Welcome to Zion
The next morning while the group began to pack their belongings, Llorva noticed eyes on her from members of Jared’s warbound. They paid no mind to the masculine Vylasgarden, who seemed to be capable of overpowering any of them with one hand tied behind her back. No, they stole glances of her and the entire time she felt her skin crawl. Llorva felt isolated. Riker and Vylasgarden were too preoccupied with packing to notice her discomfort and she sure wasn’t going to draw any more attention to herself by calling the men out for their staring. Llorva decided to walk away from the camp and clear her racing mind. She walked into the barren scrub and as she wandered, she ate from a loaf of bread she had cut up the night before with one of her daggers. She eventually came across a hole in the ground near a dead bush and knelt to examined it. She could hear a creature sniffing and crawling from inside the hole. “Some one home?” she called out.
A jackrabbit appeared and came out from the hole. It twitched its nose and raised to its back legs to investigate the bread in Llorva’s hand. “Ah! ‘Thee wilt be filled with pangs of hunger’,” Llorva recited from some text of poetry she had read a time before. She thought about telling Riker about those books but managed to let it slip away from memory when the opportunity presented itself. She used her free hand to pick a large piece of bread from the loaf and offered it to the jackrabbit. The small animal sniff the bread and got closer to Llorva but startled away into its hole when an approaching silhouette came from behind Llorva. Llorva turned her head and recognized one of Jared’s halfblooded boulderheads, Durbal. “You scared it away,” she said standing up.
“We are about to leave milady,” Durbal informed in a deep grizzled voice. He looked her over with lustful eyes and said, “You are beautiful.”
“Thank you,” Llorva replied though she was not flattered. Throughout the last century strangers would easily compliment her appearance; it meant very little to her. She began to walk toward the camp when Durbal stood in her way. His wide frame completely blocked out the sun from her perspective. He took his finger and caressed Llorva’s face with it. “I always wanted to know what an elf woman felt like.”
“You are repulsive,” Llorva said fearlessly smacking his hand away. “Don’t touch me!”
“Don’t do that,” Durbal growled. “I don’t like it when you do that.”
“I don’t like you touching me,” she replied.
He stepped closer when suddenly, he was turned around and struck in the chest, sending him flying over a meter away in the air. “Do not do that again or the next one will be fatal,” Vylasgarden said crouching over Durbal’s twitching body. He tried to speak but every breath became harder and harder to make. Vylasgarden helped him to his feet and supported him all the way back to the camp. As he passed Llorva he apologized in a pained hushed tone.
“You should keep your hands to yourself for the rest of the trip,” Vylasgarden told Durbal.
“I wasn’t… going… to hurt her,” Durbal said holding his pained chest.
“You disrespected her, and if we are going to work together I suggest you learn how to respect other’s personal space,” Vylasgarden said in a very serious tone. “Let your brother’s experience be a lesson for all of you,” she said once they returned to the camp.
“What happened?” Jared asked.
“Your brother touched my face without permission,” Llorva announced.
Jared looked at Durbal disapprovingly and said, “I would beat you senseless but it looks like the sarkany has done that enough. Next time you will also have to answer to me Durbal.”
Durbal nodded and held his swelling chest, “I think… you might have broken something,” he said referring to Vylasgarden. Vylasgarden went to him and placed her clawed hand over the swollen chest. Llorva noticed that Vylasgarden was probably using Durbal’s qi to sense the injury.
“Nothing is broken but I did bruise you badly,” Vylasgarden finally said. “I can heal you, but you will have to promise to not to go near Llorva again.” Durbal’s pained face looked confused but he didn’t hesitate to nod his head.
“You are a healer?” Jared asked Vylasgarden.
“Not in the traditional sense,” Vylasgarden replied.
“I don’t understand,” Jared followed. “Wouldn’t monks from the west use an assortment of herbs and medicines to heal injuries?”
