Solitude was a balm for the soul. There was only the smell of pine resin in the air as the lone woman split firewood on a stump and the crack of splitting wood, no words required. The axe barely seemed to meet resistance when it struck the sections of log. Full dawn had finally arrived, though she had been awake for hours now. There were geese to be fed, sheep to be seen to, sweeping and scrubbing to be done, thatch to replace, and the low stone wall around the edges of the yard needed repair where a fox had slipped through. Her adopted brother had gone to town to trade furs for a new copper pan, but she didn't mind being left alone. Times like this were peaceful enough that she felt content.
Granted, to call Sakana a town was being generous. It was more of an outpost along Zorion's Wall, the massive fortification meant to keep the kingdoms of men protected from the hordes of Ash Kordh to the north. Sakana was a quiet place, removed from the noise of the world, just the way she liked it. To go further south was to move into civilized lands, where the forests and meadows yielded to the plowed, flat plains surrounding bustling cities. Sakana still had a stunning view of the mountains, great ranges of white-capped, blue peaks that dominated the northern horizon. It was a reminder of home that only ached when she stopped to think for too long.
Work was almost a moving meditation. There was always something that needed doing and she took satisfaction from that. Her scarred hands were not nimble enough to stitch or weave well even after the more than fifteen years since the burns consumed them, when flames lapped up her forearms almost to her elbows and left only charred flesh in their wake. Had it really been that long? It was a surprising thought. Still, there were a great many other ways to occupy her time, preparing for winter even though it was still spring, just past the thaws. One didn't want to be underprepared. She swept some fair hair out of her face where it was clinging to the fine sheen of sweat on her forehead, grey eyes intensely focused on the wood.
This life had become strangely comfortable, as far as it was from who she had once been. She'd taken to using her mother's name more than a year ago, in place of the one she had earned through steel, blood, and fire.
Sorne Thayer was a quiet woman.
There was always talk when strangers were in town, people curious about the dark markings that swirled across her skin and the scars over her body. She'd taken to long sleeves to cover them, even when the weather was warm. It kept her skin fairer than it had been in her youth. Still, being a little too warm on hot summer days in town was a price she was happy to pay if it kept her out of conversations, not that she did much about the markings on her cheeks. She'd earned a reputation as a serious sort who kept to herself, but was always ready to help her neighbors when a spot of trouble cropped up.
Her brother was a more frequent presence in town despite his race, relying on his good reputation as a hunter and neighbor as well as his innate charm. The orc had warmth, particularly to his grin, and a ready joke whenever called upon. Vridash seemed to enjoy the company of humans despite the animosity strangers from the south sometimes brought with them. The border wardens were quick to put a stop to any disgruntled lowlanders, usually with a stern warning. Sometimes, though, Vridash had to use his powerful fists. He'd never once fired his bow at a human since they arrived in Sakana.
Well, except for that one time where a drunk Aitor had balanced an apple on his head. Fortunately for Aitor, Vridash was still the marksman he'd always been, more skilled with a bow than anyone even the soldiers had ever met. He could take out a hawk in a dive, pierce a copper coin tossed into the air. The soldiers said he could put an arrow through a steel breastplate at a hundred yards, and Sorne knew that it wasn't an exaggeration.
She didn't have nearly the same number of problems with outsiders, considering there wasn't a drop of orc blood in her, but sometimes she still found herself confronted for being near him. She'd even taken a few punches for it, left unanswered. People tended to reconsider their choice of adversaries when she didn't flinch.
It did keep her out of the tavern for the most part, though. Idiots seemed more apt to get physical when they were drunk. They might have minded their manners a bit better if they knew the old name.
That was a lifetime ago, though. It was so strange that it seemed amusing, how fast people forgot or exaggerated to the point of losing the truth altogether. She didn't really understand it. For how obsessed the Genevais were with their history, they seemed to let things slip from their memory the moment it was convenient. Sorne did appreciate it these days. It kept people from rubbing salt into her wounds.
Around the house were open meadows of considerable size, plenty of space for the few sheep they had to graze. A couple of lambs had frolicked about earlier with their mothers when she first started to stack the split wood near the edge of the house, still a little uncoordinated on their feet. They were only a few days old, which meant she'd been sleeping out in the field with them to make certain they weren't gone after by predators. Vridash was off hunting and checking traps many nights and mornings, important tasks. Sorne's back didn't seem to mind the earth too much. She laid her bedroll out in the meadow and looked up at the stars as she fell asleep. The only annoying thing was waking up to fresh dew, sheep nibbling at her clothes, and bleating beside her face.
