Not All Is Done
Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
What’s the matter, girl? You seem spooked. As woods go, this one is as safe as it could get.”, Bremorel said, looking at the beautiful half-born girl, who appeared rather jittery as she gave quick, sharp glances every which way.
“The woods are not the issue, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel..”, said Perigren Ostlanna Temez.
“‘Bremorel’ will suffice. You really don’t need to ‘ranger lieutenant’ me all the time, nor ‘senior temple guardian’, Thomas. They are not our names but merely our titles attained over years of hard work and experience, and are subject to change.”, Bremorel smiled at her.
“Very well. Bremorel it is, then. I shall hence refer to you as such while we are in this company. As I was saying, my issue is not with the woods, but with the Mistress of these woods..”, she said, giving more glances around.
“Ahh.. I wouldn’t worry too much about the Mistress of these woods, nor the Gull’s Perch, dear. She isn’t vicious and she wouldn’t harm mortals unless they are foolish enough do her wrong, or seriously offend her. And I am a ranger, which gives me a free pass through her woods.”, Bremorel said cheerily.
“Your enthusiasm is well placed.. for a Mortal. I, however, am not. I am but half a demon and the Mistress of Gull’s Perch shall not accept my kind into her bosom.”, Temez said in a slightly brittle voice. “I suggest we either run through these woods and now, or get out of it.”
“Thomas!”, called Bremorel.
The young man picked up his pace and ran up to them.
As skinny as he had been when he was a kid and a teen, Thomas had worked hard to grow both his mind and his body over the years to brave up to the girl he had obsessively loved. But running in plate armor was never an easy task. He clanked and thundered as he came panting.
“Sorry.”, he said, breathing harshly. “Trying to keep up with two athletic girls in a forty-pound armor and more with the rest of my gear isn’t as easy as it seems.”
“Love, we have a problem and no time to talk about it. We seem to have a major flaw in our plan and must get out of these woods, like, now!”, Bremorel said urgently.
“Lead the way.”, Thomas said simply and started after the ranger lieutenant without even a pause.. and froze in his place..
..so did the ranger lieutenant.
..and the half-born.
“I.. can’t move..”, Thomas struggled as he fought the sudden mental pressure pressing down on him.
Bremorel couldn’t even reply. She just stood where she was, one foot on the ground, the other slightly bent as if she was posing in a running stance.
“Too late.”, Temez said as the same mental pressure struck her.. and washed past her! “I believe the Mistress of the Perch is already here.”
“Very astute, demon-spawn. You should have known, your kind was never allowed in my Perch nor my woods. You knew of this, yet you still came..”, said a rich, mature, feminine voice. “The last cycle, I slew countless of your kind before they finally overran my forests, my woods, my hills, and my ponds.. You murdered and slaughtered my sons and my daughters and I was left nothing but dry, desolate lands..”
“I doubt you have met any of my kind before, Mistress of the Perch.”, Temez said calmly, though her face was drawn, more so since Merisoul. “I and my kin were made this cycle. Please release my friends.. They are good people.”
“Are you not the spawn of a succubus, my dear girl?”, Titania asked.
“I am.”, Temez replied simply.
“There you have it, then. Demon is what you are. It is, at this very moment, coursing in your blood, whispering at you to follow your base instincts. And manipulation is at the core of those instincts. And these Mortals have fallen for your succulent words and follow you like lap dogs!”, the rich voice of the Mistress of the Perch said.
“All of what you have said is true, Mistress. But they still fall short of who I am. I am demon, but I am human also. My blood whispers, but I do not listen. I can manipulate, but I do not. And these Mortals follow, but not me..”, Temez replied.
“Ahh. You are smarter than the one that came before.”, the voice mused.
“The one that came before sacrificed what was most precious to her for the sake of Mortals. I have yet to best her sacrifice. Hence she has attained her rightful place among said Mortals and more, making her the smarter. However, you came here and I am still alive, which tells me you want something..”, the half-born said almost indifferently.
“Yes. I want the boy!”, the voice replied simply.
“There are only two boys you must be referring to. The first is the one I am responsible of ruining. However, he is a Mortal, hence, I may not give him. The other is our beloved Dar Derune who is free of all bonds except his own blood oath, whom I shall never give, trade, bargain, nor hand over.”, Temez said cooly.
“You are in my lands, my dear.”, the Mistress of the Perch warned.
“I am. And so are these two Mortals who are not part of any deal and can not be kept against their will. One of them is a temple guardian and the other is a ranger. They both worked diligently against the evil that is coming, and by proxy, they are, in fact, defending your Perch. Harming them would only sully your name and reputation. Should you still want to burn me, by all means do. I shall be set free, for I burn already, and happily shall I then join my beloved merry soul..”, Temez replied with cold conviction..
“Temez.. No..”, Thomas said, struggling against the mental pressure.
Apparently, the ranger lieutenant, Bremorel also had some things to say, but the best she could do was to form a stressed, angry, and distorted face.
Then the trees, some fifty yards across, parted and with a luminous sunbeam, Titania, the Mistress of the Perch; the Summer Queen herself appeared!
Titania was not a being easily described nor quantified by mere Mortal words, for she was beautiful but her beauty was like the depts of an ocean’s bed. She was wise but her wisdom was like the horizon; beyond comprehension. And both her love and her wrath had little equal.. She stepped out of the sunbeam and walked with the grace of the first ripple in a waking pond. Her long, auburn-brown hair wavered at each step and she was like the height of a summit. She wore a long, elaborate, seamless gown made of spring leaves that fell and scattered every step she took with her naked feet. When a Mortal looked upon her, she inspired aspiration for greatness, rather than that of lust..
“Bold words, Perigren Ostlanna Temez.”, she said with a frown. “You have defied me without bothering to hear me.”
“I and my kin defied our Masters and escaped Hell in hopes of finding peace in this Mortal coil. We have given our oaths and bound ourselves with our own blood to do everything to help the Mortals in their war against the coming horde, for what comes, comes upon the command of no other than our former Masters. I was chosen to lead my kin precisely for that purpose. Should I but give one of my kind, I may no longer lead them, for I shall have sullied my own word, and my own blood oath.”, Temez replied with the same cold, drawn expression.
“Your kin chose well when they chose you, young Perigren Ostlanna Temez. However, the boy is dangerous, both to himself and to those around him. He must be contained, or be destroyed. I would prefer the former against the latter. Should he stay with me, he shall stay in my Perch and be happy. He will have many friends to keep him company and never go hungry. My sister, Mab, however, wishes otherwise, and soon enough will she send her Winter Knight to dispose of him. I would rather that particular encounter be avoided as its outcome will cause much pain and destruction, consequently causing you and your kin to break and forswear your blood oaths. With me, however, he may stay forever.”, the Summer Queen said with a determined tone. Determined but not unkind.
“Be that as it may, Dar Derune also has an implied bond with one of my sisters who will never let you, or anyone else have him. Hence the fate of the boy is not up to me..”
“..And my sister will not bargain with you for you have nothing to offer her for the boy, nor will she be reasoned to part him.”
Titania paused for a moment as a deep, thoughtful frown appeared on her beautiful face.
“It is true, not everything may be bought or had. And I do not buy servitude, nor do I take without giving something in return. Many things, however, may be compromise for mutual survival.. Very well, young Perigren Ostlanna Temez. You shall then bring your sister to me and I shall test her resolve and her bond to the boy.”, she said finally.
Perhaps it was time for the half-born girl to pause, for she did.. and for a good, long moment. When she spoke, there was nothing on her face or her voice other than determination.
“We were warned to stay as far away from you and your kingdom as possible, when we were in Hell, Queen Titania, and for many good reasons. We have made no bargains with Mab thus far and do not intend to. But we do have an understanding with her Knight. That being said, I shall bring my sister here once our mission is done. Should you, however, hurt either the boy, who is much dear to all of us, or our sister, as sullen and surly as she may be whilst you test her resolve, we shall all arrive at your Perch.. and die destroying it and many, many Mortals shall perish because of our absence in the coming war..”
Titania stared down at the ravishingly striking half-born girl with the short, tanned hair and uneven antler-horns, one smooth and curving, the other sharp and iron, with both of her brows raised.
“It is not wise to threaten the Summer Queen in her own domain, my dear girl.”, she said quietly.
“You, Queen Titania, wished to test our resolve.. Thus you have..”, Temez said, and without any implications whatsoever. “As much honest and utmost respect we have for you and your sister, we shall never again be ruled or intimidated.. Nor shall we bow to anyone. We are our own masters now and bound only by our own blood oaths.”
✱ ✱ ✱
These are the ones who will be masquerading in your steed.”, said Lord Armathelius as Queen Alor’Nadien ne, King Udoorin, and Lady Anglenna came out of the king’s tent.
Udoorin frowned. It was a crowd that was standing before them, really; eight groups of three people that vaguely resembled them. He had to admit, Lord Armathelius, it seemed, was the kind of man, or elf, in this case, that got the job done, for the eight Udoorins standing before him were all burly men —humans in a variety of armors, and all entertaining scruffy-looking patches of beards, not unlike his own. There were eight Lornas as well, all with long, charcoal-black, single braided hair, and eight very tall elf girls with severely bundled platinum hair, emulating Anglenna!
“I am impressed. Where did you find this many burly guys? No, wait! Where did you find this many elves as tall as Lady Lenna?”, he asked.
“To be honest, finding the burly men was the easy part. We skimmed through the Arashkan militia and their regulars. The problem was your..”, Armathelius coughed. “..facial features. In the end, we cemented horsehair on all of them.”
Udoorin’s face went a bit black at that.
None of the elves cracked a smile, but the eight men dressed as him all guffawed!
“We dyed the hair of the elves of suitable height for the Queen. The hardest was finding a replacement for Lady Anglenna. With the exception of one, all the rest are wearing high-heeled shoes.. Very high-heeled shoes..”, Lord Armathelius coughed again.
The gaze Anglenna gave him was not a nice one.
“But will they be safe?”, Lorna asked a bit disturbed. “These brave people will be targeted just for looking like us.”
“We asked them if they would volunteer. They all have, my Queen.”, Armathelius said.
“Have they?”, she frowned and turned to the men and elves. “I.. I do not know if you all have been made aware but posing as us might be very dangerous. Are you sure you want to risk your lives for people you do not even know?”
“We all know who Sir Udoorin is, my Lady.”, said one of the burly men. “He is the son of the good Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart who worked day and night to keep all the Arashkan refugees safe. We owe Serenity Home and her people for every day we are alive. No city or town would have taken the burden of over eighty thousand civilians and that’s not even counting the Arashkan military assets nor the elves. Some of us have even seen him fight against that giant lizard in the arena. And now he will walk into the maw of the devil to kill off the Orken leaders for us. The least we could do for him is to cover his tracks and mislead any miscreant who would want to harm him.”
Udoorin’s face flushed.
“My Queen. You saved my life once. I believe it is time for me to repay you for that.”, said one of the tall high elf women.
“Do I know you?”, Lorna asked looking closer to the girl. “You seem very familiar.”
“Alérea Eiza, my Queen.”, she said with a smile.
“Alérea Eiza!”, Lorna gasped. “You are here, and alive!”
“I came when I learned what had happened to Bari Na-ammen and that the survivors were gathering here to fight back. When I heard Lord Armathelius was seeking men and women to impersonate you, King Udoorin, and Lady Anglenna, I thought it was a job cut specifically for me.”
“I remember you..”, Anglenna said with a frown. “..but I can’t place where.”
“I was your service maid, my Lady.”, the tall high elf girl informed her, though a bit stiffly.
“Yes. I wondered what had happened to you but nobody knew. I suspected my mother’s hand in your disappearance.”, Anglenna said a bit uncomfortably.
“She would have been, had it not been for my Queen, though she was a princess back then.”, Alérea replied with the same stiff tone. “I.. saw somethings when I was cleaning her study, that I shouldn’t have. Fearing for my life and being punished for falsely accusing a High Lady, I decided to run. But someone had to know, so I went to the only person I thought would believe me; Princess Alor’Nadien ne. She listened to what I had to say then told me I wouldn’t be safe in Bari Na-ammen anymore. I have been on the run since then.”
“I am sorry for the sins of my mother, Alérea, for there are too many. Please be safe. And when we return, please do find me.”, Anglenna said.
“Ladies and gentlemen. It is time.”, Lord Armathelius’s commanding voice cut in. “You all know your preassigned routes. Stick to them as best as you can. Should you run into trouble, you are free to fight or run back. Should you feel you are outnumbered, do not fight, just run back! Any information you bring back is more valuable than a few dead Orken. This is a misdirection mission. I expect to see all of you back here in six days.”
The human men representing Udoorin all nodded solemnly at the young king as he saluted them back. The elfish girls taking the place of Alor’Nadien ne bowed at her graciously, who in turn bowed back, to Anglenna’s great dismay. The tall elf girls impersonating her, however, did not bow, nor nod at her. They just stood, quite stiffly, where they were. Only Alérea Eiza gave her a careful, guarded nod of recognition.
Udoorin cleared his throat.
“Ladies..”, he rumbled. “Lady Lenna has endangered her life more times than I can readily remember for me and my Queen. Perhaps she should suffer her own deeds than that of her kin?”
The eight tall elf girls stiffened even more as if stung, turned to Anglenna, and in unison, they all bowed to her. Anglenna returned their bow with a curt nod of her own and all eight groups turned around and left.
“That was quite unnecessary, my King.”, Anglenna whispered.
“If they can not show base courtesy to the only person I would readily and freely trust my Queen’s life, what are we fighting for?”, rumbled the young man, picked up his great axes, hung them on his broad back, offered his arm to his beautiful wife and said;
“Coming, my Queen?” ..
..leaving an exasperated and resigned-looking Lady Lenna to follow them along.
✱ ✱ ✱
Shall I open a tree-gate to Oger’s Foot like last time or will we be walking?”, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane asked as she, Aager Fogstep, and Lilly Venom stepped out of the door of their home.
“I would rather we take your tree-gate to save time and effort but that would defeat the purpose of our secondary objective.”, Aager mused. “We could miss anything we might see or encounter on our way.”
“Yess!”, Inshala whooped happily. “It has been so long we haven’t had a proper walk in my woods!”
“We are not going to use your tree-whatsit?”, Lilly asked a bit disappointed.
“You never tree-hopped?”, the skinny little girl said to her in astonishment.
“Nope. Only you telling us about it. And the puffy cloud flying..”, Lilly replied. “Just got me curious, that’s all, and thought it’d be fun to try..”
“We are not on a fun-riding mission, Lilly.”, Aager growled.
“Yeah. Just, straight up kill the joy, won’t you!”, the girl in her long, brown trench coat frowned at him.
“We could tree-hop to the edge of Ritual Forest, my Aager. That area is heavily patrolled so there shouldn’t be any enemies lurking there anyway.”, Inshala offered hopefully.
“You want to waste a powerful spell to entertain my sister? It will take only a few hours for us to walk there.”, Aager said in a disapproving tone.
“Experience gained is never a waste, my Aager. What would happen if we had to use my tree-gate in an emergency in the future and she has never done it before?”, she said seriously, though her eyes were laughing merrily.
“Yeah. Think of all the things that could go wrong!”, Lilly inserted.
“Girl, the only thing that could go wrong is you running into another tree! There is absolutely nothing spectacular about walking through a hole in a tree and coming out the other side of another tree somewhere else.”, Aager growled.
“Only because I make it seem so easy, my Aager.”, Inshala said in an almost pleading voice.
“Yeah, brother. Only because she makes it seem so easy!”, agreed, Lilly. “Don’t be such a killjoy!”
Then his eyes turned sinister as he gazed at his sister.
“You have grown fat and lazy, and just don’t want to walk.”, he said.
A pair of hisses were heard as Inshala put one slender hand on her mouth and the other on her chest as she stared at him with wide, disbelieving eyes.
Lilly gave him her best scorching and baleful look as she breathed heavily through her nose.
“You.. you said the ‘F’ word!”, Inshala squeaked in massive astonishment!
“Yes.. Yes, he did..”, burned Lilly.
Aager pulled off his half-mask just so they would also see his evil grin!
Poor Inshala just stood there, quietly petrified as Lilly gave her brother a very dirty look.
“You will pay for that, Aager Fogstep. Not only what you said was uncalled for, but it was also totally unnecessary, and very much untrue!”
“I stand by my word.”, Aager replied with a bigger grin. “You were gaunt when you first came here. Now you entertain chubby cheeks and a tummy! Is there something I should know about, perhaps?”
Lilly scowled at him.
“No, there isn’t. I have been cooking and eating regularly since I came. I was bound to gain some weight!”, she hissed.
“No. Largo has been cooking regularly and force-feeding you and it shows.”, Aager said, further grinning at her.
Lilly glared at him.
“So what if he is?”, she snarled defiantly. “I am sure you do the same to Inshala!”
“I do.. And love doing it.”
“If you love doing it so much—”, she began hotly..
“—did it to you too, if you recall, when we were little.. But you got your own man doing it now, so I am off the hook. Shall we get started, or would you rather just stand there and banter?”, he said as the great, blooming cherry tree shuddered and a wide, gaping hole appeared at its trunk.
“I will be tree-hopping my sister Lilly.”, Inshala said with a pout and a sniff. “You may come along, or you may walk, Sir Aager!” ..
..and hopped right into the gaping hole!
“Ow, you are in trouble now, you are.”, Lilly grinned at him and dashed into the hole.
Aager sighed and he too, stepped into the gaping hole just as the cherry tree shuddered again and the trunk closed in on itself..
..and stepped out of another tree, several hours of walking distance away and in the Ritual Forest.
“That was.. a bit anticlimactic..”, Lilly mused as she watched the hole in the great oak they had just stepped out of, slowly close.
“I did say there is absolutely nothing spectacular about walking through a hole in a tree and coming out the other side of another tree somewhere else!”, Aager said as he looked around to get his bearings.
“I have no idea what just happened between you and Lilly, my Aager, but it was fun!”, he heard Inshala’s voice in his head.
“You liked it, then?”, he asked.
“I loved it. I still think you should not have called her fat and lazy because she is neither, but I sensed your feelings, and through you, I think I sensed hers. This is what is called a sibling fight, I think..”, she said, then sighed. “This social thing is so complicated.”
“It isn’t all that complicated, love. Lilly was feeling glum because she and Largo just made up but still had to part because she had to come with us due our mission, and Largo still had to stay behind because he had things to do there.. I didn’t want her to mope all the way. And knowing her, she would. Hence I sort of distracted her.”, he explained.
“I.. I am happily impressed, my Aager. You were very convincing. But I am also surprised..”, Inshala said carefully.
There was a struggling moment of silence before she spoke..
“You.. you genuinely love her!”, she blurted!
“I wouldn’t go that far. I just didn’t want her to mope, that’s all.”, he objected.
“My Aager.”, Inshala said seriously. “What people around you feel is not something you ever want to get involved. And not because you do not care, but because you do not think it is any of your business.. Even this morning, you did not want to be part of her issues. Yet you did, and very carefully you untangled her problem, and as her elder brother, you fixed it for her. I.. I am so happy for you and for her!”
“Well..”, he replied gruffly. “..let’s keep this between us, shall we? This is embarrassing as it is, for me. No need to embarrass her as well..”
✱ ✱ ✱
I am getting a whiff of sulfur and brimstone. We must be getting near.”, Tonic said seriously.
“So it is true.”, mused Seressa. “This curse does draw its power from the Abyss. And yes, I can see the fog from here.”
“Maybe someone likes the smell of burnt sulfur!”, the gnomic girl scowled. “Oh, I would so love to stuff the innards of the idiots who layed this curse with burning sulfur.. and pitch..”
“How could you stuff their innards with pitch and sulfur?”, Seressa wondered.
“Why are you asking her that?”, Brom inserted, then added. “The Demon Fog is up ahead, by the way.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”, the tall, dark girl asked a bit confused.
“Because you know she is going to explain!”, he replied.
Tonic gave him a filthy stare then stared into a solid wall of churning mist, colorfully named the ‘Demon Fog’..
“Are you not going to explain?”, Brom asked her.
“I am. But you didn’t have to come right out and say it!”, she said, squinting at him.
“Yes, I did, because I don’t really want to know..”, Brom said even as he knew that wasn’t going to help.
Tonic sneered at him and went into a long, detailed, disturbingly wet and intimate, and a rather horrific tirade about how to eviscerate a person without killing them, then place lumps of pitch and burning sulfur into the ‘removed innards’ cavity..
..and then sewing it all back up!
“Well..”, Cora said as they brushed the thick fog. “That was gruesome. Educational but gruesome.”
“I said I didn’t want to know!”, Brom complained, with a sick tone.
Tonic snickered at him.
“I am curious, luv. Why would you even know this?”, Seressa asked.
“Again, you are asking her things she will explain!”, Brom mumbled.
“Never had anyone in your life you hated enough that you really wanted them to suffer?”, Tonic started explaining. “So much so that you would actually attend to medical classes for four semesters even though you can not take the exams for them, nor be graded, hence you will not be certified either, and spend further time in the library reading about practical medical applications?”
“No, dear. Never hated someone with that kind of intensity. My understanding of hate is seldom perpetual and not quite at an individual level but rather on the theory of behaviors and focused more on the mentality that’s behind them.”, she said.
“Then explaining why I would know to you, is a moot point. Suffice to say, I hated my uncle.. and a few other people, and instead of daydreaming about suffocating them with a pillow, or defenestrating them, I actually went ahead and learned the proper way to do what I wanted to do.. in case the opportunity presented itself!”, Tonic said.
Brom ‘Ho boy’ed..
“Hey, look guys.”, he pointed as a patch of mist split from the main body of the intense, churning wall of fog and started drifted at them. “I believe we have company.”
No sooner than that, a chorus of reverberating shrieks escaped from the patch of mist and they saw dark, clawed hands scraping at the air as the fog rolled over to them.
Cora drew her new greatsword; a dark gray weapon with patches of rusty blood and seemingly chipped edges while Tonic drew out several of her grenades. Brom took a firmer grip on his lyre ready to ‘sing’ whatever deadly song would be best suited as Seressa weived her long, dark, slender hands preparing to send in her ghosty hand spell..
“This is going to be a long walk across Silent Hills”, Tonic muttered. “And we aren’t even in the bloody fog yet!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Down!”, rumbled Standorin.
And Hamna Vir dropped instantly.
Constance did not.
She stared at the wild boar charging their way. The massive beast squealed and grunted in manic as it trampled over the bushes and smashed right through a falled tree trunk!
Coolly, she placed the butt end of her nearly twenty-feet long pike and trapped it at a tree root, and lowered the double-bladed spearhead as the wild boar noted her and veered in her direction..
“Dammit!”, Sheriff Standorin cursed, pulled at his two-handed sword, instead of his longsword and shield. The shield would take too long to unbuckle from his back and strap on his arm just then and was about to rise when Hamna Vir grabbed hold of his arm and hissed.
“No! Do not distract her!”
“Stubborn, uncooperative, mule-headed..”, the sheriff fumed as he prepared himself to grab the tall woman and take off, in case she missed the boar!
As the boar came, slowly she lowered her pike, timing its double spearheads to jab the wild beast right at its chest.
The boar squealed in pain and frustration but just couldn’t stop as its momentum forked it even deeper onto the pike. Whatever the incredibly long polearm was made, it bowed slightly as the tall half-born danced around the butt end of the pike and with a tried-and-learned practiced habit, she pushed, using her whole body, instead of trying to pull the pike up, along with the boar stuck on its other end!
The pike stood at an upright angle, with the several hundred-pound-beast spiked high up in the air..
..and with a slight push, the pike, and the wild boar toppled over and crashed, some twenty feet behind, quite dead!
Standorin stared at her, and at the dead boar.
That had been one, bloody use of a pike!
“She seems to have fallen out of practice.”, Hamna Vir mused. “Or she is still too weak from the loss of her wings..”
“How do you mean?”, the sheriff asked.
“She used the tree root instead of her own foot. She switched places and pushed instead of pulling the animal up and over to the other side. Auntie Irine would have had her flogged for those mistakes.”, she said.
“One day, I am going to have to do something about that Auntie Irine of yours.”, Standorin rumbled.
