Not Falling Off Cliffs

Berra — Not Falling Off Cliffs 01

????, Fire Season


After spending a week at the temple meditating, and a talk with Serala about group cohesion, Berra takes Varanis climbing, so they can talk. Between [[[s01:session-26|session 26]]] and session 27. Spoilers for Varanis.


Sometimes, Humakti get in the way. They draw attention. They out-stare people with eyes that have seen the Pre-Dark moving in the void. And sometimes, they are a little dark-haired figure in a cloak, pulled right up with a hood that hides the runes of death and honour, and it is possible to move right past them. Most people are. Berra lurks outside the Temple of Vinga with the patience of one already dead, or one with nothing better to do. Anyone who observes for long enough will see she is on watch, but so far she has drawn nothing more than suspicious looks from those who think they see a beggar, then think again.

Before Varanis steps through the gates of the Temple and into the busy streets of Boldhome, she engages her now usual precautions. Her spell tells her it is safe, but to those paying close attention the way she looks around carefully as she emerges shows that she is still wary. In spite of this, her head is held high and her steps carry their characteristics confidence.

She spots Berra immediately and stops. “I was beginning to wonder if Humakt had swallowed you,” She says by way of welcome. She smiles warmly, but to someone who knows her as well as Berra has come to, she looks worn around the edges.

“Well, the temple did, for a bit. I was training. It got interrupted for me to go to Nochet, so I had to get back it.” Berra looks left and right. “I haven’t see anyone lurking. Except me. I checked the roofs a few minutes ago, but only from where I could see on the ground.”

It seems Berra is wearing some sort of pack under her cloak, and she’s a lot more bulked out than normal. That, or she’s managed to eat enough to put on a lot of weight. Although she looks underslept, she no longer looks ill.

“Thank you,” Varanis says simply. “What can I do for you this morning?”

“I came to see how you were. Also, if you wanted to do some climbing. Really tall climbing.” Berra jumps up and down on her toes, and there are clanging, metallic noises. She is definitely not wearing metal armour.

“Climbing?” Varanis begins to grin and some of her tension eases. “Climbing would be…. climbing would be magnificent.”

Berra nods happily. “I thought so. Have you ever used a grappling bronze?” She points the way to the West. “Over that way. There’s a path up past the Sun Temple that used to go on to the Amphitheatre, but it broke. We can see most of the city from there, if we can get up. But the slope’s pretty kind.”

“I’ve used grappling bronzes when necessary,” Varanis replies with the confidence of someone who rarely finds them necessary. “Lead the way!” Varanis has eschewed her Esrolian silks in favour of Sartarite wool. While understated in colour and style, the fine quality of the fabric speaks to their value. She doesn’t seem the least bit worried about climbing in them.

Berra does just that, walking swiftly through the city with the confidence of one who lives there. After bumping into a few people she sighs, and makes sure the hood is pushed back, and walks with her shoulders much wider and her head held high. That seems to stop the occasional clashes, although people do glare. It seems that Berra doesn’t realise how big the extra kit makes her.

The city is easy to cross here, East to West, although it is at its widest point. Then there is some upward walking and Berra bows her head to the Temple of Lhankor Mhy as they pass it, and pauses for a moment to bow rather deeper to the great Cross-shaped temple of Humakt over the odd, flat bridge just uphill. Then there’s a petering out of buildings, and a sudden slope, fit for scrambling up.

Varanis takes in the surroundings, including carefully studying the route by which they came. Seemingly satisfied with it, she peers up the slope ahead. “This looks like a good warm up,” she observes, smiling. She casually limbers up her shoulders and hands as she studies routes up.

“Probably,” says Berra. “I haven’t climbed cliffs in a long time.” She pulls the cloak off over her head and starts unwinding rope, handing Varanis one length and a small backpack to carry. “That’s got food, and an ember pot,” she says. “For a fire if we get stuck or find eggs.” She has another pack. “I’ve got the grapnel and some little hooks, but if we need those we’re probably doing it wrong.” The cloak gets rolled up, and takes most of her backpack space, with the bronze pieces on top for easy access. Once that is all packed, and she has checked Varanis is ready, she starts on up the slope, scrambling with the assurance of someone who knows Death is a friend, and also that falling over here will not kill her.

