It has been some time, little one. Many a things have I heard since you left. Of big happenings.. Of things moving; beast and man, elf and dwarf.. I hear the voices of the long-lost, waiting to be heard again.. Waiting in anticipation. Yet I hear another voice. Stronger now.. Louder. The one I warned Yours —the former Ritual Guardian.. It calls to us.. And it is not the voice of a mortal.. It is a dark voice.. Dark like untended, besmirching smoke.. I hear, also, whispers among the trees.. and the leaves.. and the winds.. and they say a new Ritual Guardian is among us.. And I sense the tender touch of a little girl in many of these big happenings. There is also a new grove, to the far north and east, where the mad mortal’s temple once was.. My ogres went there only to find.. peace! They lost all their bloodlust and all their hunger for hurt when they wandered it. They said the grove has an owner, little one..”, growled the nearly fourteen-foot tall giant of a woman, an ogress, with a harsh, vicious face, wild hair thickly braided many times, with arms and legs and body untoned and bearing awesome muscles and many scars; Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig stared down, a looming monstrosity, over the little girl with an adorable face, and beautiful, even horns.. and at the cold, silent man in his dark harness, emanating a certain, ‘wintery’ death..
“I have returned, mother Ganiste.”, very nearly whispered the little girl —her voice abashed and barely audible.
“If you will have me..”
One would never expect such frightening agility from Chieftain Grulganiste, and certainly not from a monster of her size..
Aager Fogstep almost dished out everything he had, when she moved.
One moment, she was standing and glowering, the next, she had the little girl, Inshala, in her massive arms and pressed against her impressively large breasts.
“No, my little one.. I will never have you because you never left. And my heart has ached since that unfair day.. This, you must understand.. This, your father tried so hard to learn you..”, she said with tears running down her brutish face.
“This, I understand now, mother Ganiste. I am so, so sorry.. I am not wise, but a foolish little girl..”, Inshala hugged the ogress back with a sob. “And.. I am so, so sorry for having hurt you and blamed you for my father’s demise..”
“Ow, no, my little daughter. You will not get away with one apology. Come.. I have food, and Chihuahua has missed you.”, smiled the giant ogress, leaned down, and carefully put the girl back on the ground.
“That was an awesome speech, by the way.”, said the little girl, somberly.
“It had better be. Been revising and revisiting it for quite some weeks, now..”, growled the massive figure.
She thundered a few great steps and opened the flaps of her tent and bid her, and the cold, dark man in.. the one she’d kept in her peripheral vision at all times and learned what she sought, the moment she’d grabbed for her little Inshala!
‘So. My daughter has found something that cares and savagely.. Yet.. in control.. barely..’, she mused as the two entered her tent, followed them in, and closed the flaps after her.
“Chihuahua!”, shrieked Inshala and grabbed a rather tinny dog with short legs and a pointy little muzzle, as it jumped on her, its butt waggling crazy.
This was followed by a lot of giggles and happy laughter as the tinny dog nuzzled and licked at her hands, her face, and her small feet.
Aager Fogstep stood watching the giant ogress, his Inshala, and the hyped little dog while he stood at one side of the tent flaps, the side that would likely be pushed open first.
Chieftain Grulganiste turned to her pots and pans, and started slicing some potatoes, onions, carrots and dumped them into a large pot, then dropped large chunks of meat, followed by various spices, then hung the pot over the large fire pit, close to the center of the great, hut-like tent.
It took a moment for Aager to realize the ogress was staring at him. Watching her preparing food with fluent, hypnotic motions as he stared at the fire in the pit, he’d drifted off.. He was standing and awake, but his awareness had gone, leaving his body on total auto-motion..
The ogress had also addressed him something and he’d missed that too!
That.. had never happened to Aager.
And the more interesting part was..
..realizing it hadn’t even bothered him.
What else he’d realized was, albeit, and yes, this was an uncivilized, barbaric tent, its interior was..
Aager Fogstep failed to come up with a word.
For he’d never really had it.
And it was the realization of this fact, that had come to him in shrapneled.. hurt?
..he heard Inshala’s small, breathy voice in his mind.
“This is home, my Aager. Not mine. Not yours. But a home. Her home. Mother Ganistes’ home. Here, she cooked. Here, she gave birth. Here, she laughed, and here, she mourned.. Here, she has fire, and here, she has Chihuahua..”
“The boy seems distracted.”, noted Grulganiste.
“I think so too.”, replied Inshala. “It is good that he is, mother Ganiste.”
“Yes. He is always alert. Always watching. Always fighting, and always bleeding. He needs respite.”, replied the little girl softly.
“And found it here, has he? In my tent. The tent of an ogress.. My my.. He must truly need this respite, you speak of.”, smiled the ogress. “Well, bring him back from wherever he’s gone to. I wouldn’t want the sheriff to accuse me for letting his man go hungry nor for inhospitality.”
“You know the sheriff of Serenity Home?”, suddenly asked Aager.
“Yes, boy. And for quite sometime now. Has an itchy hand with his blade when it comes to my ogres, though I can’t say I blame him. Everyone’s got to protect their own and my sons and daughters can get out of hand at times.”, replied Grulganiste, without breaking a smile.
Aager stared at the giant woman with reassessing eyes. This.. ogress was a lot more than what she appeared to be, and that was saying something.
“Come, boy.”, repeated the giant woman as she brought huge, ogre-sized bowls and spoons and settled near the fire pit where the tiny Chihuahua and the little girl, Inshala waited with equal anticipation.
Aager Fogstep stared at the scene.
A giant monstrosity of a woman sitting cross-legged; their host, a girl that could barely reach up to her caft if she were standing on her toes, sitting across her; her guest, and a dog that was ‘small’ even by Inshala’s standards, let alone the great ogre!
It looked so unreal.. And hilarious.. But he kept his mouth shut and settled himself next to the little girl.
The chihuahua have him a warning growl, made sure the man in the dark leathers would behave himself, then promptly dismissed him when Chieftain Grulganiste put a cup the size of a respectable-sized bowl with some potatoes and a large chunk of meat in front of him. The chihuahua started to ‘wolf’ it all down with a mindless fervor!
*chomp* *chomp* *chomp*
Aager took a careful spoon of the food and only after he’d smelled it first.
Funny how that went.
Aager Fogstep, the cold, sinister man. The Winter Knight, a peer to the Winter Court, had a sensitive nose and bad food churned his stomach!
“You are a guest in my home, boy. It is polite to just eat it, you know. It is vegetables, potatoes, and cow!”, rumbled the ogress with an impressive scowl.
Inshala giggled as she ate hers with delight.
“He is a sensitive soul, mother Ganiste. Happily, I cook well and have had much practice.”
“Sensitive, is he?”, snorted the ogress. It seemed at first, she was about to make a pun remark, but for whatever reason, she must have changed her mind. “Sensitive can be good. My daughter is also sensitive. Will you smell her carefully, before you taste her too?”
“What?”, asked Grulganiste seriously. “It’s a valid question. Or perhaps he already has and that is why you are so skinny now!”
“M.. Mother.. Please.. Stop!”, begged Inshala with steam rising from her ears.
*chomp* *chomp* *chomp*
“This is what mothers do, little one. Ask impertinent questions. I am sure your father would have approved.. and snickered.. though not obviously. He was a thoughtful old man, particularly where you were concerned, after all.. Sour though he was.”, said mother Ganiste briskly.
“She smells like something wonderful. I lack words. And the ones I have, fall short.”, Aager said quietly, after wiping the food off his face.
“Does she, now?”, asked Chieftain Grulganiste with an awesome scowl.
“Yes.”, replied Aager simply.
“A.. Aager.. Please.. Stop!”, begged Inshala burning even brighter if that was even possible.
Apparently, it was!
“And she tastes like ‘Life’.”
“Not ‘beautiful’, not ‘delightful’, not ‘passionate’, not even ‘enjoyable’, but ‘life’.. Your choice of word is intriguing, if not impressive. And correct, for life has the potential of encompassing all.. You do not speak the words of a young fool, as fools are often young, much like their base wonts and shallow understandings. You will keep her safe, content, and desired, always, then? Or shall we break spoons, now?”, said the giant woman with a certain, implied menace.
“Your food smells and tastes good, Chieftain Grulganiste. I see no reason to break spoons.”, replied Aager formally.
Grulganiste cocked an eyebrow at the man in dark leathers.
“You wish not to talk about this, then?”, she asked.
“You may, as you would, Chieftain. This is your home and I am a mere guest. My Inshala is where I belong. I desire nothing more from her. But by the Great Heavens, nothing less, either.”, he replied calmly and succinctly.
Grulganiste, though, recognized that ‘calm’.. For it was the calm she felt only after she’d let her bloodlust have its way. Accept, this.. man’s ‘calm’ was before the bloodlust and there seemed no respite from it anywhere in his near future.
And then it hit her.
This man.. ‘danced’.. and perpetually, at the edge of insanity.. always.. He was as a feral wolf; savage, hungry, cunning, and bloody mad!
And her little Inshala was the lamb to that wolf..
‘Ow, my dear, dear girl. What have you done? To whom have given your beautiful heart?’, wondered the chieftain of all the ogres of Oger’s Foot in dread and hopeless fascination.
She stared fiercely at the cold man in dark leathers for a bit more.
“Very well.”, mother Ganiste said finally. “We shall put this issue and the breaking of spoons aside for the anon. Now, we shall take part the merry wisdom of my chihuahua to heart and eat.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Now, then. You came here at quite a critical time. Your enemies gather and in great numbers. The dwarven forges have been smoking non-stop for months, the foolish woodsmen carve spear shafts and great wooden stakes by the thousands, the elves enforce their woods with pits and traps as they fill quivers with arrows by the numbers I shudder to even assume. The humans to the south build walls and dig trenches day and night like their very lives depended on it, and by all accounts, it does!”, briefed the ogre chieftain in a low, rumbling growl that would have made any cave bear with a shred of sense to back off.
Aager Fogstep was, yet again, astounded at the accuracy of this giant woman’s astute perception. He had, and only once before, come to Oger’s Foot, some years ago, when a savage ogre called Cabot had come down from these hills and had started ravaging the lands. Serenity Home ranger masters Davien and Moorat had gone after him, but the ogre had been fast on his feet. He had gathered his followers and had made a run for it.. to the ruins of Themalsar, forcing the ranger masters to retreat. Then young Udoorin’s father, Sheriff Standorin, along with Davien, Moorat,Aager, more than half the guards of the town and no other that Lady Magella herself had come here, to these hills to give a harsh lesson to the ogres to behave themselves. They hadn’t met, nor seen Chieftain Grulganiste then. Looking back, now, Aager woke up to the fact that they really hadn’t seen all that many ogres at all!
‘Damn..’, he silently fumed. ‘We were played.. by ogres!’
Once again, he was harshly reminded that ‘the stupider’ something seemed, the more they ‘fooled’ the human’s ‘higher’ intellect!
Aager had never assumed, in any given time, that he was smarter than those around him. He prepared to stay silent and observe, hence at least give some semblance of ‘smart’. But being conned by one ogress?
That did nudge his self-esteem a notch or two down!
“If you are here to warn us not to join your foes, I have no desire to. Some of my more foolish sons and daughters might.. It is hard to curb the bloodlust when it comes. Particularly when their air stinks of it.. I shall resist ‘the call’, for as best as I can, for as long as I can., and will have nothing to do with this conflict. Should you see me and mine on the field, and waring against you, you may, by all means, slay me and mine, for it shall mean that I have fallen to ‘the call’. I would rather die with some semblance of honor on my own, than to rampage mindlessly for another..”, she rumbled calmly.
“We have not come to warn you, Chieftain Grulganiste.. Nor have we come to threaten you. Certainly not in your home.”, replied Aager carefully.
“Smart of you, not to.”, smiled Grulganiste terribly.
Aager paused for a moment before he spoke again, for whether this would be an official offer by Serenity Home, or a personal favor would be determined by what he would say next. Then he thought about the oncoming slaughter, and his pragmatism kicked in. He didn’t care how something got done, provided it wasn’t downright heinous. He cared that it did get done, and at this point, that was all that mattered.
Hence he looked at the little girl, Inshala..
He wasn’t looking at her like she was a little girl anymore, even if her mind worked and prompted her, at times, to do things that would make her seem like one.
He was looking at not just the ‘person’ he belonged but at the daughter of Lady Alisia and the late Delia Karakash Hooman, the surrogate daughter of the departed Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, the daughter of the chieftain of all the ogres of Oger’s Hill, Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig, the mistress of The Grove, The Ritual Guardian and by defacto, a citizen of Serenity Home and Gull’s Perch, the wont of both Mab, the Winter QueenandTitania, the Summer Queen..
..he was looking at the young woman he loved and cherished by her mere existence.
Just when had that shift in his perspective occurred, Aager Fogstep couldn’t say.
The fact that it had, told him some things..
Carefully, he kept his composure and nodded at the young woman.
“Ritual Guardian..”, he spoke. “If you would.”
Chieftain Grulganiste cocked an eyebrow at him, then at the young woman.
“Respect..”, she said. “Good. For it’s there, only if it’s there.”
“Mother Ganiste.”, Inshala said softly. “We shall not confine you with demands. We come as beggars.”
“Ow?”, said Grulganiste.
“Yours can not stand, while the blood of the innocent spills by the thousands. Your own blood shall boil in wont and willy-nilly, the madness of its lust will drive you to war. We only beg, you choose when and where to release your blood and your lust for it..”, said the young woman, her eyes wide and pleading.
“What are you asking of me, girl?”, demanded Grulganiste.
“Join us, mother. Your daughter, and your forest of whom you have shared her bounties for centuries.. we need you.. Now, more than ever..”
“You are asking me to join with the elves and the dwarves and the humans who have hunted us for the said centuries and in our forest? You have gone mad!”, she roared and the hut-like tent tremored.
“Mother.. Chieftain Grulganiste..”, she said solemnly. “We go to this war with the intent of not coming back because we will not retreat, nor run, or hide.. These are choices, just not ours.. If your choice is to stay here as we bleed and die, then this shall be the last you shall see of your Father’s daughter.”
Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig just sat there, cross-legged and quietly petrified.
“You come here, to my hills and to my home, you eat my food and dare to threaten me? With your demise?”, she thundered with a horrible, torturous voice.
“No, mother Ganiste. I only speak my truth, as I always have.”, replied Inshala, bowing her head.
Grulganiste turned and with burning eyes, she very nearly burned Aager where he sat with her glare.
“Has this one put these foolish thoughts into your head, girl?”, she snarled.
“Mother, please. He spoke so I would go away, far away, when the slaughter began.”, replied the young woman quietly again.
“Then why will you not listen to him?”, snarled the ogress with much fury.
For a moment Inshala paused. Then, slowly she lifted her head, then herself. Step by step, she came at the giant woman and hugged her. One sitting, the other on her toes, and the young woman still looked so very diminished as she clung to the ogress.
“Because the running cannot belong, my beloved mother Ganiste.. You must know, for the first time, I belong.. Will you deny this one wealth, from me?”, she replied Inshala desperately, as she sobbed.
“You belong to this man?”, Grulganiste asked in some surprise.
“I belong to this man, mother Ganiste.”, she whispered again. “He is my hills. My trees. My garden. My day. And my night, mother. He is my land and my forest.. And my home..”, said Inshala in a voice that sounded so lost, yet so happy.
“And what has he promised you? What does he give you in return?”, asked the ogress, somewhat freaked!
“His life, mother. This, he has already given..”
Chieftain Grulganiste pushed Inshala away at arm’s length and just stared at her, then at Aager like a mother was looking at her foolish children whose excuses were worse than their deeds..
“But know, mother, the Orken shall not leave you at peace, should they trample over our corpses. You know this to be true, for you recall what they did when they first came.”, Inshala said softly. “They shall come in number and trample over yours as well.. And take your hills, and your sons and daughters away from you, and push them into service of nothing less than darkness!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig stood up. With tangible wrath visible and plainly etched on her face, she stormed out of the tent, though not too far, for both Aager and Inshala could hear her great strides trample back and forth as if trying desperately to blow some steam, but failing horribly.
“What now?”, asked Aager quietly.
“Now we wait, my Aager Fogstep. We have told her our wont and given her choices. It is up to her now. She must do what she thinks would best serve her and hers because she is the chieftain of her people.”, replied the young woman.
“She must love you much, my Inshala. I saw fear once, and only once in her eyes. And that was when you said you would not go away, but join the slaughter.”, noted Aager in a hushed voice. “I would have a word to say about your decision to stay, love. My inner voice says, send her away, even should it break her heart. There are many Aager’s in the world.. There’s but one of her! Please, my Inshala.. If I have one wish, I would wish you to go.. and live.”
The young woman stared at Aager with a broken expression.
Then, large, shimmering tears swelled in her eyes and slid down her small face.
“You.. wish to break our bond?”, she asked in a voice that could only be called; ‘desperation’.
“I would wish, that you lived.”, replied Aager and bowed his head, unable to look at her.
“And did you live.. before?”
“No. I did not, my heart.”
“And you think I lived? You wish me gone, knowing I shall die some, every day? You hope to preserve me while you die, knowing I shall not? Why? Why would you do this to me? We.. we promised to be stupid together. Does this promise falter at our first trial?”
“No, Inshala. We have had many trials together. You know this to be true.”
“Yes. I do know this to be true. But you fail to reason; distance will keep me safe, and perhaps assure my survival. But it will not keep me alive.. Not really.. If you truly want me gone, however, I shall.”
Aager cursed himself.
He had never wanted her hurt. But he had.. What else he had done, was to have made her choices for her. Did he really have the right to that? Yes, they belonged. But was he, perhaps unwittingly, abusing the ‘trust’ of their bond? And a tad too casually?
Then he figured..
..the monumental arrogance he was displaying without even knowing because he thought he knew things, and life better..
Keeping her away was just as selfish as telling her to stay.
It wasn’t up to him in the first place.
His Inshala had desperately wanted his love, certainly, but she wanted his respect more.
Yes, she looked so little, but she was not all human.
She was little.. and yet she was more..
Aager finally figured out what it was, his shift in perspective was telling him; that he should quit treating her by his stupid, narrow, quite conventional, and mortal standards, but by hers..
“No. To stay, or to go, is a choice you must make. I.. I do not want you to go.. I never wanted it.. I want you to stay, always.. Will you? Please?”, he asked silently.. and desperately..
..and she was in his arms.
“I never left.”, she whispered. “And stay, I shall. We.. we promised, my Aager, we PROMISED..”
The tent’s flaps pushed open and Grulganiste stood there, glaring down at the two.
“You..”, she said. “..truly love this man?”
“I do.”, replied Inshala, still in Aager’s arms.
“You..”, she said, glaring down at the man in dark leathers. “..truly love my daughter?”
“I do.”, replied Aager simply.
“And should something happen to either of you..?”, she asked and there was nothing but a baleful storm in her face.
“The other shall die.”, Inshala quietly.
“Why? Why would you make such a pact? To what purpose would you make this pact, girl?”, she thundered.
“Purpose? None, mother. Only to belong. It is a feeling like no other. It transcends.. This, you must accept, mother Ganiste.”, Inshala replied tenderly.
“Very well, Inshala.. I shall join you and yours in this slaughter.”, she said very, very harshly.
“Thank you—”, began the young woman.
“—In return..”, cut in the vastly angry ogress. “..you will uphold your father’s promise to me.”
Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane stared at Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig with a horrified expression.
“No, mother Ganiste. I beg of you. Do not ask this of me.. Anything but this..”, she pleaded.
“It is not a choice I am giving you, Inshala. It is a debt; Father to Daughter Passed..”, she replied with a frosty expression. “Will you honor it?”
“Will you honor it?”
“Will you not honor your father’s debt? His promise?”
“WILL YOU HONOR IT, INSHALA?”, roared the giant ogress.
“..I will..”, replied Inshala in a small voice.. and Aager held her fast as she burst into uncontrolled, unhinged tears and wept..
She wept with a terrible loss..
Aager held her and stared at the giant ogress.
“What debt have you tasked her to honor, Chieftain?”, he very nearly snarled.
“Her father, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, promised to slay me when my time came, young man.. He failed to do so, for he was slain ere he could.”
“I shall honor this task for her.”, he spat, without even thinking.
“No, boy.. You are not part of the debt, nor the honor. I do not know you and you are neither my respected enemy nor my loved one. This is not something that is covered in whatever pact, bond, or accord you have made with one another.”, she replied harshly.
“Will you not respect the Winter Knight, then? And spare my Inshala —your daughter, the pain?”, he asked, suddenly desperate.
“I respect Mab, and I respect the Winter Mantle. A heavy and dreary burden it is, and will likely drive you mad in the end and get my daughter killed as well.. But I do not know you.. Again, this is not your trial, nor your debt..”, replied and her voice was calm again.
Aager inadvertently staggered.
This ogre not only knew of Mab and of her Winter Knightshe also knew of the Winter Mantle!
“Why? Why would you do this to her? She is your ‘daughter’.. She loves you..”
“Because, the bonded of my daughter, love is beautiful. And it is harsh. It is not a word to be spent with ease. It demands.. always demands.. And is tested upon death.. Hence we ask this only from the enemy we respect.. or from the ones we love..”
Chieftain Grulganiste stared down at the two of them and something shimmered in her eyes, but for a mere moment.
“Now go.. I have many preparations to make. We must all make a pilgrim to The Grove to cleanse our souls.. Then gather.. For humans with false words, I lost my mother, my father, my greats, and many kin.. This time, I shall go to slaughter on my own accord. We shall make these Orken scream in pain, for they shall receive nothing less from us. Do not mourn your debt, my daughter. Perhaps I shall fall in the coming slaughter, for I shall do my best.. and free you of it..”
The undead were relentless. They came at them moaning, howling, and did they come at them shrieking!
And side by side with the dearest man of her life, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, fought, tooth and nail, and did she deny herself of her heritage, for, at that very moment, she was not the princess of the high elves, but the Queen of Death, herself..
And behind them, her cousin, Anglenna Sunsear, rained her own kind of death and destruction and she was immaculate at it, as she had been in everything she did. Deep down, Alor’Nadien ne had always admired her cousin’s cool and somewhat aloof demeanor as she had, when she had been, but a tiny little thing, yearning to go and knock at her aunt’s door in Bari Na-ammen and beg her to give permission so her cousin would play with her.
The irony in that was lost to all but herself.
Alor’Nadien ne had never yearned to actually play with Anglenna, so much as she wanted to observe her..
..and be awesome like her!
The games had been a mere excuse and sort of a bonus..
..and she had had the chance to make someone eat her cakes, her cookies, and her pies, though, looking back, said cakes, cookies, and pies shouldn’t have had raw onions because she’d thought they made her pies crunchy. Her cookies also shouldn’t have had baby powder because she’d thought cookies ought to have that white thingy on them, nor should her cakes have had her mother’s hand cream because she’d strongly believed all cakes just must have whipped cream on them..
Yet, her cousin Anglenna had eaten them anyway, which, in later years, told her several things;
That her cousin had preferred her, quite horrible, hideous, even, cooking skills, coupled with her highly creative ingredients, than to spending time with her own mother..
That she must have enjoyed her little baby cousin’s presence, even against the prodigious, one hundred and fifty years age disparity..
That deep down, she had, in fact, been fond of her and cared for her, looked out for her, and perhaps most important of all, believed in her, even against all of her own mother’s indoctrinations..
That she would make her the queen she, Alor’Nadien ne, had never yearned to be, whether she wanted it or not..
And that she had, at some point, stopped seeing her as merely her cousin, but started viewing her and ‘that young man’ as one, and had started protecting them both..
Alor’Nadien ne was not sure why all these had crossed her mind at that point, but at some subconscious level, she felt that they all meant something.. something more that changes in characters, or choices, or perspectives, but change..
..in a sense that could only be defined as ‘total’.
And that was when she had come face to face with the Draugr, the undead monstrosity her cousin, Anglenna had warned her about. Unwittingly she’d stared at the soulless creature’s voids, where there were supposed to have been eyes and seen..
Alor’Nadien ne blacked out.
But she did not back down.
With the savagery of a High Woods lynx, she slashed and hacked her way through the undead until there was only the Draugr.
She did not hesitate.
With her near three-yard long glaive and the thirty-inch deathly steel, she stabbed it..
..in the heart.
And for a bare moment, she felt the death throes of that heart carried all the way from the deathly blade, down the long shaft of her glaive, and in her hands.
She thought she felt something familiar about that final tremor in that heart..
And then she came around.
Staring in horror at the fallen and bloody form of her Udoorin.
It all went sideways after that and try as she might, Alor’Nadien ne just couldn’t remember anything.
Only that it had been she, who had slain her love.
And in her post-madness insanity, there had been that howling scream of some churning wind, followed by a brilliant flash of light..
..and that’s it.
She was no longer down in the stinking sewers of the once glorious city of Arashkan.
✱ ✱ ✱
Sheriff Standorin stood silently as he stared down at the rickety bed, and the tall, alluring figure lying in it with a horrible expression on his face.
Much like all the other dormitories in the temple, this small room was also comprised of a single bed, a chair, a nightstand with a washing dish, a lockless box for personal effects, and..
The only variation to these had been the addition of extra beds in most of the other rooms since the arrival of the half-born, making the already small dormitories rather cramped, though the new, otherworldly guests never complained. For them, this was Heaven, as opposed to their previous ‘Hellish’ pits..
The tall, alluring girl, Constance, had tiny beads of sweat on her contorted face, her brows frowning, her bright red lips pressed together and though her eyes were open, there was a glossy shimmer about them; pained and somewhat glassy, as tears ran down and disappeared in her long and disheveled black hair.
She was trying, very hard, to put on a ‘happy’ front, but was failing quite miserably.
As much pain as she was in, she still managed to be quiet and dignified about it and the only other sign that would have given her apparent pain away, was her fisted hands, blessedly hiding under the itchy blanket that covered her up to her chest.
She managed to turn her head to make sure they were alone, then unclenched her lips and tried for a smile.
“There.. really isn’t any cause.. for such ruckus, dear Sheriff.. Standorin.. Shieldheart.. And.. I do not believe.. my actions merit.. such a scowl..”, she whispered.
Sheriff’s face became even more horrible.
“What did you do?”, he growled in his deep rumbling voice.
Constance stared at him, her gaze glassy and a bit off.
“We gave an oath.. Sheriff. To sweat.. to bleed.. and to die, to attain.. our Ascension. I have bled.”, she said with a forced smile.
“And now.. I am sweating..”
“I am not very good with levity, Miss Constance.”, scowled Standorin, as he fumed.
“Then I shall refrain.. from it..”, she smiled even more, though she had closed her eyes tightly and her frown bespoke of much pain.
“Sheriff Standorin..”, said a shy, soft, earnest voice from the door. “You should go. Constance needs rest and time to mend.”
Standorin turned to the door to see the small Inshala standing there. He inadvertently scowled at her as well, causing her to flinch, but she refused to back down. Blushing furiously, she held her ground. “Sir. Please. What she is going through is a delicate matter and requires tender care. If you are willing to give her that, you may stay. If you wish is to intorodate her, you really should leave, because she is hurting and is in much pain.”
“Intorodate?”, the sheriff asked a bit baffled.
“My Aager knows what it means. You may ask him later if you wish.”, she replied, blushing even more.
“I only want to know what is going on here. She was fine two days ago when she suddenly disappeared and this evening she was found, lying unconscious and beat, in the dirt, several miles away from the village. If there is a crime done against her, the felons must be found and face the harshest of punishments!”
“No crime was done here, Sheriff, sir.”, Inshala said, quietly. “What has befallen her, is something she has brought upon herself.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”, the sheriff growled.
“I.. I am very sorry, sir. That is the best I can explain.”, she struggled. “I do not have the right to say any more for.. certain other.. people are involved.. Should she wish it, she may share it with you. But her sacrifice is not mine to reveal. Now, she needs to rest and mend.”
“People? What other people? What sacrifice? What the heck is going on here?!”, Sheriff Standorin very nearly blared.
“Sherif Standorin.”, said a young, sharp voice, and Thomas Dimwood appeared behind Inshala. “You will refrain from such demanding attitudes and you will not raise your voice in my temple. And you will respect the privacy and sanctity of my guests and those under my care. Must I remind you that the Temple of Light is not under your jurisdiction? You, on the other hand, are in mine, now, as you are not even a guest, but a visitor. I do not want to have to remove you from my grounds, but if I must, I shall.”
The room’s temperature suddenly plummeted and an ominous silence spread.
“That was a tad uncalled for, young man.”, Standorin growled.
“So is your attitude towards my guests, the Ritual Guardian, Liaison Constance, and your free reign of my temple.”, replied Thomas cooly.
“Old Demos would never have taken that tone with me—”, the sheriff said scowling fiercely.
“You would never have done what you just did, had our Father, Demos were alive, Sheriff. Perhaps you imagine his absence gives you some leeway?”, Thomas said and his tone had taken a frosty edge now.
“Dear, Thomas..”, came the brittle voice of Constance as more tears came down her closed eyes. “..please. Friends should not fight over such technicalities. I and my brothers and sisters are new, here, in this Mortal coil, but we watch and we learn; I am certain the esteemed sheriff means no disrespect to your, your guests, nor your sanction. He.. he is merely worried.. Which is understandable and was my doing.. I shall.. tell him.. what he wants to know, and what he needs to know, also.”
“I agree.”, came Inshala’s small voice as she stared at her own feet. “I really am sorry, sir. I can say some things, I can not say some other things. There are forces in this world and.. other places.. that are beyond understanding and mustn’t be put to words on a whim for they may hear, and bring their retribution upon us. Please, sir. You must accept what I say, and stop there. I apologize for making this harder for you to understand but I am young and silly and I lack words.”
Standorin stared at Constance, then at the little girl, Inshala, then at Thomas, who was staring back at him, not quite as coldly as before, merely as adamant and immovable as him.
“I apologize for my attitude, Temple Guardian. I overstepped my boundaries in my moment of pique.”, the sheriff rumbled, though it was rather obvious, he was quite furious the way the young man had ‘man-handled’ him the way he had.
He then he walked over to the door, dropped on one knee before Inshala and with a much softer voice, he said, “And I apologize to you as well, again, and twice; once to the Ritual Guardian, and once you, dear Inshala. You have been nothing but good to this town and the refugees and probably doing more than I can see and comprehend. It would seem I am out of my debt here and trying to understand things quite beyond me, much like, it would seem, I am doomed to kneel before you and apologize, time and again, every time I turn around.”
Inshala’s face smoldered.
She was so embarrassed, she seemed like she was looking for some tiny hole to hide in.
So she did the only thing she could think of.
She hugged the huge, kneeling, man and hid her face there!
“Please do not kneel like this again, sir. Not to me, not to anyone. Decent and honorable men should bow to no one. Your son, Udoorin, never did, accept that one time when he was trying to learn me what it meant to love. He was always nice and polite to me. My Aager shows respect to everyone but feels only for very few and you are one of those few.”, she spoke from where she hid her face.
Sheriff Standorin blushed.
“Well, I—”, he faltered.
“—Lost?”, offered Thomas with a grin.
“I suppose I did..”, he sighed.
Then he kindly parted with the little girl, got up to his feet, and looked at the two of them.
“I would like to stay here with our Liaison until she gets better and is able to return to her duties. Lady Inshala, I would be grateful if you would go and inform Master Aager, that until such time as I am able to return to my duties, he will take over my duties as the acting sheriff, effective immediately.”, he said.
“Uhhmm.. Your sheriff is telling me somethings to tell you, but I have no idea what he just said, my Aager.”, Inshala whimpered in her head.
“What did he say, love?”, came Aager’s voice.
“He told me to tell you that you are something something acting something sheriff, escaping immediately!”
“Shit!”, Aager cursed vehemently. “As if I didn’t have enough on my plate..”
“AAGER FOGSTEP!”, gasped Inshala.
“I am sorry, love. Not in a very good mood today. I just can’t seem to teach this lot why we go for the jugular instead of the kidney in an ambush. I guess some people just like the drama of watching a violently struggling victim in an abhorrent amount of pain who is likely to manage a scream while he is kicking around in massive spasms as opposed to silently lowering him down with the least struggle while he quietly bleeds out!”
“Ow.. Tigers always go for the jugular! Nature is the best killer!”, Inshala said enthusiastically. “But I think your sheriff just wants to stay with Liaison Constance until she gets better.”
“Ahh.. that sounds.. familiar..”
“Ow, my.. I suppose it does, doesn’t it? Where are you? He told me to GO AND TELL you, so I think I must go to you, mustn’t I? I mean, I can’t just tell him, I just told you!”
“Yes, that would be hard to explain. Might as well come, love, perhaps we could take an early break and go home?”, Aager offered.
“I’d like that.”
“Alright. I guess I will go now, then?”, Inshala said with an exaggerated and guilty sort of tone and left.
Standorin stared after her, shook his head, then turned back to Thomas.
“Liaison Constance is a member of my office.”, he continued. “I must make sure she stays as part of my office, well and healthy, hence I invoke my right to sanction, Temple Guardian Thomas, and I believe anyone who invokes such sanction must be admitted without question or hindrance.”, he said and grinned at Thomas.
The young senior temple guardian frowned.
“I see you have been reading jurisdictional and temple laws, Sheriff. A bit out of your way, isn’t it?”, he mused.
“The esteemed Liaison has made me aware, I have been lacking in that area. Hence I took the time to remedy it. Now, if you will..”, the sheriff said and let it hanging..
“Very well, sheriff. I shall send some food to both of you soon enough.”, Thomas conceded.
“I would like to pay for them.”, Standorin said.
“We do not charge here, sheriff.”, reminded the young temple guardian.
“No, you don’t. But as small an amount as it may be, I am sure it will go somewhere better than where I’d have spent it. Accept it as a tithe, if you will. Unless you want two of your guests under your care to starve.”, Standorin said sternly.
“What is it about you Shieldhearts and your obstinacy, I wonder.”, he said.
“It’s all about the Heart, really. The Shield, we use to bash out the obstinacy from young men! Now, if you will, I have a young Liaison to care for.”
✱ ✱ ✱
She is waking up.”, whispered a petulant voice.
“She is an early riser. But then, she’s been falling asleep where she kneels, crying all day.”, replied another voice, also in a whisper, though this one was soft and sounded like she laughed a lot in her normal merry voice. “It breaks my heart seeing her like this, day after day and it’s been weeks. I’ll admit, her boy is sort of cute, in a puppy-eye way, but the bushy thing he’s got on his face irks me.”
“Ow, yes, Temessa. It totally creeps me out! Did you bring her something to eat? I brought her my best peaches yesterday, she didn’t touch them.”, the petulant voice said.. petulantly.
“It is possible she might not like peaches, Yamara. Some Mortals do not and it even irks them. It has to do with the hair on the peaches, I think. A bit like how the boy’s bushy face irks us.”, explained Temessa in her hushed voice.
“That was not a nice thing to say, Temessa. My peaches are delicious. She didn’t eat your apples, either, if I recall.”, Yamara said in a hurt voice.
“True. But my apples are always dark and red and sweet and juicy. Just like me! Some Mortals prefer the hard and sour kind.”, shrugged Temessa.
“She didn’t touch Cherriot’s cherries, Shyad’s grapes, Kardenymp’s quinces, nor Veraminks’ berries. She is Mortal. She must be hungry by now. She will suffer scary visions and horrible dreams and die if she doesn’t eat soon.”, Yamara said a bit freaked.
“Maybe that’s why she is so skinny?”, Temmessa mused. “I wish Aremela were here. She’d know a way to make her eat and stop crying. She was the only one among us to very nearly understand Mortals.”
“It has been nearly twenty years since she’s been gone, Temessa.”, Yamara reminded her, though she said it with a very slight tremor in her own voice.
“Yes. But she was my friend and we always had the bestest fun when she was with us.”, Temessa signed.
“That’s true.”, Yamara admitted grudgingly. “Even though she snitched me to Mother, once.”
“She didn’t snitch you, Yamara. She told Mother, yes, you were being rude to everyone and, yes, you did charr Cherriot’s cherries because I snitched you to Mother and Mother asked her if this was true!”, Temessa replied simply.
Yamara made an unhappy noise.
“Did you know Mother was thinking of talking to that Blom Bundlebim Hobim so he would write all his adventures? That way, everyone will remember Aremela Berrybush!”, Temessa said suddenly.
“Ow, wow! Will we be in it, too?”, Yamara asked eagerly.
“Probably. I mean, we were there when they met, weren’t we?”
“Yes, we were. We are going to be so famous!”, Yarama beamed.
