Two by two, the party had returned to where they had started. Lavia had been fitted with a rucksack of old clothing and some Lanh-friendly food packed by Clemnilshala. They smelled of soapy lye and were free of smudge and stain. Vulac and Samythiel returned with food and medicine, the latter fiddled with the pocket on his abdomen. The golden-eyed priestesses, whose names were lost on the company, came with clean clothes and neutral expressions. They looked to Clemnilshala to lead them out of the mountain just as they had followed her inside. Rigmol reappeared at her call, he had been tacked and packed like one of the mules that had come to replace the rams. Clemnilshala took his reins and began to lead, speaking aloud to the great stag just again as though he were speaking back to her beyond grunts and unintelligible movements of the head. She waved at any passerby mountain scout as she lead this company, her responsibility now, through corridor and hallway and alley until they had come to a downward slope leading to a back gateway that opened up to another forest.
Samythiel, as soon as he possibly could, abandoned Vulac’s side and scuttled up toward Clemnilshala. He bunted his shoulder on her leg in his eagerness to escape the dark, yet invisible, cloud that loomed in his ears the closer he stood to Vulac.
“I saw ye yesterday, what ever happened tae all them egg sandwiches” Clemnilshala said with a bright grin. Here too, only half of her mouth turned yet her cheeks crinkled like new parchment paper. “Was there gravy? Looked like they came from Mr Welton.”
“Oh hm? Aye, Welton’s sandwiches. We, um, gave them to the rest of these guys, and then the poor.” He said, glancing over his shoulder at Vulac who had closed in on Lavia like a hawk. “He gave us no gravy.”
Samythiel cleared his throat as his gaze met Vulac’s whose eyes darted between the dwarf and the exile.
“Ahhh, Welton’s a good man. I shoould’ve stopped by his place when I had the chance. Nae tell me, what’s got ye down.” Clemnilshala cocked her head to one side, dropping her voice low, attempting to assure Samythiel that he was in safe hands. He pursed his lips together, his mustache dragged sideways in both directions. “Ah, get intae a bar fight did we. Ayeeee aye tryin’ tae spar with a pale warrior ain’t a picnic but ye’ll be fine.”
Samythiel shook his head again. “<<Please stop talking about fighting.>>” he muttered as low as he possibly could.
Clemnilshala raised an eyebrow.
“ Sahhhhhhh,” She muttered “I was trying to translate some phrases in my lesson book before I took ye tae Brinorion. Do ye think ye can help me?”
She offered a sly wink. Samythiel shook his head.
“No, I cannae. Methinks the prairie dialect an’ the mountain dialect are too different, lass.”
“<<That’s a dirty lie. What happened to you?>>” Clemnilshala attempted to gain her translations anyway. “See? It’s a tough phrase, I don’t quite understand what it means in the human tongue.” Her gentle hand came and laid on his shoulder. Invisibly she tried to extend more familiarity to him. He rejected it.
“I’m afraid it sounds almost like a proverb about wolves. ‘Wolves always come when it rains’. I think ye’d be best tae ask another mountain scout tae help ye” Samythiel hung his head. “<<I can’t tell you anything that you do not already know>> is another proverb that we prairie folk live by.”
“Oh I love the sound of it. What’s it mean?”
“It means that ye should nae be friends with the son of a baker who only eats cake.”
“Ohhh, I s’poose that is different. But also not unlike <<Are you sure you can’t say anything?>> A man with shining armor often has a glass heart”
Samythiel shook his head. “<<I’m sorry. Just be good.>>” He simply whispered before putting his hands behind his back and becoming as silent as the grave. He turned his stride to go and walk alongside the other dwarves. Along the way he passed by Vulac and Lavia speaking in their own mother language out of earshot of Clemnilshala. Samythiel could not understand it, then again, he wouldn’t care what they were saying with the way his stomach flipped and turned in knots.
They traveled in a pack into the great trees of the forest. Weaving over snowy patches and rugs of moss, walking on the quiet, wet, detritus of dead pine needles and mushrooms. Dodging animals as small as mice and rabbits and following their mule’s noses to avoid animals as large as bears. Rigmol bobbed and moved his head. Speaking to Clemnilshala in a tongue that only she could understand that there were stags-head shiftlings in these woods. That he was feverish because his winter coat clung to him. To be wary should they see other great stags, and to warn the others of their presence. Ah the regal stags-head shiftlings, thought to be cleverer than those with boar or bear heads, but more reclusive than those of wolfs head. According to Rigmol, they were not amongst friends here. Clemnilshala navigated the hills and ledges and outcroppings of rock and ruin.
