It has been some time, little one. Many a things have I heard since you left. Of big happenings.. Of things moving; beast and man, elf and dwarf.. I hear the voices of the long-lost, waiting to be heard again.. Waiting in anticipation. Yet I hear another voice. Stronger now.. Louder. The one I warned Yours —the former Ritual Guardian.. It calls to us.. And it is not the voice of a mortal.. It is a dark voice.. Dark like untended, besmirching smoke.. I hear, also, whispers among the trees.. and the leaves.. and the winds.. and they say a new Ritual Guardian is among us.. And I sense the tender touch of a little girl in many of these big happenings. There is also a new grove, to the far north and east, where the mad mortal’s temple once was.. My ogres went there only to find.. peace! They lost all their bloodlust and all their hunger for hurt when they wandered it. They said the grove has an owner, little one..”, growled the nearly fourteen-foot tall giant of a woman, an ogress, with a harsh, vicious face, wild hair thickly braided many times, with arms and legs and body untoned and bearing awesome muscles and many scars; Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig stared down, a looming monstrosity, over the little girl with an adorable face, and beautiful, even horns.. and at the cold, silent man in his dark harness, emanating a certain, ‘wintery’ death..
“I have returned, mother Ganiste.”, very nearly whispered the little girl —her voice abashed and barely audible.
“If you will have me..”
One would never expect such frightening agility from Chieftain Grulganiste, and certainly not from a monster of her size..
Aager Fogstep almost dished out everything he had, when she moved.
One moment, she was standing and glowering, the next, she had the little girl, Inshala, in her massive arms and pressed against her impressively large breasts.
“No, my little one.. I will never have you because you never left. And my heart has ached since that unfair day.. This, you must understand.. This, your father tried so hard to learn you..”, she said with tears running down her brutish face.
“This, I understand now, mother Ganiste. I am so, so sorry.. I am not wise, but a foolish little girl..”, Inshala hugged the ogress back with a sob. “And.. I am so, so sorry for having hurt you and blamed you for my father’s demise..”
“Ow, no, my little daughter. You will not get away with one apology. Come.. I have food, and Chihuahua has missed you.”, smiled the giant ogress, leaned down, and carefully put the girl back on the ground.
“That was an awesome speech, by the way.”, said the little girl, somberly.
“It had better be. Been revising and revisiting it for quite some weeks, now..”, growled the massive figure.
She thundered a few great steps and opened the flaps of her tent and bid her, and the cold, dark man in.. the one she’d kept in her peripheral vision at all times and learned what she sought, the moment she’d grabbed for her little Inshala!
‘So. My daughter has found something that cares and savagely.. Yet.. in control.. barely..’, she mused as the two entered her tent, followed them in, and closed the flaps after her.
“Chihuahua!”, shrieked Inshala and grabbed a rather tinny dog with short legs and a pointy little muzzle, as it jumped on her, its butt waggling crazy.
This was followed by a lot of giggles and happy laughter as the tinny dog nuzzled and licked at her hands, her face, and her small feet.
Aager Fogstep stood watching the giant ogress, his Inshala, and the hyped little dog while he stood at one side of the tent flaps, the side that would likely be pushed open first.
Chieftain Grulganiste turned to her pots and pans, and started slicing some potatoes, onions, carrots and dumped them into a large pot, then dropped large chunks of meat, followed by various spices, then hung the pot over the large fire pit, close to the center of the great, hut-like tent.
It took a moment for Aager to realize the ogress was staring at him. Watching her preparing food with fluent, hypnotic motions as he stared at the fire in the pit, he’d drifted off.. He was standing and awake, but his awareness had gone, leaving his body on total auto-motion..
The ogress had also addressed him something and he’d missed that too!
That.. had never happened to Aager.
And the more interesting part was..
..realizing it hadn’t even bothered him.
What else he’d realized was, albeit, and yes, this was an uncivilized, barbaric tent, its interior was..
Aager Fogstep failed to come up with a word.
For he’d never really had it.
And it was the realization of this fact, that had come to him in shrapneled.. hurt?
..he heard Inshala’s small, breathy voice in his mind.
“This is home, my Aager. Not mine. Not yours. But a home. Her home. Mother Ganistes’ home. Here, she cooked. Here, she gave birth. Here, she laughed, and here, she mourned.. Here, she has fire, and here, she has Chihuahua..”
“The boy seems distracted.”, noted Grulganiste.
“I think so too.”, replied Inshala. “It is good that he is, mother Ganiste.”
“Yes. He is always alert. Always watching. Always fighting, and always bleeding. He needs respite.”, replied the little girl softly.
“And found it here, has he? In my tent. The tent of an ogress.. My my.. He must truly need this respite, you speak of.”, smiled the ogress. “Well, bring him back from wherever he’s gone to. I wouldn’t want the sheriff to accuse me for letting his man go hungry nor for inhospitality.”
“You know the sheriff of Serenity Home?”, suddenly asked Aager.
“Yes, boy. And for quite some time now. Has an itchy hand with his blade when it comes to my ogres, though I can’t say I blame him. Everyone’s got to protect their own and my sons and daughters can get out of hand at times.”, replied Grulganiste, without breaking a smile.
Aager stared at the giant woman with reassessing eyes. This.. ogress was a lot more than what she appeared to be, and that was saying something.
“Come, boy.”, repeated the giant woman as she brought huge, ogre-sized bowls and spoons and settled near the fire pit where the tiny Chihuahua and the little girl, Inshala waited with equal anticipation.
Aager Fogstep stared at the scene.
A giant monstrosity of a woman sitting cross-legged; their host, a girl that could barely reach up to her caft if she were standing on her toes, sitting across her; her guest, and a dog that was ‘small’ even by Inshala’s standards, let alone the great ogre!
It looked so unreal.. And hilarious.. But he kept his mouth shut and settled himself next to the little girl.
The chihuahua have him a warning growl, made sure the man in the dark leathers would behave himself, then promptly dismissed him when Chieftain Grulganiste put a cup the size of a respectable-sized bowl with some potatoes and a large chunk of meat in front of him. The chihuahua started to ‘wolf’ it all down with a mindless fervor!
*chomp* *chomp* *chomp*
Aager took a careful spoon of the food and only after he’d smelled it first.
Funny how that went.
Aager Fogstep, the cold, sinister man. The Winter Knight, a peer to the Winter Court, had a sensitive nose and bad food churned his stomach!
“You are a guest in my home, boy. It is polite to just eat it, you know. It is vegetables, potatoes, and cow!”, rumbled the ogress with an impressive scowl.
Inshala giggled as she ate hers with delight.
“He is a sensitive soul, mother Ganiste. Happily, I cook well and have had much practice.”
“Sensitive, is he?”, snorted the ogress. It seemed at first, she was about to make a pun remark, but for whatever reason, she must have changed her mind. “Sensitive can be good. My daughter is alsa sensitive. Will you smell her carefully, before you taste her too?”
“What?”, asked Grulganiste seriously. “It’s a pertinent question. Or perhaps he already has and that is why you are so skinny now!”
“M.. Mother.. Please.. Stop!”, begged Inshala with steam rising from her ears.
*chomp* *chomp* *chomp*
“This is what mothers do, little one. Ask impertinent questions. I am sure your father would have approved.. and snickered.. though not obviously. He was a thoughtful old man, particularly where you were concerned, after all.. Sour though he was.”, said mother Ganiste briskly.
“She smells like something wonderful. I lack words. And the ones I have, fall short.”, Aager said quietly, after wiping the food off his face.
“Does she, now?”, asked Chieftain Grulganiste with an awesome scowl.
“Yes.”, replied Aager simply.
“A.. Aager.. Please.. Stop!”, begged Inshala burning even brighter if that was even possible.
Apparently, it was!
“And she tastes like ‘Life’.”
“Not ‘beautiful’, not ‘delightful’, not ‘passionate’, not even ‘enjoyable’, but ‘life’.. Your choice of word is intriguing, if not impressive. And correct, for life has the potential of encompassing all.. You do not speak the words of a young fool, as fools are often young, much like their base wonts and shallow understandings. You will keep her safe, content, and desired, always, then? Or shall we break spoons, now?”, said the giant woman with a certain, implied menace.
“Your food smells and tastes good, Chieftain Grulganiste. I see no reason to break spoons.”, replied Aager formally.
Grulganiste cocked an eyebrow at the man in dark leathers.
“You wish not to talk about this, then?”, she asked.
“You may, as you would, Chieftain. This is your home and I am a mere guest. My Inshala is where I belong. I desire nothing more from her. But by the Great Heavens, nothing less, either.”, he replied calmly and succinctly.
Grulganiste, though, recognized that ‘calm’.. For it was the calm she felt only after she’d let her bloodlust have its way. Accept, this.. man’s ‘calm’ was before the bloodlust and there seemed no respite from it anywhere in his near future.
And then it hit her.
This man.. ‘danced’.. and perpetually, at the edge of insanity.. always.. He was as a feral wolf; savage, hungry, cunning and bloody mad!
And her little Inshala, was the lamb to that wolf..
‘Ow, my dear, dear girl. What have you done? To whom have given your beautiful heart?’, wondered the chieftain of all the ogres of Oger’s Foot in dread and hopeless fascination.
She stared fiercely at the cold man in dark leathers for a bit more.
“Very well.”, mother Ganiste said finally. “We shall put this issue and the breaking of spoons aside for the anon. Now, we shall take part the merry wisdom of my chihuahua to heart and eat.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Now, then. You came here at quite a critical time. Your enemies gather and in great numbers. The dwarven forges have been smoking non-stop for months, the foolish woodsmen carve spear shafts and great wooden stakes by the thousands, the elves enforce their woods with pits and traps as they fill quivers with arrows by the numbers I shudder to even assume. The humans to the south build walls and dig trenches day and night like their very lives depended on it, and by all accounts, it does!”, briefed the ogre chieftain in a low, rumbling growl that would have made any cave bear with a shred of sense to back off.
Aager Fogstep was, yet again, astounded at the accuracy of this giant woman’s astute perception. He had, and only once before, come to Oger’s Foot, some years ago, when a savage ogre called Cabot had come down from these hills and had started ravaging the lands. Serenity Home ranger masters Davien and Moorat had gone after him, but the ogre had been fast on his feet. He had gathered his followers and had made a run for it.. to the ruins of Themalsar, forcing the ranger masters to retreat. Then young Udoorin’s father, Sheriff Standorin, along with Davien, Moorat,Aager, more than half the guards of the town and no other that Lady Magella herself had come here, to these hills to give a harsh lesson to the ogres to behave themselves. They hadn’t met, nor seen Chieftain Grulganiste then. Looking back, now, Aager woke up to the fact that they really hadn’t seen all that many ogres at all!
‘Damn..’, he silently fumed. ‘We were played.. by ogres!’
Once again, he was harshly reminded that ‘the stupider’ something seemed, the more they ‘fooled’ the human’s ‘higher’ intellect!
Aager had never assumed, in any given time, that he was smarter than those around him. He prepared to stay silent and observe, hence at least give some semblance of ‘smart’. But being conned by one ogress?
That did nudge his self-esteem a notch or two down!
“If you are here to warn us not to join your foes, I have no desire to. Some of my more foolish sons and daughters might.. It is hard to curb the bloodlust when it comes. Particularly when their air stinks of it.. I shall resist ‘the call’, for as best as I can, for as long as I can., and will have nothing to do with this conflict. Should you see me and mine on the field, and waring against you, you may, by all means, slay me and mine, for it shall mean that I have fallen to ‘the call’. I would rather die with some semblance of honor on my own, than to rampage mindlessly for another..”, she rumbled calmly.
“We have not come to warn you, Chieftain Grulganiste.. Nor have we come to threaten you. Certainly not in your home.”, replied Aager carefully.
“Smart of you, not to.”, smiled Grulganiste terribly.
Aager paused for a moment before he spoke again, for whether this would be an official offer by Serenity Home, or a personal favor would be determined by what he would say next. Then he thought about the oncoming slaughter, and his pragmatism kicked in. He didn’t care how something got done, provided it wasn’t downright heinous. He cared that it did get done, and at this point, that was all that mattered.
Hence he looked at the little girl, Inshala..
He wasn’t looking at her like she was a little girl anymore, even if her mind worked and prompted her, at times, to do things that would make her seem like one.
He was looking at not just the ‘person’ he belonged but at the daughter of Lady Alisia and the late Delia Karakash Hooman, the surrogate daughter of the departed Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, the daughter of the chieftain of all the ogres of Oger’s Hill, Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig, the mistress of The Grove, The Ritual Guardian and by defacto, a citizen of Serenity Home and Gull’s Perch, the wont of both Mab, the Winter Queen and Titania, the Summer Queen and..
..he was looking at the young woman he loved and cherished by her mere existence.
Just when had that shift in his perspective occurred, Aager Fogstep couldn’t say.
The fact that it had, told him some things..
Carefully, he kept his composure and nodded at the young woman.
“Ritual Guardian..”, he spoke. “If you would.”
Chieftain Grulganiste cocked an eyebrow at him, then at the young woman.
“Respect..”, she said. “Good. For it’s there, only if it’s there.”
“Mother Ganiste.”, Inshala said softly. “We shall not confine you with demands. We come as beggars.”
“Ow?”, said Grulganiste.
“Yours can not stand, while the blood of the innocent spills by the thousands. Your own blood shall boil in wont and willy-nilly, the madness of its lust will drive you to war. We only beg, you choose when and where to release your blood and your lust for it..”, said the young woman, her eyes wide and pleading.
“What are you asking of me, girl?”, demanded Grulganiste.
“Join us, mother. Your daughter, and your forest of whom you have shared her bounties for centuries.. we need you.. Now, more than ever..”
“You are asking me to join with the elves and the dwarves and the humans who have hunted us for the said centuries and in our forest? You have gone mad!”, she roared and the hut-like tent tremored.
“Mother.. Chieftain Grulganiste..”, she said solemnly. “We go to this war with the intent of not coming back because we will not retreat, nor run, or hide.. These are choices, just not ours.. If your choice is to stay here as we bleed and die, then this shall be the last you shall see of your Father’s daughter.”
Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig just sat there, cross-legged and quietly petrified.
“You come here, to my hills and to my home, you eat my food and dare to threaten me? With your demise?”, she thundered with a horrible, torturous voice.
“No, mother Ganiste. I only speak my truth, as I always have.”, replied Inshala, bowing her head.
Grulganiste turned and with burning eyes, she very nearly burned Aager where he sat with her glare.
“Has this one put these foolish thoughts into your head, girl?”, she snarled.
“Mother, please. He spoke so I would go away, far away, when the slaughter began.”, replied the young woman quietly again.
“Then why will you not listen to him?”, snarled the ogress with much fury.
For a moment Inshala paused. Then, slowly she lifted her head, then herself. Step by step, she came at the giant woman and hugged her. One sitting, the other on her toes, and the young woman still looked so very diminished as she clung to the ogress.
“Because the running cannot belong, my beloved mother Ganiste.. You must know, for the first time, I belong.. Will you deny this one wealth, from me?”, she replied Inshala desperately, as she sobbed.
“You belong to this man?”, Grulganiste asked in some surprise.
“I belong to this man, mother Ganiste.”, she whispered again. “He is my hills. My trees. My garden. My day. And my night, mother. He is my land and my forest.. And my home..”, said Inshala in a voice that sounded so lost, yet so happy.
“And what has he promised you? What does he give you in return?”, asked the ogress, somewhat freaked!
“His life, mother. This, he has already given..”
Chieftain Grulganiste pushed Inshala away at arm’s length and just stared at her, then at Aager like a mother was looking at her foolish children whose excuses were worse than their deeds..
“But know, mother, the Orken shall not leave you at peace, should they trample over our corpses. You know this to be true, for you recall what they did when they first came.”, Inshala said softly. “They shall come in number and trample over yours as well.. And take your hills, and your sons and daughters away from you, and push them into service of nothing less than darkness!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig stood up. With tangible wrath visible and plainly etched on her face, she stormed out of the tent, though not too far, for both Aager and Inshala could hear her great strides trample back and forth as if trying desperately to blow some steam, but failing horribly.
“What now?”, asked Aager quietly.
“Now we wait, my Aager Fogstep. We have told her our wont and given her choices. It is up to her now. She must do what she thinks would best serve her and hers because she is the chieftain of her people.”, replied the young woman.
“She must love you much, my Inshala. I saw fear once, and only once in her eyes. And that was when you said you would not go away, but join the slaughter.”, noted Aager in a hushed voice. “I would have a word to say about your decision to stay, love. My inner voice says, send her away, even should it break her heart. There are many Aager’s in the world.. There’s but one of her! Please, my Inshala.. If I have one wish, I would wish you to go.. and live.”
The young woman stared at Aager with a broken expression.
Then, large, shimmering tears swelled in her eyes and slid down her small face.
“You.. wish to break our bond?”, she asked in a voice that could only be called; ‘desperation’.
“I would wish, that you lived.”, replied Aager and bowed his head, unable to look at her.
“And did you live.. before?”
“No. I did not, my heart.”
“And you think I lived? You wish me gone, knowing I shall die some, every day? You hope to preserve me while you die, knowing I shall not? Why? Why would you do this to me? We.. we promised to be stupid together. Does this promise falter at our first trial?”
“No, Inshala. We have had many trials together. You know this to be true.”
“Yes. I do know this to be true. But you fail to reason; distance will keep me safe, and perhaps assure my survival. But it will not keep me alive.. Not really.. If you truly want me gone, however, I shall.”
Aager cursed himself.
He had never wanted her hurt. But he had.. What else he had done, was to have made her choices for her. Did he really have the right to that? Yes, they belonged. But was he, perhaps unwittingly, abusing the ‘trust’ of their bond? And a tad too casually?
Then he figured..
..the monumental arrogance he was displaying without even knowing because he thought he knew things, and life better..
Keeping her away was just as selfish as telling her to stay.
It wasn’t up to him in the first place.
His Inshala had desperately wanted his love, certainly, but she wanted his respect more.
Yes, she looked so little, but she was not all human.
She was little.. and yet she was more..
Aager finally figured out what it was, his shift in perspective was telling him; that he should quit treating her by his stupid, narrow, quite conventional, and mortal standards, but by hers..
“No. To stay, or to go, is a choice you must make. I.. I do not want you to go.. I never wanted it.. I want you to stay, always.. Will you? Please?”, he asked silently.. and desperately..
..and she was in his arms.
“I never left.”, she whispered. “And stay, I shall. We.. we promised, my Aager, we PROMISED..”
The tent’s flaps pushed open and Grulganiste stood there, glaring down at the two.
“You..”, she said. “..truly love this man?”
“I do.”, replied Inshala, still in Aager’s arms.
“You..”, she said, glaring down at the man in dark leathers. “..truly love my daughter?”
“I do.”, replied Aager simply.
“And should something happen to either of you..?”, she asked and there was nothing but a baleful storm in her face.
“The other shall die.”, Inshala quietly.
“Why? Why would you make such a pact? To what purpose would you make this pact, girl?”, she thundered.
“Purpose? None, mother. Only to belong. It is a feeling like no other. It transcends.. This, you must accept, mother Ganiste.”, Inshala replied tenderly.
“Very well, Inshala.. I shall join you and yours in this slaughter.”, she said very, very harshly.
“Thank you—”, began the young woman.
“—In return..”, cut in the vastly angry ogress. “..you will uphold your father’s promise to me.”
Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane stared at Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig with a horrified expression.
“No, mother Ganiste. I beg of you. Do not ask this of me.. Anything but this..”, she pleaded.
“It is not a choice I am giving you, Inshala. It is a debt; Father to Daughter Passed..”, she replied with a frosty expression. “Will you honor it?”
“Will you honor it?”
“Will you not honor your father’s debt? His promise?”
“WILL YOU HONOR IT, INSHALA?”, roared the giant ogress.
“..I will..”, replied Inshala in a small voice.. and Aager held her fast as she burst into uncontrolled, unhinged tears and wept..
She wept with a terrible loss..
Aager held her and stared at the giant ogress.
“What debt have you tasked her to honor, Chieftain?”, he very nearly snarled.
“Her father, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, promised to slay me when my time came, young man.. He failed to do so, for he was slain ere he could.”
“I shall honor this task for her.”, he spat, without even thinking.
“No, boy.. You are not part of the debt, nor the honor. I do not know you and you are neither my respected enemy nor my loved one. This is not something that is covered in whatever pact, bond, or accord you have made with one another.”, she replied harshly.
“Will you not respect the Winter Knight, then? And spare my Inshala —your daughter, the pain?”, he asked, suddenly desperate.
“I respect Mab, and I respect the Winter Mantle. A heavy and dreary burden it is, and will likely drive you mad in the end and get my daughter killed as well.. But I do not know you.. Again, this is not your trial, nor your debt..”, replied and her voice was calm again.
Aager inadvertently staggered.
This ogre not only knew of Mab and of her Winter Knightshe also knew of the Winter Mantle!
“Why? Why would you do this to her? She is ‘daughter’.. She loves you..”
“Because, the bonded of my daughter, love is beautiful. And it is harsh. It is not a word to be spent with ease. It demands.. always demands.. And is tested upon death.. Hence we ask this of only the enemy we respect or from the ones we love..”
Chieftain Grulganiste stared down at the two of them and something shimmered in her eyes, but for a mere moment.
“Now go.. I have many preparations to make. We must all make a pilgrim to The Grove to cleanse our souls.. Then gather.. For humans with false words, I lost my mother, my father, my greats, and many kin.. This time, I shall go to slaughter on my own accord. We shall make these Orken scream in pain, for they shall receive nothing less from us. Do not mourn your debt, my daughter. Perhaps I shall fall in the coming slaughter and free you of it..”
It isn’t the life-threatening moments that makes us realize the value of those we love..
Sometimes it is the silly things..
..such as coloring pictures in a children’s book..
This story takes place several days after The Oathbreaker (Part Four) and after Aager Fogstep and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane defeat the tyrannic oathbreaker; Lord Tarakadahan Karkashi in a very bloody duel to the death.
Aager Fogstep held Inshala close and tightly to himself for she was in mourning and because her soft warmth was the only thing that kept him from screaming in pain. The little girl held a sad, broken piece of dry twig in her small, delicate hands —the only discernable part left of what was once a giant walking tree; Snare! True, Snare had never been a ‘nice’ tree, but rather a vicious, sour, and one old cuss of a monster. He had, however, kept the little girl safe and company during their stay at Arashkan, before the city’s fall, hiding in plain sight among other trees, deep in Heaven’s Park, and had helped both her and Aager in their numerous encounters.
This last fight, however, had just been once too many for him. The tyrannic lord, Tarakadahan Karkashi, had come down on the grumpy old bark like ten thousand axes and smashed him into the ground. And now, his tiny mistress held the only bit of what was once a grumpy, eighteen-foot tall monster..
“When we.. get out of this stupid.. arena..”, Aager grinded his teeth. “I want you to go with Lady Alisia and Moira..”
Inshala looked up at him through her tear blotched face.
“No. You are hurt. I need to—”, she started.
“Inshala. Don’t argue with me. Not now.”, he cut in harshly. “This is an excellent opportunity for someone to take advantage of and make an attempt on your mother’s life.. Or Moira’s.. Or yours.. You must watch over them as they watch over you.”
“But.. What about you?”, she asked with a pleading voice.
“I hold no power in this city, love. I am a nobody here. I am not of the nobility and I carry no titles. I am not even a squire, let alone a lord. Not that I would want to be one. Ever..”
“..The only person that would have benefited from my death is dead! Anybody else coming at me will gain nothing from my demise. You, on the other hand, hold the city in your hands and it will take but one fool to ruin everything we gained today should he attack you, your mother, or Moira.”, he said through his gritted teeth.
The pain of his dislocated shoulder was getting at him and trying to rationalize why he wanted her to go, rather than to stay and watch him suffer was taking every ounce of his remaining strength.
“Please. Do this for me.”
The great gates leading in and out of the arena parted with a booming echo, smoldering any objections the little girl might have said, and Lady Alisia, followed closely by Lady Moira, Captain Fardashi, and half a dozen guards came running at them.
“Okay. I am going to let go of you now. You mustn’t show them any tears because everyone is watching you. Be strong and go with your mother.”, he hissed quietly.
“Sir Aager..”, Lady Alisia called as she stared at him, and at the little girl holding a piece of twig, with unveiled awe.
“Lady Alisia..”, Aager greeted the First Lady of Durkahan with a barely contained voice behind his leather half-mask. “..Lady Moira. If you would be kind enough to escort Lady Inshala to your quarters whilst she could rest. She has had a trying day.”
Lady Alisia ogled at the bloodied, sinister-looking man in his dark leathers.
“Please..”, added Aager with emphasis and giving a quick glance at the watching crowd.
Lady Alisia’s face lit with comprehension.
“Of course, Sir Aager. Daughter, please come with me. We must get you out of those bloody clothes at once. I believe a nice hot bath, a meal, and sleep will do wonders to you.”, she said as she held the little girl close to her, nodded at Aager.
And with Moira on the girl’s other side, they started back towards the arena gates as the guards fell in formation around the women.
For a moment Aager was left behind and he gave some serious thought to whether he should just surrender to gravity and fall where he stood.
..said a gravelly voice from behind him.
The fact that he hadn’t even heard that someone was actually standing behind him without his notice was definitive proof that the man in dark leathers was about to lose it soon.
“I’d love to give you a hand and carry you out, but that would totally ruin your ‘cool’.. And I am not sure I’d even get the hand back!”, he recognized Fardashi’s amused voice.
“That was one hell of a fight, young man. Hard to be impressed when you get to a cussed old age like mine but, what can I say, I am impressed. Good thing I didn’t tell you to buzz off the night you two came at the city gates. Will you be able to make it until we get out of here? People with nothing better to do love watching the victor drop dead after a good show!”, the old captain said lightly. A bit like the way he spoke right before he had smashed in the castle guard commander’s face in, about a week ago.
“I think so.”, grinded Aager, and took a stubborn step forward.
✱ ✱ ✱
Stand guard here.”, commanded Fardashi at the guards, pointing at the door. “I must see to the Ladies than make sure the rest of the city is all well and good.”
Just before he left, however, he paused, gave a thoughtful look at the door, frowned a little, and quietly added, “Whatever happens, don’t enter the room!”, he warned.
The guards looked at their captain, then at the door, and hastily nodded.
Aager stood in the darkness of his room. The one he had been given shortly after their arrival at the inner castle of Durkahan city. It was barely ten strides in either direction with two, separate, single-beds, a small chest at the feet of each bed, a decent-sized cupboard, a high, rectangular table complete with a large washing pan, two blocks of soap, and several neatly folded rough, gray towels and one, slit of a window that seemed to stare gloomily at the arse end of a rigid, stone tower rather than at the city, but it still seemed cavernous compared to his tiny, one-room house back at Serenity Home. That house at least had had a larger window —two, in fact, now that Aager had a moment to think about it. Not that he preferred large windows —or any window, and he certainly had never fancied homes with scenic views, but that house —his home— had had them anyway; an easy to climb in and out window with a view to one of the town’s mildly busy streets. The other, he’d boarded the day he had moved in, years ago, because it had provided too big a security flaw for his taste, and because it was a window, it also provided a natural security ‘gap’.
He grimaced in pain at the jarring irony there;
Security Gap – Open Window!
Apparently, Aager thought, he had a bit too much free time in his hands, since he had the luxury for such delinquent ironies. But there was a point to that irony.. and the boarded window now. It used to open to a rather picturesque view of the back garden. Not so much picturesque since Aager had moved in, as it was full of dead plants and ugly, barbed, and thorny weeds. But should his Inshala come to Serenity Home, he could open that window while she did some things nice with that garden. And perhaps they could share responsibilities at that point as well; he could keep an eye on the street side window like he always had, and she could cover the garden side!
Alright, the man in dark leathers, hood, and mask thought. There was something genuinely wrong with that thought!
He doubted anyone in that town ever ‘covered’ their windows with the metaphorical fanaticism as he did.
Or rather, no one else..
He shrugged —his other shoulder.
At least with both windows open, his home would be ‘sunny’.. Unlike how this chamber would ever be..
This chamber was dark at noon, pitch at night, and was slightly on the musty side.
More like a lair.. or a den, really. Men like him did not have suits or chambers.. They had lairs!
Just how he preferred it..
..just how he should have been preferring it, as awkward as that phrasing sounded!
But for whatever reason, however, he did not.
Yes, he had come here every night, washed off the day’s dirt here, slept here, and ate here, quite laconically, too —many times. For the same, ‘whatever reason’, however, that just didn’t seem to ‘cut’ it anymore. He felt ‘blank’.. more than empty, here. A blank he had come to recognize very slowly and growing recently.
He stared at the dark walls of the chamber, all the while sweating profusely in pain.
Carefully he chose a specific stone.
Not that it mattered, but focusing on something in particular had always given him a sense of purpose. And that purpose, now, was not going to be fun..
Slowly, he walked up to the stone he had selected and stared at it with baleful eyes.
“I am sorry, love.”, he growled with pure, unadulterated self-loathing, swung his shoulder once, twice..
..and smashed it into the stone and wall!
A horrid, meaty crack was heard by the guards outside followed by a feral roar of pain..
..and something stumbled over and the room fell silent.
Somewhere two floors above, Fardashi ran back into Lady Alisia’s quarters, his sword drawn, when he heard the single, shrill scream of a girl in savage pain!
✱ ✱ ✱
And what do we have here?”, asked Aager, entering his chamber/lair/den, late one night, several days later. The proceedings, the meetings, the strategic plannings, and the secretive, impromptu ‘hallway’ chats on how they should mobilize the Durkahan Army, and which route they would take to reach Serenity Home in time were taking their toll on him. He felt like the sore merchant of some vast trading company, bargaining for rights of free passage through man-eating local’s lands.. without getting et!
..or possibly the CEO of some bank trying to stay afloat during an economic crisis!
“I am coloring this book that Master Cümeyt was kind enough to give me.”, Inshala replied from where she lay on the thick, pale beige carpet. Aager knew it was pale beige because the guard who had brought it had told him so like it held some significance and in all likeliness, it probably did. Just not for Aager..
..in any way that would be significant.
But then, this whole carpet thing was a new addition to his chamber/lair/den and seemed disturbingly out of place.
Feral beasts like him did not do carpets, nor cushions or loveseats..
Alright, there weren’t any loveseats in his chamber now either, and Aager did not really want to know what a loveseat was, but there were any number of colorful cushions, thrown on the said, pale beige carpet.
Aager scowled at the thick, soft, comfy thing and its fluffy little companions, and they scowled back at him..
..with compounded smug smirks because they knew they had won, and there was not a buggery bum he could do about it!
He certainly wouldn’t have asked for them, had it been up to him. But the young girl had taken a habit of bringing things her new brother, Cümeyt, or her new sisters Madine and Maira, and even Moira would give her, to here, and either play with them or draw pictures —on the cold, stone flour.. Hence, Aager had asked one of the guards if he would be kind enough to bring in a carpet, for Lady Inshala’s benefit.
And a cushion or three, while he was at it..
Or even if he weren’t kind enough!
Aager did not recall having put any such emphasis, but the thick, soft carpet had arrived within ten minutes followed by the half a dozen or so cushions..
And now, said Lady Inshala was here, lying flat on her little tummy, her skinny legs swinging up with lazy contentment and coloring what appeared to be some sort of flower in the book with little, colorful sticks scattered around.
“Crayons”, Inshala had told him with knowledgeable accomplishment.
They were called crayons.
The sinister-looking man in dark leathers thought that sounded suspiciously like a fancy name for some kind of deathly and dermal poison!
Then there was this coloring-book-thing!
Aager had never seen a book that could be, or even should be, colored before. Would have been a surprise if he had. He wasn’t sure if anyone back at Drashan had ever seen one, either.
Drashan aside, why would he?
And what was the point of buying a book, and books weren’t cheap, then doing all the work by coloring it yourself, anyway? Apparently, some smart artisan was making a lot of money by openly cheating his customers!
The nerve some people had in this world..
What kind of a demented idiot would even buy—
Aager opted to stop making combustive, mental commentary at that point.
Whatever he was about to say about said idiot, one of them was already here, and apparently, he was about to be the other by joining her!
“Would you like to join me for some? Before I am called back to sleep in my room?”, she asked smiling up at him.
It was quite obvious this coloring thingy was something she had liked a lot, Aager noted, because not only did the young girl seem happy, but she also appeared content. And there was a distinct sense of serenity about her, which made her glow in an altogether new kind of beautiful.
“Maybe..”, smiled Aager as he pulled off his dark, leather hood, undid his mask, and tossed them both on his bed. Then unbuckled his leather armor, and his belt, ridding himself of his swords and daggers, and carefully set them aside.
“You want me to pout, don’t you?”, asked the girl honestly.
“Very much.”, replied Aager in kind. “You could win just about any argument with me using only the pout.”
“But.. I do not want to argue with you. Arguing is not nice. It tarnishes some things between people. And I think it becomes a habit in time and people start doing it without noticing anymore.. They argue about everything, and they do not recognize, both love and respect are now gone!”, she said..
..with a pout!
Aager was astounded, once again, at the depth of the young girl’s insight. Particularly when taking into account that this girl never had anyone to have argued anything in her past, save one, venerable old man, to have observed, and consequently, gained such insight.
“We are not doing this on the table, why? Seems easier on the knees.”, he asked as he knelt down across the little girl and on his stomach, pulled off his heavy leather gloves, stared at the flower in the book, which he assumed was some kind of a rose, picked up one of the red sticks, and carefully started to fill one of the pedals.
“I am not sure.”, Inshala replied.
Aager cocked an eyebrow.
“When.. when we sit around a table, the table is standing between us. That makes me feel like I am alone.”, she said, frowning slightly.
“We could sit next to one another, perhaps?”, he offered.
“We could. I suppose. But.. that feels like we are only friends.. Like Ranger Corporal Laila, or even Master Gnine are my friends.. I like friends and I like that they are my friends. And I like that Alor’Nadien ne and Udoorin are my friends. And how Lady is my friend. And Merisoul and even Anglenna are my friends. I want you to be my friend too, but not like them. I do not know the words. You should not be my friend like they are my friends. When we lie down on the floor like this while doing things or talking, however, it feels like we are actually sharing something.. and more than just these pictures and more than just words..”, she said, struggling to correctly phrase her mind.
Then she went a bit pink.
“And.. and our faces are much closer when we are lying down and coloring these pictures.. And I can watch you from this close, as well!”, she said with a blush.
And now Aager had both his eyebrows cocked up, for this insight did not belong to a little girl.
They colored the flowers and some other things that Aager was not always sure as to what some of them were. But they did it anyway and in content silence..
..for two hours straight.
He asked what color he should use when he wasn’t sure and the girl would look around for the appropriate stick, pick it up, hand it over to him, and say, “This!”, every time, with a happy, accomplished smile.
It was during those two hours Aager had the opportunity to think, or perhaps, contemplate on certain things.
He threw careful glances at the girl as she savagely colored the flowers, the stems, and the leaves, the sun, the clouds, the bees, and the bugs, and the dears, and the houses in the coloring book with child-like fervor.
He looked down at his own workmanship and noted his seemed more like he was dissecting the flowers, the sun, the clouds, the bees, and the bugs, and the dears, and the houses with jugular accuracy, waiting to be labeled and placed into their corresponding jars!
It was just about then, a number of things dawned on him.
The little girl was deliberately, or maybe the correct word would be, ‘inadvertently’, acting like a little girl because for the first time she had a genuine mother, a grandmother, three sisters, and a little, overtly smart, mischievous brother and hence she could afford to.. let go?
Or perhaps, drop her guard.
A something, Aager thought, was quite encouraging to see, yet altogether sad —in a way.
Thanks to young Master Cümeyt and the emo girl Madina, though Aager still did not quite understand what the buggery bum an ’emo’ was, she, Inshala, was catching up to everything she had missed during her own childhood, both because such entertainments had never been available to her, and it wouldn’t have mattered even if they had been, seeing as how solitary and dangerous a life she had lived.
He himself was pretty much in the same rickety boat as she was, dammit! When people looked at his Inshala, they saw a traumatized little girl, all the while thinking he, Aager, was the steady one and that at least he was ‘alright’.
Lying face down, coloring silly flowers and dears and bees and bugs, Aager Fogstep realized he was not alright. He realized he had never been alright, but always skirted at the edges of suppressed, angry insanity all his life. Coming to Serenity Home had been a blessing, certainly, but in a way, and unwittingly to be sure, that had merely diluted his very unhealthy mental status. Or camouflaged it, to put in a more astute perspective.
