Chapter 3: Travels and Travails
Journal Entry #21
Inscribed by Thormun of Tealeron on this the 3rd day of Rannveig:
I write here by the glow of candle light. The halls of Ullar stand in eerie silence, devoid of the busy comings and goings of the day. The only sound is that of the walls, moaning in rebellion against Rannveig's wind. Sleep evades me; I am endlessly plagued by horrific nightmares. The moon has been reborn in the night sky thrice since last I caught more than a few hours of restless slumber. I fear these terrors are anything but ordinary; they have all too familiar a feel for that. Visions! That is what they are, remnants of the wellspring's drink. Though they lack the clarity they once had when the magical waters were still fresh upon my lips, they are nonetheless fearsome.
So full of dark and foreboding symbolism are these visions that their meaning escapes me. I can tell no one about them for fear that others may think I am losing my grip on sanity, and word of my madness will find its way to the ears of Jandar. I cannot be discharged from duty. I will not allow myself to be helplessly unable to do my part in resolving the conflict that I started, when I first sipped those intoxicating waters. So I retreat here to the pages of my journal, keeping it near, trusting to it my closest secrets. The waters still call to me, but I must resist, for drinking would have grave consequence. That much of these cryptic visions is clear.
In my nightmare, I was a wolf. I felt as a wolf would feel, thought as a wolf would think. My senses stood on end; I could taste and smell even the slightest change in the air. From out of the sky soared a large and noble-looking bird, a mighty eagle, its wingspan 6 feet or more across. The eagle landed beside me, unafraid of my sharp fangs and formidable claws. With eyes as pools of wisdom and insight, the bird looked over my dark and well-muscled canine form. It tilted its head as if to say, "Come, follow me." And then, with a graceful leap and a thrust of its powerful wings, the bird was once again airborn. I ran after it moving fast, very fast. We soon came upon a hidden spring, and the bird landed at my side. This was no ordinary pool of water; it was a wellspring, one I had never seen before.
The bird nodded; it beckoned me to drink. I moved forward slowly. Closing my eyes, I lowered my head and lapped up the cool water. It felt intensely relieving, like taking in air after a long stay underwater. Then suddenly, the water grew warm and its taste altogether different. When I opened my eyes, I saw that the water had turned a dark red. I turned and looked for the eagle, but instead saw a swaying cobra. Its eyes were as rubies; in them I saw my own reflection, the reflection of a wolf flashing an evil grin, its maw dripping with the crimson liquid of the tainted wellspring.
Journal Entry #22
Inscribed by Thormun of Tealeron on this the 8th day of Rannveig:
Our company rode away from the hospitality and cozy dwellings of lord Ullar three sunrises ago. We travel along the cost of the Bitter Sea, whose sunrises are particularly spectacular; the sky is painted with shades of amber and pink as if by the great brush strokes of a mighty hand. However, for all the beauty of the sea, she is poor company to keep this time of year; winds blow in from across her surface, they dig their way through layers of fabric, and bite down with bitter teeth. Alongside me ride Kelda, Concan, Tyrian, six of Ullar's Protectors kyrie warriors bearing pistol-like crossbows and the noble Beldun, Ullar's right hand. Beldun carries himself proudly, but greets all that I've seen him encounter with great respect and a bright infectious grin.
Pulling on the reigns of his horse, Beldun turns to face the rest of the party. "There", he points down the coastline, "there is the newly built stronghold on the horizon." The young warriors that surround me are a constant reminder of my age; try as I might, I can't make out the sight that the rest of them gaze upon. If I were still drinking of the wellsprings, I would have been the first to spot the stronghold. From this distance I would be able to count the number of stone blocks used in its construction.
We approach the site of the stronghold, which is bustling with noise. Workers shout out orders as large stone bricks are hoisted into place. Sword, shield, and other such devices of war clank and clatter while soldiers of varying worlds and times scurry about in preparation for battle. A young-looking, raven-haired elf greets us with a slight bow of his head. "Atlaga is eager to speak with you", the elf states soberly.
