Tuesday 31 May 2016

Of Ash And Dew - Ten

  Since the retrieval of her family's heirloom, Mítrei had shut herself away from her thoughts. All throughout the hunt she'd had doubts, but they'd been small, minor frets hardly worth the time of day that could be pushed aside easily enough. But now she'd completed her task, more doubts had formed in their place, and they'd grown so large so fast that a voice had been dragged up along with them. It questioned what she felt she'd achieved, what she intended to do next - whether recovering the amulet was truly enough. It was a hateful voice, one that seemed to loathe her as much as it loathed itself, and yet loved itself at the same time. It relished in the torment it caused them both.
   She'd grown hateful with it. She didn't allow herself to think on anything, to feel anything. She just kept moving, putting distance between herself and the attacking fire tribe without any care as to where she was going. She had nothing to return home to, so she saw little point in bothering, and she'd realised with dry humour that she also sought to escape herself - her mind and her identity, even after what had driven her out there. And while she knew it was impossible, she tried anyway.
   Something had changed within her. Perhaps it had happened when she'd found her family slaughtered for a trinket, but turning her focus onto retrieving the amulet had suppressed it, delayed it. Or maybe it had happened when she'd achieved her pitiful goal and surfaced with a feeling of emptiness.
   Because retrieving the amulet wasn't enough.
   But she continued to hide from that fact, to silence her mind, and the past few days had passed in a haze. Just the day before she'd crossed the path of a group of abductors, though it felt far longer, and while fighting them off with cold precision and chasing down those who decided she was too much trouble, she'd absently wondered if Tarui still tried to fight them or if he'd given up or been captured by them yet.
   She hoped he was all right, but even that train of thought felt distant and lacking emotion, as though it belonged to someone else and she was only eavesdropping on it. The only thing she felt - or allowed herself to feel - was anger, and she channelled that into her fight for existance, but even that she wondered at the purpose of.
   But that was another thought she actively suppressed. She would not be beaten by the weaknesses of her own mind.

   She stopped that following night only once darkness had truly taken hold and the night's chill chased away the unseasonal warmth. She didn't think to offer a prayer to Tída, just as food was a neglected thought, and she slipped quickly into furious, restless dreams of fire, jewels and an oppressive sense of responsibility she couldn't identify, let alone answer. But despite the paralysis of sleep and the persistent clamour that overshadowed the cascading images, the slightest rustle of leaves tore her eyes open, and she stared into blackness, already searching for who or whatever was approaching.

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Saturday 28 May 2016

Of Ash And Dew - Nine

   Even as fire rained from the sky and the market-goers scattered in a panic, I didn't miss the bastard's distraction. As a shadow passed overhead and stole away his attention, I was able to snatch the amulet from his accursed hand and turn and run. He noticed, I heard him shout, but he didn't give chase. His life, it seems, was worth more than his ill-gotten goods after all.
   But from that moment on, I was a part of the world again, no longer consumed in the frightening but empowering realm of my hatred. I dashed as best I could among all the people, but I don't remember more than putting one foot in front of the other. The long, restrictive skirt I was stuck in didn't hinder me as much as I had expected it to, and I moved quicker than the rest despite it, but other than that, I recall little. Deep, fleeting shadows followed by loud yet muffled booms of air, and my eyes watering from the sting of sulphur as fire bombs were spewed from draconic mouths above.
   I made for the river, seeking shelter beneath the stone bridge. Others had the same idea, and they pushed and shoved me and eachother to get there first, but fortunately they only hurried my approach as I ricocheted from one to another.
   From that point, though, there is one thing I remember clearly: voices. Harsh cries in uncommon tongue, chants and declarations that surely landed as an alien language upon the ears of everyone else. But I knew them. Even now their vile, twisted meanings burn in the pit of my stomach like acid.
   'Scoran will sear the rivers!'
   'Followers of the waves will wash into a burning abyss!'
   'Scoran will rule the Mountain once more!'
   I barely had time to think on it then, as when I finally reached the bridge I was accused by the others of being involved, either the target of the attack or, outrageously, part of it. But I paid them little heed.
   The fire tribes are invoking dragons, summoning their fire god's servitors.
   Have things really become so severe?

   I try to push it from my mind. I have the amulet, its familiar weight hanging now around my neck beneath the shirt Edwin gave me - the skirt I have since traded for my own skins - but while I wish to return home...what awaits me?
   Reclaiming the amulet with no one to return it to is a hollow victory. It will not bring my family back. I knew that when I set out, but...I thought I would feel some sense of satisfaction. I feel only empty.
   And with the fire tribe's attack on Dumas, it has been made not only hollow, but insignificant.
   The attack was extreme, it was organised - just like Edwin had said. And to be so close to my tribe's territory, it will swallow my home before long, and our numbers are too small to fight back.

   Suddenly, I feel only more lost...