“You can’t.”, she said.
“Why not?”, he frowned.
“Because she is dead. Merisoul Xyrotwu and her Mortal company slew her.. at a place called Themalsar.”, Hamna Vir shrugged, but she was doing a poor job of trying to seem indifferent, because her eyes, the whites and all, had gone black!
“Was my son among her company?”, he asked.
“I wouldn’t know. I do not know your son.”, she replied.
“He’s the one Constance tried to save from Gull’s Perch.”
“Ahh.. I still don’t know him. But Merisoul was with the Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, Sir Aager Fogstep, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel that I do know, and some others whom I do not.”
“I see.. Well, you wait here, Liaison Berete, because I believe I must have a word or two with the former liaison about following orders..”, he said firmly.
“A word or two is a Mortal phrase for saying harsh words that will likely backfire and cause the currently existing schism to rupture into a chasm!”, mumbled Hamna Vir.
“You really have no idea about taking a moment to consider what to say before actually saying it, do you, Liaison?”, Standorin frowned.
“No. Hence the reason Auntie Irine had me iron-flogged so many times. In retro respect, I enjoyed her frustration more than she enjoyed my screams!”
“I will try not to chastise her down any chasms, then.”, he said.
“I’d be surprised if you could. Yours is a bloody gaping canyon!”, Hamna Vir muttered.
Sheriff Standorin tried not to grind his teeth. He gave the surly young half-born a mildly polite smile and went over to the other, silently furious half-born girl.
Then, as if nudged by instinct, he changed direction and went over to the dead boar instead. He was still inspecting the beast when Constance walked over to him. Perhaps she had expected an outburst or some rebuke from the sheriff. The lack of the heat had, apparently, aroused her curiosity.
“The beast was already wounded. Which is why it attacked us in the first place. You can see the broken spear shaft on its hind leg. This is not a ranger’s weapon. They wouldn’t leave a wounded animal running around. It isn’t a dwarf shaft either. Their weapon smiths mark their craft with dwarven runes to take responsibility for their weapons. It is too crude for elf craftsmanship and a bit too delicate for an ogre..”, he mused.
“Orken.”, said Hannah Vir who had gotten bored and had decided to come over as well.
“Yes. I believe it belongs to an Orken. This close to Elder Hills and First Watch too? Must be one of their hunters. Master Aager had mentioned them in two of his reports. The first time, when they were tracking down the assassins who had started the fire back at the town, and the second time when they were ambushed on their way to Arashkan at Two-Day Forest. Hard to find and harder to kill.”, he said quietly, then he looked up at the drawn face of the tall half-born girl, Constance. “And thanks to our former liaison, it knows we are here now..”
Constance did not reply, though her face became paler.
“You do not know that.”, Hamna Vir scowled at him.
“No, I do not. And because of her rash actions, we might never find the Orken hunter.”, he said, not taking his eyes off Constance. “I was under the impression that I was given the lead in this expedition, possibly because I am experienced in more than effectively killing mortals, and because I would see the bigger picture.. and maybe even because I have lived in this mortal coil, as you refer to it, all my life, as opposed to mere few weeks. So when I give an order, I would like those around me to follow them with mild professionalism and without question until such time as it is appropriate to inquire the reasons behind my commands.. If you can do that, we may carry on and hunt down the Orken hunter whose training is, apparently, par to our own rangers. Otherwise, you are free to return back to the town and stay in the temple. Are we clear?”
It churned his heart to see Constance’s shoulders droop. It seemed like she was barely standing up, holding on to her pride..
..and he had just taken her pride and slapped her face with it. He felt like a bastard for what he did next;
He pushed it a step further.
“Are. We. Clear?”
“Yes, sir!”, replied Hamna Vir, giving him one of her best filthy stares.
“Yes, sir.”, said Constance in a barely audible voice.
It was then a long, somewhat thirty-inch iron spike came spinning..
..and rammed into his back, slamming him into the ground.
Constance reacted instantly and spun her pike in a wide, savage arc and struck the next two spikes right out of the air..
..as six Orken hunters burst out of the bushes, some twenty yards away..
..and as four of them charged, two held back and drew more of their iron spikes!
Constance’s retaliation was smooth but not subtle. She made a sharp, short dash and caught the first Orken hunter in the stomach and pinned it on the ground, used her momentum to pole vault herself up and over the three, taking them by surprise, and landed behind them. She took a quick sidestep behind a tree to cover her back from further projectiles and stabbed a second in the side at the creatures upper torso, possibly in the heart with both her double-bladed spearheads and twisted, shredding the Orken’s heart.
The Orken hunter grunted as it collapsed.
The remaining two dodged the length of her pike and came at her, each wielding great axes. They did not roar, they did not utter any challenges, nor any curses. They went at her in utter silence.
The first stumbled and fell as a gruesome gash opened across its back when a two-handed sword flashed and the second recognized the threat a second too late when Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart lopped its head off!
The two spun around to face the remaining two Orken..
..only to see them charred!
There were no burnt marks. No smoke rose from their crumbling bodies and neither was there any smell of seared meat. They just stood, on their knees, crumbled down, all black, and the whites of their eyes oozed down their faces, petrified in a silent, grimacing, and chagrined expression!
“I see you have finally mastered your skill.”, Constance said, somewhat morosely as she and a stricken-faced sheriff stared down at the blacked Orken corpses, still crumbling..
“Able to utilize, yes.”, Hamna Vir said in disgust. “Master? Not so much. I wanted them to scream!”
The sheriff grunted, shifted his shoulders, and grimaced as a sharp jolt of pain ran down his back. Slowly he turned around and walked over to the shield he had left behind, and with another grunt he sat down and started inspecting the shield. Whatever crossed his mind, he tried hard not to show it, but had the shield been strapped to his arm rather than buckled on his back, he would have been quite dead and this would have been his shortest mission for the bloody spike had penetrated the shield’s hard surface and come out the other side, poking him in the back for at least an inch.
And he secretly admired the young, somewhat troublesome ranger lieutenant, Morel Songsteel, for he recalled the reports of her mission, the one she had gone to, and for the first time, with the senior temple guardian, Thomas Dimwood, where they had been ambush multiple times and the girl had been hit by one of these spikes, in the back, without the protection of a shield, and had actually survived.
Just the inch hurt him like a Mox horn. It must have brought down the ranger lieutenant down in excruciating pain!
He was wondering to which one of the half-born girls he should appeal to patch him up when long, slender hands touched his back and his wound. He tried not to flinch as Constance wordlessly unbuckled his armor, unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it down, very gently, as she further inspected the wound.
“Just out of curiosity.”, he said gruffly. “How do you even run, dash, and pole vault in those high pumps?”
Constance did not reply for some time as she continued to inspect his well-muscled back.
“Very carefully.”, she replied finally, in her soft, alluring voice. “Don’t move. And don’t talk.”
Standorin cleared his throat.
“There should be bandages in my pack.”, he offered. “Just plug the wound. We have a long way to go yet.”
“Don’t move. And don’t talk.”, she repeated.
“I am sorry..”, he blurted.
“Don’t move. And don’t talk.”, she said again.
“..For a great many things.”, he said with a strained voice.
“Don’t move. And don’t talk.”, she whispered.
“I told you I was old. What I should have said was, I am old and a fool..”, he mumbled.
“You do not do levity, sir, why start now?”, she replied silently. “Don’t move, and don’t talk!”
“No. I don’t. I just told you I was an old fool. The loss of the lives I am responsible for has taken their toll, over the years.”, he said in a hushed voice.
“Don’t move. And don’t talk.. Please..”, she nearly begged.
“And it has made me.. this!”
Constance poured some water on the wound..
“You.. you did everything right. And I acted like an idiot.”
The tall half-born girl reached for the sheriff’s backpack, opened it, felt her way through it until she found a smaller sack that felt soft. She pulled it out and opened it to see rolls of bandages and a skin of some ointment.
“I would very much like to apologize for my uncouth behavior..”
“Please.. Don’t move.. And don’t talk.”, she persisted.
“I would also be very much indebted to you if you would accept my apology and perhaps we could build something on top of that—”, he mumbled.
“Dude. What is the matter with you?”, Hamna Vir came over and scalded him. “She said, don’t move, don’t talk! Which part of that is not clear to you? She can’t bandage your leak while you blabber on like that and I am not touching you!”
Standorin shut up.
The tall, alluring girl poured some more water over the wound as she placed a heavy bundle of bandages over the leaking hole and kneed it in place as she wrapped another roll around his massive chest, several times, then knotted it off. Then she wiped the broad of his back down, cleaning the blood. And finally, all in total silence, she pulled up his shirt, did the buttons, and buckled back his armor —tightly, and with similar silence, washed her hands, repacked his backpack, placed it next to him, got up, and went for her nearly twenty feet long pike.
Soon enough, she was standing with it, her back turned to them, in an ‘on guard’ stance..
Standorin stared at her, totally baffled.
“Was it something I said? I apologized. And I did it honestly. I do not understand.”, he mumbled.
“For a Mortal who has lived all his life in this Mortal coil, you are quite thick, aren’t you?”, Hamna Vir said waspishly.
“Apparently.”, he said.
“Did you even listen to anything I said to you? Any of it?”, she sneered at him.
“Yes. I can recite it all back, verbatim.”, Standorin replied.
“I do not need you to parrot back the things I tell you. I need you to understand them. No. Let me dummy that down to you. She needs you to understand them!”, she said savagely.
“This is all new to me too, you know?”, he grumbled as he slowly rose.
“Aww.. You need me to hold your hand?”, she said with heavy sarcasm. “I am sorry, but after what you did to the only person who truly cared and wanted you, I am not giving you anything. Man up and win her back!”
“That was a bit uncalled for, don’t you think?”, Standorin scowled at her.
“You had the best of us, now you get to deal with the worst!”, she snapped.
“I can see why your Auntie Irine would trash you so often.”, he said vehemently.
“Dude!”, she said with a low whisper. “That was low! Especially for you. But if it will make you happy, by all means, flog me! I am used to it. I can even show you how to do it right for maximum efficiency.”
“I don’t do flogging, Liaison Hamna Vir. And it’s never going to happen. Not on my watch..”, Standorin said stiffly. “But I would very much like to know how to fix what I broke.”
The surly girl looked at him with stern, petulant eyes for a good long while before she replied.
“We know words, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. We do not, however, understand what many of them actually entails. Hate, we all know very well. Love, we hope to know and think it is everything hate is not. I am aware that is a very inaccurate definition of the word, but that is as far as we can get. Constance, on the other hand, actually felt it, foolishly enough, for you. But now it is sullied with anger and wrath. Not satisfied, you went the extra mile and further admonished her. So now she also feels lost, abandoned, and utterly defeated. You crushed her, along with what pride she had. Under normal circumstances, she could have taken the admonition and merely pouted. You dumped it on her, and right on top of her already churning heart. To top it off, you apologized! We do not even properly understand love. An apology is beyond us, which is why she is always so careful at what she says and does. But you put her into a position where she does not know what to do or how to react. I don’t either. But unlike her, I do not like you, let alone love you. And because I have a great amount of experience in getting admonished by way of flogging, your words bounce right off me, and because at the end of the day, this mission is important to you, but not so much for me. All I want is to get it done as soon as possible so I can return back to the temple and back to my Dar Derune, and I don’t really care how it gets done. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to collect the horrors I beset upon the Orken so I can use them again, later!”, she said, all in a displeased huff, and went over to the charred and still crumbling creatures.
Standorin stared after her with..
To be honest, he didn’t know how to describe what he felt at that moment. Then he stared at the back of the tall, beautiful girl who still stood, quite stiffly, and ‘on guard’ stance. He resisted the itching urge to shift his shoulders so as not to displace the bandages, walked over to her, and stood behind her like a schoolboy.
“Hate.”, he said quietly. “To feel intense dislike and loathing for someone or something. A costly, poisonous, and sinful way to waste precious life.”
“Love.”, he murmured. “An intense feeling of deep affection that encompasses fondness, tenderness, warmth, intimacy, and attachment. A feeling that must be nurtured and cared for, for every moment of shared life, and demands mutual consent, trust, respect, compassion, and understanding.”
“Stupidity.”, he said in a low voice. “Behaviour that shows a lack of good sense or judgment.”
“Apology.”, he rumbled gruffly.. and reached out to her. Slowly, he took her free hand, turned her around, and kneeled before her. “A regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.. or stupidity. I have done all three.”
“Forgiveness.”, he said.. and kissed her hand. “The absolution of an offense or failure.. and plenty of said stupidity! I ask it from you in hopes that you will give it to me. I am a mortal and will likely repeat my follies. But I shall never do them willingly, nor deliberately. I shall, however, give what I have, honestly, and freely, should you still want me, Constance Alure Smithen of Serenity Home.”
The tall, alluring girl stared down at the sheriff with her beautiful, unfathomable eyes for a bit and a glitter appeared in the debts of them.
“Hamna Vir burned you, did she?”, she said, barely able to constraint her smile.
“Severely.”, Standorin admitted. “Though in all candor, I had it coming and fully deserved it.”
“You forgot ‘Ungrateful.'”, she said.
“I did not. But my knees are as low as I could get. I hoped you would not want a man who would go any lower than that.”, he said as his face flushed.
“No. I would not. I wanted a decent, honest, and honorable man. Not an obsequious, groveling servile. A man who knows when to say ‘no’ to his woman is worth keeping.”
She stared at him some more.
“How long will your ‘freely givens’ last, sir?”, she asked.
“For as long as you will have me.”, he said..
“Or even if you won’t.”
Not All Is Done
Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
Hey you.”, Bremorel said with a nod. “You look fashionably accessorized today. I like the new looks.”
“Hello, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel.”, replied the ravishingly striking young half-born girl with the short, tanned hair, in her low, husky voice nodding back at the ranger lieutenant, then at the adamantly grim looking young man standing next to her. “Good morning, Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood..”
“A bit early for such formality, don’t you think, Perigren Ostlanna Temez?”, Thomas surmised with a very slight frown. “But I suppose, early was the point. Let’s get started. We have much ground to cover and not as much time as I would like. If we can reach our first way point before nightfall, perhaps we can have a sit-down and talk over strategies.”
“You like plans and planning.”, Temez said in an declarative tone.
“Ow, yes. Thomas plans everything!”, sighed Bremorel in mock resignation. “I believe he has our funerals and obituaries all prepared and notarized.”
“I certainly do not!”, objected the young man, though it wasn’t a very convincing objection.
“Ah.. You have them prepared, just not notarized?”, Bremorel grinned at him.
“Didn’t have the time.”, Thomas admitted a bit guiltily. “But I left clear orders and they should be, by the end of the day.”
“This.. bantering you two have going.. Is it normal among Mortals?”, Temez asked.
“Depends on whom you are bantering. If there is mutual affection, it is fun. Not so much when you dislike the person.”, Bremorel said as she shifted her shoulders and set her armor, and the greatsword strapped across her back into a more comfortable position. “The key to banter is moderation and knowing when to sting, and when to stop.”
“Seems like a misuse of friendship and risks its structural integrity. Why do it at all?”, mused Temez.
“Because it is fun.. and because Mortals strive on folly risks..”, the ranger lieutenant grinned. “This is making use of the gaps between definitions such as friendship, honesty, sincerity, and love, while having said fun!”
“I.. see..”, said Temez.
The three walked through the town, and while citizens, guards, and artisans all greeted Thomas, few showed similar enthusiasm for the ranger lieutenant Bremorel. The ones that did were either children who unanimously believed she was ‘cool’, and the elderly who thought ‘she had finally grown up’..
As for Temez, they all stared and ogled at her. Some of the kids trailing after the ranger lieutenant were enthralled, and the boys in particular, were quite infatuated by her.
“This is a unique experience. They seem not afraid of me.”, she mused.
“They are. Mostly.”, Thomas explained. “But that has as much to do with you then it has with the coming war. These are trying times for all of us and we are all individually tested by the things we have promised to uphold and honor in this town; should you come in peace, you will find peace. They also can not differentiate the half-born from our Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane and many here adore her. Also, in the mere short few weeks of her station as the liaison, Constance Alure Smithen made many friends.”
“Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel seems to enjoy a different kind of popularity.”, Temez noted.
“We all, Mortal or otherwise, enjoy and suffer our past, Temez. Everything we do returns to us in kind. Good, returns more good, making it easier to repeat. Just like misdeeds afflict us with the same, starting a vicious cycle.. The only thing we can do is to give the effort to break that cycle.. Some of us see that effort and define it as wisdom. Some of us do not, or can not see that effort and want to run the easy mile and stick to how they have already defined us.”, Thomas replied quietly.
“He means, I was a screwed-up mess when I was young and pretty much started a fight at the drop of a hat. I beat the son of everyone in this village, and now am paying the price in scowls.”, Bremorel replied.
“You had a good reason to mess up, love. What’s their excuse?”, Thomas objected sternly.
“Your perception and your opinion in this matter are biases, Thomas, and we both know it.”, Bremorel said.
“My perception, along with my opinion, may be biased. But I did come after you for a reason. And that reason, among many other reasons, was because I thought you deserved a second chance.”, Thomas frowned.
“And here I thought you came after me because you thought I was pretty and cool.”, she smirked.
“And I still think you are pretty and cool, and pretty cool, my dear, but I stand by what I said. I always believed you were wiser and better than what anyone else thought. You just needed a push in the right direction. In the end, though, it was you who made the decision to change, because if one does not wish it, no amount of push can do that for you —and here we are..”, he said as they walked out of the town’s north gate and the great stone bridge stretching over the Arashkan River.
They all looked beyond the stone bridge and at the seeming chaos; multitudes of refugees across the bridge, platoons of Arashkan militia and regulars either patrolling or training, and scores of dwarves mounted on pony-sized, and very evil looking armored goats. On the far west of the chaos was the elven military camp. On the east were thousands of men and women laying great tree lumbers stretching from the river in a path for the many, black sailed ships with skull-flags hoisted on their masts, waiting. When the ‘path’ was all laid and around the stone bridge, the Drashan pirate armada would be ready to be transported overland and put on the west side of the bridge where they would start their deadly patrols against any Orken ships that would come at the town them from Arashkan Lake.
The arrival of some six scores of Drashan pirate ships, all-black had caused quite a ruckus. Trust being an issue, more were, at this very moment, floating back and forth near the delta where Arashkan River poured into the Endless Sea in case some enterprising Endless Watch commander got ideas about this being an excellent opportunity to sink as many pirates as possible in one fell swoop!
The three looked up to see the black ships full of evil-looking men, armed to the teeth, staring at every direction with vary, watchful eyes.
“Alright.”, said Thomas when they had their fill. “From this point, we will be following Arashkan river and head east. Once we are far enough, we will turn south and travel in that direction, gradually circling around west until we enter the Lost Forest..”
“..We shall skim past south of Silent Hills and through the forest and go further west all the way to Last Hope. From there, and if everything goes well, we will enter Game Woods and up into Hobs End hills. I really hope the villagers there have long abandoned those hills because that is our destination and our likely query. We expect a large encampment of Orken settled there, hence at least two, maybe three of their Grunt Generals should be there.. According to all the intel, every Grunt General is accompanied by at least two Blood Shamans, so that’ll be somewhere between four to six of them, possibly more. The information Lady Lilly and Agent Largo gathered during their tenure and consequent escape from Arashkan was that the Blood Shamans are quite cunning and ruthless and feel absolutely no remorse and are very free with their flame strikes, hexes, and other damning curses. Morel will take point doing wide sweeps, and you, Temez, will be doing short-range reckon to get a basic layout of the land and familiarize yourself with the outdoors. This will be a first for you so we will start slowly while you formulate ways on how to best utilize your own skills with both your surroundings and with the two of us and vice versa. Remember, our primary objective is to reach Hobs End to take out the Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans. But you might have noticed, we are taking a rather roundabout route to get there. That is to accomplish our secondary objective, which is to scout the furthest outer reaches of Serenity Home in case the Orken have deployed their camouflaging device and taken advantage of our assumptions that they will sit out the winter between Two Day Forest and Vodgar, and are instead circling all the way around, possibly using our route, in hopes of hitting the town from the rear. Thanks to the finalized Pixie Project the half-born have created and fitted into the PPG’s —Pressure Propelled Grenades supplied by Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome, we are now armed with a countermeasure to reveal their location even if they are using the camo device. The other four groups will also be using similar, far-reaching routes to get to their goals and are also armed with PPG’s.. Today we will go slow but steady and push a little to get as far away from the town and prying eyes as possible before we set up camp. When we settle down for the night, we can talk about each other’s capabilities and hammer out some working strategies and possibly some contingencies.”
“Love it when you do your commander-voice. I could do a hundred push-ups if you barked an order, now!”, Bremorel grinned and took off.
Thomas was smiling after her when Temez spoke.
“I understand now. She is hiding many of her feelings behind the banter.”
“Possibly.”, agreed, Thomas.
“I have noticed, ever since we came to this Mortal coil, and your temple; you let her beat you on many of the banter and the arguments.”, she said. “You are the wiser.. So, why do you?”
“Many reasons.”, the young temple guardian mused. “But the simple matter of fact is, beating isn’t winning, particularly when it comes to certain social interactions. My Morel is smart enough to beat me when she so wishes, but she chooses not to. And when she knows I am right, she lets me win. It is an unspoken agreement between us. Otherwise, neither she nor I really enjoy arguing nor do we do banter in private anyway!”
Perigren Ostlanna Temez blinked.
“You are putting on a show for others?”, she blurted.
“Well.. I wouldn’t have come out and said it like that, but I suppose we are.”, Thomas said with a rare grin.
“But.. why?”, Temez asked.
“Again, many reasons. At this particular moment, however, it is to give you the time to adjust —in a fun and polite way, and in a similarly polite way, we are, in fact, inviting you into the conversation to have your thoughts and inputs in any given matter.”
Temez stared at the senior temple guardian for a long, amazed moment.
“To have thought my kin and I were made to know Mortals..”, she sighed.
“My dear Perigren Ostlanna Temez.. In time you will see that being a mortal —or not— is not what truly defines us. It is what we do with the time given to us that matters.”, Thomas said. “Your kin never really knew about us mortals. Yet, you opted to trust your friend, Merisoul, even though she herself didn’t know us either. You acted upon her rather limited observations on us. Perhaps it was fate that brought her in proximity to decent men and women such as Queen Alor’Nadien ne; who is kind, understanding, and has a very generous heart, even though she was ousted from her people, and by no other than her own father. Young Udoorin; who is quite hot-headed at times, but who is also kind at heart and honorable. My Morel; who is hot-headed all the time, but, in fact, has a very tender, struggling soul. Master Aager; who is quite the heartless man, yet not unjust and very protective of those around him. Lady Inshala; who was a lost soul herself, not unlike Merisoul, and even though she had suffered horribly at the hands of us mortals and had no reason to trust nor feel any compassion for us, yet she chose to do so. When I look back, I see every single one of Merisoul’s company as people who, one way or another, had suffered, including Master Gnine, Morel’s cousin, Laila, and Lady Magella.. Like I said, perhaps it was fate that brought her in proximity to decent men and women.. As horrid as your origins were, it was still the only place you knew, and consequently, was your comfort zone, as inappropriate as that sounds. But in and amongst the damned, you chose to make a friend, then chose to trust said friend and leave the only place you knew, and out of your comfort zone, hence now, you are here, with us and among mortals, and are part of us. It is from this moment on what you will do, that will matter. And what both of us must do, at this very moment, is we had better start moving and further pick up our pace, or else my esteemed ranger lieutenant will beat us!
✱ ✱ ✱
Just for the record, I fully object to this plan, my King. It is a reckless and quite the hare-brained endeavor. Have you ever considered what will happen to your people should anything happen to either you or the queen?”, Lord Armathelius smoldered quietly where he stood in his king’s tent.
“Your objections have been duly noted, my Lord Armathelius. And yes, I have, in fact, given it a thorough thought as to what will happen to my people, should anything unfortunate occur to us; they will fight the Orken with fury unheard of, to avenge their queen. But to make sure we do return, we have taken all possible precautions. Which is why we are taking Lady Lenna with us. She is our precaution!”, Udoorin replied merrily as he stood in the unpartitioned section of his tent and was calmly putting on his brand new armor —compliments of Lord Armathelius himself.
