Loriana lay on her back, staring up at the ‘ceiling’ and trying to figure out what the shapes in the bark resembled. There was one knot that looked a bit like a horse’s head, while another reminded her of a wrinkled old face. It kind of looked like the face of a father. Not her father, she was too young to have a father that old, but a fatherly face.
She wondered if the old druid had any children. Or grandchildren. Perhaps great-grandchildren. Or, maybe, even great-great-grandchildren. He had looked so old sitting in the glade and so tired, despite his cheerful demeanor.
Try as she might, though, Loriana couldn’t remember her own parents. Or grandparents. She had a vague sense she had a sister or brother or cousin or childhood friend, but could not recall their face. Or ever having spent time with them. She wondered what-
“Glad morning,” came that foreign, melodic accent Loriana had come to associate with the forestfolk.
“Good morning, Your Majesty.”
“Ah, of course… How did you know it was me?”
Imaerla pushed aside the curtain of vines and entered the hollow. A casual gesture from her hand caused the wood of the wall to magically bend and warp into a place for her to sit as she looked inquisitively at Loriana.
Loriana giggled. “You’re the only one who speaks Charran with me, so it’s pretty easy to tell.”
It was interesting to watch the way Imaerla’s face changed as her expressions shifted. It seemed so alien, yet at the same time so similar to a human face. Her cheekbones were higher, the chin long and narrow, and the cheeks themselves shallow, all of it combining to create a sharpness that felt out of place. Not unnatural, as such, just… uncanny.
“Does Jaeworl not speak human with you?”
“Well, sort of. But he speaks Karth, which is an older form. Like… ” Loriana struggled trying to think of a comparison that would make sense to this woman. “Like a grandparent, maybe? Oh! Kind of what your kin speak and the language of the fey, ehm, Fair Folk, but not as far apart.”
Imaerla smiled, a strangely soft expression despite her features.
A man pushed his way into the cell, throwing an irate scowl at Loriana as he tossed a bowl of fruits and berries to her.
Loriana didn’t know his name, but he seemed to be the one in charge of her, given how often he’d be the one to deliver food or stand guard outside. He always wore the same outfit of loose-fitting, supple leather and woven furs, some garments dyed light green and others a more natural brown. His hair consisted of thick quills, like those of a porcupine or Imaerla, but wore his much longer than she did. However, where hers were floral violet, his were a hue of brown not too far from being a darker shade of Loriana’s own locks.
His face had that same sharp quality as Imaerla’s, giving him the same air of “otherworldly yet human”. Jaeworl, the old man, had that, too, but his hair looked human. Perhaps he wasn’t a full-blooded forestfolk?
The man threw a quick look over at his queen, offering a respectful nod and exchanging a few pleasantries in their own language.
The strange little bogun was perched on his shoulder, busily making its strange noises at Imaerla. It was hard to tell whether it actually understood their conversation, or was just seeking attention the way an animal might.
Loriana didn’t understand more than a word here or there. She could speak the language of the fey, or the Fair Folk as these people referred to the denizens of the Hinterlands. But it seemed more distantly related to the forestfolks’ tongue than Karth was to Charran.
Since they were focused on their discussion, Loriana took the opportunity to eat her brunch. The food they provided was quite delicious, with juicy fruits and fresh berries and crunchy nuts and roots. She wondered if they didn’t eat meat or if they just didn’t want to waste any on a prisoner, but she didn’t really mind either way.
The little creature hopped off the man’s shoulder and moved over to Loriana, peering into her bowl and the looking up at her. The expression around the eye pulled off the feat of looking like a begging puppy, and Loriana gave it one of the smaller berries before returning to her musings.
This was much tastier than the dried rations she’d been living off while traveling. She remembered some of her travels, bits and pieces, but no faces and had no idea where the places were.
She had eaten some very tasty bread and meat recently… In a village, near a forest. Quite possibly this forest, but maybe a different one. She remembered braiding someone’s hair, and a man in purple and someone else. A third person. A young man, blonde and cheerful. A villager, who had taken them into the forest, to look for something.
Imaerla rose as the gaoler left, the tree returning to its normal shape. She moved over to kneel by Loriana with a contemplative look on her face. Something about her expression worried Loriana, though she couldn’t quite tell why.
“I… have sad things to tell you.”
Loriana put down her bowl and just looked at the serious expression on the woman’s face.
“A few nights ago, I saw the… “ Imaerla paused, looking for a word. “Sheevra?”
“Spirit? Fairy?” Loriana offered, though uncertain as to which translation might fit best.
“No… The dead returned?”
