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Excerpt for Runner by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

"Runner"


A Legend from the Great Wood



By A. Foster aka Annette Foster


"This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental."


In memory of Betty, Jeff the Bear and friends now gone.


Table of Contents


Chapter One - Strangers Meet


Chapter Two - Mayir, A Small Town


Chapter Three - Unexpected


Chapter Four - Brother


Chapter Five - The Wind


Chapter Six - Reunited


Chapter Seven - Drellin and Freedom


Chapter Eight - Signs of the Civilized


Chapter Nine - Money


Chapter Ten - Rescue


Chapter Eleven - Unleashed


Chapter Twelve-Bracar


Chapter Thirteen-Brother of My Father


Chapter Fourteen-Norban is Safe


Chapter Fifteen-The Tall Hammer


Chapter Sixteen-Eyes in the Shadows


Chapter Seventeen-Welcome to the Celebration


Chapter Eighteen-The Prize


Chapter Nineteen-Escape


Chapter Twenty-Norban Gets a New Rider


Chapter Twenty One-Found


Chapter Twenty Two-The Promise


Chapter Twenty Three-The North Wood


Notes and Acknowledgements


Surprise First Chapter of Book Two


More Books by A. Foster aka Annette Foster


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Chapter 1-Strangers Meet


Thick, black smoke billowed slowly, up into the cold morning sky. Its origin, the remains of the pilgrim settlement locals called Moreer. That was common tongue for gathering point. Not really a town at all, more like a group of quiet people trying to follow their own path. Peacefully living in a rough land or so that was their intent. Moreer was also the site of an earlier ancient ruin locals' called Prat. Even Drellin had no real history on it. Just stones with carvings long forgotten, by people that obviously did not last. Normally Drellin would have avoided the whole place as this was not her business. But these people had never harmed her or her kind. They had always offered food and shelter. It was now her turn to help if she could.


Drellin urged her great mount forward cautiously into the clearing, then continued until she was in front of the main building. Bodies of many humans cluttered the ground all around and a foul stench emanated from the structure itself. Those killed that she could view easily were mostly apprentices, or pilgrims of no great consequence. They did not put up much of a fight to be sure. However, there were also some healers and teachers present among the dead. Drellin could gather by their robes or what was left of them, their stature and importance, or rank to this village. The meaning of that is, or in this case was, all were killed with equal violence. There were, also a hand full of mere servants too. All the bodies looked as if they had been physically torn apart in one manner or another. The scene was gruesome.


The sight of it all did not bother Drellin so much but the smell, that was another thing entirely. The ground was so soaked with blood that it pooled in places and no longer seeped into the dirt. The smell of death was pungent upon the air, thick and sickly with the hint of rot and decay growing by the moment. It made Drellin nauseous, but she held on to her wits with equal zest as to the contents of her stomach. Now was not a good time to show weakness. There may still be enemies close at hand.


A loud snort startled Drellin. To her right, some forty paces or so away stood a huge brown and white, stallion. The beast was incredible. She had not taken notice of it until that moment. A sign the creature was well trained, it had made no noise up until that point. It was a war horse by its armor and the weapons it carried attached to the saddle. That was obvious. Slowly, Drellin urged Norban, her own steed, to move forward toward the great beast. She then caught sight of the young boy at the animals’ feet. He was probably no more then fourteen seasons if that. His hair was almost pure white in color except where it was red and matted with blood. The boy lay on his front, hands to his sides. She could not see his face. Drellin starred intently, yet could not see any clear injury without getting much, much closer.


The war horse watched her as she neared, never moving from its position. Now, only a few feet away, Drellin began speaking softly to it directly, "Mighty one, I want to help the boy. He may die if I do not." She slid gently from Norban's back and walked forward closing the short space between her self and the animal with care. Drellin reached up, her open hand to the beast, slowly, confidently and with long practiced ease. She stroked the great beast's neck and patted it warmly. The war-horse whinnied softly in answer. Calmly Drellin stoked his nose and repeatedly made, low, comforting sounds just under her breath, for his ears alone. Drellin had always loved animals. She preferred them to people. Shendar, the forest Elder had told her it was one of her greatest gifts. She loved animals and they loved her back. This horse was no exception. It trusted her, for it finally moved to let her near the boy. That was a good sign.


Drellin knelt down beside the youth, prone and still on the ground. She carefully ran her hands all along his body searching for injuries. Then ever so slowly she turned him over to lay on his back. His face was ash gray colored, and she heard his breath pass in and out, with a tremendous effort. The practiced hands of an experienced healer danced swiftly over her patient. A long, bloody wound ran from the far side of his neck, down all the way to his ribs. It was deep, but she knew with some hard work, it would not be fatal. There was also a sizable lump on the back of his head. That was perhaps more serious, but she could not be sure, only time would tell.


Norban stood calmly nearby. Drellin finally rose and crossed the distance back to her mount. She retrieved her water skin and healing pouch from her saddle and returned to the boy's side. Drellin glanced about continually for scavengers and predators that would inevitably be drawn by the reek of death, pungent upon the air. She knelt again, opened the soft leather herb bag and pulled out a tiny flask, a handful of dried plants and a silver cup. Quickly she mixed the ingredients and gently held the boys head up at an angle for him to drink the contents. He coughed and sputtered a bit, but she succeeded. He drained the cup. Gently she lay him back down. He was quiet within moments, his breathing, easier. Drellin muttered to herself about the bump on his head, but he had responded and that was a good sign. Shendar had taught her the healing arts well. He had also told her she had a natural gift. Somehow Drellin hoped that he had been right. Well for the sake of this young boy anyway.