Varanis rolls her own cloak into the backpack and easily follows Berra up the slope. As she climbs is becomes evident that she is in her element.

Berra is taking on the challenge with the usual short Humakti approach – try it until it works. But here at least, it’s easy to pick routes that just involve walking or jumping. Then there is rubble at the foot of the slope, and Berra does that odd shoulder shrug, and gives what might be an involuntary wince. She looks upwards, and then starts on her way up…

Varanis climbs easily, dividing her attention between the path and her companion. She moves with the grace of someone who knows what she is doing and enjoys it immensely.

Berra’s grace on the ground is almost lost here, but it’s replaced by strength and concentration. She’s going slowly, but she’s going with determination, and pretty soon is rolling up onto a ledge beside Vanaris, and standing to look at the next section. “The last time I did this, I was going to fight some ogres. I wasn’t sure they were ogres, but I knew they were not just Man-people.” She gets into a decent crevice and starts chimneying up until it narrows enough she has to swing outwards.

Varanis watches the route Berra has chosen and then follows rapidly. For just a moment near the top, it looks like she might be taking things too casually, as she reaches for a handhold and misses. But quick reflexes and lots of practice mean that her fingers find what they need. She laughs out loud at herself.

Berra doesn’t choose her next route wisely, but she leans back, sees the line of the crevice she was using earlier, and gets over to that, clenching her fists as braces within it until she can work out how to get upwards. As it turns out, that’s by grating her fists inside the rock embrace until she’s up at a friendly finger ledge on which short, tough grass grows. Slightly less of it grows once she has cleaned enough away her fingers can grip without slipping, and then she swings sideways to get her feet under her, pushes up, and she’s onto the next, slightly less generous ledge. From here, some of the city is still above them, and some of the roofs, even of the major temples, are viewed from above. The sky dome of the Yelmalian temple gleams.

A spring breeze blows softly around the pair, on its way from the Great Gate to the amphitheatre.

Varanis peers up, picking her route more carefully now. She makes her way towards a ledge not far from the one supporting the waiting Humakti. Her fingers and feet find purchase easily and it doesn’t take long for her to secure a position that allows her to rest her back against the rock face to take in the view.

“Good, isn’t it?” calls Berra. “I don’t usually go further up, but if we do we can get to the path.” There is room to stretch her legs out, and she does that, then bends her head down to her knees, with a couple of minor whimpers.

Varanis was looking wistfully up the rock face, but glances sharply at her companion on hearing the noise. “Berra,”’she enquires swiftly, “are you ok?” She tries to evaluate the Humakti’s condition, but it’s difficult from this distance.

“Uh? Oh, yes. Just stretching out a new scar. I need to know where it is and how to feel it.” She gives Varanis a brief smile. “It’s a focus for magic.” Then she wriggles around to arch her back, and then starts up the next section of wall. She curses a bit when only a few slow, serious movements up, and then tries again, and this time finds something somewhat more ladder-like and there’s a bigger, flatter area up there, and she stands on it, back to the wall, looking down at the city.

“I admit, I’m not ready to go down yet,” Varanis replies. “Are you up for making it to the top?”

“Well,” Berra calls down, “That way, we can walk back along the path. Either way.” She looks down over the ridge. “The amphitheatre is fine, and so’s the path past the Sun Temple, but we’re nearly there now. The last bit’s tricky, because it’s broken, but it’s a sort of slide if … well, come look. It’s a bit sharp.”

Varanis easily reaches the point where Berra rests and looks where she’s indicating. “That looks like fun, as long as we don’t slip. Slipping might be… uncomfortable.” She grins; there’s a wildness in the expression. Then she takes off up the slope, nearly flying as she goes. She’s fast, extremely confident, and careless of the risks. (Movement rune at 60, then a critical on the climb.)

Some trick of the rocks breaking has put some rubble onto the ledge, although it’s perfectly safe to stand on, and indeed there is room to walk. The problem is not the ledge, but the wall, where weathering over the past few years has not been enough to remove the jagged edges of breaking and shearing and shattering. It’s unforgiving. Compromise is not written on this wall. And as Varanis goes, Berra sighs and sets off after her.

“Left,” calls the Humakti, “For the better walk!” Although… further up there is further wall, and the sun glints off it so nicely…

To left and right are easy traverses of older, friendly rock, and the old path, split here, goes off in either direction.

