(PLEASE NOTE: The following events do NOT necessarily occur in the Role Play)
Nireth dragged herself from the ocean’s mighty waves, pulling her drenched, exhausted body onto the small strip of sand at the foot of a tall, rocky cliff. Her hair clung to her face, framing it in wet, salt-stiffened curls. She heaved a sigh of relief–she was too happy to be alive to wonder where she was.
She was the best navigator and sailer in her village, but not even she had been able to face the ocean’s fury today.
She coughed and felt salt water rattle in her throat. She rolled over onto her side and the coughing only grew worse. As soon as her hacking had subsided, she blinked the salty sting from her eyes and looked around. The first thing she noticed was her beautiful dress. The dyes were running–it was ruined. She heaved a sigh. If she ever got back, she’d have a lot of explaining to do. Next, she turned her eyes to her surroundings–she was frightened by what she saw.
Nireth prided herself on being one of the most adventurous, most curious, and most familiar with her surroundings out of everyone she knew–in her settlement and others–so why didn’t she recognize this place?
1 week earlier…
“Can you believe it? After he told me I smelled of smoke, it was all I could do to keep from telling him he smelled like a goat. Of course I smell like smoke, I work in the kitchen all day! He’s never been near a goat in his life, he has no excuse,” Fryeda said, propping her chin up on her hand. Nireth had seen her next question coming from a mile away. “Why haven’t you gotten married yet, Nireth?”
Nireth shrugged. “Just… haven’t gotten around to it, I guess.”
Fryeda laughed. “Yeah, right. I believe that about as much as I believe Thor would like to use a sword instead of a hammer.”
“I’m avoiding it, fine!” Nireth sighed, lifting her hands up to signify defeat. “But hearing the horror stories you tell me about Eric–”
“He’s really not that bad, I promise,” Fryeda said quickly. “It’s just fun to complain about things.”
Nireth shot her a skeptical glance.
Fryeda rolled her eyes. “Come on, Nireth. You’d better hurry up or you’ll end up an old maid! Everyone else your age got married years ago!”
“That’s not true,” Nireth pointed out, “Remember Hilda? She–”
“Died in a raid last week,” Fryeda finished Nireth’s sentence.
Nireth’s face flushed. “I wasn’t going to say that!”
“But it’s true,” Fryeda said. “Listen, Nireth. I’m not saying this because misery loves company or anything, I’m saying this because I’m your friend.” Fryeda took Nireth’s hands in hers. “Get a husband. You need someone to tame that wild spirit of yours. At first I thought I would hate married life, but now… now I see just how nice it is. Sure there’s more responsibility, but it’s so… calm. You don’t have to worry about going on raids or helping fight off intruders, you just keep the home safe.” Fryeda took a deep breath.
“I worry about you, Nireth,” she said, “I worry about you a lot. Your sailing expeditions, your exploration, your Viking missions… you’ll end up killed.” Fryeda’s voice was quavering now. Nireth felt the guilt beginning to swell up inside of her. “You’re my best friend. I don’t want you to end up like your father.”
Nireth’s eyes grew wide and Fryeda realized she had said the wrong thing.
“Well, I don’t!” Fryeda said quickly. “And it’s not that your father was a bad navigator or anything, it’s just–”
“I know,” Nireth said sadly. “I know what you mean.”
“Please, Nireth,” Fryeda’s blue eyes pleaded with Nireth, “settle down. For you.”
Nireth bit her lip and itched her hairline. Finally, she looked up. “I’ll think about it.”
Fryeda’s somber mood evaporated instantly. “Really, Nireth? Oh, thank you! I know what that means–it’s a yes! Oh, you try to hide it but you can’t. You can’t! I know you actually WANT to get married, you were just waiting for someone to force you. Oh, why didn’t I see it before? If you want to get married, you must have your eye on someone! Who is it? Come on, tell me!”
Nireth smiled and shook her head. She doubted that, if she actually said anything, Fryeda would listen.
“I know who it is,” Fryeda said, suddenly stopping her meaningless prattle. “It’s that Raute kid you hang out with all the time.”
“Tzar?” Nireth responded, her voice a little to high.
Fryeda sucked in a deep, slow breath. “It is, isn’t it?” she asked in a hush whisper. Her blue eyes sparkled with merriment. “Oh, it is! I just KNEW it!”
“Shh!” Nireth put her finger over her lips, her eyes darting nervously around the room. Her cheeks were the color of the sunsets.
“I can’t blame you, you know,” Fryeda winked at something behind Nireth, “he is really attractive.”
Nireth spun around and saw Tzar walking across the room towards them.
She turned to Fryeda, “Please, I mean this in the nicest way possible,” she said, “keep your howling screamer shut!”
Fryeda laughed. “No way. You two would be perfect! I’m not letting that go to waste just because you’re a little bit shy.”
Fryeda practically bounced out of her seat and flounced over to Tzar. Nireth hid her face behind her hands and groaned. She dared so peek through her fingers and saw Fryeda point at her. Tzar’s eyes followed Fryeda’s finger and met Nireth’s half-hidden ones. Both teens blushed furiously and quickly looked away.
Suddenly, Fryeda grabbed Tzar’s wrist and led him out of the room. Nireth heaved a sigh and rested her head on the table. Tzar had been one of her best friends–but who knows what he thought of her now.
“Nireth!” her little sister, Hildegarde Racetsdotter, called angrily from the kitchen. “Have you seen Fryeda? She’s supposed to be helping her mother back here! We have to prepare the feast for when the raiding group gets back.”
Nireth glanced nervously at the door Fryeda had just left through, half hoping her friend would return. “She just left,” Nireth said. It was clear Fryeda wasn’t returning any time soon.
Hildegarde’s mouth became a fine, white line. “Fine then,” she said tersely, “you come help me in the kitchen. We’re already many hands short without that wastrel wandering off–probably flirting with someone.”
Nireth laughed and reluctantly followed her sister into the kitchen, but she was also filled with a strange paranoia. Was Fryeda flirting with Tzar? Were they secretly–’No,’ Nireth thought to herself, shaking her head, ‘even if they are, that’s good. I’m not getting married.’
As her sister hustled around the kitchen faster than any of the other women, Nireth absentmindedly poked at the meat roasting over the hot stones. She had vowed to never get married a few years ago. After her father had died, she had been given the position of cartographer. She wasn’t necessary to the survival of the village, but having maps did make it a lot easier for her village mates to cruise through their waters and check on their settlements.
A key part of being cartographer was setting out to find new territories to add to the map. Having been taught everything and more by her father, Nireth was a natural sailor and navigator. She didn’t see herself sailing the ship, she saw herself AS the ship, turning her long body down rivers and expertly maneuvering the wildest seas. She loved sailing, she loved the ocean, she loved exploring–she loved everything about her job. Everything had been fine and dandy.
Until she had seen her role model, a young woman with a fiery spirit that not even being shiprecked could quench, decline to go Viking because she had to take care of her husband’s estate.
That had done it. Nireth, fearing she would blindly sacrifice all she knew and loved for the sake of a man, had decided to never get married.
“Nireth, what are you doing?” Nireth’s head snapped up and she realized Hildegarde was standing behind her, wiping her fair hands in a wet cloth. “Are you thick? Those stones are cold. The meat’s never going to cook!”
“Sorry,” Nireth stood up and stretched. “How do I re-heat them?”
“You don’t, idiot,” Hildegarde rolled her eyes. “You get some hot ones from there,” she pointed to a large fire around a large pile of rocks. “And don’t forget to put the cold ones back on the fire!” with that, she stormed back into the kitchen.
Nireth stared blankly at the rocks in front of her. The smallest one had the diameter of her forearm. She bent down to pick it up, but it wouldn’t budge. She had to call for help from the kitchen hand (who wasn’t very pleased about the situation) and together they carried the cold rocks to the fire and the hot rocks back. Nireth tried to pick up a hot rock with her bare hands–a mistake that left her palms red and two of her fingers blistering.
Nireth and Hildegarde were very different–Hildegarde preffered a mundane life of cooking, weaving, sweeping, and household chores. Hildegard had talked to Nireth once about it–she liked the predictability. She liked not having to worry about a break in the pattern–she made the pattern, so it was all under her control.
“Not like sailing,” Hildegarde had said, “when you’re sailing or Viking you’re at the sea’s mercy. You can’t control the weather, so it’s left only to the Gods to decide if you live or not.”
Another great difference between Hildegarde and Nireth was their outlook on life.
