The Quietude was anything but. Because questions bombarded Kat’s mind, words slipped out and reverberated around the round grey room. Was it because the floor was indistinct from the walls and ceiling, or was it due to the room now being round that the echoes bounced around so much? Or was it the force of her questions from almost two decades of being pent up?
Under the hot noon sun, sharp pebbles from the dirt yard prickled Kat’s knees. It was a new sensation, for only twice in the past had she bent a knee to another being. Once was to her father, Iskanuth Pusabunthri; the other, the Arbiters. Both supplications were on hard smooth floors. Neither were for abdication.
Above the two women, the Triliska swirled, nearer than it ever had. More questions. How did the symbol get this close? Because of this woman here? This was called the Quietude? How could she be sitting on a chair in here? How did this woman appear under that Triliska, the thing that Kat couldn’t even get near? Incessant words from the scattered, unfocused mind harassed the two women.
Since she uttered the two words of surrender, mere minutes had passed. During that time, Tristien scanned the Slicer’s face. What was she looking for? Any signs of dishonesty, insincerity? Kat stared back into those grey eyes. What reflected back were curiosity and amusement. These women seemed to be amused by everything. What did her own brown eyes betray? Shock?
“Give it a little time. You’re right, there’re a lot of questions. Me too.” Tristien smiled as she looked around as if the words displayed themselves on the walls and ceilings. “I just have better control over my thoughts in here.”
The scarred woman pointed upwards at the Triliska. “Focus on that.”
Kat did and the echoing words, once maddening, faded away. “That was your first lesson. I’ve no wish to pry on your thoughts, so I’ll leave you to them. Let me know if you want me to tranceport back in here.” With a little wave, Tristien disappeared.
Were it not for the slight breeze, the smell around where Kat was kneeling would be overwhelming already. Scattered bodies dead but a chime, the heat from the noon sun ensured that vultures would gather soon. A cloud of flies buzzed about the already putrid corpses. Blood pooled around four skewered comrades nearby. Merging from the pools, a little trail of red wound its way towards her knees where they indented the earth. Two wounded men had run away before Barmon had called for support.
The breeze brought not only relief from the odor, but sounds from the Darsprian Forest as well. Was that a whinny from Flick, her warbeast? Could it see her kneeling? Or was it Barmon’s warbeast? What about Barmon and the rest of his crew? The battle sounds from the other side of the farmhouse had lessened to the point where only an occasional shout came through.
Kneeling there with her arms by her side, Kat’s fingers twitched for her daggers. The two knives lay a little off to the side in the dirt, where they had fallen. Not knowing if she was going to get them back disturbed her, but she pushed the feeling aside. Since leaving the ranks of the Novitiate, Katriyana Pusabunthri had never lost a fight. To lose was to be killed, in her eyes. Yet there she was, kneeling between farmhouses and a barn. She didn’t just lose, she surrendered.
Was she insane? Kat couldn’t stop repeating that in her mind.
Insanity might be the correct conclusion. What else could’ve accounted for her surrender, a concept foreign to the Midnight Slicers’ Guild. Yet when Katriyana Pusabunthri saw Tristien appear under the Triliska and materialize a chair in the Quietude, she couldn’t help herself. She’d gone too long without knowledge about this space she utilized. All she had been able to do on her own was modify and hasten her ability to get here. Tranceport, Tristien called it. In twenty years, Kat hadn’t even been able to make her way closer to the Triliska. No doubt about it, this strange woman was a master.
Perhaps the Slicer could tease out some more secrets of the quiet room before the Arbiters declared her death for her breach. Surrender was Kat ripping the fabric of time; neither Goddhai nor the Weaver could mend it now. Let the Tapestry of Life be woven from this moment forth, as the old Trabian saying went.
Hers was now intricately woven with this scarred woman, Tristien, who had turned to head for the well. Unable to look away, Kat wondered how life would change. Abruptly, the hairs on her neck stood up.
