This is a recollection of certain events taking place from around the Themalsar War to centuries later and ending somewhere amongst the ruined lands of Demon Plains and Arcanton Mordenon’s faulty demon gate..
This is a story on how the letter-scroll Prince Gordigon gave to Arcantonic Palecog traveled through time and space to end up back in the hands of the little gnomic girl after she lost it during their hurried flight from the war zone of Themalsar.
Brom Bumblebrim gets bit, again, by whatever it is that keeps biting him on occasion as he brushes by the Tinker-guy on his way out of the Great Arashkan Library. And on an impulse, he burglarizes him, unwittingly taking back the letter scroll that Tonic had lost, some 800 years ago, just past Ogre’s Foot during their first prophecy.
As to how the scroll comes by the gnome, Gnine Tinkerdome is an adventure all by itself;
About a week after its loss, the scroll is first discovered by one of the scores of scouts belonging to Durkahan Paladins and the Koruxan Knights heading towards the battle against Themalsar. The document is handed over to the Keeper of Durkahan Archives who is killed, some two weeks later, along with hundreds of other military personnel during their final push against the Themalsar’s forces when goblin sappers strapped with fused bombs charge out of their hidden trenches and into the ranks of the Durkahan Paladins and Koruxan Knights..
When the war finally ends, the paladins, the knights, the elves, and the dwarves refuse to loot the bloody, stinking, corpse-infested battlefield. They collect their dead and wounded, and head home, leaving the Arashkan Military to deal with the mess.
The not-so-happy Arashkan Army loots everything they can find and take them back to their own city, inadvertently raising the economical level and power of the city by tenfold while all documents and writs found are sent to The Great Arashkan Library to be sifted and eliminated; a long and tedious process that unwittingly forms the foundations of ARIS, Arashkan Intelligence Service.
Some of the writs and documents are forwarded to the department of history, and some are handed over to the military, while others are sealed and archived in the royal palace vaults.
Many centuries later, a disreputable and quite a drunkard professor is excommunicated from the University of Arashkan for selling antique books and documents in the black market, also finds himself on the wrong side of the law for forgery and falsifying official documents.
Afraid of being locked in jail or worse, he seeks sanctuary among the Thieves Guild of the same city. The thieves ‘hire’ him to work for them in their ‘information department’, for a small fee to prove his loyalty; the professor is to bring his whole batch of pilfered antique books and documents.
Unfortunately, the conflict between the thieves guild and the cutters known as Them Friggin Bastards escalate and turn into a bloody, open street warfare after the seemingly unexpected murder of a high standing aristocrat, a Lady Felishia Fremeir, over some stolen ‘royal gifts’. The professor, along with his marketable antiques are ‘shelved’ and put on hold, and shortly after, are totally forgotten when the professor’s liver finally gives in and he dies of over abuse of alcohol.
A few years later, a young half-elf thief named Darly ‘Darlius’ Dor searching for a means to avenge his unspoken lover, the Lady Felishia Fremeir brings his ‘friends’; Aager Fogstep, Laila Wolvesbane, Inshala Frostmane, Merisoul Xyrtowu, and Gnine Tinkerdome to the ‘information department’ of the thieves guild to ‘help’ them in their search to find the whereabouts of the highly wanted and elusive rebellion, Gar Thalot.
During their hours-long excavation among thousands and thousands of documents and bits and pieces of parchments with various information on the city, the city denizens and officials alike, the keen ranger corporal Laila Wolvesbane stumbles on a very old letter scroll. To the great surprise of everyone in the group, the letter is written by a Prince Gordigon Tinkerdome some 800 years ago to his father, King Drine Tinkerdome of Silent Hills. The letter scroll is handed over to Gnine Tinkerdome, also a member of the same company.
Historically, when the Demon Fog settles over Silent Hills, some few colonies of gnomes do manage to escape the disaster. The majority of these gnomes travel far south and west, never to be heard of again as they are hunted down and slain by some very large, orc-like creatures, possibly the first-ever sighting of the Greater Orken. Some few, though, secretly settle at Tinker Hills to form their own small and ‘silent’ community. Nearly three hundred years later, a highly intelligent, and dangerously proactive young gnome is born into this community; Gnine Tinkerdome.
Burning with curiosity about his possible heritage, and with the help of his bond, Whimsi Lola, the gnome, Gnine, starts to secretly break into The Great Arashkan Library in hopes of finding more information in the restricted, official archives, where he meets a rather unscrupulous hobbit named Brom Bumblebrim, who, upon a familiar sting, burglarizes the gnome and inadvertently retrieves the letter-scroll and returns it to Tonic..
This, seemingly minor ‘hiccup’, would constitute the basis of the obsession in the little gnomic girl, Tonic, and inadvertently trigger the events that would lead to the story; Left Behind (18+), some 180 years in the future, pushing and urging her to find a way to open an Astral Gate where time and space get distorted, to get back to her one and only love; Prince Gordigon Tinkerdome..
✱ ✱ ✱
In an unprecedented irony, Tonic follows her uncle, Arcanton Mordenon’s researches on ‘gates’ , and after decades of trials and errors, she finally constructs her own functional gate. Not a gate leading to the Abyss to summon demons, however, but something ultimately more destructive; an Astral Gate.. A plane of pseudo-existence where time, space, and matter are torn apart, shredded, and corroded down to their base moments, units and elements..
What becomes of Arcantonic Palecog after she steps through the Astral Gate to get to her prince is never quite clear. Rumors assume her to have been, inevitably torn apart in the Astral Void, as she sought, for relative centuries, to find a counter exit point to reach the moment she met her desire. But rare historical records found after the lifting of the Demon Fog in Silent Hills’ long-forgotten and crumbled vaults, however, mention one of their greatest kings to be a King Gordigon Tinkerdome son of King Drine Tinkerdome son of King Knine Tinkerdome, and speak of his fiery little queen.. The identity of the said queen, however, is never discovered as it seems to have been diligently never recorded!..
Interestingly, the name of King Gordigon’s firstborn is recognized in The Silent Archives; a beautiful little gnomic girl named Seressa Ton Wraiven!
Having fulfilled its prophetic purpose, the letter scroll thus finds its way back, like the song, ‘Time’,
‘..Linking places, spaces, events, and relations by the simple expedience of relating the past to the future..’
to its true owner; Arcantonic Palecog!
✱ ✱ ✱
As for her pair, Seressa Wraiven slowly deteriorates into the madness of hopeless despair at the loss of her pair and is rumored to have last been seen roaming mindlessly, like the broken ghost of her former self around the devastated and rotting lands north of Durkahan City and Kahan Mountains, among the ruins of Demon Plains, ferally seeking a way to get passed the endless sea of undead and fiends, streaming out of Arcanton’s faulty demon gate.. and enter it, in hopes of finding a way, through the Abyss, to her pair or to just end it all..
Late one night, many hundreds of leagues away, a certain hobbit gets bit, perhaps one final time as he dons his lorica, his sword, his cap, and his cloak.
“There really was no need, my friend..”, Brom Bumblebrim mumbled quietly.
“I had already made up my mind.”
He hauls his backpack, grabs a simple, nondescript walking stick, and picks up his antique lyre, gives a final, mournful look at the empty depths of his home..
Once more, he drops a note to his, now quite a bit older friend, Gamwise Samgee. Unlike the note he scrabbled nearly two centuries ago, this one would be a bit longer;
My dear Gamwise Samgee,
Due to quite expected reasons, I will be leaving and I am afraid there will be no coming back this time. You will find the deed for my home and everything I own, all listed and cataloged, in the small chest, in the study; my garden, my lands, my roses, my phloxes, my cherries, my books, my songs, my mother’s tea cups.. have all been transferred to your name and properly notarized. I would greatly appreciate that the aforementioned lands and properties stay in your family and never be sold and the roses, the phloxes, and the cherries are allowed to remain.
I have but two boons to ask of you; a package containing various odds and end, and a staff I had been trying to mend and repair for the past few years.. You will find them both hidden behind the seed sacks, down in the cellar. The package and the staff are to be taken to a certain house at Salt Woods. You will find the exact location marked on the map I left with the package. I am afraid you will personally have to make this trip as you are the only one I can trust for this delivery. You will have to approach the site from the north side and use a password to safely enter as the boundaries of the house is heavily warded.
For my second boon;
Live, my friend.
Live and be happy.
Well, that’s it, then..
I must now part with the acceptance of a curse to find what I should have taken when I had the chance. The time for me to shed my cowardice, my ignominy, and my disgrace has arrived.
I shall take up the mantle of my love and my passion, and wear it, even though I do not deserve it. I go to redeem my self of a sin I did by abandoning my heart for reason.
I leave to seek a lost soul and to right a wrong. A wrong I let happen one hundred and eighty years ago..
Farewell, my dear friend.
Yours truly, Knight Laureate Brom Bumblebrim.
P.S. Be particularly gentle with the staff, if you would, please. I had meant to finish it before this journey, but I am afraid, my time is up.
When people come to call and ask about my grandfather’s rusty old sword collection, they will want to know if they are magic. Never answer that question. Always smirk —silently. The way I did. It will drive them crazy, but the legend must go on!
The password for the wards is;
“The Wonder In Pinks”..
✱ ✱ ✱
For many days and deep into the nights, he traveled north, skirting The Savage Plains and Endless Watch. He passed Tinker Hills, then Silent Hills, and decided to skim by Serenity City, rather than stay. He didn’t want this venture to turn into a parade. And just when he’d passed Gulls Perch, there she was..
Standing at the side of the road was a particularly grim-looking tundra elf barbarian bearing deep, frostbite scars, whirling dark blue storm tattoos, long, snow braids, and wearing the mark of a Riserin —the sign of the Princess of Ironfrost.
“You decided then..”, she said gruffly.
The hobbit nodded mutely.
“Took you bloody long enough.”, she scowled.
“Didn’t want you to come.”, he said quietly.
“Didn’t care what you wanted!”, she said bluntly. “You don’t get to make choices for others, Brom. Made her choice for her that one time, and look where it got you. Where it got her!“
“We both paid the price.”, he replied inaudibly.
“Seems like only she paid any price.. ALL THE PRICE!“, the barbarian girl glowered. “You know, you are a lucky little hobbit, and my friend, because I so want to beat you into the ground, right here, right now!”
“Yea..”, replied the hobbit morosely. “..lucky me.”
“When you made her choice, you abandoned her, Brom. You made us abandon her. Do you think she would be the way she ended up, had you been with her?”, she said mercilessly.
“There really isn’t anything that you can say, that I haven’t already said to myself, Cora.”, Brom replied quietly.
“That is possible. But I shall give it my best!”, she bit savagely.
A few days later, when they were passing Misty Forest, they came out of the filmy haze like a pair of wraiths and joined them; a cold, sinister-looking man in dark, patchy clothes, holding the hand of a very pretty, ‘still needs some filling’ little girl with sad, forlorn eyes, strawberry lips, long, silky hair, and beautiful, curving horns. The man silently nodded at them and they start walking in the same direction.
“Dear, dear Brom.”, said the skinny girl, with misty eyes. “The heart wins when the mind submits. He wanted to beat you. But I said please, don’t. He asked me why he shouldn’t and I reminded him how I had to sneak up to him all those times and whispered into his ear, just to get his attention, the first time we met, and he barely took notice of me..”
“I noticed you. Four years before we ever met. You had my attention. Grilled those two, mule-headed ranger girls, Laila and Morel, for hours, but they refused to give me anything about you.. When we met, you were just too young..”, the sinister-looking man, Aager, growled. “I didn’t want to make choices for you. Nor take away your options..”
“Yet, by doing that, did you not do just that? Take away my choices?”
..she replied, but there was no rancor, nor rebuff in her voice. Inshala turned to Brom and spoke with a conversational, matter-of-fact voice.
“I had decided I wanted him. He knew I wanted him. He knew he wanted me. Yet he decided it was better for me to wait. He wanted me to stay as a baby, not a girl. And wait we did..” Then softly she added. “And lost years.. Years I wanted him.. Nothing is as sweet as the moment you want something.. One can live with regrets, but never with lost opportunities.
I carry no regrets. But I do miss the lost opportunities.”
“Told him pretty much the same things, all those years ago.. just more bluntly.”, inserted Cora. “But our hobbit here is a bit thick in the skull!”
They passed the ruins of Arashkan and decided not to stop at High Woods, even though Inshala very much wanted to.
They traveled further west, resupplied at Vodgar, and followed the road past Dark Forest.
They took a boat across Kahan Lake and beached at the dying shores of Demon Plains..
Carefully they traveled towards the dreary lands and there, at the very edge of the Demon Plains, they beheld the slight figure of another tired and desolate soul.
The beautiful heart of High Woods silently rose and told them that she has thus passed her legacy and her heritage to others and that she would accompany them in their sojourn to help find a friend and perhaps, find her twin sister as well.
With a steely determination, she would join them, and perchance her own Dorin..
“Is this what he would have wanted, my Queen?”, asked Brom sadly.
“I am queen, no longer, dear Brom. I shed my burdens ere I came. Nons shall take pride over my death, nor carry my burden as a trophy.”
..replied Alor’Nadien ne with her soft, brushing voice.
“You will always be my Queen and hold the throne of my heart.”, said the hobbit sincerely.
“Methinks your heart’s throne already has her queen, dear Brom, but my King is not here and by his stone, my grief is no longer bearable.
I have been offered many prospects since then; other kings and princes, merchants, and royalty. They never understood; I have never wanted to be queen. Yet I chose to be one for he was there to bear its burden with me. Much like he chose to be king, for that was the only way we would be allowed to be together. And by his hollow seat, day and night, year after year, for a century and more, I sat, appearing like the person I no longer am; strong, alive, and willing.
I no longer hold the strength nor the will to carry on. And I see no point to stay any longer, my friend. Where he is, he awaits. Where I go, will be there.”
“The fight. Who will—”, asked Brom, words failing him now.
“If the fight has come down to a tired, broken soul such as I, then surely we are lost already. New hands with vigor must pick up that mantle now, and bear its burdens. Not these tired hands.”, she replied solemnly.
“What of High Woods, my Queen?”
“My youngest granddaughter, Alor’Derune, the Allure of Dorin, has been chosen and the mantle passed. I shall miss the heart and the breath of my forest. The spirit of High Woods promised I would cherish and prosper. So I have. From the ashes of my forest, I have lived to see my kingdom reborn, and by my King’s love, my children and their children strive. But everything must come to a close. We thought we saved so many but lost so much more. We gave our all, and more until we had none..
I relish my moments in this life. And I cherried my beloved friends. But like my King, most are gone, now. This life no longer offers me favors, nor passions. Thus I yearn for the other and for over a century now, I have counted my days. I have kept him waiting because he asked this one boon of me; that I live and be happy.
I have lived, but he did not know, he had bereft me of all happiness when he left. Nay. I think I have kept my promise. It is time he honors his and accepts me.”
Brom quietly nodded. That was all he could do. When a person talked in a language one could understand, but not relate, one knew, they were on two, very different levels of perception; the Queenof High Woods, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist Shieldheart was already gone. What stood here, was nothing but her shade.
They had given their all.
But such was the required sacrifice of the few, select mortals to save their world from annihilation.
“It’s a bit late to start. We have lost the noon sun. Will make them stronger as the hours pass. Might as well make camp early, and start at first light.”, Brom said.
“Did I ever tell you how much I hate ghosts, wraiths, and zombies? Ow, and demons.. Especially the ones with the long, barbed tentacles..”, he added with a voice that was barely audible.
“Yea.”, replied Cora said from somewhere behind him. “They always go for the little, fat ones!”
He squinted at the distant lands, dead and rotting. He took a deep breath and faced his preening destiny.
For a long, long moment, Brom thought of the very tall, very dark girl that had ruined him for everyone else..
He remembered the time when she had whispered into his mind. The time when he and Cora had thought they were going up against a terrible demon, all those years ago, on Ice Wolf Horde’s request. It had also been the time they had first met.. Thinking back, she could have whispered at Cora, yet she had opted to whisper to him.
He remembered the way she had flopped and klutzed, face down into the snow, displaying all her curvy glory in pinks.. After nearly two hundred years, he could still remember that image, and so vividly..
He remembered when she had gone up against Cora in defense of her pair, Tonic, at Mount Dreadmaw, and had so dearly paid the price.
And he remembered the way she had blushed so furiously and had been so embarrassed that time when he had caught her with Tonic’s foot in her mouth.
“This isn’t what it looks like!”, she had blurted in unveiled panic, with Tonic’s foot still in her mouth. “I am not eating her!”
Brom wondered why she had feared that he would think her eating Tonic.
Had she done something silly as she often did, in her past, and someone had said something stupid to her? What kind of a demented idiot would be so cruel, he wondered.
And suddenly he knew he needn’t seek the cruel idiot far away.
That cruel idiot was right here.
Then, just like that, he started to shake.
And silently, Brom Bumblebrim wept..
..he wept while staring at the dead lands where ‘The Wonder in Pinks’ was off, somewhere, not even sure if she were alive. Her beautiful mind gone, as she crept and crawled in the filth of the rotating land towards the demon gate.
“I will not offer comfort by saying it isn’t your fault. Because as sure as it is, it is mine as well, Brom Bumblebrim. When you chose to do what you did, I chose to stand by you. Many things could have been different if I had ignored you and just picked you up and threw you at her! Knowing her, she would have caught you, and kept you.. along with her dignity and sanity..
You are not the first to think less of themselves and feel unworthy, Brom. And Seressa was a great soul..”, Cora said.
“She always was. And like the coward I am, I turned away from her, thinking she deserved better, deserved more.. Never bothered to ask her what she wanted. Just like all the other animals out there who never bothered to ask her what she felt.. I sinned her, Cora..”, Brom shuddered as he wept. “I burned her when I abandoned her.. I did her wrong and now, I dragged you into this.. I deserve everything you want to do to me.”
“Well, when you say it like that, makes me wonder just what kind of a girl you think I am. Shall I fetch my whip? Would you rather pole lashing or have me do it while you are stretched on a rack!”, she said mildly. “As for the dragging, I doubt you could drag me anywhere even if you tried.. That’s what friends are for; being dragged without being told. It was my choice to be your friend, Brom, and so was accepting you as mine. You were there when I was down. You let me lean on you. Yes, I never cried on your shoulder, but I did know that your shoulder was always available should I ever needed it.. Now I am here for you to lean back. Doesn’t mean I am not pissed off at you. This one, though, I am doing for her.”, she said.
She looked down at the shuddering hobbit, removed her heavy fur cloak, and settled it over him.
“Go on. Get some sleep. I will cover the first watch with that Aager-guy. He is worse than I am. I didn’t use to talk because I was so ‘can’t be bothered’ and ‘cool’. He doesn’t even care about cool. The only one I have ever seen him smile is his wispy little wife. Wonder if I should ask him just how old he is.. and why! Pain to get him to talk.. And creepy as hell, the way those two just ogle at one another like newly eloped teens, without ever saying a single word.”
“Tomorrow is going to be one, long day..”, sniffed Brom.
“Yes.”, agreed, Cora. “Tomorrow, we enter Demon Plains and retrieve a friend. Two, if we are lucky.”
Then she looked at the shade of the Queen of High Woods, Alor’Nadien ne, lost in her own sorrows; loved ones and friends..
“But I mean to leave no one behind. A girl of her stature and grace needs a proper stone and a decent shrine. Not a ditch in the ground..”
The twin sister referred to here, is the recorded kinship of Arcantonic Palecog as a Feymist, on the day Alor’Nadien ne is born, by Nadine Graciousward. Both of their names are entered into the royal archives of Bari Na-ammen on the same day, making them, ‘technically’, sisters and twins..
The staff Brom refers to, is the Staff of Blooms that belonged to Seressa Wraiven since shortly after her graduation from the Academy of Melshieve.
During the story, Left Behind (18+), Seressa breaks the staff in wroth and despair, never wanting to see the beautiful, pink cherry blooms that it would sprout. During one of his visits to check in on her, Brom finds the broken pieces of the staff and takes them, in the hopes that he could fix it, and return it to Wraiven, proving to her that the broken can be made whole again and that nothing is beyond repair.
And that is the summed-up story behind the mystery of how in the blazes did that letter even get here.. Good luck discerning any sense out of that paradoxical loop! This is where an unforeseen variable is introduced into a perfectly linear equation, turning it into an infinite loop, causing it to either freeze or crash your processor.
Arcantonic and Brom have returned from their ‘humble’ side trip into the Great Arashkan City, back to the inn and Brom has given the small, gnomic girl the letter scroll he picked from Gnine Tinkerdome. The letter that was given to Arcantonic by no other than Gnine’s great, great, great-something ancestor, Prince Gordigon Tinkerdome.
The sun had risen, traveled through a beautiful, bright blue sky, and settled somewhere at noon, casting the smallest of shadows, but the Tundra Walkers were still slumbering in an inn, in the Richarc District of the Great Arashkan City.
Cora Sleet slept soundly among the wreckage of her room, on top of a heap of feathers; the remains of what had just last night been, a rich, soft bed.
The softness was still there, but the bed was not.
She drooled and snored a bit, giving her an adorable cast, quite in contrast with her otherwise savage appearance.
Her long, white hair was unbraided too, which was a novelty on her part. Cora loved her long, white hair, but being the practical girl she was, she never wanted it getting in the way. Particularly when the bloodletting started. Besides, she’d been threatened by a large, cruel pair of scissors a few too many times in the past by her mother unless she braided them and kept them out of the stew and those threats had stuck.
Now, however, her hair was ‘down’, so to speak, and she was having a rather pleasant dream.
Whatever she was dreaming, she watched it with a content smile on her face.
Too bad it would be cut short as she would be rudely awakened by the innkeeper —probably a mistake on his part.
She, with the help of Seressa, the very tall, very dark girl sleeping a few rooms down the hall, had ruined his inn, after all.
✱ ✱ ✱
TWO ROOMS AWAY..
Seressa was also sleeping with a content smile on her face.
Whether her smile was due to a pretty dream she was having, the engaging evening she’d had with the pretty barbarian girl, breaking the proverbial ice, and the rest of the room, or for the fact that she had snuggled up to her pair, was unclear. From a totally neutral perspective, the very tall, very dark girl looked like someone who hadn’t quite outgrown sleeping with her dolls, because that’s exactly how it seemed; the giant girl had hugged her little, gnomic pair, into her bosom, and both were breathing softly into one another’s face.
The whole scene was endearing..
..and a bit alarming!
Arcantonic Palecog slipped out of the ginormous feather bed as silently as she could. She didn’t want Seressa to wake up.
Tonic had been equally shocked, surprised, and quite unexpectedly happy when she’d woken up to find her pair not only sleeping with her in the same bed but snuggled up, the way they had.. And she’d been hugging her because she was so warm.
And she felt much softer, and nicer than the feather bed!
She also smelled of phloxes, cherry blooms, and her unique self. A combination Tonic had resisted for as long as she had but had caved horrible at the end.
It had been hard for the little gnomic girl to admit she liked her pair and that she smelled simply awesome!
Seressa’s face was at peace when she slept. More now than for these past few days. In fact, she seemed happier than she had ever seen her before.
Arcantonic Palecog felt no rancor, nor resentful at having finally been ‘coin pursed’ by her pair.
The unscrupulous little weasel of a hobbit had been right about at least one thing; her pair, Seressa Wraiven, had a beautiful smile..
Hence, she slipped out of the bed, shivered a bit, and quietly hoped down, and softly landed on the cold wooden floor.
She considered bothering with her boots but decided against it.
Trying to slip her left boot seemed like too much trouble, just now.
She hamstered to her artificer’s satchel, dug her hand in it, and pulled out a small, palm-sized mirror and a brush, scurried to the window, cracked open a sliver between the curtains, and with the help of the mirror, she hastily brushed her hair and bunned it up.
It was noon outside.
That was to be expected. She and Brom had returned quite late that evening.
She dumped the mirror and brush back into the satchel, shouldered it and silently walked to the door, and slipped out.
The hallway was clear.
Good, she thought. No need for random encounters.
She silently crept up to the room, furthest from the stair. Her quarry was there.
Tonic thought of the brush and the mirror.
Had it been just a month ago, she would be laughing at herself.
Tonic very nearly never brushed her hair. She would just pull them back, then bind them haphazardly with anything that was readily available; a bit of string, a broken piece of twig, a stand of vine, or a piece of cut wire.. Now it was adorned with one of Seressa’s many scrunchies, and she felt no shame nor guilt whatsoever at having burglarized into her pairs’ collection either! Apparently, this burglarizing things from her pair was becoming a habit for her.
This brush and mirror were a late habit, though. An acquired, or self-enforced habit, to be more precise..
A habit since the Gordigon boy!
The sky was still standing.
There were no sudden earthquakes.
And no blaring brasses of doomsday was heard!
That hadn’t been so hard now, had it?
✱ ✱ ✱
THE FURTHEST ROOM DOWN THE HALL..
Tonic knocked on the door of her quarry and politely waited.
But there came no reply.
She tried again to no avail.
“Alright then.”, she said. “We go, Plan B!”
Tonic loved Plan B as it was pretty much always back to back with Plan A;
Barge in! —was Plan B!
Tonic had many bad habits, or rather, shortcomings, true, but she always prided on her Plan B. It was easy, practical, and more or less, always produced a solution.
“Brom?”, she whispered.
The room’s curtains were pulled and it was somewhat dim. Much like her room had been.
“Brom?!”, she hissed.
Still no answer.
Damit. Was she going to have to go for Plan B, again? She’d always done Plan B, back to back with Plan A, but never a Plan B, back to back with another Plan B! This was going to get awkward real fast.
Then she heard a sniffling, shuffling noise from the far corner of the room.
She slinked in that direction to find Brom sitting on a stool, facing the corner!
“What the—”, she began.
“What is it, Miss Tonic?”, she heard him say.
“Umm.. I.. I thought we had agreed on you not needing to ‘Miss’ me all the time..”, she said hesitantly.
Tonic was not a good mood reader. When it came to moods, that was Seressa’s department and Tonic had rather strong opinions about poaching. Some deep instinct, however, told her that something was wrong.. with Brom.
“No.”, said the hobbit. “We had agreed that me calling you ‘Miss Tonic’ sounded a lot like I was saying ‘I MISS TONIC‘, to you and that it was weird and just creepy.”
“Well.. When you say it like that, it does sort of sound weird.. and creepy.”, stumbled Tonic.
“What can I do for you, Miss Tonic?”, repeated Brom, “I would have thought you’d have had enough adventuring, and certainly enough of me, for one day.”
Tonic noted the weary in the hobbit’s voice. She couldn’t discern the reason for it. Only notice it.
Well.. At least that was something. She was getting better at this.
“Baby steps, Tonic, baby steps..”, she told herself.
“No, no.. No more adventuring for today..”, said Tonic, a bit hesitantly. “I just wanted to thank you.. For last night. Never got the chance to say it properly.”
“It’s alright Miss Tonic. No need for thanks. We both.. enjoyed it.. in our own way, I suppose. Feeling any better?”, came the hobbit’s voice.
“Much.”, she said promptly.
“Mission accomplished, then.”
“Perhaps.”, said Tonic, a bit perplexed.
Something was going on here. With the hobbit. But she wasn’t sure if she should push.
“PLAN B.. PLAN B.. PLAN B..”, choired inner Tonic suddenly!
“Alright. Plan B, it is.”, murmured the gnomic girl.
“Hmmm..?”, asked Brom.
“You.. You brought back Gordigon’s letter for me..”, she said. “How did you..?”
“No mystery there. Miss Tonic.. I picked that Tinker-guy’s pocket on the way out of the library..”
“You.. You did what? But why?”, she asked incredulously.
“For reasons, I don’t really want to fathom, the boy seemed important to you, since you went into all the trouble to want to warn him but refused to meet him face to face yourself. I have some ideas as to why, but I just don’t want to entertain them because none of them are good, per se, and all of them are creepy as hell! But I thought, perhaps you’d want something of him. A memento, maybe. Something personnel.. Suffice to say, the letter came as much of a surprise to me, as it did to you. As to how it came by the Tinker-guy, I have no idea..”, said the hobbit in the dim.
There was a moment of silence as the gnomic girl tried to digest that.
“I.. I don’t know what to say.. Thank you.”, she said with a small voice. “I can not phrase how happy it made me. It broke my heart when I’d found out I’d lost it, back at Ritual Forest. I.. I hope you didn’t get in trouble because of our.. little adventure last night.”
“Miss Tonic.” Brom’s voice said and there was a district steely quality to it. “Our venture last night, was not a little adventure, no matter how we stretch the words. It was possibly one of the greatest events of this time. It was monumental and its echoes will reverberate back and forth between history and years, no, centuries to come. Willy-nilly, you have changed the past, present, and the future of not only Silent Hills but you have also changed that of High Woods, Bari Na-ammen, and all the lands and civilizations in the kingdom that will get affected by both. Whatever the celestials are playing at, Miss Tonic, it is subtle and it is huge!”
“Well.. When you say it like that..”, Tonic stammered.
“Trust me when I say, I am putting it ‘lightly’, Miss Tonic. Many, many people will live because of our little adventure last night. And many, many people will also die, because of it.”
