A white world. It was all he could see.
It was a fairy-tale world, child-like and funny. Boughs of trees adorned with thick pillows, so fluffy someone must have plumped them up; the ground a series of humps and mounds, beneath which slinking underbrush or outcrops of rock lay hidden; a landscape of crouching, cowering dwarves in droll disguises.
Bran chewed a new leaf of Pashan. It was giving wondrous results at nullifying the pain. If not for it, this trip would have been hell for him, as his horse trudged his way through the snow covered land. His wounds had been mended properly by his uncle, who also gave him pouches full of leaves of this miraculous plants, in order to help with the pain. Thick bandages were covering his wounded leg, a temporary thing until he got healing in the capital. They would need four to five days to reach it, seeing how fast snow was covering the land.
Winter was just at its beginning, and this far in the west, snow wasn’t supposed to appear until a month or two later.
A itching on his tattoos startled him, and his always alert eyes caught sight of a white mass darting toward him from his right. He reacted instantly, his hands catching the two jaws that were about to rip his throat. And yet, the momentum of the beast pushed him off the horse. As he was falling, he instinctively lifted the beast from its jaw and threw it behind, before rolling to the right, taking care to not hurt his wounded leg. A feral smile split his face, and he leaned on one knee after regaining his balance. The beast rolled once before it got back its bearing and prepared to pounce on him again. Bran’s smile only got wider. The moment it had failed its ambush, the fight had already ended. He felt no pain from his leg, and a great show was about to come.
An ice-wolf pup, it was bigger than normal wolves that reached maturity, as it was already longer than him by a full head in length, and in height reached his waist. It rushed at him, but then a kick from the side crashed at it, making it almost disappear, as it flew for some breaths before landing on the snow and skidding numerous times. Bran felt a shiver down his spine as he looked at Celek’s figure in front of him, slowly lowering his leg, his face unperturbed. Ruthless, it was the appropriate word.
The wolf pup made a whimpering sound as it tried to stand, dozens of paces away from them. It wouldn’t die that easily. Not that Celek couldn’t kill it with ease, but that wasn’t their purpose. Excitement burst inside Bran’s heart, and he heard Elea muttering in dejection. He chuckled, which earned him a glare from her.
The wolf may have been too much for her, but it was wounded now, with too many broken ribs and internal injuries as a result of his uncle half hearted blow, so she had a chance. The pup lived to its bloodline’s reputation though, as with great pain it stood up and turned to flee. Only to find Celek behind it, a chilling half smile on his face. It retreated hastily, growling in a half threatening half fearful way. Even though it had just tried to kill him, Bran felt slight pity for the pup. The world was cruel though. He limped back to his horse, using the sword as a crutch, where he stood and watched passively.
“Damn you Bran”. Elea cursed. He chuckled and responded:
“You should curse the knight, not me”
Her knuckles had already turned white from anger. Maybe he better stop laughing, unless he came to regret it. She muttered:
“An ice-wolf now. You just want me dead”
She didn’t wait for his response, as she dismounted and walked nervously toward the trapped pup. He dismissed her words easily. She would never die with Celek being there, and the little wolf was heavily wounded. She was stronger than it in this state, but the pup would still give her an even fight, as she was still green behind the ears, with no real fight experiences yet.
He shook his head. That wasn’t exactly true. Earlier in the day she had had her first real fight, against a normal adult wolf. It had all started when Bran had told Celek the knight’s request of training Elea, a while after they had left the cottage. He would never forget the smile Celek had showed then. A devil. He chuckled. His uncle had easily agreed, almost seeming eager. He then had set Elea to fight any beast Bran attracted because of his curse. She must be harboring a great resentment for him right now, but really, it was a great show to have in this long boring travel, and the girl was good enough at magic to heal any injury she got with time as long as it wasn’t lethal. Celek wouldn’t let anything dangerous happen to her.
The pup noticed her and turned around, yet still warily retreating away from his uncle. Elea took out a short sword, Bran’s old short sword, and Celek’s ‘gift’ to his new disciple. She stood a safe distance away, still deciding her next actions. It must be nerve wrecking for her, who never really faced someone or something wanting to take her life.
Her first fight had been full of mistakes. She had understood for the first time how close to useless were the forms and beautiful sword techniques they were taught in a real fight. Their only real use was to teach you how to use your sword and body properly. A real fight was based on judgment, instincts and a fast reaction speed. She had messed up pretty badly, relying on stiff swordsmanship, and made it only with bruises and some minor wounds because of Celek’s intervention. It was just a normal wolf, did they expect too much from a sixteen years old girl?
