January 10, Year 707, Cristos Reckoning.
Father was dead.
No matter how she tried to avoid it -- no matter what distractions she employed, what prayers and meditations and thought exercises she forced through her troubled mind -- Daria's thoughts kept circling back to that single, inescapable truth.
Leon hin'Gallad, her father, was dead. Nasoj's soldiers had killed him in their attack on the eve of Yule, more than two weeks past. He had gone out to the battlements with the other palace guards, grumbling about the horrid weather and extra shifts, taking only minor solace in the overtime pay he would have received for the duty. He had paused on his way out to tousle Daria's hair, as he had done a thousand times before. He had lingered in the doorway while his wife -- Daria's mother, Caitlyn, the healer's assistant -- stepped up and stood on tip-toes to kiss him, her child-sized body dwarfed by his six-foot tall lion-like form. As he had so many times since the Curse took them, Leon had grabbed her by the waist and raised her lightly into the air, chuckling with his deep, rumbling voice. He had kissed her tenderly, cradling her with the greatest care, and then she had wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his mane with a brief, fierce hug.
"I'm only on duty for the first watch," he had said. "I'll meet you at the temple after the service."
"All right," Mother had said, as he lowered her gently to the floor. "Stay warm."
"I will." Leon had looked over at Daria, giving her one last smile. "Say hello to Merai and her parents for me."
"I will, Da," Daria promised.
And then, he had walked out the door.
He would never walk back through it again.
Daria looked out the window of her room in the infirmary and sighed. She would not cry -- indeed, she had shed so many tears in the last two weeks that it felt as if she might never cry again -- but the pain that had been raw and throbbing a short while ago had settled into a deep and bone-weary heartache. She wished that spring would come early this year, so that she could see the green grass and the flowers and believe, even a little bit, that there would be new life to follow this dead and deadly winter. She desperately needed something to believe in right now -- some hope that the darkness she felt would not last forever.
The iron determination the Keepers had felt at Lord Thomas's speech ten days ago -- the almost fanatical commitment to the idea that Metamor would not be broken, that Nasoj and all his works would be undone -- had rapidly begun to fade in the face of the enormity of the task before them. It was all well and good to speak of laying siege to the Dark Wizard's citadel, but it wasn't quite as easy to believe in it when the people went out to find their houses in ashes, nearly the whole town reduced to broken rubble. Daria had not been out to see the damage -- her grave injuries in the battle of the barracks had kept her confined to the infirmary -- but some of the members of her little squad had come by and told her how the work was progressing. As the days went on, she'd seen how the fire and optimism had begun to drain from their eyes. The work, it seemed, was taking its toll on everyone.
Still, Daria would have given almost anything to be part of it, and not cooped up in here as a convalescent.
Daria's dark thoughts were interrupted by a sound of flapping wings, coming from somewhere close beyond the window. She shifted on her bed and leaned out, looking around--
And then felt the sudden weight as something landed deftly atop her head. Daria started, then smiled, as a small reptilian head on a sinuous neck bent down to look her in the eye.
"Kree!" Starling said in greeting.
Daria sat back in her bed again, smirking at Starling's antics, as the dragonet fluttered over to perch on the windowsill.
"Good morn, Starling," Daria said, glad for the distraction her little friend's visit had provided. "How fares the weather for flying today?"
Starling projected an image into Daria's mind -- like all dragonets, it was the only way she could really communicate, though she could understand human speech perfectly well. This time, the image showed Starling herself sailing on gentle winds, then shivering at the cold.
Daria nodded. "I suppose you're looking forward to spring as much as I."
Starling sent another image, of Daria walking around the halls. There was a note of curiosity in the thought that made it into a question.
"I've been walking a little, with crutches," Daria answered. Starling cocked her head, and Daria added, "They're wooden frames that rest under your arms, to help support your weight. Like a cane, except you needn't bend over to use them. 'Twas Master Bryan or one of the other tinkerers that came up with them, I think." She sighed. "Anyway, 'tis not as if there's been much cause for me to go far. As I am now, I'm little use to anyone."
