If You Can Keep Your Head
Jessie moved to sit by the fire, and used her knife to lift the lid on the pan of biscuits cooking in the coals of the fire. Judging she had a bit to wait yet, she eased her back against the heavy rock of the mountain pass, and gazed blankly down the narrow trail, to where it became blocked by the curve of the stones.
She drifted for a bit, her thoughts turning wherever they chose, and she occasionally smiled or frowned as this memory or that came to mind.
Inevitably, her thoughts turned to her family, lost forever to her this side of life, and although the pain was as strong as ever, so deep that it seemed impossible not to drown in it, she found that she could touch on those memories without fear of losing herself. They hurt none the less, but she no longer feared what it would do to her to feel the pain, and let the memories burn. She knew that if she needed to, she could focus on what was around her, and return to her pain when she could. It was as though the tightrope over the abyss was still there, and she still danced upon it when the memories were fresh to mind… but now she had her balance, and knew she would not fall.
Jessie smiled as her thoughts turned to Fergus. She felt sure that he would be less worried, if he could but know that she had found a way to the other side of the pain. Her smile grew even wider as she imagined the choice things he would have had to say about the mess she had found herself in.
Inevitably, she thought of her night, and her dreams. She kept returning to the thought like a child with a missing tooth, feeling the shape of the hole with her tongue; She had the souls of others, strangers, within her own heart.
She tried to drift again, but once brought to mind she just kept returning to it. “How heavy weighs a soul”, she wondered, “and where is it to be found?”
“Is there room in here for ought but myself? How do I know that anything he said was the truth at all, at all. He spoke to me of times past and high ideals, but when all is said and done he showed me clear that he could paint me a picture of anything he wanted, and control what I saw as a child is held to one small room by her nursemaid, and could have no way of knowing the size of the house outside her four walls unless the nurse chose to show. Is it just him and the strange one in my head having their long thoughts and making deep plans, or are there many of the bastards, each waiting for the main chance?”
Jessie lost the chain of her thoughts as the sounds of metal scraping against metal drew her attention back to the fire.
Bane had finished with the cooking, and was busy scraping a mess of bacon and diced potatoes out of the pan over the fire and onto the bowl of light metal Jessie had used the night before. Setting the bowl down, Bane flipped the lid of the biscuit tin off with the tip of her knife, and cut out a chunk of pan bread. Skewering the chunk on the blade, she pried it out and shook it off on top of the skittle in the bowl. She was utterly absorbed in her simple task, and looking up, she caught Jessie watching her. She grinned, and gestured for Jessie to come take the bowl.
Jessie got up smoothly, and took the bowl gratefully. Her stomach growled loud, and Bane heard it, her grin growing even wider.
As she sat back down and began to eat, her gaze drifted back down the high trail, and her thoughts turned to the morning, and her companion.
“Bane is an Elf. She seems too damn real to be an Elf, though. I always imagined Elves as being somehow too fine for things like cooking and eating. Elves are creatures of power and mystery and tall tales told around the fireplace, not women cooking biscuits in a fire.”
“But how far from my imaginings is she, really? She speaks of having power over the soul as easily as I would talk of taking a hike in the woods, her clothes are black as night and without seam or mark, too fine to see the individual threads, and what loom could do such a thing? Her sword is finer than any smith I knew could make, and she somehow spent years of her life getting close and trusted by orcs just to get nearer to finishing a mission none who lived in these parts even needed doing.”
“I think I see honest concern for my welfare in her eyes, but Gavin’s story had a point, too. Didn’t I learn at my father’s knee that in all the stories, the Elves go their own way? I don’t know that I ever heard before that we invaded their lands or tried to war against ’em, and I know that I never heard anyone say that the Elves had beaten us hard or lorded it over us. But I can’t look at her without wondering now, how would the folk of Caer Doneghal fare against an army of warriors like her?”
“I ne’er paid much thought to stories of Elves, before. Now I sit across a fire with one, an Elf that spent years getting close to a tribe of Orcs, and earned their trust enough to be able to steal their magic, to learn their secrets, all to further her own ends. In all the stories of the Orcs I’ve known, none of them mention magic or spirits, just tales of the terrible berserker warrior heroes that take a company of men or a charge of well prepared cavalry to bring them down.”