“Shhh! She is opening her eyes.. She has lovely eyes. Like dew grass after a spring rain.”, Temessa said with an adoring tone.
“Yes. But she also has dark circles around them and her face is swollen. She must eat.”, Yamara observed critically.
“Good morning, Yamara. Good morning Temessa.”, whispered Lorna..
..because that was the only strength she had left in her;
Temessa and Yamara just stared at her.
“Sweet Alor’Nadien ne. We have brought you new apples, peaches, grapes, cherries, and berries this morning. We give these to you freely and Mother knows this.”, Temessa almost pleaded.
“Yes, she does, even though she told us we could bargain for them if we wanted to. Please accept them. We already lost many of our sisters here some time ago to some villainous dwarves and it has made us very sad. We do not wish a pretty Mortal to die, as well.”, Yamara begged.
“I am sorry for your loss, dear Yamara. But it’s alright. Once my beautiful Udoorin is gone, I shall take my leave and die elsewhere. That way, I shall not ruin the sanctity of your beautiful valley.”, Lorna replied hoarsely.
“Please, pretty Alor’Nadien ne. Eat at least one peach or one apple, or even some grapes and cherries and even some berries. Before Mother comes and asks you again.”, Temessa said, this time actually pleading.
“I thank you both and your sisters. You have been nothing but kind and generous to me. My answer to Mother will be the same as it was yesterday, and the day before that, and I shall carry your kindness to my grave.”, Lorna breathed rapidly..
..and vaguely realized this rapid breathing was a new symptom.
Yes. Her time was coming to a close and.. rapidly..
The fact that she had survived as long as she had, was likely to her connection to the Spirit of High Woods. But like her woods, she too was ending.
At least she would get her moment to say farewell to her Udoorin one last time before she crawled out of Gull’s Perch.
And with that thought, she looked down at the strange, quartz-blue, crystal-like coffin she was leaning where she lay, and where she’d woken, day after day, and fallen asleep, night after night..
..where, under layers of the quartz-blue crystal, lay the young man she had slain in her moment of insanity.
She could see his unmoving face, peaceful, yet oddly faceted and fractured in the crystal and the bloody hole that was his heart.
She remembered that moment they had first met.
In her anger, she had charged at the people that had come bursting into the room, down in the dungeons below the ruins of Themalsar, her dark, smoking glaive raised.
Whether it had been a matter of luck, initiative, skill, destiny, or fate, the young man had reached her before she could swing her blade.
He had reached her with both of his great battle-axes already at the end of their radius, and just about to cut into her slender neck.
But in his moment of madness, he had stopped, both blades nicking at her. He had stopped and opted not to slay her. And furiously blushing, he had grinned at her and said;
“Uhhmm.. Hello. I am Udoorin.”
She hadn’t.. In her madness, she had stabbed him, in the back and in the heart..
Inevitably, her eyes teared.
“I am so, sorry, my Udoorin. Today, I shall beg her again; mine life for yours. Perhaps today she will see reason.”, she whispered. “For if she will not, I am afraid you will be staying here for a while, but I shan’t. I feel the claws of death and I am all but spent. I deserve what is upon me. Should you wake, please think not too unkindly of me, for I loved you..”
“With all my heart..”
And that single word broke her all over again.
“Dear child. How long shall this mourning last?”, asked a rich, throaty, mature voice asked.
“Will you not see reason?”
“Oops. Mother is here!”, hissed Yamara. “Better scram!”
“Right..”, agreed, Temessa and the two girls, one dryad, the other a fire nymph, took off in a haste.
“Your offer is beyond me, Mother Summer. And isn’t a choice I may adopt on my own. It involves him, his life, his future, and his line. Should I make that choice for him, never shall he gaze upon my face again. But at least he shall stay here and.. live.. forever..”, Lorna sobbed.
“My dear child, he may stay here, but not forever. One day, he may rise. Mortals have always been thus unpredictable. Have you given any thought as to what he will do, should that happen? His father, his friends, and you, the spark of his life, all gone and past, centuries over. Perhaps you think this a wise course of action and a mercy on his part. I do not. Mortals do not cope well when their loved ones leave. But in time they learn to live with it, for time prepares them for such losses and fills the gaps they leave. However, they never cope when they are suddenly made aware, all their loved ones are dead and gone and centuries ago. I have witnessed this before. And he was not even a Mortal, but a fey. It drow him mad; a once noble of a Court became the vilest of us all. I believe he haunts this world still.”, replied the rich, mature voice.
“Mother Titania. I beg of you.”, Lorna pleaded, her eyes tear-stricken, her voice already near hysteria. “Take mine life and give it to him. Give my beat so he would live..”
“My dear, girl, you did not do this to him. The madness of Draugr-kin is not a fairy tale. It is as infectious as it is corrosive.”
“But it was I who did this to him.. I stabbed him in the back. I destroyed his beautiful heart. I do not deserve to live when he is dying.. Take my beat. Please. Take it, and give it to him..”, Lorna wept.
“I do not take lives on a whim. And never from a Mortal who has done me no wrong. This is something the Queens may not do. This is the Law of Nature. Much like I may not give, without balance. This is who we are, and this is what we are.. A life for a life was my wont. But not yours for his. Mortals always do rush to give what they do not know. But then, how could they? You have never lived it all!”
“M.. Mother, please.. Just take it.. I give it freely..”, the beautiful princess of High Woods begged.
“You will give your life for him, and expect him to accept that, do you? Perhaps you think too little of him, after all.”, mused Titania.
“Give it to him. He does not have to know..”, Lorna cried.
“You wound want a Queen of the Fey to lie? Will that not destroy my own reputation?”, the Queen of Summer asked mildly.
“You will not take my life for his, but you would take the life of my unborn child?”, Alor’Nadien ne wept. “What will he think of me when I have given away his child?”
“Your child shall live long and happy, dear girl. She shall be the Summer Lady. The time nears when Mortals shall require all the help they can get. I am summer, and I may not mingle among Mortals. The Summer Lady can. She will have her Summer Knight to defend and protect her. And she will be much loved and honored among us. Your daughter will help shape the world and aid Mortals free us of the foul demon infestation. I have seen it. And have I also seen, how the lack of the two Ladies has caused the end of one cycle after another. This, you must know, and this you must understand, for this was why your great ancestors, Terandel Solace, Sinderel Tranquil, and Elorellen Feymist abandoned their homes to come this far and settle where they did; to prepare the Mortals for the day they would grow and gather to fight and end the demon infestation. Know this, young Alor’Nadien ne; the demons are coming. Gullem the Damned is preparing to move against the Humans at Heaven’s Hand and the elves at Tranquil even as we speak. And they will bring the numbers to overrun them.”, Titania said calmly, then paused as if considering, and arriving at some monumental realization herself.
“Know also that your arrival here was not by chance. Of all the Mortals that have ever come to my sacred sanction, only two did appear by the whims of fate. One, to cleanse my valley of uncouth Mortals bent on lustful greed and to make it whole again, for which both he and I paid a terrible and costly price. You, dear child, are the other.”,
“He.. If he must know. He must agree..”,Lorna moaned.
“He must not.”, the Queen of Summer said kindly.
“Why? Why shouldn’t he know?”, cried the princess.
“My dear, dear child, as much as he loves you, cherishes you, cares for you, and honors you, he is still Mortal and can not see beyond his years. Not now, not in his lifetime. Humans are not mentally equipped for such impartial decisions, hence they must not be put to task with such a verdict. Know though, shall he be long gone by the time I come to collect my charge. Willy-nilly, this bargain is between you and I, dear child.”
“And should I fail to make a choice?”
“Then he will rise, one day, and mourn, for the first thing he sees, shall be your remains and thus he shall rage, for there shall be nons he has known left; his home and his town and everyone he has thus loved and cared and cherished shall be long gone and beyond his reach and beyond his comprehension, also. He shall come to realize that he is not mere alone but in a world forever gray for him. He shall roam the lands, never to feel love, nor luster, for what he feels, he feels only for you. Thus shall his rage be without equal, and in his unquenching madness, shall he sin and slay, and thus shall he be hunted, slain over, and thrown in a pit where there shan’t even be a stone to mark his grave..”, Titania said with a certain finality.
Lorna’s vision darkened, her heartbeat hammered harder than she could ever remember, her mind swirled, she was breathing harshly now.
“Dear child. I would ask you to take my offer. Should you prolong it any further, I am afraid, there will not be anything of you left that can regain any health. The things you feel now are the accumulation of your self-imposed hunger, fatigue, irregular slumber, and your heart-felt devastation over the course of weeks. It is time, child. Know, though, I do not make such an offer lightly, nor have I ever made this offer to any Mortal in this cycle and not because I have deemed Mortals unfit, but nons have I found a Mortal worthy.”
Alor’Nadie ne never realized a whole day had passed just in that single conversation.
✱ ✱ ✱
What is wrong, love?”, said Berete Hamna Vir, her voice very worried, as she came and sat next to the little boy. “You have been sitting here in the dark all night. I know it is quiet and serene down here, but you should come and play with us.”
The little boy, Dar Derune didn’t move. He just sat where he was and staring off, somewhere, far, far away, and beyond the cavernous crypt.
“Here. I brought you your favorite sam-wish. And I managed to grab two sugar canes for you.”, the girl with the sharp features said in hopes of raising some kind of response from the boy.
“I am not hungry Hamna Vir.”, mumbled the boy and sniffed.
“You.. Have you been crying, love? Yes, you have. I can see the streaks on your face. Why are you crying, my baby mate? Did someone hurt or upset you?”, asked Hamna Vir and a frown appeared on her face.
The boy sniffed again, then, just like that..
..he climbed into her arms and started to cry with heartbreaking sobs.
“Ow, my dear, dear baby. What is wrong? Please tell me. You know you can. And we two have never had any secrets.”, HamnaVir pleaded as her own eyes blurred as she fiercely hugged the little boy.
“She.. she..”, sobbed Dar Derune. “She’s gone!”
“Ow, love. She was gone but she’s back. Constance is back. Yes, she is hurt, but she will be alright.”, soothed Hamna Vir.
“No.. Arezme.. She is gone!”
Hamna Vir froze.
“What do you mean, she’s gone?”, she whispered.
“I have been looking in on her every day to make sure she was alright, ever since she entered the Door.”, sobbed the boy.
“But.. why?”, asked Hamna Vir.
“Because.. because I can see, Hamna Vir. And I saw a spark in her heart that day when we walked out of the Door and gave our oaths, and she went in.. The spark all Mortals have, yet none of us do. The spark of a Mortal’s heart! That is how I knew she was the first amongst us! And this evening, when I looked at her again.. I saw her spark.. bloom! Then the bloom spread and spread and became incandescent. It.. its light was so bright, it almost burned me. And just like that, it was gone. I can not see her anymore, Hamna Vir..”
“I can not see Arezme, I can not see our Merisoul.. There is only light.. Brilliant, burning light.. She’s gone!”
..and Dar Derune broke down in her arms and cried, uncontrollably, like the little boy that he was and spluttered.
“What are we going to tell mirima Temez? They were BFF!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Are you feeling any better?”, Sheriff Standorin asked.
“Will you return to your duties if I said I was?”, replied Constance with a weary smile.
“Master Aager is a trustable man. I am sure he is handling things just fine.”, Standorin said, trying for a smile himself, but not quite getting there.
“It has been days, you have been here, dear sir. What ails me will wear off, given enough time.. Just not in my lifetime, I am afraid.”, the tall, alluring girl said. “Apparently, some things end up being much more costly than we ever anticipate. I feel almost Mortal in my folly.”
“You speak in words, I do not really understand, Liaison Constance.”, Standorin said with a frown. “But I will ask you one thing because I am hoping it will be something I shall comprehend.”
“You wish to know why I asked you out.”, Constance said. It wasn’t a question so much as it was a statement, really.
“Well.. Yes..”, the sheriff admitted with a flush. “I mean, I am quite older than you. Shouldn’t you find someone your own age, perhaps? Someone young and.. handsome?”
Constance closed her eyes, drew one of her slim hands out from under the itchy blanket and placed it on her forehead, and sighed.
“What is it about you Mortals and age? It is merely a number that signifies how many years ago you were conceived and absolutely nothing else. It tells me nothing about who you are, about what you have done in those years, nor about what entails you. Tell me, sir, does that number truly encapsulate you? Does it tell me your accomplishments? Or how decent and caring and how honorable you are? Would it matter if I were to tell you it has been five hundred and thirty-two years since I was conceived?”
“I.. wouldn’t have thought you were a day older than twenty-five, ma’am..”, he mumbled. “Are you really—?”
Constance sighed again.
“Years pass differently where I come from, Stan. Yes, by your Mortal years, I guesstimate I am five hundred and thirty-two. By our standards, I am twenty-eight— which still tells you nothing about me. Not of my sins nor my deeds. Nor why I and my kind chose to abandon the only place we were perpetually abused but would never stand out. And it certainly does not tell you why I chose to date with you, does it?”, she asked wearily.
“No. I suppose it doesn’t.”, Standorin conceded.
“I promise, I will tell you. Only if you would but help me get out of this bed and wash up, as I am, very likely, quite unseemly, and perhaps even help me change. And then maybe you could take me out for lunch, or dinner? I honestly do not know what time of the day it is as these rooms have no windows. I must admit, I am quite famished. Perhaps you would go as far as a dare and we could eat at your place? I have studied Mortal cooking some. Maybe I could try my hands on it. Should you honestly like it, we can eat that. If I fail, I suppose we can go someplace where I can embarrass myself less. We can then sit there and talk or perhaps take another long walk, though, as tired as I am, you might end up carrying me back.. I leave the choices to you. In the end, I shall never take what you are unwilling to part. All I would ever want from you is to know I have someone to lean on, and that someone would make me feel mildly wanted. Should you agree, however, I would like you to expect, and accept, similar trust and care from me.”
Standorin gulped again.
“We.. could eat at my place.. though it hasn’t been touched by a woman for many years. But only if I cook while you rest. I.. can’t invite you and make you cook. That would be just wrong.”, he said, both flustered and abashed.
“I am in your care then, Standorin Shieldheart.”
Sheriff Standorin was a man of his word. As embarrassed as he was, and with a very flustered face, he helped the tall, alluring girl out of the rickety bed and sat her on the simple wooden chair, brought the washing dish over and with strong, calloused hands, he washed her slender hands and arms, her very appealing face, her slim neck, ran his wet hands over and through her long, silky black hair, and went as far as washing her proportionate, narrow feet, all without any sensual implications, but with tender care, and Constance silently watched his face with a demur blush but refrained from even the smallest smile.
The tall, alluring girl was a surprisingly perceptive and considerate creature.
Then, he went over and opened the door, and to the red-headed, bewitching little girl who had been silently sitting there with a naughty smirk on her face and an ear on the door, he said, “Young Demelze.. It isn’t nice to eavesdrop. But since you are here, I would consider it kindness on your part if you would bring the esteemed Liaison a brush, a pair of shoes, and a dress appropriate to her station.”
The smirking girl blushed furiously, jumped on her feet, and took off, while she mumbled to herself;
“Blistering Bloody Imps!”, she cursed. “Busted!”
He turned around to see Constance smiling at him.
“Uhhmm.. Is there something amusing?”, he asked a bit gruffly.
“No, no.. Merely admiring how aware you are of your surrounding even under duress.”, she replied. “Demelze won’t be able to decide whether she should be embarrassed for getting caught or feel happy you remembered her name, even though you met her only once.”
“Occupational hazard, I suppose. And I have been a lawman for quite a number of years. And.. I wouldn’t define.. uhh.. washing you a matter of duress, really.”, he replied uncomfortably.
There was a knock and the sheriff turned around and opened the door again to see the same red-headed, bewitching girl holding a long, elegant dress, a pair of high pumps, a hairbrush, and an odd expression stuck somewhere between a flush, a wicked smile, and a pout as if the girl just couldn’t decide on which one she should settle.
“Thank you. I would be happy if you would also compile a detailed progression report on the Pixie Project and have it ready by tomorrow morning.”, he said as he took the dress, the pumps, and the brush, but left her expression where it was.
Demelze squinted at him and the wicked smile on her face disappeared.
“Homework? Really?”, she said in disgust.
“You are a fully grown woman and require no homework, young lady. But Master Aager will need said report as soon as possible, and you seem like a person given to details. Unless I am totally mistaken, of course.”, Standorin said with a straight face.
Demelze’s squint turned into a distinctly deploring pout. With seething vehemence, she spun around and started marching away, all the while stomping her tiny feet!
Constance gave out a refrained, bubbly laugh.
“You have a unique way to deal with people, sir.”, she said.
“Let’s get one thing straight.”, the sheriff frowned a bit. “I would rather you didn’t ‘sir’ me when we are alone.”
“But we are in a temple, and your official standing puts you in a ‘sirly’ disposition, as silly as that sounds.”, she replied with a smile. “Though I am open to suggestions as to what you would rather I call you on a regular basis, other than Stan.. sir.”
Standorin fumed a bit.
Limnia Karya, his beloved deceased wife, had never played these games with him. She had been a ranger, and a decidedly practical, no-nonsense sort of woman, though, in all candor, she did act like a much younger girl when they had been alone. Then he remembered something Aager had told him about never to compare and once Standorin gave it an even cursory thought, he came to the conclusion that the young man had been right; one, they were not some fruit, vegetable, or furniture, but people, both distinct and both unique, and two, comparing was doing them both much disservice.
Silently he put the brush and the pumps on the bed and came near the young woman and just stood there.
It took a bare moment for the tall, alluring girl to comprehend the pause. With a shy blush, she turned around and..
..let her dress fall.
Standorin stared at the rather slender, curving back of the tall woman, gruffly cleared his throat, then, with decidedly clumsy hands, he helped her put on the new dress, from head to feet.
Then, while he was down there, he reached over to the bed, grabbed the pumps, picked her feet, and put the high-heeled shoes on them, each and one at a time, as Constance watched him, silent and still.
“I would like to touch your hair.”, she whispered down at him. “A girl may not be tortured thus thoroughly and not be given even a crump of surcease.”
Sheriff Standorin didn’t say anything.
He just stood kneeling where he was, as he did the tiny clasps on the pumps and long, slender fingers ran through his hair and a sensation he hadn’t felt for nearly twenty years rippled down his spine.
“Stan.. Stan will do, for now, Constance..”, he whispered back.
✱ ✱ ✱
Something woke Sheriff Standorin from a deep slumber. He felt slightly groggy and looked around to see he had fallen asleep on his couch that was facing the fireplace in his two-room home.
The fire had died down to a smoldering kindle, giving a low, red-orange cast and gave the young, beautiful face sleeping peacefully on his chest a whole, different kind of glow, as Constance breathed quietly at his face, her body limply sprawled across his.
Standorin tried to recall at which point he had fallen asleep but failed. He remembered having cooked something that involved diced beef, fried onion rings, and mashed potatoes, along with some chilled apple cider. Then he and the tall, alluring young woman had taken their plates and drinks and sat on the couch and quietly talked, while they stared at the fire dancing in the grate.
The sheriff had been quite surprised and had felt not a small amount of embarrassment coupled with some guilt when he’d found out how much he’d had to say.
Standorin had never really been the talk and laugh, type.
She, on the other hand, had kept silent most of the time and had only spoken to inquire about things she couldn’t quite understand or relate because she would lack the individual reference points.
At some point, though, she had fallen completely silent and with a certain sense of frustration, the sheriff had noticed, she’d dozed off.
He berated himself on a number of levels at that point, foremost for being a boring man to have made a girl literally fall asleep in the middle of a conversation.
Then he came to the ultimate, logical explanation; Constance had gone out of her way, for the past few days, and quite beyond, to put up a ‘good’ front for his sake, making light of her pain and extreme fatigue until they both had come crashing down on her with compounded interest.
Ahh.. that was when he had taken her into his arms, and sort of leaned back..
..and had fallen asleep, with her pillowing her head on his broad, rumbling chest.
Then he remembered something had woken him.
He wasn’t quite sure what it had been, but he thought it sounded like an animal in pain.
He heard a careful knock on his door just then and very carefully, and with no small amount of unexpected revelation and resignation, he slid the young woman off himself and stretched her on the couch and into a more comfortable pose.
For a man his size, he padded over to the door with surprisingly quiet steps and opened it to see Aager Fogstep standing there and behind him, his little mate, Lady Inshala.
Standorin immediately knew something was wrong for the young man lacked his leather hood and half mask, his face was stricken, contorted, even, and the little girl was holding on to him from behind and sobbing into his back.
“What is it Master Aager?”, he asked in his low, rumbling voice.
“You.. you had better come, sir.”, Aager growled through clenched teeth.
Standorin cocked an eyebrow.
“Where are we going?”, he asked.
Aager paused for a moment before speaking again.
“Is.. is the Liaison here, sir?”, he asked.
“Yes. She is.”, Standorin said with a frown.
“We.. we will need her as well, sir.”, Aager replied with a decidedly determined voice.
“Why? If I might ask. She is still recovering from her.. predicament and is sleeping at the moment. I would rather we didn’t wake her.”, the sheriff said, his frown deepening.
“She is the Liaison, sir.”, Aager grinded his teeth. “And we will need her to do her job, right now, and fast.”
“What is going on, young man?”, Standorin asked, fuming a bit now.
Aager paused again. When he spoke this time, Standorin was astonished, for he heard a certain tremor in his voice.
“The leader of the Escape, Perigren Ostlanna Temez, has gone.. feral, sir. She.. and quite a number of them are breaking and burning everything that gets in their way. Thomas, Morel, and the other temple guardians have managed to get as many of the children out as they can but they are fighting amongst themselves now and against Thomas, Morel, and the temple guardians. Thomas has asked you to bring their Liaison to speak in our steed and perhaps find a way to defuse the situation before it goes any further and make sure the remaining children are not injured or worse.”
Standorin stared at him.
“They gave their word. Their oath. Why would they break their oath and risk everything they have forsworn?”, he fumed angrily.
“They.. they didn’t break their oaths, sir. They merely received some quite distressing news and.. they are hurting.. Apparently, they do not know moderation when they are upset.”
“What news? What could possibly have happened to have riled them enough to risk everything they gave up to come here?”, Standorin asked harshly.
“Perigren Ostlanna Temez just found out she lost her BFF, sir.”, Aager replied quietly and Inshala hugged him even tighter and her sobs grew louder.”
“BFF?”, asked the sheriff, a bit baffled.
“Best Fiend Friend, sir. You see, Perigren’s BFF was no other than Merisoul Xyrotwu, and she and Ranger Lieutenant Laila and Master Gnine had all gone to Silent Hills together. I don’t know how, but they just found out that Meriso.. they found out.. that they..”, he said as he tried to gulp down the lump rising earnestly up his throat. “That Merisoul is gone!”
“I.. see..”, said Standorin silently. “I.. did not know her very well. But she was the nicest felon I apprehended in my entire life.”
“She was my friend..”, came Inshala’s sobbing voice. “She was always nice and always alone. She saved me. She helped and saved everyone!”
It was apparent, nothing else intelligible was going to come from her anymore and not any time soon.
Aager turned around and hugged her tightly and held his scourging stance for as long as he could as a low, infuriated scream escaped him.
“WHAT DID YOU DO AGAIN, YOU STUPID, STUPID GIRL! I DIDN’T SEND YOU WITH GNINE AND LAILA TO KEEP THEM SAFE. I SENT THEM WITH YOU TO KEEP YOU SAFE!”
..with rage unseen in Serenity Home,
..he howled at the night sky
..and winter spread in jagged, sharp, spiking icicles
Two figures stumbled into view two days later from the east and up the banks of Arashkan River, both leaning on the other and both with severe, grim, lived, suffered, and ‘paid in full and done’, expressions on their faces.
Liaison Constance Alure Smithen standing next to Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart..
..and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane standing next to Aager Fogstep were waiting for them.
Right behind them, another pair stood, Anglenna Brightleaf and Armethelius Riverblade..
..and another; Bremorel Songsteel and Thomas Dimwood.
AND JUST BEHIND THOSE, FIFTEEN THOUSAND HIGH ELVES STOOD IN RIGID, SILENT, SOLEMN MILITARY FORMATION, AND BURNING WITH RIGHTEOUS EXALTATION, AS THEY WAITED FOR THEIR KING AND THEIR QUEEN.
And Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist came with Udoorin Shieldheart..
With the unexpected help of the half-born, Anglenna finally finds the possible whereabouts of the missing Udoorin Shieldheart and Princess Alor’Nadien ne;
The Gull’s Perch…
..the home of the Summer Fey and Queen Titania, herself!
This, however, presents issues on its own, as Mortals, in general, are banned from the Perch, and half-borns, being part demon, in particular, are never allowed to even come near the sacred valley of the Summer Queen..
A depressed and depleted procession oozed down the dim halls of Serenity Home Temple as Perigren Ostlanna Temez lead her brothers and sisters down the long, spiraling stairs and into the dim cavernous crypt.
With a grim expression on his face, Hal Mali followed her as he dragged a pale and drained-looking Cee Lingerith Demelze by the hand.
And right behind them, Hamna Vir slouched with a stubborn expression on her sharp face, as she fiercely hugged the little, slumbering Dar Derune in her arms.
“I could walk.”, came Dar Derune’s slurred voice as his head bobbed back and forth.
“I know you can, love.”, Hamna Vir said kindly, but the fire in her eyes told otherwise. She was a savage, bitter half-born to begin with, and the fact that no other than Titania, the Summer Queen, had backhanded her little Dar Derune just a few moments ago and from as far away as Gull’s Perch, had been like a slap on their collective faces. Sort of like a wake-up call, that there were things much, much more powerful than they were in this Mortal world after all, and that fact, so casually displayed, had hit them all quite hard, quite literally. And that it had been their little Dar Derune on the receiving end had made Hamna Vir, in particular, quite vexed which was putting it rather lightly, for at that very moment, the girl with the sharp features had nothing but murder in her eyes and that it had been the Summer Queen, a being way out of their league for any kind of retribution or retaliation had merely added to the insult.
“You are pulling too hard..”, whimpered a glazed Demelze.
“Ow. I am sorry, Demelze. My bad.”, said Hal Mali and with a swift scoop, he grabbed her, spun her up with a flip, and landed her in his powerful arms. “How’s that?”
“You are just taking advantage of my moment of weakness Hal Mali.. and I am liking it!”, she said, her words garbled and stumbled over each other as she smiled at him with a sloshed and woozy face.
“Aren’t you a darling?”, HalMali smiled back.
“I am, aren’t I?”, Demelze swooned.
“Too bad you are not going to remember any of this when you come around.”, he fumed to himself.
“Why don’t you just ask her out Hal?”, Temez asked from ahead.
“Hal? Why do you call me Hal, Perigren Ostlanna Temez?”, asked Hal Mali, a bit confused and hurt. “Have I ever upset or disappointed you in any way that I am not aware of and warrant such admonishment?”
“Never, love. But I have noted the Mortals refer to one other by shortening each other’s names. Thought perhaps we could also try it so we do not stand out when we finally come out in the open.”, she replied.
Hal Mali mused over that, as he unwittingly hugged the befuddled Demelze closer to his chest.
“Let’s see if I have understood this correctly; they not only butcher one another, they also butcher each other’s names?”
“Yes. But do not ask me why, dear. Apparently, either they do not give much importance to names, or they do not believe names have power, or they are merely ignorant. I have been studying them, but I have yet to uncover the exact reasoning behind them. Take Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel for example. Rarely have I heard anyone call her by that name. They summon her by saying only Bremorel. Young Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood, on the other hand, calls her fondly as Morel. I have witnessed on one occasion where someone referred to her as just ‘Bree’. She, herself, never calls her mate by his full name either, and summons him as Thomas.”, Temez tried to explain.
“That is heresy, that is.”, Hal Mali said with an ugly face. Then thought for a moment. “Or maybe not. You, my brothers, and my sisters rarely call me Hal Mali Volent Pierce. Much like we rarely call Demelze or Hamna Vir by their full name, either, and it has nothing to do with the power the name has as a whole, but everything to do with practical efficiency.”
“I think you just answered a rather vexing dilemma, dear. You are indeed as practical as you are efficient.”, smiled Temez wanly.
“If any of you calls me Vir, I will haunt you in your dreams until you wet yourselves!”, hissed Hamna Vir.
“We shall pick up this practice but only those of us who want to, and if they are comfortable with the idea. Henceforth, you may call me only Temez.”
“Well. I would rather everyone called me Hal Mali. But I will try my best not to retaliate should any of you calls me Hal. Is that acceptable?”, Hal Mali said dubiously.
“Perfectly, dear.”, Temez smiled again. “Which brings us back to my previous question; Why don’t you ask her out? It’s quite obvious you like Demelze. Actually, pretty much all of us have noticed your rather transparent interest in her. She’d make a troublesome but fiery mate. You would never get bored of life..”
Hal Mali signed.
“Am I truly that obvious?”
“When it comes to Demelze, yes, dear.”, smiled Temez.
“Yup!”, said Hamna Vir.
“Yea..”, slurred Demezle vaguely but it wasn’t clear as to what she was agreeing for her eyes were closed and her slender, diminutive figure danced limply at each step Hal Mali took down the long flight of stairs.
Hal Mali sighed again.
“No point.”, he said a bit depressed. “Demelze despises me.”
“No she doesn’t.”, objected Temez.
“Yes, she does.”, Hamna Vir inserted from the back.
“Hamna Vir!”, said Temez reprovingly.
“What? She does despise him and you know it!”, she snapped irritably.
Temez sighed this time.
“Girl, you are never going to understand the hearts of Mortals nor men if you just say everything that comes to your mind.”
“I have no interest in Mortals and the only heart that matters to me is sleeping over my shoulder. And I don’t say everything that comes to my mind. If I did, I would have said, Demelze makes fun of Hal Mali whenever he’s not around!”, Hamna Vir said waspishly.
Hal Mali’s face deflated and became mournful as he drew Demelze even closer to himself.
“Hamna Vir, dear.”, Temez said.
“Do shut up—”
“—just about, NOW?“
Hamna Vir scowled and gave Temez her best searing gaze.
“It’s alright, Perigren… uhhmm.. Temez.. Really. I wasn’t aware she went as far as punning me but I had my suspicions. Guess we don’t all get what we want and that’s the same whether we are in Hell or in the Mortal coil.”, Hal Mali mourned. “I will just have to be happy with the short few moments while she is nice to me like this and in my arms.”
“Don’t be sad, Hal.”, Temez tried to comfort him. “I learned a saying among Mortals that people change. I am not certain if that includes us, but my guestimation is that it does because we all did change. We were in Hell just last month, learning how to sow dissension among Mortals. Now we are among said Mortals and are actually helping them. Had you said then, I would never have believed Demelze would have done what she did for a Mortal’s son, but here we are, and here she paid her trial in pain.. a lot of it.. Give her the chance to change, Hal. I think she deserves that much.”
“Yea, Hal. What she said!”, inserted Hamna Vir with a scowl.
The long, spiraling stairs ended and the little group came to a large, steel-lined, heavy-looking double door.
Temez pulled at one of the rings on the door and opened it, revealing a deep, cavernous chamber lined with five hundred years of deceased temple guardians lying in their enclosed, unadorned sarcophagi. Silently, they walked up to the far end and stood before the one that had ‘Demos Lightshand’ chipped on a plaque and fit into its side.
Then they all knelt, Hal Mali still holding Demelze in his arms and Hamna Vir hugging Dar Derune in hers, closed their eyes, and prayed.
“Darling Demos.”, Temez whispered. “Again, we have come to thank you, for it was your kind heart that made Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood to also be kind and to accept us at our direst moment of need. Here, he has given us food and shelter, and here, he protects us from unwanted eyes and the ire of sinful men. We have come, today, in hopes of finding wisdom in your presence for we are hurting and we do not know what to do..”
“She means, we are screwed!”, mumbled Hamna Vir from behind, causing Hal Mali to snort.
There was a dormant silence while Temez signed in frustration.
Her BFF —Best Fiend Friend, Merisoul Xyrotwo had given the responsibility of their brothers and sisters to her, but hadn’t told her how it was supposed to be done. True, all of them had had extensive training pertaining to Mortals and their ways but said training had gone as far as the Erinyes, Autie Irine had understood them, which was at best, at a most basic level and ‘targeted’ in its sensual in nature. The ‘real world’, as ironic as that sounded, had turned out to be much, much more complicated than any of them had anticipated. They had been here merely a month or so and under the protection and sanction of a temple guardian and Temez sorely wondered what would happen when the said sanction would end, and she had no doubt that in the end, it would because eventually, everyone would have to go their separate ways. The fact that the young Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood had accepted them in the first place had been a grand gesture of just how much he trusted her BFF, even though he barely knew her and she’d once tried to ‘eat’ him and consequently gotten struck by the temple’s protection and branded because the young man had been sorely in love!
Temez gritted her teeth.
She would hold on!
And hold all her brothers and sisters together and in one piece, safe and sound, just until her Arezme Ara Serraphym, or Merisoul Xyrtwo as Mortals knew her, returned. Then she’d be free to go and find her own young man. The one she had ‘eaten’ many years ago and subsequently had gotten herself burned.
It had come as a colossal surprise to her when she’d found out the ‘boy’ had lived, though damaged.
The ‘eaten’ never survived!
Temez did not understand why that had happened. As far as she knew, it shouldn’t have happened like that at all; the boy to have survived, and her getting burned like that..
Had the boy fallen in love with her, and not just smitten by her rather ravishing countenance and blatantly wanting figure, but truly fallen in love with her in the space of a few, short, heartbeats?
Was that even possible?
As incomprehensible as that sounded to her, apparently, such a senseless infatuation had been, in fact, quite possible.
“Come on, doll.”, she fumed and pleaded with her eyes closed. “Please come back and fast. Your brothers and sisters direly need you..”
✱ ✱ ✱
This is rather impressive, Liaison Constance. I don’t remember the last time this office looked so tidy.”, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart said, though just a tad grudgingly.
Constance tried very hard not to, but failed.. and beamed at him.
“Would you like to see how the new filing system works? Perhaps a demonstration is in order.”, she offered.
“Very well. Master Aager, do get me the drunkard fight involving Franderson vs. Kor’gral, our orc blacksmith apprentice if you will.”, he said.
Aager checked on the relatively short alphabetic list in his hand, got a reference number, cross-referenced it with a second list and got a second reference number from that, then went over to one of the newly crafted ‘drawer shelves’, the one with the second number, pulled it open and ran a quick glance and tugged out a specific scroll and gave it to the sheriff, with a mild grin.
The sheriff cocked an eyebrow at him.
“Alright. Unknown Strangers vs. Udoorin case, then, if you will!”, he said.
Aager repeated the same process but went to a different drawer shelf and pulled out a rather thick roll of many scrolls and brought them over to him.
Standorin gave him a suspicious look.
Constance beamed some more.
“Master Nibletyne Tinkerdome vs. Moorat Maelstrom!”
Aager gave it to him.
“Franderson vs. Demons Lightshand!”
Aager grinned and brought that one over too, in under fifteen seconds.
“Morel and Liala vs. Udoorin, Dervel and Lucious!”
Aager didn’t even bother with the lists nor the drawers for that one. He just pulled it out of his pocket!
“What the..?”, the sheriff said scowling at him.
“Thought you’d ask for that. Had it ready at hand, sir.”, Aager grinned.
“Very well.”, Standorin said, fuming at him. “I will admit this filing system of yours seems to work..”
“..as opposed to looking for a specific case file for more than half an hour at times.. Sir, you really ought to give the Liaison a bit more credit.”, Aager said, meaningfully.
Standorin gave him one of his best scowls, cleared his throat, then turned to the tall, elegant half-born in her long, not quite conservative, but decidedly refrained dress, and said, “Thank you very much for your filing system, Liaison Constance. I… we.. could talk it over lunch, perhaps? I am sure the mayor could also make use of a similar system installed in his offices..”
“But of course, sir. I will have to see their needs and how they segment their files first though.”, Constance said, smiling happily. “In fact, I would like to go see the mayor on this matter at once, If you wouldn’t mind. I shall also drop by the temple to see how things are going with the project you ordered and report its progress to you.”
“Thank you, Liaison Constance. I shall await your findings eagerly.”, Standorin replied with a flushed face.
After the tall half-born girl took her leave, Aager turned to the sheriff and looked at him with amusement etched all over his face.
“I shall await your findings eagerly?— Really, sir? That one was a tad overdone, don’t you think?”
“I am out of practice, young man. I haven’t dated anyone since.. well.. for a good dozen years and more. Not to mention, Limnia and I never did this dating thing. We just took long, eager walks in the woods, went on patrols together, and counter-ambushed bandits! And we both enjoyed it.”