Berra is not far below, following Varanis up the same path, but there’s going to have to be a decision soon.

Varanis nods agreement to Berra’s suggestion and although she looks longingly up the wall face, she picks her way towards the left hand path. The climb gets a little easier as she does so.

With Berra slow-spidering behind Varanis, they make it up to the path. Now most of the city is fully below them, and the parts that are not, they cannot see. Berra takes a few deep breaths, and mutters a spell. It’s something about being with earth and on earth. Then she smiles. “Yes, that works.” Briefly, she is glowing with health, cheeks red from the climb, her expression victorious and happy.

“That was exactly what I needed,” Varanis says with a smile that lights up her whole face. Her cheeks are flushed and tendrils of hair have once again escaped to hang down her back.

“I know,” Berra says. “And the walk back is gentle, which I’ll be glad for, because I have to compose myself. I should go try another week of meditation. But not yet. I can’t go back into that hall for a while and do that to myself again.” Over her features, a set of emotions flicker, settling on distant pride as she stares down the path. “Want to talk about you?”

Varanis’ expression clouds suddenly. “I… not yet.” She stares silently over the city for a few minutes. Finally, she pulls on a leather cord hanging from her neck, drawing a small black pendant from beneath her shirt. “I made something for you.” With an expression of mixed nervousness and pride, she passes the pendant and cord over to the Humakti. “It’s a gift – there are no obligations attached to this. I just…” She gives a little shrug. “I wanted to make it.” The pendant is jet, shaped like a wolf’s tooth. Tiny truth and death runes have been carefully carved all around the surface. It is warm to the touch.

Berra takes it, and looks at it for a long time, wordlessly. After spending time staring she gives her attention back to Varanis. Humakti are tough, and said never to cry over death, but in a literal way that’s not true right now. Berra’s eyes spill over as her hand closes around the pendant, possessively. She doesn’t say anything, just tweaks a little smile, lopsided.

Varanis returns the smile. “I haven’t had a friend in a long time. I’d like to count you as such,” Varanis’ words are cautious. She’s clearly worried that she may be rebuffed, but too proud to acknowledge that in any way. “Besides,” she adds with a sly grin, “think about how crazy it will make Dormal!” Her attempt at humour is also an attempt at deflection.

Berra bows. “It is difficult for me to know where Friendship should end and Death begin,” she says carefully. “It’s most important I don’t show favour over Death, though. And I live with honour. Nothing says I have to be all alone when I do it.” She bites her lips, worrying them between her teeth, and then blurts out, “You’re my friend. You… well, on the roof I wouldn’t have talked much if I hadn’t liked you. But I’ll hold you to a higher standard, as you get closer to me. And you have to do that for me.” Yelm picks out the blue Truth Rune on her cheek, in a flattering reminder of who is speaking.

A subtle tension seems to ease from Varanis’ shoulders, breath she had been holding sighing out. She was clearly not as nonchalant as she had tried to appear. “I only ask that you speak to me before judging me, if you find issue in something I say or do. We don’t have to agree all the time, indeed, we probably won’t. But I will give you the benefit of doubt, if you will return that to me.”

“Oh, well. I tell a lot of people what I think of them. That won’t be hard.” Berra looks down, grinning. There’s a blush in there too.

Varanis smiles in return, but the smile slowly fades. “I was talking to Serala.” She falls silent, as she tries to order her thoughts. “There’s something I have been thinking about discussing with you, but… it comes with risks. While I know that you won’t be worried about personal risk, the risks increase the more people who know. And I don’t know that you want to be put in a position where revealing truth might harm others. But, Serala said that I shouldn’t be making the decision for other people, and she may be right.”

“She’s right, in many ways. The exception is for warbands who are bonded together. So, is this about you? Me? Us? Something else?” She sets off down the path, at a slow, ambling pace. The pendant is still clutched in her right hand, but she swaps it into her left.

“Me,” Varanis says reluctantly. “But us, in that if I share it with you, you may be at risk and someone may demand the truth from you.”

“Hmm. Well, ask is different to demand. Are you worried that someone I have loyalty to will demand it?” Berra kicks a rock, and it bounces off the path. After a while, there is a ‘clonk’. She glances over the edge of the path, probably to check for damage.

