Loriana stared hard at her companion. “What do you mean ‘faeries don’t look like that’? I saw them with my own eyes!”
Imaerla giggled, ducking under a low branch as they continued through the peaceful forest. “Even I do not know the true appearance of the faery. They are wrapped in glamers, making them appear as the onlooker expects them to appear. It is not tha-”
She was cut off by a bloodcurdling howl nearby. It was followed shortly by an angry scream that Loriana didn’t understand but knew to be a battle cry of the western giants, the Sollim. Imaerla started away, but Loriana grabbed her wrist and rushed toward the sound. Someone was fighting a troll, and Loriana was not about to let them get eaten without trying to help.
Pushing through a thick shrubbery, they came upon a scene very unlike what Loriana was expecting. Despite the foreign battle cry, she had thought the warrior to be someone local. A knight errant, perhaps, out on some glorious quest; or maybe members of the local garrison of some nearby settlement.
Instead she found a nephaim, armed with nothing but a simple axe and clad in peasant’s clothing, not shining armor or even basic leathers. He was covered in bandages and scars, and hadn’t merely downed one troll but was holding off another pair. Barely. Loriana winced when one of the trolls got a clawed hand past his parry, raking his arm.
“We have to help him!” She turned to Imaerla, who was just standing there, staring wide-eyed at the battle. “We can’t just stand here, we have to do something!”
Loriana knelt down, picking up stones and hurling them at the trolls. While most of the rocks hit their targets, the trolls didn’t seem to care or even notice.
“I…“ Imaerla turned to her, looking dazed. “I know those trolls… They are from my tribe.” She motioned vaguely at the group, a great sadness in her eyes as she met Loriana’s gaze.
“Then tell them to stop!” Loriana pleaded, standing up and grabbing Imaerla by the shoulder. “You’re their queen, aren’t you? Make them stop! You’ve got to-”
Imaerla‘s only reply was silence as the woman looked down at her with such pity Loriana could only stand there dumbfoundedly.
She wanted to ask ‘What?’ but before she got the chance a roar came from the side. The downed troll pushed itself off the ground, the large gash in its neck no longer bleeding, and leaped toward the two.
Loriana tackled Imaerla, dragging the woman with her as she dove out of the way. The troll crashed into the shrubbery behind them, snapping branches and almost ripping the roots from the ground.
As the beast struggled to turn around, the plant suddenly came to life. Gripping and ensnaring the creature, holding it fast within. Imaerla climbed to her feet and strode over to it, staring it down from just out of its reach.
“Thragh!” she demanded its attention. “I am your Queen! You will listen to me!” The troll growled at her then began attempting to bite her face off; each try getting a little closer.
Loriana glanced over at the warrior as Imaerla backed away. He was bleeding from a dozen cuts or more along his muscled arms, but was still managing to keep his enemies at bay.
Loriana felt small and helpless, still lying prone on the ground. She reached for her belt, instinctively seeking… something, but couldn’t quite recall what.
Another part of her that was missing. Another hole she couldn’t even tell the shape of.
“Fine.” She grabbed a large branch and climbed to her feet. She had fought before. She remembered the battles, sort of. “Just don’t get killed,” she told herself.
She crept closer to the bigger of the two. It had its back toward her and seemed fully intent on mauling the giantkin.
Quietly planting her feet, she swung her makeshift club as hard as she could, aiming for the back of the monster’s knee.
The blow connected with a loud crack and the troll shifted awkwardly, off-balance. Without missing a beat the nephaim swung his axe around, the backhand biting deep into the stumbling troll’s abdomen.
Loriana swung again, this time managing a two-handed thwack to the back of the monster’s head. Her club broke and the troll toppled.
The warrior, wincing from a fresh slash to his side, turned back to the remaining troll. No longer flanked, he quickly got the upper hand and managed to drive his axe clean through its skull.
As he yanked it loose, Loriana turned to Imaerla. She was standing to the side, staring silently at the entangled troll still struggling against the enchanted shrub.
The man stalked over and Imaerla turned, Loriana rushing over to place a comforting hand on the woman’s shoulders. She could feel the shudder as the sounds of thrashing suddenly stopped.
“I’m making camp, if ye’d like to join me.” The man’s accent was thick, but it was that of rural Malqish, not distant Sollim.
Loriana nodded quietly, never taking her eyes of Imaerla’s emotionless face as the woman stared silently at the fallen.
She stiffened, straightening out and turning to the man.“If you have a knife, you should cut out their hearts. Fried troll’s heart helps the body heal faster. I shall start a fire.”
Loriana almost gagged, but the man nodded. Imaerla shrugged loose from Loriana’s grip, then walked off. Loriana lingered, gazing at the carnage with a sick feeling in her stomach. This felt very wrong, not at all like being a hero saving the day should feel.
As she headed off after Imaerla, she noticed another troll in the distance, smaller and with ragged furs draped across its body rather than the bare brutes they had just fought. It was crouching atop a nearby crag, watching something further down.
Glancing over, Loriana realized it to be looking at Imaerla but when she looked back it was rushing off the other way, disappearing into the woods.