Lord Armathelius, however, just fumed.
“No need to make a fuss, Armathelius.”, Udoorin said to him lightly. “The Queen and I make an excelling team and Lady Lenna is very good at what she does. I wouldn’t trust my Alor’Nadien ne to anyone else but her. And maybe Master Aager Fogstep and little Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane.. and ranger lieutenants Laila Wolvesbane and Bremorel Songsteel.. Suffice to say, the list is rather short because they have proven their mettle. My elves have not. And as much as they might fret on that statement, I simply do not care. My Lorna, my friends, and I have fought side by side, tooth, and nail, and spilled our blood for one another. The elves have yet to prove themselves. You might want to tell them that.”
“I was not aware you hated elves this much, my King.”, Lord Armathelius seethed, his face getting darker by the minute.
“You misunderstand me, my Lord. I do not hate peoples.. Any peoples.. What I do hate are certain deeds, perspectives, and attitudes.. The fact that these elves are here, as opposed to where they should have been; fighting in unison against the Orken at High Woods and Bari Na-ammen, is the definition of a fractured people and stupidity at an unprecedented level. Yes, you could not see the Orken, but you knew something was out there since you had some of the best rangers in the kingdom.. Now, I am not a very imaginative guy, but even I could think of any number of things that could have been done to defend my home. Your elves opted to get divided between Ri Grandaleren and Angrellen, which is to say, your king and a woman known for her bloody machinations for over a millennia, dammit, and yet you simply let your kingdom get run over by those animals. They were fighting each other when the Orken came, and they continued to fight each other even as the Orken butchered them! We were in Arashkan with platoons of bloody Orken on our tail and elves of High Spires tried to assassinate their Queen.. So when you say I hate elves, I would like you to amend that with how much I abhor them! You might want to pass all these to your elves as well because when I return with my Queen, I will want to see the change in their stance and attitude. You might also remind them that there are very few options to be had here, and none of them are that good. They will all be exiles even should we win this war, because I have no desire to waste my, nor my Queen’s life to build a kingdom where they will have their old status quo..”, King Udoorin said coolly.
Lord Armathelius stood there, quietly petrified, as he stared at his king.
“I am not an unreasonable man, my Lord.”, Udoorin continued. “I have nothing against you and appreciate everything you have done here. But you must understand the underlying reasons that brought you and your people to this dire predicament. And if some things do not change, no amount of war will win you your homes back and I will not ask Serenity Home for help on your behalf just so you guys can go back to the good old days!.. And I will certainly not ask the dwarves, the gnomes, nor the Durkahan Paladins, or the Koruxan Knights who already very much hate you, or the Palantine Militia, nor the Vodgar Nuke Squads to risk their people on behalf of more stupidity on our part. And we all know, it will be impossible for us to clean High Woods off the Orken because if they lose here, that is where they will run and hide and High Woods will be infested by them.”
He paused for a moment considering how much further he should push the elf lord. Then he figured, he needed this elf on his side. But as much as he needed him and his elves, he needed them to understand the full extent of their situation even more.
“I am a man of simple words, my Lord Armathelius, and my simple words are; I do not do machinations. But when I see people that do, I kill them. Period. Because people who do machinations believe they are better than the rest of us and think they have more rights to life than others. They think others are their peons and hence, are expendable. I do not. As much as I abhor what the elves did, I shall not risk any of their lives on tasks I wouldn’t do myself, which is exactly what my Queen believes. This is why we are going, as opposed to sending others on our behalf. King and Queen, we may be, but neither of us values life more, or less than any of the elves here, and neither of us shall waste the lives of any elves even though they have sworn us their loyalty. When the war begins, I shall sell their lives, if I must, at the highest possible cost to the Orken and I shall be fighting right beside them. If they want a future that involves home and honor, however, they must change, and we have passed the point where this is optional..”, he said solemnly, stressing many words.
Lord Armathelius regarded him for a long moment before speaking.
“I understand, my King. In retro respect, Bari Na-ammen could have been avoided had we risen up and ousted Angrellen the Betrayer.”
“Perhaps.”, Udoorin said. “But Angrellen was not the cause of Bari Na-ammen’s downfall. She was merely the symptom.. the spearhead of an already existing, cancerous condition.. Ultimately, she was merely an end product of a dangerous and ruinous perspective, Lord Armathelius, not the creator of it. If it hadn’t been her it would have been someone else.. Do consider how Ri Grandaleren treated his own wife and his only child; the only heir to his throne.. When you want a clean field, you don’t nip at the weeds. You uproot them. And the changes I have been speaking is the uprooting!”
Lord Armathelius mulled over what he had just been told. It was, somewhat depressing to hear all this from a nineteen-year-old ‘kid’ who looked nothing more than a lumbering, trigger-happy, ax-wielding idiot—
Armathelius stopped just this side of treason and finally it dawned on him why his gracious and wise Queen, the Heart of High Woods, had chosen this ‘boy’ as her King, and life-long partner..
“I was always against Angrellen and the way she imposed ‘purity of High Woods’ ideas amongst us. But it seems what I should have been against is a much larger issue. I will think over this than impose upon those here what it might entail.”, he said quietly.
“While you are entailing them..”, Udoorin grinned. “..you might also want to remind them that the first king of the Kingdom of Isles was a human, a ship captain by the name, Barakan Heavenswi̇ll who saved the elves and the other races who resided in the core islands from a terrifying foe and that his wife was no other than Arael Telona, who likely had a more beautiful elven name, and was the very daughter of Terandel Solace, and was also the niece to both Sinderel Tranquil and Elorellen Feymist, of whom your Queen is the direct descendant.”
Lord Armathelius mulled over that too.
“I have a chore for the elves while we are gone, which should give them something to do besides smoldering over their past sins. I have drawn some sketches, though I can’t claim any artistic proficiency about its beauty. I want a thirty feet wide and fifteen feet deep trench dug on the west side of our camp, all the way from the Arashkan River shore to the south edge of Ritual Forest. You will have to dam the river end and load the dam with explosives in case the Orken come in overbearing numbers. I want the camp side of the trench filled with sharp stakes and a long array of strong wooden frames build as well. The frames should be about your elven shield high. When the Orken arrives, I need them to see a long line of elves bearing their standard ‘shield and pike’s formation and think they can bull their way through if they pushed hard enough. Normally, that would work because they have the brute strength for it. But if the shields are held against the wooden framework, they can push all they want and still won’t be able to push through. Not while the elven pikemen are poking at them and your archers are riddling them with arrows from behind the pikemen.”
Lord Armathelius stared at Udoorin with amazement. He had been sure the young man was a good warrior, sure, but a strategist as well?
“Both of the ideas are quite impressive, my King. We will need many more hands than the elves for them, though.”, he said.
“You can ask Mayor Arthandos Yuleman for the work force, which he can provide from the Arashkan refugees, and the dwarves can provide the engineers.”, Udoorin offered.
“The esteemed mayor of Serenity Home might accept our request, since the trench and the framework will be protecting them as well, but the dwarves might not be so eager. There is little love lost among our peoples.”, Armathelius mused.
“Ow, they will help, alright, since I have already spoken with Yuleman, and the dwarves.”, Udoorin grinned.
“The dwarves agreed?”, Lord Armathelius asked with quite a bit of surprise.
“But of course. Since the whole idea was theirs to begin with. Their tactical general, Dridges Motherswolfie and her entourage were safe housed in the next building when we were hit by the assassins and once we’d killed our lot, we had nothing better to do, so we called them over to where we were and had many long hours to get to know each other, and flesh out this plan, though she said it would make me look cooler if I made it look like the whole thing was my idea, but I do not like lies and don’t really need to look ‘cooler’. I just want the Orken dead and gone and I do not particularly care by whom or how.”, the young king said.
“My King. You are a distinctly unique person. I shall order your elves to start with the trench and the framework immediately, and send word to the esteemed mayor, and the dwarves for the needed workforce and the engineers. And I wish you and my Queen a safe journey.”, Lord Armathelius said solemnly, bowed, and left..
The partition opened and Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist soundlessly stepped out, dressed in her long, black, loose gown once again. She had given some careful effort to brush and braid her raven black hair but had left it just this side of slightly messy..
..giving her a very endearing appearance, over her already very alluring and demure beauty.
She had come out of Udoorin’s sleeping quarters the moment Lord Armathelius had left and now the young man was outright ogling at her, love struck all over again.
“You.. you are so beautiful..”, he whispered hoarsely.
“Thank you, my King.”, she replied with a blushing face.
“Why.. why are you thanking me for?”, he mumbled.
“I know you wanted a public wedding as well as the one we had in private, yet when I imposed myself upon you, you did not rebuke me.”, she replied.
“A fool is the man who rebukes his woman. Not.. that we did anything.. I was too petrified in fear of hurting you..”, Udoorin mumbled some more as his face turned bright red.
“I merely wanted to rest my head on you and listen to your heart. The only other time I slept this soundly was when I was about five and the Spirit of High Woods spoke to me, proclaiming me as her chosen heart. I thanked you for your very presence, and the comfort you have given me.”, she replied quietly.
“Well. I was glad that you did. You smell very nice.”, Udoorin admitted awkwardly, his face quite flushed.
“Isn’t that how we met? You, complaining about my smell?”
“I certainly did not!”, Udoorin replied quite indignantly with his face burning even more.
“I am sorry, love. I am only teasing. Though that misunderstanding led us both here.”, she said as she smiled up at him.
“I am tempted to say, get a room you two, but you seem to have that covered.”, said an amused voice, and Anglenna entered.
Udoorin’s face was dark red now.
“Cousin..”, reprimanded Lorna, her own face also flushed.
“I also see the two of you have had a restful sleep. Good! I am happy for you. It was ever so tiresome trying to keep an eye on two separate tents. That said, here is your armor, my Queen. Do put it on quickly because we really should get started. Upon insistence from Lord Armathelius, several of our wizards will put illusions on some of the elves here and make them look like the three of us. There will be eight such groups and they will all head out in different directions.”
Udoorin and Lorna stared at her.
“Is all that really necessary?”, he asked.
“I wouldn’t know and I have no desire to further argue with Thelius any more than I already have. He is a rather pig-headed man and he irks me to no end!”, Anglenna fumed.
And now Udoorin and Lorna stared at one another..
..with barely discernable grins!
“Going to miss this carpet.”, Udoorin coughed. “But not these bloody chairs, nor the very uncomfortable thing you people call a caima-whatsit!”
“Caima is elfish for ‘bed’, young man. Just which part of it did you not like? It is made from the best elfish silk and velvet that was readily available.”, Anglenna asked, one of her platinum-blond eyebrows raised.
“The part where I won’t have to sleep in it anymore. The only decent rest I had since you guys put me into this tent was this morning and that’s because Lorna was there..”, he said, then paused. “I… uhhmm.. Perhaps I didn’t say that out loud and you didn’t really hear it?”, he pleaded.
“Ow, no, young man. The verdict is out.”, replied Anglenna, her eyes glittering with amusement. “I will go and grab a few personal effects and return here. Do be ready by then, if you will?”
“I am sorry about that.”, Udoorin apologized, once Anglenna was gone. “I keep blurting things and make you look bad.”
“Don’t mind my cousin, dear. It’s her way of showing how fond she is of you.”, Lorna smiled at him.
“Lenna is fond of me?”, he asked a bit surprised.
“My cousin only banters with those she feels happy and secure. Which was depressingly never in her past, and deploringly never when she was with her mother.”, Lorna replied quietly.
“That’s.. just sad..”, Udoorin mused.
“The things you said to Lord Armathelius. They were harsh, dear.”, she said with the same quiet voice.
“You think so?”, he asked, raising both his brows. “I thought I held back.”
“You held back just enough, love. They were harsh, to be sure, but they had to be said. It is good that he heard them, and heard them from you. I do not think I could have said any of them.”, she said honestly. “They must change, my Dorin. And they must do this willingly. What little they know is, we are likely the last cycle this world ever has. If we do not become part of the rest of the world as my great ancestors intended, we will be part of a massacre that is waiting to happen.”
“Well. Let’s not waste any more time then and get you into your armor, which does make you look awesome, by the way.”, Udoorin said with a genuine smile.
“You.. you really think so?”, Lorna asked a bit girlishly.
“My dear wife, I know so..”
“Ahh, good. I see you are both ready. Now then, let’s go over the plan, shall we?”, said Anglenna when she returned.
“Nothing all that complicated, really.”, Udoorin said as he pulled out a tattered map of the general area and started pointing at various locations and running a finger between them. “We will travel from here and into Ritual Forest, skim pass both Elder Hills and the dwarves and Nurturing Heaven and the wood elves there and out the north end of the forest. We will then make a sharp turn at the western edges of Rook Mountains and travel into The Marbles, which is going to be a heck of a walk and we will likely encounter a lot of trolls, hill giants, and whatever else The Marbles will throw at us. We will cross those hills horizontally and come out the other end and turn south. We will then sort of squeeze past Arcanton Mordenon’s ruined tower and hope to enter High Woods from the north. We will play some hide and seek and enter whatever’s left of Bari Na-ammen from the southwest.”
“You are aware that is possibly the longest route to get to Bari Na-ammen, young man, right?”, Anglenna said. “Is there any particular reason why we are going to be making a dashing marathon through the wilderness instead of me just teleporting us directly to Bari Na-ammen?”
“You can do that?”, Udoorin asked a bit surprised.
“Yes.”, she replied simply.
“With accuracy, I mean.”, he implemented without any insinuations.
“Yes.”, Anglenna said, though she was fuming a bit now. Then, as if needing to clear her previous, and quite deadly, blunder, she added; “My last time was faulty because I did not know this town very well. The only thing I remembered of it was starting at the Gull’s Perch from the window of the Guest’s House while I waited for your arrival. It is possible I formed that image in my mind in my moment of panic when I sent the two of you here. Later, when I teleported myself, I had a more steady moment to imagine the room I’d stayed, which, in retro respect, I hadn’t really given a second glance, making me crash land into the Guest’s House —a rather painful process I wouldn’t want to repeat. Turns out, your mother, Lady Nadine Graciousward had a teleportation circle installed in Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome’s workshop all along, and it’s been there for decades.. My house in Bari Na-ammen, however, is a place I know very well, even though it might not be standing. Not only that, I shall be targeting my own mother’s teleportation circle she had installed in her own workshop many centuries ago!”
“Your mother might be still there..”, Udoorin said a bit uncomfortably.
“She might. But I doubt. She absolutely abhors the Orken, who return her feelings for them with compounded interest.”, Anglenna replied coolly. “And you do not have to tiptoe around me all that carefully every time the topic of my mother is brought up, my King. As much as she was my mother, living with her was pure Hell. I feel nothing but shame for being related to her. However, should we face her one day, I doubt she will spare you, my King, certainly not you, my Queen, just like she will not show any compassion for me. I doubt Angrellen the Betrayer knows what that word even means..”
There was an awkward silence after that as young Udoorin gave his wife and Queen a careful, side-long glance.
“No.”, Lorna said quietly. “The High Lady’s time to answer for her crimes will come in due time. Our main objective is to search and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans. And that does not include a family squabble. We shall not have a stand-off with her even if we see her. We will wait until she is gone and continue with our plan. I have no desire to have my aunt’s blood in my hands, nor do I want my cousin to have her mother’s.. The reason we are taking the long way around is to find out where the Orken came from in the first place and to discover if their missing army is circling around to strike us from the north. It is likely we might miss their main base, even if it is in our way, but we will find traces of their passage or camp sights, which is why the Serenity Home Temple Guardians will be keeping tabs on us on regular basis, just like they will do so for the other four groups. Should we find anything worthwhile, we will pass that information to the temple guardians, who will, in turn, pass our findings to both the high elves and the wood elves, the dwarves, the Arashkan generals, the mayor, Arthandos Yuleman, and the ogres, as per need.”
“Very well, cousin.”, Anglenna said calmly. “And thank you for being considerate.”
“I am not being all that considerate, cousin Lenna. I just do not think a face-off with my aunt is worth your life. You have been dear to me from the moment I could barely walk and talk. I have since looked up to you for everything worth mentioning. I shall admit selfishness on my part, but I have no desire to let that change.”, Lorna replied, and though she was smiling, her eyes said she was quite serious about what she’d just said.
“Alright..”, Udoorin coughed to diffuse the awkward situation. “..Good carpets!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Aager Fogstep walked into the kitchen, looked around, and found what he sought; a well-polished ibrik, another one of Mother Grulganiste’s gifts, this one particularly for him, since the ogress chieftain knew Inshala never drank coffee. And it was sitting happily in the fireplace. He grabbed a tin cup from one of the shelves on his way to the grate, reached for the ibrik—
“Careful. It’s very hot..”, said the husky voice of Lilly Venom, brooding quietly in a corner.
—grabbed it with his bare hand and poured himself some coffee, then placed it back into the fireplace.
“..Apparently, not so much.”, mused the girl in her dark brown leather trench coat.
“You are earlier than I’d hoped you’d be.”, growled Aager as he took a sip from the scorching coffee.
“Is this growling thing you got going, the only voice I am going to hear from you?”, she frowned.
“Likely. Get punched enough many times when you are a kid on your head and your throat, this is what you get.”, Aager replied with another growl and shrugged. He didn’t bother telling her, his first owner, Hoghart, had come to him with a blunt knife too..
Lilly Venom stared at him for a moment.
“I am sorry to hear that.”, she said sincerely. “I guess we both suffered Drashan in our own way.”
Aager shrugged again.
“It’s all in the past and I see little reason to smother myself in it. I got out. You got out. As long as the pirates anchored at the stone bridge don’t recognize me, it is only Inshala, and this coffee, that matters —good coffee, by the way; dark, bitter, and tasteless!”
“You are welcome.”, Lilly said with a bemused expression. “Would rather they did not recognize me either.. I started freelancing after I was done with my contract on Trimdel Kandara of Endless Watch. I was supposed to have returned but didn’t. I got out of that stinking island and I am never going back.”
“Good for you. Now, why are you here this early? I thought we’d end up dragging you from your hubby..”, he said as he sipped some more of his coffee.
Lilly stared down at her own cup and didn’t reply.
“I.. see..”, Aager said and dearly hoped she wouldn’t suddenly go all girly on him and open up to him and yearn for a heart-to-heart with him and start telling him all about her private issues!
“Do you ever have regrets?”, she asked.
“There we go..”, mumbled Aager darkly. “..and there goes my silent morning coffee!”
“Many.”, he said out loud. “You’re going to have to be a bit more specific.”
“About Inshala—”, she began.
“—No!”, he growled and the tin cup in his hand screamed as it was crushed, spilling the hot coffee all over his hand.
The coffee hissed and steamed..
..and turned into dark brown flakes of frost in seconds, leaving his hand unscathed.
“Uhhmm.. No, what?”, Lilly asked.
“Inshala is off-limits, Lilly.”, he snarled quietly.
“I wasn’t trying to pry—”
“Inshala. Is. Off. Limits!”, he repeated even more quietly, staring deep into her eyes.
Lilly felt something crawl down her spine and very nearly went for her daggers!
“Ow kay..”, she said. “I am sorry, brother. I did not mean anything by it. I was merely seeking common ground to start a conversation.”
“There is no common ground where she is concerned, Lilly.”, Aager snarled.
“Very well.”, she said and dropped the issue. Apparently, her brother was very, very touchy where his little mate was concerned. A bit overprotective too.. “I told Largo I wouldn’t return to him if he kept up his moping and wouldn’t let go of his guilt.”
“Better get down here.”, growled Aager in his mind.
“On my way, my Aager. I was almost finished with the packing. Is something wrong? You sound unhappy. And angry.”, he heard Inshala’s voice answering him.
“Lilly is here.”, he said, fuming a bit.
“Yes. She came in earlier and made herself at home, as she should because I told her to do that whenever she came.”, Inshala replied happily.
“I don’t mind her coming here. What I do mind is her trying to talk to me about her personal issues. What do I know about such things?”, he said and he was fuming more now. “She should talk to you, not me.”
“Ow, my Aager. Lilly knows she could talk to me about anything she wants. This I have told her as well. I also told her it was alright if I didn’t understand what she would say, but I would do my best to do so.”
“Well, you can talk to her now.”
“No.”, Inshala said.
“No?”, Aager asked a bit startled. Inshala seldom said ‘no’ to him.
“Lilly knows she could talk to me.”, she repeated. “Yet she is here and talking to you. It is not me she wants to talk to, it is you!”
“The Hell! Why does she want to talk to me? I don’t talk to people about my issues, accept you!”, he further fumed!
“Because you are her elder brother, my Aager. I wouldn’t know what that means, but obviously, that is significant for her.”, she said sending him her best smile..
“The idiot!”, Aager snarled.
“Aager Fogstep!”, Inshala exclaimed. “That was not nice! She is your baby sister!”
“Baby sister..”, Aager snorted, only to face an intimidating sort of silence from Inshala’s end of the conversation.
“Dammit!”, he fumed one final time.
“He is a grown man. As a matter of fact, he is more grown than everyone in this house put together. He should be allowed to make his own decisions, which includes moping and brooding all he wants.”, Aager said, which apparently didn’t help matters at all because Lilly was giving him her, ‘I am going to stab you now’, stare.
Aager sighed and went for another tin cup and back to the grate, filled his new cup from the ibrik, and took a sip.
For whatever reason, his sister had chosen this morning to want relationship advice.. and from him!
The stupidity of people was mind-staggering at times.
Then it occurred to him;
The ‘idiot’ was actually looking up to him!
She was looking up to him because she had, literally, no one else to look up to in the world and because.. well.. he was her elder brother..
And as impossible as it seemed, even now, he had an intensely exemplary connection with his Inshala. True, Lilly had told him she hadn’t wanted that kind of a relation with Largo because she thought it was just too intense, but then, she had loathed all men, all her life because of her past, and the only reason she’d made an exception for the former Arashkan ARIS agent was, she had found him to be gentle, mature, and hoped ‘he would treat her right.. and alright..’ as she’d phrased it. But as patient as she had been with Largo, much like he had been with her, Lilly just wasn’t temperamentally equipped to deal with a guilt riddled man because his guilt got in the way of her much wanted happiness —a something she desperately yearned, and also something she thought her elder brother had, who also happened to be the only person in the world she had..
“Dammit!”, swore Aager again from inside.
“You are a patient girl, Lilly.”, he said finally. “More so than I could ever be. More so than anyone I have known and you have an eighty-plus hours of waiting in a cramped air shaft to assassinate Trimdel Kandara under your belt to prove it. Men of our caliber feel things more intensely than others because we train ourselves to never feel anything. Hence when we do, it sticks. I know this might be hard for you to believe, just as I know I am going to regret saying it, but I am guessing you were the best thing Largo has ever had in his entire life, and that probably includes his deceased wife. You don’t have to tell him I said that, by the way. My point is, you are quite unique in ways he has never seen or experienced before. Thus, he not only has to deal with the guilt of his failure as an ARIS agent that resulted in the destruction of Arashkan, which is a grossly arrogant guilt because ARIS is not a one-man intelligence service, but it had thousands of agents working for it, he also has to deal with his guilt that he has married a young, pretty girl who is extraordinarily focused and talented.. and deadly, and who also casts a shadow over his deceased wife.”
Lilly stared at him.
“Are you for real? I am just an assassin! I have no skills beyond that. I can barely cook, and when I do, Largo is almost afraid to eat it because he says, and I quote, ‘The stew was delicious. Bet it never saw you coming!’.. Just which part of me could be a match for his deceased wife?”
“Your lack of confidence in yourself in this matter is based on your lack of socially acceptable human interactions, baby sister. Hence you think you lack more than you do. I met Largo only after Sheriff Standorin and I came to apprehend you. He looked tired. And beaten. And defeated. After the two of you married, however, he looked renewed. Like a much younger man. So that’s made me thinking, ‘Lilly must be doing somethings right!'”
Lilly’s face went bright red.
