The story so far:
Written in Marja’s Book of Shadows
Quickly I took them. I had to do this quickly or he would touch them. He must never touch them. They must live with free souls. For through them, I will know the birdsong.
* * *
He was rushing. He hoped that he wasn’t too late. He was bringing wonderful and important news to his friend the Dragon Keeper. He was a seasoned warrior, but this day he carried no weapons and no armor. He was wearing the most basic of clothing for his people and over that he wore a dark brown hooded robe. Known amongst the dryads as the best trainer of soldiers they had ever had. But he had a secret. He had been searching for the truth and had to be careful about that or be branded a traitor.
He is of the kinship of Pine trees. This day he was using the Pine trees to help him travel through the forest at a very rapid pace. If two or more trees of the same kinship were touching each other, either by their roots or their branches, he could slip into one and then out the one farthest down the line in the direction he wanted to go. He could travel unseen for hundreds of feet in almost as fast as one could blink their eyes. But this type of fast flowing through trees would have him exhausted by the time he reached his destination. Any other time he would have stopped and rested at least once by now. But this was too important and he hoped he was not too late to tell his friend what he knew. It was also too important to trust to one of the messengers that he usually sent. Plus he had not seen his friend in over a year. This news he brought would change the outcome of how the Dragon’s and Dryad’s viewed each other.
He had started this journey before the sun had begun to rise. To use his ability to slip through so many trees in this trip, he had to get a good night sleep. Even though he was excited and felt impatient about this, he bedded down early and after a restless night, he woke earlier than he had desired. He didn’t even attempt to go back to sleep. He readied himself and away he went.
This sun was now only five hours risen and had traveled at least a three days journey by horse. He knew as he stepped out of the last tree that he was going to sleep very hard this night. He pulled the hood of the robe over his head and walked quietly up to the guard standing sentry by two stone pillars in the middle of a clearing.
He recognized the guard as being the same young man that was here the last two times he had visited. When he reached the guard, he spoke without uncovering his head, “I am Challick.”
“I am Gribuck, follow me sir,” with that he turned and the two walked up the stone path quietly.
Challick easily kept pace with the guard as they walked in silence. He knew the guard would not say anything to him until they were inside where no one could hear. When Anash first set this up, Challick wanted to have a pass word or phrase, but Anash said that something like that could be found out. It was after Anash introduced Challick to a Red Lady, did he soon understand why. When you stated who you were to a Red Lady, she knew immediately if you were telling the truth or not.
The path soon led them to a crevice in the side of the hill guarded by a woman in a red hooded robe. She held up her hand.
Challick tried to look her in the eyes, but the hood concealed her face. “I am Challick.”
She nodded, “The Keeper is not here. I will take you to Vorent.” With that she motioned for them to follow and she turned and led them into the crevice.
Once inside Gribuck spoke, “It has been over a year since your last visit sir. This must be important for you to come instead of one of your messengers.”
“Yes this is important. And it is the news that I have been searching for all these years."
Gribuck had known Challick for a long time. There were only two things this could be. Either he had found the daughters of the last real Empress or he had found Anash’s sister, “Which did you find?”
“Where is my friend? What has taken him from the lair?”
There was a puzzled look in Gribuck’s eyes, but he kept his face solemn, “The Empress of the Dryads has called for a meeting of truce. Anash and an envoy of the elite guard have gone to see her.”
“Did Torlene and Migus go with him?” Gribuck confirmed this with a nod. Softly he spoke, “I hope all goes well.”
They turned a corner and there down the hallway was another woman in a red rope standing before a doorway. They quietly walked up to her. The two women spoke in whispers for a moment and then the one that guided them turned and motioned for Gribuck to return with her. When they were out of sight, the remaining woman spoke, “Vorent, Largon and the sons of Anash have been invited to spend time with Gynyorra and Garthlac in their private pool. Where you go now is not a place for just anyone. Only the respected may enter.” She then opened the door and motioned him inside. There was a tone of warning in that last sentence.
For some reason what she said to him reminded him of when he met Anash. He had overheard Anash say under his breath, “They did nothing to be slaves, no one deserves that kind of disrespect.” It was such a strong statement from such a young boy. If anyone else there at the training camp had overheard him, it could have been the death of him.
