Monday, May 30, 2016

Hakaar - Chronicle 44.1 - The Path of Least Resistance

My eyes opened to light pouring through the small squares of window, sending out ribbons of dust laden light. There was a tremble running through the floor as I heard others milling about down below, tending to the horses and preparing to disembark.

I turned my head to see only Dulinar the Monk, looking both very blind and very sullen. The man had a woollen blanket lay haphazardly over his shoulders while he sat with his legs crossed. He was very still, holding a cup of foul smelling tea close to his face, breathing in the vapors while sipping occasionally. He didn't cough like he was on the verge of death as before, but his face was miserably pale.

I recognized the look. I could imagine that I'd felt that way before. One never does well when faced with their own mortality.

Part of the conversation from last night was how I had learned their names. Unlike the meeting in the Hlofolk Tunnel, there was nothing but time and opportunity to have official introductions. The Oracle's name was Aphres and, while she didn't dwell on where she came from or what she was, her desire for a peaceful existence and a place to call home was clear. Dulinar of Seven Oaks was her companion, brought together in a way that spoke of mutual necessity. She needed his protection and he needed her to need him. The key was that both were not dangerous to one another and, while the their requirements of each other were simple, it had created a mutual loyalty that had grown deep.

I could hear the others milling around below moved to the edge  to sit watch.

"About time you woke up." Bromm said, tilting his head at the change in light, "Get down here and help."

I dropped down to help and found the group seemed to be more about passing time than packing. Aphres stood at the edge of the bustle, wringing her hands when they weren't otherwise occupied. It seemed that there was an ongoing conversation that was muffled by the sounds of horses and buckles.

"Isolation is hard to find. It was found this place, but it has proven to be even more dangerous." Aphres spoke, her voice wavered.

"The abandoned homesteads should have given you some indication." Floki said.

"To an expert eye, maybe." Aphres said defensively, "We have little experience in these matters."

"But you're an Oracle, right? You can see the future?" Floki said with a hint of spite.

She clamped her mouth shut and her lips compressed, leaving them bloodless.

"It doesn't work that way." She growled through clenched teeth.

The silk hood fluttered and her hands clenched into small fists. Floki turned away to mask a slight half-smile. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who was looking for a little danger. This oracle's display of anger prompted Bromm to stop what he was doing and intercede.

"No harm meant, m'lady. But perhaps you should enlighten us? It is our intent to help, after all." Bromm spoke with a gentle sureness.

She calmed by degrees and looked up to the second floor. Dulinar had approached precariously close to the edge in absolute silence, his white eyes open, scanning our direction. It was clear that didn't need sight to sense each of us.

"You should realize I see little more than flashes. There is little context for what I see and usually an impression around strong emotion," She paused, seeming exasperated, "Perhaps it would be best if I showed you. I owe you that much."

We ascended to where her grand chair stood and she sat with a smooth motion, motioning forward with both hands to no one in particular. Floki approached first, putting his palms into her upturned hands. Her fingers closed around his hands and she leaned her head back. She spoke in cryptic phrases, telling advice as well as  situations or people to avoid.

Bromm, Tagaern went next, with similar results, but each reading took effort. I settled in front of her and felt her palms growing clammy while her hands shook. This gift, whatever it was, took it's toll.

What I heard was unfamiliar: "Side with the Baron", "Bear no false witness", and, the one that resonated with me most, "Sister Enemy".

I glanced at Silah whose expression grew sullen. We both knew that this was likely about Sgaith, the rogue protector of the Veil. She had been travelling the world, destroying other swords that shared her nature. Silah and I had been warned a month ago that she and her wielder were on the hunt. It was said that her wielder was an elf, a master swordsman, who had been bonded with Sgaith for a century, at least.

While Aphres did seem to want to establish more context to these visions, we were all tight lipped in what we saw. However, my reaction, meeting eyes with Silah piqued her interested, but I wasn't inclined to divulge.

"It will happen as it happens." I said, "And there's nothing more that I can say of it."

