This story, though seemingly unrelated, is the second part of the trilogy that was begun with Tender Mercies. The series ends (presently) with The Chaos Blade.
Part 1 : Yamara
Darkness. Darkness and pain, my first memories. Hiding in the closet of the room my mother and I shared while she conducted her business. I was too young to know what she was. A whore. Too young to know much of anything, really. I was only a few years old, perhaps five, I do not know.
The pain? Well, the pain came from time to time when one of the men visiting her would discover me. Some were kind, some were not. Most were not. The worst time was also the last. That was the time when a merchant with a fondness for abuse visited my mother. She had seen him before, but he was never so violent. That time, he beat her to within an inch of her life while he rode her, and then he hit her again. Again and again, the man pounded himself into her while his fists fell on her. When he was done, he must have heard my sobs.
Yanking the sheet that hid me aside, he stared down at me. A wisp of a girl, with dirty blond hair and big eyes. Big green eyes with trails of tears running down my cheeks. I have since learned that many people, indeed most, would be moved by such a sight. Well, in the town of Ossulmere, ruled by a corrupt council and powered by its deals with creatures and beings whose origins and powers are cloaked in dark secrecy, kindness and compassion had little place. It was a lesson hard learned, but his renewed virility and violent beating taught me well as he left me for dead alongside my mother.
My mother and I were both dumped out with the garbage in the alley behind the brothel. They knew I lived, but being so young and freshly violated I was not worth the effort necessary to help me live. Cradling cracked ribs and swollen skin, I hid amongst the garbage, making no noise lest the equally corrupt city watch should discover me, or worse yet, any of the beggars, thieves, or other unspeakable things that roamed the night streets of Ossulmere. In the end, I managed to heal and survive, eating what scraps of food I could discover and remaining hidden.
So many times I had seen my mother beaten or abused by her customers. I saw her cry and plead for mercy from them. I saw what little it had gotten her most of the time. I vowed then and there that I would not be weak. I would not rely upon the kindness and actions of others for my own well being. I also vowed, as I sat there huddled amongst stinking refuse to scared and alone to cry, that I would not miss her. I have almost never cried from grief again.
As soon as I had healed enough, I moved out, heading for the markets. There I learned to beg and to steal. Always poor, I spent several months living like that, always hungry and cold, but growing smarter and more wily by the day. My skills grew rapidly, and soon I attracted the attention of the Ornithrym, my hand caught in the wrong man's grasp as I tried to nick his purse.
In Ossulmere the thieves guild and the Ornithrym are closely related. Some say they are one and the same, though they are not. Most children in my position, if they managed to survive, would end up in the thieves guild, though perhaps 1 in 10 of those would make it to adulthood, and 1 in 10 of those die of natural causes years later. Such was not my case, by pure twist of fate.
I remember well the man looking at me, sizing me up. Then he stared into my eyes, an amused smile on his face. Then he said to me, "You're no thief, girl, you're a different kind of animal. Come to the Temple of Melnar and put this in the offering plate if you want a warm meal and a place to sleep."
He was gone then, but in my hand I held the sheathed dagger he had pressed into it. My mouth fell open as I beheld it, then I quickly remembered my position and hid it beneath my clothes. I did not take it out to look again until darkness fell and I was safely hidden amongst my garbage.
It looked big and powerful and so full of potential to me. A simple dagger, with no special work about its hilt or pommel save for an ornate O engraved into the crosspiece. Yet to me it was filled with hope. With that dagger, there was so much I could do. I could finally put an end to the older and larger beggars that sent me running every time they saw me, with unwholesome things upon their mind no doubt.
Even at that young age, I was no maiden. One man that visited my mother once discovered me and offered her a great price to have me. My mother refused at first, but as the price raised, her resolve wavered. In the end, I came to know the touch of a man far to young for any girl to know, and my mother was racked with sobs as she looked away. My pain and misery was such at that memory that I feared it would always be so, so when the older boys found me, I always managed to slip away. And now that I had a weapon, I could show them up again, for none of them had something so fine as forged and crafted steel.
Then reality set in, and I realized that no matter how fine a weapon it was, I had no idea how to use it. My excitement at the day's catch had sent me to my hole so quickly that it was a long and cold night filled with hunger pains. Winter was nearly upon me.
