Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
Somewhere in the dim and quiet halls of Serenity Home Temple and in an interconnected, two-room dormitory, one reserved for study and living quarters, the other for sleeping, Thomas is awake in his bed and is watching the young, beautiful woman dozing, or perhaps, snoozing inertly next to him, her coarse black hair scattered freely and framing her peaceful face. It had been quite a surprise for him when he’d found out that this beautiful girl never truly slept, but dozed, or perhaps, snoozed, and would wake up instantly and quite alert whenever there was any sound out of the norm. And said sound did not even have to be near.
At first, he had thought it was due to her deep-seated ranger training, and in all likeliness, it probably was. To his dismay, her being a ranger was the symptom, but not the core reason. Years of training as a hunter, tracker, scout, fighter, and an archer had merely hyped an already existing issue;
Morel Songsteel had never truly slept since that dreary and unspeakable day she had witnessed her parents getting butchered from inside the tiny closet her mother had hidden her, right before a marauding band of orcs had barged into their home when she had been only four.
Thomas gazed at her and noted her eyes were moving under their lids.
She was dreaming.
And whatever it was she was visiting, the senior temple guardian dearly hoped it was something nice.
One day, he promised himself, we will put your past behind us and you will sleep —truly and peacefully. Together, we will manage that.
“Thought I told you it was a bit creepy watching a girl sleep.”, Bremorel whispered, her voice slightly slurred.
“And we had argued about it, extensively, and come to the agreeable conclusion that, between husband and wife, such acts of creepy gazing were acceptable.”, Thomas replied quietly.
“No, we did not agree. I only caved in because I was being honest—”, she said with a little smile.
“—honest about you watching me when I am sleeping, though I can’t imagine why.”, Thomas wondered. “Mine is just a face. Yours is beautiful and I just can’t help but stare at it.”
Bremorel shuffled a bit and drew closer to him.
“Not just any face. A handsome, honest face.”, she said, her smile widening. “And I just saw a very, very.. interesting.. dream..”
“Ow?”, Thomas said carefully.
“Would you like to know what I saw?”, she purred..
..and jumped him!
In a few hours, they would set out on one of the most dangerous missions they had ever been assigned and Bremorel had no intentions of wasting what little time they had together.
✱ ✱ ✱
This is foolishness.”, complained Agent Largo. “Why do you get to go and I am forced to stay behind?”
Lilly Venom stifled a laugh.
“Boys.”, she sighed with resignation. “It isn’t like I am going out to play and you are left behind to do chores.”
“As a matter of fact, that is precisely what is going on here.”, Largo fumed.
“You are needed here. Should anything happen to my brother, you are the most qualified to do what he does.”, she explained.
“Sounds like a good excuse. Did you come up with this? Just to keep me safe?”, Largo frowned.
Lilly did not reply..
..and Largo immediately regretted having said it.
“I.. am sorry Lilly. That was a tad uncalled for on my part. I know you are going everything you can to help motivate me and get my mind off my troubled follies.”, he said morosely.
Lilly did not reply for a long time more, but stared at him, and deep into his eyes.
“Do you love me?”, she asked finally.
“What kind of a question is that?”, Largo spluttered.
“A very simple and pertinent question. Do you love me?”, she repeated herself.
“Of course. With all my heart.”, he replied honestly. “Why would you ask me this?”
“Because of your unwillingness to part your guilt, my husband. Perhaps you are not aware, but it casts doubt on what you say you feel for me. These past weeks, I have tried my best to rid you of it, but I have thus failed. I have finally figured out why, though; you do not want to let it go. You want to be defined by your guilt. I love you, Largo Summersong, as much as I love a warm summer song.. You are the only man I ever wanted and the only man I let in me..”, she said as she reached up and kisses him. When she spoke again, however, there was a very determined expression on her face, even though her eyes yearned for him. “..but I shall not be wife to a guilt riddled man who wants to die. I plan on making a future, a family, and a home. A home with children in it.. with you. I love you, but I shall not share that home with your guilt. Now, I will be leaving. Should the Great Heavens forgive my past sins and smile down on me and I return, I want to return to a guiltless man who wants to live. I shall not, however, return to a martyr waiting to happen.”
Lilly Venom hugged her husband, fiercely, for one last time, turned around, grabbed her long, dark brown leather coat, her many belts holding her two, ancient-looking daggers, her numerous knives, her coiled garrotes, her shark teeth, and her poisonous darts..
✱ ✱ ✱
How are they?”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez asked, staring at the dormitory door. The halls down here were even dimmer than they were above, in the Serenity Home Temple, lit by torches spread apart and it was still a few hours to dawn.
“Intertwined!”, replied Hamna Vir. “The idiots.”
“It was a good fight, though we should keep the noise down next time there is a mating ritual. Senior Temple Guardian Thomas did not respond well when he saw all the blood and cinder.”, Temez said.
“This isn’t any of his business.”, Hamna Vir scowled.
“This is his temple, Hamna Vir. Everything is his business here. We should have informed him. I am surprised he hasn’t thrown us all out already. We must be mindful from now on.”, Temez said, then looked at the door again. “Are they going to live?”
“I wouldn’t know. Hal Mali stabbed the crap out of Demelze when she started burning him down to charred clumps. When we brought them here, they just clung to each other and wouldn’t let go.”, Hamna Vir said, a bit creeped out. “I.. can’t do what those two did to each other, to my Dar Derune when he grows up!”
“The mating ritual is not a compulsory obligation, dear. Merely a means to light a spark in our hearts. I believe Hal already had one. Or perhaps it was ripe to bloom. Their ritual was to see if Demelze would oblige and submit to her own heart. After all, she could have our right burned Hal, but she didn’t.”, Temez said.
“Pissed the Hell out of him, though. I didn’t even know Hal could get so angry and aggressive. He was always so calm. So much so that some of the girls thought he had been castrated.”
“He will be looking after our brothers and sisters while we are gone, once he wakes up.. If he wakes up.. Senior Temple Guardian Thomas offered to heal them, but I declined. They must spend this time together, either to blend their souls and heal one another or die. I have arranged for several others to take up their responsibilities should that happen. Demelze is a pain, to be sure, but she is ours, and as troublesome as she is, she is still dear to us. And Hal has the most practical and calm head of us all. Now, I need to visit the orc smith of this town for the small order I gave him. Perhaps you and your sister should head out and meet with Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. We must be out of this town before dawn.”
“Why must I be the one to go with the sheriff? He is a stubborn, mule-headed Mortal. I want to stay and be with my Dar Derune.”, Hamna Vir said sullenly.
“I believe you just described yourself, dear; stubborn and mule-headed!”, Temez smiled.
Hamna Vir scowled at her.
“And, you ought to give our beloved Dar Derune the chance to miss you.”, Temez added. “Yearning is good for the soul.”
“You burn to see the young man you ate, and you fade, day by day, every day, ever since Merisoul..”, Hamna Vir fumed. “Which part of yearning is ‘good’, exactly?”
“I would rather burn down to further cinders to see my young man.. and fade out of existence if that is what it would take to see my merry soul, once again.”, Temez whispered with cold, smoldering fire. “Had we stayed in Hell, you know what Auntie Irine had in mind for Dar Derune.. Tell me, Hamna Vir, what would you have done, to save him?”
Hamna Vir refused to reply for a good long while.
When she did, she only hissed with savage vehemence.
“I would have died at the hands of Auntie Irine, before my Dar Derune.”
✱ ✱ ✱
He was putting on a good appearance, but he isn’t well.”, Udoorin rumbled, as he sat in one of the low, backless chairs he abhorred. He, Lorna, LadyAnglenna, and Lord Armathelius had returned to the high elf camp on the northern shore of Serenity Home town and somewhat to the west, forming a barricaded and entrenched buffer-zone perimeter for the Arashkan refugees in case the Orken attacked from that, likely direction. Lady Anglenna had retreated for a brief rest before they started out on their mission and, for some vaguely worded reason, Lord Armathelius had insisted on escorting her to her tent, leaving behind a squad of his most trusted veterans to guard the king and the queen.
“I have never seen him like this. Not since my mother died.”, the young man said depressed.
“Yes, something has happened. And it has him very much disturbed.”, Lorna agreed. “I haven’t seen Liaison Constance around, either. Not since the attack.”
“Neither have I.”, Udoorin frowned. “Perhaps.. they broke up?”
Lorna did not say anything for a while, though it was apparent she wanted to. Sheriff Standorin, however, was Udoorin’s father and, queen though she may be, she did not think she had.. jurisdiction.. in this matter.. per se..
Silently, she opted for Udoorin to prompt her to speak as she fiddled with the sleeve of her long, elegant gown.
“Lorna. Please. If you want to say something, by all means, do.”, Udoorin said, when he saw the mutely suppressed expression on her face. “He is my father, but you are his daughter, now, and he adores you.”
“That is kind of you to say.”, Lorna blushed.
“I am not being polite, love. He truly adores you.”, he said sincerely. “When we had returned from Themalsar and were at the night celebrations, the two of you talked for a bit, remember?”
“Yes. He was very open-hearted and candid with me.”, she said with a smile.
“Neither of us knew who you truly were, then. Yet, after the talk he had with you, he took me aside and spoke to me, quite firmly, that should I ever break your heart, he would break my head!”
“But.. why? He didn’t even know who I was.”
“Who you were, as a princess, mattered very little to him. I am guessing, it still does not, now that you are a queen. Who you were, as a young woman, mattered more, and father has always been a good judge of character. I knew I.. uhhmm.. very much loved you the moment I saw you.. But I knew I had made the very, very right choice when my father threatened to break my head, should I ever hurt you.”, Udoorin grinned at her.
“I.. I do not know how to respond to that. I must find a proper way to thank him some time.”, she said, her face a bit flushed. “But since it is alright with you, I will speak my mind. Would it bother you if someone, a woman, entered his life, once again?”
“I would be happy for him because I know exactly how much he loved my mother, Lorna. But I have seen what her absence has done to him.”, Udoorin mused and his frown returned. “He.. he did a lot for those around him. Quite selflessly too.. and he always went the extra mile.. He blamed himself for the attack that first triggered the chain of events nearly a year ago. He blames himself more, now, for this attack. At the end of the day, though, we both know, nothing survives a well-planned attack. Those were well-trained assassins and they were committed. I cut nearly a dozen of them as they came at us down the hatch on the roof of the sheriff’s office, and it did not even deter them. If it weren’t for all the preparations he had done; the Arashkan militia and the regulars, the elves, the rangers, the dwarves, and all the trained town guards, I am guessing we would have buried a lot more than we did.”
“I am truly happy you think like that.”, Lorna admitted. “When we had talked, back then, at the celebrations, he had a whimsical smile on his face. As if he was remembering his own ‘good old days’.”
“He.. he wanted me to be happy even though I did everything to make him feel nothing less than shame. Why bring this up, though? Perhaps you are wondering what I would think, should he.. I don’t know.. want to make a future for himself with Liaison Constance?”
“Yes.”, she replied simply.
“I do not really know Liaison Constance. She is a half-born. And I do not know what that entails other than they had a very hard life. But if she is anything remotely like Merisoul was, and if father can handle that kind of.. I am not sure how to phrase it, really, but if they like each other, and want to spend their life with each other, and want to look out for one another, sure, I’d be happy for him. Not that it is in any way my business nor is it up to me. I am stating that I’d be perfectly fine with it, honestly, sort of so I wouldn’t be used as an excuse for them not to be together.. if that is what they want.”
“You truly surprise me sometimes.”, Lorna said with a smile. “You are more understanding and grand when it comes to certain things than I would ever have been. The elves couldn’t even tolerate a human —my mother. And you are fine with a half-born with your father.”
“The elves do not have a say in what my father does. Much like they did not have a say who your father wed. They thought they had a say in that, much like they thought they had a say in the choices you made. I think they paid a hefty price for their arrogance. If they want a place in this our Aranië, they had better change their attitude.”, Udoorin said and he meant it. “And I do not believe I am any more understanding than you are in anything. You forgave those who rebuffed you. I did not.”
The smile Lorna gave him was even brighter this time.
“We have a few hours more before we leave. Perhaps we should make use of that time and rest. Our journey will not be easy.”, she said.
“Alright. A fresh start is always a good start, I’ll escort you to your tent —wait! What are you doing?”, he very nearly spluttered when Lorna let her long, elegant gown drop off her slender shoulders revealing the rest of her slender figure, teasing behind a gauzy, black, undergown.
Udoorin tried very, very hard not to ogle, but failed..
“I am going to sleep.. Here..”, she said with a very shy, blushing smile. “And I would much welcome the company of my husband.”
✱ ✱ ✱
I did what you said and removed the old mattress.”, Inshala said with a guilty pout as she lit the few candles of the attic-bed room of their new home.
“You like it more this way, then?”, Aager smiled down at the skinny girl in her barely hip-high, white, shirt-like nightgown, lying on the much larger, and certainly much softer mattress made for her by the ogre chieftain, Mother Ganiste.
She didn’t reply immediately. She lit the last candle, went over to their new bed, pulled open the quilt with the vividly colored tribal patterns, nested herself in the bed, pulled the quilt over her head and..
..hid under it.
“I feel guilty.”, she said and drew her knees up to her chest, making herself turn into an even smaller lump under the quilt than she already was as she further hid her face behind her slender hands.
Aager took off his dark leather hood, his half mask, his heavy leather belts with his weapons, and then his dark, leather armor, revealing his much scarred, spring-coil, lean-muscled chest, and to his surprise, noted the girl was peeking at him from under the quilt and between her fingers!
“Are you spying on me, love?”, he asked, trying hard not to chuckle.
“I.. don’t know..”, she said as she shut her eyes tightly and blushed.. furiously. “I.. want to.. but I do not know if it is alright with you that I do.. I have seen you without your leathers before. But always to clean and mend your wounds. Sometimes, though, I feel.. I feel I want to look even though you have no wounds.. But I do not know if I have the right or if you will be angry..”
“I am angry only when you do not take care of yourself, Inshala. If you want to look at my scars, by all means, do.”, Aager said kindly.
“You.. you do not mind?”, she asked a bit surprised.
“I do not mind. And you have all the rights to do so..”
“Yes. We are married. We have all the rights to each other.”, he said.
Inshala threw the quilt aside, hopped out of the bed and came at him, stopping just short of bumping into him!
Very slowly, she reached up and touched him and Aager felt a distinct tingling jolt run down his spine.
Inshala had very warm hands.
She closed her eyes and those hands ran, very, very slowly, up and around his lean chest, pausing every time they came to a scar as if committing them to memory..
..and they paused many times.
Aager cleared his throat carefully, also closed his eyes and stood still.
It was the oddest sensation and a singularly unique, sensually elusive experience for him to feel her feel him, more than inspect, really, and when he opened his eyes, he saw hers were open too, now, and she was starting up at him with large, dilated eyes.. And to his, somewhat alarmed astonishment, she was also breathing deeper and harder the more she ran her hands over him, as she went around and ran her hands on and over his bare back as well..
“You.. have so much scars.. They are.. beautiful..”, she said in a hushed and awed voice..
..until she held him, and she held onto him with her skinny arms and rested her face there, on his bare, scarred back as if listening to his heart.
“I feel.. strange.. my Aager..”, she said and now her voice sounded somewhere between an eager snarl and a purr, and then..
..it was filled with panic.
“I feel it.. all over me!.. In my mind and in my heart, in my hands, and in my breasts, in my spine, and in my legs.. What.. What is happening to me, my Aager?”
Aager swallowed the rising lump and slowly turned around to face Inshala to see her face burning in mortification..
He looked into her eyes to see them glazed and feverish..
Very slowly, he reached down to her, his own, calloused hands in her barely hip-high, shirt-like nightgown, feeling the whip-scars on her small, skinny back, then the heaving, throbbing of her nubile breasts.. and spoke with a hoarse, dried, and choked voice.
Upon this World, I have been, but a Grain of Sand To have seen your Fever thus Wild; the Heaven’s Land
To hold you Eternity in the Palm of my Hand Would I trade Infinity, but for an Hour, so Grand
I see a Robin Redbreast in a Cage Puts all Heaven in seething Rage
A Wolf & Lamb partake in this Home where we Belong To have thought I was, but a Fool and so Wrong
Men with Naught and Sin have bought you Scars Thus are they Fools, for yours are Heavens’ Pars
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom tapped on the door of the house with the beautiful, blooming cherry and entered, perhaps hoping to catch her brother and his skinny little girl in an awkward position; anything to rile up her elder brother, Aager Fogstep, and to see the cute blush on the skinny little girl, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane..
..and came face to face with a tall, lithe elf with long white hair, braided all the way down the small of her back, holding a dreadful-looking sword, a bushy little hobbit frowning, a scruffy looking midget of a gnomic girl with something round and packed in her hand, and a scowl on her tiny face, and a very tall, very dark girl with braided, vivid pink hair, scandalously short, also pink, dress skirt with two, long horns staring down at her, as her long, cat-like tail whipped right and left with distinct agitation!
She also noted, her own two, ancient daggers were in her hands..
The silence of the moment stretched and a tumbleweed was the only component missing in the stand-off scene.
“Who are the Hell are you and what the Hell are you doing in this house?”, the scruffy little gnomic girl hissed.
“I, the Hell, might ask you the same thing!”, replied Lilly Venom. “Though I remember seeing you at the delegation a few days ago. Put that grenade down, Miss-Whatever-Your-Name-Is! Should you foolishly use that thing here, you will hurt yourself and your friends more than you will hurt me, and bring this house down, in which case, you will truly hurt, by earning the wrath of your host!”
Another silence settled, though this one was more on the awkward side.
“She is right, you know.”, said the lithe elf girl.
“Yeah. Choose her side!”, sneered the gnomic girl, her scowl deepening.
The hobbit snorted.
“I remember you.”, the very tall, very dark girl said. “You were hiding up on the chandelier during the meeting. I thought it odd for someone to be up there, and hanging upside down for that long, at the time.”
“You saw me?”, Lilly Venom asked a bit surprised.
“I did. Though I didn’t tell anyone, I had my eyes on you all the time until Sir Aager came in with the human king of the elves, along with his beautiful queen.”, the tall, dark girl said with a smile.
“You should have warned Aager!”, Lilly hissed. “I could have been an assassin!”
“I believe you already are one. But the reason I didn’t was the apparent similarities between you and Sir Aager. Though I could not see the whole of his face, both of you have similar eyes and brows, both of you were clearly Drashan, and both of you were coiled to kill. Hence I came to the conclusion that you were siblings and part of the security, and opted to wait rather than reveal your position or outright banishing you.”, the tall in pinks replied in her cultured and illustrious voice.
Lilly Venom stared at her, then the rest of this weird bunch, and came to a conclusion of her own; it was just too bloody early to be hassled by this much weird! All she wanted at the moment was a hot cup of bitter coffee, a moment of silence, and possibly contemplate on what she would do if her hubby, Largo, couldn’t let go of his guilt-riddled past. She was sure she loved the man as much as she was sure she didn’t want another in her life. Much like she was quite sure she wouldn’t be able to get over her base loathing for all men for someone else..
“I am going into the kitchen, now. If you would kindly tell my brother I am there and waiting for him, I would be grateful.”, she said and glided off to the kitchen.
“I think we creeped her out.”, Tonic snarked.
“Tonic, luv, you really should stop greeting everyone with a grenade.”, Seressa sighed.
“Yeah. As opposed to your skimpy pinks!”, guffawed the gnomic girl.
“My pinks are not a danger to anyone, nor are they a threat.”, Seressa replied, slightly taken aback.
“I beg to differ.”, she said sarcastically.
“Perhaps we should prepare to leave. Our hosts will, when they come down. And I believe we have imposed ourselves upon them for long enough.”, Cora said quietly.
“I concur!”, piped Brom and started gathering his things.
“Are you leaving so soon?”, asked a voice shyly and Inshala came down the stairs, followed closely by Aager.
There was a distinct, happy blush on the skinny girl’s face and the man behind her gave the impression that he very much wanted to just grab her and run off!
“We have made good on our stay, Lady Inshala. Thank you for your hospitality. It was pure delight.”, Brom said honestly.
“You will not have breakfast?”, Inshala asked with a tiny pout.
“Master Hobbit is right.”, Cora said, a bit gruffly. “I was indeed a delight. But we have imposed ourselves upon you for long enough and we have a long way to go.”
Seressa came to Inshala and quietly hugged her.
“You are a wonder, my dear. I would want to visit you oft more if I may.”, she said, giving one of her best, illustrious smiles.
“My home, is your home, dear Seressa Wraiven. You and your company are always welcome here.”, Inshala replied and hugged her back. Then she turned to Tonic and smiled at her. “I would very much like to pocket you, dear Arcantonic Palecog.”, she said.
“Again, with the pocketing!”, Tonic scowled.
“You can not blame others for your cuteness. But you can smile back and hug.”, Inshala said. “I was ever ashamed of what I was. But my Aager taught me that shame was never mine to have.”
“You are worse than Seressa.”, she said with resignation and hugged the skinny little girl.
“I see a people in your future, dear Cora Sleet.”, Inshala said when she came and stood before the lithe barbarian elf.
“What?”, Cora exclaimed, a bit freaked.
“I see a people in your future.”, she repeated. “Many a people. Your people. They will come, should you call, in crowds and in throngs. Go in peace, and live in peace.”
Cora stared at the skinny little girl, totally freaked out now.
“Master Blom Bundlebim Hobim.”, she said with a brilliant smile when she came and stood before the hobbit. “I would very much like to pocket you as well, but you are simply unpocketable!”
“I suppose I am that.”, Brom said and grinned up at her.
“You know me.”, Inshala said simply and suddenly. “And kind as you have been, you have avoided me, thus.”
“Yes.”, Brom replied honestly.
“But you are not going to tell me.”, Inshala said brightly.
“At the moment, no.”, he replied.
