Sometime in the near future..
..and distant time to come.
It has been some time, little one. Many a things have I heard since you left. Of big happenings.. Of things moving; beast and man, elf and dwarf.. I hear the voices of the long-lost, waiting to be heard again.. Waiting in anticipation. Yet I hear another voice. Stronger now.. Louder. The one I warned Yours —the former Ritual Guardian.. It calls to us.. And it is not the voice of a mortal.. It is a dark voice.. Dark like untended, besmirching smoke.. I hear, also, whispers among the trees.. and the leaves.. and the winds.. and they say a new Ritual Guardian is among us.. And I sense the tender touch of a little girl in many of these big happenings. There is also a new grove, to the far north and east, where the mad mortal’s temple once was.. My ogres went there only to find.. peace! They lost all their bloodlust and all their hunger for hurt when they wandered it. They said the grove has an owner, little one..”, growled the nearly fourteen-foot tall giant of a woman, an ogress, with a harsh, vicious face, wild hair thickly braided many times, with arms and legs and body untoned and bearing awesome muscles and many scars; Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig stared down, a looming monstrosity, over the little girl with an adorable face, and beautiful, even horns.. and at the cold, silent man in his dark harness, emanating a certain, ‘wintery’ death..
“I have returned, mother Ganiste.”, very nearly whispered the little girl —her voice abashed and barely audible.
“If you will have me..”
One would never expect such frightening agility from Chieftain Grulganiste, and certainly not from a monster of her size..
Aager Fogstep almost dished out everything he had, when she moved.
One moment, she was standing and glowering, the next, she had the little girl, Inshala, in her massive arms and pressed against her impressively large breasts.
“No, my little one.. I will never have you because you never left. And my heart has ached since that unfair day.. This, you must understand.. This, your father tried so hard to learn you..”, she said with tears running down her brutish face.
“This, I understand now, mother Ganiste. I am so, so sorry.. I am not wise, but a foolish little girl..”, Inshala hugged the ogress back with a sob. “And.. I am so, so sorry for having hurt you and blamed you for my father’s demise..”
“Ow, no, my little daughter. You will not get away with one apology. Come.. I have food, and Chihuahua has missed you.”, smiled the giant ogress, leaned down, and carefully put the girl back on the ground.
“That was an awesome speech, by the way.”, said the little girl, somberly.
“It had better be. Been revising and revisiting it for quite some weeks, now..”, growled the massive figure.
She thundered a few great steps and opened the flaps of her tent and bid her, and the cold, dark man in.. the one she’d kept in her peripheral vision at all times and learned what she sought, the moment she’d grabbed for her little Inshala!
‘So. My daughter has found something that cares and savagely.. Yet.. in control.. barely..’, she mused as the two entered her tent, followed them in, and closed the flaps after her.
“Chihuahua!”, shrieked Inshala and grabbed a rather tinny dog with short legs and a pointy little muzzle, as it jumped on her, its butt waggling crazy.
This was followed by a lot of giggles and happy laughter as the tinny dog nuzzled and licked at her hands, her face, and her small feet.
Aager Fogstep stood watching the giant ogress, his Inshala, and the hyped little dog while he stood at one side of the tent flaps, the side that would likely be pushed open first.
Chieftain Grulganiste turned to her pots and pans, and started slicing some potatoes, onions, carrots and dumped them into a large pot, then dropped large chunks of meat, followed by various spices, then hung the pot over the large fire pit, close to the center of the great, hut-like tent.
It took a moment for Aager to realize the ogress was staring at him. Watching her preparing food with fluent, hypnotic motions as he stared at the fire in the pit, he’d drifted off.. He was standing and awake, but his awareness had gone, leaving his body on total auto-motion..
The ogress had also addressed him something and he’d missed that too!
That.. had never happened to Aager.
And the more interesting part was..
..realizing it hadn’t even bothered him.
What else he’d realized was, albeit, and yes, this was an uncivilized, barbaric tent, its interior was..
Aager Fogstep failed to come up with a word.
For he’d never really had it.
And it was the realization of this fact, that had come to him in shrapneled.. hurt?
..he heard Inshala’s small, breathy voice in his mind.
“This is home, my Aager. Not mine. Not yours. But a home. Her home. Mother Ganistes’ home. Here, she cooked. Here, she gave birth. Here, she laughed, and here, she mourned.. Here, she has fire, and here, she has Chihuahua..”
“The boy seems distracted.”, noted Grulganiste.
“I think so too.”, replied Inshala. “It is good that he is, mother Ganiste.”
“Yes. He is always alert. Always watching. Always fighting, and always bleeding. He needs respite.”, replied the little girl softly.
“And found it here, has he? In my tent. The tent of an ogress.. My my.. He must truly need this respite, you speak of.”, smiled the ogress. “Well, bring him back from wherever he’s gone to. I wouldn’t want the sheriff to accuse me for letting his man go hungry nor for inhospitality.”
“You know the sheriff of Serenity Home?”, suddenly asked Aager.
“Yes, boy. And for quite sometime now. Has an itchy hand with his blade when it comes to my ogres, though I can’t say I blame him. Everyone’s got to protect their own and my sons and daughters can get out of hand at times.”, replied Grulganiste, without breaking a smile.
Aager stared at the giant woman with reassessing eyes. This.. ogress was a lot more than what she appeared to be, and that was saying something.
“Come, boy.”, repeated the giant woman as she brought huge, ogre-sized bowls and spoons and settled near the fire pit where the tiny Chihuahua and the little girl, Inshala waited with equal anticipation.
Aager Fogstep stared at the scene.
A giant monstrosity of a woman sitting cross-legged; their host, a girl that could barely reach up to her caft if she were standing on her toes, sitting across her; her guest, and a dog that was ‘small’ even by Inshala’s standards, let alone the great ogre!
It looked so unreal.. And hilarious.. But he kept his mouth shut and settled himself next to the little girl.
The chihuahua have him a warning growl, made sure the man in the dark leathers would behave himself, then promptly dismissed him when Chieftain Grulganiste put a cup the size of a respectable-sized bowl with some potatoes and a large chunk of meat in front of him. The chihuahua started to ‘wolf’ it all down with a mindless fervor!
*chomp* *chomp* *chomp*
Aager took a careful spoon of the food and only after he’d smelled it first.
Funny how that went.
Aager Fogstep, the cold, sinister man. The Winter Knight, a peer to the Winter Court, had a sensitive nose and bad food churned his stomach!
“You are a guest in my home, boy. It is polite to just eat it, you know. It is vegetables, potatoes, and cow!”, rumbled the ogress with an impressive scowl.
Inshala giggled as she ate hers with delight.
“He is a sensitive soul, mother Ganiste. Happily, I cook well and have had much practice.”
“Sensitive, is he?”, snorted the ogress. It seemed at first, she was about to make a pun remark, but for whatever reason, she must have changed her mind. “Sensitive can be good. My daughter is also sensitive. Will you smell her carefully, before you taste her too?”
Aager’s food came out of his nose!
“Mother!”, gasped Inshala, suddenly burning bright red.
“What?”, asked Grulganiste seriously. “It’s a valid question. Or perhaps he already has and that is why you are so skinny now!”
“M.. Mother.. Please.. Stop!”, begged Inshala with steam rising from her ears.
*chomp* *chomp* *chomp*
“This is what mothers do, little one. Ask impertinent questions. I am sure your father would have approved.. and snickered.. though not obviously. He was a thoughtful old man, particularly where you were concerned, after all.. Sour though he was.”, said mother Ganiste briskly.
“She smells like something wonderful. I lack words. And the ones I have, fall short.”, Aager said quietly, after wiping the food off his face.
“Does she, now?”, asked Chieftain Grulganiste with an awesome scowl.
“Yes.”, replied Aager simply.
“A.. Aager.. Please.. Stop!”, begged Inshala burning even brighter if that was even possible.
Apparently, it was!
“And she tastes like ‘Life’.”
“Not ‘beautiful’, not ‘delightful’, not ‘passionate’, not even ‘enjoyable’, but ‘life’.. Your choice of word is intriguing, if not impressive. And correct, for life has the potential of encompassing all.. You do not speak the words of a young fool, as fools are often young, much like their base wonts and shallow understandings. You will keep her safe, content, and desired, always, then? Or shall we break spoons, now?”, said the giant woman with a certain, implied menace.
“Your food smells and tastes good, Chieftain Grulganiste. I see no reason to break spoons.”, replied Aager formally.
Grulganiste cocked an eyebrow at the man in dark leathers.
“You wish not to talk about this, then?”, she asked.
“You may, as you would, Chieftain. This is your home and I am a mere guest. My Inshala is where I belong. I desire nothing more from her. But by the Great Heavens, nothing less, either.”, he replied calmly and succinctly.
Grulganiste, though, recognized that ‘calm’.. For it was the calm she felt only after she’d let her bloodlust have its way. Accept, this.. man’s ‘calm’ was before the bloodlust and there seemed no respite from it anywhere in his near future.
And then it hit her.
This man.. ‘danced’.. and perpetually, at the edge of insanity.. always.. He was as a feral wolf; savage, hungry, cunning, and bloody mad!
And her little Inshala was the lamb to that wolf..
‘Ow, my dear, dear girl. What have you done? To whom have given your beautiful heart?’, wondered the chieftain of all the ogres of Oger’s Foot in dread and hopeless fascination.
She stared fiercely at the cold man in dark leathers for a bit more.
“Very well.”, mother Ganiste said finally. “We shall put this issue and the breaking of spoons aside for the anon. Now, we shall take part the merry wisdom of my chihuahua to heart and eat.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Now, then. You came here at quite a critical time. Your enemies gather and in great numbers. The dwarven forges have been smoking non-stop for months, the foolish woodsmen carve spear shafts and great wooden stakes by the thousands, the elves enforce their woods with pits and traps as they fill quivers with arrows by the numbers I shudder to even assume. The humans to the south build walls and dig trenches day and night like their very lives depended on it, and by all accounts, it does!”, briefed the ogre chieftain in a low, rumbling growl that would have made any cave bear with a shred of sense to back off.
Aager Fogstep was, yet again, astounded at the accuracy of this giant woman’s astute perception. He had, and only once before, come to Oger’s Foot, some years ago, when a savage ogre called Cabot had come down from these hills and had started ravaging the lands. Serenity Home ranger masters Davien and Moorat had gone after him, but the ogre had been fast on his feet. He had gathered his followers and had made a run for it.. to the ruins of Themalsar, forcing the ranger masters to retreat. Then young Udoorin’s father, Sheriff Standorin, along with Davien, Moorat, Aager, more than half the guards of the town and no other that Lady Magella herself had come here, to these hills to give a harsh lesson to the ogres to behave themselves. They hadn’t met, nor seen Chieftain Grulganiste then. Looking back, now, Aager woke up to the fact that they really hadn’t seen all that many ogres at all!
‘Damn..’, he silently fumed. ‘We were played.. by ogres!’
Once again, he was harshly reminded that ‘the stupider’ something seemed, the more they ‘fooled’ the human’s ‘higher’ intellect!
Aager had never assumed, in any given time, that he was smarter than those around him. He prepared to stay silent and observe, hence at least give some semblance of ‘smart’. But being conned by one ogress?
That did nudge his self-esteem a notch or two down!
“If you are here to warn us not to join your foes, I have no desire to. Some of my more foolish sons and daughters might.. It is hard to curb the bloodlust when it comes. Particularly when their air stinks of it.. I shall resist ‘the call’, for as best as I can, for as long as I can., and will have nothing to do with this conflict. Should you see me and mine on the field, and waring against you, you may, by all means, slay me and mine, for it shall mean that I have fallen to ‘the call’. I would rather die with some semblance of honor on my own, than to rampage mindlessly for another..”, she rumbled calmly.
“We have not come to warn you, Chieftain Grulganiste.. Nor have we come to threaten you. Certainly not in your home.”, replied Aager carefully.
“Smart of you, not to.”, smiled Grulganiste terribly.
Aager paused for a moment before he spoke again, for whether this would be an official offer by Serenity Home, or a personal favor would be determined by what he would say next. Then he thought about the oncoming slaughter, and his pragmatism kicked in. He didn’t care how something got done, provided it wasn’t downright heinous. He cared that it did get done, and at this point, that was all that mattered.
Hence he looked at the little girl, Inshala..
He wasn’t looking at her like she was a little girl anymore, even if her mind worked and prompted her, at times, to do things that would make her seem like one.
He was looking at not just the ‘person’ he belonged but at the daughter of Lady Alisia and the late Delia Karakash Hooman, the surrogate daughter of the departed Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, the daughter of the chieftain of all the ogres of Oger’s Hill, Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig, the mistress of The Grove, The Ritual Guardian and by defacto, a citizen of Serenity Home and Gull’s Perch, the wont of both Mab, the Winter Queen and Titania, the Summer Queen..
..he was looking at the young woman he loved and cherished by her mere existence.
Just when had that shift in his perspective occurred, Aager Fogstep couldn’t say.
The fact that it had, told him some things..
Carefully, he kept his composure and nodded at the young woman.
“Ritual Guardian..”, he spoke. “If you would.”
Chieftain Grulganiste cocked an eyebrow at him, then at the young woman.
“Respect..”, she said. “Good. For it’s there, only if it’s there.”
“Mother Ganiste.”, Inshala said softly. “We shall not confine you with demands. We come as beggars.”
“Ow?”, said Grulganiste.
“Yours can not stand, while the blood of the innocent spills by the thousands. Your own blood shall boil in wont and willy-nilly, the madness of its lust will drive you to war. We only beg, you choose when and where to release your blood and your lust for it..”, said the young woman, her eyes wide and pleading.
“What are you asking of me, girl?”, demanded Grulganiste.
“Join us, mother. Your daughter, and your forest of whom you have shared her bounties for centuries.. we need you.. Now, more than ever..”
“You are asking me to join with the elves and the dwarves and the humans who have hunted us for the said centuries and in our forest? You have gone mad!”, she roared and the hut-like tent tremored.
“Mother.. Chieftain Grulganiste..”, she said solemnly. “We go to this war with the intent of not coming back because we will not retreat, nor run, or hide.. These are choices, just not ours.. If your choice is to stay here as we bleed and die, then this shall be the last you shall see of your Father’s daughter.”
Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig just sat there, cross-legged and quietly petrified.
“You come here, to my hills and to my home, you eat my food and dare to threaten me? With your demise?”, she thundered with a horrible, torturous voice.
“No, mother Ganiste. I only speak my truth, as I always have.”, replied Inshala, bowing her head.
Grulganiste turned and with burning eyes, she very nearly burned Aager where he sat with her glare.
“Has this one put these foolish thoughts into your head, girl?”, she snarled.
“Mother, please. He spoke so I would go away, far away, when the slaughter began.”, replied the young woman quietly again.
“Then why will you not listen to him?”, snarled the ogress with much fury.
For a moment Inshala paused. Then, slowly she lifted her head, then herself. Step by step, she came at the giant woman and hugged her. One sitting, the other on her toes, and the young woman still looked so very diminished as she clung to the ogress.
“Because the running cannot belong, my beloved mother Ganiste.. You must know, for the first time, I belong.. Will you deny this one wealth, from me?”, she replied Inshala desperately, as she sobbed.
“You belong to this man?”, Grulganiste asked in some surprise.
“I belong to this man, mother Ganiste.”, she whispered again. “He is my hills. My trees. My garden. My day. And my night, mother. He is my land and my forest.. And my home..”, said Inshala in a voice that sounded so lost, yet so happy.
“And what has he promised you? What does he give you in return?”, asked the ogress, somewhat freaked!
“His life, mother. This, he has already given..”
Chieftain Grulganiste pushed Inshala away at arm’s length and just stared at her, then at Aager like a mother was looking at her foolish children whose excuses were worse than their deeds..
“But know, mother, the Orken shall not leave you at peace, should they trample over our corpses. You know this to be true, for you recall what they did when they first came.”, Inshala said softly. “They shall come in number and trample over yours as well.. And take your hills, and your sons and daughters away from you, and push them into service of nothing less than darkness!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig stood up. With tangible wrath visible and plainly etched on her face, she stormed out of the tent, though not too far, for both Aager and Inshala could hear her great strides trample back and forth as if trying desperately to blow some steam, but failing horribly.
“What now?”, asked Aager quietly.
“Now we wait, my Aager Fogstep. We have told her our wont and given her choices. It is up to her now. She must do what she thinks would best serve her and hers because she is the chieftain of her people.”, replied the young woman.
“She must love you much, my Inshala. I saw fear once, and only once in her eyes. And that was when you said you would not go away, but join the slaughter.”, noted Aager in a hushed voice. “I would have a word to say about your decision to stay, love. My inner voice says, send her away, even should it break her heart. There are many Aager’s in the world.. There’s but one of her! Please, my Inshala.. If I have one wish, I would wish you to go.. and live.”
The young woman stared at Aager with a broken expression.
Then, large, shimmering tears swelled in her eyes and slid down her small face.
“You.. wish to break our bond?”, she asked in a voice that could only be called; ‘desperation’.
“I would wish, that you lived.”, replied Aager and bowed his head, unable to look at her.
“And did you live.. before?”
“No. I did not, my heart.”
“And you think I lived? You wish me gone, knowing I shall die some, every day? You hope to preserve me while you die, knowing I shall not? Why? Why would you do this to me? We.. we promised to be stupid together. Does this promise falter at our first trial?”
“No, Inshala. We have had many trials together. You know this to be true.”
“Yes. I do know this to be true. But you fail to reason; distance will keep me safe, and perhaps assure my survival. But it will not keep me alive.. Not really.. If you truly want me gone, however, I shall.”
Aager cursed himself.
He had never wanted her hurt. But he had.. What else he had done, was to have made her choices for her. Did he really have the right to that? Yes, they belonged. But was he, perhaps unwittingly, abusing the ‘trust’ of their bond? And a tad too casually?
Then he figured..
..the monumental arrogance he was displaying without even knowing because he thought he knew things, and life better..
Keeping her away was just as selfish as telling her to stay.
It wasn’t up to him in the first place.
His Inshala had desperately wanted his love, certainly, but she wanted his respect more.
Yes, she looked so little, but she was not all human.
She was little.. and yet she was more..
Aager finally figured out what it was, his shift in perspective was telling him; that he should quit treating her by his stupid, narrow, quite conventional, and mortal standards, but by hers..
“No. To stay, or to go, is a choice you must make. I.. I do not want you to go.. I never wanted it.. I want you to stay, always.. Will you? Please?”, he asked silently.. and desperately..
..and she was in his arms.
“I never left.”, she whispered. “And stay, I shall. We.. we promised, my Aager, we PROMISED..”
The tent’s flaps pushed open and Grulganiste stood there, glaring down at the two.
“You..”, she said. “..truly love this man?”
“I do.”, replied Inshala, still in Aager’s arms.
“You..”, she said, glaring down at the man in dark leathers. “..truly love my daughter?”
“I do.”, replied Aager simply.
“And should something happen to either of you..?”, she asked and there was nothing but a baleful storm in her face.
“The other shall die.”, Inshala quietly.
“Why? Why would you make such a pact? To what purpose would you make this pact, girl?”, she thundered.
“Purpose? None, mother. Only to belong. It is a feeling like no other. It transcends.. This, you must accept, mother Ganiste.”, Inshala replied tenderly.
“Very well, Inshala.. I shall join you and yours in this slaughter.”, she said very, very harshly.
“Thank you—”, began the young woman.
“—In return..”, cut in the vastly angry ogress. “..you will uphold your father’s promise to me.”
Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane stared at Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig with a horrified expression.
“No, mother Ganiste. I beg of you. Do not ask this of me.. Anything but this..”, she pleaded.
“It is not a choice I am giving you, Inshala. It is a debt; Father to Daughter Passed..”, she replied with a frosty expression. “Will you honor it?”
“Will you honor it?”
“Will you not honor your father’s debt? His promise?”
“WILL YOU HONOR IT, INSHALA?”, roared the giant ogress.
“..I will..”, replied Inshala in a small voice.. and Aager held her fast as she burst into uncontrolled, unhinged tears and wept..
She wept with a terrible loss..
Aager held her and stared at the giant ogress.
“What debt have you tasked her to honor, Chieftain?”, he very nearly snarled.
“Her father, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, promised to slay me when my time came, young man.. He failed to do so, for he was slain ere he could.”
“I shall honor this task for her.”, he spat, without even thinking.
“No, boy.. You are not part of the debt, nor the honor. I do not know you and you are neither my respected enemy nor my loved one. This is not something that is covered in whatever pact, bond, or accord you have made with one another.”, she replied harshly.
“Will you not respect the Winter Knight, then? And spare my Inshala —your daughter, the pain?”, he asked, suddenly desperate.
“I respect Mab, and I respect the Winter Mantle. A heavy and dreary burden it is, and will likely drive you mad in the end and get my daughter killed as well.. But I do not know you.. Again, this is not your trial, nor your debt..”, replied and her voice was calm again.
Aager inadvertently staggered.
This ogre not only knew of Mab and of her Winter Knight she also knew of the Winter Mantle!
“Why? Why would you do this to her? She is your ‘daughter’.. She loves you..”
“Because, the bonded of my daughter, love is beautiful. And it is harsh. It is not a word to be spent with ease. It demands.. always demands.. And is tested upon death.. Hence we ask this only from the enemy we respect.. or from the ones we love..”
Chieftain Grulganiste stared down at the two of them and something shimmered in her eyes, but for a mere moment.
“Now go.. I have many preparations to make. We must all make a pilgrim to The Grove to cleanse our souls.. Then gather.. For humans with false words, I lost my mother, my father, my greats, and many kin.. This time, I shall go to slaughter on my own accord. We shall make these Orken scream in pain, for they shall receive nothing less from us. Do not mourn your debt, my daughter. Perhaps I shall fall in the coming slaughter, for I shall do my best.. and free you of it..”
Out of the Gull.
The time for war draws near.
Friends come and so do the foes.
Yet, the stance of some is unknown,
for friend and foe is a matter of perspective..
For nature has neither and holds neither..
The undead were relentless. They came at them moaning, howling, and did they come at them shrieking!
And side by side with the dearest man of her life, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, fought, tooth and nail, and did she deny herself of her heritage, for, at that very moment, she was not the princess of the high elves, but the Queen of Death, herself..
And behind them, her cousin, Anglenna Sunsear, rained her own kind of death and destruction and she was immaculate at it, as she had been in everything she did. Deep down, Alor’Nadien ne had always admired her cousin’s cool and somewhat aloof demeanor as she had, when she had been, but a tiny little thing, yearning to go and knock at her aunt’s door in Bari Na-ammen and beg her to give permission so her cousin would play with her.
The irony in that was lost to all but herself.
Alor’Nadien ne had never yearned to actually play with Anglenna, so much as she wanted to observe her..
..and be awesome like her!
The games had been a mere excuse and sort of a bonus..
..and she had had the chance to make someone eat her cakes, her cookies, and her pies, though, looking back, said cakes, cookies, and pies shouldn’t have had raw onions because she’d thought they made her pies crunchy. Her cookies also shouldn’t have had baby powder because she’d thought cookies ought to have that white thingy on them, nor should her cakes have had her mother’s hand cream because she’d strongly believed all cakes just must have whipped cream on them..
Yet, her cousin Anglenna had eaten them anyway, which, in later years, told her several things;
That her cousin had preferred her, quite horrible, hideous, even, cooking skills, coupled with her highly creative ingredients, than to spending time with her own mother..
That she must have enjoyed her little baby cousin’s presence, even against the prodigious, one hundred and fifty years age disparity..
That deep down, she had, in fact, been fond of her and cared for her, looked out for her, and perhaps most important of all, believed in her, even against all of her own mother’s indoctrinations..
That she would make her the queen she, Alor’Nadien ne, had never yearned to be, whether she wanted it or not..
And that she had, at some point, stopped seeing her as merely her cousin, but started viewing her and ‘that young man’ as one, and had started protecting them both..
Alor’Nadien ne was not sure why all these had crossed her mind at that point, but at some subconscious level, she felt that they all meant something.. something more that changes in characters, or choices, or perspectives, but change..
..in a sense that could only be defined as ‘total’.
And that was when she had come face to face with the Draugr, the undead monstrosity her cousin, Anglenna had warned her about. Unwittingly she’d stared at the soulless creature’s voids, where there were supposed to have been eyes and seen..
Alor’Nadien ne blacked out.
But she did not back down.
With the savagery of a High Woods lynx, she slashed and hacked her way through the undead until there was only the Draugr.
She did not hesitate.
With her near three-yard long glaive and the thirty-inch deathly steel, she stabbed it..
..in the heart.
And for a bare moment, she felt the death throes of that heart carried all the way from the deathly blade, down the long shaft of her glaive, and in her hands.
She thought she felt something familiar about that final tremor in that heart..
And then she came around.
Staring in horror at the fallen and bloody form of her Udoorin.
It all went sideways after that and try as she might, Alor’Nadien ne just couldn’t remember anything.
Only that it had been she, who had slain her love.
And in her post-madness insanity, there had been that howling scream of some churning wind, followed by a brilliant flash of light..
..and that’s it.
She was no longer down in the stinking sewers of the once glorious city of Arashkan.
✱ ✱ ✱
Sheriff Standorin stood silently as he stared down at the rickety bed, and the tall, alluring figure lying in it with a horrible expression on his face.
Much like all the other dormitories in the temple, this small room was also comprised of a single bed, a chair, a nightstand with a washing dish, a lockless box for personal effects, and..
The only variation to these had been the addition of extra beds in most of the other rooms since the arrival of the half-born, making the already small dormitories rather cramped, though the new, otherworldly guests never complained. For them, this was Heaven, as opposed to their previous ‘Hellish’ pits..
The tall, alluring girl, Constance, had tiny beads of sweat on her contorted face, her brows frowning, her bright red lips pressed together and though her eyes were open, there was a glossy shimmer about them; pained and somewhat glassy, as tears ran down and disappeared in her long and disheveled black hair.
She was trying, very hard, to put on a ‘happy’ front, but was failing quite miserably.
As much pain as she was in, she still managed to be quiet and dignified about it and the only other sign that would have given her apparent pain away, was her fisted hands, blessedly hiding under the itchy blanket that covered her up to her chest.
She managed to turn her head to make sure they were alone, then unclenched her lips and tried for a smile.
“There.. really isn’t any cause.. for such ruckus, dear Sheriff.. Standorin.. Shieldheart.. And.. I do not believe.. my actions merit.. such a scowl..”, she whispered.
Sheriff’s face became even more horrible.
“What did you do?”, he growled in his deep rumbling voice.
Constance stared at him, her gaze glassy and a bit off.
“We gave an oath.. Sheriff. To sweat.. to bleed.. and to die, to attain.. our Ascension. I have bled.”, she said with a forced smile.
“And now.. I am sweating..”
“I am not very good with levity, Miss Constance.”, scowled Standorin, as he fumed.
“Then I shall refrain.. from it..”, she smiled even more, though she had closed her eyes tightly and her frown bespoke of much pain.
“Sheriff Standorin..”, said a shy, soft, earnest voice from the door. “You should go. Constance needs rest and time to mend.”
Standorin turned to the door to see the small Inshala standing there. He inadvertently scowled at her as well, causing her to flinch, but she refused to back down. Blushing furiously, she held her ground. “Sir. Please. What she is going through is a delicate matter and requires tender care. If you are willing to give her that, you may stay. If you wish is to intorodate her, you really should leave, because she is hurting and is in much pain.”
“Intorodate?”, the sheriff asked a bit baffled.
“My Aager knows what it means. You may ask him later if you wish.”, she replied, blushing even more.
“I only want to know what is going on here. She was fine two days ago when she suddenly disappeared and this evening she was found, lying unconscious and beat, in the dirt, several miles away from the village. If there is a crime done against her, the felons must be found and face the harshest of punishments!”
“No crime was done here, Sheriff, sir.”, Inshala said, quietly. “What has befallen her, is something she has brought upon herself.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”, the sheriff growled.
“I.. I am very sorry, sir. That is the best I can explain.”, she struggled. “I do not have the right to say any more for.. certain other.. people are involved.. Should she wish it, she may share it with you. But her sacrifice is not mine to reveal. Now, she needs to rest and mend.”
“People? What other people? What sacrifice? What the heck is going on here?!”, Sheriff Standorin very nearly blared.
“Sherif Standorin.”, said a young, sharp voice, and Thomas Dimwood appeared behind Inshala. “You will refrain from such demanding attitudes and you will not raise your voice in my temple. And you will respect the privacy and sanctity of my guests and those under my care. Must I remind you that the Temple of Light is not under your jurisdiction? You, on the other hand, are in mine, now, as you are not even a guest, but a visitor. I do not want to have to remove you from my grounds, but if I must, I shall.”
The room’s temperature suddenly plummeted and an ominous silence spread.
“That was a tad uncalled for, young man.”, Standorin growled.
“So is your attitude towards my guests, the Ritual Guardian, Liaison Constance, and your free reign of my temple.”, replied Thomas cooly.
“Old Demos would never have taken that tone with me—”, the sheriff said scowling fiercely.
“You would never have done what you just did, had our Father, Demos were alive, Sheriff. Perhaps you imagine his absence gives you some leeway?”, Thomas said and his tone had taken a frosty edge now.
“Dear, Thomas..”, came the brittle voice of Constance as more tears came down her closed eyes. “..please. Friends should not fight over such technicalities. I and my brothers and sisters are new, here, in this Mortal coil, but we watch and we learn; I am certain the esteemed sheriff means no disrespect to your, your guests, nor your sanction. He.. he is merely worried.. Which is understandable and was my doing.. I shall.. tell him.. what he wants to know, and what he needs to know, also.”
“I agree.”, came Inshala’s small voice as she stared at her own feet. “I really am sorry, sir. I can say some things, I can not say some other things. There are forces in this world and.. other places.. that are beyond understanding and mustn’t be put to words on a whim for they may hear, and bring their retribution upon us. Please, sir. You must accept what I say, and stop there. I apologize for making this harder for you to understand but I am young and silly and I lack words.”
Standorin stared at Constance, then at the little girl, Inshala, then at Thomas, who was staring back at him, not quite as coldly as before, merely as adamant and immovable as him.
“I apologize for my attitude, Temple Guardian. I overstepped my boundaries in my moment of pique.”, the sheriff rumbled, though it was rather obvious, he was quite furious the way the young man had ‘man-handled’ him the way he had.
He then he walked over to the door, dropped on one knee before Inshala and with a much softer voice, he said, “And I apologize to you as well, again, and twice; once to the Ritual Guardian, and once you, dear Inshala. You have been nothing but good to this town and the refugees and probably doing more than I can see and comprehend. It would seem I am out of my debt here and trying to understand things quite beyond me, much like, it would seem, I am doomed to kneel before you and apologize, time and again, every time I turn around.”
Inshala’s face smoldered.
She was so embarrassed, she seemed like she was looking for some tiny hole to hide in.
So she did the only thing she could think of.
She hugged the huge, kneeling, man and hid her face there!
“Please do not kneel like this again, sir. Not to me, not to anyone. Decent and honorable men should bow to no one. Your son, Udoorin, never did, accept that one time when he was trying to learn me what it meant to love. He was always nice and polite to me. My Aager shows respect to everyone but feels only for very few and you are one of those few.”, she spoke from where she hid her face.
Sheriff Standorin blushed.
“Well, I—”, he faltered.
“—Lost?”, offered Thomas with a grin.
“I suppose I did..”, he sighed.
Then he kindly parted with the little girl, got up to his feet, and looked at the two of them.
“I would like to stay here with our Liaison until she gets better and is able to return to her duties. Lady Inshala, I would be grateful if you would go and inform Master Aager, that until such time as I am able to return to my duties, he will take over my duties as the acting sheriff, effective immediately.”, he said.
“Uhhmm.. Your sheriff is telling me somethings to tell you, but I have no idea what he just said, my Aager.”, Inshala whimpered in her head.
“What did he say, love?”, came Aager’s voice.
“He told me to tell you that you are something something acting something sheriff, escaping immediately!”
“Shit!”, Aager cursed vehemently. “As if I didn’t have enough on my plate..”
“AAGER FOGSTEP!”, gasped Inshala.
“I am sorry, love. Not in a very good mood today. I just can’t seem to teach this lot why we go for the jugular instead of the kidney in an ambush. I guess some people just like the drama of watching a violently struggling victim in an abhorrent amount of pain who is likely to manage a scream while he is kicking around in massive spasms as opposed to silently lowering him down with the least struggle while he quietly bleeds out!”
“Ow.. Tigers always go for the jugular! Nature is the best killer!”, Inshala said enthusiastically. “But I think your sheriff just wants to stay with Liaison Constance until she gets better.”
“Ahh.. that sounds.. familiar..”
“Ow, my.. I suppose it does, doesn’t it? Where are you? He told me to GO AND TELL you, so I think I must go to you, mustn’t I? I mean, I can’t just tell him, I just told you!”
“Yes, that would be hard to explain. Might as well come, love, perhaps we could take an early break and go home?”, Aager offered.
“I’d like that.”
“Alright. I guess I will go now, then?”, Inshala said with an exaggerated and guilty sort of tone and left.
Standorin stared after her, shook his head, then turned back to Thomas.
“Liaison Constance is a member of my office.”, he continued. “I must make sure she stays as part of my office, well and healthy, hence I invoke my right to sanction, Temple Guardian Thomas, and I believe anyone who invokes such sanction must be admitted without question or hindrance.”, he said and grinned at Thomas.
The young senior temple guardian frowned.
“I see you have been reading jurisdictional and temple laws, Sheriff. A bit out of your way, isn’t it?”, he mused.
“The esteemed Liaison has made me aware, I have been lacking in that area. Hence I took the time to remedy it. Now, if you will..”, the sheriff said and let it hanging..
“Very well, sheriff. I shall send some food to both of you soon enough.”, Thomas conceded.
“I would like to pay for them.”, Standorin said.
“We do not charge here, sheriff.”, reminded the young temple guardian.
“No, you don’t. But as small an amount as it may be, I am sure it will go somewhere better than where I’d have spent it. Accept it as a tithe, if you will. Unless you want two of your guests under your care to starve.”, Standorin said sternly.
“What is it about you Shieldhearts and your obstinacy, I wonder.”, he said.
“It’s all about the Heart, really. The Shield, we use to bash out the obstinacy from young men! Now, if you will, I have a young Liaison to care for.”
✱ ✱ ✱
She is waking up.”, whispered a petulant voice.
“She is an early riser. But then, she’s been falling asleep where she kneels, crying all day.”, replied another voice, also in a whisper, though this one was soft and sounded like she laughed a lot in her normal merry voice. “It breaks my heart seeing her like this, day after day and it’s been weeks. I’ll admit, her boy is sort of cute, in a puppy-eye way, but the bushy thing he’s got on his face irks me.”
“Ow, yes, Temessa. It totally creeps me out! Did you bring her something to eat? I brought her my best peaches yesterday, she didn’t touch them.”, the petulant voice said.. petulantly.
“It is possible she might not like peaches, Yamara. Some Mortals do not and it even irks them. It has to do with the hair on the peaches, I think. A bit like how the boy’s bushy face irks us.”, explained Temessa in her hushed voice.
“That was not a nice thing to say, Temessa. My peaches are delicious. She didn’t eat your apples, either, if I recall.”, Yamara said in a hurt voice.
“True. But my apples are always dark and red and sweet and juicy. Just like me! Some Mortals prefer the hard and sour kind.”, shrugged Temessa.
“She didn’t touch Cherriot’s cherries, Shyad’s grapes, Kardenymp’s quinces, nor Veraminks’ berries. She is Mortal. She must be hungry by now. She will suffer scary visions and horrible dreams and die if she doesn’t eat soon.”, Yamara said a bit freaked.
“Maybe that’s why she is so skinny?”, Temmessa mused. “I wish Aremela were here. She’d know a way to make her eat and stop crying. She was the only one among us to very nearly understand Mortals.”
“It has been nearly twenty years since she’s been gone, Temessa.”, Yamara reminded her, though she said it with a very slight tremor in her own voice.
“Yes. But she was my friend and we always had the bestest fun when she was with us.”, Temessa signed.
“That’s true.”, Yamara admitted grudgingly. “Even though she snitched me to Mother, once.”
“She didn’t snitch you, Yamara. She told Mother, yes, you were being rude to everyone and, yes, you did charr Cherriot’s cherries because I snitched you to Mother and Mother asked her if this was true!”, Temessa replied simply.
Yamara made an unhappy noise.
“Did you know Mother was thinking of talking to that Blom Bundlebim Hobim so he would write all his adventures? That way, everyone will remember Aremela Berrybush!”, Temessa said suddenly.
“Ow, wow! Will we be in it, too?”, Yamara asked eagerly.
“Probably. I mean, we were there when they met, weren’t we?”
“Yes, we were. We are going to be so famous!”, Yarama beamed.
“Shhh! She is opening her eyes.. She has lovely eyes. Like dew grass after a spring rain.”, Temessa said with an adoring tone.
“Yes. But she also has dark circles around them and her face is swollen. She must eat.”, Yamara observed critically.
“Good morning, Yamara. Good morning Temessa.”, whispered Lorna..
..because that was the only strength she had left in her;
Temessa and Yamara just stared at her.
“Sweet Alor’Nadien ne. We have brought you new apples, peaches, grapes, cherries, and berries this morning. We give these to you freely and Mother knows this.”, Temessa almost pleaded.
“Yes, she does, even though she told us we could bargain for them if we wanted to. Please accept them. We already lost many of our sisters here some time ago to some villainous dwarves and it has made us very sad. We do not wish a pretty Mortal to die, as well.”, Yamara begged.
“I am sorry for your loss, dear Yamara. But it’s alright. Once my beautiful Udoorin is gone, I shall take my leave and die elsewhere. That way, I shall not ruin the sanctity of your beautiful valley.”, Lorna replied hoarsely.
“Please, pretty Alor’Nadien ne. Eat at least one peach or one apple, or even some grapes and cherries and even some berries. Before Mother comes and asks you again.”, Temessa said, this time actually pleading.
“I thank you both and your sisters. You have been nothing but kind and generous to me. My answer to Mother will be the same as it was yesterday, and the day before that, and I shall carry your kindness to my grave.”, Lorna breathed rapidly..
..and vaguely realized this rapid breathing was a new symptom.
Yes. Her time was coming to a close and.. rapidly..
The fact that she had survived as long as she had, was likely to her connection to the Spirit of High Woods. But like her woods, she too was ending.
At least she would get her moment to say farewell to her Udoorin one last time before she crawled out of Gull’s Perch.
And with that thought, she looked down at the strange, quartz-blue, crystal-like coffin she was leaning where she lay, and where she’d woken, day after day, and fallen asleep, night after night..
..where, under layers of the quartz-blue crystal, lay the young man she had slain in her moment of insanity.
She could see his unmoving face, peaceful, yet oddly faceted and fractured in the crystal and the bloody hole that was his heart.
She remembered that moment they had first met.
In her anger, she had charged at the people that had come bursting into the room, down in the dungeons below the ruins of Themalsar, her dark, smoking glaive raised.
Whether it had been a matter of luck, initiative, skill, destiny, or fate, the young man had reached her before she could swing her blade.
He had reached her with both of his great battle-axes already at the end of their radius, and just about to cut into her slender neck.
But in his moment of madness, he had stopped, both blades nicking at her. He had stopped and opted not to slay her. And furiously blushing, he had grinned at her and said;
“Uhhmm.. Hello. I am Udoorin.”
She hadn’t.. In her madness, she had stabbed him, in the back and in the heart..
Inevitably, her eyes teared.
“I am so, sorry, my Udoorin. Today, I shall beg her again; mine life for yours. Perhaps today she will see reason.”, she whispered. “For if she will not, I am afraid you will be staying here for a while, but I shan’t. I feel the claws of death and I am all but spent. I deserve what is upon me. Should you wake, please think not too unkindly of me, for I loved you..”
“With all my heart..”
And that single word broke her all over again.
“Dear child. How long shall this mourning last?”, asked a rich, throaty, mature voice asked.
“Will you not see reason?”
“Oops. Mother is here!”, hissed Yamara. “Better scram!”
“Right..”, agreed, Temessa and the two girls, one dryad, the other a fire nymph, took off in a haste.
“Your offer is beyond me, Mother Summer. And isn’t a choice I may adopt on my own. It involves him, his life, his future, and his line. Should I make that choice for him, never shall he gaze upon my face again. But at least he shall stay here and.. live.. forever..”, Lorna sobbed.
“My dear child, he may stay here, but not forever. One day, he may rise. Mortals have always been thus unpredictable. Have you given any thought as to what he will do, should that happen? His father, his friends, and you, the spark of his life, all gone and past, centuries over. Perhaps you think this a wise course of action and a mercy on his part. I do not. Mortals do not cope well when their loved ones leave. But in time they learn to live with it, for time prepares them for such losses and fills the gaps they leave. However, they never cope when they are suddenly made aware, all their loved ones are dead and gone and centuries ago. I have witnessed this before. And he was not even a Mortal, but a fey. It drow him mad; a once noble of a Court became the vilest of us all. I believe he haunts this world still.”, replied the rich, mature voice.
“Mother Titania. I beg of you.”, Lorna pleaded, her eyes tear-stricken, her voice already near hysteria. “Take mine life and give it to him. Give my beat so he would live..”
“My dear, girl, you did not do this to him. The madness of Draugr-kin is not a fairy tale. It is as infectious as it is corrosive.”
“But it was I who did this to him.. I stabbed him in the back. I destroyed his beautiful heart. I do not deserve to live when he is dying.. Take my beat. Please. Take it, and give it to him..”, Lorna wept.
“I do not take lives on a whim. And never from a Mortal who has done me no wrong. This is something the Queens may not do. This is the Law of Nature. Much like I may not give, without balance. This is who we are, and this is what we are.. A life for a life was my wont. But not yours for his. Mortals always do rush to give what they do not know. But then, how could they? You have never lived it all!”
“M.. Mother, please.. Just take it.. I give it freely..”, the beautiful princess of High Woods begged.
“You will give your life for him, and expect him to accept that, do you? Perhaps you think too little of him, after all.”, mused Titania.
“Give it to him. He does not have to know..”, Lorna cried.
“You wound want a Queen of the Fey to lie? Will that not destroy my own reputation?”, the Queen of Summer asked mildly.
“You will not take my life for his, but you would take the life of my unborn child?”, Alor’Nadien ne wept. “What will he think of me when I have given away his child?”
“Your child shall live long and happy, dear girl. She shall be the Summer Lady. The time nears when Mortals shall require all the help they can get. I am summer, and I may not mingle among Mortals. The Summer Lady can. She will have her Summer Knight to defend and protect her. And she will be much loved and honored among us. Your daughter will help shape the world and aid Mortals free us of the foul demon infestation. I have seen it. And have I also seen, how the lack of the two Ladies has caused the end of one cycle after another. This, you must know, and this you must understand, for this was why your great ancestors, Terandel Solace, Sinderel Tranquil, and Elorellen Feymist abandoned their homes to come this far and settle where they did; to prepare the Mortals for the day they would grow and gather to fight and end the demon infestation. Know this, young Alor’Nadien ne; the demons are coming. Gullem the Damned is preparing to move against the Humans at Heaven’s Hand and the elves at Tranquil even as we speak. And they will bring the numbers to overrun them.”, Titania said calmly, then paused as if considering, and arriving at some monumental realization herself.
“Know also that your arrival here was not by chance. Of all the Mortals that have ever come to my sacred sanction, only two did appear by the whims of fate. One, to cleanse my valley of uncouth Mortals bent on lustful greed and to make it whole again, for which both he and I paid a terrible and costly price. You, dear child, are the other.”,
“He.. If he must know. He must agree..”, Lorna moaned.
“He must not.”, the Queen of Summer said kindly.
“Why? Why shouldn’t he know?”, cried the princess.
“My dear, dear child, as much as he loves you, cherishes you, cares for you, and honors you, he is still Mortal and can not see beyond his years. Not now, not in his lifetime. Humans are not mentally equipped for such impartial decisions, hence they must not be put to task with such a verdict. Know though, shall he be long gone by the time I come to collect my charge. Willy-nilly, this bargain is between you and I, dear child.”
“And should I fail to make a choice?”
“Then he will rise, one day, and mourn, for the first thing he sees, shall be your remains and thus he shall rage, for there shall be nons he has known left; his home and his town and everyone he has thus loved and cared and cherished shall be long gone and beyond his reach and beyond his comprehension, also. He shall come to realize that he is not mere alone but in a world forever gray for him. He shall roam the lands, never to feel love, nor luster, for what he feels, he feels only for you. Thus shall his rage be without equal, and in his unquenching madness, shall he sin and slay, and thus shall he be hunted, slain over, and thrown in a pit where there shan’t even be a stone to mark his grave..”, Titania said with a certain finality.
Lorna’s vision darkened, her heartbeat hammered harder than she could ever remember, her mind swirled, she was breathing harshly now.
“Dear child. I would ask you to take my offer. Should you prolong it any further, I am afraid, there will not be anything of you left that can regain any health. The things you feel now are the accumulation of your self-imposed hunger, fatigue, irregular slumber, and your heart-felt devastation over the course of weeks. It is time, child. Know, though, I do not make such an offer lightly, nor have I ever made this offer to any Mortal in this cycle and not because I have deemed Mortals unfit, but nons have I found a Mortal worthy.”
Alor’Nadie ne never realized a whole day had passed just in that single conversation.
✱ ✱ ✱
What is wrong, love?”, said Berete Hamna Vir, her voice very worried, as she came and sat next to the little boy. “You have been sitting here in the dark all night. I know it is quiet and serene down here, but you should come and play with us.”
The little boy, Dar Derune didn’t move. He just sat where he was and staring off, somewhere, far, far away, and beyond the cavernous crypt.
“Here. I brought you your favorite sam-wish. And I managed to grab two sugar canes for you.”, the girl with the sharp features said in hopes of raising some kind of response from the boy.
“I am not hungry Hamna Vir.”, mumbled the boy and sniffed.
“You.. Have you been crying, love? Yes, you have. I can see the streaks on your face. Why are you crying, my baby mate? Did someone hurt or upset you?”, asked Hamna Vir and a frown appeared on her face.
The boy sniffed again, then, just like that..
..he climbed into her arms and started to cry with heartbreaking sobs.