She too began to grow nervous, the bricks and buildings suggested looked too similar to Eynnic structures for her liking. But what was there to do but go forward. They climbed a hill beneath a new portion of the woods, where the forest became littered with the sorts of trees that lost their leaves every winter. The squeak of the wooden cart wheel distracted her from the bristling feeling that someone was looking right at her. Something unsavory. It settled her racing heart to feign being fatigued, walking in ‘winter gear’ in these woods, and offer leadership to the real expeditioneers. After all they were no longer in the mountains, a mountain scout would be next to useless other than tracking faded animal footprints. She backed away into the middle of the group. Rigmol’s ears continued to flicker and flutter as he hummed a low tune to himself and muttered that he meant no threat. That the people here were not a threat. To leave them be. His mumbling did not worry Clemnilshala for her friend, perhaps for the company as a whole, but she knew he would sound an alarm should danger be imminent.
Her silent attention turned to Vulac and Lavia. They sure had been acting buddy buddy since this morning. Perhaps the pale armored commander liked the ragling’s sweater. Clemnilshala’s favorite for how it hung on the shoulders. It nearly swallowed Lavia up. Though the way they whispered and muttered to one another could not dispel the idea that they were plotting something. At one time Vulac even patted Lavia on the head in the space between her horns. It brough an almost tender smile to Clemnilshala. Though without the safety of the mountain she found that an invisible wall had sprung up out of the ground as quickly as a mushroom or a kind of grass. They spoke in the Eynnic mother tongue. It sounded a beautiful song, that would be the jointed voice boxes that eynnil innately had. Nothing they said reeked of treachery, but something seemed as off as Mr. Earthenboot.
The sun was high by the time the party stopped to water the livestock and to eat lunch. The air smelled salty, of the sea that was carried by a gentle breeze. Yet they had only been walking for hours. It was supposed to be days away. Perhaps a storm was coming. There seemed to be no end in sight for these woods. These woods were unfamiliar to her. Though they seemed so similar to acres and acres of trees that looked just like these ones that she half expected to take a turn at a rock and be met with a little cottage owned by a close friend of hers.
Lavia and Vulac took a little walk with a pack swine after hearing something about buried mushrooms in the dirt. Samythiel strode up ahead to the top of a hill where he sat himself down upon a rock ledge to eat from a bag of fruits. He turned his back to the woods behind the party. Clemnilshala, with her own food from her own stores, couldn’t let well enough alone.
“Y’knoow.” She said, taking a seat without being invited. “This cranky ol’ painter I knew used tae say this thing about how to best live ones life. <<The dishonest often distance themselves from even their friends.>> Nae I doon’t know ye well enough tae loan ye all me money, but I would have thought tha we could be friends by nae.”
“Do ye know many painters?” Samythiel asked, biting into a piece of bread. “Dishonest painters?”
“Actually, including yoo, I know two painters in me life. The other is Amryth Noblehood himself. He had a way of putting agonizingly strong truths intae his paintin’. Nae I’m nae an expert but ye don’t seem too dishonest tae me either. Is something troubling ye, laddy?” She reached ahead and patted his back gently, her tail curving to one side on the stone outcropping that over looked a valley with an open spring.
Samythiel couldn’t resist. “Amryth Noblehood ye say? I can only hope tae be able tae do the things he can in his work.”
“Then ye cannae keep things from yer friends. C’mon, did ye get a hole in yer socks?”
He shook his head after a moment. “I dunnae want tae incur yer distrust in me, er, lass.” He took another bite of bread.
“Ye can tell me, I promise I woon’t mention it tae a single soul, living or dead.”
“If I tell ye, then ye gotta answer a question of mine, and do me a favor.”
“Anythin’ fer ye. Nae spill all yer beans.”
So, against his judgement, Samythiel told her everything that had been said across the past day. Between him and Vulac. He used words that confused Clemnilshala. That his respect for her was lapsed and that all he felt was remorse. He apologized and made waterfalls of assurances that he didn’t give up any information that he knew about her. Clemnilshala’s brow furrowed, this time here, was far worse than any time with a writing tutor. She at least understood what runes and written words meant and how the shapes of the characters were supposed to look. But here, she didn’t understand a lick of why he felt so bad.