“I want to ask, why..”
“Because the past holds many mysteries, my dear girl. The future, however, holds exactly that; the future. You have made yourself a life, uniquely and singularly your own, and have become a wonder to behold. Only you should get to have a say in that. Not the past.”, Brom replied kindly, but adamantly, also.
“Smooth.”, murmured Cora.
“I have no idea what you just said, Master Brom, for I am young and oft silly. But I am patient, also. I promise I shall understand it in time.. Hence, for now, I bid you, Master Brom, and my tundra sister Cora, and my beautiful sisters Seressa and Arcantonic farewell. May the Heavens smile upon you and light your trek, always.”, Inshala said sincerely.
Cora approached the man in dark leathers standing behind the skinny little girl and nodded at him.
“Thank you for slaying the man coming at me from behind, during the meeting.”, she said.
Aager stared at her for a long moment before merely nodding back.
Apparently, that was all the interaction necessary between them.
After a few more moments of hugs and heart-felt farewells, the Tundra Walkers were gone..
“I smell coffee.”, Agger growled and headed for the kitchen.
✱ ✱ ✱
Several streets over, in another house, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart was sitting in his couch, once again, staring at the dying embers in the fireplace, contemplating on his follies —a something he’d been doing, not unlike a daily prayer, ever since his beloved wife, Limnia Karya, had passed away.
And now, at that very moment, perhaps for the first time, he felt his age..
..for he was, also at that very moment, contemplating on his latest folly; the one, alluringly called, Constance..
Then he noted the dim of his home was slowly withdrawing and the first lights of dawn jabbed at him from between the shutters.
And, with inhuman stoicism, and with a grim and determined expression, he got up to face the day and whatever it might entail or throw at him because the last words his Limnia had said to him had been;
“Take care of our son, and yourself, my beautiful boy..”
To that day, and to be rather particular, to that very moment, he had always thought his Limnia had been referring to their son, when she had said, ‘my beautiful boy’..
To his dawning recognition.. and heart wrenching remorse, he understood.. she had, in fact, been referring to him!
His Limnia had been thoughtful.. and awesome like that!
To that end, he went over to the fireplace, picked up the bucket of water sitting next to it and dumped its content on the smoldering embers. He was going to be away for a long while and he had no intentions of returning to a house burned down on some foolish technicality!
Then he took a deep breath and went over to his kitchen.
First things first, then; coffee!
But when he saw the pristine condition of his kitchen, however, his shoulders slumped.
“I can’t believe I let the Queen of the High Elves clean my kitchen!”, he rumbled and easily admitted that she, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, was one of a kind young woman and dearly hoped both her, and his boy, Udoorin, would live a very long and happy life together.
Sheriff Standorin had always been a very disciplined man and that had extended to his home. He knew it had driven his Limnia to the heights of frustration at times. Looking at the pristine condition of his kitchen, and the rest of his home, however, it was apparent, no amount of discipline nor tidiness beat a woman’s touch. With their innate, and intimately assuring presence, they seemed to turn a roof and four walls, into a home.
Standorin turned around, went over to his room, put on his armor, grabbed his always ready back pack, his great sword, and his shield..
..and walked out of his home, locked its door, and left.
Coffee was important, but he just didn’t have the heart to destroy the newly cleaned kitchen trying to make some.
Hence he veered for his most likely successor and acting sheriff, Aager Fogstep’s home where he was sure his pretty little wife, Lady Inshala, could be persuaded make some for him.
And even part with some her strange wisdom.
Then, he would head to the Serenity Home Temple and meet with the surly girl and liaison, Berete Hamna Vir, and whoever the other half-born was, and do what needed to be done to save his town.
And when the enemy was finally routed and everyone was safe, he would have a sit-down, and hopefully, a long conversation with the alluring girl, Constance.
A conversation starting with an apology..
✱ ✱ ✱
It is ready, Mistress Perigren Ostlanna Temez.”, growled the orc black smith, Kor’gral, when the lithe, ravishingly beautiful young half-born girl ghosted into his workshop in Serenity Home town, just about dawn.
“I would rather have adapted a simple clasp and you kept the original, but against all my reservetions and my cautions, you persisted otherwise.”, he rumbled.
The pale half-born looked at the tall, well-built form of Kor’gral for a silent minute, then spoke in her soft, somewhat husky voice, void of all emotions..
“I have come from the very depts of Hell, Master Kor’gral, in hopes of finding peace. Yet, this Mortal coil has already taken that which was most dear to me.. There is no more peace to be had for me here. The sins of my former masters run deep and far. But with this..”, she said, as she slowly, almost tenderly, picked up the deadly craftmanship, the orc had placed before her.
She stared at it as she ran her slender fingers over the thing she beheld in her hands untill she drew blood, and her voice turned cold, brittle, and vexed..
“..I shall make them pay for my merry soul. I shall make them pay untill there is no them, or there is no me.”
The original verses of the poem Aager whispers to Inshala belong to William Blake. I used the first few verses and other than two, I modified them quite heavily to suit Aager and Inshala’s theme and added two final lines of my own.
Sheriff Standorin sat in the dimness of his home, his face in his hands, fingers spread, and elbows on his knees, staring at the fire. There was a silent, murderous reflection in his eyes, hiding between his calloused fingers, not unlike a man behind his own bars. To say the least, Standorin Shieldheart was angry for he had buried many people in the past two days, some of them he had known for many years, and some hadn’t even lived as many years.
At that very moment, he wanted to be the young and foolish man that he’d been, many years ago. The age his son, Udoorin had been..
..and just kill some things?
True, he had been reckless and foolish when he’d run off back then and had done quite a number of jobs, guarding merchant caravans mostly, but he had tried his hands on bounty hunting too. That had had its moments; tracking down the bad guys, apprehending them, dragging them back, turning them over to the local sheriffs, and collecting his share of the bounty..
Accept not all his jobs had gone smoothly.
Sometimes the caravans he guarded got raided, and sometimes the people he’d tracked down just wouldn’t come quietly no matter how polite he’d been or how obvious the outcome of any aggression would end.
It seemed like some people just begged to die!
The only problem with that was, Standorin just didn’t like killing.
Two days ago, however, that had changed and his deadly gaze pierced down at the small stack of parchments scattered on the floor, some crumbled in wrath, some savagely shredded, and a few lay gazing back at him; the final tally of the attack..
..one thousand six hundred and seventy-eight dead, mostly Arashkan refugees; men, women, children, and elderly, and eight thousand nine hundred and fifty-five wounded..
It had been a good thing they had started doing drills soon after the first batch of refugees had appeared just so everyone would know where they would be and what they would be doing to avoid chaos when the Orken finally arrived.
Standorin remembered one of his bounty hunter partners from back in the day, tell him that no plan ever survived the first encounter.
Apparently, he had been right then, much like he had been right, now; most of the deaths had occurred due to panic-induced trampling.
“They were my responsibility.”, he snarled silently.
“Yes.”, said a soft, cultured voice in the dim.
He hadn’t heard the voice come.
“Would you like a whip? Perhaps for self-flagellation..”, offered to soft voice.
“I do not do levity.”, Standorin snarled.
The voice paused.
“You would chastise your friends, rather than politely accept simple levity? Or the offer of comfort?”, the voice asked, not quite taken aback nor appalled, but very slightly hurt.
“Why are you here, Liaison?”, he growled.
The voice paused again, this time for a bit longer.
“I would have thought we’d had a semblance of understanding, sir.”, the voice replied, putting the barest of emphasis on ‘sir’. “Perhaps I was mistaken. But then, I merely came here to see how you were, and to offer what comfort I may. It would seem you are fine exactly as you want to be; sad, sorry, and alone and require no comfort, for what is not wanted, can not be given. I shall see you on the morrow, which should be in a few hours.. to hand in my resignation, hence shall I be no longer a distraction for you.”
..and as silently as she had come, Liaison Constance was gone.
✱ ✱ ✱
There was a hesitant knock on the door and Thomas rose his head from the parchment he’d been reading in the dim room lit by a single candle and put it on the small stack on his table; the latest death tally..
“Could have been worse.”, the young woman standing right behind him said quietly. “Not even Ranger Master Moorat escaped unscathed. Thanks to you and your guardians, the dwarves, the elves, and the rangers many are alive today.”
“Many are not.”, replied the senior temple guardian in a destitute voice. “I became a temple guardian precisely to avoid this sort of thing ever happening.”
“Please, Thomas. Don’t be like that.”, the young woman said.
“Don’t be like what?”, Thomas asked.
“Don’t be like me..”, the young woman replied seriously. “Bitter and angry. I.. I am trying.. very hard.. and I never want to go back to that girl. You helped me be better.. be more.. If you succumb, what would I do? Yes, I am being selfish, but angry and bitter is me. Never you. I need you to be never bitter and angry, Thomas. I need you to be strong on this front for me.”
Thomas looked up at the young woman who was staring down at him, her long, coarse black hair framing her beautiful face and he saw a slight shimmer in her very serious eyes.
Bremorel Songsteel never showed her feelings.
Perhaps an amendment was in order there; Bremorel Songsteel always showed her feelings, just never her soft and vulnerable side.. Even Thomas had barely seen that side of her. He’d always known she was kind, gentle, and more, all locked up, tight, and very deep down, and with infinite patience, he had reached in and bit by bit, he’d surfaced the real girl, the real Morel, out..
Tonight, however, and for whatever reason, she had volunteered to bring it all out.
Thomas skimmed through a long list of possible reasons, then with the realization of his own arrogance, he discarded them all.
His Morel had volunteered and that was all that mattered and that was all there was to it.
He smiled up at her.
“You are so beautiful.”, he said honestly.
“You keep saying that like it’s true..”, frowned Bremorel with a faint blush.
“And I shall keep on saying it until you believe me.”, he replied.
“So you will stop when I believe you?”, she asked with an amused expression.
“No. I will then continue saying it until you believe yourself.”, he said seriously.
Bremorel didn’t snark.
Nor did she snort.
One thing she had learned about the man she was looking down on was that he was honest.
“That might take a while.”, she said. “I guess you will just have to work on me until then.
“I shall.”, he promised.
Bremorel leaned in and kissed him, then walked over to the door and opened it.
Perigren Ostlanna Temez and Hannah Vir were standing in front of the door. While Hamna Vir was staring at her own feet with an ugly shiner and a black eye, fidgeting, Temez was looking at Bremorel, the pair of her antler-like horn broken and missing, with dead, soulless eyes.
“We..”, stammered Hamna Vir. “..we came to apologize, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel. To you and to Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood on behalf of the half-born for the problems we caused..”
Footsteps approached and Thomas appeared behind Bremorel.
“..Meri.. Merisoul Xyrotwu was dear to many of us. We.. we went out of control when we found out about her for she was the best of us.”, she mumbled.
Bremorel stared at her, then at Temez, who just stood there.
Then, at the mention of her BFF, large tears appeared in her eyes and silently ran down her beautiful face.
The half-born had never learned moderation. Hence their emotions tended to be on the extreme and the news of Merisoul Xyrotwu had hit them hard;
Their reaction to it had been.. quite, but not quietly, unprecedented!
Bremorel reached over and quietly hugged her.
“This is life, mirima Temez. Our loved ones die, one by one and we live to suffer their absence. Fools are we Mortals for not making each day worth its weight in love and care. Fools are we all, for forgetting the ones that are still with us, also. You, my dear, are mirima. Merisoul blessed you with that burden for she knew only you could carry it.. Prepare yourself and those under your care, for that, is the only way you may avoid more of the same.”
“The ranger lieutenant speaks with much wisdom, Temez.”, Thomas said sternly, but not unkindly. “We are about to go to war. The enemy is brutal and has no choice but to slay us all. For them, there is no retreat. You and your kin, I am thinking, know the Orken better than most. Hence you know when I say, they will not be routed, that I speak the truth. Merisoul Xyrotwu had more than the half-born as her friend. In what small time she had amongst the Mortals, she touched the lives of everyone around her. Where she went, she moved and changed things. Where there were dead hearts before, they became alive and nurtured. What was stagnant, became running and fresh again. And what was angry, became forgiving. Wherever she went, she brought compassion. These are the things with which we must remember her, for Mortal or nons, it is these, that is eternal.”
In Bremorel’s arms, Perigren Ostlanna Temez broke down and started crying like a little girl..
“Darling Demos taught you well.”, Hamna Vir said. “I shall help remind our mirima Temez and our kin of these when they forget. Come, mirima. Yours can not be allowed to see you like this anymore.”
With tenderness quite unexpected of her, Hannah Vir took the broken and devastated Temez and steered her away.
“What you said to her.”, Thomas said after the two half-born girls had gone. “It was brutal.. and it was beautiful.”
Bremorel smiled at him.
“Yours was better.”, she objected.
“Mine was merely the truth, and educational. Yours.. yours was.. wisdom.”, he said with unveiled admiration. “You could have been talking to me and I would have taken every word you spoke, to heart.”
“Every word was said with you at heart.”, she replied with a bright red face.
✱ ✱ ✱
You are up early.”, Aager said when he entered the new kitchen of their new home.
“Oops!”, yelped the skinny young girl, almost dropping the big pan she could barely lift and full of raw eggs she had cracked for a grand omelet. “I am sorry. Did I wake you?”
“You? No. I have no idea how you manage, but you never wake me when you get up, prepare breakfast, then come back to me. I must admit, I.. *cough* love it.. waking up to your beautiful eyes every morning.”, Aager said, his voice trailing off towards the end.
And jumped him.
And promptly hit him with the pan!
Aager staggered and Inshala went into panic.
“I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry!”, she moaned.
Aager stood where he was, his hands holding his head and eggs dripping all over him.
“I am so sorry, my Aager!”, she said with a voice on the verge of crying.
Aager started laughing.
The skinny girl just stared at him.
“You.. you tricked me!”, she fumed.
Aager laughed some more; just two days ago, he had fought scores of assassins and gotten off almost unscathed, just to be hit over the head by a kitchen pan.. full of eggs!
“Are you really alright? I am so sorry.. I just can’t control myself sometimes.”, Inshala said with earnest sincerity.
“Best morning, ever.”, Aager replied grinning.
“I ruined your morning.”, she said unhappily.
“How about you go back to bed and restart your morning, and I clean up myself and the mess here, then we both prepare breakfast.”, he offered.
“Or you could come to bed with me?”, Inshala counter-offered, her face suddenly brightening.
“As much as I would want that, I can’t.”, he said.
“Ow? Why not?”, Inshala asked.
“The bloody midget makes too much noise!”, he growled. “And she keeps waking up at odd hours and starts tinkering things. She thinks she is being quiet about it, but she totally lacks subtlety.”
Inshala made a funny, snorting sound.
“She is very cute, though. But if you will not return to bed with me, there no point in me going back, though I must admit, the new mattress is awesome!”, she said happily.
“Yes. It is.”, Aager admitted grudgingly. “And it would be even better if you wouldn’t insist on putting my old, thread-bear mattress on top of it!”
“But.. that was yours, my Aager. I feel happy and safe when I sleep on that one.”, she objected.
“Love, please. Even I didn’t like my old mattress that much. The only reason I ever truly wanted to sleep on it was when you came. No point in clinging to it. Mother Ganiste did us a grand favor by bringing our old house down, really. Now let’s start with the breakfast. Not only is that bloody midget noisy at odd hours of the night, but she is also noisy when she is hungry. I can’t fathom how her friends can stand her!”
Inshala giggled and picked up the pan and started washing it, thoroughly, in her washing dish.
“She’s so cute, though.”
“So are rabbits. You don’t see rabbits making this much noise. And she has a truly foul mouth, and that’s coming from a Drashan!”, Aager growled and wiped some of the eggs off his face and he also went over to the washing dish.
“Seressa is nice. She has a pretty smile and a beautiful heart.”, said Inshala and took a towel, wet it in the bucket sitting next to the washing dish, reached up, and started cleaning Aager’s egg blotched face.
“And just weird..”, he said sourly. “..And all the pinks! My eyes hurt!”
“She cried when she saw our cherry tree in bloom and kept mumbling something about ‘Grade Nine’, though I have no idea what that was about. She just went up to the tree and hugged it for hours!”, she said with a slight frown.
“Like I said; just weird..”, Aager confirmed.
“And Master Brom?”, she asked while she repeated wiping his face a few more times.
“Something is off about him.”, Aager mused as he stood still and let the skinny little girl do her thing.
“Ow? How so?”, Inshala asked.
“The way he looks at you. Yes he is very polite and I am sure he is honestly sincere about everything he says to you but that look is like he is someone with unhealthy secrets.”
“Do you think he means us some harm?”, she asked, though her voice said she clearly did not believe that.
“I doubt.”, Aager conceded. “Hobbits are notoriously polite people. Whatever his issues are, they are seriously bothering him.”
“What about the white elf? She was awesome in the fight. I saw her cut one of the bad men from head to hip!”, she said and took another towel but this one she did not wet. She dried his face and beamed up at him.
“She looks like she went through a grinder—”, he replied with a slight frown. Then he saw Inshala’s happy smile, and he returned it in kind. More so by leaning down and kissing her.
“—and came out the other end harder.. tougher.”, he said.
“Lady Nadine is nice.”, Inshala thought aloud. “She has much worry, though.”
“Yes. Many dark worries.”, prompted Aager.
“Dark worries? That is so true!”, she exclaimed as if getting the answer to a question she knew was there, but just didn’t know how to formulate. “It’s a good thing Mother Alisia returned back to Durkahan, though I wanted her to stay some more.”
“And Moira. But I thought Mother Alisia and Lady Nadine were looking for some excuse to fight. That’s why Moira insisted on sitting out in the garden all day for two days, even though it is freezing outside.”
Aager snorted again, as he went over to a basket and grabbed some eggs, placed them on the counter, went back for some more, and put them on the counter as well for Inshala.
“Would you mind slicing some tomatoes? And clean some onions? About a dozen or so. And wash some potatoes for me? I think I will make mashed potatoes with onions and fried tomatoes with the eggs.”, she asked.
“Of course.”, Aager said as he went for several other baskets, these with tomatoes, onions, and potatoes.
He cleaned and washed them all, thoroughly, to Inshala’s satisfaction, and started cutting them as per need.
“Smile.”, Inshala said.
“Hmm..?”, Aager asked as he eviscerated the tomatoes, kidney-shot the onions, and started strangling the potatoes.
“Smile, my Aager.”, she repeated. “That is what makes food delicious. The salt, the herbs, the spices are a mere excuse.”
Aager stated at her.
“I am serious.”, she said earnestly.
“I am sorry, love.”, Aager replied seriously. “I shall henceforth politely kill these tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and any other fruit or vegetable that comes my way.”
✱ ✱ ✱
There was a polite cough outside the tent and Udoorin woke up groggily, his face marked with odd pillow lines.
Udoorin loved everything about his queen, Lorna. Or Alor’Nadien ne, as he would start calling her when referring to her. At least in public. But some elf-thingies, he just did not understand.. at all.. and some, he outright disliked.. very much.
For example, whenever he so much as poked his head out of his tent, every single elf in sight stopped whatever they were doing, put their right fists on their hearts, and murmured;
“Mere Estel Aranië..”
He didn’t mind the.. salute.. per se.
What was with the murmur, though?
Perhaps someone was sleeping and they didn’t want to wake them up.
Then there were the low, backless chairs.
Why in the Great Heavens would someone even invent a chair that was that close to the ground?
And young King Udoorin didn’t even want to contemplate on the kind of demented mind where anyone would make a chair, and not put a back on it. How hard could it be?
He had tripped and fallen over those silly chairs so many times, he’d ended up kicking several of them across his tent.
Turns out, those chairs were bloody hard on toes when you kicked them!
He had given up trying to remember just how many times he had forgotten there were no backs on the chairs, and he had leaned back to topple over in what was likely going to end up as some hilarious elve’s gossip;
“Saw our king the other day. Fell off his chair again and his ass was staring at us..”
“Me too! Then he tripped and stubbed his toes! Bit of a lummox, isn’t he? The Queen could have done better. Oh, well..”
If anyone talked about him that way, he was going to break some heads!
But the most annoying was the bed they had given him.
For Udoorin, a bed should comprise of a mattress with clean sheets of linen or possibly cotton, a blanket or two, depending on the season, and a feather-stuffed pillow. And when someone said, king’s bed, it should refer to its size and not how elaborate it was, dammit!
His current bed did not have a nice, itchy blanket. It did not have cotton sheets, nor did it have feather-stuffed pillows.
Lady Lenna had told him what they were, though which was which, he’d have to remember to write them down next time. Only that somethings were silk, some were velvet, and the bloody pillows were stuffed with something he’d never heard of before and they were all embroidered with silver threads—
—explaining the odd pillow lines on his face!
“My King?”, said a baritone, handsome voice from behind the tent’s partition.
“Lord Armathelius.”, Udoorin said with a slightly irritated tone. “You don’t really have ‘king’ me every time you come in here, you know. Just call me Udoorin. I have been called by it enough many times that I am bound to recognize it.”
“I am afraid that is never going to happen, my King. Should someone overhear me referring to you otherwise, they might get the wrong idea about your well-earned credentials and mayhap test their boundaries, a something that should never be trespassed nor ventured, forcing me to skewer them to prove just how mistaken they were. Seeing as how short we already are on men as it is, wasting said men on such pointless and very much avoidable end seems wiser.”, Lord Armathelius said in a seamless, single breath.
“Bet you gave serious effort to memorize that just to annoy me.”, grumbled Udoorin.
“As a matter of fact, I merely repeated Lady Anglenna verbatim, when she said it to Queen Alor’Nadien ne when her Highness asked her cousin to call her by her name.”, the voice said with an amused tint.
Udoorin grunted and got out of his odd, and distinctly uncomfortable bed, splashed some of the scented water from the ornate washing dish sitting on the stand next to his bed on his face, put on his clothes that had been tossed everywhere, a habit he knew would probably drive Lorna crazy when they finally did get to share the same tent.
