Ties that Bind
“Please can I?”
“No, Suli.” Casamir barely looked up as he sharpened his glaive. Behind him, his kid sister clamored for his attention in vain.
“But Cass, I’ve never gotten to go into Kaer Maga,” she whined, draping her small frame over his back.
“And there’s a reason for that.” He stood with ease, ducking to avoid her grabbing arms. Undeterred, Suhaila slipped around to his front, trying to block his way.
“Suli, enough.” Casamir gritted his teeth, calling up his last reserves of patience to deal with his sister’s antics.
“But why n-”
“Suhaila Liliya, do NOT make me say it again.” He glared down at his little sister, making a concentrated effort to appear as stern and authoritative as possible. To his surprise, Suhaila backed down; a hint of dismay flitted across her features, and she stepped aside. With her eyes averted and her little wings folded down, she appeared to be chastened, but Casamir knew it wouldn’t last long. In his head, he counted down the seconds.
Five… four… three… two… one…
“…But why not?” A tiny voice from behind him piped up.
Sweet Shelyn, why do I even bother?
Casamir turned around to face his relentless pursuer, who was currently staring up at him with equal parts defiance and timidity, attempting to gauge his reaction.
“You’re absolutely impossible, you know that?” he grumbled, trying to decide whether to scold or embrace his little charge. As he almost always did, Casamir chose the latter; with a resigned sigh, he pulled his sister close and tousled her long, metallic hair. Suhaila hesitated, torn between enjoying his attention and continuing her campaign for permission. After a moment, she leaned against him, hoping to win him over with sweetness.
“I just wanna go with you,” she pleaded. “I wanna go and do jobs and help make money for the family, too.” Suhaila raised her chin and straightened her posture in an attempt to look as brave and capable as possible. Casamir couldn’t help but smile at his sister’s bravado.“Suli, you’ll be a big help to the family someday,” he said. “However, you can’t help anyone unless you live long enough to do so, and if trained adventurers often disappear in this town, then it’s certainly not a safe place for an eight-year-old girl—not even for a particularly brave one.”
“I’m almost nine-” Suhaila started to argue.
“Don’t even start,” Casamir warned her. He crouched down to her eye level, putting his hands on her shoulders. “You need to stay with the caravan. This city is a dangerous place, and I won’t be able to keep an eye on you all the time. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you… You’re the only little sister I’ve got, y’know.” He kissed the top of her head, straightened up, and strapped his glaive to his backpack. Realizing that her cause was lost, Suhaila began to sulk, but Casamir pretended not to notice.
“I’ll be back late tonight, hopefully. Now, go back to the tents, and for Shelyn’s sake, STAY THERE. I love you; now get going.” With slow, reluctant steps, his little sister trudged back towards the caravan, pausing every now and then to turn and shoot sullen looks at him. Casamir waited to make sure she was within sight of the camp; then he headed off towards the city gate, disappearing into the crowd…
Five minutes later, no one paid much mind to the slip of a girl weaving her way into the bustling throng of people.
The chaos in the city proper was like nothing Suhaila had ever seen. While Kaer Maga thrummed with the usual hustle and bustle of a living city, that familiar chorus was punctuated with the sounds of violence; deals gone wrong, gangs butting heads, and drunken altercations peppered the streets. It didn’t take long for Suhaila to realize exactly why her brother hadn’t wanted her here. Nevertheless, she was determined to press onward.
I’ll do it, Suhaila thought, I’ll find work and get paid and help the family, and then they’ll be proud of me! I bet Cass will be surprised, too; I’ll show him that I’m old enough to take care of myself, and he won’t worry so much about me anymore!
Having convinced herself, Suhaila headed deeper into the city. Despite her optimism, she couldn’t help but be a little scared of some of the city’s inhabitants; huge trolls, blood-bloated mages, and various other monstrous creatures caught her eye, and she did her best to avoid drawing their attention. As the overcast sky grew heavy with rain, the little girl meandered down the streets, looking for work.