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Thursday 26 May 2016

Of Ash And Dew - Eight

   Mítrei felt silly. She understood that 'civilised' folk liked their excessive decency, but she saw no purpose at all in the skirts that she and the women around her in Dumas's market were wearing. She couldn't break into a sprint if she needed to - she could barely even hurry anywhere - and if she had to climb over something she would be quite stuck.
   The men all wore seamed legs, and she couldn't work out where the decision to divide such clothing between genders had come from.
   But she had no right to complain. It was either a skirt or damp skins, and she didn't want to stand out any further than her white hair already allowed, so she wore what Edwin had given her.
   But despite her discomfort, she couldn't help being overwhelmed by the bustle of the market. It was incredibly busy to the point of being unable to move, regardless of ridiculous long skirts that tried to trip her every step, and as she looked around at the nameless, faceless mass of people, she wondered just how she had any chance of recovering the amulet - if it was even here.
   She decided after a deep breath to check the stalls first and see if she could spot it amongst merchants' wares, but that proved quite hopeless. She turned her focus then onto voices, trying to pick out any useful words during haggling conversations and louder peddling cries, but there was too much to make any sense of.
   She had no choice but to ask around.
   People looked at her warily as she stopped at stalls or tried for the attention of merchants, and all seemed anxious for what she might do. But rather than ignore her or shoo her away as she feared, they answered her questions readily, either none too concerned she would truly cause any trouble by herself, or perhaps too frightened to risk it. But none were able to help, and a few seemed more than a little regretful at that fact.
   After an hour of searching around the market three times and receiving eventually suspicious looks, she began to realise with a heavy heart that the amulet simply wasn't there. She'd genuinely - foolishly - believed she would find it, but Dumas was only a suggestion made by someone who couldn't possibly know for certain. It had still been her best lead - without it she wouldn't have known where to turn at all - but that only made the matter worse. It had been her best lead, and it had turned up nothing.
   She felt hopelessness begin to creep up into her heart, but she pushed it aside. There were other markets, and it was also possible that the thief hadn't arrived there yet, perhaps he'd hit other places first to build up some kind of stock. She was ashamed at her hope for that. He'd killed her family for one trinket. He would kill others for theirs.
   Anger began to replace her hopelessness and propelled her through the market for a fourth time. Her mind turned inwards to dwell on it, even fuel it, to avoid feeling the shame and despair that would otherwise stand in its place, and so she didn't notice the man until she'd already walked quite aggressively into him.
   "Stupid cow," the man growled, "watch where you're going."
   "Sorry..." Mítrei mumbled, but her eyes were wide and glued onto what was clasped in the man's hand.
   He frowned at her and suddenly began to try to hide the silver, but she only needed one glance to know what it was she was looking at.
   Her heart jumped and her hand moved on its own, lashing out to snatch the amulet away from him as her mind turned white with impulse.
   He recoiled, of course, and growled at her, calling her a thief, and only then did her eyes rise to his. But this was no man who had purchased what he thought were honest goods. There was a darkness to his eyes and an aggression to the snarl on his lips that suggested he would fight harder than most to keep his possessions, perhaps because he had done so to obtain them in the first place.
   The market, she realised, had gone quiet, and though all eyes were on the two of them, her hand still switched towards her dagger. 'I'm sorry, Edwin.' She had no choice.
   And yet even as she gripped the hilt of her dagger, she didn't act. There was a voice of doubt in her mind - a very small voice - but they weren't words against action that stayed her hand, but of self-preservation.
   He stared at her as she weighed her options, but his dark snarl turned to a smirk, and he laughed.
   Her eyes flashed and a roar ripped free from her throat before she could stop it, and she found herself lunging towards him as fury overrode all of her senses. No one else moved - perhaps they believed it to be a tribal issue, or maybe this detachment was normal, or her presence alone had upset things. It didn't matter. Had she noticed, she'd have been pleased that no one sought to interfere.
   But despite her effort, he easily dodged and avoided her careless attack and all those that followed.
   Her mind was empty but for a fire of rage. She'd forgotten all that Tarui had taught her, but she was certain she would hit him. She couldn't miss. She couldn't. Just look at him, smiling in amusement. Did he smile like that when he butchered her family? Did he call them weaklings and vermin like he was doing to her as he side stepped and parried her clumsy blows with his own surely bloodied dagger? Did he laugh at them?
   The sickening sound set her hairs on end, her skin crawling, her blood steaming.
   There were voices shouting around her. She barely registered them beyond their impact against her eardrums. They didn't matter. Nothing mattered. She saw nothing and heard nothing but the mocking smile and laughter of the man in front of her.
   Her blade finally struck.
   She cursed.
   It had hit, but it bit deep into his leather vambrace instead.
   She growled. A burning light grew in the distance behind his head, a manifestation of her fury. But, she belatedly realised, his expression had dropped. He was unconcerned by the strike, or by her. It fueled the fire within her when she realised his attention was on the sky rather than on her and his defence.
   But then she heard the shouts, the ones that had been surrounding her throughout her chaotic attack.