“Yes, they do. I have training in the art of qi manipulation though. It is an ancient method,” Vylasgarden explained as Durbal’s chest began to illuminate. The light within him traveled to the center of his chest where Vylasgarden had struck him. Durbal’s pained face relaxed as the pain relieved from his body.
“How do you feel?” Ezekiel asked Durbal.
“I feel… Amazing,” Durbal replied. “I feel better than I did waking up this morning.”
“Incredible,” Jared said under his breath. “Where did you learn this sorcery?”
“It isn’t magic. At least not the way you think of magic,” Vylasgarden replied. “Years of study and discipline taught me this technique. I had to get over a lot of physical and mental obstacles to get this good with the art,” she said walking away from Durbal.
“No doubt we are in good fortune to have you,” Jared said.
Riker looked at him, smiled, and replied, “You have no idea.”
For the first few hours of walking the group traveled from the scrubs into a beautiful savanna grassland. In the distance, they could see a single storm cloud rain over the grasses. “This is Zion,” Jared said as the group stood and watched the view before them. Gazelles grazed the grasses and a heard of elephants could be seen in the distance.
“It’s beautiful here,” Llorva said as she took in the view. She had never seen a world like this before. Sure she had heard of the Zion Province and even seen the animals from there in street performances, but she never stood on its soil and basked in its more intense sun. The Civil Kingdoms Province’s weather prevented hot days throughout most of the year with stormy clouds and the density of the surrounding temperate forests. There on the grassy plains Llorva could see as far as her eyes would take her. It was magnificent.
“Come. There is much to see,” Jared said as he took the lead forward. The group soon came across a small village of zionder humans. They were welcomed by a pair of red flags with a strange creature as their emblem. It resembled a lion with the wings of an eagle. When Riker asked Jared about the creature on the flag, he told Riker that the picture is of one of the province’s most favored deities, the Sphinx. He continued to say that, “the humans of this region of the province usually keep to themselves. The only interaction they have with the outside world is when artisans and merchants come through their villages.”
“I noticed several trade routes leading up north through the province. The economies here must be thriving,” Riker stated.
“One would think,” Ezekiel replied. “The empire has a monopoly on trade with other provinces. The best the local tribes and villages can do is deal with travelers. Which is never enough to develop their communities.”
“I always thought it strange how the Civil Kingdom’s only had on import from the Zion Province,” Llorva followed.
“That’s right,” Jared confirmed. “Iron, ivory, and precious gems go through the Shining City before trading with the outside. Even the dwarves of the Jeweled Mountains are subjected to the empire’s law, and from what I understand they aren’t recognized as citizens of the empire.” As they pass by, a group of zionder children waved at the travelers from a tree they were playing in. Llorva noticed their smiling faces. These human children were the same age as the human children from elven kingdom, but they looked happier than the urban children at home. It was an unusual sight for her as she waved back at them.
Once they had reached the heart of the village, Jared referred to a massive lion statue with numerous tents setup around it. “This is the Merchant Circle,” he said standing before them. Llorva looked around and saw a crowd of zionder people buying and selling produce and goods. Many of the women traveled together in groups. Some balanced jugs atop their heads as they walked between places and mothers carried their babes on their backs with beautiful cuts fabric.
“Are we to explore?” Vylasgarden asked.
“Absolutely!” Llorva insisted as she walked towards the tents. “We may not have money but there is no harm in looking around.” Llorva had seen humans with dark skin before but these humans had completions that were much darker than any human she had seen before. The older men wore white beards that perfectly contrasted the dark lines from their wrinkled faces, and the women had either textured hair or were bald. Despite the gender norm she was used to, it did not take away the beauty or grace these women possessed. Llorva even admired the way they wore their colorful clothing which had patterns on it that was so stylized to the Zion Provice, she had never seen anything like it before.
Some of the villagers greeted Llorva and the group as they passed by. Merchants and nomads offered clothing and jewelry as Llorva passed their carts and stands. “Beautiful necklace for a beautiful woman?” a nomad offered Llorva.
“Thank you but I couldn’t afford it,” she replied.