I can’t do bodyguarding or building, like Cass, but I could help with cooking, or cleaning, or fixing things, or I could perform, or…
As Suhaila’s mind began to wander, so did her feet, and her reverie was abruptly halted when she collided with someone in the street and fell back onto the cobblestones.
“Whoa, little angel, are you okay?”
Suhaila looked up at the speaker; a dark-haired, dark-eyed Varisian woman in leather armor stared back down at her, face full of concern. Suli scrambled back to her feet, wincing at the pain in her scraped palms.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted out, “I was just thinking about something and I didn’t watch where I was going and-”
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” the woman replied. “You seemed pretty out of it. Are you sure you’re okay? Your hands are all scratched up… I have some bandages back at my room in an inn nearby. It’s not too far from here, so we could go patch you up if you like.” Her voice was decidedly soothing; at first, Suhaila thought to take her up on her offer, but she stopped. The voice was, somehow, a little too soothing, and something about the woman’s tone didn’t seem quite right.
“No, thank you,” she refused politely, “I’ll be fine; besides, it’s getting late, and I need to find work to do, so I don’t really have time to stop.”
The woman smiled. “You’re looking for work, huh? Well, it just so happens that I have a job that needs doing,” she said cheerfully, “and it pays really well; in fact, I’m sure this job would be perfect for a pretty girl like you!”
“Really? What is it?” Suli asked skeptically.
“It’s kind of complicated; I’d love to tell you more, but we should go back to the inn to talk about it, because it’s a little hard to explain all the details.” She reached out with a well-manicured hand and attempted to grab Suhaila’s shoulder. “Let’s go!”
Suhaila ducked out of the woman’s grasp; this time, she was sure that there was something wrong with the situation. Taking a moment to reassess the scene, she noticed that the woman’s posture was becoming more predatory, and her overly-friendly expression seemed to be masking some darker emotion or intent.
“Thank you, but I don’t think this is the job I’m looking for,” Suhaila said nervously, backing away.
The woman laughed. “It’s not? But you don’t even know what it is yet!” Her tone was still light, but her pretense of good humor seemed to be slipping, and she kept walking towards the apprehensive child.
“All the same, I’m not going with you. If it is a good job, I’m sure it’ll be easy for you to find someone else who wants it.” Trying to maintain her distance, Suhaila backed further away- and turned to find a heavily muscled mercenary blocking her path. The Varisian woman laughed again; this time, the laugh was clearly cold and malicious.
“Honey, I don’t think you understand; I wasn’t offering you a choice.” The woman signaled, and two other men emerged from the shadows. They came from opposing angles, blocking the little girl’s escape from either side. “We weren’t expecting to find any good slave stock here, but we got lucky; angels like you are worth a fortune in Katapesh.” The cruel smile on her face widened, and she continued to close in.
“Don’t leave too much visible damage on her, boys; customers who buy girls like her usually prefer that their new purchases remain relatively intact.”
Suhaila’s eyes widened with horror as she began to understand her situation. She spun around wildly, looking for an opening, but there was none to be found. As she searched, her mind whirled in desperation.
I can’t outrun them, I can’t fight them, and I’ll never see my family again! What do I do?! As Suli’s hopes of escape dwindled, her panic increased; by the time they reached her, she was nearly out of her mind with fright, and she cowered where she was. Her head ached, and she could feel the intense fear and anger welling up inside her.
No! No! No no no no NO NO NO-
“NO!” Suhaila could no longer control her terror and rage; her celestial blood reacted to her extreme emotions, and suddenly she and the slave-traders were engulfed in a blindingly white light. The dark-haired rogue reeled, clutching at her eyes. “What in the nine Hells-”
Recognizing an opportunity when she saw one, Suhaila ran past the female slaver and out into the streets as fast as her legs could carry her. As she fled, she could hear running feet and the woman’s angry voice not far behind her.
“Quit whining and CATCH HER! That girl is worth more than all our profits from the last two months combined!”
