Not All Is Done
“The Storm Kites of Melshieve”
Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
I do not doubt your credentials, ranger lieutenant. I merely find your assumptions highly unlikely.”, said the elderly general of the Palantine Militia, Gerald Cornfield. He was a large man gone slightly on the seedy side, perhaps due to his past sixties, closer to seventies age. He had a permanent squint in his eyes, a massive walrus mustache that seemed to muffle everything he said, but otherwise clean shaved, his thick brows stuck out and up, curling into natural shaders, and a distinct scar on his right ear that he kept scratching whenever he made a point. Considering how he savored his words quite miserly, he made a point with everything he said..
Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel stared at him like the way she stared at anything before she broke it!
“You mean you doubt my credentials.. politely..”, she fumed.
“Essentially, yes, young lady. You claim to be a ranger lieutenant and yet you are younger than my granddaughter, and this man claims to be a Senior Temple Guardian yet he lacks facial hair worth mentioning, let alone any credentials.”, the general said.
“I did show you my temple badge. It should prove my status, if not my identity. These badges may only be worn by their owners. They are soul-bound.”, Thomas Dimwood replied.
“So you say, which means nothing to me even if it were true. I am not a pious man. Hence I rarely go to any temple, let alone the Tempest. I do not know what these soul-bound coins or badges or whatsits you exchange or carry around are. Had you a king’s writ, I would have been willing to take note of your words, but you do not. And I am not going to change, redirect, and/or take orders from a young pup nor his woman, neither of whom I know nor have anything to show for that has any official mark on it.”, the general said calmly.
“Perhaps a temple guardian or even a member of the clergy might vouch for my credentials? You do have some of those among your ranks, I am sure.”, Thomas Dimwood said coolly.
“I am afraid I do not. Palantine hosts one of the larger Tempest Temples in the kingdom. They made a proclamation ere we left that this was a mortal affair and that they would not participate in the coming war, which is understandable.”, General Gerald replied.
“How is that understandable?”, Thomas asked.
“They never participate in any ‘mortal affair’.. other than poke their nose into everything! They also made a general declaration that they would castrate any other temple who would partake in this war.”, he said and shrugged. “I suppose they wanted to make a point of some sort.”
“And you didn’t find that a bit odd, General Gerald?”, the young man said frowning a bit.
He hadn’t heard of any such declaration or proclamation. Not that it would matter nor would he have obeyed it. Serenity Home Temple was his responsibility and he answered to no one, and be damned with castration!
The general shrugged again.
“I am not a pious man, boy. I believe I have already made that quite clear. I do not heed nor care what the members of the clergy do. I am a military man who earns his living in the trenches. My job is to make sure my men live long enough to go back to their wives and kids.”
“It is very likely they will not go back to their wives and kids should you go to Last Hope blindly, sir..”, Bremorel said flatly.
“I do not go anywhere blindly, young lady. But neither do I want members of the Tempest Temple crawling at my back, demanding retributions for assaulting their temple here and nothing short of a plague will make me go anywhere near those zealots!”, the general replied as if he was talking to a particularly dense rookie.
Bremorel and Thomas gave a sidelong glance to one another. It was obvious, the elderly general was not going to budge. Forcing the issue would only petrify his stance and irritate him.
“I feel tired.”, Bremorel said suddenly.
“You do?”, Thomas asked.
“Yes. And feverish. I was fine this morning but not so much, ever since I got in contact with the esteemed general and his men, here. Perhaps they are ill and they passed it onto me..”, she replied seriously.
General Gerald stared at her for a long, silent moment.
And said nothing.
“I believe they are all afflicted with some sickness and need ample care.. and seek a remedy.. by a member of the clergy who is known for their tender care..”, she said and coughed into her fist.
Thomas noted the blood in her hand.
So did the general and his men.
“The young lady seems ill, indeed.”, the senior temple guardian said uncomfortably.
“Indeed, she does. Are you sure you picked it up from us, girl?”, the general asked with a bemused tone.
“I was perfectly fine until now, sir. I believe I shall rest.. and seek herbal remedy.. You and your men should have yourselves checked more thoroughly, however, by the members of the Tempest Temple at Last Hope as soon as you get there. Perhaps in small, scouting groups?”, she offered and coughed some more.
General Gerard sighed.
“You two make the worst soap opera I have ever seen, and Palantine is no center for culture.”, he said, causing several of his men to snicker. Then he stared at the ranger lieutenant, and then her bloody hand. “Though the blood effect was rather good. It gave a certain dramatic flair. How did you do it?”
“I slashed my hand, sir.”, Bremorel said without cracking a smile. “The weather is so cold, I didn’t feel a thing.”
The general sighed again.
“Cold or not, have that hand looked at while I organize a ‘sick’ scouting party.”, he ordered, turned around, gave his men a few, curt commands, and sent them off.
He stared at the two for a moment, then spoke in a low, growling tone.
“Just how deep does this treachery go?”, he fumed.
“We are not sure, sir.”, Bremorel replied, her voice a bit relieved. “We had a company of our people including two, very high ranking members of the nobility from High Woods at Arashkan, a month before it was attacked, seeking a criminal for an unrelated issue. Turns out, said criminal and his men were hiding in the Tempest Temple all along, and for many years. They were also helping the Orken army undermine the city defenses.”
“Sounds a bit far-fetched, don’t you think, lassie? A criminal who was hiding in the largest temple of the kingdom, let alone Arashkan, and helping the Orken as well?”, Gerald frown.
“Would it make any difference if I said, the criminal was Gar Thalot? I am sure you have heard of him..”, the ranger lieutenant replied.
“Yes. Him, I have heard of.”, he said and his frown turned into an ugly scowl. “Tried to bring his rebellion to Palantine. Didn’t go so well for his followers. Private contractors are always more eager than government officials. A few bounties and all his sidekicks were hunted down and killed in under a few months. Palantine might not be a center for culture, but it is the center for bounty hunters. Would have been one myself, but the wife wanted me on a steady-paying job, and certainly not underfoot and carousing in the house all day when there weren’t any jobs available.”
“Indeed. Jobless men can be a bother at home.”, Bremorel said with a straight face.
The elderly general scowled at her.
“But then, my husband has a steady-paying job as well.”, she added with a grin.
“Where will you go from here?”, the general asked.
“We are out here and this far from Serenity Home on a specific mission, sir. I am not at liberty to divulge it, but I daresay, it should make your job much easier should we succeed. Women should have their men and children should have their fathers return to them.”, she said solemnly.
The general gave her a hard, steady gaze, then turned to Thomas.
“You have a very strong-willed woman here, young man. Pretty, too. I would suggest you do your best to keep her.”, he said with a stern, fatherly voice.
“I dare not do less, general.”, Thomas replied with a smile. “You should see her when she draws her sword. She didn’t earn her name by her ‘pretty.'”
Bremorel snorted at that.
Gerald grunted, turned around, and left.
Soon after, several ‘sick’ men were laid on military stretchers and were carried off towards Last Hope. After a few moments, a few more were carried off, then more.. until it seemed like there was a pandemic amongst the Palantine Militia.
“General Gerald is a stubborn but smart man. He listens to reason, even when it is not all that reasonable. And he will not gamble with the lives of his men.”, Thomas noted as he watched the long line of men being carried off on stretchers.
“Yes. Surprisingly so. And he’s also sending in his scouts.”, Bremorel said, pointing at the small groups of men dashing off silently in the forest towards the town.
“Should we wait, or head out?”, Thomas asked.
“We are a tad ahead of schedule. Might as well wait and see just how wrong my gut was.”, she replied. “I honestly want to be wrong. Because if I am right—”
“—it will mean we have a very serious problem in our hands, and it is everywhere and in every city!”, her husband finished direly.
Thomas watched as his wife stared after the Palantine scouts. They were not as good as rangers, to be sure, but they were admirably competent. As he watched her face, he recognized the dawn of another thought etch itself there.. something quite disturbing.
“What is it?”, he asked.
“Nothing.”, Bremorel shrugged her shoulders.
“Love. You are bad at lying. Which, in all candor, is a good thing, really. But please. If you have something to say, you needn’t hide it from me.”, he said kindly.
It was a deep, tired voice.
“Has anyone ever bothered to check, to which temple Themalsar originally belong to? Before he went and opened shop at the northeast edge of Ritual Forest all those centuries ago, I mean? He was a human priest. He must have belonged to one of the divine schools..”
Thomas stared at her. He tried very hard to take the implications of her words lightly, but that would be foolish, and he knew it. He hadn’t married this girl because he had fallen madly in love with her..
Alright, perhaps that was very much true.
But he had always believed she had a deeper reservoir of intelligence than she let on. She looked like a hot-headed girl, easy to rile, and in all likeliness, she was, but that had merely been the side effect, or even residual traumas of her ulcerous past.
As much as he loved this ‘hot-headed’ girl, he respected her as well; her instincts and her insights..
..for which, he marveled her.
“Perhaps we could look into that when we return?”, he offered, paused, then added. “It will be extremely hard to find objective facts about his former life and affiliations, though, considering the eight hundred years time difference, and any such affiliations would likely have been buried or removed. And at this point, I doubt it would make much of a difference. Not after all these centuries, and now that he’s dead.”
He gave a wry smile.
“I believe I know the girl who was among the company who did that deed.”
Bremorel tried to return his smile but failed.
“It might matter if we find out just exactly how deep, and how far back the treachery at hand goes, Thomas..”, she said unhappily.
. . .
The fighting in Last Hope lasted for the better part of two days. The Palantine Militia, as it turned out, had earned its reputation by virtue of back-breaking hard work, and in a literal sense. They lost over five hundred of their men but cleared the Tempest Temple, and the catacomb-like tunnels dug under it, stretching for miles and towards Serenity Home, killing nearly four thousand Orken. The fact that the fighting had occurred in tight, underground tunnels had not gone well for the near-ogre-sized Orken, even though they could see in the dark. The thirty feet long pikes and nowhere to run had worked clearly on the pikemen’s favor as they marched through the tunnels, three abreast and line after line constantly pushing forward had been base slaughter. The Orken pleaded no quarters, and the Palantine Militia offered none. It had been forty-two hours straight killing, leaving a mountain of the beasts stacked outside, and a smaller stack of Tempest cultists, all burning in the same fire now. The Palantine soldiers who had lost their lives were all wrapped up in white cerements and were waiting to be buried.
“Nice and warm..”, General Gerald said with a grim, satisfied expression on his face as he stared at the rising flames. “Now, Mayor Randorm Billbuckle.. Care to explain yourself?”
The mayor of Last Hope, Randorm Billbuckle, was a large, middle-aged man with peppered hair, a thick mustache, and quite muscled..
..and he was on his knees, his hands and arms bound behind him and he was staring at the elderly general with hate on his face.
Bremorel and Thomas also stood next to the general, and neither of them looked happy. True, they had saved, perhaps thousands of Palantine soldiers, and likely Serenity Home that day. But they had also proven the involvement of the Tempest in yet another treachery..
The first had been at Arashkan..
“You have no jurisdiction here, Gerald.”, Randorm snarled..
..and his head snapped up and he stumbled on his side the moment he finished his sentence as Bremorel stood over him.
“Actually, Last Hope is, in fact, under the jurisdiction of Palantine. Much like Serenity Home was under the jurisdiction of Arashkan. I am surprised you, as the mayor of this town, do not know this simple, legal fact.. Now. You will drop the attitude and give straight answers or I swear by the Great Heavens, I will cut you down, right here and now!”, she spat savagely.
“Ranger Lieutenant.”, Thomas said quietly.
“What?”, she snapped at her husband as well.
“Perhaps you should leave his face intact. We want him to speak, remember?”, he said mildly.
Bremorel glared at him.
“General? I believe the good mayor is ready to answer your questions.”, he said steadily, and without taking his eyes off the girl he loved.
“You see how things stand, Randorm?”, Gerald said lightly, looking down at the mayor. “The ranger lieutenant is young and filled with passion, quite robust too, I might add, and is unlikely to tire any time soon, should she be given further reason.. I believe she could work on you all day if I asked her nicely.”
“The Hell with you and the Hell with her—”
Randorm stumbled again, and this time, Bremorel was all over him.
She beat every inch of the man and she didn’t even break a sweat. In under a few minutes, the mayor had one eye shut and bleeding, the other totally black, his nose deformed, and any number of his ribs shattered.
It was a frightening sight, really, and Thomas understood just how much her wife was holding back, not only in terms of physical strength but emotional trauma..
“You will answer the general. Now. Randorm. Or I will kill you..”, she snarled.
General Gerald stared at her, then at Thomas.
Thomas, as disturbed as he was, shrugged.
“This is definitely out of my jurisdiction, sir. She is a ranger lieutenant, though. She has the right to certain privileges I am not. It is her prerogative to act as she deems fit to pass judgment in the wilds, and during times of war..”
“Mayor Randorm. I would strongly advise you to answer my questions, and honestly. Otherwise, your sentence is in her hands.”, he said.
The mayor of Last Hope moaned a bit.
Then with a bloody mouth, he spluttered..
“The.. Hell.. with.. you—”
Those were the last words Mayor Randorm Billbuckle uttered.
With one, swift, seamless move, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel drew her greatsword from her back as she spun, and removed his head clean off his shoulders..
..and kicked him into the fire!
Gerald stared at her, at the sizzling and charring body of the former mayor, and at the head lying on the frozen ground with a sour expression.
Thomas ogled at Bremorel.
It seemed like he wanted to say some things, but nothing came out.
“We are rangers, my husband. We put our lives on the stake to suffer fools, one day at a time, every day.. We are the first.. and the last evil sees.. When we die, we rarely receive a proper burial because we rot where we fall.. That is the pledge, and the oath we give on our first day on the job. Fools, we may suffer. Traitors, never.”, Bremorel Songsteel said with a deadly quiet voice.
Then she pulled a sack out of her pack, picked up the mayor’s head and dumped it into the sack, and knotted it off.
She walked over to the general and handed the head to him. Then she pulled a heavy pouch from her pack and handed that over to him as well. The pouch clinked when the general took it.
“What’s this?”, the general asked.
“Do you have military funds to look after the families of the men that lose their lives in service of the kingdom?”, she asked.
