Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
Somewhere in the dim and quiet halls of Serenity Home Temple and in an interconnected, two-room dormitory, one reserved for study and living quarters, the other for sleeping, Thomas is awake in his bed and is watching the young, beautiful woman dozing, or perhaps, snoozing inertly next to him, her coarse black hair scattered freely and framing her peaceful face. It had been quite a surprise for him when he’d found out that this beautiful girl never truly slept, but dozed, or perhaps, snoozed, and would wake up instantly and quite alert whenever there was any sound out of the norm. And said sound did not even have to be near.
At first, he had thought it was due to her deep-seated ranger training, and in all likeliness, it probably was. To his dismay, her being a ranger was the symptom, but not the core reason. Years of training as a hunter, tracker, scout, fighter, and an archer had merely hyped an already existing issue;
Morel Songsteel had never truly slept since that dreary and unspeakable day she had witnessed her parents getting butchered from inside the tiny closet her mother had hidden her, right before a marauding band of orcs had barged into their home when she had been only four.
Thomas gazed at her and noted her eyes were moving under their lids.
She was dreaming.
And whatever it was she was visiting, the senior temple guardian dearly hoped it was something nice.
One day, he promised himself, we will put your past behind us and you will sleep —truly and peacefully. Together, we will manage that.
“Thought I told you it was a bit creepy watching a girl sleep.”, Bremorel whispered, her voice slightly slurred.
“And we had argued about it, extensively, and come to the agreeable conclusion that, between husband and wife, such acts of creepy gazing were acceptable.”, Thomas replied quietly.
“No, we did not agree. I only caved in because I was being honest—”, she said with a little smile.
“—honest about you watching me when I am sleeping, though I can’t imagine why.”, Thomas wondered. “Mine is just a face. Yours is beautiful and I just can’t help but stare at it.”
Bremorel shuffled a bit and drew closer to him.
“Not just any face. A handsome, honest face.”, she said, her smile widening. “And I just saw a very, very.. interesting.. dream..”
“Ow?”, Thomas said carefully.
“Would you like to know what I saw?”, she purred..
..and jumped him!
In a few hours, they would set out on one of the most dangerous missions they had ever been assigned and Bremorel had no intentions of wasting what little time they had together.
✱ ✱ ✱
This is foolishness.”, complained Agent Largo. “Why do you get to go and I am forced to stay behind?”
Lilly Venom stifled a laugh.
“Boys.”, she sighed with resignation. “It isn’t like I am going out to play and you are left behind to do chores.”
“As a matter of fact, that is precisely what is going on here.”, Largo fumed.
“You are needed here. Should anything happen to my brother, you are the most qualified to do what he does.”, she explained.
“Sounds like a good excuse. Did you come up with this? Just to keep me safe?”, Largo frowned.
Lilly did not reply..
..and Largo immediately regretted having said it.
“I.. am sorry Lilly. That was a tad uncalled for on my part. I know you are going everything you can to help motivate me and get my mind off my troubled follies.”, he said morosely.
Lilly did not reply for a long time more, but stared at him, and deep into his eyes.
“Do you love me?”, she asked finally.
“What kind of a question is that?”, Largo spluttered.
“A very simple and pertinent question. Do you love me?”, she repeated herself.
“Of course. With all my heart.”, he replied honestly. “Why would you ask me this?”
“Because of your unwillingness to part your guilt, my husband. Perhaps you are not aware, but it casts doubt on what you say you feel for me. These past weeks, I have tried my best to rid you of it, but I have thus failed. I have finally figured out why, though; you do not want to let it go. You want to be defined by your guilt. I love you, Largo Summersong, as much as I love a warm summer song.. You are the only man I ever wanted and the only man I let in me..”, she said as she reached up and kisses him. When she spoke again, however, there was a very determined expression on her face, even though her eyes yearned for him. “..but I shall not be wife to a guilt riddled man who wants to die. I plan on making a future, a family, and a home. A home with children in it.. with you. I love you, but I shall not share that home with your guilt. Now, I will be leaving. Should the Great Heavens forgive my past sins and smile down on me and I return, I want to return to a guiltless man who wants to live. I shall not, however, return to a martyr waiting to happen.”
Lilly Venom hugged her husband, fiercely, for one last time, turned around, grabbed her long, dark brown leather coat, her many belts holding her two, ancient-looking daggers, her numerous knives, her coiled garrotes, her shark teeth, and her poisonous darts..
✱ ✱ ✱
How are they?”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez asked, staring at the dormitory door. The halls down here were even dimmer than they were above, in the Serenity Home Temple, lit by torches spread apart and it was still a few hours to dawn.
“Intertwined!”, replied Hamna Vir. “The idiots.”
“It was a good fight, though we should keep the noise down next time there is a mating ritual. Senior Temple Guardian Thomas did not respond well when he saw all the blood and cinder.”, Temez said.
“This isn’t any of his business.”, Hamna Vir scowled.
“This is his temple, Hamna Vir. Everything is his business here. We should have informed him. I am surprised he hasn’t thrown us all out already. We must be mindful from now on.”, Temez said, then looked at the door again. “Are they going to live?”
“I wouldn’t know. Hal Mali stabbed the crap out of Demelze when she started burning him down to charred clumps. When we brought them here, they just clung to each other and wouldn’t let go.”, Hamna Vir said, a bit creeped out. “I.. can’t do what those two did to each other, to my Dar Derune when he grows up!”
“The mating ritual is not a compulsory obligation, dear. Merely a means to light a spark in our hearts. I believe Hal already had one. Or perhaps it was ripe to bloom. Their ritual was to see if Demelze would oblige and submit to her own heart. After all, she could have our right burned Hal, but she didn’t.”, Temez said.
“Pissed the Hell out of him, though. I didn’t even know Hal could get so angry and aggressive. He was always so calm. So much so that some of the girls thought he had been castrated.”
“He will be looking after our brothers and sisters while we are gone, once he wakes up.. If he wakes up.. Senior Temple Guardian Thomas offered to heal them, but I declined. They must spend this time together, either to blend their souls and heal one another or die. I have arranged for several others to take up their responsibilities should that happen. Demelze is a pain, to be sure, but she is ours, and as troublesome as she is, she is still dear to us. And Hal has the most practical and calm head of us all. Now, I need to visit the orc smith of this town for the small order I gave him. Perhaps you and your sister should head out and meet with Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. We must be out of this town before dawn.”
“Why must I be the one to go with the sheriff? He is a stubborn, mule-headed Mortal. I want to stay and be with my Dar Derune.”, Hamna Vir said sullenly.
“I believe you just described yourself, dear; stubborn and mule-headed!”, Temez smiled.
Hamna Vir scowled at her.
“And, you ought to give our beloved Dar Derune the chance to miss you.”, Temez added. “Yearning is good for the soul.”
“You burn to see the young man you ate, and you fade, day by day, every day, ever since Merisoul..”, Hamna Vir fumed. “Which part of yearning is ‘good’, exactly?”
“I would rather burn down to further cinders to see my young man.. and fade out of existence if that is what it would take to see my merry soul, once again.”, Temez whispered with cold, smoldering fire. “Had we stayed in Hell, you know what Auntie Irine had in mind for Dar Derune.. Tell me, Hamna Vir, what would you have done, to save him?”
Hamna Vir refused to reply for a good long while.
When she did, she only hissed with savage vehemence.
“I would have died at the hands of Auntie Irine, before my Dar Derune.”
✱ ✱ ✱
He was putting on a good appearance, but he isn’t well.”, Udoorin rumbled, as he sat in one of the low, backless chairs he abhorred. He, Lorna, LadyAnglenna, and Lord Armathelius had returned to the high elf camp on the northern shore of Serenity Home town and somewhat to the west, forming a barricaded and entrenched buffer-zone perimeter for the Arashkan refugees in case the Orken attacked from that, likely direction. Lady Anglenna had retreated for a brief rest before they started out on their mission and, for some vaguely worded reason, Lord Armathelius had insisted on escorting her to her tent, leaving behind a squad of his most trusted veterans to guard the king and the queen.
“I have never seen him like this. Not since my mother died.”, the young man said depressed.
“Yes, something has happened. And it has him very much disturbed.”, Lorna agreed. “I haven’t seen Liaison Constance around, either. Not since the attack.”
“Neither have I.”, Udoorin frowned. “Perhaps.. they broke up?”
Lorna did not say anything for a while, though it was apparent she wanted to. Sheriff Standorin, however, was Udoorin’s father and, queen though she may be, she did not think she had.. jurisdiction.. in this matter.. per se..
Silently, she opted for Udoorin to prompt her to speak as she fiddled with the sleeve of her long, elegant gown.
“Lorna. Please. If you want to say something, by all means, do.”, Udoorin said, when he saw the mutely suppressed expression on her face. “He is my father, but you are his daughter, now, and he adores you.”
“That is kind of you to say.”, Lorna blushed.
“I am not being polite, love. He truly adores you.”, he said sincerely. “When we had returned from Themalsar and were at the night celebrations, the two of you talked for a bit, remember?”
“Yes. He was very open-hearted and candid with me.”, she said with a smile.
“Neither of us knew who you truly were, then. Yet, after the talk he had with you, he took me aside and spoke to me, quite firmly, that should I ever break your heart, he would break my head!”
“But.. why? He didn’t even know who I was.”
“Who you were, as a princess, mattered very little to him. I am guessing, it still does not, now that you are a queen. Who you were, as a young woman, mattered more, and father has always been a good judge of character. I knew I.. uhhmm.. very much loved you the moment I saw you.. But I knew I had made the very, very right choice when my father threatened to break my head, should I ever hurt you.”, Udoorin grinned at her.
“I.. I do not know how to respond to that. I must find a proper way to thank him some time.”, she said, her face a bit flushed. “But since it is alright with you, I will speak my mind. Would it bother you if someone, a woman, entered his life, once again?”
“I would be happy for him because I know exactly how much he loved my mother, Lorna. But I have seen what her absence has done to him.”, Udoorin mused and his frown returned. “He.. he did a lot for those around him. Quite selflessly too.. and he always went the extra mile.. He blamed himself for the attack that first triggered the chain of events nearly a year ago. He blames himself more, now, for this attack. At the end of the day, though, we both know, nothing survives a well-planned attack. Those were well-trained assassins and they were committed. I cut nearly a dozen of them as they came at us down the hatch on the roof of the sheriff’s office, and it did not even deter them. If it weren’t for all the preparations he had done; the Arashkan militia and the regulars, the elves, the rangers, the dwarves, and all the trained town guards, I am guessing we would have buried a lot more than we did.”
“I am truly happy you think like that.”, Lorna admitted. “When we had talked, back then, at the celebrations, he had a whimsical smile on his face. As if he was remembering his own ‘good old days’.”
“He.. he wanted me to be happy even though I did everything to make him feel nothing less than shame. Why bring this up, though? Perhaps you are wondering what I would think, should he.. I don’t know.. want to make a future for himself with Liaison Constance?”
“Yes.”, she replied simply.
“I do not really know Liaison Constance. She is a half-born. And I do not know what that entails other than they had a very hard life. But if she is anything remotely like Merisoul was, and if father can handle that kind of.. I am not sure how to phrase it, really, but if they like each other, and want to spend their life with each other, and want to look out for one another, sure, I’d be happy for him. Not that it is in any way my business nor is it up to me. I am stating that I’d be perfectly fine with it, honestly, sort of so I wouldn’t be used as an excuse for them not to be together.. if that is what they want.”
“You truly surprise me sometimes.”, Lorna said with a smile. “You are more understanding and grand when it comes to certain things than I would ever have been. The elves couldn’t even tolerate a human —my mother. And you are fine with a half-born with your father.”
“The elves do not have a say in what my father does. Much like they did not have a say who your father wed. They thought they had a say in that, much like they thought they had a say in the choices you made. I think they paid a hefty price for their arrogance. If they want a place in this our Aranië, they had better change their attitude.”, Udoorin said and he meant it. “And I do not believe I am any more understanding than you are in anything. You forgave those who rebuffed you. I did not.”
The smile Lorna gave him was even brighter this time.
“We have a few hours more before we leave. Perhaps we should make use of that time and rest. Our journey will not be easy.”, she said.
“Alright. A fresh start is always a good start, I’ll escort you to your tent —wait! What are you doing?”, he very nearly spluttered when Lorna let her long, elegant gown drop off her slender shoulders revealing the rest of her slender figure, teasing behind a gauzy, black, undergown.
Udoorin tried very, very hard not to ogle, but failed..
“I am going to sleep.. Here..”, she said with a very shy, blushing smile. “And I would much welcome the company of my husband.”
✱ ✱ ✱
I did what you said and removed the old mattress.”, Inshala said with a guilty pout as she lit the few candles of the attic-bed room of their new home.
“You like it more this way, then?”, Aager smiled down at the skinny girl in her barely hip-high, white, shirt-like nightgown, lying on the much larger, and certainly much softer mattress made for her by the ogre chieftain, Mother Ganiste.
She didn’t reply immediately. She lit the last candle, went over to their new bed, pulled open the quilt with the vividly colored tribal patterns, nested herself in the bed, pulled the quilt over her head and..
..hid under it.
“I feel guilty.”, she said and drew her knees up to her chest, making herself turn into an even smaller lump under the quilt than she already was as she further hid her face behind her slender hands.
Aager took off his dark leather hood, his half mask, his heavy leather belts with his weapons, and then his dark, leather armor, revealing his much scarred, spring-coil, lean-muscled chest, and to his surprise, noted the girl was peeking at him from under the quilt and between her fingers!
“Are you spying on me, love?”, he asked, trying hard not to chuckle.
“I.. don’t know..”, she said as she shut her eyes tightly and blushed.. furiously. “I.. want to.. but I do not know if it is alright with you that I do.. I have seen you without your leathers before. But always to clean and mend your wounds. Sometimes, though, I feel.. I feel I want to look even though you have no wounds.. But I do not know if I have the right or if you will be angry..”
“I am angry only when you do not take care of yourself, Inshala. If you want to look at my scars, by all means, do.”, Aager said kindly.
“You.. you do not mind?”, she asked a bit surprised.
“I do not mind. And you have all the rights to do so..”
“Yes. We are married. We have all the rights to each other.”, he said.
Inshala threw the quilt aside, hopped out of the bed and came at him, stopping just short of bumping into him!
Very slowly, she reached up and touched him and Aager felt a distinct tingling jolt run down his spine.
Inshala had very warm hands.
She closed her eyes and those hands ran, very, very slowly, up and around his lean chest, pausing every time they came to a scar as if committing them to memory..
..and they paused many times.
Aager cleared his throat carefully, also closed his eyes and stood still.
It was the oddest sensation and a singularly unique, sensually elusive experience for him to feel her feel him, more than inspect, really, and when he opened his eyes, he saw hers were open too, now, and she was starting up at him with large, dilated eyes.. And to his, somewhat alarmed astonishment, she was also breathing deeper and harder the more she ran her hands over him, as she went around and ran her hands on and over his bare back as well..
“You.. have so much scars.. They are.. beautiful..”, she said in a hushed and awed voice..
..until she held him, and she held onto him with her skinny arms and rested her face there, on his bare, scarred back as if listening to his heart.
“I feel.. strange.. my Aager..”, she said and now her voice sounded somewhere between an eager snarl and a purr, and then..
..it was filled with panic.
“I feel it.. all over me!.. In my mind and in my heart, in my hands, and in my breasts, in my spine, and in my legs.. What.. What is happening to me, my Aager?”
Aager swallowed the rising lump and slowly turned around to face Inshala to see her face burning in mortification..
He looked into her eyes to see them glazed and feverish..
Very slowly, he reached down to her, his own, calloused hands in her barely hip-high, shirt-like nightgown, feeling the whip-scars on her small, skinny back, then the heaving, throbbing of her nubile breasts.. and spoke with a hoarse, dried, and choked voice.
Upon this World, I have been, but a Grain of Sand To have seen your Fever thus Wild; the Heaven’s Land
To hold you Eternity in the Palm of my Hand Would I trade Infinity, but for an Hour, so Grand
I see a Robin Redbreast in a Cage Puts all Heaven in seething Rage
A Wolf & Lamb partake in this Home where we Belong To have thought I was, but a Fool and so Wrong
Men with Naught and Sin have bought you Scars Thus are they Fools, for yours are Heavens’ Pars
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom tapped on the door of the house with the beautiful, blooming cherry and entered, perhaps hoping to catch her brother and his skinny little girl in an awkward position; anything to rile up her elder brother, Aager Fogstep, and to see the cute blush on the skinny little girl, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane..
..and came face to face with a tall, lithe elf with long white hair, braided all the way down the small of her back, holding a dreadful-looking sword, a bushy little hobbit frowning, a scruffy looking midget of a gnomic girl with something round and packed in her hand, and a scowl on her tiny face, and a very tall, very dark girl with braided, vivid pink hair, scandalously short, also pink, dress skirt with two, long horns staring down at her, as her long, cat-like tail whipped right and left with distinct agitation!
She also noted, her own two, ancient daggers were in her hands..
The silence of the moment stretched and a tumbleweed was the only component missing in the stand-off scene.
“Who are the Hell are you and what the Hell are you doing in this house?”, the scruffy little gnomic girl hissed.
“I, the Hell, might ask you the same thing!”, replied Lilly Venom. “Though I remember seeing you at the delegation a few days ago. Put that grenade down, Miss-Whatever-Your-Name-Is! Should you foolishly use that thing here, you will hurt yourself and your friends more than you will hurt me, and bring this house down, in which case, you will truly hurt, by earning the wrath of your host!”
Another silence settled, though this one was more on the awkward side.
“She is right, you know.”, said the lithe elf girl.
“Yeah. Choose her side!”, sneered the gnomic girl, her scowl deepening.
The hobbit snorted.
“I remember you.”, the very tall, very dark girl said. “You were hiding up on the chandelier during the meeting. I thought it odd for someone to be up there, and hanging upside down for that long, at the time.”
“You saw me?”, Lilly Venom asked a bit surprised.
“I did. Though I didn’t tell anyone, I had my eyes on you all the time until Sir Aager came in with the human king of the elves, along with his beautiful queen.”, the tall, dark girl said with a smile.
“You should have warned Aager!”, Lilly hissed. “I could have been an assassin!”
“I believe you already are one. But the reason I didn’t was the apparent similarities between you and Sir Aager. Though I could not see the whole of his face, both of you have similar eyes and brows, both of you were clearly Drashan, and both of you were coiled to kill. Hence I came to the conclusion that you were siblings and part of the security, and opted to wait rather than reveal your position or outright banishing you.”, the tall in pinks replied in her cultured and illustrious voice.
Lilly Venom stared at her, then the rest of this weird bunch, and came to a conclusion of her own; it was just too bloody early to be hassled by this much weird! All she wanted at the moment was a hot cup of bitter coffee, a moment of silence, and possibly contemplate on what she would do if her hubby, Largo, couldn’t let go of his guilt-riddled past. She was sure she loved the man as much as she was sure she didn’t want another in her life. Much like she was quite sure she wouldn’t be able to get over her base loathing for all men for someone else..
“I am going into the kitchen, now. If you would kindly tell my brother I am there and waiting for him, I would be grateful.”, she said and glided off to the kitchen.
“I think we creeped her out.”, Tonic snarked.
“Tonic, luv, you really should stop greeting everyone with a grenade.”, Seressa sighed.
“Yeah. As opposed to your skimpy pinks!”, guffawed the gnomic girl.
“My pinks are not a danger to anyone, nor are they a threat.”, Seressa replied, slightly taken aback.
“I beg to differ.”, she said sarcastically.
“Perhaps we should prepare to leave. Our hosts will, when they come down. And I believe we have imposed ourselves upon them for long enough.”, Cora said quietly.
“I concur!”, piped Brom and started gathering his things.
“Are you leaving so soon?”, asked a voice shyly and Inshala came down the stairs, followed closely by Aager.
There was a distinct, happy blush on the skinny girl’s face and the man behind her gave the impression that he very much wanted to just grab her and run off!
“We have made good on our stay, Lady Inshala. Thank you for your hospitality. It was pure delight.”, Brom said honestly.
“You will not have breakfast?”, Inshala asked with a tiny pout.
“Master Hobbit is right.”, Cora said, a bit gruffly. “I was indeed a delight. But we have imposed ourselves upon you for long enough and we have a long way to go.”
Seressa came to Inshala and quietly hugged her.
“You are a wonder, my dear. I would want to visit you oft more if I may.”, she said, giving one of her best, illustrious smiles.
“My home, is your home, dear Seressa Wraiven. You and your company are always welcome here.”, Inshala replied and hugged her back. Then she turned to Tonic and smiled at her. “I would very much like to pocket you, dear Arcantonic Palecog.”, she said.
“Again, with the pocketing!”, Tonic scowled.
“You can not blame others for your cuteness. But you can smile back and hug.”, Inshala said. “I was ever ashamed of what I was. But my Aager taught me that shame was never mine to have.”
“You are worse than Seressa.”, she said with resignation and hugged the skinny little girl.
“I see a people in your future, dear Cora Sleet.”, Inshala said when she came and stood before the lithe barbarian elf.
“What?”, Cora exclaimed, a bit freaked.
“I see a people in your future.”, she repeated. “Many a people. Your people. They will come, should you call, in crowds and in throngs. Go in peace, and live in peace.”
Cora stared at the skinny little girl, totally freaked out now.
“Master Blom Bundlebim Hobim.”, she said with a brilliant smile when she came and stood before the hobbit. “I would very much like to pocket you as well, but you are simply unpocketable!”
“I suppose I am that.”, Brom said and grinned up at her.
“You know me.”, Inshala said simply and suddenly. “And kind as you have been, you have avoided me, thus.”
“Yes.”, Brom replied honestly.
“But you are not going to tell me.”, Inshala said brightly.
“At the moment, no.”, he replied.
“I want to ask, why..”
“Because the past holds many mysteries, my dear girl. The future, however, holds exactly that; the future. You have made yourself a life, uniquely and singularly your own, and have become a wonder to behold. Only you should get to have a say in that. Not the past.”, Brom replied kindly, but adamantly, also.
“Smooth.”, murmured Cora.
“I have no idea what you just said, Master Brom, for I am young and oft silly. But I am patient, also. I promise I shall understand it in time.. Hence, for now, I bid you, Master Brom, and my tundra sister Cora, and my beautiful sisters Seressa and Arcantonic farewell. May the Heavens smile upon you and light your trek, always.”, Inshala said sincerely.
Cora approached the man in dark leathers standing behind the skinny little girl and nodded at him.
“Thank you for slaying the man coming at me from behind, during the meeting.”, she said.
Aager stared at her for a long moment before merely nodding back.
Apparently, that was all the interaction necessary between them.
After a few more moments of hugs and heart-felt farewells, the Tundra Walkers were gone..
“I smell coffee.”, Agger growled and headed for the kitchen.
✱ ✱ ✱
Several streets over, in another house, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart was sitting in his couch, once again, staring at the dying embers in the fireplace, contemplating on his follies —a something he’d been doing, not unlike a daily prayer, ever since his beloved wife, Limnia Karya, had passed away.
And now, at that very moment, perhaps for the first time, he felt his age..
..for he was, also at that very moment, contemplating on his latest folly; the one, alluringly called, Constance..
Then he noted the dim of his home was slowly withdrawing and the first lights of dawn jabbed at him from between the shutters.
And, with inhuman stoicism, and with a grim and determined expression, he got up to face the day and whatever it might entail or throw at him because the last words his Limnia had said to him had been;
“Take care of our son, and yourself, my beautiful boy..”
To that day, and to be rather particular, to that very moment, he had always thought his Limnia had been referring to their son, when she had said, ‘my beautiful boy’..
To his dawning recognition.. and heart wrenching remorse, he understood.. she had, in fact, been referring to him!
His Limnia had been thoughtful.. and awesome like that!
To that end, he went over to the fireplace, picked up the bucket of water sitting next to it and dumped its content on the smoldering embers. He was going to be away for a long while and he had no intentions of returning to a house burned down on some foolish technicality!
Then he took a deep breath and went over to his kitchen.
First things first, then; coffee!
But when he saw the pristine condition of his kitchen, however, his shoulders slumped.
“I can’t believe I let the Queen of the High Elves clean my kitchen!”, he rumbled and easily admitted that she, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, was one of a kind young woman and dearly hoped both her, and his boy, Udoorin, would live a very long and happy life together.
Sheriff Standorin had always been a very disciplined man and that had extended to his home. He knew it had driven his Limnia to the heights of frustration at times. Looking at the pristine condition of his kitchen, and the rest of his home, however, it was apparent, no amount of discipline nor tidiness beat a woman’s touch. With their innate, and intimately assuring presence, they seemed to turn a roof and four walls, into a home.
Standorin turned around, went over to his room, put on his armor, grabbed his always ready back pack, his great sword, and his shield..
..and walked out of his home, locked its door, and left.
Coffee was important, but he just didn’t have the heart to destroy the newly cleaned kitchen trying to make some.
Hence he veered for his most likely successor and acting sheriff, Aager Fogstep’s home where he was sure his pretty little wife, Lady Inshala, could be persuaded make some for him.
And even part with some her strange wisdom.
Then, he would head to the Serenity Home Temple and meet with the surly girl and liaison, Berete Hamna Vir, and whoever the other half-born was, and do what needed to be done to save his town.
And when the enemy was finally routed and everyone was safe, he would have a sit-down, and hopefully, a long conversation with the alluring girl, Constance.
A conversation starting with an apology..
✱ ✱ ✱
It is ready, Mistress Perigren Ostlanna Temez.”, growled the orc black smith, Kor’gral, when the lithe, ravishingly beautiful young half-born girl ghosted into his workshop in Serenity Home town, just about dawn.
“I would rather have adapted a simple clasp and you kept the original, but against all my reservetions and my cautions, you persisted otherwise.”, he rumbled.
The pale half-born looked at the tall, well-built form of Kor’gral for a silent minute, then spoke in her soft, somewhat husky voice, void of all emotions..
“I have come from the very depts of Hell, Master Kor’gral, in hopes of finding peace. Yet, this Mortal coil has already taken that which was most dear to me.. There is no more peace to be had for me here. The sins of my former masters run deep and far. But with this..”, she said, as she slowly, almost tenderly, picked up the deadly craftmanship, the orc had placed before her.
She stared at it as she ran her slender fingers over the thing she beheld in her hands untill she drew blood, and her voice turned cold, brittle, and vexed..
“..I shall make them pay for my merry soul. I shall make them pay untill there is no them, or there is no me.”
The original verses of the poem Aager whispers to Inshala belong to William Blake. I used the first few verses and other than two, I modified them quite heavily to suit Aager and Inshala’s theme and added two final lines of my own.
Ladies and gentlemen, Lords and Ladies, emissaries and representatives, welcome to our humble town of Serenity Home.”, the old, raspy voice of the mayor was heard as everyone settled down as he stared at the rather crowded room full of important people of many different peoples and races, their retinue, their guards, and their servants.
“That said, I believe introductions are in order. I am Arthandos Yuleman, the mayor of this town and your host, and upon formal request, I shall also be representing the Arashkan refugees.. As a quick reminder before we begin; as you all know, are under the threat of a formidable enemy. All possible precautions have been taken. However unlikely, should anything unexpected occur, each and every one of you here has been given assignments as to where you should be and designated a location to wait until further notice. Please follow said instructions in an orderly fashion and stick to them. Should you need any assistance, town guards will be made available to you as soon as possible. Also, dinner will be served after sundown. Thank you very much. Now, shall we begin?”
“Lady Alisia Sivara Hooman, Lady Moira Hooman, and Captain Fardashi. Durkahan.”, Lady Alisia introduced herself and her retinue in a brisk tone.
“Nadine Graciousward. Former queen of Bari Na-ammen.”, the beautiful lady Nadine said and though she appeared calm, the fire in her eyes spoke otherwise and hushed voices rippled in the room.
“Lord Haransis. Koruxan Knights’ Commander.”, said a tall, lean man in bright steel armor, his winged helm on the table, his sword and shield hanging from his chair.
“Dridges Motherswolfie, Tactical General. Elder Hills.”, a young dwarven girl said quietly from her seat. Standing right behind her was also a pair of dwarven girls scowling menacingly and leaning on long, wooden shafted battle-axes —the Tosser twins.
“Margaret Madish, Argail Smitefast, Lady Magella, and Harakoon Evilscowl. Scowling Hills.”, said a surprisingly soft-voiced dwarven woman with half of her scalp shaved and had very pale green eyes. Sitting on her side was an ancient dwarf with a grand and white beard and with a big hammer hanging from his thick, leather belt, a young, diffident dwarven girl and a middle-aged dwarf, his face marred with a truly evil-looking scowl.
“Moglonar Picklefork. Tinker Hills’ Artificers.”, piped a bold and old gnome.
“Master Randorm Billbuckle. Mayor of Last Hope Town.”, said a middle-aged man with peppered hair, a thick mustache, and muscles that said he’d rather be out cracking goblin heads than be a mayor.
“Dagard Dreadhound. Representative of the Drashan Armadana.”, spoke a tall, stick-skinny man in black, possibly silk, clothes; black shirt, a black necktie, black trousers, and black shoes.. His face was clean shaved and other than a sinister mark, likely cut by a knife, etched at the side of his chin, with his thick, black eyebrows and his knotted black hair, he might as well have been some corporate’s shark lawyer.
“Drashan Armada..”, scoffed someone from the other side of the room. “You mean a bunch of rat pirates floating on feisty rafts!”
“Those rats on feisty rafts have been sinking Watch Flotilla’s for the past few centuries, Lord Alberdel. How is that cuss of an elder brother of yours, by the way? Trimdel Kandara, wasn’t it? Ow, wait. He’s dead, on account of being assassinated.. while he was surrounded by twenty of his elite men. That must have been rather embarrassing.”, replied the man, Dagard, cooly.
“That’s it.”, growled Lord Alberdel as he rose. “I refuse to be in the same room with this deck rat!”
“By all means, leave, Alberdel. Though walking all the way back to Endless Watch should be quite a chore; we sunk your ship.. with our feisty rafts. It was a pretty ship. Did make a fine bone fire, though.”, grinned Dagard.
“You, son-of-a—”, snarled Alberdel and reached for his cutlass.
“Gentlemen. Please. We are all here for one, and only one reason and that is not starting a fight in my town. Every representative here has come willingly or by the king’s command.”, inserted Arthandos Yuleman with his raspy voice. “Please refrain from abusing our welcome.”
Lord Alberdel settled in his seat, fuming furiously while Dagard smirked at him.
“Shall we?”, offered Yuleman.
“Parson Brimstone and Katrine Faeriefire. Vodgar Nuke Squad..”, said a frowning man in dark red robes with intelligent eyes and entertaining a long, elaborate goatee sitting next to a charming looking woman in her early forties, in dark purple dress robes with wildly curly brown hair, a distracted expression, and vivid blue eyes.
“Seressa Wraiven and Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap, representing the Academy of Melshieve.”, said the very tall, night-black girl in frilly pinks with a cool, cultured, but distinctly feminine voice, politely introducing herself and the scruffy-looking gnomic girl sitting next to her.
The hobbit sitting next to them coughed.
“Brom Bumblebrim. Observing from Bowling Hills.”, the small hobbit said.
“Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap? Really, girl?”, he then asked, lowering his voice.
“Shut up, hobbit!”, the gnomic girl snarled at him.
“Cora Sleet. Representing the Bear Claw Tribe, the Ice Crag Tribe, and the Ice Wolf Horde of the Great Northern Tundras.”, the pale, white-haired elf with the swirling tattoos said softly.
“Liam Ruststone. Commander of Palantine Militia.”, spoke the man in banded armor, sitting next to the white elf with a hoarse voice that sounded like he’d been shouting all day.
“Liason Constance. Representing a special interest group.”, came the soft, careful voice of the tall, elegant half-born woman.
“Standorin Shieldheart. Sheriff of Serenity Home.”, Standorin said in a curt, all-business tone, sitting next to the liaison.
“Talüna Mira Silverdenú. Elder of the Wood Elves of Dimwoods.”, creaked a very elderly elf woman.
Upon being nudged by his queen, Udoorin cleared his throat.
“Udoorin Shieldheart and Alor’Nadien ne Feymist. King and Queen of Aranië.”, he said with his low, rumbling voice.
“Armathelius Riverblade. Commander to former Bari Na-ammen forces.”, the high elf said in his baritone voice.
“Anglenna Brightleaf. Advisor to the King and Queen of Aranië.”
“Aranië..”, rumbled the awesome ogress sitting right next to her queen. “A bit vague, don’t you think?”
“You know elder elvish?”, Anglenna asked more than a little surprised.
“I know many things. Elder elvish is one of them.”, Grulganiste replied with a scowl. “But ‘Kingdom’ is a bit of a generic name, isn’t it?”
“Bari Na-ammen is destroyed, Chieftain Grulganiste.”, came the soft voice of the Queen of Aranië, Alor’Nadienne, sitting beside the giant ogress. “We may not use it again. When we take back our woods, we shall not rebuild it. What we will build is something new, and it shall not carry the sins of her ancestors. We shall adopt what we have seen and witnessed here, in this very town, wisely named; Serenity Home. Whoever comes in peace shall enter it, and live in it. And whoever lives in it, shall sweat for it, and bleed for it. Thus, I and my King have decreed, and so the elves I represent have agreed.”
“A wise and refreshing choice, girl.”, smiled the ogress, making her already brutish face, even more terrifying. “Now, then. Grulganiste Grimtooth. The chieftain of the ogre’s of Oger’s Foot.”
“Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane.”, whispered in a slightly petrified voice and the skinny little Inshala spoke with a very much embarrassed face. “I represent the druids, the shamans, and the witches of Ritual Forest.”
“Speak up, little girl.”, some creaky voice said from the other side of the room.
“..Hooman.”, added Lady Alisia sternly, one hand on the pommel of her long blade. “She is my daughter and her honor is my honor.”
“..Bolgrig.”, rumbled Grulganiste. “She is my daughter and I will crush any of you punny things who disrespect her!”
“..Fogstep.”, murmured Aager very quietly. “And my claim trumps all of yours, for she is my mate. But by all means, do disrespect her. I haven’t let blood loose for quite some time..”
A terrifying silence settled in the room.
“I did not ask for her credentials.. I asked her to speak up!”, said the same voice of the very old Talüna Mira Silverdenú..
Several more representatives declared their identities, including a tall, beautiful, high elf woman with auburn hair and very deep green eyes from Solace, a platinum-blonde high elf from Tranquil, several other mayors from various towns, and the King’s personal emissary, all with their retinue.
When the last representative introduced himself, an eager silence settled.
✱ ✱ ✱
Thank you all for the introductions.”, rasped Yuleman. “Now we will exhibit the current situation and bring you all up to date. Then I shall present our needs and open the floor to anyone who may address them. As most of you know, two months ago, Arashkan city was unexpectedly ambushed, without warning nor provocation by an army of Orken.
For those who do not know, the Orken, as we suspect, are originally orcs, though heavily modified and mutated to be as tall as eight to nine feet tall, extremely vicious, resilient, hardy, ruthless, and cunning creatures. Where they came from, we do not know. How they came to be is also unknown at the moment, but their timing coincided with four major attacks;
One on Heavens Hand, demonic in nature, and the assault is still underway. Though the wall still stands unbreached, the loss in life was unprecedented.
Another attack occurred on all the outposts of Tranquil, also demonic in nature. Two outposts were overrun and totally destroyed. Thanks to the quick intervention of Tranquil Airships and the Demon Hunters barbarians, the demons were routed.
The third attack was on Dwarwick, east of Celestial Mountains, Orken in nature. Though they were unable to breach the dwarven walls, the loss of life was monumental.
And the last assault occurred on all fronts at the Demon Plains, demon and undead in nature. Though the Durkahan knights and paladins held their ground, Solace forces were hard-pressed and Korduba’s Watch cavalry was pushed back behind their own walls. The Ford is currently under siege!
At this point, it isn’t hard to suspect some form of collaboration and assume the attacks on Arashkan and High Woods were the fifth and sixth attacks..
From where these Orken came, we do not know. As to how managed to come all the way to Arashkan, and in such massive numbers, reliable witnesses from many independent sources inform us they deployed a device that rendered either all or a large portion of their leading forces totally invisible. They were over the walls of Arashkan before any feasible defenses were brought in. The siege of the city did not last long but the total occupation and the destruction of the city took nearly two weeks, as local forces and the high elves in the city fought a costly delaying tactic to get as many civilians and the city’s militia out as possible via ships and boats. The Arashkan military camp was simultaneously also placed under siege, but thanks to the timely arrival of more ships still floating, more than half the city’s regular army was smuggled out and also brought here.
As far as we know, the First Lord, Princeps Kaladin, his son, and his daughters were all slain. While Arashkan was being overrun, a second Orken army entered High Woods and laid waste to the high elf city of Bari Na-ammen. The current status of Ri Grandaleren is unknown, though his wife, the former Rise, Nadine Graciousward, and their daughter, Queen Alor’Nadien ne made it out alive and are both here.
A large portion of that army split and turned west and surrounded Vodgar which is currently under siege as we speak. Whatever the reasons, the Orken made one fatal mistake; they started their campaign and attacked right before winter settled in. At the moment they are all out there, stretched between Two-Day Forest and Vodgar. They may, or may not have considered turning former Arashkan into a base for themselves, but due to some unforeseen and unprecedented occurrence, the city is now very much uninhabitable to anything, including the Orken. They have suffered two months’ worth of extreme winter thus far.
Come spring, however, they shall attack. They must or they shall perish and they know it. They may split again and go north for Tranquil, which would cost them too much with little possibility for victory, as Tranquil has been on high alert for the past six or seven thousand years and their army consists mostly of highly skilled and battle-hardened veterans —unless they abandoned their current campaign and rushed there.. They may turn south for Koruxan, also ending in a likely disaster, as Koruxan is a fortress city, its back resting against extremely hazardous mountains and approachable only by two sides. They may go for Durkahan, also a city full of veterans and paladins, it’s back also against mountains. Should they move against either city, they will be leaving their own rear and flanks totally vulnerable to attacks.
They might decide to skim over to Last Hope and attack Palantine, again, being subject to attacks from all sides.
I believe that leaves us..
..as the only viable option.
Should they take Serenity Home, they will have access to the great Ritual Forest that will give them all the wood and lumber they would need to build further catapults, mangonels, spears, and arrows, almost endless supply of food both from the forest itself and the surrounding lands. They will have access to the Arashkan river and able to build ships and be able to make landfall anywhere in the kingdom. They will also have access to the iron, copper, and silver mines under Scowling Hills and Tinker Hills. Once they invade this portion of the continent, they will also be able to move north, up to the tundras, and attack Celestial Mountains, Tranquil, Sky Stone Keep, and Dwarwick from the rear. All they will need to do after claiming these lands is to stopper the gaps and they will be able to practically settle here and in the next twenty years, they will have doubled their numbers. In the next fifty to sixty years, they will be over a million, all able warriors and armed to the teeth.
Ladies and gentlemen, we will have only one shot at defending the king’s land here. I must also inform you that they have deployed the same device they used at Arashkan and one-third of their army has gone missing. We do not know where it is, or where it will strike. We have trackers and rangers scouring all the possible locations they may appear but so far, we have thus failed to locate them.
The Durkahan army will be moving out as soon as the ground thaws to reach here and give us relief. But that will take time. We must help break the siege on Vodgar. Once that is done, It will be possible for them and anybody else to come at the Orken army from the rear and also give free rein for the wizards and sorcerers there to teleport directly here to help strengthen our defenses until the Durkahan army gets here. For this, we were hoping to rely on Koruxan knights and Palantine militia.
Our main problem is the lack of trained warriors and logistics. We have great amounts of lumber moving from Dimwoods, but not fast enough. We lack food, clothing, and shelter for the near eighty thousand Arashkan civilians and High Woods refugees and we are sorely short on arms and armors. The dwarven smiths have been working day and night, around the clock, but with nearly twenty thousand Arashkan militia and regulars, and fifteen thousand High Woods’ able soldiers, that is really a tough call. We have over thirty thousand very well-trained dwarves at Elder Hills but they will and must defend their hills and the west of Ritual Forest. The wall we have been building for the past months is substantial, but it will not stand against mangonels or even a steady pounding of scores of catapults. We have the engineers and the manpower, thanks to the dwarves and the gnomes, but we still need more, much more raw materials.
Ladies and gentlemen, we need your help, and quite desperately and we have two months at best, five weeks if we get an early spring, or the Orken get tired of sitting in the winter and decide to attack anyway.”
Mayor Arthandos Yuleman looked around for a moment, then nodded at Sheriff Standorin.
The sheriff cleared his throat and stood up.
But before he could start, the deep rubble of Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth was heard.
“Will the woodsmen of Dimwoods behave, should my boys bring their lumber here?”, she asked.
“We may be able to arrange a liaison.”, the sheriff mused. “It would be wiser if the chosen person went to speak with them first, though there are quite a bit of trees, cut and shaved already.”
“A team of my sons and daughters can drag half a dozen trees from there to here in under three or four days. The first batch will be slow. After that, they will have opened a trial. They have grown fat and lazy. The exercise will do them good, and there are over three thousand of them. Now. What raw materials do you need for this wall of yours?”, she inquired in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone.
Standorin turned to Margaret Madish.
“Stone.”, Margaret said simply.
“Will mountain rock work the same way as stone?”,Grulganiste asked the dwarf woman.
“Depends on the mountain.”, she replied.
“Rook Mountain rock!”, growled the chieftain.
“Rook Mountain rock is hard to chip and shape, but otherwise, it will be exceptionally good for a siege wall.”, Margaret said, her eyes suddenly bright.
“I shall call upon past favors and summon distant friends and relatives. I shall tell them to bring the Rook Mountains here as gifts.”, Grulganiste rumbled with a hideous grin. “After that, we shall all go to the west of our forest and camp there and wait for these Orken to come. They will make a merry hunt for seven thousand of my sons and daughters, and friends and relatives.”
“Perhaps..” said the creaky voice of the elderly Talüna Mira Silverdenú. “..the chieftain would like seven hundred elven archers to protect their flanks from their north when they make camp west of Ritual Forest? If she is willing to refrain her sons and daughters from eating my elves..”
“Elf tastes like chicken, Mira-Silverdenú!”, sniffed Grulganiste. “We don’t eat chicken. We have them only for their eggs. And elves do not lay eggs!”
Chuckles were heard from the dwarves.
“Perhaps..”, said the young dwarf tactical general, Dridges Motherswolfie, as she glanced at the ogress. “..the chieftain would like several thousand dwarves to protect their flanks from their south when they make camp west of Ritual Forest? If she is willing to refrain her sons and daughters from eating my dwarves.. That way, we may part and divert at least five thousand of our ground troops to the defense of the walls here.”
“We have standards, Dridges-Motherswolfie-girl!”, she said with a distinct expression of disgust on her face now. “None of my sons and daughters will put a dwarf into their mouth and risk infectious diarrhea!”
Dridges went red.
The Tosser twins went black!
A burst of roaring laughter went off and Argail Smitefast slammed the table as he stared at the brutishly glowering chieftain ogress.
“It would seem, years have stolen little from your sour sense of humor, Grulganiste.”, he said merrily.
“It would seem, years have stolen quite a bit from you, old dwarf. You are all white!”, Grulganiste sniffed at him.
“Harsh..”, said Argail, and laughed some more.
“You two know each other?”, Dridges spluttered.
“Argail thinks he knows me. Like all men who think they know and understand women, he is a wrong old fool!”, snarled the chieftain with undisguised disdain.
Dridges and the Tosser twins just stared at her, then at their grandfather, thunderstruck, while Margaret Madish and her sister, Marideth Brave, gave their father a bemused, poorly concealed, slide-long glances.
Sheriff Standorin looked at Margaret again.
“Will this solve the issue of stone and lumber needed to finish the construction of the wall, Lady Margaret?”, he asked.
Margaret Madish didn’t reply immediately. She pursed her lips as she thought for a moment, then she turned to her own daughter and spoke.
“The stones and the lumber will suffice. But that will not solve our main concern, here. I believe Our Tactical General Dridges is better equipped to outline said concern..”
Dridges nodded at her mother, then quietly but sternly, she picked up her mother’s narration.
“Our main concern; the south end of the wall.. Unless we continue building the wall to eventually surround the town, a wall is just a wall —a linear line. It may not be breached, it can, however, be easily outflanked. Perhaps not from the north end, due to the swift-running Arashkan River and they do not come with ships, it will be flanked from the south, making the whole structure redundant and moot. Should the enemy circle around Silent Lake and risk the Demon Fog, our whole defense line will be overrun in a matter of minutes and Serenity Home will be done for. Should they follow the said route, they will not only be coming at us from our south but also from our rear, practically using the King’s road! Should they not want to risk the Demon Fog, they still have the option to sail over Silent Lake using whatever that floats and still come at us from our south, totally ignoring and bypassing the wall..”
“If some kind of sleds be crafted and pulled by, perhaps the ogres before they leave for the western end of the forest, a decent number of our Drashan Armada can be put on the other side of the stone bridge. That way we can make sure these Orken can not come at the wall from the north by the river and we can patrol the whole of Arashkan Lake make it quite hazardous for them to shore anywhere. Provided the petty lords of Endless Watch do not use this as a lame-ass excuse to cockblock our ships in hopes of trapping them. Should they be foolish enough, we will unload everything we have on them, and anything else that gets in our way and be damned with any past treaties we have made with Serenity Home..”, Dagard Dreadhound spoke in a calm, deadly voice. “Make no mistake, here, gentlemen. We are not here as anyone’s servant, and certainly not as part of the Kingdom of Isles. We are here as part of our pact with this town and this town alone. Perhaps the merry Lord Alberdel can actually offer something to save his own kingdom.”
Lord Alberdel Kandara glared at the tall, lean man in blacks but refused to comment.
“It is possible..”, said an illustrious, cultured, and distinctly feminine voice. “..Lord Alberdel may be more of help by providing a sizable number of Endless Watch Naphta Team, along with their munitions, instead of bringing in more ships into a river already cramped with ships.. and avoid further frictions?”
Everyone turned and stared at the very tall, very dark, and rather buxom girl with the long, pink hair and the frilly, short, and vivid pink skirt dress.
“What are you doing, girl?”, hissed the scruffy-looking gnomic girl at her side. “We can’t get involved. We can only observe!”
“But we are not getting involved, luv.”, Seressa Wraiven said, grinning with pristine-white teeth. “We shall be observing this war.. from above.. via Melshieve Gunships.. The Endless Watch Naphta Team will merely be on board our gunships as guests and we can’t always keep an eye on said guests, nor can we be responsible for the things they throw over board, now can we?”
“Sophistry!”, scowled the little gnomic girl. “That’s pure sophistry and you know it!”
“Tonic, luv—”, the very tall, very dark girl began.
“—Shhh.. Don’t use my name dammit!”, hissed the scruffy gnomic girl.
And a few tables over, Nadine Graiciousward’s ears prickled suddenly!
“Oops. I am sorry.”, whispered the dark girl earnestly. “But what I was going to say was, it is only sophistry when there are two parties and one of them is trying to outmaneuver the other by following the letter of a certain agreement, but not the spirit of it. Yes, the Academy of Melshieve has a sworn policy to ‘observe only’ any and every possible occurrence taking place in the Kingdom of Isles without taking sides or joining any conflicts. But said sides of any given conflict must have some form of agreement or at the very least, some form of recognition in the first place, historically or conventionally. Neither the Kingdom nor the Academy has ever made such agreements and no one here has recognized the Orken as a sovereign kingdom. They appeared out of nowhere and attacked without provocation.”
“Girl, you just defined how sophistry works.. with another sophistry!”, snarked Tonic. “But I don’t really care. It’s not me you have to sell that demented logic to.”
“Spoken like a true pair.”, murmured the hobbit sitting next to the gnomic girl.
“That actually is a very good idea, Maiden Seressa.”, spoke Lorna. “Melshieve Gunships are quite famous, and bombarding the enemy from above will make sure they are unable to circle around and come at the wall from the south end and make sure they can not use boats to cross Silent Lake. It is possible to put highly trained elven archers on board the gunships as well, providing both protection for the ships, the Endless Watch crew, and raining arrows upon the enemy below.”
The room was suddenly filled with nods and murmurs of agreement as Tonic bent closer to her pair, Seressa, all the while hiding her face behind one of the fruit bowls.
“You just want to ride on a Gunship!”, she hissed at Seressa in a low voice.
“About this device, the Orken has employed..”, Lady Alisia asked. “What do we know about it?”
“Actually, I want to ride their new invention; the Storm Kites.”, grinned the dark girl. “You, on the other hand, truly want to be on a Melshieve Gunship. I know for a fact that you do because you applied one hundred and nine times as a flight member crew, a gunship engineer, a gunship’s turret man, a deckhand, a kitchen assistant, and going as low as applying as a flight attendant, who basically just serves drinks! All your applications, along with their rejections, were also in your files..”
Nimbletyne Tinkerdome got up at that point and he had a very sour face.
The gnomic girl gave her a very baleful glare.
“Girl, you can turn into a ghostly raven and it looks awesome and you can literally fly without a gunship!”, she almost snarled at her.
“The device, as far as we know..”, Nimbletyne began after clearing his throat. “..is comprised of several components. We are not sure how they have been assembled or who was the original designer. But once activated, it bends and reflects light around a very large area, sort of a half a globe or sphere, not making those inside strictly invisible, per se, but making those outside unable to perceive those that are inside. At least that is our working theory.”
“But so can you! You have a cloak, and a broom that can help you fly.”, Seressa smiled down at her little pair. “And why are you suddenly hiding behind that fruit bowl?”
“The cloak does not count.”, mumbled Tonic.
“And what are we doing about it, Master Nimbletyne? That missing Orken army might be anywhere. We could be bringing our paladins in hopes of hitting their army here and get slaughtered when they suddenly appear behind us.”, Lady Alisia said with a concerned tone.
“What? Why? Did you dump one of your acid vials on it to see if it is acid-proof?”
“What? No, dammit.. I.. plan on.. *some incomprehensible mumbles*”
*More incomprehensible mumbles*
“We have tried various approaches to the issue at hand, but I am afraid we haven’t made much headway.”, admitted the Nimbletyne with an infuriated and frustrated tone.
