And Yet Another Chance Meeting
Jessie had never traveled this far to the west of the valley before, as the heavy forest and dense underbrush prevented mounted travel anywhere near the foothills of the cliff walls. Jessie suspected that, had any of the families that worked the farms around the Keep survived the Orc assault, they might have been able to tell her what herbs or plants grew wild around the cliff base, and whether any wild game might be found, but as things were, Jessie knew little except that there was considered no way to climb any part of the long cliff wall that bordered the entire length of the valley.
Jessie finally reached a point where, to advance any further to the west would mean leaving the tree line and climbing the broken shale of the cliff base. She decided to rest just inside the tree line, get the elf as comfortable as possible, and see about getting some water down her as best she could. Nothing more could be done anyway in the dark. Surprisingly, the elf still held onto enough strength to drink, and keep it down, even in her sleep. The heat of her fever still seemed to be high, and showed no signs of having gone down during the last stretch of the trip. Jessie had never heard of anyone lasting so long against wound and fever both, especially in such harsh conditions, and she began to wonder if there truly was more to an elf than pointy ears like the stories said.
As the first rays of the sun crested the peaks of the Orc Fell far behind her, they illuminated the top edge of the cliff wall in a deep rich orange glow that gave Jessie her first look at what she had so innocently determined to climb. The cliff face was nothing like what she had expected. Somehow, Jessie had assumed that the cliff wall would be similar to the broken rock and great stones of the Orc Fells, only at a steeper angle. But instead, the cliff wall seemed formed entirely of great slabs of slick white rock, rising nearly straight up in a naturally sheer barricade that served as well as the walls of the Keep, except that the Keep walls were nowhere near a third of the height of the cliff. As the light of the sun flowed ever lower down the face of the cliff, Jessie hoped to spy imperfections, crevices and cracks, any means by which she might gain a toehold on her climb. But the harder she looked, and the more familiar with the architecture of the cliff she became, the less like a cliff and the more like a sheer wall the stretch she happened to be near looked.
As the golden glow of the sun finally rose fully from behind the eastern mountains and painted the forest with warm light, the elf gave a great gasping cough, twisted around, and seemed to be on the verge of waking from her tortured sleep. At the same time, Jessie felt the tree against which she rested shift behind her in a wholly untree-like way, nearly scaring her out of a years’ growth. As she bolted forward, spinning around in mid-fall to get a look behind herself, Jessie heard a womans’ breathless, excited voice exclaim from the direction of the tree, “Oh it is! It is! The spirit of the protector blesses us with this visit! Oh, what a wonderful day!”
“Great Tyr, now what?” Jessie hit the grass ass first, hard enough to cause her teeth to snap together painfully, but she paid no mind to her battered bum, because there was a woman looking at her from a big crack in the side of the very tree she had chosen to rest against!
The tree itself was quite old, and very wide around the trunk, which is why Jessie had chosen it in the first place. No sense letting yourself be visible from behind if you don’t have to, right? But now, what had seemed merely another deep vertical crease in the bark of the aged oak turned out to have been a seam or a door or window of some sort, and leaning out of the now wide opening was a woman, seeming perfectly normal if a bit on the cute pixy dimpled side, and except for the fact that the colors of her skin, hair and eyes were all different shades of green, brown and gray.
The lady of the tree took a good look at Jessie, smiling in apparent glee or perhaps a misplaced joy at scaring a perfectly honest traveler, and said, “Now, there’s no need for that bit of ironmongery, dear, I promise I won’t bite!”
It was then that Jessie looked down at herself, and realized that she had drawn her sword while still tumbling forward in the air, and now had it pointed in the direction of the tree. Her nerves really were on the ragged edge, she thought. She hadn’t even made concious thought to drawing steel.
Jessie lowered her sword, and keeping a wary eye on the woman, slowly put it away. “At the rate things are going”, mused Jessie, “I’m going to run into an army of Orcs led by the great pumpkin king before I ever get out of the valley. And they’ll probably offer me a position as Court Jester.”
Aloud, Jessie decided to feel the woman out as to her intentions. “Excuse me, milady, but a blessing? I’ve certainly never been referred to in that way. Unless, of course, you mean her.”
Jessie pointed to the prone figure of the elf that lay at the base of the great tree’s trunk, but she found herself pointing towards grass as the tree woman had already moved with a surprising speed and grace to reach down from the hole in the tree, grasp the elfs’ upper torso under the arms, and lifting her in one swift move, hauled her into the opening headfirst. She had continued chattering away all the while, to herself apparently, in a breathlessly excited tone of voice, but the act of snatching the stricken elf was performed with smooth, precise moves.
