Tarthan, Flamebearer of the Burning Vigil, second son of Errovas and last of his name, the Forgotten Crusader, the Hero of Borren’s Pass, Who Has Slain a Hundred Fae, felt—for the first time in all his seasons—very small.
He watched as the gentle blue glow that was his friends faded into the tunnels. Powerless to stop them, powerless to help them. The guilt of what he’d done to them was crushing, and he hoped that in time they would find it in them to forgive him, though he would be long gone before that came to pass.
A heavy mailed hand gently clamped down on his shoulder, pulling his attention from the dark tunnels. The Volsung who had introduced himself as “Thorne” wore a somber face as Tarthan turned to face him. It was an odd name for an odd man, and Tarthan silently lamented that he would not have the chance to learn more about this strange person and the company he kept. The four others behind Thorne, all clad in the same thick iron armor as him, studied Tarthan like cats watching a mouse.
“Okay,” Tarthan said after a long breath. “I’m ready.”
“Good,” Thorne replied through a thick Tessic accent. “Our journey is long.”
Tarthan started at Thorne. “Journey? I thought…” He hesitated, not eager to condemn himself to a fate he didn’t deserve. “I thought you were going to kill me.”
Thorne allowed a smile that didn’t reach beyond his lips. “That much is still certain, but today is not the day you die. We have things you must see first.”
“I don’t understand,” Tarthan said, his calm tone giving way to confused anger. “Why did I have to send my friends away?”
“There is much you do not understand, Flamebearer,” Thorne said, noting Tarthan’s shock at naming him so aptly. “But this is not the place. We travel.” He gestured to one of the dark tunnels before them. “Gather yourself. There is still much darkness ahead.”
It had come as startling news to Tarthan that Thorne was not the leader of this small band, nor was he even the strongest communicator. He had been nominated to speak with Tarthan merely on the grounds of looking the least intimidating, which—having studied the others—was an accusation Tarthan could get behind. Despite Thorne’s harsh accent and gruff way of speaking, his salt-and-pepper hair and gentler features made him look like an uncle. He was also, Tarthan noted, a full head shorter than even the other Volsung, which made him far less threatening in comparison.
The Volsung in question, a woman named Malica, was far more fearsome than Thorne. Nearly as tall as an Ashen and half as broad as a Slade, her wildly scarred armor told Tarthan all he needed to know about not angering her. In the brief moments when she removed her helmet, the glimpses he’d caught of her hard eyes reminded him of the coldest killers he’d known back at The Rock. He was yet to share a word with her.
The Slade had been introduced as Steepcrag, but had insisted on just being called Crag. Bek was an interesting Slade, far less dour or quiet than those Tarthan had known before. Matter of fact, in the days they’d spent in the dark of Amberhall, Crag had been far and away more talkative and friendly than anyone else in the bunch. Had Tarthan been able to get around the jagged chunks of iron nailed into bek’s shoulders, chest, and back, he’d have much preferred to have been approached by Crag than Thorne.
Amaranth had put Tarthan on edge. Though clearly Ashen, everything about them continually set Tarthan on Fae alert. From the way they carried themself to the way they spoke or the intensity with which they’d study things, Tarthan was constantly reminded of the Fae’s mannerisms, and it was more than a little off-putting. Though not for a lack of desire, he’d so far been unable to muster the courage to share more than a greeting with them.
The Breathless one, who Thorne had called Ruin, likewise did little to calm Tarthan’s mood. Quiet, moody, and prone to sulking in the shadows and hiding in corners, Ruin played the part of tortured Breathless to the letter, and though he’d long since gotten used to their creepy mannerisms and odd way of speaking from his time in The Rock, Ruin still did a good job of setting his teeth on edge. They’d only been together for a few days now, but he’d already caught her staring at him intently several times, often from just beyond the edges of the glowlight or when they stopped to rest.
So his appraisal stood: Thorne was the right candidate to send forward. The little band seemed bereft of any kind of classical leadership structure (though Malica and Crag seemed to be the most veteran of the bunch), but were happy to let Thorne represent them when dealing with people that weren’t used to them. From the way they carried themselves, Tarthan guessed that wasn’t very often.
Tarthan’s mind boggled at this new world he’d been thrown into. He’d traveled halfway across the world three times, fought in every kind of scrap from barroom brawl to pitched battle, defied Tyrants and bowed before paupers, and held the most valuable metal known in all the world, but never would he have guessed that his sworn executioners would be people like this.