The Long Retreat No. 62

Falthejn raised an eyebrow, and Sif had the uncomfortable feeling that he saw right through her. “Though we grew up in different circumstances,” he remarked, “in many ways, you are very much like a younger me. You know very well what we talked about.” Sif remained silent, and Falthejn prompted, “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“What do you want to do? You have very little choice now that you’ve used magic in anger—”

Sif put in, “It wasn’t really my choice, was it?”

Falthejn shook his head. “It was. All I did was remind you that the choice was there to make.”

Sif tilted her head and gave him a look. “Did I have any other options?”

“You might have died,” Falthejn said baldly. “Not in a very pleasant manner, but more pleasant than do many magiker.” He returned her look with interest. “As I was saying, you have very little choice, but you do have a choice. You may decide to come with me to the Northlands, once we have escaped, to train to become a magiker. Your stunt with the ontlig armor would put you through the doors of the Skola der trollersmagiker—the conjurers—on the strength of the story alone.”

“What’s the other choice?”

“You may swear to me that you will never call on magic again. I will take your promise with me when I go north, and your name will be entered in a book. If ever you are found to be working magic, you will be killed.”

Sif walked in silence for a few steps. “A lot of my choices lead to death, don’t they?”

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The Long Retreat No. 61

Sif only half-heard Falthejn’s reply. Poisoned? Her mind whirled. Without him, they weren’t safe, and, not to put too fine a point on it, she had no future. The tone of the conversation changed, and she picked up the thread of it again.

“… about Sif,” Alfhilde said. “I saw you stop and your face go magical. You pushed her to it.”

“It was that or her life,” Falthejn replied. “And your son’s.”

Alfhilde punched him in the arm, hard. He winced. “You leave Jakob out of it,” she said. “That is our responsibility, not yours. What I do not want to see is a young girl played for your own purposes.”

Falthejn blinked and spluttered, “My own purposes? Do you think I do this out of selfishness? Sif lost everything, and never had much to begin with. I want only to give her a place to belong.”

“Is that so?” Alfhilde said. “I have seen the way magiker live. You would wish that on her?”

“She seems to like the thought of it,” Falthejn countered. “Beyond that, what choice does she have?”

Alfhilde huffed. “We will see about that.” Forcing a smile Sif could have spotted from a league away, she turned. “That’s all,” she said to Sif.

Sweetly, Sif smiled back, and returned to Falthejn’s side. A few yards behind them, Alfhilde fell into step with Hrothgar. Sif turned her smile on Falthejn. “What did you talk about?” she asked innocently.

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The Long Retreat No. 60

They ran, crashing through the underbrush, until they reached the road. They turned north. After what seemed to Sif like an eternity, Falthejn slowed to a walk. She gratefully accepted her pack from Hrothgar, and winced at the stitch in her side.

“Put your hands on your head,” Falthejn suggested.

Sif did, and her lungs opened up. She gulped down a few deep breaths. Gingerly, Falthejn touched his side, and his hand came away bloody. Sif Frowned. “Are you hurt?”

“Not badly.” Falthejn wiped his hand on his leg and waved off any further concern. “I will be fine. We do need to talk of your future, though.”

Before Sif could reply, Alfhilde sidled up next to Falthejn. “The diviner and I need a word,” she said, “apart from any prying ears.” She pushed on Sif’s shoulder, gently but firmly, and Sif obligingly slowed her step.

Which meant nothing, as far as hiding the conversation went. Alfhilde wasn’t half as quiet as she thought she was, and Falthejn made no effort to be any quieter than that.

“Are the rumors true?” Alfhilde asked.

“I have three or four days before it becomes crippling,” Falthejn replied. “We know of a cure—any of several of the herbs of this region will do—but we cannot spare the time. Once we reach the fort, the army’s physicians will take care of me.”

“If you say.” Alfhilde shook her head. ” For myself, I’d rather have your judgement free from—” she leaned in, and somehow whispered more loudly than she’d been speaking “—poison.”

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Housekeeping update

“Where’s the story post, Fishbreath?” I hear you ask. “Haven’t you been talking about being better keeping to your schedule?”

Yes, I have, but I was busy last night making some domain name changes. No longer do you need to remember the stupid dash: we are now officially manywords.press, and therefore technically Many Words Press. (Except we aren’t yet, because I’m a little slow off the mark when it comes to publishing stuff.)

Anyway, that’s the reason. All of your old links should still work, seamlessly redirecting you to the new one, and I plan on keeping the old domain name indefinitely, so don’t worry too much about losing track of us. Here’s to an interesting and productive 2016.

There are a few issues right now—the Jetpack plugin didn’t like the way I migrated, for one—so until that gets squared away, comments will be nonfunctional. Hopefully should be fixed soon.

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The Long Retreat No. 59

Sif spun and screamed as leaves and twigs showered over her. The monsters looked her straight in the eye, and she scrambled backward, slipping and falling. Then, she felt a tugging at her mind, and suddenly, she saw the true shape of things—felt the weave of the world, the twisted creatures in front of her, and the anger of the forest at this intrusion on its peace.

She could work with that.

