That One Time I Went On A Quest

Kastor applied for a job he wasn't qualified for and got it. His employer? A woman known throughout the Realms as the greatest dragon slayer in the world.

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10. Cowards

With an impassive face Kathanhiel beckons over me and Haylis.  

‘Both of you have a right to know who that was,’ she says, leaning against the wall with her shoulders hunched forward. ‘You need to know.’

‘Talukiel the Blade.’ The words run from my mouth before they could be stopped. That finger wagging, I remember it now; I’ve seen it in the arena when I was in that awkward gap between youth and adulthood, and spent what little money I had on tickets to the Games, the tournament in which aspiring knights duel in front of huge crowds…sometimes to the death. It was Talukiel’s signature move.

Kathanhiel slowly nods. ‘I called him Talu.’

‘Who?’ Haylis asks with a frown.

I begin. ‘Champion of the Games, Royal Marshall, best fencer in the Realms for eight years until…’

‘Until I bested him,’ Kathanhiel finishes. ‘He was my esquire on the Elisaad campaign.’

‘Eight years?!’ Haylis exclaims. ‘How old is this guy?’

I cringe instinctively. Not a good question to ask now Haylis she’s not in the mood for this kind of –

But Kathanhiel doesn’t seem to mind. ‘Older than I, though not by much. I was fourteen when I beat him in an official duel, just that once. Never managed it again.’

Haylis is still wide-eyed. ‘How did you get someone like that to be your esquire?’

For a moment the room is silent, then Kathanhiel quietly laughs, joyless and bitter with a manic edge.

‘I asked him,’ she says, ‘and he said yes.’

 

Their history she tells us only in brief, with a voice indifferent and cold as if none of it concerns her.

Talu had catered to her every need, thrice saved her from the cultists’ ambush, and even did the mundane chores like cleaning and cooking without complaint. A master fencer, Champion of the Games, cleaning someone else’s plate with a half-dirty rag – imagine that.

There had been no sign that he would flee before the final confrontation with Elisaad. Throughout their journey he had fought dragons and humans alike with skill and – I suppose – bravery. Then something happened. She doesn’t specify what exactly, but it must’ve been a falling out of some sort, because one who had served so loyally for months and months wouldn’t just give up like that. There had to be a reason.

Right?

As she speaks of the moment she woke up alone, her voice begins shaking.

‘On the crag before Elisaad’s lair I woke up alone. His bedroll was cold; he had fled during his watch, hours before. The fool. I was going to tell him that he needn’t fear, that I wasn’t going to force him to go in with me.’ Her eyes lock onto mine. They convey clearer than words that she’ll tear open Talu’s throat the moment their paths cross again.  ‘Do you understand that Kastor? I was going to leave him out of it. I was going to go alone.’

I’m suddenly shaking all over. Someone’s laughing inside my head, the voice of a cynical old man who looks at the world and sees only ugliness.  

You know why you’re scared, poor little Kastor? You’re scared you’ll run away, just like Talu did. What are you, compared to him? You’re not good enough to polish his shoes. If even the Champion of the Games fled before the Apex, what chance do you have?

You’ll run away, and she’ll hate you for it. That look on her face – it’ll be reserved for you instead. Kastor, such a coward, such a disappointment, running away. She’ll hate you forever.  

 

The day after our meeting with the refugees (and Talu don’t forget Talu) I wake up to find Arkai’s bed empty, the sheets neatly folded. He didn’t leave a message, though it’s no mystery why he left; Kathanhiel laid out in no roundabout terms that he need not be here if his promise to her hasn’t been fulfilled.

He’s also taken my horse. Poor Killisan, hope you won’t suffer overmuch; that man will never let you chew on his favourite boot or engage you in philosophical discourses.

After yesterday’s events, bringing Kathanhiel her morning sundries has become a difficult task. She still looks up from her bed and smiles as I put the basin of water and fresh towels on her table, but meeting her eyes…impossible.

I prepare the last of the camomile tea and lay out the savoury pancakes that took half my left eyebrow to make (cooking on a moving coach with a live fire is not recommended), then ask if there’s anything else she needs. She normally says no, but today –

‘Kastor, look at me.’

How does she do that, knowing exactly what to say at any given moment?

‘I-I’m not sure if I could.’

She throws the sheets aside and props up on one elbow. Her silky nightgown has ridden up to reveal her stomach. There’s a tattoo there: a circle and a crescent around it…why does that look familiar?

‘You’re troubled,’ she states. No argument there. ‘Talk to me.’

‘I don’t know what to tell…it’s not as if...I mean, I’ll do my job, and be loyal to you always, so you don’t need to worry about me.’

‘I believe you,’ she says, ‘but I am saddened to see you troubled by the deeds of another.’

She stands, carefully brushing back her hair one strand at a time and collecting them behind her ears. From her bedside table she picks up a hairclip shaped like a flying sparrow and pins back what little fringe she has.

Didn’t know opening my mouth could take this much effort. ‘May…I…ask some questions about…um…?’

She moves to the basin. ‘Of course – if you don’t mind facing the other way as we converse.’

