When Blood Freezes
Tal the Cold sat at the table in the small cottage he had recently purchased, brooding over the mess his life had become.
His 'title' was mostly a joke, courtesy of his charming older brother who knew he had little talent for Shaping. When he had last seen his older brother, Razius, Tal could only make small puddles of water a little colder. His brother thought that was endlessly amusing, although his brother, the almighty King of Elwin, was hardly any better. No one was. Tal hadnít given anyone that chance.
Shaping was the high art of changing the people, materials, and conditions within an environment using a Shaping glass. You also needed one of the five Shaping Relics. Then, even if you were able to get both these things you could only affect one of the five elements. And doing even just this usually took several minutes of preparation. All in all it was pretty hard and time consuming. But the amount of potential power a Shaper could gain was almost limitless. Talís brother had tried to get anyone he could think of to learn it. Among those who had tried, Tal had been the least talented by far.
Maybe that was part of the reason Tal had worked so hard the last year to learn how to do it. Of course, the other reason was sort of more compelling.
Razius had gone completely insane, the kind of insane that made other people dead. And some of those people Tal had actually kind of liked. Tal had had no choice: unless he became powerful enough to defend himself, he would surely die.
Anyway, Tal was now a Shaper, this time without any doubts attached. He was also an outcast Elwin prince with a large price on his head -- mostly due to the two small items he was currently holding in his lap, covered with a small blue cloth: the Shaping Glass and the Blue Ice. These were mementos Tal had liberated from his brotherís possession about a year ago. Which was another way of saying he had grabbed them and then run like hell.
Every time more mercenaries came upon Tal, he knew heíd have to kill again. He hated it, every time. He tried to remind himself of the good of it, of all the people who had died horribly before he had stolen the Glass, but it never made it easier. Tal didnít think it ever really excused it. So all he could do was push it out of his mind and put on the swaggering façade that so angered the mercenaries.
That is why he didnít move an inch from his position behind the dinner table when three men burst in the door at the other side of the small cottage. His blood brother however, immediately stood up and turned to face the newcomers. He crossed his arms so they went deep into the folds of his cloak. Vermilion wasnít really his brother by relation, but rather his bodyguard from back when Tal was a prince. It was just easier to pass themselves off as brothers. Besides, they had gone through so much together in the past year that their bond of brotherhood felt stronger than any blood ever could be anyway. This was good, since Talís actual familial brother was something of an ass.
Vermilion held himself with a grace that belied his larger build. He had platinum blonde hair, cut short in the military style of the Elwin Guard. He wore a deep crimson-colored cloak around his broad shoulders, clasped with the gold hawk of the Guard. He was currently balanced lightly on his toes, knees bent and center of gravity low, with the balls of his feet raised slightly off the ground. His eyes darted from one of the three figures to the next, as if reading some hidden significance from no more than how they carried themselves.
He glanced backwards at Tal, as if seeing what he wanted to do. Tal held up a hand, which meant for him to wait at the ready for now. Vermilion nodded and turned his attention back to the mercenaries at the door.
Even as he held up his hand to suggest that his blood brother relax, Tal himself looked up towards his guests in good-natured surprise. But he also began doing something with the small glass orb under the table. He uncovered it and began working with the clay inside. He decided to let his mouth do the distracting, keeping his adversaries off balance even from the beginning.
But before he could, a voice emanated from the group.
"The tall one in the gray cloak with the scraggly beard," the voice said before Tal could even clearly register faces. "The one that looks like a fox died on his face. Heís most likely to have the items. But he couldíve hidden them. If it comes to it, eliminate the bodyguard, but keep that one alive. But donít move until I tell you."
Tal sniffed, stroking his small red goatee. Facial hair; one of the very few benefits of being a fugitive. A prince was supposed to be clean-shaven. Tal regarded his reflection in the finely polished wooden table. A dead fox? That was hardly fair. His little beard tried so hard. He took note of the leaderís cockiness though, and formed a plan.
This time, Tal thought, a nice lecture would do the job well. That leader was clearly sure of himself, and nothing put a cocky mercenary off his game more than a nice demeaning lecture. They tended to take it personally when strangers, especially strangers their supposed to kill, think they know more than them. They get angry.
Angry mercenaries make mistakes.
"There are two types of thinking," Tal began, even before the three dangerous looking men had moved three steps in the front door.
The one in the lead was tall and willowy with wild dark hair. He also seemed to have a permanent sarcastic grin on his face, in the shape of a ground watermelon rind. Tal guessed that the voice he had just heard was his. The one behind him on the right was bald and stupid looking, with a scar on his face and a large axe on his shoulder. The third, behind the leader on the left, was covered by a deep cowl and a dark cloak so that Tal could see little of his face.
All three had stopped just inside the doorway when Talís blood-brother stood up. The dark haired man in the lead raised one eyebrow when Tal began talking.