No, I did not go the Temple of Melnar that night, or for many nights thereafter. I kept the dagger hidden about my person and continued my life as I knew it. As much as the promise of a warm meal and safe place to sleep appealed to me, I refused to entrust my safety to the words of someone else. And even more so, the Temple of Melnar was a place to be feared by most. Halador, the world upon which I was born, has many Gods, and each has their own worshippers. Melnar is the God of Strife. He is an evil God, and why some men worship him is beyond me. But I suppose all manner of Gods are needed to keep a world balanced. Needed by who, I did not know, for I knew I did not need them. No God had helped me at any time. No, religion was not for me. I had heard of the great powers that clerics and priests wielded in the name of their Gods, but that was only for those with the means to pay for such services, and even then, to be a servant of such a being was just that, a life of servitude. I would live for myself.
A month later, nearly frozen to the bone by the harsh winds and cold weather that gripped the Storres Sea that Ossulmere had a harbor on, I finally relented and visited the Temple of Melnar. The guards at the doors eyed me with contempt. Inside there was no mass going on, but acolytes moved about, doing whatever holy (or unholy) things they had been assigned. I moved to the offering plate and pulled the dagger out from where I had hidden it close to my stomach. I looked at it for a moment, I remember, with hesitation and indecision weighing heavily on me. A cold gust of wind from the doors as someone else entered helped me make up my mind, and the dagger fell into the plate. I turned and walked to a seat in the cathedral, sitting down and looking around. I felt scared again, there was an energy in the very air around me and it seemed to push against me. I could taste it, and it tasted foul.
Then it was gone. I realized some time had passed, but I did not know how long. I heard footsteps, and glancing behind me I saw an acolyte approach. He stopped beside me expectantly. Not knowing what to do, I feared I was in trouble. I got up from the pew and stood before him, staring up at him, trying to pierce the darkness of his hood. He turned and walked away, and after a moment of hesitation, I followed.
Into the back of the temple we went, beyond many rooms given over to a variety of purposes, from storage to sleeping chambers to offices to even smaller, private chapels. Finally he opened a thick door made of bronzed wood and led me down a set of lighted stairs. Now we were in a cellar of sorts, and I soon came to discover, a small dungeon as well. Another flight of stairs down and another reinforced door and I was in a large room with tables and several people in it. Many of them looked at me as I entered, and I was struck by how they all appeared to be the sort of people I would expect to find in a location such as this, yet without exception, they all appeared to be healthy and in good condition, both their persons and equipment.
The acolyte led me through the room down a hallway to a door. Knocking upon it, he turned and left. I knew not to follow him, though inside my chest my heart beat so loudly and quickly that I feared whoever was behind the door would hear it. When it opened, I saw the man from the marketplace sitting behind a desk. Another man was sitting at a chair opposite him. I stepped into the room then, perhaps the hardest step I had taken up to that point in my life.
I looked behind me as the door shut. Nobody was there to shut it, which made the hairs on my arms stand up in concern. The only thing I knew of wizardry I had heard muttered in the brothel or amongst commoners, and it was always curses and whispers of fear and loathing. I had no place for sorcery in my life either, I had my wits and my body, and from them I would make the most of myself.
"She's a bit young," The visiting man said, studying me with his eyes. "And poorly fed, I doubt she's got the strength to survive a day, let alone the testing."
"She is, but look in her eyes, there's power in there, I think she's just what we need," The other man said, idly toying with the dagger I had possessed for several weeks.
"Did you like having this, girl?" He addressed me.
I glanced at him and the other man, seeing both of them watching me curiously. I had made my decision when I entered the room, there was no going back now. "Yes," I admitted.
"Would you like to have it again?" He asked me.
I shrugged, determined not to give them anything to use over me. In spite of how being armed felt, I knew that without the knowledge to use it, having the dagger did me little good.
"What is your name?" The other man asked.
"Yamara Blackcloak." My voice betrayed nothing, or so I like to think.
"Take your clothes off, girl," He said, though his voice was one of curiosity, not lechery.
