It rained off and on again for much of the day, but the mist was always present, as it circled around the village. Eira, with her feelings for it, likened the phenomena to a group of vultures waiting and biding their time. Several times, Awel anxiously asked her if he could escort her back to her parents, but she always reminded him of her dislike of walking in the fog. She still hadn’t told him or Adelae every aspect of her travels, but her newfound fear of it only worked to pique his interest.
Despite the wet conditions, several Folk men had gathered dry wood from their huts so as to build a large bonfire for the evening. After Adelae had opened a shutter from her home's window and beckoned to a neighbor, she announced Miss Aune's return. It didn't take long for the news to spread. As one might expect, everyone in the village was eager to hear her story, which she promised to tell in its entirety before all of them after a great feast.
Hopes ran rampant for the rain to cease, and surely enough, by mid-afternoon, they had. The village altogether was giddy for a grand tale, one they hadn’t heard several times since childhood. Gossips worked to occupy their minds for the time being, as laughter from outside worked to ease Eira’s tensions from her previous adventure.
Once night fell, it appeared that none of the men had caught anything substantial during their morning hunt. Instead, they made use of a generous man’s goat to feed the small village, and while they cleaned and cooked it up, the Folk dined on various fruits, vegetables, and herbs that the women had gathered from the previous few days. Adelae among others shared their soup, and together it turned out to be a grand feast, the likes of which only occurred a few times a year, especially for their numbers here. Naturally Eira was a bit flattered that her return had garnered so much attention, as some had begun to suggest that she was becoming the only one Death could never touch.
When the time finally came for her to tell her story, she was met by undivided attention from them all. Even the children finished their various games to sit down and listen, eager to hear a new story to entertain their imaginations. A few men brought a table forward for her to stand on, with an elderly gentleman helping her atop of it. Now towering over them all, Eira felt quite small once again, as she always had before at home. Nonetheless, as she was met with wide, intrigued eyes, including Adelae and Awel’s, she found the strength to speak confidently. Smiling, she tried to imagine Giant and Finn there, which offered some strength in her rather soft voice. Her shoulders arched backward while she clasped her hands before her. She spoke with a pleasant grin.
“Before I begin, I would really like to thank all of you for your hospitality in welcoming me back.” Her smile widened as she curtseyed before them, prompting both applause and snickers from everyone, who had all known to simply bow in respect. Perhaps Madam Martin’s teachings rubbed off on her more than she expected, Eira thought when she continued. “As many of you know, the morning before I disappeared I encountered a Coffin Spawn, which I said ran off. That...that is only partially true. You see, that morning I met more than just that beast, but many more. What had scared it off was a great creature, who stood taller than two Folk combined. He looked like a great lizard who walked on two legs, with his arms quite small, and a head so big he could probably swallow one of us whole!” Already captivating the minds of her fellow Folk, she let the image settle for a moment.
“His name was Giant, as he told me himself. You see, he could speak in a dialect you and I could both understand. He was both strong and charming, and I spoke with him again the night before I was kidnapped. Yes, I was kidnapped. It would appear that the kingdom outside the forest has been searching for us for some time, and when I awoke the next morning in the woods I was taken by a legion of knights. They took me to a wondrous castle, grand in its size but cold and dark inside. I…I didn’t know what they wanted from me when they locked me away in a closet, when a drunk and retired knight by the name of Sir Bernard found me and let me out. I was taken to be a maid for the castle, and became the personal maid for Princess Susan Gladview.
“As it turned out, the Coffin Spawn creature had followed us there, and when I was alone in the castle’s dark corridors it came to finish me. Sir Bernard saved me, and that’s when I met Prince James Piermont, the wicked and cold-hearted man who had ordered my kidnapping. Bernard and I conspired together to run away, but unfortunately he did not make it himself when I escaped back to the forest.
“Once back, I was attacked by even more beasts capable of speech. I, um…I can’t remember their names, as everything happened so fast. One looked like a great bull, with two horns on its brow on one on its snout, and its head acted like a shield too. The others ran on two legs: one had the head of a crocodile, another had the head of a battering ram, and the last, their leader, looked kind of like Giant, but it wasn’t him. They tried to capture me as well when other, two-legged lizard beasts appeared and fought against them. Three of them, one hulking giant with massive teeth, another with a horn on its snout, and one more the size of a wolf and covered with feathers, like a bird. Swipe was his name, and the only one of theirs I caught before I ran away.