Don’t flinch! Move and life wouldn’t just change; it’d be over! Breathe. Focus. On the Trilis… Where’d it go? Oh. It’s back in the center of the room. Or rather. I’m no longer in the center. Focus! Don’t flinch.
A thin stroke of chill touched her neck, close to her jugular vein. Nothing but a blade felt like that. The Midnight Slicer forced her breathing to even out before any noise could escape her lips. Who could’ve crept up on her like that, even distracted as she was by the scarred woman, especially with her in the Quietude?
Before she heard the accent, Kat knew. Who else? A deep raspy female voice said, “You le’ her bea’ you? You figh’ me to a standstill an’ a three-fingered sloppy-ass healer gets you on your knees?”
Another female voice, higher and more melodious, said from behind the warrior, “The legs’ sudden and absolute collapse,” The red-head stepped out and continued at the others’ questioning looks, “make evident Tristien’s long-held and uncanny ability’s effect on many an opponent and lover.”
Even after her cheeks became a shade of orange-red, Kat continued staring at Tristien’s back. She didn’t move, despite being out in the open, physically, and in other ways.
Turning around and greeting her friends with a wave, Tristien tsked at her red-headed friend. “Hush, Kinjara. She surrendered to me.” The scarred woman squatted against the well’s stone wall, frowning and staring at Kat.
The sword’s edge was well sharpened. Had Kat even breathed harder than usual, her neck would’ve been cut, the Yiftan kept the blade that close. Keeping the finely-edged metal perfectly still, the tall blonde bent at the knees to untie the two leather sheathes criss-crossing Kat’s chest.
“Shame on you, Tris,” The tall warrior handed the sheathes to the red-head who in turn walked them over to the scarred woman by the well. “If someone surrenders to you, you take all the weapons, not jus’ some. Good ways to gets yourself dea’.”
With a grin as wide as the well, Tristien shot back, “Ah, but Cela dear. How else can you feel superior to me? When you only fought her to a standstill.” The angelic look Tristien gave Cela Brour was the direct inverse of the evil look the Yiftan threw back.
Even with Cela’s attention seemingly on the scarred woman, the pressure on Kat’s neck never wavered. The control was amazing. Who were these women?
Roaring with laughter, Kinjara “The Red Bard” Rhaigen collapsed next to Tristien, holding her sides. Within seconds, the red-headed boy Kat had seen earlier bolted out like a young colt from the path between the two houses. Galloping to the well, he almost toppled the bucket back in the well in his haste. Swallowing two deep gulps and wiping his mouth sloppily, he said cheerily, “Hi Aunt Kinjy, Tristien. I watched both battles from the roof of the house.” He pointed where he sat, then acted out both skirmishes at the same time. “You were great, Tristien! Whatcha gonna do with your pris’ner now?” He turned to examine Kat.
Given his height, his gangliness, his enthusiasm, and his high voice, Kat guessed the boy’s age to be nine. The rash of freckles dotting his skin and face, along with his ruddy complexion showed that the boy was no stranger to the hot spring sun. Though he was a little chubby, his eyes shone with curiosity and intelligence, giving the impression of quick wits and slow reflexes. Kinjara caught the back of his light loose tunic and kept him from approaching Kat.
The enormity of her surrender sank in. To the Midnight Slicer, surrendering was a deeply personal act, and a private one. Yet, among these folks her act was tossed around as public knowledge. Knowledge, in Kat’s world, was a jealously guarded commodity. If breached, death often followed. Perhaps her guild affiliation could remain a secret and thus her abdication remained guarded. She was a mere hired hand, out for some pillaging, and was caught. The sword still at her throat gave proof to that.