Nireth believed everything, trusted everyone, and never forgot to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. She was open to new things and she wasn’t afraid to do what she felt like doing. She couldn’t count the number of times she had sauntered through the village belting her favorite rowings song. These actions made Hildegarde uncomfortable–she often tried to hide her face when Nireth was in one of her impulsive moods. Hildegarde felt she would be judged as she judged others–by who they surrounded themselves with and what they looked like.
But the biggest difference between Nireth and Hildegarde was the humongous gap between their cooking abilities.
“Will someone please get her out of here?” a young woman groaned, pointing at Nireth. “She’s just burning and spilling everything!”
“Please do,” Nireth whispered under her breath.
“Get out, Nireth,” Hildegarde rubbed her forehead. Although she was two years younger than Nireth, Hildegarde acted much older.
“Thank you, sister,” Nireth nodded politely.
Hildegarde rolled her eyes and smiled. “You owe me one. Now please leave before you burn the place down.”
When Nireth returned to the common area where everyone slept, she found her mother waiting for her on her mat.
“May I help you, mother?” she asked, settling beside the older woman.
Her mother turned to Nireth and her face broke out into a beaming smile. “Your uncle Olaf gave Tzar his blessing. Since your father… may Odin protect him… passed away, I figured that would be his role. Fryeda, Tzar, and I organized the wedding. It’ll be next Friday, so in six days–six for your lucky number!”
“Six isn’t my lucky number,” a sick feeling plopped itself down in the pit of Nireth’s stomach. “That’s Hildegarde’s lucky number.”
“Oh,” Nireth’s mother looked embarrassed, but Nireth shook it off.
“It’s fine, Mother,” she threw her arms around her mother and gave her a hug. “I don’t mind.”
Her mother laughed, “I’m glad! Oh, I cannot wait. I’m going to be a Grandmother!”
Nireth’s face fell. Six days. She’d never be able to leech out the last of her childhood in only six days. She hugged her mother tighter, wishing that every passing second would just go a million times slower.
Six days later…
“Hold still!” Nireth’s mother commanded. She was frustrated–there were only hours before the wedding. Unlike her daughter, she was wishing that the seconds would fly by.
Nireth stopped fidgeting and her mother pulled the long dress over her daughter’s head. It wasn’t a new dress, but it was her finest bit of clothing. Most of the fabric was an olive-green color, but a pale green ran in a strip down the front of the dress. It was bordered by two narrower strips of dark green. Her mother added the finishing touch by tying a belt of yellow cloth around her daughter’s waist.
“Nireth,” she gasped, “You look beautiful!”
Nireth sighed. She hadn’t had any chance at all to enjoy what was left of her childhood. She had spent the last six days preparing for the wedding–which included letting go of her previous role as the cartographer. She hadn’t even gotten married yet and she hated it. Tzar had assured her that he would let her be the cartographer even after they were married, which had made her feel a little better.
Fryeda, along with a number of Nireth’s other friends, were standing around, admiring her. They had already helped her through the earlier parts of preparation. She resented them for bombarding her with her duties as a wife, even though she knew it was just their job.
But the part of the ritual that hurt the most was the removal of her kransen. They had plucked the symbol of her childhood from her head beforehand, and now they were replacing it with a garish (in Nireth’s opinion) bridal crown.
Fryeda looked happier than everyone else. Her best friend’s words came back to her, ‘It’s not that misery loves company…’
Nireth bit her lip and tried to scratch at her hairline, but her mother caught her hand. “No, Nireth. Leave the crown alone.”
Hildegarde was among the crowd of girls. A light from a nearby candle caught something in Nireth’s sister’s hands–it was Nireth’s kransen. Unable to help herself, Nireth burst into tears.
“I’m not ready, mother!” she wailed. “I can’t do this. I don’t want to be married!”
“Hush now,” Nireth’s mother said, patting her daughter on the shoulder. “Come,” she turned to the other young women in the room, “let’s give her some time to herself.”
The girls nodded and left, chatting happily as if nothing was wrong.
Nireth felt a wave of rage roar up inside of her. How could they act so nonchalant? Everything was wrong! Her world was crashing down around her!
Somehow, a noise made it past the sound of the blood rushing through her ears. She could hear people talking! She crept over to the wall and pressed her ear against it.
Luckily, this wall had been crudely constructed. It was thin and she could hear right through it.
“Way to go, Tzar,” she heard one man’s voice say. “You struck the gold mine this time. She’s got a heart of gold–and the key to your freedom.”
Tzar laughed–she recognized his laugh. “That’s right. I couldn’t care less about her heart. But I marry her, I’m a free man. Forget one year of work–the second we exchange our rings and make our vows, I can promise you we’ll get out of here faster than the wind.”
“Good luck mate,” another man said. “I heard she’s got the spirit of a sea serpent. Some people say she’s mad and that she’s got the ocean working for her. They say she murdered her father so she could take over his position!”
Nireth resisted the urge to shout a few choice words through the wall at the man. She bit her lip harder and kept listening.
“Those are just rumors,” Tzar laughed. “Besides, she’s pretty. A little old, but pretty. I’d rather marry her than that… what’s her face… that Brunhilda girl. She’s the only one who’d be desperate enough to marry a slave. I was lucky Fryeda and I got to her uncle before she could.”
Nireth’s eyes grew wide. So Fryeda was in on it, too? She pressed her back to the wall and sunk slowly to the floor. The whole thing had been a ruse. Fryeda had only wanted her to ge married for the exact reason she had denied–misery loves company. And Tzar… Tzar just wanted freedom! He didn’t love her at all!
Of course, a lot of marriages weren’t based on love, but Nireth felt especially hurt. She couldn’t deny that she had loved Tzar, even if it had only been a tiny crush. Nireth balled her fists. She had wanted to stay a maiden, but they had forced her to be married without her consent. Even Fryeda had agreed to marrying a man who smelled like a goat!
Nireth narrowed her eyes. They wanted her to get married? She wasn’t going to be wed to anyone–especially not Tzar! She plucked the bridal crown from her head and dashed it to the ground.
Hildegarde ran in. “Nireth? Are you alright?” her eyes darted to the bridal crown on the floor and her mouth came to an ‘o’ of comprehension, but not before Nireth had pushed her way past her sister into the common room.
She found her kransen sitting on her mother’s mat and picked up a few unfinished maps from underneath her own.
“Nireth?” Fryeda asked. “Where’s your crown?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Nireth spat. She placed the kransen back on her head and Fryeda’s eyes widened.
“But, Nireth, you’re getting married!” she cried.
Nireth gritted her teeth. “You said I was. I say I’m not.”
With that, she ran from the building. She kicked off her shoes and headed straight for the shore, her bridal posse in close pursuit. Fryeda was at the head of the group. She finally caught up to Nireth when she was shoving her personal exploring boat–the one her father had built her long ago–from the shore.
“Nireth, you’ve got to come back with us,” Fryeda said, her eyes glowering. “Your husband is waiting.”
“He’s not my husband!”
“Yes, he is!” Fryeda cried. “You know the laws, Nireth, your consent is not needed for the marriage to be legitimate. Only your uncle’s. And he agreed.”
“I don’t care,” Nireth said, “about your stupid laws. What about me? My heart?”
“You know marriages are only based on love in stories,” Fryeda spat. “You’re just being silly now.”
Nireth’s heart was racing. She hadn’t fought like this with Fryeda in years. “I’m not being silly, you’re being selfish! Misery loves company, right?”
Fryeda looked taken aback. “Oh, no…” she shook her head. “Nireth, you can’t think that’s what this is all about!”
“I can and I do,” Nireth spat. “Get out of my way!”
Fryeda glanced out at the ocean. “Nireth, please. Don’t go out right now. Look at the waves! The sky is as dark as night. You’ll crash and die! I’m asking you as your friend–”
“Stop,” Nireth said. The word caught in her throat. “Please don’t use your guilt trip on me. You know I’ll bend to it. If you were truly my friend, you’d want me to be happy.” Nireth looked sadly down at Fryeda. “I’m afraid I can’t be happy here.”
Hurt and rage filled Fryeda’s words. “Fine then!”
“I’m sorry, Fryeda–it’s not that you’re not fun and exciting, it’s just that… I can’t be married. I’m sorry, friend–”
“You were never my friend,” Fryeda hissed. “You were always the weird one. Freak! Good riddance. We don’t want you here.” She spun around so her back was to Nireth.
Nireth gasped. Fryeda’s words hurt more than being struck by twenty knives. When Fryeda didn’t turn back around, Nireth gave one last, desperate shove and her boat came loose from the sand. Nireth hesistated for one moment, then climbed into her ship, raised the mast, unfurled the sail, and set off.
“Don’t look back,” she whispered to herself. “Please, Nireth, don’t look back.”
If she had looked back, she would have seen that Fryeda had turned to face her again, hot tears streaming down her cheeks.
