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First Among Fools

By Renae
(With editorial thanks to Warren and Babs Yerunkle)

 

Chapter Three - Those Who Hunt

 

A good day had passed since my leaving Rixthat at the bridge, as much as I would have enjoyed his company, Fate had made her will clearly known. I smiled remembering Rixthat’s expression when the coin had halted dead in the air. I suppose that he had not had much in the way of the various Gods and Goddesses parading through his life. I shook my head remembering the old, but oh so true, curse about living in interesting times.

I for one was not going about and complaining about boredom, tedium perhaps but not boredom. I was getting a good workout in the process of picking up sticks and trying not to have them go up in puffs of smoke. My pack was certainly not getting any lighter, though having everything I thought needed, was nice. I still wanted to strangle a few bards or storytellers in that; well they never seemed to equate great deeds with great distances. Every song seems to be set over the next hill when you are listening to them.

Call it an idle fancy in that I could wish for a tale to actually tell of the journey, not just the bits of daring do. Though if you had to translate my actions of late, into song, I am not sure if the puking of my guts up would be a good verse. Sure I saved a small town, but I had not exactly done it by any notion of ‘Bardic Chivalry.’ I shook my head, then again how was I to know if X’al the Great, killed all those Orcs in fair fights? Part of me suspects he had help or he had been as creative in killing them as I had the bandits.

When the road took an abrupt turn to the west I was forced to pull out my map and decide if it was to my benefit or not to go with it. The few marker stones I had encountered along the road did say I was heading in the correct direction, though no real distance was marked upon them. I suppose it was to keep an invading army from knowing exactly how far they had to march. Though I suspected if we were invaded, the invaders would already know how far they had to go.

The map was only slightly helpful in that it did show the turn, but it was obvious the distance on the last leg of my current trail was suspect. If I went by the map I had but maybe a league to go, though the rise in the woods that lifted a section of the forest higher than the rest was at least that far away. Walking with the road would allow me to do some more reading, even if it seemed a bit chancy to be swallowed up in reading.

I think Thomas would approve of my studious nature, though I would likely get an earful for not doing it sooner. Oh I knew the basics of the principles of magick, I just had not needed to worry about them before. It was complex, mind numbing and well boring, if you approached it from the perspective of one who would likely never even spark a flame. That had changed and so had my focus on learning it. Sure turning sticks into ashy splinters was neat, it just wasn’t very practical.

Once the map was stowed away and the compass tied carefully to a long cord and my belt, I made my way into the woods. And right back out again, as some thing was dead wrong. I stood silently at the edge of the forest and listened, there were the sounds of life, but the smell was that of death. A faint breeze carried traveled out of the forest and I about gagged from the stench it brought with it. Something or a lot of things were dead and close to the edge of the forest.

Taking a hunting arrow from the quiver I nocked it before wading back into the underbrush near the forest. I took my time carefully search for the source of the stink. Without too much work I found the source and for a moment my eyes tried to make sense of the brush covered bodies. When the badly abused bodies formed into a rough whole in my mind, I hurriedly made my way back out to the road and threw up. Once I had cleared my mouth with a bit of water and my guts were yet inside of me I went back to look again.

This time I was slightly detached mentally, I was also slightly angry and frightened, as someone or something had torn what looked to be a family into bits. I noted a mixture of clean cuts and stabs and no few animal marks where the forest was trying to reclaim the bodies. There was not a great deal of blood on the grass so they had to have been drug there after being killed.  I bit tightly on my lip to keep from running back to the road again.

I don’t think I will be able to erase the memory of a little girl’s gnawed face from my memory as much as I could wish. I did walk back to the road and cleared my head for a few moments with a healthy belt of the Meade. Part of me was loath to just leave the bodies there, yet I could not risk that large of a fire in the woods. So in some ways I was glad to see a small mounted patrol riding towards me.

When they approached I saw that they seemed to be some sort of militia, as they were not wearing Kingdom colors but those of red and green, likely a local lord’s men at arms. They were well equipped for fighting, wearing a mixture of chain mail and studded leather. I made sure my demeanor was not hostile as I waved them down; the last thing I wanted or needed was a fight with the local forces.

“Have you a small shovel or tarp you could spare?” I asked as they approached warily.

Their leader was a hard looking man who looked as if he had a permanent scowl etched into his face over the years. He studied me for a moment before speaking, “Not for you Elf.”

Wonderful, I could see I was going to have to dance carefully with my words. “Well not so much for me, but the dead humans over there in the woods,” I pointed in the direction with my empty hand.

“What!?” He all but roared at me, “If you…” he stopped himself and pointed to the youngest of the four man group, “go check it out.”

I was slightly disconcerted to see the man draw his sword, “I only found them a few moments ago.” I pointed to a bit further down the road where my vomit was pooled. “I didn’t have the stomach for it either.”

One of the men rose up in his saddle to look where I pointed then he chuckled, “Give the girl a break Vern, I can see a fairly messy puddle from here.” He glanced to where the younger man was leaning out from his horse and doing the same. “An it seems young Josh isn’t faring much better.”

Vern shook his head and sheathed his sword before dismounting. “Sorry lass we have had a few rough bits with well equipped brigands.”

“Well equipped?” I asked feeling a frown drop into place.

“Chain mail, good swords and some decent clothes and boots, all of the same cut and style.” He started leading his horse to a bush and tied the reins to it.

“That sounds more like a mercenary group or raiders,” I frowned again as he nodded.

“Yes, so you could say we are a touch upset about them,” he added with some sarcasm.

The young soldier called Josh made his way to where we were, looking pale and angry. “They cut them up, even the young girl.”

I took off my pack and freed the skin of Meade and passed it up to the younger man, “Drink, it will help clear your mouth, if not take the edge off of what you saw.”

He glanced to the Vern who nodded and then took a healthy swallow, and then he blinked, “Thank you very much miss.” He smiled and I held out my hand for the skin.

“How many would you say there are?” asked Vern.

“I counted about five two adults and three kids, one of them a bit younger than he is,” I pointed to Josh. “The others were not very old.”

Vern spat in disgust and started removing a tarp from a saddlebag, “How long would you say they have been there?”

I considered that, and then walked back to look at the brush around the bodies. It took some concentration to ignore the mangled flesh and the stench, but I some how managed to do that. I looked to my own few tracks and then studied the area noting more than a few prints, I heard Vern moving softly behind me as I moved from track to track.

“Well?”

I stood upright and sighed, “At least a good two days, as the bodies are not completely torn apart by the animals. My guess is that it might have been as early as late afternoon yesterday or as late as the night before then.”

He snorted in derision, “You guess? I thought you elves knew everything there was to tracking and such.”

I bit back on an angry retort and sighed, “Look I am only a child compared to most of the B’radians I have known, I don’t have decades of experience for that matter.”

“An elf that admits to her inexperience, will wonders never cease?” he asked sarcastically.

I shrugged, “We all start somewhere. Though if you will call me Jonne rather than elf, we might get along and through this day without our various tempers being worn thin.”

“An elf by any other name is still an elf.”

“And a foul smelling human is still a dirty breeder,” I turned to see him glaring at me. “So shall we trade insults all day or do you plan on letting the dead molder?”

He frowned and spat in the dirt close to my foot. “I suppose we can work on our insults while we tend to the dead.”

“What, not going to send me on my way?”

“Nope I figure you may as well enjoy the fun, if anything it might be funny to watch you lose your guts.”

“You are a sick man.”

“I have my moments.”

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An hour or so later we were watching the pyre burn and I counted myself lucky that I didn’t have to replace neither my shirt nor my trews. Though I was longing for a bath to wash the smell of death from my hands and nose. Vern was even less fun to be around by that time as well. I could tell we were never going to be good friends as I think he merely tolerated me in that I was not bashful about getting the dead taken care of.

“Well elf, I think it is time for you to be going. Now.” Vern flicked a finger to my pack and to the road.

“And what of the bandits?”

“We don’t need no elf girl to show us the way, we can track them well enough on our own.” He motioned to Josh, “Even he could do as well or better than you, girl.”

For a moment I considered the odds on him finding the ten or so men I had counted different tracks for. If they were half ways decent they would not need my help, though I had to think they were a bit foolish. “Suit yourself, so which lord do you belong to? Just in the off chance you should end up like them?” I pointed to the fire.

“Just go little elf and leave the real work to men.” Vern kicked a stone in my direction, “Git.”

I picked up my pack and fairly tossed it onto my back, “I’m going, I’d offer a prayer for your health but you don’t need my help or theirs evidently.”

“Right, now get moving,” he offered me a rude gesture and a sardonic smile as I turned to walk away.

I sighed and turned to walk down the road, with luck the city was only a day away and the people there would be nicer. I heard him laughing and a few rude sounding comments were hurled in my direction. I did my best to ignore him, though I will admit I was a feeling a bit angry. I was not sure I liked my fellow man, if he was considered a representative of ‘men.’

I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of the bias I had encountered in the past few days. First the Lieutenant at the river and now Vern. So far I had only been truly a N’relv a few days and I was getting the impression that some of the humans didn’t much care for us, their cousins. I am sure there are a few Isolationists that can boast of no touch of N’relv blood in their linage, but for the bulk of humanity as a whole, we are fairly mixed.

It was with some resignation I noted a second column of smoke in the distance, either there was a second pyre burning or something much more worrisome. I wasn’t too far from the men, not exactly in ear shot, but I figured if I got their attention they might see the smoke too. I whistled shrilly and waved my arms a few times to get their attention, when it seemed like they were finally getting the drift as I was about ready to go kick them in the ass.

I cannot say I was too surprised when they all but rode me down in their haste to go in the direction of the fire. Though I am sure that Vern was smiling when I was forced off the road cursing at him. With a few choice epitaphs of my father’s phrasing, I sent them on their way wishing them a quick trip to hell. Ok I wasn’t wishing them a trip to hell, but you likely could guess the gist of it from my mood.

Forcing myself into an easy jog, I followed after them, maybe not the smartest of plans, but since it was already on the way…  I am not exactly brave but if trouble was in my way I might as well see what was in my way, right? In any case I was heading that way, so I either was going to help or hide and watch the ‘men’ do it. I guess a part of me still burned from their verbal abuse.

I stopped at a cut in the road and tried to decide just what was going on. I was a good ways from the fight so I stepped into the woods and dropped my pack, and then I twisted my ring. Yes I was going to be sneaky, devious, and distinctly underhanded. For a moment I smiled and sent a quick prayer to Fate, as it could not hurt. I think the gist of my prayer was, “Confusion to my enemies.”

It was with an odd humor that I found myself watching Vern and his men square off against a small skirmish line that out numbered him twice over. I walked behind the enemy line and fired into the back of one man as he tried to circle around to flank Vern. I took a few extra steps out of harms way and selected another arrow, to Vern’s credit he and his men had struck down three of the men that they faced. I nocked another arrow and jogged to where I could cleanly strike down the one on the end.

I was feeling a bit detached or crazed, I could not determine which as I loosed my second arrow into the back of the strange soldier. Yes soldier for no brigand had any real skill in line warfare. Yet these men fought with discipline, which was frightening as their silence. As my man fell the last few formed a triangle. It suited me as it allowed me to place my next arrow in the chest of the man that was watching their backs.

Falling a few steps back out of the fray, I looked further into where the battle was raging. The main gate had been blocked with an overturned cart and I could hear fighting inside the fort. I looked back to where Vern and his men had triumphed; and they were eyeing the woods around the fort with some suspicion. I followed their gaze to a line of horses and counted a rough two score of horses. We had accounted for not quite ten, which left a force of a bout thirty give or take, still fighting.

Frowning darkly, I watched as Vern and his men moved into the wood line. Part of me was disconcerted at their evident cowardice, yet part of me wondered if they had the right of it. Though when the horses spooked and started to run off, I smiled wickedly. Then I moved into the courtyard of the fort, I saw a route up to the parapet that was free of fighters of either sort. I wasn’t going to make any real difference in a bladed fight so I scampered up to where I could shoot down into the fray as needed.

Vern and his men eased quietly into the open gate and then started moving along one wall. As much as I didn’t like Vern, I had to admit he was a fairly bright solider, as his movements would give no way for the enemy to get behind him. I took a moment to check on an injured man, he was alive, but only just. I looked for an ideal vantage point and saw none that suited me, finding no decent cover, I was stuck invisible and thus as I was further from my targets I was going to waste arrows.