"Kree!" Starling said, sounding miffed. She sent Daria an image of herself dressed in the leather-and-chain armor of one of Metamor's female knights, swaggering down the streets of town with a look of utmost confidence. This time, the image was not a question, but declaration of complete certainty.
Daria smiled wistfully. "I suppose you're right. I shall get my strength back. Someday, anyway." She closed her eyes a moment, then changed the subject. "So, what brings you here today?"
Starling flashed the image of a tall, powerfully muscled young man with the features of a black bear. Daria recognized him immediately as Garulf, another member of her squad during the recent defense of the Keep and one of Daria's more frequent partners in Master DeMule's combat drills. Like Daria, he had barely reached adulthood, and was still months away from his fifteenth birthday -- but where the Curse had made her even smaller and lighter than before, it had given him a massive and powerful physique to shame many grown men.
"Garulf sent you?" she asked Starling, surprised. "Why?"
"Because," a voice called from outside her door, "Starling can fly up three storeys faster than I can walk them." Garulf emerged from the doorway a moment later, carrying white garments of some kind in one hand and a belt full of tools around his waist. He had sawdust in his fur and dirt on the knees of his trousers, and the musk Daria could smell as he drew near hinted that he'd been doing some intensive labor. It wasn't even the third hour past dawn yet; evidently, the repair crews were starting early and going hard.
Daria found that some part of her liked the smell; for all its animalistic overtones, there was something wonderfully ... masculine about it. Maybe it reminded her of her father, on some level. She put the thought out of her mind.
"Garulf," she said, smiling impishly as she put a note of scolding into her voice. "Does Master DeMule know that you're making bedside visits when there's serious work to be done?"
Garulf bowed. "Your pardon, Squire," he said gravely, "but our dear castellan has given me leave to see to a repair job even more pressing than the city itself."
"And that would be?"
"Repairing you," he said grimly. "Come, sit up and let me help you put these on." He gestured with the garments in his hand.
Daria looked at him quizzically. "What are they?"
"Protective braces. Healer says they'll help hold you together. Like a corset, but a great deal more useful." He tossed the garments to her. Turning them over in her hands, Daria found that they were fitted with drawstrings and reinforced by something light and sturdy -- whalebone, perhaps, if they were like the corsets worn by some of the nobility. There was one garment that was indeed a sort of corset, though without the exaggerated hourglass shape the noblewomen forced themselves into, as well as smaller braces that seemed to be designed to support her knees.
"And these actually work?" she asked, curious and a little skeptical.
"One way to find out. Come on, put them on. I'll help you lace up the back."
Having been confined mostly to bed, Daria was dressed in only a light shift, and the corset fitted easily over top of it. Garulf tightened it without apparent effort, his left hand firm and steady against the small of her back as he tugged on the loose ends of the laces with his right. The reinforced garment pressed in on Daria from all sides, but not excessively; she found that she could still breathe easily enough, and the extra support seemed to ease the pain in her back and sides where her muscles were still knitting themselves back together. The corset also cupped and supported her breasts, which had been growing larger during her current growth spurt and had already begun to be something of a distraction in combat training.
Daria swung her legs over the edge of the bed, feeling less pain in doing so than she had in weeks, and began putting on the knee braces. These she could lace herself, and did so, noting how the strips of whalebone held her injured joints steady against side-to-side movement while still allowing her legs to move forward and back.
"Fetch me some clothes, will you?" she asked Garulf, as she finished tying one brace and turned to the other. "I can't very well go out like this."
Garulf looked around the room searchingly, until Daria gestured at a wardrobe on the far wall. The bear man rifled through it for a minute and came back with a pair of knit leggings, baggy trousers, a red tunic, cloak, socks, and boots. While they would be unusual for a woman elsewhere in the Midlands, the clothes were typical of the once-male warriors of Metamor, and much warmer than a woman's skirts. Daria had debated with herself about switching to dresses when the weather turned hot in the summer, but the need for a decision was still months away.