“There she sits, eating skittle out of a pot, a slip of a woman with her fancy black clothes and thin sword and golden tattoo, earning the trust of the Orcs, becoming one with a tribe, getting ever closer to their secret knowledge. And all so she could take what she wanted and slip away in the night.”
“I have to keep that in mind. Whatever else happens, this woman can charm the scales off a snake. She spoke to me yesterday of honor, and a debt of blood. She never once said she did ought out of love or friendship, but as a debt to be repaid. But debt is a thing that rests in the mind of the one who feels she owes it, and once she feels the scales are balanced, who is to say if she’ll be letting me know? Sure and she saw it as my saving her life once, and maybe then saving it once again and sacrificing myself in the bargain. So the scales had to be balanced, and she hauled me out of the valley and up here, and did whatever it was she did to bring me back. So much is fine, and maybe now the scales are balanced. Maybe we even go forward now as equals and friends. But as much as I might like her, I can’t trust my gut with her to know when she’s being straight, and when she might be playing me false. I’ll have to watch.”
Jessie studied the Elf with careful eyes, looking for signs of sickness, stiffness, or pain. “She was wounded almost to death, with a powerful poison in her that would claim her in moments, and her garment was gone. She stood facing that wood creature a scant few breaths this side of death. And here she sits, looking the very picture of vibrant health, her clothes all of a piece and her sword near to hand. She shows no sign of a lengthy recovery, and her wound was bad enough that even if she lived, she should be lucky to have any use of the arm at all.”
Jessie snorted with sudden laughter. Bane looked up at her quizzically, but Jessie just waved her off. “It’s nothing,” she said, “Just a sudden thought I had. No sense in choking on a bite of dessert when I already swallowed the feast whole.”
Bane laughed, a light sound on the thin air, and said “Let me guess. I noticed you looking my shoulder over, and you remembered how last we met, and were wondering how I healed so swiftly and well.”
Jessie nodded. “Yes, that’s it exactly.”
Bane set down her plate, and pulled the neckline of her thin cloth blouse aside so her collarbone was exposed. As Bane twisted around, Jessie could see that the golden flesh was whole and unscarred.
“You were thinking it was suspicious that I was wounded near to death, and suddenly seem fine and well. And then you remembered how you happened to come to be sitting here, able to eat a meal.”
“Close enough,” Jessie admitted. “I’ll admit that I don’t understand what you did, or how you could even begin to know how to do such a thing. This talk of souls and spirits and bringing the dead back is all well and good for stories, but I’ve grown up in this valley, Bane. We’re in the heart of Orc country, as you know as well as anyone. I’ve had the hearing of every story of war you could name, and not in a one of them does the hero come back after falling, nor has anyone ever spoken of seeing a soul drifting around loose again afterwards. Nor is there big talk of spirits, and trees that talk and such. All the stories that tell of such things, why, they all date from before the final battle, where all the heroes stood 10 feet tall, and wizards hurled lightning across the heavens and split the mountains with their laughter. Stories where men and women ruled this land from sea to sea and all in between, and there were no orcs to fight us for the taking of it. Where the rivers ran thick with honey, and the fields grew ripe with grain.”
“It’s all just stories, stories of how tired old men wish things were. This is the real world we live in, and all the old stories are just that; stories made up during a long winter.”
As Jessie talked, the expression had left Bane’s face, and she seemed closed off. She didn’t frown or show any outward sign of disapproval or upset, but Jessie could tell that she’d said something that disappointed the Elf.
“Is that what you think? Is that really what you believe? That the way things are now is the way they’ve always been?”
Bane stood up, and turned away, to look out over the vastness of the valley below, the forest still obscured by morning mist.
“We don’t have time to speak of such things, now. Maybe, if there is time and we both survive, we can talk of the history of your people, after our work here is done.”
Bane turned around to stare at Jessie, and Jessie felt a stab of fear as emerald flames seemed to glow deep in the Elf’s eyes.
“This world is, at best, as solid as smoke, girl. All else falls away, the flesh, steel, even the stone of the mountain, but the soul continues on. It is the only thing, the only part of you that is truly real. It is the only essence of you that has a chance to endure.”