Edurne's bark broke the quiet. Sorne recognized the sound of an alerting bark, a sign that something was near the sheep. The sheepdog was a bit young, but she was excellent at herding, a gift from one of the men in town. Gorka had helped train her and Sorne both on how to take care of their animals. Sorne didn't have any background with sheep, but she was as quick on the uptake as Edurne.
Sorne loped that way, axe in hand. There were things that moved through the woods that a dog wouldn't be enough to handle, even one as brave and clever as Edurne. Anything big could easily kill the collie and that was the last thing Sorne wanted. She followed the game trail often used by the sheep, moving towards the dirt track that served as the road between Sakana and the next outpost to the east, Caristi. There was decent trade following Zorion's Wall, going all the way into the neighboring kingdom of Talin. Granted, there were often bandits along the road that the border wardens had to clear out with some regularity. Sorne had never made the journey, more for lack of interest than fear of bandits.
She had seen enough of the world to know she preferred just Sakana. She hadn't even gone south into Genev proper, despite the draw of history.
The bark was coming from near the track, a sign that the sheep had wandered a bit farther than usual. She would have to repair another segment of wall. Sorne hopped over the stacked stone wall and headed for the dog, stepping out onto the narrow dirt road. There were four horsemen in the leather armor of wardens missing the gryphon crest and a woman in maybe her twenties with brown hair and skin fair enough to look Talinese. They weren't moving towards Edurne with hostile intent, just conversing on the road.
Sorne whistled for Edurne to get the sheep moving back towards the house and the collie obeyed. That was enough to draw the attention of the rough-looking men and the young woman with them. "Good morning, ma'am," one of the men said, tipping his head politely to Sorne.
"Good morning, sir. What brings you out this way?" It paid to be polite with men who carried weapons. The last thing Sorne wanted was a fight.
"We are looking for a woman by the name of Sorne Thayer," the man said with a smile. It seemed a genuine expression, if the crow's feet that formed at the corners of his eyes were any indication. "Aitor Loiola said that she lives out this way."
Sorne sighed a little bit. She would have to have a talk with Aitor after this. Directing soldiers towards her, whatever the reason, was trouble that she didn't want. "I am Sorne Thayer," she said, tone suggesting that she wasn't much of one for small talk. "What business do you have that brings you out this far?"
"Something better spoken of elsewhere," the man said, swinging down from the saddle. He held out his hand. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, ma'am. My name is Ekaitz."
Sorne shook his hand and then rested the axe on her shoulder. She didn't think she would have to use it, which relaxed her a bit. She hadn't shed human blood for almost a year, and even that had just been giving someone a split lip. "I suppose you'd best come up to the house, then," she said a bit brusquely. "I don't suppose you have introductions for your friends?"
"Of course," Ekaitz said pleasantly. "This is Iker, Koldo, and Petri. We are the defenders of the fair Lady Katalin." He gestured to each in turn.
The young woman frowned slightly. "I may make my own introduction, Ekaitz," she said.
"Apologies, Your Ladyship."
Sorne studied the lot of the bodyguards, ignoring the noblewoman for a moment. All of them looked almost as if they had been chosen for their nondescript looks. There were no scars, no strikingly handsome or ugly looks, and general lower-caste Genevais skintone and eye color. Their armor was functional, but not at all polished or embellished. Then she looked at their charge. Even in plain clothes, the woman's posture and bearing were unmistakable.
Sorne was a woman familiar with the feeling of Fate's gaze on her back. When she looked at Lady Katalin, that unmistakable weight settled onto her soul. It made her want to send them away immediately. The only thing stopping her was the possibility of repercussions that she would not enjoy.
"This way," Sorne said shortly, turning and walking into the woods. She led the way to the house, a frown forming on her own lips. The men followed, walking their horses. The noble was loathe to step down, but the low-hanging boughs of the trees were enough persuasion.
The house was half timbered and half stone, a solid construction that had been built in record time thanks to orcish strength and the know-how of many a neighbor. It was a bit larger than average, with a thatched roof that Sorne also meant to replace sections of when she had the chance. There was always something to do around the house, bringing with it the satisfaction of working on something with her hands.
Sorne buried the axe in the splitting stump before heading towards the house. The geese had to be shooed away from the door, particularly the large gander who honked in protest. Sorne led the way into the kitchen, filling the kettle and then hanging it over the kitchen hearth. She stirred up the coals carefully with an iron poker and then added a piece of wood, keeping her hands away from the flame. There was a small brick oven and a loaf of rye bread cooling beside it. The oak kitchen table was worn and scarred from use, currently covered in goose feathers and a fletcher's tool. There were some straight ash arrow-shafts sitting at the table as well near a small pot of glue and some sinew thread.
"You are an archer?" Ekaitz said pleasantly.
"No. My brother is," Sorne said, taking out mismatched ceramic mugs. She wasn't used to having guests for the most parts, but sometimes neighbors came around. "Tea?"