“Ah-aye. I see.” She said. Humming. She patted his shoulder, letting her tail coil up against his leg, perhaps as a sign that she wasn’t angry with him. “Ye doon’t like it when people want tae talk tae ye about their quarrels with others huh?” she guessed.
He shook his head. “I don’t like it that it might’ve put ye in danger.”
“Lad, lad, lad, I’m never in danger with friends like yoo around. An’ look, iffin it means tha much tae ye, anything ye said is no harm tae me. On me honor as a scout and as one with the Noblehood name.”
He looked to her, the edges of his eyes wrinkled as he stifled a smile. He cleared his throat into his balled up fist. “Anyhow…I have a question fer ye. About….” He paused and looked up at the sky. “errr, why ye went intae exile.”
A small breath escaped Clemnilshala’s nose. How did she know he’d ask.
“I don’t want tae make anything ye heard <<incorrect>>, but let us clear one thing up. I did not ‘go’ into exile. I didn’t choose this life. It wasn’t an opportunity that I had tae take. When I was sentenced tae this life, I was young, I was bad, an’ I’d burned all the wrong bridges. I had yet tae learn tae hold me tongue. And it cost me my childhood destiny.” She said flatly, annunciating her syllables as though she had a mouth full of marbles. “Secondly, it was because my people come from a history of being slaves to others. Old things from the Old Lands. It’s documented that with the power of the Weilvog and the Anghniel that the eynnil broke their chains and became their own people. I merely shouted that my forefathers had enslaved themselves to masters that we could never hope to overcome. That the powers were poison if they would send someone nae older than a child intae exile. Cast them away like garbage…and I attacked my old training mate with a broom. Records of attempted murder are greatly exaggerated.” She rubbed the parabolic scars on the backs of her hands as she spoke.
“O-oh. Do ye regret it now? Do ye ever want tae go back?”
“Strangely I have never regretted it a single day in the last 179 cycles. Maybe I used tae think it woulda been easier if I’d just stayed put. Took it all back. But I was nae going tae give me service fer anything.”
“Don’t ye give your service to Khalenglough the Great?”
“Alright, wise guy, service tae something I cannae see nor touch with me hands.” She brushed dust from her fingers.
“But ye could be squashed by the mountain itself-“
“Oy, wha was tha request ye had?”
“Right.” He said. “Here it is. Doon’t think I want tae be yer <<Father>> or anything like tha, but I would greatly appreciate it iffin ye would stick near me, especially with that Commander Vulac around. He wants information outta ye and I dunnae like any way he may get it. Jus’ um, stay next tae me, where I can keep a good eye on ye. I have a coupla tricks up me sleeves iffin it gets ugly. I’m sure ye can take very good care of yerself but I dunnae want tae be the reason ye get hurt. It may nae be for anything I said but I would never believe tha fer as long as I live.”
Something in his voice rang in Clemnilshala’s ear. Something sounded so familiar. The spaces under her eyes warmed, the sides of her head thumped, the bases of every hair on her head rose at attention like millions of soldiers. She nodded, digging around on her belt for her smoking pipe, hiding her face behind her flopped over ear as best she could. She prepared tobacco and put the mouth piece of her pipe between her teeth.
“Here, let me.” He leaned over and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together to create a spark of fiery magic. “Also iffin ye can nae tell anyone I can do tha.”
“Our little secret”
A horn was sounded, interrupting Clemnilshala who refused to put out the tobacco she’d just prepared and had lit. She carried it along in her mouth until she was good and done with the leaves. The whole way to the sea, the party walked day, the party walked in the night. Rigmol teased Clemnilshala at first.
They came to a sandy, rocky, bank, that overlooked tented settlements and burnt out bonfires. Sea glass spires like the icy javelins that pummeled the basin beneath Khalenglough mountain. The sea. Oh! the sea was so blue, so beautiful. It was like nothing Clemnilshala had ever seen before. Except for one thing, a swarm of boats broken on the shore. And life rafts going out into the yonder. Each looking for one thing. The star.
For some reason Clemnilshala’s attention came to her markings, unbreakable attention and nervousness. And Lavia. Lavia brimmed with magic.