“Of course.”, Gerald said simply.
“I have thus placed a bounty on Mayor Randorm Billbuckle’s head, as a ranger lieutenant of the kingdom, proclaiming him ‘a wanted fugitive for treachery, treason, and crimes against the Kingdom of Isles’, and you, sir, have just claimed that bounty. Please put this money into the funds you use to feed the families of the men that died in the tunnels below. It isn’t much, but it is all I have.”, she said, staring into his eyes.
“You are a ‘one of a kind’, young lady.”, the general mused, a bit awestruck.
“No, sir. I am merely one of the few good rangers left in the kingdom. I do not mind a good fight every once in a while, but I loath killing. Treachery, I loath more.”
Then she turned around, walked over to her husband, and gave him a fierce hug.
“Please do not hate me for what I have just done, my Thomas. Some things can not go to trial. They must be dealt with justly, and swiftly. And treason must never go unpunished because no one person’s life is worth more than another’s.”
“It’s alright, love. You merely surprised me, that’s all. I never knew this side of you, and what you had to deal with when you are out on your patrols. You always returned, relieved and happy, and you made your job look so easy. I can see why Moorat adores you like his very own daughter. And why he took me aside and literally threatened to disembowel me should I not take good care of you, when we declared we were getting married.”, Thomas replied, also hugging her.
“Moorat threatened you? Dammit. I told him not to do that!”, Bremorel snorted. “I believe we are done here. We should find Temez and start out and move as far as we can get, and through the night. We lost two days here.”
“Yes, I believe we are done here.”, he said, still holding her. “You did a great job, love. And saved thousands of Palantine soldiers, and likely saved Serenity Home as well from a very destructive ambush. These Orken are very diligent and intelligent. And they make long-term plans. We must stress this to others at every opportunity.”
Bremorel did not reply.
She had just shown Thomas one of the most brutal aspects of her job and, as surprised and likely freaked out as he was, he was still here, still hugging her, and still loving her.
For the lone soul that was once, Morel Darkmaine Sunstrider a long, long time ago when she was four, that warm hug and the understanding that came with it meant something..
“Why don’t you go ahead and retrieve Temez, love.”, Thomas said. “There is something I need to talk about with General Gerald.”
“Very well. We will meet you at the edge of the swamps just east of the road to Game Woods.”, she replied, hugged him again, and took off.
It was seldom people enjoyed running. It seemed his wife was one of those rare few.
His Morel did not jog.
And not for the sport either.
The benefits of a life of physical activity, and hence, a fit body, were apparent in her striking figure.
But for his Morel, that was merely a side effect; not intended, merely benefited..
Bremorel ran because she enjoyed it.
Perhaps it had something to do with her being a ranger.
Or the sense of freedom it gave her.
Thomas stared after her until she was gone. Then he worked his way over to the general who was now busy blaring orders, sending his men to further secure the town, search every house, dig trenches, erect barricades, send out his scouts north and northwest into Game Woods, cut the trees that were too close to the town, that would provide hiding opportunities and cover for possible approaching enemy, and to also dig graves for his lost men.
“May I have a private word with you, sir?”, the young temple guardian said.
✱ ✱ ✱
I remember you now. You were in that bloody meeting!”, Anglenna said with a severe, piercing, matronly stare at the very tall, very dark girl with the long, braided pink hair and a rather frilly miniskirt dress. “Who wears a skimpy dress like that to a war council that consists of the most powerful people in the kingdom?”
“I ask her the same thing —every day, but hey, when a slur comes from the daughter of Angrellen the Betrayer, nothings sounds convincing, and everything sounds carping.. a bit like an annoying crab that just won’t stop scratching on a seashell!”, snarked the little gnomic girl with the scruffy-look reddish hair, standing next to the very tall, very dark girl.
The young burly man towering behind Anglenna frowned a bit.
“That was not nice, bunny-girl.”, he rumbled.
“And condemning my pair for her choice of wardrobe is? And quit calling me ‘bunny girl’, boy! I am like, three times your age! We may be on the same side for now, but we are not friends enough for you to get familiar with me, and certainly not enough for you to give me pet names!”, she scowled at the giant of a man.
“I do not carry my council in my panties, Lady Anglenna Sunsear. I carry them on my shoulders. If my skirt is enough to distract said ‘powerful people in the kingdom’, I would suggest you all raise your standards a notch or six perhaps, then?”, the tall, dark girl replied. Though she did not reflect the cold gaze of the high elf woman staring back at her, she opted to give her, her emotionless, obsidian-statue stare..
The bushy little hobbit standing sort of on one side and gnawing on the tip of his index finger with seeming lethargic patience, a quiet and resigned ‘Ho boy..’, did escaped him.
The lithe, athletic, and pale barbarian girl with the thick, braided, snow-white hair and the swirling tattoos on her shapely arms and shoulders was scowling at the three, very much disliking the tall high elf girl with the platinum-blond hair and her attitude issues, and the way she was biting at her very tall, very dark friend, Seressa Wraiven. She was also very much sizing up the young man who, somehow, seemed to know their gnomic girl, Arcantonic Palecog, a.k.a. Tonic. He was huge in all three dimensions and was carrying an extraordinarily big, very evil-looking, pure black, two-handed battleaxe. His overt proximity to the pretty and slender girl with the charcoal black, very long, and braided hair said there was some form of a relation between the two. Lovers, perhaps? The girl was not just pretty, though, she was very, very beautiful in an elegant, serene, warm-hearted, calm, sincere, and honest way. Cora Sleet did not know who she was, but somehow, she was sure this young.. half-elf girl was of noble-stock, and apparently, she also knew their Tonic!
Why did everyone know the scruffy little gnomic girl, all of a sudden, anyway?
“You little midget. You are a piece of work, aren’t you? Perhaps I should snuff your fire a tad.”, Anglenna said coldly.
The former high lady of Bari Na-ammen was very, very angry now. The uncouth little ‘thing’ had the audacity to relate her to her mother so arbitrarily. Not even the survivors of Bari Na-ammen had done that to her. True, that was likely due to both her proximity to her cousin and queen, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, and likely a heavy-handed speech by no other than Lord Armathelius Riverblade, but still.. She had defied all her ties to her mother. She had even defied her name, Sunsear, after one hundred and seventy years!
The arbitrary little ‘thing’ stuffed her hand into a satchel on her belt and pulled around, pact, clay object and hefted it a few times as if weighing it.
“Yeah, do try it, why don’t you? Stupid, pointy-eared sprite!”, Tonic sneered at the high elf. “I’ll personally etch, ‘She was all over the place when we found her!’, on your tombstone!”
Anglenna’s eyes blazed..
“Lenna.”, said the elegant half-elf girl calmly..
..and Anglenna froze.
“Sister.”, Alor’Nadien ne said next, turning to the scruffy-looking gnomic girl.
Tonic froze too..
“Sister?”, the pale elf murmured from the back.
The beautiful half-elf girl took a step forward and so did the big, burly man.
Seressa immediately stepped in front of her pair, and so did Cora.
Brom sighed from the rear.
Alor’Nadien ne gestured to the young man to hold his position and gave him a pleading look, then turned to the lithe, pale elf.
“It is heartwarming to see you once again, Cora Sleet of the Great Northern Tundras. I apologize for our abrupt manner. Do please forgive us.”, she said and Cora was astonished at how soft and warm her voice.. and how graceful her hands, her standing, and her whole figure was.
Then the girl turned to the very tall, very dark Seressa and gave her an elegant bow. She didn’t drop on her knees, nor was it a waste bow, but more of a nod. But it gave the patent impression of a bow. “I also apologize the distinguished member of the Academy of Melshieve. Seressa Wraiven, I believe? Your observations, your insight, and your offer at the war council were enlightening. I am not sure how it is that you are here, as opposed to where you should be, but I am glad to have met you, once again. We have had a trying day fighting the Orken, hence we are tired and, apparently, not thinking with a clear mind. I personally admire your choice of wardrobe. It is daring and it is beautiful.”
Seressa blushed a bit, though it was hard to tell through her very dark skin.
“Thank you.. uhhmm.. Lady.. Though I am not quite sure to which war council you are referring to. You seem to know my name and my pair. You also seem to know Cora and seeing as how Master Brom is so eager not to get involved, you two also know one another.”, she observed.
Alor’Nadien ne stared at her for a long, confused moment before she spoke.
“We met at Serenity Home town about ten days ago. We were sitting across from each other. I do not understand how you do not remember this. I know you and Cora Sleet from there. Arcantonic and Master Brom were also there, though we have met with them before. If they have not informed you of this, they must have their reason, hence, it is not my place to divulge when and where.”
The very tall, very dark girl, Seressa, turned slightly to look down at her pair, Tonic.
Tonic squirmed under that gaze but stubbornly said nothing. Seressa turned her head and looked over her shoulder and down at the bushy-haired hobbit.
“I was merely there as a bystander, my dear Seressa. Could have happened to anyone. Hence I hold a position equivalent to a messenger. Don’t harm the messenger!”, he said with a shrug.. and a smirk..
Tonic gave him a very filthy stare.
“Slippery little weasel..”, she fumed under her breath. Then her stare turned sinister and she hissed, “Bystanders make exemplary good samples for collateral damage, hobbit!.”
Then she pointed at him and berated!
“It was all his fault! He insisted on taking me out on a night stroll. I told him not to! I begged him, but he dragged me off by the hair!”
“Dragged you off by the hair, did I? Girl, you would have been more convincing had you just kept to your silence. You really suck at this performance thing, you know?”, he said with a bemused expression.
“What is going on, Tonic?”, Seressa asked with a slightly stern voice.
The little gnomic girl’s face and shoulders drooped.
“I.. can’t..”, she mumbled.
Seressa stared at her in astonishment.
“You can’t, or you won’t?”, she asked.
“I won’t, because I can’t.”, Tonic said. “Same goes for the sleazy little hobbit. Suffice to say, yes, we met Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist before.. and her betrothed young man, Udoorin Shieldheart.. back when we were at Arashkan.”
“And she referred to you as ‘sister’, why?”, the very tall, very dark girl asked.
“That is something I may not divulge. That particular information is up to her to decide.”, Tonic mumbled.
“Nice.”, Cora murmured from the side. “A snowball that’s passed around without being hurled! You people know, it is going to melt eventually, right?”
“For whatever reason, it would seem introductions are in order.”, Queen Alor’Nadien ne said as if to clarify at least some of the confusion.
“I am Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist of High Woods.”, she said.
Then she held the young man’s hand and continued. “My dear husband; King Udoorin Shieldheart of High Woods.”
And finally, she gracefully held out her other hand and the tall high elf woman took it. “My beloved cousin and trusted advisor; High Lady Anglenna Brightleaf of High Woods.”
She gave the four an appraising look and asked.
“You said you found us when you first came. Perhaps you can tell us what you meant by that, and why you were looking for us..”
Seressa noted how the queen of elves had carefully omitted several sticky questions just by that introduction. Both Brom and Cora noticed it too, and they both marveled it, though each for very different reasons. Tonic just stared at her without a clue at what had just happened.
“Very well, Your Highness.”, Seressa said, conceding the queen’s admirable, and polite maneuver. “We, that it to say, Princess Cora and her Ice Wolves were tracking down an army of Orken who had, two weeks ago, attacked and slaughtered several hundred of their members. We were, however, unable to find them. Their Blood Shamans have discovered a way to veil their Orken and we were not able to penetrate their spells. We have been after them for quite some time now. Then we heard the battle cries of King Udoorin, here, which I must say, did bring down two avalanches and consequently garnered the admiration of a whole lot of young barbarians. When we saw the three of you fighting them, we knew we had found our query and decided to join the fun.. seeing as you were outnumbered by several hundred to one.. But then you all vanished! I concluded that perhaps you might want to further watch the Orken, though from a safe distance, hence we went out looking for you.”
“The wolf howls..”, Anglenna asked. “..they belong to these barbarians, then?”
“No, Lady Anglenna Brightleaf, they belong to the wolves that belong to the Ice Wolf Horde.”, Seressa replied with the same, obsidian statue expression she had reserved for her earlier. “And now they are all slaughtering the Orken that slew their brethren.”, she added, pointing towards the edge of the frozen, snow-covered cliff they were standing.
“I have got to see this.”, the young king, Udoorin said with an enthusiastic grin and skimmed towards the edge and stared down. “Damn. That’s a lot of Orken.”, he mused, then added, “Double damn.. That is a lot more barbarians.. and almost the same number in wolves!”
Queen Alor’Nadien ne couldn’t resist, and she too, though gracefully, skimmed to the edge of the cliff and stared down.
Anglenna gave a sigh of resignation at her cousin’s, very unlady-like enthusiasm, gave one last glance at the very tall, very dark girl, the lithe tundra elf, the annoying little gnomic girl, and the hobbit, and followed her queen.
“Double damn, indeed.”, Alor’Nadien ne said, perhaps a bit more savagely than she should have.. in public!
To be fair, it was not easy to pick the individuals so far away, even if not for the mist and the cussed snow being trampled by thousands of Orken, very, very large wolves, and thousands more of large, savage-looking men and women in animal furs, or even mere lion-cloths and fur cloaks bearing giant swords, very large axes, long, sharp spears, and large, round, steel-rimmed wooden shields, all etched with blood-red, wolf-like symbols and they seemed to stretch for miles.. Though there was snow and ice everywhere, where they fought no longer held any white. Only dirty-red, muddy-brown, slushy ‘something’ as men, women, and wolves fought, side by side, and with equal, snarling savagery, against the Orken, and they fought, not as individuals, but in small packs, where a barbarian would swing his or her great weapon, forcing their foe to do nothing else but to focus on them while a wolf or two would flank the Orken, or come at it from his rear and hamstring it. Once its major tendons were shredded, the Orken would inevitably collapse and that’s when both the barbarian and their wolves would really come down and butcher..
And yes.. ‘butcher’ was the literal word to go here, thought Anglenna, for what remained after every such encounter was nothing but minced meat!
“How many of the Ice Wolf Horde are there?”, Udoorin asked with glee as he stared down at the slaughter.
