Chapter Two Early Days
“The rest of the day was spent giving some of the children their holiday tasks and preparing ourselves for the journey up in to the mountains. But Serin had first to deal with the Uwell identical twins Ivan and Ivor a task I watched with gathering amusement.”
Serin viewed the two boys in front of her with a disappointed air. The boys were short and wiry with dark swarthy complexions and eager expressions. They were identical physically in every way and even had the same mannerisms but when it came to music they were chalk and cheese. Ivan was quite brilliant for his age, a natural musician, whereas Ivor couldn’t hold a note in a bucket. It wasn’t as if he didn’t try, in fact quite the opposite he was earnest and eager to please, and it was just simply that he had no musical aptitude at all. The sadness was that he was exactly the same in all his classes receiving the citation once from one of the teachers of Common that, ‘Ivor sets himself very low targets that despite all his best endeavours and great efforts he still somehow manages to fail to reach.’ It was a damming indictment that stuck in Serin’s throat especially as the lad seemed to be so intelligent in fact she had rewarded him several times just for his sterling efforts rather than his results.
“Right boys.” She said gathering her thoughts together. “I’ve some little tasks I want you to carry out while on your break. Now don’t look at me like that these won’t take you long, you’ll have plenty of time left to be with your families. Ivor I want you to practice the triple beat on the Tambour I’ve lent you for fifteen minutes in the morning and Ivan I would like you to compose a simple lament for the pipes.”
“But Miss Serin.” Said one of the boys. “Ivan has been teaching me look I can do it now.” The boy picked up the small wooden rod with its tapered middle carefully and lifted up the narrow cymbal like drum and begun playing a credible three beat if a little clumsily. “See Miss Serin.”
Serin smiled sadly and held out her hands for the drum and striker. She turned and gave them to the other boy.
“As I was saying, you Ivor practice.” Pointing at the boy she had given the drum to. “And you Ivan compose.” She tried to look stern but couldn’t keep it up. She sighed and placed a hand on the crest fallen boys shoulders. “It was a good try Ivan but even trying to play badly your pure notes and skill came through. You’re good boys and I don’t want to punish you. Your brother must love you very much Ivor to come up with this knowing the risks.”
“It’s just that all the teachers have given him work to do Miss Serin and I want him to have fun too.” Ivan explained a little tearfully.
Serin suddenly grinned at the boys and ruffled their hair.
“Then I have a fun thing for both of you to do.” She took back the drum and stick. “I want you both, and I mean both not Ivan on his own, to find out for me three birds and animals that sing or dance. Ask your families I’m sure they would love to help.”
The boys smiled up at her with childish glee before being dismissed.
“It’s true Serin darling I’ve given him work too. I’ve given him a book to press four wild flowers in and he must try to name them.” Horren put a hand on her shoulder and squeeze it gently. “As much as we might want to we can’t get involved, it’ll be unfair on the others.”
“After waving the last of the children off we climbed into Lorren’s and Darius’s little sailing skiff to begin our journey down the coast to the province of Curnow to a place called Malagasy. At first the journey was quite pleasant but as we sailed out into the Urish and Cold Sea’s the water became rougher and rougher making both Serin and I quite ill but Lorren was absolutely loving each large wave taking it as a personal challenge to her sailing skills as she steered the ship with sail and rudder.
Eventually we entered thankfully the calmer waters of the bay and tied up against the isolated jetty.
Soon we were disembarking….”
The women disembarked from the little ship with packs on their backs and a bag in their hands dressed ready for the walk ahead, well all of them save Hanna who in her diaphanous almost transparent dress looked like she was going for a gentle stroll before having java and cream cakes.
“Hanna child we are going up into the mountains are we not?” The question from Tesler was totally rhetorical since everyone knew were they were going. “Do you think that attire is suitable for the rigors ahead?”
“Oh yes.” She answered brightly. “It’s more than adequate. Come on this way.”
