And here we go again... Some of you may remember this tale from the "pre-crash" Inn, others may not remember it at all... Either way, I've decided to re-post the Tale of the Wishgranter here at the Inn for a couple of reasons. First and foremost - it belongs here, I think (if it hadn't been for the Inn, I may have never dug the original draft out of mothballs and re-wrote it to begin with); secondly, with any luck, having it "available" may actually inspire me to continue on with the story... Comment and critique as you will (that's reason # 3 for reposting ).
Note:"The Ballad of Davren and Sorrell" as it appears in the "A Rose in Autumn" post was penned by my good friend Valerie Higgins (aka Valdary) and is used with her permission. My continued and heartfelt thanks to "The Bardess of Khieltaspana"...
On with the Tale...
Posted on 2007-03-10 at 14:08:08.
Edited on 2007-03-12 at 14:25:58 by Eol Fefalas
Part 1: The Farseer Returns to Rilshen - The Path Home
The mists broke a little as he crested one of the boulder strewn hills that spilled from the edge of the Angelspine Mountains into the rolling landscape of Silver Vale. He paused here, casting a glance back over his shoulder before making slow sweep of the land ahead. The scrub and bracken that dotted the slope of the hill eventually thickened and spread into the underbrush of a broad swath of woodlands - not a proper forest in his estimation, but enough to keep one in the shade of oak, cherry, and pine for an hour or more - and, beyond that, the wood opened again into a narrow stretch of gently breaking countryside before disappearing into a boggy marsh just beyond the Rilshen-Valis road. Along that road - just a short walk to the north and east where the rutted path bent back towards the Whippoorwill Pass through the Angelspine - could be found the Mossy Oak Inn, and it was here that he would end this journey. He smiled a little, knowing that he was to be back at the Mossy Oak in a matter of hours, and, flicking one last glance back towards the densely forested feet of the Angelspine, he shoved a hand through the dark mop of his mist soaked hair, shifted the weight of his pack - now laden with skins, coin, and other bits that had come into his possession on this most recent excursion - and descended the hill, disappearing into the thicker tendrils of roiling mist as he made for the wood and the Mossy Oak.
The old inn was as close to civilization as he liked to get without good cause - such as escorting travelers from the borders of Rilshen to wherever they may be going and, as was typical of such ventures, he was often required to accompany his charges into their destination village before receiving final payment for his services. No, he much preferred the mountains and forests of Adiroen to the so-called civilization found in the cities and towns of Man and Elf. He had been born there, after all, and raised and trained, as well. He knew the secrets of the land, the names of the trees, and the speech of the animals that dwelt there. The mountains were his father, the forests his mother, and he was brother to the rivers and the winds. He was taur'ohtar - a ranger, in the tongue of Men - and as his kind lived, so too, would the wilderlands of Adiroen. However, it was nice to sleep in a true bed on occasion, and to have a hot bath as opposed to washing in the often-cold waters of the lakes, rivers, and ponds found in the wild.
The ranger reached the far edge of the Grey Blanket Wood - as the small, forested area was known to the locals - just as the sun began to climb over the peaks of the rugged cluster of mountains known as the Iron Arm. The ruddy rock faces were now tinged with washes of pink, orange, and yellow reflected back from the wispy clouds of a brightening sky. Soon, the sun would crest the Iron Arm, burning away the mists in all but the deepest reaches of the bog, and Jando Seven-Fingers - the proprietor of the Mossy Oak - would be preparing the morning fare. In fact, the ranger had caught scent of the cook fires just moments ago and guessed that he would be arriving at the inn just as the porridge came to a bubble.
He was distracted from his reverie by the sudden rustling of foliage along the fringe of the Grey Blanket and the muted sound of a pair of powerful wings. He turned slowly and trained his brown-gold eyes on the still dark expanse of trees. A branch on a fir tree creaked and bowed as the winged creature came to rest. A pair of large, yellow eyes blinked from the darkness and regarded the ranger for a long moment. Then, with the sudden pop of air generated by beating wings, the dark shape flew from the forest and streaked towards the ranger. As it closed the distance, it thrust its legs forward, splaying its talons as it hurtled downwards towards its target.
Just as suddenly as the brown and white mottled owl had launched itself from the fringe of the wood, the ranger flexed his fingers and lifted an arm. The owl screeched loudly in the last few feet between itself and the ranger and then closed its talons firmly around the uplifted forearm. "I had begun to wonder when I would see you again," the ranger said, slowly lowering his arm to a more comfortable level, "I should have known that it would be as I neared the inn."
He lifted his free hand and ran a finger over the feathers at the bird's throat, "Hoping for more handouts from old Seven-Fingers, yes?"
The owl replied with a low hooting sound and turned its great, yellow eyes away as if somehow embarrassed by the ranger's chiding or, perhaps, by having it's secret vice exposed.
"Go on, then," the ranger chuckled as he hefted his arm and sent the owl skyward, "and be sure that you do not mistake one of those seven fingers for a sausage. I'll be along." He watched smiling as the bird winged its way north and east, roughly following the snaking path of the Rilshen-Valis road. Then, taking a slow pull from his water skin, he began walking again, shadowing the course taken by his feathered friend.
Posted on 2007-03-10 at 14:09:01.
Edited on 2017-05-10 at 08:49:00 by Eol Fefalas
Jando absently whistled an accompaniment to the song of the morning birds as he busied himself preparing the morning menu for visitors to the Mossy Oak Inn. The cook fires had been stoked long before the sun had begun to rise and he had collected the eggs from the chicken coops shortly thereafter. He whistled a little louder as Orangeblossom, a tiny but solid Ambin girl who had lived full time at the inn for the past twenty-some years, wheeled her cart, laden with fruits and vegetables from the inn's cellar, and a sack each of oats and flour into the kitchen.
"Thank'ee, lass," Jando winked as he palmed an apple from the basketful that Orangeblossom had just lifted onto the scarred countertop, "It'd prob'ly do me right ta wait on'r guests afore I had me own breakfast but ye know I cannae resist these." He took a bite out of the fruit and, with his eyes closed, crunched happily away on the mouthful before dragging a forearm across his chin to wipe away the juices that had escaped the apple and his lips. "One day, little one, ye'll speak to ol' Seven-Fingers an' tell 'im exactly what it is ye do ta them trees ta make 'em grow apples so fine."
A smile lit Orangeblossom's round face and she wagged a finger at Jando as if to say, "No, no, my dear Jando. If I were to tell you, you may no longer need me." And, with that, she took up a pail, which Jando had used to collect scraps of fruit rinds and vegetable peelings, and skipped out of the kitchen.
Seven-Fingers smiled as he watched the Ambin dance across the lawn towards the pen where they kept a few pigs and dump the contents of the pail into a broad trough. He knew, of course, that Orangeblossom would never speak to him - not in the manner that most would consider proper speech, anyway. The girl was mute, after all, and hadn't spoken a word in all the years she had lived at the inn. She communicated, most often, with simple gestures and facial expressions, which seemed to serve her well - though, there were times when customers had become annoyed with her when she was unable to respond in words, but once Jando explained to them the circumstances most of them showed a bit more patience and compassion. If they didn't, they often found themselves tossed forcibly out into the dust of the Rilshen-Valis and no longer welcome at the Mossy Oak.
There were those few with whom Orangeblossom did seem able to communicate with in a more thorough and elegant fashion, however. Most notable among these were a pair of taur'ohtarie fearim - or "ghost rangers" in the common tongue - from the Taur'Forenya in Adiroen, known as Farseer and Wolfsister, who visited the Inn on occasion and often contributed in one way or another to its operation. It had been the Farseer who had originally liberated Orangeblossom from her bondage to the goblin hordes far to the south in Gha'bonsa'a and delivered her to the care of Seven-Fingers and the Mossy Oak, and she had apparently learned the sign language of the Ghost Rangers known as "silent speak" sometime between. The Ambin would often have lengthy conversations with these two elves in their unspoken tongue when they were about. Of course, Jando, having been a Ghost Ranger himself, knew the silent speech as well but, since loosing three of his fingers so many years ago, his participation in conversations - much like his days of adventuring - had become severely impeded.
He found his eyes roving the fringe of the forest, then. His longing - which had begun with the desire to finally speak with Orangeblossom - had changed veins and he now felt the familiar pangs of wanderlust. "Ah, ta be able ta string me bow an' stride the hills once ag'in," he sighed, absently returning to his work. "Aye, there're times when I'd be happy ta give the fingers I got left just for a week o' trackin' gobs through the Northwood, er even escortin' one o' them fat merchant caravans ta Valishim." Jando tore his gaze from the morning lit tree line, forcing his eyes to tend to the work at hand lest he loose another finger, this time to his own blade. His other senses, though, still roved through his fantasy; he smelled the forests and the rivers and felt the Earthmother's arms around him when the breeze blew through the kitchen window, his still keen hearing caught the passing of bird and beast, and the hilt of the paring knife in his hand felt not dissimilar to the grip of a trusted long knife - not that he expected to be able to wield a blade so large again, as the middle and index fingers of his right hand had been cleaved cleanly away just below the first knuckles.
Those missing fingers bothered him most, they had been his string fingers, after all, and without them he was useless to his bow. It was that reminder that had stirred him, with another heavy sigh, from his daydream. "Ye've got the Inn, Jando," he muttered as he scraped the chopped vegetables into a bowl of cool water, "and that keeps ye close enough ta the comin's an' goin's as ye need ta get." He replaced the chopping board and knife on the table and wiped his hands on his apron as his old eyes lifted to the window again. "An' Blossom," he smiled, catching sight of the girl perched on the fence around the pen, teasing the feeding hogs with her toes, "Ye've got Blossom ta keep some mystery in it all."
He turned from the window, his depression lifting as quickly as it had settled, and reached for a bowl in which to place a selected few of the apples. He felt the urge for some reason to make a batch of his famed apple butter - famed because it was the best apple butter north of Rilshen according to those guests who said so. "It must be the comin' o' autumn," he mused, apple butter was always best in the early fall. "That or the Farseer's come back," he reminded himself. Because, truth be told, Farseer was the only bloke who'd actually eat Jando's apple butter; the other customers who raved so much about it were often caught using it to grease the hubs of their carts wheels or some other such nonsense.
As he was peeling the apples, a shadow drifted across the window all but blocking the morning sunlight and, accompanying that shadow was the sound of feathered wings cutting the air. Jando smiled, setting aside a half peeled apple, and reached over to carve a few strips off of the venison haunch that was soaking in a tub of brine and spices. Then, just seconds before the owl swooped around and came to perch on the sill, Jando drew the window open and laid one of the strips of meat on the ledge, then turned and crossed the kitchen to stir the porridge again. The owl silently snatched up the first strip of venison and quickly devoured the treat. For a moment, aside from the fact that it was perched on Jando's windowsill, the owl scarcely acknowledged the inn keeper's presence. In fact, the bird swiveled its head around to survey the stretch of land that comprised the Mossy Oak's gardens and lawns. When Jando finished stirring the porridge and dampening the fire beneath the kettle, however, the bird hopped back towards the indoor side of the sill and made a show of preening itself, bobbing its tufted head, and hooting and cooing softly.
"An' a fine mornin' ta ye, as well," Jando smiled as he turned and produced a second strip of venison for the owl, "Singin' fer our breakfast are we?" He held out his hand and let the bird snatch the morsel from the stump of his missing index finger. "I'd just made mention o' ye," he chuckled, watching the bird swallow down its snack, "must be some truth in the legend o' talkin' up ghosts, aye?"
The owl offered a soft, rumbling coo in response, and then turned to preening its feathered talons. Jando readied another strip of the venison and peered out the window.
"Blossom, luv," he called, feeling the venison disappear from his hand as the Ambin girl turned to acknowledge him, "Stoke the coals 'neath the bath'ouse an' ready the linens in the upper chambers! Farseer's come back!"
Orangeblossom let out an incomprehensible squeal - the closest she got to speech aside from humming a tune now and again - and sprung from the fence. She waved happily to Jando and skipped across the clovered lawn towards the bathhouse that huddled on the near bank of a stream that ran behind the inn.
"As for ye, me hungry chum," the inn keeper quipped as he offered up the remaining strips of meat, "Ye may's well make yerself ta home. I've got breakfast ta finish and supper ta plan fer. I'll leave the winda open for ye."
Posted on 2007-03-10 at 14:10:51.
Edited on 2017-05-10 at 08:59:02 by Eol Fefalas
The ranger’s feet strayed from the well-worn earth of the Rilshen-Valis road and led him across a gently sloping field of heather, timothy, and wild wheat. The upper branches of the Mossy Oak – since the inn itself was built around, upon, and partially within the enormous tree that was its namesake – were visible now and the stream that flowed towards and around the tree could be heard babbling even above the songs of the birds. This field would open onto a broad pasture, fenced with rough-hewn timbers, which denoted the southern edge of the Mossy Oak’s property. The stables stretched along the far side of the pasture and, separating the inn itself from the livery was but a small swath of livestock pens, grain hoppers, and small gardens. Farseer hopped the fence that edged the pasture and stepped a bit lighter as he crossed the clumps of clover, alfalfa, and field grass. A few horses, none of which he recognized as either Jando’s or Orangeblossom’s, were grazing close by and he did not want to disturb their morning repast nor have to take the time to explain what he was doing in “their” pasture. Besides, Jando had asked him on more than one occasion not to influence the guests’ steeds. While the inn keeper agreed that some of his guests very well deserved getting thrown and abandoned on some remote mountain pass, he was not entirely convinced that talking the horses into doing it was exactly ethical. He was sure, however, that it was bad for repeat business; oft times even more so if the guest happened to survive and return to the inn to tell the tale of “another horse gone mad” after boarding at the Mossy Oak’s stables.
Farseer continued past the stables, taking the time to bid good morning to Jando’s mare, Orangeblossom’s pony, and a few of the other equines that volunteered their greetings. The smell of the cook-fires now overpowered even the pungent musk of the livery, and the sound of rousing guests soon intermingled with the trill of birdsong and the gurgling stream. He spotted the owl perched on the sill of the kitchen window knothole and smiled as he slowly shook his head. “He’s likely eaten all the bacon and half the mice in the kitchen by now,” Farseer chuckled. The ranger stopped and plucked a stalk of rhubarb from a sparse clump at the edge of one of the small gardens and then, munching happily, he continued toward the Inn.
He hadn’t taken more than a half-dozen steps across the lawn that surrounded the sprawling roots of the ancient oak when Orangeblossom’s excited squeal reached his ears. The Ambín was racing across the lawn toward him, one hand clutching her skirts to keep from tripping herself over the hems and the other flashing out an eager greeting in the Silent Speech; “Farseer! Welcome back! We’ve missed you! So much has happened since you’ve been gone!” The litany continued with increasing speed as she got closer and the smile on her face and the sparkle in her wide eyes added, in Farseer’s mind anyway, a wonderfully childlike voice to the signed words. He was almost laughing when he poked the remainder of the rhubarb in his mouth and dropped to one knee to catch the speeding Ambín up in a warm embrace.
“I’ve missed you, as well, my little Blossom,” he whispered as her tiny arms curled around his neck and her lips pressed firmly against his cheek.
Blossom wrinkled her nose and wriggled free of the embrace when the kiss rewarded her with the taste of sweat and trail dust. “You taste like something scraped from a pony’s shoe,” she chided, taking hold of a few of his fingers with her free hand and leading him across the lawn, “and you smell as if you may have fallen out of that same pony’s backside.”
The ranger offered an apologetic shrug. “The perils of the bush,” he signed in return, smiling a bit.
Blossom smiled, too, and squeezed the fingers that she clutched in her hand. “You’ve been away a long time, my friend. I look forward to hearing the tales you’ve brought back with you,” she stopped at the foot of the wooden steps that lead up into the bathhouse, “but I don’t think I could sit through the telling of even the shortest of them until you’ve washed the stink of the swamps from you.” She winked up at him then and scampered up the steps to open the rough, plank door. “Leave your things by the door and I’ll tend to them after I’ve fetched you a robe.”
Scrubbed clean of the layers of sweat, dirt, and blood, the Ghost Ranger called Farseer lounged against the smooth, stone lip of the tub, languishing in the warmth of the water and the scent of pine oil as it wafted around him on elegantly snaking tendrils of steam. Blossom had been in not long ago to deliver an invitingly comfortable looking robe and collect his gear. Of course, as was the Ambín’s way, she had taken time to comb through his freshly washed hair and re-plait the braids behind his ear before gathering up his things and slipping silently out again. She had even remembered to douse the lantern, leaving him cradled in the penumbral arms of relaxation. There were times when he felt a bit guilty for indulging in luxuries such as this - he had always believed that if it could not be found in Nature, then he didn’t really need it - not this time, though. First of all, moments like this were very few and far between for him and, secondly, this last journey had been arduous to say the least. If he deserved nothing else, he had earned this, at least, and he looked forward to settling into the down-filled bed that awaited him in the upper boughs of the Inn, as well.
The bathwater had begun to cool to lukewarm when his ears detected the pad of soft-booted feet on the lawn outside the bathhouse, then moving up the plank steps that led to the door. The hinges groaned as someone, as if afraid of disturbing a sleeping dragon, slowly pushed the door open, stepped inside and, just as slowly shut it again. He heard the rasp of metal on metal as the hood of the lantern was lifted and the muffled creak as the wick was turned up. The warm, yellow glow of the lanterns flame chased away the deep, purple shadows that had pervaded the room and even snuck past the closed lids of his eyes.
“Well, bless me if ‘tain’t Eöl Fëfalas,” a gruff voice chuckled as the footsteps paced closer to the tub, “An’ nekkid as the day ‘e were born, soakin’ ‘is filthy, point-eared arse in perfumed water no less! I ha’nae idea that yer sort went for the frilly things, Ranger. Course, I reckon I shou’nae expect anythin’ more from a flower-eater!”