I did gamble for a brief moment on visibility to try and attract Vern’s eye. Not the smartest move as I also drew the eye of an archer, twisting the ring and jumping left had saved me a solid skewering, though I did keep an eye on that solider, so when fortune favored a clean shot I took it. I watched with some satisfaction as a lucky shot sent the arrow into his arm. It wasn’t a killing blow, but I was happy in that he was no longer concerned about anything but his arm.

It was with an evident smirk that Vern shoved his sword into that man’s backside; evidently he was in a good mood. I shrugged and selected another arrow, Vern was motioning for me to look down, and as I did so I spied a man crouched at the foot of the wall. My mood was definitely fey as I aimed down at his head and fired. That time I was rewarded with the arrow sinking to the quills in the shoulder of the man. I blinked a few times as he fell silently.

With a thoughtful prayer to the Goddess in Danlin’s name: As I was sure the bow I had traded him in partial purchase was certainly not that good compared to this one. In war it is said only the losers are mindful of fairness. It was with that thought that I hunted the enemy soldiers from above and reduced Vern’s attackers as they presented the chance to me. Hardly fair and sporting, yet the chance to strike back at the men that might be responsible for the death of that family suited me.

Suddenly and with some consternation that I found myself visible amongst a wave of vertigo. Someone was using magicks to even the odds. ‘Hardly fair’, I thought as I ducked down behind a water barrel. It took me a few moments to find the magick wielder, yet he was fairly surprised as I stood up and fired at him. I should remember that in my studies of magick to seek and use only short spells. In some ways I was greatly relieved and amused when his chanting was cut off abruptly.

Though I was still visible, a point that was brought home to me when I felt a burning pain flare in my left shoulder.  I fell back behind the barrel and cursed fluently at my stupidity.  I didn’t have time to bandage the wound much less do more than break the shaft of the arrow away. I set my bow off to the side and drew my rapier as a man charged down the parapet at me.

Standing up, I stepped back into a defensive stance and waited for him to come to me. He smiled and slowed to an easy pace, I smirked and let the tip of my blade float just above the ground. I studied his blade and smiled wickedly as his was a short sword. I floated back another half a step and let his abrupt charge guide my aim, as he essayed a blow that was largely defensive I dropped into a lunge and used his momentum to drive the point of my blade through his chain mail up and into his heart.

With a large retreating step backwards I tugged the blade from his grasping fingers. I took a second step back and watched the life fade from his eyes; I felt some odd happiness at being mostly intact and alive. Though the point lodged in my shoulder reminded me that I was still ‘human’. I frowned and touched the edge of the wound; I didn’t feel the wide edges of a hunting arrow, so that left it as a hardened point or a pile arrow. In either case I could tug it free without doing more damage.

Ducking back by the barrel, I used a dropped sack to wipe the blade of the rapier clean as best I could. With a few false starts I managed to sheath it, that didn’t make me happy, as I didn’t want to deal with shock on top of everything else. I managed to only grunt in pain rather than screaming as I tugged the sharp end of the arrow out of my shoulder. For a moment I saw streaks of white light in my vision and a hint of gray. I took a few quick breaths and forced myself to stay upright.

With some careful cutting I was able to use part of my sleeve as rough bandage, not the best but it would have to do. I flexed my arm a few times and sighed, I was not going to get a full draw anytime soon. In either case leaving the bow behind was not a good option, I picked it up and eased it over my shoulder. I took a moment to fiddle with the ring, it didn’t turn me back to fully invisible when I did, but it did seem to be functional as my hand winked out.

Standing up I eased around the barrel and past the man I had killed but only a short few minutes ago. I drew my rapier and I did my best to stay in the shadows, not that there were many to choose from. I think I must have regained a hint of my senses, as I was quickly wondering what the blazes I was doing here: That and wishing I was back to being invisible.

Still I was largely happy to find the sounds of the fighting fading out, well mostly happy, as I was not sure who was the victor yet. I took my time walking the parapet, looking for signs of who the victor was and other possible rude surprises. When the men were shouting joyfully and seemed to all be dressed in the same colors as Vern, I figured the fighting to be over. Still I didn’t rush in to say how good it was to be alive, for all I knew Vern’s attitude was prevalent among them.

Tiredly I sat upon the stairs leading up to the parapet; and then I spent some time probing the wound. Feeling a bit off, I decided that probing the wound was not going to be helpful as I started bleeding again. Though once I got to my pack and used the various herbs and medicines I had bought, wound fever was not likely to be a problem. Yet carrying my pack for a time would be tough.

It was with some mild displeasure to find myself greeted by Vern, “Nice work elf.”

“You don’t do so badly yourself,” I motioned to his blood soaked uniform.

“All in a days real work.” He smirked at me, “I see you forgot to duck.”

“Well that mage made things a touch annoying for me.”

He moved my bandage aside and nodded, “Well you are not bleeding like a stuck pig, so you will live.”

“Your concern for my welfare is most touching,” I put my crude bandage back in place and pressed on it with a frown.

He laughed loudly, and clapped me on my good shoulder, “Elf I might come to like you.”

“The name is Jonne,” I complained at him.

“Well in any case looks like you will be our guest for a few days. Least wise until the Lord shows up with a healer, can’t have you up and haring off before you are at least able to shoot decently. Heaven forbid I should let you wander off and starve to death.”

“Fine, so did you learn anything from the dead?” I asked tiredly.

“Some, they are definitely foreign. That mage you shot babbled some screwy language until I finished him. He’s got some odd looking books and the damnedest of knives.”

“Cursed or be spelled so you don’t want to play with it in any case.” I thought for a moment, “Did he have a small satchel with some herbs and a book as well?”

“Yep a bundle of weeds and what not.”

“Great,” I sighed and was wishing for a better understanding of what was marching into the Kingdom.

“You ran into one of these before?”

“Yeah I stopped what I thought was just a bunch of bandits in Fair Tree’s Hallow. Ten in all, one of them was a mage like that one. Fortunately for me they seem to spend a long time chanting their spells.”

“More running about shooting folks in the back?”

“What, you wanted me to stop and say ‘Hi, here I am shoot me?’” I asked with a fair amount of sarcasm.

He snorted in laughter, “Right, still for an Elf you shoot fairly well, but then I suppose you all do.”

I bowed slightly at the complement and chewed on my lip to stay clear headed.

“So where did you leave your pack?”

“Looking to loot it?”

He shook his head, “Hardly, I got enough gold and what not from the few I killed to keep me in ale for a while. I’ll send a few men to fetch your pack here. Can’t have an injured girl out and in the way.”

“Your concern is touching.”

“Right,” he spat on the ground. “Still for an elf, you may not be too bad Jonne.”

“And you are the epitome of all things human,” I snickered at his briefly perplexed look.

“In any case, elf, you are our guest, so be grateful you are not sleeping with the animals.” He pointed to a few men, “Give them some decent directions to your pack and rest.

I managed to keep a retort from my lips and the other two men chuckled as Vern went off to sort out the rest of the living.

“Don’t be too mindful of Vern, he’s been right grumpy with all the raids.”

“So is he the headman for this fort?”

“He is at the moment, our Lieutenant isn’t likely to make it past the night. Unless a healer gets here before then.” He shrugged, “War’s fortunes miss.”

I nodded and told them were to look for my pack, as it was still day I figured they’d have it in no time. I was tempted to go with them if only to get to the brandy with the flowers in it that much sooner. Yes for all my apparent stoicism I hurt, a lot.

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Once I had bandaged my wound properly and took a swallow or three of the brandy I had been steeping the dream flowers in, I lost a better part of a day and the night. Though when I was finally and really awake, I was without pain. I reached up to my shoulder to find it whole, I didn’t remember it being healed, but then the rest of that day and night was but a dim blur. I looked about the room I was in: It was empty aside from the few extra bunks that, if I remember correctly held the wounded from the day prior. I was mostly pleased to find my pack intact. Yet it seemed to have been sorted out and neatly repacked for me.

That fairly irked me; as the map case and the letter from Fair Tree’s Hallow, was sitting predominantly at the top of the pack. I suppose if a strange warrior showed up and helped out I might want to know more about them, but I doubt if I would stoop to digging in their stuff. I was heartened to find my weapons neatly off to one side, and a few of my used arrows in the quiver and the broken ones next to a few purses. Evidently some kind soul had attempted to recover my arrows and had some luck, and I was pleased to note the purses held more than just coppers. As I doubted Vern to be that unfair, but having not claimed my own kills, I could not argue the splitting of loot.

I took a few minutes to claim the points from the broken arrows; they were slightly tacky with blood, of which I stopped to check the few that had been returned to the quiver. Those at least had been cleaned, I shook my head and rechecked my rapier which was clean, yet had been seated firmly in the sheath, of which I suppose some heavy handed person had checked to make sure it was intact. It took some time with the wet-stone to take the nicks out of the blade. As effective as chain mail is, it has a weakness, as that it is for the most part, a series of linked holes.

Chuckling I shook my head, I remember when my one of my later sword instructors mad a point of showing just how ineffective chain mail is against stilettos and rapiers. One of my semi-tolerable friends had purchased a good set and thought it made him invulnerable. He also had made the mistake of saying that in earshot of my instructor. I still find it funny that my friend had quickly changed his tune once the Instructor had lanced his buttocks with a stiletto. While he didn’t wound the poor lad, much, he did get the point across.

True, chain mail is good against slashing weapons and it is not bad against spears and such, though you will still get hurt if the links give way. Or if you take a crushing blow, maces, cudgels and the like are great for flattening armor around it’s wearer. War hammers are just plain nasty against some of the lighter armors, though not too effective against some other types. The ways of warfare are numerous and messy.

The Mage Wars had reshaped armor as a whole, in that there were no ‘singularly’ male or female styles of armor. Oh sure you could have a set made anyway you liked and some folks had a set or two for show only, parades and such like. Yet when it comes to a battlefield most if not all of the armor is wearable by either gender with a few adjustments. Weapons had changed somewhat in that the lighter weapons were more common, while you may be able to swing a honking big great-sword with ease as a male, if you became a petite female in the course of fighting you were in trouble.

I was slightly startled out of my reverie at Vern’s intrusion. “So elf, are you in your right mind now?”

I sheathed my rapier with a grimace, “My name is Jonne.”

He chuckled, “Just making sure, for a time last night you only answered to Lady or Revered Mother. I um, will not get used to that.”

“Get used to what Vern?”

“Seeing you glowing with white light and promising to rework me into a ‘more personable being’ in my next life.” He shook his head, “I have seen some damned odd things in my life, elf. Yet I find it unnerving when the Gods and such walk around on the earth.”

“I don’t remember that,“ I said with a troubled smile. “Though I think you may have gotten off lucky, she could have reworked you in this life.”

“Oh I know, anyways elf, the Lieutenant and the Lord wants to see you, if your ladyship is able,” he smirked at me as if I was in for certain trouble.

“What not chasing me out with a scant thank you? Or a be on your way?” I smiled at his look of annoyance.

“Well, if I had my ways, I would be sending your unnerving self off with a kick. But since you saved a few folks lives, I guess that is out.” He chuckled, “As it is, you fight fairly well when you are not shooting folks in the back. So I can at least tolerate you, Jonne.”

“Be still my heart, is that how do you choose your friends? By how well they fight or drink?”

“Well I have seen men drink, and you lass are no serious drinker. So, I doubt I will find the need to take you carousing.”

I took stock in my appearance; I evidently had changed sometime in the night. Fortunately I had dressed myself in travel clothes, so I should expect to be off in the day. I doubted the Goddess was trying subtle to be subtle about things, though I was not sure what to make of her healing people while ‘borrowing’ my body. Though her Revered Mothers had said that her hand was upon me, although I had not heard of them being overly friendly with a blade.

“So should I be rushing out to find you a tailor so that you might be properly dressed?” he asked with a wave to my clothes.

I sighed, “I have no idea Vern, I am as much in the dark as the next man when it comes to her plans.” I indicated my attire, “Evidently she likes me dressed this way.”

He nodded thoughtfully, “You do seem more made for war then a temple, but then I never could figure out elves when it came to what they thought as appropriate clothing.”

I shrugged as he did have a point the N’relv pretty much dressed, as they wanted to and if you were to look at the B’radians. Well, even they were individuals, though they favored a practical type of clothing much like what I wore, in the field. I hazarded a guess that they were likely to be flamboyant at home. “With weapons or without?”

