Not All Is Done
Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
What’s the matter, girl? You seem spooked. As woods go, this one is as safe as it could get.”, Bremorel said, looking at the beautiful half-born girl, who appeared rather jittery as she gave quick, sharp glances every which way.
“The woods are not the issue, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel..”, said Perigren Ostlanna Temez.
“‘Bremorel’ will suffice. You really don’t need to ‘ranger lieutenant’ me all the time, nor ‘senior temple guardian’, Thomas. They are not our names but merely our titles attained over years of hard work and experience, and are subject to change.”, Bremorel smiled at her.
“Very well. Bremorel it is, then. I shall hence refer to you as such while we are in this company. As I was saying, my issue is not with the woods, but with the Mistress of these woods..”, she said, giving more glances around.
“Ahh.. I wouldn’t worry too much about the Mistress of these woods, nor the Gull’s Perch, dear. She isn’t vicious and she wouldn’t harm mortals unless they are foolish enough do her wrong, or seriously offend her. And I am a ranger, which gives me a free pass through her woods.”, Bremorel said cheerily.
“Your enthusiasm is well placed.. for a Mortal. I, however, am not. I am but half a demon and the Mistress of Gull’s Perch shall not accept my kind into her bosom.”, Temez said in a slightly brittle voice. “I suggest we either run through these woods and now, or get out of it.”
“Thomas!”, called Bremorel.
The young man picked up his pace and ran up to them.
As skinny as he had been when he was a kid and a teen, Thomas had worked hard to grow both his mind and his body over the years to brave up to the girl he had obsessively loved. But running in plate armor was never an easy task. He clanked and thundered as he came panting.
“Sorry.”, he said, breathing harshly. “Trying to keep up with two athletic girls in a forty-pound armor and more with the rest of my gear isn’t as easy as it seems.”
“Love, we have a problem and no time to talk about it. We seem to have a major flaw in our plan and must get out of these woods, like, now!”, Bremorel said urgently.
“Lead the way.”, Thomas said simply and started after the ranger lieutenant without even a pause.. and froze in his place..
..so did the ranger lieutenant.
..and the half-born.
“I.. can’t move..”, Thomas struggled as he fought the sudden mental pressure pressing down on him.
Bremorel couldn’t even reply. She just stood where she was, one foot on the ground, the other slightly bent as if she was posing in a running stance.
“Too late.”, Temez said as the same mental pressure struck her.. and washed past her! “I believe the Mistress of the Perch is already here.”
“Very astute, demon-spawn. You should have known, your kind was never allowed in my Perch nor my woods. You knew of this, yet you still came..”, said a rich, mature, feminine voice. “The last cycle, I slew countless of your kind before they finally overran my forests, my woods, my hills, and my ponds.. You murdered and slaughtered my sons and my daughters and I was left nothing but dry, desolate lands..”
“I doubt you have met any of my kind before, Mistress of the Perch.”, Temez said calmly, though her face was drawn, more so since Merisoul. “I and my kin were made this cycle. Please release my friends.. They are good people.”
“Are you not the spawn of a succubus, my dear girl?”, Titania asked.
“I am.”, Temez replied simply.
“There you have it, then. Demon is what you are. It is, at this very moment, coursing in your blood, whispering at you to follow your base instincts. And manipulation is at the core of those instincts. And these Mortals have fallen for your succulent words and follow you like lap dogs!”, the rich voice of the Mistress of the Perch said.
“All of what you have said is true, Mistress. But they still fall short of who I am. I am demon, but I am human also. My blood whispers, but I do not listen. I can manipulate, but I do not. And these Mortals follow, but not me..”, Temez replied.
“Ahh. You are smarter than the one that came before.”, the voice mused.
“The one that came before sacrificed what was most precious to her for the sake of Mortals. I have yet to best her sacrifice. Hence she has attained her rightful place among said Mortals and more, making her the smarter. However, you came here and I am still alive, which tells me you want something..”, the half-born said almost indifferently.
“Yes. I want the boy!”, the voice replied simply.
“There are only two boys you must be referring to. The first is the one I am responsible of ruining. However, he is a Mortal, hence, I may not give him. The other is our beloved Dar Derune who is free of all bonds except his own blood oath, whom I shall never give, trade, bargain, nor hand over.”, Temez said cooly.
“You are in my lands, my dear.”, the Mistress of the Perch warned.
“I am. And so are these two Mortals who are not part of any deal and can not be kept against their will. One of them is a temple guardian and the other is a ranger. They both worked diligently against the evil that is coming, and by proxy, they are, in fact, defending your Perch. Harming them would only sully your name and reputation. Should you still want to burn me, by all means do. I shall be set free, for I burn already, and happily shall I then join my beloved merry soul..”, Temez replied with cold conviction..
“Temez.. No..”, Thomas said, struggling against the mental pressure.
Apparently, the ranger lieutenant, Bremorel also had some things to say, but the best she could do was to form a stressed, angry, and distorted face.
Then the trees, some fifty yards across, parted and with a luminous sunbeam, Titania, the Mistress of the Perch; the Summer Queen herself appeared!
Titania was not a being easily described nor quantified by mere Mortal words, for she was beautiful but her beauty was like the depts of an ocean’s bed. She was wise but her wisdom was like the horizon; beyond comprehension. And both her love and her wrath had little equal.. She stepped out of the sunbeam and walked with the grace of the first ripple in a waking pond. Her long, auburn-brown hair wavered at each step and she was like the height of a summit. She wore a long, elaborate, seamless gown made of spring leaves that fell and scattered every step she took with her naked feet. When a Mortal looked upon her, she inspired aspiration for greatness, rather than that of lust..
“Bold words, Perigren Ostlanna Temez.”, she said with a frown. “You have defied me without bothering to hear me.”
“I and my kin defied our Masters and escaped Hell in hopes of finding peace in this Mortal coil. We have given our oaths and bound ourselves with our own blood to do everything to help the Mortals in their war against the coming horde, for what comes, comes upon the command of no other than our former Masters. I was chosen to lead my kin precisely for that purpose. Should I but give one of my kind, I may no longer lead them, for I shall have sullied my own word, and my own blood oath.”, Temez replied with the same cold, drawn expression.
“Your kin chose well when they chose you, young Perigren Ostlanna Temez. However, the boy is dangerous, both to himself and to those around him. He must be contained, or be destroyed. I would prefer the former against the latter. Should he stay with me, he shall stay in my Perch and be happy. He will have many friends to keep him company and never go hungry. My sister, Mab, however, wishes otherwise, and soon enough will she send her Winter Knight to dispose of him. I would rather that particular encounter be avoided as its outcome will cause much pain and destruction, consequently causing you and your kin to break and forswear your blood oaths. With me, however, he may stay forever.”, the Summer Queen said with a determined tone. Determined but not unkind.
“Be that as it may, Dar Derune also has an implied bond with one of my sisters who will never let you, or anyone else have him. Hence the fate of the boy is not up to me..”
“..And my sister will not bargain with you for you have nothing to offer her for the boy, nor will she be reasoned to part him.”
Titania paused for a moment as a deep, thoughtful frown appeared on her beautiful face.
“It is true, not everything may be bought or had. And I do not buy servitude, nor do I take without giving something in return. Many things, however, may be compromise for mutual survival.. Very well, young Perigren Ostlanna Temez. You shall then bring your sister to me and I shall test her resolve and her bond to the boy.”, she said finally.
Perhaps it was time for the half-born girl to pause, for she did.. and for a good, long moment. When she spoke, there was nothing on her face or her voice other than determination.
“We were warned to stay as far away from you and your kingdom as possible, when we were in Hell, Queen Titania, and for many good reasons. We have made no bargains with Mab thus far and do not intend to. But we do have an understanding with her Knight. That being said, I shall bring my sister here once our mission is done. Should you, however, hurt either the boy, who is much dear to all of us, or our sister, as sullen and surly as she may be whilst you test her resolve, we shall all arrive at your Perch.. and die destroying it and many, many Mortals shall perish because of our absence in the coming war..”
Titania stared down at the ravishingly striking half-born girl with the short, tanned hair and uneven antler-horns, one smooth and curving, the other sharp and iron, with both of her brows raised.
“It is not wise to threaten the Summer Queen in her own domain, my dear girl.”, she said quietly.
“You, Queen Titania, wished to test our resolve.. Thus you have..”, Temez said, and without any implications whatsoever. “As much honest and utmost respect we have for you and your sister, we shall never again be ruled or intimidated.. Nor shall we bow to anyone. We are our own masters now and bound only by our own blood oaths.”
✱ ✱ ✱
These are the ones who will be masquerading in your steed.”, said Lord Armathelius as Queen Alor’Nadien ne, King Udoorin, and Lady Anglenna came out of the king’s tent.
Udoorin frowned. It was a crowd that was standing before them, really; eight groups of three people that vaguely resembled them. He had to admit, Lord Armathelius, it seemed, was the kind of man, or elf, in this case, that got the job done, for the eight Udoorins standing before him were all burly men —humans in a variety of armors, and all entertaining scruffy-looking patches of beards, not unlike his own. There were eight Lornas as well, all with long, charcoal-black, single braided hair, and eight very tall elf girls with severely bundled platinum hair, emulating Anglenna!
“I am impressed. Where did you find this many burly guys? No, wait! Where did you find this many elves as tall as Lady Lenna?”, he asked.
“To be honest, finding the burly men was the easy part. We skimmed through the Arashkan militia and their regulars. The problem was your..”, Armathelius coughed. “..facial features. In the end, we cemented horsehair on all of them.”
Udoorin’s face went a bit black at that.
None of the elves cracked a smile, but the eight men dressed as him all guffawed!
“We dyed the hair of the elves of suitable height for the Queen. The hardest was finding a replacement for Lady Anglenna. With the exception of one, all the rest are wearing high-heeled shoes.. Very high-heeled shoes..”, Lord Armathelius coughed again.
The gaze Anglenna gave him was not a nice one.
“But will they be safe?”, Lorna asked a bit disturbed. “These brave people will be targeted just for looking like us.”
“We asked them if they would volunteer. They all have, my Queen.”, Armathelius said.
“Have they?”, she frowned and turned to the men and elves. “I.. I do not know if you all have been made aware but posing as us might be very dangerous. Are you sure you want to risk your lives for people you do not even know?”
“We all know who Sir Udoorin is, my Lady.”, said one of the burly men. “He is the son of the good Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart who worked day and night to keep all the Arashkan refugees safe. We owe Serenity Home and her people for every day we are alive. No city or town would have taken the burden of over eighty thousand civilians and that’s not even counting the Arashkan military assets nor the elves. Some of us have even seen him fight against that giant lizard in the arena. And now he will walk into the maw of the devil to kill off the Orken leaders for us. The least we could do for him is to cover his tracks and mislead any miscreant who would want to harm him.”
Udoorin’s face flushed.
“My Queen. You saved my life once. I believe it is time for me to repay you for that.”, said one of the tall high elf women.
“Do I know you?”, Lorna asked looking closer to the girl. “You seem very familiar.”
“Alérea Eiza, my Queen.”, she said with a smile.
“Alérea Eiza!”, Lorna gasped. “You are here, and alive!”
“I came when I learned what had happened to Bari Na-ammen and that the survivors were gathering here to fight back. When I heard Lord Armathelius was seeking men and women to impersonate you, King Udoorin, and Lady Anglenna, I thought it was a job cut specifically for me.”
“I remember you..”, Anglenna said with a frown. “..but I can’t place where.”
“I was your service maid, my Lady.”, the tall high elf girl informed her, though a bit stiffly.
“Yes. I wondered what had happened to you but nobody knew. I suspected my mother’s hand in your disappearance.”, Anglenna said a bit uncomfortably.
“She would have been, had it not been for my Queen, though she was a princess back then.”, Alérea replied with the same stiff tone. “I.. saw somethings when I was cleaning her study, that I shouldn’t have. Fearing for my life and being punished for falsely accusing a High Lady, I decided to run. But someone had to know, so I went to the only person I thought would believe me; Princess Alor’Nadien ne. She listened to what I had to say then told me I wouldn’t be safe in Bari Na-ammen anymore. I have been on the run since then.”
“I am sorry for the sins of my mother, Alérea, for there are too many. Please be safe. And when we return, please do find me.”, Anglenna said.
“Ladies and gentlemen. It is time.”, Lord Armathelius’s commanding voice cut in. “You all know your preassigned routes. Stick to them as best as you can. Should you run into trouble, you are free to fight or run back. Should you feel you are outnumbered, do not fight, just run back! Any information you bring back is more valuable than a few dead Orken. This is a misdirection mission. I expect to see all of you back here in six days.”
The human men representing Udoorin all nodded solemnly at the young king as he saluted them back. The elfish girls taking the place of Alor’Nadien ne bowed at her graciously, who in turn bowed back, to Anglenna’s great dismay. The tall elf girls impersonating her, however, did not bow, nor nod at her. They just stood, quite stiffly, where they were. Only Alérea Eiza gave her a careful, guarded nod of recognition.
Udoorin cleared his throat.
“Ladies..”, he rumbled. “Lady Lenna has endangered her life more times than I can readily remember for me and my Queen. Perhaps she should suffer her own deeds than that of her kin?”
The eight tall elf girls stiffened even more as if stung, turned to Anglenna, and in unison, they all bowed to her. Anglenna returned their bow with a curt nod of her own and all eight groups turned around and left.
“That was quite unnecessary, my King.”, Anglenna whispered.
“If they can not show base courtesy to the only person I would readily and freely trust my Queen’s life, what are we fighting for?”, rumbled the young man, picked up his great axes, hung them on his broad back, offered his arm to his beautiful wife and said;
“Coming, my Queen?” ..
..leaving an exasperated and resigned-looking Lady Lenna to follow them along.
✱ ✱ ✱
Shall I open a tree-gate to Oger’s Foot like last time or will we be walking?”, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane asked as she, Aager Fogstep, and Lilly Venom stepped out of the door of their home.
“I would rather we take your tree-gate to save time and effort but that would defeat the purpose of our secondary objective.”, Aager mused. “We could miss anything we might see or encounter on our way.”
“Yess!”, Inshala whooped happily. “It has been so long we haven’t had a proper walk in my woods!”
“We are not going to use your tree-whatsit?”, Lilly asked a bit disappointed.
“You never tree-hopped?”, the skinny little girl said to her in astonishment.
“Nope. Only you telling us about it. And the puffy cloud flying..”, Lilly replied. “Just got me curious, that’s all, and thought it’d be fun to try..”
“We are not on a fun-riding mission, Lilly.”, Aager growled.
“Yeah. Just, straight up kill the joy, won’t you!”, the girl in her long, brown trench coat frowned at him.
“We could tree-hop to the edge of Ritual Forest, my Aager. That area is heavily patrolled so there shouldn’t be any enemies lurking there anyway.”, Inshala offered hopefully.
“You want to waste a powerful spell to entertain my sister? It will take only a few hours for us to walk there.”, Aager said in a disapproving tone.
“Experience gained is never a waste, my Aager. What would happen if we had to use my tree-gate in an emergency in the future and she has never done it before?”, she said seriously, though her eyes were laughing merrily.
“Yeah. Think of all the things that could go wrong!”, Lilly inserted.
“Girl, the only thing that could go wrong is you running into another tree! There is absolutely nothing spectacular about walking through a hole in a tree and coming out the other side of another tree somewhere else.”, Aager growled.
“Only because I make it seem so easy, my Aager.”, Inshala said in an almost pleading voice.
“Yeah, brother. Only because she makes it seem so easy!”, agreed, Lilly. “Don’t be such a killjoy!”
Then his eyes turned sinister as he gazed at his sister.
“You have grown fat and lazy, and just don’t want to walk.”, he said.
A pair of hisses were heard as Inshala put one slender hand on her mouth and the other on her chest as she stared at him with wide, disbelieving eyes.
Lilly gave him her best scorching and baleful look as she breathed heavily through her nose.
“You.. you said the ‘F’ word!”, Inshala squeaked in massive astonishment!
“Yes.. Yes, he did..”, burned Lilly.
Aager pulled off his half-mask just so they would also see his evil grin!
Poor Inshala just stood there, quietly petrified as Lilly gave her brother a very dirty look.
“You will pay for that, Aager Fogstep. Not only what you said was uncalled for, but it was also totally unnecessary, and very much untrue!”
“I stand by my word.”, Aager replied with a bigger grin. “You were gaunt when you first came here. Now you entertain chubby cheeks and a tummy! Is there something I should know about, perhaps?”
Lilly scowled at him.
“No, there isn’t. I have been cooking and eating regularly since I came. I was bound to gain some weight!”, she hissed.
“No. Largo has been cooking regularly and force-feeding you and it shows.”, Aager said, further grinning at her.
Lilly glared at him.
“So what if he is?”, she snarled defiantly. “I am sure you do the same to Inshala!”
“I do.. And love doing it.”
“If you love doing it so much—”, she began hotly..
“—did it to you too, if you recall, when we were little.. But you got your own man doing it now, so I am off the hook. Shall we get started, or would you rather just stand there and banter?”, he said as the great, blooming cherry tree shuddered and a wide, gaping hole appeared at its trunk.
“I will be tree-hopping my sister Lilly.”, Inshala said with a pout and a sniff. “You may come along, or you may walk, Sir Aager!” ..
..and hopped right into the gaping hole!
“Ow, you are in trouble now, you are.”, Lilly grinned at him and dashed into the hole.
Aager sighed and he too, stepped into the gaping hole just as the cherry tree shuddered again and the trunk closed in on itself..
..and stepped out of another tree, several hours of walking distance away and in the Ritual Forest.
“That was.. a bit anticlimactic..”, Lilly mused as she watched the hole in the great oak they had just stepped out of, slowly close.
“I did say there is absolutely nothing spectacular about walking through a hole in a tree and coming out the other side of another tree somewhere else!”, Aager said as he looked around to get his bearings.
“I have no idea what just happened between you and Lilly, my Aager, but it was fun!”, he heard Inshala’s voice in his head.
“You liked it, then?”, he asked.
“I loved it. I still think you should not have called her fat and lazy because she is neither, but I sensed your feelings, and through you, I think I sensed hers. This is what is called a sibling fight, I think..”, she said, then sighed. “This social thing is so complicated.”
“It isn’t all that complicated, love. Lilly was feeling glum because she and Largo just made up but still had to part because she had to come with us due our mission, and Largo still had to stay behind because he had things to do there.. I didn’t want her to mope all the way. And knowing her, she would. Hence I sort of distracted her.”, he explained.
“I.. I am happily impressed, my Aager. You were very convincing. But I am also surprised..”, Inshala said carefully.
There was a struggling moment of silence before she spoke..
“You.. you genuinely love her!”, she blurted!
“I wouldn’t go that far. I just didn’t want her to mope, that’s all.”, he objected.
“My Aager.”, Inshala said seriously. “What people around you feel is not something you ever want to get involved. And not because you do not care, but because you do not think it is any of your business.. Even this morning, you did not want to be part of her issues. Yet you did, and very carefully you untangled her problem, and as her elder brother, you fixed it for her. I.. I am so happy for you and for her!”
“Well..”, he replied gruffly. “..let’s keep this between us, shall we? This is embarrassing as it is, for me. No need to embarrass her as well..”
✱ ✱ ✱
I am getting a whiff of sulfur and brimstone. We must be getting near.”, Tonic said seriously.
“So it is true.”, mused Seressa. “This curse does draw its power from the Abyss. And yes, I can see the fog from here.”
“Maybe someone likes the smell of burnt sulfur!”, the gnomic girl scowled. “Oh, I would so love to stuff the innards of the idiots who layed this curse with burning sulfur.. and pitch..”
“How could you stuff their innards with pitch and sulfur?”, Seressa wondered.
“Why are you asking her that?”, Brom inserted, then added. “The Demon Fog is up ahead, by the way.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”, the tall, dark girl asked a bit confused.
“Because you know she is going to explain!”, he replied.
Tonic gave him a filthy stare then stared into a solid wall of churning mist, colorfully named the ‘Demon Fog’..
“Are you not going to explain?”, Brom asked her.
“I am. But you didn’t have to come right out and say it!”, she said, squinting at him.
“Yes, I did, because I don’t really want to know..”, Brom said even as he knew that wasn’t going to help.
Tonic sneered at him and went into a long, detailed, disturbingly wet and intimate, and a rather horrific tirade about how to eviscerate a person without killing them, then place lumps of pitch and burning sulfur into the ‘removed innards’ cavity..
..and then sewing it all back up!
“Well..”, Cora said as they brushed the thick fog. “That was gruesome. Educational but gruesome.”
“I said I didn’t want to know!”, Brom complained, with a sick tone.
Tonic snickered at him.
“I am curious, luv. Why would you even know this?”, Seressa asked.
“Again, you are asking her things she will explain!”, Brom mumbled.
“Never had anyone in your life you hated enough that you really wanted them to suffer?”, Tonic started explaining. “So much so that you would actually attend to medical classes for four semesters even though you can not take the exams for them, nor be graded, hence you will not be certified either, and spend further time in the library reading about practical medical applications?”
“No, dear. Never hated someone with that kind of intensity. My understanding of hate is seldom perpetual and not quite at an individual level but rather on the theory of behaviors and focused more on the mentality that’s behind them.”, she said.
“Then explaining why I would know to you, is a moot point. Suffice to say, I hated my uncle.. and a few other people, and instead of daydreaming about suffocating them with a pillow, or defenestrating them, I actually went ahead and learned the proper way to do what I wanted to do.. in case the opportunity presented itself!”, Tonic said.
Brom ‘Ho boy’ed..
“Hey, look guys.”, he pointed as a patch of mist split from the main body of the intense, churning wall of fog and started drifted at them. “I believe we have company.”
No sooner than that, a chorus of reverberating shrieks escaped from the patch of mist and they saw dark, clawed hands scraping at the air as the fog rolled over to them.
Cora drew her new greatsword; a dark gray weapon with patches of rusty blood and seemingly chipped edges while Tonic drew out several of her grenades. Brom took a firmer grip on his lyre ready to ‘sing’ whatever deadly song would be best suited as Seressa weived her long, dark, slender hands preparing to send in her ghosty hand spell..
“This is going to be a long walk across Silent Hills”, Tonic muttered. “And we aren’t even in the bloody fog yet!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Down!”, rumbled Standorin.
And Hamna Vir dropped instantly.
Constance did not.
She stared at the wild boar charging their way. The massive beast squealed and grunted in manic as it trampled over the bushes and smashed right through a falled tree trunk!
Coolly, she placed the butt end of her nearly twenty-feet long pike and trapped it at a tree root, and lowered the double-bladed spearhead as the wild boar noted her and veered in her direction..
“Dammit!”, Sheriff Standorin cursed, pulled at his two-handed sword, instead of his longsword and shield. The shield would take too long to unbuckle from his back and strap on his arm just then and was about to rise when Hamna Vir grabbed hold of his arm and hissed.
“No! Do not distract her!”
“Stubborn, uncooperative, mule-headed..”, the sheriff fumed as he prepared himself to grab the tall woman and take off, in case she missed the boar!