She led them off the jetty and up a relatively well worn track that curled itself around and up the steep cliffs to the rolling hills that sat at the base of the Dyffid mountains.
An hour or so later they exited out of woods to join a main track that ran past a bubbling brook that poured into a sheltered pool before continuing on its way.
Five of them stopped to wipe the sweat and dirt off their faces in the cold water while Hanna looking fresh as a daisy stretched out languidly on a branch that hung over the water and began playing a haunting tune on her pan pipes.
“How long before we reach the first stopping point Hanna?” Serin asked looking longingly at the cool water.
“Oh we’ll be at the cabin in two hours at the most I should think.” She yawned mightily. “We’ve plenty of time before sunset.”
“I was hoping you would say that. Anyone for a swim?” Serin called before stripping off and diving in. A few seconds later she reappeared gasping for breath as the shock of the cold water took her breath away. “It’s beautiful and clear.” She added trying hard not to shiver or let her teeth chatter.
“But cold I should imagine.” Tesler moaned as she watched Lorren dive in and swim away with powerful strokes. A short way away Darius slipped into the water carefully so not to strain her injured leg. Horren could see the horrible scars around her right knee and how sections of muscle had been excised as they fought to save it. Though still strong the leg looked strangely withered when compared to the other one.
After a moment or two of indecision Tesler and Horren stripped off and made to join the others. While Horren slipped in as carefully as Darius Tesler took a run up and launched herself over the water to land bum first amongst the others, creating a massive splash as she did so. When she resurfaced she turned the air as blue as her freezing skin with invectives from every nationality including some the other women had never heard of before.
“Language Sister!” Admonished Hanna humorously from her comfortable perch.
“I thought you said it was warm?” Tesler moaned to Serin when she had calmed down.
“No I didn’t I said it was lovely and clear which it is.” Serin replied trying hard not to smile.
“We’ll it was till madam here decided to drive most of the pool up her backside.” Teased Darius as she proceeded to wash her hair.
The women bathed, swam or lazed on the shore for the next fifteen minutes all under Hanna’s amused stare and sometimes mocking tongue. Several times they had tried to get the little teacher to join them in the pool but each time she politely refused with a light musical laugh. Then suddenly the reeds and grasses parted and a weary dusty man appeared leading an equally weary and dusty horse down to the waters edge.
Horren noticed with amusement that Tesler was the only one to make any attempt at covering up by draping an arm over her bust and a hand over her crutch, but it seemed she needn’t have bother as he was totally oblivious of them as the horse drank and he washed his face. It wasn’t till he lifted his third cupped hands full of water up to drink that he suddenly noticed them and the effect was quite amusing. His mouth dropped open and the water ran out of his hands as he went a vivid shade of pink. The poor man didn’t know where to look for naked young women and ended up staring at the ground in front of him as, he hoped, a safe region to look.
“I can assure you sir that we are quite real.” Hanna purred as she stroked her leg and sides seductively. She seemed almost ethereal up there in the tree; she was surrounded by a nimbus, an aurora, of multicoloured fairy lights that bewitched the senses as she exerted her full glamour at him. “Is there something we can do for you sir, some service perhaps?”
The man slowly stood up and without looking up groped for the horses reigns.
“I am sorry to disturb you Mistress and your ladies, I surely am, but we were dry and dirty and had need of water see. If I had known that you and your handmaidens were here I wouldn’t have come.”
“Handmaidens?” Horren questioned angrily but was cut of by Serin’s light musical voice.
“Worry not dear sir for like you we were dusty and thirsty and like you had need to refresh ourselves.” She smiled and bobbed in the water. “What call you dear sir and where do you hale from?”
The poor man was twisting the reigns around in his hands in anxiety as he tried to extricate himself from the situation.
“I be called Daffid Muster my lady and live in Cadiff to the south but lately I height from Caer Carrow in the north, an evil and worrisome place to be sure. Mighty glad I was to be away from that accursed place my lady.”
Without thinking he lifted his head and found himself staring straight at Lorren as she stood naked letting the warm sun dry her body.