“You’re my best friend, Nireth,” Fryeda whispered. She knew Nireth couldn’t hear what she said, but she said it anyway. “May good luck follow you.”
The waves caught the words before they fell to the sand and carried them to Nireth. Nireth heard the whispers of her friend’s voice. She glanced down at the ocean and smiled. No matter what anyone said, the sea was her home.
After a few minutes of sailing, she noticed that someone was following her. One of the larger Viking ships (that wasn’t being used for a raid, of course) was pursuing her smaller ship. She knew she stood no chance–while she could out manuever anyone, sheer size was beyond her help.
Within another few minutes, the ship was almost alongside hers.
“Please, Nireth!” Tzar cried out. Nireth’s heart stopped when she heard his voice and a confusing tangle of emotions threw themselves upon her. “Come back to me! I love you!”
“You love freedom,” Nireth shouted back, “not me! I can’t blame you, though,” she added, “I love freedom, as well. Which is why I’ll never marry you–not you, not anyone, not ever!”
The other ship was close enough for Nireth to see Tzar’s face now. It was purple and he was quivering with rage. “We have no choice, men!” he cried. “Board her!”
One of the men threw themselves at Nireth’s ship, but she steered it out of his reach just in time. Panic was rushing through her veins, but the rocking of the ocean calmed her down. After a few minutes of cat-and-mouse, though, it became clear that it was only a matter of time before they caught her.
“Please!” she cried to the ocean. “Please, help me! Take me anywhere–away from here!”
A flash of lighting erupted from the darkening clouds. Nireth felt the jolt of electricity via the air. She felt sorry for the poor souls who had fallen from Tzar’s ship.
Lighting struck again, but this time its light didn’t go away. It made itself into an arch atop the rough surface of the water. Nireth tried to steer around it, but her ship was gathering speed, as if the lightning was sucking her towards it.
“Nireth!” Tzar reached out for her from the prow of his ship. “Grab my hand!”
Nireth felt herself begin to reach out, then looked at Tzar’s outstretched hand.
“Never.” she said tersely.
Her ship was sucked through the arch.
At first, there was nothing. Nireth found herself unable to breathe, move, or see. Then, suddenly, the wind returned with the smell of the salty, sea air. She opened her eyes and her ears were met by a loud crunch– a noise Nireth knew very well. It was the sound of stone on wood.
She saw the prow of her beautiful ship dashed to pieces on the rocks of an island that hadn’t been there seconds before. She threw herself from her ship. She knew she was crying, but she couldn’t be sure if it was from sadness or because of the salt water getting into her eyes.
She started swimming. Her best dress was drowning her, holding her kicking legs together and acting like a flowing, beautiful, and deadly weight that pulled her down into the ocean’s depths.
Nireth was soon exhausted. She felt like her arms would not move ever again, even if she wanted them to.
Then something miraculous happened: her fingers brushed sand. She had reached shallow water!
She was filled with new energy. With that energy, she heaved herself onto the shore of the foreign island.
After resting for a few minutes, she got to her feet. She wasn’t sure where she was, and her dress and maps were ruined. She felt her head–at least her kransen was still there!
Nireth took a deep shaky breath. When she exhaled, she felt like she was letting go of everything–Tzar’s treachery, her mother’s disappointment, Fryeda’s last words–and moving on.
And with that, she began to explore, humming one of her favorite rowing songs as she went.
The first thing Nireth noticed about her new surroundings was the voice. She was used to hearing voices–the soft, whispery voices of the forest, the comforting, rich voices of the earth, and the emotional and moving voices of the ocean were all sounds she had learned to tone out or listen to, depending on what the situation required. There was a new voice on this shore, however; it was much fainter, barely distinguishable beyond the others. But when she ignored them all–ocean, forest, and earth–one remained.
It was speaking a strange language she didn’t recognize. She heard snippits of it that sounded like her own, the rest was completely foreign. Like the voices of the ocean, earth, and forests, however, she still knew what it was saying. The segments she could hear seemed to be whispering a song:
Older than the oceans blue,
Older than the mountains east,
Older than the land itself,
Old as that am I.
Forgotten by the Charems first,
Forgotten by the humans next,
Forgotten also by the Mir,
Forgotten by all am I.
Legends say that I am fierce,
Legends state that I am cunning,
Legends say I still exist,
Legends do not lie.
O, had I not been so old,
O, had I not been forgot,
O, had I not been called a legend,
O, the help I could provide.
To the Charems, ‘fore they fell,
To the humans, though ’tis too late,
To the Mir, to help them unite,
To whomever, they would thrive.
That was all Nireth could hear–the rest was just incoherent mumblings without a tune.
Nireth took a step to her left, wondering if maybe there was some underground being messing with her. The whisperings remained at the same volume, however, as if they were coming from the earth itself. She wiggled her bare toes in the sand. Was it possible that this earth–the earth that made up the island–was magical somehow? Perhaps it was all that was left of a great civilization, worn and beaten down to tiny grains by the wind and weather, and perhaps the voices were lost souls lamenting their fate to the wind.
Nireth took a deep breath. The familiar smell of the sea couldn’t banish the frightening mystery of the island she had wrecked upon. She picked up her dress so the hem wouldn’t collect too much sand and walked a little further inland. She listened hard, but there was no difference in the voice’s volume. She had gotten used to it by now, it was gradually turning into background noise–she could tune it out, like she could the earth, forests, or sea.
She put the voice aside and concentrated more on the physichal aspects of the island. A cliff made of dull grey stone rose ominously and impassively before her. The rock was slick with sea spray and devoid of any decent hand or footholds.
Nireth gave up trying to climb it–she realized it was futile. She focused her attention on the coast that stretched far beyond her sight. Without further ado, she headed down the sandy shore, humming to herself as she went.
She enjoyed how the water washed over her bare feet. If she closed her eyes, she could almost pretend she was back at her home. Almost. The difference was the voice–that odd, chanting voice. She had let it sink into the background, but it still stuck to the back of her mind like an egg yolk stuck to clothing. Now that it was running through her head, she couldn’t get it out.
“Old as the oceans blue, older than the mountains east, older than the land itself, old as that am I,” Nireth whispered a segment of the song. It was so soft, she could barely hear it over the gentle rushing of the ocean.
A sudden grating noise pulled Nireth’s head right out of the clouds. It sounded like two giant boulders were being scraped together. Nireth’s hands flew to cover her ears, and she spun around to look at the cliff face. However, it was no longer a bank of solid stone–a hole had opened up in the side! There was no sign of a door, nor was there any rubble to suggest a cave-in. Nireth cautiously crept towards it, expecting a troll to leap out and grab her. She peered into the cave. From what she could see, there were no trolls waiting for her.
With a start, Nireth realized the world was silent.
She stopped short. She couldn’t hear the ocean’s fluxuating voice. She couldn’t hear the hushed whispers of the forests. She couldn’t hear the deep, constant hum of the earth. The only thing that remained was a whisper–a whisper so faint that if it hadn’t been for the slight whistling of the s’s, she wouldn’t have been able to hear it, either.
The absence of sound frightened her. A sudden blast of wind burst down the coast, and Nireth’s wet dress slapped at her legs. A wave of fear washed over her, and she suddenly desired nothing more than to tuck herself away inside of the newly discovered cave.
Without much more thought, she darted into the dark opening. Her heart was racing and she could hear her blood pulsing in her ears. The air was filled with the screaming of the air as it whistled by the cave’s opening. Nireth could have sworn there was a man’s voice yelling carried with it, but she dismissed it as her imagination. Her heart was yellow with fear.
Another noise overpowered the sound of the wind. Her blood turned to ice as she turned to look at the cave door. She really didn’t need to–she knew what was happening–but she couldn’t believe it.
She yelped and threw herself at the exit, but it was too late. The door was closing. She stumbled towards it, but her foot caught on the hem of her skirt and she fell. Her knee hit the floor first, and fireworks of pain erupted in front of her eyes. She gazed up in dispair at the swiftly disappearing beach.
Soon, not even a sliver of light could be seen. Nireth was alone in the dark, with only her panicky breath and the whispering voices.
Nireth was used to voices, but there was something different about this one. A shiver ran down her spine. She had a feeling she was dealing with something she couldn’t comprehend–something with greater power and knowledge than she could ever imagine.
Nireth held her breath and listened for any sign of movement. She felt so stupid–how could she have fallen into such an obvious trap! Now all she had to do was wait for a troll to come and devour her, or for some sort of beast to strike her down.
However, after a few minutes of waiting–minutes that seemed like hours in Nireth’s eyes–nothing had gobbled her up yet. Her heart rate gradually slowed until her ears were clear of its pounding. Now that she could hear clearly, she realized the whispering still continued.