"Each type of thinking is good for something different. Each is essential in its own way," Tal continued.
The brute on the right with the axe hefted it, as if to make a move, but the lead mercenary put a hand on his shoulder to tell him to wait.
"Fascinating. Really." The grinning leader said. He had a crossbow on his back and a small scabbard on his hip. His voice was snide, arrogant. "But you know what would be a lot more entertaining?"
Tal cut him off and kept talking as if he hadnít heard him. All the while his hands were moving invisibly beneath the table.
"The first type of thinking is long thinking. Planning. The type that Shapers and scholars and scientists use. It is also the skill of priests and tacticians. It is the kind that involves intricate and deep thinking but takes time to do." Tal smiled to himself as he said this, thinking about the irony of him saying that deep thinking takes time while all the while carefully thinking over the situation and taking the time he needed to Shape with the glass he held under the table.
The brute with the axe was practically frothing with bile now.
"Yeah?" He said, real anger in his voice. "I got your tactics right here!" He took a step forward and raised his axe. He also pronounced the word "tactics" as if there were a great deal of taffy in his mouth. He obviously wasnít familiar with the joys of multiple syllables. Tal would point out as much, but he already had a good thing going.
Vermilion tensed, his body coiling in readiness, but the dark haired leader grabbed his compatriotís axe and lodged it in the side of the cabin, splitting the wood with a loud "crack".
"Forgive my companionís hastiness." The man said, the snide cheer in his voice practically visible as slimy ooze. "But I appreciate his sentiment, in any case. Letís cut the crap. Give us the Shaping Glass and the Blue Ice. None of us are eager to die here. But if you donít hand it over, I promise -- we will kill for it."
Tal nodded to himself. This leader had patience, but not a lot. He stopped his companion from starting a fight before it was clearly necessary, but in such a way that prevented him from helping should one break out. From the way he was acting, Tal surmised that the man thought he could easily win such a fight, but was worried about possible injury to himself if it happened.
He wasnít an idiot, but he wasnít smart either. He was trying to intimidate first.
Tal smiled to himself inwardly. It wouldnít work. And it also indicated that this guyís information on who he was fighting was bad. If he knew that Tal had the Glass, but was willing to talk instead of just using force right away, then he clearly didnít think Tal could actually use it. This indicated that he didnít work for the Guard in any way.
His band was just petty bounty hunters. That meant that if Tal and his brother eliminated them, no more would come. So Tal could take the little extra time he needed to finish with the Glass. But they were still outnumbered here. Tal had to make his opponents make a mistake. Itíd be best if he could cause dissension in the enemy ranks, of course.
This is what Tal was thinking, but meanwhile his mouth was moving, laying on even more condescension and completely ignoring everything the man had just said. The manís patience was thin. Tal would break it.
"The other type of thinking is the quick wit. It is the trademark of warriors. It involves the ability to quickly read a situation based on small details, and then come up with a course of action. If the long wit is the talent of minutes and hours, the quick wit is of seconds and parts of seconds."
Tal could see that the dark haired archer was losing his patience. There was a crack in his invincible grin -- Tal could see teeth in there. That curved smile was starting to flatten out into an angry scowl.
"Speaking of which --" Tal continued, "Brother, what do you think?"
His brother put on a thin smile as he glanced back at Tal.
"Took you long enough to ask. Two are idiots, but the one in the cowl is trained."
"All three, but with minor injuries."
Tal made a scoffing noise. "Losing your nerve, eh?"
He grunted. "Thereís a difference between arrogance and confidence," Vermilion said, sounding mildly annoyed.
"Okay, fine. One moment," Tal said
Vermilion nodded, but looked disappointed.
Tal knew his blood-brother really wanted to fight by himself this time. But they couldnít take chances. Not if injury was involved. They would have to move out of town quickly after this. Word would travel. More would come.
Tal was almost done. Just a few more seconds. He had copied the three mercenaries in his mind perfectly, and was just now in the process of representing each of them with clay inside the little glass globe on his lap. He could do it by feel alone. He had already done the same for each piece of furniture in the room, as well as himself and his bodyguard.
A dark laughing filled the interior. It seemed to originate from the back. Tal glanced back there sharply. It was the cowled man.
The cloaked mercenary took a confident step forward. The dark archer glared at him, but was ignored.
"You think you can get out of this with only minor injuries?" the cowled man asked, his sharp voice incredulous. He directed the comment at Vermilion, who was still tense and watching his movements warily.
Vermilion, the former Guard, shrugged. It was a strange looking gesture on someone who was by no means relaxed.
"Actually, Iím not going to get hurt at all."
The cowled manís chuckle changed into a wicked cackle. It was not a comforting sound.
"Three armed men against only you, with no injuries. You are delusional. Who do you think you are?"