Why Drellin should care at all was a funny thought. It had never mattered before? The pilgrims and people here in this place had been kind to her and the "people" or forest dwellers, true enough. Drellin told herself that she was merely repaying that, passed kindness. Charn, rat-men like creatures that roamed the dark places of these mountains had been here this day. That plagued her. It was not like them to attack a sizable settlement.


The injury to the boy and the damages Drellin had already witnessed, screamed "Charn". She reflected, low and out loud to herself. Then, hurriedly, Drellin cleaned the wound thoroughly with water from her skin and dressed it. By all indications, it appeared that the charn had left, but they could always return. They were well known to eat their victims after robbing them, dead or alive. Why they would do all this and leave, was a question that made her deeply worried. Banding together to attack this large of a target was unnerving. Shendar will want to know everything that she could learn from this attack.


Drellin finished with the boy and gathered up her belongings. She then placed them back in her pouch. She stopped short and became instantly motionless. Footsteps, headed in their direction. Drellin left the items and sprang to her feet. From somewhere inside she thought more than spoke the words, "Oh great animal, watch over the boy again." Drellin’s verbal utterances were low and deadly, mirroring the intensity of her inner alarm. Again Drellin made more low sounds in her throat, translating to "Norban, watch also. Let no one near!"


Drellin then turned and set off toward the direction of the noise, making no sound herself at all. The steps had originated from the small stable only a little way down the dirt road, now a mud path from the days of rain. Drellin continued. The entrance was wide open because the door had been knocked off or perhaps even torn off its hinges. The darkness caused by the black smoke blocked out the inside. The few other outbuildings nearby had already been consumed, leaving smoking piles of charred wood. All of it prevented even Drellin from seeing well. Cautiously, Drellin entered the building, trying to suppress her immediate choking response to the black, sooty air. There may be someone else within, hurt an unable to get out? she thought to herself. Either that or the enemy still lingered. If that were true and it was a straggler or even a scout? It would bring back others. The protector insider her, would not let that happen.


Drellin’s eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness, but far too slowly. Before she could pull her blade from its sheath, she was attacked. Drellin rolled with the weight of her assailant to break her own fall. The hard ground pressed against her back and strong muscles of human flesh held her down firmly. Drellin could see the bright glint of the shiny blade held high above her throat. With her only free hand, Drellin tried desperately to reach it, while she cursed herself inside at her own stupidity and carelessness.


"You are a girl?" The man's loud, deep voice rang out like thunder. Instantly, he stopped his attack in confusion. The knife wavered from its path only for a moment, but that was enough. Unprepared, the fighter was thrown as Drellin's foot came away from his hold. It found new placement against his breastplate, she kicked hard, and the man knew flight. With a loud crash, he found himself flat on his own back several paces away.


"Yes, I'm a woman!" Drellin shook with anger. She was now on her feet and prepared to fight the stranger. "I might have killed you, foolish man! For all, I knew you could have been a charn?" The look on her face was pure defiance. It would not be an easy task to take her down a second time. The stranger was not sure he wanted to try even if he needed too.


Before he could reply out loud, a deep growling, cut him off. It was the challenge of a mountain cat. The blood of the dead had surely brought it here. It would not be long before many other beasts and animals found this place too. Food was everywhere on the ground, and it would not be wasted. The fire from the remains of the settlement was dying out. Having hungrily, eaten the pilgrim's homes to the ground nothing was left to save. The stable and little else held more than the skeletons of their original shapes. Moreer would soon be forgotten. It would be forgotten just as Pratt had been in the past.


The sun was already high in the sky, near noon. It was blocked off from view at times by bad weather black clouds. In this case, Drellin believed that rain would not be an awful thing. It would help reclaim the dead by washing the area. By nightfall, there would be no bodies left. If the charn did not return, the forest animals would take care of the rest. This settlement and all that remained would be welcomed back into the arms of the green mother and forgotten. That was the way of the forest. That was the way of the north.


Drellin did not waste words on this stranger. The man had caught her off guard the first time, without a doubt. He did not seem to be immediately ready to fight again now that she stood face to face with him. The horses and the boy were a more significant concern. Drellin did a one-eighty and left the fighter standing there alone. She ran back out the stable doorway and toward the horses. Both mounts stood watchfully for the big cat. A credit to their race they had not abandoned the boy but held firm.


Quickly the man recovered from his slight surprise and moved to follow her out of the stable and into the clearing. He headed toward his own horse only a few paces behind the girl.


Drellin was fast, very fast. She had the agility no elf could match, because of her bloodline. In only the space of a single intake of breath; Drellin crossed the distance from the stable to Norban, leaped over his back, retrieved a huge leather whip in mid-flight from the side of the saddle and landed strategically between both mounts and the lion. It had been a fluid movement like water in a stream, the fighter thought. In the back of his mind, he suddenly counted himself lucky he had gotten the best of the young woman in their first encounter. It was evident that she would not be an easy mark if not taken by surprise.


The giant cat sprang at Drellin with practiced ease and an absolute evil grace. Its fur was black as purely polished onyx. Its claws were incredibly long, fully extended to make the kill. The animal's great white fangs glistened and resembled not teeth but daggers, white as new snow. This was life and death, pure and simple.