For some reason, now that her mind had acclimated to the idea of being trapped in the dark, Nireth felt an unexplainable urge to follow the whispering. She couldn’t help but notice, however, that the voice had changed its tone, tune, and tempo. It was no longer a faint whisper, but a strong, breathy voice instead. The words rushed by faster than Nireth could keep track.
Nireth cleared her throat softly and found the cave wall with her hand. The whispering seemed to be coming from right ahead of her. She moved towards it, taking the utmost care to feel around with her feet before she stepped, lest she fall into some unseen chasm.
Soon, the breathy voice became clearer, taking on the sound of voices one would hear through the wall of the room adjacent to them. The words were flying by as ever before, but Nireth felt she had a pretty clear idea of what they were saying:
Little pilgrim, wander in
Fear me not, I mean no harm
Little pilgrim, clean of sin
Bring to me the Rosker charm
Little pilgrim, set me free
Treasure great will await you
Little pilgrim, gold for thee
I promise you my word is true
Nireth no longer payed attention to where she was stepping. The pace of the song was gradually increasing, and with it her own pace.
Little pilgrim, inward drawn
Release my bonds, let me go home
Little pilgrim, come the dawn
Set my spirit free to roam
Little pilgrim, from your heart
Golden drops of sunshine fall
Little pilgrim, never part
From my desolate and darkened hall
Little pilgrim, you bring the sun
Stride ahead, I have you now
Little pilgrim, your heart is MINE!
The voice escalated into an angry scream. Nireth started, the trance suddenly broken. The weight of the words crashed down on her head like the tide and she clasped her hands over her heart, looking around anxiously. She could not see, but she could feel that there was something close.
Suddenly, a flash of white-hot pain fought away the darkness in Nireth’s eyes, but she remained blind. Something had taken a swipe at her side. The force of the blow had knocked Nireth to the ground. The creature took another swing–Nireth heard the whistle of something whipping past her head.
Her ears rang and her heart was racing once again. She staggered to her feet and began running–this time she was sure to lift the hem of her dress.
She could feel the something hot on her heels. Its breath was rank and putrid, but Nireth refused to gag and focused on escape.
It seemed she would get away until something long and slimy wrapped around her ankles, bringing her crashing to the ground. She gasped as the wind was pounded from her body. The clatter of metal on stone told her that her kransen had been knocked from her crown.
Struggling to regain her breath, Nireth pushed herself to her hands and knees. She was filled with a new energy–there was no way she would die without her kransen atop her head, not after they had made it through the storm and shipwreck together.
Nireth searched the ground frantically, her fingers searching the rough stone for anything out of place. She could feel the beast rearing up behind her, ready to strike.
Her fingertips met something smooth. Without thinking, she picked it from the rock it was set in and spun around, the rock held at arm’s length.
The stone grew hot in her fingers and a blinding white light filled the cavern. Squinting, Nireth saw the beast that had attacked her–some kind of worm with sharp, deadly-looking fangs–shy away.
Nireth screamed at the top of her lungs, but it was not a shrill cry that came out. Instead, she found her mouth forming words.
“Araken n’taltel!” she shouted.
A beam of gray light shot from the small stone with so much force it nearly knocked Nireth on her back. The worm cringed, and its moist, gleaming skin shriveled up. Soon, nothing lay in front of Nireth but a dry husk.
By the light the stone provided, a glint of gold caught Nireth’s eye. She fumbled, breathing heavily, still trying to recover, through the dark and picked it off the ground. She set it gingerly on her head.
She glanced at the stone in her palm and found that it was no longer glowing, but that she could still see. She looked up and saw a sphere of swirling, glowing mist hovering in front of her.
Nireth reached out a hand, but the mist parted. She never actually made contact with the floating substance.
For a while Nireth stood and stared at it. She felt scared of it, but she felt the strange comfort that comes from knowing that one is safe–for the moment.
Nireth rubbed her finger over the smooth surface of the stone. It began to glow faintly in her hand. She had realized that she didn’t have a way out of the cave, and she felt that there had to be more than one giant worm in this strange place.
Suddenly, as if on command, a pebble trickled noisily down the seemingly solid cave wall. Before Nireth could even process what had made the sound, a larger rock shook itself loose and dropped to the floor. A hole barely large enough for Nireth to climb through let sunlight through.
Shocked by the intensity of the light, Nireth closed her eyes. When she opened them, she found the sphere of grey light had vanished.
Nireth had the haunting feeling that by climbing out of the hole, she would be making herself fair game for the mysterious sphere to hunt. However, a ear-splitting roar convinced Nireth to scramble from her “refuge” without second thoughts.
Before she had even finished coming out of the hole, something grabbed her arm and yanked her into a cleft in the cliff. A hand capped itself over her mouth.
An unfamiliar voice accompanied her abductor.
“We need to talk.”
Nireth bit hungrily into the roasted meat. She cared not what animal it was; all she knew was that she was hungry, and she had been given food.
“So,” she asked through a wad of chewed-up food, “let me get this straight. You’re a missionary? And there’s some kind of church on this island?”
The young man she had encountered outside the cave made a face. “Not so much of a missionary; disciple, more like it. And I’m not a follower of Christ, or the God of the Book.”
“Oh,” Nireth nodded. “Then—”
“I worship the spirits of the earth,” the man explained. “They give life to plants, which give life to us. Then, when we are burned after we die, we release our life to the earth again.”
“Oh!” Nireth exclaimed. “We burn people, too—but that’s to send them to the afterlife.”
The man nodded and watched Nireth devouring her meal. After a moment, he spoke. “I didn’t bring you here to talk about religion,” he said slowly. “I felt something—an aura—radiating from the cave, a dark one. I’ve not seen the likes for hundreds of years.”
“Hundreds of years!” Nireth exclaimed, her jaw dropping.
The man shook his head slightly, as if the matter was not relevant. “I wanted to know what happened in that cave. Can you tell me?”
Nireth stared at him blankly.
“Please tell me you haven’t forgotten,” the man looked pained. “That means they—he—it—whatever the aura was caused by—have gotten into your mind. Once they get in, they can get in whenever—”
“What did you mean, ‘hundreds of years’?” Nireth asked. The man realized that he wasn’t going to have much luck pursuing the answers he wanted if he didn’t answer her questions first.
“My gods bestow long life upon those who do their bidding,” he explained quickly. “So, about the cave—”
“Do you have to wear those robes?” Nireth asked.
The man stopped, his mouth open. It took a second for him to recover and say, “What?”
“Those robes,” Nireth gestured to the hooded grey cloak the man was wearing. It was like a small ship sail, only much heavier and much uglier—not to mention the sloppy craftsmanship that had gone into making it. It covered almost every part of the man’s body, save his heads, hands, and bare feet, and seemed very hot and uncomfortable.
The man glanced at his garb, obviously a bit annoyed with his companion’s tangents. “We believe that cloth made without technological interference brings us closer to our Gods.”
“Wait, looms count as technology?” Nireth asked. Before the man could answer, she continued, “We have looms where I’m from—I actually know how to use one, I’m just not very good with the yarn blending and such. My sister Hildegarde was much more inclined to do the housework tasks. But they’re very old looms—I’ve seen some of the newer ones from the east, brought over by some of our raiding parties, that they use to make fine cloth—they’re so intricate, we usually just toss them out because we can’t figure out how to use them! But, anyway, we could make cloth much better than that, and—”
“Enough, please!” the man sighed and held up his hand. Nireth stopped and blushed.
“Sorry,” she said meekly. “I get excited.”
“It’s alright,” the man said with a smile. “I was asking you about what happened in the cave.”
Nireth bit her lip. “I’m actually not quite sure what happened. I got locked in—this stone rolled over the entryway—so I decided to explore—”
“Hold on,” the man said, “why were you dabbling about in the cave, anyway?”
“This is going to sound very foolish,” Nireth admitted, “but there was this wind coming down the beach, it carried a kind of otherworldly-scream on it. And I had just seen the cave open up, so I was pretty curious—” Nireth saw the wide-eyed look on the man’s face and realized she had a captive audience. “It was the strangest thing! I was just humming this verse of a song I heard—”
“A song you heard?” the man asked. “You said that I was the first person you saw on this island!”
“When did I say that—oh, that’s right, after you scared me halfway to death outside of that cave,” Nireth said, more to herself than to him. “And, yes, that is true.”
“Then how could you hear singing?” the man had leaned forward, “you must have the ears of a wolf!” Had Nireth been more familiar with communication, she would have picked up on the skeptical tone in his voice.
