Soon after Aager Fogstep and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostman arrive at Serenity Home from Durkahan City, they are confronted by a mysterious, hooded man and are expected to meet him the other day.
This story takes place the next day after
A ‘Warm’ Warning.
Inshala had woken up early that morning and snuck around the single-room house —her home, tiptoeing so as not to wake up the man sleeping soundly on the hard, threadbare mattress they shared and sneaking in a twenty by fifteen ‘room’ was a dare, all on its own, without waking up the most guarded and wary man in perhaps, several hundred miles in any direction.
But Inshala was just that good!
Having lived all her life mostly alone and in the wilds, a person learned to be quiet.
Or die quick.
Very silently, she snuck to the only door of the house, carefully opened it, and peaked outside to make sure there wasn’t anyone around to see her, as she wore only a simple, cream-white, hip-high shirt-gown, which did look more like a man’s shirt, really, and pretty much displayed her skinny legs, all the way up to her slender hips..
Satisfied, she slipped out of the house and into the garden behind. There, she very slowly drew water into a rickety wooden bucket using the old, squeaky pump, which wasn’t as easy as it sounded, considering how skinny she was, and how it shrieked every time she pulled at its lever!
When the bucket was full, she went back in and returned with a basket holding two apples, four green peppers, two hand-full of grapes, two tomatoes, half a dozen tiny onions, and two potatoes. All of these, she washed using the water from the bucket and quite vigorously.
Not content, she washed all of them again..
With an obsession that went all the way back to her younger days when she’d thought she was some unclean demon-spawn and had thought, or perhaps, zealously believed washing herself over and over and over again until her skin was rashed and likely bleeding, now.
In later years, her thoughts had become of two, in this matter. After she’d met Aager, who was hopefully still sleeping inside, however, she had finally concluded that perhaps —like, maybe— she wasn’t so unclean and not really a demon-spawn.
In all candor, she hadn’t yet attained that level of clarity, or wisdom, where she just wouldn’t care even if she was, in fact, a demon-spawn and it was what one chose to do, and consequently became, that mattered, rather being born as something that one’s opinions was never taken into account, nor were you ever confided.
That wisdom would come in time.
Like, many years later..
Just not yet.
Suffice to say, the idea of she being unclean had faded, drastically so, but her obsession for cleanliness and washing things over and over and over had, apparently, stuck!
Hence, with cold, weary, and shriveled hands, she returned back into the house and put all the fruits and vegetables on the small but sturdy table next to the tiny fireplace. She gave a cursory glance at the pots and pans that were available at hand, which weren’t all that many, really; a small jar full of cooking oil, two crock-pots containing some butter and some white cheese, a number of tin containers with coffee, various teas and herbs, one small iron pot for stew, a dingy copper pan, a small, water boiling pot, and her own addition, a set that comprised of two, flat, wooden plates which were called dinner plates, as she’d found out later when they were in Durkahan, two wooden bowls, and two wooden cups, all of which she herself had painstakingly carved in secret after she and Aager had come to better know one another, and when they were back at Arashkan, and a pair of forks and spoons, and several knives.
She picked up the smallest of the knives, the wooden-handled one, and peeled one apple, and sliced it in four. She took the other apple and sliced it in eight, but without peeling it. She also peeled the potatoes and cut them into very neat and very thin slices and cleaned the tiny onions then went over to the tiny fireplace and with a small wave of her hand, she lit the fire. She picked up the copper pan, careful not to make any noise, she poured some of the cooking oil in it, then lined the sides of the pan with the sliced apples, followed by potatoes, and in the very center, she put the onions. And with equal care, she placed it on the grate of the fireplace. Then she returned to the table, took out the two dinner plates, and spooned some butter into both and a rich slice of the white cheese as well. With sharp, practiced motions, she cut the tomatoes without letting the juice —one of the advantages of being mated to Aager; all his knives, kitchen or otherwise, were always very, very sharp, and placed them next to the cheese. Then she speared the green peppers with one of the longer knives, walked over to the fireplace, and held them in the fire, one pair a bit more than the other because Aager liked his food a bit on the burnt side. She placed the green peppers, now spotted with black charrs, and lay them next to the sliced tomatoes, and held her breath!
Aager had just stirred!
Hastily, she went back to the fireplace and withdrew the pan, and put a bit more than half the onions and the potatoes, and all the four slices of peeled and fried apples into his plate, and the eight, not-peeled ones into her own because Aager liked his apples peeled and once peeled, apples turned mushy when you tried to fry them, hence the slices had to be larger. She, on the other hand, liked her apples with their peels! As an encore, she placed the grapes, in a sort of pyramidical formation, and next to the green peppers.
Then she took out the two wooden bowls, turned them upside down, and placed them over the dinner plates to keep dust and bugs out of the now ready breakfast, cleaned the table off the peels, took out the water boiling pot, ghosted back out, filled it with water, skimmed back in and hung the pot over the fire and dumped a spoon.. no.. two spoons.. wait.. was it one, or two spoons?
This was the one thing she could never remember;
The number of spoons of coffee that went into the small pot.
Possibly because she never drank coffee. It smelled wonderful, like awesome-wonderful, but once, and only once had she drank it. Back when her Father, Cathber had still been alive.
Turned out, coffee had quite the opposite effect on her, than it had on her Father —or any other human for that matter.
It had made an eleven-year-old Inshala totally, unimaginably, and roaring drunk!
It had been a learning experience for both herself and her Father that day.
Hence, Inshala preferred her herbal teas in the mornings but she wouldn’t make a fuss if they weren’t available. Aager, on the other hand, would forgo his breakfast, but not his coffee!
All done and ready, she quickly heated her slender hands near the fire, then her tiny feet, and with a very self-conscious blush, she turned around, pulled up her simple, cream-white, hip-high shirt-gown she used while she slept, and heated her embarrassingly small, cup-sized, bare butt as well, because Aager tended to get riled when her hands, her feet, and even perhaps her butt, was cold, as one never quite knew where hands went when the mind was asleep, usually ending up where they wanted to be without bothering to ask the mind!
Just the other day, she had woken up with one of her slender hands in his hair, and the other in his shirt, touching his lean, spring-coil chest marred and marked with whip marks and numerous stab wounds!
She had been so embarrassed.
But with a very guilty and a very, very red but decisive face, she had kept her hands where they were.
The deed had already been done, right?
Inshala had figured, should Aager decide to trash her for it, she’d at least have fully earned it!
That’s how her mind worked; if she was going to get trashed, she should do her best to thoroughly deserve it.. as odd, somewhat scary, and illogical as that sounded.
Back to the topic at hand, then?
When Aager found her hands, feet, and possibly her butt, were cold, he spoke in his ‘quiet’ voice because he thought she wasn’t taking care of herself.
That was one of the very few things he did not tolerate when it came to Inshala.
It seemed like everyone had their perks, quirks, and oddities and it mattered very little how much you loved and cared for them, or how desperately they loved and cared for you.
But all of that went only as far as one could find a way around them.
With her hands, her feet, and her butt comfortably warmed up, she snuck back to the threadbare mattress and slithered her way into his arms, and started to watch his face..
With quiet, excited anticipation..
..and inadvertently, she breathed, softly, into his face.
