Authors: Jacob Falling
For a time, the world caught its breath.
The War of Scars was memory, but the New Peace fragile.
Our gods were fallen, our faith broken.
We waited for One-Who-Comes in a breath between the storms.
We waited for one already born.
It has been said that the ghosts of our world far outnumber the living.
It has been said that the legacies of our mothers and our fathers decide our fate.
It is said that war begets peace, death brings life, and victory is won by blood alone.
We are scions of a fallen world, the daughters and sons of broken promises.
The War of Scars is over. Our war has only just begun.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
HEIR OF SCARS I
This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author. All rights reserved.
Published by Violet West Entertainment
Copyright © 2011-2016 by Jacob Falling
First Kindle Edition: May 2016
Cover art, maps, and illustrations by Vanessa Bettencourt
Heir of Scars typeface design by Natacha Santos
Ana Vanessa Bettencourt de Almeida
For the patience to wait
and the impatience to
make me finish things.
For crossing an ocean.
Ghosts of Heiland
The Heir of Wilding Winter
dria paused again, one bare foot aloft, carefully arched, ready to break the surface soundlessly and return her to perfect balance. She waited for the moon to fail, though she wore nothing to reflect its light, nor even the memory of light mirrored from the snow. Her blade, still sheathed, showed only burnished bone, elk leather and sinew, her hand wrapped around its crossbar so that the pommel protruded from between the two strongest fingers of her closed right fist. Even this weapon might draw notice in this light, if in sudden motion.
She did not have to watch the moon anymore, not even the patterns of light flitting through the trees beneath the swift late-winter clouds. The light occupied her only distantly, informally, just as her limbs obeyed her without real instruction.
She could focus on the man, half turned, only half aware. She could focus on how she would make him fall, before he ever even imagined he was not alone.
Another step, then still..
Many such guards had fallen, some more vigilant, left bound and gagged, others hidden well within their dreams, only to awaken much later than expected, and with a dull pain in the head and neck. More than a score, surely, she could count in her birth tongue, though not her adopted one — not that she was proud of any particular number over another.
Numbered or not, she had collected the images, each with the cold clarity of moonlight — so many like this one, leaning against a tree, dazed with chill and the desire to sleep. His sword remained sheathed, his shield and spear propped beside him, ready enough for a surprise inspection or the snow-crunch footsteps of his still-distant watch relief.
They were never ready enough. With few exceptions, they were dull and lazy.
Wegmaya p’o wakespaya zhezazhuya p’o zheokshoya gipoe goniwela,
Patience and awareness make both good lovers and good Hunters.
Now that she could remain calm even in the final steps, the last indefinite moments, she found time to reflect without detaching herself completely from her task. Perhaps the careful memory kept her warm.
Distantly, she knew her body ached with cold, her furs and leathers a compromise between warmth and protection and ease of motion. But she knew that the cold would pass, as would the violence. There was no need to fear either, nor to welcome them.
. Careful memory.
Another step, then… still..
Not so many months before, her heart would have thundered in her chest and her ears, her limbs twitched with the temptation for violence she knew would come. She would not have felt at ease with only an unsheathed knife, with her bow wrapped tightly beside her quiver, sword left behind as too cumbersome.
She would have felt too exposed, too lightly armed, and far too small to face this enemy. Her fear would have frozen her between senseless flight and desperate rage. She would have stood breathless and blinded to all but the most obvious dangers, and her fate would have been decided without her will.
Adria breathed, and with each breath and moment measured every change in the world around her. Her senses and her body were changed, and parts of her that had once acted in conflict were now trained to act as one, with such awareness that complete control merged with myriad possibility. Each breath, and each moment, felt different from the last.
Now, fear was only memory. Childhood myths. Moonlight behind clouds.
Greater and lesser shadows mingled. She was moving again, the moon covered just enough for her last four steps. Her vision narrowed to detect any movement he might make, and her toes broke the surface of the snow. Her arm rose, her blade’s bony pommel ready for the base of the man’s throat.