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Tuesday 24 May 2016

Of Ash And Dew - Seven

   Mítrei's heavy eyes opened to blurred vision, and two large, green orbs stared back at her as if the eyes of a woodland spirit, filled with a curious innocence that suggested she was the only thing of concern in its present existence. But as she smiled wearily up at it, it gasped and jumped back.
   "Dad!" It shouted as it scrambled away, sending shock through Mítrei's suddenly pounding head, and she found herself lying not in woodland boughs but in a bed - a real bed.
   She pushed herself up and spun around in a panic, tangling herself in the sheets. Not only was she not in the forest, she was not even in any tribal home. There were too many decorative wares with too little meaning - a needlepoint of a field of flowers hanging on the wall, a small trinket box carved with scrolls standing on a chest of drawers, and a cushion set on a chair too small for it to be of any comfortable use, as if the sight of it would be homely enough.
   A girl hurried over to her, one with green eyes, and leaned over the bed to stare closely again, a frown creasing her young brow. "Are you okay, miss?"
   A man hurried in behind her, and though Mítrei sensed no threat from him, the mixture of relief, curiosity and caution in his eyes kept her on edge.
   "I'm fine..." she replied, though she realised she'd rasped the words, and the child handed her a glass of water. She looked at it uncertainly, but she knew water when she saw and smelled it, and she suddenly felt intensely thirsty.
   "Take it slow, miss," the man said softly, stopping beside the girl, and he looked down at her with unchanged eyes.
   She considered him for a moment, then set the glass down. "What happened to me? Why am I here?"
   "I was on my way home from hunting last night when I found you washed up on the riverbank," he replied just as gently. "You must have gotten swept up in the storm. It was quite rough. I brought you back here and Lilian has been watching you all night, though I've told her countless times to go to bed." He shot the child a disapproving look and her little cheeks reddened. Evidently, she thought he hadn't known. He turned his eyes back to Mítrei. "Do you remember what happened to you?"
   Her heart dropped in shame. Yes, she remembered. She'd dared to try to cross an overhang despite it having recently receeded, and it had collapsed beneath her weight. It had been her own foolish fault.
   She smiled briefly and shook her head."I don't." Discomfort crept into her eyes and she glanced towards the door. "Thank you for looking after me last night, but I have no way of thanking you..."
   The middle-aged man raised his hands and shook his head, waving her words away. "We need nothing. But you should be wary. Tribals are not as welcome in Dumas as they used to be."
   So she was already in Dumas. She frowned. "Why not?"
   He mirrored the crease in her brow. "You don't know? I apologise, I thought you were of the water tribes..."
   "I am."
   His frown only deepened. "Then what about the conflict between your people and the fire tribes?"
   "My tribe is small," she explained easily, "uninvolved simply for being out of their reach. But I am aware of it." Realisation suddenly aged her young, tanned face. "It's this close?!"
   The man nodded regretfully. "It's been going on for a month around here. It started as name-calling and arguments between the tribals that frequent the town, then it grew into fist fights, and now it has escalated into organised attacks and we are all caught in the middle." He looked briefly to his daughter, and she returned his gaze with equal weight. "I hear it's worse towards the north and the east, but I fear it's only a matter of time before Dumas goes the same way."
   Mítrei watched him for a long moment. "Then you took a great risk in taking me in."
   He nodded, making no effort to brush over the fact. "I did." He looked back to her and smiled, though the weight in his dark eyes remained, merely masked for perhaps all their sakes. "But you should be well enough to leave. Here." He handed her a bundle of clothes that were folded by the bedside. "Take these, they might help to disguise you in the town."
   Mítrei frowned and looked down at herself, and found her own clothes replaced instead by a simple gown.
   "They were wet," the child informed her.
   "They belonged to my wife."
   "Will she mind?"
   "I can get leathers and skins easily enough; replacing them will be little trouble." He stepped towards the door and urged the girl to follow. "I have to head out; there is food in the next room, please eat your fill before you leave, you'll need your strength. And be careful." The weight returned to his eyes. "If anything happens out there, don't get involved. Keep your head down."
   She nodded in firm understanding. "Thank you so much for your help once again..."
   "Edwin." He smiled. "And you're welcome." He stepped out of the room, the girl followed, and he closed the door behind them to leave her in privacy.
   Mítrei hurried to the window.
   Was the amulet here?

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Monday 23 May 2016

Of Ash And Dew - Six

   Mítrei shook despite the blankets wrapped tightly around her, tossing and turning in a feverish sleep, mumbling beneath her breath. As her mind tore through senseless dreams of water shattering against jagged rocks, monsters with foot-long teeth emerging from white foam, fires burning in her chest and deafening roars, the room around her was spitefully still and silent, occupied by a single young girl besides herself who watched her vigilantly.
   Sweat beaded across her forehead and the child was quick to mop it away, and when another mumble left Mítrei's dry lips, she peered closely upon her to see if she was waking. But she was left disappointed once again.
   The door opened quietly behind her and her father stepped inside. He spoke softly, but the girl shook her head, and he turned concerned eyes down at the near-drowned woman. But he didn't stay; after another quiet word to his daughter, the hunter turned and left and the girl shortly followed, sending a hesitant glance back towards her.
   Mítrei heard nothing as the door closed. She was lost to her nightmares, held in the same torturously deep sleep she had been since the hunter had found her, washed up on the nearby river bank. How she was still alive no one could say, but she was surely lucky to have avoided being the eighteenth victim of the storm, just as she was lucky to have not been found by slavers. She would recover. She needed only rest and warmth. But what she would do when she came around was one of the hunter's concerns. It was a risk to take her in at all, but he couldn't leave her out there to die. He could only keep her hidden.