Perhaps he was having a bad dream again.
Aager often had bad dreams.
Inshala had watched him ever since they had met in the woods, some six or seven months ago, and knew when he was having a bad dream.
Then his eyes opened.
They didn’t flutter.
They opened suddenly and alertly, without any sign of sleep or grogginess.
It was quite creepy, really.
But Inshala had found it amazing.
Possibly because when she woke up, she was much like this silly bear that’d just woken up from his winter sleep; dizzy, groggy, confused, stupid, and at times, panicked, even.
Because she wanted him to see ‘this’, the first thing he opened his eyes..
“You have pretty eyes.”
Aager said solemnly.
After quietly staring at her.
“Yeesh!”, thought Inshala. “Totally worth a trashing.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Meet you at the Guest’s Inn at, say, when the town bell hits twice afternoon?”, Aager asked. He had cleaned out his perfectly prepared plate and was now sipping his hot, bitter coffee, quietly wondering at what point had the little girl slipped out of their dingy mattress and prepared the breakfast and returned back into his arms and whether or not to tell her she didn’t have to prepare the breakfast because he didn’t think she was some serving maid.
“I don’t prepare anything because I am a serving maid, my Aager.”, Inshala said with a flushed smile, as if having read his mind, which, in all likeliness, she had.. “I prepare them because I do not think you should go to work to keep us all safe and do it hungry.”
“Some would argue your point.”, Aager mused.
“You are not ‘some’ to me, my Aager. And I prepare it because you have asked me to care for myself. Which is what I am doing. Caring for you is caring for myself. And I like cooking.”, she replied with an even bigger smile. “Besides, this is our home. And ‘some’ has no say here. Only you, and me, get to speak in our home.”
“Well, when you put it that way, someone just lost the argument!”, Aager smiled.
“As for the hour, I think we should meet here and go to this Guest’s Inn, place.”, she said.
Aager cocked an eyebrow.
“When we return here..”, Inshala explained. “..we have returned ‘home’ where we are at our best. We are filled and refreshed with our ‘home power’ here. And we shall go and meet them fully armed, with the least taint of the day, hanging on us.”
“That is.. a rather deep perspective of looking at it.”, Aager admitted a bit astonished.
“Will you fight the Summer Knight?”, she asked a bit tentatively.
“I have no desire to fight anyone. We have enough enemies on their way.”, he growled. “But I shall not bow to any demands, should he be foolish enough to make them. What will you do today?”
“I have been asked by the elves of High Woods to kindly meet with their druids and the druids, shamans, and witches of Ritual Forest to lead them.”, Inshala said unhappily. “I don’t want to lead anyone. I am too young for that. But the request was made by your mayor, Artanboss—”
“Arthandos, love.”, Aager corrected her kindly.
“Yes, him. He sent word to our Bremorel to find me and tell me about this. What should I do? I have more than enough work, bargaining with Mab and Titania so they would cooperate..”, she said like she wanted to cry. “I mean, they can barely tolerate one other in even in my secret Silent Forest. Now I bargain with Mab so she would refrain from her usual winters, and beg Titania so she would breathe life and warmth to these lands so the refugees will not freeze and die, and neither wants to give consent without wanting something from the other! They only agreed thus far because I told them, should either refuse, Mab can live her best winters when the Orken bring their destruction and kill all her Winter Feys and I told Titania that she could enjoy her summers once the same Orken totally burn her Perch and kill her nymphs and dryads who live there.”
Aager splurted some of his coffee!
“You threatened Mab and Titania?”, he stared at her, somewhat aghast and about to laugh.
Inshala’s face went red.
“I.. might have.. just a little..”
“That was awesome, love.”, he said happily. “But I think you should lead all the druids and witches and whatnots of both parties as you are the only one among them that have seen the bigger picture and look out what’s best for the world and the people in general, rather than their individual self-interests. Though I think you should make sure you have their oaths that they will follow your lead, should they want you to lead them.”
“I don’t want any more responsibility and you want to bind them to me with oaths?”, she pouted.
“We all must do what we must, love. And we are all running out of time.”
Inshala pouted some more and Aager put his bitter coffee down, leaned over the small table, and kissed her pretty pout.
“I am off, love.”, he said with one of his rare smiles. “It has been a wonderful night, a delicious breakfast, and even a better kiss. I will meet you here at the second toll of the bell, afternoon.”
Inshala stood where she sat, a demure, happy smile on her face.
Then she blinked.
“Ow no..”, she moaned. “I forgot to ask him if the coffee was alright.”
“I forgot how many spoons I put.. Again!“
✱ ✱ ✱
Will you honor us, Lady Inshala?”, asked an elderly elf in some old and saggy brown robes.
“I will honor everyone who comes in peace.”, replied the little girl, blushing furiously, for the elf bowing before her was at least one thousand five hundred years older than her. “Sir. Please. I am the Ritual Guardian, for the forest has spoken. But I lack the years and the wisdom for such respect.”
“No, Ritual Guardian. The forest has chosen you, precisely for those reasons. Mortals may choose as their wont. Nature chooses to her need.”, said the elderly elf and there was a rumble of agreement among the other druids, both elf and human, young and old, and the few shamans, all standing in a huge, rune laid circle, far out of the town, and all staring at her in wonder, something Inshala found quite uncomfortable and rather embarrassing.
The witches at the back, a score or so in number, all wearing masks or veils, however, stood silent.
Inshala looked back to make sure the two rangers were still there; Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel and Ranger Master Moorat, who had been assigned to her for the duration of this meeting, though whose idea it had been to assign them to her in the first place, she didn’t know, though she had some implicating suspicions about it. She and her hubby, Aager, would have words about this later, at length..
“It wasn’t me, love.”, she heard Aager whisper in her mind.
“It.. it wasn’t?”, she asked a bit baffled.
“As much as I would claim my hand in this, I have no jurisdiction over the rangers of Serenity Home. Yes, they are bound to report to me, but I can not give them orders, and I can even prove it!”, Aager said and gave Inshala the impression that he was smiling.. sort of smugly.
“I would like to see how you can prove that, all the way from the sheriff’s office, my Aager.”, she replied with a little sniff.
“Morel.”, Aager said.
“What about her?”, she asked a bit confused.
“Is she scowling and fuming?”
“Well. No. She looks.. happier than I remember her from our time at Themalsar.”
“There you have it, love. Had I given her the order, she’d be glaring and breathing fire, because both she and her cousin, Laila, very much dislike me and hate it when I order them around.”, he said, the impression of his smugness more apparent now.
“They would have liked you if you hadn’t inperodated.. incarocated.. imperomated—”, she said and faltered.
“Uhhmm.. Interrogated them?”
“Yes, that..”, she said blushing furiously. “In that tent when they were wounded after their fight against the wolves, all those years ago.”
“Wait a minute.”, Aager said. “How could you possibly know about that?”
A long, ‘oops’ sort of silence settled over the conversation.
“You.. you got your knife back that evening, didn’t you?”, she mumbled, her blush turning into a very hot flush now.
“That.. that was you!”
“Yes.”, Inshala replied with a very small voice.
“I knew it! I KNEW IT! AND THOSE IDIOTS INSISTED ON NOT TELLING ME ANYTHING!“, Aager fumed. “And you were there all along..”
