Wormwood stopped thinking for himself almost as soon as he’d touched the book. His every move was orchestrated by the voice he heard. It was a constant companion in his head driving his actions. After his transformation in the cave he’d effortlessly blended into the throng of villagers gorging themselves at the king’s feast. With the knowledge of the voice he charmed those who saw him as an ally and conversationally decimated those who didn’t.
The effort to hold the transmutation spell together took extreme focus. Focus that would reduce another man to madness, but Wormwood was confident in his gift. It’s why the voice had chosen Jasper Fern, it recognized Wormwood trapped in the folds of his mind and freed him with whispering command.
The only hindrance to casting such a complex spell was that it reduced the amount of additional spells he could complete while holding this form. He would otherwise use a formation spell to plunder the king’s prize right from his own vault room. The voice whispered to him that it was close, gold coins and jewels wailed to him in the darkness like a hungry infant. Ancient memories from Fern told him of the secret vault room, but he couldn’t show up there without arousing suspicion from the rest of the Kingsguard.
The only big changes were the age spots on that gas bag Mak and King Rygeer, who seemed bloated on his own sense of security. Greytusk had gone unchallenged for too long. The castle stirred no nostalgia in Wormwood as he was led to his chamber. The tapestries of Alfonse Rygeer still clung to the stonework. The castle itself a legacy to the blood spilled in his name deep beneath the earth.
The morning after the feast he sat in the chaos of breakfast diners scrambling, savouring the tart bites of an orange. It didn’t matter what he picked. Any weapon with an edge would kill in his hands. He took his time to finish his food as well as several other abandoned bowls around him.
In the biting cold of Greytusk mountain Wormwood saw the asinine struggles of the small minded resulted in many discarded blades. He wasted no time when he encountered his first garrison in the mountains. His blade sailed through the air and into the shield of Ermine Kask, one of the Kingsguard Jasper Fern remembered well. Wormwood savoured the fear that he saw as her cry of yield was overshadowed by his blade sinking the home. In the silence of his first kill Wormwood could sense the dismal intelligence of the three remaining soldiers computing what had just happened even as the snow turned red around his feet.
When they moved they adopted an old defensive stance compensating for the loss of one. Wormwood had a flashback to the cave of his conception where he’d rained pillars of fire on soldiers just like these. He felt the itching compulsion to preform magic, to quell the arrogance of those who would stand in his way. The compulsion proved too strong and he used the tip of a finger nail to carve runes into the wood handle of his blade. He whispered a spell invoking the new gods to take the properties of his weapon and magnify them. The hard wood handle took the fortification spell and carried it through the minerals trapped in the steel, giving Wormwood a blade that was unbreakable.
Evidence of Rygeer's softening as a general was apparent in the soldiers he picked for his first wave, relying on hardened lieutenants like Kask to lead team of novice greenkin through the first heat. The one with the long spear had reach but Wormwood’s fortified blade cut it at the hilt and the soldier’s ill training made the bow staff clumsy in his hand. He relied too much on the integrity of the tool itself and that reliance was levied to Wormwood’s advantage. The other soldiers plate armour acted as excellent deflection but their morale had been slaughtered at the sight of their broken garrison and they fell fast.
A cloud passed and Oreyon shone out defiantly from his cloud kingdom. Wormwood gnashed his teeth at the mockery.
“The soldiers who follow you fall, just as your creations did! I will cross the cosmos to end you!” Wormwood screamed to the heavens, spitting a tooth loosened in his tirade out in a stream of blood and saliva. The voice soothed his rage and whispered of more greenkin ahead.
Bronwyn moved carefully through the mountain pathway. The two peaks they passed through had swooped off in either direction leaving the way open. She had picked the way and she knew she was right, but she couldn't help but feel exposed. She moved deliberately, notching an arrow in her bow and moving with the practiced ease of a seasoned hunter. She tried to focus, to centre herself the way she had in the excursion that had killed the coyotes she wore on her back. She glanced at Everitt who moved stiffly as if he hadn’t figured out his centre of gravity with the double headed axe held in his right hand and the burden of the hideskin pack he wore.