“I went after many fools, myself, with my Inshala, sir. We even fought against a treacherous paladin lord together and I saw the exhilaration in her face. But at the end of the day, it is when we are going home, arm in arm, that I see her skip and hop and glow because with me and home is the only place that she can truly be herself, and with her and home is the only place that I can truly be myself. Don’t get me wrong, sir. Whatever makes people happy. But intimacy beats them all.”
“After this war. And should we win, I am dead set on firing you, young man..”
Aager cocked an eyebrow at him.
“..just so you could become a poet!”, snorted the sheriff.
“Never happen, sir. Ow and, a ‘business lunch’ doesn’t count as a ‘date’, just so you know..”, Aager said with another grin.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?”, the sheriff growled.
“I do, and I am off. Noon-trainees!”
✱ ✱ ✱
This is the problem we have been having, Lady Inshala ‘le Fey’ Frostmain Bolgrig Hoo—”, Temez was saying, deep down in the crypts under the Serenity Home Temple.
“Please, dear Temez. Just Inshala will do, even though it despairs me as well when Mortals do cut names and words the way they do. When we are alone, please call me Inshala.”, the pretty little half-fey said with a smile.
Temez had taken a liking to Inshala quite immediately when they had first met several days ago and when she, Inshala, and Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel had played a cunning game of catch against Lady Lilly Venom, her ‘hubby’, Largo Summersong, and his son, D.D. Dexter Summersong, who was, somehow not Lady Lilly Venom’s son, which only made sense because he was older than she was! Just that information had made Temez feel concussed all by itself and learned her just how much she and her kin were out of their debt when it came to their pitiful knowledge of the Mortal coil.
“Alright..”, said Temez, trying very hard to suppress a shudder. This name cutting was something they really needed to get over, but their inner, demonic core just refused to accept such blatant use of names.. After all, misuse of names could and often did cause very volatile results.. But at least this girl, Inshala, seemed to understand their plight. Perhaps it was due to the fact that she, too, was a half-something.. a fey..
“..Inshala,”, she continued. “We were able to enchant grinded sand, kibbled light wood, certain cosmetic powders, and even flour with fire, thanks to Demelze, here, to light up under specific conditions, such as coming in contact with magic auras. Magically attained invisibility, to be exact. Our dilemma is, the powders, the sands, and the flour works but for an extremely short duration, as the material immediately settles, and hence, becomes part of the said invisible creature, or area. If we use what we have at the moment during battle, or to sprinkle it in an area where we suspect and Orken army is hidden under the veil of whatever device they are employing, it will hardly be visible during daylight, and barely be discernable during night hours. We need something, a plant or herb that we can grind that can stay afloat long enough to be practical and at the lightest magical ‘fragrance’, so to speak.”
Inshala frowned a bit as she tried to digest the issue at hand, and at a certain level, she felt relieved, for when Aager had told her she was being ‘officially’ invited here to meet with the half-born, she had dreaded that she, herself, might be put to task on some social-thingy, which she knew she was sorely lacking. This, however, was something that had to do with knowledge, something that she was good at, as opposed to something she constantly banged her head against her mental walls to comprehend.
As dire as the problem was, Inshala grinned!
And all the half-born, some one hundred plus of them silently watched her, all so very curious about this ‘very pretty’, ‘also a half-something like us’, and quite famous, Ritual Guardian-girl, as though expecting some sort of miracle to appear at the wave of her slender hands.
At that very moment, Inshala remembered something her Aager had said, though she had vaguely understood.
“The answer to that is quite elementary in its simplicity.”, she said with a well-hidden smile.
Well, perhaps it wasn’t so well-hidden, as she was grinning when she said it. Aager hadn’t grinned at all.
Her Aager was awesome like that, she thought!
A murmur of awe spread amongst the half-born as Hal Mali grinned as well and with open admiration, while Demelze ‘oooow’ed, and Hamna Vir ogled at her.
“She.. she said that so smoothly!”, she exclaimed in a hushed voice.
“Awesome.”, someone whispered.
“Awesome.”, someone else repeated in agreement..
..and the word, ‘awesome’ rippled in low, hushed, and awe-struck whispers among the half-born!
“Tell us!”, Temez asked eagerly, her own face flushed with excitement.
“Here.”, the little half-fey said and produced a tiny little pouch from one of her many tiny pockets hidden in her dress robes.
Temez carefully took the pouch, undid the knots, and looked into it to see some very fine, dark-red powder.
“What is this wonderful thing?”, she asked.
“Kumse Beetle shells, grinded down into a fine powder. I use it to season the food I cook and it tastes delicious!”, Inshala replied happily.
“Hal..”, she said. “..do your thing, please, dear. And Demelze, love. See if you can enchant this powder the way you have been practicing.”
“Sure.”, Hal Mali said..
..and suddenly vanished!
“That is awesome!”, Inshala said looking at where the young, pretty half-born man had just been.
Demelze took the pouch from Temez and carefully dumped its content into a small iron pot scorched with burnt marks, sat on the floor, closed her eyes and her pretty face frowned in concentration. Soon enough, the dark-red powder began to smoke.
“Careful, love.”, whispered Temez. “You are going to burn it.”
Demelze frowned more and the smoke dissipated.
And then, with a sharp flash of light, the iron pot poofed and Demelze opened her eyes, beads of sweat running down her face.
“Done.”, she said with a sniff and wiped her brows.
Temez reached down and took a pinch of the ‘enchanted’ dark-red powder and looked around.
“I am here, Temez. Standing just a foot in front of you.”, came Hal Mali’s voice.
Temez flung the powder in his direction!
The powder clung onto something barely discernable as someone’s arm, as it glowed, once, twice, then died.
A low murmur of consternation and despair rippled amongst the half-born.
“It worked.”, Inshala said confidently.
“How?”, Temez asked.
“The powder is still there and is still visible if you look closely.”
Temez, Demelze, and quite a number of others leaned over and stared at where they presumed HalMali was.
“She’s right.” Hal Mali’s voice was heard. “The powder is still there and try as I might, I can’t incorporate it with my shadow-aura! This is fascinating!”
“Indeed.”, mused Temez. “But.. it won’t be of any practical use if it isn’t visible from a far-off distance. Perhaps you can pour more power into the powder, Demelze?”
“I can. But it still won’t work. Either the powder will charr, or it will blink a few more times and that’s it. Unless we find a way to preserve the magic I infuse into the powder, we are, again, at a standstill.”, Demelze said somberly, an expression quite unexpected and unprecedented on her otherwise mischievous, naughty, and smirking face.
They all fell silent and mulled over that, and the cavernous crypt was suddenly very still. It was quite a disconcerting sight, really.
“Whimsi Lola!”, Inshala exclaimed suddenly!
The half-born all turned to look at her.
Inshala blushed a bit when she promptly became the focus of attention of so many ‘people’.
“I have never heard of a plant or herb by that name.”, said Temez dubiously. “Has anyone heard of this herb?”, she called to the crowd at large.
The half-born shook their heads and any number of ‘No’s and ‘Nopes’ echoed in the crypt.
“No, no.”, said Inshala hastily. “Whimsi Lola is not a plant or an herb. She is a sprite! A fey! She uses her own pixie dust from her wings to enhance her spells! That’s what we need.”
Temez looked at her curiously.
“And where may we find this Whimsi Lola sprite-fey and what would she want for her pixie dust?”
“Hmm.. That may be a problem. She is not here. But many of her friends are.. However, the fey folk, and the little ones, in particular, will not come here; too many Mortals and too much iron here, nor will they go anywhere near.. uhhmm..”, Inshala said, then faltered in embarrassment.
“Demons?”, Temez offered.
“Uhhmm.. Yes.. I am sorry.”, Inshala apologized immediately.
“Why are you apologizing, Inshala? You didn’t make us. You had no hand in our foul existence whatsoever. Never apologize for the things you didn’t do. Never.”, Temez said sternly.
“I.. was trying to be polite..”, the fey-girl faltered some more.
“This is not something to be polite about, my dear. We are what we are. We are sorry for having been made. But we are not, however, sorry for existing and we shall never apologize to anyone for that, and neither should you. We are our own now, just like you are your own..”, Temez said with harsh defiance. “Now. About this pixie dust thing. How and where may we get some?”, she asked, all business-like!
Inshala was a bit surprised at how strong-willed the Temez girl was and how she was not sorry for what she was, even if she hated being what she was.
And she felt a certain shame, there. Unlike Temez, she had loathed herself very nearly all her life for what she was or what she thought she was and had always believed her existence had been one, colossal mistake. Looking at these half-borns who had braved out of literal Hell, she promised herself to be braver and certainly to never feel guilty for being..
..which had been what her old Father, Cathber, and later, her Aager had been telling her all along.
“Well..”, she thought. “..Apparently I am just a stupid little girl.”
“Umm.. perhaps we could go near the forest just up north and I could call a few of the small fey-folk and bargain for some of their pixie dust?”, she said hopefully. “Then we can mix this powder with the pixie dust and gorgeous Demelze, here, can enchant it and we can test it on Hal Mali, maybe?”
“Ow.. She said I am gorgeous!”, whispered Demelze happily.
“Your offer is sound, Inshala, but not practically possible. We may not leave this temple. Not yet. I have left it a few times but carefully and only to observe the area just around the temple, and that one time when we played catch. Only Constance leaves and that is because she is our designated Liaison with the Mortals. This.. ‘test’.. however, is not her area of expertise. Is there any way you may be able to bring this dust to us?”
“I am afraid not. Pixie dust loses its potential soon after the sprite or the pixie removes it from his or her wings. Otherwise, the forest would be sparkling everywhere they went and all the time.”
“Perhaps there is a way.”, offered Hal Mali quietly as he stepped out of his ‘shadow-aura’ and became visible again.
“Do tell, dear.”, Temez asked him
“I can go out unseen.”
“Yes, dear. But you alone will not be enough. Demelze needs to go with you and Inshala.”
“I.. she can come with me.. I can hide her as well.”, he mumbled.
“I am not going anywhere with you, Hal!“, sneered Demelze. “And you can not hide me and we both know it!”
“I can.”, Hal Mali said quietly. “If I carry you in my arms..”
Demelze just stared at him for a moment.
“Incoming..”, murmured Hamna Vir.
And Demelze burst out laughing.
“Hah. Hah. Hah. Hah. Hah. Hah. Haaa!”
“That’s a very convincing laugh, that is..”, Hamna Vir barbed. “Can you get any more vapid, Demelze?”
“Shut up, Hamna Vir!”, spat the fiery little succubi half-born.
“What did I ever do to you, that you would hate me so much, Demelze?”, Hal Mali asked with a hurt voice.
“I saw the way you look at me, Hal! Even when we were in Hell!”, Demelze scorned at him.
“Yes. Because I find you attractive. Hence the looks.”, the handsome half-born admitted plainly. “How would you rather I look at you?”
“Never?”, scoffed the girl.
“Demelze!”, Temez very nearly snapped. “You will refrain from such attitude at once! We are all we have, here. There’s no one else to look after us but us.”
“You will go with Hal and with Inshala and do this. For us and for yourself. Hal has looked after many of us and took a beating and burning for you at the hands of Autie Irine at least once that I know of. You may not like him, but you will show him the respect he deserves!”, Temez cracked like a whip.
“When? Why?”, she asked.
Hal Mali did not reply for a good while.
“I would really rather you hadn’t told this, Temez.”
“Good done, unknown, must become known sometimes, dear. And we are running out of time. Even if this works, we must find a practical way to make it so Mortals may use them, and we must make many, many of them.”, Temez said, but not unkindly.
“Why? When?”, asked Demelze, her voice somewhat subdued.
“When.. you.. when you failed to turn in your Mortal Studies paper in our first year, I switched mine as yours and deliberately got caught with another paper of my own to avoid suspicions. And that other time when I found out Auntie Irine was going to punish you when she found out you had punned her behind her back and I deliberately tripped and fell and knocked her down. She was so angry with me that she forgot all about you..”
“What? Why? You think I couldn’t have taken a beating from that bitch?”, sneered Demelze.
“She had her fire barb whip with her..”, replied the young Hal Mali quietly..
..and an ‘owww’, chorused among the half-born.
“Fire barb whip hurts a lot because its burn is not only physical but psychic as well, and it leaves permanent marks. I.. didn’t want you to carry such ugly marks on you..”
Hamna Vir approached him and quietly hugged him.
“I will thank you for what you did for her, Hal Mali, even if Demelze is a bitch and too vain to thank you.”
“Demelze is only scared.”, said a small, vague voice, and everyone turned to see Dar Derune sitting a short distance away, playing with some plain wooden blocks, next to a sarcophagus. “What she feels, she feels much more intensely than any of us. That is how beautiful her heart is..”
Hamna Vir parted Hal Mali and came up to him and with blurry eyes, she scooped up the boy and hugged him fiercely.
“Demelze?”, Temez asked, looking at the burning girl.
“I will do this. For Mali..”, she said with a stricken face.
✱ ✱ ✱
You found them?”, Constance gasped. “Why didn’t you tell me, dear?”
“We found about it just today, love.”, Temez replied and there was a tired quality about her.
“What’s the matter, Temez?”, the tall, alluring half-born asked.
“We.. me and Hamna Vir shared what Demelze went through when she cleansed the Anglenna Sunsear elf. It wasn’t fun. Gave me a very unique insight into what our brothers and sisters must go through, each with their unique abilities. I burn. But that is something I did to myself. She.. she burns so much hotter whenever she feels something —anything. Suffice to say, I can remember only one other occasion that hurt this much and that was when my old Master burned me when Merisoul and I first came up with the plan to get away from Hell.”
“I am sorry to hear that, dear. Where is the boy, then? Where is the esteemed sheriff’s son?”, Constance asked.
“East of here, some two or three days travel, there is a place called Gull’s Perch. They are there, though we could not figure out why they landed there and not in this town as the Anglenna Sunsear elf did.. I asked a bit about it to the Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel, and my findings are quite dire.”
“Gull’s Perch. Why do I know that name?”, mused Constance.
“You should. It is one of the places that we were warned never to go near, during our Mortal geography studies. And you can see it from here on a clear day, easy.”
“Titania!”, Constance gasped in horror!
“Hush, dear. Not so loud. We don’t want her to hear us, now do we?”, Temez warned.
“But how? How do you know they are there?”, the tall half-born girl asked slightly panicked.
“Dar Derune. He looked into the elf girl and sifted through her memories and saw our query. Then he did his thing and found them at the Perch. The Mistress of the Perch did not appreciate his intrusion and backhanded him, our Dar Derune, all the way from the Perch!”
Constance just stared at her.
“Is he alright?”
“He will be. Hanna Vir has been hovering over him like a Mortal hen mother!”
“Dear Hamna Vir..”
“Yes, yes she is.”
“Should I go and tell the esteemed sheriff about this?”, Constance asked.
“No. Mortals are not allowed in there, dear. Telling him where his son and the princess will only rile him and he will go there with iron and that will only win him the ire of the Summer Queen. And should he go there to bargain, he will be left out of his debt. He is a good and decent man but woefully unequipped for such a meeting. We must find something to bargain in his stead. Something She would want and only we may provide.”
“I may have something she may want.”, Constance said quietly.
“No, dear. Whatever She may want, we must all give. It must be a collective effort, not individual, for such singular bargains can only end in misery.”, Temez said with a tone that had a certain finality to it.
And that marked the first time a half-born chose to disagree at an individual level.
Constance Alure Smithen nodded..
And changed topic!
“Did the Winter Knight’s mate, Lady Inshala arrive?”
“Yes, she did. And she is a lot more smarted and wiser than she lets on. I suspected a cunning mind in her when she, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel, and I were playing catch against Lady Lilly Venom, her mate, and her mate’s son. The plans I made were twisted and convoluted and made us win. The ranger lieutenant’s plans depended more on stealth and ambush, and they also made us win. Lady Inshala’s plans were neither. Her plans were rather simple and straightforward but surprisingly efficient. Of all the games we played, the ones she planned ended the quickest and the other team never knew what hit them. Even I didn’t understand we’d won!”, Temez said with some residual surprise.
“Her hubby, the Winter Knight shows similar traits. Neither seems interested in showing off but goes straight for the source of any given problem.”, Constance mused. “Though I suspect what he accomplishes by dread, she does by care!”
“Very astute, love. Very astute, indeed. She, Hal Mali, and Demelze went to the forest just up north to work on the project we have been working on.”
“You sent two of us out? Let alone Delemze with Hal Mali? She.. doesn’t really like him all that much and does tend to make a lot of noise when he’s around.. I hope you know what you are doing, dear.”, the tall girl asked a bit surprised.
“Hal Mali went under his guise. And we.. convinced.. she should be carried by him and take advantage of his special talents..”, Temez said lightly.
Constance made a very strange noise that sound truly unlady-like. Something between a snort and hiccup!
“I am sorry I missed that.”, she said with a brilliant smile. “No, wait.. you didn’t tell Demelze about what Hal Mali did back in Hell and that he got a beating for her, did you?”
“Yes, yes I did, love.”
“Ow..”, Constance said with a bemused expression as her bright red lips made a perfect imprint. “That must have put a dent in her self-esteem.”
“It did. Or maybe not. We are demons, love. And we are humans, as well, and we all react to fear, surprise, excitement, anger, and love in different ways. Demelze being Demelze, merely goes to her usual extremes.”, Temez said thoughtfully. “What will you do for the rest of the day? Did the esteemed sheriff like your new archiving and filing system?”
“I believe he did. Albeit a tad grudgingly. But in time he will get to appreciate it more, when he can find any given file in under ten seconds, as opposed to spending half an hour to find them. And every time he does, he will remember me. And every time his men do, he will feel a certain pride.”, replied Constance with a happy face. “I should head out now. There are so many things I must learn and so many more people I must meet. Just so they learn to see our kind, if for nothing else.. I shall also carefully hint that more of our kind will arrive to help them in their coming battle.”
“Very good, love. You truly were made for PR and would have been wasted in Hell.”, Temez said admiringly.
✱ ✱ ✱
Constance calmly stepped out of Serenity Home Temple and looked up and east. It was a clear day that day, quite unexpected of the season. She could see the storm clouds loaded with sleet, snow, and hail, but they seemed to sort of skim far and around this odd town and its surrounding fields. She had overheard the pretty ranger lieutenant, Bremorel Songsteel, talking in hushed voices with her young husband, the senior temple guardian, Thomas Dimwood, about reports of savage and violent weather, quite unheard of, occurring far to the west, beyond Scowling Hills and the name Inshala had cropped up any number of times, with nothing short of awe, during those conversations.
It seemed everyone was doing everything they could.. and more.. Eventually, whatever these Mortals did, or however they did them, time would come to face their consequences. Quite dire ones. Even a creature of Hell such as herself knew, when one dabbled with certain things, even if for a good cause, there would be consequences.
When she had first arrived to meet the sheriff’s men in the small courtyard, she had ended up ‘demonstrating’ her skills with her three-yard long pike on a young and overly enthusiastic man. There had even been bets.
After the duel, as short as it had been, was over, the bets, owed and owned, were being passed around, she had heard one of the guards snicker, “Payback is a bitch!”, as he took his winnings with a grin.
“Well..”, Constance murmured, still looking east, and the Gull’s Perch, a vertical, single ‘rock’, some half a mile at its base, reaching up and up and fading off among the clouds. It was a beautiful, awe-inspiring sight and the tall, alluring girl admired it.
Truly admired it.
“..as unlady-like, as it may sound, yes, I believe payback is a bitch!”, she said.
And with a sub-sonic boom, she shot up, high and swift!
At several hundred feet, she finally lost velocity, and for a bare, spectacular moment, she stood in the air, still, silent and majestic..
..and plummeted back to the earth!
With a sharp bank, she spread her arms, and a pair of dark, black-brown eagle wings suddenly sprouted out of her slender back, and like her slim arms, they spread out and wide..
..and she speared, not unlike a bird of prey, and with a shrill shriek, towards east, and the Perch!
✱ ✱ ✱
Lady Inshala!”, exclaimed Perigren Ostlanna Temez with surprise. “You are back!”
The little fey-girl face flushed shyly but her face was glowing with an accomplished grin.
“We did it, Temez. I called a few of the little folk and told them what we wanted, but they refused when they saw Hal Mali and Demelze. I told them they were my friends and that they were here to help protect the forest. They mulled over that for a bit then they decided perhaps they were, indeed, ‘maybe-friends’ but wanted something in return for their pixie dust. I asked them what they would want and they told me many things, but we didn’t have any of the things they wanted with us. Then they asked if we had any candy. Demelze said they didn’t have candy, but that she had something even better, and gave them sugar canes. They looked at the sugar canes, took one each, and tasted them. My eats still hurt because they all squealed with glee and just dropped on the ground gnawing on the canes.”, Inshala told her impromptu story with a seamless giggle and Temez just ogled at her, quietly mesmerized.
“When they were done with the sugar canes, they were so out of it, they were slurring and just waved their tiny hands and said, ‘Take.. Take what you want!’, so we took some of their dust and mixed it with the Kumse Beetle powder, Demelze infused it with her fire and enchanted it, then she threw it on Hal Mali and he was all glowing red and sparkly!”, she finished, her eyes alight with accomplishment.
Temez stared at her some more.
Then shook her head to come around.
Wow, the little girl had an encapturing way to tell her stories. She, herself, was a succubi half-born and knew how to enthrall. After all, it was her base thing. But this girl said what she said with some odd, bubbling, earnest, and genuine sincerity!
“Where are Hal and Demelze?”, she asked.
“Well, Hal Mali was still glowing and sparkling and quite unhappy about it, and Demelze couldn’t come back alone because she said she wasn’t wearing her correct Mortal dress for the occasion, though I am not sure what she meant by that. She did laugh at Hal Mali a lot, though, which made him angry so he started chasing her in the woods so she started running and screaming in delight!”, Inshala replied with an ‘out-of-breath’, bubbling voice.
“They are like sugar-loaded kids! Will they be alright?”, she asked, a bit worried.
“They should be. I drew a big circle and laid a camping spell and told them not to leave the circle. As long as they stay in it, not many will notice them. When the pixie-effect fades, Hal Mali can return with Demelze.”
“I hope they behave. This is not a good time for dire mistakes. That said, I am thrilled that our efforts have not been in vain. Thanks to you, we can now mass-produce this ‘pixie-effect’. We now have to find a way to make them practically useful for any Mortal to be able to use them. We also will need a lot more of your Kumse Beetle powder and the pixie dust.”, Temez mused.
“I can get you the Kumse Beetle powder. I could ask my Aager to ask his mayor, Artanboss, to ask the refugees to look for them in the forest. The pixie dust will still be a problem though. Convincing two or three sprites or pixies in one thing. Asking hundreds of them is another. We.. we might have to ask the Summer and Winter Queens..”, Inshala said a bit worried.
Temez looked at her for a moment, then smiled, a tad brittle. She was worried too but was trying very hard to hide it.
“Thank you, Inshala. You have helped us much today. Should you ever need any help, please don’t be shy.. And.. do thank your.. mate on our behalf, if you would?”, she said sincerely.
“I will, dear Temez. Merisoul was my friend. I.. I was afraid of her when we first met. But she was so sweet and pretty. And always answered the questions I asked her. She.. never judged me for what I am, and from her, I learned to accept who I am.. And.. she saved my life, once, very nearly ending her own. Thanks to her greatness, I found the time to know my Aager and be with my Aager. That would never have happened if it weren’t for her.”, Inshala said quietly and hugged Temez, and inadvertently, their horns clashed!
They stood looking at one another, then burst out laughing.
“We will need permission from one of the Queens should we want more of the pixies and the sprites for the amount we require, dear Temez.. Thinking a bit over it, I am now sure of it.. Only they can order them to come to us in such great numbers..”, said Inshala somberly.
And that cut right through their merry moment.
✱ ✱ ✱
Constance swooped down from the cold, moist clouds and noticed the sun had gone lower than she had expected. Soon, it would be gone altogether and she’d be forced to fly in the dark. True, she wasn’t afraid of the dark, and up to a certain point, she could even see in it, even if it were in some odd shades of violet. At the screeching speed she was flying, however, being able to see that ‘certain point’ became somewhat moot, as she would only have a bare second or two before registering she was about to smash into something and die a horrible, total body-shattering death!
The lovely, alluring girl was also an optimistic soul, though. She believed an honest and generous smile could solve more problems than displaying her other, rather.. magnetic features.. as those tended to cause more complications than they seemed to solve. She also believed in being punctual and prompt.
Constance was not an obsessive girl, strictly speaking, but merely well-organized and quite dedicated at whatever she did, and also had the uncanny ability to recognize similar attitudes or patterns in others.
Which was likely why she had noticed the esteemed sheriff of Serenity Home the first time he had come to see them and the young senior temple guardian, Thomas Dimwood, had introduced all the half-borns to him.
Yes, one might argue that all the other half-born girls had also noticed him, since, other than the senior temple guardian himself and his dozen or so junior guardians, who were all ‘off limits’, the sheriff had been the only Mortal male specimen they had been in contact outside of Hell. But the other girls had looked at him with.. well.. either as a curio or simply as something ‘edible’.. The sheriff was, after all, a handsome man, even if he was a bit older than average, as Mortal years went.
Constance, on the other hand, had noticed another quality about him; he had stood before each and every single one of the ‘a hundred and plus something’ number of them as if memorizing their individual faces and names, had politely nodded at them, and bid them a formal welcome to the town and should they require anything, that they were welcome to ask, and that he would do his best to acquire said needs, but to be patient about it, as the town was under the threat of imminent Orken attack. That, for Constance, pointed to the fact that Standorin Shieldheart was indeed a very organized, disciplined, and dedicated man.
The fact that he was also handsome and well into his mature years had been sort of a bonus.
Constance was also a ‘glass half full’ kind of girl..
Suffice to say, none of the above had anything to do with the setting of the sun nor would it help her should she fly into something and end herself quite abruptly, and certainly had nothing to do with the matter at hand.. But Constance liked to go over things in her mind when she flew, which didn’t happen as often as she wanted. An uncharitable person might think she was daydreaming. Constance would, quite strenuously, disagree with such unkind assumption since (a) it was not day, so much as it was evening now, and (b) girls did not daydream but had intricate, multitasking minds, hence they went over things which had happened, things which might happen, and even things that had already happened but how they should have actually happened..
That sure explained why they lived longer than their male counterparts and being Mortal or not made little to no difference.
“Alright.”, she mused as she went over her mental TO-DO list;
Find Her. Talk to Her. Give Her. Get the boy. Get the girl. Come back.
“There. Everyone happy at the cost of a little pain and loss.”
“I doubt, dear.”, said a rich, throaty, and enthralling woman’s voice.
And a long, jagging streak of lightning came down from the clear dusk sky!
Constance yelped and banked right and the lightning very nearly tore through her.
Another jarring streak of lightning lit the dimming sky and the half-born girl did a sharp left turn and escaped with a singe.
“Stop! Please! I come in peace!”, she yelled in panic.
“No, dear girl. You only come. You are a demon, and can not come in peace, nor can you bring it here with you..”, replied the same rich voice.
“No, I am not a demon! I come in good faith and only desire to help the Mortals..”, she screamed and a swirling, columnar hurricane jabbed down from the sky, all the way down to the forest below.
“Did you not come from Hell, my dear?”, asked the throaty voice.
“Yes. Yes, I did, but..”
“There you have it, then. You, dear girl, are clearly a demon, you can not have good faith, and helping Mortals can never be your intention, nor be part of your true agenda..”, said the voice..
..and another shaft of lightning forked downed, and this one zapped the half-born girl quite savagely as more wildly dancing hurricanes came down like some demonic fingers, tearing at everything they grasped..
“My mother was a Mortal!”, shrieked Constance, her face distorted with pain for she felt something hurt dreadfully at her hip.
“I feel sorry for her, but dabbling with the damned is never wise. Every Mortal knows this.”
Constance did another sharp turn and escaped the next strike.
“She.. she was taken.. by Mortals!”, begged the girl.
“Yes. Mortals with sin in their desires, deceit in their minds, and greed in their hearts tend to do that. Which is why I banned them all. But demons were never welcome.”, said the throaty voice.
“T.. Titania?”, Constance gasped.
“Yes, dear child. I have been watching you for some time now. I had hoped you would vier from your course, but apparently, you are not as smart as I had hoped you would be.. And now you are in my domain.. and in my jurisdiction..”
Constance took a dive, the wind shrieking as she attained her combat velocity, then spun, at a whip lashing speed, and flew straight towards the Perch..
..and more hurricanes stabbed down mercilessly, and Constance slammed right into them!
With a shriek lost in the howling, swirling and enraged, dark purple-gray fingers tore into her and shredded her and tossed her!
Constance dropped out of the sky like a moot rock..
..and with a last-minute display of aerial agility, she took a sharp, right-angle turn and shot up again!
“You are a persistent one, aren’t you?”, Titania said, and three more flashes of lightning came jarring down simultaneously.
With a determined expression on her face, Constance banked, right, then left, then left again, barely avoiding the deadly, jarring shafts and the wrathful fingers piercing down everywhere now.
“Mo.. Mother Titania.. Please.. I.. We are not all demon.. We are also human. I beg of you. I truly come in peace..”, she pleaded as tears ran down her face and were whipped away by the savage wind. “I speak the truth..”
“You must see the irony of a demon claiming to speak the truth, child. And a succubus, no less. Truth or lies, it matters little, as willy-nilly, the means to ends matters not to your kind.”
“I am Constance Alure Smithen, Mother.. Thus I have given you my name and claim nothing in return.”, she very nearly blubbered for the jagging streaks of lightnings came seamlessly now and the desperate half-born was zig-zagging mindlessly through them.
“Impressive. Perhaps you hoped, by giving something, you would get something back. Surcease, perhaps? Bargains do not work like that, dear child. I must want something from you for you to offer something else in return.. I do not!”
“I merely come to inquire as to the health of two Mortals, Mother! They are dear to some in the town called Serenity Home, just west of here.”
“Ahh.. Perhaps I may consent to give you that.. for your name, even though I have not asked for it. The princess of the homeless elves is indeed, here. She is healthy, though her health deteriorates as days go by and is quite troubled, for she has dire decisions to make for her mate-to-be, who is dying. I have put him in stasis to buy him time, whilst the princess makes her choice or comes to terms with his dire predicament. It appears, someone put a hole in the boy’s heart with iron.”
“Is.. is there nothing I can do to help? Nothing at all? Her people desperately need their princess and his father and his friends desperately need him.. For them, I am willing to give that which is most precious to me!”, Constance asked as she felt her heart plummet for a hole in the heart with iron only meant one end, and little did it matter if they were Mortal, fey, or demon..
“And what may that be, my dear?”
Constance told her.
There was a pause as Titania seemed to mull over something for the lightnings and the savage hurricanes ceased!
“As intriguing as your offer is, child, the princess of the homeless elves must be the one to make the choice I have offered her as said choice pertains to her own future, the future of her mate-to-be, and their line.. There is, literally, nothing anyone else may do, for she came here, with her mate-to-be, unsummoned and uninvited, though quite unintentional, also.. Should you still want to help the Mortals you claim to want to help, however, perhaps there is some room there for bargains for you have managed to garner my admiration, if not curiosity.. Settle down Constance Alure Smithen, the child of a Mortal woman and a demon father.. I would like to take a closer look at your offer and further test your mettle.. and see if your claim is worth a bargain.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Sheriff Standorin!”, exclaimed the young guard as he burst into the sheriff’s office. “Come. Quick! You.. you had better see this!”
Slowly and calmly, the sheriff of Serenity Home rose from his seat, buckled on his sword over his shoulder as he looked at the young, excited guard.
“What is it young man?”, he rumbled, giving an assessing glance at him.
“I don’t know how to describe it, sir. Lights.. Hundreds and hundreds of them. And they are all coming here!”, the young guard said with an awestruck face.
“Lights? What lights?”
“I don’t know, sir. You must see them yourself!”, the young man said, almost jumping where he stood.
Standorin mumbled something about young and easily excitable kids but waved at the guard to lead the way.
The two walked over and all the way to the north gate of the town while other guards ran back and forth with already lit torches and lanterns as evening slowly settled, just to see the multitudes of refugees, all on the other side of the stone bridge that stretched over the Great Arashkan River, and all of them were standing still and staring north..
..where there were hundreds and thousands of sparkling lights hovered amongst the trees bordering the Ritual Forest and quite luminous in the settling evening.
“What is this?”, Standorin asked, somewhat disturbed.
“We.. I do not know, sir. Ranger Masters Devien and Moorat have gone to check, but they have not returned yet.”, replied the young guard in a hushed voice.
“Where is Master Aager—?”
“—Here, sir.”, replied a growling voice and Aager Fogstep appeared next to him as if summoned by magic!
“What is this?”, the sheriff repeated his question.
“I am not quite sure, sir.”, Aager said in his low voice.
“Are you seeing this, love?”, he silently cast his own question at Inshala.
“I want to. But there is a whole crowd of people standing in front of me and I can’t get past them.”, she replied. Then with a sigh, she added. “And they are pushing at one another.. I don’t want to get trampled.”
Aager turned to the guards standing nearby and growled at them.
“You! Form two lines, one on each side of the road and make a gap. We cant have a crowd plugging the town’s main entrance!”
“Yes, sir!”, the guards replied hastily, saluted the right hand of the sheriff, and guards started pushing the people back and to the side of the road leading in and out of the town.
“That was very smart!”, Aager heard Inshala’s admiring voice.
“People should know better not to mob the town entrances by now.”, he fumed.
“They are only curious, my Aager.”
“A stupid excuse for trampling each other. This could be a diversion for an attack!”
“Very true. Almost there..”, she replied and indeed, she appeared next to him.
They both stared at the odd, sparkling phenomena for some time until Inshala said a bit awed, “Pixies.. and sprites! Many of them.. Thousands!”
Sheriff Standorin turned to her and asked.
“Are you sure, Lady Inshala?”
She just couldn’t help it.
Big, large men scared her!
Standorin must have noticed this as well, for his always-stern face softened a bit and he knelt down before the little girl and spoke in a low, calm voice, though it still rumbled.
“I apologize wholeheartedly, sweet Lady Inshala. I meant neither to upset you nor to abuse your good sensibilities. You are a wonder to us all, beautiful beyond words, and your wisdom leaves us in shame.”
If anything could have sufficed a good blush, this was it!
Inshala turned bright, bright red, and covered her face with her slender hands.
“You.. you have put me to shame with your honest and kind words, sir. The lights you see are fey folk. I would plead your men to not harm them. If they have come here and in such great numbers, there must be a good reason. If you would, please tell your men, and the people all around to make room, for they will not come any near, as things stand now.”
Sheriff Standorin smiled at her, then slowly rose.
“Master Aager, if you will, inform all the guards to put away their iron and clear the way, from all the way here to the fey. No one is to stand near them, get near them, hinder them, or harm them.”
“Yes, sir.”, Aager said with a curt salute and growled orders.
Soon, the town’s northern entrance, the bridge, and the refugees near the woods were all cleared and a historical first occurred; the tiny, sparkling lights, the small fel-folk hovered towards Serenity Home..
It was an inspired possession..
..as each luminous globe carried a tiny, humanoid creature inside, or perhaps, the globes of light were there because of the tiny, humanoid creatures..
..and they bobbed, back and forth, left and right, and up and down with easy leisure and leaving a long trail of sparkling pixie dust from their tiny, barely discernable wings and entered the town and slowly but surely, they gathered before the Serenity Town Temple where the Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel.. and Perigren Ostlanna Temez met them, as Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, and Aager Fogstep also stood nearby.
A tiny, tooth-pick sized creature came forth, and with demanding attitude, she spoke;
“I am Biberbell and I speak for my kin and the rest of the fey-folk gathered here, and we have come upon the command of Titania, the Summer Queen, and in retaliation, Mab, also, the Winter Queen, in hopes to partake our pixie dust much needed for the defense of this Mortal town.”, she piped.
Thomas, Bremorel, and Temez just ogled at the tiny thing.
“We have been promised satisfactory accommodations and.. CANDY!”, she squeaked.
“Uhhmm.. Candy?”, Thomas blurted a bid dumbfounded.
“Yes. Candy! But we will settle for sugar canes, too.”, she buzzed, paused, then added..
“LOTS AND LOTS OF SUGAR CANES!“
..with a very lustful expression on her tiny face as she rubbed her hands together, barely refraining from a possible;
“Said conditions can be arranged, Biberbell. But we have not made any bargains with either of the Queens.”, Thomas replied with a very much freaked expression on his own face.
