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.
“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.
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!
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.
“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.
“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.
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!
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.
And it hit him.
She was thinking of leaving him!
That’s why she was sorry.
A terrible expression came over his face.
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..
“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.
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.
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!'”
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
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.
“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.”
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..
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.
“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’..”
“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.
“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..
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.
“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 Carver —Lady 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.”
“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?”