This little girl, Inshala, had come to his room, much like every other night, and shared everything she had seen, learned, felt, and experienced that day with him until late hours, in effect, making sure he healed as much as she did. Bit by bit, she was freeing herself from her fears, her desperations and her losses, all the while seeding her desolations with her mom, her grandma, her sisters and brother, while making new friends, and learning and experiencing the things left missing all her life. And by coming here, she was sharing her joys with him, in affect, bringing whole new norms into his life as well, even if only by proxy.
The beauty of it was, there was never been any deliberation in her actions at all. Only instinctual need to make him feel as good as she was feeling, and the irony in all of that was not lost on Aager.
Inshala was giving him surcease, just by being here and being herself!
Aager loved it!
Without any doubt.
All of it.
And knew, at that very moment, why he had felt thus ‘blank’ of late.
For he had just recognized, with quiet fervor, that he could no longer tolerate her being just a ‘part’ of his life..
He wanted to be all of hers!
“You seem.. odd tonight. Lost in thought and distracted and your hands are drawing without consulting you.”, whispered Inshala, staring into his eyes.
“I am odd every night.. And distracted much of late.”, replied the man in dark clothes, a tad gruffly.
“A gold coin for your thought?”, she smiled. “I have a gold coin. I think.. I could go and get it if you like.”
“I doubt my thoughts are worth a gold, love.”, Aager said quietly. “But I will share them with you. Just as soon as I understand them myself. I promise.”
“I could ‘pout’ them out of you, you know!”, giggled the girl.
“I think you have been with Master Cümeyt for far too long, love..”, mourned Aager.
“He has shown me so many interesting things. Did you know there is more gossip going on here, in this place, than among the fey at Gull’s Perch? You would think a city full of paladins would have a bit more honest people!”, she said a bit disturbed.
“Ow? Is there some theft going on? That kind of behavior should be discouraged.”, said Aager with a frown and felt no guilt or shame, whatsoever, at the fact that being a thief was what he had started his long line of an uncouth carrier in the first place. But thieving had never really been any more than a stepping stone for him. Sort of something he’d had to endure in a ‘just do it’ sense until better options had presented themselves. If anyone he’d known had been an outright thief, it had been that Darly Dor kid —which did also explain why he had disliked him so much..
“No, no.. Nothing like that. It’s just something I learned, that many people are sleeping in someone else’s room and few wake up where they are supposed to!”, mumbled the girl as she slapped her tiny feet together for emphasis as she totally drowned a sunflower in dark purple with vehemence.
“People are strange sometimes. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. And I am not sure that’s the color for that picture, love.”, said Aager, pointing at her page.
“It isn’t. I am just angry. That is why it is purple. My sunflower is angry too!”, she said unhappily.
“Ow? Why are you angry? Did something happen?”
“I do not know.”, came her frowning voice in his mind. “I am sorry. You are tired and have been keeping me company when you should be sleeping and now I am afflicting you with my silly!”
“True. I am tired. But doesn’t ‘keeping company’ work the other way around as well? And let’s not go to ‘silly’, please. I haven’t even begun my daily ranting yet!”, he replied in an amused tone. “Now tell me, what has gotten you riled up?”
“I do not know.”, she repeated. “I am put out that people don’t wake up where they should, yet I am doing the same thing. I go to sleep in my room, but wake up here all the time.. Is something wrong with me?”
“Uhhmm..”, said Aager, not sure as to what he should say or how he should respond, really, so he tried for a casual sort of tone. “I.. do not think what you and they are doing is quite the same, love.”
“How so?”, she asked glumly.
“Well..”, he began but faltered. “..Possibly because when you come here every night, I call your name, every time, but you don’t hear my voice. You truly are asleep. You come, your stand before my bed, hold out your arms, and just.. stay there. Took me by surprise the first time you did it, and even more, when I finally figured out what it was you demanded.”
“I.. I demanded something from you? I shouldn’t be making demands from you! That is not nice! And in my sleep, too? What did I demand?”, she asked in a depleted voice.
“A hug.”, replied Aager kindly.
Inshala’s face turned bright pink.
“I..”, she stammered. “I thought I came here and just slept in the other bed, to keep you company, though I honestly do not remember ever getting up, nor walking here..”
“That.. might have been partly my doing. Not the coming here. The waking up in the other bed.. After I’d give you your silent demand, you wouldn’t move but make this funny noise.. like when cats see a bird or a squirrel..”, said Aager honestly and Inshala dropped her coloring sticks and just buried her face in her skinny arms..
“I think, or felt, to be more precise.. you wanted to.. cuddle up and sleep next to me.. But something about your base, honest character wouldn’t let you.. Not without my express permission.. And because you weren’t really awake, I wouldn’t give you that permission because it would be wrong.. Which is why I would pick you up, and tuck you away in the other bed. You’d make a bit of a fuss in there but eventually, go still.”, he said kindly.
“This is so embarrassing. I do not remember the last time I was this—”, she mumbled in a muffled and horrified voice.
“There is nothing to be embarrassed about, Inshala. We both want, what we want. Apparently, you decided to actually do something about it, without ever knowing.”, he said thoughtfully.
“But.. what do you want?”, she asked, her face still buried in her arms.
And, there it was..
The simple question that was the core of what they had been, what they were, and what they would become for one another.
To simplify that even further; what they had, and what they could have..
What did he want?
What did he want?
And what did he want?
The small nuances in the same question made all the difference, to be sure, but the only thing he was certain of was the answer to the question that actually preceded this one;
Did he want?
To that, he said, yes.
Not because he was mentally sure of anything.
But because the blank in him was telling him exactly that.
Or rather, he had the blank, because he no longer could tolerate the lack of certain things..
..or a certain someone.
And something clicked in his mind.
Aager decided, then and there, to shut up..
..and do something about the blank in his soul.
“Come, love.”, he said with a deliberate, casual tone. “It’s getting late. I’ll escort you to your room. I believe most of our plannings and meetings are done, but a few crucial details are left. They will need me wide awake for them in the morrow.”
The young girl accepted his offer to take her to her room gracefully.
Not that it would matter.
She’d be back in a few, anyway..
✱ ✱ ✱
Aager dropped off the strangely beautiful, deeply sincere, shyly honest, and unconventionally his Inshala to Moira’s former room with a gentle kiss, then left..
But not back to his own room.
He decided to have one meeting before going there and for some oddly existential reason, this one would be much more important than all the meetings he had done for the last eight or ten days.
He dashed silently through the torch-lit corridors and long halls of Durkahan’s inner castle and skid to a halt before the one door he would have never expected to have knocked.
“Aager Fogstep to see Lady Granma on an important matter —if she is available.”, he said quietly when a young, feminine voice asked who it was, upon knocking on the door.
A moment of surprised silence ensued, but it didn’t last long.
“Come, boy..”, he heard the old, cackling voice of Granma.
Aager slowly opened the door and entered the dimly lit room of the very old woman —the mother of Lady Alisia.
The room was comfortably decorated with many chairs holstered with velvets in subdued colors, a long, comfortable-looking, dark maroon divan, and cushions, several deep, soft rugs, a large, old wardrobe, any number of shelves with books, delicate porcelain cups, vases, and many other delicate curios, and a small table covered with cream-colored laces, all of which gave the distinct impression of ‘been there, done that and I have the aged wisdom to prove it’ feel to them.
The old woman was sitting in a large, rocking armchair, delicately holding a cup with something steaming in it.
“Tea, boy?”, she asked in her wheezing voice but didn’t wait for him to reply. She motioned a hand and Moira’s younger sister, Lady Maira produced another cup from the shelves and poured him his tea, while the Granma watched the sinister-looking man settle down.
“Sugar? Honey? Milk, Sir?”, Lady Maira asked politely, though it was apparent she was not very comfortable with the idea of being just her and her grandmother in the same room with this man.
“None for me, Lady Maira.”, Aager growled with his gravelly voice, inadvertently making the girl flinch.
“Honey. Put honey in his tea, girl. Methinks he will need it.”, snickered the old woman.
“Ma’am..”, said Aager, sort of as an excuse to start from somewhere.
The old woman snickered again.
“You didn’t come here to Ma’am me this late, boy. ‘Granma’ will suffice. I have heard it enough many times to respond to it by now.”
“I came.. to..”, stammered Aager. “I was hoping for a private talk.. on a private matter, Lady Granma.”
“Well, now.. Lady and Granma.. You truly must be desperate, boy. But polite. Good qualities to start a conversation. Maira, dear, why don’t you take the night off. You don’t have to sit up late every night for my sake, you know. Do tell Alisia I said that, if you would, please. I am old. Not invalid, nor senile. She can attend to me personally when I am, rather than send her daughters..”, she huffed.
“Are.. are you sure, Granma?”, Maira asked tentatively, giving a sidelong glance in Aager’s direction. “Will you be alright?”
“I am alright, dear. And quite safe with Sir Aager here, seeing as he is the only trustable man left in Durkahan.”, she said steadily.
“I shall not keep Lady Granma up for long, Lady Maira.”, promised Aager quietly so as not to scare the girl any further.
“Then I leave my grandmother in your tender care, Sir Aager.”, she replied politely, bent down, kissed her granny, curtsied Aager, and regally left the room.
“I hope I didn’t scare her too much.”, mumbled Aager.
“My daughter and my grands don’t scare too easily, boy. Managed to give them that much at least. Though they did botch the job when Tarakadahan happened.”, said Granma, staring at him thoughtfully. “Now, what’s on your mind, young man? You truly must be desperate to have come to me for wisdom. People seldom do, anymore.”
“Their loss, I am sure..”, Aager said. “It is true that I am desperate, but I do not believe my choice of wisdom was faulty.”
“Very good, young man. Polite, and honest in his praise. No wonder that poor, skinny girl cares for you so deeply.”, she replied. “I suspect this has to do with her?”
“Uhhmm..”, stammered the sinister-looking man and.. squirmed.
“Speak, boy. Wisdom must be given direction to make sense.”, said the old woman sternly, surprising Aager a bit.
The man in the dark clothes took a slow sip from his honeyed tea, sort of to wet his throat, then started talking..
“I.. am not sure where to begin.. I.. deeply care.. for Inshala..”, he whispered. “Before I met her, my life was only about work. And the safety of the people who I knew nothing about, and who knew nothing about me. But I did it anyway.. As payment for my past sins. Then I met her.. while tracking the miscreants in the vastness of Ritual Forest, who ran and hid inside the old Themalsar ruins. We spent weeks in the cursed halls and dungeons of that mad man’s temple, fighting and bleeding on a nearly daily basis.. Then we faced Themalsar himself.. I almost died when he cursed me, Inshala got banished and then he dropped his demons on Lady Moira and the others.. We were.. desperate.. Dying, really.. But somehow, possibly by sheer stubbornness and a good dose of dumb luck, we did it.. We slew the mad priest who had plagued those lands for over eight hundred years., though we still couldn’t do anything about his deathly ruins, which would always be a gathering place for evil, as it did on at least four occasions, causing the death of tens of thousands of people.”
Lady Granma did not say anything, nor did she interrupt the whispering narration of the man sitting merely a few feet away. Silently, she listed to his desolate recollection of the historical event that had, perhaps unwittingly, changed the world.
Aager had just remembered what had happened after that.. and the ten days he had spent watching over the girl he’d come to love and honor, constantly making sure she was still breathing and still alive, every moment of those ten days, day and night..
Inadvertently, he shuddered.
One day, it was likely he would get over the terrors of those ten days..
But not anytime soon.
Slowly, he took another sip and continued.
“When we got out, she, Inshala, just stared at us and smiled, and just like that, she took the responsibility of kings and queens, great generals and armies, and buried the sins of men and the ruins of Themalsar, deep into the earth, and brought forth life —a whole forest of it, upon the dead and desolate land that was Themalsar, sacrificing everything that was precious for her. Everything that defined her.. She gave away what she was.. for the sins of men..”, whispered Aager in a desperate voice. “And now, I feel lost.. She comes to my room and together we color these silly pictures with colored sticks —with crayons, and I have never felt anything thus fulfilling in the entirety of my life, Lady Granma. What’s worse, we are going to a desperate war and she will follow me there, right into the bloody field.. I.. I do not know what to do, yet I feel so empty.. so blank.. without her.. I want her to be with me, for the rest of my life, and I want to be there, with her, for the rest of her life.. And yet, she is so young.. Do.. do I even have the right to ask such a selfish wont from her?”
The room seemed to hold its breath as Aager fell silent again.
Then Granma took things into her hands and dismantled everything!
“You are aware, that you are speaking to a woman who married at the age of fourteen, right, boy?”, she said with a toothy smile.
Aager ogled at her.
“And the same woman whose mother married when she was twelve! My father was barely sixteen himself and could barely hold up a shield.”, she continued with a cackle. “My mother was playing hopscotch with her friends when my grandfather called her inside and they wed her with my father who was nursing a bloody nose because he had just been fighting with some other boys at the time. Then the wedding was done, in under ten minutes, my mother returned to her game and my father went back to return the compliment done to his nose and had his lip split for his efforts!”
“Life is not how we define it, boy. That is base arrogance. Yes, they fought and so did I and my beautiful man, who had the soul of a shark, and was a brigand in bed! We did all sorts of silly things and fought over even sillier things and it took us years to understand what being married truly meant. But when we did, we were thick as thieves after that. Children marry at an early age in Durkahan, and for many reasons varying from the need for soldiers to farmers and artisans because we constantly feed our troops who safeguard the vast lands around the Demon Plains just north of here and Heavens Hand to stave off the evil that is constantly trying to overrun the Demon Wall, with logistics, soldiers, masons, and both armor smiths and weapon smiths, knowing should we fail, Heavens Hand will fail, and then the kingdom will fall. Other cities might have the luxury to live otherwise, but we do not. Boys and girls tend to marry quite after their twenties at Koruxan, while it varies greatly in other cities, and our dear little Inshala is not a human girl. Judging her by our standards is a poor way to repay her due respect. Not to mention the fact that she is a bloomer. I could see what she sees when she looks at you. You might see a little girl when you look at her and try to be honorable for all you like, but she sees a ‘mate’, when she looks at you! True, she has not grown in a society, hence, she lacks the things she should know and do, which refrains her from fully blooming. But you should also note; none of that is her fault.
Think of this when you are deciding whether she is too young or not; she sleeps in her room, wakes up in yours!
I am guessing, she does not do this because she needs a father figure. It is possible you filled such a gap, before, and at the beginning. But that is not the case anymore and has not been so for quite some time now, and I believe the delay was only due to her lack of social mingling; she just couldn’t correctly define what you were to her because she never had the appropriate social references. When it came to boys and men, that only meant being chased, caged, and whipped!
It is commendable and quite remarkable that you have managed to be as honorable as you have and never taken advantage of her, seeing as how honest, sincere, earnest, and pretty she is. Just for that, you have my respect. Methinks, however, playing with fire every walking moment of your day, and ‘not walking’ moments of your nights, and not expecting to eventually burn, or burn out, is foolishness, and you don’t look like a fool to me, boy.”
Aager stared at the old woman with astonishment. He had expected her to be mildly straightforward, certainly, but what he had gotten was a whole herd of Moxes trampling over him!
“You think.. I should ask for her hand?”, he asked carefully.
“And here I thought you were a smart man.”, muttered Lady Granma with exasperation. “We are past hands, boy. Ask her whole, already!”
Aager dropped the cup!
“Tell me, boy..”, the old woman asked. “When is the correct time to kill? You should know. It’s quite your area of expertise. Right up your alley, as they say..”
Aager paused for a moment.
This was something quite off-topic, and not exactly a ‘table conversation’ kind of thing to ask, nor answer, for that matter..
“I.. do not understand what you mean, Lady Granma.”, he replied carefully.
“Let me dummy that down for you then, young man.”, she said with a slightly disappointed tone.
“What happens when you stab too late?”
“You have missed your opportunity and are likely bleeding to death now.”, he replied.
“And what makes you think love is any different when it’s too late?”, she asked, staring deep into his eyes.
Aager Fogstep picked up the porcelain cup off the thick carpet, slowly rose, and spoke in his gravelly voice.
“Thank you, Grandmother. Your wisdom, it would seem, is quite sharp and well earned.”, he said a bit flustered.
“Sit, boy. We are not done yet!”, Granma ordered.
For a moment he wasn’t quite sure what to say. Finally, a low, harsh, and bitter whisper escaped him.
“I can not think of a life without my Inshala. I shall ask for her hand from Lady Alisia. I dearly hope she gives her to me, and with her blessing..”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about Alisia, young man. She yearns for a wedding.”, replied Granma with a snicker.
“Thank you for the tea.. and your insight..”, he said honestly.
“Do not wait for a day or three. Ask her hand in the morning, and have the wedding afternoon. The moment you forget to mention that, Alisia will turn the whole thing into a parade. Thrust me, boy, you don’t want that.”, Lady Granma warned with a smile. “Nothing short of an ambush will save you!”
“You have a very interesting way of laying things out, Lady Grana Maarva!”, Aager said, quite intrigued.
“I do, don’t I?”, she replied with another snicker. Then her face turned serious all of a sudden. “You will take care of my granddaughter, yes?”
“As tenderly as I can.”, replied Aager.
Granma stared at him and something deep inside her squinting eyes lit up..
“Tender is good.. But do not overdo it. Inshala is a flower, but not a wilting one. She will cry easily because she has never had the benefits of social moderations in her life. She also knows pain intimately and does not fear it. She has, methinks, figured early in life that, much like being tired after a long, happy run, being hurt and suffering pain is merely one of the natural outcomes of any venture —as sad as it is that she has come to that conclusion, and at such an early age, really is.
What she fears is not pain, but one of two things that very much matter to her. This, I have seen in her. She listens to everyone around her, and carefully asks the things she does not understand, even things that are trivial or just silly. I am guessing my mischievous grandson Cümeyt and my hair-brained granddaughter Madina are giving your Inshala a crash-course in many things she has missed, and possibly on things it would have been perfectly alright for her to have totally missed.”
“Yes. Buggery bum!”, said Aager with a short snort.
“Heard that, did you? Madina’s favorite for this month. Drives her mother crazy every time she uses it. And now she has learned it to young Inshala, who, willy-nilly, also uses it when her mother is there and is totally innocent of her deed. You can imagine the snickers all around, and there’s nothing much Alisia can do about it. I haven’t had this much fun in the last three decades..”, cackled the old lady.
“Her responses are oddly early or late, though. It is like she is miscounting her turn to speak, but eager to blend in..”
“Huh.”, grunted Aager. That had never happened when she was with him.
It dawned on him that it hadn’t because she trusted him to see her flaws and correct them appropriately, and for some reason, that made him feel happy.
Funny how it was always the little things!
“..For whatever reason, your little Inshala absolutely fears not being comprehended!
This she dreads mindlessly and can not shrug off nor ignore. My guess is, it is because she has been judged, and consequently punished for being something she is not —her whole life, precisely for that reason.
Somehow, she sees the absence of respect not so dissimilar to being misunderstood, hence, she fears this also. It is possible she strongly believes; ‘the misunderstood’ can not have respect.. Ignoring her wonts and desires —and likely her strengths as well— for the sake of your own conformity and providence and for something she can, and is willing to bear and endure will do her injustice on both accounts and give her the impression, quite clearly, I might add, just how little you really understand her, thus, how little respect you have for her! My man had faults. Too many to name here and now. But one thing he was never at fault nor lacking was, he showed me his love the way I wanted it, and I laughed every time he did a funny, even though he was a lump when it came to humor! Give her what she wants, boy. And let her give you the love you need to fill in your blanks.. Life is too short for stupid, and we are all going to war and some of us are not going to come back! Live with the regrets of loss. Not with the regrets of never having had the balls!”
Aager stared at his feet.
The sinister-looking man in his dark clothes felt singed.
That had been one, classy thrashing he’d just received from Lady Grana Maarva, and she hadn’t even been trying!
Also, she wasn’t done yet..
“Being polite and honorable is good and well. I am guessing, is how you have been treating her all along. Polite and honorable are indeed, good qualities, boy, but not at the expense of the people around us. Delia did the honorable thing, and good thing he did too —got himself killed by his own. Don’t get me wrong. I adored and respected that boy. He made my Alisia deliriously happy and I am sure that was a mean trick for him.. My Alisia was quite the petulant girl when she was young. Then my Moira did the honorable thing; landed herself in the dungeons. And then my Alisia decided to be honorable and good, and almost married the animal who killed his own brother and her husband. No one sought the wisdom of this old woman, which would have been; hire cutters, put a bounty on his head, poison his well, hex him, drop a loose flagstone on him, push him down the stairs, or whatever.. just kill him, already!“
“My Alisia did disappoint me, back then. Of all the things she could, and should have done, she chose defeat because that animal had threatened her with her children.. You see, boy, when someone threatens you and yours, you do not bargain to bed them. You simply have them killed! “, she finished pleasantly.
Good thing this old lady had been on their side.
“What you and your pretty little girl did was more than save our collective sorry hides. You, Sir Aager, and Inshala, in particular, remembered Alisia what it was to be a noblewoman, and the First Lady of Durkahan again. And when I say ‘Inshala in particular’, I do not emphasize it because you were less than her, but because she came here as not as a savior like you, but as the scared little sister, the lost daughter, and the awesome granddaughter!”
The old lady fell silent after that as if telling him she was done learning him her wisdom.
Aager stood up, respectfully nodded at the old woman then ghosted to the door.. and paused..
..as a moment of unexpected, and quite a retrospect insight dawned upon him.
“Would you..”, he asked, looking at Granma over his shoulder. “..know a Lady Daniella, perchance?”
Grana Maarva stared at him for a piercing moment.
“Now why would you ask me about Daniella?”, she asked sharply.
“No particular reason. Overheard a conversation between a young man, Udoorin Shieldheart, and Lady Moira once, right after we had come out of the Ruins of Themalsar and before my Inshala permanently sank it into the depths of the earth.”, he said.
“Why would Daniella’s name be mentioned at all?”, Granma asked intently.
“From what I gathered, she is the great-great-something-grandmother of the young man..”
“That so? And never did they figure, he and my Moira were cousins, then?”
Aager turned and stared at Lady Grana Maarva.
“You see, Daniella was my mother’s younger sister and a fiery, rebellious girl she was. She detested the nobility and married a promising young captain named Samdorin Shieldheart and together they left Durkahan and settled somewhere far off to the east..”
“Serenity Home!”, Aager blurted..
“No one will blame the beautiful Princess of Bari Na-ammen to have taken a simple country oaf for a king!”, said Lady Grana Maarva with a check-mate snicker.
✱ ✱ ✱
Aager Fogstep lay in his bed, staring blankly at the stone ceiling, back in his ‘lair’..
..and quietly waiting.
It was past midnight and he was exactly twenty-five years and one month old now. Normally, that wouldn’t have been remarkable for him. People who lived on a daily, ‘today, I have survived again’ basis, cared little about their age.
This particular night seemed special, however.
Or rather, this particular day.
There seemed a sense of freshness, and perhaps that of ‘expectation’, in the air. Much like how children felt when they learned their father was alive and coming home..
..from a long, depleting war.
“Huh.”, mumbled Aager. “That was a bit dramatic. Couldn’t have related to something brighter, something happier, could you?”
The door to his den opened and in a particularly pretty, pale lavender nightgown with white, frilly fringes that barely covered her slender hips and nothing else, Inshala walked in.
She didn’t wait at the door to look inside, nor pause for her eyes to adjust to the dark chamber.
She entered as she’d opened the door.
And with silent, naked feet, she ghosted around Aager’s bed until she bumped her, somewhat knobby knees, to his bed and just stood there with little to no expression on her face. What was there, however, seemed on the bare edges of distress.
Slowly she rose her skinny arms and held them outstretched and with her palms facing one another.
She had been like this ever since Moira had given her room to her, and gladly, but Aager suspected the whole idea had been Lady Alisia’s.
True, she had done it to preserve her new daughter’s dignity and avoid possible, slandering gossip. But she had, perhaps unwittingly turned ‘the girl who hangs around that sinister-looking man all day’, into ‘the girl who sneaks off into that sinister-looking man’s chamber at nights!’
Aager sighed and put the esteemed Lady Alisia aside, sat up, and stared at the girl.
He stared at Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane and quietly called her name.
The girl’s brows crested slightly, then she made a small, distressed noise.
She looked so very pretty, but sad..
..or perhaps ‘unhappy’, was closer to defining her distress.
She seemed like someone yearning to be somewhere, was allowed to come thus near, just not permitted to touch her wont.
It was a cruel way to punish someone, and unwittingly as it may have been, that was exactly what was being done to her.
Silently, he got out of his bed, came around behind her, pulled her to himself, and enfolded her, and her outstretched arms in his.
She seemed so small in his arms like that and Aagerwasn’t a large man, to begin with. A stab above average in height, and an edge broader at the shoulders, certainly, but altogether, a lean man, really.. A man, made of tightly woven, cord-like spring-muscles. More so since he had accepted Mab’s offer and taken the Winter Mantle.
Everything seemed more vivid, detailed, and alive since the Mantle, including his deadly attire, and his not-so-dissimilar desires..
In fact, everything was more since the Mantle!
His moments of happiness, and consequently, his moments of wrath. Which was exactly what he had dished out on Karkashi, in the arena..
And Inshala had found her solace in a man like him, of all people.
A good-for-murder, only Mab would have deemed worthy of her Mantle..
Inshala, on the other hand, had found her peace with him and in her beautiful gray eyes, he saw her storms, and her demons back off and scatter.. and he only needed to be near.
Was it, then, too much for him to ask just as much of her?
To stave off and scatter his demons?
And perhaps find solace too?
And certainly not for his demons.
For he had already found his solace in her and that had happened before the Mantle.
The scattering of his demons was merely ‘collateral damage’, per se.
Because Aager Fogstep was always honest with himself.
With her, he had been nothing less.
Slowly, and with great care so as not to wake her, he picked the little girl, as he always did, and tenderly lay her in the other bed. And with nothing less than honest desire, he looked at her tiny feet, her smooth, bare legs, her slender, naked hips, her small, palm-sized butt, her slim waist, her little tummy, and her appealing, nubile, baby-pink breasts, quite visible under her revealing nightgown, and her diminutive, somewhat angular face, her long eyelashes, her slightly frowning brows, her cute, perky nose, her plush, cherry-red lips, her beautiful, curving horns, and her scattered, long, and silky hair..
And he wondered.
For an inevitable moment.
Whether this little girl knew.
Just what kind of a stirring effect she had on him..
But that was it, wasn’t it?
Other than some vague insight at an instinctual level, the little girl truly had no idea.
Only suppressed hope that the man, Aager, somehow found her appealing.
And that was also his fault.
Both that she didn’t know, and that she would think so little of herself..
Perhaps it was time, he thought, he really ought to tell her.
With a destitute sigh.
He reached down.
And covered her tiny feet, her smooth, bare legs, her slender, naked hips, her small, palm-sized butt, her slim waist, her little tummy, and her appealing, nubile, baby-pink breasts, still visible, still calling from under her revealing nightgown, all the way up to her skinny, bare arms, slender neck and her diminutive, somewhat angular face, with his own blanket.
He watched as the girl did a sad little whimper and struggled to free herself from under her covers.
Inshala, it would seem, displaced her blankets quite frequently. A something he would look forward to tending in the near future..
..and mayhap, in the far future as well.
He bent down and kissed her forehead, then her beautiful, curving horns, and soothed her long, silky hair until she calmed, and with a depressed sigh, went still.
For a long time, Aager listened to her sated breaths, then gave a similar, depressed sigh of his own, silently ghosted to the large wardrobe, pulled out a spare blanket, and went back to his own bed.
Lying in the dark, and staring at the ceiling of his den, he asked.
“Do you want me thus much, Inshala?”
No reply came.
Only soft, steady breathing..
..and a barely discernable, sleepy little sigh.
It was possible he had a barely discernable smile of his own on his face when he finally drifted off to sleep. He was twenty-five years and one month old now, the girl he loved was barely an arm’s length away, and today seemed to promise a whole new beginning.
✱ ✱ ✱
And what do we have here?”, asked Aager, entering his chamber/lair/den, late that night and stared down at the little girl lying on her tummy and on the pale beige carpet with her legs swinging lazily as she furiously colored what he thought was a woodsman’s lodge with a garden full of flowers, bushes, trees, a raccoon, a dear, a bear, and an eagle, or maybe it was a hawk, or likely a crow. A picture, he thought, was a bit on the pretentious side and would likely end with the bear killing the dear and raccoon destroying everything in the lodge and possibly knocking down a candle and setting the whole thing on fire!
“I am coloring this new book that Master Cümeyt was kind enough to give me.”, she said, looking up and smiling at him from where she lay. “He insists I am getting better so he gave me this one and swore on his ancestors that this one was for pros!”
“I could see how this one is indeed for pro’s.”, said Aager with a straight face, as he pulled off his dark, leather hood and mask off and tossed them on the bed.
“I told him he did not have to swear at his ancestors and that I would have believed him anyway because brothers and sisters never lie to one another.”, she said happily. “But he just stared at me with this funny face and he was like, ‘Ow, like never ever?’, and I said, ‘Of course, never ever, because brothers and sisters must trust one another, and he was like, ‘Well, that’s a buggery bum. Where’s the fun in that?'”
“That boy..”, growled Aager, while he undid the buckles to his dark leathers, pulled them off, and put them neatly on the bed as well. “..will either go far or go to jail, someday..”
“Then he tried to explain what pros meant and I asked him why he cut the other half of a perfectly nice word, and he said, ‘Cuz that’s what pros do, sis!'”
Then she sighed.
“The rules of cities and families are confusing and many.”
“That they are.”, he agreed and loosed his heavy belt and removed his swords, daggers, and knives, and carefully set them aside.
“And of course, I am confused now. I wanted to ask you, then and there but decided against it. You were in a meeting with the pigwigs.. or maybe it was the bigwigs, I am not sure which because both Cümeyt and Madina started laughing and giggling when I said pigwigs and neither of them made any sense after that and I was like, ‘This is a buggery bum of a situation only my Aager could untangle’, but you were at the meeting with the pigwigs.. So then I was like, ‘Girl, you must stop, like, now! You are like this clumsy bear cub that just stepped on a wasp’s nest and is now running around in silly circles with all the angry wasps on your tail!’
I did tell him, I would rather he never cut the other end of my name, though. Or anybody else’s. Can you imagine Inshes, Cüms, Mois, Mais, and Mads and Fards running around all day? I mean, we wouldn’t even have to be running, and we would still look funny and silly!”
“I would rather you all didn’t run around all day as Moi’s, Mai’s, Mad’s, Fard’s, and Insh’es, either. That would be awkward, indeed. And funny. And silly.”, he said with a smile, settled on the thick, pale beige carpet and on this stomach, pulled off his heavy leather gloves, grabbed a brown coloring stick, and started on all the tree trunks, and the lodge.
Inshala giggled again.
“Master Cümeyt thought it was funny, and silly too. So he laughed. In fact, he laughed so hard, we had to stop playing for a while. But his laugh was also very squeaky and funny, so I laughed too. Then Madina laughed because she thought we were funny and because I make this snorty noise from my nose when I laugh. Then mother came and grounded us because there was an important meeting going on with the pigwigs and we were making so much noise and being irresponsible! That sort of annoyed Granma so she and mom started arguing. Granma told mom the pigwigs wouldn’t even be having their buggery bum meetings if it hadn’t been for us and we could hear them all the way from our room and Cümeyt, Madina, and I thought that was a bit unfair of mom to have grounded us when they were making so much noise themselves.. I did also wonder why we had been grounded. I mean, we were already sitting on the ground. But I decided to let that pass too, as things were confusing, and funny, and silly enough as they were and I thought maybe not asking would make me look more like this ‘pros’, rather than the clumsy bear cub! After all, I thought, I could always ask you.. when you are not in a meeting, and not busy, and not resting..”, she finished with a pout, as she picked three shades of blues and started on the sky!
“You could ask me now.”, he offered.
“No..”, Inshala said with a happy, yet slightly distracted voice. “..You are busy in a ‘resting-meeting’ now, with me.”
He just couldn’t help himself.
Yes, the story Inshala had just told was mildly entertaining, but it was the artlessly innocent, earnest, and seamless ‘commentary’ way she told it, followed by the unexpected conclusions that made it cute, adorable, and funny. What was more, was that Inshala was not telling her stories with the intention to entertain.
She was just telling them.
The way she saw them and comprehended them. It wasn’t all about her stories and how entertaining, or even fascinating they were.
It was how she delivered them..
When Aager told a story, he said it like he was giving an intelligence report; short, succinct, to the point, and with professional deliberation. It would start at point A, and end at point B, using the shortest, straightest, two-dimensionally linear path, and A would always keep B in his LoS —Line of Sight because that’s how much his A’s would trust his B’s!
Inshala’s recollection of events never went from point A to point B. They certainly never followed a straight nor a linear path because there were C’s, D’s, E’s, F’s, G’s, and a whole flock of other letters both related and sometimes, not so related, to consider, hence, were all brought into her telling, because outright discarding them was obviously not nice, and probably rude as well, as she told the events of her day in her soft, seamless, and ‘slightly confused’ narrative voice where she took point A into her small, delicate hands and bloomed it!
From there, things could only branch or ripple out, seeming to go every which way without any purpose or destination. She would reach point B, but never in an ‘eventually’, sense.
Her point B’s were neither here, nor there, but stressed in her telling and you just had to be deliberately dense or outright lacking any form of sentient perception or insight to have missed it thus thoroughly, or it came from an angle that had little to do with what she was talking about in the first place but ended up being oddly relevant.
The curious part of it all was the fact that things THUS FAR FROM THE POINTandLINEARLY NON-TWO-DIMENSIONAL were the very same things Aager Fogstep had truly, and unequivocally hated..
..until he’d bumped into one, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane.
The counter-amazement to this was in the dilemma of how Inshala would rather be straightforward, to the point, and succinct like Aager had been all along, only if she could.
Aager certainly wished to never see that!
“I didn’t want to tell Master Cümeyt, but the real reason why I thought he shouldn’t cut names in half like that was because names have protective power of their own, and cutting them in half removes that protection..”, Inshala said after a while.
“I didn’t know that.”, admitted Aager.
“Not many do. This is why it is unwise to name certain evil beings. It might irk their interest and bring them upon us. Not something anyone would want, and it will give them power over us. This is also the reason why we shy from calling those we love by their name, I think. We already feel helpless against them and we fear we might succumb to them all the way, should we call them by their name, “, she explained quietly.
“Huh.”, said Aager. “Is that why you didn’t use to call me by my name before?”
“Yes.”, she replied honestly.
“But you are saying it now.”, Aager stared.
“Yes.”, she said again, her voice a bit smaller.
“What changed?”, he asked.
“Nothing changed.”, she answered in a tiny, abashed voice. “I have decided to succumb all the way..”
In silent contemplation, the two turned the picture around as per need and colored the lodge, the garden, the bushes, and the trees, the raccoon (who, against all expectations, behaved itself), the dear, the bear (which indignantly refused to kill and eat the dear), and the hawk, in unified trans, passing the crayons back and forth for the next two hours.
“You once asked me when I would see you as a girl and not a baby —like a woman..”
“Would you like to be my woman? My wife?..”
“..And be stupid together for life?”
Just like that.
Aager Fogstep proposed.
✱ ✱ ✱
Aager Fogstep, the silent, sinister-looking man in his dark leathers, hood, and mask, the Winter Knight of Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane Bolgrig Hooman, the Lady of Durkahan, the Ritual Guardian, the Mistress of The Grove of Titania, the Queen of Mother Earth and Summer, married the very next day, just a bit after ambushing Lady Alisia and asking her blessing, and for the hand of her new daughter.
The wedding took place in Lord Delia Karakarsh’s own small, private chapel in the inner castle of Durkahan City where Ladies Moira, Maira, and Madina happily attended, while the young Master Cümeyt held the tail end of the pretty bride’s long skirt, merrily skipping and hopping behind her and punching the air with a victorious fist and shouting;
“Yeesh! You go, girl!”
Seated at the rear, one Lady Grana Maava smirked while her daughter, Lady Alisia, dabbed her eyes as she watched her Inshala join, in health and in sickness, up in the sky and down in the ground.. and for life, with the silence, spooky man, Aager Fogstep..