The animal's target had changed. Its new aim was now Drellin, instead of the horses or the boy. Drellin's movements had brought her directly into the animal's path as she had meant it too. Drellin had helped to save the boy earlier and was not now ready to let him get mangled by this new enemy.


Norban would protect the young one with his steel-shod hooves even if Drellin died. It had been her last command to him, and he would not let her down. At the very least the animal would die in the attempt to fulfill her wishes. His bloodline like hers was a long story of honor and strength. The beast had seen more than one battle at Drellin's side, and this new threat was not so different then any other they had faced together.


In mid-leap the cat screamed in agony. Drellin danced the heavily barbed, black whip through the air as if the weapon was a mere extension of her own arm. There was a terrible cracking sound as it struck a deep gash into the flesh of the cat’s, sleek, muscled neck. The weapon had left a crimson trail of blood from the wound. Then, Drellin leaped and was on the beast with her dagger drawn before it had barely hit the ground. It died at her hand, quickly. It deserved nothing less from her. She hated taking its life, but that did not slow her movements or give her any hesitation. Death was always to be swift when necessary.


"Well done!" The man's voice broke the sudden silence of the clearing. He had been surprised at first by her swift, agile response to the situation. Now, he merely looked at her with a new feeling of respect. Drellin found herself extremely uncomfortable under his direct gaze. The fighter found that he too felt a bit strange in a way he could not quite put his finger on. The undercurrent of emotion between them was swift and chaotic but enticing in its mystery.


There was something measurably special about this girl. Or should he say, woman? Something he could not place as yet, which seemed vaguely important. He let it go. She was quite pretty for a woman dressed like a man he thought quietly. Now that the fighter could see clearly away from the smoke, he was unusually surprised at her looks. She resembled a hunter from back home, all dressed in dark, brown leathers and riding gear. Her dark hair was long and loose down her back, yet braided on both sides of her oval-shaped face. The man could not take his eyes off of her. She was beautiful.


He did not often think such thoughts in general, but it was hard to miss or put aside casually. A fog had settled over his brain. He shook his head to clear his thoughts. Boy, she was pretty, and she could fight. That was unique.


"There was no choice." Drellin's reply was weak but, matter of fact. She spoke calmly

as she coiled the great whip up and placed it back onto Norban's saddle. Drellin had used the common tongue. It was yet unclear where the stranger hailed from. His horse, weapons, and armor were all unknown to her. She paused for only a moment to pat Norban's broad nose with affection. He whinnied back softly. Then, Norban nudged her a little playfully, affectionately.


"Come let us leave this place." The fighter halfheartedly invited. Whatever did this could be back" He made a sweeping gesture with his right hand. "Or something else will be, to clean up. If you know what I mean?" The man surveyed the area for a few beats longer. "We need to get out of here. There is no one left. I looked."


"The charn happened here. They are evil creatures. Normally they are not too bright, and never do they strike large targets. Something is very wrong." Drellin offered in answer to the indirect question. Where was this man from that he did not know charn? Better still, there was a place in the world that did not know charn? Drellin would like to go to that place someday.


"I don't know anything about these charn creatures. I will need to know more. We could help each other. I am on my way to the city of Bracar. It is some ten days or so travels to the south from here. I will rig a carrier for the boy." He motioned toward the still body of the youth. "It won't take long to build. I intend to take him there where he can get proper care." The statement was very, matter a fact, as if there were no room for discussion. The fighter was not exactly sure why he had asked her to come along, but after doing so, he was somewhat satisfied with himself. Generally, around girls or rather women, he was pretty backward in his manners. Perhaps it was the way she was dressed? A warrior or a hunter he was not sure? Maybe the fact she just took down a mountain lion by herself? Or the fact that she had attacked him and got the upper hand? even if she did not get to keep it. That made her different in a thousand ways than any girl he had ever met before. A smile crossed his features. His best-winning smile. It would be okay to have her around. It would be very okay.


Drellin led Norban by the reins to stand next to the dead cat. She lifted the animal with difficulty and placed it over her saddle. Norban was not particularly pleased, but he did not move. Her heart had not slowed much and Drellin could still hear the beating of it drumming in her ears, but she gathered her wits quickly. Breathing heavily from the exertion of lifting the cat, she replied to the fighter. "I will ride with you for a while toward this city of Bracar. The direction you speak of also leads to Mayir. It is a village not too far from this place. If you will go there first," Drellin looked toward the boy on the ground and continued, "I can and will help him. I am a healer. The wound he has will take time and proper care to heal right. However, he needs to be taken care of along the way. If not, he will not make it to this Bracar at all." Drellin kept her own voice rather flat. She did not want to seem too friendly, or too anxious. The fact was that she did not trust strangers as a general rule, but the man had made it clear that the boy held some importance. Where the boy went, Drellin would go, at least for now. If that meant hanging around this fighter a short while, then so be it.


The fighter stared a little longer at her, sizing her up one last time. Before he continued "I would know your name First, that is before we go further down the path together." A kind, friendly look spread across his handsome features. He was every inch of six full hands tall and weighed at least 200 stones. His piercing blue eyes would not let her go quickly. He held her with them, waiting for her reply.


Names were significant. Typically she would have never answered. But, for some reason, it just came out. "Drellin." She spoke low while tying the cat into place. Funny the sound of her voice had a bit of a shake to it, at least to her own ears anyway. It took a great effort on her part not to be lost in those eyes of his. Drellin worked purposefully at keeping her mind focused on the business at hand. She had killed the animal, but she would not waste the gift of its life.


