Lords and ladies, representatives and delegates of all races, and many places gather at Serenity Home to work on strategies against the Orken onslaught.
Yet the once peaceful town is attacked by unknown assassins targeting many of the gathered representatives.
A total disaster is averted but not without cost. Some of the representatives are wounded, some are slain.
Many Arashkan refugees are also killed..
This story takes place shortly after
Sheriff Standorin sat in the dimness of his home, his face in his hands, fingers spread, and elbows on his knees, staring at the fire. There was a silent, murderous reflection in his eyes, hiding between his calloused fingers, not unlike a man behind his own bars. To say the least, Standorin Shieldheart was angry for he had buried many people in the past two days, some of them he had known for many years, and some hadn’t even lived as many years.
At that very moment, he wanted to be the young and foolish man that he’d been, many years ago. The age his son, Udoorin had been..
..and just kill some things?
True, he had been reckless and foolish when he’d run off back then and had done quite a number of jobs, guarding merchant caravans mostly, but he had tried his hands on bounty hunting too. That had had its moments; tracking down the bad guys, apprehending them, dragging them back, turning them over to the local sheriffs, and collecting his share of the bounty..
Accept not all his jobs had gone smoothly.
Sometimes the caravans he guarded got raided, and sometimes the people he’d tracked down just wouldn’t come quietly no matter how polite he’d been or how obvious the outcome of any aggression would end.
It seemed like some people just begged to die!
The only problem with that was, Standorin just didn’t like killing.
Two days ago, however, that had changed and his deadly gaze pierced down at the small stack of parchments scattered on the floor, some crumbled in wrath, some savagely shredded, and a few lay gazing back at him; the final tally of the attack..
..one thousand six hundred and seventy-eight dead, mostly Arashkan refugees; men, women, children, and elderly, and eight thousand nine hundred and fifty-five wounded..
It had been a good thing they had started doing drills soon after the first batch of refugees had appeared just so everyone would know where they would be and what they would be doing to avoid chaos when the Orken finally arrived.
Standorin remembered one of his bounty hunter partners from back in the day, tell him that no plan ever survived the first encounter.
Apparently, he had been right then, much like he had been right, now; most of the deaths had occurred due to panic-induced trampling.
“They were my responsibility.”, he snarled silently.
“Yes.”, said a soft, cultured voice in the dim.
He hadn’t heard the voice come.
“Would you like a whip? Perhaps for self-flagellation..”, offered to soft voice.
“I do not do levity.”, Standorin snarled.
The voice paused.
“You would chastise your friends, rather than politely accept simple levity? Or the offer of comfort?”, the voice asked, not quite taken aback nor appalled, but very slightly hurt.
“Why are you here, Liaison?”, he growled.
The voice paused again, this time for a bit longer.
“I would have thought we’d had a semblance of understanding, sir.”, the voice replied, putting the barest of emphasis on ‘sir’. “Perhaps I was mistaken. But then, I merely came here to see how you were, and to offer what comfort I may. It would seem you are fine exactly as you want to be; sad, sorry, and alone and require no comfort, for what is not wanted, can not be given. I shall see you on the morrow, which should be in a few hours.. to hand in my resignation, hence shall I be no longer a distraction for you.”
..and as silently as she had come, Liaison Constance was gone.
✱ ✱ ✱
There was a hesitant knock on the door and Thomas rose his head from the parchment he’d been reading in the dim room lit by a single candle and put it on the small stack on his table; the latest death tally..
“Could have been worse.”, the young woman standing right behind him said quietly. “Not even Ranger Master Moorat escaped unscathed. Thanks to you and your guardians, the dwarves, the elves, and the rangers many are alive today.”
“Many are not.”, replied the senior temple guardian in a destitute voice. “I became a temple guardian precisely to avoid this sort of thing ever happening.”
“Please, Thomas. Don’t be like that.”, the young woman said.
“Don’t be like what?”, Thomas asked.
“Don’t be like me..”, the young woman replied seriously. “Bitter and angry. I.. I am trying.. very hard.. and I never want to go back to that girl. You helped me be better.. be more.. If you succumb, what would I do? Yes, I am being selfish, but angry and bitter is me. Never you. I need you to be never bitter and angry, Thomas. I need you to be strong on this front for me.”
Thomas looked up at the young woman who was staring down at him, her long, coarse black hair framing her beautiful face and he saw a slight shimmer in her very serious eyes.
Bremorel Songsteel never showed her feelings.
Perhaps an amendment was in order there; Bremorel Songsteel always showed her feelings, just never her soft and vulnerable side.. Even Thomas had barely seen that side of her. He’d always known she was kind, gentle, and more, all locked up, tight, and very deep down, and with infinite patience, he had reached in and bit by bit, he’d surfaced the real girl, the real Morel, out..
Tonight, however, and for whatever reason, she had volunteered to bring it all out.
Thomas skimmed through a long list of possible reasons, then with the realization of his own arrogance, he discarded them all.
His Morel had volunteered and that was all that mattered and that was all there was to it.
He smiled up at her.
“You are so beautiful.”, he said honestly.
“You keep saying that like it’s true..”, frowned Bremorel with a faint blush.
“And I shall keep on saying it until you believe me.”, he replied.
“So you will stop when I believe you?”, she asked with an amused expression.
“No. I will then continue saying it until you believe yourself.”, he said seriously.
Bremorel didn’t snark.
Nor did she snort.
One thing she had learned about the man she was looking down on was that he was honest.
“That might take a while.”, she said. “I guess you will just have to work on me until then.
“I shall.”, he promised.
Bremorel leaned in and kissed him, then walked over to the door and opened it.
Perigren Ostlanna Temez and Hannah Vir were standing in front of the door. While Hamna Vir was staring at her own feet with an ugly shiner and a black eye, fidgeting, Temez was looking at Bremorel, the pair of her antler-like horn broken and missing, with dead, soulless eyes.
“We..”, stammered Hamna Vir. “..we came to apologize, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel. To you and to Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood on behalf of the half-born for the problems we caused..”
Footsteps approached and Thomas appeared behind Bremorel.
“..Meri.. Merisoul Xyrotwu was dear to many of us. We.. we went out of control when we found out about her for she was the best of us.”, she mumbled.
Bremorel stared at her, then at Temez, who just stood there.
Then, at the mention of her BFF, large tears appeared in her eyes and silently ran down her beautiful face.
The half-born had never learned moderation. Hence their emotions tended to be on the extreme and the news of Merisoul Xyrotwu had hit them hard;
Their reaction to it had been.. quite, but not quietly, unprecedented!
Bremorel reached over and quietly hugged her.
“This is life, mirima Temez. Our loved ones die, one by one and we live to suffer their absence. Fools are we Mortals for not making each day worth its weight in love and care. Fools are we all, for forgetting the ones that are still with us, also. You, my dear, are mirima. Merisoul blessed you with that burden for she knew only you could carry it.. Prepare yourself and those under your care, for that, is the only way you may avoid more of the same.”
“The ranger lieutenant speaks with much wisdom, Temez.”, Thomas said sternly, but not unkindly. “We are about to go to war. The enemy is brutal and has no choice but to slay us all. For them, there is no retreat. You and your kin, I am thinking, know the Orken better than most. Hence you know when I say, they will not be routed, that I speak the truth. Merisoul Xyrotwu had more than the half-born as her friend. In what small time she had amongst the Mortals, she touched the lives of everyone around her. Where she went, she moved and changed things. Where there were dead hearts before, they became alive and nurtured. What was stagnant, became running and fresh again. And what was angry, became forgiving. Wherever she went, she brought compassion. These are the things with which we must remember her, for Mortal or nons, it is these, that is eternal.”
In Bremorel’s arms, Perigren Ostlanna Temez broke down and started crying like a little girl..
“Darling Demos taught you well.”, Hamna Vir said. “I shall help remind our mirima Temez and our kin of these when they forget. Come, mirima. Yours can not be allowed to see you like this anymore.”
With tenderness quite unexpected of her, Hannah Vir took the broken and devastated Temez and steered her away.
“What you said to her.”, Thomas said after the two half-born girls had gone. “It was brutal.. and it was beautiful.”
Bremorel smiled at him.
“Yours was better.”, she objected.
“Mine was merely the truth, and educational. Yours.. yours was.. wisdom.”, he said with unveiled admiration. “You could have been talking to me and I would have taken every word you spoke, to heart.”