The mountain range closed in and opened up alternately as if the entire area were breathing, passing them through like morsels of air. A cutting wind slashed at her cheeks and she drew her chin deeper into the woolen scarf she wore.
Her mind should have been focused on the open range ahead of them, or the way that in a few yards they reached a divergence in the pathway, but the peaks around her kept calling her attention and Bronwyn found herself transfixed by them. She was looking for familiarity she realised with sickening surety. Her past called to her over the span of time and at once she held the same pre pubescent fear she’d held in the mines. The toddlerkin fear of things that bite in the night.
Her hands itched as they had in those times, she felt as if she could smell the root cellar stench of must as they mined through putrid earth. A memory bowled over her senses and Bronwyn abandoned reality to live among the wails of stricken friends. The crack of the whip pushing them further along into the never ending darkness. She heard the crack of the whip, distant in memory and then all of a sudden as if the whip mongers were on the mountain with her. An echoing report snapped through the air and rolled along the rock walls towards the Damascus Sea beyond.
She was alone in the dark. Her heart feeling as if it would rip from her chest. She heard the crack of the whip again, felt it’s sting. The ever present mantra in her mind dig, dig, dig, dig. Anything of value, anything she thought was pretty was snatched away from her and carted to the guards.
She looked to Everitt wide eyed and sweating despite her caution against freezing. He’d heard it too. His wide eyed stare in pantomime of her own. They heard it again and closed the distance between them.
“What's the order Bronny?” Everitt’s eyes swam with concern when he saw her face. The way her eyes rolled in their sockets reminded him of a filly about to bolt.
“Hey.” he snapped his fingers in front of her eyes trying to centre them “Hey Bronwyn stay here. It’s over, you’re home now, Bronwyn! You’re home.” Everitt’s shoulders relaxed as she looked up at him. Once more living in the present.
“What’s the order?” he repeated “what do you want me to do?”
She could only stand helpless, this position of complete power foreign but not unwanted. For a moment her mind seemed as blank as the snowfield around them, thoughts whirling like wind dancing and stirring up flakes of ideas without resting on one. “Can you let me think for one second. I can’t hear myself with you talking!” She caught movement in her periphery and acted, her anger guiding her hand.
Two figures emerged ahead of them, something in her mind whispered but the roar of war spoke over it. That instinct drove her hand to her bowstring as she pulled back an arrow and sighted in the taller of the two figures. She could hear Everitt now, his words soaked in urgency. She ignored him. He was probably bombarding her with another stupid question. She loosed the arrow seconds after he threw all of his weight into her. The arrow went wide, sailing a good foot over the head of the tall figure. What the hell was Everitt thinking?
She turned her fury on him, her eyes burning with the anger in her body. In a split second all she could see was the 5 days growth of scruff from a whip monger and she just about reached for her short sword before staying her hand, abashment cooling the anger as she saw the look of absolute horror on her brother’s face.
“What?” it was meant to be commanding. As if to say "how dare you interfere, you put me in charge and continue to undermine me!” but it came out as a squeak and she realised with sickening dread that she was a lion in Caulderwilde, a roaring force of nature that met challenges eye to eye. But up here? Stuck in the shackles of nature and her own damnable memeory she was a mouse. She was prey. Heat rushed to her cheeks as she felt the weight of the coyote cloak bearing down on her.
“Look for the love of Oreyon. You almost killed Wallace.” Everitt cast a glance at the two figures who were approaching fast. Bronwyn actually saw him swallow a gulp and it dawned on her then that he was afraid. She’d seen her brother like this only in the mines. Maybe she wasn’t the only one living out the horrors of her past.
“By God’s above child has the snow made you so blind as to confuse my dressings with the grey and crimson Kingsguard?! I should turn you over to the next uniform I see for disqualification. I doubt our king would take kindly to contestants slaying one another.” Bronwyn looked to Wallace’s companion, the High Priest, for support but he looked as put off as Wallace himself, furrowing his brow as if casting her to damnation. After a beat of silence It was Everitt who spoke in her defence.
“Master Sheepshead come now. The weather is foul, and visibility being next to nil, my sister merely confused your cloak for a werebear, it’s lush decorum apparent. Surely you can’t chastise a fellow hunter from taking advantage of such a trophy when the opportunity presents itself? Especially to act as a gesture of good faith towards our good king host?”
