a moment, and saw that the rips in both were quite plainly still there. At least Aldan had washed some of the blood from them.

"I am a healer for you/," Aldan announced, following his gaze. "I am /not a healer for your clothes. Madame Imal on the Street of Black Wings does excellent tailoring, if you want to take them to her."

"I can't stay," Tarrion said, and pulled himself off the table. "I need to get to Erta as soon as possible."

"Possible, doable, yes," Aldan said. "Not advisable, though. Why not just take a coach back to Kadrin? They can send someone without a hole in his gut."

"Kadrin was attacked and destroyed," Tarrion said, pulling the undershirt over his head.

Aldan was struck dumb for a moment. There was no possible reaction to that. "I hope you are joking," he said, finally. "I don't treat disease of the brain."

"There were Thaern," Tarrion said, wrapping himself in his robe. "I don't know how many. How should I pay you?"

"I overcharged you a few times before, call that your fee," Aldan replied, waving a hand dismissively. "How could Kadrin be attacked and destroyed? How could Thaern..."

"I don't know," Tarrion replied. "Tell others."

"What will happen to /us/?" Aldan asked, almost plaintively, as Tarrion left.

It was a good question. Harrag Holm was deep within the Armagian Plainslands, a huge swath of land that was independant of the nearby Kingdom of Armagio, and thus outside the protection of the Armagian Army. That had never been a problem for the many sovereign villages and towns of the Plainslands, as they'd always had Kadrin Hero School nearby. Without Kadrin Hero School, Harrag Holm and the other Plainsland towns would be almost completely defenceless, and the Thaern would understand that very well.

He walked slowly, and drew attention as he did. The large holes in his robe and undershirt were very visible, and the halfheartedly washed blood around them almost more so. Moving almost automatically, he found that he'd reached the Street of Black Wings, and stopped at the tailor Aldan had recommended to buy a needle and thread.

"Going back to the Hero's School?" she asked.

"Kadrin was attacked and destroyed," Tarrion replied, and he left.

He found a coach leaving for the village of Alartia, which was only a brief walk from Erta, and handed over most of the plaincoins in his emergency pocket to pay for passage. He almost refused when the driver handed half of them back - "I can't accept full fare from you, it is my honour to carry a hero," he had said, eyeing Tarrion's wounds - and then took the coins, and bowed a very little, and put them back in his sash pocket. He'd need the money, especially if he couldn't find Mali in Erta. He wasn't yet letting himself consider the fact that she might very well be dead under a Thaern axe, or at least not consciously.

As the coach rumbled along the road to Alartia, Tarrion busied himself trying to repair his robe. It was slow going. Sikeh Lan Ala's amouring charm was proving far more effective against Tarrion's needle than it had against the double-blades of the Thaern's axe. He wondered, as he sewed almost invisible stitches into the fabric, what effect this repair would have on the charm. Would there be a weak spot in his armour? It felt ridiculous to contemplate.

By the time the coach reached Alartia, Tarrion had repaired the robe to his own satisfaction, though not his undershirt. The driver helped him out of the coach, with a careful eye on his stitched-together wounds, and pointed him towards the nearest inn. Tarrion thanked him.

"Do you need any help?" he asked.

"No," Tarrion responded.

"Very well. Four's blessings, hero, may Kadrin stand forever."

He'd said that to heroes a hundred times before, Tarrion reasoned, it sounded rehearsed. His own response was just as worn. "Kadrin was attacked and destroyed."

It was getting dark as he started to walk to Alartia. Nearly a full day, Tarrion thought, since the Thaern had attacked Kadrin Hero School. Part of him wondered what they could have done in such time. Another part, that he tried to tamp down, reminded him that he hadn't eaten.

Aldan's magic and herbs were healing him at a phenomenal rate. He felt stronger already, strong enough to fight any of the bold bandits that traveled this close to the former Hero's School. Carnflower was a stimulant, he knew that much, that strengthened the senses and gave a boost of energy. There had been carnflower in Aldan's potion, even though its prime purpose had been anaesthetic. Red blessing for that, he suspected. Or perhaps that unidentified herb that surely couldn't have been poisonous tebric.