“Every word was said with you at heart.”, she replied with a bright red face.
✱ ✱ ✱
You are up early.”, Aager said when he entered the new kitchen of their new home.
“Oops!”, yelped the skinny young girl, almost dropping the big pan she could barely lift and full of raw eggs she had cracked for a grand omelet. “I am sorry. Did I wake you?”
“You? No. I have no idea how you manage, but you never wake me when you get up, prepare breakfast, then come back to me. I must admit, I.. *cough* love it.. waking up to your beautiful eyes every morning.”, Aager said, his voice trailing off towards the end.
And jumped him.
And promptly hit him with the pan!
Aager staggered and Inshala went into panic.
“I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry!”, she moaned.
Aager stood where he was, his hands holding his head and eggs dripping all over him.
“I am so sorry, my Aager!”, she said with a voice on the verge of crying.
Aager started laughing.
The skinny girl just stared at him.
“You.. you tricked me!”, she fumed.
Aager laughed some more; just two days ago, he had fought scores of assassins and gotten off almost unscathed, just to be hit over the head by a kitchen pan.. full of eggs!
“Are you really alright? I am so sorry.. I just can’t control myself sometimes.”, Inshala said with earnest sincerity.
“Best morning, ever.”, Aager replied grinning.
“I ruined your morning.”, she said unhappily.
“How about you go back to bed and restart your morning, and I clean up myself and the mess here, then we both prepare breakfast.”, he offered.
“Or you could come to bed with me?”, Inshala counter-offered, her face suddenly brightening.
“As much as I would want that, I can’t.”, he said.
“Ow? Why not?”, Inshala asked.
“The bloody midget makes too much noise!”, he growled. “And she keeps waking up at odd hours and starts tinkering things. She thinks she is being quiet about it, but she totally lacks subtlety.”
Inshala made a funny, snorting sound.
“She is very cute, though. But if you will not return to bed with me, there no point in me going back, though I must admit, the new mattress is awesome!”, she said happily.
“Yes. It is.”, Aager admitted grudgingly. “And it would be even better if you wouldn’t insist on putting my old, thread-bear mattress on top of it!”
“But.. that was yours, my Aager. I feel happy and safe when I sleep on that one.”, she objected.
“Love, please. Even I didn’t like my old mattress that much. The only reason I ever truly wanted to sleep on it was when you came. No point in clinging to it. Mother Ganiste did us a grand favor by bringing our old house down, really. Now let’s start with the breakfast. Not only is that bloody midget noisy at odd hours of the night, but she is also noisy when she is hungry. I can’t fathom how her friends can stand her!”
Inshala giggled and picked up the pan and started washing it, thoroughly, in her washing dish.
“She’s so cute, though.”
“So are rabbits. You don’t see rabbits making this much noise. And she has a truly foul mouth, and that’s coming from a Drashan!”, Aager growled and wiped some of the eggs off his face and he also went over to the washing dish.
“Seressa is nice. She has a pretty smile and a beautiful heart.”, said Inshala and took a towel, wet it in the bucket sitting next to the washing dish, reached up, and started cleaning Aager’s egg blotched face.
“And just weird..”, he said sourly. “..And all the pinks! My eyes hurt!”
“She cried when she saw our cherry tree in bloom and kept mumbling something about ‘Grade Nine’, though I have no idea what that was about. She just went up to the tree and hugged it for hours!”, she said with a slight frown.
“Like I said; just weird..”, Aager confirmed.
“And Master Brom?”, she asked while she repeated wiping his face a few more times.
“Something is off about him.”, Aager mused as he stood still and let the skinny little girl do her thing.
“Ow? How so?”, Inshala asked.
“The way he looks at you. Yes he is very polite and I am sure he is honestly sincere about everything he says to you but that look is like he is someone with unhealthy secrets.”
“Do you think he means us some harm?”, she asked, though her voice said she clearly did not believe that.
“I doubt.”, Aager conceded. “Hobbits are notoriously polite people. Whatever his issues are, they are seriously bothering him.”
“What about the white elf? She was awesome in the fight. I saw her cut one of the bad men from head to hip!”, she said and took another towel but this one she did not wet. She dried his face and beamed up at him.
“She looks like she went through a grinder—”, he replied with a slight frown. Then he saw Inshala’s happy smile, and he returned it in kind. More so by leaning down and kissing her.
“—and came out the other end harder.. tougher.”, he said.
“Lady Nadine is nice.”, Inshala thought aloud. “She has much worry, though.”
“Yes. Many dark worries.”, prompted Aager.
“Dark worries? That is so true!”, she exclaimed as if getting the answer to a question she knew was there, but just didn’t know how to formulate. “It’s a good thing Mother Alisia returned back to Durkahan, though I wanted her to stay some more.”
“And Moira. But I thought Mother Alisia and Lady Nadine were looking for some excuse to fight. That’s why Moira insisted on sitting out in the garden all day for two days, even though it is freezing outside.”
Aager snorted again, as he went over to a basket and grabbed some eggs, placed them on the counter, went back for some more, and put them on the counter as well for Inshala.
“Would you mind slicing some tomatoes? And clean some onions? About a dozen or so. And wash some potatoes for me? I think I will make mashed potatoes with onions and fried tomatoes with the eggs.”, she asked.
“Of course.”, Aager said as he went for several other baskets, these with tomatoes, onions, and potatoes.
He cleaned and washed them all, thoroughly, to Inshala’s satisfaction, and started cutting them as per need.
“Smile.”, Inshala said.
“Hmm..?”, Aager asked as he eviscerated the tomatoes, kidney-shot the onions, and started strangling the potatoes.
“Smile, my Aager.”, she repeated. “That is what makes food delicious. The salt, the herbs, the spices are a mere excuse.”
Aager stated at her.
“I am serious.”, she said earnestly.
“I am sorry, love.”, Aager replied seriously. “I shall henceforth politely kill these tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and any other fruit or vegetable that comes my way.”
✱ ✱ ✱
There was a polite cough outside the tent and Udoorin woke up groggily, his face marked with odd pillow lines.
Udoorin loved everything about his queen, Lorna. Or Alor’Nadien ne, as he would start calling her when referring to her. At least in public. But some elf-thingies, he just did not understand.. at all.. and some, he outright disliked.. very much.
For example, whenever he so much as poked his head out of his tent, every single elf in sight stopped whatever they were doing, put their right fists on their hearts, and murmured;
“Mere Estel Aranië..”
He didn’t mind the.. salute.. per se.
What was with the murmur, though?
Perhaps someone was sleeping and they didn’t want to wake them up.
Then there were the low, backless chairs.
Why in the Great Heavens would someone even invent a chair that was that close to the ground?
And young King Udoorin didn’t even want to contemplate on the kind of demented mind where anyone would make a chair, and not put a back on it. How hard could it be?
He had tripped and fallen over those silly chairs so many times, he’d ended up kicking several of them across his tent.
Turns out, those chairs were bloody hard on toes when you kicked them!
He had given up trying to remember just how many times he had forgotten there were no backs on the chairs, and he had leaned back to topple over in what was likely going to end up as some hilarious elve’s gossip;
“Saw our king the other day. Fell off his chair again and his ass was staring at us..”
“Me too! Then he tripped and stubbed his toes! Bit of a lummox, isn’t he? The Queen could have done better. Oh, well..”
If anyone talked about him that way, he was going to break some heads!
But the most annoying was the bed they had given him.
For Udoorin, a bed should comprise of a mattress with clean sheets of linen or possibly cotton, a blanket or two, depending on the season, and a feather-stuffed pillow. And when someone said, king’s bed, it should refer to its size and not how elaborate it was, dammit!
His current bed did not have a nice, itchy blanket. It did not have cotton sheets, nor did it have feather-stuffed pillows.
Lady Lenna had told him what they were, though which was which, he’d have to remember to write them down next time. Only that somethings were silk, some were velvet, and the bloody pillows were stuffed with something he’d never heard of before and they were all embroidered with silver threads—
—explaining the odd pillow lines on his face!
“My King?”, said a baritone, handsome voice from behind the tent’s partition.
“Lord Armathelius.”, Udoorin said with a slightly irritated tone. “You don’t really have ‘king’ me every time you come in here, you know. Just call me Udoorin. I have been called by it enough many times that I am bound to recognize it.”