“The man loves you. And don’t you start with that silly LA LA LA LA thing of yours on me again. You are not a little girl, Lilly. But like all sentient creatures, he also has multiple levels of complex and complicated thoughts and feelings. One such feeling is his awe for you, coupled with his possible fear of losing you too, consequently further boosting his guilt about his deceased wife, which probably bolsters his already existing guilt for his failure in Arashkan. What’s more, it is not really his fault that he feels so, even though it is stupid and illogical, but guilt has little to do with logic. I feel guilty about how we let some assassins enter our town all those months ago and have them almost burn our town down into the ground because town security was my responsibility. And just a few days ago, the town was attacked, once again, by even more assassins that resulted in the death of nearly two thousand people, though most of that was the result of people getting trampled in the chaos. The sheriff feels the same way. I am guessing so do you, now that you are also part of the security. In the end, though, we all know, through personal experience, just how impossible it is to survive a well-planned and executed ambush, seeing as how many times the both of us have done it in the past.”, Aager said in his low, grating voice.
“Inshala was right.”, she whispered in an almost inaudible voice. “She told me to talk to you and that you would help because that’s what family does..”
“I think she overestimates my skills when it comes to giving advice to a sister, seeing as she will likely ignore them, anyway.”, he replied.
“That does not disqualify the validity of the advice, though.”, Lilly said quietly. “What should I do?”
“Go to your man, because that’s exactly what he is; your man! He belongs to you, and to you alone.. Others might be more free in their relationships and with their marriages. But likely for the same, intensely felt emotions of people in our line of deadly work, we are more susceptible to unconditional trust, hence, belonging. You think what I have with my Inshala is unique? Yes, it is. But only because of the kind of Hell she went through in her past and the kind of Hell I went through to keep her alive. I am certain that stubborn, mule-headed ranger girl, Morel, has a similar, very nearly unconditional relation with Thomas. Much like what Udoorin has with his Lorna. You think none of us have any regrets or guilt? The only difference between us and you is ‘time’.. We have had enough of it for our relations with our individual mates to grow and settle and still we are tested at every other turn. You have been married for barely a month, yet you expect a high ranking ARIS agent to rid himself of nearly forty years of accumulated guilt? And I thought you were a little smart.” Aager growled, though not unkindly. “As to what you should do, that’s up to you. If it were me, I’d tell him, you are just a silly girl who can’t bear to see him like this, and that you are sorry and you will be more patient and understanding in the future, because at the end of the day, only decent men feel guilt, and what the two of you got is dear and beautiful, and that is worth fighting for..”
Lilly ogled at him.
“Told you before, baby sister; Lose some, to win some.. This is where you lose some of your face and pride to win some of him!”
Lilly, as it turned out, wasn’t as pig-headed as she seemed, nor was she the kind of girl to over-brood and wait for things to happen. Or perhaps she did, infact, trust her elder brother, which Aager very much doubted.. Whatever her reasons were, she swallowed what remained of her coffee, along with her pride, and without another word, she dashed out of the kitchen, and out of the house..
..to come face to face with Largo, who had one fist up and was about to knock on the door.
Aager heard the uncomfortable voice of Agent Largo croak..
“I am so, so sorry Lilly. I am an idiot and a fool.”
“And I am so, so sorry Largo. I.. I am just a silly girl who can’t bear to see you like this. I promise I shall be more patient and understanding in the future—”, Lilly spluttered.
“No, love. You were more than patient with me and certainly more understanding than I deserved. I came here in hopes of catching you before you left. I.. I want us to part in peace, and once this mission of yours is done, I very much desire you to return to me in peace.. I.. just want you.. Please?”, Largo stammered.
“—and because at the end of the day, only decent men like you feel guilt, and what the two of us have is dear and beautiful, and that is worth fighting for!”
Aager Fogstep filtered out the rest..
..and the kitchen fell silent as Largo and Lilly stepped out and into the garden for a proper, deservingly extended farewell.
He poured himself another coffee and grunted..
“Huh!”, he said. “The things a man must do for a quiet, dark, bitter and tasteless coffee..”
..and went over the plan they, Aager himself, his Inshala, and Lilly were assigned..
They would enter Ritual Forest and travel past the ranger outpost, First Watch, then sort of veer north and east to Oger’s Foot to meet with Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth to hammer out the details of their agreement with the ogres and grab their representatives and turn west for Dim Woods to meet with the woodsmen so the ogres could drag their lumber all the way to Serenity Home without being harrassed as more ogres would come down Rook Mountains, bringing large amounts of ‘rock’ needed to further the construction of the wall defending the town. Aager couldn’t think of a more foolish encounter where the woodsmen and the ogres would behave. They literally hated each other. A deep-seated animosity that went back some eight hundred years.. Aager didn’t care if they killed or ate one another. What he did mind was that Inshala had been chosen as the liaison between them. The man in the dark leathers wondered just who had been this insensitive as to send the little girl to the woodsmen, considering what they had done to her in the past! Aager was going to hurt someone badly for that particular decision though he wasn’t quite sure who it was; the mayor, Arthandos Yuleman, or Agent Largo, who had been among the strategists, or even Queen Alor’Nadien ne and King Udoorin, to whom they owed this whole, foolish endeavor!
He grinded his teeth, gulped down some more coffee, and carried on..
After the woodsmen, they would go to Nurturing Heaven to look in on the wood elves there, then travel west and out of Ritual Forest to arrive at Stinking Shacks, a place worth its name on multiple levels, though in a nostalgic way, it would be a bit like a slice of Drashan for him and Lilly. There, they would need to encourage those thugs to sell all their tar to Serenity Home, as opposed to handing it over to the Orken when they came.. and likely over their dead bodies, since the Orken did not bargain, nor did they trade.. They took. Period.
And finally, they would enter the Tar Pits. A wet, stinking stretch of swamps and bogs where they would search for their suspected targets had likely hidden.. or entrenched; three Grunt Generals and three times as many of their Blood Shamans.
Aager also wondered whose head he would have to crack should they survive that. The Orken were hardy creatures, to begin with, and he doubted they chose their Grunt Generals for their beauty, but for their battle prowess.. not to mention their bloody Blood Shamans.
Someone must have thought quite highly of him, he thought darkly..
Someone who he would dissuade from using him and his Inshala, if not his sister, thus callously..
It was about then, there was a polite, non-intrusive knock on the door.
Aager recognized that knock.
Hence, he walked over to the shelves and took down, yet another tin cup and filled it with the dark, bitter, and tasteless coffee from the smoldering ibrik and ghosted over to the door and quietly opened it.
The burly Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart stared at him for a moment and noted the two tin cups he was holding; one half empty, the other full and steaming. He grinned at him and gave him a nod.
“You never cease to amaze me young man.”, he said, still grinning. “Though I must admit, I was hoping to see young Lady Inshala.”
Aager cocked an eyebrow.
“She is prettier than you are!”, Standorin said, his grin broadening.
Aager gave him a steady gaze.
“Did you know there is a couple making out in your gazebo, just this very moment?”, the sheriff said, further grinning at him.
“Yes; a pair of idiots!”, he growled.
“I.. see..”, said Standorin with an amused expression.
With silent, naked steps, Inshala came down the stairs, carrying a burlap sack. When she saw the sheriff, she whooped, dropped the sack, and came running at the door.
“Sir Sheriff Standorin!”, she exclaimed. “Why are you standing at the door? I am sure you did not have breakfast, and neither did my Aager.. I see both of you went for the coffee, though.”
“I merely..”, began the sheriff and the grin on his face vanished. “..came to ask for your wisdom.”
Aager stood still and made himself scarce because he had known something was off with the sheriff; Standorin didn’t do ‘grins’, nor did he do ‘cheery’. His mate, Inshala, stared up at the big, burly sheriff, her large, beautiful eyes showing signs of worry.
“Will you take heed, should I give it?”, she asked quietly and carefully.
Standorin was an observant man, if nothing else. He noted Aager’s stance, much like the worry he saw in his mate’s eyes. A slight frown settled on his brows but he reminded himself that he had come here for two things, after all; coffee and wisdom.
He reached for the coffee Aager offered him right then, and took a sip..
It tasted horrible!
Just the way he liked it..
Then to the skinny little girl, he nodded.
“Be honest..”, she said softly.
Standorin’s frown deepened, for honesty had never been something he had been accused of lacking.
“..to yourself.”, the skinny little girl finished.
✱ ✱ ✱
Yesss!”, whooped Tonic happily. “Finally we are out of that stuffy and depressing town!”
“It was a very nice town Tonic. And it wasn’t depressing. They are all afraid. They just got raided and there is a war coming their way. And still, they have some very nice people in it.”, objected Seressa. “I liked many things about them and I am sure you did too.”
“Maybe.”, admitted, Tonic grudgingly.
“Their idea of accepting anyone is impressive.”, Cora mused thoughtfully. “Provided they come in peace. I think I will implement that in the future.”
“Implement?”, Seressa asked.
“Nothing.”, Cora replied evasively. “Just something I have been working on for a while.”
“And the fact that you kept your kinship with Lady Nadine Graciousward a secret..”, Seressa said, turning back to Tonic. “..even from me, and I am your pair.”
“I didn’t know she had adopted me after she married Grandaleren, girl.. I learned about it only recently.”, mumbled Tonic.
“But you did learn about it..”, the very tall, very dark girl said with a small pout.
“It is a kinship only in formality, girl. It means absolutely nothing.”, Tonic sighed in an exasperated tone.
“Actually, that is not correct.”, inserted Brom. “I am not sure just how the elves would take it if they ever found out, but that kinship is official and is binding. It would hold in any legal court.”
“Hells bells! What are you now, a bloody attorney?”, Tonic scowled at him.
“As a matter of fact, I am. Being a Bard of the College of Lore, my word would hold in any court of law. Hah! I could even sit in a tribunal and rule in favor of guilt or innocence if I was asked..”, Brom grinned at her.
“Like anyone would..”, she scoffed then snickered. “And even if they were foolish enough to ask, you would literally be out of sight in that tribunal and behind the judge’s bench!”
“Actually, pretty much all courtrooms have hobbit stools.”, Brom smirked.
“Hobbit stool?”, Cora asked.
“It is a faldstool, not unlike a narrow table that fits into a larger chair, luv.”, Seressa said. “So gnomes and halflings can sit and still be visible from the other side of a judge’s bench. But it is historically non-existent that a gnome was ever asked to make a ruling.”
“That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard!”, Tonic laughed.
“When both parties in a dispute that consist of humans, hobbits, much like myself, are oft summoned to make an impartial ruling. A quite common practice in cities like Endless Watch, where there are many hobbits living relatively nearby in Bowling Hills. My father and my uncle were summoned in the King’s name to make such rulings. My great grandfather was summoned so often, they build a hobbit home in the city, just so he wouldn’t need to constantly go back and forth Endless Watch and Bowling Hills.”, Brom replied with a bemused expression.
Tonic scowled at him some more.
“We hobbits, and bards, in particular, are not welcome and respected wherever we go just because we can sing, you know. We are quite the sticklers of the law and we love reading, hence your average hobbit would probably know the King’s Laws better than most of the courtiers in the core islands.”, he grinned.
“You are just making this up.”, Tonic sneered at him.
“I am afraid he isn’t.”, Seressa said.
“Whose side are you anyway?”, she scowled at her too.
“The law does not take sides, luv.”, Seressa smiled down at her.
“Yeah, right.”, Tonic scoffed.
“I am the law!”, Brom said in a low, raspy voice!
Cora stared at him with a puzzled expression.
Tonic just gave him a baleful glare.
“That is my line, dammit! Only I get to mime Judge Bread!”, she spluttered!
“Alright. Let’s pick up the pace, shall we?”, Cora said. “We have a long way to go.. or rather, we have a mild way to go, but a very long and roundabout way to actually get there. Sneaking past the Silent Hills is going to be tricky. I heard many things about that place from the half-born when I went out to see the town and its people. They said the fog is actually a curse and had been layed there many centuries ago and can swallow mortals whole if they went in it, though they didn’t mention how deep.”
“We could just ignore the mist and go through the woods on the shores of Silent Lake.”, Seressa offered.
“We could do that, and seeing as we were also tasked to find ‘hidden’ Orken, we should, but we can decide on that when we get there. Through the woods or the mist, once we get past either, we shall hit south, trek all the way through the big forest called Lost Forest, and come out the other side and follow some deep fissures called Serpent’s End. Once that’s behind us, we will hit Croaking Mire.. some kind of swamp, though I have no idea why we should go there in the first place. We don’t have much in the way of swamps in the Northern Tundras, since any body of inland water is pretty much frozen, all year long and you can pretty much walk over it unless you are wearing spike-healed shoes..”
“Hells bells, what kind of an idiot would wear spike-heeled shoes in winter!”
“Weirder things have been known to happen.”, Cora shrugged.
“Yes.”, added Brom. “Like little girls who wear clobbering, steel-toed boots!”
Tonic gave him her best, thousand-yard glare.
Cora, however, gave him a side-long stare.
And as if on cue, so did Seressa, as she stood on his other side.
Brom realized the scrutiny and the hair on his toes prickled!
“What?”, he asked, a bit creeped out feeling not unlike a strip of bacon, sandwiched between two slices of bread!
“He looks like he wants to tell us something.”, Cora noted.
“No, I don’t!”, Brom said hastily.
“I believe he does.”, Seressa prompted as she smiled down at the bushy little hobbit.
“Please don’t hurt me!”, the hobbit blurted!
“Are we going to hurt the hobbit?”, snickered Tonic from behind. “Because I totally can.. with my clobbering, steel-toed boots!”
“Alright, Brom. What is at this Croaking Mire swamp-whatsit?”, Cora asked, glaring down at him, now.
“I don’t know what you are talking about!”, Brom said glibly.
“Master Brom Bumblebrim.”, Seressa said kindly as she smiled at him. “Must I remind you; I am the Word. But you are the Guide..”
“Yeah. And I am the Shield and all..”, Cora said. “Got two of ’em now!”
“And I am the Enabler. Can I Enable him please? He looks like he is jammed!”, Tonic snarked heartlessly.
“An Angle.. and a Demon Queen..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Good morning Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart.”, mumbled Liaison Berete Hamna Vir when the sheriff came to the Serenity Home Temple to ‘pick up’ the two half-borns and to begin the mission they had been assigned.
“I was hoping it would be.”, the sheriff replied staring at the surly young girl. “You are in a polite mood today.”
“I was warned to be polite.. Threatened, really, that if I wasn’t, I would lose all my sugar cane privileges, and my hours with my Dar Derune would be cut down!”, she said in a clearly infuriated tone.
“I.. see..”, Standorin said. “Is.. Lady Constance here? I..”
“She is not available. And she certainly is not a ‘lady’.”, replied Hamna Vir sullenly.
“And you think she is not a ‘Lady’, why?”, Standorin inquired mildly.
“The word ‘lady’ is a Mortal phrase for ‘woman’ that presumes she is a member of the female gender of some higher standard, which, in essence, tells there are those of the same gender of lower status which also implies Mortal men afflict their own understanding of said standards upon their Mortal women.”, Hamna Vir mumbled.
Standorin stared at her.
“Probably.. Maybe.. I wouldn’t know.. I am a mere sheriff. You are going to have to take what you just said up to the King’s Supreme Judges.”, he replied politely.
“Good dodge.”, she said squinting at him with sharp, vicious eyes.
“So.. about.. Constance.. is she..?”, he started.
“She’s not available. Didn’t you listen to anything I just said? I was told you were good with details and the things going on around you. I am here, and I just told you she was not available and you did not even listen to me. Perhaps the things told all about you were misleading.”, Hamna Vir said sullenly.
“Apparently they were.”, mumbled the sheriff. Today, he thought, was going to be a punitive day.. “Maybe we should get started? Where is your half-born friend?”
“My half-born friend decided to keep Mortal interactions to a minimum to avoid pointless drama you and your kin much prefer and started out early. Should be waiting for us at the edges of the threes you call Ritual Forest.”
“Alright. Are you ready, then? Do you need to pick up weapons, rations, or anything?”, he offered.
“No. I do not. My specialty does not require weapons, Mortal or otherwise. And I can find my own food..”
“Very well..”, Standorin sighed.
This was going to be pure Hell, he just knew it!
The two unlikely pair walked over the stone bridge with many refugees staring at the half-born, until one of the many children, a sweet little boy, trailing after them finally braved up and approached them.
“Excuse me..”, he squeaked, a bit scared, and a bit shyly.
Standorin stopped as he always did whenever anyone, of any age, called out to him because he never ignored the people around him, which was probably why he was unanimously trusted and respected by everyone. The boy did seem familiar, though the good sheriff just couldn’t remember where he’d seen him before.
The little boy, however, was staring at the half-born girl.
“Are.. are you an Angel?”, he asked as his face pinked.
The face of Hamna Vir would have made a perfect study of emotions at that very moment.
She went red, then pink, then purple, then paled as if all color drained out of her.
“I.. do not know how to answer that, Mortal boy.”, she said finally.
“Rodin, pretty Lady. My name is Rodin. I stay in the town with Lady Lilly and Uncle Largo.”
Ahh, mused Standorin. The boy the two had brought along with them from Arashkan.
“I come out here to play with the children from Arashkan because they all lost their homes and now they are sad. I try to cheer them up and bring them what food I can find.”, the boy said with a serious face.
“That.. is very nice of you..”, Hamna Vir mumbled, feeling a bit perplexed. This conversation was something totally out of her league!
“I saw you before, pretty Lady. May I call you ‘pretty Lady’? I wouldn’t want to impose, but I was told by my tutors to always be honest and polite and you are a pretty Lady. You are the new half-born liaison, though I do not know what half-born means..”, he said.
“Yes. I am the new liaison. And you may call me pretty lady if you want. But I must warn you that I am already bonded.”, she said.
“Ow.”, the boy replied, a bit glumly. “Anyone I may duel to win your hand, perhaps?”
“My Dar Derune will not duel, young Rodin, because he needs special care and all the time. I am sure you will find someone else in time?”, Hamna Vir offered kindly, which took Standorin by surprise. Apparently, the surly liaison was the way she was only with grown-ups. “We must be on our way, now. I shall call upon you when our task is done and you can be friends with my Dar Derune, perhaps? He would love that.”
“Thank you, pretty Lady. You are as gracious as you are kind. I bid you farewell on your journey.”, he said solemnly and took off.
“That.. was interesting..”, Standorin mused as they started towards the forest. “Never seen a kid his age use such vocabulary. He might not know what a half-born is, which is expected, but he knows what a liaison is. And he is quite thoughtful and responsible..”
And then it hit him!
“That son-of-a—”, he spluttered. “Rodin? RODIN? Speak of hiding in plain sight!”
“You seem vexed, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart.”, Hamna Vir said.
“I seem vexed because I AM vexed. That idiot brought Prince Korodin here and didn’t bother to tell us? Damn you, Largo!”, he fumed. “I am going to cave your temple in!”
“Does Constance know about this aggressive side of yours, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart?”, she observed. “If she doesn’t, I think she should.”
“Should she ask, I would gladly tell her all my bad habits.”, he said grimly.
“Oh. Okay.”, Hamna Vir said. “Want me to remind you to tell her, then?”
“Perhaps you could tell me about your bond with that little Dar Derune.”, he asked trying to change the subject.
“I wish him to be my mate.”, the half-born girl said simply.
Standorin stared at her.
“Isn’t he a bit young for that sort of thing?”, he asked.
“Hence, the ‘wish’, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. You can’t bond with a child! You must wait for them to grow so they can make their own choices. We didn’t get to make choices where we came from. We were made as tools; to be thoroughly used, then carefully discarded. I brought him to this Mortal coil so he will never be used, nor will he be discarded. He will grow and make choices. Until then, I shall wait. But even when he grows, he may never make choices. Should that happen, I shall keep on looking after him forever.”
“Uhhmm.. Why wouldn’t he be able to make choices?”, Standorin asked, feeling a bit disturbed.
“He because he is broken, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. He was beaten many, many times. Burned alive, too. Took him many, many months to recover.. But the beating and the burning broke somethings in his mind.”, Hamna Vir explained with a deceptively calm tone. “He.. he is special.. And both Mortals and nons will want what he has. I shall make sure they don’t while I keep him happy.. But I do not want to impose myself on him when he grows up either. Hence, I shall look after him until he does as a sister-kin. Should he be able to make choices and agree to be my mate also, I shall look after him as his bonded mate. That way, we can both be happy!”
“Were.. were you all treated like that?”, the sheriff asked.
“More or less. I was beaten on a regular basis because I was disagreeable. But because my talents were quite rare, I was not fed to the manes, the dretches, and the imps.. Many of my brothers and sisters were, though.”, she replied with a shrug, trying to make light of her traumatic past.
“Any particular reason you and your kin did not use your skills and talents to escape?”, Standorin asked.
“Where would we run to, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart? Considering wherever we looked, from one horizon to the other horizon, we were in Hell. And should we walk to either horizon, we would only see more of the same.. all the way to Oblivion! Perchance we escaped, who would have us? Merisoul Xyrotwu spent many years with Perigren Ostlanna Temez to get her out. She learned Temez what it meant to be free, who in turn convinced us to follow her to freedom. You can not free something that does not know, nor comprehend the concept of freedom. In the end, though, we all had our reasons to come here. Temez wanted to find the boy she ate many years ago and live happily with him and her BFF, Merisoul. In the end, she can’t live happily with her BFF because Merisoul traded her life to save some Mortals! I followed her because my Dar Derune was dated to be exterminated. I didn’t want him to be destroyed, so I followed Temez here in hopes of making sure he has enough days and years to live and grow up.. And here we are.. Hello Constance..”
Sheriff Standorin froze as Constance Alure Smithen stepped out from behind the trees.
“Well. You two took your time.”, Constance said distantly. Her long, silky black hair spilled over her moderated, somewhat conservative, long and elegant dress, it’s ankle length skirt split at the sides with her long, shapely legs hidden behind some gauzy fabric. She was a tall woman, made more so by the high, spike-heeled pumps she wore and she stood where she was, tapping the frozen forest ground with her nearly twenty-feet long pike that ended with a forty-inch, double bladed spearhead.
“Shall we get started? I have optimized our travel path to have minimal possibilities to come across friendly forces and maximum chances of enemy encounter, who will also want to avoid said friendly forces. Hence, we shall turn north and west from here and skip the ranger outpost called First Watch, go around the dwarven military settlement, Elder Hills, as we turn west. I suspect we will have reached the end of the forest in under a week. We will have a full day’s travel of open ground before we can reach the southern end of the swamps called Tar Pits. To avoid being seen or ambushed, I suggest we make that dash under the cover of night. Once we reach the shores of Arashkan Lake, we will have to find a suitable boat, or craft one out of logs to get across and into Misty Forest where we will seek our query, which is our mission. To that end, we should not waste any time and start on our trek.”, she said coldly, turned around, and with surprising agility, she dashed ahead.
Both the sheriff and Hamna Vir stared after her.
“The situation is worse than I estimated. Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, you must speak with her or she will run us both to exhaustion and eventually death. Or rather, she will run you to death. I will stop before that happens because she is not angry with me and I can continue walking in the dead of night. You can’t!”
Standorin’s face turned grim.
“There nothing to speak here. She has made up her mind and among us mortals, no, means, no! Better this way, really. There is little need for distractions. As the esteemed former liaison said, we have a mission. We might as well start at it.”
Hamna Vir stared after the sheriff, as he too, made a dash, though nowhere near the agility of the tall half-born girl with the pike..
..and gave a long, deploring sigh.
“Why, Temez? I was happy in the temple. I could play games with my Dar Derune all day. He was happy too. So why did you part us and send me with this idiot?”
Not All Is Done.
Upon extended experiences,
both on a personal and professional level,
Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist
and King Udoorin Shieldheart have
come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan
is formed to seek and destroy the
Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans
in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos
among the coming Orken ranks and
weaken their march against
Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
This story begins shortly after
Somewhere in the dim and quiet halls of Serenity Home Temple and in an interconnected, two-room dormitory, one reserved for study and living quarters, the other for sleeping, Thomas is awake in his bed and is watching the young, beautiful woman dozing, or perhaps, snoozing inertly next to him, her coarse black hair scattered freely and framing her peaceful face. It had been quite a surprise for him when he’d found out that this beautiful girl never truly slept, but dozed, or perhaps, snoozed, and would wake up instantly and quite alert whenever there was any sound out of the norm. And said sound did not even have to be near.