“Forgive my crudity and gaze but I have never seen such beauty before.” He said trying to keep staring at the floor once more with only limited success. Then a thought hit him, hard, and for him quite frightening. “Be you angels come down to take my soul to be carried to heaven my ladies?”
It took several heartbeats for Horren to realise that the poor man was being quite earnest.
She couldn’t help but look at her sister’s naked form and wonder if a least likely looking Angel had ever been seen before. Lorren’s long hair now untied hung around her pale face like a black cowl emphasising the skins pallor and the starkness of the makeup. Her small perfectly formed breasts were pierced by two sets of silver dragon claws through the black painted nipples and linked together with a silvered chain. On her chest and breasts was a tattoo of red and yellow flames behind a grinning skull. So fine was the work that the flames seemed to flicker in the empty eye sockets as she moved. Her navel and the hood of her secret place were pierced by another set of claws and showed off her neatly trimmed pubic hair cut to represent the upper section of a skull. On her upper right arm was an image of a bloodied long sword dripping blood while on the left was a war axe in a similar state while at the base of her spine and over her small pert rump was the depiction of the Angel of Death resplendent in tattered finery scythe in hand.
Yes all in all she was the most unlikely subject to be mistaken for an angel.
“No my friend.” Serin called bringing Horren thoughts back to reality. “We are just travellers like you making use of the pool to refresh ourselves.”
“Are you married good sir?” Called Darius from where she was vigorously drying herself. “You see it is soon to be our friends nineteenth birthday and we have set a course to find her a good husband.”
“Forgive me dear ladies but if you are not a heavenly host then you are the nearest this blessed Earth could get to one.” He was swaying from foot to foot shaking his head as if befuddled. “As for marriage I have a good wife and two daughters of my own back in Cadiff but even if I was free I would be unequal to the task of being your intended for only the most hansom High lord would be fitting enough.”
“That’s a shame Serin.” Darius whispered as Serin joined her on the bank.
“Stop it!” She hissed back before saying more loudly. “I thank you for your kind words dear sir but in truth it is honesty and kindness that I value more than wealth and status.”
“But you won’t turn it down if it came your way in one package.” Darius said quietly with a querying eyebrow.
“Stop it, your incorrigible.” Serin replied with a grin.
When Horren looked back it was to see Hanna leading the man away into the longer grass to do what ever Dryads do with the people they enthral, much to Tesler’s obvious annoyance.
They had all finished drying and dressing themselves when the man reappeared took up the horses reigns once more and without looking at them led it zombie like to the main path. The women, puzzled, followed to see him take to the saddle and slowly ride away only to stop a few hundred yards away, shake himself look around but not back before riding on once more with a mighty and noisy yawn.
“It worked then?” Said Hanna from inside a deep bush.
“What did you do you little Hori, come out of there and explain yourself.” Tesler said angrily.
“Do you mean me Holy Sister?” She replied as she popped out of the bush like a cork out of a bottle with a studied expression of innocence. “I don’t think I did anything wrong I just convinced him that he’d watered his horse and washed himself at the pool but there was know one else there.”
“And you couldn’t do that in plain view?” Tesler asked her arms crossed over her ample bosom unsure whether to believe her or not.
“Well I could hardly convince him he was alone with you all flashing your bits at him now could I.”
“No I suppose not.” Tesler conceded slinging her pack on to her back. “Come on we’ve still a fair way to go before we reach the first way point.”
“Mind you.” Hanna added as she led the way with a stalk of grass in her mouth and a wink at Serin. “It’s much easier when you’ve got them excited. He was a lousy lover you know didn’t have a clue what to do to pleasure a woman. I feel quite sorry for his wife, I really do.”
“Hanna!!” Tesler admonish as everyone else burst out laughing as Hanna winked at them once more with a wicked little grin.
But they were not in the mood for laughing several hours later as with the sun setting they had failed to find the log cabin which was to be their first way point and a bed for the night.