Jessie barely had time to squawk “Hey! Wait a minute!” as she watched the black booted feet of the elf disappear into the tree.
Dashing up to the tree, Jessie acted impulsively to grab the sides of the crack in case it started to close. In her haste to get to the crack in time, she found herself touching the woman nose to nose, with a most up-close view of a pair of wide beige eyes.
“I’d invite you inside, but I’m afraid there’s barely room for two!” said the woman. This close, Jessie could clearly see that the woman’s nut-brown skin color was faintly etched in what looked to all the world to be leafy vein patterns, and her hair was most definitely NOT dyed green, but came that way naturally.
“You certainly don’t seem hurt, but you look a bit tired, dear. Would you like a nice cup of tea? It should perk you right up! And I have some honey cakes too, if you’d fancy a bite to eat!”
Jessie felt most unfairly abused by fate at this point. She had tried as best she could to do what was right, to work within events as they unfolded and stick to her duty to her family, and help the elf as mercy permitted while keeping to her oath, but events had caught up with her, and passed her by. She bowed her head in exhaustion, and let loose a deep sigh, surrendering to the inevitable.
“Thank you ma’am. Very kind of you to offer. I would like some tea and a bite to eat.”
The green-tressed damsel gave a perky grin, and with a wave, ducked down out of sight into the bole of the tree, calling out to Jessie as she disappeared, “Right love, let me just see the poor Lady to her mending and I’ll be right back with the treats!”
As Jessie tried to decide whether she ought to sit, lie down and catch a nap, or continue to stand, she looked around the area of the tree. It struck her as odd, suddenly, that there were so many large, old growth oaks so near to the tree-line and the hardscrabble rock of the cliff base. Looking at the large oaks around her a bit more carefully, she froze with surprise when the nearest oak, a massive old fellow with huge knotholes and gnarled bark and great big protruding support roots, unmistakably winked one of it’s knotholes at her! It was like one of the trick sketches the keep fool used to draw for the children on a winters’ day, looked at one way, it was a maid braiding her hair, looked at another, it was an old crones’ face, but both used the same picture. It was the same with the oak! Looked at one way, it was an ancient, moss covered tree, and looked at another, and with a good squint, it was a tree with a face that was looking directly at Jessie! Damnit, trees don’t have eyeballs! Why would it have markings like eye holes?
Jessie cast a wary gaze at the other trees around her, instinctively moving back towards the cliff wall so that she could face the entire tree line at once. She felt so stirred up, it was hard to tell if she really saw as many faces among the scattered trees as she thought, or if her imagination and anxiety at being hunted and alone were making her see things. She was definitely starting to feel a little wild around the edges, and ready to give a good healthy beating to the next cause of surprise she encountered. Jessie felt unsteady, and her heart was pounding so hard her hands were trembling with the rush of sudden fear that swept through her.
With several deep breaths, Jessie slowly mastered her fear, and willed herself to calm down. She adopted a strong, confident pose, determined that no one watching would feel they were observing prey. If there was anything unusual about the trees, if they were, perhaps, haunted by spirits, then they would find no easy meat here. And anyway, how fast can a tree move over rock? Still, the leafy canopy overhead stretched and intertwined to completely mask the sky over the trees. What kind of reach would such trees have, if their limbs and upper branches could move?
The original oak, the one which had lately acquired an elf and displayed a fair young tenant with a penchant for offering tea and cakes, provided a welcome distraction from the feeling of being watched… by trees. The young tree woman had returned to the opening in the trunk, and was waving to Jessie to come over. She held balanced upon her left hand a small flat tray that glittered like glass or crystal in the morning light, and upon it were small vessels also made of the same glittery substance. The aroma of freshly baked honey cakes wafted across the space between them, and sudden pangs of hunger enticed Jessie to come closer.
Jessie sauntered across the clearing, her right hand resting gently upon the pommel of her blade. As she neared the oak, the tree-woman said, “Go ahead and take the tray, and eat and drink what you wish. I’m most saddened to tell you that I’ll have to leave you be for several hours, at least. The lady is very badly harmed, and it will take much of the morning before I can say whether she will live to see another sunrise.”