 

Hrothgar skidded to a stop and spun on his heel. The ontr brought their weapons down toward his son, but checked their swings halfway through. Briefly, their brutish faces seemed almost confused. In the space of a heartbeat, their expressions turned to terror. Their armor flowed over them like quicksilver, twisting around them in vinelike tendrils. The sound of bones snapping echoed through the clearing, and the monsters howled in agony: a noise to haunt a man’s dreams for the rest of his life.

He heard Falthejn shout, “We need to leave!” The diviner snatched his pack as he went past, grabbed Sif by the arm, and slipped out of the way as the ontr, entombed in their living armor, stomped toward the dropoff and their comrades. Alfhilde, freeing the axe from an ontlig corpse, was close behind, shouldering her pack and picking up Jakob. “The other pack, Hrothgar!” she shouted over the baby’s wail.

Hrothgar shook his head, tearing his eyes off of the armored figures just as they reached the mass of ontr climbing the hillside. The screams behind him suggested he’d done so just in time. Taking his pack and Sif’s, he followed the others, fleeing madly down the hill, while the howls and shrieks of dying ontr behind them split the silence of the night.

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Weekend update

Thanks for sticking around for the first week of story since December. This should, hopefully, be a good year.

This update is mainly to point out that the third episode of the Crossbox Podcast has been released here. Go have a listen. It’s a good one.

In other news, I have only a few scenes left to write in The Long Retreat, and following that, I’m onto a Nathaniel Cannon story (or possibly two), which (or both of which) I’ve wanted to write for a good while now. Following that, you may see a new Sam Hill thing.

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The Long Retreat No. 58

Time slowed to a crawl. For Falthejn, the phrase occupied the middle ground between a figure of speech and the honest truth. It happened sometimes when a situation suddenly took a turn for the complex, some trick of the intersection between mind and magic stretching the time he had to think.

What had changed? Possible futures, arrayed before his mind’s eye, shifted and twisted. It took a brief search before Falthejn found the common thread; as he located it, he saw the new tapestry weave itself before him. His mind fixed to it, and the long moment of explicit foresight morphed back into the instinctual mode he always fell into during a fight.

The physical world returned to the forefront of his perceptions, and the next ten seconds, abstract turning concrete, revealed themselves in their fullness. Mind racing, he swung the axe over his left shoulder—the wrong move, if all he had to worry about was surviving this fight, but there were bigger concerns now, and speed was of the essence. The axe dug into an ontling’s neck, but the creature swiped at his side as it went down. He felt the sting of the thing’s poison as he turned toward Sif and ran.

As his foot came down to end his first step, a pair of ontr burst from the hedges, easily three yards tall and armored with plates that looked built for them. Their axes gleamed in the moonlight. Before his next foot fell, he realized he only had one option. He stopped and closed his eyes.

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The Long Retreat No. 57

An ontling pulled itself up over the edge, dirt clodded between its claws, and let out a hissing scream as it threw itself at Falthejn. The diviner moved, snakelike, and the ontling fell a yard past him, blood soaking into the dirt. Sif flinched at the smell of it. Alfhilde stepped over the corpse and took up a fighting stance next to Falthejn, just in time: more ontr climbed over the edge. The two of them moved forward, and Sif lost track of the fight.

Next to her, Hrothgar sat up suddenly. Sif jumped. Hrothgar rubbed at his eyes, and said, “What—?” Interrupting himself, he snatched the hatchet from its place between his bedroll and Alfhilde’s, and sprang to his feet.

 

Falthejn didn’t really enjoy fighting for his life in any circumstances, but he did find it a little more tolerable when he had someone on his side, and doubly so someone who knew how to fight along a diviner. Alfhilde fell into the latter category. She recognized that tunnel vision, in this case, was an asset—all she had to do was keep fighting her way forward, and as long as she didn’t back up into the diviner’s way, Falthejn would take care of the rest.

The diviner moved on instinct, or rather, on foresight so well developed it might as well have been instinct. The magic flowed through him. From behind him came a meaty thwock as Alfhilde sunk her axe into an ontr skull. He spun, extending his sword arm and taking the legs off of an ontling taking a swing at Alfhilde’s exposed side. At the same time, he stretched out his back leg to trip an ontling circling behind him. Deftly, he flipped his sword backward to stab it. Through the hilt, he felt the resistance as the sword bit deeply, then the loosening as it pushed fully through the ontling’s chest. Leaving the sword embedded there for a moment, he swept his hand to his boot and up again, and his knife appeared in the throat of an ontling aiming a crude-looking bow from a dozen yards away. The beast lost its grip, and the arrow sang just past Falthejn’s ear to embed itself in the eye of an ontling raising an axe behind him. He caught the weapon as its bearer fell, took his sword from the still-standing ontling in which he had left it, and—

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Welcome back!

Thanks for bearing with us during our winter vacation. As ever, we’ve had content running at the Fish Bowl (see link at top) to tide you over, but we return to story content tomorrow.

To celebrate the New Year and the continuation of content, hit my vote link, and leave a review at Web Fiction Guide (see link at left). Thanks! Hope you enjoy what we have for you here at Many Words in 2016.

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