As the boar came, slowly she lowered her pike, timing its double spearheads to jab the wild beast right at its chest.
The boar squealed in pain and frustration but just couldn’t stop as its momentum forked it even deeper onto the pike. Whatever the incredibly long polearm was made, it bowed slightly as the tall half-born danced around the butt end of the pike and with a tried-and-learned practiced habit, she pushed, using her whole body, instead of trying to pull the pike up, along with the boar stuck on its other end!
The pike stood at an upright angle, with the several hundred-pound-beast spiked high up in the air..
..and with a slight push, the pike, and the wild boar toppled over and crashed, some twenty feet behind, quite dead!
Standorin stared at her, and at the dead boar.
That had been one, bloody use of a pike!
“She seems to have fallen out of practice.”, Hamna Vir mused. “Or she is still too weak from the loss of her wings..”
“How do you mean?”, the sheriff asked.
“She used the tree root instead of her own foot. She switched places and pushed instead of pulling the animal up and over to the other side. Auntie Irine would have had her flogged for those mistakes.”, she said.
“One day, I am going to have to do something about that Auntie Irine of yours.”, Standorin rumbled.
“You can’t.”, she said.
“Why not?”, he frowned.
“Because she is dead. Merisoul Xyrotwu and her Mortal company slew her.. at a place called Themalsar.”, Hamna Vir shrugged, but she was doing a poor job of trying to seem indifferent, because her eyes, the whites and all, had gone black!
“Was my son among her company?”, he asked.
“I wouldn’t know. I do not know your son.”, she replied.
“He’s the one Constance tried to save from Gull’s Perch.”
“Ahh.. I still don’t know him. But Merisoul was with the Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, Sir Aager Fogstep, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel that I do know, and some others whom I do not.”
“I see.. Well, you wait here, Liaison Berete, because I believe I must have a word or two with the former liaison about following orders..”, he said firmly.
“A word or two is a Mortal phrase for saying harsh words that will likely backfire and cause the currently existing schism to rupture into a chasm!”, mumbled Hamna Vir.
“You really have no idea about taking a moment to consider what to say before actually saying it, do you, Liaison?”, Standorin frowned.
“No. Hence the reason Auntie Irine had me iron-flogged so many times. In retro respect, I enjoyed her frustration more than she enjoyed my screams!”
“I will try not to chastise her down any chasms, then.”, he said.
“I’d be surprised if you could. Yours is a bloody gaping canyon!”, Hamna Vir muttered.
Sheriff Standorin tried not to grind his teeth. He gave the surly young half-born a mildly polite smile and went over to the other, silently furious half-born girl.
Then, as if nudged by instinct, he changed direction and went over to the dead boar instead. He was still inspecting the beast when Constance walked over to him. Perhaps she had expected an outburst or some rebuke from the sheriff. The lack of the heat had, apparently, aroused her curiosity.
“The beast was already wounded. Which is why it attacked us in the first place. You can see the broken spear shaft on its hind leg. This is not a ranger’s weapon. They wouldn’t leave a wounded animal running around. It isn’t a dwarf shaft either. Their weapon smiths mark their craft with dwarven runes to take responsibility for their weapons. It is too crude for elf craftsmanship and a bit too delicate for an ogre..”, he mused.
“Orken.”, said Hannah Vir who had gotten bored and had decided to come over as well.
“Yes. I believe it belongs to an Orken. This close to Elder Hills and First Watch too? Must be one of their hunters. Master Aager had mentioned them in two of his reports. The first time, when they were tracking down the assassins who had started the fire back at the town, and the second time when they were ambushed on their way to Arashkan at Two-Day Forest. Hard to find and harder to kill.”, he said quietly, then he looked up at the drawn face of the tall half-born girl, Constance. “And thanks to our former liaison, it knows we are here now..”
Constance did not reply, though her face became paler.
“You do not know that.”, Hamna Vir scowled at him.
“No, I do not. And because of her rash actions, we might never find the Orken hunter.”, he said, not taking his eyes off Constance. “I was under the impression that I was given the lead in this expedition, possibly because I am experienced in more than effectively killing mortals, and because I would see the bigger picture.. and maybe even because I have lived in this mortal coil, as you refer to it, all my life, as opposed to mere few weeks. So when I give an order, I would like those around me to follow them with mild professionalism and without question until such time as it is appropriate to inquire the reasons behind my commands.. If you can do that, we may carry on and hunt down the Orken hunter whose training is, apparently, par to our own rangers. Otherwise, you are free to return back to the town and stay in the temple. Are we clear?”
It churned his heart to see Constance’s shoulders droop. It seemed like she was barely standing up, holding on to her pride..
..and he had just taken her pride and slapped her face with it. He felt like a bastard for what he did next;
He pushed it a step further.
“Are. We. Clear?”
“Yes, sir!”, replied Hamna Vir, giving him one of her best filthy stares.
“Yes, sir.”, said Constance in a barely audible voice.
It was then a long, somewhat thirty-inch iron spike came spinning..
..and rammed into his back, slamming him into the ground.
Constance reacted instantly and spun her pike in a wide, savage arc and struck the next two spikes right out of the air..
..as six Orken hunters burst out of the bushes, some twenty yards away..
..and as four of them charged, two held back and drew more of their iron spikes!
Constance’s retaliation was smooth but not subtle. She made a sharp, short dash and caught the first Orken hunter in the stomach and pinned it on the ground, used her momentum to pole vault herself up and over the three, taking them by surprise, and landed behind them. She took a quick sidestep behind a tree to cover her back from further projectiles and stabbed a second in the side at the creatures upper torso, possibly in the heart with both her double-bladed spearheads and twisted, shredding the Orken’s heart.
The Orken hunter grunted as it collapsed.
The remaining two dodged the length of her pike and came at her, each wielding great axes. They did not roar, they did not utter any challenges, nor any curses. They went at her in utter silence.
The first stumbled and fell as a gruesome gash opened across its back when a two-handed sword flashed and the second recognized the threat a second too late when Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart lopped its head off!
The two spun around to face the remaining two Orken..
..only to see them charred!
There were no burnt marks. No smoke rose from their crumbling bodies and neither was there any smell of seared meat. They just stood, on their knees, crumbled down, all black, and the whites of their eyes oozed down their faces, petrified in a silent, grimacing, and chagrined expression!
“I see you have finally mastered your skill.”, Constance said, somewhat morosely as she and a stricken-faced sheriff stared down at the blacked Orken corpses, still crumbling..
“Able to utilize, yes.”, Hamna Vir said in disgust. “Master? Not so much. I wanted them to scream!”
The sheriff grunted, shifted his shoulders, and grimaced as a sharp jolt of pain ran down his back. Slowly he turned around and walked over to the shield he had left behind, and with another grunt he sat down and started inspecting the shield. Whatever crossed his mind, he tried hard not to show it, but had the shield been strapped to his arm rather than buckled on his back, he would have been quite dead and this would have been his shortest mission for the bloody spike had penetrated the shield’s hard surface and come out the other side, poking him in the back for at least an inch.
And he secretly admired the young, somewhat troublesome ranger lieutenant, Morel Songsteel, for he recalled the reports of her mission, the one she had gone to, and for the first time, with the senior temple guardian, Thomas Dimwood, where they had been ambush multiple times and the girl had been hit by one of these spikes, in the back, without the protection of a shield, and had actually survived.
Just the inch hurt him like a Mox horn. It must have brought down the ranger lieutenant down in excruciating pain!
He was wondering to which one of the half-born girls he should appeal to patch him up when long, slender hands touched his back and his wound. He tried not to flinch as Constance wordlessly unbuckled his armor, unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it down, very gently, as she further inspected the wound.
“Just out of curiosity.”, he said gruffly. “How do you even run, dash, and pole vault in those high pumps?”
Constance did not reply for some time as she continued to inspect his well-muscled back.
“Very carefully.”, she replied finally, in her soft, alluring voice. “Don’t move. And don’t talk.”
Standorin cleared his throat.
“There should be bandages in my pack.”, he offered. “Just plug the wound. We have a long way to go yet.”
“Don’t move. And don’t talk.”, she repeated.
“I am sorry..”, he blurted.
“Don’t move. And don’t talk.”, she said again.
“..For a great many things.”, he said with a strained voice.
“Don’t move. And don’t talk.”, she whispered.
“I told you I was old. What I should have said was, I am old and a fool..”, he mumbled.
“You do not do levity, sir, why start now?”, she replied silently. “Don’t move, and don’t talk!”
“No. I don’t. I just told you I was an old fool. The loss of the lives I am responsible for has taken their toll, over the years.”, he said in a hushed voice.
“Don’t move. And don’t talk.. Please..”, she nearly begged.
“And it has made me.. this!”
Constance poured some water on the wound..
“You.. you did everything right. And I acted like an idiot.”
The tall half-born girl reached for the sheriff’s backpack, opened it, felt her way through it until she found a smaller sack that felt soft. She pulled it out and opened it to see rolls of bandages and a skin of some ointment.
“I would very much like to apologize for my uncouth behavior..”
“Please.. Don’t move.. And don’t talk.”, she persisted.
“I would also be very much indebted to you if you would accept my apology and perhaps we could build something on top of that—”, he mumbled.
“Dude. What is the matter with you?”, Hamna Vir came over and scalded him. “She said, don’t move, don’t talk! Which part of that is not clear to you? She can’t bandage your leak while you blabber on like that and I am not touching you!”
Standorin shut up.
The tall, alluring girl poured some more water over the wound as she placed a heavy bundle of bandages over the leaking hole and kneed it in place as she wrapped another roll around his massive chest, several times, then knotted it off. Then she wiped the broad of his back down, cleaning the blood. And finally, all in total silence, she pulled up his shirt, did the buttons, and buckled back his armor —tightly, and with similar silence, washed her hands, repacked his backpack, placed it next to him, got up, and went for her nearly twenty feet long pike.
Soon enough, she was standing with it, her back turned to them, in an ‘on guard’ stance..
Standorin stared at her, totally baffled.
“Was it something I said? I apologized. And I did it honestly. I do not understand.”, he mumbled.
“For a Mortal who has lived all his life in this Mortal coil, you are quite thick, aren’t you?”, Hamna Vir said waspishly.
“Apparently.”, he said.
“Did you even listen to anything I said to you? Any of it?”, she sneered at him.
“Yes. I can recite it all back, verbatim.”, Standorin replied.
“I do not need you to parrot back the things I tell you. I need you to understand them. No. Let me dummy that down to you. She needs you to understand them!”, she said savagely.
“This is all new to me too, you know?”, he grumbled as he slowly rose.
“Aww.. You need me to hold your hand?”, she said with heavy sarcasm. “I am sorry, but after what you did to the only person who truly cared and wanted you, I am not giving you anything. Man up and win her back!”
“That was a bit uncalled for, don’t you think?”, Standorin scowled at her.
“You had the best of us, now you get to deal with the worst!”, she snapped.
“I can see why your Auntie Irine would trash you so often.”, he said vehemently.
“Dude!”, she said with a low whisper. “That was low! Especially for you. But if it will make you happy, by all means, flog me! I am used to it. I can even show you how to do it right for maximum efficiency.”
“I don’t do flogging, Liaison Hamna Vir. And it’s never going to happen. Not on my watch..”, Standorin said stiffly. “But I would very much like to know how to fix what I broke.”
The surly girl looked at him with stern, petulant eyes for a good long while before she replied.
“We know words, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. We do not, however, understand what many of them actually entails. Hate, we all know very well. Love, we hope to know and think it is everything hate is not. I am aware that is a very inaccurate definition of the word, but that is as far as we can get. Constance, on the other hand, actually felt it, foolishly enough, for you. But now it is sullied with anger and wrath. Not satisfied, you went the extra mile and further admonished her. So now she also feels lost, abandoned, and utterly defeated. You crushed her, along with what pride she had. Under normal circumstances, she could have taken the admonition and merely pouted. You dumped it on her, and right on top of her already churning heart. To top it off, you apologized! We do not even properly understand love. An apology is beyond us, which is why she is always so careful at what she says and does. But you put her into a position where she does not know what to do or how to react. I don’t either. But unlike her, I do not like you, let alone love you. And because I have a great amount of experience in getting admonished by way of flogging, your words bounce right off me, and because at the end of the day, this mission is important to you, but not so much for me. All I want is to get it done as soon as possible so I can return back to the temple and back to my Dar Derune, and I don’t really care how it gets done. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to collect the horrors I beset upon the Orken so I can use them again, later!”, she said, all in a displeased huff, and went over to the charred and still crumbling creatures.
Standorin stared after her with..
To be honest, he didn’t know how to describe what he felt at that moment. Then he stared at the back of the tall, beautiful girl who still stood, quite stiffly, and ‘on guard’ stance. He resisted the itching urge to shift his shoulders so as not to displace the bandages, walked over to her, and stood behind her like a schoolboy.
“Hate.”, he said quietly. “To feel intense dislike and loathing for someone or something. A costly, poisonous, and sinful way to waste precious life.”
“Love.”, he murmured. “An intense feeling of deep affection that encompasses fondness, tenderness, warmth, intimacy, and attachment. A feeling that must be nurtured and cared for, for every moment of shared life, and demands mutual consent, trust, respect, compassion, and understanding.”
“Stupidity.”, he said in a low voice. “Behaviour that shows a lack of good sense or judgment.”
“Apology.”, he rumbled gruffly.. and reached out to her. Slowly, he took her free hand, turned her around, and kneeled before her. “A regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.. or stupidity. I have done all three.”
“Forgiveness.”, he said.. and kissed her hand. “The absolution of an offense or failure.. and plenty of said stupidity! I ask it from you in hopes that you will give it to me. I am a mortal and will likely repeat my follies. But I shall never do them willingly, nor deliberately. I shall, however, give what I have, honestly, and freely, should you still want me, Constance Alure Smithen of Serenity Home.”
The tall, alluring girl stared down at the sheriff with her beautiful, unfathomable eyes for a bit and a glitter appeared in the debts of them.
“Hamna Vir burned you, did she?”, she said, barely able to constraint her smile.
“Severely.”, Standorin admitted. “Though in all candor, I had it coming and fully deserved it.”
“You forgot ‘Ungrateful.'”, she said.
“I did not. But my knees are as low as I could get. I hoped you would not want a man who would go any lower than that.”, he said as his face flushed.
“No. I would not. I wanted a decent, honest, and honorable man. Not an obsequious, groveling servile. A man who knows when to say ‘no’ to his woman is worth keeping.”
She stared at him some more.
“How long will your ‘freely givens’ last, sir?”, she asked.
“For as long as you will have me.”, he said..
“Or even if you won’t.”
Not All Is Done
Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
Hey you.”, Bremorel said with a nod. “You look fashionably accessorized today. I like the new looks.”
“Hello, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel.”, replied the ravishingly striking young half-born girl with the short, tanned hair, in her low, husky voice nodding back at the ranger lieutenant, then at the adamantly grim looking young man standing next to her. “Good morning, Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood..”
“A bit early for such formality, don’t you think, Perigren Ostlanna Temez?”, Thomas surmised with a very slight frown. “But I suppose, early was the point. Let’s get started. We have much ground to cover and not as much time as I would like. If we can reach our first way point before nightfall, perhaps we can have a sit-down and talk over strategies.”
“You like plans and planning.”, Temez said in an declarative tone.
“Ow, yes. Thomas plans everything!”, sighed Bremorel in mock resignation. “I believe he has our funerals and obituaries all prepared and notarized.”
“I certainly do not!”, objected the young man, though it wasn’t a very convincing objection.
“Ah.. You have them prepared, just not notarized?”, Bremorel grinned at him.
“Didn’t have the time.”, Thomas admitted a bit guiltily. “But I left clear orders and they should be, by the end of the day.”
“This.. bantering you two have going.. Is it normal among Mortals?”, Temez asked.
“Depends on whom you are bantering. If there is mutual affection, it is fun. Not so much when you dislike the person.”, Bremorel said as she shifted her shoulders and set her armor, and the greatsword strapped across her back into a more comfortable position. “The key to banter is moderation and knowing when to sting, and when to stop.”
“Seems like a misuse of friendship and risks its structural integrity. Why do it at all?”, mused Temez.
“Because it is fun.. and because Mortals strive on folly risks..”, the ranger lieutenant grinned. “This is making use of the gaps between definitions such as friendship, honesty, sincerity, and love, while having said fun!”
“I.. see..”, said Temez.
The three walked through the town, and while citizens, guards, and artisans all greeted Thomas, few showed similar enthusiasm for the ranger lieutenant Bremorel. The ones that did were either children who unanimously believed she was ‘cool’, and the elderly who thought ‘she had finally grown up’..
As for Temez, they all stared and ogled at her. Some of the kids trailing after the ranger lieutenant were enthralled, and the boys in particular, were quite infatuated by her.
“This is a unique experience. They seem not afraid of me.”, she mused.
“They are. Mostly.”, Thomas explained. “But that has as much to do with you then it has with the coming war. These are trying times for all of us and we are all individually tested by the things we have promised to uphold and honor in this town; should you come in peace, you will find peace. They also can not differentiate the half-born from our Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane and many here adore her. Also, in the mere short few weeks of her station as the liaison, Constance Alure Smithen made many friends.”
“Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel seems to enjoy a different kind of popularity.”, Temez noted.
“We all, Mortal or otherwise, enjoy and suffer our past, Temez. Everything we do returns to us in kind. Good, returns more good, making it easier to repeat. Just like misdeeds afflict us with the same, starting a vicious cycle.. The only thing we can do is to give the effort to break that cycle.. Some of us see that effort and define it as wisdom. Some of us do not, or can not see that effort and want to run the easy mile and stick to how they have already defined us.”, Thomas replied quietly.
“He means, I was a screwed-up mess when I was young and pretty much started a fight at the drop of a hat. I beat the son of everyone in this village, and now am paying the price in scowls.”, Bremorel replied.
“You had a good reason to mess up, love. What’s their excuse?”, Thomas objected sternly.
“Your perception and your opinion in this matter are biases, Thomas, and we both know it.”, Bremorel said.
“My perception, along with my opinion, may be biased. But I did come after you for a reason. And that reason, among many other reasons, was because I thought you deserved a second chance.”, Thomas frowned.
“And here I thought you came after me because you thought I was pretty and cool.”, she smirked.
“And I still think you are pretty and cool, and pretty cool, my dear, but I stand by what I said. I always believed you were wiser and better than what anyone else thought. You just needed a push in the right direction. In the end, though, it was you who made the decision to change, because if one does not wish it, no amount of push can do that for you —and here we are..”, he said as they walked out of the town’s north gate and the great stone bridge stretching over the Arashkan River.
They all looked beyond the stone bridge and at the seeming chaos; multitudes of refugees across the bridge, platoons of Arashkan militia and regulars either patrolling or training, and scores of dwarves mounted on pony-sized, and very evil looking armored goats. On the far west of the chaos was the elven military camp. On the east were thousands of men and women laying great tree lumbers stretching from the river in a path for the many, black sailed ships with skull-flags hoisted on their masts, waiting. When the ‘path’ was all laid and around the stone bridge, the Drashan pirate armada would be ready to be transported overland and put on the west side of the bridge where they would start their deadly patrols against any Orken ships that would come at the town them from Arashkan Lake.
The arrival of some six scores of Drashan pirate ships, all-black had caused quite a ruckus. Trust being an issue, more were, at this very moment, floating back and forth near the delta where Arashkan River poured into the Endless Sea in case some enterprising Endless Watch commander got ideas about this being an excellent opportunity to sink as many pirates as possible in one fell swoop!
The three looked up to see the black ships full of evil-looking men, armed to the teeth, staring at every direction with vary, watchful eyes.
“Alright.”, said Thomas when they had their fill. “From this point, we will be following Arashkan river and head east. Once we are far enough, we will turn south and travel in that direction, gradually circling around west until we enter the Lost Forest..”
“..We shall skim past south of Silent Hills and through the forest and go further west all the way to Last Hope. From there, and if everything goes well, we will enter Game Woods and up into Hobs End hills. I really hope the villagers there have long abandoned those hills because that is our destination and our likely query. We expect a large encampment of Orken settled there, hence at least two, maybe three of their Grunt Generals should be there.. According to all the intel, every Grunt General is accompanied by at least two Blood Shamans, so that’ll be somewhere between four to six of them, possibly more. The information Lady Lilly and Agent Largo gathered during their tenure and consequent escape from Arashkan was that the Blood Shamans are quite cunning and ruthless and feel absolutely no remorse and are very free with their flame strikes, hexes, and other damning curses. Morel will take point doing wide sweeps, and you, Temez, will be doing short-range reckon to get a basic layout of the land and familiarize yourself with the outdoors. This will be a first for you so we will start slowly while you formulate ways on how to best utilize your own skills with both your surroundings and with the two of us and vice versa. Remember, our primary objective is to reach Hobs End to take out the Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans. But you might have noticed, we are taking a rather roundabout route to get there. That is to accomplish our secondary objective, which is to scout the furthest outer reaches of Serenity Home in case the Orken have deployed their camouflaging device and taken advantage of our assumptions that they will sit out the winter between Two Day Forest and Vodgar, and are instead circling all the way around, possibly using our route, in hopes of hitting the town from the rear. Thanks to the finalized Pixie Project the half-born have created and fitted into the PPG’s —Pressure Propelled Grenades supplied by Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome, we are now armed with a countermeasure to reveal their location even if they are using the camo device. The other four groups will also be using similar, far-reaching routes to get to their goals and are also armed with PPG’s.. Today we will go slow but steady and push a little to get as far away from the town and prying eyes as possible before we set up camp. When we settle down for the night, we can talk about each other’s capabilities and hammer out some working strategies and possibly some contingencies.”
“Love it when you do your commander-voice. I could do a hundred push-ups if you barked an order, now!”, Bremorel grinned and took off.
Thomas was smiling after her when Temez spoke.
“I understand now. She is hiding many of her feelings behind the banter.”
“Possibly.”, agreed, Thomas.
“I have noticed, ever since we came to this Mortal coil, and your temple; you let her beat you on many of the banter and the arguments.”, she said. “You are the wiser.. So, why do you?”
“Many reasons.”, the young temple guardian mused. “But the simple matter of fact is, beating isn’t winning, particularly when it comes to certain social interactions. My Morel is smart enough to beat me when she so wishes, but she chooses not to. And when she knows I am right, she lets me win. It is an unspoken agreement between us. Otherwise, neither she nor I really enjoy arguing nor do we do banter in private anyway!”
Perigren Ostlanna Temez blinked.
“You are putting on a show for others?”, she blurted.
“Well.. I wouldn’t have come out and said it like that, but I suppose we are.”, Thomas said with a rare grin.
“But.. why?”, Temez asked.
“Again, many reasons. At this particular moment, however, it is to give you the time to adjust —in a fun and polite way, and in a similarly polite way, we are, in fact, inviting you into the conversation to have your thoughts and inputs in any given matter.”
Temez stared at the senior temple guardian for a long, amazed moment.
“To have thought my kin and I were made to know Mortals..”, she sighed.