Suhaila made it out into a crowded street; as she ran across it, other denizens of the city swore and shielded their eyes, caught unawares by her luminescence. She continued to run down various side streets, but she knew that her odds of losing her pursuers were slim; her celestial outburst had saved her, certainly, but its helpfulness had expired, and now it was a new source of trouble…
How in the heck do I turn this off?!
The afternoon was fast approaching, and Casamir was having about as much success at finding work as his sister. Sitting on the roof of the inn, he cursed his luck.
Man, you’d think somebody in this town would need a guard, or post a bounty that doesn’t involve assassination, or SOMETHING…
Casamir sighed; at least they still had enough supplies to last them through until they reached Abken. Also, it was likely that his cousins with fewer scruples would be more successful in this city than he was, so at least some money would be coming in… even if he didn’t want to know where it came from.
Well, not much else to be done here, he thought. I might as well head back. At least Suli will be happy that I’m back earlier th-
The young man’s musings were interrupted as an unnaturally bright flash of light flared in the distance.
Huh… that’s strange, he thought. Looks like it’s not too far away. Maybe a light spell gone wrong? He turned to examine the light, but he found to his surprise that it was moving; as he stared down the street, the light crossed through it about a block away, and Casamir thought he could make out the form of a person… A very small, very familiar person, known to shine uncontrollably when upset…
In an instant, Casamir was up and moving towards the roof’s edge, cursing under his breath.
I swear, next time I’m gonna tie that girl to one of the wagons.
As he prepared to jump down, however, he saw four armed adult humans running in the direction the light had gone. His eyes narrowed; with deadly purpose, he drew his glaive, leapt from the roof, and hit the ground running.
Suhaila ran blindly through the streets, completely incapable of either navigating a reasonable escape route or turning off the bright light that emanated from her small frame. Trusting to blind chance, she turned at random corners, hoping to put enough distance between her and her pursuers to keep them at bay until she found help. Unfortunately, luck was not on her side this day, and it was all she could do to keep from crying aloud in despair and frustration when she found herself trapped in a dead-end alley with running footsteps growing ever closer. A few seconds later, her would-be captors rounded the corner, winded but triumphant. Their leader stepped forward, her pretty face twisted into a malicious grin.
“I gotta say, honey, that was a pretty clever trick,” she purred, ambling casually towards the terrified child. She gestured, and two of the men behind her strode forward as one, blocking any would-be escape attempts while she headed directly for the little girl. Despite Suhaila’s best efforts, she was unable to evade the slave-trader’s grasp, and she winced as a cold, ungentle hand wrapped tightly around her wrist. With a sharp tug, the mercenary woman easily overcame the little girl’s resistance and started to drag her out of the alley. Suhaila lashed out in desperation, biting and kicking at everything in reach, but her captor had anticipated this; she yanked her captive abruptly forward and rewarded her with a backhanded slap to the face. The little angelkin reeled from the blow and nearly fell, but she did her best to regain ground, defiantly holding back her tears. Clearly out of patience, the ruthless woman dragged her forward again.
“Why don’t you stop all this pointless bullshit and spare yourself pain?” she hissed, digging her nails into Suhaila’s arm. Before Suhaila had a chance to respond, however, a familiar voice saved her the trouble.
“Why don’t you get your damn hands off my sister?”
Suli turned to face her brother, hope and relief flooding her expression. Upon seeing Casamir’s face, however, the relief mingled with apprehension; she had never seen him this angry before, and though his voice was calm, the aura of menace surrounding him was almost palpable. He stood in the entryway with his glaive at the ready.
Comforted by strength in numbers, the female slave-trader laughed mockingly. “Oh, my. Gentlemen, we have a hero on our hands!” Almost casually, she threw Suhaila to the side and drew her short sword, motioning for her men to do the same. The child hit the stone wall with a cry of pain and collapsed in a heap, stunned.
Instinctively, Casamir cast a worried glance at his injured sister; to his relief, he saw that she was not in immediate danger, and he turned his attention back to his enemies with renewed fury.
“Last chance. Get the hell out of here, now; I don’t want to spill blood, especially in front of a child, but it’s up to you,” he said, his voice like hardened steel. In reply, the band of thugs drew in, positioning themselves for a coordinated attack.
