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Extreme Planning..
Part Two

Extreme Planning..
Part Two

Timeline:

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
Extreme Planning..
Part One

 

 

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.

 

Argail coughed.

 

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*”

“You what?”

*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.

 

Seressa sighed.

“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.”

Aager fumed.

“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!

Inshala giggled.

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.

Probably not.

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.

Then sighed.

 

“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..

..like ever.

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.

 


 

arashkan şehri dungeons and dragons groups modül savaş serenity The Great Arashkan the plot thickens Whispers; A Cabal

Extreme Planning..
Part One

Extreme Planning..
Part One

Timeline:

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 takes place shortly after
Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig;
“A Debt Father to Daughter Passed..”

 

 

Hello Nimbletyne. It’s been a while.”, said the rich, throaty, enthrallingly feminine voice as a carefully swaying figure of elegance stepped lightly into the workshop.

“Hello, girl. Been a while indeed. Thought you’d drop in one of these days.”, Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome rasped as he limped over to the tall, rather curvy, and extraordinarily striking figure. “Are you here to kill me?”

 

The tall beautiful woman stared down at the old gnome for a moment before she replied.

 

“By all accounts, I probably should. You didn’t do us any favors when you burglarized the central office of the Whisper. Do you have any idea how many assassins I had to put up with since then?”, smiled the striking woman.

“I am sorry for the trouble I caused you, girl. But not for what I did. You were there when we found out what they were up to. You knew what I had in mind. And, as I recall, you did encourage me.”, grunted Nimbletyne.

“True. Though, in my defense, I was young and foolish, then.”, mused the extraordinary figure.

“Lassy..”, Nimbletyne grinned. “..you are always young in my book, but never foolish.”

 

The woman gave out a rich, throaty, genuine laughter.

 

“Apparently, some things never change, and you are as smooth as ever, darling. How are you still single?”, she asked merrily.

“Had me eyes on a girl, once. Nothing on your league, of course, but killer-cute. Single mother, a Wessa Doodlebellz, with a sweet little daughter. Husband killed in a Bean Bomb manufacturing accident. She was, however, also one of the victims of the Whisper.”, shrugged the gnome, though not as indifferent as he wanted to seem.

“I.. am sorry about that. And I am sorry I wasn’t there with you when you found out about it.”, the woman said honestly.

“Tis alright, girl. Really. You had your own plate full, as I recall. A breakup with Delia must have been devastating for you. Was surprised to see his daughter here, a girl by the name; Moira. Very pretty. Very strong. And very stubborn —in an endearingly mule-headed way! Delia always did attract women with those particular qualities for some reason.”, he said with another grin.

 

The beautiful woman looked down at the old gnome with amusement.

 

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”, she said with a pursed smile.

“My thoughts, exactly.”, chuckled Nimbletyne.

“Alright.”, the woman said, all-business. “Who must I wrestle here to get some attention? Who’s arm must I bend?”

“You require little to garner attention, my dear. Years have barely noticed you.”, the gnome’s grin widened.

 

The woman sighed.

 

“You are going to drag this as far as it can go, aren’t you?”, she said, but not without a certain amount of amused resignation.

“But of course, my dear. And your ‘pretty’, will fully justify my sins on this account! For the sake of saving some time, however, going to the sheriff’s office should speed things up for you. At least on this side of the river. Couldn’t speak for the elves, though. You should know how they are, by now; arrogant, conceited, condescending, sniffy, snooty, stuffy, and stuck-up.. pretty much in that order!”

“Nimbletyne..”, the woman said with a note of reproval.

 

Nimbletyne shrugged.

 

“Ow, I am sorry, sweetheart, I wasn’t aware we were putting on a public face.. For them, you should probably go and talk to your daughter. I must say, she is quite the will-full girl —in an endearingly mule-headed way.. I must congratulate you on a job well done, there, Dine, she has everything an elf has, and none of the things they shouldn’t. It’s like the Great Heavens dissected the perfect elf, tossed out all the bitchy parts, and named her, Alor’Nadien ne! Never seen a girl as pretty and still be honestly and earnestly dignified and down to earth about it. If she, at this very moment, pointed one pink finger in any direction and said, ‘That way..’, all the elves and the Arashkan refugees will pick up whatever sword, shield, or stick they can find and charge that way! And that’s over fifteen thousand high elves, over eighty thousand Arashkan refugees, not including their militia and their regulars, several thousand wood elves, and no one really knows how many of the fey-folk!”

 

A surprised and pleased expression lit the beautiful face of Nadina Graciousward.

 

“Finally. Has she thus decided to be her destiny?”

✱ ✱ ✱

Biberbell knew she was on an important mission because she was told, she was on an important mission.. by no other than the Ritual Guardian herself! Hence she ignored all the ogling Mortals as she flew through the Mortals’ town they named Serenity Home, which did sound like a place where elderly people would reside. Biberbell was likely the only creature around to have noticed the irony of Mortals naming their town after a place for the elderly since only they would grow old and inevitably die.. The only problem with that would be, Biberbell probably didn’t know what irony was, and even if she did, she’d stay well away from it.. since it had ‘iron’ in it!

With a serious, all-business-like frown on her tiny face, she flew up to the sheriff’s office with a trail of sparkling pixie dust, drew her toothpick height up to an impressive, toothpick and a pint, and knocked on the ‘massive’ door.

 

Nobody answered.

 

Possibly because the stupid Mortals were also too deaf to hear her minute fists banging on a door, many scores of times bigger than her!

Biberbell fumed!

Then she darted over to the tiny, barred window near the gigantic door and peered inside. There were several Mortals inside, all wearing iron clothes and carrying sharp, iron swords. Biberbell scowled at them in disgust.

Then she took a handful of her pixie dust, weaved it into a gossamer spell, pointed her tiny little index finger at one of the dumb Mortals; the one nearest to the door, and released it.

The dumb Mortal gave a surprised sort of grunt, turned around, and opened the door that he thought was being pounded—

 

—to come face to face with a tiny little thingy!

 

“What the..”, he said in astonishment and made a grab for it..

“Hands off, you uncouth clod twerp!”, Biberbell piped!

 

The Mortal froze..

..and a whole lot of merry laughter came from inside the sheriff’s office.

 

“That’s a new one, Anderson!”, laughed one.

“Indeed. Your ability to rile women of all sizes is astounding..”, chuckled another.

“Hey, clod twerp! ‘Sup man!”, snickered a third.

 

Mortal Guard Anderson flushed furiously and turned around to mouth off his fellow guards when another voice was heard, and this one did not laugh, nor snicker. In this voice, there was a definitive, commanding rumble.

 

“Please invite Miss Biberbell, the fey-folk liaison, if you will, Mr. Anderson.”, the rumbling voice said.

“Liaison Biberbell, this way please.”, the young guard, Anderson, said politely, though he was very much flushed.

“Well. At least you are acceptably behaved.”, sniffed Biberbell. “Hence I shall apologize for my impromptu reaction. You may call upon me for one favor that is within my ability to attain or accomplish.”

“There really isn’t any need, Liaison Biberbell. I made a grab for you, and that was very rude of me. I would think what I did and got in return, are fully justified.”, Anderson mumbled.

Biberbell stared at the young man for a moment and amended that perhaps not all of these Mortals were lummoxes after all.

She flew closer to him and with a patronizing tone, she said, “Give me your hand!”

“Uhhmm..”, the young man hesitated. “Am I going to get it back?”

“We fey rarely give without taking, but never take without giving!”, she sniffed. “Give me your hand, boy!”

Resigned to his predicament, young Anderson opened his hand and showed the tiny sprite his palm.

Biberbell carefully placed a red bug with white spots into his palm.

“Uhhmm.. a ladybug?”, he said a bit confused.

“Yes. That’s what you Mortals call it. Keep it safe and feed it greens and your home will always be free of infectious pests and always be warded from deploring emotions..”, she squeaked.

“Ow. Wow! Thank you. My sister will love this. It will be good to see her smile again!”, Anderson’s face lit with elation as he stepped aside and let the tiny fey in.

 

All the other guards crowded around the young man and stared at the tiny ladybug with undisguised wonder, as it crawled along the fate-lines etched in the palm.

 

Biberbell swooped into the office, careful never to get anywhere near all the iron racks holding all the long, iron spears and armors and shields and all sorts of other iron things, and came into a, relatively, much smaller office, where two, very large Mortals, one sitting behind a desk, another standing across him and on the other side of the same desk. There was a third thing in the office who was possibly the only one who wasn’t a Mortal. Biberbell scowled, for she knew what this one was; one of them pretty she-demons, and the reason why all the little fey-folk were in this town!

“Liaison Biberbell. We are glad to see you here.”, said one of the large men. The one sitting behind the desk. “May I offer you some refreshments, perhaps? We have—”

“—I am sorry Sir Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, but your Mortal beverages are not suited for my taste—”

“—Sugar Cane Juice—”

“—GIMME!”, Biberbell piped!

 

Without cracking a smile, Standorin pulled open a drawer in his desk, using just two fingers, he carefully pulled out a very, very tiny and delicate glass cup, and from a relatively small bottle, he counted a drop or three in the cup and pushed it across the table with the care only a midwife would show during a delivery!

Biberbell swooped down, not unlike a hawk would on a fat, juicy rabbit, grabbed the cup, and drank its content with alarming lust.

 

“What will I owe you for another, Sir Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart?”, she asked eagerly.

 

Standorin wordlessly poured her another.

Biberbell topped that one as well, then stared at the sheriff with a flushed face, a silly grin, and slightly off eyes, then squinted at the tall, non-Mortal she-demons standing behind him, then back at the sheriff.

 

“You, Sir, sure know how to treat the women around you!”, she said, her voice happily slurred..

..then toppled over and dropped, face down, on the desk!

 

There was a moment of awkward silence and Constance sighed.

 

“And this is why you should always bargain with the fey-folk, sir.”, she said with an amused voice, mixed with resignation.

Standorin stared at the tiny thing snoring on his desk!

“Well..”, he said. “That went well..”

 

The other large man snorted.

The sheriff scowled at him.

 

“This is not a laughing matter, boy. And it certainly isn’t funny.”, he growled.

“I am sorry, father. But it sure looked that way from here.”, Udoorin chuckled, though he seemed somewhat tired too. “How distilled is the juice in that bottle?”

“I don’t know. I asked for the best the innkeeper had to offer when I went to buy it. I wasn’t going to serve some cheap snot to the fey!”, Standorin rumbled.

Constance sighed again.

“What?”, he asked.

“The best would mean he gave you ‘pure’ sugar cane juice, sir.”, she said.

“Yes, so?”

“You didn’t so much as make our little liaison, here, roaring drunk, you made her comatose..”, she replied, stifling a laugh.

“Ow..”, Standorin said with a flushed face. “Well, what do we do now?”

“Mix some clear rainwater into the bottle. A spoon for spoon ratio should suffice.”, she said smiling.

“No, I mean, about her!”, the sheriff fumed.

“Ahh.. Do you perhaps have any rosemint tea at hand?”, she inquired.

“Rosemint, what? I am sorry Liaison Constance. I don’t even know what that is. I only drink coffee.”, he scowled.

Constance sighed once more.

“Some water and a bit of cotton, then?”

“We have water and lots of cotton and bandages.”, he said and from the same drawer, he pulled a steel canteen and rolls of bandages and a linen pouch full of cotton and put them on the desk.

“And a box, please. About wee big..”, she said, pointing at the sleeping little sprite.

Standorin frowned, took one of the parchment docks on his desk, dumped its content, and gave that to the tall half-born girl.

Constance placed the parchment dock on the desk and carefully lined it with one of the rolls of bandages, then padded it with cotton. Then she took the canteen, tried to pull open the cap.. but failed. She looked down at Standorin meaningfully.

“Must you plug every bottle and every jar so tightly? Is there some manly code about it that I am not aware of?”, she said with a frown.

Udoorin barely avoided a snort.

His father gave him a searing glare, wordlessly took the canteen, with an easy twist, pulled the cap off, and handed it back to her.

The tall, alluring girl parted a bit more of the cotton, and wet it with the water from the canteen, then dripped a careful drop or two on the sleeping little sprite.

“What! No! I didn’t do it!”, Biberbell yelped as she sat up like she was stung!

“Biberbell. You came here for a reason. What was it?”, Constance asked hastily.

“What?”, spluttered the tiny sprite. “I am on an important mission, that’s what! She is coming! The Ritual Guardian is coming very soon and wants preparations made to accept Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig of Oger’s Foot immediately! They will arrive at the Blooming Tree at noon! I was also told—”

That’s as far as she got before she fell back, curled into a tiny, sparkling ball, and started to snore!

 

Constance reached down and very gently, she scooped up the tiny thing and placed her in the cotton-filled parchment dock. Then she picked up the dock and put it on one of the higher filing drawers, and out of sight.

 

“She should be safe there. Have one of the windows slightly ajar so she doesn’t feel trapped and panic when she wakes up.”, she said kindly.

“Noon, huh?”, growled Standorin. “It is bloody noon, and we are supposed to prepare to entertain the chieftain of the ogres? This is going to be one wretched day, this will. I am sure of it!”

“Your scowl is impressive, sir. But please do not use it on the chieftain. She represents at least five thousand of her kind. A like amount if she calls more from the Rook Mountains, should you offend her. If such an unfortunate friction occurs, I fear you will lose more than half the forces you have here, including the elves, before you subdue her and her kin.”, she said. Then added, “And please do not test her as you tested me upon my arrival.”

“You are never going to let that go, are you, Liaison Constance? I did say I was sorry. Took you out to dinner, even, to make up for my blunder.”, Standorin said with a flustered face.

 

Udoorin coughed.

 

“I never held your faults against you, sir. But this is the part where I do my job, as a liaison, and advice. And you did not take me out to dinner as part of your apology. You took me out on a date.”, she replied calmly.

 

Udoorin coughed again.

 

“Sorry.”, he said with a grin. “Still recuperating from my wounds. There are bound to be a cough or six!”

Standorin scowled some more.

“Come, dear, sir. I believe we have a chieftain to entertain.”, Constance smiled warmly at him. “I think a score or so of your men should suffice as an entourage and impress upon her just how seriously you take her, which you should. Young Inshala spoke quite highly of her, and one should never dismiss that girl’s wisdom.”

✱ ✱ ✱

Someone coughed from the other side of the door and Lilly Venom snapped open her eyes. She gave a very quick glance around to absorb her surrounding, made sure she was alone, looked down to see there were a pair of very old, very sharp, nearly shortsword size daggers in both her hands. One might even call them ancient. She wondered just exactly where her elder brother, Aager, had found these daggers. They were elegant, perfectly balanced, impressively sharp, and never seem to chip nor blunt no matter how hard she stabbed or slashed at something. Whatever else her brother was, he sure knew how to bribe a girl, apparently.

Then she looked further down and noted she was also pretty much naked.

 

Armed and naked!

 

Sounded like the title of one of those soppy romance books young men seemed to like.. or girls.. The kind you read under the table, or when you knew you were alone.

But then, Lilly had only recently discovered just how much she enjoyed sleeping in naked abandon and cuddled with her hubby, ‘Sir Agent Largo’, as the little girl, Inshala, called him, to his great dismay.

Said Sir Agent Largo certainly didn’t seem to mind her new sleeping arrangements, she thought smugly.

 

“Ahem..”, came the coughing voice, again.

 

‘D.D. Dexter..’, she thought. Her hubby’s son. He was a decent young man. A bit on the stuffy side, but decent.. Enough to share his home and his food with them until the war would end and they would get a place for themselves.

“I am sorry to wake you, Lilly.”, the young man said sincerely. “I know you have been up late, training rookies all night, and need your rest..”

‘That’s not all I did all night long, boy, and your father will concur!’, she smirked quietly.

“..but the good sheriff sent word; if you’d be kind enough to grab yourself and your hubby, picked a good spot, and made sure certain people behaved! —his exact words.”

 

Lilly Venom frowned.

What the ‘good’ sheriff had meant was, hide somewhere and kill anyone who steps out of line..

Lilly’s face soured.

Dammit!

She had decided to never do that kind of job when she had looked at Largo and figured she’d liked him. Enough to spend the rest of her life with him.. way back when they were sailing from the burning city of Arashkan to here.

 

Then she sighed.

Apparently, there was a price for everything worth it..

And this was hers to pay.

 

All of that, she didn’t mind. Not as much as she did when the ‘good’ sheriff also dragged her hubby into it and put his life on the line as well..

“When I said, spend the rest of my life as ‘partner in crime’, I was speaking metaphorically!”, she fumed.

 

Then she sighed again..

What was done, was done.

Some people earned their place peacefully.

Apparently, she was never going to earn hers quite that malleably, but as bloody as possible —just like any good Drashan girl would!

 

“Well. At least I am armed for the occasion.. if not quite clothed..”, she muttered.

Then she said, to the door, and the young man behind it;

 

“Be right there..”, she said, putting a deliberate, cheery tone to her voice as she put on her clothes and further armed herself. “..and thank you, Dexter.”

✱ ✱ ✱

What do you mean, I hope they let us in?”, squeaked the scruffy-looking little gnomic girl. “I thought you came through here, before.”

“I did.”, replied the bushy-haired hobbit sort of evasively as he stared at the distant ‘rock’, lost in the clouds; the sight of Gull’s Perch had lost nothing of its beauty in the last eighteen years. The little hobbit felt a pang in his heart as he stared at the majesty of the naturally formed, spirally column, some half-mile at its base and climbing all the way up to the vivid blue winter sky and disappeared in the mists.

Brom Bumblebrim ‘thought’ he heard the lone, sorrowful cry of the gigantic, pristine-white gull perched up at the very top of that rock, hence the name, Gull’s Perch, though he doubted anyone else knew why it was called so.

“Rest in peace, lovely Aremela Berrybush.”, he murmured quietly.

“Say, whot?”, asked the scruffy gnomic girl.

“Nothing, Tonic. And when I said, I came through here, I mean it in a more, generalized sense. I came as far as seeing the town from the edge of the forest, but never went in it.”, Brom admitted.

“You came all the way to the edge of this town and didn’t even bother to enter? Duuuude!”, Arcantonic Palecog asked incredulously.

“The time wasn’t ripe.”, shrugged the hobbit.

“Leave him alone, luv.”, said the very tall, very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, from behind, in a hushed voice as she followed the hobbits gaze and also stared at the beautiful sight of the Perch. “I believe there is a history here of personnel nature. And if Master Brom believes the time wasn’t ripe, it probably wasn’t.”

“What she said.”, said a fourth voice, soft and sort of throaty, or perhaps a bit hoarse. Like someone who’d been shouting in the dead of winter for too long; Cora Sleet came at the rear, her pouting scowl in place and her long, glossy white, braided hair playing tag behind her. “It’s a good thing those rangers we encountered recognized a tundra elf when they saw one.”, she huffed. “You would think we were something of a legend.”

“But my dear, Cora. You are a legend.. On a uniquely singular level.”, smiled Brom.

“Are you flattering me or punning me, hobbit! It’s hard to tell.”, scowled the tundra elf.

“I never pun anyone I can’t outrun, my dear girl.”, the hobbit said with a grin, even though she couldn’t see it.

“Huh. You can’t outrun anything!”, she replied, squinting at her bushy little friend.

“Ow.. Harsh, girl. Very harsh.”, snarked Tonic. “I mean, I felt it stab all the way from here. Did you feel that too, Brom? Bet you did..”

Brom lost his grin and sighed.

“Girl, you are killing me. I was flattering you. I mean, what is there not to flatter; you are a uniquely singular legend!”

“Now I know, you are punning me!”, Cora scowled. “But you managed to squeeze unique and legend in the same sentence, twice. So I shall let that one pass. Wow, that is a lot of refugees!”

 

The odd, unlikely four came out of the south end of Ritual Forest and saw the vast encampment of refugees stretching as far as the eye could see in either direction and it was very noisy. Brom saw troops marching up and down, children crying or running around, cooking fires everywhere with pots, pans, and cauldrons of whatever size was available, boiling soup and stew. Though there was a semblance of order, the refugees of Arashkan all looked lost, mournful, dejected, angry, and miserable.

 

Brom didn’t linger. He took the shortest route possible to the long, stone bridge stretching over Arashkan River and leading to Serenity Home town..

..and found himself facing a score or so armed-to-the-teeth dwarves, mounted on similarly armored, pony-sized goats, their horns shod with sharp, serrated steel.

And they seemed like they would not let anyone in without a goring them, or taking a sizeable bite!

“Lamark Earthbound at your service. Name and business, please?”, grunted the leading dwarf.

“Responding to an urgent summons, sir. We will reveal our identities when appropriate. Suffice to say, I represent Bowling Hills, the elf lady represents the tribes from the Great Northern Tundras and the other two ladies represent the Academy of Melshieve.”, replied Brom promptly as Tonic huddled right behind him while Cora glanced at the dwarves with professional coolness and Seressa stared at their goats with interest.

 

The dwarf stared down at him, then at the gnomic girl, then at the elf, and finally, and with quiet deliberation, at the tall girl in her scandalous pinks.

 

“Don’t I know you from somewhere? Are you, perchance, Master Brom Bumblebrim?”, the dwarf asked.

“Maybe.”, Brom cautioned.

“You don’t seem so sure..”, noted the dwarf.

“Depends on what will happen if I am, perchance, said Brom Bumblebrim..”, replied Brom.

The dwarf shrugged.

“If you were, you’d be the troublesome hobbit who tasked my mother, Margaret Madish, something vicious some years back and then killed my brother some few months ago.”, he said gruffly.

“Then I probably should not be said Master Brom Bumblebrim, seeing as how it might be detrimental to my health if I were.”, Brom replied, even more carefully. “But if said hobbit did, indeed, tasked your mother, Lady Margaret, he did so because he thought every inch of her was worthy of the task. And if he also killed your brother, said brother probably had it coming.”

Tonic snickered from behind.

“Yea, he totally had it coming.. The gnarled, slimy bastard!”

The dwarf snorted.

“Perchance you should enter, then.”, he said. “Go on. Report to Sheriff Standorin, though. All representatives must.”

 

And nudged his giant, angry-looking goat-mount out of the way.

 

“If I may, Master Lamark. Are Dridges Motherswolfie and the Tosser twins here? Or even Lillias Absentwhot, and Jeina Blond?.. Perchance?”, Brom asked.

“Perchance they are. Along with their mother and our grandfather, Argail Smitefast, who will very much want to meet the hobbit who tasked his dear and beloved daughter with something thus vicious!”, Lamark grinned at him. “Our dear sisters Lillias and Jeina are not, though. As per said vicious task, they are at the outpost east of Gull’s Perch.”, he added. Then he looked behind him and his grin turned to a polite, appreciative smile.

“Lovely pinks, by the way..”

✱ ✱ ✱

The large tent’s flaps parted and the large, young man entered without challenge. He looked around and noted the tent had been quite lavishly furnished and decorated; several backless elven chairs, a moderate-sized table, any number of cushions carelessly thrown around, two densely embroidered tapestries depicting some beautiful trees, deers, and birds, the ground was covered with soft, thick, rich maroon, very expensive carpets, many lanterns gave the interior of the tent, a certain, fairy glow, and several braziers radiated enough heat to warm the place to a comfortable level. The other end of the tent was partitioned off; the sleeping quarters of the Queen of Bari Na-ammen.

Udoorin pulled off his great helmet and tossed it near one of the heaps of cushions, undid the knots, and carelessly dropped his cape as he walked, pulled off both his massive battle-axes and stabbed them into the carpets without so much as taking notice..

 

And pulled apart the partition..

..to see something he’d never seen before but had wondered.

 

Alor’Nadien ne Feymist lay, sprawled on a bed of silks and velvets and in a black, gossamer gown, her slender back curved and her youthful, smooth hips rather calling..

..and she was totally out.

Udoorin stared down at the girl he’d loved the moment he had seen her, and of the beautiful sight, he notes the ugly bruises, the gauntness, the totally limp and exhausted arms and legs, and the, quiet but steady, wheezy quality in her soft breathing.

It broke his heart to see her like this.

She was a princess, dammit!

No.

She was a queen now. Declared unanimously, by the high elves, the moment the two of them had limped up the Arashkan River and to the banks of Serenity Home.

In his life, he had never seen such manic and holy joy in a crowd, let alone elves. In fear for her life, he had so wanted to just grab her and runoff, as tired and done-for as he’d been.

But with a few, curt commands, the much-elated elves had settled down, and several people had approached them; his father, Sheriff Standorin, in the lead, accompanied by a tall, pretty-looking young woman with horns, whom he would later learn was the Liaison Constance of the half-born, whatever that was, followed closely by a grim-looking Aager and a happily crying Inshala, and Lady Lenna who’d also very nearly crumbled down and cried, standing next to a very tall, blonde high elf in very eloquent armor. Then he had seen a grinning Thomas, holding Bremorel by the waist and Udoorin was like, “What the.. Thomas is so dead, now!”

And behind them were rows upon rows of joyously chorusing elven warriors, some fifteen thousand of them;

 

RISE ALOR’NADIEN NE!

RISE ALOR’NADIEN NE!

RISE ALOR’NADIEN NE!

 

At that very moment, Udoorin knew he wasn’t a hundred percent, but vaguely he recalled ‘Rise’ was elfish for ‘Queen’..

“About time, you snobs!”, he’d muttered to himself.

He couldn’t exactly remember the rest, though. Only someone was trying to take his Lorna away from him and he was trying to stop them.

It had been Lady Lenna, Lorna’s cousin, who had neared him and said, “Dear boy, it’s alright. Your queen needs care and rest. I shall see to her needs personally and be there at her side, always. You go with your father and Master Aager. You will need similar care, and rest. No one should see either of you drop. Come now, young Udoorin, let her go.. That’s it. Nice and easy.. There..”

 

Funny, how he had trusted his Lorna to no other than Anglenna, then..

Apparently, spilling sweat and blood and ultimately, life, did form that very special bond.

 

That was the extent of the surreal events, as far as he could remember. Something had happened.. sometime and somewhere between the Arashkan sewers and waking up in a very pretty valley. He was out of his armor and his shirt and his pants were all bloody and he felt a certain, sizzle in his heart, but he’d supposed that was to be expected. After all, he was told he had been very severely wounded and lost a lot of blood, and had very nearly died, but was saved by no other than his Lorna, which was no surprise.

 

His Lorna was awesome, like that..

 

Except there were two problems with that. One, he couldn’t remember who had told him of all the events leading up to his waking up in that pretty valley, other than remembering a rich, throaty, mature, and distinctly feminine voice, and two, Lorna had stopped talking to him. Well, not precisely stopped talking to him, but had been decidedly evasive of him. Sure, she’d kept hovering over him making sure he was not bleeding or anything, but it was clear, she herself was done in. She had been a rather slim girl, to begin with. Not skinny or anything, but comfortably slender and still have very beautiful curves.. When he had woken up in the valley, she seemed little different than how little Inshala seemed, right after she had buried the whole ruins of Themalsar down into the ground!

What had truly hit the young man was, she had stopped looking at him in the eyes.

And that was downright killing him.

Hence, armed to the teeth, he had marched right into the elf camp, expecting to run over anyone who’d be stupid enough to get in his way, had found an extraordinarily neat, military headquarters, teaming with high elves, and all of them had just.. stopped. It had been quite uncanny, really. Wherever he’d passed, they had all stopped, turned to him, put their right hands over their hearts, solemnly nodded at him, and murmured;

 

“Mere Estel Aranië..”

 

Udoorin knew very few elvish words. And the only one he thought he knew had been Aranië.. or rather, Ara.. or maybe it was Aran.. which meant noble, or maybe even king. He’d certainly hoped it meant noble. He was fine with noble.. Just not with a bloody king!

Hence, he’d nodded back at them, in a ‘noble’ sort of way, and came to the largest tent. And there he saw the same tall, blonde elf with his eloquent armor —damn that armor looked awesome— talking with Lady Lenna.

“I would like to see Lady Lorna.”, he’d asked and the blonde elf dude, his awesome armor, and Lady Lenna had just stared at him.

“Are you asking us, you want to enter the queen’s tent, young Udoorin, or are you merely being polite and informing us that you are going to see your queen?”, Lady Lenna had asked, staring directly into his eyes.

Udoorin had suddenly gotten the uneasy feeling that he was just about to be scored depending on the answer he would give. At least, that’s how Lady Lenna had made it sound like.

“Uhhmm.. I am telling you I want to see Lorna?”, he had sort of said.

“The tent is yours, young Udoorin. So is the Queen. She has thus declared it by having chosen you as her mate, just as you have made a similar declaration when the two of you announced your betrothment.”, Anglenna had told him with slight amusement. Then she’d half turned and introduced the blonde elf dude and his awesome armor, “Ow, this is Commander Armathelius Riverblade, the leader of the high elves, here, by the way. The two of you should have a sit-down and get to know one another some time.”

“Mere Estel Aranië..”, the elf had said to him and nodded, also placing his right hand on his heart.

‘Again, with the Aranië-thing!’, Udoorin had fumed but politely nodded at him and his armor, and murmured, “As soon as I am sure Lady Lorna is doing well. She has suffered a lot. I hope you understand.”

The blonde elf had merely nodded at him but hadn’t said anything.

“We will be out here. Do call us if you need anything.”, Lady Lenna had said politely.

 

Something was decidedly going on here, Udoorin had conceded.

 

“Lorna.”, he whispered, which sounded more like a hoarse rumble, really.

The gaunt form of Lorna didn’t even nudge and the only thing that gave away she had any life in her limp figure was the soft, wheezy sound of her breath and her skin had gained some of her ‘baby-tan’ color back.

 

“I am so sorry, Dorin.. I should have told you..”

 

“What?”, he said.

And noticed, she was still lights-all-out, asleep.

Udoorin frowned.

And it hit him.

 

She was thinking of leaving him!

 

That’s why she was sorry.

A terrible expression came over his face.

 

Not ugly.

Not furious.

Just plain, childish fear.

 

“If you want to leave me, I will not stand in your way and make it difficult for you. But I would rather you said it to my face. That way, I will get to see your eyes one last time.”, he said with a desperate voice, turned around, grabbed his helmet, his axes..

..and left.

 

“I apologize for the carpet.”

..he said to a rather surprised Lady Lenna and was out of the elven military camp. 

 

Udoorin felt drained.

Tired physically, mentally, and emotionally.

And he didn’t want to go back to town.

Not that he cared about the gossip or anything, that he had just been abandoned by the elven queen. To what he felt at the loss of his Lorna, that particular gossip meant so little.

Hence, he turned direction and headed north.

Perhaps getting lost in the woods for a few days, maybe even a week or two would help settle his storming heart.

 

Heart.

 

That’s when he felt the sizzle again.

It wasn’t painful, per se, but very, very, very bothersome.

Like something that truly reminded, just how short life could really be.

 

“You look troubled.”

He heard a voice say.

He was a tad surprised to see Bremorel grinning at him.

And no..

He wasn’t surprised to see Bremorel.

He was surprised to see her grinning, something quite rare, and whenever it was sighted, it meant something bad was about to happen, no matter how one looked at it!

“..like someone who swallowed a bug.”, she said, still grinning.

“Uhhmm.. I am not really in the mood, Bree.”, he mumbled.

“Well, I am, so all is fine.”

“Is Thomas still alive?”, he asked.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”, she asked back.

“I thought I saw him holding you, the day me and.. Lorna came back. I thought to myself, ‘Man, you are so dead, no one will be able to save you, now!'”

Bremorel laughed.

“I suppose that is true. No one can save him from me, indeed. Never got the chance to tell you. Thomas and I got married!”, she said happily.

 

Udoorin felt thunderstruck!

 

“When? How?”, he spluttered.

“About three and a half months ago, when you lot were in Arashkan.”, she smirked.

“Wow. Thomas finally managed to brave up? I am.. pleasantly surprised.”, the young man said.

“Well. He worked hard for it. Worked hard to fix me too. I can not undo the things I did before. But at least I can do new things. Smarter things. And he is there to back me up. We live in the temple. I go around helping and smiling now, which makes all the other people decide to give me a second chance. I know they don’t have to. But they are doing it anyway. So I am trying hard not to mess it up again.”, she said.

“I am happy for you, Bree. I really am. I know we didn’t start off well and it was all my stupidity. But even then, you chose to forgive me and be my friend. I knew you were cool. A bit hot-headed, but cool.”

“You did come and apologize to Laila and my uncle for what you did.”, Bremorel reminded him.

“Of course, I apologized. You would have too if you’d gotten a trashing from my father. Damn, he had a heavy hand. After he put you in that hole to cool off, he came home and gave me the speech.. and the beating of my life!”, Udoorin said with a horrified expression on his face. “I mean, it’s been years and I can still hear the ringing in my right ear!”

Bremorel laughed again.

Then as if remembering something she said, “Oh my, you have been out of touch for so long, you probably don’t have any updates. Here, let me fill you in; Lady returned first, but didn’t stay. She left for Scowling Hills to fix some family business there. Then these half-borns arrived.”

“Half-borns. I have heard that word, and I think that Liaison lady hanging around dad is a half-born.”, mused Udoorin.

“Yes, accept there are quite a bit more of them. I am not allowed to reveal their numbers or capabilities right now but they can be quite a handful when they want to. They are like our Merisoul. It would seem she helped them escape their masters so they all came here to help fight their former masters and the Orken. A few weeks back, that Anglenna elf girl came crashing into the town, and when I say, crashing, I mean it literally. The only problem with that was, according to Lady, you and Lorna were supposed to be with her, yet neither of you were. She was quite badly wounded and sick for weeks. Then Aager and Inshala returned from Durkahan and it seems they have also married!”

“Well. That one was only a matter of time. I am happy for him. And her. Neither had a happy life. Together, I think they can have one.”, Udoorin said thoughtfully.

“A few days after that, Lilly Venom came with a man named Largo who turned out to be D.D. Dexter’s father.”, she continued.

“I met him. When Anglenna, Lorna, and I were at Arashkan.”, Udoorin said. “I am happy they both survived.

“Ow, they survived alright. Enough to get married!”, Bremorel snickered.

“Is everyone getting married?”, the young man asked and that particular topic seemed to sting him all of a sudden.

The ranger lieutenant shrugged.

“I suppose, people are more honest with one another when imminent and total annihilation is at your door.”

“So it’s only Laila, Gnine, and Soul who haven’t returned?”, he asked.

Bremorel paused there.

“What is it, Bree? Have you heard something?”, Udoorin asked.

“I.. We don’t know exactly how, but the half-born somehow learned.. Merisoul is gone, Udoorin. They were.. devastated..”, she said mutely.

Udoorin staggered.

And stumbled.

“How? How did it happen?”, he asked.

“We really don’t know. They won’t even say ‘dead’.. only ‘gone’.. like she stopped existing..”

“She was nice to me. Always. She was strange, but her advice always helped, in some odd, unexplainable way.”

“Yea, she was weird. But to stop existing? She.. she didn’t deserve that.. All she wanted was some peace at heart..”

“Some peace at heart is more than most could find in a life time. Hello, young Udoorin, Ranger Lieutenant Songsteel.”, said a cultured, baritone voice, and the blonde elf dude and his awesome armor appeared out of the trees.

 

Udoorin was too at a loss to notice either, though.

 

True, Merisoul had always been strange. Or perhaps, off. Or even ‘out of this world’, sort of girl, but she’d had one of the purest hearts he had ever noticed. One could almost call it child-like.. Her means had been convoluted, to be sure, but the ends were not. And on top of everything, this particular news did not settle well with him at all.

 

“Back off, elf.”, growled Bremorel. “This is a private conversation between friends.”

“I apologize ranger lieutenant. But I believe Mere Estel Aranië overrules friendship. Sir Udoorin can not be left to roam alone in the woods. I am sure anyone you would care to ask would concur.”, Armathelius replied calmly.

Bremorel scowled at him.

“Well, I am already here, and this conversation does not need a third wheel.”, she growled.

“But it could use a fourth, perhaps? That way, it will less likely topple over and no one will get hurt..”, said another voice, and Anglenna also came into view.

Bremorel’s face turned black, now.

“I remember quite clearly just what I had said, should I want your opinion, banshee! You have been nothing but trouble from the moment you stepped foot into our town!”, she snarled at Anglenna.

“I believe the word you used was ‘bitch’, not ‘banshee’. But in all fairness, I have been more than trouble, and much before I set foot in this town, young Bremorel, so when I say, I had the worst intentions in mind for my cousin, Alor’Nadien ne, young Udoorin, here, your own cousin, Laila, the irritating little gnome, your half-demon freak, Merisoul, and just to be on the safe side, Master Aager, I mean it at its greatest extend. I am telling you this, so you do not delude yourself into believing your feelings for me is a simple matter of distaste on my part or some character flaw on yours.”, Anglenna replied calmly.

 

“I don’t believe that.”, Udoorin rumbled suddenly.

 

“Then you are as naive now as you were when we first met, young man.”, she said with a very distant voice.

“It is possible I am naive. But no. Not in this case.. You only thought you should have ill feelings for Lorna, but such feelings were introduced to you and impressed upon you.. You based your feeling for the rest of us on top of that; me for wanting Lorna’s love, even though I was not even aware she was a princess at the time, Laila, for having been given that sacred elf bow, Aager, because he is bloody dangerous, Merisoul, for always speaking uncanny truths and revealing what everyone actually felt, as opposed to what came out of their mouths, and Gnine, for being irritating, which is the only one you got right. The little midget is irritating! The pranks he pulled on me in the last six or eight years have made me want to toss him right into the Arashkan River, and that isn’t even a joke!”, Udoorin replied.

 

The three just stared at him.

 

“Who are you and what the Hell did you do with the real Udoorin?”, said Bremorel with an astonishing frown.

Anglenna tried a few attempts to object, just nothing came out!

Armathelius opted to stay his silence, though a bemused sort of smile played on his lips.

 

“Told you, you would fail, should you try and judged him at face value, cousin.”, came a soft, slightly wheezy voice, and with absolute silence, Alor’Nadien ne appeared.

“What are you doing out here and alone, Nadien ne?”, Anglenna said with a decidedly reproving tone.

“I have been out and alone long enough to want no more of it, cousin. I am here because I dreamt of my Dorin. In my dream, he had come and visited me, yet when I woke up, he wasn’t there. His cape, however, was.. I kindly asked our rangers to track you down, then leave. So they did. I believe I have some things to discuss with my mate-to-be if you would give us a few moments of privacy.”

Anglenna was about to object when Armathelius smashed one mailed fist on his armor and in his baritone voice, he said, “As my Queen wishes. We shall be but some acceptable yards away. Lady Brightleaf, if you will?”

Anglenna gave him a sour look but caved.

“I shall take my leave as well, then. Though I had actually come here to tell you something else. But since everyone I was charged to inform is already here, I might as well say it now.. Udoorin, Lorna, Lord Armathelius, and you, Anglenna, are invited to join a meeting at the mayor’s office, on the second toll, this afternoon. This shall be an important meeting so no skipping town, I am afraid. Everyone of note shall be there, and no platoons of guards, please. Only two for Lorna. Aager and I shall be guarding Udoorin.”

“What the.. I don’t require guards, Bree. And if you and Aager do it, there’ll be no end to that one!”, fumed Udoorin.

Shut up, Udoorin! Not like I wanted Aager, either, but my Thomas will be there representing the temple and the temple guardians..”

“Who else is coming?”, Udoorin asked slightly freaked.

“You, Lorna, Lord Armathelius, Anglenna, Master Argail Smitefast of the dwarves, his daughter, and possibly Lady Magella and their strategist, Dridges Motherswolfie. Davien and Moorat will speak for the rangers. Arthandos Yuleman will be there, naturally, as the host and speak for the town and the Arashkan refugees, the Ogress Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth from Oger’s Foot, some gnomes from Tinker Hills, your father, Sheriff Standorin, our Inshala as the Ritual Guardian and as the representative of all the druids, shamans and the witches, Perigren Ostlanna Temez and Liaison Constance will speak for the half-born. A Lady Alisia Hooman and our Moira from Durkahan, some wizards from Vodgar, militia generals from Palantine, bigwig knights from Koruxan, elves from Solace and Tranquil, two representatives from the Academy of Melshieve, some lord from Endless Watch, a barbarian princess from the Northern Tundras, if you can believe that, not to mention our Nimbletyne Tinkerdome and your mother, Lorna, Lady Nadina Graciousward will all be there, along with a representative from the king himself.. Hell, there will even be a bloody pirate from Drashan!.. The whole town has been put on the highest alert. So whatever issues you two got, you have less than an hour to fix it!”

 

A chocking silence fell, for the list of people, places, and representatives the ranger lieutenant had just dished out was not only impressive in number but it bespoke of the importance and the direness of their true predicament.

 

“My mother has returned, then?”, Lorna asked, sounding slightly relieved.

“Just this morning, I believe. I am not privy to the details, but I suspect the two of you will have time later to catch up.”, Bremorel replied. “Well, I am off for now, though Thomas did ask me to invite the two of you over for dinner sometime. Funny how he can think of all this stuff and I can’t!”

..and she took off with an impressive dash.

 

“My Queen. Mere Estel Aranië..”, Armathelius very politely nodded at the two of them, kindly held out a hand for Anglenna, who gave him another sour look, but followed him anyway, though quietly fuming.

 

Udoorin stood awkwardly, staring at, not his own feet, but at the feet of the girl, he’d loved the moment he’d set eyes on her as if to make sure she was still there.

 

“You forgot your cape, Dorin. Tis a tad cold to be wandering the woods in the dead of winter without a cape. You lost a lot of blood. You will freeze before know it.”, Lorna said, as she produced his cloak, neatly folded. Her voice weary, very tired, and had.. to Udoorin’s confused surprise, fear!

“That’s a new cape. How would you know it was mine?”, he asked, though to make conversation, really.

“I know my mate’s warmth. I know his scent..”, she replied softly but with a determined voice.

 

That simple phrasing very nearly concussed the young man and stung at the same time.

 

“Why would you say that, if you are planning on leaving me?”, he asked with the simplicity of a child.

“Leaving you?”, Lorna very nearly gasped.