Daria dressed slowly and carefully; the braces helped, but her body was still stiff and very tender. She would never have dreamed that internal injuries could hurt so much for so long. True, as Daren, he had fallen off the battlements the day the Curse had begun to take hold on him, and the pain she now felt was nothing to what he had experienced then -- but Merai had healed him completely on that day, driven by her utter determination to save the life of her friend. Daria had been wounded several times throughout the battle for the Keep, but her squad had been essential to the Keepers' tactics and the priestesses had devoted their full efforts to keeping her and her teammates in fighting shape. This time, though, with the immediate danger gone and most of the Keep's population nursing injuries of one sort or another, the Lightbringers had only repaired the worst of the damage and left the rest to heal on its own. Daria realized, ruefully, that she had become spoiled by the Lightbringers' miracles; most people would not receive in a lifetime all the divine blessings she had been given in less than a year.
At last, tying up the boots, Daria rose carefully to her feet, bracing herself against the side of the bed.
"Ready?" Garulf asked.
Daria nodded. "I need my crutches," she said, looking around for them.
"No, you don't." Garulf gestured at her midsection, then down to her knees. "What do you think that second skeleton is there for?"
Daria fidgeted. "I haven't been out without my crutches before," she said, uncertainly. "Shouldn't we ask Healer Coe?"
"I've already spoken with him," Garulf said, putting his hands on his hips. "And it took some doing; he's a very busy man these days. He says you could have been walking a week ago, if you'd put more effort into it." Daria bristled at that, offended. "But," Garulf continued, forestalling her objection, "you've been through five hells of trouble lately, and he didn't want to push you." The bear-man smiled, but his eyes were stern. "So now that's my job."
Daria scoffed, still indignant. "So you're my drill master now, as well, is it?"
Garulf's eyes softened. "No," he said. "Just a friend who wants to remind you what you're capable of." He stepped closer and beckoned her with an outstretched hand. "Come on, Daria. Time to rejoin the world of the living."
Daria sighed. Like it or not, Garulf wasn't going anywhere until she at least made an effort to do as he asked. With small, tentative steps, she walked past him and headed toward the door.
She made it out and down the hall with little trouble, running her hand along the stone wall and leaning against it every few steps. The pain was constant but bearable, and the braces helped to keep her back straight and her legs moving forward. Garulf followed close behind her, seemingly unperturbed by her snail's pace, offering her a hand or arm to steady herself when she needed it.
"Where would you like to go?" he asked.
Daria only needed to think on it for a moment. "To the battlements," she said. "I want to see the town for myself."
Garulf just nodded and kept walking. Daria had only seen a little of the town's ruins during Duke Thomas's speech, and her window in the infirmary showed even less. Out on the battlements, which ran atop the walls around the entire perimeter of the city, Daria would be able to see what had really become of Metamor.
They soon came to a winding staircase leading up. Daria looked at it forlornly, wondering if this was Kyia's idea of a joke. She knew full well just how high the battlements were, and that the third story was not high enough to reach them, but she wished that the castle spirit would have made an exception in her case. She knew it was possible for Kyia to move passages between storeys, but evidently she didn't feel like making things easy today.
"How am I going to do this?" Daria muttered, placing a hand on the railing and looking up.
"Here," Garulf said, stepping close behind her and slightly off to one side. "I'll help. Put your hand on my arm and the other on the rail." He put his arm out in front of her, and she held it. He then put his other arm around her waist, holding her steady against his own large, strong body. Daria shivered, an unfamiliar tingling sensation running through her, then relaxed and leaned back against the solid, unyielding wall of his chest. It felt good. It felt ... safe.
"Now," Garulf said quietly. "One step at a time."