Then he put on his boots, and piece by piece, his armor, picked up his numerous axes and swords and knives and the shield he’d been carrying around for nearly a year now, though he’d never used, and finally his helmet.
He stomped his feet a few times to make sure everything settled in and drew the flaps of the partition aside to see Lord Armathelius Riverblade and his awesome armor standing in a ‘polite’, ready stance.
Udoorin did not understand Armathelius.
He always seemed polite. But the elf had a truly unreadable face. He never rose his voice, he never showed any form of excitement, he never seemed irritated or angry, and he certainly never laughed.
Udoorin was never sure if his choice of words or the way he phrased them were some kind of dry sense of humor or he was punning him.
The only time he saw any life on his otherwise totally expressionless face was whenever Lady Lenna, Lorna’s cousin, walked in. And even then, he would show absolutely no apparent reaction nor overt recognition whatsoever.
Only two things Udoorin had noticed that told him something was going on between the two;
One, he would become even more still, silent, and expressionless, if that was even possible, and two, he would take a quick glance, without turning his head, first to his right, then his left, and then his eyes would follow her for the duration of eight or ten breaths before everything about him would return back to his ‘normal’ expressionless self.
Udoorin wasn’t sure if the elf dude didn’t trust Lady Lenna and was merely making sure the area was secure and the former High Lady wasn’t up to something..
..or he was checking her out!
Lady Lenna, on the other hand, outright refused to acknowledge even his existence, let alone engage in any civilized conversation with him. And the look she gave him could only constitute;
“I shall see you burn in Hell, and even carry the wood for it!”
Udoorin wondered just what the poor elf dude had done to draw Lenna’s ire so furiously.
And when it came to ire, Lenna just didn’t do halves.
Apparently, Udoorin figured, Armathelius was a good commander, a great swordsman, an excellent archer, though not on Laila’s scale, and probably had many other excelling qualities, but not very smart where Anglenna was concerned.
“On a side note, you really should consider moving into your Queen’s tent. It would make things much more convenient for all of us, if not for the two of you. You are, after all, husband and wife for these past three days, now.”, Lord Armathelius said.
“Yes, Alor’Nadien ne and I are husband and wife, but I want a public wedding where everyone sees us getting married. I do not want any snark remarks haunting her.. ever! We wed, and both you and Lady Lenna have witnessed, but that was a promise made to one another. I shall not abuse her trust.”, Udoorin said sternly.
Lord Armathelius mused over that for a moment.
“I admire your stance to protect not only the Queen’s person but also her honor.. I do, however, feel the need to remind you that our ways are not human ways. Your promise to our Queen and her promise to you are indeed, truly binding in every possible way, on every possible level and no one can say otherwise nor gainsay it.”, Armathelius said.
“Both she and I agreed on this, Lord Armathelius.”, Udoorin grated.
“Since you have both agreed on it, I am sure everything will be fine, my King. Though also I feel the need to point out, have you considered what people might say or think as to why a king, newlywed, is not sleeping with his queen but prefers to sleep alone, in another tent?”
“What’s that supposed to mo mean?”, the young man growled.
Lord Armathelius stared at his very young human king for a moment before answering.
“You, my King, are a decent man. And your feelings for our Queen are.. artlessly genuine. This I know upon at least three occasions; the first was when Queen Alor’Nadien ne summoned the ghost of the accursed Themalsar as a gift to her father, you drew your weapons, in the presence of a Ri and challenged him, and his whole retinue, should they try their hands against her. Two; many elves of Bari Na-ammen never approved of a human as our Rise, yet some of us admired her and saw all the things she tried to do for us. Hence the elves here honor and rever enRise Nadine Graciousward and she has approved your claim to our Queen. And three; when you and our Queen returned to us hurt and weary, both of you were leaning on one another and even in your moment of delirium, you would not give her up.”
“Many have seen your dedication to our Queen, my King. But many more have not and in truth, very few know the true extent of your care for our Queen. When you spend your days, and nights, apart from your legally wedded wife, it tells them you went after a young and naive girl, taking advantage of her infatuations to have access to the throne!”, Lord Armathelius explained calmly.
A dreadful silence settled in the tent and Udoorin’s face went totally black.
“The Hell with the throne!”, he snarled something awful. “And the Hell with anyone who thinks I ever wanted it. You can have it. I know for a fact neither did my Lorna ever wanted it! And seeing as none of you truly understand what is at hand, it’s no wonder the Orken stomped right over Bari Na-ammen. It was full of fools!”
In retro respect, it was possible Udoorin should not have said that last bit. If Lord Armathelius’s face could have shown any expression, this was it. His brows crossed, his deep-set eyes blazed, his lips pressed tightly and his whole stance became cold.. almost frigid.
“That.. was uncalled for, my King..”, he hissed through tightly clenched teeth.
“And attacking me, and by my proxy, attacking my Lorna, was? At which point did you, or any of your elves think I was a soft, fluffy gentleman, Lord Armathelius? At which point did you think I, or my Lorna, ought to ‘bend’ for your collective conformity? None of you did anything when she was forced to abandon her only home, even though she was the Chosen Heart of your High Woods. Every day since then, she has fought tooth and nail, and with sweat and blood as her witness, to prove her mettle. And she has thus saved the lives of countless, yet unborn, when she brought down Themalsar —the mad priest his father couldn’t be bothered to slay even with his whole army behind him. The Orken has suffered countless of their numbers because of her and because of Lady Lenna when we made sure Arashkan couldn’t be used as a base by them, and you want to judge her and me? I do not have any personal ill feelings for you, Lord Armathelius, but I abhor what you elves did to her. And please remember that the only contribution the elves have thus provided was running away and letting their kingdom burn!”
Lord Armathelius stood there thunderstruck..
..and totally crushed.
“And while at it..”, Udoorin growled. “..you might want to remind your elves that the only reason you have a Queen from the line of Feymist, is because I have agreed I would be by her side for as long as I was alive and because my Lorna is a kind and forgiving girl. Know also that should you, any of you, mistreat her again the way you did, you can kiss your Aranië goodbye because that is how much I care for her, and how little I care for your elves!”
✱ ✱ ✱
How are you feeling?”, Hamna Vir asked as she gently shifted the sleeping Dar Derune in her arms to a more comfortable position.
“You know how I feel.”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez said sitting in her bed in one of the tiny dormitory rooms in the Serenity Home Temple. Her face was drawn, pale, lost, and listless as she idly played with her broken antler-horn.
“Yes. I do. All half-born do. But I suppose it is the Mortal thing to ask.”, Hamna Vir shrugged.
“How is he?”, Temez asked her, looking up at the limp form of Dar Derune.
“He.. can’t sleep.. Not since.. Merisoul..”, Hamna Vir replied quietly and her sharp feature softened. “He drops asleep because he can no longer stay awake.”
“How are the others?”, Temez asked.
“Wounded and hurting. This was our first test and we all utterly failed it..”, Hamna Vir mumbled as she gently brushed the little boy’s hair with one, slender hand.
“I am sorry. They were all so happy to be here. Happy and very, very fragile. Had I shown them any leadership..”, murmured Temez.
“Enough!”, hissed a voice and the door to her dormitory opened to reveal a very blotchy-faced Demelze. “I can’t stand this. I.. I can feel all of you! And all of your hearts are screaming! It is driving me insane!”
“Demelze. Please. Leave them alone.”, said another voice, this one resonant and charismatic, and Hal Mali appeared behind her.
Demelze’s eyes flared and she turned around and blazed up at him.
“You don’t get to tell me what to do, Hall!”, she very nearly spat.
“I believe I do.”, Hal Mali said.
“When did you decide on that?”, the diminutive, fiery, redhead sneered at him.
“When I carried you around, in my arms, twice, I might add, out and back into this town..”, he replied with a straight face.
“I had no say in that!”, spat Demelze.
“..and when we ran around the forest chasing one another. I believe you had a say in that..”,Hal said cooly.
Demelze glared at him.
“..and when you said you enjoyed it.”
“Of course I enjoyed it. We ran in the forest free and not stuck in this temple for weeks and weeks!”, she blazed.
“I do recall offering to carry you out, in secret, so we could play some more, and you said you would very much like that and that you could do that forever and that it was so much fun.”
“I said I would need your consent for that and you said, ‘Sure, why not!'”
Hamna Vir snorted.
“You, Demelze, are an idiot and you just got served!”, she said with a waspish snicker.
“What? Why?”, the flaring girl asked, suddenly looking much less sure of herself.
Hal Mali cleared his throat and smiled and it was a brilliant, very handsome smile.
“That, my dear Demelze, was my claim. You gave your consent, freely, and forever!”
Demelze just ogled at him as Hamna Vir snorted again.
Even Temez hiccuped a stifle.
“Well, bugger!”, Demelze said as her shoulders slumped. “I am stuck with a buffoon!”
“You don’t even know what a buffoon is.”, Hamna Vir snarked.
“Yes I do!”, she glared at her. “It’s a four-legged Mortal-whatsit!”
“Perhaps you are referring to a baboon?”, Hal Mali offered gently.
Hamna Vir snickered some more.
“Whatever. Same difference!”, Demelze spat.
“No, my dear Demelze. A buffoon is a ridiculous Mortal. A baboon is the four-legged Mortal-whatsit.”, Hal Mali explained.
“And you are both!”, Demelze said with extreme prejudice. “And I am not going down without a fight!”
“But of course. I wouldn’t want a mate who couldn’t fight.”, Hal Mali replied with a smile.
Hamna Vir snickered.
“Nice! A mating fight!”, she said happily.
“Really? You want to do this now?”, Temez asked with resignation.
“Yes!”, flared Demelze, without taking her seething eyes off Hal Mali. “You are the leader of Escape. You must officiate as a witness, and judge the outcome.”
“You will never see me coming, Demelze. You know that right?”, Hal Mali warned.
“Hah. Hah. Hah. Hah. Haa..”, she laughed at his face and sneered at him. “I don’t need to see you coming, boi. I can feel you wherever you are.”
“Very well. Down to the crypts, then. And no using Pixie Dust.”, Hal Mali said.
“Afraid?”, Demelze grinned viscously at him.
“Of course. I wanted my mate to be strong, smart, cunning, willful, dangerous, and better than me. And you are it.”, he replied honestly.
“Just for that, I shall not burn you down to cinders.”, Demelze said with a flushed face.
“No, no. I want you to give your all because I want your all. Agreed?”, the handsome half-born said.
“Ow, I like this.”, laughed Hamna Vir with delight. “If you don’t want him, there are plenty others who do, Demelze. I mean, I would, had I not had my heart set on someone else.”
“Shut up, Hamna Vir.”, Demelze glared at her balefully. Then she turned to the leader of the Escape. “Coming, Temez?”
Temez sighed again, got up and out of her rickety dormitory bed, took her broken antler-horn, and followed the fiery Demelze, the calm Hal Mali, and an eager Hamna Vir, who was still clutching at her Dar Derune, down to the crypts under Serenity Home Temple to judge the outcome of the first ‘Mating Duel’ —a ritual to see if the intended mates were worthy of one another.
What would Darling Demos think, she wondered.
What would her BFF,Merisoul Xyrotwu, think?
Bet she would have loved it..
✱ ✱ ✱
This is the best breakfasts I have had since I left Bowling Hills, Lady Inshala.”, said Brom admitted as he wiped his hands on the clean towels she had brought with the large platter full of fruits.
Aager had wordlessly grabbed the platter from her. It wasn’t hard to see she was having a hard time carrying it with her skinny arms.
It would seem, whatever she had parted and sacrificed at Themalsar to bury it, wasn’t coming back and it was these little things that Aager noted and consequently broke his heart to see.
“It’s alright.”, she had whispered. “They shouldn’t see you doing house chores.”
“I shall be accused of doing the chores in my own home and helping my mate?”, he’d whispered back. “I wasn’t aware there were such fools.”
“Dim Woods men expect so.. from their women.”, she had mumbled.
“Fools are they should they think they are beneath such chores and see them fit only for the women who share their lives and their bed, and bear their burdens and their children. I am a bloody Drashan and we cut men who mistreat their women and we do not feel remorse afterward.”, he had growled back.
“Tell me, Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap.”, Nadine Graciousward was saying. “How did the Academy treat you? Did you like it there?”
“I.. uhhmm.. It was alright.. I guess..”, mumbled. “A bit constricting though.”
Brom was silently wiping his hands and was neither looking at Tonic nor the ‘the most beautiful woman in the kingdom’, as he had referred to her once. Seressa and Cora were both staring at them, though. Seressa with a questioning expression as she ate one, single grape after careful inspection, for some reason, then another, while Cora bit savagely into an apple as she inspected the former human queen of the elves with interest as to how she dressed, how she behaved, how she mimed her hands so gracefully, and how she phrased her words. It was an educational experience for her on whole many levels and was, in fact, part of her plans on rebuilding her New Ironfrost. Much like she had very carefully studied Arashkan as a city, its structure, its workings, its people as a whole, she was now studying Nadine Graciousward.
In all candor, the mother of Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist was an excellent study when it came to learning everything one would need to know about nobility, grace, elegance, commanding presence, and being a powerful woman without ever swinging a sword, which sort of baffled Cora a bit. True, Seressa never swung a sword either, but she at least did carry one; a beautiful and ornate rapier.. which Cora had thought was some sort of a knitting needle when they had first met!
Aager was showing no interest in the matter as he pealed the apple he had gotten from the fruit platter, and at some level, he didn’t really want to know. Inshala, on the other hand, was staring at the cute gnomic girl with endearing and enthralled, baby owl eyes.
“Constricting? That is a bit odd. And peculiar. Of all the places in the kingdom, I would have thought Melshieve would have provided the most freedom to her students.”, Nadine said, carefully studying the scruffy-looking gnomic girl who was, for some reason, squirming before her.
“They didn’t let me take the classes I wanted.”, Tonic said quietly, staring at her own lap.
“That wasn’t the order I gave them.”, mused Nadine with a slight frown.
“I.. What?”, spluttered Tonic.
“Come now, my dear. I know who you are.”, the former queen of Bari Na-ammen said with an amused expression playing around her perfectly shaped lips.
“I.. have no idea what you are talking about!”, spluttered the gnomic girl.
“For Heaven’s sake, girl!”, Brom said with an exasperated tone.
“Cinotnacra Gocelap? Is that the best you could do? Say your name backward? Your demented uncle was much better at deceit than you are. Which is expected, and a good thing, really.”, Nadine said with a beautiful smile. A smile that, among those gathered around the low table, only Aager and Inshala had seen before; on the face of Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, her daughter.
Tonic mumbled some things unintelligible as she blushed furiously.
“Your name is not Cinotnacra Gocelap?”, blurted Inshala with fascination while Aager stared down at the little gnomic girl with rare amusement.
“No, my dear child.”, Nadine said smiling at her. “This pretty young gnome lady is Arcantonic Palecog. Or rather, Arcantonic Mordanon, to be more precise. The very niece of Arcanton Mordenon himself.”
Inshala stared at her then at Tonic with a totally baffled expression.
“Who is that?”, Inshala asked Aager hastily as if not wanting to miss the next line in a soap opera.
“Arcanton Mordanon. We saw his wanted posts when we were in Sim Town, on our way to Arashkan, remember? Worth five hundred thousand gold.”, he replied back.
“That is many gold?”, she said a bit unsure.
“That is many, many gold, love.”
“Any particular reason you would reveal her identity like this?”, Cora said suddenly, and a bit coldly.
“Only because we are among friends, my dear. No need to get riled up.”, Nadine said with a stern, motherly smile. “I had strict orders her true identity would never be revealed at the Academy, so no one would harass her due to her uncle. I had gone so far as threatening to send anyone that did, right next to her uncle!”
“I.. didn’t know that.”, mumbled Tonic.
“Did you know they placed a ‘Watchful Eye’ on her? Do you know just how dangerous that spell is? And illegal?”, Seressa said staring at Nadine with a very piercing glare.
“Of course, my dear Seressa. It was placed on my orders.”, Nadine replied calmly.
“Why? Why would you place such an erratic and violent spell on a little gnomic girl?”, Seressa blazed in a very un-Seressa-like way.
“The Watchful Eye I had placed on Arcantonic, here, was not the cheap kind, my dear girl. It was the high-end version. Not so erratic, but exponentially more violent.”, Nadine said smiling at the very tall, very dark girl in pinks, though her eyes said otherwise.
“But.. why? Why put in on a little girl in the first place?”, asked Seressa, quite angry now.
“Seressa. Please..”, blubbered Tonic.
“No, girl. I want to know why she had placed such a demented and deadly spell on you.”, Seressa blazed. “What would have happened had she stepped out of line, or done anything stupid, as young kids often do?”
“To my dear Arcantonic? Nothing.”, said Nadine, still smiling.
Seressa stared at her.
So did Tonic.
Brom had no idea what the bloody hell a Watchful Eye was, but it sounded dangerous, so he was kind of curious.
Cora was much on the same boat as Brom, just with less idea than him.
Aager seemed like he wanted to be anywhere but here, possibly taking Inshala along, just so they wouldn’t be part of this ‘family’ drama.
Inshala, on the other hand, was enthralled by the verbal and emotional duel going back and forth, probably because she had never really witnessed a family drama before.
“I don’t understand.”, Seressa said confused.
“What is there not to understand. Ahh.. Perhaps you thought I placed the Watchful Eye to keep tabs on dear Arcantonic. My dear girl, that is not only wrong, it is also abhorrent. You watch over your children. You do not watch them. And you certainly do not zap them every time they do something foolish, which they are going to do, and are expected to do.”, she replied.
“Then.. why did you had it placed?”, Seressa asked, now totally dumbfounded.
“To make sure no one came after her because of her uncle, dear Seressa. I would have thought a smart, inspired, and extremely imaginative girl such as yourself would have figured that out by now.”, Nadine said.
“But.. what would have happened had anyone did come after her?”, Seressa asked in a distinctly diffident tone.
“They would have gotten three warnings to back off, and if they didn’t, they would have promptly gotten disintegrated.”, Nadine Graciousward replied calmly as she reached over and nipped herself a tiny tree of grapes from the fruit platter.
Seressa just ogled at her.
“Holy crap!”, Tonic blurted.
“Bit of an overkill, perhaps.”, murmured Brom. “No pun intended.”
Cora didn’t say anything.
Aager hadn’t planned on being part of this conversation in the first place, so he didn’t say anything either.
Inshala, however, was looking at Nadine with this funny expression.
Nadine looked down at Brom and without smiling, she spoke.
“When someone threatens your loved ones, dear Master Brom, you warn them to back off, if at all. Should they persist, you destroy them —utterly! That way, you do not have to worry about them ever again, and you have just told any and everyone else who might have similar ideas exactly what to expect.”
“I concur.”, Aager said quietly and inadvertently, remembering what Lady Granma, Grana Maarva, Lady Alisia’s mother, and Moira’s grandmother had said to him when he had gone to her to speak about his intentions to marry Inshala.
“YESS!”, hissed Inshala savagely, to everyone’s surprise.
Nadine looked at those around the table for a moment. Then to Cora, she said, “I heard rumors about your people, my dear Cora. Tell me. What would you do, if you had the chance to save them?”
“Anything.”, Cora said simply.
“And you, my dear Seressa? What would you do, if someone came after your pair?”
“I would destroy them.”, Seressa said viciously. “Like, unload EVERYTHING I had!”
“And you, Master Hobbit?”, Nadine asked.
“I already destroyed them.”, Brom replied, looking down at his own hands.
“There you have it.”, she said. “I made the mistake of not destroying those that came after my daughter and look where that brought us; the total annihilation and destruction of Bari Na-ammen, and causing me to almost lose my beloved child.”
Nadine Graciousward looked at all the youthful faces before her with the satisfaction of having learned them a valuable lesson. Then slowly she rose.
“My dear, dear Inshala. The winds and seasons, the eagle and the crow, and the leaves and the blossoms have spoken your name. You are, truly a treasure to be had. I have enjoyed my stay here and look forward to visiting you, should you have me in your beautiful home again, which is exactly what this place is; a home.”, she said with a beautiful smile.
Inshala beamed at her with blurry eyes and promptly hugged her.
Then she looked down at the scruffy little gnomic girl who was staring guiltily at her.
“It isn’t all that hard to see you have something to say, my dear Arcantonic. Perhaps you would say it before I left, which must happen in a short few minutes. I do have some people to see and summoning circles to arrange for fast transportation between other cities and this town. A dreary job and a true drudgery, to be sure, but it must be done.”
“I am sorry I called you all those names, Lady Nadine!”, Tonic blurted. “When you got me out of that place, I wanted so much to stay with you, but you took me back to my parents, who had sold me out to my uncle in the first place. I felt so betrayed and abandoned.. again!”
“My dear, dear girl. I did not give you back to your parents because I thought you belonged there. I gave you back to them because I had no home. I still don’t. What I did have, was many, many enemies and that was the only place where you would be safe until you were old enough to attend the Academy where I had granted you with a full scholarship and the one place where my enemies would never seek me out, as our connection was unknown to any but you.. You had already suffered much, and with me, you would have never returned from that dark place I had gotten you out of. This I say with all the candor of my heart.”, she replied as she knelt down and hugged the scruffy-looking little gnomic girl. “And I doubt you could have said anything more than I have already said to myself over the years, my dear.”
“But.. why didn’t you tell me these things? Why keep it all a secret? Why not tell me the scholarship came from you?”, Tonic asked with shame.
“For the same reasons I mentioned above, my dear. You were already going to be black-sheeped for your blood relation to your uncle. But it would likely be limited to slander. If your connection to me were known, many would have come after you, just to hurt me, if nothing else. When I said I had many enemies, I did not exaggerate in the slightest. As for your scholarship, I wanted you to grow up and be something on your own. Or make something out of yourself, whatever you wanted to be.. without being in the shadow of anybody else nor feel any obligations. Nor even to me.. You already were going to suffer for the sins of your uncle. The least I could do was to prepare the conditions where you would make a name of your own and be free.”