“Nearly twelve thousand of them.”, Cora replied with a frown, her pouting lips pursed in thought. “Would have been a lot less, had it not been for the Orken. The fools attacked the villages lying at the southern edges of Burning Cold Hills.. They had no reason to. They could have just passed through, or snuck further south of the plains and no one would have known. The idiots.. By doing just that, the Ice Wolves put aside their eons-old enmity with the Bear Claw Tribe and the Ice Craig Tribe, leaving a skeleton population behind, and marched straight down, tracking the Orken. It was like a migration than a march, really. We knew they were around here somewhere.. We just couldn’t find them. They have some shamans called Blood Shamans. Very powerful and able to hide a great number of their troops.”
“Yes.”, said Anglenna. “We found tracks, but there was nobody to claim them. I cast a spell that disrupted their Blood Shamans. That is how we ended up fighting with the lot of them.”
“I see.” Cora mused.
“There is a tunnel.”, the young man, Udoorin said, pointing at the far-off cluster of rocks and boulders, down in the blood-soaked valley below. “We are not sure where it leads, but I suspect it goes under Rook Mountains and will likely come out somewhere in Ritual Forest. These Orken go a long way and trouble for a chance to ambush. I suspect they will come out behind our line of defense, and either attack our troops, the dwarves, the ogres, and the wood elves from their rear, or quietly sneak past them and hit Serenity Home from the north, or both, depending on their numbers.”
“If they have a tunnel dug under these mountains, they did not do it this winter.”, Queen Alor’Nadien ne surmised. “This was a work in progress that took them more than twenty or thirty years.”
“At least one hundred years.”, Tonic corrected her. “The Rook Mountain rock is exceptionally hard. Very difficult to chip, shape, carve, or dig through. And they would need a lot of digging tools that would require good, solid steel. Then they would have to line those tools with diamond edges. And there aren’t that many diamond deposits around here.. The only place I heard that holds such deposits of diamonds and other gems is under Silent Hills which is out of the reach of anyone, unless they found a way to get them out, or, as rumors have it, Gull’s Perch.. Good luck trying to steal Titania’s gems, though.”
Cora gave an odd look at Brom, who returned her stare with a sick expression on his face.
“That tunnel needs to be checked out.”, Udoorin was saying. “Or caved in.. preferably when there are Orken inside. But they are a bit like roaches. Hard to kill and they might dig their way out anyway.”
“I shall speak with the Howl of the Ice Wolf Horde.”, Cora promised. I am sure they would be delighted to use the tunnels when the time comes to join the war.
“Howl?”, Udoorin asked.
“That is ‘chieftain’.. of sorts.. for them.. The tribes use chieftains.. The hordes use what they believe they are associated with. The Ice Wolves use ‘Howl’, the Wyrm Horde used ‘Krash’, a derivation from ‘crush’..”, she explained.
“Weird.”, the young man noted.
“I do not question peoples’ customs, King Udoorin. I merely respect them.”, Cora replied simply.
“I apologize, Princess. I did not mean to offend. Merely a short-sighted observation.”, Udoorin said honestly.
Cora cocked an eyebrow at him.
Apparently, the big, burly man was more than just a dumb mass of giant muscles with an axe.
“I believe we should camp here for the night, then start out in the morning?”, he said, sort of to change the awkward silence.
“Where are you going?”, Cora asked.
“We will turn west shortly after we come down this mountain and head over to The Marbles and all the way the eastern edges of Troll Heights. From there, we will turn south, sneak past Arcanton’s Tower and enter High Woods from the north, circle around and carefully enter what remains of Bari Na-ammen to find, and hopefully kill the Orken Grunt Generals and Blood Shamans that we suspect are camped out there for the winter.”
“Isn’t that the long way around, Your Highness?”, Seressa asked. “Very, very long way around?”
“It is. But we also want to find out if there are any Orken between Serenity Home and High Woods, besides the ones that we already know..”, he replied.
“You will never make it in time to reach there and back to make a difference.”, the very tall, very dark girl said, shaking her head, and her long, vivid pink braided hair.
“We only need to get there. The return will not be on foot.”, Anglenna said.
“Allow me to reiterate that, then. You will never make it in time to even reach there. It is winter. Most paths and roads will be closed or clogged, every beast and creature that has not slumbered for winter will be out looking for scarce food will be after you when you are marching over The Marbles, and even though Arcanton’s Tower has been in ruins for decades, it is likely to foster innumerable fiends and demons and other vicious creatures, all of whom will attack you on sight. It will take you the better side of early summer by the time you reach your Bari Na-ammen.”, Seressa said with a conclusive tone.
“We have already measured the distance and made our plans for it.”, Anglenna replied a bit coldly.
“I was given the impression that you were a consistent, realist, and pragmatic woman by nature, and made more so by your private education.”, Seressa replied serenely. “It would seem the rumors about you are quite exaggerated and false. Whatever plans and measurements you have made lack practicality and are hence invalid and nugatory, which is to say, worthless, in a polite way.”
Anglenna stared at the very tall, very dark girl and it was not very hard to see she very much disliked her.
“Lenna. Please.”, said Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist. “We have enemies enough all around us, some not so far. Lady Seressa. It is quite possible our plan has flaws since it was myself and my King, who made it and left little room for debate by our subordinates. Lady Anglenna is merely trying to uphold my honor out of providence and loyalty. She was, strictly speaking, against this endeavor from the start, let alone the route we would take. That said, by all means, if you have an alternate route, please share it with us. We are not here for sightseeing. Our main goal is to undermine the enemy by cutting off the head of the snake; their Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans.”
Seressa stared down at the beautiful queen for an unfathomable moment, then grinned.. A charming, and enticing shape endorsing her lips.
“You are, indeed, a strong-willed girl, Your Highness. And a true friend-maker.”, she said, then turned to Anglenna. “I apologize for my obtuse behavior. It was churlish of me to be so. I would suggest you take the shortest route from here to Bari Na-ammen.”
Anglenna frowned a bit as if not sure how to react. Finally, she shrugged and gave in, as if deciding a prolonged hostility would help no one, and was in fact, quite churlish, as the very tall, very dark girl had pointed out. She did, however, object to her idea..
“The shortest route, at this point, would be through the Tar Pits, past the ruins of Arashkan Military Keep, and Arashkan itself, which is likely quite uninhabitable by now, making the whole landscape around it teaming with very angry armies of Orken, and into High Woods from a direction that also has the highest concentration of the enemy. If there is a point to your offer that makes sense, I am sorry to say, I can’t see it.”, she said.
“Ahh..”, Seressa replied, giving her one of her happy and illustrious smiles as well. “I was not thinking a route as linear as you, Lady Anglenna. Suffice to say, however, that is not the shortest route to Bari Na-ammen.”
Anglenna stared at her with confused incomprehension.
Seressa beamed at her, waiting for either of the shoes to drop.
Then it hit the high lady and she stared at the very tall, very dark girl with unadulterated horror.
“How in the blazes would you even know about that?”, she asked with amazed discomfort.
“My Mistress is privy to many secrets, Lady Anglenna.”, Seressa replied, beaming at her some more.
“Whot?”, Tonic asked.
“Yeah, whot?”, Brom duplicated her question.
“What is she talking about, Lady Lenna?”, Udoorin also asked.
Cora did not ask.
Since the question had been asked three times already.
To her surprise, the slender and beautiful queen of the elves did not ask either. Interestingly though, she only stared down.
Apparently, Anglenna noticed that too.
“You knew?”, she said, staring at her cousin.
“I suspected, though mostly because my mother was quite sure of it. No one ever really saw your mother leave her estate, nor her manor at Bari Na-ammen.. Not in the last thirty years my mother was the Rise. But I expect it was much, much longer than that. Did you ever see her leave her manor or her estate?”, Alor’Nadien ne asked.
“No. Never. But then, it never really occurred to me to even wonder. The Betrayer deemed others were unworthy of her time, and she spent most of it down in her study where no one was allowed to enter.”, Anglenna said, grinding her teeth.
“Nice.”, Tonic snarked lightly from behind them. “Referring to your own mother as The Betrayer.. Should get you off the hook in no time!”
A smoldering silence settled over that remark.
“Oops. Did I say that out loud?”, she chortled.
“Tonic.”, Queen Alor’Nadien ne said, and it was perhaps the only time some of those around her heard her use that tone. It was stern, it demanded silence, and it called for retribution.
The midgety gnomic girl immediately shut up.
“You will apologize to Lady Anglenna. And you will do it now.”
Seressa stepped in at that point.
“Queen Alor’Nadien ne. With all due respect, we are not your subjects, and neither are we bound to you. Please refrain from using that tone when you are addressing my pair.”, she very nearly hissed.
“Uhhmm.. Seressa, please..”, Tonic squeaked in a small and panicked voice. They had done this dance before and it hadn’t ended well.
Cora rolled her eyes and Brom ‘Ho boy’ed..
“Please stay out of this, Seressa Wraiven. ‘Sister’ trumps ‘pair’ for this is now a family matter.”, the queen replied calmly, but with a distinctly commanding aura.
Seressa stared at her.
“Please, Seressa. This really is a family affair.. apparently.. Ow, crap. The pointy-eared, stuffy sprite and I are also related too, now?”, she spluttered in a sick voice.
And now Anglenna was staring at her as well.
Udoorin burst out laughing.
“I am sorry.”, he rumbled, still laughing. “This is just too good. Lord Armathelius is going to have apoplexy when he hears about this.”
“That is not a nice thing to say, my King. Lord Armathelius has been nothing but good to you.”, Anglenna said, with a strained tone.
“Ow, come now, Lady Lenna. We both know he is ‘good’ to me only because he has no choice. Let’s be honest, here; what elf on earth would want a human for a king, let alone a nineteen-year-old?”
“I would.”, Alor’Nadien ne said.
“Love.”, Udoorin said, turning to look at her. “I love you beyond words. But I am the king because you are the queen. I never wanted the job and neither did you, for that matter.. Had we the option to elope out of it, we both would have, on the spot.”
“I would.”, another voice said quietly.
It was Anglenna.
“Perhaps not in another lifetime. But after having seen the realities around me, and come to terms with certain.. things.. I had no trouble, whatsoever, accepting my cousin as my queen. She is everything a kingdom needs. And you, young man, will die before anyone tries to harm her. You love her with such mindless devotion, it creeps me out and I was raised by The Betrayer. As unconventional as it may be from an elves’ point of view, you two are in uncanny sync together. And Armathelius sees this, acknowledges it, and willingly submits to it. Just like I do.”, she said with the same, muted tone.
“Well. It is good that we wrapped up everything here. Time for us to go, then?”, Tonic piped from the side.
“No, sister.”, Alor’Nadien ne said, though not unkindly. “You still owe my cousin an apology. I have never associated you to your past. Please do not do what you hate most, to others. It is beneath you. You are a better person than this.”
“No, I am not.”, Tonic mumbled.
“Yes, you are, my dear. I am sure Princess Cora and Master Brom will concur.”, she replied smiling down at her.
“Huh.”, Cora grunted.
“We will?”, mused Brom. Then he saw the fire in Seressa’s eyes. “I guess we will.”, he added hastily.
Tonic sighed and slumped towards Anglenna.
“I am your cousin’s sister. There.. Now the secret is out..”, she muttered.
Anglenna stared at her, then at her cousin.
“Nadien ne? Is there something I should know about?”, she asked a bit too carefully.
“My mother, Nadine Graciousward, if you would recall, became particularly famous after she, Paladin Lord Delia Karakash, and their company entered Arcanton Mordenon’s tower and destroyed him. They slew every demon, every fiend, and every monster they came across there. But after they dispatched Arcanton, my mother took something out of that tower, unbeknownst to all, including her company. Somehow, she sensed a life still beating and breathing down in the stinking dungeons of that unspeakable place. Alone, she sought it out, and after many days and many battles with more fiends and demons and other foul beasts still roaming there, she finally found that beating and breathing life; a little girl, no older than eight, caged and surrounded by more of the madness of Mordenon. She took the girl, washed her, fed her, cared for her, and she brought her back to her people. This girl, as it turned out, was no other than Mordenon’s own niece. Years later, when my mother married Ri Grandaleren and gave birth to me, she entered this little girl’s name into the palace archives as my twin sister. No one knew of this but my father, though mother never explained the reasons behind her actions to him. That little girl grew up and after many years, I finally met her, late one night, when I was out on a stroll with my Dorin. And she is, at this very moment, standing here, before you, cousin.” Alor’Nadien ne said calmly, happily, and contently, as she took a few steps, knelt down gracefully on her knees, and hugged Arcantonic Mordenon!
Anglenna stared at her, and at the little gnomic girl with somewhat horrified amazement.
Udoorin was grinning more now.
Cora stared at her too and many things settled in her mind.
Brom heaved with a sigh of relief as someone else’s, rather cumbersome, secret was lifted off his shoulders.
It hit Seressa a bit harder than the rest. Not that she wasn’t happy about it, or at least she would be, when she got over the whole, blotched history lesson, though the blotch was not the pretty queen’s fault but by the renowned and historical figures involved; Arcanton Mordenon, Nadine Graciousward, Ri Grandaleren, and even Paladin Lord Delia Karakash, in a way, who could, it would seem, sense the evil far and near, but not sense a tiny little girl deep in the dungeons of a deranged psychopath!
“Well, snot!”, Tonic mumbled in Alor’Nadien ne’s soft, and warm, and gentle embrace.
“Sister..”, the queen admonished her quietly.
“No. I mean I got snot running down my nose and it’s all over your dress now!”, she said and sniffed loudly.
Alor’Nadien ne smiled.
“I have my sister’s snot all over my dress. That is truly a first for me.”, she said, then rose to her feet, looked around her, and said, “I believe we should get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow will suffer no fools.”
“I agree.”, Anglenna concurred.
Tonic mumbled something at her.
It was quite inaudible.
“I couldn’t catch that, young lady.”, Anglenna said.
Tonic mumbled some more.
“I can’t hear you, girl, speak up.”, the high elf woman said with a bemused tone.
“I am sorry, dammit.”, Tonic snarled with a scowl.
“So..”, Udoorin said. “What’s the plan? Where are we going tomorrow?”