“Ow, my dear, dear baby. What is wrong? Please tell me. You know you can. And we two have never had any secrets.”, Hamna Vir pleaded as her own eyes blurred as she fiercely hugged the little boy.
“She.. she..”, sobbed Dar Derune. “She’s gone!”
“Ow, love. She was gone but she’s back. Constance is back. Yes, she is hurt, but she will be alright.”, soothed Hamna Vir.
“No.. Arezme.. She is gone!”
Hamna Vir froze.
“What do you mean, she’s gone?”, she whispered.
“I have been looking in on her every day to make sure she was alright, ever since she entered the Door.”, sobbed the boy.
“But.. why?”, asked Hamna Vir.
“Because.. because I can see, Hamna Vir. And I saw a spark in her heart that day when we walked out of the Door and gave our oaths, and she went in.. The spark all Mortals have, yet none of us do. The spark of a Mortal’s heart! That is how I knew she was the first amongst us! And this evening, when I looked at her again.. I saw her spark.. bloom! Then the bloom spread and spread and became incandescent. It.. its light was so bright, it almost burned me. And just like that, it was gone. I can not see her anymore, Hamna Vir..”
“I can not see Arezme, I can not see our Merisoul.. There is only light.. Brilliant, burning light.. She’s gone!”
..and Dar Derune broke down in her arms and cried, uncontrollably, like the little boy that he was and spluttered.
“What are we going to tell mirima Temez? They were BFF!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Are you feeling any better?”, Sheriff Standorin asked.
“Will you return to your duties if I said I was?”, replied Constance with a weary smile.
“Master Aager is a trustable man. I am sure he is handling things just fine.”, Standorin said, trying for a smile himself, but not quite getting there.
“It has been days, you have been here, dear sir. What ails me will wear off, given enough time.. Just not in my lifetime, I am afraid.”, the tall, alluring girl said. “Apparently, some things end up being much more costly than we ever anticipate. I feel almost Mortal in my folly.”
“You speak in words, I do not really understand, Liaison Constance.”, Standorin said with a frown. “But I will ask you one thing because I am hoping it will be something I shall comprehend.”
“You wish to know why I asked you out.”, Constance said. It wasn’t a question so much as it was a statement, really.
“Well.. Yes..”, the sheriff admitted with a flush. “I mean, I am quite older than you. Shouldn’t you find someone your own age, perhaps? Someone young and.. handsome?”
Constance closed her eyes, drew one of her slim hands out from under the itchy blanket and placed it on her forehead, and sighed.
“What is it about you Mortals and age? It is merely a number that signifies how many years ago you were conceived and absolutely nothing else. It tells me nothing about who you are, about what you have done in those years, nor about what entails you. Tell me, sir, does that number truly encapsulate you? Does it tell me your accomplishments? Or how decent and caring and how honorable you are? Would it matter if I were to tell you it has been five hundred and thirty-two years since I was conceived?”
“I.. wouldn’t have thought you were a day older than twenty-five, ma’am..”, he mumbled. “Are you really—?”
Constance sighed again.
“Years pass differently where I come from, Stan. Yes, by your Mortal years, I guesstimate I am five hundred and thirty-two. By our standards, I am twenty-eight— which still tells you nothing about me. Not of my sins nor my deeds. Nor why I and my kind chose to abandon the only place we were perpetually abused but would never stand out. And it certainly does not tell you why I chose to date with you, does it?”, she asked wearily.
“No. I suppose it doesn’t.”, Standorin conceded.
“I promise, I will tell you. Only if you would but help me get out of this bed and wash up, as I am, very likely, quite unseemly, and perhaps even help me change. And then maybe you could take me out for lunch, or dinner? I honestly do not know what time of the day it is as these rooms have no windows. I must admit, I am quite famished. Perhaps you would go as far as a dare and we could eat at your place? I have studied Mortal cooking some. Maybe I could try my hands on it. Should you honestly like it, we can eat that. If I fail, I suppose we can go someplace where I can embarrass myself less. We can then sit there and talk or perhaps take another long walk, though, as tired as I am, you might end up carrying me back.. I leave the choices to you. In the end, I shall never take what you are unwilling to part. All I would ever want from you is to know I have someone to lean on, and that someone would make me feel mildly wanted. Should you agree, however, I would like you to expect, and accept, similar trust and care from me.”
Standorin gulped again.
“We.. could eat at my place.. though it hasn’t been touched by a woman for many years. But only if I cook while you rest. I.. can’t invite you and make you cook. That would be just wrong.”, he said, both flustered and abashed.
“I am in your care then, Standorin Shieldheart.”
Sheriff Standorin was a man of his word. As embarrassed as he was, and with a very flustered face, he helped the tall, alluring girl out of the rickety bed and sat her on the simple wooden chair, brought the washing dish over and with strong, calloused hands, he washed her slender hands and arms, her very appealing face, her slim neck, ran his wet hands over and through her long, silky black hair, and went as far as washing her proportionate, narrow feet, all without any sensual implications, but with tender care, and Constance silently watched his face with a demur blush but refrained from even the smallest smile.
The tall, alluring girl was a surprisingly perceptive and considerate creature.
Then, he went over and opened the door, and to the red-headed, bewitching little girl who had been silently sitting there with a naughty smirk on her face and an ear on the door, he said, “Young Demelze.. It isn’t nice to eavesdrop. But since you are here, I would consider it kindness on your part if you would bring the esteemed Liaison a brush, a pair of shoes, and a dress appropriate to her station.”
The smirking girl blushed furiously, jumped on her feet, and took off, while she mumbled to herself;
“Blistering Bloody Imps!”, she cursed. “Busted!”
He turned around to see Constance smiling at him.
“Uhhmm.. Is there something amusing?”, he asked a bit gruffly.
“No, no.. Merely admiring how aware you are of your surrounding even under duress.”, she replied. “Demelze won’t be able to decide whether she should be embarrassed for getting caught or feel happy you remembered her name, even though you met her only once.”
“Occupational hazard, I suppose. And I have been a lawman for quite a number of years. And.. I wouldn’t define.. uhh.. washing you a matter of duress, really.”, he replied uncomfortably.
There was a knock and the sheriff turned around and opened the door again to see the same red-headed, bewitching girl holding a long, elegant dress, a pair of high pumps, a hairbrush, and an odd expression stuck somewhere between a flush, a wicked smile, and a pout as if the girl just couldn’t decide on which one she should settle.
“Thank you. I would be happy if you would also compile a detailed progression report on the Pixie Project and have it ready by tomorrow morning.”, he said as he took the dress, the pumps, and the brush, but left her expression where it was.
Demelze squinted at him and the wicked smile on her face disappeared.
“Homework? Really?”, she said in disgust.
“You are a fully grown woman and require no homework, young lady. But Master Aager will need said report as soon as possible, and you seem like a person given to details. Unless I am totally mistaken, of course.”, Standorin said with a straight face.
Demelze’s squint turned into a distinctly deploring pout. With seething vehemence, she spun around and started marching away, all the while stomping her tiny feet!
Constance gave out a refrained, bubbly laugh.
“You have a unique way to deal with people, sir.”, she said.
“Let’s get one thing straight.”, the sheriff frowned a bit. “I would rather you didn’t ‘sir’ me when we are alone.”
“But we are in a temple, and your official standing puts you in a ‘sirly’ disposition, as silly as that sounds.”, she replied with a smile. “Though I am open to suggestions as to what you would rather I call you on a regular basis, other than Stan.. sir.”
Standorin fumed a bit.
Limnia Karya, his beloved deceased wife, had never played these games with him. She had been a ranger, and a decidedly practical, no-nonsense sort of woman, though, in all candor, she did act like a much younger girl when they had been alone. Then he remembered something Aager had told him about never to compare and once Standorin gave it an even cursory thought, he came to the conclusion that the young man had been right; one, they were not some fruit, vegetable, or furniture, but people, both distinct and both unique, and two, comparing was doing them both much disservice.
Silently he put the brush and the pumps on the bed and came near the young woman and just stood there.
It took a bare moment for the tall, alluring girl to comprehend the pause. With a shy blush, she turned around and..
..let her dress fall.
Standorin stared at the rather slender, curving back of the tall woman, gruffly cleared his throat, then, with decidedly clumsy hands, he helped her put on the new dress, from head to feet.
Then, while he was down there, he reached over to the bed, grabbed the pumps, picked her feet, and put the high-heeled shoes on them, each and one at a time, as Constance watched him, silent and still.
“I would like to touch your hair.”, she whispered down at him. “A girl may not be tortured thus thoroughly and not be given even a crump of surcease.”
Sheriff Standorin didn’t say anything.
He just stood kneeling where he was, as he did the tiny clasps on the pumps and long, slender fingers ran through his hair and a sensation he hadn’t felt for nearly twenty years rippled down his spine.
“Stan.. Stan will do, for now, Constance..”, he whispered back.
✱ ✱ ✱
Something woke Sheriff Standorin from a deep slumber. He felt slightly groggy and looked around to see he had fallen asleep on his couch that was facing the fireplace in his two-room home.
The fire had died down to a smoldering kindle, giving a low, red-orange cast and gave the young, beautiful face sleeping peacefully on his chest a whole, different kind of glow, as Constance breathed quietly at his face, her body limply sprawled across his.
Standorin tried to recall at which point he had fallen asleep but failed. He remembered having cooked something that involved diced beef, fried onion rings, and mashed potatoes, along with some chilled apple cider. Then he and the tall, alluring young woman had taken their plates and drinks and sat on the couch and quietly talked, while they stared at the fire dancing in the grate.
The sheriff had been quite surprised and had felt not a small amount of embarrassment coupled with some guilt when he’d found out how much he’d had to say.
Standorin had never really been the talk and laugh, type.
She, on the other hand, had kept silent most of the time and had only spoken to inquire about things she couldn’t quite understand or relate because she would lack the individual reference points.
At some point, though, she had fallen completely silent and with a certain sense of frustration, the sheriff had noticed, she’d dozed off.
He berated himself on a number of levels at that point, foremost for being a boring man to have made a girl literally fall asleep in the middle of a conversation.
Then he came to the ultimate, logical explanation; Constance had gone out of her way, for the past few days, and quite beyond, to put up a ‘good’ front for his sake, making light of her pain and extreme fatigue until they both had come crashing down on her with compounded interest.
Ahh.. that was when he had taken her into his arms, and sort of leaned back..
..and had fallen asleep, with her pillowing her head on his broad, rumbling chest.
Then he remembered something had woken him.
He wasn’t quite sure what it had been, but he thought it sounded like an animal in pain.
He heard a careful knock on his door just then and very carefully, and with no small amount of unexpected revelation and resignation, he slid the young woman off himself and stretched her on the couch and into a more comfortable pose.
For a man his size, he padded over to the door with surprisingly quiet steps and opened it to see Aager Fogstep standing there and behind him, his little mate, Lady Inshala.
Standorin immediately knew something was wrong for the young man lacked his leather hood and half mask, his face was stricken, contorted, even, and the little girl was holding on to him from behind and sobbing into his back.
“What is it Master Aager?”, he asked in his low, rumbling voice.
“You.. you had better come, sir.”, Aager growled through clenched teeth.
Standorin cocked an eyebrow.
“Where are we going?”, he asked.
Aager paused for a moment before speaking again.
“Is.. is the Liaison here, sir?”, he asked.
“Yes. She is.”, Standorin said with a frown.
“We.. we will need her as well, sir.”, Aager replied with a decidedly determined voice.
“Why? If I might ask. She is still recovering from her.. predicament and is sleeping at the moment. I would rather we didn’t wake her.”, the sheriff said, his frown deepening.
“She is the Liaison, sir.”, Aager grinded his teeth. “And we will need her to do her job, right now, and fast.”
“What is going on, young man?”, Standorin asked, fuming a bit now.
Aager paused again. When he spoke this time, Standorin was astonished, for he heard a certain tremor in his voice.
“The leader of the Escape, Perigren Ostlanna Temez, has gone.. feral, sir. She.. and quite a number of them are breaking and burning everything that gets in their way. Thomas, Morel, and the other temple guardians have managed to get as many of the children out as they can but they are fighting amongst themselves now and against Thomas, Morel, and the temple guardians. Thomas has asked you to bring their Liaison to speak in our steed and perhaps find a way to defuse the situation before it goes any further and make sure the remaining children are not injured or worse.”
Standorin stared at him.
“They gave their word. Their oath. Why would they break their oath and risk everything they have forsworn?”, he fumed angrily.
“They.. they didn’t break their oaths, sir. They merely received some quite distressing news and.. they are hurting.. Apparently, they do not know moderation when they are upset.”
“What news? What could possibly have happened to have riled them enough to risk everything they gave up to come here?”, Standorin asked harshly.
“Perigren Ostlanna Temez just found out she lost her BFF, sir.”, Aager replied quietly and Inshala hugged him even tighter and her sobs grew louder.”
“BFF?”, asked the sheriff, a bit baffled.
“Best Fiend Friend, sir. You see, Perigren’s BFF was no other than Merisoul Xyrotwu, and she and Ranger Lieutenant Laila and Master Gnine had all gone to Silent Hills together. I don’t know how, but they just found out that Meriso.. they found out.. that they..”, he said as he tried to gulp down the lump rising earnestly up his throat. “That Merisoul is gone!”
“I.. see..”, said Standorin silently. “I.. did not know her very well. But she was the nicest felon I apprehended in my entire life.”
“She was my friend..”, came Inshala’s sobbing voice. “She was always nice and always alone. She saved me. She helped and saved everyone!”
It was apparent, nothing else intelligible was going to come from her anymore and not any time soon.
Aager turned around and hugged her tightly and held his scourging stance for as long as he could as a low, infuriated scream escaped him.
“WHAT DID YOU DO AGAIN, YOU STUPID, STUPID GIRL! I DIDN’T SEND YOU WITH GNINE AND LAILA TO KEEP THEM SAFE. I SENT THEM WITH YOU TO KEEP YOU SAFE!”
..with rage unseen in Serenity Home,
..he howled at the night sky
..and winter spread in jagged, sharp, spiking icicles
..as cobblestones popped, cracked, and shrapneled
..and brittle-blue, chilling frost covered everything
..a hundred yards
..in every direction.
✱ ✱ ✱
Two figures stumbled into view two days later from the east and up the banks of Arashkan River, both leaning on the other and both with severe, grim, lived, suffered, and ‘paid in full and done’, expressions on their faces.
Liaison Constance Alure Smithen
standing next to Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart..
..and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane
standing next to Aager Fogstep were waiting for them.
Right behind them, another pair stood,
Anglenna Brightleaf and Armethelius Riverblade..
Bremorel Songsteel and Thomas Dimwood.
AND JUST BEHIND THOSE,
FIFTEEN THOUSAND HIGH ELVES STOOD IN RIGID,
SILENT, SOLEMN MILITARY FORMATION, AND BURNING
WITH RIGHTEOUS EXALTATION, AS THEY WAITED
FOR THEIR KING AND THEIR QUEEN.
And Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist came
with Udoorin Shieldheart..
With the unexpected help of the half-born, Anglenna finally finds the possible whereabouts of the missing Udoorin Shieldheart and Princess Alor’Nadien ne;
The Gull’s Perch…
..the home of the Summer Fey
and Queen Titania, herself!
This, however, presents issues on its own,
as Mortals, in general, are banned from the Perch,
and half-borns, being part demon, in particular,
are never allowed to even come near
the sacred valley of the Summer Queen..
A depressed and depleted procession oozed down the dim halls of Serenity Home Temple as Perigren Ostlanna Temez lead her brothers and sisters down the long, spiraling stairs and into the dim cavernous crypt.
With a grim expression on his face, Hal Mali followed her as he dragged a pale and drained-looking Cee Lingerith Demelze by the hand.
And right behind them, Hamna Vir slouched with a stubborn expression on her sharp face, as she fiercely hugged the little, slumbering Dar Derune in her arms.
“I could walk.”, came Dar Derune’s slurred voice as his head bobbed back and forth.
“I know you can, love.”, Hamna Vir said kindly, but the fire in her eyes told otherwise. She was a savage, bitter half-born to begin with, and the fact that no other than Titania, the Summer Queen, had backhanded her little Dar Derune just a few moments ago and from as far away as Gull’s Perch, had been like a slap on their collective faces. Sort of like a wake-up call, that there were things much, much more powerful than they were in this Mortal world after all, and that fact, so casually displayed, had hit them all quite hard, quite literally. And that it had been their little Dar Derune on the receiving end had made Hamna Vir, in particular, quite vexed which was putting it rather lightly, for at that very moment, the girl with the sharp features had nothing but murder in her eyes and that it had been the Summer Queen, a being way out of their league for any kind of retribution or retaliation had merely added to the insult.
“You are pulling too hard..”, whimpered a glazed Demelze.
“Ow. I am sorry, Demelze. My bad.”, said Hal Mali and with a swift scoop, he grabbed her, spun her up with a flip, and landed her in his powerful arms. “How’s that?”
“You are just taking advantage of my moment of weakness Hal Mali.. and I am liking it!”, she said, her words garbled and stumbled over each other as she smiled at him with a sloshed and woozy face.
“Aren’t you a darling?”, Hal Mali smiled back.
“I am, aren’t I?”, Demelze swooned.
“Too bad you are not going to remember any of this when you come around.”, he fumed to himself.
“Why don’t you just ask her out Hal?”, Temez asked from ahead.
“Hal? Why do you call me Hal, Perigren Ostlanna Temez?”, asked Hal Mali, a bit confused and hurt. “Have I ever upset or disappointed you in any way that I am not aware of and warrant such admonishment?”
“Never, love. But I have noted the Mortals refer to one other by shortening each other’s names. Thought perhaps we could also try it so we do not stand out when we finally come out in the open.”, she replied.
Hal Mali mused over that, as he unwittingly hugged the befuddled Demelze closer to his chest.
“Let’s see if I have understood this correctly; they not only butcher one another, they also butcher each other’s names?”
“Yes. But do not ask me why, dear. Apparently, either they do not give much importance to names, or they do not believe names have power, or they are merely ignorant. I have been studying them, but I have yet to uncover the exact reasoning behind them. Take Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel for example. Rarely have I heard anyone call her by that name. They summon her by saying only Bremorel. Young Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood, on the other hand, calls her fondly as Morel. I have witnessed on one occasion where someone referred to her as just ‘Bree’. She, herself, never calls her mate by his full name either, and summons him as Thomas.”, Temez tried to explain.
“That is heresy, that is.”, Hal Mali said with an ugly face. Then thought for a moment. “Or maybe not. You, my brothers, and my sisters rarely call me Hal Mali Volent Pierce. Much like we rarely call Demelze or Hamna Vir by their full name, either, and it has nothing to do with the power the name has as a whole, but everything to do with practical efficiency.”
“I think you just answered a rather vexing dilemma, dear. You are indeed as practical as you are efficient.”, smiled Temez wanly.
“If any of you calls me Vir, I will haunt you in your dreams until you wet yourselves!”, hissed Hamna Vir.
“We shall pick up this practice but only those of us who want to, and if they are comfortable with the idea. Henceforth, you may call me only Temez.”
“Well. I would rather everyone called me Hal Mali. But I will try my best not to retaliate should any of you calls me Hal. Is that acceptable?”, Hal Mali said dubiously.
“Perfectly, dear.”, Temez smiled again. “Which brings us back to my previous question; Why don’t you ask her out? It’s quite obvious you like Demelze. Actually, pretty much all of us have noticed your rather transparent interest in her. She’d make a troublesome but fiery mate. You would never get bored of life..”
Hal Mali signed.
“Am I truly that obvious?”
“When it comes to Demelze, yes, dear.”, smiled Temez.
“Yup!”, said Hamna Vir.
“Yea..”, slurred Demezle vaguely but it wasn’t clear as to what she was agreeing for her eyes were closed and her slender, diminutive figure danced limply at each step Hal Mali took down the long flight of stairs.
Hal Mali sighed again.
“No point.”, he said a bit depressed. “Demelze despises me.”
“No she doesn’t.”, objected Temez.
“Yes, she does.”, Hamna Vir inserted from the back.
“Hamna Vir!”, said Temez reprovingly.
“What? She does despise him and you know it!”, she snapped irritably.
Temez sighed this time.
“Girl, you are never going to understand the hearts of Mortals nor men if you just say everything that comes to your mind.”
“I have no interest in Mortals and the only heart that matters to me is sleeping over my shoulder. And I don’t say everything that comes to my mind. If I did, I would have said, Demelze makes fun of Hal Mali whenever he’s not around!”, Hamna Vir said waspishly.
Hal Mali’s face deflated and became mournful as he drew Demelze even closer to himself.
“Hamna Vir, dear.”, Temez said.
“Do shut up—”
“—just about, NOW?“
Hamna Vir scowled and gave Temez her best searing gaze.
“It’s alright, Perigren… uhhmm.. Temez.. Really. I wasn’t aware she went as far as punning me but I had my suspicions. Guess we don’t all get what we want and that’s the same whether we are in Hell or in the Mortal coil.”, Hal Mali mourned. “I will just have to be happy with the short few moments while she is nice to me like this and in my arms.”
“Don’t be sad, Hal.”, Temez tried to comfort him. “I learned a saying among Mortals that people change. I am not certain if that includes us, but my guestimation is that it does because we all did change. We were in Hell just last month, learning how to sow dissension among Mortals. Now we are among said Mortals and are actually helping them. Had you said then, I would never have believed Demelze would have done what she did for a Mortal’s son, but here we are, and here she paid her trial in pain.. a lot of it.. Give her the chance to change, Hal. I think she deserves that much.”
“Yea, Hal. What she said!”, inserted Hamna Vir with a scowl.
The long, spiraling stairs ended and the little group came to a large, steel-lined, heavy-looking double door.
Temez pulled at one of the rings on the door and opened it, revealing a deep, cavernous chamber lined with five hundred years of deceased temple guardians lying in their enclosed, unadorned sarcophagi. Silently, they walked up to the far end and stood before the one that had ‘Demos Lightshand’ chipped on a plaque and fit into its side.
Then they all knelt, Hal Mali still holding Demelze in his arms and Hamna Vir hugging Dar Derune in hers, closed their eyes, and prayed.
“Darling Demos.”, Temez whispered. “Again, we have come to thank you, for it was your kind heart that made Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood to also be kind and to accept us at our direst moment of need. Here, he has given us food and shelter, and here, he protects us from unwanted eyes and the ire of sinful men. We have come, today, in hopes of finding wisdom in your presence for we are hurting and we do not know what to do..”
“She means, we are screwed!”, mumbled Hamna Vir from behind, causing Hal Mali to snort.
There was a dormant silence while Temez signed in frustration.
Her BFF —Best Fiend Friend, Merisoul Xyrotwo had given the responsibility of their brothers and sisters to her, but hadn’t told her how it was supposed to be done. True, all of them had had extensive training pertaining to Mortals and their ways but said training had gone as far as the Erinyes, Autie Irine had understood them, which was at best, at a most basic level and ‘targeted’ in its sensual in nature. The ‘real world’, as ironic as that sounded, had turned out to be much, much more complicated than any of them had anticipated. They had been here merely a month or so and under the protection and sanction of a temple guardian and Temez sorely wondered what would happen when the said sanction would end, and she had no doubt that in the end, it would because eventually, everyone would have to go their separate ways. The fact that the young Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood had accepted them in the first place had been a grand gesture of just how much he trusted her BFF, even though he barely knew her and she’d once tried to ‘eat’ him and consequently gotten struck by the temple’s protection and branded because the young man had been sorely in love!
Temez gritted her teeth.
She would hold on!
And hold all her brothers and sisters together and in one piece, safe and sound, just until her Arezme Ara Serraphym, or Merisoul Xyrtwo as Mortals knew her, returned. Then she’d be free to go and find her own young man. The one she had ‘eaten’ many years ago and subsequently had gotten herself burned.
It had come as a colossal surprise to her when she’d found out the ‘boy’ had lived, though damaged.
The ‘eaten’ never survived!
Temez did not understand why that had happened. As far as she knew, it shouldn’t have happened like that at all; the boy to have survived, and her getting burned like that..
Had the boy fallen in love with her, and not just smitten by her rather ravishing countenance and blatantly wanting figure, but truly fallen in love with her in the space of a few, short, heartbeats?
Was that even possible?
As incomprehensible as that sounded to her, apparently, such a senseless infatuation had been, in fact, quite possible.
“Come on, doll.”, she fumed and pleaded with her eyes closed. “Please come back and fast. Your brothers and sisters direly need you..”
✱ ✱ ✱
This is rather impressive, Liaison Constance. I don’t remember the last time this office looked so tidy.”, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart said, though just a tad grudgingly.
Constance tried very hard not to, but failed.. and beamed at him.
“Would you like to see how the new filing system works? Perhaps a demonstration is in order.”, she offered.
“Very well. Master Aager, do get me the drunkard fight involving Franderson vs. Kor’gral, our orc blacksmith apprentice if you will.”, he said.
Aager checked on the relatively short alphabetic list in his hand, got a reference number, cross-referenced it with a second list and got a second reference number from that, then went over to one of the newly crafted ‘drawer shelves’, the one with the second number, pulled it open and ran a quick glance and tugged out a specific scroll and gave it to the sheriff, with a mild grin.
The sheriff cocked an eyebrow at him.
“Alright. Unknown Strangers vs. Udoorin case, then, if you will!”, he said.
Aager repeated the same process but went to a different drawer shelf and pulled out a rather thick roll of many scrolls and brought them over to him.
Standorin gave him a suspicious look.
Constance beamed some more.
“Master Nibletyne Tinkerdome vs. Moorat Maelstrom!”
Aager gave it to him.
“Franderson vs. Demons Lightshand!”
Aager grinned and brought that one over too, in under fifteen seconds.
“Morel and Liala vs. Udoorin, Dervel and Lucious!”
Aager didn’t even bother with the lists nor the drawers for that one. He just pulled it out of his pocket!
“What the..?”, the sheriff said scowling at him.
“Thought you’d ask for that. Had it ready at hand, sir.”, Aager grinned.
“Very well.”, Standorin said, fuming at him. “I will admit this filing system of yours seems to work..”
“..as opposed to looking for a specific case file for more than half an hour at times.. Sir, you really ought to give the Liaison a bit more credit.”, Aager said, meaningfully.
Standorin gave him one of his best scowls, cleared his throat, then turned to the tall, elegant half-born in her long, not quite conservative, but decidedly refrained dress, and said, “Thank you very much for your filing system, Liaison Constance. I… we.. could talk it over lunch, perhaps? I am sure the mayor could also make use of a similar system installed in his offices..”
“But of course, sir. I will have to see their needs and how they segment their files first though.”, Constance said, smiling happily. “In fact, I would like to go see the mayor on this matter at once, If you wouldn’t mind. I shall also drop by the temple to see how things are going with the project you ordered and report its progress to you.”
“Thank you, Liaison Constance. I shall await your findings eagerly.”, Standorin replied with a flushed face.
After the tall half-born girl took her leave, Aager turned to the sheriff and looked at him with amusement etched all over his face.
“I shall await your findings eagerly?— Really, sir? That one was a tad overdone, don’t you think?”
“I am out of practice, young man. I haven’t dated anyone since.. well.. for a good dozen years and more. Not to mention, Limnia and I never did this dating thing. We just took long, eager walks in the woods, went on patrols together, and counter-ambushed bandits! And we both enjoyed it.”
“I went after many fools, myself, with my Inshala, sir. We even fought against a treacherous paladin lord together and I saw the exhilaration in her face. But at the end of the day, it is when we are going home, arm in arm, that I see her skip and hop and glow because with me and home is the only place that she can truly be herself, and with her and home is the only place that I can truly be myself. Don’t get me wrong, sir. Whatever makes people happy. But intimacy beats them all.”
“After this war. And should we win, I am dead set on firing you, young man..”
Aager cocked an eyebrow at him.
“..just so you could become a poet!”, snorted the sheriff.
“Never happen, sir. Ow and, a ‘business lunch’ doesn’t count as a ‘date’, just so you know..”, Aager said with another grin.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?”, the sheriff growled.
“I do, and I am off. Noon-trainees!”
✱ ✱ ✱
This is the problem we have been having, Lady Inshala ‘le Fey’ Frostmain Bolgrig Hoo—”, Temez was saying, deep down in the crypts under the Serenity Home Temple.
“Please, dear Temez. Just Inshala will do, even though it despairs me as well when Mortals do cut names and words the way they do. When we are alone, please call me Inshala.”, the pretty little half-fey said with a smile.
Temez had taken a liking to Inshala quite immediately when they had first met several days ago and when she, Inshala, and Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel had played a cunning game of catch against Lady Lilly Venom, her ‘hubby’, Largo Summersong, and his son, D.D. Dexter Summersong, who was, somehow not Lady Lilly Venom’s son, which only made sense because he was older than she was! Just that information had made Temez feel concussed all by itself and learned her just how much she and her kin were out of their debt when it came to their pitiful knowledge of the Mortal coil.
“Alright..”, said Temez, trying very hard to suppress a shudder. This name cutting was something they really needed to get over, but their inner, demonic core just refused to accept such blatant use of names.. After all, misuse of names could and often did cause very volatile results.. But at least this girl, Inshala, seemed to understand their plight. Perhaps it was due to the fact that she, too, was a half-something.. a fey..
“..Inshala,”, she continued. “We were able to enchant grinded sand, kibbled light wood, certain cosmetic powders, and even flour with fire, thanks to Demelze, here, to light up under specific conditions, such as coming in contact with magic auras. Magically attained invisibility, to be exact. Our dilemma is, the powders, the sands, and the flour works but for an extremely short duration, as the material immediately settles, and hence, becomes part of the said invisible creature, or area. If we use what we have at the moment during battle, or to sprinkle it in an area where we suspect and Orken army is hidden under the veil of whatever device they are employing, it will hardly be visible during daylight, and barely be discernable during night hours. We need something, a plant or herb that we can grind that can stay afloat long enough to be practical and at the lightest magical ‘fragrance’, so to speak.”
Inshala frowned a bit as she tried to digest the issue at hand, and at a certain level, she felt relieved, for when Aager had told her she was being ‘officially’ invited here to meet with the half-born, she had dreaded that she, herself, might be put to task on some social-thingy, which she knew she was sorely lacking. This, however, was something that had to do with knowledge, something that she was good at, as opposed to something she constantly banged her head against her mental walls to comprehend.
As dire as the problem was, Inshala grinned!
And all the half-born, some one hundred plus of them silently watched her, all so very curious about this ‘very pretty’, ‘also a half-something like us’, and quite famous, Ritual Guardian-girl, as though expecting some sort of miracle to appear at the wave of her slender hands.
At that very moment, Inshala remembered something her Aager had said, though she had vaguely understood.
“The answer to that is quite elementary in its simplicity.”, she said with a well-hidden smile.
Well, perhaps it wasn’t so well-hidden, as she was grinning when she said it. Aager hadn’t grinned at all.
Her Aager was awesome like that, she thought!
A murmur of awe spread amongst the half-born as Hal Mali grinned as well and with open admiration, while Demelze ‘oooow’ed, and Hamna Vir ogled at her.
“She.. she said that so smoothly!”, she exclaimed in a hushed voice.
“Awesome.”, someone whispered.
“Awesome.”, someone else repeated in agreement..
..and the word, ‘awesome’ rippled in low, hushed, and awe-struck whispers among the half-born!
“Tell us!”, Temez asked eagerly, her own face flushed with excitement.
“Here.”, the little half-fey said and produced a tiny little pouch from one of her many tiny pockets hidden in her dress robes.
Temez carefully took the pouch, undid the knots, and looked into it to see some very fine, dark-red powder.
“What is this wonderful thing?”, she asked.
“Kumse Beetle shells, grinded down into a fine powder. I use it to season the food I cook and it tastes delicious!”, Inshala replied happily.
“Hal..”, she said. “..do your thing, please, dear. And Demelze, love. See if you can enchant this powder the way you have been practicing.”
“Sure.”, Hal Mali said..
..and suddenly vanished!
“That is awesome!”, Inshala said looking at where the young, pretty half-born man had just been.
Demelze took the pouch from Temez and carefully dumped its content into a small iron pot scorched with burnt marks, sat on the floor, closed her eyes and her pretty face frowned in concentration. Soon enough, the dark-red powder began to smoke.
“Careful, love.”, whispered Temez. “You are going to burn it.”
Demelze frowned more and the smoke dissipated.
And then, with a sharp flash of light, the iron pot poofed and Demelze opened her eyes, beads of sweat running down her face.
“Done.”, she said with a sniff and wiped her brows.
Temez reached down and took a pinch of the ‘enchanted’ dark-red powder and looked around.
“I am here, Temez. Standing just a foot in front of you.”, came Hal Mali’s voice.
Temez flung the powder in his direction!
The powder clung onto something barely discernable as someone’s arm, as it glowed, once, twice, then died.
Temez felt her shoulders slump.
“It didn’t work?”, Demezle asked, totally flustered.
A low murmur of consternation and despair rippled amongst the half-born.
“It worked.”, Inshala said confidently.
“How?”, Temez asked.
“The powder is still there and is still visible if you look closely.”
Temez, Demelze, and quite a number of others leaned over and stared at where they presumed Hal Mali was.
“She’s right.” Hal Mali’s voice was heard. “The powder is still there and try as I might, I can’t incorporate it with my shadow-aura! This is fascinating!”
“Indeed.”, mused Temez. “But.. it won’t be of any practical use if it isn’t visible from a far-off distance. Perhaps you can pour more power into the powder, Demelze?”
“I can. But it still won’t work. Either the powder will charr, or it will blink a few more times and that’s it. Unless we find a way to preserve the magic I infuse into the powder, we are, again, at a standstill.”, Demelze said somberly, an expression quite unexpected and unprecedented on her otherwise mischievous, naughty, and smirking face.
They all fell silent and mulled over that, and the cavernous crypt was suddenly very still. It was quite a disconcerting sight, really.
“Whimsi Lola!”, Inshala exclaimed suddenly!
The half-born all turned to look at her.
Inshala blushed a bit when she promptly became the focus of attention of so many ‘people’.
“I have never heard of a plant or herb by that name.”, said Temez dubiously. “Has anyone heard of this herb?”, she called to the crowd at large.
The half-born shook their heads and any number of ‘No’s and ‘Nopes’ echoed in the crypt.
“No, no.”, said Inshala hastily. “Whimsi Lola is not a plant or an herb. She is a sprite! A fey! She uses her own pixie dust from her wings to enhance her spells! That’s what we need.”
Temez looked at her curiously.
“And where may we find this Whimsi Lola sprite-fey and what would she want for her pixie dust?”
“Hmm.. That may be a problem. She is not here. But many of her friends are.. However, the fey folk, and the little ones, in particular, will not come here; too many Mortals and too much iron here, nor will they go anywhere near.. uhhmm..”, Inshala said, then faltered in embarrassment.
“Demons?”, Temez offered.
“Uhhmm.. Yes.. I am sorry.”, Inshala apologized immediately.
“Why are you apologizing, Inshala? You didn’t make us. You had no hand in our foul existence whatsoever. Never apologize for the things you didn’t do. Never.”, Temez said sternly.
“I.. was trying to be polite..”, the fey-girl faltered some more.
“This is not something to be polite about, my dear. We are what we are. We are sorry for having been made. But we are not, however, sorry for existing and we shall never apologize to anyone for that, and neither should you. We are our own now, just like you are your own..”, Temez said with harsh defiance. “Now. About this pixie dust thing. How and where may we get some?”, she asked, all business-like!
Inshala was a bit surprised at how strong-willed the Temez girl was and how she was not sorry for what she was, even if she hated being what she was.
And she felt a certain shame, there. Unlike Temez, she had loathed herself very nearly all her life for what she was or what she thought she was and had always believed her existence had been one, colossal mistake. Looking at these half-borns who had braved out of literal Hell, she promised herself to be braver and certainly to never feel guilty for being..
..which had been what her old Father, Cathber, and later, her Aager had been telling her all along.
“Well..”, she thought. “..Apparently I am just a stupid little girl.”
“Umm.. perhaps we could go near the forest just up north and I could call a few of the small fey-folk and bargain for some of their pixie dust?”, she said hopefully. “Then we can mix this powder with the pixie dust and gorgeous Demelze, here, can enchant it and we can test it on Hal Mali, maybe?”
“Ow.. She said I am gorgeous!”, whispered Demelze happily.
“Your offer is sound, Inshala, but not practically possible. We may not leave this temple. Not yet. I have left it a few times but carefully and only to observe the area just around the temple, and that one time when we played catch. Only Constance leaves and that is because she is our designated Liaison with the Mortals. This.. ‘test’.. however, is not her area of expertise. Is there any way you may be able to bring this dust to us?”
“I am afraid not. Pixie dust loses its potential soon after the sprite or the pixie removes it from his or her wings. Otherwise, the forest would be sparkling everywhere they went and all the time.”
“Perhaps there is a way.”, offered Hal Mali quietly as he stepped out of his ‘shadow-aura’ and became visible again.
“Do tell, dear.”, Temez asked him
“I can go out unseen.”
“Yes, dear. But you alone will not be enough. Demelze needs to go with you and Inshala.”
“I.. she can come with me.. I can hide her as well.”, he mumbled.
“I am not going anywhere with you, Hal!“, sneered Demelze. “And you can not hide me and we both know it!”
“I can.”, Hal Mali said quietly. “If I carry you in my arms..”
Demelze just stared at him for a moment.
“Incoming..”, murmured Hamna Vir.
And Demelze burst out laughing.
“Hah. Hah. Hah. Hah. Hah. Hah. Haaa!”
“That’s a very convincing laugh, that is..”, Hamna Vir barbed. “Can you get any more vapid, Demelze?”
“Shut up, Hamna Vir!”, spat the fiery little succubi half-born.
“What did I ever do to you, that you would hate me so much, Demelze?”, Hal Mali asked with a hurt voice.
“I saw the way you look at me, Hal! Even when we were in Hell!”, Demelze scorned at him.
“Yes. Because I find you attractive. Hence the looks.”, the handsome half-born admitted plainly. “How would you rather I look at you?”
“Never?”, scoffed the girl.
“Demelze!”, Temez very nearly snapped. “You will refrain from such attitude at once! We are all we have, here. There’s no one else to look after us but us.”
“You will go with Hal and with Inshala and do this. For us and for yourself. Hal has looked after many of us and took a beating and burning for you at the hands of Autie Irine at least once that I know of. You may not like him, but you will show him the respect he deserves!”, Temez cracked like a whip.
“When? Why?”, she asked.
Hal Mali did not reply for a good while.
“I would really rather you hadn’t told this, Temez.”
“Good done, unknown, must become known sometimes, dear. And we are running out of time. Even if this works, we must find a practical way to make it so Mortals may use them, and we must make many, many of them.”, Temez said, but not unkindly.
“Why? When?”, asked Demelze, her voice somewhat subdued.
“When.. you.. when you failed to turn in your Mortal Studies paper in our first year, I switched mine as yours and deliberately got caught with another paper of my own to avoid suspicions. And that other time when I found out Auntie Irine was going to punish you when she found out you had punned her behind her back and I deliberately tripped and fell and knocked her down. She was so angry with me that she forgot all about you..”
“What? Why? You think I couldn’t have taken a beating from that bitch?”, sneered Demelze.
“She had her fire barb whip with her..”, replied the young Hal Mali quietly..
..and an ‘owww’, chorused among the half-born.
“Fire barb whip hurts a lot because its burn is not only physical but psychic as well, and it leaves permanent marks. I.. didn’t want you to carry such ugly marks on you..”
Hamna Vir approached him and quietly hugged him.
“I will thank you for what you did for her, Hal Mali, even if Demelze is a bitch and too vain to thank you.”
“Demelze is only scared.”, said a small, vague voice, and everyone turned to see Dar Derune sitting a short distance away, playing with some plain wooden blocks, next to a sarcophagus. “What she feels, she feels much more intensely than any of us. That is how beautiful her heart is..”
Hamna Vir parted Hal Mali and came up to him and with blurry eyes, she scooped up the boy and hugged him fiercely.
“Demelze?”, Temez asked, looking at the burning girl.
“I will do this. For Mali..”, she said with a stricken face.
✱ ✱ ✱
You found them?”, Constance gasped. “Why didn’t you tell me, dear?”
“We found about it just today, love.”, Temez replied and there was a tired quality about her.
“What’s the matter, Temez?”, the tall, alluring half-born asked.
“We.. me and Hamna Vir shared what Demelze went through when she cleansed the Anglenna Sunsear elf. It wasn’t fun. Gave me a very unique insight into what our brothers and sisters must go through, each with their unique abilities. I burn. But that is something I did to myself. She.. she burns so much hotter whenever she feels something —anything. Suffice to say, I can remember only one other occasion that hurt this much and that was when my old Master burned me when Merisoul and I first came up with the plan to get away from Hell.”
“I am sorry to hear that, dear. Where is the boy, then? Where is the esteemed sheriff’s son?”, Constance asked.
“East of here, some two or three days travel, there is a place called Gull’s Perch. They are there, though we could not figure out why they landed there and not in this town as the Anglenna Sunsear elf did.. I asked a bit about it to the Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel, and my findings are quite dire.”
“Gull’s Perch. Why do I know that name?”, mused Constance.
“You should. It is one of the places that we were warned never to go near, during our Mortal geography studies. And you can see it from here on a clear day, easy.”
“Titania!”, Constance gasped in horror!
“Hush, dear. Not so loud. We don’t want her to hear us, now do we?”, Temez warned.
“But how? How do you know they are there?”, the tall half-born girl asked slightly panicked.
“Dar Derune. He looked into the elf girl and sifted through her memories and saw our query. Then he did his thing and found them at the Perch. The Mistress of the Perch did not appreciate his intrusion and backhanded him, our Dar Derune, all the way from the Perch!”
Constance just stared at her.
“Is he alright?”
“He will be. Hanna Vir has been hovering over him like a Mortal hen mother!”
“Dear Hamna Vir..”
“Yes, yes she is.”
“Should I go and tell the esteemed sheriff about this?”, Constance asked.
“No. Mortals are not allowed in there, dear. Telling him where his son and the princess will only rile him and he will go there with iron and that will only win him the ire of the Summer Queen. And should he go there to bargain, he will be left out of his debt. He is a good and decent man but woefully unequipped for such a meeting. We must find something to bargain in his stead. Something She would want and only we may provide.”
“I may have something she may want.”, Constance said quietly.
“No, dear. Whatever She may want, we must all give. It must be a collective effort, not individual, for such singular bargains can only end in misery.”, Temez said with a tone that had a certain finality to it.
And that marked the first time a half-born chose to disagree at an individual level.
Constance Alure Smithen nodded..
And changed topic!
“Did the Winter Knight’s mate, Lady Inshala arrive?”
“Yes, she did. And she is a lot more smarted and wiser than she lets on. I suspected a cunning mind in her when she, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel, and I were playing catch against Lady Lilly Venom, her mate, and her mate’s son. The plans I made were twisted and convoluted and made us win. The ranger lieutenant’s plans depended more on stealth and ambush, and they also made us win. Lady Inshala’s plans were neither. Her plans were rather simple and straightforward but surprisingly efficient. Of all the games we played, the ones she planned ended the quickest and the other team never knew what hit them. Even I didn’t understand we’d won!”, Temez said with some residual surprise.
“Her hubby, the Winter Knight shows similar traits. Neither seems interested in showing off but goes straight for the source of any given problem.”, Constance mused. “Though I suspect what he accomplishes by dread, she does by care!”
“Very astute, love. Very astute, indeed. She, Hal Mali, and Demelze went to the forest just up north to work on the project we have been working on.”
“You sent two of us out? Let alone Delemze with Hal Mali? She.. doesn’t really like him all that much and does tend to make a lot of noise when he’s around.. I hope you know what you are doing, dear.”, the tall girl asked a bit surprised.
“Hal Mali went under his guise. And we.. convinced.. she should be carried by him and take advantage of his special talents..”, Temez said lightly.
Constance made a very strange noise that sound truly unlady-like. Something between a snort and hiccup!
“I am sorry I missed that.”, she said with a brilliant smile. “No, wait.. you didn’t tell Demelze about what Hal Mali did back in Hell and that he got a beating for her, did you?”
“Yes, yes I did, love.”
“Ow..”, Constance said with a bemused expression as her bright red lips made a perfect imprint. “That must have put a dent in her self-esteem.”
“It did. Or maybe not. We are demons, love. And we are humans, as well, and we all react to fear, surprise, excitement, anger, and love in different ways. Demelze being Demelze, merely goes to her usual extremes.”, Temez said thoughtfully. “What will you do for the rest of the day? Did the esteemed sheriff like your new archiving and filing system?”
“I believe he did. Albeit a tad grudgingly. But in time he will get to appreciate it more, when he can find any given file in under ten seconds, as opposed to spending half an hour to find them. And every time he does, he will remember me. And every time his men do, he will feel a certain pride.”, replied Constance with a happy face. “I should head out now. There are so many things I must learn and so many more people I must meet. Just so they learn to see our kind, if for nothing else.. I shall also carefully hint that more of our kind will arrive to help them in their coming battle.”
“Very good, love. You truly were made for PR and would have been wasted in Hell.”, Temez said admiringly.
✱ ✱ ✱
Constance calmly stepped out of Serenity Home Temple and looked up and east. It was a clear day that day, quite unexpected of the season. She could see the storm clouds loaded with sleet, snow, and hail, but they seemed to sort of skim far and around this odd town and its surrounding fields. She had overheard the pretty ranger lieutenant, Bremorel Songsteel, talking in hushed voices with her young husband, the senior temple guardian, Thomas Dimwood, about reports of savage and violent weather, quite unheard of, occurring far to the west, beyond Scowling Hills and the name Inshala had cropped up any number of times, with nothing short of awe, during those conversations.
It seemed everyone was doing everything they could.. and more.. Eventually, whatever these Mortals did, or however they did them, time would come to face their consequences. Quite dire ones. Even a creature of Hell such as herself knew, when one dabbled with certain things, even if for a good cause, there would be consequences.
When she had first arrived to meet the sheriff’s men in the small courtyard, she had ended up ‘demonstrating’ her skills with her three-yard long pike on a young and overly enthusiastic man. There had even been bets.
After the duel, as short as it had been, was over, the bets, owed and owned, were being passed around, she had heard one of the guards snicker, “Payback is a bitch!”, as he took his winnings with a grin.