“Well, I only joined the attack against the wolves when they both were hurt because they didn’t know me and I was in my saber-tooth tiger form and feared I would either be a distraction or a source of fear causing them to attack me as well.”
“And it was you who healed them and washed and braided their hair!”
“My master did most of the healing. But yes. I did wash their hair and braided them as well. I am sorry my Aager, but they were wearing their hair wrong!”
“And.. you were at the tent afterward as well?”
“Well.. not inside the tent.. Just outside. They were hurt so badly and I know hurt very well and felt so sorry for them and wanted to be sure they were alright. That’s when you came and started intorodating them..”
Inshala got the distinct impression that Aager was ‘victory dancing’ in her head!
“Umm..”, she said. “If I’d known you were this curious about it, I promise, I would have told you about it before. But many things happened after we met in the forest years later, and..”
“And I didn’t want to scare you..”
“Well. I did follow you around when you and my Father, along with the hunters and rangers had gone to kill the rabid wolves, and later, when we were following those bad men that had killed my Father and burned your town. It.. makes me look.. scary.. I would have been scared if someone snuck around behind me like that..”, she said, a bit mortified.
“Love. Being followed around and stalked by you was one of the better things that has ever happened to me.”, Aager admitted freely. “As for why Bremorel and Moorat are there, I might have an idea as to who sent them to safeguard you.”
“Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Udoorin’s father.”
“That was very nice of him but.. he wouldn’t have known about this meeting..”
“I might have mentioned it to him and insinuated that keeping the Ritual Guardian —our Ritual Guardian— safe and sound was of utmost importance..”, he replied, not without a small amount of smug.
“Ow, my Aager.”, Inshala sighed. “You could have just told me, you know. I am not a disagreeable girl, after all.”
“No, love. You are not. But that meeting isn’t only a happy gathering between druids and witches. It also concerns the rest of us. Think of Bremorel and Moorat as representatives of Serenity Home.”
“I do not mind Bremorel is here, my Aager. But Ranger Master Moorat is.. scary.. And he is scowling at everyone!”
“That’s Moorat for you. But he is a good man at heart. I think. His sister was Sheriff Standorin’s wife, and Udoorin’s mother. She became very ill when Udoorin was at a very young age and died. Moorat and the sheriff are always scowling because they still miss her.”, Aager said quietly.
“Owww.. That is so sad. I shall speak of this matter with him after this meeting. I sense he has words to say and they have been inside him for many years now.”, Inshala promised.
“Do be careful, love. Moorat might be a good man, but he doesn’t have all that good manners and his mouth is rather foul.”
“I doubt he can add any more to what I have already heard from the woodsmen in my youth, my Aager, but I shall be careful.”
A moment of smoldering silence fell and Inshala immediately regretted what she’d just said.
“One day, love, and soon, I believe you and I are going to visit those woodsmen up north.”, Aager said with a too steady voice.
“No need, my Aager. Really. Nothing good can come from such a visit. What is done is done. I did what I did and went near their homes to fix their broken and hurt animals when my Father clearly warned me not to. And just as he warned, I made their sins, my sins. I do not regret my choices, nor the consequences of my choices. I do regret theirs, for I was the cause of it. The woodsmen there always live in fear because their lives might end at any time and without warning; the tree they cut might fall on them and crush them, a wild animal might attack and eat them, a marauding band of orcs or goblins, or worse might raid them and slay them.. They suffer the harshest of winters and could easily die, frozen and brittle.. Being so far away from help has made them wary of everyone and everything that isn’t them. Yet they still are there, because there, they are free and no one tells them what to do. Vengeance, my Aager, is merely a lazy form of grief..”, she said mutely.
Aager did not reply for some time. When he spoke, his voice was kinder, though as steady and even as it had just been.
“You, my Inshala, are a wonder, you are. I shall not go after them. But should they come after you as they did before, I shall not allow you to suffer their sins again.”
That said, Inshala felt Aager’s presence leave..
She sighed and turned to the men and women, elf and human, all much, much older than she.
“I shall accept your offer to lead, but not your offer to command. We, druids and shamans, are free. From nature, we take only what we need, and we return back to her willingly. That is who we are. And that is what makes us, and no ill-begotten Orken nor their foul demon masters may take this away from us. Should you acknowledge my lead, I shall require your consent. We are free. But we must work and work in concert to stay free. Will you all concur on this?”, she asked quietly.
There was a murmur of awed surprise as the druids stared at the little girl in wonder.
Yes. The forest had chosen her as her guardian, and this was the reason. Her wisdom was merely the excuse.
One by one, they approached her and bowed, declaring their devotion and allegiance.
“Thank you all.”, Inshala said, looking down at her own small palms, very much embarrassed. “Let us all, then, gather our collective wisdom and put them to words at the first toll of this very night, and see what knowledge we have, where we are most needed, and what we may do about them.”
The druids and the shamans all nodded and quietly left.
When they were gone, only the witches remained.
Someone grunted in disgust behind her and that was the only sound she heard from Ranger Master Moorat.
One of them, a very elderly, crooked old hag of a woman with a gnarled old cane took a few steps forward.
“We are not some tree-hugging druid or some simple-minded shaman, little girl.”, she said and Bremorel’s soft, throaty voice immediately riposted!
“Careful, witch. Should you try and insult the Ritual Guardian, I shall personally make sure it’s the last thing you do.”
“We are not afraid of you, nor your kind, Bremorel Songsteel.”, spat back the old witch.
“I do not require your fear of me nor my kind, hag. You can frisk or frolic while I cut you for all I care. Know this, however, you might get away from the Ritual Guardian, for she is kind and forgiving and has a great heart, but there is no place on earth you can run nor hide from me nor my kind. And should you want to test us, you shall never see us coming. Only die by our steel. And we shall bring the full might of the Temple Guardians upon you, also!”, she replied coldly.
A grim silence fell over the witches, for nothing the ranger lieutenant had said was bravado. She had pronounced exactly what she would do. Period.
“Ranger Lieutenant.”, Inshala said quietly. “Please. We are all here under the threat of total annihilation by the Orken. We need each other, more than ever.”
The old witch stared at her for a moment, her veil shuffling rapidly.
“Your master, Cathber, did us great disservice by banishing our kin from the Ritual Forest. This needs to be addressed.”
“My master banished your kind from Ritual Forest because your elders sided with Themalsar during the first war. And along with his warlocks did they bind the spirits of the fallen, tormenting them and driving them mad and sent them against the elves, the humans, the dwarves, and the gnomes.”, Inshala replied mutely. “Those spirits, bound and mad, stayed there for eight hundred years, howling in despair. I felt them all, as I brought down that mad priest’s temple down. And after so many centuries, were those poor spirits finally free.”
“What’s done is done. We can not be held responsible for the deeds of our ancestors. We must be allowed to return to our lands.”, the old witch snarled.
“The land is not yours. It never was. Land and sky belong to nature.”, Inshala said. “We all are mere guests, here.”
“Then there is nothing to speak here. We shall take our leave and return to our homes in exile.”, the witch declared.
