Irmina Nagel studied the giant man racing across the grassy dips and slopes of the terrain. Just watching the giant with the sun beating on him while only the slightest of breezes whispered through the air made her wish for a drink of water. With the back of her hand, she flicked away dark strands of hair stuck to her face and wiped at sweat streaming down her brow.
The thick fescue and blue and red flowering brush of the Orchid Plains offered little resistance to the man’s massive legs. His two–handed greatsword’s wide scabbard bounced on his thigh before he brought his hand down and kept it in place. He ate up the distance in great strides, three times a normal man’s full stretched leap.
She kept a careful eye on him and his tattoos. With his every move, they glinted like precious stones where they caught the sunlight. Any change in direction could be an attempt to capture her again. He’d tried three times since she came to Carnas, and she’d quickly learned to add more distance than her master had advised.
Birds fluttered from his path into the sparse trees, their sharp squawks announcing their displeasure. The one time he’d looked over his shoulder was his only acknowledgment of her existence, but she knew better than to think he forgot about her presence. As he closed in on the woods, Irmina’s vigilance increased. The man’s strange bodyguard and two others had passed that way. Soon after, she’d heard the horn from the same direction.
Are they trying to save the boy or hunt the creature down? She frowned. Even she wouldn’t want to confront the infected lapra within the forest’s confines. Her brief peek into the creature’s head revealed a mind as decayed as the rest of its body. The beast refused her attempt to command it to release the boy. Despite the day’s warmth, a shiver ran through her.
When she saw the lapra spring from the woods, she’d been tempted to try save Kahkon in a more direct manner. She almost did, before she realized it would be a fatal mistake. The giant man would see the power she used. High Shin Jerem had been explicit in his orders. At no time should she reveal herself to the man. Not if she wished to live.
Another question nagged at Irmina. What was the boy doing near the woods anyway? She’d sent a warning to the mayor about the golden–haired woman and the lapra’s presence. Why would they still allow the children—or anyone unprotected for that matter—to venture near the forest after those who already went missing? Her brow puckered. Unless Kahkon didn’t deliver my message. Maybe he forgot? No, he wouldn’t. Maybe, he didn’t understand? But that didn’t seem likely.
Two things surprised her since coming to Carnas in her guise as Mariel the Devout. The first was many of the Ostanian youth in the village spoke Granadian to some extent. The second was the giant man had taught them. Her stories about the gods mesmerized Kahkon, and he never missed a chance to visit her each day. She’d promised him more stories if he took her message directly to the mayor. He hadn’t returned since.
She wondered if the reason for Kahkon’s absence bore any relation to the odd way the villagers acted of late. When she first arrived, most paid proper reverence to her Devout title, although without the typical uniform, she had nothing but her insignia of the sun encased in a halo to show as proof of her stature. Over the last few weeks, their outlook changed. She noticed a peculiar, abrasive attitude from the village folk since they found the last few dead bodies in the kinai glades and their own people disappeared. Each day since, the number of visitors dwindled until only Kahkon frequented her campsites in secret. Do they think I’m somehow responsible for the deaths or the missing villagers?
At first, she thought it might be someone among them who knew she was not who she claimed to be. She’d entertained the notion someone had contacts within the Tribunal and informed the villagers she didn’t represent the Tribunal’s interests here in Ostania. She’d quickly dismissed the idea as ludicrous. High Shin Jerem assured her no one in Granadia would know of her presence here. One did not doubt the High Shin.
That left the recent murders and disappearances. Surely, they didn’t think she killed those men or took the others. If so, why? Could the village folk believe a Devout capable of carrying out such crimes? The savagery of Granadian politics was a thing long dead, with nothing amounting to more than petty squabbles over the last three decades. That past was the very reason the Tribunal ruled and Devout were appointed. The Tribunal’s rise and Streamean worship ensured all in Granadia walked the path of light. The idea of a Devout engaging in such heinous actions was so foreign to her as to be unfathomable. If they knew her true identity, she could’ve understood this train of thought. But her disguises had never failed on any mission.
All this brought her to the golden–haired woman in the woods. Irmina had only gained a glimpse of her twice, but several bodies were found in the same general vicinity soon after. She’d ruled out coincidence and sent a warning to the mayor. If only she could confirm its delivery.