“I suppose not,” Farseer replied without opening his eyes, “nor should you expect me to be able to distinguish between you and the hamshanks of a boar when next we hunt together…”
The footsteps came to a halt.
“…And I’d drag my ‘point-eared arse’ out of this water and tell you to kiss it if I weren’t afraid you’d enjoy the flavor, yes? You humans do tend to covet elvish finery.”
The intruder howled with laughter and stumbled back into the wall.
“‘ello, Jando,” Eöl snickered, opening his eyes and shifting in the tub to regard his old friend and extend a hand.
“Mae govannen, mellonamin,” Jando answered as he clasped his remaining three fingers around the elf’s forearm in greeting.
The green and rust tattoos on the back of each man’s hand glowed faintly as their arms came into contact with each other. The glow extended out from Jando’s hand, creating a phantom outline of his missing string fingers and the remainder of the tattoo that had been cleaved away with those digits. “Silvanus keep ye, me brother,” Jando said, releasing Eöl’s arm.
“Aye,” Eöl returned, “and you, as well. Though it looks as if he’s doing just that. The older you get, the more those lines in your face look like the bark on a spruce.”
Jando laughed again, then slapped a hand on the surface of the bath water, splashing it into Eöl’s face. “Aye,” he sighed, catching his breath as he took a seat on the simple wooden bench along the wall, “I may jus’ find meself droppin’ needles an’ cones on yer empty head in me next life.
‘Tis good ta see ye, agin, Farseer. Will ye be stayin’ on long?”
“A day or two, at least,” Eöl nodded, “Though I am supposed to meet with the High Druid at Telemnar Holt within the fortnight. Why? What news, mellon?”
Jando offered a faint shake of his head and a shrug. “No news,” he sighed, “Blossom mentioned that yer bow looked as if it could use some mendin’ an’, if’n yer gonna be ‘round fer a bit, I thought I’d give ye a hand…”
Eöl arched a brow and cast a sidelong glance at the innkeeper, “No news, yes? Then what was the ‘so much has happened since you’ve been gone’ that Blossom was going on about?”
The innkeeper looked perplexed for a moment; the furrowing of his brow further creased his aged and weather-beaten features, enhancing even more his resemblance to a man-sized tree. Finally, the light of realization shined in his eyes drawing the bright orbs out of the scowl-created knotholes they had sunken into. “Oh, that! Right, then! I ‘adn’t put much thought ta them blokes, fer truth, but they did stir Blossom up quite a bit.” He leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and scratched at his chin, apparently losing himself in contemplation again.
Eöl’s curiosity was piqued. He’d spent enough time with the old ranger to know that, when he took the time to recall the details of a thing that had happened in the past, the revelations that came from the pondering would offer great insights. As Jando aged, though, Eöl found that it sometimes took a bit of prodding to get him started. He understood that this kind of thing was fairly common among older humans, especially those who lived to be as old as Jando and, at times, Eöl found himself saddened by it. Not just for Jando – who had been quite young by human standards when Eöl first led him before the Council and pleaded for the man’s admission into the Ghost Rangers Circle – but for all humans, for, by elven standards, folk of Jando’s age were still considered adolescents, and Eöl couldn’t fathom what it must be like to not only live such a short life, but also to possibly lose so much of the experience to an inherent weakening of the mind.
“What blokes,” he asked finally, snapping the old innkeeper back to the moment.
Jando blinked and smiled faintly. “Right,” he winked, “Well, there’s been this odd sort lurkin’ ‘bout of late. They ain’t caused no harm, mind ye, but somethin’ ‘bout ‘em ain’t quite right, y’know? They don’ even look like nae men I’ve e’er seen on Rilshen, though they speaks Common well enough. Kinda swarthy-like, they are, with black eyes that’re all set deep in’r heads.
Ne’er seen a place on Rilshen where folk dress like tha’ either. All wrapped up, from head ta foot, mind ye, in black an’ gold silks with bells an’ tassels hangin’ from ‘em. All ye could see o’ their faces was them eyes an’ the skin between ‘em. They sent li’l Blossom right buggy th’ minute they walked in. Poor lass cannae even bide ta be in th’ hall when they’re about; heads right oot ta the stable, she does, an’ stays there til they leave.”
Eöl nodded, pushed a shock of hair from his eyes, and stepped out of the tub. “So these outsiders have been here more than once,” he queried as he wrapped the soft, green robe around him and pulled the cowl up over his head. He padded across the room and sat beside Jando.
“Aye,” Seven-Fingers nodded, “They still stop in ev’ry coupla days askin’ if anyone’s seen th’ girl they’re lookin’ for.”
“Aye, a girl. I reckon that’s wha’ keeps ‘em ‘round. They says they’re lookin’ fer a li’l red-haired lass wi’ green eyes,” the innkeeper blinked then, as if some previously clouded revelation had just struck him, and he sat bolt upright. “Y’know, now’t I think ‘bout it, tha’s prob’ly wha’ got Blossom so riled. Tha first I saw of ‘em, Blossom come runnin’ inta th’ hall oot o’ breath an’ lookin’ all scared, then these blokes come in right after.”
He shook his head and spat at the floor; “Bastards! They musta mistook poor Blossom as th’ lass they be searchin’ fer an’ give a merry chase after her. She be a wee lass, aft’rall, an’ has the red-hair an’ green colored eyes! Curse me foggy ol’ mind!”
Eöl clapped a hand to Jando’s shoulder. “Just as well, mellonamin,” he said, reassuringly, “If you’d have known then, you may have cost me the opportunity to have a look at these foreigners. You say they stop in every couple of days?”
“And when were they here last?”
“The day a‘fore last.”
The elf nodded, “Then we can likely expect another visit ere I leave for Telemnar.”
“Ayyye,” Jando grinned as Eöl stood and moved toward the door, “tha’ we can.”
Eöl winked as he pushed the door open and trimmed the lantern’s wick, “Let’s go see about my bow, then, yes?”
Laughing softly, the innkeeper followed his friend out of the bathhouse, closing the door behind them. “Bless me, I’m glad yer back Farseer!”
The setting of the sun and the chorus of the crickets often heralded the Mossy Oak’s peak business hours. The end of the day often found road weary travelers and merchants stabling their teams in the Inn’s livery and enjoying a hearty repast in the great hall before securing accommodations of their own in one of the tree-borne rooms. Soon after the travelers and merchants came the influx of ‘locals’, as Jando referred to his regular customers, which typically consisted of hunters, trappers, woodsmen, and soldiery from villages along the Rilshen – Adíroën border that were actually too distant to be truly called local. Nevertheless, Seven-Fingers considered them as local for he saw many of the same faces night after night and knew most by name and profession. On occasion, a representative or two from the Fea’Taur’ohtarim -Adíroën’s legendary Ghost Rangers - could be counted among these locals (perhaps even chief among them, for the border of Adíroën’s Miriel Holt was but a short walk east of the inn, and even if there were none present at the Inn itself, it could be assured that there were some near by at any given moment).
As the lanterns and torches were lit in the hall and the fire on the hearth was stoked to life, the patrons of the old Inn - at least those who hadn’t retired to their rooms already - followed suit and the Mossy Oak’s common room bustled with activity, swelled with song, and permeated the evening air with the sounds and smells of merry-making. Orangeblossom Underhill of Nobottle, the bright-eyed Ambín barmaid, made her way around the hall, tending wordlessly to the needs of the tight knots and broad swaths of customers alike, refilling tankards and goblets as necessary, delivering and clearing away platters of food, and generally keeping the place as neat as possible until the crowd subsided enough to allow a thorough cleaning. Jando Lastel, known affectionately as Jando Seven-Fingers to the regulars, could often be found milling about the throng and making merry with his guests when he wasn’t to be found in the kitchen, the wine cellar, or the livery (or perhaps tossing a guest out into the road should they have offended his “sensibilities” by harassing his Blossom or drawing steel in his Inn). Nights at the Mossy Oak had followed this pattern as long as any of the regulars could remember and tonight seemed as if it would be no different. In fact, the only difference of late had been the regular appearance of a group of strangely garbed individuals who were apparently searching for someone - a female, they had specified - who had gone missing from their “master’s keep”.
These foreigners - as they were obviously not from any of the lands on the continent of Rilshen, given their loose-fitting silken clothes, the dusky hued skin that was visible through the eye-slits of their head wraps, and the oddly accented way they spoke the common tongue - had made their first appearance at the Inn some months ago, led straight into the main hall as they had perhaps mistaken Blossom for the female they were seeking and had chased the frantic Ambín there from the edges of the pasture. When Seven-Fingers had confronted them that night, they made, what sounded to many that witnessed it, an insincere apology to the Innkeeper - Jando had dismissed the disingenuousness as “foreign manners” - and then proceeded to question any who would respond as to the possible whereabouts of their quarry and to issue cryptic warnings (some might have called them loosely veiled threats) of the inherent dangers of harboring the missing girl before they disappeared back into the night to continue their hunt. After that night, the foreigners (though quite possibly not the exact same troupe) had stopped at the Inn fairly regularly. They always stayed long enough for one of them to have made a complete circuit around the place while the others spent their time questioning the guests, and, though they never ate or drank or partook of any of the Inn’s other services, one of them would always leave a coin of heavy, red gold on the bar by way of thanking Seven-Fingers for his hospitality.
The Innkeeper, since Blossom refused to touch the things even to sweep them from the bar into the cash box and, in fact, made herself quite scarce when the foreigners were about, had taken to keeping this growing collection of coins in a pouch that hung from his belt. One of the coins, however, had recently found its way into the possession of the ranger who now occupied a small table in a dimly lit corner of the room where, between slow, appraising scans of the Inn and it’s assembled patronage, he turned the thing over and over on his fingers, examining its every detail with as much scrutiny as he did the crowd. When he had arrived here two days ago, his intentions had been to rest, repair his bow, perhaps trade off some of the pelts and other items he had acquired on his latest journey with old Seven-Fingers or some of the merchants who could often be found at the Inn and then, after a day or two, continue on to Telemnar Holt in Adíroën. However, after Blossom had informed him of the strange visitors and Jando, with some coaxing, had provided more detail to the circumstances behind their arrival, Eöl Fëfalas – known to most here only as The Farseer – decided that it may be best to delay his departure in order to see these foreigners for himself. It was not often that foreigners reached the borders of Rilshen without news of their arrival preceding them to the Mossy Oak and, more importantly, the Ranger Halls of the Taur’forenya.
“How is it that these folk had arrived here without any evidence of their passing,” he wondered as he studied the spidery script stamped into the face of the coin that Jando had given him, “and where, on either side of the Shae, do they mine gold of this color?” The markings were not recognizable as any language that he had ever seen, nor did they appear to have been derived from the Elder Runes as was the case with the alphabets of all written languages on the Four Continents. On the reverse side of the ingot was an engraved image of some sort. It appeared to be the upper spire of a tower, stretching high above the summits of some sharply cragged mountains. The imagery, however, was as alien as the script. Never, in any of his travels, had he seen landscape or architecture as was represented here.
The sudden, dancing flicker of candle and lantern flames alerted him to the opening of the great hall’s door. He lifted his eyes from the coin, secreting it away in a small pocket sewn into his vest, and passed his gaze over the assembled patrons before focusing his attention on the entryway. As a quartet of darkly attired figures crossed the threshold, lingering for a long moment just inside the doorway while they surveyed the room with eyes as cold as they were dark, Eöl heard Blossom squeak, spill her tray, and rush out of the room. Several conversations died and songs withered as more eyes turned to the door and caught sight of the visitors. Wiping his hands on his apron as he came out from behind the bar, Jando cast an affirming glance at the ranger, and then smiled and approached the men.
“Well met and welcome ta The Mossy Oak,” he boomed, “what c’n I get ye lads this fine evenin’?”
Only one of the men stayed in place to accept Jando’s greeting; two of the others dispersed among the crowd, weaving between tables and occasionally stopping to speak to a patron whom, for whatever reason, might have warranted their scrutiny. The remaining man stepped around his leader – at least Eöl assumed that the man conversing with old Seven-Fingers was the captain of the troupe – and made directly for the back of the place, peering into the kitchen before slinking up the stairs to the upper levels of the Inn. Jando seemed to protest this action but the group’s leader, apparently finished with the old innkeeper, responded only by dropping a few coins in the pocket of Jando’s apron and then turned and fixed his gaze on the ranger.
“Now see ‘ere,” Jando was still arguing as the dark man slithered through the crowd towards Eöl’s table, “Ye’ve done nothin’ ta raise me ire, ta this point, but I’ll nae ‘ave yer lads disturbin’ the rest o’ me payin’ boarders!”
“Still your tongue, old one,” the foreigner hissed without so much as a glance over his shoulder, “None of your guests shall be disturbed so long as the one we seek is not among them.”
When Jando realized that the foreigner was making for Eöl’s table, he abandoned his argument and allowed a complacent grin to curl the corners of his mouth. Judging by the gleam in the Farseer’s eye, the dark man was not likely to get as pleasant a reception as Jando had offered. He lingered in the entryway long enough to see the foreigner stop just short of the ranger’s table, then, jolted back to his duties as an innkeeper by the arrival of a small band of furriers, he welcomed the new guests and guided them to an empty table. The foreigners, he knew, would not be his concern after this.
Eöl said nothing as the foreign man whispered to a stop just beyond the table and offered nothing more than a nearly imperceptible nod by way of a greeting. The stranger’s wardrobe was indeed foreign, consisting of a voluminous black robe – left open at the front and trimmed with golden tassels and intricate knotwork – which was worn over several more layers. Blousy trousers of the same ebon hue as the robe spilled over the tops of the short, soft boots the man wore and a billowing, black tunic did little to conceal the chain shirt – the links of which appeared to be forged from the same red metal as the coin – or the padded jerkin underneath. An intricately worked sword belt, bearing the weight of a blade similar in design to the scimitars carried by the Sea Reivers of Corelan, was fastened over the fringed gold sash that girded the stranger’s waist and secured the scabbard of a slim-bladed dagger. The only place in the shapeless, midnight raiment that even hinted at the flesh and bone concealed beneath was narrow slit, created by the myriad twists and folds of the scarf that swathed his head, that revealed only the stranger’s darkly glittering eyes and the dusky, olive hued skin that held those orbs in place.
“The others in this place,” the dark man stated after a long moment, making a sweeping gesture to indicate Jando’s customers, “have become familiar to us but we have not encountered you here before. Who are you?”
The ranger took a long, slow drink from the mug of mead that had been warming on his table and then met the stranger’s gaze evenly. “A guest that you have disturbed,” he said flatly, “first, with the ungracious manner in which you addressed the innkeep and, second, with your unbidden appearance at my table. Who are you?”
The din from nearby tables lessened a bit at the ranger’s rebuke. The man blinked and a spark of what may have been offence gleamed in his obsidian eyes. Rather than allow that spark to kindle into flame, however, the man bowed deeply. “I am but a servant of my Master,” he said. “If names are of any import to you, you may address me a Kolth. I ask that you forgive any affront I have visited upon you. We are unfamiliar with the customs of these lands.”
The ranger offered another fractional nod and languished in another slow draught of mead but, otherwise, didn’t acknowledge the hollow apology. Many eyes had turned in the direction of the ranger’s table and several customers in closer proximity had abandoned their benches in deference to the tension that had started to permeate the room. Even the pair of Kolth’s lieutenants that had been patrolling the great hall had abandoned their questioning of the other tenants and had fixed their attentions on their captain and the man in the corner.
“Then you’ll call your man down from upstairs,” Eöl smirked after a moment, “yes?
‘Tis a custom in these lands that one does not go where one was not invited.”
Kolth’s eyes narrowed and one handed drifted towards the pommel of his sword, an action which inspired his underlings to draw closer. “We seek a female,” Kolth stated, the words sounding as if they were forced passed clenched teeth, “that has disappeared from under our Master’s auspices…”
“So I’ve been told,” Eöl sighed, leaning back in his chair and resting a hand on the upper limb of the bow that leaned there.
“…and, as the Master values this female to such a high degree, I am afraid that we must… ahhh… ignore some of your customs in deference to expediency and thoroughness,” Kolth continued, now obviously irritated with the ranger. “If you have any information which might aid us in locating the female we seek, it would behoove you to share it with us.” Kolth’s fingers slithered passed the hilt of his blade, dipped into the folds of the sash at his waist, and then returned to toss several of the red-gold coins before the ranger. “Otherwise, it would be in your best interest not to interfere.”
Eöl smiled then and rose from his seat – an action that caused Kolth’s gloved fingers to close on the scimitar’s hilt and back two steps farther away from the table. “Your coin persuades me very little,” the ranger quipped adding the ingot that Jando had given him onto the pile that Kolth had tossed on the table, “I know of nowhere in Rilshen where it has any value.” He stepped around the table, bow in hand, as Kolth’s compatriots halted their advance a yard or less behind their captain. “And, if you’ll not call your dog back from upstairs, I suppose I’ll have to retrieve him myself.”
Kolth’s scimitar snickered from its sling, lashing out with the intent of slapping the flat of the blade against the ranger’s chest as a means of deterring him. However, rather than the slap of steel against flesh and leather that Kolth had expected, the ranger planted his bow and tilted it forward so that the blade clanged against the upper limb and stopped it’s progress inches from the intended target.
Eöl’s eyes fell to the blade hovering inches from his chest and the ghost of a smile played on his lips. His gaze tracked deliberately along the curved steel, up the silk clad arm that bore it, and then ticked sharply to meet Kolth’s cold glare. “Twould be in your best interest not to interfere,” Eöl smirked.
The great hall, save for a few nervous whispers and mumblings, fell completely silent and several patrons scurried out the doors. “Oy,” Jando barked, stepping from behind the bar with his cleaver in hand, “I told ye ne’er ta pull steel in me hall, Kolth! An’ Farseer, don’cha do nothin’ tha’ I’ll be regrettin’ later!”