“Ow. I see. You don’t want to tell me. I get it.”, Seressa said cooly.
“You really want to push this don’t you?”, Tonic scowled at her pair.
“Yes. Very much.”, smile Seressa.
“We may have a solution.”, said a distinctly alluring voice, and people turned to the tall, horned girl sitting next to Sheriff Standorin.
“You do?”, asked Nimbletyle Tinkerdome, somewhat surprised. “By all means, share with us, Liaison Constance.”
“We did not come forward with it because the solution lacks the practicality of application.”, Constance said. “We are, at the moment, looking into various avenues.”
“Perhaps I can help there?”, Nimbletyne asked eagerly.
“The main composition at the moment can reveal, not the location of this concealing device nor what it conceals when activated, but rather the area it affects. At least for a time long enough to be seen with the naked eye. Our problem is delivering it to the suspected area.”, the Liaison explained succinctly.
“I plan on gifting it to Cora!”, she whispered at her.
“Ow? Why?”, Seressa asked a bit surprised.
“Because she’s awesome and cool and I want her to experience the delights and the freedoms of flying. I mean. She’s a barbarian. She is literally the definition of ‘free’ and on so many levels. And she’s been a friend to me even though she had no reason to be. I mean, I certainly never gave her any reason, that’s for sure.. Uhhmm.. besides, I want to see how fast she can fly and land on her foes with that kazirillion foot long sword of hers.. from above! It’ll be legendary!”,Tonic replied with a silly grin on her face.
Nimbletyne Tinkerdome mulled over the Liaison’s explanation.
“You are such a dork, baby girl.”
“Use PPG’s.”, said Tonic promptly, from behind the fruit bowl.
“Of course!”, exclaimed Nimbletyne, smacking at his forehead.
“Well, FINALLY! Someone who knows his acronyms!”, said the gnomic girl happily.
“Perhaps you may want to dummy that down for the rest of us, Miss Cinotnacra?”, Udoorin said, showing a surprising initiative, as he stared at the voice hiding behind the fruit bowl, with a bemused and poorly hidden smile.
“Pressure Propelled Grenades.”, Nimbletyne inserted absently. “Never thought much of them myself because they are quite unreliable and tend to totally miss their target as often as they hit your allies.”
“Yes.”, Cora Sleet, the barbarian girl said quietly from where she sat without cracking a smile.
“Hells bells, Cora. Just how many times did I hit you?”, Tonic hissed at her with a scowl.
“Nine times.. Five with your fire grenades when you misjudged their distance. Once with your stun-bang grenade-thingy, which almost got me killed because I couldn’t hear or see anything. When I am very silent, I can still hear my ears ringing. And three times with your acid grenades, totally disintegrating and ruining two very good shirts, and that time when you totally melted away my favorite pair of pants and put me on display to the rest of Arashkan —in my undies!“, she replied seriously.
Tonic gave her a rather guilty look.
“You are never going to let that one go, are you?”, she fumed.
“It was a good pair of pants and you still owe me one.”
“We should try it immediately, Miss Palecog. I believe I have all the materials.”, offered Nimbletyne eagerly.
“No, no. I heard a lot about you, Master Nimbletyne. I am sure you can handle this one on your own.. And.. uhhmm.. I have a prior engagement elsewhere, sir.”, Tonic replied a bit hastily, still hiding behind the fruit bowl.
“Very well.”, said Sheriff Standorin. “We shall eagerly await for the results of this PPG-whatsit. Now, we have three more items on our plate. One is; how to lift the siege on Vodgar as soon as possible, because as long as that siege is there, Vodgar will be out of commission, and we will be unable to trap the Orken. Yes, as much as we want to make sure they will be unable to invade the eastern end of the continent by taking Serenity Home and its surrounding lands, we also do not want them to spread out and around the hills and forests between here and Vodgar. Two; we need clothing and food for over one hundred and twenty thousand refugees, including the Arashkan civilians, their militia, and their regulars, and the High Woods elves. And three; the elves and the regulars currently have acceptable equipment, though most of their armors need repairs and lack shields, the Arashkan militia have very poor arms and armor, and we do not have enough for any new requites from the civilians who want to participate in the coming war.”
“We shall move our main forces and beef up Last Hope’s defenses to make sure these Orken can not come at you from that direction. And when they attack the wall, we will harass them from their southern flank..”, Liam Ruststone, the commander of Palantine Militia said hoarsely. “We train our militia both as stationary and mobile defensive long-pikemen, and for trench warfare, so we have certain diversity. Any gap that needs corking, any trench that needs clearing, my men can handle it.”
“We can hold off the Orken at Vodgar for a very long time.”, snickered Parson Brimstone.
“Indeed.”, Katrine Faeriefire gave a hearty laugh. “Best thing that’s happened to Vodgar in the last three centuries.”
“Yes, yes.”, added Parson gleefully, stroking his odd goatee. “All the newbie and apprentice wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks who could barely cast a cantrip just two months ago are now dropping fireballs, ice storms, and lightning bolts —en mass!”
“We could send some two hundred of them over in a few days. Some physical training and seeing the results of war would be good for them. Educational, even, and that it isn’t just nuking from afar.”, Katrine said thoughtfully.
“Excellent idea, my dear. We should also send some to Durkahan. Those partial to detection and divination, in particular. It should help against possible ambushes should they decide to employ this device against the paladins. We have had good relations with them for centuries and they have treated us with honest respect.”, Parson said, nodding at Lady Alisia who nodded back.
“Then it is down to food, clothes, arms, and armors.”, Standorin noted with some relief.
“Endless Watch can supply the food and clothing.”, Lord Alberdel mused. “We are, however short of arms and armors ourselves. We can send word to Graystone Military Keep and Devien City for them, however. If the bloody pirates refrain from raiding them, they could be here within one and a half months by sea. Our ships with the food and clothing, within two weeks.”
“I have been given free rein to make any agreements.”, Dagard said cooly. “Provided no Drashan ship is attacked. If they are, Drashan will retaliate in kind. Please note that should this Orken threat be eliminated, we expect the Kingdom of Isles to officially accept Drashan as a free, sovereign kingdom.”
A strained silence settled in the room as many faces turned sour.
Aager Fogstep, who was standing silent and quite still behind Udoorin, had an amused expression on his face, hidden behind his half mask. Many things could be said about Bara’baras Kördog, the ‘King’ of the pirates of Drashan, and none of them good, but the very tall, giant of a man did have great foresight and he was a patient hunter. The official treaty he had signed with Serenity Home five years ago had legalized Drashan’s existence in the eyes of the Kingdom of Isles, even if it had been by mere insinuation. And now, he was going to officialize that, hence any attacks on any Drashan ship or soil, would constitute as an assault against a sovereign kingdom instead of a rabble of illegitimate pirates.
“Well played, you son-of-a-heartless whore..”, Aager growled with admiration..
..and just then, Lilly Venom dropped from the heavy chandelier above just as alarm bells went off everywhere in town.
✱ ✱ ✱
The events of the next few moments happened in a blur..
..when the lithe form of Lilly fell on someone standing right behind the former Rise of Bari Na-ammen, Nadine Graciousward!..
..as someone else, standing right behind Lord Haransis, the Koruxan Knights’ Commander, gave a low, painful grunt and stiffened, and Agent Largo was standing behind him with a bloody knife..
..and Inshala Frostmane disappeared as another figure lunged forward with a long, curving dagger..
..and a tiny squirrel was climbing up Chieftain Grulganiste Gimtooth’s massive, tree trunk-like arm and shoulder! The squirrel darted into the giant ogress’s thick, braided hair and holed in it..
..when Dagard Dreadhound whipped out a very sharp dagger and hurled it at Lord Alberdel of Endless Watch..
..just as Aager Fogstep sent a ghostly dagger across the room at the barbarian tribes and horde’s representative, Cora Sleet..
..while Bremorel Songsteel lurched up and over the table, and with the great, blue sword in her hands, knocked a dagger cast for King Udoorin, right out of the air..
..and with a swift draw, Lord Armathelius ran his long, elven sword through the neck of the man coming at his Queen, Alor’Nadien ne, without so much as looking at him..
..and the room went up in total chaos!
“You deck rat bastard—”, began Lord Alberdel furiously as he went for his sword when the dagger hurled at him missed. Then he froze and stared in amazement when someone behind him toppled over and crashed, face down onto the table.
“Huh.”, was all Cora Sleet had said when she turned around to see the moaning man clutching at the long, ghostly dagger sticking out of his chest. To her bemused surprise, the dagger suddenly faded.. and disappeared! She looked back at the man in dark leathers, hood, and mask and noted the same ghostly dagger reappear in his hand, once again. The man did not so much as glance at her as he engaged with someone else trying to get at the human king of the high elves.
She didn’t wait for too long to take in the chaotic mess around her for someone had just grabbed for Tonic!
The little gnomic girl yelped as the ‘guard’ behind her picked her up by the knot of her reddish-brown hair and tried to twist her very slender neck.
“There is a man behind you, Mother Ganiste. I think he is trying to come at you with a knife!”, whispered Inshala into the ogress’s ear, from where she was lodged.
“So the peace with the humans is over? Thus soon?”, Grulganiste grunted with disgusted disappointment.
“I do not think these are good humans, Mother. Ow, and the one coming behind you is almost upon you. I think you should do something about him.”, Inshala urged.
“I SHALL KILL HIM THEN AND FEEL NO REMORSE!”, snarled the ogress.
“I don’t think so..”, said Cora cooly, and seamlessly she drew out her great, two-handed sword, blazing with frigid tundra winds from her back and brought it down on the man, splitting his head open like a ripe melon, all the way down to his midriff! “..She’s our midget.”, she continued with a touch of swagger.
What was left of the man stiffened as blood and gore gushed out everywhere and Tonic dropped on the floor all drenched!
“Mustn’t complain. Mustn’t complain. It’s only hog’s head full of blood and crap!”, muttered the gnomic girl. “Behind you, Seressa.”
Seressa, however, was a bit busy hailing several other guards across the room coming at the ranger girl, Bremorel, sending ghostly and howling skeletal hands in misty fists at them. The ghostly hands clutched at each guard’s throat. Bremorel spun around, and with a lithe dance, she cut the men down, showing once again just how she’d earned her name; Songsteel..
“Thomas, GO!”, she snarled. “Take the Liaison and Temez and GO! I must guard Udoorin!”
Brom, the hobbit, pulled out his lyre and with a quick twitch of one finger, send a very disturbing, discordant note, and the man coming up behind the very tall, very dark Seressa stumbled as his head suddenly snapped up, one eye staring ahead, the other, somewhere north and west! Blood gushed out of his mouth, nose, eyes, and ears, and his whole head exploded from the inside!
“Dridges!”, yelped Lady Magella in a terrifying voice as she shied away from the man coming at her. The man lunged at her and she flung back, toppled over her chair, and slammed herself on the ground, hitting her head quite hard.
“You should be ashamed of yourself going after girls. Fight someone with balls!”, snarled her mother, Margaret Madish, and caved his head in with an enormous hammer while her father, Argail Smitefast was downing men, right and left.
In perfect sync, the Tosser twins, Britney and Dritmey, had started swinging their great battle-axes as Dridges told them where to butcher.
Lady Magella rose from the ground and her timid face was gone. What replaced it was nothing short of wrath. She pulled out her six-flanged mace glowing with incandescent light and started breaking bones!
Thomas gave Bremorel a stern look filled with the fear of being deprived, turned around, and with two of his junior temple guards, he dashed up to Constance and Temez and curtly said, “You, two. With me!”
Liaison Constance nodded, though it was clear, she did not want to leave..
..when Perigren Ostlanna Temez jumped over her table, and with a water-like flowing motion, she flipped and landed a kick right into the throat of a man coming at Lady Anglenna, who was hastily dragging Queen Alor’Nadien ne. The man stumbled back and Temez pulled out the broken pair of her antler horn and stabbed it into the man’s face, then at his jugular, and seamlessly, at his heart! The man barely gave out a rattling, wet, and wheezy sound as he collapsed.
Back to back, just a few steps over, Lilly Venom and Agent Largo were carving their way, from one table to the next, using a rather brutal strategy..
..where Largo would jump an assassin, and with a series of punctures, then stab his shortsword into in their stomach, twist, slice open, pull out, point up and shove it into their throat as they would, inevitably grunt forward, and Lilly would cut open their kidney, then stab them in the pit of one arm, piercing the heart at a diagonal angle, and finally slice off a jugular, as an encore.. and move on to the next, a process that seemed more like an extremely bloody and excruciating dance, really!
A body with two arms missing flew over Temez and crashed into a group of men trying to corner Sheriff Standorin as he tried to fend them all off the Serenity Home mayor, Arthandos Yuleman.
“Aager, Morel!”, he bellowed over the clamor. “Get Udoorin to his secure location, NOW!”
“Time to go, I believe. Nadien ne. Please stay close to me..”, murmured Anglenna.
“Not without my King and certainly not without my mother.”, replied Lorna stubbornly as she sliced open a man trying to get at her, all the way from his groin up to his forehead!
“Young Udoorin has his own retinue, cousin. Being pigheaded now is unseemly for a queen. Lord Armathelius, do ask the former Rise of Bari Na-ammen to join us if you will?”, she said as she calmly flash-burned someone trying to get at her. The man crumbled in charred cinders.
“I offered.”, Lord Armathelius replied with equal calm as he clashed his elven longsword against three assassins. “She said she was assigned elsewhere.”
“Get behind me, mother. You are out of practice.”, Moira beseeched. “Two kills and your sword hand is trembling.”
“Just who do you think your father practiced his swordplay, young lady?”, fumed Lady Alisia Hooman.
“Mother, that was over twenty years ago. Please. Just do this for me? You have children who will mourn should something happen to you.”, Moria pleaded as she slammed her shield into a man and ran him through when he stumbled.
“I am not leaving my daughter, nor the man who makes her happy.”, Alisia hissed with determination. “If anything happens to that boy, Inshala will be devastated.”
“Mother, Aager knows what he is doing. Better than either of us. And I do not see Inshala. She must already be out. Captain Fardashi. Please talk some sense to my mother..”, Moira said grimly.
“I do not tell the First Lady of Durkahan what to do. No one does. Because she is smart enough to know what she must do, as opposed to what she wants to do. After all, she is the First Lady of Durkahan.”, Captain Fardashi said calmly as he cut another man trying desperately to get at Lady Alisia.
“Lady Moira, Lady Alisia, Captain Fardashi..”, Thomas said as he and his junior temple guardians maced their way over to them with Nadine Graciousward in their mids. “This way, if you will. We have two more to pick up..”
Udoorin head-butted one of the men coming at him, then chopped him down. The next one was just a little too slow and he was dead before he knew it, as the burly King lopped his head, clean off his shoulders.
“Time to go, Udoorin. Anglenna and Armathelius are taking your Queen away as we speak.”, Aager growled.
“Can’t.”, Udoorin rumbled. “The door is too crowded. Might as well stay and help.”
“That one, Mother Ganiste. And that one.. we must get them too before we can leave.”, Inshala whispered.
“Why? Can’t they take care of themselves?”, the ogress, Grulganiste, growled.
“I am sure they can, Mother. But then, so can I..”, the tiny squirrel chirped happily.
“You have been too long with the humans, my daughter. You now have much sass!”, scowled Grulganiste as bulldozed through the chaos, reached over, and grabbed her query, by the scuff of his coat, right off the ground.
“Eep!”, yelped Brom, just to come face to face with one of the most brutish and awesomely scowling faces he had seen in his entire life!
“Ow. Hello Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth. It’s been a while. You are as comely and captivating as ever”, he said grinning toothily at her.
“Good Heavens!”, Inshala exclaimed in a melting voice. “He is sooo cute! Can we keep him?”
“Master Hobbit. You seem to appear at unexpected times. And your words are as beguiling as ever, even though you lie through your teeth. Do say more!”, growled the ogress.
“Chieftain Grulganiste!”, Cora snarled. “You will let our hobbit go, right now.”
“Simmer down chicken legs!”,Grulganiste snarled back at her.
“Chicken legs?”, Cora said dumfounded and with a very flushed face.
“Yes.”, the giant ogress said. “Meat like chicken —all white!”
“It wasn’t meant as an insult so much as it was a descriptive term, Cora. The esteemed chieftain and I are acquainted.”, Brom explained hastily. “Uhhmm.. where are we going?”
“Wherever I take you!”, scowled Grulganiste and tossed the hobbit on her back!
Brom yelped again and clung to the long, thick, braided hair of the giant ogress.. and came face to face with a tiny squirrel poking her head out of the nest of hair!
Thomas appeared next to the very tall and very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, and the midgety little gnomic girl, MissCinotnacra, with Ladies Nadine Graciousward, Alisia, and Moira, Captain Fardashi, and his junior temple guardians, and was talking to them in quick, brisk words.
“Hold on tight, my daughter.”, growled Grulganiste as she bashed in the head of another assailant and stepped on him. The mad crushed and the chieftain of Oger’s Foot rammed right through the town hall’s outer wall..
..with a dust-covered Cora coming up behind her!
“That was awesome, Mother.”, said Inshala.“You are so awesome at breaking houses!”
“Are you punning me, my daughter?”, scowled Grulganiste.
“We are out, my Aager.”, Inshala whispered in her mind.
“Pun you? Who would be foolish enough to pun Mother Ganiste?”, she giggled.
“I noticed.”, came Aager’s dry and amused voice. “I must admit, your mother is indeed, quite awesome!”
“I know, right?”, Inshala said with an exhilarated voice.
“There! The way out!”, Aager said, pointing at the gaping, ogre-shaped hole in the wall.
Udoorin turned around to see Alor’Nadien ne, Anglenna, and Lord Armathelius shimmer..
“..Stay safe!”, he shouted.
“..Stay safe, my Dorin..”,Alor’Nadien ne whispered..
“Just a sec..”, snapped Bremorel as she danced her way into the chaos.
“Once. Just once I want you people to do as you are told!”, growled Aager..
..and the ranger girl reappeared with a limp body in her arms and running over the tables. When she reached the last few tables, she jumped, sailed over them, and landed, quite lithe and supple, next to Udoorin.
“Why have you risked everything for that woman?”, Aager snarled at her, as he pointed at the elder of the wood elves of Dimwoods, Talüna Mira Silverdenú. “She had her own assigned designation.
“She was knocked on the floor and people trampled over her. Just how was she supposed to get to her designation?”, Bremorel snarled back.
“That is not your concern, Ranger Lieutenant!”, snapped Aager.
“She is my only remaining relative!” she hissed at Aager. “She is my cousin Laila’s grandmother, hence my grandmother too. I’ll be damned before I left her there to be slaughtered.”
Aager fumed some more, though he knew any argument made here would be futile. The ranger lieutenant’s stubbornness was bested by only her dislike for him.
Then, inadvertently, he looked down at the frail, old, and unconscious elf woman in the ranger lieutenant’s arms and noted she was very nearly as small and skinny as his Inshala. Yet, where his Inshala was full of life and skipping energy, this woman was at the end of hers.
“To the sheriff’s office..”, he growled silently.
✱ ✱ ✱
To say Inshala was pleasantly surprised when Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth had parkoured her way through the town in a literal sense and brought her to her home..
..newly built and freshly painted!
“Nuf with the free ride, hobbit!”, Grulganiste growled. “The Heavens have gifted you with sturdy legs.. as short as they may be..”
Brom hopped down the giant ogress’s back and landed on his butt with a flushed and quite embarrassed expression face as Cora joined them.
“Why have you brought us here, chieftain?”, she asked gruffly.
Grulganiste scowled down at the tundra elf for a moment.
“You are a grouchy one, arent you? I can not say I like elves, but I had heard the white elves from up north were a bit better mannered than their kin living in the woods. Do not make me think I was mistaken.”, she scowled at her some more.
A squirrel climbed down the fourteen-foot ogress and hopped on the floor, spun once, spun twice, and on the third, the squirrel was gone, and the skinny form of Inshala was there.
“Mother Ganiste, please. They are guests. And they have just come out of a dire fight.”, she said with a shy smile as she looked down at the very ‘cute’ hobbit and his pouting elf-girl companion.
Then she turned around and ogled at her home..
..and darted inside.
Apparently, Chieftain Grulganiste hadn’t had her ogres rebuilt her home..
..she had them built something totally new; a two-story lodge with a guest room and a separate kitchen with a larger fireplace on the ground floor, a wide-spaced living —and possibly playing— room on the second floor and a very cozy attic that had its roof high enough to stand —as their spacious bedroom.
The new home was furnished with hand-woven tribe’s patterned rugs on every floor, low, cushioned, backless chairs and a similarly low table on the guest’s floor, two more low and backless chairs and a table on the second floor, though these were less flashy but warmer in color and appearance, along with dozens of cushions. The mattress in the attic was certainly not a threadbare thing, but something filled with washed and sun-dried sheared fleece, soft cowhides, and not-itchy woolen blankets. There were handcraft lanterns hanging from little hooks and slender chains on the walls now and there were a few more pots, pans, wooden plates and bowls and cutlery in the kitchen, and the squeaky pump in the garden had been fixed, and it didn’t shriek like a banshee anymore when its lever was pulled down and it was also, somehow, moved into the kitchen! However Chieftain Grulganiste had attained them, there were even a few very elegant vases and soft, faintly blush-colored doilies as well, all elf made!
And then, there was the garden..
Grulganiste’s ogres hadn’t touched the big, blooming cherry tree, but the small garden had been swept clean and a stone-laid path was leading from the kitchen to a little gazebo, complete with a wooden table and two benches on either side and a brazier hung from the ceiling of the gazebo.
Inshala was enthralled..
..and thoroughly shocked.
The cherry tree also entertained many lanterns and even a two-seat swing, hanging from one of its larger branches..
And as a final touch, the garden was cordoned off with a fence tall enough to give certain privacy, and the fence itself was hand-woven, interlocking, dried and varnished reeds..
“Mo.. Mother Ganiste? What did you do to my home?”, she asked dazedly when she came back out.
“I made up for my folly, my daughter. I had my ogres use as much as the original materials they could salvage from what I wrecked, then made a home worthy of my daughter and the Ritual Guardian. Your father, Cathber, was a man with many good traits. Being alone made him lose perspective. Particularly after he lost Tamara at the hands of Themalsar. He was the Ritual Guardian, yes, but otherwise, he was little more than a hermit running around doing silly things like delivering babies and gathering lightning. Being the Ritual Guardian is not much different than being a king, a queen, or a chieftain, my daughter. People will not understand what being a Ritual Guardian means, nor what it entails, and they certainly will not understand the kind of responsibilities and burdens it shall place upon you. But they will see this home and respect you for it; you had the most feared and fearsome creatures of your forest build it for you. The underlying message there will never go unnoticed.”, rumbled Grulganiste.
“But.. but what if my Aager does not like it?”, moaned the skinny girl.
“Does your Aager burn when he takes you into his arms, my daughter?”, the ogress asked.
“Mo.. mother, please.”, the skinny girl blushed furiously.
“It is a relevant question, girl. Does he or does he not?”, Grulganiste asked.
“Every time.”, came Aager’s voice.
“Y.. yes..”, mumbled Inshala, her face blazing hot.
“There you have it then. If you liked this home, then so will he, because when it comes to homes, the only part that belongs to a man is the roof. The rest is yours. Your man will love it because of who is in it. Not because of what is in it. If he is more interested in that, then you have a problem. I saw the condition of your former home, my daughter. He loved that home because you entered his life. Now he will defend this home because there is actually something in it.”, Grulganiste said gruffly. “Now. Tell me who those men were and why did they try to kill you, the hobbit, and the elf?”
“Uhhmm.. they attacked you as well, Mother.”, Inshala objected.
“No, girl. They went after very specific people. You, Master Hobbit, the white elf, the little gnomic girl, and the tall, black and skinny one with the pinks, the boy king, his pretty mate who was brave, thoughtful, and foolish enough to sit next to me, your itchy fingered sheriff, but only because he was defending your mayor, your human mother, and your human sister, the man who had his ship burned, the little dwarf girl and my brave Argail, who bashed in many heads, the tall one in iron clothes from Koruxan and the two from Vodgar; the human with the goat hair on his chin and the madwoman with him. They attacked me only because I was blocking the way of many.”, Grulganiste said, displaying just how perceptive she was.
“Then shouldn’t we help them?”, Cora asked, getting a better grip of her great blade.
“We do not know who is friend, nor do we know who is foe. Do not be another itchy-fingered fool, elf. There are more than enough of them out there. For me, everyone here is a foe and no one is a friend. Hence I shall wait for the sheriff to come and tell me it is over, and my daughter, Inshala here, will make us some nice, hot tea, as our host.”, she replied cooly.
Inshala blushed and ran inside her new home and her new kitchen.
“I didn’t know you had a daughter, Chieftain Grulganiste. Though I must say, she is adorable. She hopped on my head and nested herself there and chirped all the way here as if wanting to assure me.”, murmured Brom.
“Yes. She is adorable, and she is the nicest and the most selfless thing I have ever seen. She sure did old Cathber a lot of good the way she dropped into his lonesome life.”, replied the brutish ogress.
“Cathber? What has he got to do with her?”, Brom asked as he remembered the months he’s spent with the odd druid.
“Inshala ‘la fey’ Frostmane is a foundling, Master Hobbit. Old Cathber found her, many years ago in the woods. I believe her birth mother was some woodsman’s wife, taken when she was out gathering herbs and mushrooms. Never liked them, woodsmen. Foolish, superstitious, rash idiots, the lot of them. They blamed us whenever anything went wrong in their lives. Break a toe, it’s the ogres. A lightning strikes, it’s the ogres. A goat dies, it’s the ogres. As if we had nothing better to do.. But for years, many of their women were taken. Then one day, one of the taken woman returned, bedraggled, hungry, hurt.. and bearing a newborn child. You would think they would have rejoiced, but no. They drow her into the forest and stoned her, and the child to death. From how old Cathber told it, the mother did everything she could to protect her baby. The fools left, thinking she was dead, and to be fair, she was.. just not yet. She got up, and with what strength she had left, she ran off deeper into the forest for as long as far as she could.. which wasn’t all that far, seeing as she was already weak when she had come down Rook Mountains, to begin with, and being stoned didn’t help her either. She died, from much bleeding, with her little baby in her arms.. In my many centuries, I have had respect for very few and even fewer among humans. To soothe the spirit of that woman, I have prayed and burned much incense. Old Cathber found them some two days later. He buried the mother and tasked himself with the care of the baby. The soft-hearted old fool.. What did he know about raising a child? Yet he did.. Yet he did..”, Chieftain Grulganiste said, her eyes lost in some unseen distance.
Brom and Cora, however, were looking at each other and with quite freaked expressions.
“Uhhmm.. When did this event happen, Mother Ganiste?”, Brom asked carefully.
“Some years back.. my daughter should be seventeen now, so that many years ago.. Not too long after your visit to my hills, really.”, the ogress replied.
“Mother Ganiste, Master Hobbit, and Pretty White Elf lady, the tea is ready.”, Inshala came out of the house with a happy skip.
“You like it then?”, Grulganiste asked with a surprisingly pleasant smile.
“I love it, Mother.. The new kitchen is so awesome and the pump is so easy to use now so I also made some things to eat. The house is so big now and we have so many more plates and bowls, I can finally ask Bremorel and her hubby, Thomas, Lilly and her hubby, Sir Agent Largo, Liaison Constance and the sheriff, Perigren Ostlanna Temez, Hal Mali, gorgeous Demelze, Hamna Vir and dear Dar Derune, Biberbell, De De Dexter, Laila’s father, Uncle Devien, Ranger Master Uncle Moorat, Lady Magella, and her sisters and even her mother, Udoorin and Lorna, Mother Alisia, my sisters and brother, and Granma, and when they come back, even Laila and Gnine..”, she said in a breathless voice.
“Perhaps we should eat in the garden?”, Grulganiste said, and not without some guilt. “I believe I have destroyed enough buildings in this town in one day.”
“YESS! I loved the garden, Mother Ganiste. There is even a swing there! I will bring the tea and the food out there and light the brazier to keep our guests warm.”, the skinny girl said happily and took off again.
“Wow.”, Brom admitted. “She really is adorable and so happy to have friends in her life.”
“Whatever friends she has, they are all new, Master Hobbit. That girl lived alone all her life, even if her father, Cathber, was there. She tried to make friends with the wood elves. They never hurt her, but they never let her come anywhere near them either. She tried to make friends with the woodsmen and they beat her, stoned her, caged her, and whipped her for it. So when I said, I would ‘crush any of you punny things who disrespect her’, I was being polite.”
“What is happening, my Aager?”, Inshala whispered as she put the tea, the teacups, the plates full of newly washed fruits onto a large platter she found in the kitchen.
“We.. uhhmm.. we saw her with a man in dark clothes, back when we were in Arashkan, some months back. Is he her husband?”, he asked.
“Yes. A dangerous man. But he will not let anyone hurt her. Now, Master Brom Bumblebrim and you, Cora Sleet, will tell me where you two actually know her from?”, the ogress gave the two of them a very ugly and stern look.
There was a moment of precipitous silence.
“Cora, my dear, I think you should tell this one. It happened in your tundras. If anyone has the right to speak on this to another person, or whether it should be told or not, is up to you. Though I am not sure now is the right time, and whether the girl should hear, or even know about it..”, Brom said quietly.
“The town is under attack, love. Whoever these people are, they have been infiltrating amongst the refugees and even amongst some of our town guards.”, came Aager’s strained voice.
Cora frowned a bit, but not because she thought Brom had thrown her under the dragon, per se, but as to all the events that had transpired up to and after the ‘RED OCTOBER’, as the barbarians of the Great Northern Tundras had named the odd phenomenon; the turning of the sky to crimson on a clear October day and the appearance of the vile creature..
..and the beginning of the disappearances of their womenfolk, including the daughter of the chieftain of Bear Claw Tribe.
“..then they mingled as part of the retinue of one lord or lady or representative or another, and everyone, including us, thought they belonged to someone. Quite ingenious, really.. in a sinister and heinous way..”
It had been at that point Cora and Brom, along with the dwarf sisters, Lillias Absentwhot, and Jeina Blonde had gotten involved. They had been asked by no other than the Bear Claw Tribe chieftain himself to find his daughter and to bring her back.
After a long, dangerous, and harsh trek, they had finally located where the vile creature had holed up; a cavern set deep into the southern end of Lost Mountains, filled with many corpses, all ravaged, half-eaten, gnawed and rotting —and all women.
“..we have many wounded and many more dead. We barricaded Udoorin at the sheriff’s office and he was very frustrated about it. He tried to order me, ‘I am the king and I order you to let me go!’ I laughed at his face and told him if he didn’t stay in the building, the elves would LACK a king and his pretty Lorna would be all sad about it! In retrospect, though, I probably shouldn’t have said that, but it was funny at the time. More assassins arrived and they climbed the office walls and came down through the door leading up to the roof and now he is laughing like a merry idiot and cutting them down as they drop into the office and he won’t even share the kills with anyone!..”
That was also the time when Cora and Brom had met pretty much the rest of the particular clan Lillias and Jeina had belonged to. The whole lot of them had arrived to ‘bring their lost dwarves’ back home.. For Cora, it had been the first time she had met them. Brom, on the other hand, had made acquaintance with some of them before, during his travels, though he hadn’t said as to how he knew them. The answer to that would reveal itself much, much later, and after the two, along with Seressa and Tonic would suffer Arcanton Mordenon’s demented tower!
Upon the insistence of Lillias and Jeina, the whole clan had gotten involved and had lured the vile creature from its cave using a continuous hit-and-run tactic, all the way to Rook Mountains, and losing the creature at Ritual Forest, buying time for Cora and Brom to enter the cave and save whatever there was inside left to save.
“..I left him with the guards and Bremorel to check in on the others. The elves’ headquarters are also under attack, though I suspect a similar mule-headed enthusiasm on Lorna’s part there. I always thought her to be a calm and gentle girl. Turns out I am not even sure which of them is worse anymore; Lorna or Udoorin..”
Neither she nor her bushy little friend, Brom, would ever find out the extent of their deeds that day, but Cora had always suspected that there would be consequences..
..the ones she would know and perhaps find out later, and the ones she would never hear about;
When they had saved the chieftain’s traumatized daughter and returned her to her father, she would, in time, be married to the son of the chieftain of the Ice Crag Tribe, making Cora quite popular and ‘savior’ among the two tribes. And later, when she and Brom had saved the Ice WolfHorde from a certain ‘demon’ that had infested their lands, who had turned out to be no one other than Seressa Wraiven and her vivid illusions and her pair, Arcantonic Palecog, the savage Ice Wolf Horde had promptly adopted her as their ‘savior’ as well, effectively promoting her as a hero among three of the four major tribes/hordes of the Great Northern Tundras —and when the events of her ‘re-encounter’ with Dreadmaw had wiped out the Wyrm Horde, she had, perhaps unwittingly, become the ‘Princess of the Tundras’, the sole person to have the power to call upon all the remaining three tribes/horde to arms and fight against the coming Orken, in a land far, far to the south and beyond the tundras. This had been the most apparent, though quite unexpected, and certainly unintended outcome of the RED OCTOBER event.
“..The temple is also under attack but Thomas and his temple guardians are putting up a good fight. Not to mention they have Nadine Graciousward. I am tempted to say, like mother, like daughter, and I can see where Lorna gets her calm and enthusiasm from. There is also that tall, dark girl with all the creepy pinks and her gnomic friend who I think is quite mad! She is cackling like a maniac and throwing bombs at everything that moves. The bloody idiot has already leveled six houses near the temple!..”
The other was, there had been a second survivor, deep down in the cave of the vile creature; a much traumatized, beaten, raped, and ravaged, underfed, hungry, bruised, and very much pregnant young girl..
..who had wanted nothing from them except some food and an axe, and to be let go so she could return to her people, her family, her husband, and her home..
The resilience of the skinny little girl who had suffered months of use and abuse from the vile creature, not to mention, was at the end of her pregnancy had, now, astounded Cora for she, in all candor, had never believed the girl would have survived the month-long trek through the bitter cold, torturous, treacherous, and precipitous Lost Mountains and then the Rook Mountains to reach her Dim Woods. Yet she had.. and giving birth, alone, on the way, no less..
..just to end up being run off and stoned to death by her own people and her husband..
“..Some of them tried to infiltrate the temple by breaking through the boarded windows.. They never came back out for some reason. I am not sure if they enjoyed their last moments in this world, but I am certain our Liaison’s half-born brothers and sisters must have..”
At that point, Cora wasn’t sure just who had been the true ‘vile creature’.
Yet, her daughter had survived, against incredible and impossible odds; Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostman, and ‘WOW’, was all Cora could think of.
Whether Cora had figured out that when they had saved that skinny little girl, they had also caused the vile creature to follow her in hopes of finding and retrieving its offspring and consequently becoming a menace to the woodsmen of Dimwood for the next decade and more, was unclear.
And now, that vile creature’s daughter was here;
“..Sheriff Standorin, Lilly, her hubby, Agent Largo, D.D. Dexter, and I, along with three dozen guards, rangers, and the elven veterans I have been training are now moving street by street and going house to house in a search and destroy mission. I am afraid this might take a while though.. Hey, are you making tea?”
A beautiful, adorable, earnest, sincere, full of life, selfless, shy, frightened, abused, stoned just like her mother, beaten, caged and whipped, scared and scarred little girl, adopted by the old Ritual Guardian, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, and by the ogress chieftain of Oger’s Foot, Grulganiste Grimtooth, and also by no other than the First Lady of Durkahan, Lady Alisia Sivara Hooman and become the new Ritual Guardian..
The whole thing made Cora reel back in its incredible, unbelievable, mind-staggering, and quite astonishing absurdity.
“Well.. We do have some guests here, so I thought I ought to make some for them. It is cold outside..”, Inshala replied a tad guiltily. “I really wanted to be there with you.”
Cora carefully cleared her throat and spoke with her low, slightly hoarse voice.
“People need her now as she is, and anything that is past is in the past, though our stories somehow come out in the most unexpected moments and haunt us..”, she said, looking down at Brom with emphasis, “..it would be fruitless to summon them by will.”
Chieftain Grulganiste scowled down at her for a long moment.
“..’Tis alright, love. Enjoy yourself. I shall be there as soon as possible, though I suspect it might be later than I would want. We will have to make a tally on our losses and figure out how they managed to bring in so many.”
“I see.”, she rumbled finally. “And perhaps wisely spoken too. My daughter is very dear to me. The first time we met, I thought she would scream and run.. Yet she said I was awesome, as demented as I had thought her perspective was at the time. She looks at people and somehow judges them by their merit.. and accumulated deeds.. if at all.. And should she judge said deeds, she seeks the reasons that led to those deeds as if looking for an excuse to forgive them. I would hate to see her break again and humans have done everything they could to do just that.”
“Ready!”, declared Inshala happily as she ran up to them with a skipping hop. “I lit the brazier to keep us warm as well, especially for Master Brom Bumblebrim, here, or perhaps you would rather I call you Blom Bumdlebim Hobim?”
“What?”, blurted Brom in surprise. “How do you know that name?”
“Blom Budle— what?”, Cora asked with an amused expression and very much pursed lips.
“You don’t really need to know, Cora.”, he scowled.
“I am friends with all the dryads and nymphs in Gull’s Perch, Master Brom. They told me some very endearing and lovely stories and you were in them. My Aager and I saw you at Arashkan before today, but I didn’t know your name then. We saw you and pretty Cora talking to our Merisoul and give her something. We were up on one of the roofs and the very tall girl with the lovely pink hair and dress that I would love to have too, and the cute gnome girl was also there, though they were hiding in some trash for some reason!”, she said as she led them into the garden and over to the gazebo.
“You can sit on the swing if you like, Master Brom. I already tried it and it is awesome!”, she offered with an exhilarated grin.
There were also two ogres, one male, the other a female in the garden sipping tea from comparatively very, very tiny teacups! When they saw their chieftain, they jumped on their feet and sort of stared at their feet like two kids caught in the act.
“Uhhmm.. Greetings Chieftain Grulganiste. We fixed and refurnished the house as per your instructions. Does it meet your satisfaction?”, the female ogress rumbled carefully.
“I wouldn’t know, Garishka.”, the chieftain replied with a horrible scowl and turned to Inshala. “Does it?”
“I love it, Mother Grulganiste.”, Inshala said happily. “I think sister Garishka Bloodhammer and brother Grawl Goraxe are very good at what they do.”
Garishka and Grawl beamed at her.
“I think you should hire out your ogres to help build the defenses and homes for the Arashkan refugees. That way, the humans can become friends with your sons and daughters, just like Sheriff Standorin wanted.”, she said.
“Maybe..”, Grulganiste scowled. “But only if your hubby also likes this home..”
“There were some men skulking around the house, Chieftain, but because you told us not to kill any humans while we were here, we asked them, very politely, what they were doing. They just pulled their knives and charged at us. Again, we told them, very politely, not to do that but they just wouldn’t listen. So.. me and Garishka bashed them all and tossed them over the fence.”, Grawl said tentatively.
“We tossed ’em far, Chieftain, like, several buildings over so there shouldn’t be any blame on us!”, added Garishka hastily.
“We also wiped all the blood and brain!”, Grawl mumbled quickly.
Grulganiste looked at them much like an executioner would, right before he brought down his axe.
“The deed is done. If they drew their knives at you here, in the house of the Ritual Guardian, they got what they deserved. How is the tea?”
“Excelent, Chieftain Grulganiste. The Ritual Guardian sure knows her teas.”, Garishka said in a hurry and Grawl nodded vigorously.
✱ ✱ ✱
It was past midnight when Aager Fogstep stumbled, dead tired, to his home..
..and looked up at the two-story house.
He had known all along that Chieftain Grulganiste had totally destroyed it, even if she had done it unintentionally. He hadn’t said a word about it to Inshala and had, quite deliberately, made sure to never think about it all day, just so she wouldn’t be able to sense his disappointment. True, it had been a rather simple, single-room, quite bare, empty, even, and in all candor, a pathetic house, really, but it had been his home, dammit!
The home he had secretly wanted to share with Inshala from the moment he had understood that he felt something for that ‘pretty but weird’, and ‘pretty wierd’ girl who had been outright cantankerous, to be honest. She had plagued and pestered him, constantly creeping up to him and whispering ‘You are not a good person!’
The fact that the moment of his comprehension of his feelings for her and the moment he had figured the odd nuance in her words had coincided hadn’t gone unnoticed by Aager;
She had never said he was a bad person..
Only that he was not a good person.
And in all likeliness, him being ‘not a good person’ was very true and a bloody obvious fact, and he, Aager, had never claimed otherwise.
What was there to claim otherwise?
But where no one in his entire life had cared about him being a good or a bad person, or ‘not a good’ one, the way Inshala’s had phrased it, told him something;
That for some dementedly naive reason she had thought he wasn’t a bad person, and cared enough —again, for some incomprehensible reason— that he was not a good person, either
..and that it bothered her.. A lot.
Enough to plague and pester him for weeks from the moment they had met while tracking down the assassins who had started the unquenchable fire in their town, up to the moment they had come climbing up the broken and crumbling stairs of the damned ruins of Themalsar.
Had she actually managed to make a good person out of him?
Aager thought not.
And looking back at all the things he had done since having met Inshala, just about anyone would agree with him.
Looking at how, or better yet, why he had done them, however, said ‘anyone’ might just pause..
So when Aager had found out about the predicament of his rather simple, single-room, quite bare, empty, even, and in all candor, pathetic house and consequently say he was disappointed, it would likely have been the under statement of the century!
And now he was staring at a two-story house with dim candlelight glowing from all the windows.
“I am sorry for your home, young man.”, a voice rumbled in the dark.
Aager stared at the newly woven reed fences and noted the three giant figures sitting there.
Quietly, he veered in that direction and nodded at Chieftain Grulganiste and then at the two other ogres.
He also noted the gazebo, the burning brazier hanging from its wooden ceiling, and the swing hanging from the blooming cherry tree and thought of just how much his Inshala had probably loved seeing all this.
“You came to my tent and behaved as a guest should. I came to your home and behaved.. badly..”, she said.
“Tis alright, Mother Ganiste.”, he replied tiredly. “I am aware you did not do it deliberately. Bad things happen, even with good intentions.”
“I tried to make up for my folly. Inshala loved it but is freaked out because she thinks you might not. I told her, home is where we are with the ones we love and care are, and that coming from a clumsy ogress is a neat trick!”, she rumbled. “If you do not like this home and want to break spoons, I will understand.”
“What is it with spoons and breaking them, Mother Grulganiste? Who would want to break spoons? How would you eat if you broke your spoons?”, Aager asked amusedly, even though he was quite tired and just want to sleep.
“That is the point, young man. No one wants to miss supper because of broken spoons.”, she said as if stating the obvious.
“I take it there are many spoons in this home now?”, Aager asked, getting a hint at where this conversation was heading.
It was interesting to see this giant monstrosity of an ogress to genuinely be sorry for what she had done, and with this ‘private’ talk, she was almost begging him to accept her apology, along with the house, in her strangely roundabout and gruff way.
“Damn.”, he thought. “She is a lot more considerate than many humans I have met!”
“Of course. A house should always have many spoons. For friends, guests, clumsy mothers, and.. mayhap.. children..”, she said with a straight face. “You have many guests even now. The hobbit, Brom, the white elf who thinks scowling all the time is cool, the crazy gnome girl, and the creepy one with the pinks. I saw so much pink today, I am pink-blind now. The other mother of my daughter, her elder sister, and the mother of the queen of the elves is also here.”
“Huh.”, Aager grunted.
“I would have wanted to apologize to that skinny she-demon for the things I said to her earlier. I found out she has an interest in your sheriff and that she treats him with care. That is good because your sheriff is a respected enemy and has fought well today.”
“Huh.”, Aager repeated himself.
“You should go and tell your mate that you liked the house.”, she growled. “Inshala is a good girl but she panics over the silliest things. She must truly care for you and for what you think, young man. Nurture that.”
Aager nodded at her and started for the door and stopped.
There was another door leading from the fenced-off garden directly into the kitchen too, now.
He hadn’t noticed that..
“Thank you, Mother Ganiste. It would seem some mistakes are good to happen.”, he said quietly.
“You should see what I did with your bedroom, then.”, he heard her grinning voice coming from behind.
It has been some time, little one. Many a things have I heard since you left. Of big happenings.. Of things moving; beast and man, elf and dwarf.. I hear the voices of the long-lost, waiting to be heard again.. Waiting in anticipation. Yet I hear another voice. Stronger now.. Louder. The one I warned Yours —the former Ritual Guardian.. It calls to us.. And it is not the voice of a mortal.. It is a dark voice.. Dark like untended, besmirching smoke.. I hear, also, whispers among the trees.. and the leaves.. and the winds.. and they say a new Ritual Guardian is among us.. And I sense the tender touch of a little girl in many of these big happenings. There is also a new grove, to the far north and east, where the mad mortal’s temple once was.. My ogres went there only to find.. peace! They lost all their bloodlust and all their hunger for hurt when they wandered it. They said the grove has an owner, little one..”, growled the nearly fourteen-foot tall giant of a woman, an ogress, with a harsh, vicious face, wild hair thickly braided many times, with arms and legs and body untoned and bearing awesome muscles and many scars; Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig stared down, a looming monstrosity, over the little girl with an adorable face, and beautiful, even horns.. and at the cold, silent man in his dark harness, emanating a certain, ‘wintery’ death..
“I have returned, mother Ganiste.”, very nearly whispered the little girl —her voice abashed and barely audible.
“If you will have me..”
One would never expect such frightening agility from Chieftain Grulganiste, and certainly not from a monster of her size..
Aager Fogstep almost dished out everything he had, when she moved.
One moment, she was standing and glowering, the next, she had the little girl, Inshala, in her massive arms and pressed against her impressively large breasts.
“No, my little one.. I will never have you because you never left. And my heart has ached since that unfair day.. This, you must understand.. This, your father tried so hard to learn you..”, she said with tears running down her brutish face.
“This, I understand now, mother Ganiste. I am so, so sorry.. I am not wise, but a foolish little girl..”, Inshala hugged the ogress back with a sob. “And.. I am so, so sorry for having hurt you and blamed you for my father’s demise..”
“Ow, no, my little daughter. You will not get away with one apology. Come.. I have food, and Chihuahua has missed you.”, smiled the giant ogress, leaned down, and carefully put the girl back on the ground.
“That was an awesome speech, by the way.”, said the little girl, somberly.
“It had better be. Been revising and revisiting it for quite some weeks, now..”, growled the massive figure.
She thundered a few great steps and opened the flaps of her tent and bid her, and the cold, dark man in.. the one she’d kept in her peripheral vision at all times and learned what she sought, the moment she’d grabbed for her little Inshala!
‘So. My daughter has found something that cares and savagely.. Yet.. in control.. barely..’, she mused as the two entered her tent, followed them in, and closed the flaps after her.
“Chihuahua!”, shrieked Inshala and grabbed a rather tinny dog with short legs and a pointy little muzzle, as it jumped on her, its butt waggling crazy.
This was followed by a lot of giggles and happy laughter as the tinny dog nuzzled and licked at her hands, her face, and her small feet.
Aager Fogstep stood watching the giant ogress, his Inshala, and the hyped little dog while he stood at one side of the tent flaps, the side that would likely be pushed open first.
Chieftain Grulganiste turned to her pots and pans, and started slicing some potatoes, onions, carrots and dumped them into a large pot, then dropped large chunks of meat, followed by various spices, then hung the pot over the large fire pit, close to the center of the great, hut-like tent.
It took a moment for Aager to realize the ogress was staring at him. Watching her preparing food with fluent, hypnotic motions as he stared at the fire in the pit, he’d drifted off.. He was standing and awake, but his awareness had gone, leaving his body on total auto-motion..
The ogress had also addressed him something and he’d missed that too!
That.. had never happened to Aager.
And the more interesting part was..
..realizing it hadn’t even bothered him.
What else he’d realized was, albeit, and yes, this was an uncivilized, barbaric tent, its interior was..
Aager Fogstep failed to come up with a word.
For he’d never really had it.
And it was the realization of this fact, that had come to him in shrapneled.. hurt?
..he heard Inshala’s small, breathy voice in his mind.
“This is home, my Aager. Not mine. Not yours. But a home. Her home. Mother Ganistes’ home. Here, she cooked. Here, she gave birth. Here, she laughed, and here, she mourned.. Here, she has fire, and here, she has Chihuahua..”
“The boy seems distracted.”, noted Grulganiste.
“I think so too.”, replied Inshala. “It is good that he is, mother Ganiste.”
“Yes. He is always alert. Always watching. Always fighting, and always bleeding. He needs respite.”, replied the little girl softly.
“And found it here, has he? In my tent. The tent of an ogress.. My my.. He must truly need this respite, you speak of.”, smiled the ogress. “Well, bring him back from wherever he’s gone to. I wouldn’t want the sheriff to accuse me for letting his man go hungry nor for inhospitality.”
“You know the sheriff of Serenity Home?”, suddenly asked Aager.
“Yes, boy. And for quite sometime now. Has an itchy hand with his blade when it comes to my ogres, though I can’t say I blame him. Everyone’s got to protect their own and my sons and daughters can get out of hand at times.”, replied Grulganiste, without breaking a smile.
Aager stared at the giant woman with reassessing eyes. This.. ogress was a lot more than what she appeared to be, and that was saying something.
“Come, boy.”, repeated the giant woman as she brought huge, ogre-sized bowls and spoons and settled near the fire pit where the tiny Chihuahua and the little girl, Inshala waited with equal anticipation.
Aager Fogstep stared at the scene.
A giant monstrosity of a woman sitting cross-legged; their host, a girl that could barely reach up to her caft if she were standing on her toes, sitting across her; her guest, and a dog that was ‘small’ even by Inshala’s standards, let alone the great ogre!
It looked so unreal.. And hilarious.. But he kept his mouth shut and settled himself next to the little girl.
The chihuahua have him a warning growl, made sure the man in the dark leathers would behave himself, then promptly dismissed him when Chieftain Grulganiste put a cup the size of a respectable-sized bowl with some potatoes and a large chunk of meat in front of him. The chihuahua started to ‘wolf’ it all down with a mindless fervor!