Aphres nodded at the small amount of information, but seemed like she had strained herself to the point of breaking. She broke contact and slumped back in her chair.

"Oracle, I know you are looking for a safe haven," I said, "I could provide that to you. I have come into some land from this business with the Hlofolk and would set aside space for you."

"Is that so? Why would you do this?" Aphres asked, her head tilting slightly.

"I, myself, am in a strange land. I want to offer a home to those who have none. To those deserve it." I said with a rehearsed finality.

She nodded.

"You would come back for us then? See us through the Hlofolk Tunnel?" She said quietly, her breath barely stirring the veil.

"I believe all of us would like to see you settled safely." I said with a nod.

There were polite coughs behind me, but I didn't turn to look.

"How long would it take for you to set up this promised space?" Aphres asked.

I choked on my words. There hadn't even been a proper survey of the lands, and here I was offering what I envisioned as the safety of a walled city.

"While I admire what you're doing, Hakaar, perhaps we should take this one step at a time." Sig padded up behind me, clapping a small hand on my back.

He continued, "There may be another solution. There is an old lighthouse on the edge of Hlofreden that needs a Keeper."

There was a little flutter of pain in Sig's eyes as he mentioned this. His grandfather had lost his life because of the witch that had taken the lighthouse. The woman had worn the face of the old keeper and insinuated herself into the workings of Hlofreden. The lighthouse itself seemed to require very little maintenance as it was based on a magicked mechanism with chanted glass to light up the dark skies at night.

Given that the stains of blood and the smell of death had been dealt with, it could be a place of perfect isolation with just enough space for her followers to settle in. Perhaps even be able to clear the fields of brambles from that upper reach..

"A lighthouse. I have no training in such workings." The Oracle said with a shake of her head.

"It wouldn't matter. You would just need to make sure it keeps spinning. The rest is automatic." Sig said, looking to the others.

I agreed with Sig's thoughts while the other's heads were nodding in turn.

"I'll consider it. Will you come back this way and take us there?" The Oracle said, fatigue lacing her voice.

There was a hesitation in Sig's expression. He had not returned since that fateful night. He looked haunted.

"We'll arrange for it." Sig said after a moment, seeming to choose his words carefully.

"Thank you. I'm not sure how I've earned this kindness, but we both thank you." She said, breathlessly. "I need to rest now. May your journey be safe. Return when you can."

It was a quick ride back to the road over the thriving, but abandoned fields. The Oracle's parting words were that they would try to keep their place in the mill for as long as they could. They would attempt to move to the mouth of the Hlofolk Tunnel if they felt unsafe.

The next stop on this path was a place called Crescent. It was a village of small folk set deep in the old trees to the Southeast of us. They seemed to appreciate visitors, but the others had said the Oracle warned them about overstaying their hospitality. It seemed a number of her followers had confided in her regarding their trust of strangers.

The path was a perfectly straight line where it entered the forest. The only deviations seemed when nature itself attempted to reclaim portions of the mercilessly cut path.

This was dwarven work, for sure.

Even with the natural rise and fall of the gentle hills around us, the path continued flat and straight. You could see far down the road with the gathered darkness at points obscuring what lay ahead. I was dumbfounded by the manic precision.

The procession fell silent as we moved, traveling with barely a word spoken. The sun climbed, visible through the thickening canopy above as we moved deeper into the forest. It was Floki who halted the approach, turning his monstrous wolf around. The eyes of the wolf seemed to be bored, but lazily glanced from horse to horse. The horses, in turned, voiced a few worried whinnies as their eyes met.

"Danin. Do you feel funny?" Floki said as Danin brought up the rear.

"No, why?" I heard his gruff voice ask.

I turned and quickly stifled a laugh. Danin's long hair and braided beard were raised in a near circle around his head. I could feel it now, too, a crackle in the air that reminded me of the battle between titans I had witnessed during the Ten Years War. Lightning bolts from a massive elemental blasting chunks of wood from the elven titan, sending flaming debris to the ground, setting alight fields with terrifying results.

I looked back at Silah who had a wide expression of joy and wonder on her face.