Kolth’s henchmen – hands on the hilts of their own blades – separated themselves further from the crowd and placed themselves strategically between Jando and their captain, pausing, if not all together halting, the innkeeper’s advance. Kolth himself, without lowering his sword, performed a delicate side-step, adjusting his position so that Jando could be viewed in the periphery of his vision while he kept his full attention on this one called Farseer. “I do not believe that you quite understand the gravity of the situation,” he hissed, “nor do you seem to be aware of the powers with which you interfere.”
As he moved, mirroring the foreigner’s repositioning, Eöl’s left hand slid down the bow, the tips of fingers now resting on the leather wrapped grip. Then, in a motion somehow contradictory to the battle-ready posturing of the rest of his body, the ranger lifted his right hand to his face and rubbed thoughtfully at his chin as the faint smile that lingered on his lips broadened. “The only power that I recognize here,” he replied after flicking a glance in Jando’s direction, “aside from that of Nature, is that of the Princes of Rilshen, and the rules established by this inn’s proprietor. You have violated both, friend Kolth.”
“Aw, sheewah,” Jando mumbled, his eyes darting from one of the foreigners to the next as he adjusted the cleaver in his awkward, three-fingered grip, “I hates it when ‘e smiles like tha’.
Farrrseeerrr,” he cautioned as he warily slinked towards the staircase, “mind yerself.”
“Now,” Eöl had continued despite Jando’s nerves, “sheathe your blade, gather your dogs, leave this place, and do not return.” His hand had drifted away from his chin, the thumb and forefinger tugging at the lower edge of the broad headband that hooded his eyes. “If you choose otherwise,” he shrugged and let the threat go unspoken.
Kolth’s eyes narrowed and his fingers flexed on the hilt of his scimitar. Though some of the inn’s patrons had run out when the confrontation started, a greater number had lingered behind, several of them armed and it stood to reason that, if he were to engage this smug ranger, he and his men would likely face more than just the innkeeper and this Farseer by way of opposition. As much as he would enjoy carving the ranger to pieces, wisdom dictated that this was not the place to do it; other matters took precedence.
Kolth growled as he slowly, almost hesitantly, returned his blade to its slings. “We will go. But rest assured this is not the last you shall see of me… Farseer.” He spat the name as if the very taste of it offended his tongue.
“I should hope not,” Eöl smirked, releasing the nock of the arrow he had been prepared to draw as he strode toward the staircase. “Now, fetch your man and be gone.”
“Aye,” Jando grumbled, “an’ dinnae bother ta darken me doorway after t’night, either! Yer no longer welcome a’ Th’ Mossy Oak.”
Kolth muttered something inaudible and then, in an odd, guttural language that none in the hall could profess knowledge of, he summoned his underling from the upper levels of the place. The man wordlessly descended the stair and, with but a passing glance at his captain, fell in with the other two foreigners. Kolth barked another order and his men exited the Inn just as quietly as they had entered, leaving their captain alone in the hall glaring at the ranger. “You will regret interfering,” he snarled after a moment, “I’ll see to that personally.” Then he turned on his heel, cast an icy glare at Seven-Fingers, and strode out the door behind his men. He didn’t bother to close it behind him.
The noise in the hall rose again almost immediately and some of those customers who had ran out when Kolth’s sword was drawn warily trickled back inside once they saw the foreigners depart.
“Stone me,” Seven-Fingers huffed as he tucked the clever into his apron and stomped across the hall to shut the door, “I figgered tha’ we’d ‘ave a mess on’r hands wi’ tha’ lot. Thought it was on fer sure when ya got tha’ stupid grin on yer face.”
“Aye,” Eöl replied as he returned to his table, swept up the pile of red-gold coins and gathered up the remainder of his gear, “I wasn’t entirely sure that Kolth was going to back down either.”
“Well, fer pity’s sake, I be glad they did,” Seven-Fingers chuckled, “I be in nae kinda mind ta be moppin’ up blood and such. I…”
The innkeeper blinked and sputtered as he noticed Eöl slinging his pack; “…an’ jus’ where’re ye off to, now?”
“After Kolth and his men,” Eöl replied with a wink as Jando intercepted him on the way to the door, “The woman they seek must be close; otherwise they’d not have checked the upper rooms. I judge by your reaction that tonight was the first they’d done that, yes?”
“Aye,” Jando confirmed.
Eöl clapped a hand on Jando’s shoulder. “Aye. So they must have had a reason. They are closing in on their prey,” he said, “and, after meeting these foreigners, I don’t believe I can allow any woman to fall into their hands. I don’t think their intentions are in keeping with the Balance.
Get a message to the High-Druid for me, mellonamin,” he requested as he peered out the Mossy Oak’s door, “Tell him that I’ll likely be delayed and extend my apologies.”
“A’right, Farseer,” the innkeeper blinked as the elf disappeared into the night, “Silvanus keep ye, me brother.”
She had been traveling with the merchant caravan since early in the morning – a man driving the lead wagon had spotted her crouched in the underbrush at the roadside and, after assuring her that he meant no harm, offered her a ride despite the fact that she had no idea where she might be going. It had seemed like a good idea at the time; after all, the farther she could get from this place the farther she would be from Kolth and the rest of Beligath’s Hounds. Or so she hoped.
It had been almost three months since she had escaped Beligath’s tower and in all of that time the Hounds had never been far behind. How he and the other Hounds could have made it here before her she dared not even guess, but Kolth had been waiting for her when the ship upon which she had stowed away arrived at its destination port on the shores of this unfamiliar land (which, she had learned, was called Rilshen). Had it not been for a group of rowdy sailors, Kolth surely would have captured her on the docks of Moonbow Bay and she would be back in her cage in the sorcerer’s tower – or dead, if given the opportunity. The sailors, though, having spent too much time at sea and being anxious for the pleasures of the port, had taken extreme offense when the Hounds had tried to shove their way through them to get to her. Land-fever and foolhardiness had given her the time she had needed to escape Kolth’s grasp but she felt horrible that so many had suffered to buy her freedom. She could still hear the sailors’ screams when she slipped into the ancient forest just beyond the port.
It was in that forest that Rose (as she’d taken to calling herself) had met her first ally – or, as she now preferred to think of the woman, friend – on these shores. She had fumbled through the wood for days, seeming never to come near to its edges and, though the forest had seemed to effectively keep the Hounds off of her trail, it also seemed unwilling to show her the way out. After a time, hungry, dirty, and more than exhausted she spied a small cottage huddled amidst a glade of fir and aspen. The woman who lived in the cottage – Kareitha Shaneil-Silver – had been quite friendly and hospitable despite returning home to find her crouched in a tangled thicket of thorns eating a loaf of bread that she had pilfered from the cottage window.
“It seems that roses do bloom among the thorns,” Kareitha had laughed when she had discovered the girl, her ice-colored eyes sparkling as she offered a gentle hand, promise of a warm bed and a hot supper.
The woman had taken her into her home and, over the course of the next several days, had nursed her back to health, never once inquiring as to how the red-haired lass had come to be lost in the forest nor where she had come from before that. Instead, she told the girl tales of the surrounding lands and sang songs that somehow made her feel safe and sound, as if the words and music went directly to her soul and replenished her at her very core. Kareitha had also never asked her name, choosing instead to call her Rose. Perhaps the Soul Singer had, in some fashion, sensed that Rose desperately desired to keep her name unspoken for fear that Beligath would hear it whispered on the wind (even as far away as the dark heart Tuu’Palurin where his tower reigned) and send his Hounds into the Singer’s Glade. Regardless of the reason, Rose had decided that, as long as she had to hide from the sorcerer and his minions, she would be known by the name Kareitha had given her.
When at last, after spending more than a ten-day in the Singer’s Glade, Rose had confided her tale (and the truth of her abilities) – since, for some reason, Kareitha had refused her offer to grant a wish and Rose felt it unfair of her to accept such hospitality without payment of some kind – Kareitha had suggested, should it come to it, that Rose make for the Angelspine Mountains. There was a place beyond those lofty peaks, she said, where Rose would surely never be discovered by sorcery or otherwise unless she herself wished it. A mystical place, it was – a timeless village on the shores of a lake said to be the source of all waters on Bhriuthainn – created by angels as a prison for a vain demi-god and guarded by monks who followed a great lion. Everyone in Rilshen knew the stories of Bella Moon and Lunamere, but there were very few who knew how to find it. Those who did guarded the route with great secrecy (many of them were merchants who had profited on the perpetual springtime of the place and hoped to keep the secret of their success away from their competitors) and sought to keep the place shrouded in legend by disavowing its existence all together.
And so it was, when Kolth and his Hounds had finally discovered her whereabouts and began to close in on the Singer’s Glade, that Rose slipped out of the cottage – she would much rather have Kareitha questioned about her guest than killed for harboring her – and, following the directions the Singer had given her, found her way to the Rilshen-Valis Road. Merchant caravans were fond of this highway, Kareitha had told her, because it spanned the continent from the lower reaches of Adíroën’s Taur’Forenya on Rilshen’s northern borders to the capitol cities of the Kingdoms of Men in Valis and branched into all but the darkest of lands between. Surely, someone along this avenue would know the way to Lunamere and would help her to get there – with the proper persuasion, of course. After a days long trek, which led her past a wondrous inn built in the boughs of an enormous oak – where she dared not stop for fear that the Hounds would be awaiting her there as they had been at Moonbow Bay – she had at last found a merchant who claimed to know the location of Bella Moon.
Tildren seemed to be a friendly enough fellow, she had decided not long after climbing aboard his wagon. Some of his hired guards, though, were a bit brutish and gave little thought to openly leering at her or discussing what pleasures might be taken from the wee lass should the opportunity present itself. At first, the attentions of the mercenaries unsettled her – not that she hadn’t endured worse in Beligath’s tower – but Tildren assured her (quite loudly, in fact) that “if these boys want so much as a copper of their pay or to live long enough to spend it they’ll leave you be, m’lady.” And that had apparently been enough to keep the mercenaries at bay.
Dusk had started to streak the sky with gauzy swaths of red, purple, and gold as the caravan clattered off of the Rilshen-Valis, turning northward along a deeply rutted but overgrown track. Tildren, who had been quite talkative for most of the day – spinning tales of his travels and recounting myths and legends of the lands as well as occasionally prodding Rose to tell a bit about herself – had apparently run short of conversation. He had passed the last hour or so sipping from a wine flask that had been tucked between his coat and the considerable paunch of his belly and humming random tunes or, on occasion, singing out loud before barking orders to his guards or to the drivers of the caravan’s trailing wagons.
As the afternoon melted into evening and the temperature waned, the mists had begun to roil from the forest that shadowed the eastern side of the road and snake diaphanous tendrils out across the hills and fields that sprawled on the west. A chill breeze, prophetic of frost and ice, blew at them from the north pushing yet another bank of fog ahead of it, all but obscuring the view of the Angelspine crags. Despite the apparent proximity of the mountains, Tildren had assured her that the foreboding peaks were still quite far off. It would be another day’s travel, at least, he had said, to the Saint Fëanáro River where they would spend another day ferrying the caravan from the village of Lúthien Bay on the south bank to Gán Nönalqué on the north before they would find themselves navigating the mountain passes.
Rose had pulled her feet up under her skirts, snuggled deeper into the warm, emerald dyed wool of her cloak, and curled up on the wagon’s bench. For a time, she tried in vain to peer through the mists in hopes of glimpsing the majestic peaks but found that, as the hour grew later the mists grew thicker and it became difficult to see even the fringe of the forest – the Taur’Forenya, Tildren had said it was called. Her eyes soon tired of their folly and, lulled as well by the steady rocking of the wagon and staccato clopping of hooves, Rose soon found herself drifting off into slumber. As the lids of her eyes fluttered shut, she heard the merchant unstopper his flask and swallow down a hearty draught. Soon after, a song spilled softly from his lips and in her dreams, the beauty of the mountains to the north was transformed from the ominous, snow crowned crags that her waking eyes recalled to the lush and promising peaks mentioned in the merchant’s crooning.
At first, there was no melody to the song as Tildren’s husky voice simply spoke the words…
In the Angelspines, just at the point where the mountains spread their wings.
On Orostau'ras the Sir'Selingue Gorge, runs from the glacier springs.
The Sir'Selingue joins the Telemnar to run down to the Shae,
By its source an empty village stands, that wakes Midsummer's day.
For high up is the only place that Feer'apsa will grow,
And for six weeks there they gather it, at the edge of the melting snow.
Before the snows of Autumn fall, the huts are shuttered up again.
And the villagers make their journey, down to the Barulad Plain.
…but, as slumber overtook her, the merchant’s voice swelled, following her into her dreams on the wings of a somehow familiar tune.
Davren nail the shutters closed,
Paint the marker stones again,
The high winds change,
And we must chase,
Summer back to the plain.
The winter storms are closing in,
We must be on our way,
So raise your packs,
And say farewell,
Until midsummer's day!
Summer's days are short and we must be on our way,
But raise your pack,
And we'll be back,
Upon midsummer's day!
Sorrel check the guiding ropes,
And then count that we're all here,
We will not come
This way again,
Until another year.
As the days grow ever shorter,
Behind us comes the snow,
The shadows fall
On Mith'lo's peak,
We know its time to go.
Summer's days are short and we must be on our way,
But raise your pack,
And we'll be back,
Upon midsummer's day!
Davren he took something from
His own walking pack that night,
To finish a
Beside the campfire bright.
Then his many weeks of working,
Davren he put on view,
For Sorrell fair,
To show his heart so true.
Summer's days are short and we must be on our way,
But raise your pack,
And we'll be back,
Upon midsummer's day!
The next day was a happy one,
As they wended down the path,
Sang walking songs,
And seldom thought,
About the mountain's wrath.
But when they came to make their camp,
Sorrel found a broken pack,
And Davren's gift,
She could not find,
So then she started back.
Summer's days are short and we must be on our way,
But raise your pack,
And we'll be back,
Upon midsummer's day!
When they settled round their campfire,
Did an early blizzard start,
As they huddled
In their shelter,
He missed his own true heart.
Oh cold indeed the blizzard blew,
As they waited through the night,
Colder the dread
At Davren's heart,
Thinking of Sorrel's plight.
Summer's days are short and we must be on our way,
But raise your pack,
And we'll be back,
Upon midsummer's day!
With ropes and poles they searched for her,
Calling through the long bleak day,
Until near dusk,
They found where she
So cold and silent lay.
Oh Sorrel she loved Davren true,
They had never thought to part,
Clasped very tight,
Held close against her heart.
Summer's days are short and we must be on our way,
But raise your pack,
And we'll be back,
Upon midsummer's day!
Then Davren gathered Sorrel close,
And warmed her with his tears,
He wept for what
They would have shared,
Throughout the coming years.
But as he held her in his arms,
Against his own body's heat,
Her lashes stirred,
And then he heard,
A Faint and distant beat.
Summer's days are short and we must be on our way,
But raise your pack,
And we'll be back,
Upon midsummer's day!
Davren and Sorrel they were wed,
At solstice on the plain,
They pledged their troth,
And promised then,
To never part again,
And summer soon will come again,
Then we'll be on our way,
So raise your drinks,
Say journey well,
Until midsummer's day!
Summer's days are short and we must be on our way,
But raise your pack,
And we'll be back,
Upon midsummer's day!
Her dream ended, it seemed, with the last lilting note of the song and her eyes snapped open as she felt a hand on her knee. She jumped a bit, causing Tildren to quickly withdraw his hand. Offering a sheepish smile, he finished the song in the same spoken tones as he had begun it with…
Hey, hey little one, see, no need to be upset!
They have a saying in the mountain's you know,
'You can cry for me when I'm cold and dead,
But don't bury me until I'm warm and dead.
…and took another long swig from his flask.
“Davren and Sorrell,” he chuffed, smiling as Rose, still not quite fully awake, blinked at him, “A song from the Angelspines. I do love that tune! Always fills my heart when we get close to the river.”
He winked at her then and offered over the flask. “Sorry to have startled you, m’lady,” he said, “just wanted to let you know that we’d be stopping to make camp soon.”
Rose rubbed at her eyes and nodded. “Oh. Thank you, Tildren,” she smiled and shook her head at the offered flask, “Have I slept long?”
“Not that I’m aware, little Rose,” he answered as he tugged the reins and guided his wagon to the side of the road, then hauled his team to a stop just inside a crescent shaped clearing at the edge of the wood, “less than an hour to be sure.
We’ll have a fire going and some food prepared before long,” he said as he climbed down from the wagon and stretched his back, “Would you prefer to bed down in the wagon tonight, lass, or perhaps in a tent closer to the fire?”
It would likely be a warmer sleep in a tent close to the fire Rose imagined but, as she watched the rest of the wagons roll in with their mercenary escorts swaggering along side, she had the feeling that she might be safer if she chose to sleep among the wares piled in the back of the coach. “I’ll be all right in the wagon, I think,” she answered gingerly lowering herself to the ground, “I wouldn’t want to crowd an already full tent.
Is there anything I can do to help around the camp?”
One of the guards grumbled something that she couldn’t quite hear as he stomped passed and Tildren chuckled a little. Rose thought that there was a strange glint in his eye as he draped a heavy arm about her narrow shoulders.
“Aye, m’lovely lass,” he said, “I’m sure we’ll find some use for you this night.”
Farseer traced his string fingers along the edge of a faint impression he had found in the mist-dampened grass that edged the roadway. It was a footprint, he decided after scrutinizing the curve of the impression and the lay of the trampled vegetation, one of theirs. The first physical trace he had found of the passing of Kolth and his men since he had shadowed them out of the Mossy Oak’s doors just hours ago, in fact, and he found himself somewhat impressed by the stealth of the foreigners. They had set out east on the Rilshen-Valis when they had departed the Inn, staying to the road for as long as the innumerable tracks of all the recently passed wagons, ponies, and foot traffic served to mask their own. When they had reached the lesser-traveled stretch, close to the fringes of the Taur’Forenya, Kolth’s troupe had apparently broken from the thoroughfare and, judging by the angle of the toe-heavy imprint, set off at a run on a more northerly course across the meadow.