“Well..”, Constance murmured, still looking east, and the Gull’s Perch, a vertical, single ‘rock’, some half a mile at its base, reaching up and up and fading off among the clouds. It was a beautiful, awe-inspiring sight and the tall, alluring girl admired it.
Truly admired it.
“..as unlady-like, as it may sound, yes, I believe payback is a bitch!”, she said.
And with a sub-sonic boom, she shot up, high and swift!
At several hundred feet, she finally lost velocity, and for a bare, spectacular moment, she stood in the air, still, silent and majestic..
..and plummeted back to the earth!
With a sharp bank, she spread her arms, and a pair of dark, black-brown eagle wings suddenly sprouted out of her slender back, and like her slim arms, they spread out and wide..
..and she speared, not unlike a bird of prey, and with a shrill shriek, towards east, and the Perch!
✱ ✱ ✱
Lady Inshala!”, exclaimed Perigren Ostlanna Temez with surprise. “You are back!”
The little fey-girl face flushed shyly but her face was glowing with an accomplished grin.
“We did it, Temez. I called a few of the little folk and told them what we wanted, but they refused when they saw Hal Mali and Demelze. I told them they were my friends and that they were here to help protect the forest. They mulled over that for a bit then they decided perhaps they were, indeed, ‘maybe-friends’ but wanted something in return for their pixie dust. I asked them what they would want and they told me many things, but we didn’t have any of the things they wanted with us. Then they asked if we had any candy. Demelze said they didn’t have candy, but that she had something even better, and gave them sugar canes. They looked at the sugar canes, took one each, and tasted them. My eats still hurt because they all squealed with glee and just dropped on the ground gnawing on the canes.”, Inshala told her impromptu story with a seamless giggle and Temez just ogled at her, quietly mesmerized.
“When they were done with the sugar canes, they were so out of it, they were slurring and just waved their tiny hands and said, ‘Take.. Take what you want!’, so we took some of their dust and mixed it with the Kumse Beetle powder, Demelze infused it with her fire and enchanted it, then she threw it on Hal Mali and he was all glowing red and sparkly!”, she finished, her eyes alight with accomplishment.
Temez stared at her some more.
Then shook her head to come around.
Wow, the little girl had an encapturing way to tell her stories. She, herself, was a succubi half-born and knew how to enthrall. After all, it was her base thing. But this girl said what she said with some odd, bubbling, earnest, and genuine sincerity!
“Where are Hal and Demelze?”, she asked.
“Well, Hal Mali was still glowing and sparkling and quite unhappy about it, and Demelze couldn’t come back alone because she said she wasn’t wearing her correct Mortal dress for the occasion, though I am not sure what she meant by that. She did laugh at Hal Mali a lot, though, which made him angry so he started chasing her in the woods so she started running and screaming in delight!”, Inshala replied with an ‘out-of-breath’, bubbling voice.
“They are like sugar-loaded kids! Will they be alright?”, she asked, a bit worried.
“They should be. I drew a big circle and laid a camping spell and told them not to leave the circle. As long as they stay in it, not many will notice them. When the pixie-effect fades, Hal Mali can return with Demelze.”
“I hope they behave. This is not a good time for dire mistakes. That said, I am thrilled that our efforts have not been in vain. Thanks to you, we can now mass-produce this ‘pixie-effect’. We now have to find a way to make them practically useful for any Mortal to be able to use them. We also will need a lot more of your Kumse Beetle powder and the pixie dust.”, Temez mused.
“I can get you the Kumse Beetle powder. I could ask my Aager to ask his mayor, Artanboss, to ask the refugees to look for them in the forest. The pixie dust will still be a problem though. Convincing two or three sprites or pixies in one thing. Asking hundreds of them is another. We.. we might have to ask the Summer and Winter Queens..”, Inshala said a bit worried.
Temez looked at her for a moment, then smiled, a tad brittle. She was worried too but was trying very hard to hide it.
“Thank you, Inshala. You have helped us much today. Should you ever need any help, please don’t be shy.. And.. do thank your.. mate on our behalf, if you would?”, she said sincerely.
“I will, dear Temez. Merisoul was my friend. I.. I was afraid of her when we first met. But she was so sweet and pretty. And always answered the questions I asked her. She.. never judged me for what I am, and from her, I learned to accept who I am.. And.. she saved my life, once, very nearly ending her own. Thanks to her greatness, I found the time to know my Aager and be with my Aager. That would never have happened if it weren’t for her.”, Inshala said quietly and hugged Temez, and inadvertently, their horns clashed!
They stood looking at one another, then burst out laughing.
“We will need permission from one of the Queens should we want more of the pixies and the sprites for the amount we require, dear Temez.. Thinking a bit over it, I am now sure of it.. Only they can order them to come to us in such great numbers..”, said Inshala somberly.
And that cut right through their merry moment.
✱ ✱ ✱
Constance swooped down from the cold, moist clouds and noticed the sun had gone lower than she had expected. Soon, it would be gone altogether and she’d be forced to fly in the dark. True, she wasn’t afraid of the dark, and up to a certain point, she could even see in it, even if it were in some odd shades of violet. At the screeching speed she was flying, however, being able to see that ‘certain point’ became somewhat moot, as she would only have a bare second or two before registering she was about to smash into something and die a horrible, total body-shattering death!
The lovely, alluring girl was also an optimistic soul, though. She believed an honest and generous smile could solve more problems than displaying her other, rather.. magnetic features.. as those tended to cause more complications than they seemed to solve. She also believed in being punctual and prompt.
Constance was not an obsessive girl, strictly speaking, but merely well-organized and quite dedicated at whatever she did, and also had the uncanny ability to recognize similar attitudes or patterns in others.
Which was likely why she had noticed the esteemed sheriff of Serenity Home the first time he had come to see them and the young senior temple guardian, Thomas Dimwood, had introduced all the half-borns to him.
Yes, one might argue that all the other half-born girls had also noticed him, since, other than the senior temple guardian himself and his dozen or so junior guardians, who were all ‘off limits’, the sheriff had been the only Mortal male specimen they had been in contact outside of Hell. But the other girls had looked at him with.. well.. either as a curio or simply as something ‘edible’.. The sheriff was, after all, a handsome man, even if he was a bit older than average, as Mortal years went.
Constance, on the other hand, had noticed another quality about him; he had stood before each and every single one of the ‘a hundred and plus something’ number of them as if memorizing their individual faces and names, had politely nodded at them, and bid them a formal welcome to the town and should they require anything, that they were welcome to ask, and that he would do his best to acquire said needs, but to be patient about it, as the town was under the threat of imminent Orken attack. That, for Constance, pointed to the fact that Standorin Shieldheart was indeed a very organized, disciplined, and dedicated man.
The fact that he was also handsome and well into his mature years had been sort of a bonus.
Constance was also a ‘glass half full’ kind of girl..
Suffice to say, none of the above had anything to do with the setting of the sun nor would it help her should she fly into something and end herself quite abruptly, and certainly had nothing to do with the matter at hand.. But Constance liked to go over things in her mind when she flew, which didn’t happen as often as she wanted. An uncharitable person might think she was daydreaming. Constance would, quite strenuously, disagree with such unkind assumption since (a) it was not day, so much as it was evening now, and (b) girls did not daydream but had intricate, multitasking minds, hence they went over things which had happened, things which might happen, and even things that had already happened but how they should have actually happened..
That sure explained why they lived longer than their male counterparts and being Mortal or not made little to no difference.
“Alright.”, she mused as she went over her mental TO-DO list;
Talk to Her.
Get the boy.
Get the girl.
“There. Everyone happy at the cost of a little pain and loss.”
“I doubt, dear.”, said a rich, throaty, and enthralling woman’s voice.
And a long, jagging streak of lightning came down from the clear dusk sky!
Constance yelped and banked right and the lightning very nearly tore through her.
Another jarring streak of lightning lit the dimming sky and the half-born girl did a sharp left turn and escaped with a singe.
“Stop! Please! I come in peace!”, she yelled in panic.
“No, dear girl. You only come. You are a demon, and can not come in peace, nor can you bring it here with you..”, replied the same rich voice.
“No, I am not a demon! I come in good faith and only desire to help the Mortals..”, she screamed and a swirling, columnar hurricane jabbed down from the sky, all the way down to the forest below.
“Did you not come from Hell, my dear?”, asked the throaty voice.
“Yes. Yes, I did, but..”
“There you have it, then. You, dear girl, are clearly a demon, you can not have good faith, and helping Mortals can never be your intention, nor be part of your true agenda..”, said the voice..
..and another shaft of lightning forked downed, and this one zapped the half-born girl quite savagely as more wildly dancing hurricanes came down like some demonic fingers, tearing at everything they grasped..
“My mother was a Mortal!”, shrieked Constance, her face distorted with pain for she felt something hurt dreadfully at her hip.
“I feel sorry for her, but dabbling with the damned is never wise. Every Mortal knows this.”
Constance did another sharp turn and escaped the next strike.
“She.. she was taken.. by Mortals!”, begged the girl.
“Yes. Mortals with sin in their desires, deceit in their minds, and greed in their hearts tend to do that. Which is why I banned them all. But demons were never welcome.”, said the throaty voice.
“T.. Titania?”, Constance gasped.
“Yes, dear child. I have been watching you for some time now. I had hoped you would vier from your course, but apparently, you are not as smart as I had hoped you would be.. And now you are in my domain.. and in my jurisdiction..”
Constance took a dive, the wind shrieking as she attained her combat velocity, then spun, at a whip lashing speed, and flew straight towards the Perch..
..and more hurricanes stabbed down mercilessly, and Constance slammed right into them!
With a shriek lost in the howling, swirling and enraged, dark purple-gray fingers tore into her and shredded her and tossed her!
Constance dropped out of the sky like a moot rock..
..and with a last-minute display of aerial agility, she took a sharp, right-angle turn and shot up again!
“You are a persistent one, aren’t you?”, Titania said, and three more flashes of lightning came jarring down simultaneously.
With a determined expression on her face, Constance banked, right, then left, then left again, barely avoiding the deadly, jarring shafts and the wrathful fingers piercing down everywhere now.
“Mo.. Mother Titania.. Please.. I.. We are not all demon.. We are also human. I beg of you. I truly come in peace..”, she pleaded as tears ran down her face and were whipped away by the savage wind. “I speak the truth..”
“You must see the irony of a demon claiming to speak the truth, child. And a succubus, no less. Truth or lies, it matters little, as willy-nilly, the means to ends matters not to your kind.”
“I am Constance Alure Smithen, Mother.. Thus I have given you my name and claim nothing in return.”, she very nearly blubbered for the jagging streaks of lightnings came seamlessly now and the desperate half-born was zig-zagging mindlessly through them.
“Impressive. Perhaps you hoped, by giving something, you would get something back. Surcease, perhaps? Bargains do not work like that, dear child. I must want something from you for you to offer something else in return.. I do not!”
“I merely come to inquire as to the health of two Mortals, Mother! They are dear to some in the town called Serenity Home, just west of here.”
“Ahh.. Perhaps I may consent to give you that.. for your name, even though I have not asked for it. The princess of the homeless elves is indeed, here. She is healthy, though her health deteriorates as days go by and is quite troubled, for she has dire decisions to make for her mate-to-be, who is dying. I have put him in stasis to buy him time, whilst the princess makes her choice or comes to terms with his dire predicament. It appears, someone put a hole in the boy’s heart with iron.”
“Is.. is there nothing I can do to help? Nothing at all? Her people desperately need their princess and his father and his friends desperately need him.. For them, I am willing to give that which is most precious to me!”, Constance asked as she felt her heart plummet for a hole in the heart with iron only meant one end, and little did it matter if they were Mortal, fey, or demon..
“And what may that be, my dear?”
Constance told her.
There was a pause as Titania seemed to mull over something for the lightnings and the savage hurricanes ceased!
“As intriguing as your offer is, child, the princess of the homeless elves must be the one to make the choice I have offered her as said choice pertains to her own future, the future of her mate-to-be, and their line.. There is, literally, nothing anyone else may do, for she came here, with her mate-to-be, unsummoned and uninvited, though quite unintentional, also.. Should you still want to help the Mortals you claim to want to help, however, perhaps there is some room there for bargains for you have managed to garner my admiration, if not curiosity.. Settle down Constance Alure Smithen, the child of a Mortal woman and a demon father.. I would like to take a closer look at your offer and further test your mettle.. and see if your claim is worth a bargain.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Sheriff Standorin!”, exclaimed the young guard as he burst into the sheriff’s office. “Come. Quick! You.. you had better see this!”
Slowly and calmly, the sheriff of Serenity Home rose from his seat, buckled on his sword over his shoulder as he looked at the young, excited guard.
“What is it young man?”, he rumbled, giving an assessing glance at him.
“I don’t know how to describe it, sir. Lights.. Hundreds and hundreds of them. And they are all coming here!”, the young guard said with an awestruck face.
“Lights? What lights?”
“I don’t know, sir. You must see them yourself!”, the young man said, almost jumping where he stood.
Standorin mumbled something about young and easily excitable kids but waved at the guard to lead the way.
The two walked over and all the way to the north gate of the town while other guards ran back and forth with already lit torches and lanterns as evening slowly settled, just to see the multitudes of refugees, all on the other side of the stone bridge that stretched over the Great Arashkan River, and all of them were standing still and staring north..
..where there were hundreds and thousands of sparkling lights hovered amongst the trees bordering the Ritual Forest and quite luminous in the settling evening.
“What is this?”, Standorin asked, somewhat disturbed.
“We.. I do not know, sir. Ranger Masters Devien and Moorat have gone to check, but they have not returned yet.”, replied the young guard in a hushed voice.
“Where is Master Aager—?”
“—Here, sir.”, replied a growling voice and Aager Fogstep appeared next to him as if summoned by magic!
“What is this?”, the sheriff repeated his question.
“I am not quite sure, sir.”, Aager said in his low voice.
“Are you seeing this, love?”, he silently cast his own question at Inshala.
“I want to. But there is a whole crowd of people standing in front of me and I can’t get past them.”, she replied. Then with a sigh, she added. “And they are pushing at one another.. I don’t want to get trampled.”
Aager turned to the guards standing nearby and growled at them.
“You! Form two lines, one on each side of the road and make a gap. We cant have a crowd plugging the town’s main entrance!”
“Yes, sir!”, the guards replied hastily, saluted the right hand of the sheriff, and guards started pushing the people back and to the side of the road leading in and out of the town.
“That was very smart!”, Aager heard Inshala’s admiring voice.
“People should know better not to mob the town entrances by now.”, he fumed.
“They are only curious, my Aager.”
“A stupid excuse for trampling each other. This could be a diversion for an attack!”
“Very true. Almost there..”, she replied and indeed, she appeared next to him.
They both stared at the odd, sparkling phenomena for some time until Inshala said a bit awed, “Pixies.. and sprites! Many of them.. Thousands!”
Sheriff Standorin turned to her and asked.
“Are you sure, Lady Inshala?”
She just couldn’t help it.
Big, large men scared her!
Standorin must have noticed this as well, for his always-stern face softened a bit and he knelt down before the little girl and spoke in a low, calm voice, though it still rumbled.
“I apologize wholeheartedly, sweet Lady Inshala. I meant neither to upset you nor to abuse your good sensibilities. You are a wonder to us all, beautiful beyond words, and your wisdom leaves us in shame.”
If anything could have sufficed a good blush, this was it!
Inshala turned bright, bright red, and covered her face with her slender hands.
“You.. you have put me to shame with your honest and kind words, sir. The lights you see are fey folk. I would plead your men to not harm them. If they have come here and in such great numbers, there must be a good reason. If you would, please tell your men, and the people all around to make room, for they will not come any near, as things stand now.”
Sheriff Standorin smiled at her, then slowly rose.
“Master Aager, if you will, inform all the guards to put away their iron and clear the way, from all the way here to the fey. No one is to stand near them, get near them, hinder them, or harm them.”
“Yes, sir.”, Aager said with a curt salute and growled orders.
Soon, the town’s northern entrance, the bridge, and the refugees near the woods were all cleared and a historical first occurred; the tiny, sparkling lights, the small fel-folk hovered towards Serenity Home..
It was an inspired possession..
..as each luminous globe carried a tiny, humanoid creature inside, or perhaps, the globes of light were there because of the tiny, humanoid creatures..
..and they bobbed, back and forth, left and right, and up and down with easy leisure and leaving a long trail of sparkling pixie dust from their tiny, barely discernable wings and entered the town and slowly but surely, they gathered before the Serenity Town Temple where the Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel.. and Perigren Ostlanna Temez met them, as Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, and Aager Fogstep also stood nearby.
A tiny, tooth-pick sized creature came forth, and with demanding attitude, she spoke;
“I am Biberbell and I speak for my kin and the rest of the fey-folk gathered here, and we have come upon the command of Titania, the Summer Queen, and in retaliation, Mab, also, the Winter Queen, in hopes to partake our pixie dust much needed for the defense of this Mortal town.”, she piped.
Thomas, Bremorel, and Temez just ogled at the tiny thing.
“We have been promised satisfactory accommodations and.. CANDY!”, she squeaked.
“Uhhmm.. Candy?”, Thomas blurted a bid dumbfounded.
“Yes. Candy! But we will settle for sugar canes, too.”, she buzzed, paused, then added..
“LOTS AND LOTS OF SUGAR CANES!“
..with a very lustful expression on her tiny face as she rubbed her hands together, barely refraining from a possible;
“Said conditions can be arranged, Biberbell. But we have not made any bargains with either of the Queens.”, Thomas replied with a very much freaked expression on his own face.
The tiny sprite turned to Perigren Ostlanna Temez and said with nothing short of a patronizing tone.
“The bargain has already been struck, and the debt paid in full and done.”
“Who? Who has bargained with the Queens and who has paid in full and done?”, demanded Temez.
“How should I know, demon? I am not privy to the details of what the Queens do!”, Biberbell sniffed at her.
“Ask a Constance Alure Smithen!”
“Ask her what it means; Wings for Wings..”
The once high lady of the destroyed Bari Na-ammen, Anglenna Brightleaf struggles with those around her who mistrust or outright loath her.
As allies gather for the defense of the town, Anglenna confers with the only people who are impartial and unbiased against her as the whereabouts of the young man, Udoorin Shieldheart, and the last princess of Bari Na-ammen, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, remains a mystery.
The events taking place in this
particular story also involves
A Bard’s Tale XIII – “Searing Perspective”
Anglenna felt miserable. The amount of pain she registered from the numerous cuts and bruises she had attained during her daring sojourn under the ruins of the glorious city of Arashkan had taken its toll on her. Once she had unleashed the Three Dog Curse upon the city, she had tried to get out, only to be lost, for days, under the extended sewer canals of the city. Hungry, thirsty, filthy, bloody, and constantly fighting her way through the Orken who had found their way down into the maze, and always trying to stay a step ahead of the curse she had unleashed. When she had finally found the time to get a decent rest to be able to teleport out of the burning city, she had crash-landed right through four rooms of the Serenity Home Guest House, adding to her already draining pain.
And now she lay, in a rickety bed, in some dormitory under the town’s temple, burning with fever, sweating profusely, and shivering at the same time. It seemed like the Heavens had ganged up against her and all at once.
Her current torment was bested only by the horrendous, jabbing, and jarring pain that kept stabbing up her broken arm, all the way up to the back of her skull, and it just wouldn’t stop.
Anglenna Brightleaf tilted over the side of her bed..
“I feel terrible.”, she moaned miserably, staring into the stinking, half-full bucket, standing next to her rickety bed.
“I don’t.”, said a soft, throaty voice heartlessly, and Bremorel Songsteel turned the page of the book she was reading without so much as a glance at the totally disheveled high lady from the simple chair she was sitting. “I feel good.. seeing you like this!”
“I.. suppose you do..”, gasped Anglenna as the pain from her cast arm jabbed at her again.
“You know, being a bitch at times does have its moments. But you? You are a very special kind of bitch. But then, you are that special snowflake kind of girl so it is somewhat understandable, I guess. “, she said calmly as she continued to read her book.
“It is possible I have been a bitch all my life. But I was brought up by Angrellen the Betrayer. What’s your excuse, little girl?”, the high elf said hoarsely as she continued to sweat.
“Nice one..”, grinned Bremorel.
“Why are you here? Other than to torment me, and take satisfaction in my suffering.”, Anglenna fell back onto her bed, exhausted.
“No reason. Other than to torment you and take satisfaction in your suffering..”, the ranger lieutenant replied, turning another page.
“Didn’t know you could read.”, snarked the high elf, as she pulled her blanket higher.
“Just looking at the bright illustrations. But I can’t seem to find them!”, Bremorel said smugly. Then added, “Girl, you are going to have to try better than that, if you want to insult me. I mean, come on, now. I don’t want to be forced to outright insult you but, really? That one was rather pathetic. When it comes to insults, it’s all about moderation and standards.”
“I wasn’t aware you had any standards.”, she said and turned into a fetal position as she started to shiver again.
“See? That was a tint better, now, wasn’t it?”, the ranger girl replied smiling, as turned the page over again, and threw an indiscernible glance at the shivering high elf.
“I can’t believe they let someone like you become a ranger. Apparently, this whole town lacks standards.”, Anglenna scoffed.
“Now, now. Let’s keep the insults running at a personnel level and not involve others, shall we? Or you might stink up this place. Oh, wait, you already have!”, Bremorel deadpanned.
..and retched again.
“Your mother never told you that drinking sewer water would make you ill, I suppose. But then, I heard she wasn’t much of a mother so your overwhelming ignorance of the world you live in is mildly acceptable, but not sensible nor reasonable since just about any idiot out there would know this.”, Bremorel mused.
“Why are you really here, Ranger Lieutenant? You can’t be as petty as you want me to believe you are.”, Anglenna wheezed exasperatedly and slumped back into the bed.
“‘As petty as you want me to believe you are?’ Wow, girl. You said that so smoothly. I almost lost track of it towards the end there, and I am a ranger and all. Got me a lieutenant’s medal, even..”, the ranger girl said, as she slowly rose from her chair and walked over to the door. She reached up and opened it, took the empty bucket sitting next to the door, and returned to switch it with the half-full one and put it outside.
“You must have better things to do that to change my filth.”, Anglenna said with shame, for she couldn’t remember being this embarrassed in her entire one hundred and seventy-eight years.
“I do. But I thought it’d be fun reducing you as low as I can on behalf of the peoples of Arashkan and High Woods while I had the chance. Turns out.. I am right. This is fun!”, Bremorel replied happily. “The other option was I drag you off into the woods and finish you off there and dump your ass in a pit where no one would ever find you. But Thomas is silly and kind and told me not to, so here we are, you in a sickbed, spewing all over the place, and me having fun.”
“If this is some convoluted plan to make me talk, it isn’t going to work. I was trained by the best of them.”, she said, rolling to her other side, as she pulled up her blanket again.
“If your mother is the measure of, the best of ’em, I shouldn’t have much trouble.”, grinned Bremorel.
“Very good, Lieutenant.”, the high lady said with mild appreciation. “Classy, even. Begs the question, why the bumkin act, though?”
“Dammit.”, Bremorel said merrily. “I just got me exposed.”
“In all candor, young Morel.”, Anglenna said, in pain. “That particular pose truly doesn’t suit you, and not at all convincing. Your eyes.. They are too bright..”
“Ow?”, said Bremorel, looking down at the miserable high lady.
“And young Thomas.. as creepy as his mindless obsession with you is, he does not strike me as a man who regrets his choice in his woman. And I got the impression, Thomas would never be happy with a bumkin. An educated man requires to converse with a woman of at least at his own level of intelligence or she must have some unique aspect or perspective that he can never have.”, the high lady said.
Then, with a green smile, she added, “Or she’s just that good in bed! I am guessing two out of those three, in your case.”
Bremorel’s face turned molten red.
“Why two?”, she blurted hotly.
“I was being polite.”, replied Anglenna. “Checkmate?”
The ranger lieutenant scowled at the sick high lady.
It was a good thing someone knocked at the door just then. Or perhaps not. Try though she might, young Bremorel just couldn’t come up with anything that had enough firepower. The condescending she-elf had nailed her with backhanded compliments she just couldn’t refute.
Not unless she wanted to admit she was stupid, had no perspective of her own, and had a very unsatisfied husband!
“Checkmate..”, she fumed grudgingly.
She scowled some more, then walked over to the door, swung it open, and shouted.
Right into the face of the leader of the High Woods Resistance Movement, Lord Armethelius Riverblade..
..And this day had started so well when she had found out she had been given the assignment of looking after/tormenting/punning the stupid high elf woman, dammit!
“Have I come at a wrong time, perhaps, Ranger Lieutenant Songsteel?”, Armethelius asked politely.
Burning brighter now, Morel just stared at the elf lord.
“What can I do for you Lorn Armethelius? Why have you come here? Don’t you have anything better to do, like running a resistance movement than wasting your time here?”
To give the young high elf lord credit, he didn’t take the ranger lieutenants tone to heart, nor did he take umbrage. He just smiled. Politely.
“I have come, merely to check up on the high lady. I believe I was given this permission, ‘as I saw fit’.. And the resistance is moving on just fine. For what it’s worth, I would be indebted to you, if you could tell the esteemed sheriff that he will be receiving fifty more of our trained elves to his disposal.”
Bremorel frowned at the high lord.
“That’s a hefty bribe just to see the high lady, my Lord. I am sure Tomas would have agreed for far less had you asked him.”
“The Senior Temple Guardian is a good and generous man, working diligently, day and night to keep the wellbeing of all the refugees, and quite impartially, I might add. There is no price we can satisfactorily pay for the service he does. But by giving more of our elves to keep the town, and the outlying lands and fields safe, at least we are able to pay him by proxy.”, Armethelius replied.
“And you get to impress the girl.”, smirked Bremorel.
“I can hear you!”, came Anglenna’s wheezy voice.
Lord Armethelius did a better job of suppressing his fluster than young Morel had ever done. He just looked at her with a very neutral and still expression.
“Very well. Gimme a few. Let me ask her if she’s available.”, Bremorel said..
..and shut the door.
On the high lord’s face.
“No.”, said Anglenna in a half panicked voice. “I look horrible. He doesn’t have to see me like this.”
“Girl, you are horrible. The fact that anyone has come to see you is an event, astounding on its own. That you also look horrible, is a moot point.”, Bremorel said with an amused expression.
“No.”, the high lady repeated stubbornly. “What’s remained of my world, only two people are left that have the slightest care and respect for me, and the other is my cousin.”
“Wow.”, the ranger girl said heartlessly. “That’s just sad. How did that happen? Ow, wait, you did it to yourself, yes, now I remember.”
“Just.. just tell him to go.. and never come back..”, Anglenna said, moaning in sick pain.
“Very well. You may rot in your lonely misery.”, she replied with a shrug, went back to the door, and to the high elf lord, she declared boldly;
“My Lord Armethelius, do please come in!”
✱ ✱ ✱
You are up a bit later than usual, love.”, said Perigren Ostlanna Temez. “I thought you’d be at the esteemed sheriff’s office by now. Is everything alright?”
Constance Alure Smithen sighed.
“I will be heading there now. I just drop in to ask you about the gift but thought I’d give you a few more moments to rest, dear. You have been working hard to find a solution for the lost Orken army.”, she said.
“Thank you, Alure. You were always thoughtful of others, even back in Hell, which I think was why Auntie Irine disliked you so much.”, smiled Temez a bit sadly.
“Irine disliked any number of us.”, Constance shrugged. “You and Merisoul the most. A gros mistake on her part, as things turned out.”
“How very true.”, agreed, Perigren. “Mind I ask, how things went last night? Between you and the esteemed sheriff?”
“I wouldn’t mind at all, though I am surprised the whole lot didn’t come flocking when.. Stan.. dropped me off.
“Stan?”, Temez asked a bit confused.
“Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart insisted I call him that. At least in private.”, replied Constance deploringly.
“Ah. I have noticed this as well. Mortals cut and butcher one another’s names as much as they cut and butcher one another!”, Temez nodded with similar distress.
“Indeed. Though the disinterest of my kin in this matter is as depressing as it is refreshing.”, the tall half-born mused.
“It isn’t disinterest, love, I told them not to plague you.”
“True, we are all brothers and sisters, made by our mutual sufferings, but this involves a Mortal and two hearts, now, which makes it a private matter uniquely confidential and exclusive to you and him. I told them it would be fine only if you brought it up.”, Temez smiled. “After all, I did not send you to the Mortals as a liaison to capture the esteemed sheriff. I sent you there to get to know our allies, and for our allies to get to know us. Your private interest in the esteemed sheriff is a personal matter and we must all learn to respect that, even if some of us are burning with curiously.”
“Demelze hounded you all night, didn’t she?”, Constance said with exasperation.
“Yes. Yes, she did.”, sighed Perigren. “She knocked on my door with clock-work precision; Temez, Temez, Temez, Temez, Temez, Temez! —Suffice to say, it was a dreary and trying night and the Great Heavens tested my patience. I think I passed since she is still alive and I am sane.”
“That must have been.. irritating..”, Constance said lightly, trying very hard not to laugh.
“Painfully so. Hence, I wouldn’t mind if you could give me something to tell them. Nothing specific, mind you. Anything that would give me a breather, and keep her off my back. After all, we don’t want a pouting Demelze seething in an enclosed building, do we?”, Temez said pleadingly.
“No, dear, we don’t. Too many children in here.”, she said and paused for a moment. “We had a nice, quiet dinner together. Then the esteemed sheriff took me for a walk, out in the near woods. It was rather pleasant. I let him do the talking since the living conditions of Hell are quite the conversation killer. He was polite.”
“Polite is nice.”, Temez said, but when she saw her sister-kin’s face, she got suspicious. “How polite was he?”
Constance paused for another moment before she answered..
..with a long, exasperated sigh.
“Ow. That must have been quite annoying.”, replied Temez mirthfully.
“You have no idea, my dear.. In the end, I told him I was pleased to see how careful Mortal men were with their delicate dates and that it was a good thing I hadn’t brought my pike to defend myself to stave off his excessive interest.”
Perigren Ostlanna Temez belly-laughed.
“Priceless, love, priceless.”
“I rather liked it. Though the esteemed sheriff wasn’t very pleased. I suspect he wanted to keep things purely professional. But when I offered him to hold my hand whilst I slip and fall, not with the ground being uneven and frozen, and he be known as the unreliable man who let his brand-new liaison/date be damaged thus soon should I fall and hurt myself, he caved in.”
“You are awesome, love. Demelze could take pointers from you.”
Constance very nearly bloomed.
“It went a bit nicer after that. We talked some more. And I told him a bit about myself, our people, and our oaths, in particular, to put him at ease, which I think is important that he knows. All in all, it was pleasant, I think. I liked it that we only shared words and close proximity rather than anything overt and immediate. It truly is much more fulfilling this way; the exhilarating sense that makes you want to skip and hop like a fool just because the one you want is walking right next to you.. I believe Mortals have a word for this, and it made me.. tingle down to my very soul..”, she said with a very sweet little smile.
“Ow? Do tell!”, Temez asked eagerly.
Perigren’s eyes blurred.
“That is.. beautiful.”
“Much so, dear.”, agreed, Constance. “But I think he was also distracted and not only because of me. Something was bothering him down to his very core.”
“Hmmm.. What could it be?”, mused Temez, frowning a bit.
“I inquired Ranger Lieutenant Morel Songsteel about it ere I came here to you if there was anything that would cause thus consternation for the esteemed sheriff. She said the list for that would be a very long one. But she told me what it would most likely be, as it was something she, herself, was very much worried.”
“What is it?”, Temez asked.
“It appears Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart’s son is missing. Our information on dear Merisoul’s companions and their whereabouts seem quite out of date. As things stand now, Merisoul Xyrotwu, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel’s cousin, Ranger Lieutenant Laila Wolvesbane, and Master Gnine Tinkerdome had gone to Silent Hills, and are still there. The first to arrive of their total company was one Lady Magella, who left for the Scowling Hills just west of here. Lady Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane Bolgrig Hooman Fogstep and Sir Aager Fogstep, the Winter Knight, had gone to the city of paladins, Durkahan and they have just recently returned. A High Lady Anglenna Sunsear, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart’s son, Udoorin Shieldheart, and a Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist of Bari Na-ammen had parted for the ruined and besieged city of Arashkan, but of the three, only this High Lady Anglenna Sunsear has thus returned. His son was supposed to have arrived with the princess many days ago, and before the high lady, but hasn’t. Apparently, the two of them were sent here via a teleportation spell but they missed their destination.”
“Mortals and their ignorant use of magic they do not understand.”
“We must find them!”, Constance said urgently, which told Perigren something about the tall, calm, serene young woman; that her care for the esteemed sheriff was quite genuine, for rarely did anything ruffle this beautiful, cool-headed woman’s feathers. She mused for a moment as options and possibilities crisscrossed her intricate mind, while Constance waited in silent anticipation.
“Let me think a bit more on this, for this is quite an important matter. You go and attend to your assignment, love. So far as we know, the esteemed sheriff very much dislikes impunctuality as much as he finds sloth to be distasteful.”
“That is true. Take care of us, dear. And say hi to Dar Derune for me, will you? It makes him happy when we say ‘hi’ by proxy.”
“That it does, love. That it does..”
✱ ✱ ✱
You look spry this morning, sir.”, growled Aager Fogstep, as the sheriff entered the building.
Sheriff Standorin gave the young man in dark leathers a sour look and wordlessly entered his office. He pulled the long blade off his broad back and leaned it on one of the many drawers lining up the small ‘cubicle’, behind his chair and slumped into it, quietly seething.
Aager followed him in and sat across the large sheriff and silently started sifting through the stack of papers on the table. He read every single one of them and thoroughly and split them in separate stacks according to their priority and relevance.
Apparently, his silence won over the sheriff’s fuming.
“This won’t work.”, the sheriff said darkly.
“What’s that, sir?”, asked Aager, not taking his eyes of the report in his hand.
“This, Liaison thing!”
“Ah. She hasn’t even started yet, and you want to dismiss it already?”, Aager replied.
“You know what I mean.”, fumed Standorin.
“I am sorry, sir. I don’t. Did something happen last night? Perhaps she said or did something out of turn? Though I doubt that’d be the case. She seemed like a very foresighted young woman.”
“That’s the point!”, snarled the sheriff.
“Her being foresighted is a problem? I don’t get it, sir. That’s something you have wished all the men and women under your command would have but sorely lack.”
“No, man. Young! Her being young!”
“Ah ha.. I didn’t know you were into older women, sir, though it’d be understandable if you were.”, the dark man said with a straight face.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”, asked Standorin harshly.
“I heard Lady Limnia was quite older than you.”
There was a moment of seething silence and Sheriff Standorin burned the young man with his gaze who just sat there silently grinning at him.
Aager put the paper down and looked at the fuming sheriff.
“Unlike my Inshala, who likes happy, smiling faces around her, I care very little for such facial expressions in others. But out of the debt I owe you for having saved my neck from a horribly painful ‘death-by-blunt-guillotine’, I have always made exceptions for you. Hence I will say my piece, though, at a price.”
Standorin cocked an eyebrow at the young man.
“Should you want to hear my harsh words, you must accept my price as well. Your call, sir.”
“What’s your advice and what will it cost me?”, the sheriff asked suspiciously.
“Ahh, no, sir. You will have to agree on the price before you get to hear the advice. Fear not. My rates are not very steep.”, Aager grinned at the fuming sheriff. “Otherwise you might outright refuse the advice and miss all the wisdom it shall bring you!”
“You are enjoying this, aren’t you?”, the sheriff scowled at him.
“Had it been some six months ago, sir, no, I wouldn’t have been enjoying this, you wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation with me, I wouldn’t be giving you any advice and things would have been dreary and boring as ever, sans the approaching Orken army out there!”, Aager replied calmly.
“Something tells me I will regret this but go ahead, Master Aager. Do give me your price.”
“You will regret a great many things, sir, just not this.”, smiled the young man..
..And with a polite knock, the door to the sheriff’s office opened, presenting Constance Alure Smithen.
“Good morning, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. And you, Sir Aager Fogstep. I have read through your Criminal Laws and the laws pertaining to commerce and judicial matters, and also the local laws specific to Serenity Home town, in particular. I have noted that your current archives pertaining to said criminal reports are quite extensive, but both time-consuming to find when needed, and it would seem you have also run out of space. I have given it some thought and found a number of ways to optimize and address both problems for you.”
Sheriff Standorin just stared at the beautiful young woman. She was dressed in long, unrevealing dress skirts with little to no adornments. Other than a bright-red application to her pretty lips, she wore no makeup, nor any jewelry.
Aager didn’t say anything. He just sat quietly..
“I.. would very much like to hear your ideas on the matter of documentation and archives, Liaison Constance.”, Standorin stammered a bit as he rose from his chair. “Perhaps after the morning assignments are handed out?”
“But of course, sir.”, Constance replied calmly, then looked down at Aager with careful deliberation.
The sheriff left the office and headed out to the small courtyard where all the guards not currently on duty were already lined up.
“Sir Aager Fogstep.”, Constance began, after the sheriff had left.
“Just Aager will do, Liaison Constance. I do not qualify as a sir.”, he replied in his low growl.
“I believe you do, Sir.”, she said, putting the tiniest bit of implication to her words.
“As you wish.”, Aager shrugged without so much as turning a hair.
“I have brought.. a gift to you, Sir Aager Fogstep.”, she said a bit uncertainly.
“Totally unnecessary, Liaison Constance. Town guards do not take, nor accept gifts as they could constitute and be mistaken for a bribe. Perhaps you missed that in the Criminal Law’s book?”, the young man in dark leathers said quietly.
Constance paused for a breath’s length.
“The gift is to you, Sir. But not for you.”, she amended cooly.
Aager cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Please give these to your loved one. I am sure she will very much appreciate them.”, she said and produced two, heavy-looking, age-old daggers. “These are quite ancient blades, Sir, and are a pair. They are also enchanted in their own way.”
“I thank you for the gift, but I doubt Lady Inshala will have any use for them, as she very much dislikes the touch of iron. Perhaps you could give these to someone who would actually wield them?”, Aager declined, staring, but not touching the very, very sharp blades that appeared more like short swords, really.
“Ah. The confusion is understandable, and possibly due to my misphrasing. These blades would indeed be a bad choice of gifts for the esteemed Lady Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane Bolgrig Hooman Fogstep. These, are for your sister, Lady Lilly Venom as a wedding gift. We had heard of her happy union but were unable to attend as we weren’t sure if we would be welcome. She and Perigren Ostlanna Temez became somewhat acquainted, and Temez noticed her missing vital gear appropriate to her station.”, she replied calmly.
“Why give them to me, then? Wouldn’t it be better for Temez to give them to her?”
“Should Perigren Ostlanna Temez gift them to her in person, Lady Lilly Venom would feel obligated to return a gift of her own, and of equal or at least of similar value. I am afraid, however, she will sorely fail should she try, for these blades are unique and quite priceless. If you gifted them to her on our behalf, yet unbeknownst to her, she would happily accept them and feel no such obligation whatsoever. And since they are not for you, there is little reason for you to feel any similar obligation either.”
Perhaps it was time for Aager to fume.
But he did not.
He just stared at the tall young woman and smiled.
“I don’t do lackey, Liaison Constance. And as convenient as your reasoning for the gift was, these knives are a bribe. The only question is, what do you want in return? Let me warn you and your kin, though. The Winter Knight can not be bribed, bought, or swayed. I am tempted to stay as a neutral party where your kind are concerned because Merisoul Xyrotwu is my friend, and I owe her a debt of honor. She saved my Inshala, and burned for me! Should you test me though, I will bring Mab’s ire upon you. So.. I am very much hoping the answer to my question is a good one.”
Constance Alure Smithen stiffened a fraction.
“We have left Hell in hopes of finding sanction among elves and humans. We gave an oath, Winter Knight. An oath to sweat, to bleed, and to die for our Ascension. We may not break that oath.”, she said cooly, but not without honest fear, though what it was she feared, Aager couldn’t say.
“Admirable as that may be, you still haven’t answered my question, Liaison Constance.”, he replied in a wintery voice.
“We need your mate’s help.”, Constance said simply.
Aager did not say anything. He waited, silently.
“Some not too distant days ago, ere you and your mate’s arrival, the esteemed sheriff received news about one of the Orken armies having disappeared overnight. He and Mayor Arthandos Yuleman suspect they have used the device that they employed to ambush Arashkan. Fearing a possible recurrence, we were sent a note, by the sheriff himself, pertaining to the lost Orken army and possibly a way to counter-act this device, even temporarily, to avoid further, devastating ambushes. Perigren Ostlanna Temez and my brothers and sisters have worked diligently to find a way to reveal their presence, but we are, at the moment, at a standstill, on account of our ignorance of plants and herbs of this Mortal world. Your mate, Lady Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane Bolgrig Hooman Fogstep, on the other hand, has vast knowledge on this matter. We wished her help, and perhaps her friendship as well, as both her and my kin share common social drawbacks.”
Constance paused for a moment as if considering if she would say more. She must have decided to do so, for she did, but with a muted tone.
“And if we had her as a friend, we would worry less, should Mab want his knight to slay any of us, as the Ritual Guardian would intervene on our behalf. I speak this openly and honestly, Sir Knight.”
Again, she paused. But when she spoke this time, her voice was not cold, but it was brittle.
“I play you will not take my words as a threat, nor as eager warning, Sir, but you must understand, should your Queen indeed move against one of us, She will have moved against all of us. We did not escape Hell, just to be hunted here. We wish to live happy and be happy. I beg you will not take this surcease from us.”
“I have no desire to come after anyone, let alone you or your kin, Liaison. I would suggest you inform your kin to refrain using their skills, unique or otherwise, to avoid the notice of my Queen, and that is all the surety I will give you, as little as it may be.”
“Thank you, Sir Knight.”, Constance said, her voice calm again.
“Do not thank me, Liaison. For my surety is no surety!”
“Your unwillingness to come after us, Sir Knight, is our surety, as little as it may be. As for your suggestion, I shall convey it to Perigren Ostlanna Temez. In the meantime, I would officially ask your permission for Lady Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane Bolgrig Hooman Fogstep to join us in the temple.”
“You need not my permission for my Inshala. She is my mate, she is free. Should she wish it, she may come and go as she pleases, anywhere. I am merely the Winter Knight. She is the Ritual Guardian. You could ask my sister, Lilly, and her husband Largo to join in as well. They both have sharp minds and Largo in particular is good with strategy.”
“Very well, Sir. I shall convey this offer to Perigren Ostlanna Temez, as well.”, and she turned to go.
“There’s one thing I must ask, Liaison.”, Aager said and the young, beautiful woman paused.
“Please, do, Sir Knight.”
“What are your intentions in regard to Sheriff Standorin? I ask only because I have seen, first hand, and on any number of occasions, that he is a decent man. A decent, burned, scarred, and lonely man who dearly misses his deceased wife, Limnia Karya. I would hate to see him suffer more.”
Constance did not wait, nor think to reply.
When she did, her voice had changed, very slightly, giving it a certain, scared warmth.
“If he is indeed a decent, lonely man, burned and scarred, Sir Aager Fogstep, then he and I have much more in common than I ever hoped to have. I shall always be honest, kind, and gentle with him, and I shall be patient with him, also. Until he realizes I am not his lost Limnia Karya, I shall never be his lost Limnia Karya, I can never replace his lost Limnia Karya, and neither will my intentions ever be to replace his lost Limnia Karya, for every life is precious, unique, and irreplaceable. This, I think you already know.”
The Winter Knight mused for a moment before he spoke.
“Then, Liaison Constance, I shall not help you, but neither shall I hinder you. I shall, however, extract a price.”
“Whatever price you demand, I shall pay.”, Constance replied with a slight frown.
“You shall suffer a tryst with the sheriff and trice. The offers, however, must come from you. I shall not accept offers should they come from him. You may, or may not accept his offers, should he make them, but those offers shall not count as part of your debt.”
Constance stared at Aager, quite stupefied.
“I.. do not understand.”, she stammered.
“Your understanding is neither required nor is it part of the price, Liaison Constance.”, he growled.
“I.. will submit to this odd but favorable demand, Sir Knight.”, she stammered some more.
“Winter is not always bitter-cold and dreary, Liaison Constance. When summer comes, does it shine and bloom, and Mortals do spread and far across forest and field. Come winter, do they gather ’round their fires and gain strength and vigor from one another’s dear company. Come winter, does it tuck and veil the earth, quite warm under its shroud of white, ending plagues and wars. And does it mute the distractions of summer and her illustrious colors. Hence do Mortals learn to appreciate the world they walk and come summer and bloom again, they are they now wiser..”, Aager said, his growl gone, yet his voice seemed deeper and vast.
“We, Liaison Constance, are now in an agreement.”
✱ ✱ ✱
You can hide under the blanket, but can you at least remove the pillow? You are going to smother yourself, Lenna.”, Armethelius Riverblade said, stifling a smile, for he would never have guessed, the famous Frost Queen of Bari Na-ammen would be this embarrassed.. or even have the heart to be thus flustered.
Something muffled was heard from under the pillow, and the young high elf commander leaned over a bit to hear what the high lady was saying.
“I am sorry, Lenna. I wouldn’t catch that.”, he said with a bemused expression.
“Go away, Thelius.”, came Anglenna’s pleading muffles.
“I shall. As soon as I see how you are doing. Or see that it is actually you under the pillow.”
“You don’t have to see me like this. Or at all. I.. am not at my best, at the moment.”, she wheezed as she burned and shivered at the same time.
“I would like to be the judge of that, Lenna. Since your usual best would have stared me down already. You might say I want to savor the moment, as dishonorable as that sounds. But I am thinking that much of a dent in my honor will be worth it.” Armethelius replied. “I am going to pull this blanket off now. I really hope you have something on.”
“Don’t! Please!”, panicked Anglenna.
Without a second warning, the young high elf commander pulled off the blanket, ignored the horrified and screaming high lady, bent down, scooped her up, and sat her on the plain chair!
“Now, if you will, this bed is a mess and requires a change of sheets and pillow covers, and possibly a new blanket as well, seeing as how all of them are crumbled and wet! Not exactly a healthy environment, is it?”, he said, and with a swift display of elven agility and grace, he pulled off the sick sheets, the pillow covers, and tossed them, and the blanket over to the door, produced a new set of sheets, covers, and blanket and with practiced hands, did the bed with military accuracy as Anglenna, still burning and shivering, watched him with ogling, morose eyes.