“My dear Perigren Ostlanna Temez.. In time you will see that being a mortal —or not— is not what truly defines us. It is what we do with the time given to us that matters.”, Thomas said. “Your kin never really knew about us mortals. Yet, you opted to trust your friend, Merisoul, even though she herself didn’t know us either. You acted upon her rather limited observations on us. Perhaps it was fate that brought her in proximity to decent men and women such as Queen Alor’Nadien ne; who is kind, understanding, and has a very generous heart, even though she was ousted from her people, and by no other than her own father. Young Udoorin; who is quite hot-headed at times, but who is also kind at heart and honorable. My Morel; who is hot-headed all the time, but, in fact, has a very tender, struggling soul. Master Aager; who is quite the heartless man, yet not unjust and very protective of those around him. Lady Inshala; who was a lost soul herself, not unlike Merisoul, and even though she had suffered horribly at the hands of us mortals and had no reason to trust nor feel any compassion for us, yet she chose to do so. When I look back, I see every single one of Merisoul’s company as people who, one way or another, had suffered, including Master Gnine, Morel’s cousin, Laila, and Lady Magella.. Like I said, perhaps it was fate that brought her in proximity to decent men and women.. As horrid as your origins were, it was still the only place you knew, and consequently, was your comfort zone, as inappropriate as that sounds. But in and amongst the damned, you chose to make a friend, then chose to trust said friend and leave the only place you knew, and out of your comfort zone, hence now, you are here, with us and among mortals, and are part of us. It is from this moment on what you will do, that will matter. And what both of us must do, at this very moment, is we had better start moving and further pick up our pace, or else my esteemed ranger lieutenant will beat us!
✱ ✱ ✱
Just for the record, I fully object to this plan, my King. It is a reckless and quite the hare-brained endeavor. Have you ever considered what will happen to your people should anything happen to either you or the queen?”, Lord Armathelius smoldered quietly where he stood in his king’s tent.
“Your objections have been duly noted, my Lord Armathelius. And yes, I have, in fact, given it a thorough thought as to what will happen to my people, should anything unfortunate occur to us; they will fight the Orken with fury unheard of, to avenge their queen. But to make sure we do return, we have taken all possible precautions. Which is why we are taking Lady Lenna with us. She is our precaution!”, Udoorin replied merrily as he stood in the unpartitioned section of his tent and was calmly putting on his brand new armor —compliments of Lord Armathelius himself.
Lord Armathelius, however, just fumed.
“No need to make a fuss, Armathelius.”, Udoorin said to him lightly. “The Queen and I make an excelling team and Lady Lenna is very good at what she does. I wouldn’t trust my Alor’Nadien ne to anyone else but her. And maybe Master Aager Fogstep and little Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane.. and ranger lieutenants Laila Wolvesbane and Bremorel Songsteel.. Suffice to say, the list is rather short because they have proven their mettle. My elves have not. And as much as they might fret on that statement, I simply do not care. My Lorna, my friends, and I have fought side by side, tooth, and nail, and spilled our blood for one another. The elves have yet to prove themselves. You might want to tell them that.”
“I was not aware you hated elves this much, my King.”, Lord Armathelius seethed, his face getting darker by the minute.
“You misunderstand me, my Lord. I do not hate peoples.. Any peoples.. What I do hate are certain deeds, perspectives, and attitudes.. The fact that these elves are here, as opposed to where they should have been; fighting in unison against the Orken at High Woods and Bari Na-ammen, is the definition of a fractured people and stupidity at an unprecedented level. Yes, you could not see the Orken, but you knew something was out there since you had some of the best rangers in the kingdom.. Now, I am not a very imaginative guy, but even I could think of any number of things that could have been done to defend my home. Your elves opted to get divided between Ri Grandaleren and Angrellen, which is to say, your king and a woman known for her bloody machinations for over a millennia, dammit, and yet you simply let your kingdom get run over by those animals. They were fighting each other when the Orken came, and they continued to fight each other even as the Orken butchered them! We were in Arashkan with platoons of bloody Orken on our tail and elves of High Spires tried to assassinate their Queen.. So when you say I hate elves, I would like you to amend that with how much I abhor them! You might want to pass all these to your elves as well because when I return with my Queen, I will want to see the change in their stance and attitude. You might also remind them that there are very few options to be had here, and none of them are that good. They will all be exiles even should we win this war, because I have no desire to waste my, nor my Queen’s life to build a kingdom where they will have their old status quo..”, King Udoorin said coolly.
Lord Armathelius stood there, quietly petrified, as he stared at his king.
“I am not an unreasonable man, my Lord.”, Udoorin continued. “I have nothing against you and appreciate everything you have done here. But you must understand the underlying reasons that brought you and your people to this dire predicament. And if some things do not change, no amount of war will win you your homes back and I will not ask Serenity Home for help on your behalf just so you guys can go back to the good old days!.. And I will certainly not ask the dwarves, the gnomes, nor the Durkahan Paladins, or the Koruxan Knights who already very much hate you, or the Palantine Militia, nor the Vodgar Nuke Squads to risk their people on behalf of more stupidity on our part. And we all know, it will be impossible for us to clean High Woods off the Orken because if they lose here, that is where they will run and hide and High Woods will be infested by them.”
He paused for a moment considering how much further he should push the elf lord. Then he figured, he needed this elf on his side. But as much as he needed him and his elves, he needed them to understand the full extent of their situation even more.
“I am a man of simple words, my Lord Armathelius, and my simple words are; I do not do machinations. But when I see people that do, I kill them. Period. Because people who do machinations believe they are better than the rest of us and think they have more rights to life than others. They think others are their peons and hence, are expendable. I do not. As much as I abhor what the elves did, I shall not risk any of their lives on tasks I wouldn’t do myself, which is exactly what my Queen believes. This is why we are going, as opposed to sending others on our behalf. King and Queen, we may be, but neither of us values life more, or less than any of the elves here, and neither of us shall waste the lives of any elves even though they have sworn us their loyalty. When the war begins, I shall sell their lives, if I must, at the highest possible cost to the Orken and I shall be fighting right beside them. If they want a future that involves home and honor, however, they must change, and we have passed the point where this is optional..”, he said solemnly, stressing many words.
Lord Armathelius regarded him for a long moment before speaking.
“I understand, my King. In retro respect, Bari Na-ammen could have been avoided had we risen up and ousted Angrellen the Betrayer.”
“Perhaps.”, Udoorin said. “But Angrellen was not the cause of Bari Na-ammen’s downfall. She was merely the symptom.. the spearhead of an already existing, cancerous condition.. Ultimately, she was merely an end product of a dangerous and ruinous perspective, Lord Armathelius, not the creator of it. If it hadn’t been her it would have been someone else.. Do consider how Ri Grandaleren treated his own wife and his only child; the only heir to his throne.. When you want a clean field, you don’t nip at the weeds. You uproot them. And the changes I have been speaking is the uprooting!”
Lord Armathelius mulled over what he had just been told. It was, somewhat depressing to hear all this from a nineteen-year-old ‘kid’ who looked nothing more than a lumbering, trigger-happy, ax-wielding idiot—
Armathelius stopped just this side of treason and finally it dawned on him why his gracious and wise Queen, the Heart of High Woods, had chosen this ‘boy’ as her King, and life-long partner..
“I was always against Angrellen and the way she imposed ‘purity of High Woods’ ideas amongst us. But it seems what I should have been against is a much larger issue. I will think over this than impose upon those here what it might entail.”, he said quietly.
“While you are entailing them..”, Udoorin grinned. “..you might also want to remind them that the first king of the Kingdom of Isles was a human, a ship captain by the name, Barakan Heavenswi̇ll who saved the elves and the other races who resided in the core islands from a terrifying foe and that his wife was no other than Arael Telona, who likely had a more beautiful elven name, and was the very daughter of Terandel Solace, and was also the niece to both Sinderel Tranquil and Elorellen Feymist, of whom your Queen is the direct descendant.”
Lord Armathelius mulled over that too.
“I have a chore for the elves while we are gone, which should give them something to do besides smoldering over their past sins. I have drawn some sketches, though I can’t claim any artistic proficiency about its beauty. I want a thirty feet wide and fifteen feet deep trench dug on the west side of our camp, all the way from the Arashkan River shore to the south edge of Ritual Forest. You will have to dam the river end and load the dam with explosives in case the Orken come in overbearing numbers. I want the camp side of the trench filled with sharp stakes and a long array of strong wooden frames build as well. The frames should be about your elven shield high. When the Orken arrives, I need them to see a long line of elves bearing their standard ‘shield and pike’s formation and think they can bull their way through if they pushed hard enough. Normally, that would work because they have the brute strength for it. But if the shields are held against the wooden framework, they can push all they want and still won’t be able to push through. Not while the elven pikemen are poking at them and your archers are riddling them with arrows from behind the pikemen.”
Lord Armathelius stared at Udoorin with amazement. He had been sure the young man was a good warrior, sure, but a strategist as well?
“Both of the ideas are quite impressive, my King. We will need many more hands than the elves for them, though.”, he said.
“You can ask Mayor Arthandos Yuleman for the work force, which he can provide from the Arashkan refugees, and the dwarves can provide the engineers.”, Udoorin offered.
“The esteemed mayor of Serenity Home might accept our request, since the trench and the framework will be protecting them as well, but the dwarves might not be so eager. There is little love lost among our peoples.”, Armathelius mused.
“Ow, they will help, alright, since I have already spoken with Yuleman, and the dwarves.”, Udoorin grinned.
“The dwarves agreed?”, Lord Armathelius asked with quite a bit of surprise.
“But of course. Since the whole idea was theirs to begin with. Their tactical general, Dridges Motherswolfie and her entourage were safe housed in the next building when we were hit by the assassins and once we’d killed our lot, we had nothing better to do, so we called them over to where we were and had many long hours to get to know each other, and flesh out this plan, though she said it would make me look cooler if I made it look like the whole thing was my idea, but I do not like lies and don’t really need to look ‘cooler’. I just want the Orken dead and gone and I do not particularly care by whom or how.”, the young king said.
“My King. You are a distinctly unique person. I shall order your elves to start with the trench and the framework immediately, and send word to the esteemed mayor, and the dwarves for the needed workforce and the engineers. And I wish you and my Queen a safe journey.”, Lord Armathelius said solemnly, bowed, and left..
The partition opened and Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist soundlessly stepped out, dressed in her long, black, loose gown once again. She had given some careful effort to brush and braid her raven black hair but had left it just this side of slightly messy..
..giving her a very endearing appearance, over her already very alluring and demure beauty.
She had come out of Udoorin’s sleeping quarters the moment Lord Armathelius had left and now the young man was outright ogling at her, love struck all over again.
“You.. you are so beautiful..”, he whispered hoarsely.
“Thank you, my King.”, she replied with a blushing face.
“Why.. why are you thanking me for?”, he mumbled.
“I know you wanted a public wedding as well as the one we had in private, yet when I imposed myself upon you, you did not rebuke me.”, she replied.
“A fool is the man who rebukes his woman. Not.. that we did anything.. I was too petrified in fear of hurting you..”, Udoorin mumbled some more as his face turned bright red.
“I merely wanted to rest my head on you and listen to your heart. The only other time I slept this soundly was when I was about five and the Spirit of High Woods spoke to me, proclaiming me as her chosen heart. I thanked you for your very presence, and the comfort you have given me.”, she replied quietly.
“Well. I was glad that you did. You smell very nice.”, Udoorin admitted awkwardly, his face quite flushed.
“Isn’t that how we met? You, complaining about my smell?”
“I certainly did not!”, Udoorin replied quite indignantly with his face burning even more.
“I am sorry, love. I am only teasing. Though that misunderstanding led us both here.”, she said as she smiled up at him.
“I am tempted to say, get a room you two, but you seem to have that covered.”, said an amused voice, and Anglenna entered.
Udoorin’s face was dark red now.
“Cousin..”, reprimanded Lorna, her own face also flushed.
“I also see the two of you have had a restful sleep. Good! I am happy for you. It was ever so tiresome trying to keep an eye on two separate tents. That said, here is your armor, my Queen. Do put it on quickly because we really should get started. Upon insistence from Lord Armathelius, several of our wizards will put illusions on some of the elves here and make them look like the three of us. There will be eight such groups and they will all head out in different directions.”
Udoorin and Lorna stared at her.
“Is all that really necessary?”, he asked.
“I wouldn’t know and I have no desire to further argue with Thelius any more than I already have. He is a rather pig-headed man and he irks me to no end!”, Anglenna fumed.
And now Udoorin and Lorna stared at one another..
..with barely discernable grins!
“Going to miss this carpet.”, Udoorin coughed. “But not these bloody chairs, nor the very uncomfortable thing you people call a caima-whatsit!”
“Caima is elfish for ‘bed’, young man. Just which part of it did you not like? It is made from the best elfish silk and velvet that was readily available.”, Anglenna asked, one of her platinum-blond eyebrows raised.
“The part where I won’t have to sleep in it anymore. The only decent rest I had since you guys put me into this tent was this morning and that’s because Lorna was there..”, he said, then paused. “I… uhhmm.. Perhaps I didn’t say that out loud and you didn’t really hear it?”, he pleaded.
“Ow, no, young man. The verdict is out.”, replied Anglenna, her eyes glittering with amusement. “I will go and grab a few personal effects and return here. Do be ready by then, if you will?”
“I am sorry about that.”, Udoorin apologized, once Anglenna was gone. “I keep blurting things and make you look bad.”
“Don’t mind my cousin, dear. It’s her way of showing how fond she is of you.”, Lorna smiled at him.
“Lenna is fond of me?”, he asked a bit surprised.
“My cousin only banters with those she feels happy and secure. Which was depressingly never in her past, and deploringly never when she was with her mother.”, Lorna replied quietly.
“That’s.. just sad..”, Udoorin mused.
“The things you said to Lord Armathelius. They were harsh, dear.”, she said with the same quiet voice.
“You think so?”, he asked, raising both his brows. “I thought I held back.”
“You held back just enough, love. They were harsh, to be sure, but they had to be said. It is good that he heard them, and heard them from you. I do not think I could have said any of them.”, she said honestly. “They must change, my Dorin. And they must do this willingly. What little they know is, we are likely the last cycle this world ever has. If we do not become part of the rest of the world as my great ancestors intended, we will be part of a massacre that is waiting to happen.”
“Well. Let’s not waste any more time then and get you into your armor, which does make you look awesome, by the way.”, Udoorin said with a genuine smile.
“You.. you really think so?”, Lorna asked a bit girlishly.
“My dear wife, I know so..”
“Ahh, good. I see you are both ready. Now then, let’s go over the plan, shall we?”, said Anglenna when she returned.
“Nothing all that complicated, really.”, Udoorin said as he pulled out a tattered map of the general area and started pointing at various locations and running a finger between them. “We will travel from here and into Ritual Forest, skim pass both Elder Hills and the dwarves and Nurturing Heaven and the wood elves there and out the north end of the forest. We will then make a sharp turn at the western edges of Rook Mountains and travel into The Marbles, which is going to be a heck of a walk and we will likely encounter a lot of trolls, hill giants, and whatever else The Marbles will throw at us. We will cross those hills horizontally and come out the other end and turn south. We will then sort of squeeze past Arcanton Mordenon’s ruined tower and hope to enter High Woods from the north. We will play some hide and seek and enter whatever’s left of Bari Na-ammen from the southwest.”
“You are aware that is possibly the longest route to get to Bari Na-ammen, young man, right?”, Anglenna said. “Is there any particular reason why we are going to be making a dashing marathon through the wilderness instead of me just teleporting us directly to Bari Na-ammen?”
“You can do that?”, Udoorin asked a bit surprised.
“Yes.”, she replied simply.
“With accuracy, I mean.”, he implemented without any insinuations.
“Yes.”, Anglenna said, though she was fuming a bit now. Then, as if needing to clear her previous, and quite deadly, blunder, she added; “My last time was faulty because I did not know this town very well. The only thing I remembered of it was starting at the Gull’s Perch from the window of the Guest’s House while I waited for your arrival. It is possible I formed that image in my mind in my moment of panic when I sent the two of you here. Later, when I teleported myself, I had a more steady moment to imagine the room I’d stayed, which, in retro respect, I hadn’t really given a second glance, making me crash land into the Guest’s House —a rather painful process I wouldn’t want to repeat. Turns out, your mother, Lady Nadine Graciousward had a teleportation circle installed in Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome’s workshop all along, and it’s been there for decades.. My house in Bari Na-ammen, however, is a place I know very well, even though it might not be standing. Not only that, I shall be targeting my own mother’s teleportation circle she had installed in her own workshop many centuries ago!”
“Your mother might be still there..”, Udoorin said a bit uncomfortably.
“She might. But I doubt. She absolutely abhors the Orken, who return her feelings for them with compounded interest.”, Anglenna replied coolly. “And you do not have to tiptoe around me all that carefully every time the topic of my mother is brought up, my King. As much as she was my mother, living with her was pure Hell. I feel nothing but shame for being related to her. However, should we face her one day, I doubt she will spare you, my King, certainly not you, my Queen, just like she will not show any compassion for me. I doubt Angrellen the Betrayer knows what that word even means..”
There was an awkward silence after that as young Udoorin gave his wife and Queen a careful, side-long glance.
“No.”, Lorna said quietly. “The High Lady’s time to answer for her crimes will come in due time. Our main objective is to search and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans. And that does not include a family squabble. We shall not have a stand-off with her even if we see her. We will wait until she is gone and continue with our plan. I have no desire to have my aunt’s blood in my hands, nor do I want my cousin to have her mother’s.. The reason we are taking the long way around is to find out where the Orken came from in the first place and to discover if their missing army is circling around to strike us from the north. It is likely we might miss their main base, even if it is in our way, but we will find traces of their passage or camp sights, which is why the Serenity Home Temple Guardians will be keeping tabs on us on regular basis, just like they will do so for the other four groups. Should we find anything worthwhile, we will pass that information to the temple guardians, who will, in turn, pass our findings to both the high elves and the wood elves, the dwarves, the Arashkan generals, the mayor, Arthandos Yuleman, and the ogres, as per need.”
“Very well, cousin.”, Anglenna said calmly. “And thank you for being considerate.”
“I am not being all that considerate, cousin Lenna. I just do not think a face-off with my aunt is worth your life. You have been dear to me from the moment I could barely walk and talk. I have since looked up to you for everything worth mentioning. I shall admit selfishness on my part, but I have no desire to let that change.”, Lorna replied, and though she was smiling, her eyes said she was quite serious about what she’d just said.
“Alright..”, Udoorin coughed to diffuse the awkward situation. “..Good carpets!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Aager Fogstep walked into the kitchen, looked around, and found what he sought; a well-polished ibrik, another one of Mother Grulganiste’s gifts, this one particularly for him, since the ogress chieftain knew Inshala never drank coffee. And it was sitting happily in the fireplace. He grabbed a tin cup from one of the shelves on his way to the grate, reached for the ibrik—
“Careful. It’s very hot..”, said the husky voice of Lilly Venom, brooding quietly in a corner.
—grabbed it with his bare hand and poured himself some coffee, then placed it back into the fireplace.
“..Apparently, not so much.”, mused the girl in her dark brown leather trench coat.
“You are earlier than I’d hoped you’d be.”, growled Aager as he took a sip from the scorching coffee.
“Is this growling thing you got going, the only voice I am going to hear from you?”, she frowned.
“Likely. Get punched enough many times when you are a kid on your head and your throat, this is what you get.”, Aager replied with another growl and shrugged. He didn’t bother telling her, his first owner, Hoghart, had come to him with a blunt knife too..
Lilly Venom stared at him for a moment.
“I am sorry to hear that.”, she said sincerely. “I guess we both suffered Drashan in our own way.”
Aager shrugged again.
“It’s all in the past and I see little reason to smother myself in it. I got out. You got out. As long as the pirates anchored at the stone bridge don’t recognize me, it is only Inshala, and this coffee, that matters —good coffee, by the way; dark, bitter, and tasteless!”
“You are welcome.”, Lilly said with a bemused expression. “Would rather they did not recognize me either.. I started freelancing after I was done with my contract on Trimdel Kandara of Endless Watch. I was supposed to have returned but didn’t. I got out of that stinking island and I am never going back.”
“Good for you. Now, why are you here this early? I thought we’d end up dragging you from your hubby..”, he said as he sipped some more of his coffee.
Lilly stared down at her own cup and didn’t reply.
“I.. see..”, Aager said and dearly hoped she wouldn’t suddenly go all girly on him and open up to him and yearn for a heart-to-heart with him and start telling him all about her private issues!
“Do you ever have regrets?”, she asked.
“There we go..”, mumbled Aager darkly. “..and there goes my silent morning coffee!”
“Many.”, he said out loud. “You’re going to have to be a bit more specific.”
“About Inshala—”, she began.
“—No!”, he growled and the tin cup in his hand screamed as it was crushed, spilling the hot coffee all over his hand.
The coffee hissed and steamed..
..and turned into dark brown flakes of frost in seconds, leaving his hand unscathed.
“Uhhmm.. No, what?”, Lilly asked.
“Inshala is off-limits, Lilly.”, he snarled quietly.
“I wasn’t trying to pry—”
“Inshala. Is. Off. Limits!”, he repeated even more quietly, staring deep into her eyes.
Lilly felt something crawl down her spine and very nearly went for her daggers!
“Ow kay..”, she said. “I am sorry, brother. I did not mean anything by it. I was merely seeking common ground to start a conversation.”
“There is no common ground where she is concerned, Lilly.”, Aager snarled.
“Very well.”, she said and dropped the issue. Apparently, her brother was very, very touchy where his little mate was concerned. A bit overprotective too.. “I told Largo I wouldn’t return to him if he kept up his moping and wouldn’t let go of his guilt.”
“Better get down here.”, growled Aager in his mind.
“On my way, my Aager. I was almost finished with the packing. Is something wrong? You sound unhappy. And angry.”, he heard Inshala’s voice answering him.
“Lilly is here.”, he said, fuming a bit.
“Yes. She came in earlier and made herself at home, as she should because I told her to do that whenever she came.”, Inshala replied happily.
“I don’t mind her coming here. What I do mind is her trying to talk to me about her personal issues. What do I know about such things?”, he said and he was fuming more now. “She should talk to you, not me.”
“Ow, my Aager. Lilly knows she could talk to me about anything she wants. This I have told her as well. I also told her it was alright if I didn’t understand what she would say, but I would do my best to do so.”
“Well, you can talk to her now.”
“No.”, Inshala said.
“No?”, Aager asked a bit startled. Inshala seldom said ‘no’ to him.
“Lilly knows she could talk to me.”, she repeated. “Yet she is here and talking to you. It is not me she wants to talk to, it is you!”
“The Hell! Why does she want to talk to me? I don’t talk to people about my issues, accept you!”, he further fumed!
“Because you are her elder brother, my Aager. I wouldn’t know what that means, but obviously, that is significant for her.”, she said sending him her best smile..
“The idiot!”, Aager snarled.
“Aager Fogstep!”, Inshala exclaimed. “That was not nice! She is your baby sister!”