“We should be there by now.” Horren moaned for the umpteenth time drawing irritated looks from her travelling companions. “Well we should be.”
Tesler for some reason started to chuckle as she lifted a hand to call a halt.
“My dear Horren you are quite correct as usual.” With a grunt of relief she lowered her pack to the ground and rolled her aching shoulders. “We will camp here for the night and try and get our bearings in the morning.”
With a sense of relief the others readily agreed and lowered their own packs and bags.
But Serin was concerned.
“Is it safe to do so Sister? We are very close to the area that Daffid had said he had fled from and we still have no idea what had worried him so.”
“A good point child. Darius, Lorren will you both check the surrounding area for any causes for concern? Horren will you communicate with the beasts of the field and you child with those of the air to have them act as our eyes and ears? Hanna will you put up some alarm wards please?” Tesler turned as did the others to see a most peculiar sight, Hanna stuck half way in a trees trunk, her left side being the only part visible. “Come out of there at once child!!” Tesler roared.
“So that’s why you weren’t carrying a pack you were going to sneak home every night while we have to rough it, that’s not right Hanna” Horren was appalled.
To explain every Dryad has an affinity with a tree of a certain species, in Hanna’s case an Oak, and will build their home in amongst the roots of one of them such that this will be their home tree. While away from their Home Tree they can return to it by simply entering a tree of the same species which acts as a portal. At this moment in time the left side which was visible was in the glade with the other women while the right was in her bedroom by her magnificently carved four poster bed.
Slowly she pulled the rest of herself back into view.
“Ah, yes, well.” Hanna stuttered for a moment. “You didn’t think I was going to abandon you for the night did you. I was just popping back to get my night things, you didn’t think I was going to carry them did you?”
Tesler stared at her too angry to speak.
“Come on Hanna you can help me build a fire before Lorren and I go and check the perimeter.” Darius said clearly trying to lighten the atmosphere in all senses of the word.
“Go and get your things Hanna. Quickly now.” Lorren called and then watched as Hanna with a hop and a skip vanished into the trunk of the tree.
“If she doesn’t come back before morning I’ll skin her.” Lorren added coldly.
“I don’t think you’ll have to I have a sneaking suspicion Tesler will beat you to the punch.” Horren remarked staring at the fuming nun.
“I heard that!” Hanna’s head had reappeared with a curious little bonnet on the top of her head.
Tesler then suddenly smiled.
“I’ll make us a fire and you girls get on with what I asked you to do.” Her voice then darkened. “I will deal with Hanna should she deem to make a full appearance.”
Horren sat side by side and hand in hand as they dropped into a deep meditation and sent out their minds, their senses, out into the forest. In her minds eye Horren could see the silver thread of Serin’s consciousness questing among the bushes and trees. Serin found a ghost owl sitting alert in the branches of an old popular watching and listening for its prey. Serin gently called to it and was rewarded by it turned its head one way then another as it tried to pinpoint where the voice was coming from.
“Mighty night warrior, I Serin of the Iroquois requests an audience.” Serin pushed these unsaid words out toward the bird and received flashing images of a hunt and kill back. “I am sorry to disturb your hunt but I have need of you to watch over me while I sleep and to warn me of danger.” Again the flashing images were of a hunt this time with her body close by. “So be it mighty night warrior you will hunt close by to where I rest and give me warning should other people or predators come this way. Good hunting brother.”
The bird gave an eerie ghostly call before vanishing into the trees.
When Serin opened her eyes feeling totally spent she saw that the others had built a fire and Hanna, now resplendent in green leather, was cooking their evening meal.
“Did you find anything?” Horren asked passing over a steaming goblet of Java. She went on to explain that she had found it difficult to find a suitable guardian as the woodland seemed strangely bereft of any life. “I’ve never known such an emptiness it was almost as if there was a barrier of some sort. In the far distance I could detect hoards of life but not around here.”
Serin conceded how difficult it was and how strange now she came to think about it.