“I have no idea, though I am likely to guess they want to see you draw your bow. One of our lads tried it while you were um, indisposed. He could only partially draw it.”

With a frown at his pronouncement I quickly rechecked my bow, though it seemed intact, “Well it’s made of iron wood.” I drew it a couple of times not seeing any difference in its action. I set it on the bed I was using and belted my weapons about me and sighed, as I would have to replace the stiletto in my hair much later. I tossed it lightly to the bunk and swung the quiver lightly over my shoulder, and then I reclaimed the bow.

“Come elf, and see what you have wrought,” he was smirking at me so I half ways dreaded what was to come.

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What I had wrought turned out to be a lot of odd looks. I am not sure what had occurred last night but evidently I must have been spooky. The few men that watched me did so with a mixture of reverence and fear, though they quickly looked away if they saw that I was looking at them. Part of my mind was amused by the lack of reverence in Vern; I guess it takes a bit more than the Goddess to shake him up. Though I was getting annoyed with being called elf by Vern time and time again.

He led me into a small house that sat off to one side of the fort, not to distant from it was a burnt out barn. I guessed that the attack had been preceded with its fire, not a bad tactic. I glanced around for any easy way to set fire to it and hazarded a guess that it had been fired by a lucky flaming arrow.

I was slightly taken aback when the guard at the door saluted Vern, then hurried to open the door and get out of our way. The scent of food teased my nose and my stomach proclaimed it was well. Vern chuckled at the loud rumble, and then led the way into a room where a variety of food was set. At the head of the table was a man who looked a bit older than Vern, though when he stood Vern braced at attention.

“My Lord I have fetched the N’relv as you have requested,” Vern said as he roughly stood at attention.

The Lord was dressed in the same green and gray colors as his men, though the trimming was silver. He had a baronial coronet with marked with several fleur-de-lis and one unwinking red gem. His red hair was neatly tied back in a warriors braid, and his gray eyes were hard set in his bronzed face. Belatedly I bowed slightly not quite blushing in my currently unranked state.

He laughed deeply and bowed himself, “Not used to bowing I see; in either guise.” He waved to Vern, and in a slightly rebuking tone of voice added, “Vern as a lieutenant, you make a fine sergeant, where is your rank?”

It was amusing to see Vern abashed, “Sorry your Grace, I forgot to put them on.”

The Lord rolled his eyes at me, “I take it you are called Jonne, correct?” he asked me.

“Yes, your Grace.”

“Ah, good,” he motioned to the table, “sit and eat as you will, I have a few questions for you.”

I walked to an empty chair and after resting my weapons beside it, sat neatly in it. A few glances at the other faces of the table presented another lieutenant who was eyeing me with a smile on his face. When I smiled back I was surprised to see him blush deeply.

“You may not remember the good Lieutenant, but I have no doubts he will never forget you miss. Being as you pulled him back from his few steps into the long dark. May I present Mister Franklin, I am sure you are slightly familiar with these other ruffians.” He said the last bit with a warm tone of voice.

I nodded as I recalled the faces if not the names of the men with Vern the day prior, “And you are good sir?”

“His most abundant and royal self, is called Lord Mark Hawthorn the Second,” he smiled and added in a tone of pure self-mockery. “Not to mention a darned nice but ever so lowly and distant heir to the throne.” He smirked at Vern; “I also lead this rabble with along other units from time to time.”

I had to think through the family tree for a few moments then wanted to kick myself a few times. I faintly remembered him as being related to me, though I could not recall seeing him at court more than a time or two, when I was much, much younger. I covered my uncertainty by tucking a napkin where it would save my clothing if I should drop something. To be honest how did one greet a cousin who, if I read things correctly might be a better heir than I was?

“Ah, so you would be a likely candidate for the throne should the worst befalls the King? Goddess forbid that should happen.”

“Not as such, nor would I want to see a goodly many of those ahead of me perish. I have my hands full keeping these ruffians and such in check when things are dull.” He lifted a cup and saluted “May the King and his Heir live forever.”

I hastened to lift my own glass and responded with the others, “To the King.”

“So Jonne, I have seen that you are quite the archer.” I am not sure if his tone was mocking or not as he seemed to shift from humor to seriousness from sentence to sentence.

“I do fairly well, “ I admitted, “though a great many of my cousins are much better.”

“Not given to tout your own skills?”

I finished the bite of chicken I was working and then shook my head, “Not overly much, I learned some time ago that eventually I would be forced to eat squab if I could not live up to my own claims.”

“Better to keep silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt?” asked Mister Franklin as he cored a small apple.

“That or be thought to be mysterious,” I said.

Vern shook his head, “Never met an elf that was not mysterious.”

I replied with a slight shrug as Vern sat not quite in kicking distance

“Vern please, I know you have issues with the N’relv, but at this table do be polite,” commanded Lord Hawthorn with a hint of steel in his voice.

I was amused to hear Vern make apologies or attempt to, I waved a hand at him, “Peace Vern, if I was truly offended, you would know of it.”

Lord Hawthorn laughed loudly, “Of that I have no doubt.”

At which Vern colored darkly and sighed, “Sorry Jonne.”

“So Jonne what brings you into this corner of the realm?” asked the Lord.

I was about to answer when a Priest of the Truth walked in from an adjoining room. I noted his stark white robes and the staff of his office. Though I suppose the most outstanding feature he possessed were his eyes, they were all white as if covered with a film. He moved as cautiously as one who might be blind yet when he moved to sit in a chair unguided he seemed to see.

“Yes I am curious to that as well child, I am Prior Paul Atakin. At your service.” He bowed to me as he sat opposite of me.

Wonderful I would have to be doubly careful of my speech and of which truths I could speak, as it was impossible to lie in front of such as he. “I am chasing riddles and mysteries,” I finally answered.

I watched the Prior digest that and frowned when he shook his head slightly. “The truth, yet not all of it.” He chuckled, “Jonne correct?”

“I am called that,” lovely, I so did not want to have this conversation.

“Again, not the whole truth,” he picked up an apple and a knife then with a deliberate hesitation he sliced the apple into half without cutting his hand.

I took a sip of wine and shrugged, “Truth be told, I cannot give you a fairer answer without placing myself and a great many others at risk.”

“Ah she so does speak truth,” he smiled and sliced a thin slice from the apple. “Relax child no one here, wants to see you come to harm. Our host is a honorable man and is not likely to speak without reason.”

I noticed his slight hesitation on the word ‘here’ and frowned. “It is those who are not here and may yet hear, that I worry about.”

Vern spoke in the brief silence, “Riddles don’t sit well with a meal.”

“She was not speaking plainly nor was she presenting us with more of riddle than her presence,” I was growing even more wary as the Prior dissected my words.

“I could order you to speak the truth, and see that you spoke under pain if need be,” commented the Lord with a dry tone of voice.

My stomach tightened horribly and I really wished then that I had my coronet, so that I could merrily trounce this conversation, yet as being Jonne I had no authority. “I think it would be an error for you to do so cousin,” I addressed the Lord with a faint smile.

“Ah, truth though shaded.”

I took a sip of wine and smiled tightly, “Here is a truth for you: I am not a peasant, yet I am forced to live as if one. My rank, as events have shown me, is empty and all pleasure I would seek is but dust if I don’t walk my path.”

“Truth, laced with bitterness and loss.”

“You ranked, how so?” asked Vern with a frown.

“Greater than your Lord, but less than the King.” I sighed, “Though that was then and this is now.”

“Again the truth,” I watched the Prior select a portion of meat and neatly spear it with a fork.

The Lord was looking into his cup with a frown, “Prior, is she sane?”

“Yes.” He chuckled, “I would know if she were not so.”

‘Lovely’ I thought, as here I was trying to sort out how to delicately avoid telling the whole of the truth or without landing in a padded cage or a gilded room. I took a few moments to enjoy a few bites of my meal; the Lord’s cook was a fine one. “I would much prefer to be less sane and what I was, than sane and what I am.”

“A mix of truths, some more true than others.”

“So Jonne if you had a name, would I know of it?”

“Yes, most assuredly,” I nearly laughed aloud as the Prior tried to speak with a mouth full, after a moment of chewing he gave up and nodded.

“I see from your travels that you were near the Colors Campus.”

“Near is a relative term.”

The Prior looked at me with a frown, “Misdirection.”

“Would you have been near it, say less two weeks ago?”

“I traveled though there, yes.”

“Truth with odd undertones,” he seemed to give up his meal and focused entirely on me.

“Jonne speak the whole truth, please. You are not departing here until I am satisfied.” The Lord had set his cup on the table and I heard the sound of a sword leaving its sheath from behind me.

“You may not be satisfied with the truth,” I speared the Prior with a gaze.

“Try me,” commented the Lord.

Drinking down a portion of the wine to stall somewhat; I studied the remains of it for a moment before choosing my words. “You may regret knowing the truth,” I smiled at him feeling more than a bit odd.

The Prior started to speak then closed his mouth as the Lord stood up, “Enough riddles girl.”

“Ah, but riddles are all that I can truly call my own.” I smirked at him, “And the truth, of which you are so fond of, is something you are not ready for.”

He rested both of his hands on the table and leaned on them as his face flushed, “I will have my answers now.”

I snorted in amused annoyance, as it was a sad irony that I could not use my real name or rank, as I have never much cared to be ordered about. “Fine you want to know unpleasant truths then know this: A Mage King is coming and you have no real authority over me.”

“She speaks the truth,” the Prior paled at his own pronouncement, “but how do you know this?”

“The Goddess told me,” I shrugged as he nodded slowly. I turned to look at he Lord who was now sitting in his chair and looking troubled, “So how does the truth taste cousin?”

He speared me a foul glance, “I think I know you now, cousin.” He shook his head and looked to the guard, “You are dismissed.”

I heard the sheathing of a sword and the click of heals before the soldier departed. “As much as I have enjoyed your cooks efforts, I have need to be on my way.”

“Prin…” he stopped at my up raised hand.

“Jonne,” I stated before he could continue.

“Jonne,” he shook his head, “a great many people are looking for you.”

“They look for the Heir which suits me and the task the Goddess has set me.” I motioned to the Prior, “Is his mark of office an honest one or one like mine was?”

“Some truths are best untold, but yes, his is honest.” He looked at me warily, “How did you find out?”

“She told me,” I pointed upwards with a grimace.

“Ah,” he shook his head and then looked upwards with an odd smile.

“What are you two talking about?” asked the Lord with a tired sigh.

“Things best left unsaid cousin. Suffice it to say: I have the Mage Gift and by the laws of the Land, I will never rule.” It took a few moments for my words to sink in, at his frown I added, “This is not to be bandied about in idle conversation, just yet.”

“No I should say not,” he frowned and pointed a finger at me, “does your family know?”

“I am not sure, I expect the Lady might tell them at some time or not. In either case I have a long journey ahead of me.”

“Where are you going, surely if a Mage King is coming you are in danger?”

“Hither and yon, I am going to solve an ancient riddle or rather ten riddles,” I held up my hand with the two rings on it, “then with luck I will stop him or her.”

“No, seriously Jonne, what are you going to do?” he asked with a hint of incredulity in his voice.

“Seriously cousin that is what I am doing.” I shrugged, “I go as I have been tasked, it’s not like I can do else wise and hope to see the Land prosper.”

He did not look too happy with my answer, “So what would you have me do?”

“I can only suggest that you build up your forces and be as ready as you can for all hell to break loose. I don’t think these raiders are here by accident, do you?”

“No, and if you are right we’ll see more than we like of them,” he looked at his men who seemed to be mostly on the uptake.

Vern was looking as if he had stepped in something smelly, so I asked him, “Problems Vern?”

“I suppose I should hand over my rank now?”

“For what, being rude?” I smirked, “You were rude to Jonne, a person without rank or title. As such she can’t suggest anything to affect that; but you might not press your luck further.”

He grunted and seemed to think for a moment, “But you are the…” he stopped as I shook my head.

“No Vern, that person is far from here and going the totally opposite direction.” I smiled and pointed off to the direction of the Capital, “Though if folks look for him, they will not find him, magick is funny that way.”

“Never did like mages,” Vern commented with some rancor.

“Then count yourself lucky that you can’t go traipsing across the wilds with a crazy N’relv girl.”

“You should have a guard,” interjected the Lord.