"My name is Annon. I am the fifth son of Kalamar, from the Isle of Kings. That is a great island chain to the west of this place, several moons hard travel. Your company south would be most welcome, as I have traveled alone for too long. I am on a quest. Your little excursion will not delay me unduly. Let us go to this Mayir." Walking to his horse, he pulled a short ax from the saddle. "I will get to work on that carrier." He quickly applied himself to the task. It was good to have something to do suddenly. If he had continued to stand there, the awkward silence that usually overcame him in the presence of females would undoubtedly have risen up and consumed him swiftly. Being busy. That Annon understood.


"Have you already checked the rest of the settlement, or what is left of it? Are there no other survivors?" Drellin asked one last question, knowing the answer inside but needing to hear it out loud. So many deaths. The charn were rising. This event was important, and the news needed to be spread.


"No, there are no other survivors. These Charn you called them, are very thorough. Come, let us move with purpose and prepare to leave this sad place." The fighter’s tone was strong and built an instant wall up against further questions. Drellin finished with the cat. Then she went back to where the boy still lay on the ground. She retrieved her bag of medicines and put it on her mount's saddle. Then, silently, together they, Annon and Drellin worked to build a carrier. Once done they carefully placed the boy onto it. Annon tied the pole ends to the sides of his horse. “Should we burn the rest of bodies?” Annon asked in a hushed, respectful whisper. "There are so many, but we could try."


"No, they lived here. They cared for this forest, and it was their home. Now it will take them back." Drellin felt that was the right answer. She knew these people, not many but at least some of them. They chose to live in this harsh mountain range because they wanted to be close to their Maker. Their spirits would be free here. Their bodies would merely feed the hungry animals the Maker loved as well. That was a fitting end perhaps to mark there passing. Even the burnt buildings would become nothing but dust and soil for new plants and trees. The passing would be complete. It would take a long time, but it would happen. Maybe that is what happened to Pratt?


Together the new companions started off into the forest away from what was left of the settlement. Healers, teachers, pilgrims and servants, all equal in death. It was a good feeling to walk into the forest and breathe fresh, clean air. Physically, the dead smell was soon gone altogether, left far behind them. The sight of that place, however, would never fade from either of their memories as long as they lived. It would be part of their darkest dreams and deepest nightmares. No one could ever have seen such a sight and not be changed.


Return to Table of Contents


Chapter Two-Mayir, A Small Town


It was incredibly late by the time Annon and Drellin arrived at the Village of Mayir. Annon looked skeptically at the odd collection of buildings. The last settlement they just came from was about the same size or had been anyway. It was plain to see why Drellin had called it a village instead of a town. The old, decrepit structures were basically just a hand's breadth above absolute hovels. There was indeed nothing here to write down in any journal for travelers. No matter, the darkness of night claimed it all for its own.


The gray clouds above had threatened more rain for several hours as they had journey south. It had been freezing cold and slow going with the carrier being dragged. As yet those same clouds still held their bounty, but the threat remained real. Even without the actual rain, they served to magnify the bleak smothering feeling that emanated from the village. Annon could only make out about ten to twelve structures.


They passed a tavern called the Leaping Frog. The sign depicted the small green creature in mid-flight on a hand-painted wood plank. It was hung high on a post near the front door. Loud laughter and poorly played music drifted out to them on the dirt road, now turned to thick mud due to an earlier downpour. It was all decidedly uninviting, even to strangers passing through, on a hard trip. Perhaps it was the overall, dirty, run down look of the place, or else it might have been the simple sign above the actual entrance. Larger than the one depicting the frog, it read: "Service Costs". Red-lettered scrawled with intent, the second sign gave the place that truly special, unwelcome disposition. It was all the same to these travelers. They passed on by.


The new companions had stopped twice along the way to Mayir, for Drellin to check the boy. The second time, she skinned the great cat. To Annon's surprise, it took half as long as he would have expected. He had protested at first due to the time wasted, but Drellin said that she would not leave the fur. Then she argued the point that the strong smell would draw unwanted predators on the trail. It bothered him that she was not only beautiful but smart. Annon had never met a female fighter before. He had heard of them but never had the pleasure, or pain in this case. He swiftly reminded himself of how she had thrown him with ease. Annon finely agreed about the cat and proceeded to watch with fascination as Drellin made short work of the task. It was more than evident that it had not been her first kill.


The sky above had grown nearly completely, black. A storm which had already hit the hills to the east was brooding. No lightening just heavy rain, to wash the land, or in this case flood it further. The time of its arrival was not far off. It would surely make this night colder and even more miserable unless they found a place to take shelter soon. Annon was half tempted to go back and try the tavern. He could ask about rooms?. Drellin had motioned him on before he spoke his first word. It was apparent she did not care for the place. Annon was glad as he felt the same way. He would have to keep following her directions. Drellin seemed like she had a plan. That was more than he had at this point.


Drellin had led him this far, so she must have an idea as to where to go from here, he thought to himself. Well, at least, Annon hoped anyway. It had been a long while since he had slept indoors. Funny thing was the cold hard ground had grown to be a very uninviting bed, but perhaps not as disagreeable as the tavern in some ways. It was not only the decidedly negative vote by his companion but the funny aura of the building. The noise was a bit too loud from the crowd inside also. It made even Annon uneasy.