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Friday 20 May 2016

Of Ash And Dew - Five

   The rain is thundering down, the air is crackling, the sky flashing. It feels as if the Nocol river has been removed from its bed and dropped from above, then collected and dropped once more. I've found shelter beneath an overhang, but I won't be able to linger. It will surely collapse before too long. But I don't wish to step back into the storm until I must; every drop feels like small stones hammering upon your skull.
   It isn't natural.
   Tída has unleashed her fury upon the region. It is true that I crossed the bridge out of water tribe territory yesterday - which was an ordeal in itself, as the old stones came crashing down without warning and I had to scramble to get across before I was dragged into the rushing water below - but I didn't realise it would be so dangerous beyond her protection.
   But even so, this doesn't strike me as the norm. Something has angered her, of that I am certain, but just what, I cannot say.
   I admit that I'm afraid - or, more so than usual. I'm crossing into an area that neither I nor anyone I know has ever been. But I admit that I've put myself into this situation voluntarily. The old man wouldn't help me, but Tarui assured me the one I sought - my family's murderer - wouldn't be far, and I might have some luck if I tried Dumas, the neutral market town nearby. People from tribes and 'civilised' places meet to trade, albeit uneasily, and he suggested that someone may know something there. Perhaps someone overheard something, saw someone, or perhaps the thief even tried to pawn off the necklace there.
   The thought frightens me, but with every passing day I wade deeper into this murky situation, and every forward step makes it harder to turn around.
   I do not want to turn around.
   Unless it was to go back to Tarui and bring him with me. Somehow I feel safe in his company, comfortable. I can fend for myself, but outside of familiar terrain, away from familiar threats, familiar beasts and familiar waters, I find myself suddenly dependent, as if I've become a child once again who needs a mother to hold my hand because I've passed the edge of the garden. I cannot read his mind, but he exudes confidence, even despite the doubts he carries. He seems real, like I can trust his decisions, that they were carefully weighed.
   Which is why I'm out here right now in the middle of this storm. Tída help me, I'm so far out of my depth.
   The overhang is beginning to crumble. I must move. How I wish I was a priestess like my great grandmother, I might be able to save myself. But now all I can do is pray that Tída will notice me down here amongst the trees and not shrug me off as an acceptable loss against whatever has so angered her.
   I will search for a cave. Hopefully I can wait it out. But how long it will last, I don't know. The lightning is close and only growing more furious, the air is shattering beneath the flashes and I can feel it cracking within my ribs.
   But I have no choice. I must take my chances...

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Tuesday 17 May 2016

Of Ash And Dew - Four

   Finally the loose and dusty Shales gave way to dirt and mud. The earth was dry and compact, but it felt almost like sponge beneath her feet by comparison, and she breathed a sigh of relief when the damp grass cushioned her sore soles.
   She followed the small trail, worn in by animals rather than hunters, and it wended chaotically until she finally saw the rocky outcrop in this thin forest.
   She steeled herself, feeling her heart lurch in sudden fear - what if the oracle couldn't help? What if he could? What on earth did she intend to do if he gave her the information she sought? She'd barely indulged the idea. The past week had been hard going, and she couldn't afford to let herself shrink back from it now.
   Her jaw tightened and she approached the small cottage that stood amongst the rocks, determination in her step, and raised her hand to rap against the rotten old door without giving herself the opportunity to hesitate.
   But there was no answer.
   Her heart dropped.
   She raised her hand and knocked again, ignoring the doubt that was ready to creep in, but she was met only with silence once again.
   What possessed her to do it, she had little idea - perhaps it was desperation, though whether for her family or just to avoid a wasted trip, she equally had little idea. But whatever caused her to grasp and the door handle and step inside, unbidden, she did so all the same, invading the small, dark hovel.
   She'd barely taken a second step as the voice rose from her left, and she froze in fright at the sound. Her dark eyes wide, she spun to face the corner where a man stood over a fire pit, peering into a pot hung above.
   "You search for something," he continued without turning nor casting her even a cursory glance.
   "Y-yes," she dared, though she stayed where she was, "I--"
   The cloaked man took a deep breath, inhaling the smoke from the pot. A seeing brew, perhaps? "You will find it."
   Mítrei blinked. "Well, good," she began, unsure quite whether she should be pleased for the fact or curious about just exactly what he spoke of. "Where--"
   "You will possess a power of influence that hasn't been seen in a century, and with it, you will bring a great change to our world." He turned his head only a fraction, but she still couldn't see his face. "But whether it will be of good or ill is yet to be seen."
   A wary frown creased her brow as he dropped a handful of crushed, dried leaves into the pot. "But that's not what I seek--"
   "Silence, child!" Now he turned, and the dark gaze he cast upon her turned her blood to ice, his eyes far younger and more lively than the surrounding wrinkles would suggest. "Did you parents teach you no manners? Or perhaps you're impatient because you seek the facts with no desire for their context. Very well, then let me give it to you: you are not, and will never be, a hero."
   "I meant no offence," she started frantically, wondering just exactly what she'd said or done and wondering if the oracle wasn't in fact just an insane old hermit, "but I don't--"
   "Away with you!"
   "Out!" He cleared the space between them in a quick few steps, his old, tattered cloak billowing out around him, and he pushed her easily out of the door, the scent of a boar stew chasing her out as it slammed on her heels.