“Fate herself, has said otherwise, I had a friend offer to come and she made it quite clear that I was to go alone,” I said sourly.

“Jonne, I am not comfortable with this. If your father were to hear of it, I’d be assigned to some unpleasant and distant posting.”

“The choice isn’t your cousin, its mine, I made it. I will live or die by it.” I pointed to the Prior, “Since some truths are best untold, for the good of the land; I suggest this days events be added to that list.”

“For the good of the Land, my brothers will know of it though as He does listen,” he motioned upwards.

I shrugged, “As long as they don’t talk of it, it cannot be overheard.”

“True.”

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Vern was very happy to see me off as in, out of his command post and down the road. The Lord had taken it upon himself to write me a letter of merit, “If in such case you can’t establish your good character without the aid of the Powers.” Vern’s opinion of my good character, well I doubted my being fully N’relv sat well with him. Part of me longed to find out what had put a bug up his bung about the N’relv, though I had a hunch it was likely one of those tales that needed a lot of drinking to be done before it would be told.

Mister Franklin had presented me with stout hunting knife that was not quite a short sword to my hands, as a thanksgiving gift for saving his life. I had tried to not take it but he insisted saying that “You can never have too many good blades.” I measured the blade as being almost as long as my forearm, it was quite sharp and the metal was filled with many wavy lines, which told of some creative forging. Fortunately I was able to tie it to the side of my quiver, as the scabbard would have flapped at my side.

So it was well past mid-day when I was finally a few miles into the woods and heading north again. With luck by the end of the day I should be back on a road heading into Anwerk. In some ways I much preferred the cooler forest to the road, other than I had to concentrate on my direction more. As you simply cannot read intently while walking in a forest, and avoid bashing yourself into a tree or three in the process.

Dusk found me yet in the forest, which I should have expected, given the map I was using. At least it was not marked with an annotation that said, ‘Here be monsters.’ Though the scale of the map was really in question or my pace was much slower than I had thought. I did not seem to be having any trouble moving in the forest, aside from having to going around some large deadfalls.

Though I was happy to stop and make camp for the night, and get the pack off of my back. The forest was slightly dry and while a fire might not be a hazard, risking it seemed a bad idea. In practice during the day I had blown up a few dozen twigs without much progress in making a real flame. Though I have to admit the concept of instant fire without the use of a flint and steel or a spinning stick would be handy. After a cold supper of some of the ham and a few mushrooms, I rolled myself into my blanket and slept.

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By mid afternoon the next day I had made my way out of the forest and onto someone’s farm. It was then that I decided that I was definitely going to splurge on a real map or at least a better one once I got into a city or enclave. I skirted around the growing fields of the farm, as I did not wish to inadvertently damage a crop. Farmers for the most part, have a good but hard life as it was, without my making it any harder. While I had not worked on a farm, I did know that with out them the kingdom would have a harder time feeding its people.

Once past the farm, I found a likely road that had the marks of hard and frequent cart use and was heading in the right direction. I took the time to dig out the red book that Rixthat had given me and made use of the open road to study. I lost myself in the reading of it for a goodly long time.

As I walked had I noticed the sky clouding up, which was nice, yet when thunder boomed in the distance I couldn’t say I was too pleased. Resigning myself to a wet walk, I tucked the book safely away and unstrung the bow, as a wet bowstring would stretch under tension making it less than useful later. I tucked the bowstring into my bandeau and under a breast; at the worst it would be damp if it rained. Though it would be in reach if I needed to use it. I took my tarp out and while I didn’t need it yet, if it came down hard and fast I would want it.

Admittedly I was not quite sure what to make of the sky as it took on a sickly green-gray tint. Admittedly I had seen some pretty amazing storms while running about with my cousins. Though I was beginning to grow concerned when the air seemed to stop still and the normal sounds of the day faded into silence. The clouds were roiling in odd shapes and then the sky opened up with a vengeance.

I was used to rain that fell downwards or at an angle, though when the winds picked up to a fair howl and started blowing the rain sideways, I was more than a bit alarmed. Once I started to get hammered by hail, I was wishing for shelter, any shelter. I broke in to a wild frantic run, hoping the stand of trees that I could barely make out was the start of a forest. I was unaware of how many hits I had taken to my head from the hail, but I was sure that if I did not get under some sort of cover I was going to be hurt worse.

The stand of trees it turned out was a windbreak for a farmhouse, a few small buildings and a barn. I shook my head a few times trying to clear the water from my eyes, I could see the door to the barn was wide open, so I bolted for it. Wishing for of all things one of those heavy jousting helmets, I made it to the barn without getting completely knocked sense-less though there were a few times I was sent stumbling by the hail.

Once inside I simply dropped to my knees and worked on breathing, well that and rubbing my much-abused head. When the tone of the storm changed pitch and seemed to growl, I was not in the best of mindsets. I turned to look out the door and I was shocked to see what looked like a twisting thorn was reaching down from the sky to tear at the land. The sound of it was tearing at my ears like a Calvary charge gone awry, the very land itself trembled and the winds pulled and pushed at me as I knelt.

As much as I could wish that I was inspired or even firmly in my right mind. Thought truthfully I may have been a bit around the bend as I pointed my finger at the thorn and screamed at it to “Stop!” I was suddenly awash in a wave of vertigo and no small amount of nausea; it was in that miserable state that I once again sunk to my knees though this time it was in disbelief.

For a moment I was astonished to see the thorn immobile in the air, then it seemed to collapse down to the land with a frightening crash. I knelt there looking out at the odd pile of debris in the distance, not quite believing what I evidently caused to stop. I closed my eyes and said a soft but heartfelt prayer of thanks to the Goddess, and as many other deities I could think of at the time; which was quite a few.

“That was impressive lass,” said a male voice from behind me.

I turned slowly to see a man looking out from a trap door a dozen or so feet off to my rear, behind him a woman and a few small children were giving me odd looks. I sat roughly on my butt and leaned back on my arms, “I wish I could say I was good, rather than lucky, but I cannot.”

He walked up and out from what I gathered was his root cellar and walked to the edge of the barn. He shook his head and regarded me with wild eyes. “Lucky, well if I may say it, Fate must love you dearly.”

The rain had returned to what I considered normal that is, falling straight down, though it occasionally was pushed by a gust of wind. I pointed to the pile of debris in the distance,  “Does that happen often around here?”

“Not often, we get them once every three to four years. I was thinking this years crop was certainly lost, though the hail may have damaged a portion of it.” He looked at the house with a shrug, “Seem to have lost a few tiles too.”

I looked to where he pointed at a branch that was lodged at an odd angle in the roof. “That can’t be good,” I said.

“Naw, things happen like that when a Devil’s Finger scratches at the land.” He chuckled and scratched at his beard, “Now when a tree ends up in your front room, that’s a problem, that happened to a neighbor a few farms over. That was a mess, we ended up building a whole new house for him.”

“And I thought my life was taking odd turns,” I observed with a resigned sigh.

He looked at me with a smile, “Well I can’t fault Fate for dropping you on my doorstep. It looked like that Finger was making a sure path for the house or worse.”

I winced at his choice of words, but more than likely he was correct. I stood and picked up my sodden tarp and found a likely rail to drape it across. “Mind if I dry out?”

“You do look a bit bedraggled.” He motioned to where a line of laundry was hanging further back in the barn. “My wife was doing the wash when the storm was coming up, I would offer you a towel but most likely they are wet as yet.”

Shedding my pack I sighed, as it seemed more than a bit damp on the outside. “I should be fine in a while, as it can’t rain all the time.”

He nodded, “Most like the worst of the storm will be past in an hour or so.”

I loosened my hair from its bun around the dagger and wrung it with my hands to get some of the water out of it. I glanced back to see the kids huddled around his wife, a boy and a girl about ten and eight years old, if I guessed right, “Cute kids.”

“My wife Hanna, my youngest Tim and that bright ball of fire is Samantha.” He said with evident pride.

“I’m Jonne.”

“That’s a boys name,” said the girl.

“Depends on how you spell it love,” commented the lady to her daughter.

“You will have to pardon Samantha, she’s been a handful ever since she started classes at the Temple.” He walked over and brushed a strand of hair out of her face, “I am Hank.”

I bowed deeply, “A pleasure to meet you all, though I could wish my entrances was a bit quieter.”

His wife walked to the door and laughed, “Oh dear, that could be a right mess in time.”

He walked over and hugged her, “It could have been worse, I’ll have it patched up by noonish tomorrow.”

“You are taking this quite well,” I said pointing to the pile of rubble and the house.

“Rest assured I would have had a fit if the Devil’s Finger had taken my sewing,” she waved a hand to the four corners. “They were finding bits of Teresa’s fine lace work all about. Now she was a bit disgruntled for a time.”

“I can imagine,” I glanced back at the various stalls where the horses and few cows were blindfolded. “Well that’s one way to keep them from running off.”

He glanced back and chuckled, “True, they were acting a bit frantic when I brought them in.”  He pointed to a tack room; “It’s mostly clean in there if you have something dry to put on.”

“Ah thanks,” I picked up my pack and carried it into the room, I closed the door and spent a few moments pulling out some relatively dry clothing to wear. Once dressed, I was wishing for dryer boots, but you can’t have everything. I draped my wet clothes out so that they might dry, and hung the wet bowstring out where it would dry as well. I fetched a dry one out of the pack and rejoined the farmer and his family.

“Are you an Nahrelf?” asked the little boy with a shy smile.

I knelt down to where I could show him my ears, “Yes I am a N’relv, from the tips of my toes to the tops of my ears.” I smiled; I then spelled out N’relv for him and pronounced it so that he could say it correctly.

“Not many of your cousins take to farming do they?” asked Hanna.

“Yes and no, the few farms that I have been on, tend to look very wild compared to yours.” I motioned to the fields, “Herbs and some of roots that we favor, grow best wild.”

“Different folks, have different ways to live,” said the girl.

“Very true,” I walked back to where my bow and quiver were resting.

“So where are you heading to?” asked the farmer.

“With luck I should be in Anwerk in a few days.”

He looked at me oddly, “A week perhaps lass, not a few days, if you are on foot.”

I sighed, “I had a map that said it was only thirty or so leagues.”

“Do you have it handy?”

I walked into the tack room and pulled out the map then walked back over to him. I pointed to where the bridge and temple were, “I started from there.”

“Well I can say that you need a much better map lass. If I can hazard a guess, you might be about here.” He pointed to a spot some distance south and east. “Where did you think you were given as much you might have traveled?”

I pointed to a spot much closer to the city that was marked on the map. “There.”

He shook his head, “I doubt you got lost in the woods, so I would say the distance scale is off by more than a bit.”

“That figures, so how far would you say it is then?”

“A week if the weather is dry, though you might spend a day at the Temple copying a better map on to the backside of this one.” He smiled and pointed to the mostly clean side of the map, “Waste not, and want not.”

“You can come to Temple with me tomorrow Jonne,” the girl said with a smile, “Wait till they see you and hear you stopped the Devil’s Finger.”

Inwardly I cringed at her pronouncement, “Well I may have or might not have, I have not had any real luck with magick.” I smiled at her frown, “I blow up a lot of sticks trying to learn how to make them just burn slowly.”

She giggled at that, “Lessons always take time to learn, some lessons come easy, like math, and others like languages take a longer time.”

Her father laughed, “Of which, you should be about your writings yes?”

“Do I have to? I want to talk with Jonne,” she pouted at her dad but he only shook a finger at her.

“You know you do, besides how are you going to make it though the Colors without knowing things before you get there?”

“But that’s forever.”

“Nine years is not forever.” Hanna smiled, “She’d talk your ear off if you let her.”

“Oh bother!” she sighed and dropped her arms to her sides theatrically which made me wonder where she picked up that trait from.

“You are welcome to use the tack room for the night, if the animals do not bother you over much?” the farmer offered with a smile.

“That suits me much better than a wet tree for a pillow.”

“Evening meal will be in an hour or so, baring interruptions.” Hannah motioned to a fast approaching rider.

It took a few moments for the rider to reach us though he started shouting about the time he was not quite in earshot. When he got closer I could see that he was mud covered to some large extent, and the horse had a cut on one side of its flank.

The youth was a bit frantic and not at all clear headed, and it took Hank and his wife a few minutes to calm the boy. After a few minutes Hank motioned me to the stalls where the horses were tied.

“Jonne, can you track?” he asked with a hopeful look on his face.