There were tambals hunting in the light forest, long muzzles close to the ground, giving their snuffling, yelping cry. They wouldn't come near the path Tarrion was traveling on - they were terrified of civilisation, and perhaps rightly so. Before Kadrin, the first hero, had undergone her meditations, she'd been a mercenary in a band called the Tambal's Claws. Tarrion thought, in a rare moment of artistry, that it was fitting that there should be tambals after Kadrin as there had been Tambals before.

Erta was farther from Alartia than he had thought.

As he finally drew within sight of the village, the sparkling of the torches at its gates leading him, a starved tambal leapt out of a stand of trees and rushed towards him, revealing its teeth. Tarrion drew Sikeh Kim Rai's khemjat and flourished it, hoping that the tambal would know swords and respect them. Either it didn't, or it was too hungry to care. As it drew near him, Tarrion snapped the khemjat out, slashing the tambal a shallow wound across the left shoulder. It yelped, and wheeled, and ran back to its stand of trees. Tarrion cleaned the sword on the sash of his robe, almost feeling sorry for the tambal. It wouldn't survive to heal, that was almost certain.

He was hailed at the gate by a guard, and told to identify himself.

"Tarrion Razorwhite. Full and practicing hero of Kadrin Hero School."

"Pass through. Have a care of the law, and see our sheriff if you don't know it," said one guard.

"Was Kadrin truly destroyed?" asked the other.

"It was," Tarrion replied, and passed through the gate into Erta.

Erta was small, and had only been walled since the Taki Ling War fifty years ago, in which lumen Kadda Ké cavalry had taken the village and used it as a base. Since then, it had been of no interest to the world's armies, and Thaern would break the wall in a matter of seconds. Erta's one inn was named the Taken Tokaa, and had a lumen two-handed tokaa in the common room. Local legend said that the people of Erta, rising up against the lumengram from within with the Armagian Army fighting outside, had taken the tokaa from the Kadda Ké Knight Captain in charge of Erta. Apart from the old men of Erta, who spent most of their nights drinking at the Taken Tokaa, very few people believed it.

There were very few lumengram in Erta. The village had a long memory.

Tarrion made his way to the Taken Tokaa, and entered the warmth of the common room. As he'd expected, it was mostly empty. As he'd also expected, the old soldiers were drinking at the bar. He sat down, and drew the bartender's attention.

"Hoi," said one of the old men, gesturing at Tarrion's swords. "Leave those with Ramas here. Only the sword we took in this room, Kadrin or not."

Tarrion nodded, and unstrapped White Razor and Sikeh Kim Rai's khemjat, handing them to the bartender. The Taken Tokaa's patrons were xenophobic, but they were trustworthy. Most of the time. Tarrion wondered if he'd be so trusting if he carried a tokaa himself.

"Can I get you anything?" Ramas asked, putting Tarrion's two swords on a rack with a few others. One, Tarrion noted, was a Kadrin blade. There were no /ense/.

"I'd like a hot meal," Tarrion responded. "Are you still serving those?"

"Four plaincoins will get you roast tralin with bread and fried aola root."

Tarrion nodded, and dropped four plaincoins into the man's hand. "And water, if you would."

When the food and water came to him, he carried them carefully to a table near the trophy sword. There was a long table underneath it, but Tarrion rather suspected that it was considered the property of the locals. The table he was sitting at was more than obvious enough to draw the attention of anyone from Kadrin.

A moment later, a man in a Kadrin robe came in from outside, nodded to the bartender, and visibly noticed the White Razor hanging up on the rack. He turned, scanned the room quickly, and then took a half-finished meal from another table over to set down next to Tarrion.

"You survived, then. It's good to see," he said. Tarrion didn't know him, and suspected that he didn't know Tarrion, but as two who escaped the destruction they felt like brothers.