The tiny sprite turned to Perigren Ostlanna Temez and said with nothing short of a patronizing tone.
“The bargain has already been struck, and the debt paid in full and done.”
“Who? Who has bargained with the Queens and who has paid in full and done?”, demanded Temez.
“How should I know, demon? I am not privy to the details of what the Queens do!”, Biberbell sniffed at her.
A long stream of refugees disembark from the damaged Arashkan ships to the shores of Serenity Home town, adding to the already unmercifully overcrowded town and the lands surrounding it. From the last ship, a pair; one handsome but tired-looking blond half-elf, the other, a boldly beautiful young woman walk down the ship’s plank and follow the last remains of what was once The Great and Glorious Arashkan, towards the town that’s offering more than it has.
Agent Largo: This is a bad idea. My guestimation is one of three outcomes..
Lilly Venom: That so?
Agent Largo: Yes. (a) He will suffer a traumatic shock and runoff, shouting how much he hates me. (b) He will undergo some form of angst, followed by an episode of a not so unexpected breakdown, accuse me of letting his mother get killed, and very likely result in him punching me. (c) He will outright defy me, saying I wasn’t there when he was growing up and when he needed me, and that he’s all grown up now, doesn’t need me at all, and will refuse to see or talk to me..
Lilly Venom: Angst, huh? Never thought you a man for high drama, Agent Largo. But here you are, proving me wrong.
Agent Largo: You pun me.
Lilly Venom:(shrug) I pun a lot of people, Agent Largo, and you still owe me a dinner. I hope this town has a decent inn.
Agent Largo: You came here before, Lady Lilly. You should know.
Lilly Venom: The key to being a good assassin, Agent Largo, isn’t the kill, no matter how effective or efficient you are at it.. It is knowing your target.. and their habits.. And of course, never being noticed. The Temple Guardian, Demos, never visited the inn, hence neither did I. Thinking back, good thing I never did visit the inn.
Agent Largo: Ow?
Lilly Venom: Inns are a good source for local gossip, news, and information.. and finding out who is who. Had I visited the inn, I definitely would have left this town with at least one corpse.
Agent Largo: You know someone in this town, then? On a personal level?
Lilly Venom:(slight frown) That’s none of your business, Agent Largo.
Agent Largo: You really enjoy calling me ‘Agent’, all the time, don’t you, Lady Lilly?
Lilly Venom: More than you like ‘Lady’ing me.
Agent Largo:(side glance) You are in a mood, today.
Lilly Venom: I am in a mood, every day, Agent Largo. Have you decided on what to do? About your Dexter, and about your job? At the moment, you have neither.
Agent Largo: That was a tad harsh, Lady Lilly..
Lilly Venom: I have never fallen head-over-heels for any man, Agent Largo. But I am willing to give you a shot—
Agent Largo: Coming from you, that sounds ominous. I am not sure if I should feel elated, or I should start wearing full body armor.
Lilly Venom: —And I don’t like distractions.
Agent Largo: You are quite the target-oriented girl aren’t you, Lady Lilly?
Lilly Venom: I am a Drashan girl, Agent Largo. Everyone is someone’s target there. And if you are a girl, that number rises exponentially. But I have always believed in celibacy. It removes the option of undesired attractions, and hence, unwanted distractions and complications.
Agent Largo: That’s a bit.. lonesome..
Lilly Venom: Any self-respecting Drashan marries only once, Agent Largo. That being said, there is no such thing as a ‘self-respecting Drashan’, and the only thing we truly marry is ‘death!’
Agent Largo: You make it sound like it’s a proverb.
Lilly Venom:(shrug) It is.. Have you decided what to do?
Agent Largo: I was hoping to get killed in the upcoming battle and save everyone the hassle.
Lilly Venom: No.
Agent Largo: No?
Lilly Venom: No, Agent Largo. You owe me dinner and I refuse to dine with a coward.
Agent Largo: Now, that really was harsh, Lady Lilly. And totally uncalled for.
Lilly Venom: Then go to the boy, knock on his door, or knock it down and say ‘Hi..’, sit down, and explain all your reasons for having done what you did. He might get angry, he might pout, or he might be happy. I would be happy if my mother rose from her grave and came to visit me.. though I doubt she has a grave.. Unclaimed bodies are usually just dumped into the sea with the rest of the derelict, in Drashan..
Agent Largo: That’s.. sad..
Lilly Venom: You don’t really have to act the ‘understanding type’, Agent Largo.
Agent Largo: I am not the ‘acting’ type of spy, Lady Lilly. I am the ‘orchestrating’ kind of agent. Though I see nothing to orchestrate, here. Well, actually there is.. with a lot of potential.. but I just don’t want to..
Lilly Venom: By all means, Agent Largo, do!
Agent Largo: No.
Lilly Venom: Why?
Agent Largo: You are a girl with a very special and specific set of skills, Lady Lilly. But you have honor and, diverse as it may seem, you also have integrity. I am afraid, I just don’t feel like playing with and consequently destroying either. Whatever sins I may have done, I have done for my Arashkan. I never wanted you to be part of that even before we met for the same reasons I mentioned above. The only reason I called upon you was because High Lady Angrellen left me little to no choice and I needed help.. desperately..
Lilly Venom: Do I sense ‘tender care’ in all of that?
Agent Largo:(replies with silence)
Lilly Venom:(after an extended, counter-silence, and a sigh) Neither my honor nor my integrity will save me should I ever be subjected to the law, Agent Largo.
Agent Largo: Arashkan is destroyed, Lady Lilly, therefore I am no longer the law.. And hence, I feel no obligation whatsoever to turn you in. Funny how that turned out.
Lilly Venom:(more silence) You will likely end up an outlaw too..
Agent Largo: I have been in and out of said law for longer than I can remember but never for personal gain. If for once, I end up doing that, I don’t mind doing it for you.. At all! I will do whatever job I can find, once this war is over and provided I am still alive. As for my son.. He will accept me, perhaps in time, or he will not. I did what I did, to preserve his life. He will either understand this too or not. But if you are willing to be with a fool like me, I am willing to do what it takes, Lady Lilly..
Lilly Venom: My contract with you was—
Agent Largo: —Your contract with me got voided at least twice.. back in Arashkan.. when you saved my life in the tunnel and then again after High Lady Angrellen trampled over us.. And possibly any number of other times I am not even aware of, when you watched my back on our deadly plight to get the civilians and the remaining guards out to the docks, and aboard the ships, Lady Lilly.. So when I say, you have my gratitude, I mean it at its maximum capacity. Many people who are alive now owe their lives to me. Funny how they fail to see, they actually owe it to you..
Lilly Venom:(stares ahead and does not say anything)
Agent Largo: ..We will have to take Prince Korodin in with us, though. Quite unavoidable, really. I did, after all, give my word of honor to Lady Ferrara, and the boy needs training from the best..
Lilly Venom:(snort) A wanted assassin and a former ARIS Agent..
Agent Largo: Like I said; The best..
Lilly Venom:(back to serious) Someone’s bound to notice me eventually, you know.
Agent Largo: I thought all you assassins were good with disguises.
Lilly Venom: We usually are. It’s part of our basic training program.
Agent Largo: There you have it then.. A good handlebar mustache or a chevron, along with a brett, and no one will ever recognize you.
Lilly Venom:(snort) Yes. I am sure no one will recognize me, but everyone will notice you, constantly arm in arm with a guy!
Agent Largo: So you want it to be ‘arm in arm’ and constantly, then?
Lilly Venom:(slight frown) Depends on the dinner, Agent Largo.
Agent Largo: You really have your mindset on that dinner, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: Yes. I do.
Agent Largo: Why? I don’t mind a dinner.. many dinners with you, Lady Lilly, but why indeed?
Lilly Venom: Because it will be a first, for me.
Agent Largo:(blink) You mean to tell me, you have never had dinner with anyone in your life?
Lilly Venom: Agent Largo.. Just who would dine with a wanted fugitive such as myself, let alone an unaffiliated, freelancing assassin?
Agent Largo: Apparently, me..
Lilly Venom: That is yet to be seen.. and I think we are here..
Agent Largo: I suppose we are.
Lilly Venom: There are guards at the town gates and they seem to be questioning everyone before they let them in.
Agent Largo: Let me handle the guards, if you will, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: Handle away, Agent Largo. I have no issues with a capable man. I have nothing to prove, and neither do you.
Agent Largo: I must disagree. Every man has something to prove, where a pretty girl is involved. If you can accept that, we can move forward.
Lilly Venom: I suppose I must. Since you think me ‘pretty’.. So, yes, I am willing to take that risk.
Agent Largo:(smile) Forward it is, then..
✱ ✱ ✱
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Good afternoon, sir.
Agent Largo: Good afternoon.
Serenity Home Gate Guard: What can I do for you, sir?
Agent Largo: We are Arashkan refugees, to see Dexter Summersong.
Serenity Home Gate Guard: And what business do you have with the town bard? He has a full schedule, training the platoon assigned to him.
Agent Largo: He.. he has?
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Yes, sir. Anyone with any skill sets is expected to train others for the upcoming battle. Any kind of training is of use. You can fill in this form over here, take a number and you will be assigned somewhere, or be assigned to someone..
Agent Largo: I see. I will fill in the forms, but after I see Sir Dexter..
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Very well, sir?
Agent Largo: Largo.. Largo Summersong.. And this is Lady Ferra and the young boy is my distant relative, Rodin.
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Alright, sir Largo. I shall send a runner and see if our bard, Dexter, is available. I apologize for the inconvenience, but I can not let you in until there is some sort of vouch —security protocols, you understand..
Agent Largo: Of course..
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Perhaps you can take the time to fill in your forms in the meantime, sir? It may take a while for Sir Dexter to get here..
Agent Largo:(sigh) Very well..
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: ARIS Agent? Really? You are actually going to write that?!
Agent Largo: Well, why not? For once in my life, I actually don’t have to lie about my job!
Lilly Venom: Then I guess I will just have to write ‘Assassin For Hire’, in my form, then.
Agent Largo: You.. might not want to do that, Lady Lilly.. For my sake, if not yours..
Lilly Venom: I don’t do lies, Agent Largo. Perhaps you might have noticed that.
Agent Largo: I have.. And it’s made me wonder..
Lilly Venom: A good assassin does not do lies, Agent Largo. Lies constantly require attention to keep track and that clusters the mind. And because I study my contracts very well and plan my exit strategies accordingly so I never have to lie. O.P.G.G.. Observe. Plan. Get in. Get out..
Agent Largo: You really never cease to amaze me, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: Also, it is immoral to lie!
Agent Largo:(stares at Lilly)
Lilly Venom: What? Just because I am an assassin, doesn’t mean I lack moral codes, Agent Largo. I kill because it’s my job, not because I enjoy doing it. That is what was available for me to learn to stay afloat at Drashan, so I learned it well. Had I enjoyed it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because you would have been dead and I would have been elsewhere busy cutting throats.
Agent Largo: Touché.
Lilly Venom:(shrug) It’s the truth.
Agent Largo: Write, ‘Security Advisor’, then. I am guessing you can do that very well.
Lilly Venom: I suppose..
Agent Largo: It won’t be a lie..
Lilly Venom:(sigh) It had better be a very good dinner, Agent Largo..
✱ ✱ ✱
Agent Largo: Here you go, sir. Two forms.. One for me, and one for the lady..
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Thank you, sir Largo. Sir Dexter should be here soon.. Ow.. and here he is.. Sir Dexter. These are the two who wished to see you; Sir Largo and his lady, Ferra..
D.D. Dexter:(stunned) Dad?
Agent Largo:(flustered) Uhhmm.. Hello, son..
D.D. Dexter:(still stunned) You.. You are not dead!
Agent Largo:(still flustered) I.. can explain..
D.D. Dexter: Who are you?
Lilly Venom: I am the girl your father owes a dinner to!
D.D. Dexter:(stunned and shocked) You have a girlfriend? She is younger than I am, dad!
Agent Largo:(flustered and blushing now) I.. can explain that too..
Lilly Venom:(snort) Your father is alive and well, and you are worried about my age?
D.D. Dexter:(splutter) What the heck, dad?!
Agent Largo:(going down in flames) I…
Lilly Venom:(briskly) Your priorities are mind staggering, boy.
Agent Largo:(dead because of fighting in two fronts now) Uhmm.. Lilly..
Lilly Venom:(mildly agitated) What? After some twenty-odd years, he sees his father, ALIVE, and he is making an issue of my age? Really, now.. I thought bards were a polite bunch, if not smart!
(many footsteps approach)
Sheriff Standorin: (Udoorin’s father) (stern officious voice) Lilly Venom. You are under arrest and wanted for the murder of Lord Trimdel Kandara of Endless Watch. Please do not resist. Master Aager, please arrest this felon, if you will..
D.D. Dexter: What the..
Agent Largo: Ow crap!
Aager Fogstep:(approaches Lilly with cuffs and hisses at her with an extremely angry, tight voice ) You idiot!
Lilly Venom:(sigh) Well, bugger..
Agent Largo:(more than flustered) Sheriff Standorin—
Sheriff Standorin:(with a heavy club in one hand) And you, former Agent Largo.. You are also under arrest for aiding and abetting a known fugitive. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. I suggest you keep to your silence!
Agent Largo: Sheriff Standorin. You know who I am. You know what I do—
Sheriff Standorin: —There.. I appreciate it when criminals heed a good advice when it’s given to them and do stay silent. How about you, Venom, how would you like your reception? The same, perhaps? Or would you rather exercise your right to silence?
Lilly Venom:(shrug) No, I’m good..
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: How are you?
Agent Largo: I hurt. The good sheriff has a heavy hand with that club of his..
Lilly Venom:(heartlessly) I wouldn’t know, Agent Largo. I did not resist.
Agent Largo:(sigh) Well.. That certainly went well!
Lilly Venom: This is sort of embarrassing for me, to be honest. The first time I come to a town with no contracts nor clients, and I am detained and put to jail. Remind me again why we are here?
Agent Largo: The boy.. Where’s he?
Lilly Venom: Which one?
Agent Largo: Both, I guess?
Lilly Venom: Your Dexter was with the Sheriff the time I saw him, though he did come in to check in on you once. You were still out so he just stared at you.. and me as well, I guess, since your head was on my lap.. He was furious and was looking somewhere to lash out. I told him if he tried that in my direction, he would lose everything he thought was dear to him. I might have threatened him with evisceration and death by choking on poisonous darts as well.. We had a small chat after that, though only I spoke. Told him everything you did for him and why.. He didn’t say anything, but he listened, then he left..
Agent Largo: I should have been the one to tell him those.. Not the evisceration and death by poison darts part, obviously.. The other things..
Lilly Venom: Probably. But you were making such a lousy job out of it.. And the boy needed to know.. Hearing it from a third person is sometimes better. Gave him something to think about besides pouting, at least.. He might come around, or he might not. It’s on him now.
Agent Largo:(sighs) Thank you.. Lilly.. What about the prince?
Lilly Venom: They took him elsewhere. I suppose they will question him first for some kind of leverage.
Agent Largo: Korodin won’t tell them anything except that his name is ‘Rodin’ and that I am his distant uncle. And he will keep repeating that.. unless they hurt the boy.. And if they do that, I will get out of here and really murder someone!
Lilly Venom:(a bit surprised) You care for the boy!
Agent Largo: Well, sure.. He is my prince.
Lilly Venom: True. But you personally care for him..
Agent Largo:(sigh) Yes, Lilly.. I personally care for him. He’s young but I suspect he understands what’s going on around him a lot more than he lets on, making him quite brave. He didn’t cry once during our plight from Arashkan, nor on our way to here on the ships.. And we read The Amazing Adventures of Blom Bundlebim Hobim. Anyone who reads that book together, are bro’s for life!
Lilly Venom:(snort) Boys!
Agent Largo: Don’t pun the ‘bros bond’, Lilly. It’s a real thing!
Lilly Venom:(slight frown) I am no longer a Lady, then, Agent Largo? Why am I suddenly not a lady anymore?
Agent Largo:(sigh) We share a cell and that’s as close to any woman I have been since my wife was murdered, and that was more than two decades ago. I believe that calls for a bit of honest sincerity. I don’t think this was the dinner you had in mind but here we are, in a quiet and dim setting.. just like you wanted. We even have candlelight. I am in your hands.. and your lap, quite literally, I might add.
Lilly Venom:(stares down at the face in her lap, studying it, perhaps to finalize a decision)
We have no dinner, Agent Largo..
Agent Largo: Jail food is never really all that good, but it’s always on time. Should arrive soon enough..
Lilly Venom: Very well, Agent Largo.. Will you propose now?
Agent Largo: I was really hoping for better conditions, Lilly.. You deserve better conditions..
Lilly Venom: I think I will be receiving ‘what I deserve’ on the morrow, Agent Largo. I wouldn’t fret about it too much if I were you.
Agent Largo: You could get away, you know.. I am sure these bars can’t keep you..
Lilly Venom: Could say the same thing for you, Agent Largo, but you won’t.. Because of your son and because of the damage it might do to his reputation.. For similar reasons, I won’t either. Just.. not for a son or daughter.. (pauses for a moment, then sighs) And I gave the good sheriff my word that I wouldn’t try to escape, provided he let me stay in the same cell with you.
Agent Largo: Huh! A wasted bargain, if you ask me, though I can’t complain about my current disposition; your lap is surprisingly.. intriguing. Enough to want to know what’s on either end.
Lilly Venom:(amused) A foot on one end, and a hip on the other, Agent Largo, among other things, and you don’t have rights to any of them —at the moment. Not unless you want to embarrass yourself anymore than you already have.
Agent Largo:(snort) Fair enough. I am guessing the other reason you stayed has to do with the person you know in this town?
Agent Largo: Very well, then.. If I will have more of your breath.. and perhaps get clubbed every once in a while knowing I shall wake up to your lap, then I would very much like to propose. Would you like to spend the rest of your life with me, Ferra Ferrea? To be my wife, my companion, my partner, possibly in crime, and my friend?
Lilly Venom: Yes. I would, Largo Summersong. The rest of my life, short as that maybe, I would like to spend it with you.. Same conditions!
Agent Largo: The name is Lauca, actually.
Lilly Venom: Lauca?
Agent Largo: Means, ‘warm’, in Elvish, though I have no idea what my mother was thinking when she gave me that name. It is supposed to relate to ‘A Warm Summer Song’.. But I have been using Largo since a bit before I joined ARIS because they sound similar and Largo was easier to pronounce. This, however, is a definitive occasion, so I thought at least you should know.
Agent Largo: Please don’t make too much pun of it. Half-elves tend to get touchy when it comes to certain things.
Lilly Venom: La-yu-ka.. Law-ka.. Am I pronouncing it right?
Agent Largo: Do you want to pronounce it right?
Lilly Venom: I would, yes.
Agent Largo: Why bother?
Lilly Venom: Why bother with Ferra Ferrea?
Agent Largo: Touché.. and point taken, I suppose.
Lilly Venom: I shall call you by this name, from time to time, so we remember a warm summer song!
Agent Largo: That.. actually sounded poetic. Much better than I ever thought it would.
Lilly Venom: I think, I like it..
Agent Largo: Alright. Now we’ll need a witness or two..
Lilly Venom: I believe we have.. a witness or two..
Agent Largo: We do?
Lilly Venom: Yes, we do.. Don’t we, Aager?
Aager Fogstep:(sighs and comes out of the shadows) You really are an idiot, Lilly.. What possessed you to come here? This place is going to burn, and very soon.. and you came here?
Lilly Venom: Hello, Fogstep. Good to see you too.. Less than I wanted to, but here I am..
Aager Fogstep: This isn’t a game, Lilly. I have no authority over the sheriff, and certainly not over the mayor. I thought you were a survivor.
Lilly Venom: I am tired of just surviving, Aager. I have done it all my life. Took a page from your book and I have decided I want to ‘live’ now..
Aager Fogstep: And you came here.. For that.. Just how stupid are you?
Inshala Frostmane:(comes out from behind Aager) That is not nice, my Aager. I do not think Lilly is stupid. I think her to be extremely smart. Certainly smart enough to make all the correct choices, when we were back at Arashkan.
Lilly Venom: And, here is our inseparable second witness..
Inshala Frostmane: Hello, Ferra.
Lilly Venom: Hello, girl.. You have grown some. And you glow more..
Inshala Frostmane:(blush) I.. I do?
Lilly Venom: Yes. You were scared all the time, the last time I saw you. Now you look.. free!
Agent Largo: Don’t mind me. I’ll just lie down here and nurse the bump on my head.
Lilly Venom:(to Aager) Do you want to introduce yourself, or should I?
Agent Largo: I know who he is. He is SIS —Serenity Intelligence Service; pseudo-named, Aager Fogstep. Single. Real name; unknown. Mother; unknown. Father; unknown. Siblings; rumored to have one, though his or her gender is unknown and presumed dead. He is also a former Drashan convict.. His ‘apparent’ job is being the right hand of Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. He was one among others to have brought down Themalsar. There are any number of murders attributed to him, though none of them have been proven, nor verified.. The girl, I do not know. None of the spies I sent could get any information about her, back when she, sir Aager here, and their diverse other companions first came to Arashkan and started asking questions about Gar Thalot.. We found out who all her friends were.. Just not her and the one other girl who slept on the roof of the inn they were staying. It’s like neither of them ever existed before. We couldn’t even put a name to them. Heck, we couldn’t even scry them! It was like.. they both were off limits!
Lilly Venom: I am inclined to be impressed, Agent Largo, though I don’t think Aager here qualifies as single and his sibling’s name is ‘me’.
Agent Largo:(confused) Me?
Lilly Venom:(silent smile)
Agent Largo:(somewhat horrified expression)YOU?
Lilly Venom:(sumgly) Yup!
Agent Largo:(stunned silence)
Lilly Venom: Yes, Agent Largo, he is my elder brother.. I am not at liberty to divulge who or what the other one is, but this cute little girl, here, is Inshala Frostmane. Aager’s girl, woman, mate.. I have thus failed to put a name to what they are, to one another. Nothing seems to sufficiently cover their relation.. In all candor, though, it is likely she is the best thing that’s happened to me in my life and I am happy to call her my sister.. Other than that, I am not aware if she has any other title.
Inshala Frostmane:(beam) I am here in my ‘Ritual Guardian’ capacity, dear Ferra..
Lilly Venom: I do not know what that means.
Agent Largo: I do, and it is an immense ‘capacity’.. I thought the good Master Cathber was killed in his sleep. I wasn’t aware he had any students in training.
Inshala Frostmane:(quietly) He had me. And I had him. He was my Father and my Master since I was a month old.
Agent Largo: I am sorry, young lady. I knew Master Cathber personally and deeply revered him. Now.. Master Aager, and Ritual Guardian, if you would be kind enough to put in a good word for Lady Lilly here, I would be grateful. I shall suffer my punishment, whatever it may be.
Lilly Venom: How very noble of you, Sir Agent Largo! I wasn’t aware I was getting a knight in shining armor when I asked for that dinner.
Agent Largo: I apologize, Lilly. But it comes as part of the package!
Inshala Frostmane:(beaming) I have no idea what you just said, but it sounded so sweet. And I didn’t know you were a knight, Sir Largo. I will ask them to release both you and my elder sister Ferra and also to kindly return your shiny armor.
Agent Largo: !
✱ ✱ ✱
Sheriff Standorin: You seem to have left out quite a bit of your personal life, Master Aager. I thought you said your sister was dead.
Aager Fogstep: I thought she was dead, too. Her unexpected appearance in Arashkan did take me off guard.
Sheriff Standorin: I see no mention of this in your reports. Are we making private exemptions, then?
Aager Fogstep:(cooly) Yes and no, Sheriff. Some of the things that happened at Arashkan never got mentioned for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. Suffice to say, putting them in writing would have been too damning for the people involved, which includes our esteemed Ranger Lieutenant Laila Wolvesbane, and by proxy, Ranger Master Davien Hart. Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome’s niece, Master Gnine, and by his proxy, back to his uncle. Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and High Lady Anglenna Sunsear of High Woods and Bari Na-ammen, damning Ri Grandaleren Feymist and Rise Nadine Graciousward, again, by proxy.. Our Senior Temple Guardian Lady Magella, and by her proxy, Master Argail Smitefast and pretty much all her extended family at Scowling Hills, and the deceased Demos Lightshand. Then we have Udoorin Shieldheart, your son, who also happens to be the betrothal of Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, hence damning her again. And since he’s your son, that would be damning you, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart of Serenity Home town, by a similar proxy. Last but not least, myself, and by my proxy, damning you again! The Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, here, and ‘The Celestial’ girl, Merisoul Xyrotwu, never got mentioned as neither of them are within our kingdoms’ jurisdictions.. The title of ‘Ritual Guardian’ is not bestowed by the king nor his vassals, but by the Ritual Forest itself and I shudder to even contemplate just who has any jurisdiction over Merisoul Xyrotwu, other than ‘The Great Heavens’.. What was put into writing, however, was done so from a distinctly ‘relevance’ point of view.
Sheriff Standorin:(amused) Nicely done, Master Aager. You have threatened damning everyone of note in this town and people of the highest status among our neighbors. Not to mention damning my own son, my future daughter in law and myself —twice, I might add..
Aager Fogstep:(coldly) You didn’t bring me here from Drashan to play ball, Sheriff. You brought me here to be the solution!
Agent Largo:(snicker) I did offer to take him off your hands years ago, Sheriff..
Sheriff Standorin:(ignores Agent Largo and glares at Aager) Just how damning are we talking about, here?
Aager Fogstep:(total silence)
Sheriff Standorin:(sigh and turns to Lilly Venom) Says here, in your form, you are a ‘Security Advisor’, Miss Ferra?
Lilly Venom: Ferra is my given name, Sheriff Standorin. And that would be ‘Mrs.’ Not, ‘Miss’..
Sheriff Standorin:(cocked eyebrow) I wasn’t aware the infamous Lilly Venom was married.
Lilly Venom: I would have been surprised if you were. It happened just last night!
Sheriff Standorin: You can’t be serious!
Agent Largo: I have been. For quite some time, now.
Sheriff Standorin: What the hell do they put into the prison food?!
Agent Largo: I resent that.
Sheriff Standorin:(irritated) What am I expected to do now?
Agent Largo:(shrug) That’s up to you, Sheriff Standorin. This is my home, but it’s your town.
Sheriff Standorin: I suppose you will spill everything should I try to send you to the gallows, Mrs. Lilly?
Lilly Venom:(shrug) I am an Assassin —or a ‘Security Advisor’, if you will, Sheriff. I kill people for a living and I am very good at it. Whether I shall keep doing that is up to consideration at the moment, but I don’t do two things; lies and blackmail.
Agent Largo: I do.. And yes, the irony in that is sort of disturbing, but in this case, I shall uphold Lady Ferra’s wishes.. and honor..
Sheriff Standorin:(scowl) This is a mess, Master Aager. Please tell me the ‘solution’ in all this.
Aager Fogstep:(shrug) Hire Agent Largo as part of the Covert Ops team and let him do what he’s good at doing. Hire Lady Ferra, here, as a Security Advisor, as written in her form, and let her do what she’s good at doing. This town can’t stay a town any longer, Sheriff, even should we win the war. You know this to be true. We have tens of thousands of refugees of all races and The Ritual Guardian is doing everything she can to keep the weather ‘mild’ and the ground warm so they don’t freeze to death and so there’s is still some crops growing and hence, food available for the all those hungry mouths. It is also because of her and the druidic elves that survived High Woods we assigned to her that there haven’t been any breakouts.. All those refugees will, however, and eventually, require a roof over their heads, and said homes will require a much, much larger security team.. I am guessing Yuleman already knows this also. Everyone is working hard now and for a common cause because there are a hundred and fifty thousand Orken coming this way. But that’s all going to change, should we win the day and the threat of imminent death is gone. Especially should we win the day and the threat of imminent death is gone..
(silence for a long, smoldering moment)
Sheriff Standorin:(sigh) Very well, Master Aager. I shall take this up to Mayor Yuleman. In the meantime, Master Largo and Lady Lilly will stay in your residence, Master Aager. They may get out into your garden, but they shall not leave the premises. Agreed?
Agent Largo: Agreed.
Lilly Venom: I suppose so..
Agent Largo: I need some rest, anyway. Been running back and forth for weeks now.
Lilly Venom:(cooly) Not tonight, you aren’t!
Sheriff Standorin:(sigh) Go get the Temple Guardian Thomas here to officialize and formalize their wedding, if you will Master Aager.
(after Agent Largo and Lilly Venom are escorted out)
Sheriff Standorin: Is she as good as they say she is?
Aager Fogstep:(slight frown) She killed me, once!
Sheriff Standorin: …
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: That was one hell of a speech you gave back there. I am impressed. This place has done you good.
Aager Fogstep: The good sheriff might be a harsh man, but he isn’t unreasonable.
Lilly Venom:(after a moment of pause) Will you give me away, Brother? When your Temple Guardian comes to officiate our marriage?
Aager Fogstep: Bit late to be asking me that question, don’t you think?
Lilly Venom:(quietly) I am.. I am trying, Aager.. This is me, taking those steps..
Aager Fogstep:(silent stare)
Lilly Venom:(returning the silent stare)
Aager Fogstep: Where’s your.. Largo?
Lilly Venom: Outside. Behind the house, talking to his son.
Aager Fogstep: You are okay with him having a son? Not that it should matter and Dexter is a decent man. But the fact remains; both are quite older than you. Agent Largo in particular.
Lilly Venom: It isn’t like the age disparity is all that much, you know. Well, it is, but he’s a half-elf. By the time I am old and crooked, should I see those days, he will still be of mild age.. And to be honest, his age never bothered me, considering how much I dislike fools and loath men in general. I think, being forced to work in Madam’s brothel when I came to age, back in Drashan did that to me.. Do you even know, or have any idea what it feels like to be groped or fondled by a total, filthy stranger who is leering at you with unwanted desire when you are barely twelve?
Aager Fogstep:(in pure, silent wrath) No.
Lilly Venom: You are naked. In all kinds of ways. You are shivering. Not because it’s cold, but because you are so scared. You have no idea what you are expected to do and everyone and everything is looming over you and they are all so much bigger than you.. All you know is you are about to be used and it’s going to hurt and you are going to cry because you are just a small, skinny, powerless girl.. You are going to cry and it will not matter because it won’t change the fact that it’s still going to keep on hurting in places that you shouldn’t be hurting.. Not at that age.. All you have is a tiny knife that you are allowed to use if the man likes beating his girls.. I was so scared that I couldn’t even move.. He became angry.. I don’t know at which point I sliced him open! But when I woke up, I had a cracked head and a bloody face, and he was dead. That was my first kill.. Then I decided to do the same for the next half dozen or so men as well. I just stood there, unmoving, and I was scared all the time.. Eventually, though, it would anger the men and they would slam me around and I would slice them open! That is when they sold me off to the Cutters Guild.. (sigh) I don’t think I could have found someone my age that fit my tastes since I really, truly, and quite mindlessly loathed men.. All men.. Still do, really. Largo.. He has.. seen things.. Bad things.. And over the course of years longer than either of us seen put together.. It has made him mature.. And serious.. Yet he still clings to that lame sense of humor of his. It is pathetic, really.. But I find it.. endearing.. if you could believe that. Yes, I freely admit I like those qualities in him. I.. I don’t think he will grope me like those animals. I think he will treat me.. right.. and alright..
Lilly Venom: I don’t want to talk THAT with you! I don’t like you that much, yet! Or rather, I don’t know you that much yet.. Brother..
Aager Fogstep: Fair enough.
Lilly Venom:(sigh) I don’t think we will ever be like the way you and Inshala are.
Aager Fogstep: What way would that be?
Lilly Venom: Wierd?
Aager Fogstep:(snort) Huh!
Lilly Venom: To be honest, I wouldn’t want to, either.. Too much effort, too much work, too much pain.. and too many emotions for my taste. I just want honesty, care, and reliance —both ways.. But I also want a certain amount of privacy reserved for ourselves too..
Aager Fogstep: Also, fair enough. I am happy for you.
Lilly Venom: You.. you are?
Aager Fogstep:(shrug) Yes.
Lilly Venom: This conversation went.. better than I expected!
Aager Fogstep: Just what kind of a beast do you think I am, Lilly, to mess up your happiest day?
Lilly Venom:(carefully suspicious) I am sorry. Hard to change everything, all at once.
Aager Fogstep:(straight face) Besides. You are TOTALLYhis problem now!
Lilly Venom:(scowl) I knew it!
Aager Fosgstep: But I would rather you took your man and left. Gone.. Far away..
Lilly Venom: Why don’t you?
Aager Fogstep: (quietly, and after a pause) I can’t.
Lilly Venom: Why?
Aager Fogstep:(silent moment) This.. is my home now. And my Inshala’s forest.. I won’t give up my home, she won’t give up her forest..
Lilly Venom: Largo will not go. They destroyed his home. He does not show it, probably for my sake, but it’s tearing him apart. I strongly suspect he wants to die in as bloody a way as possible in the coming war.
Aager Fogstep: Why marry him then?
Lilly Venom: Because I.. want him.. per se.. And to give him another reason not to do what he foolishly wants to do.. Besides, we will likely go into the battle together. I’ll just have to watch his back..
Aager Fogstep: You are going into a battle.. because of an idiot?
Lilly Venom: No, brother. I am going to war because I want to preserve what’s mine.. And to earn my own ‘home’..
Aager Fogstep: You are an idiot too, then!
Lilly Venom: Perhaps.. Wonder what that makes you?
Aager Fogstep: The elder brother of an idiot!
Lilly Venom: Where’s your pretty girl? Where’s Inshala?
Aager Fogstep: She’s up the tree in the garden, trying to convince it to bloom.
Lilly Venom: Do I even want to know why?
Aager Fogstep: The tree is supposed to have very pretty pink flowers. She wants you to share them with your Largo.
Lilly Venom:(stunned) What? I am..
Aager Fogstep: Speechless?
Lilly Venom: Well, yes!
Aager Fogstep: She loves you.
Lilly Venom: I am flattered but how can she love me? Considering how little she knows me, and how horribly I treated her back in Arashkan.
Aager Fogstep: She has a great heart. And it seems she has a distinct affinity to seeing the depths of the souls in people. I can’t imagine what, but it appears she has found something she finds lovable in you.
Lilly Venom: You are not as funny as you think you are.
Aager Fogstep: I am funny?
Lilly Venom: What will you do? We.. seem to have barged into your home.
Aager Fogstep:(shrug) Sisters’ prerogative, I suppose.
Aager Fogstep: It’s alright, really. We will take our rest in the temple dormitories, or more likely next to some campfire —it’s a bit too crowned in the temple for my taste. We still have a lot of work until the day’s end, though. Inshala has to coordinate and make sure the ground stays warm and the weather mild for the refugees and I have two teams I need to continue training. One in the afternoon, which I should be heading soon, and the other at night and will take all night. ‘Infiltration, Blind Fighting, and Ambush!’
Lilly Venom: Oww.. Ambush! I could help you with that.
Aager Fogstep: No.
Lilly Venom: Why not?
Aager Fogstep: This one is an advanced group of former Bari Na-ammen vets and rangers, hence we will be using live weapons and I don’t want you bleeding back to your.. husband.. Besides, you should make good use of your time.. Nights in particular—
Lilly Venom: La, La, La, La, La, La, La —I am not listening to you..
Aager Fogstep:(snort) See you tomorrow morning, then.
Lilly Venom:(quietly) Aager?
Aager Fogstep: Hmm?
Lilly Venom: Thank you.
Aager Fogstep: Thank me when this is over and the ones we love are still alive.
Aager Fogstep:(strained voice) You.. aren’t going to try and stab me are you?
Lilly Venom: I just might..
Aager Fogstep: Care for a slice of advice?
Lilly Venom: From you? No.. But say it anyway. I might listen.
Aager Fogstep:Lose some, to win some.
Lilly Venom: What the hell kind of an advice is that?
Aager Fogstep: The kind I gave to myself, though mine was, lose all, to win all! You are a smart girl. I know because my Inshala said so! I am sure it’ll come to you in time. Now, go on to your hubby, baby sister!
Lilly Venom: …
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: Are you done?
Agent Largo: Almost.
D.D. Dexter: I still can’t believe this.
Agent Largo: I am sorry Dex. After what happened to your mother, I wasn’t going to trust anyone from ARIS where you were concerned. This town was the safest place I could think of and still give you a happy life. You know what is coming. You know the score.. I was ARIS and I had to do something for Arashkan without a constant threat on your life.. I can’t even tell you how many of my friends, my co-workers, and their families were assassinated in the past thirty years.