“I’ll take that as a no.” He braced his glaive with both hands, ready to strike. “In that case… Suli?” he called softly, not taking his eyes off of the slavers, “I need you to close your eyes now. Don’t open them until I say so, no matter what you hear.” Suhaila obeyed, too dazed and frightened even to come up with a defiant remark.
“How gallant of you,” sneered the dark-haired woman, edging towards him. “This way, she won’t have to watch you die.” Casamir responded by changing his grip on his glaive and taking a defensive stance, waiting for them to attack.
The next few moments were the most terrifying of Suhaila’s young life. She could smell blood and hear the sounds of violent combat, but the intensity and volume of these sensations overwhelmed her angelic perceptions, so she was unable to tell whether Casamir was winning or losing. She had heard more than once from her older cousins that her big brother was a capable fighter, but she had never seen him do more than practice, and the idea that he might be cut down was too much to bear. Unable to resist, she cracked open a single eye and peeked from between her fingers, just to make sure that he was okay…
What she saw in that moment would stay with her for the rest of her days; Casamir, her patient and gentle brother, was spattered with blood. It was obvious, however, that very little of it was his; he wielded his glaive as if he had been born to do it, weaving his blade past defenses with deadly accuracy and whirling it around to attack potential threats from all sides. His enemies had suffered heavy injuries; two slavers already lay dead on the ground, and his other two opponents bled profusely from multiple lacerations. Of all the criminals, the Varisian appeared to be the most skilled with her blade; she slashed at her target accurately and often, attempting to push him off balance. Fortunately, Casamir was able to recognize her tactics and work against them, and he intentionally let some of her weaker strikes through his defenses, taking on one or two shallow injuries in order to maintain his position. Thinking his opponent distracted, the last male slave-trader attempted to surprise the young man by attacking from behind him; without even turning, Casamir whirled his glaive over his head and slashed backward, slicing open the chest of his attacker; blood fountained from the wound in an arc as the man fell to the ground, lifeless. Instead of charging his last enemy, Casamir took up his defensive position once again and attempted to convince his opponent to stand down.
“Give it up!” Casamir shouted. “Your men are dead, and you can’t beat me on your own; drop your sword, and we can end this!”
The surviving slave-trader spat at his feet. Seeing that she was clearly outmatched but unwilling to surrender, she cast her eyes around the alley, looking for a way to turn the fight in her favor. She did not have to look for long; a tiny, muffled sob from the sidelines broke the temporary silence, and both combatants turned to glance at a curled-up Suhaila, who stared back at them in wide-eyed panic.
As one, both Casamir and the remaining slaver realized her only possibly-successful course of action; bursting into motion, the evil woman charged towards the child, desperately reaching out to grasp her new would-be bargaining chip. Suhaila didn’t even have the strength to stand; frozen with fear and exhaustion, she could do nothing but watch as the dangerous criminal dashed forward and reached out to grab her. The angelkin squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the feeling of cold, clenching hands on her shoulders; however, none came. Confused, Suhaila opened her eyes and looked up.
The Varisian slave-trader had halted just in front of her, face fixed in an expression of sudden agony and disbelief; slowly, the woman tried to turn her head to look at the blade currently embedded in her back, unable to wrap her mind around what had just happened. Not wanting to prolong the woman’s suffering, Casamir pulled his glaive down and out of the wound, his face a mask of regret and grim acceptance. The slaver fell to the ground in front of Suhaila, unable to support her own weight as her lifeblood began to form a pool around her. Suhaila watched, unable to even blink, as the woman’s eyes clouded over and she breathed her last.
Oh gods, Suli… I have to get her out of here.
Dropping his glaive, Casamir hurried over to his distraught little sister and scooped her up into his arms, turning her field of vision away from the violent scene. Suhaila clung to him tightly; now that the danger had passed, her bright light faded away, and she finally allowed herself to cry in earnest. Effortlessly shifting his sister’s weight to one arm, Casamir retrieved his glaive, attached it to his pack, and departed as quickly as possible.