“Yes. I saw the ghost of your friend. She must have died in the forest, trying to escape. Perhaps tricked by the Fair Folk, for rare is the one who returns after death.”
Loriana looked at her captor in silence, trying to remember what friend this was. The man in purple wasn’t really a friend, even if she felt they had traveled together for some time, and the young man she had barely known. He was probably the one figure she felt she could remember all she knew about him, as scant as those memories were.
Imaerla looked utterly stunned by the question. She regained her composure after a few moments, her brow furrowing in confusion. “The one that was found with you in the forest? A woman somewhat older than you, dressed in black and red… Raven hair, pale skin… She disappeared shortly after the two of you were brought here.”
Loriana chewed on a root, staring out the “window” and remembering events after she had woken up in the forest. The troll had lifted her onto his shoulders. Lyara, the faerie who had liked taunting her when she was still tied up, had thrown dust in her face to make her sleep. Then she had woken up in the clearing, where Imaerla had questioned her for a time.
There had been some mention of someone else, but Loriana couldn’t remember any details about it. She had just assumed it was referring to the man in purple… With her lost memories, though, could there have been someone else with her in the forest?
Loriana turned back to the queen and slowly shook her head. “No, I don’t remember any such person…”
“I will go get Jaeworl… This is… You knew who she was when we first spoke,” Imaerla said as she rose to her feet. She hurriedly strode out, pausing in the doorway to throw a concerned glance at Loriana while absently reaching up to rub the side of her own neck. Then she was gone.
The bogun had wandered off at some point, and so Loriana found herself alone again. Being unable to at all remember this ‘friend’, and worried by the queen’s comment about Loriana knowing who this mystery woman was during their first encounter, Loriana sat in silent anxiety, trying her best to distract herself with the tasty food left in the bowl.
Finding that didn’t work, she lay down on the bed and curled up. Her stomach felt like a bottomless pit, sucking in her soul, her insides tied in knots of worry so tight it hurt.
Imaerla glanced at Jaeworl, who was looking unusually befuddled as he scratched his beard absently. They were walking together, heading back to the hollow where Loriana was kept.
“So you say that she is not remembering this person?”
“Yes. It seems almost as though she does not remember her existence at all.”
“That does sound like the Fair Folk stealing her memories, but they may not enter the village except through the Arch.”
“And if they did arrive that way, the faeries would be gossiping about it and the whole tribe would know within half a day.”
Jaeworl nodded quietly, once again losing himself in thought.
They continued that way for a little longer before Imaerla noticed the shadows growing deeper. She slowed and then stopped, looking around at a place that should be familiar yet suddenly felt strange and different. Jaeworl, standing a few paces ahead, looked at her with as much confusion written on his face as she felt clouding her mind.
The shadows, the trees, everything. Did we enter a trod?”
“Not that I can tell…” Jaeworl moved back toward her a few steps, but Imaerla raised her hand and waved him to a stop.
There were whispers in the wind, in the rustling leaves, in the back of her mind. Then the world suddenly spun around her and a sharp, stabbing pain exploded in the side of her neck.
Struggling to her hands and knees, she looked up at Jaeworl rushing over to her. Tears of pain rolled down her cheeks as she gratefully gripped his outstretched hand, letting him pull her up to her feet and leaning on him to stay standing. She gasped for breath, finding it hard to breathe through the spasms in her neck.
Jaeworl was speaking to her, she could see his lips moving. But she could not hear him, could not answer him.
She pulled at her collar, trying to show him the mark left by the specter’s ritual that night. She hoped he would understand, but if he did he drew the wrong conclusion.
Despite the crippling pain she tried to jerk her head in the direction of the tree with the prisoner, only a few strides away, hoping he would follow her gaze. Instead, he began casting some spell. She pawed at him, kept interrupting him until he paused long enough to look at her.
She croaked out a “Girl!” and waved her hand in the direction of the tree. She continued trying to tell him, repeating the words ‘girl’ and ‘geas’ until she felt someone else lifting her off his shoulders and he rushed off into the hollow.
Then the world exploded in colours and darkness overtook her senses. She was lost amidst a storm of swirling thoughts, lingering pain, and fear. Overwhelming fear, drowning out even the pain and pushing numbness over her being.
She clung to that fear, used it to claw her way back to some kind of order in her mind. It was not fear for her life or that of the prisoner. She had faith in Jaeworl. It was just fear. Soul-consuming, all-encompassing fear, enveloping her like a blanket, warding off the world and giving her the space to focus.
What had happened? Why had it triggered?
Was it the Fair Folk, stealing not just the girl’s memories but her soul?
Had a troll lost its self-controlled and tried to eat her?
Or had Tar-lagh wounded her because she was trying to escape?