“Hmph” Wallace grunted. “And I suppose this particular werebear just happened to be walking with a high priest of Tryonas at it’s side?”
“Begging pardons again Huntsman but the robes of your high preist do make it hard to detect him in this whiteout. And, as I’m sure you’re both well aware of, does the text not advise that those under Oreyon’s rays are touched by the warmth of everlasting forgiveness?”
Bronwyn saw the effect of the scripture on the high priest as he regained his composure and nodded philosophically at the quote. Wallace, though still bristled, at least began to relax his grip on his weapon. Bronwyn saw this and got an idea.
“That’s an impressive weapon Huntmaster Sheepshead. Much more advanced that the primitive one I managed to glean from those racks. Perhaps you can assist me in adjusting the sights of this to be as accurate as yours.”
Using his title had fluffed his ego, the implication that her sites were off could only pad his boundless vanity, She gambled it would be just enough to ingratiate her. The gamble paid off as he strutted through the snow and made a show of inspecting the bow.
He checked the length of it, then flicked the tension of the bowstring enough to show Bronwyn he had no idea how to handle the weapon. Bronwyn marvelled that the technology of Tryonas could be that advanced that within a generation they had forgotten the simple systems that spawned those advances. He cast a glance over her arrows before making his final assessment. Starting off with an exclamation of epiphany as if he’d solved all the worlds problems at once.
“The error lies not in the bow itself, little coyote, but in the bulky head of the target arrows. With such a blunted point the shooter must accommodate for the added drag, hence the misfire as you let fly. I suppose I see now how you couldn’t resist such a prize as this.” he added a shudder of his shoulders for emphasis making his great red cloak whisper against itself. “I find the unreliability of bowstrings an incessant nuisance, that is why I insisted on carrying my own firepower from Tryonas. With the black pepper load I'm no more lethal that you, but the accuracy is consistent. With an instrument such as this musket well, even a novice could down a werebear with ease. You can only imagine what the capabilities are in the hands of one so skilled as the Huntmaster of Tryonas.”
“My awe knows no bounds. And I am in your debt for the lesson Huntmaster. Please allow me to further the favour by offering to shepherd you and the gracious high preist through this wilderness, my brother and I are native to this mountain range and can be of use in identifying beneficial flora and fauna. To our benefit you could continue to offer more steadfast advice as that you have already provided.”
It was a stretch, and Bronwyn knew it. She saw Everitt eyeing her. Questions swam in his eyes but she also saw ideas, and was that a touch of admiration? Bronwyn knew he was considering it and watched as Wallace Mulled it over. He looked to his high priest for guidance who gave the slightest nod of agreeance.
“My condition is that our co-operation stops at resources. We have no interest in supporting a little coyote and her lame rabbit. But if the two of you can prove strength is in fact in numbers then we will remain a party until our partnership proves to be more obstacle than convenience.”
Before he could reconsider Bronwyn stepped forward and the two grasped wrists in the traditional greeting of fellow hunters. She in turn bowed low to the high preist to smooth over any hard feelings he may have been grappling with. With the formalities taken care of the foursome began to set off.
“To the east we found barricades that halt progress and scours of guardsmen. We were able to best three in combat and offer medical help to another for safe passage he told us what we seek lies to the northwest, though I can’t be certain of his genuity.” Wallace said.
“I believed him.” The high priest spoke, his composure regained. “The injured man was in our debt, these knights are bound by a code of honor.”
“Then we go straight at the divergence ahead.” Bronwyn said noting the advantage of besting the kingsguard in something other than combat.
“Ahead of us the path leads north before dipping west further on.” Everitt spoke, looking up from his map to confirm his position before continuing. “If we continue west we’ll find ourselves in the Pneumwood, likely no more than a days walk.”
“Does anyone know what we’re looking for?” this question from the high preist.
“Adventure your grace, adventure ahead!” Wallace called as he began to jog through the snow.
“Everitt met Bronwyn’s gaze and they both scanned the horizon to avoid bursting into laugher. Ahead of them the priest looked on as if at a star pupil that had just recited scripture with impeccable cadence.