They wandered together, on down the empty, muddy, street with Drellin still leading the way. A cold, gray mist seeped up from the damp ground and wrapped around Annon and his companions, like an evil blanket. It soon embraced the buildings with a dark veil. The lanterns shining out here and there from the little village around them were like glow flies in the mist. Annon felt a tinge of homesickness. It passed quickly. There was nothing for him back home on the Isle. This was his new life. Not good to dwell on what can not be changed. "I will make you proud, father," Annon whispered just under his breath. If Drellin heard, she did not respond in any way.


Drellin led them on into the night. Soon they came to an old stable yard. It was in desperate need of repairs. The fences that surrounded it were broken in random places. They would not have securely held any beast. The huge, barn needed a new roof. The whole building had a slight unnatural slant to it, which further showed its apparent age and lack of care. Drellin slid from Norban's broad back in a fluid action of well-practiced ease. She then motioned for Annon to wait just inside the yard. It only took a simple hand gesture.


The street was still empty in both directions, and they were not followed. No one had taken any notice of them at all since they had entered Mayir. That was a comfort of sorts to Annon. He liked to be on the edge of things. The corral was empty too except for their own mounts. Business must be bad, for there were no other animals. There were two doors. The larger one that allowed horses and carriages to come and go and a slightly smaller one for bad weather. Soundlessly Drellin opened the walking door and went inside. She seemed to disappear. The darkness got just a little deeper. Annon thought time was going to stop altogether.


Annon was not particularly comfortable taking orders from his companion. After all, Annon was a prince. Here, however, he was not. That was harder to swallow then he liked, but it was the truth. He was just another traveler, nothing more. Regardless, Drellin gave the impression she had been here before. There was a sense of alert confidence that all was well, or at least it felt that way. If this were her stomping grounds, then Annon would give in to her wishes for now, at least.


The stable was dark inside but Drellin’s eyes adjusted immediately. She counted two stock horses and one young mare in the stalls. There was a strong, wet smell of sour hay too long on the ground permeating the air. The horses also had not been tended well. It made her stomach a little sick and queasy. She could stand a lot, but this place needed tending. The old man was getting behind on things. She made a note to come more often to this place. He needed Drellin, even if he did not ask outright. She stopped still, several feet from the door to the inner room, but still in the central area of the large stable.


“Lat? Where are you? I brought you some visitors." Drellin called out clearly. Her voice was strong, but not too loud. It carried well. She did not want to surprise her old friend or worse, scare him.


There was a distinct, shuffling sound at the far side of the great room. It came from just beyond the small door at the end, which was currently closed. That inner room was the place Lat called home. Drellin could easily see the warm light, that shown brightly out, from the crack at the bottom. That was because the wood of the door did not quite meet the floor. Drellin also knew that inside that room was where Lat would be this night. He hated the cold almost as much as she did. Drellin was still a good twenty paces away, but her eyes were extremely sharp. She could see the slow movement of feet blocking the light slightly as the old man crossed the floor. He moved stiffly to open the creaky old door.


An odd looking, round-faced, aged individual peered out. He held up an overly smoky lamp, above his head in his left hand. There was a beautiful inviting glow of firelight behind him which made the interior of the stable itself feel a bit warmer. The old man stood legs slightly apart in a battle stance of sorts as he opened the door a bit wider. In his right hand was a large club hefted high and ready for a fight. There were few burglars that would have feared such a rolly, polly, old fellow. Regardless, he would have thumped them squarely on the head, if given the chance.


Quickly recognizing who the intruder was, Lat tossed the makeshift weapon aside. He turned and placed the lantern on the hook, next to the door. Then he threw up his hands in sheer delight. "Drellin! Come on in, and bring your friends." He gave a warm, deep laugh. “What is it this time, a squirrel, her babies, a fox with a broken leg or even a gray wolf with a toothache perhaps? What homeless, needy one have you brought for me this night?" He laughed hard and loud, happy to see his longtime friend. She was always a welcome sight. Then seeing her face clearly, he stopped. Lat walked forward into the main stable. He looked a bit closer at her and could sense her mood was somber. There was also a question in her eyes. "What is wrong little one?" Lat asked softly. “All is well here. You are safe! Come closer, come inside.” The old man tried to sound comforting.


Drellin swallowed hard. She drew herself up and closed the short distance between them. There had been a reason Drellin had come this way. A reason, she had come to Mayir. Even before she had met up with the fighter Annon, and the boy, Drellin had been on a quest. It had been given to her by the elders. It was a quest that would affect the entire north. All of her people were in danger. All of the people were in danger!


Lat's home was safe. Well as safe as any place could be in the north at this time. Lat had welcomed all of Drellin's kind over the years, but Drellin was special. She had made a point to come and help Lat and others in Mayir. When food was hard to come by, Drellin had hunted for them. When trouble was near, she had guarded and even fought as needed. Few knew of the real contributions the young woman had made over her lifetime. Few would admit they had accepted her help if called out. Her "kind" were generally unwelcome. Half breeds or otherwise, they were all hunted.


Drellin looked more human than most, but that was just appearance. Her long hair was loose behind her, but for two tight braids. The soft brown ropes framed her features nicely. There were a few small lose wisps, escaped strands about her face too that made her look young. Drellin would pass for human sure enough, but not for long. An experienced hunter would pick her out in a moment. For that reason alone, caution was necessary.