This fight would show how much she had learned from her mistakes. It was close to dusk. He doubted there will be more fights today.
Elea’s exhaled slowly, her breath coming out in a white mist. The pup turned completely toward her, now ignoring Celek, as he had shown no sign of approaching it. Ice-wolves were an exalted lineage as in their age of maturity, they were almost four times the size of a normal wolf. Celek’s support must be what helped her keep calm.
The pup pounced on her, though not as fast as earlier. The wounds were showing their effects. Elea, taken by surprise, stumbled to the side, the sword almost dropping to the ground. Bran lifted his brows. That speed wasn’t something she couldn’t handle. She must be still somewhat confused about what to do, as what she would do in a normal spar was useless here. Fighting for her life also pressurized her. She wasn’t allowed mistakes, and she already lost confidence in her sword skills in her first fight.
The wolf skidded on the snow as it landed, its wounds flaring up, stripping it of its agility. It growled up loudly toward the girl. A resolute stab toward its heart as it pounced on him, that was what Bran would do in her place. Celek would simply crush it through sheer force. Now the girl had to to slowly come up with her own way of fighting.
She started turning slowly around the pup, and then a resolute expression appeared on her face. She charged toward the wolf, intending to slash it horizontally, but the wolf jumped at her the moment she moved, its jaw wide enough to swallow her head. In a moment of panic, she slashed with all her strenght toward its mouth. She missed, her sword leaving a deep gash splitting the pup’s face, whose body slammed heavily on the girl. Bran winced. Luckily, her slash had shoved its jaws away from her.
As the girl and the beast fell on the ground, before any of them could do further actions, Celek’s hand grabbed the pup’s white fur, and threw its heavy body away. Elea grumbled, her face and body covered in snow. His uncle helped her then to her feet, and she started dusting herself while moaning in pain. Bran smirked. This was amusing.
“At least you were a bit more careful about your approach, and didn’t foolishly rely on textbook swordsmanship this time, but you let panic control you and cloud your judgment”. Celek’s voice was neutral and even. He was merely stating facts. He would never reproach her. He would only point her most obvious mistakes each time, and it was her responsibility to correct them as she saw fit.
Elea tried to be polite in her complaining, not outright bursting out.
“Did you really expect me to fight an ice-wolf evenly?”
Celek stared at her for some moments, then responded:
“It was heavily wounded”. Before she could talk, he added: “Bran, show her”
A small placating smile appeared on Bran’s face and he trudged toward them, taking care to not hurt his leg.
Elea exclaimed: “Bran is wounded, he shouldn’t fight”
They both ignored her, Celek watching impassively. Bran lifted the short sword Elea dropped, and as he turned his eyes toward the struggling pup, he rolled his eyes. Sure enough, even though the wolf couldn’t even stand up earlier, as his gaze fell on Bran, its body was filled with a frenzied vigor, making it ignore all its injuries. Bran’s tattoos flared. His curse was doing this again.
He kept walking even slower than before, a limp ever present in his steps. He pitied the wolf, and wanted to end this as fast as possible. His eyes slowly lost focus. The pup darted toward him, with a speed rivaling its former one before getting wounded. Bran adjusted the rhythm of his slow steps accordingly, and as the massive jaws got close to him, his leg on which he was resting his full weight flinched and his hand rapidly lifted the sword and put its tip its the trajectory of the wolf. Immediately afterward, in the fraction of a moment the sword met a slight resistance, he gave it a light push and used the momentum to roll on his side, letting go of the sword. The pup’s momentum drove it into the sword fully piercing its neck. It fell lifelessly some paces away from Bran, blood dying its white fur and surrounding snow in red.
Bran groaned as his eyes regained focus. He had fell on his wounded leg. He slowly pushed his way up. Celek’s voice resounded in his ears again:
“The most efficient way to kill it was through a well times counter-attack, exactly like Bran did”
Elea looked at both of them, then muttered something under her breath. Bran was able to read her lips though. She had just called them monsters. Should he feel flattered?
Celek with his sharp ears must have heard her too, as a small smile lit his face. He walked slowly toward his horse, saying loudly to both of them:
“It is time for us to go”
He was definitively enjoying this, Bran knew him well enough and was sure of this. He passed the sword to Elea and trudged toward his horse, finally back to the most important thing : his painkillers. A blissful smile appeared on his face. Celek really knew his stuff.
