Not All Is Done
Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
Hey you.”, Bremorel said with a nod. “You look fashionably accessorized today. I like the new looks.”
“Hello, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel.”, replied the ravishingly striking young half-born girl with the short, tanned hair, in her low, husky voice nodding back at the ranger lieutenant, then at the adamantly grim looking young man standing next to her. “Good morning, Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood..”
“A bit early for such formality, don’t you think, Perigren Ostlanna Temez?”, Thomas surmised with a very slight frown. “But I suppose, early was the point. Let’s get started. We have much ground to cover and not as much time as I would like. If we can reach our first way point before nightfall, perhaps we can have a sit-down and talk over strategies.”
“You like plans and planning.”, Temez said in an declarative tone.
“Ow, yes. Thomas plans everything!”, sighed Bremorel in mock resignation. “I believe he has our funerals and obituaries all prepared and notarized.”
“I certainly do not!”, objected the young man, though it wasn’t a very convincing objection.
“Ah.. You have them prepared, just not notarized?”, Bremorel grinned at him.
“Didn’t have the time.”, Thomas admitted a bit guiltily. “But I left clear orders and they should be, by the end of the day.”
“This.. bantering you two have going.. Is it normal among Mortals?”, Temez asked.
“Depends on whom you are bantering. If there is mutual affection, it is fun. Not so much when you dislike the person.”, Bremorel said as she shifted her shoulders and set her armor, and the greatsword strapped across her back into a more comfortable position. “The key to banter is moderation and knowing when to sting, and when to stop.”
“Seems like a misuse of friendship and risks its structural integrity. Why do it at all?”, mused Temez.
“Because it is fun.. and because Mortals strive on folly risks..”, the ranger lieutenant grinned. “This is making use of the gaps between definitions such as friendship, honesty, sincerity, and love, while having said fun!”
“I.. see..”, said Temez.
The three walked through the town, and while citizens, guards, and artisans all greeted Thomas, few showed similar enthusiasm for the ranger lieutenant Bremorel. The ones that did were either children who unanimously believed she was ‘cool’, and the elderly who thought ‘she had finally grown up’..
As for Temez, they all stared and ogled at her. Some of the kids trailing after the ranger lieutenant were enthralled, and the boys in particular, were quite infatuated by her.
“This is a unique experience. They seem not afraid of me.”, she mused.
“They are. Mostly.”, Thomas explained. “But that has as much to do with you then it has with the coming war. These are trying times for all of us and we are all individually tested by the things we have promised to uphold and honor in this town; should you come in peace, you will find peace. They also can not differentiate the half-born from our Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane and many here adore her. Also, in the mere short few weeks of her station as the liaison, Constance Alure Smithen made many friends.”
“Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel seems to enjoy a different kind of popularity.”, Temez noted.
“We all, Mortal or otherwise, enjoy and suffer our past, Temez. Everything we do returns to us in kind. Good, returns more good, making it easier to repeat. Just like misdeeds afflict us with the same, starting a vicious cycle.. The only thing we can do is to give the effort to break that cycle.. Some of us see that effort and define it as wisdom. Some of us do not, or can not see that effort and want to run the easy mile and stick to how they have already defined us.”, Thomas replied quietly.
“He means, I was a screwed-up mess when I was young and pretty much started a fight at the drop of a hat. I beat the son of everyone in this village, and now am paying the price in scowls.”, Bremorel replied.
“You had a good reason to mess up, love. What’s their excuse?”, Thomas objected sternly.
“Your perception and your opinion in this matter are biases, Thomas, and we both know it.”, Bremorel said.
“My perception, along with my opinion, may be biased. But I did come after you for a reason. And that reason, among many other reasons, was because I thought you deserved a second chance.”, Thomas frowned.
“And here I thought you came after me because you thought I was pretty and cool.”, she smirked.
“And I still think you are pretty and cool, and pretty cool, my dear, but I stand by what I said. I always believed you were wiser and better than what anyone else thought. You just needed a push in the right direction. In the end, though, it was you who made the decision to change, because if one does not wish it, no amount of push can do that for you —and here we are..”, he said as they walked out of the town’s north gate and the great stone bridge stretching over the Arashkan River.
They all looked beyond the stone bridge and at the seeming chaos; multitudes of refugees across the bridge, platoons of Arashkan militia and regulars either patrolling or training, and scores of dwarves mounted on pony-sized, and very evil looking armored goats. On the far west of the chaos was the elven military camp. On the east were thousands of men and women laying great tree lumbers stretching from the river in a path for the many, black sailed ships with skull-flags hoisted on their masts, waiting. When the ‘path’ was all laid and around the stone bridge, the Drashan pirate armada would be ready to be transported overland and put on the west side of the bridge where they would start their deadly patrols against any Orken ships that would come at the town them from Arashkan Lake.
The arrival of some six scores of Drashan pirate ships, all-black had caused quite a ruckus. Trust being an issue, more were, at this very moment, floating back and forth near the delta where Arashkan River poured into the Endless Sea in case some enterprising Endless Watch commander got ideas about this being an excellent opportunity to sink as many pirates as possible in one fell swoop!
The three looked up to see the black ships full of evil-looking men, armed to the teeth, staring at every direction with vary, watchful eyes.
“Alright.”, said Thomas when they had their fill. “From this point, we will be following Arashkan river and head east. Once we are far enough, we will turn south and travel in that direction, gradually circling around west until we enter the Lost Forest..”
“..We shall skim past south of Silent Hills and through the forest and go further west all the way to Last Hope. From there, and if everything goes well, we will enter Game Woods and up into Hobs End hills. I really hope the villagers there have long abandoned those hills because that is our destination and our likely query. We expect a large encampment of Orken settled there, hence at least two, maybe three of their Grunt Generals should be there.. According to all the intel, every Grunt General is accompanied by at least two Blood Shamans, so that’ll be somewhere between four to six of them, possibly more. The information Lady Lilly and Agent Largo gathered during their tenure and consequent escape from Arashkan was that the Blood Shamans are quite cunning and ruthless and feel absolutely no remorse and are very free with their flame strikes, hexes, and other damning curses. Morel will take point doing wide sweeps, and you, Temez, will be doing short-range reckon to get a basic layout of the land and familiarize yourself with the outdoors. This will be a first for you so we will start slowly while you formulate ways on how to best utilize your own skills with both your surroundings and with the two of us and vice versa. Remember, our primary objective is to reach Hobs End to take out the Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans. But you might have noticed, we are taking a rather roundabout route to get there. That is to accomplish our secondary objective, which is to scout the furthest outer reaches of Serenity Home in case the Orken have deployed their camouflaging device and taken advantage of our assumptions that they will sit out the winter between Two Day Forest and Vodgar, and are instead circling all the way around, possibly using our route, in hopes of hitting the town from the rear. Thanks to the finalized Pixie Project the half-born have created and fitted into the PPG’s —Pressure Propelled Grenades supplied by Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome, we are now armed with a countermeasure to reveal their location even if they are using the camo device. The other four groups will also be using similar, far-reaching routes to get to their goals and are also armed with PPG’s.. Today we will go slow but steady and push a little to get as far away from the town and prying eyes as possible before we set up camp. When we settle down for the night, we can talk about each other’s capabilities and hammer out some working strategies and possibly some contingencies.”
“Love it when you do your commander-voice. I could do a hundred push-ups if you barked an order, now!”, Bremorel grinned and took off.
Thomas was smiling after her when Temez spoke.