Aziz grimaced from the pain when he felt the needle pierce his skin, the thread pulling the wound closed. The girl didn’t really know what she was doing, but it was better than leaving the gash open.
“So, ye’ve come from the Edge, aye?” he asked, looking across the softly crackling campfire at the girl’s companion. She was an odd one with lavender quills for hair and a dress seemingly made from leaves and vines. A forestfolk, Aziz assumed. He had never met one before, but it seemed the likely bet.
She looked back at him with equal appraisal in her gaze, no doubt wondering who he was and what he was doing here. In this light she almost appeared to have a slight greenish tint to her fair skin. She would’ve looked like she fit perfectly in the wilds if she didn’t seem dressed for a noble feast.
“No, we came fro-” The girl’s reply was cut short by a quick glare from the woman. Aziz had just risked his life, even going so far as to bet it on their helping him in the fight, and yet she was unwilling to trust him. Knowing the tales of forestfolk hospitality, it didn’t really surprise him.
A snort behind him revealed the girl had her own ideas. “We came from the forest, not its edge.”
Aziz let out a chuckle, shaking his head. “No, Wyrm’s Edge is a village.”
“I’m the magistrate.” Aziz added to stop the growing silence. “We’ve had some cattle and crops vanish, so I went to the governor about getting some help. So, if ye didn’t come from the village where’d ye come from to be in this part of the woods? Ain’t nothing but bandits, forestfolk, and trolls for days in any direction.”
“I don’t know,” the girl admittedly. After finishing up the last of the stitches, she moved over to sit down near her friend. “I… “ she glanced at the forestfolk, then turned back to him. “I lost my memory, and I have no idea what I’m doing here. Are you sure I didn’t pass through your village?”
Aziz looked at her carefully. She looked familiar, but hers wasn’t a face he’d seen before.
“Ye got a fencer’s stance, if ever I saw one, and ye’ve the air of an adventurer about ye, so I’d be willing to-” He stopped, suddenly remembering Anna’s fawning over the ‘sword lady’ Ky had hired back when they’d first tried to investigate the disappearances.
“Oh, aye, I can guess who ye be! Yer that lass what Anna was so inspired by. I never met ye, but girl still talks about the ‘sword lady’ and ye match the description. Aside from yer precious blade, anyway.” Aziz poked the fire a bit, impatient for the troll hearts to finish roasting. It wasn’t the weirdest thing he had come across in his life, but it better be working.
“You know me?” The girl leaned forward, a hopeful look on her face, mixed with a hint of trepidation.
Aziz shrugged. “I wouldn’t say I knew ye, but I met yer two companions back when we hired the three of ye to investigate things. Ky’d be the one to talk to, though. He’s the one what set it up. I don’t know what happened to ye that ye got separated from the other two, but I’d say yer better off for it.”
“Then we’ll go with you to the village and talk to Kai!” The girl seemed excited, and it almost broke Aziz’ heart to see her disappointment when he shook his head.
“Ky’s not in the village, he’s gone off to the Nest to speak with the Prince Regent.” He let out a long sigh, trying to recall what he could. “Ye passed through the Edge with a pair of adventurers a few years back. I don’t recall much of the one, but the other was the type to draw attention.”
“He wore this judicial purple, well I guess it’s imperial now, robe that looked like it came straight from the days of the Red Court. He was arrogant, self-serving, and hungry for power. Typical Imperial aristocrat. Don’t recall his name, though.” Aziz turned the spit with the hearts, looking into the fire with a solemn expression to match the forestfolk’s. “When none of ye came back from yer trek into the Wood I half thought he’d killed ye before being eaten by trolls.”
“What about the other one? Do you recall her name? Or anything at all about her?”
“No, I don’t anything useful. He kept to yer group, or to himself, except for when I spoke to him, Ky, and yer other friend. Don’t recall why ye weren’t there. Playing with Anna, probably.” Aziz took a deep breath. “I wish I could tell ye something useful, lass, but I can’t.”
“Anything else? Please!” Her eyes were wide and her expression pleading. “Where did we come from?”
“For what it’s worth, ye strike me as a guilder,” He offered, not really being able to think of anything else he could add.
“What’s a ‘guilder’?” It was the first time he heard the forestfolk speak since the battle. She had addressed the girl, but Aziz could tell she wasn’t sure.
“Rich people who can afford to go on hunting trips because they don’t have to work all day, every day, like the rest of us,” he muttered under his breath. He cleared his throat, speaking so he was sure they heard him. “Guild officers, people of high rank within the kingdom’s organization…” The forestfolk stared blankly at him. “Rich people who are able to make deals so that others do their work for them.”
“Is that all you know? Isn’t there anything else you can tell me?”
Aziz shrugged helplessly. He was surprised he had remembered this much, given how long it had been since the group passed through the Edge. Of course, as seldom as adventurers came to the village, the band had been the subject of local gossip for months.
The girl slumped, clearly feeling dejected. Her friend cautiously laid a comforting hand on the girl’s shoulder, looking at her with pity before turning back to Aziz. “You mentioned a sword?”