I spin around like a top.

‘Was Talu...um…good?’

For the love of the Maker out of all the garbage that could’ve leaked out of your mouth –

‘In every sense of the word,’ she replies amidst splashes of water. ‘He bested me in swordsmanship. He ran and climbed faster than I ever could. His ability to haggle was famously unrivalled. He had wealthy friends in every town that provided us with every imaginable luxury. On my birthday he baked the best cake I’ve ever had out of a handful of flour and fruits he had found upon nameless trees. Though I loathe to admit it, he was also a great kisser.’

Arkai is so very right; I should just keep my mouth shut. Permanently.

‘But being an esquire is not about any of those qualities,’ she continues, ‘and pleasant company has no meaning besides the joy of the moment. I liked him a great deal, that is true, but Talu has always been likeable when he wanted to be. The smiling mask he wore had become his face, and those who didn’t know better were fooled into thinking that his insides were just as pretty.’ Something falls softly to the floor. ‘I…was young, and didn’t know better.’

‘Did he really try to convince you to…?’

‘To give up on Elisaad? Yes he did. I should’ve known then that he would ran away, but I was blinded by…’ she pauses, and for a moment the room is filled only with the sound of splashing water. ‘…by vengeance. So I didn’t listen. Didn’t see the fear in his eyes.’

‘But…if he was so capable, why did he run at all?’

‘Being capable means nothing,’ she says in between rustles of a towel. ‘You face thousands of foes that breathe fire hot enough to melt steel, holding a little stick made out of exactly that. Every fibre of your being will urge you to flee; no amount of reason or skill or courage will resist it.’

That sounds horrifying, yet I don’t doubt a word she’s saying.  ‘If it’s so overwhelming, how do you manage it?’

I can smell the fragrant oil she’s rubbing onto her skin: chrysanthemum, and extremely distracting.

‘Would you run as well?’ she asks.

Before I realise she has avoided my question I’m already answering hers.

‘I’ll do as you do my lady. If you fight I fight, if you run I butter my heels.’

A quiet laugh. ‘And why is that?’

‘Because...it’s my duty?’

‘No, Kastor. If a sense of duty is what drives us then none of us would be here.’ Her voice quietens. ‘Though I like to think that I fight to fulfil my duty to the Realms, it is but a glamorous excuse. An armour of righteousness, if you will…like putting on a prismatic cuirass.’

‘My lady, I don’t understand...’

‘That is quite alright,’ she laughs a little too quickly. ‘Remember, just as possessing a powerful sword doesn’t make one a hero, being dutiful does not keep one from fear. If you’ve the heart to stand you will, and I think you’ll stand just fine, Kastor.’

‘But...how do you know?

She hesitates. ‘I know...because the only thing that could compel someone to stand against the dragons, as childish as it sounds, is love.’

My heart skips three beats. ‘What?’

‘Will you hand me a shirt from my wardrobe? Any one is fine, I don’t really mind.’

Oh, alright.

Her drawers are meticulously arranged, her informal shirts folded and sorted according to colour, freshened by lime. I could tell straight away that these were packed by someone else – probably Haylis, since she practically lives inside wardrobes; plus, I don’t remember packing the lime in her inventory. Bringing citrus on a quest is stupid.

Unlike Haylis, who enjoys having a labyrinth of embroidery closeting her body like a cocoon, none of Kathanhiel’s clothes are particularly fancy. Her shirt, the one I pick out, is plain linen with a low neckline and very short sleeves. It’s slippery to the touch, the material having been treated with some odd substance…ah, I know that smell – it’s that “tundra essence” stuff.

Should’ve been more mentally prepared before I turned around. Should’ve at least drank half the kettle of that camomile tea.

She is standing by the basin and wearing nothing but a short towel around her waist. She has folded one arm over her breasts but that doesn’t stop glistening streaks of water from going where they please. Block of muscles, which hadn’t been noticeable when she was lying down, stand out in ridges on her stomach, and her legs are simultaneously the most beautiful and the most powerful things to ever exist.

That expression is on her face. Last time she looked like that she laughed hard enough to take out a piece of the floor.

‘You look like I’m teasing you.’ She takes the shirt using her unoccupied hand (thank the Maker). ‘Perhaps a little, admittedly. Avert your eyes at your leisure.’

The floor of her room is the most fascinating piece of architecture I’ve ever laid eyes on. Just look at those beige squares – they look great, so great in fact, I don’t think I can look up from them ever again.

‘I-I-I-I’ll take my leave if you don’t n-need anything else.’

‘Thank you Kastor.’

As the door eases shut, I suddenly realise there’s still a hundred things that I want to ask but had forgotten to. Hard to blame myself for that one – much greater men than I would’ve done no better, considering the circumstances.

She did that on purpose.

No, no, what’re you saying? Have you never heard of the ancient art of raising your arm behind your back so you don’t have to look at the person you’re handing stuff to? Stop thinking and go make yourself breakfast, stupid boy.

 

‘You look ill,’ Haylis says.

Do I? ‘Do I?’

