Exhaling

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Tags: fantasy
Language: English
Year: 2021


They often said that in battle, everything becomes a blur. For Giendei, it was the opposite: every movement and intake of breath stood out with perfect clarity, every small thing thrown into sharper focus.

A step, another.

Hand, quiver, arrow.

Pull back the bowstring. Inhale. Release. Exhale. Repeat.

The first arrow flew in an arc over the troll’s head, the second sunk into its right eye, yet the thing hardly slowed down as it bore down on him. Giendei backed away as steadily as he could and sent another arrow flying. The troll was only three paces from him when it finally collapsed. Giendei leapt over its twitching body, already reaching for another arrow.

Curses echoed from the woods, followed by the sounds of snapping branches, and he saw Zirekel fight two of the highwaymen by herself, a woodcutter’s axe held in one hand, a rusty sword in the other. She snarled as she ducked and weaved between the men with a dancer’s grace, a head taller and ten times deadlier than either of them. Her axe found its mark between one man’s shoulder blades before he had the time to react. Luuneyd came flying over the undergrowth to her aid, locking the remaining man into combat between the two of them.

It wasn’t the two women that drew Giendei’s attention, however. One of the bandits was still fighting Theodius, who was circling him with the slow and calculated pace of a mountain lion waiting to pounce, unhurried, unconcerned. His face was expressionless as he twirled the short knife in his left hand, and when the man rushed at him he ducked beneath the sword, his knife finding its mark in the man’s side. The man roared in pain and blood dyed the ground red. Giendei’s hand shook and he loosed the arrow, which grazed the man’s shoulder.

“You!” the highwayman shouted. He spun around, eyes locking at Giendei. Giendei reached for another arrow and only found thin air; the quiver was empty. He reflexively lifted the bow, only just deflecting the sword with it, and felt the bow shatter against the metal as easily as a twig. He fell over from the force of the blow and the sword loomed above him, ready to strike again.

Inhale. Light gleamed off the blade as it came down. Exhale. The man’s eyes went wide and bulged. A trickle of blood trailed down the corner of his mouth and landed on Giendei’s trousers as the bandit’s knees buckled.

Behind him stood Theodius, towering and terrible with his hood pulled down. His eyes pooled pure black, one hand resting against the bandit’s neck. Dark, thin tendrils like ink spread beneath the man’s skin from the spot Theodius’s hand touched. It withered his skin from a sickly yellow to parchment gray within seconds, the spot the spell had hit blue and black as though bruised. With one last groan the man keeled sideways, lifeless.

The seconds felt like years, and Giendei could only stare at Theodius. The lump in his throat grew in size the longer he looked, but not out of fear; there wasn’t an ounce of fear left in him. He felt like he was seeing the mage properly for the first time as Theodius lowered the hood of his cloak and the faint daylight filtering through the branches fell on his face.

He yanked the bloodied knife out of the bandit’s back and thrust it back in its gold-and-red sheathe so that the metal hangings of his belt chinked quietly against one another. When he turned to look at Giendei again, the black film from his eyes cleared to reveal a pair of hazel eyes so dark that they looked nearly brown. His skin was a pale aubergine and there was the shadow of a stubble on his jaw, a remnant of the past days on the run. It suited his sharp features, somehow.

Giendei swallowed with some difficulty.

“My bad. Looks like I got some on you,” Theodius said, eyeing the blood on Giendei’s trousers.

“That’s quite all right.” Giendei wasn’t sure how he managed to find his voice.

Theodius thrust his hand at him when he made no effort to get up, and Giendei grabbed it, embarrassed. Theodius’s grasp was firm, his skin cool, and he pulled Giendei up with surprising strength for his slight figure. The top of his head barely reached up to Giendei’s shoulder when they stood, but Giendei felt like he was mentally craning his neck just to meet his eyes.

“Shame about the bow,” Theodius said.

“What? Oh, right. Perhaps that’s for the best. I’m not a very good shot.”

“I noticed,” the mage said wryly. He kicked the dead highwayman with his heel and picked up his fallen sword. “How about this instead? Our friend here won’t be needing it, and you’ve the build for a fighter.”

Giendei felt himself flush for some reason.

“Perhaps,” he mumbled. He accepted the sword and swung it experimentally, feeling the weight of the steel in his hand. “As good a life insurance as any in this situation, I suppose, though I haven’t really practiced beyond the occasional…” He trailed off, blinking once. “You’re… bleeding.”

Theodius stared at him for a second, then touched the underside of his nose with his fingertips. They came away bloodied.

“My,” he said, glancing at the stain. He brushed the rest on his sleeve almost absent-mindedly. “Well, no matter. It’ll stop soon.”

Giendei glanced towards Luuneyd and Zirekel, who were dragging the two other bodies deeper into the woods. “Should I get Luuneyd?”

“That’s hardly necessary. I’m not wounded.” At the blank stare Giendei gave him, he continued, “have you not seen a mage channel before?”

“Not one who practices your, er, branch of magick.”

Theodius barked a laugh, a low sound that made Giendei’s face feel even warmer.

“Mages usually channel their magick through an object, a conduit,” Theodius explained. He pointed at the pouch hanging from his belt, which Giendei knew contained the skull he carried with him. “It takes the worst edge off a spell, directing the damage elsewhere. I channelled without it, hence I have to pay that price instead.”

Giendei’s brows knit together in sudden worry. “That sounds dangerous. Why channel without?”

“Well, I didn’t exactly have the time to dig the skull out when this started.”

Theodius shrugged and looked around. Giendei followed his gaze and took in the scene of chaos properly for the first time. The bandit dressed vaguely like a merchant lying at their feet. The blood on the ground. The overturned wagon and the mine field of mouldy potatoes spilling out of it. The broken branches and claw marks on the spruces that the troll had left in its wake as it had come roaring from the forest, roused by the scent of blood, no doubt. Theodius looked almost amused.

“I don’t usually travel in company, but this has certainly been illuminating,” he mused.

Giendei grimaced. “I swear, it’s not always like this.”

“I’m not complaining, am I?” Theodius nudged the bandit with his shoe again. “Give me a hand. Best let this fellow join his pals in the shrubbery.”

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