At first, he had thought it was due to her deep-seated ranger training, and in all likeliness, it probably was. To his dismay, her being a ranger was the symptom, but not the core reason. Years of training as a hunter, tracker, scout, fighter, and an archer had merely hyped an already existing issue;
Morel Songsteel had never truly slept since that dreary and unspeakable day she had witnessed her parents getting butchered from inside the tiny closet her mother had hidden her, right before a marauding band of orcs had barged into their home when she had been only four.
Thomas gazed at her and noted her eyes were moving under their lids.
She was dreaming.
And whatever it was she was visiting, the senior temple guardian dearly hoped it was something nice.
One day, he promised himself, we will put your past behind us and you will sleep —truly and peacefully. Together, we will manage that.
“Thought I told you it was a bit creepy watching a girl sleep.”, Bremorel whispered, her voice slightly slurred.
“And we had argued about it, extensively, and come to the agreeable conclusion that, between husband and wife, such acts of creepy gazing were acceptable.”, Thomas replied quietly.
“No, we did not agree. I only caved in because I was being honest—”, she said with a little smile.
“—honest about you watching me when I am sleeping, though I can’t imagine why.”, Thomas wondered. “Mine is just a face. Yours is beautiful and I just can’t help but stare at it.”
Bremorel shuffled a bit and drew closer to him.
“Not just any face. A handsome, honest face.”, she said, her smile widening. “And I just saw a very, very.. interesting.. dream..”
“Ow?”, Thomas said carefully.
“Would you like to know what I saw?”, she purred..
..and jumped him!
In a few hours, they would set out on one of the most dangerous missions they had ever been assigned and Bremorel had no intentions of wasting what little time they had together.
✱ ✱ ✱
This is foolishness.”, complained Agent Largo. “Why do you get to go and I am forced to stay behind?”
Lilly Venom stifled a laugh.
“Boys.”, she sighed with resignation. “It isn’t like I am going out to play and you are left behind to do chores.”
“As a matter of fact, that is precisely what is going on here.”, Largo fumed.
“You are needed here. Should anything happen to my brother, you are the most qualified to do what he does.”, she explained.
“Sounds like a good excuse. Did you come up with this? Just to keep me safe?”, Largo frowned.
Lilly did not reply..
..and Largo immediately regretted having said it.
“I.. am sorry Lilly. That was a tad uncalled for on my part. I know you are going everything you can to help motivate me and get my mind off my troubled follies.”, he said morosely.
Lilly did not reply for a long time more, but stared at him, and deep into his eyes.
“Do you love me?”, she asked finally.
“What kind of a question is that?”, Largo spluttered.
“A very simple and pertinent question. Do you love me?”, she repeated herself.
“Of course. With all my heart.”, he replied honestly. “Why would you ask me this?”
“Because of your unwillingness to part your guilt, my husband. Perhaps you are not aware, but it casts doubt on what you say you feel for me. These past weeks, I have tried my best to rid you of it, but I have thus failed. I have finally figured out why, though; you do not want to let it go. You want to be defined by your guilt. I love you, Largo Summersong, as much as I love a warm summer song.. You are the only man I ever wanted and the only man I let in me..”, she said as she reached up and kisses him. When she spoke again, however, there was a very determined expression on her face, even though her eyes yearned for him. “..but I shall not be wife to a guilt riddled man who wants to die. I plan on making a future, a family, and a home. A home with children in it.. with you. I love you, but I shall not share that home with your guilt. Now, I will be leaving. Should the Great Heavens forgive my past sins and smile down on me and I return, I want to return to a guiltless man who wants to live. I shall not, however, return to a martyr waiting to happen.”
Lilly Venom hugged her husband, fiercely, for one last time, turned around, grabbed her long, dark brown leather coat, her many belts holding her two, ancient-looking daggers, her numerous knives, her coiled garrotes, her shark teeth, and her poisonous darts..
✱ ✱ ✱
How are they?”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez asked, staring at the dormitory door. The halls down here were even dimmer than they were above, in the Serenity Home Temple, lit by torches spread apart and it was still a few hours to dawn.
“Intertwined!”, replied Hamna Vir. “The idiots.”
“It was a good fight, though we should keep the noise down next time there is a mating ritual. Senior Temple Guardian Thomas did not respond well when he saw all the blood and cinder.”, Temez said.
“This isn’t any of his business.”, Hamna Vir scowled.
“This is his temple, Hamna Vir. Everything is his business here. We should have informed him. I am surprised he hasn’t thrown us all out already. We must be mindful from now on.”, Temez said, then looked at the door again. “Are they going to live?”
“I wouldn’t know. Hal Mali stabbed the crap out of Demelze when she started burning him down to charred clumps. When we brought them here, they just clung to each other and wouldn’t let go.”, Hamna Vir said, a bit creeped out. “I.. can’t do what those two did to each other, to my Dar Derune when he grows up!”
“The mating ritual is not a compulsory obligation, dear. Merely a means to light a spark in our hearts. I believe Hal already had one. Or perhaps it was ripe to bloom. Their ritual was to see if Demelze would oblige and submit to her own heart. After all, she could have our right burned Hal, but she didn’t.”, Temez said.
“Pissed the Hell out of him, though. I didn’t even know Hal could get so angry and aggressive. He was always so calm. So much so that some of the girls thought he had been castrated.”
“He will be looking after our brothers and sisters while we are gone, once he wakes up.. If he wakes up.. Senior Temple Guardian Thomas offered to heal them, but I declined. They must spend this time together, either to blend their souls and heal one another or die. I have arranged for several others to take up their responsibilities should that happen. Demelze is a pain, to be sure, but she is ours, and as troublesome as she is, she is still dear to us. And Hal has the most practical and calm head of us all. Now, I need to visit the orc smith of this town for the small order I gave him. Perhaps you and your sister should head out and meet with Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. We must be out of this town before dawn.”
“Why must I be the one to go with the sheriff? He is a stubborn, mule-headed Mortal. I want to stay and be with my Dar Derune.”, Hamna Vir said sullenly.
“I believe you just described yourself, dear; stubborn and mule-headed!”, Temez smiled.
Hamna Vir scowled at her.
“And, you ought to give our beloved Dar Derune the chance to miss you.”, Temez added. “Yearning is good for the soul.”
“You burn to see the young man you ate, and you fade, day by day, every day, ever since Merisoul..”, Hamna Vir fumed. “Which part of yearning is ‘good’, exactly?”
“I would rather burn down to further cinders to see my young man.. and fade out of existence if that is what it would take to see my merry soul, once again.”, Temez whispered with cold, smoldering fire. “Had we stayed in Hell, you know what Auntie Irine had in mind for Dar Derune.. Tell me, Hamna Vir, what would you have done, to save him?”
Hamna Vir refused to reply for a good long while.
When she did, she only hissed with savage vehemence.
“I would have died at the hands of Auntie Irine, before my Dar Derune.”
✱ ✱ ✱
He was putting on a good appearance, but he isn’t well.”, Udoorin rumbled, as he sat in one of the low, backless chairs he abhorred. He, Lorna, Lady Anglenna, and Lord Armathelius had returned to the high elf camp on the northern shore of Serenity Home town and somewhat to the west, forming a barricaded and entrenched buffer-zone perimeter for the Arashkan refugees in case the Orken attacked from that, likely direction. Lady Anglenna had retreated for a brief rest before they started out on their mission and, for some vaguely worded reason, Lord Armathelius had insisted on escorting her to her tent, leaving behind a squad of his most trusted veterans to guard the king and the queen.
“I have never seen him like this. Not since my mother died.”, the young man said depressed.
“Yes, something has happened. And it has him very much disturbed.”, Lorna agreed. “I haven’t seen Liaison Constance around, either. Not since the attack.”
“Neither have I.”, Udoorin frowned. “Perhaps.. they broke up?”
Lorna did not say anything for a while, though it was apparent she wanted to. Sheriff Standorin, however, was Udoorin’s father and, queen though she may be, she did not think she had.. jurisdiction.. in this matter.. per se..
Silently, she opted for Udoorin to prompt her to speak as she fiddled with the sleeve of her long, elegant gown.
“Lorna. Please. If you want to say something, by all means, do.”, Udoorin said, when he saw the mutely suppressed expression on her face. “He is my father, but you are his daughter, now, and he adores you.”
“That is kind of you to say.”, Lorna blushed.
“I am not being polite, love. He truly adores you.”, he said sincerely. “When we had returned from Themalsar and were at the night celebrations, the two of you talked for a bit, remember?”
“Yes. He was very open-hearted and candid with me.”, she said with a smile.
“Neither of us knew who you truly were, then. Yet, after the talk he had with you, he took me aside and spoke to me, quite firmly, that should I ever break your heart, he would break my head!”
“But.. why? He didn’t even know who I was.”
“Who you were, as a princess, mattered very little to him. I am guessing, it still does not, now that you are a queen. Who you were, as a young woman, mattered more, and father has always been a good judge of character. I knew I.. uhhmm.. very much loved you the moment I saw you.. But I knew I had made the very, very right choice when my father threatened to break my head, should I ever hurt you.”, Udoorin grinned at her.
“I.. I do not know how to respond to that. I must find a proper way to thank him some time.”, she said, her face a bit flushed. “But since it is alright with you, I will speak my mind. Would it bother you if someone, a woman, entered his life, once again?”
“I would be happy for him because I know exactly how much he loved my mother, Lorna. But I have seen what her absence has done to him.”, Udoorin mused and his frown returned. “He.. he did a lot for those around him. Quite selflessly too.. and he always went the extra mile.. He blamed himself for the attack that first triggered the chain of events nearly a year ago. He blames himself more, now, for this attack. At the end of the day, though, we both know, nothing survives a well-planned attack. Those were well-trained assassins and they were committed. I cut nearly a dozen of them as they came at us down the hatch on the roof of the sheriff’s office, and it did not even deter them. If it weren’t for all the preparations he had done; the Arashkan militia and the regulars, the elves, the rangers, the dwarves, and all the trained town guards, I am guessing we would have buried a lot more than we did.”
“I am truly happy you think like that.”, Lorna admitted. “When we had talked, back then, at the celebrations, he had a whimsical smile on his face. As if he was remembering his own ‘good old days’.”
“He.. he wanted me to be happy even though I did everything to make him feel nothing less than shame. Why bring this up, though? Perhaps you are wondering what I would think, should he.. I don’t know.. want to make a future for himself with Liaison Constance?”
“Yes.”, she replied simply.
“I do not really know Liaison Constance. She is a half-born. And I do not know what that entails other than they had a very hard life. But if she is anything remotely like Merisoul was, and if father can handle that kind of.. I am not sure how to phrase it, really, but if they like each other, and want to spend their life with each other, and want to look out for one another, sure, I’d be happy for him. Not that it is in any way my business nor is it up to me. I am stating that I’d be perfectly fine with it, honestly, sort of so I wouldn’t be used as an excuse for them not to be together.. if that is what they want.”
“You truly surprise me sometimes.”, Lorna said with a smile. “You are more understanding and grand when it comes to certain things than I would ever have been. The elves couldn’t even tolerate a human —my mother. And you are fine with a half-born with your father.”
“The elves do not have a say in what my father does. Much like they did not have a say who your father wed. They thought they had a say in that, much like they thought they had a say in the choices you made. I think they paid a hefty price for their arrogance. If they want a place in this our Aranië, they had better change their attitude.”, Udoorin said and he meant it. “And I do not believe I am any more understanding than you are in anything. You forgave those who rebuffed you. I did not.”
The smile Lorna gave him was even brighter this time.
“We have a few hours more before we leave. Perhaps we should make use of that time and rest. Our journey will not be easy.”, she said.
“Alright. A fresh start is always a good start, I’ll escort you to your tent —wait! What are you doing?”, he very nearly spluttered when Lorna let her long, elegant gown drop off her slender shoulders revealing the rest of her slender figure, teasing behind a gauzy, black, undergown.
Udoorin tried very, very hard not to ogle, but failed..
“I am going to sleep.. Here..”, she said with a very shy, blushing smile. “And I would much welcome the company of my husband.”
✱ ✱ ✱
I did what you said and removed the old mattress.”, Inshala said with a guilty pout as she lit the few candles of the attic-bed room of their new home.
“You like it more this way, then?”, Aager smiled down at the skinny girl in her barely hip-high, white, shirt-like nightgown, lying on the much larger, and certainly much softer mattress made for her by the ogre chieftain, Mother Ganiste.
She didn’t reply immediately. She lit the last candle, went over to their new bed, pulled open the quilt with the vividly colored tribal patterns, nested herself in the bed, pulled the quilt over her head and..
..hid under it.
“I feel guilty.”, she said and drew her knees up to her chest, making herself turn into an even smaller lump under the quilt than she already was as she further hid her face behind her slender hands.
Aager took off his dark leather hood, his half mask, his heavy leather belts with his weapons, and then his dark, leather armor, revealing his much scarred, spring-coil, lean-muscled chest, and to his surprise, noted the girl was peeking at him from under the quilt and between her fingers!
“Are you spying on me, love?”, he asked, trying hard not to chuckle.
“I.. don’t know..”, she said as she shut her eyes tightly and blushed.. furiously. “I.. want to.. but I do not know if it is alright with you that I do.. I have seen you without your leathers before. But always to clean and mend your wounds. Sometimes, though, I feel.. I feel I want to look even though you have no wounds.. But I do not know if I have the right or if you will be angry..”
“I am angry only when you do not take care of yourself, Inshala. If you want to look at my scars, by all means, do.”, Aager said kindly.
“You.. you do not mind?”, she asked a bit surprised.
“I do not mind. And you have all the rights to do so..”
“Yes. We are married. We have all the rights to each other.”, he said.
Inshala threw the quilt aside, hopped out of the bed and came at him, stopping just short of bumping into him!
Very slowly, she reached up and touched him and Aager felt a distinct tingling jolt run down his spine.
Inshala had very warm hands.
She closed her eyes and those hands ran, very, very slowly, up and around his lean chest, pausing every time they came to a scar as if committing them to memory..
..and they paused many times.
Aager cleared his throat carefully, also closed his eyes and stood still.
It was the oddest sensation and a singularly unique, sensually elusive experience for him to feel her feel him, more than inspect, really, and when he opened his eyes, he saw hers were open too, now, and she was starting up at him with large, dilated eyes.. And to his, somewhat alarmed astonishment, she was also breathing deeper and harder the more she ran her hands over him, as she went around and ran her hands on and over his bare back as well..
“You.. have so much scars.. They are.. beautiful..”, she said in a hushed and awed voice..
..until she held him, and she held onto him with her skinny arms and rested her face there, on his bare, scarred back as if listening to his heart.
“I feel.. strange.. my Aager..”, she said and now her voice sounded somewhere between an eager snarl and a purr, and then..
..it was filled with panic.
“I feel it.. all over me!.. In my mind and in my heart, in my hands, and in my breasts, in my spine, and in my legs.. What.. What is happening to me, my Aager?”
Aager swallowed the rising lump and slowly turned around to face Inshala to see her face burning in mortification..
He looked into her eyes to see them glazed and feverish..
Very slowly, he reached down to her, his own, calloused hands in her barely hip-high, shirt-like nightgown, feeling the whip-scars on her small, skinny back, then the heaving, throbbing of her nubile breasts.. and spoke with a hoarse, dried, and choked voice.
Upon this World, I have been, but a Grain of Sand
To have seen your Fever thus Wild; the Heaven’s Land
To hold you Eternity in the Palm of my Hand
Would I trade Infinity, but for an Hour, so Grand
I see a Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in seething Rage
A Wolf & Lamb partake in this Home where we Belong
To have thought I was, but a Fool and so Wrong
Men with Naught and Sin have bought you Scars
Thus are they Fools, for yours are Heavens’ Pars
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom tapped on the door of the house with the beautiful, blooming cherry and entered, perhaps hoping to catch her brother and his skinny little girl in an awkward position; anything to rile up her elder brother, Aager Fogstep, and to see the cute blush on the skinny little girl, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane..
..and came face to face with a tall, lithe elf with long white hair, braided all the way down the small of her back, holding a dreadful-looking sword, a bushy little hobbit frowning, a scruffy looking midget of a gnomic girl with something round and packed in her hand, and a scowl on her tiny face, and a very tall, very dark girl with braided, vivid pink hair, scandalously short, also pink, dress skirt with two, long horns staring down at her, as her long, cat-like tail whipped right and left with distinct agitation!
She also noted, her own two, ancient daggers were in her hands..
The silence of the moment stretched and a tumbleweed was the only component missing in the stand-off scene.
“Who are the Hell are you and what the Hell are you doing in this house?”, the scruffy little gnomic girl hissed.
“I, the Hell, might ask you the same thing!”, replied Lilly Venom. “Though I remember seeing you at the delegation a few days ago. Put that grenade down, Miss-Whatever-Your-Name-Is! Should you foolishly use that thing here, you will hurt yourself and your friends more than you will hurt me, and bring this house down, in which case, you will truly hurt, by earning the wrath of your host!”
Another silence settled, though this one was more on the awkward side.
“She is right, you know.”, said the lithe elf girl.
“Yeah. Choose her side!”, sneered the gnomic girl, her scowl deepening.
The hobbit snorted.
“I remember you.”, the very tall, very dark girl said. “You were hiding up on the chandelier during the meeting. I thought it odd for someone to be up there, and hanging upside down for that long, at the time.”
“You saw me?”, Lilly Venom asked a bit surprised.
“I did. Though I didn’t tell anyone, I had my eyes on you all the time until Sir Aager came in with the human king of the elves, along with his beautiful queen.”, the tall, dark girl said with a smile.
“You should have warned Aager!”, Lilly hissed. “I could have been an assassin!”
“I believe you already are one. But the reason I didn’t was the apparent similarities between you and Sir Aager. Though I could not see the whole of his face, both of you have similar eyes and brows, both of you were clearly Drashan, and both of you were coiled to kill. Hence I came to the conclusion that you were siblings and part of the security, and opted to wait rather than reveal your position or outright banishing you.”, the tall in pinks replied in her cultured and illustrious voice.
Lilly Venom stared at her, then the rest of this weird bunch, and came to a conclusion of her own; it was just too bloody early to be hassled by this much weird! All she wanted at the moment was a hot cup of bitter coffee, a moment of silence, and possibly contemplate on what she would do if her hubby, Largo, couldn’t let go of his guilt-riddled past. She was sure she loved the man as much as she was sure she didn’t want another in her life. Much like she was quite sure she wouldn’t be able to get over her base loathing for all men for someone else..
“I am going into the kitchen, now. If you would kindly tell my brother I am there and waiting for him, I would be grateful.”, she said and glided off to the kitchen.
“I think we creeped her out.”, Tonic snarked.
“Tonic, luv, you really should stop greeting everyone with a grenade.”, Seressa sighed.
“Yeah. As opposed to your skimpy pinks!”, guffawed the gnomic girl.
“My pinks are not a danger to anyone, nor are they a threat.”, Seressa replied, slightly taken aback.
“I beg to differ.”, she said sarcastically.
“Perhaps we should prepare to leave. Our hosts will, when they come down. And I believe we have imposed ourselves upon them for long enough.”, Cora said quietly.
“I concur!”, piped Brom and started gathering his things.
“Are you leaving so soon?”, asked a voice shyly and Inshala came down the stairs, followed closely by Aager.
There was a distinct, happy blush on the skinny girl’s face and the man behind her gave the impression that he very much wanted to just grab her and run off!
“We have made good on our stay, Lady Inshala. Thank you for your hospitality. It was pure delight.”, Brom said honestly.
“You will not have breakfast?”, Inshala asked with a tiny pout.
“Master Hobbit is right.”, Cora said, a bit gruffly. “I was indeed a delight. But we have imposed ourselves upon you for long enough and we have a long way to go.”
Seressa came to Inshala and quietly hugged her.
“You are a wonder, my dear. I would want to visit you oft more if I may.”, she said, giving one of her best, illustrious smiles.
“My home, is your home, dear Seressa Wraiven. You and your company are always welcome here.”, Inshala replied and hugged her back. Then she turned to Tonic and smiled at her. “I would very much like to pocket you, dear Arcantonic Palecog.”, she said.
“Again, with the pocketing!”, Tonic scowled.
“You can not blame others for your cuteness. But you can smile back and hug.”, Inshala said. “I was ever ashamed of what I was. But my Aager taught me that shame was never mine to have.”
“You are worse than Seressa.”, she said with resignation and hugged the skinny little girl.
“I see a people in your future, dear Cora Sleet.”, Inshala said when she came and stood before the lithe barbarian elf.
“What?”, Cora exclaimed, a bit freaked.
“I see a people in your future.”, she repeated. “Many a people. Your people. They will come, should you call, in crowds and in throngs. Go in peace, and live in peace.”
Cora stared at the skinny little girl, totally freaked out now.
“Master Blom Bundlebim Hobim.”, she said with a brilliant smile when she came and stood before the hobbit. “I would very much like to pocket you as well, but you are simply unpocketable!”
“I suppose I am that.”, Brom said and grinned up at her.
“You know me.”, Inshala said simply and suddenly. “And kind as you have been, you have avoided me, thus.”
“Yes.”, Brom replied honestly.
“But you are not going to tell me.”, Inshala said brightly.
“At the moment, no.”, he replied.
“I want to ask, why..”
“Because the past holds many mysteries, my dear girl. The future, however, holds exactly that; the future. You have made yourself a life, uniquely and singularly your own, and have become a wonder to behold. Only you should get to have a say in that. Not the past.”, Brom replied kindly, but adamantly, also.
“Smooth.”, murmured Cora.
“I have no idea what you just said, Master Brom, for I am young and oft silly. But I am patient, also. I promise I shall understand it in time.. Hence, for now, I bid you, Master Brom, and my tundra sister Cora, and my beautiful sisters Seressa and Arcantonic farewell. May the Heavens smile upon you and light your trek, always.”, Inshala said sincerely.
Cora approached the man in dark leathers standing behind the skinny little girl and nodded at him.
“Thank you for slaying the man coming at me from behind, during the meeting.”, she said.
Aager stared at her for a long moment before merely nodding back.
Apparently, that was all the interaction necessary between them.
After a few more moments of hugs and heart-felt farewells, the Tundra Walkers were gone..
“I smell coffee.”, Agger growled and headed for the kitchen.
✱ ✱ ✱
Several streets over, in another house, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart was sitting in his couch, once again, staring at the dying embers in the fireplace, contemplating on his follies —a something he’d been doing, not unlike a daily prayer, ever since his beloved wife, Limnia Karya, had passed away.
And now, at that very moment, perhaps for the first time, he felt his age..
..for he was, also at that very moment, contemplating on his latest folly; the one, alluringly called, Constance..
Then he noted the dim of his home was slowly withdrawing and the first lights of dawn jabbed at him from between the shutters.
And, with inhuman stoicism, and with a grim and determined expression, he got up to face the day and whatever it might entail or throw at him because the last words his Limnia had said to him had been;
“Take care of our son, and yourself, my beautiful boy..”
To that day, and to be rather particular, to that very moment, he had always thought his Limnia had been referring to their son, when she had said, ‘my beautiful boy’..
To his dawning recognition.. and heart wrenching remorse, he understood.. she had, in fact, been referring to him!
His Limnia had been thoughtful.. and awesome like that!
To that end, he went over to the fireplace, picked up the bucket of water sitting next to it and dumped its content on the smoldering embers. He was going to be away for a long while and he had no intentions of returning to a house burned down on some foolish technicality!
Then he took a deep breath and went over to his kitchen.
First things first, then; coffee!
But when he saw the pristine condition of his kitchen, however, his shoulders slumped.
“I can’t believe I let the Queen of the High Elves clean my kitchen!”, he rumbled and easily admitted that she, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, was one of a kind young woman and dearly hoped both her, and his boy, Udoorin, would live a very long and happy life together.
Sheriff Standorin had always been a very disciplined man and that had extended to his home. He knew it had driven his Limnia to the heights of frustration at times. Looking at the pristine condition of his kitchen, and the rest of his home, however, it was apparent, no amount of discipline nor tidiness beat a woman’s touch. With their innate, and intimately assuring presence, they seemed to turn a roof and four walls, into a home.