"This place makes me feel fantastic!" She said, holding out her hand and showing me as electricity arched between her fingers.

I gave her a worried look, but she was far too enthralled by the experience to recognize my concern.

"We should probably stop until we know what is going on." Floki called out.

While the others stopped, I dismounted and began rifling through my saddlebags to get to my rations.

"I see some black stones. They look like what we saw on Sidhe Lara." Sig said, pointing at something a ways into the woods.

"Huh." Floki said, "Looks like there are some on this side, too. And there's a fox watching us. It doesn't look like it's just observing. It's watching us."

Floki pointed off and took a step in that direction which prompted the stone he advanced toward to glow a little brighter.

"Uh, no. That's not good." He whispered.

"What is it?" Tagaern asked, his hand was on his sword, but seemed lost at what he would be fighting.

"We should stick to the path. This obelisks seem to be reacting to us." He said, then eyed the fox that was very close to the standing black stone, "To us, but not the wild life?"

"Silah, do you think you could touch one of those stones?" I asked, half joking.

"Sure!" Her voice was bright and excited, she began to approach and the stone began to glow brighter.

"No, I was kidding. You don't have to…"

CRACK!

Lightning arched from the stone and blazed into her. She staggered back, a scorch mark burned through her white linen dress. She turned and looked at me with a wild smile.

"That was fantastic!" She said, her eyes wide.

Her body danced with the arcing electricity.

She moved forward with a surge of incredible speed. The lightning lit against her, slowing her for brief moments as she fought against them. The thunderous cracks sounded like rapid-fire from Bromm's pistol. Each echoing readily through the woods. She moved up and touched the stone and other stones joined in the madness as they pounded her with lightning.

She returned on foot quickly, moving out of their range until the lightning ceased. She jittered madly, face flush, and her arms holding what little remained of her clothes for modesty.

"P-p-perhaps I sh-sh-should go b-back into th-th-the sh-sheath?" She stammered.

She was nearly glowing. I grabbed her hand and willed her into sword form quickly, feeling the hilt hiss in my grasp. I quickly placed her into the sheath then I frantically pulled out a waterskin to soothe the burn.

"Ouch." I said with a grimace.

I could feel the heat from the hilt dangerously close to my neck while I looked at the pattern of burns that were likely permanent on my palm.

As I glanced around, the others were dumbfounded. Floki was still looking into the forest.

"The fox sure seemed intent on what Silah did just there. When it finally turned away it looked like it had three tails. Anyone heard of a three tailed fox?" He asked.

There were a few shrugs, but Tagaern piped up.

"Well, I've heard a story. A drunken story from one man, but the details were very specific." He said, his face pinched as he struggled to remember, "From what the man said, the fox had five tails and could appear as a woman. It was a creature of the forest that protected the trees."

"Protected the trees?" Bromm said, "Perhaps these stones are here for the same."

"Metal weapons." Danin said and nodded.

"Anyone want to test that?" Floki said and looked to me with a smirk.

I fished through my pack and pulled out a small spike for mooring rope to walls. I tossed it between two of the stones. The raucous of lightning sparked again and again, only stopping after it had pulverized the metal to nothing.

I shuddered.

"We stick to the trail, then?" Said Bromm brightly with a smile.

Just ahead, a large hillock rose, but the path continued, straight and level, tearing through the ground, sharply splitting the hill in two. The dwarven hands cut through it's heart out because it dared defy them.

It was no wonder the stones were put in place. I thought with some trepidation.

A noise rose from the wood, a tortured shudder that seemed to echo as a cloud passed overhead, covering us in shadow. The air grew chilly as a thrashing far off the path sounded then quieted. I took hold of Silah by the handle, feeling her warmth maintained from the dazzling encounter earlier.

"Can anyone see what that was?" I whispered harshly as the horses gathered closer together.

"Yep. It's coming right at us." Floki said bobbing his head off to our right then unslung his bow in response.