“Nonsense malady, you cannot fool me. I have an eye for nobility,” the man said referring to Llorva’s golden cuffs in her pointed ears. Llorva took a step back and covered her head with her cloak. “Why do you hide?” the man asked quizzically. Llorva just stared at the man worriedly.
“Here,” she said handing him one of her cuffs. “You didn’t see me,” she said before walking away. She should have taken those off long ago. At the very least when Riker pointed out her signet ring. Llorva became frustrated with herself. How could I be this naïve? she thought. If I had the coin I would buy a whole new set of clothing. Llorva took a breath and joined the rest of the party on the other end of the market. As they all left the village, they entered a rural district that featured many farms spread out from one another. Eventually they come across a pasture of horses at the end of the district.
“Having horses would make traveling to the Shinning City much quicker,” Riker said.
“You know, you are right,” Jared said before he took his large battle axe and used it to break the pasture’s fencing.
“What are you doing!?” Vylasgarden exclaimed.
“We need horses,” Jared said plainly as he and his warbound stormed the field. Llorva watched as the warbound chased the horses about the pasture.
“This is what happens when you invite strange barbaric people to travel with you,” Llorva said looking out into the pasture with her arms crossed.
“Yes,” Riker agreed. “But we do need horses,” he said before giving in and running into the pasture.
“Is he serious?” Llorva said to Vylasgarden.
“If we don’t get our own, there is a chance that we would have to ride with one of the warbound,” Vylasgarden said before going into the pasture after Riker. Llorva cursed and when she was done she too went into the pasture. The last couple of weeks had been many firsts for her. The first time she had been hungry, the first time she was nearly imprisoned, and now the first time she stole a horse. Llorva wondered what would be next on the list. After several minutes, every person in the group had cornered and stole their own horse with constructed reins, muzzles, and lead rope from the hemp they were carrying. Llorva had ridden domesticated horses before so she easily checked and guided her horse onto the path and waited patiently for the rest of the party. Not long after they all continued the path, the sun began to set.
“We are going to need to find a spot to catch a wink for the night,” Jared announced.
“No I think we should ride the night. The owners of these horses will come looking for them. It would be best if we cover as much ground as possible. It will also get us to the city much faster that way,” Riker insisted.
Llorva glared at Riker but said nothing. She was tired and did not want to go any further, but looking around she saw that there wasn’t any place to hide in the surrounding grassland.
“What do you think Jared?” Ezekiel asked. Llorva looked at Jared and saw that Jared was considering Riker’s suggestion.
“I agree,” he finally said. “It makes sense to keep going. Besides there is not another settlement for several kilometers.” Ahead of them in the distance was a great mountain range surrounded by flat grasslands and the twilight sky.
“Should we go around it and follow the merchant path?” Riker asked Jared.
“The range is gargantuan. It would take an extra day to go around it,” Jared answered.
“Then we take the path through it then,” Riker concluded.
“Going through the mountain at night on horseback could be dangerous,” Vylasgarden expressed.
“It is also the quickest way to the city. We would have a big lead if we go through tonight,” Riker argued.
“It is settled then,” Jared decreed. “We ride the night.”
“Riker, you do not speak for us,” Llorva said sternly. Riker looked at her, then at Vylasgarden. Guilt flooded his face.
“You are right. I am sorry for my ill manor. Of course, we shouldn’t go into a strange mountain at night. Forgive me,” he said genuinely. Llorva’s face softened and Vylasgarden lead her horse over to Riker’s and placed her clawed hand on his shoulder.
“You are forgiven, so long you think of us in the future,” She told him. Vylasgarden looked up at the mountain as the sun set to the west of it. “Perhaps instead we could evade the horse owners by make camp in a safe place on or near the mountain.”
“Perhaps. What do you think Llorva?” Riker asked.
Llorva was flustered and tired but she knew everyone was waiting on her to make this decision, and how could she say no when everyone else is saying yes. She ultimately agreed.
“That is a good idea.”