“Return or stay. That is yours to decide. But should you persistent on the mistakes of your elders and join the enemy as they did before, I shall make sure you will be the last of your kind for nature hates demons because they are foul and they are evil, yet they are also not of this world. You and your kin, however, are, and nature abhors more, that which so thoroughly betrays her own world.”, Inshala said and there wasn’t a trace of a threat in her voice. She said it as it was and as a matter of fact.
“You give us nothing, yet want everything. You give no carrot, yet you show us the stick.”, hissed the hag.
“I do not do carrots, nor do I do sticks. I am nature. I balance. And balance does not offer bribes nor favors. Should you want to live in a world free of demons, you must bleed for it, just like everybody else, for I have offered nothing to the druids, nor the shamans, much like nothing was offered to me.”
“A challenge!”, another witch said from behind.
A murmur rippled among the witches.
“Yes. A challenge, then.”, said the old hag.
“A challenge for what?”, Inshala asked.
“A challenge of yield to see if you are fit to be the Ritual Guardian!”
Inshala paused for a moment.
“I did not choose to be what I am. I was chosen.”
“So you say. Face one of our kind and prove yourself!”, cried the old witch triumphantly. “Should you lose, you shall step down and will no longer be the Ritual Guardian, and we will be allowed to return to Ritual Forest.”
“Nothing of what you just said made any sense, and the fact that you do not understand what being a Ritual Guardian is or the workings of the world around you, is proof that you shouldn’t be dabbling with any magic, let alone with spirits. But it is apparent you will not understand even should I explain it to you because you are not here to understand. You are here to make demands for the things you want but do not deserve and without wanting to bleed or sweat for them. So I will ask only what would entail should I win?”, she asked calmly.
“What would you want?”, the old witch asked.
Inshala didn’t miss a beat.
“You, all of you, shall join our fight against the Orken and their demon masters for so long as they remain a threat and be bound to someone of my choosing, and never shall you ensnare any spirits to torment them ever again. Should any of you break this agreement or fail to uphold it, you will die, all of you, by your own spirits. This is my carrot!”
A dead, choking silence fell over the witches and Inshala heard a pair of elated snorts from behind her.
“Girl, if that was the carrot, I don’t ever want to see what you would do with a stick.”, snarked Bremorel.
“We.. we shall decide whom to send..”, the old witch said with a deflated voice.
“I shall await your choice. Now, I have other matters to attend.”, Inshala replied and calmly rose, and left the circle.
“I am not sure what just happened, girl, but what you just did was dangerous.”, Bremorel said with a frown. “Witches are bitches and not a good lot. I’d rather they didn’t help us.”
“If they do not help us, they will help the enemy, dear Bremorel. Yes, witches can be bothersome, and dangerous, but they must know their place. And for them to know that, they must first learn it, then earn it. My Father had very good reasons for banishing them and it would seem, after all these centuries, they still haven’t learned neither their place nor any humility.”, Inshala replied.
“Lady Inshala is right.”, Moorat said with a vicious scowl. “As much as I detest them, you don’t want them hating you more than you hate them. In his very long life, Master Cathber did many great things. Kicking the witches out of Ritual Forest was one of his best, though.”
She didn’t know this Moorat and he was a scary man.
“Would you give us a moment with Ranger Master Moorat, dear Bremorel? I must consult him on a personal matter.”, she said tentatively.
“Of course.”, Morel replied, though she did give her a queasy look.
Moorat was a broad-shouldered man but not very tall and he still looked down at the little girl. His ranger outfit seemed harassed and make-due, but a closer inspection would reveal, they were, in fact, immaculately kept, just like his bow and great sword he carried across his shoulder.
He did, however, have a truly evil-looking face.
“You display wisdom beyond your years, young lady. I am impressed. Reminds me of someone I knew, once.”, he said in his harsh voice.
“Thank you, sir.”, replied Inshala a bit shyly.
“Ah. I merit a ‘Sir’, now do I?”, grinned Moorat and his already evil-looking features became even more sinister. “This should brighten Stan’s day!”
Inshala flinched again.
“I.. I don’t think you are as you seem.”
“No, little girl. I am exactly as I seem.”, growlaughed the ranger master!
“Would you say dear Bremorel is a good person?”, she asked.
“A bit silly at times. And can start a fight in the blink of an eye, but yes, I would say she is a good girl. The best greenhorn I ever had. Well, not anymore. She’s a lieutenant now.”
“Greenhorn?”, Inshala asked, inadvertently reaching up to touch her own horns.
“Ahh. Bad choice of words there. I meant student.”
“There you have it, then, sir.”, she replied.
“There I have what?”, Moorat asked a bit confused.
“At the hands of a decent man, good becomes better. At the hands of a lecher, bad becomes worse. I heard people tell of her sad story and how she lost her parents and how she was after that. I look at her now and I see a dear sister; smart, full of life, and fiercely loyal to her friends and I would like to think you had a hand in that.”, she said quietly.
Moorat stared at her..
“Well.. maybe.. no one needs to know, though. Are we clear on that, young lady?”, he said flustered and uncomfortable.
“Your secret is safe with me, sir.”, she said and very quietly, she added. “I.. am sorry about your sister.”
“I.. yes.. well.. thank you for your concern..”
“You must miss her dearly.”, she said with the same hushed tone.
“Many who knew her, miss her dearly.”, replied Moorat with a similarly low voice.
“Udoorin was my friend and was always kind and polite to me. I do not remember my mother. She died when I was barely born. But I would very much like to hear who his mother was. I.. would be much in your debt and be honored if you would tell me your sister, Limnia Karya.”
“You know her name?”
“I did not, sir. But to those who know how to listen, the earth we walk.. she speaks us certain names for she does not forget those who do much harm and trample it in hubris, nor does she forget those who are much loved and softly have walked it..”, she replied.
“Limnia.. my dear sister.. did walk it softly..”, whispered Moorat, staring far into the distance. “..and was something else. And I couldn’t even tell her how much I loved her before she died..”
It was long past the first toll of the bell that afternoon when Inshala returned back to the town, accompanied only by a silence Bremorel.
When they entered Serenity Home, the ranger lieutenant gave her a hug and told her to come over for dinner some time, and if she really must, that she could also bring her hubby, Aager, along too, but that it was perfectly fine and she wouldn’t be vexed at all if she didn’t..
Inshala smiled at her and simply said, “We belong.”
Bremorel stared at her with this look on her face and said, “Well, that must suck!”
Inshala smiled again and started towards home.
It was nearing the second toll afternoon and she didn’t think she should keep her hubby waiting.
✱ ✱ ✱
What’s the plan of action, here?”, Aager asked in his growling voice.
“Plan of action? Those are too big words for me, my Aager. I am but a simple girl who needs ranger escort to find her way to a meeting. Perhaps we should stop by the temple and ask Bremorel to join us, again.”, said Inshala with a mischievous spark in her eyes.
Aager fumed a bit but didn’t bite back.
“I am sorry.”, he said. “I wasn’t trying to be bossy nor was it my intention to patronize you.”
“My Aager. I never mind it when you want to boss me, nor patronize me. Because you never do them out of whim, nor to feel good about yourself. But I need your respect and your trust as much as I want your love and your care. I have your love for I can feel it. I have your care for I see it. But you must show your respect and your trust by your deeds. It is true I am not as smart as you are, but if I must fall, then I should fall because one day, I surely will. It is the nature of Mortals to fall and hurt themselves. That is how we learn to look where we are going. I am young and silly and have fallen many times, and still, I forget to look where I step, so to speak, but if that is the only way for me to learn, then I deserve to keep on falling until I don’t.”, she replied kindly.