"I was injured," Tarrion said.

"Who wasn't?" the other man responded.

They ate in silence for a moment, and then Tarrion asked: "Did you see Instructor Mali? Did she tell you to come here?"

"No," the other man said. "I saw Instructor Harrag. I think he survived, as well, but I can't be sure."

Tarrion nodded. Harrag seemed to be a man built out of stone, and some believed he had the blood of grukians in him. Tarrion thought he would survive anything, up to and including the end of the world. But then, he'd thought that about Patil. He'd thought that about Kadrin.

The other man - Jarl of the White Towers Pact - occasionally ordered mallisin and paid over the cost, to keep the bartender happy. They talked very little, only comparing lists of who they had seen in the battle and how many others they thought would come to Erta. Jarl shared a few cups of mallisin with Tarrion, the carnflower in it keeping them awake and aware for the vigil. Every so often, Jarl or Tarrion would leave the Taken Tokaa and walk around the village, making sure that other Kadrin heroes hadn't turned up and arrived elsewhere. And sometimes, others showed up.

An armagian woman with a scarred face was the first, reaching the Taken Tokaa on her own, handing over a Kadrin blade, and going to sit with the other heroes. Jarl came back from one search helping a Five Islander man, who'd twisted his ankle between Harrag Holm and Alartia. Harrag turned up with two similar-looking armagians. One of them had bandages wrapped around her forehead. Harrag had paid for their food. A woman in a dark blue cloak came in, laid two Kadrin blades on the counter, and moved to the table before anyone at the bar could see her face. When she sat down, Tarrion realised why: she was the lumengram who'd saved his life at the North Gate.

"You're alive," he said, dumbfounded. He had been in no doubt whatsoever that the Thaern had chased her down and killed her.

"Why Erta?" she asked, her voice low and audibly irritated. Her fine-boned face, pale skin, and blue-black hair would be a certain giveaway to the old soldiers at the bar. They wouldn't have legal backing to harm lumengram, but they had intention enough to make things decidedly unpleasant. "Alartia's nice."

There were fifteen heroes at the table, drawing glances from the old soldiers that were not entirely pleasant, when Mali turned up at the door.

Her right arm was bandaged, but her dark skin was nonetheless darker with blood. The broken staff over her back was more than likely all that remained of her /ense/, and when she handed it over to the bartender, he didn't seem to know what to do with it. She walked without even the suggestion of a limp, which was fortunate enough, and her arm apparently worked well enough to carry a tray over to the heroes' table.

"Mali," Harrag said. He was not a man of long greetings.

"Good to see you, Harrag," she replied, setting her tray down. "Have you found any other survivors?"

"This is it." Harrag shook his head.

"You should probably have that seen to, Instructor," said one of Harrag's survivors, wide-eyed.

Mali looked at her arm. "This is seen to," she explained. "It was worse. There's very little loss of motion."

With that, she looked over the table, seeming to make eye contact with each and every hero.

"I'm glad to see you," she said, and for a moment, she considered her next words.

"Tonight, we witnessed an attack on Kadrin Hero School, and a successful attack. This has never happened to date, and we had reason to believe it would never happen; that we were in the safest position we could possibly hold. If we had better known our situation, it's possible that we could have held the day. We could have requested help from the Armagian Army, or from other military forces. We didn't, though. We had no idea this was coming. We have to act on what we know now, and what we've done now."

She looked around her, at the edgy, nervous heroes. Tarrion kept his eyes on her, wondering what she was saying now.

"From what I saw of the attack," Mali continued, "there were at least eight Thaern working together. Twelve is not unlikely. It is possible that there were as many as twenty Thaern at Kadrin that night."

Disbelief. Some of the heroes at the table were disputing, almost involuntarily - there could never be that many, there were more. "Thaern do not move in groups so large!" the Five Islander said, gesturing with one hand to articulate his point.