Obediently, Daria raised her foot to the first step; then, bracing herself against Garulf's arm, she half stepped, half lifted herself onto the stair. Garulf held her steady against his body so she would not fall, but otherwise let her do the work of pulling and pushing herself up the staircase. Twice her legs failed her and she fell back, but Garulf was as dependable as a stone barricade and did not even waver when her weight landed fully in his arms. It took them at least ten minutes, but at last they arrived on the next floor. Daria's chest heaved behind the close-fitting corset and her legs burned from the unaccustomed exertion.
"Good thing we got you out today," Garulf observed. "You've been abed too long, I think."
"I need to rest a bit," Daria said, panting. Her skin was flushed from the exercise -- perhaps from more than that? -- and the corset and leggings were allowing very little heat to escape her body.
Garulf looked down the corridor, then gestured. "There's a balcony over there," he said. "Ready to step outside?"
"Please," Daria agreed, and Garulf half-carried her over to the door that led to the balcony.
Outside they found two small benches resting against the walls, a stone shelf that ran along the semicircular edge of the balcony, and a four-foot high barricade that rose beyond the shelf and kept anyone sitting there from falling back into empty space. They were somewhere above the palace wing of the Inner Keep, and the balcony looked out to the southwest over the city walls and the valley beyond. Somewhere just below them should be the ducal gardens, Daria knew -- assuming that any of the plants had survived the lutins' acts of vandalism.
The air was cold but not bitterly so, and it felt good after the torturous climb up the stairs. Daria closed her eyes and rested her head against the wall behind her. It wasn't very comfortable, and soon she found herself shifting to lean back against the softer, warmer surface of Garulf's chest and shoulder. The bear-man offered no complaint, seeming in fact to give it no notice at all. Daria relaxed and simply breathed, enjoying his scent mixing with that of her own sweat, together with the biting crispness of the dry winter air.
Presently she took notice of another scent, a fainter one that came more strongly when the wind shifted. She frowned.
"I smell smoke," she said, wrinkling her brow in concentration. "And ... something else. Roasting meat, I think?"
Garulf's muscles grew tense against her back. "Not exactly," he said, carefully.
Daria's stomach dropped as realization hit. She looked up at him, her eyes wide. "Funeral pyres?" she asked, disbelieving. "But it's been ten days!" It was a long and sacred custom, among the religious traditionalists who followed the Lightbringer teachings, that no body should lay unburned more than three days, lest it become corrupted by rot or awakened to hideous un-life by one of the daedra. To let a body lie for nine days or more was considered to be an act of defiance against the gods, and invited a curse upon those who showed such disrespect for the dead.
Garulf lowered his head wearily; he, too, had been raised with the old ways, and knew the consequences as well as Daria. "It couldn't be helped," he said, sadly. "There were more than a thousand Metamorians dead in the Keep alone, to say nothing of Euper and the other towns. Some were Patildor, and are being kept frozen until they can be ... buried ... in accordance with their customs." Garulf looked disgusted at the thought, and Daria quietly shared the sentiment; the idea of sticking a body in a box and burying it in the ground to rot was horrifying in the extreme. The fact that the Patildor believed that their spirits would one day return to inhabit their old bodies was even more revolting. Daria had never seen a zombie, personally, but from what she understood, the results weren't pretty.
"But most of our people need pyres," Garulf continued, "and we're doing our best to provide them." He gestured out toward the fields to the west, and Daria could see little pillars of smoke rising in the gentle winds. "We burn twenty, sometimes thirty at a time, stacked on scaffolds ten feet tall. We've been scavenging wood from the ruined houses in town, thatch from the roofs for kindling." He shook his head. "It isn't nearly enough. The timber crews are doing what they can, but the river is frozen and they have to pull the logs the whole way over land. We can't do the job fast enough."
Daria shivered, and she doubted it had anything to do with the cold. "Will the gods punish us for this?"