*chomp* *chomp* *chomp*
Aager took a careful spoon of the food and only after he’d smelled it first.
Funny how that went.
Aager Fogstep, the cold, sinister man. The Winter Knight, a peer to the Winter Court, had a sensitive nose and bad food churned his stomach!
“You are a guest in my home, boy. It is polite to just eat it, you know. It is vegetables, potatoes, and cow!”, rumbled the ogress with an impressive scowl.
Inshala giggled as she ate hers with delight.
“He is a sensitive soul, mother Ganiste. Happily, I cook well and have had much practice.”
“Sensitive, is he?”, snorted the ogress. It seemed at first, she was about to make a pun remark, but for whatever reason, she must have changed her mind. “Sensitive can be good. My daughter is also sensitive. Will you smell her carefully, before you taste her too?”
“What?”, asked Grulganiste seriously. “It’s a valid question. Or perhaps he already has and that is why you are so skinny now!”
“M.. Mother.. Please.. Stop!”, begged Inshala with steam rising from her ears.
*chomp* *chomp* *chomp*
“This is what mothers do, little one. Ask impertinent questions. I am sure your father would have approved.. and snickered.. though not obviously. He was a thoughtful old man, particularly where you were concerned, after all.. Sour though he was.”, said mother Ganiste briskly.
“She smells like something wonderful. I lack words. And the ones I have, fall short.”, Aager said quietly, after wiping the food off his face.
“Does she, now?”, asked Chieftain Grulganiste with an awesome scowl.
“Yes.”, replied Aager simply.
“A.. Aager.. Please.. Stop!”, begged Inshala burning even brighter if that was even possible.
Apparently, it was!
“And she tastes like ‘Life’.”
“Not ‘beautiful’, not ‘delightful’, not ‘passionate’, not even ‘enjoyable’, but ‘life’.. Your choice of word is intriguing, if not impressive. And correct, for life has the potential of encompassing all.. You do not speak the words of a young fool, as fools are often young, much like their base wonts and shallow understandings. You will keep her safe, content, and desired, always, then? Or shall we break spoons, now?”, said the giant woman with a certain, implied menace.
“Your food smells and tastes good, Chieftain Grulganiste. I see no reason to break spoons.”, replied Aager formally.
Grulganiste cocked an eyebrow at the man in dark leathers.
“You wish not to talk about this, then?”, she asked.
“You may, as you would, Chieftain. This is your home and I am a mere guest. My Inshala is where I belong. I desire nothing more from her. But by the Great Heavens, nothing less, either.”, he replied calmly and succinctly.
Grulganiste, though, recognized that ‘calm’.. For it was the calm she felt only after she’d let her bloodlust have its way. Accept, this.. man’s ‘calm’ was before the bloodlust and there seemed no respite from it anywhere in his near future.
And then it hit her.
This man.. ‘danced’.. and perpetually, at the edge of insanity.. always.. He was as a feral wolf; savage, hungry, cunning, and bloody mad!
And her little Inshala was the lamb to that wolf..
‘Ow, my dear, dear girl. What have you done? To whom have given your beautiful heart?’, wondered the chieftain of all the ogres of Oger’s Foot in dread and hopeless fascination.
She stared fiercely at the cold man in dark leathers for a bit more.
“Very well.”, mother Ganiste said finally. “We shall put this issue and the breaking of spoons aside for the anon. Now, we shall take part the merry wisdom of my chihuahua to heart and eat.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Now, then. You came here at quite a critical time. Your enemies gather and in great numbers. The dwarven forges have been smoking non-stop for months, the foolish woodsmen carve spear shafts and great wooden stakes by the thousands, the elves enforce their woods with pits and traps as they fill quivers with arrows by the numbers I shudder to even assume. The humans to the south build walls and dig trenches day and night like their very lives depended on it, and by all accounts, it does!”, briefed the ogre chieftain in a low, rumbling growl that would have made any cave bear with a shred of sense to back off.
Aager Fogstep was, yet again, astounded at the accuracy of this giant woman’s astute perception. He had, and only once before, come to Oger’s Foot, some years ago, when a savage ogre called Cabot had come down from these hills and had started ravaging the lands. Serenity Home ranger masters Davien and Moorat had gone after him, but the ogre had been fast on his feet. He had gathered his followers and had made a run for it.. to the ruins of Themalsar, forcing the ranger masters to retreat. Then young Udoorin’s father, Sheriff Standorin, along with Davien, Moorat,Aager, more than half the guards of the town and no other that Lady Magella herself had come here, to these hills to give a harsh lesson to the ogres to behave themselves. They hadn’t met, nor seen Chieftain Grulganiste then. Looking back, now, Aager woke up to the fact that they really hadn’t seen all that many ogres at all!
‘Damn..’, he silently fumed. ‘We were played.. by ogres!’
Once again, he was harshly reminded that ‘the stupider’ something seemed, the more they ‘fooled’ the human’s ‘higher’ intellect!
Aager had never assumed, in any given time, that he was smarter than those around him. He prepared to stay silent and observe, hence at least give some semblance of ‘smart’. But being conned by one ogress?
That did nudge his self-esteem a notch or two down!
“If you are here to warn us not to join your foes, I have no desire to. Some of my more foolish sons and daughters might.. It is hard to curb the bloodlust when it comes. Particularly when their air stinks of it.. I shall resist ‘the call’, for as best as I can, for as long as I can., and will have nothing to do with this conflict. Should you see me and mine on the field, and waring against you, you may, by all means, slay me and mine, for it shall mean that I have fallen to ‘the call’. I would rather die with some semblance of honor on my own, than to rampage mindlessly for another..”, she rumbled calmly.
“We have not come to warn you, Chieftain Grulganiste.. Nor have we come to threaten you. Certainly not in your home.”, replied Aager carefully.
“Smart of you, not to.”, smiled Grulganiste terribly.
Aager paused for a moment before he spoke again, for whether this would be an official offer by Serenity Home, or a personal favor would be determined by what he would say next. Then he thought about the oncoming slaughter, and his pragmatism kicked in. He didn’t care how something got done, provided it wasn’t downright heinous. He cared that it did get done, and at this point, that was all that mattered.
Hence he looked at the little girl, Inshala..
He wasn’t looking at her like she was a little girl anymore, even if her mind worked and prompted her, at times, to do things that would make her seem like one.
He was looking at not just the ‘person’ he belonged but at the daughter of Lady Alisia and the late Delia Karakash Hooman, the surrogate daughter of the departed Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, the daughter of the chieftain of all the ogres of Oger’s Hill, Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig, the mistress of The Grove, The Ritual Guardian and by defacto, a citizen of Serenity Home and Gull’s Perch, the wont of both Mab, the Winter QueenandTitania, the Summer Queen..
..he was looking at the young woman he loved and cherished by her mere existence.
Just when had that shift in his perspective occurred, Aager Fogstep couldn’t say.
The fact that it had, told him some things..
Carefully, he kept his composure and nodded at the young woman.
“Ritual Guardian..”, he spoke. “If you would.”
Chieftain Grulganiste cocked an eyebrow at him, then at the young woman.
“Respect..”, she said. “Good. For it’s there, only if it’s there.”
“Mother Ganiste.”, Inshala said softly. “We shall not confine you with demands. We come as beggars.”
“Ow?”, said Grulganiste.
“Yours can not stand, while the blood of the innocent spills by the thousands. Your own blood shall boil in wont and willy-nilly, the madness of its lust will drive you to war. We only beg, you choose when and where to release your blood and your lust for it..”, said the young woman, her eyes wide and pleading.
“What are you asking of me, girl?”, demanded Grulganiste.
“Join us, mother. Your daughter, and your forest of whom you have shared her bounties for centuries.. we need you.. Now, more than ever..”
“You are asking me to join with the elves and the dwarves and the humans who have hunted us for the said centuries and in our forest? You have gone mad!”, she roared and the hut-like tent tremored.
“Mother.. Chieftain Grulganiste..”, she said solemnly. “We go to this war with the intent of not coming back because we will not retreat, nor run, or hide.. These are choices, just not ours.. If your choice is to stay here as we bleed and die, then this shall be the last you shall see of your Father’s daughter.”
Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig just sat there, cross-legged and quietly petrified.
“You come here, to my hills and to my home, you eat my food and dare to threaten me? With your demise?”, she thundered with a horrible, torturous voice.
“No, mother Ganiste. I only speak my truth, as I always have.”, replied Inshala, bowing her head.
Grulganiste turned and with burning eyes, she very nearly burned Aager where he sat with her glare.
“Has this one put these foolish thoughts into your head, girl?”, she snarled.
“Mother, please. He spoke so I would go away, far away, when the slaughter began.”, replied the young woman quietly again.
“Then why will you not listen to him?”, snarled the ogress with much fury.
For a moment Inshala paused. Then, slowly she lifted her head, then herself. Step by step, she came at the giant woman and hugged her. One sitting, the other on her toes, and the young woman still looked so very diminished as she clung to the ogress.
“Because the running cannot belong, my beloved mother Ganiste.. You must know, for the first time, I belong.. Will you deny this one wealth, from me?”, she replied Inshala desperately, as she sobbed.
“You belong to this man?”, Grulganiste asked in some surprise.
“I belong to this man, mother Ganiste.”, she whispered again. “He is my hills. My trees. My garden. My day. And my night, mother. He is my land and my forest.. And my home..”, said Inshala in a voice that sounded so lost, yet so happy.
“And what has he promised you? What does he give you in return?”, asked the ogress, somewhat freaked!
“His life, mother. This, he has already given..”
Chieftain Grulganiste pushed Inshala away at arm’s length and just stared at her, then at Aager like a mother was looking at her foolish children whose excuses were worse than their deeds..
“But know, mother, the Orken shall not leave you at peace, should they trample over our corpses. You know this to be true, for you recall what they did when they first came.”, Inshala said softly. “They shall come in number and trample over yours as well.. And take your hills, and your sons and daughters away from you, and push them into service of nothing less than darkness!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig stood up. With tangible wrath visible and plainly etched on her face, she stormed out of the tent, though not too far, for both Aager and Inshala could hear her great strides trample back and forth as if trying desperately to blow some steam, but failing horribly.
“What now?”, asked Aager quietly.
“Now we wait, my Aager Fogstep. We have told her our wont and given her choices. It is up to her now. She must do what she thinks would best serve her and hers because she is the chieftain of her people.”, replied the young woman.
“She must love you much, my Inshala. I saw fear once, and only once in her eyes. And that was when you said you would not go away, but join the slaughter.”, noted Aager in a hushed voice. “I would have a word to say about your decision to stay, love. My inner voice says, send her away, even should it break her heart. There are many Aager’s in the world.. There’s but one of her! Please, my Inshala.. If I have one wish, I would wish you to go.. and live.”
The young woman stared at Aager with a broken expression.
Then, large, shimmering tears swelled in her eyes and slid down her small face.
“You.. wish to break our bond?”, she asked in a voice that could only be called; ‘desperation’.
“I would wish, that you lived.”, replied Aager and bowed his head, unable to look at her.
“And did you live.. before?”
“No. I did not, my heart.”
“And you think I lived? You wish me gone, knowing I shall die some, every day? You hope to preserve me while you die, knowing I shall not? Why? Why would you do this to me? We.. we promised to be stupid together. Does this promise falter at our first trial?”
“No, Inshala. We have had many trials together. You know this to be true.”
“Yes. I do know this to be true. But you fail to reason; distance will keep me safe, and perhaps assure my survival. But it will not keep me alive.. Not really.. If you truly want me gone, however, I shall.”
Aager cursed himself.
He had never wanted her hurt. But he had.. What else he had done, was to have made her choices for her. Did he really have the right to that? Yes, they belonged. But was he, perhaps unwittingly, abusing the ‘trust’ of their bond? And a tad too casually?
Then he figured..
..the monumental arrogance he was displaying without even knowing because he thought he knew things, and life better..
Keeping her away was just as selfish as telling her to stay.
It wasn’t up to him in the first place.
His Inshala had desperately wanted his love, certainly, but she wanted his respect more.
Yes, she looked so little, but she was not all human.
She was little.. and yet she was more..
Aager finally figured out what it was, his shift in perspective was telling him; that he should quit treating her by his stupid, narrow, quite conventional, and mortal standards, but by hers..
“No. To stay, or to go, is a choice you must make. I.. I do not want you to go.. I never wanted it.. I want you to stay, always.. Will you? Please?”, he asked silently.. and desperately..
..and she was in his arms.
“I never left.”, she whispered. “And stay, I shall. We.. we promised, my Aager, we PROMISED..”
The tent’s flaps pushed open and Grulganiste stood there, glaring down at the two.
“You..”, she said. “..truly love this man?”
“I do.”, replied Inshala, still in Aager’s arms.
“You..”, she said, glaring down at the man in dark leathers. “..truly love my daughter?”
“I do.”, replied Aager simply.
“And should something happen to either of you..?”, she asked and there was nothing but a baleful storm in her face.
“The other shall die.”, Inshala quietly.
“Why? Why would you make such a pact? To what purpose would you make this pact, girl?”, she thundered.
“Purpose? None, mother. Only to belong. It is a feeling like no other. It transcends.. This, you must accept, mother Ganiste.”, Inshala replied tenderly.
“Very well, Inshala.. I shall join you and yours in this slaughter.”, she said very, very harshly.
“Thank you—”, began the young woman.
“—In return..”, cut in the vastly angry ogress. “..you will uphold your father’s promise to me.”
Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane stared at Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig with a horrified expression.
“No, mother Ganiste. I beg of you. Do not ask this of me.. Anything but this..”, she pleaded.
“It is not a choice I am giving you, Inshala. It is a debt; Father to Daughter Passed..”, she replied with a frosty expression. “Will you honor it?”
“Will you honor it?”
“Will you not honor your father’s debt? His promise?”
“WILL YOU HONOR IT, INSHALA?”, roared the giant ogress.
“..I will..”, replied Inshala in a small voice.. and Aager held her fast as she burst into uncontrolled, unhinged tears and wept..
She wept with a terrible loss..
Aager held her and stared at the giant ogress.
“What debt have you tasked her to honor, Chieftain?”, he very nearly snarled.
“Her father, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, promised to slay me when my time came, young man.. He failed to do so, for he was slain ere he could.”
“I shall honor this task for her.”, he spat, without even thinking.
“No, boy.. You are not part of the debt, nor the honor. I do not know you and you are neither my respected enemy nor my loved one. This is not something that is covered in whatever pact, bond, or accord you have made with one another.”, she replied harshly.
“Will you not respect the Winter Knight, then? And spare my Inshala —your daughter, the pain?”, he asked, suddenly desperate.
“I respect Mab, and I respect the Winter Mantle. A heavy and dreary burden it is, and will likely drive you mad in the end and get my daughter killed as well.. But I do not know you.. Again, this is not your trial, nor your debt..”, replied and her voice was calm again.
Aager inadvertently staggered.
This ogre not only knew of Mab and of her Winter Knightshe also knew of the Winter Mantle!
“Why? Why would you do this to her? She is your ‘daughter’.. She loves you..”
“Because, the bonded of my daughter, love is beautiful. And it is harsh. It is not a word to be spent with ease. It demands.. always demands.. And is tested upon death.. Hence we ask this only from the enemy we respect.. or from the ones we love..”
Chieftain Grulganiste stared down at the two of them and something shimmered in her eyes, but for a mere moment.
“Now go.. I have many preparations to make. We must all make a pilgrim to The Grove to cleanse our souls.. Then gather.. For humans with false words, I lost my mother, my father, my greats, and many kin.. This time, I shall go to slaughter on my own accord. We shall make these Orken scream in pain, for they shall receive nothing less from us. Do not mourn your debt, my daughter. Perhaps I shall fall in the coming slaughter, for I shall do my best.. and free you of it..”
The Tundra Elf; Cora Sleet, The Bowling Hills Hobbit; Brom Bumblebrim and the younger sisters of no other than the dwarven Temple Guardian of Serenity Home, Lady Magella of Scowling Hills; Lillias Absentwhot and Jeina Blond have set forth to find the daughter of the barbarian Bear Claw Tribe’s chieftain, who was kidnapped by the foul and evil creature, ominously named; Red October.
For days and nights, Cora, Brom, Lillias, and her sister, Jeina travel through the snow and ice-covered Lost Mountains and find the layer of the sinister Red October. On the eve of their descent into the deep, cavernous layer, the whole extended family of the two dwarf sisters arrive to take them both back to Scowling Hills. The dwarf sisters, Lillias and Jeina refuse to abandon their elf and halfling companions compelling their family to help. Hence a plan is formed; the dwarves are to lure the foul creature out of its lair and make a run for it down the mountains, and back to Scowling Hills while Cora and Brom are to quietly enter the beast’s lair and save the chieftain’s daughter.
The plan works, more or less..
And Cora Sleet, followed closely by Brom Bumblebrim, runs into the deeps of Red October and finds the barbarian chieftain’s daughter, abused and severely traumatized, among many other women.. all dead and gnawed upon.
In horror, the two search the cages set into the walls of the cave to find more survivors and lo!
Another woman, deep inside one of the further cages, thought horribly abused, malnourished, and bruised, is still alive..
That was the last thing Cora Sleet and Brom Bumblebrim saw of the dwarves before they stumbled and ran out of the dark, gnawing cave..
Then came the wind.
A cold, fetid wind..
A wind that did not belong to the fresh, breezy October mountains.
This was a frigid wind that stank of rot and festering mold..
This was the wind of a Red October!
“Run, you fools!”, bellowed the head of the dwarves; an old, very nearly ancient of his kind known all the way from The Great Arashkan City to Endless Sea, and from the heights of Rook Mountains to the ends of Tinker Hills; Argail Smitefast.
And the dwarves ran..
Down the sliding, frozen and misty valley and to the cliffs that would make a harsh and steep climb down the face of Lost Mountains.
..everything was harsh and steep in the Great Northern Tundras..
The creature that burst out of the yawning cave was nothing the elf, Cora, nor the hobbit, Brom ever saw.. and neither would wish to ever see again.
For but a very short moment, they caught a glimpse of something large, but not in size as it was large by its frightful speed.
Something large, fast, and dark.. Like a thick draft of smoke, inky at its center. It blurred past the two hiding behind fallen boulders.
Cora clutched her great blade with both her fists like she wanted to make a charge or a ‘run for it’, Brom wasn’t sure. He wouldn’t have blamed her if she did make a run for it. He had seen some horrible things in his long sojourn since that fateful night he’d left the comforts of his warm home and this.. inky black thing that had just hissed out of the cave would likely give him nightmares for the next couple of months..
Brom gritted his teeth and hoped the snow elf would run, should it come to that, though he knew she wouldn’t.. She’d charge the evil, shunned creature while trembling in fear, but not run from it. They hadn’t known each other for that long, but the short few months they had been together had shown him the core of the girl; grim, fierce, loyal, silently angry, and in quiet, desolate mourning.
“What are you doing?!”, they heard the below of the old dwarf echo up the frozen valley.
“Arkanian nian fer Ferra!”, squeaked a voice and something boomed in a great, fiery bloom.
“Damit, Lillias..”, growled Cora. “..Run!”
More booms followed by some knock knock knock knock rattling sound as if something brittle and heavy was hammering on an anvil.
A few thick bolts, the size of short spears slammed into the walls with a tremendous force near the maw that was the cave of the creature and sharp, crackling shafts of lightning came down from the sky at a sharp angle, crashing into the valley with jarring screeches and frozen ice and broken rocks shrapneled everywhere.
Something roared but it was not the roar of a bear, a lion, nor a dragon. This was like the roar of a waterfall filled with loose rocks, rotting lumber, and debris.
“Down the cliffs.. Jump if you must!”
“Marideth; to the left.. riddle it.. Bruden, Goric hold the rear and ready the rocks. Harakoon, Lamark, take the right.. Distract it with more arbalest. Grandfather; go.. down.. NOW! Mom.. Da.. You two are next.. Britney; grab Lillias. Dritmey; get Jeina down.. Knock her out if you must.. What is Aunt Petunia even doing here? Aunt Yulanda.. are the charges set?”
“Yes, dear. Charges are set. You want a timer or simple, dumb fuse?”
“Timer, please. I want it to go off on its back, not in its face.”
“If it blows on its face, it will bring the cliffs down on us as well, knock it back and possibly block its pursuit.”
“Other than the first, the other two aren’t so bad.”
“What will happen if it goes back?”
“Ow.. right.. would make this whole thing sort of moot.”
“On my last quiver..”
“Down, then. Save the quiver. Make sure grandpa makes it.. Do not wait.. Keep everyone running Auntie Marideth..”
“Who is making sure you are going down, Dridges, love?”
“I will be going down last.”
“Hell no, you aren’t”
“Stick to your post uncle! I am the youngest here and the fastest. Once the charges are set and blown, the creature will be knocked down the cliff and its way back will be blocked enough to give the elf and the hobbit time to do what they came to do.. I don’t want a crying Lillias nor a frothing Jeina all the way back to Elder Hills!”
“Dremda Limka bim bala poom!”, squeaked the voice of Lillias again and red, angry beams crisscrossed the misty valley and someone else shouted more in ancient dwarvish;
“Morkaban Fal an burnandie!”
..and tall columns of burning light came down in harsh, vertical slaughter..
Another roar echoed up the valley and something slammed against stones.
“What are you doing?”, screamed Lillias.
“Time to go, baby sister!”, said a voice and took off with Lillias.
“No! They need more time!”
“Nope. We just ran out of that.. and Dridges gave the signal for retreat.. Drit?”
“She wouldn’t listen, so I knocked her out! Dridges gave the order..”
“Bet you enjoyed that.”
“You bet, I did.. The idiots.. That was a month’s walk from home to here, and another month back —if we survive!”
“Now you are going to have to carry her.”
“Changed her diapers when she was a babe.. I am sure I can carry her as well!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Leave me, please.. I beg of you..”
“This is not a safe place for you and you are due soon..”
“I am the daughter of a woodsman. I am used to harsh weather. I can not stay here. He will come back.. Please.. Take the other girl, and leave.. I shall climb down and make my way home..
Cora looked at the young human girl. She was horribly battered, pale, dirty, and bulging.. The baby must truly be due soon..
Then she looked down at Brom, but the hobbit was too busy with the chieftains traumatized daughter, who was trashing and moaning in the frigid snow.
“Here. There is enough food in this to feed you for some time. And take this as well. I am not sure if you can—”
“—I can. I am no warrior, but I have broken enough logs to know how to swing an ax down.. Thank you..”
“There are no favor here, young girl. Leaving you on your own, and in your condition, is just wrong..”
“I must get out of these mountains and back to my home and my husband. That is where I belong. I thank you for no favors. Only for saving me from that creature, and letting me go.. A woodsman must be free.. This, I am sure you understand.”
“This, I understand..”
For another moment she looked at the withered girl, a limping shade of what she once was..
..And she was a small thing to begin with, really. Small and skinny.. Yet, even having suffered the horrors and indignities of her impregnation and the whole time of her captivity and pregnancy, she showed remarkable resilience to the odds stacked so much against her..
Then, Cora looked at her bulging belly..
“I am sorry to ask.. but.. do you even know what’s inside you?”
“I am afraid even to ask—”
“Your.. how do you—?”
“She does not kick.. She hugs and she sings..”
Cora just stared at the broken young woman, because that’s exactly what she was;
“I bid you, farewell, then. Be good..”
“Farewell, then.. Stay good..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Mom? Why do you weep? Are you in pain?”
“My beautiful baby. I am afraid I shall not be here for long. I so wanted to see you grow.. and play.. and be happy..”
“Why is there red in your face, mom? Did you fall?”
“..I wanted you to wear pretty, laced, dresses.. You have such beautiful eyes..”
“Mom.. You are shaking. It must be cold. Hold me closer to you. I will warm you..”
“We must run, my sweet love. I can hear them again..”
“Mom. You look tired. And you are crying.. Why are you crying, mom?”
“Just.. a bit.. further.. I think.. they will stop.. chasing..”
“I hear your heart, mom. You are afraid. Why are you afraid, mom?”
“I.. can’t.. go.. any further.. Too tired..”
“Let’s stop for some. You are shaking. Why are you shaking, mom?”
“This.. this is as far.. as I can go.. my baby..”
“You are crying again, mom. Why are you crying?”
“Too much.. blood.. Lost too much.. blood.. I am afraid I won’t.. make it, my sweet..”
“Don’t be afraid. I am here. I will protect you, mom..”
“I will sit and rest.. for a bit..”
“You are calm now, mom. And warm..”
“I so love you.. my little.. baby.. I am so sorry..”
“Mom? What happened, mom?”
“Farewell, my sweet, sweet baby..”
“Don’t be afraid, mom. I am here.”
“I love you.. Never forget it..”
“Are you sleeping, mom? I will sleep too, then. I will keep you warm and safe.”
“You are cold again, Mom..”
“Please speak, mom..”
“Please wake up, mom.”
“I am afraid..”
“I promise, mom. I will be good. I will always be good..”
“Please wake up.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Gotcha, you little demon! Been seeing you festering these woods. Da.. Daaa! I got her!
“Please leave me. I did nothing to you.”
“You’ve been sneaking around our home for days now. Saw you again the other night, crawling into the barn. Trying to steal the goats, are you? Daa, come quick!”
“Nanny goat is sick.”
“Sick goat is it?!”
“Yes. She has a nail in her foot. It is burning her heart..”
“You friggin little liar. A good lashing will do you good.”
“But the nanny goat..”
“What’s going on here, boy?”
“Got her, daa.. Told you I saw a little demon sneaking around our house. Look at her.. She’s got horns, just like a demon.”
“I am not a demon. I am a girl!”
“What are you doing here, demon?”
“Your nanny goat. She’s ill. She has a nai—”
“Bring the cane, boy. I will not have this fiend around my house, nor my goats..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Am I a demon? Why am I a demon?”
“You are no demon, my beautiful little chestnut.”
“Then why does everyone say I am a demon? Am I so ugly? Am I so filthy? I must be, because everyone runs from me, or throws rocks at me.”
“Some people are not very bright, my sweet child. Some are superstitious. Some are afraid of what they do not understand. And some are just stupid. Their faults are not your fault, because you are not ugly and you are not filthy.. And certainly, you are not a demon.”
“But I have horns..”
“And I have a hunch back!”
“I healed their nanny goat and they hit me with a cane.”
“People fear the dark because they can’t see what’s in it. Yet they need the dark to rest and to sleep.. Does that make the dark, really a demon? They fear you because they can’t see just what a wonder you truly are..”
“I am no wonder. I am just an ugly and dirty thing..”
“What is your name, my sweet chestnut?”
“And do you know what that means?”
“It means; Heavens Willing.”
“I do not understand, Master.”
“Neither do I. But the Heavens do not make things without a reason.”
“I think they wanted people to know what ‘ugly’ and ‘filthy’ was.”
“I doubt. There is enough ugly and filthy in men without putting it in one, beautiful little girl.”
“Maybe I am broken and I just can’t be fixed.”
“If you are broken. Then I would not want you to be fixed, because you are perfect the way you are.”
“Maybe you are broken too..”
“I am, broken.And perhaps you were sent here to fix me!”
“I do not understand, Master.”
“My dear child, neither do I. But the Heavens gave you to me and here you are loved, you are safe, and you are cherished.. Now, let’s go find some berries and some of those mushrooms you love so much.”
“And Kumse Beetles?”
“And Kumse Beetles..”
✱ ✱ ✱
I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry! I didn’t mean to.. It just happened!”
“My, my, my.. What have we here? That you, girl?”
“I am sorry. I didn’t mean to.. Please don’t send me away!”
“Send you? Please, girl. I wouldn’t send you if the skies came falling down on me..”
“But.. You shouldn’t have the skies falling on you..”
“It’s a metaphor, my sweet chestnut.”
“What’s it for? Are you going to hit me with it?”
“My dear child. When have I ever hit you?”
“Never, Master. And I do not understand why you wouldn’t. Everyone else does.”
“I didn’t think you thought me as silly as everyone else. Now, come on and come out from under the table and let’s have a look at you, shall we?”
“I look horrible.”
“Let me be the judge of that. Let’s see; nice healthy paws, curious ears, brilliant vivid eyes, good strong back, and long balanced tail. Turn around. Let’s make sure everything is where they should be in the tummy.. Yes. very nice, strong muscles. Very nice and strong indeed. This is.. incredible! You have it all in one!”
“You will not hurt me?”
“My dear daughter. Please do not afflict me with the sins of fools. This is your home. Home does not hurt, nor punish. Home only has love and care, though not much of anything else, I must admit.. Woa.. Easy there, tiger! *chuckle* And careful with the claws. This old man will bruise easily.”
“I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry..”
“Well, now. Let’s see if you can actually use those claws. Are you up for a good climb?”
“I think so, Father.”
“How would you like to chase an old, skinny squirrel up the old oak just outside?”
“You must give this old man a head start, though.
“It’s only fair, Master.”
✱ ✱ ✱
You are taking a bath again?”
“Yes, Father. I am scrubbing the dirty away.”
“In the middle of winter? In the frozen pond?”
“Yes, Father. I am dirty. And the dirty will just not come off!”
“Did you not take a bath, just yesterday?”
“I did, Father.”
“And the day before that?”
“Yes, Father. I did.”
“And the day even before that?”
“How are you not freezing?”
“I am filthy. And broken, Father.”
“Hmmm.. Perhaps I can help you with that.”
“I believe so..”
“Uhhmm.. Why did you dump pond mud on me, Father?”
“Now you actually are dirty and have something on you to wash!”
“I do not understand, Master.”
“Wash and see if it comes off..”
“It all came off.”
“There. Now you are all clean!”
“Come on and out now, my sweet chestnut. Let’s get you inside and by the fire before you catch a cold. And no more bathing in the pond. Not in this weather.”
“But I will be filthy again tomorrow.”
“Then you can bathe in the big barrel we have inside. And with hot water too.”
“Perhaps you should bathe too, Father.”
“Why? Do I stink?”
“Well, now.. That was a bit harsh..”
“Do you know how long it takes to dry all this beard?”
“My hair is longer than your beard, Father.”
“Alright. I will bathe. If you say I stink, I must stink.. Tomorrow then. Or maybe the day after.”
“Not the day after, then..”
“Not even tomorrow?
“Good and Great Heavens, child.. NOW?”
“Now is good.”
“We don’t even have hot water!”
“We have pond.”
“Why would you do this to me?”
“You won’t mind I bathe every day in the pond, then?”
“What? How did you even come to that conclusion, girl? I said nothing of the sort.”
“If you don’t want me to bathe in the pond, but bathe at home, you should bathe as well. Since you won’t bathe at home, you must bathe in the pond!”
“That is not even close to what I said!”
“That is what you said; No more bathing in the pond. Not in this weather..”
“Which is the opposite of..”
“I do not understand, Father. Your house rules are complicated and many..”
“Yes, yes.. I suppose that is.. what I said.. How do you even remember, that? No child ever listens to their parents! They roll their eyes and ignore us..”
“You are my Father. Why would I roll my eyes at you? That is not nice.”
“Very well. I shall bathe..”
“In the pond?”
“In the pond.. Go get my towel..”
“And your scrubbing stick.. And your soap..”
“..And my scrubbing stick, and my soap..”
“And your comb..
“I.. what? I haven’t used a comb for over three centuries. I don’t even have hair!
“..For your beard.”
“Really, now, girl?”
“I comb my hair. Stands to reason you should comb your beard. I think it would look pretty. You say I look pretty when I comb my hair.”
“I am going in now.. But only for a moment. There is ice floating in this pond.. Literally..”
“A moment will not even be enough to soak, Father.”
✱ ✱ ✱
That is the last time you fools touch this girl. Do I make my self, clear?”, growled Master Cather as smoke and haze clouded town.
“She is a demon who infests our lands. She must be cleansed—”, screeched the scowling man in fervent zeal.
“Boy, you have got it all wrong.. These are not your lands.. at all! These are the King’s lands, then the elves, then mine..”, replied Cathber with a threatening vibe in his voice.
“She is a demon!”, screamed the man.
“You must have seen many demons to know what to look for.”, Cathber spoke with a deadly whisper.
“She has horns!”, the bigotic man shouted, pointing at the little girl, hanging stripped naked from a thick branch, her tiny back, a bloody, whip-laced mess.
“So does my goat..”, said Cathber and clawed at the air, making a horrible beckoning gesture..
..and a stone spike, the length of a yard suddenly shot out from the ground and rammed right through the bigot’s foreleg!
The man shrieked in pain, tried to double over, but couldn’t.
“This.. is heresy!”, the man screamed in pain.
“No, boy.. This is punishment.. This is my forest.. Here, you do not play your heresy games..”
..and he clawed with his other hand.
Another stone spike shot out of the dirt and nailed his other leg with a wet, sickening tear!
“We.. we did not touch the girl, Master Cathber.”, trembled the other lodgers.
“No.. You did not. You just stood there and watched as he tore into an innocent little girl’s flesh!”
And he rose both his arms..
you shall suffer the curse of the innocent”..
Thus shall you suffer the punishment of silently watching the pain of an innocent..
..his voice boomed and thorny vines shot out of the ground in all directions, grappling anything and everything in their path..
The woodsmen ran..
The thorny, gnarled vines chased.
The fires already burning several of the homes spread.
you shall tremble with the pain of the innocent..
And tremble shall you, with the pain of the innocent..
..heralded the old man.
And the ground trembled.
Large chunks of earth and stone tore out and into the sky, just to land some tens of yards away.
A barn collapsed.
A house creaked in terror and fell apart.
Another barn collapsed.
And another log-house bust in flames..
“You are.. the hand of the devil, old man.. You can not silence the truth!”, groaned the spiked zealot.
“Tell me, boy, how many souls have you saved with your bigotry? Are there two? No? Not even one? But I see you are very free with that whip.. particularly on little girls who will not defend themselves even against fools like you.. You see, she could have slain you many times over. Yet, she chose not to, because she does not like to hurt. She likes to play.. and sing.. and feed the animals.. and heal them when they are sick.. When was the last time you healed anything? Never? Well.. that explains so much. I shall not relieve you of your torment. You may free yourself. That will be at least one person you will have saved in your entire pathetic life. I shall, however return. And should you be in my forest when I do, we shall rinse and repeat this education, until you learn some manners, if not any sense.. But by all means, stay. If not for my daughter, this little girl you so freely whipped, I would beg you to stay, just to repeat this over and over again.. Either way, we shall see just how zealously stuck you really are to those ‘truths’ you seem so fond of..”
“You.. are evil!”, the bigot screamed in pain.
“No, boy. I AM BALANCE!“, replied the old man, his voice truly dreadful now. “Do not force me to summon the ‘Wyld Hunt’ upon you with your name attached to it. The last time I did, was over seven hundred years ago and it very nearly dismantled Themalsar down to rubble.”
The old man gently cut the leather thongs binding the skinny arms of the little girl.
But the old man held her and carefully took her into his gentle embrace.
“Told you, did I not, my beautiful chestnut? Some people are not very bright. Some are superstitious. Some are afraid of what they do not understand. And some are just stupid.. And you have found the worst of them; the bigots! Now, you have made their fault your own.. No matter, no matter.. I shall fix you..”
She opened her eyes and stared at the old man with a vague, groggy stare.
“Why did you come here, my dear child? Did I not warn you to stay away from them?”, the old man asked, tears streaking down his crumpled face.
“Their.. nanny dog.. she was in pain.. her heart was burning.. because she stepped on a garden tool.. she has puppies.. and they need their mommy..”
“Yes, my lovely chestnut.. they need their mommy..”
“I.. cured her..”, she whispered, giving him a bloody smile.
“I am sure you did, my beloved.”, smiled the old man.
“No iron cage this time..”, she whimpered..
..and went limp again..
✱ ✱ ✱
She stood at the edge of the cliff, quietly mesmerized, looking down at the waves gently lapping at the shore below, and at the sea that stretched from one horizon to the other like some endless, blue-green blanket.
And she absolutely loved it!
It was the first time she had seen the Endless Sea. It was also the first time she had come this far and alone from her home.
“I just must make sure, Father sees this. It is so beautiful!”, she whispered in awe as she stood, quietly petrified as the late August sun decided to impress her even more..
Like a dancer stretching out her skirts, and with a mighty display of yellow, orange, and red, the sun spread wide and great and settled on the horizon.
The little girl just stood there.
The sun was almost done showing off, but the sea, apparently, was not..
With slick splashes, a family of oddest looking fish sprang out of the sea, glided across the setting sun in some magnificent, graceful arcs, skimmed the surface over the waters, then disappeared into its depths once again..
The little girl wept.
Because she loved pretty.
And what she had just witnessed was just that.
Then she heard the groan..
It was a very ‘huge’ groan..
It echoed wide and reverberated across the sea, the sky, and the shore and the girl slid down the cliffside, her little heart aching with sorrow, for she knew that voice..
..it meant something was in pain.
That is when she saw the great whale, lying on its side, beached on the shore. She ogled at the thing, a creature, once mighty and over two hundred yards, now looked deflated and sad.
The little girl tiptoed near the creature and tenderly touched it, feeling its heart like some giant drum, beating ever so slowly..
“Great and might fish.”, she wailed. “Why do you not swim? The land is not a good place for you to sleep. The sun will scorch you, and the birds will peck at you.. Please return to the sea..”
“Who are you, little thing? And why do you care?”, the creature moaned in more pain.
“I am just a little girl, great fish. And I care because life is nice. It is precious. And you have so much life..”
“No, little girl. I had much life.. Once.. Now, I wither, for my time is near. I shall die soon, scorched by the sun, and pecked by the birds.. though I surmise, I shall make a merry feast..”
“Please.. return back to the sea.. Sea is life.”
“Yes.. Sea is life.. But mine is quite over.. I am sad, but content. I have lived since this sea was young. I have traveled it many times. I have seen its depths and the heavens above it. I have witnessed the corrals grow, new life form, and men do war upon one another upon it.. Yes. My time has long arrived little thing. Long arrived indeed..”
“But so much you have seen and so much to tell.. They will die with you.”
“That is how it is, little girl..”
“Perhaps you can come with me? I am small.. and not very smart.. and know very little.. but I have room for more..”
“Do you? You seem so little..”
“I am.. But wisdom found, should not be lost, dear big fish.”
“Well.. Since you want to insist on calling me ‘fish’, you must have much room to spare..”, the great whale.. chucked!
“What would you have me call you, dear big fish?”
“Shala.. I was called Shala.. A long time ago.. It used to mean, He Who Sails The Deepest Seas. But I am afraid, much like myself, that word is long gone and forgotten.”
“And I am called Inshala; Heaven’s Willing.. and I shall show you my forest and you can learn me your wisdom..”
“Ahhh.. Forest.. That, I have never seen.. This shall be an interesting journey, little Inshala.”
“I shall show you my forest, and more, big Shala.. I shall make you a big pond. Big enough for you to play!”
“I haven’t played since I was but a little babe, and that was quite some eons ago..”
“We shall travel far and wide together and you shall live inside me for as long as I live, small comfort though that may be.”
“Tis alright, little one. Wisdom is; finding life where there is none..”
“You thank me, little one?”
“Yes. For accepting me and accepting life.”
“You truly are an amazing one and your passion for life is bested only by your compassion for it. I sense we shall have great and extraordinary days together.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“I am Inshala. And am here because of the call.”
“You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t have come. How did you even get past the short-mortal post?”
“I do not know, what this ‘short-mortal post’ is.”
“Dwarves. They have guard post here to make sure no mortal enters the valley beyond without permission.”
“I am sorry. I did not see any dwarves. I felt a soft, pulsing call, hence I came.”
“Who is this, Temessa, and why is she here? How did she even get past the short-mortal post?”
“She says her name is Inshala and was telling me why she is here, Yamara. Must you always jump into everything?”
“I did not jump. I walked.”
“I have introduced myself. It is polite to introduce yourselves back..”
“Ow, yes. My apologies, Inshala. I am Temessa. A dryad.”
“A dryad? You are so pretty!”
“Ow, wow. You really think so?”
“Yes. I mean so.”
“What about me? I am Yamara and I am a fire nymph!”
“A fire nymph? This extraordinary! You are so, so beautiful!”
“I think I just fell in love!”
“What is this wonderful place? I sense.. something, though I do not know what. It.. it’s calling me..”
“Would you like some of my peaches, sweet Inshala?”
“Or my apples?”
“I would. But I have nothing to trade..”
“You can stay and play with us for a year and a day..”
“Owww.. I would love to. But that might make my Father sad.”
“How about a month and a day?”
“I would really love to. But my father is old. I can’t stay away for that long..”
“A day then? Please? It has been a bore since Mother put a ban on mortals..”
“A day, it is..”
“Do you like swimming?”
“I love swimming and I love ponds”
“How about fire hopping?”
“Fire hopping is awesoooome!”
“You sound like a fey..”
“You look like a fey too.. Are you sure your father is a mortal?”
“I think so. Though he is very very old. Are we going to swim and fire hop?”
“I saw her first, Yamara, so we swim first!”
✱ ✱ ✱
You are in the pond again. Why are you in the pond again?”
“I came across some men in the forest. They threw rocks at me and told me I was a filthy demon.”
“Did they, now..”
“I tried to explain that I was just a little girl and was wandering in the forest. They waved their iron axes at me and told me, I didn’t belong here..”
“Is that so?”
“I am in the pond because I am washing the demon filth off me, but it just won’t come off, Father.. It just won’t come off..”
“It will not come off, my beautiful little chestnut..”
“It won’t? Why?”
“Because you have no demon in you, nor any filth. You can’t scrub what isn’t there, my dear child. You must know this. And you belong.. right here.. You have a home..”
“But how do you know I have no demon in me?”
“Because demons do not care for other life. They CAN NOT care for other life. That is why they are demons. And you know what else demons never have?”
“Because ‘Home’ means love, warmth, care, compassion, and belonging. The moment you have those and feel those, you stop being a demon. You simply can not have those and still be a demon.”
“Perhaps it’s because I am small yet. Or because i am only half-demon.. Or just broken!”
“No, my sweet chestnut. I am afraid it doesn’t work that way. If you have four legs, you are not a human. If you are a tree, you are not an animal..”
“I have horns.”
“And I have a hunch back!”
“But your hunch is because you are very old, Master.”
“And you have horns because you are beautiful!”
“I find your logic, quite inconsistent and misplaced, Father.”
“Well, now, really?!”
“You also have sharp ears, my sweet girl. Do you know who else has ears like yours?”
“Precisely. Perhaps you should look for ‘similarities’ around you, rather than ‘differences’ elsewhere.
“Perhaps I am a Half-Elf then?’
“That is possible, my sweet chestnut. But whatever you are, you must know that you are loved.”
“Love. I do not understand this thing you call love, Master.”
“You have grown quite a bit since I found you, my sweet chestnut. And because you have, I try not to mind you taking off to wandering around the forest.”
“But you always scold me when I come back, Father.”
“And have you ever wondered why I scolded you so?”
“Because I forget to tell you?”
“That, and because I am worried every time you do not come back. And you are worried about me when you realize you haven’t come back..”
“Yes, Father. I stop what I am doing and cry.”
“That is called, ‘Love’, my beloved daughter. Because we only worry for those we love and we care..”
“And you always come back, my sweet chestnut. Why is that?”
“Be.. because this is my home..”
“And that is called, ‘Belonging’, my sweet, sweet girl.. and demons have neither, nor will they ever have either; Love and Home. They CAN’T.”
“Now come on and out of the pond. You have bled yourself with your scrubbing again.”
“I am so, so sorry I made you worry, Father. I will never leave again.”
“Let’s not make promises we can’t keep, my sweet chestnut. Of course, you will leave because you are curious about the world around you. But promise me two things; That you will remember this old man will worry, and to come back home, will you? Please?”
“I promise, Father.”
“How would you like to come with me on a long, long trip?”
“Owww.. Where are we going, Master?”
“We shall start doing something I haven’t done and neglected to do for quite some time, my sweet chestnut and it’s called, ‘Storm Hunting!'”.
“Storm Hunting? How can we hunt storms, Master?”
“Very carefully and by running a lot..”
“What is, storm hunting?”
“Storm Hunting, so colorfully named by an old friend of mine, quite some years ago, before you were born.. and.. well.. when I say, ‘old’, I merely mean it as, someone I met a long time ago. Between the two of us, I think I was the only old one.”
“You are always the old one where ever we go, Father.”
“Well, now.. That hurt, little girl!”
“Come now, my sweet chestnut. Let’s get you dry and warm and put some ointment on those scrub bleeds, and I will tell you all about Storm Hunting..”
“Your ointments smell funny, Father.”
“Funny enough to make you laugh?”
“You are making ‘father jokes’, again, Master.”
“Is it working?”
“Because you are doing it wrong, my little chestnut.”
“I do not understand, Father.”
“You are supposed to roll your eyes, and then say, ‘No..’ —like every other teenager.”
“I am not going to roll my eyes at you, Master. That is very rude!”
✱ ✱ ✱
I am blinded! I can’t see, Father.. I am deaf too.. Help me.. And I hurt everywhere..”
“There, there, my love.. I am here..”
“I can’t see.. I can’t see, Father!”
“It will pass soon, my dear. I did warn you to close your eyes, though, did I not?”
“I.. what? I can barely hear you, Father..”
“There, there.. you will be fine soon enough. Storm Hunting is dangerous work and it demands our respect. We must follow her rules, for she has a heavy hand.”
“I just wanted to see, Father.”
“Well. I can’t blame you for your curiosity, but we must have a care, my dear child. Curiosity is a good thing. But we must be sure, which is leading which? You leading your curiosity, or your curiosity leading you, for one will teach you many things, while the other will get you into trouble.”
“I will make sure, I lead the way, Master.”
“That makes this old man, so very happy. Now, can you see again?”
“Yes, Master. But there are still some small, tingling lights flying everywhere.”
“That will pass too, soon enough. Now that we have caught our first storm, let’s make camp, shall we? And cook some fish, some potatoes, some eggplants, and some corn..”
“I.. I am sorry, Father..”
“Yes, Father, I am..”
“Why are you sorry, my sweet chestnut?”
“I.. I ate all your strawberries!”
“That’s alright, dear one. I put them there, many years ago, for someone else.. But he refused to touch them..”
“Ow.. Did I eat his strawberries, then?”
“No.. If he’d wanted to eat them, I believe he would have. Time heals many things, my sweet chestnut, but it does take.. time!”
“I am not quite sure I understand, Father.”
“Never mind, never mind.. Let us get the fire started, shall we?”
✱ ✱ ✱
Why are we here, Father? This place is not nice. The ogres are cruel creatures and will try to eat us.”
“So they are and so they might. But they also live in our forest and share its bounties. We must learn to get along.”
“Because we are never alone in a forest, my sweet chestnut. And we never know to whom we might end up turning for help someday.”
“I can not see how the ogres will help anyone. They can not even get along among themselves.”
“The world is big and wide, my dear child. And is not bound by the rules we inflict upon it. Or we shall end up like those ignorant men, who call you names and want to banish you.”
“That is correct, Father. The men in the forest are incompetent.”
“Yes, Father. Had it been me, I could have caught and banished me years ago, when I was much littler!”
“Now, now.. That is not good thinking.. They couldn’t have banished you even if they had caught you and no matter how hard they tried. And they did catch you any number of times..”
“True. But they are incompetent..”
“They are.. But their failure to banish you wasn’t because of incompetence on their part, but because you can only banish demons. You can not banish pretty little girls.”
“You are just telling me that to make me feel good.”
“I am telling you this to make you feel good and because it is true, my dear child..”
“What will happen if they attack, Father.”
“If they attack, you are free to attack back, my dear. Try to avoid their clubs and axes, though. They hurt.”
“It is alright, Father. I know hurt. I know hurt very well.”
✱ ✱ ✱
And who is this, old man?”
“This, Ganiste, is my dear daughter Inshala.. Inshala, this is an old.. uhhmm.. friend of mine; Grulganiste. She is the chieftain of the ogres of Oger’s Foot.”
“She is pretty, Cathber.”
“Yes. Yes, she is..”
“Hence, she can’t be your daughter, you sour old man!”
“Well, now.. Really? That was a bit harsh, don’t you think, Ganiste?”
“Harsh is when I say; you are an old and sour man!”
“That was indeed, rather harsh..”
“Tell me, little girl, what wrong did you do for your mother to have dumped you on this old man?!”
“Ow.. I am sorry. My mother died too..”
“Do you miss your mommy?”
“Yes, little one, I miss her every day.”
“I miss mine every day too..”
“Would you like to come inside my tent? I have big, soft pillows you can jump and a little chihuahua.. You two can play while I make some food. Your old man becomes grumpy when he talks while he is hungry.”
“Yes. Yes, he does.”
“What is a chihuahua?”
“It is a small dog.”
“You have a puppy?”
“I have had him since he was a puppy. But he grew up very fast and is still a very small dog. Barks a lot, though. Want to see him?”
“She is extraordinary, Cathber.”
“Yes. Yes, she is, Ganiste.”
“What is she?”
“I am not quite sure. And to be honest about it, I don’t really care.”
“You? Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig? Have you finally found a soul to have attached yourself to?”
“You are making me sound awfully cold and heartless, Ganiste. I do have a heart, you know.”
“That is up to debate… Yet here you are, with this little thing, and quite attached to her as well.. Not something I would have expected to see from you..”
“Not something I expected to have happened to me, either.. Like, ever. It’s as if.. I have finally paid for some crime I did centuries ago and she is my gift!”
“Or curse.. Children tend to go either way..”
“Yes. Yes, they do, Ganiste. I am sorry you had to exile Cabot.”
“Not more than I am. But it had to be done. We have plenty of room in these hills to grow and flourish many times over and he was fervently trying to gather a following.. I have no desire to have my people killed for false words. Should men, elf or dwarf come to our hills seeking trouble, we shall crush them with our clubs, hack them with our axes, and smash them with our boulders..”
“Now there’s a gruesome image.”
“..but we will not go seeking for trouble. We have learned to grow our own food and animals for a long time now. So much so that we seldom need to even go down into the forest for foraging. When we do, it is mostly to release some of our bloodlust.”
“Accidents happen, though.”
“Unavoidably so.. Are you going to keep her?”
“For as long as she will let me.. I..”
“Say it, old man. For once in your life, say it. I am sure it will hurt, but I am certain you will survive..”