“Baby sister..”, Aager snorted, only to face an intimidating sort of silence from Inshala’s end of the conversation.
“Dammit!”, he fumed one final time.
“He is a grown man. As a matter of fact, he is more grown than everyone in this house put together. He should be allowed to make his own decisions, which includes moping and brooding all he wants.”, Aager said, which apparently didn’t help matters at all because Lilly was giving him her, ‘I am going to stab you now’, stare.
Aager sighed and went for another tin cup and back to the grate, filled his new cup from the ibrik, and took a sip.
For whatever reason, his sister had chosen this morning to want relationship advice.. and from him!
The stupidity of people was mind-staggering at times.
Then it occurred to him;
The ‘idiot’ was actually looking up to him!
She was looking up to him because she had, literally, no one else to look up to in the world and because.. well.. he was her elder brother..
And as impossible as it seemed, even now, he had an intensely exemplary connection with his Inshala. True, Lilly had told him she hadn’t wanted that kind of a relation with Largo because she thought it was just too intense, but then, she had loathed all men, all her life because of her past, and the only reason she’d made an exception for the former Arashkan ARIS agent was, she had found him to be gentle, mature, and hoped ‘he would treat her right.. and alright..’ as she’d phrased it. But as patient as she had been with Largo, much like he had been with her, Lilly just wasn’t temperamentally equipped to deal with a guilt riddled man because his guilt got in the way of her much wanted happiness —a something she desperately yearned, and also something she thought her elder brother had, who also happened to be the only person in the world she had..
“Dammit!”, swore Aager again from inside.
“You are a patient girl, Lilly.”, he said finally. “More so than I could ever be. More so than anyone I have known and you have an eighty-plus hours of waiting in a cramped air shaft to assassinate Trimdel Kandara under your belt to prove it. Men of our caliber feel things more intensely than others because we train ourselves to never feel anything. Hence when we do, it sticks. I know this might be hard for you to believe, just as I know I am going to regret saying it, but I am guessing you were the best thing Largo has ever had in his entire life, and that probably includes his deceased wife. You don’t have to tell him I said that, by the way. My point is, you are quite unique in ways he has never seen or experienced before. Thus, he not only has to deal with the guilt of his failure as an ARIS agent that resulted in the destruction of Arashkan, which is a grossly arrogant guilt because ARIS is not a one-man intelligence service, but it had thousands of agents working for it, he also has to deal with his guilt that he has married a young, pretty girl who is extraordinarily focused and talented.. and deadly, and who also casts a shadow over his deceased wife.”
Lilly stared at him.
“Are you for real? I am just an assassin! I have no skills beyond that. I can barely cook, and when I do, Largo is almost afraid to eat it because he says, and I quote, ‘The stew was delicious. Bet it never saw you coming!’.. Just which part of me could be a match for his deceased wife?”
“Your lack of confidence in yourself in this matter is based on your lack of socially acceptable human interactions, baby sister. Hence you think you lack more than you do. I met Largo only after Sheriff Standorin and I came to apprehend you. He looked tired. And beaten. And defeated. After the two of you married, however, he looked renewed. Like a much younger man. So that’s made me thinking, ‘Lilly must be doing somethings right!'”
Lilly’s face went bright red.
“The man loves you. And don’t you start with that silly LA LA LA LA thing of yours on me again. You are not a little girl, Lilly. But like all sentient creatures, he also has multiple levels of complex and complicated thoughts and feelings. One such feeling is his awe for you, coupled with his possible fear of losing you too, consequently further boosting his guilt about his deceased wife, which probably bolsters his already existing guilt for his failure in Arashkan. What’s more, it is not really his fault that he feels so, even though it is stupid and illogical, but guilt has little to do with logic. I feel guilty about how we let some assassins enter our town all those months ago and have them almost burn our town down into the ground because town security was my responsibility. And just a few days ago, the town was attacked, once again, by even more assassins that resulted in the death of nearly two thousand people, though most of that was the result of people getting trampled in the chaos. The sheriff feels the same way. I am guessing so do you, now that you are also part of the security. In the end, though, we all know, through personal experience, just how impossible it is to survive a well-planned and executed ambush, seeing as how many times the both of us have done it in the past.”, Aager said in his low, grating voice.
“Inshala was right.”, she whispered in an almost inaudible voice. “She told me to talk to you and that you would help because that’s what family does..”
“I think she overestimates my skills when it comes to giving advice to a sister, seeing as she will likely ignore them, anyway.”, he replied.
“That does not disqualify the validity of the advice, though.”, Lilly said quietly. “What should I do?”
“Go to your man, because that’s exactly what he is; your man! He belongs to you, and to you alone.. Others might be more free in their relationships and with their marriages. But likely for the same, intensely felt emotions of people in our line of deadly work, we are more susceptible to unconditional trust, hence, belonging. You think what I have with my Inshala is unique? Yes, it is. But only because of the kind of Hell she went through in her past and the kind of Hell I went through to keep her alive. I am certain that stubborn, mule-headed ranger girl, Morel, has a similar, very nearly unconditional relation with Thomas. Much like what Udoorin has with his Lorna. You think none of us have any regrets or guilt? The only difference between us and you is ‘time’.. We have had enough of it for our relations with our individual mates to grow and settle and still we are tested at every other turn. You have been married for barely a month, yet you expect a high ranking ARIS agent to rid himself of nearly forty years of accumulated guilt? And I thought you were a little smart.” Aager growled, though not unkindly. “As to what you should do, that’s up to you. If it were me, I’d tell him, you are just a silly girl who can’t bear to see him like this, and that you are sorry and you will be more patient and understanding in the future, because at the end of the day, only decent men feel guilt, and what the two of you got is dear and beautiful, and that is worth fighting for..”
Lilly ogled at him.
“Told you before, baby sister; Lose some, to win some.. This is where you lose some of your face and pride to win some of him!”
Lilly, as it turned out, wasn’t as pig-headed as she seemed, nor was she the kind of girl to over-brood and wait for things to happen. Or perhaps she did, infact, trust her elder brother, which Aager very much doubted.. Whatever her reasons were, she swallowed what remained of her coffee, along with her pride, and without another word, she dashed out of the kitchen, and out of the house..
..to come face to face with Largo, who had one fist up and was about to knock on the door.
Aager heard the uncomfortable voice of Agent Largo croak..
“I am so, so sorry Lilly. I am an idiot and a fool.”
“And I am so, so sorry Largo. I.. I am just a silly girl who can’t bear to see you like this. I promise I shall be more patient and understanding in the future—”, Lilly spluttered.
“No, love. You were more than patient with me and certainly more understanding than I deserved. I came here in hopes of catching you before you left. I.. I want us to part in peace, and once this mission of yours is done, I very much desire you to return to me in peace.. I.. just want you.. Please?”, Largo stammered.
“—and because at the end of the day, only decent men like you feel guilt, and what the two of us have is dear and beautiful, and that is worth fighting for!”
Aager Fogstep filtered out the rest..
..and the kitchen fell silent as Largo and Lilly stepped out and into the garden for a proper, deservingly extended farewell.
He poured himself another coffee and grunted..
“Huh!”, he said. “The things a man must do for a quiet, dark, bitter and tasteless coffee..”
..and went over the plan they, Aager himself, his Inshala, and Lilly were assigned..
They would enter Ritual Forest and travel past the ranger outpost, First Watch, then sort of veer north and east to Oger’s Foot to meet with Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth to hammer out the details of their agreement with the ogres and grab their representatives and turn west for Dim Woods to meet with the woodsmen so the ogres could drag their lumber all the way to Serenity Home without being harrassed as more ogres would come down Rook Mountains, bringing large amounts of ‘rock’ needed to further the construction of the wall defending the town. Aager couldn’t think of a more foolish encounter where the woodsmen and the ogres would behave. They literally hated each other. A deep-seated animosity that went back some eight hundred years.. Aager didn’t care if they killed or ate one another. What he did mind was that Inshala had been chosen as the liaison between them. The man in the dark leathers wondered just who had been this insensitive as to send the little girl to the woodsmen, considering what they had done to her in the past! Aager was going to hurt someone badly for that particular decision though he wasn’t quite sure who it was; the mayor, Arthandos Yuleman, or Agent Largo, who had been among the strategists, or even Queen Alor’Nadien ne and King Udoorin, to whom they owed this whole, foolish endeavor!
He grinded his teeth, gulped down some more coffee, and carried on..
After the woodsmen, they would go to Nurturing Heaven to look in on the wood elves there, then travel west and out of Ritual Forest to arrive at Stinking Shacks, a place worth its name on multiple levels, though in a nostalgic way, it would be a bit like a slice of Drashan for him and Lilly. There, they would need to encourage those thugs to sell all their tar to Serenity Home, as opposed to handing it over to the Orken when they came.. and likely over their dead bodies, since the Orken did not bargain, nor did they trade.. They took. Period.
And finally, they would enter the Tar Pits. A wet, stinking stretch of swamps and bogs where they would search for their suspected targets had likely hidden.. or entrenched; three Grunt Generals and three times as many of their Blood Shamans.
Aager also wondered whose head he would have to crack should they survive that. The Orken were hardy creatures, to begin with, and he doubted they chose their Grunt Generals for their beauty, but for their battle prowess.. not to mention their bloody Blood Shamans.
Someone must have thought quite highly of him, he thought darkly..
Someone who he would dissuade from using him and his Inshala, if not his sister, thus callously..
It was about then, there was a polite, non-intrusive knock on the door.
Aager recognized that knock.
Hence, he walked over to the shelves and took down, yet another tin cup and filled it with the dark, bitter, and tasteless coffee from the smoldering ibrik and ghosted over to the door and quietly opened it.
The burly Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart stared at him for a moment and noted the two tin cups he was holding; one half empty, the other full and steaming. He grinned at him and gave him a nod.
“You never cease to amaze me young man.”, he said, still grinning. “Though I must admit, I was hoping to see young Lady Inshala.”
Aager cocked an eyebrow.
“She is prettier than you are!”, Standorin said, his grin broadening.
Aager gave him a steady gaze.
“Did you know there is a couple making out in your gazebo, just this very moment?”, the sheriff said, further grinning at him.
“Yes; a pair of idiots!”, he growled.
“I.. see..”, said Standorin with an amused expression.
With silent, naked steps, Inshala came down the stairs, carrying a burlap sack. When she saw the sheriff, she whooped, dropped the sack, and came running at the door.
“Sir Sheriff Standorin!”, she exclaimed. “Why are you standing at the door? I am sure you did not have breakfast, and neither did my Aager.. I see both of you went for the coffee, though.”
“I merely..”, began the sheriff and the grin on his face vanished. “..came to ask for your wisdom.”
Aager stood still and made himself scarce because he had known something was off with the sheriff; Standorin didn’t do ‘grins’, nor did he do ‘cheery’. His mate, Inshala, stared up at the big, burly sheriff, her large, beautiful eyes showing signs of worry.
“Will you take heed, should I give it?”, she asked quietly and carefully.
Standorin was an observant man, if nothing else. He noted Aager’s stance, much like the worry he saw in his mate’s eyes. A slight frown settled on his brows but he reminded himself that he had come here for two things, after all; coffee and wisdom.
He reached for the coffee Aager offered him right then, and took a sip..
It tasted horrible!
Just the way he liked it..
Then to the skinny little girl, he nodded.
“Be honest..”, she said softly.
Standorin’s frown deepened, for honesty had never been something he had been accused of lacking.
“..to yourself.”, the skinny little girl finished.
✱ ✱ ✱
Yesss!”, whooped Tonic happily. “Finally we are out of that stuffy and depressing town!”
“It was a very nice town Tonic. And it wasn’t depressing. They are all afraid. They just got raided and there is a war coming their way. And still, they have some very nice people in it.”, objected Seressa. “I liked many things about them and I am sure you did too.”
“Maybe.”, admitted, Tonic grudgingly.
“Their idea of accepting anyone is impressive.”, Cora mused thoughtfully. “Provided they come in peace. I think I will implement that in the future.”
“Implement?”, Seressa asked.
“Nothing.”, Cora replied evasively. “Just something I have been working on for a while.”
“And the fact that you kept your kinship with Lady Nadine Graciousward a secret..”, Seressa said, turning back to Tonic. “..even from me, and I am your pair.”
“I didn’t know she had adopted me after she married Grandaleren, girl.. I learned about it only recently.”, mumbled Tonic.
“But you did learn about it..”, the very tall, very dark girl said with a small pout.
“It is a kinship only in formality, girl. It means absolutely nothing.”, Tonic sighed in an exasperated tone.
“Actually, that is not correct.”, inserted Brom. “I am not sure just how the elves would take it if they ever found out, but that kinship is official and is binding. It would hold in any legal court.”
“Hells bells! What are you now, a bloody attorney?”, Tonic scowled at him.
“As a matter of fact, I am. Being a Bard of the College of Lore, my word would hold in any court of law. Hah! I could even sit in a tribunal and rule in favor of guilt or innocence if I was asked..”, Brom grinned at her.
“Like anyone would..”, she scoffed then snickered. “And even if they were foolish enough to ask, you would literally be out of sight in that tribunal and behind the judge’s bench!”
“Actually, pretty much all courtrooms have hobbit stools.”, Brom smirked.
“Hobbit stool?”, Cora asked.
“It is a faldstool, not unlike a narrow table that fits into a larger chair, luv.”, Seressa said. “So gnomes and halflings can sit and still be visible from the other side of a judge’s bench. But it is historically non-existent that a gnome was ever asked to make a ruling.”
“That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard!”, Tonic laughed.
“When both parties in a dispute that consist of humans, hobbits, much like myself, are oft summoned to make an impartial ruling. A quite common practice in cities like Endless Watch, where there are many hobbits living relatively nearby in Bowling Hills. My father and my uncle were summoned in the King’s name to make such rulings. My great grandfather was summoned so often, they build a hobbit home in the city, just so he wouldn’t need to constantly go back and forth Endless Watch and Bowling Hills.”, Brom replied with a bemused expression.
Tonic scowled at him some more.
“We hobbits, and bards, in particular, are not welcome and respected wherever we go just because we can sing, you know. We are quite the sticklers of the law and we love reading, hence your average hobbit would probably know the King’s Laws better than most of the courtiers in the core islands.”, he grinned.
“You are just making this up.”, Tonic sneered at him.
“I am afraid he isn’t.”, Seressa said.
“Whose side are you anyway?”, she scowled at her too.
“The law does not take sides, luv.”, Seressa smiled down at her.
“Yeah, right.”, Tonic scoffed.
“I am the law!”, Brom said in a low, raspy voice!
Cora stared at him with a puzzled expression.
Tonic just gave him a baleful glare.
“That is my line, dammit! Only I get to mime Judge Bread!”, she spluttered!
“Alright. Let’s pick up the pace, shall we?”, Cora said. “We have a long way to go.. or rather, we have a mild way to go, but a very long and roundabout way to actually get there. Sneaking past the Silent Hills is going to be tricky. I heard many things about that place from the half-born when I went out to see the town and its people. They said the fog is actually a curse and had been layed there many centuries ago and can swallow mortals whole if they went in it, though they didn’t mention how deep.”
“We could just ignore the mist and go through the woods on the shores of Silent Lake.”, Seressa offered.
“We could do that, and seeing as we were also tasked to find ‘hidden’ Orken, we should, but we can decide on that when we get there. Through the woods or the mist, once we get past either, we shall hit south, trek all the way through the big forest called Lost Forest, and come out the other side and follow some deep fissures called Serpent’s End. Once that’s behind us, we will hit Croaking Mire.. some kind of swamp, though I have no idea why we should go there in the first place. We don’t have much in the way of swamps in the Northern Tundras, since any body of inland water is pretty much frozen, all year long and you can pretty much walk over it unless you are wearing spike-healed shoes..”
“Hells bells, what kind of an idiot would wear spike-heeled shoes in winter!”
“Weirder things have been known to happen.”, Cora shrugged.
“Yes.”, added Brom. “Like little girls who wear clobbering, steel-toed boots!”
Tonic gave him her best, thousand-yard glare.
Cora, however, gave him a side-long stare.
And as if on cue, so did Seressa, as she stood on his other side.
Brom realized the scrutiny and the hair on his toes prickled!
“What?”, he asked, a bit creeped out feeling not unlike a strip of bacon, sandwiched between two slices of bread!
“He looks like he wants to tell us something.”, Cora noted.
“No, I don’t!”, Brom said hastily.
“I believe he does.”, Seressa prompted as she smiled down at the bushy little hobbit.
“Please don’t hurt me!”, the hobbit blurted!
“Are we going to hurt the hobbit?”, snickered Tonic from behind. “Because I totally can.. with my clobbering, steel-toed boots!”
“Alright, Brom. What is at this Croaking Mire swamp-whatsit?”, Cora asked, glaring down at him, now.
“I don’t know what you are talking about!”, Brom said glibly.
“Master Brom Bumblebrim.”, Seressa said kindly as she smiled at him. “Must I remind you; I am the Word. But you are the Guide..”
“Yeah. And I am the Shield and all..”, Cora said. “Got two of ’em now!”
“And I am the Enabler. Can I Enable him please? He looks like he is jammed!”, Tonic snarked heartlessly.
“An Angle.. and a Demon Queen..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Good morning Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart.”, mumbled Liaison Berete Hamna Vir when the sheriff came to the Serenity Home Temple to ‘pick up’ the two half-borns and to begin the mission they had been assigned.
“I was hoping it would be.”, the sheriff replied staring at the surly young girl. “You are in a polite mood today.”
“I was warned to be polite.. Threatened, really, that if I wasn’t, I would lose all my sugar cane privileges, and my hours with my Dar Derune would be cut down!”, she said in a clearly infuriated tone.
“I.. see..”, Standorin said. “Is.. Lady Constance here? I..”
“She is not available. And she certainly is not a ‘lady’.”, replied Hamna Vir sullenly.
“And you think she is not a ‘Lady’, why?”, Standorin inquired mildly.
“The word ‘lady’ is a Mortal phrase for ‘woman’ that presumes she is a member of the female gender of some higher standard, which, in essence, tells there are those of the same gender of lower status which also implies Mortal men afflict their own understanding of said standards upon their Mortal women.”, Hamna Vir mumbled.
Standorin stared at her.
“Probably.. Maybe.. I wouldn’t know.. I am a mere sheriff. You are going to have to take what you just said up to the King’s Supreme Judges.”, he replied politely.
“Good dodge.”, she said squinting at him with sharp, vicious eyes.
“So.. about.. Constance.. is she..?”, he started.
“She’s not available. Didn’t you listen to anything I just said? I was told you were good with details and the things going on around you. I am here, and I just told you she was not available and you did not even listen to me. Perhaps the things told all about you were misleading.”, Hamna Vir said sullenly.
“Apparently they were.”, mumbled the sheriff. Today, he thought, was going to be a punitive day.. “Maybe we should get started? Where is your half-born friend?”
“My half-born friend decided to keep Mortal interactions to a minimum to avoid pointless drama you and your kin much prefer and started out early. Should be waiting for us at the edges of the threes you call Ritual Forest.”
“Alright. Are you ready, then? Do you need to pick up weapons, rations, or anything?”, he offered.
“No. I do not. My specialty does not require weapons, Mortal or otherwise. And I can find my own food..”
“Very well..”, Standorin sighed.
This was going to be pure Hell, he just knew it!
The two unlikely pair walked over the stone bridge with many refugees staring at the half-born, until one of the many children, a sweet little boy, trailing after them finally braved up and approached them.
“Excuse me..”, he squeaked, a bit scared, and a bit shyly.
Standorin stopped as he always did whenever anyone, of any age, called out to him because he never ignored the people around him, which was probably why he was unanimously trusted and respected by everyone. The boy did seem familiar, though the good sheriff just couldn’t remember where he’d seen him before.
The little boy, however, was staring at the half-born girl.
“Are.. are you an Angel?”, he asked as his face pinked.
The face of Hamna Vir would have made a perfect study of emotions at that very moment.
She went red, then pink, then purple, then paled as if all color drained out of her.
“I.. do not know how to answer that, Mortal boy.”, she said finally.
“Rodin, pretty Lady. My name is Rodin. I stay in the town with Lady Lilly and Uncle Largo.”
Ahh, mused Standorin. The boy the two had brought along with them from Arashkan.
“I come out here to play with the children from Arashkan because they all lost their homes and now they are sad. I try to cheer them up and bring them what food I can find.”, the boy said with a serious face.
“That.. is very nice of you..”, Hamna Vir mumbled, feeling a bit perplexed. This conversation was something totally out of her league!
“I saw you before, pretty Lady. May I call you ‘pretty Lady’? I wouldn’t want to impose, but I was told by my tutors to always be honest and polite and you are a pretty Lady. You are the new half-born liaison, though I do not know what half-born means..”, he said.
“Yes. I am the new liaison. And you may call me pretty lady if you want. But I must warn you that I am already bonded.”, she said.
“Ow.”, the boy replied, a bit glumly. “Anyone I may duel to win your hand, perhaps?”
“My Dar Derune will not duel, young Rodin, because he needs special care and all the time. I am sure you will find someone else in time?”, Hamna Vir offered kindly, which took Standorin by surprise. Apparently, the surly liaison was the way she was only with grown-ups. “We must be on our way, now. I shall call upon you when our task is done and you can be friends with my Dar Derune, perhaps? He would love that.”
“Thank you, pretty Lady. You are as gracious as you are kind. I bid you farewell on your journey.”, he said solemnly and took off.
“That.. was interesting..”, Standorin mused as they started towards the forest. “Never seen a kid his age use such vocabulary. He might not know what a half-born is, which is expected, but he knows what a liaison is. And he is quite thoughtful and responsible..”
And then it hit him!
“That son-of-a—”, he spluttered. “Rodin? RODIN? Speak of hiding in plain sight!”
“You seem vexed, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart.”, Hamna Vir said.
“I seem vexed because I AM vexed. That idiot brought Prince Korodin here and didn’t bother to tell us? Damn you, Largo!”, he fumed. “I am going to cave your temple in!”
“Does Constance know about this aggressive side of yours, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart?”, she observed. “If she doesn’t, I think she should.”
“Should she ask, I would gladly tell her all my bad habits.”, he said grimly.
“Oh. Okay.”, Hamna Vir said. “Want me to remind you to tell her, then?”
“Perhaps you could tell me about your bond with that little Dar Derune.”, he asked trying to change the subject.
“I wish him to be my mate.”, the half-born girl said simply.
Standorin stared at her.
“Isn’t he a bit young for that sort of thing?”, he asked.
“Hence, the ‘wish’, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. You can’t bond with a child! You must wait for them to grow so they can make their own choices. We didn’t get to make choices where we came from. We were made as tools; to be thoroughly used, then carefully discarded. I brought him to this Mortal coil so he will never be used, nor will he be discarded. He will grow and make choices. Until then, I shall wait. But even when he grows, he may never make choices. Should that happen, I shall keep on looking after him forever.”
“Uhhmm.. Why wouldn’t he be able to make choices?”, Standorin asked, feeling a bit disturbed.
