while listening to
in Your Arms
an appropriate soundtrack.
Shing. Shing. Shing.
A hand landed on Mereney’s shoulder. Mereney looked behind her, to see Lailyn standing there. Lailyn took a seat next to her on the log.
“I believe your axe is sharp enough.”
Mereney put her grindstone on the ground. “I have to be ready for tomorrow.”
Lailyn gave her a small smile. “You are as ready as you are ever going to be. We all are.” She inclined her head behind them, towards the revelling soldiers. “Now come on. Have a drink. This could be our last night alive, after all.”
Mereney chuckled. Lailyn lifted her hand away and Mereney sheathed her axes in the holster on her back.
The battle began early the next day, and by the time the sun was at its highest point in the sky, the air was filled with unsettled dust and the stench of blood. Mereney’s axes were crimson, as were her face and clothes. A single drop of blood dripped down her face; she licked it away.
She adjusted her grip on her axes, gave a bloodthirsty grin, and charged her next enemy.
The soldier she faced next was wielding a two-handed sword. His face was hidden beneath his thick steel helmet, so only his gritted and dirty teeth were visible.
He gave a roar and swung his sword to cleave Mereney in two, but Mereney jumped backwards and slammed the blade of her right axe into the blade of the sword.
The move jarred her shoulder, and the momentum carried her around in a pivot until she had her back to the soldier.
He grabbed her shoulder to hold her in place.
He thrust his sword into her back.
It protruded through her front.
Mereney choked. Her arms hung limp at her sides, and the blades of her axes dragged on the ground.
The soldier wrenched his blade from her body and let her go, running off to his next battle. Mereney fell backwards onto the ground and stared up at the sky, watching as it darkened with each passing second…
Before she had even opened her eyes, she was assaulted with the smell of ale. Mereney scrunched her eyes, then opened them, then blinked away the blurriness.
She pushed herself into a sitting position, and found herself on a tavern bench. The tavern was bustling and noisy. Men with swords and women with bows sat around tables with drinks, laughing and telling stories. Off in the far corner, a bard was playing The Wild Rover.
From somewhere to her left, a man gave a hearty chuckle. She turned her head.
The bench was on one side of a table. Another bench was on the other side, and sitting upon it with a flagon of ale was a plump man with a full beard but a receding hairline. His ale was sploshing over his grey shirt.
Mereney swivelled on the bench and put her elbows on the table. She narrowed her eyes at the man. “What am I doing here?”
The man grinned. “What do you think you’re doing here?”
Mereney reached a hand up to her abdomen, where the sword had run her through. The wound was not there.
“I was dying.”
The man inclined his head. “You still are.”
Mereney snapped her head up. “What is this place?”
“What do you think this place is?”
Mereney curled her hand into a fist and brought it down on the table. “Damn it, give me a straight answer!”
The man blinked. His lips curled into a smile. “You are a fiery one. We were right to give you red hair.”
Mereney’s face fell. She sat back on the bench and sank into it. Her fist loosened.
“Who are you?”
The man took a long swig of his ale. He wiped the froth from his mouth. He put his flagon down on the table.
“I have had many names, and I have many names, and I will have many names. To some I am the Creator, and to others I am the Warrior. Some believe I purged the Chaos from the world, others think that there was no Chaos for me to purge. Yet all look to me in their final hours.”
The man met Mereney’s eyes.
“Who do you say I am?”
Mereney’s eyes widened. She sat back against the back of the bench. She licked her lips.
“You are the Aa.”
The man’s eyes twinkled. “And what does that mean to you?”
“That I will see Vohana.”
“When I have been judged.”
“Do you wish to be judged?”
Mereney sneered. “Does anyone?”
The man gave a hearty laugh.
“You have wit. I have always admired that in you. Now, tell me, do you believe in judgement?”
Mereney paused. “Yes.”
Aa nodded. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a playing card: the Ace of Hearts. “Have you ever played Pilgrimage?”
Mereney looked at the Ace, and nodded.
“Do you understand what I am asking you to do?”
Aa slotted the Ace of Hearts back into his pocket. “Have fun.”
Mereney got to her feet and began searching the tavern for the four Aces.
She asked each person there if they had seen any of them, or if they had any of them, but she had no luck until she spoke to the bard.
She placed a hand on his shoulder. He looked at her, but did not stop playing.
“Do you have the card?” she asked him, her voice loud to be heard over the music.
The bard smiled and nodded. He lifted his lute to show its underside to her. The Ace of Clubs was stuck to the back of the lute. She plucked it free, nodded her thanks, and went off in search of the others.
No one else seemed to know where they were. She went for the bartender, and waited to be served.
“I’ll have an Ace.”
The bartender nodded and disappeared for a couple of minutes. She returned with a drink, and placed it in front of Mereney.
Mereney quirked her brow, and made to question the bartender, but she had skulked off and was nowhere to be seen.
Mereney lifted the flagon and downed the drink, then checked the bottom for an Ace. There was nothing there.
She checked inside; again, nothing.
She sighed, and slammed the flagon down onto the counter.
She sat there for a moment, or two, then slid the flagon out of her way and leant over the counter.
The Ace of Diamonds was stuck to the nearest keg.
Next, she checked the walls. They were adorned with mounted animal heads, but even once she had lifted them off the walls, there was no Ace to be found.
It was only when she got to the front door that she noticed there was a rug just in front of it: a strange addition to a common tavern.
She lifted it, and there was the Ace of Spades.
Yet her joy was short-lived; she had nowhere else to look. The Ace of Hearts was nowhere to be found.
A hand landed on her shoulder, and she turned to see Aa standing behind her.
“How goes your hunt?”
Mereney held up the three Aces she had found.
“Oh, dear. Only three?”
Mereney bowed her head. “I admit I cannot find the fourth. I accept my judgement.”
Aa lifted his hand away. “Now, let us not be overly hasty. Where might it be?”
Mereney shook her head. “I have searched everywhere. There is nowhere else.”
Aa put a finger under her chin and raised her head. “Are you sure?”
Mereney furrowed her brow, and Aa gave a mischievous smile. He reached back into his pocket, and pulled out the Ace of Hearts.
He handed it to Mereney.
“Go, Mereney. Your fight is over.”
Mereney eyed the Ace for a long while. “I…”
Aa squeezed her shoulder. “You have done what you must, Mereney. You need worry no longer. Take the Ace, and enjoy your rest. Lailyn is waiting for you.”
Mereney licked her lips. She held out her hand, and hovered her thumb and forefinger half an inch either side of the Ace.
She looked up at Aa.
Aa smiled and inclined his head.
Mereney closed her fingers around the Ace, and the world whited out around her.