“You truly have a cruel streak in you, do you know that, Ganiste?”
“Telling an ogre she is cruel isn’t much of an insult, old man. Quite foolish, though.”
“Yes. I love her. Dearly, I might add.. And she is growing so fast.. She is full of wonder and an unquenchable curiosity that takes her further and further away from home every time she leaves.. It’s killing me to see her go and I can’t even say, don’t, because I know she must..”
“Well, now.. After three hundred years and some change, I finally get to see Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig in tears. I shall mark this day..”
“You pun me, Ganiste..”
“Owww, I certainly would love to.. But no, my dear Cathber.. I honor you.. You have finally grown..”
“You think living as long as you have or seeing the things you have, you have grown? Old man, you are so much more naive than I thought you could ever be.. Love.. Felt for one other than yourself, and for someone who is still alive, and particularly that for a child, is what makes a man or a woman truly grow.. And being forced to letting them go, is what really kills us.. For that, which you must do, you have my sympathy.”
“Do we have to leave so soon, Father?”
“You liked it here?”
“Yes. Mother Chieftain Grulganesti is a wonderful host.. And I want a chihuahua!”
✱ ✱ ✱
This will be dangerous, my sweet chestnut. Quite dangerous indeed.. There will be many woodsmen and they will be armed to kill on sight. There will be elven archers and not a few rangers from Serenity Home town. Their sheriff and their two master rangers will be joining us as well.. If one of them sees you, they might make.. mistakes.. Please stay at home just this once..”
“I understand your concern, Father. But there has been something in my mind for some time that I do not understand.”
“What is it, my sweet chestnut?”
“That? That, what?”
“You have been calling me ‘sweet chestnut’, for as long as I can remember, but I do not understand why you do so.”
“I.. what? All these years I have been calling you by that name and you don’t know?”
“No, Father. I thought it might not be polite to ask, but since this place you are going is very dangerous, I would want to know.”
“I.. I call you that, because.. well.. chestnuts are hard on the outside.. And quite resilient. But can be soft and sweet on the inside.. They are small and pretty to look at.. and..”
“And.. well.. because I like chestnuts!”
“There, there, child. What do I always tell you, when you do not understand something?”
“To.. to always ask..?”
“Yes, my dear child. It is polite not to ask only if you feel it is inappropriate at that moment. But it is always better to ask than not to..”
“Can I ask something else then?”
“Of course, my dear, anything..”
“Are you a boy?”
“Am I a.. what?”
“Well.. I am.. or rather, I was.. once.. some eight hundred years or so ago.. I am more a man now, than a boy..”
“And I am a girl?”
“Yes, yes you are, my dear child. And a very pretty one at that.
“What is the difference between a boy and a girl?”
“And why are you a man now and not a boy? Is it because of growing up? Will I become a man, when I grow up?”
“No, you will become a woman, when you grow up..”
“What is the difference between a man and a woman too, then?”
“I.. perhaps we could talk about this later? After I return? Please?”
“Then I am coming with you, Father..”
“Yes. I must make sure you are alright. Otherwise, who will tell me all this?”
“You can not be seen, though.”
“I would like to see the one person who could see, let alone find and catch me, Father. I can become a much larger tiger now. Larger, yet I am also much better at prowling.. I haven’t been seen, nor caught since then. I brought down a fully grown deer with a single pounce, once!”
“But I let the deer go.. She had a little baby deer.. And I also apologized after for scaring her..”
“You let go of your catch?”
“Well. Yes, Father. I do not like killing. And I do not like sad creatures. There is enough sad, without me adding to it.”
“And to see fools calling you a demon and to hurt you! I carry the shame of all humanity, my dear, dear child..”
“Everyone should learn to carry their own shame, Father. You carry many things already.”
“I will go and meet with the sheriff and the two master rangers of Serenity Home town. They will coordinate with the woodsmen and the elves and hunt the wolves that come down the mountains and attack people.”
“Will you not speak with the wolves? They are smart hunters.”
“Yes, they are. But when I tried, they did not hear me. They have been.. taken by something else.. Now the wolves are like they have gone rabid. They blindly attack.”
“That is not right, Master. Wolves do not behave that way. And they never keep rabid ones near them..”
“My dear child. I would really rather you stayed. Whatever it is that is causing the wolves to behave the way they are, will not be an easy enemy. It is cunning and very, very dangerous. I am not sure even I can fight it and survive.”
“Then you need me more than ever, Master. I will protect you. This vile creature will not touch you.”
“There will be others there to protect me, my sweet chestnut.”
“Who among mortals, love you as I love you? Who among mortals care for you as I care for you? And who among mortals will mourn for you as I shall mourn for you, should something happen to you, Father?”
“When shall we leave, Father?”
“Tomorrow morning, my child..”
“Good. I will go and bathe in the pond, Father.”
“Again? You took a bath just yesterday.. And the day before that.. And the one before that!”
“Yes, Father. And I am bringing your towel, your scrubbing stick, and your soap as well. If you are going to meet with all these people, you should be clean!”
“I am clean..”
“I washed just..”
“..last month, Father.”
“It’s been a month already? Where does the time go?”
“It has been thirty-four days and today, since you last bathed, Father. And time goes only forward!”
“Are you keeping a track of my bathing days?”
“Of course, Father. You keep forgetting these important things.”
“I am hurt.”
“I could scrub your back if it is too much work for you, Father.”
“Well, now, really?! I can very well scrub my own back, thank you very much, young lady!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Master Cathber never quite heard the silent footsteps that came very near him until the owner of the silent steps decided to be heard. The old man was poor at hearing, true, but to be honest with himself, and old Cathber certainly was, he knew would have been an easy game for the sinister-looking man in dark clothes..
The silent man was a bare inch above average and was neither fat nor skinny.. Perhaps a bit on the malnourished side but lean and wore his dark, leathers in tight straps. Like someone who never wanted to be caught, nor grappled.. He had dark, penetrating eyes and seemed like he knew how to make good use of his peripheral vision. The lower end of his face was covered with a thick, leather mask and the whole of his head was hidden in a hood made from a similar material. Old Cathber couldn’t discern what his color was either, for the man had chosen the time of his arrival to coincide with the dusk; the time where visibility was still available but drained everything of all color..
This man, whoever he was, was dangerous not only at an intellectual level but also instinctually wired to sense his surrounding.
“Master Cathber..”, he said and there was a distinct growl in his voice.
‘Good and Great Heavens’, the old man thought. ‘He growls and he is not even trying!’
“Good evening, young —?”, trailed off Master Cathber.
“Aager, sir. Aager Fogstep.. The sheriff of Serenity Home sent me to find you, and perhaps to keep you company, seeing as how I am a happy chat.”, he said, and there wasn’t any pun, irony nor any traces of sarcasm in his voice.
“Sheriff Standorin has always been a thoughtful boy.”, grinned Cathber only to see it bounce right off the man in dark leathers.
“Yes, sir.”, the man replied, though he wasn’t looking at the old man, but rather gazing somewhere off in the distance and into the darkening forest.
“Is there a problem, young man?”
“I am not sure..”, replied the young man, Aager.
“I wouldn’t be bothered too much with any feral animals luring in the bush, Master Aager. I lack what they want; meat!”, said the old man and chuckled.
The old man’s pun also bounced right off Aager as a dry pea would from a wall.. He kept his gaze at a specific spot for a bit more and then he looked at the old man.
“Shall we? It is quite a walk to the camp the woodsmen and the elves have set up.”
“Get away from him, you evil, evil man!”, growled the giant cat.
In all candor, calling this beast a ‘cat’ was a mistake, even when referring to it as ‘giant’.
It was monumentally big. A magnificent feline specimen, very nearly topping six hundred pounds. She had great, skull-crushing paws, strong, powerful hind legs, a vicious glare, and a maw that could probably take a man’s head and whole, right off his shoulders without so much as a bother.. Probably after eviscerating him with its nearly foot-long, saber-like teeth that hung down her maw!
This was a creature that did not belong to this forest, but to the Great Nothern Tundras.
The savage beast wondered what her ‘father’ would say when he figured she had sneaked off into the tundras to actually find and study such a beast to have taken its shape.
Inshala was certainly not going to volunteer for that trashing!
She looked around and noticed in panic; the evil man was staring at the forest!
“No way!”, she hissed. “There is no way he heard me! Humans are deaf, blind, and stupid. There is no way you could have heard me.”
She lowered her great mass closer to the ground, making sure where she placed her paws.
“Go away, little boy! And leave my Master alone. I will eat you if you touch him..”
“Ow-My-Heavens! He is staring right at me.. Can he even do that? Humans are not allowed to do that.. That’s not fair..”
“Maybe he is half-demon.. Like me!”
“My Master is gone.. Why is he standing alone?”
“Whatever you are, come out!”, the man in dark leathers growled.
It was a good growl, Inshala thought.
A very scary growl, even..
And he really had heard her, though he couldn’t see her!
Deer were the keenest when if came to hearing predators in the forest and she could catch any one of them off guard, at any given time.. And this.. boy? man? wasn’t even a forest dweller… He smelled of.. leather, metal, a bit of sweat, some kind of oil —probably to keep the rust off his iron weapons and.. something else, Inshala couldn’t say. It was a curious smell. Frightful but intriguing at the same time.
It was his smell..
The smell that was uniquely particular to every single creature. The one that made it possible for hunters like herself to track any single man or beast among many..
And his smell was much of death.
Yes. This man in his dark leathers had killed, and many..
He reeked of it..
But he didn’t smell like the rabid did. He smelled like he had been among or surrounded by many rabid men, and had killed many rabid men. And the smell of ‘rabid’ clung to him like the after taste of bad meat.
She had been intrigued by him, but now she had to kill him.
She knew, animals who hung around the rabid, always ended up rabid.
The man in the dark clothes dropped something..
..and left, following her Master, and soon fading in the dusk.
Inshala very patiently waited for a full ten minutes before rising from her hidden spot. Then she circled around all the way to where the evil man and her master had gone.
She wasn’t satisfied.
She felt uniquely intrigued as if a whole, different side of her had just awaked.. The non-human side of her. Her senses stretched forth and wide as she doubled back and circled the area from the other side.
Still not satisfied, she pounced up to a tree overseeing the area and glared down..
There.. something glittered in the ghostly light of the newly appearing moon.
She waited another ten minutes sweeping the area and the surrounding forest.
This was a trap.
She had been caught a few too many times in the past not to recognize one, but she just couldn’t find it.
A low, frustrated growl escaped her as she carefully, and silently slinked down the tree, and placing one giant paw over another giant paw, she came to the clearing where the evil man and her Master had been, her ears prickling every which way to catch signs of hidden ambushers.
In her past, she had found out rangers had been extremely hard to catch. But for some reason, none of them had ever hunted her down. Not in her small, diminutive, girl form, and not in her great, saber-tooth tiger form. Why, she had never been sure. Perhaps her father had told them about her and rangers respected her father. Genuinely respected him and by proxy to her Father, Inshala respected rangers in return. This evil man, however sneaky he was, was NOT a ranger. He hadn’t smelled like a ranger, for one. And two; rangers were.. Inshala was not very sure but the word ‘good’ seemed fitting.. This man was not, good. No.. He definitely was not a good man. And should the opportunity present itself, she was going to tell him exactly that!
Carefully, she snuck near the glittering thing she’d seen, watching the ground for possible hidden bear-traps or some such, as she ghosted on. Humans, as she’d learned many times over, were extraordinarily creative when it came to creating devices that killed. The irony, not that the little girl, Inshala, knew what the word ‘irony’ meant, was not lost on her, that the same humans were equally poor and unimaginative when it came to creating anything that actually saved lives!
Then she saw it.
The glittering thing on the ground.
Inshala took a step closer and paused, staring at the long, slim object with unadulterated confusion.
It was nothing but a long dagger, sheathed in its scabbard.
Nothing ornate, nor pretty. Just a long, slick weapon, made for practical accuracy.. and for killing.
Six hundred pounds of feline aggression settled down near the dagger and just stared at it. After a few moments, she pawed it..
..and yowled in total surprise, jumping some massive ten feet into the air and very nearly fifteen back, as the dagger bounced once, then settled again!
Inshala giggled at her own reaction.. which sort of made her look odd, in her giant, saber-tooth tiger form.
Alright. So it wasn’t a trap.
But why then, had the evil man dropped it?
Had it been a careless folly?
Inshala knew, more instinctually than anything else, that the evil man had not dropped it by mistake.
He had left it there with deliberate deliberation.
He had also made sure that she had seen him..
..seeing as how he hadn’t ‘left’, but had ‘carefully dropped’ it there..
The next question was why?
Why had the evil man leave a dagger..
No.. Not just a dagger.. a SHEATHED dagger for her to find.
Had he left just the dagger, it would have meant one of many things.. and perhaps even none of them.
A sheathed dagger meant..
A ‘careful’ peace offering?
He had parted with something he would need while going to battle and knowing its absence might cause him his death. Yet he had taken that risk.
Not to mention the nuance; because the dagger was sheathed, it could safely be carried by the receiving party, without cutting themselves by mistake or foolishly stabbing it under one’s belt!
This.. evil man had offered peace, in his own, perhaps a bit creepy way. He showed respect to the creature he couldn’t see, yet felt was there, hiding in the bush, and he also respected the ‘weapon’, because both, her and the dagger, had the distinct quality to take life.
It had been an intriguingly subtle.. and double-edged message..
..and Inshala, both girl and tiger, absolutely LOVED it!
It had been, perhaps the first time ever, someone had recognized her as someone who had the means and the skills to slay, but also the conscience to choose not to, and showed her, not hate, nor fear and certainly not love, but respect..
✱ ✱ ✱
The great saber-tooth snuck deep in the woods, carefully under and over heavy bushes and foliage as she watched her master walking between the two young and pretty ranger girls. That had surprised Inshala. She had never seen armed girls —or women, Inshala wasn’t sure which one of them, these rangers were. Her master had been quite evasive when she had asked him about the difference between a girl and a woman, and now she couldn’t decide what these two were. She felt she was a girl. And she also felt she had no idea, whatsoever, what, how, or when she would become a woman. Human language was diverse and its rules were complicated and many, and Inshala felt a headache threatening to inflict her. The two rangers did look all grown up if that is what it took to be a woman, but they also looked.. young too, at the same time. Though they moved with that careful, steady pace all rangers seemed to possess, they also had a ‘fresh’ step to their gait which suggested ‘youth’. Inshala wasn’t sure how she recognized these nuances or subtleties, but it seemed she only did so at an instinctual level than any learned or attained wisdom.
The one leading was a tall human girl. Taller than herself and had pretty green eyes, fair skin, and long, free-falling, coarse black hair. Or perhaps she had braided it at some time but because she kept playing with it, they had drooped and finally gone free of their braids. She had a very long, very heavy bow in one hand and a wicked-looking greatsword strapped across her back.
The other one was an elf, yet also not an elf.. “A half-elf”, exclaimed Inshala. So that’s what a half-elf looked like. She was a tad shorter than the human and leaner. Her dark brown hair was also free but had two, pretty little braids on one, and a single braid on the other side of her otherwise comely face. A face that wanted to laugh, but was trying very hard to appear serious by means of a scowl.
The half-elf also had a very long, very heavy-looking bow in her hand and a pair of swords hanging at her sides.
Yup. These two rangers definitely looked competent.
And she loved them! They looked brave and strong. Perhaps she might not have to show herself at all, after all.
She watched as the two rangers and her master stop, near a very sheer cliff face and the ranger girls rolled some boulders, forming a barely protective half-circle where they placed her master and as the human girl took her place in front of the boulders, the half-elf climbed up a large rock and prepared her bow and her arrows.
What were they doing?
Why were they just standing in the middle of nowhere waiting for the wolves?
They were brave alright.
But not very bright!
And then the air suddenly got cold.. Very cold and very fast and Inshala saw her master raise his skinny arms and started a very complex incantation. One she had never seen him perform before..
And then she understood.
Not the content, but the implications of what was going on..
The ‘enemy’ had picked up on what was going on, and was trying to use the weather by altering it enough to freeze everyone near its den!
Ow.. this was a cunning and powerful enemy!
Then she heard them.
She heard them even before the rangers..
And they came down, very nearly hurling themselves off the cliffside.
Their enemy had sensed her master and had sent his pet wolves to eliminate him.
Inshala was not going to let that happen.
But she waited. As big as she was in her saber-tooth tiger form, going up against a pack of some forty-odd wolves was a losing fight.
Inshala had never had any battle training. Hers was all about instincts.. The same instincts that told her to wait..
..and hit where it would have the greatest effect.
She had no illusions about her abilities nor that she could best a pack of wolves that size. What she did know was, when struck with overwhelming brute strength and suddenly, it would break the wolves will and scare them off.. And once a few of them started to run, the rest would follow. That was how a pack worked. And so long as she made sure the wolves couldn’t go for her throat or hamstring her hind legs, she could best them with ease.. One paw from her strong arms could shatter a wolf’s skull, without even the need to use her claws. That was the one distinct advantage felines had over canines; the ability to use their paws in a lateral direction. A swipe or a swing, per se. Dogs, or wolves, could only move their paws vertically, effectively removing the option of using their claws. The ‘batting’ or ‘swatting’ of a cat would be ‘playful’. The same action used by a six hundred pounds tiger was altogether a different proposition. Hence the skull-cracking.. Or the snapping of a spine, which was easier than the skull, but harder to reach when they were all facing her. Which is why, Inshala thought, she had to either strike from the rear, which was unlikely to succeed since there was no cover there or charge in from the flank, where she would have the opportunity to break many spines!
And that’s when the half-elf girl started ‘loosing’ her arrows..
Inshala just stood there, quietly dumbstruck as the ranger-girl started killing wolves at six hundred yards!
That.. was not fair!
The human also started shooting but she missed some. Then she drew her awesome big sword and charged!
“Alright.”, thought Inshala. “That one is pretty and stupid.. and pretty stupid!”
What was she doing?!
You don’t charge a whole pack of wolves..
But there she was, suddenly in the middle of the ravaging wolves and.. she was laughing, and Inshala seriously thought she was a bit ‘wrong in the head’, and dancing among the wolves, and where she swung, she laid waste a wolf.
That’s when Inshala noticed the alpha.
It had circled around, taking advantage of the chaos —a something far too cunning for a wolf, and was now rushing..
..at the half-elf girl from behind her.
The half-elf girl screamed.
And Inshala saw the human girl disappear under a whole lot of wolves.
A tad too late, for she had positioned herself for the pack, not the half-elf.
The alpha struck the half-elf from behind, sending her off the rock she was standing. Inshala heard a meaty crack when the half-elf fell on the ground and hit her head.
Then alpha went for her master!
“Not going to happen..”, hissed Inshala.
And six hundred pounds of feline aggression pounced the alpha, and with a sharp, unsettling crack, broke its spine. Inshala did not bother with subtleties. No one was ever going to touch her Father and Master; with a mighty swing of her awesome paw, she sent the alpha’s head, clean off its shoulders, and rolling some fifteen yards away!
Then she was among the remaining wolves.
Yes, she fought with the instincts of a killer predator, but she still had the mind of a human and.. something else guiding those instincts.. She never, for any given instance, stayed in one spot to allow the wolves to crowd her, nor hamstring her. She crushed the skull of one wolf, smashed the muzzle of another, gracefully arched over a third, broke the spine of a fourth, hopped over a charging fifth, raked open an unsuspecting sixth.. It was a mesmerizing scene, to see such a magnificent, but equally large animal dance and so nimbly among the wolves. It looked like a sand-colored smoke whifting among black and white fur..
It didn’t take too long.
The half-elf girl with her insane accuracy and the human girl with her insanity had killed much more than half their numbers to make a decent feast for the saber-tooth.
The last few tried to make a yelping run for it.
Inshala did not let that happen.
What she did do, however, was not vengeance, nor punishment.
It was a simple matter of ‘balance’.
Whatever had inflicted these wolves, had done it at a terminal level and they had all tasted human and elf flesh and many times. Enough to make a habit of it and certainly enough to lust for more. The imbalance here was very well defined; willy-nilly, these wolves had gone over the edge and crossed the line.
A line where there was no sanity.
And there were no cures here.
Which is exactly what she’d did.
She left none!
“You were extraordinary, my sweet chestnut.”
“Ow my child. If only we had Master Brom Bumblebrim here, he would have sung an epic, just for you..”
“Ow.. who is Master Blom Bundlebim Hobim?”
“An acquaintance of mine. A bard. Met him many years ago.. Wait. How did you know he is a hobbit?”
“I am not sure, Father. It just came to me.”
“Well, I must say, you truly were magnificent. And your new form. It really is much bigger than your first tiger. I wasn’t aware there were any saber-tooth tigers in Ritual Forest.”
“It’s alright, my dear child. I do not mind you quenching your curiosity. But I would like to be informed. I am an old man, yes. But I have traveled far and wide.. And know my forest well. If you feel you have to keep certain things from me, I am fine with it. But never fear me. That would truly hurt.”
“I am sorry I kept this from you. Father. You are the only one that has scolded me honestly. I can’t bear to see you worry any more than you already do for me.”
“That is what fathers do, my dearest. We worry over our daughters.. But now, help me with these young and over-enthusiastic rangers.”
“They were good, Father.”
“They were exceptionally good, my sweet chestnut. This one shoots like no one I have ever seen. And this one.. scared me more than she scared the wolves, I think.”
“I think she is angry.”
“Yes, Father. She was laughing while she was fighting. But she was also crying. But not out of fear. In fact, the moment she drew her big sword, she left all her fear behind. I do not think she was laughing because she was happy. That would be.. scary.. I think she was laughing to hide her anger.”
“You have a gift, my dear; an astute level of perception and insight.”
“She is also bitten. Many, many times.”
“Yes, she is. I believe I can heal most of it. I am sure she will truly cry when she wakes up, but from pain. At least there will be little scaring. This one however has a cracked skull.”
“I tried to reach her, but I was positioned wrong. Can you fix her? I think she’s cute. Just look at her pretty eyelashes.”
“Come, my dear, help me with this one first. It is not healthy for her to lie in all that wolf blood and.. insides..”
“She is pretty too. But she smells of woodsmen. I do not like woodsmen, Father.”
“Come now, my dear, they very nearly gave their lives trying to protect this old fool.”
“Speaking of fools. Was there a particular reason you all just stood there, right out in the open? Is there a significance to incanting at such an indefensible spot just so all the wolves could see you, that I am not aware of? I mean, there are so many trees, after all.. You could have cast your spell, sitting comfortably on a branch while these two pretty rangers could have shot at the wolves while they piled at the bottom of the trees!”
“Well, now, I.. never really thought about it..”
“You all did look awesome though..”
“Well, really, now. You are just making fun of this old man.”
“People are coming, Master. Time for me to go, I think.”
“Yes, my sweet chestnut. I believe it is..”
“Take these, Master, and have the humans make pretty earrings for these two. I think they deserve them.”
“Yes, Father. These are the alphas fangs. I do not like looting animals, other than what I honestly need.. But I sense.. a certain balance here now..”
The old man stared at the little girl and suddenly the dawn of a realization brightened his astonished face. Slowly, and carefully he looked at the unconscious girls, then studied the half-elf a bit more closely.
Good and Great Heavens..
The little girl, his little girl, was right!
Informed by her, he recognized who the half-elf was; Laila.. The daughter of Darien Darkmaine and his beloved Seraphim Silverdûne, both long deceased. And in a chain reaction, he also recognized who the other, the human girl was too; the daughter of dear Seleina Sunstrider and Aramsis Darkmaine, both also long gone..
“You are so much more astute than I could have imagined, my dear, dear child.. Your ability to sense balance around you is astonishing. And certainly much more finely tuned than mine.. You truly are a wonder..”
Inshala blushed furiously and glowed with genuine pride.. then took off..
Master Cathber stared after his ‘gift’, then back at the unconscious girls.
“Well. I believe some well-earned titles are in order, here.. ‘Wolvesbane’ for you and ‘Songsteel’ for you, I think sounds fair and quite fitting.”
“And perhaps ‘Frostmane’ for you..”, he added with a whisper, glancing after his saber-tooth daughter..
✱ ✱ ✱
The great saber-tooth wept silently.
She crouched behind the trees and thick bushes, staring at the large camp full of elves, woodsmen, and rangers laughing and drinking merrily in celebration of having finally gotten rid of the mad wolves infesting Dim Woods and Nurturing Heaven for over two decades. Inshala wasn’t among the merry lot and she wept. Not for having to miss the party, but for the two, pretty ranger girls moaning in pain, in their tent.
Inshala knew pain. She knew it intimately. She had been born with it. Hence, when she saw pain and suffering, she did not offer sentiments because she felt the pain. And those two had fought so bravely, so valant.. varrant.. so.. virulent? What was the word?
Yes, they had fought so bravely and valiantly, and they were now paying the price for it.. cashed in pain.
Then she saw the dark, evil man skulk..
Skulk had a.. Inshala was not sure exactly what, but the word ‘skulk’ didn’t fit the evil man.
Skulk had a certain ‘cowardice’ attached to it.
Sneak, then, perhaps?
But he wasn’t exactly sneaking either, per se.
Well, that certainly fit, but Inshala didn’t think it did the evil man justice nor give it the dramatic touch she felt it needed.
Walking silently seemed more like a ‘side effect’ to his gait, rather than the cause.
And why was she so hung up on how the evil man walked anyway?
It was just a walk!
Inshala, however, loved correctly defining things. It seemed to satisfy her at a fundamental level.
Or perhaps it was because she had been misunderstood or misinterpreted a few too many times in her past.
Being thought you were a demon all your childhood, and consequently being chased, stoned, caged, and whipped would do that.
An ungrateful, or perhaps, an uncharitable person would probably call her ‘obsessive’.
However she was looked upon, Inshala did not mind, so long as there were no name-calling, chasing, stoning, caging, or whipping in the end.
She still did obsess on correctly defining things, though.
The only, and major issue with that was, the little girl was quite and quietly isolated and had only one old man to talk to. The man she loved and adored.. and didn’t want to perpetually pester him. Hence she lacked ‘words’..
She exclaimed.. Yes, the evil man ‘ghosted’ towards the tent where the two, pretty ranger girls moaned and groaned in pain!
Or rather, he had already ‘ghosted’ there by the time Inshala found the correct word and she’d totally missed it!
That bothered the little girl.
It bothered her a lot.
She knew she could obsess over words, her bathing schedule, certainly her Father’s bathing calendar, her hair, her clothes, her nails, and her.. horns.. But over a boy? a man? She wasn’t quite sure what this one was, but sending a ‘boy’ to fight a whole pack of wolves sounded genuinely wrong to Inshala.. though, when she thought about it, she was here and she’d fought the wolves and she was a girl. So were the two, pretty ranger girls!
This particular, boy/girl, man/woman dilemma was really getting out of hand!
What’s more, why had the evil man gone to a tent where two, pretty ranger girls lay resting?
.. Inshala found it extremely disturbing for some reason and she was totally clueless as to why!
Perhaps the evil man liked one of the girls. They were both pretty, after all..
Perhaps the evil man liked BOTH the girls! They were BOTH pretty, after all!
A low and savage growl escaped the saber-tooth.. She wasn’t sure which of those she found more disturbing, but both made her want to pounce the tent and shred things.. in a rather bloody way.. Starting with the evil man!
On a side note, Aager Fogstep never knew just how close he’d come to getting shredded that evening!
And just like that, Inshala calmed down.
Because she remembered something— ⊗
The massive, six hundred pounds of feral egression molded down..
There was no smoke, no crunching of bones, no disgusting body fluids gushing out of any orifice, nor any spectacular, sparkling effects.. at all..
One moment a giant of a cat with a great maw, foot-long sabers for teeth, spine snapping massive paws and man-height shoulders, the next, a skinny little girl.
The lack of drama was a bit disappointing perhaps, but the beauty of the change was in fact, in its quiet subtlety.
⊗ —the sheathed dagger.
The two, pretty ranger girls did not possess anything that belonged to the evil man. But she did.
And the evil man did not have the smell of either of the two, pretty ranger girls on him.
Funny how ‘relative reason’ found its way through impossible odds at times. Particularly when you desperately wanted it to!
The little girl, Inshala, did not ‘ghost’ in the night. She didn’t think she would ever be able to do that. Not in her ‘girl form’, anyway. She felt that seemed something unique to the evil man for some reason and that thought made her frown.. and put a tiny little smile on her small mouth at the same time.
Hence she snuck.
Inshala did not do skulking, either!
Quietly, she placed the sheathed dagger near the entrance of the tent.
To this day, she was never really sure why she’d returned the dagger. Perhaps it was because she thought he might need it and its lack might cause him harm. Or perhaps it was a matter of simple ‘balance’; take something, give something. Maybe it was about returning the ‘careful peace’ offering in-kind.. though, in all candor, she might have thought it was something of a game. A bit like hide-and-seek..
Whatever her reasons or reasonings were, it felt ‘right’ and ‘appropriate’ to have returned the sheathed dagger because when she snuck back into the woods, the frown on her diminutive face was gone.
And only the little smile was there.
✱ ✱ ✱
Let me get this straight, old man. You want me to teach your daughter the differences between boys and girls, and men and women? Am I correct?”
“Yes, Ganiste. That is exactly what I am asking you to do..”
“This is incredible. The great Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig blushes and can’t talk about men and women to a little girl?”
“You are enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“more heartless laughter*
“Very, very much. But what I don’t understand is, you told me all this when I was a girl. Why can’t you tell her?”
“She is my daughter, Ganiste. I.. can’t, alright. A father should never have to tell these things to his daughter. To a son, perhaps, but not his daughter. That is the mother’s prerogative, if not her job. Yes, it doesn’t sound nice when I say it like that, but to be honest, I don’t care. When it comes to fathers and daughters, there should be some sort of unspoken privacy between them. The same privacy that creates the incomprehensible but special bond that is called father and daughter. Yes, I have washed her, bathed her, clothed her, looked after her, fed her, taught her, and comforted her the best I can. And whenever she does these by herself and in the future, she will remember me and smile. This.. ‘topic’, however, relates to a possible third person by its nature I am hoping she will find in time.. Someone who loves her, cares for her, attends to her needs in all aspects, comforts her, and keeps her safe. And I should never be part of that equation. Only her and that person, whoever he may be.. If I told her about these, I will ruin the mystic of the whole thing..”
“And embarrass yourself..”
“And embarrass myself..”
“You never cease to amaze me, old man.”
“I honestly am not trying.. But I can not go to the woodsmen for their support on this, seeing as how they treated her all these years. Elves.. well.. I am NOT going to the elves with this.. Dwarves are not even aware of her existence and I’d like to keep it that way. They make horrible gossip! You are the only woman I know and trust.. Ironic as that may seem..”
“Yes.. rather ironic, indeed. An ogress teaching the ways of boys and girls, men and women to an old codger’s little, non-human daughter. What could possibly go wrong there?”
“Old codger? Really, now, Ganiste..”
“I resent that!”
“Well, now, you are just being mean, Ganiste. I never called you any names.”
“By all means, do. You are so out of your debt here that I can pluck you clean and you will just sit there and take it all!”
“Do it, then. For her, I will sit still and ‘take it all’..”
“You are serious..”
“Ganiste.. When have you ever seen me otherwise?”
“Very well, old man. This is quite unprecedented, but I will do this for you. And for her.. I hear certain ‘talks’ form special bonds between girls. Never really had the chance here. Ogres aren’t much when it comes to intimacy. At least I and the future Ritual Guardian will have such a special bond..”
“Are you done talking privately with my Father, Ganiste? Chihuahua is hungry, and so am I..”
“Yes, I am done talking with your father. But not quite done talking privately with you..”
“You want.. to talk privately with me?”
“Yes, child. I am afraid this will be one of ‘those talks’..”
“Cathber! You never had any of ‘those talks’ with her?”
“Uhhmm.. Nope! Thought I’d leave it all to you and in your tender care..”
“You are incredible, you are.. How is she even alive?”
“That was a bit harsh, now, Ganiste. I did the best I could..”
“Come, little one. Help me prepare dinner and I will tell you all about boys and girls..”
“You.. you will?”
“Yes, little one, I will..”
“Yessh! It has been in my mind for some time now. But I do not understand why my Father isn’t telling me this and you are..”
“Because he is a wuss!”
“Well, now, really, Ganiste?!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Tell me little one. What do you know about boys?”
“They are mean. They try to catch me, they pull my hair, my ears, and my horns. They hit me with sticks, they throw stones at me and call their parents who beat me more, put me into cages, and whip me. I do not like them, mother Ganiste.”
“And.. why did you not hit them back, child?”
“Because I do not like hurting. I am used to pain, but they are not. If I threw a rock at them, they will die. If I hit them with sticks, they will die. If I whip them, they will die. I only kill to eat. And when an animal has become sick in the head..”
“Hmmm.. Alright. Perhaps one day you will meet a boy who will not do any of those to you.”
“I do not look forward to it, mother Ganiste. Humans are all same. They are ignorant, stupid, they only want to kill things and they do not smell nice. Why would I want any of them.”
“But you are human too, child.”
“No, mother Ganiste. I am not. Father says I am. And at first, I wanted to be as well. If being human will make me do all the evil things they do, I do not want to be human. Perhaps an elf. They at least never throw stones at me, or call me names or hit me with sticks. But they do avoid me and that hurts. I have done nothing to them.. I just watch them play and dance from far away. They will not mind that. But they will not let me come any closer. They are a closed-minded people.”
“Life hasn’t offered you any favors, has it, child? And this coming from an ogre makes it all the more sad.”
“I did not even want to be, mother Ganiste. At all.. But no one asked me, so I am here. Only my Father has been good to me.. And you, mother Ganiste. But he is old. I can see him wither away, every day now and I do not know what to do? If only I could find a way to give him my days, I would. No one wants a dirty little demon like me. But everyone needs him.”
“No child. We do not get to give our days to others. And even if you had the chance, you shouldn’t be doing that.”
“Why? I have no future. There are no happy days for me other than what my Father gives me..”
“Child. I am an ogre and even I haven’t given up thus thoroughly. And I lost everyone I know to humans, because of humans.. Yet there are some that can be spoken to, bargained with, and expect some respect. Your father is one such human. Should have seen me when I first saw him. I literally tried to catch and eat him! But he bested me and still did not slay me. Instead, he offered to take me along and show me the world beyond our hills and our ways. Now he is your father and still doing the same. In time, you will find someone, perhaps a human, or an elf, or someone or something else, who will be like your father but who will not be your father. To him, you will tell all your secrets, all your worries, all your fears, all your bad habits and it will still be alright. You will open your heart to him and he will love you for it. And he will do the same to you and it will be alright with you and you will love him for it, as well..”
“I find your confidence in humans enthralling, but misplaced, mother Ganiste..”
“That is for time to show you, child. But either way, you must know what boys are and what men are. You must also know what being a girl means and how they become women.”
“Tell me about the girl and the woman, mother Ganiste. I have no interest in boys nor men. They have brought me nothing but suffering, and given me nothing but pain..”
“Let’s not be too hasty, child. For there can be no men without women and only empty and desolate women without men..”
“I do not understand, mother Ganiste. What do women have that men want, and what do men have that women need?”
“Living in the wild, have you never noticed how there are always two, to make more?”
“I have, mother Ganiste. Animals are kind, for they hunt only what they need. And are bonded to their mates. The mate fights and savagely, so the mother can run and take its cubs, puppies, and babies to safety.”
“Yes. But why does it take two, to birth the cubs, puppies, and babies?”
“I do not know, mother Ganiste. It just does, I guess.”
“It doesn’t ‘just does’, child. It is needed. The girl needs the boy, for the girl to make more. And the boy needs the girl, for the whole of their kind to grow. Neither is better than the other, and neither is the stronger. To think so is folly and an elementary mistake.”
“Because there can be no men without women and only empty and desolate women without men, dear child.”
“When boys grow, they become men. When girls grow, they stay a girl. For a girl to become a woman, she needs to mate.”
“What is to mate, mother Ganiste?”
“The details of that is something you will learn in time, I imagine. Suffice to say, the boy gives his seeds to the girl, and the girl turns those seeds into new life! What you are here for is, when boys grow, they grow also in size and muscle, though not particularly in their mental capacity. This is also true for women, really, but that’s beside the point. When a girl starts to grow, her body changes much more profoundly than boys. Our hips grow wider, and our breasts grow larger.”
“For many reasons. One is to attract the attention of men, I suppose, the other is for both to carry and deliver our babies, and to feed our young ones..”
“I.. do not understand, mother Genista.. You mean to tell me I will look like you?”
“In essence, yes. Do you remember how flat you were just a few short years ago?”
“You certainly were, the last time you came here. Now you have ‘hips’, and ‘breasts..”
“Will they not stop growing?”
“They might. But I doubt. Not yet anyway. You are different from humans and different from ogres. But I believe you are not quite done with your growing just yet.”
*blush some more*
“But.. I do not want them to grow anymore. Can I not stop them?”
“No. And neither should you want to. Never, and I mean, never interfere with your natural growth. That is not just wrong, you will ruin your body. There is no going back once it’s done, child.. Besides, no girl ever wants them to stop growing. The larger they are, the more men like them.. boys too, for that matter, and I don’t expect that particular aspect in males to be any different in humans.”
“I do not understand, mother Ganiste. I do not want to grow anymore. If I grow more, so will my horns..”
“Child.. What am I?”
“An ogress, mother Ganiste.”
“I have the face of a bull that’s smashed into a wall running at full speed. I have a flat nose, thick, uneven horns, and canines that stick out of my jaw..”
“Yes. You look awesome, mother Ganiste.”
“You look awesome!”
“I.. I do?”
“And very impressive. I was enthralled the first time we met.”
“Girl.. You are ruining my speech and my point!”
“I am sorry, mother Ganiste. But I speak my truth.”
“Your truth is pretty. But my face is not. Which is, or was, my point.”
“I feel lost, mother Ganiste.”
“As much as I dislike many of my aspects, this is me. This is who and what I am. In time, I will become more, and I will become less, yet, whatever and however I turn out to be, I will accept that, and so must you.”
“You belong, mother Ganiste. Here, and among yours.”
“Where do I belong?”
“I have no place among humans and I have no place among elves. You belong to your people, and your hills, mother Ganiste, because you have people.. I have no hills and no people.. I have no place in this world, mother. I do not belong!”
“You belong, where you feel you belong, child. To your father and to your home.. And as long as I am here, you belong to these hills as well.”
“I thank you, mother Ganiste. You are kind and wise. But you and I know, in the end, I will live alone, and die alone. I will always be shunned, stoned, caged, and whipped for as long as I live and my best chance is to run.. Always run.. Should I settle and be found, I will be driven and my home burned. The running can not belong,mother Ganiste..”
“Did you learn the answers to your questions, my sweet chestnut?”
“Yes, Father. Thank you for bringing me here to mother Ganiste. She is wise as she is pretty. I would like to visit her again in the future if it’s alright.”
“I am sure Ganiste wouldn’t mind. I believe she truly adores you.”
“She adores many things, Father. The smaller they are, the more she adores..”
“And have you any further questions to ask on the matter you talked?”
“No, Father. I found it was a matter that was not significant, nor pertinent and quite unrelated to my life.”
“Boys and men will always stay and far away. And I will always stay, here and a girl. I am alone, Father, for I have no kind. I belong nowhere and there will be no mate waiting for me..”
✱ ✱ ✱
You have been rather quiet of late, my daughter. What’s ails you? Are you unwell?”
“I am well, Father. I am merely thinking.”
“Thinking. Thinking is good, my sweet chestnut. But too much, however, could befuddle —unless shared.”
“The Wyld Hunt, Master. That is what I have been thinking.”
“Now, why would a pretty little girl such as yourself ever think of a dreadful thing such as the Wyld Hunt, my daughter. It is not a wise matter to dwell upon. Not for an old man such as myself, let alone a pretty little girl..”
“You do not have to say I am pretty all the time, Master. That elk has escaped.. I no longer find interest in being pretty. I have accepted my lot..”
“Perhaps you should look into all your options before you call upon your lot, my daughter.”
“It is alright, Father. It really is.”
“My dear fair girl.. Ever since we met, have I ever mislead, muddied the truth, or lied to you?”
“There you have it, then. If I say you are loved, it is because you are loved. When I say you are pretty, it is because you are pretty.. Unless you want to call this old man a fool for a pretty face.. which would sort of make my point!”
“I thank you for your love and your care, Father. It has meant a lot for me and sustained me all these years. It is time, however, I stand on my own feet, then on your shoulders.”
“My shoulders are fine, my sweet chestnut. You weigh little!”
“I weigh more than my little. This I think you already know, Father.”
“Why don’t we both go to the pond and take a dip? It is a beautiful day..”
“I took a dip last week, Father. I will take another if I need.”
“Soo.. why were you thinking about the Wyld Hunt? If I may be so bold as to ask..”
“You are bold, Father.”
“Well, really, now? That’s just being nasty.”
“I am sorry, Father.”
“We shall see how sorry you are then, shall we, young lady? The Wyld Hunt..”
“Perhaps I could call it and join it.”
“Call it and join it, Father. That way, I will belong.”
“First of all, young lady, no one ‘just calls’ the Wyld Hunt. Second, the Wyld Hunt is not something you can ‘belong’ to.. like ever! The Wyld Hunt is not a nice thing, my daughter. It is very, very, VERY dangerous to call it.. Once, and only once did I call it and that was over 750 years ago during Themalsar War, and it took a full circle of druids to barely steer it towards that mad old priest’s temple! They destroyed the temple and brought it down to a stunted rubble.”
“But I heard he still lives, Father. Themalsar still lives.”
“Yes. He does. As far as I know. The fool made pacts with unimaginable things we could not even put names to. The best we could do was to lock him up in his stinking dungeons and put the strongest wards we could muster.. All of us; what remained of the druids, any Temple Guardian we could get our hands on, any elf wizard or sorcerer, and even Angels from the High Heavens and powerful Fey from either Courts..”
“So you called the Wyld Hunt and they were unable to destroy this Themalsar?”
“There you have it then, Father.”
“There we have what, child?”
“You sent them to do a task and they were unable to finish it.. The Wyld Hunt ‘owes’ you, Father!”
“Now you could call them and ask them if I could join them as a payment to their debt! That way, they will be happy for having finally paid off their debt, I will have gone and joined them and ‘belonged’, and you will be free of me and will no longer be forced to endure my weight!”
“No? But why, Father? Seems like a good solution.”
“Solutions are for problems.”
“Yes, Father. And I am the problem.”
“No, my daughter. The problem is you questioning my love for you. The problem is where you do me the disservice of questioning my love, my care, and my fondness of you.”
“I.. I thought..”
“Go? Where shall I go, Father?”
“Go.. and take a bath..”
“I do not need a bath, Father. The dirty does not come off.”
“Go, Inshala. NOW! AND NEVER TALK ABOUT THE WYLD HUNT AGAIN!!”
“You shouted at me, Father..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Ganiste! I need your help!”
“Cathber? That you, old man?”
“Yes, yes.. How many others do you see in your dreams, girl?”
“Do you really want me to answer that question, old man?”
“You really shouldn’t ask questions you do not want the answers for, old man. But, I wasn’t really sleeping. Just staring at something dreamily.”
*heavy, fuming breaths*
“Are you done?”
“How could I be? You are the one with the problem. But let me guess; it’s about your little one, isn’t it?”
“How could you even know that?”
“Only two things that I can think of could have riled up a sour old man like you; one would be a whole village of bigots to have finally banded together and come down to that howell you call home with torches and pitchforks, or it’s a daughter.. But I doubt you would have called me for the bigots. I hear you take particular delight when it comes to entertaining yourself with them.”
“You are having fun, aren’t you, Ganiste?”
“Every time you call, old man. But that is beside the point. Now, what seems to be the issue?”
“Yeees, old man, seeing as she is your daughter. But what is the problem?”
“She said she wanted to call the Wyld Hunt!”
“She can do that?”
“I don’t know. She surprises me at every turn. She is destroying everything I thought I knew about the fey and the wild fey!”
“Daughters can do that. Destroy everything we thought we knew. Why does she want to call the Wyld Hunt? Perhaps she is finally tired of your precious woodsmen. I certainly am.”
“No. She said she wants to join them and finally ‘belong’..”
“Ahhh? Ahh, what?”
“It is of no importance, old man. It is a girl thing. You wouldn’t understand. Besides, joining the Wyld Hunt isn’t so bad. My great-great-grandfather joined it.. during Themalsar War. Wasn’t it you and your doddering old friends that called it, then?”
“It was a desperate play, Ganiste. You of all people should know this.”
“Perhaps.. But I wouldn’t worry too much about it..”
“You are not being of any help, Ganiste.”
“Was that a requirement of me? Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things?”
“Well.. ‘Please’ always helps.. But like I said, I wouldn’t worry too much about it if I were you.”
“And why is that?”
“Told you. It’s a girl thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
“By all means, try me, Ganiste!”
“No point. You have to be a girl to understand. But if you feel you are that desperate, by all means, turn into one. I know you can.. with one of your polymorph spells..”
“I have done many foolish things in my time, Ganiste. But I am NOT going to turn myself into a girl. Not now, not ever.. I am what I am and people should accept what they got, then try to be something else.. Particularly when it comes to things such as this —a something that is certain to end in depravity.”
“Time will come when your point of view might be questioned, old man.”
“And what gave you the idea that I would ever care, Ganiste! I am not a public figure that needs a popular vote for some foolish election. I do not require to appear ‘cute’, nor be politically correct. By all means, girl, you know what I do, what I fight, and what I defend.. But I see none of those idiots out there lending a hand, let alone bleed for humanity!”
“Alright. I will help you try and understand.”
“Inshala is how old now?”
“Should be close to her fifteenth. I am not quite sure of her exact day of birth. I estimated about a month or two before her mother was driven out of her village and into the woods then stoned to death.. The fools thought she’d died and left but she picked herself up, and her baby and ran.. She was overcome by fatigue and blood loss, however, and finally died. I found them a few days later quite by chance really. Buried the mother and adopted the baby.”
“And you let those animals get away with this?”
“No, Ganiste, I did not. I.. someone let slip the news of what happened to the authorities in Serenity Home.. and the good sheriff, along with his guards and a platoon of rangers came down on them like an avalanche.. I don’t think they ever forgot what they did to that poor young girl since then..”
“How very you, old man. But if we are to return to the essence of your problem, your beloved daughter, Inshala, is a teenager now, and has been for quite some time. I am surprised she hasn’t done anything odd and creepy at all..”
“So what if she is a teenager?”
“Do you even know what girls go through during their teenage years, old man?”
“Of course. They grow!”
“You are incredible, you are, old man.. How is that poor girl even alive with you?”
“That was a tad harsh, Ganiste. I did my best.”
“It is not your fault you are such a dork, Cathber.”
“Well, now, really?”
“Don’t misunderstand me, old man. All men are.. when it comes to truly understand girls.. or women, for that matter.. and what we go through while we are growing and what we suffer in life.”
“I am sorry, Ganiste. I have been running around this forest for over eight hundred years dealing with the sins of men, the fouls of monsters, and the fel of demons to make life livable and safe for others. I was bound to miss a thing or two.”
“You are a good man, Cathber. A foolish man, but still a good man.”
“Well, thank you very much for seeing fit to give me that much credit, Ganiste.”
“Don’t be like that, Cathber. It does not become you.. Look, I am a tad busy with a poacher at hand so I will try to make this simple; men do not understand what we go through while we are growing. You literally can’t because you never go through it.. You can nod your heads and claim to understand but never truly comprehend.. We are awash with all sorts of wild chemicals as our bodies change and become ‘birth ready’. This is what she is going through.. just like any other teenage girl does, resulting in odd behavior changes, mood swings, laughing and crying for no particular reason, falling in love with foolish, older men..”
“I resent that.”
“It will last for some time and will call her to do all sorts of odd drama, though I must admit, the idea of joining the Wyld Hunt is a bit of an overkill..”
“How long? How long will this last?”
“For however long it takes for her to adjust to these changes and until she adapts to her new self..”
“Yes, old man.. Larger breasts, wider hips, swaying walks.. you know..”
“No, I don’t.. Not really..”
“Hey, I met my beautiful Tamara when she was done with her growing up, alright.”
“In short, she must go through with this and there is nothing you really can do about it.”
“Nothing? There is absolutely nothing I can do about it?”
“Absolutely nothing, old man. The only thing you can try is to offer understanding, patience, and kindness..”
“She has those and more, Ganiste. She can have all my understanding, patience, and kindness.. ALL OF IT!“
“No, old man. You thought you gave her those. What she needs now are the real ones.. What’s worse, for you is, she might not even be in the mood to accept any of them!”
“This is.. unprecedented..”
“You have a daughter and you think this as unprecedented? You truly are naive, Cathber.”
“You are punning me again, Ganiste.
“Yes. Yes, I am, old man. But what you need now is a hug. I could give you a hug.”
“Uhhmm.. I apricate your offer, dear Ganiste. But the last time you hugged, it took me nearly three months to recover.”
“Such is love, old man.. Always painful!”
✱ ✱ ✱
I see you are in the pond again.”
“Yes, Father. You told me to go and bathe in the pond.”
“Yes. Yes, I did tell you that, didn’t I..”
“Inshala.. My dearest daughter—”
“—I am sorry Father. For making you shout at me..”
“I am sorry, my sweet chestnut, to have shouted at you..”
“You have been nothing but good to me..”
“And you have been nothing but a sweet daughter to me..”
“I will do my best not to put my weight on you.”
“And I will try to carry more of you.. My only wish of you is that you would accept what I give and never question it.”
“I will never question it, Father.”
“Now, where is my towel, my scrubbing stick and my soap? I think I smell a bit too.”
“Are you saying, I smell?”
“No. I am saying, you smell. A whole week without a dip in the pond? Really, now, girl? Who are you? And where’s my daughter?”
“But.. but I am your daughter and I am right here!”
“Well, we shall see about that. My daughter always cooks a wonderful dinner. And will take another bath tomorrow as well..”
“Where are you going, girl? And do put your towel on!”
“Towel can wait! I am going to cook a wonderful dinner and prove that I am your daughter, Father!”