“That is asking a lot, love.”, Aager said, still fuming.
“To ask for your respect and trust?”, Inshala asked a bit baffled.
“No. To let you risk so many falls..”
Inshala smiled at him.
“Sometimes, I will fall, my Aager. And sometimes you will. We both are still very new at belonging and have a lot to learn. As for the matter at hand, I think it would be better if you do all the talking since this is a matter between the Winter Knight and the Summer Knight. I will only speak should you require some vital information perpaiming.. perkaiming.. per—”, she sighed with a flustered resignation. “I forgot the word!”
“Pertaining?”, offered Aager.
“Yes, that.. perpaiming the fey and the courts..”
They walked in amiable silence for a bit and Inshala looked up to see the vague visage of the Gull’s Perch, lost in the distance and mists. It was several days travel away, but still looked beautiful; a single vertical rock-like mountain, some half a mile at its base and climbed up and up and disappeared in the clouds.
She sighed and Aager nudged her.
“What’s up?”, he asked.
“The Gull’s Perch.”, she replied simply.
The Winter Knight looked up too and stared at the majestic scene.
“What of it?”, he asked.
“It’s been quite some time I haven’t been there. The last time I was, my Father was killed because I was busy playing with the fey that live there. Things could have turned out very differently had I been at home and not there.”
Aager didn’t really know what to say to that. It appeared, guilt was something that logic just couldn’t wash off. So he did the next best thing; he reached and held the little girl by the waist and pulled her tightly to himself, and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
“Give it some time, love. It won’t fade, but it will be tolerable.”
Inshala leaned closer to him and the Guest’s Inn came into view.
“Should something start here, I want you to leave and go home, please.”, he said in his growling voice.
“And you truly think I will abandon you?”, Inshala replied with a frown.
“You won’t. But you can’t be seen, nor be part of a direct conflict between the two opposing knights. I am thinking neither Mab nor Titania will appreciate that. I don’t want you to lose all your good standing with either court.”, he said seriously.
Inshala did one of her funny snorts!
“I love it when you try to get me out of harm’s way using this thing you call logic. Has it ever worked?”
“Every time.”, Aager said blandly. “Because you are a smart and sensible girl.”
“Ow.. I like where this heading.”, Inshala smiled.
“And I am not the sort of guy who falls for just any pretty face. The girl I love must also be sensible, logical, and can see reason when it’s offered to her..”
“..and has the strong will to ignore it when she deems it necessary!”, she finished smugly.
Perhaps it was time for Aager to sigh.
So he did..
“Do not worry my Aager. You know I shall do my best not to hinder you. Just like I know you will do your best not to bind me, and just like we both know neither shall abandon the other, no matter the cost. I may live with the wrath of Mab and Titania. But I have no desire to live alone nor to live without you.”
Aager pushed the door of the Guest’s Inn and scanned the large room full of tables, chairs, and stools, to see the inn was void of people. Even the bar and the bar attendants were gone. He looked up to made sure the stairs leading up were clear, and entered.
It was perhaps the only time he had seen the inn this empty.
Accept for the one table near the center and next to one of the shuttered windows. The inn’s saloon was not dark, per se, but it was decidedly dim.
He looked at the occupied table and saw a figure in dark brown robes, a hood, and a full face mask. The man didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons on him, though Aager knew robes could be deceiving and could hide any number of nasty and pointy things. The man didn’t seem to be large nor tall, but only gave the illusion of size due to the robes, the hood, the mask.
And he wasn’t alone.
A lithe figure say next to him. She wore a tight, dark purple dress-skirts, a polished steel bodice-girdle emphasizing her rather shapely breasts, several necklaces, all accessorized with dozens of multi-colored beads, any number of bracelets with similarly colored grains, and her long, slim fingers were decorated with more rings than she had digits and though her face was covered with a heavy veil, she gave the distinct impression that she was the kind of girl who was comfortable with her own figure but very much liked to be further appreciated for it..
Without further due, he pushed the door wider and stepped aside as Inshala walked in and gave the inn a quick glance herself. She silently nodded at him and they both ghosted towards the only occupied table.
Aager let Inshala slide into the double bench and took his place next to her where she would face the well-accessorized girl, and he would face the man in his dark brown robes, pulled up hood and mask —the Summer Knight.
The four sat there for a long moment as everyone tried to assess their counter-part.
To Aager’s surprise, though, it wasn’t the man in the dark brown robes who spoke first.
“What’s she doing here? Why is she even here?”, asked the girl sitting next to the Summer Knight.. quite viciously.
“I am the Ritual Guardian. I am here as the moderator.”, Inshala said simply.
“I do not recognize this self-imposed title. I do not recognize the Ritual Guardian!”, she hissed.
“Your recognition is neither required nor deemed. Your ignorance of the world you live in, however, is a bit worrisome.”, Inshala replied quietly.
“I doubt you are in any position to lecture me, little girl.”, the girl spat waspishly.
“You are a small as I am.”, Inshala said, trying not to snort.
“I am older than you are!”, the girl hissed.
The Summer Knight sighed.
“And your age has not brought you the wisdom it has promised. Perhaps you should wait a few more years?”, Inshala smiled happily.
“I could take you any day, any time!”
“I don’t think so, Witch!”, Inshala replied calmly.
A choked silence fell over the spat.
“Perhaps we should go and come back some other time.”, Aager said in his ‘quiet’ voice. “As much as others might enjoy a good catfight, I don’t, and neither do I have the time for it..”
“I am sorry, Sir Knight.”, Inshala said, a bit flushed. “I was not name-calling her. Merely defining her for what she really is; a witch! And she is trying to rile us so she could bring her spirits into play and axe this meeting which she knows she is not a part of. She is not fey, she is not a vassal of either court, let alone Summer, and is recognized by neither, and hence, unhappy, which is understandable. By refusing to recognize my title, she hopes to gain a seat at this table as someone who does not have a title herself. What she does not comprehend, is the importance of this meeting. She wants recognition, yet she defies the same from others. Much like the rest of her kind, she turns a deliberate blind eye to the title of Ritual Guardian, which I did not bestow upon myself, as it is not a Mortal whim, and hence, can not be self-imposed, as she is also ignorant of what it entails, much like she is interfering a business between forces as great as Mab and Titania, for each knight here represents one or the other, while she represents no other than her own self-interests.”
Aager did not turn to look at her, though he very much wanted to. That had been one awesome smack-down and he could literally feel the veiled girl seething with hate.
He just stared at the man sitting across from him.
“You asked me why I was here and I have given my reason. Why are you here?”, she asked the girl in the dark, purple dress skirts. “If you so wanted to be part of this meeting, all you had to do was to ask nicely.”
“I am here to make sure you stay out of this meeting and do not cheat!”, the girl said viscously.
“Unlike you, I am actually part of this meeting. You may consult the Queens on this matter if you like. I hold Mab’s personal favor and am bound to Titania due to my druid’s circle. Also, I carry fey blood. Hence, I do not cheat, nor do I require it. Had you known fey, you would also have known it is quite not possible for us to lie. We leave such despicable acts of vile deceit to Mortals.”, Inshala replied with a prim little sniff.