The Guard said nothing.
The cowled man gave a short laugh, like a bark.
"You have your arms crossed, as if to conceal which side your weapon is on. But I can see the bulge in your cloak on the left. This means you are right handed, and probably use a thin sword, like a rapier. Stop acting big. You could really die here. What are you protecting him for? Stand aside. Let that cocksure jackass be beaten down."
The Guard reached into his cloak and pulled out a necklace. He then crossed his arms once more. The necklace hung on top of the cloak now.
"When I was in the Elwin Guard, they called me Vermilion. And although Tal is a bit of a cocksure jackassÖ"
"Untrue!" Tal called from where he sat, working quickly at the Glass.
Vermilion smirked but continued.
"I canít stand aside. I took an oath. He wonít die, not while I live. But youíre right; normally I know that one on three with no injuries is impossible. "
"Then how will you do it?" the man asked, a sneer in his voice. His right arm was tucked around something on his hip now, probably a sword.
"Iím going to cheat" he said lightly. His eyes flickered to the right though, in Talís direction.
Tal looked down. He was done.
"Do it." Tal said.
Then Vermilion pulled his left arm out of his cloak and pushed in a wood slat on the wall next to his head.
The cowled man tensed as if to leap forward, the brute on the right finally got his axe out of the wall, and the dark haired leader immediately loosened the crossbow that was on his back.
Right then the knife that was behind the slat that Vermilion pushed cut the rope that held the coated slats over the intrudersí head. The slats slapped open and a large amount of water splashed down onto the intrudersí heads.
They fell to their knees from the weight, but the cowled man got up quickly and began to dart forward.
The dark haired leader was laughing.
"Water? Thatís your advantage? Water?"
Vermilion smiled even as he moved to block the cowled man. It was a genuine smile, but with little warmth.
"Not just water," he said.
Tal immediately poured a little water from the Blue Ice jar into the Shaping Glass and then closed the top on the Glass. He visualized the Glass and the room as two pieces of a circle, coming together and clicking into place, just as the top on the Glass clicked into place. The water seemed to sparkle as it covered the clay figures, and that glow spread to the Glass itself. The connection was complete now. What happened inside the Glass would happen inside this room.
He placed both hands over the top and concentrated, looking down at the clay shapes that were himself, Vermilion, and the three mercenaries. He imagined all the heat in the water that was on those clay shapes coming out, sieving out of the water, through the glass, and into his hand. His hands burned with the leeched heat, and the water on the clay figures immediately began to freeze.
He worked harder; he needed to get more out, all of it out. He heard shouts of surprise and then gurgling screams coming from the back of the room, but he ignored them. Not looking up when people were screaming and swing swords was terrifying. If Vermilion slipped even onceÖ
No. He trusted him with his life. And he had a job to do. He focused on the water, and the heat pulsing out of it, the water changing into ice as the heat left it.
After a few seconds the clay figures were all frozen in a solid cube of ice. He let out a breath and looked up.
The brute with the axe was on the ground, with a dagger lodged in his throat. There was frost all over his body. In fact, all three of the intruders were covered in a thick, movement-impairing frost.
The dark haired leader was slipping crazily on the ice trying to back up, but he was clearly off balance. Vermilion tossed his chair at dark hair while at the same time drawing his rapier in anticipation of the cowled man who was now looking for an opening.
Dark hair gave a yell and fell backwards as the chair hit him and he was unable to remain on his feet on the icy floor. His head hit the front door knob hard with a sharp crack and he slumped to the ground, his crossbow and dagger clattering out of reach.
For a moment Vermilion and the cowled stranger stood facing each other, each tensing to try and anticipate the otherís move.
Finally Vermilion snaked forward onto the ice, his special boots digging into the frost to allow him traction. He performed a quick, low feint, but instead stepped lightly and then began to leap forward in a real, high thrust.
The cowled man slid backward and tried to draw his broadsword, clearly in parry of the low thrust. But there was a thick layer of ice around the handle and the metal scabbard, and the blade wouldnít draw. The manís eyes widened in surprise and he instead tried swiveling backwards to hit Vermilion with the scabbard.
He slipped on the ice however, and ended up with a rapier between the shoulder blades. He screamed and fell over, blood seeping out of his back onto the icy floor.
Vermilion walked over carefully to the man where he lay dying on the ground. His cowl had fallen back now. He was an older man with short, graying hair. His blue eyes looked like they were normally fierce, but now they were wide and frightened. Vermilion kicked away his broadsword and checked for concealed weapons. Satisfied, he then went over the other two fallen mercenaries. The brute had stopped gurgling now, and his tongue lolled out of his mouth, his eyes open wide in death.
"Youíre ambidextrous," the dying man whispered. "And the Prince, he can use the Glass."