"Of course they don't," Mali responded, still very calm. The heroes couldn't help but pay attention. "Everything we know about Thaern says that it's impossible. But they did. Coupled with the previous attacks on Kadrin, that number of Thaern managed to destroy our defences and overrun the school. They overran Kadrin Hero School, the military force that had become the counterforce and check on the Thaern." She looked around the table. "Having done that, what else can they do?"

There was no debate at that point. The heroes were digesting information that they hadn't yet considered - until then, almost all of them had been thinking of the destruction of Kadrin as the end of a path.

"Obviously our eventual goal must be to rebuild Kadrin Hero School and re-establish the heroes as a protective force within Avarr," Mali said. "I'm sure some of you want to move on to that goal as soon as possible. However." She shifted her tray aside, and leaned forward, as if to invite the other heroes to more clandestine discussion. "Kadrin Hero School had existed for centuries and was strong in such. If we concentrated our effort upon rebuilding now, we would be weak, and if the Thaern could destroy the old Kadrin, they could easily destroy the new. I believe that our current priority must be offense."

"An attack on Thaern Rock would be both idiotic and suicidal," said the scarred armagian, almost interrupting. "I give no support to this plan at all."

"As yet, we're not even sure this is a problem of Thaern Rock as a whole." Mali was still dead calm. "It seems far more likely that the group that attacked Kadrin was exceptional, a single case of co-operation among Thaern. We are lucky, in a way. Thaern armour is unique. Since we know what the armour of our attackers looked like, we know who they were, and we can hunt them down. These individual Thaern will likely not have returned to Thaern Rock. If we can find them and either capture or kill them, we will have that group defeated, and from there can decide if co-operation between Thaern is, indeed, exceptional. If it is, we can rebuild immediately after defeating this group. If not..." Mali shrugged. "If not, there might be very little way to fight them."

Tarrion wondered if there was any way to fight them anyway.


His bed was too close to the eastern window. Soon after sunrise, the light fell over his eyes, and he woke up with little grace. At one point soon after his graduation, Tarrion Razorwhite and a Pactlander hero had spent three days awake, chewing raw carnflower and watching a warehouse that had supposedly housed a famous torturer, but that had been /different/. Expecting not to sleep was one thing; being woken by sunshine after only four hours was something else entirely. Besides, he had no carnflower.

Blearily, he walked to the window, and stared out over Erta in the sunlight. It looked like a beautiful day, warm and still, and he could hear birdsong in the distance. It mystified him. After the fall of Kadrin, the days should have been nothing but gray, and the world drowning in rain.

His hand crossed his chest, almost of its own volition, and stroked over the stitches on the higher wound. It didn't hurt. Tarrion looked down at himself, and saw that in the night, the two holes had almost completely healed. All that remained of them were two raised ridges of half-scar and the stitching that had kept them together. Jarad Aldan, Tarrion reminded himself, was an exceptional healer. He'd have to see another to have the stitches taken out, or attempt it himself. He wasn't at all squeamish about the idea - heroes of Kadrin could not afford to be - but he was worried he'd do it wrong, and tear himself open again. He couldn't afford to put himself out of action, especially not now.

He crossed the room quickly, fully awake, and picked up his robe, undershirt, gloves and headscarf from the chair on which he'd left them. He lifted the undershirt, shook it out, and poked a finger through one of the holes. He'd left the rest of his clothes in Kadrin, leaving him with only the Khemri/Kadrin outfit Sikeh Lan Ala had blessed. Armouring charm or none, he'd need to get more before long. That, too, was mystifying - with a group of Thaern co-operating, with Kadrin in ruins, with the rest of Avarr suspended over the abyss, why were clothes a concern?

The undershirt needed to be repaired. Tarrion looked at the needle, and then slipped the undershirt on. For the moment, he wanted to know what the heroes were planning.