Garulf shrugged. "The Lightbringer says not. She pleaded with the gods for leniency, and they said no affront would be taken so long as the bodies were kept cold and safe from scavengers until their pyres could be made ready. So long as we avoid any sudden thaws, all should be well."
Daria found herself feeling guilty for wishing for an early spring, and whispered a prayer of apology for her selfishness. What if she had gotten her wish, and the funeral rites had been disrupted? What if her own father's spirit had not received its proper farewells?
Her mind shied immediately away from that, from a question that almost sprang to her lips unbidden. Don't think about Father. Change the subject. A moment later a different question came to mind, and she frowned as the thought struck her. "What are they doing with the enemy dead?" she asked.
The bear-man grunted. "Cremation pits," he said, gesturing off toward the east. "Over on the far side of the Keep, away from the river. We started the fires with pitch and dragon-breath, and just keep adding more bodies as they burn down. Lutins burn pretty well once you get 'em going -- there's a fair bit of oil under that hide of theirs. Keeps 'em warm in winter, I suppose." He spoke offhandedly, without apparent emotion. At another time, Daria might have been sickened by the mental image, but at the moment she had little sympathy for the creatures that had fought for Nasoj. She had even less concern for the human men who had served under the dark wizard. The lutins, some said, were deceived by Nasoj's powers and manipulated by his use of their religion, but no one could doubt that the men who fought for him knew exactly what they were doing. She felt no guilt about their remains being burned in a pit, without wood or prayers or ceremony, the ashes buried with those of five thousand nameless others. Without the prayers of the mourners to guide them, perhaps their spirits would lose their way on the path to the Nine Hells and be trapped forever in the cold, uncaring earth. It was no worse than they deserved.
Daria grimaced. She'd been about to ask something a minute ago; she had a feeling it was something important, but it had slipped from her mind. Her mood had gone sour with this whole unpleasant discussion, and she decided she would rather not sit here any longer and dwell on it.
"Let's go on," she said, determinedly raising herself to her feet. Garulf quickly rose behind her, and they went back into the hall, down a short stretch of passageway, and thence through a heavy wooden door out onto the battlements.
Starling met them outside, perched on a merlon along the inner side of the wall. Daria stroked the dragonet's chin in greeting, and Starling purred happily. She joined them as they walked slowly down the battlements toward the southern end of the city, flitting back and forth and around their heads as they passed. Daria wondered if she really had that much nervous energy to use, or if she kept flying just to stay warm. It occurred to her to ask how a creature with a belly full of fire ever could feel cold, but she doubted if that was the sort of thing Starling could explain with her word-pictures.
You're not fooling anyone. The thought rang suddenly, forcefully through her mind, so clearly that for a moment she was not even sure if the thought was her own or someone else speaking into her mind. All the little tangents, the odd questions, the talk of rituals and customs -- you're just trying to distract yourself from the obvious: Father is dead.
Daria's stomach clenched in a stab of grief, and she found herself collapsing back against Garulf once more. Her legs felt weak, but she doubted it had anything to do with her muscles. She clenched her eyes tight, trying to force back the tears, and took deep, careful breaths to steady herself. She would not cry again. Not here, not with Garulf watching.
"Daria?" Garulf asked, sounding concerned.
Daria did not answer at once, not trusting her voice. A knight does not show weakness before those she leads in battle, she thought, recalling her training. I cannot help the weakness of my body, but my heart will be strong.
She made herself stand up on her own again. "I'm all right," she said at last, taking one more deep breath and letting it out in a rush. "Forgive me, I came over a bit faint there for a moment."
Garulf frowned. "Do you want to go back?" he offered. "You've done well for your first day."
"No," she said, straightening up and raising her chin a bit. "I've come this far; I shall at least see the town before I go back. Take me to where the repairs are in progress."
Garulf searched her eyes a moment longer, then nodded. "Today we're cleaning up in the northwest quarter of the lower ward. Come on; they'll be breaking for lunch soon."