“I am afraid that is never going to happen, my King. Should someone overhear me referring to you otherwise, they might get the wrong idea about your well-earned credentials and mayhap test their boundaries, a something that should never be trespassed nor ventured, forcing me to skewer them to prove just how mistaken they were. Seeing as how short we already are on men as it is, wasting said men on such pointless and very much avoidable end seems wiser.”, Lord Armathelius said in a seamless, single breath.
“Bet you gave serious effort to memorize that just to annoy me.”, grumbled Udoorin.
“As a matter of fact, I merely repeated Lady Anglenna verbatim, when she said it to Queen Alor’Nadien ne when her Highness asked her cousin to call her by her name.”, the voice said with an amused tint.
Udoorin grunted and got out of his odd, and distinctly uncomfortable bed, splashed some of the scented water from the ornate washing dish sitting on the stand next to his bed on his face, put on his clothes that had been tossed everywhere, a habit he knew would probably drive Lorna crazy when they finally did get to share the same tent.
Then he put on his boots, and piece by piece, his armor, picked up his numerous axes and swords and knives and the shield he’d been carrying around for nearly a year now, though he’d never used, and finally his helmet.
He stomped his feet a few times to make sure everything settled in and drew the flaps of the partition aside to see Lord Armathelius Riverblade and his awesome armor standing in a ‘polite’, ready stance.
Udoorin did not understand Armathelius.
He always seemed polite. But the elf had a truly unreadable face. He never rose his voice, he never showed any form of excitement, he never seemed irritated or angry, and he certainly never laughed.
Udoorin was never sure if his choice of words or the way he phrased them were some kind of dry sense of humor or he was punning him.
The only time he saw any life on his otherwise totally expressionless face was whenever Lady Lenna, Lorna’s cousin, walked in. And even then, he would show absolutely no apparent reaction nor overt recognition whatsoever.
Only two things Udoorin had noticed that told him something was going on between the two;
One, he would become even more still, silent, and expressionless, if that was even possible, and two, he would take a quick glance, without turning his head, first to his right, then his left, and then his eyes would follow her for the duration of eight or ten breaths before everything about him would return back to his ‘normal’ expressionless self.
Udoorin wasn’t sure if the elf dude didn’t trust Lady Lenna and was merely making sure the area was secure and the former High Lady wasn’t up to something..
..or he was checking her out!
Lady Lenna, on the other hand, outright refused to acknowledge even his existence, let alone engage in any civilized conversation with him. And the look she gave him could only constitute;
“I shall see you burn in Hell, and even carry the wood for it!”
Udoorin wondered just what the poor elf dude had done to draw Lenna’s ire so furiously.
And when it came to ire, Lenna just didn’t do halves.
Apparently, Udoorin figured, Armathelius was a good commander, a great swordsman, an excellent archer, though not on Laila’s scale, and probably had many other excelling qualities, but not very smart where Anglenna was concerned.
“On a side note, you really should consider moving into your Queen’s tent. It would make things much more convenient for all of us, if not for the two of you. You are, after all, husband and wife for these past three days, now.”, Lord Armathelius said.
“Yes, Alor’Nadien ne and I are husband and wife, but I want a public wedding where everyone sees us getting married. I do not want any snark remarks haunting her.. ever! We wed, and both you and Lady Lenna have witnessed, but that was a promise made to one another. I shall not abuse her trust.”, Udoorin said sternly.
Lord Armathelius mused over that for a moment.
“I admire your stance to protect not only the Queen’s person but also her honor.. I do, however, feel the need to remind you that our ways are not human ways. Your promise to our Queen and her promise to you are indeed, truly binding in every possible way, on every possible level and no one can say otherwise nor gainsay it.”, Armathelius said.
“Both she and I agreed on this, Lord Armathelius.”, Udoorin grated.
“Since you have both agreed on it, I am sure everything will be fine, my King. Though also I feel the need to point out, have you considered what people might say or think as to why a king, newlywed, is not sleeping with his queen but prefers to sleep alone, in another tent?”
“What’s that supposed to mo mean?”, the young man growled.
Lord Armathelius stared at his very young human king for a moment before answering.
“You, my King, are a decent man. And your feelings for our Queen are.. artlessly genuine. This I know upon at least three occasions; the first was when Queen Alor’Nadien ne summoned the ghost of the accursed Themalsar as a gift to her father, you drew your weapons, in the presence of a Ri and challenged him, and his whole retinue, should they try their hands against her. Two; many elves of Bari Na-ammen never approved of a human as our Rise, yet some of us admired her and saw all the things she tried to do for us. Hence the elves here honor and rever enRise Nadine Graciousward and she has approved your claim to our Queen. And three; when you and our Queen returned to us hurt and weary, both of you were leaning on one another and even in your moment of delirium, you would not give her up.”
“Many have seen your dedication to our Queen, my King. But many more have not and in truth, very few know the true extent of your care for our Queen. When you spend your days, and nights, apart from your legally wedded wife, it tells them you went after a young and naive girl, taking advantage of her infatuations to have access to the throne!”, Lord Armathelius explained calmly.
A dreadful silence settled in the tent and Udoorin’s face went totally black.
“The Hell with the throne!”, he snarled something awful. “And the Hell with anyone who thinks I ever wanted it. You can have it. I know for a fact neither did my Lorna ever wanted it! And seeing as none of you truly understand what is at hand, it’s no wonder the Orken stomped right over Bari Na-ammen. It was full of fools!”
In retro respect, it was possible Udoorin should not have said that last bit. If Lord Armathelius’s face could have shown any expression, this was it. His brows crossed, his deep-set eyes blazed, his lips pressed tightly and his whole stance became cold.. almost frigid.
“That.. was uncalled for, my King..”, he hissed through tightly clenched teeth.
“And attacking me, and by my proxy, attacking my Lorna, was? At which point did you, or any of your elves think I was a soft, fluffy gentleman, Lord Armathelius? At which point did you think I, or my Lorna, ought to ‘bend’ for your collective conformity? None of you did anything when she was forced to abandon her only home, even though she was the Chosen Heart of your High Woods. Every day since then, she has fought tooth and nail, and with sweat and blood as her witness, to prove her mettle. And she has thus saved the lives of countless, yet unborn, when she brought down Themalsar —the mad priest his father couldn’t be bothered to slay even with his whole army behind him. The Orken has suffered countless of their numbers because of her and because of Lady Lenna when we made sure Arashkan couldn’t be used as a base by them, and you want to judge her and me? I do not have any personal ill feelings for you, Lord Armathelius, but I abhor what you elves did to her. And please remember that the only contribution the elves have thus provided was running away and letting their kingdom burn!”
Lord Armathelius stood there thunderstruck..
..and totally crushed.
“And while at it..”, Udoorin growled. “..you might want to remind your elves that the only reason you have a Queen from the line of Feymist, is because I have agreed I would be by her side for as long as I was alive and because my Lorna is a kind and forgiving girl. Know also that should you, any of you, mistreat her again the way you did, you can kiss your Aranië goodbye because that is how much I care for her, and how little I care for your elves!”
✱ ✱ ✱
How are you feeling?”, Hamna Vir asked as she gently shifted the sleeping Dar Derune in her arms to a more comfortable position.
“You know how I feel.”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez said sitting in her bed in one of the tiny dormitory rooms in the Serenity Home Temple. Her face was drawn, pale, lost, and listless as she idly played with her broken antler-horn.
“Yes. I do. All half-born do. But I suppose it is the Mortal thing to ask.”, Hamna Vir shrugged.
“How is he?”, Temez asked her, looking up at the limp form of Dar Derune.
“He.. can’t sleep.. Not since.. Merisoul..”, Hamna Vir replied quietly and her sharp feature softened. “He drops asleep because he can no longer stay awake.”
“How are the others?”, Temez asked.
“Wounded and hurting. This was our first test and we all utterly failed it..”, Hamna Vir mumbled as she gently brushed the little boy’s hair with one, slender hand.
“I am sorry. They were all so happy to be here. Happy and very, very fragile. Had I shown them any leadership..”, murmured Temez.
“Enough!”, hissed a voice and the door to her dormitory opened to reveal a very blotchy-faced Demelze. “I can’t stand this. I.. I can feel all of you! And all of your hearts are screaming! It is driving me insane!”
“Demelze. Please. Leave them alone.”, said another voice, this one resonant and charismatic, and Hal Mali appeared behind her.
Demelze’s eyes flared and she turned around and blazed up at him.