The ring Aager gave Inshala was handcrafted by the best gold and glass smiths Durkahan had to offer and was made specifically for her; a slim, extraordinarily elegant circular glass, quite indestructible, with a forest of very tiny life-like flowers and vines, and tiny motes of what appeared to be fireflies captured in it and smoothly framed with gold —all intricately molded and flecked with emerald, ruby, and diamond dust, and with both red and green copper.
Inshala’s ring to him was a simple, very dark, quite thick, blue-black thing with two fiery orange bands running around it’s surface. And between the seemingly burning bands, was a poorly scrabbled etchings that must have taken the skinny little girl hours to have carved.
To • My • AAGRR • I • Belong
✱ ✱ ✱
Far, far away to the east and in the dark, silent depths of the vast Ritual Forest was a rundown and abandoned derelict. Standing right outside that small, sad, and desolate hovel was an ancient oak with less than half her leaves and weighted down with snow.
A warm, happy breeze soothed unseasonably from the west and caressed the brittle branches of the old, nearly-petrified tree and the ancient oak shuddered, felling more of her remaining leaves. A sharp, precipitous crack echoed in the forest and the ancient tree split in two. With a great sigh of relief, Tamara whispered.
“She is safe, she is loved, and she belongs. You may rest in peace now, my love..”
And after some three fulfilling millennia of breathing life into her forest, the ancient oak toppled over and crashed with a resounding boom, adding to the derelict..
Tamara gave another sigh.
“You be good, now, Ritual Guardian..”
Tamara was the beloved wife of Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig who was Inshala’s surrogate father and master. Tamara was killed some eight hundred years ago, during the first Themalsar War. At least on one occasion, Master Cathber was known to have called or referred to the great old oak tree standing mighty in front of his tiny hut as Tamara.. Whether he was calling the oak, Tamara in reference to the day they met and right in front of the old tree, or he is being literal is unknown, as the only two people involved, Master Cathber and Lady Tamara, are both dead.
What Inshala etches on the dark, blue-black carbon-alloy iron ring may, or may not be a misspelling of Aager. She does know the secret runes and glyphs of druidic, and perhaps a spatter of elvish, but does not know how to read nor write common. Cümeyt and Madina are tutoring her some (possibly on Lady Alisia’s orders) and she has come far. Interestingly, the first word she asked to be taught how to write was not her own name.
Whether she does a typo mistake on the ring, or she has etched it so with deliberation is unclear. She does confess, much later (in the story: A ‘Warm’ Warning) how Aager reminds her of her saber-tooth tiger, Katana.
The Tundra Elf; Cora Sleet, The Bowling Hills Hobbit; Brom Bumblebrim and the younger sisters of no other than the dwarven Temple Guardian of Serenity Home, Lady Magella of Scowling Hills; Lillias Absentwhot and Jeina Blond have set forth to find the daughter of the barbarian Bear Claw Tribe’s chieftain, who was kidnapped by the foul and evil creature, ominously named; Red October.
For days and nights, Cora, Brom, Lillias, and her sister, Jeina travel through the snow and ice-covered Lost Mountains and find the layer of the sinister Red October. On the eve of their descent into the deep, cavernous layer, the whole extended family of the two dwarf sisters arrive to take them both back to Scowling Hills. The dwarf sisters, Lillias and Jeina refuse to abandon their elf and halfling companions compelling their family to help. Hence a plan is formed; the dwarves are to lure the foul creature out of its lair and make a run for it down the mountains, and back to Scowling Hills while Cora and Brom are to quietly enter the beast’s lair and save the chieftain’s daughter.
The plan works, more or less..
And Cora Sleet, followed closely by Brom Bumblebrim, runs into the deeps of Red October and finds the barbarian chieftain’s daughter, abused and severely traumatized, among many other women.. all dead and gnawed upon.
In horror, the two search the cages set into the walls of the cave to find more survivors and lo!
Another woman, deep inside one of the further cages, thought horribly abused, malnourished, and bruised, is still alive..
That was the last thing Cora Sleet and Brom Bumblebrim saw of the dwarves before they stumbled and ran out of the dark, gnawing cave..
Then came the wind.
A cold, fetid wind..
A wind that did not belong to the fresh, breezy October mountains.
This was a frigid wind that stank of rot and festering mold..
This was the wind of a Red October!
“Run, you fools!”, bellowed the head of the dwarves; an old, very nearly ancient of his kind known all the way from The Great Arashkan City to Endless Sea, and from the heights of Rook Mountains to the ends of Tinker Hills; Argail Smitefast.
And the dwarves ran..
Down the sliding, frozen and misty valley and to the cliffs that would make a harsh and steep climb down the face of Lost Mountains.
..everything was harsh and steep in the Great Northern Tundras..
The creature that burst out of the yawning cave was nothing the elf, Cora, nor the hobbit, Brom ever saw.. and neither would wish to ever see again.
For but a very short moment, they caught a glimpse of something large, but not in size as it was large by its frightful speed.
Something large, fast, and dark.. Like a thick draft of smoke, inky at its center. It blurred past the two hiding behind fallen boulders.
Cora clutched her great blade with both her fists like she wanted to make a charge or a ‘run for it’, Brom wasn’t sure. He wouldn’t have blamed her if she did make a run for it. He had seen some horrible things in his long sojourn since that fateful night he’d left the comforts of his warm home and this.. inky black thing that had just hissed out of the cave would likely give him nightmares for the next couple of months..
Brom gritted his teeth and hoped the snow elf would run, should it come to that, though he knew she wouldn’t.. She’d charge the evil, shunned creature while trembling in fear, but not run from it. They hadn’t known each other for that long, but the short few months they had been together had shown him the core of the girl; grim, fierce, loyal, silently angry, and in quiet, desolate mourning.
“What are you doing?!”, they heard the below of the old dwarf echo up the frozen valley.
“Arkanian nian fer Ferra!”, squeaked a voice and something boomed in a great, fiery bloom.
“Damit, Lillias..”, growled Cora. “..Run!”
More booms followed by some knock knock knock knock rattling sound as if something brittle and heavy was hammering on an anvil.
A few thick bolts, the size of short spears slammed into the walls with a tremendous force near the maw that was the cave of the creature and sharp, crackling shafts of lightning came down from the sky at a sharp angle, crashing into the valley with jarring screeches and frozen ice and broken rocks shrapneled everywhere.
Something roared but it was not the roar of a bear, a lion, nor a dragon. This was like the roar of a waterfall filled with loose rocks, rotting lumber, and debris.
“Down the cliffs.. Jump if you must!”
“Marideth; to the left.. riddle it.. Bruden, Goric hold the rear and ready the rocks. Harakoon, Lamark, take the right.. Distract it with more arbalest. Grandfather; go.. down.. NOW! Mom.. Da.. You two are next.. Britney; grab Lillias. Dritmey; get Jeina down.. Knock her out if you must.. What is Aunt Petunia even doing here? Aunt Yulanda.. are the charges set?”
“Yes, dear. Charges are set. You want a timer or simple, dumb fuse?”
“Timer, please. I want it to go off on its back, not in its face.”
“If it blows on its face, it will bring the cliffs down on us as well, knock it back and possibly block its pursuit.”
“Other than the first, the other two aren’t so bad.”
“What will happen if it goes back?”
“Ow.. right.. would make this whole thing sort of moot.”
“On my last quiver..”
“Down, then. Save the quiver. Make sure grandpa makes it.. Do not wait.. Keep everyone running Auntie Marideth..”
“Who is making sure you are going down, Dridges, love?”
“I will be going down last.”
“Hell no, you aren’t”
“Stick to your post uncle! I am the youngest here and the fastest. Once the charges are set and blown, the creature will be knocked down the cliff and its way back will be blocked enough to give the elf and the hobbit time to do what they came to do.. I don’t want a crying Lillias nor a frothing Jeina all the way back to Elder Hills!”
“Dremda Limka bim bala poom!”, squeaked the voice of Lillias again and red, angry beams crisscrossed the misty valley and someone else shouted more in ancient dwarvish;
“Morkaban Fal an burnandie!”
..and tall columns of burning light came down in harsh, vertical slaughter..
Another roar echoed up the valley and something slammed against stones.
“What are you doing?”, screamed Lillias.
“Time to go, baby sister!”, said a voice and took off with Lillias.
“No! They need more time!”
“Nope. We just ran out of that.. and Dridges gave the signal for retreat.. Drit?”
“She wouldn’t listen, so I knocked her out! Dridges gave the order..”
“Bet you enjoyed that.”
“You bet, I did.. The idiots.. That was a month’s walk from home to here, and another month back —if we survive!”
“Now you are going to have to carry her.”
“Changed her diapers when she was a babe.. I am sure I can carry her as well!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Leave me, please.. I beg of you..”
“This is not a safe place for you and you are due soon..”
“I am the daughter of a woodsman. I am used to harsh weather. I can not stay here. He will come back.. Please.. Take the other girl, and leave.. I shall climb down and make my way home..
Cora looked at the young human girl. She was horribly battered, pale, dirty, and bulging.. The baby must truly be due soon..
Then she looked down at Brom, but the hobbit was too busy with the chieftains traumatized daughter, who was trashing and moaning in the frigid snow.
“Here. There is enough food in this to feed you for some time. And take this as well. I am not sure if you can—”
“—I can. I am no warrior, but I have broken enough logs to know how to swing an ax down.. Thank you..”
“There are no favor here, young girl. Leaving you on your own, and in your condition, is just wrong..”
“I must get out of these mountains and back to my home and my husband. That is where I belong. I thank you for no favors. Only for saving me from that creature, and letting me go.. A woodsman must be free.. This, I am sure you understand.”
“This, I understand..”
For another moment she looked at the withered girl, a limping shade of what she once was..
..And she was a small thing to begin with, really. Small and skinny.. Yet, even having suffered the horrors and indignities of her impregnation and the whole time of her captivity and pregnancy, she showed remarkable resilience to the odds stacked so much against her..
Then, Cora looked at her bulging belly..
“I am sorry to ask.. but.. do you even know what’s inside you?”
“I am afraid even to ask—”
“Your.. how do you—?”
“She does not kick.. She hugs and she sings..”
Cora just stared at the broken young woman, because that’s exactly what she was;
“I bid you, farewell, then. Be good..”
“Farewell, then.. Stay good..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Mom? Why do you weep? Are you in pain?”
“My beautiful baby. I am afraid I shall not be here for long. I so wanted to see you grow.. and play.. and be happy..”
“Why is there red in your face, mom? Did you fall?”
“..I wanted you to wear pretty, laced, dresses.. You have such beautiful eyes..”
“Mom.. You are shaking. It must be cold. Hold me closer to you. I will warm you..”
“We must run, my sweet love. I can hear them again..”
“Mom. You look tired. And you are crying.. Why are you crying, mom?”
“Just.. a bit.. further.. I think.. they will stop.. chasing..”
“I hear your heart, mom. You are afraid. Why are you afraid, mom?”
“I.. can’t.. go.. any further.. Too tired..”
“Let’s stop for some. You are shaking. Why are you shaking, mom?”
“This.. this is as far.. as I can go.. my baby..”
“You are crying again, mom. Why are you crying?”
“Too much.. blood.. Lost too much.. blood.. I am afraid I won’t.. make it, my sweet..”
“Don’t be afraid. I am here. I will protect you, mom..”
“I will sit and rest.. for a bit..”
“You are calm now, mom. And warm..”
“I so love you.. my little.. baby.. I am so sorry..”
“Mom? What happened, mom?”
“Farewell, my sweet, sweet baby..”
“Don’t be afraid, mom. I am here.”
“I love you.. Never forget it..”
“Are you sleeping, mom? I will sleep too, then. I will keep you warm and safe.”
“You are cold again, Mom..”
“Please speak, mom..”
“Please wake up, mom.”
“I am afraid..”
“I promise, mom. I will be good. I will always be good..”
“Please wake up.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Gotcha, you little demon! Been seeing you festering these woods. Da.. Daaa! I got her!
“Please leave me. I did nothing to you.”
“You’ve been sneaking around our home for days now. Saw you again the other night, crawling into the barn. Trying to steal the goats, are you? Daa, come quick!”
“Nanny goat is sick.”
“Sick goat is it?!”
“Yes. She has a nail in her foot. It is burning her heart..”
“You friggin little liar. A good lashing will do you good.”
“But the nanny goat..”
“What’s going on here, boy?”
“Got her, daa.. Told you I saw a little demon sneaking around our house. Look at her.. She’s got horns, just like a demon.”
“I am not a demon. I am a girl!”
“What are you doing here, demon?”
“Your nanny goat. She’s ill. She has a nai—”
“Bring the cane, boy. I will not have this fiend around my house, nor my goats..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Am I a demon? Why am I a demon?”
“You are no demon, my beautiful little chestnut.”
“Then why does everyone say I am a demon? Am I so ugly? Am I so filthy? I must be, because everyone runs from me, or throws rocks at me.”
“Some people are not very bright, my sweet child. Some are superstitious. Some are afraid of what they do not understand. And some are just stupid. Their faults are not your fault, because you are not ugly and you are not filthy.. And certainly, you are not a demon.”
“But I have horns..”
“And I have a hunch back!”
“I healed their nanny goat and they hit me with a cane.”
“People fear the dark because they can’t see what’s in it. Yet they need the dark to rest and to sleep.. Does that make the dark, really a demon? They fear you because they can’t see just what a wonder you truly are..”
“I am no wonder. I am just an ugly and dirty thing..”
“What is your name, my sweet chestnut?”
“And do you know what that means?”
“It means; Heavens Willing.”
“I do not understand, Master.”
“Neither do I. But the Heavens do not make things without a reason.”
“I think they wanted people to know what ‘ugly’ and ‘filthy’ was.”
“I doubt. There is enough ugly and filthy in men without putting it in one, beautiful little girl.”
“Maybe I am broken and I just can’t be fixed.”
“If you are broken. Then I would not want you to be fixed, because you are perfect the way you are.”
“Maybe you are broken too..”
“I am, broken.And perhaps you were sent here to fix me!”
“I do not understand, Master.”
“My dear child, neither do I. But the Heavens gave you to me and here you are loved, you are safe, and you are cherished.. Now, let’s go find some berries and some of those mushrooms you love so much.”
“And Kumse Beetles?”
“And Kumse Beetles..”
✱ ✱ ✱
I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry! I didn’t mean to.. It just happened!”
“My, my, my.. What have we here? That you, girl?”
“I am sorry. I didn’t mean to.. Please don’t send me away!”
“Send you? Please, girl. I wouldn’t send you if the skies came falling down on me..”
“But.. You shouldn’t have the skies falling on you..”
“It’s a metaphor, my sweet chestnut.”
“What’s it for? Are you going to hit me with it?”
“My dear child. When have I ever hit you?”
“Never, Master. And I do not understand why you wouldn’t. Everyone else does.”
“I didn’t think you thought me as silly as everyone else. Now, come on and come out from under the table and let’s have a look at you, shall we?”
“I look horrible.”
“Let me be the judge of that. Let’s see; nice healthy paws, curious ears, brilliant vivid eyes, good strong back, and long balanced tail. Turn around. Let’s make sure everything is where they should be in the tummy.. Yes. very nice, strong muscles. Very nice and strong indeed. This is.. incredible! You have it all in one!”
“You will not hurt me?”
“My dear daughter. Please do not afflict me with the sins of fools. This is your home. Home does not hurt, nor punish. Home only has love and care, though not much of anything else, I must admit.. Woa.. Easy there, tiger! *chuckle* And careful with the claws. This old man will bruise easily.”
“I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry..”
“Well, now. Let’s see if you can actually use those claws. Are you up for a good climb?”
“I think so, Father.”
“How would you like to chase an old, skinny squirrel up the old oak just outside?”
“You must give this old man a head start, though.
“It’s only fair, Master.”
✱ ✱ ✱
You are taking a bath again?”
“Yes, Father. I am scrubbing the dirty away.”
“In the middle of winter? In the frozen pond?”
“Yes, Father. I am dirty. And the dirty will just not come off!”
“Did you not take a bath, just yesterday?”
“I did, Father.”
“And the day before that?”
“Yes, Father. I did.”
“And the day even before that?”
“How are you not freezing?”
“I am filthy. And broken, Father.”
“Hmmm.. Perhaps I can help you with that.”
“I believe so..”
“Uhhmm.. Why did you dump pond mud on me, Father?”
“Now you actually are dirty and have something on you to wash!”
“I do not understand, Master.”
“Wash and see if it comes off..”
“It all came off.”
“There. Now you are allclean!”
“Come on and out now, my sweet chestnut. Let’s get you inside and by the fire before you catch a cold. And no more bathing in the pond. Not in this weather.”
“But I will be filthy again tomorrow.”
“Then you can bathe in the big barrel we have inside. And with hot water too.”
“Perhaps you should bathe too, Father.”
“Why? Do I stink?”
“Well, now.. That was a bit harsh..”
“Do you know how long it takes to dry all this beard?”
“My hair is longer than your beard, Father.”
“Alright. I will bathe. If you say I stink, I must stink.. Tomorrow then. Or maybe the day after.”
“Not the day after, then..”
“Not even tomorrow?
“Good and Great Heavens, child.. NOW?”
“Now is good.”
“We don’t even have hot water!”
“We have pond.”
“Why would you do this to me?”
“You won’t mind I bathe every day in the pond, then?”
“What? How did you even come to that conclusion, girl? I said nothing of the sort.”
“If you don’t want me to bathe in the pond, but bathe at home, you should bathe as well. Since you won’t bathe at home, you must bathe in the pond!”
“That is not even close to what I said!”
“That is what you said; No more bathing in the pond. Not in this weather..”
“Which is the opposite of..”
“I do not understand, Father. Your house rules are complicated and many..”
“Yes, yes.. I suppose that is.. what I said.. How do you even remember, that? No child ever listens to their parents! They roll their eyes and ignore us..”
“You are my Father. Why would I roll my eyes at you? That is not nice.”
“Very well. I shall bathe..”
“In the pond?”
“In the pond.. Go get my towel..”
“And your scrubbing stick.. And your soap..”
“..And my scrubbing stick, and my soap..”
“And your comb..
“I.. what? I haven’t used a comb for over three centuries. I don’t even have hair!
“..For your beard.”
“Really, now, girl?”
“I comb my hair. Stands to reason you should comb your beard. I think it would look pretty. You say I look pretty when I comb my hair.”
“I am going in now.. But only for a moment. There is ice floating in this pond.. Literally..”
“A moment will not even be enough to soak, Father.”
✱ ✱ ✱
That is the last time you fools touch this girl. Do I make my self, clear?”, growled Master Cather as smoke and haze clouded town.
“She is a demon who infests our lands. She must be cleansed—”, screeched the scowling man in fervent zeal.
“Boy, you have got it all wrong.. These are not your lands.. at all! These are the King’s lands, then the elves, then mine..”, replied Cathber with a threatening vibe in his voice.
“She is a demon!”, screamed the man.
“You must have seen many demons to know what to look for.”, Cathber spoke with a deadly whisper.
“She has horns!”, the bigotic man shouted, pointing at the little girl, hanging stripped naked from a thick branch, her tiny back, a bloody, whip-laced mess.
“So does my goat..”, said Cathber and clawed at the air, making a horrible beckoning gesture..
..and a stone spike, the length of a yard suddenly shot out from the ground and rammed right through the bigot’s foreleg!
The man shrieked in pain, tried to double over, but couldn’t.
“This.. is heresy!”, the man screamed in pain.
“No, boy.. This is punishment.. This is my forest.. Here, you do not play your heresy games..”
..and he clawed with his other hand.
Another stone spike shot out of the dirt and nailed his other leg with a wet, sickening tear!
“We.. we did not touch the girl, Master Cathber.”, trembled the other lodgers.
“No.. You did not. You just stood there and watched as he tore into an innocent little girl’s flesh!”
And he rose both his arms..
you shall suffer the curse of the innocent”..
Thus shall you suffer the punishment of silently watching the pain of an innocent..
..his voice boomed and thorny vines shot out of the ground in all direction, grappling anything and everything in their path..
The woodsmen ran..
The thorny, gnarled vines chased.
The fires already burning several of the homes spread.
you shall tremble with the pain of the innocent..
And tremble shall you, with the pain of the innocent..
..heralded the old man.
And the ground trembled.
Large chunks of earth and stone tore out and into the sky, just to land some tens of yards away.
A barn collapsed.
A house creaked in terror and fell apart.
Another barn collapsed.
And another log-house bust in flames..
“You are.. the hand of the devil, old man.. You can not silence the truth!”, groaned the spiked zealot.
“Tell me, boy, how many souls have you saved with your bigotry? Are there two? No? Not even one? But I see you are very free with that whip.. particularly on little girls who will not defend themselves even against fools like you.. You see, she could have slain you many times over. Yet, she chose not to, because she does not like to hurt. She likes to play.. and sing.. and feed the animals.. and heal them when they are sick.. When was the last time you healed anything? Never? Well.. that explains so much. I shall not relieve you of your torment. You may free yourself. That will be at least one person you will have saved in your entire pathetic life. I shall, however return. And should you be in my forest when I do, we shall rinse and repeat this education, until you learn some manners, if not any sense.. But by all means, stay. If not for my daughter, this little girl you so freely whipped, I would beg you to stay, just to repeat this over and over again.. Either way, we shall see just how zealously stuck you really are to those ‘truths’ you seem so fond of..”
“You.. are evil!”, the bigot screamed in pain.
“No, boy. I AM BALANCE!“, replied the old man, his voice truly dreadful now. “Do not force me to summon the ‘Wyld Hunt’ upon you with your name attached to it. The last time I did, was over seven hundred years ago and it very nearly dismantled Themalsar down to rubble.”
The old man gently cut the leather thongs binding the skinny arms of the little girl.
But the old man held her and carefully took her into his gentle embrace.
“Told you, did I not, my beautiful chestnut? Some people are not very bright. Some are superstitious. Some are afraid of what they do not understand. And some are just stupid.. And you have found the worst of them; the bigots! Now, you have made their fault your own.. No matter, no matter.. I shall fix you..”
She opened her eyes and stared at the old man with a vague, groggy stare.
“Why did you come here, my dear child? Did I not warn you to stay away from them?”, the old man asked, tears streaking down his crumpled face.
“Their.. nanny dog.. she was in pain.. her heart was burning.. because she stepped on a garden tool.. she has puppies.. and they need their mommy..”
“Yes, my lovely chestnut.. they need their mommy..”
“I.. cured her..”, she whispered, giving him a bloody smile.
“I am sure you did, my beloved.”, smiled the old man.
“No iron cage this time..”, she whimpered..
..and went limp again..
✱ ✱ ✱
She stood at the edge of the cliff, quietly mesmerized, looking down at the waves gently lapping at the shore below, and at the sea that stretched from one horizon to the other like some endless, blue-green blanket.
And she absolutely loved it!
It was the first time she had seen the Endless Sea. It was also the first time she had come this far and alone from her home.
“I just must make sure, Father sees this. It is so beautiful!”, she whispered in awe as she stood, quietly petrified as the late August sun decided to impress her even more..
Like a dancer stretching out her skirts, and with a mighty display of yellow, orange, and red, the sun spread wide and great and settled on the horizon.
The little girl just stood there.
The sun was almost done showing off, but the sea, apparently, was not..
With slick splashes, a family of oddest looking fish sprang out of the sea, glided across the setting sun in some magnificent, graceful arcs, skimmed the surface over the waters, then disappeared into its depths once again..
The little girl wept.
Because she loved pretty.
And what she had just witnessed was just that.
Then she heard the groan..
It was a very ‘huge’ groan..
It echoed wide and reverberated across the sea, the sky, and the shore and the girl slid down the cliffside, her little heart aching with sorrow, for she knew that voice..
..it meant something was in pain.
That is when she saw the great whale, lying on its side, beached on the shore. She ogled at the thing, a creature, once mighty and over two hundred yards, now looked deflated and sad.
The little girl tiptoed near the creature and tenderly touched it, feeling its heart like some giant drum, beating ever so slowly..
“Great and might fish.”, she wailed. “Why do you not swim? The land is not a good place for you to sleep. The sun will scorch you, and the birds will peck at you.. Please return to the sea..”
“Who are you, little thing? And why do you care?”, the creature moaned in more pain.
“I am just a little girl, great fish. And I care because life is nice. It is precious. And you have so much life..”
“No, little girl. I had much life.. Once.. Now, I wither, for my time is near. I shall die soon, scorched by the sun, and pecked by the birds.. though I surmise, I shall make a merry feast..”
“Please.. return back to the sea.. Sea is life.”
“Yes.. Sea is life.. But mine is quite over.. I am sad, but content. I have lived since this sea was young. I have traveled it many times. I have seen its depths and the heavens above it. I have witnessed the corrals grow, new life form, and men do war upon one another upon it.. Yes. My time has long arrived little thing. Long arrived indeed..”
“But so much you have seen and so much to tell.. They will die with you.”
“That is how it is, little girl..”
“Perhaps you can come with me? I am small.. and not very smart.. and know very little.. but I have room for more..”
“Do you? You seem so little..”
“I am.. But wisdom found, should not be lost, dear big fish.”
“Well.. Since you want to insist on calling me ‘fish’, you must have much room to spare..”, the great whale.. chucked!
“What would you have me call you, dear big fish?”
“Shala.. I was called Shala.. A long time ago.. It used to mean, He Who Sails The Deepest Seas. But I am afraid, much like myself, that word is long gone and forgotten.”
“And I am called Inshala; Heaven’s Willing.. and I shall show you my forest and you can learn me your wisdom..”
“Ahhh.. Forest.. That, I have never seen.. This shall be an interesting journey, little Inshala.”
“I shall show you my forest, and more, big Shala.. I shall make you a big pond. Big enough for you to play!”
“I haven’t played since I was but a little babe, and that was quite some eons ago..”
“We shall travel far and wide together and you shall live inside me for as long as I live, small comfort though that may be.”
“Tis alright, little one. Wisdom is; finding life where there is none..”
“You thank me, little one?”
“Yes. For accepting me and accepting life.”
“You truly are an amazing one and your passion for life is bested only by your compassion for it. I sense we shall have great and extraordinary days together.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“I am Inshala. And am here because of the call.”
“You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t have come. How did you even get past the short-mortal post?”
“I do not know, what this ‘short-mortal post’ is.”
“Dwarves. They have guard post here to make sure no mortal enters the valley beyond without permission.”
“I am sorry. I did not see any dwarves. I felt a soft, pulsing call, hence I came.”
“Who is this, Temessa, and why is she here? How did she even get past the short-mortal post?”
“She says her name is Inshala and was telling me why she is here, Yamara. Must you always jump into everything?”
“I did not jump. I walked.”
“I have introduced myself. It is polite to introduce yourselves back..”
“Ow, yes. My apologies, Inshala. I am Temessa. A dryad.”
“A dryad? You are so pretty!”
“Ow, wow. You really think so?”
“Yes. I mean so.”
“What about me? I am Yamara and I am a fire nymph!”
“A fire nymph? This extraordinary! You are so, so beautiful!”
“I think I just fell in love!”
“What is this wonderful place? I sense.. something, though I do not know what. It.. it’s calling me..”
“Would you like some of my peaches, sweet Inshala?”
“Or my apples?”
“I would. But I have nothing to trade..”
“You can stay and play with us for a year and a day..”
“Owww.. I would love to. But that might make my Father sad.”
“How about a month and a day?”
“I would really love to. But my father is old. I can’t stay away for that long..”
“A day then? Please? It has been a bore since Mother put a ban on mortals..”
“A day, it is..”
“Do you like swimming?”
“I love swimming and I love ponds”
“How about fire hopping?”
“Fire hopping is awesoooome!”
“You sound like a fey..”
“You look like a fey too.. Are you sure your father is a mortal?”
“I think so. Though he is very very old. Are we going to swim and fire hop?”
“I saw her first, Yamara, so we swim first!”
✱ ✱ ✱
You are in the pond again. Why are you in the pond again?”
“I came across some men in the forest. They threw rocks at me and told me I was a filthy demon.”
“Did they, now..”
“I tried to explain that I was just a little girl and was wandering in the forest. They waved their iron axes at me and told me, I didn’t belong here..”
“Is that so?”
“I am in the pond because I am washing the demon filth off me, but it just won’t come off, Father.. It just won’t come off..”
“It will not come off, my beautiful little chestnut..”
“It won’t? Why?”
“Because you have no demon in you, nor any filth. You can’t scrub what isn’t there, my dear child. You must know this. And you belong.. right here.. You have a home..”
“But how do you know I have no demon in me?”
“Because demons do not care for other life. They CAN NOT care for other life. That is why they are demons. And you know what else demons never have?”
“Because ‘Home’ means love, warmth, care, compassion, and belonging. The moment you have those and feel those, you stop being a demon. You simply can not have those and still be a demon.”
“Perhaps it’s because I am small yet. Or because i am only half-demon.. Or just broken!”
“No, my sweet chestnut. I am afraid it doesn’t work that way. If you have four legs, you are not a human. If you are a tree, you are not an animal..”
“I have horns.”
“And I have a hunch back!”
“But your hunch is because you are very old, Master.”
“And you have horns because you are beautiful!”
“I find your logic, quite inconsistent and misplaced, Father.”
“Well, now, really?!”
“You also have sharp ears, my sweet girl. Do you know who else has ears like yours?”
“Precisely. Perhaps you should look for ‘similarities’ around you, rather than ‘differences’ elsewhere.
“Perhaps I am a Half-Elf then?’
“That is possible, my sweet chestnut. But whatever you are, you must know that you are loved.”
“Love. I do not understand this thing you call love, Master.”
“You have grown quite a bit since I found you, my sweet chestnut. And because you have, I try not to mind you taking off to wandering around the forest.”
“But you always scold me when I come back, Father.”
“And have you ever wondered why I scolded you so?”
“Because I forget to tell you?”
“That, and because I am worried every time you do not come back. And you are worried about me when you realize you haven’t come back..”
“Yes, Father. I stop what I am doing and cry.”
“That is called, ‘Love’, my beloved daughter. Because we only worry for those we love and we care..”
“And you always come back, my sweet chestnut. Why is that?”
“Be.. because this is my home..”
“And that is called, ‘Belonging’, my sweet, sweet girl.. and demons have neither, nor will they ever have either; Love and Home. They CAN’T.”
“Now come on and out of the pond. You have bled yourself with your scrubbing again.”
“I am so, so sorry I made you worry, Father. I will never leave again.”
“Let’s not make promises we can’t keep, my sweet chestnut. Of course, you will leave because you are curious about the world around you. But promise me two things; That you will remember this old man will worry, and to come back home, will you? Please?”
“I promise, Father.”
“How would you like to come with me on a long, long trip?”
“Owww.. Where are we going, Master?”
“We shall start doing something I haven’t done and neglected to do for quite some time, my sweet chestnut and it’s called, ‘Storm Hunting!'”.
“Storm Hunting? How can we hunt storms, Master?”
“Very carefully and by running a lot..”
“What is, storm hunting?”
“Storm Hunting, so colorfully named by an old friend of mine, quite some years ago, before you were born.. and.. well.. when I say, ‘old’, I merely mean it as, someone I met a long time ago. Between the two of us, I think I was the only old one.”
“You are always the old one where ever we go, Father.”
“Well, now.. That hurt, little girl!”
“Come now, my sweet chestnut. Let’s get you dry and warm and put some ointment on those scrub bleeds, and I will tell you all about Storm Hunting..”
“Your ointments smell funny, Father.”
“Funny enough to make you laugh?”
“You are making ‘father jokes’, again, Master.”
“Is it working?”
“Because you are doing it wrong, my little chestnut.”
“I do not understand, Father.”
“You are supposed to roll your eyes, and then say, ‘No..’ —like every other teenager.”
“I am not going to roll my eyes at you, Master. That is very rude!”
✱ ✱ ✱
I am blinded! I can’t see, Father.. I am deaf too.. Help me.. And I hurt everywhere..”
“There, there, my love.. I am here..”
“I can’t see.. I can’t see, Father!”
“It will pass soon, my dear. I did warn you to close your eyes, though, did I not?”
“I.. what? I can barely hear you, Father..”
“There, there.. you will be fine soon enough. Storm Hunting is dangerous work and it demands our respect. We must follow her rules, for she has a heavy hand.”
“I just wanted to see, Father.”
“Well. I can’t blame you for your curiosity, but we must have a care, my dear child. Curiosity is a good thing. But we must be sure, which is leading which? You leading your curiosity, or your curiosity leading you, for one will teach you many things, while the other will get you into trouble.”
“I will make sure, I lead the way, Master.”
“That makes this old man, so very happy. Now, can you see again?”
“Yes, Master. But there are still some small, tingling lights flying everywhere.”
“That will pass too, soon enough. Now that we have caught our first storm, let’s make camp, shall we? And cook some fish, some potatoes, some eggplants, and some corn..”
“I.. I am sorry, Father..”
“Yes, Father, I am..”
“Why are you sorry, my sweet chestnut?”
“I.. I ate all your strawberries!”
“That’s alright, dear one. I put them there, many years ago, for someone else.. But he refused to touch them..”
“Ow.. Did I eat his strawberries, then?”
“No.. If he’d wanted to eat them, I believe he would have. Time heals many things, my sweet chestnut, but it does take.. time!”
“I am not quite sure I understand, Father.”
“Never mind, never mind.. Let us get the fire started, shall we?”
✱ ✱ ✱
Why are we here, Father? This place is not nice. The ogres are cruel creatures and will try to eat us.”
“So they are and so they might. But they also live in our forest and share its bounties. We must learn to get along.”
“Because we are never alone in a forest, my sweet chestnut. And we never know to whom we might end up turning for help someday.”
“I can not see how the ogres will help anyone. They can not even get along among themselves.”
“The world is big and wide, my dear child. And is not bound by the rules we inflict upon it. Or we shall end up like those ignorant men, who call you names and want to banish you.”
“That is correct, Father. The men in the forest are incompetent.”
“Yes, Father. Had it been me, I could have caught and banished me years ago, when I was much littler!”
“Now, now.. That is not good thinking.. They couldn’t have banished you even if they had caught you and no matter how hard they tried. And they did catch you any number of times..”
“True. But they are incompetent..”
“They are.. But their failure to banish you wasn’t because of incompetence on their part, but because you can only banish demons. You can not banish pretty little girls.”
“You are just telling me that to make me feel good.”
“I am telling you this to make you feel good and because it is true, my dear child..”
“What will happen if they attack, Father.”
“If they attack, you are free to attack back, my dear. Try to avoid their clubs and axes, though. They hurt.”
“It is alright, Father. I know hurt. I know hurt very well.”
✱ ✱ ✱
And who is this, old man?”
“This, Ganiste, is my dear daughter Inshala.. Inshala, this is an old.. uhhmm.. friend of mine; Grulganiste. She is the chieftain of the ogres of Oger’s Foot.”
“She is pretty, Cathber.”
“Yes. Yes, she is..”
“Hence, she can’t be your daughter, you sour old man!”
“Well, now.. Really? That was a bit harsh, don’t you think, Ganiste?”
“Harsh is when I say; you are an old and sour man!”
“That was indeed, rather harsh..”
“Tell me, little girl, what wrong did you do for your mother to have dumped you on this old man?!”
“Ow.. I am sorry. My mother died too..”
“Do you miss your mommy?”
“Yes, little one, I miss her every day.”
“I miss mine every day too..”
“Would you like to come inside my tent? I have big, soft pillows you can jump and a little chihuahua.. You two can play while I make some food. Your old man becomes grumpy when he talks while he is hungry.”
“Yes. Yes, he does.”
“What is a chihuahua?”
“It is a small dog.”
“You have a puppy?”
“I have had him since he was a puppy. But he grew up very fast and is still a very small dog. Barks a lot, though. Want to see him?”
“She is extraordinary, Cathber.”
“Yes. Yes, she is, Ganiste.”
“What is she?”
“I am not quite sure. And to be honest about it, I don’t really care.”
“You? Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig? Have you finally found a soul to have attached yourself to?”
“You are making me sound awfully cold and heartless, Ganiste. I do have a heart, you know.”
“That is up to debate… Yet here you are, with this little thing, and quite attached to her as well.. Not something I would have expected to see from you..”
“Not something I expected to have happened to me, either.. Like, ever. It’s as if.. I have finally paid for some crime I did centuries ago and she is my gift!”
“Or curse.. Children tend to go either way..”
“Yes. Yes, they do, Ganiste. I am sorry you had to exile Cabot.”