I glanced at the man behind the desk, but he gave no sign to me, instead merely looking on with his own interest while he continued to toy with the dagger. I did as he asked then, having no other bargaining chip. Off came the rags that had become my clothing, from the overlarge bag I had gnawed and torn holes in and fashioned into a tunic, to the threadbare pants that my mother had patched time and again for me, which now showed new holes and tears in them. Nonetheless, they ended up on the floor beside me, for that was all I owned.
Both men showed surprise then, for while I was only 5 or 6 years old, my body already had a story to tell. Flat chested and hairless where it counts, what stood out about me was not my physical immaturity nor how skinny I was, but the scars that showed on my pale skin. Without a word from them, I turned slowly, arms stretched out, so they could see everything. My back and buttocks were much the same as my front, lightly scarred from serious injuries mostly long past. When I had completed my turn, the men looked at one another.
"Wounds that look as though they would have killed a full grown man on that slip of a girl!" The visiting man said.
"Aye, I told you she has hidden strength," My possible benefactor replied.
"But does she have a mind to match it?" The other man wondered rhetorically. "Come here girl," he ordered.
"How old are you?" He asked me after studying me more closely and muttering something under his breath that I later learned to be a magical spell. He reached down and clinically touched my hairless slit, sliding his finger up inside me quickly. I felt the pressure of it but no pain, only an uncomfortable sensation. Nowhere near as uncomfortable some of the sensations some other men had caused me, however, so I stayed where I was.
"I don't know," I admitted. Not only did I not know how old I was, but I had no idea then how to count.
"5 years old?" Said the man behind the desk. The other grunted agreement.
"Had I a daughter your age, I would kill the man that took from you what has been taken." To the other man he said, "She is no maiden, though at her age I trust that be no fault of her own."
The man behind the desk grinned and said, "Excellent, that will keep the Melnarians upstairs from wanting her for any of their unholy rites. They require virgins for their sacrifices."
Again the man grunted. Then he looked at me and said, "Girl - Yamara - you have the opportunity to join with the Ornithrym. All that lies ahead of you is a test. Pass it and you become one of us, to be educated and trained as well as even ourselves, should you prove worthy. Fail and you will die. Are you ready?"
"What of your promise of warm food and a bed?" I asked, staring at the man behind the desk to gauge his reaction.
"It is yours if you pass the test," He responded.
I nodded then and waited for what was to happen next. "Take this," The man said, offering me the dagger. "You will have need of it."
I stepped closer to the desk and reached out, my hand closing over the hilt of the dagger. I gasped then, for a sudden surge of energy flowed through me. Blinking, I opened my eyes to see I was elsewhere. Above me I heard cheering. Looking up I saw several men and woman sitting in seats around the pit I was in. It was a gladiatorial arena with walls easily 12 feet high. I quickly located the two men I had been speaking to only moments before, they sat quietly, watching me intently. I scrambled to my feet then, realizing that I had been laying on the sandy floor of the arena. Glancing at myself, I saw that I was still naked, but that in my hand I still held the dagger.
I saw no opponent in the arena for me, only a pile of bones where someone had long ago fought and died. The catcalls and jeering of the crowd died then, and the man who had given me the dagger twice now stood up. "As is the custom, the new recruit will fight the last recruit who failed, may Melnar favor you."
I cursed under my breath then, for the man began chanting and moving his hands in a funny way. If I had known he was a wizard, I never would have tried to pick his pocket in the first place. As for cursing, well, I had never really tried it to much before, but I had heard the men that visited my mother use those words many times, and now seemed as good a time as any for me to use them too. The words failed me when he finished his spell though, for the pile of bones I had noticed now began to animate. With grinding noises that made my spine ache, they shifted around and slowly stood up, resembling once again the human that they had once been.
It stumbled towards me, propelled by arcane means I had no hope of fighting against. I scrambled away from it, desperately looking for a place to run and hide from it. The arena was not that big, however, and there were no visible ways in or out. It almost cornered me once, its bony fingers scratching along my shoulderblade as I ducked away from it. I could feel the burn of torn skin and new I would have some fresh scars if I survived this thing.