D.D. Dexter: I know the reasons, father. It’s just..
Lilly Venom:(briskly) Give it time. You’ll get used to it.
D.D. Dexter: You are.. intense.. If you don’t mind me saying so, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: Just ‘Lilly’ will do.. Considering all the effort I gave to make your father quit calling me that. As for intense.. Guess Agent Largo here will find out soon enough.
Agent Largo:(fluster, flush and blush) Lilly.. Please.. This is my son, for Heaven’s sake!
Lilly Venom:(heartless laugh) And he isn’t nine, Agent Largo. He’s older than I am!
Agent Largo:(blush some more)
Lilly Venom: Are you ashamed of me, Largo, that you keep blushing?
Agent Largo: No. Never that. It’s just.. a bit of an uncomfortable topic, that’s all..
Lilly Venom: There you have it, Dexter. He loves you enough to be embarrassed in front of you. Which is the only time I have seen him actually blush like this. You, Dexter, must understand; he did what he did to you, knowingly and deliberately because he had to. And now he has decided to share a life with me, knowingly and deliberately. Your father is a smart man, Dexter. I don’t think he would have been fooled by my approaches, because I am not really a ‘girly’ girl.. He accepted me because he wanted me. Considering just how loyal he has been to your mother’s memory for the past twenty years, I would say he deserves a break, wouldn’t you? Take that into account before you dish out judgments. We just came from Hell itself. There is no name for the blood and carnage we saw in Arashkan. We didn’t watch it from a distance, Dexter.. We were there.. On the ground, fighting, bleeding, and saving lives.. At least your father was.. All I did was to try and stay alive, and watched his back.. Your father needs respite and I hope he finds it with me. Will you not allow him to have that much before we go back into that Hell? Because whether we want it or not, Hell is coming our way as we speak!
D.D. Dexter:(stare with open mouth)
Lilly Venom: Now. If you would please, I would like to have a few, private moments with Agent Largo..
D.D. Dexter: Of course. I will see you later today, or perhaps in the evening when my duties are over.. (pause) On the other hand, tomorrow will be a better time.
Lilly Venom: Tomorrow will be fine. Thank you for being considerate.
D.D. Dexter:(mumble) Not like I was given much of a choice.
Lilly Venom: Best kind of choice offered. Which makes sense, since this really isn’t anything you should be making a choice over, should you think about it with an open mind. The only thing that concerns you is whether you will honor the choices your father had to make to keep you safe and alive and wish him some happiness and that he finds it with me.. or sulk about it.
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: I am sorry if I was a bit abrupt with your boy.
Agent Largo: I won’t complain. Had you not said the things you said, when I was still out, I don’t think we would have made any headway today.
Lilly Venom: I just didn’t give him the time to do or say things you both would have regretted, by making myself the target of his possible ire.
Agent Largo: You didn’t have to do that, Lilly.
Lilly Venom: But I did it anyway. I saw enough sad and stupid in my life, Largo. And I am tired of it. We can either carry that particular baggage into our lives or keep it out. This.. this is something I learned.. or rather, ‘was shown’, really, by my bother, Aager, and his skinny little woman.. But he.. they proved to me it could be done and I want to give it a shot. I will sweat for it, bleed for it, war for it, but want you to be there for it..
Agent Largo:(smile) We are back to ‘shots’? Where is the boy, Prince Korodin, by the way?
Lilly Venom: He is with Inshala.
Agent Largo: I don’t really know Lady Inshala. Can she be trusted?
Lilly Venom: More than either of us. She will ‘care’ for him like no other.. Now, quit dodging. Will you go for it?
Agent Largo: I am here, aren’t I?
(pale pink flowers start to fall all around them..)
Agent Largo:(surprised) What’s this? Cherry blooms in the middle of winter?
Lilly Venom:(looks up at the thousands of pink, cherry blooms flaking down with a glowing face and shimmering eyes, and whispers)
Inshala, baby girl.. Thank you..
✱ ✱ ✱
It is the first few days of December and evening has settled over a white Serenity Home. It is quiet and kind tonight and a barely discernable warm wind seems to blow from Gull’s Perch as if Mab and Titania have come to a rare understanding. There is a great, awe-inspiring, beautiful cherry tree in bloom in a garden in this town and there is a small ‘home’ next to this tree.
A home where people ‘belong’..
In this home, there is a young woman with a boldly handsome face and she shivers even though there is a cheery fire crackling in the small grate. Carefully, she takes off her long, brown leather trench coat, revealing an exquisitely made dress; a pale green loose blouse, a very dark royal green tight bodice with many laces complimenting her narrow hips, her slim waist, her slightly gaunt belly, and her pleasant-looking breasts, hiding in her blouse. A long skirt of the same color embroidered with delicate, silver threads and slits on either side flow down her hips to her bare feet, carefully displaying parts of her slender, naked legs..
The young woman shivers again, her hands in tight fists by her hips, and has trouble looking up at the maturely handsome blonde man standing a bare foot in front of her. The man has a slight frown on his face as if trying to discern a last-minute vex, for the small, single-room home is thread-bare to be sure, but it is warm.
The young, boldly handsome woman, however, is as if knot, and her lovely dark eyes seem to be staring only at his hands.
Lilly Venom: Will you have me now?
Agent Largo: Lilly? What’s wrong—
Lilly Venom: If you are, I would like you to take my daggers, all my knives, my darts, and my shark teeth away from me.
Agent Largo: Why? If you won’t mind me asking—
Lilly Venom:(looks up at her husband’s face, then at his hands again and whispers in trepidation)
I am scared.
And I do not want to kill you..
The boldly handsome young woman is as if staring down at her own bare feet as she speaks in a low, hoarse, throaty, and barely audible voice, her face burning with defiant rage and with a kind of a lost shame. She fidgets as she speaks but her eyes are in fact affixed on the blond man’s hands as if expecting them to move for an assault at any time.
Lilly Venom: You are the first man I have liked. And been this close to. And that almost includes my brother. I have loathed men all my life and killed many because they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. If this is an issue for you, I will try to understand, even should you want to leave.
Agent Largo: (stares at the girl, silently)
Lilly Venom: It isn’t like I am the only girl around.
Agent Largo: (continues to stares at the girl silently)
Lilly Venom: I can’t claim I am much of a catch, either.
Agent Largo: (still silent)
Lilly Venom: You are a handsome man, after all. I have seen any number of girls looking in your direction on the ship while we were sailing here..
Agent Largo: (persistently silent)
Lilly Venom: And yes, I am aware I should have said something about this before. But in my defense, it isn’t something I wanted myself to remember, let alone admit to someone else. It is not exactly table conversation; hey, I loath men, and I tend to slice them open when they come too near!
Agent Largo: (absolute silence)
Lilly Venom: I would rather you said something.. or left..
Agent Largo: (finally speaks, in a dry, gravelly voice) I don’t really know what I should say and still stay safely unbleeding..
Lilly Venom: (scowls while still looking down)
Agent Largo: That you think so little of yourself, and by doing so, you think so little of me, since choosing one another was consensual and you are basically accusing me of having bad taste! That you would notice the girls staring at me, but not notice the constant scowl I had for all the young men ogling at you on that same ship, and why I never returned the wonts of any of those girls but stayed as close to you as I could, while trying very hard not to crowd you. That you think I would leave because you have some issues, serious as they may be. And last but not least, that you would want me to strip you of your weapons, yet never asked me to remove mine..
Lilly Venom: (stares at the man)
Agent Largo: No one is ‘just right’, Lilly. We all have our issues. I will not belittle yours. But at least it is a relatively tangible problem that has its own solutions. I carry the guilt of Arashkan, dear Lilly. The blood of thousands are on my hands because of my failures and there is neither a cure and nor any redeeming salvation for that.
Lilly Venom: You can’t blame yourself because of what happened there. Everyone was at fault for that failure. Everyone ‘failed’.
Agent Largo: True. But I am the only one left alive to have to live with it. The dead feel no guilt!.. But that’s another, and certainly not a ‘tonight’ matter, for you have worked hard to give me some respite and I shall not let that go to waste.
Lilly Venom: Very well. I shall do more, if I must, to carry that guilt with you, only if I can’t wash it off you. What.. solution do you offer?
Agent Largo slowly takes off his coat, folds it neatly, and puts it aside. Then, even more slowly, he reaches for the girl and smoothly strips one of her daggers from her.. and cooly tosses it aside and out of reach.
Agent Largo: There. Your turn!
The boldly handsome girl ogles at the man for a frightened, breath-held moment, then, and inadvertently, she smiles, for suddenly she knows this is a game. A game she is certain to win.. She does a quick, mental inventory: the other pair of the long, close-quarter combat dagger, sixteen short-range throwing knives, half a dozen shark teeth, any number of garrotes, and two dozen poison darts!
Lilly Venom: (smirks) You will run out of ‘steel’ before I do!
Agent Largo: (smirks back) And what are you willing to bet on that?
A red glare appears over the Gull’s Perch to the east, and very slowly, the sun starts to rise and Serenity Home stirs with a lazy and reluctant yawn.
Inshala had woken up early that morning and snuck around the single-room house —her home, tiptoeing so as not to wake up the man sleeping soundly on the hard, threadbare mattress they shared and sneaking in a twenty by fifteen ‘room’ was a dare, all on its own, without waking up the most guarded and wary man in perhaps, several hundred miles in any direction.
But Inshala was just that good!
Having lived all her life mostly alone and in the wilds, a person learned to be quiet.
Or die quick.
Very silently, she snuck to the only door of the house, carefully opened it, and peaked outside to make sure there wasn’t anyone around to see her, as she wore only a simple, cream-white, hip-high shirt-gown, which did look more like a man’s shirt, really, and pretty much displayed her skinny legs, all the way up to her slender hips..
Satisfied, she slipped out of the house and into the garden behind. There, she very slowly drew water into a rickety wooden bucket using the old, squeaky pump, which wasn’t as easy as it sounded, considering how skinny she was, and how it shrieked every time she pulled at its lever!
When the bucket was full, she went back in and returned with a basket holding two apples, four green peppers, two hand-full of grapes, two tomatoes, half a dozen tiny onions, and two potatoes. All of these, she washed using the water from the bucket and quite vigorously.
Not content, she washed all of them again..
With an obsession that went all the way back to her younger days when she’d thought she was some unclean demon-spawn and had thought, or perhaps, zealously believed washing herself over and over and over again until her skin was rashed and likely bleeding, now.
In later years, her thoughts had become of two, in this matter. After she’d met Aager, who was hopefully still sleeping inside, however, she had finally concluded that perhaps —like, maybe— she wasn’t so unclean and not really a demon-spawn.
In all candor, she hadn’t yet attained that level of clarity, or wisdom, where she just wouldn’t care even if she was, in fact, a demon-spawn and it was what one chose to do, and consequently became, that mattered, rather being born as something that one’s opinions was never taken into account, nor were you ever confided.
That wisdom would come in time.
Like, many years later..
Just not yet.
Suffice to say, the idea of she being unclean had faded, drastically so, but her obsession for cleanliness and washing things over and over and over had, apparently, stuck!
Hence, with cold, weary, and shriveled hands, she returned back into the house and put all the fruits and vegetables on the small but sturdy table next to the tiny fireplace. She gave a cursory glance at the pots and pans that were available at hand, which weren’t all that many, really; a small jar full of cooking oil, two crock-pots containing some butter and some white cheese, a number of tin containers with coffee, various teas and herbs, one small iron pot for stew, a dingy copper pan, a small, water boiling pot, and her own addition, a set that comprised of two, flat, wooden plates which were called dinner plates, as she’d found out later when they were in Durkahan, two wooden bowls, and two wooden cups, all of which she herself had painstakingly carved in secret after she and Aager had come to better know one another, and when they were back at Arashkan, and a pair of forks and spoons, and several knives.
She picked up the smallest of the knives, the wooden-handled one, and peeled one apple, and sliced it in four. She took the other apple and sliced it in eight, but without peeling it. She also peeled the potatoes and cut them into very neat and very thin slices and cleaned the tiny onions then went over to the tiny fireplace and with a small wave of her hand, she lit the fire. She picked up the copper pan, careful not to make any noise, she poured some of the cooking oil in it, then lined the sides of the pan with the sliced apples, followed by potatoes, and in the very center, she put the onions. And with equal care, she placed it on the grate of the fireplace. Then she returned to the table, took out the two dinner plates, and spooned some butter into both and a rich slice of the white cheese as well. With sharp, practiced motions, she cut the tomatoes without letting the juice —one of the advantages of being mated to Aager; all his knives, kitchen or otherwise, were always very, very sharp, and placed them next to the cheese. Then she speared the green peppers with one of the longer knives, walked over to the fireplace, and held them in the fire, one pair a bit more than the other because Aager liked his food a bit on the burnt side. She placed the green peppers, now spotted with black charrs, and lay them next to the sliced tomatoes, and held her breath!
Aager had just stirred!
Hastily, she went back to the fireplace and withdrew the pan, and put a bit more than half the onions and the potatoes, and all the four slices of peeled and fried apples into his plate, and the eight, not-peeled ones into her own because Aager liked his apples peeled and once peeled, apples turned mushy when you tried to fry them, hence the slices had to be larger. She, on the other hand, liked her apples with their peels! As an encore, she placed the grapes, in a sort of pyramidical formation, and next to the green peppers.
Then she took out the two wooden bowls, turned them upside down, and placed them over the dinner plates to keep dust and bugs out of the now ready breakfast, cleaned the table off the peels, took out the water boiling pot, ghosted back out, filled it with water, skimmed back in and hung the pot over the fire and dumped a spoon.. no.. two spoons.. wait.. was it one, or two spoons?
This was the one thing she could never remember;
The number of spoons of coffee that went into the small pot.
Possibly because she never drank coffee. It smelled wonderful, like awesome-wonderful, but once, and only once had she drank it. Back when her Father, Cathber had still been alive.
Turned out, coffee had quite the opposite effect on her, than it had on her Father —or any other human for that matter.
It had made an eleven-year-old Inshala totally, unimaginably, and roaring drunk!
It had been a learning experience for both herself and her Father that day.
Hence, Inshala preferred her herbal teas in the mornings but she wouldn’t make a fuss if they weren’t available. Aager, on the other hand, would forgo his breakfast, but not his coffee!
All done and ready, she quickly heated her slender hands near the fire, then her tiny feet, and with a very self-conscious blush, she turned around, pulled up her simple, cream-white, hip-high shirt-gown she used while she slept, and heated her embarrassingly small, cup-sized, bare butt as well, because Aager tended to get riled when her hands, her feet, and even perhaps her butt, was cold, as one never quite knew where hands went when the mind was asleep, usually ending up where they wanted to be without bothering to ask the mind!
Just the other day, she had woken up with one of her slender hands in his hair, and the other in his shirt, touching his lean, spring-coil chest marred and marked with whip marks and numerous stab wounds!
She had been so embarrassed.
But with a very guilty and a very, very red but decisive face, she had kept her hands where they were.
The deed had already been done, right?
Inshala had figured, should Aager decide to trash her for it, she’d at least have fully earned it!
That’s how her mind worked; if she was going to get trashed, she should do her best to thoroughly deserve it.. as odd, somewhat scary, and illogical as that sounded.
Back to the topic at hand, then?
When Aager found her hands, feet, and possibly her butt, were cold, he spoke in his ‘quiet’ voice because he thought she wasn’t taking care of herself.
That was one of the very few things he did not tolerate when it came to Inshala.
It seemed like everyone had their perks, quirks, and oddities and it mattered very little how much you loved and cared for them, or how desperately they loved and cared for you.
But all of that went only as far as one could find a way around them.
With her hands, her feet, and her butt comfortably warmed up, she snuck back to the threadbare mattress and slithered her way into his arms, and started to watch his face..
With quiet, excited anticipation..
..and inadvertently, she breathed, softly, into his face.
Perhaps he was having a bad dream again.
Aager often had bad dreams.
Inshala had watched him ever since they had met in the woods, some six or seven months ago, and knew when he was having a bad dream.
Then his eyes opened.
They didn’t flutter.
They opened suddenly and alertly, without any sign of sleep or grogginess.
It was quite creepy, really.
But Inshala had found it amazing.
Possibly because when she woke up, she was much like this silly bear that’d just woken up from his winter sleep; dizzy, groggy, confused, stupid, and at times, panicked, even.
Because she wanted him to see ‘this’, the first thing he opened his eyes..
“You have pretty eyes.”
Aager said solemnly.
After quietly staring at her.
“Yeesh!”, thought Inshala.“Totally worth a trashing.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Meet you at the Guest’s Inn at, say, when the town bell hits twice afternoon?”, Aager asked. He had cleaned out his perfectly prepared plate and was now sipping his hot, bitter coffee, quietly wondering at what point had the little girl slipped out of their dingy mattress and prepared the breakfast and returned back into his arms and whether or not to tell her she didn’t have to prepare the breakfast because he didn’t think she was some serving maid.
“I don’t prepare anything because I am a serving maid, my Aager.”, Inshala said with a flushed smile, as if having read his mind, which, in all likeliness, she had.. “I prepare them because I do not think you should go to work to keep us all safe and do it hungry.”
“Some would argue your point.”, Aager mused.
“You are not ‘some’ to me, my Aager. And I prepare it because you have asked me to care for myself. Which is what I am doing. Caring for you is caring for myself. And I like cooking.”, she replied with an even bigger smile. “Besides, this is our home. And ‘some’ has no say here. Only you, and me, get to speak in our home.”
“Well, when you put it that way, someone just lost the argument!”, Aager smiled.
“As for the hour, I think we should meet here and go to this Guest’s Inn, place.”, she said.
Aager cocked an eyebrow.
“When we return here..”, Inshala explained. “..we have returned ‘home’ where we are at our best. We are filled and refreshed with our ‘home power’ here. And we shall go and meet them fully armed, with the least taint of the day, hanging on us.”
“That is.. a rather deep perspective of looking at it.”, Aager admitted a bit astonished.
“Will you fight the Summer Knight?”, she asked a bit tentatively.
“I have no desire to fight anyone. We have enough enemies on their way.”, he growled. “But I shall not bow to any demands, should he be foolish enough to make them. What will you do today?”
“I have been asked by the elves of High Woods to kindly meet with their druids and the druids, shamans, and witches of Ritual Forest to lead them.”, Inshala said unhappily. “I don’t want to lead anyone. I am too young for that. But the request was made by your mayor, Artanboss—”
“Arthandos, love.”, Aager corrected her kindly.
“Yes, him. He sent word to our Bremorel to find me and tell me about this. What should I do? I have more than enough work, bargaining with Mab and Titania so they would cooperate..”, she said like she wanted to cry. “I mean, they can barely tolerate one other in even in my secret Silent Forest. Now I bargain with Mab so she would refrain from her usual winters, and beg Titania so she would breathe life and warmth to these lands so the refugees will not freeze and die, and neither wants to give consent without wanting something from the other! They only agreed thus far because I told them, should either refuse, Mab can live her best winters when the Orken bring their destruction and kill all her Winter Feys and I told Titania that she could enjoy her summers once the same Orken totally burn her Perch and kill her nymphs and dryads who live there.”
Aager splurted some of his coffee!
“You threatened Mab and Titania?”, he stared at her, somewhat aghast and about to laugh.
Inshala’s face went red.
“I.. might have.. just a little..”
“That was awesome, love.”, he said happily. “But I think you should lead all the druids and witches and whatnots of both parties as you are the only one among them that have seen the bigger picture and look out what’s best for the world and the people in general, rather than their individual self-interests. Though I think you should make sure you have their oaths that they will follow your lead, should they want you to lead them.”
“I don’t want any more responsibility and you want to bind them to me with oaths?”, she pouted.
“We all must do what we must, love. And we are all running out of time.”
Inshala pouted some more and Aager put his bitter coffee down, leaned over the small table, and kissed her pretty pout.
“I am off, love.”, he said with one of his rare smiles. “It has been a wonderful night, a delicious breakfast, and even a better kiss. I will meet you here at the second toll of the bell, afternoon.”
Inshala stood where she sat, a demure, happy smile on her face.
Then she blinked.
“Ow no..”, she moaned. “I forgot to ask him if the coffee was alright.”
“I forgot how many spoons I put.. Again!“
✱ ✱ ✱
Will you honor us, Lady Inshala?”, asked an elderly elf in some old and saggy brown robes.
“I will honor everyone who comes in peace.”, replied the little girl, blushing furiously, for the elf bowing before her was at least one thousand five hundred years older than her. “Sir. Please. I am the Ritual Guardian, for the forest has spoken. But I lack the years and the wisdom for such respect.”
“No, Ritual Guardian. The forest has chosen you, precisely for those reasons. Mortals may choose as their wont. Nature chooses to her need.”, said the elderly elf and there was a rumble of agreement among the other druids, both elf and human, young and old, and the few shamans, all standing in a huge, rune laid circle, far out of the town, and all staring at her in wonder, something Inshala found quite uncomfortable and rather embarrassing.
The witches at the back, a score or so in number, all wearing masks or veils, however, stood silent.
Inshala looked back to make sure the two rangers were still there; Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel and Ranger Master Moorat, who had been assigned to her for the duration of this meeting, though whose idea it had been to assign them to her in the first place, she didn’t know, though she had some implicating suspicions about it. She and her hubby, Aager, would have words about this later, at length..
“It wasn’t me, love.”, she heard Aager whisper in her mind.
“It.. it wasn’t?”, she asked a bit baffled.
“As much as I would claim my hand in this, I have no jurisdiction over the rangers of Serenity Home. Yes, they are bound to report to me, but I can not give them orders, and I can even prove it!”, Aager said and gave Inshala the impression that he was smiling.. sort of smugly.
“I would like to see how you can prove that, all the way from the sheriff’s office, my Aager.”, she replied with a little sniff.
“Morel.”, Aager said.
“What about her?”, she asked a bit confused.
“Is she scowling and fuming?”
“Well. No. She looks.. happier than I remember her from our time at Themalsar.”
“There you have it, love. Had I given her the order, she’d be glaring and breathing fire, because both she and her cousin, Laila, very much dislike me and hate it when I order them around.”, he said, the impression of his smugness more apparent now.
“They would have liked you if you hadn’t inperodated.. incarocated.. imperomated—”, she said and faltered.
“Uhhmm.. Interrogated them?”
“Yes, that..”, she said blushing furiously. “In that tent when they were wounded after their fight against the wolves, all those years ago.”
“Wait a minute.”, Aager said. “How could you possibly know about that?”
A long, ‘oops’ sort of silence settled over the conversation.
“You.. you got your knife back that evening, didn’t you?”, she mumbled, her blush turning into a very hot flush now.
“That.. that was you!”
“Yes.”, Inshala replied with a very small voice.
“I knew it!I KNEW IT! AND THOSE IDIOTS INSISTED ON NOT TELLING ME ANYTHING!“, Aager fumed. “And you were there all along..”
“Well, I only joined the attack against the wolves when they both were hurt because they didn’t know me and I was in my saber-tooth tiger form and feared I would either be a distraction or a source of fear causing them to attack me as well.”
“And it was you who healed them and washed and braided their hair!”
“My master did most of the healing. But yes. I did wash their hair and braided them as well. I am sorry my Aager, but they were wearing their hair wrong!”
“And.. you were at the tent afterward as well?”
“Well.. not inside the tent.. Just outside. They were hurt so badly and I know hurt very well and felt so sorry for them and wanted to be sure they were alright. That’s when you came and started intorodating them..”
Inshala got the distinct impression that Aager was ‘victory dancing’ in her head!
“Umm..”, she said. “If I’d known you were this curious about it, I promise, I would have told you about it before. But many things happened after we met in the forest years later, and..”
“And I didn’t want to scare you..”
“Well. I did follow you around when you and my Father, along with the hunters and rangers had gone to kill the rabid wolves, and later, when we were following those bad men that had killed my Father and burned your town. It.. makes me look.. scary.. I would have been scared if someone snuck around behind me like that..”, she said, a bit mortified.
“Love. Being followed around and stalked by you was one of the better things that has ever happened to me.”, Aager admitted freely. “As for why Bremorel and Moorat are there, I might have an idea as to who sent them to safeguard you.”
“That was very nice of him but.. he wouldn’t have known about this meeting..”
“I might have mentioned it to him and insinuated that keeping the Ritual Guardian —our Ritual Guardian— safe and sound was of utmost importance..”, he replied, not without a small amount of smug.
“Ow, my Aager.”, Inshala sighed. “You could have just told me, you know. I am not a disagreeable girl, after all.”
“No, love. You are not. But that meeting isn’t only a happy gathering between druids and witches. It also concerns the rest of us. Think of Bremorel and Moorat as representatives of Serenity Home.”
“I do not mind Bremorel is here, my Aager. But Ranger Master Moorat is.. scary.. And he is scowling at everyone!”
“That’s Moorat for you. But he is a good man at heart. I think. His sister was Sheriff Standorin’s wife, and Udoorin’s mother. She became very ill when Udoorin was at a very young age and died. Moorat and the sheriff are always scowling because they still miss her.”, Aager said quietly.
“Owww.. That is so sad. I shall speak of this matter with him after this meeting. I sense he has words to say and they have been inside him for many years now.”, Inshala promised.
“Do be careful, love. Moorat might be a good man, but he doesn’t have all that good manners and his mouth is rather foul.”
“I doubt he can add any more to what I have already heard from the woodsmen in my youth, my Aager, but I shall be careful.”
A moment of smoldering silence fell and Inshala immediately regretted what she’d just said.
“One day, love, and soon, I believe you and I are going to visit those woodsmen up north.”, Aager said with a too steady voice.
“No need, my Aager. Really. Nothing good can come from such a visit. What is done is done. I did what I did and went near their homes to fix their broken and hurt animals when my Father clearly warned me not to. And just as he warned, I made their sins, my sins. I do not regret my choices, nor the consequences of my choices. I do regret theirs, for I was the cause of it. The woodsmen there always live in fear because their lives might end at any time and without warning; the tree they cut might fall on them and crush them, a wild animal might attack and eat them, a marauding band of orcs or goblins, or worse might raid them and slay them.. They suffer the harshest of winters and could easily die, frozen and brittle.. Being so far away from help has made them wary of everyone and everything that isn’t them. Yet they still are there, because there, they are free and no one tells them what to do. Vengeance, my Aager, is merely a lazy form of grief..”, she said mutely.
Aager did not reply for some time. When he spoke, his voice was kinder, though as steady and even as it had just been.
“You, my Inshala, are a wonder, you are. I shall not go after them. But should they come after you as they did before, I shall not allow you to suffer their sins again.”
That said, Inshala felt Aager’s presence leave..
She sighed and turned to the men and women, elf and human, all much, much older than she.
“I shall accept your offer to lead, but not your offer to command. We, druids and shamans, are free. From nature, we take only what we need, and we return back to her willingly. That is who we are. And that is what makes us, and no ill-begotten Orken nor their foul demon masters may take this away from us. Should you acknowledge my lead, I shall require your consent. We are free. But we must work and work in concert to stay free. Will you all concur on this?”, she asked quietly.
There was a murmur of awed surprise as the druids stared at the little girl in wonder.
Yes. The forest had chosen her as her guardian, and this was the reason. Her wisdom was merely the excuse.
One by one, they approached her and bowed, declaring their devotion and allegiance.
“Thank you all.”, Inshala said, looking down at her own small palms, very much embarrassed. “Let us all, then, gather our collective wisdom and put them to words at the first toll of this very night, and see what knowledge we have, where we are most needed, and what we may do about them.”
The druids and the shamans all nodded and quietly left.
When they were gone, only the witches remained.
Someone grunted in disgust behind her and that was the only sound she heard from Ranger Master Moorat.
One of them, a very elderly, crooked old hag of a woman with a gnarled old cane took a few steps forward.
“We are not some tree-hugging druid or some simple-minded shaman, little girl.”, she said and Bremorel’s soft, throaty voice immediately riposted!
“Careful, witch. Should you try and insult the Ritual Guardian, I shall personally make sure it’s the last thing you do.”
“We are not afraid of you, nor your kind, Bremorel Songsteel.”, spat back the old witch.
“I do not require your fear of me nor my kind, hag. You can frisk or frolic while I cut you for all I care. Know this, however, you might get away from the Ritual Guardian, for she is kind and forgiving and has a great heart, but there is no place on earth you can run nor hide from me nor my kind. And should you want to test us, you shall never see us coming. Only die by our steel. And we shall bring the full might of the Temple Guardians upon you, also!”, she replied coldly.
A grim silence fell over the witches, for nothing the ranger lieutenant had said was bravado. She had pronounced exactly what she would do. Period.
“Ranger Lieutenant.”, Inshala said quietly. “Please. We are all here under the threat of total annihilation by the Orken. We need each other, more than ever.”
The old witch stared at her for a moment, her veil shuffling rapidly.
“Your master, Cathber, did us great disservice by banishing our kin from the Ritual Forest. This needs to be addressed.”
“My master banished your kind from Ritual Forest because your elders sided with Themalsar during the first war. And along with his warlocks did they bind the spirits of the fallen, tormenting them and driving them mad and sent them against the elves, the humans, the dwarves, and the gnomes.”, Inshala replied mutely. “Those spirits, bound and mad, stayed there for eight hundred years, howling in despair. I felt them all, as I brought down that mad priest’s temple down. And after so many centuries, were those poor spirits finally free.”
“What’s done is done. We can not be held responsible for the deeds of our ancestors. We must be allowed to return to our lands.”, the old witch snarled.
“The land is not yours. It never was. Land and sky belong to nature.”, Inshala said. “We all are mere guests, here.”
“Then there is nothing to speak here. We shall take our leave and return to our homes in exile.”, the witch declared.
“Return or stay. That is yours to decide. But should you persistent on the mistakes of your elders and join the enemy as they did before, I shall make sure you will be the last of your kind for nature hates demons because they are foul and they are evil, yet they are also not of this world. You and your kin, however, are, and nature abhors more, that which so thoroughly betrays her own world.”, Inshala said and there wasn’t a trace of a threat in her voice. She said it as it was and as a matter of fact.
“You give us nothing, yet want everything. You give no carrot, yet you show us the stick.”, hissed the hag.
“I do not do carrots, nor do I do sticks. I am nature. I balance. And balance does not offer bribes nor favors. Should you want to live in a world free of demons, you must bleed for it, just like everybody else, for I have offered nothing to the druids, nor the shamans, much like nothing was offered to me.”
“A challenge!”, another witch said from behind.
A murmur rippled among the witches.
“Yes. A challenge, then.”, said the old hag.
“A challenge for what?”, Inshala asked.
“A challenge of yield to see if you are fit to be the Ritual Guardian!”
Inshala paused for a moment.
“I did not choose to be what I am. I was chosen.”
“So you say. Face one of our kind and prove yourself!”, cried the old witch triumphantly. “Should you lose, you shall step down and will no longer be the Ritual Guardian, and we will be allowed to return to Ritual Forest.”
“Nothing of what you just said made any sense, and the fact that you do not understand what being a Ritual Guardian is or the workings of the world around you, is proof that you shouldn’t be dabbling with any magic, let alone with spirits. But it is apparent you will not understand even should I explain it to you because you are not here to understand. You are here to make demands for the things you want but do not deserve and without wanting to bleed or sweat for them. So I will ask only what would entail should I win?”, she asked calmly.
“What would you want?”, the old witch asked.
Inshala didn’t miss a beat.
“You, all of you, shall join our fight against the Orken and their demon masters for so long as they remain a threat and be bound to someone of my choosing, and never shall you ensnare any spirits to torment them ever again. Should any of you break this agreement or fail to uphold it, you will die, all of you, by your own spirits. This is my carrot!”
A dead, choking silence fell over the witches and Inshala heard a pair of elated snorts from behind her.
“Girl, if that was the carrot, I don’t ever want to see what you would do with a stick.”, snarked Bremorel.
“We.. we shall decide whom to send..”, the old witch said with a deflated voice.
“I shall await your choice. Now, I have other matters to attend.”, Inshala replied and calmly rose, and left the circle.
“I am not sure what just happened, girl, but what you just did was dangerous.”, Bremorel said with a frown. “Witches are bitches and not a good lot. I’d rather they didn’t help us.”
“If they do not help us, they will help the enemy, dear Bremorel. Yes, witches can be bothersome, and dangerous, but they must know their place. And for them to know that, they must first learn it, then earn it. My Father had very good reasons for banishing them and it would seem, after all these centuries, they still haven’t learned neither their place nor any humility.”, Inshala replied.
“Lady Inshala is right.”, Moorat said with a vicious scowl. “As much as I detest them, you don’t want them hating you more than you hate them. In his very long life, Master Cathber did many great things. Kicking the witches out of Ritual Forest was one of his best, though.”
She didn’t know this Moorat and he was a scary man.
“Would you give us a moment with Ranger Master Moorat, dear Bremorel? I must consult him on a personal matter.”, she said tentatively.
“Of course.”, Morel replied, though she did give her a queasy look.
Moorat was a broad-shouldered man but not very tall and he still looked down at the little girl. His ranger outfit seemed harassed and make-due, but a closer inspection would reveal, they were, in fact, immaculately kept, just like his bow and great sword he carried across his shoulder.
He did, however, have a truly evil-looking face.
“You display wisdom beyond your years, young lady. I am impressed. Reminds me of someone I knew, once.”, he said in his harsh voice.
“Thank you, sir.”, replied Inshala a bit shyly.
“Ah. I merit a ‘Sir’, now do I?”, grinned Moorat and his already evil-looking features became even more sinister. “This should brighten Stan’s day!”
Inshala flinched again.
“I.. I don’t think you are as you seem.”
“No, little girl. I am exactly as I seem.”, growlaughed the ranger master!
“Would you say dear Bremorel is a good person?”, she asked.
“A bit silly at times. And can start a fight in the blink of an eye, but yes, I would say she is a good girl. The best greenhorn I ever had. Well, not anymore. She’s a lieutenant now.”
“Greenhorn?”, Inshala asked, inadvertently reaching up to touch her own horns.
“Ahh. Bad choice of words there. I meant student.”
“There you have it, then, sir.”, she replied.
“There I have what?”, Moorat asked a bit confused.
“At the hands of a decent man, good becomes better. At the hands of a lecher, bad becomes worse. I heard people tell of her sad story and how she lost her parents and how she was after that. I look at her now and I see a dear sister; smart, full of life, and fiercely loyal to her friends and I would like to think you had a hand in that.”, she said quietly.
Moorat stared at her..
“Well.. maybe.. no one needs to know, though. Are we clear on that, young lady?”, he said flustered and uncomfortable.
“Your secret is safe with me, sir.”, she said and very quietly, she added. “I.. am sorry about your sister.”
“I.. yes.. well.. thank you for your concern..”
“You must miss her dearly.”, she said with the same hushed tone.
“Many who knew her, miss her dearly.”, replied Moorat with a similarly low voice.
“Udoorin was my friend and was always kind and polite to me. I do not remember my mother. She died when I was barely born. But I would very much like to hear who his mother was. I.. would be much in your debt and be honored if you would tell me your sister, Limnia Karya.”
“You know her name?”
“I did not, sir. But to those who know how to listen, the earth we walk.. she speaks us certain names for she does not forget those who do much harm and trample it in hubris, nor does she forget those who are much loved and softly have walked it..”, she replied.
“Limnia.. my dear sister.. did walk it softly..”, whispered Moorat, staring far into the distance. “..and was something else. And I couldn’t even tell her how much I loved her before she died..”
It was long past the first toll of the bell that afternoon when Inshala returned back to the town, accompanied only by a silence Bremorel.
When they entered Serenity Home, the ranger lieutenant gave her a hug and told her to come over for dinner some time, and if she really must, that she could also bring her hubby, Aager, along too, but that it was perfectly fine and she wouldn’t be vexed at all if she didn’t..
Inshala smiled at her and simply said, “We belong.”
Bremorel stared at her with this look on her face and said, “Well, that must suck!”
Inshala smiled again and started towards home.
It was nearing the second toll afternoon and she didn’t think she should keep her hubby waiting.
✱ ✱ ✱
What’s the plan of action, here?”, Aager asked in his growling voice.
“Plan of action? Those are too big words for me, my Aager. I am but a simple girl who needs ranger escort to find her way to a meeting. Perhaps we should stop by the temple and ask Bremorel to join us, again.”, said Inshala with a mischievous spark in her eyes.
Aager fumed a bit but didn’t bite back.
“I am sorry.”, he said. “I wasn’t trying to be bossy nor was it my intention to patronize you.”