“That.. is beautiful..”, Inshala whispered.
Seressa approached the former queen of Bari Na-ammen and did an exquisite curtsy.
“I apologize for my abrasive manner, Lady Nadine. I.. lose control when anyone threatens my pair.”, she said with her illustrious and cultured voice.
“And that is what a good pair should do, my dear. You are smart, beautiful, and kind. Three things seldom found in one person. Yet you are smart, beautiful, kind, loyal, and strong. Five things found in only a unique person. I wish Master Brom, dear Cora, and you were there when I, Delia Karakash, and diverse others had gone after that demented little midget. Your presence would have made a world of difference.”
Seressa looked down and at her bare feet, possible to hide her face.
Brom stared somewhere off to the north and east.
Cora started chewing at one of her fingers showing a sudden interest in the tribal designs and patterns on the hand-woven rugs.
“My uncle..”, Tonic mumbled. “..is he still alive?”
“I suspect he still is, my dear..”, Nadine said brightly. “..and burning quite comfortably in Hell..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Hamna Vir did not like this town. Hamna Vir did not like Mortals. Hamna Vir did not like the half-born either. In all candor, Hamna Vir did not like anything or anyone.. except her beloved and beautiful little Dar Derune. So when she was told she would be replacing the tall, alluring, kind-hearted Constance as the new liaison, she had taken a leaf out of her sister-kin, Demelze’s book, and laughed at Perigren Ostlanna Temez with glaringly exaggerated laugh and with scornful abandon. She had, at least, been more believable with her laugh than Demelze had ever been.
Finding out Temez hadn’t been joking about the idea, which hadn’t really been an idea in the first place but a command, had not helped either.. at which point Hamna Vir had become vocal.
Very, very vocal!
It had been, to everyone’s collective amusement, that Temez had sternly told her that it was about time she too did something for the upcoming war, as opposed to sitting around all day playing games and cuddling Dar Derune. After all, monopolizing the boy was not nice and there were many other sisters who also wanted to cuddle him!
Hence, with a very infuriated, surly, and sullen expression clearly etched all over her face and attitude, she had come out of the Serenity Home Temple and was now walking over to the sheriff’s office, hissing and cussing at everyone looking in her direction. To make things worse, if that was possible, her inflammatory words were not some primitive Mortal swear words, but actual ‘curses’..
Not to anyone’s surprise, Thomas would likely be called upon to patiently remove any number of unexpected and quite cantankerous curses, hexes, and jinxes from various town citizens!
When Hamna Vir came to the sheriff’s office, she hadn’t bothered to knock on the door and politely ask to be let in, but had knocked the door down in her, very creepy way; the thick, steel enforced door that had been there for generations had literally rotted away and crumbled down, it’s steel frames bent and caked with reddish-green clumps of rust.
It had been, perhaps, quite unfortunate that Guard Anderson has been the one closest to the door at the time, who had learned his lesson from the former liaison, Constance, and the sprite, Biberbell, to be polite. Neither of his previous encounters, however, had prepared him for a Hamna Vir.
Seeing the door suddenly come crumbling down on him, the young Arashkan recruit had thought the worst, particularly after the bloody attack that had occurred merely three days ago, and had gone for his sword.. and had promptly gotten himself cursed, hexed, and jinxed, dropping his sword and poking himself in the foot, stumbling back in pain, crashing into the spear racks and collapsing the whole rack, along with the score or so spears on top of him!
The remaining guards had backed off, though they’d kept their hands on their clubs.
Hamna Vir hadn’t even given the young man, moaning under heavy rack and score or so of spears, a second glance when she had sullenly glided over to the sheriff and introduced herself;
“Berete Hamna Vir, reporting for duty as the replacement liaison.”, she hissed!
“Welcome, Liaison Berete Hamna Vir.”, Sheriff Standorin said calmly to the sullen girl with the sharp features and black and somewhat shredded clothes.
“Tell me what I must do Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, so I may do it and go back!”, the new liaison scowled in a surly and abrasive manner.
“Do you have somewhere to be, Liaison Hamna Vir?”, Standorin asked politely.
“I was happy where I was, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. But because of you, I am forced to be here and against my will.”, she further hissed.
“I.. see..”, the sheriff said.
“No. You don’t!”, Hamna Vir snapped. “You were supposed to have been nice to our Constance Alure Smithen. Yet you broke her heart. Do you know how hard it is for my kind to have a heart? Seeing as you don’t have one yourself, I doubt you do.”
“It isn’t that simple, young lady.”, Standorin said as calmly as he could manage.
“Do tell, which part wasn’t simple?”, Hamna Vir glared. “Constance is, indeed, one of the best of us. She had a spark in her heart! And for the sake of that spark, she sacrificed what was most precious to her. And you, sir, smothered that spark. Well done! In one stroke of Mortal stupidity, you have destroyed her, ruined my day, and you still have the audacity to claim, it isn’t your fault?”
“Liaison Hamna Vir. I do not think this is any of your business. You are here to act as a liaison between my department and the half-born.”, Sheriff Standorin fumed.
“Which is precisely what I am doing; liaisoning between this silly place and my kin!”, flared the sullen girl.
Stadorin smoldered where he sat. But in a demented way, he knew the surly girl glaring at him was right. Technically, she was ‘liaisoning’ right this very moment!
“Everyone. Take a five up at the watchtower. Someone help Mr. Anderson and see to his foot. He is bleeding all over the office.”
The guards helped poor Mr. Anderson up and dragged him up the stairs leading to the roof and to the newly finished watchtower.
Soon enough, the sheriff’s office was empty except for the sheriff himself and the new liaison.
“There are many things I do not know, nor understand, Liaison Hamna Vir. I would be grateful if you would be kind enough to explain them to me?”, Standorin asked politely.
“You are Mortal, hence doomed to die ignorant. I do not know what ‘kind’ is, seeing as I came from Hell, and having seen just how you have thus treated our Constance, I do not think you would be as grateful as you say you would, and I double-doubt you even know what it means!”, she replied unmercifully.
Standorin fumed some more.
“Perhaps.”, he said agreeably. “Tell me what this spark is.”
“You, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, must understand, we, the half-born, were made, for the sole purpose of sowing dissension among Mortals. To that end, Mortal men and women were taken from their homes and against their will. The men were forcibly mated to lustful succubus and eaten once the deed was done. The women were raped, repeatedly, over and over, and consequently impregnated by the vilest incubus, many times.. to make my kind. We, all of us, were thrown into very deep, very narrow pits that we could sit or stand, but never stretch and lie when we were born and fed with the feces of Mortals. Most of us did not survive. Perhaps one in a few hundred did.. Those of us that did were never let out of those pits until we were at the edge of our puberty. Then we were taken to dark, horrible places where we were given extensive education and training as to how to deceive, manipulate, seduce, and effectively slay Mortals. Those of us that couldn’t, were fed to demons, alive, and right before our eyes, their remains burned and put into the very ink we used, as an ingredient. Every time we dipped a feather into an inkpot to take a note, we knew, in every drop, one of our brothers or sisters was in it! We were treated in the vilest ways imaginable to make sure all semblance of good and empathy was dried out of us.. So when I say, the ones that are here are the elite of the Seeds of Dissension, I mean that in the most literal, and horrible sense possible..”, Hamna Vir said with dead, morose eyes.
Standorin stared at her, a sick expression etched on his face.
“We were made so we may never have or feel, not only empathy, compassion, love, or any form of attachment, but to simply never have or feel anything. In the great scheme of things, however, something happened and one of us got free. You met her; a Merisoul Xyrotwu. You did fine her, after all. She made a daring plan and she got us all out. She made us free, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. And paid for it with her life.. She gave us the chance to live, and to choose, and in time, hope to feel. We, the half-born, can ‘sense’, ‘hear’, and ‘read’ emotions around us. All of us, all the time. But we can not feel them ourselves. When we show anger, it is not your Mortal understanding of anger. It is the wrath of Hell, in the most literal sense. When we show love and care, it is, in actuality, a mere emulation of the real thing learned via our extensive training. What you Mortals take for granted, is a matter of miracle for us, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Do you understand that?”, she asked in a cold, void of all emotions kind of voice.
“I.. think so.”, Standorin said quietly.
“No. You do not. Because you can not. The moment of your birth.. it marks an event of happiness by its very nature, for lo.. a new life has come to be.. You start attaining emotional satisfaction in your mother’s womb. We have not and we never did. Our birth was marked as a curse about to be let loose upon Mortals for the sole purpose of ending you Mortals in the name of our demon masters. This very day, we had a mating ritual. Two of our kind fought for the right to bond for life; Demelze and Hal Mali. They fought to kill one another to reach the height of their Hell’s wrath in hopes of holding just short of slaying each other in order to get a glimpse of compassion and, perchance, understand and feel love that would bind them for life. Hal Mali was burnt down to crisp and Demelze was bleeding from so many stab wounds that my kin was still washing the place off the bloodstains and the cinders when I left the temple to come here!”
Standorin just stared at her.
“Merisoul Xyrotwu spent years and years to understand her heart. She did everything to attain that one, single purpose. And when she finally did, a spark gave birth in her heart. It was when she had sacrificed her very existence to save a Mortal. The very moment of her comprehension, however, also marked the moment of her end as well. As sad as it may be to have lost our beloved savior, she depicted the true symbol of our freedom; the half-demon who escaped all her masters and, among all the half-born, became the first to Ascend, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart..
..With her help, Perigren Ostlanna Temez became the first to be mirima —free!..
..And amongst the Escape, Constance Alure Smithen was the fist to have attained a spark. You must understand, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, when you look at Mortals, you see potential, whatever flavor that potential may be or entail. Would you like to know what we see when we look at Mortals? Food! We see food! Even though we all forswore our most basic needs and desires when we decided to abandon our sinful ways and our demon masters and opted to come and help you in your war, many of my kin still looked upon you as food, when you first came to meet us. She didn’t. She looked upon you with only wanting.. as a mate, and willy-nilly, she bloomed a spark.. in her heart. She did everything to attain your good graces and you, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, smothered her spark. Good job! I am so tempted to ask; dude, what is wrong with you?!”
“Perhaps all these should have been explained to me before..”, mumbled the sheriff, feeling decidedly ashamed.
“Yes. Because we escape from Hell on a regular basis and know perfectly well what is going on and what is happening to us, as opposed to it being our first time!”, snarked Hamna Vir with heavy sarcasm. “We just came to your Mortal coil several weeks ago, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Do expect everything we see, we do, we feel, we observe, and we think we comprehend to be uniquely new for us. That is our excuse. What is yours?”
Standorin knew he was on his last few feet. He didn’t back down, but he certainly did not give excuses either.
“Sacrifice. I heard talk about this before. When we found Constance, half-dead, near the shores of Arashkan River, several hours to the east, last week..”
“And you never bothered to find out what it was? Duuude! Really.. What is wrong with you? Is this how you Mortals treat your women? Is this why we escaped? Is this why we took the real risk of being hunted down by our demon masters?”, Hamna Vir spat viscously.
“I did ask. She wouldn’t tell me. She is very good at dodging when she wants to..”, mumbled Standorin with frustration.
“No. She is very good at being considerate, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Something you clearly lack. Sacrifice, by its nature, is giving up something you truly care about and that is truly yours, in order to attain a greater goal. All of us half-born have common traits. But we also have unique skills. Hers.. hers was negotiation and the ability to bring people together and make the impossible, possible. So when I say, you, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, must be monumentally obtuse to have rebuked her thus thoroughly, I am being very, very polite about it..”
“She is exceptional with her martial skills when it comes to close-quarter combat and with her pike, in particular. All of us have horns, of one variety or another..”, she said, then grabbed hold of her tail and showed it to the sheriff. “I also have this tail. Some few others of my kind have it also. She has wings.. And she could fly, with exceptional speed and grace..”
The sheriff stared at her.
“I never saw her wings.”
“Very, very few of us have wings and can fly. Merisoul did. Though hers were broken when they threw her down into her pit when she could barely crawl. Of those that do, even fewer could actually hide theirs and sprout them at will..”, Hamna Vir said with great vehemence.
“I do not understand.. What does any of this have to do with sacrifice?”, Standorin asked, baffled and somewhat taken aback.
“You asked us to find your lost Orken army, we felt compelled to go out of our way to find them. That, however, was a group effort. But because you were also seeking your lost son, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, she felt compelled to find and bring him back, safe and sound.. We had found an alchemical way to unveil the Orken army, but we needed many, many pixies and sprites to give us their dust, as part of the main ingredient. And we had found where your son and his pretty mate were. The answer to both, to our dismay, was at Gull’s Perch, and the Lady who owns it!”
To say Sheriff Standorin was a pragmatic man, was a bit like saying water was, ‘somewhat’ wet. True, he would always keep his options open, and never really engrave them on stone, it’s just that, said options were quite limited, and not so much as readily discardable, per se, but neither were they readily available. Considering the events of the past six months or so, however, that gap in his ‘options’ had ‘somewhat’ widened. Hence when the name Gull’s Perch popped up, he did feel a certain sense of dread wash over himself.
“What did she sacrifice to the Lady of the Perch?”, he blurted.
“The thing that was most precious to her, and what made her unique among us, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart..”, Hamna Vir said quietly. “..Her wings.”
Standorin stared at her, and a terrible pang of guilt grabbed hold of his heart.
“To get back your son, she chose to sacrifice her wings. When Titania refused, she sacrificed them anyway, to bargain for all the sprites and pixies in Gull’s Perch and Ritual Forest to come here, a something that would never have happened, and has never been heard of before, just so she could help us, and you, in particular, to find your lost Orken army.”
✱ ✱ ✱
I blew it.”, Sheriff Standorin said with glum frustration. “She did everything to get a smile out of me, just a smile, mind you, and I blew it. Indeed, what is wrong with me?”
Standorin Shieldheart was sitting on his couch, late that night, staring at the fire once again. He looked around and noted his home was a mess, with unwashed dishes everywhere, clothes crumbled and tossed here and there with torn or dog-eared parchments with various reports stacked on all available surfaces and the house itself seemed like it could use a good airing.
Strictly speaking, Standorin was a very organized and disciplined man. His sense of perfection, coupled with his need to impose ‘do it right, or just don’t do it at all’, had driven his deceased wife, Limnia Karya, quite perplexed at times, and the only reason she hadn’t made a scene over his exasperating tendency for arbitrary ‘neatness’ was due her being a stoic-hearted woman.. and because of her fondness and love for him.
This.. mess.. however, was something new and very unlike him. It was as if the culmination of all his losses, all his disappointments, and all his heartaches had finally ganged up on him and were taking their vengeance upon him —with compounded interest.
“Maybe I should just march up at the temple and demand to see her.”, he mused, then killed that thought when he contemplated how Thomas would react to that; something about jurisdictions and ‘No, means, no!’
Deep in his dark thoughts, Standorin contemplated the past few days.. then weeks.. and finally, his life, going as far back as his younger days, particularly after being ‘brought back’, if worded politely, ‘dragged back’, if phrased more accurately, by the rangers Moorat and Limnia to Serenity Home.
After his many experiences during his guarding duties on merchant caravans and as a bounty hunter, he had inevitably learned many of the King’s Laws. Particularly those pertaining to crime and civil order. Hence, he had applied to the position of ‘sheriff’ of the town and in a mere year or two, the job had been his.
The fact that he had worked day and night, quite tirelessly, and in his very orderly and disciplined way, along with his good knowledge of the King’s Laws, had played a great role in getting the job.
In secret, though, Standorin knew, his knowledge of the law had been due to his stints as a bounty hunter and his sense of order and discipline had been part of his ‘character’ all along. The only true reason he had worked day and night, and quite relentlessly, was to capture the affection of that ugly guy’s,Moorat’s, beautiful elder sister, Limnia; the woman who had ultimately captured him on any number of levels.
For nearly a year, Limnia had ignored ‘the boy’, as she referred to Standorin, being some years older than him. But Standorin had been ‘politely’ relentless in his approaches to her as well and finally, and quite miraculously, Limnia had caved in and they had married. Limnia had always been a very bold, outspoken, and strong woman. When they had been alone, however, and only when she’d been with her ‘young’ husband, she would revert to a much girlish persona, and that particular aspect of her had been at the very core of their love and happy marriage as much as her, otherwise ‘known’ attitudes. Standorin would do everything in his power to make her safe and happy because he had loved her that much, and she would be her soft side for him in all regards because her young husband made her feel loved and safe so much so that she could leave her ranger and elder sister ‘skin’ outside her home.
It was quite possible, even her brother Moorat had never known that side of her. After all, he had wondered what Standorin had found in his brisk, rather abrasive, and ofttimes heavy-handed elder sister! True, Moorat had never out right told him just how stupid he thought he was. Not to his face anyway. But he had left no doubt about just exactly what he thought about the young sheriff either. That had changed, however, when the young sheriff showed his skills once they had started tracking down various bandits that had plagued the south of Serenity Home.
All that, and all his happiness, however, had been crushed and quite abruptly, when she had taken ill, and after months of struggling, had died. And with her death, so had somethings.. many things.. in Standorin’s life had passed away and been buried with his wife.
Years later, he would meet a strange, tall, beautiful, alluring, calm, demure, and dignified woman with two, slender horns knock on his door and call upon him; Liaison Constance.
As if on queue, the door to his two-room house knocked.
Within the space of three weeks, and merely by her classy demeanor, her considerate attitude, and her moderated smile, she had managed to start a fire in his heart. A fire he hadn’t felt for the past sixteen years. And that fire had downright scared Standorin. And filled him with guilt, shame, and not a small sense of betrayal for his Limnia.
And all that had culminated to a breaking point when the bloody assassins had attacked his town, the refugees, the representatives, and the delegation, resulting in the death of nearly two thousand people and leaving almost nine thousand wounded in its wake.
Standorin had, quite unreasonably, blamed his emotional storming state with Liaison Constance as a distraction and hence, the cause of his inability to prevent the attack.
Deep down, though, he knew he was wrong on both accounts. The attack had been very well planned like it was, quite literally, ‘doomed to succeed’, and Liaison Constance had certainly not been a distraction for him. The only reason most of the delegation had survived had been due to the diversity of the people among the delegation who had earned their place by sweat and blood in the first place.. As for the liaison, she had shown exceptional professionalism during her work hours in the sheriff’s office and when they were out on a date, she would always have her demure smile and be a warm and confident listener. She would never speak out of turn and certainly never say foolish things, and when she spoke her mind, she would say it with considerate deliberation.
And considering how beautiful and appealing Constance had been in her curving physique, she had never once used that aspect of her arsenal to ‘capture’ him.
The truth, as Standorin understood it, was that the Liaison had wanted him. But as much as she would want to have him admire her for her appealing beauty, she wanted his honest love and certainly his respect, more. Particularly for her working mind, her calm and demure character, and her tender and caring heart..
..the heart that had a spark, as the new and rather surly Liaison Hamna Vir had explained.
“And I snuffed that right out of her.”, he seethed quietly.
The door knocked again.
Standorin contemplated whether he should open it or not. His men knew never to come knocking when he was home, unless something dire was at hand, even so, at that very moment, he just didn’t think he could take any more bad news.
He sighed, got up, and grabbed his heavy club, in case there was a dire situation at hand, or even if there wasn’t and he would use it on the idiot who had come to pester him during his private moments of misery.
“Uhhmm.. Hello, father.”, Udoorin mumbled.
“Boy, what are you doing here this late at night?”, he asked with a frown.
“Really? Dad? You are asking me why I am up late at night?”, Udoorin said in an exasperated voice.
“Good evening, father.”, said another, quiet, soft voice, and Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist appeared from behind Udoorin.
“My Queen.”, Standorin said with a slight bow.
“Please.”, Lorna very nearly begged with a furious blush. “The father of my King bows to no one. And for you, I shall always be just Lorna.”
“That is.. very kind of you to say..”, Standorin admitted with a flushed face.
“I.. We.. just came to visit you before we left.”, Lorna said quietly.
“Left? Are you going somewhere?”, Udoorin’s father asked, with one eyebrow cocked.
“Yes. May we enter? This will be better if we sat and talked.”, Lorna said carefully.
“By all means, do. But.. I have been a bit behind on my house chores of late. The house.. is a bit of a mess at the moment..”, he mumbled.
“It’s alright —ow my!”, Lorna exclaimed when she entered.
Udoorin, however, was more than utterly shocked. He had never seen this house this messy. To phrase that correctly, he had never seen this house messy!
“Udoorin, love, do call Lady Anglenna and Lord Armathelius. I am sure they have been tailing us and think we do not know.”, Lorna asked her husband kindly.
“Of course.”, Udoorin grinned and dashed back out.
“Uhhmm.. What do you have on your mind, Lorna?”, the sheriff asked but before she could answer, Udoorin returned with the Lady Anglenna, Lord Armathelius, and his awesome armor.
“Father, if you would, please, do sit down. Perhaps you would be kind enough to liven up the fire? It is, rather chilly this night.”, Lorna said with an encouraging smile.
“Cousin, Lord Armathelius, shall we get started?”, Lorna said with a merry expression.
Anglenna looked at her, then at the messy house, and sighed in total defeat.
Lord Armathelius just stared at his Queen, then at Anglenna with a very much confused expression, then with an “Ahh, of course, my Queen.”, he said as comprehension dawned on his face and he started towards the cups and plates and parchments scattered everywhere as Lorna bent down and started picking up the crumbled and tossed clothes.
“What? What are you doing?”, Standorin asked with a terribly embarrassed face.
“Helping our father out.”, Lorna said with an even more beautiful smile. “Udoorin, dear. I am sure there is a bucket here somewhere. We will need some water.”