“I understand now. She is hiding many of her feelings behind the banter.”
“Possibly.”, agreed, Thomas.
“I have noticed, ever since we came to this Mortal coil, and your temple; you let her beat you on many of the banter and the arguments.”, she said. “You are the wiser.. So, why do you?”
“Many reasons.”, the young temple guardian mused. “But the simple matter of fact is, beating isn’t winning, particularly when it comes to certain social interactions. My Morel is smart enough to beat me when she so wishes, but she chooses not to. And when she knows I am right, she lets me win. It is an unspoken agreement between us. Otherwise, neither she nor I really enjoy arguing nor do we do banter in private anyway!”
Perigren Ostlanna Temez blinked.
“You are putting on a show for others?”, she blurted.
“Well.. I wouldn’t have come out and said it like that, but I suppose we are.”, Thomas said with a rare grin.
“But.. why?”, Temez asked.
“Again, many reasons. At this particular moment, however, it is to give you the time to adjust —in a fun and polite way, and in a similarly polite way, we are, in fact, inviting you into the conversation to have your thoughts and inputs in any given matter.”
Temez stared at the senior temple guardian for a long, amazed moment.
“To have thought my kin and I were made to know Mortals..”, she sighed.
“My dear Perigren Ostlanna Temez.. In time you will see that being a mortal —or not— is not what truly defines us. It is what we do with the time given to us that matters.”, Thomas said. “Your kin never really knew about us mortals. Yet, you opted to trust your friend, Merisoul, even though she herself didn’t know us either. You acted upon her rather limited observations on us. Perhaps it was fate that brought her in proximity to decent men and women such as Queen Alor’Nadien ne; who is kind, understanding, and has a very generous heart, even though she was ousted from her people, and by no other than her own father. Young Udoorin; who is quite hot-headed at times, but who is also kind at heart and honorable. My Morel; who is hot-headed all the time, but, in fact, has a very tender, struggling soul. Master Aager; who is quite the heartless man, yet not unjust and very protective of those around him. Lady Inshala; who was a lost soul herself, not unlike Merisoul, and even though she had suffered horribly at the hands of us mortals and had no reason to trust nor feel any compassion for us, yet she chose to do so. When I look back, I see every single one of Merisoul’s company as people who, one way or another, had suffered, including Master Gnine, Morel’s cousin, Laila, and Lady Magella.. Like I said, perhaps it was fate that brought her in proximity to decent men and women.. As horrid as your origins were, it was still the only place you knew, and consequently, was your comfort zone, as inappropriate as that sounds. But in and amongst the damned, you chose to make a friend, then chose to trust said friend and leave the only place you knew, and out of your comfort zone, hence now, you are here, with us and among mortals, and are part of us. It is from this moment on what you will do, that will matter. And what both of us must do, at this very moment, is we had better start moving and further pick up our pace, or else my esteemed ranger lieutenant will beat us!
✱ ✱ ✱
Just for the record, I fully object to this plan, my King. It is a reckless and quite the hare-brained endeavor. Have you ever considered what will happen to your people should anything happen to either you or the queen?”, Lord Armathelius smoldered quietly where he stood in his king’s tent.
“Your objections have been duly noted, my Lord Armathelius. And yes, I have, in fact, given it a thorough thought as to what will happen to my people, should anything unfortunate occur to us; they will fight the Orken with fury unheard of, to avenge their queen. But to make sure we do return, we have taken all possible precautions. Which is why we are taking Lady Lenna with us. She is our precaution!”, Udoorin replied merrily as he stood in the unpartitioned section of his tent and was calmly putting on his brand new armor —compliments of Lord Armathelius himself.
Lord Armathelius, however, just fumed.
“No need to make a fuss, Armathelius.”, Udoorin said to him lightly. “The Queen and I make an excelling team and Lady Lenna is very good at what she does. I wouldn’t trust my Alor’Nadien ne to anyone else but her. And maybe Master Aager Fogstep and little Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane.. and ranger lieutenants Laila Wolvesbane and Bremorel Songsteel.. Suffice to say, the list is rather short because they have proven their mettle. My elves have not. And as much as they might fret on that statement, I simply do not care. My Lorna, my friends, and I have fought side by side, tooth, and nail, and spilled our blood for one another. The elves have yet to prove themselves. You might want to tell them that.”
“I was not aware you hated elves this much, my King.”, Lord Armathelius seethed, his face getting darker by the minute.
“You misunderstand me, my Lord. I do not hate peoples.. Any peoples.. What I do hate are certain deeds, perspectives, and attitudes.. The fact that these elves are here, as opposed to where they should have been; fighting in unison against the Orken at High Woods and Bari Na-ammen, is the definition of a fractured people and stupidity at an unprecedented level. Yes, you could not see the Orken, but you knew something was out there since you had some of the best rangers in the kingdom.. Now, I am not a very imaginative guy, but even I could think of any number of things that could have been done to defend my home. Your elves opted to get divided between Ri Grandaleren and Angrellen, which is to say, your king and a woman known for her bloody machinations for over a millennia, dammit, and yet you simply let your kingdom get run over by those animals. They were fighting each other when the Orken came, and they continued to fight each other even as the Orken butchered them! We were in Arashkan with platoons of bloody Orken on our tail and elves of High Spires tried to assassinate their Queen.. So when you say I hate elves, I would like you to amend that with how much I abhor them! You might want to pass all these to your elves as well because when I return with my Queen, I will want to see the change in their stance and attitude. You might also remind them that there are very few options to be had here, and none of them are that good. They will all be exiles even should we win this war, because I have no desire to waste my, nor my Queen’s life to build a kingdom where they will have their old status quo..”, King Udoorin said coolly.
Lord Armathelius stood there, quietly petrified, as he stared at his king.
“I am not an unreasonable man, my Lord.”, Udoorin continued. “I have nothing against you and appreciate everything you have done here. But you must understand the underlying reasons that brought you and your people to this dire predicament. And if some things do not change, no amount of war will win you your homes back and I will not ask Serenity Home for help on your behalf just so you guys can go back to the good old days!.. And I will certainly not ask the dwarves, the gnomes, nor the Durkahan Paladins, or the Koruxan Knights who already very much hate you, or the Palantine Militia, nor the Vodgar Nuke Squads to risk their people on behalf of more stupidity on our part. And we all know, it will be impossible for us to clean High Woods off the Orken because if they lose here, that is where they will run and hide and High Woods will be infested by them.”
He paused for a moment considering how much further he should push the elf lord. Then he figured, he needed this elf on his side. But as much as he needed him and his elves, he needed them to understand the full extent of their situation even more.
“I am a man of simple words, my Lord Armathelius, and my simple words are; I do not do machinations. But when I see people that do, I kill them. Period. Because people who do machinations believe they are better than the rest of us and think they have more rights to life than others. They think others are their peons and hence, are expendable. I do not. As much as I abhor what the elves did, I shall not risk any of their lives on tasks I wouldn’t do myself, which is exactly what my Queen believes. This is why we are going, as opposed to sending others on our behalf. King and Queen, we may be, but neither of us values life more, or less than any of the elves here, and neither of us shall waste the lives of any elves even though they have sworn us their loyalty. When the war begins, I shall sell their lives, if I must, at the highest possible cost to the Orken and I shall be fighting right beside them. If they want a future that involves home and honor, however, they must change, and we have passed the point where this is optional..”, he said solemnly, stressing many words.
Lord Armathelius regarded him for a long moment before speaking.