“My Aager. I never mind it when you want to boss me, nor patronize me. Because you never do them out of whim, nor to feel good about yourself. But I need your respect and your trust as much as I want your love and your care. I have your love for I can feel it. I have your care for I see it. But you must show your respect and your trust by your deeds. It is true I am not as smart as you are, but if I must fall, then I should fall because one day, I surely will. It is the nature of Mortals to fall and hurt themselves. That is how we learn to look where we are going. I am young and silly and have fallen many times, and still, I forget to look where I step, so to speak, but if that is the only way for me to learn, then I deserve to keep on falling until I don’t.”, she replied kindly.
“That is asking a lot, love.”, Aager said, still fuming.
“To ask for your respect and trust?”, Inshala asked a bit baffled.
“No. To let you risk so many falls..”
Inshala smiled at him.
“Sometimes, I will fall, my Aager. And sometimes you will. We both are still very new at belonging and have a lot to learn. As for the matter at hand, I think it would be better if you do all the talking since this is a matter between the Winter Knight and the Summer Knight. I will only speak should you require some vital information perpaiming.. perkaiming.. per—”, she sighed with a flustered resignation. “I forgot the word!”
“Pertaining?”, offered Aager.
“Yes, that.. perpaiming the fey and the courts..”
They walked in amiable silence for a bit and Inshala looked up to see the vague visage of the Gull’s Perch, lost in the distance and mists. It was several days travel away, but still looked beautiful; a single vertical rock-like mountain, some half a mile at its base and climbed up and up and disappeared in the clouds.
She sighed and Aager nudged her.
“What’s up?”, he asked.
“The Gull’s Perch.”, she replied simply.
The Winter Knight looked up too and stared at the majestic scene.
“What of it?”, he asked.
“It’s been quite some time I haven’t been there. The last time I was, my Father was killed because I was busy playing with the fey that live there. Things could have turned out very differently had I been at home and not there.”
Aager didn’t really know what to say to that. It appeared, guilt was something that logic just couldn’t wash off. So he did the next best thing; he reached and held the little girl by the waist and pulled her tightly to himself, and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
“Give it some time, love. It won’t fade, but it will be tolerable.”
Inshala leaned closer to him and the Guest’s Inn came into view.
“Should something start here, I want you to leave and go home, please.”, he said in his growling voice.
“And you truly think I will abandon you?”, Inshala replied with a frown.
“You won’t. But you can’t be seen, nor be part of a direct conflict between the two opposing knights. I am thinking neither Mab nor Titania will appreciate that. I don’t want you to lose all your good standing with either court.”, he said seriously.
Inshala did one of her funny snorts!
“I love it when you try to get me out of harm’s way using this thing you call logic. Has it ever worked?”
“Every time.”, Aager said blandly. “Because you are a smart and sensible girl.”
“Ow.. I like where this heading.”, Inshala smiled.
“And I am not the sort of guy who falls for just any pretty face. The girl I love must also be sensible, logical, and can see reason when it’s offered to her..”
“..and has the strong will to ignore it when she deems it necessary!”, she finished smugly.
Perhaps it was time for Aager to sigh.
So he did..
“Do not worry my Aager. You know I shall do my best not to hinder you. Just like I know you will do your best not to bind me, and just like we both know neither shall abandon the other, no matter the cost. I may live with the wrath of Mab and Titania. But I have no desire to live alone nor to live without you.”
Aager pushed the door of the Guest’s Inn and scanned the large room full of tables, chairs, and stools, to see the inn was void of people. Even the bar and the bar attendants were gone. He looked up to made sure the stairs leading up were clear, and entered.
It was perhaps the only time he had seen the inn this empty.
Accept for the one table near the center and next to one of the shuttered windows. The inn’s saloon was not dark, per se, but it was decidedly dim.
He looked at the occupied table and saw a figure in dark brown robes, a hood, and a full face mask. The man didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons on him, though Aager knew robes could be deceiving and could hide any number of nasty and pointy things. The man didn’t seem to be large nor tall, but only gave the illusion of size due to the robes, the hood, the mask.
And he wasn’t alone.
A lithe figure say next to him. She wore a tight, dark purple dress-skirts, a polished steel bodice-girdle emphasizing her rather shapely breasts, several necklaces, all accessorized with dozens of multi-colored beads, any number of bracelets with similarly colored grains, and her long, slim fingers were decorated with more rings than she had digits and though her face was covered with a heavy veil, she gave the distinct impression that she was the kind of girl who was comfortable with her own figure but very much liked to be further appreciated for it..
Without further due, he pushed the door wider and stepped aside as Inshala walked in and gave the inn a quick glance herself. She silently nodded at him and they both ghosted towards the only occupied table.
Aager let Inshala slide into the double bench and took his place next to her where she would face the well-accessorized girl, and he would face the man in his dark brown robes, pulled up hood and mask —the Summer Knight.
The four sat there for a long moment as everyone tried to assess their counter-part.
To Aager’s surprise, though, it wasn’t the man in the dark brown robes who spoke first.
“What’s she doing here? Why is she even here?”, asked the girl sitting next to the Summer Knight.. quite viciously.
“I am the Ritual Guardian. I am here as the moderator.”, Inshala said simply.
“I do not recognize this self-imposed title. I do not recognize the Ritual Guardian!”, she hissed.
“Your recognition is neither required nor deemed. Your ignorance of the world you live in, however, is a bit worrisome.”, Inshala replied quietly.
“I doubt you are in any position to lecture me, little girl.”, the girl spat waspishly.
“You are a small as I am.”, Inshala said, trying not to snort.
“I am older than you are!”, the girl hissed.
The Summer Knight sighed.
“And your age has not brought you the wisdom it has promised. Perhaps you should wait a few more years?”, Inshala smiled happily.
“I could take you any day, any time!”
“I don’t think so, Witch!”, Inshala replied calmly.
A choked silence fell over the spat.
“Perhaps we should go and come back some other time.”, Aager said in his ‘quiet’ voice. “As much as others might enjoy a good catfight, I don’t, and neither do I have the time for it..”
“I am sorry, Sir Knight.”, Inshala said, a bit flushed. “I was not name-calling her. Merely defining her for what she really is; a witch! And she is trying to rile us so she could bring her spirits into play and axe this meeting which she knows she is not a part of. She is not fey, she is not a vassal of either court, let alone Summer, and is recognized by neither, and hence, unhappy, which is understandable. By refusing to recognize my title, she hopes to gain a seat at this table as someone who does not have a title herself. What she does not comprehend, is the importance of this meeting. She wants recognition, yet she defies the same from others. Much like the rest of her kind, she turns a deliberate blind eye to the title of Ritual Guardian, which I did not bestow upon myself, as it is not a Mortal whim, and hence, can not be self-imposed, as she is also ignorant of what it entails, much like she is interfering a business between forces as great as Mab and Titania, for each knight here represents one or the other, while she represents no other than her own self-interests.”
Aager did not turn to look at her, though he very much wanted to. That had been one awesome smack-down and he could literally feel the veiled girl seething with hate.
He just stared at the man sitting across from him.
“You asked me why I was here and I have given my reason. Why are you here?”, she asked the girl in the dark, purple dress skirts. “If you so wanted to be part of this meeting, all you had to do was to ask nicely.”
“I am here to make sure you stay out of this meeting and do not cheat!”, the girl said viscously.
“Unlike you, I am actually part of this meeting. You may consult the Queens on this matter if you like. I hold Mab’s personal favor and am bound to Titania due to my druid’s circle. Also, I carry fey blood. Hence, I do not cheat, nor do I require it. Had you known fey, you would also have known it is quite not possible for us to lie. We leave such despicable acts of vile deceit to Mortals.”, Inshala replied with a prim little sniff.
“I.. am sorry for that last part, my Aager.”, she said abashedly.
“No, no. By all means do what it is you are doing, love. Smack her down to your heart’s content. I am enjoying this.”, came Aager’s mirthful voice.
“Please, my Aager. This is important. I have to learn this witch where she belongs amongst us and that she and her ilk are not above others and neither are their actions beyond consequences. A something they have failed to learn after all these centuries when they sided with Themalsar during the first war. Should they want back into the ‘fold’ they must earn it. And to earn it, they must first respect the living and the spirits they enjoy tormenting.”
“I am content, love. Really. By destroying her, you are destroying the summer boy for me.”, he replied smugly.
“Aager Fogstep!”, she replied reprovingly. “He is not the summer boy. He is the Summer Knight.”
“A knight, he may be. A boy, he certainly is. Something about him tells me I should know him.”
“When will Mortals ever learn to use their noses?”
And that little reprimand hit Aager over the head and he suddenly figured out what it was that he had sensed about the boy;
The boy smelled of flour.. and pastry!
“Dervel Stratler..”, he stated.
And noted the man in the dark brown robes, the hood, and the mask stiffen.
“I.. beg your pardon?”, he stammered.
“How is your father?”, Aager asked with an amused tone, from behind his own half-mask.
“I have no idea what you are talking about!”, the Summer Knight stammered some more.
“I challenge you!”, hissed the veiled girl.
“On what grounds? You hold no title of your own. You represent no one other than yourself, and you have nothing to bargain that I would want, should you lose.”, Inshala said a bit baffled.
“I represent the witches of Ritual Forest!”, snarled the girl.
“You want to interfere?”, Aager asked the very young Dervel, mildly. “Or would you rather I did. Because as much as I am the Winter Knight, I also represent the law here and will not have an open fight on my watch. I will take her and you into custody and throw you both to jail and keep you there until such time you are both brought before the mayor whilst he rules a judgment for causing public disturbance during a time of war.”
The Summer Knight didn’t say anything.
But Aager got the impression he wanted to be anywhere but here at that very moment.
“Should I win, you shall accept the same stipulations to step down and no longer be the Ritual Guardian, and we will be allowed to return to Ritual Forest.”, the witch bit savagely.
“What is a spupilation?”, Inshala asked quickly.
“Stipulation, love. It means, condition.”, replied Aager.
“Well, why doesn’t she just say that?”, she fumed.
“Love, she really wants this fight and isn’t going to back down. She is vicious and really wants to hurt you. Should that happen—”
“No, my Aager. You may not interfere in this matter. At this moment, you are the Winter Knight. Should you interfere, Mab will not be happy. And this is something I must do. We need all the help we can get. Including the witches. Because if we don’t get them on our side, the enemy will get them on theirs, exactly the way it happened at Themalsar. I want them to see and to recognize the excuse I am presenting to them to give them their place amongst us.”, Inshala said desperately. “Please..”
“Very well. You have my love and my care. Now I ‘deed’ to show my respect and trust.. by doing nothing..”
“You are here, my Aager. That is something all on its own.”, she replied with a smile.
“Then I put forth the same stipulus.. stickilus.. stimelus..”
The veiled girl laughed.
“You can’t even pronounce a simple word, yet you claim to be the Ritual Guardian?”, she snarked.
“I claim nothing. But I can pronounce your full name, Be’heire Crowfeather, the daughter of an outcast wood elf witch, much like yourself.”
The veiled girl, Be’heire Crowfeather, shut up!
“It shall be a duel to yield and you, all of you, shall join our fight against Orken and their demon masters for so long as they remain a threat and be bound to someone of my choosing, and never shall you ensnare another spirit to torment them ever again. Should any of you break this agreement or fail to uphold it, you will die, all of you, by your own spirits —these were the exact conditions I put forth earlier and they still stand and you and all your kind will abide by these stipumations. Should I win but your ilk refuses to acknowledge you as their champion, I shall assume they have broken the agreement and will call upon all the elves, the rangers, the dwarves, the ogres, the wild, and the fey to bring down their judgment upon you!”
Be’heire froze where she was.
“Honey, please.”, said Dervel. “This really is unnecessary and quite pointless.”
“I disagree..”, Be’heire hissed between clenched teeth.
The Summer Knight signed again.
“Let’s go!”, the witch sneered and got up.
“Very well.”, agreed, Inshala, and also rose.
“Not in my town.”, Aager said quietly.
“Have your precious town, Knight!”, Be’heire sneered and stalked out of the inn, followed closely by Inshala.
Dervel sat where he was and his shoulders slumped noticeably.
“Well..”, he said. “That went well..”
“I have never blamed another man for his choice in women, young man.”, Aager noted. “But yours seems to have issues.”
“She is normally a very kind and sweet girl. She is an outcast, though, both from her own people and Ritual Forest and by no other than Lady Inshala’s master, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig himself. I would agree that his reasons were very much justified, but his banishment did leave behind many discontent witches, all of whom have a chip on their shoulders. Be’heire is young. Very young, even by elf standards, but quite powerful and always feels the need to prove herself. I really hope this does not turn any uglier than it already has.”, the young man said honestly.
“If she hurts my Inshala, I will kill her. You know that right?”, Aager said and there wasn’t a tint of a threat in his tone. He had merely stated a simple fact.
“That’s why I am here, I suppose. To make sure that does not happen.”
“I will kill you too, then.”, Aager said, with the same exact tone.
“I suppose you will try. But I must warn you. Starting a war between the courts is not a wise course of action. Not now, anyway.”, Dervel said carefully.
“I care little for the courts, and this is not a Winter-Summer issue anymore. It is one man avenging his woman. If you can’t do that for yours, then you are not much of a man, young Dervel.”
“You represent the law, Aager Fogstep. You are not above it—”
“You misunderstand me, boy. I shall slay her and you, then sit happily in my jail for the remainder of my life!”, Aager replied coldly.
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala came to a stop in the center of a clearing, somewhere not too deep in the Ritual Forest. The trees surrounding the clearing were brittle with cold, and snow blanketed everything in sight. A large boulder stood, sticking vertically out of the frozen ground somewhere a bit to one end of the clearing and she went and stood near it and waited.
Soon enough, Be’heire appeared on the other side of the nearly fifty feet long and forty feet wide relief, scowling at her.
“Go ahead, Ritual Guardian. Let’s see what you got!”, she sneered at the half-fey.
“Very well, Be’heire. I would have wished we settled this peacefully. The true enemy approaches as we speak and they will not care if I am a druid, and neither will they show mercy because you are a witch. They will slaughter us with equal abandon.”, Inshala said sincerely.
“We are past talking, little girl.”, Be’heire spat.
“No. We are not. There have been no crimes done between us. No notable insults have been lashed that demands a retribution or rebuke. We are, at this very moment, at an agreeable standstill.”, Inshala corrected.
“You are just like your old master. Talk and talk and talk and nothing else. He was a fool. And so are you!”, the witch said with vehemence.
Inshala frowned a bit.
“Why would you bring my Father into this. He is not here.”
“I could summon his spirit anytime and—”
Be’heire Crowfeather never got to finish that particular sentence.
In the blink of an eye, giant grasping vines stabbed out of the ground sending dirt and debris and covered everything, a hundred feet in every direction, and they kept growing!
Be’heire yelped and jumped to avoid being ensnared and yelped again as she stepped on sharp, thick thorns, three inches each, sticking out of the frozen ground. She gritted her teeth and summoned her bound spirits and sent them after the fey girl she could barely see through the cacophony of wild growth.
The angry spirits shrieked and speared at Inshala, who just stood there staring angrily at the witch.
“You and your ilk never learned when to stop at foolish. I may not tutor all your ilk, but I shall do this one favor to you. You may not respect me when I am done, but you will respect the world you live in and the spirits you bind..”
..and stepped right into the large, vertical rock!
The spirits slammed the boulder, shrieking and clawing at it to no effect..
..just as Inshala got out of the other side of the rock and released another spell.
The spirits went after her again but she stepped back into the rock!
One of the trees, right behind Be’heire came alive, and with a wide swing of its branches, it struck the witch, sending her sprawled deeper into the gnarling, thorny vines. Be’heire shrieked in pain as her head spun from the savage attack of the tree coupled with all the stabbing thorns and one of the entwining vines had gotten a very painful grasp of one of her ankles and had started twisting it at a very disorienting angle.
“Yield, Be’heire.”, Inshala said sternly, as she stepped out of the rock. “I could bring much lightning and great fires upon you, right now, yet I have not.”
Be’heire cast a spell and flew!
Just to be slammed, very hard, back down and into the frozen ground by the thick, thorny vine twisting her ankle. Something snapped and she howled in pain as her eyes teared and she lost control of her spirits.
With shrieks of mad triumph, the spirits went after their tormentor!
“NO!”, snapped Inshala. “You may leave in peace and be free, but you may not afflict your madness upon another Mortal, even though she may deserve it.”
The mad spirits hovered over the tear-streaken witch, clawing at the air, an inch away from her face.
But slowly, they drew back..
..and faded away.
And Be’heire pointed a finger at Inshala and snarled.
A beam of pure, black darkness shot out of her finger and slammed at Inshala..
Far away, back at Serenity Home, and in the Guest’s Inn, Aager Fogstep felt an awful sense of dread wash over him.
For a long, dreary moment, he felt his own heart stop!
He tried to breathe but nothing happened.
His vision blurred and the inn’s dim saloon darkened..
..then the dim returned, his vision cleared, his heart fluttered and started to beat again, and the sense of dread was gone.
Aager Fogstep, the Winter Knight..
And the Summer Knight never knew what hit him..
One moment he was calmly sitting across the man in his dark leathers, the next, he was hurled across the room as a savage blast of sonic winter slammed him right into the wall, at the far end of the inn!
And the Winter Knight was upon him, a shimmering, ghostly blade put to task right at the Summer Knight’s throat..
“Wha— What are you doing?”, Dervel exclaimed.
“You have broken faith between the courts!”, he snarled, his eyes burning with blue, arctic flames. “Your woman cast a death curse upon the Ritual Guardian during a duel of yield! I warned you what I would do should she harm my Inshala. Hence shall I start with you!”
Young Dervel started, quite horrified as the Winter Knight drew blood.
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala staggered as the tree of life she tendered deep in her soul shuddered and trembled and many of its beautiful, purple-green leaves shriveled and died.
She gasped for breath and felt her heart flutter and the afternoon sun dimmed down to a pin’s point as she felt herself drown.
“INSHALA!”, screamed a voice in her mind and she thought she knew that voice.
And with something akin to panic, she held on to that voice, her Aager’s voice, and pulled herself up..
..and the light returned back to the forest.
“You.. you cast a death curse in a duel of yield?”, she asked the bleeding and squirming girl, shredded in the thorny vines.
“I.. am so sorry, Inshala.. I swear.. I didn’t mean to!”, she whimpered.
“You did mean to, Be’heire. You can not cast a death curse without intent, for one is the prerequisite of the other. You broke the agreement, the rules of the engagement and you broke faith. And now, not only your life, but the life of your beloved man hangs in balance.”, she asked unable to comprehend what the girl bleeding in the thorns had just done.
“What was it that was so important that you would want to take the life of another, Be’heire? What did I do to you or your ilk that you would release your death curse on me?”
“Your.. your master ruined us. He and his druids leveled our homes and burned our fields. He banished us from our lands.. We were left homeless.. We were made outcasts..”, the witch moaned bitterly.
“You never learned. Only blamed. Your ilk sided with the vilest of men and the foulest of fiends and demons and caused death by the thousands and brought unimaginable suffering upon Mortals at Themalsar. Yet you still refuse to face the consequences of your actions. Your ilk must learn to own their sins, should you want a place among Mortals. But you, Be’heire, what you did had nothing to do with what your ilk did. You are too young to have seen nor lived their suffering. Your reason is merely an excuse for your misdemeanor and that excuse has nothing whatsoever to do with you for none of the witches that were ousted are alive today. You never suffered, and never were you troubled as an outcast, seeing as how you live, quite comfortably, in Serenity Home, for which the rest of us shall fight for, bleed for, and die for, and only you and your ilk will not..”, Inshala replied, her voice not unkind, but she hammered the stranded witch with them.
“What.. what would you know of suffering, girl?”, Be’heire sneered at her.
Inshala just looked at the witch.
Silently and still.
Then, she undid the thin straps of her dress and let it fall on the frozen ground, displaying her skinny, gaunt form.
Be’heire ogled at the little, naked girl.
Slowly, Inshala turned.
And the witch stared, quietly horrified, at the little half-fey’s whip riddled back..
“What.. what is this?”, she gasped, her eyes wide open.
“This is called suffering, Be’heire. The kind that speaks for itself. The kind that does not need to be aired and used as an excuse for my own self-interests. I made mistakes and came too near ignorant Mortals and met the consequences of my folly at their hands. I learned, at the age of eight, that everything we do has consequences, and that we must face them and own them. And so must you. I am the Ritual Guardian, Be’heire, yet those that left these abhorrent scars upon me still live, as do their sons and daughters because I chose it so even though I had the right to extract my vengeance from them. You, Be’heire, you spurned your misplaced hate upon me. You deliberately tried to kill me by leveling a death curse at me and in a duel of yield without cause nor reason.. Thus I call upon you to face your own judgment, Be’heire Crowfeather. You and all your ilk will join us and fight against the Orken and their demon masters so long as they remain a threat. And just like us, shall you bleed and die for this cause.”, she said with a steely voice and a long, thorny whip made of vines appeared in her hand. “Or I shall return your misdemeanor in kind and you shall die by my hand, right now.. And so shall your beloved mate, at the hands of the Winter Knight.”
Be’heire Crowfeather stared at the skinny, naked girl in total fear.
And Inshala’s voice cracked like a whip.
✱ ✱ ✱
What’s up, girl? You look beat!”, asked Bremorel when the little girl found her near the forest, training a new batch of Arashkan survivors.
“I need your help to find Ranger Master Moorat, dear Bremorel. And I need you to be there so he doesn’t.. get too angry with me..”, she said and she sounded as tired as she looked.
“Sure. But why? Did he say something to hurt you?”, Bremorel asked. “If he did, you shouldn’t take it too seriously. He says things, but he doesn’t mean them.”
“No, no. He was very kind to me.”, Inshala said hastily.
“Huh.”, the ranger girl said with some surprise. “Sorry I missed that. Come, he should be on the other side of the river.”
“Tis alright, gurl.”, Bremorel said, giving her a big grin.
Then she blared!
“MAL! TAKE OVER! AND THAT BLOODY TARGET DUMMY HAD BETTER BE RIDDLED WITH ARROWS WHEN I GET BACK!”
And grinned again.
“I so love smacking rookies..”
“Ranger Master Moorat, sir. The Ritual Guardian would have a word with you.”, Bremorel said after a crisp salute.
“What are you doing here, Bree? Don’t you have a batch of your own to train?”, scowled Moorat.
“I do, sir. But Lady Inshala, here—”, she began.
“Just, Inshala, please.”, Inshala said in a small voice.
“I am sorry, girl. Between us and when we are among friends, just Inshala will happen. When you are in your Ritual Guardian-thingy, you are Lady Inshala, and I’ll bash in any face that says otherwise!”
“Told you Bree was my favorite student.”, grinned Moorat. “Now. What can I do for you, young lady?”
Inshala paused for a moment before she spoke as if deciding on how she should phrase what she wanted to say.
Then she took a deep, pained breath and spoke.
“Ranger Master Moorat. The witches have agreed to join us in our fight against the Orken.”
“That was quick. And great news.. I think..”, Moorat said dubiously.
“I have given their command to you.”
A dead silence settled and Moorat displayed the ugliest face, anyone, in a thousand miles in any direction had seen!
Bremorel held her breath for as long as she could, then snorted.
“Why.. would you do this to me?”, he asked Inshala with a blackened face.
“You, sir, know the witches. Well enough to hate them and be wary of them. You are also the best qualified to know where to make the best use of them. You will sweat them, and bleed them, and be it necessary, kill them, should they stray from their given oaths. They have many skills, not unlike yours, and they know how to curse and to bring down destruction. They will be under your command until they learn ‘respect’ and earn their place amongst others.”
Moorat stared at her, feeling a bit freaked.
“Learn respect? They will never learn respect!”, he scoffed.
“Then they shall stay under your command for a very, very long time, sir.”, she said with a wan smile.
“And I believe one of them will have something to show you.”, she added quickly.
“You don’t do anything by half, do you, young lady.”, Moorat said in a deflated tone.
“No, sir. I don’t. And I pity the other half.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala woke up to something. She wasn’t sure what it was and she felt groggy and sleepy and stupid and very, very tired. Apparently, a save from a death curse left one a lot to be desired.. As opposed to outright dying..
She had come home late that night, arm-in-arm with her hubby, the Winter Knight, and just collapsed on the threadbare mattress and curled into a little ball.
Aager had stared down at her, thinking just how close she had come face to face with death, and how he had very nearly killed a seventeen-year-old boy!
He pressed his lips together in a grim expression as he pulled off his dark leather hood, his half-mask, his armor, and his weapons and put them neatly on one side of the mattress where he could easily reach for them. Then he picked up the sleeping girl and sort of pulled the blanket from under her, laid her back on the mattress, and covered her with the itchy thing.
Then he went over to the fireplace and lit it using the flint and iron sitting next to it, grabbed the small iron pot, got outside, drew some water using the old, squeaky water pump, and filled the pot, returned inside, and set the pot over the fire. He peeled some potatoes, a large onion, and several carrots and killed them into small pieces, and dumped them into the pot. Then he pulled at the cooking oil and poured some of it into the pot as well, sprinkled a few pinches of various herbs and the one Inshala called Kumse Beetles, though he wasn’t sure if she was making a pun or if she was being literal. Aager thought, perhaps not every single thing had to be known between mates and lovers. A girl should have some secrets, right?
He sat next to the fire, and the red-orange light from the fireplace danced and gave a harsh, angry cast on one side of his face and hid the other as he stared at the curled shape of the girl sleeping drained just a few feet away..
..and he thought about the events of that day and what they would entail in the long run.
Indeed, Aager hadn’t made any friends that day.
He had very nearly sliced open young Dervel’s throat, from ear to ear in his madness..
He signed and checked in on the now boiling pot. Just a few more moments and the carrots should be soft enough. Potatoes were easy. It was always with the carrots.
Silently he rose, picked up the two, hand-carved bowls and checked each for any chips or cracks. Carving plates wasn’t an easy job and certainty hadn’t been for the skinny little girl. Yet she’d carved them, just for him and herself. Aager had never been a materialistic type, but for some reason, these bowls, and the other two wooden plates had turned out to become precious to him.
He unhooked the iron pot out of the fireplace and dumped some of it into either pot, produced two spoons, and dug into one while he waited for the other to cool off. He tended to ignore the blistering heat of the food he ate, but Inshala became whimpery and teared up and pouted when she burned her mouth.
He slurped the last of the juice of what remained of the stew, got up, and went over to the threadbare mattress with the other bowl, still steaming.
He sat next to the girl and set the bowl next to himself and carefully, he picked her up and sat her in his lap and close to his lean, spring-coil chest and with a small nudge, he whispered.
“A bit of a bite before you totally wink out, love. C’mon. Open up.”
When she didn’t wake, he gave her another gentle nudge.
This one got a response, though not very intelligible.
“Iam hngry but Iamalso vrysleepishhh!”, she whimpered, her words slurred.
“Yes, yes, I know you are, but you shouldn’t sleep with an empty stomach, either. Open up. C’mon. Just a few spoons..”
Inshala opened up and mechanically chewed as the Winter Knight spoon-fed her..
..until the bowl was empty.
Apparently, Aager didn’t like doing things by half, either.
He settled her back down, went outside with the bowls, the spoons, and the iron pot, and in the dead of night, and the freezing cold, he gave them all a quick wash and returned back inside and put them all in their proper place..
..and slumped under the blanket himself.
And with some innate instinct, Inshala squirmed a bit and nudged her little butt until she was comfortably snuggled up to him and he enclosed her in his arms and now, her skinny back was leaning against his chest..
It had been a few hours later that Inshala had come around, not quite sure what it had been that had woken her up. She was still lying next to Aager but was facing him..
..and both her hands were in his shirt, one touching the spring-coil muscles of his lean chest, the other, running down his marred back!
Inshala blushed a bit and looked up at Aager’s face to see if he was awake and was going to be mad at her but he was still asleep and seemed.. at peace..
“The deed is done.”, she thought happily, tinted with a certain sense of guilt and shame.
“The hands want what the hands want and go where they want!”, she said nodding with confirmation at her own, very ‘logical’ explanation in her mind.
It was then she realized.
What it was that had woken her.
It hadn’t been the warmth she felt inside the palms of her slim hands as she held them in his shirt but a certain other, ‘calloused’ warmth that spread, like some deep, smoldering fire, from her own chest, and around her once buxom, now sad and small breasts, and down.. way down the small of her back
Inshala gasped with petrified astonishment and with unyielding, throbbing exhilaration..
Aager Fogstep, the right hand of the town sheriff, the head of SIS —Serenity Intelligence Service, and unbeknownst to any but the willing few; the dreary Winter Knight and Inshala ‘laFey’ Frostmane Bolgrig Hooman, the Mistress of The Grove, the wont of MabandTitania, the Lady of Durkahan and the Ritual Guardian walk side-by-side, indeed, arm-in-arm, worn and tired of a long day’s hard accomplishments.
The quiet young woman, somewhat abashed and with the small smile of an unspoken achievement clearly etched on her face, walks with light steps next to the silent, spooky man in his dark, sinister-looking leathers, hood, and mask. The girl inadvertently does this little skip-and-hop thing every once in a while for she has her hair down and her awesome rams horns are in full display; the source of her smile, her skip, and her elation.. and one of great consternation, fear, dread, dismay, and anxiety —each distinct, now, and finally overcome, accepted, and acknowledged.. The man on the other hand seems alert and distracted at the same time. His steps are steady, careful, and ready to pounce. His distraction, hidden under the hood and mask, is perhaps due to the unaddressed nature of the hope he hankers, as they head for the little, single-room lodge assigned to him years ago, and that the girl with the light, happy steps next to him would also call, ‘home’..
“Thank you.”, he whispers in his growly and gravelly voice.
The girl turns and gives him a look of shy elation.
“You are welcome. But, why?”, she asks.
The man clears his throat.
Fighting and consequently bleeding, many times, has never been a matter of trepidation for him.
This little girl, and trying to express his feelings, for her or otherwise, however, has always felt like an uphill battle for him.
A battle he knows he would win, should he but dare.
She certainly wills, with all her heart and mind, that he would.
Dare.. and win..
“I suspect you know why..”, he says carefully.
“I do. But I like it more when you voice it. Reminds me of Katana, my saber-tooth.”, she replies quietly.
“You like my voice because I sound like a cat?”, he asks a bit amused.
“My cat was not just any cat.”, the young girl retorts with mock fire. “She was a great, six hundred pound tiger, with a massive jaw that could take a man’s head whole and still have room for dessert, and awesome paws that could cave in an ogre’s belly, flat! And I find the viscous similarities between the two of you quite.. intoxicating! I am sure, or at least I very much hope you find something in me that makes you remember things you liked. Perhaps that is why we find something akin in one another.”, she says happily.
“How do say things like that and claim not to understand people?”, he asks with unveiled wonder.
“I claim nothing other than you, my Aager —for as long as I can.. Some things are clear to me. People.. and this.. social-thingy.. is just not one of them.”, she replies with resigned remorse.
“Fair enough.”, somewhat agrees, Aager. “Though you are wrong about my finding something akin in you that reminds me of something else that I once liked.”
“Ow.. How come?”, asks Inshala with a small pout.
“The answer to that is quite elementary in its simplicity.”, he says with a well-hidden smile.
“You are unique!”, Aager admits, and freely.
And without even needing to turn, he feels, through their bond, how the young woman blushes.
“That.. is beautiful to hear.”, she stammers.
“You like?”, he asks, with a very un-Aager like tone. A tone that he would never, like never ever, use with anyone but the girl in his arm.
“I.. love!”, she smiles, blushing even more.
“I thanked you..”, Aager says, rewinding a bit back. “.. because of your brevity. And for not hiding what you are, for I wish you never to be my personal secret, but known to all, and that we belong.”
“I must thank you for that, even though I know you will not let me. But we both know I would never have come here, let alone display myself the way I have, had it not been for you.”, she admits and smiles even more.
“Perhaps. But this is your moment. Not mine. And..”, he says and freezes in his pace.
As if on cue, so does she.
“What is it?”, she asks peering into the night.
“I.. am not sure..”, admits Aager with a slight frown. “I sense.. an equal.. but not.. at the same time..”
“You sense quite correctly.”, says a deep, muffled voice from the night.
“Show yourself, if your intentions are honorable!”, grows Aager Fogstep, his hands clear and at his sides and Inshala standing, not precisely behind, but with the exact amount of space and distance he would need to draw his swords for a swing, a parry or an unrestrained thrust..
“That, coming from you, I find a bit ironic, Sir Knight.”, says the muffled voice.
“I sense.. Summer.”, whispers Inshala, a bit baffled.
“I greet you, Lady Inshala, and I mean you no harm.”, comes the voice.
“But you mean harm to whome I belong!”, she says staring hard into the night.
“That is but for him to decide.”, declares the muffled voice with an intense and implied voice.
“What is this?”, asks Aager in her mind.
“I am not sure, my Aager. I have a guess, but I would rather he introduced himself, lest I give him power he may not have.”, replies the young woman in his.
“Dammit!.”, very nearly blazes Aager with frustration. “Apparently, running around all day fixing issues and defacing potential political outbreaks, training three different parties for the upcoming battle, and corking security gaps as an encore, is not enough.. I would like one moment.. ONE SILENT MOMENT IN PEACE with you and alone, dammit!”
“I am sorry, my Aager. This is my fault.”, whispers Inshala guiltily.
“How is this your fault?”, he asks, still frustrated.
“You are the Winter Knight because of me.”, she says in a small voice.
“Inshala.. To this day, I have done many things that I have come to regret, and shall likely end up doing more.. Dying for you to live, however, was never one of them.”, he almost lashes back.
“But..”, Inshala tries to object.
“Also to this day, never have I banned nor barred you of anything, have I?”, he steams.
“No, my Aager. Never.”
“Well, now I have. Never shall I hear another word of regret to the choices I made with regard to you. Because when you cast doubt in my choice, you cast doubt on what I feel for you.”, he says, and not without wroth.
Inshala falls silent, whether it is perhaps due to shock of how her Aager has just addressed and admonished her, or because she is afraid, is not clear. When she speaks, however, it is due to neither.
“I.. am sorry, my Aager. It was thoughtless of me to question you and your feelings, for I know it isn’t easy for you to speak them, yet you have.. For my sake.”, she says with shame in her voice.
“Inshala. Please. There really isn’t any reason to go there.. Much like you have made peace with some of the things in your life, your past, and your choices, I have thus done so. If being Mab’s hatchet man is the way to keep you and safe, peace, then, is upon me.”, he says, though not unkindly.
“You want me to cry, don’t you, my Aager..”, pouts Inshala.
“Not for me, and not tonight..”, he says as he smiles..
..and turns to face the man, hidden in the night.
With a low, distant, and arctic voice, the Winter Knight growls..
“Who are you, and what do you want? I have run a full day of petty mortal errands and am tired. I have another long day full of such errands waiting for me tomorrow, which is in mere few hours, and hence have I but little time to spare for late-night theatrics, and none for drama. Either come out and spill your wont, or go. Suffice to say, move or I shall move through you, should you truly want to test me tonight, for you are between myself, my lady, and my home, in the middle of the night, and in my town..”
“Oh, my.”, giggles Inshala and mimes a tiny, virtual fist into the air —in his mind.
“I think he just ate earth! You go, Winter Knight!”
“You go,WHAT? Where did you even hear that?”, asks Aager both surprised and amused.
“I am sorry. I have no idea what I just said.”, bubbles the young girl a bit embarrassed. “I heard young Master Cümeyt say it, but I am not sure what it means! He did make it sound like a ‘cheer’, though!”
Aager laughs.. silently..
“It is ‘dirt’, by the way, love..”, he inserts, stifling another laugh. “Not, ‘earth’..”
“But.. isn’t dirt, well, dirty?”, wonders Inshala a bit confused.
“The best thing about dirt, you never want to eat it more than once, love”, Aager says, not without a certain amount of vicious satisfaction. The man in dark leathers, hood, and mask wears what he does for three, rather distinct reasons, and none of them has anything to do with drama;
One, the obvious reason; for better cover in the dark.
Two; Aager has an astute sense of smell, particularly for bad ones..
And three; a dark hood, along with the mask, has the practical capacity to fend off fools.
There is a moment of chagrined silence and Aager gets the distinct impression that whoever it is hiding in the night, is perhaps a tad new at whatever he is at..
“Very well.”, the muffled voice says. “Meet me at the Guest’s Inn tomorrow at noon.”
“Afternoon!”, Inshala counters.
Another silence ensues.
“Why? Why would you back this evil man, Lady Inshala?”, he asks quite perturbed.