“Some,” I admitted.

“Good, evidently some raiders came and took the boy’s mom after killing his dad and emptying the larder.”

I frowned, as the raiders I knew of were not likely to leave the woman alive, “Gods, what a time.”

“Never a good time for raiders. Can you ride?”

“Yes,” I motioned to the horses, “I’ll fetch my bow and blades, and do you have any weapons?”

“Hannah is fetching them for me.”

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It took Hank some time to gather up a sizable force, they were a rough mix of bowmen and some blades, twenty-five at the most. I spent that time eating a small meal consisting of the last of the ham and some jerky, as I picked out the raiders trail. I didn’t expect to keep it down, but you can’t fight well if your arm has no strength in it from lack of food. The trail, thanks to the rain would be easy to follow, though I expected we would have to ride fast if we wanted to do more than avenge the woman.

None of the men spoke as I pointed in the direction the trail led, though all seemed grim and angry. By default Hank appeared to be the leader, though he watched me carefully as I ranged a bit ahead of the group. From the tone of the few mutterings I heard, things were going to be ugly for the raiders.

I was able to pick out seven sets of clear hoof prints and I made a point to memorize them before mounting up. “There are seven horses, several of them heavy, so they can not ride them too hard.”

“The boy said there were six men, plus his mother.”

Glancing about to the men, I smiled tightly, “Well I doubt they will be alive by morning, but we should not take too many chances.”

A man in weather worn leathers rode closer, and I noted the double-headed axe he was easily carrying in one hand. “I am Robert, I was a soldier before taking my leave of it. You find them and I’ll take their heads, even if we have to go afoot for the night to do it.”

I nodded, “We’ll see.”

Following the trail I could not shake the sense of something off, as every now and again I could swear I was being watched. I took a moment to mention it to Robert and he nodded, “Wee Folks, they range out from the forest to glean the fields and the occasional chicken.”

“Wonderful,” I glanced into the woods noting the odd flashes of movement.

“Oh they are not too bad, they don’t take more than a bit here and there and they do trade during the winter months for more. Good trappers.” Robert smiled, “Though not the best bargainers, so it evens out.”

Nodding I stopped my horse to study the trail as it turned into a streambed. I pointed to the east, “Robert, I’ll range that ways, if you’ll take the other.” I motioned to Hank, “They are trying to shake the trail up some, keep the men here until we get back.”

“Right, no sense in going the wrong way.”

It took me some careful navigating to make sure my horse would not founder in the streambed, though I was happy to find bent reeds where the trail came back out of the water. I moved the horse out of the stream and tied it to a small sapling, and then I walked a bit the edge of the forest and noted their trail was easy enough to follow.

“Bad mans go that way, take nice lady with them,” said an odd voice to my left.

I turned slowly to see a child sized H’faan looking at me with unhappy eyes. He was not quite belt high to me and while he might be mistaken for an N’relv child, his ears were several fingers taller than my own and his teeth were closer to that of a weasel. The H’fann are lightly covered with fur, though they aped the clothing of man and N’relv alike, well mostly. I never have seen one with boots or shoes.

“Thank you, friend. I’ll be bringing angry farmers with me when I come back, stay out of sight so they don’t shoot you by mistake.”

It nodded and sniffed the air, “Bad mans close, set traps, watch feets.”

“Thanks.”

“Help nice woman now?”

“I have to fetch my friends first.”

“Big pack?”

I had to guess at the translation there, “Them or mine?”

“Yours.”

“Enough.”

“More than hands and feets?”

“A few more than that.”

“Not enough, we help.”

I frowned at that pronouncement, “Why?”

“Good lady, makes sweet sticks for us.”

“Ah, I will be back soon.”

“Hurry, I tells pack.”

I nodded and it ran off, vanishing into the darkening woods.

When I got back and related the events Robert and Hank looked worried. “More than hands and feet, not good as that means there might be as many as twenty or many more there. The Wee Folk don’t use more than hands or feet to count.” Hank shrugged, “They are smart and cunning but they don’t live as long as we do or school like we do.”

I tested my bow and checked my weapons, “Well I can get in close and protect the woman, unseen, does anyone have a horn?” Robert nodded and handed me a much abused looking hunting horn.

“Sound that and we’ll come running.”

“Just watch your feet, it said that traps were out.”

“We hunt this land lass, I think we’ll be fine.” Hank smiled wickedly. “Besides I think the Goddess is with us.”

I looked to where he was pointing at my hands, I was glowing in a soft green light, “That’s different.”

“It’s the Lady of the Hunt’s light, she must favor you or our hunt.”

I smiled savagely, “Then let us not disappoint her and do something dumb and end up dead, yes?”

“Yes,” said both men and I could see savage smiles echoed among the men in the dimming light.

Once more I was alone in the dark and invisible, though it seemed different this time around. I had an arrow at hand yet not nocked, I was fairly amazed to see the trail glowing with a soft green glow. My own steps were almost unheard even to my own ears, of which I was either getting better at field craft or the Huntress wanted to ensure a rude surprise for the raiders. I was betting the raiders had done something to piss the Huntress off, more so than just their presence in the Land.

A softly winking light on the ground drew my eye and I bent over to pick up a necklace that only her maidens would wear or their lovers. I frowned as the scent of smoke and badly cooked food reached my nose. I had a hunch that either the raiders had killed the owner of the necklace or she was likely the lady I was looking for. In either case I was willing to bet things were going to go very badly for the raiders.

I worked my way quietly to the raiders camp and took a moment to choose a clear way into it. I wrinkled my nose at the evident smell of a latrine pit. It was a bit close to the camp for my own preferences but I knew different units followed different tactics. So it was with some rude humor that I debated on killing the next man to use the pit. As much as I liked the thought of raising havoc in that manner I had to look after the woman.

Finding her was easier than I would have liked, and it took all of my self-control to not kill the man as he left her to lie sobbing on a blanket. I marked him as someone to kill personally as I stood there in my rage. I worked my way to where her hands were tied roughly around a small tree. I carefully and slowly cut the knots that tied her hands cruelly around the tree. Either she was quick on the uptake or too emotionally numb to notice, I moved to her side and placed a hand gently on her lips.

“Can you walk?” I asked in a whisper.

“Yes just not fast,” she whispered, “they took my shoes and clothes to keep me from running off.”

I noted her calm yet fierce look, then I took her hand, “We’ll move a ways from this place then I will give you a knife, and I’ll invite your friends to the party, even the small ones.”

I saw her smile in the dim light of the fires. “The Wee Ones have been whispering to me that someone was coming.”

“Let us not disappoint them.” I helped her up and scowled at the pain the movements brought her, after a moment’s thought I handed her the blanket she had been laying on.

I guided her to a thick cluster of bushes; “You should be fine in there, though it may be scratchy.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked as I released her hand.

“Hunt,” I reached down to my boot and pulled out the necklace. “Is this yours?”

As her face was alit by the glowing charm; I could see that she was pretty aside from a bruise on her face. “No it is not.”

“Well I might see if he’s alive and around here then before starting too much trouble.”

For a moment I heard some faint rustling in the grass then not quite jumped out of my skin as a pair of eyes reflected of the charm. “Nice lady here?”

“Yes,” we both answered softly.

“Good, you makes loud noise, pack hurts bad mens.” It smiled showing a mouthful of sharp white teeth in the dark, “We watch good lady, you hunts now?”

“Yes, I am going now,” I reached down to tuck the necklace away into my boot top once again and jogged off into the semi darkness.

For a time I skirted the various groups of men and their horses, trying to get a feel for the layout of the camp. A few small tents and one larger one were towards the center of the inner ring of small fires and a few sentries walked idly around, occasionally stopping to chat with their comrades. My attention was drawn by a dim green glow that seemed to hang between a few trees not too far from the tents.

Frowning I worked my way cautiously past the campfires and to the glow. I was slightly dismayed to find it was a N’relv being held upright by ropes, rather she was partially suspended off the ground by her arms. I felt a hint of anger possess me, an anger that burned deeper than any I have known before.

Unmindful of the risk I drew the horn from my belt and blew a series of notes that I was unfamiliar with. For a moment the air hung silent and still, then the very air erupted with the sounds of nature gone mad. I tucked the horn back into my belt and cautiously worked to cut the N’relv down. In a few moments time I was easing her to lay against a tree, she was alive though not by much.

Without knowing the reason why I placed my hands over her heart and her forehead and prayed. For how long I prayed or what ever I was doing, I cannot really say, as it felt like ages. Though some odd rational part of my mind was screaming that it was taking entirely to long. When the dark of night began to burn with a fearsome gray red light, I felt a primal fear gnaw into my spine. At a thunderous exhalation of hot steamy air that washed across my kneeling form, I looked up into the eyes of the largest horse I had ever seen.

I nearly stood up to draw my rapier though my hands seemed frozen in place yet. “Peace be still and finish what you have started child,” tolled a voice from above the horse.

I tried to focus solely on whatever it was that I was doing, though I cannot say that my hands were not itching to be finished with it. Evidently I had nothing to fear from the figure cloaked in darkness, yet the dimly glowing red eyes filled me with uncertainty and dread. I forced myself to close my eyes and tune his presence out, for a longish time I was lost in the scents of the forest and the thrill of the hunt.

When I awoke from the trance or what ever it was I was looking into a pair blue and yellow tri-colored eyes. Carefully I lifted my hand from her naked chest and then removed the other one. “Are you well?” I heard myself ask with a detached air.

“As well as can be expected Huntress,” she replied in a bemused alto.

I blinked a few times and reached down to my boot, I think it was by my own hand and voice when I held it out to her. “This is yours I think?”

She took the softly glowing necklace and laughed softly, “Do you often run around unseen?”

“Only when I have to worry about getting killed,” I replied drolly.

“Fear not child, no man wishes to come near,” that was the being whose voice stilled the air with each word.

I frowned but I did not doubt his certainty, I risked a sigh and turned the ring so that I was visible. “I beg your forgiveness Lord, but I am not aware of your name.”

“He is Kernos, Lord of the Wild Hunt, Her vengeful hand,” she announced with a frightful certainty with a gentle bow to him from the ground.

“I nearly had you as a Hunter among the Hunt, Kerlith,” he seemed amused by that pronouncement.

“In good time Lord Kernos, in good time.” She was smiling savagely as she stood up, “Yet we might hunt this night.”

“Indeed, though you seem a bit ill equipped,” he rumbled from out of the darkness, sounding entirely too amused.

She turned to me as she fastened the glowing necklace around her neck, the glowing symbol hanging above her naked breasts. “Cousin, if I might borrow your bow and quiver?”

I hesitated a brief moment, then handed the bow to her and then eased the quiver from around my back and neck. “I think I can spare it for the night.”

She stood using the bow to steady her rise from the ground. “Ah Iron wood with Her blessing woven into it, how apt.”

“Indeed, a bow worthy of a prince, princesses or her maidens,” I could hear His approval.

“Or a person who is all three,” Kerlith regarded me in the odd light, “Though if I were to admit a bias, this form suits her much better that that of the royal brat.”

I colored in that odd light feeling a heat rise up from my feet to burn from the top of my head, “Um, thanks.” I had not felt like a prized meal in a few months, and not so in this body.

For a long moment Lord Kernos laughed filling the forest with his rough laughter, “You may have to wait for that hunt Kerlith. I see a long year and some before you may hunt this one freely.”

“A pity,” she said with a smile that promised much and hinted of wild times. With a mischievous air she wrapped me in a hug and kissed me deeply, pinching my backside as she did so.

“Kerlith are you hunting or hunting?” asked Kernos with a hint of impatience.

She released me with a pout and then smiled slyly, “A year and some, such a pity. Still, I may make the effort.” She reached out and lifted my jaw gently so that it closed, “You called this hunt sister, you have to bid us to hunt.”

I blinked at the implications of being her prey, then nodded, “Hunt my Lord Kernos, enemies of the Huntress and her children stalk the land. I name them as outlaw and friend of no goodly person, may your blade cleanse the land of their foul presence.”

“My Lady’s will be done,” promised Kernos with a hint of eagerness. “Call the hunt child, call the hunt.”

I lifted the horn from my belt and blew three long blasts from it, each blast growing louder than the last and causing my teeth to ache. For an instant the air grew cold and a fog descended abruptly into the loudly screaming silence of the forest.