“Of course.”, Udoorin grinned again, grabbed the two wooden buckets sitting next to the door, and ran out, once more, to draw some water from the water pump in the small garden.
“This is highly irregular.”, Standorin said quite mortified.
“No, Sheriff Standorin.”, Anglenna replied happily. “This is payback for all those long hours of grueling questions you afflicted upon me when I was ill.”
“I was very polite to you about it, Lady Anglenna. I am sure you understand that.”
“Yes. I do. I also understand you need some help.”, she said, then turned to her cousin and, very sternly, she added, “Lorna dear, please leave the cooking to me, if you will.”
“What? I thought father would enjoy a hot soup. Or perhaps even a stew!”, exclaimed Lorna.
“Not made by you, dear. I will do the soup, the stew, and the laundry, you do the dishes, and young Udoorin and Lord Armathelius can clean the fireplace and the rest of the house. I am sure we can find some suitable cleaning amenities here.”, she said cooly.
“This is truly unprecedented.”, Standorin fumed.
“My Lord Sheriff, your efforts on behalf of all the refugees, Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen have not gone unnoticed. True, we all suffered in this last attack. But had it not been for your enforced training programs, I surmise our total losses would have been catastrophic by proportion.”, said Lord Armathelius.
“Those training programs were the mayor’s idea.”, objected Standorin.
“Perhaps.”, agreed, Armathelius. “But Arthandos Yuleman had you to rely on, and he was right to do so.”
“Lord Armathelius. If you plan on giving long-winded and quite pompous speeches, please do so outside. Otherwise, grab a bucket and one of these cloths and start scrubbing!”, Anglenna burned the elf lord!
It was perhaps two hours later, and a bit past midnight when they had all settled down in front of the newly cleaned out fireplace; a sour-faced Anglenna sitting on the couch next to Armathelius, Sheriff Standorin sitting in a chair, King Udoorin sitting on the floor and on a threadbare rug with Queen Alor’Nadien ne sitting, also on the floor, with her back resting in his arms, and all with numb, shriveled hands.
“First of all, I thank you all for what you did and I dearly hope this does not go out and become public. Otherwise we will have quite a scandal in our hands and be a laughing stock for the next few generations.”
“It’s alright, dad. Really. After all the things you did for me..”, Udoorin said as he held his wife and queen tighter in his arms.
“Very well. Now, then. Where are you going on the eve of the war?”, Standorin asked.
For a moment, nobody said anything and of the four, only Lord Armathelius had a very disapproving expression. Lady Anglenna’s face was, not quite as disapproving, so much as it was of defeat and exasperation. Udoorin had a grid, and with a soft blush, so did Lorna.
“Lorna, love. Perhaps you should say it. Less likely he will trash us if he heard it coming from you.”, Udoorin offered.
“Sheriff Standorin. My Dorin and I have been studying the area extensively in the past few days and have put together all the intel gathered over the past several months and a bit more. The sources of said intel are; the rangers of Serenity Home and Bari Na-ammen, and thanks to the contributions of Agent Largo Summersong, ARIS, along with what information Tactical General Dridges Motherswolfie sent us and the lingering gossip of the ogres, the fey, and nature, courtesy Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane and her team of druids, shamans, and witches, and the distilled efforts of the half-born on this matter. You have already seen most of these reports yourself, sans what the ogres, the fey, and nature had to say about the matter. However, you have had your hands full as it is, so we marked out several locations and our suspicions, and forwarded them to the tactical general, Dridges Motherswolfie, and she concurs with us. We believe we have narrowed down the location of several of their key Grunt Generals, along with their Blood Shamans.”
Standorin gave her daughter-in-law a very steady gaze, for it was quite apparent what she and his son had in mind.
“We have sketched out several of these locations and the safest possible routes leading to them. We have also put together several surgical strike teams that will head out on search and destroy missions.”, she said softly. “Should we succeed, we will have broken the Orken army’s backbone, and come spring, they will be sorely disoriented, even if they are able to replace all their losses.”
“How many teams are there and who are on these teams, Lorna?”, Standorin asked calmly. “I take it you and my son are in one?”
“Yes, father. There are five teams. Ours will be the second team and will comprise my Udoorin, I, and my cousin, Lady Anglenna. The other teams shall be as follows; The first team shall have Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel, and Perigren Ostlanna Temez of the Escape. The third team will be made up of Master Aager Fogstep, dear Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, and Lady Lilly Venom. Team five will compass, to our surprise, Lady Seressa Wraiven and Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap of the Academy of Melshieve, along with Cora Sleet from the Great Northern Tundras, and Brom Bumblebrim of Bowling Hills.”, Lorna listed.
Standorin frowned. He knew most of the people involved, personally or by reputation. The last four, he knew only because they had been at the meeting three days ago. Something was going on here but he wasn’t quite sure what.
“You are missing team four.”, he said staring at his beautiful and graceful daughter-in-law.
Alor’Nadien ne Feymist smiled up at him.
“Team four is comprised of Liaison Berete Hamna Vir and another of the half-born. But we thought they could use an experienced and well-rounded leader, and very much hoped you would volunteer, father; Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Lords and Ladies, emissaries and representatives, welcome to our humble town of Serenity Home.”, the old, raspy voice of the mayor was heard as everyone settled down as he stared at the rather crowded room full of important people of many different peoples and races, their retinue, their guards, and their servants.
“That said, I believe introductions are in order. I am Arthandos Yuleman, the mayor of this town and your host, and upon formal request, I shall also be representing the Arashkan refugees.. As a quick reminder before we begin; as you all know, are under the threat of a formidable enemy. All possible precautions have been taken. However unlikely, should anything unexpected occur, each and every one of you here has been given assignments as to where you should be and designated a location to wait until further notice. Please follow said instructions in an orderly fashion and stick to them. Should you need any assistance, town guards will be made available to you as soon as possible. Also, dinner will be served after sundown. Thank you very much. Now, shall we begin?”
“Lady Alisia Sivara Hooman, Lady Moira Hooman, and Captain Fardashi. Durkahan.”, Lady Alisia introduced herself and her retinue in a brisk tone.
“Nadine Graciousward. Former queen of Bari Na-ammen.”, the beautiful lady Nadine said and though she appeared calm, the fire in her eyes spoke otherwise and hushed voices rippled in the room.
“Lord Haransis. Koruxan Knights’ Commander.”, said a tall, lean man in bright steel armor, his winged helm on the table, his sword and shield hanging from his chair.
“Dridges Motherswolfie, Tactical General. Elder Hills.”, a young dwarven girl said quietly from her seat. Standing right behind her was also a pair of dwarven girls scowling menacingly and leaning on long, wooden shafted battle-axes —the Tosser twins.
“Margaret Madish, Argail Smitefast, Lady Magella, and Harakoon Evilscowl. Scowling Hills.”, said a surprisingly soft-voiced dwarven woman with half of her scalp shaved and had very pale green eyes. Sitting on her side was an ancient dwarf with a grand and white beard and with a big hammer hanging from his thick, leather belt, a young, diffident dwarven girl and a middle-aged dwarf, his face marred with a truly evil-looking scowl.
“Moglonar Picklefork. Tinker Hills’ Artificers.”, piped a bold and old gnome.
“Master Randorm Billbuckle. Mayor of Last Hope Town.”, said a middle-aged man with peppered hair, a thick mustache, and muscles that said he’d rather be out cracking goblin heads than be a mayor.
“Dagard Dreadhound. Representative of the Drashan Armadana.”, spoke a tall, stick-skinny man in black, possibly silk, clothes; black shirt, a black necktie, black trousers, and black shoes.. His face was clean shaved and other than a sinister mark, likely cut by a knife, etched at the side of his chin, with his thick, black eyebrows and his knotted black hair, he might as well have been some corporate’s shark lawyer.
“Drashan Armada..”, scoffed someone from the other side of the room. “You mean a bunch of rat pirates floating on feisty rafts!”
“Those rats on feisty rafts have been sinking Watch Flotilla’s for the past few centuries, Lord Alberdel. How is that cuss of an elder brother of yours, by the way? Trimdel Kandara, wasn’t it? Ow, wait. He’s dead, on account of being assassinated.. while he was surrounded by twenty of his elite men. That must have been rather embarrassing.”, replied the man, Dagard, cooly.
“That’s it.”, growled Lord Alberdel as he rose. “I refuse to be in the same room with this deck rat!”
“By all means, leave, Alberdel. Though walking all the way back to Endless Watch should be quite a chore; we sunk your ship.. with our feisty rafts. It was a pretty ship. Did make a fine bone fire, though.”, grinned Dagard.
“You, son-of-a—”, snarled Alberdel and reached for his cutlass.
“Gentlemen. Please. We are all here for one, and only one reason and that is not starting a fight in my town. Every representative here has come willingly or by the king’s command.”, inserted Arthandos Yuleman with his raspy voice. “Please refrain from abusing our welcome.”
Lord Alberdel settled in his seat, fuming furiously while Dagard smirked at him.
“Shall we?”, offered Yuleman.
“Parson Brimstone and Katrine Faeriefire. Vodgar Nuke Squad..”, said a frowning man in dark red robes with intelligent eyes and entertaining a long, elaborate goatee sitting next to a charming looking woman in her early forties, in dark purple dress robes with wildly curly brown hair, a distracted expression, and vivid blue eyes.
“Seressa Wraiven and Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap, representing the Academy of Melshieve.”, said the very tall, night-black girl in frilly pinks with a cool, cultured, but distinctly feminine voice, politely introducing herself and the scruffy-looking gnomic girl sitting next to her.
The hobbit sitting next to them coughed.
“Brom Bumblebrim. Observing from Bowling Hills.”, the small hobbit said.
“Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap? Really, girl?”, he then asked, lowering his voice.
“Shut up, hobbit!”, the gnomic girl snarled at him.
“Cora Sleet. Representing the Bear Claw Tribe, the Ice Crag Tribe, and the Ice Wolf Horde of the Great Northern Tundras.”, the pale, white-haired elf with the swirling tattoos said softly.
“Liam Ruststone. Commander of Palantine Militia.”, spoke the man in banded armor, sitting next to the white elf with a hoarse voice that sounded like he’d been shouting all day.
“Liason Constance. Representing a special interest group.”, came the soft, careful voice of the tall, elegant half-born woman.
“Standorin Shieldheart. Sheriff of Serenity Home.”, Standorin said in a curt, all-business tone, sitting next to the liaison.
“Talüna Mira Silverdenú. Elder of the Wood Elves of Dimwoods.”, creaked a very elderly elf woman.
Upon being nudged by his queen, Udoorin cleared his throat.
“Udoorin Shieldheart and Alor’Nadien ne Feymist. King and Queen of Aranië.”, he said with his low, rumbling voice.
“Armathelius Riverblade. Commander to former Bari Na-ammen forces.”, the high elf said in his baritone voice.
“Anglenna Brightleaf. Advisor to the King and Queen of Aranië.”
“Aranië..”, rumbled the awesome ogress sitting right next to her queen. “A bit vague, don’t you think?”
“You know elder elvish?”, Anglenna asked more than a little surprised.
“I know many things. Elder elvish is one of them.”, Grulganiste replied with a scowl. “But ‘Kingdom’ is a bit of a generic name, isn’t it?”
“Bari Na-ammen is destroyed, Chieftain Grulganiste.”, came the soft voice of the Queen of Aranië, Alor’Nadienne, sitting beside the giant ogress. “We may not use it again. When we take back our woods, we shall not rebuild it. What we will build is something new, and it shall not carry the sins of her ancestors. We shall adopt what we have seen and witnessed here, in this very town, wisely named; Serenity Home. Whoever comes in peace shall enter it, and live in it. And whoever lives in it, shall sweat for it, and bleed for it. Thus, I and my King have decreed, and so the elves I represent have agreed.”
“A wise and refreshing choice, girl.”, smiled the ogress, making her already brutish face, even more terrifying. “Now, then. Grulganiste Grimtooth. The chieftain of the ogre’s of Oger’s Foot.”
“Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane.”, whispered in a slightly petrified voice and the skinny little Inshala spoke with a very much embarrassed face. “I represent the druids, the shamans, and the witches of Ritual Forest.”
“Speak up, little girl.”, some creaky voice said from the other side of the room.
“..Hooman.”, added Lady Alisia sternly, one hand on the pommel of her long blade. “She is my daughter and her honor is my honor.”
“..Bolgrig.”, rumbled Grulganiste. “She is my daughter and I will crush any of you punny things who disrespect her!”
“..Fogstep.”, murmured Aager very quietly. “And my claim trumps all of yours, for she is my mate. But by all means, do disrespect her. I haven’t let blood loose for quite some time..”
A terrifying silence settled in the room.
“I did not ask for her credentials.. I asked her to speak up!”, said the same voice of the very old Talüna Mira Silverdenú..
Several more representatives declared their identities, including a tall, beautiful, high elf woman with auburn hair and very deep green eyes from Solace, a platinum-blonde high elf from Tranquil, several other mayors from various towns, and the King’s personal emissary, all with their retinue.
When the last representative introduced himself, an eager silence settled.
✱ ✱ ✱
Thank you all for the introductions.”, rasped Yuleman. “Now we will exhibit the current situation and bring you all up to date. Then I shall present our needs and open the floor to anyone who may address them. As most of you know, two months ago, Arashkan city was unexpectedly ambushed, without warning nor provocation by an army of Orken.
For those who do not know, the Orken, as we suspect, are originally orcs, though heavily modified and mutated to be as tall as eight to nine feet tall, extremely vicious, resilient, hardy, ruthless, and cunning creatures. Where they came from, we do not know. How they came to be is also unknown at the moment, but their timing coincided with four major attacks;
One on Heavens Hand, demonic in nature, and the assault is still underway. Though the wall still stands unbreached, the loss in life was unprecedented.
Another attack occurred on all the outposts of Tranquil, also demonic in nature. Two outposts were overrun and totally destroyed. Thanks to the quick intervention of Tranquil Airships and the Demon Hunters barbarians, the demons were routed.
The third attack was on Dwarwick, east of Celestial Mountains, Orken in nature. Though they were unable to breach the dwarven walls, the loss of life was monumental.
And the last assault occurred on all fronts at the Demon Plains, demon and undead in nature. Though the Durkahan knights and paladins held their ground, Solace forces were hard-pressed and Korduba’s Watch cavalry was pushed back behind their own walls. The Ford is currently under siege!
At this point, it isn’t hard to suspect some form of collaboration and assume the attacks on Arashkan and High Woods were the fifth and sixth attacks..
From where these Orken came, we do not know. As to how managed to come all the way to Arashkan, and in such massive numbers, reliable witnesses from many independent sources inform us they deployed a device that rendered either all or a large portion of their leading forces totally invisible. They were over the walls of Arashkan before any feasible defenses were brought in. The siege of the city did not last long but the total occupation and the destruction of the city took nearly two weeks, as local forces and the high elves in the city fought a costly delaying tactic to get as many civilians and the city’s militia out as possible via ships and boats. The Arashkan military camp was simultaneously also placed under siege, but thanks to the timely arrival of more ships still floating, more than half the city’s regular army was smuggled out and also brought here.
As far as we know, the First Lord, Princeps Kaladin, his son, and his daughters were all slain. While Arashkan was being overrun, a second Orken army entered High Woods and laid waste to the high elf city of Bari Na-ammen. The current status of Ri Grandaleren is unknown, though his wife, the former Rise, Nadine Graciousward, and their daughter, Queen Alor’Nadien ne made it out alive and are both here.
A large portion of that army split and turned west and surrounded Vodgar which is currently under siege as we speak. Whatever the reasons, the Orken made one fatal mistake; they started their campaign and attacked right before winter settled in. At the moment they are all out there, stretched between Two-Day Forest and Vodgar. They may, or may not have considered turning former Arashkan into a base for themselves, but due to some unforeseen and unprecedented occurrence, the city is now very much uninhabitable to anything, including the Orken. They have suffered two months’ worth of extreme winter thus far.
Come spring, however, they shall attack. They must or they shall perish and they know it. They may split again and go north for Tranquil, which would cost them too much with little possibility for victory, as Tranquil has been on high alert for the past six or seven thousand years and their army consists mostly of highly skilled and battle-hardened veterans —unless they abandoned their current campaign and rushed there.. They may turn south for Koruxan, also ending in a likely disaster, as Koruxan is a fortress city, its back resting against extremely hazardous mountains and approachable only by two sides. They may go for Durkahan, also a city full of veterans and paladins, it’s back also against mountains. Should they move against either city, they will be leaving their own rear and flanks totally vulnerable to attacks.
They might decide to skim over to Last Hope and attack Palantine, again, being subject to attacks from all sides.
I believe that leaves us..
..as the only viable option.
Should they take Serenity Home, they will have access to the great Ritual Forest that will give them all the wood and lumber they would need to build further catapults, mangonels, spears, and arrows, almost endless supply of food both from the forest itself and the surrounding lands. They will have access to the Arashkan river and able to build ships and be able to make landfall anywhere in the kingdom. They will also have access to the iron, copper, and silver mines under Scowling Hills and Tinker Hills. Once they invade this portion of the continent, they will also be able to move north, up to the tundras, and attack Celestial Mountains, Tranquil, Sky Stone Keep, and Dwarwick from the rear. All they will need to do after claiming these lands is to stopper the gaps and they will be able to practically settle here and in the next twenty years, they will have doubled their numbers. In the next fifty to sixty years, they will be over a million, all able warriors and armed to the teeth.
Ladies and gentlemen, we will have only one shot at defending the king’s land here. I must also inform you that they have deployed the same device they used at Arashkan and one-third of their army has gone missing. We do not know where it is, or where it will strike. We have trackers and rangers scouring all the possible locations they may appear but so far, we have thus failed to locate them.
The Durkahan army will be moving out as soon as the ground thaws to reach here and give us relief. But that will take time. We must help break the siege on Vodgar. Once that is done, It will be possible for them and anybody else to come at the Orken army from the rear and also give free rein for the wizards and sorcerers there to teleport directly here to help strengthen our defenses until the Durkahan army gets here. For this, we were hoping to rely on Koruxan knights and Palantine militia.
Our main problem is the lack of trained warriors and logistics. We have great amounts of lumber moving from Dimwoods, but not fast enough. We lack food, clothing, and shelter for the near eighty thousand Arashkan civilians and High Woods refugees and we are sorely short on arms and armors. The dwarven smiths have been working day and night, around the clock, but with nearly twenty thousand Arashkan militia and regulars, and fifteen thousand High Woods’ able soldiers, that is really a tough call. We have over thirty thousand very well-trained dwarves at Elder Hills but they will and must defend their hills and the west of Ritual Forest. The wall we have been building for the past months is substantial, but it will not stand against mangonels or even a steady pounding of scores of catapults. We have the engineers and the manpower, thanks to the dwarves and the gnomes, but we still need more, much more raw materials.
Ladies and gentlemen, we need your help, and quite desperately and we have two months at best, five weeks if we get an early spring, or the Orken get tired of sitting in the winter and decide to attack anyway.”
Mayor Arthandos Yuleman looked around for a moment, then nodded at Sheriff Standorin.
The sheriff cleared his throat and stood up.
But before he could start, the deep rubble of Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth was heard.
“Will the woodsmen of Dimwoods behave, should my boys bring their lumber here?”, she asked.
“We may be able to arrange a liaison.”, the sheriff mused. “It would be wiser if the chosen person went to speak with them first, though there are quite a bit of trees, cut and shaved already.”
“A team of my sons and daughters can drag half a dozen trees from there to here in under three or four days. The first batch will be slow. After that, they will have opened a trial. They have grown fat and lazy. The exercise will do them good, and there are over three thousand of them. Now. What raw materials do you need for this wall of yours?”, she inquired in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone.
Standorin turned to Margaret Madish.
“Stone.”, Margaret said simply.
“Will mountain rock work the same way as stone?”,Grulganiste asked the dwarf woman.
“Depends on the mountain.”, she replied.
“Rook Mountain rock!”, growled the chieftain.
“Rook Mountain rock is hard to chip and shape, but otherwise, it will be exceptionally good for a siege wall.”, Margaret said, her eyes suddenly bright.
“I shall call upon past favors and summon distant friends and relatives. I shall tell them to bring the Rook Mountains here as gifts.”, Grulganiste rumbled with a hideous grin. “After that, we shall all go to the west of our forest and camp there and wait for these Orken to come. They will make a merry hunt for seven thousand of my sons and daughters, and friends and relatives.”
“Perhaps..” said the creaky voice of the elderly Talüna Mira Silverdenú. “..the chieftain would like seven hundred elven archers to protect their flanks from their north when they make camp west of Ritual Forest? If she is willing to refrain her sons and daughters from eating my elves..”
“Elf tastes like chicken, Mira-Silverdenú!”, sniffed Grulganiste. “We don’t eat chicken. We have them only for their eggs. And elves do not lay eggs!”
Chuckles were heard from the dwarves.
“Perhaps..”, said the young dwarf tactical general, Dridges Motherswolfie, as she glanced at the ogress. “..the chieftain would like several thousand dwarves to protect their flanks from their south when they make camp west of Ritual Forest? If she is willing to refrain her sons and daughters from eating my dwarves.. That way, we may part and divert at least five thousand of our ground troops to the defense of the walls here.”
“We have standards, Dridges-Motherswolfie-girl!”, she said with a distinct expression of disgust on her face now. “None of my sons and daughters will put a dwarf into their mouth and risk infectious diarrhea!”
Dridges went red.
The Tosser twins went black!
A burst of roaring laughter went off and Argail Smitefast slammed the table as he stared at the brutishly glowering chieftain ogress.
“It would seem, years have stolen little from your sour sense of humor, Grulganiste.”, he said merrily.
“It would seem, years have stolen quite a bit from you, old dwarf. You are all white!”, Grulganiste sniffed at him.