“Aye, a sword. Like a dagger, but bigger.” Aziz lifted his hands, intending to indicate the length of a blade, only to stop when he saw the woman’s annoyed look. “Ah, ye know what a sword is. Well… Yer friend had one, quite the fancy one at that from what I hear tell. Supposedly specially made just for her. If she still had that, ye might’ve been able to find the smith. If it really was a custom job, they’d know who she be.”
The girl drew a ragged breath, audible even over the fire. It must be rough, being this close to one’s past and not being able to reach it. But then, Aziz mused as he lifted the roasted hearts off the fire, not every past is one worth remembering. He looked up at the shadows cast by the flames, chuckling at one which looked like a man tipping his hat.
Aziz reluctantly sniffed at the organs, still not entirely convinced the woman wasn’t playing a prank on him.
Imaerla watched the sunrise through the foliage of the forest around her. It had been a very long time since she had last seen it outside of the forest, back when she was a child, and it was something she was looking forward to. The large man’s snoring had woken her, though truth be told she had been used to waking to the sunrise before she left.
She had been sleeping longer and deeper after their visit in the fey lands, though she could not tell if the goblin’s magic was at fault or if it was simply a result of losing her connection with the land. She had barely managed to keep that one troll trapped, where not long ago she would have been able to hold fast a whole pack.
“Yer forestfolk, ain’t ye?” She did not reply at first, nor turn away from the sunrise. She had noticed his presence long before he had gotten close enough to ask. He had a strange way of speaking, a blend of how the villagers spoke and something else. A different language, perhaps, or maybe it was because of what he was.
“I am. You are not human, are you?”
“What gave me away?” He sounded oddly amused.
“Your size and strength.”
“Heh, I haven’t pretended to be anything I’m not. I’m nepha’im, giantkin of the Sollim Sultanate.”
“I have never heard of a nevajm before.”
“Ne-fa-EEm. We come from the land of the twin suns, on the other side of Malqish.”
Imaerla turned around to look at the large man. He was about the size of a troll, though their hunched stature would make him seem taller. They were leaner, too. His muscled arms were thicker, and his belly significantly rounder.
She could not see it from below, but when he had been sitting by the fire last night she had noticed a strange tattoo on his bald head, one that reminded her of a swirl of clouds caught up in a whirling wind. In the daylight now, however, she could see faded lines from where it snaked its way onto his upper arms.
His beard, split by an amused grin, had been unkempt during the battle and he had spent a large part of the evening braiding it into a single braid holding three beads. His wounds were mostly healed, in large part because he had eventually given in to Imaerla’s insistence that he consume the troll hearts, though their scars had been added to the myriad others marring his tan skin.
“What do you know?” He locked her gaze, the merry smile gone from his lips.
“About what?” She was truly confused, unsure what he was asking about. She knew many things, though their last topic had not been one of them.
“The disappearances and the magic tied to it.” There it was, the mystery at the heart of her tribe’s problems and apparently that of this man’s as well.
“Very little.” She paused, trying to decide how much to trust this strange man with. She knew he was part of the human colony, and he had been forthcoming with Loriana. “My herd was split because of its interference. The magic frightens the Fair Folk, something which is not readily done. Without them, we could not keep the trolls at peace and…” She clenched her jaw, turning back to the sunrise. “And now they are too far gone.”
Behind her she heard the man let out a low growl, though it was one of annoyance rather than anger. The two stood there in silence for a time, neither knowing what to say and both lost in their own thoughts.
“By now, Jae-lagh will have led my kin to your ‘Wyrm’s Edge’ to escape the trolls. Do you believe your kin will aid us?” She asked at length, hoping to find some solace in his reply. Hoping beyond hope he would assure her of their safety.
“It’s that or get eaten. Most likely both.” He blew out a long breath through pursed lips. “I won’t ask why yer wandering the forest with the girl instead of looking after yer kin, but I’ll promise ye one thing. I’ll be sure to look after yer tribe as best I can, just like the villagers.”
There was something about this man that made Imaerla feel like her people were in good hands, at least as far as the trolls were concerned. Though she could not say precisely what, it likely had something to do with the obvious experience with combat he had demonstrated last night. He also seemed a good, if quick, judge of character.
She still longed to follow his road, almost to the point of trying to convince herself Loriana would be safer in the village than here in the wilderness. Except she would not, for they would soon be safely away from the trolls and into ‘civilized’ lands. The man had spoken about a settlement to the north, where they might buy some supplies and ask around if anyone remembered Loriana passing through. Jae-lagh would have her blade, though…
“I’d head to Raven’s Nest, in yer shoes. Er, if I were ye. Ky’ll know more about yer friend than me, and probably have an idea or two how to help her,” he offered as he walked over. “Find the Blazing Saddle inn and ask for Kyrion Silverblade. Tell him Aziz sent ye.”
“Thank you, for everything.” Imaerla looked up at him, trying to find the right words. “If Jaeworl is there, tell him I… we… tell him you met Imaerla.”
The man nodded nodded his assent before wandering off into the morning haze, leaving Imaerla alone with her thoughts. And her guilt.