“You don’t get to tell me what to do, Hall!”, she very nearly spat.
“I believe I do.”, Hal Mali said.
“When did you decide on that?”, the diminutive, fiery, redhead sneered at him.
“When I carried you around, in my arms, twice, I might add, out and back into this town..”, he replied with a straight face.
“I had no say in that!”, spat Demelze.
“..and when we ran around the forest chasing one another. I believe you had a say in that..”, Hal said cooly.
Demelze glared at him.
“..and when you said you enjoyed it.”
“Of course I enjoyed it. We ran in the forest free and not stuck in this temple for weeks and weeks!”, she blazed.
“I do recall offering to carry you out, in secret, so we could play some more, and you said you would very much like that and that you could do that forever and that it was so much fun.”
“I said I would need your consent for that and you said, ‘Sure, why not!'”
Hamna Vir snorted.
“You, Demelze, are an idiot and you just got served!”, she said with a waspish snicker.
“What? Why?”, the flaring girl asked, suddenly looking much less sure of herself.
Hal Mali cleared his throat and smiled and it was a brilliant, very handsome smile.
“That, my dear Demelze, was my claim. You gave your consent, freely, and forever!”
Demelze just ogled at him as Hamna Vir snorted again.
Even Temez hiccuped a stifle.
“Well, bugger!”, Demelze said as her shoulders slumped. “I am stuck with a buffoon!”
“You don’t even know what a buffoon is.”, Hamna Vir snarked.
“Yes I do!”, she glared at her. “It’s a four-legged Mortal-whatsit!”
“Perhaps you are referring to a baboon?”, Hal Mali offered gently.
Hamna Vir snickered some more.
“Whatever. Same difference!”, Demelze spat.
“No, my dear Demelze. A buffoon is a ridiculous Mortal. A baboon is the four-legged Mortal-whatsit.”, Hal Mali explained.
“And you are both!”, Demelze said with extreme prejudice. “And I am not going down without a fight!”
“But of course. I wouldn’t want a mate who couldn’t fight.”, Hal Mali replied with a smile.
Hamna Vir snickered.
“Nice! A mating fight!”, she said happily.
“Really? You want to do this now?”, Temez asked with resignation.
“Yes!”, flared Demelze, without taking her seething eyes off Hal Mali. “You are the leader of Escape. You must officiate as a witness, and judge the outcome.”
“You will never see me coming, Demelze. You know that right?”, Hal Mali warned.
“Hah. Hah. Hah. Hah. Haa..”, she laughed at his face and sneered at him. “I don’t need to see you coming, boi. I can feel you wherever you are.”
“Very well. Down to the crypts, then. And no using Pixie Dust.”, Hal Mali said.
“Afraid?”, Demelze grinned viscously at him.
“Of course. I wanted my mate to be strong, smart, cunning, willful, dangerous, and better than me. And you are it.”, he replied honestly.
“Just for that, I shall not burn you down to cinders.”, Demelze said with a flushed face.
“No, no. I want you to give your all because I want your all. Agreed?”, the handsome half-born said.
“Ow, I like this.”, laughed Hamna Vir with delight. “If you don’t want him, there are plenty others who do, Demelze. I mean, I would, had I not had my heart set on someone else.”
“Shut up, Hamna Vir.”, Demelze glared at her balefully. Then she turned to the leader of the Escape. “Coming, Temez?”
Temez sighed again, got up and out of her rickety dormitory bed, took her broken antler-horn, and followed the fiery Demelze, the calm Hal Mali, and an eager Hamna Vir, who was still clutching at her Dar Derune, down to the crypts under Serenity Home Temple to judge the outcome of the first ‘Mating Duel’ —a ritual to see if the intended mates were worthy of one another.
What would Darling Demos think, she wondered.
What would her BFF, Merisoul Xyrotwu, think?
Bet she would have loved it..
✱ ✱ ✱
This is the best breakfasts I have had since I left Bowling Hills, Lady Inshala.”, said Brom admitted as he wiped his hands on the clean towels she had brought with the large platter full of fruits.
Aager had wordlessly grabbed the platter from her. It wasn’t hard to see she was having a hard time carrying it with her skinny arms.
It would seem, whatever she had parted and sacrificed at Themalsar to bury it, wasn’t coming back and it was these little things that Aager noted and consequently broke his heart to see.
“It’s alright.”, she had whispered. “They shouldn’t see you doing house chores.”
“I shall be accused of doing the chores in my own home and helping my mate?”, he’d whispered back. “I wasn’t aware there were such fools.”
“Dim Woods men expect so.. from their women.”, she had mumbled.
“Fools are they should they think they are beneath such chores and see them fit only for the women who share their lives and their bed, and bear their burdens and their children. I am a bloody Drashan and we cut men who mistreat their women and we do not feel remorse afterward.”, he had growled back.
“Tell me, Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap.”, Nadine Graciousward was saying. “How did the Academy treat you? Did you like it there?”
“I.. uhhmm.. It was alright.. I guess..”, mumbled. “A bit constricting though.”
Brom was silently wiping his hands and was neither looking at Tonic nor the ‘the most beautiful woman in the kingdom’, as he had referred to her once. Seressa and Cora were both staring at them, though. Seressa with a questioning expression as she ate one, single grape after careful inspection, for some reason, then another, while Cora bit savagely into an apple as she inspected the former human queen of the elves with interest as to how she dressed, how she behaved, how she mimed her hands so gracefully, and how she phrased her words. It was an educational experience for her on whole many levels and was, in fact, part of her plans on rebuilding her New Ironfrost. Much like she had very carefully studied Arashkan as a city, its structure, its workings, its people as a whole, she was now studying Nadine Graciousward.
In all candor, the mother of Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist was an excellent study when it came to learning everything one would need to know about nobility, grace, elegance, commanding presence, and being a powerful woman without ever swinging a sword, which sort of baffled Cora a bit. True, Seressa never swung a sword either, but she at least did carry one; a beautiful and ornate rapier.. which Cora had thought was some sort of a knitting needle when they had first met!
Aager was showing no interest in the matter as he pealed the apple he had gotten from the fruit platter, and at some level, he didn’t really want to know. Inshala, on the other hand, was staring at the cute gnomic girl with endearing and enthralled, baby owl eyes.
“Constricting? That is a bit odd. And peculiar. Of all the places in the kingdom, I would have thought Melshieve would have provided the most freedom to her students.”, Nadine said, carefully studying the scruffy-looking gnomic girl who was, for some reason, squirming before her.
“They didn’t let me take the classes I wanted.”, Tonic said quietly, staring at her own lap.
“That wasn’t the order I gave them.”, mused Nadine with a slight frown.
“I.. What?”, spluttered Tonic.
“Come now, my dear. I know who you are.”, the former queen of Bari Na-ammen said with an amused expression playing around her perfectly shaped lips.
“I.. have no idea what you are talking about!”, spluttered the gnomic girl.
“For Heaven’s sake, girl!”, Brom said with an exasperated tone.
“Cinotnacra Gocelap? Is that the best you could do? Say your name backward? Your demented uncle was much better at deceit than you are. Which is expected, and a good thing, really.”, Nadine said with a beautiful smile. A smile that, among those gathered around the low table, only Aager and Inshala had seen before; on the face of Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, her daughter.
Tonic mumbled some things unintelligible as she blushed furiously.
“Your name is not Cinotnacra Gocelap?”, blurted Inshala with fascination while Aager stared down at the little gnomic girl with rare amusement.
“No, my dear child.”, Nadine said smiling at her. “This pretty young gnome lady is Arcantonic Palecog. Or rather, Arcantonic Mordanon, to be more precise. The very niece of Arcanton Mordenon himself.”
Inshala stared at her then at Tonic with a totally baffled expression.
“Who is that?”, Inshala asked Aager hastily as if not wanting to miss the next line in a soap opera.
“Arcanton Mordanon. We saw his wanted posts when we were in Sim Town, on our way to Arashkan, remember? Worth five hundred thousand gold.”, he replied back.
“That is many gold?”, she said a bit unsure.
“That is many, many gold, love.”
“Any particular reason you would reveal her identity like this?”, Cora said suddenly, and a bit coldly.
“Only because we are among friends, my dear. No need to get riled up.”, Nadine said with a stern, motherly smile. “I had strict orders her true identity would never be revealed at the Academy, so no one would harass her due to her uncle. I had gone so far as threatening to send anyone that did, right next to her uncle!”