“Where are you bound, then?” He whispered the query to the mist-laden air as he slipped one glove off and pressed his bared palm against the earth beneath the footprint. A faint glimmer of light sparked along the intricate tattoo scribed on his hand, tracing the ancient runes and dancing along the vine-like sweeps and curls of the design before fading away as the ranger’s fingers broke contact with the ground. He lifted his eyes in the direction the track had betrayed and, as he had been trained to do long ago, shifted the focus of his vision and expelled the last of his breath. He counted twelve heartbeats before drawing in a replenishing breath and, as the air filled his lungs, the time-shadows appeared.
Time-shadows, as Eöl had come to know them, were ethereal ribbons of pinkish energy that could betray the path of any living thing, no matter how stealthy, if one knew how to see them. If an hour or less behind his quarry, Eöl found that the shadows were extremely reliable but, as time passed, the shadows faded and became less distinct and no more trustworthy than any other method of tracking. The brilliance of the ribbons in this case, though, told him that he was not far behind the onyx-garbed foreigners. There were four distinct shadows here, though at first it had been difficult to distinguish one from the other – which meant the troupe was traveling single file and, more than likely, directly in Kolth’s steps – and they traced a faintly weaving course across the meadow and finally into the hilly lands beyond.
As he had guessed, Kolth and his men were moving north – and still just slightly east, he noted as he observed the time-shadows curling to the right as they neared the hummocks – possibly toward Lúthien Bay for, unless they strayed over the borders of Adíroën and, thus, into the Taur’Forenya, there was little more than a smattering of farmsteads and abandoned timber camps between the inn and the great seaway for them to search. When they reached Lúthien Bay, though, there were the thousands of islands scattered among the waters of the Fëanáro there and, on the far northern banks, Lúthien Bay’s sister village Gán Nönalqué, which some shrewd merchants had come to call The Gateway to…
“…Lunamere.” Eöl finished the thought aloud. He tugged his glove back over his fingers, snatched up his bow, and set out across the field in the wake of the time-shadows. He moved swiftly but silently through the meadow grasses, his senses keen to his quarry’s trail even as his mind sorted through the infinite tangle of possibilities that involving Bella Moon in all of this had conjured up.
Was it possible that this girl whom Kolth and his men sought was one of Anatashia’s “servants” who had gone missing? That would mean that Kolth was in the service of Anatashia, though, and while that wasn’t completely outside the realm of possibility, it wasn’t likely that such a thing would escape unnoticed by the strange, lion-man Ch’dau who, along with Shodan priests he trained on Lunamere’s shores, would never had allowed Anatashia to enlist the aid of such henchmen. Nor, if it were at all preventable, would they have permitted any of Bella Moon’s internal conflicts to spill over into Rilshen. Even the most minor upheaval in that mystical place could have serious ramifications should the trouble escape its borders.
Perhaps, then, Kolth’s quarry was making for the village in hopes that the magic of the place would hide her. While a more feasible possibility than the foreigners being in league with Bella Moon’s mind-twisting host, this idea did not bode well with him, either. First, the way to Lunamere and the village of Bella Moon beyond was little known and more than a little treacherous; many poorly prepared adventurers and gold hungry merchants had trekked the crags of the Angelspine in search of the fabled village only to find madness or death. The chances of a lone traveler, especially one foreign to these lands and unfamiliar with the perils of the Angelspine, reaching Bella Moon alive, if at all, were very slim. Secondly, should the foreigners have the peculiar luck to actually locate the place, Eöl imagined that Ch’dau and his priests would surely intervene and, given Kolth’s sense of the “power” he purported to serve, it could be assured that Anatashia’s curiosity would be piqued. Once that one’s fingers were in the soup, trouble was certain to spill out of the Angelspine and into Rilshen; it was rumored, in fact, that Anatashia’s meddlings were partly to blame for the centuries long, world-shaping Elf and Dragon War so many millennia ago.
His bow, as if awakened by the path that the ranger’s musings had taken, sent a tingling sensation through Eöl’s hand and the carvings on its limbs began to glow softly. “Shhhh,” he whispered as he flexed his fingers around the leather wrapped grip. He slowed his pace and sank a bit lower into the mist dampened grasses to mask the glimmering symbols and continued dogging the time-shadows as they skirted along the rolling hills. The tingling in his fingertips from that initial jolt had yet to subside when, as Eöl followed the melded specters into a low valley amidst the hummocks, the bow buzzed his hand again, this time insistent enough to tighten the muscles in his forearm. Hoon’tampa, as the ancient bow chose to be called, was not protesting his thoughts; it was warning him of something.
He stopped, then, and crouched in a deep pool of shadow. Closing his eyes and drawing in a deep breath, he flexed his fingers around Hoon’tampa’s grip again and allowed the weapon’s voice – if that’s truly what it was – to reach his mind. A maddening wave of thousands of voices, speaking in thousands of languages, crashed over his consciousness and, for a flickering instant, he was lost in them, being swept along in the tumult of screeching insanity. As the tattoos scribed on his hands and beneath his eyes flared with the same luminance as had the bow, however, Eöl felt himself stabilized and able to pick a single voice from the cacophony.
“Slow your thoughts, elfling,” the gravelly, phantom voice whispered, “Take time to see that which is already upon you ere you contemplate that which is to come. Your time spent here, you will see, will prove better spent elsewhere.”
The lone voice waned, then, and Eöl’s mind was bombarded by the returning dissonance of the multitude. As the voices ebbed, they planted pictures in his mind’s eye; a black and twisted tree that seemed somehow to radiate confusion, a merchant caravan camped alongside the road, sheltered against the rain under the canopy of the Taur’Forenya’s fringe, and, the image of a pair of eyes so green, so vivid, and so full of fear that the clarity of it staggered him. He opened his eyes and found himself about to topple over backwards. He quickly steadied himself and cast a half-questioning and half-disgusted look at the bow in his hand.
“Hardly necessary,” he grumbled, blinking to pick up on the time-shadows again. With Hoon’tampa’s warning still echoing in his mind, he cautiously stalked along the path indicated by the writhing energy trail and, as he was led around a rocky outcropping that hid the rest of the gulley from view, he nearly walked right into the trunk of a gnarled, black tree.
“By Silvanus’ berr…”
The ranger blinked. This tree wasn’t supposed to be here. He’d crossed these hills countless times in his life and no tree like this had ever grown here. This was the tree from Hoon’tampa’s vision.
He studied the tree for a moment, baffled at what it could mean and why it would suddenly appear here. It was obviously not healthy as thick, foul smelling sap oozed from several gaping wounds in its oily black bark and it didn’t appear to have a single limb on it that had managed to remain intact. It wasn’t until the bow thrummed against his palm again, though, that Eöl noticed the most disturbing aspect of it: the time-shadows were gone. The phantom energies had led directly to this tree, he realized – not around it, not even over or under it but directly into the trunk where they abruptly ended.
“…berries,” he finished the exclamation as the rest of Hoon’tampa’s picture puzzle started falling into place. Cursing under his breath, the ranger turned and raced eastward, trying to determine from the bow’s message, exactly where that caravan might be camped.
((Break time... much more to come...))
Posted on 2007-03-10 at 14:26:48.
Grugg Mun is Fandatory RDI Staff Karma: 356/190 6171 Posts
I don't wanna interrupt so feel free to delete this after you read it if need be. I said this last time, and will say it again. This is good. Thank you.
((Delete a post from my beloved son? NEVER! Thanks for stopping in Grugg . Love, Mom... For the rest of you, some of what occurs in this scene may be a bit disturbing. Forewarned is forearmed. ))
It wasn’t long after the last wagon rolled into position – effectively blockading the campsite from the road – that an unfortunately familiar sensation knotted Rose’s stomach. It was the same feeling she got when Beligath would come to release her from her cell so that he could try his newest experiment – or worse. The same feeling she got when her jailors got bored and would come for her (of course, with them, it was never for an experiment, it was always for worse). And it was the exact same feeling she got when Kolth and the rest of Beligath’s Hounds got close. So far, other than a few lusty glances and half mumbled comments from Tildren’s mercenaries – and those, she believed, had been sufficiently dealt with earlier in the day by the merchant himself – there had been nothing that should have tied that anxious knot in her belly. “I’m just tired,” she tried to tell herself as she helped to unload some cooking supplies from the back of a wagon and carried them to the middle of the clearing where a fire was being built, “and my mind is playing tricks. I’m in no more danger here than I was aboard the wagon.”
Despite her best efforts to talk the angst from her gut, though, the sense of unease persisted and, rather than continuing to underplay the sense of foreboding, Rose decided to try and identify its source. Perhaps, it was something that emanated from this ancient forest. Before he had disappeared into the back of his own wagon, Tildren had warned her of ghosts that were rumored to haunt these woods and advised her that straying too far from the clearing would be akin to disturbing the tombs of the dead and any unbidden trespass would surely incur the wrath of those specters. Indeed, given the way the mists roiled from and through the dark and dense woodland combined with the plaintive cries of birds and animals that she couldn’t identify, it would not have been hard to believe that spirits flitted through the canopy and lurked among the trunks and underbrush. Rose couldn’t imagine venturing into the heart of this wood alone but she sensed no malevolence from the place and decided that the misted wood was not the cause of her discomfort.
The men tending the fire had started piling wood onto the kindling and were trying to coax the flame from the twigs and tinder onto the stouter timbers. One of them grumbled coarsely at her when, in moving about the fire ring, he stumbled over the pile of pots she had placed there. “For the love of… pach! Outta the way, girly,” he sneered, kicking at the toppled cookery as she skittered back a few paces. “Why, by Darnae’s dugs, would ya be dumb enough to think we even needed this sh’wa when the fire ain’t near ready?!”
The knot in Rose’s stomach lurched, spurring her heart to a faster pace and raising the hairs at the nape of her neck. “I was trying to help,” she said apologetically. Now the tingling in her spine had started, like icy, skeletal fingers clawing at every nerve in her being. Normally, at least of late, since she had escaped Beligath’s tower, she had taken that as her cue to run – no matter what she might be doing or where she might be – and run quickly in any direction that was away from where she was. Her panicked gaze swept the clearing, partly searching for Tildren – whom she thought had promised to protect her – and more urgently, seeking a means of escape from the caravan. It was then that she realized that she was trapped (unless, of course, she decided to plunge herself into the forest and face whatever might lie in wait there) just as if she had been in Beligath’s cage, and that was what had set her stomach turning.
She caught up the hem of her skirts, clenching them tightly in her hands, and wrung the fabric in her hands as she nervously edged away from the man. “Tildren… Tildren said I could be of use,” she managed to say even though her throat had gone dry, “and suggested I bring the… the…”
“Oh,” the man chuffed, “I’m sure that Tildren’ll make use of ya, girly.” He nudged his partner, who had also abandoned the fire when his friend had advanced on the girl; “Whatcha think, Râpha?”
“Aye,” Râpha chuckled, leering at the little woman, “I think ya may be right, Batar. An’ I think Tildren’s got desert more in mind than dinner. So I reckon all this cookery’s been a waste of yer time, miss.”
Rose found that her feet were moving her away at an almost stuttering pace and the knot in her stomach had moved now into her throat, effectively muting her. Not that crying out would help her, she decided. Everywhere her terrified eyes looked, the same lewd, leering smile assailed her; plastered to every face in the camp. No one here would help her. She knew that. Where was Tildren? Why wasn’t he stopping this?
“If ya wanna help, girly,” Batar was laughing now, “go an’ pretty yerself up as best ya can. He’s gentler with the pretty ones.”
Someone else that Rose couldn’t see – not that she could bear to look in any of their faces any more – taunted; “I’ll bet Tildren’s in there prettying himself up for you, point-ear!” As if confirming an omen, the sound of drunken singing suddenly overpowered the cacophony of heckling voices and the ringing in her ears and, when she realized that it was Tildren’s voice, she felt sick. She could no longer be sure her feet were moving, but she wished desperately now to be fleeing through that dark and misted forest that suddenly seemed radiant before her horrified stare.
“…and when the time comes,” Râpha’s voice warbled, “play nice. Otherwise he throws ya to us!”
“Aye,” another voiced snarled, “an’ we don’ care if yer pretty or not! Ya won’t be when we’re done!”
The edge of the wood seemed closer now, though, still somehow hopelessly out of reach. Nonetheless, she allowed herself to entertain that faint glimmer of hope. Hadn’t she been even more afraid than this when she had stolen from the wizard’s tower and made her way across the singing, red sands of Tuu’Palurin’s wasted heart? Surely, she must have been, and she had managed to escape that, hadn’t she? Of course, she had.
“The forest is right there,” she thought, trying to drown out the howling voices that hammered at her, “and whatever might wait there can’t be any worse than what you’ve already faced… Just get there and…”
“Oy!” Tildren’s booming voice cracked like a thundershot over the camp, “Wha’sh all the bloody ruckusssshh!”
Rose’s legs suddenly felt as if they were made of lead – the fact that she could feel them now and ascertain the fact that she had been making for the forest did very little to calm her fear, either.
“An’ where’ssshhh that li’l point-eared bitch tryin’ ta get to,” the merchant slurred as he staggered from his wagon, “Shhomebody… hic… grab her!”
“Yer not goin’ anywhere, girl,” a voice scratched against her ear as a pair – or more – of rough hands closed on her shoulders – and perhaps her arms, as well, as numb as she was, it was difficult to be sure – and spun her around to face the besotted master merchant. The forests edge was torn from her vision; its promising shadows and cloaking mists hatefully replaced by an image of Tildren that was not in keeping with the kindly, moon faced merchant she had met earlier in the day.
He was dressed only in his boots and a garishly colored robe that hung open well below the considerable paunch of his belly. In one hand he carried a hefty, clay jug – from which he had apparently been drinking since he had disappeared into his wagon – and, in the other, an intricately worked rapier. He smiled wickedly when she dared to look into his eyes and seemed to become even more intoxicated by the terror-broken expression on her face. His dark little eyes roamed lustily over her even as he gulped down another hefty draft from the jug. “Bring her closssher,” he belched, spilling the better part of a mouthful of the wine over his stomach. He swore then, and thrust the jug into Batar’s chest; “An’ you, get back ta the foo…hic…fookin’ fire! I’ll be wantin’ a shupper after I’ve…hic… had thisssh appetizer.”
Rose felt herself being dragged towards Tildren, who was now reaching into his robe, tugging it open even further to expose his engorged and wine soaked member. She vaguely noticed the one called Batar scurrying away with Tildren’s wine jug, and was surprised to feel anger welling up behind the fear. How was it that he was being rewarded for doing this to her? What had she done to anger whatever gods harbored this resentment for her? Why could she never run far enough away to be truly safe?
“Why…” she croaked weakly past the stomach-lump that had lodged in her throat. She could no longer see clearly for the tears that had welled up in her large, green eyes, but she knew it was Tildren’s hand that closed on her chin and lifted her face.
“…you were just supposed to take me to Bella Moon,” she managed.
She could imagine the sneer on his face when he said; “Oh, ye’ll sshtill be goin’ ta Bella, my pretty.”
His fingers snaked down her throat and pulled expectantly at the neck of her blouse, “And, if ye do well now, I’ll sshell ye to Anatassshia when we get there.” Tildren scowled when her blouse didn’t open immediately at his bidding, and let out a somewhat disgusted sigh. His breath stunk of wine and goat cheese and… something else… blood? “If not,” he whispered harshly before licking a stream of tears from her cheek, “ye’ll ss…hic…sherve assh entertainment for me boyssh and, if ye li..hic..ive long enough, I’ll trade ya off ta them vamps fer another barrel of that…hic…splendid wine of theirs.
Hmm. It doeshn’t sheem that yer bloussh wan’sta coop’rate. N..hic…no matter,” he shoved at her chest as he removed his hand and tore his robe fully open, “I haven’t been properly ooiiiled as yet…hic…anyway.”
He staggered forward a step or two, steadied himself, and grinned another lascivious grin. “Okay boys,” he belched, closing his free hand around his manhood, “help the lady to her kneesshh.”
Rose was forced to her knees, and through her tears she watched as Tildren’s rapier glided gingerly towards her throat and his gnarled member was pressed to her lips. “Remember,” she heard the merchant whisper as the shouting and cheering of his men rose to a surreal pitch, “play niiice, my pretty… hic… and ye’ll be better off.”
At least, she thought she screamed.
She hoped she had screamed.
It was difficult to tell. All she could really hear were the shouts of Tildren’s men, Tildren’s own voice, giving her disgustingly explicit instructions, and – as odd as it seemed to be aware of such a sound at a time like this – she thought she heard the screeching hoot of an owl. She focused on this sound… anything to take her from the moment… from what she was doing… she hoped that she displeased Tildren enough that he would kill her instantly.
The merchant’s eyes closed and his head lolled back a little, though he was mindful not to allow his pleasure to affect the steadiness of his sword hand. No sense in accidentally scarring the merchandise was there? At least, not unless it became necessary. The Cahir’s and their ilk at Upir Noir, the vampire manse located deep in the forests surrounding Bella Moon, did not care that their thralls might be scarred. The truly profitable sales, though, were those made to the strange man called Anatashia who lived in the church at the far edge of the village. While it was rumored that Anatashia literally thrived on the suffering of his servants he was, nonetheless, very particular about the condition in which his merchandise arrived – physically, at least. He had a penchant for the exotic and, while human females often fetched a reasonable price, those prices would double and even triple if Anatashia was offered, say, a healthy lizard-woman, Ambín, or elf. Oddly enough, the eccentric man seemed to positively revel in any mental imbalances – which is why Tildren had started “conditioning his ladies” before transporting them into Bella.