It was relatively blending with the horse's footfalls, but as they stood still the smashing of branches became apparent. A blackened beast bounded toward us on all fours through the shadows of trees and clouds. It's eyes shone a milky yellow, catching the light around it. Flaps of its skin had unknitted from along its spine back revealing angry red viscera that hung down from it's sides. Each movement sent this skin flopping about like broken wings as it tore through the undergrowth.

"Form up!" I shouted dismounting quickly and pulling Silah. I looked to the bracers I wore and willed my arms to extend, preparing to swing.

Fire and sparks spurted out from my right. The bullet impacted, but did not slow the creature's gait. I felt others fall in behind me and arrows flew from my left, hitting everywhere but the creature.

I swung too late as it leaped toward me. I could see the blackened fur sloughing off in wide patches, the wide but unseeing milky eyes, the jaw opened wide exposing a jagged set of teeth, broken and intact, protruding from a rotting maw. It slashed at me with its claws, tearing deep into the flesh as he clamped around my shoulder, jerking with it's head, trying to tear my shoulder loose. Then, firmly attached, it began to flay my midsection with its powerful hind legs.

I felt a shock of sick as wounds opened and I could feel the blood boiling out of me.

I need your help. I tried to keep my thoughts clear, but everything was a jumble.

"What can I do? Should I heal you?" Her voice echoed in my head, eager.

No, I need you to help me strike true. I can't afford to miss.

"As you wish." Her voice in my head was low and fervent and I could feel her power rush in, guiding my hands.

I fought against the pain, calling on my inner strength. I pulled Silah back around along the creatures ribcage stroking clean through the flesh and cracking through the individual ribs exposing a blackened bile that flowed freely from the wound, another slash nearly severed the right hind leg.

A harsh roar through the rotting maw told me it wasn't done with me, but a stroke from Tagaern's sword broke through the spine and nearly severed the head. Its head lolled as it slumped to the forest floor. The hulk of rotten meat was still.

As the throbbing red faded from my vision and my strength subsided, I felt the sick rush back, clouding my mind and forcing me to lean back on my horse.

"I need help." I said hoarsely.

I groaned as Danin dismounted and looked where my wounds were the worst, focusing on the torn midsection and deep bite marks on my shoulder. While I could feel the wounds begin to bind together, the was a sting that didn't subside.

Some of that filth was still in me. I cringed at the thought.

I began to feel better from Danin's attention. I stood and took a deep breath.

Danin's eyes were concerned.

"You should try to defend yourself." He said sternly.

"I'll try a little harder next time." I said, annoyed.

"Another tiger. This one—I'm not even sure what to say." Floki said, looking at it with dismay.

He used his foot to push it around while the others looked on. Sig covered his face, fending off the stench that began to rise from it.

"Do you want to skin this one? It looks like most of the work is already done." I said.

Floki gave me a disapproving look.

"It looks like it was working on something just inside the woods there." He said, not breaking eye contact, "You want to check it out?"

"What about the stones?"

"It moved past them without a problem. I'm sure you can figure it out." Floki pointed to the grisly mass.

"Alone then?"

"It's up to you." Floki said with a shrug of his shoulders, "You're the only one who can fight without weapons."

I nodded, not happy with the thought, but it was true.

I hung all of my metal laden goods on my horse and moved toward the stones. It remained inert as I moved up to it. I touched the shiny black surface.

"Nothing at all." I turned and said.

I saw Floki roll his eyes and he handed a gold coin to Bromm after a brief exchange.

I moved deeper into the forest. A deer lay on it's side, eviscerated, showing signs of a bubbling black infection from it's neck. The sun emerged from the clouds, bright spots of light drifted between the branches expanding the scene. Black filth covered the forest floor where arterial blood sprayed the area. There was an animal trail that continued through the forest with another large beast tracking the remaining deer.

I felt a chill as I looked on. I gathered what I could from the scene and moved back to the others, moving easily between the stones.

"You should call Silah and see what happens?" Floki called out.

"No, I'd rather not." I growled in response as I approached.

"There was a kill, but it didn't look like it intended to eat. It just tore the thing apart. It had an black blistering mass on its neck." I said as I donned my armor.