   I have no idea what happened. I had no chance to even ask my question, and instead he gave me words surely meant for someone else. I don't seek to be a hero, I wish only to retrieve what little my family possessed, to return my world to the closest it can be even if I can't bring my family back. And even now I feel a rage burning in my chest at myself and that crazy old man for costing me my one opportunity to learn what I need to achieve it.
   After all I went through to get here. The forest of Malíchi was worse terrain than I had expected, even aside from the spirits, and the Shales were little more than a dust bowl even despite the recent rain, winds kicking up the sands and smallest, sharpest fragments of dark rock to cut the skin and slice the lungs. And food had been scarce - the only thing that eases me is knowing that the sense of being followed that I'd experienced all the while was Tarui, who had made his way through for a similar purpose, doubting his ability to stop his tribe's attackers.
   "Prove him wrong," he'd said to me after I'd warned him of the old man's madness, and after I'd explained again that his words hadn't been for me, he'd asked if I didn't seen vengeance for my family's murder.
   "My heart does," I'd said, shamefully.
   "And your mind tells you it isn't a noble pursuit." He'd cast me a smile that I have to admit stopped my heart for a moment. "You are wise. Show me your blade."
    Just as he had the first time we'd met, he took me through the motions of attack and defence. It had helped me to clear my mind, focus my thoughts and discover just what truly lay in my heart.
   "You may not seek to be a hero, or to exact vengeance, but a hero is a matter of opinion. It is no single great deed in service to a whole people, it is only doing the right thing, whatever it might be, through whatever trials stand in the way."
   I felt a great weight behind these words he'd shared with me, and, somehow, some kind of comfort. I sought, I realised, to be a hero to my family's memory.
   And regardless of the old fool's words, I will achieve it.

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Friday 13 May 2016

Of Ash And Dew - Three

   I should reach the oracle in three more days, but the incident beneath the bridge has been weighing on my mind ever since. I've found myself staring at the blade countless times every night, turning it in the moonlight and practicing my grip, then the stances Tarui showed me and doing my best to remember his every word. I'd felt silly at first, but I quickly decided that I can't let that get in my way. Tarui was right when he said that the region is dangerous, but the threat isn't just from bandits. There are great beasts out here, I hear their howls even as I write this, and while I can better escape the movements of nature than those of man, I would still feel better knowing I can cut more than vines with this blade. And for that to be the case, I need to practise.

   But the movements of men are not something I feel I need to fear for now. The tangled woods of Malíchi lie ahead, where the roots are said to move and chase your feet, and if you should harm the oldest of boughs, those roots will catch you like a fly in a web and drag you into the earth, and if you should harm the youngest, they themselves will snatch you and draw you into the tree itself. But if you know this, you will be safe.
   Men, however, do not know this, and all those that are seen wandering in are never spotted again.
   But the road doesn't grow easier upon leaving the trees' reach, instead it only becomes different. The Shales sprawl beyond, a region prone to rock slides, where one wrong footfall can result in a buried village, or the creation of your own tomb.
   The thought that the oracle has chosen to live beyond these places for a reason has occurred to me, that maybe he seeks to test those who seek his guidance, or perhaps it's to escape them. But regardless of his intentions, I will find him, and I will hear from him what I need to.
   But I need to pass through these trials first.
   Tída, give me strength.

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Monday 9 May 2016

Of Ash And Dew - One

   I'd thought I'd have been more sad than this. My hands are shaking, my mind is clouded, and despite how my heart stings, all I can seem to think of is this how numb my body feels. I've shed barely a tear.
   And yet they're dead. They're all dead. Mother, Father, even Datran who was asleep in his cot, and yet all I can remember of the scene is blood and upturned earth. The hut was a mess, that I also recall, though it was a passing notice, but I couldn't miss the small locked chest sat in the mud, standing open and empty. The murderer was looking for something, and they seem to have found it. Only one thing had been in that box, the only thing we had worth keeping safe and locked away: a waterstone amulet that belonged to my great, great grandmother. But it was only an heirloom, a memento of her time in the service of Tída, the Water Goddess. It was worth little - but apparently enough to kill for.
   The moon has passed five times since that night, but still my mind is distant. I gave them all their last rites; I built their rafts and sent them down stream on the gentlest of flows. The Mangrove will have them by now, their spirits ferried off to Tída's embrace and their remains sustaining her creatures. Though I feel a strange guilt at not having been with them when it happened - perhaps I could have done something - I can't ignore the fact that, if I'd been killed along with them, all of our bodies would have rotten on the ground, and that was no fitting end for anyone.

   But despite my numbness, and the sorrow that refuses to reveal itself, though I know it is there, I can feel a darkness in my heart. Bleak thoughts are pulling at the edges of my mind, thoughts I know I shouldn't dare turn to...but my life has been taken away from me almost as absolutely as theirs.
   I have nothing left here; no one to love, no one to care for, no one to turn to. And I feel an anger and a hatred building for that thought, alongside more than the deepest loathing for whoever did this.
   I want to find them. I want to retrieve the amulet for the memory of my mother's line, at least. It won't bring them back, this I know, but at least everything else would be back where it belonged, and I might find out why this had to happen.
   There is one person who could help me: an old oracle lives nearby, almost a week from here in this season. I've heard that he can see fragments of the future, but that he speaks cryptically. But I don't seek any destiny like others who have sought him out, nor answers to profound questions. I only need a direction, a finger to point me the right way. Surely he could provide that.

   I've packed up all I have and I set out tonight, under the guidance of the moon. Hopefully Tída's sister will not lead me to my own death...

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Thursday 5 May 2016

Kettlercise Lean In 14 DVD Review

Price: £30
Length: 6x 30 minute workouts
Workouts: Full body
Suitable for: Everyone
Overall Rating:   ★★★★★
Enjoyment:  ★★☆☆☆   Difficulty:  ★★★★☆   Results:  ★★★★★
Based on 4 weeks of use.