“We will be going down there. I believe the fighting will be over soon. The Orken might be good. But not against an ambush by twelve thousand Ice Wolf barbarians. And certainly not in their natural habitat. It has been a delight meeting you, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, Queen of the Elves. And an interesting insight to have met you as well, Udoorin Shieldheart, Human King of the Elves..” Cora said.
Udoorin nodded at her. Alor’Nadien ne gave her a graceful reverence. The lithe barbarian elf nodded at them both and headed towards the edge of the cliff, and started her way down.
“Well. That’s my cue.”, the hobbit smirked. “Always a pleasure, my Queen. I would very much like to have a long sit down with the two of you and hear about all your adventures. I believe an epic is in order, here.”
“Nothing will beat the Adventures of Blom Bundlebim Hobim, Master Hobbit.”, the queen smiled at her.
“What? He wrote that book?”, Udoorin said more than surprised.. and with a rather impressed tone.
Alor’Nadien ne smiled and Brom too, disappeared down the cliff, silently mumbling about the outrageous use of using his name to publish some children’s book!
Tonic hugged her ‘sister’ again, took a deep breath of her wonderful scent, scowled at Udoorin and threatened to decompose him with something nasty and where it mattered, should he mistreat his queen, gave a quick, evasive look at Anglenna, another to her pair, jumped on her gnarly-looking witch’s broom and took off, giving Seressa the final word.
“Your Mistress and I, are not strangers, Seressa Wraiven.”, the beautiful Queen of the Elves said, weaving her hand in a strange, mesmerizing pattern and an inky black smoke appeared where she weaved. Then, out of the smoke, she drew a two-yard-long pole with a thirty-inch, razor-sharp blade; her hex glaive.. “The Hex Lords of Shadowfel all bow in respect to the Raven Queen. I chose the way of the hex, not because I like dark magic, but because I wanted to fight demons. And who better knows and despises demons than the Mistress of Shadowfel? My father did not appreciate it. He had suffered harshly at the hands of warlocks during his war against Themalsar. When he found out about my choice, things did not go well. Perhaps, at the time, I was a bit harsh and stubborn too. I could have handled things in many other ways. Less destructive way, in terms of our relationship, if nothing else. My aunt, Angrellen used it against me and I chose to leave, rather than confront him. Now, he is gone and I could not even say goodbye, or even tell him how much I loved him, even though he had many faults. But then, who am I to speak? I bid you and your friends a fare journey, Seressa Wraiven, Maiden of the Raven Queen, Pair of my sister, Arcantonic Mordenon, and, I would like to add, ‘my friend’, to that list..”
“It is rare to see Tonic actually value someone. I noted she has a long, single strand of black hair that she keeps tucked safety in one of her many pouches. She takes it out every once in a while and stares at it. I gather that strand belongs to you?”, Seressa asked.
“She still has it?”, the young, beautiful half-elf girl said, somewhat astonished.
“She still has it.”, Seressa said. “I have tried, for years, to bring compassion into my pairs life. To see it has finally borne fruit in someone worthy of it is beautiful. Someone like you. Yes. You may add ‘friend’ to that list. I already have.”
The very tall, very dark girl with vivid pink hair and the girl with slender, pale, beautiful, and charcoal black hair embraced each other.
When they parted, she took a step back and paused, for a very brief moment, as her gaze skimmed over the beautiful queen, then the big, burly king, and finally settled on the Betrayer’s daughter.
And when she spoke, her voice seemed to reverberate and it sounded distant and vague as if she was reciting something committed to memory a long time ago.
“Find it. Change it. Gift it.. Thus shall you atone..”, she said.
And without another word, the tall, black girl vanished and a gray, spectral raven appeared where she was. It stared at her, then at the Queen of the Elves for a moment with its dark, unfathomable eyes, flapped its wings once, twice, and was gone..
“Wow! That is kinda cool.”, Udoorin said, staring after the raven.
“Yes. It is. Wish I could do it but that is a gift the Raven Queen blesses only to her select few maidens.”, Alor’Nadien ne murmured.
“What did she mean when she said, ‘find it, change it, gift it, thus you shall atone.’ I mean, not like any of this wasn’t creepy enough already.”, he said.
“I do not know.”, Lorna mused with a slight frown. “Though I do not think she was speaking to either of us. Lenna?”
‘Lenna’ did not answer.
Whatever the very tall, very dark Seressa had meant with her cryptic words, however, it certainly had kindled a fire in her pale green eyes.
“Atoned..”, she murmured, and perhaps for the first time in her one hundred and seventy years, there was ‘hope’ there now..
Udoorin and Lorna stared at one another then the queen shook her head, very slightly, and her king nodded in accent.
“So..”, the he said, as if rewinding to his previous question. “What’s the plan? Where are we going tomorrow?”
“We are going to my home. We are going to the Betrayers manor.”, Anglenna answered, and her ‘kindled’ expression turned into a grim and determined one.
Udoorin gave her a queasy look.
“Uhhmm.. Is that all together wise? I mean, I heard your mother was quite the tough cookie.”
Anglenna gazed at her king for a moment before she spoke.
“No, young Udoorin. My mother is a coward and a malicious piece of work! Should we encounter her, it will mean she has escaped the Three Dog Curse, but not totally unscathed. She will not be angry. She will be vicious, hence we shall not fight her. As cowardly as she may be, she will only run if she is hard pressed because of that particular state of mind.. And the three of us lack the fire power to do that.”
✱ ✱ ✱
I would like to be alone for a bit.”, the skinny little girl sniffed as she stared at the total devastation before her. The house, or perhaps, the hovel, to be fair, was gone. Smashed, quite literally, into the ground, and where the ancient tree that had stood there for eons, was also gone. What remained of both was nothing but a mass of brittle splinters and debris.
It seemed like Master Cathber Gwet’Chen Bolgrig had never existed. He had fought in the Themalsar War, some eight hundred years ago, fought in the subsequent four great raisings in next several centuries, walked this forest from one end to the other, and countless times, making sure all men, elf, dwarf, fey and beast, tree and bush lived in harmony, while he worked, diligently and all alone, and without a single demand of those who shared his forest.
And somewhere under all that mess was his grave.
It broke Inshala’s heart.
She stared at the debris and just..
..broke down and cried like a little girl.
But then, she was a little girl..
This place, this hovel, had been her home. She had grown up here. Her Father had fed her here, and told her stories, and tutored her here. It had been here that he had passed on his wisdom to her. This place had homed the heart of Ritual Forest! There.. in that very pond, she had washed herself, almost every day, from the moment she was old enough to do so. And now the little pond was also gone, filled with large, broken branches, blasted bark, and rotting leaves..
Aager stared at her tiny back, sighed, and faded away and into the forest, settling himself, not too far away, against a pine tree. He closed his eyes and tried to think of nice things. Pretty things. Beautiful things. Things he thought might cheer the girl he had come to love, honor, respect, and had, inevitably, became intertwined.
The only problem was, Aager Fogstep had never really looked at the world around him with eyes seeking beauty. It had always been about danger and how to best kill, or at the very least, avoid it.
Beauty had come, not crashing, but very slowly seeping into his life only after Inshala..
And try as he may to think of something nice, or beautiful, or cheery, the only thing that popped into his mind was her.
Lady Magella, who had joined them several days ago, preferred to sit alone. She had a grim expression on her face and she was staring somewhere far off, and at something unseen.
Lilly Venom, who avoided the she-dwarf like the plague, settled herself too..
..across his brother!
And quietly watched his face.
To be fair, it was an unexpected study for her.
The Aager Fogstep she had known, back in Drashan had been a soulless, bloodless, ruthless man. He had been on the top of Drashan’s Cutters Guild’s list of infamy and was wanted dead —very much, for very long.. So much so that she could still remember, quite vividly, the rooftop knife fights they had had. And knife fights were not like slash-opening one’s opponent with a sword or even running them through with a long blade.. One might argue, what bows and arrows were to swords, swords were to knives;
When you were struggling that close to your mortal enemy, everything became much more alive. Much more exciting. And much more deadly. You could practically stare at one another’s eyes and read their thoughts. You could feel their harsh breaths on each other’s faces. And when you struck, you would also see the pain, the fear, and the despair in those eyes.. and feel the hot, spurting blood of your enemy splashing on your face also!
Lilly had felt his blood on her face. He certainly had felt hers, and many times.. He had likely seen that pain, that fear, and that despair in her eyes as well..
But she had never seen it in his.
And now that man, who had turned out to be his brother, was sitting there, in the cold, and not even bothering to shiver. True, anyone who survived Drashan, and she was using the word, ‘survived’, extremely loosely here, had good resilience for the elements, but she could hardly feel her butt now and she wore a long and thick leather trench coat. Her brother only had his base leather armor on, and a black linen shirt and trousers, and.. that’s it.. And he showed absolutely no sign of discomfort. There he was, sitting on the frozen ground, with his eyes closed, and seemed like he was sleeping under a pleasant, spring afternoon sun..
He seemed.. tired.. but there was peace there too, now. Something she had never seen on his face before. Certainly not in Drashan, not when they had seen one another in the Arashkan Arena, and not until he and his skinny little mate had returned from Durkahan. Apparently, mating with that little girl had brought him that peace, much like it had brought her some peace ever since she had married Largo. But then, she and Largo had had a lot of very exciting nights together. These two idiots, on the other hand..
Lilly stopped there because she just couldn’t comprehend just what these two were, exactly. And to be totally honest about it, she was too scared to even ask her brother about it. The pun aside, she had seen, first hand, that her brother did not react well where his relationship with his mate was questioned, or even politely inquired.
Though in all candor, had they been a regular brother-and-sister, she just knew, she would have pointed a finger at him, laughed at his face, and called him an idiot! They were, however, were not a regular brother-and-sister. Not that Lilly thought she knew what or how that kind of relationship would be or what it would entail, nor did she believe her brother knew what it was either. Suffice to say, her brother was at peace, now, whatever his reasons were.
He was also in conflict.
Lilly had no idea what he was conflicted about, but something gave her the impression that it was not about his skinny little Inshala. Not directly, anyway, but perhaps by proxy. That much, she was certain.
“Tell me what ails you, brother..”, she mused silently. “Tell me like you stabbed me.. You won’t? Of course, you won’t.. Well, there went a perfect brother-sister moment!”
“You are staring at me.”, her brother growled, his eyes closed.
“Do you know just how annoying that growling-thing you got going really is?”, she further said.. in her mind.
“Yes. It is creepy, watching you.”, she replied out loud.
“Why do it then? It’s just a face..”, Aager asked.
“Half a face, actually.”, Lilly corrected.
“Thought you enjoyed challenges.”, he said.
“No, I don’t enjoy them, brother. I kill them.”
“Spoken like a true Drashan.”, Aager grinned behind his half mask.
“Take it off.”, Lilly said. “Your mask. I would be happy to see your face once in a while. I am sure Inshala would too. She won’t say anything about it because she accepts you. Seeing as how blindly she wants you. But I would hazard a guess, she would prefer to see what she follows with such blind devotion.”
“The mask is there for a reason, Lilly. And you shouldn’t hazard anything.. It’s hazardous!”, Aager said, opening his eyes.
“What? Afraid the trees and the bushes might recognize and report on you? I know it doesn’t smell bad here, either.”
Aager stared at her.
“Take off the damn mask. I want to see my brother’s face, not the mask that I stared at while he stabbed me..”, Lilly said in her low, throaty voice.
Aager stared at her some more.
Then, very slowly, he pulled off his mask.
“You are not a pretty man, brother. But then, pretty has nothing to do with it, I guess. I am not much of a beauty either, but that does not seem to matter. Not for Largo, and that’s all that matters to me. Still, it is good to see a face, knowing it belongs to Varr Sama.”
“Varr Sama..”, Aager mused. “That name.. It seems so far away.. Never crossed my mind since the day we were taken away from one another. And never heard it again until my Inshala gave it back to me..”
“I hated Aager.. I wanted to kill him so badly, there are no words to describe my hate for him, brother. Varr Sama? Him I never forgot. Then some guy in the Cutter’s Guild claimed he was my brother. I was still too young, then. And stupidly trusting.. Whatever game he was playing at, it didn’t work, though.”, she said quietly.
“You killed him too..”, she replied mutely. “..the night you stabbed me in the chest. You cut him down like he wasn’t even there.. Then you were on me. I saw nothing but your dead eyes.. and that stupid mask..”
“I am not psychic, you know?”, Aager said.
“If you need something from me, I would rather you told me about it.”, he replied.
“I did. Just now.”, Lilly said.
“True. But for the first time. You want to see my face more often? I want to hear your words more often..”, he said with a grim smile.
“Something for something, is it?”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind giving something for nothing. To you.. Just don’t ask me to do it in public. I do have a reputation to uphold, after all.”, he said and grinned some more.
“You will make an excellent father someday.”, she said with a counter grin of her own. “Should you and Inshala actually do something about it, I mean.”
“Straight for the jugular, I see. Whatever gave you the idea that I would make an excellent father.. someday?”, he asked, dodging her implications.
“You have all the ‘father jokes’ you need.”, she smirked.
“I resent that. My jokes are funny and my Inshala concurs.”, Aager replied, a bit taken aback.
“I can’t imagine that girl not agreeing with you on any matter.”, she said with a snort.
“Ahh.. You think she follows me blindly, perhaps? No, Lilly. She does not. We love each other. We will do many stupid things together. But whatever we do, we agree on it first. Love, as I understand it, does not preclude mindless subjugation. I find that particular notion rather disturbing, and an insult to her intellect. Inshala may be young and lack many social moderations and the things we learn due to, or because we live in a society, but she is far from stupid. What we have is trust. In its most basic, and simplest form. When I want something, she knows, with absolute certainty, that I want it for her. Just like when she wants something, I know, with unquestioning certainty, that she wants it for me. I would have rather she wanted some things.. many things.. for herself.. but she won’t. I give her all the options and choices I can want for her, yet she chooses the one that is most unlikely.. and for whatever reason, her choice wins. I do not claim to understand how it works out that way, suffice to say it does, making her happy, and by proxy, making me happy.”
Lilly stared at her brother for a moment before she grinned at him.