As soon as he entered, she closed the door behind him. He walked along quietly and could smell the freshness of spring water. He could also hear splashing and laughing. He wondered about the people he was about to meet. He had met Vorent many times, but had never seen the two sons of Anash. He doubted that he ever met Largon, but for some reason he felt he knew that name for some reason. Garthlac was always fun to see. The two of them always found themselves talking late into the night. But now he was going to meet the High Father Dragon, the leader of the Dragon’s. Anyone that ever spoke of Gynyorra to him always did so with great respect. He felt as awkward now as he did just a few weeks ago when he came for the first time into the presence of Marlanna the missing daughter of the last Empress.
“Garthlac”, came his father’s voice, “you just put my fire out again and your gonna drown the kids with that kind of splashing.”
Garthlac raised his head out of the water with Beranik sitting on his back, looked over at the fire place which still had a tiny flame let and was about to say something when he saw a brown robed figure standing beside the large hearth that Gynyorra was resting near. Everyone noticed his sudden silence and turned their heads to see what he was looking at. All eyes were now on the hooded man. Beranik’s black dog Gretta climbed out of the water and shook herself before slowly approaching the hooded man.
He reached up and removed the hood. A gasp was heard from Beranik and Gaedon. They had never seen a dryad before. Garthlac was the first to speak, “Challick my friend, what has brought you here this time.” You could hear they joy he felt in seeing his friend.
“Challick!?” both sons of Anash exclaimed in surprise. They had heard much about him, but never had met him.
He smiled up at the boy sitting on Garthlac, “Yes, I am Challick.”
Vorent was quickly out of the water donning his dark gray robe with the emblem of the Honor of Dragon upon each shoulder. Once he had his robe on, he walked up to Challick, “It has been over a year since your last visit. This must be very important for you to come instead of a messenger.” As usual Vorent’s voice and face stayed solemn.
Largon was next out of the water followed by the boys. Largon’s robe was just like Vorent’s except it was a lighter shade of gray. The boys also put on their plain robes of dark green. Gretta, Beranik’s black dog, followed him wherever he went.
Challick smiled, “I have important news. A daughter of the last Empress still lives and I saw her just three weeks ago.”
Everyone’s eyes went wide with that news.
“She someone how learned that I was secretly seeking her and her sister. She sent a messenger to bring me to her.”
“Largon, have benches brought in so we may sit around the fire and hear more”, Vorent spoke without looking away from Challick, “and have more logs brought in.”
“I have not met you Challick, but from all that Anash has told me I feel you are already a friend. I welcome you and your news”, Gynyorra spoke. “Come sit near me, so I won’t miss any of what ye have to tell.”
Challick looked up at Gynyorra and then bowed to him, “your honor is greater than I deserve. I feel humbled in your presence and privileged to finally meet thee.”
Gynyorra chuckled, “Oh come now, don’t be so diplomatic in here. This isn’t the council chamber. This is where we dragons go to have fun, play and tell tales of adventure.”
Largon returned with four men in white wraps around their waists carrying 2 long wooden benches that they set before the fire. As the men left, “They will return soon with more logs and then we can rekindle the fire.”
“Thank you Largon”, Gynyorra spoke, “Let’s all sit and be comfortable now. I can’t wait to hear how you found the missing daughter. By the way, what is her name?”
As he sat down, “Her name is Marlanna and her daughter Marvetta.”
The sons of Anash sat opposite to Challick and just stared at him in wonder and it was obvious they had many questions in their minds from the way Challick could see them looking at him.
Garthlac got out of the pool and laid down on the other side of the fire place from his father, “How did you find them?”
“A messenger was sent to me from a man name Zoch, “Challick looked intently at the boys across from him, “ye are the sons of Anash. What are ye names?” He asked even thought he knew. They both spoke at once and Challick laughed at their excitement. “Ye two may look like your father, but you don’t act like him.”
“They act a bit like their mother did when she was young,” came Gynyorra’s reply with a hint of amusement.
The boys calmed themselves and then told him their names.
“I am Gaedon,” spoke the taller.
“Beranik, I am,” trying to be a bit different.