“I.. never really thought about it like that.”, she admitted with a flushed face.
“Don’t fret, Miss Tonic, neither did I. Not until much later. But the deed is done.”, Brom said.
“You didn’t tell Cora..”, she said.
“No.”, replied the hobbit shortly.
“Why? She must have been.. angry..”, Tonic said carefully.
“She was. And she tried to grill me. Though I must give her credit; she didn’t really try very hard.”
“I don’t understand..”, said the gnomic girl with a baffled voice.
The hobbit sighed and turned around. But because of the poor light, his face was still not quite visible.
“Because Miss Tonic, both Cora and I know, she is not my mother, my elder sister, my aunt nor my grandmother. We are friends and we are equals. She doesn’t get to squeeze information out of me. This, she knows and this, she respects.”
“Would have made it easier.. and convenient had you just told her though.”
“Easier, convenient.. and totally wrong. It wasn’t my secret to give, Miss Tonic, it was yours. But even if it had been mine, caving in just because she glared down at me, would have made her lose the only thing we much care and have in common.”, the hobbit said.
“Mutual respect, Miss Tonic. Mutual respect.”
Another pause ensued.
“You are.. You seem out of sorts.. Out of your self, Brom. What is it? What is wrong?”, Tonic asked.
“Something that has little to do with you, Miss Tonic.”, said the hobbit’s voice, and this time, Tonic did catch the nuance.
Slowly and carefully, she approached the corner where the hobbit sat.
Slowly and carefully, she reached down at him, took his face in her small hands, and raised it.
Broms’s face was a blotchy mess.
And with a very unexpected but equally tender insight, Tonic refused to describe what she beheld.
Very quietly, she spoke.
“‘We suffer. We mourn. We sing and we celebrate.. We do. And what we do, we share!‘”, she quoted Brom’s own words.
“Did every single one of those, and then some, just this very evening, Miss Tonic.”, said Brom with brimming eyes.
“We did. And we did not.. A fool, I am. This, I have learned. And this, I know. But I would not have expected a fool out of you, Master Bard.”, she whispered.
Brom stared at the diminutive cute face holding his. He didn’t shy his eyes from her but stubbornly held them.
“We bards make the best of fools, Miss Tonic.”, whispered Brom.
Tonic produced the little mirror from her artificer’s satchel again and held it before the hobbit’s face.
“Tell me, then, Master Bard.. What do you see in the mirror?”
“A blotchy face.”
“No snarks, Mr. Brom.. What do you see in the mirror?”
“A bushy hedgehog!”
“No snarks! What do you see?”
“A face in dire need for sleep!”
“I said no snarks, damit!”
“A hobbit about to lose his temper!”
“Wow. I ask one simple question of you, and you can’t even give me a straight answer.”, she said. Then her voice steeled. “Even if you were much, much taller, much more muscular, and prettier, you don’t deserve my pair, Mr. Brom. You don’t deserve Seressa Wraiven!”
Brom froze. His face lost what remained of its color and hardened.
“That was a bit harsh, don’t you think?”, he said with an angry voice.
“Harsh is when I produce Mechaber, right here and now, and beat some sense into you!”, she replied savagely.
And the hobbit lost all his will.
His shoulders slumped.
He lowered his face.
He passed one hand through his bushy, brown hair and absently scratched his head.
“It doesn’t matter what I see, Miss Tonic..”, he said in a defeated voice. “It all amounts to the same thing; a little hobbit!”
“Would you like to know what I used to see in the same mirror?”, she blazed.
“Not particularly, no.”, Brom mumbled.
Tonic ignored him.
“I saw the same things you did, Mr. Brom; A lot of snark—”
“Your point being?”, asked Brom tiredly.
“—until I met Gordigon. Now I see a girl in that mirror. A girl that could use a brush, and possibly an eyeliner every once in a while..”
“Must be some neat, magic mirror!”, mumbled Brom.
Tonic glared down at the hobbit.
“Would you like to know what I see when I look at you?”
“Not particularly, no.”, repeated Brom.
Tonic ignored him again.
“When I look at you, I see a ‘guy'”, she hissed angrily.
“Umm.. Your point being?”, Brom repeated that too.
Apparently, this conversation was heading straight into a ‘broken record repetitions’ for Brom..
“Stop looking at misery and start looking at hearts, you dolt!”
“Has it ever occurred to you why I kept shouting ‘Eyes Front’, at you, Mr. Hobbit?”
“Because you are an insufferable little—?”, started Brom.
But the gnomic girl cut in..
“Because you are a threat!”,
“I feared you would steal my pair from me because you are a guy! That’s why I didn’t want you staring at her. Don’t you see?”
“The free staring was alright but it all became a case of morality for you because you saw and deciphered that she was even greater on the inside and you actually felt something for her.. And all of a sudden, you decided you are not ‘guy enough’? Wow. I have seen some arrogance and high drama in my time, but you, sir, just landed on my top ten, and I was graced by the best of them; my uncle Arcanton Mordenon.. Should’ve seen him lording over his demons, the way he did.. A three-foot midget looking down on demons eight times his height!”
Brom just stared at the gnomic girl.
“The hardest thing in life, Mr. Hobbit, is not besting our foes. It is besting ourselves, our fears, our shortcomings, our insufficiencies, and our own stupidities.. This, I figured too late, and now my chance for the love of my life is gone, and I will have to suffer that loss for the rest of my days, Master Brom.”, she said and her own eyes were brimming too now.
“I implore you. No. I am begging you. Please don’t make my mistakes. One idiot is far more than what our odd little family can handle..”
She wiped her brimming eyes, reached over to the hobbit and held his face once more, and gently kissed him.
“You are a good man, Brom Bumblebrim, and Seressa Wraiven does not require tall, muscular, or pretty. She’s already tried those.. Not a lot of good they did her! They all saw pinks, but never got past it. What she needs, what she wants is love. And care. And sentient intuition. And the ability to put those into honest words.. You have all those, and then some..”
Tonic took a deep, shuddering breath and considered something. Then she sighed, dipped her hand into her satchel once more, and drew out a rather large, but slim book.
“Here.”, she said. “This.. uhhh.. belongs to Seressa. It is everything about her. You will find anything and everything you need to know about her in this, including which shades of pink she likes, all color-coded.. Some of the things in here are.. quiet private and.. sensitive.. One could say, it’s Wraiven’s User Manuel. She.. she doesn’t know I have it, even though she had originally prepared it specifically for me. I would much appreciate it stayed that way. Skim through it, find out all you want to know about her, then return it to me, discreetly, please. It would truly break her heart if she found out I.. liberated it from her, and gave it to you..”
Brom silently reached out and took the book.
As it turned out, it wasn’t really a book, but a hand prepared dossier. It had the arrogant symbol of the Academy of Melshieve embossed on its dark blue-green cover.
Brom gently opened the cover to see Seressa’s handwriting. It was a recursive, delicate script, very tenderly inked, like it reflected the inside, the very soul of the owner of the hand that had written it;
To my bestest and awesomest pair:
Days will always be better because we will have you..
“See.. And find out, Brom, exactly what you are missing.. And if it’s her size that still worries you, use a bloody stool!”, she scowled.
Brom stared at the sentiment written by Seressa Wraiven for a long moment. Then, slowly but firmly, he closed its cover.
“No.”, he said. “I shall not break into her privacy. From Wraiven, I shall never take what she does not impart freely.. Taking is all everyone has ever done to her.. Take, but never give..”
“What?”, said Tonic with a shocked expression. “I just gave you Seressa on a silver platter!”
“Wraiven is not a cuisine to be served on a silver platter, Miss Tonic, delicious as she might be.. For what I want, I must give the effort, and suffer her trials. For everything she gives, she must divulge knowingly, willingly, and with the intention of giving them to me.. I shall not use shortcuts, nor cheat my way into her good graces. Otherwise, all credit will go to the bloody stool!”, he replied harshly.
He looked down at the embossed dossier in his hands with honest longing.
“Reading this might get me a Wraiven, but it will not be my Wraiven. And it sure as hell will make me worse than all the other animals out there, Miss Tonic.”
And handed the dossier that beheld everything about Seressa Wraiven, back to the gnomic girl.
Tonic stared incredulously at the hobbit before her.
Then, slowly, she smiled.
“Now, I know you truly care..”, she said softly. “Thank you, Mister Brom, for your honesty, your insight, and your care for my Seressa. Should something ever happen to me one day, to you, and only you will I freely entrust her wellbeing..”
For a very short moment, she paused, then signed.
“I will not, however, help you in this matter, Master Bard, because I am a selfish girl who just recently realized the kind of awesome person my pair truly is.. But I shall not hinder, nor undermine your efforts, which, I am sure will intrigue her to no end.”
With that, Arcantonic Palecog turned around and left..
✱ ✱ ✱
He wasn’t sure what had awakened him but it sounded vaguely like someone was pleading for help..
After the pestering little gnomic girl had left, Brom had sat in that stool for only a short more while. With a tired sigh, he’d risen, taken off his coat, his shirt, and pants, and jumped into the feather-soft bed.
He hadn’t bothered with the boots.
He was a hobbit.
And hobbits wore no shoes.
Everyone knew that.
“Please. I meant no disrespect nor was I intruding.. I certainly wasn’t trying to peek, miss!”
Brom opened his eyes and looked around blearily. Yep. Someone was pleading and it didn’t sound good.
The shortlist of his friends ran through his head.
Seressa wouldn’t be threatening anyone. She was too cultured. She would instead put them to shame, and send them crying in confused humiliation. Unless someone had been dumb enough to have threatened her pair, in which case, they probably deserved the kind of hell that was coming their way and there wouldn’t have been anyone left to plead anyway.
Naa.. The little midget could be insufferable at times and a bother all the time, but she was not big on human interactions and would have left it to her pair to have handled whatever that required interacting.. And by some misfortunate chance that she was forced to act on her own initiative, she would go for ‘the big guns and grenades’.. Since the room he was sleeping in was still intact, however, it was probable that the rest of the inn was too.
Tonic could be quite destructive..
But not very surgical in her precision.
Brom sat up.
“Damit!”, he spluttered. “Damit. Damit. Damit. Damit. Can’t a hobbit have a moment of peace?”
He jumped out of his bed, swiftly put his shirt and pants on, ran to the door, and yanked it open..
..to behold a scene he had dreaded.
Cora Sleet was holding up a man —the innkeeper— with one strong arm and had her ginormous sword pressed against his throat with the other!
“Then what were you doing in my room?”, she hissed at the poor man.
“I.. the rooms were rented for one day by Master Bard and I had merely come to ask if you would be continuing your stay. When I knocked, no one answered so I entered to make sure everything was alright and to pick up the plates, bowls, and mugs for the food and drinks you had ordered.. and when I saw the room in a wreck and you lying there, I thought someone had done a crime in my inn!”, the innkeeper spluttered.
“So you thought it’d be a good idea to grope a sleeping girl?”, Cora blazed.
“Miss, please. I wasn’ groping you. I am a happily married man. I have daughters your age!”, he cried.
“I doubt you have daughters one hundred years old!”, snarled Cora.
The innkeeper shrank and stared at the savage girl with the long, white hair.
“I.. am sorry I offended you.. uhh.. young.. miss.. But you look barely old enough to drink! And I was bent over you to make sure you were still breathing! Please!”
“Damit!”, cursed Brom as he jogged up to Cora before she did, whatever she was planning on doing at the devastated innkeeper.
“I thought it was rude to talk about a girl’s age in these civilized places you call cities!”, hissed the barbarian girl.
The poor innkeeper just gaped at her.
“Cora.”, said Brom as he came up to her. “Please put the honorable innkeeper down and your sword away.”
“This little minks tried to—”, started Cora.
“CORA SLEET!“, Brom barked. “PUT THE SWORD AWAY. NOW!“
She slowly turned and looked down at the little hobbit, her eyes ablaze.
And a whole slew of expressions crossed her face until she settled on one.. or maybe two; shock, and surprise.. followed by a third; hurt!
Slowly, she removed her sword from the innkeeper’s throat, and with restrained fury, rammed it into its scabbard.
Then she lowered the innkeeper, her eyes still burning and still on the hobbit.
“Thank you.”, Brom said. “Now. I am not sure if we will be staying another night, honorable innkeeper. But we will pay for the rooms for another day. If we are not here, you may keep the pay, and rent them out at your convenience.”
“Tha.. Thank you, Master Bard.”, stammered the innkeeper. “But.. the room.. This room.. it’s destroyed! Who shall pay for the damages done?”
“We shall cover the damages done, honorable innkeeper. The room’s condition is due to some unexpected altercations late last night. Nothing important.. Merely unexpected.”, Brom said meaningfully. Then, with a great show of regret, he sighed, “Girls!”
Whatever the innkeeper thought the hobbit implied, he did not comment. He did cock an eyebrow though.
“How much do you surmise the repairs for the rooms will cost, honorable innkeeper?”, he asked amiably.
The innkeeper stared into the room, with a haggard expression. It was quite apparent he cared for his inn.
He did a quick estimation in his mind, turned around, and told the sum to the hobbit.
It wasn’t a small sum but this was Arashkan and they were also on the richer district of the city.
“We shall pay for the damages done, sir, and then some, for the loss you will likely suffer during the time of your repairs. Does that sound agreeable for you?”, he asked politely.
“Of course, Master Bard, of course. You are a fine example of your kind, sir, and an excellence at your art. My wife and daughters wept at your performance.”, said the innkeeper genuinely.
“Thank you, honorable innkeeper. I do but try.”, replied Brom happily. “Now, if you please, I would like to have a word with my colleagues and listen to what they have to say about shaming a bard at the inn he has performed.”
“Please..”, said the innkeeper, gave a quick glance at the still simmering girl with the long, white hair and the ginormous sword, “..they are all fine, beautiful, and honorable ladies. Don’t be too harsh on them. I will have dinner sent to your rooms. I noted.. uhh.. the lady here, preferred our kababs and midgetoes.. Would.. would she like another treat of them?”
“Yes, yes she would. Very much.. Thank you honorable innkeeper.”, replied Brom.
The innkeeper bowed at Brom, carefully nodded at Cora, turned around, and went down the stairs..
“You.. you shouted at me.”, fumed Cora. And there was a shimmer in her eyes now.
“You dishonored me Cora. At an inn I performed and stayed.”, he said, but not too harshly. “And you never, and I mean NEVER, attack or threaten an innkeeper.”
“I was not aware these.. innkeepers were holy men!”, Cora said and all the heat in her stance was gone.
“They are not holy men, Cora. Not in the sense you mean. But they are hosts. They house strangers of all races and colors. And they respect their privacy and keep their secrets.. Yes, we pay for their services, but not for the kind of crap they have to take from every guest under their roof. Innkeepers, my dear Cora, are the core of what we call, ‘guest and host’ relation. It is easy to guest someone you know. Not so fun when you have to put up with strangers, and then clean up after them, day and night, while risking their own lives, the lives of their families, and their other guests. Consider yourself in his place, then think what it would be like if everyone acted as you did.”, he said.
Cora was silent for a moment.
“I do not understand your civilized rules, Brom. But I know the responsibilities of a host to his guests and the responsibilities of guests to their host. It is different in my land, but then, my land is not civilized and it is a harsh land.”, she said mutely.
“Your land is a beautiful land, Cora. Your land is ‘The Endless White’.”, he said with a smile.
“Loved that song.”, she said quietly.
Cora was.. She felt hurt that Brom had shouted at her. More so because the last time anyone had shouted at her, had been her mother.. just before she’d gone off to her watch. The day her Ironfrost, and all her people had died..
Her eyes shimmered some more.
“One day..”, she said with her soft, throaty voice. “..if you would write a saga for me, I would want that song to play.”
“Deal.”, replied Brom. “Now.. How in the blazes did you two destroy this room, girl? We are going to lose very nearly everything we earned thus far, because of your little, fun night!”
“We had a girl’s night. I told you already.”, Cora replied seriously.
“Cora. I do not think either you nor.. Tonic’s pair knows what a girl’s night really is.. When people say, let’s party and wreck a room, they don’t mean… THIS!”, he said pointing at the devastation.
“I do not understand. This is wrecking. Did we miss something?”, she asked and peered curiously into the room.
“When they say wreck a room, they mean.. Ow.. never mind. Would take too long to explain. One of these days, though, I am going to have to set both you and her down and explain how to not understand some things so literally.”, he said, signed again, and added, “That is going to be one, very long day!”
“I am sorry I dishonored you in an inn you performed.”, said Cora. “I was not aware there was such a rule. There are so many rules in these civilized places you call cities.”
“‘Tis alright. There are rules wherever there are people. The more people, the more rules, I guess..”, he said absently as he did a quick calculation in his mind.
“Damn..”, he swore. “I don’t think we have enough coin to cover the repairs.”
“What are we going to do? Want me to go down and bargain with your innkeeper to lower the prices a bit?”, she asked hopefully.
“What? NO. PLEASE NO!“, replied Brom immediately. Then he frowned. Seemed he was going to have to do something he really dreaded doing.
“Look. You stay here and clean up your room..”, began Brom.
“That was the last thing my mother had said to me that morning.. the day Ironfrost was destroyed. ‘Cora, clean up your room!’.. And we’d argued about it.. Now I am back to cleaning my room? Again?”, mumbled Cora.
“I am sorry about Ironfrost, Cora. But this is quite unavoidable. While you do that, I am going to see if I can borrow some money from Tonic.. or.. her pair..”, Brom said.
“First I am expected to wreck this room, and now I have to clean it.. These rules you have to stay civilized are complicated and many!”, Cora signed. Then she looked down at the hobbit.
“You are avoiding saying her name.”, she said.
“What? No..”, Brom tried to deny.. and a bit too hastily.
“Before, you were all excited talking about her. Then you started having these funny and concussed faces every time you said her name. Now you are avoiding it altogether. Is there anything I should know, Brom?”, she asked with both her brows up.
“Wow.”, thought Brom. It seemed like it would be a really, really bad idea to ever underestimate this barbarian girl. She might not know civilized rules nor understand the implications of certain things, but she seemed to miss very little.
Brom sighed again.
“Noting to worry about. If and when it becomes an issue, I’ll be sure to tell you about it.”, he said.
“You like her.”, she stated bluntly.
“I.. What?..How in the.. Why would you..”, he spluttered.
“Good.”, said Cora with the same blunt voice. “At least you take me seriously enough not to lie, and care for her enough not to totally deny it. She is a good girl. A bit silly for my taste but, hey, who am I to judge. I mean, I just wrecked a room with her, ate truly awful food, had loads of fun, and stupidly laughed when we both threw up, talked about the silliest things.. and it turns out ‘wrecking a room‘, doesn’t even mean, wrecking a room! And we striped ’cause she dared me to put her silly pink undies and I certainly wasn’t going to fall short on a dare. We skimped around, then destroyed the room in nothing but skin and pinks! I am not going to deny the fact that I loved it. But I am never putting those on again. I can’t run around with that kind of ‘draft’ around there. It’s distracting as hell! So, yea.. Who am I to judge!”
“What? Ow. My. Gosh, girl..”, Brom spluttered some more.
“I mean, you wouldn’t believe some of the things she’s done at that academy of hers. Had I done but a tint of what she’s done, mother would have taken a kukri at my braids and sawed them off down to my scalp! Together, we sang like a pair of sore crows while holding hands and danced like the Ice Wolves! Then we beat at each other with pillows.. Should have seen her face when I impaled my pillow on her horns by mistake when I hit her head while she was ducking! She was so beautifully abashed and then I impaled the other pillow with my sword, just to get even! There we were; her, with this big, white pillow stuck on her head, brushing the ceiling, me, with a pillow dying on my sword and feathers flying everywhere.. We laughed so hard, my side hurt! And then she said, “Shall we?”, and I was like “Let’s!”, and we destroyed everything in sight..
She paused for a moment with a thoughtful expression on her face.
“She was ashamed because of something she couldn’t help, Brom. I was ashamed of everything I did last night, all of which I could have stopped at any moment. Yet, she made sure I did not stop and for that, I am grateful to her. That girl lives for silly.. and makes you enjoy it so thoroughly as well.. I have never had that much fun in my entire life.
Consider the hell I went through just a few months ago, Brom. And not a few days ago, I had to relive it, and in greater detail, because apparently, the first time wasn’t enough.. Yet, she made me happy in manic, silly pinks! If that is not ‘special’, I do not know what is. And you want to know what truly got to me? All that while, I could see the sad in her eyes.. She wasn’t trying to have fun, Brom. She was trying to make sure I had fun, all the while holding back because she thinks she is so tall and silly, she imagines herself to be some clumsy juvenile axebeak, and fears that she can hurt me! Not to mention she foolishly believes I am so ‘cool’..
I never had a girl’s night before, Brom. Not because I didn’t want to or didn’t care for such things, but because I never heard of them before. We just didn’t have such things in Ironfrost because we never had the luxury to drop our guard.. We had celebrations, sure, but there was always a contingency of our storm heralds and zerkers on guard, and snow rangers hiding all around the village. That girl has never had a girl’s night in her entire life, even though she knew there was such a thing, had other girls all around her at that academy, and yearned to have them all along.. Yet she lived last night for me! That, Brom, is a whole different kind of ‘special’..”
Cora stared at Brom and there was both loss and mirth in the shimmer of her eyes.
“I have never had the privilege of falling in love, my friend.. And now my people are destroyed. I have seen, first hand, just how short every life can be.. Hell, so have you, for that matter.. Don’t waste your time. Either do something about it or put it behind you, which I doubt is even possible.”, she said briskly. Then she lowered her voice, and she spoke sympathetically this time. “I do not envy your disposition though. I hear love hurts.. A lot..”
Brom blushed.. Then blushed even more.
“And the fact that she is like twice my height has gone unnoticed?”, he asked with an angry voice.
Cora looked down at her friend.
Then, with an unexpected display of feline dexterity, and Ursidaen strength, she picked up the hobbit and brought him up to an inch of her face.
“There..”, she said to the stunned hobbit. “..we are now at the same height. What are you going to do about it..?”
Brom struggled for words.
Just nothing was coming out!
“My point, exactly!”, said Cora with brutal bluntness. “If you had planned on doing something —anything, you would have done it from down there, and never needed to be up here —yet, even up here, you still got nothing!”
Then she slowly lowered Brom.
“Your problem is not your height, my friend.”, she said briskly. “You just don’t have a plan! You do not know what to do.. You are a sensible hobbit, ‘a fine example of your kind’, as your honorable innkeeper so nicely put, and she is a silly, unpredictable girl.. She is every bit a mystery to you and everything you are afraid of; exactly the way any girl should be to any man who cares, and matters.. It isn’t what we appear on the outside that makes us who we truly are. Otherwise, what are we but a pair of.. well.. you know.. and a pretty face, really?”
She squinted at the hobbit for a bit, then barked a short, capturing laugh.
“Back at Ironfrost, guys thought I was all cool and stuff and they honestly thought they were all just too beneath my cool for me to bother with them, the way I was with my cold and expressionless face.. Like I knew things they didn’t.. The matter of fact was, I had nothing to say.. I mean, I truly had nothingto say. So instead of spluttering crap, I just shut up. And you know what the hardest part was? Keeping a straight face.. Should have seen me when I got home in the evenings when my watch was over. I used to go to my room, then laugh my face off until it hurt, very nearly every night!”
“You.. you are a cruel, cruel girl, Cora Sleet..”, whispered Brom, staring at the barbarian with amazement.
What truly amazed him was how much the barbarian girl had to say.
He’d thought he’d known this snow elf for so long as they had been together, all quiet and cool yet to see how much she had kept bottled up inside. Wraiven must have done some wonders last night to have this girl open up as she just had.. He also felt a slight pang of shame to have not been the one to have done the same, but then, Wraiven was something else..
He was bard, with bardic skills, and he knew the intricacies of the heart.. Or he’d thought he knew. And yet, the very tall, very dark girl had done to Cora in one night, what he hadn’t been able to do in months.
That just had to be something special, alright..
“Yea, well..”, said Cora. “That’s all over now, isn’t it? Ironfrost is gone, my cool is gone, now I actually do have things to say, just none of my friends left to say it..”
“You are still ‘cool’ for me, Cora.. And you can say whatever you like to me. ‘Bone and Cleave’, I am your friend..”, Brom mumbled.
“Bone and Cleave, huh? Rather poetic.. in a barbaric way.. I like!”, she said with a whimsical smile.
Then, her eyes softened as she looked down at him.
“Brom..”, she said with a quiet but serious voice. “..just when have we ever faced anything that is smaller than us? And don’t say, goblin sappers! They had numbers and those bloody grenades.. Yet, we are here, they are not. We have bested everything that is always bigger than us.. Go.. And best her.. Again!.. Shouldn’t be too hard for you, since you already bested her once before. Must I also remind you that it was because of you that she held her punches then.. And that it was your victory against her that made her our friend.. and ruined you for her..”
Then she gave the hobbit one of her rare, crooked smiles, patted him on one shoulder, and before turning to leave for her wrecked room to start clearing the bits and pieces of the debris, she said..
“If that isn’t karma, I do not know what is..!”
Brom heard her talking from inside as she tossed large, broken furniture around.
“You have so much more in common than you think, my bushy little friend. She loves flowers, you love gardens. You can make her whole gardens full of those silly, pink flowers and she will love it.. She is an insoluble mystery, you are forever intrigued by mystery. You can spend the rest of your life trying to solve her, and it will not be a life wasted.. She is pretty, you appreciate and honor that pretty. You can stare and stare at her and never be bored.. She adores cute, you are adorable.. She can put you in her coin purse and carry you around all day and be happy – though I have no idea how you are going to fit in a little pouch. Must be some magic pouch, I think.. To remember my father and mother had nothing in common, yet loved each other like eloped teenagers, was ever awkward for me to watch..”
✱ ✱ ✱
You look happy today.”, said Seressa, peering closely at her little pair.
“I am happy today. I am sorry I made such a ruckus yesterday, Seressa. Things just.. sort of piled on top of each other in one me and.. this isn’t.. this is all very new to me.”, Tonic admitted quietly.
“All is fine, all is fine, luv. Long as you’re are happy.”, her very tall, very dark pair smiled. “Your Gordigon’s letter seems to have found its way back home, I see..”
“Thanks to Brom. He is very smart, crafty, and caring, you know.”, she replied glibly.
Seressa looked down at her pair, one eyebrow cocked.
“You said nice about him.”, she said a bit surprised.
“Well, yes, I suppose I did.. He did endure me all last night and somehow got me my lost letter, did he not? He was very patient with me. Patient and understanding. I’d say he’s a great guy!”, Tonic mumbled, as she blushed slightly.
“That he is, luv. That he is.. But how did he do it? I gave it my all and came up with nothing. I just can’t imagine how that letter traveled eight hundred years, all the way from there, to here!“, she said in a marveled tone.
“I am guessing maybe it’s a bard thing. You know, bards have magic we will never have. You said it yourself!”, she replied elusively. “He is sleeping, anyway. The poor hobbit had a rough night. All the gnomes he had to put up with.”
“Casting yourself in the plural now, are we?”, smiled Seressa.
“Yea.. uhh.. there is just so many of me!”, Tonic blushed some more at her blunder.
“I am sure he will forgive us.”, said Seressa. “Boots?”
“Boots..”, replied Tonic, hopped on the bed and wiggled her feet.
“Tonic, luv..”, said Seressa. “What did you do last night?”
“Eh?”, froze Tonic.
“Look at your feet, girl.. We had a bath just last night and you got your feet all dirtied up again. You can’t wear your boots in such a state. You’ll stink them!”, Seressa said with a disconcerted voice.
“You just want to wash them cuz you like playing with them.”, replied Tonic, wiggling her tiny feet again.
“Yea..”, said Seressa with a smile. “They are soooo cute.”
“They are just feet, girl.”, Tonic frowned
“But very cute and very little feet. I could put them in my mouth and still have room to talk.”, she snickered.
“Ewww, girl.. That’s just gross.”, Tonic pinched her face.
Seressa laughed as she got up and went for the washing pan.
“There’s no water in this!”, she said.
“Ummm…”, said the gnomic girl and she suddenly went red. “I.. might have dumbed its content on Brom, last night..”
Seressa stared at Tonic.
“Why?!”, she wailed. “Why? All the nice things he’s done, and you dumped the content of a washing pan on him? That’s not nice, luv..”
“Look, I am sorry. It wasn’t one of my proudest moments, alright! I was a wreck, looking for a beach to crash and.. he just seemed to be so.. dunno.. convenient?”, she mumbled.
“Tonic..”, despaired Seressa. “Luv.. You can’t keep doing this.. to me.. to yourself.. to OTHERS! Please!”
“I know, I know.. we sort of talked and apologized to one another. Here. give me my satchel, will you?”, she said.
Seressa handed Tonic her artificer’s satchel and Tonic started rummaging it.
After a while, she pulled a round, potbelly jug out of it.
“Bring the pan here, please.”, she said.
Seressa brought the empty washing pan and Tonic tilted the jug. More water than the jug could have possibly contained poured out until the pan was full.
“That’s neat.”, said Seressa. “Is it finite?”
“Yea. Too bad really, otherwise we could have drowned Dreadmaw using just this. Provided he stood still and didn’t get out of his cave!”, said Tonic with a sad voice.