We are ushered into a stone-walled room lit by streams of light pouring through several arrow-slit windows in the eastern wall. The space is empty but for a large wooden table in the center of the room, on which various pieces of parchment and scrolls are strewn. Several advisors are gathered around a tall Ullarian captain at the far end of the table. They are pointing at a map and are engaged in a fervent debate. The kyrie captain emanates an air of confidence; he is war-torn and wears a breastplate bearing the symbol of Ullar, at his side hangs a pistol-like crossbow not unlike those carried by Ullar's Protectors. The captain looks up as we enter. "Ah you've made it. I hope your trip was a safe one."
With a smile and a bow Beldun responds, "Our trip was entirely uneventful, Atlaga. It is good to see your face again, old friend."
"I am glad to see you unharmed as well, Beldun!" says Atlaga, as he clasps a hand unto Beldun's shoulder. "I'll keep this short, so you can spend the evening resting and replenishing yourselves for your ride to Vydar's Castle."
"As you know, swarms of Utgar's ghastly Marro creatures are pouring into Ekstrom from right here at the southernmost end of our borders. We had assumed that the marro were coming in from Anund, which could only mean it had been utterly overrun. However, we have come to find this is not true, which is both sweet and bitter news. While Vydar may still hold out against Utgar in Anund, the spot from which the Marro are really coming from is worse yet. We have discovered that a chain of underwater volcanoes, north of the Volcarren Wastelands, have erupted. The erupting volcanoes have formed a land bridge all the way down to the once-inaccessible jungles below the Wastelands. That is where the marro are coming from. It seems that Utgar found this bridge into the jungle before we did, or has found another way into the jungle and is growing a force there. Now, with news reaching us of Jandar's vision of wellsprings in the jungle, we fear the worst.."
Journal Entry #23
Inscribed by Thormun of Tealeron on this the 9th day of Rannveig:
Our party spent the day traveling westward from Ullar's new stronghold on the coast of the Bitter Sea, and we have now made our way into Anund. Once before in the days of my youth, I traveled here to this beautiful place. The land was green and lush. Scattered across Anund were quaint little villages filled with stunning homes built right into their surroundings. Hills and trees were left where they were, and the towns were adapted to fit nature's architecture. We have passed two such villages today, but they are not what they once were. It made me want to weep for the people who once called those places home. Where a proud gathering of buildings once stood, now only a husk of a town remains, a barren shell lacking what makes a town a town – people. They had been abandoned for some time, and were in a state of decay. The homes were overgrown and crumbling; no life remained there.
Dusk is now upon us as we approach the third of Anund's once-beautiful villages. This one appears to be in the same state as the others. We are all following Beldun, who knows more about this area than any of the others. He leads us right up to the abandoned village, suggesting that we take harbor from the harsh seasonal winds of Rannveig by making camp in one of the buildings here. As we ride into town the hooves of our horses clatter against the stone paved street. The sound reverberates off of the empty domiciles and echoes back at us in a ghostly voice. We are all on edge, our senses in a heightened state. Suddenly, one of the horses is spooked and rears whinnying sharply, ending its cry in a snort. My head goes on a swivel, being spooked a little myself. As I look about I see a flash of movement duck into one of the empty buildings ahead. "Something's up ahead there!" I alert the others as I jump from my horse and spread my wings flying after the movement. Landing, I walk through the door that the flash retreated into. It's dark, too dark to see anything. I shout out, "Hello? Is someone there? Hello?" I see a strike of flint and then a torch leap to a life. What that flaming torch illuminates makes my heart jump in my chest. Gathered around is some fifteen or so huddled kyrie. Their clothes are torn and dirty. Fear lay in their eyes. A small kyrie child is in its mother's arms, crying as she rocks it. Standing in front of them all, holding the torch and a spear, is a young kyrie man. He shouts, "Get out of here!" I try to explain that I mean them no harm, but before I can get the words out, he hurls the spear at me. I dodge it narrowly and back out of the door. The others from my party are behind me, having come to my aid. "Get on your horses!" I tell them. "We're not staying here." They try to object. I reply, "There is nothing we can do for these people right now, except leave them be." Even as the words escape my mouth, the young man is out of the door waving his torch threateningly. "We're going!" I say to defuse him. As we hop on our mounts and ride out of town, the spear is hurled after us. The young man shouts,
"And don't come back, you... you... warmongers!"