“Gaedon and Beranik, have ye heard about the missing daughters of the Empress Lorida?”
“Yes, father told us,” spoke the older boy.
“Tell me what ye know and I will then tell what I have learned.”
Gaedon began, trying to sound like his father, “it was a long time ago, long before my father was born. The Empress Lorida was going to have children. A woman was called who was supposed to know all about birth. She was old and bent over, but she showed that she knew what to do. When the daughters were born, she took them to wash. The other in attendance saw the children and praised the Empress for bringing two daughters into the world. Then when the Empress called to see her children, they found no sign of the old lady or the children.”
“And no one saw her leave and the trees knew nothing either,” Beranik blurted out and then got a dirty look from his older brother.
“Ye are both right. No one saw her leave and there had been many around waiting that day. We don’t know how she left with them without the trees knowing something.”
“Trees can know things?” asked Gaedon.
“They know things just like your dog knows. But they have a language of their own.” Challick could see that he had everyone’s attention. He could also tell that the boys before him wanted to ask more questions. “A search was called and no trail was found of the old lady. It was like she had vanished. It was years later that word came back to the Empress. The rumor was that the Dragon’s had the children and the Empress believed this and she then began the plans that later caused the floods. But no one found out anything other than that. My father did not believe in that story. He believed that a witch had taken the children. He searched for many years. Until one day he was found hanging from a tree with his legs cut off at the knees. His legs were never found.”
Everyone included he dragons shivered when they heard this gruesome bit. All were quiet for a moment and then Gynyorra spoke, “This is not the first time I have heard of someone being found in that condition and it is usually someone that gets too close in searching for the daughters.”
“It also happens to dryads that have spoken out against Empress Marasha or against one of her advisors.”
“Do you believe that Marasha had something to do with what happened to the missing daughters?” Vorent asked.
“No, this happened before she was born, but the dark man has been with the last three Empresses. I suspect him, but have nothing to go on.”
“But you found one of them. Can’t she tell you anything?” Beranik quickly asked.
“She has told me a lot, but she was just a baby when she was taken. The people that have kept her captive all these years were able to tell me that a nearly naked young woman with the long black hair and pointed ears brought the two babies.”
“The old lady had black hair?” Gaedon asked.
Challick nodded, “This woman told them to keep the children hidden or she would come back and kill them all and to let them know she meant this. She killed two of their strongest men with just her bare hands.”
“Could this old woman and this black haired woman be the witch that thy father was looking for?” Gynyorra asked.
“Empress Marasha has two advisors. One is the dark man and the other is a black haired nymph named Marja. Marja calls herself a sorceress and has on many occasions shown that she does posses the powers of such.”
“So Marja the witch has returned.” They all looked up at Gynyorra when he said this.
“That is my belief also,” Challick replied.
“Who is Marja the witch?” both boys asked at once.
“She was a daughter of an Empress from long ago, whose father was condemned to death. Marja, a very young girl, brought him back to life. A very evil wretched thing to do. She hid him well for some time, but was discovered. Her father had to be put to death again and then when they came for her, she broke loose and nearly killed everyone there. She did not attempt to kill her mother. She was banished.” Gynyorra cleared his throat and then, “Tell us how you found the true Empress.”
The men in white wraps returned with a cart of long logs and they placed them on the fire as everyone watched. Once the fireplace was ready they took the cart and left. As soon as they were out of the way Gynyorra raised his head and spit out a small fire ball that hit in the center and made a small explosion that got the logs burning.
The boys felt disappointed since they could tell that Gynyorra did not want to discuss this witch in front of them, but they were still about to hear how Challick found the missing daughter of the Empress Lorida.
Challick took a long stick and poked at the fire a bit. There really wasn’t much to this story, but he liked seeing the anticipation in the eyes of the son’s of Anash. “There isn’t much to tell. A messenger brought me a note one day. He happened to come on the day that I was going to go home for a visit. I would not be missed for the next few weeks. The note instructed me to meet a man named Zoch at a certain tree down the river and to come alone and be ready to travel. I was to be taken to see the missing Empress. I didn’t show my excitement. I knew better from experience. The person that handed me the note never spoke a word to me or any other at the training camp where I work. It was obvious that he already knew who I was. I at first took him to be a servant, because he limped and had a hunched back. He also slobbered.” The young boys made a face at this description. “As soon as I had the note, he quickly walked back out of the training camp. I could tell from how he handed me that note, that I should read it in private. I quickly took it to my small room where I did just that. I was scared and excited. I really did not know if I should meet this mysterious man. Maybe the enemy knew of my search and this was a trap. But then this could be real. I could not pass up this chance.”