“Indeed.. would have taken only about a century or ten to fill his cave, I surmise.”, she smiled.. “Come, luv.. Let’s get on with the feet. We should be leaving soon..”
Tonic giggled as her pair vigorously washed her feet, any number of times until she was satisfied.
Then she went for her own pack, produced a medium-sized towel, and started robustly rubbing the gnomic girl’s tiny little feet.
Then, while holding her left foot by the ankle, she froze.
“Whot?”, squeaked Tonic, staring at her pair and she noted her long, slender tail. All through the washing and drying, Seressa’s fascinating tail had been dancing back and forth in a lazy, content, and hypnotizing pattern. Now it stood up very still. Its pink, fluffy end, however, was twitching with an erratic irritation —always a bad sign. It meant her master was feeling provoked.. or was seeking mischief!
Tonic looked up to her pair to see Seressa smirking, her white, beautiful canines fully on display.
“No..”, said Tonic seriously. “Seressa no.. no, no, no, NOOO!”
Seressa smirked some more.
“I have you now.”, she hissed..
..and poped it!
..into her mouth!
Tonic held her breath, then squealed, laughing in manic despair.
“Eww, girl, get it out. Get it out!”, she shrieked, still squealing and giggling.
“Told you I could do it, and still have room to talk!”, Seressa mumbled, her own tummy hopping with bubbles of laughter!
Tonic threw herself back and started banging her fists while she shrieked and squealed as she convulsed with the electrifying jolts of tickle running up her tiny foot in Seressa’s mouth!
“Perhaps I came at a wrong time?”, said Brom.. with a professionally straight face, as he beheld the mad? creepy? insane? funny? hilarious? sight before him.
A Tonic, squealing like a hyped little squirrel, and a Seressa, with her pairs foot in her mouth..
It was a very nearly surreal sight.
Perhaps I am not quite awake yet, and this is just a weird dream with a lot of metaphors, thought Brom.
“This isn’t what it looks like!”, blurted Wraiven in unveiled panic, the foot still in her mouth.
“I am not eating her!”
And she blushed.
Brom hadn’t seen the very tall, very dark girl blush before.. Not really.. Probably because she was a cultured and classy girl, she had maturely accepted herself as who and what she was, or never truly put herself in situations where she would end up blushing.. even at her moments of klutz, and as silly as she always seemed.
Or perhaps he was overthinking or overanalyzing it and the girl was just so dark, a blush merely camouflaged itself.. A bit like her bruises.
Whatever the reasons may be, it told something about the girl to Brom. As to what it was, he put it aside for the moment. The current situation had precedence and was likely one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ things..
Hence it came quite as a surprise when he saw the very tall, very dark girl truly, and actually blush.
Her face, her whole demeanor, really.. just changed. The whole of Seressa Wraiven started to glow with a searing, simmering, red-orange inner fire one would only see in pitched coal at the very bottom and center of a hearth where the fickle fire had died, and what remained was the core ember that gave off a calm, but steady heat.
It was ‘awesome’, at a whole new level..
“Ow. My. Gosh!”, he barely heard Tonic squeak in destroyed embarrassment.
Brom could only gawk at Wraiven.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes..
He murmured silently.
Then, a whisper escaped him..
“Or perhaps my timing was of the best.”
Slowly, and deliberately, Brom Bumblebrim turned around, took a deep breath, and left.
Perhaps Cora could use some help. There had been a lot of debris in that wreck.
✱ ✱ ✱
You bested her already?”, asked Cora as she picked up what was perhaps once a wardrobe like it was made of straws than hardwood. “That was quick. Way to go hobbit! Hope you didn’t comment about the size of her.. well, you know.. She is a bit touchy on that subject, though I can’t understand why considering your initial assumptions and accusations were totally wrong..”
Brom scratched his head dubiously.
“Never accuse a girl about the size of their..”, continued Cora.
He wasn’t quite sure who had, perhaps unwittingly, bested whom there, just then, or if there had been any besting at all. He certainly felt bested, though.. He also felt something smolder at the pit of his stomach!
“Did you tell her she’s pretty? Seressa likes pretty.”
Seressa Wraiven was not just pretty..
She was something..
And he saw something new in her, every time she turned around.. and thus Brom Bumblebrim wondered..
“But it’s always nice hearing it from others..”
Why had she blushed so..?
The poem Brom recites;
She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron, 1788 – 1824)
She walks in beauty, like the night Of cloudless climes and starry skies; And all that’s best of dark and bright Meet in her aspect and her eyes; Thus mellowed to that tender light Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less, Had half impaired the nameless grace Which waves in every raven tress, Or softly lightens o’er her face; Where thoughts serenely sweet express, How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow, So soft, so calm, yet eloquent, The smiles that win, the tints that glow, But tell of days in goodness spent, A mind at peace with all below, A heart whose love is innocent!
THAT. WAS. AWSOOOOOME!“, Tonic half shrieked, half cackled with manic fervent and triumphant hysteria. “I can’t believe she held me.. No!.. She hugged me! The Riverin of High Woods, The Princess of Bari Na-ammen, the daughter of Ri Grandaleren and Rise Nadine Graciousward.. THE FUTURE QUEEN OF THE HIGH ELVES, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist herself, my twin sister by adoption, no less, and she hugged me! Oww my Gosh, she smelled so nice.. So warm.. And you know what? I think I will go visit her again, once this is all over. Just for more of that!”
“Girl.. She offered you the throne of Bari Na-Ammen, literally, and all you can think of is her hugs? I’ll be the first one to admit, she is a beauty, par to Wraiven, but really, now.. Your priorities are a tad eschewed.”, Brom said with a bemused tone.
“Look here, you little hobbit!”, she said pointing a tiny finger at him. “This here is the hair of a Princess. And not just any princes, but that of Alor’Nadien ne, herself! And not just a snippet, either. She gave me a whooooole strand!”
Her tiny finger, the one she was pointing at Brom, was nearly all black! Because her fingers were so small, and the Princess truly had had very long hair, flowing nearly all the way down to her feet. She had enlaced the hair around and around her finger until it had all but covered it.
And now, the little gnomic girl was skipping and hopping like she was the proud owner of one of the rarest wonders in the kingdom..
..which, she was!
“You are such a dork, Tonic.”, Brom smiled. “..And a fangirl!”
The two had left the huge Dorin guy and the beautiful, graceful, and pretty princess behind and were heading to their next, and hopefully, last stop for the evening; to the Great Arashkan Library.
Why was every officious building in the city named ‘Great’, Brom had wondered.
The Great Arashkan Courthouse, The Great Arashkan Library, The Great Arashkan Arena, The Great Spires, The Great First Lord Princeps Palace.. It wasn’t like there was another city just over the hill with a courthouse, a library, an arena, some spires nor another first lord that one would confuse, now, was there?
Or perhaps there was some ‘baby’ Arashkan courthouses, libraries, arenas, spires, and first lord palaces and hence, the ‘great’ ones had real and practical significance.
Brom couldn’t imagine a conversation where some stranger would ask; “Excuse me, mate, where’s the First Lord’s Palace?”, and get a reply, “Which one? I mean, we have so many!”.
Brom suspected, that conversation would devolve into something like;
“The ‘great’ one..”
“Yea, okay, but which one? We have a lot of ‘great’ first lords in Arashkan. You’ll have to be a bit more specific, mate!”
“How many First Lord’s do you have, in this city?”
“19,876 by the last count. We had a new First Lord spawn just the other day!”
Apparently, Brom’s live imagination was at play again!
But there was, however, some truth in his creative perception. All these ‘greats’ didn’t make the city anymore endearing.. Only pompous! No one, it seemed, was near-honestly humble like hobbits in this world. Hobbits lived in nice, quiet, rolling hills. They didn’t build giant monuments, nor put awesome statues to impress others. Seemed a little like too much work for no gain at all. Hobbits made their homes in the hills and.. well.. they lived in them.. Happily too!
The near-honestly was because hobbits were just unenthusiastically lazy to be bothered by such frivolities!
Elves, humans, gnomes, dwarves.. none of them ever seemed satisfied with what they already had. Always they would thrive for more..
..and still, be unhappy.
Just how stupid was that?
“Brom.”, Tonic said sternly. “I know what she offered. Think of my history. I know what power is. I lived with my uncle for years. And I know what power can do to you. My uncle.. He had power. Lots and lots of it. Even his demons feared him and it really is hard to instill fear in a demon. And look what it brought him. Banishment to the depths of hell he is never coming back from. It is possible he is still alive. And burning perpetually there.. And Heavens willing, he should burn for more, and then some.”
“I.. can’t say I admire his disposition. But why? Why did Nadine banish him and not just kill him and be done with? Death seems kinda more permanent, don’t you think?”, asked Brom a bit taken aback by the little gnomic girl’s savage tone.
“No. Death is not always thus permanent. Not for guys like my uncle..”, she replied, her tone much more subdued now than just a moment before.
“Ow? How do you mean?”
“My uncle, Arcanton.. He made many deals with many beings.. Outsiders.. Creatures that do not belong to our plane of existence. Planes where time and space get distorted. You literally can’t kill those creatures, Brom. You can only banish them from your own reality and hope some fool will not summon them back.. At least not in your lifetime!”, Tonic said quietly.
“Hmm.. So Arcanton made deals with things out of our plane of existence. But so did Wraiven, come to think of it, did she not? I mean, The Raven Queen doesn’t exactly belong to our plane of existence either, you know.”, Brom said carefully.
“Seressa did not make deals with the Raven Queen, Brom. Not in the sense that my uncle did. My pairs soul is her own. And belongs only to her. I doubt under any circumstance would she give up her soul to anyone.. or anything! Seressa is bonded with the Raven Queen via a pact. She does her bidding in return for her queen sharing a part of her power and knowledge with her. It is sort of a mutually beneficial agreement between two parties. She can, if she wanted, dissolve that bond. Yes, she will lose the Raven Queen’s favor and the power she imparts to her, but the fact remains; she can end the bond..”, Tonic tried to explain.
“So she can.. But I still don’t see the difference.”, said Brom as he squinted into the night.
“The difference is, unless you got more balls than brains, you literally can’t break the deals you make with Outsiders. Once the deal is done, your soul is on the market! It’s ‘Going.. Going.. Going.. Gone!’“, she said seriously.
“Well, that sucks.. I suppose. I like it that Seressa is free. I like her free. And she should always be free. Social rhetorics do her enough injustice and chain her as it is. She doesn’t need any more constraints.”, Brom said quietly.
The two walked on for some time in companionable silence. As it turned out, they ended up going the longest possible way around, taking the streets between the Officers District and Heaven Park, behind the Archery Military Camp, and by the Lights Temple. For some reason, the First Lords Palace and the streets surrounding it seemed to be teaming with burly, scowling patrols and neither Brom nor Tonic needed any complications or altercations with the city’s law enforcement’s that late, that night.
“Don’t.”, Brom said finally.
“Don’t what?”, asked Tonic, a bit surprised.
“Don’t ask the question you have been meaning to ask all night, Miss Tonic.”, he said with a destitute voice.
“Actually, I wasn’t going to ask anything.. And you really don’t need to ‘Miss’ me you know. Every time you say ‘Miss Tonic’, it sounds like ‘I miss Tonic!’ in my head, and that’s just weird.. and creepy!”, she said.
“Well, now. That is weird.. And creepy..”, mused Brom, but it seemed his mind was elsewhere.
“I did wonder though..”, Tonic began.
“And that.. is what I meant when I said, ‘don’t’!”, Brom frowned.
“You know. It isn’t fair you get to do all these psychoanalysis on me and then fend me off when I want to ask you some personal questions.”, she sniffed.
“I am not the one with the accumulated issues, Miss— Tonic.”, replied Brom, but there was no heat nor beration in his voice.
“So only people with decent backgrounds get to analyze others, then?”, asked Tonic mildly.
“No.. There just isn’t anything there to analyze.”, Brom replied allusively.
“Ahh.. I see.. So it’s perfectly alright if I did ask you a few personal questions, then?”, said Tonic with a victorious smirk.
“What? No.. How did you even get to that conclusion, girl?”, replied the hobbit feeling exasperated.
“Using awesome logic!”, smirked Tonic again.
“Using logic..”, snorted Brom. “You are not going to let this go, are you, girl?”
“Nope.”, replied Tonic happily. “So.. What do you see in Seressa?”
“Thought I already told you that. Just this evening. At least twice.”, frowned Brom.
“Yes, and no. Your description of her was a bit.. too intimate and heartfelt.. One could argue it’d make an excellent book cover, let’s say.”, said Tonic tentatively.
“I don’t know what kind of books you are into, girl, but I would suggest you read something that has actual literature in them.”, Brom scowled now.
“So you don’t like her, then?”, she blurted.
“Now why wouldn’t I like her? I mean, what is there not to like?”, replied Brom honestly.
“So you do like her..”
“Ow. My. Gosh, girl. You are going to push this in your direction whatever I say!”, exclaimed Brom, waving his hands.
“I just want you to give me an honest, and straight answer. Is that too much to ask? I mean, we are friends, right?”, persisted the gnomic girl.
“Just because we are friends, that doesn’t mean we share everything..”, said Brom exasperated.
“But you said, ‘We suffer. We mourn. We sing and we celebrate.. We do. And what we do, we share!‘. Your words, not mine.”
Brom ‘hoo boy’ed.
The little demon was persistent.. and she stuck on him..
..like a tick!
“That is possibly the worst misuse of a friendly conversation, Miss Tonic!”, Brom said angrily. “But I will tell you, just to get you off my back!”
“Yeshh!”, Tonic fisted her hand into the air. “Victory!”
“When I see your pair.. No.. When I see Wraiven, I sometimes wish I was a taller man. And better looking, perhaps. ‘Cooler’, so to speak. Maybe a bit more muscular.. You know, the type girls like to ogle at.
I love everything about her and she sees me only as something that she can, perhaps, cute into her coin purse. Not that I would mind being pursed by her, but that will still not make her see me in the light that I would rather have her see me.. If that makes any kind of sense to you.
We are so impossibly different, yet she makes me simply not care. Which is the core of the problem. She doesn’t see me that way, period. I mean, what am I to her, really, but a bushy little hobbit?”, said Brom then fell silent. This night had offered him many wonders. Just not the ones he would have wished for.
Tonic stared at the back of the hobbit as they once more fell silent.
She had been surprised by this unscrupulous hobbit a few too many times this evening. But this last bit gave her a whole new insight about him because he hadn’t been staring at her pair for the simple visual pleasure of having ogled at a very beautiful, proportionately curvy, comely buxom, life inducingly vibrant, deservingly exhilarating, darkly mysterious, and honestly alluring figure, counter-underlined by some macho male animal instinct, but for something more. Something that was intimate. Something that had real depth.
Tonic suddenly felt angry and jealous.
For all her pretense otherwise, she didn’t feel like sharing her pair with anyone, even though she had taken her pair a bit too much for granted.
Then she felt shame.
The hobbit —No! Not the hobbit.. ‘Brom’, had done nothing but give his best to help a cranky, cantankerous, contrary, grumpy and surly little girl his all, and not just that evening, but carefully, every day, ever since they had met. And for some reason, Tonic didn’t think he’d done any of it to gain favor with her pair, by proxy. For all his seeming indifference towards everything, lack of base enthusiasm, exasperation level of sloth, and blatantly unscrupulous attitudes, he was smart, cunning, always seemed to show unsolicited kindness, and he was loyal, educated, and well-spoken, even though he hadn’t been to an academy such as Melshieve and thus far, he’d more than pulled his weight in fights.
Much better than she had!
Hells bells, he’d also played that lyre like a siren! She remembered all the times she’d thought he was just staring at her pair’s butt, while he had persistently claimed he was composing a song.. in his mind!
And he had been telling the truth all along.
‘The Endless White’.
The tune he had played, back at the inn that very evening was something that was simply ‘mad’..
..and Tonic had loved it!
And now she didn’t want to share her pair with him?
Like her pair was hers to give or not..
Just how arrogant was that?
“Yes.”, inner Tonic said. “You really are selfish, you know.”
“Whose side are you anyway?”, blazed Tonic but her heart hadn’t really been in it. She’d flared more out of ‘muscle reflex’ than true intent.
“Does it matter? It was you, who wanted to try ‘this way for some..’, wasn’t it? Now you want to quit? I wasn’t aware it would be this short. Must have missed the memo. Had I known you’d be this fickle, I wouldn’t have fought against it so hard, knowing you’d come around on the morrow..”, inner Tonic said, and she didn’t even bother with the sarcasm.
Tonic shut up.
From the inside!
No. The hobbit was not just ogling at a very beautiful, proportionately curvy, comely buxom, life-inducingly vibrant, deservingly exhilarating, darkly mysterious, and honestly alluring figure.
Brom was staring at the heart of all that and desolately knew, he could never have it.
The ogling was just his way of fooling those around him..
“You could tell her.”, she braved mutely.
“To what end? There’s nothing neither of us can do about it, particularly if she doesn’t see me that way. If I tell her, all I will get is either the basic ‘You are my friend’, talk or the infamous ‘But I love you like a brother’, talk, which I would rather forgo and Heavens forbid, will never happen. However Seressa sees me, I never want her to love me like a ‘brother’..”, replied Brom, and not without a good dose of bitter disgust.
“So you are going to do nothing?”, asked Tonic incredulously.
“I never claimed to be a brave man, Tonic. As a matter of fact, I did say I was a coward, this very evening, I might add. Being refused by someone as awesome as Wraiven is not something I ever want to experience. I’d rather just ogle and make sure she sees me doing it.”, he said quietly.
“Make sure she sees you? Why? That doesn’t make sense.”, said Tonic befuddled.
“I don’t like sneak-peaking at her. Feels wrong. Feels like cheating.. Feels immoral —and yes, I am fully aware of the monumentally depraved irony there. That doesn’t change the way I feel, though.”, said Brom, frowning a bit.
“But.. but you are suffering and she doesn’t even know!”, bewailed Tonic.
“What’s got you so riled. It’s my problem. I’d rather look at that beautiful and wonderful, and beautifully wonderfulgirl with the impossible dream of a ‘chance’, than never to be able to look at her again when I get refused or be declared as ‘loved like a brother’!”, said Brom, gruffly.
Tonic ran up to Brom and stopped right in front of him and looked him in the eyes.
“That’s.. That’s just wrong, Brom.. and sad..”, she said with brimming eyes.
“Well. I am a sad sort of man. I got a problem, and I am using the cowardly way out. Nobody is feeling bad and no one is getting hurt..”, he said flatly.
“Accept you.”, she said quietly.
“Yea, well. There you have it. Chew on that psychoanalysis if you will, Miss Tonic.”, said Brom, brushed past the gnomic girl and with determined steps, started towards The Great Arashkan Library..
✱ ✱ ✱
Tell me again.”, said Brom with a mute, stoic voice. “What do I say to this Tinker-guy, again? And how in the blazes am I even going to get up to that window anyway? It must be at least fifty-five feet up there. Probably more, since this is a library. They would require higher ceilings to store all the books.”
Brom didn’t feel well. He had never wanted to divulge his feelings about the very tall, very dark girl to anyone. And certainly not to Tonic. Not because he thought she couldn’t keep the knowledge to herself, but perhaps, and because, he thought, she would keep it to herself.
“Damit.”, he thought. “Why now? Why tonight, of all nights?”
Had it been the tune he’d played to the audience that evening?
The one he’d named a tad grandly as; ‘The Endless White.‘
He knew he should have named it just ‘The White.‘.. or even ‘White.‘.. but white was just too generic.
Or perhaps it was the song he’d sang after that; Time.
In all honesty, Brom Bumblebrim knew, he just knew, it wasn’t him, who’d written that song. Unlike any other song he had written, this one had ‘come’ to him.. and in the most literal sense possible. Word by word, the song had written itself in his mind and heart during his two-year sojourn from Bowling Hills, all the way to Shakehands.. Which is when he’d met Cora. But tonight had been the first time he had actually put it on display, so to speak. And now, the song was out..
..and out of its ‘time’, Brom thought with a sardonic inner snort.
Or perhaps it was because of having met an angelic being.. or seen that dark, the very sinister-looking man he’d ended up feeling ‘distaste’ at best, then getting all his emotions totally eroded when he saw the same, sinister man looking at the sweet little skinny girl the way he had. And the look she had given him had been emotionally ruinous all by itself for Brom.
He was a bard, damit, and love was the bread and butter for all bards.. But the thing between those two.. he found he couldn’t define it..
..because he could not comprehend it.
It had been so.. nubile in its beauty..
So primevally intense.
There had been no decorum to it. Only base, raw, savage, and somehow, awe-inspiringly tender and desperately lonely longing in the look the two, very unlikely man and girl, were giving one another.
And they were giving it in a sense that was singularly unique! It made other people’s love seem like they were merely and briefly lending their hearts to others, while those two had already and literally given theirs.
So much so that what beat in one, was actually the heart of the other..
What man, woman —or bard— could truly comprehend that?
The intermixed irony that was put under the broad beam of a bright spotlight was not lost on Brom at all;
One, inhumane human, and one, infinitely humane, inhuman!
It was likely that very destitution the two had, that’d sparked the fire that had previously been a mere and happy little kindle..
..into searing pain.
Tonic gave Brom an even look.
Whether she surmised what was really going through the hobbit’s mind, she kept it to herself.
For now, at least.
Which was a grace, all by itself.
“I have seen you climb walls before, Brom. That cloak of yours will more than suffice. If you want, though, I can give you a potion that will make you climb pretty much any surface. Another for you to pass through any gap, or to safely float down. I can send a rope all the way up there.. The window is in range.”, she listed methodically. “I suppose, if you want, I can bring out Mechaber. He can give you a fifteen feet head-start sort of a jump. But I haven’t really had the opportunity to field test that. And I can’t promise a quiet landing. Likely, it will bring a lot of patrols upon us. I am guessing you’d rather avoid that.”
“I am guessing, you would rather avoid that!”, scowled Brom.
“Yes. Yes, I would.. Very much.. The technology behind Mechaber is not out yet, and I would rather it didn’t. Not yet, and not until it’s perfected and certainly not until I install the self-destruct unit in it.”, she said seriously.
“The self— what?”, asked Brom incredulously.
“Self-destruct unit.. You didn’t think I would artifice something as dangerous and deadly as Mechaber and then hand it over to the irresponsible humankind, or have it stolen, now did you? I designed it. I must make sure it never falls into wrong hands..”, Tonic said like she was paraphrasing from a blood-signed doctrine!
“Ooookay.. Good, we got that cleared, then.”, Brom said.
“Mechaber is serious business, Brom. Nothing to joke about. The fact that you have seen it, let alone know about it is a sign of how much Seressa trusts you because if it were up to me, you’d have never seen, nor heard mention of it.. Well.. not for some time, anyway.”
“Ooookay.. Good to know where we stand too, then.”, Brom said with the same tone.
“Look, just because you like someone, doesn’t mean you hand over the nuclear launch codes to them, alright!”, she said with an exasperated voice.
“The what lunch codes?”
“Never mind.”, said Tonic. “Read it in some silly futuristic sci-fi book.”
“Psychic-what? What are you talking about, girl? Just what the hell kind of books are you reading?”, Brom asked.
“Look, the story begins when a pretty Erossian spy falls in love with a mad and delusional Camerican nuclear scientist—”, the gnomic girl promptly began..
“Tonic!.. It’s late. I am tired and in all sorts of ways.. Let’s just get this over with, shall we? I am sure Cora and your pair have noticed we have been too quiet by now and gone to your room to check and see as to why! I think the story about some mad psychic-whatsit can wait, don’t you?”
“Right..”, said Tonic and blushed a bit. “Just tell him what I told you. Don’t loiter. Don’t chit-chat. Get in. Tell him. Get out. And..”
Brom cocked one eyebrow.
“..And, thank you. I made you do things tonight you would rather not have done.. At least not with me, nor for me.. So.. Thank you..”, she said with a small voice.
“You are welcome, Miss Tonic. And no, I wouldn’t have done any of this, not tonight, not ever, but not because of you. I just wouldn’t have done them because I would rather have taken a light snack, cleaned and tuned my lyre, and then went to sleep. Thanks to you, it is unlikely I will find any light snacks nor find the time to neither clean nor tune my lyre. And because it’s nearly the end of the night, I will not be getting any sleep either..”, Brom said.
Tonic frowned.. and felt a bit.. hurt..
“But I did do all the things I would rather have not, and I am now a better man for it.. All because of you.. So.. Thank you!”, he added with a smile.
Tonic’s eyes teared.
“Go.. Now.. Or I shall call you an ass and totally ruin the moment, Brom Bumblebrim!”, she sniffled.
Brom smirked, turned around, pulled his magic cloak around him..
..and started climbing up the side of The Great Arashkan Library like some odd lizard or possibly, an arachnid!
✱ ✱ ✱
Who is there?”, a slightly tenoric male voice whispered harshly in the darkness.
“It is I, The Ghost of Silent Hills Past, Present, and Future!”, spoke Brom, with a hoarse, hollow voice as he produced a very high, very eerie, screaming tune from his lyre.
The poor antic instrument wept at her misuse.
Brom had found the ‘Tinker-guy’ with relative ease. The gnome was taller than Tonic but while the gnomic girl was proportionally slim, this gnome, the possible great, great, great-something grandson of Prince Gordigon was a bit on the stocky side. Though he looked quite young and robust and had keen, intelligent, and pursuing eyes.
Brom had thought of a dozen different ways of approaching the gnome, including stepping up to him and saying, “Hallo there, matie. Got somin te tell yer! Go there them Silent ‘ills an’ grab what’s there fer yer self and be quik ’bout tit! And while at tit, quit mawnin’ ’bout things ‘cuz non wuz yer falt! But I’d suggis yer watch yer arse cuz sum fellers wantsit!”
And now he was gnawing his knuckles, hiding a few rows, behind and above him, stuck on the ceiling!
“Whot?”, the gnome, Tinker-guy, said in a baffled and spooked voice.. And one of his hands formed claws as a huge ball of fire appeared in it!
“Ow crap!”, thought Brom. “A trigger happy fireballer!.. We are in a bloody library, damit! Who uses a fire hall in a library? That is a universal reason for contempt, almost akin to speaking aloud in a theater! Doesn’t he know there’s a special kind of hell for people like that? And this idiot is the heir to Silent Hills?”
He produced his own Wand of Ice, just in case the fool actually did fire his ball and he had to put out the fires!
And just then, they heard a monotonous, matronly voice echo.
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, OR YOU WILL BE FINED! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“What the..”, said the gnome, Tinker-guy.
Brom snickered. Ow, this was going to be fun!
“It is I, The Ghost of Silent Hills Past, Present, and Future!”, he repeated, with the same hoarse, hollow voice.
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 50 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“And I have come to give you tidings from the beyond, young Tinker-guy!”, hallowed Brom.
The gnome, Tinker-guy, cocked an eyebrow, his face puzzled.
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 100 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“What the hell?”, the Tinker-guy said.
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 150 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
Brom snickered, some more. If Tonic caught him doing this, she’d have his hide, and then some!
“You shall go to Silent Hills.. There you will find your kin..”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 200 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“You must reclaim your heritage..”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 250 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“Ow. My. Gosh!”, exclaimed the Tinker-guy. “Can you please stop?!”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 300 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“No. I can’t!”, moaned Brom.
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 350 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 400 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“..am the Ghost of Silent..”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 450 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 500 CREDITS! YOU ARE NOW BARRED FROM THE LIBRARY FOR A WEEK. PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“..Present and Future!”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 550 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“Stop!”, cried the gnome!
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 600 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“And you shall do my bidding..”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 650 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“Stop. Just stop!”, shrieked the Tinker-guy in desperation.
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 700 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“No. I can’t..”, repeated Brom, his eyes shut, his face flushed and he had started doing strange, snorting, bubbling noises.
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 750 CREDITS! YOU ARE NOW BARRED FROM THE LIBRARY FOR A MONTH. PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“You shall go to Silent Hills, and into the Demon Fog to reclaim your birthright..”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 800 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“You must also know, young Tinker-guy..”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 850 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“Stop! You are going to get me permanently..”, cried the gnome.
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 900 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
Brom could hardly breathe by now.
“..what befell you in the past..”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 950 CREDITS! PLEASE BE ADVISED; YOU ARE NOW APPROACHING CONDEMN LIMIT. PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“..was not of your doing!”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 1000 CREDITS! YOU ARE NOW BANNED FROM THE GREAT ARASHKAN LIBRARY. PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“Whot?”, exclaimed the gnome and there appeared a haunted expression on his face. A face that bespoke of shame, self-loathing, relief, pain lived, and pain endured..
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 1100 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“Those who put your heritage into desolation sent their minions to slay ye and yer line..”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 1200 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
The gnome’s face paled. He tried to speak, but words utterly failed him.
“..to ensure, none would ever bring ‘voice’ to Silent Hills..”
And now, Brom wasn’t snickering anymore.
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 1300 CREDITS! PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“Hence an evil plan they hatched.. A heinous plan.. And they brought down your home and buried you, and yours..”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 1400 CREDITS! PLEASE PLEASE BE ADVISED; YOU ARE NOW APPROACHING CIVIL RIGHTS LIMIT. STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
Tears appeared in the Tinkey-guy’s eyes and ran down shamelessly.