“Not more than I am. But it had to be done. We have plenty of room in these hills to grow and flourish many times over and he was fervently trying to gather a following.. I have no desire to have my people killed for false words. Should men, elf or dwarf come to our hills seeking trouble, we shall crush them with our clubs, hack them with our axes, and smash them with our boulders..”
“Now there’s a gruesome image.”
“..but we will not go seeking for trouble. We have learned to grow our own food and animals for a long time now. So much so that we seldom need to even go down into the forest for foraging. When we do, it is mostly to release some of our bloodlust.”
“Accidents happen, though.”
“Unavoidably so.. Are you going to keep her?”
“For as long as she will let me.. I..”
“Say it, old man. For once in your life, say it. I am sure it will hurt, but I am certain you will survive..”
“You truly have a cruel streak in you, do you know that, Ganiste?”
“Telling an ogre she is cruel isn’t much of an insult, old man. Quite foolish, though.”
“Yes. I love her. Dearly, I might add.. And she is growing so fast.. She is full of wonder and an unquenchable curiosity that takes her further and further away from home every time she leaves.. It’s killing me to see her go and I can’t even say, don’t, because I know she must..”
“Well, now.. After three hundred years and some change, I finally get to see Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig in tears. I shall mark this day..”
“You pun me, Ganiste..”
“Owww, I certainly would love to.. But no, my dear Cathber.. I honor you.. You have finally grown..”
“You think living as long as you have or seeing the things you have, you have grown? Old man, you are so much more naive than I thought you could ever be.. Love.. Felt for one other than yourself, and for someone who is still alive, and particularly that for a child, is what makes a man or a woman truly grow.. And being forced to letting them go, is what really kills us.. For that, which you must do, you have my sympathy.”
“Do we have to leave so soon, Father?”
“You liked it here?”
“Yes. Mother Chieftain Grulganesti is a wonderful host.. And I want a chihuahua!”
✱ ✱ ✱
This will be dangerous, my sweet chestnut. Quite dangerous indeed.. There will be many woodsmen and they will be armed to kill on sight. There will be elven archers and not a few rangers from Serenity Home town. Their sheriff and their two master rangers will be joining us as well.. If one of them sees you, they might make.. mistakes.. Please stay at home just this once..”
“I understand your concern, Father. But there has been something in my mind for some time that I do not understand.”
“What is it, my sweet chestnut?”
“That? That, what?”
“You have been calling me ‘sweet chestnut’, for as long as I can remember, but I do not understand why you do so.”
“I.. what? All these years I have been calling you by that name and you don’t know?”
“No, Father. I thought it might not be polite to ask, but since this place you are going is very dangerous, I would want to know.”
“I.. I call you that, because.. well.. chestnuts are hard on the outside.. And quite resilient. But can be soft and sweet on the inside.. They are small and pretty to look at.. and..”
“And.. well.. because I like chestnuts!”
“There, there, child. What do I always tell you, when you do not understand something?”
“To.. to always ask..?”
“Yes, my dear child. It is polite not to ask only if you feel it is inappropriate at that moment. But it is always better to ask than not to..”
“Can I ask something else then?”
“Of course, my dear, anything..”
“Are you a boy?”
“Am I a.. what?”
“Well.. I am.. or rather, I was.. once.. some eight hundred years or so ago.. I am more a man now, than a boy..”
“And I am a girl?”
“Yes, yes you are, my dear child. And a very pretty one at that.
“What is the difference between a boy and a girl?”
“And why are you a man now and not a boy? Is it because of growing up? Will I become a man, when I grow up?”
“No, you will become a woman, when you grow up..”
“What is the difference between a man and a woman too, then?”
“I.. perhaps we could talk about this later? After I return? Please?”
“Then I am coming with you, Father..”
“Yes. I must make sure you are alright. Otherwise, who will tell me all this?”
“You can not be seen, though.”
“I would like to see the one person who could see, let alone find and catch me, Father. I can become a much larger tiger now. Larger, yet I am also much better at prowling.. I haven’t been seen, nor caught since then. I brought down a fully grown deer with a single pounce, once!”
“But I let the deer go.. She had a little baby deer.. And I also apologized after for scaring her..”
“You let go of your catch?”
“Well. Yes, Father. I do not like killing. And I do not like sad creatures. There is enough sad, without me adding to it.”
“And to see fools calling you a demon and to hurt you! I carry the shame of all humanity, my dear, dear child..”
“Everyone should learn to carry their own shame, Father. You carry many things already.”
“I will go and meet with the sheriff and the two master rangers of Serenity Home town. They will coordinate with the woodsmen and the elves and hunt the wolves that come down the mountains and attack people.”
“Will you not speak with the wolves? They are smart hunters.”
“Yes, they are. But when I tried, they did not hear me. They have been.. taken by something else.. Now the wolves are like they have gone rabid. They blindly attack.”
“That is not right, Master. Wolves do not behave that way. And they never keep rabid ones near them..”
“My dear child. I would really rather you stayed. Whatever it is that is causing the wolves to behave the way they are, will not be an easy enemy. It is cunning and very, very dangerous. I am not sure even I can fight it and survive.”
“Then you need me more than ever, Master. I will protect you. This vile creature will not touch you.”
“There will be others there to protect me, my sweet chestnut.”
“Who among mortals, love you as I love you? Who among mortals care for you as I care for you? And who among mortals will mourn for you as I shall mourn for you, should something happen to you, Father?”
“When shall we leave, Father?”
“Tomorrow morning, my child..”
“Good. I will go and bathe in the pond, Father.”
“Again? You took a bath just yesterday.. And the day before that.. And the one before that!”
“Yes, Father. And I am bringing your towel, your scrubbing stick, and your soap as well. If you are going to meet with all these people, you should be clean!”
“I am clean..”
“I washed just..”
“..last month, Father.”
“It’s been a month already? Where does the time go?”
“It has been thirty-four days and today, since you last bathed, Father. And time goes only forward!”
“Are you keeping a track of my bathing days?”
“Of course, Father. You keep forgetting these important things.”
“I am hurt.”
“I could scrub your back if it is too much work for you, Father.”
“Well, now, really?! I can very well scrub my own back, thank you very much, young lady!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Master Cathber never quite heard the silent footsteps that came very near him until the owner of the silent steps decided to be heard. The old man was poor at hearing, true, but to be honest with himself, and old Cathber certainly was, he knew would have been an easy game for the sinister-looking man in dark clothes..
The silent man was a bare inch above average and was neither fat nor skinny.. Perhaps a bit on the malnourished side but lean and wore his dark, leathers in tight straps. Like someone who never wanted to be caught, nor grappled.. He had dark, penetrating eyes and seemed like he knew how to make good use of his peripheral vision. The lower end of his face was covered with a thick, leather mask and the whole of his head was hidden in a hood made from a similar material. Old Cathber couldn’t discern what his color was either, for the man had chosen the time of his arrival to coincide with the dusk; the time where visibility was still available but drained everything of all color..
This man, whoever he was, was dangerous not only at an intellectual level but also instinctually wired to sense his surrounding.
“Master Cathber..”, he said and there was a distinct growl in his voice.
‘Good and Great Heavens’, the old man thought. ‘He growls and he is not even trying!’
“Good evening, young —?”, trailed off Master Cathber.
“Aager, sir. Aager Fogstep.. The sheriff of Serenity Home sent me to find you, and perhaps to keep you company, seeing as how I am a happy chat.”, he said, and there wasn’t any pun, irony nor any traces of sarcasm in his voice.
“Sheriff Standorin has always been a thoughtful boy.”, grinned Cathber only to see it bounce right off the man in dark leathers.
“Yes, sir.”, the man replied, though he wasn’t looking at the old man, but rather gazing somewhere off in the distance and into the darkening forest.
“Is there a problem, young man?”
“I am not sure..”, replied the young man, Aager.
“I wouldn’t be bothered too much with any feral animals luring in the bush, Master Aager. I lack what they want; meat!”, said the old man and chuckled.
The old man’s pun also bounced right off Aager as a dry pea would from a wall.. He kept his gaze at a specific spot for a bit more and then he looked at the old man.
“Shall we? It is quite a walk to the camp the woodsmen and the elves have set up.”
“Get away from him, you evil, evil man!”, growled the giant cat.
In all candor, calling this beast a ‘cat’ was a mistake, even when referring to it as ‘giant’.
It was monumentally big. A magnificent feline specimen, very nearly topping six hundred pounds. She had great, skull-crushing paws, strong, powerful hind legs, a vicious glare, and a maw that could probably take a man’s head and whole, right off his shoulders without so much as a bother.. Probably after eviscerating him with its nearly foot-long, saber-like teeth that hung down her maw!
This was a creature that did not belong to this forest, but to the Great Nothern Tundras.
The savage beast wondered what her ‘father’ would say when he figured she had sneaked off into the tundras to actually find and study such a beast to have taken its shape.
Inshala was certainly not going to volunteer for that trashing!
She looked around and noticed in panic; the evil man was staring at the forest!
“No way!”, she hissed. “There is no way he heard me! Humans are deaf, blind, and stupid. There is no way you could have heard me.”
She lowered her great mass closer to the ground, making sure where she placed her paws.
“Go away, little boy! And leave my Master alone. I will eat you if you touch him..”
“Ow-My-Heavens! He is staring right at me.. Can he even do that? Humans are not allowed to do that.. That’s not fair..”
“Maybe he is half-demon.. Like me!”
“My Master is gone.. Why is he standing alone?”
“Whatever you are, come out!”, the man in dark leathers growled.
It was a good growl, Inshala thought.
A very scary growl, even..
And he really had heard her, though he couldn’t see her!
Deer were the keenest when if came to hearing predators in the forest and she could catch any one of them off guard, at any given time.. And this.. boy? man? wasn’t even a forest dweller… He smelled of.. leather, metal, a bit of sweat, some kind of oil —probably to keep the rust off his iron weapons and.. something else, Inshala couldn’t say. It was a curious smell. Frightful but intriguing at the same time.
It was his smell..
The smell that was uniquely particular to every single creature. The one that made it possible for hunters like herself to track any single man or beast among many..
And his smell was much of death.
Yes. This man in his dark leathers had killed, and many..
He reeked of it..
But he didn’t smell like the rabid did. He smelled like he had been among or surrounded by many rabid men, and had killed many rabid men. And the smell of ‘rabid’ clung to him like the after taste of bad meat.
She had been intrigued by him, but now she had to kill him.
She knew, animals who hung around the rabid, always ended up rabid.
The man in the dark clothes dropped something..
..and left, following her Master, and soon fading in the dusk.
Inshala very patiently waited for a full ten minutes before rising from her hidden spot. Then she circled around all the way to where the evil man and her master had gone.
She wasn’t satisfied.
She felt uniquely intrigued as if a whole, different side of her had just awaked.. The non-human side of her. Her senses stretched forth and wide as she doubled back and circled the area from the other side.
Still not satisfied, she pounced up to a tree overseeing the area and glared down..
There.. something glittered in the ghostly light of the newly appearing moon.
She waited another ten minutes sweeping the area and the surrounding forest.
This was a trap.
She had been caught a few too many times in the past not to recognize one, but she just couldn’t find it.
A low, frustrated growl escaped her as she carefully, and silently slinked down the tree, and placing one giant paw over another giant paw, she came to the clearing where the evil man and her Master had been, her ears prickling every which way to catch signs of hidden ambushers.
In her past, she had found out rangers had been extremely hard to catch. But for some reason, none of them had ever hunted her down. Not in her small, diminutive, girl form, and not in her great, saber-tooth tiger form. Why, she had never been sure. Perhaps her father had told them about her and rangers respected her father. Genuinely respected him and by proxy to her Father, Inshala respected rangers in return. This evil man, however sneaky he was, was NOT a ranger. He hadn’t smelled like a ranger, for one. And two; rangers were.. Inshala was not very sure but the word ‘good’ seemed fitting.. This man was not, good. No.. He definitely was not a good man. And should the opportunity present itself, she was going to tell him exactly that!
Carefully, she snuck near the glittering thing she’d seen, watching the ground for possible hidden bear-traps or some such, as she ghosted on. Humans, as she’d learned many times over, were extraordinarily creative when it came to creating devices that killed. The irony, not that the little girl, Inshala, knew what the word ‘irony’ meant, was not lost on her, that the same humans were equally poor and unimaginative when it came to creating anything that actually saved lives!
Then she saw it.
The glittering thing on the ground.
Inshala took a step closer and paused, staring at the long, slim object with unadulterated confusion.
It was nothing but a long dagger, sheathed in its scabbard.
Nothing ornate, nor pretty. Just a long, slick weapon, made for practical accuracy.. and for killing.
Six hundred pounds of feline aggression settled down near the dagger and just stared at it. After a few moments, she pawed it..
..and yowled in total surprise, jumping some massive ten feet into the air and very nearly fifteen back, as the dagger bounced once, then settled again!
Inshala giggled at her own reaction.. which sort of made her look odd, in her giant, saber-tooth tiger form.
Alright. So it wasn’t a trap.
But why then, had the evil man dropped it?
Had it been a careless folly?
Inshala knew, more instinctually than anything else, that the evil man had not dropped it by mistake.
He had left it there with deliberate deliberation.
He had also made sure that she had seen him..
..seeing as how he hadn’t ‘left’, but had ‘carefully dropped’ it there..
The next question was why?
Why had the evil man leave a dagger..
No.. Not just a dagger.. a SHEATHED dagger for her to find.
Had he left just the dagger, it would have meant one of many things.. and perhaps even none of them.
A sheathed dagger meant..
A ‘careful’ peace offering?
He had parted with something he would need while going to battle and knowing its absence might cause him his death. Yet he had taken that risk.
Not to mention the nuance; because the dagger was sheathed, it could safely be carried by the receiving party, without cutting themselves by mistake or foolishly stabbing it under one’s belt!
This.. evil man had offered peace, in his own, perhaps a bit creepy way. He showed respect to the creature he couldn’t see, yet felt was there, hiding in the bush, and he also respected the ‘weapon’, because both, her and the dagger, had the distinct quality to take life.
It had been an intriguingly subtle.. and double-edged message..
..and Inshala, both girl and tiger, absolutely LOVED it!
It had been, perhaps the first time ever, someone had recognized her as someone who had the means and the skills to slay, but also the conscience to choose not to, and showed her, not hate, nor fear and certainly not love, but respect..
✱ ✱ ✱
The great saber-tooth snuck deep in the woods, carefully under and over heavy bushes and foliage as she watched her master walking between the two young and pretty ranger girls. That had surprised Inshala. She had never seen armed girls —or women, Inshala wasn’t sure which one of them, these rangers were. Her master had been quite evasive when she had asked him about the difference between a girl and a woman, and now she couldn’t decide what these two were. She felt she was a girl. And she also felt she had no idea, whatsoever, what, how, or when she would become a woman. Human language was diverse and its rules were complicated and many, and Inshala felt a headache threatening to inflict her. The two rangers did look all grown up if that is what it took to be a woman, but they also looked.. young too, at the same time. Though they moved with that careful, steady pace all rangers seemed to possess, they also had a ‘fresh’ step to their gait which suggested ‘youth’. Inshala wasn’t sure how she recognized these nuances or subtleties, but it seemed she only did so at an instinctual level than any learned or attained wisdom.
The one leading was a tall human girl. Taller than herself and had pretty green eyes, fair skin, and long, free-falling, coarse black hair. Or perhaps she had braided it at some time but because she kept playing with it, they had drooped and finally gone free of their braids. She had a very long, very heavy bow in one hand and a wicked-looking greatsword strapped across her back.
The other one was an elf, yet also not an elf.. “A half-elf”, exclaimed Inshala. So that’s what a half-elf looked like. She was a tad shorter than the human and leaner. Her dark brown hair was also free but had two, pretty little braids on one, and a single braid on the other side of her otherwise comely face. A face that wanted to laugh, but was trying very hard to appear serious by means of a scowl.
The half-elf also had a very long, very heavy-looking bow in her hand and a pair of swords hanging at her sides.
Yup. These two rangers definitely looked competent.
And she loved them! They looked brave and strong. Perhaps she might not have to show herself at all, after all.
She watched as the two rangers and her master stop, near a very sheer cliff face and the ranger girls rolled some boulders, forming a barely protective half-circle where they placed her master and as the human girl took her place in front of the boulders, the half-elf climbed up a large rock and prepared her bow and her arrows.
What were they doing?
Why were they just standing in the middle of nowhere waiting for the wolves?
They were brave alright.
But not very bright!
And then the air suddenly got cold.. Very cold and very fast and Inshala saw her master raise his skinny arms and started a very complex incantation. One she had never seen him perform before..
And then she understood.
Not the content, but the implications of what was going on..
The ‘enemy’ had picked up on what was going on, and was trying to use the weather by altering it enough to freeze everyone near its den!
Ow.. this was a cunning and powerful enemy!
Then she heard them.
She heard them even before the rangers..
And they came down, very nearly hurling themselves off the cliffside.
Their enemy had sensed her master and had sent his pet wolves to eliminate him.
Inshala was not going to let that happen.
But she waited. As big as she was in her saber-tooth tiger form, going up against a pack of some forty-odd wolves was a losing fight.
Inshala had never had any battle training. Hers was all about instincts.. The same instincts that told her to wait..
..and hit where it would have the greatest effect.
She had no illusions about her abilities nor that she could best a pack of wolves that size. What she did know was, when struck with overwhelming brute strength and suddenly, it would break the wolves will and scare them off.. And once a few of them started to run, the rest would follow. That was how a pack worked. And so long as she made sure the wolves couldn’t go for her throat or hamstring her hind legs, she could best them with ease.. One paw from her strong arms could shatter a wolf’s skull, without even the need to use her claws. That was the one distinct advantage felines had over canines; the ability to use their paws in a lateral direction. A swipe or a swing, per se. Dogs, or wolves, could only move their paws vertically, effectively removing the option of using their claws. The ‘batting’ or ‘swatting’ of a cat would be ‘playful’. The same action used by a six hundred pounds tiger was altogether a different proposition. Hence the skull-cracking.. Or the snapping of a spine, which was easier than the skull, but harder to reach when they were all facing her. Which is why, Inshala thought, she had to either strike from the rear, which was unlikely to succeed since there was no cover there or charge in from the flank, where she would have the opportunity to break many spines!
And that’s when the half-elf girl started ‘loosing’ her arrows..
Inshala just stood there, quietly dumbstruck as the ranger-girl started killing wolves at six hundred yards!
That.. was not fair!
The human also started shooting but she missed some. Then she drew her awesome big sword and charged!
“Alright.”, thought Inshala. “That one is pretty and stupid.. and pretty stupid!”
What was she doing?!
You don’t charge a whole pack of wolves..
But there she was, suddenly in the middle of the ravaging wolves and.. she was laughing, and Inshala seriously thought she was a bit ‘wrong in the head’, and dancing among the wolves, and where she swung, she laid waste a wolf.
That’s when Inshala noticed the alpha.
It had circled around, taking advantage of the chaos —a something far too cunning for a wolf, and was now rushing..
..at the half-elf girl from behind her.
The half-elf girl screamed.
And Inshala saw the human girl disappear under a whole lot of wolves.
A tad too late, for she had positioned herself for the pack, not the half-elf.
The alpha struck the half-elf from behind, sending her off the rock she was standing. Inshala heard a meaty crack when the half-elf fell on the ground and hit her head.
Then alpha went for her master!
“Not going to happen..”, hissed Inshala.
And six hundred pounds of feline aggression pounced the alpha, and with a sharp, unsettling crack, broke its spine. Inshala did not bother with subtleties. No one was ever going to touch her Father and Master; with a mighty swing of her awesome paw, she sent the alpha’s head, clean off its shoulders, and rolling some fifteen yards away!
Then she was among the remaining wolves.
Yes, she fought with the instincts of a killer predator, but she still had the mind of a human and.. something else guiding those instincts.. She never, for any given instance, stayed in one spot to allow the wolves to crowd her, nor hamstring her. She crushed the skull of one wolf, smashed the muzzle of another, gracefully arched over a third, broke the spine of a fourth, hopped over a charging fifth, raked open an unsuspecting sixth.. It was a mesmerizing scene, to see such a magnificent, but equally large animal dance and so nimbly among the wolves. It looked like a sand-colored smoke whifting among black and white fur..
It didn’t take too long.
The half-elf girl with her insane accuracy and the human girl with her insanity had killed much more than half their numbers to make a decent feast for the saber-tooth.
The last few tried to make a yelping run for it.
Inshala did not let that happen.
What she did do, however, was not vengeance, nor punishment.
It was a simple matter of ‘balance’.
Whatever had inflicted these wolves, had done it at a terminal level and they had all tasted human and elf flesh and many times. Enough to make a habit of it and certainly enough to lust for more. The imbalance here was very well defined; willy-nilly, these wolves had gone over the edge and crossed the line.
A line where there was no sanity.
And there were no cures here.
Which is exactly what she’d did.
She left none!
“You were extraordinary, my sweet chestnut.”
“Ow my child. If only we had Master Brom Bumblebrim here, he would have sung an epic, just for you..”
“Ow.. who is Master Blom Bundlebim Hobim?”
“An acquaintance of mine. A bard. Met him many years ago.. Wait. How did you know he is a hobbit?”
“I am not sure, Father. It just came to me.”
“Well, I must say, you truly were magnificent. And your new form. It really is much bigger than your first tiger. I wasn’t aware there were any saber-tooth tigers in Ritual Forest.”
“It’s alright, my dear child. I do not mind you quenching your curiosity. But I would like to be informed. I am an old man, yes. But I have traveled far and wide.. And know my forest well. If you feel you have to keep certain things from me, I am fine with it. But never fear me. That would truly hurt.”
“I am sorry I kept this from you. Father. You are the only one that has scolded me honestly. I can’t bear to see you worry any more than you already do for me.”
“That is what fathers do, my dearest. We worry over our daughters.. But now, help me with these young and over-enthusiastic rangers.”
“They were good, Father.”
“They were exceptionally good, my sweet chestnut. This one shoots like no one I have ever seen. And this one.. scared me more than she scared the wolves, I think.”
“I think she is angry.”
“Yes, Father. She was laughing while she was fighting. But she was also crying. But not out of fear. In fact, the moment she drew her big sword, she left all her fear behind. I do not think she was laughing because she was happy. That would be.. scary.. I think she was laughing to hide her anger.”
“You have a gift, my dear; an astute level of perception and insight.”
“She is also bitten. Many, many times.”
“Yes, she is. I believe I can heal most of it. I am sure she will truly cry when she wakes up, but from pain. At least there will be little scaring. This one however has a cracked skull.”
“I tried to reach her, but I was positioned wrong. Can you fix her? I think she’s cute. Just look at her pretty eyelashes.”
“Come, my dear, help me with this one first. It is not healthy for her to lie in all that wolf blood and.. insides..”
“She is pretty too. But she smells of woodsmen. I do not like woodsmen, Father.”
“Come now, my dear, they very nearly gave their lives trying to protect this old fool.”
“Speaking of fools. Was there a particular reason you all just stood there, right out in the open? Is there a significance to incanting at such an indefensible spot just so all the wolves could see you, that I am not aware of? I mean, there are so many trees, after all.. You could have cast your spell, sitting comfortably on a branch while these two pretty rangers could have shot at the wolves while they piled at the bottom of the trees!”
“Well, now, I.. never really thought about it..”
“You all did look awesome though..”
“Well, really, now. You are just making fun of this old man.”
“People are coming, Master. Time for me to go, I think.”
“Yes, my sweet chestnut. I believe it is..”
“Take these, Master, and have the humans make pretty earrings for these two. I think they deserve them.”
“Yes, Father. These are the alphas fangs. I do not like looting animals, other than what I honestly need.. But I sense.. a certain balance here now..”
The old man stared at the little girl and suddenly the dawn of a realization brightened his astonished face. Slowly, and carefully he looked at the unconscious girls, then studied the half-elf a bit more closely.
Good and Great Heavens..
The little girl, his little girl, was right!
Informed by her, he recognized who the half-elf was; Laila.. The daughter of Darien Darkmaine and his beloved Seraphim Silverdûne, both long deceased. And in a chain reaction, he also recognized who the other, the human girl was too; the daughter of dear Seleina Sunstrider and Aramsis Darkmaine, both also long gone..
“You are so much more astute than I could have imagined, my dear, dear child.. Your ability to sense balance around you is astonishing. And certainly much more finely tuned than mine.. You truly are a wonder..”
Inshala blushed furiously and glowed with genuine pride.. then took off..
Master Cathber stared after his ‘gift’, then back at the unconscious girls.
“Well. I believe some well-earned titles are in order, here.. ‘Wolvesbane’ for you and ‘Songsteel’ for you, I think sounds fair and quite fitting.”
“And perhaps ‘Frostmane’ for you..”, he added with a whisper, glancing after his saber-tooth daughter..
✱ ✱ ✱
The great saber-tooth wept silently.
She crouched behind the trees and thick bushes, staring at the large camp full of elves, woodsmen, and rangers laughing and drinking merrily in celebration of having finally gotten rid of the mad wolves infesting Dim Woods and Nurturing Heaven for over two decades. Inshala wasn’t among the merry lot and she wept. Not for having to miss the party, but for the two, pretty ranger girls moaning in pain, in their tent.
Inshala knew pain. She knew it intimately. She had been born with it. Hence, when she saw pain and suffering, she did not offer sentiments because she felt the pain. And those two had fought so bravely, so valant.. varrant.. so.. virulent? What was the word?
Yes, they had fought so bravely and valiantly, and they were now paying the price for it.. cashed in pain.
Then she saw the dark, evil man skulk..
Skulk had a.. Inshala was not sure exactly what, but the word ‘skulk’ didn’t fit the evil man.
Skulk had a certain ‘cowardice’ attached to it.
Sneak, then, perhaps?
But he wasn’t exactly sneaking either, per se.
Well, that certainly fit, but Inshala didn’t think it did the evil man justice nor give it the dramatic touch she felt it needed.
Walking silently seemed more like a ‘side effect’ to his gait, rather than the cause.
And why was she so hung up on how the evil man walked anyway?
It was just a walk!
Inshala, however, loved correctly defining things. It seemed to satisfy her at a fundamental level.
Or perhaps it was because she had been misunderstood or misinterpreted a few too many times in her past.
Being thought you were a demon all your childhood, and consequently being chased, stoned, caged, and whipped would do that.
An ungrateful, or perhaps, an uncharitable person would probably call her ‘obsessive’.
However she was looked upon, Inshala did not mind, so long as there were no name-calling, chasing, stoning, caging, or whipping in the end.
She still did obsess on correctly defining things, though.
The only, and major issue with that was, the little girl was quite and quietly isolated and had only one old man to talk to. The man she loved and adored.. and didn’t want to perpetually pester him. Hence she lacked ‘words’..
She exclaimed.. Yes, the evil man ‘ghosted’ towards the tent where the two, pretty ranger girls moaned and groaned in pain!
Or rather, he had already ‘ghosted’ there by the time Inshala found the correct word and she’d totally missed it!
That bothered the little girl.
It bothered her a lot.
She knew she could obsess over words, her bathing schedule, certainly her Father’s bathing calendar, her hair, her clothes, her nails, and her.. horns.. But over a boy? a man? She wasn’t quite sure what this one was, but sending a ‘boy’ to fight a whole pack of wolves sounded genuinely wrong to Inshala.. though, when she thought about it, she was here and she’d fought the wolves and she was a girl. So were the two, pretty ranger girls!
This particular, boy/girl, man/woman dilemma was really getting out of hand!
What’s more, why had the evil man gone to a tent where two, pretty ranger girls lay resting?
.. Inshala found it extremely disturbing for some reason and she was totally clueless as to why!
Perhaps the evil man liked one of the girls. They were both pretty, after all..
Perhaps the evil man liked BOTH the girls! They were BOTH pretty, after all!
A low and savage growl escaped the saber-tooth.. She wasn’t sure which of those she found more disturbing, but both made her want to pounce the tent and shred things.. in a rather bloody way.. Starting with the evil man!
On a side note, Aager Fogstep never knew just how close he’d come to getting shredded that evening!
And just like that, Inshala calmed down.
Because she remembered something— ⊗
The massive, six hundred pounds of feral egression molded down..
There was no smoke, no crunching of bones, no disgusting body fluids gushing out of any orifice, nor any spectacular, sparkling effects.. at all..
One moment a giant of a cat with a great maw, foot-long sabers for teeth, spine snapping massive paws and man-height shoulders, the next, a skinny little girl.
The lack of drama was a bit disappointing perhaps, but the beauty of the change was in fact, in its quiet subtlety.
⊗ —the sheathed dagger.
The two, pretty ranger girls did not possess anything that belonged to the evil man. But she did.
And the evil man did not have the smell of either of the two, pretty ranger girls on him.
Funny how ‘relative reason’ found its way through impossible odds at times. Particularly when you desperately wanted it to!
The little girl, Inshala, did not ‘ghost’ in the night. She didn’t think she would ever be able to do that. Not in her ‘girl form’, anyway. She felt that seemed something unique to the evil man for some reason and that thought made her frown.. and put a tiny little smile on her small mouth at the same time.
Hence she snuck.
Inshala did not do skulking, either!
Quietly, she placed the sheathed dagger near the entrance of the tent.
To this day, she was never really sure why she’d returned the dagger. Perhaps it was because she thought he might need it and its lack might cause him harm. Or perhaps it was a matter of simple ‘balance’; take something, give something. Maybe it was about returning the ‘careful peace’ offering in-kind.. though, in all candor, she might have thought it was something of a game. A bit like hide-and-seek..
Whatever her reasons or reasonings were, it felt ‘right’ and ‘appropriate’ to have returned the sheathed dagger because when she snuck back into the woods, the frown on her diminutive face was gone.
And only the little smile was there.
✱ ✱ ✱
Let me get this straight, old man. You want me to teach your daughter the differences between boys and girls, and men and women? Am I correct?”
“Yes, Ganiste. That is exactly what I am asking you to do..”
“This is incredible. The great Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig blushes and can’t talk about men and women to a little girl?”
“You are enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“more heartless laughter*
“Very, very much. But what I don’t understand is, you told me all this when I was a girl. Why can’t you tell her?”
“She is my daughter, Ganiste. I.. can’t, alright. A father should never have to tell these things to his daughter. To a son, perhaps, but not his daughter. That is the mother’s prerogative, if not her job. Yes, it doesn’t sound nice when I say it like that, but to be honest, I don’t care. When it comes to fathers and daughters, there should be some sort of unspoken privacy between them. The same privacy that creates the incomprehensible but special bond that is called father and daughter. Yes, I have washed her, bathed her, clothed her, looked after her, fed her, taught her, and comforted her the best I can. And whenever she does these by herself and in the future, she will remember me and smile. This.. ‘topic’, however, relates to a possible third person by its nature I am hoping she will find in time.. Someone who loves her, cares for her, attends to her needs in all aspects, comforts her, and keeps her safe. And I should never be part of that equation. Only her and that person, whoever he may be.. If I told her about these, I will ruin the mystic of the whole thing..”
“And embarrass yourself..”
“And embarrass myself..”
“You never cease to amaze me, old man.”
“I honestly am not trying.. But I can not go to the woodsmen for their support on this, seeing as how they treated her all these years. Elves.. well.. I am NOT going to the elves with this.. Dwarves are not even aware of her existence and I’d like to keep it that way. They make horrible gossip! You are the only woman I know and trust.. Ironic as that may seem..”
“Yes.. rather ironic, indeed. An ogress teaching the ways of boys and girls, men and women to an old codger’s little, non-human daughter. What could possibly go wrong there?”
“Old codger? Really, now, Ganiste..”
“I resent that!”
“Well, now, you are just being mean, Ganiste. I never called you any names.”
“By all means, do. You are so out of your debt here that I can pluck you clean and you will just sit there and take it all!”
“Do it, then. For her, I will sit still and ‘take it all’..”
“You are serious..”
“Ganiste.. When have you ever seen me otherwise?”
“Very well, old man. This is quite unprecedented, but I will do this for you. And for her.. I hear certain ‘talks’ form special bonds between girls. Never really had the chance here. Ogres aren’t much when it comes to intimacy. At least I and the future Ritual Guardian will have such a special bond..”
“Are you done talking privately with my Father, Ganiste? Chihuahua is hungry, and so am I..”
“Yes, I am done talking with your father. But not quite done talking privately with you..”
“You want.. to talk privately with me?”
“Yes, child. I am afraid this will be one of ‘those talks’..”
“Cathber! You never had any of ‘those talks’ with her?”
“Uhhmm.. Nope! Thought I’d leave it all to you and in your tender care..”
“You are incredible, you are.. How is she even alive?”
“That was a bit harsh, now, Ganiste. I did the best I could..”
“Come, little one. Help me prepare dinner and I will tell you all about boys and girls..”
“You.. you will?”
“Yes, little one, I will..”
“Yessh! It has been in my mind for some time now. But I do not understand why my Father isn’t telling me this and you are..”
“Because he is a wuss!”
“Well, now, really, Ganiste?!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Tell me little one. What do you know about boys?”
“They are mean. They try to catch me, they pull my hair, my ears, and my horns. They hit me with sticks, they throw stones at me and call their parents who beat me more, put me into cages, and whip me. I do not like them, mother Ganiste.”
“And.. why did you not hit them back, child?”
“Because I do not like hurting. I am used to pain, but they are not. If I threw a rock at them, they will die. If I hit them with sticks, they will die. If I whip them, they will die. I only kill to eat. And when an animal has become sick in the head..”
“Hmmm.. Alright. Perhaps one day you will meet a boy who will not do any of those to you.”
“I do not look forward to it, mother Ganiste. Humans are all same. They are ignorant, stupid, they only want to kill things and they do not smell nice. Why would I want any of them.”
“But you are human too, child.”
“No, mother Ganiste. I am not. Father says I am. And at first, I wanted to be as well. If being human will make me do all the evil things they do, I do not want to be human. Perhaps an elf. They at least never throw stones at me, or call me names or hit me with sticks. But they do avoid me and that hurts. I have done nothing to them.. I just watch them play and dance from far away. They will not mind that. But they will not let me come any closer. They are a closed-minded people.”
“Life hasn’t offered you any favors, has it, child? And this coming from an ogre makes it all the more sad.”
“I did not even want to be, mother Ganiste. At all.. But no one asked me, so I am here. Only my Father has been good to me.. And you, mother Ganiste. But he is old. I can see him wither away, every day now and I do not know what to do? If only I could find a way to give him my days, I would. No one wants a dirty little demon like me. But everyone needs him.”
“No child. We do not get to give our days to others. And even if you had the chance, you shouldn’t be doing that.”
“Why? I have no future. There are no happy days for me other than what my Father gives me..”
“Child. I am an ogre and even I haven’t given up thus thoroughly. And I lost everyone I know to humans, because of humans.. Yet there are some that can be spoken to, bargained with, and expect some respect. Your father is one such human. Should have seen me when I first saw him. I literally tried to catch and eat him! But he bested me and still did not slay me. Instead, he offered to take me along and show me the world beyond our hills and our ways. Now he is your father and still doing the same. In time, you will find someone, perhaps a human, or an elf, or someone or something else, who will be like your father but who will not be your father. To him, you will tell all your secrets, all your worries, all your fears, all your bad habits and it will still be alright. You will open your heart to him and he will love you for it. And he will do the same to you and it will be alright with you and you will love him for it, as well..”
“I find your confidence in humans enthralling, but misplaced, mother Ganiste..”
“That is for time to show you, child. But either way, you must know what boys are and what men are. You must also know what being a girl means and how they become women.”
“Tell me about the girl and the woman, mother Ganiste. I have no interest in boys nor men. They have brought me nothing but suffering, and given me nothing but pain..”
“Let’s not be too hasty, child. For there can be no men without women and only empty and desolate women without men..”
“I do not understand, mother Ganiste. What do women have that men want, and what do men have that women need?”
“Living in the wild, have you never noticed how there are always two, to make more?”
“I have, mother Ganiste. Animals are kind, for they hunt only what they need. And are bonded to their mates. The mate fights and savagely, so the mother can run and take its cubs, puppies, and babies to safety.”
“Yes. But why does it take two, to birth the cubs, puppies, and babies?”
“I do not know, mother Ganiste. It just does, I guess.”
“It doesn’t ‘just does’, child. It is needed. The girl needs the boy, for the girl to make more. And the boy needs the girl, for the whole of their kind to grow. Neither is better than the other, and neither is the stronger. To think so is folly and an elementary mistake.”
“Because there can be no men without women and only empty and desolate women without men, dear child.”