“You have been avoiding me since I woke up in that valley. You have barely spoken to me. And you sure as Hell haven’t looked me in the eye once, since then and it’s killing me! I am fully aware of my standing and certainly not up to your elf standards. But I would rather you be honest with me to the end because we always have had that, at least.. Perhaps I did something when I was out. I do not know. You must tell me what it is that I have and is bothering you. How else can I work on it, if you don’t tell me? If you want to leave, I will not make it difficult for you. You are the Queen now, while I am just a country bumpkin.. I have never demanded anything from you. Only and always your good grace and the smile on your face. I was never quite as happy when you made me feel happy, as I felt content when I made you smile because every time you did, I was dancing in my head and shouting like an idiot, ‘Yes! She is smiling. She is happy.. I did that!'”

 

Lorna did not reply for the longest time.

When she did, her voice was anything but herself. It seethed and boiled and with no small amount of bitterness, she spoke.

 

“The Hell with the Queen and the Hell with the elves..”, she very nearly snarled.

 

Udoorin froze and stared at the gentle girl in amazement.

When Lorna spoke again, her voice was low and burning with her words now..

 

“None of my heritage nor my people were there when I needed them. They honor me now because they need me. And to get me, they must accept you. This they know because I left them no choice. This they know because I gave them no choice. I was chosen by the Spirit of High Woods. I never asked for it, but she chose me anyway. Yet they did nothing to nudge from their ways and look what that befell them. It cost them their lives. It cost them the ways they couldn’t be bothered to change. It cost them Bari Na-ammen and it cost them, High Woods. Never in my life have I acted on self-interest. I abandoned my only home just so they could have their merry ways. And now, all of that is gone, and I am done with their merry ways. Now they will have me with you, or they will all scatter and fade as homeless exiles. Whatever happens, or however this turns out, I am not leaving you, my Dorin. But should you want to leave, I shall not hinder you, either, and the line of Feymist will end with me, for I shall never take another and neither do I wish to birth the seeds of another.. The only man to have met me, and honestly desired me, without even knowing my heritage, is you. Though I gave you my consent and my freedom, you never took advantage of either and you never abused them. And you would think I would want to leave you? Know this, my Udoorin Shieldheart; if there is no you, there shall be no Queen.. I will lead these elves to victory or to annihilation. Either way, I shall not lead them any further than that. Not without you!”

 

Udoorin gulped. He’d always known or guessed, there was a seething, smoldering, and equally lonely volcano in the young, beautiful woman that he loved. But this was the first time she had thus openly let it all loose.

And deep down somewhere, something wild and exhilarating churned in him. He’d loved Lorna as the calm, gentle girl that she always had been. This burning and very nearly feral girl, however, he suddenly raved to see!

 

“Then look me in the eyes, and tell me why you are so sorry and what it was that you should have told me, Lorna. You said that when you were asleep when I was there in the tent.”, Udoorin said silently.

 

Lorna gasped in pure, unadulterated panic.. and fear.

Then her shoulders slumped and she spoke like someone who just submitted to her own execution..

 

“I.. can’t..”, she moaned, her face aflame and all she could do was stare down. “I did you a great wrong, my Dorin. And the shame I feel burns. You.. you have all the rights to reject me and never look at me again.”

“What..?”, Udoorin said somewhat surprised. “..that you stabbed me? Knew it the moment I saw your blade sticking out of my chest! It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Not something I would want to repeat, but it was funny at that moment.. Is this what all this is about?”

 

Alor’Nadien ne flinched..

..and broke down.

She just went limp and dropped on the frozen forest ground and wept with uncontrolled abandon..

 

..but Udoorin was there.

He caught her in his great arms held her by her slender neck and the small of her back and lifted her, and looked her full in the eyes.

Lorna went pale, her cherry-red lips trembling and tear-stricken eyes were very deep green now, as she turned away her face, trying desperately to avoid the young man’s burning eyes..

 

“You will look me in the eyes, Alor’Nadien ne, the chosen daughter of the Spirit of High Woods, the Queen of elves, and my mate-to-be. You will look me in the eyes and tell me what ails you. Through my sweat and blood, spilled and spent, and through the fires we walked, this much, I have earned..”, he said, and now, his rumbling voice was ablaze too.

“I.. I almost killed you, my love. I almost destroyed your beautiful heart. You gave it to me to care, to nurture and to nourish, and to safe keep and I betrayed you by shredding it! How can I look you in the eyes and expect you to love me?”, she spluttered.

“And just what did I do when we first met, my love? Did I not try to slay you?”, Udoorin growled.

“You did not know. And you held your swing. You stopped. I did not. I very nearly slew you!”, she moaned.

“Never have I ever told you your follies, my dearest Lorna. Never would I have thought the day would come that I would have to. Thus that dreary day has arrived, and I shall speak the truth of the day we met my love, and you shall listen, and you shall accept and you shall understand, also. When Inshala burst through that door, down in the stinking dungeons of Themalsar and went after Darly Dor, I was much vexed, for we had been trailing the bloody assassins that had burned our town, for weeks, yet we had found nothing. No trail to speak of, nor any clues as to why they had done, what they had done.. Nothing.. I charged, mindlessly into a room expecting answers, because I was stupid, and I was also a fool, for there were no answers to be had with axes! And I charged the first thing I saw, without understanding what I saw. You may think I had some great self-control and stopped, but you would be only so wrong. I stopped because I was dumbstruck by your beauty. I have never claimed to be a smart man and seeing as how the others have thus looked upon me, I couldn’t even blame them; I am just the dumb kid with the big axes and likes to chop things down to mincemeat! I stopped that moment, yes, but it had absolutely nothing to do with me, but everything to do with you. I stopped because I was so stupefied by the young woman that stood before me, her glaive raised, the way she’d spun, and the way her skirts scattered and with blazing, fearless green eyes, she came at us even though she was thus outnumbered. You saw an idiot charging at you, I saw a majestic creature with no fear. What I did see also, was that she held no scorn in her burning eyes. She came at us because she had to, and not because she held us in contempt. That is the only remarkable thing that I could claim wisdom on my part; the fact that I somehow noticed all that. You, on the other hand, were under the duress of the Draugr, when we were down in the sewers of Arashkan, seeking the old head quarters of the Thieves Guild. When Anglenna warned us about it, I figured she knew what she is talking about better than I would, since I never even heard of a Draugr before, let alone know what the bloody Hell it was. My only guess was, it was something big and ugly. So the moment I saw something particularly big and ugly coming at us, I just closed my eyes and started swinging at any sound that came at me. That’s why I told you to get behind me; to avoid accidents, though I didn’t think there would be any because you do not make sounds when you move, much like you do not shout or do silly battle cries the way I do. I just barge into fights and try to appear as large and threatening as possible to get everyone’s attention. You? You weave through the enemy. You could be fighting through a horde of Orken or a gaggle of undead or even be belly dancing and no one would know the difference, should they watch only you. What happened to you was unfortunate, and had I had my eyes open, either we would have killed one another because I would have been struck by the Draugr’s insanity as well, or I would have tried to disarm you and carry you away until you came around. The simple matter of fact is, none of us were prepared for the Draugr. We attacked it like we would attack a band of goblins and had our piece handed over to us. Now you can either accept this for the fact it is, or you may not and destroy everything we have thus build together and quite needlessly. But you should know, my love. I shall have a Lorna who looks me in the eyes and without shame, or I shall go to this war and against the coming Orken, and I surmise I shall make a very bloody mess, but I will not return. Because you are the reason I want to fight.. and live.”

 

Tears rolled down Lorna’s eyes as she reached up at the man and touched his scruffy beard with both her slender hands and held them there. She held his face and stared into his eyes like it was the last time.

 

“Dear child. You mustn’t.”, said a rich, throaty, and very mature, voice in the depths of her mind.

“I will never have secrets from him. He shall know and accept. Or he shall stay ignorant and there shall never be a Summer Lady from our line.”

“This was not our bargain, dear child.”

“Our bargain was that you heal his heart and save his life, and in return, you would take one of my daughters as the Summer Lady.”, she said fiercely.

The rich, throaty voice sighed.

“Mortals.. Very well, child. But should you speak the truth and he departs, what then? I have fixed his heart and saved his life but there shall be a bargain unfulfilled.”

“You may take mine, as I offered it to you for his in the first place, for there will have been nothing else for me to give. I will never wed, nor bed another man.”

“Dear child. Again and again, I have thus told you; I may not take a Mortal’s life who has never done me wrong.”

“Should he depart, I will never be able to pay you my end of the bargain, Mother Titania. That is a wrong done to you..”

The rich, throaty voice sighed again.. and was gone.

 

“I bargained with the Summer Queen.”, Lorna whispered, staring into his eyes, and still holding his face in her hands.

“I do not know this Summer Queen person. But for the sake of argument, let’s say I do.”, Udoorin rumbled with a frown. “What did you bargain?”

“I did not wound you, my Dorin.”, she said as she started crying. “In my insanity, I stabbed you through the heart. Neither my cousin nor I could have saved you. So my cousin sent me and you to Serenity Home. But for some reason, we missed our destination and ended up in Gull’s Perch. That is the Summer Queen’s sacred valley. She put you into stasis and offered me a choice. To save your life for something in return..”

Udoorin’s frown deepened.

“And what did she want from you?”

“Life for life.”, she said with a moan. “I begged her to take mine for yours, but she said she couldn’t. Instead, she would take one of our daughters.”

 

The young man froze.

 

“But.. we do not have any daughters.”, he blurted.

“We.. we will.. should we wed..”

“Let.. let me get this straight. She demanded one of our unborn daughters for my life? What kind of a demented bargain is that?”, he suddenly blared.

“Dorin..”, the girl in his arms said weakly.

“How could she even know we would have daughters? We aren’t even wed yet. I mean, we could have sons.. What will happen then? Are we going to try and try until we have a daughter? Or she wants a red-head and we would end up making a dozen or two until we get one!”

“Dorin.. please..”, she pleaded.

“What? Is she going to take her pick from the ‘litter’? Who does that? I mean, we are not even wed and people are making bids on our unborn children already?”

“D.. Dorin.. S.. Stop..”, she begged.

“Let’s say one of us falls in the coming battle. What will happen then? She is going to wait until one of us weds then demand from that lot? If she is, she’s going to go home quite empty-handed because I am going to marry you, or I will stay alone.”, Udoorin blazed.

“If I fall, you are free.. of me and the bargain.. Should you fall.. she will have the right to mine..”, replied Lorna quietly.

 

Udoorin just stared at her.

 

“The Hell, she will!”, he said fiercely.

“Dorin. Please. If you want to know just who the Summer Queen is, you should ask dear Inshala. After all, she serves the Summer Queen.”, Lorna said mutely. “The bargain, however, is done. I.. I had to save you, Dorin. I had to. This you must know. A lonely life, I could bear. A lonely life without you.. I could not. If.. if you want to leave, I will understand. I was told not to tell you of this bargain, but I did it anyway because I can not have secrets from you.”

 

Udoorin fumes.

 

“What is she going to do with our daughter?”

“She will make her the Summer Lady.”, Lorna replied.

“What the..”, the young man spluttered.

“You really should have a sit down with our Inshala as she is the best equipped to tell you all about the Summer Queen, the Winter Queen, and the Ladies, and the Courts.”

“Why does she need a Lady, anyway? Is she short on girls in this court of hers? Perhaps I should go and have a sit down with this Queen, myself!”, Udoorin sizzled.

 

Lorna just stared at him.

 

“Why don’t we go and speak with Inshala now. Since she serves this Summer Queen, she should be able to arrange a meet, right? Then I can tell it to her face, child exchange is not acceptable. This is ridiculous. Perhaps I can challenge her for a duel to free you and our daughter from this bargain. I am sure a queen would have a knight or two to fight in her steed?”

 

Lorna sighed.

But when Udoorin grinned at her, she wiped her eyes and squinted at him suspiciously.

 

“You.. you are punning me..”, she blurted.

“Punning you? No, love. Punning the mess we put ourselves? Yes. Of course, I know who the Summer Queen is, Lorna. We are practically neighbors with Her and the Gull’s Perch. But we do not go there because the dryads there can get frisky at times. Not that it matters, because the whole valley was cordoned off when I was around two or so, I think, due to some dwarves getting too greedy and trying to mine there. It was perhaps the only time I remember my mother getting riled about anything. She died shortly after that event. What’s done is done, Lorna. I thank you for saving my life. But not because I believe my life was all that worth saving, but because you think I am worth you, and because of you, I will get to see you every day of my life. Does that make me selfish? Perhaps. But I do not care. I do not know what being the Summer Lady entails. All I know is she gets to become a noble in her court. She will get to see many places and experience things no elf or human can. And do great deeds as well. She will have a very full filling, and hopefully, a happy life. I do not know my daughter yet. But I am already happy for her, and would very much like to meet her sometime. Will you marry me?”

 

The question came seamless and so suddenly, Lorna was caught totally off guard. It took a long moment to go over all the things the young man had said until she got to the end.

 

“You.. you do not blame and hate me for my choice?”, she blurted.

“Lorna.”, Udoorin said seriously. “I hate the reasons we ended up in such a mess. But I do not hate you. You saved my life and bought me the days and years to be with you. You made my daughter the Summer Lady. What’s more, you made me realize, our days are short and numbered, and I do not want another gone without you. I have little in the way of fortune. What I do have, however, is you. Will you marry me?”

“Like, right now?”, she spluttered.

“Like, right now.”,  he said, stood up straight and called, “Lord Armathelius and Lady Lenna, if you will, please?”

 

After a moment of startled silence, Anglenna, Armathelius, and his awesome armor approached.

 

“Should a couple wish to wed, how many witnesses are required among the elves?”, the young man asked.

Anglenna pursed her lips before answering.

“It varies.”, she said. “But King’s Law demands and requires only two.”

“Alright.”, Udoorin said with a frown. “Lady Lenna? Lord Armathelius? Will the two of you act as witnesses, then?”

“I would be happy to, young man.”, Anglenna smiled.

“I suppose I will have no choice but to agree.”, replied Armathelius with a small smile of his own.

“Well, then.”, he said, turned to Lorna, and knelt.

“No. Please. No kneeling. You will be my mate and I want no doubts that you are my equal.”, she begged.

“Very well.”, Udoorin said a bit relieved, and got back up, took a deep breath, and rumbled, “Lady Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, daughter of Nadine Graciousward and Grandaleren Feymist. Will you be my wife, my life-long friend, my partner, my love, my comrade in arms, and my breath?”

“I will.”, Lorna replied, her face bright red, somewhat dazed, and with the first honest smile since the destruction of Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen. “And will you, Udoorin Shieldheart, son of Limnia Karya and Standorin Shieldheart, be my husband, my life-long friend, my partner, my love, my comrade in arms, and my breath?”

“I will.”, Udoorin said, giving her a small smile of his own. “On a throne, or on cold ground..”

“I, Armathelius Riverblade, son of Sylvenessa Brightgrove and Methalier Riverblade, have so witnessed.”, the young elf commander said solemnly.

“And I, Anglenna Brightleaf, daughter of Selvius Brightleaf and niece to Selendenien Sindarin, have so witnessed.”, Anglenna said. “Will you exchange rings now, or perhaps hold that for a more, public wedding?”

“Ow, right, rings..”, Udoorin smacked his forehead. “I knew I had forgotten something.”

He pulled a ring from his own hand, a not too ornate but gold with green specks, and offered it to Lorna, while she pulled a ring from one of her own fingers and offered that to him.

The rings they exchanged, fit the other like it was made for them.

 

Anglenna sighed.

 

“I can’t believe this.. Did you two actually just switch combat rings?”

“Well, I gave her my Ring of Regeneration. She should feel better in an hour or two.”, grinned Udoorin.

“I have him my Ring of Spell Storing.”, smiled Lorna.

“What? Why?”, asked the young man a bit surprised. “Give me something else. You love that ring and what do I know about spells?”

“Yes, I love that ring, my Dorin. Which is why I gave it to you. And you will not need to know much about spells, either. You will have to have it filled should you expend the ones in it, though.”, she replied.

“What’s it got in it right now?”, Udoorin asked with a curious and enthusiastic grin on his face.

“Will tell you later.”, she smiled.

“Right.”, agreed, the young man. “I believe we should head out for the meeting? Elves, as I recall, do not like tardiness. And I do not wish a trashing from the sheriff.. again.. Lady Lenna, Lord Armathelius. Thank you both for being patient with us. If you would lead the way?”

Armathelius banged his steel fist again, nodded at him, then at Lorna, and murmured, “Lady Lenna, please allow me to escort you.”

 

Udoorin waited for a thirty count before he swiped Lorna off her feet and with a very refrained enthusiasm, he hugged her.

 

“Thank you.”, he said simply, staring into her eyes. “I.. I would very much like to..”

“..kiss me, now!”, finished Lorna, staring back into his eyes.

✱ ✱ ✱

What a lovely tree. Cherry. And in bloom.”, rumbled the nearly fourteen-foot tall monstrosity as she ducked out of the gaping hole that had just parted in the trunk of the beautiful, blooming cherry tree.

“Did you do this?”, she asked the disproportionately ‘tiny’ girl, as she peered up the tender pink flowers fluffing everywhere.

“Yes, Mother Ganiste.”, smiled Inshala, as she reached out to help the giant ogress up.

“What are you doing, daughter? Are you giving me a hand?”, she asked with a scowl, though there was an amused light in her very scary eyes.

“It was the polite thing to do, Mother.”, Inshala replied seriously.

“Polite, pointless, fruitless, and quite futile, my daughter.”, she rumbled.

“Futile?”, the tiny girl asked.

“That you would think me old and feeble and I would require help to get up, girl!”

“Loved ones can help without offending those we love and care, Mother Ganiste.”, Inshala said with a little smile.

“I see you have already been afflicted with the foolishness of the humans around you.”, she scowled.

“How so, Mother?”

“You now have a smart mouth!”

 

A funny noise escaped the little girl; her way of a snort.

 

“And punning your elders too, now. Should you roll your eyes at me, as well, I shall spank you, little one, Ritual Guardian or not.”, Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig said with vehemence, though the glitter in her eyes, as creepy as it was, said otherwise. In secret, she was very pleased to see her tiny ‘daughter’, happy and full of life. It made her want to pocket her and keep her there. A something she should have done many years ago, but a tad too late now. The little girl she loved as her daughter had grown. She even had a hubby now.

Even if said hubby was the Winter Knight of Mab.

 

Chieftain Grulganiste shuddered.

 

Mab?.. Really, now, girl.. I knew you were a wonder for much greatness, but Mab? MAB?

 

Grulganiste growled and rose and stared around.

 

“What is this hideous place, my daughter? It stinks of humans and fear.”, she rumbled.

“Yes, it smells a bit because they are working day and night for the coming war. And they fear for their loved ones.”, Inshala replied solemnly. “Their fear is well placed for the Orken are a fierce foe.”

 

Grulganiste grunted and looked around.

 

“And this?”, she asked, pointing at the tiny, single-room house.

“My home, Mother Ganiste.”, replied happily.

“This?”, Grulganiste asked incredulously. “Is this what the great Winter Knight has to offer to my daughter? I can walk right over it! I put my chicken-birds in sheds bigger than this!”

“Please, Mother. Do not mock the warmness of my home. This is where my Aager and I belong.”, she pleaded with a pout. “We eat here, we talk here, we sleep here, and here, we even dance and play silly games. Here, he can look at me as he pleases. Here, he spoon-feeds me when I am too tired to feed myself. Here, I can hug him as it pleases me. Here, only the two of us are.”

“I.. see..”, Mother Ganiste replied, eyeing her tiny little daughter. “Perhaps I spoke in haste. Let me have a look into the warmness of your home.”

 

Inshala smiled.

It was a beautiful, happy smile.

An accomplished smile.

A smile that said;

Something wonderful has happened here..

I brought peace to a troubled soul.

I did that!

 

Inshala opened the door to her home and wide.

“Please come in, Mother Ganiste. You shall always be welcome in my home.”, she said.

 

Mother Ganiste looked down at the tiny house, then at the even tinier door, quite dubiously, as she mentally measured her head, her very broad and very much muscled shoulders, and her powerful buttocks, came to the obvious, impossible conclusion.

Then she noted the happy and the quite earnest face of her tiny daughter..

..and sighed.

An ogress she may be.

But she wasn’t a heartless beast to break the heart of her beloved daughter. Certainly not when she put on that eager face!

Bowing to her predicament, and bowing quite literally, she stuck her head into the door as she berated herself just how silly she must look from behind, as she pushed..

 

..and promptly got stuck!

 

“Oops!”, exclaimed Inshala. “Are.. are you alright, Mother?”

Mother Ganiste said many things at that point. A series of choice swear words in ogre, in orcish, and in dwarfish as well, because when it came to cussing, no other race beat the dwarves, and it was possible that had been the only reason she had learned it, to begin with. She struggled, moving her massive shoulders sideways, turned the other way, and tried some more, and when that didn’t work, she even tried to cork her way in!

 

“Uhhmm.. what’s going on, here?”, asked a struggling Guard Anderson as he stared at the greatest ass he had ever seen, and would likely ever see, in his entire life!

 

Chieftain Grulganiste froze..

 

..and be damned with silly daughters, silly humans, and their silly homes, and with the silly world in general!

With a great snarl, she heaved and pulled herself out..

..along with the door.. and half the wall!

Inshala yelped and ran out, as the roof caved in, and the house collapsed in on itself!

 

“Well..”, grunted Grulganiste, her eyes still ablaze. “..that went well..”

 

Then she looked down at her daughter, who just stood there, her tiny hands, her diminutive face, her long, dark hair, and pretty much the rest of her was covered in dust, as she stared at the wreckage of, what was just a few mere moments ago, had been her home.

 

Her slim shoulders drooped, a pinkish-red blush spread around the ovals of her eyes and her cheeks as large tears streaked down and around her trembling, and pouting little mouth.

 

It was hard to say what crossed the awful face of Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth at that very moment as she held the door frame and parts of the wall still hanging around her neck, and stared at her devastated little daughter.

✱ ✱ ✱

There were guards everywhere. The level of security had been quite apparent the moment they had come out of the Ritual Forest when groups of elf, half-elf, and human rangers with no-nonsense expressions skimmed past them. As they came closer to the town, they noted the two platoons of dwarven warriors armed to the teeth, sitting on armored, rather angry-looking, almost horse-sized goats with brutal-looking iron-shod horns stationed at the north end of the stone bridge. There were also large groups of Arashkan militia and regulars roaming both around the refugee camps and the northern banks of the Arashkan River. Udoorin also noted the strange runes and glyphs etched on the outer walls of the town and at even intervals. And when he looked up, he saw odd flocks of birds circling the town from high above.

One such bird, a tiny little baby owl, darted down and settled on Lorna’s shoulder and immediately started pecking and cleaning her fluffy, soft feathers.

Udoorin gave Lorna, who was smiling impishly, and the extraordinarily cute baby owl a side-long glance, then blurted, “Inshala?”

“Whoo?”, replied the baby owl.

“Inshala..”, repeated the burly young man. “Our Inshala..”

“Whoo..”, said the baby owl, staring up at him with large, endearing eyes.

“Ow. Now you are just making fun of me..”, he said smiling down at the owl.

Lorna laughed and the owl hopped down and spun once around herself, twice, and on the third, the baby owl was gone and the skinny little girl with her curving horns appeared.. also laughing.

Inshala jumped the large young man and hugged him, then jumped Lorna and hugged her as well, then paused, ogling at the two of them.

“When?”, she blurted!

“Uhhmm.. when what?”, asked Udoorin.

“When did you two—”, she began.

“Shhh.. not here, dear sister.”, Lorna said with a blush.

“How could you possibly know?”, asked Udoorin with an exasperated frown. “I mean, pretty much nobody knows.”

“Your scents!”, said the skinny little girl with a happy red face.

“Our scents?”, the young man stumbled.

“Yes. Yes. Your scents. Always before, they were separate. Yearning but distinct.”, explained Inshala joyously.

“Do I even want to know how that makes any sense?”, Udoorin mumbled.

“But now, your scents are together. Intertwined! And they have made a new scent. A happy scent. A scent full of new potentials!”, she blushed and seemed like she was about to burst with happiness. “Are you going to have babies? I love babies. They are so cute!”

Lorna also blushed.

Udoorin coughed.

“I can’t believe you can read all that from our scents. I mean, all you had to say was, we needed a bath..”, he murmured.

“Please don’t say anything to anyone, dear sister.”, Lorna pleaded. “This meeting is important and does not need any distractions. We shall declare it at an appropriate time.”

Inshala stared at her like she was asked not to cry when she’s just stepped on a bee, or worse, an iron bee —however silly that sounded!

 

“Lorna and Udoorin got married!”, she blurted in her mind.

“Eh? What? When?”, Aager’s surprised voice came.

“Speak later? Please, please, please don’t tell anyone..”, she begged.

 

“Ow, alright. I promise I won’t tell.. anyone else..”, she mumbled in a deploring voice.

 

“Okay.”, Udoorin said seriously as they walked over the stone bridge. “What’s the security protocols here?”, he asked.

“I have no idea what you just said, but my Aager will tell you some rules. He told them to me as well, but there were too many butchered words in it and I got lost!”, Inshala replied. “All I understood was, if anything happens, I am to go home and wait for him there, which he knows is not going to happen.”

“Butchered words?”, Lorna asked.

“Yes.”, Inshala replied with an exasperated tone. “It is when humans cut words in two or more. It seems like an infection. Even the half-born are using them now. Just the other day, I heard Liaison Constance call Sheriff Standorin as ‘Stan’..”

 

Udoorin froze.

 

“She called my father, Stan? Nobody calls my father, Stan. Only my mother used to call him that. And maybe the mayor. He would cave in any face who would call him, Stan!”, he said. “So they really are dating? I thought they were just putting a scene to make me uncomfortable.. Sort of a private joke.”

“I think they are. Dating, I mean.”, replied Inshala honestly. “Your father seems more, now, since he started dating her.”

“More? More what?”

“Just, more..”, Inshala replied, as if that explained everything.

 

Lorna smiled.

 

“I do not understand.”, Udoorin complained.

“I will explain it to you later, Dorin.”, she replied.

“Anglenna and the other elf, Armatus, I think his name was, will be attending to Lorna at all times, and should anything happen, they are to take her to the elf camp. My Aager and Bremorel are to stay with you, Udoorin, and take you to the Sheriff’s office where they will lock all the doors and windows. The dwarves will charge at anything that comes near the town, the rest of the elves and the Arashkan soldiers will go up to the defense wall, along with more dwarves and gnomes. The druids, the shamans, and the witches will help them. The rangers will be everywhere. The ogres will travel just north of town, and wait near Elder Hills, in case there is an attack from there..”, she said breathily.

“I am not getting locked up in a room!”, Udoorin fumed.

“I am not separating from my Dorin!”, Lorna flared.

“I was told you two might say silly things like that. My Aager told me to tell you that if you will not follow simple orders, then he will use the big stick on you again. He said you would know.”, Inshala said to the fuming young man. Then she turned to Lorna. “And Anglenna said, she would teleport you to the elf camp if she had to, and told me to remind you how her last teleport spell turned out! I told them that it wasn’t nice of them to say such things to them because they were both grown people who are much bigger than I am and that Udoorin is a smart man and would do what needs to be done, and Lorna was the best when it came to making calm and wise decisions.”

 

Udoorin scowled down at her while Lorna smiled in defeat.

 

“I believe we should give in, Dorin —gracefully. Our friends want what’s best for us, even if we might think otherwise. And disrupting current security is unwise. It would seem we are not part of the entourage, but part of the delegation.”

“I did say you were calm and wise.”, grinned Inshala.

“You are part of the guests too, aren’t you?”, Udoorin frowned.

“I am.”, admitted, the skinny little girl. “Hence the reason my Aager told me to go home if there was trouble and the reason I won’t.”

“How does that work, exactly?”, Udoorin asked, still scowling.

“The answer to that is quite elementary in its simplicity!”, she smiled smugly.

Udoorin cocked an eyebrow at her.

 

“My Aager will not hit me with a big stick!”, she said and took off.

 

A funny sort of noise escaped Lorna. Something that might even constitute a snort!

✱ ✱ ✱

Just out of curiosity..”, rumbled Udoorin as he walked up the stairs leading into the municipality building with Lorna in his arm. The mayor’s offices weren’t all that big, to begin with, but the base furniture, the bookshelves, the drawers, the filing cabinets, and the desks were all removed to make room for the self-same tables used during the celebrations upon the return of the heroes from Themalsar. “..what does Mere Estel Aranië, mean, and why is that Armathelius elf keeps calling me that?”

Lorna smiled, leaned into him, and whispered.

“It means, ‘the awaited hope of the kingdom.’, dear.”

 

Udoorin stared at her.

 

“You can’t be serious!”

 

“Elves may have habits that may appear odd and many others that may be faulty, but they do not toy when it comes to names.”, she said quietly.

“Couldn’t have picked something less ostentatious? Like, ‘He’s alright.’, perhaps?”, the young man asked with a rather disturbed expression on his face.

“I didn’t choose it, Dorin. The elves did. You came to us at a time that was clearly the end of Bari Na-ammen. As sad as it is to lose our beloved home, they finally understood what my mother had been trying to tell them for the past thirty years; that they had grown secluded, complacent, and become stagnant. Nature does not tolerate such qualities. Secluded becomes complacent, and complacent becomes stagnant. Eventually, stagnant rots and collapses to make room for ‘fresh’ and ‘new’ life and beginnings. The elves that are here could have gone to Solace, or even Tranquil. But they preferred to come here.. to humans because if there was going to be a kingdom for us again in High Woods, it had to have the things it pushed out and rejected, and let in friends..”, she said. “And friends mean, other races. What the humans in Serenity Home and the dwarves at Scowling Hills have done to sustain the Arashkan refugees was exceptional. That they treated us the same way and unbiased, considering how Bari Na-ammen treated strangers, has put us all to shame. And you, love, came out of this town. You fought against Themalsar, side by side, with the princess of Bari Na-ammen. You defended and protected her. You cared for her and honored her, and you brought her back to her people when they were leaderless. That, my dear Dorin, is the long-awaited hope for the new kingdom of elves.. We will have many wars to fight ahead of us. But we will also have a home to return to. And that home must have a leader. They insisted I lead. But I never wanted the job. Perhaps I am selfish. But that is the truth of it. When I declared Anglenna to take my place, I was not putting on a show. I was being honest. I really wanted her to take this burden off my shoulders. But after what my aunt did, they wouldn’t follow her. It is thanks to Lord Armathelius that they haven’t shown open hostility against her, or put her on trial while we were not here.”

“I’ll cave in any face that tries to show hostility against her, hold her in contempt, or try to put her on some trumped-up trial. None of those elves know the kind of Hell Lenna went through..”, Udoorin said grimly.

“That is rather nice of you to say, young man.”, Anglenna said from behind them. “It would seem my cousin chose her King well. The only person that wouldn’t judge me for my sins is a human that we wouldn’t have let step on Bari Na-ammen soil. Though I suspect the irony in that will be lost upon many.”

“We are who we are, Lady Lenna. But we can be who we choose to be.”, Udoorin said seriously. “You and my Queen are not so dissimilar. She was forced to be something. Yet she chose to be something else. You were forced to be something as well. Against all odds, you chose to be something else, too. Which makes both of you much greater than I could ever be; I wanted to be nothing, and likely would have been nothing, had it not been for the people around me. First Aager Fogstep and his unrelenting efforts to make something out of me, then my Lorna.. Her mere existence made me look at the world and see it about to burn and made me do something about that. And I would like to claim no small effort on your part, either. I am aware of how you have been secretly shadowing and protecting us without us even knowing. That is honor and loyalty in my book.”

Anglenna stared at the young man with an odd expression on her face.

Armathelius didn’t say anything, but a mirthful smile played around his lips.

“Wow, I haven’t been in this building for a while. The last time I came here, I got trashed by Mayor Arthandos Yuleman personally. It was the best trashing I had, and the only one I got a ‘Thank you, young man, you did a great job!’, at the end.”, Udoorin grinned.

“So you are the boy with the itchy sword hand that has been giving my boys and daughters trouble all these years. I would very much like to crush you!”, rumbled a bass voice and everyone stopped.

“Yes. That would be me, ma’am.”, they heard Sheriff Standorin from inside.

“Ma’am? Just which part of me did you think makes me a ma’am, boy?!”

“Merely being polite, Chieftain. We are all here for the same cause.”, the sheriff said.

 

Udoorin, Lorna, Anglenna, and Armathelius ran in to see Sheriff Standorin standing at ease, facing something..

..HUGE!

 

Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth made an average ogre look small. She had long, thickly braided strands of hair, untoned arms, torso, and legs, all impressively muscled, yet, no one could mistake her femininity and she was an evenly proportionate ‘woman’.. and she loomed over the sheriff with an awesome scowl on her face.

In a rather brutal way, Grulganiste was, indeed, a striking figure.

 

“No, boy. I am not here for your cause. I am here because my daughter, Inshala, asked me. I am here to make sure she stays safe. If it weren’t for her, I would have stayed in my hills, and watched you and yours butcher one another.”

“Lady Inshala has been kind to us. And we honor her for it. She fights for us because this is her forest and this is her home. We all fight for the people we care about, and we are all here to defend our homes, Chieftain. And your home is also in that forest.”, Standorin replied kindly. “We have had minimal quarrels with your sons and daughters and have left you alone.”

“You speak arrogantly, boy. You fail to recognize this by admitting to have ‘left us alone’. Oger’s Foot is ours. It was ours before this town. And it is not still there because you ‘left us alone’ and neither did you do us any favors by claiming that you did. I am quite disappointed in you and hope you do not look upon my daughter with the same narrow perspective. The woodsmen of Dimwoods are alive, today, only because old Cathber asked me not to avenge what they did to her. They thought they had the right to my daughter’s life. They beat her, stoned her, caged her, and whipped her..”

“Mother Ganiste.. please.. there is no need for this. It’s all in the past..”, Inshala said with a brittle face, as she stood next to her.

“No, my daughter. It is not. I have seen the scars on your back, and the scars in your heart. Closing your eyes to the arrogance of men is foolish. They think us brutish and call us savages. But then, we are brutish as we are savages, for we are ogres. Tell me, daughter of my father, what is their excuse?”, she growled at her, then to the sheriff, she said, “Much like them, who thought they had the right to my beloved daughter’s life, you think you have the right to ours when you say you ‘left us alone’.. I find the similarity of your stance with those ignorant, superstitious, and savage woodsmen and you, sheriff of this town, disturbing.”, she said balefully.

“Chieftain Grulganiste—”, Liaison Constance stepped in.

“—Whatever gave you the idea I was talking to you, demon? Do not cast your words at me and think you know better. I have made an agreement with my daughter, the Ritual Guardian, to come here in peace, and to help her fight the Orken. Said peace, however, does not include your kind. Should I see you or your kin anywhere near my ogres, I will rip your skinny arms and your pretty legs off, and I shall feel content about it!”

 

A moment of choking silence settled in the room as the air grew intense.

 

“I apologize, Chieftain.”, Standorin said finally, though very much offended. “For my choice of words, but not for my arrogance. I am the culmination of my life and the things I have seen, lived, and suffered and they are unlikely to change. We may not correct our faults, but our children might get that chance. For that to happen, they must live. I offer little more than that; a chance for both our sons and daughters to live in peace. This may happen, or it may not. That will be up to them. Should the Orken do what they intend to do, however, even that small chance of change will be gone because all of us will be dead. As for our young Inshala, she will be our treasure, always. You have seen what I did when I came to your hills. Should anyone mistreat her, they will get more of the same.”

 

Grulganiste glared down at the sheriff for a long moment, then gave a nightmarish grin.

 

“I shall then hold you to your word, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Now.. I have seen the sad condition of the house my daughter lives in..”, she said with disdain.

“Mo.. mother, please.. My house is fine —was fine! My Aager and I shall rebuild it the way it was. We liked it the way it was..”, Inshala blubbered, her face burning bright red.

“Hush, girl. This is grown-ups talking.”, Grulganiste told her briskly. Then she turned to the sheriff. “Two of my ogres will be arriving from the forest. They will have white flag poles on their backs and some sacks with them. I will be unhappy if they were hindered. You will allow them here and to my daughter’s sad home.”

“What will they be bringing, if I may be so bold as to ask?”, Standorin inquired politely.

“A bit of this, and a bit of that..”, the giant ogress replied evasively.

 

Standorin cocked an eyebrow.

Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth sighed.

 

“They hold my daughter’s dowries, young man. Something that is truly none of your business!”, she fumed.

Standorin coughed.

“Mo..mother? I don’t have any dowry..”, Inshala said, her face burning even brighter.

“No. You don’t, because you are a foolish little girl, and seeing as how that sour old Cathber lived in that pathetic little chicken shed he called home, I didn’t think he would have thought about dowries. Hence, I have been preparing it since the day he first brought you to me.”, Grulganiste said grimly.

Standorin’s mouth curved at the corner.

“You are a very cunning woman, Chieftain Grulganiste. Even though everything you said about my arrogance was true, all you wanted was a free pass for your ogres to the town! All you had to do was ask, you know. I may have an itchy hand with my sword, but I am not totally unreasonable.”, he said with a poorly hidden grin.

Grulganiste scowled at him.

“I am the chieftain of Oger’s Foot, boy. I do not ask. I demand.. And the things I said were correct and had to be said. Are we at an agreement, sheriff of Serenity Home, or shall we break spoons?”

Standorin didn’t know what ‘breaking spoons’ meant, but it wasn’t hard to guess.

“Chieftain Grulganiste, I shall send two rangers to escort your ogres to Lady Inshala’s house. I will have to ask your ogres to stay in her garden until the end of the meeting, though. This meeting will call upon many people of many races and places. There is no need to risk frictions.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about them, young man, for they will have their work cut out for them. And they better have it finished by the time this meeting is..”, she fumed balefully.

“One more thing, Chieftain. Should anything happen during the meeting, I would like you to take Lady Inshala and yourself to her home and stay there.”, Standorin informed.

“You want me to run and hide in a broken down chicken shed?”, Grulganiste blazed.

“Chieftain Grulganiste. This is my town. I am the host, and you are the guest here. And the safety of my town and my guests is of utmost importance to me. And I can not do my job if all the guests are running around and doing as they please. You are a guest here, but you are not the only guest.”, the sheriff said, then he looked down at Inshala and grinned. “And as a personal favor to Lady Inshala’s mate, you should make sure she stays there as well..”

 

Inshala’s face looked mortified because she’d had no intentions of running home nor staying there at all.

 

“That.. was not nice, my Aager.”, she fumed in her mind and heard a growling chuckle in return.

“You.. you are laughing at me!”, she said heartbroken.

“No, love. Only making sure you do your part as I have kindly asked of you.”, Aager said.

“Don’t I get any say in this?”, she pouted.

“No, love, you do not. You told me you wanted my respect and my trust. This is where you show me yours —by deed.”

“You think I do not show you respect and trust?”, she asked somewhat downcast.

“Love. I have the utmost respect and trust in you and never have I ever doubted yours.. But town security is not something that can be done alone. It involves hundreds of people; guards, rangers, the elves, the Arashkan militia, the dwarves, and quite a few others that must know where they must be and what they must do, act as a whole, and in cooperative coordination. I have absolute trust that you can take care of yourself, and me, but you do not know any of the security protocols. Young Udoorin does, yet he is still not part of it, because he too, is a guest today. This, you must see. This, you must understand. And this, you must accept.”, Aager replied briskly and succinctly.

 

“Come, girl. Let’s find ourselves a seat before all the good ones are gone!”, Grulganiste rumbled.

 

Aager thought he heard a lot of huffing and puffing and mumbling about putting live Kumse Beatles into someone’s pockets before her voice was gone.

✱ ✱ ✱

The meeting of possibly every leader of every race, people, city, community, circle, near and far, and every important figure, head, or chief was a crowded, confusing, chaotic, and a bit of a messy business. The central conference room had been opted to be used for the meeting out of convenience as it was the largest room available for the job. There were many lanterns hanging on the walls, but the main source of light was the great chandelier with scores of burning candles made brighter by the use of cleverly placed reflectors —a gnomic ingenuity, thanks to no other than Nimbletyne Tinkerdome, crafted and placed many years ago. The center of the room was left open to anyone who would want to get up and speak, and tables surrounded the room in one big circle, all covered with white table cloths. Many flower pots were placed on the tables at military intervals, along with large, flat bowls full of fruits, decanters full of cool cider, and brass cups. Food would also be served shortly after sundown and adjacent rooms were prepared and available for private forums and strategic planning. All in all, Aager, who was responsible for the security of the building, suspected if half the guests survived, it would be a win!

And he had good reasons to expect so..

The dwarves did not want to sit next to the high elves, for one. They might fight alongside them, and against a common enemy, sure, but they did not want to sit next to the pointy-eared, condescending, stuck-ups!

The high elves, in a similar line of thought, did not want to sit next to the dwarves, the gnomes, who were pointing at them and snickering, the woodsmen, the bandits, the shacksmen from the tar pits of Stinking Shacks just northwest of Ritual Forest, and certainly not next to the bloody pirates of Drashan, and decidedly not with the ogres.

The wood elves didn’t mind the dwarves, but they really seemed like they wanted to make a scene about the ogres in an —as dramatic a way— as possible and preferred to stay aloof of their high elf brothers and sisters.

The Drashan pirates outright refused to sit next, or anywhere near the Endless Watch representatives, who, surprisingly wanted to get as near to them as they could —with cutlasses and poniards —and possibly a galleon’s deck catapult of two!

The Koruxan knights all seemed quite distraught as they didn’t want anything to do with any of this bunch!

The two representatives of the Academy of Melshieve looked around a bit dazedly. Or rather, one of them looked around quite dazed and in a dreamy way —an extraordinarily tall young girl with sharp, pointy horns, dark as a starless night-sky skin with long, loose, pink hair wearing rather scandalous pink dress skirts. The other one, a midgety little gnomic girl with many pouches, a heavy wrench tucked in her belt, and with carelessly pulled up, scruffy reddish brown hair, who, for some reason, kept throwing covert but guilty glances at Nadine Graciousward. The neatly dressed little hobbit sitting beside her had a polite expression on his face though he seemed like he was watching everything and everyone from a third person’s view, rather than his own. Sitting next to them was a tall, lithe, elf girl who was very nearly pale as her long, thickly braided, glossy white hair, many swirling and spiraling, dark, marine-blue tattoos on her arms and shoulders, and with a frosty, no-nonsense expression on her face.