“My mother? My father? My brothers and sisters by the dozen? Terrah Doodlebellz? All my friends? My neighbors? —They all died because of me?”
“QUIET IN THE LIBRARY, 1500 CREDITS! THE CIVIC GUARDS ARE ON THEIR WAY. PLEASE STOP BY THE CASHIER FOR THE PAYMENT AND WAIT FOR DETENTION! THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY.”
“Nay, young Tinkerdome. They all died because someone slew them. They all died to kill your line. Make their sacrifice worth the world, young Tinkerdome..
Reclaim your Heritage.
Reclaim your Hills.
Reclaim your Kingdom.
Reclaim your Throne.
Reclaim your Destiny.
Reclaim your People.
And be a King!“
And with a job well done, Brom Bumblebrim silently climbed down the ceiling.
Quite as a mouse, he brushed past the devastated Prince Gnine Tinkerdome, the great, great, great-something grandson of Prince Gordigon, got out the window, and skimmed down the walls of The Great Arashkan Library..
✱ ✱ ✱
WHAT DID YOU DO?!“, nearly shrieked Tonic in panic as she grabbed the hobbit and started running back the way they came. “The place is suddenly crawling with civic law enforcement!”
They ran past the Lights Temple, along the Archery Military Camp, and cut through the street between Heaven Park and Officers District.
“I said, just talk to him, say the things, and get out!”, spluttered the gnomic girl.
“Which is pretty much what I did, girl!”, panted Brom, his face flushed and he truly felt tired, both physically and emotionally. And he was scratching the upper end of one leg, near the buttock, just where he couldn’t see.
“What is the matter with you?”, Tonic asked, her eyes wild now.
“I got bit.. Again!..”, spat Brom, and mumbled to himself, “This is the last time I fall for a cute face!”, as they heard someone shout “HALT!“, from behind them.
“Never.. mind.. Not a story.. for now..”, Brom said with a harsh scowl.
Aaaand the gnomic girl was about to get hit with a full-blown panic now!
Something neither of them needed at that very moment.
“Calm.. down.. girl!”, said Brom harshly, as he huffed, and puffed.
The marching footsteps were getting closer.
“HALT! HALT I SAY! HALT IN THE NAME OF THE FIRST LORD!“, repeated the same voice from behind, but much closer now, than before.
“Can.. you.. disappear?”, Tonic gasped as she ran next to Brom.
“Umm.. Yes.. But only myself!”, breathed Brom heavily.
“Ok, then.. Go.. Shoo! Vanish! Scram!”, she said.
“NO! Not.. leaving you.. Not happening..!”, Brom breathed.
“I can.. take care of.. myself.. damit!”, snarled Tonic.
“Together.. or not.. happening.. I.. never want to.. face a Wraiven.. with you.. missing!”, he gasped.
“Damit!”, she said, produced two vials with green, vaporish something in them, and a tightly packed clay sphere out of her artificer’s satchel. “Here, drink this in ten!”, she said and handed one of the vials to Brom, as she tossed the clay sphere behind her.
“You know, disintegrating civic guards is not a good idea, Tonic..”, Brom said lightly.
There was a stunning bang, and the civic guards on their heels dropped to their knees and slumbered face down.
“Neat..”, admired Brom.
“Won’t keep them down for long. Now shut up and drink! The effects of this potion should last about an hour, possibly more. I am usually generous —or heavy-handed— with ingredients, depending on your point of view.. Meet you at the inn.”, she said and topped her own vial.. and suddenly, Tonic fell apart!
“I like you, Brom Bumblebrim.”, she said in a warbling, escaping, gaseous, and fading voice. “If you are so bent on martyring alone, I shall abide by your wishes. But you shouldn’t decide for Wraiven without bothering to ask her. That truly is cowardly. And not really any different than all the other animals out there who only see the pinks and never wonder what’s in it.. I made that mistake and it cost me—”
Whatever it had cost Arcantonic, she couldn’t say.
Her form drifted away in a hazy wisp of smoke!
Brom scowled after the now gone gnomic girl.
“Inserting the last word right before the disappearing act.. Cheap, Miss Tonic. Very cheap! Well, I am warning you now, girl, there’s a whole slew of pain coming your way..”, he said darkly and drank his own vial..
It was the strangest sensation he had ever felt.
It was like his whole body was flying apart into tiny, dust-sized bits! He felt the hair on his bushy head rise on their ends, accept he had no hair left either. Every part of him just.. puffed into smoke, and he got carried off with the slightest wind.
Now all he had to do was somehow steer himself in the general direction of the inn, preferably away from the scores of civic guards.
✱ ✱ ✱
Had a good evening, did you?” asked Cora as she stood in the hallway up the stairs to their rooms in the inn.
Her arms were crossed.
She was scowling at the little hobbit.
And her lips had that pout again.
Brom was smart enough not to comment on how cute Cora looked when she pouted.
Or rather, when she pouted while she was angry!
“Ummm.. Had a good evening yourself, did you?”, replied Brom, as he peered into their room.
The room was a wreck!
Everything, including bits of the floorboards, the windows, the window sills, the curtains, the flower pots, the walls, the feather bed, the nightstand, the lamps.. were either broken to bits or were cracked beyond repair. Feathers from the bed matres and the former pillows floated about and covered everywhere while food crumbs, empty and broken plates, bowls, and further cracked mugs and bottles were tossed and scattered haphazardly.
“This is not mere destruction.”, thought Brom in awe. “This is very nearly art! I could literally write an epic on this!”
“What did you do, Brom Bumblebrim?”, she fumed from her nose as she loomed over the hobbit, glaring down at him with her glacial blue eyes.
“Again with the ultimatum name use! What is it with my name and ultimatums, girl?”, asked Brom, frowning a bit. “And, I could ask you the same thing, Cora Sleet!.. What did you two do here?”
“We had a girls night. What does it look like? Seressa said we had to wreck the room at the end, so we did.. Was fun like I never had in my life!”, she replied seriously.
“And did you wear pinks too? I know for a fact, neither of you had pajamas!”, smirked Brom.
Cora’s eyes blazed and her face pinked.. just a little.. Barely visible, really, and if Brom hadn’t known the barbarian girl for as long as he had, he would have totally missed it.
“So.. how did you like it? The pinks, I mean..”, he asked blandly, and secretly kicked himself for having missed perhaps the only chance he would have ever gotten to see a Cora Sleet in Seressa’s mini pinks!
“It was a bit drafty but otherwise comfy!”, she replied with a straight face.
“Any chance for me to—?”, he asked.
“Never happen!”, Cora replied and now she really was scowling. “WHAT. DID. YOU. DO. BROM? We left you so you can calm Tonic. Not make her cry more!”
Brom sighed. He’d really wanted this to be kept between himself and the gnomic girl. Just to preserve her dignity, if nothing else. He didn’t want the cute little demon, as she at times became, to be seen as a ‘break down’ or a ‘cry baby’ and hence, an unreliable ‘loose end’, but there was no going around Cora when she got stubborn as she did now.
“Best way is to pull at it fast and sharp, and get it over with.”, he thought, took a deep breath, and spoke his piece.
“Before, she was crying for dubious and barely justifiable reasons.. I, on the other hand, gave her a genuine reason, so now, she is crying for real!”, said Brom and sure as he was a short, bushy-haired hobbit, his voice was now quite low, unsophisticated, and kind. “I am sorry Cora, but the current storm is inevitable. Once it blows, however, she will be done. She will then thank me because she will be feeling much, much better, and be stronger for it!”
Cora looked down at the hobbit. But the ice in her glacials were gone and she was looking at him, not with her looming glare, but with the one that said..
‘You and I..’
‘We are equals.’
“Something happened.”, she murmured softly.
“No.. Maybe..”, Brom replied evasively.
“Must I drag it out of you, my friend?”, she said with part annoyance, part amusement, and part.. wonder, perhaps?
“I’d rather you didn’t. This one isn’t about me, Cora.. Please.. Let this one go..”, he said without looking up at her.
“Grilled you, did she? Alright, then, go.. You look beat. Missed me in pinks, though.”, she smirked.
“Yea. Missed a lot in pinks tonight.”, he mumbled quietly and left for his room.
✱ ✱ ✱
Tonic, luv..”, said Seressa softly. “Do tell me what’s wrong. It pains me to see you thus.”
Seressa had silently entered the room they had planned on staying that evening like a whisper. She had skimmed the wooden floor, went over to the large, feather bed, scooped up her pair, and cuddled her in her arms.
And like a broken little girl, Tonic had clung onto her very tall, very dark pair and shook violently as she’d wept.
“Tell me, luv. I am your pair. We share.. Share me your hurt.. Please..”, she’d said into her ear.
Arcantonic Palecog clung to pair, spluttering with uncontrollable manic and desperate tears, unable to form words.
“He saved him.. He brought him back!”, was the only thing Seressa could discern out of her.
As to who had saved whom, or brought who back, Tonic’s comprehensibility had ended there.
Clutching something in one hand, she’d wept and wept until she’d slumbered right there in her pairs arms like a cotton doll, as the exhausting venture of the night, unbeknownst to her pair, had finally caught up to her.
Seressa had hugged her pair to her heart’s content, long, long past her slumber with all the love and compassion she could muster, then sighed, “My little luv. You mean the world to me. Please understand that.. And never cry. Be happy!“.
She got up, and lightly limped as she carried her pair, and slowly put her into her bed.
“Hmm..”, she frowned. “I could have sworn I had taken her shoes off before..”
Being careful with the left one, she unlaced her little, cup-sized boots, took them off, and put them down near the bed.
Then she went to the wardrobe and pulled down a heavy quilt and covered her pair with it. Tonic looked more like a sad little kitten, curled up the way she had. Even smaller, the way she slept in a feather bed six times her size and eight times her length.
Seressa walked up to the window and pulled the curtains and closed them. The sun would dawn soon and her pair needed sleep. So did she, for that matter.
The very tall, very dark girl wondered if her pair would mind if she curled right next to her. The feather bed was certainly big enough and the idea appealed to her.
It had been one hell of a night. If she’d known girls nights was this much fun, she’d have patronized Tonic into one, years ago. She did feel a bit guilty though. Her pair had been stuck here and crying all night while she and Cora had partied like there was no tomorrow. Seressa felt like she’d abandoned her pair at a moment of her dire need.
Then she inevitably smiled.
Damn, that barbarian girl knew how to party, though!
She thought she would also have to find a proper way to thank the hobbit, Brom, as well, for keeping Tonic company while she and Cora had dismantled a goodly part of the inn. Seressa loved her pair, but she was not totally blind to her shortcomings, either. She didn’t need to bet to guess her pair had probably made the hobbit’s life miserable during his stay with her.
Tonic sighed in her sleep and lost grip of the thing in her clutch. It rolled off the bed and dropped on the floor.
Seressa looked down and frowned.
It was a very, very old, tattered, and crumbled scroll now.
And it looked vaguely.. familiar somehow.
Seressa had a very good memory for things; what people said, their faces, and objects she’d seen, which was why she’d rarely bothered taking any notes back at the academy. She could recite the things her tutors and professors had said almost verbatim, and identify an innumerable variety of objects and readily label them.
It sure had drawn the envy of many of the other students to no end. Seressa had given them a good lesson on ‘humanity’ that being pretty and somewhat ‘silly’ and ‘honestly vain’, didn’t equivalate to ‘stupid’.
Seressa liked feeling ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’, and ‘pretty beautiful’, damit..
Deep down, though, she knew her appearance was mere ointment for the blunt void she felt at never to have felt the love she desperately wanted. The love she wanted had to emanate from a man like the heat from the core of an oven. Like it had to be something that was tangible.
The only problem with that was, the oven was there, men just weren’t emanating the fire.
Only.. temperamental and ephemeral sparks..
Men, it seemed, were definitely into her. And that’s about it. They were never interested in what went through her mind, nor her heart. And none of them wanted a dark, lumbering klutz of a girl with horns, a tail, and a fetish for pinks looming over them for a mate. Only as a plaything, at best..
Might as well be an obsidian doll!
Which is what she was now.
She didn’t mind the ‘play’ part. She was very nearly sure it’d be fun. But it was the ‘thing’ that turned the whole idea stale. She just refused to be a ‘thing’ for anyone.
And no one worthy should be seeing her as a thing anyway, right?
She’d gone after the pretty ones. When that failed, she’d gone after the smart ones.. Apparently, whether they were pretty or smart, neither equivalated to ‘heart’, where men were concerned.
But then, what did? What did really equivalate to a heart?
Seressa felt bitterly cheated in life.
And sorely confused.
She was given all these amenities.
They just weren’t of any use..
She perpetually felt like she was a beautiful flower who only attracted pests and wasps, but never the bumblebee..
She sighed, and silently she reached down and picked up the rather worn scroll and carefully, tenderly, even, she unrolled it, and with a shocked expression, she read the very old and tattered scroll that had somehow been preserved through centuries, persevered against impossible odds, and had traveled all the way from the depths of Ritual Forest, through a bloody, demon-infested war zone, to here, to find its way back to her pair..
“Dear, dear Bumblebrim..”, Seressa said softly with brimming eyes, and a curvy little smile, as she finally figured the ‘who’ in ‘whom’, and remembered too, when and where she had seen the old scroll before; some relative eight hundred years ago, when they were waiting for Tonic, and the Prince Gordigon had given this letter, rolled into a scroll, carelessly laced, but not cased, in the hopes that the ‘courier’ herself would read it!
“I have no idea how you did it, but you have given back my pair a life, and a world of joy.. Thank you, for you are truly, and inexplicably amazing, luv.”
BY ALL MEANS, PLEASE READ FURTHER AND TOTALLY RUIN A PERFECTLY AWESOME MYSTERY
Alright. What’s the plan?”, asked Brom when he returned back to Arcantonic’s room with weapons, his lyre, and cloak. “I really hope there is a plan..”
Tonic was just putting her cup-sized boots on, her own gear, and her artificer’s satchel placed at her feet. “We go, we find the princess, hopefully alone, talk to her, then go and find.. uhh.. the Tinkerdome boy, talk to him as well, then get back before anyone’s the wiser!”, she said scowling at her boots. She’d already put her right one, but apparently, she was having trouble with the other.
“Get.. in.. the.. stupid.. damn.. boot..”, she finally snarled, but either her foot or the boot was resisting. Some kind of a footish mutiny was going on there that Brom could not see.
He put his stuff down, walked up to her, mutely grabbed the little boot and her ankle, and carefully inserted the tiny little foot into the boot, and did the laces.
And Tonic just watched him with a flushed, embarrassed, scowling but broken red face.
“I didn’t ask you to—”, she began angrily.
“—Don’t have time, Luv!”, finished Brom, doing a rather impressive imitation of Seressa. Then grabbed the gnomic girls pack and her satchel, handed them to her, and went for his own, without waiting for her response.
There was a moment of dormant silence, then Brom heard her mumble..
..in a very tiny voice.
“Shall we?”, Brom said and went for the door.
Careful not to make any noise, he opened the door and took a sneak peek, and beckoned the girl with a tight, “All clear”, whisper.
“Why are we sneaking and whispering? Why are we even skulking at all? We haven’t left the inn yet.”, Tonic asked from behind the hobbit.
Brom pointed at the far end of the hallway, to a door near the stairs.
“That is where Cora and Wraiven are..”, he said.
“Just what do you think will happen when they catch us, going out in the middle of the night, to do some highly illegal, prophecy compromising venture?”, asked Brom with an amused whisper.
“Ahh.. Point taken.”, came Tonic’s voice from behind him.
“I feel like I am sneaking out in the middle of the night to see a girl and afraid to be caught by my mom!”, he whispered, then paused, and added, “Damn.. That’s exactly what we are doing!”
“Does Cora know you refer to her as your ‘mom’?”, she asked.
“Never happen! And I shall deny any allegations made on this matter.. Though I must admit, she and mom are likely the same difference in terms of ‘backhand’ punishments!”, he said lightly as they snuck down the hallway, towards the stair.
“You called Seressa as ‘Wraiven’..”, Tonic whispered.
“Yea..”, replied Brom, dreamily. “It’s such an awesome name, don’t you think? It sounds so much like ‘raven’, yet isn’t. The phonetic illusion there is hypnotic.. in a bardic sense!”
Tonic was about to ask something else, possibly an intimate follow-up question, but they both froze in their steps as they heard a squeal from the aforementioned room!
“Ummm..”, began Brom.
“Ow. My. Gosh.. Was.. Was that.. Cora?”, Tonic said with total shock in her voice.
“I.. don’t.. maybe..”, replied Brom, unable to refute the gnomic girl’s claim.
A giggle was heard then.. A very girly giggle!
“What the..!”, said Tonic.
“Well now..”, smirked Brom. “Looks like they are having fun.. Damn, I can’t believe I am missing all that.”
“Cora offered Seressa a ‘girls night’ so your pair would leave me with you. And the best part is, I don’t think either of them knows what a girl’s night actually is!”, Brom said with glee. Then he added with a dejected tone; “Seressa was captivated by the idea. Apparently, no one has ever asked her any such thing, though I can’t imagine why. I mean, she has a pair, and the fact that the two of you have never had a girl’s night, is sort of sad, really..”
“It.. it never occurred to me that she’d want something like that.”, she said mutely.
“I hate to say this, Tonic, but had someone as awesome as Wraiven been my pair, I would have done everything in my power to make her day, every day.”, said Brom, but not unkindly.
“You are a boy. Of course, you would—”, Tonic began hotly.
“—Must everything have an ‘agenda’ for you, Miss Tonic?”, Brom cut in. “And no, that wasn’t a rhetorical question. The fact that I am a ‘boy’ would have just made me do it more willingly because she has the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. Note that I have been a traveling bard for the past few years and have seen some truly amazing and beautiful things. And yet, none of it compares to seeing that smile.
As much as you may have suffered in your past, so has she. While yours has likely been brutally direct, traumatic, and brutish, her punishment has been much more existential in its nature..
Think for a moment, girl; assume you are one of the prettiest things there is to behold, but because you are not ‘human’ but a ‘creature’, however, your thoughts, your wants nor your wishes about not wanting to amuse any given male, is of no consequence because the moment you have been denied of your ‘humanity’, you are now a mere ‘object’ with little to no rights!
I am just guessing here, but I bet she’s had many admirers in her past, but never any friends. Now put all these together and try to figure out just exactly how lonely your pair truly is.. And understand, why she does as she does, and wants the kind of genuine love and care that she wants..
I may, or may not be an unscrupulous guy, Miss Tonic, but I sure as hell am honest to her about every thing I say to her, and every way I look at her, and I certainly am not indifferent about her, nor shrug her off as an oddity. Because that’s not just cruel, it is also cheap!”
And with that, he snuck down the stairs.
✱ ✱ ✱
They traveled silently in the night. The Great Arashkan City was exceptionally quiet that evening as if holding her breath as some rather important events were taking place in her bosom. Brom led the gnomic girl like he knew where he was going.. Just like he had when they had gone for the bathhouse and the inn they were to have stayed.
“I am a selfish person, aren’t I?”, asked Arcantonic, in a small voice. “I feel ashamed that all these years, never once have I ever thought of what my pair ever felt, or wanted..”
“Perhaps you are, perhaps you are not. I am not in any position to judge, really. I have tried to help ease Cora at some of her worst moments. But never have I really asked her about her feelings either. To be honest, I am not as brave as you think, when it comes to girls’ feelings. Men don’t speak such things. Which makes it near impossible to even ask, even though I have wanted to, for all the time I have been with her. I fool myself by saying I respect her privacy. But the matter of fact is, I am a coward. She is so much more sensitive than she ever lets on and I just can’t bear to see her get hurt. Flesh wounds heal.. Her heart and what she has been through at Ironfrost.. and to have lived it all over again.. It must be slaying her over and over, every day!”, Brom said quietly.
“You.. you really care for her!”, Tonic said, a bit surprised.
“Egad, Miss Tonic. What gave it away?”, smiled Brom, somewhat sardonically. “You truly must think so little of me..”
“I.. Look, I am sorry, alright. I keep catching you staring at Seressa. What the hell do you think I am supposed to think?”, scowled the gnomic girl.
“You know..”, said Brom. “Wraiven is a big girl.. in all sorts of awesome ways! I am sure if she finds my staring offensive, or annoying, she will make sure to tell me so.”
“She is a kind girl. She might not want to hurt your feelings..”, disagreed Tonic.
“Miss Tonic.”, said Brom seriously. “As far as I have seen, known, and observed, there are a few things your pair stands true for; one is that she truly is kind where it matters, two, if she likes something, she either compliments about it or says nothing and lets it continue being something she likes, and three, she brings down hell upon those who offend her!”
“And besides..”, he added. “There literally isn’t anything I can do to avoid staring at her.. Really. She is smart. She is kind. She is intuitive. She is fun. She is a sad soul who desperately wants and needs to feel happy. She is beautiful, in all sorts of ways I can’t even describe, short of writing a dedicated epic about her..
Come to think about it, I love everything about her and I find her very much enthralling, from the top of her slender, elegant horns, down to the tip of her fluffy tail. The fact that she is also a klutz just makes her all the more endearing..
So when you say, ‘I keep catching you staring at her’, you, Miss Tonic, are missing the whole point of Seressa Wraiven!”
Tonic held her step and just stared at the halfling sneaking before her.
“I.. I can’t believe I am hearing all this from you..”, she stammered.
“I can’t believe you haven’t noticed any of your pairs awesome qualities.”, replied Brom. “Hell, girl, had she asked me if I would be willing to demean myself by being carried around all day in her coin-purse, I would have said, yes. And not because of any of the reasons you might think, but for the sole reason of being next to her warmth, which is her heart. I mean, I still can’t bring myself to believe there is such a wonder in this world and all anyone ever sees is her pinks!”
“You are creeping me out, boy!”, mumbled Tonic.
“Ahh.. we are back to ‘boy’, already?”, said the hobbit.
“I am sorry. I didn’t mean to offend. I just.. All I see is a guy staring and staring and staring at my pair with this stupid expression of his face and it pisses me off!”, she said.
“Like the expression, you had when you were talking to your Gordigon boy?”, smirked Brom.
That shut Tonic up real fast!
It took a while for her to find her voice again.
“That.. That was not nice, Brom..”, flushed Tonic.
“As a matter of fact, it was.. Watching the two of you blubber at one another saying things that made little to no sense while speaking volumes with your eyes was.. beautiful, I must say.”, said Brom with a genuine smile.
“When I said, ‘Sir Gordigon missed so much of you’, and that I felt sorry for him, back at that filthy alley, I wholeheartedly meant it.”
“You really think so? I feel so stupid.”, mumbled the gnomic girl from behind.
“I may be an unscrupulous guy, as you like to repeat so often, I do not, however, lie about matters of the heart. That goes against my whole bardic ethics. And I certainly never lie to my friends..”
“But.. you said you lied to Seressa to let you talk to me instead of her.”, said Tonic a bit befuddled.
“Did I? Must have made you feel better.”, smirked Brom.
Another pause followed.
“You really are an unscrupulous guy!”, sniffed Tonic.
“You haven’t asked me about my foot.”, she said a bit later in a quiet voice.
“No. I did not. And I shall not.”, said Brom sternly.
“Because I do not hurt girls. Certainly not those who already are. That would be just cruel.”, replied Brom. “If there is anything you think is alright for you to tell me, I am willing to be part of your pain. Other than that, I have no desire to be the cause of more.”
“You.. you are weird.”, said Tonic, but not with spite. More with, amazement, perhaps?
“A bit of eccentricity is expected of bards, Miss Tonic.”, said Brom blandly.
“My uncle. The great Arcanton Mordenon thought it would be a great idea to train a progeny from a very young age. He convinced my parents to hand me over to him. Then he took me to his tower and locked me up down at his dungeons where he kept his pet demons.. Sort of so we could get to be acquainted..”
“I never heard anything nice ever to be told about your uncle. I can see why..”, said Brom quietly, and there was an ugly expression on his face. Demons, as he had known of them, were vile, cruel, savage, evil creatures, and putting them in the same room with a little girl went beyond any and all his scales. He shuddered and just couldn’t imagine the kind of traumatic fear one, little, gnomic girl must have gone through, day and night after day and night for years!
Just how abysmally stupid and inhumane did someone had to be to actually have been that cruel to do such a thing to a little girl?
“One day, one of them got loose and attacked me. The demon couldn’t enter my cage, but he could slash at me with its long, barbed tentacles. Managed to grab my ankle and tore right through my ligements. Never healed properly and I have had trouble putting my boot on ever since. I.. We didn’t make a fuss about it and Seressa has been helping since we started getting along properly, so you probably wouldn’t have noticed it before. But every time she does, I can see the irrational anger and madness that appears in her eyes.. I.. I suspect that was the main reason she sort of went ballistic on Cora the way she did, back at Dreadmaw’s mountain.”, she mumbled.
Brom stopped walking.
Slowly, he turned around and looked right into her eyes.
For the first time since they met, Tonic saw burning hate in those eyes and she flinched.
“I am your friend, Tonic. If it is your socks you need me to put on you, I will. If it is your boots, your vest, your cloak, or whatever you need help with and are comfortable enough to ask of me, I will.. Hell, I’ll even bun up your hair! And since I am a lot shorter than your pair, I don’t even have to bend all the way down to do any of those either.”, he said harshly and there was non of the nonchalance she had seen in him for all the times she thought she had known him.
“We are a team. Willy-nilly, we have set forth to do some extraordinary things together. Your wounds are my wounds. Your pains are my pains. We suffer. We mourn. We sing and we celebrate.. We do. And what we do, we share!
I do not keep score of my deeds, Miss Tonic. When you need it, call my name and I will put your boots on. But should the day come and somehow we face your uncle, I will hurt him, and hurt him where it will leave a grand mark!”
“You.. you really mean it!”, Tonic said with bewilderment.
“Yes. I mean it. And I mean more!”, replied Brom, even more harshly.
“You won’t survive my uncle..”, she said in a small voice.
“Miss Tonic.. When I look around me, at my friends, I see no survivors. I only see broken pieces of what was once people. You, Wraiven, Cora.. I am happy that you all are here. However, I have no desire of living in such a state of perpetual mental and emotional torment. When I go, I want to make sure I leave a song and a mark behind me.”, Brom said, turned around, and started down the dimly lit street.
They walked silently towards Arashkan Courthouse, crossing the very large street that they had, earlier that evening.
“Please don’t go up against my uncle!”, whimpered Tonic, from behind Brom.
“Ow. My. Gosh. Girl! Are you still there? We left your uncle all the way back at that street!”, replied Brom exasperated.
“Just saying, that’s all.”, said Tonic stubbornly.
“Duly noted and very much ignored, Miss Tonic.”, said Brom and there was no trace of pun in his voice.
“But why? You don’t even like me!”, she said quietly.
“Like has nothing to do with it, Miss Tonic. Some things, you just don’t do. And when done, some kind of hell should come raining down on them, telling them that they crossed the line! Besides, whatever gave you the idea that I don’t like you?”, Brom asked.
“You always swat me down with your words.”, she said.
“No, girl. I only reply in kind. I never claimed to be a nice guy, Tonic. We are who we are. But we can be who we chose to be. I don’t like being berated, nor humiliated. We were coworkers before. Now we are friends. We have a clean slate. And I protect my friends..”, replied Brom seriously.
“Seressa likes you, by the way..”, Tonic blurted after a while.
“Ow?”, Brom asked carefully.
“Yea. As much as she claims she likes her freedoms, she does not tolerate the kind of ogling you have been giving her. And yet, she hasn’t said anything against you..”, she said with a small voice.
“Well, what can I say. She fully deserves ogling. But I want her to appreciate life for more than what it appears to offer her. She should have more kindness, empathy, and love in her life, for she truly is a flower that needs the sun to bloom.”, Brom said thoughtfully and knew he was right.
It was one of the rare times he wished he was, perhaps not a hobbit, but a much, much taller man.
Tonic wanted to say more.
This weird hobbit had tumbled all her preconceptions with, not quite brutal, but some strange and unique kind of honesty and then blatantly claimed her as his friend and made sure she understood that fact. But then, so had her pair, Seressa. Just more kindly.
‘Apparently, I am so stupid, kind words don’t filter through and I must be bashed and clubbed over the head for me to understand..’, she thought.
But at least she had thought.
And in the generally right direction.
‘Perhaps I should make a formal sort of apology to him. Bards liked that kind of formal tone, right?’, she wondered.
‘Don’t look at me. You aren’t listening to anything I say anymore.’, said her inner Tonic bitterly.
‘I don’t listen to you, because you are vile. You want me alone and you want me to suffer..’, she bit harshly at her inner self.
‘Yea. Like they don’t. Whatever I told you, I told you so we could be stronger alone. To rid us of our weaknesses.. But you are just a stupid little girl.’, inner Tonic said in a voice that reeked of sarcasm.
‘And that is what you do not understand.. Your way has made us exactly that;ALONE!’, she said to herself, mutely. ‘I am tired of being alone. It has made me nothing but miserable and made me a poorer girl for it. I never want to be that girl again. Please. Please help me..’, she pleaded desperately.