“When boys grow, they become men. When girls grow, they stay a girl. For a girl to become a woman, she needs to mate.”
“What is to mate, mother Ganiste?”
“The details of that is something you will learn in time, I imagine. Suffice to say, the boy gives his seeds to the girl, and the girl turns those seeds into new life! What you are here for is, when boys grow, they grow also in size and muscle, though not particularly in their mental capacity. This is also true for women, really, but that’s beside the point. When a girl starts to grow, her body changes much more profoundly than boys. Our hips grow wider, and our breasts grow larger.”
“For many reasons. One is to attract the attention of men, I suppose, the other is for both to carry and deliver our babies, and to feed our young ones..”
“I.. do not understand, mother Genista.. You mean to tell me I will look like you?”
“In essence, yes. Do you remember how flat you were just a few short years ago?”
“You certainly were, the last time you came here. Now you have ‘hips’, and ‘breasts..”
“Will they not stop growing?”
“They might. But I doubt. Not yet anyway. You are different from humans and different from ogres. But I believe you are not quite done with your growing just yet.”
*blush some more*
“But.. I do not want them to grow anymore. Can I not stop them?”
“No. And neither should you want to. Never, and I mean, never interfere with your natural growth. That is not just wrong, you will ruin your body. There is no going back once it’s done, child.. Besides, no girl ever wants them to stop growing. The larger they are, the more men like them.. boys too, for that matter, and I don’t expect that particular aspect in males to be any different in humans.”
“I do not understand, mother Ganiste. I do not want to grow anymore. If I grow more, so will my horns..”
“Child.. What am I?”
“An ogress, mother Ganiste.”
“I have the face of a bull that’s smashed into a wall running at full speed. I have a flat nose, thick, uneven horns, and canines that stick out of my jaw..”
“Yes. You look awesome, mother Ganiste.”
“You look awesome!”
“I.. I do?”
“And very impressive. I was enthralled the first time we met.”
“Girl.. You are ruining my speech and my point!”
“I am sorry, mother Ganiste. But I speak my truth.”
“Your truth is pretty. But my face is not. Which is, or was, my point.”
“I feel lost, mother Ganiste.”
“As much as I dislike many of my aspects, this is me. This is who and what I am. In time, I will become more, and I will become less, yet, whatever and however I turn out to be, I will accept that, and so must you.”
“You belong, mother Ganiste. Here, and among yours.”
“Where do I belong?”
“I have no place among humans and I have no place among elves. You belong to your people, and your hills, mother Ganiste, because you have people.. I have no hills and no people.. I have no place in this world, mother. I do not belong!”
“You belong, where you feel you belong, child. To your father and to your home.. And as long as I am here, you belong to these hills as well.”
“I thank you, mother Ganiste. You are kind and wise. But you and I know, in the end, I will live alone, and die alone. I will always be shunned, stoned, caged, and whipped for as long as I live and my best chance is to run.. Always run.. Should I settle and be found, I will be driven and my home burned. The running can not belong,mother Ganiste..”
“Did you learn the answers to your questions, my sweet chestnut?”
“Yes, Father. Thank you for bringing me here to mother Ganiste. She is wise as she is pretty. I would like to visit her again in the future if it’s alright.”
“I am sure Ganiste wouldn’t mind. I believe she truly adores you.”
“She adores many things, Father. The smaller they are, the more she adores..”
“And have you any further questions to ask on the matter you talked?”
“No, Father. I found it was a matter that was not significant, nor pertinent and quite unrelated to my life.”
“Boys and men will always stay and far away. And I will always stay, here and a girl. I am alone, Father, for I have no kind. I belong nowhere and there will be no mate waiting for me..”
✱ ✱ ✱
You have been rather quiet of late, my daughter. What’s ails you? Are you unwell?”
“I am well, Father. I am merely thinking.”
“Thinking. Thinking is good, my sweet chestnut. But too much, however, could befuddle —unless shared.”
“The Wyld Hunt, Master. That is what I have been thinking.”
“Now, why would a pretty little girl such as yourself ever think of a dreadful thing such as the Wyld Hunt, my daughter. It is not a wise matter to dwell upon. Not for an old man such as myself, let alone a pretty little girl..”
“You do not have to say I am pretty all the time, Master. That elk has escaped.. I no longer find interest in being pretty. I have accepted my lot..”
“Perhaps you should look into all your options before you call upon your lot, my daughter.”
“It is alright, Father. It really is.”
“My dear fair girl.. Ever since we met, have I ever mislead, muddied the truth, or lied to you?”
“There you have it, then. If I say you are loved, it is because you are loved. When I say you are pretty, it is because you are pretty.. Unless you want to call this old man a fool for a pretty face.. which would sort of make my point!”
“I thank you for your love and your care, Father. It has meant a lot for me and sustained me all these years. It is time, however, I stand on my own feet, then on your shoulders.”
“My shoulders are fine, my sweet chestnut. You weigh little!”
“I weigh more than my little. This I think you already know, Father.”
“Why don’t we both go to the pond and take a dip? It is a beautiful day..”
“I took a dip last week, Father. I will take another if I need.”
“Soo.. why were you thinking about the Wyld Hunt? If I may be so bold as to ask..”
“You are bold, Father.”
“Well, really, now? That’s just being nasty.”
“I am sorry, Father.”
“We shall see how sorry you are then, shall we, young lady? The Wyld Hunt..”
“Perhaps I could call it and join it.”
“Call it and join it, Father. That way, I will belong.”
“First of all, young lady, no one ‘just calls’ the Wyld Hunt. Second, the Wyld Hunt is not something you can ‘belong’ to.. like ever! The Wyld Hunt is not a nice thing, my daughter. It is very, very, VERY dangerous to call it.. Once, and only once did I call it and that was over 750 years ago during Themalsar War, and it took a full circle of druids to barely steer it towards that mad old priest’s temple! They destroyed the temple and brought it down to a stunted rubble.”
“But I heard he still lives, Father. Themalsar still lives.”
“Yes. He does. As far as I know. The fool made pacts with unimaginable things we could not even put names to. The best we could do was to lock him up in his stinking dungeons and put the strongest wards we could muster.. All of us; what remained of the druids, any Temple Guardian we could get our hands on, any elf wizard or sorcerer, and even Angels from the High Heavens and powerful Fey from either Courts..”
“So you called the Wyld Hunt and they were unable to destroy this Themalsar?”
“There you have it then, Father.”
“There we have what, child?”
“You sent them to do a task and they were unable to finish it.. The Wyld Hunt ‘owes’ you, Father!”
“Now you could call them and ask them if I could join them as a payment to their debt! That way, they will be happy for having finally paid off their debt, I will have gone and joined them and ‘belonged’, and you will be free of me and will no longer be forced to endure my weight!”
“No? But why, Father? Seems like a good solution.”
“Solutions are for problems.”
“Yes, Father. And I am the problem.”
“No, my daughter. The problem is you questioning my love for you. The problem is where you do me the disservice of questioning my love, my care, and my fondness of you.”
“I.. I thought..”
“Go? Where shall I go, Father?”
“Go.. and take a bath..”
“I do not need a bath, Father. The dirty does not come off.”
“Go, Inshala. NOW! AND NEVER TALK ABOUT THE WYLD HUNT AGAIN!!”
“You shouted at me, Father..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Ganiste! I need your help!”
“Cathber? That you, old man?”
“Yes, yes.. How many others do you see in your dreams, girl?”
“Do you really want me to answer that question, old man?”
“You really shouldn’t ask questions you do not want the answers for, old man. But, I wasn’t really sleeping. Just staring at something dreamily.”
*heavy, fuming breaths*
“Are you done?”
“How could I be? You are the one with the problem. But let me guess; it’s about your little one, isn’t it?”
“How could you even know that?”
“Only two things that I can think of could have riled up a sour old man like you; one would be a whole village of bigots to have finally banded together and come down to that howell you call home with torches and pitchforks, or it’s a daughter.. But I doubt you would have called me for the bigots. I hear you take particular delight when it comes to entertaining yourself with them.”
“You are having fun, aren’t you, Ganiste?”
“Every time you call, old man. But that is beside the point. Now, what seems to be the issue?”
“Yeees, old man, seeing as she is your daughter. But what is the problem?”
“She said she wanted to call the Wyld Hunt!”
“She can do that?”
“I don’t know. She surprises me at every turn. She is destroying everything I thought I knew about the fey and the wild fey!”
“Daughters can do that. Destroy everything we thought we knew. Why does she want to call the Wyld Hunt? Perhaps she is finally tired of your precious woodsmen. I certainly am.”
“No. She said she wants to join them and finally ‘belong’..”
“Ahhh? Ahh, what?”
“It is of no importance, old man. It is a girl thing. You wouldn’t understand. Besides, joining the Wyld Hunt isn’t so bad. My great-great-grandfather joined it.. during Themalsar War. Wasn’t it you and your doddering old friends that called it, then?”
“It was a desperate play, Ganiste. You of all people should know this.”
“Perhaps.. But I wouldn’t worry too much about it..”
“You are not being of any help, Ganiste.”
“Was that a requirement of me? Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things?”
“Well.. ‘Please’ always helps.. But like I said, I wouldn’t worry too much about it if I were you.”
“And why is that?”
“Told you. It’s a girl thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
“By all means, try me, Ganiste!”
“No point. You have to be a girl to understand. But if you feel you are that desperate, by all means, turn into one. I know you can.. with one of your polymorph spells..”
“I have done many foolish things in my time, Ganiste. But I am NOT going to turn myself into a girl. Not now, not ever.. I am what I am and people should accept what they got, then try to be something else.. Particularly when it comes to things such as this —a something that is certain to end in depravity.”
“Time will come when your point of view might be questioned, old man.”
“And what gave you the idea that I would ever care, Ganiste! I am not a public figure that needs a popular vote for some foolish election. I do not require to appear ‘cute’, nor be politically correct. By all means, girl, you know what I do, what I fight, and what I defend.. But I see none of those idiots out there lending a hand, let alone bleed for humanity!”
“Alright. I will help you try and understand.”
“Inshala is how old now?”
“Should be close to her fifteenth. I am not quite sure of her exact day of birth. I estimated about a month or two before her mother was driven out of her village and into the woods then stoned to death.. The fools thought she’d died and left but she picked herself up, and her baby and ran.. She was overcome by fatigue and blood loss, however, and finally died. I found them a few days later quite by chance really. Buried the mother and adopted the baby.”
“And you let those animals get away with this?”
“No, Ganiste, I did not. I.. someone let slip the news of what happened to the authorities in Serenity Home.. and the good sheriff, along with his guards and a platoon of rangers came down on them like an avalanche.. I don’t think they ever forgot what they did to that poor young girl since then..”
“How very you, old man. But if we are to return to the essence of your problem, your beloved daughter, Inshala, is a teenager now, and has been for quite some time. I am surprised she hasn’t done anything odd and creepy at all..”
“So what if she is a teenager?”
“Do you even know what girls go through during their teenage years, old man?”
“Of course. They grow!”
“You are incredible, you are, old man.. How is that poor girl even alive with you?”
“That was a tad harsh, Ganiste. I did my best.”
“It is not your fault you are such a dork, Cathber.”
“Well, now, really?”
“Don’t misunderstand me, old man. All men are.. when it comes to truly understand girls.. or women, for that matter.. and what we go through while we are growing and what we suffer in life.”
“I am sorry, Ganiste. I have been running around this forest for over eight hundred years dealing with the sins of men, the fouls of monsters, and the fel of demons to make life livable and safe for others. I was bound to miss a thing or two.”
“You are a good man, Cathber. A foolish man, but still a good man.”
“Well, thank you very much for seeing fit to give me that much credit, Ganiste.”
“Don’t be like that, Cathber. It does not become you.. Look, I am a tad busy with a poacher at hand so I will try to make this simple; men do not understand what we go through while we are growing. You literally can’t because you never go through it.. You can nod your heads and claim to understand but never truly comprehend.. We are awash with all sorts of wild chemicals as our bodies change and become ‘birth ready’. This is what she is going through.. just like any other teenage girl does, resulting in odd behavior changes, mood swings, laughing and crying for no particular reason, falling in love with foolish, older men..”
“I resent that.”
“It will last for some time and will call her to do all sorts of odd drama, though I must admit, the idea of joining the Wyld Hunt is a bit of an overkill..”
“How long? How long will this last?”
“For however long it takes for her to adjust to these changes and until she adapts to her new self..”
“Yes, old man.. Larger breasts, wider hips, swaying walks.. you know..”
“No, I don’t.. Not really..”
“Hey, I met my beautiful Tamara when she was done with her growing up, alright.”
“In short, she must go through with this and there is nothing you really can do about it.”
“Nothing? There is absolutely nothing I can do about it?”
“Absolutely nothing, old man. The only thing you can try is to offer understanding, patience, and kindness..”
“She has those and more, Ganiste. She can have all my understanding, patience, and kindness.. ALL OF IT!“
“No, old man. You thought you gave her those. What she needs now are the real ones.. What’s worse, for you is, she might not even be in the mood to accept any of them!”
“This is.. unprecedented..”
“You have a daughter and you think this as unprecedented? You truly are naive, Cathber.”
“You are punning me again, Ganiste.
“Yes. Yes, I am, old man. But what you need now is a hug. I could give you a hug.”
“Uhhmm.. I apricate your offer, dear Ganiste. But the last time you hugged, it took me nearly three months to recover.”
“Such is love, old man.. Always painful!”
✱ ✱ ✱
I see you are in the pond again.”
“Yes, Father. You told me to go and bathe in the pond.”
“Yes. Yes, I did tell you that, didn’t I..”
“Inshala.. My dearest daughter—”
“—I am sorry Father. For making you shout at me..”
“I am sorry, my sweet chestnut, to have shouted at you..”
“You have been nothing but good to me..”
“And you have been nothing but a sweet daughter to me..”
“I will do my best not to put my weight on you.”
“And I will try to carry more of you.. My only wish of you is that you would accept what I give and never question it.”
“I will never question it, Father.”
“Now, where is my towel, my scrubbing stick and my soap? I think I smell a bit too.”
“Are you saying, I smell?”
“No. I am saying, you smell. A whole week without a dip in the pond? Really, now, girl? Who are you? And where’s my daughter?”
“But.. but I am your daughter and I am right here!”
“Well, we shall see about that. My daughter always cooks a wonderful dinner. And will take another bath tomorrow as well..”
“Where are you going, girl? And do put your towel on!”
“Towel can wait! I am going to cook a wonderful dinner and prove that I am your daughter, Father!”
✱ ✱ ✱
And how have you been of late, young one? You certainly gave my ogres a fright, when you came the way you did. Your cat is indeed quite impressive. “
“I am sorry mother Ganiste. It was not my intention to scare your people. I was on my way to Gulls Perch to play with some of my friends there and I was in a bit of a rush. But I didn’t want to be impolite so I decided to come here and visit you first.”
“That was very thoughtful of you, dear child. Come, let’s get into my tent and while I make you some cookies, you can play with chihuahua and tell me all about what you have been doing.”
“Cookie and chihuahua! How can I say, no, mother Ganiste?”
“I didn’t know the fey let outsiders into their valley at Gull’s Perch. They were all banned quite some years ago.”
“They still are, mother Ganiste. But they don’t mind me and let me in.”
“We swim and play in their big ponds for hours and hours. And when the sun sets, we fire hop and we play hide and seek in the woods. But I think the dryads are cheating.”
“Ow? Why do you think so?”
“Playing hide and seek in the woods with dryads is a game you are never going to win, mother Ganiste. Every dryad is paired with one tree or another. When they hide behind a tree, they just ask the tree and the tree opens up, and hides them!”
“Well, that’s a bummer.”
“Not anymore, mother. I have been studying and working hard and I can speak with trees now.”
“Yes, mother Ganiste. So this time I will just ask the trees.”
“Will they give away their own dryads, though?”
“But I will not be asking them about their dryads..”
“I will be asking them why are they so fat, and were they always this fat!”
“They will think it’s the dryads that are making them look fat and try to explain it to me!”
*happy, thunderous laughter*
“You are an incredible little girl, you are..”
“Thank you, mother Ganiste..”
“And you look amazing too!”
“I.. I do?”
“Yes, girl. Barely a year has passed since your last visit and look at you..”
“Why, mother? What’s wrong with me?”
“Wrong? There is nothing wrong with you girl, but Good Heavens you’ve grown..”
“I.. I have?”
“Yes.. I don’t think I should call you ‘child’ any more.”
“But what will you call me then?”
“You have grown and are no longer a child, but a ‘young lady’ now. You were pretty before, but now your breasts are larger, your hips are wider and your walk has a sway..”
“M.. mother, please, stop!”
“Now, now, young lady.. This is girl talk. When we are alone, in this tent, we have less rules.”
“I.. I don’t really feel any different now, then I did before, though.. Just a bit strange.. and akwak.. arward.. awkard..”
“That is to be expected. You body has grown and flourished, but your mind hasn’t caught up to that fact yet.”
“I do not understand, mother Ganiste.”
“Before, you were a pretty little girl. Now, you are a beautiful young lady..”
“But.. how can you be sure?”
“Your fey friends..”
“What about them?”
“The fey-folk like ‘pretty’. This is something they can not help, nor avoid. But they absolutely adore ‘beauty’..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Is this true? Did you see it with your own eyes?”, growled Ganiste and there was murder is her burning eyes.
The large ogre standing some three yards tall shuffled his feet uncomfortably and took an undiscernible step back.
“Yes, Chieftain Grulganesti. His door and windows were smashed in and he was lying in his bed with many stabs in his chest. Too small to be our swords or axes. They were done by human knives.. They hid their steps well, but I sought much and found some. Large for elf, soft for dwarf. But they moved carefully and swiftly. His house was much ransacked, Chieftain. They were looking for something.”
Ganiste went pale. She could barely keep her composure. She did a harsh swallow of the bitter taste that came to her clenched jaws.
“Send the signal.”, she said in a growl. “I want triple sentries on watch. Anything that is of suspect is to be reported to me. Send also one fast runner to the elves, one to the dwarves and one to the human town to inform them of what has befallen.”
“Chieftain..”, replied the ogre dubiously. “The elves barely tolerate us at the best of times and will likely shoot us. The dwarves will shoot us. The humans.. if we chance upon one of their sensible rangers, they may listen. Otherwise they will also shoot us.”
“Do tell me something I do not know! All couriers will carry white flags-poles on their backs at all times. Should they still shoot at them, I will personally go there, break their bows and shiv it up their intestines for display!”, she replied with a horrible hiss..
“An educational riposte, Chieftain.”, nodded the ogre thoughtfully.
“Also.. send another courier to Gull’s Perch.. His daughter must know of this.. Prepare a full platoon. We shall leave within the hour. We must get to his home before anyone else comes to ransack it. I.. we must also make him ready for burial. She must not see him ravaged. There is a limit to what a girl could tolerate..”, she said, though it wasn’t quite clear as to which girl she was referring to. With a wave of her hand, she sent the ogre with her orders..
For a long moment, Ganiste just stood there staring at her empty tent. And then, the Chieftain of the all the ogres of Ogre’s Foot and Ritual Forest, Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig dropped on her knees and cried like a little girl..
“You old fool..”, she moaned. “Who shall slay me now?”
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala, stop! They did not do this. They are here only to make sure no one else comes and to prepare him for his funeral”, screamed Ganiste, but the giant, near six-hundred-pound saber-tooth tiger standing over the fallen, bloodied ogre didn’t care. Her great maw open, her two, foot-long sabers for teeth shown with mindless wrath!
Chieftain Grulganiste did not wait for another warning.
With an unexpected agility from the near fourteen-foot ‘woman’, she rammed the saber-tooth tiger and flung her off the bleeding ogre on the ground. The saber-tooth spun in mid-air, bounced off a near-by tree, shot herself using her powerful hind-legs and came at the ogress, her skull-crushing paws extended.
Grulganiste ducked just enough to let the tiger sail over her, then jumped her from behind, grabbed her and with a mighty heave she locked her in her awesome grip. A roar of surprise and madness escaped the saber-tooth as she trashed, leaving long, ugly, and bloody scars on the chieftain, but Ganiste ignored them..
She just squeezed more.
The other ogres picked up their great axes, clubs and swords and moved in.
“NO!”, screeched Ganiste.“STAY YOUR GROUND! NO ONE TOUCHES THE RITUAL GUARDIAN!”
The saber-tooth struggled more, but something snapped and suddenly, Ganiste was no longer grappling a giant tiger, but hugging a little girl!
“Stop, girl.. Please, stop..”
“He trusted you, mother!”, screamed Inshala.
“As should you, girl. If you do not cease this, by the Great Heavens I will beat you until there’s some semblance of sense in that thick skull of yours.”, grated Ganiste.
“You hurt him! And now you hurt me! Why did you do this, mother?”
“I did not do this to him. You must understand this. And neither did my ogres. We revered your father. We do not know who did this, but it was not us..”, scowled the chieftain of the ogres.
“Who? Who did this then?”, screamed the little girl.
“Men. Some men came at him while he slept. They killed him with knives and low honor, ransacked his home and ran east..”
Running foot steps came and two ogres appeared in front of the battered home of old Cathber.
One of ogres was heavily wounded and the other was limping.
“Chieftain..”, grunted the limping one as he slowly lowered his wounded comrade.
“Who did this?”, hissed Grulganiste.
“We are not sure, Chieftain. They were swift and strong. They killed six of us and we didn’t even see them. Only the two of us made it and barely. They looked like orcs. But much bigger. Much stronger. Much.. something.. And there was many of them. Over thirty strong, at least.”
“Where are they headed?”
“East, Chieftain. They were all heading east. They also burned the elf village, Nurturing Heaven, down to the ground.. And they didn’t even bother to ransack it.. Dead elves.. Dead elves every where. They tried to put up a fight, but these.. things, attacked them in the middle of the night, either last night or the one before that, and slaughtered all they could find.”
“Are there any survivors?”
“We do not know, Chieftain. We tried to get near and that is when we got attacked. There were signs of possible survivors though, heading towards Dim Wood.”
Chieftain Grulganiste’s face was black. And with unveiled anger, she turned to one of her other ogres.
“Go to base. Alert everyone. Then bring two platoons here, and six platoons to the elf village to find possible survivors. If there are any, they are to be escorted to the woodsmen villages. The platoons are to station outside their villages to make sure these beasts do them no harm. I detest the woodsmen, but I shall not bring my people blame for their deaths.”
“Also, send more couriers to the dwarves and the human town to carry this news and what we are doing about it. We do not need any misunderstanding. Let all my ogres carry white flags on their arms and on poles on their backs.”
“What shall we do about the humans that slew the old Ritual Guardian?”
“Nothing. This is a human matter and we can not interfere. Anything we do other than what we have already done will only complicate things. As for the beasts—”
“—I shall hunt them down. I shall hunt them down and rip them apart.. Then I shall go after these humans as well.. and gnaw their bones!”, hissed Inshala.
“Your anger is understandable, but misplaced, girl. You cannot do either of those, because you are not ready. Actions done in wrath, never ends well..”, replied Ganiste quite sternly.
“You will either move, mother Ganiste, or I shall move over you.”, hissed Inshala and there was none of the sweet little girl that the ogress chieftain new. There, standing before her was something else. Certainly human. But not all the way and Ganiste knew not what and she was suddenly..
Yes, it was possible if she stood her ground and tried her brute force, her shamanistic skills, along with what ogre guards she had here, she could stop her.. but that was just it.
She wasn’t sure and she was not keen on finding out.
She had her own people to care, and a funeral to burry.
“At least bid your farewell and say your goodbyes to your father, girl. He deserved that much of you, for truly, he loved you.”, she whispered sharply at the little girl.
“I shall bid him farewell, mother, but i shall never say goodbye to him. He shall live with me, always..”, she replied hoarsely, turned around and went to the, now quite shriveled body, wrapped tightly in white, funeral cloth, placed upon a flimsily and hastily prepared pier.
Inshala knelt down next to the pier, reached out and tenderly touched her father’s wrapped face. And with blurry eyes, she spoke.
“I should have been here, with you, Father. You were, when I needed you and I was not. I shall carry this blame until the day I perish and join you. There, I shall ask your forgiveness. Now, I must go. I know you would have me stay. But I can’t. Not anymore. I could be a little girl as long as you were here. Now the little girl is over. I have showed kindness and got only hurt in return. I shall no longer show, what is not given freely. I shall only reap what is sown.. I shall no longer be the little girl, but be the harvester.. For this, I shall beg your forgiveness as well.. I shall bid you farewell, Father, but no goodbyes, for I shall not keep you waiting for long.”, Inshala said, softly kissed the old man’s forehead and sobbed.
For long moments, she wept, lost and broken.
When she rose, her face was wet and pinched, but the little girl was indeed gone.
What stood there was only inhuman determination and wrath.
She raised her head, faced the ogress and looked her in the eyes..
“Call upon the woodsmen. And the elves. Call the dwarves and the humans, mother Ganiste. My father deserves a proper funeral. He helped those who lived in his forest. Should they have honor, they shall come. Tell them also, I shall not turn a blind eye to those who do not..
Chieftain Grulganiste just stared at the skinny little girl.. No.. the ‘something’, standing like some cold, unreachable being trapped inside the body of the little girl and she felt her own heart tremble.
“I shall send word to all, and more, Ritual Guardian.”, she promised solemnly. “Please.. do not make decisions with anger. Your father—”, she began.
“—is dead.”, finished the little girl, harshly.
“But I am not.”, said Ganiste and for a moment, a kind and tender shadow cast upon her face. “Your father was a dear, dear man for me. And he was not the only one who loved and cared for you. Please, remember that. Remember, also, do not do things which you will regret.”
“Worry not for me, mother Ganiste. I go where I belong now.. As for regret..”, she said, then looked down at the sad form of her father. “I am regret!.. And I bid you, goodbye.”
“What are your intensions, Inshala?”
“I intend to wash the green off this forest with red..”, she hissed.
And just like that, she was gone.
In the form of her majestic saber-tooth, and a groaning roar, she disappeared into the trees.
✱ ✱ ✱
In the depths of Ritual Forest, the little girl raised her hands into the air. And called upon the old and the ancient, and called she upon a debt..
The sky darkened as dreary grays gathered. A long streak of lightning arced from one horizon to the other as though heralding the doom of the living.
In deep soft tenor, she sang, a long lost ritual, calling one horror, to judge another..
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear? The father it is, with his infant so dear; He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm, He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.
”My son, wherefore seek’s thou thy face thus to hide?” ”Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side! Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?” ”My son, ‘tis the mist rising over the plain.”
”Oh come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me! Full many a game I will play there with thee; On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold, My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”
”My father, my father, and dost thou not hear The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?” ”Be calm, dearest child, ‘tis thy fancy deceives; ’Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”
”Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there? My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care; My daughters by night their glad festival keep, They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”
”My father, my father, and dost thou not see, How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?” ”My darling, my darling, I see it aright, ’Tis the agèd gray willows deceiving thy sight.”
”I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy! And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.” ”My father, my father, he seizes me fast, Full sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”
The father now gallops, with terror half wild, He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child; He reaches his court-yard with toil and with dread,— The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.
“Erl-King, I summon thee!”, she shouted and the skies thundered in reply.
“A depth you owe, from Father to daughter, passed..”, and the dirty clouds churned.
“Once upon a task were you called..”, she hissed, and the trees of Ritual Forest shuddered.
“To slay, to burn and to smother..”, she cried and the peoples of Dim Woods suddenly ran in unadulterated fear.
“To crack, to crush and to grind..”, she whispered and the ogres of Ogre’s Foot fell on their knees and howled.
“To chase, to drive and to hunt..”, she screamed and the dwarves of Elder Hills and Scowling Hills froze, as dread washed over thirty thousand souls.
“To cut, to stab and to maim..”, she cried and the denizens of Serenity Home fell flat, their faces pale, their eyes as ovals..
“For a depth you owe, from Father to daughter, passed..”, she cast and the lightnings crashed, splitting trees, tearing the earth, and the fey creatures of Gull’s Perch turned north, their faces drawn in horror.
“Erl-King, I summon thee!”
“And Erl-King, thrice said and done..”
“Thus I have been summoned.. by a mortal. Bold. And foolish.. I knew, should I wait but a millennia, some naïve would eventually call, and pit his will against mine. I must admit, crushing the dim-witted is a tad demeaning but, I shall be set free on the mortal coil, and unrestrained..”
..said the giant of a man in deep, melodious, echoing voice.
“It is I, who has summoned you, Erl-King, to call you upon a task left unfulfilled.”, very nearly moaned Inshala, for the great figure’s presence was not immense in terms of physics, but his spiritual presence was vast and beyond!
Tears filled her eyes and she shut them tightly, focused on one thing, and one thing alone; her Father, and how small he lay on his pier.
“This truly is a sad day.”, mused the Erl-King.“I have thus been called to task by a.. little girl! No matter, no matter.. Crush fast and be done, I suppose.”
“I am Inshala Frostmane Bolgrig, and I am the daughter of Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, whom you owe a debt of honor for the failure of a task given!”, said Inshala, through her clenched teeth.
“Owe a debt of honor.. Failure of a task given.”, murmured the Erl-King.“Very big words for a very little girl. And what task is this, you dare claim the Erl-King has failed?”
“Many centuries ago, he and his, summoned you to lay down waste Themalsar. YOUFAILED! For Themalsar endures..”, said Inshala harshly.
“You dare afflict a failure upon me? You? A sniveling little—”, thundered the Erl-King and suddenly fell silent, staring at the little girl with an incredulous expression on his face. “—fey? How is this possible? Only the Queens of the fey may call me, the Erl-King, to task.. or their greatest of vassals. How is it that you could summon me, little fey girl?”
“I.. I am fey?”, faltered Inshala and opened her eyes.. a something she probably shouldn’t have done.. and saw the Erl-King!
The figure standing before her was some eighteen, or possibly twenty feet tall and had massive arms and shoulders. He wore a hideous, masked helmet with great, horned antlers, shoulder pads, some kind of strange plate armor that seemed like it was forged from blue-brown metal down to his waist and wore dark, blue-black leather trousers and heavy high boots. An old, patchy fur cloak hung over one shoulder, revealing the two-foot-long pommel of a cruel-looking, slightly curved and jagged-edged great sword that could probably cut an ogre in two with a mere nudge.
The little girl just ogled at him, her eyes wide open.
“Like what you see, then?”, smirked the Erl-King as he pulled off his helmet, letting loose a main of long, slightly curling, dark hair and displaying a, not-quiet symmetrical face that was both ugly and somehow handsome.. in a rugged way.
“You look awesome, sir!”, spluttered the little girl.
“Well, now. I can’t remember the last time anyone, or anything for that matter, ever complemented me. This is rather unprecedented.. in a pleasant way.”, smiled down the hideous king.
“I can not imagine why they wouldn’t, sir. You are pretty!”, said Inshala in an awed voice.
“Pretty, am I?”, replied the Erl-King, quite surprised. “You truly must be young and alone.”
“I am alone, but I am sixteen years of age!”, replied the little girl like she was saying sixteen hundred!
“Aaahh..”, smiled the Erl-King.“The burden of all those sixteen years must be weighing heavily upon you, then.”
“They are.”, said Inshala solemnly. “But not relevant to your debt, Erl-King. Will you not honor it?”
“Careful, girl.”, growled the massive figure. “I have come to liking you. Let’s not besmirch that. Monsters like myself do not take matters of honor lightly.”
“Then you accept your debt?”, pushed the little girl.
“You are a persistent one, aren’t you? Not easily distracted, nor swayed.”, mused the Erl-King.
“I have lost the only thing precious to me, sir. There is nothing left to sway.”, replied Inshala and there was an unexpected quality of savagery in her voice.
“Ahhh.. Wrath! That is something I know. Something I know very well.”, replied the Erl-King.“Very well. What would you have me do to quench your lust for vengeance, little one? Who must die, to ease your pain?”
“Nothing can ease my pain, Erl-King. For nothing can bring back what was taken from me..”, she replied and tears swelled down her small face.
“Nothing, is something you can do on your own, little one. You do not need me for that. And I fear I would make poor company for consolation.”
“I do not want, nor require consolation. I must suffer my folly day and night, and for a lone life.”, she said, her voice trembling.
“A sad way to spend a life, me thinks. But again, you may do that on your own.”
“No, Erl-King. I need you to call upon the Wyld Hunt and avenge your debt!”
The Erl-King just stared at the little girl weeping before him.
“The Wyld Hunt is not some small favor anyone to just call upon, little girl.”, replied the Erl-King, and a bit harshly.
“Such was your debt to my Father. Eight hundred years and your debt has endured, Erl-King.”
For a long moment the massive figure looked at the little girl, Inshala. And when he spoke again, there was no trace of ‘merry’ in his voice.
“No, little girl, I owe nothing to your Father. But I do owe a debt unfulfilled, to the mortal who adopted you! And should you truly want me to call the Wyld Hunt, a price must be paid; Join, Hide or Die.. those are the rules of the Wyld Hunt!”
Whether Inshala understood the implications of what the Erl-King said, was not clear. She stood silently, her face tear stricken and on her knees.. But when she spoke, her voice was low and it smoldered.
“I will ‘Join’, then.”
The Erl-King cocked one bushy eye brow at her and said, “No. You may not. Should it come to that, it is possible I could best Yours. But I have no desire to waste my hounds to His slaughter.”
“I do not understand.”, cried Inshala.
“And that is not my prerogative, little one.”, replied the Erl-King, but strangely, not unkindly.
“Then slay me!”, shrieked Inshala. “I choose to ‘Die’..”
“Also, not my prerogative, little one.”, replied the Erl-King.
“I shall not run and ‘Hide’, while the killers of my Father live!”
“And I thought ‘tigers’ always ran and ‘hid’.. before they pounced their prey, little one.”, smiled the Erl-King hideously.
..escaped the small mouth of the little girl.
“Now. To the task at hand, then?”, laughed the Erl-King and the trees around them shuddered.
“Creatures. Large and uncouth. Some thirty or more, travel East. They slew the elves of my Father’s forest. They must be punished. And the slayers of my Father, men with knives and low honor, also running East. They must be hunted down and slain. And what they stole from my Father must be returned..”, said Inshala with a vicious voice.
“Recovery expeditions aren’t quite my forte, little one. My hounds may track and run down the uncouth and the men, but recover what was stolen, me thinks this is something you must do.”, replied the Erl-King.
“Very well, sir. Should You and Yours avenge my Sire by slaying the uncouth and these sinful men, I shall relieve You and Yours from the debt and done.”, said Inshala.
“You drive a harsh bargain, little one. Stay close. This shall be a merry chase and mayhap will quench your luster for blood.”
“My lust for blood shall never quench. For the one I cared most and only, is dead. Mortals saw a monster when they came at me. I shall give them monster, hence!”
✱ ✱ ✱
A long, dreadful howl echoed through Ritual Forest. Lightning flickered and streaked down, gorging spades of earth. Trees shuddered and splintered. Beast and buck ran or fell. And men, elf, dwarf or ogre.. far and wide, it did not matter.. felt terror like they had felt only ages and eons ago. Before iron, and before tools.. Before the domestication of land and ox.. This was the kind of fear at its most primitive and primordial level where thought got smothered and left only primal, reptilian instincts..
A fear that left them only two options;
Hide or Die!
And ahead of that howl, was a viscous, giant of a man, some eighteen feet tall, wearing a horned helmet and swinging a massive, jagged-edged great sword, riding a mind-boggling stead that had red, glowing cinders for eyes, a massive rump and powerful legs that ended in long, brutal claws..
The Erl-King led.
And the WyldHunt followed..
..a dark, gray-black smoke with barely discernable ghosts that resembled horse-sized hounds and the reaped souls of long-forgotten, primordial warriors..
And Inshala ran..
..at the center of that inky fog!
The savage, uncouth beasts never new what hit them. They were great and strong beasts that resembled orcs. But orcs were to infants, what these creatures were to men. They were powerful in arms and swift in legs and they wielded sharp, brutal implements of war..
..and yet, they died in two’s and four’s!
But never did they flinch nor ran. With inhuman savagery, they attacked the Wyld Hunt even as they died; their flesh torn and gnawed, their bones snapped and shattered, their skulls crushed like shells, and their tendons ripped and shredded..
It was a gruesome sight.
..thus was the Wyld Hunt!
The bloody saber-tooth ravaged the last of the beasts, her furry face red and dripping with blood and Inshala rose to her full height and coughed an echoing roar into the night.
