Imaerla stood atop a small outcropping with one hand against the trunk of a nearby tree for balance. Her gaze was sweeping along the distant horizon, where the disc of the day moon was all but done going into hiding and the Twins had just begun their ascent. The sun had long since set, leaving the forest below bathed in silver shardlight.
She was still trying to get her bearings. The faery trod had deposited them somewhere in the high foothills of the Stormpeaks that afternoon and they had spent the remainder of the day making their way back down toward the forest proper. It had felt good to get away from the dry rocks and once more be embraced by the scents of trees and flowers in abundance. Even now, in the dark of night atop a windy rock, those smells lingered around her.
They had made camp for the evening in a small clearing surrounded by a copse of smaller, more tightly grown saplings amidst the sparse forest of looming ancients. Behind her gurgled a stream as it made its way down the rocky slopes, perhaps to join the very lake where her herd had been camped.
It was unlikely, however, as the elementals with which she was in communion were unfamiliar to her. They were kin to those of home, part of the same forest, the same land, but they were not ones she knew, nor did they know the ones she did.
Imaerla sighed to herself, thanking the spirits before releasing the link. She could tell they were still on the west side of the mountains, somewhere north of… everything. She simply did not know enough to find her way back, and she knew Jae-lagh did not want her to. He wanted her to go with the girl into human lands, though he had been evasive as to why.
Dear Jae-lagh. Ever carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, yet always trying to protect her from everything. It was her duty as queen to protect the herd, to watch over them and care for them. How could she do that now? What would happen to them without her there to keep them together?
And what about the girl? Imaerla looked back over her shoulder at the supine form resting nearby. Loriana had been surprisingly willing to trust her, especially given how Taral had tried to poison the poor girl. She kept a bit of distance, and was openly suspicious at times, but she seemed more afraid of being alone than of Imaerla turning on her.
Imaerla sighed again. That night kept coming back to her. The feeling of being helpless, powerless, and the fear of the dark woman returning. Twilight Rose, the Dread Mistress.
Imaerla shuddered involuntarily as a shiver ran over her skin when she became suddenly more aware of the cool night air. The shadows deepened in the forest, the distant sounds of nocturnal animals grew sharper, and a multitude of scents assaulting her nose… Fresh flowers, animal dung, the leftovers of their dinner. The sound of her heartbeat pounding in her ears.
She became suddenly aware of the gray eyes staring at her from near the embers of their fire. Loriana had pushed herself onto her elbows, a mixture of fear and concern written on her face as she gazed back at Imaerla.
Imaerla simply met her gaze in silence for several heartbeats, breathing heavily and waiting for her body to calm down. There was no danger here, nothing nearby was going to eat them. It was the memory, the nightmare, putting her on edge.
Relaxing her posture, she turned around and sat down on the lip of the rock. “It is nothing, just… a bad dream.”
“Are you sure?”
Imaerla shrugged. “I am fine. It is merely concern for my people. I am worried about them, about what will happen with the trolls while I am not there.”
Loriana seemed unconvinced, but thankfully moved on to a different topic. “I’ve been wondering; how come you speak Charran so well? Much better than Jaeworl, more modern.”
Imaerla winced, feeling no less unhappy with the new choice of subject. “I… when I was younger, I used to enjoy exploring the forest and spying on humans. Eventually I picked up enough to start talking to them, and from there it grew.”
“I see…” Loriana looked even less convinced this time.
“You do not believe me?”
“Nope. What are fetchlings anyway? Are you humans or fey or what?”
Imaerla stared at her for a few moments, caught off-guard by the question as much as by the girl’s choice to suddenly change topic again. Was the girl really that easy-going?
“We are… somewhere in-between the two, as I understand it.” She hopped off the ledge and moved to sit down near the fire, feeling the night chill growing stronger. She did not know the true answer, and doubted anyone other than perhaps the Fair Folk did. “There are legends and stories about our origin, claiming we are the children of fey who spent too much time among mortals and then could not go back. Others say we come from humans living for too long with the Fair Folk, but unable to stay with them.”
