The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 15 – Instincts

Daggrel felt like he was waiting on royalty as he brought a serving tray of food to the “Command Bower”. The girl who was suddenly in charge of their lives didn’t look royal of course. She was a foreigner from parts unknown and unimportant. Somehow though she’d managed to talk Gertrude into turning the whole inn upside down.

“Thank you Daggrel,” Iana said when he entered the big family room. She didn’t look up at him. Her eyes were glued to the weird script / drawing thing she was tracing over and over on the desk before her.

The other girl, Yuehne, was sitting on a bed that had been pushed to the center of the room and lay within a circle of salt that Daggrel knew he was going to have to clean up when everything was said and done. Providing of course that the Sunblossom didn’t burn to the ground before then.

Daggrel didn’t really think the inn would burn, but after hearing Gertrude lamenting the possibility for days he found himself imagining it every time some new bit of odd behavior caught his attention.

“Where do you want me to leave the tray?” Daggrel asked, looking for a clear horizontal surface in the room and finding them to be in short supply.

“I’ll take it,” Venita said, being careful to step around the circle of salt without disturbing it.

“So are you making any headway?” Daggrel asked as he handed the heavy tray to the dwarven woman.

“Everything’s prepared,” Iana said. “Now it’s their move.”

“She’s really serious about this whole assassin thing is she?” Daggrel found it hard to believe that a little nowhere place like the Sunblossom could wind up at the center of anything like an assassination plot by mystical “Shadowfolk”. To his mind, the simpler explanation was that the Iana girl was the offspring of some foreign noble who’d been sent to Gallagrin for an “exotic adventure” and Venita was tasked with supplying a few days of mystery and intrigue while keeping the girl away from anywhere that she could cause her family an embarrassment.

“Just slightly more serious than they are about me,” Iana said, still focused on her drawing.

To her credit, the image she was tracing and retracing had a polished quality to it that was well beyond anything Daggrel could manage himself. He couldn’t decide it Iana was writing in flowery foreign text or drawing an abstract image but in either case the artistry wasn’t bad.

“Fighting assassins is hungry work I guess,” Daggrel said, venturing as close to a complaint as he dared with customers who were paying in premium gold for the luxury of more or less owning the Sunblossom for a few days.

“The food’s mostly for bribes,” Iana said.

“Who have you got to bribe here?” Daggrel asked.

“The local spirits,” Londela, the courier, said.

How the dwarf and the two girls convinced someone as sensible as the Sunblossom’s most regular bringer of news to buy into their fantasy play was beyond Daggrel. The promise of gold probably worked as well on Londela as it did on anyone else but she had a timetable to meet so they must have been offering her a pretty remarkable sum.

“You’re lucky that they like you already,” Londela said. “I guess you must be treating them right.”

“I don’t know much about any spirits here,” Daggrel said. “The place has never seemed haunted to me.”

“Not ghosts, spirits,” Londela said. “For the love of stone, did no one ever teach you anything about the world?”

“The world comes to us here,” Daggrel said. “We don’t need to know much about it beyond that.”

“You should listen to her,” Iana said. “There’s parts of the world coming that you’ll only survive if you understand.”

“These assassins of yours you mean?” Daggrel asked. “I thought you said they’d be here by now.”

“I did, and they are,” Iana said, continuing to trace the image, and moving faster with each stroke.”

“They’re here but we can’t see them because they’re invisible right?” Daggrel waved his hands around as though trying to find an invisible person standing beside him.

“Not in the room,” Iana said, strain appearing in her voice. “Not yet.”

“Where are they?” Yuehne asked. Daggrel saw her palm a serving knife from the tray he’d brought.

“One’s moving towards the front of the inn,” Iana said. “Venita, could you go warn Gertrude?”

“I can do that,” Daggrel said.

“No, you should get to the safe room like we discussed,” Iana said.

“Is that really necessary?” Daggrel asked. “I’ve got the stables to do and the first floor to mop too.”

“Yes, go now,” Iana said. “There’s a second one moving in. They’re circling around to trap us here.”

“What about me?” Yuehne asked.

“The tracking charm is still blocked,” Iana said. “I’ll lead them away from here and they won’t have any reason to think of you at all.”

“I thought you were going to break the charm?” Yuehne said.

“I tried, but I’m not a crafter,” Iana said. “I just know some basic things, and it looks like that’s not enough to break a charm as strong as the one they put on you. They’re better at magic than I am. So you have to stay here but you’ll be safe as long as you do. They’ll think you’re dead already. However this turns out, Venita can go to the Queen and bring back a proper magic worker to free you.”

“Not if she’s dead,” Yuehne said.

“If we all die, and they come for you, do you really think you have the right to complain?” Iana asked.

Iana wasn’t looking at Yuehne, so she didn’t see Yuehne’s grip on the serving knife go white with tension. There wasn’t a lot of space between the two girls Daggrel noticed. Certainly a short enough gap that someone who was distracted by tracing an image wouldn’t be able to block a fatal blow. He wavered on taking a step forward for moment before the tension went out of Yuehne’s limbs.

“You’ve got still a lot to learn about Gallagrin girl,” Venita said. “We complain about everything. It’s what makes us happy.”

“You’re all going to be a lot less happy if you don’t move now,” Iana said. “The first Shadowfolk is through the outer wards and isn’t being subtle anymore.”