 

There were also many familiar faces among the representatives.

Sheriff Standorin himself had taken a seat and..

..Liaison Constance was sitting next to him, also with a polite and interested smile on her face and..

..Perigren Ostlanna Temez, the leader of the Escape, had settled right beside her. She did not smile. She looked pale and soulless, like someone who had something most precious and dear to her taken away and most unfairly. She just sat where she did, silently and still with one of her antler horns broken and missing. The only sign of life was her eyes, as dull as they were, seemed to look at every single person in the crowded room individually, and singularly..

Next to the leader of the Escape, was the senior temple guardian, Thomas Dimwood, with two of his younger guardians standing right behind him.

Lady Magella sat with a diffident expression on her face, next to her grandfather, Argail Smitefast, a mountain of a dwarf, her mother, Margaret Madish, one of her brothers, Harakoon Evilscowl, a dwarf true to his name, her aunt/uncle, Yor Whatoo, and one of her sisters, Lamideth Doncross, as the representatives of Scowling Hills.

Dridges Motherswolfie was also there, waving at the hobbit across with Britney and Dritmey, the Tosser twins, also grinning at him, and Nikelix CarverLady Magella’s sisters, along with another of her aunts, Marideth Brave, representing Elder Hills.

A coldly grimacing Lady Alisia Sivara Hooman..

..her eldest daughter, Moira Alisia Jean Hooman, who had an expression that said, ‘Why me?’, in an existential sense..

..and the sour captain, Fardashi, who was likely going to head-butt the person responsible for the sitting arrangements, because sitting next to the first lady of Durkahan was no other than the former queen of Bari Na-ammen;

Nadine Graciousward, herself, who was politely smiling, and Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome, who was, for whatever reason, eyeing the little gnomic girl from the Academy of Melshieve.

The appearance of Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth in the room did cause a bit of a ruckus as pretty much everyone, except for the sheriff, and interestingly, the same hobbit, went for their weapons. The fact that the relatively tiny girl, Inshala had reached as high as she could and was holding her hand, had made the scene all the more incomprehensible.

A low cough and a ‘settle down’, warning from the sheriff hadn’t put them at ease, but certainly put them to shame and.. well.. ‘settled them down!’

It was at that moment when the queen of the high elves, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, walked in with her very new husband and king, Udoorin Shieldheart, flanked by Lady Anglenna Brightleaf, Lord Armathelius Riverblade, Aager Fogstep, and appearing next to him like magic, Bremorel Songsteel..

Queen Alor’Nadien ne was simply radiant and every bit as queenly as she was promised. A promise, given not only by her beauty but by her calm, serene, commanding, but not quite demanding, aura.

King Udoorin, on the other hand, just scowled.. silently. A protracted tactic he had decided to adopt for the whole of the meeting and for as long as he could. After that, he was of the opinion; LET THE AXES TALK!

 

Bremorel gave a cursory glance into the room, picked out the former Agent Largo, dressed quite elegantly as some lord, and mingling amongst the other lords and emissaries. It took a while for Aager to spot his sister, Lilly Venom, though.

 

“What the..”, he silently exclaimed.

 

She was up on the vast, candle-lit chandelier, holding on to its thick chain with her slender legs snaked around it, staring at everyone, upside down! And because of all the bright candles and the reflectors, she was literally cast in total shadows in the center of the bloody thing!

“Damn..”, Aager thought. It must be burning hot up there. The creepiest part was, the chandelier never budged, nor swung..

And he would never have seen her, had he not known she was in this room somewhere.

He somewhat grudgingly admitted, her sister, Lilly Venom was much better than he was when it came to hiding and ambush, which, in a way, made sense; Lilly was an assassin, through and through and he was not.

But, really, girl?

The meeting was likely to last past midnight and she would be hanging, upside down, in the middle of scores of candles, for at least ten hours and possibly until the next dawn.

 

Queen Alor’Nadien ne and King Udoorin went over to Nadine Graciousward and the half-elf girl gracefully hugged her mother.

“I see you have finally come to terms with your destiny, my daughter; lived, suffered, and overcome. You, my darling, were the only accomplishment your father and I managed to do right, even if we messed up so horribly at the end. And you, young man, have stood by her at her best, and at her worst, and are still here. You must truly love her. Do be never as I and my husband were. That would be a shame.”, Nadine said and hugged the bearish man who was flushing furiously.

“Hey, you.”, said Moira from two seats over.

“Hey, you.”, grinned Udoorin. “I heard there was a family squabble back at Durkahan. I am happy you set things right and are here again.”

“Not without quite a bit of help from Master Aager and my sister Inshala.”, Moira grinned back.

“That’s what friends are for.”, replied the young man. “Lady Alisia, it has been a great pleasure and delight to have met you and your daughter, here. May I introduce the Queen of Aranië, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist.. Alor’Nadine ne. This is Lady Moira’s mother and the First Lady of Durkahan, Lady Alisia Sivara Hooman, and the wife to late Delia Karakash Hooman.”

Alor’Nadine ne reverenced gracefully at her and smiled.

“I have heard so many beautiful things about you, my lady. Your daughter, Lady Moira always shined bright as the sun and lit our way through dark and dread by her very presence. Just for that, I shall cherish you and her for the rest of my life.”

“Thank you, dear. You are as kind and graceful as my daughter described.”, Lady Alisia inevitably smiled back.

Lorna beamed at her.

“I see you have met my mother.”, she said with a flushed face.

“Yes. I have.”, Lady Alisia said with a slightly grim expression.

“I know this meeting will last quite a bit. But when it is over and before you leave, I would be much honored if you and Lady Moira would be kind enough to visit us in our camp, just outside the town —as a personal favor?”, Lorna asked.

Lady Alisia looked at the beautiful young girl for a moment, as if seeking something on her face. Then she smiled.

“Of course, dear. We would be delighted to visit you and yours. I dread these meetings, to be honest. I would rather decisions be made and in haste, hence we get to the fighting part and cleanse our lands of this Orken infestation.”

Udoorin grinned.

“Spoken like a true Durkahan lady.”

 

Bremorel didn’t go directly to stand behind Udoorin but steered towards her husband, Thomas. She motions him over and took him, by the hand, to where the two representatives of the Academy of Melshieve were sitting. She nodded at the very tall, very dark girl in pinks, and at the scruffy-looking gnomic girl then came to stand before the hobbit!

“Master Brom Bumblebrim!”, she smiled at him.

The bushy-haired hobbit, Brom Bumblebrim, stared up at the pretty girl, and at the confused-looking man, she was holding with a death grip.

“Uhhmm.. Hello? Do I know you, my lady? Ranger, by the looks of it.. And a corporate at least, or possibly a lieutenant.”, the hobbit said.

“Very astute, Master Hobbit. How did you guess.”, she asked, grinning at him.

“You have the air of accomplishment and confidence that only well-earned achievements can give, my lady.”, the hobbit, Brom, said politely.

“I am impressed more now than I was impressed before, Master Brom.”, Bremorel said, then turned to her husband. “Thomas, I would like you to meet the esteemed Master Brom Bumblebrim.”

“Pleased to meet you, Master Hobbit.”, Thomas said politely, though still confused.

“Thomas, this is the first guy I have ever kissed!”, the ranger lieutenant said, her grin even wider.

“Come again?”, asked the gnomic girl, ogling at the tall ranger-girl, then at the hobbit.

“I.. see..”, Thomas said carefully.

The hobbit coughed.

“I am sorry, young lady, and I know this makes me sound like an arse but, have we met before?”, he asked with a flushed face.

 

The very tall, very dark girl in pinks was eyeing the ranger-girl and the hobbit with a neutral expression..

..while the pale elf girl with the glossy white, braided hair was staring at the hobbit too, though with bemused eyes and pursed lips.

 

“Morel.”, said Bremorel. “Daughter of Seleina Sunstrider and Aramsis Darkmaine..”

 

Nothing but stumbling out of his chair could have described the hobbit’s reaction!

He got back on his feet and stared up at the pretty girl..

..and his eyes blurred.

 

“Seleina Sunstrider and Aramsis Darkmaine.. Ow. My. Good. Heavens! My dear, dear girl.”, he said quietly, hopped on the table, and hugged Bremorel.

“I am so, so sorry for what happened to your parents. It broke me when I heard about them. For unrelated reasons, I had met with some of the dwarves at Scowling Hills, and Lady Magella, who is sitting right over there, claimed she knew you and told me about it. I was devastated..”, he said with an equally hushed tone. “They were good people. And look at you, now. Wow, you have grown and become the beautiful young woman I knew you would be, even back then.”

“You are kind to say so, Master Brom.”, Bremorel replied, also hugging the hobbit. “You were a great inspiration for me and kind enough to suffer a little girl’s adventurous games with dolls.”

“It was the best game I played, my dear Morel.”, smiled Brom as he drew back.

“And possibly the only game where you played the princess in distress?”, Bremorel smiled at him.

“I didn’t mind being the princess for you, my darling. Being saved by your fearsome knight was as entertaining as it was educational for me.”, the hobbit replied, wiping his eyes.

“Will you be staying? I would love to have you and your friends over for dinner.”, she offered.

“Our schedule is out of my hands, my dear girl. And this meeting will likely be quite binding. But I shall do my best. You are the only one I dearly enjoyed having met, during my long travels with Master Cathber, all those years ago.”

 

Several tables over, Inshala’s ears prickled at that..

 

“And where shall we be seated, Master Aager?”, Lorna asked in a low whisper to the lean man in dark leathers.

“Technically, you and Udoorin, here, are the only king and queen present. Everyone else is either lords and ladies or various representatives. As long as you do not sit next to the Drashan pirates, because that would totally give the wrong message to the rest of the whole of the kingdom, and not next to the lord representative of Endless Watch, which will very much alienate the bloody Drashan pirates, you are free to sit wherever you want. We can seat you next to your mother, Nadine Graciousward if you like?”, Aager offered.

“As much as I would want that, no. Sitting next to her will tell everyone I am under her shadow. As sad as it may be, she no longer holds any official capacity, hence, she represents only herself, and that inevitable shall be interpreted as self-interest.”, she replied as she mused for a very brief moment as more representatives started filing in.

 

“There.”, she said.

 

And with Udoorin by her side, she calmly walked over to the singular ‘person’, sitting alone and with the exception of the disproportionately tiny girl seated next to her, three seats in either direction were empty.

Inshala waved at them happily and then patted the seat next to her and motioned her hubby over with a grin filled with hidden trepidation—

 

Her Aager didn’t know about the house yet!

 

—and with her king, the queen of the high elves and  Aranië started in that direction and sat right next to Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth!

 

And just then the mayor of Serenity Home, Arthandos Yuleman entered..

 

“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.

He looked around with worn, tired eyes and smiled.

“Shall we begin?”



 

book 06 books dungeons and dragons duygusal karakter analizi komedi serenity home tarihçe

I, Inshala. I, Belong.

I, Inshala. I, Belong.

Timeline:

The Tundra Elf; Cora Sleet, The Bowling Hills Hobbit; Brom Bumblebrim and the younger sisters of no other than the dwarven Temple Guardian of Serenity Home, Lady Magella of Scowling Hills; Lillias Absentwhot and Jeina Blond have set forth to find the daughter of the barbarian Bear Claw Tribe’s chieftain, who was kidnapped by the foul and evil creature, ominously named; Red October.

For days and nights, Cora, Brom, Lillias, and her sister, Jeina travel through the snow and ice-covered Lost Mountains and find the layer of the sinister Red October. On the eve of their descent into the deep, cavernous layer, the whole extended family of the two dwarf sisters arrive to take them both back to Scowling Hills. The dwarf sisters, Lillias and Jeina refuse to abandon their elf and halfling companions compelling their family to help. Hence a plan is formed; the dwarves are to lure the foul creature out of its lair and make a run for it down the mountains, and back to Scowling Hills while Cora and Brom are to quietly enter the beast’s lair and save the chieftain’s daughter.

The plan works, more or less..

And Cora Sleet, followed closely by Brom Bumblebrim, runs into the deeps of Red October and finds the barbarian chieftain’s daughter, abused and severely traumatized, among many other women.. all dead and gnawed upon.

In horror, the two search the cages set into the walls of the cave to find more survivors and lo!

Another woman, deep inside one of the further cages, thought horribly abused, malnourished, and bruised, is still alive..

..and pregnant!

 

This story takes place merely a month after;
A Bard’s Tale XIV, “a Bit of a Bite” IX
and
A Bard’s Tale XV, “Wrath of Hydius Dreadmaw”..

 

 

Run, you fools!” 

That was the last thing Cora Sleet and Brom Bumblebrim saw of the dwarves before they stumbled and ran out of the dark, gnawing cave..

 

Then came the wind.

A cold, fetid wind..

A wind that did not belong to the fresh, breezy October mountains.

This was a frigid wind that stank of rot and festering mold..

This was the wind of a Red October!

 

“Run, you fools!”, bellowed the head of the dwarves; an old, very nearly ancient of his kind known all the way from The Great Arashkan City to Endless Sea, and from the heights of Rook Mountains to the ends of Tinker Hills; Argail Smitefast.

And the dwarves ran..

Down the sliding, frozen and misty valley and to the cliffs that would make a harsh and steep climb down the face of Lost Mountains.

 

But then..

..everything was harsh and steep in the Great Northern Tundras..

 

The creature that burst out of the yawning cave was nothing the elf, Cora, nor the hobbit, Brom ever saw.. and neither would wish to ever see again.

For but a very short moment, they caught a glimpse of something large, but not in size as it was large by its frightful speed.

Something large, fast, and dark.. Like a thick draft of smoke, inky at its center. It blurred past the two hiding behind fallen boulders.

Cora clutched her great blade with both her fists like she wanted to make a charge or a ‘run for it’, Brom wasn’t sure. He wouldn’t have blamed her if she did make a run for it. He had seen some horrible things in his long sojourn since that fateful night he’d left the comforts of his warm home and this.. inky black thing that had just hissed out of the cave would likely give him nightmares for the next couple of months..

Brom gritted his teeth and hoped the snow elf would run, should it come to that, though he knew she wouldn’t.. She’d charge the evil, shunned creature while trembling in fear, but not run from it. They hadn’t known each other for that long, but the short few months they had been together had shown him the core of the girl; grim, fierce, loyal, silently angry, and in quiet, desolate mourning.

 

“What are you doing?!”, they heard the below of the old dwarf echo up the frozen valley.

“Arkanian nian fer Ferra!”, squeaked a voice and something boomed in a great, fiery bloom.

“Damit, Lillias..”, growled Cora. “..Run!”

 

More booms followed by some knock knock knock knock rattling sound as if something brittle and heavy was hammering on an anvil.

A few thick bolts, the size of short spears slammed into the walls with a tremendous force near the maw that was the cave of the creature and sharp, crackling shafts of lightning came down from the sky at a sharp angle, crashing into the valley with jarring screeches and frozen ice and broken rocks shrapneled everywhere.

Something roared but it was not the roar of a bear, a lion, nor a dragon. This was like the roar of a waterfall filled with loose rocks, rotting lumber, and debris.

 

“Run!”

“Down the cliffs.. Jump if you must!”

“Jeina, no!”

“Marideth; to the left.. riddle it.. Bruden, Goric hold the rear and ready the rocks. Harakoon, Lamark, take the right.. Distract it with more arbalest. Grandfather; go.. down.. NOW! Mom.. Da.. You two are next.. Britney; grab Lillias. Dritmey; get Jeina down.. Knock her out if you must.. What is Aunt Petunia even doing here? Aunt Yulanda.. are the charges set?”

“Yes, dear. Charges are set. You want a timer or simple, dumb fuse?”

“Timer, please. I want it to go off on its back, not in its face.”

“What? Why?”

“If it blows on its face, it will bring the cliffs down on us as well, knock it back and possibly block its pursuit.”

“Other than the first, the other two aren’t so bad.”

“What will happen if it goes back?”

“Ow.. right.. would make this whole thing sort of moot.”

“On my last quiver..”

“Down, then. Save the quiver. Make sure grandpa makes it.. Do not wait.. Keep everyone running Auntie Marideth..”

“Who is making sure you are going down, Dridges, love?”

“I will be going down last.”

“Hell no, you aren’t”

“Stick to your post uncle! I am the youngest here and the fastest. Once the charges are set and blown, the creature will be knocked down the cliff and its way back will be blocked enough to give the elf and the hobbit time to do what they came to do.. I don’t want a crying Lillias nor a frothing Jeina all the way back to Elder Hills!”

 

“Dremda Limka bim bala poom!”, squeaked the voice of Lillias again and red, angry beams crisscrossed the misty valley and someone else shouted more in ancient dwarvish;

“Morkaban Fal an burnandie!”

..and tall columns of burning light came down in harsh, vertical slaughter..

Another roar echoed up the valley and something slammed against stones.

“What are you doing?”, screamed Lillias.

“Time to go, baby sister!”, said a voice and took off with Lillias.

“No! They need more time!”

“Nope. We just ran out of that.. and Dridges gave the signal for retreat.. Drit?”

“Got her..”

“What happened?”

“She wouldn’t listen, so I knocked her out! Dridges gave the order..”

“Bet you enjoyed that.”

“You bet, I did.. The idiots.. That was a month’s walk from home to here, and another month back —if we survive!” 

“Now you are going to have to carry her.”

“Changed her diapers when she was a babe.. I am sure I can carry her as well!”

✱ ✱ ✱

Leave me, please.. I beg of you..” 

“This is not a safe place for you and you are due soon..”

“I am the daughter of a woodsman. I am used to harsh weather. I can not stay here. He will come back.. Please.. Take the other girl, and leave.. I shall climb down and make my way home..

 

Cora looked at the young human girl. She was horribly battered, pale, dirty, and bulging.. The baby must truly be due soon..

Then she looked down at Brom, but the hobbit was too busy with the chieftains traumatized daughter, who was trashing and moaning in the frigid snow.

 

“Here. There is enough food in this to feed you for some time. And take this as well. I am not sure if you can—”

“—I can. I am no warrior, but I have broken enough logs to know how to swing an ax down.. Thank you..”

“There are no favor here, young girl. Leaving you on your own, and in your condition, is just wrong..”

“I must get out of these mountains and back to my home and my husband. That is where I belong. I thank you for no favors. Only for saving me from that creature, and letting me go.. A woodsman must be free.. This, I am sure you understand.”

“This, I understand..”

 

For another moment she looked at the withered girl, a limping shade of what she once was..

..And she was a small thing to begin with, really. Small and skinny.. Yet, even having suffered the horrors and indignities of her impregnation and the whole time of her captivity and pregnancy, she showed remarkable resilience to the odds stacked so much against her..

Then, Cora looked at her bulging belly..

 

“I am sorry to ask.. but.. do you even know what’s inside you?”

“Yes.”

“I am afraid even to ask—”

“My daughter..”

“Your.. how do you—?”

“She does not kick.. She hugs and she sings..”

 

Cora just stared at the broken young woman, because that’s exactly what she was;

Young..

..and broken.

“I bid you, farewell, then. Be good..”

“Farewell, then.. Stay good..”

✱ ✱ ✱

Mom? Why do you weep? Are you in pain?” 

“My beautiful baby. I am afraid I shall not be here for long. I so wanted to see you grow.. and play.. and be happy..”

“Why is there red in your face, mom? Did you fall?”

“..I wanted you to wear pretty, laced, dresses.. You have such beautiful eyes..”

“Mom.. You are shaking. It must be cold. Hold me closer to you. I will warm you..”

“We must run, my sweet love. I can hear them again..”

“Mom. You look tired. And you are crying.. Why are you crying, mom?”

“Just.. a bit.. further.. I think.. they will stop.. chasing..”

“I hear your heart, mom. You are afraid. Why are you afraid, mom?”

“I.. can’t.. go.. any further.. Too tired..”

“Let’s stop for some. You are shaking. Why are you shaking, mom?”

“This.. this is as far.. as I can go.. my baby..”

“You are crying again, mom. Why are you crying?”

“Too much.. blood.. Lost too much.. blood.. I am afraid I won’t.. make it, my sweet..”

“Don’t be afraid. I am here. I will protect you, mom..”

“I will sit and rest.. for a bit..”

“You are calm now, mom. And warm..”

“I so love you.. my little.. baby.. I am so sorry..”

“Mom? What happened, mom?”

“Farewell, my sweet, sweet baby..”

“Don’t be afraid, mom. I am here.”

“I love you.. Never forget it..”

“Are you sleeping, mom? I will sleep too, then. I will keep you warm and safe.”

 

“You are cold again, Mom..”

 

“Mom?”

 

“Please speak, mom..”

 

“Mom? Mom..?”

 

“Please wake up, mom.”

 

“I am afraid..”

 

“I promise, mom. I will be good. I will always be good..”

 

“Please wake up.”

 

“Mom?”

✱ ✱ ✱

Gotcha, you little demon! Been seeing you festering these woods. Da.. Daaa! I got her!

“Please leave me. I did nothing to you.”

“You’ve been sneaking around our home for days now. Saw you again the other night, crawling into the barn. Trying to steal the goats, are you? Daa, come quick!”

“Nanny goat is sick.”

“Sick goat is it?!”

“Yes. She has a nail in her foot. It is burning her heart..”

“You friggin little liar. A good lashing will do you good.”

“But the nanny goat..”

“What’s going on here, boy?”

“Got her, daa.. Told you I saw a little demon sneaking around our house. Look at her.. She’s got horns, just like a demon.”

“I am not a demon. I am a girl!”

“What are you doing here, demon?”

“Your nanny goat. She’s ill. She has a nai—”

*smack*

“Bring the cane, boy. I will not have this fiend around my house, nor my goats..”

✱ ✱ ✱

Am I a demon? Why am I a demon?”

“You are no demon, my beautiful little chestnut.”

“Then why does everyone say I am a demon? Am I so ugly? Am I so filthy? I must be, because everyone runs from me, or throws rocks at me.”

“Some people are not very bright, my sweet child. Some are superstitious. Some are afraid of what they do not understand. And some are just stupid. Their faults are not your fault, because you are not ugly and you are not filthy.. And certainly, you are not a demon.”

“But I have horns..”

“And I have a hunch back!”

“I healed their nanny goat and they hit me with a cane.”

“People fear the dark because they can’t see what’s in it. Yet they need the dark to rest and to sleep.. Does that make the dark, really a demon? They fear you because they can’t see just what a wonder you truly are..”

*sob*

“I am no wonder. I am just an ugly and dirty thing..”

“What is your name, my sweet chestnut?”

“Inshala..”

“And do you know what that means?”

“No.”

“It means; Heavens Willing.”

“I do not understand, Master.”

“Neither do I. But the Heavens do not make things without a reason.”

“I think they wanted people to know what ‘ugly’ and ‘filthy’ was.”

“I doubt. There is enough ugly and filthy in men without putting it in one, beautiful little girl.”

“Maybe I am broken and I just can’t be fixed.”

“If you are broken. Then I would not want you to be fixed, because you are perfect the way you are.”

“Maybe you are broken too..”

*chuckle*

“I am, broken. And perhaps you were sent here to fix me!”

“I do not understand, Master.”

“My dear child, neither do I. But the Heavens gave you to me and here you are loved, you are safe, and you are cherished.. Now, let’s go find some berries and some of those mushrooms you love so much.”

“And Kumse Beetles?”

*chuckle*

“And Kumse Beetles..”

✱ ✱ ✱

I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry! I didn’t mean to.. It just happened!”

“My, my, my.. What have we here? That you, girl?”

*sob*

“I am sorry. I didn’t mean to.. Please don’t send me away!”

“Send you? Please, girl. I wouldn’t send you if the skies came falling down on me..”

“But.. You shouldn’t have the skies falling on you..”

“It’s a metaphor, my sweet chestnut.”

“What’s it for? Are you going to hit me with it?”

“My dear child. When have I ever hit you?”

“Never, Master. And I do not understand why you wouldn’t. Everyone else does.”

“I didn’t think you thought me as silly as everyone else. Now, come on and come out from under the table and let’s have a look at you, shall we?”

“I look horrible.”

“Let me be the judge of that. Let’s see; nice healthy paws, curious ears, brilliant vivid eyes, good strong back, and long balanced tail. Turn around. Let’s make sure everything is where they should be in the tummy.. Yes. very nice, strong muscles. Very nice and strong indeed. This is.. incredible! You have it all in one!”

“You will not hurt me?”

“My dear daughter. Please do not afflict me with the sins of fools. This is your home. Home does not hurt, nor punish. Home only has love and care, though not much of anything else, I must admit.. Woa.. Easy there, tiger! *chuckle* And careful with the claws. This old man will bruise easily.”

“I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry..”

“Well, now. Let’s see if you can actually use those claws. Are you up for a good climb?”

“I think so, Father.”

“How would you like to chase an old, skinny squirrel up the old oak just outside?”

“Yesshh!”

“You must give this old man a head start, though.

*giggle*

“It’s only fair, Master.”

✱ ✱ ✱

You are taking a bath again?”

“Yes, Father. I am scrubbing the dirty away.”

“In the middle of winter? In the frozen pond?”

“Yes, Father. I am dirty. And the dirty will just not come off!”

“Did you not take a bath, just yesterday?”

“I did, Father.”

“And the day before that?”

“Yes, Father. I did.”

“And the day even before that?”

“…”

“How are you not freezing?”

“I am filthy. And broken, Father.”

“Hmmm.. Perhaps I can help you with that.”

“You can?”

“I believe so..”

*slop!*

“Uhhmm.. Why did you dump pond mud on me, Father?”

“Now you actually are dirty and have something on you to wash!”

“I do not understand, Master.”

“Wash and see if it comes off..”

“It all came off.”

“There. Now you are all clean!”

“…”

“Come on and out now, my sweet chestnut. Let’s get you inside and by the fire before you catch a cold. And no more bathing in the pond. Not in this weather.”

“But I will be filthy again tomorrow.”

“Then you can bathe in the big barrel we have inside. And with hot water too.”

“Perhaps you should bathe too, Father.”

“Why? Do I stink?”

*giggle*

“Well, now.. That was a bit harsh..”

*giggle*

“Do you know how long it takes to dry all this beard?”

“My hair is longer than your beard, Father.”

*sigh*

“Alright. I will bathe. If you say I stink, I must stink.. Tomorrow then. Or maybe the day after.”

*stare*

“Not the day after, then..”

*stare*

“Not even tomorrow?

*stare*

“Good and Great Heavens, child.. NOW?”

“Now is good.”

“We don’t even have hot water!”

“We have pond.”

“…”

“Why would you do this to me?”

“You won’t mind I bathe every day in the pond, then?”

“What? How did you even come to that conclusion, girl? I said nothing of the sort.”

“If you don’t want me to bathe in the pond, but bathe at home, you should bathe as well. Since you won’t bathe at home, you must bathe in the pond!”

“That is not even close to what I said!”

“That is what you said; No more bathing in the pond. Not in this weather..”

“Which is the opposite of..”

“I do not understand, Father. Your house rules are complicated and many..”

*sigh*

“Yes, yes.. I suppose that is.. what I said.. How do you even remember, that? No child ever listens to their parents! They roll their eyes and ignore us..”

“You are my Father. Why would I roll my eyes at you? That is not nice.”

*sigh*

“Very well. I shall bathe..”

“In the pond?”

“In the pond.. Go get my towel..”

“And your scrubbing stick.. And your soap..”

“..And my scrubbing stick, and my soap..”

“And your comb..

“I.. what? I haven’t used a comb for over three centuries. I don’t even have hair!

“..For your beard.”

“Really, now, girl?”

“I comb my hair. Stands to reason you should comb your beard. I think it would look pretty. You say I look pretty when I comb my hair.”

“…”

“I am going in now.. But only for a moment. There is ice floating in this pond.. Literally..”

“A moment will not even be enough to soak, Father.”

*sigh*

*giggle*

✱ ✱ ✱

That is the last time you fools touch this girl. Do I make my self, clear?”, growled Master Cather as smoke and haze clouded town.

“She is a demon who infests our lands. She must be cleansed—”, screeched the scowling man in fervent zeal.

“Boy, you have got it all wrong.. These are not your lands.. at all! These are the King’s lands, then the elves, then mine..”, replied Cathber with a threatening vibe in his voice.

“She is a demon!”, screamed the man.

“You must have seen many demons to know what to look for.”, Cathber spoke with a deadly whisper.

“She has horns!”, the bigotic man shouted, pointing at the little girl, hanging stripped naked from a thick branch, her tiny back, a bloody, whip-laced mess.

“So does my goat..”, said Cathber and clawed at the air, making a horrible beckoning gesture..

..and a stone spike, the length of a yard suddenly shot out from the ground and rammed right through the bigot’s foreleg!

The man shrieked in pain, tried to double over, but couldn’t.

“This.. is heresy!”, the man screamed in pain.

“No, boy.. This is punishment.. This is my forest.. Here, you do not play your heresy games..”

..and he clawed with his other hand.

Another stone spike shot out of the dirt and nailed his other leg with a wet, sickening tear!

“We.. we did not touch the girl, Master Cathber.”, trembled the other lodgers.

“No.. You did not. You just stood there and watched as he tore into an innocent little girl’s flesh!”

And he rose both his arms..

 

you shall suffer the curse of the innocent”..
Thus shall you suffer the punishment of silently watching the pain of an innocent..

 

..his voice boomed and thorny vines shot out of the ground in all directions, grappling anything and everything in their path..

The woodsmen ran..

The thorny, gnarled vines chased.

The fires already burning several of the homes spread.

 

you shall tremble with the pain of the innocent..
And tremble shall you, with the pain of the innocent..

 

..heralded the old man.

And the ground trembled.

Large chunks of earth and stone tore out and into the sky, just to land some tens of yards away.

A barn collapsed.

A house creaked in terror and fell apart.

Another barn collapsed.

And another log-house bust in flames..

 

“You are.. the hand of the devil, old man.. You can not silence the truth!”, groaned the spiked zealot.

 

“Tell me, boy, how many souls have you saved with your bigotry? Are there two? No? Not even one? But I see you are very free with that whip.. particularly on little girls who will not defend themselves even against fools like you.. You see, she could have slain you many times over. Yet, she chose not to, because she does not like to hurt. She likes to play.. and sing.. and feed the animals.. and heal them when they are sick.. When was the last time you healed anything? Never? Well.. that explains so much. I shall not relieve you of your torment. You may free yourself. That will be at least one person you will have saved in your entire pathetic life. I shall, however return. And should you be in my forest when I do, we shall rinse and repeat this education, until you learn some manners, if not any sense.. But by all means, stay. If not for my daughter, this little girl you so freely whipped, I would beg you to stay, just to repeat this over and over again.. Either way, we shall see just how zealously stuck you really are to those ‘truths’ you seem so fond of..”

 

“You.. are evil!”, the bigot screamed in pain.

“No, boy. I AM BALANCE!“, replied the old man, his voice truly dreadful now.  “Do not force me to summon the ‘Wyld Hunt’ upon you with your name attached to it. The last time I did, was over seven hundred years ago and it very nearly dismantled Themalsar down to rubble.”

 

The old man gently cut the leather thongs binding the skinny arms of the little girl.

 

She fell..

Limply..

 

But the old man held her and carefully took her into his gentle embrace.

“Told you, did I not, my beautiful chestnut? Some people are not very bright. Some are superstitious. Some are afraid of what they do not understand. And some are just stupid.. And you have found the worst of them; the bigots! Now, you have made their fault your own.. No matter, no matter.. I shall fix you..”

 

She opened her eyes and stared at the old man with a vague, groggy stare.

 

“Why did you come here, my dear child? Did I not warn you to stay away from them?”, the old man asked, tears streaking down his crumpled face.

“Their.. nanny dog.. she was in pain.. her heart was burning.. because she stepped on a garden tool.. she has puppies.. and they need their mommy..”

“Yes, my lovely chestnut.. they need their mommy..”

“I.. cured her..”, she whispered, giving him a bloody smile.

“I am sure you did, my beloved.”, smiled the old man.

“No iron cage this time..”, she whimpered..

..and went limp again..

✱ ✱ ✱

She stood at the edge of the cliff, quietly mesmerized, looking down at the waves gently lapping at the shore below, and at the sea that stretched from one horizon to the other like some endless, blue-green blanket. 

And she absolutely loved it!

 

It was the first time she had seen the Endless Sea. It was also the first time she had come this far and alone from her home.

“I just must make sure, Father sees this. It is so beautiful!”, she whispered in awe as she stood, quietly petrified as the late August sun decided to impress her even more..

Like a dancer stretching out her skirts, and with a mighty display of yellow, orange, and red, the sun spread wide and great and settled on the horizon.

The little girl just stood there.

The sun was almost done showing off, but the sea, apparently, was not..

With slick splashes, a family of oddest looking fish sprang out of the sea, glided across the setting sun in some magnificent, graceful arcs, skimmed the surface over the waters, then disappeared into its depths once again..

 

The little girl wept.

 

Because she loved pretty.

And what she had just witnessed was just that.

 

Then she heard the groan..

It was a very ‘huge’ groan..

It echoed wide and reverberated across the sea, the sky, and the shore and the girl slid down the cliffside, her little heart aching with sorrow, for she knew that voice..

..it meant something was in pain.

That is when she saw the great whale, lying on its side, beached on the shore. She ogled at the thing, a creature, once mighty and over two hundred yards, now looked deflated and sad.

The little girl tiptoed near the creature and tenderly touched it, feeling its heart like some giant drum, beating ever so slowly..

“Great and might fish.”, she wailed. “Why do you not swim? The land is not a good place for you to sleep. The sun will scorch you, and the birds will peck at you.. Please return to the sea..”

“Who are you, little thing? And why do you care?”, the creature moaned in more pain.

“I am just a little girl, great fish. And I care because life is nice. It is precious. And you have so much life..”

“No, little girl. I had much life.. Once.. Now, I wither, for my time is near. I shall die soon, scorched by the sun, and pecked by the birds.. though I surmise, I shall make a merry feast..”

“Please.. return back to the sea.. Sea is life.”

“Yes.. Sea is life.. But mine is quite over.. I am sad, but content. I have lived since this sea was young. I have traveled it many times. I have seen its depths and the heavens above it. I have witnessed the corrals grow, new life form, and men do war upon one another upon it.. Yes. My time has long arrived little thing. Long arrived indeed..”

“But so much you have seen and so much to tell.. They will die with you.”

“That is how it is, little girl..”

“Perhaps you can come with me? I am small.. and not very smart.. and know very little.. but I have room for more..”

“Do you? You seem so little..”

“I am.. But wisdom found, should not be lost, dear big fish.”

“Well.. Since you want to insist on calling me ‘fish’, you must have much room to spare..”, the great whale.. chucked!

“What would you have me call you, dear big fish?”

“Shala.. I was called Shala.. A long time ago.. It used to mean, He Who Sails The Deepest Seas. But I am afraid, much like myself, that word is long gone and forgotten.”

“And I am called Inshala; Heaven’s Willing.. and I shall show you my forest and you can learn me your wisdom..”

“Ahhh.. Forest.. That, I have never seen.. This shall be an interesting journey, little Inshala.”

“I shall show you my forest, and more, big Shala.. I shall make you a big pond. Big enough for you to play!”

“I haven’t played since I was but a little babe, and that was quite some eons ago..”

“We shall travel far and wide together and you shall live inside me for as long as I live, small comfort though that may be.”

“Tis alright, little one. Wisdom is; finding life where there is none..”

“Thank you.”

“You thank me, little one?”

“Yes. For accepting me and accepting life.”

“You truly are an amazing one and your passion for life is bested only by your compassion for it. I sense we shall have great and extraordinary days together.”

✱ ✱ ✱

Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“I am Inshala. And am here because of the call.”

“You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t have come. How did you even get past the short-mortal post?”

“I do not know, what this ‘short-mortal post’ is.”

“Dwarves. They have guard post here to make sure no mortal enters the valley beyond without permission.”

“I am sorry. I did not see any dwarves. I felt a soft, pulsing call, hence I came.”

“Who is this, Temessa, and why is she here? How did she even get past the short-mortal post?”

*sigh*

“She says her name is Inshala and was telling me why she is here, Yamara. Must you always jump into everything?”

“I did not jump. I walked.”

“I have introduced myself. It is polite to introduce yourselves back..”

“Ow, yes. My apologies, Inshala. I am Temessa. A dryad.”

“A dryad? You are so pretty!”

*blush*

“Ow, wow. You really think so?”

“Yes. I mean so.”

“What about me? I am Yamara and I am a fire nymph!”

“A fire nymph? This extraordinary! You are so, so beautiful!”

*giggle*

“I think I just fell in love!”

“What is this wonderful place? I sense.. something, though I do not know what. It.. it’s calling me..”

“Would you like some of my peaches, sweet Inshala?”

“Or my apples?”

“I would. But I have nothing to trade..”

“You can stay and play with us for a year and a day..”

“Owww.. I would love to. But that might make my Father sad.”

“How about a month and a day?”

“I would really love to. But my father is old. I can’t stay away for that long..”

*sigh*

“A day then? Please? It has been a bore since Mother put a ban on mortals..”

“A day, it is..”

“Done.”

“Done.”

“And done!”

“Do you like swimming?”

“I love swimming and I love ponds”

“Yesshh!”

“How about fire hopping?”

“Fire hopping is awesoooome!”

“Yesshh..”

“You sound like a fey..”

“I do?”

“You look like a fey too.. Are you sure your father is a mortal?”

“I think so. Though he is very very old. Are we going to swim and fire hop?”

“I saw her first, Yamara, so we swim first!”

*sigh*

✱ ✱ ✱

You are in the pond again. Why are you in the pond again?”

“I came across some men in the forest. They threw rocks at me and told me I was a filthy demon.”

“Did they, now..”

“I tried to explain that I was just a little girl and was wandering in the forest. They waved their iron axes at me and told me, I didn’t belong here..”

“Is that so?”

“I am in the pond because I am washing the demon filth off me, but it just won’t come off, Father.. It just won’t come off..”

“It will not come off, my beautiful little chestnut..”

“It won’t? Why?”

“Because you have no demon in you, nor any filth. You can’t scrub what isn’t there, my dear child. You must know this. And you belong.. right here.. You have a home..”

“But how do you know I have no demon in me?”

“Because demons do not care for other life. They CAN NOT care for other life. That is why they are demons. And you know what else demons never have?”

“What?”

“A home.”

“Why?”

“Because ‘Home’ means love, warmth, care, compassion, and belonging. The moment you have those and feel those, you stop being a demon. You simply can not have those and still be a demon.”

“Perhaps it’s because I am small yet. Or because i am only half-demon.. Or just broken!”

“No, my sweet chestnut. I am afraid it doesn’t work that way. If you have four legs, you are not a human. If you are a tree, you are not an animal..”

“I have horns.”

“And I have a hunch back!”

“But your hunch is because you are very old, Master.”

“And you have horns because you are beautiful!”

“I find your logic, quite inconsistent and misplaced, Father.”

“Well, now, really?!”

“Yes, Father.”

“You also have sharp ears, my sweet girl. Do you know who else has ears like yours?”

“Elves!”

“Precisely. Perhaps you should look for ‘similarities’ around you, rather than ‘differences’ elsewhere.

“Perhaps I am a Half-Elf then?’

“That is possible, my sweet chestnut. But whatever you are, you must know that you are loved.”

“Love. I do not understand this thing you call love, Master.”

“You have grown quite a bit since I found you, my sweet chestnut. And because you have, I try not to mind you taking off to wandering around the forest.”

“But you always scold me when I come back, Father.”

“And have you ever wondered why I scolded you so?”

“Because I forget to tell you?”

“That, and because I am worried every time you do not come back. And you are worried about me when you realize you haven’t come back..”

“Yes, Father. I stop what I am doing and cry.”

“That is called, ‘Love’, my beloved daughter. Because we only worry for those we love and we care..”

*sob*

“And you always come back, my sweet chestnut. Why is that?”

*sob*

“Be.. because this is my home..”

“And that is called, ‘Belonging’, my sweet, sweet girl.. and demons have neither, nor will they ever have either; Love and Home. They CAN’T.”

*sob*

“Now come on and out of the pond. You have bled yourself with your scrubbing again.”

*sob*

“I am so, so sorry I made you worry, Father. I will never leave again.”

“Let’s not make promises we can’t keep, my sweet chestnut. Of course, you will leave because you are curious about the world around you. But promise me two things; That you will remember this old man will worry, and to come back home, will you? Please?”

*sob*

“I promise, Father.”

“How would you like to come with me on a long, long trip?”

“Owww.. Where are we going, Master?”

“We shall start doing something I haven’t done and neglected to do for quite some time, my sweet chestnut and it’s called, ‘Storm Hunting!'”.

“Storm Hunting? How can we hunt storms, Master?”

*chuckle*

“Very carefully and by running a lot..”

“What is, storm hunting?”

“Storm Hunting, so colorfully named by an old friend of mine, quite some years ago, before you were born.. and.. well.. when I say, ‘old’, I merely mean it as, someone I met a long time ago. Between the two of us, I think I was the only old one.”

“You are always the old one where ever we go, Father.”

“Well, now.. That hurt, little girl!”

*giggle*

“Come now, my sweet chestnut. Let’s get you dry and warm and put some ointment on those scrub bleeds, and I will tell you all about Storm Hunting..”

“Your ointments smell funny, Father.”

“Funny enough to make you laugh?”

*sigh*

“You are making ‘father jokes’, again, Master.”

*chuckle*

“Is it working?”

*sigh*

“No..”

“Because you are doing it wrong, my little chestnut.”

“I do not understand, Father.”

“You are supposed to roll your eyes, and then say, ‘No..’ —like every other teenager.”

“I am not going to roll my eyes at you, Master. That is very rude!”

✱ ✱ ✱

I am blinded! I can’t see, Father.. I am deaf too.. Help me.. And I hurt everywhere..” 

*sob*

“There, there, my love.. I am here..”