Her final step was irrevocable, her hips and shoulder already tensing for the blow. Her calm deepened, her mind stilled, and her vision widened.
And then she sensed something…
Her eyes twitched to her left… only a blur, a motion in gray where there had been nothing the moment before, and then again became nothing more than memory.
Maybe nothing, but enough to make her hesitate just a moment in her final step.
A careless memory.
The guard jerked into sudden awareness and swept his spear into motion. Adria caught it with her free hand just beneath its point. She was able to take a step back and aside, guiding the arc of the spearhead just over her shoulder before losing her grip.
The guard bettered his footing and pulled his spear back for a more careful strike, and Adria dropped her sheathed knife into the snow and struggled for the spear with both hands.
The man lunged, and she caught hold of the shaft again. He forced her back two more steps, but could not ply it from her grasp.
He released one hand to draw his sword, and Adria tore the spear from his weaker hand, twirling it, using its momentum to give her a lower hold on the shaft as she turned the point upon him — only to have it struck from her hands by the man’s heavy blade.
Shaken, Adria stumbled and fell backwards into the snow, reaching for the smaller knife in her boot, slow to regain her awareness and momentum, wondering,
why am I not here?
The guard stood above her, sword reversed for a killing thrust. Beyond him, Adria could see a dark figure drop from the tree above and roll onto its feet and into the shadows behind the man.
She shifted herself slightly, braced for the next moment, as the light shifted again. The moon silhouetted the man’s head and raised blade.
The swordsman hesitated.
Adria’s hood had fallen aside, her face now lit and her blond braid loose upon the snow. Mateko took a step forward, into moonlight and nearly in striking distance.
“Wateko-io hethhosu bowe-hiyo.” Adria urged, stilling Mateko.
His life will go on.
The soldier frowned at the foreign words, so Adria followed quickly in Aeman.
“Do not speak,” she commanded — words and tone she had not adopted in some time.
The soldier blinked, and breathed loud, sword still raised and fight still strong in him, but said nothing. Adria breathed a moment in silence and moonlight, and the man’s eyes widened.
“You know me…” she frowned.
He nodded hesitantly in return, and Mateko took another silent step, neither fully understanding the words nor confident of the man’s surrender. Adria glanced his way, and only then the soldier realized another presence, and reacted too swiftly, turning his sword on the new threat. But Mateko was already close, and grappled him as he turned.
Before Adria could calm them, the soldier dropped and rolled just beside her, trying to throw Mateko. Mateko released him instead, letting the soldier fall with his own imbalanced weight. Still, the man was well trained, and used his momentum to maneuver his sword into a slash for Mateko’s chest.
But Adria also rolled as he fell, pulled her elk-skinning knife from her boot, and buried the blade between the soldier’s thigh and groin, clasping her other hand over his mouth to stifle his cry as best she could.
,” Adria whispered in Aesidhe, forgetting. His tears ran along the tops of her fingers, too warm. “Forgive me,” she half pleaded, half commanded, now in the man’s tongue. “I swear to you that this is not what should have happened. You must be silent now, or lives in the village will be lost. Do you understand?”
The soldier nodded once more, despite his pain. Mateko took up the man’s sword and held it in warning, giving Adria a questioning look, but said nothing. Adria released the soldier’s mouth. A long sigh of pain came forth, but he did not cry out.
Mateko lowered the man’s sword, now holding it loosely with seeming distaste. He and Adria exchanged a glance without obvious expression. Adria sighed a moment, gently wiping the tears from the soldier’s cheeks.
She reached behind her to take up her fighting knife from where it had fallen in the snow, whispered a quiet prayer, then drove the blade up through the top of the man’s throat and into his skull for the swiftest of deaths.
Rising to her knees, Adria wiped her blades on the soldier’s tabard, soiling the violet field just below her father’s coat of arms, his silver one-lined hexagram.
As her breath stilled and she sheathed her knives, Adria scanned the trail nearby and the surrounding wood for the source of the movement which had caused her distraction and nearly cost her life. But she found nothing she had not noted before the attack, only small birds and squirrels — certainly nothing so significant to explain her distraction. It had certainly not been another Runner, or she would have recognized him. Mateko would certainly have been above her field of vision.