A scant heartbeat thudded in my chest then a second; with a growl that burst free from deep with in my chest I turned the ring to send me into invisibility. I took a deep breath and let it out in a scream; I screamed with the forest as it announced the Wild Hunt had come. With an odd hunger I drew my rapier, as in the distance I could hear the ringing of steel and the screams of dying men. An odd fire burned in my veins and the air burned with a heat that promised blood, lots and lots of blood.

Time moved oddly for me from that point onward. I was lost in something as old as the Land and in an anger that was not entirely my own. I remember my rapier snapping, and odd shrieks of wild insane laughter as I slammed it time and time again into the belly of a man whose face was a mask of fear.

Sometime later I remembered the feel of my stiletto folding oddly in my hand as it grated on bone. I remembered the wetness and heat of blood as it streamed down on my face as I rolled the dead man off of me. Though I cannot recall when it was that I took a fresh blade from a dead man, much less when I returned to being visible, though I know it was before the man with the axe and I struck down a trio of men while laughing hysterically.

As the fog covered the land and moved with odd shifts and drafts, I could see the red of the fires glowing dimly amongst it. Occasionally a spark would leap up and cast a glow over the dying men. I walked into the largest of the tents, ignoring the frantic chanting the fell out from inside of it. I let the tent flap drop down behind me with a clap of canvas slapping the ground.

For a small time the men inside of the tent continued chanting then one by one their voices fell still. I brazenly walked to the center of the tent, a thin tight smile worked its way to my lips and I could feel a hunger for their blood pound in my temples. For an instant I could see a haze forming over a black orb then it formed into the shadowy image of a man. It rose to nearly man height; and it was cloaked in a deep purple almost black robe.

“Who are you?” I heard the voice ask.

Before I could speak the tent was ripped from the ground and Kernos from his horse tossed it into a fire, “She is your doom come walking, reborn as you were, she is your ending.”

“Who are you?” it screamed at me as I raised my dagger to throw it.

“Guess,” I told the voice and hurled my dagger at it.

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Dawn found us all, Man, N’relv and H’faan gathered around one huge bonfire. I had lost track of the hours and the kills I had made in the Hunt. I looked up to see a tired but happy Kerlith looking down at me, I slowly became aware that she had found a few clothes, yet they only accented her partial nudity rather than detracting from it. My muscles burned with the long hours of the many and almost endless fights that I had endured.

“Ah, and so the hunt ends,” she said with a hint of sadness.

I lay there and digested the words, “Is it over?”

“For this night, though the Land is still at risk,” she was doing something with my hair that felt good so I let her.

“Did we lose anyone?”

“Yes and no. The bold man with the axe rides with the Huntsman now.”

“But he is dead?”

She smiled and kissed me softly, “Fret not Jonne, he is not lost and you may yet see him hunt again.”

“I remember him fighting besides me.”

“He died well, his knife in his enemies heart, his teeth at his last foes throat,” she seemed pleased by that, though I was troubled.

At the sound of footsteps I looked up to see Hank sinking down to sit besides us. “Robert was not happy with being a farmer Jonne. I never understood why he seemed melancholy most of the time, though last night he was alive and seemed to be truly the happiest I have ever seen him, even in the Blood Hunger.”

Kerlith nodded, “Some people are only the most alive when they act to defend that which they love. Robert loved the Land and its people, no better fate would have suited him.” She was glowing with a soft green light as she said that, “And he will return to the Land after a time, when the Hunt no longer needs him.”

“Ah hello Huntress,” I looked up into eyes that were no longer just Kerlith’s.

“Hello child, well met and well done this night.”

I sighed as her fingers massaged my scalp gently, “So now what?”

“A day of rest child, even the mightiest of heroes must recover their strength to fight another day.”

“I am no hero,” I protested tiredly.

“Time will tell dearest one, though a painful time is ahead for you and the Land.”

I was too tired to sit up so I lay there and nodded, “I didn’t even hurt the Mage King did I?”

“His presence was but a projection, though I have no doubt he will not rest easy.” She was calm yet for some reason I could feel her anger in her touch, “I would call The Hunt in his lands, yet the Balance would not permit it.”

“Balance?”

“Each Land is governed by their own Gods, we may interact yet we do not interfere with them. Though when they would move against this Land, our Hand becomes open to act.”

“Like last night?”

“Yes, though only the Blood Royal can rightfully call the Wild Hunt to the defense of the Land. Though I do stir it occasionally, to avenge mine.”

“So I could call it again to the Land’s need?”

“Not soon; but in time yes, the Wild Hunt is hard on its hunters.” She smiled, “Though you will find it also makes you stronger after a fashion.”

I looked around the fire to the tired men, and sat up slowly as the sounds of a cart reached my ears. I felt a warm hand on my shoulder pushing me to lie back, “The Lady has sent her servant to bring food and to see to the injured, rest Jonne. The length and breathe of the Land knows that Wild Hunt was loosed, for a space of time the Land is safer.”

I looked up into her glowing eyes, “Then let the Land know this was Robert’s Hunt, if the Bards would sing of it let all honor lie at his feet.”

“You would claim no honor for yourself?” She smiled down at me, “This forest alone lies with the dead of over three hundred enemy soldiers. With the H’faan your own numbers were just sixty strong, surely that is a worthy deed befitting a hero and the Heir?”

“My rank is not worth the loss of one good man,” I complained up at her.

“Heir?” asked Hank with some confusion.

“War’s fortunes Jonne,” she paused to kiss me on my forehead, and then she looked at Hank with a smile, “This past evening you fought with the Blood Royal in defense of the Land.”

“Um Jonne?” he still looked confused.

“The Land is just before it’s darkest hour and the Heir is abroad in the land so that the land should live on during it,” I heard a soprano voice alight at my head.

“So what happens now?” I asked tiredly.

“This hunt passes and becomes a light of hope in a dark time. Men and N’relv and many others will give voice to Robert’s acts and while this was Robert’s Hunt, it was the Heir that called it.” The new voice was accompanied by a soft cool touch on my forehead, “Sleep Jonne,” it said then I faded into darkness.

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It was well into the afternoon when the sound of hoof beats awoke me from a strangely untroubled sleep. My hand quested for a blade as I sat up though my belt and scabbard was laying a few yards from me and it was quite empty. Belatedly I remembered it snapping in half during one wild moment of the fight, and I sighed, as it seemed that I was being stripped of all my ties to home. I pushed that dark thought from my mind and managed to stand on legs that burned from over use.

Stretching seemed to reduce some of the pain in my legs, though felt as if I was as weak as a newborn. I reclaimed my weapons belt and left the scabbard to lie in the brush, as it was unlikely I would find a blade that would fit it from among the dead. I expected that Kerlith had my bow and quiver yet. I smiled for a moment thinking that I didn’t mind if every arrow came back as ruined, as long as they were spent well.

Letting my nose guide me, I wandered in the direction of the scent of cooking venison, though the elderly lady who was tending the cooking of eyed me warily. She handed me a stick with a portion of meat on it and said two brusque words to me, “Go bathe.” She then pointed in the direction where a line of towels hung and a place was roped off with sheets.

I looked at my clothing and nodded to her, I was definitely and liberally covered with the blood and other fluids of my opponents. I suppose I was really too exhausted to care when I fell asleep, though I was becoming aware of being sticky from it now, and it’s smell. I ached, so I was not looking forwards to more than a quick scrubbing, though in truth I would have loved a long hot soak.

Fortunately the area for bathing was empty so I took my time eating the piece of meat, I was nearly finished with it when Kerlith wandered in. She seemed pleased to find me though she was already clean; in her arms was an assortment of clothing though she seemed to be wearing some of mine. I smiled and said “Bright the day.”

“Bright indeed, I feel as if I had been much abused during a pub crawl.” She sat the clothing she was holding on a campstool, “You need to get out of those things and bathe.”

“So I have been told.” I undid my weapons belt and then peeled the shirt from my body. I wondered at her low whistle until she snatched my shirt from me and turned the backside of it to me. A small score of slits and cuts were reveled as she soundlessly moved her hand through them. The she bid me turn around with a worried look on her face, I felt her hands trace various points on my backside and I winced as she prodded one that was more tender than the others.

“Bruised but unbroken,” she announced with an odd tone. I turned to look at her slightly frowning face. “Jonne I don’t think you should ride with the Wild Hunt anytime soon, you only get so much luck in this life.”

“What’s wrong?”

“For every cut in your shirt, you are marked by a bruise or a scrape.”

I felt at my back to find an especially raw spot and winced, “I see.” Then I shook my head slowly, “I have no desire to do that any time soon Kerlith. Though if the Land requires my blood, it will claim it irregardless.”

She walked behind me and I heard a soft giggle then she pinched my naked buttocks, “If you were a male you might have been singing tenor today.” There was a slight tugging on my trews and then the cloth ripped leaving me half naked from about the waist. “Ah this would be fun under other circumstances.”

Suddenly I was awash in a fire of my own blood of which caused her to giggle, then she wrapped her arms around my waist. “I, um.”

“Yes?” she asked brightly, teasing at my ear with her tongue. I wish I could say rational thought was with me, but for a moment as she kissed me deeply I could not offer one. For a time she held me tightly then she released me with a sigh, “I am to think this year of your celibacy as a cruel joke.” She toyed with the anti-fertility charm and at the red gem that winked up at us.

“I have no doubt, but she has her reasons for everything,” I finished stripping off the rest of my clothing and tested the buckets of water to find one tolerable. Finding a suitable cloth I started to remove the blood from my body, smiling mischievously she took up a second cloth and as I worked on my front she scrubbed at my back. Admittedly I had bathed with my cousins, though I have to say I was quickly agreeing with Kerlith. A year was going to seem very, very long.

“So how old are you?” she asked with a hint of humor in her voice.

“Eighteen give or take a few months passed my birthday.” I saw her frown slightly, “What’s wrong?”

“You are N’relv now, not human,” the tone of her voice had shifted slightly.

“Yes, I suppose I am.”

“The children of the N’relv are not really mature until they are about twenty, their bodies that is.” She looked at me critically then seemed to measure me in her mind, “Have you had a cycle yet?”

“In this form, no. But I had spent a year as a woman, before all of this.” I motioned to my body.

“A human woman?”

“Well as human as any of us of the Blood Royal are, we are cousins to both the Humans and the N’relv,” I shrugged as she looked at me.

“I see, well I am no healer but I think you should wait good year maybe longer before you should risk sex. It may not damage you, but you may not feel good afterwards.” She chuckled, “Well sex with a male anyways, there are other ways…”

I blinked at her then I felt the heat rush into my face, “I see.”

Both of us turned at the sound of an amused cough to see a Revered Mother in her black robes looking at us with naked amusement, “Ever hunting are you Kerlith?”

That time she blushed, “Well the game is tasty, if a bit young.”

She shook her head and pointed at her, “Jonne you should mark well this one; she may hunt and one day find herself the prey.”

“Only if I choose to be caught,” she turned and with a measuring look, then she smiled before planting a chaste kiss on my cheek. “See, I can rule my passions.”

I watched the Revered Mother roll her eyes unseen behind her, “Right Kerlith, and how many mother’s hearts tremble when you walk by?”

“Only those I have not yet seduced.” She smiled wickedly and hoisted a bucket up to her shoulder, “Ok Jonne time to rinse.”

I chuckled at their banter then gasped aloud at the sudden shock of cold water that washed over my head and down my body. As I stood there shivering, and trying to think of a suitable comment, the Revered Mother walked around me nodding a time and again. I gave Kerlith what I thought was a bland expression, though I think I failed as she started to laugh.

“Not entirely unmarked by the Ride, still this child is not up to a tumble any time soon,” she was eyeing Kerlith with a frown.

“Well the Year of Celibacy might have been imposed for that reason.” Kerlith replied a bit ruefully, “Poor Jonne is not even twenty yet, a bare babe among the wolves.”

“Speaking of bare, I see my clothes suit you,” I pointed to the trews and the shirt she was wearing.

“I admit to some larceny cousin, the only thing not in ruins were my boots.” She pointed to the other pile of clothing she brought in, “The wife of Hank, I think it was, said something about goats getting a pair of your hose and a wet leather jerkin.”

I frowned then shrugged, “With luck it did not choke to death upon it.”

“She did seem over worried as to your reaction, though I think she was mostly happy to find her husband whole,” Kerlith handed me a towel, the then watched me as I used it.