‘Hah! First, you refuse me. Then you ignore me. And now, you want my help?’, asked inner Tonic incredulously.
‘We have always been together, have we not? This conflict is not helping either of us.. Please.PLEASE! Let’s try this way for some.’, she begged.
‘You will get hurt. Many times and inevitably brought down in the end, no matter what..’, inner Tonic said with a surprisingly hoarse voice. ‘It is possible, we shall not survive that..’
‘No. We shall not. But until then, we will be happy, and together. We are already broken. Can we not enjoy friendship and care, just for a little bit? Together, we have always been strong.. and stoic. When the end comes, we shall face that as well.. Together!’, Tonic said.
There was a long moment of inner silence. And then, with an exasperated voice, the other Tonic spoke.
‘What the hell.. We are stupid either way. Alright. We will try this way of yours, even if it’s for the novelty of it. Our current way was getting stale and boring anyway..’
‘Thank you!’, said Tonic with great relief.
‘You are aware that you are talking to yourself, beg pardon, arguing with yourself, then thanking yourself for agreeing with yourself!’, said inner Tonic mirthfully.
‘Yep.’, said inner Tonic in a confirmatory voice. ‘We are stupid already!’
Tonic waited, unconsciously holding her breath.
‘Go up to him, tap him on the shoulder, and when he turns around, hug and thank him. He will like that. And creep the hell out of him too!’, snarked inner Tonic.
‘Whot?’, Tonic said with a totally shocked voice.
‘Are you going to make me repeat myself, repeat myself, repeat myself, repeat myself ..?!’, snickered inner Tonic.
‘Ow, you are a riot.’, scowled Tonic.
Tonic walked up to Brom with a shameful, flushed red face, tapped him on one shoulder, and hugged the unscrupulous hobbit when he turned around!
“Thank you, Brom Bumblebrim, for suffering my stupidity. And thank you for caring for my pair. You are unscrupulous, but you are also a good man. You have treated me like I was a good person when I deserved little of it. Ogle at my pair for as long as she permits and as long as she is happy. Just do it a bit more discreetly. I have a very trigger happy mouth, and Seressa likes subtlety and finds it a lot more intriguing.”, she said, then let go of the hobbit, and shuffled off like a little, very much embarrassed, hamster.
Brom stood where he was..
..for quite some time.
He had no idea whatsoever, at what had just happened.
When he finally found his voice, all that escaped him was,
“Girls confuse me!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Here..”, said Tonic suddenly.
“Here, what?”, asked Brom.
“We wait here. This is where we will find her.”, the gnomic girl said.
Brom looked around. They were on the other side of the Great Arashkan Courthouse, not too far from the filthy alley where they had been assaulted by the assassins.
“Girl. We are in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night and the princess of Great High Woods is just going to drop in on us?”, asked Brom, not really trying to hide his disbelief.
“Pretty much, yes.. I think.”, replied Tonic mutely.
“How in the blazes do you know, girl. And I really mean it. How do you know?”
“I don’t know, how I know, Brom. I just know. This isn’t arithmetics, artificing, or logic. I. Just. Know..”, said Tonic helplessly. “If I am wrong, you can make fun of me all the way back to the inn..”
“I have no desire to make fun of you, girl. I just.. Well, non of this makes sense. I think I will just shut up now!”, Brom finally said smartly, though, deep down he really did wish the girl would be right, then wrong..
..and that is when they heard a pair of heavy footsteps.
From far up the street, a man was coming their way. He was a huge man and there was a bulky quality about his walk. A bulk made of muscles, flesh, and bones rather than fat. One could argue, Seressa was taller than the man coming their way, but while the very tall, very dark girl always loomed above them, this man was ‘huge’ in a sense that bespoke of the broadness of massive shoulders and depth of great physical strength.
And he wasn’t alone.
Next to him was a very slender figure and it made no noise at all. It seemed like a bad theater where some of the vocals and sound effects were missing. It was quite disconcerting watching the two approach, yet hear only one pair of footsteps. Who or whatever the slender figure was, it was clear she was a woman and a delicate one at that. Her sway was careful and seemed controlled, but definitely there. Or perhaps she was just naturally graceful and it wasn’t really controlled at all.. Whatever the reason was, there seemed a decided decorum in that sway.
Tonic grabbed Brom and pulled him closer into a side alley where it was darker.
“What is it? Is she a wraith? I can’t hear her steps.. at all!”, asked Brom astounded and a bit spooked. “I really hope it isn’t a wraith. Or a ghost. I hate ghosts!”
“Don’t tell me you are afraid of ghosts, Brom Bumblebrim..”, whispered Tonic.
“Well.. As fear goes, I would say ghosts are a good choice.”, replied Brom sincerely.
“She is not a ghost. That is our quarry.. That is Princess Alor’Nadien ne.”, said the gnomic girl triumphantly.
“How come she has no steps?”, asked Brom.
“Because she is a Feymist!”, replied Tonic. “Like her father, Grandaleren Feymist.. Feymists have a very lightfoot. They barely make any noise when they walk and they can disappear from one spot, and appear in another.”
“Like a spell?”, asked Brom a bit awed.
“No. Feymist is not a spell. It is something they are born with. It is innate..”
“Wow.. That’s awesome. Wish I could see her better. These street lights are all good and nice, but just not enough.”
“Here, then. Take this.”, said Tonic and pulled her goggles off her head, and handed them over to the hobbit.
“Ooookay.. I can barely see and you are giving me a pair of goggles with dark, tinted glasses? I am sure there is some kind of significance here, but I can’t seem to see it!”
“Just put them on.”, said Tonic exasperated.
Brom put on the goggles.
“Now I can’t see anything..At all!“, he said.
Tonic reached up to Brom and lightly twirled the very small knob at the side of the goggle.
“Ow.. Wow.. WOW.. You guys see like this all the time?!”
“Well, duh!”, smirked Tonic.
“This is awesome!”, mirthed Brom.
“You like?”, asked the gnomic girl happily.
“I like.. Where do I sign to hand over my soul?!”, he nearly laughed with delight.
“You need your soul intact Mr. Brom. But the goggles are yours.. If you want them.”, smiled Tonic.
Brom looked at Tonic.
“You sure? These are probably expensive..”
“They are.. If I sold them. But since I crafted them myself, I can give them over to whoever the hell I want!”, she smirked.
“This really is a neat gadget, Miss Tonic. Are you sure? Once you give this, I will not give it back!”, said Brom seriously.
“‘Tis alright. I don’t really need it. And neither does Seressa nor Cora. You are the only blind mole in the party. But I’d be happy if you didn’t break it, or lose it. That was my first invention. My first work. I crafted it for the novelty of it. Fitting I give it to a friend..”, she said.
“Thank you.”, Brom said and meant it.
“Just don’t brag about it in front of Seressa. She’s had her eyes on it for a long time.”
“Then you should give it to her.”, said Brom.
“No. She only wants it because I crafted it. And she thinks it’s ‘cool’.. All these years and I still can’t believe she’s into the whole ‘Steamchunk’ theme.”
“This really is cool, though, Miss Tonic. I will finally see where I am shooting!”
“Alright. Here they come. I do not know who the guy is. He looks big. Proly her bodyguard. Though I can’t imagine what she is doing this late at night, wondering outside here, instead of High Spires, which I heard was a prettier part of the city, and with a human guard!”, said Tonic frowning.
“Perhaps it’s because she’s a half-elf?”, Brom mused.
“That.. never occurred to me.”, admitted Tonic.
“Her mother is human, after all.. Might be a political choice..”
“Perhaps. But her father is a high elf and I can’t imagine Grandaleren trusting her only child and daughter with a human. You saw how he reacted to even you, let alone Seressa and me.”
“Hmm.. That’s true. Guess we’ll find out soon enough. I’ll stay here as your backup. You do all the talking since this is your thing. No need to complicate the prophecy more than we already have.”
The huge man and the slight figure came closer.
Brom and Tonic heard the human’s voice rumble and there was an elated quality in that voice. For whatever the huge man was thanking the slight figure of the Princess, he was feeling very happy. An irrepressible kind of contentedness. He seemed like he had just won a war against impossible odds while a battle orchestra was playing in the background!
“No, dear Dorin. Thank you. Of all the people in my life, you have been the only one who has not politely skimmed the surface of my soul, but dared and bothered to look closer. You have seen me at my best. But you have also witnessed my worst and you are still here.
Still with me.
No sane man would have stayed..”, the two hiding in the shadows heard and were charmed.
Princess Alor’Nadien ne had a soft, kind, silky voice. Her words were not chosen with deliberation, nor reflection. They were intimate, honest, instinctual, and pure of intent, plan, or malice.
The Princess had said her mind, exactly as she’d felt them.
“Always thought sanity was a bit of a luxury.”, said the man. “But the fact remains, my dear Lady; Thank You!”
“This will rock many boats, I am afraid.”, said the Princess thoughtfully.
“I certainly hope so.”, rumbled the large man. “They cared little when you had to bear the burdens of their inconsiderate stupidity. I feel so little for them when they end up having to own up to their future queen because her wants and needs inconvenience them..”
“Such is the fate of rulers, dear Dorin.”, murmured the Princess.
“No, my Lady. Loyalty goes both ways.. They want their safety and their luxuries, they should be mindful of yours.”, replied the big man and there was a district scowl in his voice.
“Wow!”, whispered Brom. “That there is one, purebred princess worthy of an epic!”
“For once, I must agree with you, Master Bard. She is not only beautiful, but she is also pretty and so cute.. Just look at her hair..!”, gulped Tonic.
The two watched as the huge man and the slender form of the Princess walked by.
Tonic took a deep breath, “Wish me luck.”, she said and stepped out of the dark alley.
“Luck.”, called Brom from behind her.
“Umm.. P.. Princess Alor’Nadien ne?”
He heard the little gnomic girl stammer.
“Tonic, baby girl..”, said Brom with an amused voice. “..you are such a dork, and a fangirl!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Princess Alor’Nadien ne spun around as dark, smoky shadows gathered around her while the huge man beside her also spun, but in the opposite direction as he drew a long blade from the scabbard hanging on his belt, and another, the one hanging on the princess’s elegant chains wrapped around her waist, and he did it with unannounced smoothness.
The huge, burly man spun like a dervish and the lithe princess belly danced in near-perfect sync!
By the time Tonic had gotten less than two steps towards them, The huge man and the Princess were standing back to back, one with two longswords and the other with a seven-foot-long polearm that supported a near twenty-inch blade —a beautiful and deadly glaive that seemed to have appeared in her hands like it was magic.
The night lit as one of the blades in the huge man’s hand burst with savage, incinerating flames while the glaive lit with an eerie, very uncanny green light, and moaned like there were countless souls trapped in it!
The whole preparation, from a relaxed and intimate conversation to full battle formation of the two had taken less than three seconds!
So did Brom.
“What just happened?”, squeaked Tonic.
“You shall not have him.”, said the Princess. Her voice was still soft, still a whisper, but there was a very stubborn, very steely quality in it. A kind of determination one saw rarely and only in the darkest depths of feral nature!
And her eyes.
The Princess had very alluring, dew grass-green eyes. But at that moment, they seemed to burn akin with the great, smoking glaive’s green fire.
“If she wants me destroyed thus, she should at least show the honor and the courage to face me herself. She should also know better not to involve beloved ones. She may have at me, but she shall leave him out of this. This beautiful man is mine!”
“Umm.. Lady Lorna?”, asked the huge man as he blushed and was somewhat surprised by the lethal possessiveness she had related him to herself.. It was.. beautiful.. and a bit scary!
And he loved it!
“Is there something I should know about? I don’t mind a good fight, but if this is a dedicated ambush, then there are likely to be more than one little bunny. More to the point, would your aunt be this vile and heinous?”
There was a moment of silence.
“Dear and beloved Dorin. How did you—?”, stammered the Princess.
“Please, Lorna.. I am the son of a renowned and respected sheriff and I was trained by one of the worst Drashan had to offer. Quite painfully, I might add.. I was bound to learn a thing or two.. I know a family feud when I see one. And a royal family feud, no less!
It was clear how things stood between you and your cousin the moment she appeared in Serenity Home. But I have been polite to her because you love her.. And because her hate for you lacked conviction. Like it was enforced or pushed upon her. It is also clear she has some good sentiments for you, deep inside, and she is in conflict, which makes her very unstable, and equally dangerous for she must, sooner or later make a choice. One between you, and her mother. A choice that will keep her loyal to you, effectively signing her own death sentence, or to try and destroy you, to stay alive.”, said the big, burly man called Dorin.
PrincessAlor’Nadien ne turned around to look at the huge man with amazement.
“You are amazing!”, she said with a bright pink face.
“No, love. I am just a simple county boy. But let’s not get distracted here. The bunny..”, he said, also with a flushed face.
“Bunny?”, sputtered Tonic.
Brom cackled from behind.
“I am not a bunny!”, said the little gnomic girl. “And I certainly have not come to assassinate the Princess of Bari Na-Ammen!”
Brom couldn’t help it.
He crumbled down on the ground laughing and banging his fists on the cobblestones.
“There’s another.”, whispered the Princess.
“Not very good assassins, are they?”, said the burly man with mirth.
“Very sweet though.. You, Sir Dorin, never cease to amaze me.”, Princess Alor’Nadien ne said, her face still pink.
“I am sorry. I try very hard to just keep my mouth shut and stay unnoticed. Found out years ago that put me in a lot less trouble.”, smiled the huge man shyly.
“Let’s see what this is all about, then, shall we?”, he said, nodding at the little gnomic girl.
“Let’s..”, she agreed and turned once more to face the little gnomic girl. “Perhaps we acted with haste and some introductions are in order, Mistress Gnome.”
“I can’t remember the last time anyone Mistressed me!”, mumbled Tonic with a flush.
“Good evening.”, Brom came forth, since he had already been spotted, it didn’t make much sense to stay in the back. “We are mere travelers and messengers. My companion and I mean you no harm nor discourtesy. We are, however, short on time and our duty brought us to the presence of your grace.”
“Half-truths but no lies.”, said the Princess. “If your wish is not to deceive, why the half-truths?”
Brom cocked one eyebrow.
The Princess, it appeared, was not just a pretty face.
“Only the truths we can divulge, your grace. We.. are not from around here, nor around this time.. Hard to explain..”, stammered Brom.
“You are ‘faded’!”, said Princes Alor’Nadien ne, solemnly.
“Faded?”, asked Brom baffled.
“Faded..”, repeated the Princess. “..You do not belong here, nor now. You are faded. Very slightly incorporeal.”
“We.. we are?”, asked Tonic.
“We are?, asked Brom.
“Quite so.”, said the Princess calmly. “Like someone who’s running out of time..”
And she clawed one, slim hand and made a beckoning motion.
A dark, smoking.. thing.. rose from the cobblestones..
“Like this..”, she said pointing at the wraith-like creature she’d just summoned.
So did Brom..
The implications of what they had heard and just seen was not something either of them could simply shrug off. It appeared, dawdling was not a good idea in a prophecy.
“Tonic..”, said Brom, sort of to get her started.
“Umm.. First, I feel must apologize for having startled you, and perhaps ruining your evening.. and to have given you the wrong impression. I.. would like to introduce myself but I must know if your man-at-arms can be trusted.”
The huge man standing behind the Princess and still facing the opposite direction snorted.
“That is the most unique description of a ‘man-at-arms’ I have ever heard, don’t you think, Lady Lorna?”, he said happily.
Princes Alor’Nadien ne smiled and her face pinked again. “I must say, I totally agree, dear Dorin.”
“I don’t understand..”, stammered Tonic.
“He is not my man-at-arms, Mistress Gnome. He is my fiancée.”, she said happily.
“Love it when you say it.”, rumbled the huge man.
“Love it for the truth it is.”, smiled the Princess again.
“Ow.. I.. I am sorry if I offended the Prince! I was not aware the Princess was engaged. Our historical records seem out of date..”, blushed Tonic.
The huge man chuckled.
“Prince? That was quick!”, he said mirthfully.
“He is not any prince, Mistress Gnome. Only the man I want. No prince can hope to cope with that. And there is nothing wrong with your historical records. We just got engaged, this very evening!”, said the Princess, also with a happy voice.
“Congratulations, I think?”, stammered the gnomic girl.
“Thank you. Now to the issue at hand, then?”, the Princess said kindly.
“I.. I am Arcantonic Palecog.”, blurted Tonic.
“Arcantonic..”, mused the Princess. Then her eyes noted with recognition. “You are a relative to Arcanton Mordenon..”
It had been a statement, not a question. And when she said the name, her brows did not scowl. Her eyes did not change. Her lips did not thin out. The serene face of the Princess of High Woods stayed exactly the same.
Without a single word, Princess Alor’Nadien ne of Bari Na-ammen, the daughter of Nadine Graciousward, the sorceress who had destroyed Arcanton Mordenon had given the little, gnomic girl standing before her, the benefit of the doubt.
“He.. he was my uncle.”, said Tonic mutely.
The Princess chose to stay silent.
“When.. when your mother, Rise Nadine, destroyed him, I was there..”, she said looking down.
“Miss Palecog.”, the Princess called with challenge. “Please look at me when you are speaking to me.”
Tonic’s eyes blazed and she looked up at the Princess.
“I am not your superior. Nor am I your better. You owe me nothing. You will not stare at stones with shame while addressing me. You will look at my eyes whilst you speak, and you shall do so as an equal.”, she said boldly.
Tonic just stared at the Princess.. with awe.
“I.. I came merely to meet you, your grace. And to apologize to your mother, Nadine Graciousward.”
“We shall meet. But that can wait. The matter of an apology must take precedence. How do you know my mother that you would need to apologize to her?”, and for the first time, there was a hint of steel in the Princess’s voice.
“Y.. Years ago.. when she beat the crap out of my retarded and degenerate uncle..”, she started.
So did the Dorin guy!
“..she.. she found me there. In the dungeons of Arcanton’s tower. I was perhaps six, or eight, then. My parents had given me a way to him so he could train me from a very young age. I think I was two.. maybe three when I was put into those dungeons. The next time I saw the sunlight, I was in Nadine’s arms, being carried away from that awful place.”, Tonic mumbled.
Princess Alor’Nadien ne just stared at the little gnomic girl and her eyes teared.
“Your mother.. she could have destroyed me as well.. Or just left me there.. I would have preferred she’d destroyed me. I stank of demon stench. But she chose to take me, clean me, feed me, she sang to me, she hugged me and she let me sleep in her embrace.. Then she gave me away.. back to my parents, who had given me up to my uncle in the first place!
I was angry.. I was so furious.. I felt betrayed. More so than when my parents had sold me out to Arcanton! I.. I might have called her many names.. Not good ones. For years I hated her and spited her, yet all she had shown me was kindness.. Thanks to my uncle, kindness was something I never understood.
It took me years to remotely grasp what it means. We came here, to this city, for another matter. But I felt your presence. And I felt your mother’s kindness walking the streets of this city. And.. and I knew I must make amends.”, she said, and once more, she was staring at the cobblestones.
The next time she looked up, she was in the arms of the daughter of the woman, who had saved her out of the demon-infested dungeons of her vile uncle.
Princess Alor’Nadien ne, embraced her and wept.
“My dear, dear little sister.”, she said. “I had heard rumors that my mother had taken the only survivor of Arcanton and given her back to her people. Always, I waited, for the day to arrive to take her and treat her as I would my own, and so I have.. Thank you..”
“You.. you are thanking me?”, stammered Tonic as she blushed furiously.
The Princess of Bari Na-ammen smelled so nice.. and warm.. and she had her mother’s kind embrace.. The embrace she had never forgotten..
“I am sorry I called your mother names, Princess.. I am so sorry.. Please tell her I said that..”, she blurted.
“When and if I get the chance, I shall, dear Arcantonic Palecog Feymist.”, she whispered.
“Whot?”, she stammered.
“What?”, Brom baffled!
“What?”, the Dorin guy exclaimed.
“Years ago, the day I was born, my mother insisted two names were to be placed into Bari Na-ammen’s royal records. One, Alor’Nadien ne Tel’Ariel Ath Selora Feymist, and one, Arcantonic Ama Ath Tel’Dun Feymist.. She made us sisters, though she never told about the reasons nor who you were to anyone but myself. Not even my father, Ri Grandaleren knows. Father can be a bit mule-headed at times..”, she smiled.
“From a royal family point of view, we are not only sisters, we are also twins!”
Arcantonic.. Ama Ath Tel’Dun Feymist.. Palecog just stared at the Princess of Bari Na-ammen.
“And finally we meet.”, she said happily.
“Ow, your father is going to love it when he sees the next heir to the throne!”, chucked the Dorin guy with delight.
Then he froze in his place as a very large smile.. a very large and evil smile stretched across his face.
“My dear Lorna. The Heavens have smiled upon you once more. She really should go and claim her right to the throne! Would get both you and me off the hook, set your father on flames, and totally destroy all your aunt’s evil plans!”
Princess Alor’Nadien ne laughed with mirth, while she knelt and held the little gnomic girl.
“That.. would be so cruel, dear Dorin. I would much rather we settled things between myself and my aunt Angrellen peacefully. She is power, on her own right and we will need someone like her in the coming confrontations ahead.”, she said.
“I so wish you are right, dear Lorna. But let’s be honest. Petty is petty, no matter if one is a peasant or of royalty. The only difference is, one would grab a rake or a sickle to do his sin, while the other will bring armies to do their deed and get thousands of others killed.. I hope things will go for the better. But I shall prepare and defend you like I was facing your mortal enemy.”
“She’s still too powerful for us, dear.”, the Princess said.
“So was Themalsar. So was pretty much everyone else we faced, come to think of it.. I don’t mean to sound overconfident, here, love. But we do have some rather skilled friends.. She is strong and powerful, but we are much more versatile. And more importantly, we are on the right and we have you. In the end, your people will have to decide how they want to be recognized among the other peoples of the kingdom. As honorable elves, or petty usurpers.. And trust me when I say, NO ONE RESPECTS USURPERS!
And if, by some remote chance, she claims the throne, it will inevitably incite rebellions which, in turn, will trigger counter suppressions..”, said the Dorin guy and shuddered. “Never ends well.”
Princess Alor’Nadien ne, the Heart of High Woods, the jewel and the apparent heir to the throne of Bari Na-ammen gave one last hug to the little gnomic girl, gently kissed her on the cheeks, and rose, took a step back and with her head bowed she knelt before her with great grace and reverence.
“I shall abide by my elder twins’ wishes.”, she said softly.
Brom Bumblebrim ‘ho booy’ed at the monumental, yet the oddest turn of events. He looked up at the night sky with a defeated expression.
Alor’Nadien ne Tel’Ariel Ath Selora: Elvish for “The Allure of Nadine, The Heart of High Woods” / Elfçe, “High Woods’un Kalbi, Nadine’nin Cazibesi”
Arcantonic Ama Ath Tel’Dun: Elvish for Arcantonic, “The Beauty of the Hills” / Elfçe, Arcantonic, “Tepelerin Güzelliği”
That’s it, then?”, said Cora and there was a tired quality in her voice.. Tired and relieved. There really had been little in the way of fighting in this particular venture of the prophecy, but it had been intense.. Emotionally intense and she felt all the pain and joy, ‘suffered and lived’, as Brom had so eloquently put and it weighed down in on her as she sat between Seressa and the hobbit..
..in the filthy, stinking trash, and she wondered;
How did the heroes in the great sagas do things?
Cora was a barbarian and sagas held a major part of her culture, after all..
How would they have handled it all?
Would they be sitting in some foul-smelling city waste after having accomplished such a noble deed as returning the weapon of a great archangel?
TheArchangel of Wrath, no less!
Shouldn’t there be some sort of a joyous celebration post such deliverance? That’s what heroes did in the sagas, right?
Instead, they were sitting in the stink..
Perhaps she could ask the hobbit, Brom, to write a saga about this? Someone wrote all the others, after all.
No, no..! She then thought. Brom would add the ‘stink’ as well because Brom was.. Brom, and that would totally destroy her cool!
Being ‘cool’ was in the first chapter of ‘How To Be A Tundra Elf Barbarian’manual..
Though, it is possible Cora was taking the whole ‘cool’ thing quite literally.
Cora wasn’t fame-hungry or anything, but she did believe good deeds ought to leave a mark. Bad things certainly did as she thought of the frostbitten scars on her back.
A small saga, then?
What was a small saga called anyway? Sagie? Sagatie? Saggy? No. That sounded suspiciously like something that sagged and for no self-respect girl was anything sagging, good!
Alright. Cora, though. Perhaps she was not just emotionally concussed, but fully concussed!
“How about we hire a room or three and enjoy a night of the great city life? I haven’t held an audience for ages!”, Brom offered. “I do feel we could indulge ourselves a bit.”
“You’d love that, wouldn’t you? Lack of attention must be eating at you..”, grumbled Tonic.
“It isn’t like you wouldn’t.. like to indulge yourself, I mean..”, he replied expansively. “You are a bit fragrant, after all.”
“Are you telling me that I stink?”, scowled the gnomic girl darkly.
“No, I am telling you, we all stink!”, smirked Brom.
“You are going to live a long, but lonely life if you persist on this line of thought, young Brom.. Telling a girl that she stinks, is not smart. Telling all the girls in range that they stink, is abysmal!”, said Seressa lightly.
Brom coughed as he gave the towering girl a sidelong glance. Lucky he had Cora sitting between them.
“All I am saying is that we could all use a nice, hot bath, while we have our clothes laundered, then have a nice hot meal, perhaps followed by a visit to the taproom —a classy one, mind you, then get some sleep in a warm bed for a change. Cora could use a new pair of pants too.. I despair every time she scratches herself in those filthy man pants!”, he mumbled.
Cora didn’t say anything. Brom, it seemed, liked to talk.. too much sometimes..
Seressa tried to get up, hissed in pain, and sat back down.
Cora got up, her face graced with shame, and helped the very tall, very dark girl to her feet while Seressa gasped and hopped on one leg as she held on to the barbarian girl with one hand and pressed at her ribs with her other, splintered arm..
“I am sorry Seressa.”, mumbled Cora as the tall girl held on to her.
“No, luv. I am sorry. Your shame is heartfelt but misplaced.”, replied the tall, dark girl with a choked voice.
Cora Sleet stared at Seressa’s dark, unfathomable, and beautiful face.
“Had I been smarter, and more considerate of my friend than blindly follow my animal instincts, I could have saved us all a lot of pain.. and the shame you shouldn’t be feeling in the first place.
I am.. I become stupid when I see Tonic getting pounded. Happened too many times and too often in the past. She learned to ignore most of it, but that didn’t really help her. It just kept hoarding and it festered..”, she said with a hoarse voice. “I wish.. I wish I was there when her parents gave her away to her uncle..”, she added. But this time, there was a fierce, vicious, and a murdering quality in that voice.
“And I, dear Seressa, should have been mindful of my manners.”, replied Cora, her own voice soft and throaty. “I shamed my father, my mother, and my ancestors with what I did to you.. You are my friend. And will be my friend and I will be indebted to you for the sins I have done to a friend.”
And she did something she hadn’t done for a long, long time.
She reached up and kindly embraced the very tall and very dark Seressa, pinks, and all..
And made sure Seressa got just as much; pale braids, whirling tattoos, and furs..
Brom got up and went to Tonic and held up his hands.
Tonic scowled up at him.
“I am not hugging you, boy!”, she scoffed.
“Well, I’d thought I’d give it a try anyway.”, he smirked.
“I think you got all you wanted from your last groping!”, she snapped.
“You are never going to let that go are you, girl?”, mourned the hobbit.
“Not until I have leeched you dry.. And you will let me do it too.. AND WILLINGLY!”, she gave Brom a very evil smirk.
“Actually, I merely wanted to help you up. You haven’t moved an inch ever since you sat on that slimy whatsit!”, said Brom lightly. “You seem stuck!”
Tonic scowled up at him. Again.
“Seressa can help me up.”, she sniffed.
“Dear Seressa can’t even stand up by herself, let alone help you..”, smiled the hobbit and held up his hands again.
“I promise..”, he said, “..I won’t bite.”
“I promise..”, deadpanned the gnomic girl. “..that I will if you try to grapple me again!”
“No, no.. Been there, done that.. and found out everything I needed to..”, he said shamelessly.
Arcantonic Palecog’s face went red as she blushed furiously.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”, she hissed. “You think mine are too small?”
“I just know, I will suffer for what I will say next. Yet I must. Because that is what friends are for; to tell us our shortcomings with brutal honesty!”, smiled Brom.. quite pleasantly actually.
“Do enlighten me and suffer!”, bit the gnomic girl.
“Sir Gordigon missed so much of you, miss Tonic. I heartily feel sorry for him!”, said Brom with an honest, straight face and without waiting for her furiously blushing response, grabbed her hands and with a ‘slop’, pulled her little ass out of the oozing muck!
✱ ✱ ✱
Yep..”, Tonic said quietly. “..as much as hate to agree with the unscrupulous little weasel, we could all use a bath, right about now!”
“I totally agree, luv.”, said Seressa as she sniffed herself.
“We do indeed. Perhaps my timing was off, there..?”, admitted Cora, with a deflated face.