“Sleep lightly tonight as I’ve a feeling we may be needed before dawn breaks.” Horren said worriedly.
“You worry far too much you do.” Hanna chided. “I’m making a chicken in wine dish with rice. It should be ready soon. There’s a stream over there you can use to freshen up. Oh and the Holy Sister is preparing sleeping arrangements so she’ll need your sleeping mats and cradles as for me I’ve got a hammock in the trees.”
Shortly before the meal was dished up Lorren and Darius reappeared to report they had found nothing which was a worry in itself.
“The whole areas empty save for some old ruins up the north track, nothing was stirring anywhere. I’ve never known it so quiet.” Darius reported with a shrug.
After what Horren had to admit was a splendid meal they settled down for the night. Lorren sat outside the firelight watching, as she was a bit of an insomniac and loved the dark she seemed the perfect choice for guard duty. Up in the trees the Ghost Owl flitted backwards and forwards looking for food and just as they stripped of to get into their bed rolls a small Lynx sashayed into the clearing and walked over to Horren.
“Thank you for answering my call little sister.” She bent and placed a hand on the dusky little felines head. The images that flashed through her mind at that touch was confused and underlined with fear. One thing was obvious this was a bad place.
The Lynx then padded around them to lay down by their bedrolls with a yawn that showed off her pin sharp teeth.
With their guards, both human and animal in place, they settled down. Hanna was playing a breathless quiet melody on her pan pipes as Serin laid her head on her lovers chest and the pair of them looked up into the starry night.
“Look you can see the ‘Hunter’ clearly tonight.” Serin said pointing out the constellation of stars that was so prominent in the summer sky. “You can see his belt and his belt bag.” The three stars on a diagonal could be seen clearly as was the seldom seen misty patch that was the bag. Orion the hunter was still searching for his lost love across the skies as he had for all remembered and recorded time though confusingly in some ancient tomes it was considered to be a winter phenomenon and not a summer sight.
“There’s something bad about this place but I just can’t just put my finger on it.” Horren moaned as she gently stroked Serin’s hair absent minded, drowsy from the fires heat.
It must have been a couple of hours later when everyone was gently snoring, well everyone save Tesler who made a noise like a demented pig, that the young woman appeared at the edge of the fire light. She was just about to call out to them when a black shape moving at an incredible speed enveloped her. She opened her mouth to scream silently before dropping to the ground quite dead. As speedily as it appeared the black amorphous shape vanished.
The Lynx got up and walked cautiously over to the body and carefully sniffed at it. The body was sprawled its limbs disjointed and at ridiculous angles upon the ground. A thin trickle of blood ran from four puncture wounds on her neck. The girl was dressed in a thin, very thin shift that didn’t disguise the fact that she was naked underneath but as the cat sniffed at the copse it began to fall into itself like it was made of some old parchment, it quite laterally turned to dust and blew away. It was as if what ever energy held the body and dress together had gone allowing them to fall apart in mere seconds.
Startled the cat rapidly retreated to where Horren and Serin lay entwined and joined them under the covers shivering in fear.
Horren woke up as the cat licked her face with its rough tongue and mewed fearfully.
“What’s a matter little one, if you’re cold go sit by the fire, and warm up” Horren sleepily put a hand on the felines head softly only to jerk it away as a series of images flooded her mind. “Serin wake up we’ve had company.”
“What.” Serin murmured still firmly in the hands of Morpheus, of sleep.
“Check up on your owl?” Horren commanded as she roused her sister. “Lorren wake up we’ve had a visitor.” She called shaking her.
A few moments later the two sisters were examining the area where the girl’s body once laid, flattening the grass. Shinning on the ground were two metal rings and several buckles.
“You’re right sister someone or something has been here.” Lorren said briskly carefully moving the jewellery and buckles with her sword tip. “The shape in the grass suggests humanoid as do the jewellery and straps.”
“Female too, I don’t think any man would wear anything so delicate.” Horren concluded. “But where has she gone and why leave these behind.”