“What a merry hunt!”, laughed the Erl-King.“Though a tad short for my taste.”
“These were the beasts.. But not the men!”, growled the saber-tooth.
“No. The men you seek are no more. These beasts have already hunted them down and slain them. I sense foul-play at hand, here.”, replied the Erl-King with distaste.
“NO! MY VENGEANCE HAS NOT BEEN QUENCHED!”, shrieked Inshala.
“You vengeance is not part of the debt, little one.”, reminded the giant figure.
“No. It isn’t. But the death of the men, were!”
The Erl-King stared down at the vicious tiger.
“That.. is true..”, he finally conceded, but there was the threat of a storm in his voice. “There is, however, nothing I can do to repay that.”
“THIS WAS NOT OUR AGREEMENT, ERL-KING”, shrieked the saber-tooth. “YOU WERE TO SLAY THESE MEN. NOT TO LET OTHERS DO IT FOR YOU!”
“Your mind is muddled, little girl. I do not let others pay my debts, nor do my killings for me. I would have a care, where it came to accusing me..”, spoke the Erl-King in a low and dreadful tone. “Non the less. The men are dead, and the debt remains unfulfilled.. again!”
“Then I shall call upon you one more time, Erl-King when I have found the true culdips!”
The Erl-King gave a long, suffering sigh. This millennia had turned out to be not only stale and boring, but with pestering, debt-demanding mortals.. and now, a not-quite-mortal-but-fey girl!
He gave the savage saber-tooth girl a long, steady look.
“Very well, little fey-girl. I shall come, once more, when you call and upon having unearthed the true culprits. I shall need a full name to bind this deal..”, he said, breathing from his nostrils.
“Inshala Frostmane Bolgrig.”
“No, girl. That is not your name.. That can not be your name..”, replied the Erl-King, staring into the tigers eyes. “Bolgrig was your attender.. of sorts.. But was he was not your Father, and certainly not your Sire!”
“I do not understand.”, replied Inshala, afraid now.
“No.. No you don’t. In time, perhaps, you shall. It is not my place, however, to learn you that information.”
“Whose place is it, then?”, asked the little girl.
“Again, not my place to learn you that, either. But I believe my work here is quite done. Unless you want me to slaughter the humans to the south, the ogres to the east, dwarves to the west or the.. woodsmen to the north. I sense a great hate you have for them.”
“I desire much misfortune for them, Erl-King. But I shall not spill their blood. Not today. Today, the elves need them..”, whispered Inshala.
“Very well. For the said task we have set, and the afore mentioned conditions, I, the Erl-King and my Wyld Hunt shall come, once more when called by you, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane..”, declared the Erl-King, turned around, and with one, swift motion, mounted his great beast.
“I fare thee well, young ‘la Fey’. Which by itself is quite unique, for the Wyld Hunt never fares well..”, laughed the gigantic form of the Erl-King, dug his heels into his mount and rode off, the inky black fog of his hounds and lost souls chasing after him.
And in a short, hoarse breath, he was gone.
The saber-tooth stared as the ghosts of the Wyld Hunt screeched and faded into the night. She licked her long, foot-long teeth edging down the sides of her maw. Her savage face pinched into a ugly glare and a low, thundering rumble escaped her throat.
“My Father..”, she hissed. “..will always be my Master, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig. Not the beast that sired me..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Broken and bloodied, Inshala prowled the night, seeking something, anything that could curb her blood lust. It seemed the loss of her father had forever killed the former, young, pretty, innocent and frail little girl and left behind a wretched wreck that just couldn’t rid herself off the searing fire boiling her insides.. She ran this way and that, jumped over bush and boulder to no avail.. Her blood just wouldn’t cool off..
Which is when she stumbled upon the corpse of a human, lying face down in the dirt.
Inshala slid into a halt.
The man, whoever he was, was a corpse indeed. Dead for possibly half a day over. He wore dark leathers and similarly colored clothes. His head and face were also covered..
..and he was missing an arm.
There were other cuts and gashes on him. Inshala didn’t think the man would have lived, even had he kept his arm..
She also noted a long, bloody trail leading up to the corpse. Apparently, someone had dragged him all the way here, then left him to die, or left him because he had died.
Inshala came to the two natural conclusions; this was one of the lowly men who had slain her father for he smelled, no, he reeked of her father’s blood.. and someone had dragged him. Someone still alive.
A low rumble escaped the saber-tooth and she sniffed the ground.
Yes. There were others —two others. The scents told her that.
Slowly she took a step in their direction. Then another. And soon enough, she was running —dashing, really, at an unprecedented speed.. What would change would not be that they would die.. Only how.
And Inshala did not intent to show any mercy whatsoever, for they had shown none to her father. For her, killing one old man in his sleep, was as low as it got..
✱ ✱ ✱
The saber-tooth ghosted through the forest. The trails were getting cold and she did not want them to be lost. Day and night, she ran until she faltered and could go no further. She didn’t push. It would make a poor hunt if she caught her prey, but failed to kill. That’s how the hunt was; you crouched, you hid, you snuck, and you waited, patiently, and watched. And when the moment was ripe, you struck! For her, stupidity was also a poor excuse for letting the prey escape. And certainly not the way of a true predator. Inshala might be little in size and shape, and perhaps frail in soul, but the saber-tooth was not. And she’d always loved it. The strength, the freedom, the innate savagery and the feeling of being the supreme huntress.. there just was no substitute for it.
She rested and licked the caked blood of the big, uncouth beasts off her face and her great paws. And when she felt ready, she dashed again.. Today promised a good hunt because there was a storm gathering to the east and it looked like a good pour was due.. Rain always made it easier for her on the hunt. It hid her own scent and her steps even more. It did not help her prey, though.
A snarling grin stretch across her maw and her rumble matched that of the incoming storm.
Yes.. a good hunt indeed..
Inshala found them.
Huddled around a poor fire were a small crowd.
The fools had actually lit a fire!
Their number was more than she could readily dismiss, but they were cold, wet and blind under the stormy night. The more, the merrier.. They would make a great feast, but she was not here for food. If there was one thing she had learned from her Master, it was eating human flesh drew you insane.. No.. She was not here for food. She was here to kill. And she’d have to act fast. They had horses and sooner or later, the horses would pick up on her scent and panic, warning their masters.. Horses always panicked.. Quite the inconvenience they were. She had to act quickly and decisively. Dash in, kill one, dash out, and circle.. Rinse and repeat.. By the time she’d killed three or four, they would panic and run, because that’s what prey did.. They panicked and they ran, making them easy pickings.
Now only if she could devise a diversion..
Inshala stared up at the pouring storm..
..and her a new smile stretched across her maw.
Yes.. why not turn a simple rain, into a devastating lightning storm?
Inshala shifted and molded down to her little, pretty form. No, she thought. Not pretty.. Her ‘frail’ form!
She raised her arms into the night and chanted;
oh, storm, ye great in form harken me in this maidenform ye weep and moan when you can be much greater in sky and sea bring down your rain and your wrath upon the fool and the folly rath
And as if on cue, the night exploded!
A long, brilliant streak of lightning flickered, followed by a mind jarring boom, and landed very nearly on top of the huddled group..
And the group scattered!
“Ow, no..”, whispered Inshala. “..my sweets, no fleeing, no running.. Not yet. You are going to burn and char before you flee..”
Another streak of lightning flickered down, sending one of them, a huge, bull of a man, crashing into a tree.
Then another flicker, sending a girl,Inshala thought, panicking into the bush.
A midgety little gnome went running into the night, followed by another girl —an elf!
A man in dark cloths was still standing his ground, a sharp, short iron sword in one hand and a knife in the other.. A KNIFE!
This was definitely her query.
And there was a tall one, in plate armor.
“Who wears plate armor in a lightning storm?”, mused Inshala merrily.
She watched as the plate armored one heave and push a dwarf, up on a horse..
What was this? Humans, gnomes, elves, and dwarves? Was the attack on her Master a byzantine plan among the elves, humans, dwarves and gnomes all along? A collective effort?
Perhaps she had acted in haste when she had sent the Erl-King and the Wyld Hunt away.. He had offered to slaughter them all..
No matter, no matter..
She would start the slaughter right here.
But first, she had to kill the dark one. The one with the knives. He still had his wits about him and given enough time, he would rally the others..
She pointed at him..
..and the night raged and sent down another brilliant lightning.
Inshala just stared at the smoking patch of earth, where the dark man had just been, then at the man running in another direction.
So she called down lighting upon him once again..
..but the man took a sharp turn and rolled on the ground, and the lightning struck the tree behind him, sending it down in a mess of splinters.
Inshala heard a grunt followed by a low moan.
Yes! The dark, evil man had evaded the lighting, again, but apparently the tree had fallen on him.
Good enough for now.
The one in plates had butt-slapped the horse, and sent the dwarf to safety. Then he stood where he was and called into the night.
“We are not enemy. We are not foe. Ye who brings the lighting and storm, know, we mean no harm..”
“Mean no harm?”, fumed and hissed Inshala. “You can’t doany harm, and begging will not help you. You came into my forest for ill, and ill you shall receive!”
“Nay.”, replied the man.
And fell on his knees.
Then he raised his arms into the night as if in supplication and called;
“Ye, who hast called thus storm upon us, shall look and see into our souls. Should you still see dark and foul, bring more and char us all..”
Inshala gawked at the man..
..and a single beam of light lazily came down from the night sky and pushed the darkness away. It was a bright, golden light. A beautiful light. A light that bespoke of High Heavens and Angels beyond..
And she noted.
The man in plate armor, down on his knees, was no man, but a tall, broad at the shoulders, slim at the waist, long, rust-red-haired young woman.
Inshala’s eyes teared.
She was.. boldly beautiful.
And she was a paladin!
Sent here to end her..
“Finally..”, she whispered. “The Heavens have sent their fires to cleanse the demons out of me! I shall be free. I shall belong.. Father, I come..”
And just like that, the storm ceased, the rain stopped, and silence settled into the night.
The young paladin girl stood rigid, as if petrified, on her knees.
And Inshala curled up into a ball, lay prostrated before her, moaning and crying like a little girl.
“Burn me. Please burn me. I want to be free of my demons.. Burn me..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Aager? You alright?”, the huge man asked as he picked up the broken bits of the tree. “You seem peevish.”
“Peevish?”, rasped the evil man in the dark clothes from under a whole pile of thick branches and a large, splintered tree trunk. “Just how many years did you wait to use that on me, Udoorin Shieldheart?”
“Many.”, smirked the big man and with a mighty heave, he lifted the trunk, giving enough room for the evil one to slip out.
“We have a visitor.”, the big man said with a slightly exaggerated voice.
“I am concussed, Udoorin. Not deaf.. Report!”, the dark man said.
“Bree, Laila, and the midget are back. Still waiting for Lady. I expect she will either get control of that big war horse and turn it around, or hold on to it until she reaches Arashkan, or decide she’s had just about enough and throw herself off the horse and limp all the way back here and make us all suffer for it. As for Lady Moira, I don’t know. She is just sitting there.. well, kneeling actually, with her hands in the air and.. that’s it! She isn’t moving or responding. She’s in a.. I dunno.. ‘catatonic’ state, I suppose, you could say.”, replied the Udoorin guy, pointing somewhere in the night.
“Who is the merry visitor? I suspect he’s responsible for the mess..”, the dark man asked, holding a hand at a tender spot on his forehead.
“She..”, corrected Udoorin.
“He is a she.. A pretty one too.. With funny hair..”
“Like we didn’t already have an overabundance of women in this group..”, growled Aager.
“And they all are pretty..”, smirked the big one. Then he lowered his voice. “Please don’t tell Bree, I said that. I still carry her bite mark!”
“Guess I’ll just have to save it until I need a favor.”, replied Aager without even a smile.
“That’s not funny.”, scowled Udoorin.
“What’s the ‘visitor’ doing? Who is watching her?”, asked Aager, totally ignoring the big man’s plea.
“No one, really. She seems as catatonic as Moira. She has prostrated herself at the paladin’s feet and begging her to burn her!”
“I know, right? We have all the prettiest girls and all of them are off in the head.”
“And now you owe me two favors.”, said Aager, and this time, he did snort.
Udoorin scowled at him, some more.
“Why’s your armor off?”, Aager asked him as they walked towards the paladin and the newcomer.
“Figured, lightning and metal armor.. You know.. Bad combination.. A bit too late thought.. Got singed pretty good.. It’ll leave a mark.. I hope it doesn’t leave a mark..”, said the big man with a worried expression.
“I am sure all the marks you have already, along with the ones you will get won’t add to your beauty.”
“That was not nice, Aager. I know I am not pretty, but you didn’t really have to hit me in the face with it.”, grumbled Udoorin.
“You never cease to amaze me, Udoorin.. Your priorities are truly mind-staggering.”, replied Aager blandly.
Udoorin’s face darkened even more.
Aager gave a perfunctory check on everyone in the group. Bremorel, the human girl, seemed a tad wild-eyed. She had rekindled the fire and was now holding her big bow in her hand. The bow was cocked and almost half drawn and she stood with her back to a tree, facing the newcomer. She also entertained an ugly shiner on her left upper cheek.
Gnine, the troublesome little gnome was whispering something while gesticulating rapidly at the half-elf girl standing next to him, who was also holding her bow in one hand with an arrow ready on the string.
“Well.. At least two people here are paying attention.”, scowled Aager.
Then he called to the half-elf girl.
“Ranger Laila. Go and track down the horse, and bring the Temple Guardian back, if you will, please.”
“Why me?”, Laila asked.
Aager did not reply. He just stared at her.
Laila also scowled at him, then took off into the night.
It seemed Aager wanted to make sure everyone around him was somehow scowling at him.. Or at least a few of them should be, at any given time..
He silently approached the paladin girl, Lady Moira, who stood unmoving on her knees and with her hands in the air, just as Udoorin had described.
And then he saw the ‘visitor’.. The person responsible for very nearly dismantling the whole lot of them, in under a few short moments.
To be honest about it, she could have, had she not stopped, and that made the man in the dark clothes wonder.. They certainly hadn’t been able to do anything to her. She had literally played with them like a cat would game with a mouse.
Why had she attacked them in the first place, and then stopped her assault when she was almost winning? And who was she?
All pertinent questions.
But the girl.. Aager couldn’t really make out if she was pretty or not, as young Udoorin had claimed.. Not that it mattered, nor that he cared. She did have ‘funny’ hair though. Tightly wrapped and braided on both sides of her head like some kind of cones.. Aager did not question the demented mentality in that. Girls did all sorts of strange things with their hair.. among other things.. He just nodded, when the occasion arouse and moved along..
The girl had knelt face in the dirt, covering and moaning in unmitigated terror;
“Please burn me..”
“Free of my demons..”
“Please burn me..
Aager wasn’t one for emotions, let alone for the subtler ones like ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’.. If someone asked him what they were, he’d probably just stare at him blankly.
But something about this girl nudged at him.
Without knowing why he took a few steps back.
“Udoorin.”, he called.
“What?”, replied the big man.
“Put your armor back on.”
“Why?”, asked Udoorin.
“Because I said so?”, growled Aager.
Udoorin grumbled some, looked up at the night sky as if checking for signs of new lightnings, then put his armor back on.
“Now what?”, he said as he approached Aager.
“Now go and pick the girl up.”
“We need to question her and we can’t do that while she is doing.. whatever it is she is doing now..”, replied Aager.
“I am not touching her.”, said Udoorin hastily.
Aager stared at him.
“You know what she did, man. Not to mention, you don’t just go and touch a girl. That is just rude.. and not right..”, Udoorin defended himself.
“When did I ever give you the impression I cared for any of that, young Udoorin?”, fumed the dark man. “You can either do what needs to be done, or go back to town and explain yourself to your father.”
“That’s way out of line, Aager.”, growled Udoorin.
“We are not out here for a polite stroll, young man. We are here to do the ‘dirty work’, so the rest of the people can sleep without a care. You volunteered to come. You wanted to come.. This is the part of the job that needs to be done; we interrogate prisoners and that is exactly what she is now. She is Lady Moira’s prisoner. And since she is otherwise busy —or incapacitated, that duty falls on us!”, replied Aager and he seemed to bite each word before he spat them out.
Young Udoorin’s back stiffened. But he still gave Aager a very nasty stare.
Then slowly, he came at the girl still prostrating before Moira.
“Umm.. ‘cuse me.. lady.. But we need to ask you some questions. Are you unwell? Perhaps you need some help. You really should get off the ground.. It’s wet, cold, and probably muddy..”, he stammered, then reached down and tried to pick the girl up.
“Don’t touch me!”, hissed the girl and bit his hand!
And with unexpected haste, she skipped once, twice and was very nearly a dozen feet away, crouched on the ground, showing all her teeth at the big man.
“Crap!”, swore the big man. “Why do girls keep biting me, dammit.. I can’t be that tasty!”
Then he turned and slowly approached her again with his hands open while making soothing sounds.
The girl hissed at him, some more..
“I think that will do, young man. You should be ashamed of yourself, touching a girl without her permission. You have shamed your father..”, snarled a voice in the dark, and heavy footsteps was heard. Then, a heavy set she-dwarf appeared, and there no mistaking about the scowl she had on her face.
“Lady Magella..”, stammered Udoorin. “I.. was merely..”
“You were merely what, Udoorin Shieldheart? Abusing an already traumatized little girl? Look at her.. It’s clear she’s had some rough time.”, she snarled again.
“I.. You got me all wrong.. I was just..”, spluttered the big man, trying to explain himself.
“Go. Just go.. Boil some water, cut some wood, peal some potatoes.. Just go and make yourself scarce but useful!”
Udoorin stormed away, fuming..
“This is all your fault, Aager.”, he very nearly spat, as he walked past the dark man.
“No. It’s all yours.. ‘Own’ your folies, young man. But I learned what I needed to, anyway.. For the time being..”, replied Aager calmly.
“You. Girl!”, ordered Lady Magella. “What’s your name and what are you doing here?”
The girl hissed at her as well.
“I am the Temple Guardian of Serenity Home and you will NOT hiss at me like some wild beast.”, spoke Lady and there was a distinct no-nonsense quality to her voice.
And the girl lost all her ferocity.
“You.. you are.. a Temple Guardian?”, she asked with her eyes wide open.
“Yes, I am. And I have twenty some odd years under my belt to prove it!”, Lady replied sternly.
“Have.. have you come to burn me?”, the girl asked.
“Burn you? Now why would you ask such a silly question?”, replied Lady in disgust and a totally offended tone.
“Burn me.. Please..”, the girl said and suddenly prostrated herself, once again..
“Burn me.. Burn me and free this world off me!..”
Udoorin, Bremorel, Gnine, and Laila stared at the wretched site before them.
Lady Magella’s eyes teared, for her first assessment of the girl had been correct.. Too correct. The girl was unbelievably traumatized.
Aager only looked at the girl with an unfathomable and barely-contained expression.
He remembered Drashan and his own childhood, not that he’d had much of it. He remembered his mother, whose name he couldn’t even place anymore. Having remembered her, he inevitably recalled his sister. The sister that had been entrusted to him. And then taken from him, sold to some brothel, and burned alive in a horrible, unquenchable fire. He remembered all the vile people he’d cut there. Every single one of them. And he remembered the beatings and the whippings.. and the guillotine..
..and how he came to Serenity Home; secretly broken, hiding in his own traumas, untrusting, very nearly and murderously hateful.
Serenity Home had helped..
Enough to have suppressed his base hate to everything that had to do with life..
It hadn’t been enough that all these children, sans the dwarf, had been entrusted to him..
And now this?
He was never one to truly believe the greatness of the Heavens, but this.. This had been a step gone too far..
He felt like someone was having a great time punning him from the high above!
Then he looked down at the girl.
She seemed young and small, but her form, although somewhat battered, looked quite mature with ‘pleasant to look at’ sized breasts, a slim waist, ‘could use a pound or two more’ body, very dark, ‘funny’ hair (who would bun up their hair like that, anyway?) and a diminutive face, printed with slightly sharp and angular features..
Young Udoorin had been right on one point though; the girl was, indeed, quite pretty.. More so, Aager suspected, if she’d not been in the condition that she was now.
Many questions inevitably crossed his mind. Who was this girl? Again, why had she attacked them and why had she stopped? Why was she hissing and spitting like some pissed-off, feral cat? And why the bloody hell did she beg to be burned?
Then it dawned on him.
Why he had so unexpectedly felt some semblance of sympathy to the girl..
For he had, unwittingly perhaps, found the one person who was worse off than he was.
✱ ✱ ✱
The jarring, panicked whisper of Inshala spiked Aager in the middle of the night.
“Aager Fogstep! I need your help! Quick!”
Aager went from zero to full battle-mode in under two seconds; a shimmering, ghostly blade appeared in one hand and another, an excruciatingly sharp one in the other, to see Inshala missing..
“Where are you? What’s wrong?”, he sent his thoughts back tinted with his own panic.
“I am in Madina’s room. We.. uhhmm.. she said we could hang out together, talk trash and eat bad food and get scolded for doing it in the morning by mom. She said all teens do this but I don’t know why, and neither does she.. Apparently, it’s a ‘thing’!”
Aager frowned and breathed out slowly.
“Okay.”, he said evenly. “What’s the problem?”
“She says there’s this boy and she says she sort of likes him. But she is asking me if she is too much of an ’emo’ and that perhaps if she ‘toned it down a little’, the boy might notice him. I don’t even know what the buggery bum an ’emo’ is!”
Aager cocked an eyebrow even though he was alone and in the dark.
“Yes. Madina says that’s the new word around here. Would you like to know what the old word was?”
“Uhhmm.. Not really, no..”, replied Aager carefully.
“Good. Because I don’t think I can repeat that to you. But it starts with an ‘F’! Madina said, there’s this Academy of Melshieve, far away, and that they have the best words there.. I am confused. The rules to being an elder sister are complicated and many..”
“Huh!”, snorted Aager as he let go of the ghostly blade, causing it to just vanish, and sheathed the other.
“What is the urgency?”
“She.. she says she has been watching you and me and thinks I know love and wants me to help her compose a.. uhhmm.. love letter to that boy..”
“Okay.. What seems to be the problem?”
“I can’t think of another single thing that could totally go wrong than this.. I can’t even think why anyone would put love in a letter! You don’t put love in letters. You just give it and dearly hope that person gives it back! Besides, I do not know this boy. All the boys I have known have tried to catch me, called me crooked names, or thrown stones at me. Boys are bad for girls! I don’t know if she really wants this boy as I want you, either. And I don’t even know how to draw words.. This is a buggery bum of a nightmare for me.. Help me? Please?”
The cold, sinister-looking man, Aager Fogstep, the Winter Knight, stared blankly at his, now empty bed and at Inshala’s empty bed..
“Well, buggery bum, indeed..”, he whispered..
Sleep just wasn’t going to happen any time soon that night..
Back in the dark, quite room..
Aager lay on his back in hopes of catching a bit of sleep before dawn. Tomorrow, or rather, a few hours later, was going to be a very trying day.
The rot-hearted Tarakadahan had decided to turn the whole thing into a show. Aager would have much preferred the dispute between the old fool and Moira be settled in some quiet, back alley setting.. He wouldn’t have minded even open fighting in the castle corridors. But no.. The idiot had decided to turn it into a parade. In front of the whole Durkahan nobility, no less.
The stupidity of people, baffled and confounded him.
“Very well..”, thought Aager darkly. “You want a show? I shall give you a show.. And I shall remind the whole lot of you just how archaic and foolish you all really are. And that no one really gives a ‘buggery bum’, about your honors, your prides, and your foolish ways.. The world is going down and this is what you still desire? To watch a drama queen in the arena?”
Tomorrow was going to be a harsh awakening for them all. Aager was a pragmatic man. He never went as low as being heinous, but otherwise, he cared little about the way things got done.
And he fully intended to show Durkahan, how things ‘rolled’ in Drashan..
“Are you still awake, Aager Fogstep?”, came a whisper from the other bed in the room.
“Yes.. no.. maybe?”, replied Aager.
“You are wroth with me?”, she whimpered.
“Wroth? Why would I be wroth with you?”, he asked.
“I scared you when I woke you the way I did. And I kept you up very nearly all night. Now you are tired and angry.”, she said in a small voice.
Aager loved Inshala.
He loved her more than anything he’d loved. Or perhaps, to put it into correct perspective, he loved her more than anything he could have wished to have loved anything, or anyone..
On occasion, though, he loved her more..
Particularly when she became.. ‘smaller’, yet ‘greater’, when she thought she’d hurt him.
Great Heavens, no one cared whether they hurt Aager Fogstep.
And this girl, his Inshala, cared.. Enough to actually worry and to get worked up about it.
“You surprised me, love. That’s all.. Besides, Madina seems to have gotten a certain liking to you. I can’t say, nor do I claim to be knowledgeable about these things, having never truly experienced it, but I heard teens can be insufferable.”
“I am a teen.. I think..”, mumbled Inshala.
“You and I, love, do not qualify for many ‘norms’. We either missed them, or they never applied to our lives..”, shrugged Aager. “When I was a teen, I was too busy trying just to stay alive in the freezing streets of Drashan. Never really had the luxury to throw tantrums, nor write love letters. I am guessing yours wasn’t any better..”
“My poor Aager.”, came the girl’s unhappy voice.
“No, Inshala. I am the richest man in the world. I have the one thing no man, dead or alive, has ever had, nor will ever have.. For, I. Have. You!”, he whispered and he did it without any particular implications nor innuendos. He said it with the voice he used when he was stating the facts. And nothing but the facts..
“You think.. too highly of me..”, came the small, blushed voice of the girl, lying in the next bed.
“No. I think only of you.”, he replied, and he meant it.
Inshala was silent. Aager did not nudge her, nor check her through their bond. If she’d gone to sleep, apparently she needed it.
But just in case she hadn’t, he kept up the conversation, though toned down to just above a whisper.
“Besides, between the two of us, I think we managed a rather decent love letter back there.. It had everything a growing boy needs; Madina’s feelings, the threat of evisceration and defenestration, quite unveiled implications of ‘you better behave yourself’ and a decent description of just what would happen if he ever broke the girl’s heart. I can practically see the boy brimming with happiness. I mean, what could possibly go wrong, there?”
The silence persisted and Aager knew now, she wasn’t asleep. Furthermore, she was worried about something. Something important for her not to have gotten a ‘snort’ out of her with that retelling of the letter they had sat down and written all night long.
Yes, thought Aager, that had definitely merited a snort!
Aager liked Inshala ‘snort’.
His Inshala snorted ‘cute’.
It was so unladylike.
Aager couldn’t put his finger on it, but the phrase, ‘freely given’, sounded just about right.
And it always left her face adorably, maturely, and, rather unexpectedly sensually pink and abashed.
Funny how it was always the little things in others we cared about that made us adore them even more.
Aager secretly wondered what were his little things that the girl lying in the next bed found ‘adorable’, but he just couldn’t imagine anything. Then he remembered the time they were back in Arashkan, still seeking the infamous rebellion, Gar Thalot in the Tempest Temple where they had all found out how the princess, Lorna, ‘adored’ young Udoorin’s beard.. Really? That scruffy patch of.. Aager stopped there. It didn’t matter what he thought about the boy’s beard, even if it was a scruffy patch. It was what the girl, Lorna, thought that mattered. End of story..
“Aager..”, he heard her say, bringing him back from Udoorin and his scruffy beard —of all things!
“I am here..”, he replied.
Then he heard a soft, shuffling noise, and suddenly, her beautiful face was a bare inch away from his and he was very much awake now.
“Do.. do I belong?”, she asked tentatively, tenderly, even, as she looked deep into his dark eyes. And in those eyes, Aager saw, everything she had been, everything she was, and everything she would be.. was there. All of it. With all her eternal losses, all her crummy gains, all her vast strengths and her suffered weakness’s in pure, unadulterated nakedness..
Aager looked back at the girl reflecting hers with his, stare for stare.. Inshala, he thought, had truly beautiful eyes..
“You belong.”, replied simply.
Slowly, carefully and tenderly she reaches up and held his face with two, warm and slender hands. For a silent moment, she studied his face, as though looking for something. Aager dearly and desperately hoped she found it.
Quietly, in her soft melodious voice, she spoke. A voice that carried all her losses, her pains, and her desperations, yet her determination and her tenacious will, also.
“Then, I am Inshala. And I belong.”
i was born but no one told me why
when i was gone no one told me where
always chased always caged
then i learned the running cannot belong
i rose up to fall back down
up among the clouds and back on the ground
and there i found among the lost and found
dead among the living
living among the dead
too lost to care
careful not to lose
i held up my pocket watch
time’s to stop the times
lost in time found this time
what i gave freely cost me drearily
did not know it would demand so much more
i burned and smoldered in the depths of fire
buried and frozen deep in snow
just had to go lower to rise higher
and just like that i figured
i am inshala and i belong
The original Erl-King poem was written in German, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and later composed into a musical by Schubert.
The English version (the one used here) was translated and adapted by Edgar Alfred Bowring..
The elfish spell Inshala chants to summon the lightnings down the storm was written by myself. It translates to English as:
oh, storm, ye great in form, harken me in this maidenform. ye weep and moan when ye can be, much greater in sky and sea. bring down your rain and your wrath, upon the fool and the folly rath.
Rath: a strong circular earthen wall forming an enclosure and serving as a fort and residence for a tribal chief.
Bu hikaye, Brom Bumblebrim adındaki, Bowling Hill’de yaşayan kendi ırkının diğer bütün üyeleri gibi ‘normal’ ve hayatını olabildiğince keyifli ve tembel geçiren bir hobbit’in, beklenmedik bir şekilde ne idüğü belirsiz bir şey tarafından ısırılmasıyla başlar.
Genç hobbit’i her ne ısırdı ise, o günden sonra Brom bir türlü yerinde duramaz ve en sonunda, gecenin alakasız bir yarısında, eski arkadaşı ve aile dostu olan Gamwise Samgee’ye evini ve gülleri emanet ettiğine dair bir not bırakarak yollara koyulur. Uzun bir gece boyunca nereye gittiğini bilmeksizin, öylece, istikametsiz bir şekilde yürür durur..
Yaşlı Cathber’in evinden ayrılmaları üzerine aradan iki gün geçmiş olmasına karşın Brom için zaman sanki daha yavaş —yada hızlı ilerlemektedir.. Genç hobbit hangisi olduğu hususunda pek de emin değildir zira kafası karmakarışık olduğu kadar da bulanık gibidir. Brom bunlardan hangisi olduğu konusunda da muallakta kalmış hisseder kendisini.
“Sessizsin.”, der Efendi Cathber. “Aklına takılan bir şey mi var?”
“Emin değilim.”, diye mırıldanır genç hobbit.
“Bu, aldığın kararla mı ilgili? O günden beri sessizsin..”
“Emin değilim..”, diye tekrarlar kendisini Brom.
“Aldığın karar yüzünden şüphelerin mi oluştu?”, diye sorar yaşlı adam nazikçe.
“Şüphelerim varsa da, sonuçlarına katlanmak zorundayım artık, öyle değil mi?”, diye söylenir genç hobbit.
“Aslına bakılırsa, farklı bir karar almış olsaydın da sonuçlarına katlanmak durumunda kalırdın. Arada sadece iki fark var; birincisi kararı sen vermiş oldun, ikincisi ise sonuçlarına da efendi efendi katlanmayı göze aldığın —ki seni birazcık tanıdıysam, sen ‘efendi’ birisin Efendi Hobbit.”, der Cathber gülümseyerek.
Brom ister istemez ‘fırk’lar buna.
“Beni eğlendirmek için bu kadar çaba sarf etmenize gerek yok, Efendi Cathber.”, der Brom.
“İtiraf etmeliyim ki, sadece seni eğlendirmek için yapmıyordum. Bu noktadan itibaren biraz ‘gürültü’ çıkartarak ilerlememizin daha akıllıca olduğunu düşündüğüm için de yaptım.. Elder Hills dwarf’larının sessizce yaklaşan misafirleri ‘Önce vur, sonra sor!’, gibi oldukça katı, altı yüz yardadan arbaletle vurmak gibi kötü alışkanlıkları var.? Ama düşününce, bu da biraz gerekli, sanırım”, diye cevap verir yaşlı adam.
Brom, yaşlı adamın dwarf’lardan bahsetmesi üzerine kaşları çatılır ve yüzünde kendisinden beklenmeyecek, çirkin bir ifade belirir.
“Neden?”, diye sorar haşin bir sesle.
“Çünkü, Efendi Hobbit, teknik olarak Elder Hills geleneksel anlamda bir yerleşim yeri değil, daha çok bir savaş eğitim kampıdır. Ve burası sadece savaşçı dwarf yetiştirmez, her türlü ortam için taktik geliştiren bir ‘General Okuludur’, aynı zamanda. Elder Hills, dwarf’lar arasında taktik generalleri yetiştirme konusunda krallıkta ki en yetkin okuldur. Buradan mezun olmayı başaran bir dwarf, ordu idare eder. Krallıktaki bütün dwarf ordularını generalleriyle burası besler ve bir dwarf ordusuyla karşılaşırsan, bilesin ki başındaki general buradan çıkmadır.”, diye açıklar Cathber ve yanında yürüyen genç hobbit’i temkinli gözlerle süzer.
“Onlarla ne alıp veremediğini bilemiyorum, delikanlı ama fazla üzerlerine gitmemeni sağlık veririm. Gün gelirde Büyük Kuzey Tundra’larda yaşayan barbarlar ile Elder Hills dwarf’ları arasında hangisinin daha ‘aklı başında’ ve ‘sakin’ oldukları konusunda bir tercih yapmam gerekirse, yanıma bol bol kışlık elbise alacağımı biliyorum.”, der Cathber mutlu bir şekilde.
Efendi Cathber’in bu uyarısı, genç hobbit’in tamamen üstünden geçer ve hedefini ıskalamış bir taş gibi uzaklarda bir yerlere düşer. Brom, bir eli babasının eski kılıcının kabzasında, diğer ise amcasının küçük, antika gürzünün sapında olduğu halde hızlanmaya başlar.
“Benim sana yetişmemi beklemiyorsun umarım, Efendi Hobbit. Bu at arabasın iki tekerleği eksik, üçüncüsü de fırlayıp gitmek üzere..”, diye seslenir Cathber, genç hobbit’in arkasından.
Brom ister istemez biraz yavaşlar —ve bu da kendisi için iyi olur zira tam ayaklarının dibine kendi boyunda, baş parmağı kalınlığında ve daha çok mızrağa benzeyen bir ok saplanır.
Genç Brom olduğu yerde durur ve hayretle oka bakar, sonra bir – iki – üç sıçrayışta en yakın ağacın arkasına saklanır!
Efendi Cathber ise bir ona, bir de yerde saplanmış oka bakar ve kaşlarını çatar.
“Gerçekten mi?”, diye sinirlenmiş bir tonla ‘hıf’lar. “Kim olduğumu görüyorsunuz, buna rağmen beni arbaletle mi karşılıyorsunuz? Görüyorum bir yılda bütün aklınızı kaçırmakla kalmamış, tüm nezaket kurallarınızı da unutmuşsunuz! Hanginiz attıysa bunu, çıksın ortaya ve yüzleşsin hışmımla!”
Brom hayretle yaşlı adama bakar.
“Evet!”, diye burnundan solur Cathber ve bir ayağını ‘pat pat pat’ diye yerde saydırmaya başlar. “Bekliyorum.”
“Adın!”, diye bir ses gelir oldukça uzaktan. “Adın ne yaşlı adam!”
“Bu.. bu inanılır gibi değil!”, diye fena halde alınmış bir tonla söylenir Cathber. “Hepiniz benim kim olduğumu pek ala biliyorsunuz? Çık ortaya ve yüzleş benimle. Şayet ben oraya gelirsem, birilerini fena üzerim, ona göre!”
Bu küçük tehditten sonra ayak seslerinin geldiği duyulur. Brom saklandığı ağacın arkasından başını hafif çıkartır ve üç, cüsseli dişi-dwarf’un kendilerine doğru yaklaştığını görür.
Öndeki dwarf, arkadan kendisini takip eden diğer iki dwarf’tan biraz daha ince yapılıdır. Arkadaki iki dwarf ise.. bir birinin kopyası gibidirler. Öyle ki Brom dwarf’ların ikiz olduğunu anlaması biraz vakit alır. Öndekinin bir elinde enli, iri bir kılıç, diğerinde ise çelik çerçeveli bir kalkan mevcuttur. İkizlerin ellerinde ise Brom’un neredeyse bir buçuk misli boyunda ürkütücü birer adet savaş baltası vardır.