“I can’t see.. I can’t see, Father!”

“It will pass soon, my dear. I did warn you to close your eyes, though, did I not?”

“I.. what? I can barely hear you, Father..”

*sob*

“There, there.. you will be fine soon enough. Storm Hunting is dangerous work and it demands our respect. We must follow her rules, for she has a heavy hand.”

“I just wanted to see, Father.”

“Well. I can’t blame you for your curiosity, but we must have a care, my dear child. Curiosity is a good thing. But we must be sure, which is leading which? You leading your curiosity, or your curiosity leading you, for one will teach you many things, while the other will get you into trouble.”

“I will make sure, I lead the way, Master.”

“That makes this old man, so very happy. Now, can you see again?”

“Yes, Master. But there are still some small, tingling lights flying everywhere.”

“That will pass too, soon enough. Now that we have caught our first storm, let’s make camp, shall we? And cook some fish, some potatoes, some eggplants, and some corn..”

*blush*

“I.. I am sorry, Father..”

“You are?”

“Yes, Father, I am..”

“Why are you sorry, my sweet chestnut?”

“I.. I ate all your strawberries!”

*chuckle*

“That’s alright, dear one. I put them there, many years ago, for someone else.. But he refused to touch them..”

“Ow.. Did I eat his strawberries, then?”

“No.. If he’d wanted to eat them, I believe he would have. Time heals many things, my sweet chestnut, but it does take.. time!”

“I am not quite sure I understand, Father.”

“Never mind, never mind.. Let us get the fire started, shall we?”

“Let’s..”

✱ ✱ ✱

Why are we here, Father? This place is not nice. The ogres are cruel creatures and will try to eat us.” 

“So they are and so they might. But they also live in our forest and share its bounties. We must learn to get along.”

“Why, Master?”

“Because we are never alone in a forest, my sweet chestnut. And we never know to whom we might end up turning for help someday.”

“I can not see how the ogres will help anyone. They can not even get along among themselves.”

“The world is big and wide, my dear child. And is not bound by the rules we inflict upon it. Or we shall end up like those ignorant men, who call you names and want to banish you.”

“That is correct, Father. The men in the forest are incompetent.”

“Ow?”

“Yes, Father. Had it been me, I could have caught and banished me years ago, when I was much littler!”

“Now, now.. That is not good thinking.. They couldn’t have banished you even if they had caught you and no matter how hard they tried. And they did catch you any number of times..”

“True. But they are incompetent..”

“They are.. But their failure to banish you wasn’t because of incompetence on their part, but because you can only banish demons. You can not banish pretty little girls.”

“You are just telling me that to make me feel good.”

“I am telling you this to make you feel good and because it is true, my dear child..”

“What will happen if they attack, Father.”

“If they attack, you are free to attack back, my dear. Try to avoid their clubs and axes, though. They hurt.”

“It is alright, Father. I know hurt. I know hurt very well.”

✱ ✱ ✱

And who is this, old man?”

“This, Ganiste, is my dear daughter Inshala.. Inshala, this is an old.. uhhmm.. friend of mine; Grulganiste. She is the chieftain of the ogres of Oger’s Foot.”

“She is pretty, Cathber.”

“Yes. Yes, she is..”

“Hence, she can’t be your daughter, you sour old man!”

“Well, now.. Really? That was a bit harsh, don’t you think, Ganiste?”

“Harsh is when I say; you are an old and sour man!”

“That was indeed, rather harsh..”

“Tell me, little girl, what wrong did you do for your mother to have dumped you on this old man?!”

“Hey..”

“She died.”

“Ow.. I am sorry. My mother died too..”

“Do you miss your mommy?”

“Yes, little one, I miss her every day.”

“I miss mine every day too..”

“Would you like to come inside my tent? I have big, soft pillows you can jump and a little chihuahua.. You two can play while I make some food. Your old man becomes grumpy when he talks while he is hungry.”

“Yes. Yes, he does.”

“Hey, now..”

“What is a chihuahua?”

“It is a small dog.”

“You have a puppy?”

“I have had him since he was a puppy. But he grew up very fast and is still a very small dog. Barks a lot, though. Want to see him?”

“Want!”

 

“She is extraordinary, Cathber.”

“Yes. Yes, she is, Ganiste.”

“What is she?”

“I am not quite sure. And to be honest about it, I don’t really care.”

“You? Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig? Have you finally found a soul to have attached yourself to?”

“You are making me sound awfully cold and heartless, Ganiste. I do have a heart, you know.”

“That is up to debate… Yet here you are, with this little thing, and quite attached to her as well.. Not something I would have expected to see from you..”

“Not something I expected to have happened to me, either.. Like, ever. It’s as if.. I have finally paid for some crime I did centuries ago and she is my gift!”

“Or curse.. Children tend to go either way..”

“Yes. Yes, they do, Ganiste. I am sorry you had to exile Cabot.”

“Not more than I am. But it had to be done. We have plenty of room in these hills to grow and flourish many times over and he was fervently trying to gather a following.. I have no desire to have my people killed for false words. Should men, elf or dwarf come to our hills seeking trouble, we shall crush them with our clubs, hack them with our axes, and smash them with our boulders..”

“Now there’s a gruesome image.”

“..but we will not go seeking for trouble. We have learned to grow our own food and animals for a long time now. So much so that we seldom need to even go down into the forest for foraging. When we do, it is mostly to release some of our bloodlust.”

“Accidents happen, though.”

“Unavoidably so.. Are you going to keep her?”

“For as long as she will let me.. I..”

“Say it, old man. For once in your life, say it. I am sure it will hurt, but I am certain you will survive..”

“You truly have a cruel streak in you, do you know that, Ganiste?”

“Telling an ogre she is cruel isn’t much of an insult, old man. Quite foolish, though.”

“Yes. I love her. Dearly, I might add.. And she is growing so fast.. She is full of wonder and an unquenchable curiosity that takes her further and further away from home every time she leaves.. It’s killing me to see her go and I can’t even say, don’t, because I know she must..”

“Well, now.. After three hundred years and some change, I finally get to see Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig in tears. I shall mark this day..”

“You pun me, Ganiste..”

“Owww, I certainly would love to.. But no, my dear Cathber.. I honor you.. You have finally grown..”

“What?!”

“You think living as long as you have or seeing the things you have, you have grown? Old man, you are so much more naive than I thought you could ever be.. Love.. Felt for one other than yourself, and for someone who is still alive, and particularly that for a child, is what makes a man or a woman truly grow.. And being forced to letting them go, is what really kills us.. For that, which you must do, you have my sympathy.”

 

“Do we have to leave so soon, Father?”

“You liked it here?”

“Yes. Mother Chieftain Grulganesti is a wonderful host.. And I want a chihuahua!”

✱ ✱ ✱

This will be dangerous, my sweet chestnut. Quite dangerous indeed.. There will be many woodsmen and they will be armed to kill on sight. There will be elven archers and not a few rangers from Serenity Home town. Their sheriff and their two master rangers will be joining us as well.. If one of them sees you, they might make.. mistakes.. Please stay at home just this once..” 

“I understand your concern, Father. But there has been something in my mind for some time that I do not understand.”

“What is it, my sweet chestnut?”

“That..”

“That? That, what?”

“You have been calling me ‘sweet chestnut’, for as long as I can remember, but I do not understand why you do so.”

“I.. what? All these years I have been calling you by that name and you don’t know?”

“No, Father. I thought it might not be polite to ask, but since this place you are going is very dangerous, I would want to know.”

“I.. I call you that, because.. well.. chestnuts are hard on the outside.. And quite resilient. But can be soft and sweet on the inside.. They are small and pretty to look at.. and..”

“And?”

“And.. well.. because I like chestnuts!”

*blink*

“There, there, child. What do I always tell you, when you do not understand something?”

*sob*

“To.. to always ask..?”

“Yes, my dear child. It is polite not to ask only if you feel it is inappropriate at that moment. But it is always better to ask than not to..”

“Can I ask something else then?”

“Of course, my dear, anything..”

“Are you a boy?”

“Am I a.. what?”

“A boy..”

“Well.. I am.. or rather, I was.. once.. some eight hundred years or so ago.. I am more a man now, than a boy..”

“And I am a girl?”

“Yes, yes you are, my dear child. And a very pretty one at that.

“What is the difference between a boy and a girl?”

*cough* 

“Well..”

“And why are you a man now and not a boy? Is it because of growing up? Will I become a man, when I grow up?”

“No, you will become a woman, when you grow up..”

“What is the difference between a man and a woman too, then?”

*cough*

“I.. perhaps we could talk about this later? After I return? Please?”

“Then I am coming with you, Father..”

“You are?”

“Yes. I must make sure you are alright. Otherwise, who will tell me all this?”

*sigh*

“You can not be seen, though.”

“I would like to see the one person who could see, let alone find and catch me, Father. I can become a much larger tiger now. Larger, yet I am also much better at prowling.. I haven’t been seen, nor caught since then. I brought down a fully grown deer with a single pounce, once!”

“My, my..”

“But I let the deer go.. She had a little baby deer.. And I also apologized after for scaring her..”

*blink*

“You let go of your catch?”

“Well. Yes, Father. I do not like killing. And I do not like sad creatures. There is enough sad, without me adding to it.”

“And to see fools calling you a demon and to hurt you! I carry the shame of all humanity, my dear, dear child..”

“Everyone should learn to carry their own shame, Father. You carry many things already.”

*sigh*

“I will go and meet with the sheriff and the two master rangers of Serenity Home town. They will coordinate with the woodsmen and the elves and hunt the wolves that come down the mountains and attack people.”

“Will you not speak with the wolves? They are smart hunters.”

“Yes, they are. But when I tried, they did not hear me. They have been.. taken by something else.. Now the wolves are like they have gone rabid. They blindly attack.”

“That is not right, Master. Wolves do not behave that way. And they never keep rabid ones near them..”

“My dear child. I would really rather you stayed. Whatever it is that is causing the wolves to behave the way they are, will not be an easy enemy. It is cunning and very, very dangerous. I am not sure even I can fight it and survive.”

“Then you need me more than ever, Master. I will protect you. This vile creature will not touch you.”

“There will be others there to protect me, my sweet chestnut.”

“Who among mortals, love you as I love you? Who among mortals care for you as I care for you? And who among mortals will mourn for you as I shall mourn for you, should something happen to you, Father?”

“…”

“When shall we leave, Father?”

“Tomorrow morning, my child..”

“Good. I will go and bathe in the pond, Father.”

“Again? You took a bath just yesterday.. And the day before that.. And the one before that!”

“Yes, Father. And I am bringing your towel, your scrubbing stick, and your soap as well. If you are going to meet with all these people, you should be clean!”

“I am clean..”

*stare*

“I washed just..”

“..last month, Father.”

“It’s been a month already? Where does the time go?”

“It has been thirty-four days and today, since you last bathed, Father. And time goes only forward!”

“blink*

“Are you keeping a track of my bathing days?”

“Of course, Father. You keep forgetting these important things.”

“I am hurt.”

*giggle*

“I could scrub your back if it is too much work for you, Father.”

“glare*

“Well, now, really?! I can very well scrub my own back, thank you very much, young lady!”

✱ ✱ ✱

Master Cathber never quite heard the silent footsteps that came very near him until the owner of the silent steps decided to be heard. The old man was poor at hearing, true, but to be honest with himself, and old Cathber certainly was, he knew would have been an easy game for the sinister-looking man in dark clothes.. 

The silent man was a bare inch above average and was neither fat nor skinny.. Perhaps a bit on the malnourished side but lean and wore his dark, leathers in tight straps. Like someone who never wanted to be caught, nor grappled.. He had dark, penetrating eyes and seemed like he knew how to make good use of his peripheral vision. The lower end of his face was covered with a thick, leather mask and the whole of his head was hidden in a hood made from a similar material. Old Cathber couldn’t discern what his color was either, for the man had chosen the time of his arrival to coincide with the dusk; the time where visibility was still available but drained everything of all color..

This man, whoever he was, was dangerous not only at an intellectual level but also instinctually wired to sense his surrounding.

 

“Master Cathber..”, he said and there was a distinct growl in his voice.

‘Good and Great Heavens’, the old man thought. ‘He growls and he is not even trying!’

“Good evening, young —?”, trailed off Master Cathber.

“Aager, sir. Aager Fogstep.. The sheriff of Serenity Home sent me to find you, and perhaps to keep you company, seeing as how I am a happy chat.”, he said, and there wasn’t any pun, irony nor any traces of sarcasm in his voice.

“Sheriff Standorin has always been a thoughtful boy.”, grinned Cathber only to see it bounce right off the man in dark leathers.

“Yes, sir.”, the man replied, though he wasn’t looking at the old man, but rather gazing somewhere off in the distance and into the darkening forest.

“Is there a problem, young man?”

“I am not sure..”, replied the young man, Aager.

“I wouldn’t be bothered too much with any feral animals luring in the bush, Master Aager. I lack what they want; meat!”, said the old man and chuckled.

The old man’s pun also bounced right off Aager as a dry pea would from a wall.. He kept his gaze at a specific spot for a bit more and then he looked at the old man.

“Shall we? It is quite a walk to the camp the woodsmen and the elves have set up.”

 

“Get away from him, you evil, evil man!”, growled the giant cat.

 

In all candor, calling this beast a ‘cat’ was a mistake, even when referring to it as ‘giant’.

It was monumentally big. A magnificent feline specimen, very nearly topping six hundred pounds. She had great, skull-crushing paws, strong, powerful hind legs, a vicious glare, and a maw that could probably take a man’s head and whole, right off his shoulders without so much as a bother.. Probably after eviscerating him with its nearly foot-long, saber-like teeth that hung down her maw!

This was a creature that did not belong to this forest, but to the Great Nothern Tundras.

The savage beast wondered what her ‘father’ would say when he figured she had sneaked off into the tundras to actually find and study such a beast to have taken its shape.

 

Well..

Inshala was certainly not going to volunteer for that trashing!

 

She looked around and noticed in panic; the evil man was staring at the forest!

“No way!”, she hissed. “There is no way he heard me! Humans are deaf, blind, and stupid. There is no way you could have heard me.”

She lowered her great mass closer to the ground, making sure where she placed her paws.

“Go away, little boy! And leave my Master alone. I will eat you if you touch him..”

“Ow-My-Heavens! He is staring right at me.. Can he even do that? Humans are not allowed to do that.. That’s not fair..”

“Maybe he is half-demon.. Like me!”

“My Master is gone.. Why is he standing alone?”

 

“Whatever you are, come out!”, the man in dark leathers growled.

 

It was a good growl, Inshala thought.

A very scary growl, even..

And he really had heard her, though he couldn’t see her!

But how?

Deer were the keenest when if came to hearing predators in the forest and she could catch any one of them off guard, at any given time.. And this.. boy? man? wasn’t even a forest dweller… He smelled of.. leather, metal, a bit of sweat, some kind of oil —probably to keep the rust off his iron weapons and.. something else, Inshala couldn’t say. It was a curious smell. Frightful but intriguing at the same time.

 

Ow..

It was his smell..

 

The smell that was uniquely particular to every single creature. The one that made it possible for hunters like herself to track any single man or beast among many..

And his smell was much of death.

Yes. This man in his dark leathers had killed, and many..

He reeked of it..

But he didn’t smell like the rabid did. He smelled like he had been among or surrounded by many rabid men, and had killed many rabid men. And the smell of ‘rabid’ clung to him like the after taste of bad meat.

 

Inshala grimaced.

 

She had been intrigued by him, but now she had to kill him.

She sighed.

She knew, animals who hung around the rabid, always ended up rabid.

 

‘Clink!’

 

The man in the dark clothes dropped something..

..and left, following her Master, and soon fading in the dusk.

 

Inshala very patiently waited for a full ten minutes before rising from her hidden spot. Then she circled around all the way to where the evil man and her master had gone.

She wasn’t satisfied.

She felt uniquely intrigued as if a whole, different side of her had just awaked.. The non-human side of her. Her senses stretched forth and wide as she doubled back and circled the area from the other side.

Still not satisfied, she pounced up to a tree overseeing the area and glared down..

 

There.. something glittered in the ghostly light of the newly appearing moon.

She waited another ten minutes sweeping the area and the surrounding forest.

This was a trap.

She had been caught a few too many times in the past not to recognize one, but she just couldn’t find it.

 

A low, frustrated growl escaped her as she carefully, and silently slinked down the tree, and placing one giant paw over another giant paw, she came to the clearing where the evil man and her Master had been, her ears prickling every which way to catch signs of hidden ambushers.

In her past, she had found out rangers had been extremely hard to catch. But for some reason, none of them had ever hunted her down. Not in her small, diminutive, girl form, and not in her great, saber-tooth tiger form. Why, she had never been sure. Perhaps her father had told them about her and rangers respected her father. Genuinely respected him and by proxy to her Father, Inshala respected rangers in return. This evil man, however sneaky he was, was NOT a ranger. He hadn’t smelled like a ranger, for one. And two; rangers were.. Inshala was not very sure but the word ‘good’ seemed fitting.. This man was not, good. No.. He definitely was not a good man. And should the opportunity present itself, she was going to tell him exactly that!

Carefully, she snuck near the glittering thing she’d seen, watching the ground for possible hidden bear-traps or some such, as she ghosted on. Humans, as she’d learned many times over, were extraordinarily creative when it came to creating devices that killed. The irony, not that the little girl, Inshala, knew what the word ‘irony’ meant, was not lost on her, that the same humans were equally poor and unimaginative when it came to creating anything that actually saved lives!

 

Then she saw it.

The glittering thing on the ground.

 

 

Inshala took a step closer and paused, staring at the long, slim object with unadulterated confusion.

It was nothing but a long dagger, sheathed in its scabbard.

Nothing ornate, nor pretty. Just a long, slick weapon, made for practical accuracy.. and for killing.

Period.

 

Six hundred pounds of feline aggression settled down near the dagger and just stared at it. After a few moments, she pawed it..

..and yowled in total surprise, jumping some massive ten feet into the air and very nearly fifteen back, as the dagger bounced once, then settled again!

Inshala giggled at her own reaction.. which sort of made her look odd, in her giant, saber-tooth tiger form.

Alright. So it wasn’t a trap.

But why then, had the evil man dropped it?

Had it been a careless folly?

No.

Inshala knew, more instinctually than anything else, that the evil man had not dropped it by mistake.

He had left it there with deliberate deliberation.

He had also made sure that she had seen him..

..seeing as how he hadn’t ‘left’, but had ‘carefully dropped’ it there..

The next question was why?

Why had the evil man leave a dagger..

No.. Not just a dagger.. a SHEATHED dagger for her to find.

Had he left just the dagger, it would have meant one of many things.. and perhaps even none of them.

A sheathed dagger meant..

A ‘careful’ peace offering?

He had parted with something he would need while going to battle and knowing its absence might cause him his death. Yet he had taken that risk.

Not to mention the nuance; because the dagger was sheathed, it could safely be carried by the receiving party, without cutting themselves by mistake or foolishly stabbing it under one’s belt!

This.. evil man had offered peace, in his own, perhaps a bit creepy way. He showed respect to the creature he couldn’t see, yet felt was there, hiding in the bush, and he also respected the ‘weapon’, because both, her and the dagger, had the distinct quality to take life.

It had been an intriguingly subtle.. and double-edged message..

 

..and Inshala, both girl and tiger, absolutely LOVED it!

 

It had been, perhaps the first time ever, someone had recognized her as someone who had the means and the skills to slay, but also the conscience to choose not to, and showed her, not hate, nor fear and certainly not love, but respect..

✱ ✱ ✱

The great saber-tooth snuck deep in the woods, carefully under and over heavy bushes and foliage as she watched her master walking between the two young and pretty ranger girls. That had surprised Inshala. She had never seen armed girls —or women, Inshala wasn’t sure which one of them, these rangers were. Her master had been quite evasive when she had asked him about the difference between a girl and a woman, and now she couldn’t decide what these two were. She felt she was a girl. And she also felt she had no idea, whatsoever, what, how, or when she would become a woman. Human language was diverse and its rules were complicated and many, and Inshala felt a headache threatening to inflict her. The two rangers did look all grown up if that is what it took to be a woman, but they also looked.. young too, at the same time. Though they moved with that careful, steady pace all rangers seemed to possess, they also had a ‘fresh’ step to their gait which suggested ‘youth’. Inshala wasn’t sure how she recognized these nuances or subtleties, but it seemed she only did so at an instinctual level than any learned or attained wisdom.

The one leading was a tall human girl. Taller than herself and had pretty green eyes, fair skin, and long, free-falling, coarse black hair. Or perhaps she had braided it at some time but because she kept playing with it, they had drooped and finally gone free of their braids. She had a very long, very heavy bow in one hand and a wicked-looking greatsword strapped across her back.

The other one was an elf, yet also not an elf.. “A half-elf”, exclaimed Inshala. So that’s what a half-elf looked like. She was a tad shorter than the human and leaner. Her dark brown hair was also free but had two, pretty little braids on one, and a single braid on the other side of her otherwise comely face. A face that wanted to laugh, but was trying very hard to appear serious by means of a scowl.

Inshala giggled.

The half-elf also had a very long, very heavy-looking bow in her hand and a pair of swords hanging at her sides.

Yup. These two rangers definitely looked competent.

And she loved them! They looked brave and strong. Perhaps she might not have to show herself at all, after all.

She watched as the two rangers and her master stop, near a very sheer cliff face and the ranger girls rolled some boulders, forming a barely protective half-circle where they placed her master and as the human girl took her place in front of the boulders, the half-elf climbed up a large rock and prepared her bow and her arrows.

 

What the..

What were they doing?

Why were they just standing in the middle of nowhere waiting for the wolves?

 

She sighed.

They were brave alright.

But not very bright!

 

And then the air suddenly got cold.. Very cold and very fast and Inshala saw her master raise his skinny arms and started a very complex incantation. One she had never seen him perform before..

And then she understood.

Not the content, but the implications of what was going on..

The ‘enemy’ had picked up on what was going on, and was trying to use the weather by altering it enough to freeze everyone near its den!

Ow.. this was a cunning and powerful enemy!

Then she heard them.

She heard them even before the rangers..

 

Wolves..

Many wolves..

 

And they came down, very nearly hurling themselves off the cliffside.

Their enemy had sensed her master and had sent his pet wolves to eliminate him.

Well..

Inshala was not going to let that happen.

But she waited. As big as she was in her saber-tooth tiger form, going up against a pack of some forty-odd wolves was a losing fight.

Inshala had never had any battle training. Hers was all about instincts.. The same instincts that told her to wait..

..and hit where it would have the greatest effect.

She had no illusions about her abilities nor that she could best a pack of wolves that size. What she did know was, when struck with overwhelming brute strength and suddenly, it would break the wolves will and scare them off.. And once a few of them started to run, the rest would follow. That was how a pack worked. And so long as she made sure the wolves couldn’t go for her throat or hamstring her hind legs, she could best them with ease.. One paw from her strong arms could shatter a wolf’s skull, without even the need to use her claws. That was the one distinct advantage felines had over canines; the ability to use their paws in a lateral direction. A swipe or a swing, per se. Dogs, or wolves, could only move their paws vertically, effectively removing the option of using their claws. The ‘batting’ or ‘swatting’ of a cat would be ‘playful’. The same action used by a six hundred pounds tiger was altogether a different proposition. Hence the skull-cracking.. Or the snapping of a spine, which was easier than the skull, but harder to reach when they were all facing her. Which is why, Inshala thought, she had to either strike from the rear, which was unlikely to succeed since there was no cover there or charge in from the flank, where she would have the opportunity to break many spines!

 

And that’s when the half-elf girl started ‘loosing’ her arrows..

 

Inshala just stood there, quietly dumbstruck as the ranger-girl started killing wolves at six hundred yards!

That.. was not fair!

The human also started shooting but she missed some. Then she drew her awesome big sword and charged!

 

“Alright.”, thought Inshala. “That one is pretty and stupid.. and pretty stupid!”

 

What was she doing?!

You don’t charge a whole pack of wolves..

But there she was, suddenly in the middle of the ravaging wolves and.. she was laughing, and Inshala seriously thought she was a bit ‘wrong in the head’, and dancing among the wolves, and where she swung, she laid waste a wolf.

 

That’s when Inshala noticed the alpha.

 

It had circled around, taking advantage of the chaos —a something far too cunning for a wolf, and was now rushing..

..at the half-elf girl from behind her.

The half-elf girl screamed.

“Bree..!”

And Inshala saw the human girl disappear under a whole lot of wolves.

Inshala charged.

A tad too late, for she had positioned herself for the pack, not the half-elf.

The alpha struck the half-elf from behind, sending her off the rock she was standing. Inshala heard a meaty crack when the half-elf fell on the ground and hit her head.

Then alpha went for her master!

 

“Not going to happen..”, hissed Inshala.

 

And six hundred pounds of feline aggression pounced the alpha, and with a sharp, unsettling crack, broke its spine. Inshala did not bother with subtleties. No one was ever going to touch her Father and Master; with a mighty swing of her awesome paw, she sent the alpha’s head, clean off its shoulders, and rolling some fifteen yards away!

Then she was among the remaining wolves.

Yes, she fought with the instincts of a killer predator, but she still had the mind of a human and.. something else guiding those instincts.. She never, for any given instance, stayed in one spot to allow the wolves to crowd her, nor hamstring her. She crushed the skull of one wolf, smashed the muzzle of another, gracefully arched over a third, broke the spine of a fourth, hopped over a charging fifth, raked open an unsuspecting sixth.. It was a mesmerizing scene, to see such a magnificent, but equally large animal dance and so nimbly among the wolves. It looked like a sand-colored smoke whifting among black and white fur..

 

It didn’t take too long.

 

The half-elf girl with her insane accuracy and the human girl with her insanity had killed much more than half their numbers to make a decent feast for the saber-tooth.

The last few tried to make a yelping run for it.

Inshala did not let that happen.

What she did do, however, was not vengeance, nor punishment.

It was a simple matter of ‘balance’.

Whatever had inflicted these wolves, had done it at a terminal level and they had all tasted human and elf flesh and many times. Enough to make a habit of it and certainly enough to lust for more. The imbalance here was very well defined; willy-nilly, these wolves had gone over the edge and crossed the line.

A line where there was no sanity.

And there were no cures here.

Only amputation.

Which is exactly what she’d did.

She left none!

 

“You were extraordinary, my sweet chestnut.”

“I was?”

“Ow my child. If only we had Master Brom Bumblebrim here, he would have sung an epic, just for you..”

*blush*

“Ow.. who is Master Blom Bundlebim Hobim?”

“An acquaintance of mine. A bard. Met him many years ago.. Wait. How did you know he is a hobbit?”

“I am not sure, Father. It just came to me.”

“Well, I must say, you truly were magnificent. And your new form. It really is much bigger than your first tiger. I wasn’t aware there were any saber-tooth tigers in Ritual Forest.”

*blush*

“I..”

“It’s alright, my dear child. I do not mind you quenching your curiosity. But I would like to be informed. I am an old man, yes. But I have traveled far and wide.. And know my forest well. If you feel you have to keep certain things from me, I am fine with it. But never fear me. That would truly hurt.”

“I am sorry I kept this from you. Father. You are the only one that has scolded me honestly. I can’t bear to see you worry any more than you already do for me.”

“That is what fathers do, my dearest. We worry over our daughters.. But now, help me with these young and over-enthusiastic rangers.”

“They were good, Father.”

“They were exceptionally good, my sweet chestnut. This one shoots like no one I have ever seen. And this one.. scared me more than she scared the wolves, I think.”

“I think she is angry.”

“Ow?”

“Yes, Father. She was laughing while she was fighting. But she was also crying. But not out of fear. In fact, the moment she drew her big sword, she left all her fear behind. I do not think she was laughing because she was happy. That would be.. scary.. I think she was laughing to hide her anger.”

“You have a gift, my dear; an astute level of perception and insight.”

“She is also bitten. Many, many times.”

“Yes, she is. I believe I can heal most of it. I am sure she will truly cry when she wakes up, but from pain. At least there will be little scaring. This one however has a cracked skull.”

“I tried to reach her, but I was positioned wrong. Can you fix her? I think she’s cute. Just look at her pretty eyelashes.”

“Come, my dear, help me with this one first. It is not healthy for her to lie in all that wolf blood and.. insides..”

“She is pretty too. But she smells of woodsmen. I do not like woodsmen, Father.”

“Come now, my dear, they very nearly gave their lives trying to protect this old fool.”

“Speaking of fools. Was there a particular reason you all just stood there, right out in the open? Is there a significance to incanting at such an indefensible spot just so all the wolves could see you, that I am not aware of? I mean, there are so many trees, after all.. You could have cast your spell, sitting comfortably on a branch while these two pretty rangers could have shot at the wolves while they piled at the bottom of the trees!”

*blink*

“Well, now, I.. never really thought about it..”

“You all did look awesome though..”

“Well, really, now. You are just making fun of this old man.”

*giggle*

“People are coming, Master. Time for me to go, I think.”

“Yes, my sweet chestnut. I believe it is..”

“Take these, Master, and have the humans make pretty earrings for these two. I think they deserve them.”

“Ow?”

“Yes, Father. These are the alphas fangs. I do not like looting animals, other than what I honestly need.. But I sense.. a certain balance here now..”

 

The old man stared at the little girl and suddenly the dawn of a realization brightened his astonished face. Slowly, and carefully he looked at the unconscious girls, then studied the half-elf a bit more closely.

Good and Great Heavens..

The little girl, his little girl, was right!

Informed by her, he recognized who the half-elf was; Laila.. The daughter of Darien Darkmaine and his beloved Seraphim Silverdûne, both long deceased. And in a chain reaction, he also recognized who the other, the human girl was too; the daughter of dear Seleina Sunstrider and Aramsis Darkmaine, both also long gone..

 

“You are so much more astute than I could have imagined, my dear, dear child.. Your ability to sense balance around you is astonishing. And certainly much more finely tuned than mine.. You truly are a wonder..”

Inshala blushed furiously and glowed with genuine pride.. then took off..

 

Master Cathber stared after his ‘gift’, then back at the unconscious girls.

“Well. I believe some well-earned titles are in order, here.. ‘Wolvesbane’ for you and ‘Songsteel’ for you, I think sounds fair and quite fitting.”

“And perhaps ‘Frostmane’ for you..”, he added with a whisper, glancing after his saber-tooth daughter..

✱ ✱ ✱

The great saber-tooth wept silently.

She crouched behind the trees and thick bushes, staring at the large camp full of elves, woodsmen, and rangers laughing and drinking merrily in celebration of having finally gotten rid of the mad wolves infesting Dim Woods and Nurturing Heaven for over two decades. Inshala wasn’t among the merry lot and she wept. Not for having to miss the party, but for the two, pretty ranger girls moaning in pain, in their tent.

Inshala knew pain. She knew it intimately. She had been born with it. Hence, when she saw pain and suffering, she did not offer sentiments because she felt the pain. And those two had fought so bravely, so valant.. varrant.. so.. virulent? What was the word?

Valiant!

Yes, they had fought so bravely and valiantly, and they were now paying the price for it.. cashed in pain.

 

Then she saw the dark, evil man skulk..

No.

Not skulk..

Skulk had a.. Inshala was not sure exactly what, but the word ‘skulk’ didn’t fit the evil man.

Skulk had a certain ‘cowardice’ attached to it.

Sneak, then, perhaps?

But he wasn’t exactly sneaking either, per se.

Walked silently?

Well, that certainly fit, but Inshala didn’t think it did the evil man justice nor give it the dramatic touch she felt it needed.

Walking silently seemed more like a ‘side effect’ to his gait, rather than the cause.

And why was she so hung up on how the evil man walked anyway?

It was just a walk!

Inshala, however, loved correctly defining things. It seemed to satisfy her at a fundamental level.

Or perhaps it was because she had been misunderstood or misinterpreted a few too many times in her past.

Being thought you were a demon all your childhood, and consequently being chased, stoned, caged, and whipped would do that.

An ungrateful, or perhaps, an uncharitable person would probably call her ‘obsessive’.

However she was looked upon, Inshala did not mind, so long as there were no name-calling, chasing, stoning, caging, or whipping in the end.

She still did obsess on correctly defining things, though.

The only, and major issue with that was, the little girl was quite and quietly isolated and had only one old man to talk to. The man she loved and adored.. and didn’t want to perpetually pester him. Hence she lacked ‘words’..

 

“Ghosted.”

 

She exclaimed.. Yes, the evil man ‘ghosted’ towards the tent where the two, pretty ranger girls moaned and groaned in pain!

Or rather, he had already ‘ghosted’ there by the time Inshala found the correct word and she’d totally missed it!

That bothered the little girl.

It bothered her a lot.

She knew she could obsess over words, her bathing schedule, certainly her Father’s bathing calendar, her hair, her clothes, her nails, and her.. horns.. But over a boy? a man? She wasn’t quite sure what this one was, but sending a ‘boy’ to fight a whole pack of wolves sounded genuinely wrong to Inshala.. though, when she thought about it, she was here and she’d fought the wolves and she was a girl. So were the two, pretty ranger girls!

This particular, boy/girl, man/woman dilemma was really getting out of hand!

What’s more, why had the evil man gone to a tent where two, pretty ranger girls lay resting?

That thought..

.. Inshala found it extremely disturbing for some reason and she was totally clueless as to why!

Perhaps the evil man liked one of the girls. They were both pretty, after all..

Perhaps the evil man liked BOTH the girls! They were BOTH pretty, after all!

A low and savage growl escaped the saber-tooth.. She wasn’t sure which of those she found more disturbing, but both made her want to pounce the tent and shred things.. in a rather bloody way.. Starting with the evil man!

 

On a side note, Aager Fogstep never knew just how close he’d come to getting shredded that evening!

 

And just like that, Inshala calmed down.

Because she remembered something—

 

The massive, six hundred pounds of feral egression molded down..

There was no smoke, no crunching of bones, no disgusting body fluids gushing out of any orifice, nor any spectacular, sparkling effects.. at all..

One moment a giant of a cat with a great maw, foot-long sabers for teeth, spine snapping massive paws and man-height shoulders, the next, a skinny little girl.

 

The lack of drama was a bit disappointing perhaps, but the beauty of the change was in fact, in its quiet subtlety.

 

—the sheathed dagger.

 

The two, pretty ranger girls did not possess anything that belonged to the evil man. But she did.

And the evil man did not have the smell of either of the two, pretty ranger girls on him.

 

Funny how ‘relative reason’ found its way through impossible odds at times. Particularly when you desperately wanted it to!

 

The little girl, Inshala, did not ‘ghost’ in the night. She didn’t think she would ever be able to do that. Not in her ‘girl form’, anyway. She felt that seemed something unique to the evil man for some reason and that thought made her frown.. and put a tiny little smile on her small mouth at the same time.

Hence she snuck.

Inshala did not do skulking, either!

Quietly, she placed the sheathed dagger near the entrance of the tent.

 

To this day, she was never really sure why she’d returned the dagger. Perhaps it was because she thought he might need it and its lack might cause him harm. Or perhaps it was a matter of simple ‘balance’; take something, give something. Maybe it was about returning the ‘careful peace’ offering in-kind.. though, in all candor, she might have thought it was something of a game. A bit like hide-and-seek..

Whatever her reasons or reasonings were, it felt ‘right’ and ‘appropriate’ to have returned the sheathed dagger because when she snuck back into the woods, the frown on her diminutive face was gone.

And only the little smile was there.

✱ ✱ ✱

Let me get this straight, old man. You want me to teach your daughter the differences between boys and girls, and men and women? Am I correct?”

*sigh*

“Yes, Ganiste. That is exactly what I am asking you to do..”

*heartless laughter*

“This is incredible. The great Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig blushes and can’t talk about men and women to a little girl?”

*glare*

“You are enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“more heartless laughter*

“Very, very much. But what I don’t understand is, you told me all this when I was a girl. Why can’t you tell her?”

*sigh*

“She is my daughter, Ganiste. I.. can’t, alright. A father should never have to tell these things to his daughter. To a son, perhaps, but not his daughter. That is the mother’s prerogative, if not her job. Yes, it doesn’t sound nice when I say it like that, but to be honest, I don’t care. When it comes to fathers and daughters, there should be some sort of unspoken privacy between them. The same privacy that creates the incomprehensible but special bond that is called father and daughter. Yes, I have washed her, bathed her, clothed her, looked after her, fed her, taught her, and comforted her the best I can. And whenever she does these by herself and in the future, she will remember me and smile. This.. ‘topic’, however, relates to a possible third person by its nature I am hoping she will find in time.. Someone who loves her, cares for her, attends to her needs in all aspects, comforts her, and keeps her safe. And I should never be part of that equation. Only her and that person, whoever he may be.. If I told her about these, I will ruin the mystic of the whole thing..”

“And embarrass yourself..”

“And embarrass myself..”

“You never cease to amaze me, old man.”

“I honestly am not trying.. But I can not go to the woodsmen for their support on this, seeing as how they treated her all these years. Elves.. well.. I am NOT going to the elves with this.. Dwarves are not even aware of her existence and I’d like to keep it that way. They make horrible gossip! You are the only woman I know and trust.. Ironic as that may seem..”

“Yes.. rather ironic, indeed. An ogress teaching the ways of boys and girls, men and women to an old codger’s little, non-human daughter. What could possibly go wrong there?”

“Old codger? Really, now, Ganiste..”

“Old geezer..?”

“I resent that!”

“Bodach?”

“Well, now, you are just being mean, Ganiste. I never called you any names.”

*cruel laughter*

“By all means, do. You are so out of your debt here that I can pluck you clean and you will just sit there and take it all!”

“Do it, then. For her, I will sit still and ‘take it all’..”

*blink*

“You are serious..”

“Ganiste.. When have you ever seen me otherwise?”

“Very well, old man. This is quite unprecedented, but I will do this for you. And for her.. I hear certain ‘talks’ form special bonds between girls. Never really had the chance here. Ogres aren’t much when it comes to intimacy. At least I and the future Ritual Guardian will have such a special bond..”

“Are you done talking privately with my Father, Ganiste? Chihuahua is hungry, and so am I..”

“Yes, I am done talking with your father. But not quite done talking privately with you..”

“You want.. to talk privately with me?”

“Yes, child. I am afraid this will be one of ‘those talks’..”

“What talks?”

Those talks..

“What talks?”

*blink*

“Cathber! You never had any of ‘those talks’ with her?”

*blush*

“Uhhmm.. Nope! Thought I’d leave it all to you and in your tender care..”

“You are incredible, you are.. How is she even alive?”

“That was a bit harsh, now, Ganiste. I did the best I could..”

*sigh*

“Come, little one. Help me prepare dinner and I will tell you all about boys and girls..”

“You.. you will?”

“Yes, little one, I will..”

“Yessh! It has been in my mind for some time now. But I do not understand why my Father isn’t telling me this and you are..”

“Because he is a wuss!”

“Well, now, really, Ganiste?!”

✱ ✱ ✱

Tell me little one. What do you know about boys?” 

“They are mean. They try to catch me, they pull my hair, my ears, and my horns. They hit me with sticks, they throw stones at me and call their parents who beat me more, put me into cages, and whip me. I do not like them, mother Ganiste.”

*blink*

“And.. why did you not hit them back, child?”

“Because I do not like hurting. I am used to pain, but they are not. If I threw a rock at them, they will die. If I hit them with sticks, they will die. If I whip them, they will die. I only kill to eat. And when an animal has become sick in the head..”

“Hmmm.. Alright. Perhaps one day you will meet a boy who will not do any of those to you.”

“I do not look forward to it, mother Ganiste. Humans are all same. They are ignorant, stupid, they only want to kill things and they do not smell nice. Why would I want any of them.”

“But you are human too, child.”

“No, mother Ganiste. I am not. Father says I am. And at first, I wanted to be as well. If being human will make me do all the evil things they do, I do not want to be human. Perhaps an elf. They at least never throw stones at me, or call me names or hit me with sticks. But they do avoid me and that hurts. I have done nothing to them.. I just watch them play and dance from far away. They will not mind that. But they will not let me come any closer. They are a closed-minded people.”

*sigh*

“Life hasn’t offered you any favors, has it, child? And this coming from an ogre makes it all the more sad.”

“I did not even want to be, mother Ganiste. At all.. But no one asked me, so I am here. Only my Father has been good to me.. And you, mother Ganiste. But he is old. I can see him wither away, every day now and I do not know what to do? If only I could find a way to give him my days, I would. No one wants a dirty little demon like me. But everyone needs him.”

*blink*

“No child. We do not get to give our days to others. And even if you had the chance, you shouldn’t be doing that.”

“Why? I have no future. There are no happy days for me other than what my Father gives me..”

“Child. I am an ogre and even I haven’t given up thus thoroughly. And I lost everyone I know to humans, because of humans.. Yet there are some that can be spoken to, bargained with, and expect some respect. Your father is one such human. Should have seen me when I first saw him. I literally tried to catch and eat him! But he bested me and still did not slay me. Instead, he offered to take me along and show me the world beyond our hills and our ways. Now he is your father and still doing the same. In time, you will find someone, perhaps a human, or an elf, or someone or something else, who will be like your father but who will not be your father. To him, you will tell all your secrets, all your worries, all your fears, all your bad habits and it will still be alright. You will open your heart to him and he will love you for it. And he will do the same to you and it will be alright with you and you will love him for it, as well..”

“I find your confidence in humans enthralling, but misplaced, mother Ganiste..”

“That is for time to show you, child. But either way, you must know what boys are and what men are. You must also know what being a girl means and how they become women.”

“Tell me about the girl and the woman, mother Ganiste. I have no interest in boys nor men. They have brought me nothing but suffering, and given me nothing but pain..”

“Let’s not be too hasty, child. For there can be no men without women and only empty and desolate women without men..”

“I do not understand, mother Ganiste. What do women have that men want, and what do men have that women need?”

*sigh*

“Living in the wild, have you never noticed how there are always two, to make more?”

“I have, mother Ganiste. Animals are kind, for they hunt only what they need. And are bonded to their mates. The mate fights and savagely, so the mother can run and take its cubs, puppies, and babies to safety.”