   Having spent the past 4 weeks using Kettlercise's new 'Lean In 14' workout DVD, I have to say that, quite frankly, it is the best kettlebell workout I've ever used. And as kettlebells are my favourite form of resistance training, I can say that I've tried quite a few. It's true that it's called 'Lean In 14' and is designed to be used for two weeks straight, but as I like to change my workout up every month and give each new one I try a decent amount of time to prove itself as worthwhile, I used it for four. But, to be honest, I really noticed results after two and a half weeks when I never usually see any until the end of the month, if at all.

   Kettlercise's 'Lean In 14' is a two-week workout and diet plan designed to maximise fat loss and lean muscle gain, and is aimed specifically at women. But unlike most workout DVDs, this is not one disc with modifications, this is a 4-disc collection aimed at everyone from absolute beginner all the way to advanced, and includes an instructional disc to help total beginners familiarise themselves with kettlebells before getting started, as they are not the same as hand weights, dumbbells or barbells. There's a free online resource with the DVD which includes workout plans for beginner, intermediate, advanced and 'super-fit' which use certain workouts from the collection in a certain order with rest days, and also contains lots of clean and healthy recipes, a meal plan and tips to get the most out of your two-week workout.
    The workouts claim to be 30 minutes each, but this is the only complaint I had: the entire thing, from warm up to cool down, is 30 minutes. I had expected the workout itself to last for 30 minutes, not counting a warm up or cool down, so I was a bit disappointed when I found that the actual work was only about 20 minutes. That might sound silly, to complain that my workout wasn't long enough, but I had expected to work for a certain amount of time and I ended up feeling underworked because of it. I spoke to Seeg about it, however, and when I said '30 minute workout' to him, he actually assumed the opposite, that it was 30 minutes including warm up and cool down. So I'm happy to concede that this point may just be me, but I felt I should mention it all the same.

   Kettlebells, obviously, are essential for this workout, and as I've said in the past, kettlebells are not like other weights. Barbells and dumbbells are held by the centre with the weight distributed evenly on either side of the hand/s. Kettlebells, however, are held by the top (or bottom), and the weight is central, which makes it much harder to control. This, along with its bell shape, mean that you can do a lot of different moves with it, like the famous and much-loved (but not all-powerful) kettlebell swing, the clean and press, or snatch. These moves can be done with a hand weight, it's not like trying it will cause a 404 to flash across your eyes, but it won't be anywhere near as effective.
   Kettlebells challenge your core, your balance and your muscles a lot more because of its unbalanced weight, which means that most moves engage a lot more muscles than you would think, many of which are full-body.
   Kettlebells are also heavier than free weights, and the advised weight for women to start with is 8lbs, or 4kg. This is what I started with, and I'm now using mostly 6kg and 8kg, and it's almost time to move up to 10kg.
   Kettlebells are not hard to find - you can pick them up on Amazon or most sports shops. I was given a set of 4 DKN kettlebells, 2kg to 8kg, for my birthday 3 years ago that cost about £30, and though the 2kg has been barely used, the rest of the set has served me very, very well since. They're not too expensive, but even if they were, they are an amazing investment, as although they're unique, they're very old in design and far from a gimmick or passing trend.

   Complexes are what make this DVD set amazing. Kettlebell moves tend to be compound, meaning they engage multiple muscle groups rather than just focusing on one, giving you a full-body workout that gets your heart pumping, making kettlebells the best combination of cardio and resistance training, and why they're so good at transforming your body. But these complexes are sequences of combining several compound moves together, for example, in one of the advanced workouts, you spend a minute on a full complex of clean, press, snatch, rack, lunge, and then repeat. The individual moves are already really good, but combining them is intense. The complex section typically lasts about 5 minutes towards the end of the workout, the first few minutes of the sequence spent piecing together a selection of moves before spending a full minute on each side doing the whole thing. But though it sounds and looks very exhausting, it's more mentally taxing than physically. You will get an amazing sweat as you completely avoid muscle memory in these complexes, but you really do have to think while you're doing it in order to get it right. Even on the very last day of my 4 weeks, I got this very same complex wrong, forgetting about the snatch I think three different times on one side and twice on the other.
   But the reason it's not as physically taxing as you might think, and not actually scary, is because the variety of moves are organised in such a way that you can complete the whole minute without having to stop due to exhaustion or lactic acid build-up. You'll typically alternate between a lower body move, then an upper body, then lower, then upper, all of which use different muscles such as glutes, then biceps, then quads, then shoulders, making it possible to keep going without stopping, and exhaustion only setting in in the last 15 seconds, when it should.
   These complexes are on each level, but only on one of the beginner and intermediate workouts, and in both of the advanced. The complexes also vary in intensity depending on the level, but to be honest I really had to think hard when I was trying the most basic complex from the beginner disc of high pull to dead lift, I just kept getting the transition wrong.

   The beginner disc features two 30 minute workouts of increasing difficulty, complete with warm up and cool down, and are a great introduction to kettlebells. The moves are taught slowly, but not so slowly that your workout is hindered by it. To my mind, there's little need to look at the instructional disc, but if you're feeling uncertain about the kit, it's a good place to start. The moves themselves are also not complicated at all, so they're well-explained and easy to grasp, but that doesn't mean that they're not effective. As a beginner, all moves will be challenging for you as you're simply not used to it, but as someone who is a high intermediate level, even this beginner disc can be made challenging by using a heavier weight and moving faster and deeper on each move.
   As mentioned above, the two workouts on the beginner disc increase in difficulty - 1 is obviously easier than 2 - and the second workout also features a few complexes. These complexes only consist of two to three moves, and the moves are also simple. It introduces the idea and motion of complexes really well, and once you get comfortable with form you'll be able to get even more out of the workouts.