I turned slightly so that my face was not radiating its heat, I felt like I was being marked for a meal to be consumed slowly. “Well I seem to be loosing all of my ties to home, in one fashion or another.”

“Not a bad thing lest your enemies track you for those items.” I looked over to see the pale face of the Revered mother looking out from the cowl of her black robe.

Kerlith nodded, “What else of yours is not new?”

“My belts, it seems everything else is gone already.” I pointed to the pile of bloody clothing.

She walked over and with a nod to the Revered Mother took them before I could protest. “I think we can find you a suitable belt or two, is there anything else from your home in your belongings here or else where?”

I thought for a moment and pointed to the bandeau, the broach and my underwear. “Those I think are it.”

The Revered Mother picked those up and pointed to the family crest on the broach, “They might track and kill you from this alone,’ then she passed them on to Kerlith, who nodded before wandering off with a thoughtful look in her eye.

I frowned remembering a very dry bit of magickal theory, “The Laws of Contagion?”

 

“Yes, fortunately your blood is now different enough that that you can not be struck at through your Family’s blood or the other way around if you fell into evil hands,” The Revered Mother’s eyes were brown though her hair was very coppery in the light of the sun.

I felt a hint of dread, “And how many of the Blood Royal would be at risk from that sort of attack?”

“I do not know child,” she pointed to a tree, “Surely if the roots were sundered, every limb and branch would fall, yet if only the top third were gone the tree would live on.”

I felt my mouth go dry at her observation, “I am not comforted by that.”

“Truly none will be, yet if it happens you should know many hands will be working to make it aright once again.” She held out her own and I could see a hint of red in her sleeves, causing me to smile at prior words from one of her sisters.

“The loss of my own name has caused me some trouble already,” I drew on a pair of gray trews and she walked over to look at the other clothes that were left for me.

“This is nice,” she held up the Weavers-thread shirt, “though a bit light for travel.” She passed me the long strip of cloth that made up the bandeau and I slowly wrapped things so that they would not bounce over much. “Loosing a name, intentional or otherwise is never an easy thing, with luck you should not have to worry about it costing you your life.”

“What should happen if they decide Jonne had killed the Heir or worse?” I stood there for a moment annoyed at the lack of a proper broach then tied it together with the ends. “I suppose I will have to find something more appropriate to fasten this later.” I took the lightweight, blue & gray mottled shirt that she gave me and pulled it on, wincing as the abraded spots were brushed by the soft fabric. Returning to my prior topic, “The last thing I need is to be hunted as outlaw.”

“A good nights rest should find you largely healed, though I think you will feel those bruises for a few days.” She handed me a comb from the sleeve of her robe, “Use this for a time.” With her other hand she held out the hair clips I had purchased some few days back. “I can’t say what the future holds child, though I doubt if that will be your greatest worry.

Kerlith returned rubbing her arm and smiling, “I should have borrowed your armguard as well last night.” She pointed to a pine tree that stood taller that its neighbors, “Should that tree fall for no reason, we’ll know that dark magicks have been aimed at you, and should they use magick to seek you, they might grow dizzy from the height.”

I laughed, “Good, I have more than enough problems without their watching eyes.”

She took the comb and walked behind me, it took me a moment to realize she was braiding my hair, though I felt out of place as she did it. “Not used to a lady doing your hair?”

“No, much less anyone else. I hated to be fussed over in that way,” I saw a smile at the lips of the Revered Mother.

“A pity,” she stopped and kissed the back of my neck causing me to shiver. “Still I can see some tales about the brat are false, how many more will fall to the wayside there?”

“Oh time will show that the Royal Brat was largely an act, a childish act, yet useful in that your enemies think you are a scared fop.” I looked to see the Mother studying me thoughtfully, “It is a pity you may never sit on the throne Jonne, from what my own eyes tell me you would have been great.”

“Her acts alone will likely fill many tales and songs.” Kerlith dangled the white strip of fabric from the first ring, in front of my face for moment and I could make out the faded embroidery in it, “Is this ok to use?”

I took it from her and studied the threads noting the twin moons pattern that was woven into it, I evidently missed that clue, “Yes it is fine, though I my have to find a good weaver to remake it.” I handed it back to her and felt my hair tighten slightly at my scalp as she tied my hair with it.

“Oh that is indeed a pretty bit of work, Venne and Vonne?”

“Yes,” I answered ruefully.

“We do not always see what is before us child, you found your path, though you may have to be mindful of such things in the future,” The Revered Mother chided me with a smile.

“I will try.”

“There finished,” Kerlith walked around to my front and admired her work. “There is not much I could due to make you much fairer Jonne.” She looked at the Revered Mother with a smile, and then she kissed me deeply.

I wasn’t exactly used to such treatment at the hands of a lady, yet it didn’t seem overly wrong either. When she released me and smiled I blushed anew. “You would think she has never been kissed,” teased Kerlith.

“Well while The Brat was hardly celibate, I think he did most of the chasing.” I turned to see the Revered Mother half lost in laughter, “Jonne is just a child after all.”

I sighed, “That isn’t helpful, any of the Kin who doesn’t know me will see me as a child to be coddled.”

“That is not such a bad thing is it?”

“I grew up once, and now I am doing it all over again.”

Kerlith rolled her eyes me, “Oh it’s worse than that, most of the Kin won’t see you as an adult until you pass your first century.” She frowned as she placed both hands on my shoulders, “You are in for a long time proving yourself over and over, as even I have yet to and I have a few years on you.” She used a finger to chase a strand of hair from my face, “Try not to let it bother you too much sister.”

“At least her father didn’t have to lock her into a chastity belt like someone I could mention.” We both looked the Revered Mother who was looking thoughtfully at me, “Though it may not hurt her.”

At Kerlith’s groan I quickly said, “No thanks.”

“Just because I was a little wild…” Kerlith blushed sending her golden skin tones into a deep bronze, “He really didn’t have to go that far.”

The Revered Mother studied the pair of us then motioned to the outside, “If you to starlings are done shaming the heavens, a proper feast is nearly ready and then you have to decide.”

“Decide what?”

“What to do with the spoils.” She chuckled, “everyone seems to think you have that right for some odd reason.”

“Oh wonderful, blow one horn and everyone thinks you were in charge.”

“You should see that horn now child.”

“That and a few other things,” quickly added Kerlith with a somber tone of voice.

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It was a feast in its own right, a bit plain compared to some I had been forced to attend, yet I think it may have been one that was truly earned. I lost count of the different flavors I had sampled over the hours as each of the cooks put forth their best efforts. Even the H’faan had provided things for the meal though those took some time to cook. So it was with full stomachs that we turned to the task of making a proper marker for Robert.

Robert’s body had been cleaned and wrapped with clean white linen, upon his chest were laid his bloody axe and knife. Silently every person there gently covered him with stones, each placed with a softly murmured prayer. Oddly enough there was no one lost in deep mourning for him, if anything every face seemed filled with pride. A trio of iron spears were planted and tied so that they would remain upright; lastly a hunting horn was hung from their crossed points, some one had carefully marked Robert’s name in the soft metal of the horn.

It was not the same horn I had sounded to call the Hunt, that one was resting in my new belt. As the last stone was placed I pulled it out to look at the changed horn. In the space of the night it had gone from a common bronze to a radiant white gold. I traced the odd markings with my finger and looked up from it to see the eyes of everyone upon it and me.

Kerlith and the Revered Mother both placed a hand upon my shoulder, though it was Kerlith who spoke to the people first, “We do not mourn the passing of our brother for he hunts still.”

“He will hunt for us so that the Land and its people do not fear the night,” continued the Revered Mother.

“Robert answered the Lord of the Hunt’s call, without fear and he died as befitting a true warrior of the Land.” I lifted the horn to the sky, “Let the free people of the Land know that this was Robert’s Hunt, called by the Heir such that the people would know hope in the dark days ahead.” I was not quite lost from my mind as I glowed with a mix of white and green light, “Ride, Robert, ride!” I shouted at the sky and blew three long blasts from the horn.

On the third long blast of the horn I cannot recall seeing a dry eye and I fought to hold back my own flood of tears. I felt both Kerlith and the Mother wrap an arm around either side; supporting me as in unison the people lifted their fists sky ward and shouted it again. Over a hundred voices howled those three words in joy, anger and hope.

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>

The next day came way too early and apart from some teasing, Kerlith let me sleep, though she insisted on sharing my rough bed. In some ways it was very nice to wake up from a nightmare to find I was held by her and thus safe. The nightmares bothered me greatly, in that I never heard of such from Bards or seen the histories telling of such things. Kerlith was oddly quiet too, though she seemed to relish just holding me.

As the sun started to beat down on the liberated tent we reluctantly got dressed and walked out to tend our own separate ablations. Someone had left a pot by the fire and I was pleased to find a warm meal and a pair of plates waiting there as well. Occasionally I would see one of the H’fann skitter through the brush on some errand or I suppose hunting their breakfast.

“That was nice touch, suggesting that a reasonable chunk of the H’faan’s portion go to the upkeep of Robert’s farm. The Wee Ones won’t have to glean, and they don’t hold store with money much.”

“Well Robert didn’t have a will, much less a heir of the body or close kin. I surely don’t want or need a farm and the Kingdom doesn’t need the burden of it either.” I took a portion of the meal left in the pot and handed a plate to her motioning for her to fill her own plate.

“Thanks,” she knelt down and took a portion for herself, “I am going to have to resupply soon.”

“Well you have money for it now, I wish I could back track to Mistriver but I can’t.”

“So where are you going?”

“Forwards, ever forwards.”

She snorted and stuck her tongue out briefly, “Try that with someone a bit less sneaky.”

“I am off to Anwerk,” I sighed, “another whole weeks worth of walking.”

“Why walk, surely you could buy a horse or take one of the soldiers horses.”

“I can hide my own trail much easier than I can hide a horses.” I pointed to the picket of horses, “most of those are stolen.”

“Never borrow trouble when you can get it for free?”

I laughed at that, “Yes. Not to mention I seem to have no problem finding trouble as it is.”

“I am so very glad you found me the other night. What will become of the woman they raped?”

“Well if she caught, it is her choice as the law does allow for it. The Revered Mother will help her get passed the emotional side of things, in time.”

“And what of you?”

“Me, I seem to get by unscathed.”

“I would believe that if you slept all the way through the night, last night.”

“Sorry I tried not to disturb you.”

She shook her head, “Jonne, I didn’t mind. As it was I felt safe, which helped me immensely.” She sat beside me an ate quietly for a few moments, “How many fights have you been in now, serious kill or be killed fights?”

“Five I think, if you count killing someone at a judgment that went oddly.”

“Outside of last night and those few fights had you ever had to kill anyone?”

“No.”

“And all of this happened in just a few weeks?”

“Yes.”

“Jonne, most militia and peace keepers only see serious fight like you have been in, every few months if not years. Now if you were soldier, from what my older cousins have said; its months of boredom with a day or two of shear terror.”

I nodded, “Sounds like something my father would say, though he doesn’t talk much about his time in the army.”

“Most soldiers won’t unless you get them drunk,” she rolled her eyes. “Talking about it does help them, though some of them seem to do well enough through prayer.”

“I don’t pray that often.” I motioned to the forest, “Other than prayer of thanksgiving or for help.”

“And why not?”

I shrugged, “It seems like overkill, considering how often the Goddesses and Gods have been walking through my life as of late.”

“You might have a point there,” she ate for a moment then chuckled softly.

“Hmm?”

“I was trying to remember if my own Journey was as wild as your seems to be.” She shook her head, “Admittedly I may have stirred some of my troubles along the way, though I can’t say that mine has as many bumps as yours seems to have.”

I finished my meal and nodded, “Well I think I would have preferred to stick to the usual Color Paths.”

“That’s fairly tame compared to this,” she admitted with a smile. “Journey is supposed to stretch you.”

“Is that why I hurt so much today?” I asked while trying to loosen up my arms.

“Well I can’t say that I am fairing much better, they seemed to have skipped that part in the legends.”

“Bloody bards,” I commented with a grimace.

She nodded and laughed, “Indeed, though we would have nothing to sing of without them.”

“There is that, though I dread to wonder what they will come up with, out of last nights events.”

“Well as far as deeds go, you have to admit it was impressive.”

I nodded, “Though a large part of that was the Wild Hunt’s influence.”