“Yes. But why does it take two, to birth the cubs, puppies, and babies?”

“I do not know, mother Ganiste. It just does, I guess.”

“It doesn’t ‘just does’, child. It is needed. The girl needs the boy, for the girl to make more. And the boy needs the girl, for the whole of their kind to grow. Neither is better than the other, and neither is the stronger. To think so is folly and an elementary mistake.”

“But why?”

“Because there can be no men without women and only empty and desolate women without men, dear child.”

“…”

“When boys grow, they become men. When girls grow, they stay a girl. For a girl to become a woman, she needs to mate.”

“What is to mate, mother Ganiste?”

“The details of that is something you will learn in time, I imagine. Suffice to say, the boy gives his seeds to the girl, and the girl turns those seeds into new life! What you are here for is, when boys grow, they grow also in size and muscle, though not particularly in their mental capacity. This is also true for women, really, but that’s beside the point. When a girl starts to grow, her body changes much more profoundly than boys. Our hips grow wider, and our breasts grow larger.”

*blush*

“But.. why?”

“For many reasons. One is to attract the attention of men, I suppose, the other is for both to carry and deliver our babies, and to feed our young ones..”

“I.. do not understand, mother Genista.. You mean to tell me I will look like you?”

“In essence, yes. Do you remember how flat you were just a few short years ago?”

“gawk*

“You certainly were, the last time you came here. Now you have ‘hips’, and ‘breasts..”

*furious blush*

“Will they not stop growing?”

“They might. But I doubt. Not yet anyway. You are different from humans and different from ogres. But I believe you are not quite done with your growing just yet.”

*blush some more*

“But.. I do not want them to grow anymore. Can I not stop them?”

“No. And neither should you want to. Never, and I mean, never interfere with your natural growth. That is not just wrong, you will ruin your body. There is no going back once it’s done, child.. Besides, no girl ever wants them to stop growing. The larger they are, the more men like them.. boys too, for that matter, and I don’t expect that particular aspect in males to be any different in humans.”

“I do not understand, mother Ganiste. I do not want to grow anymore. If I grow more, so will my horns..”

“Child.. What am I?”

“An ogress, mother Ganiste.”

“I have the face of a bull that’s smashed into a wall running at full speed. I have a flat nose, thick, uneven horns, and canines that stick out of my jaw..”

“Yes. You look awesome, mother Ganiste.”

*blink*

“What?”

“You look awesome!”

“I.. I do?”

“And very impressive. I was enthralled the first time we met.”

“Girl.. You are ruining my speech and my point!”

*giggle*

“I am sorry, mother Ganiste. But I speak my truth.”

“Your truth is pretty. But my face is not. Which is, or was, my point.”

“I feel lost, mother Ganiste.”

“As much as I dislike many of my aspects, this is me. This is who and what I am. In time, I will become more, and I will become less, yet, whatever and however I turn out to be, I will accept that, and so must you.”

“You belong, mother Ganiste. Here, and among yours.”

“Yes.”

“Where do I belong?”

*blink*”

“I have no place among humans and I have no place among elves. You belong to your people, and your hills, mother Ganiste, because you have people.. I have no hills and no people.. I have no place in this world, mother. I do not belong!”

“You belong, where you feel you belong, child. To your father and to your home.. And as long as I am here, you belong to these hills as well.”

 

“I thank you, mother Ganiste. You are kind and wise. But you and I know, in the end, I will live alone, and die alone. I will always be shunned, stoned, caged, and whipped for as long as I live and my best chance is to run.. Always run.. Should I settle and be found, I will be driven and my home burned. The running can not belong, mother Ganiste..”

 

 

“Did you learn the answers to your questions, my sweet chestnut?”

“Yes, Father. Thank you for bringing me here to mother Ganiste. She is wise as she is pretty. I would like to visit her again in the future if it’s alright.”

“I am sure Ganiste wouldn’t mind. I believe she truly adores you.”

“She adores many things, Father. The smaller they are, the more she adores..”

“And have you any further questions to ask on the matter you talked?”

“No, Father. I found it was a matter that was not significant, nor pertinent and quite unrelated to my life.”

“Ow?”

“Boys and men will always stay and far away. And I will always stay, here and a girl. I am alone, Father, for I have no kind. I belong nowhere and there will be no mate waiting for me..”

✱ ✱ ✱

You have been rather quiet of late, my daughter. What’s ails you? Are you unwell?”

“I am well, Father. I am merely thinking.”

“Thinking. Thinking is good, my sweet chestnut. But too much, however, could befuddle —unless shared.”

“The Wyld Hunt, Master. That is what I have been thinking.”

*blink*

“Now, why would a pretty little girl such as yourself ever think of a dreadful thing such as the Wyld Hunt, my daughter. It is not a wise matter to dwell upon. Not for an old man such as myself, let alone a pretty little girl..”

“You do not have to say I am pretty all the time, Master. That elk has escaped.. I no longer find interest in being pretty. I have accepted my lot..”

“Perhaps you should look into all your options before you call upon your lot, my daughter.”

“It is alright, Father. It really is.”

“My dear fair girl.. Ever since we met, have I ever mislead, muddied the truth, or lied to you?”

“Never, Father.”

“There you have it, then. If I say you are loved, it is because you are loved. When I say you are pretty, it is because you are pretty.. Unless you want to call this old man a fool for a pretty face.. which would sort of make my point!”

“I thank you for your love and your care, Father. It has meant a lot for me and sustained me all these years. It is time, however, I stand on my own feet, then on your shoulders.”

“My shoulders are fine, my sweet chestnut. You weigh little!”

“I weigh more than my little. This I think you already know, Father.”

*sigh*

“Why don’t we both go to the pond and take a dip? It is a beautiful day..”

“I took a dip last week, Father. I will take another if I need.”

*blink*

“Soo.. why were you thinking about the Wyld Hunt? If I may be so bold as to ask..”

“You are bold, Father.”

“Well, really, now? That’s just being nasty.”

*giggle*

“I am sorry, Father.”

“We shall see how sorry you are then, shall we, young lady? The Wyld Hunt..”

“Perhaps I could call it and join it.”

“You.. What?!”

“Call it and join it, Father. That way, I will belong.”

*blink*

“First of all, young lady, no one ‘just calls’ the Wyld Hunt. Second, the Wyld Hunt is not something you can ‘belong’ to.. like ever! The Wyld Hunt is not a nice thing, my daughter. It is very, very, VERY dangerous to call it.. Once, and only once did I call it and that was over 750 years ago during Themalsar War, and it took a full circle of druids to barely steer it towards that mad old priest’s temple! They destroyed the temple and brought it down to a stunted rubble.”

“But I heard he still lives, Father. Themalsar still lives.”

“Yes. He does. As far as I know. The fool made pacts with unimaginable things we could not even put names to. The best we could do was to lock him up in his stinking dungeons and put the strongest wards we could muster.. All of us; what remained of the druids, any Temple Guardian we could get our hands on, any elf wizard or sorcerer, and even Angels from the High Heavens and powerful Fey from either Courts..”

“So you called the Wyld Hunt and they were unable to destroy this Themalsar?”

“Yes.”

“There you have it then, Father.”

“There we have what, child?”

“You sent them to do a task and they were unable to finish it.. The Wyld Hunt ‘owes’ you, Father!”

“They, what?”

“Now you could call them and ask them if I could join them as a payment to their debt! That way, they will be happy for having finally paid off their debt, I will have gone and joined them and ‘belonged’, and you will be free of me and will no longer be forced to endure my weight!”

*blink*

*gawk*

*stunned silence*

“No..”

“No? But why, Father? Seems like a good solution.”

“Solutions are for problems.”

“Yes, Father. And I am the problem.”

“No, my daughter. The problem is you questioning my love for you. The problem is where you do me the disservice of questioning my love, my care, and my fondness of you.”

*blink*

“I.. I thought..”

“Go.”

“Go? Where shall I go, Father?”

“Go.. and take a bath..”

“I do not need a bath, Father. The dirty does not come off.”

“Go, Inshala. NOW! AND NEVER TALK ABOUT THE WYLD HUNT AGAIN!!”

*sob*

“You shouted at me, Father..”

✱ ✱ ✱

Ganiste! I need your help!”

“Cathber? That you, old man?”

“Yes, yes.. How many others do you see in your dreams, girl?”

“Do you really want me to answer that question, old man?”

*blink*

“You really shouldn’t ask questions you do not want the answers for, old man. But, I wasn’t really sleeping. Just staring at something dreamily.”

*heavy, fuming breaths*

“Are you done?”

“How could I be? You are the one with the problem. But let me guess; it’s about your little one, isn’t it?”

“How could you even know that?”

*smirk*

“Only two things that I can think of could have riled up a sour old man like you; one would be a whole village of bigots to have finally banded together and come down to that howell you call home with torches and pitchforks, or it’s a daughter.. But I doubt you would have called me for the bigots. I hear you take particular delight when it comes to entertaining yourself with them.”

* smolder*

“You are having fun, aren’t you, Ganiste?”

*heartless laugh*

“Every time you call, old man. But that is beside the point. Now, what seems to be the issue?”

“Inshala!”

“Yeees, old man, seeing as she is your daughter. But what is the problem?”

“She said she wanted to call the Wyld Hunt!”

“She can do that?”

“I don’t know. She surprises me at every turn. She is destroying everything I thought I knew about the fey and the wild fey!”

“Daughters can do that. Destroy everything we thought we knew. Why does she want to call the Wyld Hunt? Perhaps she is finally tired of your precious woodsmen. I certainly am.”

“No. She said she wants to join them and finally ‘belong’..”

“Ahhh..”

“Ahhh? Ahh, what?”

“It is of no importance, old man. It is a girl thing. You wouldn’t understand. Besides, joining the Wyld Hunt isn’t so bad. My great-great-grandfather joined it.. during Themalsar War. Wasn’t it you and your doddering old friends that called it, then?”

“It was a desperate play, Ganiste. You of all people should know this.”

“Perhaps.. But I wouldn’t worry too much about it..”

“You are not being of any help, Ganiste.”

*snicker*

“Was that a requirement of me? Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things?”

*glare*

“Please, Ganiste..”

“Well.. ‘Please’ always helps.. But like I said, I wouldn’t worry too much about it if I were you.”

“And why is that?”

“Told you. It’s a girl thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

*fume*

“By all means, try me, Ganiste!”

“No point. You have to be a girl to understand. But if you feel you are that desperate, by all means, turn into one. I know you can.. with one of your polymorph spells..”

*shocked silence*

“I have done many foolish things in my time, Ganiste. But I am NOT going to turn myself into a girl. Not now, not ever.. I am what I am and people should accept what they got, then try to be something else.. Particularly when it comes to things such as this —a something that is certain to end in depravity.”

*shrug*

“Time will come when your point of view might be questioned, old man.”

“And what gave you the idea that I would ever care, Ganiste! I am not a public figure that needs a popular vote for some foolish election. I do not require to appear ‘cute’, nor be politically correct. By all means, girl, you know what I do, what I fight, and what I defend.. But I see none of those idiots out there lending a hand, let alone bleed for humanity!”

“Alright. I will help you try and understand.”

“Please, do!”

“Inshala is how old now?”

“Should be close to her fifteenth. I am not quite sure of her exact day of birth. I estimated about a month or two before her mother was driven out of her village and into the woods then stoned to death.. The fools thought she’d died and left but she picked herself up, and her baby and ran.. She was overcome by fatigue and blood loss, however, and finally died. I found them a few days later quite by chance really. Buried the mother and adopted the baby.”

“And you let those animals get away with this?”

*growl*

“No, Ganiste, I did not. I.. someone let slip the news of what happened to the authorities in Serenity Home.. and the good sheriff, along with his guards and a platoon of rangers came down on them like an avalanche.. I don’t think they ever forgot what they did to that poor young girl since then..”

“How very you, old man. But if we are to return to the essence of your problem, your beloved daughter, Inshala, is a teenager now, and has been for quite some time. I am surprised she hasn’t done anything odd and creepy at all..”

“So what if she is a teenager?”

“Do you even know what girls go through during their teenage years, old man?”

“Of course. They grow!”

*stare*

“You are incredible, you are, old man.. How is that poor girl even alive with you?”

*blush*

“That was a tad harsh, Ganiste. I did my best.”

*sigh*

“It is not your fault you are such a dork, Cathber.”

“Well, now, really?”

“Don’t misunderstand me, old man. All men are.. when it comes to truly understand girls.. or women, for that matter.. and what we go through while we are growing and what we suffer in life.”

“I am sorry, Ganiste. I have been running around this forest for over eight hundred years dealing with the sins of men, the fouls of monsters, and the fel of demons to make life livable and safe for others. I was bound to miss a thing or two.”

“You are a good man, Cathber. A foolish man, but still a good man.”

“Well, thank you very much for seeing fit to give me that much credit, Ganiste.”

“Don’t be like that, Cathber. It does not become you.. Look, I am a tad busy with a poacher at hand so I will try to make this simple; men do not understand what we go through while we are growing. You literally can’t because you never go through it.. You can nod your heads and claim to understand but never truly comprehend.. We are awash with all sorts of wild chemicals as our bodies change and become ‘birth ready’. This is what she is going through.. just like any other teenage girl does, resulting in odd behavior changes, mood swings, laughing and crying for no particular reason, falling in love with foolish, older men..”

“I resent that.”

*chuckle*

“It will last for some time and will call her to do all sorts of odd drama, though I must admit, the idea of joining the Wyld Hunt is a bit of an overkill..”

“How long? How long will this last?”

“For however long it takes for her to adjust to these changes and until she adapts to her new self..”

“New self?

“Yes, old man.. Larger breasts, wider hips, swaying walks.. you know..”

“No, I don’t.. Not really..”

“Apparently not.”

“Hey, I met my beautiful Tamara when she was done with her growing up, alright.”

“In short, she must go through with this and there is nothing you really can do about it.”

*sigh*

“Nothing? There is absolutely nothing I can do about it?”

“Absolutely nothing, old man. The only thing you can try is to offer understanding, patience, and kindness..”

“She has those and more, Ganiste. She can have all my understanding, patience, and kindness.. ALL OF IT!

“No, old man. You thought you gave her those. What she needs now are the real ones.. What’s worse, for you is, she might not even be in the mood to accept any of them!”

“This is.. unprecedented..”

“You have a daughter and you think this as unprecedented? You truly are naive, Cathber.”

“You are punning me again, Ganiste.

*chuckle*

“Yes. Yes, I am, old man. But what you need now is a hug. I could give you a hug.”

“Uhhmm.. I apricate your offer, dear Ganiste. But the last time you hugged, it took me nearly three months to recover.”

“Such is love, old man.. Always painful!”

✱ ✱ ✱

I see you are in the pond again.”

“Yes, Father. You told me to go and bathe in the pond.”

“Yes. Yes, I did tell you that, didn’t I..”

*awkward silence*

“Inshala.. My dearest daughter—”

“—I am sorry Father. For making you shout at me..”

“I am sorry, my sweet chestnut, to have shouted at you..”

*sob*

“You have been nothing but good to me..”

“And you have been nothing but a sweet daughter to me..”

“I will do my best not to put my weight on you.”

“And I will try to carry more of you.. My only wish of you is that you would accept what I give and never question it.”

“I will never question it, Father.”

“Now, where is my towel, my scrubbing stick and my soap? I think I smell a bit too.”

“Are you saying, I smell?”

“No. I am saying, you smell. A whole week without a dip in the pond? Really, now, girl? Who are you? And where’s my daughter?”

*blink*

“But.. but I am your daughter and I am right here!”

“Well, we shall see about that. My daughter always cooks a wonderful dinner. And will take another bath tomorrow as well..”

*splash*

“Where are you going, girl? And do put your towel on!”

“Towel can wait! I am going to cook a wonderful dinner and prove that I am your daughter, Father!”

 

 

✱ ✱ ✱

 

 

And how have you been of late, young one? You certainly gave my ogres a fright, when you came the way you did. Your cat is indeed quite impressive. “

“I am sorry mother Ganiste. It was not my intention to scare your people. I was on my way to Gulls Perch to play with some of my friends there and I was in a bit of a rush. But I didn’t want to be impolite so I decided to come here and visit you first.”

“That was very thoughtful of you, dear child. Come, let’s get into my tent and while I make you some cookies, you can play with chihuahua and tell me all about what you have been doing.”

“Cookie and chihuahua! How can I say, no, mother Ganiste?”

“I didn’t know the fey let outsiders into their valley at Gull’s Perch. They were all banned quite some years ago.”

“They still are, mother Ganiste. But they don’t mind me and let me in.”

“Interesting..”

“We swim and play in their big ponds for hours and hours. And when the sun sets, we fire hop and we play hide and seek in the woods. But I think the dryads are cheating.”

“Ow? Why do you think so?”

“Playing hide and seek in the woods with dryads is a game you are never going to win, mother Ganiste. Every dryad is paired with one tree or another. When they hide behind a tree, they just ask the tree and the tree opens up, and hides them!”

“Well, that’s a bummer.”

“Not anymore, mother. I have been studying and working hard and I can speak with trees now.”

“You can?”

“Yes, mother Ganiste. So this time I will just ask the trees.”

“Will they give away their own dryads, though?”

*giggle*

“But I will not be asking them about their dryads..”

“Ow?”

“I will be asking them why are they so fat, and were they always this fat!”

*blink*

“They will think it’s the dryads that are making them look fat and try to explain it to me!”

*happy, thunderous laughter*

“You are an incredible little girl, you are..”

*smirk*

“Thank you, mother Ganiste..”

“And you look amazing too!”

“I.. I do?”

“Yes, girl. Barely a year has passed since your last visit and look at you..”

“Why, mother? What’s wrong with me?”

“Wrong? There is nothing wrong with you girl, but Good Heavens you’ve grown..”

“I.. I have?”

“Yes.. I don’t think I should call you ‘child’ any more.”

“But what will you call me then?”

“You have grown and are no longer a child, but a ‘young lady’ now. You were pretty before, but now your breasts are larger, your hips are wider and your walk has a sway..”

*furious blush*

“M.. mother, please, stop!”

“Now, now, young lady.. This is girl talk. When we are alone, in this tent, we have less rules.”

“I.. I don’t really feel any different now, then I did before, though.. Just a bit strange.. and akwak.. arward.. awkard..”

“Awkward?”

“Yes, that..”

“That is to be expected. You body has grown and flourished, but your mind hasn’t caught up to that fact yet.”

“I do not understand, mother Ganiste.”

“Before, you were a pretty little girl. Now, you are a beautiful young lady..”

“I am?”

“Ow, yes..”

“But.. how can you be sure?”

“Your fey friends..”

“What about them?”

“The fey-folk like ‘pretty’. This is something they can not help, nor avoid. But they absolutely adore ‘beauty’..”

*beam*

✱ ✱ ✱

Is this true? Did you see it with your own eyes?”, growled Ganiste and there was murder is her burning eyes.

The large ogre standing some three yards tall shuffled his feet uncomfortably and took an undiscernible step back.

“Yes, Chieftain Grulganesti. His door and windows were smashed in and he was lying in his bed with many stabs in his chest. Too small to be our swords or axes. They were done by human knives.. They hid their steps well, but I sought much and found some. Large for elf, soft for dwarf. But they moved carefully and swiftly. His house was much ransacked, Chieftain. They were looking for something.”

Ganiste went pale. She could barely keep her composure. She did a harsh swallow of the bitter taste that came to her clenched jaws.

“Send the signal.”, she said in a growl. “I want triple sentries on watch. Anything that is of suspect is to be reported to me. Send also one fast runner to the elves, one to the dwarves and one to the human town to inform them of what has befallen.”

“Chieftain..”, replied the ogre dubiously. “The elves barely tolerate us at the best of times and will likely shoot us. The dwarves will shoot us. The humans.. if we chance upon one of their sensible rangers, they may listen. Otherwise they will also shoot us.”

“Do tell me something I do not know! All couriers will carry white flags-poles on their backs at all times. Should they still shoot at them, I will personally go there, break their bows and shiv it up their intestines for display!”, she replied with a horrible hiss..

“An educational riposte, Chieftain.”, nodded the ogre thoughtfully.

“Also.. send another courier to Gull’s Perch.. His daughter must know of this.. Prepare a full platoon. We shall leave within the hour. We must get to his home before anyone else comes to ransack it. I.. we must also make him ready for burial. She must not see him ravaged. There is a limit to what a girl could tolerate..”, she said, though it wasn’t quite clear as to which girl she was referring to. With a wave of her hand, she sent the ogre with her orders..

For a long moment, Ganiste just stood there staring at her empty tent. And then, the Chieftain of the all the ogres of Ogre’s Foot and Ritual Forest, Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig dropped on her knees and cried like a little girl..

 

“You old fool..”, she moaned. “Who shall slay me now?”

✱ ✱ ✱

Inshala, stop! They did not do this. They are here only to make sure no one else comes and to prepare him for his funeral”, screamed Ganiste, but the giant, near six-hundred-pound saber-tooth tiger standing over the fallen, bloodied ogre didn’t care. Her great maw open, her two, foot-long sabers for teeth shown with mindless wrath!

Chieftain Grulganiste did not wait for another warning.

With an unexpected agility from the near fourteen-foot ‘woman’, she rammed the saber-tooth tiger and flung her off the bleeding ogre on the ground. The saber-tooth spun in mid-air, bounced off a near-by tree, shot herself using her powerful hind-legs and came at the ogress, her skull-crushing paws extended.

Grulganiste ducked just enough to let the tiger sail over her, then jumped her from behind, grabbed her and with a mighty heave she locked her in her awesome grip. A roar of surprise and madness escaped the saber-tooth as she trashed, leaving long, ugly, and bloody scars on the chieftain, but Ganiste ignored them..

She just squeezed more.

The other ogres picked up their great axes, clubs and swords and moved in.

“NO!”, screeched Ganiste. “STAY YOUR GROUND! NO ONE TOUCHES THE RITUAL GUARDIAN!”

The saber-tooth struggled more, but something snapped and suddenly, Ganiste was no longer grappling a giant tiger, but hugging a little girl!

“Stop, girl.. Please, stop..”

“He trusted you, mother!”, screamed Inshala.

“As should you, girl. If you do not cease this, by the Great Heavens I will beat you until there’s some semblance of sense in that thick skull of yours.”, grated Ganiste.

“You hurt him! And now you hurt me! Why did you do this, mother?”

“I did not do this to him. You must understand this. And neither did my ogres. We revered your father. We do not know who did this, but it was not us..”, scowled the chieftain of the ogres.

“Who? Who did this then?”, screamed the little girl.

“Men. Some men came at him while he slept. They killed him with knives and low honor, ransacked his home and ran east..”


Running foot steps came and two ogres appeared in front of the battered home of old Cathber.

One of ogres was heavily wounded and the other was limping.

“Chieftain..”, grunted the limping one as he slowly lowered his wounded comrade.

“Who did this?”, hissed Grulganiste.

“We are not sure, Chieftain. They were swift and strong. They killed six of us and we didn’t even see them. Only the two of us made it and barely. They looked like orcs. But much bigger. Much stronger. Much.. something.. And there was many of them. Over thirty strong, at least.”

“Where are they headed?”

“East, Chieftain. They were all heading east. They also burned the elf village, Nurturing Heaven, down to the ground.. And they didn’t even bother to ransack it.. Dead elves.. Dead elves every where. They tried to put up a fight, but these.. things, attacked them in the middle of the night, either last night or the one before that, and slaughtered all they could find.”

“Are there any survivors?”

“We do not know, Chieftain. We tried to get near and that is when we got attacked. There were signs of possible survivors though, heading towards Dim Wood.”

Chieftain Grulganiste’s face was black. And with unveiled anger, she turned to one of her other ogres.

“Go to base. Alert everyone. Then bring two platoons here, and six platoons to the elf village to find possible survivors. If there are any, they are to be escorted to the woodsmen villages. The platoons are to station outside their villages to make sure these beasts do them no harm. I detest the woodsmen, but I shall not bring my people blame for their deaths.”

“Yes, Chieftain.”

“Also, send more couriers to the dwarves and the human town to carry this news and what we are doing about it. We do not need any misunderstanding. Let all my ogres carry white flags on their arms and on poles on their backs.”

“What shall we do about the humans that slew the old Ritual Guardian?”

“Nothing. This is a human matter and we can not interfere. Anything we do other than what we have already done will only complicate things. As for the beasts—”

“—I shall hunt them down. I shall hunt them down and rip them apart.. Then I shall go after these humans as well.. and gnaw their bones!”, hissed Inshala.

“Your anger is understandable, but misplaced, girl. You cannot do either of those, because you are not ready. Actions done in wrath, never ends well..”, replied Ganiste quite sternly.

“You will either move, mother Ganiste, or I shall move over you.”, hissed Inshala and there was none of the sweet little girl that the ogress chieftain new. There, standing before her was something else. Certainly human. But not all the way and Ganiste knew not what and she was suddenly..

..afraid!

Yes, it was possible if she stood her ground and tried her brute force, her shamanistic skills, along with what ogre guards she had here, she could stop her.. but that was just it.

She wasn’t sure and she was not keen on finding out.

She had her own people to care, and a funeral to burry.

“At least bid your farewell and say your goodbyes to your father, girl. He deserved that much of you, for truly, he loved you.”, she whispered sharply at the little girl.

“I shall bid him farewell, mother, but i shall never say goodbye to him. He shall live with me, always..”, she replied hoarsely, turned around and went to the, now quite shriveled body, wrapped tightly in white, funeral cloth, placed upon a flimsily and hastily prepared pier. 

Inshala knelt down next to the pier, reached out and tenderly touched her father’s wrapped face. And with blurry eyes, she spoke.

“I should have been here, with you, Father. You were, when I needed you and I was not. I shall carry this blame until the day I perish and join you. There, I shall ask your forgiveness. Now, I must go. I know you would have me stay. But I can’t. Not anymore. I could be a little girl as long as you were here. Now the little girl is over. I have showed kindness and got only hurt in return. I shall no longer show, what is not given freely. I shall only reap what is sown.. I shall no longer be the little girl, but be the harvester.. For this, I shall beg your forgiveness as well.. I shall bid you farewell, Father, but no goodbyes, for I shall not keep you waiting for long.”, Inshala said, softly kissed the old man’s forehead and sobbed.

For long moments, she wept, lost and broken.

When she rose, her face was wet and pinched, but the little girl was indeed gone.

What stood there was only inhuman determination and wrath.

She raised her head, faced the ogress and looked her in the eyes..

“Call upon the woodsmen. And the elves. Call the dwarves and the humans, mother Ganiste. My father deserves a proper funeral. He helped those who lived in his forest. Should they have honor, they shall come. Tell them also, I shall not turn a blind eye to those who do not..

Chieftain Grulganiste just stared at the skinny little girl.. No.. the ‘something’, standing like some cold, unreachable being trapped inside the body of the little girl and she felt her own heart tremble.

“I shall send word to all, and more, Ritual Guardian.”, she promised solemnly. “Please.. do not make decisions with anger. Your father—”, she began.

“—is dead.”, finished the little girl, harshly.

“But I am not.”, said Ganiste and for a moment, a kind and tender shadow cast upon her face. “Your father was a dear, dear man for me. And he was not the only one who loved and cared for you. Please, remember that. Remember, also, do not do things which you will regret.”

“Worry not for me, mother Ganiste. I go where I belong now.. As for regret..”, she said, then looked down at the sad form of her father. “I am regret!.. And I bid you, goodbye.”

“What are your intensions, Inshala?”

“I intend to wash the green off this forest with red..”, she hissed.

And just like that, she was gone.

In the form of her majestic saber-tooth, and a groaning roar, she disappeared into the trees.

✱ ✱ ✱

In the depths of Ritual Forest, the little girl raised her hands into the air. And called upon the old and the ancient, and called she upon a debt.. 

The sky darkened as dreary grays gathered. A long streak of lightning arced from one horizon to the other as though heralding the doom of the living.

In deep soft tenor, she sang, a long lost ritual, calling one horror, to judge another..

 

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Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.

”My son, wherefore seek’s thou thy face thus to hide?”
”Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”
”My son, ‘tis the mist rising over the plain.”

”Oh come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me!
Full many a game I will play there with thee;
On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”

”My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?”
”Be calm, dearest child, ‘tis thy fancy deceives;
’Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”

”Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care;
My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”

”My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?”
”My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
’Tis the agèd gray willows deceiving thy sight.”

”I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.”
”My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
Full sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”

The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his court-yard with toil and with dread,—
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.

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“Erl-King, I summon thee!”, she shouted and the skies thundered in reply.

“A depth you owe, from Father to daughter, passed..”, and the dirty clouds churned.

“Once upon a task were you called..”, she hissed, and the trees of Ritual Forest shuddered.

“To slay, to burn and to smother..”, she cried and the peoples of Dim Woods suddenly ran in unadulterated fear.

“To crack, to crush and to grind..”, she whispered and the ogres of Ogre’s Foot fell on their knees and howled.

“To chase, to drive and to hunt..”, she screamed and the dwarves of Elder Hills and Scowling Hills froze, as dread washed over thirty thousand souls.

“To cut, to stab and to maim..”, she cried and the denizens of Serenity Home fell flat, their faces pale, their eyes as ovals..

“For a depth you owe, from Father to daughter, passed..”, she cast and the lightnings crashed, splitting trees, tearing the earth, and the fey creatures of Gull’s Perch turned north, their faces drawn in horror.

“Erl-King, I summon thee!”

“And Erl-King, thrice said and done..”

 

“Thus I have been summoned.. by a mortal. Bold. And foolish.. I knew, should I wait but a millennia, some naïve would eventually call, and pit his will against mine. I must admit, crushing the dim-witted is a tad demeaning but, I shall be set free on the mortal coil, and unrestrained..”

..said the giant of a man in deep, melodious, echoing voice.

 

“It is I, who has summoned you, Erl-King, to call you upon a task left unfulfilled.”, very nearly moaned Inshala, for the great figure’s presence was not immense in terms of physics, but his spiritual presence was vast and beyond!

Tears filled her eyes and she shut them tightly, focused on one thing, and one thing alone; her Father, and how small he lay on his pier.

 

“This truly is a sad day.”, mused the Erl-King. “I have thus been called to task by a.. little girl! No matter, no matter.. Crush fast and be done, I suppose.”

“I am Inshala Frostmane Bolgrig, and I am the daughter of Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, whom you owe a debt of honor for the failure of a task given!”, said Inshala, through her clenched teeth.

“Owe a debt of honor.. Failure of a task given.”, murmured the Erl-King. “Very big words for a very little girl. And what task is this, you dare claim the Erl-King has failed?”

“Many centuries ago, he and his, summoned you to lay down waste Themalsar. YOU FAILED! For Themalsar endures..”, said Inshala harshly.

“You dare afflict a failure upon me? You? A sniveling little—”, thundered the Erl-King and suddenly fell silent, staring at the little girl with an incredulous expression on his face. “—fey? How is this possible? Only the Queens of the fey may call me, the Erl-King, to task.. or their greatest of vassals. How is it that you could summon me, little fey girl?”

“I.. I am fey?”, faltered Inshala and opened her eyes.. a something she probably shouldn’t have done.. and saw the Erl-King!

 

The figure standing before her was some eighteen, or possibly twenty feet tall and had massive arms and shoulders. He wore a hideous, masked helmet with great, horned antlers, shoulder pads, some kind of strange plate armor that seemed like it was forged from blue-brown metal down to his waist and wore dark, blue-black leather trousers and heavy high boots. An old, patchy fur cloak hung over one shoulder, revealing the two-foot-long pommel of a cruel-looking, slightly curved and jagged-edged great sword that could probably cut an ogre in two with a mere nudge.

The little girl just ogled at him, her eyes wide open.

 

“Like what you see, then?”, smirked the Erl-King as he pulled off his helmet, letting loose a main of long, slightly curling, dark hair and displaying a, not-quiet symmetrical face that was both ugly and somehow handsome.. in a rugged way.

“You look awesome, sir!”, spluttered the little girl.

“Well, now. I can’t remember the last time anyone, or anything for that matter, ever complemented me. This is rather unprecedented.. in a pleasant way.”, smiled down the hideous king.

“I can not imagine why they wouldn’t, sir. You are pretty!”, said Inshala in an awed voice.

“Pretty, am I?”, replied the Erl-King, quite surprised. “You truly must be young and alone.”

“I am alone, but I am sixteen years of age!”, replied the little girl like she was saying sixteen hundred!

“Aaahh..”, smiled the Erl-King. “The burden of all those sixteen years must be weighing heavily upon you, then.”

“They are.”, said Inshala solemnly. “But not relevant to your debt, Erl-King. Will you not honor it?”

“Careful, girl.”, growled the massive figure. “I have come to liking you. Let’s not besmirch that. Monsters like myself do not take matters of honor lightly.”

“Then you accept your debt?”, pushed the little girl.

“You are a persistent one, aren’t you? Not easily distracted, nor swayed.”, mused the Erl-King.

“I have lost the only thing precious to me, sir. There is nothing left to sway.”, replied Inshala and there was an unexpected quality of savagery in her voice.

“Ahhh.. Wrath! That is something I know. Something I know very well.”, replied the Erl-King. “Very well. What would you have me do to quench your lust for vengeance, little one? Who must die, to ease your pain?”

“Nothing can ease my pain, Erl-King. For nothing can bring back what was taken from me..”, she replied and tears swelled down her small face.

“Nothing, is something you can do on your own, little one. You do not need me for that. And I fear I would make poor company for consolation.”

“I do not want, nor require consolation. I must suffer my folly day and night, and for a lone life.”, she said, her voice trembling.

“A sad way to spend a life, me thinks. But again, you may do that on your own.”

“No, Erl-King. I need you to call upon the Wyld Hunt and avenge your debt!”

 

The Erl-King just stared at the little girl weeping before him.

 

“The Wyld Hunt is not some small favor anyone to just call upon, little girl.”, replied the Erl-King, and a bit harshly.

“Such was your debt to my Father. Eight hundred years and your debt has endured, Erl-King.”

 

For a long moment the massive figure looked at the little girl, Inshala. And when he spoke again, there was no trace of ‘merry’ in his voice.

 

“No, little girl, I owe nothing to your Father. But I do owe a debt unfulfilled, to the mortal who adopted you! And should you truly want me to call the Wyld Hunt, a price must be paid; Join, Hide or Die.. those are the rules of the Wyld Hunt!”

Whether Inshala understood the implications of what the Erl-King said, was not clear. She stood silently, her face tear stricken and on her knees.. But when she spoke, her voice was low and it smoldered.

“I will ‘Join’, then.”

The Erl-King cocked one bushy eye brow at her and said, “No. You may not. Should it come to that, it is possible I could best Yours. But I have no desire to waste my hounds to His slaughter.”

“I do not understand.”, cried Inshala.

“And that is not my prerogative, little one.”, replied the Erl-King, but strangely, not unkindly.

“Then slay me!”, shrieked Inshala. “I choose to ‘Die’..”

“Also, not my prerogative, little one.”, replied the Erl-King.

“I shall not run and ‘Hide’, while the killers of my Father live!”

“And I thought ‘tigers’ always ran and ‘hid’.. before they pounced their prey, little one.”, smiled the Erl-King hideously.

 

A tiny..

“Ow..”

..escaped the small mouth of the little girl.

 

“Now. To the task at hand, then?”, laughed the Erl-King and the trees around them shuddered.

“Creatures. Large and uncouth. Some thirty or more, travel East. They slew the elves of my Father’s forest. They must be punished. And the slayers of my Father, men with knives and low honor, also running East. They must be hunted down and slain. And what they stole from my Father must be returned..”, said Inshala with a vicious voice.

“Recovery expeditions aren’t quite my forte, little one. My hounds may track and run down the uncouth and the men, but recover what was stolen, me thinks this is something you must do.”, replied the Erl-King.

“Very well, sir. Should You and Yours avenge my Sire by slaying the uncouth and these sinful men, I shall relieve You and Yours from the debt and done.”, said Inshala.

“You drive a harsh bargain, little one. Stay close. This shall be a merry chase and mayhap will quench your luster for blood.”

“My lust for blood shall never quench. For the one I cared most and only, is dead. Mortals saw a monster when they came at me. I shall give them monster, hence!”

✱ ✱ ✱

A long, dreadful howl echoed through Ritual Forest. Lightning flickered and streaked down, gorging spades of earth. Trees shuddered and splintered. Beast and buck ran or fell. And men, elf, dwarf or ogre.. far and wide, it did not matter.. felt terror like they had felt only ages and eons ago. Before iron, and before tools.. Before the domestication of land and ox.. This was the kind of fear at its most primitive and primordial level where thought got smothered and left only primal, reptilian instincts..

A fear that left them only two options;

Hide or Die!

And ahead of that howl, was a viscous, giant of a man, some eighteen feet tall, wearing a horned helmet and swinging a massive, jagged-edged great sword, riding a mind-boggling stead that had red, glowing cinders for eyes, a massive rump and powerful legs that ended in long, brutal claws..

 

The Erl-King led.

And the Wyld Hunt followed..

..a dark, gray-black smoke with barely discernable ghosts that resembled horse-sized hounds and the reaped souls of long-forgotten, primordial warriors..

 

And Inshala ran..

..at the center of that inky fog!

 

The savage, uncouth beasts never new what hit them. They were great and strong beasts that resembled orcs. But orcs were to infants, what these creatures were to men. They were powerful in arms and swift in legs and they wielded sharp, brutal implements of war..

..and yet, they died in two’s and four’s!

But never did they flinch nor ran. With inhuman savagery, they attacked the Wyld Hunt even as they died; their flesh torn and gnawed, their bones snapped and shattered, their skulls crushed like shells, and their tendons ripped and shredded..

It was a gruesome sight.

But then..

..thus was the Wyld Hunt!

 

The bloody saber-tooth ravaged the last of the beasts, her furry face red and dripping with blood and Inshala rose to her full height and coughed an echoing roar into the night.

 

“What a merry hunt!”, laughed the Erl-King. “Though a tad short for my taste.”

“These were the beasts.. But not the men!”, growled the saber-tooth.

“No. The men you seek are no more. These beasts have already hunted them down and slain them. I sense foul-play at hand, here.”, replied the Erl-King with distaste.

“NO! MY VENGEANCE HAS NOT BEEN QUENCHED!”, shrieked Inshala.

“You vengeance is not part of the debt, little one.”, reminded the giant figure.

“No. It isn’t. But the death of the men, were!”

 

The Erl-King stared down at the vicious tiger.

 

“That.. is true..”, he finally conceded, but there was the threat of a storm in his voice. “There is, however, nothing I can do to repay that.”

“THIS WAS NOT OUR AGREEMENT, ERL-KING”, shrieked the saber-tooth. “YOU WERE TO SLAY THESE MEN. NOT TO LET OTHERS DO IT FOR YOU!”

“Your mind is muddled, little girl. I do not let others pay my debts, nor do my killings for me. I would have a care, where it came to accusing me..”, spoke the Erl-King in a low and dreadful tone. “Non the less. The men are dead, and the debt remains unfulfilled.. again!”

“Then I shall call upon you one more time, Erl-King when I have found the true culdips!”

“Culdips?”, asked the Erl King, a bit baffled.

“Culpits.. Cultrips.. Cudrils”, stammered Inshala.

“Culprits, perhaps?”, offered the Erl-King.

“Culprits!”, snarled the saber-tooth.

The Erl-King gave a long, suffering sigh. This millennia had turned out to be not only stale and boring, but with pestering, debt-demanding mortals.. and now, a not-quite-mortal-but-fey girl!

He gave the savage saber-tooth girl a long, steady look.

“Very well, little fey-girl. I shall come, once more, when you call and upon having unearthed the true culprits. I shall need a full name to bind this deal..”, he said, breathing from his nostrils.

“Inshala Frostmane Bolgrig.”

“No, girl. That is not your name.. That can not be your name..”, replied the Erl-King, staring into the tigers eyes. “Bolgrig was your attender.. of sorts.. But was he was not your Father, and certainly not your Sire!”

“I do not understand.”, replied Inshala, afraid now.

“No.. No you don’t. In time, perhaps, you shall. It is not my place, however, to learn you that information.”

“Whose place is it, then?”, asked the little girl.

“Again, not my place to learn you that, either. But I believe my work here is quite done. Unless you want me to slaughter the humans to the south, the ogres to the east, dwarves to the west or the.. woodsmen to the north. I sense a great hate you have for them.”

“I desire much misfortune for them, Erl-King. But I shall not spill their blood. Not today. Today, the elves need them..”, whispered Inshala.

“Very well. For the said task we have set, and the afore mentioned conditions, I, the Erl-King and my Wyld Hunt shall come, once more when called by you, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane..”, declared the Erl-King, turned around, and with one, swift motion, mounted his great beast.

“I fare thee well, young ‘la Fey’. Which by itself is quite unique, for the Wyld Hunt never fares well..”, laughed the gigantic form of the Erl-King, dug his heels into his mount and rode off, the inky black fog of his hounds and lost souls chasing after him.

And in a short, hoarse breath, he was gone.

 

The saber-tooth stared as the ghosts of the Wyld Hunt screeched and faded into the night. She licked her long, foot-long teeth edging down the sides of her maw. Her savage face pinched into a ugly glare and a low, thundering rumble escaped her throat.

“My Father..”, she hissed. “..will always be my Master, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig. Not the beast that sired me..”

✱ ✱ ✱

Broken and bloodied, Inshala prowled the night, seeking something, anything that could curb her blood lust. It seemed the loss of her father had forever killed the former, young, pretty, innocent and frail little girl and left behind a wretched wreck that just couldn’t rid herself off the searing fire boiling her insides.. She ran this way and that, jumped over bush and boulder to no avail.. Her blood just wouldn’t cool off.. 

Which is when she stumbled upon the corpse of a human, lying face down in the dirt.

Inshala slid into a halt.

The man, whoever he was, was a corpse indeed. Dead for possibly half a day over. He wore dark leathers and similarly colored clothes. His head and face were also covered..

..and he was missing an arm.

There were other cuts and gashes on him. Inshala didn’t think the man would have lived, even had he kept his arm..

She also noted a long, bloody trail leading up to the corpse. Apparently, someone had dragged him all the way here, then left him to die, or left him because he had died.