When he was done, he turned around and looked down at the shivering girl, and not unkindly, he said, “I am sorry, Lenna, but this will hurt a bit. And on multiple levels..”
..And pulled the wet, burlap-colored, linen gown off her, from feet to head without giving her the time to gasp, or object, and with equal grace, he put another long gown on her, from head to feet..
Then picked her up, set her in the bed, and pulled the blanket all the way up to her chin!
“I apologize for that, Lenna, and you may reprimand me or even go as far as calling me upon it later, but I wasn’t into a long argument just now. I know these are not up to your usual standards, but the sheet, the pillow cover, and the gown are elf silk, and the blanket is elf wool. I have also brought some soap, a brush, and hairnets for you. A woman of your stature should always uphold certain standards. That said, I am afraid I must take my leave, now. I do not want to be missed for too long and be asked as to why I have been visiting the town thus often of late.”, he said and turned to leave.
Anglenna knew she was about to suffer a colossal shock at what had just happened. She felt it roaring her way and surmised she had only a short moment of coherence left to her. So she asked the only relevant question she could think of.
“I am safe, getting better, and should be up, once the fever is passed. You already know all this. So why are you constantly coming here, Thelius?”
Armethelius Riverblade looked back at the feverish and profusely sweating face of the high lady for a moment. Then spoke with his low, quiet voice.
“Of the two of us, I would have thought I would be the one to ever fall short and lacking.”, he said. “But I can’t believe how you can be this dense, Lenna!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Anglenna Brightleaf was smoldering in abject frustration and mortification. How dare he man-handle her thus unscrupulous and shamelessly! Perhaps picking her up was acceptable, she was feverish and not quite herself and the things going on around had been sort of hazy and vague. Even so, he should have at least asked for permission, if only perfunctorily. But no! He had grabbed her. Just like that! And not satisfied with his boorish manners, he had stripped her gown right off her! The nerve, the level of depravity, the.. the..
Anglenna spluttered as her mortified frustration saw no end.
“Is this a bad time?”, said a husky sort of voice from the door, and the high lady flared!
“GO! JUST GO AWAY AND LEAVE ME ALONE! HOW MANY TIMES MUST I GET HARASSED AND DEGRADED IN ONE DAY?!”
“I think it is a bad time.”, said another, a bubbling, cheery voice. “She is seething. I can feel it. And it is delicious!”
“We should go.”, said a third with a low, resonant voice. “Our stance with Mortal demands is unclear.”
“I think we should just hit her over the head until she cools off. Auntie Irine always did that to me and guess what? It worked!”, said a sharp, petulant fourth voice.
“But we need her concession. I do not think it will work otherwise.”, said a small, vague, fifth.
The door got pushed open and five people stumbled in, tripped, and fell flat and face down!
“Who pushed?”, asked one of them.
“I didn’t either.
“I can push. I totally can. Why didn’t I push?”
Anglenna stared at the oddest lot, entangled on the ground.
“Alright.”, she fumed. “I am officially brain-cooked with fever and have started seeing weird hallucinations now.”
“Hold it. Hold it, everyone.”, said the husky voice. “Hal Mali, love. Please take your hand out of my blouse.”
“Ow. Sorry, Temez. I thought that was Demelze!”
“You wish! I got Hamna Vir’s tail though!”, sneered the chirpy voice of Demelze.
“No, you don’t!”, scoffed Hamna Vir sharply.
“Uhhmm.. That’s not a tail, Demelze. But it could be!”, Hal Mali said a bit flustered.
“I like the bosom am I staring at. It’s so soft.”, said the small voice vaguely.
“Dar Derune, love. You are a bit too young to be staring at bosoms. Don’t you think?”, Temez sighed. “And Demelze does not wear a blouse, Hal Mali. She wears a drop waist.”
“It’s not a drop waist! It’s a bouffant.”, objected Demelze.
“A bouffant has a distinct waist, you dolt! That strip of gauzy cloth you call a dress does not.”, Hamna Vir scoffed again. Then her tone changed and she purred. “Like what you see, then, Dar Derune, baby?”
“Come on, Hamna Vir. He is too young to choose a mate. You know this!”, Hal Mali said with a resigned voice.
“I see her heart. It is a nice, warm place..”, the boy, Dar Derune, said dreamily.
Anglenna just stared at the entangled lot with this funny expression on her face.
“What the Hell kind of a temple is this?”, she said in horror.
And just like that, a choked hush fell on the room.
Perigren Ostlanna Temez freed herself out of the jumble and came at the high lady.
“Lady Anglenna Sunsear, please do not utter the name of that evil place thus freely. It is a name that suffers no fools.”
Hal Mali also disentangled himself and approached her.
“What she says is true, Lady Anglenna Sunsear. We must have care when we speak of certain names, be it a person, a being, or a place.”
“What he said.”, Demelze added, stiffly.
“She is much troubled and carries much worry and fear. She is living in her own Hell.”, Dar Derune said with the same dreamy voice.
“Dar Derune, dear. We agreed not to speak out of turn in front of strangers, did we not?”, reprimanded Hamna Vir as she got up and came at the boy’s side, but not unkindly.
“What is this? Who are you? What is going on here? Get me out! I can’t breathe.”, Anglenna flared as the culmination of the events of the last several days finally cracked her as her fever spiked and the dim, candle-lit room began to spin and a sharp, jarring pain stabbed her right up her arm..
“THIS IS YOUR END! THIS IS YOUR JUDGMENT!”
..croaked a voice waspishly.
..and the high lady dropped.. as darkness engulfed her!
“Hamna Vir..”, Hal Mali said in a reproving tone. “That was not funny, girl.”
“What? I thought it was funny. Always wanted to do that!”, Hamna Vir snickered.
“Look what you did. She’s out, now.”, the handsome half-born complained.
“I had nothing to do with that.”, snapped Hamna Vir.
“Demelze, love. Why don’t you take away her fever? You are the best with fire.”, Temez offered.
“I could. I suppose. But her fire is not the cause of her illness. It is the symptom. I must first burn her sick before I smother her fever.”, Demelze replied unhappily.
“What’s the problem, baby girl?”, Hal Mali asked.
“Do not call me that! I am not your baby girl, Hal Mali!”, spat Demelze. “She is Mortal and her mind is in chaos. Her heart is so full of hate, self-loathing, and fear. I can feel them without even touching her. And she has little to no love in her. I must hold her to burn her sick and take her fever away. And she is in an abhorrent amount of pain. I shall gather all of that.. in me!”
Silence settled in the room again.
“I can not ask you to do what you must, love.”, Temez said quietly. “It is you who must decide.”
Dar Derune came up to Demelze and hugged her.
“Is that what happened when Auntie Irine beat and burned me and you took it all away, Demelze?”, he asked with the first display of some coherent acknowledgment.
Demelze did not answer.
She just stood there with flushed tears running down her face.
Hamna Vir came up to her, and also hugged her from behind. “I love you Demelze. For what you did for my beautiful baby mate, Dar Derune. And I remember how much you hurt after that, and it nearly drow you mad. I shall stand by your decision. Whatever it may be.”
For a long moment, everyone stood where they were until Demelze sniffed loudly, and with a fear-stricken but determined face, she spoke.
“I shall do it. Everyone here cashed in their sweat, their blood, and their lives. I may not do less.”
“Then we shall share your pain, and suffer with you.”, Temez said and hugged her as well. Not you, Hal Mali. And you Dar Derune, love.”
“What? Why?”, Hal Mali asked.
“You will look after us, should we be downed. And Dar Derune mustn’t go through this again. Also, it is he, who must look into Lady Anglenna Sunsear to find the esteemed sheriff’s lost boy, and the lost princess.”
Hal Mali did not refuse, but he didn’t look happy either.
“Come, Dar Derune. Apparently, this is a girls-only thing. We must respect that.”
Dar Derune looked up at the stricken Demelze, then at the equally frightened Hamna Vir, and finally at Temez.
“You have a good heart, Perigren Ostlanna Temez. And never should you have been with us in Hell. My Hamna Vir and I followed you because of that. Demelze; a world without you would be a sad, and lonely place. Please hold on for me.”, he said.. then the vague, dreamy expression settled on his tiny face again.
Hal Mali took him by the shoulders and quietly steered him away..
..and Demelze reached down and grabbed the former high lady of Bari Na-ammen and took her into her embrace.
Her bewitching face contorted and she screamed.
And with her..
..and Temez also screamed!
✱ ✱ ✱
Well. That’s done.”, Sheriff Standorin said as he returned to the office from the small courtyard. “All the assignments have been passed out. I shall be happy when this war is over and we can return back to our scheduled assignments rather than delegating them randomly.”
“The idea of random assignments is a sound one, particularly during times of war. Adds one more level of security against bribed infiltrations.”, Aager mused approvingly. “By the way. We just received fifty more trained high elves from Lord Armethelius Riverblade. I split them into five groups and sent two of up north and northeast of Ritual Forest, one along the southern banks of Arashkan river, another down to the hills surrounding Tinker Hills, and the last one all the way to the edge of Silent Hills to search for possible Orken incursions and to find lost survivors.”
Standorin paused for a moment. Then rumbled, his face slightly flushed.
“Thank you. I know you are going out of your way to help find my son and my daughter-in-law. As I am aware this isn’t the first party you have sent in random directions ‘seeking possible Orken incursions and to find lost survivors.'”
“I have no idea what you are talking about, sir.”, grinned the young man in dark leathers. “Just making sure we don’t get any surprises from the Orken, and who wouldn’t help lost survivors?”
Standorin fumed with frustration.
“Where are they, dammit?”
“We will find them, sir. Which brings up an interesting point, the way Lord Armethelius has been so generous of late. Wonder why that is!”, Aager said blandly.
Standorin fumed again.
“He wants to take Lady Anglenna into their custody. Good luck with that. She is under high suspect and a person of interest. There are a lot of crimes listed against her including espionage, treachery, war crimes and high treason!”
“People change, sir. I wouldn’t know about her past felonies, but I am certain she is not part of any treason, nor is she in cahoots with her mother. Not since some months before the Orken attack on Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen. Much like I do not believe Lord Armethelius wants the esteemed high lady just to place her under elf custody.”
The sheriff stared at him.
“You can’t be serious!”
“I am always serious, sir. I think I have had that established quite firmly. As for Lord Armethelius’s interest in our esteemed high lady, I asked around a bit and found out, he and Lady Anglenna were childhood friends back in the day.. about a hundred and seventy years ago, that is. But when Lady Anglenna’s father, Selvius Brightleaf, died, or was murdered, things changed and the two went their separate ways; Armethelius went military and Anglenna went scheming! But things have changed again. And apparently, as much as Anglenna’s heart seems to have gone cold over the years, Armethelius’s interest in her has never quite dulled. Funny how that turned out!”
Standorin frowned a bit.
“Why don’t you go and visit her? She knows you. Or even Lady Inshala?”
“I will. Once she gets better. And coherent. I don’t want her current, feverish self to get the better of her. You might have noticed, sir, I am not exactly a very lovable person. And I do not want to expose my Inshala to her either. Until then, I am afraid there is nothing else we can do but to milk Lord Armethelius for more of his well-trained elves! Funny how that turned out too”
Standorin barked out a laugh.
“You are a devious man, Master Aager.”
“Thank you, sir. I rather liked it myself.”
“Uhhmm.. Where is Liaison Constance?”, the sheriff asked, looking around.
“She said she wanted to visit the carpenter’s workshop to put in some orders for new shelves, cabinets, drawers, and something called portable containers.. for our archives and filing system.”
“Dammit!”, Standorin said with frustration. “I said I would look into it. I never said I agreed to it!”
“Guess you are going to have to be more careful as to what you say to her, sir.”, Aager said blandly.
“She is a Liaison, for Heavens’ sake! She can’t do that kind of modification in our office!”, the sheriff said with a deploring voice.
“Apparently, she can. Don’t fret, sir. I asked her about her new filing system and it sounded quite plausible. She seems to have an extremely organized frame of mind.. among other things. I’d say just let her do it. She is going to do it anyway. This way, you get to be the agreeable man who sees reason. It will give her something to do and get her out of your hair for a bit. Thought you’d like that as well.”
“You said you had some good advice. Let’s hear it!”, he growled.
“Ahh.. that was then, sir. Now, my price has gone up!”
The sheriff just stared at him, and a vein started throbbing on his temple.
“You are blackmailing me, by doubling the price?”
“Tripling, sir. I am afraid double just won’t cut it.”, Aager replied with a sinister grin. “The price rises over time, sir. Further delays will only cost you more.”
Standorin Shieldheart gave him one of his, silence before the storm, gazes.
And with a wrathful snarl, he said, “Agreed, Master Aager. Know that I shall not forget this. Name your price!”
“You never forget anything, sir. That is why you are so good at what you do.”
“Flattery will not save you..”, seethed the sheriff.
“Very well, sir. I shall now name your price and you will agree to pay it upfront before you hear my advice. Agreed?”
“Agreed..”, Standorin growled grudgingly. “This had better be some very good advice, young man.”
“It is a deal-closer advice, sir. And destined to work! The price then; you, Standorin Shieldheart, shall go out for three more dates with the Liaison Constance!”
Standorin just stared at him.
“Furthermore, the offers to go out on said three dates must come from you. If she makes the proposal, it shall not be counted as part of the price, pain and done. When you have fulfilled all your dates, you shall have paid your debt in full and I shall hence disclose my advice. Now, I have some places to be, and some people to train.”
And just like that, Aager took off, leaving an extremely frustrated sheriff in his wake!
“That was awesome, my Aager.”, the young man heard the soft, whispering voice of Inshala in the depths of his mind.
“I liked it.”
“What do you think will happen in three dates, though?”
“Not three, love. Six. I am all but certain Liaison Constance will ask him out at least three times before our esteemed sheriff can muster the courage to ask her out once!”
“But what will six dates do?”
“Love. We danced just that one time and I savored every single moment of it. I absolutely fell in love with you then and there, and not only because of how pretty I thought you were, or how nice you smelled, or how long and soft your hair was, but because of how kind, caring, scared, and yet brave you were.. Just what do you think will happen when they have gone out on six dates?”
“The good sheriff saved the life of a young and foolish Drashan convict that he didn’t even know. He gave that stupid boy respect, a job, and a home. He trusted his only child with that Drashan and in no Hell or Heaven would I have done those for me! Yet he lived alone and suffered alone. True that half-born may be young, but their understanding of time is unlike ours. This, I learned from you, my Inshala. And you learned me just how lonely and dead my own heart was. By the end of those dates, he will come to me and demand his advice, for he shall think he as earned it, not knowing what he earned was better than my advice, which is going to be, ‘Sir, I advise you date her again before making any final or premature decisions, for life is harder alone..’ Funny how that’ll turn out!”
✱ ✱ ✱
A shrill chorus of screams ricocheted in the small dormitory under the temple and Demelze flared in fire! She shrieked and shrieked but held on tightly at the high elf girl lying unconsciously in her rickety bed as she sucked her burning fever and everything that ailed her..
..and with her, Hamna Vir and Perigren Ostlanna Temez burned as Hal Mali and Dar Derune watched with stricken faces.
Then Demezle stumbled back, and fell, as smoke lazily drifted out from her. Hamna Vir and Temez fell with her, one staring blankly and with glazed eyes, the other bleeding from her nose and ears!
Hal Mali jumped at the girls and scooped them all up into his powerful embrace, rocking back and forth.
Dar Derune gave them a sad, mournful look and turned to the, now peacefully, sleeping elf girl.
“Pretty elf lady. Please wake up!”, he said solemnly.
Anglenna did not budge.
After days of draining, fevered pain, she was just done in.
“Pretty elf lady. Please.. Do wake up!”, the boy implored. “We seek what you seek. We seek the boy and the pretty princess. We seek that which ails you.”
Perhaps it was the word ‘princess’, or maybe it was the desperate tone in the little boy’s voice, but something must have gotten through the haze of sweet clouds and blissful abandon, for Anglenna opened her pale green eyes and stared at the little boy with amber eyes and tiny little horns.
“Who.. who are you?”, she whispered.
“We are the free ones. The ones with choice, pretty elf lady. We are the half-born. The ones who escaped and we are here to help find that which is lost.. But I need access to your memories and see whom to seek. And for that, I must have your consent, whilst it be treachery and a violation of our oath.”
“You will find young Udoorin Shieldheart and my cousin, Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist?”, Anglenna stared up at the little boy with the first glimmer of painfully brittle hope.
“If possible and if they are on this side of Oblivion, I shall, pretty elf lady.”, the boy said in a small voice.
Then he paused for a moment and his face became sad and unhappy.
“I must warn you though. It might hurt, sifting through your memories. And confusing. It might leave you catatonic, unable to even feed yourself. I am sorry, but I am broken and unable to refine my skills.”
“It is alright, little one, for I have understood little of what you just said, but I am content, and I consent.”
The little boy, Dar Derune, reached down to the pretty elf girl and held her face with his small, kid-hands.
Anglenna Brightleaf yelped, and was lost in a whirling storm of painful memories!
✱ ✱ ✱
“I told you, should you go ahead with this ‘plan’, you would get yourself killed at the very least. Well, look at that; you are dying!”, says High Lady Anglenna, and stares down at the dying man coldly and with very much dislike.
The man on the ground has an arrow sticking out of his chest. He gurgles in excruciating pain as bloody bubbles spurt out of his mouth. He is drowning in his own blood for the arrow has punctured his lungs and torn deep into them at an odd angle.
Yet, he defies death and a wet, rattling sound escapes him.
“I don’t think so.”, says the high lady. “For your hare-brained and reckless plan has gotten our healer killed as well.”, and looks down at the three other men lying dead and nods at the one with the long, splintered spear in his belly.
Then she looks up at the horde of bandits running in her direction, swinging old, rusty swords. True, her face is cold, but she stares at the bandits with clinical detachment and calculates something that involves their current distance, their speed, a certain spherical radius, and the number Pi..
And quietly, she points somewhere in the center of the bandits and murmurs.
“And four, and three, and two, and one..”
A tiny mote of fire appears among the bandits, and Anglenna turns her pointing hand into a fist..
..and with a savage bloom, the mote explodes; a low, rumbling expansion.
Within the blink of an eye, the fire engulfs the bandits, and with a chorus of short-lived screams, incinerates them all!
With her dispassionate, dissatisfied, and cold stare, she looks down at the gurgling man and speaks, barely refraining a sneer.
“A plan should never be thus complicated. But I guess you shall never learn that.”
“Your.. healing potion.. give it to me.. please..”, the man begs with a wet, bloody whisper.
“Why? So you can live and afflict your stupidity upon others and get them killed as well?”, she very nearly hisses with contempt..
..and walks away.
“Not this one.”
• • •
“For four days, I have been watching this crystal ball without food, water, or rest, mother.”, Anglenna says, as her voice rattles like a rusty saw.
“And you believe this is a good reason for your total failure, do you? You were unable to scry upon my dear brother, Grandaleren, four days ago. Four days later, you are still unable to see him in the crystal ball. Seems to me like neither your hunger, your thirst nor your fatigue is part of the equation, but merely your bad excuse for your failure. One day, you shall be the Rise of Bari Na-ammen, my daughter. You must thus be better prepared for it.”, says the High Lady Angrellen.
“Bari Na-ammen already has a riserin, mother. A princess. It is she, who will become a Rise. Not I..”, replies Anglenna with a parched voice.
A sharp, sudden, and shocking clap is heard.
Anglenna hears a ringing sound in her ears and she sees tiny, yellow motes fly haphazardly as a smoldering pain spreads from one side of her face.
And she wakes up to the fact that her mother has just slapped her across her face.
“Never shall you bring that mongrel’s name, nor her presence, under my roof. Do you understand me, Lenna?”, hisses her mother with absolute loathing.
“Yes.. mother..”, says Anglenna in mortification.
The door to their room is knocked and someone, an elf woman with a blurry face, lost in time, enters, and with fear-induced accuracy, she bows before the mistress of the house.
“I apologize, my lady. Your niece, Princess Alor’Nadien ne has arrived and begs to see her cousin, High Lady Anglenna, and asks if she is available to play with her.”
High Lady Angrellen does not at all reflect her fel and seething feelings on her face. With cool detachment, she regards the shivering maid. What she truly feels upon the liberal use of the name of the princes under her roof, however, is etched quite clearly in her frigid eyes.
“Go, my daughter, go and game with the wee princess. It is apparent you are better at little else.”
“This one is sad.”
• • •
“I apologize, my Lady, the princess, Alor’Nedien ne has arrived and begs to speak with you.”, says the elf maid and bows deeply before the mistress of the house.
“Let her in.”, orders High Lady Angrellen and crows feet appear at the edge of her pale green eyes.
The elf maid retreats and returns with the princess, and lo..
Princess Alor’Nadien ne has grown to be everything she was blessed and promised and High Lady Angrellen very nearly chews on her own liver for the little wee ‘mongrel’ has matured into a beautiful, graceful, elegant, and extraordinary creature and Anglenna sees how her mother seethes with unmitigated spite, for she knows, try as she might, the princess has attained the kind of shining demeanor her mother has never had, and would never have.
True, the girl approaching them has gotten some of her beauty both from her mother and her father, but the air of maturity, the sincerity, the love, and the calming aura about her are all hers.
Her charcoal-black hair thickly woven and braided in a complex pattern climbs down her slim waist. There is a gleam of hidden mischief in her deep, fresh grass-green eyes, and barely discernable freckles pepper her elegant nose, and a small, cherry-red mouth adorns her face. With her not-yet-fully-grown breasts and her slender figure, Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist presents the very essence of life..
The princess smiles at the elf maid and thanks her kindly, then very politely she curtsies at the lady of the house, and with sincere gratitude, her soft, soothing voice echoes in the rooms.
“My dearest Auntie Angrellen..”
“This one is nice, but out of date.”
• • •
You leave again, Lenna.”, says the handsome, solemn high elf with deep-set eyes, long blonde hair, angular chin, and a distinct, outlined mouth.
“I very much doubt this is any of your business, Armethelius Riverblade. And whatever gave you the impression that we were friends enough for you to get familiar with my name. As I recall, we are not even friends..”, says the High Lady, Anglenna, gazing coldly at the young, high elf commander.
“No, no.. Not this one, either. Too much self-loathing. Too much hate. I can feel them all, and it hurts!”
• • •
High Lady Anglenna, sits alone on her side of the long table. It is evening somewhere and there is a festive air about, for others sit around other tables and they talk, eat, drink, and they laugh.. they share!
Children run around in shrill, chirping screams of joy as they chase one another around the tables loaded with delicious and happy food and a slow, enthralling music is playing somewhere nearby; a young, handsome half-elf is singing with his equally handsome baritone voice and another half-elf, this one she knows but hasn’t met yet, a boldly beautiful girl sings with him in her contralto voice.
The high lady ignores it all for she has found her query.
Princess Alor’Nadien ne, sitting across the town sheriff and looking down into her hands, her beautiful face burning with disgraced shame.. in this happy evening.
“And it is not dear cousin Lenna to you, Nadien ne, it is High Lady Anglenna!”, she hisses at the little princess.
With barely audible voice, and without looking up, the princess whispers..
“Would not that make me, Princess Alor’Nadien ne for you, then?”
“I like her. She is nice. And she has a quiet, unimposing will. The lighting here is low, though. I can’t see her face and she looks down with shame.”
• • •
A sound High Lady Anglenna knows she will never forget in her life. Even as her memories tumble and slash her to her very core like hundreds and thousands of paper cuts, this particular memory escapes her with a moan full of shame and self-loathing. It is the sound of the love her little princess feels for her, for it is also the sound of her ultimate sacrifice..
..it is the sound of sharp steel parting flesh, and scraping bone!
High Lady Anglenna spins around as Princess Alor’Nadien ne is hurled at her and collapses in her arms.
Anglenna tries to pick the foolish little princes, but she drifts down and down, until she is on the ground, still in her cousin’s arms, but with a long, ugly-looking dagger in her slender back.
And Anglenna watches in horror as the blood draining from the face of her little princess..
..is spilling and ebbing into the dirt.
Yet her cousin tries to smile at her as more blood trickles from her small lips. She clings to Anglenna and whispers, as the light of life fades from her beautiful grass-green eyes..
I.. am so sorry, Lenna.
I tried my best.. but I could not save you..
Please.. forgive me..
With another moan, Anglenna gasped, her face distorted and she trashed in her sickbed like a wild animal.
“NO. NO, BABY GIRL.. YOU SAVED ME! YOU SAVED ME FROM ME! YOU SAVED ME FROM MY OWN, ABOMINABLE AND WRETCHED SELF.. DON’T DIE.. PLEASE.. DON’T LEAVE ME. I AM SORRY! I AM SO SORRY FOR ALL THE THINGS I DID TO YOU.. FORGIVE ME.. PLEASE FORGIVE ME..”
“This one is not very recent, but it is as fresh and vivid as today! It burns.. And I see her very clearly. Yes. This one will do..”
✱ ✱ ✱
The small boy let go of the flailing high elf woman and Anglenna reeled back down on her bed and the memory of her cousin’s sacrifice came crashing in on her, all over again. At the time, she had thought her cousin was trying to save her from the dagger. Looking back, it had never been the dagger she had thought she had failed to save her from. It had been her mother, Angrellen, whom she had tried to save her from.. That was why she was pleading her forgiveness because she knew had just run out of time, and Anglenna would have to return back to her mother, and back to her life-long, depleting, and ousted captivity..
High Lady Anglenna broke..
..and cried like a heart-wrenched little girl, and with total lack of self-control, moderation, or decorum.
The boy left the traumatized elf women and looked down at his small hands to see they were red and blistered.
So.. the pretty elf lady had love in her after all.. and it was powerful enough to burn him even though he hadn’t tried to eat her soul.
Anglenna’s love for her sister-cousin was strong enough to burn a half-born bound by his own blood-oath!
He closed his eyes, frowned a bit, then opened them again and there was a deep, abyssal cast to them now.
He took a deep breath and slowly, he started to turn..
“Gotcha!”, he said suddenly and pointed east.
“Demons are not allowed here, little one..”, said a deep, rich, throaty voice — ⊗
“Oops!”, was all the little boy could say.
⊗ —and backhanded him.
Right across the room!
Dar Derune flew right over the rickety bed and slammed into the wall and slid down, his little face contorted with pain.
The girls gave out a collective of shrieks, abandoned their own seething pain, and jumped after the boy, followed closely by Hal Mali.
“Who? Who did this to you?”, cried Hamna Vir as she dropped on her knees and pulled the boy tightly into her arms.
“Tis alright Hamna Vir.”, said the boy groggily. “I should have been mindful of my manners.”
“Who did this?”, hissed Demelze. “I shall burn it to the ground!”
“And I shall dice and slice him open and wide.”, growled Hal Mali.
“Tell us, love. No one harms our Dar Derune!”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez said fiercely.
“Please don’t be mad.”, the boy pleaded. “It was my fault, really. I shouldn’t have barged in, the way I did.”
“TELL US!”, they all chorused.
Dar Derune signed, took a step back, and stared at his brother and sisters, and spoke..
..in a tiny voice..
The people of Serenity Home work hard and diligently as war approaches. Though winter has settled severe, frigid, and deep, somewhat harsher than usual, the lands around the town live a milder cold. In groups and individuals, the peoples of the town work day and night.
The people of Serenity Home must know her allies, though, and respect them..
The tall, slim figure walked with quiet, serene dignity and very much ignored the people staring and ogling at her, for she was a creature of long, slender arms and legs in elegant dress skirts that reached down to her high pumps and swept behind her. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, nor did she think they were beneath her. She merely chose not to partake, or blush, for she knew precisely what she was, and how striking a figure she posed. And she chose to be quiet, and quietly, dignified about it, rather than flaunt her beauty; a beauty that comprised of rather alluring soft-eyes with flowing, silky black hair, and long, not-too-overtly curving figure, rather appealing breasts, and long, smooth, beautiful horns..
Of all the possible ways she could have gone, she had opted for ‘demure’..
“Yes”, she had thought. “Demure and dignified feels ‘right’ for me.”
Among all her kind, even Perigren Ostlanna Temez had bowed to her cool, silent, and serene aura, for where Temez had been beautiful and ravishing in a quite exhilarating way, she had been.. well.. cool, silent, and serene!
Or demure and dignified, as she herself preferred to correctly and accurately define herself.
Hence, she walked through the overcrowded town, and ignored the stares, even though it was the first time she had come out of the town’s temple since their arrival.. One would have expected anyone else to have looked around and perhaps gone sight seeing after having been stuck in a temple for weeks on end, but no. She had come out of the temple and as if on a mission, she had started for a very specific place in the town with slow, measured steps, as her high pumps click-clacked to her steady pace..
Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart opened the door of the sheriff’s office upon hearing the polite knock.
One would also think some underling or guard would have reached for the door. But the sheriff did not have any ‘underlings’ and would likely have scoffed at anyone who would ask him why he didn’t. As for the guards, they were either at their appointed posts, out patrolling, or at lunch —a timing picked with care, and precise deliberation on the alluring young woman’s part.
“Good day, Lady Constance.”, the sheriff said politely and stepped aside for the alluring young women to enter. “Please. Take a seat, if you will.”
“You know my name.”, the young woman, Constance, said, not taken aback, precisely, but pleasantly surprised.. and pleased.. as she came in and sat in the rather blocky chair right across the small table where the sheriff himself took his seat.
“The young Senior Temple Guardian Thomas had introduced you and your kin, upon your arrival.”, politely reminded Sheriff Standorin. “I remember all your names.”
“Ah. I see.”, Constance said, with the slightest disappointment, though the fact that said introduction had been very brief and that there had been over a hundred of her kind there at the time, did not escape the alluring young woman.
“How may I be of assistance? I hope your stay here will be as comfortable as possible, though I must admit, Serenity Home Temple was never build to guest such a crowd over an extended period of time. If there is anything I could do, however, please feel free to inform us. I shall pass them up to the mayor.”
“Thank you for your sincere concern, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. I shall convey this to my brothers and sisters, though I suspect their first and greatest demand will be..”, she said with a barely discernable, resigned blush and finished. “.. candy.”
“Ma’am?”, Standorin asked, a bit baffled.
“We.. never lived a childhood, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. And now, my kin are like children when it comes to games and food. They refuse to eat their broccoli but want only candy. Something that was never given to us in Hell.”, replied Constance, looking very slightly embarrassed.
“I see.”, said the sheriff, with a professionally straight face, and not because he was trying to avoid a snort, but because he was being professional. Sheriff Standorin never laughed at people who came to his office. Period.
“But this is not the reason why I have come, as busy as you are, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. I have been assigned to you by Perigren Ostlanna Temez, the leader of the Escape, as a liaison between your office and my kin, to better know our Mortal neighbors and to help assist them in any way possible. In the light of the coming war, I believe a certain acquaintance might be in order. Getting to know one another would surely help better coordinate strategies, both in theory and application, and certainly help to get to know and understand one another. Capabilities and capacities unknown, after all, are quite useless, if they are unknown to our Mortal neighbors, wouldn’t you agree?”, she said in her demure and serene voice.
Sheriff Standorin frowned just a bit.
“Such coordination would indeed be beneficial.”, he agreed carefully.
“Very well. I shall arrive here at dawns, henceforth, and leave one hour before midnights to join my brothers and sisters for our daily prayers.”
The sheriff’s frown deepened.
“I would gladly guest you here. However, we do not really have the appropriate facilities to entertain a lady such as yourself.”, he said.
“I shall not be here for entertainment, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. I shall be here to liaison and to observe. And should my advice be inquired, to offer, in the best of my capacity.”, replied Constance.
Standorin sought, very hard, to find a polite way to reject, or at the very least, to dissuade the alluring young women, but he just couldn’t come up with anything plausible.
“Do not despair, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. I shall not distract your men. We, all of us, have taken a blood oath upon our lives; to fight and to bleed, and should it be necessary, to die to attain our Ascension. Tried though I have, I just can’t seem to find another practical way to know our Mortal neighbors. If it will make you feel slightly at ease, if at all, what I see, hear, and learn shall go only to Perigren Ostlanna Temez. It is she, who will decide what to relay to the rest of my kin, as to what is important and relevant, and what they must know about you and yours and what they are protecting, Also, methinks, for the people of this town to attain a certain familiarity to seeing our kind to defuse any future misunderstandings, particularly under the stress of war, when it arrives. We shall keep our numbers a secret, however, for obvious reasons. Only Serenity Home Temple Guardians, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel, your mayor, Arthandos Yuleman, and you, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, shall know this.”, she explained calmly.
Standorin fumed a bit.
“Oh. I was also told to give you this.”, she said and produced a rather heavy pouch and placed it on the sheriff’s desk.
The pouch clinked.
The sheriff looked down at the pouch but did not touch it.
“What is this?”, he asked.
“A debt paid in full.”, Constance replied.
Standorin cocked an eyebrow.
“Some months ago, you chastised one of my kin, a Merisoul Xyrotwu, in this town. I was told the incident happened during a celebration but she was unable to settle her debt. She asked me if I would be kind enough to cover for her, thus I have..”, she said with a very small, demure smile.
Unbeknownst to the sheriff, and as small and brief as it had been, this was, in fact, the first smile Constance had displayed in a very, very long time.
“I.. see..”, the sheriff said, then pulled a thick notepad out of his shirt, flipped through its pages, found the one he was looking for, then wrote; PAID IN FULL.
He then pulled open the drawer of his desk and took out an old, brass stamp, and punched it twice on the page, ripped the bottom half, and placed it next to the heavy pouch.
“The receipt.”, he said shortly.
Constance stared at the torn piece of paper, then looked up at the sheriff a bit confused.
“What shall I do with it?”, she asked.
“Keep it.”, he said, still silently fuming.
“Yes. But what shall do with it?”, the alluring young woman repeated.
“It is the thing that proves Miss Merisoul’s debt has been paid in full, should anyone demand to know.”, the sheriff explained.
Constance stared at the big man, very much confounded, now.
“Word is not enough, among Mortals?”
“Sometimes it is. But words are not always definitive nor may they always be binding among mortals. And words unknown to others can not bind, particularly where laws are concerned. Laws, Lady Constance, deal with what is substantial. A receipt, such as this one, can be shown to any law enforcement officer who is unaware of your word, and be accepted.”, Standorin replied, a tad curtly.
“I see.”, Constance said. “Perhaps your laws are a good place for me, as a liaison, to start. Is there more of such laws and if so, where may I learn them?”
To give the sheriff credit, he did not sigh nor fume anymore. Slowly, he moved his chair back, got up and walked over to one of the many shelves, and pulled out a heavy, worn, and battered book that also had some long-dried and faded bloodstains on its spine. Apparently, one town sheriff in the past had made good, alternate use of the thick, heavy book by means of applying the law in a very literal sense.
Again, he did not give the book, but placed it on the table, next to the pouch, and the receipt.
“This book contains the King’s Laws pertaining only to my office; the Criminal Law. You may find similar books that deal with commerce and judicial matters in both the temple library or the town’s public library. For laws that are specific to Serenity Home, you may find in the mayor’s office.”, he explained.
Constance’s brows frowned very slightly.
“Very well.”, she said. “I shall study this book, and further study the other books that deal with your laws. After all, I may not liaison what I do not know.”
Gracefully, she rose from her chair and bent, very slightly, and without any implications or flaunting, reached down and took the small receipt and the heavy book, and started towards the door.
Standorin followed her and opened the door for her.
Constance paused at the door, just for a moment, and very slightly turned to the large man.
Standorin also paused.
“I can sense your distraught feelings, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Have I perhaps done you wrong that I am not aware of?”
The sheriff stared at the very alluring young woman for a long moment as if trying to read her, or perhaps comprehend her. To give him further credit, never had he stared at the beautiful woman’s long, even horns, nor had he.. checked her out. With professional diligence, he had looked at her face, and only at her face..
“I apologize if I have given you any offense, Lady Constance Alure Smithen. It was never my intention. I am the sheriff of this town and for quite many years. Unlike the temple, this office rarely deals with the good in men. I might go as far as saying, I have seen every kind of foolish things mankind has had to offer, and rarely do people willingly come here, to my office, without some sort of private agendas. I feel a certain compulsion to remind you, and yours, that in this office, I don’t play games..”, he said, though not harshly.
Constance calmly looked at the sheriff.
“..and I do not like being ambushed.”, he finished.
Whatever crossed the alluring young woman’s head, she never showed it.
With her usual calm, cool, and dignified serenity, she gave the sheriff a very brief nod.
“I see you are a man of integrity, burned and scarred. I apologize if I have given you the impression of deception or possible subterfuge. Much like your kind have common traits, so do we. But much like your kind are also individually unique, so are we. As for me, I am precisely how I seem and have little use for deceptions, less so for lies. A mind cluttered with lies is a distracted mind.”
She paused for a brief moment, perhaps unsure whether to say more or not. She must have decided to go for the former because a decisive frown appeared on her beautiful face.
“About the ambush, it was done with deliberation on my part, but not with ill intent. I had to see if you truly were as intelligent as I surmised you were. Some of my kind told me to just reveal my.. certain aspects.. as men are often fooled and enthralled by them. I argued against it because I thought it to be too demeaning on your part.. and mine. I am the elected liaison, yes. But I would rather there be some mutual respect, than be seen as a mere, succubi half-born, for that is precisely why we were made, and also the precise reason why we escaped and what we left behind. I shall take my leave, now, and study the laws of Mortal crimes and the measures taken to prevent them and come morning, I shall be here to liaison.”
With that, she left, click-clacking calmly and demurely through the crowd of staring and ogling townsmen.
✱ ✱ ✱
Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart stared after the tall, beautifully alluring woman as she swayed, gracefully, through the crowd like she had an invisible bubble around her. Where she went, people parted!
He shut the door with deliberate calmness.. then blew from his nose.
“Interesting.”, said a growling voice, and Aager Fogstep came down the stairs leading up to the roof of the sheriff’s office.
Standorin didn’t say anything for a full minute. Then he fumed again and growled in his own deep, rumbling voice.
“You would think so..”
Aager snorted. A something he would never have done before.. Inshala!
“She wants something.”, he said.
“Yes. I have been at this job long enough to recognize that.”, Standorin said.
“So she’s the new liaison, then?”, Aager stated, more than asked.
“A liaison is a good thing. Inshala performs a similar role among the druids of both Ritual Forest and among what remains of High Woods. They argued who would lead until they heard we’d arrived. Or rather, until they heard she’d arrived. They flocked around her, causing her to shy and causing me to very nearly killing them.. The idiots!”, Aager continued. “I suppose she will also be a liaison between us and the ogres, should they accept our offer to join us..”
“..As opposed to taking this opportunity for some long awaited payback!”, the sheriff finished.
“Well. We certainly didn’t treat them with courtesy. Not that they always behaved themselves. Though I must admit, the way my Inshala speaks about their chieftain, or Mother Ganiste, as she calls her, I would think she is exceptionally intelligent and..”, Aager said.
Then saw the young man in his black leathers was actually serious.
“Her words, sir. Not mine. Though I have yet to see her be mistaken when she looks into the souls of people.”, without any implications.
“Interesting.”, Standorin mused, giving the young man a side-long glance. “I wonder what she saw in you?”
“Never asked.”, Aager said simply.
The sheriff turned and stared at him, both eyebrows cocked!
“I was afraid, I might not like what she had to say about me.”, admitted Aager.
“No.”, said Standorin said sternly. “I think you were afraid you might like, what she would say about you.”
“Or that.”, Aager shrugged again. “I shall be at her side and keep her safe.. and happy.. for as long as she’ll have me. I am content with that.”
“You seem more than content, Master Aager. And from the way she appears now, as opposed to what she was, some months ago, I’d say she is more than content as well.”, Standorin said with light amusement. Then he paused for a short moment, then asked. “Perhaps she is expecting?”
“Great Heavens, man, a child!”, the sheriff said with an exasperated tone.
Aager did not reply for a long while.
When he did, his voice was muted.
“We.. haven’t gone there yet..”
Standorin just stared at him.
“We just.. cuddle.. I mean, she curls into this little ball when she sleeps and asks me to hug her, so I do. She wakes up with the best and happiest face I have ever seen, so I keep on doing that and likely keep on doing that because that happy face is worth the world to me. It’s a face to live, to fight, and to die for..”, Aager explained quietly.
“My man. You have missed your calling. You should have been a poet!”, Standorin said seriously.
“But.. why have you not explained.. things to her? She deserves to know the truth, man.”, the sheriff said with a somewhat fuming tone.
“What she deserves, is more than me, sir. Willy-nilly, she chose me. At the moment, she wakes up very happy. At the moment, that happy face fills me with joy I have seen in no other, and certainly never in my life. I feel drunk every morning! When she figures she wants more, I shall submit to her wishes, as I have before.”, the young man in dark leathers replied gruffly.
“You are killing me, young man!”, he said, totally exasperated now.
“Well. I would say that’s a good way to go, wouldn’t you agree?”, Aager grinned at him.
The sheriff sighed again, then returned back to the matter at hand.
“We have got to find a way to keep her out of our hair.”, he said with a scowl.
“Why? If you don’t mind me asking.”, Aager said looking at the sheriff.
“Master Aager.”, the sheriff said suddenly fuming again. “Perhaps you have lost all your senses, on account of your merry disposition..”
“..But did you see her? Honestly see her?”
“Yes. I did, sir. More so than you, I believe, from my inevitable vantage point!”, Aager replied with a straight face.
“Just exactly what do you think will happen when she comes in here? We don’t really have a shortage of young bachelors, you know, and seeing as how busy as we are, we don’t need distractions, either!”, the sheriff blazed.
“I doubt Constance has that sort of entertainment in mind, sir.”, Aager mused quietly. “She seemed much like an alpha lioness who would ignore the unproven cubs. Not when there’s an alpha lion in the den!”
Standorin gave him a very sour look.
“That would be Lady Constance, if you will, please, and I don’t need that sort of distraction either, young man!”, he said, gritting his teeth. “Not now. Not ever.”
“No sir. I am afraid it’s just Constance. ‘Lady’ means absolutely nothing for her or her kind. Not until you sit down and carefully explain it to them. As a matter of fact, they might even take it as an insult for denying them of who they are or refusing them their right to exist as they are by quantifying them into something acceptable in your mind, rather than theirs, no matter how polite you thing you are.. Also, ‘never’ and ‘ever’ are a long time in Mortal time, sheriff, but mean very little to them. This I learned the hard way, and it almost broke me. I wouldn’t advise you the same kind of landing, sir. It hurts!”, replied Aager, and a bare tint of something wintery appeared in his voice.
Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart stared at Aager for the young man had just confirmed something he had suspected for some time.. Ever since he had returned from the Ruins of Themalsar. More distinct with the appearance of the little girl, Inshala. But there was something else going on here.
True, the young lady had a way with people, and apparently, more so with Master Aager, here, as she had not quite attached herself to him, so much as given herself, truly, unequivocally, and selflessly to the young man, and in her unique, incomprehensible way. And she had done so not by bewitching, nor enthralling, but.. blooming? Sheriff Standorin couldn’t quite understand. Suffice to say, the chance in the young man was.. more!
As to what that ‘more’ was, or what it entailed, he didn’t know. But there it was..
“What do you advise then? Let her just flaunt herself here?”, Standorin asked steadily.
“I do not think she’s got ‘flaunting’ in mind, sir. She wants something, flaunting just isn’t it. One thing she said in particular, caught my attention, though.”
“The thing she said about all her kind having common traits, but also being individually unique..”, Aager said thoughtfully.
Aager stared at the sheriff for a moment before speaking.
“She wasn’t just quoting a cliché when she said that, sir. You were the sole recipient of the part about being individually unique.. while telling us something about her kind. I strongly believe, in her own way, she was complimenting you, sir..”
Standorin breathed from his nose.
“Just what I needed.”, he growled. “Being the subject of some young girl with an infatuation! Just which part of my behavior did she think was ‘nice’?”
“You are missing the higher point here, sir.”, Aager said with a slightly amused tone.
“Do tell, Master Aager. Seeing as how much you are enjoying this!”, the sheriff scowled.
The scowl bounced right off the young man like dry peas off a wall.
“I believe she was indeed the perfect choice among her kind to serve as a liaison, yes. And is likely very patient, observant, and intelligent. But she came here at a time where she would most likely have found you alone. Coincidence? Perhaps? But no one comes here willingly, to begin with, and certainly not during lunch hours as they will be told to go and come back during hours.. politely.. You thought she ambushed you on a political matter. True, that certainly was an ambush, but it wasn’t her ambush. I suspect that was Perigren’s idea. Constance, on the other hand, could have come here at any other time, but she chose to do it when you’d be alone, because everyone else tends to go home or to the inn for lunch, leaving you to guard your own office! Had I and Inshala been a regular couple with regular hours, not even I would have been here.”
Standorin thought about what the young man had just said for a few minutes before nodding in acquiescence.
“I felt something similar.. long ago..”, he said quietly. “When I was a young and foolish boy.”
He looked at Aager and pointedly said, “I would rather what I tell you stayed with you.”
Aager didn’t dawdle.
He simply nodded.
“Had a spat with my father. He wanted me to become something I didn’t want, so I ran. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to be an adventurer. So I became exactly that; a young and foolish boy with no destiny, only young and foolish daydreams. I did a lot of jobs during that time. Caravan guarding mostly, and even bounty hunting. A job not as fun and exciting as those hotheads in Palantine make it sound. Apprehended many felons and fugitives. Most came quietly. When ambushed or disarmed. Some didn’t though. The level of stupidity in men is truly astonishing —something I learned early in that job. In the end, I found out that I was fine with apprehending, not so much with being forced to kill an idiot.. Then, one day, some of my co-hunters warned me about some people who were looking for me, and that they didn’t seem to have good intentions. Suffice to say, I ran. Not really something I am proud of, really, but as I said, I was young and foolish back then. But my pursuers just wouldn’t give up! I don’t really know for how long I ran, really. I believe it was closer to four months. I must have been through every hill or forest from the north of Ritual Forest, all the way down to the south of Palantine City. I was so bloody scared because I was always just barely keeping a day or two ahead of them. It was like they enjoyed the chase more than to actually wanting to catch me. Finally, I decided to confront them and die on my own terms. So that final day, I carefully traveled one way, then doubled back and traveled in another, in the hopes of splitting their numbers. I remember, how proud I was of that plan. More so because the silly plan had actually worked! So I ambushed one. Again, not something I am proud of. We fought, and that day I learned the value of starting at a young age. After nearly two hours of swinging blades at one another, I finally downed him. Disarmed him, to be more precise. As much as I hated these people, I hated killing more. Yet, there he was, on the ground, weaponless, and just grinning at me. And let me tell you, he was one of the ugliest man I had ever seen and that grin of his.. was just evil! Then I heard a bow twang and an arrow very nearly caught me on the hip. And for your information, being shot in the arse is as degrading as it sounds. I was so disappointed because the ugly man had played me all along. He’d just taken his time until his partner had arrived and I’d fell for it. Then, to my greatest surprise, I heard a woman’s voice. ‘Had your fun, did you Moorat? Grow up, already!’ —her exact words. Turns out, they were the Senior Rangers of Serenity Home and had come looking for me to inform me that my father had passed away some six or eight months ago and that he had paid the rangers to find me in the hopes that I might come back home.. Ironic, isn’t it? Yes. One of those rangers was Moorat himself, Bremorel Songsteel’s ranger master and the other was no other than his elder sister, Limnia Karya.. my Limnia Karya; Udoorin’s mother and the most beautiful, cool-headed, luminous woman I had ever met..”