Sig and Floki looked me over carefully.

"What?" I demanded.

"Oh. Nothing." Sig said.

I growled again and slid back into the saddle.

The sun was nearly directly above us as we began to see piles of ashes with the bones of small creatures in open areas along the path. This was followed shortly by signs of civilization. There were many of these in a clearing that greatly expanded widened distance between the lightning stones.

A cove appeared off the edge of the path. A small man sitting on the edge of an entertainers wagon. Other small people were busying themselves around the wagon. It appeared that they had been packing up from a potential performance or perhaps just lunch. Colorful silks clung to the sides of the wagon which was half the size of my horse.

The man craned his head up.

"Ah, visitors! Welcome to Crescent!"

His voice rose with a rich throaty character. Something I'd heard find from those whose profession it was to speak or sing.

He sat and spoke with us while the others moved around him. Their eyes were at first cheery, but a moodiness began to sink into them. The bard seemed to carry right along though his smile seemed to falter at times.

"What of the bones and ashes?" Sig asked.

"Oh. Uh, something strange going on. Sick creatures have been coming in." He chuckled anxiously, "Perhaps some trouble in the forest? We've put those we've seen to rest."

One of the women helping pick things up shot him a glare and he went back to his pained smile.

I looked at the others.

"To rest? Burning them to ashes seems a bit overzealous." Bromm said.

With such measures, I wondered if we should have done the same.

"I only work here. Well last night I did. Which, unfortunate for you, we're moving on. But I'm sure you could talk more of this to the village Elders?" The man seemed to be intent on breaking off the line of questioning quickly.

I was about to ask more, but held my tongue. Bromm nodded to the man and tipped his hat and clucked to the horse which continued down the path.

He waved with his smile still wide, watching us as we moved out of sight. Just beyond the small village of Crescent unfolded ahead of us. I dismounted and walked the warhorse down the small paved street. The road through town was just as wide as the swath that the dwarves had cut to this point and, clearly, everything here was built to the little folk's scale. Small buildings sat at the edge of the thick forest. Some buildings stood only as high as my shoulder making the world feel like it was full of playthings. I was a giant standing among these buildings.

The road widened into what looked like a common area. To the side was a tavern with canvas draped over a mixture of large and small tables. The city was a sea of little folks with hair varying shades of mousey, except for one who emerged from the tavern with a bundle of mugs skillfully grasped with both arms. She sparkled with her golden hair among the other, more humble looking folk. And, clearly, everyone knew it. Boys and men, it was hard to tell which was which, all had their eyes on her as she moved through the tables with a broad smile.

"There boys. Be good now." She said, placing the mugs on the table and then craning up to the rest of us, "Tall folk! Join us, if ya will. We've tables over there just for ya."

Her little head bobbed sending her glittering gold hair tumbling.

There were a few glances back and forth between the group.

"It's a little early, but I don't mind staying." Floki said with a shrug.

"I wonder if they have anything here like Old Law?" Bromm added.

The table, while they accommodated the others well enough, still forced me to wedge myself in awkwardly. The bench groaned as I tested it with my full weight. Tagaern chuckled at the look on my face but said nothing.

The small woman came back out, depositing food at another table and came up to us, smiling, wiping wet hands on her small apron. She was stunning. Her appearance against the others was uncanny. Looking around, I tried to pick out any of the females and it was surprisingly difficult. She seemed a completely different creature—and she knew it.

"‘Ello, Gents, name's Javalia. Before I start chitchattin', do you want anything to start ya off?" She purred, taking a commanding position at the head of the table.

"Do you have any harder spirits?" Bromm leaned in.

"It's a bit early for that, lad, isn't it?" She leaned in herself, drawing us in with a whisper, "Since you're new here,  ‘ow about I fetch ya some of our specials."

She tilted her head, sending her golden locks bobbing again, and her eyes moved quickly to each one of us. Floki shrugged, disinterested. I could see a fire light behind those eyes briefly, she wasn't use to resistance.