“Your animals see anything?” Lorren asked briskly.
“Yes but most of the images are incoherent. Both Serin’s owl and my lynx saw a body here but what sex it was and what happen to it is unclear save what ever happened terrified them. I don’t think I could get them back even if I wanted to.” Horren told her.
Darius appeared out of the bushes with a frown on her face.
“How ever she left it wasn’t on foot. I can find plenty of evidence of her entering the area but none of her leaving. Curious isn’t it.” She ran a hand through her unruly hair and shrugged. “She could have flown I suppose.”
“A shape changer you mean. It’s possible I suppose but why leave all this behind.” Serin pointed at the rings and buckles that still lay on the ground. “Besides when Horren changes in to the bear her rings and clothes change to.”
“Not all shape changers are identical if it was a mage she would have to leave these metal objects behind.” Hanna said as she joined the group. “Perhaps we startled her just by being here?”
“Possible but we’re not going to solve it tonight.” Tesler said from the fireside. “Are the wards untouched Hanna?” The little Dryad nodded. “Good. I’m making some java and then back to bed to get what rest we can, I want to be away from here by first light and we’ll make any decisions then when we can see better.”
Though it was doubtful that any of them got much sleep at least their bodies were rested when the dawn came.
It was decided after they broke their nightly fast that Darius would track their visitor back to her origin to try and unravel the mystery. Well it was decided by all bar Horren who had grave reservations over the wisdom of such an action.
“I still think this is wrong my love.” She told Serin as they walked up the slowly narrowing path behind the others. “We know that something frightened Daffid up here and after our visitor last night I don’t think it’s just an over zealous woman and yet here we are blithely walking straight into it with out weapons or preparations. If you ask me we should just leave it and go home.”
If Serin could see her point she didn’t show it.
“Yes true but isn’t it exciting. Hanna promised me an adventure and it looks like she has succeeded besides which as druids we are duty bound to investigate anything that disturbs the natural order.” She squeezed Horren’s hand a little harder. “Besides how am I going to find a husband to father children on me if I don’t go out and look.”
“Do you have to, find a husband I mean?” Horren asked wearily.
“Of course it is it’s every woman’s sworn duty to bring a new generation into the world.” Serin said aghast at such blasphemy.
The morning was going fast as they reached the top of a hill and looked into the green valley below. The only building they could see was a large mansion like inn across the other side. Darius had lost the trail a quarter of an hour back as they reached a tall rise of broken rock and loose stones which made the going quite treacherous and when the sky darkened with rolls of thunder and flashes of lightening it only became even more difficult.
“I think we better set up camp before the storm hits.” Tesler their erstwhile leader suggested.
“If you think I’m going to shelter in a tent under trees with a storm raging when there’s a serviceable inn across the way you’re totally mad, insane, gone with the fairies.” Hanna moaned. “I’m just thinking of you, you know I mean I can always pop home.”
“Very well.” Tesler sighed. “How long do you think it will take us to get there Lorren, Darius?”
“If we trot around half an hour or so.” The two women agreed.
“Fine lets trot then.” Poor Tesler wasn’t designed for trotting as became evident as she dropped further and further behind while surprisingly Hanna not only kept up but seemed to be always ahead of them. Horren suspected that she was cheating by tree hopping but didn’t have the breath or inclination to challenge her,. He mind was full of the strangeness of the storm. It was as they turned to see the inn a hundred or so yards ahead that the first heavy drops of rain began to fall. They decided to wait for the visibly flagging Tesler to catch up so they could all arrive together when an incredibly bright flash of lightning followed almost immediately by a horrendously loud crash of thunder. Half blinded and deafened they collected up their cleric friend and made a mad dash for the inns front door praying that it would be open as the heavens opened and down came a deluge of legendary proportions.
“An inn at the centre of a strange storm I really am scared.” Hanna yelled over the noise with a strange expression on her face as if she was trying not to laugh.
As it happens she was more correct than she knew.