The look on the boys’ faces before him was exquisite. Challick was enjoying this. He looked at them and wondered which of Anash’s wives they belonged too. His thoughts strayed to Monorra. She was beautiful to him. But he dared not think such thoughts. He did well at hiding his momentary distraction and continued on.
“I arrived at the meeting place after dark. At first I saw no one there, but I could tell that someone had been there recently. I was about to commune with the tree to see how long they had been gone, when the hunchback came out of the bushes. He said only one word, ‘Come.’ I followed him deep into the woods and he didn’t let up until a few hours later. We walked until we came to a small creek that I knew of. Actually I know the whole area. Since that is where I train young sprites. On the other side of the creek was a small fire with a man in a white robe tending it. He was sitting on an old log watching us. As we approached the man the hunchback spoke in reverence, ‘Sir I have brought him.’ It was hard not to notice how much he slobbered with so few words.”
“This man at the fire jerked his head strangely and then spoke in a hoarse voice and seemed to have trouble controlling how loud or soft he spoke his words, ‘I see.’,” Challick moved his head oddly and changed his voice in an attempt to imitate the man he was telling about, “he then gestured for me to sit on another log. Then he told me about himself. His name is Zoch and at one time he was considered the wisest man in is village, many days travel away, but he suffered an accident where a stone had fallen upon his head while they were building a bridge. He awoke many days later and from then on he could not control the way he spoke and he kept doing those jerks I just told you of. It took time listening to him because it was not easy for him to speak. He told me to be patient because his thoughts were so much faster than he could speak. His village no longer thought him wise and sent him to live with the exiles. It was there in time that he made a great discovery. He arrived there to find everything a mess. They had little food and knew very little about taking care of themselves and the pitiful garden they had. He then took it upon himself to teach and help them. It took years of work before they felt he could be trusted as their leader. When they made him their chief, they told him of their secret. Two women that they kept captive in a hut in the very center of the camp.”
“I thought you said you only found one of the daughters?” came Beranik’s quick reply.
Challick smiled at the boy, “Yes I did only find one and she has a daughter of her own,” looking over at Vorent for a moment, “Zoch continued to tell me that the younger woman is now his wife and because her father is one of the men of the exiles, she has twisted legs and is unable to have children. He told me that this was all he could tell me until I met them. We could only travel at night for fear of the one that brought the daughters of the Empress to them. Others had been killed who had tried to find someone to help.”
“So, you went with him?” Gynyorra found this story fascinating.
“I did just that. We traveled for a little over two weeks only at night and never using any of the trails or roads. And of course we did backtracking and other tricks to confuse anyone that might be following us. The hunchback, who I later learned was named Quettel, proved to be an excellent scout. He did more talking during our travel than Zoch did and that was only when he would suddenly show up out of nowhere to inform us of the safest path ahead. Even I, a well trained scout, had trouble trying to spot him each time he came to us.”
“He couldn’t be better than Migus, could he?” Vorent asked.
Challick thought a moment about his travels with Migus, “It’s very possible that Quettel is that good.”
“Oh, my!” the boys exclaimed. Until now all here had never heard of anyone that could compete with Migus as a scout.
“I have traveled many times with Migus and I have to say that if they are not equal in skill, then Quettel could very well be the better of the two. I could just imagine how safe a traveling party would be if they were scouting together.” At hearing these words Gynyorra felt that someday this may be necessary.
“The day before we reached the camp of the exiles we met two men. One was tall with only one eye and one of his legs was shorter than the other. The other was short and dumpy with a dullard look upon his face. They both wore plain gray tunics, but had a circle stitched over their hearts. Zoch spoke with them and then the short one went running away. The tall one stayed with us as we continued to the camp.”