He spurred his horse, and followed his uncle through the white landscape. Dusk was close, and he didn’t want to be in the open after nightfall. Luckily his uncle had said he knew a friend living around here.
After a while, as the curtain of the night was about to envelop the world, they glimpsed the house. Seeing it, Bran felt relieved, as it seemed study enough to withstand the snow, it’s roof and walls made of bricks and stones. Gray smoke trailed out of its chimney. Their horses galloped faster, happy to leave this freezing cold.
Upon reaching the house, Celek gave it’s door three loud knocks that almost unhinged it. Hurried steps resounded in the house, and the door opened slightly, revealing and old skinny man with a frown on his face. A bald head, a red crushed noise, and an unkempt shaggy beard. His sunken black eyes fixed Celek for a second, before opening the door. Instead of letting them go in, he stared fixedly at Bran, then shook his head disapprovingly. The boy frowned. He had never met the old man before. Celek made some signs with his hands. Bran recognized it, though he didn’t understand it. It was mute or deaf people’s language of signs. So the old man was a mute and deaf?
The old man frowned, and after some moments of reluctance, nodded his head. Bran wondered what this was about. He got down from his horse, and the old man led them to a barn behind the house. They then went into the house.
The first thing they felt was a warmness that seeped into their very bones. The house was greatly different from outside. Bran and Elea both revealed blissful faces, as cold had affected them even with the thick clothing they had worn before setting on the road. Only Celek remained impassive, even though he was only wearing his usual shirt and coat. Bran really had to ask him how he did that. He felt cheated, so many years under his uncle’s tutelage and he had learned none of Celek’s insane tricks yet.
They went the biggest room in the middle of the house, and Elea settled lazily on a nearby sofa, close to the fire heart. Bran kept standing. A friend of his uncle should be no ordinary figure, and he had to show proper respect toward him. He felt the old man’s gaze settling on him a few time, as he conversed with signs with Celek at a great speed. They seemed to be arguing about something related to Bran.
“The fire is made of magic!”
Celek frowned as his annoyed stare fell on her. Bran shook his head. She should never have interrupted them. They were figures that were even more important than her father, and her spoiled ways of old would do her no good here. Elea shut her mouth nervously under his uncle’s stare, and Bran furtively gestured at her to not talk again.
Celek went back to the heated argument, as the old man had gotten slightly impatient because of the pause. Bran ignored them and looked at the fire heart. There was no wood, only a small crystalline shard the size of a fingernail in the middle of the fire. His senses expended unconsciously, and he felt that this was different from the systematic gods’ magic. He gaped.
This was what he wanted. Real magic with free manipulations of the laws. Of course it was hundreds of times harder and came with heavy prices, but choosing the easy way of gods’ magic won’t yield results that would give him a chance of survival, and would come with chains that would tie him down and that couldn’t be trusted. The gods hadn’t made any movement when they had asked for their support in withstanding the tribulation. They were too scared of Ayleth who was hailed as the strongest god, even though they wouldn’t admit it openly.
But this kind of magic, it was something he could trust, something he could actively rely on. Another new thing was added to the list of what he had to ask Celek about.
A gnarled hand pulled him from his hair, and pinning it forcefully, the old man’s emaciated face appeared in his vision, as he peered into Bran colorful eyes. After some instants of awkward silence, the old man turned around and shook his head in incredulity. Celek only showed a dejected smile. Bran widened his eyes. This was an interesting exchange.
The old man started pacing around, his hands fidgeting nervously, before sitting on an armchair and giving a tired no to Celek with his head. He seemed like he aged noticeably afterward, the sharp light in his eyes dimming a bit. Questions kept popping in Bran’s mind, but he pushed everything down. He would get answers from Celek soon.
“Bran, Lady Eleanor, come. I’ll show where you will sleep”. His uncle’s voice rang out. Elea was about to say something, but Bran stopped her with a look. She closed her mouth in confusion and followed them to staircase. It was obvious Celek wanted some privacy with the old man.
As they climbed to the second floor, they stood in a corridor with a half dozen rooms. His uncle opened the first one and said :
“Elea, you can sleep her. But don’t unpack your things. We’re going in the morning”
He ignored her before she could try to complain, and went to the next room.
“Bran, this is yours”. Bran obediently walked in, but as he moved past the door, his uncle whispered furtively for only him to hear :
“There’s a clock inside, once it reaches midnight, come down without noise. We have to talk”
Celek turned around and went down again, probably to resume his argument with the old man.