“I.. am sorry for that last part, my Aager.”, she said abashedly.
“No, no. By all means do what it is you are doing, love. Smack her down to your heart’s content. I am enjoying this.”, came Aager’s mirthful voice.
“Please, my Aager. This is important. I have to learn this witch where she belongs amongst us and that she and her ilk are not above others and neither are their actions beyond consequences. A something they have failed to learn after all these centuries when they sided with Themalsar during the first war. Should they want back into the ‘fold’ they must earn it. And to earn it, they must first respect the living and the spirits they enjoy tormenting.”
“I am content, love. Really. By destroying her, you are destroying the summer boy for me.”, he replied smugly.
“Aager Fogstep!”, she replied reprovingly. “He is not the summer boy. He is the Summer Knight.”
“A knight, he may be. A boy, he certainly is. Something about him tells me I should know him.”
“When will Mortals ever learn to use their noses?”
And that little reprimand hit Aager over the head and he suddenly figured out what it was that he had sensed about the boy;
The boy smelled of flour.. and pastry!
“Dervel Stratler..”, he stated.
And noted the man in the dark brown robes, the hood, and the mask stiffen.
“I.. beg your pardon?”, he stammered.
“How is your father?”, Aager asked with an amused tone, from behind his own half-mask.
“I have no idea what you are talking about!”, the Summer Knight stammered some more.
“I challenge you!”, hissed the veiled girl.
“On what grounds? You hold no title of your own. You represent no one other than yourself, and you have nothing to bargain that I would want, should you lose.”, Inshala said a bit baffled.
“I represent the witches of Ritual Forest!”, snarled the girl.
“You want to interfere?”, Aager asked the very young Dervel, mildly. “Or would you rather I did. Because as much as I am the Winter Knight, I also represent the law here and will not have an open fight on my watch. I will take her and you into custody and throw you both to jail and keep you there until such time you are both brought before the mayor whilst he rules a judgment for causing public disturbance during a time of war.”
The Summer Knight didn’t say anything.
But Aager got the impression he wanted to be anywhere but here at that very moment.
“Should I win, you shall accept the same stipulations to step down and no longer be the Ritual Guardian, and we will be allowed to return to Ritual Forest.”, the witch bit savagely.
“What is a spupilation?”, Inshala asked quickly.
“Stipulation, love. It means, condition.”, replied Aager.
“Well, why doesn’t she just say that?”, she fumed.
“Love, she really wants this fight and isn’t going to back down. She is vicious and really wants to hurt you. Should that happen—”
“No, my Aager. You may not interfere in this matter. At this moment, you are the Winter Knight. Should you interfere, Mab will not be happy. And this is something I must do. We need all the help we can get. Including the witches. Because if we don’t get them on our side, the enemy will get them on theirs, exactly the way it happened at Themalsar. I want them to see and to recognize the excuse I am presenting to them to give them their place amongst us.”, Inshala said desperately. “Please..”
“Very well. You have my love and my care. Now I ‘deed’ to show my respect and trust.. by doing nothing..”
“You are here, my Aager. That is something all on its own.”, she replied with a smile.
“Then I put forth the same stipulus.. stickilus.. stimelus..”
The veiled girl laughed.
“You can’t even pronounce a simple word, yet you claim to be the Ritual Guardian?”, she snarked.
“I claim nothing. But I can pronounce your full name, Be’heire Crowfeather, the daughter of an outcast wood elf witch, much like yourself.”
The veiled girl, Be’heire Crowfeather, shut up!
“It shall be a duel to yield and you, all of you, shall join our fight against Orken and their demon masters for so long as they remain a threat and be bound to someone of my choosing, and never shall you ensnare another spirit to torment them ever again. Should any of you break this agreement or fail to uphold it, you will die, all of you, by your own spirits —these were the exact conditions I put forth earlier and they still stand and you and all your kind will abide by these stipumations. Should I win but your ilk refuses to acknowledge you as their champion, I shall assume they have broken the agreement and will call upon all the elves, the rangers, the dwarves, the ogres, the wild, and the fey to bring down their judgment upon you!”
Be’heire froze where she was.
“Honey, please.”, said Dervel. “This really is unnecessary and quite pointless.”
“I disagree..”, Be’heire hissed between clenched teeth.
The Summer Knight signed again.
“Let’s go!”, the witch sneered and got up.
“Very well.”, agreed, Inshala, and also rose.
“Not in my town.”, Aager said quietly.
“Have your precious town, Knight!”, Be’heire sneered and stalked out of the inn, followed closely by Inshala.
Dervel sat where he was and his shoulders slumped noticeably.
“Well..”, he said. “That went well..”
“I have never blamed another man for his choice in women, young man.”, Aager noted. “But yours seems to have issues.”
“She is normally a very kind and sweet girl. She is an outcast, though, both from her own people and Ritual Forest and by no other than Lady Inshala’s master, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig himself. I would agree that his reasons were very much justified, but his banishment did leave behind many discontent witches, all of whom have a chip on their shoulders. Be’heire is young. Very young, even by elf standards, but quite powerful and always feels the need to prove herself. I really hope this does not turn any uglier than it already has.”, the young man said honestly.
“If she hurts my Inshala, I will kill her. You know that right?”, Aager said and there wasn’t a tint of a threat in his tone. He had merely stated a simple fact.
“That’s why I am here, I suppose. To make sure that does not happen.”
“I will kill you too, then.”, Aager said, with the same exact tone.
“I suppose you will try. But I must warn you. Starting a war between the courts is not a wise course of action. Not now, anyway.”, Dervel said carefully.
“I care little for the courts, and this is not a Winter-Summer issue anymore. It is one man avenging his woman. If you can’t do that for yours, then you are not much of a man, young Dervel.”
“You represent the law, Aager Fogstep. You are not above it—”
“You misunderstand me, boy. I shall slay her and you, then sit happily in my jail for the remainder of my life!”, Aager replied coldly.
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala came to a stop in the center of a clearing, somewhere not too deep in the Ritual Forest. The trees surrounding the clearing were brittle with cold, and snow blanketed everything in sight. A large boulder stood, sticking vertically out of the frozen ground somewhere a bit to one end of the clearing and she went and stood near it and waited.
Soon enough, Be’heire appeared on the other side of the nearly fifty feet long and forty feet wide relief, scowling at her.
“Go ahead, Ritual Guardian. Let’s see what you got!”, she sneered at the half-fey.
“Very well, Be’heire. I would have wished we settled this peacefully. The true enemy approaches as we speak and they will not care if I am a druid, and neither will they show mercy because you are a witch. They will slaughter us with equal abandon.”, Inshala said sincerely.
“We are past talking, little girl.”, Be’heire spat.
“No. We are not. There have been no crimes done between us. No notable insults have been lashed that demands a retribution or rebuke. We are, at this very moment, at an agreeable standstill.”, Inshala corrected.
“You are just like your old master. Talk and talk and talk and nothing else. He was a fool. And so are you!”, the witch said with vehemence.
Inshala frowned a bit.
“Why would you bring my Father into this. He is not here.”