“It’s less hearing it,” Nireth searched for the proper way to explain how she heard voices, “more like knowing it. The words just came into my head, along with a tune. It’s kind of like imagining something, except you know it’s not coming from your mind.” Wincing, she glanced at the man, afraid she had confused him. Instead, to her relief (and partially to her bewilderment) he appeared to understand perfectly.
“So you were humming the song,” the man said, then stopped suddenly. “Can you still hear it?”
Nireth toned out the sounds of the birds and the wind rustling through the treetops and listened. The chanting of the oceans, trees, and earth were still there, but she couldn’t hear any kind of song or whisper, like she could before.
“No, actually,” she said slowly. “I can’t! How odd!”
The man bit his lip, his brow creased with concentration. “So what happened after you hummed the song?”
“It was very strange!” Nireth began theatrically. “This gaping hole just opened up in the cliff face—and that’s when the creepy wind started. So I ran into the cave, thinking I would find shelter—I know it was rather thick of me, but I did it anyway—and instead I got stuck inside of it. I figured there was nothing else for me to do than to work my way along and see if I could find another way out.
“Then I started hearing another song—but it was a different voice singing it, a stronger voice. The first chant I heard was kind of soft and whispery, like someone very old was singing it. Anyway, I followed this voice through a tunnel and ended up getting attacked by a flesh-eating worm,” Nireth finished. “Then I climbed out, and you found me.”
“Is that all?” the man asked. “How did you defeat the worm?”
Nireth thought of the smooth, glowing stone that she had found. It was now nestled safe in a secret, hemmed-in pocket in her dress (her mother had not approved of pockets; she said they were a way to clutter their quarters more easily, thus the secrecy). For some reason, she felt like the stone was something meant only for her.
“You must have scared it away,” she remarked, “perhaps he heard you outside? All I know is that he was about to bite my head off, and—” Nireth stopped short. “Do you think it was the worm?”
“Excuse me?” asked the man, who had obviously been deep in thought.
“Do you think it was the worm that was singing the second song I heard?” Nireth inquired. “I think the song was meant to lure me into his cave, so he could eat me. And maybe it was the worm’s dark aura you saw!—or felt, or sensed, I’m not sure how auras work.”
The man laughed. “No, the caveworms have been here for as long as I can remember. They’ve never given an aura off that strong.” He paused. “It would be really helpful if you could remember the song you sang,” he said, finally. “It would help me to determine if it was those words that awoke the power I felt, the power that scared you into that cave.”
“You think the screaming wind and the power that opened the cliff side were the same thing?” Nireth asked. “And the cause of the dark aura you felt, too?”
“It would make sense—a power awakening after hundreds of years because of an incantation, long forgotten. Until there comes along an incredibly observant girl like you,” the man smiled, then became lost in thought again. “Why is it that you can hear these things, anyway?”
Nireth shrugged. “I believe that everything is alive, in some way; I think that most people don’t take the time to listen to what things have to say. Their voices are loud and clear, if you’re listening.”
“Ah!” the man exclaimed. “I never thought of it that way! We always believed that the earth had to be summoned before we could speak to her.”
Nireth blushed, uncomfortable with the foreign nature of her companion’s religion. She didn’t want to say anything sacrilegious or offensive. “Well, I’m not hearing gods or anything, just the stories of life forces.”
“Still, it is a very interesting concept,” the man observed, “and especially interesting because you thought of it at such a young age. Usually, it takes many years—perhaps even many centuries—to achieve that level of wisdom.”
“Oh, thanks,” Nireth said abashedly. “It’s really not that big of a deal. I just had a lot of time to think as I worked at my chores back home.” Nireth sighed.
“Speaking of chores,” the man dusted off his hands, getting to his feet, “my house could stand some cleaning. I’ll let you stay there for free if you help me keep it nice.”
“Really?” Nireth asked eagerly. She hadn’t even thought about where she would sleep, or what she would eat. “Oh, thank you so much, sir! I must warn you, I’m not the most meticulous type.”
“Many hands make light work,” the man replied, “and, besides, I don’t need meticulous; I just need someone to get the layer of leaves off of my floor. I fear they’ll start decomposing, which is meant to happen over open earth, not on a foundation.”
Nireth nodded, she was becoming more familiar with the man’s strange faith.
“So, these cave worms,” Nireth brought up the subject as they began the trek back to the man’s home. “Do they stick to the caves? Or do they sometimes go out into the sea?”
“They mostly stay in the caves,” the man said, “but sometimes they’ll burst out of the ground and eat people.”
Nireth scanned his face for any sign of a joking sparkle, but there was none. “You’re dead serious?”
“Absolutely,” the man confirmed, “cave worms are bad news. I’m glad you were able to escape from that one; they’re smart and deadly, and ruthless as well.”
“Oops,” Nireth sighed. “I’ll be sure to steer clear of them from now on.”
“Don’t worry,” the man smiled, “if you stick with me, you’ll be fine. I’m not planning on trying to make acquaintances with any cave worms in the near future.”
Nireth released a heavy breath. “Well, that’s a relief!” Suddenly, she hit her forehead with her palm, “Please excuse me, sir,” she said nervously, “but I completely forgot to ever get your name.”
The man stared at Nireth for a second, as if he hadn’t heard her, then replied, “My name is Iref, and please don’t call me sir.”
“Oh, sorry… Iref?” Nireth replied.
“Yes,” Iref nodded once to acknowledge Nireth’s success.
Nireth inhaled sharply, stopping in her tracks. “Is that–?”
“Yes,” Iref said, almost blushing, “that’s my house.”
It was a small, stone building. Crudely made, the structure was a simple rectangular prism. What made it so spectacular was the fact that it buried itself in a hill, and apparently penetrated the very heart, for a tall look-out tower rose from the center of the hill, with no visible door in or out in sight. Vines covered the grey walls, giving it a homey feel. They almost looked as if they were trying to reclaim the building blocks, like the cycle of life that Iref spoke of so much, by pulling the building into the green, green grass. Around the house was a clearing, but the forest began two to three yards away from the base of the hill. It was just the right time of year, too; the delicate pink, purple, and pastel-gold blossoms dusted the ground at her feet, and filled the air Nireth breathed with the sweet scent of sap. The light colors shone out like beacons in the night against the dark green foliage all around them.
“This is beautiful!” Nireth exclaimed. “I wish I lived here. And you have all this room to yourself?”
“Yes,” Iref said, “but don’t go thinking I have the good life. It can be so lonely out here, and it gets very forlorn in the wintertime. The sky is always overcast then, and the trees no longer keep their trees. And in the summer it can get dreadfully hot!”
“Better than where I used to live,” Nireth grinned. “It was cold year-round, and overcast more often than not, no matter the year.”
“Well, enough about the weather,” Iref abruptly changed the subject, casting his eyes skyward. “Dusk is falling, and it’s best to be out of the forests by dark.”
“What for?” Nireth asked.
“I’ll tell you in the morning,” he compromised. “Your curiosity never ceases to amaze me.”
When they entered Iref’s house, Nireth found it was much larger than she had expected it to be. There were at least three bedrooms, each extravagantly furnished. She finally picked one at the very bottom of the lookout tower. There was a trapdoor that swung open above her bed, and she figured that if there was ever a night where she found herself unable to sleep she could climb into the lookout tower and try to catch a glimpse of some goings-on in the trees.
But for now, Nireth was exhausted. As she lay on the hay mattress, much softer and thicker than her usual mat back home, she could feel the pitching and rocking of the sea. Before she knew it, her mind had been escorted into the sleeping world of dreams.
Nireth woke to a bright beam of sunlight shining into her eyes. She sat up quickly, blinking furiously. At first, she did not recognize the room around her, but then she remembered how that monk man–What had his name been, again?–had let her stay in his home.
The first thing she noticed was that the curtains were drawin shut; only a soft light filtered through the drapings.
‘So what woke me up?’ Nireth wondered. She looked at her pillow and saw a bright splotch of sunlight. She looked above it and saw the trapdoor that lead into the lookout tower. There was a small crack in the wooden door that was letting the light in.
With a start, Nireth realized that–judging by the angle of the sun–it was about mid-day. What a lazy, useless creature she would seem like to Iref–Iref, yes that was his name!
Nireth jumped out of her bed and threw aside the drapes–stunned, she realized the sun was just peeking over the horizon. Curious, she ran back to her bed and stared up at the door in the roof. The light was definitely shining directly down–but it couldn’t possibly be from the sun, could it? Curious, Nireth was inclined to open the door. She reached for it, but found it was just a bit further than her arms’ length.