“Ow, no, luv. I got your hugs and it’s for keeps!”, said the tall, dark girl brightly.
“So it’s alright when you girls say you stink, and not alright when I do?”, grumbled Brom.
“Very astute, Master Bard. But a tad too late.”, Seressa smiled. “You, sir, are in my BLACK BOOK for the second time.”
Cora waved her hands in his direction in a ‘No, don’t..” sort of gesture, but the hobbit totally missed it.
“Ow? When was the first?”, he asked gullibly.
And ended up getting scowled by three sets of angry eyes glaring down at him.
Cora, for his stupidity.
Tonic, for his stupidity.
And Seressa, for his stupidity..
“The time you taunted me about the size of my breasts!”, she hissed spitefully at Brom.
“Well.. that was stupid of me.. and.. uhh.. very misinformed!”
Cora smacked the hobbit across the back of his head..
..just so he’d shut up and perhaps save what was left of his pride!
“I yield to the injustice of numbers stacked against me!”, mumbled Brom and started walking.
“Where do you think you are going?”, scowled Tonic.
“To earn back my pride..”, Brom shot back and continued without pausing.
“I think we hurt his little feelings.”, said Tonic heartlessly.
“Yes.. yes we did..”, agreed, Seressa, but not as heartlessly as her pair. “..I believe we must make amends.”
“We must?”, asked Tonic. “But why?”, she added desperately.
“Because my BLACK BOOK also has a twin;
THE BOOK OF AWESOME DEEDS!
And what he said about my actions being guided by my heart, was a masterpiece..”, she replied fairly and started after the hobbit, limping as she did.
“Yea.. I am sure he said that with all the good intentions..”, mumbled her pair.
“Tonic, luv. I do not judge people upon second guesses. That never helps.”, said Seressa with a suppressed grimace as she continued to limp. “He has nothing to gain from me but what he sees.. Which really isn’t anything he can help. I know my pinks are outrageous. I weigh my desires against convention; I shall keep wearing as I please until I lose!
He chose to honor this, in his own way, even though I left him with little choice in the matter. It only took you two years to feel remotely comfy with me.. and you are my pair.”
Tonic scowled at the cold truth and shut up!
Cora was astounded —amazed, really— at the twisted logic of the very tall, very dark girl.
It made little to no sense.. From a logical point of view.
But apparently, for Seressa, what mattered was what others chose to do, then why they chose to do them.
The ‘why’ was merely the missing words in a fill in the blanks sentence;
Sure, it would be more fulfilling if they were filled, but weren’t essentially needed to make sense.
Provided you had just a bit of imagination.
It was a brutal way to ‘like’ somebody.
But she ‘chose’ to do it, anyway..
For Seressa, it was easy making enemies. Making friends, not so much.. Keeping said friends, however, required effort and sacrifices, and she was willing to make those sacrifices, no matter how great or costly they might be. For Cora; a broken arm, half a half of a dozen shattered ribs, a dislocated knee, any number of dark, ugly bruises hiding all over her dark body, and a whole slew of unmerciful pain..
All for the sake of making one, singularly prominent and fundamental point; that she, Cora, was her friend and friends cared..
In a sense that required only a twisted kind of logic, Seressa was a good, kind-hearted girl that deserved a bit of that sacrificing too..
Cora picked up her pace and carefully shouldered the tall, dark girl, relieving her off her limping leg, but as a silent agreement of saving one another’s face, she did not offer to carry her.
Brom led them out of the back alleys and passed a moderate-sized temple with an old, cracked marble tablet that read; Alls Temple, and they came to a wide, well-lit street. It was so wide, in fact, one could march whole platoons back and forth without having to bump into one another, which was probably the idea.
It was early in night hours and the streets were neither empty nor deserted. This was The Great Arashkan City and she never truly slept. The shops and bazaars were closed, but the night was teeming with life as couples, families, gangs of youngsters, troops of city guards were seen everywhere and other than a few curious eyes, seldom did anyone take notice of a small group of odd four.
Halflings and gnomes were common here and their closest neighbors were elves, to begin with. As for Seressa, her natural, dark skin gave her all the cover she needed, despite her pink hair and pink dress. She looked more like some weird pink apparition with a long, pink ribbon floating in the air amidst the three.
“Does he even know where he is going?”, whispered Tonic skeptically.
“Yes, I am sure he does, luv.”, replied Seressa.
“How? He already admitted he’s never been here before!”, harshed the gnomic girl.
“It’s a bard thing, dear. It’s their own kind of magic. Something neither of us have..”
Cora didn’t say or question Brom one way or another. Sure, the hobbit had his quirks, but who was she to question that? Besides, she knew absolutely nothing about this city.. Nor any other city for that matter!
And Brom led them across the wide street and into a much more cultured section of the city; The Richarc District. It seemed he was moving with the surety of someone who had come here many times before. So much so that he managed to impress even Tonic when he led them into a luxurious-looking bathhouse.
With a short exchange of coins, he pointed to one side of the bathhouse to the ladies and silently left for the other side, reserved for men.
Fearing more embarrassment from the ladies, he didn’t loiter, but when he came out, he felt totally refreshed, much, much lighter, and in his newly laundered and pressed clothes..
..and ended up waiting for nearly two hours for the girls!
“All that mouth they gave me—”, he started..
“—was worth it!”, finished a soft, throaty voice.
Brom turned around..
For he came face to face with the dreamiest eyes he’d ever seen; Cora Sleet!
Her face was even whiter than he’d ever remembered. And her full lips were so dark red that the contrast to her skin made them even more pronounced.
Her hair glowed like snow in a full moon and her tattoos seemed to move in some mystical pattern as she approached him. There was a glitter in her deep, glacial eyes; brief as it might be, Cora was happy.
The barbarian girl might not be conventional in her singular beauty, but as a whole, and all cleaned up, she made a devastatingly striking figure leaving Brom to ogle like a boy!
“Well, now..”, she said. “..since I merit such a stare, I think a show of gratitude is in order.”
With that, she hugged the hobbit!
“Your idea of this bathhouse thing was the best thing I have experienced in my entire life.. We never get to have such luxuries in the tundras.”
“Uhhh.. Will I merit perhaps a kiss when I show you the feather beds, then?”, he blurted.
“From me, yes!”, came a voluptuous voice behind Cora, and a very dark hand tapped her on the shoulder.
“My turn, girl, make room!”
Brom beheld Seressa Wraiven and truly for the first time for what she was; a creature so dark, Brom was not sure whether it was the night that swallowed her, or it was night because of her!
Curling and vining all the way down the small of her back, her pink hair seemed so vivid and ablaze, that it seemed like her dark face was the hearth and her hair was the smoldering fire in it!
With her, in her clean pinks, Seressa looked nothing short of some majestic queen of the Astral Voids.
And out of the voids, the queen came and kissed the hobbit, her long, hypnotic tail coiling lazily.
“The bath was awesome..”, she said simply. “..I can breath without the rattle, and my knee feels like a good run.”
“Well,”, coughed Brom, blushing bright red. “that’s good to hear. Yes, good to hear indeed.. But let’s not make that ‘good run’ just yet. Standing still and.. uhh..”
“Gawking?”, Seressa inserted helpfully.
“Staring.. I was going to say staring, but gawking is fine too!”
“I am still not hugging you!”, said Tonic from behind Seressa.
“Never crossed my mind, really.”, replied the hobbit, eyes still fixed on the very tall, very dark girl.
“But I appreciate your efforts.. BROM BUMBLEBRIM!“, she said stiffly.
Seressa turned and looked at her pair.
Brom did not see the face Seressa gave to Tonic, but it must have given the gnomic girl quite a fright.
“Whot? I thanked him didn’t?”, she tried.
“No, luv. You did not. You patted him on the head and that was not a nice thing to do. He is not a manservant and certainly not a puppy! He is a friend.. He is my friend!”, Seressa said softly, but with a steely determination that told her pair, she was not going budge an inch on this matter.
Her shoulders sagged, her pale pink face drooped, her eyebrows arched down and she pouted!
‘A girl that evil shouldn’t be this cute, damit’, though Brom. ‘Just look at that pout. It’s an evil pout. Pout of Evil Cuteness!’
“It’s alright Seressa.”, said Brom. “When she believes I am worth it, I am sure she will choose to be my friend as well. My side of the door is open. Until then, she and I can stay.. coworkers, then?”
Arcantonic Palecog scowled at Brom.
But there appeared the slightest presence of gratitude in that scowl..
And surprise, perhaps?
Brom was a hobbit.
And hobbits loved a few things that made them a hobbit; their homes, their gardens, her numerous meals, brunches, tea times and lunches, their deep sense of lazy accomplishments, their merry songs.. and their love for their freedoms.
And hence, he understood two related and rather important things about the scowling gnomic girl; that she didn’t like being told what to do, and she didn’t like being forced into things, even though she might actually want the said things.
It didn’t make sense, but then, the whole thing had nothing to do with sense but a nice hot bath, after all..
There was just no need to turn it into an agenda..
“A meal, then?”, he offered. “I can smell freshly baked bread and potatoes, roast fowl, kababs over coal, charred midgetoes and possibly some soft clams and warm-buttered shrimps with chilled cider!”
“You can smell all that, all the way from here?”, Tonic asked mutely.
“All that, all the way from here, miss Tonic, all the way from here.”
Cora covered a dark, cherry-red smile with her pale hand.
Seressa never had to.
No one could see the darkness that was her!
✱ ✱ ✱
I am sooo full, I can’t take another bite!”, groaned Tonic as she happily rubbed her brand new potbelly. Whatever kind of brand that Brom drew upon that night, he had made sure he shared it with his friends; the fresh-baked bread, the hot potatoes, the roast fowls, the kebabs, the charred midgetoes, the cuisined clams, and the warm, buttered shrimps in spiced sauce were consumed with dreamy eyes and mindless appetite.
Seressa had eaten some of everything, while Tonic went for the fowls and the potatoes. Brom himself went for the clams and the shrimps as they were slightly harder to get at BowlingHills. Cora had gnarled down the kebabs and fell in love with the charred midgetoes!
“What are these little red magic things?”, she’d said and bitten into another midgetoe.
Brom had to admit. Watching the tundra elf bite savagely into the little, charred tomatoes was better than actually eating them!
“They are called ‘tomatoes’, my dear Cora. This variety is known as ‘Midget Tomatoes’ because it is much smaller, and sweeter than its original size, but that’s a bit of a mouthful to pronounce, so it is more commonly known as ‘Midgetoes’. You like them, then?”
“I could marry you for the night, just for these!”, she said, blushed, and then laughed.
It was good seeing her laugh. It certainly was unique, in the sense that it was a ‘first’.
“Time for some entertainment, I suppose. The owner of this establishment offered a rather substantial discount if I would be kind enough to perform in his humble home.”, he said, reaching for his old lyre.
“Guess I’ll have to earn it, now!”
Brom got up, grabbed his stool as well, slowly walked up to the moderate-sized stage, set the stool down, made sure it was stable, sat down, closed his eyes for a moment as the inn patrons quietened, took a deep breath, opened his eyes..
..and started doing real magic with his lyre!
The kind that would never come out of a spellbook.
✱ ✱ ✱
Holy crap!”, exclaimed Arcantonic. “Is he.. Can he do that? I didn’t even know it was physically possible for a lyre to produce sounds like that!”
The moment Brom had fingered the strings of his lyre, a wild, zapping, zigzagging, and zinging tune had started.. And in an instant, it had consumed the inn!
(Stop this video yo listen to the other)
It was a savage tune. A beastly, intriguing, itching, rapid, and a very nearly asynchronous tune.
It was a tune that reached each individual at their most, basic level. It was a tune he had been working on during his sojourn in the Great Northern Tundras and it was a tune that was the culmination of that frozen land as he saw it, beheld it, and understood it; wild, free, endless, and tormentingly beautiful!
And it seized everyone, hit them over the head, concussed them, and left them stunned and bewildered..
In the space of a few minutes, the hobbit owned the inn and her patrons alike. And yet, for the next half hour, he rode the tunes until the lyre wept and Brom, once again fell in love with the old relic, left to him by his long-gone lost ones..
By the time he finished, the inn was dead silent.
“Well, I see that I have garnered all your attention!”
The patrons, the innkeeper, the serving girls, the cooks, Cora, Seressa, and Tonic all jumped up screaming with an incomprehensible inner fire!
“Thank you. Thank you very much.”, said Brom as he got up and bowed with a professional blush.
“That composition is still a work in progress and it is possible I will call it, ‘The Endless White.’ When done, it will still have no words, I am afraid, for I have traveled far and deep into the Great Northern Tundras and I have all but failed to find the words to do her justice.”
Cora’s eyes teared.
She didn’t know why, really, but Brom’s words touched her somewhere deep..
..very deep and very tender.
And suddenly, Cora felt she was already in her own saga..
..and she wanted thissong to play should it ever be told..
“But before I leave, I would like to sing one song withwords —a work also in progress because it is still being lived, in the most literal sense!”, said Brom and settled back onto his stool.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ‘Time!‘”
You cannot see it, you cannot feel it, taste it, smell it, or hear it.
And yet, it wears the hand, takes the sight and the sound and bends the spine!
You cannot fight it, you cannot resist it, beat it, wound it nor slay it.
You can only yield to it..
It is cunning, it is stingy, ruthless, pitiless and sparse.
It turns a spark into a fire, and fire into ash. It grinds mountains to dust. It gathers trickles into oceans.
It gives birth to rebellions and liberties and brings down empires..
It gives meaning to patience, diligence, and vigilance.
It is the key to mortality and the lock to eternity.
It precedes and postcedes..
One day we are, one day we are not.
It is hope and it is despair..
Never gentle, and never kind.
It is what tells us that the moment we are born, we have started dying..
It is there, it is inevitable, it is unyielding and unforgiving.
Tic by toc, it graves away, leaving less than what we were.
Whatever we have built, it shall down. Whatever we have done, it shall sow..
One would think we’d give life the meaning it deserves..
It is the link between places, spaces, events, and relations by the simple expedience of relating the past to the future..
It gives meaning..
✱ ✱ ✱
Is she alright?”, asked Cora as she stood in the hallway, up the stairs to their rooms in the inn. “I have seen her sad.. but crying like that?”
“I do not know what’s come over her. This is quite a first for me too.”, replied Seressa and look down thoughtfully at Brom.
By the time Brom had finished his song, everyone in the inn had been enthralled and silently awed by it. Though not an exception, Tonic had displayed the least expected of reactions from her; she had suddenly burst into manic and desperate tears and was just unable to stop! She kept blubbering and slobbering and crying like there was no tomorrow!
In the end, Seressa, her pair, hand simply scooped her up and carried her upstairs to their room like she was her little baby girl.
That was nearly an hour ago and the little gnomic girl was still weeping and hiccupping uncontrollably!
“What? I swear I didn’t do anything. You know me that much, Seressa. Yes, me and her, we bicker all the time, but I wouldn’t go as far as to break her down like that! I mean, that would be just mean.”, exclaimed the hobbit.
“Hmm..”, Seressa said. “..must have been something about the song that set her off, then.”
“Perhaps. I’ll admit, I wrote that song during my two-year travels.. Sometime between Bowling Hills and Shakehands. Many deep thoughts come to mind when traveling alone, under the vast emptiness of stars, or shivering in a ditch in the dead of winter while hiding from bandits, or watching beautiful dryads bathing in a summer lake. Bit by bit, with time, that song wrote itself in my mind.”
“Watching dryads bathing in a lake, huh?”, asked Cora with one eyebrow raised.
“It wasn’t something I had planned, Cora. I was just passing through Gulls Perch, a place very close to a cute town called Serenity Home and I heard the splash of water and the sweet laughter of maidens.”, Brom tried to explain.
“And because they were girls, you went to investigate.. I see.”, said Cora with mild amusement.
“Look, you don’t encounter dryads and just shrug it off, alright. They have a natural charm and attraction, quite unavoidable, really..”, he said.
“The hobbit is correct.”, Seressa mused. “It’s a fey thing. They use it both for defense and to attract mortal males for mating purposes.”
“For what?”, said Cora shocked. Then she slowly turned to Brom, her eyes blazing. “BROM BUMBLEBRIM! You didn’t!“
“Why is everyone always saying my full name like it’s an ultimatum!”, scowled Brom.
“Look.. It isn’t like everyone else does it any differently, you know.. Elves, gnomes, hobbits, humans, dwarves, tieflings, orcs.. We all comb our hair, brush our teeth, put our pretty dresses on, be it bone or stone, we bejewel ourselves, use eyeliners, paint our faces, or draw pictures on our bodies, wear rings on as many places as we can put or hang them, and groom our beards.. to look better, stronger, or prettier to attract the attention of those we find endearing to us. It does not matter what culture we come from, nor into which one we are born. The matter of fact is, we all do it! We try to be the honey for the bee! Why is it a problem when a fey, a very pretty fey at that, does it? But to answer your question, Cora, and as a matter of fact, no, I did not! Not that I wouldn’t have minded.. Dryad girls are extraordinarily pretty and alluring, to begin with.. And they can be single-mindedly persistent and persuasive if they want you! Add the magic whammy effect they have on it, and you got yourself an awesome date! But I got.. uhh.. bit!”
“You got what?”, Cora asked, her eyes still burning.
“Bit!.. As in, bitten!“, replied Brom, his face a bit confused. “Happened before. During my travels, I mean.. Every time I got distracted or sidetracked, I got bitten.. Like I had a destination to reach within a certain time gap, And no, I don’t know by what. Never managed to catch the little critter. Was annoying as hell, though!”
“You defied the charm of a dryad?”, asked Seressa, bewildered. And surprised.
“Well. I suppose I did. Though I can’t claim full credit. They weren’t aiming specifically at me..”, he admitted.
“There needs be no aiming when it comes to pretty fey like the dryadkin, Master Brom. Any mortal would have sat there and watched them, entranced in fascination until they ebbed, and the forest claimed their bones..”, she said thoughtfully as she watched the hobbit. Then she hit him with one of her awesome smiles and said. “I.. I am happily impressed. You, sir, never cease to amaze me..”
Then he coughed and to Seressa he said, with no less than a determined expression on his face, “Seressa, my dear, let me go in there and talk to her..”
Seressa cocked an eyebrow.
“I am her pair, luv. I should—”, she started.
“—not be the one she breaks when she comes around..”, finished Brom. “I don’t know your pair half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of her half as well as she deserves, but it seems to me like she’s someone who does not appreciate being the center of attention nor be embarrassed by way of humiliation. Which is something that she pretty much just did. Let me talk to her and anything she says to me, won’t break me. We hobbits are a resilient bunch, you know!”
“I am already impressed, Master Brom. You don’t really have to try so hard..”, she replied with an inscrutable expression on her unfathomably beautiful, dark face.
“He might be right, Seressa. And we blurt things when we are angry. Things that might clue us in as to what it is that is troubling her.”, said Cora. Then she smiled and held Seressa by the hand. “Why don’t you and I share a room tonight and have a heart-to-heart girl’s night. Or at least you can try and explain to me what that actually means, and we let the hobbit brave this one..”
And she dragged the very tall, very dark, and very worried Seressa to another room down the hall.
“You.. You want a heart-to-heart girl’s night.. with me? No one’s ever asked me for a heart-to-heart girl’s night, before..”, asked Seressa a bit surprised.
“Sure, why not? So long as you tell me what it is.”, Cora tried for a smile.
“There are some rules though. Core rules to any and every girl’s night.”, said the tall, dark girl seriously.
“Ow? What kind of rules?”
“We must both wear sloppy pajamas or pretty skirt dresses!”
“What’s a paja— thingy?”
“It’s a pair of very unladylike but very soft and comfy pants that show the top half of your butt for no particular reason. We put them on, then we talk trash and eat bad food all night long, then hit each other with pillows and wreck the room!”
“But don’t worry. We don’t have any pajamas to air our butts, so cute mini dresses will do.”
“You are just making things up to make me wear your skimpy little pinks!”, accused Cora.
“Would you?”, asked Seressa sincerely.
“But those are the rules!”, she pleaded.
“Let’s ask Brom. I am sure he would know if there are such rules!”
“I AM NOT GETTING INVOLVED INTO THAT CONVERSATION.. SERESSA, PLEASE STOP YANKING MY FRIEND. AND CORA, JUST WEAR THE DAMN THING!”, barked Brom from the other side of the hall.
“See?..”, said Seressa happily as they entered their room and firmly closed the door behind them, leaving Brom alone in the hall..
“Well, crap!”, said Brom, once they were gone. “I thought I’d get slapped down with that stupid idea! What the hell am I even going to talk with that mouthy little demon! Bloody hell! I could have been in THAT room with two pretty girls in skimpy little pinks, yet I get to be in this one!”
For a long moment, he stood in the hallway, glaring darkly at the door to a night of misery and abuse.
“Indeed, sir Brom. Your stupidity truly amazes me as well..”, he said to himself, and went for the little demon’s lair!
✱ ✱ ✱
Brom had decided that the best way to handle an unhandlable situation was to handle it by not handling it! Which turned out to be a rather smart idea, really, as the foul-mouthed little gnomic girl spent the next hour still bawling face down in a feather bed. Looking at her, one could safely bet, she could roll in one direction all night and still never fall! The bed was practically six times her size and eight times her length and there she was, beating her pillow with those tiny fists of hers and kicking the mattress with her feet.. As opposed to jumping up and down on it with glee! She was like the mosquito that woke you in the middle of the night. Tiny, but irritating as hell! And when she’d finally come around, she’d noticed the hobbit..
And gone ballistic on him!
As Cora had so finely put it, Brom stoutly ‘braved’ all the verbal abuse and some not-so-verbal abuse. But he finally put his foot down when she’d dumped the full content of the washing pan on his head!
He had grabbed the large flower pot near the window, and dumped its content on the gnomic girl!
“Alright, miss Tonic..”, he said sternly. “Unless you want to start breaking objects over my head, in which case I will return fire with equal fervor, stop!”
“You.. you would hit me? A girl? With hard objects? You are a cruel, cruel little man, Brom!”, she said spitefully.
“Wouldn’t make much sense using soft ones, now, would it? And if you want to be treated like a lady, or even a girl, you better start behaving like one.. Or at least fool us like you are one..”, he said sternly.
“I thought bards and hobbits were a genteel lot!”, pouted Tonic.
“Miss Tonic. I think you are confusing ‘genteel’ with ‘idiot’. If we bards.. and hobbits, didn’t give as much as we took, our race would have gone extinct ages ago.. and there wouldn’t be a single bard left to sing a fart!”, Brom said harshly.
“So is your behavior..”
“Where’s my pair? Where’s Seressa..”, said Tonic, crossing her arms under her chest.
“She said ‘I have a headache, not tonight!”, replied Brom, blandly!
“She said… ow never mind.. She and Cora decided they wanted a night off.. Exempt of both of us! Apparently, moms and dads need a break once in a while too..”
“Are you alright? I can understand you are doing sarcasm on me, but I have no idea what you are talking about..”, said Tonic a bit baffled.
“I am saying, they are blaming me for your disposition and expect me to clean up the mess!”
“Well.. It was your fault.. You and your stupid song!”
“That song took two years in the writing. Please show some respect to the effort, if not to me. And I know, you didn’t find that song stupid at all. I had a unique point of view to observe everyone’s faces while singing it.. Including yours!”
“The ‘so’ is, it was at the very end you broke down.. just when I sang the final verse!”
It is the link between places, spaces, events, and relations by the simple expedience of relating the past to the future..
It gives meaning..
“Something in that.. What? Ow. My. Gosh! Are you going to start again?”
Tonic had started again..
But not the bawling, slobbering kind like before..
A silent, tears-only kind of crying.
A heartbreaking sight to behold and Brom felt like slapping himself..
‘Damn. Evil. Little. Cute. Demon!’, he thought.
“I want him!”
And just like that, she blurted it out!
“Ow kay!”, said Brom, carefully. “You want.. who?”
“Gordigon. I want him!”
“Ahhh.. the prince boy..”
“I don’t want no prince, nor a boy.. I want Gordigon!”
“Alright..”, said Brom though he had no idea what to do with it. Consolidating and moving whole crowds was his thing. Blaming the heart of an annoying little gnomic girl for an impossible love, was something else.
“This is sooo a Seressa thing!”, he silently muttered.
“Perhaps you should give it some time, miss Tonic. I am sure it will all be.. fine?”, he said but even he knew how lame that sounded. He really felt he was off his game here.
“He is missing me!”, cried Tonic.. “Right now, he is missing me?”
“My dear Tonic, you can’t know that!”, said Brom a bit perplexed.
“Yes.. yes I can! Here. Look!”, she said and of her artificer’s satchel, she pulled a hard scroll case, slapped off its cap and drew out a tattered scroll, and shoved it in front of the hobbit’s nose!
“What am I looking at here?”
And she pointed at a specific verse on the scroll.
It read; “Those who love us, will miss us..”
“Ow kay..”, said Brom again. “It’s a nice sentiment. Beautiful, even..”
Arcantonic gave the hobbit an incinerating look that made him flinch.
“This was written by an angelic being. The one that we gave that spear to.”, she said as if stating the obvious.
“You really can be daft, Brom!”, replied Tonic with scorn.
“That was a bit harsh, don’t you think? I am here, willingly and by my own choice, trying to help.. and understand.”, said Brom in an offended tone.
“I am sorry.”, mumbled Tonic quietly. “But my point stands..”
“Which is?”, said Brom, still not understanding.
“Do you think, an angelic being would scrabble just some random nice words? This is clearly a message for me, telling me he is missing me!”, she said and started crying again!
It took quite some time for Tonic to settle down.
Against all his wishes, and feeling like he was about to grab a live eel, Brom silently, and very carefully embraced the little gnomic girl as the two of them sat on the floor.
“If.. If you mention this to anyone—”, began Tonic, with swollen eyes..
“Never happen!”, Brom said promptly. “Feeling any better?”
“I feel.. I feel diagonal!”, she said.
Brom had no idea what she meant except that diagonal was something between standing still and lying down.
“Uhh.. wasn’t that scroll given to Seressa and was in her possession?”, asked Brom, sort of to steer the topic off to somewhere else.
“It.. It was..”, blushed Tonic.
“YOU STOLE HER ANGELIC AUTOGRAPH?”, blurted Brom.
“No I didn’t..”, replied the gnomic girl, indignantly.
“Then how come it’s here, with you, as opposed to not being here, and with Seressa?”
“I only took it for safekeeping. She.. she was going to keep it in her bodice, damit!”, Tonic said in a tone that found that whole idea very much scandalous.
“Ahhh..”, said Brom with a dreamy voice. “I wish I was that scroll now, and not in your possession!”
“You, sir, are an unscrupulous ass!”, sniffed Tonic.
“But a good, unscrupulous ass.. You got to admit. You are not crying and you are feeling better now.”, smirked Brom.
“Yes.. I suppose I am. How did you even convince Seressa to go and let you stay with me?”, she sniffled.
“I lied to her..”, Brom smirked again.
“I lied to her.”, repeated Brom. “I told her you’d be upset after making a scene downstairs and start saying stupid things and hurt her feelings but that you couldn’t hurt mine.. since, you know, we are not friends and all.. Just.. coworkers!”
Tonic leaned away from the hobbit and just stared at him.
“You.. you are weird!”
“And you are one to talk..”, deadpanned Brom. “C’mon. Get some sleep. You will feel much better in the morning and then we can leave and go back to our miserable, freezing cold tundras where a bunch of naggy old hags awaits us.”
“I.. We can’t leave just yet..”, Tonic mumbled.
“Why not? We did everything we came here to do, haven’t we?”
“Not yet. We.. I have two more things to do..”
“I have to meet two people..”
“Arcantonic.. Please.. That was not part of the prophecy. It’s really dangerous to meddle—”, said Brom but got cut off..
“Don’t you think I know?”, replied Tonic harshly. “Seressa might be an anthropologist, but I am an archeologist. I am not at all like her. She.. She gets people. Understands them.. Ironic really. The way she can understand human nature so much better than they understand themselves yet isn’t even one!
I, on the other hand, just dig their remains and pompously assume to know what they were like!”
“So you are basically a glorified grave robber, then? Or a gravedigger, to put it in more acceptable terms..”, snickered Brom.
But decided to ignore that remark.
“All my diggings and research and studies of past cultures and civilizations told me things.. Many things.. But one of the most important things I learned was that at some point, they failed. And miscommunication was the base reason for all their failures!”, she said mutely.
There was a mordent silence as Brom struggled very, very hard not to say exactly what crossed his mind!
Yes, if he said it, it would be the truth.
But it would also hurt the girl.
And possibly be lethal on his part.
Brom chose not to speak.
Not all truths were meant to be said.
“So you want to change prophecy protocol based on some educated guess?”, he asked tentatively.
“Just like that? I would have thought, I don’t know, threaten you or something..”, Tonic said both relieved, and astonished.
“Miss Tonic. As frightening as you think you are, your face is just too cute to instill the necessary fear to move a lazy hobbit in the dead of night.”, he replied seriously. “So who are these people that you feel you must meet?”
“One.. One is the daughter of that Ri Grandaleren dude we met in our first prophecy.. Princess Alor’Nadien ne. Don’t ask me how, I don’t know, but she is here, in the city..”