“I.. didn’t know that.”, mumbled Tonic.
“Did you know they placed a ‘Watchful Eye’ on her? Do you know just how dangerous that spell is? And illegal?”, Seressa said staring at Nadine with a very piercing glare.
“Of course, my dear Seressa. It was placed on my orders.”, Nadine replied calmly.
“Why? Why would you place such an erratic and violent spell on a little gnomic girl?”, Seressa blazed in a very un-Seressa-like way.
“The Watchful Eye I had placed on Arcantonic, here, was not the cheap kind, my dear girl. It was the high-end version. Not so erratic, but exponentially more violent.”, Nadine said smiling at the very tall, very dark girl in pinks, though her eyes said otherwise.
“But.. why? Why put in on a little girl in the first place?”, asked Seressa, quite angry now.
“Seressa. Please..”, blubbered Tonic.
“No, girl. I want to know why she had placed such a demented and deadly spell on you.”, Seressa blazed. “What would have happened had she stepped out of line, or done anything stupid, as young kids often do?”
“To my dear Arcantonic? Nothing.”, said Nadine, still smiling.
Seressa stared at her.
So did Tonic.
Brom had no idea what the bloody hell a Watchful Eye was, but it sounded dangerous, so he was kind of curious.
Cora was much on the same boat as Brom, just with less idea than him.
Aager seemed like he wanted to be anywhere but here, possibly taking Inshala along, just so they wouldn’t be part of this ‘family’ drama.
Inshala, on the other hand, was enthralled by the verbal and emotional duel going back and forth, probably because she had never really witnessed a family drama before.
“I don’t understand.”, Seressa said confused.
“What is there not to understand. Ahh.. Perhaps you thought I placed the Watchful Eye to keep tabs on dear Arcantonic. My dear girl, that is not only wrong, it is also abhorrent. You watch over your children. You do not watch them. And you certainly do not zap them every time they do something foolish, which they are going to do, and are expected to do.”, she replied.
“Then.. why did you had it placed?”, Seressa asked, now totally dumbfounded.
“To make sure no one came after her because of her uncle, dear Seressa. I would have thought a smart, inspired, and extremely imaginative girl such as yourself would have figured that out by now.”, Nadine said.
“But.. what would have happened had anyone did come after her?”, Seressa asked in a distinctly diffident tone.
“They would have gotten three warnings to back off, and if they didn’t, they would have promptly gotten disintegrated.”, Nadine Graciousward replied calmly as she reached over and nipped herself a tiny tree of grapes from the fruit platter.
Seressa just ogled at her.
“Holy crap!”, Tonic blurted.
“Bit of an overkill, perhaps.”, murmured Brom. “No pun intended.”
Cora didn’t say anything.
Aager hadn’t planned on being part of this conversation in the first place, so he didn’t say anything either.
Inshala, however, was looking at Nadine with this funny expression.
Nadine looked down at Brom and without smiling, she spoke.
“When someone threatens your loved ones, dear Master Brom, you warn them to back off, if at all. Should they persist, you destroy them —utterly! That way, you do not have to worry about them ever again, and you have just told any and everyone else who might have similar ideas exactly what to expect.”
“I concur.”, Aager said quietly and inadvertently, remembering what Lady Granma, Grana Maarva, Lady Alisia’s mother, and Moira’s grandmother had said to him when he had gone to her to speak about his intentions to marry Inshala.
“YESS!”, hissed Inshala savagely, to everyone’s surprise.
Nadine looked at those around the table for a moment. Then to Cora, she said, “I heard rumors about your people, my dear Cora. Tell me. What would you do, if you had the chance to save them?”
“Anything.”, Cora said simply.
“And you, my dear Seressa? What would you do, if someone came after your pair?”
“I would destroy them.”, Seressa said viciously. “Like, unload EVERYTHING I had!”
“And you, Master Hobbit?”, Nadine asked.
“I already destroyed them.”, Brom replied, looking down at his own hands.
“There you have it.”, she said. “I made the mistake of not destroying those that came after my daughter and look where that brought us; the total annihilation and destruction of Bari Na-ammen, and causing me to almost lose my beloved child.”
Nadine Graciousward looked at all the youthful faces before her with the satisfaction of having learned them a valuable lesson. Then slowly she rose.
“My dear, dear Inshala. The winds and seasons, the eagle and the crow, and the leaves and the blossoms have spoken your name. You are, truly a treasure to be had. I have enjoyed my stay here and look forward to visiting you, should you have me in your beautiful home again, which is exactly what this place is; a home.”, she said with a beautiful smile.
Inshala beamed at her with blurry eyes and promptly hugged her.
Then she looked down at the scruffy little gnomic girl who was staring guiltily at her.
“It isn’t all that hard to see you have something to say, my dear Arcantonic. Perhaps you would say it before I left, which must happen in a short few minutes. I do have some people to see and summoning circles to arrange for fast transportation between other cities and this town. A dreary job and a true drudgery, to be sure, but it must be done.”
“I am sorry I called you all those names, Lady Nadine!”, Tonic blurted. “When you got me out of that place, I wanted so much to stay with you, but you took me back to my parents, who had sold me out to my uncle in the first place. I felt so betrayed and abandoned.. again!”
“My dear, dear girl. I did not give you back to your parents because I thought you belonged there. I gave you back to them because I had no home. I still don’t. What I did have, was many, many enemies and that was the only place where you would be safe until you were old enough to attend the Academy where I had granted you with a full scholarship and the one place where my enemies would never seek me out, as our connection was unknown to any but you.. You had already suffered much, and with me, you would have never returned from that dark place I had gotten you out of. This I say with all the candor of my heart.”, she replied as she knelt down and hugged the scruffy-looking little gnomic girl. “And I doubt you could have said anything more than I have already said to myself over the years, my dear.”
“But.. why didn’t you tell me these things? Why keep it all a secret? Why not tell me the scholarship came from you?”, Tonic asked with shame.
“For the same reasons I mentioned above, my dear. You were already going to be black-sheeped for your blood relation to your uncle. But it would likely be limited to slander. If your connection to me were known, many would have come after you, just to hurt me, if nothing else. When I said I had many enemies, I did not exaggerate in the slightest. As for your scholarship, I wanted you to grow up and be something on your own. Or make something out of yourself, whatever you wanted to be.. without being in the shadow of anybody else nor feel any obligations. Nor even to me.. You already were going to suffer for the sins of your uncle. The least I could do was to prepare the conditions where you would make a name of your own and be free.”
“That.. is beautiful..”, Inshala whispered.
Seressa approached the former queen of Bari Na-ammen and did an exquisite curtsy.
“I apologize for my abrasive manner, Lady Nadine. I.. lose control when anyone threatens my pair.”, she said with her illustrious and cultured voice.
“And that is what a good pair should do, my dear. You are smart, beautiful, and kind. Three things seldom found in one person. Yet you are smart, beautiful, kind, loyal, and strong. Five things found in only a unique person. I wish Master Brom, dear Cora, and you were there when I, Delia Karakash, and diverse others had gone after that demented little midget. Your presence would have made a world of difference.”
Seressa looked down and at her bare feet, possible to hide her face.
Brom stared somewhere off to the north and east.
Cora started chewing at one of her fingers showing a sudden interest in the tribal designs and patterns on the hand-woven rugs.
“My uncle..”, Tonic mumbled. “..is he still alive?”
“I suspect he still is, my dear..”, Nadine said brightly. “..and burning quite comfortably in Hell..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Hamna Vir did not like this town. Hamna Vir did not like Mortals. Hamna Vir did not like the half-born either. In all candor, Hamna Vir did not like anything or anyone.. except her beloved and beautiful little Dar Derune. So when she was told she would be replacing the tall, alluring, kind-hearted Constance as the new liaison, she had taken a leaf out of her sister-kin, Demelze’s book, and laughed at Perigren Ostlanna Temez with glaringly exaggerated laugh and with scornful abandon. She had, at least, been more believable with her laugh than Demelze had ever been.
Finding out Temez hadn’t been joking about the idea, which hadn’t really been an idea in the first place but a command, had not helped either.. at which point Hamna Vir had become vocal.
Very, very vocal!
It had been, to everyone’s collective amusement, that Temez had sternly told her that it was about time she too did something for the upcoming war, as opposed to sitting around all day playing games and cuddling Dar Derune. After all, monopolizing the boy was not nice and there were many other sisters who also wanted to cuddle him!