There was a murmur of assent from the men, though the noblewoman shook her head, still frowning. "Thank you," Ekaitz said. "Your hospitality is appreciated."
Sorne motioned for them to have a seat at the table. There wasn't enough room for all of them to sit down, so Iker remained standing, as did Sorne. "So what brings you my way?" she asked.
"We are looking for a great warrior," the guard explained.
"You've made a mistake," Sorne said shortly. Suddenly, waiting for the whistling of the kettle was the last thing on her mind. "There are no warriors here."
"We have heard stories of a hero who lives in these woods," Ekaitz said. "We need help. Who else could we turn to?"
"I don't know what you think you need help with, but there's no hero in this house," Sorne said firmly. It was something she didn't care to even discuss, let alone budge on. "I tend to the house. My brother hunts. That's all."
The guard's brown eyes were almost sorrowful. "So you are content to let Aldana do as he pleases? From what Warden Loiola said—"
"Aitor's a damn fool," Sorne snapped, her patience failing. "I told you already who I am. I'm not a warrior and certainly not a hero. War has no place here in Sakana."
Both Ekaitz and the noblewoman fell silent for a moment. He looked stunned, but the noblewoman's resolve hardened. "Aldana is a tyrant. Do you think he will leave Sakana alone forever when there is rebellion in the air? When his army moves north, your peace will be the first casualty. I know better, what he is capable of."
Sorne's expression remained stony. "Whoever you are seeking, they are dead and gone. I can promise you that."
Ekaitz put a hand on his ward's arm. "Very well," he said with a dip of his head. "I take you at your word."
"When he comes for you, Sorne Thayer, I hope you will reconsider," the noblewoman said softly. "We will be in the forest near the falls for a few days. It is not safe for us in Sakana, not with the King's men there. If you change your mind, seek us out."
"Understood," Sorne said bluntly.
The kettle started to whistle, but her guests stood up and departed, leaving her alone with five empty cups. She stood and put them away methodically as her thoughts churned like a furious storm.
It was almost an hour later when her brother arrived back, announced by a heavy tread on the threshold. Vridash of the Wind was shorter for an orc, but still more than a head above six feet. He was comprised almost entirely of lean, iron muscle and dense bone. His back was crooked from a lifetime of pulling powerful bows and his grey skin was covered in scars. He'd kept his wiry, dark hair and thick beard cropped short, so that in a fight it would be difficult to grab. "I return triumphant," he said cheerfully in a deep voice, holding aloft a copper-bottomed pan. They were expensive, very much so, but they had made a good living for themselves between his hunting, trapping, and her assistance to their neighbors.
Sorne smiled despite the heavy thoughts that lingered. "I'm glad you weren't waylaid for the cookware."
"You know those highwaymen reconsider when they hop out from behind their boulders or whatnot," Vridash said. He paused for a moment and sniffed. Orcs possessed certain senses far more keen than humans, and one of them was certainly smell. "Visitors?"
"You could call them that," Sorne said, accepting the pan from him. Vridash was the better cook out of the two of them, though she could hold her own. "Trouble."
"Speaking of trouble," the orc said more seriously as he limped past her towards the bacon left over from breakfast. It vanished with incredible speed. "I got the evil eye from some soldiers from the south. I cut through the woods so they wouldn't be able to follow me, but you'd best take care if you go to Sakana."
Sorne could feel anger sitting at the middle of her chest, hot like coals and bitter. "I just want to be left alone," she said quietly. "But I do need to go have words with Aitor. He pointed a group towards us that I didn't much care for. Our visitors this morning."
"What did they want?"
"The kind of help I said I would never give again," Sorne murmured. "On the battlefield."
Vridash nodded slightly. "Definitely trouble, then," he said. "Best we can do is stay out of it. When did you want to go see Aitor?"
"Today," Sorne said. "No sense in waiting, particularly if he plans on pointing more people towards us."
"I'll watch the house from a distance while you're gone. Just in case." He had places to hide up in the hills where he could snipe from with his bow if push came to shove, but neither of them particularly wanted to resort to that. "Anything else I need to know?"
Sorne worried at her lower lip for a moment before speaking. "When I looked at them—really looked—I felt...something."
"You knew them?" Vridash said thoughtfully.
Sorne shook her head. "No. I don't know what it was."
A heavy hand came to rest on her shoulder. "It's probably nothing," the orc said. "Just your gut telling you what you already know."
She nodded slowly and flexed her fingers, trying to loosen them up. Suddenly, they were tight in a way that had nothing to do with cold. In fact, tension was making its home everywhere in her body. Some things did not have the sense to die.
Unfortunately, she was one of them.