“It doesn’t feel right leaving you to face this alone,” Venita said.

“If you stay, I’ll probably die trying to protect you,” Iana said. “Go. That will keep me safe.”

“You’re sure she can’t come with us?” Venita asked, nodding towards Yuehne.

“I’m sure.”

And with that they were departing the big family room to go and hide in the pantry that led off from the kitchen.

It felt silly to Daggrel. Like they were playing a game of hide-and-seek and he was too old for games. If it wasn’t silly though, it was even worse. Running to hide in a closet when a young girl was in danger went against everything Daggrel told himself he was. He still found he was willing to do it though.

It’s one thing to imagine yourself facing down a deadly assassin, to imagine that you would lay your life down for a stranger because it was the right and noble thing to do. In all the stories he’d grown up on, Daggrel had been treated to heroes who could make that choice as easily as they chose their socks in the morning. Taking the safer path felt like cowardice but that didn’t change that it was also the easier path, and the easy path has a seductive power that is often denied but rarely avoided.

The non-combatants made it the kitchen before a whinny from outside knocked Daggrel out of his compliant march towards safety.

“Something’s spooked the Wind Steeds,” he said, pausing just before entering the pantry.

“Probably the assassin,” Getrude said. “Now get in here.”

“The assassin’s aren’t real,” he said. “And if they are we can’t leave the horses out there to get slaughtered.”

Daggrel had never cared for beasts as exotic as Wind Steeds before, but he’d formed a bond with them just over the few days they’d been at the inn. People were always a mix of good and bad, but creatures were better than that. Even the dangerous ones were still worthy of respect, and if you knew how to treat them, manageable enough.

Daggrel thought of the time he’s hiked into the path of a wolf pack. Common wisdom would suggest that they should have torn him to shreds. Maybe if the winter had been severe that would have happened, but when he found them, the wolves were lounging around resting off a fresh meal. Instead of an attack, he’d had a pleasant little encounter, giving the wolves some of the sweet snacks he’d brought for the trip and getting to watch the wolf pups tussle over them for a while.

Daggrel didn’t think it was wolves that had spooked the Wind Steeds, it wasn’t the season for them to venture close to civilized areas looking for food, but if some other animal had come by and was hassling the ever-skittish horses, Daggrel’s intervention might mean the difference between them remaining calm or flying into a self destructive frenzy.

So he left the pantry, and the kitchen, and safety behind. Not for anything that felt like an especially noble reason but just to make sure some creatures he cared about were ok.  He certainly wasn’t planning to fight any assassins.

Which of course meant that he ran into one immediately.

He didn’t see the assassin. Invisibility, it turned out, was really a trick they’d mastered. He wouldn’t have known they were nearby except that as he went running out the open front door of the inn he collided with the assassin who was trying to enter the building.

They went down together in a tangle of grasping limbs, with Daggrel getting lucky enough to pin one of the assassin’s arms underneath them both. As it was the arm the assassin was holding their primary blade in, that stroke of luck saved Daggrel’s life.

For about two seconds.

For all of his size and strength, Daggrel had little to no training in combat. Size and strength count for a lot in a fight, but so does knowing how to react, keeping your head about you, and being well practiced in the proper techniques. In each of those areas Daggrel was completely outclassed by his opponent.

The assassin was free from the pin before Daggrel even noticed he’d had control over his foe’s weapon arm.

With a kick to Daggrel’s solar plexus the assassin pushed free and spun, drawing their blade in a long arc that would have the power and weight to separate Daggrel’s head from his shoulders.

Daggrel had a fraction of an instant to see the blow coming and understand what it meant. He tried to raise his arms to defend himself but it was a worthless gesture. They were trapped under him, or too far out of position.

Death didn’t claim him though.

Metal screamed against metal and shattered in a cloud of metal dust. A blazing dagger had blocked the blow meant to end Daggrel’s life.

Iana didn’t waste time with words. A kick sent the assassin flying out into the yard beyond the doorway and the Green Council girl followed with a growl that no human thing should ever make by Daggrel’s reckoning.

Watching the fight that followed was horrifying.

The assassin alternated between attempting to flee and striking with new weapons produced from various sheaths and holsters.

Iana didn’t allow her quarry to escape though. Each attack was met with a disarming strike and each attempt to flee was countered with a takedown or a crippling blow.

Though the assassin was the inhuman looking one of the two, Daggrel couldn’t help but see Iana as some species of vicious cat that was intent on torturing the mouse before it into submission.

Just as the battle seemed finished, with the assassin laying on the ground as little more than a groaning wreck, Iana dodged away.

An instant latter Daggrel heard the sound of snapping bone as a second assassin joined the first at Iana’s feet. From the second assassin’s stillness and the dagger that impaled them into the ground, Daggrel couldn’t be sure if they were alive or dead.

“I told you to stay inside,” Iana said, turning towards Daggrel.

“What are those things?” Daggrel asked.

“These are the assassins I’ve been speaking of all week,” Iana said. “Find some rope. I want to secure them before we try to move either one.”

“They’re not dead?” Daggrel asked.

“No, I need them alive for what comes next.” Iana said. There was a flat coldness in her that Daggrel couldn’t imagine ever seeing in the eyes of a child.

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