Survival was always my main goal, and knowing that escape was not an option, my mind turned to figuring out how else I could survive. Hearing the cheering and jeering, I knew that I was expected to destroy this skeleton. I had no idea how, especially since I was armed with only a dagger and it was unholy creation powered by powerful sorcery. What had once seemed like a big and powerful weapon now felt small and puny in my hands.
I studied it carefully as it approached me. I was much more agile and quicker then it was, but I already knew it was stronger and more powerful. I waited and waited until I had an opening, the I darted in. Striking out as best I could with the dagger, I felt it scrape along the femur of the skeleton, then I was away before its swing could connect with me. I felt my fear melt away then. It turned to despair. I had no idea how I was going to defeat this thing when the weapon I had was all but ineffective against it.
I glanced up again and saw the wizard was concentrating heavily on the skeleton, apparently his spell required him to keep focused on keeping it moving. The other man sat beside him, talking rather animatedly about what was going on as though the wizard could not see it himself. I lost some hair then, the skeletons fingers taking a handful of it with it. I gritted my teeth in pain and dove through its legs before it could do more damage.
Now I was closer to the wizard and his companion. I turned to face them and, taking a desperate chance, threw the dagger at him. As I said, I had no idea how to use a dagger, either in my hand or when thrown, but perhaps Melnar really was favoring that day, for it flew straight and true. The pommel of it hit the wizard in the chest hard enough to make him gasp in surprise and pain. His concentration was broken, that was the important thing.
Less then a foot behind me the skeleton collapsed back into the pile of bones it had begun as. I wasted no time. Turning back to it, I snatched up the pelvic bone and threw it as hard as I could into the stone wall of the arena. I grinned as I heard it crack and saw it fall into several pieces. I scooped up some more of the larger bones, legs, arms, hips, and such, and raced to the other end of the arena. The wizard had recovered and was quickly recasting the spell. I began to feel energy grow in the bones in my hands, but I had reached the wall by then. I began smashing the bones into the wall, feeling them crack and break apart in my hands. Looking back, I saw what remained of the skeleton sitting on the ground, missing a rib or two, as well as its legs and the bottom half of one arm. I looked at the femur in my hand and felt the magical pull on it. Grinning, I walked towards the skeleton, the femur in my hand. I approached it on the side where it had no real arm, and easily dodged the slashing movements made by the stump.
I stepped in behind it and, using both my hands to grip it, swung the femur as hard as I could. It connected solidly with the skeletons skull, which smashed the femur into two pieces and sent the cracked skull flying. It slammed into the arena wall and fell to the sandy floor in pieces. The skeleton in front of me shuddered and collapsed, never to rise again.
The crowd was silent, stunned by what I had done. Then slowly they began making noise. It grew quickly, with some calling out loudly saying that I had cheated, while others cheered my innovation. The man sitting beside the wizard was stunned at first, but then began smiling. The wizard held up the dagger and then began laughing.
The air shimmered in the middle of the arena, and then the wizard and his companion stepped through. "Well done, Yamara, you are now a member of the Ornithrym. Put these on."
I took the bundle the wizard offered me and unwrapped it. I slipped the robe over my head first, grinning in spite of myself. While simple and a plain gray color, it was easily the finest garment I had ever owned. Next I put on the sandals. They felt odd, for I had never worn any before, but I knew them to be an improvement of my station in life, if nothing else was. Finally I took back the dagger I had thrown at him. I smiled a bit sheepishly when accepting that, but he just chuckled and said, "As long as you never try that again, I'm willing to forget it happened."
"We welcome this girl, Yamara Blackcloak, into the ranks of the Ornithrym as a trainee. Let it be known to all that she is one of us!" The other man said, addressing the crowd.
It was a moment of great pride to me. A time of the weak accomplishing something great. I rose above my station then, and I knew it was only the first of many such moves for me. Soon after that, I learned a great many things. I learned numbers, to read and to write, to fight, and a great many other things. From courtly etiquette to tracking an animal (or a man) through the wilderness, it seemed my training was to include anything and everything. I even learned the basics of both sorcery and priestly magic, though only as a means of defending myself against them, for I had not the talent nor the inclination to use such powers. In time I was counted quite adept at dueling with a dagger or short sword. I also took it upon myself to learn better how to throw daggers, just in case.