Standorin didn’t say anything else for a long time, again.
Then he sighed.
“The feeling I spoke of. The one I said I felt only once before.. It was something I felt during those four months.. the dire sense of being hunted!”
✱ ✱ ✱
How did the esteemed sheriff take the news?”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez asked when Constance Alure Smithen walked in, with her cool, serene pace..
..into one of the dormitory rooms in the Serenity Home Temple.
“I told you he was a capable man. Smart and scarred. Knew it the moment I saw him, dear Temez. He saw right through your ambush and did not appreciate it. But he agreed to it, I believe, though he will want to resist it for some time. Deep down, he knows this liaison job is a good offer, if not a good idea, particularly in the long run. It was the ambush part that he found quite distasteful. We should have asked the Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood to have proposed the idea.”, Constance said calmly.
“No, dear Constance. that young man has done more than enough for us by providing a secure sanction, as it is and has many, many Mortals to look after, not to mention, he has to care, show affection, and spare time for his own woman. We must pick up and carry our own weight now, hence the ambush was inevitable. We couldn’t have opened it to a debate. He is a sturdy, reliable man who also sees us as a security risk, however, and possibility a potential threat. We do not need him to like us. But we do need him to respect us. If he does, so will the town and the elves, because they respect him and do not question his honor. When the war starts, that is when we must not be a distraction to the Mortals. Nor should they mistake us for foe and fire upon us. That would end quite horribly.. for them, and for us. And we need to find homes. And real jobs. We gave an oath and that oath is binding.”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez said quietly.
“You already have a home, dear girl. Why don’t you take your leave and go to your boy?”, asked Constance kindly.
Temez didn’t reply immediately.
When she did, her beautiful face was flushed with self-loathing and shame.
“I.. must earn my place in this Mortal world. And I must make sure my brothers and sisters are safe. That is what my oath entailed. That is the promise I gave to my sister and my BFF, Arezme Ara Serraphyn, and I will keep to my promise.”, she said, her words seething. “The Mortals must acknowledge us and include us in their fight. We must be part of their survival. That is how we will earn our place among them.”
“I do not question your reasons, dear. This path we walk will end with the loss of many of our kin.”, Constance reminded her.
“We are already dead, Constance. All of us are. That was decided before we were conceived. Now, some of us have the chance to die of old age and pass our heritage, without the shame, to our children, should we have them..”, Temez replied, still burning. “I.. wish to return to my boy so much, it is killing me alive, Constance. What I did to him.. was evil.. I must cleanse myself of this sin.. I must..”
“Yes, dear. All of us must. Why don’t you go down to the crypts and pray for Darling Demos, a bit? Praying always seems to help and it is nice and quiet there. Of all the half-borns, you can not break, dear. Not now, not ever.”, Constance said, as she bent down and embraced her sister-kin and whispered. “They all are playing like children now, and like children, they only want candy. Should you break, all that is gone, and we are left as broken demon-borns, again.”
The door to their dormitory opened and an extraordinarily handsome young man, a half-born, with pale hair and impressive, curving horns stepped in and spoke with a cool, rusty voice.
“Hey, Temez. Constance. How did it go at the esteemed sheriff’s office? Did we time it right for you?”, he asked with a brilliant grin.
Constance gave him one of her rare smiles —a very small one.
“You did excellent work Hal Mali Volent. Your ability to guestimate time was excelling, as always. No one was there.”, replied Constance.
“No. She was observed by another.”, said a small, somewhat vague voice from behind Hal Mali Volent, and a boy that seemed no more than six or eight, dragging what appeared to be a stuffed imp, walked into the dormitory.
“Dar Derune, sweetheart? What are you doing here?”, asked Temez leaving the embrace of Constance to kneel down before the boy, and gave her own hug to him. “Where’s Berete Hamna Vir?”
“Here..”, sighed a depressed voice followed by a girl with sharp features; sharp red lips, high cheekbones, a bold nose, a sharp, pointy chin, sharp amber-like eyes, and even sharper horns and a slim, curling tail. “..I told him to wait while I prepared some food Mortals call sam-wishes! Derune, love, you mustn’t wander off like that. We agreed on this.”
“Yes. We agreed and I apologize, Hamna Vir. But they had to know. The Winter Knight was there, up on the roof. He saw our serene Constance, and came down the roof and warned the esteemed sheriff. Then they talked about you, Constance. They still are and the Winter Knight is telling the esteemed sheriff about your private ambush, as we speak.”, the boy said with a similar vague tone.
A hush settled in the room as several whispers passed back and forth.
“The Winter Knight.”
“The Winter Queen’s hatchet man!”
“Will he interfere?”, asked Constance with consternation.
“Unknown.”, the boy replied quietly, as though he had been caught in the act by his tutor, and was admitting his to misdemeanors.. “But doubtful. We have done nothing to rile Her and both of our goals coincide at the moment. She might send Her knight against some of our kind, or She might not. The Queen of Air and Darkness does not like some of us for our unique skills.”
“Are you among those, she does not like?”, hissed the sharp girl, Hamna Vir.
“Yes.”, the boy replied vaguely.
Hanma Vir’s sharp features turned shaper and her hiss became vicious.
“If the Queen of Air and Darkness sends Her hatchet man on my Derune, I will summons demons, right here, right now, and right in the middle of this town. They will rampage wild and vile and slaughter the lot of them!”
“Vir. Please.”, said the handsome young man, Hal Mali. “We gave our oaths to the Senior Temple Guardian, Thomas Dimwoon. We may not break that oath.”
“We have the right to defend ourselves and our loved ones. Our oath does not take that right away from us!”, hissed Haman Vir, again.
“Chill, girl!”, they heard a voice, and yet another half-born quietly walked in, this one, a particularly bewitching girl with glowing red hair, mesmerizing eyes, pretty little horns and distinctly curving figure wearing expressly fashionable.. almost see-throughs and a credit to her name; Cee Lingerith Demelze!
“Ow, Constance is back! Nice..”, said the girl brightly. “Did you get you, your esteemed sheriff, yet? That was quick. Way to go, girl!
“No, Demelze.”, she said with a resigned voice. “I just got the job and will start tomorrow.”
“Did you show him your breasts? You have lovely breasts!”, Demelze said with a mischievous grin.
“Things don’t work like that here in the Mortal world.”, Constance tried to explain.
“I think it does. There are a lot of children in this temple that Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood looks after. I have been staring out the windows of the temple and I see many more children there. Tells me these Mortals do appreciate pretty breasts.. among other things..”, Demelze objected, smirking all the while.
Constance sighed again.
“Trying to explain things to you is like trying to teach an imp to jump hoops; pointless, and equally hazardous.”
“That’s vile, Constance. Take that back, right now!”
“You are a bit hyped today, Demelze.”, Temez said. “Would you like to come with me down to the crypts? It’s nice and serene down there. Should help cool your bosom. It does mine. We need to think about how we want to find the lost Orken army that the esteemed sheriff asked us to find. I believe I have an idea, but I will need your abilities.”
“Oww.. do I finally get to burn something?”, Demelze said happily.
“Not quite. Hal Mali, dear. I will need your expertise also.”, the leader of the Escape asked the handsome young half-born.
“Of course, Temez. Anything to help.”, replied Hal Mali.
Perigren Ostlanna Temez turned to the sharp girl, Hamna Vir, and the little boy. “You mustn’t look and listen to private conversations, dear. As much as I appreciate the help and the information, we do not want to raise the ire of the Queens. If the Winter Knight is here, there must be a Summer Knight too, now. Or will be soon. Alright, love?”
“Alright, Temez. But only because you asked nicely.”, replied the boy softly.
“I always ask you nicely, Derune.”, smiled Temez.
“You ask everyone nicely, Temez. But when you ask me nicely, that nice becomes my nice. I like to think my nice is a special nice.”, said the boy, Derune, and a shy smile appeared on his vague face.
“Your nice is always special, darling.”, Temez replied with blurry eyes.
Everyone stared down at the broken boy.
Perigren Ostlanna Temez, Constance Alure Smithen, and Cee Lingerith Demelze with tear-stricken faces.
Hal Mali Volent’s lips were tightly pressed together.
Berete Hamna Vir’s sharp features melted, and a lost expression appeared on her face. She stared at the boy with the kind of love only an elder sister could show to her little baby brother, though they shared no blood. But deep inside her eyes, demons, live and hungry, appeared.
Too bad the Erinyes, Auntie Irine, their defacto maker, was dead because, at that very moment, there was enough emotional rage to have killed her trice over for the things she had done to the little half-born boy, Dar Derune..
✱ ✱ ✱
INCOMING!”, one of the younger guards yelled gleefully as they all lined up in the small courtyard behind the sheriff’s office..
“..and she is one, buxom, chick!—”
“—Do show us exactly how educated and civilized you are, by referring to a young lady as you have, Guard Anderson..”, rumbled Sheriff Standorin as he too, stepped into the courtyard. “I am sure it will make us all look high and smart in front of one of our deadliest allies!”
The young guard, Anderson, shut up.. abruptly.
“Gentleman.. and ladies.. Today we are going to be meeting with one of the half-borns, assigned here as a liaison between our department and their people. Must I remind you that as ‘buxom’ as she may appear, kindly put by young Anderson, here, she is not here for entertainment, and seeing her as such will end in one of three ways; you making a further fool of yourself, running laps around the town until dusk, and/or your demise. Do I make myself clear? And do wipe that grin off your face, Mr. Harian. Must I also remind you all that there’s a war coming our way and that there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ anymore? Elves, humans, dwarves, gnomes, half-borns, townsmen, or refugees.. are all of ‘us’, and the only ‘them’ is the true enemy coming our way. Our job is to sustain, coordinate and show said people exactly that.”
“Admirably put.”, said a cool, calm, and serene female voice, and Constance Alure Smithen entered the small courtyard with her tall, barely swaying walk. She was wearing another long dress skirt today, though it was closed at the throat, less revealing at the bosom, and did not sweep behind her. It did have a long cut on either side of her skirts, though her long legs were hidden under layers of filmy, semi-transparent fabric. And she held a three-yard-long polearm ending in two, fork-like blades, one slightly longer than the other; a pike!
Sheriff Standorin mused at the beautiful young woman and her pike, then at his guards.
“Lady Constance Alure Smithen.”, he said in a declarative and somewhat stiff tone. “Our liaison between her people and the Sheriff’s Office. She is here to observe and if need be, advise us in varying matters to the best of her capacity.”
“Thank you, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, for your warm welcome.”, Constance said in her demure voice and nodded at the secretary fuming sheriff then at the town’s guardsmen and women, sending a slight ripple down her long, black, silky hair.
“Perhaps the liaison can demonstrate her skills in her pike!”, came a voice from the guards; the young Mr. Anderson!
To give Sheriff Standorin credit, he did not scowl, nor did his eyes blaze at the misbehavior of his guardsman.
“By all means, let’s.”, he said cooly. “Make room for Mr. Anderson, here, and our liaison, Lady Constance.”
Guard Anderson stepped out of the line as the rest of the guardsmen and women spread in a wide circle.
Constance stared at the scene with a very slight frown and a confused expression on her face.
“Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart?”, she inquired politely.
“A challenge has been offered, Lady Constance. You against Mr. Anderson, here.”, he said in his very neutral voice.
“A fight? Is this perhaps part of being a liaison? If so, I was not made aware of it.”, she said, and her frown deepened just a fraction more and the cool, calm look she gave the sheriff was of.. disappointment, perhaps?
“It is not. But I suspect they want to see what you are capable of. Had you come here unarmed, such a challenge would not have been offered. But willy-nilly you did come here and with a deadly weapon. Town guards do not openly carry such weapons, Lady Constance. The ones we do carry are to help us subdue and apprehend felons. The only reason we all are carrying swords at the moment is due to the upcoming war.”, Standorin explained, again in his neutral voice.
“I.. see..”, Constance said cooly. “An appt explanation saying I brought this upon myself.”
The sheriff did not reply and the half-born did not wait for one. With the same cool, serene demeanor, she stepped into the circle and took her place before the young guard, Anderson.
“I have studied your customs carefully, ere I came.”, she said in her calm voice as she carefully sized down the young man holding a thick club in his hand. “Shouldn’t there be some betting afore we begin?”
An awkward silence settled in the courtyard.
“Can we?”, asked one of the sturdy women.
Standorin’s face went red.
“By all means do. Miss Daniella!”, Constance replied. “But a pike versus a stick, methinks, would make a poor bid.”
And with an incredible swing of her pike, she lopped the thick club Guard Anderson was holding, right off the middle!
A general gasp rippled through the guardsmen and women.
And bets started passing hands!
“As I said. A pike versus a stick is not a challenge. Do draw your sword, young bantam. I believe you wanted to see a ‘buxom chick’, ere I came. Well, this is your moment, though I find your metaphor quite inaccurate, faulty, and improper; I will not grow to become an egg-laying, flightless bird. Our kind does not lay eggs. We conceive and give birth very much like yours, though exponentially more painfully.
Guard Anderson turned to look at the sheriff as if to get his consent to draw his sword. But when he saw his stony face, he understood, he was on his own and he’d made one wisecrack too many. His face turned green as it dawned on him; he had offended a political office by offering physical violence.. and as a town’s guardsman, he was now drawing his sword at an unoffending, but highly offended, guest!
He gulped and stepped forward, his sword at the ready.
‘Die by your dignity.’, was all he had left for himself, possibly not at all in a metaphorical sense.
“Lady Constance.”, he said with a barely audible voice. “I whole-heartedly apologize for my misdemeanor. I am an Arashkan refugee and have a younger sister I must look after.”
And swung down his blade.
“Foolish enough to speak out of turn, wise enough to recognize his mistake and apologize.”, Constance replied..
..and caught the blade between the fork of her pike, twisted sharply and against grasping direction, and send the sword stabbing into the dirt, some twenty feet away! Seamlessly, and with feline agility, she spun her pike, quite unlike a martial artists quarterstaff and jabbed the butt end into Guard Anderson’s midriff, drawing a loud ‘Ohmff!’ out of the young man, hooked him high using her dashing momentum, and with a wide, graceful arc, slammed him down, flat on his back, and with a terrifying aerial screech, landed on top of him, her long, shapely legs sticking out of the sides of the slits of her skirt, and held the young man down as if kneeling for a prayer!
She wasn’t rushed, she wasn’t breathing with exertion, nor had she even broken a sweat.
She just knelt there, carefully jabbing the young man’s chin and throat with her knee, and keeping a steady pressure.
The guards stared at the scene, quite dumbfounded and thunderstruck.
“I believe the show’s over.”, Sheriff Standorin rumbled. “Everyone to their posts. Miss Daniella, do slap Mr. Anderson awake and send him in the general direction of the town’s gate. I believe he has a long day’s run waiting for him to get his stupidity out of his system.”
The guards quickly dismissed themselves and the young, sturdy woman walked up to the tall, kneeling half-born woman and the unconscious Mr. Anderson.
“My Lady. If you will?”, she asked politely.
Constance slowly rose from the unconscious young man and cooly nodded at her.
Daniella smirked at her and whispered, “Lady, I don’t know what just happened, but it was awesome!”
Constance arched her brows with mild surprise.
“You think so? I tried very hard to subdue than to kill. Your Criminal Laws in regard to your office seemed to prefer it.”, she said, carefully studying the young man.
“I apologize on behalf of Mr. Anderson. I too am an Arashkan refugee, but my family and I were able to escape by ship before the docks were overrun. Anderson, here, wasn’t so fortunate. He ended up watching his parents and his elderly grandmother getting slaughtered by the Orken. All he could do was to grab his twelve-year-old sister and run, which is why he does stupid things without thinking; he feels shame and thinks he has something to prove..”
“I understand, Miss Daniella, for shame is something I feel and know quite intimately.”, Constance said thoughtfully. “Please tell Mr. Anderson when he wakes, that I shall hold no rancor against him and that perhaps he could bring his sister to the town’s temple. My kin and I are stationed there and play games, have a lot of fun, and we have candy.”
Daniella grinned wider.
“What girl could refuse such offer, Lady Constance; fun games and candy!”
Constance walked over to the sheriff, who was stiffly holding his ground, though he very well knew, he had just messed up, by proxy.
“I believe an apology is in order, Lady Constance.”, he said gruffly.
“You may save your apology, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, for I came here in peace but was offered violence. I carry a pike because it is a weapon I am trained in, and very much for the same reason your guards carry swords. Now, I believe my work as a liaison here is done for today, and already. I shall be in the temple, and down in the crypts praying for the soul of Darling Demos and shall further contemplate on the sins of foolish men.”, replied Constance cooly and breezed away.
Standorin just stood there.
Verbally slapped and stupefied.
For he hadn’t just messed up, he had dropped the ‘political ball’..
..and felt very much like his young and foolish days.
He seethed and fumed certainly, but not for a moment did he try to justify his own stupidity.
Standorin Shieldheart was like that.
Harsh but fair.
He ran up to the cool and dignified young woman and stood before her.
Constance also stopped and stared at the flustered sheriff. She did not arch her eyebrows, she did not size him, up or down, nor did she give him the silent cold stare.
Quietly, she waited for him to speak.
“I.. “, Standorin stammered. “..mishandled this whole situation because I was frustrated. I very much agree a liaison between the two people is an excellent idea. I.. just didn’t appreciate the way it was slapped into my face. My reasons for my frustration may have been acceptable had I handled this a bit more maturely.”
“The idea of a liaison was not mine, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. I was chosen for this job for my abilities to calmly assess any given situation and help defuse unnecessary aggressions. I tried to imply this to you less than twenty hours ago. I also told you, quite clearly, that I do not do lies. Yet, you chose to punish me, specifically and individually, by putting me in a situation where I was forced to display aggression, and still, I have thus defused it to the best of my abilities, and without bloodshed; I could have countered that boy and cut him forty-eight different ways, yet I chose to merely disarm and subdue him, something I would have had the flesh flogged off my back, had my old mentor seen this! I am trained to recognize the emotional nuances of Mortals, but it is possible I am missing some local customs here, hence I am tempted to ask; do you treat all your women like this, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, or is your unreasonable and quite injudicious behavior limited to allies who were not forced out of their destroyed homes, but came to help you willingly at the cost of being hunted down and killed by their former masters?”
Standorin felt sick.
“I.. am..”, he began again, less with guilt about his political blunder, but more with shame because what the young woman had said was precisely what he had done. He had tried to take out his frustration on her. “Look. I am not a man of grace. You must have noticed that. But perhaps I can offer you an apology by some means you may find acceptable. Something that may be appropriate to your station and your, individually unique, person? Everything you said was true. Except the part about how I treated women or my allies.. I.. would very much appreciate it if I was given the chance to fix my blunder.”
Constance Alure Smithen stared at the sheriff for the duration of consideration. Then, a very small smile appeared on her pretty lips.
“Pick me up at eight!”, she said.
“Umm.. What?”, Standorin stammered.
“And do wear something that isn’t armor or work-related.”, she added with another smile and walked away, leaving a totally destroyed sheriff behind..
✱ ✱ ✱
I can’t believe you!”, exclaimed the ravishing half-born, Demelze. “You went there dressed up all pretty, and ended up beating some stupid bantam? Did you at least show him your—?”, she began, awfully frustrated.
“—No.”, finished Constance. “And I shall not. Not until the time is ripe, and not until he decides to be the only one to want them. That will be the ripe time!”
“What is wrong with you, girl?”, Demelze asked, with a freaked-out tone.
“Did you, Hal Mali, and Temez work out a solution for the lost Orken army?”
“Yes and no. Don’t change the subject Constance!”, Demelze said fiercely, causing the tall, serene woman to sigh again.
“Cee Lingerith Demelze. You must understand, we are no longer Hell’s sluts. We no longer live to attain that end, because that end was never ours. That was Auntie Irine’s wish and look what that bought her; to never be more than her own Master’s favored whore and to buy her own death at the hands of her own creation; Merisoul Xyrotwu, her Mortal friends, and getting mashed under a bug. Willy-nilly, we are free now, my dear Demelze.. We have a chance to be more than the price and the role that was placed upon our existence. And more is better than less because being just that always made us less. Perhaps you believe I do not enjoy what you very much do. But you could only be so wrong. What I am, however, is not my only trait and I shouldn’t be defined solely by being the scion of an incubus; always and only seeking flesh pleasures.. Thus we were looked upon in Hell, were we not? Remember how many times those vile demons pushed their wills and their bodies against ours, and without so much as a bother? I remember you enjoying the moment in wild abandon. I also remember your face once they were done with you. I know because it was the same face I had when they were done with me, my dear. I never want to be seen as such again. Not in this Mortal world, and not ever, do I want to see your beautiful face, marred and mutilated by absolute, abhorrent, and loathsome shame. Just like I never want my sisters and brothers to witness that face etched on me ever again. Hence, I do not want the Mortals to see me, or you, as a mere flesh toy; never to ask or wonder what you or I feel, or what you or I think, but to only want, want, want, and want only what our flesh and skin has to offer. Yes, that is pleasurable. But what I want, I want from only one person now and not from two, or five, or a hundred faceless men who will never ask nor remember my name but merely use and discard me, and the knowledge that the only thing they will remember about me was how soft and succulent I was, hurts! For once, we have a chance where we shall be asked whether we hurt, as opposed to, ‘did it hurt?’ No, baby girl, I now want that one person to be uniquely mine, and I want to be uniquely his. That is who I will show and give freely what I have and so should you, because as fiery as you are, you, my dear sister-kin, are also the most passionate amongst us and I envy you for it. Do you understand this?”
A long, painful silence ensued after that.
“Yes. I understand this.”, said Demelze mutely. “But.. my flesh burns with wont. I.. need..”
“As do I. Let’s go down to the crypts and pray for Darling Demos. Praying always helps. Then I need to prepare for a date.”, said Constance kindly.
“You have a date?”, Cee Lingerith Demelze blurted.
“I have a date.”, nodded Constance calmly.
“Well, why didn’t you say this from the get-go, girl! Tell me. Tell me all about it!”, Demelze fried with delight.
“You must.”, whispered Temez sternly, down in the depts of the Serenity Town Temple’s crypts. It was cold, and there was slushy snow outside. Here, it was merely cool, calm and a certain serenity spread from a particular tomb. The one at the very end of a long line of nearly five hundred years of past Senior Temple Guardians.
It was odd.
That being ‘great’ had little to do with wars and warriors but with life and those that cared for it.
“No. I do not want to.”, Constance replied, very nearly losing her cool, serene demeanor.
“Please, Constance. We must do this for them and he is the key to the Ritual Guardian!”, Perigren frowned.
“You already know her. Even played games with her, did you not? You, her, and Ranger Lieutenant Morel Songsteel, a mere few days ago.”, Constance objected with a frown.
“Yes. I did. But that was games. We have not been formally introduced. And this is the way to get to know him and mayhap get him to know us, love us, care for us, and respect us..”, Temez replied earnestly.
Constance looked down at Temez.
“That is scheming, that is!”, she said disapprovingly.
“No, my dear. This is forming connections with the Mortals. If he likes us, it will make him that much harder to come after us, should the Queen of Air and Darkness send him upon us.”
“Should Mab sends him upon us, what he feels will mean very little, love. That is what being Mab’s hatchet man, means.”, Constance said, her frown deepening.
“True. However, he is also a Mortal and willy-nilly, he has a heart. He might not refuse or refute the call of his Mistress, but he will at least feel uneager to raise his hand against us. And being the Mortal that he is, it is possible he might use his cunning to wiggle his way out of a possible execution order!”, Temez replied even more earnestly.
“You think the cold-hearted Winter Knight will ‘like’ us and go up against his own Mistress at the expense of his own possible demise for the sake of some half-freak such as us? Temez, dear, you are holding on straws.”, Constance said to her sister-kin, but not unkindly.
“Straws are all I have, Alure. Please. Do this for us. You are The Liaison!”, Temez said with muted desperation.
She paused for a depressing moment. Then said, even more quietly.
“I wish my merry soul were here. She was always so much better at this than I ever was.”
“That is true, dear. And I will not gainsay you. But as much as we followed you to the Door because of how much we loved and respected her, we followed you.”, Constance replied as she reached down at the beautiful antler girl, Temez, and caressed her soft, tanned hair. “She was the spark. You are the flood, Perigren Ostlanna Temez. And you can not despair.”
Then she took a deep breath, making her bosom even more distinct and appealing.
“I shall do this for you. And for my kin. But I shall need a gift.”
“Yes. A gift to be given to the Winter Knight.”
“I doubt he will accept gifts from us, dear Constance.”
“The gift is to him, but not for him.”, the tall, serene girl replied.
“Ow? Oww..”, Temez said and her beautiful features lit with a happy cast. “That is cunning, that is.”
“I sort of liked it. Now, I would like to go and wash. I have a date.”
“So I heard. Well done, love.”, Temez said with brittle elation.
“Soon, dear. This war will be over soon, one way or another. Then you too can go to your boy.”, Constance said kindly and hugged her.
“I will send Hamna Vir and Dar Derune to do your hair. Hamna is the best with hair and horns, and Dar loves yours.”, Temez said with a better smile, once they parted.
“Would you?”, Constance asked a bit girlishly.
Temez smiled again and nodded.
Constance did not go immediately though. She looked, carefully, at the leader of the Escape.
“Dar Darune loves my hair. This is true. But he loves you whole, dear.”, she said softly.
“And I, he. But Dar has to grow yet. And in time, he will get over me and discover who truly loves him, and will eternally live, and mindlessly die for him.”, she said quietly.
“Yes. Hamna Vir..”
Temez nodded again.
“Come on, love. Go on and get cleaned up. And send your dress to Hal Mali so he makes sure it is clean and pressed.”
“Will do, will do.”, agreed, Constance, and left the cool, soothing darkness of the crypts under the temple.
Temez frowned with fear.
A date with the Sheriff of Serenity Home Town. This would either go very well or end quite horribly.
But Perigren Ostlanna Temez trusted Constance because.. well.. Constance Alure Smithen always lived up to her name. And she had seen how she’d looked at the esteemed sheriff when the Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood had introduced them all to him.
True. Many of the other girls had looked at the good sheriff. But they had done so as they would have checked out any strong, healthy, male specimen. Constance, however, had looked at him with another kind of wont. The kind that she could not readily definite, but was right at the tip of her tongue, and it seemed somewhat akin to her own longing. And a bit like how the young Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood and his Ranger Lieutenant Morel Songsteel looked at one another when they thought they were alone.. Which was possibly one of the reasons all the half-borns felt.. happily sedated here in this temple; the existence of a living, breathing, and ongoing love between those two —as creepy as that sounded! But that look had been closer to someone else’s look. The wonting, and happily exhilarated eyes of the little girl, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, the Ritual Guardian, had given when they had been playing that game of catch against the obsessively competitive girl, Lilly Venom and her succulent man, and when the game had ended and the little girl’s ‘hubby’ had arrived; the Winter Knight himself.
The convoluted and intermixed irony in that hurt her brain!
Perigren Ostlanna Temez sighed.
They needed that same little girl now. And her wast knowledge of herbs and plants.
And she wondered, what her merry soul, her BFF, was doing at that very moment.
Temez thought she’d give anything to have her here now so she would tell her she was doing good and right for her kin.
✱ ✱ ✱
Standorin Shieldheart had just returned to his office for some final orders and to make sure everything was as it should be and that the town was faring well and not on fire.
He noticed the notes left on his desk and bent down to skim through them.
“A note on the standard confirmation of logistics moved up the river for the Arashkan militia stationed there from the ferriers. A note from Ranger Master Davien asking me what to do about the bandits camped east of Stinking Shacks. Dammit, man, just tell those idiots, they can either join us and fight the Orken and take whatever they can loot off the enemy at the end of the war, or kill them already. We don’t have such leisurely time for some lowly bandits who milk people at a time as dire as this! Hmm.. a note from the mayor demanding to know about the quarter of a harvest of sugar canes sent to the temple on my request —what the.. I made no such request and what is the heck is Thomas going to do with all that sugar cane, anyway?”
Then it dawned on him.
“Candy!”, he fumed. “But why did he put such a request on behalf of my office? He could have asked the mayor himself.”
Then it dawned on him. Again.
“Lady Constance!”, he said fuming some more. “Why would you not ask me and do this on my behalf so arbitrarily?”
“She didn’t. I did, sir.”, came a growling voice and Aager Fogstep came down the stairs from the roof. “By the way, the watchtower erected up on the roof is almost finished. At least that is what the carpenters and the construction crew are diligently assuring me. It should give us a good view of the town and with the use of flags, we should be able to direct the guards and the militia on the ground without needing to shout across town.”
“That’s good news. Now tell me about this order.”, said the sheriff.
“Ranger Lieutenant Morel Songsteel came in earlier with the order, sir. For reasons I can not fathom, she seemed rather pleased with herself. Perhaps she expected me to object. I said I would give the order, which sort of disappointed her, only if she told me why the order was being addressed from this office, as opposed to being sent from the temple! She scowled at me and said, the need for the sugar canes was not directly related to the temple but with the newly appointed Liaison and the allies she represents. I told her I would put in the order when the said ‘newly appointed Liaison’ came here and asked for it herself, in her official capacity, rather than sending temple lackeys!”, Aager replied with a straight face.
Sheriff Standorin snorted.
“That was not nice, Master Aager. The ranger lieutenant is a good person and has high standing with the temple.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I am not a good person and don’t really care nor need any standing with the temple. I couldn’t speak for Lady Inshala, though, who is a good person and has extremely high standing with the temple.”, Aager smirked, then added. “You look dashing, sir. Never seen you out of armor before. Is that a new shirt?”
The sheriff glared at him.
“I… am… *muffled noises*..!”
“I am sorry, sir. Didn’t quite catch that.
The sheriff glared and him some more.
“I am going out.. on a *more muffed noises*..!”
“Come again, sir?”
“Dammit, man, a date! I am going out on a date!”, the sheriff very nearly spat.
“Ahh. I see. With whom, if you don’t mind me asking.”
He was going to be seen with his date in public soon enough and the word would spread like wildfire.
“Lady Constance Alure Smithen.”
“Ow? I got the impression you didn’t want her around. My bad.”, Aager said, his eyes quite mirthful.
“I didn’t ask her out.. But I’d messed up so horribly this morning and was trying to defuse a possible political fallout and she ambushed me, again, with a date, no less! I am so out of my debt, here.”, he admitted dejectedly.
“Want a stab of advice, sir?”, Aager asked honestly.
The sheriff grunted.
“Do you find her appealing, sir?”
“How do you mean?”, Standorin frowned.
“It isn’t a very complicated question, sir. Do you find her appealing?”
“Of course I find her appealing. She is a very cool-headed, calm, and immaculate young woman, and not in a dispassionate way. She is also very smart and always thinks before she speaks. A quality I find admirable in any man, let alone any woman.”
Standorin frowned a bit more.
“She’s.. pretty..”, he admitted grudgingly.
“You are a bit stingy on words, sir.. You can’t be thus miserly when it comes to women, you know..”
“My Limnia never—”, he began.
“—was and never will be Constance, sir. And neither could Constance ever cast a shadow over Lady Limnia. You can not, however, bring the past into play in this matter. And neither should you ever compare. That’s not only unfair to the deceased but unwarranted to the living. I never knew Lady Limnia, but I have watched you many nights, here, lost and alone in thoughts over her. And I watched Udoorin as well, and what that cost him. Leave her where she is, and treasure her as she is. And if you and Constance are agreeable, treasure Constance, now. You have lived the past long enough. Perhaps it’s time you lived the moment. And maybe even the future.. You, being seen with her kind, is a good step towards a steady, peaceful and harmonious town. Consider it as a sacrifice on your part, if you must. But I doubt it will stay a sacrifice because they have taken a blood oath. She will give her all, at all times for that oath. You are a decent man, sir. You made a decent man out of a Drashan cut-throat who actually cares for the people of a town he wasn’t even born into. She is a girl who escaped from somewhere far worse. She knows ‘bad’ in a sense where we need to use words like ‘intimately’, ‘infinitely’, and ‘ultimately’. Hence, she also knows what she must avoid. Take her out to dinner, then take her on a walk around town. Should be safe enough. You made it safe enough! That way, you won’t constantly be under public scrutiny, at least. Ow, and, give her this..”, he said, just as there was a small knock on the office door.
Aager didn’t pause but was at the door before the knock had ended. He opened the door and someone the sheriff couldn’t see was whispering softly at him. The man in dark leathers nodded once at the person standing outside and a pair of very skinny arms entangled themselves around the scary man’s neck for a long, passionate moment, then she was gone.
Aager stood at the door for a moment, staring after the little girl.
‘The wonderful, Lady Inshala!’, thought Standorin, as Aager quietly closed the door and returned back to where the sheriff was standing and gave him a bouquet of very lively-looking roses!
“What’s this?”, Standorin asked with one cocked eyebrow.
“A gift from my Inshala. She brought them for you but felt too shy to enter and face you, so she gave them to me. She told me to tell you that you are supposed to give them to Constance when you went to pick her.”, Aager smirked at the sheriff.
“How did she know about it? Who else knows? Does everyone know? And where in the blazes did she even get roses in the middle of winter?”, Standorin asked confounded.
“Didn’t ask, sir. You just can’t ask some things to girls. It is their prerogative. Not ours. Suffice to say, she knows, but I doubt anyone else does, and she will not repeat it. My Inshala has never quite grasped the concept of gossip.”
“I shall be a laughing stock and a merry source of amusement for the town.”, growled Standorin darkly.
Aager Fogstep looked at the sheriff for a moment.
Then went brutal on him..
..right for the jugular!
“Would you have cared, had she been Limnia, sir?”
Standorin stiffened as red, ugly blotches appeared on his face.
“That.. was uncalled for, Master Aager.”, he snarled.
“Yes. It was.”, agreed, Aager. “But so is the fact that you think being seen with Constance will somehow degrade your standing with the town, without giving it a moment’s thought on what she might think on this matter. Considering she is the Liaison, now, and must come here, be here, and work here, day and night, making her seem as your mistress, and consequently destroying her own standing with the town, and her station as a Liaison!”
Standorin fell silent.
“She is a woman, sir. And a quality one. Treat her like one. Share the big things in your life. And share the little ones. And let her treat you like the man she thinks you are, because, sir, she was assigned as a Liaison, certainly, but she was not assigned to you in person. That is a choice she made herself. Like I said yesterday. She is the alpha lioness. And an alpha lioness will only go for the alpha lion. That is base attraction. To her delight, the person she chose just happened to be the alpha lion.”
Aager grinned at the sheriff.
“That said, I am off. Inshala and I start for Oger’s Foot in a few days and have some preparation to make. Hopefully, and soon, I will finally get to meet this Mother Ganiste she speaks so fondly of.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Good evening sheriff.”, said the Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood, from where he stood, atop the stairs and right in front of his temple.
“Good evening, Thomas.”, replied Standorin amiably, though with a slightly flustered face.
“That’s Senior Temple Guardian Thomas for you, sheriff.”, smirked a soft, feminine voice; Bremorel Songteel, from where she stood, arms crossed and leaning against the temple’s double doors.
“The robes are still on!”, Bremorel explained, still smirking.
“So, it is.”, the sheriff said slightly fuming.
“You can’t take what’s ours, sheriff.”, said Thomas solemnly. “Everyone under my roof gets to stay under my roof.”
“Yes. What he said.”, Bremorel smiled broadly.
“Eh? What?”, asked the sheriff with a confused expression on his face. “I was only going to ask for—”
“No means, no, sir.”, Thomas said. “If you want her so desperately, you are just going to have to get a writ from the mayor himself, and with the consent of at least three other council members.. Or a popular vote cast among all the council members.”
Standorin just stared at Thomas.
Bremorel snorted, but only because she was trying very hard not to laugh out loud.
“Is this some sort of a prank?”, the sheriff asked, his face flushing even more, though with anger now.
“This is the Temple of Light, sheriff. We don’t do pranks here.”, Thomas replied sternly.
For a moment, a very short and savage moment, Standorin became the young and foolish man of his youth and was just about to barge into the temple, right over Thomas, senior guardian or not!
“That was not nice, dear Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood.”, a cool, serene voice was heard and Constance came gliding out of the temple. “You knew he came for me.”
“Dammit.”, scowled Bremorel. “And we had just started having fun!”
“Ahh. Constance. You are glowing this evening.”, smiled Thomas.
“You think so?”, she asked with a surprisingly girlish voice and spun around showing off her new skirt dress.
“It is lovely, my dear, and it compliments you.”, replied the young temple guardian. “You can ask Morel for confirmation if you like. She is much better at accuracy than I am.”
“Very true, on both accounts, Constance. You look awesome, girl.”, smiled Bremorel.
Sheriff Standorin, on the other hand, had kept his silence, possibly because he was dumbstruck.
He just stood there, not quite ogling, but unavoidably staring, at the tall half-born, as the words, dignified, regal, and very lady-like, skimmed past his mind, for many young women tended to reveal their.. uhh.. attributes.. Constance had gone quite the opposite direction and done her revealing by hiding said attributes; her dress skirts were long and down to the floor, even though, from the click-clacks, she was wearing high pumps. It was a very dark maroon-colored dress and seemed to be tailored from velvet that wrapped tightly around her slender throat, her long arms, her appealing bosom, slim waist, and long, shapely legs, and was carefully and not-so-overtly embroidered with gold threads. Much like her earlier dress, there were two slits running down the skirts, though there was no gauzy fabric this time. Instead, she had worn stockings a tone or two darker than her own pale skin. Her charcoal-black hair was also running long and straight, shading her face, and down her breasts and back, revealing her small, elf-like ears, though there was a single, thread-like, very carefully braided strand of her hair, not unlike a cat ladder, climbing down the right side of her very slightly blushing face, as her very soft, very alluring eyes seemed to glow with happiness and the only cosmetics seemed like the bright red application on her lightly smiling lips.
Constance looked memorably beautiful, and she had done nothing to hide, nor cover her long, slender horns.
“Good evening Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart.”, she said politely and started down the stairs.
“Good.. evening, uhhmm, Liaison Constance..”, Standorin stammered.
“We will be leaving now, dear Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood, and thank you Ranger Lieutenant Morel Songsteel for the sugar canes, though I suspect a pandemic of sugar sick boys and girls will infest your temple soon enough.”, Constance said demurely.
“We’ll make sure they chew on the sugar canes only after they have finished their cabbages and their broccoli.”, chuckled Bremorel.
Constance gave her one of her rare, brilliant smiles.
“I shall expect you to return our girl before midnight, sheriff.”, Thomas said firmly, though the crack at the side of his mouth said otherwise as he took Bremorel by the hand and disappeared into the temple.
“Yes!”, Standorin heard Bremorel say. “The kids are out! We have a whole night free to ourselves!”
There was a moment of awkward silence as Standorin stood, not knowing what to do.
“Shall we?”, asked Constance.
“I suppose so, but I must admit I didn’t—”, began Standorin.
“You look quite dashing tonight, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart.”, said Constance.
“I.. Do you think so?”, the sheriff asked a bit flabbergasted.
“I see, so.”, replied the tall, young woman. “And where shall you take me?”
“Uhhmm..”, Standorin began again, then paused before continuing and his frown had returned. “Look. I am just going to have to ask if it is alright with you.”
“I wouldn’t know if it’s alright with me, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. You haven’t asked your question yet.”, replied the girl calmly.
“Very true.”, Standorin agreed. Then he took a deep breath. “Just what is this?”, he asked honestly.
“What is what?”
“This. What are we doing, Liaison Constance.”
“It could be one of two things, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. One is, where you take me out to a nice dinner that involves a dim setting with candle lights followed by a slow-paced stroll around the town, or the woods, where we can have a few private moments to talk about you and your responsibilities, and myself and my responsibilities and how to better improve our relation regarding each other’s department and you pay-off for your morning’s blunder. The other option is where this is not a pay-off nor is it a task and you take me out to a nice dinner that involves a dim setting with candle lights followed by a slow-paced stroll around the town, or the woods, where we can have a few private moments to talk about you and your life, and myself and my life and how to better improve a mutual relation, together.”, she replied serenely, though Standorin sensed a bare trepidation in that calm voice and he was surprised for it.
And then it all came to him.
This young and beautiful woman was exactly that; a young and beautiful woman.. going out with a total stranger in the hopes that it would turn into a nice, memorable, and perhaps even a fruitful date and that was as far as her calm went. The rest was just as unknown to her as it was to him and she was terrified of it. More so than he was, because he was a ‘Mortal’ and dating was a natural, and even expected thing among Mortals.. as opposed to her kind, who had never lived a single date in their lives nor did they quite know what it even was. True that she was here in her Liaison capacity, or rather, it had been because of that capacity they were here now, but at that very moment, she wanted to be only herself, as Constance Alure Smithen and dearly hoped he would ignore the fact that she wasn’t quite human but a succubi half-born that possessed horns, treat her gently, kindly, perhaps even affectionately, and that he be just himself as a man and as Standorin Shieldheart only..
“It..”, he began. Then paused to clear his throat, and began again. “It could be a date. But I must warn you. I haven’t been on a date for a very, very long time.”
“It is alright, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. I haven’t been on a date at all. If this will be a date, it will also be my first and I have no idea what to expect, nor what to do. I was told many things I should do, or be doing, from both my brothers and sisters and Ranger Lieutenant Morel Songsteel, though when she said I should ‘make you sweat’, I do not believe she meant in a sensual way. Apparently, there is some sort of history between the two of you. Suffice to say, I am in your tender care, sir.”, she said with hopeful serenity.
“There is no history between young Morel and me, other than me having thrown her to jail for aggravated assault some six or seven years back.”, fumed Standorin.
“Aggravated assault. I know what this is. It was in the Criminal Law book you gave me.”, Constance said.
“You.. you actually read it?”, the sheriff asked somewhat surprised.
“Of course I read it. If I am expected to know about what you do, I should come armed with knowledge, and not just a pike.”
“That is a very long, and very boring read! I am not sure if I myself read the whole thing..”, exclaimed Standorin.
“It was rather entertaining, I think. The mind of Mortal criminals is amusing. I cited some of the laws pertaining to robbery and the use of drugs to my kin —because of our fondness for candy. It caused quite a bit of hilarious outbursts. The ones pertaining to rape and assault, however, did leave us in dismay, as we found the consequent reprimands and punishments rather petit and diminutive.”
Standorin frowned a bit.
“Perhaps we can start with names, then?”, he offered.
“Names? Am I perhaps not pronouncing yours correctly? Is this perhaps the reason for your dissatisfaction with my assignment?”, she asked a bit perturbed.
“Eh? What? No!”, Standorin stammered a bit more. “What I meant was, since we agreed this could be a date, you should call me Standorin.”
“Mortals cut and dissect names right and left, a matter that leaves us perpetually dismayed, for names hold power.”, she said a bit distressed.
“Maybe. I don’t know.”, Standorin said. “But Mortals, as you like to call us, do not refer to one another by their full names at all times. You may look upon it as a personal favor if you will and call me Standorin. Or just Stan. That’s what the few friends I have, call me.”
“I.. see..”, said the young woman. “I suppose you should call me Constance. Or Alure. But I would very much appreciate it if you didn’t cut my names in half. That is.. quite disorienting for my kind.”
“Perfectly acceptable, Lady Constance. I had arranged for the dining room prepared for us in the town’s guest house. Or rather, some busy boy and his happy little wife had it prepared for me. He certainly seemed mirthful when he told me about it. And.. uhhmm.. I believe these are for you..”, Standorin said a bit flushed and handed the bouquet of roses to the young woman.
“Ow! Mortal Roses! How very exquisitely beautiful and lovely, Sheri— Standorin Shield— Standorin—”, she stammered, confused and glowing with a beautifully bright blush and paused..
..for a long, deplorable sigh.
“Thank you.. Stan..”
A long stream of refugees disembark from the damaged Arashkan ships to the shores of Serenity Home town, adding to the already unmercifully overcrowded town and the lands surrounding it. From the last ship, a pair; one handsome but tired-looking blond half-elf, the other, a boldly beautiful young woman walk down the ship’s plank and follow the last remains of what was once The Great and Glorious Arashkan, towards the town that’s offering more than it has.
This story takes place about a month or so after
The Stab In The Back
and a bit before
Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig;
“A Debt Father to Daughter Passed..”
Agent Largo: This is a bad idea. My guestimation is one of three outcomes..
Lilly Venom: That so?
Agent Largo: Yes. (a) He will suffer a traumatic shock and runoff, shouting how much he hates me. (b) He will undergo some form of angst, followed by an episode of a not so unexpected breakdown, accuse me of letting his mother get killed, and very likely result in him punching me. (c) He will outright defy me, saying I wasn’t there when he was growing up and when he needed me, and that he’s all grown up now, doesn’t need me at all, and will refuse to see or talk to me..
Lilly Venom: Angst, huh? Never thought you a man for high drama, Agent Largo. But here you are, proving me wrong.
Agent Largo: You pun me.
Lilly Venom: (shrug) I pun a lot of people, Agent Largo, and you still owe me a dinner. I hope this town has a decent inn.
Agent Largo: You came here before, Lady Lilly. You should know.
Lilly Venom: The key to being a good assassin, Agent Largo, isn’t the kill, no matter how effective or efficient you are at it.. It is knowing your target.. and their habits.. And of course, never being noticed. The Temple Guardian, Demos, never visited the inn, hence neither did I. Thinking back, good thing I never did visit the inn.