Warmongers!? Is this really the world we live in now, so full of fear, hate, and mistrust? Where have the people of these villages gone, and what has got those who remain so afraid that they'll sooner put a spear through a man's chest than hear what he has to say? It doesn't look as though the villages were pillaged or taken by any force, just... abandoned.
Journal Entry: #24-26 : From The Pen of Sgt. Drake Alexander
Journal Entry #27
Inscribed by Thormun of Tealeron on this the 11th day of Rannveig:
The rusty outer gate squeals on its hinges, breaking through the ominous silence that surrounds this place. The gates are tall and thick, their designs are intricate and beautiful, but they no longer serve their purpose. The lock is broken. One of the gate doors hangs on by a single hinge. With a push, the door squeals open. The only resistance it meets is the tall yellowed grass and weeds it must push its way through. In the fading light of dusk, I can still make out that the stone work is crumbling. Vines cling to everything. This is the once-magnificent Montfre Manor, home to the Valkyrie, Vydar.
As we trudge our way through the overgrown courtyard, I can’t help but get the overwhelming suspicion that we’re being watched. The whole place looks completely abandoned, just like all the towns and villages that came before.
As we approach the door it swings open, seemingly of its own accord. Standing there in the door frame is a tall dark-haired kyrie. He holds onto a lantern, which spreads just enough light to illuminate his rough face. “Lord Vydar awaits,” croaks the lantern-wielding kyrie. He acts as if our unannounced visit has long been expected. “But only two of you will enter.” It is agreed amongst ourselves that I will go representing Jandar and Beldun will go as Ullar’s representative.
Beldun and I are led through several dark and dusty halls and corridors by the light of the dark-haired kyrie’s lantern. After several twists and turns, we are led through a set of oaken doors into a larger than average room. The room is windowless, but is lit by a row of lanterns along each of its walls, the flickering flames of which cause dozens of shadows to dance about. At the far end of the room sits a large dark figure on a raised platform. His wings are great black-feathered things. His chin rests propped against a muscled arm.
After ushering ourselves as close as comfort will allow, the seated kyrie raises his head and begins to speak in a low and growling voice, “Why have you come here, Thormun son of Sennavig and Beldun son of Beldar?”
I clear my voice, preparing to speak, but am cut short as Beldun steps forward and drops a knee saying, “I come representing my lord Ullar. He wishes to extend to you his hand in friendship.”
I remain standing, but echo Beldun, “And I come in the name of Jandar, who too wishes to pursue a mutual friendship.”
Vydar leans forward, his face now in the light. Along his right eye runs a large scar. His square jaw bears the shadow of a beard, his long black hair crowds in around his weathered face. In a slow, purposefully enunciated, and irritated tone he replies, “And what makes Jandar and Ullar think I am in need of friends?”
“We have traveled through your land. We have seen its decay. We only wish to…”
Vydar cuts Beldun short. “You only wish to what?! To change the flow of our rivers’ water to move upstream?! The water that feeds our land runs out of Upper Bleakwoode and Ostriyick. It has become tainted by Utgar’s hordes. Vile and disgusting creatures, they plague the land with their filth. And my own people turn against me. They blame me for this! Fools! They believe that we can simply escape war by running from it. They’ve retreated south into Kinsland, beyond my protective reach. I’ve been abandoned by my own people, my land is dying, and my armies wear thin trying to wrest control of the water’s source from Utgar. Now what is it you think I have to offer your mutual friendship?”
We cannot afford to lose Vydar at any cost. I speak with hardly a thought to the tone of my words. “You of all people are not blind to the events unfolding on Valhalla. I know your eyes and ears reach much farther than your arms in these dark days. What do you think will happen if the rising Marro threat breaks through Ullar’s blockade in southern Ekstrom?! Utgar threatens to surround you on all sides. You are fighting a war you cannot win alone. Send aid to Ekstrom and we will dispatch troops to your cause in Ostriyick. Both fights will be to your own benefit.” Beldun flashes me a look of concern. I know his thoughts; I have no authority to commit troops to Vydar’s aid, but Jandar will understand. He must, it’s our only chance to get Vydar to join our cause.