The clothes Drellin wore, were all fashioned for the north. They were nothing special exactly. Hunting gear. Brown leathers and a dark brown cloak. Again, nothing to draw attention. It was the way she carried her body. The strength and speed she commanded. With her heighten sight, Drellin was a match to any northern elf. Drellin gave herself away for being a mutation, by just being herself. Her agility and dexterity were incredible. The only outward sign of her real skill was the leather strap at her neck. There was a carved redwood bead strung there. Lat knew it to be a designation of "Master Hunter" skill level. In a rare moment, years back, Drellin had shared the story. That was the only time, and it had been fleeting.


Drellin gathered her thoughts. Slightly above a whisper, "There has been an attack at the settlement. It was charn. I am glad to see you safe. Things are getting worse my friend." The old man looked reassuring. His haggard, face gave a slight smile, and he nodded his head in response.


Lat knew the importance of her visits to her kind, even if she did not voice them out loud. She was a runner. That meant she was considered less than human by most. That also made her path in life, dangerous and lonely. He was honored in his own way to call her friend. Lat did not follow the views of the general populace. He had fought for the real King in his youth. Later, however, when the King's son had taken the throne, honor was a questionable trait at best. Lat had retired here in Mayir because this place cared not for your past, only for your current skill or trade. Lat liked being a keeper of horses. They had honor without question. Horses that is. It was age that ran him into the ground and prevented him from doing what he liked to do well. Which was ride horses? Now he just kept them.


"No. They have not been here. I have heard nothing. All is safe." Lat's voice finally broke the silence of the thick air between them. "Come, we will talk inside. First, however, bring in your friends." The tone of his voice held nothing but reassurance. "We will sit by the fire, and all will be better. I don't get much news so I would love to hear all that you have." Lat smiled again very warmly. Drellin was on edge. His efforts to soothe her were wasted.


Drellin’s face grew dark. A worried look crossed her features, he had not seen before. "Lat, I have brought humans, and they do not know about me." The tone of her voice was somewhat defensive, yet held a single note of fear. That was uncommon for her and set him back a bit. If Drellin was afraid of something, it was good to be watchful.


Quickly Lat grasped the situation. He drew himself up a bit, taller than before and smiled his best fatherly smile. "How did you come by humans? No, never mind," He shook his head slightly and held up one hand in a gesture to stop her before she started. "I don't think that I want to know. Don't worry, they will not find out from me." Lat gave her a secret smile, which finally put her somewhat at rest. He meant every word. They would not find out anything from him this night. Drellin trusted Lat, more then she had trusted any other human in her past. Drellin smiled back. There was no need to say anything more about it.


Lat smiled and turned back to the inner room, "I will get things ready."


Drellin watched him retreat for a few breaths, then walked back to the entrance of the stable. This time, instead of the smaller door, Drellin cautiously shoved her wait against the wood bar. It rested on two huge hooks to keep the double door tight. The bar gave way with an aged, creaking sound. The doors opened. Drellin stopped them part way. She did not want to invite the world in, only her companions. Annon was waiting in the deep darkness of the shadows, just beyond. "This way," Drellin whispered in Annon's direction. Drellin motioned with her hand, more from reflex or habit then the man's ability to see her actions. Norban came to her immediately. Drellin's voice was enough. Annon followed her horse with his own mount into the stable. The stretcher with the young boy passed inside behind Annon's mount. It was still tied tight and attached to his saddle.


Before the door had opened, while Annon had waited for the girl, he had kept a close watch. The black clouds from the coming storm covered the world above. No stars. There were only a few small lights here and there that could be seen in the little buildings nearby. Annon sat waiting on his horse patiently. The streets were mostly empty, but Annon was still on serious alert. Unconsciously he shifted his weight in the saddle from side to side. His bones hurt from too long in the saddle. There had been no movement at all, back down the street they had traveled to get to this place. Annon watched intently none the less. They were not altogether that far away from the settlement. Those so-called Charn, or rat-men, could take down this whole village just as easily as they had that place. Annon had no doubt. In fact, he saw little reason to think they would not eventually do just that. If these creatures had grown bold enough to attack the other settlement, there was no limit. It was a good idea to stay absolutely ready.


Annon sensed the movement from the barn. He turned his attention back to the entrance. Drellin was nearly invisible, but he knew it was her. "This way," Drellin called softly for his ears alone. Well, he thought he heard her anyway? Annon felt a bit relieved to have finally arrived at their destination, for this night. A real roof over their heads, even one with a few holes here and there were better than being drenched again by ice-cold rain. Not for the first or last time, Annon found himself remembering how warm his homeland had been. This place was cold. Maybe it never got warm here?

Annon was aware they were not alone from the moment he entered the stable. He did not immediately see the old proprietor, but long years of experience taught him caution if nothing else. His sharp fighter awareness made him just a bit edgy. Annon had only a moments' hesitation at the entrance, which was soon set at ease by the unspoken assurance he received from Drellin's pretty face. She glanced directly at him as she stepped near, leading Norban. Once all were inside Drellin went back and pulled the big door closed behind them, then lifted the heavy bar, high above into place. There was a hard scraping sound again, as the old wood fell into the deep iron brackets. The bolt was secured.


The warm glow that came from the small room at the far end of the building was a pleasant sight. That is where Annon noticed the actual outline of the old keeper.