✱ ✱ ✱
And how have you been of late, young one? You certainly gave my ogres a fright, when you came the way you did. Your cat is indeed quite impressive. “
“I am sorry mother Ganiste. It was not my intention to scare your people. I was on my way to Gulls Perch to play with some of my friends there and I was in a bit of a rush. But I didn’t want to be impolite so I decided to come here and visit you first.”
“That was very thoughtful of you, dear child. Come, let’s get into my tent and while I make you some cookies, you can play with chihuahua and tell me all about what you have been doing.”
“Cookie and chihuahua! How can I say, no, mother Ganiste?”
“I didn’t know the fey let outsiders into their valley at Gull’s Perch. They were all banned quite some years ago.”
“They still are, mother Ganiste. But they don’t mind me and let me in.”
“We swim and play in their big ponds for hours and hours. And when the sun sets, we fire hop and we play hide and seek in the woods. But I think the dryads are cheating.”
“Ow? Why do you think so?”
“Playing hide and seek in the woods with dryads is a game you are never going to win, mother Ganiste. Every dryad is paired with one tree or another. When they hide behind a tree, they just ask the tree and the tree opens up, and hides them!”
“Well, that’s a bummer.”
“Not anymore, mother. I have been studying and working hard and I can speak with trees now.”
“Yes, mother Ganiste. So this time I will just ask the trees.”
“Will they give away their own dryads, though?”
“But I will not be asking them about their dryads..”
“I will be asking them why are they so fat, and were they always this fat!”
“They will think it’s the dryads that are making them look fat and try to explain it to me!”
*happy, thunderous laughter*
“You are an incredible little girl, you are..”
“Thank you, mother Ganiste..”
“And you look amazing too!”
“I.. I do?”
“Yes, girl. Barely a year has passed since your last visit and look at you..”
“Why, mother? What’s wrong with me?”
“Wrong? There is nothing wrong with you girl, but Good Heavens you’ve grown..”
“I.. I have?”
“Yes.. I don’t think I should call you ‘child’ any more.”
“But what will you call me then?”
“You have grown and are no longer a child, but a ‘young lady’ now. You were pretty before, but now your breasts are larger, your hips are wider and your walk has a sway..”
“M.. mother, please, stop!”
“Now, now, young lady.. This is girl talk. When we are alone, in this tent, we have less rules.”
“I.. I don’t really feel any different now, then I did before, though.. Just a bit strange.. and akwak.. arward.. awkard..”
“That is to be expected. You body has grown and flourished, but your mind hasn’t caught up to that fact yet.”
“I do not understand, mother Ganiste.”
“Before, you were a pretty little girl. Now, you are a beautiful young lady..”
“But.. how can you be sure?”
“Your fey friends..”
“What about them?”
“The fey-folk like ‘pretty’. This is something they can not help, nor avoid. But they absolutely adore ‘beauty’..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Is this true? Did you see it with your own eyes?”, growled Ganiste and there was murder is her burning eyes.
The large ogre standing some three yards tall shuffled his feet uncomfortably and took an undiscernible step back.
“Yes, Chieftain Grulganesti. His door and windows were smashed in and he was lying in his bed with many stabs in his chest. Too small to be our swords or axes. They were done by human knives.. They hid their steps well, but I sought much and found some. Large for elf, soft for dwarf. But they moved carefully and swiftly. His house was much ransacked, Chieftain. They were looking for something.”
Ganiste went pale. She could barely keep her composure. She did a harsh swallow of the bitter taste that came to her clenched jaws.
“Send the signal.”, she said in a growl. “I want triple sentries on watch. Anything that is of suspect is to be reported to me. Send also one fast runner to the elves, one to the dwarves and one to the human town to inform them of what has befallen.”
“Chieftain..”, replied the ogre dubiously. “The elves barely tolerate us at the best of times and will likely shoot us. The dwarves will shoot us. The humans.. if we chance upon one of their sensible rangers, they may listen. Otherwise they will also shoot us.”
“Do tell me something I do not know! All couriers will carry white flags-poles on their backs at all times. Should they still shoot at them, I will personally go there, break their bows and shiv it up their intestines for display!”, she replied with a horrible hiss..
“An educational riposte, Chieftain.”, nodded the ogre thoughtfully.
“Also.. send another courier to Gull’s Perch.. His daughter must know of this.. Prepare a full platoon. We shall leave within the hour. We must get to his home before anyone else comes to ransack it. I.. we must also make him ready for burial. She must not see him ravaged. There is a limit to what a girl could tolerate..”, she said, though it wasn’t quite clear as to which girl she was referring to. With a wave of her hand, she sent the ogre with her orders..
For a long moment, Ganiste just stood there staring at her empty tent. And then, the Chieftain of the all the ogres of Ogre’s Foot and Ritual Forest, Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig dropped on her knees and cried like a little girl..
“You old fool..”, she moaned. “Who shall slay me now?”
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala, stop! They did not do this. They are here only to make sure no one else comes and to prepare him for his funeral”, screamed Ganiste, but the giant, near six-hundred-pound saber-tooth tiger standing over the fallen, bloodied ogre didn’t care. Her great maw open, her two, foot-long sabers for teeth shown with mindless wrath!
Chieftain Grulganiste did not wait for another warning.
With an unexpected agility from the near fourteen-foot ‘woman’, she rammed the saber-tooth tiger and flung her off the bleeding ogre on the ground. The saber-tooth spun in mid-air, bounced off a near-by tree, shot herself using her powerful hind-legs and came at the ogress, her skull-crushing paws extended.
Grulganiste ducked just enough to let the tiger sail over her, then jumped her from behind, grabbed her and with a mighty heave she locked her in her awesome grip. A roar of surprise and madness escaped the saber-tooth as she trashed, leaving long, ugly, and bloody scars on the chieftain, but Ganiste ignored them..
She just squeezed more.
The other ogres picked up their great axes, clubs and swords and moved in.
“NO!”, screeched Ganiste.“STAY YOUR GROUND! NO ONE TOUCHES THE RITUAL GUARDIAN!”
The saber-tooth struggled more, but something snapped and suddenly, Ganiste was no longer grappling a giant tiger, but hugging a little girl!
“Stop, girl.. Please, stop..”
“He trusted you, mother!”, screamed Inshala.
“As should you, girl. If you do not cease this, by the Great Heavens I will beat you until there’s some semblance of sense in that thick skull of yours.”, grated Ganiste.
“You hurt him! And now you hurt me! Why did you do this, mother?”
“I did not do this to him. You must understand this. And neither did my ogres. We revered your father. We do not know who did this, but it was not us..”, scowled the chieftain of the ogres.
“Who? Who did this then?”, screamed the little girl.
“Men. Some men came at him while he slept. They killed him with knives and low honor, ransacked his home and ran east..”
Running foot steps came and two ogres appeared in front of the battered home of old Cathber.
One of ogres was heavily wounded and the other was limping.
“Chieftain..”, grunted the limping one as he slowly lowered his wounded comrade.
“Who did this?”, hissed Grulganiste.
“We are not sure, Chieftain. They were swift and strong. They killed six of us and we didn’t even see them. Only the two of us made it and barely. They looked like orcs. But much bigger. Much stronger. Much.. something.. And there was many of them. Over thirty strong, at least.”
“Where are they headed?”
“East, Chieftain. They were all heading east. They also burned the elf village, Nurturing Heaven, down to the ground.. And they didn’t even bother to ransack it.. Dead elves.. Dead elves every where. They tried to put up a fight, but these.. things, attacked them in the middle of the night, either last night or the one before that, and slaughtered all they could find.”
“Are there any survivors?”
“We do not know, Chieftain. We tried to get near and that is when we got attacked. There were signs of possible survivors though, heading towards Dim Wood.”
Chieftain Grulganiste’s face was black. And with unveiled anger, she turned to one of her other ogres.
“Go to base. Alert everyone. Then bring two platoons here, and six platoons to the elf village to find possible survivors. If there are any, they are to be escorted to the woodsmen villages. The platoons are to station outside their villages to make sure these beasts do them no harm. I detest the woodsmen, but I shall not bring my people blame for their deaths.”
“Also, send more couriers to the dwarves and the human town to carry this news and what we are doing about it. We do not need any misunderstanding. Let all my ogres carry white flags on their arms and on poles on their backs.”
“What shall we do about the humans that slew the old Ritual Guardian?”
“Nothing. This is a human matter and we can not interfere. Anything we do other than what we have already done will only complicate things. As for the beasts—”
“—I shall hunt them down. I shall hunt them down and rip them apart.. Then I shall go after these humans as well.. and gnaw their bones!”, hissed Inshala.
“Your anger is understandable, but misplaced, girl. You cannot do either of those, because you are not ready. Actions done in wrath, never ends well..”, replied Ganiste quite sternly.
“You will either move, mother Ganiste, or I shall move over you.”, hissed Inshala and there was none of the sweet little girl that the ogress chieftain new. There, standing before her was something else. Certainly human. But not all the way and Ganiste knew not what and she was suddenly..
Yes, it was possible if she stood her ground and tried her brute force, her shamanistic skills, along with what ogre guards she had here, she could stop her.. but that was just it.
She wasn’t sure and she was not keen on finding out.
She had her own people to care, and a funeral to burry.
“At least bid your farewell and say your goodbyes to your father, girl. He deserved that much of you, for truly, he loved you.”, she whispered sharply at the little girl.
“I shall bid him farewell, mother, but i shall never say goodbye to him. He shall live with me, always..”, she replied hoarsely, turned around and went to the, now quite shriveled body, wrapped tightly in white, funeral cloth, placed upon a flimsily and hastily prepared pier.
Inshala knelt down next to the pier, reached out and tenderly touched her father’s wrapped face. And with blurry eyes, she spoke.
“I should have been here, with you, Father. You were, when I needed you and I was not. I shall carry this blame until the day I perish and join you. There, I shall ask your forgiveness. Now, I must go. I know you would have me stay. But I can’t. Not anymore. I could be a little girl as long as you were here. Now the little girl is over. I have showed kindness and got only hurt in return. I shall no longer show, what is not given freely. I shall only reap what is sown.. I shall no longer be the little girl, but be the harvester.. For this, I shall beg your forgiveness as well.. I shall bid you farewell, Father, but no goodbyes, for I shall not keep you waiting for long.”, Inshala said, softly kissed the old man’s forehead and sobbed.
For long moments, she wept, lost and broken.
When she rose, her face was wet and pinched, but the little girl was indeed gone.
What stood there was only inhuman determination and wrath.
She raised her head, faced the ogress and looked her in the eyes..
“Call upon the woodsmen. And the elves. Call the dwarves and the humans, mother Ganiste. My father deserves a proper funeral. He helped those who lived in his forest. Should they have honor, they shall come. Tell them also, I shall not turn a blind eye to those who do not..
Chieftain Grulganiste just stared at the skinny little girl.. No.. the ‘something’, standing like some cold, unreachable being trapped inside the body of the little girl and she felt her own heart tremble.
“I shall send word to all, and more, Ritual Guardian.”, she promised solemnly. “Please.. do not make decisions with anger. Your father—”, she began.
“—is dead.”, finished the little girl, harshly.
“But I am not.”, said Ganiste and for a moment, a kind and tender shadow cast upon her face. “Your father was a dear, dear man for me. And he was not the only one who loved and cared for you. Please, remember that. Remember, also, do not do things which you will regret.”
“Worry not for me, mother Ganiste. I go where I belong now.. As for regret..”, she said, then looked down at the sad form of her father. “I am regret!.. And I bid you, goodbye.”
“What are your intensions, Inshala?”
“I intend to wash the green off this forest with red..”, she hissed.
And just like that, she was gone.
In the form of her majestic saber-tooth, and a groaning roar, she disappeared into the trees.
✱ ✱ ✱
In the depths of Ritual Forest, the little girl raised her hands into the air. And called upon the old and the ancient, and called she upon a debt..
The sky darkened as dreary grays gathered. A long streak of lightning arced from one horizon to the other as though heralding the doom of the living.
In deep soft tenor, she sang, a long lost ritual, calling one horror, to judge another..
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear? The father it is, with his infant so dear; He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm, He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.
”My son, wherefore seek’s thou thy face thus to hide?” ”Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side! Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?” ”My son, ‘tis the mist rising over the plain.”
”Oh come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me! Full many a game I will play there with thee; On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold, My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”
”My father, my father, and dost thou not hear The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?” ”Be calm, dearest child, ‘tis thy fancy deceives; ’Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”
”Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there? My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care; My daughters by night their glad festival keep, They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”
”My father, my father, and dost thou not see, How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?” ”My darling, my darling, I see it aright, ’Tis the agèd gray willows deceiving thy sight.”
”I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy! And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.” ”My father, my father, he seizes me fast, Full sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”
The father now gallops, with terror half wild, He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child; He reaches his court-yard with toil and with dread,— The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.
“Erl-King, I summon thee!”, she shouted and the skies thundered in reply.
“A depth you owe, from Father to daughter, passed..”, and the dirty clouds churned.
“Once upon a task were you called..”, she hissed, and the trees of Ritual Forest shuddered.
“To slay, to burn and to smother..”, she cried and the peoples of Dim Woods suddenly ran in unadulterated fear.
“To crack, to crush and to grind..”, she whispered and the ogres of Ogre’s Foot fell on their knees and howled.
“To chase, to drive and to hunt..”, she screamed and the dwarves of Elder Hills and Scowling Hills froze, as dread washed over thirty thousand souls.
“To cut, to stab and to maim..”, she cried and the denizens of Serenity Home fell flat, their faces pale, their eyes as ovals..
“For a depth you owe, from Father to daughter, passed..”, she cast and the lightnings crashed, splitting trees, tearing the earth, and the fey creatures of Gull’s Perch turned north, their faces drawn in horror.
“Erl-King, I summon thee!”
“And Erl-King, thrice said and done..”
“Thus I have been summoned.. by a mortal. Bold. And foolish.. I knew, should I wait but a millennia, some naïve would eventually call, and pit his will against mine. I must admit, crushing the dim-witted is a tad demeaning but, I shall be set free on the mortal coil, and unrestrained..”
..said the giant of a man in deep, melodious, echoing voice.
“It is I, who has summoned you, Erl-King, to call you upon a task left unfulfilled.”, very nearly moaned Inshala, for the great figure’s presence was not immense in terms of physics, but his spiritual presence was vast and beyond!
Tears filled her eyes and she shut them tightly, focused on one thing, and one thing alone; her Father, and how small he lay on his pier.
“This truly is a sad day.”, mused the Erl-King.“I have thus been called to task by a.. little girl! No matter, no matter.. Crush fast and be done, I suppose.”
“I am Inshala Frostmane Bolgrig, and I am the daughter of Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, whom you owe a debt of honor for the failure of a task given!”, said Inshala, through her clenched teeth.
“Owe a debt of honor.. Failure of a task given.”, murmured the Erl-King.“Very big words for a very little girl. And what task is this, you dare claim the Erl-King has failed?”
“Many centuries ago, he and his, summoned you to lay down waste Themalsar. YOUFAILED! For Themalsar endures..”, said Inshala harshly.
“You dare afflict a failure upon me? You? A sniveling little—”, thundered the Erl-King and suddenly fell silent, staring at the little girl with an incredulous expression on his face. “—fey? How is this possible? Only the Queens of the fey may call me, the Erl-King, to task.. or their greatest of vassals. How is it that you could summon me, little fey girl?”
“I.. I am fey?”, faltered Inshala and opened her eyes.. a something she probably shouldn’t have done.. and saw the Erl-King!
The figure standing before her was some eighteen, or possibly twenty feet tall and had massive arms and shoulders. He wore a hideous, masked helmet with great, horned antlers, shoulder pads, some kind of strange plate armor that seemed like it was forged from blue-brown metal down to his waist and wore dark, blue-black leather trousers and heavy high boots. An old, patchy fur cloak hung over one shoulder, revealing the two-foot-long pommel of a cruel-looking, slightly curved and jagged-edged great sword that could probably cut an ogre in two with a mere nudge.
The little girl just ogled at him, her eyes wide open.
“Like what you see, then?”, smirked the Erl-King as he pulled off his helmet, letting loose a main of long, slightly curling, dark hair and displaying a, not-quiet symmetrical face that was both ugly and somehow handsome.. in a rugged way.
“You look awesome, sir!”, spluttered the little girl.
“Well, now. I can’t remember the last time anyone, or anything for that matter, ever complemented me. This is rather unprecedented.. in a pleasant way.”, smiled down the hideous king.
“I can not imagine why they wouldn’t, sir. You are pretty!”, said Inshala in an awed voice.
“Pretty, am I?”, replied the Erl-King, quite surprised. “You truly must be young and alone.”
“I am alone, but I am sixteen years of age!”, replied the little girl like she was saying sixteen hundred!
“Aaahh..”, smiled the Erl-King.“The burden of all those sixteen years must be weighing heavily upon you, then.”
“They are.”, said Inshala solemnly. “But not relevant to your debt, Erl-King. Will you not honor it?”
“Careful, girl.”, growled the massive figure. “I have come to liking you. Let’s not besmirch that. Monsters like myself do not take matters of honor lightly.”
“Then you accept your debt?”, pushed the little girl.
“You are a persistent one, aren’t you? Not easily distracted, nor swayed.”, mused the Erl-King.
“I have lost the only thing precious to me, sir. There is nothing left to sway.”, replied Inshala and there was an unexpected quality of savagery in her voice.
“Ahhh.. Wrath! That is something I know. Something I know very well.”, replied the Erl-King.“Very well. What would you have me do to quench your lust for vengeance, little one? Who must die, to ease your pain?”
“Nothing can ease my pain, Erl-King. For nothing can bring back what was taken from me..”, she replied and tears swelled down her small face.
“Nothing, is something you can do on your own, little one. You do not need me for that. And I fear I would make poor company for consolation.”
“I do not want, nor require consolation. I must suffer my folly day and night, and for a lone life.”, she said, her voice trembling.
“A sad way to spend a life, me thinks. But again, you may do that on your own.”
“No, Erl-King. I need you to call upon the Wyld Hunt and avenge your debt!”
The Erl-King just stared at the little girl weeping before him.
“The Wyld Hunt is not some small favor anyone to just call upon, little girl.”, replied the Erl-King, and a bit harshly.
“Such was your debt to my Father. Eight hundred years and your debt has endured, Erl-King.”
For a long moment the massive figure looked at the little girl, Inshala. And when he spoke again, there was no trace of ‘merry’ in his voice.
“No, little girl, I owe nothing to your Father. But I do owe a debt unfulfilled, to the mortal who adopted you! And should you truly want me to call the Wyld Hunt, a price must be paid; Join, Hide or Die.. those are the rules of the Wyld Hunt!”
Whether Inshala understood the implications of what the Erl-King said, was not clear. She stood silently, her face tear stricken and on her knees.. But when she spoke, her voice was low and it smoldered.
“I will ‘Join’, then.”
The Erl-King cocked one bushy eye brow at her and said, “No. You may not. Should it come to that, it is possible I could best Yours. But I have no desire to waste my hounds to His slaughter.”
“I do not understand.”, cried Inshala.
“And that is not my prerogative, little one.”, replied the Erl-King, but strangely, not unkindly.
“Then slay me!”, shrieked Inshala. “I choose to ‘Die’..”
“Also, not my prerogative, little one.”, replied the Erl-King.
“I shall not run and ‘Hide’, while the killers of my Father live!”
“And I thought ‘tigers’ always ran and ‘hid’.. before they pounced their prey, little one.”, smiled the Erl-King hideously.
..escaped the small mouth of the little girl.
“Now. To the task at hand, then?”, laughed the Erl-King and the trees around them shuddered.
“Creatures. Large and uncouth. Some thirty or more, travel East. They slew the elves of my Father’s forest. They must be punished. And the slayers of my Father, men with knives and low honor, also running East. They must be hunted down and slain. And what they stole from my Father must be returned..”, said Inshala with a vicious voice.
“Recovery expeditions aren’t quite my forte, little one. My hounds may track and run down the uncouth and the men, but recover what was stolen, me thinks this is something you must do.”, replied the Erl-King.
“Very well, sir. Should You and Yours avenge my Sire by slaying the uncouth and these sinful men, I shall relieve You and Yours from the debt and done.”, said Inshala.
“You drive a harsh bargain, little one. Stay close. This shall be a merry chase and mayhap will quench your luster for blood.”
“My lust for blood shall never quench. For the one I cared most and only, is dead. Mortals saw a monster when they came at me. I shall give them monster, hence!”
✱ ✱ ✱
A long, dreadful howl echoed through Ritual Forest. Lightning flickered and streaked down, gorging spades of earth. Trees shuddered and splintered. Beast and buck ran or fell. And men, elf, dwarf or ogre.. far and wide, it did not matter.. felt terror like they had felt only ages and eons ago. Before iron, and before tools.. Before the domestication of land and ox.. This was the kind of fear at its most primitive and primordial level where thought got smothered and left only primal, reptilian instincts..
A fear that left them only two options;
Hide or Die!
And ahead of that howl, was a viscous, giant of a man, some eighteen feet tall, wearing a horned helmet and swinging a massive, jagged-edged great sword, riding a mind-boggling stead that had red, glowing cinders for eyes, a massive rump and powerful legs that ended in long, brutal claws..
The Erl-King led.
And the WyldHunt followed..
..a dark, gray-black smoke with barely discernable ghosts that resembled horse-sized hounds and the reaped souls of long-forgotten, primordial warriors..
And Inshala ran..
..at the center of that inky fog!
The savage, uncouth beasts never new what hit them. They were great and strong beasts that resembled orcs. But orcs were to infants, what these creatures were to men. They were powerful in arms and swift in legs and they wielded sharp, brutal implements of war..
..and yet, they died in two’s and four’s!
But never did they flinch nor ran. With inhuman savagery, they attacked the Wyld Hunt even as they died; their flesh torn and gnawed, their bones snapped and shattered, their skulls crushed like shells, and their tendons ripped and shredded..
It was a gruesome sight.
..thus was the Wyld Hunt!
The bloody saber-tooth ravaged the last of the beasts, her furry face red and dripping with blood and Inshala rose to her full height and coughed an echoing roar into the night.
“What a merry hunt!”, laughed the Erl-King.“Though a tad short for my taste.”
“These were the beasts.. But not the men!”, growled the saber-tooth.
“No. The men you seek are no more. These beasts have already hunted them down and slain them. I sense foul-play at hand, here.”, replied the Erl-King with distaste.
“NO! MY VENGEANCE HAS NOT BEEN QUENCHED!”, shrieked Inshala.
“You vengeance is not part of the debt, little one.”, reminded the giant figure.
“No. It isn’t. But the death of the men, were!”
The Erl-King stared down at the vicious tiger.
“That.. is true..”, he finally conceded, but there was the threat of a storm in his voice. “There is, however, nothing I can do to repay that.”
“THIS WAS NOT OUR AGREEMENT, ERL-KING”, shrieked the saber-tooth. “YOU WERE TO SLAY THESE MEN. NOT TO LET OTHERS DO IT FOR YOU!”
“Your mind is muddled, little girl. I do not let others pay my debts, nor do my killings for me. I would have a care, where it came to accusing me..”, spoke the Erl-King in a low and dreadful tone. “Non the less. The men are dead, and the debt remains unfulfilled.. again!”
“Then I shall call upon you one more time, Erl-King when I have found the true culdips!”
The Erl-King gave a long, suffering sigh. This millennia had turned out to be not only stale and boring, but with pestering, debt-demanding mortals.. and now, a not-quite-mortal-but-fey girl!
He gave the savage saber-tooth girl a long, steady look.
“Very well, little fey-girl. I shall come, once more, when you call and upon having unearthed the true culprits. I shall need a full name to bind this deal..”, he said, breathing from his nostrils.
“Inshala Frostmane Bolgrig.”
“No, girl. That is not your name.. That can not be your name..”, replied the Erl-King, staring into the tigers eyes. “Bolgrig was your attender.. of sorts.. But was he was not your Father, and certainly not your Sire!”
“I do not understand.”, replied Inshala, afraid now.
“No.. No you don’t. In time, perhaps, you shall. It is not my place, however, to learn you that information.”
“Whose place is it, then?”, asked the little girl.
“Again, not my place to learn you that, either. But I believe my work here is quite done. Unless you want me to slaughter the humans to the south, the ogres to the east, dwarves to the west or the.. woodsmen to the north. I sense a great hate you have for them.”
“I desire much misfortune for them, Erl-King. But I shall not spill their blood. Not today. Today, the elves need them..”, whispered Inshala.
“Very well. For the said task we have set, and the afore mentioned conditions, I, the Erl-King and my Wyld Hunt shall come, once more when called by you, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane..”, declared the Erl-King, turned around, and with one, swift motion, mounted his great beast.
“I fare thee well, young ‘la Fey’. Which by itself is quite unique, for the Wyld Hunt never fares well..”, laughed the gigantic form of the Erl-King, dug his heels into his mount and rode off, the inky black fog of his hounds and lost souls chasing after him.
And in a short, hoarse breath, he was gone.
The saber-tooth stared as the ghosts of the Wyld Hunt screeched and faded into the night. She licked her long, foot-long teeth edging down the sides of her maw. Her savage face pinched into a ugly glare and a low, thundering rumble escaped her throat.
“My Father..”, she hissed. “..will always be my Master, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig. Not the beast that sired me..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Broken and bloodied, Inshala prowled the night, seeking something, anything that could curb her blood lust. It seemed the loss of her father had forever killed the former, young, pretty, innocent and frail little girl and left behind a wretched wreck that just couldn’t rid herself off the searing fire boiling her insides.. She ran this way and that, jumped over bush and boulder to no avail.. Her blood just wouldn’t cool off..
Which is when she stumbled upon the corpse of a human, lying face down in the dirt.
Inshala slid into a halt.
The man, whoever he was, was a corpse indeed. Dead for possibly half a day over. He wore dark leathers and similarly colored clothes. His head and face were also covered..
..and he was missing an arm.
There were other cuts and gashes on him. Inshala didn’t think the man would have lived, even had he kept his arm..
She also noted a long, bloody trail leading up to the corpse. Apparently, someone had dragged him all the way here, then left him to die, or left him because he had died.
Inshala came to the two natural conclusions; this was one of the lowly men who had slain her father for he smelled, no, he reeked of her father’s blood.. and someone had dragged him. Someone still alive.
A low rumble escaped the saber-tooth and she sniffed the ground.
Yes. There were others —two others. The scents told her that.
Slowly she took a step in their direction. Then another. And soon enough, she was running —dashing, really, at an unprecedented speed.. What would change would not be that they would die.. Only how.
And Inshala did not intent to show any mercy whatsoever, for they had shown none to her father. For her, killing one old man in his sleep, was as low as it got..
✱ ✱ ✱
The saber-tooth ghosted through the forest. The trails were getting cold and she did not want them to be lost. Day and night, she ran until she faltered and could go no further. She didn’t push. It would make a poor hunt if she caught her prey, but failed to kill. That’s how the hunt was; you crouched, you hid, you snuck, and you waited, patiently, and watched. And when the moment was ripe, you struck! For her, stupidity was also a poor excuse for letting the prey escape. And certainly not the way of a true predator. Inshala might be little in size and shape, and perhaps frail in soul, but the saber-tooth was not. And she’d always loved it. The strength, the freedom, the innate savagery and the feeling of being the supreme huntress.. there just was no substitute for it.
She rested and licked the caked blood of the big, uncouth beasts off her face and her great paws. And when she felt ready, she dashed again.. Today promised a good hunt because there was a storm gathering to the east and it looked like a good pour was due.. Rain always made it easier for her on the hunt. It hid her own scent and her steps even more. It did not help her prey, though.
A snarling grin stretch across her maw and her rumble matched that of the incoming storm.
Yes.. a good hunt indeed..
Inshala found them.
Huddled around a poor fire were a small crowd.
The fools had actually lit a fire!
Their number was more than she could readily dismiss, but they were cold, wet and blind under the stormy night. The more, the merrier.. They would make a great feast, but she was not here for food. If there was one thing she had learned from her Master, it was eating human flesh drew you insane.. No.. She was not here for food. She was here to kill. And she’d have to act fast. They had horses and sooner or later, the horses would pick up on her scent and panic, warning their masters.. Horses always panicked.. Quite the inconvenience they were. She had to act quickly and decisively. Dash in, kill one, dash out, and circle.. Rinse and repeat.. By the time she’d killed three or four, they would panic and run, because that’s what prey did.. They panicked and they ran, making them easy pickings.
Now only if she could devise a diversion..
Inshala stared up at the pouring storm..
..and her a new smile stretched across her maw.
Yes.. why not turn a simple rain, into a devastating lightning storm?
Inshala shifted and molded down to her little, pretty form. No, she thought. Not pretty.. Her ‘frail’ form!
She raised her arms into the night and chanted;
oh, storm, ye great in form harken me in this maidenform ye weep and moan when you can be much greater in sky and sea bring down your rain and your wrath upon the fool and the folly rath
And as if on cue, the night exploded!
A long, brilliant streak of lightning flickered, followed by a mind jarring boom, and landed very nearly on top of the huddled group..
And the group scattered!
“Ow, no..”, whispered Inshala. “..my sweets, no fleeing, no running.. Not yet. You are going to burn and char before you flee..”
Another streak of lightning flickered down, sending one of them, a huge, bull of a man, crashing into a tree.
Then another flicker, sending a girl,Inshala thought, panicking into the bush.
A midgety little gnome went running into the night, followed by another girl —an elf!
A man in dark cloths was still standing his ground, a sharp, short iron sword in one hand and a knife in the other.. A KNIFE!
This was definitely her query.
And there was a tall one, in plate armor.
“Who wears plate armor in a lightning storm?”, mused Inshala merrily.
She watched as the plate armored one heave and push a dwarf, up on a horse..
What was this? Humans, gnomes, elves, and dwarves? Was the attack on her Master a byzantine plan among the elves, humans, dwarves and gnomes all along? A collective effort?
Perhaps she had acted in haste when she had sent the Erl-King and the Wyld Hunt away.. He had offered to slaughter them all..
No matter, no matter..
She would start the slaughter right here.
But first, she had to kill the dark one. The one with the knives. He still had his wits about him and given enough time, he would rally the others..
She pointed at him..
..and the night raged and sent down another brilliant lightning.
Inshala just stared at the smoking patch of earth, where the dark man had just been, then at the man running in another direction.
So she called down lighting upon him once again..
..but the man took a sharp turn and rolled on the ground, and the lightning struck the tree behind him, sending it down in a mess of splinters.
Inshala heard a grunt followed by a low moan.
Yes! The dark, evil man had evaded the lighting, again, but apparently the tree had fallen on him.
Good enough for now.
The one in plates had butt-slapped the horse, and sent the dwarf to safety. Then he stood where he was and called into the night.
“We are not enemy. We are not foe. Ye who brings the lighting and storm, know, we mean no harm..”
“Mean no harm?”, fumed and hissed Inshala. “You can’t doany harm, and begging will not help you. You came into my forest for ill, and ill you shall receive!”
“Nay.”, replied the man.
And fell on his knees.
Then he raised his arms into the night as if in supplication and called;
“Ye, who hast called thus storm upon us, shall look and see into our souls. Should you still see dark and foul, bring more and char us all..”
Inshala gawked at the man..
..and a single beam of light lazily came down from the night sky and pushed the darkness away. It was a bright, golden light. A beautiful light. A light that bespoke of High Heavens and Angels beyond..
And she noted.
The man in plate armor, down on his knees, was no man, but a tall, broad at the shoulders, slim at the waist, long, rust-red-haired young woman.
Inshala’s eyes teared.
She was.. boldly beautiful.
And she was a paladin!
Sent here to end her..
“Finally..”, she whispered. “The Heavens have sent their fires to cleanse the demons out of me! I shall be free. I shall belong.. Father, I come..”
And just like that, the storm ceased, the rain stopped, and silence settled into the night.
The young paladin girl stood rigid, as if petrified, on her knees.
And Inshala curled up into a ball, lay prostrated before her, moaning and crying like a little girl.
“Burn me. Please burn me. I want to be free of my demons.. Burn me..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Aager? You alright?”, the huge man asked as he picked up the broken bits of the tree. “You seem peevish.”
“Peevish?”, rasped the evil man in the dark clothes from under a whole pile of thick branches and a large, splintered tree trunk. “Just how many years did you wait to use that on me, Udoorin Shieldheart?”
“Many.”, smirked the big man and with a mighty heave, he lifted the trunk, giving enough room for the evil one to slip out.
“We have a visitor.”, the big man said with a slightly exaggerated voice.
“I am concussed, Udoorin. Not deaf.. Report!”, the dark man said.
“Bree, Laila, and the midget are back. Still waiting for Lady. I expect she will either get control of that big war horse and turn it around, or hold on to it until she reaches Arashkan, or decide she’s had just about enough and throw herself off the horse and limp all the way back here and make us all suffer for it. As for Lady Moira, I don’t know. She is just sitting there.. well, kneeling actually, with her hands in the air and.. that’s it! She isn’t moving or responding. She’s in a.. I dunno.. ‘catatonic’ state, I suppose, you could say.”, replied the Udoorin guy, pointing somewhere in the night.
“Who is the merry visitor? I suspect he’s responsible for the mess..”, the dark man asked, holding a hand at a tender spot on his forehead.
“She..”, corrected Udoorin.
“He is a she.. A pretty one too.. With funny hair..”
“Like we didn’t already have an overabundance of women in this group..”, growled Aager.
“And they all are pretty..”, smirked the big one. Then he lowered his voice. “Please don’t tell Bree, I said that. I still carry her bite mark!”
“Guess I’ll just have to save it until I need a favor.”, replied Aager without even a smile.
“That’s not funny.”, scowled Udoorin.
“What’s the ‘visitor’ doing? Who is watching her?”, asked Aager, totally ignoring the big man’s plea.
“No one, really. She seems as catatonic as Moira. She has prostrated herself at the paladin’s feet and begging her to burn her!”
“I know, right? We have all the prettiest girls and all of them are off in the head.”
“And now you owe me two favors.”, said Aager, and this time, he did snort.
Udoorin scowled at him, some more.
“Why’s your armor off?”, Aager asked him as they walked towards the paladin and the newcomer.
“Figured, lightning and metal armor.. You know.. Bad combination.. A bit too late thought.. Got singed pretty good.. It’ll leave a mark.. I hope it doesn’t leave a mark..”, said the big man with a worried expression.
“I am sure all the marks you have already, along with the ones you will get won’t add to your beauty.”
“That was not nice, Aager. I know I am not pretty, but you didn’t really have to hit me in the face with it.”, grumbled Udoorin.
“You never cease to amaze me, Udoorin.. Your priorities are truly mind-staggering.”, replied Aager blandly.
Udoorin’s face darkened even more.
Aager gave a perfunctory check on everyone in the group. Bremorel, the human girl, seemed a tad wild-eyed. She had rekindled the fire and was now holding her big bow in her hand. The bow was cocked and almost half drawn and she stood with her back to a tree, facing the newcomer. She also entertained an ugly shiner on her left upper cheek.
Gnine, the troublesome little gnome was whispering something while gesticulating rapidly at the half-elf girl standing next to him, who was also holding her bow in one hand with an arrow ready on the string.
“Well.. At least two people here are paying attention.”, scowled Aager.
Then he called to the half-elf girl.
“Ranger Laila. Go and track down the horse, and bring the Temple Guardian back, if you will, please.”
“Why me?”, Laila asked.
Aager did not reply. He just stared at her.
Laila also scowled at him, then took off into the night.
It seemed Aager wanted to make sure everyone around him was somehow scowling at him.. Or at least a few of them should be, at any given time..
He silently approached the paladin girl, Lady Moira, who stood unmoving on her knees and with her hands in the air, just as Udoorin had described.
And then he saw the ‘visitor’.. The person responsible for very nearly dismantling the whole lot of them, in under a few short moments.
To be honest about it, she could have, had she not stopped, and that made the man in the dark clothes wonder.. They certainly hadn’t been able to do anything to her. She had literally played with them like a cat would game with a mouse.
Why had she attacked them in the first place, and then stopped her assault when she was almost winning? And who was she?
All pertinent questions.
But the girl.. Aager couldn’t really make out if she was pretty or not, as young Udoorin had claimed.. Not that it mattered, nor that he cared. She did have ‘funny’ hair though. Tightly wrapped and braided on both sides of her head like some kind of cones.. Aager did not question the demented mentality in that. Girls did all sorts of strange things with their hair.. among other things.. He just nodded, when the occasion arouse and moved along..
The girl had knelt face in the dirt, covering and moaning in unmitigated terror;
“Please burn me..”
“Free of my demons..”
“Please burn me..
Aager wasn’t one for emotions, let alone for the subtler ones like ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’.. If someone asked him what they were, he’d probably just stare at him blankly.
But something about this girl nudged at him.
Without knowing why he took a few steps back.
“Udoorin.”, he called.
“What?”, replied the big man.
“Put your armor back on.”
“Why?”, asked Udoorin.
“Because I said so?”, growled Aager.
Udoorin grumbled some, looked up at the night sky as if checking for signs of new lightnings, then put his armor back on.
“Now what?”, he said as he approached Aager.
“Now go and pick the girl up.”
“We need to question her and we can’t do that while she is doing.. whatever it is she is doing now..”, replied Aager.
“I am not touching her.”, said Udoorin hastily.
Aager stared at him.
“You know what she did, man. Not to mention, you don’t just go and touch a girl. That is just rude.. and not right..”, Udoorin defended himself.
“When did I ever give you the impression I cared for any of that, young Udoorin?”, fumed the dark man. “You can either do what needs to be done, or go back to town and explain yourself to your father.”
“That’s way out of line, Aager.”, growled Udoorin.
“We are not out here for a polite stroll, young man. We are here to do the ‘dirty work’, so the rest of the people can sleep without a care. You volunteered to come. You wanted to come.. This is the part of the job that needs to be done; we interrogate prisoners and that is exactly what she is now. She is Lady Moira’s prisoner. And since she is otherwise busy —or incapacitated, that duty falls on us!”, replied Aager and he seemed to bite each word before he spat them out.
Young Udoorin’s back stiffened. But he still gave Aager a very nasty stare.
Then slowly, he came at the girl still prostrating before Moira.
“Umm.. ‘cuse me.. lady.. But we need to ask you some questions. Are you unwell? Perhaps you need some help. You really should get off the ground.. It’s wet, cold, and probably muddy..”, he stammered, then reached down and tried to pick the girl up.
“Don’t touch me!”, hissed the girl and bit his hand!
And with unexpected haste, she skipped once, twice and was very nearly a dozen feet away, crouched on the ground, showing all her teeth at the big man.
“Crap!”, swore the big man. “Why do girls keep biting me, dammit.. I can’t be that tasty!”
Then he turned and slowly approached her again with his hands open while making soothing sounds.
The girl hissed at him, some more..
“I think that will do, young man. You should be ashamed of yourself, touching a girl without her permission. You have shamed your father..”, snarled a voice in the dark, and heavy footsteps was heard. Then, a heavy set she-dwarf appeared, and there no mistaking about the scowl she had on her face.
“Lady Magella..”, stammered Udoorin. “I.. was merely..”
“You were merely what, Udoorin Shieldheart? Abusing an already traumatized little girl? Look at her.. It’s clear she’s had some rough time.”, she snarled again.
“I.. You got me all wrong.. I was just..”, spluttered the big man, trying to explain himself.
“Go. Just go.. Boil some water, cut some wood, peal some potatoes.. Just go and make yourself scarce but useful!”
Udoorin stormed away, fuming..
“This is all your fault, Aager.”, he very nearly spat, as he walked past the dark man.
“No. It’s all yours.. ‘Own’ your folies, young man. But I learned what I needed to, anyway.. For the time being..”, replied Aager calmly.
“You. Girl!”, ordered Lady Magella. “What’s your name and what are you doing here?”
The girl hissed at her as well.
“I am the Temple Guardian of Serenity Home and you will NOT hiss at me like some wild beast.”, spoke Lady and there was a distinct no-nonsense quality to her voice.
And the girl lost all her ferocity.
“You.. you are.. a Temple Guardian?”, she asked with her eyes wide open.
“Yes, I am. And I have twenty some odd years under my belt to prove it!”, Lady replied sternly.
“Have.. have you come to burn me?”, the girl asked.
“Burn you? Now why would you ask such a silly question?”, replied Lady in disgust and a totally offended tone.
“Burn me.. Please..”, the girl said and suddenly prostrated herself, once again..
“Burn me.. Burn me and free this world off me!..”
Udoorin, Bremorel, Gnine, and Laila stared at the wretched site before them.
Lady Magella’s eyes teared, for her first assessment of the girl had been correct.. Too correct. The girl was unbelievably traumatized.
Aager only looked at the girl with an unfathomable and barely-contained expression.
He remembered Drashan and his own childhood, not that he’d had much of it. He remembered his mother, whose name he couldn’t even place anymore. Having remembered her, he inevitably recalled his sister. The sister that had been entrusted to him. And then taken from him, sold to some brothel, and burned alive in a horrible, unquenchable fire. He remembered all the vile people he’d cut there. Every single one of them. And he remembered the beatings and the whippings.. and the guillotine..
..and how he came to Serenity Home; secretly broken, hiding in his own traumas, untrusting, very nearly and murderously hateful.
Serenity Home had helped..
Enough to have suppressed his base hate to everything that had to do with life..
It hadn’t been enough that all these children, sans the dwarf, had been entrusted to him..
And now this?
He was never one to truly believe the greatness of the Heavens, but this.. This had been a step gone too far..
He felt like someone was having a great time punning him from the high above!
Then he looked down at the girl.
She seemed young and small, but her form, although somewhat battered, looked quite mature with ‘pleasant to look at’ sized breasts, a slim waist, ‘could use a pound or two more’ body, very dark, ‘funny’ hair (who would bun up their hair like that, anyway?) and a diminutive face, printed with slightly sharp and angular features..
Young Udoorin had been right on one point though; the girl was, indeed, quite pretty.. More so, Aager suspected, if she’d not been in the condition that she was now.
Many questions inevitably crossed his mind. Who was this girl? Again, why had she attacked them and why had she stopped? Why was she hissing and spitting like some pissed-off, feral cat? And why the bloody hell did she beg to be burned?
Then it dawned on him.
Why he had so unexpectedly felt some semblance of sympathy to the girl..
For he had, unwittingly perhaps, found the one person who was worse off than he was.
✱ ✱ ✱
The jarring, panicked whisper of Inshala spiked Aager in the middle of the night.
“Aager Fogstep! I need your help! Quick!”
Aager went from zero to full battle-mode in under two seconds; a shimmering, ghostly blade appeared in one hand and another, an excruciatingly sharp one in the other, to see Inshala missing..
“Where are you? What’s wrong?”, he sent his thoughts back tinted with his own panic.
“I am in Madina’s room. We.. uhhmm.. she said we could hang out together, talk trash and eat bad food and get scolded for doing it in the morning by mom. She said all teens do this but I don’t know why, and neither does she.. Apparently, it’s a ‘thing’!”
Aager frowned and breathed out slowly.
“Okay.”, he said evenly. “What’s the problem?”
“She says there’s this boy and she says she sort of likes him. But she is asking me if she is too much of an ’emo’ and that perhaps if she ‘toned it down a little’, the boy might notice him. I don’t even know what the buggery bum an ’emo’ is!”
Aager cocked an eyebrow even though he was alone and in the dark.
“Yes. Madina says that’s the new word around here. Would you like to know what the old word was?”
“Uhhmm.. Not really, no..”, replied Aager carefully.
“Good. Because I don’t think I can repeat that to you. But it starts with an ‘F’! Madina said, there’s this Academy of Melshieve, far away, and that they have the best words there.. I am confused. The rules to being an elder sister are complicated and many..”
“Huh!”, snorted Aager as he let go of the ghostly blade, causing it to just vanish, and sheathed the other.
“What is the urgency?”
“She.. she says she has been watching you and me and thinks I know love and wants me to help her compose a.. uhhmm.. love letter to that boy..”
“Okay.. What seems to be the problem?”
“I can’t think of another single thing that could totally go wrong than this.. I can’t even think why anyone would put love in a letter! You don’t put love in letters. You just give it and dearly hope that person gives it back! Besides, I do not know this boy. All the boys I have known have tried to catch me, called me crooked names, or thrown stones at me. Boys are bad for girls! I don’t know if she really wants this boy as I want you, either. And I don’t even know how to draw words.. This is a buggery bum of a nightmare for me.. Help me? Please?”
The cold, sinister-looking man, Aager Fogstep, the Winter Knight, stared blankly at his, now empty bed and at Inshala’s empty bed..
“Well, buggery bum, indeed..”, he whispered..
Sleep just wasn’t going to happen any time soon that night..
Back in the dark, quite room..
Aager lay on his back in hopes of catching a bit of sleep before dawn. Tomorrow, or rather, a few hours later, was going to be a very trying day.
The rot-hearted Tarakadahan had decided to turn the whole thing into a show. Aager would have much preferred the dispute between the old fool and Moira be settled in some quiet, back alley setting.. He wouldn’t have minded even open fighting in the castle corridors. But no.. The idiot had decided to turn it into a parade. In front of the whole Durkahan nobility, no less.
The stupidity of people, baffled and confounded him.
“Very well..”, thought Aager darkly. “You want a show? I shall give you a show.. And I shall remind the whole lot of you just how archaic and foolish you all really are. And that no one really gives a ‘buggery bum’, about your honors, your prides, and your foolish ways.. The world is going down and this is what you still desire? To watch a drama queen in the arena?”
Tomorrow was going to be a harsh awakening for them all. Aager was a pragmatic man. He never went as low as being heinous, but otherwise, he cared little about the way things got done.
And he fully intended to show Durkahan, how things ‘rolled’ in Drashan..
“Are you still awake, Aager Fogstep?”, came a whisper from the other bed in the room.
“Yes.. no.. maybe?”, replied Aager.
“You are wroth with me?”, she whimpered.
“Wroth? Why would I be wroth with you?”, he asked.
“I scared you when I woke you the way I did. And I kept you up very nearly all night. Now you are tired and angry.”, she said in a small voice.
Aager loved Inshala.
He loved her more than anything he’d loved. Or perhaps, to put it into correct perspective, he loved her more than anything he could have wished to have loved anything, or anyone..
On occasion, though, he loved her more..
Particularly when she became.. ‘smaller’, yet ‘greater’, when she thought she’d hurt him.
Great Heavens, no one cared whether they hurt Aager Fogstep.
And this girl, his Inshala, cared.. Enough to actually worry and to get worked up about it.
“You surprised me, love. That’s all.. Besides, Madina seems to have gotten a certain liking to you. I can’t say, nor do I claim to be knowledgeable about these things, having never truly experienced it, but I heard teens can be insufferable.”
“I am a teen.. I think..”, mumbled Inshala.
“You and I, love, do not qualify for many ‘norms’. We either missed them, or they never applied to our lives..”, shrugged Aager. “When I was a teen, I was too busy trying just to stay alive in the freezing streets of Drashan. Never really had the luxury to throw tantrums, nor write love letters. I am guessing yours wasn’t any better..”
“My poor Aager.”, came the girl’s unhappy voice.
“No, Inshala. I am the richest man in the world. I have the one thing no man, dead or alive, has ever had, nor will ever have.. For, I. Have. You!”, he whispered and he did it without any particular implications nor innuendos. He said it with the voice he used when he was stating the facts. And nothing but the facts..
“You think.. too highly of me..”, came the small, blushed voice of the girl, lying in the next bed.
“No. I think only of you.”, he replied, and he meant it.
Inshala was silent. Aager did not nudge her, nor check her through their bond. If she’d gone to sleep, apparently she needed it.
But just in case she hadn’t, he kept up the conversation, though toned down to just above a whisper.
“Besides, between the two of us, I think we managed a rather decent love letter back there.. It had everything a growing boy needs; Madina’s feelings, the threat of evisceration and defenestration, quite unveiled implications of ‘you better behave yourself’ and a decent description of just what would happen if he ever broke the girl’s heart. I can practically see the boy brimming with happiness. I mean, what could possibly go wrong, there?”
The silence persisted and Aager knew now, she wasn’t asleep. Furthermore, she was worried about something. Something important for her not to have gotten a ‘snort’ out of her with that retelling of the letter they had sat down and written all night long.
Yes, thought Aager, that had definitely merited a snort!
Aager liked Inshala ‘snort’.
His Inshala snorted ‘cute’.
It was so unladylike.
Aager couldn’t put his finger on it, but the phrase, ‘freely given’, sounded just about right.
And it always left her face adorably, maturely, and, rather unexpectedly sensually pink and abashed.
Funny how it was always the little things in others we cared about that made us adore them even more.
Aager secretly wondered what were his little things that the girl lying in the next bed found ‘adorable’, but he just couldn’t imagine anything. Then he remembered the time they were back in Arashkan, still seeking the infamous rebellion, Gar Thalot in the Tempest Temple where they had all found out how the princess, Lorna, ‘adored’ young Udoorin’s beard.. Really? That scruffy patch of.. Aager stopped there. It didn’t matter what he thought about the boy’s beard, even if it was a scruffy patch. It was what the girl, Lorna, thought that mattered. End of story..
“Aager..”, he heard her say, bringing him back from Udoorin and his scruffy beard —of all things!
“I am here..”, he replied.
Then he heard a soft, shuffling noise, and suddenly, her beautiful face was a bare inch away from his and he was very much awake now.
“Do.. do I belong?”, she asked tentatively, tenderly, even, as she looked deep into his dark eyes. And in those eyes, Aager saw, everything she had been, everything she was, and everything she would be.. was there. All of it. With all her eternal losses, all her crummy gains, all her vast strengths and her suffered weakness’s in pure, unadulterated nakedness..
Aager looked back at the girl reflecting hers with his, stare for stare.. Inshala, he thought, had truly beautiful eyes..
“You belong.”, replied simply.
Slowly, carefully and tenderly she reaches up and held his face with two, warm and slender hands. For a silent moment, she studied his face, as though looking for something. Aager dearly and desperately hoped she found it.
Quietly, in her soft melodious voice, she spoke. A voice that carried all her losses, her pains, and her desperations, yet her determination and her tenacious will, also.