“I could summon his spirit anytime and—”
Be’heire Crowfeather never got to finish that particular sentence.
In the blink of an eye, giant grasping vines stabbed out of the ground sending dirt and debris and covered everything, a hundred feet in every direction, and they kept growing!
Be’heire yelped and jumped to avoid being ensnared and yelped again as she stepped on sharp, thick thorns, three inches each, sticking out of the frozen ground. She gritted her teeth and summoned her bound spirits and sent them after the fey girl she could barely see through the cacophony of wild growth.
The angry spirits shrieked and speared at Inshala, who just stood there staring angrily at the witch.
“You and your ilk never learned when to stop at foolish. I may not tutor all your ilk, but I shall do this one favor to you. You may not respect me when I am done, but you will respect the world you live in and the spirits you bind..”
..and stepped right into the large, vertical rock!
The spirits slammed the boulder, shrieking and clawing at it to no effect..
..just as Inshala got out of the other side of the rock and released another spell.
The spirits went after her again but she stepped back into the rock!
One of the trees, right behind Be’heire came alive, and with a wide swing of its branches, it struck the witch, sending her sprawled deeper into the gnarling, thorny vines. Be’heire shrieked in pain as her head spun from the savage attack of the tree coupled with all the stabbing thorns and one of the entwining vines had gotten a very painful grasp of one of her ankles and had started twisting it at a very disorienting angle.
“Yield, Be’heire.”, Inshala said sternly, as she stepped out of the rock. “I could bring much lightning and great fires upon you, right now, yet I have not.”
Be’heire cast a spell and flew!
Just to be slammed, very hard, back down and into the frozen ground by the thick, thorny vine twisting her ankle. Something snapped and she howled in pain as her eyes teared and she lost control of her spirits.
With shrieks of mad triumph, the spirits went after their tormentor!
“NO!”, snapped Inshala. “You may leave in peace and be free, but you may not afflict your madness upon another Mortal, even though she may deserve it.”
The mad spirits hovered over the tear-streaken witch, clawing at the air, an inch away from her face.
But slowly, they drew back..
..and faded away.
And Be’heire pointed a finger at Inshala and snarled.
A beam of pure, black darkness shot out of her finger and slammed at Inshala..
Far away, back at Serenity Home, and in the Guest’s Inn, Aager Fogstep felt an awful sense of dread wash over him.
For a long, dreary moment, he felt his own heart stop!
He tried to breathe but nothing happened.
His vision blurred and the inn’s dim saloon darkened..
..then the dim returned, his vision cleared, his heart fluttered and started to beat again, and the sense of dread was gone.
Aager Fogstep, the Winter Knight..
And the Summer Knight never knew what hit him..
One moment he was calmly sitting across the man in his dark leathers, the next, he was hurled across the room as a savage blast of sonic winter slammed him right into the wall, at the far end of the inn!
And the Winter Knight was upon him, a shimmering, ghostly blade put to task right at the Summer Knight’s throat..
“Wha— What are you doing?”, Dervel exclaimed.
“You have broken faith between the courts!”, he snarled, his eyes burning with blue, arctic flames. “Your woman cast a death curse upon the Ritual Guardian during a duel of yield! I warned you what I would do should she harm my Inshala. Hence shall I start with you!”
Young Dervel started, quite horrified as the Winter Knight drew blood.
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala staggered as the tree of life she tendered deep in her soul shuddered and trembled and many of its beautiful, purple-green leaves shriveled and died.
She gasped for breath and felt her heart flutter and the afternoon sun dimmed down to a pin’s point as she felt herself drown.
“INSHALA!”, screamed a voice in her mind and she thought she knew that voice.
And with something akin to panic, she held on to that voice, her Aager’s voice, and pulled herself up..
..and the light returned back to the forest.
“You.. you cast a death curse in a duel of yield?”, she asked the bleeding and squirming girl, shredded in the thorny vines.
“I.. am so sorry, Inshala.. I swear.. I didn’t mean to!”, she whimpered.
“You did mean to, Be’heire. You can not cast a death curse without intent, for one is the prerequisite of the other. You broke the agreement, the rules of the engagement and you broke faith. And now, not only your life, but the life of your beloved man hangs in balance.”, she asked unable to comprehend what the girl bleeding in the thorns had just done.
“What was it that was so important that you would want to take the life of another, Be’heire? What did I do to you or your ilk that you would release your death curse on me?”
“Your.. your master ruined us. He and his druids leveled our homes and burned our fields. He banished us from our lands.. We were left homeless.. We were made outcasts..”, the witch moaned bitterly.
“You never learned. Only blamed. Your ilk sided with the vilest of men and the foulest of fiends and demons and caused death by the thousands and brought unimaginable suffering upon Mortals at Themalsar. Yet you still refuse to face the consequences of your actions. Your ilk must learn to own their sins, should you want a place among Mortals. But you, Be’heire, what you did had nothing to do with what your ilk did. You are too young to have seen nor lived their suffering. Your reason is merely an excuse for your misdemeanor and that excuse has nothing whatsoever to do with you for none of the witches that were ousted are alive today. You never suffered, and never were you troubled as an outcast, seeing as how you live, quite comfortably, in Serenity Home, for which the rest of us shall fight for, bleed for, and die for, and only you and your ilk will not..”, Inshala replied, her voice not unkind, but she hammered the stranded witch with them.
“What.. what would you know of suffering, girl?”, Be’heire sneered at her.
Inshala just looked at the witch.
Silently and still.
Then, she undid the thin straps of her dress and let it fall on the frozen ground, displaying her skinny, gaunt form.
Be’heire ogled at the little, naked girl.
Slowly, Inshala turned.
And the witch stared, quietly horrified, at the little half-fey’s whip riddled back..
“What.. what is this?”, she gasped, her eyes wide open.
“This is called suffering, Be’heire. The kind that speaks for itself. The kind that does not need to be aired and used as an excuse for my own self-interests. I made mistakes and came too near ignorant Mortals and met the consequences of my folly at their hands. I learned, at the age of eight, that everything we do has consequences, and that we must face them and own them. And so must you. I am the Ritual Guardian, Be’heire, yet those that left these abhorrent scars upon me still live, as do their sons and daughters because I chose it so even though I had the right to extract my vengeance from them. You, Be’heire, you spurned your misplaced hate upon me. You deliberately tried to kill me by leveling a death curse at me and in a duel of yield without cause nor reason.. Thus I call upon you to face your own judgment, Be’heire Crowfeather. You and all your ilk will join us and fight against the Orken and their demon masters so long as they remain a threat. And just like us, shall you bleed and die for this cause.”, she said with a steely voice and a long, thorny whip made of vines appeared in her hand. “Or I shall return your misdemeanor in kind and you shall die by my hand, right now.. And so shall your beloved mate, at the hands of the Winter Knight.”
Be’heire Crowfeather stared at the skinny, naked girl in total fear.
And Inshala’s voice cracked like a whip.
✱ ✱ ✱
What’s up, girl? You look beat!”, asked Bremorel when the little girl found her near the forest, training a new batch of Arashkan survivors.
“I need your help to find Ranger Master Moorat, dear Bremorel. And I need you to be there so he doesn’t.. get too angry with me..”, she said and she sounded as tired as she looked.