She realized she could reach it by standing on her bed. She hopped up and was about to open the trap door when the door to her room swung open. Quickly, Nireth collapsed onto the bed, hoping she looked like she had just been nonchalantly sitting the whole time.
Not a moment too soon, either; a moment later, Iref poked his head in.
“Oh, you’re awake!” He exclaimed. “I didn’t realize you’d wake up so early! You could’ve slept late, if you wanted.”
Nireth shook her head, “Oh, I really couldn’t! That would be rude of me,” she tried to hop off the bed nimbly, but her still-tired legs caught in her skirt and she ended up having to cling to the bedpost for support. She smiled at Iref, who; noticing her distress, held up a finger and quickly left the room.
As Nireth regained her balance, she couldn’t help but wonder how she was going to do the chores she had promised in her nice dress. She didn’t want to ruin it–but upon looking down, she realized it was already very dirty, and that it was tearing in many places (especially around her feet).
She looked longingly up at the trapdoor on the cieling. Now that her curiosity had been awakened, she felt she couldn’t go another minute without figuring out what was behind that door.
However, when she looked down at her bed again, she saw that the blotch of light on her pillow was gone! She stared back at the crack in the door and found that it was dark. Had she imagined the whole thing? Nireth could remember that sometimes, back at home, she would wake with blurry vision. Maybe light had just caught a fuzzy spot in her eye and made it look like there was a bright light shining into her eyes.
Nireth looked back at the curtains over the window. There was enough light to see by, but it was nowhere near as bright as the light she had seen. It had to be something else.
Iref re-entered the room, the creaking of the door startling Nireth out of her thoughts.
“I got something a little more comfortable for you to work in,” Iref said, holding up a light-blue tunic with an intricately woven belt of brown cord, some brown leggings, and a long-sleeved slip. “And you can throw that in with my dirty clothes,” Ireth nodded to her dress.
Nireth took the clothes from his arms gratefully, “Thank you so much, Iref! I’ll do your laundry, if you want.”
Iref smiled, “That would be wonderful! I have so much else to do–”
“I’ll help as much as I can,” Nireth assured him.
“Thank you for your help,” Iref said. “I’ll leave you to change.”
Once she was sure the door had closed, Nireth slid out of her dress and fancy underclothes and felt the clothes that Iref had given her. She was glad he had given her a slip to wear under the tunic; it was made out of rough, itchy fabric. The leggings were made of coarse material, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. The slip was less of a slip, and more of just a short under-dress for the tunic. It was made of closely-woven material, so it wasn’t itchy, but, like everything else, it was tough and stiff to the touch. Upon picking it up, Nireth realized it had a built-in corset, and that it laced up the back..
As Nireth put on her leggings, she thought of the stone in her dress pocket. She didn’t want to leave it there; what if it fell out? What if Iref found it, and then she had to explain that she had lied by omission?
She pulled it from the pocket, not sure of what to do with it. She pulled on the brown under-tunic, fastened it up the back, and gave a sudden breath of surprise. She had never worn a corset before, and she wasn’t sure if she liked it or not. It was a little large for her, so it didn’t squeez her waist, but it did dig into her rib cage when she bent over. Nireth winced and guessed it was for someone with a fuller figure.
After Nireth had pulled on the blue over-tunic and tied the cord belt, she realized the corset was going to be more of a problem than she had realized. It rubbed her when she walked, and poked her if she tried to twist or bend in any direction. She was embarrassed to have to ask Iref for anything more, but she supposed that a knife, a bone needle, and some thread couldn’t be too much to ask.
She ventured outside of her room, “Iref?” she called. “Iref, are you there?”
Nireth didn’t want to go wandering, fearing she might find something she wasn’t supposed to (although she guessed that Iref would be fine with it, it would just be embarrassing for her). The stone was beginning to grow sweaty in her palm, and she figured it would just be smarter to leave it in her dress. After all, she couldn’t work with a pebble in her hand all day.
Before she could return to her room, Iref came running down the long hall that lead to her room at the base of the watchtower.
“Yes?” he asked. He sounded very out-of-breath.
“Um,” Nireth found herself beginning to blush. She hadn’t meant for him to stress himself to help her! “Well, this corset doesn’t quite fit right, and I was wondering if you had some sewing material–”
“Of course!” Iref said, looking appalled. “Oh, I am so sorry! I should have remembered how tiny you were–I’ll be back!”
Nireth stared after him, a little bit indignant. Some of the younger girls at her home village had made fun of her for her small size–in fact, her own younger sister had been the same size as her–but she wasn’t tiny! When he returned with some sturdy, brown thread, a small bone needle, and a knife, however, Nireth forgot her anger and had to restrain herself to keep from giving him a hug.
“Thank you so much!” she exclaimed.
Iref waved his hand dismissively, “It’s no problem at all. I can’t have you being scuffed by a corset all day long!”
Nireth retreated back into her room, removed the outer tunic and gathered the extra fabric in her under tunic at her sides. She sewed the fabric together, the cut off the surplus. Too late, she realized she had made the seams along the outside, but she didn’t mind much. After all, it was only going to be covered by another tunic; and seams on the inside would have scratched her, anyway.
Nireth stretched this way and that, making sure that the seams would hold. They did; the thread and her sewing were both sturdy. Upon inspection, however, Nireth found that there was a place just beneath her right armpit that she had cut off, but neglected to sew together. As she reached for the needle to fix it up, she realized that she might have a way to carry her stone around, after all! Taking the extra scraps of fabric, she sewed them together into a little pouch. She then carefully sewed it into the open part of her top, making sure that the opening was small and at the top of the new pocket, so that the rock wouldn’t fall out while she was working.
To check her work, she slipped the rock inside. Although she knew she should feel the rock pressing into her side, Nireth found that its presence gave her no discomfort. She slid the over-tunic back on and was pleased to see that it covered both her sloppy, inside-out hems and her new secret hiding place. Finally, she added the finishing touch to her outfit and placed her golden kransen atop her head.
Nireth gathered up the extra shreds of fabric, the needle, the knife, and what was left of the thread (and her dress, as well) and carried them out with her as she left her room. Feeling a bit bolder this time, she walked down the hallway and found that, at the end, there was a small kitchen, a sitting room with a hearth (although it looked as if it hadn’t been used in a while), and a door at the far side of the kitchen. Nireth knocked on the door, but no one answered.
She opened it and found a large, metal tub in the center of the room. Cloth hung around it in large, draping clumps. Nireth couldn’t help but let her jaw drop; they were the richest colors she had ever seen.
Deep crimson and midnight blue cloth wound around each other in a graceful, flowing dance, and burgundies and deep purples joined in along the way. Large swathes of forest green and royal blue occasionally appeared, and fabric as black as night accented the colors.
“Nireth?” Iref’s voice made Nireth jump. She nearly dropped all she was carrying.
“Oh, Iref, I’m sorry!” Nireth exclaimed. “I didn’t mean to intrude, I just wanted to look–this room is so beautiful! And I was wondering; is this where I do the laundry?”
Iref laughed breathily, “It’s all right, Nireth, you don’t have to worry! Yes, this is the laundry room. Here, let me take this–” he took Nireth’s dress and said, “I can wash this; I’ve already done the rest of the laundry. You can just put that–” Iref nodded to the sewing material Nireth held in her arms, “in the chair by the hearth. I’ll put it with the rest of my sewing things later.”
Nireth felt useless, “Is there anythign else I can do?” she asked earnestly.
Iref stopped to think for a bit, then said, “Yes, actually! I have a couple of traps set around the edges of the clearing–nine, to be exact. I’d be very grateful if you checked them for me.”
“All right,” Nireth said, feeling a bit better. “Are you sure you don’t want me to wash the dress, as well?”
Iref smiled, “Yes, ,” he winked and grabbed a bucket. “I’m going to fill up the tub; don’t mind me. It doesn’t take much.”
Nireth nodded and put the sewing things in the chair in the sitting room, then followed Iref out of the door.
It was still early morning, but much brighter than it had been when she first woke. She watched as Iref filled the bucket from a well right beside the front door, then retreated into the house. He did this a few times, but Nireth lost count of how many; besides, she had, by that point, begun to look for traps.
She found the first trap with no problem; he had caught a rabbit. She removed the rabbit (a bit sadly, too; she had never enjoyed hunting much, even if it was with traps), reset the trap, and went on to check another. To her curiosity, she found the next one sprung, but with nothing inside of it. She figured it might have just malfunctioned, or maybe whatever had triggered it had been small enough to get away. She reset it, and moved on.
The next two both contained squirrels, which she took, but the fifth one was just like the second; it had been sprung, but it contained no game.
As if on cue, a soft breeze wafted out of the forest. It smelled musky and old, like a rotting fallen tree.