The tree-woman gestured with her hand, indicating the surrounding tree-line. “You’ll be quite safe here, for as long as you wish to remain. No harm will come to the Lady’s Knight so long as there are those here who remember the great thanks and friendship we have shared with your mistress in the past. For your own safety, however, you really ought to enter a little deeper into the wood. So near to the stone, you might be too distant to aid if trouble should come looking for you.”
Pointing a little to her left, the tree-woman added, “If you should go just a little way deeper into the wood, and look to the left of that particular oaken tom with the great fringe of fire orange mold around his crown, you’ll come upon a few raspberry bushes that still bear fruit. That and the cakes and tea will have to serve you until I am done. Please, rest yourself, and if you wish to look after your Lady, come back here just before dusk.”
Jessie took a good look around, and then gave the tree woman a small smile, took the glass tray gently with both hands, and headed in the direction of the oak with the orange mold midway up it’s bark. It seemed pretty clear that the woman harbored no evil intentions or devious designs towards Jessie. Somehow, Jessie was sure she could tell if there was a problem, and the tree woman just seemed, kind of, simpleminded and ditzy, not evil or sneaky. With a wide grin, Jessie finally pinned it down in her mind. “She acts about as friendly and eager to please as a puppy dog!”
Heading deeper into the wood, Jessie felt her judgment vindicated when a vicious attack utterly failed to materialize. Instead, she found a pair of shabby looking raspberry bushes, their fruit somewhat overripe but still edible, right where she had been told to expect them.
Looking about, she spotted what looked to be a comfortable spot to sit down and relax near a big oak with some inviting shaped roots. It didn’t offer much view of the womans’ tree, but it would serve to keep her out of the wind and give her the warmth of the sun through the cover overhead.
Before she sat in the hollow amid the roots, just on a whim, she looked around at the big oak and said “Thank you for your hospitality”. She felt a little disappointed when the tree failed to say anything in return.
Resting the tray on a pair of the roots while she curled up with her legs under her, Jessie got nice and comfortable, using her cloak as a pillow and blanket all in one. Investigation of the contents of the tray revealed a small glass bowl lined with a cloth square in a red and white check pattern of very stiff and dense weave, filled with small loaves that looked to be well baked with a hard crust. A small glass pot with a lid, spigot and curved handle held a brown liquid that curled steam from the little spigot mouth, and a single small dainty cup without a handle completed the arrangement. The scent of the tea and cakes seemed quite homey, and brought back pleasant memories of the kitchens of the Caer on a cold wintry day. Breaking open one of the cakes revealed a beautiful cream colored bread, filled with a thick assortment of honey glazed nuts and oats. The whole thing seemed totally inappropriate after the hell march of the night, and yet Jessie had no problem polishing off the cakes and tea, and snuggling down into the roots of the tree for a much needed rest.
There hadn’t been any time to do it before, so Jessie decided it was about time to go through the little pouches she’d pulled off the shaman, and see what might be in there. Also of interest, now that she had heard so much about them from the Orcs, were the elf lady’s sword and the old axe she had wrested from ‘Raktar Single-blow’. Single-blow! Jessie couldn’t prevent a giggle from escaping her lips as she thought how appropriate that name had turned out! As she started to move the pack around, however, a massive yawn ripped from her jaws, and she decided to take a nap first. Surely she’d remember as soon as she woke up…
As she drifted off into a relaxed and much needed sleep, her last thoughts were of Fergus, and all that had happened in the few short hours since his passing.
“Fergus, I’ll bet you’re up there in Valhail, downing a pint, looking down and laughing your skinny old butt off. Well hell, it is kind of absurd isn’t it? Not only am I impersonating my brother but some tree tart thinks I’m some kind of knight in shining armor. And to make things even more interesting, I’m sitting in the middle of a forest, having cakes and tea on some fine noble’s plates, all the while under the protection of the trees that surround me. Meanwhile, I’m waiting to see if the elf I rescued from Orcs (who, of course, is being tended by a woman who lives in a tree!) survives. Oh yeah, to top it all off the elf and the woman apparently know each other. Well, you may be laughing, you old codger, but I’d bet that gold medallion in my kit that you never saw this coming. If Granther had ever told us a story like this, we would have sworn he was making it up. Well, anyone who doesn’t think Tyr has a sense of humor, ought to be here right about now!”
Those were the last thoughts she had as she drifted gently off to sleep.