‘Stop thinking about Talukiel, it won’t help.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Come to the front. I’ll help you talk to Oon’Shang for a bit. She’s a funny lady.’

‘Why’re you being so nice?’

‘I’m only trying to be. It’s working isn’t it?’

The moment she opens the front-facing door a violent gust almost blows it off its hinges. It’s not raining today, but the clouds are racing towards the south as if the mountains themselves are chasing after them. Oon’Shang’s back blocks most of the wind; the carriage chassis sits exactly at her waist, so it doesn’t require more than a head tilt to see her shoulders.

A small platform and a long wooden bench runs the width of the coach. Haylis pulls a hidden lever, and a screen folds down on the left side, making a cosy little alcove for all the humans that would for some reason want to sit out here.

The two of us squeeze behind it. Directly in front of my face is Oon’Shang’s left arm – thick as a tree trunk – pulling on a long handlebar protruding from underneath the cabins. It’s incredible, watching the little giant sprinting at full speed while hauling three people, two horses, and a four-room steel-shelled carriage; it doesn’t seem to take her much effort at all.

‘She’s so strong!’

Haylis had taken out her chain of soundless bells and is hitting them with two mallets in each hand. This goes on for about ten seconds seconds. ‘Oon’Shang says her friends can pull twelve-room coaches much faster than she is going now.’

Twelve?! That’s amazing!’

‘Move over more, I can’t feel half my face.’

Without ceremony Haylis half-sits onto my lap as if I’m a soft toy stuffed with goose feathers. The act is not so much erotic as annoying…though the leg she’s wrapping around mine does feel very warm.

‘I’m doing you a favour so don’t be a pervert,’ she says.

Ugh. ‘What should I ask?’

‘Anything, she’s very talkative.’

‘Alright…she’s experienced at fighting dragons, right? Maybe ask her for a story about that.’

‘Do you want to be here all day? No storytelling!’

‘Then ask her what she thinks our chances are.’

Oon’Shang’s head turns slightly as she replies, the wind tossing up her orange veil. Her eyes look like a pair of those crystal balls fortune tellers use, dark and mysterious and infinitely deep. Those eyes are easy to get used to; not so easy is the completely static hole that is her mouth.

‘She says she believes in the heir of the sword of Ush’Ra the Godsmith,’ Haylis says.

‘The heir of…you mean Kathanhiel? So Kaishen gets...passed down?’

Haylis rolls her eyes. ‘From one dragon slayer to the next. I thought you knew all about her, Kastor the Learned Scholar.’

‘But only the newer stories mention Kaishen at all.’

‘Just because she calls it that doesn’t mean it’s always had that name. What if the last guy called it something silly like…like Lizardstick? Imagine being stuck with Lizardstick forever.’

Stupid as that sounds, Kathanhiel did name her horse Bobby, a far cry from Kaishen, Bane of Dragons. The dichotomy between the two is amusing, and almost seems whimsical.

 ‘So what was it called before?’

Haylis hits the bells a few more times, then shrugs. ‘I don’t know, and Oon’Shang says she’s forgotten. Apparently Ush’Ra the Godsmith made it so that the sword is…’ she scratches her head, ‘…dissolved? Every new dragon slayer…dissolves…the sword. Do you know what she means?’

Kaishen is right there in the next room, shiny as new. It’ll take a big vat of acid and more than a few decades for that kind of steel to dissolve in anything. ‘Nothing that would make sense. Can she tell us how it’s, you know, spitting fire?’

At that query, Oon’Shang’s shoulders begin heaving back and fro, an easy enough gesture to recognise – laughter.

‘She doesn’t know, and even if she did she wouldn’t tell you, because the little giants never share secrets relating to their craft,’ says Haylis. ‘She also says that the true power of the sword will be revealed once we start running into dragons – that is, if you don’t flee at the sight of them.’

That one stings; not the words, but the tone of assumption. ‘Tell her I’m Kathanhiel’s esquire and I’ll fight with her, come what may.’

Haylis relays that on the bells. Oon’Shang takes a while to respond.

‘She asks whether you’re just saying that because it’s what heroes in stories are supposed to say.’

Even if that’s true I’m not about to admit it. ‘What about you? You think you can stand against the dragons?’

Haylis bites her lips. ‘Before yesterday, sure, that’s what I’m coming along for, but after seeing those people on the road...I’ll ask Oon’Shang what they’re like.’

If I was a little giant I would be able to recognise the deep, heartrending fear in Oon’Shang’s voice, but through Haylis’s translation most of the emotion is lost, and only the words remain.

Terrifying words.

‘They swarm, like starving wolves that haven’t had a meal in weeks, and before you could even hear their screams they descend from the sky, rise from the swamps, the gulches, the snow, everywhere, from every direction, with their mouths on fire because the flames have been beaten back into their throats by the wind, driving them berserk. Javelins cannot rend their hide, only their wings, but even grounded they can leap over great chasms to lunge at their prey. And prey we are, even to the little ones, while the ancient ones – candidates for the Apex – can swallow a little giant from head to toe.’

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