Standorin turned around, went over to his room, put on his armor, grabbed his always ready back pack, his great sword, and his shield..
..and walked out of his home, locked its door, and left.
Coffee was important, but he just didn’t have the heart to destroy the newly cleaned kitchen trying to make some.
Hence he veered for his most likely successor and acting sheriff, Aager Fogstep’s home where he was sure his pretty little wife, Lady Inshala, could be persuaded make some for him.
And even part with some her strange wisdom.
Then, he would head to the Serenity Home Temple and meet with the surly girl and liaison, Berete Hamna Vir, and whoever the other half-born was, and do what needed to be done to save his town.
And when the enemy was finally routed and everyone was safe, he would have a sit-down, and hopefully, a long conversation with the alluring girl, Constance.
A conversation starting with an apology..
✱ ✱ ✱
It is ready, Mistress Perigren Ostlanna Temez.”, growled the orc black smith, Kor’gral, when the lithe, ravishingly beautiful young half-born girl ghosted into his workshop in Serenity Home town, just about dawn.
“I would rather have adapted a simple clasp and you kept the original, but against all my reservetions and my cautions, you persisted otherwise.”, he rumbled.
The pale half-born looked at the tall, well-built form of Kor’gral for a silent minute, then spoke in her soft, somewhat husky voice, void of all emotions..
“I have come from the very depts of Hell, Master Kor’gral, in hopes of finding peace. Yet, this Mortal coil has already taken that which was most dear to me.. There is no more peace to be had for me here. The sins of my former masters run deep and far. But with this..”, she said, as she slowly, almost tenderly, picked up the deadly craftmanship, the orc had placed before her.
She stared at it as she ran her slender fingers over the thing she beheld in her hands untill she drew blood, and her voice turned cold, brittle, and vexed..
“..I shall make them pay for my merry soul. I shall make them pay untill there is no them, or there is no me.”
The original verses of the poem Aager whispers to Inshala belong to William Blake. I used the first few verses and other than two, I modified them quite heavily to suit Aager and Inshala’s theme and added two final lines of my own.
The original poem from William Blake;
Auguries of Innocence
It is time for strategic planning.
Heroes and friends gather to see what must be done and what can be done for the enemy is harsh, merciless, numerous, and hidden..
And in a small town,
the future of the kingdom is decided.
This story is the continuation of
Ladies and gentlemen, Lords and Ladies, emissaries and representatives, welcome to our humble town of Serenity Home.”, the old, raspy voice of the mayor was heard as everyone settled down as he stared at the rather crowded room full of important people of many different peoples and races, their retinue, their guards, and their servants.
“That said, I believe introductions are in order. I am Arthandos Yuleman, the mayor of this town and your host, and upon formal request, I shall also be representing the Arashkan refugees.. As a quick reminder before we begin; as you all know, are under the threat of a formidable enemy. All possible precautions have been taken. However unlikely, should anything unexpected occur, each and every one of you here has been given assignments as to where you should be and designated a location to wait until further notice. Please follow said instructions in an orderly fashion and stick to them. Should you need any assistance, town guards will be made available to you as soon as possible. Also, dinner will be served after sundown. Thank you very much. Now, shall we begin?”
“Lady Alisia Sivara Hooman, Lady Moira Hooman, and Captain Fardashi. Durkahan.”, Lady Alisia introduced herself and her retinue in a brisk tone.
“Nadine Graciousward. Former queen of Bari Na-ammen.”, the beautiful lady Nadine said and though she appeared calm, the fire in her eyes spoke otherwise and hushed voices rippled in the room.
“Lord Haransis. Koruxan Knights’ Commander.”, said a tall, lean man in bright steel armor, his winged helm on the table, his sword and shield hanging from his chair.
“Dridges Motherswolfie, Tactical General. Elder Hills.”, a young dwarven girl said quietly from her seat. Standing right behind her was also a pair of dwarven girls scowling menacingly and leaning on long, wooden shafted battle-axes —the Tosser twins.
“Margaret Madish, Argail Smitefast, Lady Magella, and Harakoon Evilscowl. Scowling Hills.”, said a surprisingly soft-voiced dwarven woman with half of her scalp shaved and had very pale green eyes. Sitting on her side was an ancient dwarf with a grand and white beard and with a big hammer hanging from his thick, leather belt, a young, diffident dwarven girl and a middle-aged dwarf, his face marred with a truly evil-looking scowl.
“Moglonar Picklefork. Tinker Hills’ Artificers.”, piped a bold and old gnome.
“Master Randorm Billbuckle. Mayor of Last Hope Town.”, said a middle-aged man with peppered hair, a thick mustache, and muscles that said he’d rather be out cracking goblin heads than be a mayor.
“Dagard Dreadhound. Representative of the Drashan Armadana.”, spoke a tall, stick-skinny man in black, possibly silk, clothes; black shirt, a black necktie, black trousers, and black shoes.. His face was clean shaved and other than a sinister mark, likely cut by a knife, etched at the side of his chin, with his thick, black eyebrows and his knotted black hair, he might as well have been some corporate’s shark lawyer.
“Drashan Armada..”, scoffed someone from the other side of the room. “You mean a bunch of rat pirates floating on feisty rafts!”
“Those rats on feisty rafts have been sinking Watch Flotilla’s for the past few centuries, Lord Alberdel. How is that cuss of an elder brother of yours, by the way? Trimdel Kandara, wasn’t it? Ow, wait. He’s dead, on account of being assassinated.. while he was surrounded by twenty of his elite men. That must have been rather embarrassing.”, replied the man, Dagard, cooly.
“That’s it.”, growled Lord Alberdel as he rose. “I refuse to be in the same room with this deck rat!”
“By all means, leave, Alberdel. Though walking all the way back to Endless Watch should be quite a chore; we sunk your ship.. with our feisty rafts. It was a pretty ship. Did make a fine bone fire, though.”, grinned Dagard.
“You, son-of-a—”, snarled Alberdel and reached for his cutlass.
“Gentlemen. Please. We are all here for one, and only one reason and that is not starting a fight in my town. Every representative here has come willingly or by the king’s command.”, inserted Arthandos Yuleman with his raspy voice. “Please refrain from abusing our welcome.”
Lord Alberdel settled in his seat, fuming furiously while Dagard smirked at him.
“Shall we?”, offered Yuleman.
“Parson Brimstone and Katrine Faeriefire. Vodgar Nuke Squad..”, said a frowning man in dark red robes with intelligent eyes and entertaining a long, elaborate goatee sitting next to a charming looking woman in her early forties, in dark purple dress robes with wildly curly brown hair, a distracted expression, and vivid blue eyes.
“Seressa Wraiven and Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap, representing the Academy of Melshieve.”, said the very tall, night-black girl in frilly pinks with a cool, cultured, but distinctly feminine voice, politely introducing herself and the scruffy-looking gnomic girl sitting next to her.
The hobbit sitting next to them coughed.
“Brom Bumblebrim. Observing from Bowling Hills.”, the small hobbit said.
“Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap? Really, girl?”, he then asked, lowering his voice.
“Shut up, hobbit!”, the gnomic girl snarled at him.
“Cora Sleet. Representing the Bear Claw Tribe, the Ice Crag Tribe, and the Ice Wolf Horde of the Great Northern Tundras.”, the pale, white-haired elf with the swirling tattoos said softly.
“Liam Ruststone. Commander of Palantine Militia.”, spoke the man in banded armor, sitting next to the white elf with a hoarse voice that sounded like he’d been shouting all day.
“Liason Constance. Representing a special interest group.”, came the soft, careful voice of the tall, elegant half-born woman.
“Standorin Shieldheart. Sheriff of Serenity Home.”, Standorin said in a curt, all-business tone, sitting next to the liaison.
“Talüna Mira Silverdenú. Elder of the Wood Elves of Dimwoods.”, creaked a very elderly elf woman.
Upon being nudged by his queen, Udoorin cleared his throat.
“Udoorin Shieldheart and Alor’Nadien ne Feymist. King and Queen of Aranië.”, he said with his low, rumbling voice.
“Armathelius Riverblade. Commander to former Bari Na-ammen forces.”, the high elf said in his baritone voice.
“Anglenna Brightleaf. Advisor to the King and Queen of Aranië.”
“Aranië..”, rumbled the awesome ogress sitting right next to her queen. “A bit vague, don’t you think?”
“You know elder elvish?”, Anglenna asked more than a little surprised.
“I know many things. Elder elvish is one of them.”, Grulganiste replied with a scowl. “But ‘Kingdom’ is a bit of a generic name, isn’t it?”
“Bari Na-ammen is destroyed, Chieftain Grulganiste.”, came the soft voice of the Queen of Aranië, Alor’Nadien ne, sitting beside the giant ogress. “We may not use it again. When we take back our woods, we shall not rebuild it. What we will build is something new, and it shall not carry the sins of her ancestors. We shall adopt what we have seen and witnessed here, in this very town, wisely named; Serenity Home. Whoever comes in peace shall enter it, and live in it. And whoever lives in it, shall sweat for it, and bleed for it. Thus, I and my King have decreed, and so the elves I represent have agreed.”
“A wise and refreshing choice, girl.”, smiled the ogress, making her already brutish face, even more terrifying. “Now, then. Grulganiste Grimtooth. The chieftain of the ogre’s of Oger’s Foot.”
“Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane.”, whispered in a slightly petrified voice and the skinny little Inshala spoke with a very much embarrassed face. “I represent the druids, the shamans, and the witches of Ritual Forest.”
“Speak up, little girl.”, some creaky voice said from the other side of the room.
“..Hooman.”, added Lady Alisia sternly, one hand on the pommel of her long blade. “She is my daughter and her honor is my honor.”
“..Bolgrig.”, rumbled Grulganiste. “She is my daughter and I will crush any of you punny things who disrespect her!”
“..Fogstep.”, murmured Aager very quietly. “And my claim trumps all of yours, for she is my mate. But by all means, do disrespect her. I haven’t let blood loose for quite some time..”
A terrifying silence settled in the room.
“I did not ask for her credentials.. I asked her to speak up!”, said the same voice of the very old Talüna Mira Silverdenú..
Several more representatives declared their identities, including a tall, beautiful, high elf woman with auburn hair and very deep green eyes from Solace, a platinum-blonde high elf from Tranquil, several other mayors from various towns, and the King’s personal emissary, all with their retinue.
When the last representative introduced himself, an eager silence settled.
✱ ✱ ✱
Thank you all for the introductions.”, rasped Yuleman. “Now we will exhibit the current situation and bring you all up to date. Then I shall present our needs and open the floor to anyone who may address them. As most of you know, two months ago, Arashkan city was unexpectedly ambushed, without warning nor provocation by an army of Orken.
For those who do not know, the Orken, as we suspect, are originally orcs, though heavily modified and mutated to be as tall as eight to nine feet tall, extremely vicious, resilient, hardy, ruthless, and cunning creatures. Where they came from, we do not know. How they came to be is also unknown at the moment, but their timing coincided with four major attacks;
One on Heavens Hand, demonic in nature, and the assault is still underway. Though the wall still stands unbreached, the loss in life was unprecedented.
Another attack occurred on all the outposts of Tranquil, also demonic in nature. Two outposts were overrun and totally destroyed. Thanks to the quick intervention of Tranquil Airships and the Demon Hunters barbarians, the demons were routed.
The third attack was on Dwarwick, east of Celestial Mountains, Orken in nature. Though they were unable to breach the dwarven walls, the loss of life was monumental.
And the last assault occurred on all fronts at the Demon Plains, demon and undead in nature. Though the Durkahan knights and paladins held their ground, Solace forces were hard-pressed and Korduba’s Watch cavalry was pushed back behind their own walls. The Ford is currently under siege!
At this point, it isn’t hard to suspect some form of collaboration and assume the attacks on Arashkan and High Woods were the fifth and sixth attacks..
From where these Orken came, we do not know. As to how managed to come all the way to Arashkan, and in such massive numbers, reliable witnesses from many independent sources inform us they deployed a device that rendered either all or a large portion of their leading forces totally invisible. They were over the walls of Arashkan before any feasible defenses were brought in. The siege of the city did not last long but the total occupation and the destruction of the city took nearly two weeks, as local forces and the high elves in the city fought a costly delaying tactic to get as many civilians and the city’s militia out as possible via ships and boats. The Arashkan military camp was simultaneously also placed under siege, but thanks to the timely arrival of more ships still floating, more than half the city’s regular army was smuggled out and also brought here.
As far as we know, the First Lord, Princeps Kaladin, his son, and his daughters were all slain. While Arashkan was being overrun, a second Orken army entered High Woods and laid waste to the high elf city of Bari Na-ammen. The current status of Ri Grandaleren is unknown, though his wife, the former Rise, Nadine Graciousward, and their daughter, Queen Alor’Nadien ne made it out alive and are both here.
A large portion of that army split and turned west and surrounded Vodgar which is currently under siege as we speak. Whatever the reasons, the Orken made one fatal mistake; they started their campaign and attacked right before winter settled in. At the moment they are all out there, stretched between Two-Day Forest and Vodgar. They may, or may not have considered turning former Arashkan into a base for themselves, but due to some unforeseen and unprecedented occurrence, the city is now very much uninhabitable to anything, including the Orken. They have suffered two months’ worth of extreme winter thus far.
Come spring, however, they shall attack. They must or they shall perish and they know it. They may split again and go north for Tranquil, which would cost them too much with little possibility for victory, as Tranquil has been on high alert for the past six or seven thousand years and their army consists mostly of highly skilled and battle-hardened veterans —unless they abandoned their current campaign and rushed there.. They may turn south for Koruxan, also ending in a likely disaster, as Koruxan is a fortress city, its back resting against extremely hazardous mountains and approachable only by two sides. They may go for Durkahan, also a city full of veterans and paladins, it’s back also against mountains. Should they move against either city, they will be leaving their own rear and flanks totally vulnerable to attacks.
They might decide to skim over to Last Hope and attack Palantine, again, being subject to attacks from all sides.
I believe that leaves us..
..as the only viable option.
Should they take Serenity Home, they will have access to the great Ritual Forest that will give them all the wood and lumber they would need to build further catapults, mangonels, spears, and arrows, almost endless supply of food both from the forest itself and the surrounding lands. They will have access to the Arashkan river and able to build ships and be able to make landfall anywhere in the kingdom. They will also have access to the iron, copper, and silver mines under Scowling Hills and Tinker Hills. Once they invade this portion of the continent, they will also be able to move north, up to the tundras, and attack Celestial Mountains, Tranquil, Sky Stone Keep, and Dwarwick from the rear. All they will need to do after claiming these lands is to stopper the gaps and they will be able to practically settle here and in the next twenty years, they will have doubled their numbers. In the next fifty to sixty years, they will be over a million, all able warriors and armed to the teeth.
Ladies and gentlemen, we will have only one shot at defending the king’s land here. I must also inform you that they have deployed the same device they used at Arashkan and one-third of their army has gone missing. We do not know where it is, or where it will strike. We have trackers and rangers scouring all the possible locations they may appear but so far, we have thus failed to locate them.
The Durkahan army will be moving out as soon as the ground thaws to reach here and give us relief. But that will take time. We must help break the siege on Vodgar. Once that is done, It will be possible for them and anybody else to come at the Orken army from the rear and also give free rein for the wizards and sorcerers there to teleport directly here to help strengthen our defenses until the Durkahan army gets here. For this, we were hoping to rely on Koruxan knights and Palantine militia.
Our main problem is the lack of trained warriors and logistics. We have great amounts of lumber moving from Dimwoods, but not fast enough. We lack food, clothing, and shelter for the near eighty thousand Arashkan civilians and High Woods refugees and we are sorely short on arms and armors. The dwarven smiths have been working day and night, around the clock, but with nearly twenty thousand Arashkan militia and regulars, and fifteen thousand High Woods’ able soldiers, that is really a tough call. We have over thirty thousand very well-trained dwarves at Elder Hills but they will and must defend their hills and the west of Ritual Forest. The wall we have been building for the past months is substantial, but it will not stand against mangonels or even a steady pounding of scores of catapults. We have the engineers and the manpower, thanks to the dwarves and the gnomes, but we still need more, much more raw materials.
Ladies and gentlemen, we need your help, and quite desperately and we have two months at best, five weeks if we get an early spring, or the Orken get tired of sitting in the winter and decide to attack anyway.”
Mayor Arthandos Yuleman looked around for a moment, then nodded at Sheriff Standorin.
The sheriff cleared his throat and stood up.
But before he could start, the deep rubble of Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth was heard.
“Will the woodsmen of Dimwoods behave, should my boys bring their lumber here?”, she asked.
“We may be able to arrange a liaison.”, the sheriff mused. “It would be wiser if the chosen person went to speak with them first, though there are quite a bit of trees, cut and shaved already.”
“A team of my sons and daughters can drag half a dozen trees from there to here in under three or four days. The first batch will be slow. After that, they will have opened a trial. They have grown fat and lazy. The exercise will do them good, and there are over three thousand of them. Now. What raw materials do you need for this wall of yours?”, she inquired in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone.
Standorin turned to Margaret Madish.
“Stone.”, Margaret said simply.
“Will mountain rock work the same way as stone?”, Grulganiste asked the dwarf woman.
“Depends on the mountain.”, she replied.
“Rook Mountain rock!”, growled the chieftain.
“Rook Mountain rock is hard to chip and shape, but otherwise, it will be exceptionally good for a siege wall.”, Margaret said, her eyes suddenly bright.
“I shall call upon past favors and summon distant friends and relatives. I shall tell them to bring the Rook Mountains here as gifts.”, Grulganiste rumbled with a hideous grin. “After that, we shall all go to the west of our forest and camp there and wait for these Orken to come. They will make a merry hunt for seven thousand of my sons and daughters, and friends and relatives.”
“Perhaps..” said the creaky voice of the elderly Talüna Mira Silverdenú. “..the chieftain would like seven hundred elven archers to protect their flanks from their north when they make camp west of Ritual Forest? If she is willing to refrain her sons and daughters from eating my elves..”
“Elf tastes like chicken, Mira-Silverdenú!”, sniffed Grulganiste. “We don’t eat chicken. We have them only for their eggs. And elves do not lay eggs!”
Chuckles were heard from the dwarves.
“Perhaps..”, said the young dwarf tactical general, Dridges Motherswolfie, as she glanced at the ogress. “..the chieftain would like several thousand dwarves to protect their flanks from their south when they make camp west of Ritual Forest? If she is willing to refrain her sons and daughters from eating my dwarves.. That way, we may part and divert at least five thousand of our ground troops to the defense of the walls here.”
“We have standards, Dridges-Motherswolfie-girl!”, she said with a distinct expression of disgust on her face now. “None of my sons and daughters will put a dwarf into their mouth and risk infectious diarrhea!”
Dridges went red.
The Tosser twins went black!
A burst of roaring laughter went off and Argail Smitefast slammed the table as he stared at the brutishly glowering chieftain ogress.
“It would seem, years have stolen little from your sour sense of humor, Grulganiste.”, he said merrily.
“It would seem, years have stolen quite a bit from you, old dwarf. You are all white!”, Grulganiste sniffed at him.
“Harsh..”, said Argail, and laughed some more.
“You two know each other?”, Dridges spluttered.
“Argail thinks he knows me. Like all men who think they know and understand women, he is a wrong old fool!”, snarled the chieftain with undisguised disdain.
Dridges and the Tosser twins just stared at her, then at their grandfather, thunderstruck, while Margaret Madish and her sister, Marideth Brave, gave their father a bemused, poorly concealed, slide-long glances.
Sheriff Standorin looked at Margaret again.
“Will this solve the issue of stone and lumber needed to finish the construction of the wall, Lady Margaret?”, he asked.
Margaret Madish didn’t reply immediately. She pursed her lips as she thought for a moment, then she turned to her own daughter and spoke.
“The stones and the lumber will suffice. But that will not solve our main concern, here. I believe Our Tactical General Dridges is better equipped to outline said concern..”
Dridges nodded at her mother, then quietly but sternly, she picked up her mother’s narration.
“Our main concern; the south end of the wall.. Unless we continue building the wall to eventually surround the town, a wall is just a wall —a linear line. It may not be breached, it can, however, be easily outflanked. Perhaps not from the north end, due to the swift-running Arashkan River and they do not come with ships, it will be flanked from the south, making the whole structure redundant and moot. Should the enemy circle around Silent Lake and risk the Demon Fog, our whole defense line will be overrun in a matter of minutes and Serenity Home will be done for. Should they follow the said route, they will not only be coming at us from our south but also from our rear, practically using the King’s road! Should they not want to risk the Demon Fog, they still have the option to sail over Silent Lake using whatever that floats and still come at us from our south, totally ignoring and bypassing the wall..”
“If some kind of sleds be crafted and pulled by, perhaps the ogres before they leave for the western end of the forest, a decent number of our Drashan Armada can be put on the other side of the stone bridge. That way we can make sure these Orken can not come at the wall from the north by the river and we can patrol the whole of Arashkan Lake make it quite hazardous for them to shore anywhere. Provided the petty lords of Endless Watch do not use this as a lame-ass excuse to cockblock our ships in hopes of trapping them. Should they be foolish enough, we will unload everything we have on them, and anything else that gets in our way and be damned with any past treaties we have made with Serenity Home..”, Dagard Dreadhound spoke in a calm, deadly voice. “Make no mistake, here, gentlemen. We are not here as anyone’s servant, and certainly not as part of the Kingdom of Isles. We are here as part of our pact with this town and this town alone. Perhaps the merry Lord Alberdel can actually offer something to save his own kingdom.”
Lord Alberdel Kandara glared at the tall, lean man in blacks but refused to comment.
“It is possible..”, said an illustrious, cultured, and distinctly feminine voice. “..Lord Alberdel may be more of help by providing a sizable number of Endless Watch Naphta Team, along with their munitions, instead of bringing in more ships into a river already cramped with ships.. and avoid further frictions?”
Everyone turned and stared at the very tall, very dark, and rather buxom girl with the long, pink hair and the frilly, short, and vivid pink skirt dress.
“What are you doing, girl?”, hissed the scruffy-looking gnomic girl at her side. “We can’t get involved. We can only observe!”
“But we are not getting involved, luv.”, Seressa Wraiven said, grinning with pristine-white teeth. “We shall be observing this war.. from above.. via Melshieve Gunships.. The Endless Watch Naphta Team will merely be on board our gunships as guests and we can’t always keep an eye on said guests, nor can we be responsible for the things they throw over board, now can we?”
“Sophistry!”, scowled the little gnomic girl. “That’s pure sophistry and you know it!”
“Tonic, luv—”, the very tall, very dark girl began.
“—Shhh.. Don’t use my name dammit!”, hissed the scruffy gnomic girl.
And a few tables over, Nadine Graiciousward’s ears prickled suddenly!
“Oops. I am sorry.”, whispered the dark girl earnestly. “But what I was going to say was, it is only sophistry when there are two parties and one of them is trying to outmaneuver the other by following the letter of a certain agreement, but not the spirit of it. Yes, the Academy of Melshieve has a sworn policy to ‘observe only’ any and every possible occurrence taking place in the Kingdom of Isles without taking sides or joining any conflicts. But said sides of any given conflict must have some form of agreement or at the very least, some form of recognition in the first place, historically or conventionally. Neither the Kingdom nor the Academy has ever made such agreements and no one here has recognized the Orken as a sovereign kingdom. They appeared out of nowhere and attacked without provocation.”
“Girl, you just defined how sophistry works.. with another sophistry!”, snarked Tonic. “But I don’t really care. It’s not me you have to sell that demented logic to.”
“Spoken like a true pair.”, murmured the hobbit sitting next to the gnomic girl.
“That actually is a very good idea, Maiden Seressa.”, spoke Lorna. “Melshieve Gunships are quite famous, and bombarding the enemy from above will make sure they are unable to circle around and come at the wall from the south end and make sure they can not use boats to cross Silent Lake. It is possible to put highly trained elven archers on board the gunships as well, providing both protection for the ships, the Endless Watch crew, and raining arrows upon the enemy below.”
The room was suddenly filled with nods and murmurs of agreement as Tonic bent closer to her pair, Seressa, all the while hiding her face behind one of the fruit bowls.