“Harsh..”, said Argail, and laughed some more.
“You two know each other?”, Dridges spluttered.
“Argail thinks he knows me. Like all men who think they know and understand women, he is a wrong old fool!”, snarled the chieftain with undisguised disdain.
Dridges and the Tosser twins just stared at her, then at their grandfather, thunderstruck, while Margaret Madish and her sister, Marideth Brave, gave their father a bemused, poorly concealed, slide-long glances.
Sheriff Standorin looked at Margaret again.
“Will this solve the issue of stone and lumber needed to finish the construction of the wall, Lady Margaret?”, he asked.
Margaret Madish didn’t reply immediately. She pursed her lips as she thought for a moment, then she turned to her own daughter and spoke.
“The stones and the lumber will suffice. But that will not solve our main concern, here. I believe Our Tactical General Dridges is better equipped to outline said concern..”
Dridges nodded at her mother, then quietly but sternly, she picked up her mother’s narration.
“Our main concern; the south end of the wall.. Unless we continue building the wall to eventually surround the town, a wall is just a wall —a linear line. It may not be breached, it can, however, be easily outflanked. Perhaps not from the north end, due to the swift-running Arashkan River and they do not come with ships, it will be flanked from the south, making the whole structure redundant and moot. Should the enemy circle around Silent Lake and risk the Demon Fog, our whole defense line will be overrun in a matter of minutes and Serenity Home will be done for. Should they follow the said route, they will not only be coming at us from our south but also from our rear, practically using the King’s road! Should they not want to risk the Demon Fog, they still have the option to sail over Silent Lake using whatever that floats and still come at us from our south, totally ignoring and bypassing the wall..”
“If some kind of sleds be crafted and pulled by, perhaps the ogres before they leave for the western end of the forest, a decent number of our Drashan Armada can be put on the other side of the stone bridge. That way we can make sure these Orken can not come at the wall from the north by the river and we can patrol the whole of Arashkan Lake make it quite hazardous for them to shore anywhere. Provided the petty lords of Endless Watch do not use this as a lame-ass excuse to cockblock our ships in hopes of trapping them. Should they be foolish enough, we will unload everything we have on them, and anything else that gets in our way and be damned with any past treaties we have made with Serenity Home..”, Dagard Dreadhound spoke in a calm, deadly voice. “Make no mistake, here, gentlemen. We are not here as anyone’s servant, and certainly not as part of the Kingdom of Isles. We are here as part of our pact with this town and this town alone. Perhaps the merry Lord Alberdel can actually offer something to save his own kingdom.”
Lord Alberdel Kandara glared at the tall, lean man in blacks but refused to comment.
“It is possible..”, said an illustrious, cultured, and distinctly feminine voice. “..Lord Alberdel may be more of help by providing a sizable number of Endless Watch Naphta Team, along with their munitions, instead of bringing in more ships into a river already cramped with ships.. and avoid further frictions?”
Everyone turned and stared at the very tall, very dark, and rather buxom girl with the long, pink hair and the frilly, short, and vivid pink skirt dress.
“What are you doing, girl?”, hissed the scruffy-looking gnomic girl at her side. “We can’t get involved. We can only observe!”
“But we are not getting involved, luv.”, Seressa Wraiven said, grinning with pristine-white teeth. “We shall be observing this war.. from above.. via Melshieve Gunships.. The Endless Watch Naphta Team will merely be on board our gunships as guests and we can’t always keep an eye on said guests, nor can we be responsible for the things they throw over board, now can we?”
“Sophistry!”, scowled the little gnomic girl. “That’s pure sophistry and you know it!”
“Tonic, luv—”, the very tall, very dark girl began.
“—Shhh.. Don’t use my name dammit!”, hissed the scruffy gnomic girl.
And a few tables over, Nadine Graiciousward’s ears prickled suddenly!
“Oops. I am sorry.”, whispered the dark girl earnestly. “But what I was going to say was, it is only sophistry when there are two parties and one of them is trying to outmaneuver the other by following the letter of a certain agreement, but not the spirit of it. Yes, the Academy of Melshieve has a sworn policy to ‘observe only’ any and every possible occurrence taking place in the Kingdom of Isles without taking sides or joining any conflicts. But said sides of any given conflict must have some form of agreement or at the very least, some form of recognition in the first place, historically or conventionally. Neither the Kingdom nor the Academy has ever made such agreements and no one here has recognized the Orken as a sovereign kingdom. They appeared out of nowhere and attacked without provocation.”
“Girl, you just defined how sophistry works.. with another sophistry!”, snarked Tonic. “But I don’t really care. It’s not me you have to sell that demented logic to.”
“Spoken like a true pair.”, murmured the hobbit sitting next to the gnomic girl.
“That actually is a very good idea, Maiden Seressa.”, spoke Lorna. “Melshieve Gunships are quite famous, and bombarding the enemy from above will make sure they are unable to circle around and come at the wall from the south end and make sure they can not use boats to cross Silent Lake. It is possible to put highly trained elven archers on board the gunships as well, providing both protection for the ships, the Endless Watch crew, and raining arrows upon the enemy below.”
The room was suddenly filled with nods and murmurs of agreement as Tonic bent closer to her pair, Seressa, all the while hiding her face behind one of the fruit bowls.
“You just want to ride on a Gunship!”, she hissed at Seressa in a low voice.
“About this device, the Orken has employed..”, Lady Alisia asked. “What do we know about it?”
“Actually, I want to ride their new invention; the Storm Kites.”, grinned the dark girl. “You, on the other hand, truly want to be on a Melshieve Gunship. I know for a fact that you do because you applied one hundred and nine times as a flight member crew, a gunship engineer, a gunship’s turret man, a deckhand, a kitchen assistant, and going as low as applying as a flight attendant, who basically just serves drinks! All your applications, along with their rejections, were also in your files..”
Nimbletyne Tinkerdome got up at that point and he had a very sour face.
The gnomic girl gave her a very baleful glare.
“Girl, you can turn into a ghostly raven and it looks awesome and you can literally fly without a gunship!”, she almost snarled at her.
“The device, as far as we know..”, Nimbletyne began after clearing his throat. “..is comprised of several components. We are not sure how they have been assembled or who was the original designer. But once activated, it bends and reflects light around a very large area, sort of a half a globe or sphere, not making those inside strictly invisible, per se, but making those outside unable to perceive those that are inside. At least that is our working theory.”
“But so can you! You have a cloak, and a broom that can help you fly.”, Seressa smiled down at her little pair. “And why are you suddenly hiding behind that fruit bowl?”
“The cloak does not count.”, mumbled Tonic.
“And what are we doing about it, Master Nimbletyne? That missing Orken army might be anywhere. We could be bringing our paladins in hopes of hitting their army here and get slaughtered when they suddenly appear behind us.”, Lady Alisia said with a concerned tone.
“What? Why? Did you dump one of your acid vials on it to see if it is acid-proof?”
“What? No, dammit.. I.. plan on.. *some incomprehensible mumbles*”
*More incomprehensible mumbles*
“We have tried various approaches to the issue at hand, but I am afraid we haven’t made much headway.”, admitted the Nimbletyne with an infuriated and frustrated tone.
“Ow. I see. You don’t want to tell me. I get it.”, Seressa said cooly.
“You really want to push this don’t you?”, Tonic scowled at her pair.
“Yes. Very much.”, smile Seressa.
“We may have a solution.”, said a distinctly alluring voice, and people turned to the tall, horned girl sitting next to Sheriff Standorin.
“You do?”, asked Nimbletyle Tinkerdome, somewhat surprised. “By all means, share with us, Liaison Constance.”
“We did not come forward with it because the solution lacks the practicality of application.”, Constance said. “We are, at the moment, looking into various avenues.”
“Perhaps I can help there?”, Nimbletyne asked eagerly.
“The main composition at the moment can reveal, not the location of this concealing device nor what it conceals when activated, but rather the area it affects. At least for a time long enough to be seen with the naked eye. Our problem is delivering it to the suspected area.”, the Liaison explained succinctly.
“I plan on gifting it to Cora!”, she whispered at her.
“Ow? Why?”, Seressa asked a bit surprised.
“Because she’s awesome and cool and I want her to experience the delights and the freedoms of flying. I mean. She’s a barbarian. She is literally the definition of ‘free’ and on so many levels. And she’s been a friend to me even though she had no reason to be. I mean, I certainly never gave her any reason, that’s for sure.. Uhhmm.. besides, I want to see how fast she can fly and land on her foes with that kazirillion foot long sword of hers.. from above! It’ll be legendary!”,Tonic replied with a silly grin on her face.
Nimbletyne Tinkerdome mulled over the Liaison’s explanation.
“You are such a dork, baby girl.”
“Use PPG’s.”, said Tonic promptly, from behind the fruit bowl.
“Of course!”, exclaimed Nimbletyne, smacking at his forehead.
“Well, FINALLY! Someone who knows his acronyms!”, said the gnomic girl happily.
“Perhaps you may want to dummy that down for the rest of us, Miss Cinotnacra?”, Udoorin said, showing a surprising initiative, as he stared at the voice hiding behind the fruit bowl, with a bemused and poorly hidden smile.
“Pressure Propelled Grenades.”, Nimbletyne inserted absently. “Never thought much of them myself because they are quite unreliable and tend to totally miss their target as often as they hit your allies.”
“Yes.”, Cora Sleet, the barbarian girl said quietly from where she sat without cracking a smile.
“Hells bells, Cora. Just how many times did I hit you?”, Tonic hissed at her with a scowl.
“Nine times.. Five with your fire grenades when you misjudged their distance. Once with your stun-bang grenade-thingy, which almost got me killed because I couldn’t hear or see anything. When I am very silent, I can still hear my ears ringing. And three times with your acid grenades, totally disintegrating and ruining two very good shirts, and that time when you totally melted away my favorite pair of pants and put me on display to the rest of Arashkan —in my undies!“, she replied seriously.
Tonic gave her a rather guilty look.
“You are never going to let that one go, are you?”, she fumed.
“It was a good pair of pants and you still owe me one.”
“We should try it immediately, Miss Palecog. I believe I have all the materials.”, offered Nimbletyne eagerly.
“No, no. I heard a lot about you, Master Nimbletyne. I am sure you can handle this one on your own.. And.. uhhmm.. I have a prior engagement elsewhere, sir.”, Tonic replied a bit hastily, still hiding behind the fruit bowl.
“Very well.”, said Sheriff Standorin. “We shall eagerly await for the results of this PPG-whatsit. Now, we have three more items on our plate. One is; how to lift the siege on Vodgar as soon as possible, because as long as that siege is there, Vodgar will be out of commission, and we will be unable to trap the Orken. Yes, as much as we want to make sure they will be unable to invade the eastern end of the continent by taking Serenity Home and its surrounding lands, we also do not want them to spread out and around the hills and forests between here and Vodgar. Two; we need clothing and food for over one hundred and twenty thousand refugees, including the Arashkan civilians, their militia, and their regulars, and the High Woods elves. And three; the elves and the regulars currently have acceptable equipment, though most of their armors need repairs and lack shields, the Arashkan militia have very poor arms and armor, and we do not have enough for any new requites from the civilians who want to participate in the coming war.”
“We shall move our main forces and beef up Last Hope’s defenses to make sure these Orken can not come at you from that direction. And when they attack the wall, we will harass them from their southern flank..”, Liam Ruststone, the commander of Palantine Militia said hoarsely. “We train our militia both as stationary and mobile defensive long-pikemen, and for trench warfare, so we have certain diversity. Any gap that needs corking, any trench that needs clearing, my men can handle it.”
“We can hold off the Orken at Vodgar for a very long time.”, snickered Parson Brimstone.
“Indeed.”, Katrine Faeriefire gave a hearty laugh. “Best thing that’s happened to Vodgar in the last three centuries.”
“Yes, yes.”, added Parson gleefully, stroking his odd goatee. “All the newbie and apprentice wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks who could barely cast a cantrip just two months ago are now dropping fireballs, ice storms, and lightning bolts —en mass!”
“We could send some two hundred of them over in a few days. Some physical training and seeing the results of war would be good for them. Educational, even, and that it isn’t just nuking from afar.”, Katrine said thoughtfully.
“Excellent idea, my dear. We should also send some to Durkahan. Those partial to detection and divination, in particular. It should help against possible ambushes should they decide to employ this device against the paladins. We have had good relations with them for centuries and they have treated us with honest respect.”, Parson said, nodding at Lady Alisia who nodded back.
“Then it is down to food, clothes, arms, and armors.”, Standorin noted with some relief.
“Endless Watch can supply the food and clothing.”, Lord Alberdel mused. “We are, however short of arms and armors ourselves. We can send word to Graystone Military Keep and Devien City for them, however. If the bloody pirates refrain from raiding them, they could be here within one and a half months by sea. Our ships with the food and clothing, within two weeks.”
“I have been given free rein to make any agreements.”, Dagard said cooly. “Provided no Drashan ship is attacked. If they are, Drashan will retaliate in kind. Please note that should this Orken threat be eliminated, we expect the Kingdom of Isles to officially accept Drashan as a free, sovereign kingdom.”
A strained silence settled in the room as many faces turned sour.
Aager Fogstep, who was standing silent and quite still behind Udoorin, had an amused expression on his face, hidden behind his half mask. Many things could be said about Bara’baras Kördog, the ‘King’ of the pirates of Drashan, and none of them good, but the very tall, giant of a man did have great foresight and he was a patient hunter. The official treaty he had signed with Serenity Home five years ago had legalized Drashan’s existence in the eyes of the Kingdom of Isles, even if it had been by mere insinuation. And now, he was going to officialize that, hence any attacks on any Drashan ship or soil, would constitute as an assault against a sovereign kingdom instead of a rabble of illegitimate pirates.
“Well played, you son-of-a-heartless whore..”, Aager growled with admiration..
..and just then, Lilly Venom dropped from the heavy chandelier above just as alarm bells went off everywhere in town.
✱ ✱ ✱
The events of the next few moments happened in a blur..
..when the lithe form of Lilly fell on someone standing right behind the former Rise of Bari Na-ammen, Nadine Graciousward!..
..as someone else, standing right behind Lord Haransis, the Koruxan Knights’ Commander, gave a low, painful grunt and stiffened, and Agent Largo was standing behind him with a bloody knife..
..and Inshala Frostmane disappeared as another figure lunged forward with a long, curving dagger..
..and a tiny squirrel was climbing up Chieftain Grulganiste Gimtooth’s massive, tree trunk-like arm and shoulder! The squirrel darted into the giant ogress’s thick, braided hair and holed in it..
..when Dagard Dreadhound whipped out a very sharp dagger and hurled it at Lord Alberdel of Endless Watch..
..just as Aager Fogstep sent a ghostly dagger across the room at the barbarian tribes and horde’s representative, Cora Sleet..
..while Bremorel Songsteel lurched up and over the table, and with the great, blue sword in her hands, knocked a dagger cast for King Udoorin, right out of the air..
..and with a swift draw, Lord Armathelius ran his long, elven sword through the neck of the man coming at his Queen, Alor’Nadien ne, without so much as looking at him..
..and the room went up in total chaos!
“You deck rat bastard—”, began Lord Alberdel furiously as he went for his sword when the dagger hurled at him missed. Then he froze and stared in amazement when someone behind him toppled over and crashed, face down onto the table.
“Huh.”, was all Cora Sleet had said when she turned around to see the moaning man clutching at the long, ghostly dagger sticking out of his chest. To her bemused surprise, the dagger suddenly faded.. and disappeared! She looked back at the man in dark leathers, hood, and mask and noted the same ghostly dagger reappear in his hand, once again. The man did not so much as glance at her as he engaged with someone else trying to get at the human king of the high elves.
She didn’t wait for too long to take in the chaotic mess around her for someone had just grabbed for Tonic!
The little gnomic girl yelped as the ‘guard’ behind her picked her up by the knot of her reddish-brown hair and tried to twist her very slender neck.
“There is a man behind you, Mother Ganiste. I think he is trying to come at you with a knife!”, whispered Inshala into the ogress’s ear, from where she was lodged.
“So the peace with the humans is over? Thus soon?”, Grulganiste grunted with disgusted disappointment.
“I do not think these are good humans, Mother. Ow, and the one coming behind you is almost upon you. I think you should do something about him.”, Inshala urged.
“I SHALL KILL HIM THEN AND FEEL NO REMORSE!”, snarled the ogress.
“I don’t think so..”, said Cora cooly, and seamlessly she drew out her great, two-handed sword, blazing with frigid tundra winds from her back and brought it down on the man, splitting his head open like a ripe melon, all the way down to his midriff! “..She’s our midget.”, she continued with a touch of swagger.
What was left of the man stiffened as blood and gore gushed out everywhere and Tonic dropped on the floor all drenched!
“Mustn’t complain. Mustn’t complain. It’s only hog’s head full of blood and crap!”, muttered the gnomic girl. “Behind you, Seressa.”
Seressa, however, was a bit busy hailing several other guards across the room coming at the ranger girl, Bremorel, sending ghostly and howling skeletal hands in misty fists at them. The ghostly hands clutched at each guard’s throat. Bremorel spun around, and with a lithe dance, she cut the men down, showing once again just how she’d earned her name; Songsteel..
“Thomas, GO!”, she snarled. “Take the Liaison and Temez and GO! I must guard Udoorin!”
Brom, the hobbit, pulled out his lyre and with a quick twitch of one finger, send a very disturbing, discordant note, and the man coming up behind the very tall, very dark Seressa stumbled as his head suddenly snapped up, one eye staring ahead, the other, somewhere north and west! Blood gushed out of his mouth, nose, eyes, and ears, and his whole head exploded from the inside!
“Dridges!”, yelped Lady Magella in a terrifying voice as she shied away from the man coming at her. The man lunged at her and she flung back, toppled over her chair, and slammed herself on the ground, hitting her head quite hard.
“You should be ashamed of yourself going after girls. Fight someone with balls!”, snarled her mother, Margaret Madish, and caved his head in with an enormous hammer while her father, Argail Smitefast was downing men, right and left.
In perfect sync, the Tosser twins, Britney and Dritmey, had started swinging their great battle-axes as Dridges told them where to butcher.
Lady Magella rose from the ground and her timid face was gone. What replaced it was nothing short of wrath. She pulled out her six-flanged mace glowing with incandescent light and started breaking bones!
Thomas gave Bremorel a stern look filled with the fear of being deprived, turned around, and with two of his junior temple guards, he dashed up to Constance and Temez and curtly said, “You, two. With me!”
Liaison Constance nodded, though it was clear, she did not want to leave..
..when Perigren Ostlanna Temez jumped over her table, and with a water-like flowing motion, she flipped and landed a kick right into the throat of a man coming at Lady Anglenna, who was hastily dragging Queen Alor’Nadien ne. The man stumbled back and Temez pulled out the broken pair of her antler horn and stabbed it into the man’s face, then at his jugular, and seamlessly, at his heart! The man barely gave out a rattling, wet, and wheezy sound as he collapsed.
Back to back, just a few steps over, Lilly Venom and Agent Largo were carving their way, from one table to the next, using a rather brutal strategy..
..where Largo would jump an assassin, and with a series of punctures, then stab his shortsword into in their stomach, twist, slice open, pull out, point up and shove it into their throat as they would, inevitably grunt forward, and Lilly would cut open their kidney, then stab them in the pit of one arm, piercing the heart at a diagonal angle, and finally slice off a jugular, as an encore.. and move on to the next, a process that seemed more like an extremely bloody and excruciating dance, really!
A body with two arms missing flew over Temez and crashed into a group of men trying to corner Sheriff Standorin as he tried to fend them all off the Serenity Home mayor, Arthandos Yuleman.
“Aager, Morel!”, he bellowed over the clamor. “Get Udoorin to his secure location, NOW!”
“Time to go, I believe. Nadien ne. Please stay close to me..”, murmured Anglenna.
“Not without my King and certainly not without my mother.”, replied Lorna stubbornly as she sliced open a man trying to get at her, all the way from his groin up to his forehead!
“Young Udoorin has his own retinue, cousin. Being pigheaded now is unseemly for a queen. Lord Armathelius, do ask the former Rise of Bari Na-ammen to join us if you will?”, she said as she calmly flash-burned someone trying to get at her. The man crumbled in charred cinders.
“I offered.”, Lord Armathelius replied with equal calm as he clashed his elven longsword against three assassins. “She said she was assigned elsewhere.”
“Get behind me, mother. You are out of practice.”, Moira beseeched. “Two kills and your sword hand is trembling.”
“Just who do you think your father practiced his swordplay, young lady?”, fumed Lady Alisia Hooman.
“Mother, that was over twenty years ago. Please. Just do this for me? You have children who will mourn should something happen to you.”, Moria pleaded as she slammed her shield into a man and ran him through when he stumbled.
“I am not leaving my daughter, nor the man who makes her happy.”, Alisia hissed with determination. “If anything happens to that boy, Inshala will be devastated.”
“Mother, Aager knows what he is doing. Better than either of us. And I do not see Inshala. She must already be out. Captain Fardashi. Please talk some sense to my mother..”, Moira said grimly.
“I do not tell the First Lady of Durkahan what to do. No one does. Because she is smart enough to know what she must do, as opposed to what she wants to do. After all, she is the First Lady of Durkahan.”, Captain Fardashi said calmly as he cut another man trying desperately to get at Lady Alisia.
“Lady Moira, Lady Alisia, Captain Fardashi..”, Thomas said as he and his junior temple guardians maced their way over to them with Nadine Graciousward in their mids. “This way, if you will. We have two more to pick up..”
Udoorin head-butted one of the men coming at him, then chopped him down. The next one was just a little too slow and he was dead before he knew it, as the burly King lopped his head, clean off his shoulders.
“Time to go, Udoorin. Anglenna and Armathelius are taking your Queen away as we speak.”, Aager growled.