"I have a few special selections you won't find anywhere else, lads." She said, her voice laced with a warning.

Javalia began to run through a series of fruity and nutty sounding ales. The one that stood out to me was the Deep Chestnut Lager. Bromm leaned toward a Rosewood Amber, but then the woman paused with her eyebrow raised wickedly.

"Above all, I'd recommend the Longdeep Tea. A special blend from the forests that only us folk know. It has, eh, special properties. Given your wear, I could say this would be of some benefit to you." She said, with a half smile.

"Wear? I'm not sure what you mean?" I said.

"And, a'course, yer the first to talk. Bloodied from head to toe and stinking of death, your clothes slept in. Perhaps we should draw a bath as well?" She looked over the others with a wrinkle to her nose. "Not sure what met you along these roads. You sure seem worse off for it."

My lips pulled tight into a straight line and grumbled, looking at the table. "I'll take the Chestnut. And, maybe, some of that tea."

The rest chose just the Longdeep Tea, quickly willing to try a new experience. Bromm sat there, unfazed, and smiling at the pint-sized fireball.

"I'll get those out immediately!" She said, bouncing slightly with her words as she moved toward the kitchen.

There were a couple of Halflings that sat near us, giving hesitant glances our way. Their voices were low and murmured, but it wasn't so much suspicion as one was gathering his courage to talk to us. They seemed to have several bowls of foodstuffs that had come up empty and were unconsciously pawing at them, realizing, over and over again, that each bowl was empty.

"You talk to him."

"No, you!"

This exchanged went back and forth until Javalia came back. She has a hawklike eye trained toward the others, making sure there was nothing funny going on. As she delivered the drinks, she stood again at the head of the table. She drew a deep breath and began to roll through the food specialties of the day. She was only just past the first meal item when Sig cut her short. Her eyes widened with fire, but she held her tongue and waited for his response..

"Why not get all your specials? An order for each of us." Sig patted his pouch hard enough that it jingled.

This drew attention from many of the surrounding folks. Ears keen on hearing the sounds of plentiful coin. This seemed to embolden the two bickering halflings that sat close.

Javalia smiled graciously, her countenance smoothing to a placid gentleness that didn't seem at all accustomed to being there.

"A round for all ya Gents! We're goin'  t'have ta stock up on the pantry after this." She said with rich laugh.

Gents?

I realized that Silah wasn't among us, since our encounter earlier, I had left her in the sheath. I felt it might be too much to reveal her here, so I let her remain.

I sipped at the Chestnut Lager, which was almost chewy with the sediment floating in the brew, this added to it's oaky richness. I looked around as others sipped on the Longdeep Tea. Bromm's eyes popped open, and he looked into the mug. I plowed through the mug of Chestnut Lager and picked up the Longdeep Tea. There was a punch in the sip I took. Not sure where it came from but my cheeks flushed and I felt a tingle running from my belly to the tips of my fingers. Small cuts and bruises that persisted after Danin's attention seemed to fade further and further with each draw.

There were wide eyes among the group. Each of us seemed to experience a similar effect.

While food preparations were being made, the two little folk sauntered over to the table and began talking with whoever would talk to them. I sat and watched as they chattered among themselves, then turned to Sig, who had been eyeing the package that one held in his hands. It was a wax paper wrap similar to what Sig had for his tobacco leaf.

While the first presented, the other bent close.

"You want to buy some Juh-Juh? I've got a special for you tall folk."

"Stop it! You're making me look bad. Let me talk."

"You're too slow at this! You gotta get them excited!"

"I've got this. Back off!"

"That's mine, you know. You are selling my Juh-Juh."

"Yes, I know. C'mon! I'll get you more!"

Their rapid fire banter made me think of two chittering squirrels fighting over a nut. It made my head hurt. I turned and looked at the others looking on. I saw a frumpy little woman who was bent over an elaborate little drum instrument. Her brow was furrowed as I glanced her direction, but she tried to replace it with a pained smile as she saw that I was looking at her. I tried to look friendly, but she clapped a hand to her head and broke eye contact. She seemed frustrated with herself and went back to looking away gloomily, not meeting my eyes again.