Regardless, she would be even more careful. She needed to keep in mind these people were less civilized than she was accustomed. Who knew what other strange beliefs they entertained? If the giant and his bodyguard were a good guide, these Ostanians possessed capabilities she would be a fool to underestimate.
Irmina licked her lips at the salty taste of sweat as she picked her way through the brush and sparse trees. A light breeze blew, but offered little relief from the humid air. Ahead, the giant man continued his run toward the woods, his strides steady, the sun and the hot air appearing to have little to no effect.
“Find the man, the High Shin says. When you do, you must convince him of your need, he says. He must return with you to Granadia. Pwah. I should’ve known it wouldn’t be so simple when you told me I could never allow him to see me use my abilities.” Irmina ground her teeth.
As if this wasn’t difficult enough, Jerem had assured her the time would come here in Ostania when she would face the hardest decision she would ever make in her life. He’d warned her whatever she chose would prove crucial in what path she took and would scar her for life. As if she didn’t already bear enough scars. Every moment spent in this backward land made her regret taking on this mission. If not for Jerem’s insistence that this was a required step in the completion of her training, she may have refused. For her, graduation meant another toehold toward vengeance.
The thought brought a shudder through her and sparked a memory of her as a child when she received the news of her family’s murder—her mother, father, brothers and her sister lying face down in pools of blood. The despair and loneliness she felt before the Dorns adopted her arose fresh and raw. She brushed tears from her eyes as she remembered the blinding rage she burned with a year ago when she discovered the part the Dorns played in her family’s demise.
Thinking of her lost family and the Dorns served to prompt her feelings for Ancel. He was part of the reason she’d cried then. For the love the Dorns had taken from her not once but three times. Despite her hatred for Ancel’s parents, a longing for his touch, to see his emerald eyes, to see his carefree smile, eased through her. With any luck, he’d gotten over her by now. It wouldn’t make what she needed to do much easier, but it might help.
She squeezed her eyes tight as she wished she could rewrite her last words and instead tell him how much she loved him. She wished she could have told him the truth of her mission. She wished she could’ve told him the truth about his parents.
Her last thought grated her insides. The people who raised her as their own, who she’d come to love and care for since she lost her family, had been revealed as frauds. Murderous frauds, who, to this day, clung to their plots. How many others knew what occurred? How many more were involved? She would weed them out one by one for as long as she lived. And let them feel the pain she endured.
Life and love are brutal teachers. Learn, adjust, and survive. Or die. Those are your choices. I choose life. She repeated Jerem’s mantra to herself as she did every day since her discovery.
Irmina grasped at the slim sword in its sheath at her waist. Her hand shook with strain. The weapon was not what a priestess typically carried, and although not quite as effective as a regiment of guards, it served its purpose to deter most bandits. More than that, the sword was once her mother’s weapon. Those foolish enough to ignore her blade because she was a woman soon learned their mistake. Remembering her training, she opened the cold place deep in her mind and shoved her emotions there until they dwindled. For this mission, she could afford no distractions.
Her master had given her so little information, and the villagers even less. None she interviewed gave up the names of either the giant or his bodyguard with the disconcerting silver eyes. Not even the children. Their faces became guarded every time she mentioned the two men.
When she first saw them, she hadn’t given the giant’s companion much thought. He appeared of no consequence. He had typical Ostanian swarthy skin and sandy hair, his height well over six feet. This was before she saw him move. He never appeared to touch the ground, his sinuous frame gliding like oil across a smooth surface. His eyes too, were odd, like silver flashes of frictionless mercury.
His master, the eight–foot giant with the tattoos, appeared to live up to her master’s description as the more dangerous of the two. To some extent, she agreed. She’d observed them in their daily sparring sessions when the giant would win three fights for each one he lost. They fought with a grace and skill that would shame the best Weaponmasters in Eldanhill. Yet, for all the bigger man’s skill, something about his guardian made her skin crawl.
Irmina found herself peering toward the tree line ahead as she thought about Silvereyes. As she did, she noticed the glint from the tattoos no longer bounced rhythmically.
The giant stood at the forest’s edge staring at her.
Irmina ducked and slid behind a tree. If he entertained any thoughts to chase after her once again, she would make sure he realized she was not easy game.