There had been a few times, early on, when he had accidentally cut through a neck in the throes of pleasure, costing him the entire profit he could have made from the sale, and other’s who had suffered severe cuts due to his unsteady hand – a bit of profit could be recouped from those, however, by selling them to the vampires. His men also benefited from Tildren’s mistakes, as those lovelies who were accidentally damaged – or, more recently, those whom Tildren felt weren’t “worthy” of being sold to Anatashia – were often turned over to the mercenaries and wagon drivers to be used as “entertainment” on the trek through the lonely and treacherous passes through the Angelspine. It was this little fact that had first spawned the cheering and shouting of his men whenever Tildren began his conditioning of a new lady. When he discovered that drinking the wine from Upir Noir steadied his hand and made it easier for him to concentrate (despite feeling incredibly drunk), he began drinking it prior to initiating his ladies and the “accidents” had fallen off sharply. So, the men had started cheering and shouting lewd encouragements in attempt to distract the merchant and possibly cause one of those unplanned nicks and, of course, there had been those times when their efforts had proven fruitful. Over the years, though, Tildren had grown accustomed to their heckling and had learned to tune it out, just as he had the sobbing and pleading of the women he traded in.
Something was different this time, though.
The men had started in early on their newest guest but Tildren had almost expected that – the road from Corelan had been long and had allowed for only the briefest of stops and diversions along the way – and had prepared for it by drinking early. Then, of course, he’d allowed the spectacle of the girl’s shock and fear to play out for a bit – always best to sell the drama – before having his way with her. The shouting that had started well before that and the whimpering and sobbing of the little, elf-eared woman all drowned in the vampire-wine’s power. But there was another sound, one that, unlike all the others, persistently snatched at his attention for some odd reason; the hooting and screeching of an owl. When his grip on the hilt of his rapier wavered a third time his eyes shot open and he growled; “Shomebody find that damned bird and wring its fookin’ neck!”
As if in response, a great brown and grey mottled owl swooped from the misty tree line, screeching angrily as it buzzed the merchant’s head in a flash of feather and talon, staggering the besotted man back a few steps. Then, as if it had no fear of the crowd of armed men, it slowed, veered upwards, and found a perch on the back of Tildren’s own wagon from where it hooted and blinked, purposefully taunting the merchant.
“Pach,” Tildren snorted, waving his rapier at the owl, “Twenty Halfmoonssh and a turn…hic…turn with the point-ear to the firsht man to skewer that bloody pigeon!”
“And a quick death to any man who so much as ruffles the owl’s feathers.” The voice seemed to come from the forest itself; almost as if the words were spoken in a whisper, yet it reached every ear in the camp.
The shouting stopped and was replaced by nervous and wary glances as Tildren spun, his bloodshot gaze squinted at the muted throng. “One of you bashtard’s has… hic… shomethin’ ta sssay,” he slurred, leveling his blade, “heh? Think it’ssh funny ‘bout the bird?” He stumbled back towards Rose, still glaring at the men and trying to determine which of them had challenged him so. He caught the weeping girl’s chin in his free hand and started to lift her slumping form back into a serviceable position and, when he allowed his eyes to drop to the little point-ear’s face, the voice came again.
“Take your hands off the girl, slaver,” it commanded, “touch her again and I’ll take your hand!”
“What?!” Tildren was obviously dumbstruck. “What,” he repeated, first clenching his fingers against Rose’s jaw, then shoving her roughly away, “Slaver?!” He tugged his robe closed and glared into the faces of his men.
“One of you dares,” he hissed, spluttering against the fury that rose in his belly at being called a slaver (not to mention being embarrassed), “Which of you is it, then? Who dares to stand – against ME – for this little bitch?!”
There was a mixture of emotion evident on the faces that answered his accusing stare, from confusion, to fear, to mild annoyance, even the anticipatory stare a warrior gets before a fight, but nowhere did he see guilt.
The owl hooted again. A shadow separated from the edge of the forest and took form as a buckskin-clad elf – obviously a ranger of some sort – stepped into the clearing, a bow carried casually over one shoulder, and, after casting an appraising glance over his compliment of mercenaries, fixed his eyes directly on Tildren.
“I stand,” Eöl sneered.
Tildren squinted against the firelight and the mist, focusing on the hazy middle-ground where the intruding elf stood. He scoffed after surmising that there were no others hiding in the shadows; “You? All alone?” The elf appeared to carry little more than his bow and, though it was possible that there could be a dagger or perhaps a small axe concealed in a discreet location, there was no evidence of a larger blade. That – in addition to the fact that the dark-haired point-ear wore no armor to speak of and was outnumbered by more than twenty to one – turned the corners of the merchant’s angry scowl into an almost amused grin.
Eöl offered only a fractional nod in reply as he stalked closer to the fire, the bow resting almost like a yoke across his shoulders, the fingers of his gloved hands dangling over either limb of the weapon. The mists seemed to cling to him as he moved and then spin away from him, curling around either side of the campfire and swirling into the mob of mercenaries and teamsters, as he paused and contemplated the dancing flames for an instant. His gaze turned to Rose, who lay curled in a tight ball, quietly sobbing, at the feet of Râpha and Batar. “Aye,” he said, at last, his glare snapping to the merchant again; “Alone.”
The owl fluttered its wings and screeched a protest, drawing a few startled reactions from the caravan and causing more than one hand to fall to the grip of a weapon.
The merchant laughed; “It sheems the bird shtandsh with you… hic… ranger. A pity, too; it could have flown away and saved its neck. Buuut now it’sss gon’end up onna shpit over them coalssh… hic… cuz it wan’s ta shhtand with you.” He lifted his off hand, gesturing to a dour faced man who stood not ten paces from Eöl.
The man, smiling wickedly, cast a sidelong glance at the ranger, lifted a crossbow and took aim at the bird.
“I’ll let ya watch it d... hic… die,” Tildren giggled, “but you’ll be dead afore we cookssh it.”
“Kill it,” he said, dropping his hand as an additional signal for the crossbowman. The unmistakable thrum of a plucked string and the whistle of a razor-honed broadhead reached his ears, followed by the thunk of a shaft striking its target, but the bird never moved.
Tildren blinked in disbelief. In the time it had taken him to order the owl killed and turn his head to see the command come to fruition, the ranger had somehow gotten his own bow in hand, nocked an arrow, and pinned the crossbowman’s head to a tree. And, in the time it had taken the merchant to turn his expectant gaze back to see why the bird had been missed, another shaft had been set to the string of the ranger’s bow.
“A pity,” Eöl snarled as blades hissed from the scabbards of Tildren’s mercenaries, “They could have flown away and saved their necks.”
The owl screeched and sailed from the back of the wagon, mixing its own battle cry with those rising from the wave of men who now crashed in towards the ranger.
The merchant couldn’t help but gawk as the elf met the charge in a manner he had never before seen. Rather than abandoning the bow in favor of something more suitable for combat, the ranger continued to employ the range-favored weapon and the string continued to sing. As Tildren stumbled through the melee in hopes of reclaiming his merchandise, he saw the ranger throw a spinning kick at an advancing swordsman, catch the man’s throat in the crook of his knee and snap his neck, all while drawing, nocking, and firing not one, but two arrows to fell another pair of soldiers who had hopped to attack the ranger from an opposing direction. The screeching and swooping of the owl added even more chaos to the scene. The fluttering of its feathers and taunting squawks did as much to distract and confuse as the talons that ripped into flesh and plucked away weapons as the bird swung in wide arcs about its elven companion.
In a matter of moments, a dozen of Tildren’s mercenaries lay dead or dying all over the camp, several more had broken from the battle and could still be heard crashing through the underbrush of the dark, mist-shrouded forest and seen scrambling under the wagons in hopes of escaping on the road. A number of the teamsters had chosen to follow the retreating fighters, there were a few though, dedicated enough to their oxen and horses, that had chosen to cower among their teams or under their wagons until the fighting was over.
The caravan master, now less than two paces from where Rose lay, froze in his tracks when he heard the owl’s wings flutter past. The crackle and pop of the campfire, the moans of the dying, and the muffled sobs of the girl were now the only sounds to be heard in the formerly raucous camp. Only the trip-hammer pounding of his own heart rang louder in Tildren’s ears. The rapier in his hand felt as if it was suddenly crafted from lead and the sweat seeped from his palm faster than the leather wrapped hilt could absorb it. Instinctively, he halted his free hand, which had been reaching for the crumpled girl, and, almost hesitantly, allowed his gaze to follow the diminishing wing-beats.
The ranger was crouched not far away, leaning on his bow almost as if the battle had left him exhausted. The elf was bleeding from a handful of wounds and his eyes were turned toward the ground, giving Tildren a bit of hope that he may yet be able to salvage something from this encounter. He debated for a moment between attacking the ranger or just snatching Rose up and getting as far away from here as possible. The latter option he knew would be wisest but, still, this interloping point-ear had cost him quite a pretty sum – even if he were able to fetch a fair price for the female somewhere, recouping all of his losses would prove impossible – and something in him screamed for retribution. Tildren’s eyes ticked from the ranger to the girl at his feet and back again, his fingers flexing around the rapier’s hilt as he labored over the decision.
The owl had returned, though; its wings outstretched as it lit on the ranger’s shoulder and hooted softly. Tildren heard a sigh escaped the ranger’s lips – perhaps not so much a sigh as the release of a breath that had been held a moment longer than it should have been – and watched the mists curl away as if driven before the elf’s breath.
“The decision has been made for me, then,” Tildren thought, reaching for the girl again as he abandoned the study of the ranger. He felt he could have made short work of the lone elf but the bird’s return complicated things. “I’ll not give ya the…hic… chance to distract me whilst yer mashter guts me.”
He grabbed a handful of Rose’s hair; “Get up, pretty,” he hissed, “it’s time to go.” The girl whimpered an incomprehensible protest as Tildren began pulling her to her feet.
“Shut up,” he snarled, his glare turning towards the pair of drivers he had spied hiding under his wagon. “You! Hitch up your teamsh and make ready to leave or I’ll shlit your throatsh and… huh?”
There was a sharp pain at his wrist, and the girl didn’t seem to be as heavy in his grasp. He turned his eyes back to see if she had perhaps pulled free of his hand and, in fact, Rose was scrambling backwards away from him, her mouth open wide as if a scream should be issuing from her throat, her eyes wide and staring in horror at the severed hand that had just tumbled from her hair.
“I said,” the ranger’s grave voice whispered, “hands off the girl.”
Tildren’s rapier fell to the ground as he abandoned the weapon to clutch at the stump of his arm in an attempt to stop the blood spurting from it. He gaped in dumb wonder at Eöl, who now stood within arms reach, the owl still calmly perched on his shoulder and a blood-splashed blade clasped in one hand. Tildren hadn’t even heard the elf approach, let alone seen the blade of the longknife lash out and separate his own hand from his wrist. The ranger’s attention was, at first, focused on the girl, who had scooted herself against the trunk of a gnarled maple, but, turned in full on Tildren after assuring her safety; sparks of eldritch light danced along the tattoos etched beneath the ranger’s eyes adding an ominous glow to his narrowed glare.
“On your knees,” Eöl growled. “That is how the game is played, yes?”
The merchant crumpled as commanded, already weakened from the shock of having his hand hewn away, and weakening still further as the blood continued to flow from the stump of his wrist. “Please,” he croaked, “please, no…” It was the merchant’s turn to sob now.
“Please?” Eöl repeated, a disgusted expression skewing his features, “Please?!”
The owl launched from his shoulder as the ranger sheathed his knife and then stooped to pick up the merchant’s blade. “How much pleading, I wonder, would have been enough to sway you, slaver?” He mused, examining the razor-edge of the weapon before looking again into the merchant’s eyes, “I’m sure she begged, yes?”
He rested the rapier against Tildren’s neck just as the merchant had it placed against the girl’s. “How many times did the word please escape her lips? How many others have pleaded for you to show them mercy before her?”
Tildren’s lips moved but no words formed on them, at first, only a warbling, screeching sob.
The merchant swooned but quickly righted himself as the edge of his own rapier carved a thin line in the flesh of his neck and his eyes widened as the ranger barked his demand for and answer. “I…” though he dared not turn his head to look at her now, Tildren’s eyes turned in Rose’s direction. “I…” he sniffled.
“Pach!” The tattoos beneath his eyes flared and the ranger spun away without loosening his grip on the rapier.
The merchant’s body toppled forward to cover the head that had formerly rested on its shoulders. The glade was silent now, except for the crackling of the fire and the muffled sound of the girl’s sobbing.
Rose pressed against the tree, curling herself tighter, and hoping that somehow she would manage to squeeze herself into the trunk and just disappear when, suddenly, she realized that the sound of her crying and the rapid thumping of her own heart were now the loudest sounds to be heard. Having failed at escaping into the tree, she hugged her knees tighter to her chest and turned her face toward the trunk, hiding deeper in the tumble of burnished copper hair that had spilled across her features. Her sobs subsided after a moment – due as much to the fact that her throat was dry and raw as to her fervent desire to hide herself from who or whatever remained in the camp. Her eyes were swollen and sticky with drying tears and, even if she had found the strength to look, Rose wasn’t sure that she would want to see what had become of the camp. The scent of blood was thick on the air, clinging even to the smoke that drifted from the now crackling fire and tainting the piney scent of the forest itself, and even the sudden quiet was somehow disconcerting. She hugged herself tighter, fighting the shuddering that now wracked her tiny frame, and tried to convince herself that she needed to move; that now was the time to pick herself up and run for all she was worth.
“Nallah neh ner, arwen en amin. Lle naa sii’varna.”
The voice was soft and comforting but it frightened her nonetheless. Despite the soothing tone, she did not understand the words and the proximity of the voice startled her. She hadn’t heard any one approach and, after this most recent ordeal, even the most familiar of voices at such range would have been a surprise at the least. Her feet scrabbled against the earth and she clutched at the trunk of the tree in an attempt to pull herself up and run away. “Please,” she whimpered, realizing that she still didn’t have the strength to stand, “don’t hurt me.” Rose slumped again into the cradling nook where the trunk of the tree met one of its massive roots. Her head spun and her stomach turned and when, at last, her gut lurched and emptied, she clung to the tree and demanded weakly; “Just… go away.”
The hooting of an owl was the reply she received to that demand, accompanied by what sounded like someone – or, perhaps, several someones – crawling across the ground. She heard the owl explode into flight. At the same time, she heard the owner of the foreign voice pivot on his feet and speak in the common tongue. The faint groan of a bow being drawn accompanied the words; “Stand where you are!”
The owl screeched again and, after some rather incomprehensible spluttering, Rose heard a response from near the wagons. “Please, m’lord Farseer, we want no trouble. We jus’ wanna leave an’ forget this whole thing.”
“You know me,” the voice beside her asked.
“I know of you, m’lord,” came the humbled and rather nervous response, “the tales of your deeds in Valador are still told to this day along the Bahawan border towns.”
Rose opened her eyes, at last, her curiosity somewhat piqued by this conversation, and blinked, watching the scene as best she could from behind the veil of her own hair.
“You know of me,” retorted the tall, dark haired elf who stood within an arm’s reach of her, “and, yet, here you are in the company of such as this.” He stood with his bow at the ready, an arrow nocked and aimed at the larger of two men who stood, fearfully motionless, near the back of one of the wagons. Rose recognized them as teamsters from Tildren’s caravan – these were two of the very few of Tildren’s men who hadn’t harassed her in any way, in fact.
“We knew nothing of this, Farseer. We swear it,” the smaller man – perhaps the son or nephew of the other – insisted, “If we had, we’d never’ve signed on.”
The one they were calling Farseer seemed to snort in disbelief and Rose thought she saw a ribbon of green light issue from his fingers and twist along the shaft set to the string of his bow.
“The boy speaks the truth, m’lord,” the other said, swallowing hard, “We usually run our own lines, trading glass between Thamaburgad and the Border Kingdoms but, what with Thamaburgad flooded this year we’ve had to team ourselves out.
We only met Tildren when he come through Bahawan a fortnight ago an’ all he said was that we’d be carryin’ goods to an’ from Bella. An’, you know the profits involved in a good run there, m’lord, are more than enough to…”
“Enough,” Farseer barked, silencing the man. He seemed to deliberate the man’s excuse for a long moment, his fingers shifting almost imperceptibly on the bowstring as he tried to decide whether to loose the arrow or ease down.
“For the love o’ Darnae, sir,” the smaller man’s eyes had begun to well with tears and his voice cracked, “just let us go an’ ye’ll never see us again. Da wanted to help the girl but I convinced him otherwise. They’s all fighters and such and we’re jus’ wagon drivers, m’lord. Please!”
Farseer sighed, tension easing from the bowstring as the arrowhead dipped towards the ground. “Your names,” he demanded.
“I am Amanô Pharkuzîr,” the elder answered, “the lad’s called Andî.”
“Which wagon is yours?”
“The sidle-stake yonder,” Amanô nodded, indicating a squat, boxy rig with large wheels.
“And what goods do you carry?”
“Just some salted meat and buda’an hides, m’lord, an’ what’s left of last season’s glass. It’s just a small box but enough, I was hoping, to trade for a nice gift for the wife’s birthday. You can take it if you like.”
Farseer shook his head. “I have no need of your wares, merchant,” Rose noticed that the green glow that had previously enveloped the arrow had ebbed and was fading away along the elf’s fingers. “Take your wagon and your team and go.”
“Ah, bless you Farseer,” the elder teamster smiled – Andî could only manage something between a laugh and a sob as he raced to hitch the sidle-stake to its team of four raken (large, wooly, ox-like beasts native to Shanurdir’s northern steppes). “May Darnae smile on your house.”
“I have no house,” the elf replied matter-of-factly, “and neither will you should ever I find a Pharkuzîr in the company of slavers again.”