Hence, with a very infuriated, surly, and sullen expression clearly etched all over her face and attitude, she had come out of the Serenity Home Temple and was now walking over to the sheriff’s office, hissing and cussing at everyone looking in her direction. To make things worse, if that was possible, her inflammatory words were not some primitive Mortal swear words, but actual ‘curses’..
Not to anyone’s surprise, Thomas would likely be called upon to patiently remove any number of unexpected and quite cantankerous curses, hexes, and jinxes from various town citizens!
When Hamna Vir came to the sheriff’s office, she hadn’t bothered to knock on the door and politely ask to be let in, but had knocked the door down in her, very creepy way; the thick, steel enforced door that had been there for generations had literally rotted away and crumbled down, it’s steel frames bent and caked with reddish-green clumps of rust.
It had been, perhaps, quite unfortunate that Guard Anderson has been the one closest to the door at the time, who had learned his lesson from the former liaison, Constance, and the sprite, Biberbell, to be polite. Neither of his previous encounters, however, had prepared him for a Hamna Vir.
Seeing the door suddenly come crumbling down on him, the young Arashkan recruit had thought the worst, particularly after the bloody attack that had occurred merely three days ago, and had gone for his sword.. and had promptly gotten himself cursed, hexed, and jinxed, dropping his sword and poking himself in the foot, stumbling back in pain, crashing into the spear racks and collapsing the whole rack, along with the score or so spears on top of him!
The remaining guards had backed off, though they’d kept their hands on their clubs.
Hamna Vir hadn’t even given the young man, moaning under heavy rack and score or so of spears, a second glance when she had sullenly glided over to the sheriff and introduced herself;
“Berete Hamna Vir, reporting for duty as the replacement liaison.”, she hissed!
“Welcome, Liaison Berete Hamna Vir.”, Sheriff Standorin said calmly to the sullen girl with the sharp features and black and somewhat shredded clothes.
“Tell me what I must do Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, so I may do it and go back!”, the new liaison scowled in a surly and abrasive manner.
“Do you have somewhere to be, Liaison Hamna Vir?”, Standorin asked politely.
“I was happy where I was, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. But because of you, I am forced to be here and against my will.”, she further hissed.
“I.. see..”, the sheriff said.
“No. You don’t!”, Hamna Vir snapped. “You were supposed to have been nice to our Constance Alure Smithen. Yet you broke her heart. Do you know how hard it is for my kind to have a heart? Seeing as you don’t have one yourself, I doubt you do.”
“It isn’t that simple, young lady.”, Standorin said as calmly as he could manage.
“Do tell, which part wasn’t simple?”, Hamna Vir glared. “Constance is, indeed, one of the best of us. She had a spark in her heart! And for the sake of that spark, she sacrificed what was most precious to her. And you, sir, smothered that spark. Well done! In one stroke of Mortal stupidity, you have destroyed her, ruined my day, and you still have the audacity to claim, it isn’t your fault?”
“Liaison Hamna Vir. I do not think this is any of your business. You are here to act as a liaison between my department and the half-born.”, Sheriff Standorin fumed.
“Which is precisely what I am doing; liaisoning between this silly place and my kin!”, flared the sullen girl.
Stadorin smoldered where he sat. But in a demented way, he knew the surly girl glaring at him was right. Technically, she was ‘liaisoning’ right this very moment!
“Everyone. Take a five up at the watchtower. Someone help Mr. Anderson and see to his foot. He is bleeding all over the office.”
The guards helped poor Mr. Anderson up and dragged him up the stairs leading to the roof and to the newly finished watchtower.
Soon enough, the sheriff’s office was empty except for the sheriff himself and the new liaison.
“There are many things I do not know, nor understand, Liaison Hamna Vir. I would be grateful if you would be kind enough to explain them to me?”, Standorin asked politely.
“You are Mortal, hence doomed to die ignorant. I do not know what ‘kind’ is, seeing as I came from Hell, and having seen just how you have thus treated our Constance, I do not think you would be as grateful as you say you would, and I double-doubt you even know what it means!”, she replied unmercifully.
Standorin fumed some more.
“Perhaps.”, he said agreeably. “Tell me what this spark is.”
“You, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, must understand, we, the half-born, were made, for the sole purpose of sowing dissension among Mortals. To that end, Mortal men and women were taken from their homes and against their will. The men were forcibly mated to lustful succubus and eaten once the deed was done. The women were raped, repeatedly, over and over, and consequently impregnated by the vilest incubus, many times.. to make my kind. We, all of us, were thrown into very deep, very narrow pits that we could sit or stand, but never stretch and lie when we were born and fed with the feces of Mortals. Most of us did not survive. Perhaps one in a few hundred did.. Those of us that did were never let out of those pits until we were at the edge of our puberty. Then we were taken to dark, horrible places where we were given extensive education and training as to how to deceive, manipulate, seduce, and effectively slay Mortals. Those of us that couldn’t, were fed to demons, alive, and right before our eyes, their remains burned and put into the very ink we used, as an ingredient. Every time we dipped a feather into an inkpot to take a note, we knew, in every drop, one of our brothers or sisters was in it! We were treated in the vilest ways imaginable to make sure all semblance of good and empathy was dried out of us.. So when I say, the ones that are here are the elite of the Seeds of Dissension, I mean that in the most literal, and horrible sense possible..”, Hamna Vir said with dead, morose eyes.
Standorin stared at her, a sick expression etched on his face.
“We were made so we may never have or feel, not only empathy, compassion, love, or any form of attachment, but to simply never have or feel anything. In the great scheme of things, however, something happened and one of us got free. You met her; a Merisoul Xyrotwu. You did fine her, after all. She made a daring plan and she got us all out. She made us free, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. And paid for it with her life.. She gave us the chance to live, and to choose, and in time, hope to feel. We, the half-born, can ‘sense’, ‘hear’, and ‘read’ emotions around us. All of us, all the time. But we can not feel them ourselves. When we show anger, it is not your Mortal understanding of anger. It is the wrath of Hell, in the most literal sense. When we show love and care, it is, in actuality, a mere emulation of the real thing learned via our extensive training. What you Mortals take for granted, is a matter of miracle for us, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Do you understand that?”, she asked in a cold, void of all emotions kind of voice.
“I.. think so.”, Standorin said quietly.
“No. You do not. Because you can not. The moment of your birth.. it marks an event of happiness by its very nature, for lo.. a new life has come to be.. You start attaining emotional satisfaction in your mother’s womb. We have not and we never did. Our birth was marked as a curse about to be let loose upon Mortals for the sole purpose of ending you Mortals in the name of our demon masters. This very day, we had a mating ritual. Two of our kind fought for the right to bond for life; Demelze and Hal Mali. They fought to kill one another to reach the height of their Hell’s wrath in hopes of holding just short of slaying each other in order to get a glimpse of compassion and, perchance, understand and feel love that would bind them for life. Hal Mali was burnt down to crisp and Demelze was bleeding from so many stab wounds that my kin was still washing the place off the bloodstains and the cinders when I left the temple to come here!”
Standorin just stared at her.
“Merisoul Xyrotwu spent years and years to understand her heart. She did everything to attain that one, single purpose. And when she finally did, a spark gave birth in her heart. It was when she had sacrificed her very existence to save a Mortal. The very moment of her comprehension, however, also marked the moment of her end as well. As sad as it may be to have lost our beloved savior, she depicted the true symbol of our freedom; the half-demon who escaped all her masters and, among all the half-born, became the first to Ascend, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart..
..With her help, Perigren Ostlanna Temez became the first to be mirima —free!..
..And amongst the Escape, Constance Alure Smithen was the fist to have attained a spark. You must understand, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, when you look at Mortals, you see potential, whatever flavor that potential may be or entail. Would you like to know what we see when we look at Mortals? Food! We see food! Even though we all forswore our most basic needs and desires when we decided to abandon our sinful ways and our demon masters and opted to come and help you in your war, many of my kin still looked upon you as food, when you first came to meet us. She didn’t. She looked upon you with only wanting.. as a mate, and willy-nilly, she bloomed a spark.. in her heart. She did everything to attain your good graces and you, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, smothered her spark. Good job! I am so tempted to ask; dude, what is wrong with you?!”
“Perhaps all these should have been explained to me before..”, mumbled the sheriff, feeling decidedly ashamed.