For a long time, neither sibling spoke. Casamir carried his sister back out the town gate, surprised and slightly disconcerted by the locals’ complete apathy towards his bloody appearance. As they approached a small creek, Casamir pulled a small healer’s kit from his pack, set Suhaila down, and checked her for injuries. Besides some scrapes and bruises, she appeared to be intact; he cleaned and treated her wounds as gently as possible and wrapped them in bandages. After seeing to his own injuries, Casamir removed his gore-spattered shirt and leather armor, rinsed them in the water, and packed them away. He sensed Suhaila standing behind him as he finished, and he motioned for her to come closer.
“Okay, Suli. Let’s talk,” he began. “I know you’re beyond horrified at what you saw back there, and rightly so. Try to understand, though; if I could have gotten us out safely without fighting, I would have, but I did what I had to so I could protect you. Still, there are some things that no almost-nine-year-old girl should ever see… even if she is particularly brave.” He crouched down to her eye level and attempted to meet her gaze. “More importantly, though, I want to hear from you. Are you alright?” Suhaila took a moment to gather her thoughts, and then mustered up the courage to speak.
“I… I was trying to keep my eyes closed, really,” she replied, “but then I got worried because I couldn’t tell if you were okay, so I peeked, and…” She hesitated for a moment, but the weight of holding back her guilt and fear became too much, and the words burst out of her. “I know you only did what you had to, but it was scary. They were gonna take me away and I didn’t know what to do and then there was so much blood and you killed people and I thought you were gonna die and it’s all my fault, ‘cause I didn’t listen when you said to stay home.” By the end of her speech, Suhaila was stumbling over her words, speaking almost too quickly for her mouth to keep up. She grabbed her brother’s hand and held it tightly, her downcast eyes filling with tears once again.
“Suli, I’m going to tell you something, and I want you to remember it.” Casamir picked up his little sister and stood to his full height. “None of what happened back there was your fault. I mean, yeah, coming here when I told you not to was a REALLY bad idea, but even so, you’re still just a kid… of course you’re gonna do stupid things. It’s also not your fault that those thugs came after you; angelkin are prime targets for kidnappers and slave-traders. You weren’t responsible for me, either; I knew the fight would be dangerous before I got involved, and I did anyway. Even if it hadn’t been you, and they’d cornered some other kid, I would have stepped in all the same.”
“Really. Besides, we got out okay, didn’t we? Also, I would guess that we’ve saved more than a few kids by taking down those slave-traders… seems like things ended a lot better than they could have, don’t you think?” He grinned and ruffled Suhaila’s hair affectionately; she responded with a small smile of her own.
“…Yeah. I guess they did,” she replied softly; fatigue was catching up with her, and she rested her head on her brother’s shoulder. “Cass… can we go home now?” Casamir bent down and picked up his gear, still holding Suhaila with one arm.
“Sounds good to me.” Casamir shifted his gear to his back and his exhausted little sister into both arms; with a long-suffering sigh, he turned and started walking in the direction of the caravan. After a few moments, he heard Suhaila’s little voice in his ear.
“Cass?” she whispered.
“Yeah?” he answered quietly, inclining his head.
“Thanks for finding me.” She wrapped her arms around her beloved brother’s neck. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen.” Affectionately, Casamir tilted his head so it rested against hers.
“Suli, do you have any idea how boring my life would be if I had a quiet, well-behaved little sister to look after? It’d be awful; I’d have nothing to do, and I wouldn’t have nearly as many of these distinguished gray hairs. More importantly, though…” He stopped to face his sister properly.
“I will always find you. No matter what. Even if we get separated, even if we’re a hundred miles apart… if you need me, I will find you.” He held Suhaila closer in an instinctively protective gesture. Reassured, she relaxed against him, giving in to her drowsiness; just as they entered the camp, Casamir heard her mumble one last question.
“Am I still in trouble?”
Suhaila gave a dramatic, disappointed sigh; resigned to her fate, she snuggled closer to her brother.