Jessie woke up feeling chilled to the bone, and a little confused as to where she was. It took a few moments for her head to clear sufficiently to remember that the last thing she had done was to curl up amidst the roots of a tree. “Damn, Fergus would have my ass for waking up in a fog. What time is it?” Jessie looked around the clearing, and although there was still sunlight in the glade, the shadows had been on her long enough to tell her that the sun was mere minutes from going down. Also, she couldn’t help but notice the tray and crystal vessels had vanished!
“Hmmm.. the woman from the tree must have come by while I was sleeping. Great… I never stirred at all. I’m glad Fergus didn’t see this… letting someone sneak around me and sleeping through the whole thing. Well, hell, it’s about sunset, let’s see if the elf is going to live. I need to get moving.” Jessie got up and stretched the kinks out of her muscles from the awkward posture she had slept in, and then gathered up her pack and headed for the oak and, hopefully, some answers. As she neared the oak, she saw that the tree-woman was already visible in the large opening in the trunk, leaning a little out and looking upwards at the darkening sky, her chin resting propped up in her hands.
As Jessie approached the oak, she called out, “Good evening, ma’am. Thanks again for the food and drink. How is she?” The tree woman jerked her head up very sharply. She must have been so deep in thought, that she had been taken completely by surprise! Jessie immediately felt better at having slept through the moving about earlier. The tree-woman looked quickly around for the source of the call, saw Jessie, and then relaxed, her face blossoming into one of her impish grins. “Why, she should recover just as right as rain, my lord, should the healing run it’s course.”
The tree-woman’s face then assumed a most distressed look, and her skin color changed to a most dark green. It took a moment for Jessie to realize the tree-woman was blushing! “I am truly sorry, I keep speaking to you in the language that the verderer uses when he comes to visit my glade. I don’t mean to imply that you are an uncouth savage, good sir!”
The tree-woman then grinned happily at Jessie, and began nattering away in a musical language that, while quite beautiful and hypnotically accented and flowing, was also completely foreign to her.
Jessie stared blankly at the tree-woman, and tried to decide how best to proceed. Clearly, the tree-woman mistook her for an assistant of some kind in service to the elf. Jessie finally decided that honesty would serve her best until she knew more, and said, “No offense taken, ma’am, but perhaps you’d better continue in the verderer’s language. I’m afraid I don’t speak your other tongue, as pleasant as it is to the ear.”
The tree-woman stopped talking instantly, and a most alarmed look appeared upon her face. Quick as a flash, she darted back further into the trunk of the tree, peering out at Jessie from the shadows. The branches of the oak that rose all about Jessie seemed to twitch in an altogether alarming way. The tree-woman said, in a very suspicious tone of voice, “What is that you say? Who are you, sirrah, that you accompany the lady and yet do not speak her tongue? Answer me swiftly, for you have accepted hospitality fit to a Guardian of the Green, and now you do not talk the true speech?”
“Oh great”, thought Jessie, “I should have known better than to tell the truth.” Putting on her most cheerful and, hopefully, honest expression, Jessie replied “I am Lord Lauchlin MacQuarrie of the Caer MaQuarrie. I happened on the Lady as she was about to be ambushed by foul Orcs. She was wounded and unable to defend herself. I dispatched the Orcs that assaulted her and removed her from the area.”
The lady of the tree peered out at Jessie with a look of scorn, and said, “So YOU claim! Though I suppose you do look awfully poor and ragged to be a human servant to a Lady such as her…”
“Oh, well, then you don’t even know her, or care a whit for her welfare! You have been refreshed and guarded from the hunters on your trail, so consider yourself rewarded, and be on about your way!”
In indignation, Jessie perked up and stated, “The Hunters, as you put it, wiped out my home and family. They were, however, on HER trail, not mine. Before she fell into a swoon she claimed to have an important mission and asked for my help. If, as you say, I cared not a whit for her welfare, it would have been much easier for me to have left her to die. I have acted with honor, even if I do not have the finery that you might think necessary to be in her company. And if she still needs my help, do you not think that should be her decision?”
The tree-woman looks a little embarrassed, and says “Well, the truth is that there is a bit of trouble with the lady, and I was SO hoping you were her Guardian, so that you could help clear it right up! But if you just met her, than that is quite impossible. I am sorry to have taken my disappointment out on you. Of course, you have been a dear, to look after the lady so.”
“I’m afraid we are just going to have to gather enough to form a moot, to decide what to do about her. ”
Jessie rolls the strange word around a bit, before saying, “A moot? Is she well enough to converse? I think there might be much that she and I could share that would help both our causes.”