“He because he is broken, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. He was beaten many, many times. Burned alive, too. Took him many, many months to recover.. But the beating and the burning broke somethings in his mind.”, Hamna Vir explained with a deceptively calm tone. “He.. he is special.. And both Mortals and nons will want what he has. I shall make sure they don’t while I keep him happy.. But I do not want to impose myself on him when he grows up either. Hence, I shall look after him until he does as a sister-kin. Should he be able to make choices and agree to be my mate also, I shall look after him as his bonded mate. That way, we can both be happy!”
“Were.. were you all treated like that?”, the sheriff asked.
“More or less. I was beaten on a regular basis because I was disagreeable. But because my talents were quite rare, I was not fed to the manes, the dretches, and the imps.. Many of my brothers and sisters were, though.”, she replied with a shrug, trying to make light of her traumatic past.
“Any particular reason you and your kin did not use your skills and talents to escape?”, Standorin asked.
“Where would we run to, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart? Considering wherever we looked, from one horizon to the other horizon, we were in Hell. And should we walk to either horizon, we would only see more of the same.. all the way to Oblivion! Perchance we escaped, who would have us? Merisoul Xyrotwu spent many years with Perigren Ostlanna Temez to get her out. She learned Temez what it meant to be free, who in turn convinced us to follow her to freedom. You can not free something that does not know, nor comprehend the concept of freedom. In the end, though, we all had our reasons to come here. Temez wanted to find the boy she ate many years ago and live happily with him and her BFF, Merisoul. In the end, she can’t live happily with her BFF because Merisoul traded her life to save some Mortals! I followed her because my Dar Derune was dated to be exterminated. I didn’t want him to be destroyed, so I followed Temez here in hopes of making sure he has enough days and years to live and grow up.. And here we are.. Hello Constance..”
Sheriff Standorin froze as Constance Alure Smithen stepped out from behind the trees.
“Well. You two took your time.”, Constance said distantly. Her long, silky black hair spilled over her moderated, somewhat conservative, long and elegant dress, it’s ankle length skirt split at the sides with her long, shapely legs hidden behind some gauzy fabric. She was a tall woman, made more so by the high, spike-heeled pumps she wore and she stood where she was, tapping the frozen forest ground with her nearly twenty-feet long pike that ended with a forty-inch, double bladed spearhead.
“Shall we get started? I have optimized our travel path to have minimal possibilities to come across friendly forces and maximum chances of enemy encounter, who will also want to avoid said friendly forces. Hence, we shall turn north and west from here and skip the ranger outpost called First Watch, go around the dwarven military settlement, Elder Hills, as we turn west. I suspect we will have reached the end of the forest in under a week. We will have a full day’s travel of open ground before we can reach the southern end of the swamps called Tar Pits. To avoid being seen or ambushed, I suggest we make that dash under the cover of night. Once we reach the shores of Arashkan Lake, we will have to find a suitable boat, or craft one out of logs to get across and into Misty Forest where we will seek our query, which is our mission. To that end, we should not waste any time and start on our trek.”, she said coldly, turned around, and with surprising agility, she dashed ahead.
Both the sheriff and Hamna Vir stared after her.
“The situation is worse than I estimated. Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, you must speak with her or she will run us both to exhaustion and eventually death. Or rather, she will run you to death. I will stop before that happens because she is not angry with me and I can continue walking in the dead of night. You can’t!”
Standorin’s face turned grim.
“There nothing to speak here. She has made up her mind and among us mortals, no, means, no! Better this way, really. There is little need for distractions. As the esteemed former liaison said, we have a mission. We might as well start at it.”
Hamna Vir stared after the sheriff, as he too, made a dash, though nowhere near the agility of the tall half-born girl with the pike..
..and gave a long, deploring sigh.
“Why, Temez? I was happy in the temple. I could play games with my Dar Derune all day. He was happy too. So why did you part us and send me with this idiot?”
Not All Is Done.
Upon extended experiences,
both on a personal and professional level,
Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist
and King Udoorin Shieldheart have
come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan
is formed to seek and destroy the
Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans
in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos
among the coming Orken ranks and
weaken their march against
Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
This story begins shortly after
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, Lady Anglenna, 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.
The original poem from William Blake;
Auguries of Innocence
It is time for strategic planning.
Heroes and friends gather to see what must be done and what can be done for the enemy is harsh, merciless, numerous, and hidden..
And in a small town,
the future of the kingdom is decided.
This story is the continuation of
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’Nadien ne, 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, Miss Cinotnacra, 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..
..and Anglenna, Armathelius, and Lorna vanished.
“Ranger Lieutenant Morel. It’s time.”, barked Aager.
“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 Wolf Horde 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 is time for strategic planning.
Heroes and friends gather to see what must be done and what can be done for the enemy is harsh, merciless, numerous, and hidden..
And in a small town,
the future of the kingdom is decided.
This story takes place shortly after
Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig;
“A Debt Father to Daughter Passed..”
Hello Nimbletyne. It’s been a while.”, said the rich, throaty, enthrallingly feminine voice as a carefully swaying figure of elegance stepped lightly into the workshop.
“Hello, girl. Been a while indeed. Thought you’d drop in one of these days.”, Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome rasped as he limped over to the tall, rather curvy, and extraordinarily striking figure. “Are you here to kill me?”
The tall beautiful woman stared down at the old gnome for a moment before she replied.
“By all accounts, I probably should. You didn’t do us any favors when you burglarized the central office of the Whisper. Do you have any idea how many assassins I had to put up with since then?”, smiled the striking woman.
“I am sorry for the trouble I caused you, girl. But not for what I did. You were there when we found out what they were up to. You knew what I had in mind. And, as I recall, you did encourage me.”, grunted Nimbletyne.
“True. Though, in my defense, I was young and foolish, then.”, mused the extraordinary figure.
“Lassy..”, Nimbletyne grinned. “..you are always young in my book, but never foolish.”
The woman gave out a rich, throaty, genuine laughter.
“Apparently, some things never change, and you are as smooth as ever, darling. How are you still single?”, she asked merrily.
“Had me eyes on a girl, once. Nothing on your league, of course, but killer-cute. Single mother, a Wessa Doodlebellz, with a sweet little daughter. Husband killed in a Bean Bomb manufacturing accident. She was, however, also one of the victims of the Whisper.”, shrugged the gnome, though not as indifferent as he wanted to seem.
“I.. am sorry about that. And I am sorry I wasn’t there with you when you found out about it.”, the woman said honestly.
“Tis alright, girl. Really. You had your own plate full, as I recall. A breakup with Delia must have been devastating for you. Was surprised to see his daughter here, a girl by the name; Moira. Very pretty. Very strong. And very stubborn —in an endearingly mule-headed way! Delia always did attract women with those particular qualities for some reason.”, he said with another grin.
The beautiful woman looked down at the old gnome with amusement.
“Flattery will get you everywhere.”, she said with a pursed smile.
“My thoughts, exactly.”, chuckled Nimbletyne.
“Alright.”, the woman said, all-business. “Who must I wrestle here to get some attention? Who’s arm must I bend?”
“You require little to garner attention, my dear. Years have barely noticed you.”, the gnome’s grin widened.
The woman sighed.
“You are going to drag this as far as it can go, aren’t you?”, she said, but not without a certain amount of amused resignation.
“But of course, my dear. And your ‘pretty’, will fully justify my sins on this account! For the sake of saving some time, however, going to the sheriff’s office should speed things up for you. At least on this side of the river. Couldn’t speak for the elves, though. You should know how they are, by now; arrogant, conceited, condescending, sniffy, snooty, stuffy, and stuck-up.. pretty much in that order!”
“Nimbletyne..”, the woman said with a note of reproval.
“Ow, I am sorry, sweetheart, I wasn’t aware we were putting on a public face.. For them, you should probably go and talk to your daughter. I must say, she is quite the will-full girl —in an endearingly mule-headed way.. I must congratulate you on a job well done, there, Dine, she has everything an elf has, and none of the things they shouldn’t. It’s like the Great Heavens dissected the perfect elf, tossed out all the bitchy parts, and named her, Alor’Nadien ne! Never seen a girl as pretty and still be honestly and earnestly dignified and down to earth about it. If she, at this very moment, pointed one pink finger in any direction and said, ‘That way..’, all the elves and the Arashkan refugees will pick up whatever sword, shield, or stick they can find and charge that way! And that’s over fifteen thousand high elves, over eighty thousand Arashkan refugees, not including their militia and their regulars, several thousand wood elves, and no one really knows how many of the fey-folk!”
A surprised and pleased expression lit the beautiful face of Nadina Graciousward.
“Finally. Has she thus decided to be her destiny?”
✱ ✱ ✱
Biberbell knew she was on an important mission because she was told, she was on an important mission.. by no other than the Ritual Guardian herself! Hence she ignored all the ogling Mortals as she flew through the Mortals’ town they named Serenity Home, which did sound like a place where elderly people would reside. Biberbell was likely the only creature around to have noticed the irony of Mortals naming their town after a place for the elderly since only they would grow old and inevitably die.. The only problem with that would be, Biberbell probably didn’t know what irony was, and even if she did, she’d stay well away from it.. since it had ‘iron’ in it!
With a serious, all-business-like frown on her tiny face, she flew up to the sheriff’s office with a trail of sparkling pixie dust, drew her toothpick height up to an impressive, toothpick and a pint, and knocked on the ‘massive’ door.
Possibly because the stupid Mortals were also too deaf to hear her minute fists banging on a door, many scores of times bigger than her!
Then she darted over to the tiny, barred window near the gigantic door and peered inside. There were several Mortals inside, all wearing iron clothes and carrying sharp, iron swords. Biberbell scowled at them in disgust.
Then she took a handful of her pixie dust, weaved it into a gossamer spell, pointed her tiny little index finger at one of the dumb Mortals; the one nearest to the door, and released it.
The dumb Mortal gave a surprised sort of grunt, turned around, and opened the door that he thought was being pounded—
—to come face to face with a tiny little thingy!
“What the..”, he said in astonishment and made a grab for it..
“Hands off, you uncouth clod twerp!”, Biberbell piped!
The Mortal froze..
..and a whole lot of merry laughter came from inside the sheriff’s office.
“That’s a new one, Anderson!”, laughed one.
“Indeed. Your ability to rile women of all sizes is astounding..”, chuckled another.
“Hey, clod twerp! ‘Sup man!”, snickered a third.
Mortal Guard Anderson flushed furiously and turned around to mouth off his fellow guards when another voice was heard, and this one did not laugh, nor snicker. In this voice, there was a definitive, commanding rumble.
“Please invite Miss Biberbell, the fey-folk liaison, if you will, Mr. Anderson.”, the rumbling voice said.
“Liaison Biberbell, this way please.”, the young guard, Anderson, said politely, though he was very much flushed.
“Well. At least you are acceptably behaved.”, sniffed Biberbell. “Hence I shall apologize for my impromptu reaction. You may call upon me for one favor that is within my ability to attain or accomplish.”
“There really isn’t any need, Liaison Biberbell. I made a grab for you, and that was very rude of me. I would think what I did and got in return, are fully justified.”, Anderson mumbled.
Biberbell stared at the young man for a moment and amended that perhaps not all of these Mortals were lummoxes after all.
She flew closer to him and with a patronizing tone, she said, “Give me your hand!”
“Uhhmm..”, the young man hesitated. “Am I going to get it back?”
“We fey rarely give without taking, but never take without giving!”, she sniffed. “Give me your hand, boy!”
Resigned to his predicament, young Anderson opened his hand and showed the tiny sprite his palm.
Biberbell carefully placed a red bug with white spots into his palm.
“Uhhmm.. a ladybug?”, he said a bit confused.
“Yes. That’s what you Mortals call it. Keep it safe and feed it greens and your home will always be free of infectious pests and always be warded from deploring emotions..”, she squeaked.
“Ow. Wow! Thank you. My sister will love this. It will be good to see her smile again!”, Anderson’s face lit with elation as he stepped aside and let the tiny fey in.
All the other guards crowded around the young man and stared at the tiny ladybug with undisguised wonder, as it crawled along the fate-lines etched in the palm.
Biberbell swooped into the office, careful never to get anywhere near all the iron racks holding all the long, iron spears and armors and shields and all sorts of other iron things, and came into a, relatively, much smaller office, where two, very large Mortals, one sitting behind a desk, another standing across him and on the other side of the same desk. There was a third thing in the office who was possibly the only one who wasn’t a Mortal. Biberbell scowled, for she knew what this one was; one of them pretty she-demons, and the reason why all the little fey-folk were in this town!
“Liaison Biberbell. We are glad to see you here.”, said one of the large men. The one sitting behind the desk. “May I offer you some refreshments, perhaps? We have—”
“—I am sorry Sir Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, but your Mortal beverages are not suited for my taste—”
“—Sugar Cane Juice—”
“—GIMME!”, Biberbell piped!
Without cracking a smile, Standorin pulled open a drawer in his desk, using just two fingers, he carefully pulled out a very, very tiny and delicate glass cup, and from a relatively small bottle, he counted a drop or three in the cup and pushed it across the table with the care only a midwife would show during a delivery!
Biberbell swooped down, not unlike a hawk would on a fat, juicy rabbit, grabbed the cup, and drank its content with alarming lust.
“What will I owe you for another, Sir Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart?”, she asked eagerly.
Standorin wordlessly poured her another.
Biberbell topped that one as well, then stared at the sheriff with a flushed face, a silly grin, and slightly off eyes, then squinted at the tall, non-Mortal she-demons standing behind him, then back at the sheriff.
“You, Sir, sure know how to treat the women around you!”, she said, her voice happily slurred..
..then toppled over and dropped, face down, on the desk!
There was a moment of awkward silence and Constance sighed.
“And this is why you should always bargain with the fey-folk, sir.”, she said with an amused voice, mixed with resignation.
Standorin stared at the tiny thing snoring on his desk!
“Well..”, he said. “That went well..”
The other large man snorted.
The sheriff scowled at him.
“This is not a laughing matter, boy. And it certainly isn’t funny.”, he growled.
“I am sorry, father. But it sure looked that way from here.”, Udoorin chuckled, though he seemed somewhat tired too. “How distilled is the juice in that bottle?”
“I don’t know. I asked for the best the innkeeper had to offer when I went to buy it. I wasn’t going to serve some cheap snot to the fey!”, Standorin rumbled.
Constance sighed again.
“What?”, he asked.
“The best would mean he gave you ‘pure’ sugar cane juice, sir.”, she said.
“You didn’t so much as make our little liaison, here, roaring drunk, you made her comatose..”, she replied, stifling a laugh.
“Ow..”, Standorin said with a flushed face. “Well, what do we do now?”
“Mix some clear rainwater into the bottle. A spoon for spoon ratio should suffice.”, she said smiling.
“No, I mean, about her!”, the sheriff fumed.
“Ahh.. Do you perhaps have any rosemint tea at hand?”, she inquired.
“Rosemint, what? I am sorry Liaison Constance. I don’t even know what that is. I only drink coffee.”, he scowled.
Constance sighed once more.
“Some water and a bit of cotton, then?”
“We have water and lots of cotton and bandages.”, he said and from the same drawer, he pulled a steel canteen and rolls of bandages and a linen pouch full of cotton and put them on the desk.
“And a box, please. About wee big..”, she said, pointing at the sleeping little sprite.
Standorin frowned, took one of the parchment docks on his desk, dumped its content, and gave that to the tall half-born girl.
Constance placed the parchment dock on the desk and carefully lined it with one of the rolls of bandages, then padded it with cotton. Then she took the canteen, tried to pull open the cap.. but failed. She looked down at Standorin meaningfully.
“Must you plug every bottle and every jar so tightly? Is there some manly code about it that I am not aware of?”, she said with a frown.
Udoorin barely avoided a snort.
His father gave him a searing glare, wordlessly took the canteen, with an easy twist, pulled the cap off, and handed it back to her.
The tall, alluring girl parted a bit more of the cotton, and wet it with the water from the canteen, then dripped a careful drop or two on the sleeping little sprite.
“What! No! I didn’t do it!”, Biberbell yelped as she sat up like she was stung!
“Biberbell. You came here for a reason. What was it?”, Constance asked hastily.
“What?”, spluttered the tiny sprite. “I am on an important mission, that’s what! She is coming! The Ritual Guardian is coming very soon and wants preparations made to accept Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig of Oger’s Foot immediately! They will arrive at the Blooming Tree at noon! I was also told—”
That’s as far as she got before she fell back, curled into a tiny, sparkling ball, and started to snore!
Constance reached down and very gently, she scooped up the tiny thing and placed her in the cotton-filled parchment dock. Then she picked up the dock and put it on one of the higher filing drawers, and out of sight.
“She should be safe there. Have one of the windows slightly ajar so she doesn’t feel trapped and panic when she wakes up.”, she said kindly.
“Noon, huh?”, growled Standorin. “It is bloody noon, and we are supposed to prepare to entertain the chieftain of the ogres? This is going to be one wretched day, this will. I am sure of it!”
“Your scowl is impressive, sir. But please do not use it on the chieftain. She represents at least five thousand of her kind. A like amount if she calls more from the Rook Mountains, should you offend her. If such an unfortunate friction occurs, I fear you will lose more than half the forces you have here, including the elves, before you subdue her and her kin.”, she said. Then added, “And please do not test her as you tested me upon my arrival.”
“You are never going to let that go, are you, Liaison Constance? I did say I was sorry. Took you out to dinner, even, to make up for my blunder.”, Standorin said with a flustered face.
“I never held your faults against you, sir. But this is the part where I do my job, as a liaison, and advice. And you did not take me out to dinner as part of your apology. You took me out on a date.”, she replied calmly.
Udoorin coughed again.
“Sorry.”, he said with a grin. “Still recuperating from my wounds. There are bound to be a cough or six!”
Standorin scowled some more.
“Come, dear, sir. I believe we have a chieftain to entertain.”, Constance smiled warmly at him. “I think a score or so of your men should suffice as an entourage and impress upon her just how seriously you take her, which you should. Young Inshala spoke quite highly of her, and one should never dismiss that girl’s wisdom.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Someone coughed from the other side of the door and Lilly Venom snapped open her eyes. She gave a very quick glance around to absorb her surrounding, made sure she was alone, looked down to see there were a pair of very old, very sharp, nearly shortsword size daggers in both her hands. One might even call them ancient. She wondered just exactly where her elder brother, Aager, had found these daggers. They were elegant, perfectly balanced, impressively sharp, and never seem to chip nor blunt no matter how hard she stabbed or slashed at something. Whatever else her brother was, he sure knew how to bribe a girl, apparently.
Then she looked further down and noted she was also pretty much naked.
Armed and naked!
Sounded like the title of one of those soppy romance books young men seemed to like.. or girls.. The kind you read under the table, or when you knew you were alone.
But then, Lilly had only recently discovered just how much she enjoyed sleeping in naked abandon and cuddled with her hubby, ‘Sir Agent Largo’, as the little girl, Inshala, called him, to his great dismay.
Said Sir Agent Largo certainly didn’t seem to mind her new sleeping arrangements, she thought smugly.
“Ahem..”, came the coughing voice, again.
‘D.D. Dexter..’, she thought. Her hubby’s son. He was a decent young man. A bit on the stuffy side, but decent.. Enough to share his home and his food with them until the war would end and they would get a place for themselves.
“I am sorry to wake you, Lilly.”, the young man said sincerely. “I know you have been up late, training rookies all night, and need your rest..”
‘That’s not all I did all night long, boy, and your father will concur!’, she smirked quietly.
“..but the good sheriff sent word; if you’d be kind enough to grab yourself and your hubby, picked a good spot, and made sure certain people behaved! —his exact words.”
Lilly Venom frowned.
What the ‘good’ sheriff had meant was, hide somewhere and kill anyone who steps out of line..
Lilly’s face soured.
She had decided to never do that kind of job when she had looked at Largo and figured she’d liked him. Enough to spend the rest of her life with him.. way back when they were sailing from the burning city of Arashkan to here.
Then she sighed.
Apparently, there was a price for everything worth it..
And this was hers to pay.
All of that, she didn’t mind. Not as much as she did when the ‘good’ sheriff also dragged her hubby into it and put his life on the line as well..
“When I said, spend the rest of my life as ‘partner in crime’, I was speaking metaphorically!”, she fumed.
Then she sighed again..
What was done, was done.
Some people earned their place peacefully.
Apparently, she was never going to earn hers quite that malleably, but as bloody as possible —just like any good Drashan girl would!
“Well. At least I am armed for the occasion.. if not quite clothed..”, she muttered.
Then she said, to the door, and the young man behind it;
“Be right there..”, she said, putting a deliberate, cheery tone to her voice as she put on her clothes and further armed herself. “..and thank you, Dexter.”
✱ ✱ ✱
What do you mean, I hope they let us in?”, squeaked the scruffy-looking little gnomic girl. “I thought you came through here, before.”
“I did.”, replied the bushy-haired hobbit sort of evasively as he stared at the distant ‘rock’, lost in the clouds; the sight of Gull’s Perch had lost nothing of its beauty in the last eighteen years. The little hobbit felt a pang in his heart as he stared at the majesty of the naturally formed, spirally column, some half-mile at its base and climbing all the way up to the vivid blue winter sky and disappeared in the mists.
Brom Bumblebrim ‘thought’ he heard the lone, sorrowful cry of the gigantic, pristine-white gull perched up at the very top of that rock, hence the name, Gull’s Perch, though he doubted anyone else knew why it was called so.
“Rest in peace, lovely Aremela Berrybush.”, he murmured quietly.
“Say, whot?”, asked the scruffy gnomic girl.
“Nothing, Tonic. And when I said, I came through here, I mean it in a more, generalized sense. I came as far as seeing the town from the edge of the forest, but never went in it.”, Brom admitted.
“You came all the way to the edge of this town and didn’t even bother to enter? Duuuude!”, Arcantonic Palecog asked incredulously.
“The time wasn’t ripe.”, shrugged the hobbit.
“Leave him alone, luv.”, said the very tall, very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, from behind, in a hushed voice as she followed the hobbits gaze and also stared at the beautiful sight of the Perch. “I believe there is a history here of personnel nature. And if Master Brom believes the time wasn’t ripe, it probably wasn’t.”
“What she said.”, said a fourth voice, soft and sort of throaty, or perhaps a bit hoarse. Like someone who’d been shouting in the dead of winter for too long; Cora Sleet came at the rear, her pouting scowl in place and her long, glossy white, braided hair playing tag behind her. “It’s a good thing those rangers we encountered recognized a tundra elf when they saw one.”, she huffed. “You would think we were something of a legend.”
“But my dear, Cora. You are a legend.. On a uniquely singular level.”, smiled Brom.
“Are you flattering me or punning me, hobbit! It’s hard to tell.”, scowled the tundra elf.
“I never pun anyone I can’t outrun, my dear girl.”, the hobbit said with a grin, even though she couldn’t see it.
“Huh. You can’t outrun anything!”, she replied, squinting at her bushy little friend.
“Ow.. Harsh, girl. Very harsh.”, snarked Tonic. “I mean, I felt it stab all the way from here. Did you feel that too, Brom? Bet you did..”