   The intermediate workout disc features two more workouts, and though they are harder than beginner, the jump isn't too large. It's a good transition; intermediate workout 1 does feel like the next step from beginner workout 2, and that's exactly how it should be. The instructor is a little more exciteable, but I like her, as I liked the instructor for the beginner disc, and her instruction is also precise but not complicated.
   The moves taught here are a little harder than in beginner, but there are a lot of familiar ones. Some of them have been modified slightly, while others are just done at a faster pace, if you can. But in the first of the intermediate workouts, you're also introduced to 'tempo zones', where you perform some of the moves you learned in beginner at a different pace. Sometimes the pace will be 2:2, so it will be slower and deeper than in beginner, and moving slower and deeper with resistance training engages more muscle fibres and makes it more effective. Other times it may be 3:1, so you sink down into a squat slowly for a count of three, before powering up for a count of one.
   The complexes in intermediate 2 are harder than in beginner, but again there are only complexes on this level's second, harder workout, and they equally feel like a step up from the beginner's complexes. The moves are bigger and you're stringing a couple more together, but they're not too advanced for the level, so if you can do the rest of the intermediate workout, you can do the complexes and finish strong.

   Like the intermediate disc, this one does feel like a step up from the last, and the moves are more advanced still, such as the windmill: learned in beginner and put through a 2:2 tempo in intermediate, you move the weight into the top hand in advanced rather than the bottom hand, pushing it up as you rise rather than pulling it. Then there are moves like the get-up sit-up, which is like half of a Turkish get-up, or a windmill shoulder press.
   However, unlike the beginner and intermediate workouts, there are complexes in both of the advanced workouts, and your instructor is Guy Noble, the man behind Kettlercise. These complexes are longer and tougher than the others, such as the example I gave above, but they're built up gradually and you do get the chance to get to grips with it. And they are hard, and so satisfying to complete.
   Unfortunately, as I said at the start of this review and was my only complaint, I was disappointed that the work itself was not 30 minutes, and to make it worse the two advanced workouts seem to be the shortest, clocking in at about 16-17 minutes. I added a few of my favourite moves onto the end to rack it up to 20 minutes, meaning a minute of weights bridge raises, a minute of Turkish get-ups on each side if the workout didn't have the get-up sit-ups, a minute of deadlifts, and a minute of explosive clean-to-presses, and so on.

   It usually takes about a month for me to discover any results, and even then they might only be present on the scales or the tape measure. But after Lean In 14, after two and a half weeks I found my stomach flatter, my hips sharper, bum bigger and back slimmer.
   Usually these things are just a fluke or I've imagined them, and they tend to pass on their own in a few days. Well, these didn't seem to dissipate until two weeks later, right when that (sorry) 'time of the month' came along, but even then I knew that my eyes had been what had gained weight, not my body. For the results and feeling of change to last so long, so consistently, I knew they weren't in my head. And, indeed, they were not. While it's my tummy that I want to stop jiggling, I simply couldn't deny the change in the rest of my body, or that my lower abdomen had gotten flatter. I saw it every single morning, and I found it in looser clothes, and when I finally took out the scales and tape measure, they both agreed.

Enjoyment:  ★★☆☆☆  -  I love kettlebells, and the inclusion of 'complexes' really does separate this workout from other kettlebell programs. But it's not conventionally enjoyable.
Difficulty:  ★★★★☆  -  The complexes are hard, but this program is intended for 14 days of dedicated use, not prolonged as I used it. As such, it has to be difficult if it's to be effective in just 2 weeks.
Results:  ★★★★★  -  And effective it is.
   This has been one of the best workouts I've ever tried, seeing results twice as fast as usual. It was tough, but I was using the advanced set-up, which consisted of alternating between the intermediate and advanced discs 5-6 days a week. That's not to say that the intermediate or beginner set-ups are useless, it's just that the advanced set-up was the most appropriate for me. This DVD collection is a fantastic introduction to kettlebells if you're new to it, and a wonderful way to challenge people who know their way around a kettlebell like me. It scales by level, so everyone can get the best out of it. Beginners will find beginner suitably challenging enough to get results but not so difficult that they can't do it, but there's a lot of room to grow as the intermediate and advanced workouts will be there whenever they're ready.
   Kettlebells are not hard to find - Kettlercise even have their own branded bells you can buy with the DVDs to save money.
   Honestly, if you only buy one kettlebell DVD, this is it. With six workouts of varying intensity, as well as a new way to use them, I consider it to be an absolute staple piece of anyone's workout library.

Monday 2 May 2016

May: Hero's Journey, Fitness Quest

   I'm quite excited about this month's workout. I used Darebee.com in March and it was great fun - a month of using workouts inspired by some of my favourite games and tv shows that were not only enjoyable, but effective. Well, this month - and next month, and most of July as well, in fact - I'm returning to Darebee, but not their online resources.
   At the start of the year, Darebee released pocket workout books, and one in particular caught my eye: Hero's Journey.
   I'd seen Age of Pandora on their website before, a post-apocalyptic roleplay workout - yes, a roleplay workout. Some of you might think that sounds immensely lame, but if that's the case, then you are lame. I'm sorry, but it's a truth you'll just have to face up to. Anyway, that caught my attention unfortunately a little too late. If I'd seen it as Fallout 4 had been released, I'd be all for it, but I'm a fantasy nutbag, so without something relevant of similar interest for it to relate to, it didn't appeal to me enough.
   Hero's Journey, however, is fantasy, and the moment I saw the book while browsing the website, I snatched it up from Amazon immediately. I pre-ordered Illidan at the same time; two birds, one stone.