“I understand, my King. In retro respect, Bari Na-ammen could have been avoided had we risen up and ousted Angrellen the Betrayer.”
“Perhaps.”, Udoorin said. “But Angrellen was not the cause of Bari Na-ammen’s downfall. She was merely the symptom.. the spearhead of an already existing, cancerous condition.. Ultimately, she was merely an end product of a dangerous and ruinous perspective, Lord Armathelius, not the creator of it. If it hadn’t been her it would have been someone else.. Do consider how Ri Grandaleren treated his own wife and his only child; the only heir to his throne.. When you want a clean field, you don’t nip at the weeds. You uproot them. And the changes I have been speaking is the uprooting!”
Lord Armathelius mulled over what he had just been told. It was, somewhat depressing to hear all this from a nineteen-year-old ‘kid’ who looked nothing more than a lumbering, trigger-happy, ax-wielding idiot—
Armathelius stopped just this side of treason and finally it dawned on him why his gracious and wise Queen, the Heart of High Woods, had chosen this ‘boy’ as her King, and life-long partner..
“I was always against Angrellen and the way she imposed ‘purity of High Woods’ ideas amongst us. But it seems what I should have been against is a much larger issue. I will think over this than impose upon those here what it might entail.”, he said quietly.
“While you are entailing them..”, Udoorin grinned. “..you might also want to remind them that the first king of the Kingdom of Isles was a human, a ship captain by the name, Barakan Heavenswi̇ll who saved the elves and the other races who resided in the core islands from a terrifying foe and that his wife was no other than Arael Telona, who likely had a more beautiful elven name, and was the very daughter of Terandel Solace, and was also the niece to both Sinderel Tranquil and Elorellen Feymist, of whom your Queen is the direct descendant.”
Lord Armathelius mulled over that too.
“I have a chore for the elves while we are gone, which should give them something to do besides smoldering over their past sins. I have drawn some sketches, though I can’t claim any artistic proficiency about its beauty. I want a thirty feet wide and fifteen feet deep trench dug on the west side of our camp, all the way from the Arashkan River shore to the south edge of Ritual Forest. You will have to dam the river end and load the dam with explosives in case the Orken come in overbearing numbers. I want the camp side of the trench filled with sharp stakes and a long array of strong wooden frames build as well. The frames should be about your elven shield high. When the Orken arrives, I need them to see a long line of elves bearing their standard ‘shield and pike’s formation and think they can bull their way through if they pushed hard enough. Normally, that would work because they have the brute strength for it. But if the shields are held against the wooden framework, they can push all they want and still won’t be able to push through. Not while the elven pikemen are poking at them and your archers are riddling them with arrows from behind the pikemen.”
Lord Armathelius stared at Udoorin with amazement. He had been sure the young man was a good warrior, sure, but a strategist as well?
“Both of the ideas are quite impressive, my King. We will need many more hands than the elves for them, though.”, he said.
“You can ask Mayor Arthandos Yuleman for the work force, which he can provide from the Arashkan refugees, and the dwarves can provide the engineers.”, Udoorin offered.
“The esteemed mayor of Serenity Home might accept our request, since the trench and the framework will be protecting them as well, but the dwarves might not be so eager. There is little love lost among our peoples.”, Armathelius mused.
“Ow, they will help, alright, since I have already spoken with Yuleman, and the dwarves.”, Udoorin grinned.
“The dwarves agreed?”, Lord Armathelius asked with quite a bit of surprise.
“But of course. Since the whole idea was theirs to begin with. Their tactical general, Dridges Motherswolfie and her entourage were safe housed in the next building when we were hit by the assassins and once we’d killed our lot, we had nothing better to do, so we called them over to where we were and had many long hours to get to know each other, and flesh out this plan, though she said it would make me look cooler if I made it look like the whole thing was my idea, but I do not like lies and don’t really need to look ‘cooler’. I just want the Orken dead and gone and I do not particularly care by whom or how.”, the young king said.
“My King. You are a distinctly unique person. I shall order your elves to start with the trench and the framework immediately, and send word to the esteemed mayor, and the dwarves for the needed workforce and the engineers. And I wish you and my Queen a safe journey.”, Lord Armathelius said solemnly, bowed, and left..
The partition opened and Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist soundlessly stepped out, dressed in her long, black, loose gown once again. She had given some careful effort to brush and braid her raven black hair but had left it just this side of slightly messy..
..giving her a very endearing appearance, over her already very alluring and demure beauty.
She had come out of Udoorin’s sleeping quarters the moment Lord Armathelius had left and now the young man was outright ogling at her, love struck all over again.
“You.. you are so beautiful..”, he whispered hoarsely.
“Thank you, my King.”, she replied with a blushing face.
“Why.. why are you thanking me for?”, he mumbled.
“I know you wanted a public wedding as well as the one we had in private, yet when I imposed myself upon you, you did not rebuke me.”, she replied.
“A fool is the man who rebukes his woman. Not.. that we did anything.. I was too petrified in fear of hurting you..”, Udoorin mumbled some more as his face turned bright red.
“I merely wanted to rest my head on you and listen to your heart. The only other time I slept this soundly was when I was about five and the Spirit of High Woods spoke to me, proclaiming me as her chosen heart. I thanked you for your very presence, and the comfort you have given me.”, she replied quietly.
“Well. I was glad that you did. You smell very nice.”, Udoorin admitted awkwardly, his face quite flushed.
“Isn’t that how we met? You, complaining about my smell?”
“I certainly did not!”, Udoorin replied quite indignantly with his face burning even more.
“I am sorry, love. I am only teasing. Though that misunderstanding led us both here.”, she said as she smiled up at him.
“I am tempted to say, get a room you two, but you seem to have that covered.”, said an amused voice, and Anglenna entered.
Udoorin’s face was dark red now.
“Cousin..”, reprimanded Lorna, her own face also flushed.
“I also see the two of you have had a restful sleep. Good! I am happy for you. It was ever so tiresome trying to keep an eye on two separate tents. That said, here is your armor, my Queen. Do put it on quickly because we really should get started. Upon insistence from Lord Armathelius, several of our wizards will put illusions on some of the elves here and make them look like the three of us. There will be eight such groups and they will all head out in different directions.”
Udoorin and Lorna stared at her.
“Is all that really necessary?”, he asked.
“I wouldn’t know and I have no desire to further argue with Thelius any more than I already have. He is a rather pig-headed man and he irks me to no end!”, Anglenna fumed.
And now Udoorin and Lorna stared at one another..
..with barely discernable grins!
“Going to miss this carpet.”, Udoorin coughed. “But not these bloody chairs, nor the very uncomfortable thing you people call a caima-whatsit!”
“Caima is elfish for ‘bed’, young man. Just which part of it did you not like? It is made from the best elfish silk and velvet that was readily available.”, Anglenna asked, one of her platinum-blond eyebrows raised.
“The part where I won’t have to sleep in it anymore. The only decent rest I had since you guys put me into this tent was this morning and that’s because Lorna was there..”, he said, then paused. “I… uhhmm.. Perhaps I didn’t say that out loud and you didn’t really hear it?”, he pleaded.
“Ow, no, young man. The verdict is out.”, replied Anglenna, her eyes glittering with amusement. “I will go and grab a few personal effects and return here. Do be ready by then, if you will?”
“I am sorry about that.”, Udoorin apologized, once Anglenna was gone. “I keep blurting things and make you look bad.”