Bane trailed off, and the glow faded from her eyes. Something changed, as if some thought or memory had come upon her, some sadness, and she turned away to look once more over the valley. She said, almost as an afterthought, “So much trouble in this world has come from some damn fool trying to force his will on another’s soul, great or small. And always someone has to clean up the mess, before it starts to fester.”
Turning back briskly, Bane gave a quick snort of irritation and rubbed her hands together. “Right! The morning is wasting away, and we have a lot to do. If we live, there will be time for foolish talk later. If we don’t, we’ll be past caring. So let’s get about it.”
“It looks to me as though we have perhaps just until late afternoon before the leading scouts reach us. That’s either plenty of time to lay in an ambush, or time enough to see if we can complete the ritual. You’ve had a night’s rest to think on it, so what have you decided?”
~ o ~
Jessie set her empty bowl down, and stood up herself. Drawing a deep breath, she began, “I don’t know if I’ve said this in so many words, but thank you, thank you for bringing me back. I owe you a debt that I don’t if I will ever be able to repay. It may sound daft, but dying may have been the best thing that’s happened to me.”
Jessie looked down at the remains of her meal, and then looked back up, meeting Bane’s eyes. “As much as I’d like to take out a few more damn tuskers, you’re right. We need to be about our business. Don’t know if it would have been as true yesterday, but I do believe I’m ready. You wanted to get inside this Hall place, and there were wards that needed passing. So. What do I need to do?”
Bane sat down, pulled one of the packs closer to her, and reaching in, pulled out the massive chunk of worked gold that Jessie had taken from the body of the orc warrior Raktar.
Holding up the gold medallion, Bane said “I told you that there were wards, barriers of magic that the Orc Shamans put in place that won’t let a person pass through to the Hall within the mountain, not unless you are properly attuned.”
“When all the tribes get together, like they have now, there are great contests and bloody competitions over who earns hero-right from each tribe and clan to enter the Hall. Part of the ceremony calls for a tribe to put up a sizable weight of gold, or a precious stone of great value. It’s not strictly necessary, but it’s become a part of the tradition now, as a sign of how strong a tribe is in plunder of the lowlands.”
“Whatever they use, it serves as a badge of honor for the hero and his tribe. They call it his spirit medal, and it, along with the hero’s weapon, are used as keys bound to the soul of the warrior, allowing him entry into the Hall. When the hero, carrying his medal and weapon, attempts to enter the Hall, the spirits that seal the passage will recognize him, and let him through.”
“What we will need to do, is strip away the places where Raktar’s soul fit into the binding, and replace those pieces with your soul instead. It may help to think of it as an important document, one that states that you have permission to travel the Dukes’ lands, and it has your name and description detailed where appropriate. We need to change the name, leaving the rest of the document mostly unchanged, and have it convince a suspicious guard on the Duke’s Road.”
“The Shaman speak to the spirits, and are taught to bind the power of minor spirits to objects that last; stone, metal, bits of bone and leather. Sometimes feathers are used to evoke the wind, or other more transient things, but for the most part, they bind spirits to that which has no life of it’s own anymore.”
“I don’t do things in that way. I work with the soul directly, and the flesh within which it resides, and the two approaches are very, very different. With the power I have taken from Black Face, I can now commune with the spirits, I can see them and they notice me, and they think I am favored, as the Orc Shaman are favored. But I won’t be binding them to stone or crystal, it’s not what I know. I will be working with, and binding to the flesh. Your flesh. It’s what I know, and now is not the time for me to be trying new things.”
Bane falls silent, and looks a bit embarrassed, as Jessie just stares blankly at her. “I’m sorry. I’m rambling on too much, I do that when I’m nervous. I’m not really all that certain this will all work, and I’m talking so I don’t have to get started.”
Jessie held up one hand, forestalling Bane from continuing.
Smiling sweetly, Jessie said, “Bane? Could you pretend I don’t really care what you’re talking about, with bindings and weaving and such, and just tell me where your use of the word ‘carve’ comes into it? Ever since you mentioned that word last night, I’ve been wondering at it. Call me crazy if you wish it, but the thought of you carving on me is a powerful distraction, and telling me how nervous you are is doing me a wonder of good.”
Bane looked a bit unhappy at being pinned down. “To make you pleasing to the spirits, I’m going to have to add very clear, very strong symbols into your flesh, and then work certain… substances into the symbols.”