There is a long pause as Vydar’s dark eyes dig into me. There is no telling what he is thinking, but the fact that he is thinking about it at all works in our favor. Finally he breaks the silence, “So be it. At daybreak a faction of my troops will march to Ullar’s aid.”
Journal Entry #28
Inscribed by Thormun of Tealeron on this the 12th day of Rannveig:
The ruby-eyed viper is snaking its way through my restless slumber again, when I am suddenly startled awake. Tyrian puts a finger to his lips and makes a hand gesture beckoning me to follow him. He weaves his way through dark halls, as I follow. Tyrian has always struck me as an odd sort of fellow. He trained under Ullar as one of his protectors, and still carries their unique style of crossbow at his side, however shortly after the rise of the Valkyrie he joined up with Jandar and has acted as a sort of messenger.
Tyrian comes upon a door at the end of a long hall. He slowly turns the knob and slips into the room beyond. I follow after him. The room stands empty but for a very large fireplace built into the far wall.
Tyrian turns to me and speaks in a hushed tone, “What general would lead an army from an empty and abandoned place such as this? I know Vydar commands a sizable force, and does so with efficiency. But where are the warriors, healers, messengers and generals moving about conducting the affairs of war? While the rest of you slept, I went seeking answers to my questions and discovered this...” Tyrian moves over to the fireplace and feels along its stone face. He comes across one of the blocks, which is a darker tone than the rest, and presses in on it. The sound of grating rock is heard as the inner wall of the fireplace shifts and moves away, revealing a long tunnel lit by a red glow. The fireplace is tall enough that we need only to duck slightly to walk into the passageway that opened up. The walls of the tunnel are made of smooth dark stone, the red glow that illuminates this place shines out from odd strips of light that run along each side of the hall. The floor slopes steeply downward, and as we venture forward we find that we are continually making right turns. The passageway seems to be twisting its way downward in a spiral.
As we descend the spiraling corridor, a sound begins to grow. It’s the sound that the surface lacks, activity stirs beneath us. Precaution says to turn back before Vydar finds us snooping, but curiosity pushes us forward. Forward we go down, down, down for what seems like an eternity, until we take our last right turn and see the tunnel open up into a huge, pillared, underground hall. Despite its massive size, the hall is well-lit by the same mysterious red glow that lights the passageway. Many exits line the walls here. A flurry of activity in and out of the arched passages all around allow us to go unnoticed, standing in the shadow of our, seemingly unused, entryway.
The sound of a thousand metal feet clanging against the stone floor reverberates off the great hall as a battalion of Soulborgs marches through the center of the hall and file out of one of the larger passageways. The Soulborgs are the most abundant of all the soldiers here, but there are also quite a few humans from earth. They walk in small groups or alone, hurried about their business. The hall here seems to be but a convergent point in a great underground city.
The left side of the hall is particularly noisy, what looks to be specialized Soulborgs, drill and dig and carry away mounds of dirt from a newly forming tunnel. There’s no telling how long Vydar has worked here in secret, how massive this underground complex is, and how many places and where at it leads to the surface. But one thing is certain: Vydar holds more secrets than any of us could have guessed.
Journal Entry #29
Inscribed by Thormun of Tealeron on this the 19th day of Rannveig:
The urgency of our task has driven us deep into the murky heart of Bleakwoode. The trees here are black and twisted, dark leaves cling to spindly branches. Their gnarled arms reach out toward the daylight in search of fresh air. They won’t find what they seek. The air here is anything but fresh.
The trees grow close together shutting out the light, they create a world of eternal darkness, and in that darkness dwell creatures with souls as black as Bleakwoode’s moonless night.
Our every sense strains outward, prodding at the darkness for any hint of trouble. Every snap of branch underfoot, every creak and moan of the trees, every last sound that breaks Bleakwoode’s silence has our hearts jumping in alert. However, the danger that approaches makes no sound at all.
In the next moment, time seems to stretch itself out. I watch as every detail slowly unravels itself in the span of an instant. Tyrian pulls back on the reigns of his horse, he drops behind a grouping of Ullar’s Protectors and with a calm and deliberate look in his eyes he draws his weapon, points it squarely at the back of one of the Protectors, and fires. The crossbow bolt whistles through the air and finds its target with deadly precision. The Protector cries out in pain and then slumps over in his saddle. Confusion and chaos set in, horses whiney as they’re forced to turn sharply, their riders looking for the source of the attack. Before I can react with even a word of warning, because of a reloading mechanism in Tyrian’s crossbow, a second bolt is loosed as quickly as the first.