Lat turned as if he felt Annon's eyes on his back. Then he waved with his right hand and headed into the big room. "Hello, friend." The keeper wheezed a little as he spoke. "My name is Lat. You are welcome here." And in a much lower voice. "You are safe here." All the while Lat was talking he walked closer to Annon. Finally only a pace or two away, he presented his open hand palm up. This was a good sign, Annon knew. Travelers had told him it was the best greeting you could expect from a stranger on the mainland.


Annon smiled back and grasped the man's hand warmly. "Thank you. It sure is nice to be out of the weather." Annon spoke in rough, common tongue.


“You can put your horses in any of the stalls.” The keeper spoke in a matter of fact tone. He made a tsk tsk sound. “They are mostly empty, as you can see. Only a couple of customers is all. Business has been very slow for a long time. The fresh hay is in the bins near the far wall," The old man motioned with his hand held high, pointing. "I will see what I can find for you all to eat." Lat abruptly turned on one heel and headed back toward the inner room. Funny until then Annon had not given eating much thought. He did find however that his stomach was now growling loudly in his own ears at the mere mention of food. "When you have seen to your mounts, come and join me. I have a good Boomera wine from the beautiful fields of the south country." The stable keeper continued speaking over his shoulder as he disappeared into the chamber beyond. His voice carried well for an older man.


Both travel companions made short work of the task before them. Annon and Drellin said little to each other, while they removed saddles, and made sure their horses were handled properly. Annon unhooked the carrier with the boy and lowered it gently to the ground. Drellin could see from where she stood next to Norban, that the kid was still out. Hopefully, it was only sleep, and he would wake before long.


Annon moved to the boy's side, bent down and gently lifted the small body lightly into his strong arms. The burden was nothing to the big fighter. Drellin led the way. Together they headed quietly, for the warmth of the inner room. There was a fire at the hearth. It was small but inviting as they drew closer.

"Lat, this is Annon." Drellin immediately formerly, introduced the fighter as they entered through the small doorway into Lat's actual home. She motioned Annon to follow her closely. Lat gestured toward his own bed in the far corner, and Drellin led the fighter directly to it. There she helped to lay the youth down and cover him in warm blankets.


The inner room was not large, but the fireplace gave off a pleasant glow of welcome. "We found the boy at the settlement to the north of here." Her voice dropped slightly as if the very walls had ears to hear. "It was destroyed by charn. They killed everyone there Lat. Everyone." She repeated more for herself then for Lat. It was to help give her self, a sense of the reality to the surreal situation. "There is not even much left of the buildings themselves. A fire took almost everything. It is not clear if it was set intentionally or not. Regardless, it had nearly burned everything to the ground before we left." Anger was plain to hear in her tone too. Such waste was hard to swallow. In a land where life was more than harsh, often life-threatening, Drellin had to respect the settlers. In the face of great odds, they had always stayed.


"Come, let us all warm ourselves. My fire is very inviting." Lat smiled broadly. "Any friends of Drellin's are welcome here in my humble home. The little man motioned with one hand for Annon to sit in a big chair close to the fire. "Let me get the wine I spoke of, and we will breathe easy for a while and speak of better days."


Lat watched as Annon sat heavily in the wooden seat. It was obvious how tired the human was from the long trip. Lat then crossed the short space to Drellin's side with ease and wrapped her in his stout embrace. "Come, I will get the wine." He commanded in his best, fatherly voice again. "I tell you now, you have taken too long between visits to my house little one. That is a wrong we should set aright." He took her by the arm and led her to another chair. It was near the wall and the boy. Lat knew she liked to watch the door, and it was easy to tell the boy meant something to her. It was always that way with Drellin. He did not know precisely why. The lonely, lifestyle of a runner, made her want to save the world? Or was it simply, her heart was too soft? It did not really matter, the outcome was always the same. Drellin had too much empathy, and it was going to get her killed one day. That is how Lat saw it.


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Chapter Three-Unexpected


The rain poured down in buckets, when the full storm finally hit tiny, Mayir. Lightening lit up the night sky outside, bright as full daylight for several heartbeats at a time. Then the thunder that followed shook the walls of the little room, even inside the big stable. The roof leaked a bit here and there, but the small fire continued to keep the place warm. Annon and Lat sat by the hearth drinking Lat's stash of Boomera wine and eating hard bread and aged cheese together. Annon thought to himself that the wine was as good as Lat had promised for sure. To his amazement, Annon thought the food was the best he had ever eaten as well. It was probably the fact that he had not eaten for a couple of days that flavored the meal.


Drellin had refused the food. She had too much on her mind and found that even if her stomach was empty, her mind was full. Drellin kept mostly to herself as the other two talked. The hours passed but she did not sleep. Her eyes moved back and forth between the door and the boy on the bed. She listened to Annon and Lat for a while, but not too closely. Mostly Lat went on about nothing important because nothing important ever happened in Mayir. As for Annon, he was full of questions. Lat was considerably more talkative in the last couple of hours then Drellin had been since they met.


Lat's home had always been a safe haven for Drellin. Even if she did not eat, she was still at home here, or at least as at home, as she ever could be. Runners were never really home in any city, town or settlement. They were generally shunned or even hunted. Not so much this high up in the north, but the south was a different story. It was a different place with a civilized king. Or so they said. Drellin's lips drew back just a little bit to show a thin line of sharp, white teeth. Not a smile.