“You are weird. ‘You’ as in plural.. But in an endearing and creepy way.”, she said, then her grin turned grim. “You owe that little girl of yours a lot, you know. She made a human out of two Drashan’s and that is nothing to sneeze at. She sunk a festering temple into the ground, brought hope back to Durkahan, Serenity Home, this forest, to those bloody, stupid, ignorant, superstitious woodsmen, and she brought the elves, the dwarves, the humans, and the damn ogres together.. And she hasn’t asked anything in return. She has few scarce clothes she wears, and those that she has, she actually pays for them with lavender soaps, herbs, spices, and whatever else she crafts by hand. She has a home built by ogres that she shares with you, she loves and wants you so much, it hurts just to look at her, and the only place she could have called a ‘country’, is this tiny square mile of land, and it is now in shambles.. Sad, really.. I certainly would have put a price had I done but a tithe of any of those..”
“True.”, Aager replied simply.
“True? Is that all you have to say? Your home must be a sad, quiet place. A bit like a tomb.”, Lilly snorted.
“Not true.”, he disagreed. “We have our moments of silence because we welcome it. We can hear each other’s breath and heartbeat. It is beautiful.”
“Deep. But not pertinent.”, Lilly said.
“Inshala sings too, sometimes. When I ask her to. But she fills me in all the things she did, all the things she learned, and all the people she met that day. Also beautiful.”, her brother replied.
“I have a question for you.”, she said, giving up on that front.
Aager did not prompt her to ask in hopes that she really wouldn’t.
Aager wasn’t big on extended conversations..
And this, being an elder brother thing seemed to involve too much of said conversing..
“Why are you here?”, she asked.
“Why am I here? That is a rather generic question, Lilly. You might want to be a bit more specific.”, he said.
“Alright, then. Why are you here, as opposed to not next to your girl, doing something about her country?”, she amended.
Aager fell silent for a long slice as he thought of what his sister had just said, putting the idea of trying to come up with some things nice, or beautiful, or even cheery aside.. And something clicked in his mind.. All the nice, the beautiful, or even anything remotely cheery was here, right now.. accept she was crying..
“Be right back.”, he said as he rose to his feet, and disappeared into the frozen forest.
Perhaps two hundred yards away, he stopped, looked all around him, then up at the brittle white winter sky.
“Mab.”, he said mutely.
It took a while for the Mistress of Winter and the Queen of Air and Darkness to answer.
And when she did, her luxurious, dreary, enticing, and scary voice echoed in his mind.
Aager swallowed down the churning sensation that had started crawling up his throat.
“My Knight.”, the voice of Mab said. “It is rare for Mortals to call upon me thus willingly.”
“They would call oft, would they not fear you, my Queen.”, he replied.
“Fear is good. Fear I like. It brings out the respect fools oft forget.”, the voice said.
“It also stays you alone.”, Aager replied.
“Alone is also good. Little do I worry of fools, alone.”, she echoed.
“Alone is alone, my Queen. Much like fear is just that; fear.. The more we have it, the more we are alone.”
“Ahh.. I sense your discontentment. Hence you wish to rile me to your wont.”, she replied.
“I wish you to cough up, my Queen!”, Aager said, and his voice turned cold.
A stunned sort of silence settled in the forest. It was an oppressive silence and it was laced with dread.
“Careful, my Knight. I would not want to waste you without making good use of you.”, the voice said quietly and with trepidation.
“The former Ritual Guardian worked diligently for you, and for your sister. And so did his progeny, sacrificing from her very being. I sense many fey in this forest. Fey that do not entertain such freedoms in many other woods and forests.. When called, they came to Serenity Home in great numbers, which proves my point. Master Cathber asked nothing in return for his services. He gave them freely. So does my mate. And now, I see how those that live thus happy and free take little notice of his home or even his grave. My Inshala mourns, even as we speak, at the debris that was once her and her father’s home. Tell me, my Queen, is this how you repay the deeds you and yours, and your sister have made use and benefited thus grandly?”, Aager said with a low snarl. “Hence I repeat, time to cough up!”
Another silence befell the forest. This one, not as oppressive, but breathless.
Then, a cold, frosty white light jabbed down from the brittle sky and Mab appeared in all her glory, her cold, piercing eyes ablaze, her revealing gown flowing down her lustful figure displaying pale, pale skin unmarked by imperfections. Her white hair glowed with incandescent light and a cloud of mist settled down the small of her back, not unlike a cloak, and she was staring down at her Winter Knight with quiet displeasure.
And with unexpected agility, her long, slender arm shot out and clasped him, by the throat, and picked him up as if he were a toddler.
“Your tone displeases me, my Knight.”, she said frostily.
“I am your vassal, my Queen.”, Aager croaked through his gritted teeth. “And queens take care and look after their vassals. Such is the core of impregnable and unwavering loyalty and it goes both ways. Much like service..”
“No, my Knight. I have fear for that.”, Mab said coldly.
“And you truly believe that will keep Mortals loyal to you?”, he asked. “I would have thought the Queen of Air and Darkness to have known us by now.”
“‘Us by now..’“, she mused, quoting his words..
Aager did not elaborate. Though he was struggling for breath, he still.. grinned!
“Arrogant, Mortals are.”, she hissed, still holding her Winter Knight by the throat.
“Yes, my Queen, we are arrogant, and we are more, and we are less. What matters is what we choose to do at any given time. I am your Knight. I can do your bidding willingly, or I can do them dragging my feet. One will earn you the fear you want. The other, not so much..”, he said.
“Perhaps I should just slay you and be done with.”, she offered.
“And leave the field free for the Summer Knight, and his quite ambitious mate? By the time you find a new ‘me’, I believe your sister and her knight will have had their way with these lands for many centuries. I suspect your winter fey in this forest will suffer the most. I can’t see Titania sparing them. Then there is the Ritual Guardian herself. She already serves Titania by choice. I wouldn’t presume to tell her what to do, but if it were up to me, I would just decide to ban, banish, and exile anything even remotely related to my demise. So, again, time to cough up, my Queen. And that’s trice said and done..”, Aager growled with a gurgling, throaty voice.
This time, the silence didn’t haggle and Mab smiled.
“Finally. A Knight worth my time.”, she said.
Then swung her knight..
..and sent him flying into a tree, some thirty yards away.
Aager crashed right through the tree, and it hurt.
It hurt even more, when he crashed through the next tree..
..and the next!
He lost count after the sixth and everything went dark.
. . .
“How is he?”, a bold, throaty voice asked.
“Hurt.”, replied another. This one, soft, kind, scared, trembling, and angry.
“Is this how it’s going to be? One of you dolts dropping next best thing to dying, every time I turn my back?”, said a third voice, and this one was definitely angry and you could tell she was angry by the way she was snarling.
“You shouldn’t be turning your back to anyone!”, the first voice mumbled, but it got lost when the man lying on the frozen winter ground moaned.
“That.. hurt..”, he said in pain.
“MY AAGER!”, shrieked the soft, kind, and scared voice. “YOU ARE AWAKE!”
“I am?”, Aager groaned. “I don’t feel awake. I feel only hurt..”
“Tell me again, why is my brother lying on the ground and there are nearly a dozen trees knocked down in a straight line as if he just rammed through them?”, Lilly asked. “Or why there are so many weird things everywhere?”
There was a moment’s pause. Then Aager heard Inshala’s voice. “Lilly? Lady? Would you please give us a moment? I need to talk with my mate.”
“Uh oh.”, Lilly said with an amused tone. “It’s the ‘I need to talk’ moment. You are so screwed, brother.”
Lady Magella grunted, and Aager heard two pairs of feet retreating away, one lithe, soft, and barely discernable, the other, heavy, steady, and stomping..
“What were you thinking, my Aager?”, hissed Inshala, and that was the first time he actually heard her hiss at him.
Inshala was angry, alright.
“Uhhmm..”, Aager said, not quite sure what she was talking about. His eyes hurt. His whole head hurt. His back hurt like Hell. He couldn’t quite feel his legs either, and the last thing he remembered was being hurled..
Then he recalled the first pain.
Right when he struck a tree.
Then the second pain.
When he struck the second tree.
To be honest, the subsequent trees became sort of moot after that, since that second one had pretty much knocked all his senses out.
He only recalled a lot many grunts and oomph’s and finally crash landing on an already fallen tree full of squirming and slimy worms, and crawling and biting insects.
To be sure, he had won one over the Winter Queen, but damn, Mab had a heavy hand!
“Why would you anger Mab? Why would you even call her here?”, Inshala hissed some more.
“I.. thought it would be a good idea.. at the time..”, he mumbled.
“What on Earth and Heavens gave you the idea that calling Mab would be a good one, my Aager? Mab is Mab. She is not forgiving and she is vicious. You already ended up becoming her knight, you can not give her anything else!”, she said vehemently.
“Well.. I didn’t give her anything else. I merely reminded her to do her job.”, Aager said with a stubborn voice.
“But.. why? I thought we were going to be stupid together. Not be stupid alone!”, she said as if about to cry.
Aager opened his eyes to see tears running down her face.
Inshala was angry.
But she was also scared.
“Why are you so angry, Inshala?”, he asked. “You talk and bargain with Mab and Titania all the time.”
“Because I know, how. And I do it very carefully, and very, very politely.”, she said and her lower lip started to tremble.
“Well. I got to start somewhere, don’t I?”, he said.
“Since we met, have you ever seen me get into a fight using knives, my Aager?”, she asked.
“No. I haven’t. And I don’t see why you should. Knife fights are extremely dangerous and you don’t have the right training—”, Aager said then paused. “Ahh.. I see your point, love.”
Inshala stared down at the man she loved as more tears ran down her face.
Just like that.
She was all over him, hugging him fiercely.
“Please, my Aager. Mab is Mab. And she values her knights as she values gold.. And gold means nothing to Mab! For whatever reason, you have garnered some interest in her. Your continued existence depends on that interest. Should she lose that, she will get rid of you and will call it a little loss and seek a new one. It will not be such a little loss for me. You must know, and understand this by now.”, she pleaded as she sobbed into the crook of his neck.
Aager hugged her back, and just as fiercely as he dared to while he lay there, on the frozen forest ground until she exhausted herself out.
“C’mon, love.”, he said after waiting for a bit more and gruffly. “It is freezing on the ground. We wouldn’t want you to catch a cold, now would we?”
“I have never caught a cold in my life.”, Inshala’s muffled sniff was heard.
“Well. Let’s not start to catch one now. Help me up?”, he asked.
Inshala sprang to her feet, then with great agony, she helped her mate up and on his feet.
All in all, it was a sad sight, really.
“Lesson learned.”, he mumbled. “Don’t sass Mab!”
And the two of them, one skinny little girl, the other in dark, shredded clothes and limping, came over to the wreck that was once Master Cathber and Inshala’s home..
..except, the wreck, the rubble, the broken and splintered branches, and the debris was gone!
A large ogre stomped past them, followed by a few others, all carrying large and heavy sacks.
The one leading nodded at them and said, “Ritual Guardian, Winter Knight.”, and continued on. Then they dropped the sacks in front of the house—
“Where did that house come from?”, Aager asked.
Inshala did not reply immediately.
As a matter of fact, she couldn’t reply.
Because she was busy staring in quiet awe as the ogres emptied their sacks to reveal their burden; hundreds of flat, smooth rocks! The leading ogre gave a few curt orders and they all started laying the flat rocks, forming a stone path leading to and from the house.
Then, Aager noted the other creature; several, extraordinarily beautiful and willowy dryads walking around and carefully the planting acorns the scores of tiny sprites and pixies darting around brought them, as several wood elves were busily carving beautiful shapes and designs of leaves and flowers and vines and trees into the door, the wooden frames of the house, and carefully embossing similar shapes, but not as concentrated as the door and the window frames, going for elegance, rather than extravagance..
He saw half a dozen dwarves up on the roof of the house, carefully laying baked red clay roof tiles and hammering them in place with hard, wooden pegs. More dwarves could be seen through the open windows, building a fireplace and chimney using mortar and red, blocky bricks. To his disturbed recognition, he also saw something huge, perhaps fifteen or sixteen feet tall, and nearly as wide monstrosity that seemed to be nothing more than thick branches, choking vines, and rotting vegetation; a bloody shambling mound, rummaging contentedly in the previously stagnated, sluggish, and dark, muddy pond! Every once in a while, one of the dwarves or the ogres would come and dump rubble and debris into the pond and an approving sort of rumble would rise from the monstrosity! He also saw several other slender figured girls, nymphs, he surmised, though he wasn’t quite sure how he knew. One of them was burning away some of the larger branches of the gigantic tree that had fallen on the former house of Master Cathber while another weaved her tiny hands as she danced, not unlike a belly dancer causing moderate-sized whirlwinds to spin around the fires, making sure they did not spread and also carried away the smoke. There were more of them, gathered around the shambling mound, and they were chanting. And the more they chanted, the more clear sparkling water poured into the pond seemingly out of thin air!
“Huh!”, he said, a bit thunderstruck.
“Yes, my Aager, huh!”, Inshala replied, also awed.
And every time a pixie, or a sprite, or an elf, or a dwarf, or a dryad would walk or fly past them, they would nod and say, “Ritual Guardian. Winter Knight.”, and move along.
Aager did note a few other details; some of the fey knew Inshala in person and that they were all either shy of him, or they shied from him.
“Please assure them I mean them no harm.”, he said to Inshala.
“They know, my Aager. Some of them are winter fey and some of them are summer fey. But you are the Winter Knight, after all. In time, some of them might become friends, but that will require much effort on our part.”
“You mean, effort on my part.”, Aager said.
“No, my Aager. Your part is my part as well, now. Hence, our part.. And.. Thank you..”, she said, intertwining herself onto his arm. “This.. means a lot to me..”
“Worth all the buggery bum, then.”, he said with a smile.
Inshala cracked a snort!
Someone cleared her throat behind them and the two turned around to see Lady Magella scowling at.. pretty much everything!
“Care to explain?”, she said harshly
Lilly was standing somewhat behind her, but not near enough, as if she didn’t want to catch whatever ‘flu’ she thought the she-dwarf was afflicted with.. in a mental sense.. She just stood there, diffidently gnawing at one of her pinkies and observing the strange scene; the construction, the artistry, the magic, the landscaping, the odd and strange fey, and the.. well.. whatever else was going on that she couldn’t recognize or put names to..
