“You will inform the ladies?” Marnius hoisted both their packs with one hand and grabbed his morningstar in the other. “Good, then I will meet you on the north road.”
Ethnila waved him off and leaned back against a porch beam. The lasting storm had put the whole village on edge and the presence of outsiders hardly helped matters. To make matters worse, word had come of large groups of trolls attacking the logging camps in the east.
At least the Duke of Brighthill was said to be mustering an army which could help deal with the incursions.
Whatever her doubts about men with power, she had to admit the Duke was said to possess both integrity and compassion. Perhaps it was simply that the people of this land were not beset by the denizens of Iruqhal. Though the distrust of outsiders remained a constant, as evidenced by the suspicious glances thrown her direction every so often.
It was a change in those looks that first told her the elf had stepped out of the inn. Overheard whispers had already told Ethnila they were convinced the storm was a result of ‘fey magic’, and somehow connected to the woman. Knowing the villagers back home, they were just looking for somewhere to place the blame.
Knowing nothing of forestfolk magic, she could not discount the possibility.
“Ready?” She looked over at the pair. The elf was wearing her new clothes, a simple outfit not much different from those of the local peasants. Her pack seemed almost empty, and indeed likely held little more than some provisions and her ruined dress.
Loriana had managed to persuade the local watch captain to sell his leather armor.
“Where did Marnius go?” The girl stuck her head back through the door to look around the common room, as though she had overlooked someone as large and gaudily dressed as the priest. “I thought he was out here with you?”
“He’ll meet us by the road,” Ethnila replied while strapping on her claymore. She paused a moment to make sure they were going to follow before starting off toward the north edge of the little village square.
It was a short time later when Loriana’s cheerful prattle was cut short at the sight of the giantkin’s blue robes fluttering in the wind as he made his way around a small mound further down the road. Ethnila, peering out from under her hat, quietly watched the elf.
She was curious to see her reaction.
Loriana hopped down from the fence and stepped over to Imaerla just as Marnius’ companion stepped out from behind the mound. The wide eyes and arched brow of the elf paled in comparison to the sheer wonder of the girl.
“That’s- Is that a-”
During her initial trip south from Daenna, Ethnila had signed on with a caravan taking the eastern route through Qor. There she had seen a lumbering beast unlike any animal of her homeland, one referred to by the guides as a ‘rhino’. Marnius’ mount was of similar shape and size. It lacked the apparently distinctive horns, but instead was covered by a layer of colorful feathers dominated by a deep yellow hue.
“It is!” Loriana clapped her hands with glee. The elf was looking at her perplexedly. “That is a qa’ru. They live up in the Arimians, but come down to the Poq highlands in winter. I have always wanted to see one!”
Marnius led the animal up to the group and motioned at the elf’s pack, indicating his and Ethnila’s already attached to the saddle.
“It is so pretty.” Loriana cautiously reached out to pet its muzzle. The docile creature just stared dumbly at her in response. “I never knew they were so colorful!”
Marnius grinned proudly at her. “Most qaru have pale feathers to hide them in the snow, it is true.”
“What does a beast that size need to hide from?” The elf sounded as incredulous as she looked.
“Dragons,” both of the others replied in unison. Ethnila suppressed a shudder, recalling her trip along the southern reaches of the Arimian mountain range. Her companions had been terrified of the thought of crossing paths with a dragon. The fear in the eyes of even veteran guards and the looming peaks on their flank had unsettled even the witch hunter.
“What is its name?”
“I call him Sun, for obvious reasons.”
“He is quite beautiful, though never have I seen something so large yet so docile.”
“He is not that large, is he?”
“I remember a horse that was taller, but only half as wide.”
“One of those, over there.”
“Ah, I see. I have not seen one since I was a child.”
“Regardless, he is taller than all of us save you.”
“And lady Ethnila’s hat.”
Ethnila tuned out their banter as the group began their long trek northward. Behind them yet another thunderclap rolled out from the storm. Too loud to have been very far away.
The group had been traveling for some time along the road, yet still it remained muddy. Ethnila led the way up front with Lor and Imaerla following a few steps behind, both watching the fields and hills around them.
Despite the gray skies and looming threat of rain, the landscape was pretty and full of life; noisy animals hiding from both view and drizzle, the fresh smell of rain-soaked dirt, and humid air clinging to her skin. And though dim, at the edge of her awareness she could just barely perceive the joyful celebration of plant spirits having drunk their fill.
Marnius brought up the rear, leading his friend with a rope and seeming in no particular hurry despite his insistence they get going. Slowed by her wound, Imaerla soon found herself walking alongside the big beast and could not help but look at it more closely. It was a strange creature, unlike anything she had ever seen.
“Lady Imaerla, may I ask…” the big man inquired. She looked at him quietly, waiting for a few moments before she realized he was expecting a response. She gave a curt nod. “You have lived your life in this region, I believe?”
“That is so,” Imaerla replied, glancing over her shoulder in the direction of the mountains… and home.
“Do you know if storms such as this are a common occurrence?” He gestured at the sky with his free hand as he spoke.
Imaerla looked at him with a furrowed brow for a few moments, trying to pick up from context what she did not understand of the words. The Charran tongue was still very foreign to her, despite both recent experiences and those of her youth.