“Then, I am Inshala. And I belong.”
i was born but no one told me why
when i was gone no one told me where
always chased always caged
then i learned the running cannot belong
i rose up to fall back down
up among the clouds and back on the ground
and there i found among the lost and found
dead among the living
living among the dead
too lost to care
careful not to lose
i held up my pocket watch
time’s to stop the times
lost in time found this time
what i gave freely cost me drearily
did not know it would demand so much more
i burned and smoldered in the depths of fire
buried and frozen deep in snow
just had to go lower to rise higher
and just like that i figured
i am inshala and i belong
The original Erl-King poem was written in German, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and later composed into a musical by Schubert.
The English version (the one used here) was translated and adapted by Edgar Alfred Bowring..
The elfish spell Inshala chants to summon the lightnings down the storm was written by myself. It translates to English as:
oh, storm, ye great in form, harken me in this maidenform. ye weep and moan when ye can be, much greater in sky and sea. bring down your rain and your wrath, upon the fool and the folly rath.
Rath: a strong circular earthen wall forming an enclosure and serving as a fort and residence for a tribal chief.
Bu hikaye, Brom Bumblebrim adındaki, Bowling Hill’de yaşayan kendi ırkının diğer bütün üyeleri gibi ‘normal’ ve hayatını olabildiğince keyifli ve tembel geçiren bir hobbit’in, beklenmedik bir şekilde ne idüğü belirsiz bir şey tarafından ısırılmasıyla başlar.
Genç hobbit’i her ne ısırdı ise, o günden sonra Brom bir türlü yerinde duramaz ve en sonunda, gecenin alakasız bir yarısında, eski arkadaşı ve aile dostu olan Gamwise Samgee’ye evini ve gülleri emanet ettiğine dair bir not bırakarak yollara koyulur. Uzun bir gece boyunca nereye gittiğini bilmeksizin, öylece, istikametsiz bir şekilde yürür durur..
15.07.7591 B.Y.S (-16 Yıl) Temmuz ortası. Ritual Ormanları..
Yaşlı adamın aradığı şeyi bulması biraz zaman alır. Aslında bunun için tanıdığı küçük fey’lerden yardım istemek zorunda kalır zira genç hobbit isteyerek olmasa da, istemeyerek hafif bir ‘ayak’ izine sahiptir.. Parmak boyunda kanatlı küçük fey perileri yaşlı adamın etrafında uçuşurken büyük bir işi başarmış olmanın verdiği mutlulukla vızıldarlar.
“Onu buldum, Efendi Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig!”, diye sivrisinek gibi tiz bir sesle çığlar bir tanesi.
“Onu önce ben gördüm, Whimsi Lola!”, diye cızıldar bir diğeri.
“Ahahahahaaa.. İkinizde hatalısınız..”, diye gülmeye başlar üçüncüsü.
“Nedenmiş o?”, diye hayretle sorar Whimsi Lola..
“Çünkü ben onu ikinizden bile önce gördüm!”, der gururla üçüncüsü.
“Aslına sen de hatalısın Biberbell!”, der dördüncüsü.
“Nedenmiş o?”, diye hayretle sorar Biberbell..
“Çünkü senden önce ben gördüm!”, diye güler dördüncüsü Biberbell’e..
..ve aralarında kavga etmeye başlarlar!
Yaşlı adam esefle elini yüzüne götürür, sonra derin bir nefes alır.
“Hanımlar.. Beyler.. Lütfen.. Sizler gibi olgun ve yetişkin fey’lere hiç yakışmıyor bu didişmeniz..”
“Ama önce ben gördüm!”, diye tekrarlar kendisini Whimsi Lola.
“Hayır ben gördüm!”, der diğer üçü koro halinde..
..ve tekrar kavga etmeye başlarlar.
“Whimsi Lola, Biberbell, Kindernest ve Little Dimple! Hepinize şeker sözü vermiştim, öyle değil mi?”, diye sorar yaşlı adam.
“EVET!”, diye haykırır dördü de birden.
“O zaman senden başlayalım Biberbell. Ne gördün?”
“Ayak izleri.. Çok küçük, muhtemel bücür bir şeye ait. Ama dwarf değil. Onların ayakları devrilmiş kütük gibi! Elf de değil. Onlarınkiler çok ince.. İnsan hiç değil, çünkü onlarınkini bulmak için bizi çağırmazdın! Evet. Kesinlikle farklı bi şeyin ayak izleriydi bunlar..”, diye mutlu bir şekilde vızıldar Biberbell.
“Ne oldu peki ayak izlerine?”, diye sorar yaşlı adam.
“Ne mi oldu? Hiç bi şey olmadı.. Öylece duruyorlardı..”, der Biberbell aklı biraz karışmış bir ifadeyle.
“Nereye gidiyorlardı ayak izleri?”, diye biraz daha açıklamalı sorar yaşlı adam.
“Uhhmm.. Öylece duruyorlardı, Efendi Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig.. Ayak izleri sahibi olmadan hiç bi yere gidemezler ama ki!”
“Şapşal!”, der Whimsi Lola, Biberbell’e..
“Neden ki?”, diye sorar peri ona hayretle.
“Efendi Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, ayak izleriyle ilgilenmiyor. Nereye gittikleriyle ilgileniyor!”, diye küçümseyen bir ifadeyle bakar ona Whimsi Lola.
“Nereye gittiği gördün mü peki?”, diye sorar yaşlı adam.
“İşte tam şuraya!”, der Whimsi Lola ve doğuya işaret eder.
“Güzel—”, der yaşlı adam ve o istikamete doğru yürümeye başlar.
“—Sonra şuraya.”, der ve güneye işaret eder.
“Teşekkür ederi—”, der yaşlı adam.
“—oradan da şuraya..”, der ve eliyle geniş bir daire çizerek batıyı, sonra da kuzeyi gösterir.. ve tekrar doğuya işaret eder.
“Sen tam bi aptalsın, Whimsi Lola.. Kumse Böceği kadar aklın yok senin!”, der Kindernest, ve Whimsi Lola’ya acımaklı bir ifadeyle bakar.
“Alındım.”, diye somurtur Whimsi Lola.
“Sen ne gördün peki?”, diye sorar yaşlı adam.
“Ayak izleri her yerde, Efendi Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig. Avımız pek kurnaz çıktı. Ahahahahaa.. Ama beni kandıramadı. Ayak izleri bir kokarcaya tesadüf etmiş. Aralarında muhteşem bir mücahele gerçekleşmiş ve sanırım kokarca kazanmış!”, der Kindernest gururla.
“Hmmm.. Bunu duyduğuma.. üzüldüm.. yada sevindim..”, der yaşlı adam. “Ayak izleri nereye gitti muharebeden sonra?”
“Bilmem. Ortada kızgın bi kokarca vardı Efendi Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig!”, der parmak kadar peri, bu her şeyi açıklıyormuş gibi.
“Sizler..”, der Little Dimple ve üçüne de tiksintiyle bakar. “Üçünüzün de 3 puanlık zekanız var!”
Bunun üzerine üçü de düşünceli bir ifadeyle susup hesap yapmaya başlarlar.
“Bu o kadar da kötü değil ki.”, der Biberbell. “9 puan eder!”
“Hayır şapşal!”, der Kindernest. “36 eder bence!”
“Ahhaaa.. neden sizin puanlarınız o kadar düşük belli oluyor!”, diye ünler Whimsi Lola.
“Nedenmiş?”, diye sorar ikisi de.
“Çünkü 9 da değil 36 da.. TAM 333 EDER!“, diye sırıtır ikisine de..
Little Dimple ağzı açık bir şekilde üçüne de bakakalır..
“Sen ne buldun, Little Dimple?”, diye pes etmek üzere olan bir sesle sorar yaşlı adam.
“Ben bunların ayak izlerinin peşine takıldığını görününce peşlerinden gitmedim çünkü üçü de aptal bunların!”, der bilmiş bir ifadeyle.
“Ne yaptın peki?”, diye sorar küçük bir umutla yaşlı adam.
“Ben mi..?”, der Little Dimple. “Ben onların geri döndüklerinde kendilerini rezil etmelerini bekledim.. Nasıl? Haksızmıymışım?”
Yaşlı adam, Efendi Cathber, hiç sesini çıkarmadan kemer niyetine beline bağladığı sicimden sarkan küçük keseciklerden birisine uzanır ve içinden dört adet limon, ahududu, çilek ve nane şekeri alır ve tekrar didişmeye başlayan küçük, parmak boyundaki perilere uzatır.
Dört peri de serçe ‘cık’laması gibi küçük birer çığlık atıp şekerlere dalarlar.
Dördü de bir avuca sığacak fey tarafından imha edilmiş Cathber, aradığı şeyi kendi kendisine bulmak için yola koyulur.
“Efendi Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig.”, diye seslenir, ağzı gözü mora boyanmış ve yapış yapış olmuş Whimsi Lola.
“Cathber, kafî..”, der yaşlı adam.
“Neden? Artık Efendi Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig değil misin?”, diye hayretle sorar Whimsi Lola.
“Ne vardı, Whimsi Lola?”, der bezmiş bir sesle Cathber.
“İlgini çeker mi bilmiyorum ama, aha şu tarafta oturmuş ağlayan küçük bi çocuk vardı..!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Bulunması hiç de kolay biri değilsin, delikanlı.”, diye homurdanır yaşlı adam. “Ve bunun bana ne kadar pahalıya mal olduğunu söylemeyeceğim bile.”
Brom Bumblebrim, gözlerini siler, burnunu çeker, boğazını temizler ve..
..öylece çömdüğü ağaç kütüğünün üstünde kıpırdamadan oturmaya devam eder. Birkaç defa akıllı bir şeyler söylemek için yeltenir ama akıllıca hiçbir şey gelmez aklına.
Geldiğinde de söylemek istemez..
“Sorun değil, sorun değil. Önemli olan seni sağ salim bulmuş olmam.”, der Efendi Cathber ve gelip kendisi de devrilmiş kütüğün üstüne oturur, sakince uzun, ince bir pipo çıkartır, belindeki sicime bağlı keseciklerden birini aralar ve içinden çıkardığı tütünü pipoya doldurur. Tütünün kafi derecede sıkışmış olduğunu kontrol etmek için birkaç defa içine çeker, sonra sessizce bir şeyler mırıldanır ve pipo tütmeye başlar.
Uzun bir süre yaşlı adam ve genç hobbit sessizce otururlar ve genel anlamda ‘hiçbir şeyi’ seyrederler.
Neden sonra genç hobbit tekrar boğazını temizler ve boğuk bir sesle mırıldanır.
“Senin pipo kullandığını bilmiyordum, Efendi Cathber.”
“Aaaa.. Evet.. Bilmiyor olman normal, zira çocukların yanında kullanmıyorum. Kötü etki oluşturmasın diye..”, der yaşlı adam ciddi bir ifadeyle.
“Ne değişti?”, diye sorar genç hobbit.
“Sen..”, der yaşlı adam. “..bana ‘büyük’lerin oyununu oynadığını gösterdiğinde..”
Genç hobbit bıyık altı yapılmış bu iltifata bir şey söylemez.
“Hikayende boşluklar var olduğunu görmek çok da zor değildi. Ama itiraf edeyim, delikanlı, bunların daha ziyade kimseyle paylaşmak istemediğin, bir goblin fosseptik çukurunda saklanmak zorunda kalmış olmak gibi utanç verici şeyler olabileceğini düşünmüştüm. Titania? TITANIA?!“, diye hayretle söylenir yaşlı adam. “Bırakın kendisini görüp konuşmuş olmayı, bir çok ölümlü onun varlığından bile haberdar değil.”
“Keşke benim de hiç haberim olmamış olsaydı..”, diye mırıldanır Brom.
“Neden? Bu büyük bir onur.”
“Onurun bana bir faydası yok, Efendi Cathber. Onurun, kaybettiğime de bir faydası yok..”
“Sen kaybettiğinin, gerçekten gittiğini mi sanıyorsun?”, diye sorar yaşlı adam.
“Gidenlerin de kaybolduğunu mu düşünüyorsun?”, diye devam eder Cathber. “Kaybettiğimizi sandığımız şeyler, sadece merkezimizde kendimiz olduğumuz sürece gitmiş olurlar. Merkezimizde gittiğini düşündüğümüz kimseler olduğunu farzedersek, sence gerçekte kim gitmiş oluyor, o zaman?”
Brom başını kaldırır ve alık alık yaşlı adama bakar.
“Merkezimize onları, sevdiğimizi söylediğimiz kişileri koyduğumuzda, gerçekte biz onlardan gitmiş oluyoruz.. Peki onlardan biz gittiğimizde, kayıp mı olmuş oluyoruz? Bana hala buradasın gibime geliyor Efendi Hobbit, zira burada değilsen, ben kendi kendime konuşuyorum şu anda ve açıkça da bir deliyim! Yaşlılara ‘deli’ demek, ayıptır..
Brom, acayip bir şey yemiş gibi bir ifadeyle yaşlı adama bakar.
Efendi Cathber ise kıkırdar.
“Hadi kalk. Yola koyulsak iyi olacak. Hava kararmadan arbalet mesafesinden çıkmış olmak istiyorum”, diye sırıtır, genç hobbit’e.
“O kadar kızdılar, demek!”, der Brom homurdanarak.
“Uhhmm.. Kızmak.. oldukça hafif kalıyor. Ben olsam, ağızdan köpürmek, yemekhaneyi yerle bir etmek, masa-sandalye ele geçirilebilecek ne varsa paramparça etmek —gibi ifadeler kullanırdım. Ama bunların hepsi olumlu sonuçlar. Bir dwarf kızdığında sessizce duruyorsa bu iyi değildir.”
“Kızdığı şeyi içine atıyor demektir. Bu sağlıklı değil.. Bizim için..”
“Margaret hanım sözünde duracak mı?”, diye sorar Brom.
“Evet. Annem sözünde duracak, çünkü sözünden döndüğü duyulmuş değil!”, diye neredeyse hırlar bir ses ve arkalarından ayak sesleri yaklaşır.
“Shit!”, diye küfreder genç hobbit.
“Makul, ama isabetsiz!”, der bir başka ses ve buna bir üçüncü ses kıkırdar.
Dridges Motherswolfie, Britney ve Dritmey Tosser ikizleri eşliğinde yaklaşırlar.
“Benimle ağız dalaşına geldiyseniz, hiç havamda değilim.”, der Brom kaşları çatılı bir şekilde. “Bana dalacaksanız, buna hemen başlayın, zira sizinle hiç uğraşacak halde değilim!”
Dridges olduğu yerde durur.
İkizler de küçük kız kardeşlerinin arkasında dururlar.
Üçü de kaşlarını çatarak küçük hobbit’e bakarlar.
“Bende ‘Efendi Cathber’ var. İstediğiniz kadar kaşlarınızı çatabilirsiniz.”, der Brom alt çenesini öne çıkartarak!
“Hadi yaa..”, diye söylenir yaşlı adam.
“Dwarf’lar hakkında gerçekten kötü ve hor şeyler düşünüyor olmalısın, Efendi Hobbit.”, der en sonunda Dridges.
“Dwarf’lardan sadece kötü ve hor şeyler gördüm, Dridges hanım.”, diye cevabı yapıştırır Brom.
Dridges durur. Sonra derin bir nefes alır ve sakin bir sesle konuşur.
“İlk karşılaşmamızda doğru davranmadım, Efendi Hobbit. Özür dilerim. Geri almam mümkün değil. Ama almak isterim; Ben Argail Smitefast kızı Margaret Madish kızı Dridges Motherswolfie..”, der sessizce.
“Ben de Argail.. Off yaa.. Onunkiyle aynı işte.. Son kısmını Britney Tosser diye değiştir, yeter!”, der Britney.
“Benimkini de onunkiyle aynı yap. Hatta sonunu bile değiştirmene gerek yok, ‘B’ yerine ‘D’, ‘N’ yerine ‘M’ koy, yeter..”, der Dritmey.
“Burada ne işiniz var?”, diye sorar yaşlı Cathber.
“Aslında birkaç tane işimiz var, Efendi Cathber. İlki, gideceğiniz belirli bir mesafeye kadar size eşlik etmek, ikincisi, kız kardeşlerimizden ikisini bulamıyoruz. Onları arıyor olacağız. Üçüncüsü ise biraz daha kişisel.. Efendi Hobbit’in.. bizler hakkındaki oluşmuş yanlış izlenimlerini.. belki düzeltebilmek..”, diye sıkılgan bir ifadeyle mırıldanır Dridges.
“Pratik ve alicenap bir yaklaşım.”, der Efendi Cathber. “Annenin haberi var mı peki burada olduğunuzdan?”
Dridges biraz daha sıkılgan bir ifadeyle cevap verir.
“Biz.. Uhhmm.. Merkeze bildirdik.. Eminim onlar da anneme bildireceklerdir.”
“Yürü, kız.”, diye dürter Britney, ikizini. “Annemin mevcut halinde bizi burada bulmasını mı istiyorsun?”
“Bence Brit haklı. Buradan ivedilikle tüysek iyi olacak.”, der Dritmey ve tedirgin bir ifadeyle arkasına bakar.
“Efendi Cathber, isterseniz bu konuşmanın devamını sonraya bıraksak.. Örneğin iki gün kadar sonraya!”, der Dridges ve ikiz kız kardeşleriyle beraber koşmaya başlarlar.
“Gençler.. ve yaptıkları akıl almaz şeyler..”, der yaşlı Cathber esefle ve Brom’un omzuna dokunur, ve dwarf kızların arkasından yürümeye başlar.
Brom Bumblebrim, tam bir dakika boyunca olduğu yerde durur..
“Lanet olsun..”, diye hışmeder..
..sonra o da kızların arkasında koşmaya başlar.
✱ ✱ ✱
Yani birisinin yaptığını bütün bir halka mı mal etmemiz gerekiyor, Efendi Brom? Bu halkın tamamına haksızlık olmuyor mu?”, diye sakin bir şekilde konuşur kamp ateşinin başında Dridges Motherswolfie.
Brom sesini çıkarmaz.
En başta bunun akıllıca olabileceğini düşündüğü için bu taktiği kullanmayı tercih etmiştir ama Dridges ısrarlıdır. Aslına bakılırsa Dridges hem ısrarlıdır, hem de inatçı, dik kafalı, dediğim dedik, söylediğini sonuna kadar savunan, sonu geldiğinde de vurup öldüren, sonra da öldüğünde emin olmak için birçok defa daha vuran bir kızdır.
Sorun; kız öldüğünden bir türlü emin olamadığı için konudan geriye kalan cesedi gömmektense, vurmaya devam etmektedir!
“Bana destek olun, kızlar, haksız mıyım?”, diye, yetmiyormuş gibi bir de ikizleri de işin içine katmaya çalışır. Neyse ki Efendi Cathber’in bilgeliği, Dridges’in inadından daha engindir ve ne zaman kamp kursalar, yaşlı adam yorgunluktan şikayet edip, hemen gidip yatmayı tercih eder.
Brom, oturduğu yerde ‘uyuya kalmış’ taklidi yaparsa bununla paçayı yırtıp yırtamayacağını düşünür.
“Bana bakma.”, der Britney. “Ben önüme silahla biri çıkarsa, önce vurup, sonra soru sormayı tercih ederim.”
“O ne dediyse..”, diye Dritmey’de ikizini destekler.
Dridges buna da alınmaz, sükunetini koruyarak konuşmaya devam eder.
“Annem sözünde duracak ve kendisine verilen süre içerisinde Gulls Perch’e gidecek ve orada kendisine verilecek ceza her ne ise, buna da katlanacak. Bir anneden daha fazla ne istenebilir ki?”, diye söylenir. “Bizler de, bize gösterilen yere bir tane karakol kuracağız ve dönüşümlü olarak nöbette duracağız. Sanıyorum on beş günde bir gerçekleşir bu dönüşüm. Daha azı pratik değil, daha fazlası ise erzak sorununu doğurur.”
“Hmm hıh..”, diye muallak bir ses çıkartır Brom.
“Sonra da sanıyorum ağabeyim için bir ferman çıkartılacaktır. Belki Palantine’dan kafa avcıları bile çağrılabilir. Bu işi kendi içimizde halletmeyi tercih ederdim ama zaten dışarı saçıldı..”
“Ardından ben Niketix’e dedim ki, ‘Torkan’a ilgin varsa git söyle. Seni beğendiyse gelsin ve annemden istesin. Güçlü ve niyetli mi diye, annemle babamın yaptığı gibi aranızda bi dövüş yaparsınız, ikiniz de hoşnut olursanız, bu iş tamamdır!”
“Efendi Brom!”, diye fena alınmış bir şekilde ünler Dridges.
“Hhıh? Ne?”, diye kendine gelir Brom.
“Beni dinlemiyorsunuz bile..”, der kız.
“Ben.. evet.. dinlemiyordum..”, diye itiraf eder genç hobbit.
“Sizi anlamıyorum, Efendi Brom..”, diye inler kız.
“Neden? Neyimi anlamıyorsunuz?”, diye sorar Brom.
“Gösterdiğim bütün çabaya rağmen, sizin gösterdiğiniz ilgisizlik, hayret verici..”, der Dridges.
“Hanımefendi..”, der Brom bezmiş bir sesle. “Sizin ilgi göstermeniz, benim de aynı şeye benzer bir ilgi göstermemi gerektirmiyor. Sizi ben çağırmadım, kendiniz geldiniz. Dahası, son altı gündür durmaksızın bana bir şeyler anlatıp duruyorsunuz. Ama anlamadığınız şey, benim söylediklerinizle ilgilenmiyor olmam. Bunun anlaşılmayan tarafı nedir? Bir şeyi yeterince ısrar etmeniz halinde bir savaşı kazanabilirsiniz ama bu bir savaş değil, ortada da bir ordu yok. Anneniz de, sizler de onurlu olabilirsiniz —kendinizce.. ama en nihayetinde bu beni ilgilendirmiyor. Sizin onurunuz, yada eksikliği, benim sorunum değil, sizin sorununuz. Bunu anlamanız gerek.”
Kızcağız gerçekten bu inatçı hobbit’in gönlünü alabilmek için sağlam çaba göstermiştir, ama belli ki bunun için 1 yıl, 6 ay ve 28 + birkaç gün geç kamıştır..
“Onu.. O kızı.. Gerçekten sevmişmiydiniz?”, diye sorar beklenmedik bir şekilde.
“Bunun sizi ilgilendirdiğini pek sanmıyorum, Dridges hanım.”, der Brom resmi ve soğuk bir ifadeyle.
“Susacağım, Efendi Hobbit. Ama bana onu anlatırsanız. Susacağım ve bir daha da açmayacağım bu konuyu..”, der kız samimi bir ifadeyle.
Brom’un bu konuyu kimseyle konuşmak gibi bir niyeti yoktur.. Hele bir dwarf’la.. Ama tam bunu ona söyleyecekken, küçük çadırında uyumuş olması gereken yaşlı Cathber’ın paslı sesi duyulur.
“Muhteşem Gökler adına, evlat. Anlat da sussun artık!”
Brom uzun bir süre sessizce önündeki ateşe bakar.
Neden sonra ağzından,
“Bambaşka bir varlıktı. Saf bir hayal gücü, tertemiz bir kalbi, güçlü bir farkındalığı ve sessiz bir sevgisi vardı.. Nasıl anlatsam.. ‘ılık’ bir ruhtu onunkisi.. Ne soğuk ve mesafeli, ne de yaklaştığında yakan cinsten.. Dokunuşu da kalbi gibiydi.. Huzur veren, ama aynı zamanda süzülen.. Devamını isteten.. Sanki çölün ortasında, kurumuş dudaklara dokunan ilk yudum gibi.. Ve her zaman ‘mutlu’ idi. En kötü anımızda, canımızın en acıdı zamanlarda bile.. Mutlu ve hayat dolu. Şekere bandırılmış çilek gibiydi. Enfes ve.. tarifsiz..
Yanında olduğu ve olmadığı arasındaki fark, o kadar hissedilirdi ki..
Eksik kaldığım yanlarımı yüzüme vurmadığı gibi, kendi zayıflıklarını da benden saklamadı çünkü kendisinin, benim zayıflıklarımı örteceğine güvendi. Tıpkı kendi zayıflıkları konusunda onun da bana güvendiği gibi.. Boş bir kupayı dolduran şerbet gibiydi.. ama doldurduğunda, kupanın varlığına anlam veren bir şerbet..
Sonra.. birden alındı elimden.. Avucumdan akan suyu tutmaya çalışır gibi tutunmaya çaşıltım ona ama akıp gidiverdi..
Bunun.. hangi kısmını anlamanı bekleyebilirim ki? Hangi ceza, hangi karakol, hangi ferman telafi edebilir ki bunu, Dridges hanım? Senin söyleyebileceğin ne olabillir ki beni iyi hissettirsin? Onun yokluğu karşısında dwarf’lar için ne hissettiğimin gerçekte ne önemi olabilir ki?
Özrün, haklın ve onurunuz için gösterdiğin çabaya ilgisiz kaldığımı söylüyorsun. Aremela Berrybush yok artık ve senin halkın da, onurunuz da umrumda değil..”
Brom Bumblebrim ateşin başından kalkar ve sessizce kendi küçük çadırına gider.
“Wow.. Eridim, kız..”, der Dritmey.
“Wow.. Aynen..”, diye mırıldanır Britney.
“Ben..”, der ve tökezler Dridges.
“Annem bundan bulsun bi tane bana, anında satarım seni, kız!”, der Dritmey.
“Buna ‘şah-mat’ derler, kızlar. Bir ozana, elinden alınmış sevgisini soramazsınız. Bu ahmaklığı yaptığınız anda, onun duyguları ve sözleri altında ezilmeyi de hakketmiş olursunuz. Şimdi gidin ve yatın, bu yaşlı adam da uyusun artık!”, diye Cathber’in paslı sesi gelir çadırından.
✱ ✱ ✱
Bu olayı takip eden günler, inatçı bir sessizlik içerisinde geçer ve Efendi Cathber bu acıklı duruma ‘sesini’ çıkarmasa da, yüzündeki ciddi ifadeden, onunda mutlu olmadığı bellidir. Genç Brom ise olaya mutlu yada mutsuz, herhangi bir gözle bakmaz. Kararlı bir umarsızlıkla yoluna devam eder.
Sessizliğe sadece ikizler pek uyum sağlayamazlar. Sanki arada bir neden sessizce yürüdüklerini unutmuşçasına, sonu kıkıdılarla biten bir şeyler konuşurlar.
Onuncu güne gelindiğinde yeni bir fırtına, beklenmedik bir hızla oluşmaya başlar ve Efendi Cathber kızlara durmalarını ve kendilerine gösterilen yerde beklemelerini söyler.
İkizler bunu sorgulamazlar ama Dridges bunun nedenini sorar.
“Çünkü, sevgili Dridges, Efendi Brom ile yapmamız gereken bir iş var.”, der Cathber.
“Ama neden? Bizim yapamayıp da onun yapabileceği ne olabilir ki?”, diye kaşlarını çatarak sorar Dridges.
“Çok şey var, sevgili Dridges.”, diye cevap verir yaşlı adam sabırlı bir şekilde.
“Ne gibi mesela?”, der dwarf kız inatçı bir ifadeyle.
“Sanırım bunun cevabını birkaç gün önce verdi sana..”, diye taşı gediğine koyar Efendi Cathber.
Asık bir suratla kız kardeşlerinin yanına gider.
“Kızım, her şeye de bulaşman gerekmiyor.”, der Britney.
“Aynen..”, diye katılır Dritmey. “..Onların bizim her işimize karışmaları halini düşünebiliyor musun?”
“Görmek isterdim ama..”
“Neden bizi dışlıyorlar ki?”, diye alınmış bir ifadeyle sorar küçük kız kardeşleri.
“Dridges..”, der Dritmey. “Sen gerçekten iyi niyetli ve harika bir kızsın. Ama daha gençsin, halkımız dışında neredeyse hiç başkalarıyla karşılaşmadın ve onlarla doğru dürüst bir iletişimin olmadı, dolayısıyla bazı şeyleri bilmiyorsun ve anlamıyorsun.”
“Aynen..”, diye onaylar Britney.
“Ne gibi?”, diye daha da alınmış bir şekilde sorar Dridges.
“Ne gibisinin bir önemi yok, ve zaten olayın püf noktası da bu. Şu anda sen bizim komutanımızsın. Onların değil. Ne Efendi Cathber’e, ne de Efendi Brom’a emir verebilirsin.”, diye açıklamaya çalışır Dritmey.
“Evet.”, diye onaylar Britney.
“Onlara hiçbir emir vermedim ki.”, diye itiraz eder Dridges.
“Dahası..”, der Dritmey ve devam eder. “Her ikisine de, nezaketen bir şeyin sebebini sorman dışında, hiçbir konuda sebep göstermelerini talep edemezsin. Bunu anlıyor musun?”
“O ne dediyse..”, der Britney. “Ayrıca şu gördüğün karabulutlar sana ne söylüyor?”
“Yağmur yağacağını?”, diye azıcık hicveder Dridges.
“Bu doğru.”, der Britney. “Bizim üzerimizde ne var peki?”
Dridges bir elindeki çelik çerçeveli kalkana, diğer elindeki enli kılıca, giydiği örme çelik zırha, sonra da ablalarının ellerindeki koca balta ve onların üzerindeki zırhlara bakar ve ayılır.
“Aynen..”, der Dritmey. “Her ne yapacaklarsa, bunu o fırtınanın içinde yapacaklar. Bize açıklama yapmaları gerekmiyor çünkü biz gerçekte onların grubunun bir parçası değiliz. Kendi kendimizi, muallak sebepler göstererek onlara yamadık. Bize, ‘gidin artık’, derlerse de gitmez durumunda kalırız. Bunu dememelerinin tek sebebi de gösterdikleri nezaket.”
“Tamamen..”, diye ikizini onaylar Britney. “Sen iyi niyetlisin ama bazen biraz falza zorluyorsun. Her şey zorla düzelmez. Efendi Hobbit’in bizimle olan sorunu ‘varlığımızla’ değil, ‘yokluğumuzla’ hallolacak bir durum, gibime geliyor.”
“Hiçbir şey yapmayacak mıyız yani?”, diye sorar Dridges.
“Yaptık zaten.”, der Britney.
“Aynen..”, diye onaylar Dritmey. “Onlara eşlik etme sebebimizi söyledik. Ortada olmayan tehlikelere karşı onları koruduk ve özrümüzü diledik. Sonuç itibariyle Efendi Brom’un özrümüzü kabul edip etmemesi tamamen ona kalmış.”
“Akıllı konuştun, kız.”, der Britney.
“Aynen..”, der Dritmey.
Tam o sırada ileriden, kara bulutların olduğu yerden beklenmedik bir ışık harlaması, hemen ardında da keskin ve dehşet bir patmala sesi gelir..
..üç dwarf’da, gökten inen dev bir yumruğun kendilerini yapıştırmış gibi yere çakılırlar.
“Kör oldum!”, diye panik içerisinde çığlık atar Britney.
“Sağır oldum!”, diye inler Dridges.
“Aynen..”, diye bağırır Dritmey!
Efendi Cathber topallaya zıplaya yürüyüşüyle, Brom da elinde tuttuğu, daha yeni ‘çarpılmış’ yıldırım asasıyla geri döndüklerinde üç kızı da yere yapışmış, gözleri kamaşmış, kulakları sağır halde bulurlar. Yaşlı adam alt dudağını büzüştürerek yığılıp kalmış kızlara bakar.
“Sanki uyarsamıydık?”, diye mırıldanır.
Brom ise pis bir sırıtışla süzer ıslak toprakta kıvranan dwarf’ları ve..
“Çaylaklar!”, diye güler acımasızca.
✱ ✱ ✱
Gerçekten uğramak istemediğinden emin misin?”, diye sorar yaşlı Cathber. “Serenity Home naif bir kasabadır. Huzur içinde yaşamak isteyen herkese de kapıları açıktır. Kendisiyle tanışma fırsatım olmadı ama, kandan bıkmış bir ork bile varmış orda. Demircinin yanında, sabahtan akşama kadar demir dövmekten de mutluymuş. Başta biraz yadırganmış ama kendi halinde, sessiz, sorun çıkarmayan ve, inanabilirsen, oldukça da nazikmiş. Senin gibi zeki bir hobbit için burası iyi bir tercih.”
“İlgin için teşekkür ederim, Efendi Cathber.”, der Brom. “Ancak huzur kişinin içinde varsa, nerede yaşadığının pek az önemi olabilir. Bunu Serenity kasabasını ve çevresine sağladığı huzuru küçümsediğimden değil, benim daha gidip görmem gereken yerler var olduğunu hissettiğim için söylüyorum. Belki bir gün yolum düşer ve uğrarım buraya..”
“Yine kendi aralarında biz yokmuşuz gibi konuşuyorlar.”, diye alınmış bir şekilde söylenir Dridges.
“Demek kabul ettin en sonunda..”, der Cathber mutlu bir şekilde.
“Efendi Cathber ve Efendi Hobbit’in, ikimiz arasındaki konuşmalara burunlarını soktuğunu görüyor musun hiç?”, diye sorar Britney.
“Anlamadım?”, der Brom.
“Hayır görmüyorum. Kim ikinizin dırdırı arasına girmek ister ki?”, diye sorar Dridges.
“Efendi Brom.. Lütfen..”, der yaşlı adam.
“O ayrı bir mesele ve konumuzun da dışında.”, diye cevap verir Dritmey sırıtarak.
“Belki.. Olabilir.. Daha tam emin değilim..”, der Brom.
“Aynen..”, diye kıkırdar Britney.
“Gezdiğin ve gördüğün, diyeceğim ama sanki her geçen gün bana daha çok; ‘Gönderildiğin ve gösterildiğin’, gibi gelen olaylardan sonra, emin olman için daha neyi beklediğini merak ediyorum..”, der Efendi Cathber nazikçe.
“Hayret verici bir şekilde samimiler.”, der Dridges düşünceli bir şekilde. “Rivayetlere göre Efendi Cathber kimseyle özel bağ kurmazmış. Çok uzun yaşayan insanlarda oluşan bir sorun bu sanırım.”
“Haklısın. Muhtemelen.. Ama haklı olmakla bu olası gerçeğe boyun eğebilmek, iki tamamen farklı şeyler.”, diye cevap verir genç hobbit.
“Bence bizi dahil etmiyorlarsa, bunun bir sebebi olmalı.”, der Dritmey.
“O da var.”, diye makul bir şekilde kabul eder yaşlı Cathber.
“Evet.”, der Britney. “Efendi Cathber bize nazik davranıyor ama sorumlulukları, yalnızlığını aşıyor. Ve hiçbirimiz bunu anlayacak kadar para almıyoruz!”
“Hadi geri dönelim..”, diye önerir genç Brom. “Bu konuşma fazla karıştı birbirine..”
“Aynen..”, der Dritmey.
✱ ✱ ✱
İzci Efendisi Davien.”, diye nazikçe selamlar yaşlı Cathber, uzun boylu, yakışıklı, sarı-kumral saçlı half-efl’i. “Görüşmeyeli biraz zaman oldu.”
Küçük grup Serenity Home kasabasının uzak tarlalarınının kıyısından teğet çizmeleri üzerine beş gün geçmiştir ve üç dwarf kız akıllanmış olarak güvenli bir mesafede beklerken, yaşlı Cathber ve genç hobbit bir fırtına daha avlamışlardı. Sonra, genel yön olarak doğuya, ormanda zigzaglar çizerek yollarına devam etmişlerdi.
Bu süre boyunca aralarındaki kasılmış hava biraz olsun yumuşamıştı. Bunun en belirgin sebebi, Dridges’in sözünde durması ve ikizlerin anlatacak çok hikayeleri olmasıydı. Belli ki bu iki kız gerçekte kaş çatıp, balta sallamak kadar dedikodu, abuk hikaye ve kıkırdamayı sevmekteydiler. Beraberlikleri o kadar uzun olmamış olsa da Brom ikizlerden hoşlandığını kendi kendisine itiraf eder. Gerçekte genç hobbit’in Dridges’le de bir alıp veremediği yoktur ve kız önceki ısrarlı halini bırakınca, onun da cana yakın, samimi ve doğal bir cazibesi olduğunu kabul eder. Üç kız, hobbit’in içini döktüğü o geceden sonra, askeri bir imtina ile her akşam kamp yerini önceden hazırlamışlar, ateşi yakmışlar ve yemeği de pişirmişlerdi. Üç dwarf da, yük olmak değil, sessiz bir anlaşma varmış gibi kendi yüklerini çekmeye başlamışlardı. Dahası, genç Brom bunu çok daha sonra fark edecektir, kızların imtina ile seçtikleri kamp noktaları ‘kolay müdafaa edilebilir’ yerlerdi ve kendi aralarında dönüşümlü olarak da nöbet tuttuklarıydı!
Gün içerisinde de Dridges onlara hep yakın bir mesafede dururken, ikizler ise gittikleri yol boyunca, ellerinde dev baltalarıyla, kendi özel zigzaglarını çizdikleriydi.
İşin bir başka ilginç yanı da, üçü arasında kimin ne yapacağına her zaman Dridges’in karar vermesiydi. Ve kız bu durumu kendi çıkarına kullanmamış, ablalarından istediği herşeyi önce kendisi denemiş, güvenliğini ve pratikliğini sınamış, ancak ondan sonra onları bir emir olarak vermişti. Brom hayretle kızın devamlı ne nasıl optimize edilebileceği üzerine kafa yormasını, akşam olduğunda ve kamp kurulumu ve yemek işleri bittiğinde, kızın küçük papirüs parçalarına, üstüne fevkalade muntazam dörtgenler, halkalar ve uzun, yön çizgileri çizişini seyretmişti.
Genç hobbit bir gece dayanamamış ve sormuştu kıza ne yaptığını..
“Bu, dört kol saldırı düzenidir. Buna karşı kullanılabilecek müdafaa taktikleri oldukça sınırlıdır; düşman sana ne atarsa dişlerini sıkarsın ve düşmanın sana atabileceği etkili cephanenin, senin adamlarından önce bitmesini umut edersin.. Ben buna karşı uygulanabilecek etkili, can ve mal kaybı açısından düşük masraflı, optimal bir kuşatma kırıcı taktiği geliştirmeye çalışıyorum, Efendi Brom.”
“Yaaa..”, diye anlamış gibi başıyla onaylamış, muallak bir cevap vermiş.. ve tüymüştü Brom. Kim bilir.. Kız o karma karışık şemayı anlatmaya karar da verebilir di, genç hobbit’e!
Bu süre içerisinde Brom aklına takılan bir başka mevzuyu konuşmak için Efendi Cathber’a yanaşmıştı ama bunu, fırtına avına çıktıklarında, dolayısıyla yalnızlarken sormuştu.
“Onlara söylemedin.”, der Brom.
“Neyi kime söylemedim?”, diye sorar yaşlı adam.
“Fırtınada ne yaptığımızı..”
“Aaa.. Hayır söylemedim ve senin de bundan kimseye bahsetmemeni rica edeceğim.”, diye temkinli bir şekilde cevap verir Efendi Cathber.
“Neden? Güvenilir kızlar, gibime geldiler.”, der Brom hayretle.
“Onların sadakatlerini sorgulamıyorum, Efendi Hobbit. Ama ve en nihayetinde geri döndüklerinde üstlerine gördüklerini rapor etmek zorunda kalacaklar ve birincisi, burunlarının dibinde böylesi yıkıcı bir potansiyelin olduğunu öğrendiklerinde, kendileri de aynısından isteyecekler ve ben, bana verilmiş kalan günlerimi fırtına peşinde koşarak geçirmek istemiyorum. İkincisi, bunu sadece Heavens Hand için yapıyorum çünkü orada gerçek ihtiyaç var. Üçüncüsü ise, kızlar.. ve muhtemelen rapor verecekleri şahıslar güvenilir olsalar da, o kadar bin dwarf’un hepsinin aynı oranda ağızlarını sıkı tutmalarını beklemek iyimser bir şekilde ‘hayal perestçe’ bir beklenti olurdu. Dahası, bize bahsedilen baskın, biraz fazla iyi planlanıp uygulanmışdı. Baskını yapanların, vardiyalardan ve muhafızlardan haberdar oldukları belliydi. Bunun en belirgin göstergesi, çalınan belgelerin nerede olduklarını bilmeleriydi.. Orasının ne kadar büyük olduğunu düşününce, bunu görmesi çok daha kolay oluyor.. Bunları bize söylemediler tabii, ama söylemelerine de gerek yoktu, öyle değil mi? Bu yüzden Elder Hills’e ilk vardığımızda o kadar hırçın ve paranoyak davrandılar..”
Efendi Cathber’in bu sonuç odaklı, pragmatik ve birazda ürkütücü yorumu, genç hobbit’in dünyada olup bitenleri görebilmesi açısından iyi bir ‘çuvaldız’ etkisi yapmıştı.
“Merhaba, Efendi Cathber. Evet, sanırım en son görüşmemiz üzerine iki yıl, dört ay ve bir kaç gün geçmiş olmalı..”, diye yüzünde mutlu ve muallak bir ifadeyle cevap verir İzci Efendisi Davien.
“Davien..”, der yaşlı Cathber. “Sanırım, dedikten sonra bu kadar kesin bir süre veremezsin.”
“Özür dilerim. Etrafımdakiler, biraz aptal olduğumu düşününceler hepimiz daha mutlu oluyoruz.”, diye cevap verir Davien ciddi bir şekilde.
Efendi Cathber kıkırdar.
Brom’un ise tek kaşı kalkar ve hayretle izci efendisine bakar zira bir yıl kadar önce, haydut kampında onu ilk gördüğünde, kendisi de onun biraz saf ve.. uhhmm.. aptal olduğunu düşünmüştür.
“Moorat bunu biliyor mu?”, diye sırıtır Cathber.
“Bildiğini sanıyor. Ama onun bildiğini benim bildiğimi sandığını sanmıyorum!”, diye cevap verir İzci Efendisi Davien aynı ciddiyetle.
Yaşlı adam tekrar kıkırdar.
“Ne işin var burada peki?”
“Sizi bekliyordum, Efendi Cathber. Yaşlı Tapınak Baş Muhafızı Demos Lightshand, bir görü uykusuna yattı ve sizin olacağınız yeri gördü rüyasında. Beni çağırıp seni bulmamı ve Oger’s Foot’a gitmeniz gerektiğini söylememi söyledi..”, der Davien yine muallak ifadesine bürünerek.
Buna tek kaşını kaldırarak cevap verir Cathber.
“Elçiye zeval olmaz. Bana sizi bulup bunu size söylemem istendi, o kadar.”, der izci efendisini.
“Ne kadar vaktim var?”, diye sorar yaşlı adam canı açıkça sıkılmış bir şekilde.
“Demos bu konuda pek bir şey söylemedi. Ama sorunun oradaki oger’lerin matronu ile alakalı olduğu izlenimini edindim.”
“Demos’un Oger’s Foot ile ne gibi bir alakası olabilir ki? Onun ilgi ve yetki alanı içerisinde bile değil..”, diye burnundan solur yaşlı adam.
“Değil zaten. Ama oger’ler bazı saldırılarda bulunmuşlar ve sanıyorum yaşadıkları tepelerin darlığından şikayet ediyorlarmış.”, der Davien. “Şerif Standorin’in kılıç eli kaşınmaya başladı yine ve Serenity Home Belediye Başkanı Yuleman, oger’lerle yeni bir çatışmanın başlamasını istemiyor. Olaylar ivme kazanamadan belki siz müdahale edebilirsin diye sizi bulmamız istendi. Moorat izcileriyle seni aramaya gittikten sonra ben de Demos’a gittim ve seni bulması için ondan ricada bulundum. Bu şekilde ormanı bir ucundan diğerine koşmak zorunda kalmamış oldum.”, der Davien ve sırıtır. “Moorat eli boş döndüğünde yüzündeki ifadeyi görmek ilginç olacak!”
“Ne kadar vaktim var?”, diye sorar Cathber. “Elimde bitirmem şart olan bir işim var ve onu yarıda bırakamam..”
Davien omuzlarını silker.
“Bu ay sonuna kadar bir şeyler yapılmış olsa iyi olur. Yoksa Şerif adamlarını —ve bizleri toplayıp Oger’s Foot’a yürüyecek.”
Yaşlı Cathber burnundan solur.
“Standorin’i severim. Ama her şey, her zaman kılıçla çözülemez..”
“Size katılıyorum, Efendi Cathber. Çoğu zaman oklarla çözülebilir!”, diye ciddi bir ifadeyle cevap verir Davien.
Yaşlı adam ona fena pis bir bakış atar.
“Hey!..”, der Davien sırıtarak. “Ben sadece aptal bir izciyim..”
“Serenity Home’a geri dön ve Yuleman ile konuş. Beni bulduğunu ve işi halledeceğimi, ama bunun için bir aydan daha fazla zamana ihtiyacım olduğunu söyle. Dediğim gibi, elimde bitirmem gereken bir işim var ve onu yarıda bırakamam.”
Tam o esnada çalılar büyük bir gürültüyle açılır ve küçük, sıska bir kız koşarak gelir yanlarına. Kızın, uzun koyu kahverengi saçları, masmavi gözleri ve uçları hafif sivri kulakları vardır. Kızın üstünde, belki daha o sabah temiz ve pek şirin olan elbisesinin her yeri yırtılmış, üstü başı toz, toprak ve çamur içerisindedir ve elleri, kolları ve sıska bacakları da yara ve berelerle doludur!
Kız nefes nefese kalmış bir şekilde söylenir.
“Koştum, İzci Efendisi Davien amca! Ve hepsinden de önce buldum!”, der ve sırıtarak küçük yumruğunda sımsıkı tuttuğu, içi saman çöpleriyle dolu pis bir çorabı gösterir.
“Küçük Laila!”, diye ünler Davien. “Senin ne işin var burada?”
“Bu sabah, izci acemilerine bu çorabı ilk bulanın, sizin çırağınız olmayı hakkedeceğini söylediğinizi duydum. Bütün izci acemilerinden önce buldum ve getirdim!”, der küçük Laila gururla sırıtarak.
“Bu harika bir beceri. Beni ormanın ortasında nasıl buldun peki?”, diye hayretle sorar Davien.
“Bu beni biraz düşündürdü çünkü sizi bulamazsam, çorabı bulmuş olmamın bir anlamı kalmamış olacaktı, onun için önce sizi bulmalıydım İzci Efendisi Davien amca. İzci Acimelerinin yanından ayrıldıktan soran sizin Demos babamızı ziyaret ettiğinizi gördüm ve belki o bilir diye gidip ona sordum. Demos babamız da bana sizin nerede olabileceğinizi söyleyince ben de koşup çorabı aradım ve onu da buldum. Sonra da buraya koştum!”, diye nefes nefese anlatır kız..
Davien, ağzı açık bir şekilde kızın pratik, çözüm odaklı düşünme şekline hayret eder.
Yaşlı Cathber kıkırdar.
“Küçük kız, senin Moorat’e çektiğin numarayı sana yapmış!”
Arkada bekleyen üç dwarf kız ise alık alık küçük, sıska kıza bakarlar.
“Bence bir sonraki İzci Çırağına, potansiyel olarak da gelecekteki İzci Mareşaline bakıyoruz.”, der Efendi Cathber.
Küçük Laila’nın yüzü güneş gibi aydınlanır ve daha da gururlanarak sırıtır..
✱ ✱ ✱
Bu hiç iyi bir zamanlama olmadı bizim için, Efendi Hobbit.”, der yaşlı Cathber kaşları çatılı bir şekilde. “Sanıyorum biraz acele etmemiz gerekecek ve..”
“Ve?”, diye sorar Brom.
“Ve korkarım birlikteliğimizin de sonuna yaklaşıyoruz..”, diye bitirir yaşlı adam yüzünde mutsuz bir ifadeyle.
Genç Brom hayretle yaşlı Cathber’e bakar.
“Neden ki?”, diye sorar ister istemez. “Fırtına avıyla işimiz bittiğinde, Oger’s Foot’a yine beraber gideriz.”
“İlk girişimiz sadece bir ziyaret idi ve gerçekte Reise Grulganiste’nin de üstü kapalı uyarısıydı. Belli ki durum göründüğünden çok daha ciddi ve her ne kadar becerikli olsanız da, Efendi Brom, kızgın oger’ler bir hobbit için sağlıklı bir yer değil. Oğlu Cabot eline geçen her fırsatı değerlendirmek isteyecektir ve inan bana, o vahşinin eline geçen bir fırsat olmak istemezsin!”, der Efendi Cathber fena kızmış bir şekilde.
“Demek beraberliğimiz sona erecek.”, der Brom boğuk bir sesle.
“Beraberliğimiz asla sona etmeyecek, delikanlı. Sadece birlikteliğimiz sonra erecek.”, diye cevap verir yaşlı adam nazikçe.
“Aradaki farkı göremiyorum, Efendi Cathber.”, der genç hobbit kırık bir ifadeyle.
“Aradaki fark; sevgi, saygı ve dostluk ile ayrılmamızda, Brom Bumblebrim. Ve beraberliğimiz süresince paylaşıp bir birimize kazandırdıklarımızda.. Ve doğrusunu söylemem gerekirse, ki söylemekte hiçbir maruzat görmüyorum, ben çok şey kazandım, daha da çok şey öğrendim.”, der Efendi Cathber.
“Benden ne öğrenmiş olabilirsiniz ki?”, diye sorar Brom.
“Yalnızlığın, sandığım kadar eğlenceli ve tatmin edici olmadığı öğrendim. Yediyüz küsür yıl kadar geç olsa da bunu fark etmiş olmam bence önemliydi. İnsan, yeterince yalnız kalınca, zamanla başkalarına ‘harcanabilir’ gözüyle bakmaya başlayabiliyor. Özellikle de benim yüklenmeyi seçtiğim sorumlulukları göz önünde bulundurduğumuzda.
Ve benim evimi tamir ederek, bana evimin.. ve Tamara’mın sıcaklığını hatırlatmış oldun. Geri dönüp baktığımda, sevgilim ve eşim Tamara’nın asla benim hayatımı bu şekilde geçirmiş olmamı taship edeceğini düşünüyorum. Evet, bazı şeyler benim için artık çok geç artık. Bir eş ve çocukların —içinde mutlu insanların olduğu bir ev.. Ama en azından evime geri döneceğim ve döndüğümde de içinde en az bir kişi, tam olarak mutlu olmasa da, mutmain olacak.