Inshala came to the two natural conclusions; this was one of the lowly men who had slain her father for he smelled, no, he reeked of her father’s blood.. and someone had dragged him. Someone still alive.

A low rumble escaped the saber-tooth and she sniffed the ground.

Yes. There were others —two others. The scents told her that.

Slowly she took a step in their direction. Then another. And soon enough, she was running —dashing, really, at an unprecedented speed.. What would change would not be that they would die.. Only how.

And Inshala did not intent to show any mercy whatsoever, for they had shown none to her father. For her, killing one old man in his sleep, was as low as it got..

✱ ✱ ✱

The saber-tooth ghosted through the forest. The trails were getting cold and she did not want them to be lost. Day and night, she ran until she faltered and could go no further. She didn’t push. It would make a poor hunt if she caught her prey, but failed to kill. That’s how the hunt was; you crouched, you hid, you snuck, and you waited, patiently, and watched. And when the moment was ripe, you struck! For her, stupidity was also a poor excuse for letting the prey escape. And certainly not the way of a true predator. Inshala might be little in size and shape, and perhaps frail in soul, but the saber-tooth was not. And she’d always loved it. The strength, the freedom, the innate savagery and the feeling of being the supreme huntress.. there just was no substitute for it.

She rested and licked the caked blood of the big, uncouth beasts off her face and her great paws. And when she felt ready, she dashed again.. Today promised a good hunt because there was a storm gathering to the east and it looked like a good pour was due.. Rain always made it easier for her on the hunt. It hid her own scent and her steps even more. It did not help her prey, though.

A snarling grin stretch across her maw and her rumble matched that of the incoming storm.

Yes.. a good hunt indeed..

 

Inshala found them.

Huddled around a poor fire were a small crowd.

The fools had actually lit a fire!

Their number was more than she could readily dismiss, but they were cold, wet and blind under the stormy night. The more, the merrier.. They would make a great feast, but she was not here for food. If there was one thing she had learned from her Master, it was eating human flesh drew you insane.. No.. She was not here for food. She was here to kill. And she’d have to act fast. They had horses and sooner or later, the horses would pick up on her scent and panic, warning their masters.. Horses always panicked.. Quite the inconvenience they were. She had to act quickly and decisively. Dash in, kill one, dash out, and circle.. Rinse and repeat.. By the time she’d killed three or four, they would panic and run, because that’s what prey did.. They panicked and they ran, making them easy pickings.

Now only if she could devise a diversion..

Inshala stared up at the pouring storm..

..and her a new smile stretched across her maw.

Yes.. why not turn a simple rain, into a devastating lightning storm?

Inshala shifted and molded down to her little, pretty form. No, she thought. Not pretty.. Her ‘frail’ form!

She raised her arms into the night and chanted;

 

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oh, storm, ye great in form
harken me in this maidenform
ye weep and moan when you can be
much greater in sky and sea
bring down your rain and your wrath
upon the fool and the folly rath

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And as if on cue, the night exploded!

A long, brilliant streak of lightning flickered, followed by a mind jarring boom, and landed very nearly on top of the huddled group..

And the group scattered!

 

“Ow, no..”, whispered Inshala. “..my sweets, no fleeing, no running.. Not yet. You are going to burn and char before you flee..”

 

Another streak of lightning flickered down, sending one of them, a huge, bull of a man, crashing into a tree.

Then another flicker, sending a girl, Inshala thought, panicking into the bush.

And another..

And another..

And another..

 

A midgety little gnome went running into the night, followed by another girl —an elf!

A man in dark cloths was still standing his ground, a sharp, short iron sword in one hand and a knife in the other.. A KNIFE!

This was definitely her query.

And there was a tall one, in plate armor.

“Who wears plate armor in a lightning storm?”, mused Inshala merrily.

She watched as the plate armored one heave and push a dwarf, up on a horse..

What was this? Humans, gnomes, elves, and dwarves? Was the attack on her Master a byzantine plan among the elves, humans, dwarves and gnomes all along? A collective effort?

Perhaps she had acted in haste when she had sent the Erl-King and the Wyld Hunt away.. He had offered to slaughter them all..

No matter, no matter..

She would start the slaughter right here.

But first, she had to kill the dark one. The one with the knives. He still had his wits about him and given enough time, he would rally the others..

She pointed at him..

..and the night raged and sent down another brilliant lightning.

And missed!

Inshala just stared at the smoking patch of earth, where the dark man had just been, then at the man running in another direction.

So she called down lighting upon him once again..

..but the man took a sharp turn and rolled on the ground, and the lightning struck the tree behind him, sending it down in a mess of splinters.

Inshala heard a grunt followed by a low moan.

Yes! The dark, evil man had evaded the lighting, again, but apparently the tree had fallen on him.

Good enough for now.

The one in plates had butt-slapped the horse, and sent the dwarf to safety. Then he stood where he was and called into the night.

“We are not enemy. We are not foe. Ye who brings the lighting and storm, know, we mean no harm..”

“Mean no harm?”, fumed and hissed Inshala. “You can’t do any harm, and begging will not help you. You came into my forest for ill, and ill you shall receive!”

“Nay.”, replied the man.

And fell on his knees.

Then he raised his arms into the night as if in supplication and called;

“Ye, who hast called thus storm upon us, shall look and see into our souls. Should you still see dark and foul, bring more and char us all..”

Inshala gawked at the man..

..and a single beam of light lazily came down from the night sky and pushed the darkness away. It was a bright, golden light. A beautiful light. A light that bespoke of High Heavens and Angels beyond..

And she noted.

The man in plate armor, down on his knees, was no man, but a tall, broad at the shoulders, slim at the waist, long, rust-red-haired young woman.

Inshala’s eyes teared.

She was.. boldly beautiful.

And she was a paladin!

Sent here to end her..

 

“Finally..”, she whispered. “The Heavens have sent their fires to cleanse the demons out of me! I shall be free. I shall belong.. Father, I come..”

 

And just like that, the storm ceased, the rain stopped, and silence settled into the night.

 

The young paladin girl stood rigid, as if petrified, on her knees.

And Inshala curled up into a ball, lay prostrated before her, moaning and crying like a little girl.

 

“Burn me. Please burn me. I want to be free of my demons.. Burn me..”

✱ ✱ ✱

Aager? You alright?”, the huge man asked as he picked up the broken bits of the tree. “You seem peevish.” 

“Peevish?”, rasped the evil man in the dark clothes from under a whole pile of thick branches and a large, splintered tree trunk. “Just how many years did you wait to use that on me, Udoorin Shieldheart?”

“Many.”, smirked the big man and with a mighty heave, he lifted the trunk, giving enough room for the evil one to slip out.

“We have a visitor.”, the big man said with a slightly exaggerated voice.

“I am concussed, Udoorin. Not deaf.. Report!”, the dark man said.

“Bree, Laila, and the midget are back. Still waiting for Lady. I expect she will either get control of that big war horse and turn it around, or hold on to it until she reaches Arashkan, or decide she’s had just about enough and throw herself off the horse and limp all the way back here and make us all suffer for it. As for Lady Moira, I don’t know. She is just sitting there.. well, kneeling actually, with her hands in the air and.. that’s it! She isn’t moving or responding. She’s in a.. I dunno.. ‘catatonic’ state, I suppose, you could say.”, replied the Udoorin guy, pointing somewhere in the night.

“Who is the merry visitor? I suspect he’s responsible for the mess..”, the dark man asked, holding a hand at a tender spot on his forehead.

“She..”, corrected Udoorin.

“What?”

“He is a she.. A pretty one too.. With funny hair..”

“Like we didn’t already have an overabundance of women in this group..”, growled Aager.

“And they all are pretty..”, smirked the big one. Then he lowered his voice. “Please don’t tell Bree, I said that. I still carry her bite mark!”

“Guess I’ll just have to save it until I need a favor.”, replied Aager without even a smile.

“That’s not funny.”, scowled Udoorin.

“What’s the ‘visitor’ doing? Who is watching her?”, asked Aager, totally ignoring the big man’s plea.

“No one, really. She seems as catatonic as Moira. She has prostrated herself at the paladin’s feet and begging her to burn her!”

“What?”

“I know, right? We have all the prettiest girls and all of them are off in the head.”

“And now you owe me two favors.”, said Aager, and this time, he did snort.

Udoorin scowled at him, some more.

“Why’s your armor off?”, Aager asked him as they walked towards the paladin and the newcomer.

“Figured, lightning and metal armor.. You know.. Bad combination.. A bit too late thought.. Got singed pretty good.. It’ll leave a mark.. I hope it doesn’t leave a mark..”, said the big man with a worried expression.

“I am sure all the marks you have already, along with the ones you will get won’t add to your beauty.”

“That was not nice, Aager. I know I am not pretty, but you didn’t really have to hit me in the face with it.”, grumbled Udoorin.

“You never cease to amaze me, Udoorin.. Your priorities are truly mind-staggering.”, replied Aager blandly.

Udoorin’s face darkened even more.

 

Aager gave a perfunctory check on everyone in the group. Bremorel, the human girl, seemed a tad wild-eyed. She had rekindled the fire and was now holding her big bow in her hand. The bow was cocked and almost half drawn and she stood with her back to a tree, facing the newcomer. She also entertained an ugly shiner on her left upper cheek.

Gnine, the troublesome little gnome was whispering something while gesticulating rapidly at the half-elf girl standing next to him, who was also holding her bow in one hand with an arrow ready on the string.

“Well.. At least two people here are paying attention.”, scowled Aager.

Then he called to the half-elf girl.

“Ranger Laila. Go and track down the horse, and bring the Temple Guardian back, if you will, please.”

“Why me?”, Laila asked.

Aager did not reply. He just stared at her.

Laila also scowled at him, then took off into the night.

It seemed Aager wanted to make sure everyone around him was somehow scowling at him.. Or at least a few of them should be, at any given time..

He silently approached the paladin girl, Lady Moira, who stood unmoving on her knees and with her hands in the air, just as Udoorin had described.

And then he saw the ‘visitor’.. The person responsible for very nearly dismantling the whole lot of them, in under a few short moments.

To be honest about it, she could have, had she not stopped, and that made the man in the dark clothes wonder.. They certainly hadn’t been able to do anything to her. She had literally played with them like a cat would game with a mouse.

Why had she attacked them in the first place, and then stopped her assault when she was almost winning? And who was she?

All pertinent questions.

But the girl.. Aager couldn’t really make out if she was pretty or not, as young Udoorin had claimed.. Not that it mattered, nor that he cared. She did have ‘funny’ hair though. Tightly wrapped and braided on both sides of her head like some kind of cones.. Aager did not question the demented mentality in that. Girls did all sorts of strange things with their hair.. among other things.. He just nodded, when the occasion arouse and moved along..

The girl had knelt face in the dirt, covering and moaning in unmitigated terror;

“Burn me..”

“Please burn me..”

“Free of my demons..”

“Please burn me..

 

Aager wasn’t one for emotions, let alone for the subtler ones like ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’.. If someone asked him what they were, he’d probably just stare at him blankly.

But something about this girl nudged at him.

Without knowing why he took a few steps back.

“Udoorin.”, he called.

“What?”, replied the big man.

“Put your armor back on.”

“Why?”, asked Udoorin.

“Because I said so?”, growled Aager.

Udoorin grumbled some, looked up at the night sky as if checking for signs of new lightnings, then put his armor back on.

“Now what?”, he said as he approached Aager.

“Now go and pick the girl up.”

“Why?”

“We need to question her and we can’t do that while she is doing.. whatever it is she is doing now..”, replied Aager.

“I am not touching her.”, said Udoorin hastily.

Aager stared at him.

“You know what she did, man. Not to mention, you don’t just go and touch a girl. That is just rude.. and not right..”, Udoorin defended himself.

“When did I ever give you the impression I cared for any of that, young Udoorin?”, fumed the dark man. “You can either do what needs to be done, or go back to town and explain yourself to your father.”

“That’s way out of line, Aager.”, growled Udoorin.

“We are not out here for a polite stroll, young man. We are here to do the ‘dirty work’, so the rest of the people can sleep without a care. You volunteered to come. You wanted to come.. This is the part of the job that needs to be done; we interrogate prisoners and that is exactly what she is now. She is Lady Moira’s prisoner. And since she is otherwise busy —or incapacitated, that duty falls on us!”, replied Aager and he seemed to bite each word before he spat them out.

Young Udoorin’s back stiffened. But he still gave Aager a very nasty stare.

Then slowly, he came at the girl still prostrating before Moira.

“Umm.. ‘cuse me.. lady.. But we need to ask you some questions. Are you unwell? Perhaps you need some help. You really should get off the ground.. It’s wet, cold, and probably muddy..”, he stammered, then reached down and tried to pick the girl up.

“Don’t touch me!”, hissed the girl and bit his hand!

And with unexpected haste, she skipped once, twice and was very nearly a dozen feet away, crouched on the ground, showing all her teeth at the big man.

“Crap!”, swore the big man. “Why do girls keep biting me, dammit.. I can’t be that tasty!”

Then he turned and slowly approached her again with his hands open while making soothing sounds.

The girl hissed at him, some more..

“I think that will do, young man. You should be ashamed of yourself, touching a girl without her permission. You have shamed your father..”, snarled a voice in the dark, and heavy footsteps was heard. Then, a heavy set she-dwarf appeared, and there no mistaking about the scowl she had on her face.

“Lady Magella..”, stammered Udoorin. “I.. was merely..”

“You were merely what, Udoorin Shieldheart? Abusing an already traumatized little girl? Look at her.. It’s clear she’s had some rough time.”, she snarled again.

“I.. You got me all wrong.. I was just..”, spluttered the big man, trying to explain himself.

“Go. Just go.. Boil some water, cut some wood, peal some potatoes.. Just go and make yourself scarce but useful!”

Udoorin stormed away, fuming..

“This is all your fault, Aager.”, he very nearly spat, as he walked past the dark man.

“No. It’s all yours.. ‘Own’ your folies, young man. But I learned what I needed to, anyway.. For the time being..”, replied Aager calmly.

“You. Girl!”, ordered Lady Magella. “What’s your name and what are you doing here?”

The girl hissed at her as well.

“I am the Temple Guardian of Serenity Home and you will NOT hiss at me like some wild beast.”, spoke Lady and there was a distinct no-nonsense quality to her voice.

And the girl lost all her ferocity.

“You.. you are.. a Temple Guardian?”, she asked with her eyes wide open.

“Yes, I am. And I have twenty some odd years under my belt to prove it!”, Lady replied sternly.

“Have.. have you come to burn me?”, the girl asked.

“Burn you? Now why would you ask such a silly question?”, replied Lady in disgust and a totally offended tone.

“Burn me.. Please..”, the girl said and suddenly prostrated herself, once again..

..and wept..

“Burn me.. Burn me and free this world off me!..”

 

Udoorin, Bremorel, Gnine, and Laila stared at the wretched site before them.

Lady Magella’s eyes teared, for her first assessment of the girl had been correct.. Too correct. The girl was unbelievably traumatized.

Aager only looked at the girl with an unfathomable and barely-contained expression.

He remembered Drashan and his own childhood, not that he’d had much of it. He remembered his mother, whose name he couldn’t even place anymore. Having remembered her, he inevitably recalled his sister. The sister that had been entrusted to him. And then taken from him, sold to some brothel, and burned alive in a horrible, unquenchable fire. He remembered all the vile people he’d cut there. Every single one of them. And he remembered the beatings and the whippings.. and the guillotine..

..and how he came to Serenity Home; secretly broken, hiding in his own traumas, untrusting, very nearly and murderously hateful.

Serenity Home had helped..

..somewhat.

Enough to have suppressed his base hate to everything that had to do with life..

..at least.

It hadn’t been enough that all these children, sans the dwarf, had been entrusted to him..

And now this?

He was never one to truly believe the greatness of the Heavens, but this.. This had been a step gone too far..

He felt like someone was having a great time punning him from the high above!

Then he looked down at the girl.

She seemed young and small, but her form, although somewhat battered, looked quite mature with ‘pleasant to look at’ sized breasts, a slim waist, ‘could use a pound or two more’ body, very dark, ‘funny’ hair (who would bun up their hair like that, anyway?) and a diminutive face, printed with slightly sharp and angular features..

Young Udoorin had been right on one point though; the girl was, indeed, quite pretty.. More so, Aager suspected, if she’d not been in the condition that she was now.

Many questions inevitably crossed his mind. Who was this girl? Again, why had she attacked them and why had she stopped? Why was she hissing and spitting like some pissed-off, feral cat? And why the bloody hell did she beg to be burned?

Then it dawned on him.

Why he had so unexpectedly felt some semblance of sympathy to the girl..

For he had, unwittingly perhaps, found the one person who was worse off than he was.

✱ ✱ ✱

The jarring, panicked whisper of Inshala spiked Aager in the middle of the night.

“Aager Fogstep! I need your help! Quick!”

Aager went from zero to full battle-mode in under two seconds; a shimmering, ghostly blade appeared in one hand and another, an excruciatingly sharp one in the other, to see Inshala missing..

“Where are you? What’s wrong?”, he sent his thoughts back tinted with his own panic.

“I am in Madina’s room. We.. uhhmm.. she said we could hang out together, talk trash and eat bad food and get scolded for doing it in the morning by mom. She said all teens do this but I don’t know why, and neither does she.. Apparently, it’s a ‘thing’!”

Aager frowned and breathed out slowly.

“Okay.”, he said evenly. “What’s the problem?”

“She says there’s this boy and she says she sort of likes him. But she is asking me if she is too much of an ’emo’ and that perhaps if she ‘toned it down a little’, the boy might notice him. I don’t even know what the buggery bum an ’emo’ is!”

Aager cocked an eyebrow even though he was alone and in the dark.

“Buggery bum?”

“Yes. Madina says that’s the new word around here. Would you like to know what the old word was?”

“Uhhmm.. Not really, no..”, replied Aager carefully.

“Good. Because I don’t think I can repeat that to you. But it starts with an ‘F’! Madina said, there’s this Academy of Melshieve, far away, and that they have the best words there.. I am confused. The rules to being an elder sister are complicated and many..”

 

“Huh!”, snorted Aager as he let go of the ghostly blade, causing it to just vanish, and sheathed the other.

 

“What is the urgency?”

“She.. she says she has been watching you and me and thinks I know love and wants me to help her compose a.. uhhmm.. love letter to that boy..”

“Okay.. What seems to be the problem?”

“I can’t think of another single thing that could totally go wrong than this.. I can’t even think why anyone would put love in a letter! You don’t put love in letters. You just give it and dearly hope that person gives it back! Besides, I do not know this boy. All the boys I have known have tried to catch me, called me crooked names, or thrown stones at me. Boys are bad for girls! I don’t know if she really wants this boy as I want you, either. And I don’t even know how to draw words.. This is a buggery bum of a nightmare for me.. Help me? Please?”

 

The cold, sinister-looking man, Aager Fogstep, the Winter Knight, stared blankly at his, now empty bed and at Inshala’s empty bed..

 

“Well, buggery bum, indeed..”, he whispered..

 

Sleep just wasn’t going to happen any time soon that night..

 

 

 

Later.

Much later.

Back in the dark, quite room..

 

Aager lay on his back in hopes of catching a bit of sleep before dawn. Tomorrow, or rather, a few hours later, was going to be a very trying day.

The rot-hearted Tarakadahan had decided to turn the whole thing into a show. Aager would have much preferred the dispute between the old fool and Moira be settled in some quiet, back alley setting.. He wouldn’t have minded even open fighting in the castle corridors. But no.. The idiot had decided to turn it into a parade. In front of the whole Durkahan nobility, no less.

The stupidity of people, baffled and confounded him.

“Very well..”, thought Aager darkly. “You want a show? I shall give you a show.. And I shall remind the whole lot of you just how archaic and foolish you all really are. And that no one really gives a ‘buggery bum’, about your honors, your prides, and your foolish ways.. The world is going down and this is what you still desire? To watch a drama queen in the arena?”

Tomorrow was going to be a harsh awakening for them all. Aager was a pragmatic man. He never went as low as being heinous, but otherwise, he cared little about the way things got done.

And he fully intended to show Durkahan, how things ‘rolled’ in Drashan..

 

“Are you still awake, Aager Fogstep?”, came a whisper from the other bed in the room.

“Yes.. no.. maybe?”, replied Aager.

“You are wroth with me?”, she whimpered.

“Wroth? Why would I be wroth with you?”, he asked.

“I scared you when I woke you the way I did. And I kept you up very nearly all night. Now you are tired and angry.”, she said in a small voice.

 

Aager loved Inshala.

He loved her more than anything he’d loved. Or perhaps, to put it into correct perspective, he loved her more than anything he could have wished to have loved anything, or anyone..

On occasion, though, he loved her more..

Particularly when she became.. ‘smaller’, yet ‘greater’, when she thought she’d hurt him.

Great Heavens, no one cared whether they hurt Aager Fogstep.

Like.. never!

And this girl, his Inshala, cared.. Enough to actually worry and to get worked up about it.

 

“You surprised me, love. That’s all.. Besides, Madina seems to have gotten a certain liking to you. I can’t say, nor do I claim to be knowledgeable about these things, having never truly experienced it, but I heard teens can be insufferable.”

“I am a teen.. I think..”, mumbled Inshala.

“You and I, love, do not qualify for many ‘norms’. We either missed them, or they never applied to our lives..”, shrugged Aager. “When I was a teen, I was too busy trying just to stay alive in the freezing streets of Drashan. Never really had the luxury to throw tantrums, nor write love letters. I am guessing yours wasn’t any better..”

“My poor Aager.”, came the girl’s unhappy voice.

“No, Inshala. I am the richest man in the world. I have the one thing no man, dead or alive, has ever had, nor will ever have.. For, I. Have. You!”, he whispered and he did it without any particular implications nor innuendos. He said it with the voice he used when he was stating the facts. And nothing but the facts..

“You think.. too highly of me..”, came the small, blushed voice of the girl, lying in the next bed.

“No. I think only of you.”, he replied, and he meant it.

Inshala was silent. Aager did not nudge her, nor check her through their bond. If she’d gone to sleep, apparently she needed it.

But just in case she hadn’t, he kept up the conversation, though toned down to just above a whisper.

“Besides, between the two of us, I think we managed a rather decent love letter back there.. It had everything a growing boy needs; Madina’s feelings, the threat of evisceration and defenestration, quite unveiled implications of ‘you better behave yourself’ and a decent description of just what would happen if he ever broke the girl’s heart. I can practically see the boy brimming with happiness. I mean, what could possibly go wrong, there?”

The silence persisted and Aager knew now, she wasn’t asleep. Furthermore, she was worried about something. Something important for her not to have gotten a ‘snort’ out of her with that retelling of the letter they had sat down and written all night long.

Yes, thought Aager, that had definitely merited a snort!

Aager liked Inshala ‘snort’.

His Inshala snorted ‘cute’.

It was so unladylike.

Totally uncontrolled.

Aager couldn’t put his finger on it, but the phrase, ‘freely given’, sounded just about right.

And it always left her face adorably, maturely, and, rather unexpectedly sensually pink and abashed.

 

Funny how it was always the little things in others we cared about that made us adore them even more.

Aager secretly wondered what were his little things that the girl lying in the next bed found ‘adorable’, but he just couldn’t imagine anything. Then he remembered the time they were back in Arashkan, still seeking the infamous rebellion, Gar Thalot in the Tempest Temple where they had all found out how the princess, Lorna, ‘adored’ young Udoorin’s beard.. Really? That scruffy patch of.. Aager stopped there. It didn’t matter what he thought about the boy’s beard, even if it was a scruffy patch. It was what the girl, Lorna, thought that mattered. End of story..

 

“Aager..”, he heard her say, bringing him back from Udoorin and his scruffy beard —of all things!

“I am here..”, he replied.

Then he heard a soft, shuffling noise, and suddenly, her beautiful face was a bare inch away from his and he was very much awake now.

 

“Do.. do I belong?”, she asked tentatively, tenderly, even, as she looked deep into his dark eyes. And in those eyes, Aager saw, everything she had been, everything she was, and everything she would be.. was there. All of it. With all her eternal losses, all her crummy gains, all her vast strengths and her suffered weakness’s in pure, unadulterated nakedness..

Aager looked back at the girl reflecting hers with his, stare for stare.. Inshala, he thought, had truly beautiful eyes..

“You belong.”, replied simply.

Slowly, carefully and tenderly she reaches up and held his face with two, warm and slender hands. For a silent moment, she studied his face, as though looking for something. Aager dearly and desperately hoped she found it.

Quietly, in her soft melodious voice, she spoke. A voice that carried all her losses, her pains, and her desperations, yet her determination and her tenacious will, also.

 

“Then, I am Inshala. And I belong.”

 

 

 

 

line-sdw-04up

i was born
but no one told me why

when i was gone
no one told me where

always chased
always caged
then i learned
the running cannot belong
i rose up
to fall back down
up among the clouds
and back on the ground
and there i found
among the lost and found
dead among
the living
living
among the dead
too lost
to care
careful
not to lose
i held up my
pocket watch
time’s to stop
the times
lost in time
found this time
what i gave freely
cost me drearily
did not know
it would demand so much more
i burned and smoldered
in the depths of fire
buried and frozen
deep in snow
just had to go lower
to rise higher
and just like that
i figured
i am inshala
and i belong

line-sdw-04up


The original Erl-King poem was written in German, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and later composed into a musical by Schubert.

The English version (the one used here) was translated and adapted by Edgar Alfred Bowring..

 

The elfish spell Inshala chants to summon the lightnings down the storm was written by myself. It translates to English as:

 

oh, storm, ye great in form,
harken me in this maidenform.
ye weep and moan when ye can be,
much greater in sky and sea.
bring down your rain and your wrath,
upon the fool and the folly rath.

 

Rath: a strong circular earthen wall forming an enclosure and serving as a fort and residence for a tribal chief.

 

When Inshala says; “But it starts with an ‘F’!”, she is referring to ‘Funked’, as in ‘creeped out’ or ‘frightened’ —a popular phrase used in the Academy at some era and picked up by Seressa Wraiven, who used in on several occasions: Somewhere Bitter In the Darkness (18+), A Shift in Perspective (18+), and Kocakarı Hikayesi (18+). Unfortunately, she (Inshala) is clueless as to what ‘Funked’ means..

 

The elfish song at the end was also written by myself and translates as;

 

i was born
but no one told me why
 
when i was gone
no one told me where
 
always chased
always caged
 
then i learned
the running cannot belong
 
i rose up
to fall back down
 
up among the clouds
and back on the ground
 
and there i found
among the lost & found
 
a heart, dead among
the living
 
to a heart, living
to die
 
too lost
to care
 
but careful
never to lose
 
i held up my
pocket watch
 
time’s to stop
the times
 
lost in time
found this time
 
what i gave freely
cost me dearly
 
yet it would want
so much wont
 
i burned and smoldered
in depths of fire
 
buried and frozen
in debts of my ire
 
had to go lower
to rise higher
 
and just like that
i figured
 
i am inshala
and i belong

book 05 books dungeons and dragons duygusal karakter analizi komedi role play serenity home tarihçe the plot thickens tundra walkers

A Bard’s Tale XIV
“a Bit of a Bite” VIII

A Bard’s Tale XIV
“a Bit of a Bite” VIII

Timeline:

Bu hikaye, Brom Bumblebrim adındaki, Bowling Hill’de yaşayan kendi ırkının diğer bütün üyeleri gibi ‘normal’ ve hayatını olabildiğince keyifli ve tembel geçiren bir hobbit’in, beklenmedik bir şekilde ne idüğü belirsiz bir şey tarafından ısırılmasıyla başlar.

Genç hobbit’i her ne ısırdı ise, o günden sonra Brom bir türlü yerinde duramaz ve en sonunda, gecenin alakasız bir yarısında, eski arkadaşı ve aile dostu olan Gamwise Samgee’ye evini ve gülleri emanet ettiğine dair bir not bırakarak yollara koyulur. Uzun bir gece boyunca nereye gittiğini bilmeksizin, öylece, istikametsiz bir şekilde yürür durur..

 

Bu hikaye,
A Bard’s Tale XIV “a Bit of a Bite” VIII ‘in
devamıdır..

 

 

03.07.7591 B.Y.S (-16 Yıl)
Mart başı.
Ritual Ormanları & Elder Hills..

 

Yaşlı Cathber’in evinden ayrılmaları üzerine aradan iki gün geçmiş olmasına karşın Brom için zaman sanki daha yavaş —yada hızlı ilerlemektedir.. Genç hobbit hangisi olduğu hususunda pek de emin değildir zira kafası karmakarışık olduğu kadar da bulanık gibidir. Brom bunlardan hangisi olduğu konusunda da muallakta kalmış hisseder kendisini.

“Sessizsin.”, der Efendi Cathber. “Aklına takılan bir şey mi var?”

“Emin değilim.”, diye mırıldanır genç hobbit.

“Bu, aldığın kararla mı ilgili? O günden beri sessizsin..”

“Emin değilim..”, diye tekrarlar kendisini Brom.

“Aldığın karar yüzünden şüphelerin mi oluştu?”, diye sorar yaşlı adam nazikçe.

“Şüphelerim varsa da, sonuçlarına katlanmak zorundayım artık, öyle değil mi?”, diye söylenir genç hobbit.

“Aslına bakılırsa, farklı bir karar almış olsaydın da sonuçlarına katlanmak durumunda kalırdın. Arada sadece iki fark var; birincisi kararı sen vermiş oldun, ikincisi ise sonuçlarına da efendi efendi katlanmayı göze aldığın —ki seni birazcık tanıdıysam, sen ‘efendi’ birisin Efendi Hobbit.”, der Cathber gülümseyerek.

Brom ister istemez ‘fırk’lar buna.

“Beni eğlendirmek için bu kadar çaba sarf etmenize gerek yok, Efendi Cathber.”, der Brom.

“İtiraf etmeliyim ki, sadece seni eğlendirmek için yapmıyordum. Bu noktadan itibaren biraz ‘gürültü’ çıkartarak ilerlememizin daha akıllıca olduğunu düşündüğüm için de yaptım.. Elder Hills dwarf’larının sessizce yaklaşan misafirleri ‘Önce vur, sonra sor!’, gibi oldukça katı, altı yüz yardadan arbaletle vurmak gibi kötü alışkanlıkları var.? Ama düşününce, bu da biraz gerekli, sanırım”, diye cevap verir yaşlı adam.

Brom, yaşlı adamın dwarf’lardan bahsetmesi üzerine kaşları çatılır ve yüzünde kendisinden beklenmeyecek, çirkin bir ifade belirir.

“Neden?”, diye sorar haşin bir sesle.

“Çünkü, Efendi Hobbit, teknik olarak Elder Hills geleneksel anlamda bir yerleşim yeri değil, daha çok bir savaş eğitim kampıdır. Ve burası sadece savaşçı dwarf yetiştirmez, her türlü ortam için taktik geliştiren bir ‘General Okuludur’, aynı zamanda. Elder Hills, dwarf’lar arasında taktik generalleri yetiştirme konusunda krallıkta ki en yetkin okuldur. Buradan mezun olmayı başaran bir dwarf, ordu idare eder. Krallıktaki bütün dwarf ordularını generalleriyle burası besler ve bir dwarf ordusuyla karşılaşırsan, bilesin ki başındaki general buradan çıkmadır.”, diye açıklar Cathber ve yanında yürüyen genç hobbit’i temkinli gözlerle süzer.

“Onlarla ne alıp veremediğini bilemiyorum, delikanlı ama fazla üzerlerine gitmemeni sağlık veririm. Gün gelirde Büyük Kuzey Tundra’larda yaşayan barbarlar ile Elder Hills dwarf’ları arasında hangisinin daha ‘aklı başında’ ve ‘sakin’ oldukları konusunda bir tercih yapmam gerekirse, yanıma bol bol kışlık elbise alacağımı biliyorum.”, der Cathber mutlu bir şekilde.

Efendi Cathber’in bu uyarısı, genç hobbit’in tamamen üstünden geçer ve hedefini ıskalamış bir taş gibi uzaklarda bir yerlere düşer. Brom, bir eli babasının eski kılıcının kabzasında, diğer ise amcasının küçük, antika gürzünün sapında olduğu halde hızlanmaya başlar.

“Benim sana yetişmemi beklemiyorsun umarım, Efendi Hobbit. Bu at arabasın iki tekerleği eksik, üçüncüsü de fırlayıp gitmek üzere..”, diye seslenir Cathber, genç hobbit’in arkasından.

Brom ister istemez biraz yavaşlar —ve bu da kendisi için iyi olur zira tam ayaklarının dibine kendi boyunda, baş parmağı kalınlığında ve daha çok mızrağa benzeyen bir ok saplanır.

Genç Brom olduğu yerde durur ve hayretle oka bakar, sonra bir – iki – üç sıçrayışta en yakın ağacın arkasına saklanır!

Efendi Cathber ise bir ona, bir de yerde saplanmış oka bakar ve kaşlarını çatar.

“Gerçekten mi?”, diye sinirlenmiş bir tonla ‘hıf’lar. “Kim olduğumu görüyorsunuz, buna rağmen beni arbaletle mi karşılıyorsunuz? Görüyorum bir yılda bütün aklınızı kaçırmakla kalmamış, tüm nezaket kurallarınızı da unutmuşsunuz! Hanginiz attıysa bunu, çıksın ortaya ve yüzleşsin hışmımla!”

 

Brom hayretle yaşlı adama bakar.

 

“Evet!”, diye burnundan solur Cathber ve bir ayağını ‘pat pat pat’ diye yerde saydırmaya başlar. “Bekliyorum.”

“Adın!”, diye bir ses gelir oldukça uzaktan. “Adın ne yaşlı adam!”

“Bu.. bu inanılır gibi değil!”, diye fena halde alınmış bir tonla söylenir Cathber. “Hepiniz benim kim olduğumu pek ala biliyorsunuz? Çık ortaya ve yüzleş benimle. Şayet ben oraya gelirsem, birilerini fena üzerim, ona göre!”

 

Bu küçük tehditten sonra ayak seslerinin geldiği duyulur. Brom saklandığı ağacın arkasından başını hafif çıkartır ve üç, cüsseli dişi-dwarf’un kendilerine doğru yaklaştığını görür.

Öndeki dwarf, arkadan kendisini takip eden diğer iki dwarf’tan biraz daha ince yapılıdır. Arkadaki iki dwarf ise.. bir birinin kopyası gibidirler. Öyle ki Brom dwarf’ların ikiz olduğunu anlaması biraz vakit alır. Öndekinin bir elinde enli, iri bir kılıç, diğerinde ise çelik çerçeveli bir kalkan mevcuttur. İkizlerin ellerinde ise Brom’un neredeyse bir buçuk misli boyunda ürkütücü birer adet savaş baltası vardır.

 

Brom yutkunur.

 

“Adın nedir, Efendi Cathber?”, diye sorar öndeki dişi-dwarf.

“Dridges Motherswolfie! Ne demek oluyor bu şimdi?”, diye kızmış bir şekilde sorar yaşlı adam.

“Benim adımı sormadım. Seninkisini sordum..”, der Dridges adındaki kız.

“Benim kim olduğumu pek ala biliyorsun.”, der Cathber.

“Sen, gördüğümü sandığım kişi olmayabilirsin, Efendi Cathber. Lütfen bana adını ver, yada geri dön. Bunlar yeni yürürlüğe koyduğumuz güvenlik protokollerinin birer parçasıdır ve istisnası da yoktur!”, der kati bir şekilde dişi dwarf.

Yaşlı adamın iki kaşı da kalkar.

“Benim adım Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig.. Senin adın ise Margaret Madish ve Gellator Bluntaxe kızı Dridges Motherswolfie, ve beni sekiz yaşından beri tanıyorsun. Siz ikiniz de Britney ve Dritmey Tosser ikizlerisiniz. Sağdaki Brit, soldaki ise Drit!”, der yaşlı adam burnundan soluyarak.

Arkadaki ikiz kız kardeşler baltalarını indirir gibi olurlar ancak Dridges işaret parmağını gösterecek şekilde bir elini kaldırınca baltalar da tekrar ‘hazır ol’a geçer.

“Bunların hepsi zaten bildiğim şeyler, Efendi Cathber. Bana bilmediğim bir şey söyle!”, der kız.

“Bu saçmalık! Sana, torunlarını göreceğin yaşa kadar bilmediğin şeyler söyleyip sıralayabilirim, Dridges!”, diye tamamen kızmış bir şekilde cevap verir Cathber. “Gökler adına kızım! Nezaketine ne oldu senin? Tekrar hatırlaman için seni annenin yanına mı götürmem gerekiyor?”

“Annem burada, Efendi Cathber. Kendisini gördüğünüzde beni şikayet edebilirsiniz.. Görebilirseniz, tabii..”, der Dridges kaşlarını çatarak.

“Margaret burada mı?”, diye hayretle sorar Cathber.

“Evet..”, der Dridges kısaca.

“Peki baban?”

“O gelmedi.”, diye aynı özlü şekilde cevap verir kız.

“Bu.. hayret verici bir durum. İkisinin birbirinden ayrı takıldıkları duyulmuş değil.”, diye mırıldanır yaşlı adam.

“Atıştılar ve aralarında bazı kızgın sözler geçti. Annem de kızıp buraya geldi.”, der Dridges tek kaşı kalkmış bir şekilde.

“Ahhaa..”, der Cathber sırıtarak. “Buna inanmak isterdim ama yaşlı, inatçı Galletor’un annenle karşılaşmasından sonra ağzından tek bir kelime bile çıkmadığını düşünürsek, ‘aralarında bazı kızgın sözlerin’ geçmiş olabileceğine inanması oldukça güç olurdu gibime geliyor.. Sınavı geçtim mi?”

 

Dridges Motherswolfie’nin ilk defa kaşları gevşer ve yüzünde güzel bir gülümseme belirir.

 

“Üç yıldızla, Efendi Cathber, üç yıldızla.”, der gülerek.

“Sadece üç mü? Ben kendime en az dört tane verirdim..”, diye homurdanır yaşlı adam. “Şimdi. Neler oluyor, Dridges?”

“Burada değil. Kampa döndüğümüzde.. Bir ağacın arkasına saklanıp bütün konuşmayı yaşlı bir adama bırakacak kadar cesur olan küçük dostun güvenir mi peki?”, diye sorar Dridges.

“Efendi Brom..”, diye seslenir paslı sesiyle yaşlı Cathber. “Sana güvenilir olup olmadığını soruyorlar.. Güvenilir misin?”

“Hangi konuda?”, diye cevap gelir ağacın arkasından.

Arkadaki ikizlerden biri kıkırdar, sonra tekrar kaşlarını çatıp kıpırdamadan durur.

“Duruma göre değişiyor mu, küçük adam?”, diye sorar Dridges.

“Hiç kimse her konuda güvenilir olamaz, ‘küçük kız’..”, diye alaylı bir şekilde cevap verir Brom ve arkadaki ikizler hayretle birbirlerine bakarlar. “İş yemek söz konusu olduğunda bana güvenemezsiniz çünkü gördüğüm her şeyi yiyebilirim.. Dwarf’lar yenilebilir düzgün yemek yapmasını biliyorlarsa tabi.. İş onura gelince, evet, güvenilir birisiyimdir.. Dwarf’lar onurdan anlıyorlarsa tabi!”

 

Ortam bir anda sessizleşir.

Efendi Cathber avucunun içine aksırır ve gülümsemesini gizler.

Dridges’in kaşları tekrar çatılır ve kıpkırmızı kesilir.

Arkadaki ikizlerin kaşları zaten çatılı olduğu için baltalarını kaldırıp ileri doğru bir – iki adım atarlar.

Dridges tekrar elini kaldırınca ikizler yine dururlar.

 

“Küstahsın, küçük adam!”, diye burnundan solur Driges.

“Sen de şımarığın tekisin, küçük kız!”, diye seslenir Brom.

“Efendi Cathber?”, diye fırtına gibi bir suratla bakar yaşlı adama Dridges.

Yaşlı adam omuzlarını silker ve kıza sırıtır.

“Bana onun güvenilir olup olmadığını sordun, o da sana tam olarak ne kadar güvenilir olduğunu söyledi işte. Efendi Hobbit sözünün eridir ve her zaman doğruyu söylemeye meyillidir.”, diye sakince cevap verir Cathber.

Dridges’in kaşları biraz daha çatılır.

“Hobbit mi? Ben hobbit’lerin çok daha nazik olduklarını sanırdım..”, der haşin bir sesle.

“Ben de dwarf’ların çok daha saygılı olduğunu sanırdım.. Belli ki ikimiz de yanılmışız!”, diye cevap verir Brom sırıtarak.

“Seni şuracıkta ikiye katlayabilirim!”, diye tıslar Dridges.

“Benim bir tanemle başa çıkamıyorsun, kızım. Bir de beni ikiye katladığında başına gelecekleri düşün!”, diye acımasızca güler Brom.

“Sen bittin, bücür!”, diye hırlar Dridges.

“Senden korkmamı bekliyorsan, Efendi Cathber’in az evvel bahsettiği torunlarını görünceye kadar bekleyebilirsin.. Evimden ayrıldığım günden beri gördüğüm şeyleri düşündüğümde, senin ‘Top On’ listeme bile girebileceğini sanmıyorum..”, diye haşin bir kahkaha atar genç hobbit.

“Öhöm..”, diye boğazını temizler Efendi Cathber. “Sanırım bu kadarı yeterli.. Efendi Brom? Sevgili Dridges?”

 

“Neden o ‘Sevgili’ oluyor?”, diye alınmış bir sesle söylenir Brom.

“Neden o ‘Efendi’ oluyor?”, diye harlar Dridges..

“Çünkü sen daha güzelsin, Dridges, ve sen de efendi birisin, Efendi Hobbit.. Yoksa ikiniz konusunda tamamen mi yanılmışım?”, diye sakince sorar Efendi Cathber.

İkiside susar.

 

Dridges fena kızmış bir şekilde burnundan solurken genç hobbit ise ağacın arkasından kıkırdayarak çıkar.