“Sure. But why? Did he say something to hurt you?”, Bremorel asked. “If he did, you shouldn’t take it too seriously. He says things, but he doesn’t mean them.”
“No, no. He was very kind to me.”, Inshala said hastily.
“Huh.”, the ranger girl said with some surprise. “Sorry I missed that. Come, he should be on the other side of the river.”
“Tis alright, gurl.”, Bremorel said, giving her a big grin.
Then she blared!
“MAL! TAKE OVER! AND THAT BLOODY TARGET DUMMY HAD BETTER BE RIDDLED WITH ARROWS WHEN I GET BACK!”
And grinned again.
“I so love smacking rookies..”
“Ranger Master Moorat, sir. The Ritual Guardian would have a word with you.”, Bremorel said after a crisp salute.
“What are you doing here, Bree? Don’t you have a batch of your own to train?”, scowled Moorat.
“I do, sir. But Lady Inshala, here—”, she began.
“Just, Inshala, please.”, Inshala said in a small voice.
“I am sorry, girl. Between us and when we are among friends, just Inshala will happen. When you are in your Ritual Guardian-thingy, you are Lady Inshala, and I’ll bash in any face that says otherwise!”
“Told you Bree was my favorite student.”, grinned Moorat. “Now. What can I do for you, young lady?”
Inshala paused for a moment before she spoke as if deciding on how she should phrase what she wanted to say.
Then she took a deep, pained breath and spoke.
“Ranger Master Moorat. The witches have agreed to join us in our fight against the Orken.”
“That was quick. And great news.. I think..”, Moorat said dubiously.
“I have given their command to you.”
A dead silence settled and Moorat displayed the ugliest face, anyone, in a thousand miles in any direction had seen!
Bremorel held her breath for as long as she could, then snorted.
“Why.. would you do this to me?”, he asked Inshala with a blackened face.
“You, sir, know the witches. Well enough to hate them and be wary of them. You are also the best qualified to know where to make the best use of them. You will sweat them, and bleed them, and be it necessary, kill them, should they stray from their given oaths. They have many skills, not unlike yours, and they know how to curse and to bring down destruction. They will be under your command until they learn ‘respect’ and earn their place amongst others.”
Moorat stared at her, feeling a bit freaked.
“Learn respect? They will never learn respect!”, he scoffed.
“Then they shall stay under your command for a very, very long time, sir.”, she said with a wan smile.
“And I believe one of them will have something to show you.”, she added quickly.
“You don’t do anything by half, do you, young lady.”, Moorat said in a deflated tone.
“No, sir. I don’t. And I pity the other half.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala woke up to something. She wasn’t sure what it was and she felt groggy and sleepy and stupid and very, very tired. Apparently, a save from a death curse left one a lot to be desired.. As opposed to outright dying..
She had come home late that night, arm-in-arm with her hubby, the Winter Knight, and just collapsed on the threadbare mattress and curled into a little ball.
Aager had stared down at her, thinking just how close she had come face to face with death, and how he had very nearly killed a seventeen-year-old boy!
He pressed his lips together in a grim expression as he pulled off his dark leather hood, his half-mask, his armor, and his weapons and put them neatly on one side of the mattress where he could easily reach for them. Then he picked up the sleeping girl and sort of pulled the blanket from under her, laid her back on the mattress, and covered her with the itchy thing.
Then he went over to the fireplace and lit it using the flint and iron sitting next to it, grabbed the small iron pot, got outside, drew some water using the old, squeaky water pump, and filled the pot, returned inside, and set the pot over the fire. He peeled some potatoes, a large onion, and several carrots and killed them into small pieces, and dumped them into the pot. Then he pulled at the cooking oil and poured some of it into the pot as well, sprinkled a few pinches of various herbs and the one Inshala called Kumse Beetles, though he wasn’t sure if she was making a pun or if she was being literal. Aager thought, perhaps not every single thing had to be known between mates and lovers. A girl should have some secrets, right?
He sat next to the fire, and the red-orange light from the fireplace danced and gave a harsh, angry cast on one side of his face and hid the other as he stared at the curled shape of the girl sleeping drained just a few feet away..
..and he thought about the events of that day and what they would entail in the long run.
Indeed, Aager hadn’t made any friends that day.
He had very nearly sliced open young Dervel’s throat, from ear to ear in his madness..
He signed and checked in on the now boiling pot. Just a few more moments and the carrots should be soft enough. Potatoes were easy. It was always with the carrots.
Silently he rose, picked up the two, hand-carved bowls and checked each for any chips or cracks. Carving plates wasn’t an easy job and certainty hadn’t been for the skinny little girl. Yet she’d carved them, just for him and herself. Aager had never been a materialistic type, but for some reason, these bowls, and the other two wooden plates had turned out to become precious to him.
He unhooked the iron pot out of the fireplace and dumped some of it into either pot, produced two spoons, and dug into one while he waited for the other to cool off. He tended to ignore the blistering heat of the food he ate, but Inshala became whimpery and teared up and pouted when she burned her mouth.
He slurped the last of the juice of what remained of the stew, got up, and went over to the threadbare mattress with the other bowl, still steaming.
He sat next to the girl and set the bowl next to himself and carefully, he picked her up and sat her in his lap and close to his lean, spring-coil chest and with a small nudge, he whispered.
“A bit of a bite before you totally wink out, love. C’mon. Open up.”
When she didn’t wake, he gave her another gentle nudge.
This one got a response, though not very intelligible.
“Iam hngry but Iamalso vrysleepishhh!”, she whimpered, her words slurred.
“Yes, yes, I know you are, but you shouldn’t sleep with an empty stomach, either. Open up. C’mon. Just a few spoons..”
Inshala opened up and mechanically chewed as the Winter Knight spoon-fed her..
..until the bowl was empty.
Apparently, Aager didn’t like doing things by half, either.
He settled her back down, went outside with the bowls, the spoons, and the iron pot, and in the dead of night, and the freezing cold, he gave them all a quick wash and returned back inside and put them all in their proper place..
..and slumped under the blanket himself.
And with some innate instinct, Inshala squirmed a bit and nudged her little butt until she was comfortably snuggled up to him and he enclosed her in his arms and now, her skinny back was leaning against his chest..
It had been a few hours later that Inshala had come around, not quite sure what it had been that had woken her up. She was still lying next to Aager but was facing him..
..and both her hands were in his shirt, one touching the spring-coil muscles of his lean chest, the other, running down his marred back!
Inshala blushed a bit and looked up at Aager’s face to see if he was awake and was going to be mad at her but he was still asleep and seemed.. at peace..
“The deed is done.”, she thought happily, tinted with a certain sense of guilt and shame.
“The hands want what the hands want and go where they want!”, she said nodding with confirmation at her own, very ‘logical’ explanation in her mind.
It was then she realized.
What it was that had woken her.
It hadn’t been the warmth she felt inside the palms of her slim hands as she held them in his shirt but a certain other, ‘calloused’ warmth that spread, like some deep, smoldering fire, from her own chest, and around her once buxom, now sad and small breasts, and down.. way down the small of her back
Inshala gasped with petrified astonishment and with unyielding, throbbing exhilaration..
It was his hands..
..and they were, right now, in her shirt.