Bu kulağa sadece küçük bir avutma gibi gelebilir. Ama, ve gerçekte bu farkın ne denli büyük olduğunu da sadece senin gibi bir hobbit fark edebilirdi, ve önemli olan da bu..
Ve son olarak, insan benim kadar uzun yaşayınca, görülebilecek her şeyi gördüğünü, bilinebilecek her şeyi öğrendiğini, duyulabilecek de her şeyi duyduğu yanılgısına düşebiliyor. Sen, Efendi Brom, bu yaşlı adama, ölmeden önce bu konuda ne kadar da yanılmış ve eksik olduğunu göstermiş oldun.. Bunun kıymetinin bir karşılığı yoktur!”
Brom Bumblebrim, yaşlı adamın bu itiraflarını biraz sevinç, ama daha çok garip bir iç burukluğu ile dinler, zira Efendi Cathber’in söyledikleri şeylerin hepsi, yaşadığı o uzun hayatın sonunun da yaklaştığını ima etmektedir.
“Bana ağıt yakma, Efendi Hobbit. Ağıt, bir kaybın göstergesidir. Ben, uzun ve dolu bir hayat yaşadım. İstediğim şeylerle dolu değildi belki ama, yine de, ve en azından başkalarının mutlu, sağlıklı ve en önemlisi de; güvenli bir şekilde yaşamaları için uğraştım. Bana ağıt yakarsan, bütün emeklerime de ağıt yakmış olursun.. Hadi gel.. Burnum yeni bir fırtına kokusu alıyor..”
✱ ✱ ✱
11.09.7591 B.Y.S (-16 Yıl) Eylül ortası. Sonsuz Beyaz.. (Büyük Kuzey Tundraları)
Genç Brom’un, yaşlı Cathber’le vedalaşması acıklı bir sahnedir ve ilginç bir şekilde de genç hobbit’le ilk karşılaştıkları o ıslak gecede, Arashkan ırmağının kıyısında kamp kurduğu yerde gerçekleşir.
“Sevgili Brom.. Seni ilk aldığım yere tekrar bırakıyorum.. Sana acılarını unutmanı söylemeyeceğim. Bunu senden isteyemem.. ve açıkçası istemem de. Bizi biz yapan kazançlarımız değil, kayıplarımızdır, zira bir şey bizim için bir kayıp ise, o şey bizim için değerlidir. Seninle geçirdiğim ayları unutmayacağım ve seni her zaman sevgiyle hatırlayacağım.”
Brom ne kadar istediysede, bir türlü ağzından bir şey çıkmamıştı. Sadece dolu gözlerle yaşlı adama sarılmış ve öylece adamın uzaklaşmasını seyretmişti.
Dridges ve ikizler de bir kenarda durmuş göz yaşları içerisinde yaşlı adamın gidişini izlemişlerdi.
O akşam Dridges, Britney, Dritmey ve Brom sessiz bir kamp kurarlar ve pek az konuşup erken yatarlar.. En azından Brom ve ikizler yatar. Üç kız, kendi aralarında belirledikleri sıralamaya göre Dridges nöbette durur.
Brom sabah ilk ışıkla uyandığında, kahvaltının çoktan hazır olduğunu görür ve burnunu büzüştürür, zira niyeti kendi yoluna, kuzeye doğru koyulmaktır ve bunu da yalnız başına yapmak niyetindedir..
Genç hobbit kahvaltısını yaptıktan sonra Dridges’e döner.
“Sizler ne yapmayı düşünüyorsunuz? Ben kuzeye gideceğim.”, der sakince.
“Bu hayret verici!”, der Dridges mutlu bir şekilde. “Zira biz de kuzeye gideceğiz..”
Brom kaşlarını çatar.
“Ben bayağı kuzeye gideceğim.. Çok kuzeye..”
“Sorun değil, Efendi Brom. Biz de muhtemelen biraz daha fazla kuzeye gideceğiz.”, diye gülümseyerek cevap verir kız.
Brom, daha bi çatar kaşlarını.
“Sizin ne işiniz var kuzeyde?”
“Britney, kız kardeşlerimizin izlerine rastladı geçen gün. Onların peşinden gidiyor olacağız. Beraber gitmemizi istemiyorsanız, bunu açıkça söyleyebilirsiniz, Efendi Brom, alınmamaya çalışırız..”, der Dridges güzel gülümsemesini sergileyerek.
Yandan ikizler kıkırdar.
Brom kaşlarını daha bi çatmak ister ancak tampon çoktan duvara dayanmıştır! Kızlar, kendisinin onlara ‘git’ diyemeyecek kadar nazik olması üzerine plan yapmışlardır ve aynı planla onu köşeye sıkıştırmayı da başarmışlardır.
Kızlar gerçekten bazen fena pislik yapabilen varlıklardır!
Genç hobbit sesini çıkarmadan küçük çadırını toplar ve sırt çantasına tıkıştırır.
Kampı dağıtan ikizler de hazır bir şekilde beklerler ve Dridges’in bir işaretiyle ikizler önden koşmaya başlarlar..
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Bir açıdan genç Brom’un üç dwarf kız kardeşle olmuş olması iyidir. Kendi evindeyken yalnız takılmış olması onu fazla rahatsız etmemiştir bugüne kadar ama zaten kendi küçük dünyasını doldurduğu sıcak şöminesi, annesinin yadigar fincanları, tüten çaydanlığı, mutlu kurabiyeleri, kitapları, Lir’i ve..
“Muhteşen Gökler adına!”, diye ünler Brom. “Hayatımı hoşuma gittiğini düşündüğüm ve bana keyif veren eşyalarla doldurmuşum ve gerçekte yalnız, zavallı bir hobbitmişim!”
“Efendim?”, der Dridges hemen arkasından.
“Uhhmm.. yok bişi..”, der Brom hemen, ve biraz da utanarak.
“Benimle konuşabilirsin, biliyorsun, değil mi? Seni yargılamam, seni ısırmam, seni horlamam.. Aynı istikamette gittiğimiz günlerimiz sona erdiğinde de zaten bir daha görüşme ihtimalimiz de olmayacak, dolayısıyla yapmayacağımı söylediğim şeyleri yapsam bile sana ne zararı dokunabilir ki?”, diye sorar kız.
“Isırma kısmı hariç.”, der Brom.
“Isırma kısmı hariç..”, diye onaylar Dridges. Sonra muzurca gülümser. “Ama duyduğum kadarıyla bazı erkekler bundan hoşlanırlarmış..”
“Bazı kızlar da hoşlanırmış!”, der ikisinin de arkasından bir ses —Britney.
“Ben hoşlanırım.. Beni istediğin zaman ısırabilirsin, Efendi Hobbit!”, der onun da arkasından Dritmey!
Ve arkasından kahkahalarla.. ve acımasızca ikizlerin güldüğünü duyar.
“Siz ikiniz..”, der Dridges esef dolu bir sesle. “Adam olmazsınız!”
“Adam neden olalım ki?”, diye sorar Britney.
“Aynen..”, diye onaylar Dritmey. “Neden adam olalım ki? Bak.. adam kaçtı!
“Onların kusuruna bakma.”, der Dridges, tıkanmış hobbit’e yetiştiğinde. Kızın üzerinde kalkanı, iri, enli kılıcı ve ağır örme zincir zırhı olmasına rağmen Brom’un peşinden koşmuş ve tıkanmış olmak bir yana, nefes nefese bile kalmamıştır. “Eğlenmeyi seviyorlar ve canları sıkıldı, o kadar. Şimdi düşündüm ve sebebini anladım sanırım.”
“Ne.. neyin sebebini anladın..”, der genç hobbit soluk soluğa.
“Biz bir şeylerle karşılaşırız diye devamlı nöbet ve devriye yapıyoruz gece gündüz ama bir kaç hayvan dışında hiç bi şey yok! Bunun sebebini anladım sanırım..”, der kız.
“Efendi Cathber.. Kaç yüz yıldır bu ormanları bi aşağı, bi yukarı dolanıyor ve sanırım bundan dolayı da ‘tehlikeli’ pek de bir yaratık yok ormanda.. Var olanlar da kendilerine çeki düzen verip kimseye bulaşmıyorlar.”, diye açıklar Dridges. “Ama bu konumuzun dışında sanırım. Biz senden ve anlatmak istediğin şeylerden bahsediyorduk.”
“Biz böyle bir şeylerden mi bahsediyorduk?”, diye hayretle kıza bakar Brom.
Bu kız gerçekten ısrarlıdır.. ve tuttuğunu bırakmaya da niyeti yoktur.
Genç hobbit önündeki seçenekleri değerlendirir; ya kızı öteleyecek ve gereksiz yere kalbini kıracak, yada konuşacak ve hiç olmazsa başından ‘güvenli’ bir şekilde savacak.
Bununla beraber Brom, kızın asabi biri olduğuna inanmaz. İnatçı, dik kafalı, ısrarcı, çabuk alev alan, evet.. Ama asabi yada kontrolden çıkabilecek biri değil.
Pes etmişçesine derin bir nefes verir Brom.
“Hayatım.. Geri bakıp düşündüğümde ne denli boş olduğunu anladım. Az evvel ünlediğimde bunu fark etmiştim.”
“Bana boş biri gibi gelmedin, Efendi Brom.”, der kız samimi bir sesle.
“Brom.. sadece Brom, kafî.. Ben sanıldığı kadar efendi değilim.”, der Brom.
“Peki o zaman, Brom.. Ama sana bu şekilde sadece sen istediğin için hitap edeceğim. Efendi olmadığına inandığım için değil.”
“Bunu da nerden çıkartıyorsun? Sana efendi olduğum izlenimini hangi ara verdim?”, diye sorar genç hobbit.
“İlk karşılaştığımızda.. Beni yerin dibine geçirdiğinde..”, der kız sessizce.
“Seni yerin dibine geçirdim ve sen benim ‘efendi’ olduğumu o zaman mı anladın?”, diye alık alık bakar kıza Brom.
“Evet. Beni yerin dibine geçirdin çünkü tanışmamızdan önce sebeplerin vardı. Tanışmamızda ise ben de sana zaten var olan sebeplerini destekleyecek her malzemeyi verdim ve bunun karşılığında da hakkettiğimi aldım. Ama sen beni yerin dibine geçirmekle yetindin. Beni göme de bilirdin ama bunu yapmadın. Nerede durman gerektiğini bildin. Gerçekte efendi biri olduğunu işte o zaman —daha doğrusu üzerinde biraz düşününce anladım, zira iş bana kalmış olsaydı, ben kendimi çoktan gömmüş olurdum.. “, der kız biraz utanmış bir şekilde.
Brom’un tek kaşı ister istemez kalkar.
Kızın bakış açısı, açıkçası biraz çarpıktır.. ve fazla iyimserdir.. Ama oradadır ve ikizlerin onun için ‘gerçekten iyi niyetli bir kız’ olduğuyla ilgili söylediklerinin belki de boş olmayabileceğine ayılır.
“Beni hala kazanmaya mı çalışıyorsun, Dridges hanım?”, der gülümseyerek.
“Ben sana Brom diye hitap edeceksem, sanıyorum Dridges de kafî gelecektir. Ancak asıl konumuza dönersek, neden kendi hayatının boş olduğunu düşündüğünü merak ediyorum. Beraber geçirdiğimiz bu bir ayda öğrendiğim kadarıyla ta Bowling Hills’den buraya kadar yürüyerek, beklenmedik bir çok şeyi görerek ve daha da çok şeyi yaşayarak gelmişsin. Benim gördüğüm sadece iki yer var; Scowling Hills —ki orası doğduğum yer, ve Elder Hills, eğitim aldığım yer..”
“Neden bir taktik generali olmaya karar verdin?”, diye sorar Brom.
“Ben vermedim. Dedem bu kararı verdi ve bana, halkımızın ve geleceğimizin buna şiddetle ihtiyacı olduğunu söyledi. Dedem ‘öylesine’ konuşan biri değildir ve bir anda üstüme böyle bir sorumluğu yükleyince, bana da kabul etmekten başka pek de seçenek kalmamış oldu. Gerçekte ben resim çizmeyi çok seviyordum ve hepimizin aldığı genel savaş eğitimi dışında da kılıç kullanmak gibi bir niyetim de yoktu. Ben.. kan dökmeyi sevmiyorum.. Başkasının yüzünde acı gördüğümde bu beni rahatsız ediyor.. Ve birilerine rica da bile bulunamıyorum artık çünkü herkese emir vermem gerekiyor.. Şimdi ise kendi öz ablalarıma emir vermem bekleniyor benden. Bunun bana ne kadar ağır geldiği ise hiç sorulmadı bile. Ablalarımın bundan mutlu olmaları ise daha da ağırıma gidiyor. Hiçbir kız, ablalarına emir vermemli..”
“Deden, Efendi Argail, biraz fazla mı ciddiye alıyor bazı şeyleri?”, diye kenarından sorgulamaya çalışır Brom.
“Önceleri ben de öyle düşünüyordum. Ama geçtiğimiz yıllarda, aldığım eğitim sürecinde, bize gelen istibaratlarda ve özellikle de bize karşı yapılan baskında, gerçekte onun kendisini ne kadar gemlediğini düşünmeye başladım. Bizler güzel ve rahat ortamlarda yaşamaya alışmışız. Halbuki bunun bizim çabalarımızla hiçbir ilgisi bile yok. Efendi Cathber, dedem.. ve unutulmuş birçok büyük insan, dwarf, gnome ve elf’lerin yapmış oldukları büyük fedakarlıkların üzerine oturmuş, onların canları ve kanları pahasına verdikleri emeklerin keyfini çıkartıyoruz, o kadar. Ve dedem haklı.. Bir şey gerçekten yaklaşıyor.. Büyük bir şey.. İsimsiz ve gözün göremediği bir şey. Bunu sadece çok, ama çok küçük bilgi kırıntılarını bir araya getirdiğimizde görebiliyoruz. En azından çok azımız. Ben daha göremiyorum. Sadece o şey, her ne ise, içimi ürpertiyor o kadar. Gün geldiğinde, kılıcımı, kalkanımı, zırhımı ve zamanla alacağım madalya ve apoletlerimi bir kenara atıp, tekrar resim çizeceğim. Ama önce bunu hakketmem ve gerekli güvenli ortamı da hazırlamam gerekiyor..”, der Dridges.
“Biraz karanlık bir tablo bu, sanki.”, diye söylenir genç hobbit.
“Karanlık zaten. Ama biz de zaten buna karşı hazırlık yapıyoruz. Diğer ırklar ne yapıyorlar bilmiyorum. Ama biz —ki burada ‘biz’ derken, sadece dwarf’ları kastetmiyorum, Ritual Ormanlarında yaşayan herkes, Serenity Home, Tinker Hills, bir zamanlar Silent Hills ve bütün bunların çevresinde yaşayan halklar, bilerek yada bilmeyerek, bilinçli veya bilinçsiz bir şekilde bu amaca çalışıyorlar. Otuz bin dwarf’u besleyip giydirmek, eğitip sağlıklı tutmak kolay bir iş değil.. Ve beni de o otuz bin ve buna bağlı olacak daha bir çok, yüzlerini bile görmediğim, ve muhtemelen de görmeyeceğim, sadece gömeceğim hayatların nerede nasıl ölmelerine karar verme işi için yetiştiriyorlar!”, der Driges, Brom’a bakarak ve konuşmanın kendi payına düşne kısmını bitirir..
“Olaylara bu açıdan bakıldığında, kendi hayatımın gerçekten boş olduğuna kati olarak inanmış durumdayım, Dridges..”, der Brom sırıtarak.
“Dridges.. Dridges!”, diye Britney’in acil sesi duyulur ileriden.
Dridges, Brom’a bir defa daha bakar, sonra ablasının seslendiği yöne doğru koşar.
“Ne oldu..?”, diye sorar Dridges.
Dritmey, elinde bir şey tutmaktadır. Yuvarlak ve renkli boncukları olan bir şey.
Dridges, ablasının elindeki şeye bakar ve ayılır.
“Bu onun—”, der hayretle.
“—saç tokası, evet.”, diye bitirir Britney, hemen yanında.
“Neredeler peki?”, diye sorar Dridges etrafa bakarak.
“Bilmem.”, der Britney. “Ama burada kamp yapıldığına dair bazı izler var. O iki şapşalın kamp kuracak kadar pratik eğitimleri olduğunu bile bilmiyordum!”
“Ne yöne gitmişler peki?”, diye sorar kız kardeşi.
“Emin değilim. Ama kuzeye yönelmişler buradan. Geri zekalı kuş beyinliler. Ne işleri var burada ve neden kuzeye gidiyorlar ki?”
“Eee..? Ne yapacağız şimdi? Devam edecek miyiz?”, diye sorar Dritmey.
Dridges bir an düşünür. Sonra başını sallar.
“Hayır, geri döneceğiz. Zaten gelmiş olmamız gerekenin çok daha uzağına geldik. Buranın kuzeyi Themalsar Harabeleri ve dedemden izinsiz annem ve babam bile gidemezler oraya..”
“Ne yani? Onları kendi başlarına mı bırakacağız?”, diye hayretle bakar kız kardeşine Britney.
“Onlar zaten kendi başlarına ve bizim gitmemiz yasak olan yere gittiler. İzin almadan onların peşinden oraya gidemeyiz. Hazırlanın, geri dönüyoruz. Bunu anneme bildirmeliyiz. Sonra da dedeme hızlı kurye gönderip emirlerini beklemeliyiz.”, der kız kardeşi.
“Dridges!”, diye ünler Dritmey.
“Bu bir emirdir, Birinci Sınıf Er Dritmey!”, diye tıslar Dridges.
Birinci Sınır Er Dritmey.. ve ikizi, Britney, hayretle küçük kız kardeşlerine bakarlar. Sonra ikisinin de kaşları çatılır ve haşin bir ifadeyle ikisi de selama durup, “Emredersiniz Onbaşı Dridges!”, diye dişeri arasından hırlarlar ve dönüp koşmaya başlarlar.
İkisi de Brom’un yanından geçerken, ona da selam verirler.
“Kendinize iyi bakın, Efendi Hobbit. Bizden kurtuldunuz en sonunda..”, diye sırıtır Britney.
“Aynen..”, diye onaylar Dritmey, kendisi de sırıtarak..
..ve pek kısa bir süre içerisinde de ormanda, ağaçların arasında kaybolurlar.
“Sizden o kadar da kurtulmak istemiyordum aslında..”, diye mırıldanır genç hobbit.
“Bunun duyduğuma sevindim, Brom.”, der Dridges. “Başta senin fikrini değiştirmek için çok uğraştım ve sanıyorum, bunun karşılığında sadece başını ağrıtıp canını sıkmayı başardım. Ama daha sonraki tek amacım arkadaşın olabilmekti.”
“Ve korkarım olmayı da başardın, Dridges..”, der Brom.
“Bunda korkacak bir şey gerçekten yok, zira ben ısıran kızlardan değilim.”, diye gülümseyerek cevap verir Dridges.
“Eminim ısırsaydın da bu iyi niyetle olurdu.”, der Brom ve o da gülümser. “Kendine iyi bak, Dridges. Seni tanımak kolay olmadı, ama tanıdığım için de memnunun.”
“Sen de kendine iyi bak, Brom. Seni tanımak kolay oldu zira kendini ifade etmek istediğinde bunu çok iyi yapıyorsun.. Zor olan güvenini ve saygını kazanmaktı.”, diye gülerek cevap verir Dridges, sonra kalkanını sırtına atıp sıkıca bağlar, enli kılıcını kontrol eder..
..ve Brom’a sarılır.
“Duygularını benimle paylaştığın için de teşekkür ederim. Bunun benim için anlamını bilemezsin, zira dwarf’lar duygularını paylaşan bir halk değildir.”, der ve dönüp ablalarının arkasından koşar, bir kaç dakika sonra, o da gözden kaybolur.
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Brom’un, yalnızlıktan gerçekten hoşlanmadığını anlaması sadece üç gün sürer. Bu kendisini, Ritual Ormanlarından ayrılmasıyla daha da belirgin bir şekilde gösterir. Efendi Cathber ile geçirdiği bir yılı aşkın süre ona kendini daha iyi tanımasına sebep olduğu gibi, kendisi hakkında bilmediği bir çok şeyi de fark etmesini sağlamıştı.. Genç hobbit, engin Ritual Ormanlarını, Themalsar Harabelerinden sadece üç-dört günlük bir mesafade bırakır ve harabelerin olabildiğince uzağından geçmeye karar verir. Bu karar onu Endless Sea denizinin kıyısına kadar getirir ve sebebini bilmese de, kuzeye yönelir. Halbuki kuzeyde hiçbir şey yoktur.. Sonsuz Beyaz dışında..
Gulls Perch’in doğusunda karşılaştığı çok eski şehir kırıntısına benzer bir yıkıntıyla burada da karşılaşır ve o zaman kulak misafiri olduğu iki kızın konuşmalarında olduğu gibi, bu şehir de hayattayken sanki bir kıyı şehri değil, bir zamanlar bir ticaret yolu üzerinde duruyormuş izlenimi veren bir şehirdir.
Brom, bu haraberlerde fazla oyalanmaz. Zorunlu olarak geçirmek durumda kaldığı bir gece dışında da harabe şehri hemen terk eder. Themalsar’a olan uzaklığına rağmen, bu şehir.. aslına bakılırsa bu bölgenin tamamı ‘ölü’ gibidir. Dahası, her an o ‘ölülerin’ toprağı deşip çıkacağı hissi veren uğursuz bir arazidir.
Genç hobbit titrer ve olabildiğince hızlı adımlarla..
Brom Bumblebrim, hiç farkında olmadan Büyük Kuzey Tundra’ları sınırlarına gelmiştir. Genç hobbit önce soğuk, buz gibi kara bakar, sonra başını kaldırır ve gözlerini ufukta gezdirir.
Brom, uzaklarda.. çok uzaklarda, sislerin arasında gizlenmiş, hayal meyal görünen uçsuz bucaksız dağlara bakar..
Buranın, daha önce görmediği bir berraklığı var gibidir.
‘Yürü yada öl!’, diyen kati kuralları,
İçsel, hayvanî bir yanı..
Muhteşem bir beyazlığı vardır..
Brom, evinden ayrıldığı geceden şu an’a kadar bu gerçekleşmediyse, ikinci adımını attığında hayatının tamamen ve tekrar değişeceği hissine kapılır..
..ve kalçasında, tam olarak göremediği yerinde, nazik bir sızı hisseder.
“Ben de ne zaman kendini göstereceğini merak ediyordum..”, der sessizce.
Genç hobbit, aynı sızıyı tekrar hisseder.
“Ne? Geri mi dönmemi istiyorsun yoksa? İstemiyorsun.. Peki o zaman ne istiyor— Aaaa.. Bu tercihi bana bırakıyorsun.. Beni buraya kadar sürükledikten sonra, bu seçimi bana bırakıyor olman biraz geç değil mi? —ki bu da olayın tamamını dile getirebileceğim en nazik hali..”
Brom durur ve kısılmış gözlerle tekrar Büyük Sonsuz Beyaz’a bakar.
“Aremela Berrybush..”, der sessizce ve aradan geçen zamana rağmen içinin hala cızladığına..
“Ona olanlardan dolayı seni suçlamamalıydım..”
Brom, içinde zonklayıp ağrıyan şeyi, yeni ve.. olgun bir hüzünle karşılar ve ufuktaki sisli dağlara bakmaya devam eder..
..ve daha önce zihninin derinlikerinde başlayan bir şarkı, uzun yolculuğunun da bitmek üzere olduğunu, son kıtalarıyla hatılatır kendisine sanki..
Never gentle, and never kind.
It is what tells us that the moment we are born, we have started dying..
It is there, it is inevitable, it is unyielding and unforgiving.
Tic by toc, it graves away, leaving less than what we were.
Whatever we have built, it shall down. Whatever we have done, it shall sow..
One would think we’d give life the meaning it deserves..
It is the link between places, spaces, events, and relations by the simple expedience of relating the past to the future..
It gives meaning..
Gerçekte uzun yolculuğu bitmek üzeredir. İki yıl önce kendisini evinden, sıcak şöminesinden, annesinin kıymetli fincanlarından, mutlu kurabiyelerinden, kitaplarından, pek sevdiği bahçesinden, güllerinden ve en nihayetinde de huzurundan alınıp, ta buraya kadar getirilmiştir. Buna rağmen devam edip etmeyeceği ise garip bir şekilde ona bırakılmıştır.
Sanki birileri ona..
“Seni buraya kadar getirdik.”
“Sana dünyada neler olup bittiğini, dahası..”
“..nelerin olabileceğini gösterdik..”
“..ve muhteşem şeyler gösterdik..”
“Sana bu dünyada pek az ölümlünün bildiği sırları fısıldadık..”
“En önemlisi ise, sana aşkın naif çileklerini tattırdık.”
“Ve sana aşkla birlikte gelen en büyük kaybı ve yıkımı yaşattık..”
“Seni aldık, seni eydik, büktük..”
“..sonra da tekrar doğrulttuk..”
Brom Bumblebrim derin, buz gibi, içinde Sonsuz Beyaz olan bir nefes çeker..
..ve ikinci adımını atar.
Brom Bumblebrim’in hayret verici maceraları, bu hikaye ile sonra ermiş bulunuyor. Genç Brom, bundan sonra asla tahmin edemeyeceği kişilerle karşılaşacak, hiç beklemediği olaylarla yüzleşecek ve farkındasız bir şekilde de, küçük bir hobbit’in, bütün bir krallığın tarihini nasıl etkileyebileceğini göstermiş olacak..
Bu hikaye, Brom Bumblebrim adındaki, Bowling Hill’de yaşayan kendi ırkının diğer bütün üyeleri gibi ‘normal’ ve hayatını olabildiğince keyifli ve tembel geçiren bir hobbit’in, beklenmedik bir şekilde ne idüğü belirsiz bir şey tarafından ısırılmasıyla başlar.
Genç hobbit’i her ne ısırdı ise, o günden sonra Brom bir türlü yerinde duramaz ve en sonunda, gecenin alakasız bir yarısında, eski arkadaşı ve aile dostu olan Gamwise Samgee’ye evini ve gülleri emanet ettiğine dair bir not bırakarak yollara koyulur. Uzun bir gece boyunca nereye gittiğini bilmeksizin, öylece, istikametsiz bir şekilde yürür durur..
Yaşlı Cathber’in evinden ayrılmaları üzerine aradan iki gün geçmiş olmasına karşın Brom için zaman sanki daha yavaş —yada hızlı ilerlemektedir.. Genç hobbit hangisi olduğu hususunda pek de emin değildir zira kafası karmakarışık olduğu kadar da bulanık gibidir. Brom bunlardan hangisi olduğu konusunda da muallakta kalmış hisseder kendisini.
“Sessizsin.”, der Efendi Cathber. “Aklına takılan bir şey mi var?”
“Emin değilim.”, diye mırıldanır genç hobbit.
“Bu, aldığın kararla mı ilgili? O günden beri sessizsin..”
“Emin değilim..”, diye tekrarlar kendisini Brom.
“Aldığın karar yüzünden şüphelerin mi oluştu?”, diye sorar yaşlı adam nazikçe.
“Şüphelerim varsa da, sonuçlarına katlanmak zorundayım artık, öyle değil mi?”, diye söylenir genç hobbit.
“Aslına bakılırsa, farklı bir karar almış olsaydın da sonuçlarına katlanmak durumunda kalırdın. Arada sadece iki fark var; birincisi kararı sen vermiş oldun, ikincisi ise sonuçlarına da efendi efendi katlanmayı göze aldığın —ki seni birazcık tanıdıysam, sen ‘efendi’ birisin Efendi Hobbit.”, der Cathber gülümseyerek.
Brom ister istemez ‘fırk’lar buna.
“Beni eğlendirmek için bu kadar çaba sarf etmenize gerek yok, Efendi Cathber.”, der Brom.
“İtiraf etmeliyim ki, sadece seni eğlendirmek için yapmıyordum. Bu noktadan itibaren biraz ‘gürültü’ çıkartarak ilerlememizin daha akıllıca olduğunu düşündüğüm için de yaptım.. Elder Hills dwarf’larının sessizce yaklaşan misafirleri ‘Önce vur, sonra sor!’, gibi oldukça katı, altı yüz yardadan arbaletle vurmak gibi kötü alışkanlıkları var.? Ama düşününce, bu da biraz gerekli, sanırım”, diye cevap verir yaşlı adam.
Brom, yaşlı adamın dwarf’lardan bahsetmesi üzerine kaşları çatılır ve yüzünde kendisinden beklenmeyecek, çirkin bir ifade belirir.
“Neden?”, diye sorar haşin bir sesle.
“Çünkü, Efendi Hobbit, teknik olarak Elder Hills geleneksel anlamda bir yerleşim yeri değil, daha çok bir savaş eğitim kampıdır. Ve burası sadece savaşçı dwarf yetiştirmez, her türlü ortam için taktik geliştiren bir ‘General Okuludur’, aynı zamanda. Elder Hills, dwarf’lar arasında taktik generalleri yetiştirme konusunda krallıkta ki en yetkin okuldur. Buradan mezun olmayı başaran bir dwarf, ordu idare eder. Krallıktaki bütün dwarf ordularını generalleriyle burası besler ve bir dwarf ordusuyla karşılaşırsan, bilesin ki başındaki general buradan çıkmadır.”, diye açıklar Cathber ve yanında yürüyen genç hobbit’i temkinli gözlerle süzer.
“Onlarla ne alıp veremediğini bilemiyorum, delikanlı ama fazla üzerlerine gitmemeni sağlık veririm. Gün gelirde Büyük Kuzey Tundra’larda yaşayan barbarlar ile Elder Hills dwarf’ları arasında hangisinin daha ‘aklı başında’ ve ‘sakin’ oldukları konusunda bir tercih yapmam gerekirse, yanıma bol bol kışlık elbise alacağımı biliyorum.”, der Cathber mutlu bir şekilde.
Efendi Cathber’in bu uyarısı, genç hobbit’in tamamen üstünden geçer ve hedefini ıskalamış bir taş gibi uzaklarda bir yerlere düşer. Brom, bir eli babasının eski kılıcının kabzasında, diğer ise amcasının küçük, antika gürzünün sapında olduğu halde hızlanmaya başlar.
“Benim sana yetişmemi beklemiyorsun umarım, Efendi Hobbit. Bu at arabasın iki tekerleği eksik, üçüncüsü de fırlayıp gitmek üzere..”, diye seslenir Cathber, genç hobbit’in arkasından.
Brom ister istemez biraz yavaşlar —ve bu da kendisi için iyi olur zira tam ayaklarının dibine kendi boyunda, baş parmağı kalınlığında ve daha çok mızrağa benzeyen bir ok saplanır.
Genç Brom olduğu yerde durur ve hayretle oka bakar, sonra bir – iki – üç sıçrayışta en yakın ağacın arkasına saklanır!
Efendi Cathber ise bir ona, bir de yerde saplanmış oka bakar ve kaşlarını çatar.
“Gerçekten mi?”, diye sinirlenmiş bir tonla ‘hıf’lar. “Kim olduğumu görüyorsunuz, buna rağmen beni arbaletle mi karşılıyorsunuz? Görüyorum bir yılda bütün aklınızı kaçırmakla kalmamış, tüm nezaket kurallarınızı da unutmuşsunuz! Hanginiz attıysa bunu, çıksın ortaya ve yüzleşsin hışmımla!”
Brom hayretle yaşlı adama bakar.
“Evet!”, diye burnundan solur Cathber ve bir ayağını ‘pat pat pat’ diye yerde saydırmaya başlar. “Bekliyorum.”
“Adın!”, diye bir ses gelir oldukça uzaktan. “Adın ne yaşlı adam!”
“Bu.. bu inanılır gibi değil!”, diye fena halde alınmış bir tonla söylenir Cathber. “Hepiniz benim kim olduğumu pek ala biliyorsunuz? Çık ortaya ve yüzleş benimle. Şayet ben oraya gelirsem, birilerini fena üzerim, ona göre!”
Bu küçük tehditten sonra ayak seslerinin geldiği duyulur. Brom saklandığı ağacın arkasından başını hafif çıkartır ve üç, cüsseli dişi-dwarf’un kendilerine doğru yaklaştığını görür.
Öndeki dwarf, arkadan kendisini takip eden diğer iki dwarf’tan biraz daha ince yapılıdır. Arkadaki iki dwarf ise.. bir birinin kopyası gibidirler. Öyle ki Brom dwarf’ların ikiz olduğunu anlaması biraz vakit alır. Öndekinin bir elinde enli, iri bir kılıç, diğerinde ise çelik çerçeveli bir kalkan mevcuttur. İkizlerin ellerinde ise Brom’un neredeyse bir buçuk misli boyunda ürkütücü birer adet savaş baltası vardır.
“Adın nedir, Efendi Cathber?”, diye sorar öndeki dişi-dwarf.
“Dridges Motherswolfie! Ne demek oluyor bu şimdi?”, diye kızmış bir şekilde sorar yaşlı adam.
“Benim adımı sormadım. Seninkisini sordum..”, der Dridges adındaki kız.
“Benim kim olduğumu pek ala biliyorsun.”, der Cathber.
“Sen, gördüğümü sandığım kişi olmayabilirsin, Efendi Cathber. Lütfen bana adını ver, yada geri dön. Bunlar yeni yürürlüğe koyduğumuz güvenlik protokollerinin birer parçasıdır ve istisnası da yoktur!”, der kati bir şekilde dişi dwarf.
Yaşlı adamın iki kaşı da kalkar.
“Benim adım Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig.. Senin adın ise Margaret Madish ve Gellator Bluntaxe kızı Dridges Motherswolfie, ve beni sekiz yaşından beri tanıyorsun. Siz ikiniz de Britney ve Dritmey Tosser ikizlerisiniz. Sağdaki Brit, soldaki ise Drit!”, der yaşlı adam burnundan soluyarak.
Arkadaki ikiz kız kardeşler baltalarını indirir gibi olurlar ancak Dridges işaret parmağını gösterecek şekilde bir elini kaldırınca baltalar da tekrar ‘hazır ol’a geçer.
“Bunların hepsi zaten bildiğim şeyler, Efendi Cathber. Bana bilmediğim bir şey söyle!”, der kız.
“Bu saçmalık! Sana, torunlarını göreceğin yaşa kadar bilmediğin şeyler söyleyip sıralayabilirim, Dridges!”, diye tamamen kızmış bir şekilde cevap verir Cathber. “Gökler adına kızım! Nezaketine ne oldu senin? Tekrar hatırlaman için seni annenin yanına mı götürmem gerekiyor?”
“Annem burada, Efendi Cathber. Kendisini gördüğünüzde beni şikayet edebilirsiniz.. Görebilirseniz, tabii..”, der Dridges kaşlarını çatarak.
“Margaret burada mı?”, diye hayretle sorar Cathber.
“Evet..”, der Dridges kısaca.
“O gelmedi.”, diye aynı özlü şekilde cevap verir kız.
“Bu.. hayret verici bir durum. İkisinin birbirinden ayrı takıldıkları duyulmuş değil.”, diye mırıldanır yaşlı adam.
“Atıştılar ve aralarında bazı kızgın sözler geçti. Annem de kızıp buraya geldi.”, der Dridges tek kaşı kalkmış bir şekilde.
“Ahhaa..”, der Cathber sırıtarak. “Buna inanmak isterdim ama yaşlı, inatçı Galletor’un annenle karşılaşmasından sonra ağzından tek bir kelime bile çıkmadığını düşünürsek, ‘aralarında bazı kızgın sözlerin’ geçmiş olabileceğine inanması oldukça güç olurdu gibime geliyor.. Sınavı geçtim mi?”
Dridges Motherswolfie’nin ilk defa kaşları gevşer ve yüzünde güzel bir gülümseme belirir.
“Üç yıldızla, Efendi Cathber, üç yıldızla.”, der gülerek.
“Sadece üç mü? Ben kendime en az dört tane verirdim..”, diye homurdanır yaşlı adam. “Şimdi. Neler oluyor, Dridges?”
“Burada değil. Kampa döndüğümüzde.. Bir ağacın arkasına saklanıp bütün konuşmayı yaşlı bir adama bırakacak kadar cesur olan küçük dostun güvenir mi peki?”, diye sorar Dridges.
“Efendi Brom..”, diye seslenir paslı sesiyle yaşlı Cathber. “Sana güvenilir olup olmadığını soruyorlar.. Güvenilir misin?”
“Hangi konuda?”, diye cevap gelir ağacın arkasından.
Arkadaki ikizlerden biri kıkırdar, sonra tekrar kaşlarını çatıp kıpırdamadan durur.
“Duruma göre değişiyor mu, küçük adam?”, diye sorar Dridges.
“Hiç kimse her konuda güvenilir olamaz, ‘küçük kız’..”, diye alaylı bir şekilde cevap verir Brom ve arkadaki ikizler hayretle birbirlerine bakarlar. “İş yemek söz konusu olduğunda bana güvenemezsiniz çünkü gördüğüm her şeyi yiyebilirim.. Dwarf’lar yenilebilir düzgün yemek yapmasını biliyorlarsa tabi.. İş onura gelince, evet, güvenilir birisiyimdir.. Dwarf’lar onurdan anlıyorlarsa tabi!”
Ortam bir anda sessizleşir.
Efendi Cathber avucunun içine aksırır ve gülümsemesini gizler.
Dridges’in kaşları tekrar çatılır ve kıpkırmızı kesilir.
Arkadaki ikizlerin kaşları zaten çatılı olduğu için baltalarını kaldırıp ileri doğru bir – iki adım atarlar.
Dridges tekrar elini kaldırınca ikizler yine dururlar.
“Küstahsın, küçük adam!”, diye burnundan solur Driges.
“Sen de şımarığın tekisin, küçük kız!”, diye seslenir Brom.
“Efendi Cathber?”, diye fırtına gibi bir suratla bakar yaşlı adama Dridges.
Yaşlı adam omuzlarını silker ve kıza sırıtır.
“Bana onun güvenilir olup olmadığını sordun, o da sana tam olarak ne kadar güvenilir olduğunu söyledi işte. Efendi Hobbit sözünün eridir ve her zaman doğruyu söylemeye meyillidir.”, diye sakince cevap verir Cathber.
Dridges’in kaşları biraz daha çatılır.
“Hobbit mi? Ben hobbit’lerin çok daha nazik olduklarını sanırdım..”, der haşin bir sesle.
“Ben de dwarf’ların çok daha saygılı olduğunu sanırdım.. Belli ki ikimiz de yanılmışız!”, diye cevap verir Brom sırıtarak.
“Seni şuracıkta ikiye katlayabilirim!”, diye tıslar Dridges.
“Benim bir tanemle başa çıkamıyorsun, kızım. Bir de beni ikiye katladığında başına gelecekleri düşün!”, diye acımasızca güler Brom.
“Sen bittin, bücür!”, diye hırlar Dridges.
“Senden korkmamı bekliyorsan, Efendi Cathber’in az evvel bahsettiği torunlarını görünceye kadar bekleyebilirsin.. Evimden ayrıldığım günden beri gördüğüm şeyleri düşündüğümde, senin ‘Top On’ listeme bile girebileceğini sanmıyorum..”, diye haşin bir kahkaha atar genç hobbit.
“Öhöm..”, diye boğazını temizler Efendi Cathber. “Sanırım bu kadarı yeterli.. Efendi Brom? Sevgili Dridges?”
“Neden o ‘Sevgili’ oluyor?”, diye alınmış bir sesle söylenir Brom.
“Neden o ‘Efendi’ oluyor?”, diye harlar Dridges..
“Çünkü sen daha güzelsin, Dridges, ve sen de efendi birisin, Efendi Hobbit.. Yoksa ikiniz konusunda tamamen mi yanılmışım?”, diye sakince sorar Efendi Cathber.
Dridges fena kızmış bir şekilde burnundan solurken genç hobbit ise ağacın arkasından kıkırdayarak çıkar.
Kızarmış suratıyla, “Beni takip edin!”, diye emreder ve dönüp arkasını gider.
İkizlerse Efendi Cathber ve ‘küçük hobbit’in geçmesini beklerler, sonra da ikisinin arkasından yürümeye başlarlar.
“Efendi Cathber.”, diye seslenir bir tanesi. “Hangimizin, hangimiz olduğunu nasıl çıkarabiliyorsun her defasında? Annemiz bile karıştırıyor çoğu zaman.”
“Bu o kadar da zor değil, sevgili Dritmey.”, diye cevap verir yaşlı Cathber arkasına bile bakmadan. “Senin kaşının altında gözün var. Britney’in ise gözünün üstünde kaşı var!”
Arkada ise kafaları karışmış bir sessizlik oluşur.
Efendi Cathber, yanında yürüyen hobbit’e doğru hafif eğilir ve fısıldar.
“Orada biraz şansını zorladın gibi, Efendi Brom.”
“Aaaa.. Bilakis. Daha yeni başlıyoruz, Efendi Cathber!”, diye şeytani bir şekilde sırıtır Brom..
“Buraya bir savaş başlatmaya gelmedik, delikanlı.”, der Cathber.
“Kime karşı savaşacaklar? Bir savaş kampı dolusu dwarf, tek bir hobbit’e mi saldıracaklar? Bunu yaparlarsa bir daha asla ‘onurlarını’ kazanamazlar..”, diye pis bir şekilde sırıtır Brom.
“Hmmm..”, der yaşlı adam. “Yolculuğuna dair bana anlatmadığın bazı şeyler var gibi.”
“Yolculuğum esnasında yaşadığım birçok şeyi size anlatmadın, Efendi Cathber. Bunu biliyordunuz.”, diye cevap verir genç hobbit.
“Evet. Ve hayır. Bana anlattıklarında dürüst ve samimi olduğunu biliyordum, ama eksiklerin de farkındaydım. Bununla beraber, burası ‘küçüklerin’ oyun sahası değil. Yapmayı düşündüğün şey her ne ise, bunu da hesaba katmanı rica ediyorum.”, der Cathber temkinli bir şekilde.
“Burası ‘büyüklerin’ oyun alanı ise, o zaman doğru yerdeyim, Efendi Cathber.”, diye acımasızca cevap verir Brom.
✱ ✱ ✱
Genç Brom, Elder Hills’e açılan dar vadiden Efendi Cathber, Dridges ve ikizler eşliğinde geçtiğinde, tam olarak kendilerine yöneltilmemiş olsa da, vadinin duvarlarında ve tepesinde gizlenmemiş onlarca arbaletli dwarf muhafızı fark etmez bile. Ancak iki saatten biraz daha uzun süren ‘dar’ yürüyüşün sonunda açılan tepelere vardıklarında gördüğü manzara, genç hobbit’in ağzı açık bir şekilde etrafına bakınmasına sebep olacak kadar da ürkütücü gelecektir. Uzun yürüyüş boyunca kimse pek konuşmamış, sadece yaşlı Cathber bir sefer Dridges’e, kendisi gibi bir taktik general eğitimi alan birisinin vardiya görevinde ne işi olduğu sorusu olmuştu.
Dridges’in buna verdiği cevap, kızın gerçekte ne kadar kızmış olduğunu gösterecek kadar sert ve özlü olmuştu.
“Lağımcı yada general, herkes vardiya görevinde bulunur ve kimse de bu görevden muaf değildir. Bu, vardiya görevinin ne denli önemli olduğunu herkese hatırlatmasının yanı sıra, bu en düşük gibi görünen işin nüanslarını unutmasını da engellemiş oluyor zira düşman vardiyalarınızı sessizce aşarsa, ne kadar ordunuz olduğunun pek az önemi kalmış olur. Aldığım eğitimin bana verdiği tek ayrıcalık, vardiya komutanı olmam ve karar ve emirleri benim veriyor olmam. Bu şekilde ben ablalarıma emir vermeyi öğrenirken, ablalarım da sorgusuz sualsiz küçük kız kardeşlerinden ve gocunmadan emir almayı öğreniyorlar..”
Genç Brom bu cevap karşısında biraz hayrete düşer ve hafif arkasını dönerek, hangisinin hangisi olduğunu kestiremediği ikizlerden birisine sorar.
“Eee? Küçük kız kardeşinizden gocunmadan emir alabiliyor musunuz peki?”
Onun bu sorusuna ikizlerden bir tanesi haşince ‘fırk’larken diğeri kıkırdayarak cevap verir.
“Ben ve Drit.. ikimiz de Dridges’den çok daha iyi birer savaşçıyız ve bir muharebede birimiz bile onun kesebileceğinin en az üç misli düşman kesebiliriz..”, der.
“Ama..”, diye devam eder diğeri (Dritmey), “..aynı muharebede Dridges bizi yönlendirirse, bu sayı en az dört misline çıkar. Senin rakamlarla aran nasıl bilmiyorum Efendi Hobbit ama bu bana makul bir takas gibi geliyor. Dolayısıyla hiç gocunmadığımız gibi, gerçekte gocunmak için de bir sebebimiz yok..”
“Dahası..”, diye sözü tekrar alır Britney, “Dridges’i herkes sever. Aramızda en akıllı, en merhametli ve sevgi dolu olanımız o dur. Bana öyle bakma, ufaklık. Ona söylediğin şeyler o an itibariyle komikti. Ama tamamen de yersiz ve isabetsiz idi ve onu kızdıran, gerçekte söylediklerin değil, bir taktik komutanı olarak ‘sükunetini’ kaybetmiş olmasındandı. Taktik generali eğitimi alanların, duyduklarını kontrol edebilmeleri gerekiyor.”
“Sevgili Dridges..”, der Dritmey ve aralarında paslaşıp durdukları sözü devam ettirir. “..pek sevdiği evinden ve özellikle de büyük ablası Lady’den göreceli bir şekilde yeni ayrılıp buraya geldi ve daha bazı şeylere duygusal olarak alışamadı. Sizden ricam, onun üstüne fazla gitmemenizdir..”
“Neden?”, diye sorar Brom, kaşlarını çatarak. “Bu benim sağlığım için kötü mü olur?”
“Hayır. Dridges iyi bir kızdır ve tam bir hanımefendidir. Öyle adice şeyler yapmaz. Onu ne kadar kızdırırsan kızdır, seni tehdit eder ama tehditleri boştur çünkü gerçekte o can yakmayı sevmez. Kendi halinde bırakılmış olsaydı o kızın burada işi olmazdı çünkü o sanatı çok seviyordu. Ama dedemiz Argail Smitefast onun ne kadar zeki, sakin ve sabırlı olduğunu gördü ve eğitim için benzer özellikler gösteren ablasını Serenity Home’a, bir Tapınak Muhafızı olarak, Dridges’i de buraya, bir Taktik Generali olarak yetiştirilmeye gönderdi.”
“Öyle görünüyor ki dedeniz başkalarının hayatlarıyla biraz fazla ‘demir yumruk’ politikası uygulamasını seven bir şahsiyetmiş.”, der Brom ister istemez.
Britney omuzlarını silker.
Dritmey ise biraz kaşlarını çatar.
“Belki.. Ama toplum bir bütündür, Efendi Hobbit. Her ne kadar bireysel tercih ve keyfiyetlerimiz önemli olsa da, toplum var olduğunu sürece bu tercihlerimizin bir anlamı vardır. Dridges duvarlara resim çizmek istiyordu. Dedem ona savaşın yaklaştığını, başladığında ve ortada bir duvar kalmadığında resimlerini nereye çizeceğini sordu. Dridges günlerce ağladı. Ama daha çok çizilecek bir duvarın kalmayışına.. Sonra da toparlanıp buraya geldi. Şimdi ise keyifle resimlerini çizebiliyor artık. Hayatımda gördüğüm en güzel, en ayrıntılı savaş taktik haritaları onun elinden çıkıyor!”
“Dolayısıyla..”, diye lafı alır Britney. “..size kız kardeşimizin üstüne fazla gitmemenizi rica ederken bütün bunları kastediyorduk..”
“..ve tabii..”, diye sırıtarak devam eder Dritmey. “..Dridges bir hanımefendi olabilir.. Ama biz birer hanımefendi değiliz, öyle değil mi, kız?”
“..Ahahahaaa.. Hayır!”, diye haşince ‘fırk’lar Britney. “Hanımefendilik dağıtılırken biz yemekhanede bi şeyler atıştırmakla meşguldük ve geldiğimizde hepsi çoktan bitmişti! Dahası..”
“..sevgili Dridges adîce şeyler yapmaz..”
“..ama biz bunda hiç bi sakınca görmüyoruz!”..
..diye bitirir ikizler, ikisinin de suratında aynı pis sırıtış belirir.
“Ne yani.. ikiye tek mi bana saldıracaksınız?”, diye biraz tırsmış bir şekilde sorar genç hobbit.
“Saldırmak.. çok ağır bir itham, Efendi Hobbit. Biz sadece ve adîce pislik yapmaktan bahsediyoruz…”
“..ve işin en güzel yanı nedir biliyorsun, Efendi Hobbit?”
“Hayır ve içimden bir ses bilmesem de olur, diyor..”, diye tamamen tırsmış bir sesle cevap verir genç hobbit.
“İkiz olmanın en güzel yanı; her zaman seni başka yerlerde görecek şahitlerin olmasıdır!”
Efendi Cathber kıkırdar.
Bu ikisi.. çok adîdir!
İkizler arsızca gülerken geçtikleri dar vadi bitmiş ve Brom hayretle vadinin açıldığı tepeleri görmüştü..
Elder Hills, bir çok tepeden oluşan bir yerdir ancak tepelerin arasında geniş arazileri de vardır ve genç hobbit bu arazilerde binlerce dwarf’ın, farklı bölük ve kıtalar halinde, avazları çıkıncaya kadar bağıran eğitim çavuşlarının emirleri doğrultusunda bir o yana, bir buyana düzenli yada emre göre dağınık gruplar halinde koşuşturmalarına şahit olur!
Gruplardan bazıları ise, kazılmış çukurlarda arbalet atış talimi —ki bir emirle yüzlerce, kısa mızrak boyunda arbalet okunun inleyerek havada uçuşup, toplu bir şekilde ve daha çok gör gürültüsünü andıran bir hışımla da hedeflerini delik deşik etmelerini yada benzer çukurlarda yüzlerce başka dwarf’un birbirlerine dev baltalar, koca kılıçlar yada külçe gürz, çivili topuz ve ağır savaş tokmaklarıyla dalmalarını seyreder..