“Oh, no, I must have used the wrong word. What is it you folk do when all must gather to judge… oh yes, a court! We’re going to have to gather enough for a Court! It’s okay though, sweetie, you aren’t in any trouble. I’ve already heard back just now from a very nice elm over towards Ill Fell Falken that you really did save the lady from a bunch of Orcs that were hunting her. You don’t have anything to fear.”
Jessie felt a bit better after hearing this, and also a bit pleased at the idea that, if she got along well with this strange leafy woman, she might be able to get word on what the orcs were up to throughout the wood! “I’m glad, ma’am. It would upset me to have ill-feelings with the good folk of this valley, especially when these evil grey-skinned orcs are invading from the mountains. Those who support the Light must stick together.”
The tree lady shook her head, and said, “I’m sorry, Lauchlin was it? You seem to be a bit confused. The, um, ‘Orcs’, aren’t evil. At least, no more than your people are. Actually, quite a bit less than most of your people. It was your ancestors that caused the second breaking, after all. Oh, I know you personally weren’t responsible, but then again, neither were any Orcs.”
“Anyway, the Orcs are a bunch of belligerent, violent hot heads, at least the MEN are, but for the most part they eat meat and stay well away from the valley here, which is a LOT more than I can say for your kind! For dozens of seasons now, the sound of an axe has been heard ringing through these woods, and you can bet your pretty sword the Orcs never dared harm an old tree just to start a fire for the night!”
“But I’ll grant you that when the tribes come down out of the mountain to prepare their heroes for the next war, it gets a bit messy. Takes months for things to get back to normal with the scrub and firebreaks.”
Jessie, so startled by the turn the conversation had taken, and nearly shaking with hot anger, says “Messy? Messy? They came in the night. They came over our walls and slaughtered my father, mother, sisters, brothers, grandparents and all who lived at our hold…I fell from the wall and was left for dead or we would not be conversing now. You may not think them evil, but that is the most polite word I can think of.”
The tree lady just smiled, and said “Ah. I see you’re getting upset. But really, do you call it evil when any beings’ father, or mother, or sister, or brother is killed? Or does that only apply to your own kind? For you and yours at your great stone keep have slaughtered mine own kindred in the thousands!”
A little softer voiced, with a little less fire in the eye, the tree lady continued, “But you certainly are entitled to your anger, and may direct it at whomever you wish. As one of the few of the moot with a voice that can be heard by your kind, I am not permitted to vent my own feelings when I might be thought to speak for the moot as a whole.”
But with just a hint of a pert spark in her eye, “But don’t you be sitting there and be telling me about massacres and telling me what evil is or isn’t in this valley, young sir. I’ll not be sitting here listening to that in my own glade! If it wasn’t for the friends you have among the elms towards leaping faun brook and bare knob, I wouldn’t still be here talking with you!”
Jessie takes a deep breath and tries to calm down. “Ma’am, If me or mine hurt yours, this is the first I know of it. To my knowledge I have never offered hurt to any who have not threatened or harmed me or mine. Fergus always told me that I had much to learn.”
“Well now, and seems to me you’ve suffered a great deal more in the last month than we have, and with considerably less warning. My apologies. It’s never an easy thing to lose someone that you love. Maybe we got off to a bad start. It’s pretty obvious you’ve been under a bit of a strain, dear, and I certainly haven’t had much chance to get my feelings off my chest lately! Let’s try again from the beginning, okay? I’m Trelauna LeLairch, but you can call me Launa!”
“It’s my honor, Lady Launa. My name is Lauchlin MacQuarrie, but please call me Lauchlin.”
The tree lady looked pleased, but said “Oh, you don’t have to call me Lady, just Launa is fine!” Giggling, she said “My, isn’t Lauchlin an awfully unusual name for a woman among your people? I thought you went in for soft sounds at the end of the name, like we do!”
Jessie turned beet red, thinking to herself, “Oh shit oh shit, well its not likely she is going to run to Doneghal with the information, is it?” Trying to control the sudden blush that sprang unbidden to her cheeks, she said “This is embarrassing……is my disguise that transparent?”
The tree lady seems quite pleased, saying “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you! Oh, but you don’t know! Oh, this is kind of fun!” The girl claps her hands together quickly in obvious delight, bouncing up and down in her little space in the bole of the tree. “Oh, I’m always talking to all of the trees around me, all of the time, and ever since you came into the glade with the Lady, I’ve been asking all the Gnurls and Sprouts to pass on all my questions about you, and ever since this evening started to darken answers have been coming in from trees out towards your home!”