Kızarmış suratıyla, “Beni takip edin!”, diye emreder ve dönüp arkasını gider.

İkizlerse Efendi Cathber ve ‘küçük hobbit’in geçmesini beklerler, sonra da ikisinin arkasından yürümeye başlarlar.

“Efendi Cathber.”, diye seslenir bir tanesi. “Hangimizin, hangimiz olduğunu nasıl çıkarabiliyorsun her defasında? Annemiz bile karıştırıyor çoğu zaman.”

“Bu o kadar da zor değil, sevgili Dritmey.”, diye cevap verir yaşlı Cathber arkasına bile bakmadan. “Senin kaşının altında gözün var. Britney’in ise gözünün üstünde kaşı var!”

 

Brom ‘fırk’lar.

Arkada ise kafaları karışmış bir sessizlik oluşur.

 

Efendi Cathber, yanında yürüyen hobbit’e doğru hafif eğilir ve fısıldar.

“Orada biraz şansını zorladın gibi, Efendi Brom.”

“Aaaa.. Bilakis. Daha yeni başlıyoruz, Efendi Cathber!”, diye şeytani bir şekilde sırıtır Brom..

“Buraya bir savaş başlatmaya gelmedik, delikanlı.”, der Cathber.

“Kime karşı savaşacaklar? Bir savaş kampı dolusu dwarf, tek bir hobbit’e mi saldıracaklar? Bunu yaparlarsa bir daha asla ‘onurlarını’ kazanamazlar..”, diye pis bir şekilde sırıtır Brom.

“Hmmm..”, der yaşlı adam. “Yolculuğuna dair bana anlatmadığın bazı şeyler var gibi.”

“Yolculuğum esnasında yaşadığım birçok şeyi size anlatmadın, Efendi Cathber. Bunu biliyordunuz.”, diye cevap verir genç hobbit.

“Evet. Ve hayır. Bana anlattıklarında dürüst ve samimi olduğunu biliyordum, ama eksiklerin de farkındaydım. Bununla beraber, burası ‘küçüklerin’ oyun sahası değil. Yapmayı düşündüğün şey her ne ise, bunu da hesaba katmanı rica ediyorum.”, der Cathber temkinli bir şekilde.

“Burası ‘büyüklerin’ oyun alanı ise, o zaman doğru yerdeyim, Efendi Cathber.”, diye acımasızca cevap verir Brom.

✱ ✱ ✱

Genç Brom, Elder Hills’e açılan dar vadiden Efendi Cathber, Dridges ve ikizler eşliğinde geçtiğinde, tam olarak kendilerine yöneltilmemiş olsa da, vadinin duvarlarında ve tepesinde gizlenmemiş onlarca arbaletli dwarf muhafızı fark etmez bile. Ancak iki saatten biraz daha uzun süren ‘dar’ yürüyüşün sonunda açılan tepelere vardıklarında gördüğü manzara, genç hobbit’in ağzı açık bir şekilde etrafına bakınmasına sebep olacak kadar da ürkütücü gelecektir. Uzun yürüyüş boyunca kimse pek konuşmamış, sadece yaşlı Cathber bir sefer Dridges’e, kendisi gibi bir taktik general eğitimi alan birisinin vardiya görevinde ne işi olduğu sorusu olmuştu.

Dridges’in buna verdiği cevap, kızın gerçekte ne kadar kızmış olduğunu gösterecek kadar sert ve özlü olmuştu.

“Lağımcı yada general, herkes vardiya görevinde bulunur ve kimse de bu görevden muaf değildir. Bu, vardiya görevinin ne denli önemli olduğunu herkese hatırlatmasının yanı sıra, bu en düşük gibi görünen işin nüanslarını unutmasını da engellemiş oluyor zira düşman vardiyalarınızı sessizce aşarsa, ne kadar ordunuz olduğunun pek az önemi kalmış olur. Aldığım eğitimin bana verdiği tek ayrıcalık, vardiya komutanı olmam ve karar ve emirleri benim veriyor olmam. Bu şekilde ben ablalarıma emir vermeyi öğrenirken, ablalarım da sorgusuz sualsiz küçük kız kardeşlerinden ve gocunmadan emir almayı öğreniyorlar..”

Genç Brom bu cevap karşısında biraz hayrete düşer ve hafif arkasını dönerek, hangisinin hangisi olduğunu kestiremediği ikizlerden birisine sorar.

“Eee? Küçük kız kardeşinizden gocunmadan emir alabiliyor musunuz peki?”

Onun bu sorusuna ikizlerden bir tanesi haşince ‘fırk’larken diğeri kıkırdayarak cevap verir.

“Ben ve Drit.. ikimiz de Dridges’den çok daha iyi birer savaşçıyız ve bir muharebede birimiz bile onun kesebileceğinin en az üç misli düşman kesebiliriz..”, der.

“Ama..”, diye devam eder diğeri (Dritmey), “..aynı muharebede Dridges bizi yönlendirirse, bu sayı en az dört misline çıkar. Senin rakamlarla aran nasıl bilmiyorum Efendi Hobbit ama bu bana makul bir takas gibi geliyor. Dolayısıyla hiç gocunmadığımız gibi, gerçekte gocunmak için de bir sebebimiz yok..”

“Dahası..”, diye sözü tekrar alır Britney, “Dridges’i herkes sever. Aramızda en akıllı, en merhametli ve sevgi dolu olanımız o dur. Bana öyle bakma, ufaklık. Ona söylediğin şeyler o an itibariyle komikti. Ama tamamen de yersiz ve isabetsiz idi ve onu kızdıran, gerçekte söylediklerin değil, bir taktik komutanı olarak ‘sükunetini’ kaybetmiş olmasındandı. Taktik generali eğitimi alanların, duyduklarını kontrol edebilmeleri gerekiyor.”

“Sevgili Dridges..”, der Dritmey ve aralarında paslaşıp durdukları sözü devam ettirir. “..pek sevdiği evinden ve özellikle de büyük ablası Lady’den göreceli bir şekilde yeni ayrılıp buraya geldi ve daha bazı şeylere duygusal olarak alışamadı. Sizden ricam, onun üstüne fazla gitmemenizdir..”

“Neden?”, diye sorar Brom, kaşlarını çatarak. “Bu benim sağlığım için kötü mü olur?”

“Hayır. Dridges iyi bir kızdır ve tam bir hanımefendidir. Öyle adice şeyler yapmaz. Onu ne kadar kızdırırsan kızdır, seni tehdit eder ama tehditleri boştur çünkü gerçekte o can yakmayı sevmez. Kendi halinde bırakılmış olsaydı o kızın burada işi olmazdı çünkü o sanatı çok seviyordu. Ama dedemiz Argail Smitefast onun ne kadar zeki, sakin ve sabırlı olduğunu gördü ve eğitim için benzer özellikler gösteren ablasını Serenity Home’a, bir Tapınak Muhafızı olarak, Dridges’i de buraya, bir Taktik Generali olarak yetiştirilmeye gönderdi.”

“Öyle görünüyor ki dedeniz başkalarının hayatlarıyla biraz fazla ‘demir yumruk’ politikası uygulamasını seven bir şahsiyetmiş.”, der Brom ister istemez.

Britney omuzlarını silker.

Dritmey ise biraz kaşlarını çatar.

“Belki.. Ama toplum bir bütündür, Efendi Hobbit. Her ne kadar bireysel tercih ve keyfiyetlerimiz önemli olsa da, toplum var olduğunu sürece bu tercihlerimizin bir anlamı vardır. Dridges duvarlara resim çizmek istiyordu. Dedem ona savaşın yaklaştığını, başladığında ve ortada bir duvar kalmadığında resimlerini nereye çizeceğini sordu. Dridges günlerce ağladı. Ama daha çok çizilecek bir duvarın kalmayışına.. Sonra da toparlanıp buraya geldi. Şimdi ise keyifle resimlerini çizebiliyor artık. Hayatımda gördüğüm en güzel, en ayrıntılı savaş taktik haritaları onun elinden çıkıyor!”

“Dolayısıyla..”, diye lafı alır Britney. “..size kız kardeşimizin üstüne fazla gitmemenizi rica ederken bütün bunları kastediyorduk..”

“..ve tabii..”, diye sırıtarak devam eder Dritmey. “..Dridges bir hanımefendi olabilir.. Ama biz birer hanımefendi değiliz, öyle değil mi, kız?”

“..Ahahahaaa.. Hayır!”, diye haşince ‘fırk’lar Britney. “Hanımefendilik dağıtılırken biz yemekhanede bi şeyler atıştırmakla meşguldük ve geldiğimizde hepsi çoktan bitmişti! Dahası..”

“..sevgili Dridges adîce şeyler yapmaz..”

“..ama biz bunda hiç bi sakınca görmüyoruz!”..

..diye bitirir ikizler, ikisinin de suratında aynı pis sırıtış belirir.

“Ne yani.. ikiye tek mi bana saldıracaksınız?”, diye biraz tırsmış bir şekilde sorar genç hobbit.

“Saldırmak.. çok ağır bir itham, Efendi Hobbit. Biz sadece ve adîce pislik yapmaktan bahsediyoruz…”

“..ve işin en güzel yanı nedir biliyorsun, Efendi Hobbit?”

“Hayır ve içimden bir ses bilmesem de olur, diyor..”, diye tamamen tırsmış bir sesle cevap verir genç hobbit.

“İkiz olmanın en güzel yanı; her zaman seni başka yerlerde görecek şahitlerin olmasıdır!”

 

Efendi Cathber kıkırdar.

Brom yutkunur.

Bu ikisi.. çok adîdir!

 

İkizler arsızca gülerken geçtikleri dar vadi bitmiş ve Brom hayretle vadinin açıldığı tepeleri görmüştü..

Elder Hills, bir çok tepeden oluşan bir yerdir ancak tepelerin arasında geniş arazileri de vardır ve genç hobbit bu arazilerde binlerce dwarf’ın, farklı bölük ve kıtalar halinde, avazları çıkıncaya kadar bağıran eğitim çavuşlarının emirleri doğrultusunda  bir o yana, bir buyana düzenli yada emre göre dağınık gruplar halinde koşuşturmalarına şahit olur!

Gruplardan bazıları ise, kazılmış çukurlarda arbalet atış talimi —ki bir emirle yüzlerce, kısa mızrak boyunda arbalet okunun inleyerek havada uçuşup, toplu bir şekilde ve daha çok gör gürültüsünü andıran bir hışımla da hedeflerini delik deşik etmelerini yada benzer çukurlarda yüzlerce başka dwarf’un birbirlerine dev baltalar, koca kılıçlar yada külçe gürz, çivili topuz ve ağır savaş tokmaklarıyla dalmalarını seyreder..

“Oha..”, diye ünler Brom.

“Sana burasının geleneksel anlamda bir yerleşim yeri olmadığını söylemiştim, Efendi Hobbit.”, diye kıkırdar yaşlı Cathber. “Burası bir savaş eğitim kampı.. Neredeyse bütün Elder Hills böyle.. Burada otuz bine yakın dwarf, sabah akşam, her türlü koşul için eğitim görürler.”

“Peki.. bu kadar dwarf’u kim besliyor?”, diye cılız bir sesle sorar Brom.

“Bir çok yer.. Bazı techizat ve özellikle de arbalet uçlarında kullanılan zırh delici mithral-çeliği ve diğer ucunda değerlendirilen tüyleri Nurturing Heaven elf’lerinden alıyorlar. Ahşap ve kerestelerin neredeyse tamamını Dim Lodge’dan, yiyecek ve lojistiği Serenity Home ve ta Sim Town ve Arashkan’dan, arbalet ve diğer savaş makinelerinin belirgin bir kısmını Tinker Hills gnome’larından, bütün bunları destekleyen ekonomiyi, dwarf gücünü ve kılıç, balta, gürz, zırhlar ve kalkanları da Scowling Hills dwarfları imal edip tedarik ediyorlar.”

“Pe.. peki bütün bunların uyum içerisinde gerçekleşmesi nasıl oluyor? Burada bir çok ırk söz konusu, Efendi Cathber.”, diye hayretle sorar Brom.

 

“Zamanında.. Çok eskiden.. Bundan neredeyse beş yüz yıl kadar önce, Serenity Home denen kasabanın kurulduğu yere bazı erdemli adamlar ve bilge kadınlar yerleşmeye karar verdiler. Tek istedikleri huzur içerisinde yaşamaktı ama kısa bir sürede de istedikleri huzurun gerçekleşmesi, daha da önemlisi; devam etmesi için, bölgede yaşayan diğer ırklarla aralarında barışın da olmasın önemini gördüler ve aradan geçen yıllarda onlar ve onların çocukları.. ve torunları.. bu ırklarla bazı anlaşmalar yaptılar. Bu anlaşmalardan bazıları ticari, bazıları da askeri anlaşmalardı. İçeriği her ne olursa olsun, Serenity Home yaptığı anlaşmaların kendi payılarına düşen kısmını imtina ile onurlandırdıkları için, diğer ırklarda bu anlaşmaları bozmadılar. En nihayetinde de bu gördüğün yerde, Elder Hills’de bu ‘savaş okulu’ oluştu ve varlığı geçmişte kendisini defalarca ispatladı; Themlasar Savaşından sonra ortaya çıkan dört ayaklanmada da, burada eğitim alan dwarflar varlıklarını onurlu bir şekilde gösterdiler..”, diye anlatır Efendi Cathber, tatmin olmuş bir sesle.

✱ ✱ ✱

Yaşlı Cathber’in gelişini dwarf’lar temkinli bir mutlulukla karşılarlar. İşin tenminli yanı genele hitap ederken, mutlu yanı ise Dridge’i karşılaşayan, saçlarının bir yanı kazınmış çarpıcı bir dwarf kadın ve beraberindeki diğer dwarf’larca olur. 

“Sevigili Cathber..”, diye muhteşem bir gülümsemeyle yaklaşır dwarf kadın ve hiçbir utanma yada çekingenlik belirtisi göstermeksizin yaşlı adama sarılır ve sesli bir şekilde yanağından öper!

“Sevgili Margaret..”, der yaşlı adam ve gülerek söylenir. “Bluntaxe, genç ve yakışıklı erkeklere sarılıp öptüğünü biliyor mu?”

 

Margaret’in buna gösterdiği tepkisi biraz ürkütücüdür;

Dwarf kadın, genç bir kız gibi ve kıpkırmızı olmuş bir şekilde kıkırdar!

Kadının etrafındaki diğer dwarflar ise birden, hiçbir şey olmamış gibi tamamen alakasız yerlere bakınmaya başlarlar.

 

“Hadi gelin.. Tam yemek vaktini yakaladınız.”, der Margaret ve durup muzipçe yaşlı adama bakar. “Aslına bakılırsa her gelişinizde tam yemek vaktini yakalıyor olmanız dikkatimden kaçmış değil!”

Yaşlı adam biraz utanarak güler.

“Bu sadece bir tesadüf, sevgili Margaret. Ve tamamen asılsıl suçlamalarlardan ibaret.”

Margaret tekrar kıkırdar ve topluca şantiye şeklinde inşa edilmiş, Brom’un görebildiği kadarıyla gerektiğinde seri bir şekilde demonte edilip ihtiyaç duyulduğu bir başka yerde tekrar bir araya getirilebilecek onlarca, en olarak yirmi yarda, boy olarak ise elli yarda uzunluğunda tek katlı binalardan birisine götürür. Giderlerken daha kendisini tanıtmamış olan küçük hobbit’in hayrına, Margaret yanındakileri tanıtır.

Bu gördüklerin benim buradaki kızkardeşlerim;

Marideth Brave,

Yor Whatoo,

Drejeret Quik,

Quin Stabsez..

..ve Yulanda Madsteam. Normalde Yulanda burada bek takılmıyor ama Tinker Hills’den yeni gelen bazı makinaların konfigirasyonları yapılmaları gerektiği için geldi buraya. Gnome’ların icatlardan ve cihazlardan bu kadar anlamalarına rağmen, laftan hiç anlamıyor olmaları ne kadar acıklı değil mi?”, diye açıklar Margaret.

Efendi Cathber buna nazikçe bir şey demez.

“Kaç defa kendilerine, imal ettikleri cihazların bize uyumlu olması için gerekli verileri göndermiş olmamıza rağmen, ısrarla kendi ayarlarının daha ‘geçerli ve optimal’ olduğunu iddia edip o şekilde imal etmeleri içler acısı bir durum..

Bunlar da erkek kardeşlerim;

Bruden Burnthammer..

..ve Goric Boarshoulders. Diğerleri ise kızlarım; Dridges, Britney ve Dritmey ile zaten tanıştınız.

Bu da Nikelix Carver. Lillias Absentwhot ve Jeina Blond’da buralarda bir yerlerdeler. Lillas alacaklılar ve birileriyle anlaşıp ‘el sıkışmakla’ ilgili bir şeyler söyleyip duruyordu günlerdir. Oğlanlar burada değiller.”

“Uhhmm.. Bütün kızları getirmişsin neredeyse Margaret..”, diye, kısık ama imalı bir sesle söylenir yaşlı Cathber.

Margaret’in yüzü hiçbir şekilde kızarmaz. Tam aksine ciddi bir ifadeyle cevap verir buna.

“Akraba evliliklerini hiçbir zaman tasvip etmemişimdir. Doğan çocuklar biraz çatlak oluyorlar. Buradaki ‘stok’ sağlıklı ve güvenilir. Ordu eğitimi de olsa en azından bir eğitimden geçmiş durumdalar. Tamamı okuma yazma biliyor ve neredeyse hepsi en az iki dil, ve bir ana meslek, bir de destek mesleğe sahip.”, diye açıklar. Sonra anlaşmışlar gibi esefle toplu bir şekilde gözlerini yuvarlayan kızlarına bakar ve burnundan soluyarak açıkça bir şekilde onları tehdit eder. “Eğer beni utandırırsanız, eve dönünce hepinizin saçlarını yolarım ona göre. Burada olduğumuz süre boyunca hepinizden birer ‘kız’ gibi davranmanızı istiyorum ve eve döndüğümüzde de en az yarınızın yanında size kene gibi yapışmış bir erkeğin olmasını bekliyorum. Erkek kılığında bir odun olsa da olur. Bana torun verin yeter!”

“Babam da mı sana bir kene gibi yapışmıştı anne?”, diye muzipçe sorar kızlardan biri —Nikelix Carver.

İkizler kıkırdarlar.

Margaret kaşlarını çatar.

“Babanla ben elli iki saat balta ve topuzla birbirimize vurmaya çalıştık. Ben çok uğraştım ama en sonunda onun bana vurmak için değil, sadece topuzumu kendisine isabet ettirmemi engellemek için balta savurduğunu anlayınca kendisiyle evlenmeye karar verdim. Aranızda o kadar taşaklı onanınız varsa, lütfen, size engel olmayayım.. Gidip o erkeği bulun!”, diye hırlar.

“Anne!”, diye hayret ve utançla inler Dridges.

İkizler yine kıkırdarlar.

“Çok ayıp ama anne.. Hele yabancıların yanında öyle konuşulur mu?”

“Söylesene bana, Dridges.. Sen kaç çocuk doğurdun? Dahası, o kavga olurken, Efendi Cathber de yan masada oturmuş bizi seyrediyordu!”

Dridges kıpkırmızı olmuş bir şekilde susar.

“Siz de ne her şeye kıkırdıyorusunuz, pembe elf kızları gibi?!”, diye ikizleri de bir güzel haşlar Margaret.

“Şu babam değil mi?!”, diye ünler Nikelix birden ve aksi istikamete işaret eder.

Margaret, yüzünde hayet ifadesiyle kızın gösterdiği yöne bakar ama orada kimseyi göremez. Kaşları çatılı bir şekilde geri döndüründe Nikelix tüymüştür!

İkizler aynı anda ‘fırk’lar.

Dridges’den garip, ‘hık’ sesleri duyulur.

Brom suratını büzüştürürken Efendi Cathber ise, yüz yılların verdiği engin tecrübelerine sığınır, ve herhangi bir ses çıkarmamayı başarır.

“Nikelix..”, diye burnundan solur Margaret ve ancak bir annenin sahip olabileceği bir sevgi ile karışık hiddetle döner ve yemekhane şantiyesine doğru yürümeye başlar.

 

“Margaret hanım.. Burada sözü geçen biri, sanırım?”, diye fısıldayarak sorar Brom, Efendi Cathber’e.

“Öyle de denebilir. Babasının Argail Smitefast olduğunu, Smitefast’in de Scowling Hills’in defacto lideri olduğu düşünürsek.. Şunu anlamalısın, Efendi Brom; Argail Efendi, Sim Town’dan ta Endless Sea denizine, Ritual Ormanlarının kuzeyindeki Rook dağlarından da ta Tinker Hill’in güneyine kadar ki engin topraklardaki bütün dwarf’lardan sorumludur ve iyi kötü hepsine sözü geçer. Halihazırda kızının politik gücü o kadar değil ama teknik olarak o da söz konusu dwarf’lardan sorumlu. Bu, yabana atılabilecek bir güç değil. Buna rağmen ne sevgili Margaret, ne de babası Argail Smitefast bu gücü kötüye kullanmamış ve komşularıyla her zaman iyi ve adaletli geçinmeyi tercih etmişlerdir.”, diye yüzünde ciddi bir ifadeyle anlatır Cathber.

Bunu duyan genç hobbit, kaşları çatılı ve gözleri de kısılmış bir şekilde Margaret Madish’i takip eder zira aradığı kişiyi bulmuştur.. 

✱ ✱ ✱

Margaret Madish yemekhane kapısından içeri girince etrafını süzer, sonra da yemek sırasına girer. Kızları, kız kardeşleri ve Efendi Cathber’da peşinden sıraya girince Brom’da hayretle etrafına bakınarak peşlerinden sıraya girer.. Yemek sırası, genç hobbit’in hayatında daha önce hiç görmediği bir mefhumdur ve kocaman kazanların başında durmuş dwarf aşçıların, herkesin tabaklarına tamamen aynı yemekten ve aynı miktarda koyuşunu hayretle izler. Dwarflar da gıklarını çıkarmadan içinde dört çukuru olan, dikdörtgen şeklindeki tabaklarını alırlar, diğer çukurlara da meyve, tatlı ve ekmek doldururlar, birer çatal, birer kaşık ve bir tane de bıçak alarak gidip masalardan birine çömerler. 

Sıra Brom’a geldiğinde iri dwarf aşçı ona iki kaşı da kalmış bir şekilde bakar. Brom’da aşçının kendisine bakmasına bakar ve öylece durur. İkisinin de bir birlerine bakışmaları sonucundan düzeli bir şekilde hareket eden sıra da bir anda duruverir.

“Evlat. Daha ne kadar orada durup bana bakmaya devam edeceksin?”, diye sorar tozlu bir sesle aşçı.

“Bilmem. Siz bana baktığınız için ben de size baktım.”, der Brom hiçbir şey anlamamış gibi.

“Tabildotun.. Uzatırsan içine yemek koyabilirim!”, der aşçı kaşlarını çatarak.

“Tabildot?”, diye sorar genç hobbit.

Aşçı esefle dolu derin bir soluk verir.

“Çaylak..”, der, bu her şeyi açıklıyormuş gibi.

Aşçının kendisine ‘çaylak’ demesiyle, hemen yanındaki dwarf’da ‘çaylak..’, der, elindeki kendi boş tabildotunu ona uzatır ve bir anda sıra boyunca bütün dwarflar, bir sağındaki dwarf’a ‘çaylak..’, der ve sıra boyunca bütün dwarflar ellerindeki tabildotu bir solundaki dwarf’a uzatır!

“Evet. Artık bir tabildotun var.. Şimdi onu bana uzatırsan, artık bu aç askerleri doyurabilirim..”, der aşçı.

Kıpkırmızı olmuş bir şekilde Brom tabildotunu uzatır, aşçı da tabildottaki en büyük çukura iri kepçesiyle yoğun et ve fasülyeli bir şey boşaltır.

“Ummm.. Tek alternatifim bu mu?”, diye sorar tabildotundaki yemeğe bakarak.

“Yemekten hoşlanmazsan, çıkıştaki ‘şikayet kutusuna’ derdini anlatan bir mektup bırakabilirsin. Ama bunun sana pek de bir faydası olmaz zira şikayetleri okuyacak vaktim yok!”, der aşçı, yüzünde haşin bir sırıtışla!

Brom somurtarak ilerler ve elmalı turtamsı bir şey olması gereken tatlıdan alır, biraz setleşmiş elmalardan ve son kullanma tarihi geçmek üzere olan bir de ayran alır.

Bu sırada yemeklerini almış olan Margaret ve taifesi, neredeyse tamamı çoktan dolmuş yemekhanede boş gördükleri, gerilerdeki masalardan birisine doğru yönlenirler.

Masaların yanından geçerken, ne zaman geri geldiği anlaşılamayan Nikelix, bir anda tabildotuyla yanlarında belirir, Dridges’e göz kırpar, ikizlere sırıtır, sonra döndüğü gibi yan masadaki dwarf’lardan birinin eline çatalını saplar!

Masada oturan dwarf bir anda ‘offf’ diye inler ve çatala uzanır ama Nikelix çatılı olduğu yerde tutmaya devam eder. İkizlere verdiği sırıtışın aynını dwarf’a da verir ve acıdan kıvranan cücenin kulağına eğilir, “Kalçamı istiyorsan, gerisini de alman gerekir. Buna gözün kesmiyorsa ellerine hakim olmayı öğrenmelisin Torkan!”, diye mutlu bir şekilde tıslar..

Masada oturan diğer dwarf’ların hepsi iri kahkahalarla gülmeye başlarlar.

Brom hayretle başını sallar ve kendi ellerinin bu kaçık dwarf kızlardan olabildiğince uzak olduğundan emin olmak istiyormuş gibi sımsıkı tabildotunu kavrar ve küçük bir hamster gibi Efendi Cathber’in peşinden ilgili masaya doğru koşturur.

✱ ✱ ✱

Doğrusunu söylemek gerelirse Genç Brom, Elder Hills dwarf’larını biraz fazla ‘heyecanlı’ ve hırçın bir ırk olarak bulsa da yine de onların sıcak ve cana yakın halleri, bıyık altı espri anlayışları ve sımsıkı birbirine kenetlenmiş ‘aile yapıları’, istemese de hoşuna gider. Yemekler için aynı şeyleri söyleyemez ama. Fevkalade besleyici olmakla beraber, dwarf yemeklerinin tadı kendi standartlarına göre, aynı fevkaladelikle ‘berbattır’!

Dwarf’lar, olağandışı bir şekilde sessizce ve tam anlamıyla da ‘ortalarında’ oturan hobbit’i umursamazlık etmezler ve nezaket kurallarını ihlal etmeyecek şekilde ona bakışlar atarlar ama ona bulaşmazlar. Bununla beraber, aralarında yaptıkları espriler de bir şekilde onun anlayacağı ve onu da güldürecek şekilde olmasına dikkat ediyor gibidirler.

Dridges arada bir ona sert bakışlar atarken, emredilmişler gibi ikizler ise onu aralarına almış, konuşmalar esnasında geçenlerin ‘açıklamalarını’ ve ‘yorumlarını’ aktarıp dururlar genç hobbit’e.

Uzun, kıvırcık kızıl saçlı Marideth ona gülümseyerek göz kırparken, Quin Stabsez ise ona, sanki biraz fazlalığı varmış da onları nasıl alırım, gözüyle bakar. Masanın en ucunda Yulanda Madsteam, yemek öncesi, yemek esnasında ve yemek sonrası ağzından eksik etmediği pis kokan, tütün sarmasıyla sessizce oturmayı tercih ederken muhabbetin merkezinde Yor Whatoo.. teyze? abla? adam? —Brom bu dwarf’un ne olduğunu tam olarak çıkaramaz ama sormaya da korkar. Oldukça iri cüsseli olan Yor’un yüzündeki tüyleri açıkça bir erkek olduğunu söylerken, davranışları ve herkese ‘Şekerim!’ diye hitap etmesi başka bir şeyler söylemektedir. Yor.. Teyze.. büyük bir iştahla ne kadar dedikodu varsa kendisine has üslubuyla mutlu bir şekilde ortaya saçar ve yan masalardaki dwarf’lar dahil hepsini gülmekten kırıp geçirir. Efendi Cathber bile en sonunda “Yor Teyze, yeter! Bu yaşlı adamı öldürmek mi istiyorsun?”, diye inler. 

“Aaaa.. Hikayenin asıl lezzetli yerine gelmedik daha, şekerim!”, diye söylenir Yor Teyze ve bu da yeni bir kahkaha zincirine sebep olur.

“Evet..”, der Margaret en sonunda. “Sanırım hepimiz yedik, içtik, doyduk, dolduk ve güldük.. Elder Hills’de sizi tekrar görmek çok hoş, Efendi Cathber. Ama sizin iki hafta önce burada olmanızı tercih ederdik. Bize büyük yardımınız dokunmuş olurdu.”

“Neler oluyor, Margaret?”, diye birden ciddileşiverir yaşlı Cathber.

Margaret derin bir nefes alır.

“İki hafta önce birileri gizlice buraya girmeye çalıştılar. Üç farklı noktadan. Ve söz konusu üç noktadaki muhafızları da öldürerek bunu gerçekleştirdiler. Bu şahıslar buraya, Elder Hills ordu karargahına girip gizli bazı bilgilerimizi aşırdılar. Ancak hata yaptılar ve fark edildiler. Bir kısmı kaçmaya çalışırken diğerleri ise geride kalıp, ellerinden geldiği kadar çok gürültü ve hasar vermeye çalıştılar ve bunu da başardılar. Yine de sonunda öldürüldüler.. Ve evet, sen sormadan ben söyleyeyim, canlı yakalamaya çalıştık ama saldırıları bunu imkansız hale getirdi. Kaçanların peşlerine takıldık ve onları da öldürdük. En azından o zaman bu kanaate varmıştık. Nevarki çalınan evraklar imtina ile elden geçirilince, bazılarının eksik olduğunu fark ettik. Bu, ciddi bazı sorunlara sebep oldu. O belgelerde önemi bazı bilgiler vardı. Bizlerde o bilgilerin güvenlik açığı olarak aleyhimize kullanılamaması için, hemen yeni düzenlemeler getirdik. Korkarım yeni protokoller daha oturmadığı gibi, yeni uygulamalar da kendi sorunlarını beraberinde getirdi. Ortada tam anlamıyla bir güvenlik kaosu var, senin anlayacağın.”, diye anlatır haşin bir sesle kadın.

“Bu.. hem hayret verici, hem de fevkalade üzücü bir durum. Ben.. son bir yıldır bazı işlerim dolayısıyla ormanın bir ucundan diğerine koşturmak durumunda kaldım ve işim de daha bitmedi. Dim Lodge oduncuları bana, ‘kereste almak için’ geldiklerini söyleyen yeni bazı şahısların olduğunu, ancak herhangi birisinin daha tek bir dal bile almadıklarını söylediler. Elflerle görüşme fırsatım olmadığı için onların fark ettiği bir şeyler var mı bilemiyorum.”, diye işin kendi tarafını anlatır Cathber.

“Hmmm..”, diye söylenir Margaret düşünceli bir şekilde.

“Size tavsiyem, devriyelerinizin sıklığını ve mesafesini en az ikiye katlayın. Tercihen üç günlük mesafeye..”, diye önerir Efendi Cathber.

“Üç gün.. bu devriyelerin merkezle görüşebileceği yada haber ulaştırabileceği mesafenin üç katı..”, der dwarf kadın.

“Bu benim tavsiyem, Margaret. Ama devriyeleri yeterince sık aralıklarla çıkarırsanız yola, sanıyorum bu iletişim sorunuzu çözecektir.”

“Ve devriye masraflarımızı da en az on iki ile on altı katına çıkaracaktır.”, diye kaynar Margaret.

“Bu konuda Serenity izcileriyle iletişime geçebilirsiniz. Onların Elder Hills’in doğusunu taramalarını isterseniz, en azından bu devriye masraflarını biraz azaltacaktır. O izcileri sessizce geçip size doğudan yaklaşılması oldukça güç.”, der Cathber.

“Adi şerefsiz köpekler!”, diye köpürür Margaret birden. “Ortada hiçbir provokasyon olmadığı halde saldırdı onursuz çapulcular..”

“Onurmuş!”, diye bi laf kaçar birden Brom’un ağzından..

 

..ve bütün yemekhane sessizliğe bürünür.

✱ ✱ ✱

Margaret Madish’in gözleri bir anda hiddetle parlar ve masanın öbür tarafında ve az ilerisinde oturan küçük hobbit’e bakar. Genç Brom’un sağında ve solunda oturan ikizler ise sanki görünmek istemiyorlarmış gibi kıpırdamadan öylece dururlar oturdukları yerde.

“Bir şey mi dediniz, Efendi Hobbit?”, diye burnundan solur Margaret.

“Evet, dedim.”, diye huysuzca cevap verir Brom.

“Yanlış anlamış mıyım, acaba? Buraya geldiniz. Adınızı bile daha vermemiş olmanıza rağmen, sizi soframıza misafir ettik, afiyetle yemeğimizi yediniz, muhabbetimize şahitlik ettiniz ve siz, Efendi Hobbit, bizim onurumuzu mu sorguluyorsunuz?”, diye sessizce sorar dwarf kadın.

“Adımı vermedim, çünkü sormadınız. Sofranıza misafir ettiğiniz için ben de yemekleriniz hakkında yorum bile yapmadan yedim. Ama beni bu iki bayan arasına sıkıştırarak, bana şüpheli muamelesi yaptınız. Siz bana söyleyin, Margaret hanım, doğru anlamış mıyım?”, der Brom haşin bir şekilde.

 

Margaret Madish’in gözleri kısılır.

Efendi Cathber ise sesini çıkarmaz.

 

“Neden onurumuzu sorguladığınızı bize açıklar mısınız? Size ne gibi bir yanlışımız oldu da bizi ve onurumuzu sorguluyorsunuz?”, diye kaynayan bir sesle sorar Madish.

“Siz.. Sim Town’dan Endless Sea denizine, Rook dağlarından da Tinker Hills’in güneyine kadar uzanan topraklardaki bütün dwarf’lardan sorumlu değil misiniz?”, diye sorar aynı haşin sesle genç hobbit.

“Bu biraz fazla muallak bir tanımlama oldu, Efendi Hobbit zira bahsettiğiniz topraklarda birçok dwarf yaşıyor.”, der Margaret.

“Dwarf’larının sorumluluğunu üstlenemeyen sizinle neden konuşuyorum ki o zaman? Bana gerçek sorumluyu gösterin.”, diye kendi gözleri kısılmış bir şekilde cevap verir Brom.

 

Margaret Madish’in yüzü kıpkırmızı kesilir.

 

“Aradığınız kişi, babam Argail Smitefast’dir ama kendisi şu anda burada değiller. Bununla beraber, onun sorumlulukları, benim sorumluluklarımdır. Size tavsiyem kendinizi açıklamanızdır zira bu masadan ya ikimiz de canlı kalkacağız, yada sadece birimiz kalkıp gideceğiz!”, der fırtına gibi bir ifadeyle.

“Siz misafirlerinizi hep böyle tehdit mi edersiniz? Ve bana onurdan bahsediyorsunuz! Öyle olsun bakalım..”, diye sessizce yanmaya başlar Brom.

Sonra, yavaşça ayağa kalkar ve herkesin göreceği şekilde oturduğu bankın üstüne çıkar ve dwarf kadına işaret ederek bağırır;

“Madem dwarf’larınızdan siz sorumlusunuz ve kendileri burada olmadığı için Argail Smitefast adına konuştuğunuzu söylüyorsunuz, o zaman, Margaret Madish, sizi, bundan yaklaşık bir buçuk yıl önce Gulls Perch’de gerçekleştirilen fey cinayetlerinden sorumlu tutuyor ve suçlu buluyorum!”

 

Bütün yemekhane ayağa kalkar.

Ortamda ne kadar dwarf varsa hepsinin ellerinde baltaları, kılıçları, topuzları olduğu halde kapkara olmuş suratlarla hobbit’in olduğu yere yürümeye başlarlar.

 

“Margaret.”, der Efendi Cathber sakince. “Efendi Hobbit benim dostum. Ona burada bir şey olursa, Elder Hills’in kepenklerini indirmek zorunda kalırsınız ve ben bununla da yetinmem.”

Margaret hayretle Brom’a, sonra da yaşlı Cathber’e bakar.

“Sizi dostum sanmıştım Efendi Cathber.”, diye fena halde kırılmış bir şekilde fısıldar Margaret.

“Ve bu konuda da her zaman haklıydın, sevgili Margaret zira ben hala ver her zaman senin dostunum. Ama genç hobbit’in ithamlarını cevapsız bırakamazsın ve susturamazsın.”, diye nazikçe cevap verir yaşlı adam.

 

Margaret kaşlarını çatar, sonra bir elini kaldırır ve bütün dwarf’lar oldukları yerde dururlar.

 

“Bu fevkalade ciddi bir itham, Efendi Hobbit. Bizim Gulls Perch ile herhangi bir ilişkimiz yada alıp veremediğimiz yok. Orası bize ait değil, asla da olmadı. Orada fey’ler yaşar ve bizler de onların yanlız bırakılma isteğine saygı gösterir ve onlara bulaşmayız. Orası bize yasak!”, der Margaret.

“O zaman bana açıklar mısınız? Bundan 1 yıl, 6 ay ve 28 gün önce dwarf’larınızın orada ne işi vardı?”, diye gırtlağını yırtarcasına haykırır genç hobbit. “Makinaları ile maden ve değerli taş çıkarmak için oradaydılar ve zehirli atıklarını vadinin sularına boşaltarak oradaki bir çok fey’in ölmesine sebep oldular.. O dwarf’lar ve beraberlerinde getirdikleri paralı fedaileriyle savaşmak zorunda kaldım ve bu bana çok pahalıya mal oldu!”

Margaret bir anda bir şeye uyanmış gibi gözleri de, omuzları da çöker..

“Bu dwarf’lar.. sorumluluğumuz olan toprakların dışından gelmiş olabilirler, Efendi Hobbit.”, diye konuşur ama sesinde belirgin bir umutsuzluk var gibidir.

“Mad Ussa!”, diye hırlar Brom. “Başlarındaki ve elimden kurtulmayı başaran tek dwarf’un adı buydu! Bu isim size tanıdık geliyorsa ve azıcık onurunuz varsa bunu itiraf edersiniz!”

 

Margaret Madish’in bir anda beti benzi atar ve içi boşalmış su tulumu gibi ezilir.

Dridges’inde..

O masadaki bütün dwarf’lar bir anda çökerler..

 

“Bu ismi biliyoruz, Efendi Hobbit.”, der Margaret sessizce.

“Sizin dwarf’larınızdandı demek!”, diye köpürür Brom.

“Evet. Bir zamanlar bizim dwarf’larımızdandı.. Romilus “Mad” Ussa.. benim oğlumdu..”

“Ve hayvanın da tekiydi..”, der yan taraftan Dridges ağlamaklı bir sesle. “Ablam burada olsaydı kahrolurdu şimdi.”

 

Brom ise çoktan kahrolmuş bir suratla iki dişi dwarf’a da bakar..

..ve kendi omuzları da çöker..

..zira aradığı suçluları bulmuştur, ama istediği adaleti bulamayacaktır.

 

“Bu.. size neye mal oldu, Efendi Hobbit? Mümkünse telafi etmek isteriz.”, der Margaret dolu gözlerler.

 

Genç Brom öylece Margaret Madish’e bakar..

..ve olduğu yerde titreyip hıçkırmaya başlar.

 

“Bana mal olanı ödeyemezsiniz, Margaret hanım. Mad Ussa benden Aremela’mı aldı.. ve o paha biçilmez, tertemiz bir ruhtu..”, der..

..ve bir anda tamamen dağılır.

 

Brom Bumblebrim, son 1 yıl, 6 ay ve 28 gün boyunca içinde sakladığını, bastırıp unuttuğunu, sindirip sildiğini sandığı kaybı, kahrı, utancı ve acısı bir anda ve tamamen kurtulur ondan ve küçük bir çocuk gibi ağlamaya başlar.

 

“Senin Mad Ussa’n onu öldürürken, o katiline değil, benim yüzüme bakmayı seçti. O.. o kadar saf.. ve sevgi dolu bir kızdı ki.. Beni kurtarmak için kendi hayatını feda etti.. Bunun nasıl bir telafisi olabilir ki?”

 

Margaret Madish kırılmış bir anne olarak, olduğu yerden, hıçkırıklarla ağlayan küçük hobbit’e bakar.

Yaşlı Cathber ise, boşlukları en sonunda doldurulmuş hikaye ile ne yapacağını düşünüyor gibidir.

Dridges çöktüğü yerden kalkar, masanın etrafından dolanır ve genç hobbit’in yanına gelir. Yüzleri buruşmuş olan ikizler kenara çekilirler ve kız kardeşleri küçük hobbit’e sarılır.

 

“Ben.. bir zamanlar abim olan Ussa’nın yaptıklarından dolayı ne kadar özür dileyeceğimi bile bilmiyorum. Ussa’nın aramızdan kovulmasının sebebi bendim halbuki. Yıllar önce beni ve Lady ablamı içeren ahmakça bir işe kalkıştı ve bunun sonucunda da topraklarımızdan sürüldü.. Belli ki ona vermemiz gereken ceza bununla kalmamalıydı.”

 

Brom sakince Dridges’in kollarından kurtulur ve kızın annesine, Margaret Madish’e yaklaşır.

 

“Gulls Perch fey’lerinin kaybını telafi edemeyiz. Ama bir şekilde bunun, ödeyebileceğimiz bir karşılığı olmalı, Efendi Hobbit”, diye önünde dikilmiş ve kendisine acımasızca bakan küçük hobbit’e yalvarır Margaret.

“Yapılan cinayetlerin bir karşılığı yok, Argail Smitefast kızı Margaret Madish..”, der Brom gözleri gibi acımasız kelimelerle.

 

Genç hobbit’in sesinde ürkütücü ve hayret uyandıran bir güç vardır sanki ve etrafındaki herkes korkuyla büyülenmiş bir şekilde bakarlar ona.