“I heard you were the descendants of unions between fey and mortals. Like, trolls are from fey and orcs, fetchlings with humans, that sort of thing.”
Imaerla could not help but let out a giggle at the thought. “Trolls are not kin to forestfolk. I do not know what an orc is, but I can assure you that I am no cousin of any troll.”
Loriana sat up and stretched, then looked Imaerla straight in the eye. “See, telling the truth isn’t so hard, is it? Anyway, speaking of humans in forests, don’t bandits hide in these parts? Should we be worried about bandits?”
Imaerla stared blankly at the girl for a few moments. “If ‘bandits’ means those humans who hunt travelers, then they do hide in the forest,” she replied after regaining her composure. Had the girl simply been trying to figure out when she was lying and when she was telling the truth? Seeing a look of alarm on Loriana’s face, she quickly added. “They keep closer to human trails, so it will be a few days before we need fear them. Predators need their prey, and there are no travelers this close to troll territory.”
“Oh, great, so we need to be afraid of trolls, not bandits. That’s much better.” There was an inflection on the phrase which Imaerla did not understand. She guessed it to indicate irony as the words were clearly untrue.
Loriana grabbed a stick and hugged it tight as she pressed her back against a tree and kept looking all around her, fear in her eyes. Imaerla sighed and moved over to sit next to her, hoping it would help calm the girl down. They sat there in silence, watching the forest until Imaerla drifted off to sleep.
Dawn found Loriana back in good spirits. She was sitting by the fire, comparing the pelt of last night’s dinner with her clothing. The leather of her pants and boots likely came from bigger game than a hare, while her shirt was made of some material Imaerla had never seen.
“So… This,” she held up the pelt, “is turned into this?” She slapped her thigh to indicate the leather.
Loriana had been like this ever since she had been moved down from the vine-web. Curious, inquisitive, constantly trying to relearn everything she had forgotten. She was learning so very fast, every bit of information bringing with it a little bit more than the morsel itself. It was almost as though the memories were not gone but merely slumbering. Dormant in her mind like a wyrm during the dark season, waiting for the arrival of spring and the abundance of food it would bring.
Imaerla rose to her feet, taking a deep breath through her nose to smell the morning dew and all the flowers waking before brushing the dirt off her impractical dress. It was not completely useless for trekking through the forest, light and comfortable as well as enchanted so tears would slowly mend, but it was hardly the most ideal thing and not what she would have chosen.
She would have worn something more functional, something from wyrm’s hide perhaps, if she had known she would be traveling. A thought occurred to her as she looked at Loriana poking about the glade. “Do you know why the humans call this forest Wyrm’s Wood?”
“Because it used to be the territory of a big wyrm. Don’t recall what the locals called it, but it was a pretty big deal when it died. Treasure-seekers still come here looking for its lair, hoping to find the treasures of those it ate. Why? Do you think I was one of those adventurers?”
Imaerla suppressed a smile, trying to imagine the frightened girl of last night braving the dangerous Wilds in search of a lair not even Jaeworl knew where to find. “I know very little of human adventurers, except for the tales told to me when I was a small child. You do not quite strike me as an adventurer, however. No supplies for hunting, no rations, nothing to camp with. Yet… I believe it is a possibility. Perhaps you did not travel alone, and whatever happened to you separated you from you friends?”
Loriana chortled. “I didn’t do very well with the fire last night, or the hunting, or really anything…”
Imaerla smiled warmly, recalling how exasperated the girl had been when she kept failing at everything, how crestfallen she had seemed when she finally gave up, and how fascination had wiped it all away when she saw Imaerla use magic to light the campfire.
“So, what next, Your Majesty?” She had used the title in jest, but it reminded Imaerla of all the duties she was forced to neglect while lost out here.
“We have no supplies and no shelter, so we should try to take advantage of the fair weather by seeking to find our way to more familiar terrain. Perhaps we might find our way back to the settlement, or at least find a gathering of humans.”
Loriana looked at her, frowning suddenly. Imaerla looked back, furrowing her brow in confusion and wondering what the girl was staring at. “You’re barefoot!”
Imaerla could not keep herself from bursting into laughter.