“Why, did you really think that none of the elms out by red rock glen would notice if you suddenly let your beautiful long hair get cut short? I feel kind of sad that you can’t hear the whispers through the roots, like we do. But I can talk your language, so that’s okay then!”
Jessie decided to sit down in the grass. The way the conversation kept taking dips and turns was starting to make her feel dizzy. “It never occurred to me that they or any tree would notice. My deepest apology for the deception, I meant no harm to you. My real name is Jessica MacQuarrie, my friends called me Jessie. I have taken my brothers’ name. I have made promises to my family, and amongst my people, women have a more, shall we say restricted, role.”
“Oh, that’s okay, I thought you were playing a game! It’s such a shame about your hair, though. But do you mean that you have to pretend to be someone else, or your people won’t let you be yourself? That’s awfully silly!”
“True, although I might think of less polite ways to describe it than silly. Hair grows back after all. One day I hope to be myself again.”
“Oh, well that’s all right then! Now let me ask you, are you feeling okay? Are you getting enough sun?”
“Physically, I am fine.” Jessie glances down at areas of exposed skin, seeing nothing amiss about her coloration. If anything, she thought her skin looked quite rugged and well tanned. “I guess I am getting enough sun, why do you ask? Do I seem particularly pale?”
“Oh no, but I really don’t know how much sun your people need to grow right! And you do look a little worn about the edges. But if you think you’re okay, I won’t worry. Now, you said earlier you felt a sense of responsibility to the Lady. Did you mean that?”
“Yes, in my mind if I take the steps to save someone’s life, that makes me at least in part responsible for it.”
“Oooh!” Launa cants her head slightly to one side, as though listening to a little bird whisper in her ear. “Old Granther Strikeroot is very impressed with you! He says that is a very positive and responsible way to live your life! I ask because we are about to start the moot, and we consider the Lady to be in your keeping, since you brought her here to the glade of your own free will. So if you’ll just relax there on the grass, I’ll bring the Lady up, and we’ll begin!” With that, Launa disappears down into the trunk of the oak.
At this, Jessie thinks to herself, “I swear I can hear Fergus chuckling.”
After a few minutes, the upper branches of the massive oak begin to rustle, and then move against the light breeze that sweeps through the glade. Two of the larger branches reach down, seemingly into it’s own trunk, and haul out the elven woman. The elf is clad all in garments woven from thousands of small, supple green leaves, and appears quite asleep. Her black garment is nowhere to be seen.
The branches set the elf down gently next to Jessie, and then relax back into their normal position.
Scooting over and examining the elf, Jessie sees that the elf looks to be very pale, even compared to when she had last seen her. The hideous wound on her left shoulder is only partially closed, and is an ugly purple and green color that looks wrong, like there is rotten flesh or pus that has been trapped in the wound by the early closing. The scarring is just barely visible peeking out of the neck of her leafy tunic at the left shoulder.
Jessie also noticed, on the right calf just peeking out from the bottom hem of the long leafy skirt the elf is wearing, a glint of metallic gold on the skin, like a coin or necklace. Jessie assumed at first that the elf was wearing a bracelet on her ankle, but once you look a little more carefully, you see it looks like paint directly on the fair skin.
The elf picks that moment to stir, and begin to sit up. She looks around dazedly, clearly confused and mentally uncertain as to where she is, or with whom.
Launa reappears within the oak’s trunk, or perhaps she had been there for a while, and Jessie simply hadn’t noticed. Launa says, “It’s time to decide whether we continue to help our new friends, or stand against new enemies. Are you prepared to answer us?”
The elf shakes her head sharply, and openly gasps as the sudden movement tenses her shoulder and neck muscles, bringing tears to her eyes. She hunches over, hugging herself fiercely, and barks something in a strange tongue, similar but not quite identical to that musical language that Jessie had heard Launa speak earlier.
Launa frowns very prettily, and says in your language, “No, we will talk in this tongue. I know you speak it, your Guardian told us when you were brought to us this morning.” The elf casts her eyes at you, glances over your equipment and carriage, and you seem to feel as though she has just judged you and found you lacking somehow. She shows no outward sign of this, however. It remains just an impression.
The elf says, in your language, with a very smooth and proper accent rarely heard in Caer MacQuarrie, “I don’t see why anything we have to say concerns this young man. He may have brought me here when I could not, but whatever debt I may bear is my concern, not yours.”
