The pair had been making good time since their meeting with the half-giant. His words had given her a sense of hope, of purpose. Loriana was determined to find this Kyrion, and seek from him the answers to her past.
They were out of the woods now, walking on an overgrown dirt road running along the forest’s edge. The air was thick with new smells, from meadow flowers in bloom to crops awaiting harvest.
The animal calls of the forest had gradually shifted into the buzz of bees and the braying of distant cattle. And not so distant, as the occasional gust of wind would remind her.
“It is good this path is so close to the forest.” Imaerla motioned toward the sun in the clear blue sky above. “The trees offer shade, well worth the increased vegetation on the path. It has been many seasons since I was out of the forest. Is it always so… bright out here?”
Loriana stopped, watching the woman as she strode ahead for a bit before realizing anything.
“Was it so strange a thing to ask?”
“No, it’s not that,” Loriana replied with a smile and a shake of her head, resuming her strides.”I just realized that something doesn’t add up. You say I was… your guest for only a few days before I woke up, yet the magistrate said it was two years since I entered the forest.”
Imaerla shrugged, as though it did not seem strange to her.
“What is a year?”
Loriana snickered; no wonder Imaerla wasn’t confused. “A year is… a full cycle of the seasons? So two years is about two full cycles. Give or take a few months, since he might be rounding it out.”
Imaerla nodded, deep in thought as they continued on their way. As the day stretched into the afternoon, clouds lazily made their way across the skies; like a fluffy blanket being pulled over the heavens.
“Perhaps you were lost in the fae lands? The deeper you go, the greater the disconnect with time in our realm. It would explain how you encountered Twilight Rose, as well.”
“Is that why we didn’t lose a lifetime meeting the goblin? We didn’t stray far enough into the Hinterlands?”
“Something like that.” Imaerla paused as they arrived at a fork in the road.
A sign lay on the ground, knocked over and caked with mud. Neither of its two planks bore the name Wyrm’s Edge, the village Aziz was magistrate of. Likewise, the settlement of Norston, which the man had claimed the road would lead them to, was absent from the sign.
“Where are we?”
Imaerla shrugged. “I have not set foot in these lands for a very long time, not since before the great growth of humanity.”
“I don’t suppose ‘Brighthill’ or ‘Highwater’ mean anything to you, then?”
Imaerla chuckled. “I was a child, barely taller than Jaeworl’s knees when last I walked this land. I recall only fragments of the journey, and I am not sure where my memory ends and Jaeworl’s tales begin. No, I do not know these names.”
Loriana threw her a bemused glance, then turned back to the split in the road. “Well, we came from a general that-way direction.” She motioned away from the road, toward the distant clouds shrouding the mountains beyond the forest. “So… That road must be heading northeast, that one southeast, and that one northwest. Roughly.”
Imaerla’s melodious laughter rang through the air.
“You don’t think so?”
“These are your lands, Loriana. It is you who has the best chance of leading us right.”
Loriana wasn’t so sure about that. She had pieced together some things about her past, and she was slowly beginning to remember things about the world. There were no names, but she could recall scraps of lore. None of which were useful right now.
“Look at the skies, Loriana.” Imaerla motioned toward the sun. Barely visible behind the thick bank of dark clouds that had been stalking them the past few hours, Loriana could only tell it was slowly dipping toward the horizon as afternoon became evening. “The sun will set over there, left of the distant shapes of the…” Imaerla paused, pursing her lips and furrowing her brow in thought. “The mountains.” She said at length.
Loriana squinted at the horizon, but couldn’t see anything other than trees.
“That means we went more north than we did west from our meeting with Aziz.”
“Meaning the roads go northwest, northeast, and southwest.”
“Does not provide much guidance, does it?”
Loriana could only shrug. If Norston was the closest town, then it would be northeast or southwest. She had a bad feeling about northeast and though she could not say where it came from, she felt certain it was one she should listen to.
“We’ve probably been walking the wrong way since we found the road…” Loriana looked back the way they had come, along the road southwest. “Let’s just go that way, toward… Brighthill, I think?”
They had approached the copse of trees in search of a campsite to wait out the rain when the man had stepped out from behind a tree up ahead. Wearing dirty leathers and brandishing a rusty sword, he had not looked like much of a threat, but where there’s one bandit, there’s more.
“Yer food, yer gold, and a little entertainment,” the thug insisted again, his gap-toothed grin and disheveled appearance making him the perfect cliché of a robber. “S’all we’re askin’ fer. Not much, compared wit’ yer lives, eh?”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, good sir.” Loriana began, holding out her hands in a mock apologetic gesture. “I left my organ at home. It gets so messy, what with all the blood. And we just can’t sing without it.”
Seeing the confusion written in the man’s slack-jawed expression, Loriana rolled her eyes.
“It’s a play on words. Organ as a piece of a person, as opposed to organ the dwarven instrument.”
“Not the entertainment we’re lookin’ fer, anyhow.” The man’s grin returned. At least he had confirmed that he wasn’t alone. “Now, hand o’er the gold.”
He began to threateningly shake his sword at them, but it slipped out of his grip mid-motion. The man seemed not to notice, his attention focused on something behind Loriana. The wide eyes, mouth once again hanging open, and the general look of dumbfounded confusion told Loriana her attempt to stall for time had worked.
“Mage!” The call came from within the copse, and was almost immediately followed by a half-dozen arrows.
Loriana dove to the side and rolled away, driven by instincts she no longer knew she had. As she settled in a crouch, she caught sight of Imaerla hovering in the air.
The rain whipped around the faery queen, leaves and twigs and even pebbles dancing up from the ground to swirl about her, and as more arrows followed the first volley, they were swatted harmlessly aside by the fierce winds.
Loriana charged the only bandit she could see, scooping up his fallen blade along the way. Still awestruck by the display of magic, it wasn’t until the pommel of Loriana’s sword came flying for his face that he even noticed the threat.
By the time Loriana had recovered her balance, a trio of his friends had emerged from the woods. They seemed unconcerned with Loriana, despite the man laying sprawled in a bush in front of her, and advanced cautiously toward Imaerla.
Loriana, about to rush the closest of the three, paused, sensing someone moving to her side. Once more relying on her body knowing things her mind did not, she spun around, throwing out one of her legs at the same time as she dropped back into a crouch.
Her sweeping kick failed to connect, but drove the assailant back enough to prevent Loriana from being skewered by the clumsy stab.
Rolling the tip of her blade around the spike she had just avoided, Loriana pushed the morningstar off to the right as she rose to her feet.
Rather than attempting to disengage, the bandit simply let go of her weapon and tackled Loriana, knocking the air out of her lungs and sending her stumbling backward.
The world exploded in a deafening boom amidst blinding light, just as she bumped into something soft.
Loriana rolled to the side, fearing an attack would follow the tackle, then managed to get back on her feet in time for the spots to begin fading from her eyes.
The first thing she registered were the trees that now lay on the ground, their midsections shattered. Nearly a score of bandits were scattered about the blasted area, with charred marks zigzagging across their lifeless bodies. The ringing in her ears began to subside.
Imaerla was standing not two steps away, little arcs of lightning dancing between the quills of her hair. Her head turned this way and that.
“I believe that was all of them. Are you wounded?” She looked over her shoulder at Loriana.
“What was that?”
“Magic.” Imaerla replied, turning around and settling down against the splintered stump of a former tree. “He was about to-” She motioned at the remains of a highwayman laying next to her, a bloody sword in his hand. “I could not think of anything else.”
“Are you alright?” Loriana could not hide the alarm from her voice as she knelt down next to her companion, who was clutching her side with one hand.