Nothing else was said after that. Amanô Pharkuzîr simply nodded his understanding and, under intense scrutiny from the owl – which, Rose noticed, had perched atop a neighboring cart – joined his son at the wagon. The youth had already bridled the team and was at the reins, impatiently waiting for his father to climb aboard. The elder Pharkuzîr had scarcely gotten both feet on the buck when Andî cracked the whip over the rakens backs. The beasts bellowed and the wagon lurched forward, tossing Amanô back onto the bench. Farseer watched until the sidle-stake had rolled out of the clearing, dipping and bouncing as it negotiated the shallow ruts while retaking the road, only then did he remove his arrow from the bowstring and return it to the quiver.
Rose shrank back a little as the strange looking elf turned his eyes her way. Again she felt the urge to run and hide but she could retreat no further with the tree at her back and the long, copper veil of her hair wasn’t capable of concealing her anymore than it already had. She began to tremble when he offered a faint but somehow warm smile and she wanted to look away but everywhere her timid eyes turned they were met with the still cooling corpses of Tildren’s men – her stomach lurched again when she at last realized that the headless corpse closest to her was Tildren himself.
“Oh,” she whispered, clamping a hand over her mouth and tightly closing her eyes to shut out the horrific scene. It seemed there was nowhere to hide from the rangy elf and, oddly enough, she was beginning to realize that her curiosity was beginning to overpower her fear. Her eyes refused to stay shut and she found herself peering at him again, though still through the masking shroud of her hair.
“Naa lle eithel, arwen en amin?”
Rose’s trembling became an almost uncontrollable shake as Farseer crouched, leaning somewhat wearily on his bow, still within arms reach of her. Her eyes dropped for an instant when they met his but the light that danced along the tattoos etched on his cheeks fascinated her and she could not keep her gaze diverted.
“I don’t understand,” she whispered meekly.
This seemed to confuse him and he cocked his head to one side, his golden eyes apparently studying the delicate points of her ears for a long moment. “You’re no Adír,” it was as much a statement as it was a question, “nor Ivae.”
Her heart was racing when his eyes found hers again and she gasped when she noticed the facial tattoos had disappeared. She had almost reached out her hand to touch his face but quickly withdrew it when she got close. Her eyes dropped again and a timid smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “No,” she answered, hugging her knees to her chest, wondering what difference that might make.
“Are you all right, m’lady,” he asked after studying her for another long moment.
Somehow, Rose sensed that this one was genuinely concerned for her well-being, and her smile brightened a bit as she lifted her eyes to meet his once more. “I will be,” she answered softly, her anxiety slowly waning, “someday.” She lifted a hand to her face, hesitating when she realized that wiping the drying tears from her cheeks would pierce the veil she had been hiding behind and further expose her to Farseer’s inquisitive gaze but, again her own curiosity overpowered that trepidation and she relaxed a bit more. She pushed her hair from her face and dabbed at her cheeks, then frowned a little when the stickiness lingered. Her hands fell back to her lap; “You’ll be wanting your wish now, I suppose?”
She smiled a little when she saw that he had opened his waterskin and was soaking a scrap of cloth with it. His expression twisted with confusion again at her question and he seemed to be deliberating the query even as he offered her the dampened cloth. What he said next surprised her, perhaps even more than Tildren’s betrayal; “Until moments ago, m’lady, my only wish was to ensure your safe passage through these lands. Now, I also wish I had arrived a little sooner.”
Rose wasn’t sure what to say to that. He had fallen silent and turned his eyes away, almost as if he was truly ashamed that he had let her succumb to Tildren’s abuses. No one, in all the time since she had been away from her home, had ever shown such genuine concern – except perhaps Kareitha – and the wishes that he professed were none that were in her power to grant. She blinked at him in wonder as she accepted the cloth and again dabbed at her face. The water soaking the fibers was surprisingly cool for having been stored in the skin and not only did it effectively wash away the film of dried tears but, also, seemed to refresh and calm her. The cloth itself had a smell that called to mind crisp, mountain air or the cool shade of a pristine forest and Rose kept it pressed to her face long after the tears had been dissolved by its touch.
“You… just want to help me,” Rose finally managed to ask, the cloth hovering just at her lips.
The elf nodded, his gaze returning to meet hers. “Aye,” he said softly, “nothing more.”
“Nothing more.” The words seemed to resound with truth as they echoed in Rose’s mind. Even when Kareitha had refused her wish, Rose had sensed that there was something the singer truly desired, despite her refusal to ask for it. Could it be that this Farseer wished for absolutely nothing other than to see her safely to wherever she might be going?
“Your lips are dry, m’lady,” Farseer noted as he pulled the stopper from his waterskin, again, “Here. Drink.”
She dropped the cloth, eagerly accepting the skin, and lifted it to her lips. Again, the coolness of the water caught her off guard and seemed to slake more than just her physical thirst. Cradling the skin with both hands, she tipped back her head, closed her eyes, and drank deeply, languishing in each drop that splashed down her throat as well as those that escaped her lips to trickle over her face. After the fourth swallow, Rose thought that, if she didn’t stop, she would surely drown herself. She allowed herself one more mouthful, smiling around the neck of the waterskin as she drank, thinking that drowning in such sweet water wouldn’t be such a horrible death. A refreshed and satisfied sigh escaped her when she at last forced the waterskin from her lips and she felt an almost embarrassed smile pulling at the corners of her mouth.
“Better,” she heard Farseer ask.
“Oh,” Rose sighed, her eyes still closed as if she were clinging to the vestiges of a wonderful dream, “so much better. Thank you.”
When her eyes opened, though, Rose thought that, instead of slipping into a dream, she had perhaps been snatched from the black maw of a nightmare. She had never thought, when Tildren first picked her up earlier in the day, to count how many men had accompanied the caravan but it seemed that a great number of them could still be accounted for, their last breaths breathed into the forest floor. More than half of the mercenaries she could recall lay dead around the campsite and a small handful of Tildren’s other men, as well. Some of them, it appeared, hadn’t even managed to clear their blades from their sheaths before they fell. This elf called Farseer – who had moved away from her as she drank and was now dragging the fallen towards the back of one of the wagons that remained – she noticed had not escaped the battle unscathed either. Blood trickled from several untended wounds and soaked into the buckskins he wore or dripped from his body onto the ground.
Could it be, Rose wondered as her eyes blinked and turned to the owl perched nearby, that a single person had done all of this? Tears welled in her eyes again as the owl blinked at her before swiveling its gaze toward the elf; and for nothing more than to spare her from Tildren’s vile intentions?
“Why,” she asked, her lips trembling as she looked back to Farseer, “Why would you have done all of this?”
Again her question seemed to baffle him and, after his perplexed gaze had swept the site as if searching for his answer among the mist cloaked trees, he regarded her curiously. “How could I not, my lady,” he answered, offering a faint shrug, “I am a Ghost Ranger of Adíroën. I am sworn to safeguard the passage of all those who travel these lands.” He stepped over the body he had dragged to the wagon and moved towards the fire. His hands had just closed on the jerkin worn by Batar’s corpse when he noticed the firelight reflected in the fresh tears that had yet to spill down her cheeks.
“Please, my lady,” he said, releasing the fallen man and returning to her side, “cry no more. You are safe, now. I swear it.”
Rose offered a weak smile, a single tear rolling down her cheek as she gingerly offered the ranger his waterskin back. Did she dare to tell him that, despite his assurances and sincerity, she knew that she wasn’t safe? That, though he had perhaps saved her from Tildren, he could not possibly protect her from Beligath’s Hounds? At least, not for long. “You can’t possibly swear such a thing,” she whispered, her eyes dropping from his to once again stare at the ground, “there is much more to it than you see.”
For the second time that night, Eöl’s heart felt as if it had been grasped and wrenched by a phantom hand and a tear of his own nearly fell from his eye. The first time had been when her scream had torn Adíroën’s night air, nearly toppling him as if the lance of a Rilshen Knight had slammed into his chest. Had she known the truth of it – had he thought that telling her the truth wouldn’t scare her – his duties as a warden of the Taur’Forenya had nothing to do with what had transpired here. It was that scream and the vision of her beautiful, emerald eyes that had inspired him to wade so recklessly into the slaver’s camp. He wanted to… no… needed to save her. The Balance wouldn’t have allowed anything else.
“I see more than you might think, m’lady,” he whispered, tentatively reaching out a gloved hand to wipe the tear from her cheek, “and I will see you safely to your destination.”
((And thank you for reading and counting this little tale among your favorites, dear Fuby. :BG)
Kolth winced as he was hurled against one of the black, glass columns that flanked the entryway to the chamber, but he did not cry out as he had seen and heard so many others do. The pain was exquisite and, if his back hadn’t broken on impact, then the bruises left from the doling out of his punishment would certainly remind him of this moment for a long time to come. Though the shock of the impact had made his knees weak, he managed to stay on his feet after sliding down the pillar rather than crumpling in the midst of his men to the cold, polished floor of the chamber. Steadying himself, he drew himself up to his full height but humility kept his head bowed as Beligath continued his tirade.
“Your repeated failure has begun to test the limits of my patience, Kolth,” the sorcerer hissed contemptuously as energy from the bolt he had used to send the captain of his Hounds crashing across the room cooled on his fingertips. Beligath slinked down the mirror polished dais, smoothing the front of his silken robes with slender, long nailed fingers, and, for an instant, diverted his disapproving glare from the captain to the genuflecting forms of his subordinate Hounds, “and I sense that your pathetic excuses have caused your men to question your leadership nearly as much as I question the wisdom of assigning you that role.”
“Forgive me, my master,” Kolth bowed, prostrating himself before the advancing wizard, “The Wishgranter has proven much more elusive than we had expected. The relative ease of her initial capture failed to prepare us for the evasiveness she has demonstrated this time and…”
Magic crackled over Beligath’s hands again and was released by a gesture akin to the forceful pushing open of heavy doors. Kolth’s men screeched in agony as the bolts lifted and tossed them to the far corners of the chamber. “And?” the sorcerer bade Kolth to continue, ignoring the moaning and spasmodic twitching of the suffering Hounds as his black eyes transfixed their commander.
Kolth pressed his forehead to the floor, daring not to gaze up into the unnaturally beautiful face of the sorcerer lest the flames that burned in those obsidian eyes consume his soul. “…there seem to be those willing to aid and abet the creature, regardless of what rewards are offered and, seemingly, in spite of any threats that are made against them for harboring her.”
“Of course they do,” Beligath screamed, lashing out again with his magic to once more torment the agonized Hounds, “that is part of her power, you idiot!
The magnitude of your incompetence is astounding, sand man,” he continued in a honeyed voice as Kolth’s lieutenants were once again roughly deposited at various points around the room, “how your kind managed to survive, let alone prosper, for so long in this gods-forsaken land before I arrived is truly beyond me.”
“As you say, my master,” Kolth acquiesced, sneaking a glance in the direction of his compatriots as the sorcerer turned and moved smoothly back towards the dais.
“My expectations were that you would have retrieved her before she managed to reach Tannash,” the sorcerer sighed, watching the three Hounds struggle to their feet as he sank into the silken cushions of the throne-like chair that surmounted the podium, “this is your desert, after all.” Beligath caressed the curling arm of the chair, magic energy sparking from his fingertips and swirling through the translucent, red glass. “Even if her power has grown since I first brought her here,” he continued his rebuke, watching the snaking ribbons of eldritch energy writhe lazily in the glass, “there are no deserts in her homeland, how could she possibly elude you in your own country?”
Kolth resisted the urge to retort, even though he had explained this to Beligath on more than one occasion. An elder of his tribe had once challenged the sorcerer and Kolth vividly remembered seeing the flesh stripped from the old man’s bones by shards of glass that Beligath summoned from the sand and, when the elder had been reduced to little more than a shrieking skeleton, his tongue had exploded showering all who had witnessed the event in bone and blood. “I do not know, my master,” he answered, “The sands did not sing at her passing and…”
“Yes, yes,” the sorcerer grumbled, “‘she was as a pebble among the stones.’ I know.” He lost interest in the swirling ribbons of light and released his hold on them, allowing the wisps of magic to undulate out of the throne and dissipate as they slithered away through the floor. Closing his eyes, Beligath pinched the bridge of his aquiline nose as he heaved another heavy sigh; “And, had that been the end of it, Kolth, we would not be having this conversation again. But that wasn’t the end, was it?”
He opened his eyes, watching as the Hounds hesitantly rejoined their captain at the foot of the platform. “No,” the sorcerer answered for Kolth, “not only did your quarry elude you in the desert, she also found her way to Tannash and secured passage on a spice ship bound for Rilshen – another land that she should be completely unfamiliar with, mind you – and even when I graciously used my power to place you directly in her path, she managed to slip through your fingers!”
“The elves at…”
“The elves! The elves,” Beligath mocked, silencing Kolth’s readied explanation, “At Moonbow Bay, my reticent sandman, the elves are little more than fisherman and sailors, yet you whimper and whine as if I’d placed you in the midst of Rilshen’s Grand Army or among a troupe of those brutish Adír rangers!”
Kolth opened his mouth to speak but was instantly cut short when Beligath lifted a finger. His men cowered, still stinging from the wizard’s last assault, fearful of what spell might next issue from that slender digit.
“Do not,” Beligath cautioned, enunciating and emphasizing the words so as not to be the least bit misunderstood, “say one more word. I am already aware that your incompetence has drawn the attention of one of these so-called ranger-ghosts. But are you aware that this ranger whom you blame for your latest failure is not the only one whose attention you’ve drawn?”
“You may as well have cast your ‘pebble’ into the pond with your own hands, Kolth. You did so when you allowed the Wishgranter – your pebble, if I haven’t been clear enough – to leave the shores of Tuu’palurin! And when a pebble is tossed into a pond, sandman, no matter how small, it produces ripples in the pond that are far larger and more noticeable than their source.
This ranger is the largest of those ripples, thus far. See that he is the last,” Beligath scowled and slumped into the cushions, the heretofore translucent walls of the chamber began to cloud and go opaque, shutting out the light that had been allowed to filter through the glass and leaving the Hounds to stand in penumbral gloom, “and bring me back that pebble.”
The rustle of silken robes whispered in the sudden darkness, telling Kolth that his men were already backing towards the high-arched door of the chamber – likely bowed low so as not to further offend the sorcerer. “I shall not fail you again, my master,” Kolth intoned. He stared into the dark for a moment, eyes fixed on the point where he knew Beligath’s throne to be, wondering for perhaps the thousandth time if the sorcerer could truly see in the pitch as it was said he could. He lifted a hand, resting it on the pommel of his scimitar as he offered a decidedly scant bow – scarcely bending at the waist – to the shadows, before turning his back and striding toward the doorway.
“See that you don’t, sandman,” Beligath warned from the gloom, his voice seeming to murmur from every part of the darkened chamber, “A critical time draws very near and I have neither more time nor further patience for your fumbling.”
The towering black doors swung slowly open, grinding and squeaking over the fine sand that smoothed their passing, and the light that filtered through the outer walls of Beligath’s glassy spire stabbed into the dark, seeking to dispel the shadows, though it failed to pierce any deeper than the obsidian columns that flanked the threshold. “Go and find your sakiir,” the sorcerer tittered as the Hounds swept anxiously into the outer hall, “let him sacrifice his own magic to send you back this time.”
Kareitha had been on her way out of the little town of Loamsdowne when she heard Molly Brockhouse calling for her children and, fortunately, less than a quarter laar past the Brockhouse home when she heard the muffled giggling of the Ambín children coming from beneath the oilcloth that covered the back of her small cart.
“Podooooo,” Molly’s voice echoed from the rolling hills again, “Pimuuulaaaaa! Pearrrrrrl! Suppertime my little snickets!”
Again, Kareitha heard the sniggering voices issue from beneath the tarp and, smiling despite the fact that doing so would whittle away another half-hour from her already lagging schedule, she tugged on the horse’s reins, turning her cart around in the road, and headed back towards the parish. As she passed the outlying crop fields, Kareitha spotted the stout, little woman standing atop the sod-roofed hummock house, one small hand shading her eyes against the setting sun as she scoured the surrounding land for any sign of her wayward younglings and the other cupped to the side of her mouth as she prepared to call to them again. When she spied Kareitha’s cart rolling back towards town, though, Molly scampered down from the roof and was waiting at the gate when the tall, silver-haired woman reined the trotting horse in and stopped her cart in front of the hill.
“Hullo again, Silver,” Molly beamed, “have ye forgotten somethin’, then?”
Kareitha laughed softly. “No, Molly, I haven’t forgotten anything,” she answered before discreetly gesturing to the covered supplies in the back of the cart, “but I think I may have loaded more than I had planned.”
“More than…” Molly’s large brown eyes widened and filled with equal parts mirth and ire as she glanced, curiously at first, at the back of the silver-haired woman’s cart. Upon spying a bump under the oil cloth that was entirely too mobile to have been any of Silver’s provisions, however; “…ahhh… I see.
Well,” she continued, nodding her silent thanks to the woman as she padded silently to the back of the cart, “We cannae have ye boundin’ back tae the wood with more of a load on than’s proper, can we? Not a’tall good fer yer carts wheels or yer poor pony’s legs, I’d wager. Specially with the roads about the Northwood turnin’ tae muck as they do this time o’ year.”
“Quite,” Kareitha nodded, an amused smile playing on her lips as she turned on the bench to watch the Ambín woman prepare to snare her errant children, “and mucky roads are the least of the dangers come the Kaimahrive. Should a spoke break on one of Adíroën’s paths, I would think Trolls or Goblins might be the bigger worry.”
A terrified gasp, too quick to have been preempted or even muffled by an older sibling’s hand over a tiny Ambín mouth, issued from beneath the tarp at the mention of Trolls and Goblins. Immediately afterwards, a little less than a third of the bump that made the noise wriggled quickly towards the back of the wagon. Little Pearl Brockhouse had barely poked her chestnut-curled head from beneath the oilcloth before Molly had a firm grip on the nape of her youngest daughter’s neck and, despite the relieved smile on her broad face, forcibly hauled the terrified child out of the wagon and glared sternly at her. Pearl, her eyes wide and tiny mouth agape with fear, glanced around warily but not before wrapping her chubby little arms around her mother’s neck as tightly as she possibly could.