“Adın nedir, Efendi Cathber?”, diye sorar öndeki dişi-dwarf.
“Dridges Motherswolfie! Ne demek oluyor bu şimdi?”, diye kızmış bir şekilde sorar yaşlı adam.
“Benim adımı sormadım. Seninkisini sordum..”, der Dridges adındaki kız.
“Benim kim olduğumu pek ala biliyorsun.”, der Cathber.
“Sen, gördüğümü sandığım kişi olmayabilirsin, Efendi Cathber. Lütfen bana adını ver, yada geri dön. Bunlar yeni yürürlüğe koyduğumuz güvenlik protokollerinin birer parçasıdır ve istisnası da yoktur!”, der kati bir şekilde dişi dwarf.
Yaşlı adamın iki kaşı da kalkar.
“Benim adım Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig.. Senin adın ise Margaret Madish ve Gellator Bluntaxe kızı Dridges Motherswolfie, ve beni sekiz yaşından beri tanıyorsun. Siz ikiniz de Britney ve Dritmey Tosser ikizlerisiniz. Sağdaki Brit, soldaki ise Drit!”, der yaşlı adam burnundan soluyarak.
Arkadaki ikiz kız kardeşler baltalarını indirir gibi olurlar ancak Dridges işaret parmağını gösterecek şekilde bir elini kaldırınca baltalar da tekrar ‘hazır ol’a geçer.
“Bunların hepsi zaten bildiğim şeyler, Efendi Cathber. Bana bilmediğim bir şey söyle!”, der kız.
“Bu saçmalık! Sana, torunlarını göreceğin yaşa kadar bilmediğin şeyler söyleyip sıralayabilirim, Dridges!”, diye tamamen kızmış bir şekilde cevap verir Cathber. “Gökler adına kızım! Nezaketine ne oldu senin? Tekrar hatırlaman için seni annenin yanına mı götürmem gerekiyor?”
“Annem burada, Efendi Cathber. Kendisini gördüğünüzde beni şikayet edebilirsiniz.. Görebilirseniz, tabii..”, der Dridges kaşlarını çatarak.
“Margaret burada mı?”, diye hayretle sorar Cathber.
“Evet..”, der Dridges kısaca.
“O gelmedi.”, diye aynı özlü şekilde cevap verir kız.
“Bu.. hayret verici bir durum. İkisinin birbirinden ayrı takıldıkları duyulmuş değil.”, diye mırıldanır yaşlı adam.
“Atıştılar ve aralarında bazı kızgın sözler geçti. Annem de kızıp buraya geldi.”, der Dridges tek kaşı kalkmış bir şekilde.
“Ahhaa..”, der Cathber sırıtarak. “Buna inanmak isterdim ama yaşlı, inatçı Galletor’un annenle karşılaşmasından sonra ağzından tek bir kelime bile çıkmadığını düşünürsek, ‘aralarında bazı kızgın sözlerin’ geçmiş olabileceğine inanması oldukça güç olurdu gibime geliyor.. Sınavı geçtim mi?”
Dridges Motherswolfie’nin ilk defa kaşları gevşer ve yüzünde güzel bir gülümseme belirir.
“Üç yıldızla, Efendi Cathber, üç yıldızla.”, der gülerek.
“Sadece üç mü? Ben kendime en az dört tane verirdim..”, diye homurdanır yaşlı adam. “Şimdi. Neler oluyor, Dridges?”
“Burada değil. Kampa döndüğümüzde.. Bir ağacın arkasına saklanıp bütün konuşmayı yaşlı bir adama bırakacak kadar cesur olan küçük dostun güvenir mi peki?”, diye sorar Dridges.
“Efendi Brom..”, diye seslenir paslı sesiyle yaşlı Cathber. “Sana güvenilir olup olmadığını soruyorlar.. Güvenilir misin?”
“Hangi konuda?”, diye cevap gelir ağacın arkasından.
Arkadaki ikizlerden biri kıkırdar, sonra tekrar kaşlarını çatıp kıpırdamadan durur.
“Duruma göre değişiyor mu, küçük adam?”, diye sorar Dridges.
“Hiç kimse her konuda güvenilir olamaz, ‘küçük kız’..”, diye alaylı bir şekilde cevap verir Brom ve arkadaki ikizler hayretle birbirlerine bakarlar. “İş yemek söz konusu olduğunda bana güvenemezsiniz çünkü gördüğüm her şeyi yiyebilirim.. Dwarf’lar yenilebilir düzgün yemek yapmasını biliyorlarsa tabi.. İş onura gelince, evet, güvenilir birisiyimdir.. Dwarf’lar onurdan anlıyorlarsa tabi!”
Ortam bir anda sessizleşir.
Efendi Cathber avucunun içine aksırır ve gülümsemesini gizler.
Dridges’in kaşları tekrar çatılır ve kıpkırmızı kesilir.
Arkadaki ikizlerin kaşları zaten çatılı olduğu için baltalarını kaldırıp ileri doğru bir – iki adım atarlar.
Dridges tekrar elini kaldırınca ikizler yine dururlar.
“Küstahsın, küçük adam!”, diye burnundan solur Driges.
“Sen de şımarığın tekisin, küçük kız!”, diye seslenir Brom.
“Efendi Cathber?”, diye fırtına gibi bir suratla bakar yaşlı adama Dridges.
Yaşlı adam omuzlarını silker ve kıza sırıtır.
“Bana onun güvenilir olup olmadığını sordun, o da sana tam olarak ne kadar güvenilir olduğunu söyledi işte. Efendi Hobbit sözünün eridir ve her zaman doğruyu söylemeye meyillidir.”, diye sakince cevap verir Cathber.
Dridges’in kaşları biraz daha çatılır.
“Hobbit mi? Ben hobbit’lerin çok daha nazik olduklarını sanırdım..”, der haşin bir sesle.
“Ben de dwarf’ların saygılı olduğunu sanırdım.. Belli ki ikimiz de yanılmışız!”, diye cevap verir Brom sırıtarak.
“Seni şuracıkta ikiye katlayabilirim!”, diye tıslar Dridges.
“Benim bir tanemle başa çıkamıyorsun, kızım. Bir de beni ikiye katladığında başına gelecekleri düşün!”, diye acımasızca güler Brom.
“Sen bittin, bücür!”, diye hırlar Dridges.
“Senden korkmamı bekliyorsan, Efendi Cathber’in az evvel bahsettiği torunlarını görünceye kadar bekleyebilirsin.. Evimden ayrıldığım günden beri gördüğüm şeyleri düşündüğümde, senin ‘Top On’ listeme bile girebileceğini sanmıyorum..”, diye haşin bir kahkaha atar genç hobbit.
“Öhöm..”, diye boğazını temizler Efendi Cathber. “Sanırım bu kadarı yeterli.. Efendi Brom? Sevgili Dridges?”
“Neden o ‘Sevgili’ oluyor?”, diye alınmış bir sesle söylenir Brom.
“Neden o ‘Efendi’ oluyor?”, diye harlar Dridges..
“Çünkü sen daha güzelsin, Dridges, ve sen de efendi birisin, Efendi Hobbit.. Yoksa ikiniz konusunda tamamen mi yanılmışım?”, diye sakince sorar Efendi Cathber.
Dridges fena kızmış bir şekilde burnundan solurken genç hobbit ise ağacın arkasından kıkırdayarak çıkar.
Kızarmış suratıyla, “Beni takip edin!”, diye emreder ve dönüp arkasını gider.
İkizlerse Efendi Cathber ve ‘küçük hobbit’in geçmesini beklerler, sonra da ikisinin arkasından yürümeye başlarlar.
“Efendi Cathber.”, diye seslenir bir tanesi. “Hangimizin, hangimiz olduğunu nasıl çıkarabiliyorsun her defasında? Annemiz bile karıştırıyor çoğu zaman.”
“Bu o kadar da zor değil, sevgili Dritmey.”, diye cevap verir yaşlı Cathber arkasına bile bakmadan. “Senin kaşının altında gözün var. Britney’in ise gözünün üstünde kaşı var!”
Arkada ise kafaları karışmış bir sessizlik oluşur.
Efendi Cathber, yanında yürüyen hobbit’e doğru hafif eğilir ve fısıldar.
“Orada biraz şansını zorladın gibi, Efendi Brom.”
“Aaaa.. Bilakis. Daha yeni başlıyoruz, Efendi Cathber!”, diye şeytani bir şekilde sırıtır Brom..
“Buraya bir savaş başlatmaya gelmedik, delikanlı.”, der Cathber.
“Kime karşı savaşacaklar? Bir savaş kampı dolusu dwarf, tek bir hobbit’e mi saldıracaklar? Bunu yaparlarsa bir daha asla ‘onurlarını’ kazanamazlar..”, diye pis bir şekilde sırıtır Brom.
“Hmmm..”, der yaşlı adam. “Yolculuğuna dair bana anlatmadığın bazı şeyler var gibi.”
“Yolculuğum esnasında yaşadığım birçok şeyi size anlatmadın, Efendi Cathber. Bunu biliyordunuz.”, diye cevap verir genç hobbit.
“Evet. Ve hayır. Bana anlattıklarında dürüst ve samimi olduğunu biliyordum, ama eksiklerin de farkındaydım. Bununla beraber, burası ‘küçüklerin’ oyun sahası değil. Yapmayı düşündüğün şey her ne ise, bunu da hesaba katmanı rica ediyorum.”, der Cathber temkinli bir şekilde.
“Burası ‘büyüklerin’ oyun alanı ise, o zaman doğru yerdeyim, Efendi Cathber.”, diye acımasızca cevap verir Brom.
✱ ✱ ✱
Genç Brom, Elder Hills’e açılan dar vadiden Efendi Cathber, Dridges ve ikizler eşliğinde geçtiğinde, tam olarak kendilerine yöneltilmemiş olsa da, vadinin duvarlarında ve tepesinde gizlenmemiş onlarca arbaletli dwarf muhafızı fark etmez bile. Ancak iki saatten biraz daha uzun süren ‘dar’ yürüyüşün sonunda açılan tepelere vardıklarında gördüğü manzara, genç hobbit’in ağzı açık bir şekilde etrafına bakınmasına sebep olacak kadar da ürkütücü gelecektir. Uzun yürüyüş boyunca kimse pek konuşmamış, sadece yaşlı Cathber bir sefer Dridges’e, kendisi gibi bir taktik general eğitimi alan birisinin vardiya görevinde ne işi olduğu sorusu olmuştu.
Dridges’in buna verdiği cevap, kızın gerçekte ne kadar kızmış olduğunu gösterecek kadar sert ve özlü olmuştu.
“Lağımcı yada general, herkes vardiya görevinde bulunur ve kimse de bu görevden muaf değildir. Bu, vardiya görevinin ne denli önemli olduğunu herkese hatırlatmasının yanı sıra, bu en düşük gibi görünen işin nüanslarını unutmasını da engellemiş oluyor zira düşman vardiyalarınızı sessizce aşarsa, ne kadar ordunuz olduğunun pek az önemi kalmış olur. Aldığım eğitimin bana verdiği tek ayrıcalık, vardiya komutanı olmam ve karar ve emirleri benim veriyor olmam. Bu şekilde ben ablalarıma emir vermeyi öğrenirken, ablalarım da sorgusuz sualsiz küçük kız kardeşlerinden ve gocunmadan emir almayı öğreniyorlar..”
Genç Brom bu cevap karşısında biraz hayrete düşer ve hafif arkasını dönerek, hangisinin hangisi olduğunu kestiremediği ikizlerden birisine sorar.
“Eee? Küçük kız kardeşinizden gocunmadan emir alabiliyor musunuz peki?”
Onun bu sorusuna ikizlerden bir tanesi haşince ‘fırk’larken diğeri kıkırdayarak cevap verir.
“Ben ve Drit.. ikimiz de Dridges’den çok daha iyi birer savaşçıyız ve bir muharebede birimiz bile onun kesebileceğinin en az üç misli düşman kesebiliriz..”, der.
“Ama..”, diye devam eder diğeri (Dritmey), “..aynı muharebede Dridges bizi yönlendirirse, bu sayı en az dört misline çıkar. Senin rakamlarla aran nasıl bilmiyorum Efendi Hobbit ama bu bana makul bir takas gibi geliyor. Dolayısıyla hiç gocunmadığımız gibi, gerçekte gocunmak için de bir sebebimiz yok..”
“Dahası..”, diye sözü tekrar alır Britney, “Dridges’i herkes sever. Aramızda en akıllı, en merhametli ve sevgi dolu olanımız o dur. Bana öyle bakma, ufaklık. Ona söylediğin şeyler o an itibariyle komikti. Ama tamamen de yersiz ve isabetsiz di ve onu kızdıran, gerçekte söylediklerin değil, bir taktik komutanı olarak ‘sükunetini’ kaybetmiş olmasındandı. Taktik generali eğitimi alanların, duyduklarını kontrol edebilmeleri gerekiyor.”
“Sevgili Dridges..”, der Dritmey ve aralarında paslaşıp durdukları sözü devam ettirir. “..pek sevdiği evinden ve özellikle de büyük ablası Lady’den göreceli bir şekilde yeni ayrılıp buraya geldi ve daha bazı şeylere duygusal olarak alışamadı. Sizden ricam, onun üstüne fazla gitmemenizdir..”
“Neden?”, diye sorar Brom, kaşlarını çatarak. “Bu benim sağlığım için kötü mü olur?”
“Hayır. Dridges iyi bir kızdır ve tam bir hanımefendidir. Öyle adice şeyler yapmaz. Onu ne kadar kızdırırsan kızdır, seni tehdit eder ama tehditleri boştur çünkü gerçekte o can yakmayı sevmez. Kendi halinde bırakılmış olsaydı o kızın burada işi olmazdı çünkü o sanatı çok seviyordu. Ama dedemiz Argail Smitefast onun ne kadar zeki, sakin ve sabırlı olduğunu gördü ve eğitim için benzer özellikler gösteren ablasını Serenity Home’a, bir Tapınak Muhafızı olarak, Dridges’i de buraya, bir Taktik Generali olarak yetiştirilmeye gönderdi.”
“Öyle görünüyor ki dedeniz başkalarının hayatlarıyla biraz fazla ‘demir yumruk’ politikası uygulamasını seven bir şahsiyetmiş.”, der Brom ister istemez.
Britney omuzlarını silker.
Dritmey ise biraz kaşlarını çatar.
“Belki.. Ama toplum bir bütündür, Efendi Hobbit. Her ne kadar bireysel tercih ve keyfiyetlerimiz önemli olsa da, toplum var olduğunu sürece bu tercihlerimizin bir anlamı vardır. Dridges duvarlara resim çizmek istiyordu. Dedem ona savaşın yaklaştığını, başladığında ve ortada bir duvar kalmadığında resimlerini nereye çizeceğini sordu. Dridges günlerce ağladı. Ama daha çok çizilecek bir duvarın kalmayışına.. Sonra da toparlanıp buraya geldi. Şimdi ise keyifle resimlerini çizebiliyor artık. Hayatımda gördüğüm en güzel, en ayrıntılı savaş taktik haritaları onun elinden çıkıyor!”
“Dolayısıyla..”, diye lafı alır Britney. “..size kız kardeşimizin üstüne fazla gitmemenizi rica ederken bütün bunları kastediyorduk..”
“..ve tabii..”, diye sırıtarak devam eder Dritmey. “..Dridges bir hanımefendi olabilir.. Ama biz birer hanımefendi değiliz, öyle değil mi, kız?”
“..Ahahahaaa.. Hayır!”, diye haşince ‘fırk’lar Britney. “Hanımefendilik dağıtılırken biz yemekhanede bi şeyler atıştırmakla meşguldük ve geldiğimizde hepsi çoktan bitmişti! Dahası..”
“..sevgili Dridges adîce şeyler yapmaz..”
“..ama biz bunda hiç bi sakınca görmüyoruz!”..
..diye bitirir ikizler, ikisinin de suratında aynı pis sırıtış belirir.
“Ne yani.. ikiye tek mi bana saldıracaksınız?”, diye biraz tırsmış bir şekilde sorar genç hobbit.
“Saldırmak.. çok ağır bir itham, Efendi Hobbit. Biz sadece ve adîce pislik yapmaktan bahsediyoruz…”
“..ve işin en güzel yanı nedir biliyorsun, Efendi Hobbit?”
“Hayır ve içimden bir ses bilmesem de olur, diyor..”, diye tamamen tırsmış bir sesle cevap verir genç hobbit.
“İkiz olmanın en güzel yanı; her zaman seni başka yerlerde görecek şahitlerin olmasıdır!”
Efendi Cathber kıkırdar.
Bu ikisi.. çok adîdir!
İkizler arsızca gülerken geçtikleri dar vadi bitmiş ve Brom hayretle vadinin açıldığı tepeleri görmüştü..
Elder Hills, bir çok tepeden oluşan bir yerdir ancak tepelerin arasında geniş arazileri de vardır ve genç hobbit bu arazilerde binlerce dwarf’ın, farklı bölük ve kıtalar halinde, avazları çıkıncaya kadar bağıran eğitim çavuşlarının emirleri doğrultusunda bir o yana, bir buyana düzenli yada emre göre dağınık gruplar halinde koşuşturmalarına şahit olur!
Gruplardan bazıları ise, kazılmış çukurlarda arbalet atış talimi —ki bir emirle yüzlerce, kısa mızrak boyunda arbalet okunun inleyerek havada uçuşup, toplu bir şekilde ve daha çok gör gürültüsünü andıran bir hışımla da hedeflerini delik deşik etmelerini yada benzer çukurlarda yüzlerce başka dwarf’un birbirlerine dev baltalar, koca kılıçlar yada külçe gürz, çivili topuz ve ağır savaş tokmaklarıyla dalmalarını seyreder..
“Oha..”, diye ünler Brom.
“Sana burasının geleneksel anlamda bir yerleşim yeri olmadığını söylemiştim, Efendi Hobbit.”, diye kıkırdar yaşlı Cathber. “Burası bir savaş eğitim kampı.. Neredeyse bütün Elder Hills böyle.. Burada otuz bine yakın dwarf, sabah akşam, her türlü koşul için eğitim görürler.”
“Peki.. bu kadar dwarf’u kim besliyor?”, diye cılız bir sesle sorar Brom.
“Bir çok yer.. Bazı techizat ve özellikle de arbalet uçlarında kullanılan zırh delici mithral-çeliği ve diğer ucunda değerlendirilen tüyleri Nurturing Heaven elf’lerinden alıyorlar. Ahşap ve kerestelerin neredeyse tamamını Dim Lodge’dan, yiyecek ve lojistiği Serenity Home ve ta Sim Town ve Arashkan’dan, arbalet ve diğer savaş makinelerinin belirgin bir kısmını Tinker Hills gnome’larından, bütün bunları destekleyen ekonomiyi, dwarf gücünü ve kılıç, balta, gürz, zırhlar ve kalkanları da Scowling Hills dwarfları imal edip tedarik ediyorlar.”
“Pe.. peki bütün bunların uyum içerisinde gerçekleşmesi nasıl oluyor? Burada bir çok ırk söz konusu, Efendi Cathber.”, diye hayretle sorar Brom.
“Zamanında.. Çok eskiden.. Bundan neredeyse beş yüz yıl kadar önce, Serenity Home denen kasabanın kurulduğu yere bazı erdemli adamlar ve bilge kadınlar yerleşmeye karar verdiler. Tek istedikleri huzur içerisinde yaşamaktı ama kısa bir sürede de istedikleri huzurun gerçekleşmesi, daha da önemlisi; devam etmesi için, bölgede yaşayan diğer ırklarla aralarında barışın da olmasın önemini gördüler ve aradan geçen yıllarda onlar ve onların çocukları.. ve torunları.. bu ırklarla bazı anlaşmalar yaptılar. Bu anlaşmalardan bazıları ticari, bazıları da askeri anlaşmalardı. İçeriği her ne olursa olsun, Serenity Home yaptığı anlaşmaların kendi payılarına düşen kısmını imtina ile onurlandırdıkları için, diğer ırklarda bu anlaşmaları bozmadılar. En nihayetinde de bu gördüğün yerde, Elder Hills’de bu ‘savaş okulu’ oluştu ve varlığı geçmişte kendisini defalarca ispatladı; Themlasar Savaşından sonra ortaya çıkan dört ayaklanmada da, burada eğitim alan dwarflar varlıklarını onurlu bir şekilde gösterdiler..”, diye anlatır Efendi Cathber, tatmin olmuş bir sesle.
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Yaşlı Cathber’in gelişini dwarf’lar temkinli bir mutlulukla karşılarlar. İşin tenminli yanı genele hitap ederken, mutlu yanı ise Dridge’i karşılaşayan, saçlarının bir yanı kazınmış çarpıcı bir dwarf kadın ve beraberindeki diğer dwarf’larca olur.
“Sevigili Cathber..”, diye muhteşem bir gülümsemeyle yaklaşır dwarf kadın ve hiçbir utanma yada çekingenlik belirtisi göstermeksizin yaşlı adama sarılır ve sesli bir şekilde yanağından öper!
“Sevgili Margaret..”, der yaşlı adam ve gülerek söylenir. “Bluntaxe, genç ve yakışıklı erkeklere sarılıp öptüğünü biliyor mu?”
Margaret’in buna gösterdiği tepkisi biraz ürkütücüdür;
Dwarf kadın, genç bir kız gibi ve kıpkırmızı olmuş bir şekilde kıkırdar!
Kadının etrafındaki diğer dwarflar ise birden, hiçbir şey olmamış gibi tamamen alakasız yerlere bakınmaya başlarlar.
“Hadi gelin.. Tam yemek vaktini yakaladınız.”, der Margaret ve durup muzipçe yaşlı adama bakar. “Aslına bakılırsa her gelişinizde tam yemek vaktini yakalıyor olmanız dikkatimden kaçmış değil!”
Yaşlı adam biraz utanarak güler.
“Bu sadece bir tesadüf, sevgili Margaret. Ve tamamen asılsıl suçlamalarlardan ibaret.”
Margaret tekrar kıkırdar ve topluca şantiye şeklinde inşa edilmiş, Brom’un görebildiği kadarıyla gerektiğinde seri bir şekilde demonte edilip ihtiyaç duyulduğu bir başka yerde tekrar bir araya getirilebilecek onlarca, en olarak yirmi yarda, boy olarak ise elli yarda uzunluğunda tek katlı binalardan birisine götürür. Giderlerken daha kendisini tanıtmamış olan küçük hobbit’in hayrına, Margaret yanındakileri tanıtır.
Bu gördüklerin benim buradaki kızkardeşlerim;
..ve Yulanda Madsteam. Normalde Yulanda burada bek takılmıyor ama Tinker Hills’den yeni gelen bazı makinaların konfigirasyonları yapılmaları gerektiği için geldi buraya. Gnome’ların icatlardan ve cihazlardan bu kadar anlamalarına rağmen, laftan hiç anlamıyor olmaları ne kadar acıklı değil mi?”, diye açıklar Margaret.
Efendi Cathber buna nazikçe bir şey demez.
“Kaç defa kendilerine, imal ettikleri cihazların bize uyumlu olması için gerekli verileri göndermiş olmamıza rağmen, ısrarla kendi ayarlarının daha ‘geçerli ve optimal’ olduğunu iddia edip o şekilde imal etmeleri içler acısı bir durum..
Bunlar da erkek kardeşlerim;
..ve Goric Boarshoulders. Diğerleri ise kızlarım; Dridges, Britney ve Dritmey ile zaten tanıştınız.
Bu da Nikelix Carver. Lillias Absentwhot ve Jeina Blond’da buralarda bir yerlerdeler. Lillas alacaklılar ve birileriyle anlaşıp ‘el sıkışmakla’ ilgili bir şeyler söyleyip duruyordu günlerdir. Oğlanlar burada değiller.”
“Uhhmm.. Bütün kızları getirmişsin neredeyse Margaret..”, diye, kısık ama imalı bir sesle söylenir yaşlı Cathber.
Margaret’in yüzü hiçbir şekilde kızarmaz. Tam aksine ciddi bir ifadeyle cevap verir buna.
“Akraba evliliklerini hiçbir zaman tasvip etmemişimdir. Doğan çocuklar biraz çatlak oluyorlar. Buradaki ‘stok’ sağlıklı ve güvenilir. Ordu eğitimi de olsa en azından bir eğitimden geçmiş durumdalar. Tamamı okuma yazma biliyor ve neredeyse hepsi en az iki dil, ve bir ana meslek, bir de destek mesleğe sahip.”, diye açıklar. Sonra anlaşmışlar gibi esefle toplu bir şekilde gözlerini yuvarlayan kızlarına bakar ve burnundan soluyarak açıkça bir şekilde onları tehdit eder. “Eğer beni utandırırsanız, eve dönünce hepinizin saçlarını yolarım ona göre. Burada olduğumuz süre boyunca hepinizden birer ‘kız’ gibi davranmanızı istiyorum ve eve döndüğümüzde de en az yarınızın yanında size kene gibi yapışmış bir erkeğin olmasını bekliyorum. Erkek kılığında bir odun olsa da olur. Bana torun verin yeter!”
“Babam da mı sana bir kene gibi yapışmıştı anne?”, diye muzipçe sorar kızlardan biri —Nikelix Carver.
Margaret kaşlarını çatar.
“Babanla ben elli iki saat balta ve topuzla birbirimize vurmaya çalıştık. Ben çok uğraştım ama en sonunda onun bana vurmak için değil, sadece topuzumu kendisine isabet ettirmemi engellemek için balta savurduğunu anlayınca kendisiyle evlenmeye karar verdim. Aranızda o kadar taşaklı onanınız varsa, lütfen, size engel olmayayım.. Gidip o erkeği bulun!”, diye hırlar.
“Anne!”, diye hayret ve utançla inler Dridges.
İkizler yine kıkırdarlar.
“Çok ayıp ama anne.. Hele yabancıların yanında öyle konuşulur mu?”
“Söylesene bana, Dridges.. Sen kaç çocuk doğurdun? Dahası, o kavga olurken, Efendi Cathber de yan masada oturmuş bizi seyrediyordu!”
Dridges kıpkırmızı olmuş bir şekilde susar.
“Siz de ne her şeye kıkırdıyorusunuz, pembe elf kızları gibi?!”, diye ikizleri de bir güzel haşlar Margaret.
“Şu babam değil mi?!”, diye ünler Nikelix birden ve aksi istikamete işaret eder.
Margaret, yüzünde hayet ifadesiyle kızın gösterdiği yöne bakar ama orada kimseyi göremez. Kaşları çatılı bir şekilde geri döndüründe Nikelix tüymüştür!
İkizler aynı anda ‘fırk’lar.
Dridges’den garip, ‘hık’ sesleri duyulur.
Brom suratını büzüştürürken Efendi Cathber ise, yüz yılların verdiği engin tecrübelerine sığınır, ve herhangi bir ses çıkarmamayı başarır.
“Nikelix..”, diye burnundan solur Margaret ve ancak bir annenin sahip olabileceği bir sevgi ile karışık hiddetle döner ve yemekhane şantiyesine doğru yürümeye başlar.
“Margaret hanım.. Burada sözü geçen biri, sanırım?”, diye fısıldayarak sorar Brom, Efendi Cathber’e.
“Öyle de denebilir. Babasının Argail Smitefast olduğunu, Smitefast’in de Scowling Hills’in defacto lideri olduğu düşünürsek.. Şunu anlamalısın, Efendi Brom; Argail Efendi, Sim Town’dan ta Endless Sea denizine, Ritual Ormanlarının kuzeyindeki Rook dağlarından da ta Tinker Hill’in güneyine kadar ki engin topraklardaki bütün dwarf’lardan sorumludur ve iyi kötü hepsine sözü geçer. Halihazırda kızının gücü o kadar değildir ama kendisi de bütün dwarf’larından sorumludur. Bu, yabana atılabilecek bir güç değildir. Buna rağmen ne sevgili Margaret, ne de babası Argail Smitefast bu gücü kötüye kullanmamışlardır ve komşularıyla her zaman iyi ve adaletli geçinmeyi tercih etmişlerdir.”, diye yüzünde ciddi bir ifadeyle anlatır Cathber.
Bunu duyan genç hobbit, kaşları çatılı ve gözleri de kısılmış bir şekilde Margaret Madish’i takip eder zira aradığı kişiyi bulmuştur..
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Margaret Madish yemekhane kapısından içeri girince etrafını süzer, sonra da yemek sırasına girer. Kızları, kız kardeşleri ve Efendi Cathber’da peşinden sıraya girince Brom’da hayretle etrafına bakınarak peşlerinden sıraya girer.. Yemek sırası, genç hobbit’in hayatında daha önce hiç görmediği bir mefhumdur ve kocaman kazanların başında durmuş dwarf aşçıların, herkesin tabaklarına tamamen aynı yemekten ve aynı miktarda koyuşunu hayretle izler. Dwarflar da gıklarını çıkarmadan içinde dört çukuru olan, dikdörtgen şeklindeki tabaklarını alırlar, diğer çukurlara da meyve, tatlı ve ekmek doldururlar, birer çatal, birer kaşık ve bir tane de bıçak alarak gidip masalardan birine çömerler.
Sıra Brom’a geldiğinde iri dwarf aşçı ona iki kaşı da kalmış bir şekilde bakar. Brom’da aşçının kendisine bakmasına bakar ve öylece durur. İkisinin de bir birlerine bakışları sonucundan düzeli bir şekilde hareket eden sıra da bir anda duruverir.
“Evlat. Daha ne kadar orada durup bana bakmaya devam edeceksin?”, diye sorar tozlu bir sesle aşçı.
“Bilmem. Siz bana baktığınız için ben de size baktım.”, der Brom hiçbir şey anlamamış gibi.
“Tabildotun.. Uzatırsan içine yemek koyabilirim!”, der aşçı kaşlarını çatarak.
“Tabildot?”, diye sorar genç hobbit.
Aşçı esefle dolu derin bir soluk verir.
“Çaylak..”, der, bu her şeyi açıklıyormuş gibi.
Aşçının kendisine ‘çaylak’ demesiyle, hemen yanındaki dwarf’da ‘çaylak..’, der, elindeki kendi boş tabildotunu ona uzatır ve bir anda sıra boyunca bütün dwarflar, bir sağındaki dwarf’a ‘çaylak..’, der ve sıra boyunca büyün dwarflar ellerindeki tabildotu bir solundaki dwarf’a uzatır!
“Evet. Artık bir tabildotun var.. Şimdi onu bana uzatırsan, artık bu aç askerleri doyurabilirim..”, der aşçı.
Kıpkırmızı olmuş bir şekilde Brom tabildotunu uzatır, aşçı da tabildottaki en büyük çukura iri kepçesiyle yoğun et ve fasülyeli bir şey boşaltır.
“Ummm.. Tek alternatifim bu mu?”, diye sorar tabildotundaki yemeğe bakarak.
“Yemekten hoşlanmazsan, çıkıştaki ‘şikayet kutusuna’ derdini anlatan bir mektup bırakabilirsin. Ama bunun sana pek de bir faydası olmaz zira şikayetleri okuyacak vaktim yok!”, der aşçı, yüzünde haşin bir sırıtışla!
Brom somurtarak ilerler ve elmalı turtamsı bir şey olması gereken tatlıdan alır, biraz setleşmiş elmalardan ve son kullanma tarihi geçmek üzere olan bir de ayran alır.
Bu sırada yemeklerini almış olan Margaret ve taifesi, neredeyse tamamı çoktan dolmuş yemekhanede boş gördükleri, gerilerdeki masalardan birisine doğru yönlenirler.
Masaların yanından geçerken, ne zaman geri geldiği anlaşılamayan Nikelix, bir anda tabildotuyla yanlarında belirir, Dridges’e göz kırpar, ikizlere sırıtır, sonra döndüğü gibi yan masadaki dwarf’lardan birinin eline çatalını saplar!
Masada oturan dwarf bir anda ‘offf’ diye inler ve çatala uzanır ama Nikelix çatılı olduğu yerde tutmaya devam eder. İkizlere verdiği sırıtışın aynını dwarf’a da verir ve acıdan kıvranan cücenin kulağına eğilir, “Kalçamı istiyorsan, gerisini de alman gerekir. Buna gözün kesmiyorsa ellerine hakim olmayı öğrenmelisin Torkan!”, diye mutlu bir şekilde tıslar..
Masada oturan diğer dwarf’ların hepsi iri kahkahalarla gülmeye başlarlar.
Brom hayretle başını sallar ve kendi ellerinin bu kaçık dwarf kızlardan olabildiğince uzak olduğundan emin olmak istiyormuş gibi sımsıkı tabildotunu kavrar ve küçük bir hamster gibi Efendi Cathber’in peşinden ilgili masaya doğru koşturur.
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Doğrusunu söylemek gerelirse Genç Brom, Elder Hills dwarf’larını biraz fazla ‘heyecanlı’ ve hırçın bir ırk olarak bulsa da yine de onların sıcak ve cana yakın halleri, bıyık altı espri anlayışları ve sımsıkı birbirine kenetlenmiş ‘aile yapıları’, istemese de hoşuna gider. Yemekler için aynı şeyleri söyleyemez ama. Fevkalade besleyici olmakla beraber, dwarf yemeklerinin tadı kendi standartlarına göre, aynı fevkaladelikle ‘berbattır’!
Dwarf’lar, olağandışı bir şekilde sessizce ve tam anlamıyla da ‘ortalarında’ oturan hobbit’i umursamazlık etmezler ve nezaket kurallarını ihlal etmeyecek şekilde ona bakışlar atarlar ama ona bulaşmazlar. Bununla beraber, aralarında yaptıkları espriler de bir şekilde onun anlayacağı ve onu da güldürecek şekilde olmasına dikkat ediyor gibidirler.
Dridges arada bir ona sert bakışlar atarken, emredilmişler gibi ikizler ise onu aralarına almış, konuşmalar esnasında geçenlerin ‘açıklamalarını’ ve ‘yorumlarını’ aktarıp dururlar genç hobbit’e.
Uzun, kıvırcık kızıl saçlı Marideth ona gülümseyerek göz kırparken, Quin Stabsez ise ona, sanki biraz fazlalığı varmış da onları nasıl alırım, gözüyle bakar. Masanın en ucunda Yulanda Madsteam, yemek öncesi, yemek esnasında ve yemek sonrası ağzından eksik etmediği pis kokan, tütün sarmasıyla sessizce oturmayı tercih ederken muhabbetin merkezinde Yor Whatoo.. teyze? abla? adam? —Brom bu dwarf’un ne olduğunu tam olarak çıkaramaz ama sormaya da korkar. Oldukça iri cüsseli olan Yor’un yüzündeki tüyleri açıkça bir erkek olduğunu söylerken, davranışları ve herkese ‘Şekerim!’ diye hitap etmesi başka bir şeyler söylemektedir. Yor.. Teyze.. büyük bir iştahla ne kadar dedikodu varsa kendisine has üslubuyla mutlu bir şekilde ortaya saçar ve yan masalardaki dwarf’lar dahil hepsini gülmekten kırıp geçirir. Efendi Cathber bile en sonunda “Yor Teyze, yeter! Bu yaşlı adamı öldürmek mi istiyorsun?”, diye inler.
“Aaaa.. Hikayenin asıl lezzetli yerine gelmedik daha, şekerim!”, diye söylenir Yor Teyze ve bu da yeni bir kahkaha zincirine sebep olur.
“Evet..”, der Margaret en sonunda. “Sanırım hepimiz yedik, içtik, doyduk, dolduk ve güldük.. Elder Hills’de sizi tekrar görmek çok hoş, Efendi Cathber. Ama sizin iki hafta önce burada olmanızı tercih ederdik. Bize büyük yardımınız dokunmuş olurdu.”
“Neler oluyor, Margaret?”, diye birden ciddileşiverir yaşlı Cathber.
Margaret derin bir nefes alır.