No emotion flickered across Kat’s stony face. She concentrated on making Tristien believe her sincerity. Yet, looking at that interesting scarred face and her enticing grey eyes, Kat knew. Had it been anyone else who tempted her with the Quietude’s secrets, she would’ve resorted to other means to get the information. There was something about Tristien. What was it Kinjara referred to? Ah yes. The legs’ sudden and absolute collapse. Well, that part already came true.
Before anything else happened, two last residents came through the pathway between the two farmhouses. There was no doubt about it now; no help was forthcoming. But did she want any help, since she had surrendered?
“Conniol! Next time, wait for me. Don’t run ahead!” The farmer grunted through his grizzled rusty whiskers that poked out at odd angles. Though he was tall with broad shoulders and a well-built physique, he stooped over and moved rather gingerly. The bruises and cuts all over proved to Kat that he was the plowman who disappeared under a flurry of fists. His torn brown tunic barely clung above his breeches, showing off a curly red-haired chest. He headed right for the well.
Following close behind him through the pathway was a smaller but more muscled man. With a bearing like a soldier, his closely-cropped hair and two-handed sword also gave his vocation away. His sleeveless tunic showed off deeply chiseled body and arms. Was this the red-headed equivalent of Barmon? The man’s handling of his sword changed her mind. This man had a familiarity with the weapon that made it part of his arm.
When he came into the dirt yard and assessed the situation, he altered his course. Without a word, he headed right at Kat. He readied his blade and joined Cela in pointing a sword at Kat’s throat.
Just as Cela opened her mouth to say something, Tristien drew everyone’s attention by getting up. Seeing her approach with the ladle full of water, the red-headed soldier stood up taller. When the scarred woman bent to hold the ladle to Kat’s lips, the vain man growled, “You give her water before us?”
Slowly moving the point of his sword away from Kat’s neck, Tristien said with a gentle smile, “You can get your own water, Rocshim. Two swords prevent her.” She bent the ladle towards Kat, who drank gratefully.
Rocshim Rhaigen thundered away, grumbling at the world’s injustice in that a soldier had to wait before a raider for refreshment. No one paid him any attention.
Grabbing Conniol Rhaigen from Kinjara, the plowman called out to Rocshim, “I filled up a leather sack of water for you. Let’s go, Rocs. This is none of our business. We’ve got fields to repair.”
Without protest, the younger brother followed the older sibling. “Grofford, I swear, your headstone’ll read ‘Never a responsibility have I shirked.’”
“How is that bad, Rocshim?” Patting Conniol’s back, Grofford Rhaigen prodded the young man along the pathway between the two farmhouses. “You too, Conniol. Come along. This’ll all be yours one day. You’ll need to know how to run it.”
“But Pop, I might be a soldier like Uncle Rocs, or a bard like Aunt Kinjy, or…” Conniol’s voice faded away as the three walked beyond the houses.
Cela, the warrior woman, lowered her sword as well. Instead she pointed it at Kat’s back, saying “Hol’ ou’ your han’s an’ pu’ your thum’s together.” She handed cords to Tristien.
Not moving, Kat continued staring at Tristien’s eyes, trying to convey the lack of need for bindings. A flicker of the grey eyes before they stared at the ground made the Midnight Slicer understand. Though she felt no need, the rest of the women needed Kat to be restricted in movement before they could relax.
With a small sigh, Katriyana dropped her gaze facing her hands together for the scarred woman to bind.
For the first time, Kat’s attention was drawn elsewhere than the scarred face. She watched the right hand which was missing two fingers, move precisely and rapidly. Tristien was no stranger to escape artists. With a thin, vine-like rope, she tied Kat’s thumbs together tightly. Using the far end of the rope, she tied Kat’s wrists loosely. She winked at the Slicer and let go of the dangling loop, then walked back to the well.
Kat tested the strength of the knots. It was beyond her ability to break the bonds. As she got up to follow the scarred woman, Cela darted in front of her and grabbed the loop as if it was reins. The Yiftan yanked hard, almost throwing Kat halfway to the well.