For some reason, Nireth felt drawn into the forest. She stepped into the forest, and was struck by how dark and cool it was compared to Iref’s clearing.
The wind suddenly grew stronger, as if her presence had provoked it. Nireth listened closely and found that beneath the whispers of the trees, the murmuring of the far-off ocean, and the hearty song of the ground, there was another voice–the voice she had first when she first landed in Mir!
It was whispering something, Nireth couldn’t quite tell what. It sounded distorted, as if it was talking to her from under the water. Nireth took a step further into the woods, and the voice grew clearer. Nervous, she glanced back at Iref’s house. She could still see it, which reassured her a bit. She ventured deeper into the woods, and the voice became more and more distinct as she did.
She could almost tell what it was saying–almost! The whispers were beginning to resemble speech, she could recognize the hissing of the ‘s’, the tick of the hard consonants.
Almost out of nowhere, a warm wind blew through the forest. It smelled almost sickeningly sweet, and completely overpowered the damp, musky smell that had pulled Nireth in earlier.
The whisper vanished with the scent. All that Nireth could hear now was the whispering of the trees as they spoke about the forest animals in hushed voices; some laughing at the tickling sensation they recieved as a squirrel crawled up their trunks, others–the older, rotting ones–singing sad, slow songs of the long lives they’d lived; retelling all they had seen.
Nireth retreated from the forest, vaguely aware that something frightening had just happened. When she arrived back in Iref’s clearing, she thought she saw the shine of a bright light in the top of the watch tower, but when she glanced up to look, it was gone.
Once Nireth had gathered all the animals from their traps (the ones that had worked, anyway) and reset them, she headed back in. The task had taken longer than she had expected, and the sun had climbed high in the sky.
She found Iref placing some dried meat and various kinds of roots on two clay plates. When he saw that she had entered, he handed her a dish without saying a word. He picked up the other and sat down in one of the sitting room’s chairs. She followed and sat in another, a little bothered by Iref’s silence.
Iref began to eat, still refusing to speak to Nireth. Confused, Nireth followed his example. Maybe it was a part of his custom to remain silent for a part of the day.
Finally, however, her thought was proven wrong; Iref spoke.
“I saw you went into the forest today,” he said, trying to sound casual. Nireth could tell that there was another emotion hiding behind his cool temperment.
“Yes,” Nireth suddenly felt frightened. “But I was emptying out the traps–”
Iref shook his head, “You went far–I saw you.”
Nireth swallowed hard. She hadn’t thought that going out into the forest was bad! “I’m sorry! I heard–” Nireth stopped, unsure of whether or not to share this information.
Iref stared at her expectantly. Nireth felt foolish–Iref was her friend! Why was she so guarded, all of the sudden? “I heard that voice again.”
Iref’s back went rigid. “I’ll not have you going into that forest again, Nireth.”
Nireth opened her mouth to give her consent, but before she spoke she realized that Iref had no right to tell her what to do–that is, if she was a guest, as Iref told her she was.
Before the seeds of suspicion could take root, Iref relaxed. “I’m sorry,” he said rubbing his forehead. “You do realize you can do whatever you like, of course. I’m just being overprotective.”
Nireth shook her head, “No, it’s all right. But what is so wrong with the forest?”
“The land that surrounds my home is protected: it is, for some odd reason, immune to the dark power I felt stirring.”
“The same dark power you think is behind the voice?” Nireth asked, trying to keep her voice from shaking. How close had she been to death in her foolish venture that morning?
“Yes,” Iref nodded. “You are free to leave these grounds, but I’d prefer you didn’t–for your safety, and for mine.”
“For yours?” Nireth asked.
“I don’t want the–the whatever it is to posess you,” Iref explained.
“Oh,” Nireth said. “You’d–you’d know if it had posessed me yet, right?”
Iref laughed. “Of course! Don’t worry, you’re evil-free at the moment. But any more stunts like the one you pulled this morning–this conversation has taken an uncomfortably dark turn,” Iref interrupted himself.
Nireth swallowed solemnly, nodding. She got the message.
“Um,” Nireth spoke up as Iref rose from his seat. The young man turned and looked at her, a question in his eyes. “I was just wandering–or, I guess wishing–please don’t make me empty the traps again,” Nireth pleaded, her voice sad. “I’ve never handled… never had to see, well, not up close like that–um–dead… things,” Nireth trailed off.
Iref was curious at first, but he soon nodded and smiled. “Of course! But you do realize I’ll have you doing other things instead, right? You’re not getting out of work just because you’re a wuss!”
Nireth laughed, “Of course! And I’ll do my best at , I promise.”
The rest of the day passed without event; Nireth did various chores for Iref, and while Nireth was grateful she didn’t have to empty any traps, Iref was very grateful for Nireth’s hard work. They had a hearty stew for their evening meal, and Iref gave Nireth a book to read before he retired to his chambers.
Nireth sat on her bed with the book in her hand. She stared at the page, the strange characters staring back with the same lack of enthusiasm. One thing that had intregued Nireth when she first arrived on Mir was the lack of a language barrier; she could understand the strange, chanting voice without speaking its language. The same thing was happening with the text; the runes were completely foreign to her eyes, but she knew what they meant.
However, the novelty of this had begun to wear off; in fact, it now almost seemed common-place. The only thing on her mind was the trap door she had wanted to explore that morning. She waited a few minutes after Iref had gone to his chambers, just in case he should decide to get up and wish her good-night again (or even make sure she wasn’t doing anything bad), then stood on her bed, trying to make the least amount of noise possible.
She examined the door, looking for a handle of some sort. She saw none, but after searching for a bit with her fingers she found a hole–the one that had annoyingly let light shine directly into her eyes. The very memory of the curious angle of the light made Nireth quiver with excitement; she was about to see what could possibly have caused such blinding light at such an odd angle to the sun!
She used the hole as a handle and pulled firmly down. Nothing happened–the door was jammed tight. She tried again, but it wouldn’t budge. Finally, frustrated, Nireth hooked her fingers and hung off the door like some kind of ornamental amulet.
That did the trick! The door groaned a bit, then swung open. Nireth dropped herself onto the bed, which made a louder noise than she would have expected. Afraid that Iref would enter and catch her, she laid flat on the bed for a moment, hoping that–if he did walk in–he would overlook the open trapdoor.
Iref did not come, however, and Nireth resumed her exploration.
With much effort, she hoisted herself up into the opening in her ceiling.
She found herself in a small, circular space. The dim light that shone through the trapdoor was hardly sufficient–Nireth could barely see her hand if she held it in front of her. She closed her eyes, hoping it would help them adjust to the darkness faster.
When she opened them again, and found that she could make out the vague shape of stairs. Her heart pounding, Nireth realized that she must be in the watch tower! She cautiously approached the stairs, being careful to tread lightly and make the smallest amount of noise as possible.
When Nireth reached them, she realized that they were much narrower than she had first anticipated. She ascended them with her body as close to the wall as possible.
She counted the stairs as she went–Twenty five became fifty, fifty became ninety, and ninety became one hundred and thirty before the top was in sight. Finally, exhausted but excited, Nireth hauled herself onto the landing at the top.
In contrast to the stairs and bottom landing, which were made of stone, the top landing was built from wood. Nireth took a moment to catch her breath, then looked around. There were six large, open windows, each facing in a different direction. Nireth approached one of them and stuck her head outside, very tempted to call out or sing. She hastily hushed that urge, though, remembering that Iref was unaware that she was in the tower.
She sat there for a while, just looking around and letting the cool night air blow through her hair. The moon was shining brightly, lighting up the world with an eerie but magical glow.
Something caught her eye. A tiny pinprick of light was visible through the forest. Nireth squinted, and leaned a little further out the window. It vanished, but not long afterwards she saw two more.
Suddenly, a whispering voice reached her ears. She couldn’t make out the words–they sounded like a garbled mess of noise–but she recognized the voice; it was the same one that had been chanting the incantation!
Nireth’s heart was racing. She couldn’t help but think of the dangers Iref had warned her of out in the forest. Maybe they could roam his protected clearing in the night! Nireth shivered, the hairs on the back of her neck standing on-end.
She realized that she was uncomfortably warm. ‘That’s odd,’ she thought, ‘it’s not warm out.’
Her heart nearly jumped out of her chest when she felt something vibrate against her side. She stuck her hand inside her tunic, feeling around frantically. There was a large knot inside her undershirt, and Nireth began to panic until she remembered: she had placed the stone in a pocket inside her undershirt! That must be the lump. She stuck her hand into the pocket and pulled out the stone.
A strange vibrating sensation shook her hand. The stone must have been what caused the vibrations!