“I know this sounds so silly, but after that I met yet another beast like them. His name was Finn, and he was very kind to me. He had…the head of a crocodile too, and a great big hump all along his back, which alone was taller than I and as narrow as my leg. He caught fish for me and protected me, and he was even a bit of a philosopher as well. One morning when we were preparing to find our way here I met with a fearsome Rusalka.” Several surprised gasps filled her audience, mainly from the older, more suspicious Folk. “Her name…her name was Rosy, and she informed me that this thick fog we have all experienced lately is no accident. She told me it grants access between the worlds, that we do not share the same with Finn and Giant and the other speaking beasts, and through the fog we can hop from one to the other. Yes, it’s an idea of madness I know.
“Rosy tried to drown me, and I nearly did but it was Giant who saved me again. He turns out to be the leader of a grand group of speaking beasts, all powerful and just, and Finn returned to me. It turns out they had known each other since they were children. Giant saved me one more time when I was attacked by a pack of Wildeboar, and all of us enjoyed a meal of giant boar that evening. Then, just this morning, Finn and I had started on our trek again when at last I found our tree markings. We followed them back here, but as the fog came up I’m afraid we got separated, when I met Rosy again. She tried to grab me, and I defended myself until she fled, and that’s…” With the conclusion of her story, she sighed happily. “That’s when Awel found me.”
The Green Folk were quiet for the longest time. An awkward cough was perhaps the loudest sound to come from them, as Eira began to fear an oncoming sense of ridicule from them. Men smoking their pipes glanced to one another, as women and girls whispered into each other’s ears, when Eira swallowed the lump in her throat at the sight of such judging stares. However small their world was in the woods, one found such a fantastic tale to be both inspiring and yet unbelievable. Just as fearful of their reaction as she was, Awel and Adelae prompted the applause as they started first. Sure enough, the rest of the village clapped as a red-faced Eira hopped down from the table and kept her head low.
“Thank you, Eira, for your terrific tale. It’s great to have you back!” Awel cried out as he patted her on the shoulder reassuringly. Adelae stood next to them and continued to clap as she smiled warmly. As the applause died down, the others weren’t sure of how to respond afterward. Some went to get second helpings of soup and goat while others discussed the story between one another.
The imaginations of many ran rampant, as some chatted endlessly amongst themselves of such fantastic ideas and adventures, others sat still, trying to picture her adventures, then some of the others, mainly the elder Folk, fought their hardest not to dismiss it, at least the speaking beasts, as a product of Eira having gone mad. Still a few others came forward, embracing Eira and reminding her how great it was to have her back before letting the remainder of the night play out.
“I don’t think many here believe me.” She whimpered to Awel and Adelae. The latter herself was quite concerned with the aspect of such grandiose claims of giant talking lizards, but she smiled for support. Awel patted her on the back and sighed.
“Don’t worry about them, Eira. You’ve been through a lot, and that’s what matters. I mean, you met the Prince Piermont. Wow! Come on, I’ll fetch you a drink. Do you want anything, love?” Adelae shook her head as she watched them go to the booze barrels before wandering off to sit with her close friends. As she did so, one of the older women finally cackled at the girl’s story, while the younger girls responded with more subtle giggles.
Either given congratulations on a safe return or odd stares by the other Folk, Eira simply nodded in response. That confident girl that Giant and Finn had so enthusiastically encouraged and tended to in the forest was gone now, and the shy, timid girl of the Green Folk of her home had returned. She swiftly set her sights into her drink once Awel handed it to her. Shortly after that, he walked her away from the crowd, which had resumed with a certain livelihood that could have only been possible during great bonfires such as these. Never much of a drinker herself, as she hated the bitter taste, Eira consumed her beverage quite quickly, so by the time a moderate drinker like Awel had just barely finished a fourth of his, hers was gone. She fetched another and sat by him again, trying not to think of herself becoming like Sir Bernard. He parted his lips a couple times, trying to find something to ask her, as he himself had so many questions. Then, finding just the right one, he looked to her.