“There’s me girl,” Molly huffed, hitching the little girl onto her hip, “Jest the mention o’ troggies’ll have this one hidin’ under ‘er bed fer a tenday. No worries about li’l Pearl gettin’ the wanderlust, eh?”
Kareitha giggled softly, watching as Molly gingerly folded back the edge of the tarp where Pearl had so hastily escaped. “One never can tell, Mother Brockhouse,” she answered, “even the most homebound of spirits can find itself wandering unfamiliar paths.”
“Aye,” Molly nodded, peering beneath the tarp, “Ye’d know that better’n I, Silver, an’ were it not so, I’d likely not worry after the three of these the way I do.” A hand went to the Ambín woman’s hip then and she backed away from the cart a step or two. “Well,” she scolded, “what are the two of ye waitin’ fer? Ye know Silver’s discovered ye an’ Pearl’s gived ye away, do ye think hidin’s gonna make me stop waitin’, then?”
The answer was issued in the form of a pair of defeated voices from the remainder of the lump. “No mum.”
Molly heaved a hefty, mother-is-disappointed-in-you sigh; “Then climb yer wee bums down off this lovely woman’s cart an’ let ‘er be on ‘er way, then!” No sooner was it said than the lump under the oilskin separated yet again and, following a bit of scrabbling and grumbling, emerged from the back of the cart as the two elder Brockhouse children.
The middle child, a green eyed, brassy haired, wisp of a daughter named Pimula, cast a regretful look at her glowering mother as she wriggled free of the tunnel of tarp and supplies. There was no doubt that this one was old enough to know she was in trouble, the quivering of her lower lip was evidence enough of that. Once she was clear of Silver’s cart, Pimula stood, nervously at her mother’s side, her eyes downcast and her hands wringing nervously at her skirt. “Don’t ye be actin’ all tossed about, girl,” Molly grumbled at her daughter, “ye’ll drag yer lip in the road an’ ruin the taste o’ yer supper.”
Finally, Podo emerged from the back of the cart, a cheeky grin fixed firmly on his features as he poked his head out from beneath the tarp and regarded first Silver and then his mother. The grin disappeared rather quickly, though, as Molly reached up, took hold of the lad’s ear, and pulled him down off of the wagon. “Ow, Ma! That ‘urts,” the boy complained, struggling against both Molly’s grip and the opposing tug of the wooden sword he had thrust through his belt where it had gotten caught between the back of the cart and a small crate.
“Ye’ll think it ‘urts,” Molly retorted, cuffing the boy soundly by way of helping him off the wagon, “‘specially when yer Da learns ye been runnin’ yer wee sisters off inta the wood!”
Podo scowled as he picked himself up and straightened his sword before moving to stand next to Pimula. “I ain’t be scared o’ no troggies,” he declared, “an’ if Pearl’da comed home when me an’ Pim told ‘er to, we could be seein’ some by now, I’d guess.”
“Aye,” Molly glowered at her son, “from the inside of its belly, I’d guess! Eaten right along with Silver’s crate o’ turnips! An’ pray ye dinnae have yer dirty feet all over her wares, too, lad, or likely she’ll spell ya with somethin’ tae make ye smell all the better tae Goblin cooks, eh? Ye’ve already cost her the better part of an hour an’ she’ll likely not make Adíroën afore nightfall, now, as it is.”
Podo cast a questioning glance at Kareitha, who replied simply with an arched brow and a half-hidden smile. “I’m sorry, Auntie Silver,” he sighed after a moment, “we jus’ figgered it’d be fun tae spend the winter with ye in the Northwood, is all. What with the gobs runnin’ the mists and the Ghost Rangers lurkin’ ‘bout…”
“… ‘an yer winter garden,” Pimula interjected, “Ye’ve got such lovely things what bloom even in the snow, Auntie, I jus’ wanted tae come and help ye tend ‘em this year.”
“I wann’see da kitty,” Pearl wailed before breaking into sobs and burying her face in Molly’s neck.
Kareitha smiled, her heart melting as she climbed down and joined Molly and her brood – all of whom Kareitha had helped birth – at the back of the cart. “Children, children,” she cooed, pulling Pimula close in a one armed embrace while tousling Podo’s dark hair with the slender fingers of her free hand, “As much as I love your company, snippets, you know that the Taur’Forenya is no place for Ambín children during the Season of the Mists… your obvious skill with a blade notwithstanding, Master Podo… especially for little Pearl.” Silver grinned at the children’s mother, taking her hand from the boy’s head and soothing the still bawling Pearl with a gentle stroke of her tiny back, “No matter your love for adventure, young master, it’s not wise to bring one so small and defenseless with you into the Northwood. What chance would she have should you not be there to help her, if even for an instant?”
She thought of Rose just then – her own words reminding her that even now there was another small and likely defenseless creature trying to make her way alone through the ancient woods – and she wondered if the curious little woman still lived or if, perhaps, she had already met with a fate similar to those that she and Molly now used to dissuade the young Brockhouses from venturing into the wood. A small pang of guilt twinged in her belly and she wondered if letting the Wishgranter disappear into the forest that night hadn’t been the most unconscionable act she had ever committed.
True enough, the dark-garbed Hounds that Rose had fearfully described had found their way to her cottage only two days after the little elf-like woman had left – just as she had told Kareitha they would – and questioned her, rather unpleasantly, at length regarding her former guest. Despite all of the threats and promised torture that these strange men had made, Kareitha had told them nothing aside from the fact that, yes, she had seen the girl and had even allowed her to spend a night or two but that the girl had fled in the night some days ago and had made no mention of where she might be bound.
A breeze, carrying the icy kiss of coming winter, blew from the north then, and Kareitha found herself sadly hoping that, if the Wishgranter had met her doom in the wood, it was at the hands of Goblins rather than as a result of being caught by Kolth and his lot. It was a morbid thought, for sure, but something told her that being devoured by a throng of gibbering trogs would certainly be preferable to what the strange foreigners might devise. That didn’t quell any of the regret that she had for letting Rose go on her way alone, though, especially considering the words she had just uttered to Podo.
Kareitha swept her black, woolen cloak back from her shoulders and smoothed the front of her skirt before crouching down and wrapping Podo and Pimula up in a warm, loving, embrace. “You stay home this winter and guard your Ma,” she whispered to the boy, “and come Spring, Auntie Silver will come and take you, all three, back to the glade, all right? Mayhaps I’ll even talk Angus into coming and giving you a proper lesson with that blade, eh?
And you, dearest Pim, my little herbalist,” she beamed, snuggling the little Ambín girl closer, “I’ll see to it that you have your very own patch in the garden. I’ll set aside some special seeds for you the moment I get home.”
The two elder Brockhouse children smiled and nodded enthusiastically, hugging the human woman who had helped bring them into the world, and excitedly gibbering about what fun they would have – Podo raving about meeting Angus Blackthorne, the dragon rider from the North who, for some time now, had been Silver’s paramour, and Pimula eagerly planning what sorts of plants she would raise in her new plot. Silver got to her feet, happy that she wouldn’t be leaving the children dejected, and ran her hand through Pearl’s curly mop. “And I’ll make sure to send Issen your love, little one,” she cooed, bending to kiss the tear-stained cheek of the youngest girl. “When you come to stay in the Spring, I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”
Kareitha smiled at Molly then, and embraced the stout little woman before rising to her full height again. “I’d best be off, Molly,” she whispered, “don’t be too hard on the little ones. They’re young yet and have no real notion of what the world is like beyond Nöbottle.”
“Aye,” Molly smiled her reply, reaching to straighten the tarp on the woman’s cart, “but they’ll learn all too soon, I fear.”
“All the more reason to love them with abandon whilst they’re still unaware,” Kareitha winked, climbing back up onto the cart and taking up the reigns. “You children mind your mother,” she smiled, turning her gaze to the little round faces that peered up at her, “and I’ll be back for you in the Spring.”
With a cluck of her tongue and a delicate flick of the reigns, Kareitha Shaneil-Silver urged the misty-gray mare on and turned her small cart about in the road. She waved once more at Molly and the children as they stopped at the edge of the road to call out their farewells.
“Silvanus sleep soundly about yer house,” Molly called over the clatter of wagon wheel and cargo, “and bless ye til Spring, Silver.”
“Buh-bye, Auntie,” Pearl sniffled, now nearly half asleep on her mother’s hip.
Podo and Pimula, in spite of Molly’s rebukes, ran behind the cart as it rattled, once more, towards the northern edge of the village, exhausting their little lungs by shouting their farewells while still continuing their litanies of what the next Spring might hold for them.
Kareitha cast one final glance back over her shoulder as Molly’s voice at last stopped the children in their tracks. She blew a kiss to the Brockhouse children and waved again, then turned in her seat and left Loamsdowne behind her for the season. As Adíroën’s borders drew nearer and the expanse of the darkening Taur’Forenya loomed ever closer, Kareitha sighed heavily as her eyes scoured the misted wood.
“Where are you, Rose Wishgranter,” she wondered aloud, her words carried aloft on a small cloud of her frosted breath, “and what, I wonder, has become of you?”
The busiest hours at the Mossy Oak Inn had come and past. The fire still burned on the hearth in the great hall, though the flames had been allowed to diminish a bit, but a greater majority of the old Inn’s patrons had either retired to their rooms high in the boughs of the ancient tree or, long before, took to the Rilshen-Valis and made their ways home. There were a few customers that lingered, of course; a bench-full of trappers worked at draining the last of the cider from a jug so that they would not have to bother remembering to return the vessel (not to mention, getting back the extra perdulnos they had paid as a deposit for it) at a later time, and an herb merchant from Idíl – who had arrived late enough to have missed the latest visit from Kolth and his men – picked over the last of the bread and stew he had ordered as he contemplated retiring to the room he had rented in the boughs above.
The Ambín barmaid, known hereabouts as Blossom, hummed a happier tune than she had in weeks as she flitted between the Mossy Oak’s great hall and the kitchen, gathering soiled tableware for the wash bin, sopping and scrubbing spills from the tables and floors, and tending to the needs of the handful of patrons who remained in the place. The Inn’s proprietor, cheerfully whistling an accompaniment to the tiny woman’s wordless song, busied himself in the kitchen, as well, alternating between dumping scraps from dinner plates into the slop-bucket, scrubbing and drying the crockery, and making the rounds of the kitchen cupboards in an attempt to plan for whatever fare he might have on the Inn’s menu come morning. Just hours ago, Farseer had run Kolth and his cadre of warriors out of the place, apparently putting an end to the disconcerting foreigners’ regular visits of the past weeks and then, after asking Jando to send a message on to the High-Druid of Adíroën for him, had disappeared into the deepening night in pursuit. Now, like Blossom’s nameless tune, the very air about the old Inn seemed somehow lighter than it had since Kolth and his troupe had first darkened the Mossy Oak’s doorway.
“Ye hum that tune ’s if ye gotten inta th’ good cider, Blossom luv,” Jando grinned and glanced over his shoulder as the Ambín woman danced through the kitchen door with a stack of earthenware balanced on each hand.
Still humming, Blossom smiled and turned a delicate pirouette in the doorway before waltzing the rest of the distance to the wash bin. She deposited the dishes into the water with a bit of a flourish, spun herself about once again, then curtsied as the tune she was humming faded on the evening air. She winked at Jando and, as her hands released her skirts, her fingers danced in reply to his comment. “I haven’t yet, dear man,” she signed, “but I just may open a jar before I turn down the covers tonight.”
The innkeeper chuckled at that. “Don’t forget ol’ Seven-Fingers if ye do, lass,” he grinned, “After what went on in ‘ere t’night, I could use a nip ta take th’ edge off, meself.”
Blossom’s brow knitted in confusion but her eyes still twinkled merrily. “The edge? I had planned a drink in celebration,” her nimble fingers expressed, “rather than to calm the nerves.
The very minute Farseer chased those men from the hall, I felt as if my worries were over. I’m sure they’ll not be back here again…”
Jando nodded and, turning his gaze to landscape beyond the knot-hole window, replied; “Aye, lass, yer right. I doubt tha’ they’ll be back, either. I jus’ ‘ope Eöl’s not gotten ‘imself inta somethin’ tha’s more’n it appears, is all.” His smile weakened just a little as he regarded Blossom again, “The lad’s got a nasty ‘abit o’ doin’ that very thing, ye know, an’ I’d ‘ate ta think that Farseer’d not be comin’ by the Inn any longer.”
The Ambín squeaked and swatted at Jando’s leg. “Don’t even say such things aloud,” she signed, her scowl emphasizing the rebuke, “Surely, you don’t think that those four men are any match for him… especially not here on his home ground…” Blossom’s expression softened a bit a she searched the old innkeeper’s face, her stern scowl melting into something closer to a concerned frown, and her own eyes ticked uncertainly toward the vista beyond the kitchen window. “…do you?”
“Per’aps not, luv,” Jando answered after a moment, wishing he could offer the little woman a more optimistic reply, “if they be ordinary men, o’ course.” He sighed softly. “I’m sorry, lass, but ye said, yerself; there be somethin’ right odd aboot tha’ lot an’ I ain’t entirely convinced tha’ there jus’ be th’ four of ‘em, neither.”
“Even if there are more,” Blossom retorted, trying her best not to let Jando’s rationale dampen her high spirits, “Farseer won’t be alone, either. I saw them all leave, you remember, and they were heading for Adíroën. The Ghost Rangers will surely not let him face an army alone… that close to the Taur and all he’d have to do is whistle in order to summon all the Ghosts at the nearest outpost to his aide…”
“An’ tell me, luv,” Jando smirked, “in all the years ye’ve known ‘im, ‘ow many times’ve ye ‘eard Farseer ask fer ‘elp from anyone? Or even ‘eard it told tha’ ‘e asked for that matter?”
“Only when the things he asks keeps those in his company out of harm’s way,” Blossom replied before her hands fell to her side, her “voice” silenced by the realization that, true to his nature, Farseer had interjected himself into a dangerous situation in order to keep others free of its burden. The smile she had been wearing, too, began to melt away; the corners of her mouth threatening to droop into something more akin to a frown as her heart started to sink.
“Oh, ‘ey now, Orangeblossom,” Jando grimaced, realizing that his analytical view of the situation had begun to crush Blossom’s mood, “Don’ ye go gettin’ all upset,” he stooped over a bit, wrapping her up in a soothing embrace, “Ol’ Jando’s sorry. I were thinkin’ like a Ghost agin an’ I dinnae mean ta do so aloud.
Listen, luv,” he whispered as Blossom’s arms wrapped around his waist, “Jus’ b’cause Farseer won’ ask fer help on ‘is own, don’ mean ‘e won’t be gettin’ any, eh? I lit th’ fire out by the marker-post straight away after our lad runned off down the road – ‘e asked me ta get a message on ta th’ ‘igh Druid, ye know – an’ one o’ them Ghosts oughta be about directly ta collect it. We’ll make sure tha’ they knows th’ whole ball o’ wax, aye?”
The Ambín woman nodded, peering up at Jando and blinking the beginning of a tear from one of her large eyes as he released her from the embrace. Though there was still a pouting set to her lips, the corners of her mouth had begun to turn, once again, in the direction of a smile. “Then every ranger from Whisper Lake to the Cerlyn’duin will know,” her fingers flashed with guarded enthusiasm, “and he’ll have more than enough eyes watching.”
“Aye,” Jando said, “if fer nothin’ else but bein’ so bold as ta put off th’ ‘igh-Druid, eh?”
“If that’s what it takes,” Blossom shrugged, the smile returning to her lips. “I’ll go fetch that cider.”
The little barmaid had no sooner turned to exit the kitchen when commotion broke out in the main hall. The sound of the sturdy doors banging open was accompanied by hoarse pleas for help mingled, almost simultaneously, with the sudden jarring of furniture and exclamations of shock and surprise. Blossom, too, had come to a sudden stop in the kitchen doorway and stood, her mouth agape, staring into the hall.
“What inna name o’ th’ Earthmother’s goin’ on out there,” Jando grumbled, stomping across the kitchen, “I ‘ope that’s somebody wantin’ a bed an’ nae somethin’ ta eat. Th’ cook-fire’s a’ready been damped an’…” The innkeeper’s tirade cut off scarcely before it got started and his thoughts of getting the Mossy Oak turned down before going to check the signal post again were waylaid by the sight of the Inn’s latest visitors.
A trio of men had spilled through the Mossy Oak’s doors. Two of them – looking as terrified, dirty, and scraped up as if they had just outrun a ravenous troggy horde in the Tanglebriar Swamps – bore the weight of the third who, though more substantially armed and armored than his companions, seemed to have endured the worst of whatever the three of them had gotten into. In fact, had it not been for the agonized moan and shocked widening of his eyes when the other two inadvertently jostled him against a heavy table just inside the door, Jando would have bet his remaining fingers that the man had already let go of his ghost.
“I reckon ye’d best get a kettle on ta boil, Blossom luv,” Jando muttered as he stepped around the gawking Ambín and made his way into the great hall, “an’ pull me kit from th’ cupboard.”
Blossom blinked and nodded, her wide-eyed gaze moving from the injured man and his companions to the Inn’s lingering patrons before rushing back into the kitchen to stoke some life back into the fire. The trappers, though somewhat surprised by the drama of the entrance, seemed less than concerned and perhaps a bit annoyed at the interruption. The herb merchant – who had seemed, up to this point, on the verge of falling asleep in his stew – appeared to now be wide awake and horrifically intrigued with the scene that was playing out around one of the long, empty tables at the front of the place.
“A healer,” she heard one of the men demand as she ducked back into the kitchen, “is there a healer about?! Please! This man is dying!”
“Oy! Don’ be leanin’ ‘im onna wall an’ smearin’ ‘is blood all o’er th’ damn place,” Jando’s voice boomed in reply, “Get ‘im onna table, there and get ‘is feet up ‘bove ‘is ‘ead!”