The stone calmed her, for some odd reason, but she still felt uneasy and exposed. She hurried down the stairs and carefully lowered herself onto the bed, wedging the door shut after her. She quickly fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
“Nireth,” someone shook her gently, “Nireth, wake up.”
Nireth groggily sat up. There wasn’t a trace of daylight shining through the window. “Mmph,” she groaned. “What?”
“It’s me, Iref,” Nireth managed to focus her eyes long enough to get a glimpse of Iref’s smiling face.
“Why are you getting me up so early?” Nireth asked.
“There’s someone I want you to meet,” he replied cryptically.
Nireth pulled on her tunic and tied the cord belt around her waist (she had slept in her leggings and undershirt). “Who?” she asked, feeling more awake.
“You’ll see,” Iref said, an air of finality to his voice.
Nireth sighed and padded after him, pestering him with questions; “Is he nice? Oh of course he’s nice–but what if he doesn’t like me? And what does he look like? Or is it a she?”
Iref took a deep breath and opened the door for Nireth, who nodded to him gratefully. However, the stream of questions kept pouring from her lips.
Iref held a finger to his lips and Nireth fell silent. “We will want to proceed with caution, Nireth,” he whispered. “Remember that the forest beyond my clearing is not a favorable place, and I will have a hard enough time as it is protecting you. Your constant questions will only stir up suspicion in those who may be watching.”
Nireth nodded, pressing her lips together as hard as she could. Her eyes were wide with fear, but she was eager to get going.
“May I ask you something?” she whispered to Iref as they neared the edge of the clearing.
Iref looked at her sharpy. “Nireth, what did I say?–”
Nireth cut him off, “I know, but we’re still in the clearing. I just wanted to know why the unfriendly whatever-it-is doesn’t like questions.” Nireth said simply.
Iref’s eyes narrowed, and he looked quite annoyed with Nireth.
“Sorry!” Nireth whispered, allowing a veil of golden-blonde hair to fall over her face, as if she were hiding from Iref’s gaze. “I just–I mean, I want to know…” her voice trailed off.
Iref smiled faintly and brushed Nireth’s hair away from her face before patting her on the head, “It’s all right. I forget sometimes how curious children can be.”
“I’m not a child!” Nireth defended herself, puffing out her chest. “I’m fifteen, thank you, and I can navigate any ol’ ship you give me! I’ve made it through storms, up heavily-guarded rivers, across the unforgiving sea–”
Iref shushed her quietly, and Nireth fell silent. “You may not be a child, Nireth,” Iref said, “but you’ve the spirit of one–full of faith in the world around you. This may sound harsh, but I fear that it is that faith that has sealed your fate.”
With that, Iref stepped cautiously into the forest, leaving Nireth standing alone in the clearing, the sunlight gleaming on her golden kransen.
“It has sealed my fate?” Nireth asked herself. “My fate is already sealed?–Iref, wait!” she raced after Iref, making quite a ruccus as she did. Clawing thorny brushes raked her legs through the leggings, and thin, reaching branches caught and broke in her hair.
“Iref!” she panted, finally catching up with him. “What did you mean–”
Iref whirled around, furious. “What have I told you about not asking questions?” he asked, hissing through his teeth. “Not here, Nireth,” he turned away, his brown robes flowing behind him as he marched angrily ahead. “And by the Sacred Earth’s sake, try to be a little quieter? A dead deaf man could’ve heard you coming from miles away.”
Nireth tiptoed through the forest, trying to keep pace with Iref. This was quite hard, saying as he was taller than she was, and Nireth was going bare-footed.
The woods seemed to get darker and more ominous the further they ventured in. It was no longer the trees’ canopies that darkened the path, but intertwining, gnarled branches that weaved a sort of roof above the path.
Nireth hopped along on one foot, trying to remove a thorn that had stuck in her other heel, when something flew past her face. She squealed and fell forward, grabbing Iref’s cloak as she went down. He let out a strangled cry as the front part of the hood pressed against his neck. Nireth let go of the cloak and fell to the ground. It was too late, however; Iref had also been knocked off balance, and he landed sideways on top of his traveling companion. Nireth gasped for air; Iref was heavier than he looked, and the wind had been knocked straight out of her.
“Are you mad?” Iref hissed, scrambling to regain his footing, rubbing his neck furiously all the while. While Nireth could not clearly see his face, the tone of his voice hinted at fury.
“I–I didn’t mean any harm!” Nireth said. “Are you all right, Iref? I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you! I–”
Iref waved his hand, a gesture Nireth could barely make out through the thick darkness, and held out his other hand to help her to her feet.
Nireth was pleased that he had apparently forgiven her and took his hand, pulling herself to her feet.
“What were you thinking, Nireth?” Iref asked, his voice much gentler than it had been before.
“Well, I was hopping on one foot–I got a thorn stuck in my other one–”
Iref stared at her feet, “Why don’t you have shoes?” he asked.
“I lost them,” Nireth said simply. “But I was hopping along on one foot, and something flew past my face. I couldn’t see it, it was too dark, but–” Nireth paused, lifting a hand to touch the spot on her cheek where it had brushed her as it flew by. The spot on her cheek was warm, but she thought nothing of it. “I don’t know, Iref; it was something.”
Iref peered at Nireth through the darkness,”If you’re sure you couldn’t see it, I guess my interrogation has no point–other than to attract the attention of those who would destroy us. Are you’re all right?”
Nireth nodded, “I’m fine, thanks! Just a little jumpy.”
They walked along in silence for a few more minutes. Nireth began to notice that there was more light in the forest, but when she looked up she found that the trees’ branches were still woven as tightly as a basket.
“Do you see that?” she whispered to Iref, hoping not to get scolded for asking questions.”
“See what?” Iref asked.
Nireth looked around–the forest was definitely lighter now, as if the trees themselves were glowing faintly with an eerie red light.
Nireth shook her head–her mind sometimes played tricks on her. Instead of focusing on her sight, she, instead, decided to listen for the trees’ words–perhaps they had an explanation to offer.
My, what a lovely day, one tree whispered.
Yes, it is, another agreed.
It is such a lovely day, echoed one more.
Indeed, said another.
Nireth bit her lip–no matter how hard she listened, the trees’ conversation was going in circles! There was something definitely wrong–no tree she had ever heard had held such a boring discussion. They were usually lively gossips or wonderful story tellers.
Someone is listening, one of the trees said suddenly.
There was a moment of silence, and then a chorus of trees began:
Someone is listening, someone is listening, someone is listening!
Nireth jumped and looked around. The red light radiating from the trees was growning stronger, especially from the tips of branches. Small beams of red light roved about the forest as the trees’ branches waved to-and-fro in some ghostly breeze. It was as if they were searching for something.
Her heart racing, Nireth found she could no longer see Iref. She wanted to speak, but found her lips were bound together by some strange force–it might have been magic, or it might have been her own fear.
Meanwhile, the trees’ chant grew stronger as their search lights criss-crossed one another; Someone is listening!
Nireth whirled around, terrified, searching desperately for Iref.
And then something stopped her in her tracks.
She found herself staring directly into a red light. It was so bright, and it hurt her eyes, but it was so mesmerizing. She couldn’t take her eyes away.
The chorus of trees died instantly, but after a few seconds a solitary whisper rang out in her ears: Someone is listening.
Nireth suddenly felt as if there was no hope–she was doomed to some awful fate; she was the listener, the commiter of some ghastly crime, and she had been caught.
Something hot burnt her side. She jumped and cried out, the silence binding her finally broken. She reached her arm into her tunic and slid it into the pocket she had sewn in her undershirt.
Pulling out the rock, she found it was almost too hot to touch, but was more distracted by it’s clear, blue light. She caressed the stone gently, letting all her fear slip away before replacing it in her pocket.
When she looked up, she found that the trees’ red light had returned to what it had been before; a faint glow–just a hint of red. Nireth continued down the path, calling out as she went, “Iref! Iref, where are you?”
Nireth had gone on this way for about a minute or two when she stopped in her tracks. An odd sensation came over her, and the back of her neck prickled. She turned, slowly, to look at the path behind her.
At first, nothing looked wrong. However, she noticed something odd–where she had been able to vaguely make out the path before by the trees’ red light, there was a patch of darkness.
And then it moved.
Nireth thought her eyes were playing tricks on her. But then she realized: it wasn’t a patch of darkness; it was the sillhouette of some giant beast, blotting out the light behind it.
It moved again, swiftly; growing larger and larger as if it was racing right for her. Nireth screamed and turned to run, but she ran face-first into something soft blocking her path.
Something wrapped itself around her and lifted her off the ground, hauling her off into the darkness.