Agent Largo: Ow?
Lilly Venom: Inns are a good source for local gossip, news, and information.. and finding out who is who. Had I visited the inn, I definitely would have left this town with at least one corpse.
Agent Largo: You know someone in this town, then? On a personal level?
Lilly Venom: (slight frown) That’s none of your business, Agent Largo.
Agent Largo: You really enjoy calling me ‘Agent’, all the time, don’t you, Lady Lilly?
Lilly Venom: More than you like ‘Lady’ing me.
Agent Largo: (side glance) You are in a mood, today.
Lilly Venom: I am in a mood, every day, Agent Largo. Have you decided on what to do? About your Dexter, and about your job? At the moment, you have neither.
Agent Largo: That was a tad harsh, Lady Lilly..
Lilly Venom: I have never fallen head-over-heels for any man, Agent Largo. But I am willing to give you a shot—
Agent Largo: Coming from you, that sounds ominous. I am not sure if I should feel elated, or I should start wearing full body armor.
Lilly Venom: —And I don’t like distractions.
Agent Largo: You are quite the target-oriented girl aren’t you, Lady Lilly?
Lilly Venom: I am a Drashan girl, Agent Largo. Everyone is someone’s target there. And if you are a girl, that number rises exponentially. But I have always believed in celibacy. It removes the option of undesired attractions, and hence, unwanted distractions and complications.
Agent Largo: That’s a bit.. lonesome..
Lilly Venom: Any self-respecting Drashan marries only once, Agent Largo. That being said, there is no such thing as a ‘self-respecting Drashan’, and the only thing we truly marry is ‘death!’
Agent Largo: You make it sound like it’s a proverb.
Lilly Venom: (shrug) It is.. Have you decided what to do?
Agent Largo: I was hoping to get killed in the upcoming battle and save everyone the hassle.
Lilly Venom: No.
Agent Largo: No?
Lilly Venom: No, Agent Largo. You owe me dinner and I refuse to dine with a coward.
Agent Largo: Now, that really was harsh, Lady Lilly. And totally uncalled for.
Lilly Venom: Then go to the boy, knock on his door, or knock it down and say ‘Hi..’, sit down, and explain all your reasons for having done what you did. He might get angry, he might pout, or he might be happy. I would be happy if my mother rose from her grave and came to visit me.. though I doubt she has a grave.. Unclaimed bodies are usually just dumped into the sea with the rest of the derelict, in Drashan..
Agent Largo: That’s.. sad..
Lilly Venom: You don’t really have to act the ‘understanding type’, Agent Largo.
Agent Largo: I am not the ‘acting’ type of spy, Lady Lilly. I am the ‘orchestrating’ kind of agent. Though I see nothing to orchestrate, here. Well, actually there is.. with a lot of potential.. but I just don’t want to..
Lilly Venom: By all means, Agent Largo, do!
Agent Largo: No.
Lilly Venom: Why?
Agent Largo: You are a girl with a very special and specific set of skills, Lady Lilly. But you have honor and, diverse as it may seem, you also have integrity. I am afraid, I just don’t feel like playing with and consequently destroying either. Whatever sins I may have done, I have done for my Arashkan. I never wanted you to be part of that even before we met for the same reasons I mentioned above. The only reason I called upon you was because High Lady Angrellen left me little to no choice and I needed help.. desperately..
Lilly Venom: Do I sense ‘tender care’ in all of that?
Agent Largo: (replies with silence)
Lilly Venom: (after an extended, counter-silence, and a sigh) Neither my honor nor my integrity will save me should I ever be subjected to the law, Agent Largo.
Agent Largo: Arashkan is destroyed, Lady Lilly, therefore I am no longer the law.. And hence, I feel no obligation whatsoever to turn you in. Funny how that turned out.
Lilly Venom: (more silence) You will likely end up an outlaw too..
Agent Largo: I have been in and out of said law for longer than I can remember but never for personal gain. If for once, I end up doing that, I don’t mind doing it for you.. At all! I will do whatever job I can find, once this war is over and provided I am still alive. As for my son.. He will accept me, perhaps in time, or he will not. I did what I did, to preserve his life. He will either understand this too or not. But if you are willing to be with a fool like me, I am willing to do what it takes, Lady Lilly..
Lilly Venom: My contract with you was—
Agent Largo: —Your contract with me got voided at least twice.. back in Arashkan.. when you saved my life in the tunnel and then again after High Lady Angrellen trampled over us.. And possibly any number of other times I am not even aware of, when you watched my back on our deadly plight to get the civilians and the remaining guards out to the docks, and aboard the ships, Lady Lilly.. So when I say, you have my gratitude, I mean it at its maximum capacity. Many people who are alive now owe their lives to me. Funny how they fail to see, they actually owe it to you..
Lilly Venom: (stares ahead and does not say anything)
Agent Largo: ..We will have to take Prince Korodin in with us, though. Quite unavoidable, really. I did, after all, give my word of honor to Lady Ferrara, and the boy needs training from the best..
Lilly Venom: (snort) A wanted assassin and a former ARIS Agent..
Agent Largo: Like I said; The best..
Lilly Venom: (back to serious) Someone’s bound to notice me eventually, you know.
Agent Largo: I thought all you assassins were good with disguises.
Lilly Venom: We usually are. It’s part of our basic training program.
Agent Largo: There you have it then.. A good handlebar mustache or a chevron, along with a brett, and no one will ever recognize you.
Lilly Venom: (snort) Yes. I am sure no one will recognize me, but everyone will notice you, constantly arm in arm with a guy!
Agent Largo: So you want it to be ‘arm in arm’ and constantly, then?
Lilly Venom: (slight frown) Depends on the dinner, Agent Largo.
Agent Largo: You really have your mindset on that dinner, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: Yes. I do.
Agent Largo: Why? I don’t mind a dinner.. many dinners with you, Lady Lilly, but why indeed?
Lilly Venom: Because it will be a first, for me.
Agent Largo: (blink) You mean to tell me, you have never had dinner with anyone in your life?
Lilly Venom: Agent Largo.. Just who would dine with a wanted fugitive such as myself, let alone an unaffiliated, freelancing assassin?
Agent Largo: Apparently, me..
Lilly Venom: That is yet to be seen.. and I think we are here..
Agent Largo: I suppose we are.
Lilly Venom: There are guards at the town gates and they seem to be questioning everyone before they let them in.
Agent Largo: Let me handle the guards, if you will, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: Handle away, Agent Largo. I have no issues with a capable man. I have nothing to prove, and neither do you.
Agent Largo: I must disagree. Every man has something to prove, where a pretty girl is involved. If you can accept that, we can move forward.
Lilly Venom: I suppose I must. Since you think me ‘pretty’.. So, yes, I am willing to take that risk.
Agent Largo: (smile) Forward it is, then..
✱ ✱ ✱
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Good afternoon, sir.
Agent Largo: Good afternoon.
Serenity Home Gate Guard: What can I do for you, sir?
Agent Largo: We are Arashkan refugees, to see Dexter Summersong.
Serenity Home Gate Guard: And what business do you have with the town bard? He has a full schedule, training the platoon assigned to him.
Agent Largo: He.. he has?
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Yes, sir. Anyone with any skill sets is expected to train others for the upcoming battle. Any kind of training is of use. You can fill in this form over here, take a number and you will be assigned somewhere, or be assigned to someone..
Agent Largo: I see. I will fill in the forms, but after I see Sir Dexter..
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Very well, sir?
Agent Largo: Largo.. Largo Summersong.. And this is Lady Ferra and the young boy is my distant relative, Rodin.
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Alright, sir Largo. I shall send a runner and see if our bard, Dexter, is available. I apologize for the inconvenience, but I can not let you in until there is some sort of vouch —security protocols, you understand..
Agent Largo: Of course..
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Perhaps you can take the time to fill in your forms in the meantime, sir? It may take a while for Sir Dexter to get here..
Agent Largo: (sigh) Very well..
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: ARIS Agent? Really? You are actually going to write that?!
Agent Largo: Well, why not? For once in my life, I actually don’t have to lie about my job!
Lilly Venom: Then I guess I will just have to write ‘Assassin For Hire’, in my form, then.
Agent Largo: You.. might not want to do that, Lady Lilly.. For my sake, if not yours..
Lilly Venom: I don’t do lies, Agent Largo. Perhaps you might have noticed that.
Agent Largo: I have.. And it’s made me wonder..
Lilly Venom: A good assassin does not do lies, Agent Largo. Lies constantly require attention to keep track and that clusters the mind. And because I study my contracts very well and plan my exit strategies accordingly so I never have to lie. O.P.G.G.. Observe. Plan. Get in. Get out..
Agent Largo: You really never cease to amaze me, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: Also, it is immoral to lie!
Agent Largo: (stares at Lilly)
Lilly Venom: What? Just because I am an assassin, doesn’t mean I lack moral codes, Agent Largo. I kill because it’s my job, not because I enjoy doing it. That is what was available for me to learn to stay afloat at Drashan, so I learned it well. Had I enjoyed it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because you would have been dead and I would have been elsewhere busy cutting throats.
Agent Largo: Touché.
Lilly Venom: (shrug) It’s the truth.
Agent Largo: Write, ‘Security Advisor’, then. I am guessing you can do that very well.
Lilly Venom: I suppose..
Agent Largo: It won’t be a lie..
Lilly Venom: (sigh) It had better be a very good dinner, Agent Largo..
✱ ✱ ✱
Agent Largo: Here you go, sir. Two forms.. One for me, and one for the lady..
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Thank you, sir Largo. Sir Dexter should be here soon.. Ow.. and here he is.. Sir Dexter. These are the two who wished to see you; Sir Largo and his lady, Ferra..
D.D. Dexter: (stunned) Dad?
Agent Largo: (flustered) Uhhmm.. Hello, son..
D.D. Dexter: (still stunned) You.. You are not dead!
Agent Largo: (still flustered) I.. can explain..
Lilly Venom: (snort)
D.D. Dexter: Who are you?
Lilly Venom: I am the girl your father owes a dinner to!
D.D. Dexter: (stunned and shocked) You have a girlfriend? She is younger than I am, dad!
Agent Largo: (flustered and blushing now) I.. can explain that too..
Lilly Venom: (snort) Your father is alive and well, and you are worried about my age?
D.D. Dexter: (splutter) What the heck, dad?!
Agent Largo: (going down in flames) I…
Lilly Venom: (briskly) Your priorities are mind staggering, boy.
Agent Largo: (dead because of fighting in two fronts now) Uhmm.. Lilly..
Lilly Venom: (mildly agitated) What? After some twenty-odd years, he sees his father, ALIVE, and he is making an issue of my age? Really, now.. I thought bards were a polite bunch, if not smart!
(many footsteps approach)
Sheriff Standorin: (Udoorin’s father) (stern officious voice) Lilly Venom. You are under arrest and wanted for the murder of Lord Trimdel Kandara of Endless Watch. Please do not resist. Master Aager, please arrest this felon, if you will..
D.D. Dexter: What the..
Agent Largo: Ow crap!
Aager Fogstep: (approaches Lilly with cuffs and hisses at her with an extremely angry, tight voice ) You idiot!
Lilly Venom: (sigh) Well, bugger..
Agent Largo: (more than flustered) Sheriff Standorin—
Sheriff Standorin: (with a heavy club in one hand) And you, former Agent Largo.. You are also under arrest for aiding and abetting a known fugitive. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. I suggest you keep to your silence!
Agent Largo: Sheriff Standorin. You know who I am. You know what I do—
Sheriff Standorin: —There.. I appreciate it when criminals heed a good advice when it’s given to them and do stay silent. How about you, Venom, how would you like your reception? The same, perhaps? Or would you rather exercise your right to silence?
Lilly Venom: (shrug) No, I’m good..
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: How are you?
Agent Largo: I hurt. The good sheriff has a heavy hand with that club of his..
Lilly Venom: (heartlessly) I wouldn’t know, Agent Largo. I did not resist.
Agent Largo: (sigh) Well.. That certainly went well!
Lilly Venom: This is sort of embarrassing for me, to be honest. The first time I come to a town with no contracts nor clients, and I am detained and put to jail. Remind me again why we are here?
Agent Largo: The boy.. Where’s he?
Lilly Venom: Which one?
Agent Largo: Both, I guess?
Lilly Venom: Your Dexter was with the Sheriff the time I saw him, though he did come in to check in on you once. You were still out so he just stared at you.. and me as well, I guess, since your head was on my lap.. He was furious and was looking somewhere to lash out. I told him if he tried that in my direction, he would lose everything he thought was dear to him. I might have threatened him with evisceration and death by choking on poisonous darts as well.. We had a small chat after that, though only I spoke. Told him everything you did for him and why.. He didn’t say anything, but he listened, then he left..
Agent Largo: I should have been the one to tell him those.. Not the evisceration and death by poison darts part, obviously.. The other things..
Lilly Venom: Probably. But you were making such a lousy job out of it.. And the boy needed to know.. Hearing it from a third person is sometimes better. Gave him something to think about besides pouting, at least.. He might come around, or he might not. It’s on him now.
Agent Largo: (sighs) Thank you.. Lilly.. What about the prince?
Lilly Venom: They took him elsewhere. I suppose they will question him first for some kind of leverage.
Agent Largo: Korodin won’t tell them anything except that his name is ‘Rodin’ and that I am his distant uncle. And he will keep repeating that.. unless they hurt the boy.. And if they do that, I will get out of here and really murder someone!
Lilly Venom: (a bit surprised) You care for the boy!
Agent Largo: Well, sure.. He is my prince.
Lilly Venom: True. But you personally care for him..
Agent Largo: (sigh) Yes, Lilly.. I personally care for him. He’s young but I suspect he understands what’s going on around him a lot more than he lets on, making him quite brave. He didn’t cry once during our plight from Arashkan, nor on our way to here on the ships.. And we read The Amazing Adventures of Blom Bundlebim Hobim. Anyone who reads that book together, are bro’s for life!
Lilly Venom: (snort) Boys!
Agent Largo: Don’t pun the ‘bros bond’, Lilly. It’s a real thing!
Lilly Venom: (slight frown) I am no longer a Lady, then, Agent Largo? Why am I suddenly not a lady anymore?
Agent Largo: (sigh) We share a cell and that’s as close to any woman I have been since my wife was murdered, and that was more than two decades ago. I believe that calls for a bit of honest sincerity. I don’t think this was the dinner you had in mind but here we are, in a quiet and dim setting.. just like you wanted. We even have candlelight. I am in your hands.. and your lap, quite literally, I might add.
Lilly Venom: (stares down at the face in her lap, studying it, perhaps to finalize a decision)
We have no dinner, Agent Largo..
Agent Largo: Jail food is never really all that good, but it’s always on time. Should arrive soon enough..
Lilly Venom: Very well, Agent Largo.. Will you propose now?
Agent Largo: I was really hoping for better conditions, Lilly.. You deserve better conditions..
Lilly Venom: I think I will be receiving ‘what I deserve’ on the morrow, Agent Largo. I wouldn’t fret about it too much if I were you.
Agent Largo: You could get away, you know.. I am sure these bars can’t keep you..
Lilly Venom: Could say the same thing for you, Agent Largo, but you won’t.. Because of your son and because of the damage it might do to his reputation.. For similar reasons, I won’t either. Just.. not for a son or daughter.. (pauses for a moment, then sighs) And I gave the good sheriff my word that I wouldn’t try to escape, provided he let me stay in the same cell with you.
Agent Largo: Huh! A wasted bargain, if you ask me, though I can’t complain about my current disposition; your lap is surprisingly.. intriguing. Enough to want to know what’s on either end.
Lilly Venom: (amused) A foot on one end, and a hip on the other, Agent Largo, among other things, and you don’t have rights to any of them —at the moment. Not unless you want to embarrass yourself anymore than you already have.
Agent Largo: (snort) Fair enough. I am guessing the other reason you stayed has to do with the person you know in this town?
Lilly Venom: (silence)
Agent Largo: Very well, then.. If I will have more of your breath.. and perhaps get clubbed every once in a while knowing I shall wake up to your lap, then I would very much like to propose. Would you like to spend the rest of your life with me, Ferra Ferrea? To be my wife, my companion, my partner, possibly in crime, and my friend?
Lilly Venom: Yes. I would, Largo Summersong. The rest of my life, short as that maybe, I would like to spend it with you.. Same conditions!
Agent Largo: The name is Lauca, actually.
Lilly Venom: Lauca?
Agent Largo: Means, ‘warm’, in Elvish, though I have no idea what my mother was thinking when she gave me that name. It is supposed to relate to ‘A Warm Summer Song’.. But I have been using Largo since a bit before I joined ARIS because they sound similar and Largo was easier to pronounce. This, however, is a definitive occasion, so I thought at least you should know.
Lilly Venom: Lauca.. Sounds intriguing.. Means, warm?
Agent Largo: Please don’t make too much pun of it. Half-elves tend to get touchy when it comes to certain things.
Lilly Venom: La-yu-ka.. Law-ka.. Am I pronouncing it right?
Agent Largo: Do you want to pronounce it right?
Lilly Venom: I would, yes.
Agent Largo: Why bother?
Lilly Venom: Why bother with Ferra Ferrea?
Agent Largo: Touché.. and point taken, I suppose.
Lilly Venom: I shall call you by this name, from time to time, so we remember a warm summer song!
Agent Largo: That.. actually sounded poetic. Much better than I ever thought it would.
Lilly Venom: I think, I like it..
Agent Largo: Alright. Now we’ll need a witness or two..
Lilly Venom: I believe we have.. a witness or two..
Agent Largo: We do?
Lilly Venom: Yes, we do.. Don’t we, Aager?
Aager Fogstep: (sighs and comes out of the shadows) You really are an idiot, Lilly.. What possessed you to come here? This place is going to burn, and very soon.. and you came here?
Lilly Venom: Hello, Fogstep. Good to see you too.. Less than I wanted to, but here I am..
Aager Fogstep: This isn’t a game, Lilly. I have no authority over the sheriff, and certainly not over the mayor. I thought you were a survivor.
Lilly Venom: I am tired of just surviving, Aager. I have done it all my life. Took a page from your book and I have decided I want to ‘live’ now..
Aager Fogstep: And you came here.. For that.. Just how stupid are you?
Inshala Frostmane: (comes out from behind Aager) That is not nice, my Aager. I do not think Lilly is stupid. I think her to be extremely smart. Certainly smart enough to make all the correct choices, when we were back at Arashkan.
Lilly Venom: And, here is our inseparable second witness..
Inshala Frostmane: Hello, Ferra.
Lilly Venom: Hello, girl.. You have grown some. And you glow more..
Inshala Frostmane: (blush) I.. I do?
Lilly Venom: Yes. You were scared all the time, the last time I saw you. Now you look.. free!
Agent Largo: Don’t mind me. I’ll just lie down here and nurse the bump on my head.
Lilly Venom: (to Aager) Do you want to introduce yourself, or should I?
Aager Fogstep: (shrug)
Agent Largo: I know who he is. He is SIS —Serenity Intelligence Service; pseudo-named, Aager Fogstep. Single. Real name; unknown. Mother; unknown. Father; unknown. Siblings; rumored to have one, though his or her gender is unknown and presumed dead. He is also a former Drashan convict.. His ‘apparent’ job is being the right hand of Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. He was one among others to have brought down Themalsar. There are any number of murders attributed to him, though none of them have been proven, nor verified.. The girl, I do not know. None of the spies I sent could get any information about her, back when she, sir Aager here, and their diverse other companions first came to Arashkan and started asking questions about Gar Thalot.. We found out who all her friends were.. Just not her and the one other girl who slept on the roof of the inn they were staying. It’s like neither of them ever existed before. We couldn’t even put a name to them. Heck, we couldn’t even scry them! It was like.. they both were off limits!
Lilly Venom: I am inclined to be impressed, Agent Largo, though I don’t think Aager here qualifies as single and his sibling’s name is ‘me’.
Agent Largo: (confused) Me?
Lilly Venom: (silent smile)
Agent Largo: (somewhat horrified expression) YOU?
Lilly Venom: (sumgly) Yup!
Agent Largo: (stunned silence)
Lilly Venom: Yes, Agent Largo, he is my elder brother.. I am not at liberty to divulge who or what the other one is, but this cute little girl, here, is Inshala Frostmane. Aager’s girl, woman, mate.. I have thus failed to put a name to what they are, to one another. Nothing seems to sufficiently cover their relation.. In all candor, though, it is likely she is the best thing that’s happened to me in my life and I am happy to call her my sister.. Other than that, I am not aware if she has any other title.
Inshala Frostmane: (beam) I am here in my ‘Ritual Guardian’ capacity, dear Ferra..
Lilly Venom: I do not know what that means.
Agent Largo: I do, and it is an immense ‘capacity’.. I thought the good Master Cathber was killed in his sleep. I wasn’t aware he had any students in training.
Inshala Frostmane: (quietly) He had me. And I had him. He was my Father and my Master since I was a month old.
Agent Largo: I am sorry, young lady. I knew Master Cathber personally and deeply revered him. Now.. Master Aager, and Ritual Guardian, if you would be kind enough to put in a good word for Lady Lilly here, I would be grateful. I shall suffer my punishment, whatever it may be.
Lilly Venom: How very noble of you, Sir Agent Largo! I wasn’t aware I was getting a knight in shining armor when I asked for that dinner.
Agent Largo: I apologize, Lilly. But it comes as part of the package!
Inshala Frostmane: (beaming) I have no idea what you just said, but it sounded so sweet. And I didn’t know you were a knight, Sir Largo. I will ask them to release both you and my elder sister Ferra and also to kindly return your shiny armor.
Agent Largo: !
Lilly Venom: (snort)
Aager Fogstep: (snort)
✱ ✱ ✱
Sheriff Standorin: You seem to have left out quite a bit of your personal life, Master Aager. I thought you said your sister was dead.
Aager Fogstep: I thought she was dead, too. Her unexpected appearance in Arashkan did take me off guard.
Sheriff Standorin: I see no mention of this in your reports. Are we making private exemptions, then?
Aager Fogstep: (cooly) Yes and no, Sheriff. Some of the things that happened at Arashkan never got mentioned for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. Suffice to say, putting them in writing would have been too damning for the people involved, which includes our esteemed Ranger Lieutenant Laila Wolvesbane, and by proxy, Ranger Master Davien Hart. Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome’s niece, Master Gnine, and by his proxy, back to his uncle. Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and High Lady Anglenna Sunsear of High Woods and Bari Na-ammen, damning Ri Grandaleren Feymist and Rise Nadine Graciousward, again, by proxy.. Our Senior Temple Guardian Lady Magella, and by her proxy, Master Argail Smitefast and pretty much all her extended family at Scowling Hills, and the deceased Demos Lightshand. Then we have Udoorin Shieldheart, your son, who also happens to be the betrothal of Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, hence damning her again. And since he’s your son, that would be damning you, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart of Serenity Home town, by a similar proxy. Last but not least, myself, and by my proxy, damning you again! The Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, here, and ‘The Celestial’ girl, Merisoul Xyrotwu, never got mentioned as neither of them are within our kingdoms’ jurisdictions.. The title of ‘Ritual Guardian’ is not bestowed by the king nor his vassals, but by the Ritual Forest itself and I shudder to even contemplate just who has any jurisdiction over Merisoul Xyrotwu, other than ‘The Great Heavens’.. What was put into writing, however, was done so from a distinctly ‘relevance’ point of view.
Sheriff Standorin: (amused) Nicely done, Master Aager. You have threatened damning everyone of note in this town and people of the highest status among our neighbors. Not to mention damning my own son, my future daughter in law and myself —twice, I might add..
Aager Fogstep: (coldly) You didn’t bring me here from Drashan to play ball, Sheriff. You brought me here to be the solution!
Agent Largo: (snicker) I did offer to take him off your hands years ago, Sheriff..
Sheriff Standorin: (ignores Agent Largo and glares at Aager) Just how damning are we talking about, here?
Aager Fogstep: (total silence)
Sheriff Standorin: (sigh and turns to Lilly Venom) Says here, in your form, you are a ‘Security Advisor’, Miss Ferra?
Lilly Venom: Ferra is my given name, Sheriff Standorin. And that would be ‘Mrs.’ Not, ‘Miss’..
Sheriff Standorin: (cocked eyebrow) I wasn’t aware the infamous Lilly Venom was married.
Lilly Venom: I would have been surprised if you were. It happened just last night!
Agent Largo: (cough)
Sheriff Standorin: You can’t be serious!
Agent Largo: I have been. For quite some time, now.
Lilly Venom: (smile)
Sheriff Standorin: What the hell do they put into the prison food?!
Agent Largo: I resent that.
Sheriff Standorin: (irritated) What am I expected to do now?
Agent Largo: (shrug) That’s up to you, Sheriff Standorin. This is my home, but it’s your town.
Sheriff Standorin: I suppose you will spill everything should I try to send you to the gallows, Mrs. Lilly?
Lilly Venom: (shrug) I am an Assassin —or a ‘Security Advisor’, if you will, Sheriff. I kill people for a living and I am very good at it. Whether I shall keep doing that is up to consideration at the moment, but I don’t do two things; lies and blackmail.
Agent Largo: I do.. And yes, the irony in that is sort of disturbing, but in this case, I shall uphold Lady Ferra’s wishes.. and honor..
Sheriff Standorin: (scowl) This is a mess, Master Aager. Please tell me the ‘solution’ in all this.
Aager Fogstep: (shrug) Hire Agent Largo as part of the Covert Ops team and let him do what he’s good at doing. Hire Lady Ferra, here, as a Security Advisor, as written in her form, and let her do what she’s good at doing. This town can’t stay a town any longer, Sheriff, even should we win the war. You know this to be true. We have tens of thousands of refugees of all races and The Ritual Guardian is doing everything she can to keep the weather ‘mild’ and the ground warm so they don’t freeze to death and so there’s is still some crops growing and hence, food available for the all those hungry mouths. It is also because of her and the druidic elves that survived High Woods we assigned to her that there haven’t been any breakouts.. All those refugees will, however, and eventually, require a roof over their heads, and said homes will require a much, much larger security team.. I am guessing Yuleman already knows this also. Everyone is working hard now and for a common cause because there are a hundred and fifty thousand Orken coming this way. But that’s all going to change, should we win the day and the threat of imminent death is gone. Especially should we win the day and the threat of imminent death is gone..
(silence for a long, smoldering moment)
Sheriff Standorin: (sigh) Very well, Master Aager. I shall take this up to Mayor Yuleman. In the meantime, Master Largo and Lady Lilly will stay in your residence, Master Aager. They may get out into your garden, but they shall not leave the premises. Agreed?
Agent Largo: Agreed.
Lilly Venom: I suppose so..
Agent Largo: I need some rest, anyway. Been running back and forth for weeks now.
Lilly Venom: (cooly) Not tonight, you aren’t!
Agent Largo: (stammer)
Sheriff Standorin: (sigh) Go get the Temple Guardian Thomas here to officialize and formalize their wedding, if you will Master Aager.
Aager Fogstep: (quietly) Yes, sir.. And.. Thank you, sir..
(after Agent Largo and Lilly Venom are escorted out)
Sheriff Standorin: Is she as good as they say she is?
Aager Fogstep: (slight frown) She killed me, once!
Sheriff Standorin: …
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: That was one hell of a speech you gave back there. I am impressed. This place has done you good.
Aager Fogstep: The good sheriff might be a harsh man, but he isn’t unreasonable.
Lilly Venom: (after a moment of pause) Will you give me away, Brother? When your Temple Guardian comes to officiate our marriage?
Aager Fogstep: Bit late to be asking me that question, don’t you think?
Lilly Venom: (quietly) I am.. I am trying, Aager.. This is me, taking those steps..
Aager Fogstep: (silent stare)
Lilly Venom: (returning the silent stare)
Aager Fogstep: Where’s your.. Largo?
Lilly Venom: Outside. Behind the house, talking to his son.
Aager Fogstep: You are okay with him having a son? Not that it should matter and Dexter is a decent man. But the fact remains; both are quite older than you. Agent Largo in particular.
Lilly Venom: It isn’t like the age disparity is all that much, you know. Well, it is, but he’s a half-elf. By the time I am old and crooked, should I see those days, he will still be of mild age.. And to be honest, his age never bothered me, considering how much I dislike fools and loath men in general. I think, being forced to work in Madam’s brothel when I came to age, back in Drashan did that to me.. Do you even know, or have any idea what it feels like to be groped or fondled by a total, filthy stranger who is leering at you with unwanted desire when you are barely twelve?
Aager Fogstep: (in pure, silent wrath) No.
Lilly Venom: You are naked. In all kinds of ways. You are shivering. Not because it’s cold, but because you are so scared. You have no idea what you are expected to do and everyone and everything is looming over you and they are all so much bigger than you.. All you know is you are about to be used and it’s going to hurt and you are going to cry because you are just a small, skinny, powerless girl.. You are going to cry and it will not matter because it won’t change the fact that it’s still going to keep on hurting in places that you shouldn’t be hurting.. Not at that age.. All you have is a tiny knife that you are allowed to use if the man likes beating his girls.. I was so scared that I couldn’t even move.. He became angry.. I don’t know at which point I sliced him open! But when I woke up, I had a cracked head and a bloody face, and he was dead. That was my first kill.. Then I decided to do the same for the next half dozen or so men as well. I just stood there, unmoving, and I was scared all the time.. Eventually, though, it would anger the men and they would slam me around and I would slice them open! That is when they sold me off to the Cutters Guild.. (sigh) I don’t think I could have found someone my age that fit my tastes since I really, truly, and quite mindlessly loathed men.. All men.. Still do, really. Largo.. He has.. seen things.. Bad things.. And over the course of years longer than either of us seen put together.. It has made him mature.. And serious.. Yet he still clings to that lame sense of humor of his. It is pathetic, really.. But I find it.. endearing.. if you could believe that. Yes, I freely admit I like those qualities in him. I.. I don’t think he will grope me like those animals. I think he will treat me.. right.. and alright..
Aager Fogstep: So you love—
Lilly Venom: Aaaaaaa! La, La, La, La, La, La, La !!!
Aager Fogstep: (confused) What?
Lilly Venom: I don’t want to talk THAT with you! I don’t like you that much, yet! Or rather, I don’t know you that much yet.. Brother..
Aager Fogstep: Fair enough.
Lilly Venom: (sigh) I don’t think we will ever be like the way you and Inshala are.
Aager Fogstep: What way would that be?
Lilly Venom: Wierd?
Aager Fogstep: (snort) Huh!
Lilly Venom: To be honest, I wouldn’t want to, either.. Too much effort, too much work, too much pain.. and too many emotions for my taste. I just want honesty, care, and reliance —both ways.. But I also want a certain amount of privacy reserved for ourselves too..
Aager Fogstep: Also, fair enough. I am happy for you.
Lilly Venom: You.. you are?
Aager Fogstep: (shrug) Yes.
Lilly Venom: This conversation went.. better than I expected!
Aager Fogstep: Just what kind of a beast do you think I am, Lilly, to mess up your happiest day?
Lilly Venom: (carefully suspicious) I am sorry. Hard to change everything, all at once.
Aager Fogstep: (straight face) Besides. You are TOTALLY his problem now!
Lilly Venom: (scowl) I knew it!
Aager Fosgstep: But I would rather you took your man and left. Gone.. Far away..
Lilly Venom: Why don’t you?
Aager Fogstep: (quietly, and after a pause) I can’t.
Lilly Venom: Why?
Aager Fogstep: (silent moment) This.. is my home now. And my Inshala’s forest.. I won’t give up my home, she won’t give up her forest..
Lilly Venom: Largo will not go. They destroyed his home. He does not show it, probably for my sake, but it’s tearing him apart. I strongly suspect he wants to die in as bloody a way as possible in the coming war.
Aager Fogstep: Why marry him then?
Lilly Venom: Because I.. want him.. per se.. And to give him another reason not to do what he foolishly wants to do.. Besides, we will likely go into the battle together. I’ll just have to watch his back..
Aager Fogstep: You are going into a battle.. because of an idiot?
Lilly Venom: No, brother. I am going to war because I want to preserve what’s mine.. And to earn my own ‘home’..
Aager Fogstep: You are an idiot too, then!
Lilly Venom: Perhaps.. Wonder what that makes you?
Aager Fogstep: The elder brother of an idiot!
Lilly Venom: (scowl)
Aager Fogstep: (snort)
Lilly Venom: Where’s your pretty girl? Where’s Inshala?
Aager Fogstep: She’s up the tree in the garden, trying to convince it to bloom.
Lilly Venom: Do I even want to know why?
Aager Fogstep: The tree is supposed to have very pretty pink flowers. She wants you to share them with your Largo.
Lilly Venom: (stunned) What? I am..
Aager Fogstep: Speechless?
Lilly Venom: Well, yes!
Aager Fogstep: She loves you.
Lilly Venom: I am flattered but how can she love me? Considering how little she knows me, and how horribly I treated her back in Arashkan.
Aager Fogstep: She has a great heart. And it seems she has a distinct affinity to seeing the depths of the souls in people. I can’t imagine what, but it appears she has found something she finds lovable in you.
Lilly Venom: You are not as funny as you think you are.
Aager Fogstep: I am funny?
Lilly Venom: What will you do? We.. seem to have barged into your home.
Aager Fogstep: (shrug) Sisters’ prerogative, I suppose.
Lilly Venom: (scowl)
Aager Fogstep: It’s alright, really. We will take our rest in the temple dormitories, or more likely next to some campfire —it’s a bit too crowned in the temple for my taste. We still have a lot of work until the day’s end, though. Inshala has to coordinate and make sure the ground stays warm and the weather mild for the refugees and I have two teams I need to continue training. One in the afternoon, which I should be heading soon, and the other at night and will take all night. ‘Infiltration, Blind Fighting, and Ambush!’
Lilly Venom: Oww.. Ambush! I could help you with that.
Aager Fogstep: No.
Lilly Venom: Why not?
Aager Fogstep: This one is an advanced group of former Bari Na-ammen vets and rangers, hence we will be using live weapons and I don’t want you bleeding back to your.. husband.. Besides, you should make good use of your time.. Nights in particular—
Lilly Venom: La, La, La, La, La, La, La —I am not listening to you..
Aager Fogstep: (snort) See you tomorrow morning, then.
Lilly Venom: (quietly) Aager?
Aager Fogstep: Hmm?
Lilly Venom: Thank you.
Aager Fogstep: Thank me when this is over and the ones we love are still alive.
Lilly Venom: (hug)
Aager Fogstep: (strained voice) You.. aren’t going to try and stab me are you?
Lilly Venom: I just might..
Aager Fogstep: Care for a slice of advice?
Lilly Venom: From you? No.. But say it anyway. I might listen.
Aager Fogstep: Lose some, to win some.
Lilly Venom: What the hell kind of an advice is that?
Aager Fogstep: The kind I gave to myself, though mine was, lose all, to win all! You are a smart girl. I know because my Inshala said so! I am sure it’ll come to you in time. Now, go on to your hubby, baby sister!
Lilly Venom: …
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: Are you done?
Agent Largo: Almost.
D.D. Dexter: I still can’t believe this.
Agent Largo: I am sorry Dex. After what happened to your mother, I wasn’t going to trust anyone from ARIS where you were concerned. This town was the safest place I could think of and still give you a happy life. You know what is coming. You know the score.. I was ARIS and I had to do something for Arashkan without a constant threat on your life.. I can’t even tell you how many of my friends, my co-workers, and their families were assassinated in the past thirty years.
D.D. Dexter: I know the reasons, father. It’s just..
Lilly Venom: (briskly) Give it time. You’ll get used to it.
D.D. Dexter: You are.. intense.. If you don’t mind me saying so, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: Just ‘Lilly’ will do.. Considering all the effort I gave to make your father quit calling me that. As for intense.. Guess Agent Largo here will find out soon enough.
Agent Largo: (fluster, flush and blush) Lilly.. Please.. This is my son, for Heaven’s sake!
Lilly Venom: (heartless laugh) And he isn’t nine, Agent Largo. He’s older than I am!
D.D. Dexter: (cough)
Agent Largo: (blush some more)
Lilly Venom: Are you ashamed of me, Largo, that you keep blushing?
Agent Largo: No. Never that. It’s just.. a bit of an uncomfortable topic, that’s all..
Lilly Venom: There you have it, Dexter. He loves you enough to be embarrassed in front of you. Which is the only time I have seen him actually blush like this. You, Dexter, must understand; he did what he did to you, knowingly and deliberately because he had to. And now he has decided to share a life with me, knowingly and deliberately. Your father is a smart man, Dexter. I don’t think he would have been fooled by my approaches, because I am not really a ‘girly’ girl.. He accepted me because he wanted me. Considering just how loyal he has been to your mother’s memory for the past twenty years, I would say he deserves a break, wouldn’t you? Take that into account before you dish out judgments. We just came from Hell itself. There is no name for the blood and carnage we saw in Arashkan. We didn’t watch it from a distance, Dexter.. We were there.. On the ground, fighting, bleeding, and saving lives.. At least your father was.. All I did was to try and stay alive, and watched his back.. Your father needs respite and I hope he finds it with me. Will you not allow him to have that much before we go back into that Hell? Because whether we want it or not, Hell is coming our way as we speak!
D.D. Dexter: (stare with open mouth)
Lilly Venom: Now. If you would please, I would like to have a few, private moments with Agent Largo..
D.D. Dexter: Of course. I will see you later today, or perhaps in the evening when my duties are over.. (pause) On the other hand, tomorrow will be a better time.
Lilly Venom: Tomorrow will be fine. Thank you for being considerate.
D.D. Dexter: (mumble) Not like I was given much of a choice.
Lilly Venom: Best kind of choice offered. Which makes sense, since this really isn’t anything you should be making a choice over, should you think about it with an open mind. The only thing that concerns you is whether you will honor the choices your father had to make to keep you safe and alive and wish him some happiness and that he finds it with me.. or sulk about it.
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: I am sorry if I was a bit abrupt with your boy.
Agent Largo: I won’t complain. Had you not said the things you said, when I was still out, I don’t think we would have made any headway today.
Lilly Venom: I just didn’t give him the time to do or say things you both would have regretted, by making myself the target of his possible ire.
Agent Largo: You didn’t have to do that, Lilly.
Lilly Venom: But I did it anyway. I saw enough sad and stupid in my life, Largo. And I am tired of it. We can either carry that particular baggage into our lives or keep it out. This.. this is something I learned.. or rather, ‘was shown’, really, by my bother, Aager, and his skinny little woman.. But he.. they proved to me it could be done and I want to give it a shot. I will sweat for it, bleed for it, war for it, but want you to be there for it..
Agent Largo: (smile) We are back to ‘shots’? Where is the boy, Prince Korodin, by the way?
Lilly Venom: He is with Inshala.
Agent Largo: I don’t really know Lady Inshala. Can she be trusted?
Lilly Venom: More than either of us. She will ‘care’ for him like no other.. Now, quit dodging. Will you go for it?
Agent Largo: I am here, aren’t I?
(pale pink flowers start to fall all around them..)
Agent Largo: (surprised) What’s this? Cherry blooms in the middle of winter?
Lilly Venom: (looks up at the thousands of pink, cherry blooms flaking down with a glowing face and shimmering eyes, and whispers)
Inshala, baby girl.. Thank you..
✱ ✱ ✱
It is the first few days of December and evening has settled over a white Serenity Home. It is quiet and kind tonight and a barely discernable warm wind seems to blow from Gull’s Perch as if Mab and Titania have come to a rare understanding. There is a great, awe-inspiring, beautiful cherry tree in bloom in a garden in this town and there is a small ‘home’ next to this tree.
A home where people ‘belong’..
In this home, there is a young woman with a boldly handsome face and she shivers even though there is a cheery fire crackling in the small grate. Carefully, she takes off her long, brown leather trench coat, revealing an exquisitely made dress; a pale green loose blouse, a very dark royal green tight bodice with many laces complimenting her narrow hips, her slim waist, her slightly gaunt belly, and her pleasant-looking breasts, hiding in her blouse. A long skirt of the same color embroidered with delicate, silver threads and slits on either side flow down her hips to her bare feet, carefully displaying parts of her slender, naked legs..
The young woman shivers again, her hands in tight fists by her hips, and has trouble looking up at the maturely handsome blonde man standing a bare foot in front of her. The man has a slight frown on his face as if trying to discern a last-minute vex, for the small, single-room home is thread-bare to be sure, but it is warm.
The young, boldly handsome woman, however, is as if knot, and her lovely dark eyes seem to be staring only at his hands.
Lilly Venom: Will you have me now?
Agent Largo: Lilly? What’s wrong—
Lilly Venom: If you are, I would like you to take my daggers, all my knives, my darts, and my shark teeth away from me.
Agent Largo: Why? If you won’t mind me asking—
Lilly Venom: (looks up at her husband’s face, then at his hands again and whispers in trepidation)
I am scared.
And I do not want to kill you..
The boldly handsome young woman is as if staring down at her own bare feet as she speaks in a low, hoarse, throaty, and barely audible voice, her face burning with defiant rage and with a kind of a lost shame. She fidgets as she speaks but her eyes are in fact affixed on the blond man’s hands as if expecting them to move for an assault at any time.
Lilly Venom: You are the first man I have liked. And been this close to. And that almost includes my brother. I have loathed men all my life and killed many because they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. If this is an issue for you, I will try to understand, even should you want to leave.
Agent Largo: (stares at the girl, silently)
Lilly Venom: It isn’t like I am the only girl around.
Agent Largo: (continues to stares at the girl silently)
Lilly Venom: I can’t claim I am much of a catch, either.
Agent Largo: (still silent)
Lilly Venom: You are a handsome man, after all. I have seen any number of girls looking in your direction on the ship while we were sailing here..
Agent Largo: (persistently silent)
Lilly Venom: And yes, I am aware I should have said something about this before. But in my defense, it isn’t something I wanted myself to remember, let alone admit to someone else. It is not exactly table conversation; hey, I loath men, and I tend to slice them open when they come too near!
Agent Largo: (absolute silence)
Lilly Venom: I would rather you said something.. or left..
Agent Largo: (finally speaks, in a dry, gravelly voice) I don’t really know what I should say and still stay safely unbleeding..
Lilly Venom: (scowls while still looking down)
Agent Largo: That you think so little of yourself, and by doing so, you think so little of me, since choosing one another was consensual and you are basically accusing me of having bad taste! That you would notice the girls staring at me, but not notice the constant scowl I had for all the young men ogling at you on that same ship, and why I never returned the wonts of any of those girls but stayed as close to you as I could, while trying very hard not to crowd you. That you think I would leave because you have some issues, serious as they may be. And last but not least, that you would want me to strip you of your weapons, yet never asked me to remove mine..
Lilly Venom: (stares at the man)
Agent Largo: No one is ‘just right’, Lilly. We all have our issues. I will not belittle yours. But at least it is a relatively tangible problem that has its own solutions. I carry the guilt of Arashkan, dear Lilly. The blood of thousands are on my hands because of my failures and there is neither a cure and nor any redeeming salvation for that.
Lilly Venom: You can’t blame yourself because of what happened there. Everyone was at fault for that failure. Everyone ‘failed’.
Agent Largo: True. But I am the only one left alive to have to live with it. The dead feel no guilt!.. But that’s another, and certainly not a ‘tonight’ matter, for you have worked hard to give me some respite and I shall not let that go to waste.
Lilly Venom: Very well. I shall do more, if I must, to carry that guilt with you, only if I can’t wash it off you. What.. solution do you offer?
Agent Largo slowly takes off his coat, folds it neatly, and puts it aside. Then, even more slowly, he reaches for the girl and smoothly strips one of her daggers from her.. and cooly tosses it aside and out of reach.
Agent Largo: There. Your turn!
The boldly handsome girl ogles at the man for a frightened, breath-held moment, then, and inadvertently, she smiles, for suddenly she knows this is a game. A game she is certain to win.. She does a quick, mental inventory: the other pair of the long, close-quarter combat dagger, sixteen short-range throwing knives, half a dozen shark teeth, any number of garrotes, and two dozen poison darts!
Lilly Venom: (smirks) You will run out of ‘steel’ before I do!
Agent Largo: (smirks back) And what are you willing to bet on that?
A red glare appears over the Gull’s Perch to the east, and very slowly, the sun starts to rise and Serenity Home stirs with a lazy and reluctant yawn.
The night, however, hasn’t all gone to waste;
Lilly Venom loses some and wins some..
Soon after Aager Fogstep and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostman arrive at Serenity Home from Durkahan City, they are confronted by a mysterious, hooded man and are expected to meet him the other day.
This story takes place the next day after
A ‘Warm’ Warning.
Inshala had woken up early that morning and snuck around the single-room house —her home, tiptoeing so as not to wake up the man sleeping soundly on the hard, threadbare mattress they shared and sneaking in a twenty by fifteen ‘room’ was a dare, all on its own, without waking up the most guarded and wary man in perhaps, several hundred miles in any direction.
But Inshala was just that good!
Having lived all her life mostly alone and in the wilds, a person learned to be quiet.
Or die quick.
Very silently, she snuck to the only door of the house, carefully opened it, and peaked outside to make sure there wasn’t anyone around to see her, as she wore only a simple, cream-white, hip-high shirt-gown, which did look more like a man’s shirt, really, and pretty much displayed her skinny legs, all the way up to her slender hips..
Satisfied, she slipped out of the house and into the garden behind. There, she very slowly drew water into a rickety wooden bucket using the old, squeaky pump, which wasn’t as easy as it sounded, considering how skinny she was, and how it shrieked every time she pulled at its lever!
When the bucket was full, she went back in and returned with a basket holding two apples, four green peppers, two hand-full of grapes, two tomatoes, half a dozen tiny onions, and two potatoes. All of these, she washed using the water from the bucket and quite vigorously.
Not content, she washed all of them again..
With an obsession that went all the way back to her younger days when she’d thought she was some unclean demon-spawn and had thought, or perhaps, zealously believed washing herself over and over and over again until her skin was rashed and likely bleeding, now.
In later years, her thoughts had become of two, in this matter. After she’d met Aager, who was hopefully still sleeping inside, however, she had finally concluded that perhaps —like, maybe— she wasn’t so unclean and not really a demon-spawn.