“Tell me more about Giant.” Eira turned to him, a bit dumbfounded by the question. She felt her head swirl slightly as she did so, when he smiled warmly. “If no one else believes you, just know that I do. Really, I do. I just...I guess I’m fascinated by what is outside our borders.” She found his smile too contagious when she spun a finger in her drink around and around.
“He’s…unbelievable. I don’t know how else to describe him.”
“Go on. And Finn, what’s he like?” Eira began to smile like a little girl as she set her drink to the side. Next, she clasped her hands together in her lap, and looking down at them in thought.
“Well, Giant…he’s intelligent. He’s funny. He’s sincere. He speaks with this great deep voice that would scare you silly if you didn’t know him. But...he cares about me, I just know he does. He asks me a lot about all of you. And he smiles a lot. Yes. I love his smile. It’s infectious. Quite like yours.” The two blushed when they looked at one another, and the old, shy Eira quickly broke eye contact back down to her lap. “And Finn. He’s wise and caring. It seems he knows some aspects of life better than any of our elders do. Yet he’s so happy to see you, and to share his knowledge. I’d never done anything for him before and he went out of his way for me, time and again. I only wish I knew how to repay him.”
“It seems like you made a couple of great friends out there.”
“Well if you ask me, I don’t think you could have made up such a fantasy. I mean, talking beasts, Wildeboar, Prince Piermont? Just like you said, you were never a good story teller. Remember when you tried to lie to Zaines?”
“Which time?” The two laughed just as they had when they were younger.
“You know, the thing about your grandmother and the chickens that got into her house?” Upon remembering the farce of a story she told, Eira giggled and brought a hand up to her mouth.
“I never even knew my grandmother.”
“I think we all knew that. You, me, Adelae, and Cecilie anyway.” Again they laughed heartily as one childhood story after another came up, both embarrassing and sweet. Finally Eira swallowed her pride as she looked to the group of gossiping women some ways away. Adelae giggled as she always did with her friends, and sometimes laughed outright, when she smiled.
“Adelae is very lucky to have you Awel.”
“What?” He had been caught in the middle of a drink, unsure if he had heard her correctly.
“But I’m glad you’re together. You belong with each other.”
“Awel…I’ve learned after everything that’s happened not to let things go unseen or unsaid. I could have died several times, and I know now not to end it all with regrets, so here goes. I...I loved you back then, and in many aspects I still do. I was simply too shy to ever say anything back then.” They sat in silence for a long time, awkwardly finding something to keep them occupied, whether it be fiddling their fingers or kicking at the dirt, when Awel looked back at her. He took a deep breath, but kept himself composed, something Eira had always admired of him. With a deep exhale, Awel looked down, if just a bit defeated.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I felt the same way. I enjoyed every moment we spent together then. Walking...talking. You were the first person I could be myself around. But…you know, some things aren’t meant to be. Do I regret not asking you for your hand sooner? Sometimes, yes. Do I regret marrying Adelae? Of course not. Never.”
“And you shouldn’t.” Eira replied swiftly. “Like I said, I’m truly happy for the both of you. I...hope nothing changes from this.”
“It won’t. In fact, it feels sorta…liberating.” They smiled at one another when he motioned toward the drunks dancing by the bonfire to the sound of Green Folk music. “Would you like a dance?”
“I’d love one.” Before they stood, however, something caught both of their eyes. Something stirring in the forest, like a glint of metal rushing past. They looked back, where the light of the fire ended abruptly at the edge of the village.
“Yes.” Eira spoke solemnly, as she felt her heart sink. How she hoped her adventure would have ended, when she felt her fist tighten with one single thought. Why couldn’t those damned knights just leave her alone? With a rush of adrenaline she snatched the dagger from Awel’s belt and marched forward, when he leapt up to her side.
“Eira, stop! Come back. It was nothing. Probably just a deer running past.” For a moment the man hesitated, wondering if this was the same timid girl he had spoken to just moments ago. He soon followed her as they disappeared from the light, just as Adelae glanced over toward them to see if they were okay. Immediately her heart raced when she saw that they had gone missing. Perhaps they went back to their home, she reasoned while looking all around, when the worst thought imaginable came to mind. She briskly took off to their home to make sure everything was alright.