Drellin also listened intently to the storm. This night would be hard on anyone foolish enough to be caught outside. Pretty much, all seek shelter on nights like this. Even predators. The north was known for tremendous storms. This one was no different. Tomorrow there would be even deeper mud and slower traveling. Not a good prospect.


Lat told Annon what he knew of the settlement to the north and the people that had lived there. They had been a generally peaceful sort as Annon had expected. On rare occasions, the people of Moreer would come and trade their wears and healing services for supplies. Taking in strays such as the boy, was a bit unusual for them, Lat said. He had seen the boy in the past once or twice. Lat believed he remembered the boy's name too. It was Talma. However, he did not know much more than that. At least Annon thought it helped to know the boy's name. There was importance in a name. Well, at least where Annon was from, on his side of the world.


Annon also wanted to know all he could learn about the surrounding countryside. Lat loved to talk and was doing his very best to answer every question. The main reason for Annon's own quest was that he wanted to further his knowledge of the region in general. He had come from the Isle of Kings to the far west, where the land was warm and well settled. He shared with Lat that he was the fifth son in line to a great thrown. It was fine with Annon that he would most likely never be king. However, he felt that being the last in line to such a legacy, left his heart a bit unfulfilled. So he had left his own country, to find high adventure. Perhaps, one day he would return and prove that being fifth had nothing to do with being the last in line for anything. Drellin merely listened to both men intently, taking in every detail. The storm did not let up.


Abruptly the small door burst open to Lat's inner room where the group had been resting. A young man of about sixteen seasons ran in. The fact that Drellin had not heard him coming shook Drellin out of her lull. She was apparently more tired then she had let herself believe. "Lat?" The young man's voice was filled with the exertion of running. His clothes were soaked to the bone, and his teeth chattered slightly, as he spoke. I have news!" Talor was a petty thief and often came to Lat's home to hide from an angry victim. Lat found he was often the home of several strays. They came in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Strays asked little of you but truly needed you.


"Talor, what is wrong?" Lat asked as he rose from his chair. "Slow down and catch your breath boy, I can barely understand you!" The old man crossed the short distance to where the youth stood. He reached out and grasped him by the shoulders and looked him squarely in the eyes. This had a tremendous calming effect on the messenger. One breath. Two breaths. Then.


"There are some men in the tavern looking for," and Talor’s voice died there. He did not finish his sentence. His eyes met with Drellin's. She now stood only a few paces behind Lat. She had covered the short space from where she had been swiftly and soundlessly. Her gaze held the boy still, petrified for several heartbeats. It was immediately evident that something was seriously wrong with the scene playing out in front of Annon. However, he could not quite put his finger on it. He just knew it, by the way, the boy reacted, as if mortally afraid of Drellin. That puzzled the fighter. Drellin was just a girl. Yes, she could handle that crazy whip she was carrying around, but still, just a girl.


"Go on, boy?" Lat prodded again shaking him a bit. "Who are they looking for?" Lat's face was now wearing a great scowl at the youth. He knew he needed to take command of the situation quickly, or the boy might say something he should not. That could go badly for Drellin. Lat was not going to let that happen if he could help it.


"Shadow riders from the far mountains, they're looking for her." Talor finally blurted out in, answer. His eyes were still glued to Drellin. "They are at the tavern, but they will not stay there long. I came here to tell you because I thought," Talor stammered a moment then finished, "I thought it would be important to you." What was not said, was best kept unsaid. Lat thought quickly. It was known that he crossed boundaries and made friendships with the forest people and even "Others." It made people a little afraid of the old man at times, knowing he knew such "kind." But no one ever bothered him about it or tried to enforce the laws regarding the matter. Lat was protected. Or at least that was the way the resident's of Mayir felt about it.


"Why? Annon boomed out across the room." He had decided swiftly that no matter what the undertone of the situation, this was obviously bad for Drellin. Annon rose from his chair and moved nearer to listen and to get some answers for himself. "I have never met shadow riders. Who are they?" He aimed his question toward Drellin. "I have a lot to learn about this land. You seem to have enemies just about everywhere."

"They are a clan of warriors that live in the deep mountains to the north and east of here. It is rare they ever come this way. I do not know what they want Annon. Wait here with Lat. If I do not return before the morning, leave without me. I will catch up with you again soon. The mud will be thick tomorrow, and the going will be slow. Here," She reached into her belt and pulled forth a tiny pouch. She tossed it to him lightly. "Give a small amount to the boy twice each day until he wakes. Mix it with water and make him swallow."

Annon wanted to say something like "Stop." But nothing came out. The look on Drellin's face was plain enough. Whatever the problem, nothing could change her mind. Annon had only known her for a few days, but that much was certain. Drellin went where she wanted to go when she wanted to go. The young woman had already proved that she could handle herself. Annon saw that first hand in action the day they met. In fact, a half smile came to his face as he recalled she got the better of him back at the settlement. Well, only for a moment. But the truth was, that had never happened before to Annon. Never! That was irritating and embarrassing. But it also made his stomach feel funny, but not really in a bad way. Odd?


Drellin allowed only a glance toward Annon and gave him a somewhat reassuring expression. Without waiting for a reply of any kind from either Annon or Lat, Drellin immediately pushed forward. She passed Lat and the young man at the entrance, then headed out into the main stable. The messenger did not wait for anyone to say "leave." He simply took his queue and followed Drellin out. He tried to control his fear and not bolt. The young man was thrilled to have given his message and now was released to leave, or so he thought?


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