Mali had been vague. She'd told a few of the heroes to sketch the Thaern they'd seen - those with artistic talent and Kadrin-trained memories, almost eidetic. Tarrion's own memory was exceptional, but far from perfect, and he didn't think he could sketch a Thaern as anything other than an ambiguous suit of armour. Even the last Thaern, the one at the North Gate, whose image was perfectly carved into his brain.

The Instructors themselves were going to raise military assistance. Mali had explained it very simply: even eight Thaern constituted an army, and the fact that Thaern were working together constituted an emergency. It was almost certain that fifteen heroes could do little more than blunt whatever attack was coming. However, Kadrin was funded by governments worldwide, and received large donations from private investors even when the Heads tried to turn them down. The Hero's School was positively wealthy, and it kept very little of its wealth on site. If necessary - and it was - Mali or Harrag could easily access that wealth. Besides, half the military forces on Avarr owed Kadrin favours, and it might not be hard to have them part with a division or two.

Tarrion and the other heroes were as yet unassigned.

With a care born of long custom, he pulled his Kadrin robe around himself and cinched it at the waist with his sash, the depleted emergency plaincoins jingling in his pouch, and fastened the slim belt above the sash that held White Razor's scabbard to his back. With a care born of unfamiliarity, he attached the scabbard of Sikeh Kim Rai's khemjat to his side. Neither sword was there - both were still behind the Taken Tokaa's bar - and that made Tarrion edgy. He was fast and he was strong and he could snap a man's neck before the man knew he was fighting, but without White Razor he felt naked in the wilderness. As he headed down the stairs to the common room, he had to fight to keep himself from going to Green Level.

When he'd left the common room the night before, to try and get some sleep before the gathered heroes did anything, Mali and Harrag had been arguing over something at their table. They were there again when he came down, and he wondered for a moment if they'd been there all night.

There was a new bartender. Tarrion fumbled for his pouch before he realised that there was a meal already on the bar, and the bartender was smiling at him. "Tarrion Razorwhite, in room 12? The lady at that table paid for you."

"Thank you," Tarrion muttered, and picked up the bowl. "Could I have some water?"

"Course. You'll be sitting at that table?"

Tarrion nodded, and took the bowl over.

"I know you object," Mali was saying, as he sat down. "I'd be lying if I said that I was entirely comfortable with the idea myself. But they're /mindless/, Harrag, and we'd treat them better than their owners would, even if we have bought them. And you can't deny they're near perfect soldiers."

"You'd have to buy a Nutter to control them," Harrag said, with his customary truculence. "Not mindless there."

"Again, better with us than left with the Nation. Have you seen the cells the mangra-otun are put in?"

"Still doesn't comfort me. Besides, where will you keep them? Planning to keep an army of Drudges - an army of Drudges and those Kadda Ka you were talking about - you're planning to keep them /here/?"

Mali's voice hissed, more from secrecy than from anger. "I would prefer you didn't say Kadda Ka so loudly in this village, let alone this inn."

"Makes my point. Can't see Erta being happy to stable lumengram soldiers again."

"No. After Taki Ling, I intend to take ship to the Grukian Regency, and commission a mobile fortress from them."

"A grukian airship?" Harrag raised one eyebrow a fraction of an inch, as close to a major reaction as he ever reached. "How much money do you plan to spend?"

Mali's voice was challenging, but still not angry. "Can you think of a better use to which we can put it?"

Harrag shrugged, and turned to his bowl. He didn't look defeated.

"Did you sleep well, Tarrion?" Mali asked, turning away from her fellow Instructor.

"I did," Tarrion replied, lying through his teeth.

"Excellent. I hope the other heroes will be here soon. We hope to have a plan in order before long."

Harrag nodded to Tarrion, and then turned back to Mali, obviously with a new argument. "Largest mobile fortress units can house a thousand at most. You won't even fit a single chapter of..." He looked around, and censored himself. "Of soldiers in there. We'll need somewhere else."

"And I hope you'll find it before long," Mali retaliated. "You have that, Armagio, and the Nation. I have Taki Ling, the Regency, and the Pacts. I think we're divided fairly enough."