Tal frowned. How had he known that?
Ah. His blood brother must have thrown the dagger with his left hand, and drawn the rapier with the right.
Vermilion didnít say anything, but went to check the dark haired one he had hit with a chair.
His neck was bent at an awkward angle. That peculiar smile was gone now. Vermilion checked him anyway. He spoke as he did so, aiming the words at the dying man behind him.
"Your guard is too low. I noticed when we were squaring off earlier and I tensed in front of you. But you fought well."
Vermilion stood up from the place where dark hair had fell and walked over to kneel beside the dying man.
Tal got there first though.
"Just so you know," Tal began conversationally, "we are each pretty good at both types of thought. But obviously much better at one. With my plans and my brotherís quick mind and sword, we wouldnít lose to a thousand of you."
Vermilion looked at Tal sharply, the message to shut up pretty clear. Tal clapped his mouth closed. He was right. Gloating had its uses and charm, but now wasnít the time. This man was dying.
"Vermilion," the man whispered, choking on blood and staring at Vermilionís red cloak, "it means the color of blood, doesnít it."
Vermilion shook his head.
"It is more a bright reddish orange," he said.
"I donít understand..."
"Know your opponentís assumptions." Vermilion said. "And then do the opposite."
The man laughed lightly at that. It was an ugly sound as it rattled out of his broken rib cage.
"You got that name in the Guard. It was given you as a joke, wasnít it?" The corners of his upturned mouth trickled blood.
"I wasnít popular in the Guard. They thought bright orange was a weak, feminine color."
The manís breath seized then, and his body curved upward painfully. His body dropped back down and he began gasping for air.
Vermilion put his hand on the dying manís chest and traced a symbol there in the frost and blood. It looked like two intersecting triangles. He asked for the dying manís name.
"Gad," the man whispered, in between his choking.
Vermilion nodded and then said something softly in a tongue even Tal didnít recognize.
The manís eyes were wide with fear now.
"What does that mean?" he asked, choking.
"It means that in the next life you will give your sword to something besides money. And we will fight together. As brothers," Vermilion said. His voice got quieter with each sentence so that by the end he was whispering.
With what energy he had left, the man grinned.
"I look forward to it," he said. Then his eyes focused on something that no living man could ever see. His body shuddered, and he died.
Blood lapped from his back onto the glaze of ice on the floor. It had collected there for a little while now, forming a small, cold pool. Some of the ice around the area had melted a little, since it was summer outside the cottage. Due to this, a small portion of melting ice and frost mixed in with the blood. It made it look like the man had bled frost as well as blood.
Something seemed to spring into Talís mind from the image, and for once without thinking he just let it come out. He spoke softly, saying the words like a prayer.
"When all the blood to ice has turned --
And passionís tinder has flared and burned,
Youíll see lifeís fire frost with snow,
As each tie and bond you lose --
Only then may you ever know;
A brotherís a man you chose."
They were both silent for a minute or two out of respect for the dead. And then it was over, and both relaxed a little.
Without saying anything, they both just seemed to know when they had done enough.
But now Tal and Vermilion were looking at each other in confusion.
"What did that mean?" Vermilion asked.
Tal shook his head. "The poem? I donít know. Itís just, well -- I saw the rune you drew on that manís chest. It means Ďbrotherhoodí. And when I thought about it, somehow that poem just popped into my head."
Vermilion stared at him, waiting. That hadnít really answered his question. Tal thought a moment more about it. Then he spoke.
"I guess it means that family is something that you begin with, but in the end itís something you chose too."
Vermilion nodded, and then frowned. "I feel like Iíve heard it before," he said.
"No, you havenít," Tal said, firmly. "I just made it up."
Vermilion scratched his chin.
There was a bit of an awkward silence. Some arguments just werenít worth it.
"So what about you?" Tal asked, breaking the spell. "Where did that whole speech come from? About brothers and the next life, and that rune you drew on that guyís chest?"
"Itís a sword thing," Vermilion said.
"Oh," Tal said, clearly lost. He did, however, pick up on the fact that his blood brother looked really bothered by what had just happened.
They were both just barely in their twenties. They hated when they had to do something like this, every time. Last time mercenaries had come they had tried reasoning with them, and both Tal and Vermilion had nearly died.
Apparently Talís brother the King didnít just want the Shaping Glass. He wanted Tal dead too. So the mercenaries were acting accordingly.
He was a real winner, that guy.
Tal shook his head, trying to remember what he had been talking about.
Oh right. Creepy languages. Ones he didnít know. And Tal knew them all.
"Well, what language were you speaking man? Iíve never heard it before," Tal said.
"Me neither," Vermilion replied.
Tal looked at him in surprise.
Clearly the world wasnít done messing with them.
© 2005 by Mitch Wyatt
E-mail: Mitch Wyatt
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