“The symbols you bear will have to evoke earth, air, fire and water to the spirits, and they have to mingle with your essence. And that means…”
Jessie held up her hand again. “Let me guess. Blood, right? You’re going to carve me up like a turkey and shove pebbles and bits of stick up my ass, and then set me on fire. And piss on me to put it out, as like as not.”
Bane was already shaking her head no, laughing as Jessie intended, saying, “No, no, nothing quite like that. Nothing that easy, anyway.”
Jessie almost choked with laughter at seeing the Elf try to explain what she was going to do without scaring her. It made her want to reach out and reassure the Elf, when what she should really be doing is screaming and running away, as fast as she was able.
“Just cut to the chase, Bane. I’m a big girl, I can handle it. Try to keep in mind where you got that medal, and the axe to go with it. I may be crazy, and impetuous, and all over happy to be slitting the throats of an orc or six, but I’m after telling you I’m here to see this job of yours through, and I’m not the type to leave a job half done. So let’s work at getting it done.”
Bane seemed to relax. “Very well. Your soul, for the purpose of this ritual, resides in your stomach. I’ll use a carving knife to cut symbols into the flesh of your belly, over your soul. The spirits of the earth, wind, fire and air that guard the passage are used to being thought of with these symbols foremost in the minds of those that speak to them. They have grown to recognize them as representing our names for them, or at least our ideas of what their names should be. The blood must flow freely in each symbol, and the edges of each symbol will have to be crisp, so the cuts will be deep. The clearer each symbol is, the better.”
“Your blood will be mixed with a heavy powder, one of the secrets of the Shaman. It is ground fine from a mixture of various minerals and substances found deep underground. Once a thick packing of the powder is perfectly shaped in each wound to perfectly match each symbol, I will use an ember to help set each symbol alight, all at once. The powder will burn with an intense, searing flame, a flash that will draw in a ferocious amount of air to feed it, and then vanish almost instantly. It is at just the moment when the flame is at it’s peak that I must douse the whole with clear water.”
Bane broke off as a small sound escaped from Jessie, despite her trying desperately to keep her mouth closed. Bane looked at her curiously, as if expecting a question, but Jessie just waved at her to keep going. She felt light headed, dizzy, and if she had just run wind sprints at Fergus’ command, and then spun in place at the end. Jessie could not see her own face, and thought that a good thing.
When no other sound was forthcoming, Bane continued. “Moments after the water, when the attention of all the spirits will be focused entirely on you, drawn to you by my will and your presence, I will cut the bindings woven into the medal, and do what I must to force the magic to bond to you instead.”
“For your part, you will need to endure the pain, and throughout the ritual grip the axe with both hands as tightly as you can, holding it over your head. It will help to keep your stomach muscles taut during the cutting. And you’ll need to try your best not to make any sound during the ceremony; you really won’t want to distract me while I’m concentrating. I’ll be chanting from the moment I pick up the knife, and if I lose the thread of the naming, it will all be wasted effort.”
“Oh yes, and one more thing. A good bit of Raktar’s essence will still be a part of the binding of medal and axe. When I cut the weaves, that essence will be free, and will be enraged at it’s loss. Since you share a tie through the magic that binds you, it may try to take revenge. You might very well find yourself facing the spirit of Raktar in battle, face to face.”
The Elf went silent, and Jessie just stared blankly at her.
After a few minutes of silence, the Elf started to fidget a bit.
Finally, Bane asked, “Umm… do you have any questions?”
Jessie blurted out, “Are you daft, woman?”
Bane looked confused. “What?”
“How the bloody hell do you expect me to be of any use, if you spend the morning carving me up and setting me on fire? Are you stupid, or just plain crazy?!?”
Jessie took a deep breath, and tried to calm herself down. “Look, maybe healing is different with your kind, I don’t know, but I need my damn stomach muscles if I’m to be of any use at all in a fight. And it’ll take more than a few hours after what you’re talking about just to be ready to crawl, let alone fight.”
Bane smiled. “Oh, you don’t need to worry about a lengthy recovery time, Jessie. Once the bindings are transferred, if all goes well, your wounds will be healed very, very thoroughly.”
“So tell me, young Jessie, proud and determined to see the job through to the end, are you ready to get started? The morning is half gone, and there is a lot to do.”=