Varanis thinks on that. “Maybe. Though I hope not.” She seems to change the topic suddenly. “Did you notice the way Tennebris looked at me when we arrived?”

Berra grins. “We talked about that before. Although I probably growled a lot. I was eating. You found out more?”

“Right.” Varanis shrugs apologetically. “My days have blurred a bit since coming to Boldhome.” She pauses and takes a deep breath. “Dormal thinks me coming here was a political move by Grandmother. He has suggested that my grandmother might have been connected to one of the previous royal families.” The words come out in a tumble. “And Vinga curse him, that son of a broo might be right.”

Berra shrugs. “And? Of course it was political. She’s a Clan Grandmother. Should I know more details?” That’s a very calm expression.

“There is a possibility that someone might think I aspire to rulership.” There is a look akin to horror in Varanis’ eyes. “I don’t want to challenge the Prince and I don’t want to rule anybody. I want to serve Vinga, that’s it. I have no desire to be anyone’s pawn.”

“Oh. Oath. It’s a Humakti Rune Spell. You can promise that easily enough, and if you try, it’ll kill you.” Casually, Berra offers death. “And then tell people that you made the Oath, if they worry. Or just offer to. See who jumps at it and who tells you to think carefully.”

Varanis blinks in response and falls silent. She breathes deeply and slowly as she walks beside her friend, sorting through thoughts and emotions. “I don’t fancy dying,” she says at last, “but I don’t fancy ruling either. Let me think on that a while.”

They fall silent for several minutes, listening to the sound of birds and the crunch of their feet on the path. Eventually, Varanis breaks the silence. “I might have gone to see Kalis again,” she comments with a broad grin.

“You don’t have to die. You just have to let people know what will happen if you do. The Oath can be worded as you wish.” Berra pulls the wolf tooth on over her head, with a slightly pained expression. “You should not have to die over this. If you need an introduction at the Temple I will make one for you. I don’t know the Rune Spell myself, but it’s held by a few. I could probably ask the Iron Lord if D’Val doesn’t.” The mention of Kalis gets a knowing look and a smile. Then a stare off at the clouds nearby, as if they hold some kind of answer.

As they walk through the amphitheatre a little later, Varanis returns to an earlier topic of conversation. “My grandmother… I was always told that she was of the Colymar. I think it may be important to figure out who she was. I have some leads, but to pursue them further, I may need to go to the Colymar.” She pauses, seems to hesitate a moment, and then continues. “I need you to know that I’m asking for help because you are my friend. But our friendship is not predicated on this. If you say you cannot or will not help, it will not change things between us.”

“Clearwine?” Berra names the tribal capital with what sounds like familiarity. “Here? If you don’t mind being talked about, the Tribal Manor will have staff even if the Black Spear is not present. And Xenofos will have the library. Is there nothing there? I’ll travel with you, if I can, but Fire season is likely to bring war, and I will march with the Temple then.”

For someone hit with such news, Berra seems oddly calm.

“Xenofos has not turned up much in the library. And I definitely mind being talked about, but I’m also concerned that I am an unwitting pawn and I’d rather have the tools I need to make my own choices,” Varanis replies vehemently. “My grandmother was a Vingan too. I learned at the Temple that there are a few possible initiates with her name from around the right time period. It’s a matter of narrowing that list down.”

“Hmmmmmmm…..” Berra has a good line in thoughtful sounds. “What was her name?” She has the narrow-eyed look of someone thinking on a battle-field. It is spoiled only slightly by the nervous look given to her as she bites the inside of her lip.

“Berra,” Varanis replies simply. “But Berra is a common name among the Colymar, as you know.”

Berra laughs out loud, after a moment of shock. “Yes, but … around the time you are talking, there might not have been so many. I was named after a Berra Colymar. Berra of Colymar, in fact.” Genuine merriment breaks through. “If you’re looking for someone of the right age, it will not be as hard as you fear.” She even offers a pat on the shoulder as reassurance.

“That’s part of what worries me,” Varanis replies honestly.

“Still, I can probably recite most of her saga, and I know her lineage. She was kin to Harsaltar of the Household of Death. What do you know about her?” Berra has stopped on the path, even though they are on a downhill part, and is looking back to the south where only a thin slice of the city is now visible. “Everything you know.”