“Yes. Because we escape from Hell on a regular basis and know perfectly well what is going on and what is happening to us, as opposed to it being our first time!”, snarked Hamna Vir with heavy sarcasm. “We just came to your Mortal coil several weeks ago, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Do expect everything we see, we do, we feel, we observe, and we think we comprehend to be uniquely new for us. That is our excuse. What is yours?”
Standorin knew he was on his last few feet. He didn’t back down, but he certainly did not give excuses either.
“Sacrifice. I heard talk about this before. When we found Constance, half-dead, near the shores of Arashkan River, several hours to the east, last week..”
“And you never bothered to find out what it was? Duuude! Really.. What is wrong with you? Is this how you Mortals treat your women? Is this why we escaped? Is this why we took the real risk of being hunted down by our demon masters?”, Hamna Vir spat viscously.
“I did ask. She wouldn’t tell me. She is very good at dodging when she wants to..”, mumbled Standorin with frustration.
“No. She is very good at being considerate, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Something you clearly lack. Sacrifice, by its nature, is giving up something you truly care about and that is truly yours, in order to attain a greater goal. All of us half-born have common traits. But we also have unique skills. Hers.. hers was negotiation and the ability to bring people together and make the impossible, possible. So when I say, you, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, must be monumentally obtuse to have rebuked her thus thoroughly, I am being very, very polite about it..”
“She is exceptional with her martial skills when it comes to close-quarter combat and with her pike, in particular. All of us have horns, of one variety or another..”, she said, then grabbed hold of her tail and showed it to the sheriff. “I also have this tail. Some few others of my kind have it also. She has wings.. And she could fly, with exceptional speed and grace..”
The sheriff stared at her.
“I never saw her wings.”
“Very, very few of us have wings and can fly. Merisoul did. Though hers were broken when they threw her down into her pit when she could barely crawl. Of those that do, even fewer could actually hide theirs and sprout them at will..”, Hamna Vir said with great vehemence.
“I do not understand.. What does any of this have to do with sacrifice?”, Standorin asked, baffled and somewhat taken aback.
“You asked us to find your lost Orken army, we felt compelled to go out of our way to find them. That, however, was a group effort. But because you were also seeking your lost son, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, she felt compelled to find and bring him back, safe and sound.. We had found an alchemical way to unveil the Orken army, but we needed many, many pixies and sprites to give us their dust, as part of the main ingredient. And we had found where your son and his pretty mate were. The answer to both, to our dismay, was at Gull’s Perch, and the Lady who owns it!”
To say Sheriff Standorin was a pragmatic man, was a bit like saying water was, ‘somewhat’ wet. True, he would always keep his options open, and never really engrave them on stone, it’s just that, said options were quite limited, and not so much as readily discardable, per se, but neither were they readily available. Considering the events of the past six months or so, however, that gap in his ‘options’ had ‘somewhat’ widened. Hence when the name Gull’s Perch popped up, he did feel a certain sense of dread wash over himself.
“What did she sacrifice to the Lady of the Perch?”, he blurted.
“The thing that was most precious to her, and what made her unique among us, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart..”, Hamna Vir said quietly. “..Her wings.”
Standorin stared at her, and a terrible pang of guilt grabbed hold of his heart.
“To get back your son, she chose to sacrifice her wings. When Titania refused, she sacrificed them anyway, to bargain for all the sprites and pixies in Gull’s Perch and Ritual Forest to come here, a something that would never have happened, and has never been heard of before, just so she could help us, and you, in particular, to find your lost Orken army.”
✱ ✱ ✱
I blew it.”, Sheriff Standorin said with glum frustration. “She did everything to get a smile out of me, just a smile, mind you, and I blew it. Indeed, what is wrong with me?”
Standorin Shieldheart was sitting on his couch, late that night, staring at the fire once again. He looked around and noted his home was a mess, with unwashed dishes everywhere, clothes crumbled and tossed here and there with torn or dog-eared parchments with various reports stacked on all available surfaces and the house itself seemed like it could use a good airing.
Strictly speaking, Standorin was a very organized and disciplined man. His sense of perfection, coupled with his need to impose ‘do it right, or just don’t do it at all’, had driven his deceased wife, Limnia Karya, quite perplexed at times, and the only reason she hadn’t made a scene over his exasperating tendency for arbitrary ‘neatness’ was due her being a stoic-hearted woman.. and because of her fondness and love for him.
This.. mess.. however, was something new and very unlike him. It was as if the culmination of all his losses, all his disappointments, and all his heartaches had finally ganged up on him and were taking their vengeance upon him —with compounded interest.
“Maybe I should just march up at the temple and demand to see her.”, he mused, then killed that thought when he contemplated how Thomas would react to that; something about jurisdictions and ‘No, means, no!’
Deep in his dark thoughts, Standorin contemplated the past few days.. then weeks.. and finally, his life, going as far back as his younger days, particularly after being ‘brought back’, if worded politely, ‘dragged back’, if phrased more accurately, by the rangers Moorat and Limnia to Serenity Home.
After his many experiences during his guarding duties on merchant caravans and as a bounty hunter, he had inevitably learned many of the King’s Laws. Particularly those pertaining to crime and civil order. Hence, he had applied to the position of ‘sheriff’ of the town and in a mere year or two, the job had been his.
The fact that he had worked day and night, quite tirelessly, and in his very orderly and disciplined way, along with his good knowledge of the King’s Laws, had played a great role in getting the job.
In secret, though, Standorin knew, his knowledge of the law had been due to his stints as a bounty hunter and his sense of order and discipline had been part of his ‘character’ all along. The only true reason he had worked day and night, and quite relentlessly, was to capture the affection of that ugly guy’s, Moorat’s, beautiful elder sister, Limnia; the woman who had ultimately captured him on any number of levels.
For nearly a year, Limnia had ignored ‘the boy’, as she referred to Standorin, being some years older than him. But Standorin had been ‘politely’ relentless in his approaches to her as well and finally, and quite miraculously, Limnia had caved in and they had married. Limnia had always been a very bold, outspoken, and strong woman. When they had been alone, however, and only when she’d been with her ‘young’ husband, she would revert to a much girlish persona, and that particular aspect of her had been at the very core of their love and happy marriage as much as her, otherwise ‘known’ attitudes. Standorin would do everything in his power to make her safe and happy because he had loved her that much, and she would be her soft side for him in all regards because her young husband made her feel loved and safe so much so that she could leave her ranger and elder sister ‘skin’ outside her home.
It was quite possible, even her brother Moorat had never known that side of her. After all, he had wondered what Standorin had found in his brisk, rather abrasive, and ofttimes heavy-handed elder sister! True, Moorat had never out right told him just how stupid he thought he was. Not to his face anyway. But he had left no doubt about just exactly what he thought about the young sheriff either. That had changed, however, when the young sheriff showed his skills once they had started tracking down various bandits that had plagued the south of Serenity Home.
All that, and all his happiness, however, had been crushed and quite abruptly, when she had taken ill, and after months of struggling, had died. And with her death, so had somethings.. many things.. in Standorin’s life had passed away and been buried with his wife.
Years later, he would meet a strange, tall, beautiful, alluring, calm, demure, and dignified woman with two, slender horns knock on his door and call upon him; Liaison Constance.
As if on queue, the door to his two-room house knocked.
Within the space of three weeks, and merely by her classy demeanor, her considerate attitude, and her moderated smile, she had managed to start a fire in his heart. A fire he hadn’t felt for the past sixteen years. And that fire had downright scared Standorin. And filled him with guilt, shame, and not a small sense of betrayal for his Limnia.
And all that had culminated to a breaking point when the bloody assassins had attacked his town, the refugees, the representatives, and the delegation, resulting in the death of nearly two thousand people and leaving almost nine thousand wounded in its wake.
Standorin had, quite unreasonably, blamed his emotional storming state with Liaison Constance as a distraction and hence, the cause of his inability to prevent the attack.
Deep down, though, he knew he was wrong on both accounts. The attack had been very well planned like it was, quite literally, ‘doomed to succeed’, and Liaison Constance had certainly not been a distraction for him. The only reason most of the delegation had survived had been due to the diversity of the people among the delegation who had earned their place by sweat and blood in the first place.. As for the liaison, she had shown exceptional professionalism during her work hours in the sheriff’s office and when they were out on a date, she would always have her demure smile and be a warm and confident listener. She would never speak out of turn and certainly never say foolish things, and when she spoke her mind, she would say it with considerate deliberation.