"Why not the Five Islands?" Tarrion asked.

There was brief silence. The door opened, and Tarrion cast a glimpse to see the lumengram Malomih, again in her cloak.

"Pick a Barony," Harrag replied, eventually.

Tarrion looked, questioningly, as Malomih sat down beside him. Mali walked to the bar to get another meal for her.

"Hartin, Aramas, Tornil, Bannat..." Harrag looked at Mali's back for a moment, and then turned back to Tarrion. "...Zigen. Ask for help from one of them, you'll offend two of the others. We go to Zigen, we get the Burning Knights on side, if we can persuade them. Either way, though, we've got Bannat hammer troops and Tornil lancers harassing us. More trouble than it's worth."

"Which countries do you think will give us troops?" Malomih asked.

Harrag looked at her. "You of a House, originally?"

"Yes," replied Malomih, her voice low. There were no old soldiers at the bar, but it was still wiser. "Kétaki Moto. The Sky Rider."

"You'd know of the heir, then."

"Araira. Yes."

Harrag nodded towards Mali, coming back towards the table with a tray. "She was his bodyguard for three months when the Sky Rider was committing troops to a police action. Stopped an assassination attempt and a stupid tactical mistake. Man owes her a favour. I think we'll get Sky Rider Kadda Ka and a few Interceptors, and if she still wants me to buy troops from the Nation, then we'll get some Drudges as well. The rest..." He shrugged. "I'm not hopeful."

"And yet we must try." Mali set the tray in front of Malomih, and took a cup of water from it for Tarrion before moving back to her seat.

"I've no more argument," Harrag said, with an air of finality. "Not sure we can do too much good, though."

"What will we do in the meantime, Instructor?" Tarrion asked.

"Hunt Thaern," Mali said. "It sounds insane, I know, and far too proactive. But we can't risk having those co-operating Thaern still out there. If they act tactically - and there's enough evidence to suggest they will..." Mali clapped her hands, that old gesture of powerlessness done with almost paradoxical assertiveness. "They could destroy the Kingdom of Armagio. They could drive the Houses from Taki Ling. They could fulfil the dream of the Greenskin Nation and punch a spear north through the Pacts. The Hero's School may be destroyed, but we are still Kadrin, and we must do what we can. Malomih, did you manage to sketch any of them?"

Malomih pulled a pouch from inside her cloak, and pulled out three sheets of papyrus. "I tried not to smudge them, but I could only do so much," she said, spreading out the pictures over the table.

The first Thaern was stocky, with three spikes on each shoulderpad. A Five Islander, perhaps, from his size; or more unlikely a jakh. Certainly not a lumengram or Pactlander. Tarrion didn't remember seeing any Thaern that short - relatively that short. Everyone knew that the armour was oversized, and even a four foot tall jakhish Thaern would stand taller than Tarrion.

The second was taller, with no spikes, but a wave design on its breastplate. Tarrion recognised it instantly. "Instructor..."

"Yes." Mali nodded. "I fought that one."

The third, too, was familiar. Malomih's pencil strokes were shorter and deeper on this picture, as if it was a panic to even draw this particular Thaern. Tarrion could easily see why. The planed armour, the crown of prongs, the oversized axe with its two long blades... Tarrion almost thought the wounds in his side had reopened, and firmly told himself that it was stupid to think that. "I saw that one, too," he said.

"It nearly killed me," Malomih said. "It was right on my back for some time, swinging its axe. I only escaped it by getting to the West Gate and throwing it."

"The Thaern?" Mali asked.

Malomih shook her head. "The /gate/. I was at Yellow Level, I was panicked, the gate was off its hinges. I picked it up and threw, and then I ran for it. The Thaern must have felt it was too much effort to chase me out of Kadrin. Doesn't sound like Thaern behaviour, but I can't believe I outran it. It was so /fast/."

