Marnius watched the two girls up ahead. Loriana was pointing out things and trying to explain them to her friend, whose wounds had her riding Sun. Imaerla certainly looked awkward atop the beast, unskilled and in a saddle too large for her light frame, but she had insisted it was better than walking.
“Something’s wrong about her.”
Marnius glanced down at Ethnila beside him, but saw little more than the brown of her wide-brimmed hat. He looked back at Imaerla, reaching out with that ‘sense beyond senses’ upon which inquisitors relied when hunting magic-users. All he could tell was that she had magic; there was nothing sinister about it.
“I will distract the girl, you talk to the elf,” Ethnila said before quickening her pace to catch up with the others.
Marnius stared at her for a few moments, then shook his head and moved up along the other side of Sun. He gave the beast an affectionate pet on the flank before clearing his throat to get Imaerla’s attention. “Would you perhaps be willing to share with me some of your culture, lady Imaerla?”
She stared down at him, her brow furrowed in confusion.
“Tell me about your people, please?”
“Oh…” Her voice was soft and quiet, lacking the hard determination Marnius had come to expect from this woman. “I can do this, certainly. But… I do not know where to start.”
“Lady Loriana mentioned that your comm… your group was not merely forestfolk, but also included other creatures?”
“Yes, that is true.” Imaerla’s gaze drifted off to the distant hills as her thoughts reached further away still. “Ours was a mixed herd. There were the forestfolk, of course, and the-” She paused for a few moments, searching for a word before speaking something Marnius could barely make out beyond recognizing as her own tongue.
“I am not familiar with them,” Manrius gently cut in before she could continue. “Who are they?”
“They are… how does one explain such wondrous creatures? A hive of spirits gathered into a single mind inhabiting a body of wood and stone, bone and leaf…” She moved her hands slowly, almost as if she were grooming an invisible doll, a resigned expression crossing her face as she stared at them. “Some even bring motion to ancient trees by melding with the spirit living there, though most must settle for forming their home out of the debris of the forest floor.”
“Fascinating…” Marnius had heard of creatures like these many times in his youth, but never before had he met someone who actually knew one, let alone many, personally.
“They were responsible for tending to our hollows,” Imaerla continued, though she seemed as much speaking to herself as to him. “Crafting our homes with their magic, shaping wood as easily as a child might work clay… Always eager to help with any chore, rarely speaking and then only to those who knew how to listen. Like Jae’lagh…”
Noticing a melancholy clouding her features, Marnius hurriedly shifted the topic back to where it had begun. “Forestfolk, these spiritfolk… Who else was there?”
“The Sylvans -those who live in the wilds- were the most diverse, and so hard to describe… Somewhere between beast and fetchling, or spirits made real, or-” She sighed heavily. “I apologize, I am explaining myself terribly. Sylvans were unified by who they were, not what. Does that make sense?”
“It does,” Marnius replied with a warm smile. He knew enough tales from Eliren’s vast forest to have an idea of the sort of creatures that the locals there referred to as ‘sylvan’ and could guess they were the same. He had never heard of them being part of communities like this, though he had to admit he had never heard of any community quite like this before.
“And of course the faeries, those mischievous servants of the Fair Folk. Always good for a laugh.” There was a wistfulness to her tone that soon crept into her expression, accompanied by the ghost of a smile on her lips.
Marnius swept his gaze over the rolling pastures around them, noting that cattle had steadily become a less and less rare sight. Turning back to his companion, he saw her whispering something into cupped hands before thrusting her arms into the air with an impish gleam in her eyes and open palms.
The tingle of magic was faint, but this close it was undeniable.
“I believe lady Loriana mentioned something about trolls, as well?”
Imaerla looked at him as if she had forgotten he was there, staring at him silently.
“There were trolls in your… herd?” He gently prodded.
“Indeed,” she replied. “The faeries had magic which took away their hunger for blood. The trolls protected us from roaming beasts, kept humans away, and did much of the heavy lifting.”
“What do you mean the faeries ‘took away their hunger for blood’? It seems… strange to me.”