“Don’t mind my cousin, dear. It’s her way of showing how fond she is of you.”, Lorna smiled at him.
“Lenna is fond of me?”, he asked a bit surprised.
“My cousin only banters with those she feels happy and secure. Which was depressingly never in her past, and deploringly never when she was with her mother.”, Lorna replied quietly.
“That’s.. just sad..”, Udoorin mused.
“The things you said to Lord Armathelius. They were harsh, dear.”, she said with the same quiet voice.
“You think so?”, he asked, raising both his brows. “I thought I held back.”
“You held back just enough, love. They were harsh, to be sure, but they had to be said. It is good that he heard them, and heard them from you. I do not think I could have said any of them.”, she said honestly. “They must change, my Dorin. And they must do this willingly. What little they know is, we are likely the last cycle this world ever has. If we do not become part of the rest of the world as my great ancestors intended, we will be part of a massacre that is waiting to happen.”
“Well. Let’s not waste any more time then and get you into your armor, which does make you look awesome, by the way.”, Udoorin said with a genuine smile.
“You.. you really think so?”, Lorna asked a bit girlishly.
“My dear wife, I know so..”
“Ahh, good. I see you are both ready. Now then, let’s go over the plan, shall we?”, said Anglenna when she returned.
“Nothing all that complicated, really.”, Udoorin said as he pulled out a tattered map of the general area and started pointing at various locations and running a finger between them. “We will travel from here and into Ritual Forest, skim pass both Elder Hills and the dwarves and Nurturing Heaven and the wood elves there and out the north end of the forest. We will then make a sharp turn at the western edges of Rook Mountains and travel into The Marbles, which is going to be a heck of a walk and we will likely encounter a lot of trolls, hill giants, and whatever else The Marbles will throw at us. We will cross those hills horizontally and come out the other end and turn south. We will then sort of squeeze past Arcanton Mordenon’s ruined tower and hope to enter High Woods from the north. We will play some hide and seek and enter whatever’s left of Bari Na-ammen from the southwest.”
“You are aware that is possibly the longest route to get to Bari Na-ammen, young man, right?”, Anglenna said. “Is there any particular reason why we are going to be making a dashing marathon through the wilderness instead of me just teleporting us directly to Bari Na-ammen?”
“You can do that?”, Udoorin asked a bit surprised.
“Yes.”, she replied simply.
“With accuracy, I mean.”, he implemented without any insinuations.
“Yes.”, Anglenna said, though she was fuming a bit now. Then, as if needing to clear her previous, and quite deadly, blunder, she added; “My last time was faulty because I did not know this town very well. The only thing I remembered of it was starting at the Gull’s Perch from the window of the Guest’s House while I waited for your arrival. It is possible I formed that image in my mind in my moment of panic when I sent the two of you here. Later, when I teleported myself, I had a more steady moment to imagine the room I’d stayed, which, in retro respect, I hadn’t really given a second glance, making me crash land into the Guest’s House —a rather painful process I wouldn’t want to repeat. Turns out, your mother, Lady Nadine Graciousward had a teleportation circle installed in Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome’s workshop all along, and it’s been there for decades.. My house in Bari Na-ammen, however, is a place I know very well, even though it might not be standing. Not only that, I shall be targeting my own mother’s teleportation circle she had installed in her own workshop many centuries ago!”
“Your mother might be still there..”, Udoorin said a bit uncomfortably.
“She might. But I doubt. She absolutely abhors the Orken, who return her feelings for them with compounded interest.”, Anglenna replied coolly. “And you do not have to tiptoe around me all that carefully every time the topic of my mother is brought up, my King. As much as she was my mother, living with her was pure Hell. I feel nothing but shame for being related to her. However, should we face her one day, I doubt she will spare you, my King, certainly not you, my Queen, just like she will not show any compassion for me. I doubt Angrellen the Betrayer knows what that word even means..”
There was an awkward silence after that as young Udoorin gave his wife and Queen a careful, side-long glance.
“No.”, Lorna said quietly. “The High Lady’s time to answer for her crimes will come in due time. Our main objective is to search and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans. And that does not include a family squabble. We shall not have a stand-off with her even if we see her. We will wait until she is gone and continue with our plan. I have no desire to have my aunt’s blood in my hands, nor do I want my cousin to have her mother’s.. The reason we are taking the long way around is to find out where the Orken came from in the first place and to discover if their missing army is circling around to strike us from the north. It is likely we might miss their main base, even if it is in our way, but we will find traces of their passage or camp sights, which is why the Serenity Home Temple Guardians will be keeping tabs on us on regular basis, just like they will do so for the other four groups. Should we find anything worthwhile, we will pass that information to the temple guardians, who will, in turn, pass our findings to both the high elves and the wood elves, the dwarves, the Arashkan generals, the mayor, Arthandos Yuleman, and the ogres, as per need.”
“Very well, cousin.”, Anglenna said calmly. “And thank you for being considerate.”
“I am not being all that considerate, cousin Lenna. I just do not think a face-off with my aunt is worth your life. You have been dear to me from the moment I could barely walk and talk. I have since looked up to you for everything worth mentioning. I shall admit selfishness on my part, but I have no desire to let that change.”, Lorna replied, and though she was smiling, her eyes said she was quite serious about what she’d just said.
“Alright..”, Udoorin coughed to diffuse the awkward situation. “..Good carpets!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Aager Fogstep walked into the kitchen, looked around, and found what he sought; a well-polished ibrik, another one of Mother Grulganiste’s gifts, this one particularly for him, since the ogress chieftain knew Inshala never drank coffee. And it was sitting happily in the fireplace. He grabbed a tin cup from one of the shelves on his way to the grate, reached for the ibrik—
“Careful. It’s very hot..”, said the husky voice of Lilly Venom, brooding quietly in a corner.
—grabbed it with his bare hand and poured himself some coffee, then placed it back into the fireplace.
“..Apparently, not so much.”, mused the girl in her dark brown leather trench coat.
“You are earlier than I’d hoped you’d be.”, growled Aager as he took a sip from the scorching coffee.
“Is this growling thing you got going, the only voice I am going to hear from you?”, she frowned.
“Likely. Get punched enough many times when you are a kid on your head and your throat, this is what you get.”, Aager replied with another growl and shrugged. He didn’t bother telling her, his first owner, Hoghart, had come to him with a blunt knife too..
Lilly Venom stared at him for a moment.
“I am sorry to hear that.”, she said sincerely. “I guess we both suffered Drashan in our own way.”
Aager shrugged again.
“It’s all in the past and I see little reason to smother myself in it. I got out. You got out. As long as the pirates anchored at the stone bridge don’t recognize me, it is only Inshala, and this coffee, that matters —good coffee, by the way; dark, bitter, and tasteless!”
“You are welcome.”, Lilly said with a bemused expression. “Would rather they did not recognize me either.. I started freelancing after I was done with my contract on Trimdel Kandara of Endless Watch. I was supposed to have returned but didn’t. I got out of that stinking island and I am never going back.”
“Good for you. Now, why are you here this early? I thought we’d end up dragging you from your hubby..”, he said as he sipped some more of his coffee.
Lilly stared down at her own cup and didn’t reply.
“I.. see..”, Aager said and dearly hoped she wouldn’t suddenly go all girly on him and open up to him and yearn for a heart-to-heart with him and start telling him all about her private issues!
“Do you ever have regrets?”, she asked.
“There we go..”, mumbled Aager darkly. “..and there goes my silent morning coffee!”