And strong, Tarrion thought. Stupid or not, his side was definitely hurting in memory.

"It doesn't sound like we'd be well rewarded by hunting that one," Mali said. "At least not yet. We'll wait for the others to report."

They sat, and they waited. The birdsong had stopped.


As the sun was setting, Tarrion stood with Harrag and Mali outside the Taken Tokaa, watching as they checked their weapons and traveling equipment, and trying to work out if he was excited or terrified.

The heroes had talked until evening, mostly treading the same ground over and treading it over again. The plan had been formulated, eventually, and it was much the same plan as had been discussed at first. Mali would go to Taki Ling, the Grukian Regency, and the Pactlands, appealing in each case for troops and equipment. Harrag would do the same in Armagio and the Greenskin Nation, and then set up a base of operations - probably within the Plainslands. Meanwhile, the surviving heroes would hunt Thaern.

Put that simply, it almost sounded attainable.

The major dissent had been as to why the two Instructors, the best fighters they had, needed to be the ones who left the group. There had been fraught discussion over that topic, until eventually Harrag had stopped it. "You who stay, you'll number fifteen," Harrag had said. "We who go, we'll number two, and then we'll go different ways. That we don't attack doesn't mean we won't be attacked."

After some last arguments, the discussion moved on to exactly who should lead the hunters, and which Thaern should be tracked first. There had been much more debate over the first point than the second. Tarrion rather thought that they would rather forget the subject of Thaern entirely. They'd reached a solution, eventually: they would be led, at least in name, by the scarred Armagian woman Valigan; and they would attempt to kill a Thaern with ridges on its shoulderpads and studs on its gauntlets. That, to Tarrion's mind, was perfectly acceptable - that was the Thaern he had seen in Tevless Dormitory, the Thaern who had killed the boy with the staff.

Tarrion frowned. It seemed unfair to the dead to think of him as /the boy with the staff/.

"Instructor Mali," he said, "who was the boy you brought back to Kadrin after me?"

"Oh," Mali replied. "Edin Leamar. He died in the attack."

I know. "Edin Leamar," Tarrion said. "Thank you."

Mali nodded, seeming puzzled as to why he'd asked.

"Your Thaern won't have gone far," Harrag said. "Probably still celebrating. Either way, the area around Kadrin's free to them now. They're not going to turn down an opportunity they've never had before." He pointed to White Razor's scabbard, on Tarrion's back. "Helmet and gauntlets, head and hands, remember."

"I remember, Instructor," Tarrion replied.

"I'll meet you here in three weeks," Harrag said. With that, he turned, and walked away down Erta's main street.

"Quite the man, that one," Mali said, shaking her head. "He's not one for greetings or goodbyes." Her ense was strapped to her back, overlarge, with the thick, slightly curved blade wrapped in cloth. Blade and staff, it was actually taller than Mali herself, and looked ridiculously oversized. "I don't think my negotiations will last long. Matters this important - no, this fearful - are decided within the first hour, in my experience. I'll be back here in not much over two weeks."

"Good luck, Instructor," Tarrion said, and laid his right hand over his left shoulder in Kadrin salute.

"Don't give me your luck," Mali said, grimly. "You'll need it all. Goodbye, Tarrion. Zigen's blessing upon you."

She turned down the street, the opposite direction to Harrag, and headed away.

Tarrion looked after Mali, and then after Harrag, and then up to the sky. The brightest stars were starting to come out, even before full dark, and Tarrion remembered meeting lumengram fortune tellers who had scattered ashes over the ground and read the future by their positions relative to the stars. He thought, for a moment, what the fifteen heroes and their Instructors would read. He found himself wanting it to be dawn, and to be hunting the Plainslands on what information they could gather. He found himself wanting to hunt Thaern, to throw himself body and sword at invincible armour. He found himself wanting to step into terror.

At his side, his right hand balled into a fist, almost without his volition.

He turned back, and headed into the Taken Tokaa, where the heroes and White Razor waited for him.
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