The innkeeper eyed the men curiously as he approached. By their accents and the manner of their dress, Jando was able to discern that the two conscious men were likely from one of the western countries – Corelan or Reylmoen, perhaps – but their compatriot’s origins were a little harder to place. The thick, boiled leather and random curtaining of oiled chain that constituted the man’s armor had the random, piecemeal look that was typical of the mercenaries who often plied their trade around the borders of Branda and Udonel, but his fair features led Jando to believe that this one was born of Valisian stock.
Caravaners and a guard, perhaps, the old innkeeper surmised, watching the unarmored pair gingerly lift their wounded friend onto the table. But what would a merchant caravan from the west be doing in Rilshen at this time of year, especially this close to the Taur’Forenya? Troggies run amok in the mists and most of the trade goods to come out of Adíroën and the north of Nöbottle were already out of season.
“What about that healer,” one of the caravaners demanded impatiently as Jando inspected the broken shaft of an arrow that jutted from the top of a dark stain just below the mercenary’s collar bone.
“Keep yer knickers on, lad,” Jando grumbled without looking up at the blonde-haired man, “I’m’s good as ye’ll find in these parts, missin’ fingers or no.” He probed another wound, marked also by the snapped off shaft of an arrow, in the mercenary’s side; “Blossom’s fetchin’ me supplies.”
As if on cue, the red-haired Ambín woman appeared in the kitchen doorway carrying a fringed, buckskin bag in one hand and a steaming kettle in the other. Blossom paid little mind to the pacing and hovering of the two caravaners as she maneuvered around them to deposit Jando’s healing kit on the table and then hang the kettle on a hook over the nearby hearth. She did cast an appraising glance at the bleeding man on the table, though, and shook her head, a little sadly, when she noted Jando’s dour expression. Her fingers danced and she gestured at the caravaners when the old ranger looked up at her.
“Aye, lass,” he murmured, “Go ‘head an’ break out that cider an’ bring these blokes a coupla mugs. Might’s well bring back that bottle o’ green spirits, too, eh? We’ll be needin’ it ta disinfect these wounds an’ ta ease this lad’s pain once’t we gets ta pushin’ these arrows oot.”
Jando watched as Blossom scurried from the hall again and then, wiping his hands on his apron, finally regarded the injured man’s friends. “Looks’s if ye lads’re far from home, then, eh,” he said, trying his best to affect some semblance of a reassuring smile; “Ye drivers fer a merchant or sommat?”
The taller of the two nodded absently, unable to take his eyes from the prone form of the mercenary on the table. “Yes,” he said after a moment, plopping wearily onto the bench near the head of the table. “Jurac and I are, at any rate. We’ve been driving caravan for a merchant named Tildren since mid-summer. Signed on with him in Antennen. Engtai, here,” he sighed as he rested his elbows on the table not far from the mercenary’s head, “was already with Tildren’s company then… a guard.”
“Aye,” Jando grumbled, “I gathered that much from the armor an’ such.” He glanced in the direction of the trappers, his attention drawn by the sound of chairs scooting away from the table, and nodded his reply as one of them lifted a hand in farewell.
“Joyful greet an’ merry meet,” one of the others called as they strode for the door, “Ta bless me name wi’ mirth.”
“Live as ye choose but do no harm,” Jando offered the traditional reply, finishing the exhortation to the Earthmother before returning his attention to the wagon drivers and their wounded companion, “Walk softly on th’ earth.”
Blossom had returned, carrying a broad, wooden tray laden with a jug of cider, a decanter made of strange, green glass, and a stack of stout mugs. She smiled a half-hearted farewell of her own to the exiting trappers as she set the tray down at the foot of the table, then set about pouring a sampling of the cider into each of the mugs. She offered the first mug to the man she had heard called Jurac – who accepted it silently with a nod of thanks to the tiny woman and then sank onto the bench next to his companion – and the second she passed to the other driver. The third mug she poured was placed within Jando’s reach and the fourth she kept for herself, stealing a quick sip from the mug and topping it off again, before replacing the stopper in the jug. Setting her mug aside, then, Blossom uncorked the green bottle, wrinkling her nose as acrid fumes wafted off the spirits inside and assailed her nostrils. She quickly covered the bottle’s mouth with a clean cloth and set it, too, within Jando’s reach.
“So,” Jando said, lifting his mug of cider to his lips as Blossom went to clear the table recently abandoned by the trappers, “What’d ye lads get inta out there, then?” He set the mug down and scooped up the bottle of green spirits, quickly tipping it over so that a quantity of the liquid saturated the cloth; “Where’s the rest o’ yer caravan?”
“It was a Shaelondri,” Jurac mumbled past the rim of the mug hovering at his lips, “The rest are dead.”
“A what?” Jando couldn’t help but laugh.
Both of the wagoneers glared at the innkeeper; angry that the old man could find any humor in this at all but staying their tongues, nonetheless, as the man was trying to tend to Engtai’s wounds. “A Shaelondri,” the unnamed wagoneer reiterated as Jurac irritably gulped down his cider, “A wood demon, of sorts, if you’ve never heard the legends, old timer! It attacked as we made camp at the edge of the Northwood. A dozen men died before we could even figure out what was going on. Tildren and the rest are dead for sure if the screams that followed us down the road are any proof.”
“I know what a Shaelondri be, boy,” Jando returned, matching the annoyed tone in which he’d just been addressed as he lay the green spirit-soaked cloth over the mercenary’s nose and mouth, “an’ trust me when I tell ye, tweren’t no demon o’ th’ wood what done this! Not a demon what ye’d call a Shaelondri, anyway.”
Though they looked indignant in the wake of the innkeep’s rebuke, Jurac and the other driver exchanged furtive glances with one another and, afterward, seemed almost hesitant to meet Jando’s gaze. Engtai let out a low moan, the sound of which was an odd mingling of pain and relief all at once, and then seemed to slip off into a more restful state of unconsciousness. So relaxed had the mercenary become, in fact, that his friends held their breath and paid close attention to the rise and fall of Engtai’s chest to assure themselves that he still lived.
“And what would you know of it, old man,” Jurac barked once he was sure that the mercenary was, in fact, still drawing air into his lungs, “Kalin and I have traveled Rilshen from coast to coast over these past years and we’ve seen more than our share of what dangerous and evil things lurk in the wilds along the trade routes! You’ve probably never strayed more than a thousand steps from the door of this Inn in all of your sorry life and…”
Jurac’s angry tirade was cut short when Jando reached across the table, grabbed a three-fingered handful of the young man’s tunic, and gave him a quick but solid shake, lifting him off the bench.
“Lemme tell ya what I know of it, boy,” Jando snarled, releasing the man as quickly as he had snatched him up, “I were huntin’ Shaelondri inna foothills o’ th’ Angelspine when ye were nae’en an itch in yer pappy’s loins an’ I helped run more’n one o’ the buggers ta ground in th’ Grey Blanket not ten years ago!
If either o’ ye whelps knew half o’ what ye says ye does, ye’d know damn good’n well that Shaelondri ain’t gonna pin-cushion ye wi’ no damn arrows! It woulda opened yer stinkin’ bellies wi’ it’s claws an’ et yer guts whilst ye were still screamin’!
An’ if ye dares ta snap at me agin, lad, ye’ll find yerself layin’ right up onna table next ta yer poor friend here! Izzat clear?!”
Both Jurac and Kalin responded with dumb nods and cowed expressions. Both seeming to wither under the intense, not-so-crippled-as-I-may-seem glare of the aged innkeep.
“Good,” Jando grunted, “ye smarmy bastards.
Now,” he continued, indulging in another swig of cider in hopes of tempering his anger, “I’ll ask ye agin; what’d ye lads get inta out there?”
As dark as the night had become, what with the clouds rolling in to veil the moon and stars, it was not difficult for a pair of keen, Adír eyes to spot the flames that danced atop the Mossy Oak’s signal post, even through the mists that curled through the trees at the edge of Míriel Holt some five and a half laar away. Had it been a clear summer night, with the full moon riding high in the ink black heavens, the light may have gone unnoticed by Adíroën’s Ghost Rangers until some furred or feathered denizen of the land relayed the summons to whatever warden of the wood might have listened. During the Season of the Mists, though, the soldiers of Silvanus prowled nearer to the edges of the Great Northwood, their senses almost supernaturally keen as they patrolled their borders in search of troggy infiltrators. And so it was that a pair of cloaked shapes now approached the ancient, carved stone pillar.
“It is Seven-Fingers’ post,” said the first, the voice issuing from the deep cowl of cloak betraying its wearer as female and elven, “A rare thing for this to be lit, Jon, even during the Kaimahrive.”
“Aye,” the taller of the two replied. His gaze swept back toward the Taur’Forenya then returned and continued on to survey the towering silhouette of the Mossy Oak. “No sign of trogs anywhere about,” he commented as his partner doused the small fire that had been burning in the bowl-shaped depression atop the pillar, “and the Inn looks peaceful.”
The elven woman cast a sidelong glance at the place – now a little more than a laar distant – but quickly returned her attention to the signal post. “No troggies, perhaps,” she said, tossing back her cowl and brushing long tangles of brass-hued hair away from her icy-blue eyes, “but there’s blood on the marker.” Her fingers delicately touched a dark smear along the edge of the signal post and then came back to touch the tip of her tongue. “Round-ear by the taste of it,” she said, spitting the taste from her mouth as she stood and looked toward the Mossy Oak, again, “and not very old.”
The male ranger’s narrowed gaze was still intent on the Inn and, as his partner rose from her inspection of the signal post; his feet began moving him toward the place. “My mother was a round-ear, Nessa,” he murmured, pushing back his own hood to reveal features that were an obvious blend of Man and Elf.
“Right,” Nessa said, tossing her cloak back over her shoulders as she fell into step alongside the half-blood, “Apologies, Greenleaf. I meant no offense.”
The ranger nodded but said nothing more aloud. His fingers, though, flicked out a query in Silent Speak when the sound of raised voices reached his ears; “Hear that?”
Even as she and Greenleaf broke into a swift but stealthy run, Nessa signed back; “Not exactly a friendly tone, is it?”
Both rangers – their paths briefly diverging as they skirted the massive trunk and lower structures of the tree-borne inn – had ready hands on their weapons as they reunited before the heavy door that was the Mossy Oak’s entrance.
“Anything,” the elven woman’s fingers asked as she and the half-elf paused a few steps away from the entry.
“Nothing too odd,” the man signed in reply, “I saw the Ambín woman through the kitchen window. She didn’t seem to be frightened. Couldn’t see into the hall.”
“…keep ‘im up on ‘is side!”
The rangers both recognized the innkeeper’s voice, even muffled as it was by the stout door and living walls of the place.
“There ye go. Now, ‘old ‘im still. That’s th’ way, lad; good’n firm. Yer friend’s likely gonna holler a bit when I push this arrow through but don’cha let loose of ‘im, hear?”
Nessa glanced at Jon, arching a curious brow and cocking her head to one side, as the half-elf reached out and pushed the door open. Surely old Seven-fingers hadn’t lit the signal post because he needed help tending the wounds of some hapless traveler?
“Oy! If yer gonna toss yer guts, remember ta aim fer th’ pail… an’ keep ‘old o’ th’ man, dammit!”
A deadened moan, as if breathed by one scarcely on the verge of awareness, carried on the warm air that sought escape through the opening door.
“Now, what were ye sayin’ ‘bout this demon,” Jando prodded Jurac, hoping to distract the Corelani’s attention from what he was about to do. He glanced up from the table, peering over Jurac’s shoulder as the rangers stepped into the hall, and silently acknowledged their arrival with the hint of a nod before looking again to Jurac and Kalin; “‘ow does ye know t’were a demon if’n ye dinnae lay a firm eye on it?”
The two wagon drivers from Corelan had yet to notice the arrival of Nessa and Jon. Their backs were to the door and their attentions were focused – more or less – on keeping Engtai propped up so that Jando could force an arrow the remainder of the way through the mercenary’s torso.
“Borgohzal’s Six Hells,” Kalin exclaimed, “I’ve told you this already! The creature was on the far side of the clearing, as if it had come from the deeper wood. We were on the side nearer the road. With the mists as they were under the trees and the firelight and bodies of the rest between us and it, it was not easy to see exactly what it was!”
Jando grimaced faintly as he skillfully angled and turned the arrow in Engtai’s side, ensuring that it would miss any vital innards, and suddenly pushed with a sharp motion.
The mercenary wailed as the razor honed broadhead burst through the skin of his back and both Jurac and Kalin flinched as the bloody arrowhead emerged. They did manage to keep the wounded man still, however, and Kalin had even remembered to irrigate the exit wound with a splash of green spirits as Jando reached around and delicately pulled the rest of the projectile free of the flesh.
“Well then, like I telled ye,” Seven-Fingers grumbled, setting the remains of the bloody arrow aside as he reached into his kit, “tweren’t no Shaelondri nor nae other sort o’ demon fer that matter. If’n it ‘ad been ye’d a got a lookit ‘im fer sure, right afore he teared out yer guts!”
His fingers came out of the pack with a large pinch of silver and black powder between them. “Lean ‘im forward a bit,” Jando commanded, “mind that ye don’ lean ‘im over onnat arrow pokin’ outta ‘is neck.”
The wagon drivers did as they were instructed, tilting Engtai’s body over into an almost prone position, watching with uneasy interest as Jando spread open the exit wound on the mercenary’s back and packed the powder into it. “A’right, Blossom,” the innkeep called, gesturing to the drivers to return their companion to his former position, “I’ll be needin’ a tallow an’ th’ plaster now, luv.”
As Jando secured another, smaller pinch of the powder from his kit and packed it into Engtai’s entry wound, Blossom wandered out of the kitchen carrying a small, stone mortar in one hand and the nub of a candle in the other. She smiled happily when she saw the two rangers standing just inside the door and, as she stopped at the hearth to ladle a bit of boiling water into the mortar, she took a second to sign a greeting. “Well met, Wolfsister! Well met, Greenleaf! It is wonderful to see you,” her fingers danced before they worked the pestle to mix the water with whatever herbs had already been ground in the mortar.
“Mae govannen, Orangeblossom,” Nessa smiled as the Ambín lit the candle from a low flame on the edge of the hearth.
“Ever a joy to see you, as well, my dear, little woman,” Jon nodded, watching Blossom climb up on the bench beside Jando and offer him the candle.
The rangers’ responses to Blossom’s greeting seemed to have finally alerted Kalin and Jurac to their presence as both men cast surprised glances over their shoulders at the sound of Nessa’s voice. The wagon drivers’ dumbstruck expressions were answered by curt nods from the pair of rangers and then turned to manifestations of shock as Jando touched the dancing candle-flame to the powder he had loaded into Engtai’s wounds. A sharp hiss and a brilliant flash illuminated the features of all those around the table as the powder ignited and quickly burned out, cauterizing the tears in the mercenary’s flesh even before the moan of agony finished passing his lips.
“Is this the reason your signal post was alight, Seven-Fingers,” Nessa, more commonly known as the Wolfsister, asked finally. She prowled closer to the table, eyeing the two wagon drivers and their wounded guard, doing little to mask the suspicion that burned in her eyes.
“Not really,” Jando shrugged, moving aside for a moment as Blossom set about smearing the herb plaster she had made over Engtai’s blackened wounds, “but, if’n I ain’t mistook, there be a connection.” He reached for the broken shaft of the arrow he had recently extracted, wiped the blood and gore off of the thing as best as his apron would allow, and offered it over to the ranger woman; “Look familiar to ye, does it?”
Wolfsister inspected the arrow, her eyes hardening even more as she noticed the two orange bands painted on the shaft just behind the arrowhead; “It does.” She glared at the Corelani men and even cast a contemptuous glance at the unconscious man on the table as she passed the shattered projectile on to Greenleaf.
“These lads says their caravan was set upon by a demon as they made camp ‘neath the edge of the Taur,” Jando related, now easing the mercenary over so as to have access to the other arrow that had lodged just under the man’s collar bone.
Greenleaf offered a cynical snort and, having completed his own inspection of the arrow, tossed the thing back down on the table. “Aye,” he said, “I’ve known Farseer to be called a demon on occasion.
Those are a Ghost Ranger’s shafts stuck in your friend,” the half-elf offered when Kalin fixed him with an uncertain and questioning glare. “If you were beset by this… demon… it was something of your own doing that invited it.”
Jurac and Kalin glanced at each other again and then, as Kalin hung his head, Jurac sighed. “Engtai’s hand had barely closed on the hilt of his sword,” he said quietly, “when the first arrow hit him. The second came when he continued to try and draw it.”
“It was madness,” Kalin added, almost whispering, “A single man armed with naught but a bow, Ghost Ranger or not, couldn’t have done what this thing did… it was… it all happened… too fast.”
“A Shaelondri, indeed,” Jando chuffed as he probed his patient’s still untreated wound with the point of a small, slim-bladed knife. “Well, this’n’s gonna ‘ave ta be turned and run under the bone ‘ere we c’n get it out… or we c’n jus’ break the bone an’ pull th’ thing out between the fracture, but the lad’ll nae likely be swingin’ a blade agin.”
The old innkeeper sighed, re-soaking a cloth with another dose of the green spirits and placing it over Engtai’s nose and mouth again as his gaze moved over the faces around the table. “Either way, we’s gonna need one of ye ta hold ‘is shoulders down and t’other ta sit on ‘is legs ta keep ‘im from kickin’… This is gonna hurt a wee bit more’n ‘avin’ a hot poker runned up ‘is arse.
Lemme get done takin’ care o’ this lad an’ get ‘im bedded down,” Jando said to the glowering Ghost Rangers, “an’ I’ll fill ye in on what th’ signal post’s all aboot. If’n ye ain’t yet guessed it, Farseer’s likely ta miss ‘is council wi’ th’ Druid.”