“I.. am not sure.. I just feel I must meet her and.. and make amends. I knew her mother, Nadine Graciousward.”, she said quietly.
“You know Rise Nadine Graciousward? The human queen of the high elves of High Woods? Wow, girl. I am impressed. That lady is supposedly the most beautiful woman in the kingdom!”, said Brom astounded.
“Yea.. Go straight for the pretty face!”, said Tonic acidly!
Tonic, however, did not.
“I feel like I must meet her.”, she said with a lost voice. “And apologize to her for all the.. not so nice things I said about her mother, Nadine, even though she’d saved me from my uncle’s dungeons and chose to spare me even though I reeked with the stench of his pet demons.. She showed kindness to a little, broken creature she never knew..”
“You don’t really have to go into the details if you feel uncomfortable talking about them, you know.”, Brom said, amazed at the gnomic girl’s broken past.
“No, I don’t want to go into any of the details and yes, I do feel uncomfortable, but I will.. Just not now.. Not tonight..”, she replied mutely.
“Alright, who is the other?”
“Umm.. the other is a gnome.. His name is.. uhh.. Gnine Tinkerdome..”, she mumbled.
“Tinkerdome.. why does that name ring a bell— Ow. My. Gosh, girl.. Is he?”, said Brom nearly choking on the thought.
“Please, Brom. He must be told to get back what is his by birthright! And do it fast. And more importantly, I can’t be the one telling him this. He mustnotsee me.. Like, at all!
You must be the one to tell him this and you must be very convincing!”, pleaded the gnomic girl.
“You must also tell him, it wasn’t his fault. That it was an attempt to end his line and had he not survived, they would have succeeded..”
“What? What wasn’t his fault? What attempt?! You aren’t making any sense, girl!”, said Brom.
“Brom.. Please! Just tell him what I said.. when we find him. He will understand. I can’t tell you more. Some, because I don’t know myself, some because I shouldn’t.. Hells bells, I don’t even know how I know most of the things I know.. Please. You.. You must trust me!”, pleaded the little gnomic girl desperately.
Brom ‘hmmed’ a bit as his sloth nature frantically sought a good excuse to weasel out of this, quite ridiculous venture!
And then, he felt it.
A sharp, stinging bite at the upper end of his leg, just where he couldn’t see..
‘Damit! Not again!’, he silently cursed.
But as opposed to the many other times before, this bite had been..
It certainly lacked the sense of compulsion that it always gave in the previously bites.
‘Why bite at all, then?’, he thought.
And then he understood.
This time, the little critter was merely telling him that it would be up to him.. That it would be his choice to make, but also warning him that the choice would be an important one.
Tonic’s heart seemed in her pale face as she clenched her tiny fists at her chest and held her breath, while she waited for the hobbit to make his decision.
“Gimme a moment to go and grab my stuff.”, he grumbled finally.
He rose and silently went to the door.
As he reached for the knob, he heard Tonic from behind.
“Brom.. I.. I know I can be an ass.. But you must know, I don’t do ‘coworker’!”
“Eh?”, said Brom.
“I said, I don’t do ‘coworker’. I do pair,enemy or friend.. Already got a pair. Already got enemies..”, she said quietly.
“Friends, then?”, said Brom with a solemn face.
“Friends, then..”, she replied.
“Just so you know, Tonic..”, said Brom, looking directly into her eyes.
“Whot?”, asked Tonic, mutely.
“As unscrupulous as you may think I am, I don’t do ‘one-nighters’. I do strangers,neighbors,and life-timers! Already got all the strangers out there and the neighbors back at home..”
Tonic stared at the hobbit, trying to discern the possible meanings behind his words.
Then she remembered what her limping pair had said that very night;
“Tonic, luv. I do not judge people upon second guesses. That never helps..”
And Seressaknew people, didn’t she?.. She understood them!
It wasn’t like any of the second-guessing, she’d done in her life had ever gotten her anywhere..
‘Why should it start now?’, she thought.
Though there was a tiny blaze in her eyes, Tonic silently nodded in assent.
Brom Bumblebrim smiled and opened ‘Tonic’s side of the door’..
What will happen if that Son of Krash comes?”, Tonic whispered as she lay on her belly, next to her pair in the stretcher in the snow illuminated storm pit.
“That.. never occurred to me..”, admitted Seressa with a pained and tired voice.
“I mean, he could come right now and crash into those two. He could blow the whole thing.. He doesn’t look exactly like the cordial type to me. And I doubt Cora will say ‘Morning..’ and move along like they were some old acquaintances who bumped into each other in a Sparducks line!”, said Tonic.
“Can’t imagine you waiting in a Sparducks line, girl!”, said Seressa, going for a smile but failing.
“Why not?”, asked Tonic, as she started drawing doodles in the snow.
“Seems a bit too posh for you..”
“Hah!”, barked the gnomic girl. “Shows how little you know of me. Didn’t read that in my files you burglarized?”
“Ow, my dear, I know every place you went on a regular basis.”
“Well, miss know-it-all, as a matter of fact, I did go to Sparducks.. Just not regularly. And yes, I did find it a bit too posh for my taste. But I did indulge myself with their cranberry tea and cinnamon rolls.. every once in a while.”, said Tonic wistfully. “Pretty much the only thing I missed about the academy, really.”
Then she snorted in mirth.
“What?”, asked her pair.
“Just imagined Cora standing in a Sparducks line waiting to give her order with her scowling face and her ginormous sword; ‘A latte with extra chill, please!’
Seressa laughed with pain.
“My dear, if Cora went into a Sparducks, I don’t think there’d be a line..”
Tonic squeaked a laugh of her own as she drew more doodles into the snow while waving her legs.
“Oww..”, said Seressa after a while. “Owww, why didn’t I think of that before..?”
“Your Sending Stones..”
There was a brief, strained pause.
“Umm.. What about them?”, Tonic asked carefully.
“We could have given one of them to Cora.. or Brom.. So if Son of Krash came, we could have sent them a warning via the Sending Stones.. Damn.. Why didn’t we think of that?”, berated Seressa.
“Ummm.. That wouldn’t have worked Seressa.”, said Tonic, her voice a bit tight.
“What? Why not? Seems like a perfect solution.”, said Seressa a bit confused.
“I.. I don’t have its pair anymore..”, Tonic admitted in a whisper.
“Ow? How come? Did you lose it?”
“No.. Not really..”, said Tonic, her voice sort of trailed off.
There was another pause..
“I am confused, luv..”, said Seressa, with a totally baffled voice.
“I.. I gave it to someone..”, whispered Tonic a bit shamefully.
“I don’t understand.. I am hurting in too many places, luv. Help me out here.”
“If you must know..”, blazed Tonic quietly, “I gave it to that Gordigon boy..”
“Ooookay..”, said Seressa. “But I still don’t understand..”
Then her voice softened.
“Luv.. Sending Stones work over distance only.. We are centuries apart from him.. Why would you give it to him?”
“Look we.. we chatted a bit, alright? I mean, after I brained him with my wrench, I felt sorry. So on the way to that Ogre’s Foot, I.. we.. sort of snuck out into woods and talked.. Just talked, that’s all! And then, because it was likely we’d separate eventually, I gave him the pair of my Sending Stone. And yes, I am aware we are centuries apart but it made sense, then..”
“YOU DATED PRINCE GORDIGON TINKERDOME BEHIND MY BACK? I AM VERY, VERY WROTH WITH YOU ARCANTONIC PALECOG!“, hissed Seressa.
“You.. you are?”, Tonic asked, her voice truly strained now.
“Ow, my dear, dear Tonic..”, smiled the very tall, very dark Seressa as tears of joy appeared in her luminous eyes. “I am so, so happy for you.”
“You.. you are?”, said Tonic, quite astonished.
“Of course, luv. Now tell me.. Did you kiss?”
A very hot pause filled the storm pit.
Tonic looked down and noticed there were a few too many heart-shaped doodles drawn in the snow!
“Wow, girl.. He was that good, eh?”, whooped Seressa while her pair blushed furiously.
“I liked it.”, she mumbled in a small voice. “Made me tingle at.. Well, I didn’t even know I could tingle there.. Or anywhere!”
“Tell me..”, Seressa said happily. “But only if it’s alright with you. If you feel comfortable about it..”
“There’s nothing comfortable about any of this..”, Tonic blushed, some more. “But who else am I going to share it with but you, girl!”
She paused for a moment as if favoring, or perhaps, savoring a particular memory..
“We were talking. Well, I was talking really, about non-combustion engines, of all things.. I feel like an idiot now.. And he just stood there like a concussed fool, just staring at me. As it turns out, he was, actually listening to everything I was saying too because I tested him then and there and he recited everything I said verbatim! I was like, ‘Wow, even I couldn’t repeat myself like that.’
Then he reached out and.. sort of touched my bangs and brushed them behind my ears, one at a time, and said I had very pretty ears!”
“Seems like he was as stupefied as you were..”, said Seressa with glee. “I am impressed, girl. You destroyed a prince with an artificers wrench, then burned him with non-combustion engines and a pair of bunny ears.. You are a natural zinger!”
“I don’t have bunny ears!”, protested Tonic.
“You have lovely ears with the same difference, luv. Back to your story, then?”
“Well.. Then this.. this tingling thing came over me and..”, she said and stopped.
“And..?”, asked Seressa with eager happiness.
“I don’t really remember. I think I might have jumped him!”, she mumbled.
“Yessss!”, hissed Seressa. “That’s my girl!”
“Did I do right? I mean, he is a prince, after all. I am sure he has dozens of girls who’d want to throw themselves on him. I feel so stupid.”
“What did he do, when you jumped him?”, asked Seressa.
“He held my hands.. My dirty hands and asked me if I was sure, and if this was something I wanted.. I.. I don’t know what came over me, Seressa. I just couldn’t stop.. He looked so.. pretty.. and yummy!”, Tonic said with a small, ashamed voice.
“Baby girl, the fact that he asked you that very question, proved he respected you.. Not just as a girl, but as a person. Men seldom care for the feelings of women, nor care enough to ask what we want, luv. They just want what they want. Which is pretty base, in a primal sense.. Come to think of it, so are women, but that’s another matter.. Girl, I believe the boy genuinely cared for you and truly wanted you..”
“You.. you really think so?”, asked Tonic a bit dubiously.
“I know so, luv. I know so..”
“How do you mean?”, asked Tonic.
“Because NOBODY has ever asked me that question.. I am beautiful. This I know. And this, they see.. And all they want is that beautiful. Never once, however, did anyone wonder what was underneath the beautiful nor did anyone bother to ask what I felt, liked, or wanted..”, she answered calmly.
“Oww.. I am sorry, Seressa.. Hells bells, I feel like a gloating idiot now..”
“No, girl, this is your moment, not mine. Tell me how it felt.. Tell me everything..”
You cannot see it, you cannot feel it, taste it, smell it, or hear it.
And yet, it wears the hand, takes the sight and the sound and bends the spine!
You cannot fight it, you cannot resist it, beat it, wound it nor slay it.
You can only yield to it..
It is cunning, it is stingy, ruthless, pitiless and sparse.
It turns a spark into a fire, and fire into ash. It grinds mountains to dust. It gathers trickles into oceans.
It gives birth to rebellions and liberties and brings down empires..
It gives meaning to patience, diligence, and vigilance.
It is the key to mortality and the lock to eternity.
It precedes and postcedes..
One day we are, one day we are not.
It is hope and it is despair..
Never gentle, and never kind.
It is what tells us that the moment we are born, we have started dying..
It is there, it is inevitable, it is unyielding and unforgiving.
Tic by toc, it graves away, leaving less than what we were.
Whatever we have built, it shall down. Whatever we have done, it shall sow..
One would think we’d give life the meaning it deserves..
It is the link between places, spaces, events, and relations by the simple expedience of relating the past to the future..
It gives meaning..
The events in this particular story take place over a vast stretch of time —relatively speaking. It starts shortly after “And Just Beyond That (18+)“, and ends some eight hundred and fifty years later, in the dark, hidden, rundown, moldy basement of the local thieves’ guild of The Great Arashkan City, where all sorts of stolen goods, documents, and officious papers are kept for bribe and blackmail..
Ow damn..”, someone spat, followed by a string of black, blistering curses.
‘Tonic’, thought Cora. It was never hard to guess who was saying what, even in the pitch dark, as they were now.
When Brom spoke, he always seemed to need to precede what he wanted to say by underlining it with a note or two of his lyre.
When Seressa spoke, she said it with this wide-eyed, ‘always surprised’ tone. And if she was really surprised —or exasperated, she would start with, ‘Ow, for all that’s good and not..’
As for Tonic..
If she wasn’t some midgety little gnome and wasn’t so cute, she would have made a great witch, Cora thought, what with all the cursing and all!
Then she wondered what hertraits were. Or more to the point, what her friends thought her traits were.
It seemed people could, with quite ease, catch, kill, and skin the traits in others, but never themselves.
Funny how that went.
Cora Sleet blew out some steam and harshly whispered, “What is it now, girl?”
‘Girl..?’, she thought. She couldn’t remember any time she referred to anyone using that word, or tone in Ironfrost. Guess Seressa’s habits —and traits were rubbing on to her and Cora didn’t know if that was really a good thing..
“Girl..?”, snorted Brom, from off the other side. “I can’t remember you referring to anyone like that before.”
‘Great, now I am scowling like the midgety gnome!’..
..and scowled some more.
✱ ✱ ✱
My pack..”, Tonic groaned. “It’s gone!”
“It’s only a pack.”, said Seressa. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you a new one.. Once we get anywhere that is remotely civilized.”
“No, damit. That pack was where I kept the lot of all my good stuff!”, she groaned again.
In fact, it was more of a moan than a groan.
So much so that her voice trembled like she was about to cry.
Thatgot Cora’s attention.
She couldn’t imagine the little gnome crying. Lots and lots of non-stop cussing and swearing, yes, but a crying Tonic?
Crying was so.. out of sorts for Tonic.
‘Out of sorts?’, she thought. Damit, I did it again. I used Seressa’s words..
‘Damit?!’, I just used Tonic’s word. Bloody hell—
Cora decided this was a good time to shut up!
“The good stuff? That sounds ominously like some sort of contraband..”, noted Brom.
Thank you, Brom. Go on, ask her all the relevant questions..
‘Relevant?’, —damit!.. Ow hell!.. Just did it again..!
“What? No, damit. Some of my very important gadgets and hardware were in it. Like my duo-meter, pseudo-emissioner and..”, she stumbled.
“And..?”, asked Brom, as if he knew what a duo-meter or a pseudo-emissioner was. Though he could proudly tell the difference between a hammer and a wrench as one was good for pinning nails while the other was not.
“A letter..”, said Tonic, her voice strained.
“A letter? Who was it from? Didn’t know you received letters. I never do..”, signed Seressa’s voice.
“It wasn’t a letter for me. It was someone else’s letter.”, blushed Tonic’s voice.
There was a collective, pregnant silence.
“Oookay..”, said Seressa, stretching the word.
“Damit, girl.. If you must know, that silly boy gave it to me so I could give it to his father.. There.. Happy now?”, blazed Tonic.
“Boy? What boy?”, asked Seressa, sounding totally baffled.
“That Gordigon boy..”
“Ahhh.. PrinceGordigon.. had a chat with him in private, did we?”, asked Seressa with an insincerely innocent voice.
“Casting yourself in the third person now, are you? The boy was going to go all out and fight for us against half a hundred ogres just so we could get away. The least I could do was to take his bloody letter to his father.”, admitted Tonic, but not as vehemently as she made it sound like she wanted to.
So did Brom.
Cora had shut up, so she didn’t even bother to pause.
“Ahh.. Well if you did have a private moment with him, luv, I wouldn’t have blamed you. He was a rather handsome devil, hewas. And want him to be as youmight, he certainly was nota boy. I know boys. That gnome was giving you the kind of looks no boy can imitate. That comes with time, hardship, and on a ‘first sight’ basis.”
“It was not a ‘first sight’ thing, alright? There were no ‘first sights’, no private moments, and no ‘just one kisses’.. or anything else whatsoever going on.. He gave me the letter, and I nearly brained him for it!”, blustered Tonic.
“No, dear luv, you didn’t nearly brain him, you fully brained him! But even if you did any or all of the ‘whatsoever’s, I would’ve said the same; Why not? For all that’s good and not, girl, really, why not? I would have been happy for you if you did. I mean, I can see you blush from where you are, right now. You are literally glowing in the dark! It’s so cute, I could pounce you right now!”, said Seressa with a supremely smug voice.
“I am not blushing. It’s just hot! And there will be no pouncing, thank you very much!”, replied Tonic indignantly, trying very hard to suppress a growl.
“I totally agree. You certainly are hot.. for that ‘boy’!”, said the very tall, very dark girl with a very happy tone.
“The hell I was..”, said Tonic and this time, she did growl.
“Alright..”, butt in Brom, knowing full well he would be very sorry about it in the end, but he just couldn’t help it. “..so it was just a letter from some guy to his father and it got lost. Nothing to worry about, then?”
“Nice..”, he heard Seressa’s voice in triumph.
Tonic shut up. A bit like Cora.
She was a smart girl with an artificer’s degree. But she knew when it came to mouthing off, she had no chance against Seressa. Her pair was just too good at it and had, had an ‘early start’..
And now, she’d teamed up with the bloody hobbit!
“Taking sides with the unscrupulous little weasel now, are you?”, she croaked.
“Heey..!”, objected Brom, but Tonic ignored him.
Her heart plummeted for she felt betrayed.
But not for long..
Very long, very dark arms came at her from nowhere and she never saw them coming. They came, they wrapped and they held her like clamps.
For the first time, Tonic felt the touch of her pair.. and her smell.. and damit, she smelled so nice! Very much like those pink flowers, whatever they were called —she’d hated herbology at the academy and it had merely been one of those classes she’d been burdened with, just to have filled up her ‘total hours’.
In fact, Tonic thought, her pair smelled exactly like those flowers, but innately, intimately, and infinitely warmer.
As for her touch, Tonic refused to comment on it, not even mentally..
“Tonic, luv..”, Seressa said quietly to the little gnome caught in her vast, mind-numbingly warm, enthralling embrace, “..right or wrong, I am and will always be on your side. If ever a side is to be taken, without any doubt or reservation, I will be on the side of my pair, gales and gallows.. But if you felt something for the boy, do not deny this to yourself. Do not deprive yourself of the beautiful feeling that you felt, nor demean his sacrifice by defying his.. As short-lived as it was, he came to you openly and honestly, without deceit or trickery.. Do yourself the same courtesy, if not to him..”
Seressa’s voice was kind, tinted with the beckoning hand of tenderness..
Tonic swallowed.. hard.
Her pair was getting near one of those subjects she’d sworn off years ago, after her stupid uncle Arcanton did what he did and was cast out and banished, lepering his whole, extended family in the eyes of the world.
Since then she’d disliked and eventually, hated everything and everyone. She hadn’t even wanted to have anything to do with the silly pairing ritual, the academy had foisted on her.
And here was her pair, literally smoldering that hate and drugging her with her pinks and flowery fragrance —what was the bloody thing called, damit? Creeping Loks? Creeping Flocks? Well, it certainly was creeping her out.. Creeping Phlox.. Yes, that’s what it was called; Creeping Pink Phlox!
While she was struggling with pinkses and phloxes, something dawned in Seressa’s mind and she finally got it.
And so did Brom..
..the true significance at the core of Tonic’s ire and grief.
Brom did not say anything, but Seressa did.
Tenderly she whispered.
“Oh, my dear girl, you read the letter..”
Tonic did not answer.
Tonic could not answer..
Only a bitter sob escaped her.
“Yes.. Stupid of me, reading someone else’s letter like that.. Stupid, inconsiderate, rude and.. stupid..”, she finally said when she could, with a broken voice.
‘Wow..’, thought Cora, ‘..for Tonic to declare herself ‘inconsiderate’, ‘rude’ and ‘stupid’ so seamlessly andfind a fault in her own, she really must be hurting.’
“No, my dear, the letter was barely for his father.”, Seressa disagreed softly. “Why else would he have given it to you? He could have handed it over to anyone in his company. They were all trained military. Any number of them could have carried it to his father and we were going nowhere even remotely near Silent Hills. Considering the importance and the time constraints of our mission, he had to have known that you would never have had the chance to take the letter to his father.
No, baby girl, the letter really only had one intended recipient, and she got it. Hence, it was, in fact, for you..”
Tonic sobbed again.
“I am so, so happy for you..”, Seressa said with genuine elation.
“Then why? Why would he do this to me.. or to himself?”, she asked, her voice lost in Seressa’s embrace.
“Because the moment of our birth, is not who we really are. That is a mere chance. It is the moment of our death, we see who we really are. For the great few, that is choice.. When it comes, it comes at the moment and time, that which is the culmination of our actions and our deeds.. And all the choices we have made thus far..
Gordigon sought a fine, honorable, and beautiful death by carrying out an impossible mission given to him by the Heavens to help us break through the hordes of Themalsar.
He hoped to find a fine, honorable, and beautiful girl to share what life he had was left remaining to him, be it a day or a century..
Wished them both, he did.. and was granted both.
At the same time!
He must have been the luckiest man if there ever was one!”, Seressa breathed to her pair.
Tonic sobbed some more..
..with an uncharacteristically broken heart while her pair held her as if to shield her from whatever the world might throw at her, with a steely determination that only bespoke the fact that what her pair felt, she felt as well..
Quite a bit later, really, the little Tonic girl sniffed loudly.
“If.. if you pick me up or try and coin purse me, I will hurt you, girl..”, she threatened. She knew she couldn’t, or rather, wouldn’t hurt her pair, and be damned if anyone tried.. No, she would never hurt her, not any more than she’d already done in the past two years, but she was notgoing to get into a coin purse, damit!
“No, luv. I shan’t. Not that I wouldn’t want to, mind you. In fact, there’s nothing I’d love more, but pairs just don’t rob each other off their dignity.”, whispered Seressa with a smile and unlocked her pink, flowery fragranced embrace, and let go of her little gnome.
“Sooo..”, Brom said, trying to skip over the awkward moment, “..about the letter.”
“There’s nothing that can be done.”, Cora finally spoke and felt she had once more found her own voice. “We move on. I can feel we are being hunted. They are moving fast and they are impressively light on their feet, but the wind is on our side. The orken are upon us!”
They started moving again and picked up the pace as much as Brom and Arcantonic could endure.
They made late camp that night, putting as much distance between their pursuers and themselves. They ate cold rations and snuggled under the harsh, military-grade blankets they were given. Soon, everything went quiet and fell asleep.
✱ ✱ ✱
“That was an awesome speech..”, said Arcantonic quietly into the night.
Seressa did not say anything.
“When do you even think of these speeches, girl?”, the gnome asked in a whisper.
“I never do, luv.”, replied Seressa after awhile. “I say them as I feel them. Preparing such a speech precludes a certain amount of pre-intent and interest, hence, ‘falsehood’ and ‘hypocrisy’, neither of which have I ever entertained where you were concerned. I don’t want anything from you, but everything. Because that is how I define friendship.. You give your all for them, becoming whole and more than what you were..
And, you can never burn with the passion of a prewritten speech, because it’s never just the words, luv. It is the honesty, the sincerity, and the.. fire..
It is very much like the vast difference between simple irritation and.. WRATH!“, said the very tall, very dark Seressa, with a voice that burned.
Tonic blinked.. and fell silent.
There was a long absence of any sentient voice as Tonic thought of her pair.. and a certain boy. And perhaps for the first time in her life, she felt genuinely wanted. She, who had been a top case for ‘undesirable’ all her life, felt an indescribable, fervor elation..
And she felt brokenly happy as a wet smile appeared on her small, diminutive face.
Happy for having the former by her side, with all the encompassing meaning of the word, and happy for having had the later, as short-lived as it had been.
She listened to the hooting of an owl nearby, the chirping of countless nightcrawlers, and quietly stared at the only part of the starry sky that she could see through the small gap in the thick canopy of the Rituel Forest.
“Gales and Gallows..?“, whispered Arcantonic into the night.
“Thought you might like it..”, whispered Seressa back, her illustrious voice somewhat drowsy and slurred, now.
“I loved it. It was so.. beautifullysaid. Did you make that up too?”
“It came to me, then and there.. and I meant every word of it..”
“Gales and Gallows, huh?”
“Gales and Gallows, luv, Gales and Gallows..”
Arcantonic silently cursed and raged at her well damned and idiotic uncle, her family, the community at large that she’d been forced to endure, the leperdom at the bloody academy while she mentally throttled the unscrupulous little weasel of a hobbit as well, just so he wouldn’t feel left out, but not the boy she’d barely known, but felt something.. something throbbing.. and aching.. love, perhaps?, nor the very tall, very dark girl that was her pair..
..then bagged them all; her rage, her stubborn little rain cloud, her mental punching bags, her happy moments of incinerating the academy, and more. They wouldn’t be gone. A lifetime of traumatic mistreatment does not just go away. It could, however, be bagged, and that is exactly what she did. Yes, she would certainly let them out for some fresh air and to blow some steam. That kind of pressure couldn’t be ‘just bagged’, either and Tonic had no intention of fooling herself about it. But this prophecy of theirs seemed to promise a lot, by way of ‘depressurizing’ her pend up wrath. And if it helped clear their path off some unwanted obstacles in the form of orcs, goblins, and possibly an ogre or three, it was a win-win, wasn’t it?
..spoke Arcantonic with a voice that said a lot, and a bit more.
“Gales and Gallows, it is..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Darly Dor, yanında Aager, Inshala,Gnine, Laila ve Merisoul olmak üzere, Büyük Arashkan Şehri’nin bilinmeyen yeraltı dehlizlerine gelmişler, oradan da saklı Hırsızlar Lonca’sının sadece yüksek mertebeli olanlarının bildiği, pis, küf kokulu, karanlık bir mahzenine inmişlerdi.
Darly, Lonca dışı kişilerin buraya gelmeleri için gerekli izinleri üstlerinden alabilmek için, elinde olan ve olmayan ne kadar mal varlığı ve kişisel statüsü varsa kullanmıştı. Ama sonunda buna değecekti. Anglenna yılanı arenada elinden kurtulmayı başarmıştı, ama bu sefer değil.
“Bu sefer değil, Felishia, bu sefer onu yakaladık!”, diye geçirir içinden.
Yanlarında Anglenna’nın olmamasının sebebi de buydu. Udoorin’in bir şerifin oğlu, Lady’nin bir tapınak muhafızı ve prensesin de, eh, bir prenses olması, dolayısıyla da ‘onlar için uygun olmayan bir yer’ bahanesi, gerçekte Anglenna’nın gelmesini engellemek içindi..
Darly, grubu birçok kilitli ve tuzaklı kapıdan geçirmiş ve en sonunda onları, kaynağı belirsiz loş bir ışıkla aydınlatılan oldukça büyük, küf kokulu, havasız bir odaya getirmişti.
Oda, yerden tavana, duvardan duvara raflarla diziliydi ve rafların hepsi de tıka basa eskimiş parşömenler, dokümanlar, ağızları bağlı bohçalar ve farklı boylarda, ama taşınabilir sandıklar, kutular ve tahta kasalarla doluydu.
“Dur tahmin edeyim..”, der Laila, hicveder bir sesle, “..bunlar çalınmış yemek tarifleri değiller, öyle değil mi?”
“Çalınmış yemek tarifleri gibi bir fantazin olduğunu bilmiyordum, İzci Onbaşı.”
Laila kaşlarını çatar ve Darly’ye pis bir bakış atar.
“Ama merakını giderecek ise, evet, burada çalınmış gizli yemek tarifleri de var..”, diye daha da sırıtır Darly.
“Buraya neden geldik? Bizi Arashkan Hırsızlar Lonca’sının şantaj odasına getirmek için sarf ettiğin çabayı göz önünde bulundurursak, bu senin için kişisel olmalı..”, der Aager sessizce.
“Şantaj..”, der Darly, “..çok çirkin bir kelime. Biz ‘ikna’ ifadesini tercih ediyoruz.”
Aager cevap vermez. Sadece Darly’ye bakar.
“Sizi buraya getirdim çünkü bu odada olan her şey gerçek. Bu oda yalan konuşmaz. Siz, Gar Thalot’u bulmak istiyordunuz, onun nerede olduğu da buralarda bir yerlerde yazılı. Ne yazık ki ilgili belgeyi bulmak için onu biraz aramamız gerekebilir.”, der Darly biraz utanarak.
Aager, Gnine’a, Laila’ya ve Merisoul’a bakar.
Laila kaşlarını çatık bir şekilde binlerce doküman, sandık ve bohçadan oluşan yüzlerce rafa bakar, sonra, ‘yapacak bir şey yok’, der gibi omuzlarını silker.
Merisoul biraz şaşkın bir ifadeyle muazzam odayı süzer. “Ölümlülerin birbirlerini kazıklamak için gösterdikleri çaba gerçekten hayret verici!”, der ve o da omuzlarını silker.
Gnine’da omuzlarını silker ama yüzünde analitik bir ifade vardır.