“Oha..”, diye ünler Brom.
“Sana burasının geleneksel anlamda bir yerleşim yeri olmadığını söylemiştim, Efendi Hobbit.”, diye kıkırdar yaşlı Cathber. “Burası bir savaş eğitim kampı.. Neredeyse bütün Elder Hills böyle.. Burada otuz bine yakın dwarf, sabah akşam, her türlü koşul için eğitim görürler.”
“Peki.. bu kadar dwarf’u kim besliyor?”, diye cılız bir sesle sorar Brom.
“Bir çok yer.. Bazı techizat ve özellikle de arbalet uçlarında kullanılan zırh delici mithral-çeliği ve diğer ucunda değerlendirilen tüyleri Nurturing Heaven elf’lerinden alıyorlar. Ahşap ve kerestelerin neredeyse tamamını Dim Lodge’dan, yiyecek ve lojistiği Serenity Home ve ta Sim Town ve Arashkan’dan, arbalet ve diğer savaş makinelerinin belirgin bir kısmını Tinker Hills gnome’larından, bütün bunları destekleyen ekonomiyi, dwarf gücünü ve kılıç, balta, gürz, zırhlar ve kalkanları da Scowling Hills dwarfları imal edip tedarik ediyorlar.”
“Pe.. peki bütün bunların uyum içerisinde gerçekleşmesi nasıl oluyor? Burada bir çok ırk söz konusu, Efendi Cathber.”, diye hayretle sorar Brom.
“Zamanında.. Çok eskiden.. Bundan neredeyse beş yüz yıl kadar önce, Serenity Home denen kasabanın kurulduğu yere bazı erdemli adamlar ve bilge kadınlar yerleşmeye karar verdiler. Tek istedikleri huzur içerisinde yaşamaktı ama kısa bir sürede de istedikleri huzurun gerçekleşmesi, daha da önemlisi; devam etmesi için, bölgede yaşayan diğer ırklarla aralarında barışın da olmasın önemini gördüler ve aradan geçen yıllarda onlar ve onların çocukları.. ve torunları.. bu ırklarla bazı anlaşmalar yaptılar. Bu anlaşmalardan bazıları ticari, bazıları da askeri anlaşmalardı. İçeriği her ne olursa olsun, Serenity Home yaptığı anlaşmaların kendi payılarına düşen kısmını imtina ile onurlandırdıkları için, diğer ırklarda bu anlaşmaları bozmadılar. En nihayetinde de bu gördüğün yerde, Elder Hills’de bu ‘savaş okulu’ oluştu ve varlığı geçmişte kendisini defalarca ispatladı; Themlasar Savaşından sonra ortaya çıkan dört ayaklanmada da, burada eğitim alan dwarflar varlıklarını onurlu bir şekilde gösterdiler..”, diye anlatır Efendi Cathber, tatmin olmuş bir sesle.
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Yaşlı Cathber’in gelişini dwarf’lar temkinli bir mutlulukla karşılarlar. İşin tenminli yanı genele hitap ederken, mutlu yanı ise Dridge’i karşılaşayan, saçlarının bir yanı kazınmış çarpıcı bir dwarf kadın ve beraberindeki diğer dwarf’larca olur.
“Sevigili Cathber..”, diye muhteşem bir gülümsemeyle yaklaşır dwarf kadın ve hiçbir utanma yada çekingenlik belirtisi göstermeksizin yaşlı adama sarılır ve sesli bir şekilde yanağından öper!
“Sevgili Margaret..”, der yaşlı adam ve gülerek söylenir. “Bluntaxe, genç ve yakışıklı erkeklere sarılıp öptüğünü biliyor mu?”
Margaret’in buna gösterdiği tepkisi biraz ürkütücüdür;
Dwarf kadın, genç bir kız gibi ve kıpkırmızı olmuş bir şekilde kıkırdar!
Kadının etrafındaki diğer dwarflar ise birden, hiçbir şey olmamış gibi tamamen alakasız yerlere bakınmaya başlarlar.
“Hadi gelin.. Tam yemek vaktini yakaladınız.”, der Margaret ve durup muzipçe yaşlı adama bakar. “Aslına bakılırsa her gelişinizde tam yemek vaktini yakalıyor olmanız dikkatimden kaçmış değil!”
Yaşlı adam biraz utanarak güler.
“Bu sadece bir tesadüf, sevgili Margaret. Ve tamamen asılsıl suçlamalarlardan ibaret.”
Margaret tekrar kıkırdar ve topluca şantiye şeklinde inşa edilmiş, Brom’un görebildiği kadarıyla gerektiğinde seri bir şekilde demonte edilip ihtiyaç duyulduğu bir başka yerde tekrar bir araya getirilebilecek onlarca, en olarak yirmi yarda, boy olarak ise elli yarda uzunluğunda tek katlı binalardan birisine götürür. Giderlerken daha kendisini tanıtmamış olan küçük hobbit’in hayrına, Margaret yanındakileri tanıtır.
Bu gördüklerin benim buradaki kızkardeşlerim;
..ve Yulanda Madsteam. Normalde Yulanda burada bek takılmıyor ama Tinker Hills’den yeni gelen bazı makinaların konfigirasyonları yapılmaları gerektiği için geldi buraya. Gnome’ların icatlardan ve cihazlardan bu kadar anlamalarına rağmen, laftan hiç anlamıyor olmaları ne kadar acıklı değil mi?”, diye açıklar Margaret.
Efendi Cathber buna nazikçe bir şey demez.
“Kaç defa kendilerine, imal ettikleri cihazların bize uyumlu olması için gerekli verileri göndermiş olmamıza rağmen, ısrarla kendi ayarlarının daha ‘geçerli ve optimal’ olduğunu iddia edip o şekilde imal etmeleri içler acısı bir durum..
Bunlar da erkek kardeşlerim;
..ve Goric Boarshoulders. Diğerleri ise kızlarım; Dridges, Britney ve Dritmey ile zaten tanıştınız.
Bu da Nikelix Carver. Lillias Absentwhot ve Jeina Blond’da buralarda bir yerlerdeler. Lillas alacaklılar ve birileriyle anlaşıp ‘el sıkışmakla’ ilgili bir şeyler söyleyip duruyordu günlerdir. Oğlanlar burada değiller.”
“Uhhmm.. Bütün kızları getirmişsin neredeyse Margaret..”, diye, kısık ama imalı bir sesle söylenir yaşlı Cathber.
Margaret’in yüzü hiçbir şekilde kızarmaz. Tam aksine ciddi bir ifadeyle cevap verir buna.
“Akraba evliliklerini hiçbir zaman tasvip etmemişimdir. Doğan çocuklar biraz çatlak oluyorlar. Buradaki ‘stok’ sağlıklı ve güvenilir. Ordu eğitimi de olsa en azından bir eğitimden geçmiş durumdalar. Tamamı okuma yazma biliyor ve neredeyse hepsi en az iki dil, ve bir ana meslek, bir de destek mesleğe sahip.”, diye açıklar. Sonra anlaşmışlar gibi esefle toplu bir şekilde gözlerini yuvarlayan kızlarına bakar ve burnundan soluyarak açıkça bir şekilde onları tehdit eder. “Eğer beni utandırırsanız, eve dönünce hepinizin saçlarını yolarım ona göre. Burada olduğumuz süre boyunca hepinizden birer ‘kız’ gibi davranmanızı istiyorum ve eve döndüğümüzde de en az yarınızın yanında size kene gibi yapışmış bir erkeğin olmasını bekliyorum. Erkek kılığında bir odun olsa da olur. Bana torun verin yeter!”
“Babam da mı sana bir kene gibi yapışmıştı anne?”, diye muzipçe sorar kızlardan biri —Nikelix Carver.
Margaret kaşlarını çatar.
“Babanla ben elli iki saat balta ve topuzla birbirimize vurmaya çalıştık. Ben çok uğraştım ama en sonunda onun bana vurmak için değil, sadece topuzumu kendisine isabet ettirmemi engellemek için balta savurduğunu anlayınca kendisiyle evlenmeye karar verdim. Aranızda o kadar taşaklı onanınız varsa, lütfen, size engel olmayayım.. Gidip o erkeği bulun!”, diye hırlar.
“Anne!”, diye hayret ve utançla inler Dridges.
İkizler yine kıkırdarlar.
“Çok ayıp ama anne.. Hele yabancıların yanında öyle konuşulur mu?”
“Söylesene bana, Dridges.. Sen kaç çocuk doğurdun? Dahası, o kavga olurken, Efendi Cathber de yan masada oturmuş bizi seyrediyordu!”
Dridges kıpkırmızı olmuş bir şekilde susar.
“Siz de ne her şeye kıkırdıyorusunuz, pembe elf kızları gibi?!”, diye ikizleri de bir güzel haşlar Margaret.
“Şu babam değil mi?!”, diye ünler Nikelix birden ve aksi istikamete işaret eder.
Margaret, yüzünde hayet ifadesiyle kızın gösterdiği yöne bakar ama orada kimseyi göremez. Kaşları çatılı bir şekilde geri döndüründe Nikelix tüymüştür!
İkizler aynı anda ‘fırk’lar.
Dridges’den garip, ‘hık’ sesleri duyulur.
Brom suratını büzüştürürken Efendi Cathber ise, yüz yılların verdiği engin tecrübelerine sığınır, ve herhangi bir ses çıkarmamayı başarır.
“Nikelix..”, diye burnundan solur Margaret ve ancak bir annenin sahip olabileceği bir sevgi ile karışık hiddetle döner ve yemekhane şantiyesine doğru yürümeye başlar.
“Margaret hanım.. Burada sözü geçen biri, sanırım?”, diye fısıldayarak sorar Brom, Efendi Cathber’e.
“Öyle de denebilir. Babasının Argail Smitefast olduğunu, Smitefast’in de Scowling Hills’in defacto lideri olduğu düşünürsek.. Şunu anlamalısın, Efendi Brom; Argail Efendi, Sim Town’dan ta Endless Sea denizine, Ritual Ormanlarının kuzeyindeki Rook dağlarından da ta Tinker Hill’in güneyine kadar ki engin topraklardaki bütün dwarf’lardan sorumludur ve iyi kötü hepsine sözü geçer. Halihazırda kızının politik gücü o kadar değil ama teknik olarak o da söz konusu dwarf’lardan sorumlu. Bu, yabana atılabilecek bir güç değil. Buna rağmen ne sevgili Margaret, ne de babası Argail Smitefast bu gücü kötüye kullanmamış ve komşularıyla her zaman iyi ve adaletli geçinmeyi tercih etmişlerdir.”, diye yüzünde ciddi bir ifadeyle anlatır Cathber.
Bunu duyan genç hobbit, kaşları çatılı ve gözleri de kısılmış bir şekilde Margaret Madish’i takip eder zira aradığı kişiyi bulmuştur..
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Margaret Madish yemekhane kapısından içeri girince etrafını süzer, sonra da yemek sırasına girer. Kızları, kız kardeşleri ve Efendi Cathber’da peşinden sıraya girince Brom’da hayretle etrafına bakınarak peşlerinden sıraya girer.. Yemek sırası, genç hobbit’in hayatında daha önce hiç görmediği bir mefhumdur ve kocaman kazanların başında durmuş dwarf aşçıların, herkesin tabaklarına tamamen aynı yemekten ve aynı miktarda koyuşunu hayretle izler. Dwarflar da gıklarını çıkarmadan içinde dört çukuru olan, dikdörtgen şeklindeki tabaklarını alırlar, diğer çukurlara da meyve, tatlı ve ekmek doldururlar, birer çatal, birer kaşık ve bir tane de bıçak alarak gidip masalardan birine çömerler.
Sıra Brom’a geldiğinde iri dwarf aşçı ona iki kaşı da kalmış bir şekilde bakar. Brom’da aşçının kendisine bakmasına bakar ve öylece durur. İkisinin de bir birlerine bakışmaları sonucundan düzeli bir şekilde hareket eden sıra da bir anda duruverir.
“Evlat. Daha ne kadar orada durup bana bakmaya devam edeceksin?”, diye sorar tozlu bir sesle aşçı.
“Bilmem. Siz bana baktığınız için ben de size baktım.”, der Brom hiçbir şey anlamamış gibi.
“Tabildotun.. Uzatırsan içine yemek koyabilirim!”, der aşçı kaşlarını çatarak.
“Tabildot?”, diye sorar genç hobbit.
Aşçı esefle dolu derin bir soluk verir.
“Çaylak..”, der, bu her şeyi açıklıyormuş gibi.
Aşçının kendisine ‘çaylak’ demesiyle, hemen yanındaki dwarf’da ‘çaylak..’, der, elindeki kendi boş tabildotunu ona uzatır ve bir anda sıra boyunca bütün dwarflar, bir sağındaki dwarf’a ‘çaylak..’, der ve sıra boyunca bütün dwarflar ellerindeki tabildotu bir solundaki dwarf’a uzatır!
“Evet. Artık bir tabildotun var.. Şimdi onu bana uzatırsan, artık bu aç askerleri doyurabilirim..”, der aşçı.
Kıpkırmızı olmuş bir şekilde Brom tabildotunu uzatır, aşçı da tabildottaki en büyük çukura iri kepçesiyle yoğun et ve fasülyeli bir şey boşaltır.
“Ummm.. Tek alternatifim bu mu?”, diye sorar tabildotundaki yemeğe bakarak.
“Yemekten hoşlanmazsan, çıkıştaki ‘şikayet kutusuna’ derdini anlatan bir mektup bırakabilirsin. Ama bunun sana pek de bir faydası olmaz zira şikayetleri okuyacak vaktim yok!”, der aşçı, yüzünde haşin bir sırıtışla!
Brom somurtarak ilerler ve elmalı turtamsı bir şey olması gereken tatlıdan alır, biraz setleşmiş elmalardan ve son kullanma tarihi geçmek üzere olan bir de ayran alır.
Bu sırada yemeklerini almış olan Margaret ve taifesi, neredeyse tamamı çoktan dolmuş yemekhanede boş gördükleri, gerilerdeki masalardan birisine doğru yönlenirler.
Masaların yanından geçerken, ne zaman geri geldiği anlaşılamayan Nikelix, bir anda tabildotuyla yanlarında belirir, Dridges’e göz kırpar, ikizlere sırıtır, sonra döndüğü gibi yan masadaki dwarf’lardan birinin eline çatalını saplar!
Masada oturan dwarf bir anda ‘offf’ diye inler ve çatala uzanır ama Nikelix çatılı olduğu yerde tutmaya devam eder. İkizlere verdiği sırıtışın aynını dwarf’a da verir ve acıdan kıvranan cücenin kulağına eğilir, “Kalçamı istiyorsan, gerisini de alman gerekir. Buna gözün kesmiyorsa ellerine hakim olmayı öğrenmelisin Torkan!”, diye mutlu bir şekilde tıslar..
Masada oturan diğer dwarf’ların hepsi iri kahkahalarla gülmeye başlarlar.
Brom hayretle başını sallar ve kendi ellerinin bu kaçık dwarf kızlardan olabildiğince uzak olduğundan emin olmak istiyormuş gibi sımsıkı tabildotunu kavrar ve küçük bir hamster gibi Efendi Cathber’in peşinden ilgili masaya doğru koşturur.
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Doğrusunu söylemek gerelirse Genç Brom, Elder Hills dwarf’larını biraz fazla ‘heyecanlı’ ve hırçın bir ırk olarak bulsa da yine de onların sıcak ve cana yakın halleri, bıyık altı espri anlayışları ve sımsıkı birbirine kenetlenmiş ‘aile yapıları’, istemese de hoşuna gider. Yemekler için aynı şeyleri söyleyemez ama. Fevkalade besleyici olmakla beraber, dwarf yemeklerinin tadı kendi standartlarına göre, aynı fevkaladelikle ‘berbattır’!
Dwarf’lar, olağandışı bir şekilde sessizce ve tam anlamıyla da ‘ortalarında’ oturan hobbit’i umursamazlık etmezler ve nezaket kurallarını ihlal etmeyecek şekilde ona bakışlar atarlar ama ona bulaşmazlar. Bununla beraber, aralarında yaptıkları espriler de bir şekilde onun anlayacağı ve onu da güldürecek şekilde olmasına dikkat ediyor gibidirler.
Dridges arada bir ona sert bakışlar atarken, emredilmişler gibi ikizler ise onu aralarına almış, konuşmalar esnasında geçenlerin ‘açıklamalarını’ ve ‘yorumlarını’ aktarıp dururlar genç hobbit’e.
Uzun, kıvırcık kızıl saçlı Marideth ona gülümseyerek göz kırparken, Quin Stabsez ise ona, sanki biraz fazlalığı varmış da onları nasıl alırım, gözüyle bakar. Masanın en ucunda Yulanda Madsteam, yemek öncesi, yemek esnasında ve yemek sonrası ağzından eksik etmediği pis kokan, tütün sarmasıyla sessizce oturmayı tercih ederken muhabbetin merkezinde Yor Whatoo.. teyze? abla? adam? —Brom bu dwarf’un ne olduğunu tam olarak çıkaramaz ama sormaya da korkar. Oldukça iri cüsseli olan Yor’un yüzündeki tüyleri açıkça bir erkek olduğunu söylerken, davranışları ve herkese ‘Şekerim!’ diye hitap etmesi başka bir şeyler söylemektedir. Yor.. Teyze.. büyük bir iştahla ne kadar dedikodu varsa kendisine has üslubuyla mutlu bir şekilde ortaya saçar ve yan masalardaki dwarf’lar dahil hepsini gülmekten kırıp geçirir. Efendi Cathber bile en sonunda “Yor Teyze, yeter! Bu yaşlı adamı öldürmek mi istiyorsun?”, diye inler.
“Aaaa.. Hikayenin asıl lezzetli yerine gelmedik daha, şekerim!”, diye söylenir Yor Teyze ve bu da yeni bir kahkaha zincirine sebep olur.
“Evet..”, der Margaret en sonunda. “Sanırım hepimiz yedik, içtik, doyduk, dolduk ve güldük.. Elder Hills’de sizi tekrar görmek çok hoş, Efendi Cathber. Ama sizin iki hafta önce burada olmanızı tercih ederdik. Bize büyük yardımınız dokunmuş olurdu.”
“Neler oluyor, Margaret?”, diye birden ciddileşiverir yaşlı Cathber.
Margaret derin bir nefes alır.
“İki hafta önce birileri gizlice buraya girmeye çalıştılar. Üç farklı noktadan. Ve söz konusu üç noktadaki muhafızları da öldürerek bunu gerçekleştirdiler. Bu şahıslar buraya, Elder Hills ordu karargahına girip gizli bazı bilgilerimizi aşırdılar. Ancak hata yaptılar ve fark edildiler. Bir kısmı kaçmaya çalışırken diğerleri ise geride kalıp, ellerinden geldiği kadar çok gürültü ve hasar vermeye çalıştılar ve bunu da başardılar. Yine de sonunda öldürüldüler.. Ve evet, sen sormadan ben söyleyeyim, canlı yakalamaya çalıştık ama saldırıları bunu imkansız hale getirdi. Kaçanların peşlerine takıldık ve onları da öldürdük. En azından o zaman bu kanaate varmıştık. Nevarki çalınan evraklar imtina ile elden geçirilince, bazılarının eksik olduğunu fark ettik. Bu, ciddi bazı sorunlara sebep oldu. O belgelerde önemi bazı bilgiler vardı. Bizlerde o bilgilerin güvenlik açığı olarak aleyhimize kullanılamaması için, hemen yeni düzenlemeler getirdik. Korkarım yeni protokoller daha oturmadığı gibi, yeni uygulamalar da kendi sorunlarını beraberinde getirdi. Ortada tam anlamıyla bir güvenlik kaosu var, senin anlayacağın.”, diye anlatır haşin bir sesle kadın.
“Bu.. hem hayret verici, hem de fevkalade üzücü bir durum. Ben.. son bir yıldır bazı işlerim dolayısıyla ormanın bir ucundan diğerine koşturmak durumunda kaldım ve işim de daha bitmedi. Dim Lodge oduncuları bana, ‘kereste almak için’ geldiklerini söyleyen yeni bazı şahısların olduğunu, ancak herhangi birisinin daha tek bir dal bile almadıklarını söylediler. Elflerle görüşme fırsatım olmadığı için onların fark ettiği bir şeyler var mı bilemiyorum.”, diye işin kendi tarafını anlatır Cathber.
“Hmmm..”, diye söylenir Margaret düşünceli bir şekilde.
“Size tavsiyem, devriyelerinizin sıklığını ve mesafesini en az ikiye katlayın. Tercihen üç günlük mesafeye..”, diye önerir Efendi Cathber.
“Üç gün.. bu devriyelerin merkezle görüşebileceği yada haber ulaştırabileceği mesafenin üç katı..”, der dwarf kadın.
“Bu benim tavsiyem, Margaret. Ama devriyeleri yeterince sık aralıklarla çıkarırsanız yola, sanıyorum bu iletişim sorunuzu çözecektir.”
“Ve devriye masraflarımızı da en az on iki ile on altı katına çıkaracaktır.”, diye kaynar Margaret.
“Bu konuda Serenity izcileriyle iletişime geçebilirsiniz. Onların Elder Hills’in doğusunu taramalarını isterseniz, en azından bu devriye masraflarını biraz azaltacaktır. O izcileri sessizce geçip size doğudan yaklaşılması oldukça güç.”, der Cathber.
“Adi şerefsiz köpekler!”, diye köpürür Margaret birden. “Ortada hiçbir provokasyon olmadığı halde saldırdı onursuz çapulcular..”
“Onurmuş!”, diye bi laf kaçar birden Brom’un ağzından..
..ve bütün yemekhane sessizliğe bürünür.
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Margaret Madish’in gözleri bir anda hiddetle parlar ve masanın öbür tarafında ve az ilerisinde oturan küçük hobbit’e bakar. Genç Brom’un sağında ve solunda oturan ikizler ise sanki görünmek istemiyorlarmış gibi kıpırdamadan öylece dururlar oturdukları yerde.
“Bir şey mi dediniz, Efendi Hobbit?”, diye burnundan solur Margaret.
“Evet, dedim.”, diye huysuzca cevap verir Brom.
“Yanlış anlamış mıyım, acaba? Buraya geldiniz. Adınızı bile daha vermemiş olmanıza rağmen, sizi soframıza misafir ettik, afiyetle yemeğimizi yediniz, muhabbetimize şahitlik ettiniz ve siz, Efendi Hobbit, bizim onurumuzu mu sorguluyorsunuz?”, diye sessizce sorar dwarf kadın.
“Adımı vermedim, çünkü sormadınız. Sofranıza misafir ettiğiniz için ben de yemekleriniz hakkında yorum bile yapmadan yedim. Ama beni bu iki bayan arasına sıkıştırarak, bana şüpheli muamelesi yaptınız. Siz bana söyleyin, Margaret hanım, doğru anlamış mıyım?”, der Brom haşin bir şekilde.
Margaret Madish’in gözleri kısılır.
Efendi Cathber ise sesini çıkarmaz.
“Neden onurumuzu sorguladığınızı bize açıklar mısınız? Size ne gibi bir yanlışımız oldu da bizi ve onurumuzu sorguluyorsunuz?”, diye kaynayan bir sesle sorar Madish.
“Siz.. Sim Town’dan Endless Sea denizine, Rook dağlarından da Tinker Hills’in güneyine kadar uzanan topraklardaki bütün dwarf’lardan sorumlu değil misiniz?”, diye sorar aynı haşin sesle genç hobbit.
“Bu biraz fazla muallak bir tanımlama oldu, Efendi Hobbit zira bahsettiğiniz topraklarda birçok dwarf yaşıyor.”, der Margaret.
“Dwarf’larının sorumluluğunu üstlenemeyen sizinle neden konuşuyorum ki o zaman? Bana gerçek sorumluyu gösterin.”, diye kendi gözleri kısılmış bir şekilde cevap verir Brom.
Margaret Madish’in yüzü kıpkırmızı kesilir.
“Aradığınız kişi, babam Argail Smitefast’dir ama kendisi şu anda burada değiller. Bununla beraber, onun sorumlulukları, benim sorumluluklarımdır. Size tavsiyem kendinizi açıklamanızdır zira bu masadan ya ikimiz de canlı kalkacağız, yada sadece birimiz kalkıp gideceğiz!”, der fırtına gibi bir ifadeyle.
“Siz misafirlerinizi hep böyle tehdit mi edersiniz? Ve bana onurdan bahsediyorsunuz! Öyle olsun bakalım..”, diye sessizce yanmaya başlar Brom.
Sonra, yavaşça ayağa kalkar ve herkesin göreceği şekilde oturduğu bankın üstüne çıkar ve dwarf kadına işaret ederek bağırır;
“Madem dwarf’larınızdan siz sorumlusunuz ve kendileri burada olmadığı için Argail Smitefast adına konuştuğunuzu söylüyorsunuz, o zaman, Margaret Madish, sizi, bundan yaklaşık bir buçuk yıl önce Gulls Perch’de gerçekleştirilen fey cinayetlerinden sorumlu tutuyor ve suçlu buluyorum!”
Bütün yemekhane ayağa kalkar.
Ortamda ne kadar dwarf varsa hepsinin ellerinde baltaları, kılıçları, topuzları olduğu halde kapkara olmuş suratlarla hobbit’in olduğu yere yürümeye başlarlar.
“Margaret.”, der Efendi Cathber sakince. “Efendi Hobbit benim dostum. Ona burada bir şey olursa, Elder Hills’in kepenklerini indirmek zorunda kalırsınız ve ben bununla da yetinmem.”
Margaret hayretle Brom’a, sonra da yaşlı Cathber’e bakar.
“Sizi dostum sanmıştım Efendi Cathber.”, diye fena halde kırılmış bir şekilde fısıldar Margaret.
“Ve bu konuda da her zaman haklıydın, sevgili Margaret zira ben hala ver her zaman senin dostunum. Ama genç hobbit’in ithamlarını cevapsız bırakamazsın ve susturamazsın.”, diye nazikçe cevap verir yaşlı adam.
Margaret kaşlarını çatar, sonra bir elini kaldırır ve bütün dwarf’lar oldukları yerde dururlar.
“Bu fevkalade ciddi bir itham, Efendi Hobbit. Bizim Gulls Perch ile herhangi bir ilişkimiz yada alıp veremediğimiz yok. Orası bize ait değil, asla da olmadı. Orada fey’ler yaşar ve bizler de onların yanlız bırakılma isteğine saygı gösterir ve onlara bulaşmayız. Orası bize yasak!”, der Margaret.
“O zaman bana açıklar mısınız? Bundan 1 yıl, 6 ay ve 28 gün önce dwarf’larınızın orada ne işi vardı?”, diye gırtlağını yırtarcasına haykırır genç hobbit. “Makinaları ile maden ve değerli taş çıkarmak için oradaydılar ve zehirli atıklarını vadinin sularına boşaltarak oradaki bir çok fey’in ölmesine sebep oldular.. O dwarf’lar ve beraberlerinde getirdikleri paralı fedaileriyle savaşmak zorunda kaldım ve bu bana çok pahalıya mal oldu!”
Margaret bir anda bir şeye uyanmış gibi gözleri de, omuzları da çöker..
“Bu dwarf’lar.. sorumluluğumuz olan toprakların dışından gelmiş olabilirler, Efendi Hobbit.”, diye konuşur ama sesinde belirgin bir umutsuzluk var gibidir.
“Mad Ussa!”, diye hırlar Brom. “Başlarındaki ve elimden kurtulmayı başaran tek dwarf’un adı buydu! Bu isim size tanıdık geliyorsa ve azıcık onurunuz varsa bunu itiraf edersiniz!”
Margaret Madish’in bir anda beti benzi atar ve içi boşalmış su tulumu gibi ezilir.
O masadaki bütün dwarf’lar bir anda çökerler..
“Bu ismi biliyoruz, Efendi Hobbit.”, der Margaret sessizce.
“Sizin dwarf’larınızdandı demek!”, diye köpürür Brom.
“Evet. Bir zamanlar bizim dwarf’larımızdandı.. Romilus “Mad” Ussa.. benim oğlumdu..”
“Ve hayvanın da tekiydi..”, der yan taraftan Dridges ağlamaklı bir sesle. “Ablam burada olsaydı kahrolurdu şimdi.”
Brom ise çoktan kahrolmuş bir suratla iki dişi dwarf’a da bakar..
..ve kendi omuzları da çöker..
..zira aradığı suçluları bulmuştur, ama istediği adaleti bulamayacaktır.
“Bu.. size neye mal oldu, Efendi Hobbit? Mümkünse telafi etmek isteriz.”, der Margaret dolu gözlerler.
Genç Brom öylece Margaret Madish’e bakar..
..ve olduğu yerde titreyip hıçkırmaya başlar.
“Bana mal olanı ödeyemezsiniz, Margaret hanım. Mad Ussa benden Aremela’mı aldı.. ve o paha biçilmez, tertemiz bir ruhtu..”, der..
..ve bir anda tamamen dağılır.
Brom Bumblebrim, son 1 yıl, 6 ay ve 28 gün boyunca içinde sakladığını, bastırıp unuttuğunu, sindirip sildiğini sandığı kaybı, kahrı, utancı ve acısı bir anda ve tamamen kurtulur ondan ve küçük bir çocuk gibi ağlamaya başlar.
“Senin Mad Ussa’n onu öldürürken, o katiline değil, benim yüzüme bakmayı seçti. O.. o kadar saf.. ve sevgi dolu bir kızdı ki.. Beni kurtarmak için kendi hayatını feda etti.. Bunun nasıl bir telafisi olabilir ki?”
Margaret Madish kırılmış bir anne olarak, olduğu yerden, hıçkırıklarla ağlayan küçük hobbit’e bakar.
Yaşlı Cathber ise, boşlukları en sonunda doldurulmuş hikaye ile ne yapacağını düşünüyor gibidir.
Dridges çöktüğü yerden kalkar, masanın etrafından dolanır ve genç hobbit’in yanına gelir. Yüzleri buruşmuş olan ikizler kenara çekilirler ve kız kardeşleri küçük hobbit’e sarılır.
“Ben.. bir zamanlar abim olan Ussa’nın yaptıklarından dolayı ne kadar özür dileyeceğimi bile bilmiyorum. Ussa’nın aramızdan kovulmasının sebebi bendim halbuki. Yıllar önce beni ve Lady ablamı içeren ahmakça bir işe kalkıştı ve bunun sonucunda da topraklarımızdan sürüldü.. Belli ki ona vermemiz gereken ceza bununla kalmamalıydı.”
Brom sakince Dridges’in kollarından kurtulur ve kızın annesine, Margaret Madish’e yaklaşır.
“Gulls Perch fey’lerinin kaybını telafi edemeyiz. Ama bir şekilde bunun, ödeyebileceğimiz bir karşılığı olmalı, Efendi Hobbit”, diye önünde dikilmiş ve kendisine acımasızca bakan küçük hobbit’e yalvarır Margaret.
“Yapılan cinayetlerin bir karşılığı yok, Argail Smitefast kızı Margaret Madish..”, der Brom gözleri gibi acımasız kelimelerle.
Genç hobbit’in sesinde ürkütücü ve hayret uyandıran bir güç vardır sanki ve etrafındaki herkes korkuyla büyülenmiş bir şekilde bakarlar ona.
“Ama size ait olana eksik verdiğiniz cezayı telafi edebilirsiniz.”
“Nasıl?”, diye sorar Margaret, kerpiç gibi olmuş bir ifadeyle..
“Katilin annesi olarak sen ve onurun.. Gulls Perch’e geleceksiniz ve orada kaderinizle yüzleşeceksiniz. Çocuklarınız da Gulls Perch’e herhangi bir başka ölümlünün bir daha izinsiz girmesini engellemek için vadinin girişine, fey’lerin uygun gördüğü yer ve mesafeye bir karakol kuracaklar ve her yıl, her gün ve her saat orayı koruyacaklar. Bu artık sizin boyun borcunuz ve onurunuz olacak. Sözünüzde durduğunuz sürece kaderiniz devam edecek. Onurunuzdan döndüğünüz günde ise kaderiniz bitecek!”, diye yankılanır Brom’un kati sesi tüm şantiyede.
Masadaki herkes ve yemekhanedeki bütün dwarf’lar dehşet ve korkuyla küçük hobbit’e bakarlar zira bunlar, Argail Smitefast kızı Margaret Madish’den istenebilecek ezici taleplerdir ama seslerini çıkaramazlar ve kıpırdayamazlar çünkü sesin kendisinde de ezici bir güçtür vardır..
Efendi Cathber kısılmış gözlerle küçük hobbit’e bakar ve sessizce fısıldar;
Margaret Madish ise sadece başını eğer ve “Kabul.”, der.
“Sana sunulan kadere boyun eğip senden talep edilenleri kabul ediyor musun, Margaret Madish?”, diye sorar Brom, haşin bir sesle.
“Kabul ediyorum.”, der Margaret.
“Oğlunun cürümü karşılığında ödemeyi kabul ettiğin cezayı çekmeyi göze alıyor musun, Margaret Madish?”, diye sorar Brom, acımasızca.
“Kabul ediyorum.”, der kadın sessizce.
“Oğlun bizden pek sevdiğimiz canları aldı. Onun bizden aldığı sevgililerimiz karşılığında onu ve cezasını bize bırakmayı kabul ediyor musun, Argail Smitefast kızı Margaret Madish?”, diye sorar Brom, zalimce..
“K.. Kabul ediyorum..”, der Madish ve kadının hıçkırıkları duyulur.
“O zaman seni ve onurunu, bir ay ve bir gün içerisinde, vadimizin girişinde bekliyor olacağız!”, der Brom..
..ve dolu gözler, boş bir ruh, yıkık bir dünya ve kırık bir kalple oradan ve Elder Hills’den ayrılır çünkü bir çift lafını söylemiştir.
Bu hikaye, Brom Bumblebrim adındaki, Bowling Hill’de yaşayan kendi ırkının diğer bütün üyeleri gibi ‘normal’ ve hayatını olabildiğince keyifli ve tembel geçiren bir hobbit’in, beklenmedik bir şekilde ne idüğü belirsiz bir şey tarafından ısırılmasıyla başlar.
Genç hobbit’i her ne ısırdı ise, o günden sonra Brom bir türlü yerinde duramaz ve en sonunda, gecenin alakasız bir yarısında, eski arkadaşı ve aile dostu olan Gamwise Samgee’ye evini ve gülleri emanet ettiğine dair bir not bırakarak yollara koyulur. Uzun bir gece boyunca nereye gittiğini bilmeksizin, öylece, istikametsiz bir şekilde yürür durur..
16.05.7591 B.Y.S (-16 Yıl) Mayıs ortası. Ritual Ormanları..
Güzel, naif bir aile.. Ve kızları, küçük Morel, pek şeker bi şeydi. Muhteşem bir hayal gücü var. Bana büyüyünce, teyzesini öldüren kurtlara karşı savaşan ateşli bi savaşçı olacağını söyledi. Sonra da beraber oynadığımız teatral hikayede şövalyeyi canlandırdı.”, der Brom sessizce.
Yaşlı Efendi Cathber eşliğinde Brom, ertesi sabah erkenden Dim Lodge’dan ayrılmışlar ve geniş çaprazlar çizerek batıya yönelmişlerdi. Oduncu köyünden ayrılmalarından sonra yaşlı adam sabırlı bir sessizliğe bürünmüş ve inatla ilk konuşanın Brom olmasını beklemişti sanki.. Yaşlı adamla yeterince uzun bir süredir beraber olan genç hobbit, adamın bu hamlesinin farkına varır ve karşıt bir sessizlik içerisine girer ancak yedi yüz küsür yaşındaki ‘hafif deli’ adamın ezici sabrı karşısında yenik düşer.. Yada yenik düşmeyi tercih eder, çünkü nezaket bunu gerektirir!
Yaşlı Cathber ise sessizliği ilk bozan Brom’a bu konuda bir şey söylemez, sadece kendi kendisine gülümsemekle yetinir —çünkü kendisine tekabül eden nezaket de bunu gerektirir..
“Eee..?”, diye sorar yaşlı adam. “Sevgili küçük Morel şövalyeyi oynadıysa, sen kimi canlandırdın?”
Brom derin, esef dolu bir nefes verir.
“Hikayenin sonda kurtarılan prensesi!”
Yaşlı adam kıkırdar..
“Teyzesi.. Seraphim.. Gerçekten kurtlar mı öldürdü onu?”, diye yine sessizce sorar Brom.
Esefle dolu nefes verme sırası yaşlı adama geçmiş gibidir.
“Seraphim Silverdûne.. Tel’Shee dim’Ora’ – Nurturing Heaven, buranın hemen batısındaki orman elf köyünde doğmuş, peri kızı gibi bir elf’di.. Başından kum gibi dökülen altın saçlı, gülümsediğinde güneş gibi açan, ince ruhlu, tertemiz bir kalbi olan, cesur, gördüğüm nadir kızlardan biriydi ve küçük Morel’in annesi, Seleina’nın da pek yakın arkadaşıydı.. Sanırsın ki elf’ler elf’lerle, insanlar da insanlarla birlikte olurlar.
Seraphim mantar, Seleina’da biberiye toplarken ormanda hasbel kader karşılaştılar ve beklenmedik bir şekilde, iki topluluk da komşu olmalarına, ticaret dışında da hiçbir etkileşimleri olmamasına rağmen arkadaş, dost, sırdaş ve ‘kız kardeş’ oldular.
Ormancılar bu durumu pek de umursamadılar. Bu onların çok da tahammülkar olmalarından değil, işleri dışında pek az şeyle ilgilenmelerinden dolayıydı. Elf’ler ise.. Elf’ler, Seraphim’in bir ‘insan’la arkadaşlık etmesini hiç hoş karşılamadılar ve ona yaptırım uygulamaya kalktılar. Ama o bunlara boyun eğmedi ve arkadaşı ve sırdaşı olan Seleina’dan vaz geçmedi ve en nihayetinde de tabusal uzaklaştırmaya mahküm edildi..
Zavallı Seraphim buruk bir şekilde evinden ve elf’lerden ayrıldı ve Dim Lodge’a ve Seleina’nın ailesiyle beraber yaşamaya başladı.. ve Aramsis’in ağabeyi olan Darien’e vuruldu.. Darien ise Seraphim’i ilk gördüğü andan itibaren gözü başka hiçbir şey görmez olmuştu zaten. Bir anlamda, bir ailenin iki çocuğu olan iki erkek kardeş, bir başka ailenin iki çocuğu olan iki ‘kız kardeş’le evlenmiş oldular..”
Efendi Cathber uzun bir süre sessizliğe bürünür.
“Sonra ne oldu?”, diye merakla sorar Brom.
“Sonra.. Seraphim ve Darien’in, Laila adında fevkalade güzel bir kızları oldu ve Seraphim kendi köyünden uzaklaştırılmasından beri ilk defa, ve bir anne olarak tekrar bir güneş gibi parlamaya başladı.. Genç Darien’i görmeliydin. Sanıyorum gururdan biraz daha kasılmış olsaydı, kırılıp ortadan ikiye bölünecekti.. Eşi ve kızını o kadar seven gördüğüm nadir erkeklerden biriydi ve bence gurulanmakta da haklıydı.. Kardeşi Aramsis ve Seleina ise o kadar şanslı olmadılar zira zavallı Seliena iki defa düşük yaptı. Sevgili, küçük Morel’e ebelik yapmamın da sebebi biraz bundan kaynaklanıyordu. Sevgili Seliana’yı pek seviyordum ve kendi elde edemediğimi onun sahip olmasını çok istiyordum..”
“Darein ve Seraphim’in kızı, Laila.. ona da mı sen ebelik yaptın?”, diye sorar Brom.
Cathber’den buna uzun bir süre cevap gelmeyince Brom kahkayı basar.
“Muhteşem Gökler adına, Dim Lodge’da ebelik yapmadığın biri var mı, senin?”, diye gülerek sorar genç hobbit.
“Lütfen, Efendi Hobbit.. Öyle deyince kulağa hiç hoş gelmiyor. Dim Lodge oduncuları dünyanın en naif insanları sayılmazlar. Ancak oradalar ve benim açımdan pek önemli olan bir görevi icra ediyorlar..”, diye söylenir yaşlı adam.
“Nedir o görev?”
“Dimwoods elf’lerinin, kendi dünyalarına çekilip çevreleriyle, dolayısıyla da dünyanın geri kalanıyla da olan etkileşimlerinin kesilmesini sırf varlıklarıyla engellemiş oluyorlar.”, diye açıklamaya çalışır Efendi Cathber.
“Dur bir dakika..”, der Brom ve kafasında hızlı bir hesap yapar ama denklemin bir sonuca varması için gerekli bir hanesi eksiktir. “Dim Lodge, ne zamandır orda duruyor?”
“Bayadır.. Neden sordun?”, der Cathber biraz temkinli bir şekilde.
“Ahhaaa! Hiçbir yerin ortasındaki o köy.. Themalsar savaşından sonra kuruldu, öyle değil mi?”, diye sorar Brom.
“Evet.. Ne olmuş ki? Themalsar savaşı oldukça uzun yüz yıllar önce oldu.. Ve o köyün kurulduğu yer de ‘hiç bir yer’ değil.”, diye alınmış sesle cevap verir yaşlı adam.
“O köyün kurulmasını sen sağladın!”, diye ünler Brom birden.
“Ben.. uhhmm.. bu konuda bazı şahsiyetleri.. ikna etmiş olabilirim.. zamanında..”, diye, cılız, utanmış bir ifadeyle söylenir Cathber.
“Muhteşem Gökler adına! Bu ormanda elinin değmediği bir şey var mı?”, diye hayretle sorar genç hobbit.
“Vardır, herhalde.. Orman mütemadiyen nefes alan ve değişken bir bütündür.”, diye geçiştirmeye çalışır yaşlı adam.
“Ama neden?”, diye sorar genç hobbit.
“Uhhmm.. sorduğun soru biraz muallak, Efendi Hobbit. Biraz daha spesifik sorarsan sanki kendimi daha az utandırmış olacağım.”, diye söylenir Cathber.
“Peki o zaman.”, der Brom. “Neden orada, hiçbir yerin kıç kıyısında bir köy kurdurttun ve neden her yerde parmağın var?”
“Uhhmm.. Öncelikle, ‘hiçbir yerin kıç kıyısı’ ifadene alındım. O bölge ağaç bakımından fevkalde verimli bir bölge. İşlenen ağaçlardan elde edilen kerestelerden ev, mobilya, at arabası, gemi, silah, mancınık ve daha bir çok şeyde kullanılabilecek üç farklı ağaç türünün uyum içerisinde yetiştiği bir bölge. Diğer sebebini zaten söyledim. Elf’ler biraz fazla kendi içlerine kapanmaya başlamışlardı. Themalsar Savaşında bunun zararlarını çok acı bir şekilde gördük. Kimse kimseyle konuşmuyordu. Kimse kimseye inanmıyordu. Kimse kimsenin sıkıntılarını umursamıyordu.. Ve düşman bu durumu aleyhimize çok iyi bir şekilde kullandı. Savaş bir – iki yılda lehimize bitebilecekken, dört – beş yıl sürde ve neredeyse aleyhimize bitiyordu.. O savaşın bugün bile kaç ‘on bin’ hayata mal olduğu bilinmiyor.. Ben sadece bunun bir daha tekrarlanmasını istemiyordum ve ellerimi havada sallayıp hayıflanmaktansa bu konuda bir şeyler yapmaya karar verdim, ve yaptım da. Neden her şeye burnumu sokmamla alakalı soruna gelirsek, bu.. şimdi cevap verebileceğim bir soru değil, Efendi Hobbit. Belki bir gün. Sadece şimdi değil.”, der Efendi Cathber ve genç Brom bu yaşlı adama, yaptıklarına, uzak görüşlülüğüne ve, bir anlamda, acımasızca alıp uyguladığı kararlara hayret eder.
“Hikayenin devamını dinlemek istiyor musun, istemiyor musun?”, diye biraz utanmış, biraz da deşifre olmuş olmanın verdiği rahatsızlıkla söylenir yaşlı adam.
“Tabi ki dinlemek istiyorum.”, der Brom ister istemez.
Laila doğduktan sonra Seraphim’in ailesi için işler biraz değişmeye başladı. Çocuklar ve torunlar.. bazen bir topluğun tüm inadını kırabiliyorlar. Ne kadar ilginç, öyle değil mi? Bir bebeğin, dünyadaki en aciz varlığın, böylesi muazzam bir etkisi olabilmesi.. Halbuki, Seraphim’e yapılanlardan dolayı elf’lerle şahsen görüşmeye gitmiştim ve söylediklerim bir kulaklarından girip diğerinden çıkmıştı.. Sevgili Seraphim’in geri dönmesine izin vermediler. Ama o kızcağız da artık dönmek istemiyordu. Dim Lodge’da bir evi, aşık olduğu bir erkeği ve yepyeni bir dünyası olan bebek Laila’sı vardı.. Neden geri dönsün ki? Bebek Laila büyümeye başlayınca elf’ler de ister istemez bazı kıpraşmalar oldu. Kızın kendi öz kültüründen tamamen kopuk, daha da kötüsü, annesine yapılanlardan sonra, elf’lere düşman olarak büyümesini istemiyorlardı ve en sonunda, küçük Laila’yı da getirmesi koşuluyla Seraphim’in ailesini ziyaret etmesine müsaade ettiler..
O kız yaz demeden, kış demeden dört yıl boyunca neredeyse her ay küçük Laila ile birlikte iki gün süren o yolculuğu yaptı. Nevarki bir seferinde Seraphim’in babası hastalandığı için, elf’lerle ticaret yapan küçük bir grupla çıktı yola. Hava fevkalade soğuk olduğu için de Laila’yı almadı yanına. Ve yolda kurtların saldırısına uğradılar. Gruptan ağır yaralanmış bir şekilde sadece iki kişi kurtulabildi ve ne yazık ki Seraphim kurtulanlar arasında değildi.
Elf’ler cenazenin kendi köylerinde yapılmasını istediler —oldukça da yüzsüzce bir şekilde. Zavallı Darien ormancılarla elf’ler arasında bir sorun çıkmasın diye büyün hiddetini içine attı ve buna sesini çıkarmadı. Laila’yı kardeşi Aramsis ve teyzesi Seleina’ya bıraktı ve elf’lerin köyüne, cenazeye gitti. Seliena o an hamileydi ve kız kardeşine olanlardan ötürü de tam anlamıyla perişan olmuştu. Cenazede elf’ler Seraphim’e olanlardan dolayı Darien’i suçlamaya kalktılar ve genç Darien’de onlara bir ormancı olmanın ne demek olduğunu harika bir şekilde göstermiş oldu. Tabii bu güzel Seraphim’i geri getirmediği gibi üzüntüden mahvolmuş Seleina’nın da düşük yapmasına sebep oldu. Zavallı kız. Elf’ler, dostu, sırdaşı ve kız kardeşi olan Seraphim’in cenazesine gelmesine izin verilmedikleri gibi, kızcağız bir de bebeğinden oldu.
Darien o kışı Dim Lodge’da kızı, küçük Laila ile geçirdi, ilk bahar geldiğinde de nesi varsa toplayıp Dim Lodge’dan ayrıldı ve kızıyla beraber Serenity Home’a yerleşti. En nihayetinde ve ahmakça inatları yüzünden elf’ler hem kızlarından, hem de torunlarından oldular.. oldukça da onursuz bir şekilde.. Bütün bunlar yetmiyormuş gibi, elf’lerle ormancıların arasınının da ciddi bir şekilde açılmasına ve nefret odaklı sürtüşmelere sebep oldular. Sadece bu olayla, aralarında barış ve iletişim olması için verdiğim yüzlerce yıllık emeği neredeyse yok ettiler.
“Bu.. çok acıklı bir hikaye..”, der Brom sessizce ve düşünceli bir şekilde.
“Evet, Efendi Hobbit. Acıklı ve trajik bir hikaye. Aynı zamanda da ahmaklığın nelere mal olduğunu gösteren bir hikaye. İlginçtir, güzel Seraphim’in ölümünden sonra tam dört yıl boyunca neredeyse hiç durmaksızın Nurturing Heaven’a yağmur yağdı..”, der Efendi Cathber kindar bir sesle.
“Bunu senin yaptığını biliyorlarmıydı peki?”, diye sorar Brom ister istemez.
“Tahmin ettiklerinde eminim ama evim onların köyünden sadece bir gün mesafede olmasına rağmen bir kere bile bu konuda gelip benden bir talep yada ricada bulunmadılar. Sanıyorum yapacak başka işlerim olmasaydı, bugün bile o yağmur devam ediyor olurdu.. Elf’ler ‘başlarına geleni’ sabırla çekmeyi tercih ettiler ama dört yılın sonunda tarlaları da, ekinleri de tamamen mahvolmuştu ve ironik bir şekilde de Dim Lodge oduncularına muhtaç kaldılar.”, diye ekler Cathber, yüzünde haşin bir sırıtışla.
“Laila!”, diye ünler genç Brom birden. “Darien onu bir izci olarak yetiştirilmek üzere İzci Efendisi Davien’e vermek istiyordu!”
“İlginç..”, der Cathber ve dibinde yürüyen genç hobbit’e tek kaşı kalkmış bir şekilde bakar.
“İlginç olan nedir?”, diye sorar Brom.
“Senin bundan haberdar olman! Özellikle de bunun oldukça.. hatta fevkalade spesifik bir bilgi olduğunu düşünürsek..”, der yaşlı adam..
Brom birden gafına ayılır ve susar.
Efendi Cathber gülümser.
“Sorun değil, sorun değil.. Anlatmak istemiyorsan anlatmazsın, olur biter. Ama yolumuz uzun ve konuşmak daha keyiflidir.
Genç hobbit uzun bir süre sessizliğini korumayı tercih eder. Ama en sonunda başından geçenleri bu yaşlı ve ‘hafif kaçık’ adama anlatmaya karar verir. En azından bir kısmını.
Brom ilk ısırılışının ayrıntılarına girmez. Aslına bakılırsa ısırıldığı hiçbir durumdan bahsetmez ve olayı ‘iç