“You just want to ride on a Gunship!”, she hissed at Seressa in a low voice.
“About this device, the Orken has employed..”, Lady Alisia asked. “What do we know about it?”
“Actually, I want to ride their new invention; the Storm Kites.”, grinned the dark girl. “You, on the other hand, truly want to be on a Melshieve Gunship. I know for a fact that you do because you applied one hundred and nine times as a flight member crew, a gunship engineer, a gunship’s turret man, a deckhand, a kitchen assistant, and going as low as applying as a flight attendant, who basically just serves drinks! All your applications, along with their rejections, were also in your files..”
Nimbletyne Tinkerdome got up at that point and he had a very sour face.
The gnomic girl gave her a very baleful glare.
“Girl, you can turn into a ghostly raven and it looks awesome and you can literally fly without a gunship!”, she almost snarled at her.
“The device, as far as we know..”, Nimbletyne began after clearing his throat. “..is comprised of several components. We are not sure how they have been assembled or who was the original designer. But once activated, it bends and reflects light around a very large area, sort of a half a globe or sphere, not making those inside strictly invisible, per se, but making those outside unable to perceive those that are inside. At least that is our working theory.”
“But so can you! You have a cloak, and a broom that can help you fly.”, Seressa smiled down at her little pair. “And why are you suddenly hiding behind that fruit bowl?”
“The cloak does not count.”, mumbled Tonic.
“And what are we doing about it, Master Nimbletyne? That missing Orken army might be anywhere. We could be bringing our paladins in hopes of hitting their army here and get slaughtered when they suddenly appear behind us.”, Lady Alisia said with a concerned tone.
“What? Why? Did you dump one of your acid vials on it to see if it is acid-proof?”
“What? No, dammit.. I.. plan on.. *some incomprehensible mumbles*”
*More incomprehensible mumbles*
“We have tried various approaches to the issue at hand, but I am afraid we haven’t made much headway.”, admitted the Nimbletyne with an infuriated and frustrated tone.
“Ow. I see. You don’t want to tell me. I get it.”, Seressa said cooly.
“You really want to push this don’t you?”, Tonic scowled at her pair.
“Yes. Very much.”, smile Seressa.
“We may have a solution.”, said a distinctly alluring voice, and people turned to the tall, horned girl sitting next to Sheriff Standorin.
“You do?”, asked Nimbletyle Tinkerdome, somewhat surprised. “By all means, share with us, Liaison Constance.”
“We did not come forward with it because the solution lacks the practicality of application.”, Constance said. “We are, at the moment, looking into various avenues.”
“Perhaps I can help there?”, Nimbletyne asked eagerly.
“The main composition at the moment can reveal, not the location of this concealing device nor what it conceals when activated, but rather the area it affects. At least for a time long enough to be seen with the naked eye. Our problem is delivering it to the suspected area.”, the Liaison explained succinctly.
“I plan on gifting it to Cora!”, she whispered at her.
“Ow? Why?”, Seressa asked a bit surprised.
“Because she’s awesome and cool and I want her to experience the delights and the freedoms of flying. I mean. She’s a barbarian. She is literally the definition of ‘free’ and on so many levels. And she’s been a friend to me even though she had no reason to be. I mean, I certainly never gave her any reason, that’s for sure.. Uhhmm.. besides, I want to see how fast she can fly and land on her foes with that kazirillion foot long sword of hers.. from above! It’ll be legendary!”, Tonic replied with a silly grin on her face.
Nimbletyne Tinkerdome mulled over the Liaison’s explanation.
“You are such a dork, baby girl.”
“Use PPG’s.”, said Tonic promptly, from behind the fruit bowl.
“Of course!”, exclaimed Nimbletyne, smacking at his forehead.
“Well, FINALLY! Someone who knows his acronyms!”, said the gnomic girl happily.
“Perhaps you may want to dummy that down for the rest of us, Miss Cinotnacra?”, Udoorin said, showing a surprising initiative, as he stared at the voice hiding behind the fruit bowl, with a bemused and poorly hidden smile.
“Pressure Propelled Grenades.”, Nimbletyne inserted absently. “Never thought much of them myself because they are quite unreliable and tend to totally miss their target as often as they hit your allies.”
“Yes.”, Cora Sleet, the barbarian girl said quietly from where she sat without cracking a smile.
“Hells bells, Cora. Just how many times did I hit you?”, Tonic hissed at her with a scowl.
“Nine times.. Five with your fire grenades when you misjudged their distance. Once with your stun-bang grenade-thingy, which almost got me killed because I couldn’t hear or see anything. When I am very silent, I can still hear my ears ringing. And three times with your acid grenades, totally disintegrating and ruining two very good shirts, and that time when you totally melted away my favorite pair of pants and put me on display to the rest of Arashkan —in my undies!“, she replied seriously.
Tonic gave her a rather guilty look.
“You are never going to let that one go, are you?”, she fumed.
“It was a good pair of pants and you still owe me one.”
“We should try it immediately, Miss Palecog. I believe I have all the materials.”, offered Nimbletyne eagerly.
“No, no. I heard a lot about you, Master Nimbletyne. I am sure you can handle this one on your own.. And.. uhhmm.. I have a prior engagement elsewhere, sir.”, Tonic replied a bit hastily, still hiding behind the fruit bowl.
“Very well.”, said Sheriff Standorin. “We shall eagerly await for the results of this PPG-whatsit. Now, we have three more items on our plate. One is; how to lift the siege on Vodgar as soon as possible, because as long as that siege is there, Vodgar will be out of commission, and we will be unable to trap the Orken. Yes, as much as we want to make sure they will be unable to invade the eastern end of the continent by taking Serenity Home and its surrounding lands, we also do not want them to spread out and around the hills and forests between here and Vodgar. Two; we need clothing and food for over one hundred and twenty thousand refugees, including the Arashkan civilians, their militia, and their regulars, and the High Woods elves. And three; the elves and the regulars currently have acceptable equipment, though most of their armors need repairs and lack shields, the Arashkan militia have very poor arms and armor, and we do not have enough for any new requites from the civilians who want to participate in the coming war.”
“We shall move our main forces and beef up Last Hope’s defenses to make sure these Orken can not come at you from that direction. And when they attack the wall, we will harass them from their southern flank..”, Liam Ruststone, the commander of Palantine Militia said hoarsely. “We train our militia both as stationary and mobile defensive long-pikemen, and for trench warfare, so we have certain diversity. Any gap that needs corking, any trench that needs clearing, my men can handle it.”
“We can hold off the Orken at Vodgar for a very long time.”, snickered Parson Brimstone.
“Indeed.”, Katrine Faeriefire gave a hearty laugh. “Best thing that’s happened to Vodgar in the last three centuries.”
“Yes, yes.”, added Parson gleefully, stroking his odd goatee. “All the newbie and apprentice wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks who could barely cast a cantrip just two months ago are now dropping fireballs, ice storms, and lightning bolts —en mass!”
“We could send some two hundred of them over in a few days. Some physical training and seeing the results of war would be good for them. Educational, even, and that it isn’t just nuking from afar.”, Katrine said thoughtfully.
“Excellent idea, my dear. We should also send some to Durkahan. Those partial to detection and divination, in particular. It should help against possible ambushes should they decide to employ this device against the paladins. We have had good relations with them for centuries and they have treated us with honest respect.”, Parson said, nodding at Lady Alisia who nodded back.
“Then it is down to food, clothes, arms, and armors.”, Standorin noted with some relief.
“Endless Watch can supply the food and clothing.”, Lord Alberdel mused. “We are, however short of arms and armors ourselves. We can send word to Graystone Military Keep and Devien City for them, however. If the bloody pirates refrain from raiding them, they could be here within one and a half months by sea. Our ships with the food and clothing, within two weeks.”
“I have been given free rein to make any agreements.”, Dagard said cooly. “Provided no Drashan ship is attacked. If they are, Drashan will retaliate in kind. Please note that should this Orken threat be eliminated, we expect the Kingdom of Isles to officially accept Drashan as a free, sovereign kingdom.”
A strained silence settled in the room as many faces turned sour.
Aager Fogstep, who was standing silent and quite still behind Udoorin, had an amused expression on his face, hidden behind his half mask. Many things could be said about Bara’baras Kördog, the ‘King’ of the pirates of Drashan, and none of them good, but the very tall, giant of a man did have great foresight and he was a patient hunter. The official treaty he had signed with Serenity Home five years ago had legalized Drashan’s existence in the eyes of the Kingdom of Isles, even if it had been by mere insinuation. And now, he was going to officialize that, hence any attacks on any Drashan ship or soil, would constitute as an assault against a sovereign kingdom instead of a rabble of illegitimate pirates.
“Well played, you son-of-a-heartless whore..”, Aager growled with admiration..
..and just then, Lilly Venom dropped from the heavy chandelier above just as alarm bells went off everywhere in town.
✱ ✱ ✱
The events of the next few moments happened in a blur..
..when the lithe form of Lilly fell on someone standing right behind the former Rise of Bari Na-ammen, Nadine Graciousward!..
..as someone else, standing right behind Lord Haransis, the Koruxan Knights’ Commander, gave a low, painful grunt and stiffened, and Agent Largo was standing behind him with a bloody knife..
..and Inshala Frostmane disappeared as another figure lunged forward with a long, curving dagger..
..and a tiny squirrel was climbing up Chieftain Grulganiste Gimtooth’s massive, tree trunk-like arm and shoulder! The squirrel darted into the giant ogress’s thick, braided hair and holed in it..
..when Dagard Dreadhound whipped out a very sharp dagger and hurled it at Lord Alberdel of Endless Watch..
..just as Aager Fogstep sent a ghostly dagger across the room at the barbarian tribes and horde’s representative, Cora Sleet..
..while Bremorel Songsteel lurched up and over the table, and with the great, blue sword in her hands, knocked a dagger cast for King Udoorin, right out of the air..
..and with a swift draw, Lord Armathelius ran his long, elven sword through the neck of the man coming at his Queen, Alor’Nadien ne, without so much as looking at him..
..and the room went up in total chaos!
“You deck rat bastard—”, began Lord Alberdel furiously as he went for his sword when the dagger hurled at him missed. Then he froze and stared in amazement when someone behind him toppled over and crashed, face down onto the table.
“Huh.”, was all Cora Sleet had said when she turned around to see the moaning man clutching at the long, ghostly dagger sticking out of his chest. To her bemused surprise, the dagger suddenly faded.. and disappeared! She looked back at the man in dark leathers, hood, and mask and noted the same ghostly dagger reappear in his hand, once again. The man did not so much as glance at her as he engaged with someone else trying to get at the human king of the high elves.
She didn’t wait for too long to take in the chaotic mess around her for someone had just grabbed for Tonic!
The little gnomic girl yelped as the ‘guard’ behind her picked her up by the knot of her reddish-brown hair and tried to twist her very slender neck.
“There is a man behind you, Mother Ganiste. I think he is trying to come at you with a knife!”, whispered Inshala into the ogress’s ear, from where she was lodged.
“So the peace with the humans is over? Thus soon?”, Grulganiste grunted with disgusted disappointment.
“I do not think these are good humans, Mother. Ow, and the one coming behind you is almost upon you. I think you should do something about him.”, Inshala urged.
“I SHALL KILL HIM THEN AND FEEL NO REMORSE!”, snarled the ogress.
“I don’t think so..”, said Cora cooly, and seamlessly she drew out her great, two-handed sword, blazing with frigid tundra winds from her back and brought it down on the man, splitting his head open like a ripe melon, all the way down to his midriff! “..She’s our midget.”, she continued with a touch of swagger.
What was left of the man stiffened as blood and gore gushed out everywhere and Tonic dropped on the floor all drenched!
“Mustn’t complain. Mustn’t complain. It’s only hog’s head full of blood and crap!”, muttered the gnomic girl. “Behind you, Seressa.”
Seressa, however, was a bit busy hailing several other guards across the room coming at the ranger girl, Bremorel, sending ghostly and howling skeletal hands in misty fists at them. The ghostly hands clutched at each guard’s throat. Bremorel spun around, and with a lithe dance, she cut the men down, showing once again just how she’d earned her name; Songsteel..
“Thomas, GO!”, she snarled. “Take the Liaison and Temez and GO! I must guard Udoorin!”
Brom, the hobbit, pulled out his lyre and with a quick twitch of one finger, send a very disturbing, discordant note, and the man coming up behind the very tall, very dark Seressa stumbled as his head suddenly snapped up, one eye staring ahead, the other, somewhere north and west! Blood gushed out of his mouth, nose, eyes, and ears, and his whole head exploded from the inside!
“Dridges!”, yelped Lady Magella in a terrifying voice as she shied away from the man coming at her. The man lunged at her and she flung back, toppled over her chair, and slammed herself on the ground, hitting her head quite hard.
“You should be ashamed of yourself going after girls. Fight someone with balls!”, snarled her mother, Margaret Madish, and caved his head in with an enormous hammer while her father, Argail Smitefast was downing men, right and left.
In perfect sync, the Tosser twins, Britney and Dritmey, had started swinging their great battle-axes as Dridges told them where to butcher.
Lady Magella rose from the ground and her timid face was gone. What replaced it was nothing short of wrath. She pulled out her six-flanged mace glowing with incandescent light and started breaking bones!
Thomas gave Bremorel a stern look filled with the fear of being deprived, turned around, and with two of his junior temple guards, he dashed up to Constance and Temez and curtly said, “You, two. With me!”
Liaison Constance nodded, though it was clear, she did not want to leave..
..when Perigren Ostlanna Temez jumped over her table, and with a water-like flowing motion, she flipped and landed a kick right into the throat of a man coming at Lady Anglenna, who was hastily dragging Queen Alor’Nadien ne. The man stumbled back and Temez pulled out the broken pair of her antler horn and stabbed it into the man’s face, then at his jugular, and seamlessly, at his heart! The man barely gave out a rattling, wet, and wheezy sound as he collapsed.
Back to back, just a few steps over, Lilly Venom and Agent Largo were carving their way, from one table to the next, using a rather brutal strategy..
..where Largo would jump an assassin, and with a series of punctures, then stab his shortsword into in their stomach, twist, slice open, pull out, point up and shove it into their throat as they would, inevitably grunt forward, and Lilly would cut open their kidney, then stab them in the pit of one arm, piercing the heart at a diagonal angle, and finally slice off a jugular, as an encore.. and move on to the next, a process that seemed more like an extremely bloody and excruciating dance, really!
A body with two arms missing flew over Temez and crashed into a group of men trying to corner Sheriff Standorin as he tried to fend them all off the Serenity Home mayor, Arthandos Yuleman.
“Aager, Morel!”, he bellowed over the clamor. “Get Udoorin to his secure location, NOW!”
“Time to go, I believe. Nadien ne. Please stay close to me..”, murmured Anglenna.
“Not without my King and certainly not without my mother.”, replied Lorna stubbornly as she sliced open a man trying to get at her, all the way from his groin up to his forehead!
“Young Udoorin has his own retinue, cousin. Being pigheaded now is unseemly for a queen. Lord Armathelius, do ask the former Rise of Bari Na-ammen to join us if you will?”, she said as she calmly flash-burned someone trying to get at her. The man crumbled in charred cinders.
“I offered.”, Lord Armathelius replied with equal calm as he clashed his elven longsword against three assassins. “She said she was assigned elsewhere.”
“Get behind me, mother. You are out of practice.”, Moira beseeched. “Two kills and your sword hand is trembling.”
“Just who do you think your father practiced his swordplay, young lady?”, fumed Lady Alisia Hooman.
“Mother, that was over twenty years ago. Please. Just do this for me? You have children who will mourn should something happen to you.”, Moria pleaded as she slammed her shield into a man and ran him through when he stumbled.
“I am not leaving my daughter, nor the man who makes her happy.”, Alisia hissed with determination. “If anything happens to that boy, Inshala will be devastated.”
“Mother, Aager knows what he is doing. Better than either of us. And I do not see Inshala. She must already be out. Captain Fardashi. Please talk some sense to my mother..”, Moira said grimly.
“I do not tell the First Lady of Durkahan what to do. No one does. Because she is smart enough to know what she must do, as opposed to what she wants to do. After all, she is the First Lady of Durkahan.”, Captain Fardashi said calmly as he cut another man trying desperately to get at Lady Alisia.
“Lady Moira, Lady Alisia, Captain Fardashi..”, Thomas said as he and his junior temple guardians maced their way over to them with Nadine Graciousward in their mids. “This way, if you will. We have two more to pick up..”
Udoorin head-butted one of the men coming at him, then chopped him down. The next one was just a little too slow and he was dead before he knew it, as the burly King lopped his head, clean off his shoulders.
“Time to go, Udoorin. Anglenna and Armathelius are taking your Queen away as we speak.”, Aager growled.
“Can’t.”, Udoorin rumbled. “The door is too crowded. Might as well stay and help.”
“That one, Mother Ganiste. And that one.. we must get them too before we can leave.”, Inshala whispered.
“Why? Can’t they take care of themselves?”, the ogress, Grulganiste, growled.
“I am sure they can, Mother. But then, so can I..”, the tiny squirrel chirped happily.
“You have been too long with the humans, my daughter. You now have much sass!”, scowled Grulganiste as bulldozed through the chaos, reached over, and grabbed her query, by the scuff of his coat, right off the ground.
“Eep!”, yelped Brom, just to come face to face with one of the most brutish and awesomely scowling faces he had seen in his entire life!
“Ow. Hello Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth. It’s been a while. You are as comely and captivating as ever”, he said grinning toothily at her.
“Good Heavens!”, Inshala exclaimed in a melting voice. “He is sooo cute! Can we keep him?”
“Master Hobbit. You seem to appear at unexpected times. And your words are as beguiling as ever, even though you lie through your teeth. Do say more!”, growled the ogress.
“Chieftain Grulganiste!”, Cora snarled. “You will let our hobbit go, right now.”
“Simmer down chicken legs!”, Grulganiste snarled back at her.
“Chicken legs?”, Cora said dumfounded and with a very flushed face.
“Yes.”, the giant ogress said. “Meat like chicken —all white!”
“It wasn’t meant as an insult so much as it was a descriptive term, Cora. The esteemed chieftain and I are acquainted.”, Brom explained hastily. “Uhhmm.. where are we going?”
“Wherever I take you!”, scowled Grulganiste and tossed the hobbit on her back!
Brom yelped again and clung to the long, thick, braided hair of the giant ogress.. and came face to face with a tiny squirrel poking her head out of the nest of hair!
Thomas appeared next to the very tall and very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, and the midgety little gnomic girl, Miss Cinotnacra, with Ladies Nadine Graciousward, Alisia, and Moira, Captain Fardashi, and his junior temple guardians, and was talking to them in quick, brisk words.
“Hold on tight, my daughter.”, growled Grulganiste as she bashed in the head of another assailant and stepped on him. The mad crushed and the chieftain of Oger’s Foot rammed right through the town hall’s outer wall..
..with a dust-covered Cora coming up behind her!
“That was awesome, Mother.”, said Inshala. “You are so awesome at breaking houses!”
“Are you punning me, my daughter?”, scowled Grulganiste.
“We are out, my Aager.”, Inshala whispered in her mind.
“Pun you? Who would be foolish enough to pun Mother Ganiste?”, she giggled.
“I noticed.”, came Aager’s dry and amused voice. “I must admit, your mother is indeed, quite awesome!”
“I know, right?”, Inshala said with an exhilarated voice.
“There! The way out!”, Aager said, pointing at the gaping, ogre-shaped hole in the wall.
Udoorin turned around to see Alor’Nadien ne, Anglenna, and Lord Armathelius shimmer..
“..Stay safe!”, he shouted.
“..Stay safe, my Dorin..”, Alor’Nadien ne whispered..
..and Anglenna, Armathelius, and Lorna vanished.
“Ranger Lieutenant Morel. It’s time.”, barked Aager.
“Just a sec..”, snapped Bremorel as she danced her way into the chaos.
“Once. Just once I want you people to do as you are told!”, growled Aager..
..and the ranger girl reappeared with a limp body in her arms and running over the tables. When she reached the last few tables, she jumped, sailed over them, and landed, quite lithe and supple, next to Udoorin.
“Why have you risked everything for that woman?”, Aager snarled at her, as he pointed at the elder of the wood elves of Dimwoods, Talüna Mira Silverdenú. “She had her own assigned designation.
“She was knocked on the floor and people trampled over her. Just how was she supposed to get to her designation?”, Bremorel snarled back.
“That is not your concern, Ranger Lieutenant!”, snapped Aager.
“She is my only remaining relative!” she hissed at Aager. “She is my cousin Laila’s grandmother, hence my grandmother too. I’ll be damned before I left her there to be slaughtered.”
Aager fumed some more, though he knew any argument made here would be futile. The ranger lieutenant’s stubbornness was bested by only her dislike for him.
Then, inadvertently, he looked down at the frail, old, and unconscious elf woman in the ranger lieutenant’s arms and noted she was very nearly as small and skinny as his Inshala. Yet, where his Inshala was full of life and skipping energy, this woman was at the end of hers.
“To the sheriff’s office..”, he growled silently.
✱ ✱ ✱
To say Inshala was pleasantly surprised when Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth had parkoured her way through the town in a literal sense and brought her to her home..
..newly built and freshly painted!
“Nuf with the free ride, hobbit!”, Grulganiste growled. “The Heavens have gifted you with sturdy legs.. as short as they may be..”
Brom hopped down the giant ogress’s back and landed on his butt with a flushed and quite embarrassed expression face as Cora joined them.
“Why have you brought us here, chieftain?”, she asked gruffly.
Grulganiste scowled down at the tundra elf for a moment.
“You are a grouchy one, arent you? I can not say I like elves, but I had heard the white elves from up north were a bit better mannered than their kin living in the woods. Do not make me think I was mistaken.”, she scowled at her some more.
A squirrel climbed down the fourteen-foot ogress and hopped on the floor, spun once, spun twice, and on the third, the squirrel was gone, and the skinny form of Inshala was there.
“Mother Ganiste, please. They are guests. And they have just come out of a dire fight.”, she said with a shy smile as she looked down at the very ‘cute’ hobbit and his pouting elf-girl companion.
Then she turned around and ogled at her home..
..and darted inside.
Apparently, Chieftain Grulganiste hadn’t had her ogres rebuilt her home..
..she had them built something totally new; a two-story lodge with a guest room and a separate kitchen with a larger fireplace on the ground floor, a wide-spaced living —and possibly playing— room on the second floor and a very cozy attic that had its roof high enough to stand —as their spacious bedroom.
The new home was furnished with hand-woven tribe’s patterned rugs on every floor, low, cushioned, backless chairs and a similarly low table on the guest’s floor, two more low and backless chairs and a table on the second floor, though these were less flashy but warmer in color and appearance, along with dozens of cushions. The mattress in the attic was certainly not a threadbare thing, but something filled with washed and sun-dried sheared fleece, soft cowhides, and not-itchy woolen blankets. There were handcraft lanterns hanging from little hooks and slender chains on the walls now and there were a few more pots, pans, wooden plates and bowls and cutlery in the kitchen, and the squeaky pump in the garden had been fixed, and it didn’t shriek like a banshee anymore when its lever was pulled down and it was also, somehow, moved into the kitchen! However Chieftain Grulganiste had attained them, there were even a few very elegant vases and soft, faintly blush-colored doilies as well, all elf made!
And then, there was the garden..
Grulganiste’s ogres hadn’t touched the big, blooming cherry tree, but the small garden had been swept clean and a stone-laid path was leading from the kitchen to a little gazebo, complete with a wooden table and two benches on either side and a brazier hung from the ceiling of the gazebo.
Inshala was enthralled..
..and thoroughly shocked.
The cherry tree also entertained many lanterns and even a two-seat swing, hanging from one of its larger branches..
And as a final touch, the garden was cordoned off with a fence tall enough to give certain privacy, and the fence itself was hand-woven, interlocking, dried and varnished reeds..
“Mo.. Mother Ganiste? What did you do to my home?”, she asked dazedly when she came back out.