“SHAAAAADES!!” Time snaps back to its usual speed at the sound of Concan’s cry. A dozen translucent figures appear from out of the blackness beyond the trees.
Fsssssh…schpack, “AHHHGUH!” Another Protector falls to one of Tyrian’s bolts. Beldun twists in his saddle drawing his sword and cutting down Tyrian in one smooth stroke. Beldun’s eyes catch mine. Wiping a splatter of Tyrian’s blood from his brow, he heatedly shouts, “It’s the only way to stop a man possessed by a Shade!”
The other Shades descend upon us, closing us in on all sides. The three remaining Protectors send bolts singing through the trees. Partly due to the dim light and partly the speed of the Shade’s movement, few find their mark. Beldun calls out, “Don’t let them engage you for long, strike them down quickly!”
I leap into the air, loosing my hammer from its belt. I dive toward the closest of the phantoms, bringing my hammer down from over my head, sending it tearing through the shade which dissipates into nothingness. Spinning around, my hammer finds another shade and sends it too into the ether. The two swift scores come at a price. I’ve left myself open for an attack. Another of the shades tears its ghostly claws through my side. I cringe in pain as I feel the creature attempting to devour my very being, invading my soul. But I am saved by Kelda, who sends her spear sailing through the attacking creature as she lands next to me and touches my side with her healing hand, instantly making it whole again.
“They’re retreating!” shouts Concan. A quick surveillance of the area shows the damage: Three of Ullar’s faithful Protectors lie scattered upon the ground and with them Jandar’s most trusted messenger, Tyrian the swift.
We have been dealt a terrible blow this day. Of our eleven brethren, only seven remain. We surely won’t survive another onslaught like this. We make haste for Lindesfarme. No one sleeps tonight.
Journal Entry #30-31 : From The Pen of Sgt. Drake Alexander
Journal Entry #32
Inscribed by Thormun of Tealeron on this the 24th day of Rannveig:
I walk, on and on, past golden pillars, each guarded by its own bronze-skinned statue. They look forward, unfocussed, masked faces set like stone. More of the same bronzed Kyrie lead in front of us and follow from behind. The golden dome of Einar’s Palace ducks in and out of view as the arches of the long bridge float by overhead. Below me I see the still waters of Mirror Lake reflecting the rare scene. Seldom do visitors come unbidden to the Golden Palace.
A waft of sage and wildflowers drifts past my nostrils, as two thick gem-encrusted doors are pulled open on noiseless hinges.
Light floods the vast room, streaming in through tall windows lined up in rows. Deep, purple, heavy curtains hang parted on either side of those windows like great locks of hair parted to reveal a bright face. Four giants of white marble hold up the ceiling with brawny arms and bulging backs. The winged-giants hold such fine detail that an onlooker might fear them coming to life and abandoning their posts, leaving the ceiling to collapse in upon the tiny Kyrie beneath them.
Slowly we walk forward, passing the giants as we approach the throne, standing only as tall as their broad shins. There, on the throne, sits a dark-haired Kyrie adorned in golden armor studded with amethysts as he stands and takes a step forward, his violet cape rises and falls smoothly again behind him. Everyone else in the room falls to one knee, and I alongside them. The very sight of his majestic face and broad shoulders, the way he moves and holds his head just so, makes one feel as if they belong on their knees, as far below the mighty Einar as they can manage to stoop.
“Rise, visitors, and tell me, what is it that brings you to the Golden Palace?” a deep voice thunders off the granite walls. I rise to my feet at its command. I’ve been laying out my words since departing from the Montfre Manor. Carefully I practiced how each syllable should be pronounced and the timing of my breaths between sentences. All of that is lost at the sound of his voice. I search my mind for the stored up words and push them past a tight throat.