In all candor, she hadn’t yet attained that level of clarity, or wisdom, where she just wouldn’t care even if she was, in fact, a demon-spawn and it was what one chose to do, and consequently became, that mattered, rather being born as something that one’s opinions was never taken into account, nor were you ever confided.
That wisdom would come in time.
Like, many years later..
Just not yet.
Suffice to say, the idea of she being unclean had faded, drastically so, but her obsession for cleanliness and washing things over and over and over had, apparently, stuck!
Hence, with cold, weary, and shriveled hands, she returned back into the house and put all the fruits and vegetables on the small but sturdy table next to the tiny fireplace. She gave a cursory glance at the pots and pans that were available at hand, which weren’t all that many, really; a small jar full of cooking oil, two crock-pots containing some butter and some white cheese, a number of tin containers with coffee, various teas and herbs, one small iron pot for stew, a dingy copper pan, a small, water boiling pot, and her own addition, a set that comprised of two, flat, wooden plates which were called dinner plates, as she’d found out later when they were in Durkahan, two wooden bowls, and two wooden cups, all of which she herself had painstakingly carved in secret after she and Aager had come to better know one another, and when they were back at Arashkan, and a pair of forks and spoons, and several knives.
She picked up the smallest of the knives, the wooden-handled one, and peeled one apple, and sliced it in four. She took the other apple and sliced it in eight, but without peeling it. She also peeled the potatoes and cut them into very neat and very thin slices and cleaned the tiny onions then went over to the tiny fireplace and with a small wave of her hand, she lit the fire. She picked up the copper pan, careful not to make any noise, she poured some of the cooking oil in it, then lined the sides of the pan with the sliced apples, followed by potatoes, and in the very center, she put the onions. And with equal care, she placed it on the grate of the fireplace. Then she returned to the table, took out the two dinner plates, and spooned some butter into both and a rich slice of the white cheese as well. With sharp, practiced motions, she cut the tomatoes without letting the juice —one of the advantages of being mated to Aager; all his knives, kitchen or otherwise, were always very, very sharp, and placed them next to the cheese. Then she speared the green peppers with one of the longer knives, walked over to the fireplace, and held them in the fire, one pair a bit more than the other because Aager liked his food a bit on the burnt side. She placed the green peppers, now spotted with black charrs, and lay them next to the sliced tomatoes, and held her breath!
Aager had just stirred!
Hastily, she went back to the fireplace and withdrew the pan, and put a bit more than half the onions and the potatoes, and all the four slices of peeled and fried apples into his plate, and the eight, not-peeled ones into her own because Aager liked his apples peeled and once peeled, apples turned mushy when you tried to fry them, hence the slices had to be larger. She, on the other hand, liked her apples with their peels! As an encore, she placed the grapes, in a sort of pyramidical formation, and next to the green peppers.
Then she took out the two wooden bowls, turned them upside down, and placed them over the dinner plates to keep dust and bugs out of the now ready breakfast, cleaned the table off the peels, took out the water boiling pot, ghosted back out, filled it with water, skimmed back in and hung the pot over the fire and dumped a spoon.. no.. two spoons.. wait.. was it one, or two spoons?
This was the one thing she could never remember;
The number of spoons of coffee that went into the small pot.
Possibly because she never drank coffee. It smelled wonderful, like awesome-wonderful, but once, and only once had she drank it. Back when her Father, Cathber had still been alive.
Turned out, coffee had quite the opposite effect on her, than it had on her Father —or any other human for that matter.
It had made an eleven-year-old Inshala totally, unimaginably, and roaring drunk!
It had been a learning experience for both herself and her Father that day.
Hence, Inshala preferred her herbal teas in the mornings but she wouldn’t make a fuss if they weren’t available. Aager, on the other hand, would forgo his breakfast, but not his coffee!
All done and ready, she quickly heated her slender hands near the fire, then her tiny feet, and with a very self-conscious blush, she turned around, pulled up her simple, cream-white, hip-high shirt-gown she used while she slept, and heated her embarrassingly small, cup-sized, bare butt as well, because Aager tended to get riled when her hands, her feet, and even perhaps her butt, was cold, as one never quite knew where hands went when the mind was asleep, usually ending up where they wanted to be without bothering to ask the mind!
Just the other day, she had woken up with one of her slender hands in his hair, and the other in his shirt, touching his lean, spring-coil chest marred and marked with whip marks and numerous stab wounds!
She had been so embarrassed.
But with a very guilty and a very, very red but decisive face, she had kept her hands where they were.
The deed had already been done, right?
Inshala had figured, should Aager decide to trash her for it, she’d at least have fully earned it!
That’s how her mind worked; if she was going to get trashed, she should do her best to thoroughly deserve it.. as odd, somewhat scary, and illogical as that sounded.
Back to the topic at hand, then?
When Aager found her hands, feet, and possibly her butt, were cold, he spoke in his ‘quiet’ voice because he thought she wasn’t taking care of herself.
That was one of the very few things he did not tolerate when it came to Inshala.
It seemed like everyone had their perks, quirks, and oddities and it mattered very little how much you loved and cared for them, or how desperately they loved and cared for you.
But all of that went only as far as one could find a way around them.
With her hands, her feet, and her butt comfortably warmed up, she snuck back to the threadbare mattress and slithered her way into his arms, and started to watch his face..
With quiet, excited anticipation..
..and inadvertently, she breathed, softly, into his face.
Perhaps he was having a bad dream again.
Aager often had bad dreams.
Inshala had watched him ever since they had met in the woods, some six or seven months ago, and knew when he was having a bad dream.
Then his eyes opened.
They didn’t flutter.
They opened suddenly and alertly, without any sign of sleep or grogginess.
It was quite creepy, really.
But Inshala had found it amazing.
Possibly because when she woke up, she was much like this silly bear that’d just woken up from his winter sleep; dizzy, groggy, confused, stupid, and at times, panicked, even.
Because she wanted him to see ‘this’, the first thing he opened his eyes..
“You have pretty eyes.”
Aager said solemnly.
After quietly staring at her.
“Yeesh!”, thought Inshala. “Totally worth a trashing.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Meet you at the Guest’s Inn at, say, when the town bell hits twice afternoon?”, Aager asked. He had cleaned out his perfectly prepared plate and was now sipping his hot, bitter coffee, quietly wondering at what point had the little girl slipped out of their dingy mattress and prepared the breakfast and returned back into his arms and whether or not to tell her she didn’t have to prepare the breakfast because he didn’t think she was some serving maid.
“I don’t prepare anything because I am a serving maid, my Aager.”, Inshala said with a flushed smile, as if having read his mind, which, in all likeliness, she had.. “I prepare them because I do not think you should go to work to keep us all safe and do it hungry.”
“Some would argue your point.”, Aager mused.
“You are not ‘some’ to me, my Aager. And I prepare it because you have asked me to care for myself. Which is what I am doing. Caring for you is caring for myself. And I like cooking.”, she replied with an even bigger smile. “Besides, this is our home. And ‘some’ has no say here. Only you, and me, get to speak in our home.”
“Well, when you put it that way, someone just lost the argument!”, Aager smiled.
“As for the hour, I think we should meet here and go to this Guest’s Inn, place.”, she said.
Aager cocked an eyebrow.
“When we return here..”, Inshala explained. “..we have returned ‘home’ where we are at our best. We are filled and refreshed with our ‘home power’ here. And we shall go and meet them fully armed, with the least taint of the day, hanging on us.”
“That is.. a rather deep perspective of looking at it.”, Aager admitted a bit astonished.
“Will you fight the Summer Knight?”, she asked a bit tentatively.
“I have no desire to fight anyone. We have enough enemies on their way.”, he growled. “But I shall not bow to any demands, should he be foolish enough to make them. What will you do today?”
“I have been asked by the elves of High Woods to kindly meet with their druids and the druids, shamans, and witches of Ritual Forest to lead them.”, Inshala said unhappily. “I don’t want to lead anyone. I am too young for that. But the request was made by your mayor, Artanboss—”
“Arthandos, love.”, Aager corrected her kindly.
“Yes, him. He sent word to our Bremorel to find me and tell me about this. What should I do? I have more than enough work, bargaining with Mab and Titania so they would cooperate..”, she said like she wanted to cry. “I mean, they can barely tolerate one other in even in my secret Silent Forest. Now I bargain with Mab so she would refrain from her usual winters, and beg Titania so she would breathe life and warmth to these lands so the refugees will not freeze and die, and neither wants to give consent without wanting something from the other! They only agreed thus far because I told them, should either refuse, Mab can live her best winters when the Orken bring their destruction and kill all her Winter Feys and I told Titania that she could enjoy her summers once the same Orken totally burn her Perch and kill her nymphs and dryads who live there.”
Aager splurted some of his coffee!
“You threatened Mab and Titania?”, he stared at her, somewhat aghast and about to laugh.
Inshala’s face went red.
“I.. might have.. just a little..”
“That was awesome, love.”, he said happily. “But I think you should lead all the druids and witches and whatnots of both parties as you are the only one among them that have seen the bigger picture and look out what’s best for the world and the people in general, rather than their individual self-interests. Though I think you should make sure you have their oaths that they will follow your lead, should they want you to lead them.”
“I don’t want any more responsibility and you want to bind them to me with oaths?”, she pouted.
“We all must do what we must, love. And we are all running out of time.”
Inshala pouted some more and Aager put his bitter coffee down, leaned over the small table, and kissed her pretty pout.
“I am off, love.”, he said with one of his rare smiles. “It has been a wonderful night, a delicious breakfast, and even a better kiss. I will meet you here at the second toll of the bell, afternoon.”
Inshala stood where she sat, a demure, happy smile on her face.
Then she blinked.
“Ow no..”, she moaned. “I forgot to ask him if the coffee was alright.”
“I forgot how many spoons I put.. Again!“
✱ ✱ ✱
Will you honor us, Lady Inshala?”, asked an elderly elf in some old and saggy brown robes.
“I will honor everyone who comes in peace.”, replied the little girl, blushing furiously, for the elf bowing before her was at least one thousand five hundred years older than her. “Sir. Please. I am the Ritual Guardian, for the forest has spoken. But I lack the years and the wisdom for such respect.”
“No, Ritual Guardian. The forest has chosen you, precisely for those reasons. Mortals may choose as their wont. Nature chooses to her need.”, said the elderly elf and there was a rumble of agreement among the other druids, both elf and human, young and old, and the few shamans, all standing in a huge, rune laid circle, far out of the town, and all staring at her in wonder, something Inshala found quite uncomfortable and rather embarrassing.
The witches at the back, a score or so in number, all wearing masks or veils, however, stood silent.
Inshala looked back to make sure the two rangers were still there; Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel and Ranger Master Moorat, who had been assigned to her for the duration of this meeting, though whose idea it had been to assign them to her in the first place, she didn’t know, though she had some implicating suspicions about it. She and her hubby, Aager, would have words about this later, at length..
“It wasn’t me, love.”, she heard Aager whisper in her mind.
“It.. it wasn’t?”, she asked a bit baffled.
“As much as I would claim my hand in this, I have no jurisdiction over the rangers of Serenity Home. Yes, they are bound to report to me, but I can not give them orders, and I can even prove it!”, Aager said and gave Inshala the impression that he was smiling.. sort of smugly.
“I would like to see how you can prove that, all the way from the sheriff’s office, my Aager.”, she replied with a little sniff.
“Morel.”, Aager said.
“What about her?”, she asked a bit confused.
“Is she scowling and fuming?”
“Well. No. She looks.. happier than I remember her from our time at Themalsar.”
“There you have it, love. Had I given her the order, she’d be glaring and breathing fire, because both she and her cousin, Laila, very much dislike me and hate it when I order them around.”, he said, the impression of his smugness more apparent now.
“They would have liked you if you hadn’t inperodated.. incarocated.. imperomated—”, she said and faltered.
“Uhhmm.. Interrogated them?”
“Yes, that..”, she said blushing furiously. “In that tent when they were wounded after their fight against the wolves, all those years ago.”
“Wait a minute.”, Aager said. “How could you possibly know about that?”
A long, ‘oops’ sort of silence settled over the conversation.
“You.. you got your knife back that evening, didn’t you?”, she mumbled, her blush turning into a very hot flush now.
“That.. that was you!”
“Yes.”, Inshala replied with a very small voice.
“I knew it! I KNEW IT! AND THOSE IDIOTS INSISTED ON NOT TELLING ME ANYTHING!“, Aager fumed. “And you were there all along..”
“Well, I only joined the attack against the wolves when they both were hurt because they didn’t know me and I was in my saber-tooth tiger form and feared I would either be a distraction or a source of fear causing them to attack me as well.”
“And it was you who healed them and washed and braided their hair!”
“My master did most of the healing. But yes. I did wash their hair and braided them as well. I am sorry my Aager, but they were wearing their hair wrong!”
“And.. you were at the tent afterward as well?”
“Well.. not inside the tent.. Just outside. They were hurt so badly and I know hurt very well and felt so sorry for them and wanted to be sure they were alright. That’s when you came and started intorodating them..”
Inshala got the distinct impression that Aager was ‘victory dancing’ in her head!
“Umm..”, she said. “If I’d known you were this curious about it, I promise, I would have told you about it before. But many things happened after we met in the forest years later, and..”
“And I didn’t want to scare you..”
“Well. I did follow you around when you and my Father, along with the hunters and rangers had gone to kill the rabid wolves, and later, when we were following those bad men that had killed my Father and burned your town. It.. makes me look.. scary.. I would have been scared if someone snuck around behind me like that..”, she said, a bit mortified.
“Love. Being followed around and stalked by you was one of the better things that has ever happened to me.”, Aager admitted freely. “As for why Bremorel and Moorat are there, I might have an idea as to who sent them to safeguard you.”
“Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Udoorin’s father.”
“That was very nice of him but.. he wouldn’t have known about this meeting..”
“I might have mentioned it to him and insinuated that keeping the Ritual Guardian —our Ritual Guardian— safe and sound was of utmost importance..”, he replied, not without a small amount of smug.
“Ow, my Aager.”, Inshala sighed. “You could have just told me, you know. I am not a disagreeable girl, after all.”
“No, love. You are not. But that meeting isn’t only a happy gathering between druids and witches. It also concerns the rest of us. Think of Bremorel and Moorat as representatives of Serenity Home.”
“I do not mind Bremorel is here, my Aager. But Ranger Master Moorat is.. scary.. And he is scowling at everyone!”
“That’s Moorat for you. But he is a good man at heart. I think. His sister was Sheriff Standorin’s wife, and Udoorin’s mother. She became very ill when Udoorin was at a very young age and died. Moorat and the sheriff are always scowling because they still miss her.”, Aager said quietly.
“Owww.. That is so sad. I shall speak of this matter with him after this meeting. I sense he has words to say and they have been inside him for many years now.”, Inshala promised.
“Do be careful, love. Moorat might be a good man, but he doesn’t have all that good manners and his mouth is rather foul.”
“I doubt he can add any more to what I have already heard from the woodsmen in my youth, my Aager, but I shall be careful.”
A moment of smoldering silence fell and Inshala immediately regretted what she’d just said.
“One day, love, and soon, I believe you and I are going to visit those woodsmen up north.”, Aager said with a too steady voice.
“No need, my Aager. Really. Nothing good can come from such a visit. What is done is done. I did what I did and went near their homes to fix their broken and hurt animals when my Father clearly warned me not to. And just as he warned, I made their sins, my sins. I do not regret my choices, nor the consequences of my choices. I do regret theirs, for I was the cause of it. The woodsmen there always live in fear because their lives might end at any time and without warning; the tree they cut might fall on them and crush them, a wild animal might attack and eat them, a marauding band of orcs or goblins, or worse might raid them and slay them.. They suffer the harshest of winters and could easily die, frozen and brittle.. Being so far away from help has made them wary of everyone and everything that isn’t them. Yet they still are there, because there, they are free and no one tells them what to do. Vengeance, my Aager, is merely a lazy form of grief..”, she said mutely.
Aager did not reply for some time. When he spoke, his voice was kinder, though as steady and even as it had just been.
“You, my Inshala, are a wonder, you are. I shall not go after them. But should they come after you as they did before, I shall not allow you to suffer their sins again.”
That said, Inshala felt Aager’s presence leave..
She sighed and turned to the men and women, elf and human, all much, much older than she.
“I shall accept your offer to lead, but not your offer to command. We, druids and shamans, are free. From nature, we take only what we need, and we return back to her willingly. That is who we are. And that is what makes us, and no ill-begotten Orken nor their foul demon masters may take this away from us. Should you acknowledge my lead, I shall require your consent. We are free. But we must work and work in concert to stay free. Will you all concur on this?”, she asked quietly.
There was a murmur of awed surprise as the druids stared at the little girl in wonder.
Yes. The forest had chosen her as her guardian, and this was the reason. Her wisdom was merely the excuse.
One by one, they approached her and bowed, declaring their devotion and allegiance.
“Thank you all.”, Inshala said, looking down at her own small palms, very much embarrassed. “Let us all, then, gather our collective wisdom and put them to words at the first toll of this very night, and see what knowledge we have, where we are most needed, and what we may do about them.”
The druids and the shamans all nodded and quietly left.
When they were gone, only the witches remained.
Someone grunted in disgust behind her and that was the only sound she heard from Ranger Master Moorat.
One of them, a very elderly, crooked old hag of a woman with a gnarled old cane took a few steps forward.
“We are not some tree-hugging druid or some simple-minded shaman, little girl.”, she said and Bremorel’s soft, throaty voice immediately riposted!
“Careful, witch. Should you try and insult the Ritual Guardian, I shall personally make sure it’s the last thing you do.”
“We are not afraid of you, nor your kind, Bremorel Songsteel.”, spat back the old witch.
“I do not require your fear of me nor my kind, hag. You can frisk or frolic while I cut you for all I care. Know this, however, you might get away from the Ritual Guardian, for she is kind and forgiving and has a great heart, but there is no place on earth you can run nor hide from me nor my kind. And should you want to test us, you shall never see us coming. Only die by our steel. And we shall bring the full might of the Temple Guardians upon you, also!”, she replied coldly.
A grim silence fell over the witches, for nothing the ranger lieutenant had said was bravado. She had pronounced exactly what she would do. Period.
“Ranger Lieutenant.”, Inshala said quietly. “Please. We are all here under the threat of total annihilation by the Orken. We need each other, more than ever.”
The old witch stared at her for a moment, her veil shuffling rapidly.
“Your master, Cathber, did us great disservice by banishing our kin from the Ritual Forest. This needs to be addressed.”
“My master banished your kind from Ritual Forest because your elders sided with Themalsar during the first war. And along with his warlocks did they bind the spirits of the fallen, tormenting them and driving them mad and sent them against the elves, the humans, the dwarves, and the gnomes.”, Inshala replied mutely. “Those spirits, bound and mad, stayed there for eight hundred years, howling in despair. I felt them all, as I brought down that mad priest’s temple down. And after so many centuries, were those poor spirits finally free.”
“What’s done is done. We can not be held responsible for the deeds of our ancestors. We must be allowed to return to our lands.”, the old witch snarled.
“The land is not yours. It never was. Land and sky belong to nature.”, Inshala said. “We all are mere guests, here.”
“Then there is nothing to speak here. We shall take our leave and return to our homes in exile.”, the witch declared.
“Return or stay. That is yours to decide. But should you persistent on the mistakes of your elders and join the enemy as they did before, I shall make sure you will be the last of your kind for nature hates demons because they are foul and they are evil, yet they are also not of this world. You and your kin, however, are, and nature abhors more, that which so thoroughly betrays her own world.”, Inshala said and there wasn’t a trace of a threat in her voice. She said it as it was and as a matter of fact.
“You give us nothing, yet want everything. You give no carrot, yet you show us the stick.”, hissed the hag.
“I do not do carrots, nor do I do sticks. I am nature. I balance. And balance does not offer bribes nor favors. Should you want to live in a world free of demons, you must bleed for it, just like everybody else, for I have offered nothing to the druids, nor the shamans, much like nothing was offered to me.”
“A challenge!”, another witch said from behind.
A murmur rippled among the witches.
“Yes. A challenge, then.”, said the old hag.
“A challenge for what?”, Inshala asked.
“A challenge of yield to see if you are fit to be the Ritual Guardian!”
Inshala paused for a moment.
“I did not choose to be what I am. I was chosen.”
“So you say. Face one of our kind and prove yourself!”, cried the old witch triumphantly. “Should you lose, you shall step down and will no longer be the Ritual Guardian, and we will be allowed to return to Ritual Forest.”
“Nothing of what you just said made any sense, and the fact that you do not understand what being a Ritual Guardian is or the workings of the world around you, is proof that you shouldn’t be dabbling with any magic, let alone with spirits. But it is apparent you will not understand even should I explain it to you because you are not here to understand. You are here to make demands for the things you want but do not deserve and without wanting to bleed or sweat for them. So I will ask only what would entail should I win?”, she asked calmly.
“What would you want?”, the old witch asked.
Inshala didn’t miss a beat.
“You, all of you, shall join our fight against the Orken and their demon masters for so long as they remain a threat and be bound to someone of my choosing, and never shall you ensnare any spirits to torment them ever again. Should any of you break this agreement or fail to uphold it, you will die, all of you, by your own spirits. This is my carrot!”
A dead, choking silence fell over the witches and Inshala heard a pair of elated snorts from behind her.
“Girl, if that was the carrot, I don’t ever want to see what you would do with a stick.”, snarked Bremorel.
“We.. we shall decide whom to send..”, the old witch said with a deflated voice.
“I shall await your choice. Now, I have other matters to attend.”, Inshala replied and calmly rose, and left the circle.
“I am not sure what just happened, girl, but what you just did was dangerous.”, Bremorel said with a frown. “Witches are bitches and not a good lot. I’d rather they didn’t help us.”
“If they do not help us, they will help the enemy, dear Bremorel. Yes, witches can be bothersome, and dangerous, but they must know their place. And for them to know that, they must first learn it, then earn it. My Father had very good reasons for banishing them and it would seem, after all these centuries, they still haven’t learned neither their place nor any humility.”, Inshala replied.
“Lady Inshala is right.”, Moorat said with a vicious scowl. “As much as I detest them, you don’t want them hating you more than you hate them. In his very long life, Master Cathber did many great things. Kicking the witches out of Ritual Forest was one of his best, though.”
She didn’t know this Moorat and he was a scary man.
“Would you give us a moment with Ranger Master Moorat, dear Bremorel? I must consult him on a personal matter.”, she said tentatively.
“Of course.”, Morel replied, though she did give her a queasy look.
Moorat was a broad-shouldered man but not very tall and he still looked down at the little girl. His ranger outfit seemed harassed and make-due, but a closer inspection would reveal, they were, in fact, immaculately kept, just like his bow and great sword he carried across his shoulder.
He did, however, have a truly evil-looking face.
“You display wisdom beyond your years, young lady. I am impressed. Reminds me of someone I knew, once.”, he said in his harsh voice.
“Thank you, sir.”, replied Inshala a bit shyly.
“Ah. I merit a ‘Sir’, now do I?”, grinned Moorat and his already evil-looking features became even more sinister. “This should brighten Stan’s day!”
Inshala flinched again.
“I.. I don’t think you are as you seem.”
“No, little girl. I am exactly as I seem.”, growlaughed the ranger master!
“Would you say dear Bremorel is a good person?”, she asked.
“A bit silly at times. And can start a fight in the blink of an eye, but yes, I would say she is a good girl. The best greenhorn I ever had. Well, not anymore. She’s a lieutenant now.”
“Greenhorn?”, Inshala asked, inadvertently reaching up to touch her own horns.
“Ahh. Bad choice of words there. I meant student.”
“There you have it, then, sir.”, she replied.
“There I have what?”, Moorat asked a bit confused.
“At the hands of a decent man, good becomes better. At the hands of a lecher, bad becomes worse. I heard people tell of her sad story and how she lost her parents and how she was after that. I look at her now and I see a dear sister; smart, full of life, and fiercely loyal to her friends and I would like to think you had a hand in that.”, she said quietly.
Moorat stared at her..
“Well.. maybe.. no one needs to know, though. Are we clear on that, young lady?”, he said flustered and uncomfortable.
“Your secret is safe with me, sir.”, she said and very quietly, she added. “I.. am sorry about your sister.”
“I.. yes.. well.. thank you for your concern..”
“You must miss her dearly.”, she said with the same hushed tone.
“Many who knew her, miss her dearly.”, replied Moorat with a similarly low voice.
“Udoorin was my friend and was always kind and polite to me. I do not remember my mother. She died when I was barely born. But I would very much like to hear who his mother was. I.. would be much in your debt and be honored if you would tell me your sister, Limnia Karya.”
“You know her name?”
“I did not, sir. But to those who know how to listen, the earth we walk.. she speaks us certain names for she does not forget those who do much harm and trample it in hubris, nor does she forget those who are much loved and softly have walked it..”, she replied.
“Limnia.. my dear sister.. did walk it softly..”, whispered Moorat, staring far into the distance. “..and was something else. And I couldn’t even tell her how much I loved her before she died..”
It was long past the first toll of the bell that afternoon when Inshala returned back to the town, accompanied only by a silence Bremorel.
When they entered Serenity Home, the ranger lieutenant gave her a hug and told her to come over for dinner some time, and if she really must, that she could also bring her hubby, Aager, along too, but that it was perfectly fine and she wouldn’t be vexed at all if she didn’t..
Inshala smiled at her and simply said, “We belong.”
Bremorel stared at her with this look on her face and said, “Well, that must suck!”
Inshala smiled again and started towards home.
It was nearing the second toll afternoon and she didn’t think she should keep her hubby waiting.
✱ ✱ ✱
What’s the plan of action, here?”, Aager asked in his growling voice.
“Plan of action? Those are too big words for me, my Aager. I am but a simple girl who needs ranger escort to find her way to a meeting. Perhaps we should stop by the temple and ask Bremorel to join us, again.”, said Inshala with a mischievous spark in her eyes.
Aager fumed a bit but didn’t bite back.
“I am sorry.”, he said. “I wasn’t trying to be bossy nor was it my intention to patronize you.”
“My Aager. I never mind it when you want to boss me, nor patronize me. Because you never do them out of whim, nor to feel good about yourself. But I need your respect and your trust as much as I want your love and your care. I have your love for I can feel it. I have your care for I see it. But you must show your respect and your trust by your deeds. It is true I am not as smart as you are, but if I must fall, then I should fall because one day, I surely will. It is the nature of Mortals to fall and hurt themselves. That is how we learn to look where we are going. I am young and silly and have fallen many times, and still, I forget to look where I step, so to speak, but if that is the only way for me to learn, then I deserve to keep on falling until I don’t.”, she replied kindly.
“That is asking a lot, love.”, Aager said, still fuming.
“To ask for your respect and trust?”, Inshala asked a bit baffled.
“No. To let you risk so many falls..”
Inshala smiled at him.
“Sometimes, I will fall, my Aager. And sometimes you will. We both are still very new at belonging and have a lot to learn. As for the matter at hand, I think it would be better if you do all the talking since this is a matter between the Winter Knight and the Summer Knight. I will only speak should you require some vital information perpaiming.. perkaiming.. per—”, she sighed with a flustered resignation. “I forgot the word!”
“Pertaining?”, offered Aager.
“Yes, that.. perpaiming the fey and the courts..”
They walked in amiable silence for a bit and Inshala looked up to see the vague visage of the Gull’s Perch, lost in the distance and mists. It was several days travel away, but still looked beautiful; a single vertical rock-like mountain, some half a mile at its base and climbed up and up and disappeared in the clouds.
She sighed and Aager nudged her.
“What’s up?”, he asked.
“The Gull’s Perch.”, she replied simply.
The Winter Knight looked up too and stared at the majestic scene.
“What of it?”, he asked.
“It’s been quite some time I haven’t been there. The last time I was, my Father was killed because I was busy playing with the fey that live there. Things could have turned out very differently had I been at home and not there.”
Aager didn’t really know what to say to that. It appeared, guilt was something that logic just couldn’t wash off. So he did the next best thing; he reached and held the little girl by the waist and pulled her tightly to himself, and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
“Give it some time, love. It won’t fade, but it will be tolerable.”
Inshala leaned closer to him and the Guest’s Inn came into view.
“Should something start here, I want you to leave and go home, please.”, he said in his growling voice.
“And you truly think I will abandon you?”, Inshala replied with a frown.
“You won’t. But you can’t be seen, nor be part of a direct conflict between the two opposing knights. I am thinking neither Mab nor Titania will appreciate that. I don’t want you to lose all your good standing with either court.”, he said seriously.
Inshala did one of her funny snorts!
“I love it when you try to get me out of harm’s way using this thing you call logic. Has it ever worked?”
“Every time.”, Aager said blandly. “Because you are a smart and sensible girl.”
“Ow.. I like where this heading.”, Inshala smiled.
“And I am not the sort of guy who falls for just any pretty face. The girl I love must also be sensible, logical, and can see reason when it’s offered to her..”
“..and has the strong will to ignore it when she deems it necessary!”, she finished smugly.
Perhaps it was time for Aager to sigh.
So he did..
“Do not worry my Aager. You know I shall do my best not to hinder you. Just like I know you will do your best not to bind me, and just like we both know neither shall abandon the other, no matter the cost. I may live with the wrath of Mab and Titania. But I have no desire to live alone nor to live without you.”
Aager pushed the door of the Guest’s Inn and scanned the large room full of tables, chairs, and stools, to see the inn was void of people. Even the bar and the bar attendants were gone. He looked up to made sure the stairs leading up were clear, and entered.
It was perhaps the only time he had seen the inn this empty.
Accept for the one table near the center and next to one of the shuttered windows. The inn’s saloon was not dark, per se, but it was decidedly dim.
He looked at the occupied table and saw a figure in dark brown robes, a hood, and a full face mask. The man didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons on him, though Aager knew robes could be deceiving and could hide any number of nasty and pointy things. The man didn’t seem to be large nor tall, but only gave the illusion of size due to the robes, the hood, the mask.
And he wasn’t alone.
A lithe figure say next to him. She wore a tight, dark purple dress-skirts, a polished steel bodice-girdle emphasizing her rather shapely breasts, several necklaces, all accessorized with dozens of multi-colored beads, any number of bracelets with similarly colored grains, and her long, slim fingers were decorated with more rings than she had digits and though her face was covered with a heavy veil, she gave the distinct impression that she was the kind of girl who was comfortable with her own figure but very much liked to be further appreciated for it..
Without further due, he pushed the door wider and stepped aside as Inshala walked in and gave the inn a quick glance herself. She silently nodded at him and they both ghosted towards the only occupied table.
Aager let Inshala slide into the double bench and took his place next to her where she would face the well-accessorized girl, and he would face the man in his dark brown robes, pulled up hood and mask —the Summer Knight.
The four sat there for a long moment as everyone tried to assess their counter-part.
To Aager’s surprise, though, it wasn’t the man in the dark brown robes who spoke first.
“What’s she doing here? Why is she even here?”, asked the girl sitting next to the Summer Knight.. quite viciously.
“I am the Ritual Guardian. I am here as the moderator.”, Inshala said simply.
“I do not recognize this self-imposed title. I do not recognize the Ritual Guardian!”, she hissed.
“Your recognition is neither required nor deemed. Your ignorance of the world you live in, however, is a bit worrisome.”, Inshala replied quietly.
“I doubt you are in any position to lecture me, little girl.”, the girl spat waspishly.
“You are a small as I am.”, Inshala said, trying not to snort.
“I am older than you are!”, the girl hissed.
The Summer Knight sighed.
“And your age has not brought you the wisdom it has promised. Perhaps you should wait a few more years?”, Inshala smiled happily.
“I could take you any day, any time!”
“I don’t think so, Witch!”, Inshala replied calmly.
A choked silence fell over the spat.
“Perhaps we should go and come back some other time.”, Aager said in his ‘quiet’ voice. “As much as others might enjoy a good catfight, I don’t, and neither do I have the time for it..”
“I am sorry, Sir Knight.”, Inshala said, a bit flushed. “I was not name-calling her. Merely defining her for what she really is; a witch! And she is trying to rile us so she could bring her spirits into play and axe this meeting which she knows she is not a part of. She is not fey, she is not a vassal of either court, let alone Summer, and is recognized by neither, and hence, unhappy, which is understandable. By refusing to recognize my title, she hopes to gain a seat at this table as someone who does not have a title herself. What she does not comprehend, is the importance of this meeting. She wants recognition, yet she defies the same from others. Much like the rest of her kind, she turns a deliberate blind eye to the title of Ritual Guardian, which I did not bestow upon myself, as it is not a Mortal whim, and hence, can not be self-imposed, as she is also ignorant of what it entails, much like she is interfering a business between forces as great as Mab and Titania, for each knight here represents one or the other, while she represents no other than her own self-interests.”
Aager did not turn to look at her, though he very much wanted to. That had been one awesome smack-down and he could literally feel the veiled girl seething with hate.
He just stared at the man sitting across from him.
“You asked me why I was here and I have given my reason. Why are you here?”, she asked the girl in the dark, purple dress skirts. “If you so wanted to be part of this meeting, all you had to do was to ask nicely.”
“I am here to make sure you stay out of this meeting and do not cheat!”, the girl said viscously.
“Unlike you, I am actually part of this meeting. You may consult the Queens on this matter if you like. I hold Mab’s personal favor and am bound to Titania due to my druid’s circle. Also, I carry fey blood. Hence, I do not cheat, nor do I require it. Had you known fey, you would also have known it is quite not possible for us to lie. We leave such despicable acts of vile deceit to Mortals.”, Inshala replied with a prim little sniff.
“I.. am sorry for that last part, my Aager.”, she said abashedly.
“No, no. By all means do what it is you are doing, love. Smack her down to your heart’s content. I am enjoying this.”, came Aager’s mirthful voice.
“Please, my Aager. This is important. I have to learn this witch where she belongs amongst us and that she and her ilk are not above others and neither are their actions beyond consequences. A something they have failed to learn after all these centuries when they sided with Themalsar during the first war. Should they want back into the ‘fold’ they must earn it. And to earn it, they must first respect the living and the spirits they enjoy tormenting.”
“I am content, love. Really. By destroying her, you are destroying the summer boy for me.”, he replied smugly.
“Aager Fogstep!”, she replied reprovingly. “He is not the summer boy. He is the Summer Knight.”
“A knight, he may be. A boy, he certainly is. Something about him tells me I should know him.”
“When will Mortals ever learn to use their noses?”
And that little reprimand hit Aager over the head and he suddenly figured out what it was that he had sensed about the boy;
The boy smelled of flour.. and pastry!
“Dervel Stratler..”, he stated.
And noted the man in the dark brown robes, the hood, and the mask stiffen.
“I.. beg your pardon?”, he stammered.
“How is your father?”, Aager asked with an amused tone, from behind his own half-mask.
“I have no idea what you are talking about!”, the Summer Knight stammered some more.
“I challenge you!”, hissed the veiled girl.
“On what grounds? You hold no title of your own. You represent no one other than yourself, and you have nothing to bargain that I would want, should you lose.”, Inshala said a bit baffled.
“I represent the witches of Ritual Forest!”, snarled the girl.
“You want to interfere?”, Aager asked the very young Dervel, mildly. “Or would you rather I did. Because as much as I am the Winter Knight, I also represent the law here and will not have an open fight on my watch. I will take her and you into custody and throw you both to jail and keep you there until such time you are both brought before the mayor whilst he rules a judgment for causing public disturbance during a time of war.”
The Summer Knight didn’t say anything.
But Aager got the impression he wanted to be anywhere but here at that very moment.
“Should I win, you shall accept the same stipulations to step down and no longer be the Ritual Guardian, and we will be allowed to return to Ritual Forest.”, the witch bit savagely.
“What is a spupilation?”, Inshala asked quickly.
“Stipulation, love. It means, condition.”, replied Aager.
“Well, why doesn’t she just say that?”, she fumed.
“Love, she really wants this fight and isn’t going to back down. She is vicious and really wants to hurt you. Should that happen—”
“No, my Aager. You may not interfere in this matter. At this moment, you are the Winter Knight. Should you interfere, Mab will not be happy. And this is something I must do. We need all the help we can get. Including the witches. Because if we don’t get them on our side, the enemy will get them on theirs, exactly the way it happened at Themalsar. I want them to see and to recognize the excuse I am presenting to them to give them their place amongst us.”, Inshala said desperately. “Please..”
“Very well. You have my love and my care. Now I ‘deed’ to show my respect and trust.. by doing nothing..”
“You are here, my Aager. That is something all on its own.”, she replied with a smile.
“Then I put forth the same stipulus.. stickilus.. stimelus..”
The veiled girl laughed.
“You can’t even pronounce a simple word, yet you claim to be the Ritual Guardian?”, she snarked.
“I claim nothing. But I can pronounce your full name, Be’heire Crowfeather, the daughter of an outcast wood elf witch, much like yourself.”
The veiled girl, Be’heire Crowfeather, shut up!
“It shall be a duel to yield and you, all of you, shall join our fight against Orken and their demon masters for so long as they remain a threat and be bound to someone of my choosing, and never shall you ensnare another spirit to torment them ever again. Should any of you break this agreement or fail to uphold it, you will die, all of you, by your own spirits —these were the exact conditions I put forth earlier and they still stand and you and all your kind will abide by these stipumations. Should I win but your ilk refuses to acknowledge you as their champion, I shall assume they have broken the agreement and will call upon all the elves, the rangers, the dwarves, the ogres, the wild, and the fey to bring down their judgment upon you!”
Be’heire froze where she was.
“Honey, please.”, said Dervel. “This really is unnecessary and quite pointless.”
“I disagree..”, Be’heire hissed between clenched teeth.
The Summer Knight signed again.
“Let’s go!”, the witch sneered and got up.
“Very well.”, agreed, Inshala, and also rose.
“Not in my town.”, Aager said quietly.
“Have your precious town, Knight!”, Be’heire sneered and stalked out of the inn, followed closely by Inshala.
Dervel sat where he was and his shoulders slumped noticeably.
“Well..”, he said. “That went well..”
“I have never blamed another man for his choice in women, young man.”, Aager noted. “But yours seems to have issues.”
“She is normally a very kind and sweet girl. She is an outcast, though, both from her own people and Ritual Forest and by no other than Lady Inshala’s master, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig himself. I would agree that his reasons were very much justified, but his banishment did leave behind many discontent witches, all of whom have a chip on their shoulders. Be’heire is young. Very young, even by elf standards, but quite powerful and always feels the need to prove herself. I really hope this does not turn any uglier than it already has.”, the young man said honestly.
“If she hurts my Inshala, I will kill her. You know that right?”, Aager said and there wasn’t a tint of a threat in his tone. He had merely stated a simple fact.
“That’s why I am here, I suppose. To make sure that does not happen.”
“I will kill you too, then.”, Aager said, with the same exact tone.
“I suppose you will try. But I must warn you. Starting a war between the courts is not a wise course of action. Not now, anyway.”, Dervel said carefully.
“I care little for the courts, and this is not a Winter-Summer issue anymore. It is one man avenging his woman. If you can’t do that for yours, then you are not much of a man, young Dervel.”
“You represent the law, Aager Fogstep. You are not above it—”
“You misunderstand me, boy. I shall slay her and you, then sit happily in my jail for the remainder of my life!”, Aager replied coldly.
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala came to a stop in the center of a clearing, somewhere not too deep in the Ritual Forest. The trees surrounding the clearing were brittle with cold, and snow blanketed everything in sight. A large boulder stood, sticking vertically out of the frozen ground somewhere a bit to one end of the clearing and she went and stood near it and waited.
Soon enough, Be’heire appeared on the other side of the nearly fifty feet long and forty feet wide relief, scowling at her.
“Go ahead, Ritual Guardian. Let’s see what you got!”, she sneered at the half-fey.
“Very well, Be’heire. I would have wished we settled this peacefully. The true enemy approaches as we speak and they will not care if I am a druid, and neither will they show mercy because you are a witch. They will slaughter us with equal abandon.”, Inshala said sincerely.
“We are past talking, little girl.”, Be’heire spat.
“No. We are not. There have been no crimes done between us. No notable insults have been lashed that demands a retribution or rebuke. We are, at this very moment, at an agreeable standstill.”, Inshala corrected.
“You are just like your old master. Talk and talk and talk and nothing else. He was a fool. And so are you!”, the witch said with vehemence.
Inshala frowned a bit.
“Why would you bring my Father into this. He is not here.”
“I could summon his spirit anytime and—”
Be’heire Crowfeather never got to finish that particular sentence.
In the blink of an eye, giant grasping vines stabbed out of the ground sending dirt and debris and covered everything, a hundred feet in every direction, and they kept growing!
Be’heire yelped and jumped to avoid being ensnared and yelped again as she stepped on sharp, thick thorns, three inches each, sticking out of the frozen ground. She gritted her teeth and summoned her bound spirits and sent them after the fey girl she could barely see through the cacophony of wild growth.
The angry spirits shrieked and speared at Inshala, who just stood there staring angrily at the witch.
“You and your ilk never learned when to stop at foolish. I may not tutor all your ilk, but I shall do this one favor to you. You may not respect me when I am done, but you will respect the world you live in and the spirits you bind..”
..and stepped right into the large, vertical rock!
The spirits slammed the boulder, shrieking and clawing at it to no effect..
..just as Inshala got out of the other side of the rock and released another spell.
The spirits went after her again but she stepped back into the rock!
One of the trees, right behind Be’heire came alive, and with a wide swing of its branches, it struck the witch, sending her sprawled deeper into the gnarling, thorny vines. Be’heire shrieked in pain as her head spun from the savage attack of the tree coupled with all the stabbing thorns and one of the entwining vines had gotten a very painful grasp of one of her ankles and had started twisting it at a very disorienting angle.
“Yield, Be’heire.”, Inshala said sternly, as she stepped out of the rock. “I could bring much lightning and great fires upon you, right now, yet I have not.”
Be’heire cast a spell and flew!
Just to be slammed, very hard, back down and into the frozen ground by the thick, thorny vine twisting her ankle. Something snapped and she howled in pain as her eyes teared and she lost control of her spirits.
With shrieks of mad triumph, the spirits went after their tormentor!
“NO!”, snapped Inshala. “You may leave in peace and be free, but you may not afflict your madness upon another Mortal, even though she may deserve it.”
The mad spirits hovered over the tear-streaken witch, clawing at the air, an inch away from her face.
But slowly, they drew back..
..and faded away.
And Be’heire pointed a finger at Inshala and snarled.
A beam of pure, black darkness shot out of her finger and slammed at Inshala..
Far away, back at Serenity Home, and in the Guest’s Inn, Aager Fogstep felt an awful sense of dread wash over him.
For a long, dreary moment, he felt his own heart stop!
He tried to breathe but nothing happened.
His vision blurred and the inn’s dim saloon darkened..
..then the dim returned, his vision cleared, his heart fluttered and started to beat again, and the sense of dread was gone.
Aager Fogstep, the Winter Knight..
And the Summer Knight never knew what hit him..
One moment he was calmly sitting across the man in his dark leathers, the next, he was hurled across the room as a savage blast of sonic winter slammed him right into the wall, at the far end of the inn!
And the Winter Knight was upon him, a shimmering, ghostly blade put to task right at the Summer Knight’s throat..
“Wha— What are you doing?”, Dervel exclaimed.
“You have broken faith between the courts!”, he snarled, his eyes burning with blue, arctic flames. “Your woman cast a death curse upon the Ritual Guardian during a duel of yield! I warned you what I would do should she harm my Inshala. Hence shall I start with you!”
Young Dervel started, quite horrified as the Winter Knight drew blood.
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala staggered as the tree of life she tendered deep in her soul shuddered and trembled and many of its beautiful, purple-green leaves shriveled and died.
She gasped for breath and felt her heart flutter and the afternoon sun dimmed down to a pin’s point as she felt herself drown.
“INSHALA!”, screamed a voice in her mind and she thought she knew that voice.
And with something akin to panic, she held on to that voice, her Aager’s voice, and pulled herself up..
..and the light returned back to the forest.
“You.. you cast a death curse in a duel of yield?”, she asked the bleeding and squirming girl, shredded in the thorny vines.
“I.. am so sorry, Inshala.. I swear.. I didn’t mean to!”, she whimpered.
“You did mean to, Be’heire. You can not cast a death curse without intent, for one is the prerequisite of the other. You broke the agreement, the rules of the engagement and you broke faith. And now, not only your life, but the life of your beloved man hangs in balance.”, she asked unable to comprehend what the girl bleeding in the thorns had just done.
“What was it that was so important that you would want to take the life of another, Be’heire? What did I do to you or your ilk that you would release your death curse on me?”
“Your.. your master ruined us. He and his druids leveled our homes and burned our fields. He banished us from our lands.. We were left homeless.. We were made outcasts..”, the witch moaned bitterly.
“You never learned. Only blamed. Your ilk sided with the vilest of men and the foulest of fiends and demons and caused death by the thousands and brought unimaginable suffering upon Mortals at Themalsar. Yet you still refuse to face the consequences of your actions. Your ilk must learn to own their sins, should you want a place among Mortals. But you, Be’heire, what you did had nothing to do with what your ilk did. You are too young to have seen nor lived their suffering. Your reason is merely an excuse for your misdemeanor and that excuse has nothing whatsoever to do with you for none of the witches that were ousted are alive today. You never suffered, and never were you troubled as an outcast, seeing as how you live, quite comfortably, in Serenity Home, for which the rest of us shall fight for, bleed for, and die for, and only you and your ilk will not..”, Inshala replied, her voice not unkind, but she hammered the stranded witch with them.
“What.. what would you know of suffering, girl?”, Be’heire sneered at her.
Inshala just looked at the witch.
Silently and still.
Then, she undid the thin straps of her dress and let it fall on the frozen ground, displaying her skinny, gaunt form.
Be’heire ogled at the little, naked girl.
Slowly, Inshala turned.
And the witch stared, quietly horrified, at the little half-fey’s whip riddled back..
“What.. what is this?”, she gasped, her eyes wide open.