“Many.”, he said out loud. “You’re going to have to be a bit more specific.”
“About Inshala—”, she began.
“—No!”, he growled and the tin cup in his hand screamed as it was crushed, spilling the hot coffee all over his hand.
The coffee hissed and steamed..
..and turned into dark brown flakes of frost in seconds, leaving his hand unscathed.
“Uhhmm.. No, what?”, Lilly asked.
“Inshala is off-limits, Lilly.”, he snarled quietly.
“I wasn’t trying to pry—”
“Inshala. Is. Off. Limits!”, he repeated even more quietly, staring deep into her eyes.
Lilly felt something crawl down her spine and very nearly went for her daggers!
“Ow kay..”, she said. “I am sorry, brother. I did not mean anything by it. I was merely seeking common ground to start a conversation.”
“There is no common ground where she is concerned, Lilly.”, Aager snarled.
“Very well.”, she said and dropped the issue. Apparently, her brother was very, very touchy where his little mate was concerned. A bit overprotective too.. “I told Largo I wouldn’t return to him if he kept up his moping and wouldn’t let go of his guilt.”
“Better get down here.”, growled Aager in his mind.
“On my way, my Aager. I was almost finished with the packing. Is something wrong? You sound unhappy. And angry.”, he heard Inshala’s voice answering him.
“Lilly is here.”, he said, fuming a bit.
“Yes. She came in earlier and made herself at home, as she should because I told her to do that whenever she came.”, Inshala replied happily.
“I don’t mind her coming here. What I do mind is her trying to talk to me about her personal issues. What do I know about such things?”, he said and he was fuming more now. “She should talk to you, not me.”
“Ow, my Aager. Lilly knows she could talk to me about anything she wants. This I have told her as well. I also told her it was alright if I didn’t understand what she would say, but I would do my best to do so.”
“Well, you can talk to her now.”
“No.”, Inshala said.
“No?”, Aager asked a bit startled. Inshala seldom said ‘no’ to him.
“Lilly knows she could talk to me.”, she repeated. “Yet she is here and talking to you. It is not me she wants to talk to, it is you!”
“The Hell! Why does she want to talk to me? I don’t talk to people about my issues, accept you!”, he further fumed!
“Because you are her elder brother, my Aager. I wouldn’t know what that means, but obviously, that is significant for her.”, she said sending him her best smile..
“The idiot!”, Aager snarled.
“Aager Fogstep!”, Inshala exclaimed. “That was not nice! She is your baby sister!”
“Baby sister..”, Aager snorted, only to face an intimidating sort of silence from Inshala’s end of the conversation.
“Dammit!”, he fumed one final time.
“He is a grown man. As a matter of fact, he is more grown than everyone in this house put together. He should be allowed to make his own decisions, which includes moping and brooding all he wants.”, Aager said, which apparently didn’t help matters at all because Lilly was giving him her, ‘I am going to stab you now’, stare.
Aager sighed and went for another tin cup and back to the grate, filled his new cup from the ibrik, and took a sip.
For whatever reason, his sister had chosen this morning to want relationship advice.. and from him!
The stupidity of people was mind-staggering at times.
Then it occurred to him;
The ‘idiot’ was actually looking up to him!
She was looking up to him because she had, literally, no one else to look up to in the world and because.. well.. he was her elder brother..
And as impossible as it seemed, even now, he had an intensely exemplary connection with his Inshala. True, Lilly had told him she hadn’t wanted that kind of a relation with Largo because she thought it was just too intense, but then, she had loathed all men, all her life because of her past, and the only reason she’d made an exception for the former Arashkan ARIS agent was, she had found him to be gentle, mature, and hoped ‘he would treat her right.. and alright..’ as she’d phrased it. But as patient as she had been with Largo, much like he had been with her, Lilly just wasn’t temperamentally equipped to deal with a guilt riddled man because his guilt got in the way of her much wanted happiness —a something she desperately yearned, and also something she thought her elder brother had, who also happened to be the only person in the world she had..
“Dammit!”, swore Aager again from inside.
“You are a patient girl, Lilly.”, he said finally. “More so than I could ever be. More so than anyone I have known and you have an eighty-plus hours of waiting in a cramped air shaft to assassinate Trimdel Kandara under your belt to prove it. Men of our caliber feel things more intensely than others because we train ourselves to never feel anything. Hence when we do, it sticks. I know this might be hard for you to believe, just as I know I am going to regret saying it, but I am guessing you were the best thing Largo has ever had in his entire life, and that probably includes his deceased wife. You don’t have to tell him I said that, by the way. My point is, you are quite unique in ways he has never seen or experienced before. Thus, he not only has to deal with the guilt of his failure as an ARIS agent that resulted in the destruction of Arashkan, which is a grossly arrogant guilt because ARIS is not a one-man intelligence service, but it had thousands of agents working for it, he also has to deal with his guilt that he has married a young, pretty girl who is extraordinarily focused and talented.. and deadly, and who also casts a shadow over his deceased wife.”
Lilly stared at him.
“Are you for real? I am just an assassin! I have no skills beyond that. I can barely cook, and when I do, Largo is almost afraid to eat it because he says, and I quote, ‘The stew was delicious. Bet it never saw you coming!’.. Just which part of me could be a match for his deceased wife?”
“Your lack of confidence in yourself in this matter is based on your lack of socially acceptable human interactions, baby sister. Hence you think you lack more than you do. I met Largo only after Sheriff Standorin and I came to apprehend you. He looked tired. And beaten. And defeated. After the two of you married, however, he looked renewed. Like a much younger man. So that’s made me thinking, ‘Lilly must be doing somethings right!'”
Lilly’s face went bright red.
“The man loves you. And don’t you start with that silly LA LA LA LA thing of yours on me again. You are not a little girl, Lilly. But like all sentient creatures, he also has multiple levels of complex and complicated thoughts and feelings. One such feeling is his awe for you, coupled with his possible fear of losing you too, consequently further boosting his guilt about his deceased wife, which probably bolsters his already existing guilt for his failure in Arashkan. What’s more, it is not really his fault that he feels so, even though it is stupid and illogical, but guilt has little to do with logic. I feel guilty about how we let some assassins enter our town all those months ago and have them almost burn our town down into the ground because town security was my responsibility. And just a few days ago, the town was attacked, once again, by even more assassins that resulted in the death of nearly two thousand people, though most of that was the result of people getting trampled in the chaos. The sheriff feels the same way. I am guessing so do you, now that you are also part of the security. In the end, though, we all know, through personal experience, just how impossible it is to survive a well-planned and executed ambush, seeing as how many times the both of us have done it in the past.”, Aager said in his low, grating voice.
“Inshala was right.”, she whispered in an almost inaudible voice. “She told me to talk to you and that you would help because that’s what family does..”
“I think she overestimates my skills when it comes to giving advice to a sister, seeing as she will likely ignore them, anyway.”, he replied.
“That does not disqualify the validity of the advice, though.”, Lilly said quietly. “What should I do?”