 

“Ama size ait olana eksik verdiğiniz cezayı telafi edebilirsiniz.”

“Nasıl?”, diye sorar Margaret, kerpiç gibi olmuş bir ifadeyle..

 

“Katilin annesi olarak sen ve onurun.. Gulls Perch’e geleceksiniz ve orada kaderinizle yüzleşeceksiniz. Çocuklarınız da Gulls Perch’e herhangi bir başka ölümlünün bir daha izinsiz girmesini engellemek için vadinin girişine, fey’lerin uygun gördüğü yer ve mesafeye bir karakol kuracaklar ve her yıl, her gün ve her saat orayı koruyacaklar. Bu artık sizin boyun borcunuz ve onurunuz olacak. Sözünüzde durduğunuz sürece kaderiniz devam edecek. Onurunuzdan döndüğünüz günde ise kaderiniz bitecek!”, diye yankılanır Brom’un kati sesi tüm şantiyede.

Masadaki herkes ve yemekhanedeki bütün dwarf’lar dehşet ve korkuyla küçük hobbit’e bakarlar zira bunlar, Argail Smitefast kızı Margaret Madish’den istenebilecek ezici taleplerdir ama seslerini çıkaramazlar ve kıpırdayamazlar çünkü sesin kendisinde de ezici bir güçtür vardır..

Efendi Cathber kısılmış gözlerle küçük hobbit’e bakar ve sessizce fısıldar;

“Titania?”

 

Margaret Madish ise sadece başını eğer ve “Kabul.”, der.

 

“Sana sunulan kadere boyun eğip senden talep edilenleri kabul ediyor musun, Margaret Madish?”, diye sorar Brom, haşin bir sesle.

“Kabul ediyorum.”, der Margaret.

 

“Oğlunun cürümü karşılığında ödemeyi kabul ettiğin cezayı çekmeyi göze alıyor musun, Margaret Madish?”, diye sorar Brom, acımasızca.

“Kabul ediyorum.”, der kadın sessizce.

 

“Oğlun bizden pek sevdiğimiz canları aldı. Onun bizden aldığı sevgililerimiz karşılığında onu ve cezasını bize bırakmayı kabul ediyor musun, Argail Smitefast kızı Margaret Madish?”, diye sorar Brom, zalimce..

“K.. Kabul ediyorum..”, der Madish ve kadının hıçkırıkları duyulur.

 

“O zaman seni ve onurunu, bir ay ve bir gün içerisinde, vadimizin girişinde bekliyor olacağız!”, der Brom..

..ve dolu gözler, boş bir ruh, yıkık bir dünya ve kırık bir kalple oradan ve Elder Hills’den ayrılır çünkü bir çift lafını söylemiştir.

Brom Bumblebrim’in hayret verici maceraları
A Bard’s Tale XIV “a Bit of a Bite” IX ile
devam edecek..


 

book 02 books dungeons and dragons duygusal groups komedi modül role play savaş serenity serenity home the plot thickens Whispers; A Cabal

Evim yok..

Evim yok..

Timeline:

Dimwoods’daki wood elf köyü
(Tel’Shee dim’Ora) tekrar inşa edilirken,
Serenity Home’dan öncü destek gönderilir;
Bremorel Songsteel ve Thomas Dimwoods.

Ortak geçmişin doğurduğu bu iki insan, farklı kişilikler olarak kendilerini ortaya koymuşlardır. Kendilerini hedef alan baskınları farkındasız bir şekilde ortadan kaldıran çift, hedeflerine varmışlar ve elflerin köylerini müdafaası için gerekli eğitim ve önlemler konusunda talimatları verirken, iki farklı haberci, iki farklı yere gelir.

Bunlardan biri Bremorel ve Thomas’ın bulundukları wood elf köyüdür. Diğeri ise Serenity Home kasabasında bulunan karakol binasıdır.

Bu hikaye
Düş Kapanı“ından hemen sonra başlar ve
Birthright (18+)“ın ikinci yarısının geçtiği tarihlerde biter..

 

 

Sence tekrar gelecekler mi?”, diye sorar genç adam.

“Sence yarın güneş doğacak mı?”, diye acı bir şekilde cevap verir yanında duran genç kız.

Aradan sessiz ve gergin bir dakika geçer. Kız genç adama bakmaz. Ama anca duyulur bir sesle, “Özür dilerim..”, diye hafif bozulmuş bir ifadeyle ekler.

“Ben özür dilerim..”, der genç adam, temkinli bir şekilde.

 

Ormanda geçirdikleri en son baskının akşamında aralarında geçen konuşmadan sonra, iki gencin iletişimi gitgide kasılmış ve gergin bir şekilde kalmıştı. Thomas Dimwood konuşmasını büyük bir beklentiyle bitirmiş, ancak iş tam olarak da o noktada

“Aaaa.. ya ölürken, yada kızgın olduğunda adımı söyleyebiliyorsun demek.”, diye donuk ve acı bir şekilde mırıldanır Bremorel. Kız, garip bir duygu gitgeli içerisindedir sanki. Bir an hiddet içerisinde, bir sonraki an ise durağanlaşmış..

“..ve seni sevdiğimi söylediğimde!”, diye son şansını kullanıyormuş gibi bir sesle itiraf eder Thomas.

“Beni sevdiğini söylemedin..”, der Bremorel, aynı acı sesle.

“Çok acımasızsın!.. Ama seni.. seni ilk gördüğüm günden beri seviyorum Morel Songsteel.. Ve beni reddedeceksen, lütfen bunu dürüstçe bir sebepten dolayı yap.” ... sona ermişti zira İzci Onbaşı Bremorel, genç adamın niyetini reddetmemiş, ancak herhangi bir şekilde de onaylamamıştı.

İş öylece doruk noktasına varmış ve.. o kadar!

 

Kötü yazılmış bir aşk hikayesi gibiydi..

 

Ondan sonraki iki gün boyunca da izci kız baskınlara karşı ‘önlem’ bahanesiyle devamlı ve Thomas’dan olabildiğince uzakta iz sürmüş, akşam olunca da önden kamp kurmuş, sessizce kuru bir şeyler atıştırmış ve genç tapınak muhafızı kampa geldiğinde kızı çoktan uyumuş olarak bulmuştu.

Thomas, genç yaşından beklenmeyecek, sabırlı bir mizaca sahipti. Sırtındaki yaraya rağmen, bilinçli bir şekilde gün boyunca bir oraya, bir buraya koşup, parmağını kıpırdatamayacak kadar kendisini yorup, sonra da sızıp kalan kıza bakar. Biraz hüzün, biraz umut, biraz da, bastıramadığı, tedirgin bir heyecanla kızın, sarındığı battaniyenin altından kurtulmuş simsiyah saçlarını seyreder.. İçinden ona karşı bir hiddet hissetmek için herhangi bir çaba sarf etmez. En nihayetinde, olduğu ahmak gibi yıllarca, kız her kasabaya döndüğünde onu sessizce, edepli bir mesafeden, ama görünür bir şekilde takip etmemiş miydi? Kendisi kararını on beş yıl önce, daha altı yaşındayken vermişti. Kızın da ‘cevabını’ vermesine müsaade edecekti.

‘Evet..’, diye düşünür Thomas, ‘..cevabını!’

Çünkü Morel kararını çoktan vermiştir. Morel kararını asla geciktiren biri olmamıştır.. Sadece cevabını hemen vermemeyi tercih eden biridir, o kadar.

“Bana ‘hayır’ demek için onun da aynı on beş yılı olmasa da, en az on yılı vardı.. Birkaç gün daha bekleyebilirim.”, diye sesli bir şekilde düşünür genç adam.

 

Ya da bir on beş yıl daha..

 

Kalın, çelik kenarlıklı kalkanını çıkartır, kızın yakınındaki bir ağaca yaslar. Sonra sırt çantasının kayışlarını çözer ve onu da kalkanının yanına bırakır. Ardından hiç vakit kaybetmeksizin boynundaki kutsal simgesini avuçlar, bulundukları soğuk kamp yerinin çevresindeki muhtelif yerleri parmağı ile gösterir ve her işaret ettiği yerlere bir büyü yapar; bu, bir çok yaratığın yaklaşması halinde onu uyaracak bir büyüdür.

Sonra yavaşça eğilir, sırt çantasına topak halinde bağladığı kendi battaniyesini çözer, bundan dolayı yiyeceği potansiyel azarı, omuzlarından birini silkerek bir kenara atar, ve onu da kızın üstüne örter.

Thomas kalın yük kemerinin halkasından, ağır, zincirli gürzünü çıkartır ve olabildiğince sessizce yere oturur, sırtını kalkanına verir, altı yaşından beri her gece yaptığı gibi dua eder.

Ve her gece yaptığı gibi, bu huysuz, inatçı, asabi, belalı, güzel ve kendisinin bile farkında olmadığı kadar içli olan kızı da duasına dahil eder.

 

Ertesi sabah uyandığında kızın çoktan gitmiş olduğunu görecek, kendi battaniyesinin de katlanmış, yuvarlanmış ve sırt çantasına bağlanmış olarak bulacaktır..

✱ ✱ ✱

Tel’Shee dim’Ora’ya varmalarından sonra Morel kendisini tamamen işine vererek bir şekilde ulaşılmaz hale getirmiş, gün boyunca, aylar öncesi baskında yok olan köyden geride kalanlara pratik iz sürme, ok atma ve kılıç kullanmanın yanı sıra, köyün etrafında, içi sivri kazıklarla dolu, kalıcı bir hendek, yüksek, kalın odunlardan oluşan rampalı, setli ve katlı duvar yapımı konusunda talimatlar vermişti. Bunun dışında olabilecek her türlü izci tuzakları, kazıklı çukur ve özellikle büyük ‘hayvanlara’ uygun kamufle edilmiş kapan yapımını, uygulamalı bir şekilde göstermişti.

Bu esnada Thomas’da boş durmamış, uygun gördüğü elflere temel büyü tekniklerini göstermiş, onlar çalışırken, Morel’in yaptırdığı yüksek duvarları, büyülerle desteklemekle vaktini geçirmişti.

Her gün, sabahtan akşama kadar köy halkı, durmaksızın çalışmış iki hafta gibi kısa bir sürede ortaya tam anlamıyla etrafı tuzaklarla çevrili, büyülü, dev bir kirpiyi andıran köy ortaya çıkmıştı!

Evet, hiç şüphesiz bu köy, eski elf köyü kadar güzel değildi. Ama Orkenlerin tekrar gelmesi halinde, burayı tekrar savunmasız bulamayacakları da kesindi..

Yapılan tüm hazırlıkların sınanması ise çok sürmemişti.

On altıncı gün, genç bir haberci koşarak gelmiş ve köy alarmı verilmişti.

Orkenler tekrar geliyorlardı.

Ancak bu sefer küçük bir grup değil, sekiz müfreze olarak gelmekteydiler.

Elflerden hiçbiri, neden Orkenlerin hedefi olduklarını sorgulamamış, homurdanmamış, söylenmemiş, hepsi kendilerine tayin edilen noktalara gitmiş ve köylerini korumaya kararlı bir şekilde bekleyişe geçmişlerdi.

Orkenler de onları fazla bekletmemişti. Hiç şüphesiz daha erken ve yine köyü hazırlıksız yakalamayı ummuşlardı, ancak azımsanmayacak kadarı hazırlanan tuzaklarda ya ölmüş, ya da yürüyemeyecek hale gelmişti.. Bunu takip eden günlerde ise ilerlemeleri temkinli bir sürünüşe dönüşmüştü.

Köyden ayrılmasına izin verilen tek kişi ise Morel olmuştu. İzci kız, Orkenler yaklaştıkça, her an bir yerlerden çıkmış, bir tanesini öldürüp ya ormanda kendisini kaybettirmiş, ya da kendisini kovalayanları tuzaklara yakalatmıştı.

Bazen de, ormanın içinden sadece bir ok fırlatmış, bir can almış ve ortadan bir hayalet gibi kaybolmuştu.

Ve o her gittiğinde, bir kişi onun gidişini seyretmiş, aynı kişi onu dönüşünde de sessizce karşılamıştı.

Aradan geçen tek taraflı ve ızdıraplı dört günlük bekleyişten sonra Orkenler köyün etrafında belirmişlerdi.

✱ ✱ ✱

Sen neden özür diliyorsun ki?”, diye acı ifadesinden ödün vermeksizin sorar Bremorel.

“Özür diledim çünkü seni istemediğin bir duruma soktum ve her sana bir şey sorduğumda, senin asabiyetini tetikliyorum.”, diye sessizce cevap verir Thomas.

İzci kız, elindeki pis paçavrayla her bir yanına sıçramış Orken kanını silerken, “Asabiyetim için sana ihtiyacım yok..”, der, olduğunu sandığı kadar yorgun bir sesle.

Elflerle beraber günlerdir bu duvarları aşmaya çalışan Orkenlere karşı canlarını dişlerine takarak savaşmışlar, Orkenlerden çok can almış olmalarına rağmen, hayvanlar bir türlü geri çekilmemişlerdi. Belli ki son adama kadar saldıracaklardı.

Bu gün ise özellikle yoğun çatışmalar zinciriyle geçmiş, her yer kan ve daha beteriyle kaplıydı ve Orkenler şu an bulundukları nokta hariç, saldırabilecekleri diğer bütün duvarlara tırmanmaya çalışmışlardı. Kayıpları çok olmuştu, ama sebep oldukları kayıplar ise çok daha fazlaydı; elflerin üçte biri şu anda kutlu sahillerine, son yolculuklarına çıkmışlardı..

“Bu doğru..”, diye mutsuz bir şekilde tasdik eder genç tapınak muhafızı. “Öyle görünüyor ki bana hiç ihtiyacın yok.”, diye de daha sessiz bir şekilde ekler.

“Israrlısın..”, der Bremorel, Thomas’la durduğu kalın duvarların arkasındaki rampada.

“..bir o kadar da aptalsın!”, diye bitirir izci kız.

Thomas, Bremorel’e öylece bakar.

“Bu.. bu biraz ağır oldu sanki.”, diye bozulmuş bir sesle mırıldanır.

“Bu, yumuşatılmış hali. Ve benim asgari standartım..”

“Peki.. sanırım bundan dolayı.. sevinmeliyim?”

“Ortada sevinilecek pek bir şey yok, Tapınak Muhafızı. Etrafımız sarılmış durumda ve ne kadarını kesersek keselim, geri çekilmeyecekler. Elfler tahminimden bile daha mukavemetli çıktılar. Burası bir insan köyü olsaydı, birinci gün yenilmiş olurduk.. ve bunların neredeyse hiç birinin en temel silah eğilimleri dışında herhangi özel eğitim görmüşlüğü bile yok çünkü asıl savaşçılarını önceki baskında kaybettiler..”, der Bremorel, duvarın öbür tarafındaki karanlığa bakarak.

“Evet. Yaklaşık üç ay önce. Ama biz bundan bahsetmiyoruz, öyle değil mi?”, der Thomas. “Her nasılsa konu benim aptallığıma geliverdi..”

“Sana herhangi bir konuda ihtiyacım olabileceğimden dolayı mı, duymayı beklediğin cevabı istiyorsun?”

“Sen bir izcisin, Morel.”, der Thomas basitçe. “Teknik olarak hiç kimseye ihtiyacın yok!”

Bremorel kaşlarını çatar. Tapınak muhafızı sadece lafı ağzından almakla kalmamış, onu kendisinin ifade edebileceğinden çok daha isabetli söylemiştir.

Belki de tapınak muha— Thomas!.. Thomas sandığı ya da çocukça bir şekilde olmasını istediği kadar aptal değildir!

“Günlerdir kararımı bekliyorsun.. Halbuki, bir cevabımın olmayışı bile senin için başlı başına bir cevap olmalıydı.”, der Bremorel sıkılmış dişleri arasından. Kız bunu söylerken neden dişlerini sıktığını tam olarak kestiremez. Sadece sıkar.

“Hayır.” der Thomas.

“Hayır?”

“Hayır..”

“Ne demek, hayır?”, diye harlar Bremorel bir anda.

“Bayaa, hayır işte. Sessizliğin kararın değil. Sadece boyun eğmek istemeyişinin inadı. Kararını çok önceden vermiştin zaten. O yüzden yıllardır senin peşinden gelmeme izin verdin. Biliyorum çünkü peşinden gelen tek kişi ben değildim. Sadece ‘kalan’ tek kişi benim. En başından beri olduğu gibi.. Ve bu ‘müsamahanın’ sebebi de sadece durumumun sana eğlenceli ya da komik gelişinden kaynaklandığını sanmıyorum. Hiçbir şey o kadar uzun bir süre komik gelemez ve sen de hiçbir zaman o kadar acımasız olmadın.. Ya da sadece ben senin kişiliğini tamamen yanlış anladım..”, der Thomas omuzlarını silkerek.

İzci kız, kıpkırmızı bir suratla genç adama döner ve “Boyun eğmek mi? Sana mı?”, diye şiddetle tıslar.

Thomas buna uzun bir süre cevap vermez. Sadece gözleri alev almış kıza bakar.

“Benimle her konuda dalga geçtin ve ben bunlara fazla sesimi çıkarmadım çünkü gerçekte söylediklerinde ciddi olmadığına inandım. Ama beni şu anda itham ettiğin kadar seviyesiz olabileceğimi gerçekten düşünüyor olamazsın, Morel. Öyle görünüyor ki asabiyetin seni gerçekten kör etmiş. O kadar ki, kendi hislerine, kendi duygularına boyun eğmek bile seni rahatsız eder hale gelmiş. Kendine zulüm etmen senden çok beni yakıyor ve sen bunun farkında bile değilsin. Ama olsun. Sen olduğun sürece göz yummaya razıydım. Sana seni sevdiğimi söyledim çünkü bunu söylemeye korktuğum kadar can da atıyordum. Ama sen bana dürüstçe bir ‘hayır’ bile diyemedin. Bari yakarken dürüst ol..”, der hiddetli bir sükunetle Thomas, sonra arkasını döner, rampadan iner ve gecenin karanlığında kaybolur.

Bremorel olduğu yerde, feci bir tokat yemiş gibi öylece, kıpırdamadan kalakalır.

Thomas..

Yıllar önce yanlış bir anlaşılmadan dolayı saldırdığı, bunun sonucunda da kafasını kırıp hastanelik ettiği Thomas.

Yıllarca, evinin yolunu kaybetmiş bir kedi yavrusu gibi onu peşinden takip etmiş olan Thomas.

Yol boyunca dalga geçmesine rağmen insanüstü bir sabır göstermiş olan Thomas.

Ve yol boyunca defalarca onu iyileştirmiş, defalarca hayatta tutmuş olan Thomas..

En sonunda kırmayı başarmış mıydı çocuğu?

Bremorel beklediği hiçbir tatmini hissetmez zira böyle bir niyeti de, amacı da olmamıştı.

“Öyle görünüyor ki, yıllar benim salaklığımdan hiçbir şey azaltmamış. O zaman hiddetimle davranmış ve çocuğun kafasını kırmıştım. Yine hiddetimle davrandım ama bu sefer çocuğun tamamını kırdım!”

Birden aklına daha birkaç hafta önce gerçekleşen bir başka olay gelir..

 

Bremorel, elinde çeliği buzla kaplanmış kocaman kılıcıyla Merisoul’a acımasızca bakmaktadır. “Farkındasın değil mi? Seni şuracıkta öldürsem kimsenin haberi bile olmaz, seni küçük şırfıntı!”

Bremorel’in gözleri manyak bir ateşle yanmaktadır.

“Sana iyi niyetle gelmiş genç, bakir bir erkeği herkesin içinde kaba gücünle yerden yere vurarak rezil ettin. Sonra da onu başından savdın. Sen onu bitirmekle kalmadın. Sen onu kırdın! O artık adil bir av..”, diye mırıldanır Merisoul, yüzükoyun tüttüğü yerden.

“Ben onu kırdım çünkü sırf beni dansa kaldırdığı için havalara girdi. Ben kolay lokma değilim ve aradan geçen yıllar ona bu dersi öğretmemiş belli ki.”, diye burnundan solur Bremorel.

“Belli ki..”, diye onaylar Merisoul, kıvrandığı yerden. “Senin kolay lokma olmadığını herkesin bilmesi çok önemli olmalı. Kaç yaşındasın sen, sekiz mi?.. Ama dert etme. Ona dokunduğumda olay benim için bitmişti zaten..”, diyerek avucunu açıp Bremorel’e gösterir.

Bremorel önce kuşkuyla, sonrada şaşkınlık içerisinde Merisoul’un avucuna bakar. İblisin yanmamış neredeyse tek yeri avucunun içidir ama orada da stilize edilmiş gülü andıran bir mühür vardır. Mühür hala turuncu, kor ateşle tütmektedir!

Bremorel kaşlarını çatar. “Nedir bu?”, diye sorar.

“Bu.. bu aşkın mührüdür. Bizden biri, gerçek aşkın koruması altındaki birine musallat olduğumuzda şanslıysak sadece yanarız ve bunu aylarca taşırız. Şanssızsak zehirleniriz ve günlerce, bazen de haftalarca yatalak kalırız.. Çocuk aşık, sen salaksın ve ben de faturasını ödeyen aptalım!”, diye inler Merisoul.

(hikayenin aslı için bkz. A Bard’s Tale II, “Bremorel”)

 

 

..ve Bremorel fena halde utanır zira o iblis bozuntusu şırfıntı haklıdır!

Hayatında belki de ilk defa kendi kendine sorar Bremorel.

Kime neyi ispatlamaya çalışıyorsun ki? Sana değer veren tek kişiyi defalarca kırmış olmanın ötesinde ne elde etmiş oldun?

Mutlu mu oldun?

Seni salak şey.

Mutluluk, kaybetmenin ödülü..

Kazanmanın değil!

 

Evet, iblis bozuntusu haklıdır ama tam olarak değil;

Çocuk gerçekten aşıktır, kendisi de tam bir salaktır, ama faturasını sadece Mersoul ödememiştir..

Bremorel, o gece yarı iblis kızla arasında geçen konuşmadan sonra yaptığı gibi yine gencin peşinden gidip onun gönlünü almak için yönelir.

“Bu sefer benimle dans etmesi gerekmeyecek. Ya da gerekecek. Bu ona kalmış. Ama benim olacak..”, diye kaşlarını çatmış, dişlerini sıkmış, haşin ve kararlı bir sesle hırlar.

Tam dönüp çocuğun peşinden gidecekken, karanlığın içinden, ormanın derinliklerinden bir çıtırtı duyar..

✱ ✱ ✱

Ve gece muazzam bir ateş inmesiyle aydınlanır..

Neredeyse yetişkin bir meşe ağacı boyundaki alev, dikine bir şekilde, karanlığı delerek gökten iner ve içinde sakladığı iki yüze yakın Orkeni ifşa eder..

Orkenlerden hayret, şok ve toplu acı sesleri yükselirken Bremorel bir elini kaldırır, sonra ani hareketle indirir..

“ŞİMDİ!”

..ve rampanın arkasında sessizce bekleyen yüze yakın elf, tek bir vücut şeklinde oklarını salar.

Oklar kalın ağaç duvarların üstünden, alevlerle aydınlanan gecenin karanlığında, daha çok inleyen bir hayaleti andıran, ürkütücü, ölümcül bir köprü oluşturur ve Orkenlerin ortasına dökülmeye başlar.

Elfler üç vole daha gönderir ve Bremorel’in ikinci bir işaretiyle dururlar.

İzci onbaşı, elini ağzına götürür ve keskin bir ıslık çalar.

Köyün ortalarından bir yerden, yaşlı bir elf kadın, kavisli bir boynuzu kaldırır ve üfler.

Boynuzdan derin, uzun, hüzünlü bir nota yükselir, yanmakta olan ve oklardan dolayı delik deşik olmuş Orkenlerin çığlıklarını aşar ve ormanda yankılanır..

Yaşlı elf kadın boynuzu defalarca üfler ve Orkenlere karşı asıl saldırı başlar..

Ormanın derinliklerinden, günlerdir saklandıkları, üstleri örtülü çukurlardan iki yüze yakın dwarf peyda olur ve Orkenlere arkadan saldırırlar.

 

Gün doğduğunda, ormanda ölü Orken dışında düşman kalmamıştır.

✱ ✱ ✱

Efendi Argail”, diye saygıyla selamlar Thomas, kendilerine doğru yaklaşan dwarfların başındaki yaşlı cüceyi.

Yüzünde geniş bir sırıtışla yanlarına yaklaşır yaşlı dwarf. Sağında ve solunda duran daha genç dwarflara bir dizi emirler yağdırır ve yaralı elflere yardım ve saldırı esnasında köyün zarar görmüş yerlerinin tamiri için dwarflar dağılırlar.

“Sen Tapınak Muhafızı Thomas olmalısın. Küçük Magellam senden hep iyi sözlerle bahsetmişti..”, der yaşlı Argail.

Thomas bir an afallar. Fevkalade yaşlı olmasına rağmen önünde bir dağ gibi duran dwarfın neden bahsettiğini anlamaz. Neden sonra ‘küçük Magella’nın, Yetkin Tapınak Muhafızı Lady Magella olduğuna ayılır ve boğazından ‘hırk’ diye bir ses kaçar zira hiç bir hayatta, hiçbir koşul altında kendisinin Lady Magella için bu ifadeyi kullanabileceğini düşünemez.

“Umm.. Evet, efendim.”, diye biraz daha afallar Thomas.

Arkasından Bremorel ‘fırk’lar.

“Ve İzci Onbaşı Bremorel..”, der Efendi Argail, “Benim küçük meleğim senin hakkında da az şey anlatmadı; bir karanfil kadar güzel ve acı, bir keçi kadar da inatçı..!”, diye ekler mutlu bir şekilde.

Bremorel kıpkırmızı kesilir!

Thomas ‘fırk’lamaz çünkü kurallar bunu gerektirir; kızlar erkeklere ‘fırk’lar, ama erkekler bunu yaparsa kıyamet kopar ve bu durumun adalet ya da mantık eksikliği ile de hiçbir ilgisi yoktur. Bu da genç Thomas’ın gerçekte ne kadar bilge olduğunun en belirgin göstergesidir.

“Planınız muhteşemdi, Efendi Argail. Ve bir saat gibi işledi..”, der Thomas.

“Saat gibi işledi, çünkü saati kuran siz ikinizdiniz. Ve harika iş çıkardınız. İzci Onbaşımız en başta onların kendisinden nefret edecekleri kadar canlarını yakmış olması, sizin tükenmekte olduğunuzu sandıklarında hiç düşünmeden saldırmalarına sebep oldu.”, der Efendi Argail daha da sırıtarak, sonra Bremorel’e dönüp, “Genç bayan, bir izci değilde bir müzisyen olsaydınız, sergilediğiniz performansı seyretmeleri için bütün Scowling Hills’i toplardım.”, diye açık takdirini gizlemeden söyler.

Bremorel çok çabalar.. ama başaramaz..

..ve yüzü daha da kızarır!

“Plan sizindi.”, diye mırıldanır, utanmış bir şekilde.

“Aslına bakılırsa planın siparişini veren Şerif Standorin’di. Yapan da ben değil, küçük torunum Dridges Motherswolfie idi. Ben sadece önden gidip, sağa sola emirler yağdırmanın dışında avazım çıktığı kadar bağırırken birkaç kafa kırıp önemli görünmeye çalıştım, o kadar!”, diye kıs kıs güler yaşlı dwarf.

“Ama Orkenlerin son saldırısında ‘açık kapı’ bırakılması, en başından beri düşünülmüş bir şeydi ve onun mimarı ise Serenity Home Belediye Başkanı Arthandos Yuleman idi.. Zeki ve kurnaz adam şu Yuleman..”, diye itiraf eder Efendi Argail.

“Ama neden?”, diye biraz afallar Bremorel.

Buna cevap, Efendi Argail’den gelmez.

Thomas sessizce konuşur.

“Çünkü Serenity Home’da bir hain var. Ve o her kimse, edindiği bilgiler sadece belediye konsül üyeleriyle paylaşılan bilgilerdi. Buraya gelirken bize yapılan baskınlar da birer tesadüf değildi. İkimizde o baskınlarda özellikle hedef alınmıştık..”

Bremorel istemsizce sırtının sızladığını hisseder ve yüzünde nahoş bir ifade belirir.

“Açık bırakılan nokta.. Neyi ispatlamış oldu ki?”, diye hırlar.

YULEMAN HER KONSÜL ÜYESİNE FARKLI BİR ‘ZAYIF NOKTA’ BİLGİSİ VERMİŞTİ..“, der Thomas aynı sessiz ama hüküm verir bir ses tonuyla..

Bremorel her şeyi anlar zira bu küçük ‘OYUN‘, gerçekte bir konsül üyesinin de ölüm fermanı olmuştur!

“Bu nokta kimindi?”, diye ister istemez sorar Bremorel.

Thomas ona söyler.

Bremorel hayretle ona bakar. “O salak mı?”

 

Şerif Standorin’in, kasabasının güvenliği söz konusu olduğunda şaka yaptığı asla görülmemiştir. Bremorel bunu, onunla katıldığı sayısız operasyonda, defalarca görmüştür ve şerifin haberi alması halinde, hiçbir tereddüt göstermeksizin, makam ve mevkilere bakmaksızın harekete geçecek ve işi kökünden halledecektir.

Bremorel bundan adı gibi emindir.

 

“Sizin için özel bir mesajım var, Tapınak Muhafızı Thomas.”, der Efendi Argail, birden ciddileşerek.

“Bunu size daha önce iletebilirdim, ama yapmamayı tercih ettim. Bundan dolayı beni anlayacağınızı umuyorum ve sizden özür diliyorum. Korkarım, bundan bir hafta önce, Serenity Home Tapınağı Baş Bekçisi ve benim çok eski dostum Efendi Demos Lightshand vefat etti. Yatağında ve mutlu bir şekilde. Bana gönderdiği en son mektupta bunu açıkça belirtti ve ardında küçük Magellam ve senin gibi iki tane yetkin muhafız bırakabildiğinden dolayı da ne kadar büyük bir coşku hissettiğini, uzun satırlarında defalarca ifade etti.”, der Efendi Argail, yüzünde kederli bir ifadeyle.

“Demos çok iyi bir insandı. Onun sayesinde birçok yetim ev sahibi oldu. Birçok genç eğitim gördü. Serenity Home onun sayesinde her zaman huzurla nefes aldı. Kaybı Scowling ve Elder Hills için bile büyük bir eksiklik olacak.”, diye devam eder Efendi Argail, gözleri dolmuş bir şekilde.

Thomas beti benzi atmış bir şekilde olduğu yerde kalakalır.

Bir kaç defa bir şeyler söylenmeye yeltenir, ancak ağzından herhangi bir ses çıkmaz.

Uzun, zarif ama güçlü parmakları olan bir el ona doğru uzanır ve gencin parmakları arasına dolanır.

“Bize biraz müsaade edin lütfen, Efendi Argail. Bugün Tapınak Muhafızı için oldukça yorucu bir gündü”, der Bremorel, olağan dışı yumuşak bir sesle. “Ve.. kendileri Efendi Demos’u pek severdi..”

“Tabii.. Tabii.. Sizi anlıyorum.. İşin gerisini bizim çocuklar halleder..”, der kısık bir sesle Efendi Argail.

 

Bremorel, dona kalmış Thomas’ı nazikçe alır, ve kendilerine tahsil edilmiş olan küçük köy kulübesine kadar götürürken, arkasından Efendi Argail’in çıldırmışcasına gürlediğini duyar.

“Lillias! Senin ne işin var burada? Jeina! Bu kızın Scowling Hills’den ayrılması yasaklanmıştı! En son bir yere gittiğinizde sizi Kuzey Tundra’lardan toplamıştık ve sen bunun çıkmasına izin mi verdin?!”

“O bir mahkum değil ki, dede. Ve kendisi küçük kız kardeşim. Arada bi şımartılmayı hak ediyor bence.. Ayrıca yaptığı havai fişeklere bayalıyorum ve onları madenlerde onu kitlediğiniz zindan da yapamıyor!”, diye genç, yeşil gözlü sarışın bir dişi dwarfın muallak bir tonla cevap verdiğini duyar.

“O bir zindan değil!”, diye gürler Argail. “Ona tahsis edilmiş olan ofis!”

“Dede.. Yer altında, güneş görmeyen, penceresi bile olmayan, kapısında devamlı bir bekçi olan yere ‘zindan’ deniyor..”

“Biz dwarf’uz.. hepimiz zaten yer altında yaşıyoruz ve hiç bir yer güneş görmüyor ve hiç bir evin penceresi yok! Taşa bakan pencereler mi yapalım?”, diye cevap verir Efendi Argail delirmiş bir şekilde..

“Taşların üstüne balık resimleri çizebiliriz! Bu şekilde deniz manzaralı evlerimiz olur!”

“…”

✱ ✱ ✱

Ben.. ben özür dilerim. Benim bu halimi görmemeni tercih ederdim.”, diye mırıldanır Thomas, donuk bir şekilde.

Genç Thomas, küçük, sade köy kulübesine geldikten sonra bir köşeye sinmiş, başını kolları ve dizleri arasına gömmüş, dakikalarca kontrolsüz bir şekilde ağlamıştı. Yanı başından ayrılmayan izci kız ise onun elini bırakmamış, dolu gözlerle ve sessizce o da gencin yanında oturmuştu. Efendi Demos’u Bremorel’de yakinen tanırdı. Serenity Home’daki bütün yetim ve öksüzler Demos’u yakinen tanırdı.. Yıllarca yetimhaneye keyfi bir şekilde gelip giden deli, mütemadiyen kızgın, kötürüm bir kıza her zaman şefkat ve anlayışla yaklaşmıştı.

“Neden? Erkekliğinden bir şeyler eksilir diye mi korkuyorsun?”, diye bilinçli bir şekilde ‘fırk’lar Bremorel.

“Ben.. ben hiçbir zaman kendimi o kategoride görmedim.”, der Thomas, sessizce.

“Hiçbir zaman olmadın zaten..”, diye yapıştırır izci kız ve uyuşmuş bacaklarını germek ister gibi ayağa kalkar.

Thomas da elini tutan kızı ayağa kalkarken takip eder ama hafif alınmış ve kırılmış bir ifadeyle bakar ona.

“Neden her zaman beni—”, diye başlar ama izci kız araya girer..

“—Sen o kategoriden biri olsaydın, yıllarca peşimden gelmezdin. Gelseydin, ben de senin bir kaçık olduğunu düşünür, bulduğum ilk kuytu yerde de seni harcardım. Neden diğerlerinin birden beni takip etmeyi bıraktıklarını sanıyorsun? Beni takip eden diğerlerine ne olduğunu hiç düşünmedin mi? Bu konuda arkamda çok ‘leş’im var, Thomas..”, der Bremorel, hafif gülümseyerek.

Sonra sesi hayret verici bir şekilde yumuşar, “..ve neden sadece senin, kalan ilk ve son çocuk olduğunu.. Hiç mi merak etmedin?

Bugün burada yaptıkların.. Etkileyiciydi.. Ateş İnmesi büyün.. Lady’nin bile öyle bir şey yaptığını görmedim.”.

Thomas uzun bir süre ağzı açık bir şekilde Bremorel’in yüzüne, ve onun muhteşem yeşil gözlerine bakar zira bu, bu güne kadar ondan duyduğu ilk ve tek iltifat içeren cümledir.

“Umm.. Lady de yapabilir, sanırım. Ama onun ilgi ve ihtisas alanı daha farklı..”, diye biraz afallar.

Uzun bir süre sessizce seyretme sırası Bremorel’e geçmiş gibi, o da önünde duran gencin yüzünü süzer.

“Eee.. bundan sorra nereye?”, diye sorar izci kız.

“Umm.. bilmem. Nereye gitmemizi isterlerse, ya da nerede bize ihtiyaç duyulursa oraya, sanırım.”, diye, beklenmedik bir şekilde kurumuş bir boğazdan gıcırdayarak çıkar Thomas’ın sesi.

Ama Bremorel ona sadece bir salağa bakar gibi bakmaya başlar bir anda.

“Aaaa..”, diye ayılır Thomas. “Cevabını vermeye niyetlisin, galiba..”

“Ne olmasını istersin?”, diye son şanslarını kullanmaya başlar Bremorel.

Thomas omuzlarını silker.

“Altı yaşımdayken, seninle arkadaş olmaya can atıyordum. Şimdiyse.. se.. senin sevgim olmanı arzuluyorum.. çok!”, diye eline yüzüne bulaştırır genç tapınak muhafızı.

“Bu kadar mı?”, diye dürter Bremorel.

“Cesaretim buraya kadar, Morel. Bana yardım et. Lütfen. Benimle ortalarda bir yerlerde buluş. Her neresi olursa olsun, seçeceğin noktayı orta nokta olarak kabul etmeye razıyım.. Ama sen de bir adım at.. bana doğru..”, diye ezilmiş bir şekilde yere bakar Thomas.

Bremorel, önünde iki büklüm olmuş gencin haline ‘fırk’lamaz. Gülmez. Alay etmez..

Dahası, onun bu halini komik bile bulmaz.

“Ben yarım işlerden hoşlanan biri değilim Thomas Dimwood. Bunca yıl beni takip etmiş biri olarak, bu kadarını fark etmiş olmalısın..”, der ve genç adama doğru, tehlikeli bir adım atar.

“Ya hep, ya hiç, öyle mi?”, diye sorar Thomas ama gerçekte bu bir soru değildir. “Seni çok uzun bir zamandır sevdim. Çok.. Şu anda, elimi tutmuş olman bile benim için bir hayat dolusu hayalin gerçekleşmesi anlamına geliyor. Ama senin için bu yarım ise..”, der ve uzanıp kızın diğer elini de kendisi alır. “..diğer yarısını da istiyorum.. Tamamını! Sanırım burada işimiz bitti ve bizim de evimize dönme zamanımız geldi. Konuşacak ve.. paylaşacak çok şeyimiz var.”

“Benim evim yok.. Tapınak Muhafızı. Aslına bakılırsa, bana geri verdiğin düş kapanım dışında da bir şeyim yok!”, der hafif titrek bir sesle Bremorel.

“Senin her zaman bir evin vardı.. Sadece gelmeni bekliyordu, Morel Songsteel. Ve sahip oldukların, sadece bir düş kapanıyla sınırlı da değil.. Artık düşlerimizin kendileri ve birlikte kurabileceğimiz bir geleceğimiz var..”, der Thomas kararlı bir sesle ve önünde duran, yeşil gözleri alev almış, huysuz, inatçı, asabi, belalı, güzel ve kendisinin bile farkında olmadığı kadar da içli olan kıza doğru uzanır..

✱ ✱ ✱

Demek öyle..”, der Yuleman, omuzları çökmüş bir şekilde. “Yaptığımız planın bu kısmının gerçekte başarısız olmasını umuyordum.”

Yüzü çekilmiş, haşin bir ifadeyle Şerif Standorin, Serenity Home Belediye Başkanı Arthandos Yuleman ile özelde buluşmuş, ve habercinin getirdiği bilgileri onunla paylaşmıştı.

“Bizim çocuklar nasıllarmış, peki? Onlardan bir haber var mı?”, diye sorar Yuleman.

“Haberleri getiren koşucu, izci onbaşının bir kaç defa yaralandığını, ancak kılıcıyla ‘şarkı söyler gibi’ savaştığını anlattı —kendi sözleri, benim değil. Korkarım Efendi Moorat gururundan çatlayacak ve aylarca çekilmez olacak! Tapınak muhafızımız ise alanında beklenmedik bir başarı ve taktik zeka göstermiş. Bırak zincirli bir gürz kullanmasını, o çocuğun kütüphaneden çıktığını bile görmedim. Bir de gitmiş kendisini savaş taktikleri konusunda eğitmiş!”, der şerif.

“İnanılır gibi değil..”, diye onaylar Yuleman.

“İçimden bir ses, sanki yetimlerimizi daha yakından takip edip eğitmemiz gerektiğini söylüyor. Arashkan’a gidenlerin de neredeyse hepsi öyle. Ya bir yetim, ya da öksüz..

Senin anlayacağın ikisi de iyiymiş ve pek yakında geri döneceklermiş. Sanırım ayrıntıları geldiklerinde kendilerinden dinlemek zorunda kalacağız.”, diye anlatır şerif.

Yuleman, şerifin anlattıklarını başıyla onaylar, sonra asıl meseleye tekrar dönmek istemiyormuş gibi bir an susar. En sonunda bıkkın bir sesle konuşur.

“Ne yapacaksın?”, diye sorar Yuleman şerife.

Şerif kıpırdamaz.

İstifini, duruşunu, bakışlarını değiştirmez..

Ve sesini de çıkarmaz.

Sessizce Yuleman’a bakar.

“Bunu senden isteyemem Stan..”, diye samimi bir şekilde söylenir Yuleman.

Yuleman’ın özel çalışma odasında yanan tek mum, durumun vehametini vurgulamak istiyormuşcasına titreyerek yanmaktadır. Odanın kendisi, bulundukları belediye binası ve Serenity Home çoktan uyumuştur. Arada bir, uzaklardan bir yerlerden gelen baykuş ‘huu’ları ve çekirge cırlamaları dışında her yer sessizdir.

Şerif, uzun bir süre belediye başkanına cevap vermez.

Neden sonra başını hafif sallar ve, “Bu görevi alırken, karşılaşabileceğim her türlü olası şeyler konusunda uyarılmıştım..”, der sessizce. “Ama bu, içine düşmek istediğim bir durum değildi. Udoorin’in bunu öğrenmesi halinde, beni affedebilecek mi bilemiyorum. Ben.. ben bir daha onun yüzüne nasıl bakacağım, onu düşünüyorum. Hayatı boyunca ona şerefli, haysiyetli ve onurlu olmasını telkin ettim. Ama yapmam gereken bu şey.. hepsini yıkacak bir şey..”

“Udoorin artık bir çocuk değil. Bunu iki yıl önce, bütün yetkilerimi elimden alıp da köyü ayağa kaldırdığında göstermiş oldu.”, der Yuleman ciddi bir şekilde.

“O olayı hala dile g