Brom lost his grin and sighed.
“Girl, you are killing me. I was flattering you. I mean, what is there not to flatter; you are a uniquely singular legend!”
“Now I know, you are punning me!”, Cora scowled. “But you managed to squeeze unique and legend in the same sentence, twice. So I shall let that one pass. Wow, that is a lot of refugees!”
The odd, unlikely four came out of the south end of Ritual Forest and saw the vast encampment of refugees stretching as far as the eye could see in either direction and it was very noisy. Brom saw troops marching up and down, children crying or running around, cooking fires everywhere with pots, pans, and cauldrons of whatever size was available, boiling soup and stew. Though there was a semblance of order, the refugees of Arashkan all looked lost, mournful, dejected, angry, and miserable.
Brom didn’t linger. He took the shortest route possible to the long, stone bridge stretching over Arashkan River and leading to Serenity Home town..
..and found himself facing a score or so armed-to-the-teeth dwarves, mounted on similarly armored, pony-sized goats, their horns shod with sharp, serrated steel.
And they seemed like they would not let anyone in without a goring them, or taking a sizeable bite!
“Lamark Earthbound at your service. Name and business, please?”, grunted the leading dwarf.
“Responding to an urgent summons, sir. We will reveal our identities when appropriate. Suffice to say, I represent Bowling Hills, the elf lady represents the tribes from the Great Northern Tundras and the other two ladies represent the Academy of Melshieve.”, replied Brom promptly as Tonic huddled right behind him while Cora glanced at the dwarves with professional coolness and Seressa stared at their goats with interest.
The dwarf stared down at him, then at the gnomic girl, then at the elf, and finally, and with quiet deliberation, at the tall girl in her scandalous pinks.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere? Are you, perchance, Master Brom Bumblebrim?”, the dwarf asked.
“Maybe.”, Brom cautioned.
“You don’t seem so sure..”, noted the dwarf.
“Depends on what will happen if I am, perchance, said Brom Bumblebrim..”, replied Brom.
The dwarf shrugged.
“If you were, you’d be the troublesome hobbit who tasked my mother, Margaret Madish, something vicious some years back and then killed my brother some few months ago.”, he said gruffly.
“Then I probably should not be said Master Brom Bumblebrim, seeing as how it might be detrimental to my health if I were.”, Brom replied, even more carefully. “But if said hobbit did, indeed, tasked your mother, Lady Margaret, he did so because he thought every inch of her was worthy of the task. And if he also killed your brother, said brother probably had it coming.”
Tonic snickered from behind.
“Yea, he totally had it coming.. The gnarled, slimy bastard!”
The dwarf snorted.
“Perchance you should enter, then.”, he said. “Go on. Report to Sheriff Standorin, though. All representatives must.”
And nudged his giant, angry-looking goat-mount out of the way.
“If I may, Master Lamark. Are Dridges Motherswolfie and the Tosser twins here? Or even Lillias Absentwhot, and Jeina Blond?.. Perchance?”, Brom asked.
“Perchance they are. Along with their mother and our grandfather, Argail Smitefast, who will very much want to meet the hobbit who tasked his dear and beloved daughter with something thus vicious!”, Lamark grinned at him. “Our dear sisters Lillias and Jeina are not, though. As per said vicious task, they are at the outpost east of Gull’s Perch.”, he added. Then he looked behind him and his grin turned to a polite, appreciative smile.
“Lovely pinks, by the way..”
✱ ✱ ✱
The large tent’s flaps parted and the large, young man entered without challenge. He looked around and noted the tent had been quite lavishly furnished and decorated; several backless elven chairs, a moderate-sized table, any number of cushions carelessly thrown around, two densely embroidered tapestries depicting some beautiful trees, deers, and birds, the ground was covered with soft, thick, rich maroon, very expensive carpets, many lanterns gave the interior of the tent, a certain, fairy glow, and several braziers radiated enough heat to warm the place to a comfortable level. The other end of the tent was partitioned off; the sleeping quarters of the Queen of Bari Na-ammen.
Udoorin pulled off his great helmet and tossed it near one of the heaps of cushions, undid the knots, and carelessly dropped his cape as he walked, pulled off both his massive battle-axes and stabbed them into the carpets without so much as taking notice..
And pulled apart the partition..
..to see something he’d never seen before but had wondered.
Alor’Nadien ne Feymist lay, sprawled on a bed of silks and velvets and in a black, gossamer gown, her slender back curved and her youthful, smooth hips rather calling..
..and she was totally out.
Udoorin stared down at the girl he’d loved the moment he had seen her, and of the beautiful sight, he notes the ugly bruises, the gauntness, the totally limp and exhausted arms and legs, and the, quiet but steady, wheezy quality in her soft breathing.
It broke his heart to see her like this.
She was a princess, dammit!
She was a queen now. Declared unanimously, by the high elves, the moment the two of them had limped up the Arashkan River and to the banks of Serenity Home.
In his life, he had never seen such manic and holy joy in a crowd, let alone elves. In fear for her life, he had so wanted to just grab her and runoff, as tired and done-for as he’d been.
But with a few, curt commands, the much-elated elves had settled down, and several people had approached them; his father, Sheriff Standorin, in the lead, accompanied by a tall, pretty-looking young woman with horns, whom he would later learn was the Liaison Constance of the half-born, whatever that was, followed closely by a grim-looking Aager and a happily crying Inshala, and Lady Lenna who’d also very nearly crumbled down and cried, standing next to a very tall, blonde high elf in very eloquent armor. Then he had seen a grinning Thomas, holding Bremorel by the waist and Udoorin was like, “What the.. Thomas is so dead, now!”
And behind them were rows upon rows of joyously chorusing elven warriors, some fifteen thousand of them;
RISE ALOR’NADIEN NE!
RISE ALOR’NADIEN NE!
RISE ALOR’NADIEN NE!
At that very moment, Udoorin knew he wasn’t a hundred percent, but vaguely he recalled ‘Rise’ was elfish for ‘Queen’..
“About time, you snobs!”, he’d muttered to himself.
He couldn’t exactly remember the rest, though. Only someone was trying to take his Lorna away from him and he was trying to stop them.
It had been Lady Lenna, Lorna’s cousin, who had neared him and said, “Dear boy, it’s alright. Your queen needs care and rest. I shall see to her needs personally and be there at her side, always. You go with your father and Master Aager. You will need similar care, and rest. No one should see either of you drop. Come now, young Udoorin, let her go.. That’s it. Nice and easy.. There..”
Funny, how he had trusted his Lorna to no other than Anglenna, then..
Apparently, spilling sweat and blood and ultimately, life, did form that very special bond.
That was the extent of the surreal events, as far as he could remember. Something had happened.. sometime and somewhere between the Arashkan sewers and waking up in a very pretty valley. He was out of his armor and his shirt and his pants were all bloody and he felt a certain, sizzle in his heart, but he’d supposed that was to be expected. After all, he was told he had been very severely wounded and lost a lot of blood, and had very nearly died, but was saved by no other than his Lorna, which was no surprise.
His Lorna was awesome, like that..
Except there were two problems with that. One, he couldn’t remember who had told him of all the events leading up to his waking up in that pretty valley, other than remembering a rich, throaty, mature, and distinctly feminine voice, and two, Lorna had stopped talking to him. Well, not precisely stopped talking to him, but had been decidedly evasive of him. Sure, she’d kept hovering over him making sure he was not bleeding or anything, but it was clear, she herself was done in. She had been a rather slim girl, to begin with. Not skinny or anything, but comfortably slender and still have very beautiful curves.. When he had woken up in the valley, she seemed little different than how little Inshala seemed, right after she had buried the whole ruins of Themalsar down into the ground!
What had truly hit the young man was, she had stopped looking at him in the eyes.
And that was downright killing him.
Hence, armed to the teeth, he had marched right into the elf camp, expecting to run over anyone who’d be stupid enough to get in his way, had found an extraordinarily neat, military headquarters, teaming with high elves, and all of them had just.. stopped. It had been quite uncanny, really. Wherever he’d passed, they had all stopped, turned to him, put their right hands over their hearts, solemnly nodded at him, and murmured;
“Mere Estel Aranië..”
Udoorin knew very few elvish words. And the only one he thought he knew had been Aranië.. or rather, Ara.. or maybe it was Aran.. which meant noble, or maybe even king. He’d certainly hoped it meant noble. He was fine with noble.. Just not with a bloody king!
Hence, he’d nodded back at them, in a ‘noble’ sort of way, and came to the largest tent. And there he saw the same tall, blonde elf with his eloquent armor —damn that armor looked awesome— talking with Lady Lenna.
“I would like to see Lady Lorna.”, he’d asked and the blonde elf dude, his awesome armor, and Lady Lenna had just stared at him.
“Are you asking us, you want to enter the queen’s tent, young Udoorin, or are you merely being polite and informing us that you are going to see your queen?”, Lady Lenna had asked, staring directly into his eyes.
Udoorin had suddenly gotten the uneasy feeling that he was just about to be scored depending on the answer he would give. At least, that’s how Lady Lenna had made it sound like.
“Uhhmm.. I am telling you I want to see Lorna?”, he had sort of said.
“The tent is yours, young Udoorin. So is the Queen. She has thus declared it by having chosen you as her mate, just as you have made a similar declaration when the two of you announced your betrothment.”, Anglenna had told him with slight amusement. Then she’d half turned and introduced the blonde elf dude and his awesome armor, “Ow, this is Commander Armathelius Riverblade, the leader of the high elves, here, by the way. The two of you should have a sit-down and get to know one another some time.”
“Mere Estel Aranië..”, the elf had said to him and nodded, also placing his right hand on his heart.
‘Again, with the Aranië-thing!’, Udoorin had fumed but politely nodded at him and his armor, and murmured, “As soon as I am sure Lady Lorna is doing well. She has suffered a lot. I hope you understand.”
The blonde elf had merely nodded at him but hadn’t said anything.
“We will be out here. Do call us if you need anything.”, Lady Lenna had said politely.
Something was decidedly going on here, Udoorin had conceded.
“Lorna.”, he whispered, which sounded more like a hoarse rumble, really.
The gaunt form of Lorna didn’t even nudge and the only thing that gave away she had any life in her limp figure was the soft, wheezy sound of her breath and her skin had gained some of her ‘baby-tan’ color back.
“I am so sorry, Dorin.. I should have told you..”
“What?”, he said.
And noticed, she was still lights-all-out, asleep.
And it hit him.
She was thinking of leaving him!
That’s why she was sorry.
A terrible expression came over his face.
Just plain, childish fear.
“If you want to leave me, I will not stand in your way and make it difficult for you. But I would rather you said it to my face. That way, I will get to see your eyes one last time.”, he said with a desperate voice, turned around, grabbed his helmet, his axes..
“I apologize for the carpet.”
..he said to a rather surprised Lady Lenna and was out of the elven military camp.
Udoorin felt drained.
Tired physically, mentally, and emotionally.
And he didn’t want to go back to town.
Not that he cared about the gossip or anything, that he had just been abandoned by the elven queen. To what he felt at the loss of his Lorna, that particular gossip meant so little.
Hence, he turned direction and headed north.
Perhaps getting lost in the woods for a few days, maybe even a week or two would help settle his storming heart.
That’s when he felt the sizzle again.
It wasn’t painful, per se, but very, very, very bothersome.
Like something that truly reminded, just how short life could really be.
“You look troubled.”
He heard a voice say.
He was a tad surprised to see Bremorel grinning at him.
He wasn’t surprised to see Bremorel.
He was surprised to see her grinning, something quite rare, and whenever it was sighted, it meant something bad was about to happen, no matter how one looked at it!
“..like someone who swallowed a bug.”, she said, still grinning.
“Uhhmm.. I am not really in the mood, Bree.”, he mumbled.
“Well, I am, so all is fine.”
“Is Thomas still alive?”, he asked.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”, she asked back.
“I thought I saw him holding you, the day me and.. Lorna came back. I thought to myself, ‘Man, you are so dead, no one will be able to save you, now!'”
“I suppose that is true. No one can save him from me, indeed. Never got the chance to tell you. Thomas and I got married!”, she said happily.
Udoorin felt thunderstruck!
“When? How?”, he spluttered.
“About three and a half months ago, when you lot were in Arashkan.”, she smirked.
“Wow. Thomas finally managed to brave up? I am.. pleasantly surprised.”, the young man said.
“Well. He worked hard for it. Worked hard to fix me too. I can not undo the things I did before. But at least I can do new things. Smarter things. And he is there to back me up. We live in the temple. I go around helping and smiling now, which makes all the other people decide to give me a second chance. I know they don’t have to. But they are doing it anyway. So I am trying hard not to mess it up again.”, she said.
“I am happy for you, Bree. I really am. I know we didn’t start off well and it was all my stupidity. But even then, you chose to forgive me and be my friend. I knew you were cool. A bit hot-headed, but cool.”
“You did come and apologize to Laila and my uncle for what you did.”, Bremorel reminded him.
“Of course, I apologized. You would have too if you’d gotten a trashing from my father. Damn, he had a heavy hand. After he put you in that hole to cool off, he came home and gave me the speech.. and the beating of my life!”, Udoorin said with a horrified expression on his face. “I mean, it’s been years and I can still hear the ringing in my right ear!”
Bremorel laughed again.
Then as if remembering something she said, “Oh my, you have been out of touch for so long, you probably don’t have any updates. Here, let me fill you in; Lady returned first, but didn’t stay. She left for Scowling Hills to fix some family business there. Then these half-borns arrived.”
“Half-borns. I have heard that word, and I think that Liaison lady hanging around dad is a half-born.”, mused Udoorin.
“Yes, accept there are quite a bit more of them. I am not allowed to reveal their numbers or capabilities right now but they can be quite a handful when they want to. They are like our Merisoul. It would seem she helped them escape their masters so they all came here to help fight their former masters and the Orken. A few weeks back, that Anglenna elf girl came crashing into the town, and when I say, crashing, I mean it literally. The only problem with that was, according to Lady, you and Lorna were supposed to be with her, yet neither of you were. She was quite badly wounded and sick for weeks. Then Aager and Inshala returned from Durkahan and it seems they have also married!”
“Well. That one was only a matter of time. I am happy for him. And her. Neither had a happy life. Together, I think they can have one.”, Udoorin said thoughtfully.
“A few days after that, Lilly Venom came with a man named Largo who turned out to be D.D. Dexter’s father.”, she continued.
“I met him. When Anglenna, Lorna, and I were at Arashkan.”, Udoorin said. “I am happy they both survived.
“Ow, they survived alright. Enough to get married!”, Bremorel snickered.
“Is everyone getting married?”, the young man asked and that particular topic seemed to sting him all of a sudden.
The ranger lieutenant shrugged.
“I suppose, people are more honest with one another when imminent and total annihilation is at your door.”
“So it’s only Laila, Gnine, and Soul who haven’t returned?”, he asked.
Bremorel paused there.
“What is it, Bree? Have you heard something?”, Udoorin asked.
“I.. We don’t know exactly how, but the half-born somehow learned.. Merisoul is gone, Udoorin. They were.. devastated..”, she said mutely.
“How? How did it happen?”, he asked.
“We really don’t know. They won’t even say ‘dead’.. only ‘gone’.. like she stopped existing..”
“She was nice to me. Always. She was strange, but her advice always helped, in some odd, unexplainable way.”
“Yea, she was weird. But to stop existing? She.. she didn’t deserve that.. All she wanted was some peace at heart..”
“Some peace at heart is more than most could find in a life time. Hello, young Udoorin, Ranger Lieutenant Songsteel.”, said a cultured, baritone voice, and the blonde elf dude and his awesome armor appeared out of the trees.
Udoorin was too at a loss to notice either, though.
True, Merisoul had always been strange. Or perhaps, off. Or even ‘out of this world’, sort of girl, but she’d had one of the purest hearts he had ever noticed. One could almost call it child-like.. Her means had been convoluted, to be sure, but the ends were not. And on top of everything, this particular news did not settle well with him at all.
“Back off, elf.”, growled Bremorel. “This is a private conversation between friends.”
“I apologize ranger lieutenant. But I believe Mere Estel Aranië overrules friendship. Sir Udoorin can not be left to roam alone in the woods. I am sure anyone you would care to ask would concur.”, Armathelius replied calmly.
Bremorel scowled at him.
“Well, I am already here, and this conversation does not need a third wheel.”, she growled.
“But it could use a fourth, perhaps? That way, it will less likely topple over and no one will get hurt..”, said another voice, and Anglenna also came into view.
Bremorel’s face turned black, now.
“I remember quite clearly just what I had said, should I want your opinion, banshee! You have been nothing but trouble from the moment you stepped foot into our town!”, she snarled at Anglenna.
“I believe the word you used was ‘bitch’, not ‘banshee’. But in all fairness, I have been more than trouble, and much before I set foot in this town, young Bremorel, so when I say, I had the worst intentions in mind for my cousin, Alor’Nadien ne, young Udoorin, here, your own cousin, Laila, the irritating little gnome, your half-demon freak, Merisoul, and just to be on the safe side, Master Aager, I mean it at its greatest extend. I am telling you this, so you do not delude yourself into believing your feelings for me is a simple matter of distaste on my part or some character flaw on yours.”, Anglenna replied calmly.
“I don’t believe that.”, Udoorin rumbled suddenly.
“Then you are as naive now as you were when we first met, young man.”, she said with a very distant voice.
“It is possible I am naive. But no. Not in this case.. You only thought you should have ill feelings for Lorna, but such feelings were introduced to you and impressed upon you.. You based your feeling for the rest of us on top of that; me for wanting Lorna’s love, even though I was not even aware she was a princess at the time, Laila, for having been given that sacred elf bow, Aager, because he is bloody dangerous, Merisoul, for always speaking uncanny truths and revealing what everyone actually felt, as opposed to what came out of their mouths, and Gnine, for being irritating, which is the only one you got right. The little midget is irritating! The pranks he pulled on me in the last six or eight years have made me want to toss him right into the Arashkan River, and that isn’t even a joke!”, Udoorin replied.
The three just stared at him.
“Who are you and what the Hell did you do with the real Udoorin?”, said Bremorel with an astonishing frown.
Anglenna tried a few attempts to object, just nothing came out!
Armathelius opted to stay his silence, though a bemused sort of smile played on his lips.
“Told you, you would fail, should you try and judged him at face value, cousin.”, came a soft, slightly wheezy voice, and with absolute silence, Alor’Nadien ne appeared.
“What are you doing out here and alone, Nadien ne?”, Anglenna said with a decidedly reproving tone.
“I have been out and alone long enough to want no more of it, cousin. I am here because I dreamt of my Dorin. In my dream, he had come and visited me, yet when I woke up, he wasn’t there. His cape, however, was.. I kindly asked our rangers to track you down, then leave. So they did. I believe I have some things to discuss with my mate-to-be if you would give us a few moments of privacy.”
Anglenna was about to object when Armathelius smashed one mailed fist on his armor and in his baritone voice, he said, “As my Queen wishes. We shall be but some acceptable yards away. Lady Brightleaf, if you will?”
Anglenna gave him a sour look but caved.
“I shall take my leave as well, then. Though I had actually come here to tell you something else. But since everyone I was charged to inform is already here, I might as well say it now.. Udoorin, Lorna, Lord Armathelius, and you, Anglenna, are invited to join a meeting at the mayor’s office, on the second toll, this afternoon. This shall be an important meeting so no skipping town, I am afraid. Everyone of note shall be there, and no platoons of guards, please. Only two for Lorna. Aager and I shall be guarding Udoorin.”
“What the.. I don’t require guards, Bree. And if you and Aager do it, there’ll be no end to that one!”, fumed Udoorin.
“Shut up, Udoorin! Not like I wanted Aager, either, but my Thomas will be there representing the temple and the temple guardians..”
“Who else is coming?”, Udoorin asked slightly freaked.
“You, Lorna, Lord Armathelius, Anglenna, Master Argail Smitefast of the dwarves, his daughter, and possibly Lady Magella and their strategist, Dridges Motherswolfie. Davien and Moorat will speak for the rangers. Arthandos Yuleman will be there, naturally, as the host and speak for the town and the Arashkan refugees, the Ogress Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth from Oger’s Foot, some gnomes from Tinker Hills, your father, Sheriff Standorin, our Inshala as the Ritual Guardian and as the representative of all the druids, shamans and the witches, Perigren Ostlanna Temez and Liaison Constance will speak for the half-born. A Lady Alisia Hooman and our Moira from Durkahan, some wizards from Vodgar, militia generals from Palantine, bigwig knights from Koruxan, elves from Solace and Tranquil, two representatives from the Academy of Melshieve, some lord from Endless Watch, a barbarian princess from the Northern Tundras, if you can believe that, not to mention our Nimbletyne Tinkerdome and your mother, Lorna, Lady Nadina Graciousward will all be there, along with a representative from the king himself.. Hell, there will even be a bloody pirate from Drashan!.. The whole town has been put on the highest alert. So whatever issues you two got, you have less than an hour to fix it!”
A chocking silence fell, for the list of people, places, and representatives the ranger lieutenant had just dished out was not only impressive in number but it bespoke of the importance and the direness of their true predicament.
“My mother has returned, then?”, Lorna asked, sounding slightly relieved.
“Just this morning, I believe. I am not privy to the details, but I suspect the two of you will have time later to catch up.”, Bremorel replied. “Well, I am off for now, though Thomas did ask me to invite the two of you over for dinner sometime. Funny how he can think of all this stuff and I can’t!”
..and she took off with an impressive dash.
“My Queen. Mere Estel Aranië..”, Armathelius very politely nodded at the two of them, kindly held out a hand for Anglenna, who gave him another sour look, but followed him anyway, though quietly fuming.
Udoorin stood awkwardly, staring at, not his own feet, but at the feet of the girl, he’d loved the moment he’d set eyes on her as if to make sure she was still there.
“You forgot your cape, Dorin. Tis a tad cold to be wandering the woods in the dead of winter without a cape. You lost a lot of blood. You will freeze before know it.”, Lorna said, as she produced his cloak, neatly folded. Her voice weary, very tired, and had.. to Udoorin’s confused surprise, fear!
“That’s a new cape. How would you know it was mine?”, he asked, though to make conversation, really.
“I know my mate’s warmth. I know his scent..”, she replied softly but with a determined voice.
That simple phrasing very nearly concussed the young man and stung at the same time.
“Why would you say that, if you are planning on leaving me?”, he asked with the simplicity of a child.
“Leaving you?”, Lorna very nearly gasped.
“You have been avoiding me since I woke up in that valley. You have barely spoken to me. And you sure as Hell haven’t looked me in the eye once, since then and it’s killing me! I am fully aware of my standing and certainly not up to your elf standards. But I would rather you be honest with me to the end because we always have had that, at least.. Perhaps I did something when I was out. I do not know. You must tell me what it is that I have and is bothering you. How else can I work on it, if you don’t tell me? If you want to leave, I will not make it difficult for you. You are the Queen now, while I am just a country bumpkin.. I have never demanded anything from you. Only and always your good grace and the smile on your face. I was never quite as happy when you made me feel happy, as I felt content when I made you smile because every time you did, I was dancing in my head and shouting like an idiot, ‘Yes! She is smiling. She is happy.. I did that!'”