“Can’t.”, Udoorin rumbled. “The door is too crowded. Might as well stay and help.”
“That one, Mother Ganiste. And that one.. we must get them too before we can leave.”, Inshala whispered.
“Why? Can’t they take care of themselves?”, the ogress, Grulganiste, growled.
“I am sure they can, Mother. But then, so can I..”, the tiny squirrel chirped happily.
“You have been too long with the humans, my daughter. You now have much sass!”, scowled Grulganiste as bulldozed through the chaos, reached over, and grabbed her query, by the scuff of his coat, right off the ground.
“Eep!”, yelped Brom, just to come face to face with one of the most brutish and awesomely scowling faces he had seen in his entire life!
“Ow. Hello Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth. It’s been a while. You are as comely and captivating as ever”, he said grinning toothily at her.
“Good Heavens!”, Inshala exclaimed in a melting voice. “He is sooo cute! Can we keep him?”
“Master Hobbit. You seem to appear at unexpected times. And your words are as beguiling as ever, even though you lie through your teeth. Do say more!”, growled the ogress.
“Chieftain Grulganiste!”, Cora snarled. “You will let our hobbit go, right now.”
“Simmer down chicken legs!”,Grulganiste snarled back at her.
“Chicken legs?”, Cora said dumfounded and with a very flushed face.
“Yes.”, the giant ogress said. “Meat like chicken —all white!”
“It wasn’t meant as an insult so much as it was a descriptive term, Cora. The esteemed chieftain and I are acquainted.”, Brom explained hastily. “Uhhmm.. where are we going?”
“Wherever I take you!”, scowled Grulganiste and tossed the hobbit on her back!
Brom yelped again and clung to the long, thick, braided hair of the giant ogress.. and came face to face with a tiny squirrel poking her head out of the nest of hair!
Thomas appeared next to the very tall and very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, and the midgety little gnomic girl, MissCinotnacra, with Ladies Nadine Graciousward, Alisia, and Moira, Captain Fardashi, and his junior temple guardians, and was talking to them in quick, brisk words.
“Hold on tight, my daughter.”, growled Grulganiste as she bashed in the head of another assailant and stepped on him. The mad crushed and the chieftain of Oger’s Foot rammed right through the town hall’s outer wall..
..with a dust-covered Cora coming up behind her!
“That was awesome, Mother.”, said Inshala.“You are so awesome at breaking houses!”
“Are you punning me, my daughter?”, scowled Grulganiste.
“We are out, my Aager.”, Inshala whispered in her mind.
“Pun you? Who would be foolish enough to pun Mother Ganiste?”, she giggled.
“I noticed.”, came Aager’s dry and amused voice. “I must admit, your mother is indeed, quite awesome!”
“I know, right?”, Inshala said with an exhilarated voice.
“There! The way out!”, Aager said, pointing at the gaping, ogre-shaped hole in the wall.
Udoorin turned around to see Alor’Nadien ne, Anglenna, and Lord Armathelius shimmer..
“..Stay safe!”, he shouted.
“..Stay safe, my Dorin..”,Alor’Nadien ne whispered..
“Just a sec..”, snapped Bremorel as she danced her way into the chaos.
“Once. Just once I want you people to do as you are told!”, growled Aager..
..and the ranger girl reappeared with a limp body in her arms and running over the tables. When she reached the last few tables, she jumped, sailed over them, and landed, quite lithe and supple, next to Udoorin.
“Why have you risked everything for that woman?”, Aager snarled at her, as he pointed at the elder of the wood elves of Dimwoods, Talüna Mira Silverdenú. “She had her own assigned designation.
“She was knocked on the floor and people trampled over her. Just how was she supposed to get to her designation?”, Bremorel snarled back.
“That is not your concern, Ranger Lieutenant!”, snapped Aager.
“She is my only remaining relative!” she hissed at Aager. “She is my cousin Laila’s grandmother, hence my grandmother too. I’ll be damned before I left her there to be slaughtered.”
Aager fumed some more, though he knew any argument made here would be futile. The ranger lieutenant’s stubbornness was bested by only her dislike for him.
Then, inadvertently, he looked down at the frail, old, and unconscious elf woman in the ranger lieutenant’s arms and noted she was very nearly as small and skinny as his Inshala. Yet, where his Inshala was full of life and skipping energy, this woman was at the end of hers.
“To the sheriff’s office..”, he growled silently.
✱ ✱ ✱
To say Inshala was pleasantly surprised when Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth had parkoured her way through the town in a literal sense and brought her to her home..
..newly built and freshly painted!
“Nuf with the free ride, hobbit!”, Grulganiste growled. “The Heavens have gifted you with sturdy legs.. as short as they may be..”
Brom hopped down the giant ogress’s back and landed on his butt with a flushed and quite embarrassed expression face as Cora joined them.
“Why have you brought us here, chieftain?”, she asked gruffly.
Grulganiste scowled down at the tundra elf for a moment.
“You are a grouchy one, arent you? I can not say I like elves, but I had heard the white elves from up north were a bit better mannered than their kin living in the woods. Do not make me think I was mistaken.”, she scowled at her some more.
A squirrel climbed down the fourteen-foot ogress and hopped on the floor, spun once, spun twice, and on the third, the squirrel was gone, and the skinny form of Inshala was there.
“Mother Ganiste, please. They are guests. And they have just come out of a dire fight.”, she said with a shy smile as she looked down at the very ‘cute’ hobbit and his pouting elf-girl companion.
Then she turned around and ogled at her home..
..and darted inside.
Apparently, Chieftain Grulganiste hadn’t had her ogres rebuilt her home..
..she had them built something totally new; a two-story lodge with a guest room and a separate kitchen with a larger fireplace on the ground floor, a wide-spaced living —and possibly playing— room on the second floor and a very cozy attic that had its roof high enough to stand —as their spacious bedroom.
The new home was furnished with hand-woven tribe’s patterned rugs on every floor, low, cushioned, backless chairs and a similarly low table on the guest’s floor, two more low and backless chairs and a table on the second floor, though these were less flashy but warmer in color and appearance, along with dozens of cushions. The mattress in the attic was certainly not a threadbare thing, but something filled with washed and sun-dried sheared fleece, soft cowhides, and not-itchy woolen blankets. There were handcraft lanterns hanging from little hooks and slender chains on the walls now and there were a few more pots, pans, wooden plates and bowls and cutlery in the kitchen, and the squeaky pump in the garden had been fixed, and it didn’t shriek like a banshee anymore when its lever was pulled down and it was also, somehow, moved into the kitchen! However Chieftain Grulganiste had attained them, there were even a few very elegant vases and soft, faintly blush-colored doilies as well, all elf made!
And then, there was the garden..
Grulganiste’s ogres hadn’t touched the big, blooming cherry tree, but the small garden had been swept clean and a stone-laid path was leading from the kitchen to a little gazebo, complete with a wooden table and two benches on either side and a brazier hung from the ceiling of the gazebo.
Inshala was enthralled..
..and thoroughly shocked.
The cherry tree also entertained many lanterns and even a two-seat swing, hanging from one of its larger branches..
And as a final touch, the garden was cordoned off with a fence tall enough to give certain privacy, and the fence itself was hand-woven, interlocking, dried and varnished reeds..
“Mo.. Mother Ganiste? What did you do to my home?”, she asked dazedly when she came back out.
“I made up for my folly, my daughter. I had my ogres use as much as the original materials they could salvage from what I wrecked, then made a home worthy of my daughter and the Ritual Guardian. Your father, Cathber, was a man with many good traits. Being alone made him lose perspective. Particularly after he lost Tamara at the hands of Themalsar. He was the Ritual Guardian, yes, but otherwise, he was little more than a hermit running around doing silly things like delivering babies and gathering lightning. Being the Ritual Guardian is not much different than being a king, a queen, or a chieftain, my daughter. People will not understand what being a Ritual Guardian means, nor what it entails, and they certainly will not understand the kind of responsibilities and burdens it shall place upon you. But they will see this home and respect you for it; you had the most feared and fearsome creatures of your forest build it for you. The underlying message there will never go unnoticed.”, rumbled Grulganiste.
“But.. but what if my Aager does not like it?”, moaned the skinny girl.
“Does your Aager burn when he takes you into his arms, my daughter?”, the ogress asked.
“Mo.. mother, please.”, the skinny girl blushed furiously.
“It is a relevant question, girl. Does he or does he not?”, Grulganiste asked.
“Every time.”, came Aager’s voice.
“Y.. yes..”, mumbled Inshala, her face blazing hot.
“There you have it then. If you liked this home, then so will he, because when it comes to homes, the only part that belongs to a man is the roof. The rest is yours. Your man will love it because of who is in it. Not because of what is in it. If he is more interested in that, then you have a problem. I saw the condition of your former home, my daughter. He loved that home because you entered his life. Now he will defend this home because there is actually something in it.”, Grulganiste said gruffly. “Now. Tell me who those men were and why did they try to kill you, the hobbit, and the elf?”
“Uhhmm.. they attacked you as well, Mother.”, Inshala objected.
“No, girl. They went after very specific people. You, Master Hobbit, the white elf, the little gnomic girl, and the tall, black and skinny one with the pinks, the boy king, his pretty mate who was brave, thoughtful, and foolish enough to sit next to me, your itchy fingered sheriff, but only because he was defending your mayor, your human mother, and your human sister, the man who had his ship burned, the little dwarf girl and my brave Argail, who bashed in many heads, the tall one in iron clothes from Koruxan and the two from Vodgar; the human with the goat hair on his chin and the madwoman with him. They attacked me only because I was blocking the way of many.”, Grulganiste said, displaying just how perceptive she was.
“Then shouldn’t we help them?”, Cora asked, getting a better grip of her great blade.
“We do not know who is friend, nor do we know who is foe. Do not be another itchy-fingered fool, elf. There are more than enough of them out there. For me, everyone here is a foe and no one is a friend. Hence I shall wait for the sheriff to come and tell me it is over, and my daughter, Inshala here, will make us some nice, hot tea, as our host.”, she replied cooly.
Inshala blushed and ran inside her new home and her new kitchen.
“I didn’t know you had a daughter, Chieftain Grulganiste. Though I must say, she is adorable. She hopped on my head and nested herself there and chirped all the way here as if wanting to assure me.”, murmured Brom.
“Yes. She is adorable, and she is the nicest and the most selfless thing I have ever seen. She sure did old Cathber a lot of good the way she dropped into his lonesome life.”, replied the brutish ogress.
“Cathber? What has he got to do with her?”, Brom asked as he remembered the months he’s spent with the odd druid.
“Inshala ‘la fey’ Frostmane is a foundling, Master Hobbit. Old Cathber found her, many years ago in the woods. I believe her birth mother was some woodsman’s wife, taken when she was out gathering herbs and mushrooms. Never liked them, woodsmen. Foolish, superstitious, rash idiots, the lot of them. They blamed us whenever anything went wrong in their lives. Break a toe, it’s the ogres. A lightning strikes, it’s the ogres. A goat dies, it’s the ogres. As if we had nothing better to do.. But for years, many of their women were taken. Then one day, one of the taken woman returned, bedraggled, hungry, hurt.. and bearing a newborn child. You would think they would have rejoiced, but no. They drow her into the forest and stoned her, and the child to death. From how old Cathber told it, the mother did everything she could to protect her baby. The fools left, thinking she was dead, and to be fair, she was.. just not yet. She got up, and with what strength she had left, she ran off deeper into the forest for as long as far as she could.. which wasn’t all that far, seeing as she was already weak when she had come down Rook Mountains, to begin with, and being stoned didn’t help her either. She died, from much bleeding, with her little baby in her arms.. In my many centuries, I have had respect for very few and even fewer among humans. To soothe the spirit of that woman, I have prayed and burned much incense. Old Cathber found them some two days later. He buried the mother and tasked himself with the care of the baby. The soft-hearted old fool.. What did he know about raising a child? Yet he did.. Yet he did..”, Chieftain Grulganiste said, her eyes lost in some unseen distance.
Brom and Cora, however, were looking at each other and with quite freaked expressions.
“Uhhmm.. When did this event happen, Mother Ganiste?”, Brom asked carefully.
“Some years back.. my daughter should be seventeen now, so that many years ago.. Not too long after your visit to my hills, really.”, the ogress replied.
“Mother Ganiste, Master Hobbit, and Pretty White Elf lady, the tea is ready.”, Inshala came out of the house with a happy skip.
“You like it then?”, Grulganiste asked with a surprisingly pleasant smile.
“I love it, Mother.. The new kitchen is so awesome and the pump is so easy to use now so I also made some things to eat. The house is so big now and we have so many more plates and bowls, I can finally ask Bremorel and her hubby, Thomas, Lilly and her hubby, Sir Agent Largo, Liaison Constance and the sheriff, Perigren Ostlanna Temez, Hal Mali, gorgeous Demelze, Hamna Vir and dear Dar Derune, Biberbell, De De Dexter, Laila’s father, Uncle Devien, Ranger Master Uncle Moorat, Lady Magella, and her sisters and even her mother, Udoorin and Lorna, Mother Alisia, my sisters and brother, and Granma, and when they come back, even Laila and Gnine..”, she said in a breathless voice.
“Perhaps we should eat in the garden?”, Grulganiste said, and not without some guilt. “I believe I have destroyed enough buildings in this town in one day.”
“YESS! I loved the garden, Mother Ganiste. There is even a swing there! I will bring the tea and the food out there and light the brazier to keep our guests warm.”, the skinny girl said happily and took off again.
“Wow.”, Brom admitted. “She really is adorable and so happy to have friends in her life.”
“Whatever friends she has, they are all new, Master Hobbit. That girl lived alone all her life, even if her father, Cathber, was there. She tried to make friends with the wood elves. They never hurt her, but they never let her come anywhere near them either. She tried to make friends with the woodsmen and they beat her, stoned her, caged her, and whipped her for it. So when I said, I would ‘crush any of you punny things who disrespect her’, I was being polite.”
“What is happening, my Aager?”, Inshala whispered as she put the tea, the teacups, the plates full of newly washed fruits onto a large platter she found in the kitchen.
“We.. uhhmm.. we saw her with a man in dark clothes, back when we were in Arashkan, some months back. Is he her husband?”, he asked.
“Yes. A dangerous man. But he will not let anyone hurt her. Now, Master Brom Bumblebrim and you, Cora Sleet, will tell me where you two actually know her from?”, the ogress gave the two of them a very ugly and stern look.
There was a moment of precipitous silence.
“Cora, my dear, I think you should tell this one. It happened in your tundras. If anyone has the right to speak on this to another person, or whether it should be told or not, is up to you. Though I am not sure now is the right time, and whether the girl should hear, or even know about it..”, Brom said quietly.
“The town is under attack, love. Whoever these people are, they have been infiltrating amongst the refugees and even amongst some of our town guards.”, came Aager’s strained voice.
Cora frowned a bit, but not because she thought Brom had thrown her under the dragon, per se, but as to all the events that had transpired up to and after the ‘RED OCTOBER’, as the barbarians of the Great Northern Tundras had named the odd phenomenon; the turning of the sky to crimson on a clear October day and the appearance of the vile creature..
..and the beginning of the disappearances of their womenfolk, including the daughter of the chieftain of Bear Claw Tribe.
“..then they mingled as part of the retinue of one lord or lady or representative or another, and everyone, including us, thought they belonged to someone. Quite ingenious, really.. in a sinister and heinous way..”
It had been at that point Cora and Brom, along with the dwarf sisters, Lillias Absentwhot, and Jeina Blonde had gotten involved. They had been asked by no other than the Bear Claw Tribe chieftain himself to find his daughter and to bring her back.
After a long, dangerous, and harsh trek, they had finally located where the vile creature had holed up; a cavern set deep into the southern end of Lost Mountains, filled with many corpses, all ravaged, half-eaten, gnawed and rotting —and all women.
“..we have many wounded and many more dead. We barricaded Udoorin at the sheriff’s office and he was very frustrated about it. He tried to order me, ‘I am the king and I order you to let me go!’ I laughed at his face and told him if he didn’t stay in the building, the elves would LACK a king and his pretty Lorna would be all sad about it! In retrospect, though, I probably shouldn’t have said that, but it was funny at the time. More assassins arrived and they climbed the office walls and came down through the door leading up to the roof and now he is laughing like a merry idiot and cutting them down as they drop into the office and he won’t even share the kills with anyone!..”
That was also the time when Cora and Brom had met pretty much the rest of the particular clan Lillias and Jeina had belonged to. The whole lot of them had arrived to ‘bring their lost dwarves’ back home.. For Cora, it had been the first time she had met them. Brom, on the other hand, had made acquaintance with some of them before, during his travels, though he hadn’t said as to how he knew them. The answer to that would reveal itself much, much later, and after the two, along with Seressa and Tonic would suffer Arcanton Mordenon’s demented tower!
Upon the insistence of Lillias and Jeina, the whole clan had gotten involved and had lured the vile creature from its cave using a continuous hit-and-run tactic, all the way to Rook Mountains, and losing the creature at Ritual Forest, buying time for Cora and Brom to enter the cave and save whatever there was inside left to save.
“..I left him with the guards and Bremorel to check in on the others. The elves’ headquarters are also under attack, though I suspect a similar mule-headed enthusiasm on Lorna’s part there. I always thought her to be a calm and gentle girl. Turns out I am not even sure which of them is worse anymore; Lorna or Udoorin..”
Neither she nor her bushy little friend, Brom, would ever find out the extent of their deeds that day, but Cora had always suspected that there would be consequences..
..the ones she would know and perhaps find out later, and the ones she would never hear about;
When they had saved the chieftain’s traumatized daughter and returned her to her father, she would, in time, be married to the son of the chieftain of the Ice Crag Tribe, making Cora quite popular and ‘savior’ among the two tribes. And later, when she and Brom had saved the Ice WolfHorde from a certain ‘demon’ that had infested their lands, who had turned out to be no one other than Seressa Wraiven and her vivid illusions and her pair, Arcantonic Palecog, the savage Ice Wolf Horde had promptly adopted her as their ‘savior’ as well, effectively promoting her as a hero among three of the four major tribes/hordes of the Great Northern Tundras —and when the events of her ‘re-encounter’ with Dreadmaw had wiped out the Wyrm Horde, she had, perhaps unwittingly, become the ‘Princess of the Tundras’, the sole person to have the power to call upon all the remaining three tribes/horde to arms and fight against the coming Orken, in a land far, far to the south and beyond the tundras. This had been the most apparent, though quite unexpected, and certainly unintended outcome of the RED OCTOBER event.
“..The temple is also under attack but Thomas and his temple guardians are putting up a good fight. Not to mention they have Nadine Graciousward. I am tempted to say, like mother, like daughter, and I can see where Lorna gets her calm and enthusiasm from. There is also that tall, dark girl with all the creepy pinks and her gnomic friend who I think is quite mad! She is cackling like a maniac and throwing bombs at everything that moves. The bloody idiot has already leveled six houses near the temple!..”
The other was, there had been a second survivor, deep down in the cave of the vile creature; a much traumatized, beaten, raped, and ravaged, underfed, hungry, bruised, and very much pregnant young girl..
..who had wanted nothing from them except some food and an axe, and to be let go so she could return to her people, her family, her husband, and her home..
The resilience of the skinny little girl who had suffered months of use and abuse from the vile creature, not to mention, was at the end of her pregnancy had, now, astounded Cora for she, in all candor, had never believed the girl would have survived the month-long trek through the bitter cold, torturous, treacherous, and precipitous Lost Mountains and then the Rook Mountains to reach her Dim Woods. Yet she had.. and giving birth, alone, on the way, no less..
..just to end up being run off and stoned to death by her own people and her husband..
“..Some of them tried to infiltrate the temple by breaking through the boarded windows.. They never came back out for some reason. I am not sure if they enjoyed their last moments in this world, but I am certain our Liaison’s half-born brothers and sisters must have..”
At that point, Cora wasn’t sure just who had been the true ‘vile creature’.
Yet, her daughter had survived, against incredible and impossible odds; Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostman, and ‘WOW’, was all Cora could think of.
Whether Cora had figured out that when they had saved that skinny little girl, they had also caused the vile creature to follow her in hopes of finding and retrieving its offspring and consequently becoming a menace to the woodsmen of Dimwood for the next decade and more, was unclear.
And now, that vile creature’s daughter was here;
“..Sheriff Standorin, Lilly, her hubby, Agent Largo, D.D. Dexter, and I, along with three dozen guards, rangers, and the elven veterans I have been training are now moving street by street and going house to house in a search and destroy mission. I am afraid this might take a while though.. Hey, are you making tea?”
A beautiful, adorable, earnest, sincere, full of life, selfless, shy, frightened, abused, stoned just like her mother, beaten, caged and whipped, scared and scarred little girl, adopted by the old Ritual Guardian, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, and by the ogress chieftain of Oger’s Foot, Grulganiste Grimtooth, and also by no other than the First Lady of Durkahan, Lady Alisia Sivara Hooman and become the new Ritual Guardian..
The whole thing made Cora reel back in its incredible, unbelievable, mind-staggering, and quite astonishing absurdity.
“Well.. We do have some guests here, so I thought I ought to make some for them. It is cold outside..”, Inshala replied a tad guiltily. “I really wanted to be there with you.”
Cora carefully cleared her throat and spoke with her low, slightly hoarse voice.
“People need her now as she is, and anything that is past is in the past, though our stories somehow come out in the most unexpected moments and haunt us..”, she said, looking down at Brom with emphasis, “..it would be fruitless to summon them by will.”
Chieftain Grulganiste scowled down at her for a long moment.
“..’Tis alright, love. Enjoy yourself. I shall be there as soon as possible, though I suspect it might be later than I would want. We will have to make a tally on our losses and figure out how they managed to bring in so many.”