“Storms that last for weeks, with thunder that seems to never be entirely gone and rain that feels constant…” He paused, motioning as if to indicate the air around them. “Although clearly it is not.”
“There is a storm in the mountains which never ends,” she offered. “Loriana says that is why they are called the Stormpeaks by humans.”
“Yes…” Marnius seemed unconvinced. He was a curious sight; with his coarse hide and muscular build he looked as though he could wrestle a troll and win, yet he was dressed in a flowing robe of light blue and embroidered with patterns in glittering yellow thread. His demeanour was gentle and his smile kind, yet Imaerla could not help but feel under scrutiny whenever he looked upon her.
As though he were trying to judge her soul.
“It is…” Imaerla paused, unable to find the right words. When she spoke with Lor she would simply use her own tongue when she did not know how to say something in Charran, but neither of the other two understood it and so she had to find other ways around the issue. “…not of nature. The storm is magic.”
“I was afraid of that…” Marnius heaved a long sigh. “I fear the region’s troubles are not quite so simple as one would have hoped.” Noticing her curious look, he shook his head dismissively. “It is nothing. How is your wound?”
“It is much improved. You are a skilled caretaker.” It still hurt to move, but it was a dull ache more akin to a bruise well on its way to healing. She would manage.
“If walking pains you, Sun would not mind giving you a ride.” Marnius patted the flank of the beast walking next to him.
“Ride…?” Imaerla was not familiar with this word, nor could she imagine what it might mean.
“You know, sit on a steed and let it carry you where you are going,” Lor piped in as she came up from behind, having somehow moved around Sun unnoticed. “Well, I guess there is not much need, or space, for that kind of thing in the Wood.”
“Why would you have need of an animal to carry you? Walking is quite sufficient.” Imaerla was genuinely confused by the concept, though thinking back to her youth she had some vague memories of figures who might just have been riding.
The big man’s hairless brow knitted in confusion, telling Imaerla she had mixed tongues.
Lor just shrugged. “It is less effort, for one. Great if you cannot make the walk yourself for some reason.” She jabbed at Imaerla’s side, though made sure to pull up short. “Also, it is faster and you can switch to a fresh mount if you are in a hurry. Oh! And horses are such lovely creatures.”
“Thank you, but I prefer to walk,” Imaerla smiled politely at Marnius.
The afternoon had passed uneventfully into evening and they had set up camp between two hills, just out of sight from the road. Though a civilized area, Marnius had felt it prudent to be careful. With the current troubles he said it was likely the lord’s soldiers were heading east to protect the logging camps, and thus brigands would be more brazen here in the west.
Not that some bandits seemed like much of a threat. Imaerla had her magic, Sun was carrying a giant morningstar belonging to Marnius, and Ethnila kept her heavy blade within reach at all times. Only Loriana was unarmed, but that had not stopped her in either of her previous encounters. If something did happen, though, she would need to be more careful.
Her last attempt had almost cost Imaerla her life.
Loriana shuddered, scooting a little closer to the fire. Marnius was tending to Sun on the other side of the camp, while Ethnila was out looking for more firewood. Imaerla was off to the side on one of the hills, attempting to commune with the local spirits or something like that.
Far above them, there had appeared some gaps in the clouds. The thunder had stopped, too. Even the rain had remained absent during their trek, much to everyone’s relief. Loriana leaned back and stared at the overcast sky above, trying to make out a few stars amidst the darkness.
It was quiet and peaceful.
For the first time in ages, Loriana felt at ease. It was like she was part of a bard’s tale; a maiden with a mysterious past, travelling with her companions in search of lost memories. They even had solid clues, something to help them figure out where to start their search.
“Kyrion Silverblade of the Adventurers’ Guild.”
She smiled as she whispered the words to herself. The Adventurers’ Guild. Loriana wondered if perhaps she had been a member. Perhaps she already was a hero with a few stories of her own. Or maybe she was the one telling the stories. But no, the nephaim had said she was part of troupe come to help them investigate.
“You seem to be in high spirits,” Imaerla commented as she joined her. Loriana smiled up at her, glad for the company. It was not good to daydream too much, lest she build her hopes too high.
“It feels right, being on the road like this,” she replied, only then realizing the woman had been using the language of the faeries instead of her usual attempts to speak Charran. “But we already knew I was an adventurer, so that is no surprise.”
Imaerla nodded, turning to gaze into the fire with an expression that struck Loriana as tired and sad. She expected it to last but a moment before Imaerla put on her usual polite air, but instead the faery queen turned back to her with heavy shoulders.
“The storm…” She paused, the dancing fire reflected in her eyes just a little too clearly. “Jaeworl once tried to teach me a technique for… gathering magic into a storm, keeping it there to greatly enhance one’s reserves during a time of need.”
“You believe the storm to be his doing?”
She nodded silently, taking a few steadying breaths. “It ended too abruptly. As though his link had been cut, not… I- I think he-” The words caught in her throat, but her serious tone and expression gave Loriana all she needed.
She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around her friend, hugging her tight.
Imaerla tensed up at first, apparently caught off-guard, but gradually her stiffness melted away as the two sat there together. Thankfully the others didn’t disturb them, whether they intentionally kept their distance or left them alone by coincidence Loriana neither knew nor cared.