And considering how beautiful and appealing Constance had been in her curving physique, she had never once used that aspect of her arsenal to ‘capture’ him.
The truth, as Standorin understood it, was that the Liaison had wanted him. But as much as she would want to have him admire her for her appealing beauty, she wanted his honest love and certainly his respect, more. Particularly for her working mind, her calm and demure character, and her tender and caring heart..
..the heart that had a spark, as the new and rather surly Liaison Hamna Vir had explained.
“And I snuffed that right out of her.”, he seethed quietly.
The door knocked again.
Standorin contemplated whether he should open it or not. His men knew never to come knocking when he was home, unless something dire was at hand, even so, at that very moment, he just didn’t think he could take any more bad news.
He sighed, got up, and grabbed his heavy club, in case there was a dire situation at hand, or even if there wasn’t and he would use it on the idiot who had come to pester him during his private moments of misery.
“Uhhmm.. Hello, father.”, Udoorin mumbled.
“Boy, what are you doing here this late at night?”, he asked with a frown.
“Really? Dad? You are asking me why I am up late at night?”, Udoorin said in an exasperated voice.
“Good evening, father.”, said another, quiet, soft voice, and Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist appeared from behind Udoorin.
“My Queen.”, Standorin said with a slight bow.
“Please.”, Lorna very nearly begged with a furious blush. “The father of my King bows to no one. And for you, I shall always be just Lorna.”
“That is.. very kind of you to say..”, Standorin admitted with a flushed face.
“I.. We.. just came to visit you before we left.”, Lorna said quietly.
“Left? Are you going somewhere?”, Udoorin’s father asked, with one eyebrow cocked.
“Yes. May we enter? This will be better if we sat and talked.”, Lorna said carefully.
“By all means, do. But.. I have been a bit behind on my house chores of late. The house.. is a bit of a mess at the moment..”, he mumbled.
“It’s alright —ow my!”, Lorna exclaimed when she entered.
Udoorin, however, was more than utterly shocked. He had never seen this house this messy. To phrase that correctly, he had never seen this house messy!
“Udoorin, love, do call Lady Anglenna and Lord Armathelius. I am sure they have been tailing us and think we do not know.”, Lorna asked her husband kindly.
“Of course.”, Udoorin grinned and dashed back out.
“Uhhmm.. What do you have on your mind, Lorna?”, the sheriff asked but before she could answer, Udoorin returned with the Lady Anglenna, Lord Armathelius, and his awesome armor.
“Father, if you would, please, do sit down. Perhaps you would be kind enough to liven up the fire? It is, rather chilly this night.”, Lorna said with an encouraging smile.
“Cousin, Lord Armathelius, shall we get started?”, Lorna said with a merry expression.
Anglenna looked at her, then at the messy house, and sighed in total defeat.
Lord Armathelius just stared at his Queen, then at Anglenna with a very much confused expression, then with an “Ahh, of course, my Queen.”, he said as comprehension dawned on his face and he started towards the cups and plates and parchments scattered everywhere as Lorna bent down and started picking up the crumbled and tossed clothes.
“What? What are you doing?”, Standorin asked with a terribly embarrassed face.
“Helping our father out.”, Lorna said with an even more beautiful smile. “Udoorin, dear. I am sure there is a bucket here somewhere. We will need some water.”
“Of course.”, Udoorin grinned again, grabbed the two wooden buckets sitting next to the door, and ran out, once more, to draw some water from the water pump in the small garden.
“This is highly irregular.”, Standorin said quite mortified.
“No, Sheriff Standorin.”, Anglenna replied happily. “This is payback for all those long hours of grueling questions you afflicted upon me when I was ill.”
“I was very polite to you about it, Lady Anglenna. I am sure you understand that.”
“Yes. I do. I also understand you need some help.”, she said, then turned to her cousin and, very sternly, she added, “Lorna dear, please leave the cooking to me, if you will.”
“What? I thought father would enjoy a hot soup. Or perhaps even a stew!”, exclaimed Lorna.
“Not made by you, dear. I will do the soup, the stew, and the laundry, you do the dishes, and young Udoorin and Lord Armathelius can clean the fireplace and the rest of the house. I am sure we can find some suitable cleaning amenities here.”, she said cooly.
“This is truly unprecedented.”, Standorin fumed.
“My Lord Sheriff, your efforts on behalf of all the refugees, Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen have not gone unnoticed. True, we all suffered in this last attack. But had it not been for your enforced training programs, I surmise our total losses would have been catastrophic by proportion.”, said Lord Armathelius.
“Those training programs were the mayor’s idea.”, objected Standorin.
“Perhaps.”, agreed, Armathelius. “But Arthandos Yuleman had you to rely on, and he was right to do so.”
“Lord Armathelius. If you plan on giving long-winded and quite pompous speeches, please do so outside. Otherwise, grab a bucket and one of these cloths and start scrubbing!”, Anglenna burned the elf lord!
It was perhaps two hours later, and a bit past midnight when they had all settled down in front of the newly cleaned out fireplace; a sour-faced Anglenna sitting on the couch next to Armathelius, Sheriff Standorin sitting in a chair, King Udoorin sitting on the floor and on a threadbare rug with Queen Alor’Nadien ne sitting, also on the floor, with her back resting in his arms, and all with numb, shriveled hands.
“First of all, I thank you all for what you did and I dearly hope this does not go out and become public. Otherwise we will have quite a scandal in our hands and be a laughing stock for the next few generations.”
“It’s alright, dad. Really. After all the things you did for me..”, Udoorin said as he held his wife and queen tighter in his arms.
“Very well. Now, then. Where are you going on the eve of the war?”, Standorin asked.
For a moment, nobody said anything and of the four, only Lord Armathelius had a very disapproving expression. Lady Anglenna’s face was, not quite as disapproving, so much as it was of defeat and exasperation. Udoorin had a grid, and with a soft blush, so did Lorna.
“Lorna, love. Perhaps you should say it. Less likely he will trash us if he heard it coming from you.”, Udoorin offered.
“Sheriff Standorin. My Dorin and I have been studying the area extensively in the past few days and have put together all the intel gathered over the past several months and a bit more. The sources of said intel are; the rangers of Serenity Home and Bari Na-ammen, and thanks to the contributions of Agent Largo Summersong, ARIS, along with what information Tactical General Dridges Motherswolfie sent us and the lingering gossip of the ogres, the fey, and nature, courtesy Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane and her team of druids, shamans, and witches, and the distilled efforts of the half-born on this matter. You have already seen most of these reports yourself, sans what the ogres, the fey, and nature had to say about the matter. However, you have had your hands full as it is, so we marked out several locations and our suspicions, and forwarded them to the tactical general, Dridges Motherswolfie, and she concurs with us. We believe we have narrowed down the location of several of their key Grunt Generals, along with their Blood Shamans.”
Standorin gave her daughter-in-law a very steady gaze, for it was quite apparent what she and his son had in mind.
“We have sketched out several of these locations and the safest possible routes leading to them. We have also put together several surgical strike teams that will head out on search and destroy missions.”, she said softly. “Should we succeed, we will have broken the Orken army’s backbone, and come spring, they will be sorely disoriented, even if they are able to replace all their losses.”
“How many teams are there and who are on these teams, Lorna?”, Standorin asked calmly. “I take it you and my son are in one?”
“Yes, father. There are five teams. Ours will be the second team and will comprise my Udoorin, I, and my cousin, Lady Anglenna. The other teams shall be as follows; The first team shall have Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel, and Perigren Ostlanna Temez of the Escape. The third team will be made up of Master Aager Fogstep, dear Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, and Lady Lilly Venom. Team five will compass, to our surprise, Lady Seressa Wraiven and Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap of the Academy of Melshieve, along with Cora Sleet from the Great Northern Tundras, and Brom Bumblebrim of Bowling Hills.”, Lorna listed.
Standorin frowned. He knew most of the people involved, personally or by reputation. The last four, he knew only because they had been at the meeting three days ago. Something was going on here but he wasn’t quite sure what.
“You are missing team four.”, he said staring at his beautiful and graceful daughter-in-law.
Alor’Nadien ne Feymist smiled up at him.
“Team four is comprised of Liaison Berete Hamna Vir and another of the half-born. But we thought they could use an experienced and well-rounded leader, and very much hoped you would volunteer, father; Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart.”