Complex little creatures, these. I thought.

While the tavern was beginning to fill for an afternoon crowd, there was another pair who stood off to the side. A dark haired woman and her elven companion. They were aloof, lingering around the outskirts. The woman seemed restless, moving away and then coming back to the elven man. His manner was extremely relaxed, but I could see a slight glint of annoyance as he looked on her movements. He tipped back in a chair, balancing skillfully without any fear of breaking the thin wooden legs or slipping over backwards. His eyes moved to mine, like he had felt them observing him. That calm, self-assuredness made me shiver, but I held the gaze and gave him a nod and he returned the same before looking back to his fidgeting companion.

Javalia came out with an expertly balanced tray, placing it in the center of the table and moving each of the dishes in front of us, before sliding the tray out and standing it on the ground and leaning on it. I saw something stir out of the corner of my eye as Javalia effortlessly leaned on the saucer that was nearly as big as her and smiled warmly at the rest of my group. The drummer girl had tensed, glaring at Javalia. It was the look of one as she picked her mortal enemy apart with her eyes. Suddenly, her awkwardness became very clear.

"That's a Mushroom cake. Packed with herbs, breaded, and fried for ya gents. That's just ta get ya started. Next will be RopeGrass soup and Scud Shells! These are spicy and served hot. Ya might want to get more ta drink."

She waited as her suggestion took hold. I decided to try the Blackberry Stout. Floki picked another Longdeep Tea. All the while the orders were rolling in, she was watching Sig barter with these two chittering halflings. Her eye was wary as she looked them over.

Sig had been sampling the wares with his dragonbone pipe. It was then that I noticed Sig's eyes glazed over and he was looking at around with a wide smile, which would quirk into a troubled furrow and back again as he observed the world around him. His movements were long a slow, and he called after Javalia well after she had disappeared back into the tented area. Floki had a close eye on him, too, wondering exactly what this pipeweed was doing to him.

"We need music." Bromm said, "This is a joyous event, after all."

He looked to the pile of angry self-loathing with the small drum.

"You there," Bromm said, then, when her head came up, "What's your name?"

"Ripinni, Ripinni Alesong."

"Can you beat us out a tune on that?" Bromm's eyes moved to the drum.

The woman straightened up and nodded vigorously. She started to tap out a tune, but, perhaps it was nerves, she gave an unremarkable performance. Her eyes glassed a little as she struggled to get it right. It took some doing, but she finally seemed to relax enough to let the music flow through her.

The elf rocked forward putting all four legs of his chair on the ground, interested, but still staying aloof.

Bromm, who sat closest to the elf, engaged in conversation. He introduced himself as Galwaihr. There was a strange tension to his voice, as he, clearly, was not quite comfortable with the line of questions. Bromm explained his origins in Hlofreden and the man began to relax, as was Bromm's way. The woman came over to his side, her expression was sour and her eyes seemed distrusting and volatile.

"Did you come from Hanover, then?" Bromm asked.

"We thought to, but the admission process is a nightmare," Galwaihr said evenly, "Far too many questions. None of which either of us want to answer."

"We were thinking of heading that way, ourselves. We'll keep that in mind." Bromm nodded. "So, heading North then?"

"Yes, to Dowry. To visit a member of her family," the elf said.

"We just came from there. It should be a relatively easy journey up. The tunnel has been opened recently."

Galwaihr shrugged. He seemed indifferent to the troubles that may have lain ahead. I wondered if his confidence would have been shaken if he had know what he would have been up against? This set me to wondering. This prompted an itch in the back of my head, something I was having trouble placing, as I watched Bromm drive the questions on. The woman stood completely, still staring him down with a sour expression. Galwaihr didn't appreciate it.

This unnatural stillness immediately reminded me of Silah.

"Sgaith, please. Be civil."

It was like a spike had been driven into my mind. I looked down at the half eaten plate of Scud Shells and realized who these two were. I slowly moved my hand to the hilt of Silah, twisting her in her sheath so the sword pressed against my neck.