Aager looked down at the angry-looking she-dwarf and said;
Lady’s scowl turned into an even bigger scowl.
“No?”, she said.
“No.”, Aager replied. “This is a private matter, Lady. It involves only my Inshala. It is no body else’s business, and in a literal sense. What is happening here, is out of the jurisdiction of everyone!”
Lady’s bigger scowl turn into a frown, now, though it wasn’t clear if that was a good thing.
“I.. see..”, she said.
One of the dryads couldn’t help it anymore and finally came skipping and skimping excitedly near Inshala, giving a wide berth to her mate, the Winter Knight, though.
“Hey you!”, she said happily.
“Temessa!”, Inshala half-shrieked in delight. “It’s been so long!”
“You have grown smaller, my pretty Inshala. Is that not supposed to go the other way around? Owww.. has the Winter Knight sucked all the life out of you?”, the beautiful dryad, Temessa, said with an awed expression, taking a hoping little skip on the other side of Inshala, and away from the dreadful-looking human; Mab’s hatchet man, the Winter Knight!
Aager looked the other way when Inshala giggled at that.
“The Winter Knight does not suck the life out of people. Those are vampires.. How come you are here, though? I can see Yamara over there and she seems to be having fun burning things. I can also see Cherriot, Shyad, Kardenymp, and Veraminks too.”, she said happily.
“Well.. When your mate aggravated Mab, she pestered Mother Titania to ‘cough up!’.. Whatever that means.. So we were sent here, along with some of summer pixies and sprites to clean up and make a beautiful garden for the Ritual Guardian —that’s you, by the way, but the winter pixies and the winter sprites and the summer pixies and the summer sprites started fighting the moment they arrived! You know how childish and enthusiastic they are..”, she said with another sigh.
“Ow, my, yes.”, Inshala said with a little, bubbling laugh. “How are they still not fighting, though?”
“We told them if they didn’t stop fighting, no one would get any sugar canes!”, Temessa said, then she lowered her voice and asked —in a pleading tone.. “You do have some sugar canes, right? All those silly pixies and even sillier sprites have had a field day for weeks at that human town. And they are getting paid in sugar canes, and we are not getting any of it.. AT ALL! It’s so unfair!”
“I have some. Want?”, she asked.
“WANT!”, Temessa said promptly.
..as Inshala was suddenly swarmed by a dozen or so very pretty, very beautiful dryads and nymphs, and over a score of pixies and sprites and other enthralling wonders of nature!
“That’s just creepy.”, Lady Magella said, ogling at the commotion taking place merely a few yards away.
“No. It is worse; those are drug addicts, Inshala is their dealer, Aager is her bruiser, and this is a bloody crime in progress!”, Lilly snorted.
✱ ✱ ✱
Okay. We are going live in five. You ready, luv?”, Seressa Wraiven asked the lithe, athletic, pale tundra elf girl who was pouting. She was pouting, not because she was feeling particularly sullen or petulant, but because the striking shape of her mouth gave her that impression.
Ow, and she was also frowning, or even scowling, but that was by choice. She had that vague expression people sometimes got when they thought they were being swindled.
“No.”, she said. And she emphasized it by giving the very tall, very dark girl standing before her a very steady, ‘And I am not moving until I understand’, look!
But that did not deter the very tall, very dark Seressa.
She gave the tundra elf one of her best smiles and with a very cheery and energetic voice, she said, “Cora, luv, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You will get to speak with the dean of the Academy of Melshieve, Grand Master Mervlin the Awesome! Well, his official title isn’t really ‘Awesome’, but he is!”
“I do not know this Mervlin dude. And neither do I know your Melshieve.”, Cora Sleet replied coolly.
The bushy little hobbit, Brom, snickered from the side, but both Seressa and her pair, Arcantonic Palecog, the midgety little gnomic girl stood staring at one another, quietly thunderstruck!
“Dude?”, spluttered Tonic. “DUDE? Hells Bells, she just called Grand Master Mervlin, a dude!”
“What? Is he a she?”, Cora asked, unperturbed.
“No, she isn’t.. He isn’t dammit, but that’s not the point!”, the little gnomic girl said exasperatedly.
“Huh! There’s a point, then?”, the tundra elf asked.
Both Tonic and Seressa ogled at her.
“Girl, Mervlin is the greatest wizard there is!”, Tonic said finally.
“Don’t like wizards. Don’t care much for them. Don’t like talking either. Why does this Mervlin dean-dude of yours even wants to talk to me? Brom likes talking. He can’t have enough of it.”, she said.
“I resent that.”, Brom said, but Cora ignored him.
“Your dean-dude should talk to him. He is a bard. He can make better words than I can.”
“Yes, he can.”, Seressa said. “But Master Brom is also a hobbit and they are not uncommon, particularly since Bowling Hills is not all that far from Melshieve..”
Then she hastily added, “—as unique as he is as an individual.”
“Nice twist..”, Brom murmured.
“You, my dear Cora Sleet, are unique in many aspects and entertain certain ‘novelties’, as in, there has never been any tundra elves nor any barbarians from the Great Northern Tundra who have ever attended the Academy, and the only reports or records about them is mere mention as part of the Themalsar War history that took place some eight hundred years ago..”
“I don’t do entertaining, Seressa..”, Cora replied sternly. “I certainly am not going to go to this Academy of yours, seeing as they prefer to just watch and observe evil when it occurs, rather than do something about it when they can. And I can only imagine why no tundra elf, or any barbarian for that matter, would attend to your thingy. We have better things to do with our time, you know..”
“Please, Cora!”, she pleaded.
“No!”, Cora said with the same stern tone.
“Pretty please with sugar on top?”, she begged.
“I don’t know what that is, but it sounds like a bribe, so, no!”, the pale snow elf said.
“Help me out, here, Tonic!”, Seressa turned to her pair.
“I promise, I will be good for a whole month?”, Tonic offered.
“You will be good for a whole month and more, either way, Arcantonic Palecog!”, Cora said, staring down at the midgety little gnomic girl coldly.
“Master Brom. Please help explain to Cora why it is so important for her to have a few minutes interview with the dean of the Academy of Melshieve, and why it might be detrimental to having someone as important and powerful as Grand Master Mervlin on our side!”, Seressa said, turning to the bushy-haired hobbit this time and in near tears.
“Importance and power are relative and mean something only to those who care or give a damn, Seressa.”, Brom mused. “Don’t get me wrong. I believe you and have faith in you and I am sure Grand Master Mervlin whom I certainly have heard of, is indeed as important and powerful as you say he is. But for me, he is not so important. For Cora, who comes from the north end of the continent, not at all! Perhaps you should explain to her what he will do for her, should she agree to do this interview thing..”, Brom offered.
“I thought you’d be on my side, Master Brom.”, she said with a very sad face.
It broke Brom’s heart to see that.
“I am always on your side, my dear girl. But if you want your interview, it is Cora who you must persuade, not me.”, he replied kindly.
“Yeah, what he said.”, Cora inserted.
Seressa pouted for a bit more, then gave up and sighed with resignation.
“I do not understand why you are being so stubborn about this, luv. Perhaps you have all the misconceptions and wrong impressions of the Academy, but not of any of the good ones, which is probably both my and Tonic’s fault. Those that have graduated from Melshieve have had the best education the kingdom has to offer and many of them become mayors, lords, dukes, duchesses, generals, marshals, commanders, judges, researchers, historians, and more, and have worked diligently or fought for the peoples of this kingdom including Tonic and myself. The Academy has the policy of not getting involved to keep its neutrality status unmarred, which is why her agents are allowed to roam free pretty much everywhere without hindrance so they may observe conflicts for historical reasons. If they did intervene, everyone would demand their presence on their side and soon enough, they would end up being a side themselves, and anyone with a grudge would try and lay siege to the Academy grounds.”, she explained earnestly.
“I know about your academy’s policies, Seressa. I gathered as much during our first-time jump, and Ri Grandaleren’s reaction and distaste when the two of you showed him your Agents of Melshieve badge-thingies..”, Cora replied.
“True. But as individuals, we can, and have included ourselves in many affairs, though I am not sure our time jumps actually counts. My point is, perhaps for the first time since its foundation, Melshieve has the legal right to actually intervene and get involved, rather than just observe, if they can be convinced. I have a moderately decent reputation in the Academy—”, Seressa said.
“—But I don’t!”, Tonic inserted with a disgusted mumble. “Even though I have some of the highest grades in the classes I was allowed to take, I also have the highest recorded disciplinary actions in the Academy history without being expelled; 208 of them! I was bested only once, by a weird ass kid named Fearghas Fionnghal on his first year!”
“I am tempted to ask, why would anyone do that, but we are talking about you, so the question sort of answers itself.”
Tonic scowled at him but didn’t retaliate.
“Let’s not go there, Tonic, luv. We all had our reasons to be how we were.”, her very tall, very dark pair said. Then she turned back to Cora. “The point is, it is not easy to get an official and academic interview with the dean. With you, though, who is very, very unique, and has such political prestige amongst all the Great Northern Tundra hordes and tribes, will very much draw his interest. So much so that he might even be tempted to join the coming war, or at the very least, partake in it, seeing as you are helping the kingdom while not being part of it.”
Cora frowned, then looked down at Brom.
“I would say it’s a long shot, but worth the loss of a few minutes.. My feet are killing me!”, he said.
Cora frowned some more.
“I understand your point, Seressa. But I don’t like publicity.”, she said.
“It’s too late for that, luv.”, Seressa replied honestly. “You are known throughout the tundra and to all the barbarian hordes and tribes. Once we are done here, we will likely be going there to convince and gather them for the coming war and you will be leading them. Your name will go down to every history book there is. The only difference is, should you do this interview, you will be giving, perhaps the only one-on-one, and you will be giving it to the dean of the Academy of Melshieve, himself, where there shall be no rumors, no silly gossips, but real, solid facts. Grand Master Mervlin does not mess around, and he does not do paparazzi.”
“I do not know what this paparazzi-thing is.”, Cora frowned.
“It is mostly fake news about celebrities, particularly about their private lives.”, Brom explained.
The reaction Cora showed to that was quite expected, really.
Her gaze became glacial, her face turned stony, as fumes of cold, arctic wisps rose from her nose and ears and she hissed..
“They had better not!”
“I totally agree, luv.”, Seressa said hastily. “Which is why it is very important that your first, and possibly only interview should be made with someone whose reputation is solid.”
Cora fell silent as she quietly smoldered.
“Just do it, girl.”, Brom said. “Assume it is bitter medicine. It sucks to spoon it, but will be good in the long run.”
“Very well.”, the barbarian girl finally caved in.
“At a girl.”, he grinned. “Oh, and, bring down the scowling a notch or six. You want the dean to respect you for being serious. You don’t want to give him the impression that you are going to go berserk on him.”
Cora stared down at the bushy little hobbit.
“Just be cool.”, Brom said.
“I am always cool.”, Cora replied.
“I mean, in a literal sense..”, he amended.
“I am cool, in a literal-whatsit sense.. all the time!”
“Are we ready, then?”, Seressa asked with a very excited smile.
“I guess we are.”, Brom said.
“Tonic, luv, why don’t you stand next to me on my left, and Master Brom on my right, and you, Cora, can stand there..”, she said, pointing at a spot near the great fissure that was the Serpent’s End.
When everyone was where they should be, Seressa’s face went blank for a moment then returned to her normal, usual, smiling self, but there was someone else with her now, an old man with short white hair, and an similarly white, neatly trimmed beard. He appeared right next to the very tall, very dark girl and without any sound or flashy visual effects!
One moment there was nothing, the next, there he was..
Mervlin of the Academy of Melshieve.
The dean was old, but not ancient, and certainly not decrepit. He had a pair of very thin, spidery spectacles and he stared around him through vivid blue eyes. He wore a strange, fez-like cap on his head, and long, flowing, silver-colored coat, as opposed to robes, embroidered with similarly colored threads over a neat, dark shirt and trousers, the latter tucked into a pair of tall, knee-high, soft leather boots. He had forgone the typical, staff-wielding-wizard look, but opted for a wand that he carried on his embossed leather belt, not unlike a sidearm, the way some swashbucklers carried their poniards. He had quite a number of beautiful-looking rings on his long, slender fingers and the chains of a necklace were visible from behind his beard. He also had a tiny, gray-white mouse perched on his shoulder..
The dean of the Academy of Melshieve, Grand Master Mervlin, broadcasted the distinct air of high intellect, a cunning mind, elegance, and class..
Seressa seemed to hold her breath in adoration and awe as Tonic ogled at the Grand Master Mervlin and was very much itching for an autograph!
“Good afternoon, Agent Seressa Wraiven. You are a pleasure to behold as always, though it has been some time you sent your last report. Not up to your usual punctual precision, I must say. But I gather you were busy.”, he said as he looked around, then at the others. “Quite busy indeed.”
Mervlin had a slightly raspy and ‘smoky’ voice, perhaps even just a tad on the mellow side. It gave his words a certain distinction and made the people around him want to lean in and hear better.
“And I see Agent Arcantonic Palecog as well, hiding behind her pair! No reports were ever submitted by you, which is a loss, really. Your dedication to being ‘understood correctly’ made your reports and theses back at the academy, quite succinct and void of unscientific flair, which was a relief from our usual, overenthusiastic graduates.”, he said with a smile.
Seressa and Tonic ogled at him some more.
“You, sir, must be the famous Master Brom Bumblebrim. Or should I call you Blom Bundlebim Hobim?”, he asked, also with a smile.
Brom frowned a bit. Again with the Blom Bundlebim Hobim, he thought. Apparently, someone was running around telling, and writing, stories from his mouth, using his bloody name! But what baffled him was, that particular derivation of his name had been used only by the fey at Gull’s Perch, and he couldn’t imagine those pretty dryad and nymph girls sitting down and writing a storybook about his adventures.. Not to mention, they wouldn’t have known the things he had lived through before and after Gull’s Perch!
“And we have..”, he said, turning to the lithe, tundra elf. “..a genuine barbarian princess, Cora Sleet, the only known survivor of Ironfrost..”
Cora frowned at him.