Varanis thinks and then begins listing things: “She came to Esrolia from Sartar. She may have been born in the 1530s or so. She was a Vingan Initiate and maybe even a Daughter of Vinga. And she died at Grizzly Peak. There was a family story that she single-handedly defeated most of a unit sent to kill High King Tarkalor using lightning.” She pauses to think. “It’s probably worth mentioning that my mother, my siblings, and I have all been targets of assassins at various times. My grandfather died protecting my mother from one. And I have sometimes wondered if my older brothers truly died from illness, as I was always told.”

“You know, that’s the first time I have said all of that out loud, to anyone.” Varanis glances around, reassuring herself that they are still alone.

“Nghnnmmm…” Berra takes a deep breath. “That’s a… Hmm. Grizzly Peak. So she’d have been fifty. It… I’m named after someone who had a long enough life to make that fit, but if it was High King Tarkalor I’m not so sure. But I haven’t thought about the poem for a long time. But she was a Vingan, and that’s one of the reasons I thought of it. I thought the lightning was Lunar Magicians in the sky.”

“Waaaait. Do you… no, if you knew the name of her brother, there would be less of this wondering.” Berra shrugs, then comes up with a new question a moment later. “Did she have a younger brother? Much younger? Was she kin to Tarkalor?”

“I don’t know. She died before I was born, of course, and questions about her were discouraged. I used to pretend I was her, when I wasn’t pretending to be Vinga,” Varanis blushes a little. “My hair has been this colour since birth, and grandfather Kesten used to tell me that I reminded him of her.” She smiles wistfully, before continuing, “That really is all the facts that I have, and I don’t even know if they are facts. But…” she trails off, sighs, then says one more thing. “At the temple, I saw the rolls. And there was a daughter of Tarkalor who could fit. But, there were other Berras from the Colymar who could also fit,” she rushes to add.

“Though… she was the only one whose death seems to have been attributed to Grizzly Peak.”

“Air darts of Orlanth down-fell. Blue javelins red-river hiding. I think. It might be red rivers. That bit doesn’t mention Tarkalor, but he was in there earlier, fixing a ring to her spear, and she rises into the sky to fight them.” Berra makes up her mind about something, and keeps on walking downhill through the sound-stealing bowl of the amphitheatre. She pulls out her water bottle from her pack, and glances at the burden Varanis has. “We could eat. But I feel like I want to keep moving.”

Varanis nods agreement. “Moving is good. My mind works better when my feet are moving.”

“Blue javelins?” Varanis asks.

“Lightning,” says Berra, like that’s an ordinary way of putting it. “Oh. You don’t know your kennings, do you?”

Varanis shakes her head. “While Grandmother included Sartarite history and customs in my lessons, she didn’t see the point of having me learn the poetry. And I had other things on my mind in those days anyway.”

“Eurh…. Right. Well, Air darts are the same. Red rivers could mean blood, or it could be enough Lunars that they can be said to make a line. It depends a bit on how it’s pronounced, but probably the lightning was hiding the flying magicians, but maybe the magicians on the ground were hiding the lightning – that is, it was in them until they threw it.” She takes a slug from her water bottle and slings it over her shoulder. “Spear of Tarkalor wind-walked white. So she walked on a storm, or was stepping on clouds and air. Red-water made earth fertile. Play on words on earth, sex, blood, women’s fertility – a bit out of place if she was fifty, but still, flattering – and killing people. Particularly, Lunars, or it might be Life-water, or Vein-flood. ‘Made’ is used for the blood letting and what it does.”

“If my grandmother was the daughter of Tarkalor, could people use that to make trouble for the Prince?” Varanis finally seems to come to the root of her worries. Once again there is tension writ in her shoulders and she fidgets absentmindedly with one of the gold bracelets at her wrist.

“Probably,” Berra admits. “The Lunars killed most of the line of Sartar. But… it depends who. I don’t know much about the politics here. I know about how to fight all day without tiring more than my foes will, and how to work out where they will be. I don’t know how people will pull you this way and that.”

Varanis sighs. “I suspect that even if it’s not the same woman, all it would take is for someone to make it appear that I am some of long-lost heir to foment trouble. That is what the Grandmothers would do at home.”

“Right. So one thing to do is attach yourself to Kallyr’s household.” Berra pauses to think, briefly under strain. “Show and demonstrate loyalty. That’s the easiest thing. Other things… well, disproving who you look like is hard.”