“My Aager is no evil man. He has proven his mettle. Yours is yet to be seen, Sir.”, she replies the young girl with stern command.
Aager’s eyebrows shoot up.
It isn’t the first time his Inshala has gone out of her way to defend him, and it certainly feels.. surprisingly ‘awesome’.. to be.. safeguarded?.. by someone you dearly loved, but the verbal dual here is a subtle one and in a realm, he is not yet accustomed nor has had much privy to.
“Afternoon, then. I shall consent to this request for your sake, Lady Inshala.”, the muffled voice says.
“You shall do no such thing, Sir. I owe you nothing and have promised you nothing. And I shall owe you no debt! ‘Afternoon’ is a neutral time, neither too warm nor too cold.”, Inshala says, equally sternly.
A sigh of resignation is heard followed by the slightest shuffle of feet and the muffled voice is gone.
“Alright.”, Aager muses, staring into the night. “That wasn’t odd or anything. Your thoughts, love?”
“I.. I am not certain..”, Inshala frowns slightly.
“It’s alright. Your halves are better than my nons!”, smiles the sinister-looking man.
“You are in an unexpected mood this night, my Aager. And I can’t even claim any crafty skills on my part.”, smiles back the young girl.
“First of all, I apologize, wholeheartedly, for my harsh words earlier. You deserve better than that. But I would much rather we put my choices and their reasons well behind us. They are done and gone. Going over them makes neither of us happy, but puts both of us in despair. Agreed?”, he says quietly.
“And I apologize for bringing it up in the first place, though I got what I deserved for it. I shall submit to your wishes on this matter, my Aager, hence, yes. Agreed.”, she replies staring somewhat at her own feet.
“Please, don’t do that.”, Aager says.
“Don’t do what?”, she asks.
“You did nothing wrong. Don’t look down. As a matter of fact, never look down!”, Aager pleads.
Inshala looks up, her face is slightly pink.
“You will not even let me suffer my own follies.”, she says with a flustered pout.
“The pout can stay. It looks sweet on you.”, smiles the man in dark leathers.
Inshala does a very unladylike snort, causing Aager to laugh.. out loud!
“Well. How about that. I laughed. Can’t remember the last time I did that. I guess I do owe my mood to crafty skills on your part.”, he says with an amused tone of voice. “As to what that was all about, I believe you do have some thoughts on the matter.”
“Yes. And deep down, I believe you have as well, my Aager..”, replies the young girl, suddenly looking at him with intense eyes.
Aager cocks an eyebrow and thinks..
..and the thing that has had him itching somewhere at the back of his mind suddenly dawns.
“Yes, my Aager. Nature is balance. Winter will follow Summer and Summer dies when Winter arrives. Much like Summer will melt and defrost Winter upon her arrival..”, she says softly.
“Damn..”, he blurts. “He is.. double damn.. the Summer Knight? My opposite?”
“That is my thought. I believe he wanted to keep that to himself and perhaps use it as a levelidge.. lefedirge.. leafer—”, she blunders and her face turns pure red in self-disgrace.
“Leverage?”, Aager offers kindly.
“Yes. That..”, says the young girl, her face still burning with frustrated shame.
“But he gave himself away.. Ahhh, that’s why you argued about ‘noon’. It is likely he will be at the peak of his power at noons and at summer times. That was very ingenious of you the way you refused him and moved the time of the meet to afternoon.”, says Aager admiringly for even though the young girl hadn’t quite won him an advantage, she had, instead, stripped any his opposite might have gained, just by changing something that had seemed so trivial.
Inshala blushes some more.
“I suspected.. the moment you said, ‘sensing an equal, but not, at the same time..’, and when he called you, ‘Sir Knight.’ Only fey would know you for what you are.. And the vassals of either court. I felt no fey vibes from him. He seemed.. mortal.. and something else.. perhaps some sort of affiliation I am not aware of.”
“How come there is suddenly a Summer Knight now and what does that entail?”, asks Aager, with a ‘should-I-be-concerned?’ frown.
“Nature is balance, my Aager. Both Winter and Summer have a ‘Mother’ known as Mother Winter and Mother Summer, and then they have the Queens, Mab as the Winter Queen, and Titania as the Summer Queen. Both courts are also supposed to have a ‘Lady’, but there hasn’t been a Winter Lady for ages forgotten After she lost her own daughter some unknown millennia ago, Mab refused to take another as the Winter Lady, causing the Summer Lady wane, and eventually fade away.. There was the potential for a new Summer Lady, but she was slain at Gull’s Perch by some ruffians a year or two before I was born, which is why there has been a ban on mortals, and why there is a dwarven outpost there, guarding the Perch’s entrance ever since.. I believe there were some dwarves among the ruffians and Titania blamed their kin at Scowling Hills and forced them to build the outpost and safeguard the valley as payment for their kins’ sins against her daughter. Whether the death of her daughter was a coincidence, or it was because Mab would still not take a new Winter Lady, I do not know.”
Aager listens to the young woman in amazement as she explains the monumental goings-on that no mortal would know.
“There also hasn’t been a Winter Knight since the last one was slain by a mighty wild fey, who was actually a noble in Mab’s court once, many, many millennia ago. And Summer failed to produce a knight of their own during that time. It isn’t a coincidence that they would do so now, almost the moment you chose to become Mab’s Winter Knight. For there to be balance, nature compempates.. compendates—”, she pauses, her face flushed with embarrassment again. “Help me, please..”, she pleads..
“Compensates?”, offers Aager as he puts one hand over her small shoulder and gently turns her to face him.
“Conpendates.. That..”, blubbers the girl, her face burning red. “I hate this. I am so stupid. I lack so many important words, and I am supposed to be the Ritual Guardian and fill my Father’s shoes..”
“Hey.. Don’t be like that.. Please.. We promised to be stupid together, remember? At least you know what you are talking about. I don’t even know where to begin to even understand.”, he says kindly, and gently pulls her into his arms.
Inshala just stands there, burning with embarrassment on any number of levels now.
“You are so awesome.”, he adds quietly.
“Awesome like.. Madina? Or awesome like Moira?.. Or perhaps awesome like Laila? Laila is awesome and cool, though I am not sure what that means.. I mean, she has a nice, warm heart. And I think that De-De-Dexter boy likes her. I saw him give her, as an example of how his trainees should act and behave, just the other day.”, she mumbles.
“Madina, Moria, D.D. Dexter and even Laila aside, I would say, awesome like Inshala.”, he says. Then thinks for a moment, nods, and repeats. “Yep. We shall thus call it, Inshala-Awesome!”
Slowly he releases her, and they are once again, arm in arm, walking in the night, towards ‘home’..
. . .
“She is pathetic.”, says the skinny, vixen girl, hidden further in the night, and quite waspishly.
“She is what she is, love. And she holds great favors from both the courts. It is not wise of you to speak ill of her, nor to go out of your way to taunt her. She is good people..”, replies the man with the muffled voice.
“And the man. His attitude. Such arrogance.. Perhaps a nice hex will fix that for him..”, she sneers after the two.
“You shall do no such thing, love. There is no point in starting a war here when there is another war right on our doorstep. I merely wanted to meet him and warn him not to abuse his powers. We shall meet on the morrow.”, he says sternly.
“You are afraid of him.”, sniffs the girl with disdain.
“No one in his right mind would be uncautious of him, love. Mab chose carefully, as she always does. Don’t let your pride get the better of you.”
The girl sniffs again, and haughtily, with her small, perky nose.
“I bet, I could best her!”, she declares.
“Perhaps.”, says the man. “But you will not go up against her. She is the Ritual Guardian.”
“Suppose you best her. What then? Who will take up her burden?”
The girl shrugs.
“Will you?”, the man asks, looking at the skinny girl.
“Why would I? It is a folly burden that offers little to no reward. She is as foolish as her Father was..”
The man with the muffled voice signs. The slight girl standing so agitated next to him is a fun, life-loving girl, but she does have her moments of pique, and they did tend to get the better of her indeed, and she is quite a single-minded girl who lives for silly challenges..
..which was how they had met, really.
“Come. We have much to do ourselves..”, he says, in hopes of distracting her. “Thousands of mouths to feed..”
“I think I want to know what they talk when they are alone.”, she says, squinting after what little she could make of the two, distant figures walking away, arm-in-arm.
“No.”, says the man even more sternly this time. “You don’t..”
..And picks up the skinny girl, by her waist and carries her off, literally, as she kicks and squirms and laughs with delight..
“Will you feed me too, Sir Knight?”, she snickers viciously..
The lithe figure in long, brown, leather trenchcoat skulked near the wall, taking advantage of the shadows and the bush, happily growing in the garden of the house. She had her target insight, perched and hidden amongst the branches of a brittle, snow-covered tree, and she had no intentions of letting it get away this time. She dearly hoped the other two were in place. Then her thin lips pressed together and she growled in her low, throaty voice. “They had better be. Or there is going to be murder!”
Carefully, and with exaggerated motions, she took another step forward.
Her target didn’t seem to notice and was looking, not quite in the other direction, but she knew she wasn’t in her target’s peripheral vision either. A drop of sweat trickled down her brow and itched its way down the side of her boldly drawn nose, around the curve of her tightly pressed lips, and disappeared around and under her somewhat angular chin. The lithe girl did not flinch, nor moved to wipe it off. She’d done that once, before, and that was why her query had gotten away.
“Not this time. Not this time.”, she hissed. “This time, you are going down!”
Not far, another figure was ghosting. This one in dark, sinister-looking leathers. He wore a low hood and a mask, made from the same material, covering the bottom half of his otherwise slightly pale face. A short, dirty-black, and tattered cloak hung from his back, all the way down to his hips and just a bit more, hiding the daggers attached to his leather belt, and his short, but deadly swords strapped across his back. He was a stab above average in height and had shoulders an edge under broad. He was neither skinny nor gaunt, but lean, though he gave the slight impression that perhaps he’d suffered from malnutrition in his youth, and now, his form refused to take any access body fat. There was a cold, wintery air about him as he moved even closer to the lithe girl in her long, brown, leather trenchcoat.
“What are you doing, girl?”, he growled quietly.
His voice actually did sound like a growl.
“You are not supposed to be here. I distinctly remember warning you not to bring your murder into my town. Was I not clear? Must I kill you to remind you of that?”
The lithe figure took another oozing step.
And her target prickled and looked directly in her direction!
The girl in the long, brown trenchcoat froze..
Her target’s eyes scanned and raked the area in her direction without mercy, but the lithe figure was good and her target couldn’t see her.
“Yes. Turn around and look the other way now. Come on. You know you must.”, she murmured to herself.
As if her words were some kind of prophecy or perhaps some mental geas, her target slowly turned around and started scouring in the other way —the opposite direction.
“Right.”, whispered the lithe figure triumphantly. “Now or never.”
The man in the dark, sinister-looking leathers also froze, for he saw someone else who had just come into play. Another lithe figure. This one had a long-sleeved, white, silk shirt, of all colors, open at her slender throat, a dark, gold-trimmed, tight bodice that fit her like a glove and complimented her hips, her waist, and her cup-sized breasts, a pair of black, belly dancers low-cut, loose trousers, and soft healed boots reaching up to her knees. Unlike the first, this girl did not skulk, but moved like.. water! The lean man in dark leathers had never seen anyone move with such natural grace, and that was a word he used to describe the lithe figure’s flowing motion which was exactly what she had done. She hadn’t moved silently, she had flowed from one spot to another! Her whole body language bespoke of elasticity, suppleness, and fluidity.. and precision! The man in the dark, sinister-looking leathers didn’t know who she was but guessed at what she might be, for she also had antler-like horns, and she was upon the girl in the long, brown trenchcoat before she knew it!
Aager Fogstep heard a very soft, bold voice.
“You are dead, love.”
“What the hell?”, he exclaimed as Lilly Venom slumped down and on her knees, screeching as she pummeled the dirt..
..and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostman Bolgrig Hooman Fogstep jumped down from her perch on the tree as she punched the air with a small fist, a happy grin on her face, as she gloried a victorious, “YESSHHH! I THINK WE WON AGAIN!”
“NO DAMIT! NO. BLOODY EF’ING NO! I ALMOST HAD IT! I ALMOST HAD HER! EF! EF! EF! EF! EF! EF! EF! EF!”, screamed Lilly Venom!
“Now now, dear girl.”, said the one with the antlers, also grinning. “There are children around that might overhear you. I believe that word is considered bad among mortals, though the reason escapes me. After all, there are children around because of deed that word implies and entails!”
“HOW, DAMIT! HOW DID YOU EVEN..!”, Lilly screamed at her. “I ALMOST HAD HER THIS TIME!”
“I am sorry, dear girl, but you never had her. This round, she played the possum, per se. Or bait, if you will.”
“WHERE ARE MY TEAMMATES, DAMIT? THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO HAVE COVERED ME!”
“Totally owned ’em!”, came a soft, merry voice.
“Uhhmm.. I am sorry Lilly..”, said a very embarrassed Agent Largo, followed closely by his son, D.D. Dexter Summersong who also bore a similarly embarrassed and flushed expression, guarded by a very pleased-looking Bremorel Songsteel, miming holding a sword in her hand. “The two ladies here jumped us before we could even get into place..”
“Totally what dad said. I mean, I even went as far as warding our location, but the Ranger Leuitenant Bremorel had downed my father already, and Lady Mirima Temez, here, came at me from above! I was like, ‘Isn’t that against the rules?’, but she just smiled at me and said, ‘Darling, there are no rules in love, and certainly not in war..’, so I.. gracefully gave in.”, Dexter mumbled in a dejected tone.
“Darling, you gave in because you lost. But I will not otherwise gainsay you. You were quite graceful about it.”, smiled Perigren Ostlanna Temez.
Inshala came running at them with an elated expression etched all over her face and she was jumping and skipping all the while.
“Whoop! We won! So you three are cooking tonight?”, she said happily, all the while beaming at Temez and Bremorel.
Lilly Venom scowled furiously at her.
Lilly Venom scowled even more furiously at Agent Largo.
Lilly Venom scowled and almost incinerated D.D. Dexter!
Then Inshala spotted Aager and beamed at him as well, and started waving in his direction!
Lilly Venom noticed her brother too..
“Well, crap! Now he saw it as well!”, she spat, her face darkened and her scowl deepened.
Then with a poisonous glare, she turned to her husband and her son-in-law.
“YOU.. BOTH OF YOU..”, she snarled pointing at the two who squirmed like two schoolboys caught in the act. “..TOTALLY SUCK!”
Then with a destitute flare, she turned around and stormed off towards Serenity Home Temple..
..to do that evening’s cooking.
Perigren Ostlanna Temez and Bremorel Songsteel ran after her, while the extraordinarily beautiful Temez tried her best to comfort the very much irritated Lilly Venom, the ranger lieutenant only laughed harder as Inshala almost threw herself at Aager.
The two hugged and drifted off towards their own home.
“Well..”, Agent Largo said when he was alone with his son.
“Yup!”, D.D. Dexter said.
“..that went well.”, his father finished.
“Yea..”, agreed, Dexter. “..we suck!”
“Yes. Yes, we do.. Six times in a row, though? I mean, from three young and pretty girls, you’d think they’d show us some mercy and let us win once! You know, just so we’d save face..”
“Yea..”, said Dexter. “..could have been worse, I suppose. Your young wife does seem to have admirable temper.”
“That she has. But she curbs it most of the time, which in itself is the truly admirable part. It’s just, she doesn’t like losing.”
“Who does? But I wouldn’t really call losing to a Ranger Lieutenant, the Ritual Guardian, and the head of Escape, a loss, father.”
“There’s that. But like I said. Lilly doesn’t like losing, and she doesn’t really like cooking either. Lucky for us, I don’t mind cooking at all. I have been doing my own cooking since I lost your mother. Lilly.. she really is trying to learn, you know, if only for my sake, and cooking for the refugees is good for her, but after seeing her slice a loaf of bread, I got scared and told her I totally wouldn’t mind doing the cooking at home.. at all!“, Largo said.
“Why?”, asked Dexter.
“She cut the bread like she was slicing open a man’s throat. It was the creepiest thing I have ever seen! I mean, you should have seen her face, then. She had this strange, dreamy expression no woman should have while slicing bread!”
Then, as if remembering something else, he laughed again.
“What?”, asked his father.
“Just remembered something; I can actually go home and sleep merrily after we are done cooking at the temple.”
“Yes, so?”, asked his father.
“A night with a very pissed-off Lilly should be interesting for you, though!”, Dexter laughed again.
“That was not nice, Dex.”, mumbled Agent Largo.
✱ ✱ ✱
I see you are having fun.”, smiled Aager Fogstep, though only the little girl in his arm knew it.
“YEZZ!”, smirked Inshala viciously, reminding the man next to her, a bit like her old self. From the time they had first met. There was, however, a gaping difference between the two;
This Inshala was not hiding her horns under layers of hair, conically braided around them, she wasn’t the hissing surly girl anymore, but had a distinct skip to her pace, and she was..
..and woke up to another difference;
He, Aager Fogstep, was not the same man the girl had first met, either. Because he had a lighter step to his gait that had appeared the moment the little girl had ran up to him and threw herself at him for a hug, and..
..he too was smiling.
“Well, now..”, he said.
“Well now.”, she agreed happily.
He laughed again and held her closer and tighter, and the girl literally purred.
“I take it you were playing some game?”, he asked.
“I think so. I had fun. Lilly was telling us just how boring it was teaching noobs how to sneak and ambush, and that her trainees were a bunch of klutzes, though I have no idea what a ‘noob’ is.. nor a ‘klutz’.. She said there was no challenge here at all, so I asked her what would be a challenge for her, and she said she hadn’t gone up against any pros since Endless Watch. I totally agreed with her, since I now know what ‘pros’ is! It’s so nice to know social things.”, she said with another skip. “Then I offered her perhaps we could play a game and she could try and catch me. But she suddenly went cold and her face did this red thing and said to me, I am never going to hurt you again. And I was very sorry for reminding her about the arena thing and hugged her and apologized to her, and she was like, ‘Why are you apologizing me, girl? If anyone is to apologize, it’s me.’ But I told her that, she didn’t know me then and she didn’t know you were her brother and so there wasn’t anything for her to apologize. I think that broke her mind a little because she just stared at me and seemed like she was about to cry. Well, I wasn’t going to have any of that, so I quickly said, ‘It’s only catching.’ And that if she could, she won, if I caught her first, though, I would win. That got her attention, I think. Lilly loves winning. Then she said, ‘How about we bring in others. That way, we can also improve our teamwork skills.’ I had no idea there was a skill called Tea Murk but learning new things is nice so I agreed and she called her new hubby, Sir Agent Largo, though I don’t think that’s his real name because every time I say it, he does this funny face like he wants to cry, but it makes Lilly happy, so I keep saying it. Then she also called Sir Agent Largo’s son, De De Dexter, and told them about what we wanted to do. But De De Dexter said it wasn’t fair that the three of them should go up against one little girl and that I should also go and bring two others. So I went to the town temple and found Laila’s cousin, Bremorel, there, because, you know, she’s my friend, and asked if she would like to play with us. She asked me who was on the other team. When I told her, she said, ‘Your Aager’s sister? Nice. I am in..’. Then she called for Perigren Ostlanna Temez, one of Merisoul’s sisters, and told her about what we wanted to play, and asked her if she would like to join. She said, ‘Sure, sounds fun. But we must return before midnight because she and all her other brothers and sisters had to go down and pray for their Demos Lightshand. She was very pretty and always smiling so I didn’t get too scared of her and she has antlers which I thought were awesome, so I told her I didn’t think it would take that long and that I had to go home to my Aager before midnight anyway. So we started playing. Lilly plays very well. Hides very well too. And she is very patient. I don’t think I can be as patient as her and I am a patient girl. Sir Agent Largo is very smart. He almost caught me once because he had changed coats with Lilly and De De Dexter was I think using magic to hide them. But I don’t think any of them use their noses. They use their minds, their eyes, their hands, their ears, but never their noses. I smelled Sir Agent Largo and got away before I fell into their trap. So we started making traps too. In this last one, Perigren Ostlanna Temez told me to be bait, which I think is just another for ‘wait’, while she and Bremorel hunted them down because she thought Lilly had some sad feelings about coming after me and that distracted her, and that De De Dexter was an unmarried boy who would want to be polite against three, very pretty girls so he would lack courage. Only Sir Agent Largo would be the real problem, so they would first get him, then De De Dexter, while Lilly would end up waiting for them and wouldn’t be able to do anything, and they would get her last.”, Inshala said with a ‘phew, I talked too much!’, blush.
Aager was laughed, once more, but was astounded by the level of sophistication in the way her mind worked when it came to ‘hunting’. The Temez girl displayed a similar trait, but hers was based on gender psychology. She had used each and every single one of their opponent’s most innate and base weaknesses against them. That was.. a dangerous area to exploit.
Then it occurred to him. Of course! She was a succubi half-born. Using such tactics was their ‘thing’. That’s how they ‘got’ to their enemies and that’s how they brought them down on their knees. While a mortal would think such methods quite unorthodox, vile, even, it was their natural element. Much like you just didn’t blame a snake or a scorpion for using their poison, you just couldn’t blame Temez and her kind for using their flavor of skills.
“You liked it here, then? This town?”, Aager asked tentatively. It was something he’d been meaning to ask her, but had thought perhaps she hadn’t seen or known the town long enough. And it had been quite hectic since their arrival. He had been forced to his sheriff’s-right-hand duty, raised exponentially since the arrival of the thousands of refugees, not to mention the three groups of specialized trainees; morning, afternoon, and midnight.. Inshala had taken over her duties quite immediately as the Ritual Guardian and worked day and night to warm the earth, and the weather, so as to avoid further deaths among the miserable refugees. Both Aager and Inshala would end up, for the few moments to walk, arm-in-arm to his single-room house and just slump down onto the hard mattress, cuddle, and pass out —quite literally.
The only consolidation he felt he had in all this was the fact that the little girl was extraordinarily warm to hold in his arms. Deep down, he didn’t think it was merely her body heat, but something else.. It was like she radiated a kind of warmth totally unrelated, and had nothing to do with her skinny figure, but everything to do with her heart.
And he’d always wake up when he felt a soft, deliberate breathing into his face..
Inshala, it appeared, had her own way of waking him up. She never poked him. Never called his name. And never squirmed in his arms. Very carefully, and patiently, she’d turn around to face him.. and quietly watch him sleep —interestingly, not very unlike cats sometimes did to their owners!
And when Aager came around and opened his eyes, she would smile. A flushed, accomplished smile. It was like;
‘This weary and tired man has slept soundly and peacefully.. I did that!’
Aager recalled, how she had been so very shy and had very nearly panicked, that first night of their wedding, back at Durkahan. She’s just yelped, and hid in a corner, behind the wardrobe when they had finally entered Aager’s cave/den/lair of a room after the festivities were finally done.
Against all Aager’s thoughts, Inshala hadn’t turned herself into a little ball because she feared him, but she was just so over-excited and didn’t know what to do or what was going to happen next, she’s just shut herself down!
Aager had sat before her, in the darkroom, and silently waited for her to raise her head. He hadn’t tried to soothe her, nor comfort her, for Inshala didn’t need comforting, then. What she needed was to brave up to the ‘unknown’, and Aager had refused to take that away from her..
..until he noticed she’d fallen asleep, curled in the corner between the wardrobe and wall.
Aager had just picked her up, carried her over to the single bed next to his, and lay her there, pulled off the blanket from his own bed, and covered her with it. Then, as he’d done so many other times, he’d grabbed the spare from the wardrobe and, just before he’d slumped into his own bed, he had whispered in her direction;
“I am yours now. We may sleep together whenever you wish, my Inshala.”
He’d woken up the next morning with Inshala cuddled in his arms, silently breathing into his face with the best smile he had ever seen on anything alive..
..wearing one of her pretty little nightgowns, much like the ones she’d worn before.
It had been a wonderful experience for Aager. More so, when he’d found out something he never knew about himself; he’d liked to cuddle!
And now, they could do it as often as they wanted.
It was rare for Aager to be eager for anything. As a matter of fact, he’d never been eager to do anything in his life. True, whatever he did, he did them with surgical accuracy and pragmatic efficiency, always seeing things through.
Just not eagerly..
“It’s nice, here, yes. I.. I was very scared when you said we would come here and asked me what I would think about settling here. I am sorry I am scared of humans all the time. They.. weren’t very nice to me when I was a little girl. I feel shame when I admit to my fears because it makes me seem like a crybaby. I don’t always cry. I just don’t know when I am allowed to and when I shouldn’t because no one ever told me. My Father let me laugh and cry whenever I wanted. And now I am here, in this town, and there are so many humans here.. Some of them seem to be nice. Your sheriff, Udoorin’s father, is nice, though I feel a bit shy when he is around even though he is always very polite to me. Your mayor, Artanboss—”
“—Arthandos, love..”, Aager said with a smile.
“Yes, him.. He is nice. I met his daughters, and they really wanted to make me more dresses. I told them I’d loved the one they made for me, the one I wore on our way to Arashkan. But only if they would let me give something in return. They said they would not accept gold from the Ritual Guardian, so I showed them the soap blocks and the rose oil I’d made and they loved them but told me the rose oil was too pure and that they would have to make at least seven dresses for it. We argued and finally settled on four. Then I heard our Bremorel was here and that she and this Thomas boy had married. I was so happy, so I went to visit her. She was very surprised to see me and hugged me. She wanted to sit and talk but said the temple was a bit too crowded so we didn’t go in there then. Instead, she took me to this place called bakery where they make these awesome breads and cookies and things called doughnuts, cakes, pies, and many other things that I forgot their names, and they let you have things to drink called melonades and berry juice and honeydew. I think she knows everyone in this town. Or perhaps everyone knows her, I am not sure, but she waved at this young boy working in the bakery whose name is Dervel. Did you know he is the childhood friend of our Udoorin and is married to this very small and young wood elf girl? Bremorel said he, Udoorin and this other boy once made fun of our Laila for having pointy elf ears and the two of them had a fight with the three of them over it and now Udoorin is going to marry our Lorna who also has elf ears and this Dervel married a wood elf girl who has even pointier elf ears! Well. I didn’t think any of that was funny, since I also have elf-like ears, just much smaller but Bremorel was laughing about it all, though they all seem to be friends now, accept the third boy who went missing some months ago and was never heard of again. Bremorel ordered some of everything and a big jar of melonade, and we walked over to someone’s garden and she just barged into the house and came back with a blanket and some plates and some cups. She lay the blanket in the garden and told me to sit and eat. I was a bit frightened because I didn’t know whose garden we were in and humans were always angry with me when I came near their gardens when I was little. Then this man poked his head out of the window of the house and I was almost about to run away when he waved at us and said, ‘Hey, Morel. Having an outing, are you? And right in front of my open window where I can smell all those wonderful pastries. You are a cruel girl, you are.” I just sat there, frighted like a rabbit, but Bremorel just laughed and told him to come over and that there was more than enough, and the man did come over and sat with us. He.. he smiled at me and said, “Who is your pretty friend?..” I was so scared and he was just smiling at me and calling me ‘pretty!’.. “Uncle Darien, this is one of my dearest friends, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, the new Ritual Guardian who is also the daughter of the late Master Cathber. She was with us when we fought and brought down Themalsar. She is as awesome and wise as she is pretty.”, and I was now blushing so much, I had to drink half of my melonade to cool down. Then we ate all the wonderful cakes and cookies and doughnuts and the other things I can’t remember the names of. While we ate, we also talked. Uncle Darien is a nice man, and I learned he is Laila’s father! Bremorel seems to have changed. She was always angry before. And arguing. Now.. she is.. shining? She is smiling a lot. And laughing a lot. Then we said goodbye to Uncle Darien and he told me I could come and visit him any time I wanted to. Bremorel showed me the town and she met me many other people before she left to train her new rangers. Did you know there is an orc here who works at your iron shop? When he saw me, he slowly came and dropped on his knees and said, “Ritual Guardian. Many years ago, I was wild and with my marauding band, we attacked villages for their food and their gold. When the rangers came after us, they hit us hard and they killed my band. Your father, Master Cathber found me, days later, wounded and dying. He chose to save me instead of ending me. He tended to my wounds and brought me here to work hard to atone for my sins. Thus I have. I was bound to your father. And now, I am bound to you.” Later, I met more people, and today I met the half-born and we played a game of catch.. Of all the people I met, from this village and amongst the refugees, elf, human, or half-born, I learned that ‘nice’ is a choice. Some chose to be and some do not, and that my fear was misplaced. What I feared were people. What I should have feared was, ‘bad choices’..”
Inshala fell silent after that, a bit breathless.
Arm in arm, the two walked in silent harmony for a while. Aager sensed his young wife wanted to say more but whatever it was, she was clearing feeling very shy about it and was trying to brave herself up.
He opted to give her the chance.
“I..”, said Inshala a bit hesitantly. “..want to show you something tonight.”
“Ow?”, said Aager.
“I saw some little girls do it and I thought it looked awesome. So I was brave and went and asked them what they were doing. They were a bit scared of me too, I think. But after we talked a bit, none of us was afraid anymore. I let them touch my horns and they all laugh with delight and asked me if I had any more and begged if they could borrow them to show off to their other friends. I told them I was sorry and that I only had these. Then we talked some more and they told me what they were doing. I tried it too and asked them if I was doing it right? They corrected me and I tried some more until I think I learned it correctly now. I asked them if they would mind I showed it to my hubby, and they were like, ‘You have a hubby?’, and I was like, ‘Yes, I have a hubby because he decided to be my hubby and asked me if I would want him to be my hubby, so I told them I didn’t know what hubby was but that it sounded awesome, and if it made him near me and made me near him, then I wanted him to be my hubby!'”
“What did they learn you?”, he asked.
“Not here.”, Inshala said blushing brightly. “I.. liked it.. very much.. and want to do it while you watch..”
“Alright.”, he said.. and without noticing, he had picked up his pace.
Stop this, video and start the next one to see what Inshala has unintentionally learned, and wanted to show Aager..
Something crashed right through the Guest House of Serenity Home with incredible force causing everyone nearby to go for their weapons!
The wooden inner walls of the modest Guest House splintered and the windows shattered sending shards everywhere. The clanking of alarm bells rang through the town as everyone apart from a burly group comprised of harsh-looking men and women led by Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart ran to their designated posts. Apparently, the town took its defense quite seriously and all the training of the past months had paid off; in under ten minutes, the great wall built just west of the town was maned with thousands of elves, dwarves, and humans, their swords, axes, shields, and long pikes at the ready. Down below, hundreds of bows were drawn, waiting for the command to ‘LOOSE!’ while two dozen catapults were already being loaded with various destructive projectiles..
..but the expected Orken attack never came.
Sheriff Standorin ran up the flight of stairs, followed closely by the hardened town guards holding heavy clubs in their hands. Town security did not draw swords on a whim. Their job was to secure, not kill. Standorin pointed at one of the doors and two men stood before it, each facing the door. He then pointed at the remaining five doors and the men and women ran for each door in pairs. Then he pointed at the door he was facing, nodded at the large, burly man, some thirty years younger than him. The young, burly town guard nodded back than shouldered the door, smashing it down. Standorin and the rest of the guards barged in.
“MEDIC!”, shouted the sheriff the moment he took a quick stock of what lay before him. “GO GET SENIOR TEMPLE GUARDIAN THOMAS DIMWOOD HERE AT ONCE!”
Then he paused for a tad moment.
“No.”, he said. “Tell him to prepare to receive. We will bring the wounded to him.”
“Yes, sir!”, barked one of the younger women and dashed out of the room and down the stairs, and with the opening and slamming of the Guest House door, she was gone.
Standorin walked over to the remains of the broken single bed, with his powerful arms, pushed it aside, walked through the gaping hole in the wall, and stepped into the adjacent room and very carefully, he picked up the very tall, rather willowy figure, her robes shredded, her long, once elegant dress-skirts torn and ripped, her platinum-blonde braids loose and disheveled, her somewhat angular face bloodied and one of her arms hung at an odd angle.
The sheriff motioned at one of the guards who had followed him through the hole. The guard ran ahead and opened the room’s door for him.
Standorin carried the broken form of High Lady Anglenna Sunsear out of the room, and down the stairs.
“Bring a bedsheet. No one needs to see her like this.”, he rumbled quietly, then paused again and added. “No one needs to see her.”
He looked at the town guards and his face hardened.
“We do not know how the elves of Bari Na-ammen will react to her. She will get her opportunity to explain herself. I will not have a riot, nor a witch-hunt in my town. Do I make myself clear?”, he asked, looking at the men and women staring at the high lady.
The guards all nodded silently. The sheriff gently put the high lady on the wooden floor while the dust and splinter-riddled bedsheet was pulled off the broken bed and brought down.
“Couldn’t have brought a clean one?”, asked Standorin to the guard, a high elf and a recent addition to the town security.
“Sorry, sir. But we already broke one door down. And I don’t think this.. woman.. is worth a clean sheet to begin with.”, he very nearly spat.
Standorin stared at the young elf with his, calm-before-the-storm, gaze.
“Young man. I can not imagine your losses. However, you are a guard of Serenity Home now and represent the honor of this town. People from all over the kingdom come and settle here. Much like you, everyone is welcome, provided they do not drag their prejudices and their personal issues along with them. This is not Arashkan. This is not Endless Watch. This is not High Woods or Scowling Hills or Koruxan. This is Serenity Home, and the lady is the cousin of Princess Alor’Nadien ne and to the best of my knowledge, the princess adores her cousin. I am not privy to the reasons, but I am guessing she must have them, wouldn’t you say? You may not care, nor have any respect for this woman, but you will care and respect the Princess of Bari Na-ammen.”
The young high elf gulped.
“I apologize, sir. I acted and spoke out of turn and before I thought things through. I hate this woman with all my heart and wish nothing but ill will for her. I will, however, show her all the courtesy required of a high elf and a town guardsman.”
Standorin gave him a nod of approval and the young elf ran back up, and returned with another sheet —a clean and neatly folded one.
With the help of two female guards, Standorin carefully wrapped the high lady, covered her face, then gently picked her up again and nodded at the Guest House door.
The young elf ran ahead and opened the door for him.
The sheriff of Serenity Home rumbled.
“Form a quiet line. We do not need spectators. And inform the watch, they can turn the alarm bells off. Everyone is to remain at their posts for another hour then return to their daily routine.”
✱ ✱ ✱
High Lady Anglenna Sunsear woke up, quite dizzy and groggy, to a dimly lit, single-bed dormitory. The room was plainly furnished. Spars, even, consisting of the bed itself, a small table, a chair, a box, possibly to hold personnel possessions, two shelves nailed to the walls, and.. that’s it! No carpets, no ornaments, no framed pictures, no doilies, no curios, no vase with flowers, no tapestries and no curtains, though that was understandable since there were no windows, giving the overall impression that this was a cell, rather than a dormitory..
Anglenna looked down.
At least the room was clean and so was the blankets and the sheets, and she was wearing a long, ankle-length, burlap-colored linen nightgown of some sort. Apparently, someone had gotten her out of her shredded, sewer-smelling, soot-smudged clothes, cleaned her up, washed her hair, even, applied ointments and bandaged the dozen or so cuts and bruises, and cast her arm.
Hmm, she thought, why was her arm cast? She didn’t remember fracturing her arm. True, it’d just looked.. odd.. and had quit working properly, back when she’d been in the sewers, but the pain had died down, eventually, in the days, or perhaps it was weeks, or likely four or five days, maybe, ten at most, where she’d barely been able to find an hour or two, time enough for a breather, but never quite enough for full meditation. Anglenna had depressingly admitted she had no sense of direction whatsoever underground and that she was unequivocally lost. Exhausted, constantly on the run, hungry, thirsty, and hunted, by the Orken, and by the horror-inducing, pitch-black, sentient smoke; The Three Dog Curse she had unleashed, constantly growing and always spreading, and where she had dashed back and forth in those tunnels, very nearly losing her mind. It was during her desperate running in the sewers of Arashkan that she’d carelessly slipped and fallen into a crack in a wall caused by an Orken mangonel rock that had landed on the house above ground and caved it in all the way down to the sewers and then some.
Anglenna had very nearly screamed in abandoned panic when she had found out that she couldn’t even climb out of the narrow crack. The irony of having found the calm of being a Sunsear under the very harsh tutorage of her mother that had saved her from ultimate madness had not been lost on her. She had used her, quite secluded, predicament to her advantage; she had meditated for the duration of a full rest and was able to finally teleport out of the dark, stinking sewers, out of the burning, ruined, dead and dying Arashkan, and all the way to Serenity Home Guests House, where she had stayed once, when she’d first gone there, looking for the princess.