Lorna did not reply for the longest time.
When she did, her voice was anything but herself. It seethed and boiled and with no small amount of bitterness, she spoke.
“The Hell with the Queen and the Hell with the elves..”, she very nearly snarled.
Udoorin froze and stared at the gentle girl in amazement.
When Lorna spoke again, her voice was low and burning with her words now..
“None of my heritage nor my people were there when I needed them. They honor me now because they need me. And to get me, they must accept you. This they know because I left them no choice. This they know because I gave them no choice. I was chosen by the Spirit of High Woods. I never asked for it, but she chose me anyway. Yet they did nothing to nudge from their ways and look what that befell them. It cost them their lives. It cost them the ways they couldn’t be bothered to change. It cost them Bari Na-ammen and it cost them, High Woods. Never in my life have I acted on self-interest. I abandoned my only home just so they could have their merry ways. And now, all of that is gone, and I am done with their merry ways. Now they will have me with you, or they will all scatter and fade as homeless exiles. Whatever happens, or however this turns out, I am not leaving you, my Dorin. But should you want to leave, I shall not hinder you, either, and the line of Feymist will end with me, for I shall never take another and neither do I wish to birth the seeds of another.. The only man to have met me, and honestly desired me, without even knowing my heritage, is you. Though I gave you my consent and my freedom, you never took advantage of either and you never abused them. And you would think I would want to leave you? Know this, my Udoorin Shieldheart; if there is no you, there shall be no Queen.. I will lead these elves to victory or to annihilation. Either way, I shall not lead them any further than that. Not without you!”
Udoorin gulped. He’d always known or guessed, there was a seething, smoldering, and equally lonely volcano in the young, beautiful woman that he loved. But this was the first time she had thus openly let it all loose.
And deep down somewhere, something wild and exhilarating churned in him. He’d loved Lorna as the calm, gentle girl that she always had been. This burning and very nearly feral girl, however, he suddenly raved to see!
“Then look me in the eyes, and tell me why you are so sorry and what it was that you should have told me, Lorna. You said that when you were asleep when I was there in the tent.”, Udoorin said silently.
Lorna gasped in pure, unadulterated panic.. and fear.
Then her shoulders slumped and she spoke like someone who just submitted to her own execution..
“I.. can’t..”, she moaned, her face aflame and all she could do was stare down. “I did you a great wrong, my Dorin. And the shame I feel burns. You.. you have all the rights to reject me and never look at me again.”
“What..?”, Udoorin said somewhat surprised. “..that you stabbed me? Knew it the moment I saw your blade sticking out of my chest! It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Not something I would want to repeat, but it was funny at that moment.. Is this what all this is about?”
Alor’Nadien ne flinched..
..and broke down.
She just went limp and dropped on the frozen forest ground and wept with uncontrolled abandon..
..but Udoorin was there.
He caught her in his great arms held her by her slender neck and the small of her back and lifted her, and looked her full in the eyes.
Lorna went pale, her cherry-red lips trembling and tear-stricken eyes were very deep green now, as she turned away her face, trying desperately to avoid the young man’s burning eyes..
“You will look me in the eyes, Alor’Nadien ne, the chosen daughter of the Spirit of High Woods, the Queen of elves, and my mate-to-be. You will look me in the eyes and tell me what ails you. Through my sweat and blood, spilled and spent, and through the fires we walked, this much, I have earned..”, he said, and now, his rumbling voice was ablaze too.
“I.. I almost killed you, my love. I almost destroyed your beautiful heart. You gave it to me to care, to nurture and to nourish, and to safe keep and I betrayed you by shredding it! How can I look you in the eyes and expect you to love me?”, she spluttered.
“And just what did I do when we first met, my love? Did I not try to slay you?”, Udoorin growled.
“You did not know. And you held your swing. You stopped. I did not. I very nearly slew you!”, she moaned.
“Never have I ever told you your follies, my dearest Lorna. Never would I have thought the day would come that I would have to. Thus that dreary day has arrived, and I shall speak the truth of the day we met my love, and you shall listen, and you shall accept and you shall understand, also. When Inshala burst through that door, down in the stinking dungeons of Themalsar and went after Darly Dor, I was much vexed, for we had been trailing the bloody assassins that had burned our town, for weeks, yet we had found nothing. No trail to speak of, nor any clues as to why they had done, what they had done.. Nothing.. I charged, mindlessly into a room expecting answers, because I was stupid, and I was also a fool, for there were no answers to be had with axes! And I charged the first thing I saw, without understanding what I saw. You may think I had some great self-control and stopped, but you would be only so wrong. I stopped because I was dumbstruck by your beauty. I have never claimed to be a smart man and seeing as how the others have thus looked upon me, I couldn’t even blame them; I am just the dumb kid with the big axes and likes to chop things down to mincemeat! I stopped that moment, yes, but it had absolutely nothing to do with me, but everything to do with you. I stopped because I was so stupefied by the young woman that stood before me, her glaive raised, the way she’d spun, and the way her skirts scattered and with blazing, fearless green eyes, she came at us even though she was thus outnumbered. You saw an idiot charging at you, I saw a majestic creature with no fear. What I did see also, was that she held no scorn in her burning eyes. She came at us because she had to, and not because she held us in contempt. That is the only remarkable thing that I could claim wisdom on my part; the fact that I somehow noticed all that. You, on the other hand, were under the duress of the Draugr, when we were down in the sewers of Arashkan, seeking the old head quarters of the Thieves Guild. When Anglenna warned us about it, I figured she knew what she is talking about better than I would, since I never even heard of a Draugr before, let alone know what the bloody Hell it was. My only guess was, it was something big and ugly. So the moment I saw something particularly big and ugly coming at us, I just closed my eyes and started swinging at any sound that came at me. That’s why I told you to get behind me; to avoid accidents, though I didn’t think there would be any because you do not make sounds when you move, much like you do not shout or do silly battle cries the way I do. I just barge into fights and try to appear as large and threatening as possible to get everyone’s attention. You? You weave through the enemy. You could be fighting through a horde of Orken or a gaggle of undead or even be belly dancing and no one would know the difference, should they watch only you. What happened to you was unfortunate, and had I had my eyes open, either we would have killed one another because I would have been struck by the Draugr’s insanity as well, or I would have tried to disarm you and carry you away until you came around. The simple matter of fact is, none of us were prepared for the Draugr. We attacked it like we would attack a band of goblins and had our piece handed over to us. Now you can either accept this for the fact it is, or you may not and destroy everything we have thus build together and quite needlessly. But you should know, my love. I shall have a Lorna who looks me in the eyes and without shame, or I shall go to this war and against the coming Orken, and I surmise I shall make a very bloody mess, but I will not return. Because you are the reason I want to fight.. and live.”
Tears rolled down Lorna’s eyes as she reached up at the man and touched his scruffy beard with both her slender hands and held them there. She held his face and stared into his eyes like it was the last time.
“Dear child. You mustn’t.”, said a rich, throaty, and very mature, voice in the depths of her mind.
“I will never have secrets from him. He shall know and accept. Or he shall stay ignorant and there shall never be a Summer Lady from our line.”
“This was not our bargain, dear child.”
“Our bargain was that you heal his heart and save his life, and in return, you would take one of my daughters as the Summer Lady.”, she said fiercely.
The rich, throaty voice sighed.
“Mortals.. Very well, child. But should you speak the truth and he departs, what then? I have fixed his heart and saved his life but there shall be a bargain unfulfilled.”
“You may take mine, as I offered it to you for his in the first place, for there will have been nothing else for me to give. I will never wed, nor bed another man.”
“Dear child. Again and again, I have thus told you; I may not take a Mortal’s life who has never done me wrong.”
“Should he depart, I will never be able to pay you my end of the bargain, Mother Titania. That is a wrong done to you..”
The rich, throaty voice sighed again.. and was gone.
“I bargained with the Summer Queen.”, Lorna whispered, staring into his eyes, and still holding his face in her hands.
“I do not know this Summer Queen person. But for the sake of argument, let’s say I do.”, Udoorin rumbled with a frown. “What did you bargain?”
“I did not wound you, my Dorin.”, she said as she started crying. “In my insanity, I stabbed you through the heart. Neither my cousin nor I could have saved you. So my cousin sent me and you to Serenity Home. But for some reason, we missed our destination and ended up in Gull’s Perch. That is the Summer Queen’s sacred valley. She put you into stasis and offered me a choice. To save your life for something in return..”
Udoorin’s frown deepened.
“And what did she want from you?”
“Life for life.”, she said with a moan. “I begged her to take mine for yours, but she said she couldn’t. Instead, she would take one of our daughters.”
The young man froze.
“But.. we do not have any daughters.”, he blurted.
“We.. we will.. should we wed..”
“Let.. let me get this straight. She demanded one of our unborn daughters for my life? What kind of a demented bargain is that?”, he suddenly blared.
“Dorin..”, the girl in his arms said weakly.
“How could she even know we would have daughters? We aren’t even wed yet. I mean, we could have sons.. What will happen then? Are we going to try and try until we have a daughter? Or she wants a red-head and we would end up making a dozen or two until we get one!”
“Dorin.. please..”, she pleaded.
“What? Is she going to take her pick from the ‘litter’? Who does that? I mean, we are not even wed and people are making bids on our unborn children already?”
“D.. Dorin.. S.. Stop..”, she begged.
“Let’s say one of us falls in the coming battle. What will happen then? She is going to wait until one of us weds then demand from that lot? If she is, she’s going to go home quite empty-handed because I am going to marry you, or I will stay alone.”, Udoorin blazed.
“If I fall, you are free.. of me and the bargain.. Should you fall.. she will have the right to mine..”, replied Lorna quietly.
Udoorin just stared at her.
“The Hell, she will!”, he said fiercely.
“Dorin. Please. If you want to know just who the Summer Queen is, you should ask dear Inshala. After all, she serves the Summer Queen.”, Lorna said mutely. “The bargain, however, is done. I.. I had to save you, Dorin. I had to. This you must know. A lonely life, I could bear. A lonely life without you.. I could not. If.. if you want to leave, I will understand. I was told not to tell you of this bargain, but I did it anyway because I can not have secrets from you.”
“What is she going to do with our daughter?”
“She will make her the Summer Lady.”, Lorna replied.
“What the..”, the young man spluttered.
“You really should have a sit down with our Inshala as she is the best equipped to tell you all about the Summer Queen, the Winter Queen, and the Ladies, and the Courts.”
“Why does she need a Lady, anyway? Is she short on girls in this court of hers? Perhaps I should go and have a sit down with this Queen, myself!”, Udoorin sizzled.
Lorna just stared at him.
“Why don’t we go and speak with Inshala now. Since she serves this Summer Queen, she should be able to arrange a meet, right? Then I can tell it to her face, child exchange is not acceptable. This is ridiculous. Perhaps I can challenge her for a duel to free you and our daughter from this bargain. I am sure a queen would have a knight or two to fight in her steed?”
But when Udoorin grinned at her, she wiped her eyes and squinted at him suspiciously.
“You.. you are punning me..”, she blurted.
“Punning you? No, love. Punning the mess we put ourselves? Yes. Of course, I know who the Summer Queen is, Lorna. We are practically neighbors with Her and the Gull’s Perch. But we do not go there because the dryads there can get frisky at times. Not that it matters, because the whole valley was cordoned off when I was around two or so, I think, due to some dwarves getting too greedy and trying to mine there. It was perhaps the only time I remember my mother getting riled about anything. She died shortly after that event. What’s done is done, Lorna. I thank you for saving my life. But not because I believe my life was all that worth saving, but because you think I am worth you, and because of you, I will get to see you every day of my life. Does that make me selfish? Perhaps. But I do not care. I do not know what being the Summer Lady entails. All I know is she gets to become a noble in her court. She will get to see many places and experience things no elf or human can. And do great deeds as well. She will have a very full filling, and hopefully, a happy life. I do not know my daughter yet. But I am already happy for her, and would very much like to meet her sometime. Will you marry me?”
The question came seamless and so suddenly, Lorna was caught totally off guard. It took a long moment to go over all the things the young man had said until she got to the end.
“You.. you do not blame and hate me for my choice?”, she blurted.
“Lorna.”, Udoorin said seriously. “I hate the reasons we ended up in such a mess. But I do not hate you. You saved my life and bought me the days and years to be with you. You made my daughter the Summer Lady. What’s more, you made me realize, our days are short and numbered, and I do not want another gone without you. I have little in the way of fortune. What I do have, however, is you. Will you marry me?”
“Like, right now?”, she spluttered.
“Like, right now.”, he said, stood up straight and called, “Lord Armathelius and Lady Lenna, if you will, please?”
After a moment of startled silence, Anglenna, Armathelius, and his awesome armor approached.
“Should a couple wish to wed, how many witnesses are required among the elves?”, the young man asked.
Anglenna pursed her lips before answering.
“It varies.”, she said. “But King’s Law demands and requires only two.”
“Alright.”, Udoorin said with a frown. “Lady Lenna? Lord Armathelius? Will the two of you act as witnesses, then?”
“I would be happy to, young man.”, Anglenna smiled.
“I suppose I will have no choice but to agree.”, replied Armathelius with a small smile of his own.
“Well, then.”, he said, turned to Lorna, and knelt.
“No. Please. No kneeling. You will be my mate and I want no doubts that you are my equal.”, she begged.
“Very well.”, Udoorin said a bit relieved, and got back up, took a deep breath, and rumbled, “Lady Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, daughter of Nadine Graciousward and Grandaleren Feymist. Will you be my wife, my life-long friend, my partner, my love, my comrade in arms, and my breath?”
“I will.”, Lorna replied, her face bright red, somewhat dazed, and with the first honest smile since the destruction of Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen. “And will you, Udoorin Shieldheart, son of Limnia Karya and Standorin Shieldheart, be my husband, my life-long friend, my partner, my love, my comrade in arms, and my breath?”
“I will.”, Udoorin said, giving her a small smile of his own. “On a throne, or on cold ground..”
“I, Armathelius Riverblade, son of Sylvenessa Brightgrove and Methalier Riverblade, have so witnessed.”, the young elf commander said solemnly.
“And I, Anglenna Brightleaf, daughter of Selvius Brightleaf and niece to Selendenien Sindarin, have so witnessed.”, Anglenna said. “Will you exchange rings now, or perhaps hold that for a more, public wedding?”
“Ow, right, rings..”, Udoorin smacked his forehead. “I knew I had forgotten something.”
He pulled a ring from his own hand, a not too ornate but gold with green specks, and offered it to Lorna, while she pulled a ring from one of her own fingers and offered that to him.
The rings they exchanged, fit the other like it was made for them.
“I can’t believe this.. Did you two actually just switch combat rings?”
“Well, I gave her my Ring of Regeneration. She should feel better in an hour or two.”, grinned Udoorin.
“I have him my Ring of Spell Storing.”, smiled Lorna.
“What? Why?”, asked the young man a bit surprised. “Give me something else. You love that ring and what do I know about spells?”
“Yes, I love that ring, my Dorin. Which is why I gave it to you. And you will not need to know much about spells, either. You will have to have it filled should you expend the ones in it, though.”, she replied.
“What’s it got in it right now?”, Udoorin asked with a curious and enthusiastic grin on his face.
“Will tell you later.”, she smiled.
“Right.”, agreed, the young man. “I believe we should head out for the meeting? Elves, as I recall, do not like tardiness. And I do not wish a trashing from the sheriff.. again.. Lady Lenna, Lord Armathelius. Thank you both for being patient with us. If you would lead the way?”
Armathelius banged his steel fist again, nodded at him, then at Lorna, and murmured, “Lady Lenna, please allow me to escort you.”
Udoorin waited for a thirty count before he swiped Lorna off her feet and with a very refrained enthusiasm, he hugged her.
“Thank you.”, he said simply, staring into her eyes. “I.. I would very much like to..”
“..kiss me, now!”, finished Lorna, staring back into his eyes.
✱ ✱ ✱
What a lovely tree. Cherry. And in bloom.”, rumbled the nearly fourteen-foot tall monstrosity as she ducked out of the gaping hole that had just parted in the trunk of the beautiful, blooming cherry tree.
“Did you do this?”, she asked the disproportionately ‘tiny’ girl, as she peered up the tender pink flowers fluffing everywhere.
“Yes, Mother Ganiste.”, smiled Inshala, as she reached out to help the giant ogress up.
“What are you doing, daughter? Are you giving me a hand?”, she asked with a scowl, though there was an amused light in her very scary eyes.
“It was the polite thing to do, Mother.”, Inshala replied seriously.
“Polite, pointless, fruitless, and quite futile, my daughter.”, she rumbled.
“Futile?”, the tiny girl asked.
“That you would think me old and feeble and I would require help to get up, girl!”
“Loved ones can help without offending those we love and care, Mother Ganiste.”, Inshala said with a little smile.
“I see you have already been afflicted with the foolishness of the humans around you.”, she scowled.
“How so, Mother?”
“You now have a smart mouth!”
A funny noise escaped the little girl; her way of a snort.
“And punning your elders too, now. Should you roll your eyes at me, as well, I shall spank you, little one, Ritual Guardian or not.”, Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig said with vehemence, though the glitter in her eyes, as creepy as it was, said otherwise. In secret, she was very pleased to see her tiny ‘daughter’, happy and full of life. It made her want to pocket her and keep her there. A something she should have done many years ago, but a tad too late now. The little girl she loved as her daughter had grown. She even had a hubby now.
Even if said hubby was the Winter Knight of Mab.
Chieftain Grulganiste shuddered.
Mab?.. Really, now, girl.. I knew you were a wonder for much greatness, but Mab? MAB?
Grulganiste growled and rose and stared around.
“What is this hideous place, my daughter? It stinks of humans and fear.”, she rumbled.
“Yes, it smells a bit because they are working day and night for the coming war. And they fear for their loved ones.”, Inshala replied solemnly. “Their fear is well placed for the Orken are a fierce foe.”
Grulganiste grunted and looked around.
“And this?”, she asked, pointing at the tiny, single-room house.
“My home, Mother Ganiste.”, replied happily.
“This?”, Grulganiste asked incredulously. “Is this what the great Winter Knight has to offer to my daughter? I can walk right over it! I put my chicken-birds in sheds bigger than this!”
“Please, Mother. Do not mock the warmness of my home. This is where my Aager and I belong.”, she pleaded with a pout. “We eat here, we talk here, we sleep here, and here, we even dance and play silly games. Here, he can look at me as he pleases. Here, he spoon-feeds me when I am too tired to feed myself. Here, I can hug him as it pleases me. Here, only the two of us are.”
“I.. see..”, Mother Ganiste replied, eyeing her tiny little daughter. “Perhaps I spoke in haste. Let me have a look into the warmness of your home.”
It was a beautiful, happy smile.
An accomplished smile.
A smile that said;
Something wonderful has happened here..
I brought peace to a troubled soul.
I did that!
Inshala opened the door to her home and wide.
“Please come in, Mother Ganiste. You shall always be welcome in my home.”, she said.
Mother Ganiste looked down at the tiny house, then at the even tinier door, quite dubiously, as she mentally measured her head, her very broad and very much muscled shoulders, and her powerful buttocks, came to the obvious, impossible conclusion.
Then she noted the happy and the quite earnest face of her tiny daughter..
An ogress she may be.
But she wasn’t a heartless beast to break the heart of her beloved daughter. Certainly not when she put on that eager face!
Bowing to her predicament, and bowing quite literally, she stuck her head into the door as she berated herself just how silly she must look from behind, as she pushed..
..and promptly got stuck!
“Oops!”, exclaimed Inshala. “Are.. are you alright, Mother?”
Mother Ganiste said many things at that point. A series of choice swear words in ogre, in orcish, and in dwarfish as well, because when it came to cussing, no other race beat the dwarves, and it was possible that had been the only reason she had learned it, to begin with. She struggled, moving her massive shoulders sideways, turned the other way, and tried some more, and when that didn’t work, she even tried to cork her way in!
“Uhhmm.. what’s going on, here?”, asked a struggling Guard Anderson as he stared at the greatest ass he had ever seen, and would likely ever see, in his entire life!
Chieftain Grulganiste froze..
..and be damned with silly daughters, silly humans, and their silly homes, and with the silly world in general!
With a great snarl, she heaved and pulled herself out..
..along with the door.. and half the wall!
Inshala yelped and ran out, as the roof caved in, and the house collapsed in on itself!
“Well..”, grunted Grulganiste, her eyes still ablaze. “..that went well..”
Then she looked down at her daughter, who just stood there, her tiny hands, her diminutive face, her long, dark hair, and pretty much the rest of her was covered in dust, as she stared at the wreckage of, what was just a few mere moments ago, had been her home.
Her slim shoulders drooped, a pinkish-red blush spread around the ovals of her eyes and her cheeks as large tears streaked down and around her trembling, and pouting little mouth.
It was hard to say what crossed the awful face of Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth at that very moment as she held the door frame and parts of the wall still hanging around her neck, and stared at her devastated little daughter.
✱ ✱ ✱
There were guards everywhere. The level of security had been quite apparent the moment they had come out of the Ritual Forest when groups of elf, half-elf, and human rangers with no-nonsense expressions skimmed past them. As they came closer to the town, they noted the two platoons of dwarven warriors armed to the teeth, sitting on armored, rather angry-looking, almost horse-sized goats with brutal-looking iron-shod horns stationed at the north end of the stone bridge. There were also large groups of Arashkan militia and regulars roaming both around the refugee camps and the northern banks of the Arashkan River. Udoorin also noted the strange runes and glyphs etched on the outer walls of the town and at even intervals. And when he looked up, he saw odd flocks of birds circling the town from high above.
One such bird, a tiny little baby owl, darted down and settled on Lorna’s shoulder and immediately started pecking and cleaning her fluffy, soft feathers.
Udoorin gave Lorna, who was smiling impishly, and the extraordinarily cute baby owl a side-long glance, then blurted, “Inshala?”
“Whoo?”, replied the baby owl.
“Inshala..”, repeated the burly young man. “Our Inshala..”
“Whoo..”, said the baby owl, staring up at him with large, endearing eyes.
“Ow. Now you are just making fun of me..”, he said smiling down at the owl.
Lorna laughed and the owl hopped down and spun once around herself, twice, and on the third, the baby owl was gone and the skinny little girl with her curving horns appeared.. also laughing.
Inshala jumped the large young man and hugged him, then jumped Lorna and hugged her as well, then paused, ogling at the two of them.
“When?”, she blurted!
“Uhhmm.. when what?”, asked Udoorin.
“When did you two—”, she began.
“Shhh.. not here, dear sister.”, Lorna said with a blush.
“How could you possibly know?”, asked Udoorin with an exasperated frown. “I mean, pretty much nobody knows.”
“Your scents!”, said the skinny little girl with a happy red face.
“Our scents?”, the young man stumbled.
“Yes. Yes. Your scents. Always before, they were separate. Yearning but distinct.”, explained Inshala joyously.