“Einar, your lordship, we come on behalf of the Valkyrie Jandar, Ullar, and Vydar seeking an alliance against the atrocities of Utgar.” That is all I manage to force out before my throat cuts off my words in a squeak. I bow my head and fix my gaze to the floor, avoiding the drilling stare of Einar’s dark eyes.
“We all fight the same adversary. Already our alliance stands unspoken. Yet the sharing of spoken words and a coordination of efforts may yield great benefits to all involved. The realm of Bleakwoode stands betwixt us, and it would seem a deterrent to such an alliance, or is the opposite true? Is a surrounded enemy not more easily defeated?” I manage a nod of agreement when Einar pauses, as if the questions posed are not rhetorical.
Einar leans over and speaks into the ear of an aging Kyrie dressed in long flowing robes. The old man lifts a hooked nose into the air as he turns and shuffles out of the room via a small door behind and to the right of the throne. When he returns again, four Kyrie follow after him, all beautiful women, all dressed in deep violet. Each one carries a mirror with a golden frame of intricate design.
“These are a prized possession,” announces Einar. “The fabled Looking Glasses of Vaelentela. One will stay here with me. The other three will go out with you, to be gifted unto Jandar, Ullar, and Vydar. The mirrors are magically linked so that when a certain word is spoken, one can peer into the mirror before them and see and speak with whomever stands in front of the other three sister mirrors. Each mirror requires a different word. I know the words of all four, and the four servants of the Looking Glasses know the only word of their own mirror. Each will speak their word to no one but whom I have given them permission to speak it to. They will travel with you and stay with their mirrors. Protect the servants of the Looking Glasses of Vaelentela, or their words will be lost from you and the mirrors will be useless.”
Journal Entry #33
Inscribed by Thormun of Tealeron on this the 26th day of Rannveig:
Dark eyes watch from behind golden masks. Einar does not suffer even allies to roam his land without a personal escort of his Imperium. Those dual-bladed warriors follow us even now as we ride up the length of Mirror Lake, departing Lindesfarme, drawing ever closer to the edge of Bleakwoode. Einar’s close watch on us doesn’t seem to be an attempt at hiding something, but rather the result of a rule set in place. Einar’s Empire is built upon rules and discipline.
As we approach the place where Mirror Lake narrows and the crossing into Bleakwoode can be made, I hear the sound of a great many warriors on the march. Putting a hand to my brow I block out the sun, bringing into view a massive force in the distance headed our way. I instinctively reach for the shaft of my war hammer. Looking about I see that Beldun sits with his back arched in his saddle, watching the distant force intently, as do the others who set out with me from the Halls of Ullar on that windy morning not so long ago. Einar’s Imperium look alert, but that is no tell, not one of them has failed to convey a constant look of vigilance on the duration of our long and uneventful ride through Lindesfarme. The beautiful women with the perfect skin and the dark purple dresses hold no look of alarm, only careful watchfulness over their golden mirrors hidden away in the satchels worn across their chests. I let go of my hammer and bring my hand back up to the reigns of my horse, watching cautiously as the long lines of soldiers march towards us.
The sun glints off the tips of swaying spears and arrowheads as they dance to the beat of several hundred footfalls. The sound of the marching soldiers grows so loud as they pass that it feels like a weight pressing down on my chest. The soldiers are all humans from Earth. They are from various cultures and times, but here Einar has made them one. They march in perfect synchronicity. Some wear woven hats coming up to a point on the tops of their heads and carry spears or rifles like those carried by Jandar’s soldiers of the 4th Massachusetts. Then there are others that look to be straight out of the time and culture of Jandar’s blue-coated allies, only these wear coats of red. Some of the warriors carry tall, brightly painted, shields and others smaller round shields. Some wear heavy armor and helmets while others are armored only in cloth. Some carry swords and others bows. For all their differences they are the same. All marching their steady march, all wearing their emotionless faces, all focused, all disciplined.
I watch as the last of Einar’s army marches past, returning from battles fought somewhere beyond the borders of Lindesfarme, when suddenly the sky goes dark. My eyes dart upwards to behold an enormous creature flying overhead. Its scales are red and golden all at once, majestic to behold. As it passes by overhead it lets loose an awful noise, sending flames leaping into the air all about its body as it twists itself over in a spiraling roll. Einar has summoned himself a dragon.