“Go to your man, because that’s exactly what he is; your man! He belongs to you, and to you alone.. Others might be more free in their relationships and with their marriages. But likely for the same, intensely felt emotions of people in our line of deadly work, we are more susceptible to unconditional trust, hence, belonging. You think what I have with my Inshala is unique? Yes, it is. But only because of the kind of Hell she went through in her past and the kind of Hell I went through to keep her alive. I am certain that stubborn, mule-headed ranger girl, Morel, has a similar, very nearly unconditional relation with Thomas. Much like what Udoorin has with his Lorna. You think none of us have any regrets or guilt? The only difference between us and you is ‘time’.. We have had enough of it for our relations with our individual mates to grow and settle and still we are tested at every other turn. You have been married for barely a month, yet you expect a high ranking ARIS agent to rid himself of nearly forty years of accumulated guilt? And I thought you were a little smart.” Aager growled, though not unkindly. “As to what you should do, that’s up to you. If it were me, I’d tell him, you are just a silly girl who can’t bear to see him like this, and that you are sorry and you will be more patient and understanding in the future, because at the end of the day, only decent men feel guilt, and what the two of you got is dear and beautiful, and that is worth fighting for..”
Lilly ogled at him.
“Told you before, baby sister; Lose some, to win some.. This is where you lose some of your face and pride to win some of him!”
Lilly, as it turned out, wasn’t as pig-headed as she seemed, nor was she the kind of girl to over-brood and wait for things to happen. Or perhaps she did, infact, trust her elder brother, which Aager very much doubted.. Whatever her reasons were, she swallowed what remained of her coffee, along with her pride, and without another word, she dashed out of the kitchen, and out of the house..
..to come face to face with Largo, who had one fist up and was about to knock on the door.
Aager heard the uncomfortable voice of Agent Largo croak..
“I am so, so sorry Lilly. I am an idiot and a fool.”
“And I am so, so sorry Largo. I.. I am just a silly girl who can’t bear to see you like this. I promise I shall be more patient and understanding in the future—”, Lilly spluttered.
“No, love. You were more than patient with me and certainly more understanding than I deserved. I came here in hopes of catching you before you left. I.. I want us to part in peace, and once this mission of yours is done, I very much desire you to return to me in peace.. I.. just want you.. Please?”, Largo stammered.
“—and because at the end of the day, only decent men like you feel guilt, and what the two of us have is dear and beautiful, and that is worth fighting for!”
Aager Fogstep filtered out the rest..
..and the kitchen fell silent as Largo and Lilly stepped out and into the garden for a proper, deservingly extended farewell.
He poured himself another coffee and grunted..
“Huh!”, he said. “The things a man must do for a quiet, dark, bitter and tasteless coffee..”
..and went over the plan they, Aager himself, his Inshala, and Lilly were assigned..
They would enter Ritual Forest and travel past the ranger outpost, First Watch, then sort of veer north and east to Oger’s Foot to meet with Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth to hammer out the details of their agreement with the ogres and grab their representatives and turn west for Dim Woods to meet with the woodsmen so the ogres could drag their lumber all the way to Serenity Home without being harrassed as more ogres would come down Rook Mountains, bringing large amounts of ‘rock’ needed to further the construction of the wall defending the town. Aager couldn’t think of a more foolish encounter where the woodsmen and the ogres would behave. They literally hated each other. A deep-seated animosity that went back some eight hundred years.. Aager didn’t care if they killed or ate one another. What he did mind was that Inshala had been chosen as the liaison between them. The man in the dark leathers wondered just who had been this insensitive as to send the little girl to the woodsmen, considering what they had done to her in the past! Aager was going to hurt someone badly for that particular decision though he wasn’t quite sure who it was; the mayor, Arthandos Yuleman, or Agent Largo, who had been among the strategists, or even Queen Alor’Nadien ne and King Udoorin, to whom they owed this whole, foolish endeavor!
He grinded his teeth, gulped down some more coffee, and carried on..
After the woodsmen, they would go to Nurturing Heaven to look in on the wood elves there, then travel west and out of Ritual Forest to arrive at Stinking Shacks, a place worth its name on multiple levels, though in a nostalgic way, it would be a bit like a slice of Drashan for him and Lilly. There, they would need to encourage those thugs to sell all their tar to Serenity Home, as opposed to handing it over to the Orken when they came.. and likely over their dead bodies, since the Orken did not bargain, nor did they trade.. They took. Period.
And finally, they would enter the Tar Pits. A wet, stinking stretch of swamps and bogs where they would search for their suspected targets had likely hidden.. or entrenched; three Grunt Generals and three times as many of their Blood Shamans.
Aager also wondered whose head he would have to crack should they survive that. The Orken were hardy creatures, to begin with, and he doubted they chose their Grunt Generals for their beauty, but for their battle prowess.. not to mention their bloody Blood Shamans.
Someone must have thought quite highly of him, he thought darkly..
Someone who he would dissuade from using him and his Inshala, if not his sister, thus callously..
It was about then, there was a polite, non-intrusive knock on the door.
Aager recognized that knock.
Hence, he walked over to the shelves and took down, yet another tin cup and filled it with the dark, bitter, and tasteless coffee from the smoldering ibrik and ghosted over to the door and quietly opened it.
The burly Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart stared at him for a moment and noted the two tin cups he was holding; one half empty, the other full and steaming. He grinned at him and gave him a nod.
“You never cease to amaze me young man.”, he said, still grinning. “Though I must admit, I was hoping to see young Lady Inshala.”
Aager cocked an eyebrow.
“She is prettier than you are!”, Standorin said, his grin broadening.
Aager gave him a steady gaze.
“Did you know there is a couple making out in your gazebo, just this very moment?”, the sheriff said, further grinning at him.
“Yes; a pair of idiots!”, he growled.
“I.. see..”, said Standorin with an amused expression.
With silent, naked steps, Inshala came down the stairs, carrying a burlap sack. When she saw the sheriff, she whooped, dropped the sack, and came running at the door.
“Sir Sheriff Standorin!”, she exclaimed. “Why are you standing at the door? I am sure you did not have breakfast, and neither did my Aager.. I see both of you went for the coffee, though.”
“I merely..”, began the sheriff and the grin on his face vanished. “..came to ask for your wisdom.”
Aager stood still and made himself scarce because he had known something was off with the sheriff; Standorin didn’t do ‘grins’, nor did he do ‘cheery’. His mate, Inshala, stared up at the big, burly sheriff, her large, beautiful eyes showing signs of worry.
“Will you take heed, should I give it?”, she asked quietly and carefully.
Standorin was an observant man, if nothing else. He noted Aager’s stance, much like the worry he saw in his mate’s eyes. A slight frown settled on his brows but he reminded himself that he had come here for two things, after all; coffee and wisdom.
He reached for the coffee Aager offered him right then, and took a sip..
It tasted horrible!
Just the way he liked it..
Then to the skinny little girl, he nodded.
“Be honest..”, she said softly.
Standorin’s frown deepened, for honesty had never been something he had been accused of lacking.
“..to yourself.”, the skinny little girl finished.
✱ ✱ ✱
Yesss!”, whooped Tonic happily. “Finally we are out of that stuffy and depressing town!”
“It was a very nice town Tonic. And it wasn’t depressing. They are all afraid. They just got raided and there is a war coming their way. And still, they have some very nice people in it.”, objected Seressa. “I liked many things about them and I am sure you did too.”
“Maybe.”, admitted, Tonic grudgingly.
“Their idea of accepting anyone is impressive.”, Cora mused thoughtfully. “Provided they come in peace. I think I will implement that in the future.”
“Implement?”, Seressa asked.
“Nothing.”, Cora replied evasively. “Just something I have been working on for a while.”
“And the fact that you kept your kinship with Lady Nadine Graciousward a secret..”, Seressa said, turning back to Tonic. “..even from me, and I am your pair.”