“This is called suffering, Be’heire. The kind that speaks for itself. The kind that does not need to be aired and used as an excuse for my own self-interests. I made mistakes and came too near ignorant Mortals and met the consequences of my folly at their hands. I learned, at the age of eight, that everything we do has consequences, and that we must face them and own them. And so must you. I am the Ritual Guardian, Be’heire, yet those that left these abhorrent scars upon me still live, as do their sons and daughters because I chose it so even though I had the right to extract my vengeance from them. You, Be’heire, you spurned your misplaced hate upon me. You deliberately tried to kill me by leveling a death curse at me and in a duel of yield without cause nor reason.. Thus I call upon you to face your own judgment, Be’heire Crowfeather. You and all your ilk will join us and fight against the Orken and their demon masters so long as they remain a threat. And just like us, shall you bleed and die for this cause.”, she said with a steely voice and a long, thorny whip made of vines appeared in her hand. “Or I shall return your misdemeanor in kind and you shall die by my hand, right now.. And so shall your beloved mate, at the hands of the Winter Knight.”
Be’heire Crowfeather stared at the skinny, naked girl in total fear.
And Inshala’s voice cracked like a whip.
✱ ✱ ✱
What’s up, girl? You look beat!”, asked Bremorel when the little girl found her near the forest, training a new batch of Arashkan survivors.
“I need your help to find Ranger Master Moorat, dear Bremorel. And I need you to be there so he doesn’t.. get too angry with me..”, she said and she sounded as tired as she looked.
“Sure. But why? Did he say something to hurt you?”, Bremorel asked. “If he did, you shouldn’t take it too seriously. He says things, but he doesn’t mean them.”
“No, no. He was very kind to me.”, Inshala said hastily.
“Huh.”, the ranger girl said with some surprise. “Sorry I missed that. Come, he should be on the other side of the river.”
“Tis alright, gurl.”, Bremorel said, giving her a big grin.
Then she blared!
“MAL! TAKE OVER! AND THAT BLOODY TARGET DUMMY HAD BETTER BE RIDDLED WITH ARROWS WHEN I GET BACK!”
And grinned again.
“I so love smacking rookies..”
“Ranger Master Moorat, sir. The Ritual Guardian would have a word with you.”, Bremorel said after a crisp salute.
“What are you doing here, Bree? Don’t you have a batch of your own to train?”, scowled Moorat.
“I do, sir. But Lady Inshala, here—”, she began.
“Just, Inshala, please.”, Inshala said in a small voice.
“I am sorry, girl. Between us and when we are among friends, just Inshala will happen. When you are in your Ritual Guardian-thingy, you are Lady Inshala, and I’ll bash in any face that says otherwise!”
“Told you Bree was my favorite student.”, grinned Moorat. “Now. What can I do for you, young lady?”
Inshala paused for a moment before she spoke as if deciding on how she should phrase what she wanted to say.
Then she took a deep, pained breath and spoke.
“Ranger Master Moorat. The witches have agreed to join us in our fight against the Orken.”
“That was quick. And great news.. I think..”, Moorat said dubiously.
“I have given their command to you.”
A dead silence settled and Moorat displayed the ugliest face, anyone, in a thousand miles in any direction had seen!
Bremorel held her breath for as long as she could, then snorted.
“Why.. would you do this to me?”, he asked Inshala with a blackened face.
“You, sir, know the witches. Well enough to hate them and be wary of them. You are also the best qualified to know where to make the best use of them. You will sweat them, and bleed them, and be it necessary, kill them, should they stray from their given oaths. They have many skills, not unlike yours, and they know how to curse and to bring down destruction. They will be under your command until they learn ‘respect’ and earn their place amongst others.”
Moorat stared at her, feeling a bit freaked.
“Learn respect? They will never learn respect!”, he scoffed.
“Then they shall stay under your command for a very, very long time, sir.”, she said with a wan smile.
“And I believe one of them will have something to show you.”, she added quickly.
“You don’t do anything by half, do you, young lady.”, Moorat said in a deflated tone.
“No, sir. I don’t. And I pity the other half.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala woke up to something. She wasn’t sure what it was and she felt groggy and sleepy and stupid and very, very tired. Apparently, a save from a death curse left one a lot to be desired.. As opposed to outright dying..
She had come home late that night, arm-in-arm with her hubby, the Winter Knight, and just collapsed on the threadbare mattress and curled into a little ball.
Aager had stared down at her, thinking just how close she had come face to face with death, and how he had very nearly killed a seventeen-year-old boy!
He pressed his lips together in a grim expression as he pulled off his dark leather hood, his half-mask, his armor, and his weapons and put them neatly on one side of the mattress where he could easily reach for them. Then he picked up the sleeping girl and sort of pulled the blanket from under her, laid her back on the mattress, and covered her with the itchy thing.
Then he went over to the fireplace and lit it using the flint and iron sitting next to it, grabbed the small iron pot, got outside, drew some water using the old, squeaky water pump, and filled the pot, returned inside, and set the pot over the fire. He peeled some potatoes, a large onion, and several carrots and killed them into small pieces, and dumped them into the pot. Then he pulled at the cooking oil and poured some of it into the pot as well, sprinkled a few pinches of various herbs and the one Inshala called Kumse Beetles, though he wasn’t sure if she was making a pun or if she was being literal. Aager thought, perhaps not every single thing had to be known between mates and lovers. A girl should have some secrets, right?
He sat next to the fire, and the red-orange light from the fireplace danced and gave a harsh, angry cast on one side of his face and hid the other as he stared at the curled shape of the girl sleeping drained just a few feet away..
..and he thought about the events of that day and what they would entail in the long run.
Indeed, Aager hadn’t made any friends that day.
He had very nearly sliced open young Dervel’s throat, from ear to ear in his madness..
He signed and checked in on the now boiling pot. Just a few more moments and the carrots should be soft enough. Potatoes were easy. It was always with the carrots.
Silently he rose, picked up the two, hand-carved bowls and checked each for any chips or cracks. Carving plates wasn’t an easy job and certainty hadn’t been for the skinny little girl. Yet she’d carved them, just for him and herself. Aager had never been a materialistic type, but for some reason, these bowls, and the other two wooden plates had turned out to become precious to him.
He unhooked the iron pot out of the fireplace and dumped some of it into either pot, produced two spoons, and dug into one while he waited for the other to cool off. He tended to ignore the blistering heat of the food he ate, but Inshala became whimpery and teared up and pouted when she burned her mouth.
He slurped the last of the juice of what remained of the stew, got up, and went over to the threadbare mattress with the other bowl, still steaming.
He sat next to the girl and set the bowl next to himself and carefully, he picked her up and sat her in his lap and close to his lean, spring-coil chest and with a small nudge, he whispered.
“A bit of a bite before you totally wink out, love. C’mon. Open up.”
When she didn’t wake, he gave her another gentle nudge.
This one got a response, though not very intelligible.
“Iam hngry but Iamalso vrysleepishhh!”, she whimpered, her words slurred.
“Yes, yes, I know you are, but you shouldn’t sleep with an empty stomach, either. Open up. C’mon. Just a few spoons..”
Inshala opened up and mechanically chewed as the Winter Knight spoon-fed her..
..until the bowl was empty.
Apparently, Aager didn’t like doing things by half, either.
He settled her back down, went outside with the bowls, the spoons, and the iron pot, and in the dead of night, and the freezing cold, he gave them all a quick wash and returned back inside and put them all in their proper place..
..and slumped under the blanket himself.
And with some innate instinct, Inshala squirmed a bit and nudged her little butt until she was comfortably snuggled up to him and he enclosed her in his arms and now, her skinny back was leaning against his chest..
It had been a few hours later that Inshala had come around, not quite sure what it had been that had woken her up. She was still lying next to Aager but was facing him..
..and both her hands were in his shirt, one touching the spring-coil muscles of his lean chest, the other, running down his marred back!
Inshala blushed a bit and looked up at Aager’s face to see if he was awake and was going to be mad at her but he was still asleep and seemed.. at peace..
“The deed is done.”, she thought happily, tinted with a certain sense of guilt and shame.
“The hands want what the hands want and go where they want!”, she said nodding with confirmation at her own, very ‘logical’ explanation in her mind.
It was then she realized.
What it was that had woken her.
It hadn’t been the warmth she felt inside the palms of her slim hands as she held them in his shirt but a certain other, ‘calloused’ warmth that spread, like some deep, smoldering fire, from her own chest, and around her once buxom, now sad and small breasts, and down.. way down the small of her back
Inshala gasped with petrified astonishment and with unyielding, throbbing exhilaration..
It was his hands..
..and they were, right now, in her shirt.
A ‘Warm’ Warning
Sometime in near future.
And back at Serenity Home.
Early one evening..
Aager Fogstep, the right hand of the town sheriff, the head of SIS —Serenity Intelligence Service, and unbeknownst to any but the willing few; the dreary Winter Knight and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane Bolgrig Hooman, the Mistress of The Grove, the wont of Mab and Titania, the Lady of Durkahan and the Ritual Guardian walk side-by-side, indeed, arm-in-arm, worn and tired of a long day’s hard accomplishments.
The quiet young woman, somewhat abashed and with the small smile of an unspoken achievement clearly etched on her face, walks with light steps next to the silent, spooky man in his dark, sinister-looking leathers, hood, and mask. The girl inadvertently does this little skip-and-hop thing every once in a while for she has her hair down and her awesome rams horns are in full display; the source of her smile, her skip, and her elation.. and one of great consternation, fear, dread, dismay, and anxiety —each distinct, now, and finally overcome, accepted, and acknowledged.. The man on the other hand seems alert and distracted at the same time. His steps are steady, careful, and ready to pounce. His distraction, hidden under the hood and mask, is perhaps due to the unaddressed nature of the hope he hankers, as they head for the little, single-room lodge assigned to him years ago, and that the girl with the light, happy steps next to him would also call, ‘home’..
“Thank you.”, he whispers in his growly and gravelly voice.
The girl turns and gives him a look of shy elation.
“You are welcome. But, why?”, she asks.
The man clears his throat.
Fighting and consequently bleeding, many times, has never been a matter of trepidation for him.
This little girl, and trying to express his feelings, for her or otherwise, however, has always felt like an uphill battle for him.
A battle he knows he would win, should he but dare.
She certainly wills, with all her heart and mind, that he would.
Dare.. and win..
“I suspect you know why..”, he says carefully.
“I do. But I like it more when you voice it. Reminds me of Katana, my saber-tooth.”, she replies quietly.
“You like my voice because I sound like a cat?”, he asks a bit amused.
“My cat was not just any cat.”, the young girl retorts with mock fire. “She was a great, six hundred pound tiger, with a massive jaw that could take a man’s head whole and still have room for dessert, and awesome paws that could cave in an ogre’s belly, flat! And I find the viscous similarities between the two of you quite.. intoxicating! I am sure, or at least I very much hope you find something in me that makes you remember things you liked. Perhaps that is why we find something akin in one another.”, she says happily.
“How do say things like that and claim not to understand people?”, he asks with unveiled wonder.
“I claim nothing other than you, my Aager —for as long as I can.. Some things are clear to me. People.. and this.. social-thingy.. is just not one of them.”, she replies with resigned remorse.
“Fair enough.”, somewhat agrees, Aager. “Though you are wrong about my finding something akin in you that reminds me of something else that I once liked.”
“Ow.. How come?”, asks Inshala with a small pout.
“The answer to that is quite elementary in its simplicity.”, he says with a well-hidden smile.
“You are unique!”, Aager admits, and freely.
And without even needing to turn, he feels, through their bond, how the young woman blushes.
“That.. is beautiful to hear.”, she stammers.
“You like?”, he asks, with a very un-Aager like tone. A tone that he would never, like never ever, use with anyone but the girl in his arm.
“I.. love!”, she smiles, blushing even more.
“I thanked you..”, Aager says, rewinding a bit back. “.. because of your brevity. And for not hiding what you are, for I wish you never to be my personal secret, but known to all, and that we belong.”
“I must thank you for that, even though I know you will not let me. But we both know I would never have come here, let alone display myself the way I have, had it not been for you.”, she admits and smiles even more.
“Perhaps. But this is your moment. Not mine. And..”, he says and freezes in his pace.
As if on cue, so does she.
“What is it?”, she asks peering into the night.
“I.. am not sure..”, admits Aager with a slight frown. “I sense.. an equal.. but not.. at the same time..”
“You sense quite correctly.”, says a deep, muffled voice from the night.
“Show yourself, if your intentions are honorable!”, grows Aager Fogstep, his hands clear and at his sides and Inshala standing, not precisely behind, but with the exact amount of space and distance he would need to draw his swords for a swing, a parry or an unrestrained thrust..
“That, coming from you, I find a bit ironic, Sir Knight.”, says the muffled voice.
“I sense.. Summer.”, whispers Inshala, a bit baffled.
“I greet you, Lady Inshala, and I mean you no harm.”, comes the voice.
“But you mean harm to whome I belong!”, she says staring hard into the night.
“That is but for him to decide.”, declares the muffled voice with an intense and implied voice.
“What is this?”, asks Aager in her mind.
“I am not sure, my Aager. I have a guess, but I would rather he introduced himself, lest I give him power he may not have.”, replies the young woman in his.
“Dammit!.”, very nearly blazes Aager with frustration. “Apparently, running around all day fixing issues and defacing potential political outbreaks, training three different parties for the upcoming battle, and corking security gaps as an encore, is not enough.. I would like one moment.. ONE SILENT MOMENT IN PEACE with you and alone, dammit!”
“I am sorry, my Aager. This is my fault.”, whispers Inshala guiltily.
“How is this your fault?”, he asks, still frustrated.
“You are the Winter Knight because of me.”, she says in a small voice.
“Inshala.. To this day, I have done many things that I have come to regret, and shall likely end up doing more.. Dying for you to live, however, was never one of them.”, he almost lashes back.
“But..”, Inshala tries to object.
“Also to this day, never have I banned nor barred you of anything, have I?”, he steams.
“No, my Aager. Never.”
“Well, now I have. Never shall I hear another word of regret to the choices I made with regard to you. Because when you cast doubt in my choice, you cast doubt on what I feel for you.”, he says, and not without wroth.
Inshala falls silent, whether it is perhaps due to shock of how her Aager has just addressed and admonished her, or because she is afraid, is not clear. When she speaks, however, it is due to neither.
“I.. am sorry, my Aager. It was thoughtless of me to question you and your feelings, for I know it isn’t easy for you to speak them, yet you have.. For my sake.”, she says with shame in her voice.
“Inshala. Please. There really isn’t any reason to go there.. Much like you have made peace with some of the things in your life, your past, and your choices, I have thus done so. If being Mab’s hatchet man is the way to keep you and safe, peace, then, is upon me.”, he says, though not unkindly.
“You want me to cry, don’t you, my Aager..”, pouts Inshala.
“Not for me, and not tonight..”, he says as he smiles..
..and turns to face the man, hidden in the night.
With a low, distant, and arctic voice, the Winter Knight growls..
“Who are you, and what do you want? I have run a full day of petty mortal errands and am tired. I have another long day full of such errands waiting for me tomorrow, which is in mere few hours, and hence have I but little time to spare for late-night theatrics, and none for drama. Either come out and spill your wont, or go. Suffice to say, move or I shall move through you, should you truly want to test me tonight, for you are between myself, my lady, and my home, in the middle of the night, and in my town..”
“Oh, my.”, giggles Inshala and mimes a tiny, virtual fist into the air —in his mind.
“I think he just ate earth! You go, Winter Knight!”
“You go, WHAT? Where did you even hear that?”, asks Aager both surprised and amused.
“I am sorry. I have no idea what I just said.”, bubbles the young girl a bit embarrassed. “I heard young Master Cümeyt say it, but I am not sure what it means! He did make it sound like a ‘cheer’, though!”
Aager laughs.. silently..
“It is ‘dirt’, by the way, love..”, he inserts, stifling another laugh. “Not, ‘earth’..”
“But.. isn’t dirt, well, dirty?”, wonders Inshala a bit confused.
“The best thing about dirt, you never want to eat it more than once, love”, Aager says, not without a certain amount of vicious satisfaction. The man in dark leathers, hood, and mask wears what he does for three, rather distinct reasons, and none of them has anything to do with drama;
One, the obvious reason; for better cover in the dark.
Two; Aager has an astute sense of smell, particularly for bad ones..
And three; a dark hood, along with the mask, has the practical capacity to fend off fools.
There is a moment of chagrined silence and Aager gets the distinct impression that whoever it is hiding in the night, is perhaps a tad new at whatever he is at..
“Very well.”, the muffled voice says. “Meet me at the Guest’s Inn tomorrow at noon.”
“Afternoon!”, Inshala counters.
Another silence ensues.
“Why? Why would you back this evil man, Lady Inshala?”, he asks quite perturbed.
“My Aager is no evil man. He has proven his mettle. Yours is yet to be seen, Sir.”, she replies the young girl with stern command.
Aager’s eyebrows shoot up.
It isn’t the first time his Inshala has gone out of her way to defend him, and it certainly feels.. surprisingly ‘awesome’.. to be.. safeguarded?.. by someone you dearly loved, but the verbal dual here is a subtle one and in a realm, he is not yet accustomed nor has had much privy to.
“Afternoon, then. I shall consent to this request for your sake, Lady Inshala.”, the muffled voice says.
“You shall do no such thing, Sir. I owe you nothing and have promised you nothing. And I shall owe you no debt! ‘Afternoon’ is a neutral time, neither too warm nor too cold.”, Inshala says, equally sternly.
A sigh of resignation is heard followed by the slightest shuffle of feet and the muffled voice is gone.
“Alright.”, Aager muses, staring into the night. “That wasn’t odd or anything. Your thoughts, love?”
“I.. I am not certain..”, Inshala frowns slightly.
“It’s alright. Your halves are better than my nons!”, smiles the sinister-looking man.
“You are in an unexpected mood this night, my Aager. And I can’t even claim any crafty skills on my part.”, smiles back the young girl.
“First of all, I apologize, wholeheartedly, for my harsh words earlier. You deserve better than that. But I would much rather we put my choices and their reasons well behind us. They are done and gone. Going over them makes neither of us happy, but puts both of us in despair. Agreed?”, he says quietly.
“And I apologize for bringing it up in the first place, though I got what I deserved for it. I shall submit to your wishes on this matter, my Aager, hence, yes. Agreed.”, she replies staring somewhat at her own feet.
“Please, don’t do that.”, Aager says.
“Don’t do what?”, she asks.
“You did nothing wrong. Don’t look down. As a matter of fact, never look down!”, Aager pleads.
Inshala looks up, her face is slightly pink.
“You will not even let me suffer my own follies.”, she says with a flustered pout.
“The pout can stay. It looks sweet on you.”, smiles the man in dark leathers.
Inshala does a very unladylike snort, causing Aager to laugh.. out loud!
“Well. How about that. I laughed. Can’t remember the last time I did that. I guess I do owe my mood to crafty skills on your part.”, he says with an amused tone of voice. “As to what that was all about, I believe you do have some thoughts on the matter.”
“Yes. And deep down, I believe you have as well, my Aager..”, replies the young girl, suddenly looking at him with intense eyes.
Aager cocks an eyebrow and thinks..
..and the thing that has had him itching somewhere at the back of his mind suddenly dawns.
“Yes, my Aager. Nature is balance. Winter will follow Summer and Summer dies when Winter arrives. Much like Summer will melt and defrost Winter upon her arrival..”, she says softly.
“Damn..”, he blurts. “He is.. double damn.. the Summer Knight? My opposite?”
“That is my thought. I believe he wanted to keep that to himself and perhaps use it as a levelidge.. lefedirge.. leafer—”, she blunders and her face turns pure red in self-disgrace.
“Leverage?”, Aager offers kindly.
“Yes. That..”, says the young girl, her face still burning with frustrated shame.
“But he gave himself away.. Ahhh, that’s why you argued about ‘noon’. It is likely he will be at the peak of his power at noons and at summer times. That was very ingenious of you the way you refused him and moved the time of the meet to afternoon.”, says Aager admiringly for even though the young girl hadn’t quite won him an advantage, she had, instead, stripped any his opposite might have gained, just by changing something that had seemed so trivial.
Inshala blushes some more.
“I suspected.. the moment you said, ‘sensing an equal, but not, at the same time..’, and when he called you, ‘Sir Knight.’ Only fey would know you for what you are.. And the vassals of either court. I felt no fey vibes from him. He seemed.. mortal.. and something else.. perhaps some sort of affiliation I am not aware of.”
“How come there is suddenly a Summer Knight now and what does that entail?”, asks Aager, with a ‘should-I-be-concerned?’ frown.
“Nature is balance, my Aager. Both Winter and Summer have a ‘Mother’ known as Mother Winter and Mother Summer, and then they have the Queens, Mab as the Winter Queen, and Titania as the Summer Queen. Both courts are also supposed to have a ‘Lady’, but there hasn’t been a Winter Lady for ages forgotten After she lost her own daughter some unknown millennia ago, Mab refused to take another as the Winter Lady, causing the Summer Lady wane, and eventually fade away.. There was the potential for a new Summer Lady, but she was slain at Gull’s Perch by some ruffians a year or two before I was born, which is why there has been a ban on mortals, and why there is a dwarven outpost there, guarding the Perch’s entrance ever since.. I believe there were some dwarves among the ruffians and Titania blamed their kin at Scowling Hills and forced them to build the outpost and safeguard the valley as payment for their kins’ sins against her daughter. Whether the death of her daughter was a coincidence, or it was because Mab would still not take a new Winter Lady, I do not know.”
Aager listens to the young woman in amazement as she explains the monumental goings-on that no mortal would know.
“There also hasn’t been a Winter Knight since the last one was slain by a mighty wild fey, who was actually a noble in Mab’s court once, many, many millennia ago. And Summer failed to produce a knight of their own during that time. It isn’t a coincidence that they would do so now, almost the moment you chose to become Mab’s Winter Knight. For there to be balance, nature compempates.. compendates—”, she pauses, her face flushed with embarrassment again. “Help me, please..”, she pleads..
“Compensates?”, offers Aager as he puts one hand over her small shoulder and gently turns her to face him.
“Conpendates.. That..”, blubbers the girl, her face burning red. “I hate this. I am so stupid. I lack so many important words, and I am supposed to be the Ritual Guardian and fill my Father’s shoes..”
“Hey.. Don’t be like that.. Please.. We promised to be stupid together, remember? At least you know what you are talking about. I don’t even know where to begin to even understand.”, he says kindly, and gently pulls her into his arms.
Inshala just stands there, burning with embarrassment on any number of levels now.
“You are so awesome.”, he adds quietly.
“Awesome like.. Madina? Or awesome like Moira?.. Or perhaps awesome like Laila? Laila is awesome and cool, though I am not sure what that means.. I mean, she has a nice, warm heart. And I think that De-De-Dexter boy likes her. I saw him give her, as an example of how his trainees should act and behave, just the other day.”, she mumbles.
“Madina, Moria, D.D. Dexter and even Laila aside, I would say, awesome like Inshala.”, he says. Then thinks for a moment, nods, and repeats. “Yep. We shall thus call it, Inshala-Awesome!”
Slowly he releases her, and they are once again, arm in arm, walking in the night, towards ‘home’..
. . .
“She is pathetic.”, says the skinny, vixen girl, hidden further in the night, and quite waspishly.
“She is what she is, love. And she holds great favors from both the courts. It is not wise of you to speak ill of her, nor to go out of your way to taunt her. She is good people..”, replies the man with the muffled voice.
“And the man. His attitude. Such arrogance.. Perhaps a nice hex will fix that for him..”, she sneers after the two.
“You shall do no such thing, love. There is no point in starting a war here when there is another war right on our doorstep. I merely wanted to meet him and warn him not to abuse his powers. We shall meet on the morrow.”, he says sternly.
“You are afraid of him.”, sniffs the girl with disdain.
“No one in his right mind would be uncautious of him, love. Mab chose carefully, as she always does. Don’t let your pride get the better of you.”
The girl sniffs again, and haughtily, with her small, perky nose.
“I bet, I could best her!”, she declares.
“Perhaps.”, says the man. “But you will not go up against her. She is the Ritual Guardian.”
“Suppose you best her. What then? Who will take up her burden?”
The girl shrugs.
“Will you?”, the man asks, looking at the skinny girl.
“Why would I? It is a folly burden that offers little to no reward. She is as foolish as her Father was..”
The man with the muffled voice signs. The slight girl standing so agitated next to him is a fun, life-loving girl, but she does have her moments of pique, and they did tend to get the better of her indeed, and she is quite a single-minded girl who lives for silly challenges..
..which was how they had met, really.
“Come. We have much to do ourselves..”, he says, in hopes of distracting her. “Thousands of mouths to feed..”
“I think I want to know what they talk when they are alone.”, she says, squinting after what little she could make of the two, distant figures walking away, arm-in-arm.
“No.”, says the man even more sternly this time. “You don’t..”
..And picks up the skinny girl, by her waist and carries her off, literally, as she kicks and squirms and laughs with delight..
“Will you feed me too, Sir Knight?”, she snickers viciously..
Place; Serenity Home
Aager Fogstep and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane have left Durkahan city and returned to Serenity Home where each has their own harsh responsibilities waiting for them.
46 Days After The Fall Of Arashkan.
The lithe figure in long, brown, leather trenchcoat skulked near the wall, taking advantage of the shadows and the bush, happily growing in the garden of the house. She had her target insight, perched and hidden amongst the branches of a brittle, snow-covered tree, and she had no intentions of letting it get away this time. She dearly hoped the other two were in place. Then her thin lips pressed together and she growled in her low, throaty voice. “They had better be. Or there is going to be murder!”
Carefully, and with exaggerated motions, she took another step forward.
Her target didn’t seem to notice and was looking, not quite in the other direction, but she knew she wasn’t in her target’s peripheral vision either. A drop of sweat trickled down her brow and itched its way down the side of her boldly drawn nose, around the curve of her tightly pressed lips, and disappeared around and under her somewhat angular chin. The lithe girl did not flinch, nor moved to wipe it off. She’d done that once, before, and that was why her query had gotten away.
“Not this time. Not this time.”, she hissed. “This time, you are going down!”
Not far, another figure was ghosting. This one in dark, sinister-looking leathers. He wore a low hood and a mask, made from the same material, covering the bottom half of his otherwise slightly pale face. A short, dirty-black, and tattered cloak hung from his back, all the way down to his hips and just a bit more, hiding the daggers attached to his leather belt, and his short, but deadly swords strapped across his back. He was a stab above average in height and had shoulders an edge under broad. He was neither skinny nor gaunt, but lean, though he gave the slight impression that perhaps he’d suffered from malnutrition in his youth, and now, his form refused to take any access body fat. There was a cold, wintery air about him as he moved even closer to the lithe girl in her long, brown, leather trenchcoat.
“What are you doing, girl?”, he growled quietly.
His voice actually did sound like a growl.
“You are not supposed to be here. I distinctly remember warning you not to bring your murder into my town. Was I not clear? Must I kill you to remind you of that?”
The lithe figure took another oozing step.
And her target prickled and looked directly in her direction!
The girl in the long, brown trenchcoat froze..
Her target’s eyes scanned and raked the area in her direction without mercy, but the lithe figure was good and her target couldn’t see her.
“Yes. Turn around and look the other way now. Come on. You know you must.”, she murmured to herself.
As if her words were some kind of prophecy or perhaps some mental geas, her target slowly turned around and started scouring in the other way —the opposite direction.
“Right.”, whispered the lithe figure triumphantly. “Now or never.”
The man in the dark, sinister-looking leathers also froze, for he saw someone else who had just come into play. Another lithe figure. This one had a long-sleeved, white, silk shirt, of all colors, open at her slender throat, a dark, gold-trimmed, tight bodice that fit her like a glove and complimented her hips, her waist, and her cup-sized breasts, a pair of black, belly dancers low-cut, loose trousers, and soft healed boots reaching up to her knees. Unlike the first, this girl did not skulk, but moved like.. water! The lean man in dark leathers had never seen anyone move with such natural grace, and that was a word he used to describe the lithe figure’s flowing motion which was exactly what she had done. She hadn’t moved silently, she had flowed from one spot to another! Her whole body language bespoke of elasticity, suppleness, and fluidity.. and precision! The man in the dark, sinister-looking leathers didn’t know who she was but guessed at what she might be, for she also had antler-like horns, and she was upon the girl in the long, brown trenchcoat before she knew it!
Aager Fogstep heard a very soft, bold voice.
“You are dead, love.”
“What the hell?”, he exclaimed as Lilly Venom slumped down and on her knees, screeching as she pummeled the dirt..
..and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostman Bolgrig Hooman Fogstep jumped down from her perch on the tree as she punched the air with a small fist, a happy grin on her face, as she gloried a victorious, “YESSHHH! I THINK WE WON AGAIN!”
“NO DAMIT! NO. BLOODY EF’ING NO! I ALMOST HAD IT! I ALMOST HAD HER! EF! EF! EF! EF! EF! EF! EF! EF!”, screamed Lilly Venom!
“Now now, dear girl.”, said the one with the antlers, also grinning. “There are children around that might overhear you. I believe that word is considered bad among mortals, though the reason escapes me. After all, there are children around because of deed that word implies and entails!”
“HOW, DAMIT! HOW DID YOU EVEN..!”, Lilly screamed at her. “I ALMOST HAD HER THIS TIME!”
“I am sorry, dear girl, but you never had her. This round, she played the possum, per se. Or bait, if you will.”
“WHERE ARE MY TEAMMATES, DAMIT? THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO HAVE COVERED ME!”
“Totally owned ’em!”, came a soft, merry voice.
“Uhhmm.. I am sorry Lilly..”, said a very embarrassed Agent Largo, followed closely by his son, D.D. Dexter Summersong who also bore a similarly embarrassed and flushed expression, guarded by a very pleased-looking Bremorel Songsteel, miming holding a sword in her hand. “The two ladies here jumped us before we could even get into place..”
“Totally what dad said. I mean, I even went as far as warding our location, but the Ranger Leuitenant Bremorel had downed my father already, and Lady Mirima Temez, here, came at me from above! I was like, ‘Isn’t that against the rules?’, but she just smiled at me and said, ‘Darling, there are no rules in love, and certainly not in war..’, so I.. gracefully gave in.”, Dexter mumbled in a dejected tone.
“Darling, you gave in because you lost. But I will not otherwise gainsay you. You were quite graceful about it.”, smiled Perigren Ostlanna Temez.
Inshala came running at them with an elated expression etched all over her face and she was jumping and skipping all the while.
“Whoop! We won! So you three are cooking tonight?”, she said happily, all the while beaming at Temez and Bremorel.
Lilly Venom scowled furiously at her.
Lilly Venom scowled even more furiously at Agent Largo.
Lilly Venom scowled and almost incinerated D.D. Dexter!
Then Inshala spotted Aager and beamed at him as well, and started waving in his direction!
Lilly Venom noticed her brother too..
“Well, crap! Now he saw it as well!”, she spat, her face darkened and her scowl deepened.
Then with a poisonous glare, she turned to her husband and her son-in-law.
“YOU.. BOTH OF YOU..”, she snarled pointing at the two who squirmed like two schoolboys caught in the act. “..TOTALLY SUCK!”
Then with a destitute flare, she turned around and stormed off towards Serenity Home Temple..
..to do that evening’s cooking.
Perigren Ostlanna Temez and Bremorel Songsteel ran after her, while the extraordinarily beautiful Temez tried her best to comfort the very much irritated Lilly Venom, the ranger lieutenant only laughed harder as Inshala almost threw herself at Aager.
The two hugged and drifted off towards their own home.
“Well..”, Agent Largo said when he was alone with his son.
“Yup!”, D.D. Dexter said.
“..that went well.”, his father finished.
“Yea..”, agreed, Dexter. “..we suck!”
“Yes. Yes, we do.. Six times in a row, though? I mean, from three young and pretty girls, you’d think they’d show us some mercy and let us win once! You know, just so we’d save face..”
“Yea..”, said Dexter. “..could have been worse, I suppose. Your young wife does seem to have admirable temper.”
“That she has. But she curbs it most of the time, which in itself is the truly admirable part. It’s just, she doesn’t like losing.”
“Who does? But I wouldn’t really call losing to a Ranger Lieutenant, the Ritual Guardian, and the head of Escape, a loss, father.”
“There’s that. But like I said. Lilly doesn’t like losing, and she doesn’t really like cooking either. Lucky for us, I don’t mind cooking at all. I have been doing my own cooking since I lost your mother. Lilly.. she really is trying to learn, you know, if only for my sake, and cooking for the refugees is good for her, but after seeing her slice a loaf of bread, I got scared and told her I totally wouldn’t mind doing the cooking at home.. at all!“, Largo said.
“Why?”, asked Dexter.
“She cut the bread like she was slicing open a man’s throat. It was the creepiest thing I have ever seen! I mean, you should have seen her face, then. She had this strange, dreamy expression no woman should have while slicing bread!”
Then, as if remembering something else, he laughed again.
“What?”, asked his father.
“Just remembered something; I can actually go home and sleep merrily after we are done cooking at the temple.”
“Yes, so?”, asked his father.
“A night with a very pissed-off Lilly should be interesting for you, though!”, Dexter laughed again.
“That was not nice, Dex.”, mumbled Agent Largo.
✱ ✱ ✱
I see you are having fun.”, smiled Aager Fogstep, though only the little girl in his arm knew it.
“YEZZ!”, smirked Inshala viciously, reminding the man next to her, a bit like her old self. From the time they had first met. There was, however, a gaping difference between the two;
This Inshala was not hiding her horns under layers of hair, conically braided around them, she wasn’t the hissing surly girl anymore, but had a distinct skip to her pace, and she was..
..and woke up to another difference;
He, Aager Fogstep, was not the same man the girl had first met, either. Because he had a lighter step to his gait that had appeared the moment the little girl had ran up to him and threw herself at him for a hug, and..
..he too was smiling.
“Well, now..”, he said.
“Well now.”, she agreed happily.
He laughed again and held her closer and tighter, and the girl literally purred.
“I take it you were playing some game?”, he asked.
“I think so. I had fun. Lilly was telling us just how boring it was teaching noobs how to sneak and ambush, and that her trainees were a bunch of klutzes, though I have no idea what a ‘noob’ is.. nor a ‘klutz’.. She said there was no challenge here at all, so I asked her what would be a challenge for her, and she said she hadn’t gone up against any pros since Endless Watch. I totally agreed with her, since I now know what ‘pros’ is! It’s so nice to know social things.”, she said with another skip. “Then I offered her perhaps we could play a game and she could try and catch me. But she suddenly went cold and her face did this red thing and said to me, I am never going to hurt you again. And I was very sorry for reminding her about the arena thing and hugged her and apologized to her, and she was like, ‘Why are you apologizing me, girl? If anyone is to apologize, it’s me.’ But I told her that, she didn’t know me then and she didn’t know you were her brother and so there wasn’t anything for her to apologize. I think that broke her mind a little because she just stared at me and seemed like she was about to cry. Well, I wasn’t going to have any of that, so I quickly said, ‘It’s only catching.’ And that if she could, she won, if I caught her first, though, I would win. That got her attention, I think. Lilly loves winning. Then she said, ‘How about we bring in others. That way, we can also improve our teamwork skills.’ I had no idea there was a skill called Tea Murk but learning new things is nice so I agreed and she called her new hubby, Sir Agent Largo, though I don’t think that’s his real name because every time I say it, he does this funny face like he wants to cry, but it makes Lilly happy, so I keep saying it. Then she also called Sir Agent Largo’s son, De De Dexter, and told them about what we wanted to do. But De De Dexter said it wasn’t fair that the three of them should go up against one little girl and that I should also go and bring two others. So I went to the town temple and found Laila’s cousin, Bremorel, there, because, you know, she’s my friend, and asked if she would like to play with us. She asked me who was on the other team. When I told her, she said, ‘Your Aager’s sister? Nice. I am in..’. Then she called for Perigren Ostlanna Temez, one of Merisoul’s sisters, and told her about what we wanted to play, and asked her if she would like to join. She said, ‘Sure, sounds fun. But we must return before midnight because she and all her other brothers and sisters had to go down and pray for their Demos Lightshand. She was very pretty and always smiling so I didn’t get too scared of her and she has antlers which I thought were awesome, so I told her I didn’t think it would take that long and that I had to go home to my Aager before midnight anyway. So we started playing. Lilly plays very well. Hides very well too. And she is very patient. I don’t think I can be as patient as her and I am a patient girl. Sir Agent Largo is very smart. He almost caught me once because he had changed coats with Lilly and De De Dexter was I think using magic to hide them. But I don’t think any of them use their noses. They use their minds, their eyes, their hands, their ears, but never their noses. I smelled Sir Agent Largo and got away before I fell into their trap. So we started making traps too. In this last one, Perigren Ostlanna Temez told me to be bait, which I think is just another for ‘wait’, while she and Bremorel hunted them down because she thought Lilly had some sad feelings about coming after me and that distracted her, and that De De Dexter was an unmarried boy who would want to be polite against three, very pretty girls so he would lack courage. Only Sir Agent Largo would be the real problem, so they would first get him, then De De Dexter, while Lilly would end up waiting for them and wouldn’t be able to do anything, and they would get her last.”, Inshala said with a ‘phew, I talked too much!’, blush.
Aager was laughed, once more, but was astounded by the level of sophistication in the way her mind worked when it came to ‘hunting’. The Temez girl displayed a similar trait, but hers was based on gender psychology. She had used each and every single one of their opponent’s most innate and base weaknesses against them. That was.. a dangerous area to exploit.
Then it occurred to him. Of course! She was a succubi half-born. Using such tactics was their ‘thing’. That’s how they ‘got’ to their enemies and that’s how they brought them down on their knees. While a mortal would think such methods quite unorthodox, vile, even, it was their natural element. Much like you just didn’t blame a snake or a scorpion for using their poison, you just couldn’t blame Temez and her kind for using their flavor of skills.
“You liked it here, then? This town?”, Aager asked tentatively. It was something he’d been meaning to ask her, but had thought perhaps she hadn’t seen or known the town long enough. And it had been quite hectic since their arrival. He had been forced to his sheriff’s-right-hand duty, raised exponentially since the arrival of the thousands of refugees, not to mention the three groups of specialized trainees; morning, afternoon, and midnight.. Inshala had taken over her duties quite immediately as the Ritual Guardian and worked day and night to warm the earth, and the weather, so as to avoid further deaths among the miserable refugees. Both Aager and Inshala would end up, for the few moments to walk, arm-in-arm to his single-room house and just slump down onto the hard mattress, cuddle, and pass out —quite literally.
The only consolidation he felt he had in all this was the fact that the little girl was extraordinarily warm to hold in his arms. Deep down, he didn’t think it was merely her body heat, but something else.. It was like she radiated a kind of warmth totally unrelated, and had nothing to do with her skinny figure, but everything to do with her heart.
And he’d always wake up when he felt a soft, deliberate breathing into his face..
Inshala, it appeared, had her own way of waking him up. She never poked him. Never called his name. And never squirmed in his arms. Very carefully, and patiently, she’d turn around to face him.. and quietly watch him sleep —interestingly, not very unlike cats sometimes did to their owners!
And when Aager came around and opened his eyes, she would smile. A flushed, accomplished smile. It was like;
‘This weary and tired man has slept soundly and peacefully.. I did that!’
Aager recalled, how she had been so very shy and had very nearly panicked, that first night of their wedding, back at Durkahan. She’s just yelped, and hid in a corner, behind the wardrobe when they had finally entered Aager’s cave/den/lair of a room after the festivities were finally done.
Against all Aager’s thoughts, Inshala hadn’t turned herself into a little ball because she feared him, but she was just so over-excited and didn’t know what to do or what was going to happen next, she’s just shut herself down!
Aager had sat before her, in the darkroom, and silently waited for her to raise her head. He hadn’t tried to soothe her, nor comfort her, for Inshala didn’t need comforting, then. What she needed was to brave up to the ‘unknown’, and Aager had refused to take that away from her..
..until he noticed she’d fallen asleep, curled in the corner between the wardrobe and wall.
Aager had just picked her up, carried her over to the single bed next to his, and lay her there, pulled off the blanket from his own bed, and covered her with it. Then, as he’d done so many other times, he’d grabbed the spare from the wardrobe and, just before he’d slumped into his own bed, he had whispered in her direction;
“I am yours now. We may sleep together whenever you wish, my Inshala.”
He’d woken up the next morning with Inshala cuddled in his arms, silently breathing into his face with the best smile he had ever seen on anything alive..
..wearing one of her pretty little nightgowns, much like the ones she’d worn before.
It had been a wonderful experience for Aager. More so, when he’d found out something he never knew about himself; he’d liked to cuddle!
And now, they could do it as often as they wanted.
It was rare for Aager to be eager for anything. As a matter of fact, he’d never been eager to do anything in his life. True, whatever he did, he did them with surgical accuracy and pragmatic efficiency, always seeing things through.
Just not eagerly..
“It’s nice, here, yes. I.. I was very scared when you said we would come here and asked me what I would think about settling here. I am sorry I am scared of humans all the time. They.. weren’t very nice to me when I was a little girl. I feel shame when I admit to my fears because it makes me seem like a crybaby. I don’t always cry. I just don’t know when I am allowed to and when I shouldn’t because no one ever told me. My Father let me laugh and cry whenever I wanted. And now I am here, in this town, and there are so many humans here.. Some of them seem to be nice. Your sheriff, Udoorin’s father, is nice, though I feel a bit shy when he is around even though he is always very polite to me. Your mayor, Artanboss—”
“—Arthandos, love..”, Aager said with a smile.
“Yes, him.. He is nice. I met his daughters, and they really wanted to make me more dresses. I told them I’d loved the one they made for me, the one I wore on our way to Arashkan. But only if they would let me give something in return. They said they would not accept gold from the Ritual Guardian, so I showed them the soap blocks and the rose oil I’d made and they loved them but told me the rose oil was too pure and that they would have to make at least seven dresses for it. We argued and finally settled on four. Then I heard our Bremorel was here and that she and this Thomas boy had married. I was so happy, so I went to visit her. She was very surprised to see me and hugged me. She wanted to sit and talk but said the temple was a bit too crowded so we didn’t go in there then. Instead, she took me to this place called bakery where they make these awesome breads and cookies and things called doughnuts, cakes, pies, and many other things that I forgot their names, and they let you have things to drink called melonades and berry juice and honeydew. I think she knows everyone in this town. Or perhaps everyone knows her, I am not sure, but she waved at this young boy working in the bakery whose name is Dervel. Did you know he is the childhood friend of our Udoorin and is married to this very small and young wood elf girl? Bremorel said he, Udoorin and this other boy once made fun of our Laila for having pointy elf ears and the two of them had a fight with the three of them over it and now Udoorin is going to marry our Lorna who also has elf ears and this Dervel married a wood elf girl who has even pointier elf ears! Well. I didn’t think any of that was funny, since I also have elf-like ears, just much smaller but Bremorel was laughing about it all, though they all seem to be friends now, accept the third boy who went missing some months ago and was never heard of again. Bremorel ordered some of everything and a big jar of melonade, and we walked over to someone’s garden and she just barged into the house and came back with a blanket and some plates and some cups. She lay the blanket in the garden and told me to sit and eat. I was a bit frightened because I didn’t know whose garden we were in and humans were always angry with me when I came near their gardens when I was little. Then this man poked his head out of the window of the house and I was almost about to run away when he waved at us and said, ‘Hey, Morel. Having an outing, are you? And right in front of my open window where I can smell all those wonderful pastries. You are a cruel girl, you are.” I just sat there, frighted like a rabbit, but Bremorel just laughed and told him to come over and that there was more than enough, and the man did come over and sat with us. He.. he smiled at me and said, “Who is your pretty friend?..” I was so scared and he was just smiling at me and calling me ‘pretty!’.. “Uncle Darien, this is one of my dearest friends, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, the new Ritual Guardian who is also the daughter of the late Master Cathber. She was with us when we fought and brought down Themalsar. She is as awesome and wise as she is pretty.”, and I was now blushing so much, I had to drink half of my melonade to cool down. Then we ate all the wonderful cakes and cookies and doughnuts and the other things I can’t remember the names of. While we ate, we also talked. Uncle Darien is a nice man, and I learned he is Laila’s father! Bremorel seems to have changed. She was always angry before. And arguing. Now.. she is.. shining? She is smiling a lot. And laughing a lot. Then we said goodbye to Uncle Darien and he told me I could come and visit him any time I wanted to. Bremorel showed me the town and she met me many other people before she left to train her new rangers. Did you know there is an orc here who works at your iron shop? When he saw me, he slowly came and dropped on his knees and said, “Ritual Guardian. Many years ago, I was wild and with my marauding band, we attacked villages for their food and their gold. When the rangers came after us, they hit us hard and they killed my band. Your father, Master Cathber found me, days later, wounded and dying. He chose to save me instead of ending me. He tended to my wounds and brought me here to work hard to atone for my sins. Thus I have. I was bound to your father. And now, I am bound to you.” Later, I met more people, and today I met the half-born and we played a game of catch.. Of all the people I met, from this village and amongst the refugees, elf, human, or half-born, I learned that ‘nice’ is a choice. Some chose to be and some do not, and that my fear was misplaced. What I feared were people. What I should have feared was, ‘bad choices’..”
Inshala fell silent after that, a bit breathless.
Arm in arm, the two walked in silent harmony for a while. Aager sensed his young wife wanted to say more but whatever it was, she was clearing feeling very shy about it and was trying to brave herself up.
He opted to give her the chance.
“I..”, said Inshala a bit hesitantly. “..want to show you something tonight.”
“Ow?”, said Aager.
“I saw some little girls do it and I thought it looked awesome. So I was brave and went and asked them what they were doing. They were a bit scared of me too, I think. But after we talked a bit, none of us was afraid anymore. I let them touch my horns and they all laugh with delight and asked me if I had any more and begged if they could borrow them to show off to their other friends. I told them I was sorry and that I only had these. Then we talked some more and they told me what they were doing. I tried it too and asked them if I was doing it right? They corrected me and I tried some more until I think I learned it correctly now. I asked them if they would mind I showed it to my hubby, and they were like, ‘You have a hubby?’, and I was like, ‘Yes, I have a hubby because he decided to be my hubby and asked me if I would want him to be my hubby, so I told them I didn’t know what hubby was but that it sounded awesome, and if it made him near me and made me near him, then I wanted him to be my hubby!'”
“What did they learn you?”, he asked.
“Not here.”, Inshala said blushing brightly. “I.. liked it.. very much.. and want to do it while you watch..”
“Alright.”, he said.. and without noticing, he had picked up his pace.
Stop this, video and start the next one to see
what Inshala has unintentionally learned, and
wanted to show Aager..