A shower of pebbles nearby shows there is a listener after all. A rather dim looking mountain sheep bleats, and then takes off, making an apparently impossible run across a the rock face up ahead. It could be Vingan, to be able to do that so well.

Varanis looks around quickly, scanning the landscape to ensure that the sheep is the only listener. At Berra’s expression, she comments gravely, “I feel like I have been followed more than a few times since coming to Boldhome, but I’m not sure.” The look of strain has definitely returned to her eyes. “If I could catch whoever it is, I would deal with them appropriately.” She is both frustrated and fierce.

“You probably have been. But don’t imagine it’s one person. Until you can prove that, don’t rely on it.” She pauses to do a few finger-based pull-ups on the cliffside along their path, and mutter the words of the Detect Enemies spell – something about a shield of eyes around her. “Um, did you say your armour was interfered with? Or waxed, or something?”

Berra is speaking to the cliff, apparently.

“There was a dusting of charcoal on the floor by the armour stand, and some wax in a couple of the runes. I think someone was trying to copy the images.”

“Hmm. You see, the saga is… well, it’s a bit odd. It’s her saga, definitely – but it’s also… well, as I knew it from the Blue Tree Clan, it’s got a chunk in the middle that’s misplaced. The description of the armour as a gift should come at the start, and I’ve always hated that. And there are some bits about it being broken, but also unharmed. So I think the armour got misplaced. Give me a few minutes to run through the verses and I’ll see if I can explain.” Her fingertips are white with the effort of her work, and she stops and dusts them off.

Varanis waits patiently, as Berra slowly sifts through her memory of the saga.

Varanis begins to fidget impatiently as she waits.

Varanis begins to hum and tap her foot.

Berra does not only sift through. As she walks and pauses and exercises against the cliff wall, she hums, sometimes loudly, sometimes not. Then there is a pause during which the internal conversation is probably a conversation, not a saga – the humming sound entirely different in rhythm. Then she makes a confused,’?’ sound, and stops in her tracks. She suddenly looks disgusted. A bit of mental checking by staring at her hands as she holds them in different positions seems only to confirm her in her disgust.

“What shoddy kind of crawling, word-worn, tie-tongued empty excuse for a bard did that? How could you do that to a Saga? Talentless, tainted, taunted by Truth out of reach!”

The sudden burst of insults is not quite to the same rhythm as the foot-tapping was.

“Would you care to explain?” Varanis asks, arching an eyebrow.

“Yes. I know why the armour gift is in the middle. Because there’s a change of style. It goes from double double to sound-start threes. It’s two different poems. I mean, ‘brave Berra bore blows between breasts’ – that’s groups of three, and it shouldn’t go with the blue javelins hiding red rivers. That’s two sets of two kennings. It’s two completely different poems! No wonder the details are confusing.”

Varanis looks confused. ((And has to scroll back.))

“What tells you that her armour is a gift?” she asks with curiosity.

Berra says, more calmly, “The first half of the poem is like the lines I recited to you. It’s a form which uses two sets of double kennings. Air Darts, Blue Javelins, red river. You don’t have to fill in each … I’ll get to the gift bit. You don’t have to fill in each kenning space, which is handy when you want to say someone’s name, or you’ve just listened to a bewildering list of riddles. But it’s four things, and each of them is an action. And then the later bit of the poem, changes completely. There’s the gifting of the armour, which is an excuse to boast about the lineage of the smith who made it, and the expense of it, and it’s given to Berra. But it doesn’t say which poem it belongs to. And then there’s a form where it’s groups of three. Brave Berra bore – Blows between breasts – Bronze buckled broken – Blood bathed her breaths. That’s her getting cut down. Completely different, you see? Uh… Heroes harness had – Helmet and unharmed heft – Born for Berrra – By birthname borne. Which I think means it went from one of that name to another.”

“So, two Berras?”

“Yes. And they both had the armour. Which explains why in the first half there’s a reference to ‘Bear rock ruiner, Moon Mad ember of Chaos’. That’s the Emperor Ignifer, clearly. That’s Grizzly Peak, and I always thought this was about Grizzly Peak, but I think the second half isn’t, because that’s got ‘Defiled valed valley – Mastery mustered. Boldhome’s in a valley shaped like the Mastery Rune. That’s about two different places.”