“Some yes, but it was the people who made it happen,” she motioned to the distance where a small pyramid of heads lay. “As far as numbers go, this Mage King should fear the people of the Land even more so now.”

“Though it will likely not stop him from coming.”

“Yes which is why you need to get moving,” she took my empty plate and set it out of the way. “Did you find a decent blade or two?”

“A few knives that will work, I didn’t find a rapier that felt right to my hands.” I shook my head, “I am not built for up close fighting. I saw you found a bow.”

“I found my bow,” she smiled, “fortunately they didn’t use it for kindling or something.”

“Yes that would have been bad,” I sighed and walked over to one of the other tents where our gear was stowed. I tried to ignore the odd glowing marks that were on both bows; evidently the Huntress and Kernos were not above making statements.

“Always nice to be appreciated,” she reached past me to pick up her own bow.

“Um yes I suppose, though it isn’t exactly subtle, as it is I have to find a way to cover the horn or risk being marked by thieves when I go into cities.”

“You could just stow it in your pack, though it would not be handy.”

“Yes but if I had to dump my pack and run…” I trailed off at her nod, “I guess I will just have to sew something around it.”

She chuckled darkly and turned to see a bemused smile on her face, “I would hate to be the thief who tried to take that horn though.”

Considering that I nodded, “Yes, so any thoughts on where you are heading from here?”

“Well I,” she frowned and quickly picked up a quiver, “stay in here.” I looked at her and she just held a finger to her lips.

Once I registered the approaching hoof beats I nodded and twisted my ring going invisible. I quietly picked up my bow and quiver, noting that only a handful of arrows with the hardened points remained intact. I reluctantly added a plain short sword with a leather wrapped hilt to my belt, just sliding scabbard into the belts for the time being.

Moving to the opening of the tent I watched four riders approach at a trot, then when they seemed to notice Kerlith, they slowed to a walk. The bright colored streamers from their lance-like javelins and N’relv style saddles eased some of my worries, though Kerlith looked faintly annoyed. The four riders were decked out for battle, though the brightly colored clothing that peeked from under the armor hinted at a ceremonial function or messengers.

“Can I help you?” Kerlith asked them, as they dismounted not far from her.

“We were told we might find some of the Kin here,” said a N’relv in brushed silver armor with a vivid red shirt that leaked out from among the sides and joints.

“Looks like you found one,” I could tell Kerlith was up to something by her tone of voice.

He laughed and removed his helmet to reveal a deeply bronzed face and a long braid of shiny black hair. “True” he said with a smile, “So who would I have the pleasure of speaking to?”

“Someone who is not free with her name when among strangers.” She rested the butt of her bow on the ground and I noticed that she was holding it so that the marks were covered.

His eyes narrowed thoughtfully, then he dismounted and after a moments hesitation so did the other three. “I see, well in that case I am R’anil, the others are Caer, Schleif and lastly Keth.” As each were named they bowed slightly, “They said we might find two of the Kin here, one called Kerlith and the other would be Jonne.”

“And you would seek of them because?”

“The council wishes to speak to Jonne concerning the missing Heir,” R’anil stated gravely.

“I am Kerlith and the Heir isn’t missing, he just doesn’t care to be found.” She turned as if to walk to the fire though was abruptly stopped when he gripped her arm, “Unhand me or you will regret it.” She turned and poked his armored chest solidly with the end of her bow.

He blinked at her then slowly opened his hand, “Sorry lady. I do forget my manners when I am tired.”

She nodded and leaned on her bow, “As it is the Heir was here last night, though he left long ago.” She shrugged at his harried expression, “Bothering Jonne over the Heir’s own actions is fools errand.”

He shook his head, “I swear the Heir is a ghost compared to Jonne, we barely found her trail only to lose it in the rain.” He chuckled, “And only then because she keeps leaving a trail of charred sticks behind.” The others removed their helmets and nodded with rueful frowns.

“I’ve not tried to track her, but her skills mark her as a warrior born.” She smiled wickedly, “The Heir is not to shabby in that department either.”

“So the Heir was here?”

“Yes, he called the Wild Hunt to the defense of the Land.” She pointed to the large pyramid of skulls and to the grave further down the way, “There lies Robert of the Hunt.” At their confusion she added, “The Heir dedicated this hunt to his honor.

It was amusing to watch the expressions of the four soldiers as they processed that information, though I think Kerlith was having some fun at their expense. R’anil mounted his horse took off at a quick trot only to stop at the pile of skulls and then at the grave. When he returned he looked thoughtful, with an easy dismount he seemed slightly wary, “How many were killed here?”

“About three hundred enemy soldiers died in these woods.” She smiled wickedly as he took half a step back, “There were only about sixty of us in all.”

“The Heir just left, after all of that?” he asked incredulously.

“He said he had to keep moving, you are aware why he is off by himself?”

R’anil shook his head, “All I have heard was that he was attacked at the Color Campus, and at some odd warning seems to have fled.”

“Not so much odd as frightening, he was told a Mage King is coming, by the Goddess herself,” she frowned. “This small battle is just the calm before the real storm, and the Heir is the lightning rod.”

“So they would have us chasing after this Jonne for no reason?”

“From what I am given to understand, yes.” She held up her bow and turned it so that the markings faced the four, “Her bow is marked like this one, so I expect the Gods have no qualms with where she goes.”

“God Marked for the Huntress and the Wild Hunt,” he shook his head in disbelief, and he glanced to the others. “No wonder we have such a time trying to track her.” He laughed, “Was she even trying to hide her trail?”

“I doubt it, its not like she had a reason to do so, as she has done nothing but good for the peoples of the Land.”

He sighed, “That and she is evidently mage gifted.” He glanced around, “Is she here yet?”

Kerlith shook her head, “I think she left not long after the funeral, as she said she was on her Journey.” I heard her laugh, “I don’t think my Journey was as eventful.”

“Nor mine.” He sighed, “Which direction did the Heir go off in?”

She pointed off to the southeast for which I was grateful, “I am not sure if you will have much luck finding him though, the gods have their hand on him and if last night was any indication; he can fend for himself.”

“I thought the Heir was supposed to be a soft spoiled brat who was only half ways decent with a blade,” R’anil kicked at the ground in evident annoyance.

“Personally I am glad he’s not what folks were lead to believe, still if you must pursue Jonne further you are likely in for a time of it.”

“Oh?”

“Well if she is wandering into things like last night, on a frequent basis…” Kerlith giggled, “Fate seems to be leading that one on a merry chase.”

He sighed, “Well orders are orders, I suppose we can give this fools errand another few days of effort before we call it for such.”

“I would suggest finding a tavern and holing up there instead. If the Gods don’t want a person found, they won’t be found,” she tapped at the markings on her bow to emphasize her words.

“We have to make the effort,” He shook his head, “admittedly if this is her Journey, and she is this good now.”

Kerlith nodded, “And she’s going to become even better in time.”

“Damn, we followed the Heir’s trail which vanished inside the Color Campus, only to find and loose Jonne’s trail time and time again. I can maybe understand losing Jonne’s trail, but the Heir’s should have been easy.”

“Maybe the Heir has been fooling a great many people for a very long time?” Kerlith asked in a cautious tone.

He frowned, “If so he plays a deep game of it.”

“Yes, I would imagine so.”

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Kerlith puttered about for a time after the four soldiers moved off, I could tell her attention was more on them than what she was doing.  Every now and again she would look around or vanish into one of the other tents, “Jonne?” she called softly, “Stay unseen and try to pack as best as you are able, it looks like I am going with you for a day at least.”

“Have they gone off?”

“No they keep wandering back and forth looking at the different tracks. I am going to get a pair of horses, I figure we can double up on one and use the other for our packs.” She smiled, “How long can you stay hidden?”

“A good part of day, though I have not really measured it.”

“Well while you are in the tent you would be safe, no matter, I’ll fetch the horses while you pack up.”

“Right.” I glanced around and set to picking out a few useful things.  I finally decided on keeping the short sword for the time being, it wasn’t my style of fighting, yet any blade is better than none. I turned the ring and spent some time fighting the sword belt, trying to get the stiff scabbard into a comfortable position.

Hannah had brought my pack with the meal of the prior day, so I had my few things. I am not sure she would be comfortable if I stayed here over long, the odd fear and reverence in her eyes was disconcerting. As it was, even the men of the hunt were slightly subdued as well, even though they were as much as a part of the hunt as I was. I took a double handful of arrows from the quivers of the enemy and restocked my own, I took the time to set aside the same amount for Kerlith, her quiver was fuller than my own after the hunt, yet I expected she might need them at one point.

A pair of shadows on the tent wall gave me pause and I turned the ring to hide with it again. I carefully eased back in the tent picking up my bow as I did so, when Hank pushed the flap open to allow another man entrance I was both relieved and annoyed. The other man was dressed in the livery of Lord Hawthorn so I expected he was here to take receipt of the weapons and such.

“That must have been some fight.”

“That it was, what little I can recall of it,” Hank looked about the piles of weapons and shrugged, “The Heir made sure the men were taken care of, so the bulk of this is to go to your Lord.”

The other man shook his head, “Sixty of you against three hundred, mighty hard odds.”

“Well they were scattered though out these woods, and between the Lord of the Hunt and the Heir, don’t think they stood much of a chance.” He waved an arm to the forest, “The H’faan live through out here too, dens and such, so I don’t doubt they popped up unseen among them as well.”

The other man shuddered and stared a bit wild-eyed at the piles of weapons, “And he only lost one man?”

“Yes,” Hank frowned at the sound of horses, and then he walked out followed by the soldier. I took the opportunity to duck under the back wall of the tent and moved out into the open away from them.

Kerlith was in a fine mood, seeing as she all but started throwing things out of the tent. Hank noted her odd mood and led the soldier a ways further from the tents; “She is a mite grumpy, as evidently the bastards that beat her half to death, died too easily.”

The soldier paled, “I see.”

Hank took a half step off to the right as a small pot flew his way from the tent, “I heard that!”

“Ah,” Hank chuckled, “she’s a good person, if a bit wild, but it seems to suit her.”

I walked around to the backside of that tent and lifted the edge to see her shoving things into a pair of packs with little regard for neatness. “Hsst,” she held her finger up to her lips, and walked over to where I held the tent up, she knelt down and whispered. “Meet me at Hank’s farm, there too many people are around here looking for you.”

I gave her foot a gentle squeeze and she squeaked. I quickly backed out from under the tent and I heard her cursing small rodents in a loud voice to the sound of Hank laughing. I smiled and stood up noting the four brightly dressed N’relv soldiers wandering back and forth a hundred yards away. I shook my head and started walking carefully yet at speed away from them and deeper into the woods.

I spent the next hour using every bit of field craft I could remember to muddle my trail. I even used the high roads, as my cousins called the trees, a time or two to make sure that my trail vanished, not that I enjoyed that part by any stretch. In some ways I will admit the challenge of deliberately trying to hide my trail was fun, and I made a note of having to do so each day; that and to not discard the sticks I used in my attempts at fire magicks.

Kerlith was looking a bit worried, as she seemed to have been waiting for a time. I resisted the urge to startle her and stepped into the windbreak provided by the trees to return to visibility. I coughed to get her attention and her face shone when she saw me. “Good you made it,” she said with evident relief.

“Yes, though I took time to muddy my trail,” I chuckled at her nod.

“Well I hope you don’t mind riding pillion for a time, unseen that is.” She was frowning, “While I doubt the cousins would follow me, they do seem intent on finding you.”

I sighed, “That idiot Proctor. When this is over I am going to find him a nice spot where he cannot do anyone, any further harm.”

“I have a cave I store things about a days ride from here, it is on the way more or less, and I think we best find you a different pair of boots soon. As all boots are distinct after a time.

“True, shall we get going before more nosey people find their way to hinder us?”

She nodded, “Yes, besides this way I have you to all myself for a time.”

“Why am I suddenly worried?” I asked with smile.

She poked me in the side, “Oh you’ll have reason to worry, in a year, but for now, I don’t care to be alone.”

I nodded, “There is some truth to that, though I don’t know if Fate or the others would approve though.”

She nodded slowly, “They do seem to have a plan for you.” With a smile she pointed to the north, “Anwerk is that way and well I am not really slowing you much.” She studied me with a critical eye, “But you are a bit worn around the edges, so a slow day or so would not kill you or them either.”

“Let’s hope shall we?”

“Yes.”

(Thus endeth the chapter but not the tale.)