“I have been to an exile camp before and was expecting this one to be the same. But it was not. This one was clean and they had a field of wheat on one side, a stream running thru the camp, flowers planted in front of each cottage and I could smell that a meal was waiting for us. My coming to see the Empress was cause for a celebration. Zoch could see how surprised I was to see how everything was so organized. He smiled at me and said that when he arrived, the stench could be smelled for miles. This was hard to believe, but I am witness to this miracle he performed with these people.”
“We arrived just before noon and Zoch led me to the center of this village. I could no longer call it a camp. In the center was the strangest cottage. It was built out of thick thorn vines and was the largest structure there. It was round and had two great doors in the front. Standing in front was Quettel. He had changed into a gray tunic with that same circle stitched over his heart, but his had a cross stitched within his circle. As we approached, he smiled as best he could and then as he opened the door he said to us, ‘Welcome to my home. My wife the Empress awaits thee inside.’ I was surprised to hear that he was her husband, but then it seemed logical that she be with the most skilled one there.”
“Inside was a very nice home. The beds were to one side and a set of stairs went up to a loft on the other side. Under the stairs was a fireplace with a kettle in it. The smell from the kettle was delicious. And there before me in a long white dress was a woman. The lines of a harsh life were upon her face. But her white hair and green eyes were beautiful. Beside her sat her daughter. She also had green eyes, but her hair was almost brown. She has a hunchback like her father.”
“I stood before them in silence. We studied each other for a moment before I came to myself. I quickly removed my pack and got down on my knees and bowed. I could not help it. I began to cry. I was there in the presence of the Empress and she was like I was told she would be. It is well known that the daughters were born with white hair and green eyes. These are the special ones. Their hair never dulls from its shiny white glow and some are known to have unusual abilities. I wondered if this was true with the lady before me.”
“She asked me to stand and then she had a chair brought in for me to sit. She apologized for not standing. After her sister escaped when they were little girls, the leader of the exiles had her legs broken and had them heal in a crooked manner. The best that she could do was crawl without help.”
“Legs broken! Why?” came Beranik’s quick question.
“She told me that the spirits helped her sister to escape and when she was discovered alone in her cage, the whole camp became very scared. They thought that the woman who had brought them would come back and be very mad at them. So to be sure that she did not even try to escape, they broke her legs. Sadly they braced them so that they would not heal properly.”
Everyone took a moment to look at their own legs. None could imagine having to live through such an ordeal. Not even Vorent and Largon, who had been through battles and seen many types of wounds. It was hard for them to believe that this could happen to a little girl.
“The people of this village knew practically nothing about the one that brought the daughters there. I spent most of my time with the Empress telling her about her people. While in her presence I wrote letters to three general that I knew would come at my request and asked them to bring their troops. I sealed them with my seal and handed them over to Quettel. I gave him directions and how to identify them. He was packed and gone with the hour. In the next three weeks I wrote more letters. Zoch was able to find others that could take messages. The rest of the time I spent teaching Marlanna as much as I could about her people. Then on the last day before I left, she told me something very important. She said that the spirits that helped her sister escape had told her that they would only return and speak with her again if her sister was killed or had died. Then with a smile she told me that the spirits have never returned.”
“Then the other daughter is still alive. How will you find her?” Garthlac asked.
“That I do not know."
“Is the Empress under protection now?”
“Yes, the three generals and their armies came a few days before I left. They are set up all around the village and treat it and the people there like they are the Royal court of the Empress. Zoch and Quettel are now considered by all that have come to see the Empress as great heroes. I have received many replies to the letters I have written. More than half of the Dryad nation has pledged themselves to the Empress Marlanna.”
Concern came upon those listening to Challick. They all knew that this would drastically change how Anash’s meeting would affect what they were hoping for. Challick saw the concern on their faces and he stood up. From within his robe he pulled out a rolled up parchment. “I have here a pledge that the Empress and the three generals have signed. It proclaims that she is the true Empress and that she and all that serve her will now and forever be at peace with the Honor of Dragon. It ends with a request that she be allowed to come and present herself to the Dragon Council. She desires to do this, so that her people may be forgiven for the tragedies that have come about because of her absence.”