She didn’t know this man and he seemed to know them all. The fact that he knew Seressa and Tonic was perfectly understandable, and maybe even Brom, he was a bard after all, but why would he know about her, or of Ironfrost. She had come, practically, from the other end of the continent and Ironfrost had been ‘wildly’ important only for those who used to live there..
“You are well informed, sir.”, Brom said, nodding at the Grand Master with an artful bow.
“Part of my job description, young Master Brom.”, he smiled down at him. “It would be rather naïve of me to have so many agents and not know what is significant.” Then he turned and looked at the very tall, very dark girl through his spidery spectacles and said, “Now then, my dear Seressa, I believe you promised an interview for me?”
Seressa jumped as if someone had suddenly pinched her butt!
“Yes, Grand Master. Though you have so brilliantly deduced, I would very much like to officially introduce, Princess Cora Sleet, the sole survivor of Ironfrost, the Shield of Prophecies, and the voice of the Great Northern Tundras.. Cora, luv, I present you, Grand Master Mervlin, the Dean of the Academy of Melshieve, and the Seat Holder of the Wizards of Vodgar, and the Cleanser of Morlich!”
“A bit overdone, girl.”, mumbled Cora. “I do not hold the titles of half of what you just said.”
“I doubt, my dear girl.”, Mervlin said with his raspy, smoky voice. “Seressa Wraiven has never been known to speak out of turn. Now, then. I was promised an interview, might as well get started, shall we? Let’s start with you, and where you were born. Then we can move to the events that lead to your unexpected fame amongst the other barbarian hordes and tribes..”
The interview between Cora Sleet and Dean Mervlin took more than just a few minutes. The old man was quite fascinated by the lithe, athletic, pale tundra elf, with her long, snow-white braided locks, and swirling tattoos. Every question he asked was carefully phrased and done so with tender deliberation. Cora wasn’t sure why the old man was so fascinated by her. Not that she had any low self-esteem, but the fact of the matter was, she was the kind of girl that didn’t bother much with such egocentric ‘trivia’. She knew she had experienced a lot, particularly for a very young elf such as herself, but she also knew she hadn’t asked for any of it. Things had happened to her and she had merely made the choice between what few were available for her or as they presented themselves to her at the time. Though as the prolonged interview went on, she found out, her previous assessment wasn’t altogether true. At times, she had ‘created’ options that hadn’t been there at all. She also found out that she respected the opinions of Brom and Seressa more than she thought she had. Interestingly enough, she respected Tonic’s practical solutions, if not her paralytic attitudes, more than any of them. To her unexpected realization, Cora figured she had a very unbarbaric attitude towards foreigners and outsiders, which was pretty much anyone and everyone who was not a barbarian from the Great Northern Tundras!
Much like it dawned upon her that before her relative success with the Red October incident, the barbarian tribes and hordes had had very distinct boundaries and little to no interactions other than war, or war-related peace. And what peace there had been, for instance; the one between the Bear Claw Tribe and the Ice Craig Tribe was really nothing more than to make sure the Ice Wolf Horde and the Wyrm Horde wouldn’t attack them en masse.. Cora, along with Brom, had somehow changed that, and what’s more, it had stuck! The first sign was the Ice Wolf Horde offering ‘A Year And A Day’ peace with their neighbors, the Bear Claw Tribe, both putting aside their centuries-old enmities. The culmination of that peace had led her and Brom to meet Seressa and Tonic.. and start their very much unexpected trek to fulfill prophecies of the Heavens.. or the infamous Raven Queen..
Cora did not say anything about the prophecies, nor their ‘time jumps’, or anything about how they had traveled back some eight hundred years to ‘right a wrong’ at the first Themalsar War..
..then how they had traveled to her own relative time to relive what she already had, but this time, to own the crimes of the real perpetrator who had destroyed her Ironfrost, just to retrieve the holy spear of an Archangel!
Her actions, along with her choices, had indeed destroyed Ironfrost. It had also saved The Spear of Light, and, not quite inadvertently, destroyed the Wyrm Horde as well, in a way, avenging her Ironfrost in full!
Their time jump to the deranged gnome, Arcanton, Tonic’s uncle, and his demented and demon-infested tower had been unprecedented. But to have found out what they had had to do at the end had struck a blow to her sensibilities; not to face the evil gnome, but to make some indiscernible changes on some numbers that would, in effect, alter history!
That was likely when she had actually respected the otherwise very irritating little gnomic girl, Tonic!
It took a while for Cora to realize she had fallen silent, and that it had stretched over several long minutes. She looked up to see the old wizard staring at her through his spidery spectacles and his vivid blue eyes..
“I would very much like to hear the details of where you just went, Princess Cora.”, he rasped merrily. “I am quite sure that would make even a better interview.”
“Perhaps. But not an interview for now. I have already spoken more than I should have, as dear as Seressa is to me, she has carefully neglected to tell me why exactly we are having this interview in the first place. Nothing I have said is all that interesting. Not when you consider what’s coming our way. Once the Orken destroys Serenity Home and the people standing in their way, I suspect your happy days in your academy will be over within the next two decades. You, warm races have become docile. And sluggish.. In your minds and in your hearts.. I have seen, first hand, how a civilization that lived for eons could be entombed in ice and destroyed in a single afternoon; my Ironfrost.. Perhaps you think that is an exception because it was attacked by a Great White.. There were no dragons when your Arashkan fell. There were no dragons when High Woods burned to the ground and Bari Na-ammen was shattered in less than a mere week. Those beasts will come here, and they will take these lands. Then they will reproduce and spread even more. Your Endless Watch will fall sooner than Arashkan. Your academy will make a good stand, I am sure, but it will fall in the end, because when they come, twenty years from now, they will be at least half a million in number. Considering the number of prisoners they will take and use to birth more, their numbers will likely be closer to double that. And they will call demons to their aid. They will attack your school from every direction; around you, above you, and from under you. If you think that unlikely, you should know, the Wyrm Horde had numbers closer to ten thousand and they were eradicated, overnight, by the Orken. You should also know, barbarians are not like the soft southern races. Men, and women, old and young, are all warriors from the day they can walk. The Orken eradicated that, overnight! I heard you have trouble with the barbarian here. How many of them come at your academy at once? Fifty? One hundred? Five hundred? Now assume five hundred thousand of them coming at you without remorse nor retreat. How long do you think your defenses will last against that?”
And that had likely been the longest speech Cora had with a stranger.. or even a friend..
“You make a convincing case. We, at the academy, always believed knowledge was power—”, Mervlin began.
“No.”, Cora cut in. “It is not. Knowledge without deed is nothing.. You want to know how I know that?”
“By all means, do tell.”, the old dean said seriously.
“You now have knowledge because I just gave it to you. Should you choose to do nothing with it, that knowledge is nothing. Should you choose to do something about it, then it will become power.”
“I suppose we could argue about the merits of both sides..”, he mused.
“You could. I won’t. I am not a philosopher. I do not have the luxury to sit down and talk about things that will not feed my people or stay them alive.. I live by the sword, and one day at a time. If I am alive at the end of that day, I know I have been successful. You, on the other hand, live for your luxuries. Neither do you have the physical prowess to survive our standards, nor do you have the temperament for it. So you can lend a hand here and save your luxuries, or you can do it all alone when the enemy tramples over our corpses and comes to your gates..”
Seressa and Tonic were staring at her. Ogling, really, for the barbarian girl had, in a sense, bulldozed right over their esteemed dean, the Great Mervlin!
Brom opted to quietly cough into his hand and hide his grin.
Mervlin squinted at her for a long, silent minute before he spoke again.
“Very well. What would you have us do, Cora Sleet of the Great Northern Tundras?”, he asked.
“I wouldn’t know. What can you do?”, she countered.
“If I may, perhaps I can offer a suggestion, Grand Master?”, Seressa said tentatively.
“By all means do, dear girl.”, Mervlin replied.
“Several weeks ago, there was a gathering of representatives of various powers from many cities of the kingdom. There were even guests representing civilizations and races from outside the kingdom.”, she began.
“Yes, my dear, I am aware of that meeting. Durkahan, Vodgar, Koruxan, Palantine, former Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen, the local dwarves and gnomes, and Endless Watch were all there, along with a very dangerous man from Drashan, and the four of you. The meeting was cut short by an assassination attempt upon pretty much everyone there.”, Mervlin said.
“Yes, sir. Before the attacks began, however, I made a peripheral suggestion that perhaps the famous Melshieve Gunships could bring Endless Watch Naphtha Teams, and their munitions, and drop them over the Orken as per need. The queen of the remaining Bari Na-ammen refugees, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, even offered to lend a sizable number of her elven archers to also board the gunships and protect them in case of aerial attacks.”
Mervlin’s frown turned deeper.
“Seressa..”, he said fuming from his nose. “..those gunships are, indeed, quite sturdy, and I do believe they would be just as effective as you assume they would. They have, however, never been battle-tested and only used for scouting missions. Their crew is comprised mostly of engineers, researchers, and students interested in weather forecast and migration patterns of various bird species.”
“They also carry ATAT’s —Air To All Terrain Cannons and.. Storm Kites!”, Seressa said with elated happiness..
Mervlin stared at her through his spectacles like he was trying to establish just how dense a particular student was.
“Miss Seressa.”, he began with a tone that suggested a speech that would likely involve much disappointment by the time it was done. “That you would even offer such a silly thing, is sad, as are those kites. They are on the gunships in the hopes that one of the students would get drunk enough to try them, or go for them on a dare! They have absolutely no safety to speak of, they have threadbare skeletal structure, they have very low carrying capacity, and should they suffer any damage, they would plummet down and into the ground, not unlike a concussed rock!”
“Actually, their design is quite sound, sir. I know, because I was offered the job as a Storm Kite pilot back at the Academy. I inspected the plans and the ones already built.”, she replied with excitement.
Tonic rolled her eyes.
“Girl, those things are corpses waiting to happen!”, she sneered at her pair.
“My dear girl, are you aware that the last ALL test pilots ended up splattered all over the cliffside of the Academy?”, Mervlin inserted.
“Yes, sir, I am. I am also aware that none of those test pilots had previous flight experience. I do. I also have personal safety options they lacked.”, she said with earnest enthusiasm.
“What do you wish to accomplish, should you succeed?”, the dean asked.
“To go down on history to be the first person, and woman, to have flown on a genuine, hand-made craft that does not use magic or alchemy to stay afloat, but pure aerodynamics and physics! And I can also carry two, Class-C Type Naphtha Grenades and drop them with acceptable precision. If I show how it is done, I am sure anyone can ride them.”, she offered with a breathless thrill. “The fact that cliff jumping with Storm Kites failed, by no means proves that they are unsafe. Those kites were built to fly after attaining a certain speed. The cliffs on the east side of the Academy are high enough to kill, should anyone fall, but not high enough for the kites to achieve their minimum speed to start their flight.”
“Well, crap!”, Tonic swore. “That actually makes sense. All you would need is to hook them to the side or under the gunships, rise high enough, then drop them, and their pilots, and if their infrastructure is indeed sound, they should stay at least afloat.. sort of like birds do with open wingspans. Dammit, girl, now you have me all hyped and I wanna try one too!”
“Awesome!”, Seressa whooped. “Master Brom, Cora, luv?”
“I will get on a gunship, but that is as far off the ground I am going to get.”, Brom replied sternly.
“Fair enough.”, she smiled.
“Just out of curiosity, why are we even going to be trying this, now? We do have a mission in our hands, you know.”, Cora said with a slight frown though her eyes did betray her curiosity was more than in the question itself.
Seressa held up one slender hand and turned to Grand Master Mervlin.
“Sir, we have concerned suspicions that the Orken, at this very moment, are using Serpent’s End to move their troops to hit Serenity Home from the rear. They may even hit Endless Watch from this distance. We were, however unable to verify our concerns due to the fact that we lack the means. But perhaps you may be able to help us on this matter?”
“Very shrewd, Agent Seressa. I was wondering why you insisted the interview take place here, in particular. I suppose that is rather obvious now.”, Mervlin said with a bemused expression.
Seressa showed the grace to blush.
“Well, sir, Tonic thinks we should rig the sides of this chasm with high explosives and just blow it down on top of them. Cora, here, would rather we verify that those down there are in fact, Orken troops and not some unknown and unrelated people.. as unlikely as that sounds, I personally agree with her good sensibilities.”, she explained. “Should you verify that there are, in fact, Orken troops moving down there, you could call in a gunship with naphtha grenades and we could burn and choke them, since bringing down the charm might not kill them all but burry some, from which they can dig themselves out.”
“Why not drop the grenades directly from the gunship?”, Brom asked. “Seems like the safer option.”
“No.”, Tonic said before anyone else could reply. “Dropping naphtha grenades from that high will miss their target more than they hit. We will have to drop altitude low enough to be able to aim without concern of the wind factor. We do not know just how high the flames from those grenades will rise, however, so we will be risking the gunship which can’t move away that fast, once it slows down for the aiming. A Storm Kite, on the other hand, will be flying right over the chasm and at an incredible speed. It will be far away by the time the grenades detonate.”
Cora made a ‘that sort of makes sense, I suppose’, sort of face, while Grand Master Mervlin sighed.
“I see you have given quite a bit of thought into this, Agent Seressa. You are as thorough as ever. As of now, I am suspending all non-aggression status of the Academy and initiating the A Tout Les Canon protocol, a first in its history, until such time as the Orken threat is gone, or at the very least, contained. Any member of the personnel will be given a choice to attend the war. Any that do will receive senior status and the full payment of a year for each month they serve. Any student in their fifth or sixth years may attend at will. Those that are in their third or fourth years will require their parents’ signed consent. Any student under that will be restricted from attending. Now. Let’s see what we have here..”
And just like that, the Academy of Melshieve declared open war, as Mervlin closed his eyes, made an odd gesture, murmured some things, and stood where he was.. for perhaps half an hour or more..
When he opened his eyes again, their vivid blues had turned several shades darker and his expression had become quite grim.
“Princess Cora, I believe you were right. Knowledge is, indeed, useless without deed. There are thousands of Orken troops moving east down there as we speak. I have sent word to the Academy to send all six gunships to Endless Watch immediately. I have also contacted Lord Alberdel Kandara of Endless Watch to prepare his naphtha teams, along with their munitions to be picked up and brought here. I guess it is time we battle-tested those flying coffins!”, he said harshly.