There had been three major problems to be able to cast the teleportation spell for Anglenna, however. The first was, she’d already used it on her cousin, Princess Alor’Nadienne, and the young man, Udoorin. The second was, she wasn’t yet powerful enough to cast a second before making a full, meditative rest, which she hadn’t had the opportunity until now. And the third was, the person casting said teleportation had to know the destination.. thoroughly. That had always been a major drawback and problem with teleportation spells. The caster had to have familiarized the landing point, otherwise, the outcome(s) —plural, could be unpredictable or unprecedented at best, deadly at worst, obviously. The better he or she knew it, the more accurate their landing would be.. which in itself had produced its own issues. Before the events in the Arashkan Arena, Anglenna had been everything she seemed like; cold, distant, uncaring, looking down on everyone, and.. somewhat intentionally unobservant.. because everything was pretty much beneath her —just the kind of daughter her mother had always wanted! True, she had stayed at the Serenity Home Guest House for a few days while waiting for the possible arrival of her cousin so she could drag her, by the hair if need be, back to her father. But she hadn’t given a second glance to the Guest House, the town itself, and certainly not the little room she had been offered, which she had taken offense, but hadn’t been able to take umbrage due to the fact that (a) the alternative was to stay in the town’s common inn, which was just too beneath her, (b) all the rooms in the Guest House were the same!
In all candor, the only thing of note had been the spectacular view of Gull’s Perch, visible through the Guest House windows, for even though it was a few days travel east of the town, it was still, quite the magnificent sight; a single ‘rock’, some half a mile wide at its base, reaching up and up until its cap was lost in the clouds..
Hence, when she focused on her destination as she cast her spell, she had only a vague picture of the room she had stayed, which in turn had presented its own, distinctly ironic problem; all the rooms in the Guest House were indeed, identical!
Anglenna wasn’t sure if she was even at Serenity Home, at this very moment and this.. little howel.. or perhaps it was a cell.. certainly didn’t look like one of the rooms in the Guest House.
There was a polite knock and the door of her cell opened presenting a young, sturdy-looking man in a long, white robe that had contouring, embroidered colars and sleeves in dark red, and the only thing he wore that seemed unassuming was a holy symbol of some sort hanging from his neck.
The man nodded politely at her as he came in, carrying a tray in one hand covered with a clean cloth, a tankard in the other, and a genuine smile on his face.
Anglenna ogled at him.
She wasn’t ogling at him because he was a young, good-looking man, nor that he was smiling at her. She was ogling at him because the smile was genuine!
Alright, she thought, he must not know who I am and he is smiling because he is looking at an elf girl.
“Human males and their ‘elf maiden’ fetishes.”, she fumed to herself in disgust. “Guess I’ll just have to disillusion your elf fetishes by showing you, bitchery is not a registered trademark of human females.”
“High Lady Anglenna Sunsear. It is a distinct honor to have finally met you in person.”, the young man beamed.
“What the—”, thought Anglenna. “The boy knows who I am and is still smiling at me. No, he is beaming at me!”
“Are you sure you are talking to the right High Lady Anglenna?”, she asked, her voice patched and dry, and sounded more like a croak. “Perhaps you are confusing me with someone else.”
“I doubt, my Lady. There is but one of you.”, he replied, still beaming at her.
“Do I know you, young man?”, she asked a bit irritably. People did NOT smile at her. And if they did, it was more of a sneer, than a smile, really. Perhaps this boy was merely an idiot!
“I doubt, my Lady.”, repeated the young man. “Though we did meet once, albeit briefly. Several months ago, at the celebrations on the evening of the return of our people from the Ruins of Themalsar. You were staying here, waiting for your cousin to arrive, I believe. Then I saw you again, the day after. You were in the meeting where the same group members met with the mayor, the sheriff, and the town council members, deciding on the course of action in relation to what they had learned.”
“I am at Serenity Town, then?”, she asked somewhat relieved.
“But of course, my Lady. You are at Serenity Town Temple, to be more precise.”, the man answered politely.
“You know who I am, then?”, asked Anglenna.
“Indeed.”, replied the young man.
“You know who my mother is too?”, she asked.
“As much, yes.”, said the man.
“And what she did?”
“Not definitively, but I dare say, the rumors are likely true, considering the wide variety of different, independent, and quite reliable sources.”, smiled the man.
“Is something wrong with your head, boy?”, asked the high elf woman, unable to refrain herself.
“Yes. He’s an idiot!”, came a soft, irritable, feminine voice from outside the room.
The young man looked at the owner of the soft, irritable voice, grinned at her, and made room for a young, tall, beautiful girl with a lithe, striking figure, deep green eyes, fair skin, and long, free-flowing black hair. Anglenna thought she’d seen her before, but couldn’t quite remember when and where.
Unlike the young man, however, the girl was glaring at her.
The girl was glaring at her balefully and Anglenna got the distinct impression that this girl had glared at people all her life, and had dismantled any number of them to prove just exactly what her glare entailed!
“Why are you down here, talking to this psychopath, Thomas?”, she almost snarled.
“There.”, thought Anglenna. “Someone who does know me!”
“Perhaps introductions are in order?”, asked the high lady.
“SHUT UP, BITCH!”, snarled the young woman. “YOU DON’T GET TO MAKE ANY DEMANDS, HERE! IF I WANT YOUR BLOODY OPINION, I’LL BE SURE TO BEAT IT OUT OF YOU!”
That.. had been the first time someone —anyone— had ever talked to her in that tone, let alone tell her to shut up so viciously. She felt her cheeks blaze with embarrassment.
“Morel..”, said the young man reprovingly. “Please, love. She’s my guest, in my temple. We agreed, I would follow your lead in the woods, and you’d follow mine in my temple.”
“It’s alright. I’ll just drag her off to the woods, by the hair, or ankle, or throat, or nose, doesn’t matter which, and finish her off there!”, she spat, as she stared at the high lady with impressive hate.
“How do you even drag someone by the nose?”, the young man, Thomas, asked.
“You stick two fingers into the holes and drag. Either they come or they loose the nose! Quite painfully, I might add.”, the young woman replied with an indifferent shrug.
The young man stared at her.
“You will do no such thing, love, nor will you harm her. You are not a cutter.”, he said with a decisive tone.
“She is, though. Her mother’s precious little cutter!”
“I don’t think that is true, love. And I don’t believe you think so, either.”
The young woman, Morel, turned to Thomas and hissed at him.
“Do you know what this elf skank and her bitch of a mother did?”
“Yes, love. I do. A bit more so than you, actually. I have been caring for the refugees of Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen for the past few weeks now, remember?”, Thomas said quietly. “Had to burry quite as many, pray over their souls, and comfort their loved ones, too.”
“If she wants to drag me off and cut me, perhaps she should.”, Anglenna said in a subdued voice of her own. “I certainly deserve it. But only after I see my cousin and young Udoorin.”
The young man and the girl turned to her, staring with baffled expressions.
“Neither the princess nor young Udoorin is here, Lady Anglenna. Which is why Ranger Lieutenant Morel, here, is a bit edgy. Of those who went for Arashkan, only Lady Magella has returned thus far, and she had to leave again to speak with the dwarves about the upcoming war and smooth over some family issues at Scowling Hills. No one else has come back yet. Other than her, you are the first to arrive.”
“Before leaving for Scowling Hills, however, the esteemed Senior Temple Guardian, Lady Magella, informed us that the deputy sheriff, Master Aager, and the young lady, Inshala, had gone off to Durkahan to inform them of the events culminating with the fall of Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen and look into the possibilities of arranging some form of military relief, while Ranger Lieutenant Laila, Master Gnine, and Lady Merisoul had gone to.. Silent Hills for.. well.. we are not quite sure why they went there, and you, Lady Anglenna, along with Princess Lorna, and young Udoorin had set out for a secret mission at Arashkan. The princess and Udoorin aren’t here, but you are, which does raise some questions. More so, considering your distinct affiliations with.. your mother.”
“How is this possible? I sent my cousin and young Udoorin here days ago.. Weeks, maybe. I lost track of time when we were at Arashkan. The young man was severely wounded, so I sent him and the princess here to make sure he received proper medical attention. But we hadn’t completed our mission yet, hence I had to stay behind.”
“So you say! For all I know, you are in it with the Orken, just like your mother. But I am warning you, girl, if something happens to Udoorin or Lorna, you are a dead meat!”, sneered Morel.
“Morel, please.. Why don’t you go and— Wait. What are you doing?”, Thomas asked when he saw the high lady throw off her blankets and try to rise.
“I need to go find my cousin.. and that foolish boy!”, she hissed.
“Lady, please. You need rest. You have been unconscious for weeks.. Your wounds were quite extensive, you have a fever, and.. we still need to break your arm!”
“You need to— What?!”, exclaimed Anglenna staring at the young man.
“I am sorry, Lady. But your arm was fractured, mangled, really, and I am afraid you didn’t set it right before you let it bind on its own —incorrectly.”, Thomas said with a strained voice.
Anglenna stared at the young man with a distinctly horrified expression.
The young woman, Morel, however, grinned.. quite viciously!
“I can do it.”, she offered, still grinning. “Please let me do it, Thomas! I could make you very happy if you let me do this one thing!”
To give the young man credit, he only blushed a little.
He coughed once, then turned to the grinning young woman.
“Why don’t you go and find the sheriff, love. He will want to ask questions before I do.. what I have to do. I doubt Lady Anglenna, here, will be in any condition to speak coherently after that. Not for a day or two.”
“Spoilsport!”, scowled Morel and turned around to leave.
“Here.”, the young man said and gave the tray and the tankard to her.
Morel stared at him.
“Perhaps the high lady should eat after what has to be done. Less of a mess that way. And.. I thought you were over breaking arms, Morel.”, he said to her.
“Ow, Thomas.”, said Morel, smiling fondly at him. “If I don’t break an arm or two every once in a while, I’ll have to break yours. And if I did that, you would be so useless at nights, and mornings, and in the woods, and in the afternoons, and—”
Young Thomas blushed furiously.
Hell, so did Anglenna!
The young woman’s heartless laughter trailed off as she left..
“I.. am sorry about that. Morel and I are—”, Thomas coughed.
“—Just weird?”, finished the high lady.
“..newlywed. I mean, it’s only been a month or so.”, Thomas stammered.
“Why are you apologizing me for?”, asked Anglenna.
“You.. didn’t have to hear some of the things she said, that’s all. Morel is kinder than she lets on, really.”, mumbled the young man., paused, then added. “And quite the robust girl..”
“Apparently, so are you, young man.”, said Anglenna with a straight face.
Young Thomas deflated as his own face went even brighter red.
“Ah, I remember the two of you, now. Back from that celebration night. Didn’t that girl punch you in, then slam you on the ground and dislocate your shoulder?”
“Well.. yes.. I suppose she did..”, admitted, Thomas blushing some more.
“And you married her!”
“Well.. yes..”, mumbled the young man. “I.. love her.. always have.. since I was six and she was four..”
“I am tempted to ask, just how stupid are you, young man? But I shall politely settle for, just creepy and weird.”, said the high lady with an amused tone.
Thomas ogled at the high lady.
“Go get your hammer, and your anvil.”, she gave Thomas a brittle smile. “Might as well get it over with.. Before your woman decides to come back and do it herself. Something tells me she doesn’t like me very much and might feel obligated to break more than just my arm.”
“It will hurt.. a lot, Lady Anglenna.”
“You are the Senior Temple Guardian now, then? A bit young for that kind of responsibility, aren’t you?”, Anglenna asked.
“Lady Magella is the senior, really. But she has other responsibilities, making me the fill-in for her. Not a position I wanted at my current age, as I lack the temperament, the wisdom, and the experience, but the other guardians are even younger than I am.”
“You over underestimate yourself, young man. I am not as good a read of character as my cousin, Alor’Nadien ne, is, but you seem to have the temperament and the wisdom. The experience will come in time. It always does. And since you are a temple guardian, just Anglenna will do. Or Lenna. Bari Na-ammen is no more and I am no longer a high lady.”
“You don’t need a piece of land to be a lady, nor to have a noble soul, you know. Much like I don’t need this temple to be a guardian, nor do I need it to be my Morel’s husband.”
“But you do have your temple, and your woman.”, informed the high lady.
“There are over a hundred and fifty thousand Orken that we know of, are marching this way, Lady. The fact that I have a temple or my wonderful Morel is a moot point.”, Thomas replied with solemn realism.
“Young man.”, Anglenna replied with a resigned voice. “It is obvious you are as polite as you seem. And honest as well. You don’t have to try so hard, though. Considering the things I did in my past, and my many sins..”
“I am not trying anything Lady Anglenna. This is the only me, my Morel gets, and the only me you will get.”, Thomas smiled.
“I see. Well, do politely break my arm then, if you will, please?”, Anglenna smiled back at him.
“Shouldn’t we wait for the sheriff?”, he asked.
“I’ll be alright. My mother never had a tender hand when it came to teaching pain. Which is probably why I wasn’t even aware it was broken in the first place. The sooner we get it done, the sooner I can start looking for my cousin and young Udoorin, who needs medical care much more than I do now.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Young Thomas removed the cast from Lady Anglenna’s arm with practiced efficiency.
“Been cracking arms a lot?”, grinned Anglenna with frightened anticipation.
“Many times, my Lady. People tend to shrug off their injuries and end up here. It isn’t like I charge for my services or anything. In the end, they suffer more than they should, had they come to me in the first place.”, Thomas explained as he took the high lady’s slender arm and tightly bound it to the small table.
For a moment, he looked at the elf girl, then her arm then took out a piece of arm’s-length, wooden board and placed it on her arm.
“I don’t suppose it’ll help if I said you should eat more. I probably lack the years to advise a high elf.”
Which was when the young temple guardian drew out a heavy hammer with a broad head and smashed it, just right, on the high lady’s slender arm.
Anglenna gave a sharp, savage scream, and dropped limply on the floor!
“For that, I very much, and sincerely apologize, my Lady.”, he said quietly.
“You sure have a way with people, young Thomas. I hope you are not treating your young ranger lieutenant the same way.”, came a burly, rumbling voice.
“Sheriff Standorin..”, Thomas said, without looking back, as he unbound the ropes, pulled out several long, flat sticks and a thick roll of bandages from his robes. “..no one treats Morel Songsteel the same way..”
“Good answer.”, grinned Standorin.
“Dammit, Thomas!”, hissed Morel also from the door. “I told you I wanted to do it!”
“Language, love. We also agreed about confining it outside our home and the temple, in particular. And Yes. You did. But this needed tender accuracy.”
“I could do tender.. and be accurate.. You of all people should know that by now..”, she scowled.
“That I do, love. But your ‘tender’ is rather selective and probably doesn’t include the esteemed high lady. And you are horrible with hammers and maces!”, Thomas replied seriously.
“True, I suppose.. on both accounts.. I would have just hit her on the head with the hammer and be done with..”, she admitted freely.
“It is amazing, the things people admit to what might constitute as a crime.. right in front of the town sheriff..”, he grinned.
“I am sorry, sir.”, replied Morel that clearly said she wasn’t sorry in the least. “But the things spoken between a man and his wife in the privacy of their home, or a temple, can not be used against them in a court of law, and this temple is our home! We even eat and sleep here and Thomas makes me pray sometimes, too!”
Standorin cocked an eyebrow.
“I wasn’t aware you were into the finer details of the law, Ranger Lieutenant Morel. I am.. pleasantly surprised.”
“Nothing to be surprised, there, sheriff. The first thing my Ranger Master Moorat taught me years ago, even before showing me how to track or forage, was, ‘If you are going to persist in being a delinquent, at least be smart enough to know the law so you don’t end up in jail like you did, should you be stupid enough to get caught again!’ —pretty much his exact words!”, Morel said with a shameless smirk.
Standorin blew a fuming breath out of his nose.
“I knew it was a bad idea handing you over to that old, no-good bandit. Like master, like novice.”
“Come, love.”, Thomas said. “Straighten her to a sitting position, if you will. As much as you may dislike her, she is a noblewoman and the cousin of Princess Alor’Nadien ne, and shouldn’t be left lying on the floor. Then hold her shoulder up and straight while I pull from this end so we set the bones right before I recast the arm.”
“Nice.”, smiled Morel with an evil grin. “I get to watch her squirm in pain up close.”
High Lady Angrellen woke when they pulled her arm to set the bones.
She did not squirm, nor his she cry out again.
She just stared, somewhere off and at some unseen distance with blazing eyes.
And there was no satisfaction in Morel’s eyes, as she held and pulled, quite tenderly, at the high lady’s shoulder.
..though the sheriff, looking down at the two women.
Apparently, one had changed, quite a bit of late and the other had suffered, quite a lot, for quite some time..
“Ranger Lieutenant Morel.”, he said, after Thomas set and recast the high lady’s arm, and carefully put her back into bed. “If you would, please, go to the leader of the HWRM —the High Wood’s Resistance Movement and inform him, discreetly, if he would be kind enough to come here, preferably alone, on a matter of some urgency. We need to make sure this actually is the High Lady Anglenna, and not something else. We have had a few too many surprises sprung on us as it is, lately. Do not tell him anything. Just bring him here.”
“Why?”, asked Morel, looking down at the high lady. “This is the bitchy high lady from back then, she still is the bitchy high lady now. She has the same height and the same foot size, though she does not smell of her perfumes but that of sewer, even after we cleaned her up, and she weighs less, which is expected, considering she looks like she’s been through some rough, and has been comatose for three weeks or so.”
Sheriff Standorin frowned a bit.
“I do not question your assessment, Lieutenant. But she seems.. different.”
“Perhaps she is concussed?”, she offered. “I certainly want to concuss her. There are bound to be others!”
“No, love.”, inserted Thomas. “The esteemed sheriff is right. True that she has suffered quite a lot recently, both physically and emotionally, but I do not think she is concussed. She was coherent and fully awake. However, nothing she said nor her behavior as a whole, matches our first encounter with her. I saw genuine emotions in her; shame, regret, a sense of urgency, and the need to punish herself.”
Morel scowled at them both.
“You just want to run me off so you can talk in private!”
“The sheriff can say anything he wants to say right here and now.”, Thomas grinned at her.
“Very well.”, she fumed. “I am going to do this only because the esteemed sheriff asked nicely.”
Sheriff Standorin cocked both his eyebrows.
“I always ask nicely, Lieutenant. And not because this is your home.”
“I don’t recall you asking me nicely before you clubbed my lights out then dragged me off to jail when I was twelve, sir!”, she said hotly.
Apparently, aside from many other things, Morel was a good grudge bearer.
“I did ask you nicely. Several times. And warned you even, that should you continue, I would detain you. Your cousin, Ranger Lieutenant Laila was there, though she was a ranger novice at the time. You can ask her. She stopped after the second warning but you didn’t. I wasn’t aware my son tasted so good! He must have. Since you just wouldn’t stop chewing on his arm!”, Sheriff Standorin said with a straight face.
Morel’s face, however, turned dark red, as she blushed furiously.. and in mortification. She turned and ran out of the room.
“Well..”, said the sheriff. “That went well..”
“Yup!”, said Thomas.
“I hope this little incident doesn’t come back at you.”, Standorin said.
“It is possible that it may but unlikely. However the people of Serenity Home want to remember her, she is dedicated not to return to that angry, bitter girl. And that is ‘wisdom’ in my book.”, the young temple guardian said proudly.
✱ ✱ ✱
So she won’t talk?”, asked Arthandos Yuleman, the Mayor of Serenity Home Town, and the person responsible for the wellbeing of nearly eighty thousand Arahkan and fifteen thousand Bari Na-ammen refugees and he was as tired as he seemed.
Tired, weary, and older.
“She talks.”, replied Sheriff Standorin with his low, rumbling voice.. “Just nothing of significance. She is excellent at dodging questions, excels at debating her point, and too refined for us to take offense at anything she says for us to openly force her to tell us the things she is hiding.”
“So she is a politician.”, grunted Arthandos.
“No, Arty. She is a very good politician. Besides being a powerful sorceress, which I suppose, is to be expected of her. She was trained by The Betrayer, after all, and on both accounts..”
“So we know nothing. Other than her claim about having ‘sent’ both the princess and your son here, by our calculation, at least four weeks ago.”, said Arthandos unhappily.
“Yes. About that.. I wanted to.. ask you a personnel favor..”, said the sheriff, looking down at his hands.
“You want us to send some of our very limited number of rangers and trackers out looking for them, without knowing where to look for.. in every direction!”, frowned the mayor.
“Something like that.”, replied Standorin quietly.
“Stan.. You are killing me!”, sighed Arthandos.
“Eh? Why?”, asked the sheriff, looking up at the mayor with a baffled expression.
“We are not talking about anyone here, man. We are talking about your son. Of course, you can send off some of the rangers and trackers. Any we can spare. You don’t have to ask my permission for that.” said Arthandos.
“It is a personal favor, Arty. Everyone out there has someone they care missing..”, mumbled the sheriff.
“You are missing the higher point here, man. He is your son, yes. But he is also the fiancee of the princess of Bari Na-ammen. He now represents more than you, me, this town, or the elves. He represents HOPE. The boy who came from a simple town, fought against all odds, and rose to become a king. And not just any king, mind you. He became the king of ELVES. His line will also be of KINGS and QUEENS!”, smiled the mayor expansively.
“You just had to turn it into a political parade, didn’t you?”, he scowled.
“But of course, my dear Stan. That’s how I got away with all the irregular expenses you and Master Aager caused all these past years!”, he laughed.
“Whether he becomes a king or not is his prerogative. I just want my son back. Safe and sound. And I want his happiness. He.. when they were here, he was looking at young Lorna like I used to look at my Limnia. My boy found happiness and the will to do great deeds because of that girl. Just that is enough to make her special in my book.”, Standorin said seething silently as he fisted his hands. “He must come back. He is the only thing that is left to me from my Limnia, Arty. Do you understand that?”
“No, Stan. I don’t. I was never blessed by someone as special and luminous as Limnia. I was only cursed by having to put up with her brother Moorat!”, he replied sympathetically.
“Is there anything we could do to make her talk? With her consensual cooperation, I mean. And what do you propose we do with her?”, he asked.
“We can’t let her go, not that she wants to leave, other than to get better as soon as possible so she could go and seek for her cousin and my son, which came as a surprise for me, from the way she phrases it. Or perhaps, the way she sees them. For some reason, she will not say her cousin’s name alone, but she speaks of them as one. Like they were a single entity. I can’t say I understand what that means, but that’s the impression I got. She did offer to help train anyone with a glimpse of innate affinity to magic, as a contribution to our war efforts. She will not talk about any of the group members we sent to Arashkan nor about anything that occurred there because, ironically, she does not trust anyone here, which is understandable, since she doesn’t know anyone here and considering what her mother did, she has no reason to. But I do believe her feelings for her mother are quite genuine. She does a good job not showing it, but I have been a sheriff for a good thirty, thirty-five years now. She burns with shame whenever the issue of her mother is brought up, down to her very core. Add her elfish heritage into that stew, you get a young, high elf noblewoman who will burn her enemies down to cinders. And not metaphorically in her case.”, Standorin said, trying to put as many words into as few sentences as he could.
“Yes. Elves can be like that. Good haters. When they hate, they won’t confine it with you, but they will take it up to generations to come, in human terms. Not surprising to hear an elf say, your great-great-great-great-something-great grandfather did this to us!”, snorted Arthandos.
“You are going to have to decide on what to do with her, I am afraid. She is way above my pay grade and to be honest, we don’t have the manpower to neither guard her against her own people, let alone her mother, nor anyone to spare to keep a track of her, considering she is a sorceress who has the skills to teleport!”, grimaced the sheriff.
“How about she stays where she is now. In the temple.”, Arthandos asked?
“No. The temple is crowded as it is, what with all the.. new guests.. young Thomas took under his protection. Yes, those succubi half-borns are all adults, but they are very much like children who just ran away from school! They keep to their rooms and play quietly during day hours and when Thomas is performing his sermons, but come evening, they board up all the temple windows and run around wildly, playing games, all the while screaming like sugar-loaded, over-hyped kids! We just can’t let them loose, either. Some of those girls are extraordinarily pretty. Hell, so are the boys! When Thomas first told me about them, I went to make sure they were as safe as he claimed they were. Thomas called them and they all fell in line happily, then he introduced them to me. But let me tell you, some of the girls were looking at me like I was food. I haven’t been that freaked in my life. It is interesting, though. They won’t harm nor try to seduce our young Thomas, and Bremorel hasn’t shown any form of jealously nor animosity against them. Those two must really trust and believe in one another. Then there is the fact that every night before they go to their dormitories, they all file down into than cavernous chamber where all the temple guardians are entombed and pray for Demos Lightshand!”
Arthandos stared at him.
“What? Why?”, he asked in astonishment.
“Because Thomas told them it was he, Demos, who trained and taught him to be kind, understanding, and to accept everyone who came to his temple. Hence they all go down and pray for his soul —every single night!”
Arthandos stared at him.. some more..
“Half-demons.. praying for the soul of a Temple Guardian of Light! The irony in that hurts my mind!”, he said, putting his face in his hands.
“I know, right?”, grinned Standorin. “Let me tell you this, though. Willy-nilly, the Orken changed everything. The Orken and that strange girl I fined the night of the celebration. The one with the raven wings, Miss Merisoul Xyrotwu.. Thomas refused to go into the details, ‘for otherworldly security reason’, he said, but all those half-borns were freed from Hell, and I mean actual, literal Hell, by that Merisoul girl, and are all willing to ‘sweat, bleed, and die for their Ascension’ —their exact words! Should we win the day when the Orken finally arrive, a great many things will have to keep on changing because we just can’t go back to what we were.”
“I feel too old for this. Maybe I should start looking for some replacement as well. I hear you are.”
“There are many candidates who could replace me. I don’t have to dance around politics. If and when I see someone breaking the law, I tell them to come quietly. If they don’t, I club them quietly—”, Standorin said with a broad smile.
The mayor snorted.
“—then politely take them in. Being a mayor, however, requires too much political dancing for my taste where everything and everyone wants to complicate things like they were getting paid for it!”, the sheriff finished.
“Who do you have in mind, Stan? Not young Udoorin, that’s for sure, now.”, wondered Arthandos.
“Had it been before, I would have said Master Aager.”, admitted, Sheriff Standorin. “But things have changed. One sheriff was good and well for a town, even one as large and connected as ours. But that will not be enough. Most of the elves might return home to rebuild their lives. Though it will take centuries for High Woods to come anywhere near what it once was. And they will have all the support they can get from us. But Arashkan is beyond repair. Lady Anglenna didn’t say anything nor imply, but she had this, ‘smirking’ look in her eyes when I asked her what they were doing there, which gave me the impression that it will stay beyond repair for quite some time. All she said about it was, ‘We had to make sure the Orken could never use Arashkan as a base, nor fix the walls to stand a siege, so that is exactly what we did.'”
“That sounds.. ominous.”, said Arthandos.
“Yes, it does. And we still don’t know what we are going to do about the Orken that was camped west of Ritual Forest. The rangers, the dwarves, and the elves stationed there as lookouts all reported that one evening they were there, come morning they were.. gone! I am thinking they employed the same device they used to ‘ambush’ Arashkan.”, said the sheriff with a worried expression. “They could be anywhere by now..”
“Perhaps. But we are not without a wide variety of options, you know. We have the Arashkan military here, and Bari Na-ammen veterans, wizards, sorcerers, and rangers, and dwarves from Scowling Hills and Elder Hills, and gnomes from Tinker Hills. Not to mention the half-born. Why don’t we throw the problem at them, all separately, and see what they come up with?”, Arthandos offered.
Standorin mulled over that for some time. But not for long. His troubled face brightened and he grinned.
“You are a cunning man, Arty. And a man of the people. I shall draft separate papers with the problems we have in relation to the war and pass them out to each group’s representatives.”, he said.
“Only after you sent out people looking for your boy and the princess. And they don’t all have to be rangers or trackers. We have a lot of people here, most of them not doing anything. Pick from the lot that isn’t in training. Put one elven ranger per group. Try to mix them with dwarves and humans and impresses upon them the importance of cooperation. That should break the ice between the races.”, grinned the mayor.
“A man of the people, indeed.”, agreed, Standorin.
✱ ✱ ✱
High Lady Anglenna woke up to a hot, tingling sensation in her left arm. Something deep in her awareness told her that she should be under a long siege of grilling pain, but for whatever reason, said pain just wasn’t there. Only the hot, tingling sensation.
“You have been given certain medicinal drugs to ease your suffering, my Lady.”, said a quiet, handsome voice.
The high lady stared around dazedly, with groggy, blurred eyes, and barely noted that she was in a small, unadorned room and that she had seen, or perhaps been in before.
She tried to speak but whoever had drugged her, had apparently glued her lips as well because nothing came out except a wheezing breath. She gave up and closed her eyes again.
She did hear a soft pair of feet in armor come near, then heard the tingling of glass, and something was poured from one container to another.
“Water?”, the quiet, handsome voice offered.
The high lady tried for a nod, but she wants sure if she’d done it right.
She felt a strong but gentle hand under her head and neck and the hand carefully nudged her up to a slightly sitting position, and a glass touched her lips.
“Slowly, my Lady.”, said the voice.
Anglenna couldn’t quite place where, but she thought she knew that voice.
The voice helped her drink from the glass; cold, clear water, with forced small sips. Whoever this person was, Anglenna thought, knew exactly where his jurisdiction began and where it ended.
She opened her eyes again and looked up to see a familiar face.
Familiar and too close!
“Armathelius.. Riverblade..?”, she gasped.
The young-looking high elf had angular features much like the rest of his kind; a sharp nose, sharp eyes, sharp, arching brows, a sharp chin, and a distinct mouth. His hazel eyes were set somewhat deeper than usual and something in those eyes read; relief.
Armathelius didn’t say anything for some time. He just stared down at the high lady, carefully taking in all the details of her face. It was long enough that it made Anglenna uncomfortable.
“Sir Armathelius?”, she began..
..but the young elf carefully and gently lay her back down and removed his hand, got up, walked over to the door, opened it, and to someone outside he said, “Yes. This is High Lady Anglenna Sunsear of Bari Na-ammen. I can vouch for her identity and shall take any and all responsibility for her future actions within Serenity Home limits. I will personally see to her safety as well, should she deem it necessary.”
Anglenna heard some muffled voices from outside the door.
“Perhaps.”, said the young high elf. “But she is our people, and hence, within our defacto-jurisdiction, sir. I thank you for having informed me, even though you did not have to. We would never have known had you not. Please convey my personal gratitude to the esteemed and honorable mayor, Arthandos Yuleman, if you would, and tell him we shall address his concerns on this matter as soon as the high lady is back to her health and is able to present herself.”
The muffled voice said something short and curt and left.
Armathelius closed the door and turned to the high lady, and Anglenna noticed, through the hot, tingling sensation, and the groggy, blurry haze, there was something else in those deep hazel eyes; smoldering, boiling wrath.
“Are you well, my Lady?”, he asked, not coldly, but distantly.
Anglenna did not reply for a long moment.
When she did, her face was pale, drawn, and lost, and her voice was parched, wheezy, tired, and weary.
“You.. you misidentified me..”, she said.
The young Armathelius Riverblade stared at her.
“The line of Sunsear’s is dead.”, she continued, looking down into her hands..
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, you 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 listened 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 long and scattered 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 one 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 even tinier 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.
Moira: Wow.. I can’t believe I played the role of ‘the damsel in distress’ in this story.. Way to go, paladin girl!
Lady Alisia:(sigh) You were the damsel in dress, daughter. I literally ended up in the role of the ‘princess that had to be saved from the evil overlord’!
Maira: At least the two of you ‘got’ a role.. I barely spoke two lines.. I feel like, ‘collateral damage’!
Grandmother:(snicker) I got to snicker at the lot of you, and I don’t even need a role to do that..
Madine: You guys suke!
Lady Alisia: Madine! What did we say about that kind of language?
Madine:(sigh) ‘We’, didn’t say anything, mother. ‘You’, said something’s.. a lot of things!
Lady Alisia: And apparently you didn’t listen.
Madine: If I listened to what you all had to say, I couldn’t find the time to breathe, mom!
Moira: Well. At least there was no Prince Charming’s.. That would have made it a total cliché!
Madine: It WAS a cliché, Moira.. ‘The Beauty and The Beast’, cliché..
Lady Alisia: Madine Hooman! You will NOT refer to your elder sister Inshala as a beast!
Madine: Eh? Whot? No, mom.. She was the awesome beauty, in the cliché!
Lady Alisia: What? Then who is the beast— Ow.. well.. that’s not nice either.. I am sure the boy has his.. good qualities.. Since my Inshala deemed him fit for herself..
Lady Alisia: .. though I can’t imagine what. They are like day and night!
Moira: You mustn’t judge him, mother.
Lady Alisia: Judge him? I am in no position to judge him, dear. I am just trying to understand.. and want what’s best for my ‘daughter’..
Grandmother: You just want them to wed A.S.A.P..!
Lady Alisia:(tight blush) Well.. gossips are bound to happen. Though they use separate beds, they still sleep in the same room. The girl will not sleep anywhere else. Not even after Moira gave her, her room!
Madine: She does sleep in Moira’s room, mother. Just wakes up in his! (snicker)
Lady Alisia:(sigh) And she is surprised every morning as to how she got there and I am inclined to believe her. She has an uncanny habit of speaking the truth.. At least the boy is headstrong. And.. well.. he will not let her get hurt.. in any way!
Moira: No. He will not, mother. The details of his past is unknown to me but as far as I have learned, he did not grow in a friendly neighborhood, and that is putting it extremely politely.. He was born, and in the streets at a very nearly half the age of Cümeyt and was forced to survive Drashan. I can’t imagine anyone to have lived through that and come out of it undented.. When we were camped outside of Themalsar waiting for poor Inshala to recover, he never left her side. He fed her, cleaned her, comforted her, took care of her.. It was creepy! But it was also beautiful as well because when we first met her, she was wild.. feral to be more honest about it. When he carried her out of that tent ten days later, however, it was like she was a whole new person, yet she wasn’t.. What came out was her all along, but it was him that brought that girl out of her.
Grandmother: Tsk, tssk! Poor boy.. Drashan is not a good neighborhood to grow indeed, Alisia. Leave the boy alone.. You have three other daughters. Have one of them wed off to quench your wont!
(sudden, deadly silence!)
Madine:(snicker) —As I was saying.. I was very nearly the side-sick in the story.. Missed it ‘cuz I was listening to ‘Queens of Srÿche” —the new album!
Grandmother: Continue listening to that devil’s trash, and you will melt what little brain you have through your ears, girl. You should listen to the classics; Moth Darth or Beetle Hoffen or Yohan Pah!
Madine:(eye roll) Ok, gramma, I am going to go now and eviscerate myself and then defenestrate off the main tower!
Cümeyt:(giggles from under the table, and whispers) Told you. Stick with me, Fey Sister and you will learn everything you want to know!
Inshala:(blushes, also from under the table) But.. but we are secretly listening in to a private conversation, little brother Cümeyt. Is this all together ‘right’?
Cümeyt: No, Fey Sister. This is a secret ‘family’ conversation. And since we are both also family, we can listen to it. Besides, you have the awesome power of ‘NEW’!
Cümeyt:(snicker) Yes. You are new! You can get away with pretty much everything. AND, you also saved my mom and my eldest sister, Moira, and I love them so much, I can’t let you miss ANY of the fun you should have!
Cümeyt: Yup! And there’s more.
Cümeyt: Tomorrow, I get to show you another and this one’s a ‘totally-secret-private conversation’..
Inshala: You are scaring me, little brother Cümeyt.
Cümeyt:(giggle) Tomorrow, we get to listen to Madine have a kiss-chat with this new boyfriend she’s got! I found out she sent him a love letter (eww!) and the boy replied. Said, he didn’t know what ‘evisceration’ nor ‘defenestration’ meant, but he was fine with the rest.
Inshala:(a bit distressed) I.. don’t know if we should.. I mean— What is a ‘kiss-chat’?
Cümeyt:(smirk) It is a chat that ends with a kiss! Do you have kiss-chats with your boyfriend?
Inshala:(furious blush) I.. I am not sure if my Aager is my boyfriend. We.. belong..
Cümeyt:(disappointed) Ow.. that sounds.. a bit boring..
Inshala:(bright smile) I like.
Later that evening..
Inshala: Aager Fogstep?
Aager: I am here.
Inshala: I learned many new social things today.
Inshala: Yes. And I would very much like to kiss-chat them with you!