Mateko was already silently stripping the guard of his clothing and useful items. He exchanged another glance with her, an acknowledgment of her mistake, both sympathy and reprimand — and perhaps relief. She nodded and signed a thanks and apology, then joined him in the task.
There were now rarely enough Runners to work in pairs. They would sometimes maintain sight distance, but nevertheless had to trust in each individual. Adria knew Mateko should not have been in the tree, should not have needed to support her. And she should have known he was there, either way, no matter how well he walked the trees.
As much as she had learned, Adria knew she was still not among the greatest of the Runners. The thought itself proved this — only a non-Aesidhe would think in such a way. But the thought that her training was still unfinished also comforted her, and she regained her balance.
If you live, you are still learning. And if you die, you are learning something else.
This had once seemed half a joke and half truth to her, before she realized these were often one and the same.
While she leaned in to help Mateko, she made the Aesidhe Hunter sign with her hands which meant,
are we alone?
Not understanding her question, Mateko signed a strategic summary — the placement of enemy guards, of a few wakeful civilians, and of the other Runners. One of the newest among them, Adria was still often the last to go in, and still sometimes felt a little shame for being relatively protected. Mateko’s presence only heightened the feeling now.
There will be time to question my place later,
Adria shook her head to his response as she removed the guard’s boots. She and Mateko were already nearly finished, their hands swift and almost needless of their attention.
many actions as one.
It was a favorite Runner phrase, an ideal both of how to act oneself and how to act within the group.
The boots were well-made, would serve to protect the feet of a Mewashemesitibopi — one of the Aesidhe exiled from the towns and villages in Aeman lands in recent years. Many were still ill-accustomed to winter out of doors, and their numbers were growing, even as the Aesidhe as a whole were dwindling.
His woolen breeches, though pierced and bloodied, would be easily mended, or else cut and re-stitched for two or more of their children. The mail coat and helm would be traded to the Moresidhe in time, to be re-forged into blades or arrowheads. All these they would stash for now, while they finished the raid, and return to collect if time permitted.
Mateko hung the bundle of clothing and gear over a high tree limb, and Adria covered the guard’s body and blood in snow, mouthing the words of a prayer for the man she would mourn more formally later. They had little time just then — their raids were timed long enough before the guards changed to account for problems, but not so long that a bound and unconscious man was likely to freeze to death in the snow before being found.
Runners killed when they had to, but these raids were meant to gather food and supplies — and these guards were not Knights at all, not really even enemies. They were Aeman militia, farmers or foresters or wheelwrights taking their turn with a spear and helm in the cold, though this one had been trained somewhat better than was typical.
I should not have to leave him buried,
not even truly buried.
Adria broke a small lesser branch from the tree above, bent it to an angle in the way of the Sisterhood, and plunged it into the snow to mark the man’s shallow grave so he would soon be found and returned to his family.
Children will mourn him tomorrow, and a village will despise us the more for my mistake.
As Mateko finished tying off the length of rope holding the bundle above arms’ reach, Adria signed to him again,
I saw something — a distant and strange figure
In the brightness of moonlight and snow, it was remarkably easy to communicate. Or they had just grown accustomed to each other’s motions. She had been paired with him many times while she was still new to the hunt, though he was nearly as new as she. But Mateko had been born among the Aesidhe and had proved a prodigious Hunter. Adria had learned much from him.
He glanced about again, puzzled, shaking his head. Then he lifted his nose to the wind. Adria did the same, but her sense of smell could never rival his — Mateko was one of the better scouts the Runners had, even so young.
He blinked twice rapidly, and furrowed his brow for just a moment.
Adria thought, though she only smelled the cold, the trees, and perhaps smoke from the village just up the road — even the blood and sweat of the man buried at her feet was too faint for her sense.
Mateko frowned, glancing around again, then shook his head and pointed to the edge of the village, where smoke rose from stone chimneys.
Only the Others,