“I see.”, she rumbled finally. “And perhaps wisely spoken too. My daughter is very dear to me. The first time we met, I thought she would scream and run.. Yet she said I was awesome, as demented as I had thought her perspective was at the time. She looks at people and somehow judges them by their merit.. and accumulated deeds.. if at all.. And should she judge said deeds, she seeks the reasons that led to those deeds as if looking for an excuse to forgive them. I would hate to see her break again and humans have done everything they could to do just that.”
“Ready!”, declared Inshala happily as she ran up to them with a skipping hop. “I lit the brazier to keep us warm as well, especially for Master Brom Bumblebrim, here, or perhaps you would rather I call you Blom Bumdlebim Hobim?”
“What?”, blurted Brom in surprise. “How do you know that name?”
“Blom Budle— what?”, Cora asked with an amused expression and very much pursed lips.
“You don’t really need to know, Cora.”, he scowled.
“I am friends with all the dryads and nymphs in Gull’s Perch, Master Brom. They told me some very endearing and lovely stories and you were in them. My Aager and I saw you at Arashkan before today, but I didn’t know your name then. We saw you and pretty Cora talking to our Merisoul and give her something. We were up on one of the roofs and the very tall girl with the lovely pink hair and dress that I would love to have too, and the cute gnome girl was also there, though they were hiding in some trash for some reason!”, she said as she led them into the garden and over to the gazebo.
“You can sit on the swing if you like, Master Brom. I already tried it and it is awesome!”, she offered with an exhilarated grin.
There were also two ogres, one male, the other a female in the garden sipping tea from comparatively very, very tiny teacups! When they saw their chieftain, they jumped on their feet and sort of stared at their feet like two kids caught in the act.
“Uhhmm.. Greetings Chieftain Grulganiste. We fixed and refurnished the house as per your instructions. Does it meet your satisfaction?”, the female ogress rumbled carefully.
“I wouldn’t know, Garishka.”, the chieftain replied with a horrible scowl and turned to Inshala. “Does it?”
“I love it, Mother Grulganiste.”, Inshala said happily. “I think sister Garishka Bloodhammer and brother Grawl Goraxe are very good at what they do.”
Garishka and Grawl beamed at her.
“I think you should hire out your ogres to help build the defenses and homes for the Arashkan refugees. That way, the humans can become friends with your sons and daughters, just like Sheriff Standorin wanted.”, she said.
“Maybe..”, Grulganiste scowled. “But only if your hubby also likes this home..”
“There were some men skulking around the house, Chieftain, but because you told us not to kill any humans while we were here, we asked them, very politely, what they were doing. They just pulled their knives and charged at us. Again, we told them, very politely, not to do that but they just wouldn’t listen. So.. me and Garishka bashed them all and tossed them over the fence.”, Grawl said tentatively.
“We tossed ’em far, Chieftain, like, several buildings over so there shouldn’t be any blame on us!”, added Garishka hastily.
“We also wiped all the blood and brain!”, Grawl mumbled quickly.
Grulganiste looked at them much like an executioner would, right before he brought down his axe.
“The deed is done. If they drew their knives at you here, in the house of the Ritual Guardian, they got what they deserved. How is the tea?”
“Excelent, Chieftain Grulganiste. The Ritual Guardian sure knows her teas.”, Garishka said in a hurry and Grawl nodded vigorously.
✱ ✱ ✱
It was past midnight when Aager Fogstep stumbled, dead tired, to his home..
..and looked up at the two-story house.
He had known all along that Chieftain Grulganiste had totally destroyed it, even if she had done it unintentionally. He hadn’t said a word about it to Inshala and had, quite deliberately, made sure to never think about it all day, just so she wouldn’t be able to sense his disappointment. True, it had been a rather simple, single-room, quite bare, empty, even, and in all candor, a pathetic house, really, but it had been his home, dammit!
The home he had secretly wanted to share with Inshala from the moment he had understood that he felt something for that ‘pretty but weird’, and ‘pretty wierd’ girl who had been outright cantankerous, to be honest. She had plagued and pestered him, constantly creeping up to him and whispering ‘You are not a good person!’
The fact that the moment of his comprehension of his feelings for her and the moment he had figured the odd nuance in her words had coincided hadn’t gone unnoticed by Aager;
She had never said he was a bad person..
Only that he was not a good person.
And in all likeliness, him being ‘not a good person’ was very true and a bloody obvious fact, and he, Aager, had never claimed otherwise.
What was there to claim otherwise?
But where no one in his entire life had cared about him being a good or a bad person, or ‘not a good’ one, the way Inshala’s had phrased it, told him something;
That for some dementedly naive reason she had thought he wasn’t a bad person, and cared enough —again, for some incomprehensible reason— that he was not a good person, either
..and that it bothered her.. A lot.
Enough to plague and pester him for weeks from the moment they had met while tracking down the assassins who had started the unquenchable fire in their town, up to the moment they had come climbing up the broken and crumbling stairs of the damned ruins of Themalsar.
Had she actually managed to make a good person out of him?
Aager thought not.
And looking back at all the things he had done since having met Inshala, just about anyone would agree with him.
Looking at how, or better yet, why he had done them, however, said ‘anyone’ might just pause..
So when Aager had found out about the predicament of his rather simple, single-room, quite bare, empty, even, and in all candor, pathetic house and consequently say he was disappointed, it would likely have been the under statement of the century!
And now he was staring at a two-story house with dim candlelight glowing from all the windows.
“I am sorry for your home, young man.”, a voice rumbled in the dark.
Aager stared at the newly woven reed fences and noted the three giant figures sitting there.
Quietly, he veered in that direction and nodded at Chieftain Grulganiste and then at the two other ogres.
He also noted the gazebo, the burning brazier hanging from its wooden ceiling, and the swing hanging from the blooming cherry tree and thought of just how much his Inshala had probably loved seeing all this.
“You came to my tent and behaved as a guest should. I came to your home and behaved.. badly..”, she said.
“Tis alright, Mother Ganiste.”, he replied tiredly. “I am aware you did not do it deliberately. Bad things happen, even with good intentions.”
“I tried to make up for my folly. Inshala loved it but is freaked out because she thinks you might not. I told her, home is where we are with the ones we love and care are, and that coming from a clumsy ogress is a neat trick!”, she rumbled. “If you do not like this home and want to break spoons, I will understand.”
“What is it with spoons and breaking them, Mother Grulganiste? Who would want to break spoons? How would you eat if you broke your spoons?”, Aager asked amusedly, even though he was quite tired and just want to sleep.
“That is the point, young man. No one wants to miss supper because of broken spoons.”, she said as if stating the obvious.
“I take it there are many spoons in this home now?”, Aager asked, getting a hint at where this conversation was heading.
It was interesting to see this giant monstrosity of an ogress to genuinely be sorry for what she had done, and with this ‘private’ talk, she was almost begging him to accept her apology, along with the house, in her strangely roundabout and gruff way.
“Damn.”, he thought. “She is a lot more considerate than many humans I have met!”
“Of course. A house should always have many spoons. For friends, guests, clumsy mothers, and.. mayhap.. children..”, she said with a straight face. “You have many guests even now. The hobbit, Brom, the white elf who thinks scowling all the time is cool, the crazy gnome girl, and the creepy one with the pinks. I saw so much pink today, I am pink-blind now. The other mother of my daughter, her elder sister, and the mother of the queen of the elves is also here.”
“Huh.”, Aager grunted.
“I would have wanted to apologize to that skinny she-demon for the things I said to her earlier. I found out she has an interest in your sheriff and that she treats him with care. That is good because your sheriff is a respected enemy and has fought well today.”
“Huh.”, Aager repeated himself.
“You should go and tell your mate that you liked the house.”, she growled. “Inshala is a good girl but she panics over the silliest things. She must truly care for you and for what you think, young man. Nurture that.”
Aager nodded at her and started for the door and stopped.
There was another door leading from the fenced-off garden directly into the kitchen too, now.
He hadn’t noticed that..
“Thank you, Mother Ganiste. It would seem some mistakes are good to happen.”, he said quietly.
“You should see what I did with your bedroom, then.”, he heard her grinning voice coming from behind.
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?”
“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 QueenandTitania, 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 Knightshe 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..”
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.
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..
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?
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.
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?
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: !
✱ ✱ ✱
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!
Sheriff Standorin: You can’t be serious!
Agent Largo: I have been. For quite some time, now.
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!
Sheriff Standorin:(sigh) Go get the Temple Guardian Thomas here to officialize and formalize their wedding, if you will Master Aager.
(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..
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 TOTALLYhis 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: 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.
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 crowded 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.
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!
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.
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.”
“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 the rest of us, 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 the 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 sat 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 as 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. I was 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 any 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 and you are too young, by eight centuries, to have known him properly, if at all..”
“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 over 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. But I do 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 bowl, 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..
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 ‘laFey’ Frostmane Bolgrig Hooman, the Mistress of The Grove, the wont of MabandTitania, 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..
The girl in her strapless skirt dress flew fast and straight overhead. With her raven-black wings feathered lightly, her skinny arms spread out and wide, her long, honey-brown hair rippling, ruffling, scattered and wildly and around her dark purple crowning horns, her naked, slender legs, smooth and lustrous, moved subtly as though swimming, and her tiny, darling feet tickling under the wind of her flight, she was an otherworldly beautiful creature. She carried herself over the long, endless, soundless, and muted halls carved deep under Silent Hills with her small, cherry-red mouth, just a tad pouting, and with sad, solemn, and mournful eyes.
Eyes that bespoke;
I have seen the end of times.
It is dark, it is bleak and it is lonely.
Merisoul Xyrotwu landed gracefully next to the gnome, Master Gnine Tinkerdome, and the Ranger Lieutenant, Laila Wolvesbane.
“Another great hall. Not as great as the one we left behind, but quite cavernous, and occupied.”, she said in her calm, remote, soft, and somewhat breathy voice.
“Occupied?”, asked the gnome. “What’s occupying it?”
“A demon.”, the otherworldly girl replied.
“Dammit.”, hissed the boldly pretty half-elf, Laila. “At least give us a variety. I mean, other than fiends, demons, and undead.”
“The undead are the variety, dear Laila.”, said Merisoul, in her hushed, soft, breathy voice. “I am guessing they are the collateral side effect of having too many demons pend up in one place for thus long, though I’ll admit, the ‘one place’ in question is quite large, deep, and lengthy. Tell me again, Master Gnine, why do gnomes need this much space?”
“Give a gnome enough time, buoyance, and rock, and we can dig forever.”
“So can dwarves.”
“True. But we do it neatly!”, he said with a smirk.
“I see. Well, your kin has had rock and said buoyance, but seem to have run short on time, to our relative consolation, as doleful as that sounds. Otherwise, we would be here for your ‘forever’.”, replied the raven-winged girl.
“You said one demon.”, Laila said, staring at Merisoul questioningly for she had learned, the otherworldly girl had an odd, unintentional habit of, not quite disregarding, but.. dismissing? absenting? abstracting? Laila wasn’t sure which, but the raven-winged succubi half-born girl did it anyway and you had to ask her for details or you were likely in for unexpected and unprecedented surprises where she would just look at you and say, “I did tell you there was one demon, did I not? Must I use your imagination for you?”
“Yes.”, Merisoul said with a small smile.
“What is it? Is it big? Is it dangerous? Why one? Why here?”, Laila asked.
“What’s in there?”, added Gnine.
“Ow.”, said Merisoul with a surprised expression on her diminutive face. “You actually want details! Of course! And understandable.”
And paused! Long enough to for the gnome, Gnine, and the half-elf ranger girl, Laila, to look at one another, then back at the succubi half-born.
“If you are waiting for dramatic effect, you are just about due, I believe.”, said Gnine.
“Almost.”, said Merisoul vaguely.
“Almost? Almost for what?”
“Almost ready. I was preparing a visual pamphlet; a presentation, if you will! I am just about done with the texts, the spreadsheets, the tables, and the 3D pie-charts and running it all through the spell-checker. If you would give me but a minute, I will have imported the images and linked the videos. Thought I might add in a gloomy sort of background music as well.”, she replied happily.
Laila ogled at her while Gnine looked up at the unseen sky and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“And done!”, she said, smiling at them. “I apologize for the delay, but I haven’t prepared a corporate presentation for quite some time now. My last was about two years ago, and as part of my graduation thesis, though that was strictly PG18+ and not quite for mortal eyes!”
And with a wave of her hand, the image of a red, barren land appeared, right then and there! The land seemed to go forever in every direction and comprised only of sharp, edgy rocks sticking out of the dry and dead land like shark’s teeth. The sky appeared as though it was some hazy, diaphanous, gauzy, scarlet tulle and no clouds nor any birds flavored it. Other than the spurting of bubbling, molting lava, yes, this land was barren, in the most literal and infernal sense.
Gnine just stared at the casual display of enhanced and vivid imagination with despair.
Laila looked at it with mild interest, coupled with a certain amount of skepticism. Then she bent down and whispered at Gnine.
“Can you do that?”
“I might..”, replied Gnine deploringly.
The image rumbled and the jagged rocks tumbled and tossed and with a sharp, brittle clap, a crack zigzagged across the barren wasteland. As the endless, red landscape quaked, the crack widened and a halo of deep, infernal fire spewed out of the crack as the rocks and dirt crumbled into the gaping fissure.. And a hand, big, broad and mighty came out of the fiery depths of Hell, and with tremendous force, it slammed onto the sides of the lava spurting fissure and gauged the dirt.
“Wow. It’s animated too.”, whispered Laila. “Can you do that?”
“I might..”,Gnine replied with a deflated tone.
Great and charred, bat-like wings spread out of the infernal crack as another arm came out and slammed down, slowly pulling and dragging something magnanimous, out of the abyss below. A pair of heavy, curved, at-least-six-feet-each bull’s horns appeared, followed by a face, hideous and cruel, shoulders like ox carts, a grotesquely enlarged torso that defied physics, and legs, thick and mighty, and ending in with black, burning hooves.
“I like!”, whispered Laila. “Can you do that?”
“I am being chastised and tormented for something I don’t know what!”, Gnine replied with a destitute voice.
The nearly twenty-foot monstrosity took a step forward, rose its mighty arms, holding a long, burning scimitar in one titanic fist, and a crackling, thorny whip in the other. The demon took another earth-shaking step and bellowed as the first notes of a violin were heard in the background, followed by a depressing piano!
“Ow.. It’s got audio too! Eno Moricane! I love that.”, whispered Laila, cracking one of her rare grins. “Can you do that?”
“Maybe. I can mathematically calculate the notes!”, replied Gnine resentfully.
The demon raised its powerful arms into the hazy, red sky and bellowed with hot, furnacing fire jetting out of its maw. It brought its great, burning scimitar down, sending a blast of fire. Then with a mighty heave, it cracked its whip, and long, slithering tendrils of jagged lightning crashed from the sky. And the image froze!
There, in big blocky fonts, a title appeared over the demon followed by an explanatory subtitle in smaller relief;
BALOR Class X Demon.
And a whole string of spreadsheets started running, punctuated with comparative charts and diagrams, comprising of size, relative hit points, resistances, and immunities, to hit and damage stats, and special abilities.
“Damn..”, whispered Laila in a concerned voice. “That’s going to be hard to kill. We’ll need like four of me, three of you, and at least another one of Soul. Should it spot us, and it can, it’s got Truesight, we can’t even run away from it, even if we wanted to. It can run faster than any of us. I mean, I might be able to stay just ahead of it if I used my Longstrider, but it can also fly, making how fast I run, sort of a moot point.”
“No, we can’t. If’s down to our running skills, we are done for.”, Gnine replied, carefully inspecting the demon’s stats.
“Well? How did you like my presentation?”, Merisoul asked, displaying something she almost never did, a pretty, and vague grin.
“I loved it!”, Laila admitted. “Didn’t know you were Moricane fan.”
“He’s a bit depressing for my taste, really, but he does do justice to his craft, per se. His tunes are quite famous in Hell!”, she said happily.
Gnine coughed at the implications of that!
“Why is this Balor named Regnalog?”, he asked.
“Well, he’s a rare specimen even among the Balor. ‘Grumpy’, if you will. Hence, they usually give him guarding assignments, if any. He doesn’t mind sitting in a lonely cave for centuries and cracking his whip. No one really knows why, or what goes through his mind, for that matter, but he is quite strong, resilient, and cunning. Many young and foolish demons tried their hands against him. —for bragging rights.. He is here but they are not, so I guess that answers the question of, who won, I guess.”, she replied.
“Can we take him? If we unloaded everything we got, I mean.”, asked Laila.
“I doubt.”, said Gnine glumly. “The old cuss is quite buff. More so than what’s written here, I think, if he is sort of unique among the Balor.”
“Dammit.”, hissed Laila. “What now, then? We have to move forward.”
“There isn’t much we can do, really. Regnalog will be immune to all my fire-based spells, resistant to pretty much everything else I got, and will see right through my illusions and likely any of my mental assaults as well.. Doesn’t seem like we got many options left. We can’t even get near him without catching fire!”, said the gnome, still frowning at the frozen image.
“Can’t you use that invisible hand-thing? The one you used in Tempest Temple when we were still back at Arashkan. You did pummel a stone golem with it.”
“Laila.”, Gnine fumed. “That golem, as tough as it was, was still subject to many elemental attacks. And had a limited amount of life force. This.. thing.. is HUGE! I mean, boxing it with that hand will be like a love tap. IF we had about a score of people casting as many hands, then yes, we’d bring the demon down.. eventually. Provided he stands still and does not retaliate.”
“Ow.. It did seem impressive when you had smashed the golem, the way you had. Perhaps you need a bigger fist?”, she offered.
Gnine glared at her.
“Not my fault you have small fists, my friend.”
Gnine glared at her some more.
“Is there anything else there?”, asked Laila.
“Maybe we should all go and see.”, Merisoul said. “I am certain I missed things. I have noticed, I don’t always see what might or might not be relevant for you two. I perceive people, creatures, and objects by their possible level of interaction, and whether they may present themselves as an obstacle, or help achieve a certain objective, which might or might not always be conclusive, as what may be insignificant for me, might be quite significant to you.”
“Alright.”, agreed, Gnine, taking a last look at the odd, otherworldly girl’s presentation, and the technical readings of Regnalog.
“Quietly.”, inserted Laila. “Maybe I should go ahead. Follow me at thirty feet distance and be ready to run.”
That said, she picked up her long, elven bow, drew an arrow out of her quiver, and with her bow now half-drawn, she silently ranged out. By the time she got near the end of the long, quiet hall, it had already become almost unbearably hot and she was sweating profusely. She edged her way to the exit and gave a quick peek and went absolutely still.
The chamber ahead wasn’t huge as she’d expected. Or perhaps it was. She estimated a stretch of at least five to six hundred feet across, making the chamber cavernous, just like Merisoul had said. But the main ‘walking’ area was perhaps merely fifty feet in radius. The rest was all empty, pitch-black darkness as if the walking area were some center platform that stood in the middle of a very large, very deep fissure or a bottomless chasm. And in the middle of the center platform, the was a ring of furnacing flames, reaching up to forty feet.
And in that column of flame was something.. BIG!
Laila had always known, heights, widths, and depths given in numbers and units could be misleading, as they were, after all, just numbers and hence, could be quite abstract. Thus, even in her early years as a ranger novice, she had been specifically trained to recognize what numbers in inches, feet, miles or individual objects meant. How far and how many were probably the most important aspect of being a ranger, really, as they ran for miles, or were expected to guestimate how far something was; i.e. a pack of fifteen wolves, a family of three bears, a single dear, a roaming band of twenty-four goblins, or an ambush of eight Orken, since she was going to have to adjust the angle of her bow depending on said distance, preferably before the ‘how many’ enemies reached her.
Staring at the forty-foot reach of flames, and something twenty-foot high charring in it was.. a hair-raising experience.
She gulped down her very parched sense of fear, withdrew, and motioned the two to come —quietly.
Gnine also stared at the flames and the more he stared at it, the more he seemed to deflate.
Laila touched his shoulder. When that didn’t help, she put her hand on it and slightly squeezed.
Gnine stared at her and the ranger lieutenant gave him an encouraging smile and whispered. “We came this far, didn’t we?”
Gnine returned her smile with his depressed one.
Then he pulled them aside and spoke with a hushed, serious tone.
“Alright. What do we have here, then? Tell us what you can see, other than the obvious.”
“The central platform where the demon, Balor, is, is perfectly circular, meaning it was likely—”, Laila began.
“—Gnome crafted.”, inserted Gnine.
“Yes, maybe, I don’t know. It is, however, surrounded by a chasm that goes down as far as—”, she continued.
“—the very molten core of the earth.”, prompted Merisoul.
“Perhaps. I wouldn’t know. Wait! Really?”, asked the ranger lieutenant in astonishment.
“Likely. Which is why Regnalog has been here for so many centuries without getting bored. He must be feeding off the very core of the world!”, replied the succubi half-born with some consternation.
“Okay.”, Laila said. “Is that in any way significant?”
“Yes.”, mused Gnine. “Not immediately, but in the long run. The more he stays perched here, the more powerful he will become. And, I am guessing, because he will have devoured too much of the world’s essence, he will be as if he is part of this world, hence become unbanishable! He will be able to return to Hell and back, here, at will, without the need to be summoned. He will also act like a conduit, an anchor, if you will, for other demons to be summoned as well. Much like Themalsar was. Accept Themalsar was an old man when we faced him. I doubt this guy has any sense of time, in a Mortal sense..”
“Very astute, Master Gnine.”, said Merisoul admiringly. “Which is also why there are half-borns like me. We were made for this very reason. The variety in our kind is merely due to necessity of ‘as per need.'”
“Made?”, asked Laila with some bafflement.
Gnine, however, understood the whole implication of that simple statement, and suddenly, a great many things about this strange, otherworldly beautiful girl clicked in his mind.