Journal Entry #34
Inscribed by Thormun of Tealeron on this the 27th day of Rannveig:
I released Kelda from her guard duty. No reason she should have to avoid sleep while sleep does its best to avoid me. The night sky is starless, and I am surrounded in a blanket of deep darkness. My lookout duty has me doing more listening than looking.
I sit here with my eyes open but sightless, my ears focused on the blackness around me. My mind drifts to thoughts of home, to thoughts of the Tealeron that once was. I walk back through a window in time, pulling in the smell of herbs drying on the window of the stonework house my younger brother keeps. His beautiful wife busies herself about the garden while the children play their games, flying about the large tree that grows in front of the house. The young ones spot me and fly down to wrap their arms around me, all at once, nearly knocking me over backwards. I pull wooden toys out of a satchel and watch their small eyes glitter with excitement.
The dream is broken. A sound rustles behind me. Silently I turn and strain to see through the darkness with no success. The sound is that of our supplies being prodded through. Maybe an animal, or one of our company who was not satisfied with their ration of food last night. I stalk toward the direction of the sound, moving silently through the dark. My eyes catch the glow of a light- dim, but a beacon in the blackness. A slight figure hunches over, its back to me. The figure has come across some of our Balian Leaf, which we carry for its healing properties, but it also lets out a slight glow visible in the dark. The form revealed in the Balian Leaf’s glow is slender and in the shallow glimmering of yellow-green I can tell it is the shape of a woman, a very young woman. Her hands nimbly pick through our supplies until she comes across a loaf of bread. She pulls at a cloth mask around her face and chews on the bread in famished mouthfuls.
In a low voice I call out, “Who are you?! What do you think you’re doing?” Startled, the girl reels around as if to take off, but pauses and reaches back to grab another loaf before she goes. I catch hold of her arm. She fights my grasp and throws the stolen bread at my chest. The noise of the struggle wakes Kelda, who has not fully drifted into sleep. Lighting a torch, Kelda comes over to where I’m holding the bread thief captive. By now I’ve got a hold of both of the girl’s thin arms, and am sustaining surprisingly powerful kicks.
“Stop it!” Kelda whispers to the girl in a harsh voice. She stops kicking and looks over at Kelda. Her demeanor reads in such a way that you can tell her intent is not to cause us any harm.
“Tell this brute to let go of me!” The girl shouts in a voice loud enough to wake every sleeping thing within a hundred yards.
“Swear you won’t run,” says Kelda.
“Ack, I won’t run, just tell him to let go,” the girl responds in a shrill voice. Kelda nods at me and I let the girl go. More and more torches light up the darkness as the rest of the camp is awakened by our encounter with the young thief. The girl immediately reaches for the purple cloth mask she pulled away from her face to eat her stolen meal, and hides herself behind it again.
“Who are you, and why are you stealing our food?” I ask in a stern voice.
“Shiori’s the name, and I stole it because I was hungry,” says the thin girl in a mocking voice.
“Where did you come from?”
“I’ve been following you ever since you crossed the bridge. I know you didn’t notice me. My skills of stealth are unmatched! I’m going to be the greatest ninja who ever lived.”
“Why? Why are you following us?” I ask in a gruff voice, annoyed at answers that require more questioning.
“I’m running away,” she says, lifting her chin in defiance.
I let go of a sigh and then press her further. “Running away from what?”
She responds with a spark of anger in her voice. “From everything, from everything and everyone who tells me what to do and who to fight. I was brought here by them,” she says nodding in the direction of Lindesfarme. “But I fight only for myself. I’m not going back, so you can forget about telling me to. I’m coming with you guys.”
“You don’t have a horse, you’ll never keep up. You’ll be stranded in Bleakwoode and die.”
“You don’t want me to die,” she says with big eyes. “I guess your going to have to give me a ride.”
Kelda pulls on my arm and whispers into my ear, “She could be a spy.”
I whisper back, “What have we to hide? What need is there to spy on your allies?”
“I’m just saying be wary of her.”
“We could leave her behind and let her foolishly follow us into Bleakwoode if she pleases.”
“I’m not saying to do that, I’m only saying be careful.”
“Of a masked thief? Yes, you can count on my being plenty cautious.”