“I didn’t know she had adopted me after she married Grandaleren, girl.. I learned about it only recently.”, mumbled Tonic.
“But you did learn about it..”, the very tall, very dark girl said with a small pout.
“It is a kinship only in formality, girl. It means absolutely nothing.”, Tonic sighed in an exasperated tone.
“Actually, that is not correct.”, inserted Brom. “I am not sure just how the elves would take it if they ever found out, but that kinship is official and is binding. It would hold in any legal court.”
“Hells bells! What are you now, a bloody attorney?”, Tonic scowled at him.
“As a matter of fact, I am. Being a Bard of the College of Lore, my word would hold in any court of law. Hah! I could even sit in a tribunal and rule in favor of guilt or innocence if I was asked..”, Brom grinned at her.
“Like anyone would..”, she scoffed then snickered. “And even if they were foolish enough to ask, you would literally be out of sight in that tribunal and behind the judge’s bench!”
“Actually, pretty much all courtrooms have hobbit stools.”, Brom smirked.
“Hobbit stool?”, Cora asked.
“It is a faldstool, not unlike a narrow table that fits into a larger chair, luv.”, Seressa said. “So gnomes and halflings can sit and still be visible from the other side of a judge’s bench. But it is historically non-existent that a gnome was ever asked to make a ruling.”
“That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard!”, Tonic laughed.
“When both parties in a dispute that consist of humans, hobbits, much like myself, are oft summoned to make an impartial ruling. A quite common practice in cities like Endless Watch, where there are many hobbits living relatively nearby in Bowling Hills. My father and my uncle were summoned in the King’s name to make such rulings. My great grandfather was summoned so often, they build a hobbit home in the city, just so he wouldn’t need to constantly go back and forth Endless Watch and Bowling Hills.”, Brom replied with a bemused expression.
Tonic scowled at him some more.
“We hobbits, and bards, in particular, are not welcome and respected wherever we go just because we can sing, you know. We are quite the sticklers of the law and we love reading, hence your average hobbit would probably know the King’s Laws better than most of the courtiers in the core islands.”, he grinned.
“You are just making this up.”, Tonic sneered at him.
“I am afraid he isn’t.”, Seressa said.
“Whose side are you anyway?”, she scowled at her too.
“The law does not take sides, luv.”, Seressa smiled down at her.
“Yeah, right.”, Tonic scoffed.
“I am the law!”, Brom said in a low, raspy voice!
Cora stared at him with a puzzled expression.
Tonic just gave him a baleful glare.
“That is my line, dammit! Only I get to mime Judge Bread!”, she spluttered!
“Alright. Let’s pick up the pace, shall we?”, Cora said. “We have a long way to go.. or rather, we have a mild way to go, but a very long and roundabout way to actually get there. Sneaking past the Silent Hills is going to be tricky. I heard many things about that place from the half-born when I went out to see the town and its people. They said the fog is actually a curse and had been layed there many centuries ago and can swallow mortals whole if they went in it, though they didn’t mention how deep.”
“We could just ignore the mist and go through the woods on the shores of Silent Lake.”, Seressa offered.
“We could do that, and seeing as we were also tasked to find ‘hidden’ Orken, we should, but we can decide on that when we get there. Through the woods or the mist, once we get past either, we shall hit south, trek all the way through the big forest called Lost Forest, and come out the other side and follow some deep fissures called Serpent’s End. Once that’s behind us, we will hit Croaking Mire.. some kind of swamp, though I have no idea why we should go there in the first place. We don’t have much in the way of swamps in the Northern Tundras, since any body of inland water is pretty much frozen, all year long and you can pretty much walk over it unless you are wearing spike-healed shoes..”
“Hells bells, what kind of an idiot would wear spike-heeled shoes in winter!”
“Weirder things have been known to happen.”, Cora shrugged.
“Yes.”, added Brom. “Like little girls who wear clobbering, steel-toed boots!”
Tonic gave him her best, thousand-yard glare.
Cora, however, gave him a side-long stare.
And as if on cue, so did Seressa, as she stood on his other side.
Brom realized the scrutiny and the hair on his toes prickled!
“What?”, he asked, a bit creeped out feeling not unlike a strip of bacon, sandwiched between two slices of bread!
“He looks like he wants to tell us something.”, Cora noted.
“No, I don’t!”, Brom said hastily.
“I believe he does.”, Seressa prompted as she smiled down at the bushy little hobbit.
“Please don’t hurt me!”, the hobbit blurted!
“Are we going to hurt the hobbit?”, snickered Tonic from behind. “Because I totally can.. with my clobbering, steel-toed boots!”
“Alright, Brom. What is at this Croaking Mire swamp-whatsit?”, Cora asked, glaring down at him, now.
“I don’t know what you are talking about!”, Brom said glibly.
“Master Brom Bumblebrim.”, Seressa said kindly as she smiled at him. “Must I remind you; I am the Word. But you are the Guide..”
“Yeah. And I am the Shield and all..”, Cora said. “Got two of ’em now!”
“And I am the Enabler. Can I Enable him please? He looks like he is jammed!”, Tonic snarked heartlessly.
“An Angle.. and a Demon Queen..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Good morning Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart.”, mumbled Liaison Berete Hamna Vir when the sheriff came to the Serenity Home Temple to ‘pick up’ the two half-borns and to begin the mission they had been assigned.
“I was hoping it would be.”, the sheriff replied staring at the surly young girl. “You are in a polite mood today.”
“I was warned to be polite.. Threatened, really, that if I wasn’t, I would lose all my sugar cane privileges, and my hours with my Dar Derune would be cut down!”, she said in a clearly infuriated tone.
“I.. see..”, Standorin said. “Is.. Lady Constance here? I..”
“She is not available. And she certainly is not a ‘lady’.”, replied Hamna Vir sullenly.
“And you think she is not a ‘Lady’, why?”, Standorin inquired mildly.
“The word ‘lady’ is a Mortal phrase for ‘woman’ that presumes she is a member of the female gender of some higher standard, which, in essence, tells there are those of the same gender of lower status which also implies Mortal men afflict their own understanding of said standards upon their Mortal women.”, Hamna Vir mumbled.
Standorin stared at her.
“Probably.. Maybe.. I wouldn’t know.. I am a mere sheriff. You are going to have to take what you just said up to the King’s Supreme Judges.”, he replied politely.
“Good dodge.”, she said squinting at him with sharp, vicious eyes.
“So.. about.. Constance.. is she..?”, he started.
“She’s not available. Didn’t you listen to anything I just said? I was told you were good with details and the things going on around you. I am here, and I just told you she was not available and you did not even listen to me. Perhaps the things told all about you were misleading.”, Hamna Vir said sullenly.
“Apparently they were.”, mumbled the sheriff. Today, he thought, was going to be a punitive day.. “Maybe we should get started? Where is your half-born friend?”
“My half-born friend decided to keep Mortal interactions to a minimum to avoid pointless drama you and your kin much prefer and started out early. Should be waiting for us at the edges of the threes you call Ritual Forest.”
“Alright. Are you ready, then? Do you need to pick up weapons, rations, or anything?”, he offered.
“No. I do not. My specialty does not require weapons, Mortal or otherwise. And I can find my own food..”
“Very well..”, Standorin sighed.
This was going to be pure Hell, he just knew it!
The two unlikely pair walked over the stone bridge with many refugees staring at the half-born, until one of the many children, a sweet little boy, trailing after them finally braved up and approached them.
“Excuse me..”, he squeaked, a bit scared, and a bit shyly.