Varanis looks very, very confused now.

Berra stops. “There was a Berra Colymar who died at Grizzly Peak. Her armour was not taken by the Lunars. Her body was not exhibited. But later, there was another Berra – probably named after her, like I was, and she had the same armour. It was important. They must have been related.”

“I think so.” Berra looks thoughtful, a little unsure. “I don’t trust or like this saga, though. At all. But it makes more sense if the other Berra died here. Blood-brother butchered – broke body basely… the Lunars cut apart the King, after he died. They desecrated…” She trails off, pale and furious. “But it mentions, ‘Birds’ bold abode.’ I thought that was the Peak, but Boldhome fits better. The armour was broken by the blow that killed her. The cuirass, anyhow. There was a Thane who tried to steal the King’s heart for burial. He might still be alive.”

Varanis looks slightly sick at the mention of desecration. “He’d be very old now, wouldn’t he? But, if he is alive, I should talk to him. As long as I can find a way that won’t result in me ending up dead any time soon.” She sighs. “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. But I have plans and they don’t involve an early grave or ruling Sartar! So, I think one of the things I need to work out quickly is how to convince people that I’m not a threat to the Prince.” She pauses. “You know, if I were the Prince, the easiest solution to Varanis daughter of Serzeen would be ensuring she finds an early grave. Preferably in some kind of glorious service, so that it’s done with honour and all that. But…” she shakes her head and walks on. “I don’t like this, Berra. Being raised with intrigue doesn’t make it any more pleasant.”

“I think the obvious way is the Oath,” Berra replies. “But… I don’t know Kallyr, but I know about Tennebris. He will not take an easy solution when a good solution is available. He is for Sartar, through and through, and he would not see a problem, but an asset. If you will not be a pawn, he will negotiate, but beware that game. He’s practiced, and you are young. He won’t spend you, though. You’re worth more as someone who can help Kallyr and Sartar.”

“Does he rule here, or does Kallyr?” Varanis asks pointedly. “I need to know more. I will consider your suggestions.”

“Who rules a battle?” Berra asks in reply. “The captain who fights it, or the general who decides it should be fought? He is one of her band. Chief Priest to her High Priest.”

The mountain path is winding its way upward again, over a saddle of rock that has a rough road hacked into it, zig-zagging up and over.

“Where are we going, Berra?” Varanis asks, looking around. “Please tell me there’s a hidden hot spring or something nearby.”

Varanis sighs plaintively. “Alas.”

“We’re around the top of the amphitheatre. There is a hidden cold spring, and a rock basin that carries sound well. And no hot spring. We could go along that saddle and down the road, which is the easiest way back now, but we should be tied to each other if we do. It’s a long way to fall.” Berra stretches a little, winces again, and adds, “Once we were up we might as well come here, but we could go back and traverse the missing part. Or we could even see if we could add wall-hooks to hang a line there.”

“Why don’t we stop for some food first and then decide our best route down after? I’m a little hungry,” Varanis admits. Her tummy lets out a growl and she laughs. “See?!”

Berra nods. “Good idea. I hope you like rye bread and apple butter, because that was what the kitchens gave me. I got some cheese and some stew-boiled eggs as well, on the way. And a salted pear, but if you like that we’ll have to share it.” She points to a handy rock not far behind, and pulls out her cloak from her bag. “There?”

“Sounds perfect.” As they settle at the rock, Varanis pulls out her own cloak. The air has a chill to it.

The saga Berra tells: there is a story of two royal sisters of Kings, in different generations, not much related, except by name. Both die with great glory, in the same armour. The first time, the armour is recovered, and later gifted to someone with the same name. The second time, the armour is damaged – the cuirass split by a blow that killed the wearer. She and her brother were then cut into parts, but the armour was said to have been spirited away on the wind. A loyal Thane of the house burned or buried the King’s heart, to give him rest. Only the right hand of the Vingan could be stolen away for burial. Berra knows the name and lineage of the armour smith, which is a really boring bit of the recitation, but as she explains it’s probably in the middle because the other part of the saga got added in later. The armour was gifted by King Salinarg to his sister Berra. That could be Sister in Orlanth, but Berra is pretty sure it means by blood as well.