“İki hafta önce birileri gizlice buraya girmeye çalıştılar. Üç farklı noktadan. Ve söz konusu üç noktadaki muhafızları da öldürerek bunu gerçekleştirdiler. Bu şahıslar buraya, Elder Hills ordu karargahına girip gizli bazı bilgilerimizi aşırdılar. Ancak hata yaptılar ve fark edildiler. Bir kısmı kaçmaya çalışırken diğerleri ise geride kalıp, ellerinden geldiği kadar çok gürültü ve hasar vermeye çalıştılar ve bunu da başardılar. Yine de sonunda öldürüldüler.. Ve evet, sen sormadan ben söyleyeyim, canlı yakalamaya çalıştık ama saldırıları bunu imkansız hale getirdi. Kaçanların peşlerine takıldık ve onları da öldürdük. En azından o zaman bu kanaate varmıştık. Nevarki çalınan evraklar imtina ile elden geçirilince, bazılarının eksik olduğunu fark ettik. Bu, ciddi bazı sorunlara sebep oldu. O belgelerde önemi bazı bilgiler vardı. Bizlerde o bilgilerin güvenlik açığı olarak aleyhimize kullanılamaması için, hemen yeni düzenlemeler getirdik. Korkarım yeni protokoller daha oturmadığı gibi, yeni uygulamalar da kendi sorunlarını beraberinde getirdi. Ortada tam anlamıyla bir güvenlik kaosu var, senin anlayacağın.”, diye anlatır haşin bir sesle kadın.
“Bu.. hem hayret verici, hem de fevkalade üzücü bir durum. Ben.. son bir yıldır bazı işlerim dolayısıyla ormanın bir ucundan diğerine koşturmak durumunda kaldım ve işim de daha bitmedi. Dim Lodge oduncuları bana, ‘kereste almak için’ geldiklerini söyleyen yeni bazı şahısların olduğunu, ancak herhangi birisinin daha tek bir dal bile almadıklarını söylediler. Elflerle görüşme fırsatım olmadığı için onların fark ettiği bir şeyler var mı bilemiyorum.”, diye işin kendi tarafını anlatır Cathber.
“Hmmm..”, diye söylenir Margaret düşünceli bir şekilde.
“Size tavsiyem, devriyelerinizin sıklığını ve mesafesini en az ikiye katlayın. Tercihen üç günlük mesafeye..”, diye önerir Efendi Cathber.
“Üç gün.. bu devriyelerin merkezle görüşebileceği yada haber ulaştırabileceği mesafenin üç katı..”, der dwarf kadın.
“Bu benim tavsiyem, Margaret. Ama devriyeleri yeterince sık aralıklarla çıkarırsanız yola, sanıyorum bu iletişim sorunuzu çözecektir.”
“Ve devriye masraflarımızı da en az on iki ile on altı katına çıkaracaktır.”, diye kaynar Margaret.
“Bu konuda Serenity izcileriyle iletişime geçebilirsiniz. Onların Elder Hills’in doğusunu taramalarını isterseniz, en azından bu devriye masraflarını biraz azaltacaktır. O izcileri sessizce geçip size doğudan yaklaşılması oldukça güç.”, der Cathber.
“Adi şerefsiz köpekler!”, diye köpürür Margaret birden. “Ortada hiçbir provokasyon olmadığı halde saldırdılar.. Onursuz çapulcular..”
“Onurmuş!”, diye birden bi laf kaçar Brom’un ağzından..
..ve bütün yemekhane sessizliğe bürünür.
✱ ✱ ✱
Margaret Madish’in gözleri bir anda hiddetle parlar ve masanın öbür tarafında ve az ilerisinde oturan küçük hobbit’e bakar. Genç Brom’un sağında ve solunda oturan ikizler ise sanki görünmek istemiyorlarmış gibi kıpırdamadan öylece dururlar oturdukları yerde.
“Bir şey mi dediniz, Efendi Hobbit?”, diye burnundan solur Margaret.
“Evet, dedim.”, diye huysuzca cevap verir Brom.
“Yanlış anlamış mıyım, acaba? Buraya geldiniz. Adınızı bile daha vermemiş olmanıza rağmen, sizi soframıza misafir ettik, afiyetle yemeğimizi yediniz, muhabbetimize şahitlik ettiniz ve siz, Efendi Hobbit, bizim onurumuzu mu sorguluyorsunuz?”, diye sessizce sorar dwarf kadın.
“Adımı vermedim, çünkü sormadınız. Sofranıza misafir ettiğiniz için ben de yemekleriniz hakkında yorum bile yapmadan yedim. Ama beni bu iki bayan arasına sıkıştırarak, bana şüpheli muamelesi yaptınız. Siz bana söyleyin, Margaret hanım, doğru anlamış mıyım?”, der Brom haşin bir şekilde.
Margaret Madish’in gözleri kısılır.
Efendi Cathber ise sesini çıkarmaz.
“Neden onurumuzu sorguladığınızı bize açıklar mısınız? Size ne gibi bir yanlışımız oldu da bizi ve onurumuzu sorguluyorsunuz?”, diye kaynayan bir sesle sorar Madish.
“Siz.. Sim Town’dan Endless Sea denizine, Rook dağlarından da Tinker Hills’in güneyine kadar uzanan topraklardaki bütün dwarf’lardan sorumlu değil misiniz?”, diye sorar aynı haşin sesle genç hobbit.
“Bu biraz fazla muallak bir tanımlama oldu, Efendi Hobbit zira bahsettiğiniz topraklarda birçok dwarf yaşıyor.”, der Margaret.
“Dwarf’larının sorumluluğunu üstlenemeyen sizinle neden konuşuyorum ki o zaman? Bana gerçek sorumluyu gösterin.”, diye kendi gözleri kısılmış bir şekilde cevap verir Brom.
Margaret Madish’in yüzü kıpkırmızı kesilir.
“Aradığınız kişi, babam Argail Smitefast’dir ama kendisi şu anda burada değiller. Bununla beraber, onun sorumlulukları, benim sorumluluklarımdır. Size tavsiyem kendinizi açıklamanızdır zira bu masadan ya ikimiz de canlı kalkacağız, yada sadece birimiz kalkıp gideceğiz!”, der fırtına gibi bir ifadeyle.
“Siz misafirlerinizi hep böyle tehdit mi edersiniz? Ve bana onurdan bahsediyorsunuz! Öyle olsun bakalım..”, diye sessizce yanmaya başlar Brom.
Sonra, yavaşça ayağa kalkar ve herkesin göreceği şekilde oturduğu bankın üstüne çıkar ve dwarf kadına işaret ederek bağırır;
“Madem dwarf’larınızdan siz sorumlusunuz ve kendileri burada olmadığı için Argail Smitefast adına konuştuğunuzu söylüyorsunuz, o zaman, Margaret Madish, sizi Gulls Perch cinayetlerinden sorumlu ve suçlu buluyorum!”
Bütün yemekhane ayağa kalkar.
Ortamda ne kadar dwarf varsa hepsinin ellerinde baltaları, kılıçları, topuzları olduğu halde kapkara olmuş suratlarla hobbit’in olduğu yere yürümeye başlarlar.
“Margaret.”, der Efendi Cathber sakince. “Efendi Hobbit benim dostum. Ona burada bir şey olursa, Elder Hills’in kepenklerini indirmek zorunda kalırsınız ve ben bununla da yetinmem.”
Margaret hayretle Brom’a, sonra da yaşlı Cathber’e bakar.
“Sizi dostum sanmıştım Efendi Cathber.”, diye fena halde kırılmış bir şekilde fısıldar Margaret.
“Ve bu konuda da her zaman haklıydın, sevgili Margaret zira ben hala ver her zaman senin dostunum. Ama genç hobbit’in ithamlarını cevapsız bırakamazsın ve susturamazsın.”, diye nazikçe cevap verir yaşlı adam.
Margaret kaşlarını çatar, sonra bir elini kaldırır ve bütün dwarf’lar oldukları yerde dururlar.
“Bu fevkalade ciddi bir itham, Efendi Hobbit. Bizim Gulls Perch ile herhangi bir ilişkimiz yada alıp veremediğimiz yok. Orası bize ait değil, asla da olmadı. Orada fey’ler yaşar ve bizler de onların yanlız bırakılma isteğine saygı gösterir ve onlara bulaşmayız. Orası bize yasak!”, der Margaret.
“O zaman bana açıklar mısınız? Bundan 1 yıl, 6 ay ve 28 gün önce orada dwarf’larınızın ne işi vardı?”, diye gırtlağını yırtarcasına haykırır genç hobbit. “Makinaları ile maden ve değerli taş çıkarmak için oradaydılar ve zehirli atıklarını vadinin sularına boşaltarak oradaki bir çok fey’in ölmesine sebep oldular.. O dwarf’lar ve beraberlerinde getirdikleri paralı fedaileriyle savaşmak zorunda kaldım ve bu bana çok pahalıya mal oldu!”
Margaret bir anda bir şeye uyanmış gibi gözleri de, omuzları da çöker..
“Bu dwarf’lar.. sorumluluğumuz olan toprakların dışından gelmiş olabilirler, Efendi Hobbit.”, diye konuşur ama sesinde belirgin bir umutsuzluk var gibidir.
“Mad Ussa!”, diye hırlar Brom. “Başlarındaki ve elimden kurtulmayı başaran tek dwarf’un adı buydu! Bu isim size tanıdık geliyorsa ve azıcık onurunuz varsa bunu itiraf edersiniz!”
Margaret Madish’in bir anda beti benzi atar ve içi boşalmış su tulumu gibi ezilir.
O masadaki bütün dwarf’lar bir anda çökerler..
“Bu ismi biliyoruz, Efendi Hobbit.”, der Margaret sessizce.
“Sizin dwarf’larınızdandı demek!”, diye köpürür Brom.
“Evet. Bir zamanlar bizim dwarf’larımızdandı.. Romilus “Mad” Ussa.. benim oğlumdu..”
“Ve hayvanın da tekiydi..”, der yan taraftan Dridges ağlamaklı bir sesle. “Ablam burada olsaydı kahrolurdu şimdi.”
Brom ise çoktan kahrolmuş bir suratla iki dişi dwarf’a da bakar..
..ve kendi omuzları da çöker..
..zira aradığı suçluları bulmuştur, ama istediği adaleti bulamayacaktır.
“Bu.. size neye mal oldu, Efendi Hobbit? Mümkünse telafi etmek isteriz.”, der Margaret dolu gözlerler.
Genç Brom öylece Margaret Madish’e bakar..
..ve olduğu yerde titreyip hıçkırmaya başlar.
“Bana mal olanı ödeyemezsiniz, Margaret hanım. Mad Ussa benden Aremela’mı aldı.. ve o paha biçilmez, tertemiz bir ruhtu..”, der..
..ve bir anda tamamen dağılır.
Brom Bumblebrim, son 1 yıl, 6 ay ve 28 gün boyunca içinde sakladığını, bastırıp unuttuğunu, sindirip sildiğini sandığı kaybı, kahrı, utancı ve acısı bir anda ve tamamen kurtulur ondan ve küçük bir çocuk gibi ağlamaya başlar.
“Senin Mad Ussa’n onu öldürürken, o katiline değil, benim yüzüme bakmayı seçti. O.. o kadar saf.. ve sevgi dolu bir kızdı ki.. Beni kurtarmak için kendi hayatını feda etti.. Bunun nasıl bir telafisi olabilir ki?”
Margaret Madish kırılmış bir anne olarak, olduğu yerden, hıçkırıklarla ağlayan küçük hobbit’e bakar.
Yaşlı Cathber ise, boşlukları en sonunda doldurulmuş hikaye ile ne yapacağını düşünüyor gibidir.
Dridges çöktüğü yerden kalkar, masanın etrafından dolanır ve genç hobbit’in yanına gelir. Yüzleri buruşmuş olan ikizler kenara çekilirler ve kız kardeşleri küçük hobbit’e sarılır.
“Ben.. bir zamanlar abim olan Ussa’nın yaptıklarından dolayı ne kadar özür dileyeceğimi bile bilmiyorum. Ussa’nın aramızdan kovulmasının sebebi bendim halbuki. Yıllar önce beni ve Lady ablamı içeren ahmakça bir işe kalkıştı ve bunun sonucunda da topraklarımızdan sürüldü.. Belli ki ona vermemiz gereken ceza bununla kalmamalıydı.”
Brom sakince Dridges’in kollarından kurtulur ve kızın annesine, Margaret Madish’e yaklaşır.
“Gulls Perch fey’lerinin kaybını telafi edemeyiz. Ama bir şekilde bunun, ödeyebileceğimiz bir karşılığı olmalı, Efendi Hobbit”, diye önünde dikilmiş ve kendisine acımasızca bakan küçük hobbit’e yalvarır Margaret.
“Yapılan cinayetlerin bir karşılığı yok, Argail Smitefast kızı Margaret Madish..”, der Brom gözleri gibi acımasız kelimelerle.
Genç hobbit’in sesinde ürkütücü ve hayret uyandıran bir güç vardır sanki ve etrafındaki herkes korkuyla büyülenmiş bir şekilde bakarlar ona.
“Ama size ait olana eksik verdiğiniz cezayı telafi edebilirsiniz.”
“Nasıl?”, diye sorar Margaret, kerpiç gibi olmuş bir ifadeyle..
“Katilin annesi olarak sen ve onurun.. Gulls Perch’e geleceksiniz ve orada kaderinizle yüzleşeceksiniz. Çocuklarınız da Gulls Perch’e herhangi bir başka ölümlünün bir daha izinsiz girmesini engellemek için vadinin girişine, fey’lerin uygun gördüğü yer ve mesafeye bir karakol kuracaklar ve her yıl, her gün ve her saat orayı koruyacaklar. Bu artık sizin boyun borcunuz ve onurunuz olacak. Sözünüzde durduğunuz sürece kaderiniz devam edecek. Onurunuzdan döndüğünüz günde ise kaderiniz bitecek!”, diye yankılanır Brom’un kati sesi tüm şantiyede.
Masadaki herkes ve yemekhanedeki bütün dwarf’lar dehşet ve korkuyla küçük hobbit’e bakarlar zira bunlar, Argail Smitefast kızı Margaret Madish’den istenebilecek ezici taleplerdir ama seslerini çıkaramazlar ve kıpırdayamazlar çünkü sesin kendisinde de ezici bir güçtür vardır..
Efendi Cathber kısılmış gözlerle küçük hobbit’e bakar ve sessizce fısıldar;
Margaret Madish ise sadece başını eğer ve “Kabul.”, der.
“Sana sunulan kadere boyun eğip senden talep edilenleri kabul ediyor musun, Margaret Madish?”, diye sorar Brom, haşin bir sesle.
“Kabul ediyorum.”, der Margaret.
“Oğlunun cürümü karşılığında ödemeyi kabul ettiğin cezayı çekmeyi göze alıyor musun, Margaret Madish?”, diye sorar Brom, acımasızca.
“Kabul ediyorum.”, der kadın sessizce.
“Oğlun bizden pek sevdiğimiz canları aldı. Onun bizden aldığı sevgililerimiz karşılığında onu ve cezasını bize bırakmayı kabul ediyor musun, Argail Smitefast kızı Margaret Madish?”, diye sorar Brom, zalimce..
“K.. Kabul ediyorum..”, der Madish ve kadının hıçkırıkları duyulur.
“O zaman seni ve onurunu, bir ay ve bir gün içerisinde, vadimizin girişinde bekliyor olacağız!”, der Brom..
..ve dolu gözler, boş bir ruh, yıkık bir dünya ve kırık bir kalple oradan ve Elder Hills’den ayrılır çünkü bir çift lafını söylemiştir.
The ‘Chosen Four’ have been sent, through place and time by the proxies of the Celestials to right the wrongs of the unholy Outsiders.
In a wild cacophony of tumbling and painful sliding through the jagged and jarring madness of time, the Tundra Walkers find themselves disoriented, in a place and time quite out of their own..
..by a gross number of centuries.
This story starts 16 years ago, in some tattered tent full of wispy old hags, at a place far, far north of the Great Northern Tundras, in a small village called Star Watchers and ends in the misty haze of the forgotten past, some 820 years further in the line of history.
What the bloody hell is this?”, the sour voice of the little, pale gnome grudged as she lay flat on her back. “No one said anything about this much hazard! Hells bells, has the term ‘precaution’ or even ‘risk assessment’ ever occur to those stupid old farts? No wonder people seldom return from the past!”
“Old farts?”, snorted a boxy, feminine voice in the dark, from somewhere behind her, also lying on her back.
“Yea, picked it up at the academy. Some of the ghouls used to use that kinda slang. You wouldn’t know..”, she said with a groan.
“I know, what an ‘old fart’ is”, sniffed the voice in the dark, “what surprises me is the fact that you’d be into such vulgar slang. And the proper word is ‘nerd’, not ‘ghoul’..”
“Nerd, ghoul, same difference. Boys who have zero social lives who live underground, play weird games with imaginary characters and cooked up monsters and carry rule books with more reverence than they would carry their holy writs..”, bit back the pale gnome.
“Sounds fun. What was your character?”
Arcantonic Palecog scowled.
“If you must know, I had a very tall, very pretty barbarian girl with thick, white braids and jugs, that smashed everything in her path with a mindless rage..”, she said and hastily added, “..no offense intended!”, giving a sidelong gaze at Cora’s direction.
The squeaky snort of a hobbit came from off, the other side.
“Some taken..”, replied the tall barbarian girl with thick, white braids.
There was a bothersome pause.
“Umm.. Which part?”, asked Arcantonic, tentatively.
“Will let you know when I want something —in mindless rage!”
“Well, shit!”, grumbled the gnome.
“You truly surprise me at times, girl..”, snickered Seressa Wraiven as her dark face appeared over the gnome. “Are you hurt? Other than your head, you seem all in one piece.. Could carry you if you like..”
“You wish..”, said Arcantonic sourly.
✱ ✱ ✱
Someone’s coming”, Cora Sleet whispered harshly as she sprang up and helped the little hobbit to his feet.
Brom Bumblebrim dusted off his pants and coat and mumbled a silent thanks while the very tall, very dark figure of Seressa pulled up her pair.
Arcantonic did not thank.
She just scowled..
The slow, irking hiss of a blade was heard as Cora drew her long, great blade off her back and spread her legs, ready to fight whatever it was that was coming.
Out in the darkness, the marching of many boots in perfect order drew closer and a platoon of tall figures appeared.
Without a pause, the platoon split in two and surrounded the Walkers and than held their ground. They gave no sign of aggression, only that of determination.
They all wore similar, very elaborate, and very beautiful plate armors, high winged helmets and carried a quiver of arrows, a short bow, a half size kite shield, and a long, slender, almost fragile-looking sword..
High Elves, thought Cora for a moment.
High Elves?, she baffled in the next.
‘Great Heavens, where are we?’
“Greetings, Messengers of the Celestials..”, said the leading elf with a curt, formal nod. “If you would be so kind, I pray, follow me and we shall take you to our lord. It is he, with whom you shall speak.”
Cora nodded back, more out of reverence than a formality, for these were High Elves, the highest and noblest of elves.
Without waiting for a reply, the leader of the high elf platoon turned did a quick hand motion, and walked off, back into the darkness..
✱ ✱ ✱
The sight was ghastly. That was the only word Cora could think of.
They had traveled with the high elf platoon for the better part of sixteen hours, trooping, running, hiding, sneaking, and.. fighting..
..and there was less than half of the platoon left.
Cora thought she knew how to fight. But what she knew was nothing like what she saw with these elves in their shiny, beautiful armor. One particular young elf had caught her eyes. He had had an angular face, a straight, noble sort of nose, a dedicated, rich mouth, prominent high brows, and long, braided, pale gold hair.
Cora was never the type of girl to lust over boys, even before the destruction of her village. But the look he had given her with his beautiful, soft, pale green eyes had been solemn, honest, and.. flattering.
The young man had died in the next encounter with what she thought were mountain trolls. The brutish monsters had rushed right into the platoon and one of them had crushed the elf with his eight-foot club that had been thicker than Cora’s waist..
Cora had never seen a mountain troll before.
Cora would never see the young, beautiful elf again after that..
Tired and bloodied, they were met by more elven platoons and soon ushered to the top of a hill where stood a tall, deep maroon-colored tent surrounded by more high elf guards in even greater looking armors, carrying long, curved, two-handed elven scimitars in silver embroidered purple mantles. Up at that hill, Cora and her friends saw the extent of their prophecy.. and the extent of the devastation taking place down below..
Row upon row of elven warriors in tens of thousands stood before and around the hill.
There, far across a very bloody field was another army of row upon row of orcs, goblins, ogres, giants, trolls, and what Cora surmised to be shambling ghouls, broken skeletons, moaning zombies, and barking demons, and their numbers seemed to stretch as far as she could see.
And between the two armies was a field of death, all burned, scorched, even, and pitch-black smoke rose from broken and mutilated bodies scattered everywhere.
The sight she looked at was nothing less than ghastly..
..and the more she looked, the more her face paled;
The hill they were standing on, was very much surrounded!
✱ ✱ ✱
On the hilltop, Cora and her companions beheld the bloody battlefield below as thousands of arrows formed an arching bridge over them and fell into the ranks of the enemy horde while elfish wizards and sorcerers launched their deadly spells, raining fire, fist-sized hails, and swirling multi-colored arcane missiles. Batches of temple guardians walked among the wounded, doing their best to keep them alive as groves of druids of many races sent bolts of lightning and hurricanes into the demon ranks.
Something very large groaned and with an earth-shaking thud, a hut-sized rock landed in the middle of a platoon and instantly killed and buried the elves caught under it.
More boulders landed haphazardly into the elfish ranks. The crushed didn’t even have the time to scream.
Orders ran up and down the elf ranks and the first half of a dozen line of elves drew their swords, pulled up their shields, and started out as the following ranks crouched close behind them, bearing long halberds and glaives.
The demon horde charged..
“This way, if you would please.”, said the platoon leader and led Cora and her friends into the tent at the top of the hill.
✱ ✱ ✱
The tall elf guard in purple mantle opened the tent’s flaps for the company, then, without a word, turned and left for his post.
Although the inside of the tent was dimly lit, it appeared to be surprisingly comfortable and richly decorated. The ground was covered with a thick, red carpet that had elegant designs inlaid in it, barely a shade or two darker, or lighter than the base red. Many embroidered tapestries hung on the inside of the tent. There were two comfortable-looking divans, many stools, and a large, portable table placed at the far end, covered with parchments, maps, markers, quills, and writing feathers.
A young, beautiful young elf girl slept peacefully on one of the divans. She had a striking figure, full and healthy. Her face had soft features; smooth skin, rich, vibrant, inviting lips, long eyelashes, and brush-free, slightly wavy, honey-colored hair and she was sleeping in her tight, elf woven lorica.
Cora heard a stifling sound from the other end of the tent, and for the first time, she saw the elf lord, sitting behind the portable table.
Cora did a double-take and silently ‘woa’ed for this was the most beautiful face in a living being that she had ever seen. She just stared at the elf lord..
“So, the Celestials have sent another batch of messengers.”, said the elf lord, in a barely hidden contempt. He had a beckoning voice, rather masculine and resonant but somehow musical in nature. If Cora heard this voice in any other male, she would likely have snorted. With this elf, however, it felt ‘just right’.
“A tundra elf barbarian, a hobbit from Bowling Hills by the looks of it, a half-demon and a deep gnome..”, he said.
“It seems the greats above shall not even bother to hide their pun!”
Cora and Brom bowed before the elf lord.
“We have been sent to right a wrong by the Seers of the Star Watchers, my lord.”, Cora said, in her soft, somewhat throaty voice.
And right then, Seressa and Arcantonic both produced something made from fine leather and folded from their belts, flipped them open, and showed the elf lord, a strange, arrogantly carved badge.
The elf lord’s eyebrows shot up.
“And what business interests does the Academy of Melshieve have here, in this blasted, forsaken battlefield?”, he said in a voice that sounded more tired than of any particular interest.
“Academy business.”, Seressa replied curtly, which was very much unlike her.
“We two are here to observe and preserve.“, added Arcantonic, in a similar curt tone.
“Of course you are..”, replied the elven lord bitterly. “Couldn’t have sent a few of your airships..”
“We are here only to observe and preserve.”, Seressa repeated her pair, speaking with a kindlier voice this time.
“I see.. You are free to observe. There will be no preserving done here today, or anytime soon, I am afraid. The situation stands thus; we are surrounded and outnumbered at a critical level. We can barely open small gaps in the enemy lines at the cost of too many lives that I’d care to count. A few months ago, we sent word to Koruxan, Vodgar, Palantine, and Durkahan pleading for their support. So far, we only have a quarter half of Arashkan forces here, dwarven armored platoons from Scowling and Elder Hills, wood elf support from Dim Woods, druids from Ritual Forest, and gnome sappers from Tinker Hills and Silent Hills.”, said the elven lord quietly.
He paused for a bit as if to gather his thoughts, took a deep breath, and continued.
“We had a great start. Our.. our own rangers kept on harassing the enemy lines from the sides and managed to get to their rear as well. We held the enemy at bay for three years and made them pay a good price for every step they took in any direction. But that was up until some two months ago. Our gnome sappers discovered something we never expected. Turns out, while we were entertaining ourselves up here, they were diligently digging miles and miles of tunnels right under and around us..
We destroyed all the tunnels we found, but not soon enough. And now, they are all around us and their numbers have been growing steadily every day.
For weeks we send messengers to the other cities and yet, no one has responded. I am afraid, we will not last the month. Enemy warlocks have warded the area, making it impossible for us to open portals for new troops to teleport in or take our wounded out, not to mention near to non of our summoning spells work, hence we can get the support of neither the elementals nor the fey.
I will be honest with you. You are not the first Celestial messengers that have arrived here. There were six other groups, though never this many at once. You are the seventh group and they all said it was their destiny to right a wrong. I hope your prophecy was better than theirs.”, he said in the same tired voice and Cora finally recognized the nuance.
The elven lord wasn’t just tired. His was the voice of a man who had lost all hope. It was a defeated man’s voice.
Cora felt a lump at the pit of her stomach.
And she felt a vast sympathy for this beautiful elf.
“If it is possible to reach these people, we shall..”, she said in fierce determination.
The elf lord looked up at Cora and for the briefest of moments, a smile appeared in his handsome face.
“I had heard our long-lost brothers and sisters up in The Great Northern Tundra’s never gave their word for simple tasks. They gave them only for the worthy ones.. and always kept them. Had I, but a thousand like you..”
Cora tried very hard not to, but failed.. and blushed.
Just then, the tent flaps opened and an elf runner dashed inside and in a rushed, terror-stricken voice he said, “My Riverin Grandaleren. Themalsar approaches from the south..”
“What?”, said the elf lord in a shocked voice. “How?”
“By ships. He landed troops to the south by ships!..”, said the runner, his face even more drawn now.
“My Lord, they come!”, he whispered.
Riverin Grandaleren’s shoulders slumped. He turned to the four standing before him.
Cora’s mind reeled..
That was a very old elven name for ‘prince’. It had never really been used by her people, only ‘Rive’ which meant something along the lines of ‘king’ or, more like, ‘chieftain’..
‘Good Heavens..’, she thought. This was no mere elf lord. This was ‘her times’ Ri Grandaleren Feymist of the legendary Bari Na-ammen himself..
..and since he was warring this Themalsar, it had to mean, they had been sent back some 820 years, to the first Battle of Themalsar, as the humans called it..
It was better known among elves as;
“Maeth -o Nev Evan escence”
BATTLE OF NEAR EXTINCTION..
Some innate instinct also prompted Cora that they were at the very northeast edge of the Ritual Forest and that meant; just to their north was the Trapped Mountains.
And just beyond that, her Ironfrost..
It was still there, ‘now’..
Her mother hadn’t been born yet, but her father had. He would be younger than she was now.. but alive..
None of her friends would be around for at least seven hundred years yet, but her home, her Ironfrost would be there.. Now..
For the first time since the death of her beloved father, her beautiful mother, her friends, and her people, the true impact of her loss hit her.
Cora Sleet’s eyes teared and silently, she mourned for Ironfrost and everything that it meant and encompassed for her.
It was so damned close. It was ‘this’ close.. Within her grasp to go, and to see.. And perhaps even to..
If she could just go there, and perhaps warn them of their coming annihilation, even at the cost of being branded as a mad woman..
A hard two weeks trek right now would get her there —much less if she left alone! Yes, these strange ‘soft’ people had fought alongside her, but she owed them nothing..
Certainly not her Ironfrost..
And that is when it hit Cora; she was not with them because of some untold, unnamed or unpaid debt. She was with them because thiswas her future. This was her nowand there really was no going back. These strange, soft, very much unbarbaric people were her new friends..
Her new family.
Her new.. Ironfrost!
And as if on cue, a small, warm, delicate hand reached up to her and held hers.
She looked down to see Brom Bumblebrim looking up to her, his eyes also glistening. He smiled at her and kindly patted her hand, squeezed it once, and let it go..
This was her new Ironfrost, alright..
Brom, her talkative little brother who never shut up. Tonic, her grumpy little baby sister who hadn’t yet gotten passed her ‘NO’ phase, and Seressa, her other sister.. the odd one in the family. Every family had one of those, right? She had been the odd one in her family, hadn’t she? Many people had said so.. Yes, she certainly hadn’t been odd at Seressa’s level, nor had she ever worn laced, pink, almost see-through.. things! But there really was no scale for odity, was there? The moment you stepped out of the boundaries of common, you were odd.
And now she was given the new position as the eldest sister. Seressa had merely swooped down and happily claimed her abandoned seat!
Here, some eight hundred years in the murky mists of a forgotten time, in one of the bloodiest battlefields in known history, up against impossible odds, Cora Sleet had found her new family, and in doing so, she found herself.
“GO.. NOW.. Our time is up. If Themalsar gets here, we will lose any chance to break any openings for you.”, said the prince harshly. He turned to the runner. “Get Selvius Brightleaf, my general, and Aramlerien, my master wizard here immediately. Then go and ask Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, the head of the druid groves and General Drills, the gnome sappers’ general, if they would be so kind as to join us. Send for Decona Dwarwic, the dwarven dreadnaught leader as well. We will need her ‘meatgrinders’ sooner than planned.”
The prince paused for a notable breath.
“Please inform Archangel Priceptine of the situation and ask him if he would grace us with his presence and wisdom..”, he added somewhat grudgingly.
“At once, my Riverin..”, the runner bowed and dashed back out of the tent.
“Well, I suppose this was a short-lived encounter.”, Grandaleren said, with an ironic and bitter voice. “I would know your names if you would honor me.”
“No!”, jumped in Seressa. “No names.. I am sorry Riverin of Bari Na-ammen. But those are the rules; under no circumstance may our names be revealed nor recorded!”
“It appears the academy has an answer for everything. Just no solution. So be it. You will be noted as ‘a tundra elf’, ‘a hobbit’, and ‘an academy pair’ who were here to observe and preserve! Now, go..”
Cora and Brom bowed once more to the Princeof Bari Na-ammen and turned to leave.
And that is when Cora realized something else;
The beautiful elf girl sleeping on the divan in her linen-like lorica had not moved, at all..
In fact, she was not breathing.
The hoarse voice of the prince of the high elves came from behind them.
“Selendenien Sindarin.. My sister. She.. she was killed late last night by Themalsar himself. Her life ebbed away by Malocchio, an entropy death curse, particular to his master.. She was the heart of High Woods and the jewel of Bari Na-ammen. The Sunlight of Selendenien shall never bless this world again..”
Riverin Grandaleren choked.
“Now please.. Go.. Give this man a few moments of peace to grieve over a beloved one..”
✱ ✱ ✱
The company moved silently and swiftly, hidden among burly dwarves and nibble gnomes.. That had been the plan; if they were to escape through the encircling army, they would have a better chance with the dwarves and gnomes, in particular, since the enemy was seeking high elves..
..And they had to use the tunnels dug by the gnome sappers.
Seressa had given one look at the small, tight, gnome size tunnels and groaned.
“Ow bugger..”, she’d said, “..not again!”
Thathad cheered Tonic a bit.
For three days, they ran, hid, slid, rolled, and tumbles through dark, musty, stuffy tunnels, and then over and under heavy brush and mud and reached somewhere near a cluster of rolling hills known as Ogre’s Foot, at which point they got ambush by half the ogre population living in the hills.
“Here..”, said a young, handsome gnome; the captain, of the gnomic company and the de facto leader of the dwarven contingency, as he handed a sealed, rolled-up parchment to Arcantonic. “..if you ever manage to get the chance, give this to my father please.”
Arcantonic just stared at the gnome boy.
“Who the hell are you and why are you giving this to me? You don’t even know me..”, she inadvertently blurted out.
Seressa smacked her forehead with her hand.
If the handsome gnome was taken aback by Tonic’s language or her brute attitude, he showed it with a dazzling, infectious smile.
“I, the hell, am Prince Gordigon Tinkerdome. Son of King Drine Tinkerdome and the apparent heir to the throne of Silent Hills.”, he said.
Arcantonic ogled at the gnome.
All things considered, he was a rather handsome devil. Pretty, even.
If the gnomes smile was dazzling, however, it certainly flew right past the gnomic girl standing before him.. and the infection failed all efforts on her as well.
“It is likely this is where you and your friends will depart, as we are surrounded, outnumbered, and outsized, but not quite bested. We need to make enough of a ruckus here, so they won’t go looking for your, there!“, he said pointing in the general direction of Dim Woods.
“Hence, it is unlikely any of us shall survive. You, on the other hand, must, my lady!”
Arcantonic ogled at the gnome..
Somewhere deep inside her mind, a squeaky, irritated voice said, “Did you.. Did he just ‘lady’ us?”
“Thought I’d give you this letter to be handed to my father, in case of an unexpected demise on my part, and if you would, I would also like to have your name, my lady, and your hand, of which, I promise, I shall keep only one, though I would very much like to keep both..”
“Yep..”, the squeaky voice in her mind confirmed. “..the idiot just ‘lady’ed us —again! And he wants our hand. Why does he want our hand?”
“I.. I can’t give you my name. That.. that is forbidden. And what do you want my hand for? Are they dirty?”, stammered Tonic as she blushed with a tone of pink that would have made her pair proud.
“Oh, for everything that’s good and not..!”, exclaimed Seressa with an exasperated voice, and smacked her forehead with her other hand..
Brom snickered from the side and Cora just stared at Tonic like she was some kind of strange contraption and she just couldn’t figure out what its purpose was.
“I do not know.”, smiled the gnome prince. “Hard to see from here. Must look at it from a closer angle.”
Whatever was going through Tonics mind at that very moment, it was hard to say.
Her face, however, said ‘What the hell kind of an idiot is this?’
Or perhaps, ‘Why is it always the weird ones?’
The prince reached out, took the little gnome girl’s hand, gracefully bent over and..
Seressa held her breath.
Brom bit his knuckles.
Cora cocked an eyebrow and eagled down on them..
..And Tonic smacked the prince of the gnomes..
..over the head..
..with her wrench!
“WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!“, she blared. “MY HANDS ARE DIRTY AND YOU WANT TO SNIFF THEM? WHAT KIND OF AN IDIOT ARE YOU?“
With that, she stomped off..
The combined company of gnomes and dwarves burst out in gleeful laughter as the prince picked himself off the ground, very much dazed, obviously in pain and thoroughly embarrassed, he said “I suppose, I had that coming.. But wow, that there is one blazing girl and very hard to get; the best kind there is.. Too bad my times up. I would have loved to have stolen a kiss of ‘farewell to life’ from a girl as beautiful and fiery as her..”
The laughter died and every dwarf and gnome picked up their weapons and shields.
“Dwarves at the center. Sappers cover the flanks.. and careful with the mortars and the gnowitzers.. I want carpet-bombing thirty paces in front of the dwarves at all times. No need to be shy with the ammo.. Artificers, with me.. Boomsticks at the ready..”, he barked his orders.
Prince Gordigon Tinkerdome, son of King Drine and apparent heir to the throne of Silent Hills gave the still scowling Tonic one last, toothy glance, than shrieked like a hawk.
Ri: elvish for a king.
Rise: elvish for a queen.
Riverin: elvish for the prince (usually used for the likely future Ri).
Riserin: elvish for a princess (usually used for the likely future Rise).
Selendenien Sindarin: one of the three children of the current king of the high elves of Bari Na-ammen,Ri Lienierre Moonlight. The eldest of the three is High Lady Angrellen Sunsear, followed by Riverin Grandarelen, and the youngest, Ranger Marshal Selendenien Sindarin (Sunlight).
Malocchio: ‘Evil Eye’, in Italian. In-game terminology, an evil, forbidden, very destructive, and an almost always deadly spell. Anyone caught casting or possessing the spell is instantly executed in the Kingdom. Requires a complicated ritual to cast. The end result can vary depending on how it was cast, the intensity of the intent of the caster, and how badly the caster wants the intended to die. The end results can change from something as simple as a heart attack to causing the heart to physically explode, ripping open the rib cage of the person..