Standorin stopped as he always did whenever anyone, of any age, called out to him because he never ignored the people around him, which was probably why he was unanimously trusted and respected by everyone. The boy did seem familiar, though the good sheriff just couldn’t remember where he’d seen him before.
The little boy, however, was staring at the half-born girl.
“Are.. are you an Angel?”, he asked as his face pinked.
The face of Hamna Vir would have made a perfect study of emotions at that very moment.
She went red, then pink, then purple, then paled as if all color drained out of her.
“I.. do not know how to answer that, Mortal boy.”, she said finally.
“Rodin, pretty Lady. My name is Rodin. I stay in the town with Lady Lilly and Uncle Largo.”
Ahh, mused Standorin. The boy the two had brought along with them from Arashkan.
“I come out here to play with the children from Arashkan because they all lost their homes and now they are sad. I try to cheer them up and bring them what food I can find.”, the boy said with a serious face.
“That.. is very nice of you..”, Hamna Vir mumbled, feeling a bit perplexed. This conversation was something totally out of her league!
“I saw you before, pretty Lady. May I call you ‘pretty Lady’? I wouldn’t want to impose, but I was told by my tutors to always be honest and polite and you are a pretty Lady. You are the new half-born liaison, though I do not know what half-born means..”, he said.
“Yes. I am the new liaison. And you may call me pretty lady if you want. But I must warn you that I am already bonded.”, she said.
“Ow.”, the boy replied, a bit glumly. “Anyone I may duel to win your hand, perhaps?”
“My Dar Derune will not duel, young Rodin, because he needs special care and all the time. I am sure you will find someone else in time?”, Hamna Vir offered kindly, which took Standorin by surprise. Apparently, the surly liaison was the way she was only with grown-ups. “We must be on our way, now. I shall call upon you when our task is done and you can be friends with my Dar Derune, perhaps? He would love that.”
“Thank you, pretty Lady. You are as gracious as you are kind. I bid you farewell on your journey.”, he said solemnly and took off.
“That.. was interesting..”, Standorin mused as they started towards the forest. “Never seen a kid his age use such vocabulary. He might not know what a half-born is, which is expected, but he knows what a liaison is. And he is quite thoughtful and responsible..”
And then it hit him!
“That son-of-a—”, he spluttered. “Rodin? RODIN? Speak of hiding in plain sight!”
“You seem vexed, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart.”, Hamna Vir said.
“I seem vexed because I AM vexed. That idiot brought Prince Korodin here and didn’t bother to tell us? Damn you, Largo!”, he fumed. “I am going to cave your temple in!”
“Does Constance know about this aggressive side of yours, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart?”, she observed. “If she doesn’t, I think she should.”
“Should she ask, I would gladly tell her all my bad habits.”, he said grimly.
“Oh. Okay.”, Hamna Vir said. “Want me to remind you to tell her, then?”
“Perhaps you could tell me about your bond with that little Dar Derune.”, he asked trying to change the subject.
“I wish him to be my mate.”, the half-born girl said simply.
Standorin stared at her.
“Isn’t he a bit young for that sort of thing?”, he asked.
“Hence, the ‘wish’, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. You can’t bond with a child! You must wait for them to grow so they can make their own choices. We didn’t get to make choices where we came from. We were made as tools; to be thoroughly used, then carefully discarded. I brought him to this Mortal coil so he will never be used, nor will he be discarded. He will grow and make choices. Until then, I shall wait. But even when he grows, he may never make choices. Should that happen, I shall keep on looking after him forever.”
“Uhhmm.. Why wouldn’t he be able to make choices?”, Standorin asked, feeling a bit disturbed.
“He because he is broken, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. He was beaten many, many times. Burned alive, too. Took him many, many months to recover.. But the beating and the burning broke somethings in his mind.”, Hamna Vir explained with a deceptively calm tone. “He.. he is special.. And both Mortals and nons will want what he has. I shall make sure they don’t while I keep him happy.. But I do not want to impose myself on him when he grows up either. Hence, I shall look after him until he does as a sister-kin. Should he be able to make choices and agree to be my mate also, I shall look after him as his bonded mate. That way, we can both be happy!”
“Were.. were you all treated like that?”, the sheriff asked.
“More or less. I was beaten on a regular basis because I was disagreeable. But because my talents were quite rare, I was not fed to the manes, the dretches, and the imps.. Many of my brothers and sisters were, though.”, she replied with a shrug, trying to make light of her traumatic past.
“Any particular reason you and your kin did not use your skills and talents to escape?”, Standorin asked.
“Where would we run to, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart? Considering wherever we looked, from one horizon to the other horizon, we were in Hell. And should we walk to either horizon, we would only see more of the same.. all the way to Oblivion! Perchance we escaped, who would have us? Merisoul Xyrotwu spent many years with Perigren Ostlanna Temez to get her out. She learned Temez what it meant to be free, who in turn convinced us to follow her to freedom. You can not free something that does not know, nor comprehend the concept of freedom. In the end, though, we all had our reasons to come here. Temez wanted to find the boy she ate many years ago and live happily with him and her BFF, Merisoul. In the end, she can’t live happily with her BFF because Merisoul traded her life to save some Mortals! I followed her because my Dar Derune was dated to be exterminated. I didn’t want him to be destroyed, so I followed Temez here in hopes of making sure he has enough days and years to live and grow up.. And here we are.. Hello Constance..”
Sheriff Standorin froze as Constance Alure Smithen stepped out from behind the trees.
“Well. You two took your time.”, Constance said distantly. Her long, silky black hair spilled over her moderated, somewhat conservative, long and elegant dress, it’s ankle length skirt split at the sides with her long, shapely legs hidden behind some gauzy fabric. She was a tall woman, made more so by the high, spike-heeled pumps she wore and she stood where she was, tapping the frozen forest ground with her nearly twenty-feet long pike that ended with a forty-inch, double bladed spearhead.
“Shall we get started? I have optimized our travel path to have minimal possibilities to come across friendly forces and maximum chances of enemy encounter, who will also want to avoid said friendly forces. Hence, we shall turn north and west from here and skip the ranger outpost called First Watch, go around the dwarven military settlement, Elder Hills, as we turn west. I suspect we will have reached the end of the forest in under a week. We will have a full day’s travel of open ground before we can reach the southern end of the swamps called Tar Pits. To avoid being seen or ambushed, I suggest we make that dash under the cover of night. Once we reach the shores of Arashkan Lake, we will have to find a suitable boat, or craft one out of logs to get across and into Misty Forest where we will seek our query, which is our mission. To that end, we should not waste any time and start on our trek.”, she said coldly, turned around, and with surprising agility, she dashed ahead.
Both the sheriff and Hamna Vir stared after her.
“The situation is worse than I estimated. Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, you must speak with her or she will run us both to exhaustion and eventually death. Or rather, she will run you to death. I will stop before that happens because she is not angry with me and I can continue walking in the dead of night. You can’t!”
Standorin’s face turned grim.
“There nothing to speak here. She has made up her mind and among us mortals, no, means, no! Better this way, really. There is little need for distractions. As the esteemed former liaison said, we have a mission. We might as well start at it.”
Hamna Vir stared after the sheriff, as he too, made a dash, though nowhere near the agility of the tall half-born girl with the pike..
..and gave a long, deploring sigh.
“Why, Temez? I was happy in the temple. I could play games with my Dar Derune all day. He was happy too. So why did you part us and send me with this idiot?”