Launa says, “It is very much his concern, your Ladyship. He has claimed responsibility for your continued well-being, as a Guardian would. Your fates are bound together now, and if you are who you appear to be, then you know the peril that awaits the false.”
Launa tilts her head to one side again, and after a pause, says, “Perhaps it would be best to start, by having young Lord MacQuarrie describe how he met you, and what he believes he knows about you.”
Jessie cleared her throat nervously, and said, “My first sight of this lady was as she walked, or perhaps staggered, into an ambush set by some gray skinned mountain Orcs. They were led by a smaller Orc, I believe he was called the Speaker, and a large warrior, Single Blow, I believe was how he was called. I killed the two leaders and the others ran. That’s when I noticed this lady fall to her knees, obviously hurt. Before she passed out she mumbled something about something unraveling and that she had to warn some lord.”
The elf barks, “Enough of this! You are acting as though I am on trial here! I demand to know what it is I am supposed to have done!”
Launa looks at her with, what Jessie now realizes, are, despite her girlish appearance and immature mannerisms, the oldest damn eyes shes’ ever seen, and says, “The reason you are here, my Lady, and not still recovering, is that you are neither fish nor fowl, but a little of both, aren’t you? We have very long memories, here in this valley, and we will know the nature of who we are guesting.”
Jessie is watching the elf keenly for any sign of guilt, or wariness, or reaction that smells of artiface, but she is surprised when the elf seems to be shocked and almost ashamed, as though an embarrassing secret had been revealed in the glade. Jessie reckons that was the exact look she herself had sported when Launa had so casually outed her earlier.
The elf stammers, rather unconvincingly, “I, I don’t know what you mean.”
Launa says, “You are, in appearance, very near to a Lady I once knew. A Lady I knew quite well indeed. Except, of course, for the rather curious mark you bear on your leg and thigh.” The elf twitches her hand slightly, as though to draw the leaf skirt closer about her right leg.
Launa continues, “But it is most curious that the language you speak, when startled awake, is not the language I would expect. Unless I had already seen the brand at the base of your skull. I know what THAT mark means very well, thank you!”
“We of the glade are concerned as to why you are here. Before we let you leave, we will hear from your lips what you have done in our valley, and what you hope to still achieve.”
The elf lady seems to settle into herself, and her posture and body language change slightly, and the small changes make all the difference. Where before sat a wounded elf surrounded by enemies and hounded at all sides, now there sat a calm, majestic presence full of dignity and inner strength. Jessie felt herself awed despite herself at the sheer force of vitality and power emanating from the elven woman seated before them. Somehow, Jessie knew instinctively that there was nothing of magic in what she was seeing, but entirely an image of the true inner heart of the woman when pissed off.
“How dare you! You demand an accounting of my actions! I am here mainly because of you and those you represent! I have danced with the Orcs, and listened at their Shaman’s knees to the tales of long ago, and I know who it was that led the first Orc scout to Kelgardelac Strung!”
The elven woman raised herself slowly to her feet, vital despite her horrific half-closed wound, and stood proud and defiant staring Launa deeply in the eyes. “Perhaps you would care to explain to young Lord MacQuarrie why the ‘Spirits of the Woods’ chose to lead a lost Orc scout through the deep forest of this valley, and up the high western cliff until he came to a split fissure in the rock? A fissure that led to the great underground hall called Kelgardelac Strung, the Hall of the Mad Spirits. And when the Orc passed through that hall, deep within Torr Baldwin, he emerged a changed Orc, a holy man, blessed by the spirits and purified in the earth. And he started hearing the spirits of the trees, and the animals, and the wind talking to him, and the spirits told him he now spoke for the soul of his tribe. And the spirits guided him back to his tribe, and he led his Chief to the fissure in the rock, and he did as the spirits told him to do, chanting and making marks and directing his will upon a totem for the Chief to carry through the Hall, and when the Chief passed through and emerged upon the other side, he was changed also. But where the scout had gained strange visions and perceptions of the world around him, and guides to whisper in his ears, the totem had directed the changes in different ways. The Chief had been filled with strength, and power, the power of a raging bull, and his mind had been filled with the conviction that he must find the humans that stained the blessed mountains with their evil presence, and drive them away by slaughtering them until they feared the very sight of the hills.”