“Saatler, sürebilir. Ama bu sadece de iyimser bir tahmin. Günler bile alabilir.”, diye makul bir tahminde bulunur. Sonra Darly’ye döner. “Bütün bunların listesini tutan, bunların bakımını yapan biri yok mu?”, diye sorar ona.
Madem herkes omuzlarını silkiyor, ben de eksik kalmayayım der gibi, Darly de omuzlarını silker.
“Buranın eski bakıcısı, Arashkan Üniversitesinden atılmış eski bir profesördü. Neden atıldığı meselesine girmeyeceğim. Kendisi bir kaç yıl önce öldü — tamamen doğal sebeplerden dolayı.. Yani, aşırı ucuz alkol tüketimini ne kadar doğal kabul edebilirsek, o kadar doğaldı. Ondan sonra ise burası için gerekli vasıflara.. ve güvenilirliğe sahip birisini bulamadık açıkçası. Takdir edersiniz ki, çalınmış gizli yemek tariflerinin yanı sıra, burada Arashkan’ı, ve başka bazı şehirleri daha yerle bir edecek kadar çok bilgi ve belge var.”, diye sırıtır..
✱ ✱ ✱
Aradan saatler geçmiştir ve Darly kendi istediği ‘belgeyi’ çoktan bulmuş ve ceplemiştir zira onu oraya yıllar önce kendisi koymuştur.
Ama sözünde durarak ve yaptığı şey fark edilmesin diye, diğerlerine Gar Thalot’un yeri hakkında gerekli bilgiyi bulmalarına yardım eder.
Aager, Gnine, Darly ve Laila, Gar Thalot hakkında birçok bilgi kırıntısına rastlar. Ne var ki bilgiler ya eskidir, ya da fazla muallaktır. Inshala ise bütün çabalarına rağmen yazıları anlaşılmaz bulmuş, en sonunda da küçük bir topak halinde bir köşede sızıp kalmıştı. Bunun gören Aager hiç sektirmeden omzundaki pelerini çıkarır ve kızın üstüne serer. Gnine’dan onunkini de rica eder ve topak ettiği ikinci pelerini ise kızın başının altına yastık yapar.
Darly ise bu olanları çaktırmadan, hayret ve hayranlıkla izlemiş, içinden ‘Bu küçük kız ve bu adi herif.. Hala inanılır gibi değil!”, diye geçirmişti.
Merisoul, içi krema dolu bir fıçının içine düşmüş kedi gibi, çılgınca bir heyecanla eline geçirdiği bütün belgeleri okur, değerlendirir ve hatta bazılarını, zihnindeki gizli bölmelere;
Aradan yine saatler geçer ve Inshala esneyerek uyanır. Üstüne serilmiş battaniyeyi kaldırdığında, karnının olduğu yere yumulmuş bir fare ailesinin, onun sıcaklığı ile uyumakta olduğunu görür.
Inshala gülümser ve onları uyandırmadan sessizce ayağa kalkar. Sonra bir yavru kedi gibi, kayıtsızca tekrar gerinir ve Aager’e hafif mayhoş, kayık ve utanmış bir bakış atar.
“Dalmışım.. Arena tahmin ettiğimden fazla yormuş beni.. Snare çok şeker bi dal, ama çok büyük. Çağırılması biraz yoruyor..”, diye bir fısıltı duyar Aager zihninde.
“Sevgili Inshala, arenada hepimiz iyi iş çıkardık ve yorulduk. Ama aramızda muhteşem olan bi sen vardın..”, diye içten cevabını geri yollar Aager.
Inshala’nın yüzü pembenin harika bir tonuna bürünür..
“..uykuyu ve çok daha fazlasını hak ettin. Gelmene gerçekten gerek yoktu ama. Handaki yerinde daha rahat ederdin.”
“Taş üstünde uyumaya alışkınım ki! Ayrıca kız kardeşinin benden pek de hoşlandığını sanmıyorum. Sanırım kendisine sormadan saçlarını örmemden alındı biraz..”
“Lilly.. Lilly’nin biraz zamana ihtiyacı var. Onun için bazı şeyler yerli yerine oturuncaya kadar, sanırım hepimizin göreceği tek şey onun çatık kaşları olacak.”
“Ama öyle yapınca bütün güzelliği mahvoluyor!”, diye hayret içerisinde ünler Inshala.“Ayrıca çok pasaklı.. Bremorel abla bile bu kadar pasaklı değildi. Ve elbiselerinin hepsini yanlış giyiyor!.. Kim elbiselerinin hepsini yanlış giyebilir ki? Temiz ve düzgün giyebilsin diye, dün akşam hepsini alıp yıkayıp tamir etmek istedim, bana öyle fena bi bakış attı ki, odadan kaçmak zorunda kaldım..”
Aager istemsizce, ve hafif acı bir şekilde ‘fırk’lar.
Drashan, mutlu, ‘doğru giyinen’ insanların doğduğu, ve öldüğü bir şehir değildir. Ve Aager, yeni bulduğu kız kardeşinin geçmişinin de kendisininkinden daha mutlu olabilmiş olduğunu düşünemez. Drashan, erkek çocukları öldüren, kız çocuklarını ise.. ‘değerlendiren’ bir şehirdir..
Odanın diğer yanından Gnine sırıtarak sessiz bir zafer hoplayışı yapar.
Tam o an da Laila’dan da benzer bir ses gelir ama onunkisi zafer değil, mutlak bir şoku ifade eden ‘Ohaa!’dır.
“Sanırım buldum.”, der Gnine.
“Sa.. sanırım ben de bi şey buldum..”, der Laila, zorlukla.
Aager, Gnine’ın ona uzattığı belgeyi inceler.
Neden sonra, “Evet.. Tarihler ve yerler tutarlı gibi. Sanırım onu bulduk. İyi iş çıkardın Efendi Büyücü.”, der Aager.
Suratında garip bir ifade olan Laila, sanki küçük dilini yutmuş ve dikkat çekmek ister gibi elindeki oldukça eski gibi görünen belgeyi Aager’e doğru şiddetle sallamaktadır.
Aager, Laila’ya bakar ve bir kaşı kalkar. Uzanıp Laila’nın salladığı parşömeni alır ve okumaya başlar.
Aager elindeki kağıdı okudukça, diğer kaşı da yükselir.
Neden sonra, “Huh!”, diye bir ses çıkar Aager’den.
✱ ✱ ✱
Sevgili Kralım Drine,
Korkarım bu mektubu benim geri dönmemden önce aldıysanız, sarıldık, iyi bir mücadele verdik ve toprağımızı da, atalarımızı da hak ettik, demek oluyor.
Gök Varlıkların bize verdikleri kutsal bir görev için yola çıkmıştık. Lanetli Themalsar’ın güçlerini yararak geçtik ve iblislerin ruhu bile duymadı. Askerlerinizle övünmelisiniz zira elflerin prensi Grandarelen bugün hala ayakta ise, bunu tamamen sizin askerlerinize borçlu. Ne var ki Ogre’s Foot bölgesine yetiştiğimizde büyük bir baskına uğradık ve bu mektubu aceleyle yazmak zorunda kaldım.
Sevgili Kralım ve Babam, biliyorum ki benim için hep iyi şeyler istediniz. Bunu şu anda çok daha iyi görebiliyorum. Bana her zaman rahmetli annemle sizinkisi gibi bir aile kurmamı telkin etmiştiniz ama bu güne kadar sizin annemde bulduğunuz vasıfları taşıyan birisini bulamadım.
Şunu bilesiniz ki arayışım bugün, bu savaş alanında sonra erdi.
Siz bunu okuduğunuzda, ben çoktan ölmüş olacağım. Ama beni ölümümle hatırlamayın. Beni, hayatını vermeye değecek bir kızı bulmuş birisinin sevinciyle hatırlayın ve teselli olun, çünkü ben bu teselliyi kendimde buldum.
The ‘Chosen Four’ have been sent, through place and time by the proxies of the Celestials to right the wrongs of the unholy Outsiders.
In a wild cacophony of tumbling and painful sliding through the jagged and jarring madness of time, the Tundra Walkers find themselves disoriented, in a place and time quite out of their own..
..by a gross number of centuries.
This story starts 16 years ago, in some tattered tent full of wispy old hags, at a place far, far north of the Great Northern Tundras, in a small village called Star Watchers and ends in the misty haze of the forgotten past, some 820 years further in the line of history.
What the bloody hell is this?”, the sour voice of the little, pale gnome grudged as she lay flat on her back. “No one said anything about this much hazard! Hells bells, has the term ‘precaution’ or even ‘risk assessment’ ever occur to those stupid old farts? No wonder people seldom return from the past!”
“Old farts?”, snorted a boxy, feminine voice in the dark, from somewhere behind her, also lying on her back.
“Yea, picked it up at the academy. Some of the ghouls used to use that kinda slang. You wouldn’t know..”, she said with a groan.
“I know, what an ‘old fart’ is”, sniffed the voice in the dark, “what surprises me is the fact that you’d be into such vulgar slang. And the proper word is ‘nerd’, not ‘ghoul’..”
“Nerd, ghoul, same difference. Boys who have zero social lives who live underground, play weird games with imaginary characters and cooked up monsters and carry rule books with more reverence than they would carry their holy writs..”, bit back the pale gnome.
“Sounds fun. What was your character?”
Arcantonic Palecog scowled.
“If you must know, I had a very tall, very pretty barbarian girl with thick, white braids and jugs, that smashed everything in her path with a mindless rage..”, she said and hastily added, “..no offense intended!”, giving a sidelong gaze at Cora’s direction.
The squeaky snort of a hobbit came from off, the other side.
“Some taken..”, replied the tall barbarian girl with thick, white braids.
There was a bothersome pause.
“Umm.. Which part?”, asked Arcantonic, tentatively.
“Will let you know when I want something —in mindless rage!”
“Well, shit!”, grumbled the gnome.
“You truly surprise me at times, girl..”, snickered Seressa Wraiven as her dark face appeared over the gnome. “Are you hurt? Other than your head, you seem all in one piece.. Could carry you if you like..”
“You wish..”, said Arcantonic sourly.
✱ ✱ ✱
Someone’s coming”, Cora Sleet whispered harshly as she sprang up and helped the little hobbit to his feet.
Brom Bumblebrim dusted off his pants and coat and mumbled a silent thanks while the very tall, very dark figure of Seressa pulled up her pair.
Arcantonic did not thank.
She just scowled..
The slow, irking hiss of a blade was heard as Cora drew her long, great blade off her back and spread her legs, ready to fight whatever it was that was coming.
Out in the darkness, the marching of many boots in perfect order drew closer and a platoon of tall figures appeared.
Without a pause, the platoon split in two and surrounded the Walkers and than held their ground. They gave no sign of aggression, only that of determination.
They all wore similar, very elaborate, and very beautiful plate armors, high winged helmets and carried a quiver of arrows, a short bow, a half size kite shield, and a long, slender, almost fragile-looking sword..
High Elves, thought Cora for a moment.
High Elves?, she baffled in the next.
‘Great Heavens, where are we?’
“Greetings, Messengers of the Celestials..”, said the leading elf with a curt, formal nod. “If you would be so kind, I pray, follow me and we shall take you to our lord. It is he, with whom you shall speak.”
Cora nodded back, more out of reverence than a formality, for these were High Elves, the highest and noblest of elves.
Without waiting for a reply, the leader of the high elf platoon turned did a quick hand motion, and walked off, back into the darkness..
✱ ✱ ✱
The sight was ghastly. That was the only word Cora could think of.
They had traveled with the high elf platoon for the better part of sixteen hours, trooping, running, hiding, sneaking, and.. fighting..
..and there was less than half of the platoon left.
Cora thought she knew how to fight. But what she knew was nothing like what she saw with these elves in their shiny, beautiful armor. One particular young elf had caught her eyes. He had had an angular face, a straight, noble sort of nose, a dedicated, rich mouth, prominent high brows, and long, braided, pale gold hair.
Cora was never the type of girl to lust over boys, even before the destruction of her village. But the look he had given her with his beautiful, soft, pale green eyes had been solemn, honest, and.. flattering.
The young man had died in the next encounter with what she thought were mountain trolls. The brutish monsters had rushed right into the platoon and one of them had crushed the elf with his eight-foot club that had been thicker than Cora’s waist..
Cora had never seen a mountain troll before.
Cora would never see the young, beautiful elf again after that..
Tired and bloodied, they were met by more elven platoons and soon ushered to the top of a hill where stood a tall, deep maroon-colored tent surrounded by more high elf guards in even greater looking armors, carrying long, curved, two-handed elven scimitars in silver embroidered purple mantles. Up at that hill, Cora and her friends saw the extent of their prophecy.. and the extent of the devastation taking place down below..
Row upon row of elven warriors in tens of thousands stood before and around the hill.
There, far across a very bloody field was another army of row upon row of orcs, goblins, ogres, giants, trolls, and what Cora surmised to be shambling ghouls, broken skeletons, moaning zombies, and barking demons, and their numbers seemed to stretch as far as she could see.
And between the two armies was a field of death, all burned, scorched, even, and pitch-black smoke rose from broken and mutilated bodies scattered everywhere.
The sight she looked at was nothing less than ghastly..
..and the more she looked, the more her face paled;
The hill they were standing on, was very much surrounded!
✱ ✱ ✱
On the hilltop, Cora and her companions beheld the bloody battlefield below as thousands of arrows formed an arching bridge over them and fell into the ranks of the enemy horde while elfish wizards and sorcerers launched their deadly spells, raining fire, fist-sized hails, and swirling multi-colored arcane missiles. Batches of temple guardians walked among the wounded, doing their best to keep them alive as groves of druids of many races sent bolts of lightning and hurricanes into the demon ranks.
Something very large groaned and with an earth-shaking thud, a hut-sized rock landed in the middle of a platoon and instantly killed and buried the elves caught under it.
More boulders landed haphazardly into the elfish ranks. The crushed didn’t even have the time to scream.
Orders ran up and down the elf ranks and the first half of a dozen line of elves drew their swords, pulled up their shields, and started out as the following ranks crouched close behind them, bearing long halberds and glaives.
The demon horde charged..
“This way, if you would please.”, said the platoon leader and led Cora and her friends into the tent at the top of the hill.
✱ ✱ ✱
The tall elf guard in purple mantle opened the tent’s flaps for the company, then, without a word, turned and left for his post.
Although the inside of the tent was dimly lit, it appeared to be surprisingly comfortable and richly decorated. The ground was covered with a thick, red carpet that had elegant designs inlaid in it, barely a shade or two darker, or lighter than the base red. Many embroidered tapestries hung on the inside of the tent. There were two comfortable-looking divans, many stools, and a large, portable table placed at the far end, covered with parchments, maps, markers, quills, and writing feathers.
A young, beautiful young elf girl slept peacefully on one of the divans. She had a striking figure, full and healthy. Her face had soft features; smooth skin, rich, vibrant, inviting lips, long eyelashes, and brush-free, slightly wavy, honey-colored hair and she was sleeping in her tight, elf woven lorica.
Cora heard a stifling sound from the other end of the tent, and for the first time, she saw the elf lord, sitting behind the portable table.
Cora did a double-take and silently ‘woa’ed for this was the most beautiful face in a living being that she had ever seen. She just stared at the elf lord..
“So, the Celestials have sent another batch of messengers.”, said the elf lord, in a barely hidden contempt. He had a beckoning voice, rather masculine and resonant but somehow musical in nature. If Cora heard this voice in any other male, she would likely have snorted. With this elf, however, it felt ‘just right’.
“A tundra elf barbarian, a hobbit from Bowling Hills by the looks of it, a half-demon and a deep gnome..”, he said.
“It seems the greats above shall not even bother to hide their pun!”
Cora and Brom bowed before the elf lord.
“We have been sent to right a wrong by the Seers of the Star Watchers, my lord.”, Cora said, in her soft, somewhat throaty voice.
And right then, Seressa and Arcantonic both produced something made from fine leather and folded from their belts, flipped them open, and showed the elf lord, a strange, arrogantly carved badge.
The elf lord’s eyebrows shot up.
“And what business interests does the Academy of Melshieve have here, in this blasted, forsaken battlefield?”, he said in a voice that sounded more tired than of any particular interest.
“Academy business.”, Seressa replied curtly, which was very much unlike her.
“We two are here to observe and preserve.“, added Arcantonic, in a similar curt tone.
“Of course you are..”, replied the elven lord bitterly. “Couldn’t have sent a few of your airships..”
“We are here only to observe and preserve.”, Seressa repeated her pair, speaking with a kindlier voice this time.
“I see.. You are free to observe. There will be no preserving done here today, or anytime soon, I am afraid. The situation stands thus; we are surrounded and outnumbered at a critical level. We can barely open small gaps in the enemy lines at the cost of too many lives that I’d care to count. A few months ago, we sent word to Koruxan, Vodgar, Palantine, and Durkahan pleading for their support. So far, we only have a quarter half of Arashkan forces here, dwarven armored platoons from Scowling and Elder Hills, wood elf support from Dim Woods, druids from Ritual Forest, and gnome sappers from Tinker Hills and Silent Hills.”, said the elven lord quietly.
He paused for a bit as if to gather his thoughts, took a deep breath, and continued.
“We had a great start. Our.. our own rangers kept on harassing the enemy lines from the sides and managed to get to their rear as well. We held the enemy at bay for three years and made them pay a good price for every step they took in any direction. But that was up until some two months ago. Our gnome sappers discovered something we never expected. Turns out, while we were entertaining ourselves up here, they were diligently digging miles and miles of tunnels right under and around us..
We destroyed all the tunnels we found, but not soon enough. And now, they are all around us and their numbers have been growing steadily every day.
For weeks we send messengers to the other cities and yet, no one has responded. I am afraid, we will not last the month. Enemy warlocks have warded the area, making it impossible for us to open portals for new troops to teleport in or take our wounded out, not to mention near to non of our summoning spells work, hence we can get the support of neither the elementals nor the fey.
I will be honest with you. You are not the first Celestial messengers that have arrived here. There were six other groups, though never this many at once. You are the seventh group and they all said it was their destiny to right a wrong. I hope your prophecy was better than theirs.”, he said in the same tired voice and Cora finally recognized the nuance.
The elven lord wasn’t just tired. His was the voice of a man who had lost all hope. It was a defeated man’s voice.
Cora felt a lump at the pit of her stomach.
And she felt a vast sympathy for this beautiful elf.
“If it is possible to reach these people, we shall..”, she said in fierce determination.
The elf lord looked up at Cora and for the briefest of moments, a smile appeared in his handsome face.
“I had heard our long-lost brothers and sisters up in The Great Northern Tundra’s never gave their word for simple tasks. They gave them only for the worthy ones.. and always kept them. Had I, but a thousand like you..”
Cora tried very hard not to, but failed.. and blushed.
Just then, the tent flaps opened and an elf runner dashed inside and in a rushed, terror-stricken voice he said, “My Riverin Grandaleren. Themalsar approaches from the south..”
“What?”, said the elf lord in a shocked voice. “How?”
“By ships. He landed troops to the south by ships!..”, said the runner, his face even more drawn now.
“My Lord, they come!”, he whispered.
Riverin Grandaleren’s shoulders slumped. He turned to the four standing before him.
Cora’s mind reeled..
That was a very old elven name for ‘prince’. It had never really been used by her people, only ‘Rive’ which meant something along the lines of ‘king’ or, more like, ‘chieftain’..
‘Good Heavens..’, she thought. This was no mere elf lord. This was ‘her times’ Ri Grandaleren Feymist of the legendary Bari Na-ammen himself..
..and since he was warring this Themalsar, it had to mean, they had been sent back some 820 years, to the first Battle of Themalsar, as the humans called it..
It was better known among elves as;
“Maeth -o Nev Evan escence”
BATTLE OF NEAR EXTINCTION..
Some innate instinct also prompted Cora that they were at the very northeast edge of the Ritual Forest and that meant; just to their north was the Trapped Mountains.
And just beyond that, her Ironfrost..
It was still there, ‘now’..
Her mother hadn’t been born yet, but her father had. He would be younger than she was now.. but alive..
None of her friends would be around for at least seven hundred years yet, but her home, her Ironfrost would be there.. Now..
For the first time since the death of her beloved father, her beautiful mother, her friends, and her people, the true impact of her loss hit her.
Cora Sleet’s eyes teared and silently, she mourned for Ironfrost and everything that it meant and encompassed for her.
It was so damned close. It was ‘this’ close.. Within her grasp to go, and to see.. And perhaps even to..
If she could just go there, and perhaps warn them of their coming annihilation, even at the cost of being branded as a mad woman..
A hard two weeks trek right now would get her there —much less if she left alone! Yes, these strange ‘soft’ people had fought alongside her, but she owed them nothing..
Certainly not her Ironfrost..
And that is when it hit Cora; she was not with them because of some untold, unnamed or unpaid debt. She was with them because thiswas her future. This was her nowand there really was no going back. These strange, soft, very much unbarbaric people were her new friends..
Her new family.
Her new.. Ironfrost!
And as if on cue, a small, warm, delicate hand reached up to her and held hers.
She looked down to see Brom Bumblebrim looking up to her, his eyes also glistening. He smiled at her and kindly patted her hand, squeezed it once, and let it go..
This was her new Ironfrost, alright..
Brom, her talkative little brother who never shut up. Tonic, her grumpy little baby sister who hadn’t yet gotten passed her ‘NO’ phase, and Seressa, her other sister.. the odd one in the family. Every family had one of those, right? She had been the odd one in her family, hadn’t she? Many people had said so.. Yes, she certainly hadn’t been odd at Seressa’s level, nor had she ever worn laced, pink, almost see-through.. things! But there really was no scale for odity, was there? The moment you stepped out of the boundaries of common, you were odd.
And now she was given the new position as the eldest sister. Seressa had merely swooped down and happily claimed her abandoned seat!
Here, some eight hundred years in the murky mists of a forgotten time, in one of the bloodiest battlefields in known history, up against impossible odds, Cora Sleet had found her new family, and in doing so, she found herself.
“GO.. NOW.. Our time is up. If Themalsar gets here, we will lose any chance to break any openings for you.”, said the prince harshly. He turned to the runner. “Get Selvius Brightleaf, my general, and Aramlerien, my master wizard here immediately. Then go and ask Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, the head of the druid groves and General Drills, the gnome sappers’ general, if they would be so kind as to join us. Send for Decona Dwarwic, the dwarven dreadnaught leader as well. We will need her ‘meatgrinders’ sooner than planned.”
The prince paused for a notable breath.
“Please inform Archangel Priceptine of the situation and ask him if he would grace us with his presence and wisdom..”, he added somewhat grudgingly.
“At once, my Riverin..”, the runner bowed and dashed back out of the tent.
“Well, I suppose this was a short-lived encounter.”, Grandaleren said, with an ironic and bitter voice. “I would know your names if you would honor me.”
“No!”, jumped in Seressa. “No names.. I am sorry Riverin of Bari Na-ammen. But those are the rules; under no circumstance may our names be revealed nor recorded!”
“It appears the academy has an answer for everything. Just no solution. So be it. You will be noted as ‘a tundra elf’, ‘a hobbit’, and ‘an academy pair’ who were here to observe and preserve! Now, go..”
Cora and Brom bowed once more to the Princeof Bari Na-ammen and turned to leave.
And that is when Cora realized something else;
The beautiful elf girl sleeping on the divan in her linen-like lorica had not moved, at all..
In fact, she was not breathing.
The hoarse voice of the prince of the high elves came from behind them.
“Selendenien Sindarin.. My sister. She.. she was killed late last night by Themalsar himself. Her life ebbed away by Malocchio, an entropy death curse, particular to his master.. She was the heart of High Woods and the jewel of Bari Na-ammen. The Sunlight of Selendenien shall never bless this world again..”
Riverin Grandaleren choked.
“Now please.. Go.. Give this man a few moments of peace to grieve over a beloved one..”
✱ ✱ ✱
The company moved silently and swiftly, hidden among burly dwarves and nibble gnomes.. That had been the plan; if they were to escape through the encircling army, they would have a better chance with the dwarves and gnomes, in particular, since the enemy was seeking high elves..
..And they had to use the tunnels dug by the gnome sappers.
Seressa had given one look at the small, tight, gnome size tunnels and groaned.
“Ow bugger..”, she’d said, “..not again!”
Thathad cheered Tonic a bit.
For three days, they ran, hid, slid, rolled, and tumbles through dark, musty, stuffy tunnels, and then over and under heavy brush and mud and reached somewhere near a cluster of rolling hills known as Ogre’s Foot, at which point they got ambush by half the ogre population living in the hills.
“Here..”, said a young, handsome gnome; the captain, of the gnomic company and the de facto leader of the dwarven contingency, as he handed a sealed, rolled-up parchment to Arcantonic. “..if you ever manage to get the chance, give this to my father please.”
Arcantonic just stared at the gnome boy.
“Who the hell are you and why are you giving this to me? You don’t even know me..”, she inadvertently blurted out.
Seressa smacked her forehead with her hand.
If the handsome gnome was taken aback by Tonic’s language or her brute attitude, he showed it with a dazzling, infectious smile.
“I, the hell, am Prince Gordigon Tinkerdome. Son of King Drine Tinkerdome and the apparent heir to the throne of Silent Hills.”, he said.
Arcantonic ogled at the gnome.
All things considered, he was a rather handsome devil. Pretty, even.
If the gnomes smile was dazzling, however, it certainly flew right past the gnomic girl standing before him.. and the infection failed all efforts on her as well.
“It is likely this is where you and your friends will depart, as we are surrounded, outnumbered, and outsized, but not quite bested. We need to make enough of a ruckus here, so they won’t go looking for your, there!“, he said pointing in the general direction of Dim Woods.
“Hence, it is unlikely any of us shall survive. You, on the other hand, must, my lady!”
Arcantonic ogled at the gnome..
Somewhere deep inside her mind, a squeaky, irritated voice said, “Did you.. Did he just ‘lady’ us?”
“Thought I’d give you this letter to be handed to my father, in case of an unexpected demise on my part, and if you would, I would also like to have your name, my lady, and your hand, of which, I promise, I shall keep only one, though I would very much like to keep both..”
“Yep..”, the squeaky voice in her mind confirmed. “..the idiot just ‘lady’ed us —again! And he wants our hand. Why does he want our hand?”
“I.. I can’t give you my name. That.. that is forbidden. And what do you want my hand for? Are they dirty?”, stammered Tonic as she blushed with a tone of pink that would have made her pair proud.
“Oh, for everything that’s good and not..!”, exclaimed Seressa with an exasperated voice, and smacked her forehead with her other hand..
Brom snickered from the side and Cora just stared at Tonic like she was some kind of strange contraption and she just couldn’t figure out what its purpose was.
“I do not know.”, smiled the gnome prince. “Hard to see from here. Must look at it from a closer angle.”
Whatever was going through Tonics mind at that very moment, it was hard to say.
Her face, however, said ‘What the hell kind of an idiot is this?’
Or perhaps, ‘Why is it always the weird ones?’
The prince reached out, took the little gnome girl’s hand, gracefully bent over and..
Seressa held her breath.
Brom bit his knuckles.
Cora cocked an eyebrow and eagled down on them..
..And Tonic smacked the prince of the gnomes..
..over the head..
..with her wrench!
“WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!“, she blared. “MY HANDS ARE DIRTY AND YOU WANT TO SNIFF THEM? WHAT KIND OF AN IDIOT ARE YOU?“
With that, she stomped off..
The combined company of gnomes and dwarves burst out in gleeful laughter as the prince picked himself off the ground, very much dazed, obviously in pain and thoroughly embarrassed, he said “I suppose, I had that coming.. But wow, that there is one blazing girl and very hard to get; the best kind there is.. Too bad my times up. I would have loved to have stolen a kiss of ‘farewell to life’ from a girl as beautiful and fiery as her..”
The laughter died and every dwarf and gnome picked up their weapons and shields.
“Dwarves at the center. Sappers cover the flanks.. and careful with the mortars and the gnowitzers.. I want carpet-bombing thirty paces in front of the dwarves at all times. No need to be shy with the ammo.. Artificers, with me.. Boomsticks at the ready..”, he barked his orders.
Prince Gordigon Tinkerdome, son of King Drine and apparent heir to the throne of Silent Hills gave the still scowling Tonic one last, toothy glance, than shrieked like a hawk.
Ri: elvish for a king.
Rise: elvish for a queen.
Riverin: elvish for the prince (usually used for the likely future Ri).
Riserin: elvish for a princess (usually used for the likely future Rise).
Selendenien Sindarin: one of the three children of the current king of the high elves of Bari Na-ammen,Ri Lienierre Moonlight. The eldest of the three is High Lady Angrellen Sunsear, followed by Riverin Grandarelen, and the youngest, Ranger Marshal Selendenien Sindarin (Sunlight).
Malocchio: ‘Evil Eye’, in Italian. In-game terminology, an evil, forbidden, very destructive, and an almost always deadly spell. Anyone caught casting or possessing the spell is instantly executed in the Kingdom. Requires a complicated ritual to cast. The end result can vary depending on how it was cast, the intensity of the intent of the caster, and how badly the caster wants the intended to die. The end results can change from something as simple as a heart attack to causing the heart to physically explode, ripping open the rib cage of the person..