“Do I even want to know how that makes any sense?”, Udoorin mumbled.
“But now, your scents are together. Intertwined! And they have made a new scent. A happy scent. A scent full of new potentials!”, she blushed and seemed like she was about to burst with happiness. “Are you going to have babies? I love babies. They are so cute!”
Lorna also blushed.
“I can’t believe you can read all that from our scents. I mean, all you had to say was, we needed a bath..”, he murmured.
“Please don’t say anything to anyone, dear sister.”, Lorna pleaded. “This meeting is important and does not need any distractions. We shall declare it at an appropriate time.”
Inshala stared at her like she was asked not to cry when she’s just stepped on a bee, or worse, an iron bee —however silly that sounded!
“Lorna and Udoorin got married!”, she blurted in her mind.
“Eh? What? When?”, Aager’s surprised voice came.
“Speak later? Please, please, please don’t tell anyone..”, she begged.
“Ow, alright. I promise I won’t tell.. anyone else..”, she mumbled in a deploring voice.
“Okay.”, Udoorin said seriously as they walked over the stone bridge. “What’s the security protocols here?”, he asked.
“I have no idea what you just said, but my Aager will tell you some rules. He told them to me as well, but there were too many butchered words in it and I got lost!”, Inshala replied. “All I understood was, if anything happens, I am to go home and wait for him there, which he knows is not going to happen.”
“Butchered words?”, Lorna asked.
“Yes.”, Inshala replied with an exasperated tone. “It is when humans cut words in two or more. It seems like an infection. Even the half-born are using them now. Just the other day, I heard Liaison Constance call Sheriff Standorin as ‘Stan’..”
“She called my father, Stan? Nobody calls my father, Stan. Only my mother used to call him that. And maybe the mayor. He would cave in any face who would call him, Stan!”, he said. “So they really are dating? I thought they were just putting a scene to make me uncomfortable.. Sort of a private joke.”
“I think they are. Dating, I mean.”, replied Inshala honestly. “Your father seems more, now, since he started dating her.”
“More? More what?”
“Just, more..”, Inshala replied, as if that explained everything.
“I do not understand.”, Udoorin complained.
“I will explain it to you later, Dorin.”, she replied.
“Anglenna and the other elf, Armatus, I think his name was, will be attending to Lorna at all times, and should anything happen, they are to take her to the elf camp. My Aager and Bremorel are to stay with you, Udoorin, and take you to the Sheriff’s office where they will lock all the doors and windows. The dwarves will charge at anything that comes near the town, the rest of the elves and the Arashkan soldiers will go up to the defense wall, along with more dwarves and gnomes. The druids, the shamans, and the witches will help them. The rangers will be everywhere. The ogres will travel just north of town, and wait near Elder Hills, in case there is an attack from there..”, she said breathily.
“I am not getting locked up in a room!”, Udoorin fumed.
“I am not separating from my Dorin!”, Lorna flared.
“I was told you two might say silly things like that. My Aager told me to tell you that if you will not follow simple orders, then he will use the big stick on you again. He said you would know.”, Inshala said to the fuming young man. Then she turned to Lorna. “And Anglenna said, she would teleport you to the elf camp if she had to, and told me to remind you how her last teleport spell turned out! I told them that it wasn’t nice of them to say such things to them because they were both grown people who are much bigger than I am and that Udoorin is a smart man and would do what needs to be done, and Lorna was the best when it came to making calm and wise decisions.”
Udoorin scowled down at her while Lorna smiled in defeat.
“I believe we should give in, Dorin —gracefully. Our friends want what’s best for us, even if we might think otherwise. And disrupting current security is unwise. It would seem we are not part of the entourage, but part of the delegation.”
“I did say you were calm and wise.”, grinned Inshala.
“You are part of the guests too, aren’t you?”, Udoorin frowned.
“I am.”, admitted, the skinny little girl. “Hence the reason my Aager told me to go home if there was trouble and the reason I won’t.”
“How does that work, exactly?”, Udoorin asked, still scowling.
“The answer to that is quite elementary in its simplicity!”, she smiled smugly.
Udoorin cocked an eyebrow at her.
“My Aager will not hit me with a big stick!”, she said and took off.
A funny sort of noise escaped Lorna. Something that might even constitute a snort!
✱ ✱ ✱
Just out of curiosity..”, rumbled Udoorin as he walked up the stairs leading into the municipality building with Lorna in his arm. The mayor’s offices weren’t all that big, to begin with, but the base furniture, the bookshelves, the drawers, the filing cabinets, and the desks were all removed to make room for the self-same tables used during the celebrations upon the return of the heroes from Themalsar. “..what does Mere Estel Aranië, mean, and why is that Armathelius elf keeps calling me that?”
Lorna smiled, leaned into him, and whispered.
“It means, ‘the awaited hope of the kingdom.’, dear.”
Udoorin stared at her.
“You can’t be serious!”
“Elves may have habits that may appear odd and many others that may be faulty, but they do not toy when it comes to names.”, she said quietly.
“Couldn’t have picked something less ostentatious? Like, ‘He’s alright.’, perhaps?”, the young man asked with a rather disturbed expression on his face.
“I didn’t choose it, Dorin. The elves did. You came to us at a time that was clearly the end of Bari Na-ammen. As sad as it is to lose our beloved home, they finally understood what my mother had been trying to tell them for the past thirty years; that they had grown secluded, complacent, and become stagnant. Nature does not tolerate such qualities. Secluded becomes complacent, and complacent becomes stagnant. Eventually, stagnant rots and collapses to make room for ‘fresh’ and ‘new’ life and beginnings. The elves that are here could have gone to Solace, or even Tranquil. But they preferred to come here.. to humans because if there was going to be a kingdom for us again in High Woods, it had to have the things it pushed out and rejected, and let in friends..”, she said. “And friends mean, other races. What the humans in Serenity Home and the dwarves at Scowling Hills have done to sustain the Arashkan refugees was exceptional. That they treated us the same way and unbiased, considering how Bari Na-ammen treated strangers, has put us all to shame. And you, love, came out of this town. You fought against Themalsar, side by side, with the princess of Bari Na-ammen. You defended and protected her. You cared for her and honored her, and you brought her back to her people when they were leaderless. That, my dear Dorin, is the long-awaited hope for the new kingdom of elves.. We will have many wars to fight ahead of us. But we will also have a home to return to. And that home must have a leader. They insisted I lead. But I never wanted the job. Perhaps I am selfish. But that is the truth of it. When I declared Anglenna to take my place, I was not putting on a show. I was being honest. I really wanted her to take this burden off my shoulders. But after what my aunt did, they wouldn’t follow her. It is thanks to Lord Armathelius that they haven’t shown open hostility against her, or put her on trial while we were not here.”
“I’ll cave in any face that tries to show hostility against her, hold her in contempt, or try to put her on some trumped-up trial. None of those elves know the kind of Hell Lenna went through..”, Udoorin said grimly.
“That is rather nice of you to say, young man.”, Anglenna said from behind them. “It would seem my cousin chose her King well. The only person that wouldn’t judge me for my sins is a human that we wouldn’t have let step on Bari Na-ammen soil. Though I suspect the irony in that will be lost upon many.”
“We are who we are, Lady Lenna. But we can be who we choose to be.”, Udoorin said seriously. “You and my Queen are not so dissimilar. She was forced to be something. Yet she chose to be something else. You were forced to be something as well. Against all odds, you chose to be something else, too. Which makes both of you much greater than I could ever be; I wanted to be nothing, and likely would have been nothing, had it not been for the people around me. First Aager Fogstep and his unrelenting efforts to make something out of me, then my Lorna.. Her mere existence made me look at the world and see it about to burn and made me do something about that. And I would like to claim no small effort on your part, either. I am aware of how you have been secretly shadowing and protecting us without us even knowing. That is honor and loyalty in my book.”
Anglenna stared at the young man with an odd expression on her face.
Armathelius didn’t say anything, but a mirthful smile played around his lips.
“Wow, I haven’t been in this building for a while. The last time I came here, I got trashed by Mayor Arthandos Yuleman personally. It was the best trashing I had, and the only one I got a ‘Thank you, young man, you did a great job!’, at the end.”, Udoorin grinned.
“So you are the boy with the itchy sword hand that has been giving my boys and daughters trouble all these years. I would very much like to crush you!”, rumbled a bass voice and everyone stopped.
“Yes. That would be me, ma’am.”, they heard Sheriff Standorin from inside.
“Ma’am? Just which part of me did you think makes me a ma’am, boy?!”
“Merely being polite, Chieftain. We are all here for the same cause.”, the sheriff said.
Udoorin, Lorna, Anglenna, and Armathelius ran in to see Sheriff Standorin standing at ease, facing something..
Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth made an average ogre look small. She had long, thickly braided strands of hair, untoned arms, torso, and legs, all impressively muscled, yet, no one could mistake her femininity and she was an evenly proportionate ‘woman’.. and she loomed over the sheriff with an awesome scowl on her face.
In a rather brutal way, Grulganiste was, indeed, a striking figure.
“No, boy. I am not here for your cause. I am here because my daughter, Inshala, asked me. I am here to make sure she stays safe. If it weren’t for her, I would have stayed in my hills, and watched you and yours butcher one another.”
“Lady Inshala has been kind to us. And we honor her for it. She fights for us because this is her forest and this is her home. We all fight for the people we care about, and we are all here to defend our homes, Chieftain. And your home is also in that forest.”, Standorin replied kindly. “We have had minimal quarrels with your sons and daughters and have left you alone.”
“You speak arrogantly, boy. You fail to recognize this by admitting to have ‘left us alone’. Oger’s Foot is ours. It was ours before this town. And it is not still there because you ‘left us alone’ and neither did you do us any favors by claiming that you did. I am quite disappointed in you and hope you do not look upon my daughter with the same narrow perspective. The woodsmen of Dimwoods are alive, today, only because old Cathber asked me not to avenge what they did to her. They thought they had the right to my daughter’s life. They beat her, stoned her, caged her, and whipped her..”
“Mother Ganiste.. please.. there is no need for this. It’s all in the past..”, Inshala said with a brittle face, as she stood next to her.
“No, my daughter. It is not. I have seen the scars on your back, and the scars in your heart. Closing your eyes to the arrogance of men is foolish. They think us brutish and call us savages. But then, we are brutish as we are savages, for we are ogres. Tell me, daughter of my father, what is their excuse?”, she growled at her, then to the sheriff, she said, “Much like them, who thought they had the right to my beloved daughter’s life, you think you have the right to ours when you say you ‘left us alone’.. I find the similarity of your stance with those ignorant, superstitious, and savage woodsmen and you, sheriff of this town, disturbing.”, she said balefully.
“Chieftain Grulganiste—”, Liaison Constance stepped in.
“—Whatever gave you the idea I was talking to you, demon? Do not cast your words at me and think you know better. I have made an agreement with my daughter, the Ritual Guardian, to come here in peace, and to help her fight the Orken. Said peace, however, does not include your kind. Should I see you or your kin anywhere near my ogres, I will rip your skinny arms and your pretty legs off, and I shall feel content about it!”
A moment of choking silence settled in the room as the air grew intense.
“I apologize, Chieftain.”, Standorin said finally, though very much offended. “For my choice of words, but not for my arrogance. I am the culmination of my life and the things I have seen, lived, and suffered and they are unlikely to change. We may not correct our faults, but our children might get that chance. For that to happen, they must live. I offer little more than that; a chance for both our sons and daughters to live in peace. This may happen, or it may not. That will be up to them. Should the Orken do what they intend to do, however, even that small chance of change will be gone because all of us will be dead. As for our young Inshala, she will be our treasure, always. You have seen what I did when I came to your hills. Should anyone mistreat her, they will get more of the same.”
Grulganiste glared down at the sheriff for a long moment, then gave a nightmarish grin.
“I shall then hold you to your word, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Now.. I have seen the sad condition of the house my daughter lives in..”, she said with disdain.
“Mo.. mother, please.. My house is fine —was fine! My Aager and I shall rebuild it the way it was. We liked it the way it was..”, Inshala blubbered, her face burning bright red.
“Hush, girl. This is grown-ups talking.”, Grulganiste told her briskly. Then she turned to the sheriff. “Two of my ogres will be arriving from the forest. They will have white flag poles on their backs and some sacks with them. I will be unhappy if they were hindered. You will allow them here and to my daughter’s sad home.”
“What will they be bringing, if I may be so bold as to ask?”, Standorin inquired politely.
“A bit of this, and a bit of that..”, the giant ogress replied evasively.
Standorin cocked an eyebrow.
Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth sighed.
“They hold my daughter’s dowries, young man. Something that is truly none of your business!”, she fumed.
“Mo..mother? I don’t have any dowry..”, Inshala said, her face burning even brighter.
“No. You don’t, because you are a foolish little girl, and seeing as how that sour old Cathber lived in that pathetic little chicken shed he called home, I didn’t think he would have thought about dowries. Hence, I have been preparing it since the day he first brought you to me.”, Grulganiste said grimly.
Standorin’s mouth curved at the corner.
“You are a very cunning woman, Chieftain Grulganiste. Even though everything you said about my arrogance was true, all you wanted was a free pass for your ogres to the town! All you had to do was ask, you know. I may have an itchy hand with my sword, but I am not totally unreasonable.”, he said with a poorly hidden grin.
Grulganiste scowled at him.
“I am the chieftain of Oger’s Foot, boy. I do not ask. I demand.. And the things I said were correct and had to be said. Are we at an agreement, sheriff of Serenity Home, or shall we break spoons?”
Standorin didn’t know what ‘breaking spoons’ meant, but it wasn’t hard to guess.
“Chieftain Grulganiste, I shall send two rangers to escort your ogres to Lady Inshala’s house. I will have to ask your ogres to stay in her garden until the end of the meeting, though. This meeting will call upon many people of many races and places. There is no need to risk frictions.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about them, young man, for they will have their work cut out for them. And they better have it finished by the time this meeting is..”, she fumed balefully.
“One more thing, Chieftain. Should anything happen during the meeting, I would like you to take Lady Inshala and yourself to her home and stay there.”, Standorin informed.
“You want me to run and hide in a broken down chicken shed?”, Grulganiste blazed.
“Chieftain Grulganiste. This is my town. I am the host, and you are the guest here. And the safety of my town and my guests is of utmost importance to me. And I can not do my job if all the guests are running around and doing as they please. You are a guest here, but you are not the only guest.”, the sheriff said, then he looked down at Inshala and grinned. “And as a personal favor to Lady Inshala’s mate, you should make sure she stays there as well..”
Inshala’s face looked mortified because she’d had no intentions of running home nor staying there at all.
“That.. was not nice, my Aager.”, she fumed in her mind and heard a growling chuckle in return.
“You.. you are laughing at me!”, she said heartbroken.
“No, love. Only making sure you do your part as I have kindly asked of you.”, Aager said.
“Don’t I get any say in this?”, she pouted.
“No, love, you do not. You told me you wanted my respect and my trust. This is where you show me yours —by deed.”
“You think I do not show you respect and trust?”, she asked somewhat downcast.
“Love. I have the utmost respect and trust in you and never have I ever doubted yours.. But town security is not something that can be done alone. It involves hundreds of people; guards, rangers, the elves, the Arashkan militia, the dwarves, and quite a few others that must know where they must be and what they must do, act as a whole, and in cooperative coordination. I have absolute trust that you can take care of yourself, and me, but you do not know any of the security protocols. Young Udoorin does, yet he is still not part of it, because he too, is a guest today. This, you must see. This, you must understand. And this, you must accept.”, Aager replied briskly and succinctly.
“Come, girl. Let’s find ourselves a seat before all the good ones are gone!”, Grulganiste rumbled.
Aager thought he heard a lot of huffing and puffing and mumbling about putting live Kumse Beatles into someone’s pockets before her voice was gone.
✱ ✱ ✱
The meeting of possibly every leader of every race, people, city, community, circle, near and far, and every important figure, head, or chief was a crowded, confusing, chaotic, and a bit of a messy business. The central conference room had been opted to be used for the meeting out of convenience as it was the largest room available for the job. There were many lanterns hanging on the walls, but the main source of light was the great chandelier with scores of burning candles made brighter by the use of cleverly placed reflectors —a gnomic ingenuity, thanks to no other than Nimbletyne Tinkerdome, crafted and placed many years ago. The center of the room was left open to anyone who would want to get up and speak, and tables surrounded the room in one big circle, all covered with white table cloths. Many flower pots were placed on the tables at military intervals, along with large, flat bowls full of fruits, decanters full of cool cider, and brass cups. Food would also be served shortly after sundown and adjacent rooms were prepared and available for private forums and strategic planning. All in all, Aager, who was responsible for the security of the building, suspected if half the guests survived, it would be a win!
And he had good reasons to expect so..
The dwarves did not want to sit next to the high elves, for one. They might fight alongside them, and against a common enemy, sure, but they did not want to sit next to the pointy-eared, condescending, stuck-ups!
The high elves, in a similar line of thought, did not want to sit next to the dwarves, the gnomes, who were pointing at them and snickering, the woodsmen, the bandits, the shacksmen from the tar pits of Stinking Shacks just northwest of Ritual Forest, and certainly not next to the bloody pirates of Drashan, and decidedly not with the ogres.
The wood elves didn’t mind the dwarves, but they really seemed like they wanted to make a scene about the ogres in an —as dramatic a way— as possible and preferred to stay aloof of their high elf brothers and sisters.
The Drashan pirates outright refused to sit next, or anywhere near the Endless Watch representatives, who, surprisingly wanted to get as near to them as they could —with cutlasses and poniards —and possibly a galleon’s deck catapult of two!
The Koruxan knights all seemed quite distraught as they didn’t want anything to do with any of this bunch!
The two representatives of the Academy of Melshieve looked around a bit dazedly. Or rather, one of them looked around quite dazed and in a dreamy way —an extraordinarily tall young girl with sharp, pointy horns, dark as a starless night-sky skin with long, loose, pink hair wearing rather scandalous pink dress skirts. The other one, a midgety little gnomic girl with many pouches, a heavy wrench tucked in her belt, and with carelessly pulled up, scruffy reddish brown hair, who, for some reason, kept throwing covert but guilty glances at Nadine Graciousward. The neatly dressed little hobbit sitting beside her had a polite expression on his face though he seemed like he was watching everything and everyone from a third person’s view, rather than his own. Sitting next to them was a tall, lithe, elf girl who was very nearly pale as her long, thickly braided, glossy white hair, many swirling and spiraling, dark, marine-blue tattoos on her arms and shoulders, and with a frosty, no-nonsense expression on her face.
There were also many familiar faces among the representatives.
Sheriff Standorin himself had taken a seat and..
..Liaison Constance was sitting next to him, also with a polite and interested smile on her face and..
..Perigren Ostlanna Temez, the leader of the Escape, had settled right beside her. She did not smile. She looked pale and soulless, like someone who had something most precious and dear to her taken away and most unfairly. She just sat where she did, silently and still with one of her antler horns broken and missing. The only sign of life was her eyes, as dull as they were, seemed to look at every single person in the crowded room individually, and singularly..
Next to the leader of the Escape, was the senior temple guardian, Thomas Dimwood, with two of his younger guardians standing right behind him.
Lady Magella sat with a diffident expression on her face, next to her grandfather, Argail Smitefast, a mountain of a dwarf, her mother, Margaret Madish, one of her brothers, Harakoon Evilscowl, a dwarf true to his name, her aunt/uncle, Yor Whatoo, and one of her sisters, Lamideth Doncross, as the representatives of Scowling Hills.
Dridges Motherswolfie was also there, waving at the hobbit across with Britney and Dritmey, the Tosser twins, also grinning at him, and Nikelix Carver —Lady Magella’s sisters, along with another of her aunts, Marideth Brave, representing Elder Hills.
A coldly grimacing Lady Alisia Sivara Hooman..
..her eldest daughter, Moira Alisia Jean Hooman, who had an expression that said, ‘Why me?’, in an existential sense..
..and the sour captain, Fardashi, who was likely going to head-butt the person responsible for the sitting arrangements, because sitting next to the first lady of Durkahan was no other than the former queen of Bari Na-ammen;
Nadine Graciousward, herself, who was politely smiling, and Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome, who was, for whatever reason, eyeing the little gnomic girl from the Academy of Melshieve.
The appearance of Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth in the room did cause a bit of a ruckus as pretty much everyone, except for the sheriff, and interestingly, the same hobbit, went for their weapons. The fact that the relatively tiny girl, Inshala had reached as high as she could and was holding her hand, had made the scene all the more incomprehensible.
A low cough and a ‘settle down’, warning from the sheriff hadn’t put them at ease, but certainly put them to shame and.. well.. ‘settled them down!’
It was at that moment when the queen of the high elves, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, walked in with her very new husband and king, Udoorin Shieldheart, flanked by Lady Anglenna Brightleaf, Lord Armathelius Riverblade, Aager Fogstep, and appearing next to him like magic, Bremorel Songsteel..
Queen Alor’Nadien ne was simply radiant and every bit as queenly as she was promised. A promise, given not only by her beauty but by her calm, serene, commanding, but not quite demanding, aura.
King Udoorin, on the other hand, just scowled.. silently. A protracted tactic he had decided to adopt for the whole of the meeting and for as long as he could. After that, he was of the opinion; LET THE AXES TALK!
Bremorel gave a cursory glance into the room, picked out the former Agent Largo, dressed quite elegantly as some lord, and mingling amongst the other lords and emissaries. It took a while for Aager to spot his sister, Lilly Venom, though.
“What the..”, he silently exclaimed.
She was up on the vast, candle-lit chandelier, holding on to its thick chain with her slender legs snaked around it, staring at everyone, upside down! And because of all the bright candles and the reflectors, she was literally cast in total shadows in the center of the bloody thing!
“Damn..”, Aager thought. It must be burning hot up there. The creepiest part was, the chandelier never budged, nor swung..
And he would never have seen her, had he not known she was in this room somewhere.
He somewhat grudgingly admitted, her sister, Lilly Venom was much better than he was when it came to hiding and ambush, which, in a way, made sense; Lilly was an assassin, through and through and he was not.
But, really, girl?
The meeting was likely to last past midnight and she would be hanging, upside down, in the middle of scores of candles, for at least ten hours and possibly until the next dawn.
Queen Alor’Nadien ne and King Udoorin went over to Nadine Graciousward and the half-elf girl gracefully hugged her mother.
“I see you have finally come to terms with your destiny, my daughter; lived, suffered, and overcome. You, my darling, were the only accomplishment your father and I managed to do right, even if we messed up so horribly at the end. And you, young man, have stood by her at her best, and at her worst, and are still here. You must truly love her. Do be never as I and my husband were. That would be a shame.”, Nadine said and hugged the bearish man who was flushing furiously.
“Hey, you.”, said Moira from two seats over.
“Hey, you.”, grinned Udoorin. “I heard there was a family squabble back at Durkahan. I am happy you set things right and are here again.”
“Not without quite a bit of help from Master Aager and my sister Inshala.”, Moira grinned back.
“That’s what friends are for.”, replied the young man. “Lady Alisia, it has been a great pleasure and delight to have