“I made up for my folly, my daughter. I had my ogres use as much as the original materials they could salvage from what I wrecked, then made a home worthy of my daughter and the Ritual Guardian. Your father, Cathber, was a man with many good traits. Being alone made him lose perspective. Particularly after he lost Tamara at the hands of Themalsar. He was the Ritual Guardian, yes, but otherwise, he was little more than a hermit running around doing silly things like delivering babies and gathering lightning. Being the Ritual Guardian is not much different than being a king, a queen, or a chieftain, my daughter. People will not understand what being a Ritual Guardian means, nor what it entails, and they certainly will not understand the kind of responsibilities and burdens it shall place upon you. But they will see this home and respect you for it; you had the most feared and fearsome creatures of your forest build it for you. The underlying message there will never go unnoticed.”, rumbled Grulganiste.
“But.. but what if my Aager does not like it?”, moaned the skinny girl.
“Does your Aager burn when he takes you into his arms, my daughter?”, the ogress asked.
“Mo.. mother, please.”, the skinny girl blushed furiously.
“It is a relevant question, girl. Does he or does he not?”, Grulganiste asked.
“Every time.”, came Aager’s voice.
“Y.. yes..”, mumbled Inshala, her face blazing hot.
“There you have it then. If you liked this home, then so will he, because when it comes to homes, the only part that belongs to a man is the roof. The rest is yours. Your man will love it because of who is in it. Not because of what is in it. If he is more interested in that, then you have a problem. I saw the condition of your former home, my daughter. He loved that home because you entered his life. Now he will defend this home because there is actually something in it.”, Grulganiste said gruffly. “Now. Tell me who those men were and why did they try to kill you, the hobbit, and the elf?”
“Uhhmm.. they attacked you as well, Mother.”, Inshala objected.
“No, girl. They went after very specific people. You, Master Hobbit, the white elf, the little gnomic girl, and the tall, black and skinny one with the pinks, the boy king, his pretty mate who was brave, thoughtful, and foolish enough to sit next to me, your itchy fingered sheriff, but only because he was defending your mayor, your human mother, and your human sister, the man who had his ship burned, the little dwarf girl and my brave Argail, who bashed in many heads, the tall one in iron clothes from Koruxan and the two from Vodgar; the human with the goat hair on his chin and the madwoman with him. They attacked me only because I was blocking the way of many.”, Grulganiste said, displaying just how perceptive she was.
“Then shouldn’t we help them?”, Cora asked, getting a better grip of her great blade.
“We do not know who is friend, nor do we know who is foe. Do not be another itchy-fingered fool, elf. There are more than enough of them out there. For me, everyone here is a foe and no one is a friend. Hence I shall wait for the sheriff to come and tell me it is over, and my daughter, Inshala here, will make us some nice, hot tea, as our host.”, she replied cooly.
Inshala blushed and ran inside her new home and her new kitchen.
“I didn’t know you had a daughter, Chieftain Grulganiste. Though I must say, she is adorable. She hopped on my head and nested herself there and chirped all the way here as if wanting to assure me.”, murmured Brom.
“Yes. She is adorable, and she is the nicest and the most selfless thing I have ever seen. She sure did old Cathber a lot of good the way she dropped into his lonesome life.”, replied the brutish ogress.
“Cathber? What has he got to do with her?”, Brom asked as he remembered the months he’s spent with the odd druid.
“Inshala ‘la fey’ Frostmane is a foundling, Master Hobbit. Old Cathber found her, many years ago in the woods. I believe her birth mother was some woodsman’s wife, taken when she was out gathering herbs and mushrooms. Never liked them, woodsmen. Foolish, superstitious, rash idiots, the lot of them. They blamed us whenever anything went wrong in their lives. Break a toe, it’s the ogres. A lightning strikes, it’s the ogres. A goat dies, it’s the ogres. As if we had nothing better to do.. But for years, many of their women were taken. Then one day, one of the taken woman returned, bedraggled, hungry, hurt.. and bearing a newborn child. You would think they would have rejoiced, but no. They drow her into the forest and stoned her, and the child to death. From how old Cathber told it, the mother did everything she could to protect her baby. The fools left, thinking she was dead, and to be fair, she was.. just not yet. She got up, and with what strength she had left, she ran off deeper into the forest for as long as far as she could.. which wasn’t all that far, seeing as she was already weak when she had come down Rook Mountains, to begin with, and being stoned didn’t help her either. She died, from much bleeding, with her little baby in her arms.. In my many centuries, I have had respect for very few and even fewer among humans. To soothe the spirit of that woman, I have prayed and burned much incense. Old Cathber found them some two days later. He buried the mother and tasked himself with the care of the baby. The soft-hearted old fool.. What did he know about raising a child? Yet he did.. Yet he did..”, Chieftain Grulganiste said, her eyes lost in some unseen distance.
Brom and Cora, however, were looking at each other and with quite freaked expressions.
“Uhhmm.. When did this event happen, Mother Ganiste?”, Brom asked carefully.
“Some years back.. my daughter should be seventeen now, so that many years ago.. Not too long after your visit to my hills, really.”, the ogress replied.
“Mother Ganiste, Master Hobbit, and Pretty White Elf lady, the tea is ready.”, Inshala came out of the house with a happy skip.
“You like it then?”, Grulganiste asked with a surprisingly pleasant smile.
“I love it, Mother.. The new kitchen is so awesome and the pump is so easy to use now so I also made some things to eat. The house is so big now and we have so many more plates and bowls, I can finally ask Bremorel and her hubby, Thomas, Lilly and her hubby, Sir Agent Largo, Liaison Constance and the sheriff, Perigren Ostlanna Temez, Hal Mali, gorgeous Demelze, Hamna Vir and dear Dar Derune, Biberbell, De De Dexter, Laila’s father, Uncle Devien, Ranger Master Uncle Moorat, Lady Magella, and her sisters and even her mother, Udoorin and Lorna, Mother Alisia, my sisters and brother, and Granma, and when they come back, even Laila and Gnine..”, she said in a breathless voice.
“Perhaps we should eat in the garden?”, Grulganiste said, and not without some guilt. “I believe I have destroyed enough buildings in this town in one day.”
“YESS! I loved the garden, Mother Ganiste. There is even a swing there! I will bring the tea and the food out there and light the brazier to keep our guests warm.”, the skinny girl said happily and took off again.
“Wow.”, Brom admitted. “She really is adorable and so happy to have friends in her life.”
“Whatever friends she has, they are all new, Master Hobbit. That girl lived alone all her life, even if her father, Cathber, was there. She tried to make friends with the wood elves. They never hurt her, but they never let her come anywhere near them either. She tried to make friends with the woodsmen and they beat her, stoned her, caged her, and whipped her for it. So when I said, I would ‘crush any of you punny things who disrespect her’, I was being polite.”
“What is happening, my Aager?”, Inshala whispered as she put the tea, the teacups, the plates full of newly washed fruits onto a large platter she found in the kitchen.
“We.. uhhmm.. we saw her with a man in dark clothes, back when we were in Arashkan, some months back. Is he her husband?”, he asked.
“Yes. A dangerous man. But he will not let anyone hurt her. Now, Master Brom Bumblebrim and you, Cora Sleet, will tell me where you two actually know her from?”, the ogress gave the two of them a very ugly and stern look.
There was a moment of precipitous silence.
“Cora, my dear, I think you should tell this one. It happened in your tundras. If anyone has the right to speak on this to another person, or whether it should be told or not, is up to you. Though I am not sure now is the right time, and whether the girl should hear, or even know about it..”, Brom said quietly.
“The town is under attack, love. Whoever these people are, they have been infiltrating amongst the refugees and even amongst some of our town guards.”, came Aager’s strained voice.
Cora frowned a bit, but not because she thought Brom had thrown her under the dragon, per se, but as to all the events that had transpired up to and after the ‘RED OCTOBER’, as the barbarians of the Great Northern Tundras had named the odd phenomenon; the turning of the sky to crimson on a clear October day and the appearance of the vile creature..
..and the beginning of the disappearances of their womenfolk, including the daughter of the chieftain of Bear Claw Tribe.
“..then they mingled as part of the retinue of one lord or lady or representative or another, and everyone, including us, thought they belonged to someone. Quite ingenious, really.. in a sinister and heinous way..”
It had been at that point Cora and Brom, along with the dwarf sisters, Lillias Absentwhot, and Jeina Blonde had gotten involved. They had been asked by no other than the Bear Claw Tribe chieftain himself to find his daughter and to bring her back.
After a long, dangerous, and harsh trek, they had finally located where the vile creature had holed up; a cavern set deep into the southern end of Lost Mountains, filled with many corpses, all ravaged, half-eaten, gnawed and rotting —and all women.
“..we have many wounded and many more dead. We barricaded Udoorin at the sheriff’s office and he was very frustrated about it. He tried to order me, ‘I am the king and I order you to let me go!’ I laughed at his face and told him if he didn’t stay in the building, the elves would LACK a king and his pretty Lorna would be all sad about it! In retrospect, though, I probably shouldn’t have said that, but it was funny at the time. More assassins arrived and they climbed the office walls and came down through the door leading up to the roof and now he is laughing like a merry idiot and cutting them down as they drop into the office and he won’t even share the kills with anyone!..”
That was also the time when Cora and Brom had met pretty much the rest of the particular clan Lillias and Jeina had belonged to. The whole lot of them had arrived to ‘bring their lost dwarves’ back home.. For Cora, it had been the first time she had met them. Brom, on the other hand, had made acquaintance with some of them before, during his travels, though he hadn’t said as to how he knew them. The answer to that would reveal itself much, much later, and after the two, along with Seressa and Tonic would suffer Arcanton Mordenon’s demented tower!
Upon the insistence of Lillias and Jeina, the whole clan had gotten involved and had lured the vile creature from its cave using a continuous hit-and-run tactic, all the way to Rook Mountains, and losing the creature at Ritual Forest, buying time for Cora and Brom to enter the cave and save whatever there was inside left to save.
“..I left him with the guards and Bremorel to check in on the others. The elves’ headquarters are also under attack, though I suspect a similar mule-headed enthusiasm on Lorna’s part there. I always thought her to be a calm and gentle girl. Turns out I am not even sure which of them is worse anymore; Lorna or Udoorin..”
Neither she nor her bushy little friend, Brom, would ever find out the extent of their deeds that day, but Cora had always suspected that there would be consequences..
..the ones she would know and perhaps find out later, and the ones she would never hear about;
When they had saved the chieftain’s traumatized daughter and returned her to her father, she would, in time, be married to the son of the chieftain of the Ice Crag Tribe, making Cora quite popular and ‘savior’ among the two tribes. And later, when she and Brom had saved the Ice Wolf Horde from a certain ‘demon’ that had infested their lands, who had turned out to be no one other than Seressa Wraiven and her vivid illusions and her pair, Arcantonic Palecog, the savage Ice Wolf Horde had promptly adopted her as their ‘savior’ as well, effectively promoting her as a hero among three of the four major tribes/hordes of the Great Northern Tundras —and when the events of her ‘re-encounter’ with Dreadmaw had wiped out the Wyrm Horde, she had, perhaps unwittingly, become the ‘Princess of the Tundras’, the sole person to have the power to call upon all the remaining three tribes/horde to arms and fight against the coming Orken, in a land far, far to the south and beyond the tundras. This had been the most apparent, though quite unexpected, and certainly unintended outcome of the RED OCTOBER event.
“..The temple is also under attack but Thomas and his temple guardians are putting up a good fight. Not to mention they have Nadine Graciousward. I am tempted to say, like mother, like daughter, and I can see where Lorna gets her calm and enthusiasm from. There is also that tall, dark girl with all the creepy pinks and her gnomic friend who I think is quite mad! She is cackling like a maniac and throwing bombs at everything that moves. The bloody idiot has already leveled six houses near the temple!..”
The other was, there had been a second survivor, deep down in the cave of the vile creature; a much traumatized, beaten, raped, and ravaged, underfed, hungry, bruised, and very much pregnant young girl..
..who had wanted nothing from them except some food and an axe, and to be let go so she could return to her people, her family, her husband, and her home..
The resilience of the skinny little girl who had suffered months of use and abuse from the vile creature, not to mention, was at the end of her pregnancy had, now, astounded Cora for she, in all candor, had never believed the girl would have survived the month-long trek through the bitter cold, torturous, treacherous, and precipitous Lost Mountains and then the Rook Mountains to reach her Dim Woods. Yet she had.. and giving birth, alone, on the way, no less..
..just to end up being run off and stoned to death by her own people and her husband..
“..Some of them tried to infiltrate the temple by breaking through the boarded windows.. They never came back out for some reason. I am not sure if they enjoyed their last moments in this world, but I am certain our Liaison’s half-born brothers and sisters must have..”
At that point, Cora wasn’t sure just who had been the true ‘vile creature’.
Yet, her daughter had survived, against incredible and impossible odds; Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostman, and ‘WOW’, was all Cora could think of.
Whether Cora had figured out that when they had saved that skinny little girl, they had also caused the vile creature to follow her in hopes of finding and retrieving its offspring and consequently becoming a menace to the woodsmen of Dimwood for the next decade and more, was unclear.
And now, that vile creature’s daughter was here;
“..Sheriff Standorin, Lilly, her hubby, Agent Largo, D.D. Dexter, and I, along with three dozen guards, rangers, and the elven veterans I have been training are now moving street by street and going house to house in a search and destroy mission. I am afraid this might take a while though.. Hey, are you making tea?”
A beautiful, adorable, earnest, sincere, full of life, selfless, shy, frightened, abused, stoned just like her mother, beaten, caged and whipped, scared and scarred little girl, adopted by the old Ritual Guardian, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, and by the ogress chieftain of Oger’s Foot, Grulganiste Grimtooth, and also by no other than the First Lady of Durkahan, Lady Alisia Sivara Hooman and become the new Ritual Guardian..
The whole thing made Cora reel back in its incredible, unbelievable, mind-staggering, and quite astonishing absurdity.
“Well.. We do have some guests here, so I thought I ought to make some for them. It is cold outside..”, Inshala replied a tad guiltily. “I really wanted to be there with you.”
Cora carefully cleared her throat and spoke with her low, slightly hoarse voice.
“People need her now as she is, and anything that is past is in the past, though our stories somehow come out in the most unexpected moments and haunt us..”, she said, looking down at Brom with emphasis, “..it would be fruitless to summon them by will.”
Chieftain Grulganiste scowled down at her for a long moment.
“..’Tis alright, love. Enjoy yourself. I shall be there as soon as possible, though I suspect it might be later than I would want. We will have to make a tally on our losses and figure out how they managed to bring in so many.”
“I see.”, she rumbled finally. “And perhaps wisely spoken too. My daughter is very dear to me. The first time we met, I thought she would scream and run.. Yet she said I was awesome, as demented as I had thought her perspective was at the time. She looks at people and somehow judges them by their merit.. and accumulated deeds.. if at all.. And should she judge said deeds, she seeks the reasons that led to those deeds as if looking for an excuse to forgive them. I would hate to see her break again and humans have done everything they could to do just that.”
“Ready!”, declared Inshala happily as she ran up to them with a skipping hop. “I lit the brazier to keep us warm as well, especially for Master Brom Bumblebrim, here, or perhaps you would rather I call you Blom Bumdlebim Hobim?”
“What?”, blurted Brom in surprise. “How do you know that name?”
“Blom Budle— what?”, Cora asked with an amused expression and very much pursed lips.
“You don’t really need to know, Cora.”, he scowled.
“I am friends with all the dryads and nymphs in Gull’s Perch, Master Brom. They told me some very endearing and lovely stories and you were in them. My Aager and I saw you at Arashkan before today, but I didn’t know your name then. We saw you and pretty Cora talking to our Merisoul and give her something. We were up on one of the roofs and the very tall girl with the lovely pink hair and dress that I would love to have too, and the cute gnome girl was also there, though they were hiding in some trash for some reason!”, she said as she led them into the garden and over to the gazebo.
“You can sit on the swing if you like, Master Brom. I already tried it and it is awesome!”, she offered with an exhilarated grin.
There were also two ogres, one male, the other a female in the garden sipping tea from comparatively very, very tiny teacups! When they saw their chieftain, they jumped on their feet and sort of stared at their feet like two kids caught in the act.
“Uhhmm.. Greetings Chieftain Grulganiste. We fixed and refurnished the house as per your instructions. Does it meet your satisfaction?”, the female ogress rumbled carefully.
“I wouldn’t know, Garishka.”, the chieftain replied with a horrible scowl and turned to Inshala. “Does it?”
“I love it, Mother Grulganiste.”, Inshala said happily. “I think sister Garishka Bloodhammer and brother Grawl Goraxe are very good at what they do.”
Garishka and Grawl beamed at her.
“I think you should hire out your ogres to help build the defenses and homes for the Arashkan refugees. That way, the humans can become friends with your sons and daughters, just like Sheriff Standorin wanted.”, she said.
“Maybe..”, Grulganiste scowled. “But only if your hubby also likes this home..”
“There were some men skulking around the house, Chieftain, but because you told us not to kill any humans while we were here, we asked them, very politely, what they were doing. They just pulled their knives and charged at us. Again, we told them, very politely, not to do that but they just wouldn’t listen. So.. me and Garishka bashed them all and tossed them over the fence.”, Grawl said tentatively.
“We tossed ’em far, Chieftain, like, several buildings over so there shouldn’t be any blame on us!”, added Garishka hastily.
“We also wiped all the blood and brain!”, Grawl mumbled quickly.
Grulganiste looked at them much like an executioner would, right before he brought down his axe.
“The deed is done. If they drew their knives at you here, in the house of the Ritual Guardian, they got what they deserved. How is the tea?”
“Excelent, Chieftain Grulganiste. The Ritual Guardian sure knows her teas.”, Garishka said in a hurry and Grawl nodded vigorously.
✱ ✱ ✱
It was past midnight when Aager Fogstep stumbled, dead tired, to his home..
..and looked up at the two-story house.
He had known all along that Chieftain Grulganiste had totally destroyed it, even if she had done it unintentionally. He hadn’t said a word about it to Inshala and had, quite deliberately, made sure to never think about it all day, just so she wouldn’t be able to sense his disappointment. True, it had been a rather simple, single-room, quite bare, empty, even, and in all candor, a pathetic house, really, but it had been his home, dammit!
The home he had secretly wanted to share with Inshala from the moment he had understood that he felt something for that ‘pretty but weird’, and ‘pretty wierd’ girl who had been outright cantankerous, to be honest. She had plagued and pestered him, constantly creeping up to him and whispering ‘You are not a good person!’
The fact that the moment of his comprehension of his feelings for her and the moment he had figured the odd nuance in her words had coincided hadn’t gone unnoticed by Aager;
She had never said he was a bad person..
Only that he was not a good person.
And in all likeliness, him being ‘not a good person’ was very true and a bloody obvious fact, and he, Aager, had never claimed otherwise.
What was there to claim otherwise?
But where no one in his entire life had cared about him being a good or a bad person, or ‘not a good’ one, the way Inshala’s had phrased it, told him something;
That for some dementedly naive reason she had thought he wasn’t a bad person, and cared enough —again, for some incomprehensible reason— that he was not a good person, either
..and that it bothered her.. A lot.
Enough to plague and pester him for weeks from the moment they had met while tracking down the assassins who had started the unquenchable fire in their town, up to the moment they had come climbing up the broken and crumbling stairs of the damned ruins of Themalsar.
Had she actually managed to make a good person out of him?
Aager thought not.
And looking back at all the things he had done since having met Inshala, just about anyone would agree with him.
Looking at how, or better yet, why he had done them, however, said ‘anyone’ might just pause..
So when Aager had found out about the predicament of his rather simple, single-room, quite bare, empty, even, and in all candor, pathetic house and consequently say he was disappointed, it would likely have been the under statement of the century!
And now he was staring at a two-story house with dim candlelight glowing from all the windows.
“I am sorry for your home, young man.”, a voice rumbled in the dark.
Aager stared at the newly woven reed fences and noted the three giant figures sitting there.
Quietly, he veered in that direction and nodded at Chieftain Grulganiste and then at the two other ogres.
He also noted the gazebo, the burning brazier hanging from its wooden ceiling, and the swing hanging from the blooming cherry tree and thought of just how much his Inshala had probably loved seeing all this.
“You came to my tent and behaved as a guest should. I came to your home and behaved.. badly..”, she said.
“Tis alright, Mother Ganiste.”, he replied tiredly. “I am aware you did not do it deliberately. Bad things happen, even with good intentions.”
“I tried to make up for my folly. Inshala loved it but is freaked out because she thinks you might not. I told her, home is where we are with the ones we love and care are, and that coming from a clumsy ogress is a neat trick!”, she rumbled. “If you do not like this home and want to break spoons, I will understand.”
“What is it with spoons and breaking them, Mother Grulganiste? Who would want to break spoons? How would you eat if you broke your spoons?”, Aager asked amusedly, even though he was quite tired and just want to sleep.
“That is the point, young man. No one wants to miss supper because of broken spoons.”, she said as if stating the obvious.
“I take it there are many spoons in this home now?”, Aager asked, getting a hint at where this conversation was heading.
It was interesting to see this giant monstrosity of an ogress to genuinely be sorry for what she had done, and with this ‘private’ talk, she was almost begging him to accept her apology, along with the house, in her strangely roundabout and gruff way.
“Damn.”, he thought. “She is a lot more considerate than many humans I have met!”
“Of course. A house should always have many spoons. For friends, guests, clumsy mothers, and.. mayhap.. children..”, she said with a straight face. “You have many guests even now. The hobbit, Brom, the white elf who thinks scowling all the time is cool, the crazy gnome girl, and the creepy one with the pinks. I saw so much pink today, I am pink-blind now. The other mother of my daughter, her elder sister, and the mother of the queen of the elves is also here.”
“Huh.”, Aager grunted.
“I would have wanted to apologize to that skinny she-demon for the things I said to her earlier. I found out she has an interest in your sheriff and that she treats him with care. That is good because your sheriff is a respected enemy and has fought well today.”
“Huh.”, Aager repeated himself.
“You should go and tell your mate that you liked the house.”, she growled. “Inshala is a good girl but she panics over the silliest things. She must truly care for you and for what you think, young man. Nurture that.”
Aager nodded at her and started for the door and stopped.
There was another door leading from the fenced-off garden directly into the kitchen too, now.
He hadn’t noticed that..
“Thank you, Mother Ganiste. It would seem some mistakes are good to happen.”, he said quietly.
“You should see what I did with your bedroom, then.”, he heard her grinning voice coming from behind.
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.
This story takes place about a month or so after
The Stab In The Back
and a bit before
Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig;
“A Debt Father to Daughter Passed..”
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..
Lilly Venom: (snort)
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?
Lilly Venom: (silence)
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.
Lilly Venom: Lauca.. Sounds intriguing.. Means, warm?
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?
Aager Fogstep: (shrug)
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: !
Lilly Venom: (snort)
Aager Fogstep: (snort)
✱ ✱ ✱
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!
Agent Largo: (cough)
Sheriff Standorin: You can’t be serious!
Agent Largo: I have been. For quite some time, now.
Lilly Venom: (smile)
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!
Agent Largo: (stammer)
Sheriff Standorin: (sigh) Go get the Temple Guardian Thomas here to officialize and formalize their wedding, if you will Master Aager.
Aager Fogstep: (quietly) Yes, sir.. And.. Thank you, sir..
(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..
Aager Fogstep: So you love—
Lilly Venom: Aaaaaaa! La, La, La, La, La, La, La !!!
Aager Fogstep: (confused) What?
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 TOTALLY his 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: (scowl)
Aager Fogstep: (snort)
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.
Lilly Venom: (scowl)
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 crowded 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.
Lilly Venom: (hug)
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!
D.D. Dexter: (cough)
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.
The night, however, hasn’t all gone to waste;
Lilly Venom loses some and wins some..
Place; Serenity Home
Aager Fogstep and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane have left Durkahan city and returned to Serenity Home where each has their own harsh responsibilities waiting for them.
46 Days After The Fall Of Arashkan.
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 the 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..
The End of Sunsears
Place; Serenity Home
The events in this story take place after
“I believe this belongs to you..”,
28 Days After The Fall Of Arashkan.
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’Nadien ne, 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.