Despite her own experience with the forest at night, Eira promised herself she would do this one last time, when she raised the dagger in her hand. She cried out into the darkness, warning that if it was Tanner, and had he returned to her, she would kill him.
Awel asked who the man was when the girl turned to go back. That’s just when they both saw a shadowy figure stand before them some ways away. A knight no less. Their hearts raced as they saw him stand silently when Eira barked at him to leave. Awel had never seen her in such a state, or seen her threaten anyone or anything for that matter. From that stern gaze to her white knuckles clutching the dagger, he was sure the girl had snapped.
“Eira? Is that you lass?” The Green Folk blinked once when Bernard stepped forward hesitantly. He lifted his visor and gave a warm grin. With her eyes adjusting to the limited light available, she could see that he had cleanly shaved everything but his mustache. “I’m glad you made it back! But you shouldn’t be shouting like that right now.”
“Bernard. You’re alive!” With her anger subsided, she ran and hugged the old man, who was surprised by her shift in demeanor. “How’d you find me?” She asked the question happily, but slowly the realization set in. “Tanner…”
“Right, lass. Now listen, he dragged me out here to find you, to bring you back.”
“Bernard…?” Eira inched away when he reached out for her.
“But don’t worry. He left me for dead out here, left me with two talking beasts! One of them said he had your scent and we wanted to make sure he doesn’t get you.”
“Who?” Eira’s question was answered immediately when she and Awel turned to Thorn and Swipe. The deinonychus, overcome with joy to see her again, darted up to her and rubbed his feathered body up against her thigh.
“It’s me, Swipe. Ya remember?”
“Um…h-hello, Swipe.” She vaguely recalled the smiling raptor, but as she had been fleeing in terror when they first met, the introduction was fleeting at best. Slowly she looked up at Thorn, who likewise introduced himself as being another who was present during the fight against Crunch and his men.
“Thorn here told me all about something bad that might be happening soon.” Bernard nodded to the ceratosaurus as everyone in turn looked to him.
“You’ve started something big in these woods, Eira. Everything’s different now. We heard some time ago from a flyer that Giant was up to something. Something like a massive land grab. Those beasts who fought Rex that day were sent by him to find you. And now Bernard here has brought to our attention another threat.”
“What?” The Green Folk retorted. “That doesn’t make sense. I’ve seen him several times these past few days. He hasn’t said anything about any plot or scheme over me. In fact, he’s protected me many times.”
“Ever thought he might be lying to you?”
“Well, come to think of it…those beasts that attacked us…I saw them with Giant and his men. Their leader was gone, but…no. Giant spoke very poorly of them. He learned about the attack on me, and he apologized for it. He said he asked them to find me, not to harm me.” Awel, who had been in disbelief up until this point, laughed as he put his hands on his hips and looked from Thorn to Bernard and back again.
“My goodness, Eira! They’re even more fantastic than I ever could have imagined. Maybe the thing with the fog is true too!”
“What about the fog?” Thorn asked sternly. Eira sighed when she turned back to him.
“Well, I, um, I think that our worlds are separate. That’s why we’ve never encountered each other before, and that the fog somehow blends our worlds together.”
“I can’t make sense of that, but it would open up a whole new world for Giant to take.” The dinosaur hummed. “Perhaps we were wrong to let Rex walk away from all of this.”
“The one who saved you that day by fighting that gang off. He returned home shortly afterward, and he’s the only one I can see standing up to Giant.”
“But, Giant wouldn’t do that. He’s much too kind.” Eira replied.
“You said he had others with him, how many? Do you remember?”
“I…couldn’t tell you the exact number, but it was a good number, and he said they were all under his command.” Thorn swallowed what he thought must have been a large rock in his throat when he took a cautious step back.
“This isn’t good. Not at all. Come Swipe, we have to hurry back to the grasslands. Eira, you and the others remain here until we return.” Swipe quickly joined Thorn back at his side, but when they turned, they could clearly make out more figures emerging from the forest. Suddenly Eira and the others could smell the scent of horse droppings as they broke through the thick brush, with knights riding each one of them. In what little light was available, Eira and Bernard could see Tanner leading them all, just as he unsheathed his sword and his eagle took flight.
“Kill me, will you girl? No. I don’t think anyone will be doing such a thing tonight.” He hissed.