   The idea behind a roleplay workout is that you're given a scenario, a part of a story that progresses with each workout, and you're usually given a choice of options for how to respond, just like in a roleplaying game. If you pass a situation along the road, you could walk by and ignore it, or get involved. In Skyrim, while running along the roads from one place to another - you know, as you do with roads - you would occasionally pass Imperial soldiers with a Nord prisoner, and in the game, these two factions are at war. You could either continue along past and ignore them, leaving the Nord to his fate if you decided to take the Empire's side in the war, or jump in and kill the soldiers to free the prisoner if you were taking Skyrim's side. The title of the game may have been Skyrim, but by no means were you bound to take that side. You could, in fact, take neither and stay out of it completely.
   Anyway, in a roleplay workout, the decision you make is carried out by the exercises. An encouter at the road might see you do walking lunges or high knees if you choose to not get involved and continue along your way, or some kickboxing combat moves if you decide to get involved. There's even a karma system which will affect you later in the workout. For example (I cheated and looked ahead, but only for a single example), if you choose to help the stranger at the crossroads on day 2, then they will turn up again later on day 7 and help you out, allowing you to do one set fewer on that allocated day. Alternatively, if you mind your own business and leave him to his fate, you're forced into doing an extra set on that future allocated day because there's no one there to help you. 
   There are weapons, too, but rather than getting an actual weapon (as much as I love using hammers), you choose your 'weapon' from a chart and refer to the back of the book for the bonus set/move for that weapon for that day. Choosing a heavy sword mans you'll be doing pull-ups, a hammer is free weights, a lasso is jump rope, and so on, and there is also body armour which involves adding ankle and wrist weights.

   So it's pretty high-level nerd stuff, to say the least, and since this book has been in my possession for the last two weeks I've tried really hard not to leaf through it. I want to see the workouts, but I don't want to spoil the story, so I'm afraid I'm going in blind.
   And it's a 60 day workout, and because I take 2 rest days a week, Wednesday and Sunday, I'll only use if 5 days a week, meaning it will take me from May 2nd to July 23rd to finish this thing.
   Now, because I've had only the briefest flick through, it seems to progress in difficulty and starts with shorter workouts. I don't know if this is actually going to be consistently the case, however, so rather than promise myself to add more on after each workout, I'm going to make a judgement call every day. If it was short and sweet, I'll do something else at the end or perhaps move on to the next day - but I don't want to rush through it, either. I'll see how it goes. Like I said: judgement call.

   So for now I'm going to say that this is this month's workout, and once I know if I'm adding anything more on afterwards, I'll know if I have to find something new for next month as a follow-on.
   I wish I had something awesome to wear while doing this. If it was sci-fi I'd be all set with my N7 racer back and space capris, but I don't have anything fantasyish at all. Clearly this is an area of the market that needs to be worked on. There must be a huge demand for fantasy-themed workout gear...

   I'm kidding, of course. I probably make up half of that demand myself.

Sunday 1 May 2016

Lean In 14 - 4 Weeks Later

   Lean In 14 may have only been a two-week plan, but as it was the workout I selected to try for April, I was determined to see it through for four weeks. I wrote about it two weeks ago and thought I saw results, but I wasn't sure. Now, however, I can tell you that just a few days later I wasn't imagining them. My hips felt sharper, my lower abs were definitely flatter, my back was slimmer and my bum was bigger. I shrugged it off initially, assuming it was a fluke - everyone has good days and bad days, and I assumed that they were just a few good days when the mirror liked me. Typically, such bouts lasted about 3-4 days.
   This, however, is still going on almost two weeks later, and the tape measure and scales agree. Not only have I lost weight this month, but I've really felt the changes everywhere. Usually, if there are any results, I don't see or feel them, often only discovering them when I go to record it all at the end of the month. That can really weaken my resolve through the month, feeling no changes can make me start thinking that my hard work isn't presenting me with much, and that makes me unmotivated in the mornings so I don't want to bother doing it. I do, of course, because I won't get anywhere if I give up, but I struggle to enjoy doing it. This month, however, I only dreaded it at the end of the week when I was exhausted.

   I've massively enjoyed using this DVD and already started on my rather long DVD review, but, spoiler alert, I'l tell you right now that this is the best kettlebell workout I've ever used, and that, if you only buy one workout DVD this year, make it this one.

   But I did realise something that helped this week, too. I read an article someone wrote about why they love and hate Jillian Michaels, and I found myself agreeing with everything they said, most notably that she has taught me to realise when I'm choosing comfort over results. This applies in my life as well as my workout, and since I started using her DVDs and unknowingly taking her words to heart, every aspect of my life has improved because I go after the things I want more fiercely. But this was also something I had forgotten, and only when I read it did I remember that I can do pronated rows and halos with 6kg. For the whole first week, I had been using 4kg because it was more 'managable' than with 6kg, but I had forgotten that 'managable' isn't the point, and only when you get uncomfortable are you going to see results. I was wasting my time by holding myself back, and that realisation gave me new drive, new determination, and I think it really helped.

   So, this month has been epic, and while I'm so happy to see the back of it, because it was so hard, I will absolutely use it again.