“The faeries’… sand dulls the mind, and could take from the trolls their desire to kill. This allowed them to live among us, to the extent their limited minds could handle.”
“You… drugged the trolls so they would be willing workers?” Marnius stopped dead in his tracks, staring at Imaerla in disbelief as Sun continued walking, oblivious to the conversation.
Imaerla looked back at him with a very confused expression, clearly not understanding something.
“You took from the trolls their selves, and enslaved them. That is utterly- it is- thoroughly abominable!” Marnius explained as he caught up, though it was evident she did not understand his objection. “They are intelligent creatures. You cannot simply deny them their nature to make them into your servants.”
“Why not? Humans do much the same with the horny-beasts.” Imaerla motioned around them.
“The horn…?” Marnius began before the lowing of nearby cattle clued him in. “The cows? You are equating trolls with cows?!”
“A troll is not much more intelligent than a- a ko, and humans treat them far worse than we ever did the trolls. Humans keep them captive with fences, eat their young, steal their milk, decide when and with whom they may breed…” Imaerla gazed at him silently for a few moments before continuing. “The trolls were free to roam the forest. They were bound by rules no different from the rest of us. They were even given a seat on the moot.”
“I am not sure I agree,” Marnius replied. “If they were intelligent enough to have representation at council, then why drug- ehm, why allow the faeries to charm them?”
“Because I made a mistake.” A cold determination clouded her normally delicate features. “Trolls are bloodthirsty beasts and I should have-” She paused, collecting herself. “…chosen a different solution.”
Marnius was not convinced he would find the alternate solution she was thinking of any better, but felt it unwise to press the issue. Instead, he turned his attention back to the countryside, where fields had become visible in the distance. Perhaps they would soon pass through a town, affording him a comfortable bed for a night instead of the cold, hard ground.
“Tell me, Loriana,” Ethnila drew the girl’s attention away from her companion. “You seem to know much of these lands. Why the keys?”
Loriana stared at her incredulously for a few moments and Ethnila took the opportunity to gradually slow her pace, allowing Marnius and the elf to get a little ways ahead of them.
“The keys? What keys?”
“The ones worn as brooches.”
“Ooohhh,” Loriana grinned. “People wear those as a sign of status. Have you noticed that people here are kind of obsessed with wealth?”
“It’s basically that. If you have a key, you own property. The fancier the key, the richer the property. So if you’re wearing a big, ornate key that means you’re rich, which means people treat you nice.”
“Convenient for thieves.”
“Oh, but the keys don’t actually lead anywhere. They’re not made to open any locks, just to look fancy. It’s not like guild badges. Those are actually meant to be useful.”
“For example, novice members of the adventurers’ guild get magic cloaks that keep them warm in cold weather and dry when it’s raining. Journeyman members get… belt buckles, I think? Of course, it’s pretty hard to join that guild. You need to be invited and stuff. Which is kind of hard now that most of the guild chapters are closed. I think there’s still one in… umm… Solmuth and… I’m pretty sure there’s another one, but I can’t quite remember where.” Her brow furrowed briefly, a fleeting look of concern passing her face. “Well, there was two years ago. I guess it could’ve changed since.”
“The Royals use coins of different kinds as guild badges, and the… Oh, I’m sorry, I’m boring you, aren’t I?”
Ethnila shrugged. “Not really.” She wasn’t exactly bored, but neither did she find it interesting.
“Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself? What is Daenna like?”
“Cold. Dark. Full of evil magic.”
“That sounds… like a pretty difficult place to live. I suppose that is why there are witch hunters, though. Do you know much about them? Have you ever met one?”
“I am one.”
If Loriana’s eyes had opened wider they would have popped out of her head. “Please tell me more about them? They- you- Witch hunters are shrouded in so much mystery and legend! Oh, I have so many questions-”
“I am sworn to secrecy. The Order requires all Witch Hunters keep quiet about our ways, to prevent our enemies from learning to counter us.” It wasn’t true, but Ethnila was in no mood to answer the girl’s questions about her life story.
Loriana looked oddly crestfallen as the group continued their trek in silence.