“How long will it take for them to get here?”, Cora asked.
“In a short few hours for The Chimaera to arrive. I had sent it to Endless Watch in case one of many unexpected eventualities occurred and it is on its way here at full throttle. The Adamant, The Basilisk, The Gauntlet, The Hammer, and The Manticore will arrive in five days, all loaded with Class-A Type Naphtha Grenades to drop from the deck and Class-C Type Naphtha Grenades for the squadron of Storm Kites each will carry on board.”
There was a stunned sort of silence, more so for Seressa and Tonic. They had hoped, and tentatively expected, at best, one or two gunships. Not all six!
Brom was silent because he had noted the ostentatious, and quite arrogant names they had designated to their ships. Apparently, Melshieve didn’t do anything without unwarded flair..
Cora fell silent because she wasn’t quite sure what all the names and ‘class-whatsits’ meant, but like her brushy little friend, she also thought they were a tad magnanimous.
“How many Storm Kites are there in a squadron.. thingy?”, she asked to get some perspective and scope at least.
“Eighteen.”, Tonic replied promptly. “Hells Bells, that’s a hundred and eight Storm Kites! They will be like a cloud of angry hornets over the battlefield!”
“That’s a five-day loss in waiting.”, Cora frowned.
“Do not be troubled, Cora Sleet, you will only need to wait untill The Chimaera gets here, which should arrive in a just few hours. We can start surveying Serpent’s End and find the best place to target. Once the others arrive, we may commence with the bombardment..”, Dean Mervlin said in his raspy voice.
“Alright. I suppose we wait, then. Brom, Tonic, with me. Let’s make sure this area is secure before we settle down. Seressa, perhaps you could scout from above?”, she said gruffly and took off with the scruffy little gnomic girl and the bushy-haired hobbit..
Seressa and Mervlin stared after the three as they diminished in the distance.
“She has a cautious but emphasizing will, that one.”, the dean mused.
“She has many qualities, sir. Her strong will is but one of them.”, Seressa said proudly.
“You have been gone for nearly eighteen years now, my dear girl. Your last report came in sixteen years ago. I sent trackers to find you and your pair. That’s what we do when we lose contact with our agents.. They found traces of you two somewhere northeast of some howling barbarians, then they lost you. The next time was when you were sighted at Arashkan, a month or so before its fall. Then there were rumors of two girls with your descriptions, having been sighted at a Scowling Hills, a local dwarven settlement, then again at the War Council at Serenity Home. You move in erratic patterns, my dear. Very unlike you. Though seeing that Miss Tonic has changed is an elevating sight. Almost as happy as seeing you with friends. The Academy did you a great disservice back then. But apparently, the mentality of our civilization hasn’t evolved enough.”
“It’s alright sir. I regret having missed all the socialization and the parties and the girls’ nights. But it gave me the opportunity to devour most of the Academy Library, and a larger portion of its archives..”, she said with a whimsical smile. “Besides, I doubt any of those girls ever had a girls’ night as awesome as Cora and I had. The wreck was legendary!”
“What interests me..”, he mused, peering at the very tall, very dark girl. “..is that you look exactly the same as the day you left. And so does your pair. But the change in your eyes, and your young Arcantonic’s attitude is too immense and profound to go unnoticed, for which I am not complaining. The contrast in either of your appearances and slump on both of your shoulders does beg an explanation though.”
“It does, doesn’t it!”, Seressa replied with a brilliant, but very slightly brittle smile.
Mervlin sighed, but let it go.
“If I may, sir.”, she asked tentatively. “I have always wondered; what happened to my Pink Garden after I left? Was it dismantled?”
“Oh, no, my dear Seressa. Someone else took over its responsibility, and care, and looked after your phloxes until she too, graduated. Even then, she took all of them with her, along with your cherry saplings when she left.”
“Ow?”, she said somewhat surprised and with a genuinely happy face.
“Yes. A devote, willow of a young lady by the name, Komoberi Anthea.”
✱ ✱ ✱
We will beach you within the hour, Sheriff Standorin.”, Captain Dagard Dreadhound said in his low, cold voice, staring out into the murky mists of the frozen Arashkan Lake, as he and the sheriff stood on the charred and rotting quarterdeck of The Plague.
“Beach me..”, the sheriff said with a bemused tone. “Sounds ominous. I hope it means, you or your men will take me, Lady Constance, and Hamna Vir, on a longboat, and drop us off at some secluded and convenient beach on the south banks of the lake.. Somewhere, where our mission will not be put to risk..”
“You are a thorough man, sheriff.”, Dagard grimaced.
“You are a man that requires thorough care and wording, Captain.”, replied Standorin.
A glint of savage amusement appeared in the captain’s, otherwise, cold eyes at the sheriff’s backhanded compliment.
“Why not ‘beach’ us now? All seems quiet.”, Standorin asked.
“All is quiet because the Orken wish to ambush us, sheriff, as we speak!”, Dagard replied coolly, turn slightly, and nodded at his new second mate.
The second mate nodded back and tapped the helmsman on one shoulder. The unmoving, petrified man suddenly came alive as if he’d been sleeping on his feet and turned the wheel..
..and The Plague lurched!
One moment everything was dead silent and still, with the dark, murky mist churning around them, and the next, the mist dashed aside, unveiling everything in fifty yards and with a shriek, The Plague was crashing and trampling over the score or so rough tree rafts full of Orken!
There was no finesse to The Plague’s onslaught. The helmsman steered and the charred and rotting ship trampled over the rafts and the Orken with the same impunity.. To give the Orken their due, they never once screamed in terror nor in pain as the jagged, steel ram affixed at its keel turned raft and Orken to a splintered and bloody mess.
Sheriff Standorin watched with disturbed distaste as The Plague finished its wide circle, effectively killing over four hundred enemies in under five minutes!
“Nobody shall murder The Plague again.”, he heard Dagard’s grimly satisfied voice from behind.
“A bit on the gruesome side.”, he murmured, staring down at the broken bodies of the Orken floating casually in the freezing waters of Arashkan Lake.
“As wars should be. An enemy should always know what to expect should they persist. And the Orken are persistent. I will give them their due on brevity and cunning, though. They have figured out how to find us in the mist. Their next approach will be better planned.”
Standorin cocked an eyebrow, but the captain of The Plague did not elaborate.
“Prepare yourself and the ladies, sheriff. We shall be dropping you off here.”
“Is that altogether wise? I expect there will be quite a few Orken troops at this particular beach, waiting their turn with more rafts.”, Standorin pointed out.
“Not for long.”, Dagard replied with an unpleasant smile..
..and nodded at his second mate again.
The Plague turned around and set a deadly course parallel to what Standorin suspected was the shoreline, though it was hard to see through the resettling mist. And with a series of low, heavy thuds, great balls of orange fire shot out of the rotting ship! The fireballs made a large, graceful arcs, then came down with hallow and howling booms! Wherever the fireballs struck, they splashed and spread, indiscriminately burning any and everything around..
The sheriff turned around to look back at the main deck and saw a dozen catapults there, all facing the shore, firing their deadly ammunition with non-stop accuracy! What creeped out the sheriff was, he hadn’t seen the catapults before, and not because he hadn’t noticed them, which was quite impossible, but because they just hadn’t been there.. However they appeared, there they were, now, and each of them was manned by several of the silent crew, being reloaded, drawn, cocked, torched, and dished out murder with mechanical economy!
And it occurred to him that should this ship, The Plague, someday turn against them, it had the potential to burn his town down to cinders in no time. He took a mental note to ask Nimbletyne Tinkerdome to invent something that could block approaches both up and down the Arashkan River leading to and from Serenity Home to prevent just that..
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that, sheriff.”, Dagard said, as if reading his thoughts. “Your precious town was the only place that bothered to sign a treaty with Drashan, and hence, acknowledged them as a sovereign kingdom. And your Yuleman paid up this year’s due upfront like he did every year since the treaty was put in place.”
“There’s always the greedy and the shortsighted.”, Standorin replied.
“Yes. There is.”, Captain Dagard acknowledged. “Good thing they also last short. Cold, heartless, murdering bastards the lot of them may be, but Drashan does not suffer fools. You may tell Lady Constance to get up here. What little rest The Plague has offered her is over. My men are preparing the longboat.”
With a careless wave of his hand, the crow’s nest, high up the main mast plunged down and dumped it’s content on the deck; Hamna Vir! The sullen half-born girl stumbled out of the nest, cursing in blistering oration as the ship continued to bombard the shore and scourging everything in sight..
“I am not a good man, Sheriff.. Damned, you might even say, but that girl has a truly foul mouth!”, he said, staring down at the waspish half-born from the quarterdeck.
“We all have our quirks and oddities, I suppose.”, Standorin replied as he started towards the main deck.
“You owe me a second mate, Sheriff Standorin.”, Dagard said quietly, but pointedly.
“You owe me and Lady Constance an apology, Captain Dagard. You knew how things stood between us, and you still went for her. Not a gentlemanly thing to do. The cost of your second mate was the price of your own doing.”, Standorin replied adamantly.
Captain Dagard stared down at the sheriff standing on the main deck. Standorin could see many thoughts crossing the captain’s cold eyes and many of them ill-fated, to be sure, but it was what he would settle, would define just how smart, and deadly he really was.
“It’s been a long time I have been bested by a mere Mortal.”, Dagard said through clenched teeth.
“I wouldn’t call it bested, Captain. It was a group effort on our part. Turns out, a sheriff and a liaison do make a decent team..”, Standorin replied with a grin and went below deck to the cabin reserved for the previous second mate. Quietly, he knocked on the door and entered.
To say Sheriff Standorin was quite taken by what he beheld more than enticing was much like saying the sun rose from the east, traveled sedately across the sky, and settled somewhere off west..
The beautiful, alluring half-born girl was sprawled on the box-like bed, her dark, silky hair scattered, her shapely breasts peaking through her otherwise modest dress, her slender, calling figure curled in a fascinating ‘S’ shape, and there was a peaceful smile on her face.
Standorin had noted many nuances about Constance the day they had first met. Her dark, cherry-red mouth was one of them; how its shape would settle somewhere between a smile and mirth. It was a mouth that said, I am content..
“Uhhmm..”, Standorin stumbled and stammered, for suddenly, he didn’t know how to wake the beautiful girl!
He coughed, politely into his fist.
When that didn’t work, he sort of steered into the cabin, which wasn’t all that big, and settled himself on the wooden boards.
“Constance? It.. it’s time to go.. Are you awake?”, he mumbled.
And suddenly he was eighteen all over again!
“You are pretty.”, he blurted. “More so than usual.. for some reason.”
The alluring girl still didn’t budge, but a very faint color did appear around her cheeks.
“I.. would very much have wished we were back at Serenity Home now..”, he said, more to himself.
The pretty girl sprawled form relaxed just a tad more causing her slender figure to become even more calling.
“All the things we could do..”
Her dark cherry mouth turned a tiny bit up and she took a deep, expectant breath..
“I mean.. I would love to ax some wood and cook some diced kababs with pan bread with you!”
The girl went still.
Then popped open her eyes and stared at Standorin with a frown.
“You want to ax wood and cook?!”, she asked with a distinct pout!
The sheriff grinned at her.
“You have a lovely pout, by the way.”
“You want to ax wood and cook..”, she repeated, clearly disappointed.
“But of course. Everything is better after a good, physical sweat and a delicious kabab.”, he grinned at her some more. “Thought you were asleep.”
“I was. Got better when you said I was pretty, then ruined it all with house chores!”, she said with irritation.
“You look adorable when you are irritated, too, by the way. But I stand by my word; everything is better after a good, physical sweat and a delicious kabab. If you think about it, I am sure you would agree.”, he smiled.
“I wouldn’t know. I have never axed wood, nor eaten any kababs.”, she said, returning back to her pouting.
“I guess I shall have to remedy that. To that end..”, he said, leaned in, and gently kissed her.
It was perhaps after several minutes later he drew back, both their faces flushed.
“Let’s finish this mission and return home.”, Standorin growled.
“I agree.”, she replied, her chest heaving breathily.
“Never had the opportunity to ask, do you like my home? It isn’t much but—”, he began.
“—I never sat on a warm couch and watched the cinders die down before I met you.”, Constance whispered, staring into his eyes. “That evening, when you took me from the temple’s dormitory to your home.. it was memorable for me. For it was the first time ‘fire’ meant something other than charring pain and unbearable suffering.. And sitting next to you.. was so soothing.. You have a mature vibe about you that transcends the need for mere skin satisfaction.. As tired and worn as I was, I very much wanted you that night. But you gave me more than that. You made me realize what it meant to actually be with someone.. I never got to apologize for having fallen asleep on you the way I did, but I must say, listening to your heart as I slept was something I shall treasure for life.. That is why I felt so hurt when you rebuffed me after the attack.. I was suddenly so afraid that I would never hear that heart again..”
“I am sorry I rebuffed you. I.. am not so good with women.. And have tried to stay them at bay for as long as I have.. after Limnia died.. You.. you confused me.. and filled me with wont.. And hope that I could actually have it.. Then reality reared its ugly face and we were attacked. You say you were afraid.. It is hard for a man in my position to admit that he was afraid too. Not with the safety of the whole town, and all the refugees, and the coming war.. I must find a proper way to thank Liaison Hamna Vir. She beat me over the head with my fears, and my stupidities, in her own way, and made me realize, what are we fighting for, if not for the ones we love and care?”, Standorin said seriously.
Then he rose and gently pulled his new bride out of the bed. “Having you sleep all over me that night, and so free of burden was a night I would like to repeat, Constance.. And soon.. Let’s go and get this bloody mission over with!”
A Tout Les Canon protocol; a protocol that gives a pause to all non-aggression and ‘observe-only’ stance of the Academy of Melshieve. The phrase, A Tout Les Canon, means; Fire All Cannons, in French —a tiny reference to the last scene in the movie, The Patriot, by Mel Gibson..
The Melshieve Gunship names were chosen from Star Wars, Imperial Star Destroyers! A bit ironically..