“Who, Launa? Who led that Orc there? Who whispered in his ears, and directed his hands in making the totem? The Clans had never even heard of humans before at that time. They were still newly risen from the mountains’ deep passages, and learning to enjoy freedom in the eyes of Moon, sky and Sun. And who guided the newborn Orc Shamans that the Hall of Mad Spirits created, and led them to ward the entrance to the fissure so that only the specially prepared could enter the hall? I think we both know who, bitch, and I’ve had to live with the Orcs for the last three years to earn their trust and respect enough to be labeled a ‘hero’ and get to go through the ceremony that’ll give me access to that damned hall.”
The elf manages somehow to look completely healed, full of poise and strength as she stares down the tree girl. “Three damn years, Launa, just so I can try to find a way to cut the Orcs off from whatever is inside that cavern, poisoning their minds with hatred towards the humans, and twisting their bodies with power. I’ve been searching for this valley, and the source of this crap, for almost seventy three years, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let you stop me now. You think you know me, or what I am capable of? You want to know what I have done in this valley and what I hope to achieve? What I have done so far, and what I still intend to do, is do my damnedest to unravel this mind-warping crap you’ve started once and for all. Now, I suggest you return my uniform right now and don’t stop my leaving, or I’ll show you a thing or two about the rage of the earth mother that’ll leave you a sight worse off than when you’d started!”
Jessie stands swiftly, her hand resting upon the hilt of her sheathed sword. The sudden movement breaks the growing tension between the elven woman and the tree spirit known as Launa. Both women turn their heads to gaze at Jessie, and while the elf seems annoyed at the interruption, Launa clearly looks relieved at the distraction.
Launa, her voice oozing sugary sweetness that is clearly meant to send nails up the back of the elf, says “Yes, what is it? Do you have something to say about the irrelevant outburst this so-called elf just made?”
The “so called elf” hunches a bit around her pained shoulder, her hands gathering into claws, and hisses, “My Orc name is Far Dreamer, you blight-hearted bitch! It’s all you’re worthy to speak!”
Jessie ignored Far Dreamer, and looked the green-tressed Launa directly in the eyes. She struggled to fight off the image in her head of a flighty young woman, and hold dear the knowledge that she was truly facing an ancient and malignant thing peering from out of a fair and misleading form. “Was it you who put the Orcs on their present path? Was it you that caused them to hate, hunt and kill humans? Did you cause the death of my family??!!”
Launa looked confused at the outburst, as if a chipmunk that had been properly trained to take nuts from the hand had suddenly reared back on its haunches and howled at her. In a patronizing tone of voice, she replied, “What difference does it make now? This is the way the natural order of the world works. You humans were here once before, tending the valley, sharing it with us in peace, and your kind swore to defend it from evil. I was here, and I remember it well. The promises of friendship, the eagerness of your kind to learn our secrets, gain our power to speak to the wild and the free. But when the fire and axes came, the poison in the earth and the darkness that blotted out the life giving sun, did you stay? No, you broke your vows and fled, and left us here to suffer the blight and the dark all alone! Well, you’re not getting another chance! We made new friends here in the valley, and we got along just fine without you and your kind, and now that you’ve decided to come back, you think you can just walk right in and everyone and everything must bow down to you? Never! The Orcs are your life-foes now, I’ve seen to that, and they’ll never rest until your kind are driven out of the mountains forever! Now sit down and close your snout, because I have more important things to deal with right now.”
The woods-spirit turned its face away from Jessie and back towards Far Dreamer in dismissal, but somehow Jessie knew that what she had just heard was a calculated speech designed to provoke some kind of response out of her, something to distract Far Dreamer, and that Launa was not as casual about ignoring her as she seemed.
As Jessie’s mind raced to make sense of all she had heard, she realized that if she held firm to her plans for revenge against the Orcs, and allowed herself to become ruled by her passions and hate, she could grow to be just like Launa. And one thing Jessie suddenly realized, was that no matter how badly she wanted to feel the Orc blood running freely down her hands, she didn’t want to ever be like the insane creature she saw before her. And with that thought, Jessie decided she may have a way in which to fight her after all.
Far Dreamer clearly had no difficulty meeting the ancient gaze of the half-mad dryad. As Jessie prepared what she intended to say, the elf glared at Launa, and, clutching her wounded arm tightly to her chest, said “Last warning, bitch. I can feel the poison you put in me racing through my veins. I know you never had any intention of my leaving here alive. I’m sure that ever since MacQuarrie dragged me into your clearing, you’ve been having the trees throughout the wood tell you of what they remember of my actions. I don’t know what you were planning with this mock trial, but you have less than the time it’ll take me to clap my hands to return my possessions, or I’ll burn this whole damn forest down around your ears.”