Kat’s soft and graceful landing earned appreciative nods from all around except Cela. She looked curious.
Still sitting at the well, Kinjara the bard remarked to Tristien, “Vanquished foes offer limitless options. Acceptance of the surrender is but one.”
“Killin’ her’d be easy,” Cela chimed in helpfully with a raise of her sword. The hearty laugh that followed didn’t convince Kat that the warrior was joking.
“Chained and drugged passage yet another option?” Kinjara added dubiously.
“Blin’ her, cripple her, then leave her by a busy Paramours’ Guil’?” By this time, Cela was doubled over with laughter.
Despite herself, Kat stared at Cela, then chuckled. When she looked back at Tristien, their eyes met. Time stopped. Blood roared inside her head, her ears, drowning everything out. Parched, Kat’s throat ached for relief again. Swallowing nothing but air, she wondered where all the moisture in her mouth went.
Didn’t those slipper-shaped scars hurt? Her whole body was criss-crossed with them, it looked like. They looked so angry, so devastating. All Kat wanted was to run moistened fingertips over Tristien’s skin in hopes of offering some comfort. Yet, the scarred woman’s grey eyes reflected no anger or pain. Catching each other’s gaze, Tristen abruptly beamed a sunny, glorious grin. And Kat smiled back, an act uncommon for her.
The sudden smile prompted Kinjara to ask, “A shift in your mood is due to evil intent? Or…” The red-headed bard threw Tristien a suspicious look, “more notorious reasons?”
Snorting a response, Cela said, “Don’ you understan’, Kinjy? She takes us for fools. She’ll sli’ us alon’ our…” her hand made a motion across her throat. “… An’ smile whils’ she’s doin’ it.” Cela lifted up her sword to press it against Kat’s neck again, close without drawing blood.
“Lies!” The word echoed around the Quietude making Kat jump. She’d forgotten she was still in here. There was no further need for her to stay and she was tired of the circular room betraying her. It wasn’t even a hallway anymore. Using a quick breathing method, she “tranceported” out.
Goddhai, what had she done? It was a foolish, rash thing, to surrender. What if this deterred or, worse, regressed her advance within the Midnight Slicers? It was potentially life-changing. Or possibly life-ending. And these two were making jokes of it.
Tristien shook her head, speaking up. “She takes no one for fools, I think. But we’d… I’d be a fool if I didn’t accept her surrender. I believe there is as much I can learn from her, as she can from me.”
Turning to Kinjara, she held out her right mangled hand for Kat’s blade-darts. Kinjara looked over at the Yiftan who nodded her grudging approval. On the way back to Kat, Tristien stooped to get the daggers from the dirt. For a moment, she admired the craftsmanship of the unique twins, testing their weight and balance in her hands which seemed large for the small blades.
Perhaps deciding that she was bored, Cela went over to Kinjara and left the two alone.
With Kat’s hands tied, it was impossible for Tristien to give back the blade-darts. Instead, she asked where the sheath for the daggers was.
“In a belt along my ribs and on the small of my back,” replied the Slicer.
Tristien stood right in front of Kat and lifted the tied hands above her head. Ducking into Kat’s embrace, she reached behind the small leather-clad body. Kat could feel the press of Tristien’s ill-fitting armor against her own light armor. Slowly, the scarred woman slipped the daggers into the holster. Breathing closely, the Slicer felt heat from more than the afternoon sun above. The scarred woman’s grey eyes never left Kat’s brown eyes the entire time.
Lifting the tied hands above her head so she could slip out, Tristien grinned. Off to the side, Kat could hear Cela ask, “Weren’ it easier for her to go aroun’ bac’?”
Kinjara’s reply was, “Aye. However, you are not Tristien.”
Tristien stuck out her right maimed hand and beamed again. Grabbing Kat’s bound hands, she said with a firm handshake, “I’m very glad to meet you. I’m Tristien Waef. And you are?”
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