"It's about time! That's them! My 'sister' and her wielder. The one that Lord Embron and Far'rah warned you about." Silah's voice was anxious.

I shuddered, trying to collect myself as I looked at the others around the table. Sig was all but unconscious, his head lolled back and forth as he stared at things that weren't there. He was focused on Javalia's hair, now, reaching out a hand that she readily avoided. Just moments before, he had put a pile of gold on the table and started pushing it toward the two halflings that were unbelievably giddy, but Javalia stopped it before the actual exchange took place.

"It's not nice to take advantage of guests." She glared at the men who now looked merely like boys. "Now, shoo!"

Another of the smaller gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and I spun my head quickly his direction. My mind was running too fast and I couldn't focus. I wanted to get out of there, but I needed to tell the others.

"Sirs? You seem a formidable sort, the lot of you. The council is looking to have someone look into this business with the, ahem, forest situation." His words rolled over me and I stared at him blankly.

The man paused for a moment, then asked, "Are you mute?"

"No," I growled at him, prompting a wide-eyed look of panic, "I'm fine. What do you want?"

"The council has tried to resolve the problems in the forest, but we don't know anyone who can help. We had given the Lord of Hanover fifty gold to look into it, but we haven't seen him since." He said, glancing at the man behind him who kept nodded, "The village elders need someone who can resolve it. Perhaps you could?"

"I'll talk to the others." I said, keeping my voice low.

I looked at him, my heart was still thudding away with the recent revelation. Javalia had presented the final portion of the meal, a dessert called Bee Pock. This took some care to deliver as the standing milk held a floating fried dough ball slicked with honey. My stomach had dropped out and those Scud Shells, or snails, slugs or whatever, were not mixing well with the news.

I stood and I motioned to the others. Floki helped Sig from his seat and Tagaern sidled up next to me.

"Son, you look like you've seen a ghost."

"I think I have."

He looked at me with narrowed eyes.

"Do you know that elf? From the war?"

"No. Worse. That's the one who's been destroying the others like Silah."

Tagaern's gait halted for a second before continuing. We all moved out into the fields where the horses were left to graze. Sig was enthralled with the amount of dirt that covered Floki. He was running a fingernail down the ranger's cloak leaving a dirt trail, then he seemed to be noting how much dust rose when he flicked it. Floki was getting more and more annoyed as this went on.

"What's up?" Floki said, turning from Sig.

Tagaern spoke up as I was collecting my thoughts.

"That duo out there? That's the one that Hakaar was warned about. The one who might try to destroy Silah." He said succinctly.

I should thank him for that. I thought.

"I am not sure what we could do. We could attack now, while they don't suspect it. We might get the upper hand?" I said, feeling very unsure.

"They've been together for nearly a century." Silah echoed, "They will be very hard to beat."

I sighed and the others looked at me. They seemed to be very aware when Silah was talking in my head.

"This isn't the right place for it. I need to understand more. Plus, this village is not a place to start a battle." I said, shaking my head, "Let's just move on. How far away is Hanover?"

"We could get there tonight. According to the map it's not that far off." Floki said.

"The elders of that village wanted us to help them get rid of whatever is tainting the creatures, too. I'd like to help them, but probably not now." I said, "Let's go."

When we returned to the tavern, our table had been cleaned and others began to occupy it. Javalia saw us walk back in and moved up to us. She could see we were ready and leading our horses.

"That was a bit quick without a g'bye, are you headin' on?"

Bromm nodded.

"Things to do. But we more than appreciate the hospitality."

"My pleasure," she winked and gave a slight curtsy.

"One of the council swung by just a moment ago looking for ya. What should I tell 'em?" She said with a smile, but her eyes were concerned.

"We'll come back this way, I expect. Then we'll talk." I said, unsure of either.

"Best see that you do! You take care of yourselves now!" She pulled a white towel from her apron and waved it as we moved off through the town toward Hanover.

(Get to know Akeron.)